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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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It’s Time for NaNoWriMo!

What will you be writing for NaNoWriMo?

After nearly a year-long wait, NaNoWriMo has finally arrived. National Novel Writing Month used to be another convenient literary designation on the calendar where librarians, bookstore owners and people in the literary world paid a little special attention to the novel — like they do in April with National Poetry Month. 

However, a few years ago, someone came up with the crafty idea of giving National Novel Writing Month a clever acronym and a community-based

The month of November is a great time to dive deep and write a novel — or any kind of book.

website, designed to help writers actually spend the month of November writing a novel.

The result has been extraordinary: the advent of NaNoWriMo. Beginning Thursday, Nov. 1, more than 1 million writers — along with many college and high school writing programs, community writing groups and professional writers clubs — will log on to their personal pages on www.nanowrimo.org and take the wordsmith’s challenge: to write at least 50,000 words in one month.

I’m going to be among them. While my effort won’t necessarily be fiction — it will be the start of my memoir, working title Do I Have a Story For You! —  I’m just as pumped up as everyone else. During this month, I will spend a couple hours per day (or more, on some days) writing out the stories for my memoir, while also chatting with and supporting other writers in my NaNoWriMo support group. My goal will be to write about 2,000 words per day, to get to that magical 50,000 word mark. And I’m going to have a lot of fun doing it.

It sounds daunting to write 50,000 words in one month. If you’re soloing, it can be very daunting. Which leads to the beauty of NaNoWriMo: while you’re cranking out your novel, memoir or story, so are more than a million others. There is a group energy and consciousness that, I swear, you can feel. Everyone is elevating everyone else. For a golden month, we’re not the only writers engaged in the solitary act of writing a book. I sure felt it last year, when I jumped into the fray very late (because of teaching duties) and still put out the first 20,000 words of my novel-in-progress, Open Mic Night at Boccaccio’s, in the last 10 days of NaNoWriMo.

In 2011, more than 3 billion words were recorded on NaNoWriMo’s official count, which is drawn from the individual daily word count updates of each participant. That’s a lot of stories, a lot of minds stretching out to produce their works. Several of my writing support group partners started and finished entire novels; others really got into it and wrote 14 to 16 hours per day.

Do you have a story you want to write? Do you want to try this out? I sure hope so; NaNoWriMo is an absolute blast. Log onto the website, fill out your profile and a few words about your desired story — or collection of short stories — and be ready to log on Thursday and write, write, write. And let us know how you did!

 

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Southern Storytelling at Its Finest: Interview with Robin Jordan

Robin Jordan is the author of the forthcoming novels, Lovelady Road and Sunday’s Corners. Her distinctive, well-crafted combination of home-spun storytelling, tight, intriguing plots and unforgettable characters, all set to a delicious narrative voice, will keep her readers coming back for more. It also feels right at home in a Southern literary tradition populated with authors like Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor — all heroines of Ms. Jordan, who is an expert in Southern literature and will speak on the subject in January at the University of Nebraska. In this interview with Bob Yehling of Word Journeys, who edited both of her books after meeting her at the February 2010 Southern California Writers Conference, Ms. Jordan shares the qualities that make Southern storytelling such a hallowed tradition, as well as her mixture of real and imagined experiences in the crafting of Lovelady Road and Sunday’s Corners.

 WJ: First of all, could you tell us a little about your background, in particular how you fell in love with storytelling and the storytelling influences you had growing up?

Robin Jordan: I think first and foremost would be from my parents. They didn’t so much as tell stories as talk about the people they knew when they were younger, events they witnessed, or even things their parents told them. When I was a child, I didn’t care for their stories. I thought they were tedious and boring. Yet, as I got older, I realized that I associate much of my past and my heritage through stories such as those they told.

WJ: Storytelling is a huge part of your narrative voice, and your protagonists are good storytellers. What is it about telling a story that gives you so much joy and delight — which is obvious from the way you bring your tales to the page?

 RJ: For the most part, I find a lot of humor in things I don’t think other people see. The eccentricities of the South are fabulous. In Lovelady Road, I wanted those oddities to be out there, to let folks know that while the South has had its checkered past, there are also some really great things. In one chapter of Lovelady Road, I wrote about a squirrel getting into a church during a funeral and the chaos that ensued. I’ve seen birds in churches; why not a squirrel? I want to tell stories in which the reader comes away feeling something for the characters or the storyline. I want to inspire emotion in the reader.

