Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Author L.J. Sellers: Writing Habits of a Thriller Author

Award-winning journalist and author L.J. Sellers makes a stop atL.J. Thoughts in Progress on her virtual blog tour with her latest book, THE ARRANGER, a futuristic thriller which is scheduled for release tomorrow. She is also offering a free e-book copy of her release.

Here’s a brief look at THE ARRANGER: The year is 2023 and ex-detective Lara Evans is working as a freelance paramedic in a bleak new world. She responds to an emergency call and is nearly killed when a shooter flees the home. Inside she finds the federal employment commissioner wounded, but she's able to save his life.

The next day Lara leaves for the Gauntlet--a national competition of intense physical and mental challenges with high stakes for her home state. She spots the shooter lurking in the arena and soon after her contest roommate turns up dead. Who is the mysterious assailant and what is motivating him to kill? Can Lara stop him, stay alive, and win the Gauntlet?

Thanks to L.J. and the good folks at Nurture Your Book Tours, I can offer 1 e-book copy of THE ARRANGER. Be sure to check the end of the post for giveaway guidelines.

Now L.J. is here to talk about the ‘writing habits of a thriller author.’

Readers often ask how I develop my stories, whether I work from an outline or wing it, and when I do my writing. In a nutshell, I outline first, then write a rough draft without editing, and do most of my writing in the late morning and afternoon, with a goal of 2,000 words a day when I’m producing the first draft. 

Yet because my stories are complex (and usually mysteries) my process is also very complex and purposeful… some would even say “anal. “ Here’s what it looks like: 

Arranger-highrez1. Create an outline. Once I have a basic story idea—comprised of an exciting incident, major plot developments, and overview ending— I start filling in the details. I typically structure my outline by days of the week, then key in the basic events/scenes that happen each day, noting which POV the section will be told from. For police procedurals and thrillers, in which everything happens in a short period of time, this seems essential. Some people (like Stephen King) tell you not to outline, that it ruins creativity, but I disagree. So I fill in as much detail as I can at this point, especially for the first ten chapters and/or plot developments.  

2. Write out the story logic. In most suspense novels, some of what happens before and during the story timeline is off page — actions by the antagonists that the protagonist and reader learn of after the fact. Many of these events and/or motives are not revealed until the end of the story. I want to be able to convey to readers how and why it all happened, so I map it out—all the connections, events, and motivations that take place on and off the page. Bad guy Bob knows bad guy Ray from prison. Bob meets young girl at homeless shelter. Young girl tells Bob about the money she found . . .

3. Start writing and beef up the outline. As I write the first 50 pages or so, new ideas come to me and I fill in the rest of outline as I go along. I continue adding to the outline as I write, and by about the middle of the story, I have it completed. 

4. Create a timeline as I write. A lot happens in my stories, and my mysteries usually take place in about six to ten days. Even for stories with a longer timeline, I have parallel stories or POVS with overlapping time frames, so I keep the timeline filled in as I write the story. That way I can always look at my timeline and know exactly when an important event took place (Wednesday, 12 noon: Lara goes into the Puzzle). It’s much faster to check the timeline than scroll through a 350-page Word document. The timeline keeps also me from writing an impossible number of events into a 24-hour day, and it keeps my parallel stories in a logical time frame.

5. Keep an idea/problem journal. I constantly get ideas for other parts of the story or realize things I need to change, so I enter these notes into a file as I think of them. (Ryan needs to see Lexa earlier in the story, where?). I keep this file open as I write. Some ideas never get used, but some prove to be crucial. Eventually, all the problems get resolved as well. Until recently, I used the Notebook layout feature in Word so I could keep the outline, timeline, notes, problems, and evidence all in the same file, using different tabs. Then I bought Scrivener and used it to write THE ARRANGER. The process is still the same, only more convenient. I love this software and can’t wait to use if for my next mystery.
6. Update my character database. This step applies mostly to my Jackson series, but Lara is an overlapping character so I had to add information while I wrote THE ARRANGER too. Overall, as I write, I enter each character name (even throwaway people who never come up again) into the database, including their function, any physical description, or any other information such as phone number, address, type of car, or favorite music. Now, when I need to know what I named someone earlier in the story or in a previous novel, it’s right there in my Excel database (Zeke Palmers; morgue assistant; short, with gray ponytail). For information about how to set up a file like this, see How to Create a Character Database
Now that I’m self-published, my writing is a small business and I treat it that way. I have a production schedule in which I’ve mapped out a timeline for the next three novels. I have a target completion date for the rough draft and the second draft, and for when the manuscript goes to beta readers, the editor, and the e-book formatter. So I plan launches and book tours and buy promotional spots six to eight months in advance. My goal for now is to write and publish a new novel every five months or so.

