The romantic-suspense genre is one interesting sect of the fiction market. The blend of romance and suspense can vary wildly, as can many other aspects of the story. Writer Unboxed recently asked about that and more with one of the genre’s newest starlings–and one of the blogosphere’s most contributive neighbors–Allison Brennan!
Update: Though this interview originally posted in three parts, we’ve recently mashed them all together for reader ease! Still, Allison had some real gems to offer readers who wrote in for tips, so it’s worth a visit to the original posts for week 2 and 3 (access here and here) if you’d like to read them.
Want to read some of Allison’s work? Click Here for an excerpt of her first book, The Prey.
Part 1: Interview with Allison Brennan
Q: You were a previously unpublished author prior to last December, and then you had three novels published in as many months. Not only that, but they’re getting great reviews! Congrats! Did you have finished manuscripts ready to show your editor once she was interested in your first? How important was that?
A: I sold THE PREY, a completed manuscript, in March of 2004. When my publisher decided they wanted to do a back-to-back trilogy six months later, I had already started my next book but it wasn’t finished. I talked to my editor about the connecting concept between the three books and did brief blurbs for THE HUNT and THE KILL. She signed off and then I wrote the books. (THE HUNT was almost done by that time, but she hadn’t seen it.)
It wasn’t important that the other two books were done, but I needed to prove myself by meeting every deadline and being flexible in some changes to THE PREY to connect that book to the other two. Ultimately, though, the books were stronger for the changes.
Q: What sets you apart? What rules have you broken as a writer in the romantic suspense genre?
A: I wish I knew! I didn’t know I was breaking rules, but after THE PREY came out I was told that I broke a few. One, a major secondary character died. Some people didn’t like it, but it fit the story. My characters are flawed and even the hero and/or heroine might make a bad decision–though if I do my job right, the reader will understand the decision. I spend more time in the head of my villains than most romantic suspense authors, and it’s not a nice place in there. I show what I see.
When I was on the unpublished contest circuit I was told I “couldn’t” introduce two strong men in the first chapter, that I “had” to introduce my hero and heroine by the end of the first chapter, that I “couldn’t” have a love triangle, that I “couldn’t” write a graphic murder scene, that I “should never” have a prologue. Well, if those are rules I broke them.
A friend of mine, fellow suspense author Colleen Thompson, told me to “write fearlessly” which is what I did when I was writing my first few books, before I had the pressure of being published.
My best advice is to not second guess yourself in your first draft. Let the story pour out, get it down, then go back and clean it up. I think a lot of unpublished authors fret over every decision they make in the book and the end result becomes predictable and trite. If you let the story flow, there’s nothing in it that can’t be edited in or out. Trust yourself, trust your voice, and practice, practice, practice. It might take one or three or ten books before you sell, but as long as each book is better than the last you are making progress.
Q: How long have you been writing suspense? How did your love for the genre develop?
A: I started seriously writing in March of 2002. By “serious” I mean that I finally committed myself to finishing one of the many books I had started and seek publication. 90% of the books I began were suspense because that’s what I love to read.
Growing up, I read a lot of mysteries and suspense novels, starting with Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew, then working up to darker novels by Stephen King and others. I read a lot of true crime and was addicted to cop shows on television. I discovered romance when I was in college, Nora Roberts and others. In the early to mid 90s, romantic suspense started gaining in popularity and I was naturally drawn to it because it blended romance with suspense, a captivating combination.
I love romantic suspense because whenever someone you love is in danger, it raises the stakes and the happily ever after is so much better.
Q: When I picked up THE HUNT, it marked the first time I read “romantic suspense!” I enjoyed it, and I was surprised by how much of the story focused on the suspense plot. Is there a “magic recipe” for writing good RS, as in “80% suspense, 20% romance” or something similar? Is THE HUNT typical of the genre in this regard?
A: Thank you! I’m glad you liked your “first time”, LOL.
There is no magic formula. Some authors write with a softer touch on the suspense and include more romance. I tend to land on the “more suspense” side because that’s where my natural voice falls. I think my work is about 70% suspense to 30% romance, and you’ll find books with the exact opposite make-up. That’s one reason I think the romantic suspense genre has such appeal–there is a wide range of stories, dark to light tone, heavy suspense to moderate danger. I fall on the dark and heavy side, but I want to have a developing relationship in my books because I think it makes the story more compelling and interesting, and gives depth and realism to the characters. And that’s what I like to read.
Q: THE HUNT is darkly sexual, shocking, haunting. The novel had an air of realism to it that I enjoyed. Are there fewer boundaries in RS than other romance subgenres?
A: I think boundaries depend on the publisher and reader expectations. Because I am a new author, there were few reader expectations for an “Allison Brennan” novel. The romantic suspense canvas is deep and multi-layered so if an author is naturally inclined to push boundaries and look under the dark rocks of the human soul, they can.
