A note upfront: Blackquest 40 is chock-full of twists and turns so I’ve decided telling the story of one of the biggies here — without getting specific — shouldn’t affect anyone’s reading pleasure. If you’re terrified of spoilers and prefer not to hear even the merest nugget, by all means, bookmark and return after you finish the story.
Thrillers need plot twists like a home needs its kitchen. Writers of thrillers have to flip their readers’ expectations—often, substantially, and convincingly. My latest book, Blackquest 40, has several twists that I humbly believe deliver on this requirement. But one of them almost whiffed.
First, let me back up and describe my experience crafting “the twist” in my debut novel, The Winner Maker. There’s a large reversal smack in the middle, where you generally want one. Early beta readers of the manuscript really took the twist on the chin. Some found it jarring and unbelievable. Others felt the character involved had behaved far outside her/his established pattern.
I heard enough of this reaction that I decided to rework the twist. I sprinkled foreshadowing throughout the first half, added a few contrary notes to the offending character, then sanitized all the downstream impacts of these changes—which sometimes ends up being the thorniest part.
The next round of beta readers had no problem with the twist, and I sent the book out into the wild. Winner launched in December and, as I write this, has a 4.3 star rating on Amazon. (Sorry, shameless plug.) None of the reviewers who did have issues with the book mentioned that element at all.
Fast forward to Blackquest 40, my follow-up. I had prepared my big twist (vagueness here is intentional) with Winner in mind, planting hints liberally. I felt confident the twist wouldn’t seem to come out of left field. I emailed the manuscript around to a first group of beta readers. I got plenty of positive feedback about the manuscript in general, but the twist landed like a soggy towel.
“Yeah, sorta saw it coming, but still enjoyed it.”
“I was pretty sure something was going on there…”
A few readers said the twist had come off just right, but not enough for me to think I’d struck the right balance.
I went back to the drawing board. I didn’t remove any passage that gave the reader new, salient information about the subject in question, but there were several superficial clues I felt I could fairly zap without cheating my readers.
The next step was, again, further testing with betas. My second round of readers loved the new version — I’d tweaked other things besides the twist, of course — and I was feeling great about the book. I did a third round of betas just to be positive. Again, reaction was solid. I lined up my final proofread, shipped the manuscript off for a spiffy format, then uploaded my files to Netgalley so advance reviewers could start doing their worst. I moved on to my next project. (For more info there, see https://www.thirdchancestories.com/ — sorry, shameless plug #2.)
The early reviews were outstanding, 5 stars right down the line. People loved my protagonist Deb. Some bristled at the tech talk—unavoidably given the setting—but even these readers were enjoying the book.
Meanwhile, I was eagerly awaiting two professional reviews: one from Kirkus and another from IndieReader. These take a month or two to come in, and you never know quite when they’ll show up. Often it’s about a week before the delivery date they quote.
I was in the middle of vacation with my family, a long weekend in Toronto, when my phone dinged: Kirkus.
The review was in! I hurried with my phone to the hotel bathroom so I could read the news, which I expected to be good. Ignoring the niggling worry that my non-international Verizon plan might be racking up exorbitant roaming charges, I downloaded the file and read…
The review was, overall, positive. Definitely positive. But the reviewer had made one passing comment that stopped me from yanking the hotel hair dryer out of its wall charging unit and screaming Queen lyrics into it. A line toward the end: “Readers will likely guess one (plot twist) well before it happens, but others are less predictable.”
But I’d had dozens of readers! I’d calibrated my twist, I’d weighed one word choice against another, I’d plotted how many pages separated each mention of the element.
How could this have happened? Had I blown it?
As I sit here typing today, I still don’t know whether I just got a real smartypants of a Kirkus reviewer, or whether the twist truly was obvious as written. (A week later, the IndieReader review of the same version came in over the moon—“This book is a delight, and one readers should download right away.”) As my eyes read and reread that comment, though, I was convinced I had committed a mortal sin.
As soon as we got back from Toronto, I pulled up the Blackquest manuscript and searched for all mentions of elements pertaining to the twist. (Again, vagueness is intentional.) I considered their number, how “loud” they seemed next to whatever else surrounded them…and yeah, I thought I saw the reviewer’s point.
There were a handful of clues that weren’t integral to the characters or underlying twist, provided no tangible information to the reader. They sort of raised their hands and said, “Hey, look at me! Do you think I might be important…?” Probably I’d stuck them in during the drafting phase, remembering Winner and believing I shouldn’t shock the reader too badly.
Naturally, that very morning, my blog tour coordinator emailed to inquire — politely as ever (I cannot recommend Partners In Crime blog tours highly enough) — whether I’d mailed out review copies to bloggers who’d requested physical books.
Coming! I said. Very, very soon—I promise!
I scrambled to nix my superfluous hints. The changes ended up being minor—maybe a half dozen passages—but, still, I had to square them with everything happening downstream, make sure I wasn’t introducing some newly repetitive word, et cetera. I finished in about a day.
