What Thriller Writers Know



…and how you can use it to make your writing go from good to great. (Yeah, I stole that last bit. So what?)

I am obsessed with thrillers. It’s part of my “write short” sickness that many loathe but I require. I never read Proust and boast about it. Henry James makes my skin crawl, except the one about those two kids turning a screw.

Only a handful of the greatest of greats – Tolstoy, F. Scott, Marquez, Markham, Salter – keep me from yelling “oh, get on with it!” as I read.  These guys are so good that if they are trying to stun me with adjectives, clauses and descriptions that go nowhere, the writing is so great and surprising, I don’t mind. I refer you to Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych which contains the sad cold hearts of civilized humanity in one thin book. Or Marquez’s Memories of His Melancholy Whores which boils down the nature of love and lust in human beings to the thinnest of powerful reads.

Quite writing so much, everybody. Everything will read better: your emails, social media posts, notes to your lover, anything. Get to the point and do it with these simple tips:

  1. Noun, verb. This is the easiest to remember of all the writing short tips. He ran is a perfectly fine sentence. He ran around the rose bushes that Aunt Mae had planted all those years ago in the summer rain is not a that great of a sentence. Those rose bushes just take out the punch and slow a sentence about speed: He ran.
  2. Focus. Thriller writers fly low to the ground, adding detail only as                                     absolutely necessary to give the reader information about the plot. If the detail that an agent is terrified of snakes comes up, you can bet there will be a scene where snakes come into play. NOTHING IS WASTED.
  3. Cut adjectives and adverbs.  You can’t tell people anything; you need to show them. It’s the same in parenting, teaching, writing and leadership. You are the Supreme Leader of this Book. But don’t wear a weird jumpsuit and designer sunglasses when you type.
  4. Pick a detail like you are shopping for a diamond ring or a new car. One little word, a tiny flick of your typing wrist, can set a scene or character alive and indelibly imprinted into the mind of your reader. She walked into the room versus She walked into the room in an orange dress and stockings with a hole running up the leg. Feels like a different woman, doesn’t it? And you’ve only used 12 more words.
  5. Surprise. Surprise gets attention. Take the readers mind in one direction: They will anticipate a certain word, analogy, response, event, ending, whatever, and you give them something else. It is in that “something else” where your core message might lurk. The mind of the reader will be off balance and it’s a perfect moment to strike.


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Beth Wareham











#somethingIheard makes twitter debut




On Thursday, November 19 at 9:00 pm est, tune into the twitter account @shadowteams for a provocative discussion about capturing music in words, what we’re listening to and why. While we are not Bernard Holland and this isn’t as poetic and penetrating as Something I Heard, we can talk about the genius of writing short, using one art to describe another, and celebrate the sheer joy of shutting one’s mouth and listening to the music of those that came before us.

Thursday, November 19 9:00 pm  Use this hashtag #somethingIheard

See you then!  @shadowteams




WRITING SHORT: He Wasn’t Born With It, He Learned.

After 27 years at the New York Times, the incessant need for space was like water running over a stone and Holland, through the sheer practice of his craft, learned how, as the San Francisco Chronicle so eloquently said, the
“remarkable ability to conjure up the essence
of a composer or a piece of music in a few deftly Bernard Holland New York Times, Something I Heard, music critic, Yo-Yo Ma,
chosen words. He is, I think, an aphorist of
unparalleled virtuosity.”

But don’t believe us. Read the book. See how he does it. Learn by watching; there are few better teachers than this one. Click here: Something I Heard

And until the book arrives, he’s given three solid pieces of writing advice below to get you started on the short life, writing for the age of social media. Never before has it been so important to boil your idea down to the essence and in the process, concentrating its message and power.

Writing Short Tips from a Master Bernard Holland, Something I Heard, Chopin, music critic

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First Verified Photo of Former New York Times Critic Bernard Holland, author of Something I Heard



Beth Wareham talks to Something I Heard author, Bernard Holland

1. You’ve been away from the New York Times for 7 years. Why did you release this book now?

Two close friends – Richard and Dee Wilson – (Richard Wilson is a composer/pianist and holds the Mary Conover Mellon Chair of Music at Vassar) came upon the piece on Glenn Gould and said I should think about a book. It was some kind of tipping point for me and seven years after leaving the paper, I thought “yes, I’ll do a book.”

2. A google of your by-line puts your contribution to music criticism at the Times to over 4600 articles and reviews. How did you begin to approach what you wanted in this compilation?

I remembered certain reviews and started rereading them together. I began to appreciate the work more. Before, I just wanted to enjoy being retired. Now, I can look back at a career and think “it was a wonderful job but there was too much of it.” I needed to put it all aside. I was overloaded.

3. As a writer, you are known as a skilled “aphorist.” How did you get to be that way?

I say it in the book. I had to write hundreds of short reviews. I had strict boundaries and that allowed me freedom. Boundaries are liberating. You know exactly where you are and it really makes you think. I became good at throwing out any word I didn’t need.

I had to operate within a space and that space only. There’s a quote from Stravinsky that says – and I paraphrase – when I begin to compose, I have limitless opportunities. It’s up to me to choose one.

As a writer, you can’t sprawl, you can’t run everywhere. I feel the same way musically about Mahler. I think sometimes in his symphonies, he abuses his space.

4. I have to ask it: What are your desert island pieces?

Haydn’s “Last Seven Words of Christ”
Wagner’s “Parsifal”
Schubert’s G Major Piano Sonata
Liszt’s “The Fountains at the Villa d’Este”,
Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time”
Debussy’s “Iberia”
Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony
Astor Piazzolla’s “Maria de Buenos Aires”
Any Nelson Riddle arrangement of Frank Sinatra and Linda Ronstadt.

5. And finally, what’s your favorite part about being married to me?

You like Jimi Hendrix and I’m cool with that.

Get more of the music in Something I Heard by clicking here on the title.

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