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In New Serial Thriller, Everyone's Hands Are Bloody

Writing a book is usually a solitary occupation, but when David Corbett was asked to work on a serial thriller, the opportunity was too good to pass up. The story would be a collaboration among 22 writers; one person would set the action in motion, then hand it off to another writer who would add a new chapter, taking the plot in new directions.

Corbett would be working with some of the best writers in the business, but when it was his turn to write, he says, he realized the format of the story would drastically change the way he wrote.

"Normally as a writer you start out doing the background on all of your characters, you do all of your research," Corbett says. "And it's a living, breathing thing in a lot of ways, in your unconscious before you even begin. Here, here you're sort of like given building blocks."

The book that came out of this collaboration is Watchlist, a pair of novellas first released as audiobooks and now available in a hardcover edition. For Watchlist, the main building block was a lead character that ties the two stories together: Harold Middleton, a former war crimes investigator who unexpectedly gets pulled back into a game of international intrigue at the start of the first novella, "The Chopin Manuscript."

Harold Middleton was the creation of Jeffrey Deaver, the writer who not only set the book in motion but also had the difficult task of pulling all the myriad threads of the story together in the concluding chapter.

"I'm one of those people, you know, the T-shirt would say, 'Doesn't play well with others,' " Deaver says.

Writing in collaboration with others did not come easily to him.

"It was with a little fear and trepidation that I handed my first chapter off because I had very clear ideas of where I would have taken the story," Deaver says. "And I had to take a deep breath and say, 'Jeff, no. This is the way the project is going to work. You're going to get your sweaty grip off the novel and hand it to someone else.' That was probably the hardest part for me."

As the reins moved from writer to writer, the plot of the Watchlist stories took some wild turns, and each writer brought his or her own particular stylistic flourishes to the project. The man responsible for keeping everyone in line, Jim Fusilli, not only wrote a chapter of his own but edited everyone else's.

"I had no idea what was coming. When the file would arrive from the writer, that would be the first time we would have had any discussion about where the story should go," Fusilli says. "So I would read those things more as a reader than as an editor. And most times I was pretty excited. I mean in almost every instance the writer did something I would not have done. But in some cases i was kind of shocked."

Fusilli says the writers were given total freedom to take the story wherever their imaginations led them. But every now and then he had to draw a firm line.

"The only announcement, or pronouncement, or discussion I ever had with the writers in general is that at some point in both books we had to say no more new characters," Fusilli says. "Now is the time to start pruning, and you know what I mean by pruning."

These being thriller writers, there was no question as to what "pruning" characters would mean. The only question was the amount of bloodshed left in the aftermath of the editing process. Corbett says that there is no shortage of untimely deaths in the stories.

"There may have been a little bit of sadistic mayhem in the hearts of some of these writers, not just to the characters, but to the next writer," Corbett says. "Not in a malicious way, but in sort of teasing: 'Oh yeah, guess what? Make sense of this!' "

Corbett says by the time his chapter came around not too far into the first novella, the plot had already taken so many sharp turns — locations included Prague, Washington, Africa and Rome — that he felt he had to slow things down.

"It was a little bit of crazy," he says. "So when my chapter came around, it was, 'Let's settle things down a little bit. Let's get back to our hero ... and drive the story forward with him.' "

Part of the fun in reading the book is watching how the writers make the story their own. Deaver says it's a good introduction to a lot of different thriller writers. (Read Deaver's opening to the second novella, "The Copper Bracelet.")

"Readers say, 'This is fascinating because there are authors I am curious about but have never had a chance to read and I probably wouldn't pick up. And now I get a little sampling.' And I feel like we kind of helped each other in that regard," Deaver says.

For now, the writers have gone their separate ways, but Deaver says there's one last way they've stayed true to the thriller tradition: They've left the door open for another Harold Middleton story.

The readings of Watchlist in Lynn Neary's story were provided by

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Lynn Neary
Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.