Jeffery Deaver on the Business of Writing Mysteries

“I feel quite strongly that a book is our most emotionally creative product,” Jeffery Deaver says. “The written story is the most engaging form of entertainment. I believe that a good, solid commercial thriller engages us in an emotional way that other art forms don’t.”

Jeffery Deaver

Commercial is the key word. It’s at the center of a series of seminars that the incredibly popular crime-fiction writer Deaver—his latest novel, The Cutting Edge, like its predecessors, is currently on the New York Times bestseller list—has been presenting at Mystery Writers of America gatherings. One of the most recent was before some 50 members of the Florida chapter of MWA at the North Palm Beach Public Library Central.

“The sessions last for three-and-a-half to four hours,” Deaver said. “I’m volunteering my time. “There are 11 MWA chapters,” he said, “and I believe I have one or two left to schedule. I intend to hit all of them.”

And they all get the same message. “Writing is a business,” Deaver emphasizes. And the business model comes down to simply asking yourself, What do I want that other people want? A cozy? A classic whodunit? A sweaty-palm, edge-of-the-seat, nonstop thriller?'”

Answer that, Deaver says, “and there’s your goal.”

He practices what he preaches, answering his own question before he begins to write. Sometimes his answer is a police procedural; other times it’s a psychological thriller. Usually his “answers” are on the money. Deaver has published 40 novels in his long career, and most of them have been New York Times bestsellers. One of his Lincoln Rhyme novels, The Bone Collector, became a 1999 film starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. After that, Deaver was commissioned by Ian Fleming Publications to produce a James Bond novel. The result was 2011’s well-received Carte Blanche, with a nonsmoking 007 drinking Crown Royal instead of vodka martinis.

“I absolutely believe that writing can be taught,” Deaver contends, flying in the face of conventional wisdom. “Crafting a commercial novel is a skill that can be learned. What can’t be learned is the desire to write.” This desire expresses itself, as Oscar Wilde purportedly said, through a willingness to attach the backside to a chair and keep it there.

“I teach a methodical approach to fiction,” he said, “and if you approach it in this methodical way you will maybe tap into a latent talent.”

He tells his audience that once he has the idea for a novel, “I proceed with what I think are the most vital elements.”

First step? “Craft an outline. For a novel, I spend about eight months doing the outline, mixing it in with research. It’s an enjoyable and occasionally frustrating process during which I try to get the structure of the story down. I believe that stories are not exclusively about good prose. They’re also about having a structure designed to create the most engaging experience the reader can have.”

When the outline is finished, “and I know where I’m going, I can write the book quickly,” Deaver says. “Two months or so to do 125,000 words. Then comes the rewriting, refining, polishing. That’s where the magic happens.”

Deaver gives his seminar attendees an 11-page worksheet listing “General Rules.” Some are straightforward—”Define your goal”—and some are touched with whimsy, like “Add some sprinkles.” And, given Deaver’s business approach, he doesn’t have much time for excuses.There’s no such thing as writer’s block. Proctor and Gamble doesn’t have days when they say, ‘I don’t feel like creating mouthwash this week.'” He ends with what he calls the Snoopy Rule. “Never begin a book with a weather report.Snoopy, of course, was wedded to opening his novel with the familiar words, It was a dark and stormy night,” thus violating Deaver’s final admonition: “Avoid clichés like the plague.”

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About the Author:

Don Crinklaw is a former university teacher currently working as a reporter for the Tribune Company in Fort Lauderdale. He's written reviews for Booklist, Commonweal, National Review, South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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