Sep 29, 2010

James Phelan - What a Thrill

I attended a writers workshop on the weekend, hosted by thriller writer, James Phelan. This was my first workshop with ACT Writers (located in Canberra), it was a small and friendly group and James was very approachable.

James Phelan is an Australian Thriller writer well known for his Lachlan Fox series. James told us he makes sure each novel in a series stands alone and can be easily read out of order. In fact, James suggests reading his later Lachlan Fox books, because, like all writers, he improves as he writes and learns.

Always one to do what I'm told, I bought:
Red Ice
I've started reading it already. You can really learn how to increase pace and tension by reading a good thriller, I'm flying through these short punchy chapters.

You may also recognise the name James Phelan from his dark 'Alone' YA series. I picked up the first book to read (even though James totally blew the ending for me!): 
Chasers (Alone)

I love the sound of this one, this is what the back cover says:
Four Teenagers. One Destroyed City. Thousands of Infected Predators.
Jesse is on a UN Youth Ambassadors camp in New York when his subway carriage is rocked by an explosion. Jesse and his three friends, Dave, Mini and Anna, crawl out from the wreckage to discover a city in chaos. Streets are deserted. Buildings are in ruins. Worse, the only other survivors seem to be infected with a virus that turns them into horrifying predators...
Outnumbered. No sign of life. Just them. And you... ALONE.
I've also ordered:
Literati: Australian Contemporary Literary Figures Discuss Fear, Frustrations and Fame
In this book, James interviews writers and literary figures to discuss the craft and industry.

In the workshop James shared stories of writing and publishing and we looked at different aspects of writing Thrillers, such as pace, weaving clues and even script-writing. Now you may not be a 'Thriller' writer, but to me, all good novels must have thrilling moments.

Some advice James Phelan gave:
  • Seriously consider using a pseudonym - once you get known as an author you can attract some followers you'd rather not have.
  • In dialogue - the tag 'said' is most accepted by the reader and can disappear without pulling you out of the story. James does not like dialogue tags like 'pushed' (so if you're ever editing his work...)
  • Look to classic examples for creating characters with depth. James favours the character Rick Blaine from the timeless movie, Casablanca. Rick gives us examples, hints and outright tells us what type of character he is (he never sticks his neck out for anybody) - but, in the unforgettable ending, Rick shows us just how selfless he can be. He reveals his 'true' character. (You can learn more about character development in a previous post: Prue Mason - Character to Plot Workshop)
  • James prefers to use concise sentences and sparse language in his novels. 
  • For a great book on writing structure, James recommends Robert McKee's Story:
I've just downloaded his course on audiobook from iTunes, but will check out the paperback as well (you can also get some of James Phelan's thrillers on audiobook).

Overall, it was a valuable experience and I hope to see a bigger crowd next time. You can find out more about James Phelan by visiting his website:


  1. Thanks so much for sharing what you learn.

  2. Myrna - it's my pleasure! I'm in awe of what writers have taught me, I only wish I had those clever thoughts myself ;-)

  3. It's interesting what he says about pseudonyms... I'm still struggling with that one - whether I should or not.

  4. You should charge us for your blog posts - I swear I learn something every time I visit!! LOL. :-)

    What are the girls reading? Tell them my eight year old is wondering. Seriously. So cute!

  5. I'm going to look up his books.

    Have a great weekend.

  6. Lynda - I find it a bit daunting to think about using another name when I write. I can barely come up with names for my characters :-)

    Medeia - I'm enjoying Phelan's thriller but I'm really hanging to get my teeth into his YA novel Chasers.

    Shannon - Emily and Matilda juggle many books at once, I'm always trying to get them to read one at a time (but I guess I do that too). Matilda's (Tilly) just finished 'The Lion Drummer' by Gabrielle Wang and is reading 'When You Reach Me' by Rebecca Stead, as well as Cornelia Funke's 'When Santa Fell to Earth'. Emily (Milly) is reading 'Unwind' as well as some mystery stories. They always welcome suggestions if you come across a favourite :-)