There’s so much that goes into writing a strong novel that the dangerous part, early in your career, is not knowing what you don’t know.
I found that I could improve my craft by not only reading the stellar books but also by reading the crappy ones.
Alan Jacobson is the award-winning, USA Today bestselling author of 11 suspense/thriller novels, including two successful series (Karen Vail series and the OPSIG Team Black covert ops novels). His books have been translated internationally, many have been named “Best of the Year,” and several have been optioned by Hollywood.
Jacobson’s twenty years of research and training with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, DEA, US Marshals Service, SWAT, NYPD, Scotland Yard, and the US military bring unparalleled realism to his stories and characters. His series have been raved about by readers of all walks of life including law enforcement officers, real FBI profilers, and Navy SEALs.
Meredith: Is fear ever an issue, like does your creativity measure up?
ALAN: I’ve been writing fulltime for 22 years, and early on in my career, I did wonder about that. And that was honestly a normal thing because although I was well schooled and knew good writing from bad, that’s very different from writing a full-length novel that engages the reader, captures and holds her attention for 400 pages, that features deep and satisfying characters, and features dialogue that advances both story and character.
There’s so much that goes into writing a strong novel that the dangerous part, early in your career, is not knowing what you don’t know. Did I measure up? Was the secret sauce in thinking up good plots? Or memorable characters? Or both? If both, how did longtime authors do it—and keep a healthy balance so one doesn’t dominate the other?
As I read more and as I wrote more, I fell into a rhythm as to what constituted an engaging read—and how to create it for myself. I also discovered that just because a book was published did not mean it was exceptional, or even good. A lot of the published novels—from major publishing houses—were disappointing, and I came to learn that I could do a whole lot better. In essence, I found that I could improve my craft by not only reading the stellar books but also by reading the crappy ones.
That fear that you mentioned subsided and eventually vanished. By the time I started writing “The 7th Victim” (the first in the FBI profiler Karen Vail series and my third overall), I knew I could write with the best of them. No more fear.
Now, that said, fear does still come into play in one other aspect of writing: not making my deadline! It drives me to keep on schedule, to stay focused and on task.
Meredith: In his book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes, “Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it.” It’s kind of a corollary to that line in the Eagles song, “Already Gone”: “So often times it happens, that we lives our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.” What’s your take?
ALAN: I think it’s possible for people to create their own obstacles and barriers to success—and creativity. For some, it’s ingrained in our personalities, our worldviews, to be able to pick ourselves up when the times are tough, when things are not going our way. Others don’t have that capability but they can be
motivated, through counseling or other external means, to find the path, find the key to unlock those chains that the Eagles referenced.
Writing is full of pitfalls that can cause obstacles and barriers. Rejection is part of the recipe of success. Almost every successful author I’ve ever known experienced rejection before overcoming it and getting their agent, or first contract, or significant sales. Those who are persistent, who have it within or otherwise find their keys, are often the ones who make it.
Meredith: If conflict is an essential part of every good story, what would you say the running conflict in your life is, the one that keeps your writing and creating at its peak?
ALAN: The drive to always be better, to find new and fresh ways of telling a story, of stressing my character. When my publisher asked me to make Karen Vail a series character because they’d had such a dramatic response to The 7th Victim, I resisted
because I knew colleagues who’d become stale and bored writing the same character book after book. I vowed that’d never happen to me because if I’m bored with what I’m writing, the reader’s going to be bored reading it. And I’d never put out a substandard book because my name’s on the cover—and my reputation is worth everything to me.
Each one of my novels excited me, and that’s a prerequisite for writing it. If it’s not working, I trash it and move on to another idea. It’s only happened to me once, and it was fairly early in the process, but I’m proud to have stood by my principles and started back on square one. It was the right decision.
So if you could call that an inner conflict, of pushing myself to do better and fresh and different, that’s what drives me year after year, book after book.
Meredith: Do you actively seek ideas, or is your style to wait and see what crosses your path?
ALAN: I never have to actively seek ideas or wait for things to cross my path. I’ve been fortunate to never have a shortage of story ideas. That said, I always have my eyes open. A friend of mine, author John Lescroart, posted something recently about writers always working…they’re either writing or thinking about writing. That’s certainly true in my case—ideas come to me at the strangest of times. I walked into my office one morning right after finishing Velocity (Vail #3), intending to start on a book in my OPSIG Team Black series. The thought “Karen Vail on Alcatraz” popped into my head and I brainstormed on the idea. Over the next few days I kept adding to the outline until I was so excited by it that Inmate 1577 became the next book I wrote.
Other times ideas come to me while working out—I don’t consciously think about it, but it just happens. Those are my creative times. I keep my iPhone within arm’s reach and when an idea strikes—it can be an idea for the book I’m currently writing or something completely new—I dictate the note so I don’t forget it. I then continue to work on it as it develops over the next several weeks. If it’s a Karen Vail story, I’ll run it by one of my two FBI profiler friends to get their take. If it’s an OPSIG idea, I’ll pitch it to one of my special forces contacts.
I currently have several ideas percolating for both the Karen Vail series and the OPSIG Team Black series, waiting in queue to be written. Since it takes me a solid year to research and write a novel, I’m stacked up for quite a while!
Meredith: Writing—or the dream of calling oneself an author or writer—seems, for many, to have this highly addictive, seductiveness about it. Like: Iʼd really be someone if I could write. Or be a writer, author, etc. But itʼs not writing that imbues itself with these characteristics, itʼs the person. Why, do you think, itʼs such a seductive slope?
ALAN: I can see that. And for me, the writing part is what I truly love. I get grumpy when I’m not writing. Of course, the reality is that writing is only one thing we do as authors. The business end actually consumes more time; it encompasses everything from working with your publisher, promoting your books, dealing with your agent and entertainment law attorney or website designer, posting on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, attending conferences, traveling to the locations where my book is set…or following up with my research contacts to ask questions to make sure I’ve got my information correct. Then there’s working with my editor, and copyeditor, and proofreader. There are a million things to manage. As shocking as it may seem, although writing is the most time-consuming part, it’s but one piece to that puzzle called a novel. So it’s very easy for this seductiveness to get lost in all the minutiae, bogged down by the day-to-day business requirements. Depending on what point I’m at in the cycle, it sometimes requires a Herculean effort to get my writing in each day.
For me, the seductive slope is Hollywood. I’ve had several books optioned for film and/or television, and came close twice—very close once—when we were several weeks away from filming The 7th Victim for TNT, which I was co-producing. The problem is that it’s easy to expend a great deal of time and creative energy working toward seeing your book hit the screen—only to have the plug pulled in the eleventh hour due to unrelated things that emerge at the worst possible times. Such influences are out of your control—and when they hit, you realize you could’ve written an entirely new novel during the time you expended on what turned out to be a dead end. And suddenly you have nothing to show for that wasted time. To me, that’s one hell of a seductive slope…because it never stops calling.
[Thank you, Alan!]
Photo by Pedro Figueras