I write fiction but try to create multi-dimensional characters (heroes, heroines and villains) that are realistic, flawed, and sympathetic. I try to avoid stereotypes in all major characters and to do that, I need to get into their heads and learn why they do the things they do, even the villains. Especially the villains because they are the easiest tostereotype. When I look into their mind, I realize that maybe they have one redeeming quality, something that makes them human and not a complete monster. Just like real human beings.
For the heroes and heroines, I try to avoid two brooding characters. In THE HUNT, Quinn is a steadfast professional. His primary personal issue is Miranda and his guilt over having her expelled from the FBI Academy. But his focus is on capturing a killer. Miranda is the brooding character, the one who must grow and change (accept the past and herself) in order to be able to fully accept Quinn’s love. Quinn is more a catalyst for her change, and while he also grows in the story, it’s primarily Miranda’s journey.
Q: What’s the pitfall if you have two brooding characters? Lack of focus?
A: For me, it’s just too much. Everyone has problems, do they all have to be loners and depressed about it? I prefer to have one character who has real, deep issues and the other who may have some complex backstory but functions well.
In the book I just turned in (SPEAK NO EVIL), Sheriff Nick Thomas has some major decisions to make. He made an error in judgment in the Butcher investigation (THE HUNT) and he hasn’t forgiven himself. But he is honorable and believes in duty, so he’s torn over quitting and running for re-election. Still, he has physical problems that remind him of his failures and his nightmares both him as both a weakness and remembering the awful situation he was in. Detective Carina Kincaid had a tragedy when she was in college, but she’s put it behind her. While the tragedy drove her decision to become a cop, it doesn’t control her.
Q: You mentioned turning over those dark rocks to reveal a character’s true nature. Is that key to the genre?
A: It depends on what type of romantic suspense you’re writing. Since romantic suspense is such a broad, diverse category, ranging from light to dark, sexy to sweet, I wouldn’t say it’s key to the genre. It’s important, however, to my brand of suspense. I pick up the rocks and show what’s underneath. I do think suspense is a natural format for pushing boundaries.
Q: What’s your process for getting to know your villains? Do you rely on character interviews? Go into deep-think mode? Plan them out consciously?
A: Deep-thinking. I read a lot of true crime and forensic psychology books.
I’ve never done a character interview, but I try to put myself in their shoes. How do they justify their actions? What’s their backstory? How did they turn into a killer? I think about a day in their life–what they think about when they see something. For example, in THE PREY, my heroine loved the ocean and felt more alive when she was running on the beach. The villain despised the salt air and sand. He had reasons for it, reasons that didn’t make him a villain but where you can see how his thought process might apply to other aspects of his life.In THE HUNT my villain loves peregrine falcons. He is happiest when he’s alone tracking them. It shows his humanity, whatever small slice of humanity he has left.
My villains evolve the same as my other characters in that as I write the story they become more alive to me, and then in editing I can flesh them out more fully at the beginning.
Q: Do you decide ahead of time how your story will unravel, at what pace and in whose POV, or do you let the story unfold organically? (Are you a plotter or a pantser?)
A: I write organically. I rarely know what’s going to happen more than one or two scenes ahead of where I am. I might have an idea of what SHOULD happen, but usually my initial ideas and the end result have little in common.
Q: Have you gotten in trouble with this approach? Does the specter of a looming deadline kill a lot of experimenting?
A: Trouble? I couldn’t say. I got into a lot more trouble trying to stick to a synopsis that, after the first 100 pages of the book just didn’t work anymore. I actually take more chances on deadline, trusting my instincts more because I don’t have time to second guess myself.
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.”
Keep reading for the third and final part of WU’s interview with Allison Brennan!
How can you wring the most suspense from your stories? Therese and Kathleen recently chatted with best-selling romantic suspense author Allison Brennan to learn juicy secrets on technique and about her fantastic promo machine!
Part 3: Interview with Allison Brennan
Q: What techniques do you use in order to keep the suspense high in your writing?
A: I don’t plan anything, really. I just write what I see in my head. I do a lot of play acting. And if I’m bored with a scene, chances are my readers will be bored, so I usually delete it.
I like to end scenes on a revelation, a cliffhanger (man walks into the room with a gun, then the next scene or chapter we’re someplace else), or a question. The questions can be an internal problem for a character, or a clue, or new information.
I try to keep the introspection to a minimum while still getting deep enough into my character’s heads so that my readers feel like they know them. This is probably the hardest part of the process for me . . . I don’t like lengthy narrative, but I fear I’m shortchanging my readers into really knowing the characters so sometimes I get repetitive. I’m working on it!
Q: What are you doing to improve this aspect of your writing? What techniques have you tried, and what do you find works best for you currently?
A: When I sold THE PREY, the one thing my editor kept asking for for “more introspection” or “more internalization.” She wanted to get more into my character’s head, especially the heroine. I’d completely misapplied the “show don’t tell” advice. That doesn’t mean don’t show what the character’s thinking!
Because I had the spots in the manuscript where my editor wanted more internalization, it was very easy for me to thread in a couple sentences of introspection.
