AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Allison Brennan, Part 2
Allison Brennan is one of the newest--and strongest--authors in the romantic suspense genre. What makes her work different? Read part one of our interview to learn more about her, then come on back and read part two!
Allison has also graciously offered to answer any reader questions you might have, so don't be shy about asking them!
Part 2: Interview with Allison Brennan
Q: We recently talked on Writer Unboxed about great openings, and you have one in THE HUNT. "I don't want to die. Her breath came in shallow gasps, her mouth gaped open as she violently pulled air in and pushed it out." Hooked. I want to know: who is this girl; what's wrong with her? I also noted that by page 8, you'd introduced a promising amount of conflict--one escaped victim, two dead girls, inner battling between the FBI and the local police, a serial killer on the loose, and a romantic rivalry. How important is it in RS to bait your reader with danger and intrigue early on? What do you focus on? How do you decide where to begin?
A: An excellent question. Hooking your reader is crucial. Why? Because readers don't give unknown authors much leeway. If they're not drawn in by the first couple pages, they may never buy the book. New authors today, especially in the thriller/suspense market, can't afford a long, elaborate set-up. Now, I'm sure there are a few new or breakout authors who have managed to do it, but I could probably find an intriguing hook on their first page that grabbed the reader's attention--that put a question in the reader's mind that their curiosity propelled them to seek the answer.
In RS, you need to set up at least one conflict fairly early--the first five pages. In THE HUNT this was easy because my prologue was a snapshot of the past and I immediately lead into another dead body--not the victim from the prologue, but another woman. And because I showed my heroine at the pivotal change in her life, she could be harder on the surface than a traditional heroine because she'd already garnered reader sympathy.
Your story begins when the conflict begins. When you bring in backstory--and I love complex, life-changing backstories--thread it in as much as possible. Use every technique possible that fits the story--flashbacks, prologues, internalization, dialogue--whatever works for your characters. But show the conflict first. If the conflict is rooted in the backstory, use a prologue (I prefer short prologues, 5 pages or less). If the conflict starts in the first chapter, introduce it then . . . even if you're only hinting at it because sometimes, an explosion or death on the first page doesn't always work.
It's also important to establish questions early on. Readers are drawn into the story because of curiosity. If your story doesn't work with action at the beginning, start with questions for one of your protagonists. Something happens--it may not be dangerous or life-altering, but it should raise questions in the reader's mind. Then as the story progresses, those questions are answered but others--perhaps more dangerous--are posed.
Q: What if the conflict is layered? How much of the conflict do you show upfront? How much can you save to add tension and questions for the readers?
A: Conflict should arise naturally from the story or the characters.
You're probably not going to like this answer, but I sort of use my own gut instincts about when to raise questions, answer them, or add another conflict into the mix. I frontload as much conflict as possible simply because in today's thriller market, you need to immediately establish that something has happened, is happening, or is about to happen. By the end of chapter one, you need to have several questions raised, and possibly one of more answered.
In THE HUNT, for example, some of the questions raised were:
* How did Rebecca Douglas die? (partly answered)
* Were there other victims? (answered)
* Who is the killer? (they know it's the man known as the Bozeman Butcher, but they don't know his identity)
* Why did the Sheriff call in the FBI (partly answered)
* What is FBI Agent Quinn Peterson's backstory? (hinted at)
* Why does Miranda Moore take this murder so personally? (hinted at)
* Why are Miranda and Quinn in conflict? (hinted at)
* What does the killer do to his victims? (hinted at)
The big questions that propel the story are of course who is the killer, will he strike again, what happened between Quinn & Miranda in the past, and what role Nick (the Sheriff) plays in the whole thing.
Backstory is shared in small doses throughout the beginning of the book.
I did a lot of revision on this . . . my editor loves the backstory, but said I'd waited too long to share it, that by the time the reader knew about Miranda & Quinn's past, it was too late in the story for them to care. So I took the same elements, but wrote actual past scenes and threaded them into the beginning of the book, rather than waiting until after the midpoint. Too many hints and not enough answers.
