Skip to main content

Amy Gentry: On Writing Thrillers and Following Your Gut

Thriller author Amy Gentry shares her experience writing her latest novel, Bad Habits, and why it's important to take full ownership of your work.

Amy Gentry is the author of Good as Gone, a New York Times Notable Book, and Last Woman Standing. She is also a book reviewer and essayist whose work has appeared in numerous outlets, including the Chicago Tribune, Salon, the Paris Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Austin Chronicle. She holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago and lives in Austin, Texas.

Amy Gentry

Amy Gentry

In this post, Gentry shares her experience writing her latest novel, Bad Habits, why it's important to take full ownership of your work, and more!

****

Writing the Thriller Novel

This course can help you to write the novel that today's readers crave—the novel that will put your book on the best-seller list. With in-depth lectures and feedback from your instructor, you'll be ready to write nail-biting suspense and complete a thriller novel that agents can't resist.

Click to continue.
****

Name: Amy Gentry
Literary agent: Sharon Pelletier
Title: Bad Habits
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Release date: February 2, 2021
Genre: Suspense
Elevator pitch for the book: When poor kid Mac meets rich, perfect Gwen, she instantly sees a pathway to a better life. But when the best friends land in the same competitive graduate program and become embroiled with a pair of charismatic professors, Mac must find out just how far she’ll go to get the life she wants—and who she’s willing to get rid of along the way.
Previous titles by the author: Good as Gone and Last Woman Standing

Bad Habits by Amy Gentry

Bad Habits by Amy Gentry

IndieBound | Bookshop | Amazon
[WD uses affiliate links.]

What prompted you to write this book?

It started with a dream about a pair of old friends reunited by chance in a hotel lobby. One of them was getting married; the other wanted to kill her. Why? I wrote down the dream and mulled it over. Ever since graduating from the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. in English in 2011, I’d wanted to write about the cutthroat environment of a highly competitive graduate program. I decided that whatever happened to split these best friends apart, it must have happened there. Writing the whole story gave me a chance to explore the boundary-crossing and sometimes abusive behavior I witnessed in academia, as well as to probe at the inequities—based in race, class, and gender—that riddle the system. It was also tons of fun to return to that environment as an outside spectator, marveling at the bizarre and rarefied atmosphere.

(Thriller Writing Made Easy: 4 Steps to Starting a Thriller)

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? 

I had that dream in 2016, soon after the publication of my first book, Good as Gone. I was already contracted to write a different novel (which became Last Woman Standing), but I loved the idea so much that I managed to write about 60,000 words before even starting my second book. Then I put Bad Habits on the backburner for almost two years. So really, this novel was five years in the making. The idea and basic structure didn’t change at all during those five years—all that changed were nuances of execution. That’s not to say I knew everything from the start—I always allow some questions to remain unanswered in my own mind almost to the very end of the first draft. It makes for a lot of revision, but it keeps me interested.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

I have learned one monumental lesson from this book’s publication: what it means to take full and complete ownership of my work. My first two books were written under one contract and published very quickly. It felt like a whirlwind. After years of writing alone, suddenly I had so many people on my team. I was grateful to be published and genuinely eager to learn from people who knew the business side, but I felt so borne along by the process that I barely had time to think about what I felt was right for each book.

Perhaps because the subject matter felt so personal to me, Bad Habits was different. For the first time, I pushed back against editorial changes that didn’t feel right. (Being wonderful, my editor listened.) Early in the promotional phase, I identified a niche audience with potentially huge buy-in—ex-academics and current academics who felt suffocated by the system, as I had—and actively networked with them in order to get the word out. Rather than waiting for my hardworking publicist to arrange interviews, I started reaching out and setting them up myself. Using the (very real) excuse that all bets are off during a pandemic, I took bigger risks than I had done with the other books. It’s been more work than the other books, too, but I feel so proud of how this one came out that I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. And for the first time, I really understand what seasoned authors like Laura Lippman told me from the beginning—that at the end of the day, it’s my book, and nobody cares about it as I do. Harnessing that passion is powerful.