So when I was writing THE HUNT, I kept in the back of my mind: internalize more. Well, I went overboard in the opposite direction. Too MUCH introspection. Because I don’t think I’ve “got it”–meaning, it’s something I have to really think about as I’m writing and particularly as I’m editing, I need to keep working on it so it because easier for me to layer in on the first pass.
The way I’ve been doing it is primarily in my own edits. I write the book, then I go back and edit on hard copy (if I have time.) I’ll mark areas of the story that feel like they need a little more internal thought or where I don’t think I’ve conveyed the emotion or feelings well enough of the viewpoint character. So far, this is working, but I’d like to get it down right the first time!
Q: Will you chuck a whole chunk if you think it isn’t working?
A: Yes. I have no qualms about deleting a hundred or more pages.
Q: How important is the rewrite in your process?
A: I rewrite as I go. So it’s important, but not as important as getting the initial story down.
Q: You have a terrific website that reflects your “brand” to a T! Did you know ahead of time exactly how you wanted it to look? How did it come about?
A: Thank you! I love my website.
I hired a professional designer, gave him my covers, told him about the tone and feel of my books, and said that I wanted a website that said (with the words) “professional suspense author.” I felt it was important to not design around my covers, but to design around my voice, without clashing with my covers. He asked me a lot of questions about what I did and didn’t want, we worked out the navigation early on, and then I let him do his job. He gave me a fantastic design. I asked for a couple very minor changes, but I think he nailed it on his first time at bat.
My designer also put together my book trailers. I felt very strongly that the book trailers needed to be short and in a format that most people can view. Even on dial-up, the trailers take less than a minute to load and are not more than 30 seconds. The trailer for each book is unique, reflecting the pacing and feeling of the individual books.
Q: How important has Internet presence been for you as a new author? What have your best promotional efforts been?
A: That’s a good question, and one I don’t really have an answer to. I have had a lot of positive feedback on my website and book trailers, and having the website up when my books were released was invaluable–my hits tripled the week of each release and it makes contacting me easy.
A professional website shows readers and industry people that you’re a serious writer.
In terms of promo, I don’t know what has been the most effective. Collateral (bookmarks, magnets, etc) are nice to have to hand out to people who you’re chatting to. They’re relatively cheap.
Seriously, so much is out of the author’s hands. It depends on the publisher, distribution, and buzz. Tess Gerritsen also makes note of the very scientific “fairy dust”–that no matter what you do to promote your book, you have no control over the bottom line.
Word of mouth is powerful, but authors can’t control it. What you CAN do is fuel it. Meaning, talk up your books when appropriate, even with strangers. Don’t be a pest, listen carefully to people, both to what they say and their body language, but share. Talk about your books and writing. Talk about their interests and other books they like. Essentially, just be friendly and don’t be afraid to hand them a bookmark.
I was getting a new social security card a couple months ago and after waiting for over an hour, and being the end of the day, I was beat. So was the gal behind the counter. So I just chatted with her about how it was almost quitting time. She saw on my form that I was a writer, and she asked what I did, and I gave her a bookmark and said I wrote romantic suspense novels. She loved the covers and said she was writing a memoir. We talked about publishing in general. Will she buy my book? I don’t know. Doubt it. But she has that bookmark on her desk and there are a dozen or more people who are in her office. Maybe one will be intrigued enough by my blurb and cover or order it . . . or when they see it at the store, they might think, “Oh, I saw that on Jane’s desk.”
Building readership can’t be done overnight. The BEST promo is good distribution which you have no control over. Getting your book everywhere (Walmart, grocery stores, face out on the new release table, etc) will help sales. Delivering on the promise of the package YOU have control over (quality of the book) which will help create buzz which in turn will help generate sales of your NEXT book.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I have another back-to-back trilogy coming from Ballantine early 2007. SPEAK NO EVIL (Feb 07) is Nick Thomas’s story (the Sheriff from THE HUNT). When he learns his brother is accused of a brutal murder, Nick goes to San Diego to prove his innocence. Homicide Detective Carina Kincaid is working just as hard to prove his guilt. SPEAK is followed by SEE NO EVIL in March and FEAR NO EVIL in April. The three books center around the Kincaid family in San Diego.
Q: What would you recommend for authors who’d like to pursue the RS genre?
A: Read everything you can get your hands on, from suspense to romantic suspense to thrillers to mysteries to romance. Read what’s selling, not to copy but to compare the rhythms of the bestselling books. You’ll find that there are a lot of different commercial voices, but that the rhythm is going to be comfortable. Write fearlessly and don’t be afraid to break the rules, but know WHY you’re doing it. It might take awhile to uncover your natural voice, so be willing to play around, try and fail and try again. It took me five books to find my voice.
I think the best thing any writer can do no matter what you’re writing is to be true to your voice. We get into this mindset that we have to write for the market. While I agree that you need to keep the market in mind as you decide what to write, you need to first write what you love–develop your voice, work on your craft–and then, when you have the confidence in your writing, find and hone your work for the market.
Thank you so much, Allison, for being so generous with your time and sharing your expertise with us!