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Why Thrillers Are Fun to Write, and #1 to Read: William Thompson Ong Interview

After he retired from a long career in the advertising industry, William Thompson Ong knew he wanted to return to his other love – 41z1MhGnReL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_writing – but didn’t know where to start. Like other writers, he wanted to draw plenty of fun and enjoyment from his daily sessions. However, he also wanted to write books that would find large audiences.

Ong did some research, and it brought him back to one of the favorite genres he read as a youth and young man: action thrillers with plenty of mystery. Bingo! He transformed into a typing thoroughbred, and burst out of the gates. In just a few years, he has written seven novels and a popular thriller series. In the second part of this exclusive interview, Ong reflects on why thrillers are so much fun to write, why they are the #1 fiction genre for readers (just ahead of the other ingredient in his books, romance), and how the stars have aligned ideally in the persona of Kate Conway, his protagonists for the novel series The Mounting Storm, The Deadly Buddha, and The Fashionista Murders, all available on Amazon.com.

WORDJOURNEYS.COM: What is it about the personalities and characteristics of investigative journalists that make them ideal protagonists for thrillers and mysteries? 

WILLIAM THOMPSON ONG: I’d like to answer with some comparisons between the detective and the newspaper guy or gal. Both appear to be dedicated to discovering breakthrough facts or evidence they can weave into a conclusive story or an indictment.  Aren’t they both in the same business, after all—fighting crime?

In Kate Conway’s case, the hurdles are set higher. The investigative reporter is in a class by herself at a newspaper or magazine journal, assigned to the really big and explosive stuff—stories and cases that go far beyond the murder story.  These are the bright, tenacious, and fearless guys and gals who won’t be home for Christmas—they’ll be spending it hiding in a basement in Teheran to escape a terrorist’s sword. These are the guys and gals whose names will appear on the stories that garner Pulitzer Prizes for their papers—(to say nothing of boosting circulation enough to keep today’s newspapers alive for another year.)  And in most cases they’ll be acting alone—not with the NYPD at their disposal.

Tom's jacket photo. Alicia #9 (preferred)WJ: You mentioned a disparity between typical education levels of an investigative journalist and detective, which creates major story problems in moving crime novels along because of the distrust with which one often views the other in real life. How did you get around that in your series?

TO: I made Kate’s father a gnarly ex-detective—(Paul Conway is a career dick from Brooklyn). When Kate needs help she whistles and Paul Conway appears, wise in the details of police procedure (which Kate and I choose not to be) and just dropping his name opens doors for Kate. Some may think I am cheating by supplying Kate with a crutch like this. But it allows Kate to cruise on a higher level and solve the really complicated crimes.

All of this explains why I lean away from the straight detective story in favor of the mystery-thriller. I’m still that stickler for detail.  But now I can keep a lot more balls in the air when it comes to plotting.

WJ: In The Fashionista Murders, and also The Mounting Storm, you give an expert’s touch to how you portray the high fashion industry and the high-end art world. Are these interests of yours, or just story drivers that you researched (well) and brought to life?

Like Kate Conway herself in The Fashionista Murders, I am totally turned off by fashion—which is why I attached the serial killer to the story. In The Mounting Storm, introducing Kate to Margaret Winship opened up the world of art and museums and society that heightened Kate’s search for the missing Monet she suspects belonged to her grandmother and triggered Kate’s unmasking the Nazi.

It also opened all of Kate’s subsequent novels to the swanky world of high finance and billionaires and celebrity society with its pretension and snobbery and deviousness—absolutely wonderful and trusty elements for layering your novel.  These elements are story drivers and not comfortable elements already present in my life—although at one time I seriously considered becoming an artist.

WJ: You had an interesting way of becoming a thriller writer after leaving the advertising industry:

TO: I did. My decision to write thrillers was based on some good old-fashioned seat-of-the-pants research.  I found thrillers to be the most popular genre. I also found there were more female readers than male readers, which helped lead me to inventing Kate Conway.  Discovering that romances were the second hottest genre convinced me to spread Kate’s adventures with hot and spicy romance.

WJ: Were you a big reader of mysteries, thrillers and crime fiction in your growing up years? Who were your favorite 41u0RCXXw7L._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_authors, and what influenced you most about their works, styles and/or voices?

TO: When I was 9, my father brought home The Five Orange Pips and lightning struck. I became a Sherlock Holmes fan forever, admiring his characters and atmosphere (who can resist The Hound of the Baskervilles for atmosphere?) as much as his sleuthing.  But as I grew older, my tastes gravitated to more intricate thrillers like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Gorky Park, The Manchurian Candidate, and The Day of the Jackal.

