Meg Gardiner - Award winning thriller writer. Ask me anything!

Meg Gardiner
May 21, 2018

I'm the author of fourteen thrillers. My novels have won an Edgar Award, been a finalist for NPR’s 100 Best Thrillers Ever, and been named one of the best books of summer by O, the Oprah magazine. My latest, Into the Black Nowhere, is part of the UNSUB series, about a young woman who joins the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit to hunt serial killers. (Stephen King says, “INTO THE BLACK NOWHERE. Excellent. You know the drill, bookstore near you. Buy now, thank me later.”) I’ve also been a lawyer, taught writing at the University of California, and am a three-time Jeopardy champion. There’s more at Ask me anything!

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How do surprising plot developments enhance the story, add complexity, and build suspense?
May 27, 11:40AM EDT0

Great question. Readers love surprise. We all read to be drawn into a story that we haven't heard before. Surprises that reveal secrets, present challenges, or deepen character all add complexity and depth to a story. Surprises that cause problems, or raise a question that is not immediately answered, create apprehension... and that sense of anxious uncertainty builds suspense. If the author holds off on solving the problem or answering the question, the suspense is maintained and builds. Which keeps readers turning pages, and enjoying the story.

May 28, 1:08PM EDT0
What methods did you use to ensure that the surprising plot developments you created were plausible?
May 26, 9:31PM EDT0

It starts and ends with an understanding of the characters in the story -- because plot is what the characters do. You have to understand characters' needs, wants, fears, desires, and motivations. Make those desires and fears deep, important, and urgent. Then, when you write a surprising twist, it will come out of the authentic choices the characters make. And that will make it plausible.

May 27, 11:18AM EDT0
How did you go about imbedding hidden clues in your book and how does this ensure the continual satisfaction of your audience when re-reading your book?
May 26, 5:29PM EDT0

To delight an audience, the best hiding place for clues is in plain sight. With a scene where the clue is visible in a room, among a crowd, or hinted at with a look, or a seemingly offhand remark, or buried in the middle of a seemingly mundane list. Of course, the author needs to make sure that characters eventually spot that something is in fact a clue, and start digging for the truth, the buried secret, the twist -- whatever. 

If you cleverly plant clues in plain sight, then on rereading, readers will enjoy spotting them, and seeing how they influence the story.

May 27, 11:11AM EDT0

Which has been the most successful channel in selling your book?

Last edited @ May 26, 4:48AM EDT.
May 26, 4:33AM EDT0

Physical bookstores. Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, and a host of fabulous independent bookstores. Amazon has also been an excellent sales channel for both physical and digital books. iBooks is also in the mix.

May 26, 12:32PM EDT0
What is the pace of a thriller important to the overall affect the story has on the reader and what methods did you use to establish the pace of your book?
May 26, 1:31AM EDT0

By definition, thrillers have to thrill. They need to keep readers at the edge of their seats, excited, anxious, and apprehensive about what will happen to the characters. So I start every story right at the point where some event has radically upset the characters' lives in a dangerous way. I make sure that in every chapter, every single scene, something suspenseful and unexpected happens. And that the characters are always facing opposition as they fight -- often against a deadline -- to reach their goals. 

May 26, 12:37PM EDT0
How was the experience of being on Jeopardy three times? How tough was it?
May 25, 1:44AM EDT0

Jeopardy was fantastic. I had an incredible amount of fun (because I love trivia and I'm competitive).  To be chosen as a contestant I had to take a written test, then audition at the studio, where applicants played mock games. The producers said, "If we're interested, we'll call." A few weeks later, they did. I had a few weeks before taping so I crammed like I was studying for finals in every possible subject I thought might be a category (Shakespeare, art, Canada, the Civil War, TV...). I was anxious, but only until I walked out onto the set to play. Then I just got into it. I wanted to keep going forever. 

May 25, 11:08AM EDT0
Has writing this book made you discover something you didn't know about yourself?
May 24, 7:45PM EDT0

This question has really made me take the time to reflect -- so, thank you. 

