It’s a Thriller Thursday special edition! New York Times Best Selling Author Allison Brennan is one of my favorite suspense writers. Her stories keep me on the edge of my seat, and her characters are relatable—a must for great fiction. When I first joined Twitter, I was lucky enough to win a signed copy of Allison’s Kiss Me, Kill Me. I was amazed at how approachable she was, and she’s been a great resource as I stumble through this writing thing.
My autographed copy of Kiss Me, Kill Me.
I’ll shut up now and let you read the interview. Don’t forget to give her some love in the comments!
Stacy: You started writing after serving as a consultant on the California state legislature. How did your experience there help when you began writing?
Allison Brennan: Motivation: I wanted to quit my job. LOL … seriously, I think ANYTHING that we do prior to writing helps us understand human nature, which gives our characters depth.
Stacy: You decided to write a book from beginning to end at the age of 30 – what led to that decision?
Allison Brennan: Several things. First, I was burned out in my job. Second, I had always loved writing, but put it aside to get married, have kids, start a career. It was not on the back-burner; it was off the stove!
When I was on maternity leave with my son (Brennan #3) I wanted to quit my job and stay home with him, but at the same time knew I’d be bored (I wasn’t cut out to be a SAHM) and I needed to earn money. I read a lot while on maternity leave (77 books in four months) – two of those books jumpstarted my writing. The Search by Iris Johansen and The Third Victim by Lisa Gardner. They were both romantic suspense, but darker and grittier and more focused on the suspense than the romance, but still had a resolved HEA, which I like. I thought, this is what I want to write! And started a new book that I promised myself I would finish. And I did—though it never sold (and shouldn’t have!)
Stacy: You wrote five books before selling The Prey 2004. I know you’ve destroyed the first four, but how did you stick it out after writing four non-published books?
Allison Brennan: Every book I wrote was better than the last. I wanted to be published, and I knew I didn’t know everything (and still don’t!) So I was committed to writing, learning, writing more, reading, writing more, and if it took two books or five books or twenty, I would have kept going. (I’m just glad it didn’t take twenty!)
Stacy: What did you learn from writing the first novels? What were some of the writing mistakes you made in those books?
Allison Brennan: Some of the mistakes are basic—head hopping (which is different than POV changes); backstory dumps, too many subplots, too many coincidences, not enough/too much description, etc. Some aren’t mistakes per se, just things that I improved the more I wrote—i.e. practice improves dialogue, character development, action scenes, etc. I don’t think I was ever a BAD writer, but I was certainly mediocre. I also read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers which really helped tighten my prose and identify some of my own personal stumbling blocks.
My first completed manuscript was particularly bad. Not that it was unreadable, but it was weak. It had EVERYTHING in it – it was a romantic suspense where the heroine worked from home in computer security. She was being stalked by the guy at the coffee house on the corner. She found out her ex-fiance at the computer company was embezzling secrets, and in the middle of the book he kidnapped her and forced her to transfer payroll funds to his off-shore account or he’d kill her brother (who happened to be an ex-Marine turned priest!) She was a virgin. Hero was a cop who moved into the apartment beneath hers. He has a psycho ex-girlfriend who stalked him, trashed the heroine’s apartment. The villain killed the ex-girlfriend and framed the hero, who while in prison, the heroine is kidnapped and taken to the mountains where she’s forced to wear the villain’s mother’s wedding dress so they can get “married” before he rapes him. Oh, and the hero was investigating a serial rapist who, surprise, targeted women who looked like the heroine. 🙂
Needless to say, there were three complete stories in that book.
Stacy: How do you come up with your ideas?
Allison Brennan: The million dollar question! Everywhere. I read true crime, watch television, watch people, and have a pretty vivid imagination. I play the “What if” game constantly. What if a mild-mannered guy killed his whole family? Why? What if one of the kids survived? Who would she become? (My heroine in The Prey.) What if you testified against the man you thought killed your sister—but find out years later you sent an innocent man to prison? (My heroine in The Kill.) What if you find out that sex offenders you think you’re tracking to put back in prison are actually being killed in old blood? (Lucy in Love Me To Death.) What if there was an earthquake under San Quentin? (The Prison Break trilogy.)