WJ: In Lovelady Road, you use the point-of-view of an adolescent to convey some pretty serious, often intense adult situations. Why do you feel that we draw so deeply into adult stories told from the eyes of adolescents, in this case a very intelligent and precocious adolescent?

 RJ: As an adolescent, Ruth Anna says some things that most of us have said or wish we would have said before we grew into guarded adults. From my perspective, it seems most of us are drawn to adolescent stories because the character, the story, or the timeframe reminds us of a time when life was simpler, more innocent.

WJ: Lovelady Road sets classic, multi-layered Southern rural setting and atmosphere deep into the characters’ inner lives, as well as providing colorful background. This is a technique that we’ve come to known through the works of McCullers, Welty, Faulkner, O’Connor and others. Why is it that Southern settings make such great “characters” and add to the story?

 RJ: It seems everything in the South is more vivid than in other places. I think the South and the people in it are bigger. Southern folks are more outgoing than they are in other regions of the country, but they are also more judgmental. Here, the weather has such extremes, heat and humidity in the summer, ice and cold wind in the winter. Poverty is rampant in any area, but only in the South will you see junk cars on blocks! Of course, all of these elements added together make for a great story setting.

WJ: How much of Lovelady Road is informed by your background growing up in Tennessee?  

 RJ: Quite a bit of it! My grandfather was truly a moonshiner, and I do know how to make moonshine. I also have peculiar relatives! In the past, my aunt did go to the funerals of people she didn’t know, and my brother did build his house inside a garage.

WJ: Nearly every novelist embeds stories from their lives, at least a little, in their works. Could you share a couple that appeared in Lovelady Road and Sunday’s Corners.

 RJ: In both, Lovelady Road and Sunday’s Corners, I mention quilting. When I was young, my mother worked for an organization called LBJ&C. At that time, it was a federal program designed to promote community awareness. At least once every week, my mother would drive around and pick up older women and they would go to a central location where they would spend the day quilting. In the summer, my mother dragged me along rather than pay a babysitter, so I spent a lot of time listening to those women tell their tales, watching them stitch together quilts from rags, and eating a lot of good food. There was always a potluck lunch. Now, my mother is the only one of those quilters still living, but she has Alzheimer’s and can no longer remember any of it, which makes me the sole survivor to tell the stories. To my knowledge, I am the only one who has any of the quilts those ladies made – I think that’s worth remembering.

WJ: I see a novel brewing…

RJ: You never know!

WJ: Sunday’s Corners is an entirely different story than Lovelady Road, with a split location between wartime Paris and the South. What prompted you to come up with storyline of intrigue and mystery that was set in two widely different locales?

 RJ: Sunday’s Corners started off with a dream. I dreamed about a woman, wearing clothes from the 1940s, getting off a bus. That was all there was to the dream, but I was intrigued by it, so I started doing research. I wanted to find a woman charged with some crime during that era. What I found were American women convicted of treason following World War II. I took that tidbit of information and built Sunday’s Corners.

 As for Lovelady Road, it started out when I told a friend that I was considering a short story about a moonshiner with a broken finger. My friend’s first question was, “How did he break his finger?” At that point, I didn’t know how or why he had a broken finger but as the characters evolved they entertained me, and I just kept writing. Pretty soon, it was novel length!

WJ: The characters in Sunday’s Corners capture the essence of the Southern experience even more than the more tightknit crew from Lovelady Road. Could you talk about how you develop your characters, and what you are looking to achieve from them when you deliver their story on paper?

RJ: I start off by imagining what I think a character looks like. More times than not, they often physically resemble somebody I have known in my life. For personalities, I take a little bit of this from one person and a little bit of that from another and create an entirely new person. Sunday’s Corners was much harder to write than Lovelady Road. I think much of that was due to the time in which the story takes place. Many of the scenes and characters in Lovelady Road seem like places and people I’ve actually known. However, in Sunday’s Corners I had to improvise and imagine a lot of it, because I do not have personal knowledge of wartime Berlin or Paris of the 1930s.

WJ: One of the most impressive facets of your writing is the way you write so simply and beautifully, yet convey one complex situation after another. A lot of it has to do with the local vernacular you use in your narrative. Could you talk about how you developed this voice and how it helps you convey the story with greater immediacy to the reader?

