What I learned from Harlan Coben
You may already know Harlan Coben as the internationally renowned best-selling author of more than 36 novels published in 46 languages with many of them adapted into movies and television mini-series.
You may already know Harlan Coben as the internationally recognized award-winning best-selling author of more than thirty-six novels published in over forty languages with many of them adapted into movies and television mini-series. He’s won the Edgar Award, Shamus Award, and Anthony Award – the first author to win all three. Harlan Coben’s credentials are worth mentioning because he’s now offering his advice on how to write a thriller in a BBC Maestro course that I recently followed and highly recommend as a refreshing take on the basic principles we’ve heard so many times before.
There are a lot of courses available for ambitious writers wanting to get better at the craft of writing and learning how to expose their work to more readers. Many of those courses are offered by writers who need the supplementary income because they haven’t sold enough books to make a living. Harlan Coben does not need the money!
However, like many other best-selling writers, he is generous with his time and support for other writers and wants to share the joy of his success and encourage the rest of us to keep on striving to get better and offer his advice on how to get there. His BBC Maestro course, Writing Thrillers is well worth the time and money to hear his version of the rules and when to break them.
As I listened to him, I recognized a lot of the advice I’ve heard before from other writers and writing coaches, but I was also reminded of a quote from Vincent van Gogh, the famous Dutch painter who is also among the most influential artists in Western art, who suggested to other artists, “First you must learn the fundamental rules of your craft, then you must apply your creative energy to making your own rules.” Coben endorses that philosophy and rejects a lot of the conventional wisdom on writing before explaining his creative approach to breaking the rules. I found it very appealing and motivating. (But maybe that’s just me seeking an excuse to keep doing it my way and ignoring the conventions.)
I prefer to learn from the shared wisdom of successful writers like Harlan Coben and from the feedback and commentary of perceptive and demanding readers, rather than the pitches of over-zealous promoters of their writing courses selling the impossible dream to hopeless dreamers. Have you seen the enthusiastic pitchman on social media channels? “Take my course on ChatGPT and learn how I wrote a novel in 30 minutes and generated sales of $45,000 in the first 90 days!”
I recommend Harlan Coben’s BBC Maestro series instead. He’s also persistent, persuasive and ubiquitous on social media (another demonstration for writers on how to get there), and he’s a much more credible resource if you really want to be a writer and you’re ready to do it the hard way. I recently watched all twenty-three of his short videos (10 – 20 minutes each) and l have a few nuggets to share with you.
The series covers all the essentials of writing a thriller using Coben’s unique personal approach and with his commentary on each – Being a Writer, Inspiration and Preparation, Desperation and Perspiration, Procrastination (i.e. research), Plot Twists, Suspense and Secrets, Reframing Writer’s Block, Knowing the Audience, and more.
Writers will appreciate the creative insights. Readers and fans of Harlan Coben and other writers of thrillers will enjoy the tour of the master chef’s kitchen to learn what’s on the menu for a thriller and how the meal is prepared.
“My goal,” says Coben, “It’s pretty modest. I want to change your entire life.” He expresses his opinion that, “There’s nothing bad about being a best-selling writer.” But it will not happen if you’re not good at it and willing to work hard and long hours at it. If you accept those criteria, then you’re ready for his advice on how to succeed.
My notes to the course have these notable highlights.
To be authentic and tell stories well, base your creative fiction on your own true-life stories. Observe everything and ask yourself questions to generate story ideas – why, who, and what is behind the scenes? Get creative, write it down and push the story to its limits. Fight for the time to keep on writing. Know your target market and zero-in on a typical reader to give them more of what they love.
Ignore the advice to focus on the all-important opening lines. The opening gets the reader to start turning pages, but the real challenge is to keep them turning pages until the end. And more importantly, write a satisfying ending that will get them to look for your next book.
Don’t start at the beginning, begin from the middle – work out from the primary story back to the beginning and then on to the end.
Characters have to have conflict between them in every scene? “No they don’t! Some of the best scenes have the characters working together. But every character has to have a secret.” Then reveal the secrets as the plot progresses through the suspense and intrigue. Plot twists and surprises should be creative and pushed to the limits – but they need to be believable. “The truth may not be believable, but the fiction has to be.”
Readers will fall in love with the characters, never with the plot. They’ll forgive flaws in both if the story is intriguing and the writing is good. Raise questions with every scene. Answer the early questions early, but then raise more questions and add more shocking plot twists.
Harlan Coben is a very engaging personality and has a unique perspective on what has worked for him to deliver so many best-selling thrillers. His enthusiasm and generosity are an inspiration and my next thriller in the Dale Hunter Series will definitely be better.
Thank you Harlan Coben!
About the Author
Delvin Chatterson is the internationally acclaimed author of the Dale Hunter Thriller Series introduced in an explosive mix of crime and corruption in the computer business of the 1980s with NO EASY MONEY published in 2018, followed by SIMPLY THE BEST, and MERGER MANIAC. The series continues with three more novels coming soon – BAD BOYS IN BOSTON, CRASH LANDING, and WHATEVER IT TAKES. As a former entrepreneur, business advisor, and cheerleader for enlightened entrepreneurship, Del has written extensively on business topics for decades and continues to write on entrepreneurship under the pen name of Your Uncle Ralph. Originally from the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, Del has lived and worked for most of the last fifty years in the fascinating French-Canadian city of Montreal.