By the time I reached college, writing style became important—the   grace and class of W. Somerset Maugham as well as the biting vividness of Hemingway and the magic of F. Scott Fitzgerald. (I have worn out several soft-cover editions of A Farewell to Arms and The Great Gatsby.)

WJ: Story structure and writing style definitely resonates in your books. We start off on one trail, only to be switched to another – then another –  always with entanglements of some kind involved. Is this a reflection of the way Kate keeps changing and running into surprises? Or the storycrafting style you’ve decided to run with?

TO: It’s both. The multi-layering of plot that I began in The Mounting Storm logically became a pattern for all of Kate’s novels.  In the beginning I had no thought of making the novel into a series.  It was to be a dark and brooding Citizen Kane type of story dramatizing the deviousness of Stirling Winship with Kate almost a minor figure. On the advice of an agent I cut some 90 pages and 30,000 words of background color on Stirling and turned it into a fast-paced thriller featuring Kate. But almost all the plots and subplots remained intact and we were off to the races with the Kate Conway series.

41WA0IPiSeL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_WJ: Rather than go the traditional publishing route, you’ve partner-published with Charles Redner and RiPublishing. Could you elaborate on the advantages you’ve found to the path you’re taking?

TO: The advantages? I am getting to see my books in print, I’m getting strong reviews, and I’m selling enough books to encourage me to keep going. Plus, it’s happening right now. This sure beats waiting around while an editor fiddles and fusses with changes for a year and then spends another year wondering whether the publishing house bosses will give me the final green light.

Self-publishing no longer bears a stigma. It’s attracting big name authors as well as beginners.  If you can’t afford to wait, it’s the place to be. If your books have the necessary magic, they will almost certainly rise to the top.

Partnership-publishing is even better. In Charlie Redner, I have the advantage of a fellow author who acts as my publisher and also my agent when it comes to advice.  There’s a lot of advice you’ll need, especially if you’re like me and have a mind that was built to function in the old days before the computer and the internet—back when we spent our time thinking and doing things instead of walking around pressing buttons on gadgets. (But thank Heaven the word processor replaced my typewriter!)

WJ: Final question: In each of your books, what is the one scene, situation, or character shift that surprised you most when it came flying from your mind to pen or computer screen?

TO: What a terrific question for ending this interview!

In The Mounting Storm, it’s the scene where Kate’s having dinner as the guest of Winston Winship.  She has found the guy an obnoxious bore and lets us know it. But then he says something encouraging about her idea for a new magazine—and she warms to him. When he invites Kate to the party he’s throwing in the Hamptons, which she absolutely hates…

            Kate looked at him before answering, digesting all over again his         coolness, his incredible confidence, his mastery at what he does, his   extremely good looks. And his eyes, those wonderful gray eyes with      their look of sadness.

           “Yes, I’ll come,” she said. “I love the Hamptons.

In The Deadly Buddha, in the party scene at the Hollywood movie studio, Kate has no idea the handsome dude chatting her up—and from whom she reluctantly accepts a ride back to her hotel—is the Welsh movie star she’s been ordered to interview.  He stops at the Griffith Observatory and they find themselves having a ball as they recall from memory the lines James Dean and Natalie Wood exchanged in Rebel Without a Cause. This is how the scene ends:

             Kate didn’t lean over and kiss him, although she thought about it. They were too busy laughing. They laughed all the way back to the hotel. The doorman helped her out. She turned to wave goodbye, but he was already in the circle and heading toward the Wilshire exit, his hand waving carelessly in the air.

           That was the moment Kate realized she didn’t even know his name.

In The Fashionista Murders, we go through the thought process that keeps Kate from giving in to sex, this time in the apartment-studio and in the arms of the handsome photographer covering the fashion shows with her:

Maybe the shrink her friends had dragged her to was right—instead of shutting men out of her life she should loosen up when she felt her buttons being pushed and let things happen. Maybe she needs to change—not just Cam.

          “You are not only a sex maniac but a full-fledged, card-carrying, conniving bastard,” was the way she began the terms of her surrender.  

           She took a step back, grasping both his hands in hers while shaking her mane of Irish red hair. “And now that I have made it ridiculously clear, you may do what you want with me—so long as it’s not boring, distasteful, or so devious it will land us in jail.”

 I warned you how much fun it is writing thrillers, especially when you decide to stretch the boundaries a little. Thanks again for inviting me into your sanctuary.

