Exaclair is honored to feature authors from around the world who are willing to share the secrets of their success; including tips and techniques for aspiring writers, and a behind-the-scenes look at their life and latest work.
Jeff Abbott is the internationally bestselling author of several suspense novels, including Panic and Trust Me. His twelfth novel, Adrenaline, will be out in July 2011 in the US, and is out now in the UK. It’s the first in a series featuring ex-spy and international bar owner Sam Capra.
First of all, please tell us a bit about yourself… where are you from, where do you live and when did you start writing?
I grew up, and still live, in Austin, Texas, which is an excellent place for a writer to start: it’s a bookish city and very creative. We have loads of musicians, filmmakers, artists, and yes, writers, here.
I got started as a writer by first being a liar. In first grade after the other kids showed their hamsters or kites or photos for Show and Tell, I would tell a story about fighting aliens alongside cowboys in Montana. Every week a new whopper. My teacher suggested to my parents they get me a Big Chief tablet and a Husky pencil to write all these stories I had burning inside me. My mom still has those tablets I filled as a kid. I decided to focus on writing crime and suspense fiction in my twenties. I decided I want to write more than I wanted to sleep, so I started getting up at 4 AM to write every morning for three hours before getting ready for my day job. The first book I tried to write didn’t sell (thankfully) but the second one did, and I’ve been writing steadily ever since.
Can you talk about the new series you’re working on, and give us a preview of plotline and themes?
I wanted to write about a hero who had a legitimate but unexpected reason to travel the world. But I didn’t want him to be part of a cog inside an organization—I wanted him to be a freer spirit. So I made Sam Capra an ex-CIA agent who ends up owning bars around the world. All kinds of bars, from dumps to the most elegant establishment, so he comes in contact with a huge variety of people and situations. I think of him as a Rick Blaine (from Casablanca) for the 21st century. The first novel in the series, Adrenaline, focuses how Sam is forced out of the CIA when he is the sole survivor of an attack on his office. His pregnant wife vanishes during the attack. Sam is accused of being a traitor, and sure his wife’s been kidnapped, Sam must escape the CIA and find out the truth about what happened to her and their child. The book is out this summer in the UK and Australia, and in July 2011 in the US.
You’ve written several series over the course of your career. How do you know when something is a series? Do you start envisioning that at the beginning of the first book, or does it happen further down the line?
Well, I’ve only written two other series: the four Jordan Poteet books, which were more traditional mysteries about an amateur sleuth in a small town, and the three Whit Mosley novels, about an unconventional coroner/judge on the Texas Gulf Coast. I think you have to know a book is the start of a series. You are creating a world, a cast, to draw a reader back in. Of course you hope that the publishers will be interested in more books. Between writing the Whit novels and the Sam novels, I wrote four standalone thrillers that are, by far, my best selling books worldwide. So what I wanted to do with the Sam Capra series was take what I learned about pacing and suspense in a standalone thriller and apply that to a series, because many suspense/thriller readers really do like continuing characters.
That said, I have had readers (and publishers) ask for sequels to the standalones. I still get asked if I will write a series centering on Evan Casher from Panic, or Luke Dantry from Trust Me, or Ben Forsberg from Collision.
Last year, you mentioned that you wrote the first draft of Trust Me in longhand, but were using different methods for Adrenaline. What are your current habits in terms of structuring, outlining, and composing?
I do keep a notebook for every book; usually a Clairefontaine spiral, which are my favorite notebooks. It serves as a catchall for ideas/notes/sketches on writing the novel. Most of the outlining I do is on index cards, but I’ll also sketch outlines in the notebook as well. I often don’t outline until I’m about halfway through the book, and I want to be sure I’m creating as strong an effect as possible for the reader; and I may not know how to do that until I’m deep into the book. The notebooks are a constant resource for me, sketching out characters, ideas, scenes. It’s so much better to explore a bad or unworkable idea in a notebook than in the manuscript. If I get stuck writing on the computer I find that writing in the notebook, longhand, often breaks through the block. I also keep a Clairefontaine just for ideas—they may not be appropriate for the book I’m writing now, but they could be for a future project.
Do you have any particular writing routines—a certain place or time of day?
In the morning I do a quick check of email, then I write. I try to meet a certain word count each day and when that’s done, I either write some more or focus on the research, administrative, and marketing tasks that accompany being a writer today. I have an office above my garage and that’s my favorite place to write. If I need a change of scenery then I go down to the porch or a coffee shop. I do find I am happiest, and most productive, when I stick to a schedule. It helps you get into that all-important state of “flow” that is necessary for any creative endeavor.
You’ve said you tend to create simple plots (a character clearing his name, or trying to get his old life back), but with complicated twists and turns. Do you see the simplicity of those plots at the outset of a new project, or does it only become evident with time?
Plot comes from character. So what I try to keep foremost in mind is: what does the character want, what is his or her overwhelming need? That’s how I approach each scene, each chapter. There’s always a risk there will be “too much plot” if you just start throwing in incident and complication. So even with twists and turns, I try to imagine a straight line running through the story, which centers around the hero or heroine’s desire. The writer, and the reader, must never lose sight of what that desire is.
Adrenaline is available now in the UK, Ireland, and Australia (find it at Amazon UK and Waterstones). It will be published in the U.S. in 2011. For more information about Jeff’s other books—and where to buy them—please visit his website.