Writing each of my fourteen published novels has made me discover something about myself: that I could reach higher, dig deeper, and be bolder than I had ever imagined; that I should look at the world more clearly; that I not only could but must write with an honesty that felt like stripping myself bare. 

And writing has let me discover that I've defeated the fear of failure I had when I was a kid. Rejection letters will do that. Every writer who sends out their work gets rejected at some stage. But the world doesn't end. You can write more. Submit elsewhere. Improve. Get back up and try again. The important thing is to write your heart out, put yourself out there, and keep going.

May 25, 10:57AM EDT0
Have you read any good books lately? Do you have any recommendations?
May 24, 3:58PM EDT0

Books! How much time do you have? 

I've read some amazing books lately. I just finished Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke, which recently won the Edgar Award for Best Novel. If you're into true crime, Jeff Guinn's The Road to Jonestown is chilling. Really, as a suspense author, I can just point you at this year's Edgar nominees and suggest you dive in. 2018 Edgar Nominees and Winners.

May 24, 7:15PM EDT0
Have you considered writing a book from another genre? If so, what genre would that be?
May 24, 1:16PM EDT0

I mentioned earlier that writing science fiction would be fun, because I love the genre. I also love comedy and true crime. Maybe someday I'll write a mashup. ;-)

May 24, 2:23PM EDT0
Do you read reviews? How do you deal when they're bad?
May 24, 10:49AM EDT0

I read all trade and national press reviews. If they're positive, it's wonderful. If they're mixed or negative, I digest them, then shrug and get back to work. I can't control the reaction to my work. I can only write the most exciting, moving, and gripping fiction I possibly can.  

May 24, 11:47AM EDT0

How many of your friends bought your book?

May 24, 6:08AM EDT0

Quite a few friends have bought at least one of my novels over the years, which is extremely gratifying to an author. Thank you, friends!

May 24, 10:11AM EDT0
Among the characters you’ve created, which one had a big impact on you?
May 22, 3:14AM EDT0

I love this question. Many of my characters have affected me, because to write them, I've needed to truly try to put myself in the shoes of people whose lives vastly differ from my own. That always forces me to learn, and reflect, and expand the reach of my empathy. 

I'll name two in particular: 

Caitlin Hendrix. Caitlin is the heroine of the UNSUB books (UNSUB and Into the Black Nowhere). She's a cop's daughter who becomes a detective herself and is recruited to join the FBI, where she hunts serial predators. She's the first protagonist I've written who's a law enforcement officer. I had to study and understand what it's like to grow up in a world where you constantly worry about your father's safety, then decide to enter that life yourself. I had to learn what it's like for women on the force these days. I had to work out Caitlin's attitude to authority -- and to becoming somebody who embodies and wields it -- and really understand why somebody is willing to shoulder the responsibility for keeping the public safe by pursuing deadly criminals. 

Jesse Blackburn. Jesse is a main character in the Evan Delaney novels. He's the heroine's boyfriend. He's a hotshot lawyer, young, scorchingly handsome, sarcastic, and brave. And he was a world class athlete before a hit-and-run driver ran him down and left him disabled. He uses a wheelchair most of the time. To write him, I had to learn how to put myself in the world of (a) a young man (b) somebody whose world has been blown up by catastrophic injury (c) the survivor of a violent crime who has to rebuild his life in ways he never imagined. I also love writing his dialogue, because Jesse comes out with the most biting, funny insults  I can create.

May 22, 12:24PM EDT0

Which is the hardest part of the book to write: the beginning, the middle, or the end?

May 21, 4:36PM EDT0

Good question. For me, beginning the first draft of the novel is always hardest. I have to work to build momentum. I feel like I'm crawling through quicksand sometimes. I struggle to kick the story into high gear. I wander and sometimes feel like I'm sinking -- even though I've written an outline of the book! Putting flesh on those bones always takes time and mental effort.

But writing the ending is more difficult in other ways. Because it has to be 100% right. It has to be surprising yet inevitable. Every single emotional beat, every twist, revelation, confrontation, and resolution must be fresh, true to the characters, and absolutely satisfying to readers. I rethink, rewrite, revise, and polish endings more than anything else.