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From Mad Men to Thrillers: An Interview with William Thompson Ong

William Thompson Ong, or Tom as his friends know him, has created quite a stir with thriller readers in the past 12 months with his trilogy of novels featuring journalist-protagonist-amateur sleuth Kate Conway.Tom's jacket photo. Alicia #9 (preferred)

The Mounting Storm, The Deadly Buddha and The Fashionista Murders (published by Ri Publishing) combine tight, twisting plots, charming bad guys to which Kate becomes attracted, and some high-powered crime solving in great professional settings – art museums, Parisian fashion runways and the like. The trio of novels (not a trilogy; Tom has more Kate Conway novels in his future) also incorporates two aspects of writing of which I can never get enough (or impress more upon writers) – tough, gritty narrative voice, and attention to detail  explicit in time, place, and the character’s personal likes and dislikes. NWhen I see this, I see someone who has married fine journalistic skills with excellent fiction-writing style. ot as easy to write or maintain as it sounds.

41z1MhGnReL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Behind Kate Conway is a novelist with an illustrious past in the advertising industry, especially for fans of the hit AMC TV show Mad Men. Tom Ong is an original Mad Man, an advertising copywriter and, later, executive who began his career on New York’s Madison Avenue a decade before Mad Men star Jon Hamm was born. Later, he moved to the West Coast, where he cooks up plot twists rather than hook and tag lines.

This is the first of a two-part interview with Tom, in which he reflects on his Mad Men days and takes us deep into Kate Conway’s world, and the ways in which he constructed it. I found his answers rich and fascinating. Hope you do, too.

WORDJOURNEYS.COM: First of all, Tom, you’ve made an interesting creative leap – from being an advertising agency executive to writing thrillers. How did that come about?

William Thompson Ong: It wasn’t that hard. I entered the business as a copywriter, and every copywriter I knew was secretly working on a novel. It was in our blood. At one time at the Benton & Bowles agency we had four guys writing copy for P&G and General Foods, along with our other clients who went on to become successful novelists and lyricists and screenplay writers—Israel Horowitz, Shepherd Meade, Ed Hannibal and Herman Raucher  (who wrote Summer of ’42)—all of us working at the same time and on the same floor. Even though I eventually had many executive titles, like Creative Director and even CEO of my own agency, I was always a copywriter, creating ads and aiming for the fences.

WJ.COM: Could you give us a brief synopsis of your background?

WTO: I grew up in the quiet, tree-lined suburbs of Cleveland, and got my undergrad degree from DePauw University in Indiana. I wrote some short stories and then some angry editorials as editor of the campus newspaper, which led to my MA in journalism from Columbia. After the army I spent 15 years with the biggest advertising agencies in New York City—yes, I was one of the original Mad Men. Then I opened my own agency in Philadelphia and ten years ago cashed in on my lifelong dream, migrating to Los Angeles cold turkey to pursue a new career as a novelist.

WJ.COM: You’ve been quite prolific since becoming a full-time novelist.

WTO: I’ve completed seven novels (plus two screenplays). The three novels in the Kate Conway series are thrillers and have been partnership-published and are doing quite well on Amazon.  I have four more historical thrillers waiting to be published, and I’m still developing plots for Kate Conway.

WJ.COM: Have to ask, since you were one of the originals – how authentic is Mad Men?

WTO: Don Draper is hard to resist as the handsome anti-hero in a world of snakes and dragons, but in a sense he spoils the series for me.  I was hoping it would be more about the classic creative wars that took place at the time between the good guys in creative and the bad guys, at both the client and the agency—all heavily-armed and  thoroughly trained to shoot down any idea that looked fresh and original. I will give Don credit for his ploy in taking on the Cancer Society client and its anti-smoking messages to get even with the cigarette account the agency lost.  That was brilliant—and Don’s personal high for me.

What I like about the series is the telling it like it was—the drinking and smoking, the cheating and jealousy, the double-dealing and back-stabbing, the toll the business took on marriages. Incredible!—we were all so busy trying to survive and get ahead we failed to realize what was going on.

WJ.COM: What were some of the toughest parts of the adjustment from writing ad copy to subjective, character-based fictional narrative?41WA0IPiSeL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_

WTO: No matter how good you are with words, it requires work and study to absorb the basics of good fiction writing. And there definitely are rules: ‘Show, Don’t Tell’; establishing and following well-defined character arcs; knowing your characters intimately; and keeping the action moving—plus a dozen other rules that you should learn to follow before you can break them. You can break them when you reach that point of competence and hear that voice whispering in your ear saying you have arrived.  Then you can forget the rules because they are no longer rules on paper—they are automatic in your head.

