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Escapist thrillers for realists: author Chris Allen on pacing, plotting and strategy

Chris Allen Escapist thrillers for realists: author Chris Allen on pacing, plotting and strategy

Chris Allen, author of the books Intrepid and Defender, describes his novels as 'escapist thrillers for realists.'

Given his military background, its little wonder that his books draw heavily on real-life situations.

But there are a number of challenges about writing within this genre. Not only do thriller authors'particularly those whose work focuses on military operationsneed to bear in mind the specialised nature of what interests them, but they also need to be aware of cultural and political sensitivities that can be an issue.

'I deliberately work my plots around real situations and attempt to make them as contemporary as possible,' he says. 'Occasionally, I will mention actual individuals in order to give the stories a historic relevance.'

For example, the indicted war criminals named in Hunter have all appeared or are currently appearing before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

'This approach ensures that Intrepid, my fictional 'black-ops' division of Interpol, continues to operate in the real world and the agents aren't combating far-fetched, unrealistic criminals as they go about their missions.'

But despite the global outlook of his books, he eschews the temptation to embrace the kitchen sink philosophy, leaving well-covered areas to authors who specialise in those topics.

'There are many outstanding authors already writing about the ongoing troubles in the Middle East, so I'm happy to leave that area to them, while still referencing the wars as essential orientation points for the back-stories of my principal characters.'

The issues that Chris has focused on to date are those that come up regularly in the modern context: the exploitation of third world nations, the arms trade, war crimes, genocide, fugitive war criminals and, in his next book, human trafficking.

No time to stop for a cuppa

In addition to striving for political and military verisimilitude, Chris is a tough taskmaster when it comes to pacing. Action scenes in particular come under his scrutiny: they need to keep readers on their toes while moving the plot forward.

'In real life nothing ever happens in slow motion, no matter how much we'd sometimes like it to. People who read action thrillers want fast-paced action and that's easy to understand: when it's fast its exciting.'

Chris tries to maintain a 'real time' experience as much as possible so that theres no chance for readers to slow down or zone out.

'That means short sentences, punchy dialogue and being economical when it comes to describing whats happening. I want the reader to feel unsettled, as though they are in the midst of the action, not just seeing it through the eyes of a character.'

Chris believes that realistic action sequences are hugely important when it comes to making the storytelling experience feel real to the reader.

'I've had a number of people tell me that they've either missed their bus stop on the way to work or taken ages to get off to sleep at night because they've been so engaged by one of my books. That's the ultimate test for me. It means that I have taken them beyond their immediate reality and transplanted them into a new environment. That's really exciting.'

Drop and give me fifty (thousand words)

Writing might not require involve the same physical and tactical challenges as a military career, but it does require discipline, says Chris. Even so, things dont always turn out as intended.

'There's a saying familiar to military people and that is: the best laid plans never survive the first shot.'

This means that no matter how carefully youve planned and prepared for a particular course of action, the way that things progress will be influenced by factors outside of your control. Although hopefully youll still achieve your objectives, says Chris, the manner in which you do so may not necessarily resemble your original plans.

'I believe the same can be said of writing. I think most writers, certainly not all, of course, set off with at least a rough plan in mind. I tend to pull together a general concept and then map out key navigation points that I know I'll need to reach along the way to ensure the story-lines converge and the overall narrative makes sense.'

But once Chris actually sits down to begin writing, there are invariably issues that come up along the way that either force him to consider an alternate route or to abandon a particular course altogether.

'The reference to treating writing like a military task'that is, getting it done, still holds true; it's the journey towards how it's finally achieved that can be tortuous.'

The importance of allies

Although writing can be a solitary endeavour, having a supportive partner can make all the difference. Chris is extremely fortunate in that his wife Sarah is not only whole-heartedly behind his career, but also has a strong background in marketing. Together they make an impressive team.

'Sar has been an incredible support to me and my writing from the very moment we got together and she read some of my early work. These days, she has become an integral part of my writing process.'

Sarah assisted Chris with editing the many drafts of Defender, and took on an editorial role during the writing of Hunter.

'I would take the first draft of each chapter or group of chapters as I completed them straight upstairs to Sar, who would then crack out her red pens and begin editing. I'd keep moving forward but once she handed back the edits I'd get straight to work on reviewing that work.'

This arrangement worked well and helped to keep Chris on track. Not to mention that Chris could tell immediately if something wasnt working for Sarah: 'I've scrapped paragraphs of work on the basis of her raised eyebrows alone!'

Sarahs input doesnt end with the editorial side of things, however. Given her marketing background, its little surprise that shes a star when it comes to promotion.

'You could have the best book in the history of literature sitting on your hard drive but if no one apart from you and your pet dog reads it, you're not going to get far,' says Chris. 'I'm in the extremely fortunate position of having a spouse who is not only committed to getting my work read by my target audience, but she is also qualified to make that happen.'

Sarah specialises in social media engagement, marketing, and PR and branding, and she and Chris have relished the opportunity to develop a range of creative ways to promote the books, both online and offline.

'I couldnt be happier with the brand we are building for me, Alex Morgan, Intrepid and the whole franchise, as well as the partnerships we have with Momentum and other key people that are going to take my stories to the widest possible appreciative audience!'

Chris Allen Hunter Escapist thrillers for realists: author Chris Allen on pacing, plotting and strategy

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  1. Escapist thrillers for realists: author Chris Allen on pacing, plotting and strategy via @readinasitting