Please welcome Andrew Gross to the launch of our bi-weekly feature Murder HE Writes!
The interesting thing about thriller writers—and, at heart, it’s what makes the genre so relevant today—is that we don’t start out as MFA candidates, but come from varied and vital careers: police detectives, trial lawyers, doctors, CIA agents, and Wall Street traders.
And I apprenticed for the my own career writing about crime and destroying people’s lives by spending twenty years in the women’s apparel business!
I actually had a pretty good career arc going—managing apparel firms like Leslie Fay (let’s see how old you are!) then branching into turnarounds in the ski and tennis business (Head, Le Coq Sportif) until one of those turnarounds didn’t quite turn around (and didn’t quite spectacularly) suddenly hastening my writing career! I begged my wife for a year—a year to write this idea for a political thriller that had been noodling around in my head, and turned into HYDRA—after three years! Three years without income coming in; three years drifting further and further away from anything revenue generating… And the truth is, when HYDRA got twenty-two rejections from publishers fourteen years ago, I had no Plan B and no idea what my next step in life was.
Then I took a call from out of the blue, and the woman on the other end asked, “Can you take a call from James Patterson?”
Now you’ve got to think back. This was 1998, and Patterson wasn’t quite the bestseller machine and branded name he is today. I actually hadn’t read him then, but the truth was, I’d have gladly taken a call from our gate guard if he had something nice to say about HYDRA. So waiting the requisite three or four seconds, so as not to convey the utter desperation that my life was in, I paused before answering, “Uh, yeah, I think I can fit him in.”
Unbeknownst to me, my copiously-passed-on novel had found it’s way to him from his publisher with these five words scrawled on the front: “THIS GUY DOES WOMEN WELL!” (To which my wife shrugs, questioningly, “Eh.”) And Jim was writing his soon-to-be series about four female crime solvers in San Francisco that became The Women’s Murder Club.
We met for breakfast in a diner in White Plains, and he basically told me, “You’ve got the goods.” He scratched out a couple of ideas and characters, while I made notes on a napkin. He said if I wanted to try my hand at this it might be a way to elbow myself inside the circle that had so far squeezed me out. By that afternoon I faxed two chapters back to him– the most riveting, locomotive-like pages I’d ever turned out. An hour later he called me back, saying, “Not bad, Andy. But if we’re gonna work together, I think I’m gonna have to teach you a little something about pace.”
The next years changed my writing life.
We ended up doing five books together—based in San Francisco, medieval France, Palm Beach, Haifa and Patagonia– and my name grew in size from a font my mother still insists isn’t on the cover, to three with equal billing. My first time in print I got to see my name atop the bestseller list of the NYT. I always refer to my time with him as a MFA/MBA in Thriller Management.
Since then I’ve written seven thrillers of my own, all of them bestsellers, though never quite at the top. I came on my own in a different way than probably any other author ever: I completely skipped over AA and Triple-A ball— I went straight to the major leagues. I sold an outline of The Blue Zone— having learned the technique from Patterson– and from that got a three-book deal. It took me two years to find an agent the first go around; it took two minutes the second time. The Blue Zone hit #12 in the NYT and sold to 23 countries. Now, with my seventh, NO WAY BACK coming out April 2, I look at what I’m writing now, and while my style has definitely evolved like any writer’s and my technique improved, I note how each of my books still carries the nucleus of what I picked up from Patterson years ago:
- Write with PACE. Keep the scenes moving and leave out anything that doesn’t directly advance the narrative flow. Keep the chapters short, and cull them down to their essential, dramatic core. Keep the back stories brief, the scene- setting to a minimum. And end your chapters with a dramatic hook that links them directly to the next. Make that reader go, “Just one more!”
- Make your reader FEEL your characters intensely. Utilize a close-in, first person Point of View for your hero in order to build that emotional connection. But at the same time don’t limit yourself to the narrowness of First Person, by putting your victims and your bad guys in Third Person POV. The reader absolutely wants to be in their heads too!
- OUTLINE heavily in advance. Know where you’re going before you start the journey. We would write eighty page outlines, mapping out sixty to eighty chapters before we wrote a word.
- And most important to me, INVEST your reader in the plight of your hero within the first ten pages. The best pace comes from the feeling that you’re involved and you must find out what happens. Make them CARE!
Anyway, it’s kept this guy out of the garment business the past fifteen years!
I’ll pop in later today to answer any questions you may have. Thanks for having me 🙂
This is Allison … I met Andy for the first time at Thrillerfest several years ago. Might have been 2008 or 2009 … He was teaching a class for Craftfest on plotting. I was teaching a class for Craftfest on not plotting. Like most of the heavy-outliners I meet, he didn’t understand my process. But we still had a blast over dinner and drinks with other thriller writers who all know how to have a good time:) Obviously, Andy’s process works for him–I’ve read several of his books and Patterson is right, he writes women well. His latest book, NO WAY OUT, will be on sale April 2! Check it out! And please give Andy a big Murder She Writes welcome!