How NOT to Write a Bestselling Thriller (With John Dolan)

Today, I welcome one of my favorite thriller writers both on and off the page – John Dolan.

John Dolan is fun. He’s dry, he’s politically incorrect – two traits that do it for me the way a pair of big breasts and a small vocabulary do it for some guys. In my review of his wonderful thriller, Hungry Ghosts (from his wonderful Time, Blood and Karma series), I wrote of John, “Dolan’s voice is that of an experienced traveler – world-weary, uncharted, but chasing the dragon of the next new adventure nonetheless.” Really, I gushed.

So, that’s why I thought it would be great to sit down and chat with John about one of my (our) favorite topics…The Thriller.

Now, lot’s of people will try to tell you how to write a great story, blah, blah, blah, the next bestseller, etc. But how often do two passionate thriller writers sit down and tell you how NOT to write a bestseller? I think that’s a topic worth exploring.

But achtung, babies.

Those of you who are faint of heart or have absolutely no sense of humor should stop reading now, if you haven’t already. While we’ll endeavor to treat this topic with the appropriate respect and decorum – you know, like the way I treat my husband’s slutty ex-girlfriends – our banter might be offensive to some.

Anyway, here goes.

Me: John – what do you drink? Can I get you something? I prefer rye whiskey nightly and wine…also nightly.

John: Can we talk first about women with big breasts and small vocabularies?

Me: Not until we’ve had a few drinks.

John: I can’t say breast milk, right?

Me: Sadly, no lactating women on the premises.

John: Well, I’m not a big drinker. The odd beer, a gin and tonic, and I’m happy.

Me: That’s better. Now about this thriller stuff, what do you think of ugly protagonists? Not deformed or anything – just unattractive.

John: Ugly people are intrinsically more interesting. I gravitate more naturally to people who look like they’ve been hit in the face with a truck. Especially women. Plus, they’re always so grateful. Ah, happy days. Where were we? Oh yes. I also like characters who have a certain amount of moral ambivalence about them, an element of ‘ugly’ in their personality. Nobody in real life is ever wholly good or wholly bad – with one or two notable exceptions from history I can think of. So an ethically ‘grey’ protagonist is more realistic for me. It also gives the reader something to think about: do I love this character or do I hate him?

Me: Do you believe there’s a formula for writing a thriller that is guaranteed not to succeed?

John: Yes, and I’ve already published two novels to prove this formula. Wanna know how it goes?

Me: Dying to.

John: One, make sure the pacing is like that of a snail… crawling… across… a very sticky… dead… badger. You know, like all those chuffing awful travelling scenes in Tolkein, the ones that want to make you tear your own head off. Lots of descriptive info dumps are great for slowing things down. Count the freckles on your hero’s nose, or list all the makes of dresses and shoes she has in her wardrobe. Pontificate endlessly on philosophical issues, making frequent reference to obscure Greeks. Better still, make up some quotations that sound authentic and giggle quietly to yourself as you imagine some poor sod trying vainly to find Sophoclitus on Google. So pace, or rather lack of it, is very important. The Russian writers were very good at this. I don’t know any Russians who need to take sleeping pills so long as they have something by Tolstoy to hand.

Two, make your characters as one-dimensional as possible. It is mandatory for your leading male to have chiselled abs and piercing eyes like deep pools of desire, or some such crap. For female characters they should either be slutty and brainless or American. Preferably both.

Me: Must be both! It’s the only way I write my women.

John: Or French.

Me: Even better. Or faking a French accent, but that implies some wit. Or at the very least some ambition.

John: They should only have sex when you run out of ideas. Everyone should dash about with guns, except when they’re walking slowly which should be most of the time (see point one, above). All baddies should be psychos, but they should like cats.

Three, make sure the book is annoyingly thick, so it can be used as a doorstop once it is clear it has no other useful purpose. This also cons people into thinking they are getting value for money, when what they are really getting is … well, a doorstop. If they buy the Kindle version, they’re completely screwed. But if writers follow this advice, it’s unlikely they’ll sell any books anyway so it shouldn’t be a problem. If you’re having trouble padding it out, just cut and paste sections from other Indie books, preferably those that don’t have many reviews. Nobody notices. I’ve done it in both my books and haven’t had so much as an email.

Four, give it a really, really awful title. Something to make folks gag. “The Blood of the Bloody Red Corpse with Ginger Hair”, for example, would be good, as would “Inferno”. You know, something employing tautology or so obscure nobody’s going to touch it with a ten-foot barge pole. If you can slip in a spelling mistake or wrong use of punctuation this gets you extra points, although so many people are doing that these days it might be considered a tad passé.

Five – and I cannot stress this enough – give your book a really appalling cover. If it’s going to be a home-made job and you’re worried that you might make a half-competent stab at it, like OJ Simpson did, then give it to your five year old daughter. A blurry photograph of something drawn with crayons will do nicely. If you don’t have any young children, tie a paintbrush to your dog’s tail. Bonus points if he poos on the canvas.

If you’re still selling your books after following these tips, you are a bloody genius who deserves to have his/her earnings taxed at the highest rates imaginable. Governments in the Western World are only too happy to supply you with this service. Just give them your name and address and they’ll take care of the rest.

Me: Your description sounds very post-modern now that I think about it. What would you think of the post-modern thriller as a genre? You know, a formula that goes something like this: a bunch of murders threaten to happen, but then don’t, and the protagonist just wanders around the story frustrated that he can’t afford to buy better shoes because his PI practice hasn’t taken off yet?

John: That sounds amazing. Or as a surrealist might say, fish. “Suddenly, nothing happened. Then it happened again.” I’ve often thought if Samuel Beckett had given his tramps an AK47 each, Waiting for Godot could have made it to Hollywood: Die Hard in a Bowler Hat. Mind if I steal that idea, by the way? I’m struggling with Book 3 in the Time, Blood and Karma series. It’s showing signs of being interesting and I’m keen to asphyxiate that at birth. I have my reputation to think of.

Me: Everyone Burns is such a great book. Really thriller lovers – it’s a top notch thriller (and I’m not being funny here). But John, if it were made into a very bad movie, which actors would you miscast as your main characters? For the rogue-ish, English PI, David Braddock, I’m thinking Nicholas Cage.

John: Nicholas Cage could kill any franchise. Actually, Victoria, you got it just right. He would be my number one choice for the actor I would LEAST like to play David Braddock. Even Pinocchio would be less wooden. I’d rather have Danny DeVito in elevator shoes. At least he can handle a line of dialogue. Maybe Judi Dench as the Thai femme fatale if Kathy Bates is not available.

Me: Thank you, John. You are the best.

Some more about John:

John Dolan “Makes a living by travelling, talking a lot and sometimes writing stuff down. Galericulate author, polymath and occasional smarty-pants.”

John Dolan hails from a small town in the North-East of England. Before turning to writing, his career encompassed law and finance. He has run businesses in Europe, South and Central America, Africa and Asia. He and his wife Fiona currently divide their time between Thailand and the UK.

His novels Everyone Burns and Hungry Ghosts are the first two books in the Time, Blood and Karma series.

Twitter @JohnDolanAuthor

Book Links:
Everyone Burns Amazon US

Everyone Burns Amazon UK

Hungry Ghosts Amazon US

Hungry Ghosts Amazon UK

Jim Fosse’s Expense Claim US

Jim Fosse’s Expense Claim UK

Read them or weep!

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Comment by Victoria Dougherty on February 23, 2014 at 3:13am

Thanks for reading ZJ.

Comment by ZJ Czupor on February 23, 2014 at 1:02am

That was a fun read. Thanks Victoria and John.

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