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Let’s start with a little story about rejection.

Because, who doesn’t love a good rejection story?

A few years ago, I was out on submission trying to sell my newest manuscript. Submission means your agent pitches your book to publishers, while you, the author, chew your nails right down to the bone while doom-checking your email. People call this “submission hell” for good reason. Unless you’re extremely lucky to get an offer right away (or offers, or even OMG an auction!), you wait. And wait. And if you’re not a patient person by nature, this is not easy. Then the rejections, or more politely-termed “passes,” start rolling in. Editors will send an email extolling your writing in every possible way, but ending with something like “unfortunately we’re going to have to step aside on this one.” (Do listen to Liz and Lisa’s spectacular and hilarious podcast on this one!) But in this particular submission go-round, one editor’s comment really stood out to me. “We’re sorry to say that this book didn’t quite have the element that will make it unforgettable.”

Unforgettable.

That one landed, but in a good way.

See, I know how to write a book, but not how to sell one. I don’t have the secret sauce for reaching shelves in Target, hitting the USA Today’s Bestseller list, or even getting featured by Crime Reads (wink wink, nudge nudge.) But I do know what makes a thriller unforgettable, to me at least.

The final twist.

Let me be more specific. In a thriller, you have a series of twists, the first mini-twist, the bigger twist after the second act, and finally the “shocking twist” right before the denouement. But I’m talking about the twist after that one, in the final pages, the twist that morphs the way you interpret the entire book. In fact, the novel would have worked just fine without it. Thus the narrative tricks you, lulls you into a false conclusion, and then…bang. The final shocker warps your brain, thrusting the novel into another dimension. This the twist I’m talking about.

Before I reveal a few of my favorites – I’ll offer the perfunctory spoiler alert. Just mentioning the title puts the reader on high alert for the curveball finale. So either stop reading now, or be ready to guess the ultimate, mind-blowing, unforgettable twist.

First up is Mary Kubica’s The Good Girl, which even features an unforgettable back story. Here, we start with another rejection story, this one before the book even went on submission. Mary Kubica labored to get an agent for the book for years. On the verge of giving up, she was contacted by an agent asking if she still had the manuscript. Why yes, in fact, she did. We come to learn that this agent was too junior at her agency back then to offer representation, but still remembered the book years later. Talk about unforgettable. Finally, the manuscript went on submission, and the rest is history.

The plot of The Good Girl reads like any typical thriller. Daughter gets kidnapped. Mom works with a detective to find her. But right off, several elements turn the story on its head. First, the book is told mainly through the eyes of the kidnapper, not as usual by the kidnapped. Then, things take an even weirder turn. Daughter falls in love with kidnapper. Mom falls in love with detective. By the time the kidnapper gets nabbed and the daughter saved, the reader actually empathizes with the kidnapper. And then, in the final chapter, we finally hear from the Good Girl herself. And everything explodes.

That’s all I’m going to say. You just have to read it for yourself.

For my next pick, I’m veering off course to Sue Miller’s book, The Senator’s Wife. Her novel resides purely in the women’s/literary fiction genre, not even sneaking into domestic suspense territory. But, the final conclusion shocks and horrifies as well as any thriller ending out there.

The book is alternately told through the viewpoints of Delia, the wife of a philandering senator husband, and her neighbor Meri, an insecure, newly married and newly pregnant young woman. Though burdened by love for her charming, cheating husband, Delia still has a solid identity, not defined by her husband’s foibles. Meri, on the other hand, struggles with her inchoate identity, lost under the weight of her new wife/mother labels. Her body literally changes with pregnancy, compounding her sense of inadequacy and loss of control. The new neighbors become friends but not equals, Delia always remains superior to the unconfident Meri.

When Delia finally has enough of her husband’s shenanigans, she relocates to Paris. But then, the senator has a stroke, leaving the master of all ceremonies speechless, and she returns to care for him. They find love again, and Meri carves out her own identity with her new baby and marriage. We seem headed for a happy-ish ending, until Meri unexpectedly flips the scales on the formidable Delia. Yes, it involves the senator. No, they do not have an affair. All I will tell you, is that it is much, much worse.

For this next one, I’m going to cheat again and go with a horror film. Get Out, Written and directed by Jordan Peele, manages to be both hilarious and horrifying, while ending with an astonishing brain-twisting (literally) gotcha moment. When Chris agrees to meet white girlfriend’s parents, his best friend Rod warns him against it. Rod doesn’t trust her, telling him the white people will just capture him use him as a sex-slave (which sounds ridiculous, until…) Chris shrugs him off in a sort of “she really gets me” kind of way, figuring on some well-meaning, garden-variety racism. When Chris gets to the party though, things turn more than a little uncomfortable. The other black people at the party seem both oddly vacant and murderously angry with him. His girlfriend’s mother whips up a rather frightening tea, and all the guests seem in a joke that he doesn’t get. It turns out Rod was right. He should not have trusted the white people, though his girlfriend doesn’t want him as a sex slave. She loves him for his brain much more than his body in the worst possible way.

I won’t tell you any more, just get out there and see it.

For the last one on my short-list, we return to comfortable psychological thriller territory. Most of you reading probably know Alex Marwood. And if you don’t, drop your phone/tablet right now and pick up one of my favorites: The Darkest Secret. The final paragraph in this one did not just blow my socks off, it blew my head off. Literally. Blood everywhere. So, consider yourself warned.

The narrative goes back and forth in time, starting with present day at the funeral of the family patriarch. The story then veers back to an awful summer twenty years before at one boozy party, when one of his toddler twins goes missing, the body never found. Digging deeper into the events of that summer, we discover what happened to the little girl, the tawdry, reckless event the family buried. The book could have ended right there, and would have been shocking enough.

But then on the last page, we find out the real truth, the darkest secret yet.

To me, pulling off this stunt, evading the reader until the final chapter and thus reframing the entire book represents the ultimate writing accomplishment. Asking my writer-reader friends for other examples for the article, a few names popped up – Denis Lehane’s Shutter Island, Riley Sager’s Survive The Night, Alex Michaelides’ The Silent Patient, and Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson. I haven’t read any of them yet, a situation I plan to rectify at my next trip to the bookstore. And oh, if you liked Get Out, make sure to see Us by Jordan Peele as well. But after the body-shifting ending, don’t plan on going to sleep that night.

As for my rejection story, it has a happy ending at least. On my newest manuscript, the very first editor decided not to step aside, and my YA thriller Girl Overboard comes out in May.

Hopefully, some readers will find it unforgettable.

***

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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