Next, I needed to flow these changes through to IngramSpark and Amazon, the twin behemoths I use to print my books, and get my advance copies out to those bloggers. The beauty of writing books in the Digital Age is that you’re able to pull this off — sling files around the web and implement tweaks like this on a dime.
Well, in theory.
Now is the moment in our tale when we meet The Formatter.
I have an amazing formatter. If you’re reading this, Kind Formatter, know this: you’re tremendous. You design gorgeous-looking interiors. You make no mistakes. You’re creative and clever and have impeccable style. I recently published a short story called The Cleaner (sorry, I believe that’s shameless plug #3), which is more literary in nature than the rest of the books I have out, and asked The Formatter if he could differentiate it as such through formatting. He did a fantastic job—small dignified graphics under the title and chapter heads, perfect fonts and drop caps, everything. I’ve never been anything but ga-ga over his work.
The catch? He can be a little flaky. Sometimes he’ll respond to email in seconds. Sometimes it’s a few days—and I didn’t feel like I had a few days.
I dashed off my changed manuscript file to him, explaining the urgency, asking him to charge whatever he needed for the rush-job. Advance readers were banging down my door…the local Barnes & Noble would be ordering copies from IngramSpark any day now…it was important that I get this reformatted file out as soon as possible.
That was Monday.
I checked my phone for messages throughout the day. I gave up around one a.m., having received nothing from The Formatter.
Tuesday went—with no message from The Formatter.
I sent him a poke in the morning along the lines of “I’m sure you’re swamped, sorry to be a nuisance, but would you mind…”
Twelve hours later — right as I was beginning to consider cracking open the PDF file myself and making the changes (if you’ve ever tried this yourself, you’ll understand it’s folly—deleting/changing more than a character or two annihilates your justification) — The Formatter did write back.
He explained his computer had been plagued by the Blue Screen of Death for the last few days so he’d been unable to respond. All good now. He was on it.
My heart-rate returned to normal levels. I won’t say it reassured me to learn my formatter’s laptop had suffered the blue screen of death—it seemed like BSOD peaked around Windows 95, right?—but I felt I was finally on my way to having the twist fixed.
His ETA to turn around the file was a couple days—at the very latest, he said—which by my math meant Friday night or earlier. No problem. My daughters were competing in their Michigan state gymnastics meet Saturday. It was a three hour drive, which meant we’d have to leave at 10:30 or 11:00 for my youngest to be on time for her 2:00 meet. As long as I had my new format file in to IngramSparks before the meet (we had to stay overnight; it might’ve been Monday before I could use a computer again), I would be able to pay for premium shipping and get the bloggers their books in an acceptable time-frame.
Naturally, The Formatter got me the files Saturday morning.
It was fairly early Saturday, though, and I figured I could make it. I moused through the file just to confirm everything was perfect…which it always is from The Formatter…except that this time, on the last change I’d submitted, there was an extra period.
You MUST be kidding.
I dashed off a note to The Formatter, explaining. I thought he might be able to zap the mistake and beam the file right back, but he wasn’t in reply-in-thirty-second mode.
I waited…and waited…and packed my daughters’ leotards and warm-ups and flip-flops for their meet…tracked down all the hair ties and arcane bun paraphernalia my wife uses to do their hair…(that’s very important, if you’re ever a gymnastics parent)…and waited…
It was 10:15. We had to hit the road or my daughter was going to miss her state meet.
Giving up on The Formatter, I decided I could probably delete a period without the whole PDF file collapsing to gobbledygook. I opened my freebie PDF editor, searched for that double period, backspaced over it, and saved.
The file looked fine.
Then I uploaded to IngramSparks, viewed the preview, accepted the preview, and ordered enough paperbacks for my antsy bloggers — on rush delivery, arriving as soon as possible. I’d be okay with advance readers. Barnes & Noble could order copies for my signing whenever they wanted—and receive the newer, less-obvious version.
Whew. I loaded up the car and off we went. I hadn’t forgotten the leotards, the bun supplies, or either of the girls’ special hair ribbons. Traffic was light. My daughter had a great meet.
I did forget the overnight bag, though. We had to buy toothpaste and pajamas at some Target off the interstate.
Deb Bollinger has no time for corporate training.
Her company’s top engineer at just twenty-seven, Deb has blocked off her day for the one project she truly cares about: the launch of Carebnb, an app that finds spare beds for the homeless. When she’s told all employees must drop everything for some busywork exercise called Blackquest 40, it’s an easy no.
Trouble is, her bosses aren’t really asking.
Blackquest 40 is the mother of all corporate trainings. A near-impossible project to be completed in forty straight hours. No phones. No internet. Sleeping on cots. Nobody in, nobody out. Deb finds the whole setup creepy and authoritarian. When a Carebnb issue necessitates her leaving the office, she heads for the door. What’s the worst that could happen?
Armed commandos, HVAC-duct chases, a catastrophic master plan that gets darker by the hour — Blackquest 40 is a fresh take on the Die Hard formula, layering smart-drones and a modern heroine onto the classic action tale.
About Jeff Bond
Jeff Bond is a Kansas native and graduate of Yale University. He lives in Michigan with his wife and two daughters, and belongs to the International Thriller Writers association.