When I sat down to write ads and campaigns I would always begin by briefing myself as thoroughly as possible and then staring at that blank sheet of paper—rejecting idea after idea until I knew I had nailed that one idea that would knock everything else silly. It’s the same in fiction writing—we are always staring at that blank sheet of paper and forcing ourselves to come up with that one great plot, one great character, one great scene, one word that propels our story forward. It’s the same process for both. And it’s nakedly, sinfully, deliciously, heart-warmingly beautiful.

WJ.COM: What do you feel are the most important points to remember when writing action-based fiction?

WTO: Every writer has a checklist. Here’s mine, just the way I have the points written down:

  1. SHOW DON’T TELL. Avoid “She saw . . . /noticed . . .” Substitute: “She turned. Two snakes were slithering down the embankment.”
  2. NEVER BE BORING—keep asking yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen next?
  3. Welcome friction, antagonism, fear, unexpected twists and turns. Make characters want something out of reach in every scene.
  4. Know where you are going with the story.
  5. Start the FLASHPOINT OF ACTION on Page One
  6. Make Kate a tough cookie and keep her there. Never let romance get the best of her.  Keep her innocent of how sexy she is.
  7. AVOID CLICHES AND EMPTY GESTURES.  ‘She finished eating and, wiping her mouth with a napkin, smiled.’

8 .  Watch the adjectives, adverbs. Ditch the colons and semi-colons. Don’t try so hard with word play. Use dialogue more often to advance the story.

Another thing I keep in mind is that, broadly speaking, thrillers are action-oriented while literary fiction is character-oriented.

WJ.COM: You’ve brought your journalistic skills into the mix through the way you interlace precise details that are on the money for time and place as well. Could you talk about the importance of enriching narrative with well-chosen details?

WTO: At Columbia University we had a tough, white-thatched ex-Chicago Daily News editor as one of our professors. His name was Roscoe Ellard and he described the cub reporter who couldn’t wait to hand in the story of a horrific fire that destroyed a landmark church and its historic steeple. The reporter captured all the details—the time of the fire, names and addresses of the dead, degree of burns of all victims, age of the church, the hospitals involved, whether arson was suspected, plus dozens of other facts that were right on the money. The professor finally asked the cub writer one simple question.

“How high was the steeple?”

A stony silence followed.

For the rest of the school year Professor Ellard, in his huge booming voice, not only opened every class with the same question, but as students passing each other in the halls or meeting in bars our official greeting became: “How high was the steeple, pal?”

41u0RCXXw7L._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_WJ.COM: The other side of your journalistic background comes from Kate Conway, the protagonist in three books now – The Mounting Storm, The Deadly Buddha and The Fashionista Murders. Is Kate the journalist you would have been had you not moved into the advertising business?  

WTO: This is a tricky question, and I’m not sure, since Kate and I represent opposite sexes. My first response would be to say yes, that Kate and I are Type-A personalities not content to stand idly by but want to always plunge in and slug the perpetrator – or at least try to bring the body at our feet back to life.

WJ.COM: How different or similar were your primary goals?

WTO: Kate’s primary goal in journalism is to do what she was taught as a child and had driven into her being by her Catholic parents and especially her detective father— TELL THE TRUTH.  That also describes my background, my family, my political views and, although I am a Presbyterian, my religious beliefs.  With a nation full of evil CEOs, politicians and killers posing as saints, there is plenty for Kate and me and any other investigative reporter, real or imaginary, to feast upon.

WJ.COM: While many male novelists have written strong woman characters, it is very rare to find a male thriller writer using a female protagonist.

WTO: I have received a lot of praise for establishing Kate as a role model for women. I set out to do this intentionally.  In Kate’s first novel, The Mounting Storm, we see her flair for journalism in writing an innocent bio piece about Margaret Winship, The Museum Queen. The piece leads ultimately to exposing her husband and finding the missing Monet, but in it, Kate has Margaret deliver a stern lecture challenging today’s women in the work force to keep giving back to their own sex as they plunge ahead.

WJ.COM: What is Kate’s primary motivation in life? How is it she finds herself crossing paths with the twisted, sophisticated, charismatic bad guys you bring into each story?

TO: Close behind Kate’s driving preoccupation with discovering and telling the truth is coming face-to-face with a talented and romantic male character who she is attracted to and, plot-wise, becomes deeply  involved with—and in two of the three novels comes close to marrying.

I’ve already mentioned how I chose a woman as my major character to stand out from the male-dominated thrillers.  I decided to take this extra positioning step by not being afraid to have romance that leads to sex (and a lot of it) become a powerful and controlling factor in all three of Kate Conway’s adventures.