Ideas are everywhere. I just like thinking about all the possibilities.
Stacy: In your bio, you mention research trips such as an autopsy and an 8-week course at the FBI Citizens Academy, as well as trips to Quantico and various interviews with law enforcement. What advice to have to new writers just starting out who don’t have those kinds of resources? And how do you apply what you learned from Quantico and other resources to your writing?
Allison Brennan: There are lots of FREE resources for writers. (I wrote 8 books before participating in the Citizens Academy, which was really my first big research thing.) I mostly know what’s available to crime writers.
FREE: firstname.lastname@example.org is a group with cops, retired and active, FBI agents, PIs, paramedics, etc. all willing to answer questions for writers. It’s harder to get answers from cops and others when you don’t have credentials (because EVERYONE is writing a book) but there are often public openings in ride-along programs, tours, and it never hurts to contact the public information officer and just ask! Don’t forget friends, family and neighbors—the guy (a mechanic) who solved my plot problem for The Hunt I met through my brother-in-law at a baptism!
CHEAP: Join writers groups (anywhere from $25-$95/year) or chapters within writers groups that specialize in your genre. Many of my earlier questions were answered by chapter members who either knew the answer, or was married to someone who did. On-line classes–$10-30. Many times you don’t have to be a member and can take classes on a variety of subjects, from craft to research. Do a little research of your own and see if the instructor is good. Margie Lawson, for example, is one I strongly recommend if you want to take your writing to the next level, or if you’re struggling with craft-related issues like emotion, depth of character, pacing, etc. Another resource that people forget are BOOKS. I have over 100 craft, crime, forensics, and (because of my paranormal series) supernatural books. I have The Writers Journey and Practical Homicide Investigation. I also read a lot of true crime because it gives me some insight into the minds of people who hunt criminals, as well as victims. Some books I’ve bought are duds, others I would have paid twice the price.
Stacy: How do you manage to juggle a family and write three books a year?
Allison Brennan: Caffeine.
Seriously, I’m no different than any other working mom on the planet. I work, I raise the kids. My entire life is writing and kids. Fortunately, I love both and use my research trips as my fun vacation time. 🙂
I don’t sweat the small stuff. I don’t clean. I don’t make elaborate dinners. It’s all about prioritizing and making sacrifices. We all do what we need to do.
Stacy: You’ve got sixteen bestselling novels under your belt. You’ve talked about being a pantser with No Plotters Allowed handout at RWA. What’s your process? Do you start out with an idea and just jump in, or do you have a system? How do you keep organized throughout the book writing process?
Allison Brennan: I am not an organized person. And I don’t like the word “pantser” – I prefer “organic writer.” The story comes from the characters and the inciting incident, and I go from there. This requires a lot of rewriting, but I would rather do that than plot an entire book out, which feels like a job more than a discovery. I WISH I had another way, but I’ve tried everything, and the only thing that works is sitting down, writing, editing as necessary, and USUALLY before the midpoint I know what’s not working, go back and fix, and then write the ending. Sounds easy, but it’s not. I delete twice as many words as end up in the final book.
I have a white board in my office to keep track of my crimes and victims. I didn’t use to and had a lot of timeline issues. I call it my murder board, and it works. 🙂
Stacy: What about POV? Is each its own storyline, or is the process more intuitive?
Allison Brennan: Intuitive. I write in the POV that makes sense at the time.
Stacy: There is so much advice out there for new authors regarding craft, marketing, etc. What advice can you give to newbies inundated with information?
