Ian Fleming Explains How to Write a Thriller

From The Literary Hub:

There is no literary spy—and perhaps no literary character, full stop—more famous than James Bond, which should already be enough of an argument for any aspiring writer, but particularly any aspiring writer of thrilling tales, to seek advice from his creator, Ian Fleming.

Luckily, I recently stumbled across an essay by Fleming, aptly entitled “How to Write a Thriller,” which appeared in the May 1963 issue of Books and Bookmen, only a little over a year before the author’s death.

. . . .

The craft of writing sophisticated thrillers is almost dead. Writers seem to be ashamed of inventing heroes who are white, villains who are black, and heroines who are a delicate shade of pink.

I am not an angry young, or even middle-aged, man. I am not “involved.” My books are not “engaged.” I have no message for suffering humanity and, though I was bullied at school and lost my virginity like so many of us used to do in the old days, I have never been tempted to foist these and other harrowing personal experiences on the public. My opuscula do not aim at changing people or making them go out and do something. They are written for warm-blooded heterosexuals in railway trains, airplanes and beds.

I have a charming relative who is an angry young littérateur of renown. He is maddened by the fact that more people read my books than his. Not long ago we had semi-friendly words on the subject and I tried to cool his boiling ego by saying that his artistic purpose was far, far higher than mine. He was engaged in “The Shakespeare Stakes.” The target of his books was the head and, to some extent at least, the heart. The target of my books, I said, lay somewhere between the solar plexus and, well, the upper thigh. These self-deprecatory remarks did nothing to mollify him and finally, with some impatience and perhaps with something of an ironical glint in my eye, I asked him how he described himself on his passport. “I bet you call yourself an Author,” I said. He agreed, with a shade of reluctance, perhaps because he scented sarcasm on the way. “Just so,” I said. “Well, I describe myself as a Writer. There are authors and artists, and then again there are writers and painters.”

This rather spiteful jibe, which forced him, most unwillingly, into the ranks of the Establishment, whilst stealing for myself the halo of a simple craftsman of the people, made the angry young man angrier than ever and I don’t now see him as often as I used to. But the point I wish to make is that if you decide to become a professional writer, you must, broadly speaking, decide whether you wish to write for fame, for pleasure or for money. I write, unashamedly, for pleasure and money.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

PG suggests that one of the less-observed benefits of the easy and inexpensive path to self-publishing that ebooks present is the ability for an author to write what he/she wants and how they want, then send their creation out into the digital world to see what readers like it.

Of course, gaining attention for a book is not an easy task, but such has always been the case. In traditional publishing, the large majority of manuscripts submitted have been and are rejected. Under the traditional regime, that meant that a book would never have a chance of reaching an audience, regardless of how receptive that audience might be towards the book. Most traditionally-published books are financial failures. A relatively small portion of the books a traditional publisher releases actually provide material support for the entire enterprise.

With self-publishing, a book without a clearly-obvious and commercially-sized audience has that chance. Or to be more precise, a book without a commercially-sized audience as perceived by a traditional publisher has a chance.

Critics contend that most self-published books are trash. PG responds that, for him and a great many other people, most traditionally-published books are trash.

And over-priced trash to boot. At least, self-published trash won’t cost more than the average American worker earns in an hour.

PG also suggests that the economic realities that govern traditional publishing mean that traditionally-published books must always appeal to mass markets. (Or at least what a handful of residents of New York City who possess relatively exotic backgrounds compared to the rest of the country perceive to be mass markets. Remember, most traditionally-published books are financial failures.)

PG also notes that the personal characteristics of the most frequent readers of traditionally-published books tend to mirror those of the employees of large publishers who select which books will be published – white, female, college-educated (in the case of publishing employees, usually from quite a narrow slice of colleges, to be more precise), on the upperish side of middle-class or at least expecting to reach that class as they mature (similar to their families of origin).

3 thoughts on “Ian Fleming Explains How to Write a Thriller”

  1. My agent, from SanFran, recently gave me a few books to read that she said are hot and anything like them would be scooped up by any Big Pub buyer.

    The protagonists (female) were reprehensible to me within a chapter. Its obvious that is what buyers are looking for – and I need to look for a new agent.

  2. PG, I see that you are a believer in Sturgeon’s Law.

    I found this quote that didn’t make it into your extract of interest:

    You don’t make a great deal of money from royalties and translation rights and so forth and, unless you are very industrious and successful, you could only just about live on these profits, but if you sell the serial rights and the film rights, you do very well.

    I had always assumed that he made a good living from his books but this implies that, even 60 years ago, succesful trad published authors relied on licensing income to get rich. Of course, he was only working four hours a day for six weeks a year so just being able to “live on these profits” would not have been a bad deal.

    • There’s a reason Classic Star Trek had no problem getting screenplays from long-established SF writers, even some adapting their best known stories.

      For tbat matter, there’s an entire segment of publishing that survives essentially on nothing but licensing fees. They just about break even on the content itself and have for over 60 years.

      Today they’re showered with video money but for decades they had to hustle to get on peanut butter jars, cereal boxes, Halloween costumes, toys, and children’s underwear.

Comments are closed.