(Where Should Your Thriller Hero Go Next: 6 Tips on Setting)

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

The biggest and most pleasant surprise was that writing exactly what I wanted—and letting the story sprawl in any direction it wanted, before reining it in during revisions—would be so incredibly rewarding. I started this book with a dream, a grudge, a dinner party scene, and a character’s voice: Mac, the ambitious girl from a struggling family who decides, based on her rich best friend Gwen, that academia is her ticket to a better life. Early on in the process, I took a couple of writing retreats and let the words pour onto the page. Binges of 10,000 words a day required a lot of revision down the line, but the passion of those binges is still in the book, and it still gives me a thrill. When writing my first two books, I was so eager to please my editors and learn the ropes of the business that I took editorial direction very easily and made changes as quickly as I could. I wanted to be one of the good authors, the ones who kill their darlings without complaint. For this book, I listened to my gut and let the darlings make their case for their existence, even when I didn’t know why they had to be there. The darlings came through, in the end, and I have the book I want. That’s everything.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

Almost everyone has had a soul-crushing job at one point or another, a job where you wake up every day with a knot in the pit of your stomach, dreading the toxic boss or the passive-aggressive co-worker or the impossible demands. At its core, Bad Habits is about the particular nightmare of feeling like the job making you miserable isn’t just a job, it’s your entire life, and you can’t leave, because you would be worthless without it. Bad Habits explores what happens when you let that kind of thinking win—not only the dangers of what can be done to you but also the dangers of what you might do to others, who you might have to become in the process. My highest hope is that it gives a few people the courage to leave exploitative or abusive jobs, or at least to see their situations more clearly while giving those who have already left a sense of validation and a modicum of healing.

And, of course, I hope everyone who reads it enjoys a laugh at how extremely ridiculous academics can be.

Amy Gentry: On Writing Thrillers and Following Your Gut

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

It’s your book, and nobody knows it as you do. Listen; learn; take feedback to heart. But your book has a voice, too, and at the end of the day, that’s the voice the reader will hear when she’s all alone with your book, flipping the pages. It’s what sets your book apart and come publication day, that’s the voice you’ll want to amplify with a bullhorn. So make sure you’re listening.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: 6 WDU Courses, an Upcoming Virtual Conference, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce six new WDU courses, a romance writing virtual conference, and more!

Going From Me to We: Collaborating on the Writing of a Novel

Going From Me to We: Collaborating on the Writing of a Novel

Past experiences taught bestselling author Alan Russell to tread lightly when it came to collaborating on projects. Here, he discusses how the right person and the right story helped him go from a “me” to a “we.”

From Script

Short Film Goals, Writing the Cinematic Experience on the Page and Sundance Film Festival 2022 (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, set your creative goals with a monthly guide to write and produce your short film, provided by Script contributor Rebecca Norris Resnick. Plus, an exclusive interview with Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Monahan, a Sundance Film Festival 2022 day one recap, and more!

Your Story Writing Prompts

94 Your Story Writing Prompts

Due to popular demand, we've assembled all the Your Story writing prompts on WritersDigest.com in one post. Click the link to find each prompt, the winners, and more.

How Inspiration and Research Shape a Novel

How Inspiration and Research Shape a Novel

Historical fiction relies on research to help a story’s authenticity—but it can also lead to developments in the story itself. Here, author Lora Davies discusses how inspiration and research helped shape her new novel, The Widow’s Last Secret.

Poetic Forms

Saraband: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the saraband, a septet (or seven-line) form based on a forbidden dance.

Karen Hamilton: On Cause and Effect

Karen Hamilton: On Cause and Effect

International bestselling author Karen Hamilton discusses the “then and now” format of her new domestic thriller, The Ex-Husband.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: The Ultimatum

Plot Twist Story Prompts: The Ultimatum

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character give or face an ultimatum.

6 Things Every Writer Should Know About Sylvia Beach and Shakespeare and Company

6 Things Every Writer Should Know About Sylvia Beach and Shakespeare and Company

Sylvia Beach was friend to many writers who wrote what we consider classics today. Here, author Kerri Maher shares six things everyone should know about her and Shakespeare and Company.