An excerpt from the Santa Barbara Writers Conference Scrapbook by Armando Nieto, Mary Conrad, and Matt Pallamary: 2004 was the last year that the Conrads owned the SBWC and it was the conference's last year at Westmont College.
Gayle Lynds who is one of this year's keynoters for 2017, was a keynoter that year.
“I am here,” Gayle stated, “to talk about plotting, because Barnaby asked me.” She directed the students to look in their SBWC packets for The Writer Magazine. “There’s an article written by a very fine writer — the one with plotting, or plotting a thriller or plotting suspense, or something like that — with interviews written by Julian Abbott. Interviews with me, and Dennis Lehane, and Stuart Woods, and so Barnaby took it into his head that it would be a good thing for me to talk about.”
Gayle talked with the audience about her experience plotting and said that everything has a plot. “Even when they say it doesn’t have a plot, it’s got a plot.” She read from a 1939-40 book by Jack Woodford that discussed plotting. He wrote that in any other profession you can put relatives to work, but novels require a special skillset.
“‘Publishers’ relatives can’t write them. No matter how devoted the publisher is to his relatives, he can’t chisel them in on this one profession. It’s an honor left fairly free from nepotism.
"‘Of course publishers’ relatives do write novels, or have them written by ghost writers, but it’s one place where the nepotism game won’t really work, because you’ve got to have some brains to be a writer, and relatives never have brains. All the brains in the family run to one guy, in a given generation.’”
Gayle spoke again about the difference between a thriller and a mystery. She used the same Alfred Hitchcock example of a bomb place underneath a table that Andrew Klavan had used the previous day, “but I want to come to it from another direction.” She used the example of 9/11 in 2001 — acknowledging that it was a terrible event, but that in a thriller the story would start a few days before 9/11, perhaps with the terrorists preparing for the planes crashing, then build up to the moment of the crashes.
For this particular lecture she took the time to give the subtleties of plotting and story elements, interweaving her personal experience with the novels that she has written. “Two key words, for any novelist, are, What if?”
This was how she created a second novel to follow up on an earlier one. For years her publishers were after her to do a sequel, but Gayle could not see the story until finally she had her character go back to school and start a new way of life. At this point she admonished the audience to be in love with the story, because if they weren’t, then they could not credibly write for their audience, and once she came up with the new life for her character, she needed to develop plot elements to move the character into and through the story.