Basic tips on writing and self-publishing a thriller book.

Posted: October 16, 2012 in #ebooks, #self publishing, Creating A Buzz, formatting for kindle, formatting for POD

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Mystery Crime Thriller

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Basic tips on writing and self-publishing a thriller book.

I’m not exactly a novice at writing and self-publishing, but I still have a lot to learn. The task can be quite daunting at first and for someone writing their first book, the entire process can be quite frustrating. The same is true if you intend to go the submissions route to agents, in seeking a traditional publishing contract. I will start by saying, there are no rules in crafting thrillers, only conventions. The aim is to write in your own style and voice that will define you as an author.

Much of the frustration can be eliminated beforehand by a little research on your genre/sub genre. Here are some of the things that you need to know before you even put pen to paper. The last thing you want is to write 100,000 words by the seat of your pants, only to discover that you have alienated agents and readers alike and whom expect certain conventions in your chosen genre. I can say this with some certainty, having a similar book consigned to my hard drive for eternity. Once completed, you need to be able to say with some certainty for example….This is a crime thriller, or, This is a disaster thriller. Yes, it may have elements of romance, or a family saga, but the genre must be clearly defined. Just remember, if you don’t know in which slot on the bookstore shelf your book belongs, then neither will a publisher, or a reader.


1st person, or third person?

For the thriller genre, third person past tense is the norm. Some stories will lend themselves to 1st person. In fact I am working on one now in 1st person, (The Journey) uploaded in draft at Authonomy for chapter critique, but then I have no intention of submitting to an agent, preferring readers to be the gatekeepers. Having said that, if a publisher or an agent were to come knocking on my door, I wouldn’t turn them away. The odds of being picked up by an agent are bad enough, so I would recommend third person for thrillers.

Chapter/Book length.

For the thriller genre, you are seeking to drive the read forward. If you sample books written by mega selling authors, such as James Patterson, you will find that many books are around 3 pages per chapter. In my latest work, I usually work to a loose template of between 1,200 & 1,800 words per chapter and a book length of between 80,000 and 110,000 words. My latest work has come in at the top end of the scale and 80 chapters. It is not uncommon to find thrillers with 100 chapters.


The pace of stories for me, are determined by how you craft each individual chapter. With the thriller genre, you are looking to start with an opening in the first paragraph or opening section that will hook the reader. That first chapter needs to create the unresolved conflict/mystery that will drive the read forward, ending with a cliffhanger at the end of the chapter.

In new chapters, if you are to continue with the scene from the previous chapter, then try not to resolve the cliffhanger immediately, but create more suspense/tension, leading to a further cliffhanger ending. As James Patterson says, or words to that effect, if a thriller doesn’t thrill, then you have missed the mark.

If you do fly off into a romantic scene for a chapter, then don’t lose sight of the plot within that chapter, work your way back to a cliffhanger by the end of the chapter, or the pace will slow at best and at worst the reader will lose interest.

There are a number of devices that can be used to increase pace and suspense. One such device used to good effect is the ticking clock. Dan Brown used this in The Da Vinci Code.

You will have a good idea of the pace as you write. If you are not excited as to what comes next at the end of chapter, then you need to step away, think about it, and re-write the section. If you are not excited as to what comes next, then the reader will likely have the same feeling.

One thing that can slow down pace is backstory. Large chunks of backstory will kill a story stone dead if not done right. The way to approach this subject is to add snippets throughout the story. Another way to overcome this is by using dialogue/character thoughts.

A trait that will slow down pace is head hopping. It is common for new writers to change narrative Point of View (POV) within chapters. I am not saying don’t do this, because done right, it can be effective. If you are to do this, then at least leave a space between POV sections, or use *** to denote a POV change. It is far easier to keep the reader’s attention if you can stay in one POV throughout the chapter.

For me, when writing, I think it is important to remember that we are not writing a film script, where the camera can pan from scene to scene and person to person in rapid succession. In films, rapidly changing POV is held together by the audio/visual art of the film, leaving little to the imagination. With books, I tend to believe that what sets the medium apart, is that the narrative creates a flowing picture in the reader’s mind, and in which, the changing POV can have the effect to unsettle the imaginative process for the reader and cause them to switch off.

Overuse of dialogue tags can slow down pace. Give each speaker their own worldview and quirks in the way they speak, but don’t overdo dialect or accents. Add movement, or facial expressions between individual speakers. Make sure the dialogue is realistic and you will find you can cut speech tags to a minimum.


