By Seeley James
B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree
When I started writing Sabel Security Thrillers four years ago, I thought I knew what I was doing. I hired editors, proof readers, cover artists, etc, and worked on my first book, The Geneva Decision, until it was ready for prime time. I put it out there and waited for the acclaim.
So, I examined my career and deconstructed successful indie careers looking for the best path to fit my skills and personality. My goal was, and still is, to write the most compelling political thrillers on book shelves today. My first book, post-launch assessment was: long way to go.
I envied writers like Russell Blake, Melissa Foster, Joanna Penn, Mark Dawson and so many others who wrote lots of focused books (a small number of characters, few locations, and a single-goal plot). My books sprawl across continents with a cast as big–but not as prone to death and dismemberment–as Game of Thrones. My books are complex and take longer to write because I often get lost halfway through my first draft. In the early days, I spent more time patching plot holes and combining surplus characters than writing the first draft.
Conclusion: While others could produce more, I had to produce better. I instituted a practice of reading one book on the craft of writing every month. My brain is not big enough to absorb more than that, so I take copious notes and write my own “what I learned” sections.
For my second book, I experimented with story, craft, and character to find a mix that would work better for me. I tried several different styles of outlining and managed to trash all of them. But I managed to get a pretty good book out with a grand finale including a high-speed collision and explosion with more realism than any movie. I felt good when I released it.
After a lot more post-launch analysis, I went back to the drawing board. The second book introduced Jacob Stearne, a male character to balance my first book’s female lead, Pia Sabel. He was popular with my small band of fans, but he needed something to set him apart. About that time, I heard George RR Martin say, “when you’re stuck, throw in a little magic” (or something to that effect). I’m not a big fan of magic, but madness and religion are a couple of my favorite topics. That’s when Jacob went mad … or started talking to god, whichever you prefer.
When I worked out the opening paragraph to the third book, Element 42, I knew I was on to something:
The voice in my head returned when I stopped taking my meds. My caseworker said the voice was part of my condition—PTSD-induced schizophrenia—but I call him Mercury, the winged messenger of the gods, and a damn good friend. For years, he was my biggest ally in combat and helped me predict the future. I’m not talking about very far into the future. Sometimes minutes, sometimes seconds, and sometimes just enough to see it coming. Mercury would draw my attention to small changes in air density, the faint sounds of rustling cloth, or the weak electrical charge of someone lurking nearby.
Right away, readers are aware they have an “unreliable narrator”. As I suspected, this book garnered a much larger following. It was a hit – relative to my previous novels.
For book #4 in the series, DEATH & DARK MONEY, I wanted to step up the story line. In the ancient tradition of adapting someone else’s work (Hunger Games was based on Theseus, O Brother Where Art Thou was based on the Odyssey, etc), I borrowed Shakespeare’s Macbeth (who stole it from Holinshed) as a theme for the bad guy. Plays are about 20% of a novel in length and scope, so I had to adapt a great deal and graft on a different ending, but I believe I pulled it off.
So did many of my fans, both old and new.
That brings me up to the here and now. As I write this post, I’ve discovered an outlining system that works for me; I’ve developed a distinct voice for both main characters; and have a firm handle on my complex plots. I’m up to Chapter 8 and have a good feeling about the book, tentatively titled DEATH & THE CANDIDATE. At the moment, it starts like this:
It’s one of the toughest questions we face in life: who should we trust? I grabbed him by the hair, pulled his head back, and, cheek-to-cheek, we contemplated the sparkling stars dotting the moonless Syrian sky. It was stunningly beautiful. You don’t see that many stars in over-lit American cities. But I quickly tired of our two-second relationship and drew my blade across his throat, severing his carotid artery and larynx. I dropped his carcass on the pile of Daesh fighters at my feet. He trusted me because I speak Arabic. Bad idea.
I stared at the dead jihadis and thought about how ISIL’s perversion of Islam wasted so many lives.
But, I’m not the right guy to judge religions.
Mercury, winged messenger of the Roman gods, waved to me from the narrow, dusty village lane.
As I began work on this book, I stopped to reflect on what I’ve learned over the last four years. While I still have areas in my writing (many) that I plan to improve, here is my list of
10 Things I’ve Learned About Writing:
- The reader is everything.
- Writing is a solitary vision—take no advice. — Lee Child.
- Take all the advice you can get. — Seeley James. (I’m not Lee Child)
- Read at least a book a week.
- Write for the readers who enjoy your work.
- Every character must possess some kind of magic.
- Learn, grow, analyze—the next book must be better than the last.
- Every character, every scene, every word must be there for a reason.
- When a reader opens your book, it better be worth it.