RJ: I hear the story in my head, and I want the reader to “hear” and “see” the scenes as clearly as I do. I also want each scene to flow naturally and seamlessly from one to another. When I’m writing a scene, there are a few questions I ask myself: What do I hear? What do I see? What do I smell? Would I say that? Would I say it like that? There are a lot of colloquialisms and slang spoken in the South. To not include those in my writing would be to rob my characters of a lot of what makes them Southern.

WJ: You will be speaking and reading at the University of Nebraska soon for your work on Southern literature. What are the most endearing characteristics of Southern lit to you, and what do you think keeps us coming back for more?

RJ: It seems that the peculiarities of the Southern people are what most folks outside the South love about the region. Developing characters with oddities that a reader can love or hate is what compels the reader to pick up the book and, then, keep turning the pages. Southern people are down to earth. In a time when everything is so complex, it’s a pleasure to sit down and read about characters or settings that are simpler.

WJ: Will we be seeing the characters from Lovelady Road or Sunday’s Corners in any future novels down the line?

 RJ: It’s possible. There are always other characters and storylines to be explored.

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Hugo: When Two Storytelling Masters Meet on Screen

During the 18 months I worked on George Lucas’ Blockbusting book as a researcher and ghostwriter, one recurring storyline captivated me over and over: the origins of various moviemaking techniques and genres. With all due respect to Thomas Edison, the Lumiere brothers and Edwin Porter, the moviemaking we know today threads back to a single source: the magical French filmmaker Georges Melies. The eccentric former stage magician brought storytelling, imagination, color, fantasy and magic to the big screen more than 100 years ago, as best known in his seminal one-reeler from 1902, Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), loosely based on Jules Verne’s 1865 classic sci-fi novel, From the Earth to the Moon.

On Friday, while looking for a good movie to attend, Martha and I saw the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s new film, Hugo. It had “great story” written all over it: a boy and girl embark on an adventure within the clock towers and inner walls of Paris’ Montparnasse (central train station) to discover the mystery behind an automaton found by Hugo’s late father (I want to be careful here not to give away too much of the plot). In chasing this mystery, they come across a discovery that changes the lives of everyone concerned — and brings some very important history back to life. For two hours, I marveled at the intersecting storylines, the use of classic page-turner dialogue like “it wouldn’t be an adventure if there wasn’t danger,” the rich characters and settings, and the way Scorsese masterfully wove colorful 1920s Paris into his deeper story.

That’s the essence of the plot line. Here’s the treasure: within Hugo, we became reacquainted with the great Melies (again, I won’t tell you how).  For 500+ movies (of which approximately 80 remain), Melies wrote, directed and co-starred in his movies, painted and designed his sets, and splashed color and magic throughout his studio. Beginning in 1896, two years after cinema’s inception, he made movies for the thrill of seeing his imaginations and stories in live action — and for the way they enlivened his adoring patrons. Now, thanks to this incredible gift from Scorsese, Melies comes to life again for a time and generation in dire need of reconnecting with their imagination and their ability to live their dreams. Everyone who wants to reconnect with the pure pleasure of making stories would do well to learn everything you can about Melies and the gift he gave the world through his filmmaking.

If you have ever wondered about the starting point for real movie-making, or about the way great stories are told, see this movie. We experience the tale of how one person can change the world — told over and over again, through the actions of several characters. This movie is a celebration of what makes pure storytelling so much fun, both for the creator and the reader/viewer: coming up with ideas, letting your imagination run with them, and letting the characters play them out, no matter how fantastical, colorful or magical they might be.

Hugo is a modern cinematic masterpiece by a masterful filmmaker who never makes the same movie twice. There are no bombs, profanities, car chases, inane characters or clichés. Rather, there is magic, imagination, adventure, deep character interaction and the sweetest qualities of romance. Somehow or another, with everything else having been done, Scorsese found an original thread in one of his favorite playgrounds — bringing history to life. In the same season he brought us the George Harrison documentary on HBO, he comes up with Hugo. Wow!

Whether you love movies, love stories, write stories or love adventure, mystery and imagination, Hugo will take your heart and inform as well as entertain you. For anyone who writes stories, shoots photos, makes movies, paints or engages in any other creative form, this movie is a must-see.

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