It is always a good idea to write character CV’s before you start. If nothing else, a list of characters is useful. It’s surprising how many times Mike will end up as Bill by mistake at the end of the story. For your main Character, you are looking to create someone who the reader will want to follow on their journey. Flawed characters are a bonus. Character traits are what will make them three-dimensional and can be used as a means of adding depth to the story. It is the emotional baggage they have to overcome in resolving the issues that they face, that will add to the satisfaction of the read, with the reader becoming attached to how the main character changes through the story.

Characters emotional responses.

Just because it’s a thriller, doesn’t mean your characters shouldn’t have emotional responses. Emotional responses to words and deeds are what take the character out of being one-dimensional. They may be depicted as hard-boiled, but everyone other than a psychopath has feelings. If someone says to your character “you fat useless bastard.” Then show their hurt or disgust at the insult before they respond with dialogue. Similarly if they witness a traumatic event, show the reader the effect it has on their psyche before stirring to action.


Cliché I know, but beginning middle and end is the way to go. Many writers prefer to write the story by the seat of their pants. It can and does work, however, as I have found, using this method you can end up 50,000 words in and stuck in a cul-de-sac with the dreaded writers block. At least outline your plot and know your twist ending before you start if you want to avoid writers block.

Show v Tell

Aim to show rather than tell the story. Don’t have characters “feel” show by their actions and expressions. Every time you write “feel or felt” go back and think how you can show the reader what your character is experiencing. eg …Does he feel sick at the scene before him? Or does he retch and avert his eyes?

I can’t stress enough how important it is to read books in your genre. It is rare for someone who does not read to make it as an author.


Not everyone is skilled in all aspects of writing. If you have a full toolbox, then great, but if not, don’t let it be an impediment. I would rather be a good story-teller than a professor of grammar. Of course, if you are both, then great. If not, there are many things you can do to acquire skills. You can take night classes at college, or maybe join a creative writing group. If time is of the essence, then there is a wealth of information on the internet.

If you take a look at publishers, they have editors, proofreaders and copyeditors. All these skills are rarely possessed by each discipline.

Substantive editors… They will look at the overall plot, pace, continuity, characters etc.

Line editors…. They will provide a line by line edit for grammar and punctuation.

Proofreaders… They will re-check edited work for house style/ consistency, regards punctuation and grammar and they will correct typos.

Copy editors… Final check for typos, punctuation and formatting errors before print.

Most books, by the time they are finished and polished to the best of your ability, regardless of your skills, they will come back from a publisher, or a freelance editor with a mass of red marks for alteration. In some cases whole sections have to be re-written. I only say this, because it is nothing to take offence at, and in preparation for when you have the experience.

Once you have 10,000 words written, you can upload for critique to sites such as You can exchange reads with other authors who can provide valuable feedback. There is a game being played on there to win a Harper Collins review, but regardless, take out the gamers and it is a useful site. Just don’t get caught up in the game and continue to write. One thing I would do, is to go to the books on there that have received HC editors’ reviews. If nothing else it will give you an idea where your story could fall down.

If there are aspects of grammar and punctuation you don’t know, then there are many sites on the internet with the answers.

Okay, so you’ve finished your book…what then?

Unfortunately, this is just the beginning, especially, if you intend to self-publish your work. Here it is easier to tell you what not to do.

Don’t ask friends and family to read and give their opinion. They will only tell you that your work is great.

Don’t rush to publish and don’t think that paying for a line edit will catch everything. It is a rarity to find an editor who posses all the individual editorial skills to complete the work to perfection. Put the book to one side after editing and then come back to it with fresh eyes. Only when your book is edited and proofread to the extent that you are pushing commas around for clarity are you ready to format your work for publishing, or for submitting to agents. My site contains guides for formatting your work both as an eBook and as a POD (Print on Demand) paper book.

If you are still game for self-publishing when you have finished, then good luck on your journey. You may not make your fortune, but trust me, it is a very rewarding experience.

Don’t have a kindle? No need, you can download a free app from the book page (scroll down right hand side) for kindle to computer, or mobile device. Declan Conner’s latest release, Missing: The Body of Evidence now available as an eBook and a print book through Amazon. (Print book 350 pages 9×6 inches.)

Mystery Crime Thriller

Tags; Paranormal – Romance – Thriller – LAPD, Female detective – CIA black projects – Astral travel – Spontaneous combustion.     Amazon UK    Germany   France    Italy   Spain

Declan’s author page on amazon UK

Declan’s author page on

How to format an eBook

How to format a POD print book


  1. […] Basic tips on writing and self-publishing a thriller book. […]


  2. J.L. Vaughan says:

    I really liked this post as well, good things to think about. I’m writing my second thriller and will be taking a look at a few different elements that you brought up. And I’ll just say, I share your opinion on Authonomy as a resource.


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