In this case it was more than relieving my own boredom.  I felt I was being adventurous myself, perhaps venturing where others feared to tread and all that ego-enhancing stuff.  But I knew I was on the right track when women readers and the dozen or so agents who read the first manuscript loved Kate just as written with all her romantic entanglements.

(PART TWO will run on Friday, August 9)

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On the Creative Process, Jimmy Page, Champion’s Way & Music

A Midsummer’s interlude between writing, editing, coaching and counting down the hours until the Summer Olympics begin …

The other day, while watching It Might Get Loud, a tremendous 2008 documentary on the process of making music, starring Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White, I was struck by a comment Page made concerning the creative process. “Whether you’re writing written word or music,” the legendary Led Zeppelin guitarist said, “the creative process is a very spontaneous thing. It’s the whole reason for being here, really.”

These poignant words concern the art of moving forward, of putting pen or brush to paper or canvas and letting it happen. I find this to be both the most appealing part of writing and also the hardest to initiate. One thing is certain: once we enter the realm of a new story, song, poem or painting, we enter an entirely new world.  For some, this prospect can be so scary that they never proceed to write the story, novel, memoir or song burning to be expressed.

To me, the creative process is almost as important as breathing. I think that, if we embrace it in our daily lives, and teach our children and grandchildren to do the same, we will find vast and rapid improvements in society, education, sense of self-esteem, concentration and attentiveness, and business. Creativity, innovation and vision have never been more important to embrace, because the “tried and true” way is crumbling around us – in business, finance, education, the environment, the weather, entertainment and most other aspects of our society and culture.

I feel a lot of this backwards slide comes down to one thing: Beginning in schools, extending through television and film and continuing through the way business is conducted, we have lost what it means to be creative, spontaneous, and daring. Even the saying “outside the box” is tired and, well, inside this box of limitation into which learning and growth have been placed. This is dangerous, because creativity is nothing less than the outward expression of our hearts, souls and imaginations – the very aspects that animate life, give it meaning and purpose.

It’s time to break out. Create something new today. Just go for it. Let it happen, and follow it along, as though someone is leading you by the hand on a new journey. Chances are, that’s what you will experience: a new journey, a new adventure. Ignite your creative passion, and see in what ways it expands and fulfills your life, and presents new possibilities. It’s the whole reason for being here, really.

• • •

It’s been an interesting summer, working at different stages of two books on which I’ve spent years. Next week, the book I co-wrote with former US Ski Team conditioning coach Dr. Steve Victorson, The Champion’s Way, releases nationally – just in time to accompany the London Summer Olympics. Which is appropriate, because Steve interviewed dozens of Olympic and World Cup gold medalists for the book. I added thirty years of comments and experiences from the many champions, in sports and other pursuits, I have been privileged to interview or work with. Some of those featured include ski legends Franz Klammer, Phil and Steve Mahre, Rosi Mittermaier and Ingemar Stenmark, 11-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater, late PGA Tour champion Payne Stewart, two-time Olympic 400 meter hurdle gold medalist Edwin Moses, marathon legend Bill Rodgers, and former American Idol winner and country music superstar Carrie Underwood.

At the same time, I’ve been polishing up Voice Lessons, the novel I first wrote in draft in 2004 and have since revised – and shelved – several times. In many ways, this is my personal, 110,000-word tribute to the music of my lifetime, wrapped around a touching, lively and often intense father-daughter-daughter story line.  The polishing act is one of my favorite parts of writing, whether I’m polishing my own books or those of clients. I think of polishing from a sculptor’s perspective: if the process of writing the story is akin to drawing the desired from from raw material, then polishing is like applying the final touches to draw out a sculpture’s finest features.

For this book, which includes a concert tour, fifty original songs and a panoramic view of the building blocks of one of my generation’s great contributions to entertainment — rock music — the polishing act has been a wonderful exercise in refining what it means to be creative, to write a song, to feel how performance impacts those in the audience.  It also distills the experiences of the 40-plus years I have spent listening to music, hundreds of concerts attended, dozens of musicians I’ve met and known, and the specific types of music that originate from all corners of the country. If you like music and a good story …

What has struck me throughout this phase, interestingly enough, is that the process of perfecting a novel is the same as perfecting a sports, business or life skill that we covered in The Champion’s Way: Every word and sentence need to resonate with the energy of one’s very best effort. That’s what it takes. When that happens, readers put their busy lives on hold, sail away on the opening pages, and immerse on a journey that will entertain, enthrall, enlighten and/or change them in some way.

Voice Lessons will be published in 2013. Soon, we will activate its official website, which will be a vast multimedia experience of its own.

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