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Clinton Smith continues with some tips on writing thrillers...

RV: What are some of your favorite thrillers and why?

CS: Still very hard to beat Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. It has a fine balance of perception and menace yet doesn’t lose pace. And that of course is the trick. Writing page-turning muscles-death-sex-action stuff well is tough enough. But infusing such a superficial genre with humanity, meaning and depth is a hard call indeed. How do you inform and intrigue while maintaining pace and fun? The later Le Carre, with his characters well established, used them as his carrot for the reader. But the trade-off is that they take a page to answer the phone.
I dip into many writers to sample construction and style. To emulate would be mad.

RV: As thrillers are generally strong on plot, could you tell me how you learned to plot a story, especially longer stories like Exit Alpha?

CS: It helps if you’ve spent your life selling products. You’re trained to capture attention and deliver a benefit. Of course, there are different plotting needs. A short story technique has little relation to novel writing. One is watchmaking. The other is building a house. A book has space but mustn’t sprawl, needs discipline. Every page should advance the story without a single unnecessary word. I like visual situations because, if you write for film and TV all your life (I was even obliged to direct some of the lower budget projects) it must affect the way you write. And why not write what you want to read? That way, at least one person gets to enjoy it.

RV: Can you explain how you constructed the plot of EXIT ALPHA, as it manages to sustain interest right to the end? And can you list any plotting techniques you used on the way?

CS: One key is to be unpredictable. That means exploring every possible twist in the situation or predicament until you find the one that intrigues you. Another is to keep the reader hanging. Withhold information. Gabrielle Lord taught me that although I’m not good at it yet.
Then, many people write a book in three months. But I spend that long on plot alone – even make graphs in different coloured crayons that show the content of the chapters – where the peaks and climaxes are coming for all the aspects of the story. If I find dead spots, I replot.
I recently had to adapt The Fourth Eye for film. It taught me that a feature film isn’t a commercial, doco or book and requires a three act form or it will die. It took three draughts to get it right and was a vertical learning curve, even though I’ve written for broadcast media all my life. My next book plot has a three-act structure. Not obvious – but there. It’s not something I’ve consciously done before but should make a stronger spine.

RV: Technical detail is thorough in EXIT ALPHA and is important in making the novel believable. What did you do to research things like snow descriptions, ice climbing gear, aircraft carrier architecture, military jargon and weaponry?

CS: And the rest of it…What precisely would the air-crew say in the cockpit of a C-130 before it crashes? How do you reheat a frozen Hagglunds engine without fire? What are the internal workings of airships and the mechanics of neurosurgery? How does the hierarchy function in the Catholic Church? What do you see and smell during electrocutions? What are the minutiae of Pakistan politics, of the Moslem faith, of porcelain doll-making, of esotericism? You have to know everything about everything. The only answer is to dig. Sheer hard work. But there’s also a delight in unearthing what you need. Then you have real authentication – the kind that makes the reader feel he’s there.