Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Agent Stephen Barr on Suspense & Thrillers

I was chatting with Stephen Barr about the informal part of our Crested Butte Writers conference where the A/Es like to meet for drinks for an hour before dinner with specific genre authors to discuss trends or writing in that genre. Stephen’s meeting with our suspense / thriller writers. Here’s what he had to say:

“I’m game to meet with the Thriller/Suspense/Mystery crowd on Friday night, for sure…I have pretty specific tastes when it comes to those genres, and I’ve always been a little nonplussed by the apparent trends in the thriller-ish queries I’ve received thus far, so I’ll be able to learn as much from them as they’ll be able to learn from me, hopefully!”

So I wondered about Stephen’s “specific tastes”. What did that mean? Taking a stab, I responded: Just out of curiosity . . . what have you been seeing that's ho-hum and what would excite you in a thriller/suspense/or mystery?

Personally, I'm more than tired of serial killers and FBI/CSI agent stuff--but apparently that's me, 'cause the bestseller list is full of them. Perhaps that's why Harlan Coben appeals to me--his hero isn't FBI or a cop and his characters are interesting. So what are your specific tastes within those genres?

Stephen's response:

“I wholly agree with you, actually…I can handle “traditional” detective heroes, noir-ish stuff like that, if it really nails the beats and gets kinda eccentric in the process, but like you said, serial killers and FBI/CSI stuff leaves me as cold as a fish. If a thriller can figure out how to be a thriller with a character whose job isn’t…well, being in thrillers (a government agent, etc.) then I’m all the more impressed…”

What about you? Is anybody besides Stephen and I tired of the same-old same-old, or do cops, navy seals, FBIs, CSIs, PIs—and all those other “I”s , still do it for you?


Donnell said...

Wow, T, excellent information. Thank you! And thanks to Stephen Barr for expanding

Misty said...

Interesting post. I just finished a manuscript with a non-traditional hero, and while I wouldn't call it a thriller, it's definitely RomSuspense. Unfortunately, I think a lot of readers *expect* those traditional occupations because in a recent contest one of the judges told me s/he was "let down" because s/he was "anticipating" my hero to be a counter-terror operative or at the very least a cop. And that was a comment in the first chapter.

Kristi said...

While my protagonist is definitely different -- italian american newspaper crime reporter -- my premise involves a serial killer, so I guess I won't be querying him or meeting with him at the conference ... oh well. to each his own!
thanks for the interview Theresa!!!
still looking at finances to see if conference is a possibility ... would so love to go ... would be great to meet you and donnell in person, too!!!

Vince said...

Hi Teresa:

Could you ask Stephen this:

Is there still room for a quirky hero like “Travis McGee” by John D. MacDonald or “Elvis Cole” by Robert Crais.

I like the hero to be interesting not just the action around him.


Sandra Parshall said...

Love the observation that a certain type of character's job is "being in thrillers." Too true, unfortunately.

Personally, I avoid any thriller that has a flag on the cover. What I love are stories about ordinary people caught up in circumstances beyond their control -- which they must somehow find a way to control, if they want to survive. The label thriller seems to be applied more often to books by men, while books by women are more likely to be called suspense.

Theresa said...

Donnell, I thought this was interesting info too. Glad you liked it. Looking forward to meeting Stephen in CB at the conference. I bet we're going to have some terrific conversations!

Misty, I love non-traditional heros. Good for you! To me that makes them even more heroic when they're pushed outside their comfort zone and they solve crimes rather than following a hero who is doing his/her job--per say. Not that those stories can't be interesting, but then the characterization MUST be so much more unique and stellar to keep me interested. And you know that contest judge's feedback is the epitome of subjectivity. Don't let one comment get you down.

Donnell said...

Taking off my salesmanship hat and putting my writer’s hat back on. I have a serial killer thriller too. But… it’s not the only book I ever plan to write. I’m reading thriller writers like Harlan Coben and Benjamim Black and their protags are never the typical FBI, Cop, etc. etc.

Although, I hope by reading this every writer doesn't go off on a tangent and leave us without cop/FBI/DEA etc. protags. Then how boring would that be? As far as conferences, though, and as small as Crested Butte is, you’re going to get some serious one on one time with these people. I’ll be blogging soon about the workshops they plan to present.

Plus, it’s good to connect a name with a face, for when your muse takes off for the next book.

Theresa said...

