Jeffery Deaver interview: The secrets of writing a bestseller
Thriller writer Jeffery Deaver was penning award nominated novels - but for some reason they weren’t selling.
After his sixth book - a mystery in the Poirot vein - came out to critical acclaim, but little money, he knew he had to act.
“They were well received, but they didn't do extremely well in terms of sales. Then I re-read them and I realized they weren’t as good as I had hoped,” says Jeffery.
That’s when he began working on something he calls his ‘mint toothpaste’ business plan.
“I’m a big list maker and I was aware that I needed to be more scientific about it. So it was in my late 30s I outlined a book for the first time - after writing half a dozen. That book was exponentially better and so I have been following that model ever since.”
Now recognised as one of the world’s greatest thriller writers, Jeffery Deaver has written more than thirty best-selling novels which have sold more than 50 million copies, including his first book The Bone Collector which was made into a film starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. This months, his latest book The Never Game comes out.
He says the formula he discovered in his 30s has a lot to do with this success. “All my books fall into a formula. There is nothing wrong with a formula: they take place over a very short period of time, they have many twists and turns lots of reversals and big surprise endings. They also have a hook and that is generally a political or social phenomenon that has been in the news - for instance my book The Burial Hour was about asylum seeking and undocumented aliens.”
Jeffery also plots every part of his novels, down to the finest detail, before starting to write. “I do eight months of outlining before I begin to write the book,” he says, to make sure that the “plots move together in an intertwined fashion like a symphony” with action scenes paced against slower, emotional moments and finally “a big crescendo followed by a little coda, a reconciliation, at the end, which is also like a symphony.”
After finishing the outline, Jeffery can sit down to write the book in two months. “I don't think you should sit down and start writing until you know exactly what the ending is,” he says. “You don't’ want to meander.”
The number 1 rule of thriller writing - never kill the dog
This formula is part of what he calls his ‘mint toothpaste plan’. “There’s a huge list that I feel readers want for mint flavoured toothpaste as opposed to, say, clam flavoured toothpaste or liver flavoured toothpaste. People may think that clam toothpaste is a fun idea, but there's a reason people prefer mint.”
“I tell my creative writing students that you need to write what your readers want to give them that mint flavoured toothpaste.”
One of his major rules revolves around violence in his books: “I have seen some books that are incredibly violent and kind of revel in that, but I think the majority of readers don't like that. Excessive violence is not mint - I think it is troubling. In my books, I don't hurt children and I don't hurt animals. Men and women are both at risk if they are adults, but I don’t do explicit sexual violence or gore. People die in my books, but it is generally off camera.”
He learnt the hard way about violence to animals in his books, even though he is a dog lover, is considering entering his own dogs at Crufts and and would never have considered writing about a pet getting hurt.
“Once I killed off a rabid raccoon in one of my books and I got so much flak for that!” says Jeffrey.
“But it was rabid and they were putting it out of its misery. Oh well - it told me not to cross that line, not even with a terminally ill raccoon. I just keep in mind what readers want and stick with that.”
When it comes to the plot, a writer must “continually introduce high stakes conflicts and delay solving those conflicts for as long as possible but you have to ultimately resolve, them there can be no loose ends. Every character and every clue have to be accounted for,” says Jeffrey, who has been teaching creative writing for several years.
Finally, a book should cause readers to have sweaty palms and racing heartbeats, he says, and he doesn’t recommend reading one of his novels if you want to get to sleep “because every chapter ends with a question that keep the pages turning,” he says.
New novel set in the gaming industry
His new novel, The Never Game, is the first in a new series starring Colter Shaw, a ‘reward seeker’,
Colter travels the country to help police solve crimes and private clients to find missing persons. When he learns of a reward for a missing college student in Silicon Valley, he takes the job. The investigation quickly thrusts him into the heart of the cut-throat billion-dollar video gaming industry–and then a second kidnapping happens and this victim turns up dead.
The clues soon point to one video game, The Never Game, in which the player has to survive after being left abandoned. The fear is that a killer is trying to bring the game to life.
Jeffrey says: “Some years ago, I wrote a series about a location scout, a fellow with a film company who travelled around the country in a Winnebago and wherever he went trouble followed him. He was like an amateur private eye.
“The books were nominated for an award but I found the Hollywood aspect of the location scout a bit limiting because he had to coincidentally stumble on a crime. But I liked the idea of an itinerant hero, the gunslinger who comes to town, because it’s a very American concept. I had been wanting to expand the idea into a much more fully formed character so I created Colter Shaw who travels around the country seeking rewards that are offered either by private individuals for missing persons, for instance, or by the government.”
The book dives into the gaming industry, examining whether characters could have been primed by screen violence to commit crimes. He says he was drawn to write about gaming because “There’s a huge amount of money in Silicon Valley and the video game world has a very dark side to it because the majority of games are a first person shooter game where the individual has a big gun and you go out and kill the bad guy. Although there are some games where the first person can kill innocent people for points too and I thought that would be an interesting hook for a book.”
However, Jeffery promises this won’t be a moralising book. “I subscribe to Hemingway, who said if you want to send a message to go to a Western Union,” he says. “It is not a novelist’s job to preach - readers can draw their own conclusions.”
Jeffery Deaver will be discussing The Never Game, at Heffers on May 22 with author and journalist Mel McGrath. Tickets £7. Box office: 01223 463200.