Balancing conflict can be tricky. For every major conflict resolved, you need a higher stake conflict introduced. And sometimes the decisions of the characters (such as in THE PREY after Rowan and John slept together) creates new conflict. If you remember that the characters don't act in a vacuum, that their choices (and even not making a choice) have consequences, you'll do well. The best conflict is when there are only two choices, A and B, and both choices have potentially devastating results.
Q: You must need a strong base of knowledge before you can even begin writing. What is your research process, and how much time do you spend on it?
A: I research as I go. If my characters are at a crime scene and the body has been dead for three days, I'll pull down a forensic book and find out what that dead body might look like. I also read a lot of true crime in my leisure hours and absorb knowledge that way. If something sounds interesting, I'll pull down articles off the Internet and read up on it. Unfortunately for me, I can spend far too much time researching and too little time writing. It's important for me to understand how things work, but I don't want to inundate my readers with too many details which may slow the pace.
I fact check after I've written the book. Sometimes this is a problem . . . like in THE HUNT, the killer disables the victim's cars with molasses. I originally had eggs because I thought that was unusual and it fit a quirk about the villain. But when I learned how to clog a fuel filter on a car, I realized that eggs might not work. Sugar only works if you have a low fuel level (there is a lot of disagreement on this but I spoke to a mechanic and decided his explanation made the most sense to me.) But because molasses is heavier than gasoline, it would sink to the lowest part of the tank, where the fuel filter usually is, and gum it up, thereby stopping fuel from getting to the engine and disabling the car a couple miles down the road. So I changed that element during the revision process. It didn't affect the story at all, but I wanted it to be plausible.
Q: You used a liberal dose of flashbacks. How do you decide between sequential storytelling and flashbacks, and how do balance flashbacks with the present story?
A: It depends on the book. In THE HUNT I used a lot of flashbacks because I felt it was important to SHOW (rather than tell) the romantic past of my hero and heroine so that the reader could see how they fell in love and what drove them apart. I also felt it was important to show the pivotal scenes of my heroine's captivity and escape from the serial killer. The immediacy is far scarier than simply telling someone about being held captive.
For THE HUNT, I balanced them by flashbacking to Miranda's past as they investigated the crime so that the reader knew what the victims had endured without a bunch of emotionally removed dialogue between cops. At the beginning of the book, Miranda and the hero, Quinn, argued and fought. They obviously had a past, but the reader might think they are just acting juvenile. Showing them falling in love and growing together let the reader see them at their best, and then knowing what split them up the reader could sympathize with the situation and hope they could rise above the conflict because they obviously were meant for each other, though with a serious doubt that they'd be able to solve the problems that led to their split. I wanted to show that both Miranda and Quinn were right--which is hard to do when you're just rehashing an old argument.
Q: How important is the "red herring" in RS?
A: Not as important as in a mystery. For romantic suspense, you may even know who the killer is, but the scare factor is not "who did it" but "will the heroine/hero be able to stop him before he does it again" or "before someone he/she loves dies" and similar high stakes.
At the same time, you really don't want your reader to know too much more than the hero or heroine. This can be a tricky. For me, it's trial and error to find the right balance.
Q: Does anything else distinguish suspense from mystery?
A: I'm not exactly sure. I can give examples more than explain: Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, Linda Barnes, Patricia Cornwell, and Linda Fairstein are more "mysteries" . . . their protagonist is searching for clues and answers to solve a crime. Tess Gerritsen, JD Robb, Michael Connelly, Mariah Stewart, Keith Ablow . . . while their protagonist may also solve a crime, there tends to be higher stakes, a race against time, a scary or spooky villain, and a faster paced feel to the story.
I like both. I think it's more "I know it when I see it" and probably has more to do with the depth of the villain and pacing than anything else. It's like asking the difference between a thriller and a suspense--the International Thriller Writers have a good definition of a thriller, but it fits my books which are marketed as both "romantic suspense" and "romantic thrillers."
Come back next week for the third and final part of WU's interview with Allison Brennan!