Allison Brennan: Write a good book. Pitch it. Write another. It doesn’t get easier, but you will get better. If you don’t have a book to market, what good is marketing? Focus on the book, it’s the ONLY thing you have control over. Once you sell, don’t let all the other stuff interfere with your writing time. You’ll have some business things to attend to, but make your writing time sacred.
Stacy: Self-publishing and ebooks are on a rapid rise. Where do you see the industry going in the next few years? Do you still think new writers should attempt traditional publishing, or is self-publishing the new way to go?
Allison Brennan: I think that NO ONE knows what’s really going to happen, and that no one should make life-changing decisions based on limited information that we have now. I don’t think print books are going to disappear. I think e-books will become more popular, but there will likely be a 50/50 balance in the market. You’ll make more money per book if you self-publish, but how are you going to break out of the pack? With EVERYONE and their brother publishing a book, how are you going to stand out? Not everyone is successful, and all the costs are on you, the author – editing, cover design, etc. Yes, you don’t need to sell a lot to earn that back, but breaking out will be just as hard, or harder, in the self-publishing world.
I think that traditional e-publishers that have a proven record will continue to thrive and grow. The author doesn’t pay into the production, though they may have little to no advance. But the publisher has a team of professional to handle ALL the editing and production work (which is very time-consuming to do right.)
I’m not saying not to self-publish. I just think that individuals need to make their own decisions based on unbiased information, and I’m not seeing a lot of unbiased information out there. There are a few successful self-published authors who started that way, but most of the success stories are those authors who have the rights to their backlist and have successfully re-published them themselves.
The big sellers are still going to be the big print authors, who will not only sell more copies, but they’re asking (and getting) higher e-book prices.
Anyway, my advice is to sit down and make a plan, but no matter what, never send a book out—traditional or self-published—that isn’t the absolutely best book you can make it.
Stacy: Let’s talk about marketing for a moment. Most agents, editors, and publishing experts say that even if you’re lucky enough to get a traditional contract, you’ll still have to do the vast majority of marketing on your own. That’s one of the more intimidating parts of the process to me. What works for newly published authors? In this digital age, what’s the best way to get word out about our book without sounding like a door-to-door solicitor?
Allison Brennan: I wish I knew! I hate promoting myself. However, I think what works best is to BE YOURSELF. Go into communities you feel comfortable with and participate. Every post doesn’t have to be about your book. I’m active on Facebook, Twitter, and several Yahoogroups, and have been for years, on yahoogroups before I sold. Be friendly, find people with common interests, etc., then when you want to talk about a new book or something, you mention it. Like, one out of every 100 comments. Or 200 comments. Or 1,000 comments. If you hate blogging, don’t blog; if you like it, do it. Not every blog is about your book.
I can not stand 1) drive-by promoters (authors who never participate in a group, except to post they have a new book out) and 2) message board that are all about self-published authors promoting their books. I don’t think I would make a good self-published author on that end. However, I would hire an editor, a proofreader, and a cover artist—and probably send out for reviews, do a blog tour, and make sure I respond to reader mail.
Stacy Green: Who are you reading right now, and who are the authors you admire?
Allison Brennan: I admire many, many authors. Nora Roberts for her no-nonsense attitude and support of the romance genre; Lee Child and James Rollins for their unfailing support of debut authors and other writers, even with their hectic schedules; Michael Connelly, Lisa Gardner and Tess Gerritsen for talent—I love the way they tell their stories; Stephen King for both his storytelling and being humble even after great success; Sandra Brown for her class and amazing ability to blend thriller and mystery and romance; there are many more. Many authors are more than willing to help others, and I feel blessed to be a writer.
Right now I’m reading A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard (non-fiction) and The Silent Girl by Tess Gerritsen, plus a galley for a debut author.
I can’t thank Allison enough for taking the time out of her busy schedule to give such great answers. She’s a great author and a perfect example of social media should work: do unto others as you’d have done unto you.
Allison’s new book, If I Should Die, drops 11.22.11. Stop by her website for more details on her books as well as some great writing resources.