How I learned to stop worrying and love writing my first psychological thriller – A. J. Banner
By A. J. Banner
Writers are worriers. We hear this all the time. Writers fret about everything – the quality of our work, whether we’ll ever get published, whether we’ll make enough money to pay the bills, whether readers will enjoy our novels or throw them across the room. We worry about even finishing a draft, then revising the draft and making it sing. We worry that maybe, after years of work on the same complicated manuscript, we’ll have to throw the whole thing away and start again. We’re perfectionists, worrying that our current project is not our best work. But we’re writers, and worrying isn’t writing. So how did I stop worrying and enjoy writing my first psychological thriller?♥
I didn’t stop worrying at all.
But I pretended to stop worrying.
That’s right. I didn’t actually stop worrying. Worry is natural. If you’re not worrying, perhaps you’re too complacent or overconfident. Writers do best when we’re on our toes, edgy, a little insecure. At least, that’s true for me. But somehow, I psyched out the worrywart in my brain and managed to write anyway. I had to decide not to let the worry stop me from doing. I fumbled my way through my first psychological thriller – a genre I love to read, by the way – by performing sleight of hand.
I conjured my childhood self who delighted in adding a sheet of crisp, white paper to my toy typewriter and tapping out a short mystery a la Agatha Christie. I spent no time worrying about what might come – possible rejections from agents or publishers or readers. I simply wrote.
If I let worry take hold, I wouldn’t write at all. The worst fear, above everything else, above the fear of failure, fear of success, fear of rejection, is the fear of not writing at all. So I made writing a daily habit. Author Harlan Coben said it well to reporter Lydia Kiesling for an article for The Guardian: “Every successful author I’ve ever known still has to treat it as a job. You have to get your butt in the chair and do the work.”
Even if the things I worry about come to pass – even if I get nothing but brutal rejection, and my books disintegrate and disappear into oblivion – I will keep writing, keep doing the work. I let the worry grumble at me, but I brought out the joyful child writer, and then I shifted my focus to working on how to write a psychological thriller. I learned from my editor, agent and my writing group. I learned the art of misdirection. Even though I know the identity of the perpetrator, I can’t hit the reader over the head with my amazing knowledge. I have to hold back. I introduced secondary characters as possible suspects and gave them motive and opportunity. I set scenes in different locations so as not to bore the reader too much.
An editor once told me, “I have two pieces of advice for you. Don’t be afraid of conflict, and surprise the reader.” So I tried to add conflict to every scene, and I added twists and turns, working to keep them organic to the story, not contrived, to entertain and surprise the reader. I had to tell myself, I’m not going to please everyone. Some readers will figure out the plot twists, others won’t. Some reviewers found the ending surprising in The Good Neighbor, while others wrote, “What surprise ending?” If I worry about surprising every single reader, I’ll freeze up. As I did when I was a child, I simply did my best. I just wrote.
I also decided to stop comparing myself to other writers. Comparison is self-defeating. All I can do is write the best book I can write. My voice and style will always be my own. If you accept that you have a particular voice and that’s who you are, you can just be that writer. I’m writing to entertain, to give the reader a good story and a good escape – not to show off flowery, literary language. If a lovely turn of phrase pops onto the page, great. I’ll keep it if it works, if it doesn’t distract from the story.
In the end, I don’t try to obliterate worry. It’s always there, mumbling and grumbling in the background, but I turn down the volume, and I let the child sing.
A. J. Banner grew up reading Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, and other masters of love and mystery. She enjoyed sneaking thrillers from her parents’ library, which gave her excellent fodder for her first novel of psychological suspense, The Good Neighbor.