Jeffery Deaver on Writing Best-selling Fiction
Jeffery Deaver is an international number-one bestselling author, renowned for his crime fiction. (Interestingly, he was also former journalist, folksinger, and attorney.) His novels have appeared on bestseller lists around the world, including the New York Times, and have sold in 150 countries and translated into twenty-five languages.
While he's written over forty novels, three collections of short stories, a nonfiction law book, and a lyricist of a country-western album, he’s most renowned for his suspense novels with readers likening his books to the thrill of riding roller coasters.
His book A Maiden’s Grave was made into an HBO movie starring James Garner and Marlee Matlin, and his novel The Bone Collector was a feature release from Universal Pictures, starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie.
Plus, he's done (and continues to do) what many writers aspire to with their career and that is longevity. His first novel, Manhattan Is My Beat was published in 1988.
So you can imagine, when I saw his name as a workshop facilitator at Thriller Fest 2023, I was unashamedly front row, pen poised to take as many notes as possible. Whether you've read his work or not, he's considered one of the great writers of our time so in this blog post, I'm sharing everything I learnt from his writing session.
1. Stay On Mission
Whatever type of writing you do, Deaver advocates for creating your own personal mission when it comes to writing. For Deaver, this translates as:
"To create an emotionally engaging story in which living breathing characters, good and bad, pursue a high-stakes goal in which a series of obstacles, conflicts and questions present themselves with a satisfying ending."
One of the main take-aways from this writing session was how seriously Deaver takes his writing career, treating it like a full-time job, and encouraging other writers to do the same. Companies and organizations have mission statements to keep them on track and as such, writers should consider themselves as a company. "Writing fiction is a business," he commented. "You need to be serious and devoted to your profession."
2. Plan Ahead
A typical Deaver novel takes months of planning - he takes approximately seven to eight months to do an outline. If you're a hard-core 'panster', this will be a difficult sell but it's always interesting to discover other authors' planning process. The reason for this outlining process is because the American author believes:
"...that all fiction is about structure, especially crime. My books are primarily plot driven but the best plot in the world is useless if you don’t populate them with characters that readers can care about."
Therefore if you want to include lots of surprising plot twists, a solid outline helps you iron out any potential problems in the early stages of your book, which could save you weeks, if not months of work.
3. Writer's Block Doesn't Exist
Instead, he refers to 'idea block'.
"If you have a craftsman’s command of the language and basic writing techniques you’ll be able to write — as long as you know what you want to say."
Of course, working out what you want to say in your first draft can be daunting which is where the power of a well-thought outline comes in. He also advises:
"Write what you know as a reader, because trying to write books with a subject matter or in a genre or style you’re not familiar with is the best way to find the big block looming."
To sum up, write what you enjoy as a reader and pick a topic that's in harmony with your history as a reader.
4. Master The Language
It's important to understand the mechanics of grammar, syntax, tense and point of view. Deaver specifically pointed out the importance of commas because they change the meaning and to avoid adverbs.
If you're writing commercial fiction, keep your writing style concise with short paragraphs because today, books are competing with the likes of Netflix.
I also agreed with him when he stated that writing in first person is difficult for a fast-paced thriller and he suggested using third-person close, where an author sticks closely to one character but remains in third person.
5. Block Out Distractions
As writers, we all know our preferred ways of procrastinating, whether that's video games, scrolling social media, or organizing your desk (guilty!). However, Deaver's writing process overcomes this because he works in an environment that's silent and either windowless or shaded.
"When it comes time to write the book itself I’ll shut the lights out, picture the scene I’m about to write then close my eyes and go at it."
6. Raise Questions
To write page-turning fiction, Deaver sticks to this principle:
"Raise questions that have important consequences for every chapter, then DELAY the answers to those questions for as long as you can."
As the master of ticking-bomb suspense, this, along with integrating the human issues of his characters into the suspense story line itself, creates the most emotionally engaging story for readers.
"In suspense novels, even subplots about relationships have to have conflict."
He also emphasized the importance of making sure all the loose ends are tied up and that your ending is not ambiguous.
7. Do Your Research
Deaver's books have a lot of police procedural and within the seven to eight months of planning, he's also researching and interviewing individuals.
"Pretend you're a journalist and go to independent sources," he advises, before cautioning with: "There's nothing wrong with over-researching but there’s a problem when you put too much of your research in the book. All the technical details have to further the plot. If not, out they should go."
Ultimately, he suggests: "Take your time with the story. Also, be aware of the risk of being offensive - do your homework."
8. Create Risk For Your Character
According to Deaver, creating risks for your characters means readers turn the pages. To do this in creative writing, create characters - both heroes and villains - with psychological depth. "Even the worst villain is someone's son."
To create best-selling novels, and in Deaver's case to keep readers buying into his series of books, they can't just rely on a final twist alone.
"Incorporate subplots which should intersect across the story idea. To avoid losing readers in the 'muddy middle', energize the middle of your book by introducing conflict and obstacles for each of your subplots."
From his early novels to his latest book (The Watchmaker's Hand, coming out November 2023), it's clear that Jeffery Deaver has spent a great deal of time writing and has been able to hone his creative process over time as to what works for him. While I might not adopt the extensive planning he does, I will definitely be keeping in mind my writer's mission.
Do you do any of these writing techniques?
What writing advice of his would you consider incorporating into your current writing practice?
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