Hi Kristi--Stephen didn't say he wouldn't like the others--just that they had to be something REALLY special. At CB Writers conference, you don't get to choose which agent/editor you meet with--they choose you!
If you want a shot at an A/E appt, you send me a pitch and opening 1.5 pgs and I compile a list and send it to ALL agents and editors attending. All 5 of them read it and they choose--by the pitch and writing sample alone--which stories sound interesting to them and then they give me a list of titles they want to meet with the authors.
So if your story is requested for an appt, you know the A/E already likes it and is interested.
Some pitches garner no requests, some have had as many as 3 from one pitch. It's really cool.
BTW, Pitch and Pages deadline is Sunday May 15.
We're going to have SO much fun!!
Hope to see you there!

Theresa said...

I'll ask Stephen your question.
You really think they tend to label stories by men "thrillers" and similar stories by women, "suspense"? Or is it just that men tend to write thrillers more and women suspense? In any event, I like the ordinary man/woman turn hero too. Perhaps I'm more biased this way 'cause it seems to me the market is glutted with the cop/PI/CSI/Navy seal type of hero???
Though I do appreciate those too, but I'm tiring of them. Though as Misty points out, what about reader expectation? Is this an ironclad reader expectation and other types of heros would be less welcome????

Ilea said...

I disagree; I love the FBI, Navy seal, cop heroes and serial killers.

American's must like it too, because of all the cop shows on TV.

They've been around for years and years.

Serial Killers are fascinating to try to understand.

I'm writing one about a female serial killer who comes from a family of serial killers.

Although non-traditional hero is something to think about for the next one.

Karen Duvall said...

I haven't read a standard thriller or suspense novel in a few years and I used to read them all the time. The ones I really enjoyed were the ones that tightened the emotional screws, and I haven't found very many. Some of the Romantic Suspense novels are like that. Laura Lippman's books are amazing because she really digs deep and her characters are brilliantly portrayed.

I also like the idea of heroes & heroines coming from less traditional backgrounds. I wrote a book with a cult intervention specialist as the hero and the story was about a suicide cult. My tastes for different types of action and suspense stories ultimately led me to reading and writing urban fantasy, where you have the thrilling crime fighting story, but the characters are anything but traditional. Ha! :) However, as far as thrillers and suspense go, the urban fantasy genre isn't everyone's cup of tea.

Dang, I sure wish I could come to the conference! But I can only make it to Colorado once this year, and that's for the Colorado Gold. I'll have to reserve part of my next advance to come to Crested Butte in 2012. Woot!

Linsey Lanier said...

Fascinating post on the "expected" versus the "new and different." For me, I don't like to see a lot of "ick" factor in thrillers, though I'm probably not typical. A thriller that delves into personal aspects is much more interesting to me. Harlan Coben is one of my favs. And I also love Evanovich (not sure you'd classify her as a thriller writer, though). Thanks for the terrific post.

Theresa said...

Ilea, I suspect your sentiment is the majority of T/S readers since that's what's all over the best seller lists.

Karen, Sad we have to wait til next year to enjoy your company. :( Enrollment is light so far, we're gonna have all the agents and editors to ourselves. They sound like a really fun group.

Linsey, I love Harlan Coben too! I adore his secondary characters! They almost steal the show for me.

Theresa said...

Vince, Stephen said, yes there's room.

Polly said...

I like anything with interesting characters who are preferably a little offbeat and a story that keeps me turning the pages. I don't much care if he's a cop, an agent, or an ordinary guy.

Leslie Ann said...

Hi T,
Really intersting comment by Stephen and interesting posts by our readers.

I do get a bit tired of the "I's" and I love the twist of finding another character type that can solve the case.

I'm working on an action adventure script right now with that kind of fish-out-of-water character type that will save the day...or hopefully.

I think part of what makes it work when it's not an "I" is that the character must have enough of a skill set (McGyver-ish, but not THAT) to make it plausible and then we'll suspend disbelief and read or watch on.

~LA of the scribes.

David Kessler Author said...

I wholeheartedly share your enthusiasm for Harlan Coben. Both the Myron Bolitar series and his standalone thrillers involve ordinary people getting into extraordinary situations. but it is also the twists and turns that make his books so interesting - the avoidance of the linear storyline, gives his books that extra spark. It was his thrillers that rekindled my interest in creative writing after ten years in the doldrums.