Ian Fleming on How to Write a Thriller

Some “more or less well chosen words” on the process, from my favorite author.

From Show magazine, August 1962:

How to Write a Thriller

People often ask me, “How do you manage to think of that? What an
extraordinary (or sometimes extraordinarily dirty) mind you must
have.” I certainly have got vivid powers of imagination, but I don’t
think there is anything very odd about that.

We are all fed fairy stories and adventure stories and ghost stories
for the first 20 years of our lives, and the only difference between
me and perhaps you is that my imagination earns me money.

But, to revert to my first book, Casino Royale, there are strong
incidents in the book which are all based on fact. I extracted them
from my wartime memories of the Naval Intelligence Division of the
Admiralty, dolled them up, attached a hero, a villain and a heroine,
and there was the book.

The first was the attempt on Bond’s life outside the Hotel Splendide.
SMERSH had given two Bulgarian assassins box camera cases to hang over
their shoulders. One was of red leather and the other one blue. SMERSH
told the Bulgarians that the red one con-tained a bomb and the blue
one a powerful smoke screen, under cover of which they could escape.

One was to throw the red bomb and the other was then to press the
button on the blue case. But the Bulgars mistrusted the plan and
decided to press the button on the blue case and envelop themselves in
the smoke screen before throwing the bomb.

In fact, the blue case also contained a bomb powerful enough to blow
both the Bulgars to fragments and remove all evidence which might
point to SMERSH.

Farfetched, you might say. In fact, this was the method used in the
Russian attempt on Von Papen’s life in Ankara in the middle of the
war. On that occasion the assassins were also Bulgarians and they were
blown to nothing while Von Papen and his wife, walking from their
house to the embassy; were only bruised by the blast.

So you see the line between fact and fantasy is a very narrow one. I
think I could trace most of the central incidents in my books to some
real happenings.

We thus come to the final and supreme hurdle in the writing of a
thriller. You must know thrilling things before you can write about
them. Imagination alone isn’t enough, but stories you hear from
friends or read in the papers can be built up by a fertile imagination
and a certain amount of research and documentation into incidents that
will also ring true in fiction.

Having assimilated all this encouraging advice, your heart will
nevertheless quail at the physical effort involved in writing even a
thriller. I warmly sympathise with you. I too, am lazy My heart sinks
when I contemplate the two or three hundred virgin sheets of foolscap
I have to besmirch with more or less well chosen words in order to
produce a 60,000 word book.

One of the essentials is to create a vacuum in my life which can only
be satisfactorily filled by some form of creative work – whether it be
writing, painting, sculpting, composing or just building a boat – I
was about to get married – a prospect which filled me with terror and
mental fidget. To give my hands something to do, and as an antibody to
my qualms about the marriage state after 43 years as a bachelor, I
decided one day to damned well sit down and write a book.

The therapy was successful. And while I still do a certain amount of
writing in the midst of my London Life, it is on my annual visits to
Jamaica that all my books have been written.

But, failing a hideaway such as I possess, I can recommend hotel
bedrooms as far removed from your usual “life” as possible. Your
anonymity in these drab surroundings and your lack of friends and
distractions will create a vacuum which should force you into a
writing mood and, if your pocket is shallow, into a mood which will
also make you write fast and with application. I do it all on the
typewriter, using six fingers. The act of typing is far less
exhausting than the act of writing, and you end up with a more or less
clean manuscript The next essential is to keep strictly to a routine.

I write for about three hours in the morning – from about 9:30 till
12:30and I do another hour’s work between six and seven in the
evening. At the end of this I reward myself by numbering the pages and
putting them away in a spring-back folder. The whole of this four
hours of daily work is devoted to writing narrative.

I never correct anything and I never go back to what I have written,
except to the foot of the last page to see where I have got to. If you
once look back, you are lost. How could you have written this drivel?
How could you have used “terrible” six times on one page? And so
forth. If you interrupt the writing of fast narrative with too much
introspection and self-criticism, you will be lucky if you write 500
words a day and you will be disgusted with them into the bargain. By
following my formula, you write 2,000 words a day and you aren’t
disgusted with them until the book is finished, which will be in about
six weeks.

I don’t even pause from writing to choose the right word or to verify
spelling or a fact. All this can be done when your book is finished.

When my book is completed I spend about a week going through it and
correcting the most glaring errors and rewriting passages. I then have
it properly typed with chapter headings and all the rest of the
trimmings. I then go through it again, have the worst pages retyped
and send it off to my publisher.

They are a sharp-eyed bunch at Jonathan Cape and, apart from
commenting on the book as a whole, they make detailed suggestions
which I either embody or discard. Then the final typescript goes to
the printer and in due course the galley or page proofs are there and
you can go over them with a fresh eye. Then the book is published and
you start getting letters from people saying that Vent Vert is made by
Balmain and not by Dior, that the Orient Express has vacuum and not
hydraulic brakes, and that you have mousseline sauce and not Bearnaise
with asparagus.

Such mistakes are really nobody’s fault except the author’s, and they
make him blush furiously when he sees them in print. But the majority
of the public does not mind them or, worse, does not even notice them,
and it is a dig at the author’s vanity to realise how quickly the
reader’s eye skips across the words which it has taken him so many
months to try to arrange in the right sequence.

But what, after all these labours, are the rewards of writing and, in
my case, of writing thrillers?

First of all, they are financial. 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. Above all, being a successful writer is a good life.
You don’t have to work at it all the time and you carry your office
around in your head. And you are far more aware of the world around
you.

Writing makes you more alive to your surroundings and, since the main
ingredient of living, though you might not think so to look at most
human beings, is to be alive, this is quite a worthwhile by-product of
writing.

© Ian Fleming, 1962

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