And I'm lucky that I get to do it.

May 21, 5:04PM EDT1
Do you ever get emotionally attached to your stories?
May 21, 4:02PM EDT0

Absolutely. I create characters who live with me for a year while I write a novel. I think of them as real people, with real lives, loves, fears, and desires. And on the page I put them through hell. 

I throw their lives out of whack. I make them face loss, betrayal, and danger. I force them to make difficult, sometimes desperate choices that will severely affect them and the people they love. I confront them with dilemmas that will irrevocably alter the course of their lives. 

Then I ache for them, even though I'm the cause of all their grief.

And when I type THE END, I hate telling them goodbye.

May 21, 4:31PM EDT0
Do you ever get scared when you’re all alone writing thriller stories?
May 21, 12:01PM EDT0

Interesting question! 

I don't get scared when I'm alone writing thrillers. Because I'm in control of the story. I do try to think about what scares me, because I figure it will scare readers too. Then I write about it in the most vivid, emotionally gripping way I can come up with. 

I want to give readers chills, and have them holding their breath. But when I'm at the keyboard, I'm always a step removed from the scene, pulling the strings. 

That lets me turn out the lights without being afraid of the dark.

May 21, 2:00PM EDT0
What makes an author a successful one? Income, positive reviews, bestsellers, awards?
May 21, 9:13AM EDT0

All of those are measures of success! Different authors will value them differently. 

I wanted to be traditionally published, and have achieved that. I dreamed of making my living writing fiction, and am doing so. I've been honored with awards by my peers. 

And what I really want is to keep writing, and to hear readers say, "OMG, I couldn't put the book down." That's real success to me.

May 21, 1:57PM EDT0
Do authors have to have perfect grammar and wide vocabulary?
May 21, 4:57AM EDT0

"Perfect" is impossible, and grammar constantly evolves. But an author does need an excellent understanding of grammar and a superb vocabulary. 

Think of it this way: Words are a writer's tools. A professional author must wield them expertly.

Two points: 

  1. An author should not write sloppy prose, presuming that "the editor will fix it." It's the author's responsibility to write the most vivid, precise, exciting prose possible. If the writing is a mess, editors and publishers will simply reject the work.
  2. If you think you need to deepen your knowledge of grammar and expand your vocabulary, great! We can all do that! Start learning. But do so while you're writing. Don't let any shortcomings stop you. Simply get to work, and keep learning. It's difficult but rewarding.
May 21, 1:54PM EDT0
Before trying to write your first book, did you take any classes? Would you recommend any for beginners?
May 19, 7:52PM EDT0

As an undergraduate I took a creative writing class. I took another when I was in law school. Since then I've taken a few master classes. And I've read a number of excellent books on the craft of fiction -- Story by Robert McKee,  Stein on Writing by Sol Stein, and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, just for starters.

Beginners will be well served to either take a class (a seminar, a university writing course, an adult ed class) or at the very least seek out a critique group. Getting somebody else's eyes on your work is vital. It's not absolutely necessary, but can really help carry you forward. 

But above all, read. Read, read, read. You have to submerge yourself in great writing before you can get any handle on it and try it yourself.

May 21, 1:25PM EDT0
How long have you been teaching at the University of California? What kind of writing classes do you offer?
May 19, 12:42PM EDT0

I taught Legal Writing at UC Santa Barbara in the Nineties. Then I moved to England for a number of years and took up writing fiction. 

Nowadays I teach master classes in novel writing (I've taught for Curtis Brown Creative in London, HarperCollins, and the International Thriller Writers) and give writing seminars on various topics in fiction for the nonprofit organization Texas Writes.

Last edited @ May 21, 2:37PM EDT.
May 21, 1:20PM EDT0
What are you most proud of professionally?
May 19, 4:35AM EDT0

I'm probably proudest of having won the Edgar Award for my novel China Lake. It's a national award, given by the Mystery Writers of America. Being recognized and honored by my peers means a huge amount to me.

May 21, 1:17PM EDT0
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