Insight from a best-selling thriller writer

One day in 1997, when current Black Rock resident Robert Ellis (right) walked out of the Fox studio offices in Los Angeles after an unsuccessful pitch meeting for his screenplay, he stopped at a nearby bookstore where author Michael Connelly was appearing on behalf of his latest Harry Bosch crime novel. Ellis had had good reason to be optimistic about his script’s chances at Fox. As a student at Ohio University, where Ellis studied film, one of his writing professors was Walter Tevis, author of two novels that became notable movies, “The Hustler” (starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason) and “The Man Who Fell To Earth” (starring David Bowie). In L.A., Ellis produced, directed and wrote for film, TV and advertising. Now, his arms loaded with multiple copies of Trunk Music for himself and his friends, he struck up a conversation with Connelly about writing novels as the author was signing the books.

“And the next day,” Ellis recalls, “I said, OK, I’m going to turn this screenplay into a novel. Happily, I sold it in about three days.”

Access to Power, which is set in Washington, D.C., was published in 2001. The following year The Dead Room, featuring young Philadelphia lawyer Teddy Mack, hit the shelves. In all, Ellis has written five thrillers, the most recent three featuring LAPD Robbery-Homicide detective Lena Gamble. The last book of that trilogy, Murder Season, will arrive in stores from Minotaur Books in December. The first, City of Fire (2007), made the Los Angeles Times bestseller list, and both it and the second, The Lost Witness (2009), have been racking up big sales in Europe in 2011, achieving top-20 positions among books and top-10 status among ebooks sold in Germany.

In a recent wide-ranging conversation—not surprisingly, frequently illuminated by movie references—Ellis offered readers of the Fairfield Writer’s Blog insights on the following:

Outlining: The crafting of an Ellis thriller comes down hard on one side of the plotter vs. pantser debate (for more, click back to the FWB of March 18, 2010). No seat-of-the-pants improvising for this author. “My outline for The Last Witness was a hundred pages long,” he says. “First I do what I call a bullet outline, which is one sentence per chapter. Exactly what’s going to happen in that chapter, so I can watch the flow of story.” He follows “what [director] John Ford always said about a scene. And that is, one action, one scene.” From his bullet outline, he writes the more elaborate outline, incorporating ideas from his notes and research in the relevant scene.

Writing: With that lengthy second outline, most of Ellis’ story-building work is done. “Number one on the outline becomes Chapter 1,” he says. The result is that, for all intents and purposes, “You read my first draft. I write a chapter and then I re-read it. The next day I go over it again, and then I move on to the next, and it’s done. When it’s all done I’ll go through the whole thing and polish.”

As for his style, “I write as speech, not language. I write the way we internally think. I try to keep things as simple as I can.” Like a lot of thriller writers, that means he is not loath to use sentence fragments. “That’s OK, though, because that’s the way we think. Sometimes you can get underneath somebody’s skin easier that way, with the staccato.”

Character: “You’ve got to put what you do in your characters or they’re not going to be alive,” Ellis says. I can attest to that. More than once in The Lost Witness, Lena Gamble is listening to songs played by great blues guitarists. I knew the guitarists, had see them play in person and, in the case of the late Mike Bloomfield, had a CD with the song “Stop!”—which Lena was listening to in one scene—sitting on the windowsill right above my writing desk!

Become your character, Ellis advises, when you come to a halt in writing your story. “All plot is is what the character does. The story is a handshake between the two, plot and character. Really, if you’re ever in a fix, it’s, what would my character do? That’s the fix for the plot. What would anyone do? Does it make sense? Does this character have a reason to do this? What is this character’s goal? What are they trying to get out of this, in this situation?”

Adding Background: When reading a book, even a crime novel, “everybody likes to learn something,” Ellis says. In The Lost Witness, he weaves in compelling information about the negative effects of ties among pharmaceutical companies, Gulf War veterans and medical drugs. “There’s a secret. It’s the same with most exposition, and that is, slide it in, pepper it in, in a scene that has conflict. Like in The Dead Room. I wanted you to know Teddy’s past. So I put him in his car. He’s looking at the temperature gauge. He’s scared to death that he’s driving on ice and his tires are slipping. All that exposition is in a scene where you’re worrying about him. In each chapter you may do a little thing. All those things add up in the end.”

Moving Forward: Ellis recommends that you “do what [another noted Southern California crime writer] T. Jefferson Parker says, write the one page and move on to the next. Don’t worry. Do not worry. Know what you are trying to say in that chapter, what the end point of that chapter is, and get there. The first hundred pages are really hard because you’ve got to do all the setting up. It’s painful. But once you get over that hump. . . .”

Fighting Fear: At some point, every writer, even one with five novels to his credit, dreads facing the blank page on the computer screen. It’s not a fear of the act of creation, Ellis says, it’s a fear of meeting expectations. With each project, you want to improve, to write your best book ever. “It only gets worse, the fear, at least in my experience,” Ellis admits. When he first moved to California, he became friends with director Sydney Pollack’s assistant. Pollack’s films won 11 Academy Awards and he received Oscars for directing and producing “Out of Africa” in 1985. Yet the assistant, Ellis says, “told me that, before every project, he (Pollack) was scared. I think it’s a good thing, but sometimes it gets in the way. You’re facing the unknown. You don’t want to mess it up. That’s a big part of it. It’s natural.”

Story—and More: “If you are a storyteller, it doesn’t matter what medium you’re working in,” Ellis says, before adding, “But it was when I was writing my first novel that I realized, Oh my God, I can get inside the guy’s head. Film is just a blueprint. One thing I loved about Connelly’s books was the internal creation of the main character. Robert Crais [yet another of the top L.A. crime novelists] in the Joe Pike series does it. I really love doing that. That’s the only advantage a novel has, and the reason why I hope they never go away.”—Alex McNab

PS. Next time, I’ll post more from Robert Ellis, including his ideas on what you can do when writing a thriller that you can’t do when writing a mystery (with tips from Thomas Harris and Alfred Hitchcock) and where his new book takes the character of Lena Gamble.

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Published in: on October 10, 2011 at 7:55 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This ia a great post. I’m planning to do NanoWriMo and this advice is really helpful. Since I’m allowed to do some pre-planning, I think I’ll follow Ellis’ lead. Thanks

  2. That is a great tip especially to those fresh to the blogosphere. Short but very accurate information… Thank you for sharing this one. A must read article!


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