Sunday, June 22, 2008

An Accidental Thriller

by Matt Richtel

Hooked is an accidental thriller, a shotgun wedding of muse and unsuspecting writer, a product of love and lust but not planning and pre-conception.

I make my living writing short. My day job is with the New York Times, where I write stories of, typically, 1,000 words. I also write a daily comic strip, Rudy Park, where I have only a few words to fill each cartoon bubble.

Until Hooked, it never crossed my mind to write a book. The idea of putting 100,000 words on paper gave me hives.

Then the cafe exploded.

It was the summer of 2003. For reasons I can't really divine, I sat down and wrote the first few pages of a fiction story. In it, a 30-something man (sort of like myself at the time but handsome enough to sell movie rights) is sitting in a cafe in San Francisco's marina neighborhood. The man -- named Nat Idle -- sees a woman's beautiful hand put a note on his table. By the time he looks up at her, she has disappeared at the door. He walks to the door to follow her, and opens the note. It reads: "Get out of the cafe. Now!" the cafe explodes.

Sitting in the rubble outside, Nat finds himself thinking about his ex-girlfriend, who died four years earlier. He often thinks about her because he's obsessed with her memory. But that's not why he's thinking of her at that moment. It's because he recognizes her handwriting on the note.

After I wrote that first half of a chapter, something overtook me. I became obsessed. I had to know what happened to the cafe, and the ex-girlfriend. Was she still alive? Was she saving Nat? Why?

I kept writing. Relentlessly, curiously, tiredly. I was gang-tackled by a group of muses (who kept waking me up at 6 a.m. urging me to write). Five months later, I had a novel. Or, rather, I had its first draft.

In that respect, Hooked was an accidental novel. But it also is an accidental thriller. When I realized I was, in fact, writing a book, I became concerned that, frankly, I didn't know how to write a book. Could I be sure that I would keep the attention of readers? My methodology for so doing was to write short chapters, and end them each with a hook. I'd keep myself and my readers turning the page. There's nothing particularly novel about that idea, but I suppose I wound up doing it to a relatively extreme degree. Chief among the feedback I get from readers is that they have trouble putting the book done until it's finished.

In turn, the book's fast pace wound up becoming -- you might see a theme here -- an accidental marketing vehicle. Bit of background: the conspiracy that drives the book has to do with the fast pace of life in the digital era, and, in part, the addictive lure of technology. I don't want to give away any more than that. But the publisher, the esteemed Jonathan Karp who runs The Twelve, thought that the book's fast pace was a metaphor for the themes the book addresses. We live in a fast paced world, and here's a super fast-paced book that both speaks to the topic and symbolizes it. As Jon put it in a letter to readers, "Written as a subtle commentary on the impact technology has already had on our minds, Hooked represents a fresh approach to popular fiction."

He might be right; he's certainly more right about that than I identified. But before I met him, and before I was thinking of Hooked as the annoying story waking me up every morning at 6 a.m., I might have written that sentence: "The fast pace of Hooked may appear to symbolize the themes within, but, trust us, that's an accident borne of the writer's fear he wouldn't keep your attention."

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