The Arranger Nurture Tour Banner

L.J., thanks for guest blogging today. Your system sounds impressive and very efficient. I can see where the timeline and character database would be most helpful and decrease the time of having to go back and re-check elements.

L.J. mentioned her Jackson series. She is the author of the bestselling Detective Jackson mystery/suspense series: THE SEX CLUB, SECRETS TO DIE FOR, THRILLED TO DEATH, PASSIONS OF THE DEAD, and DYING FOR JUSTICE. Her novels have been highly praised by Mystery Scene, Crimespree, and Spinetingler magazines, and the series is on Amazon Kindle’s bestselling police procedural list. L.J. also has two standalone thrillers: THE BABY THIEF and THE SUICIDE EFFECT

When not plotting murders, she enjoys performing standup comedy,NURTURE Tour Hosting Team Member badge cycling, social networking, and attending mystery conferences. She’s also been known to jump out of airplanes. For more on L.J., check out her website at L.J. Sellers, Mystery/Suspense Novelist, she blogs at Crime Fiction Collective, and she can be found on Twitter at!/LJSellers

Now for the giveaway guidelines. I have one e-book copy of THE ARRANGER to giveaway. Comment on L.J.’s post between now and 8 p.m. (EST) on Thursday, Sept. 15, for a chance to win. Be sure to include your e-mail address if it’s not included in your profile. Remember, the giveaway is open internationally.

If you’re a writer, do you have writing habits you follow? If you’re a reader, what are your habits when you’re reading?


  1. L.J., thanks again for guest blogging. Wishing you much success with your writing.

  2. Thanks for sharing this wonderful post Mason and thank you Ms. Sellers for that insightful interview :)

  3. Great process. I'm creating my own and taking some from here and some from there. A lot of writers love Scrivener, but I'm not one of them. So I'm still searching.

    Thanks, Mason!

  4. Ms. Sellers certain has an organized way of operating, which is ideal since writing is her business.

    Like L.J. I put a timeline in while writing my novels. They won't be there in most cases at story's end, but it's a great tool while writing and editing.

    Haven't read anything by her yet, but she does sound as if she's got it going on.

    Thanks for sharing your process, L.J.

  5. L.J. - This is a little freaky. Of all the writes' processes I've read about, yours is the first one that seems almost identicle to mine. Right now I have three documents open on my PC: my WIP, its timeline, and the working notes. The printed outline is on my desk. Well, I'm going to take that as a good sign and hopefully follow in your footsteps.

    Mason, please do include me in the contest. Thanks.

  6. Thanks, everyone, for stopping in and taking the time to read my post. For me, writing is a craft, and I'm constantly refining my process and looking for opportunities to learn and get better.

    The Arranger was a new genre for me, and I was intimidated to write the story. I put it off for a year, then finally had write it because I couldn't get the characters out of my head. I hope you'll check it out.

  7. Very informative post. I'm going to look into Scrivener. Thanks L.J.

    I've read The Arranger and loved it.

  8. Very nice post. Your outline process is similar to mine. Thanks.

  9. I'm not nearly that detailed, but my outline and the character details need to rock before I begin writing.

  10. For an aspiring young writer like me its such a gold mine of information, I don't regret coming across this. Thanks for the insight

  11. For an aspiring young writer like me its such a gold mine of information, I don't regret coming across this. Thanks for the insight

  12. I'm glad you're finding the information useful.

    As info: Here's a link to the first chapter of The Arranger.

  13. L.J., I love hearing about your process, very informative. One of my favorite steps before I start a novel is writing a profile for primary and secondary characters. It helps me a lot to know their backgrounds before they enter the scene. Characters who are carryovers get profile updates.

    One of my critique partners adores Scrivener. I haven't tried it yet.

    Thank you for the great info. Best of luck and happy sales to you!

  14. Wow! I am so impressed, LJ! No wonder you're able to write so many high-quality novels in a relatively short period of time -- a combination of imagination, creativity, research, and excellent organization! I'm going to start using some of your techniques, especially the timeline, when I'm editing novels for my clients. I already keep general notes on characters, etc., but I can see how using some of your great ideas will make a huge improvement. Thanks so much for sharing.

  15. The thing I find interesting, L.J. is that while we all have different ways of doing things, we can still learn a lot from each other. Sharing ideas never get old. Great post.

  16. Five months! Holy moly!

    I adore your organization . . . and work ethic!

  17. Thanks for an interesting post. I'm a reader, but not a writer. As for habits--I'll read anytime, anywhere, if it's possible! (Email in profile.)


I'd love to hear your thoughts on today's post. Thanks for dropping by.