What Lies Behind has a new cover!

Wrapping up our new cover scheme for the Samantha Owens novels is the 4th book in the series, WHAT LIES BEHIND. For your enjoyment, here is the origin blog post for the book, which was a complicated one indeed.

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On July 24, 2013, I read a story about a young med school student named Paul DeWolf who’d been killed in his apartment. No motive, no witnesses, no suspects. By all accounts, DeWolf was an exceptional young man. He excelled in everything from school to his military training to sports and his faith. He was perfect. Everything about him foretold a brilliant future. And here he was, his promising young life cut short. I couldn’t get him out of my mind. I read everything I could find on the case. And there was a single conclusion to be drawn. 

It was a perfect murder…

That became the first line of WHAT LIES BEHIND. I let my imagination run, wrote up a somewhat outlandish proposal. By August 12 I had a title, one that fit beautifully with the idea of a locked room mystery, and the futility of a life lost too soon. The title comes from the Thoreau (or perhaps Emerson, no one knows) quote:

What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us
are tiny matters compared to what lives within us.

Oddly enough, the day I decided on the title, I was in Ace Hardware looking for plants, and saw a plaque with beautiful birds on it. Up close, I realized it was the very quote I’d used to title the book. (I snatched it up, and it resides in my office in a spot of honor.) I knew then I had something special. Sometimes, the universe tells you when you’re on the right track.

In October, I submitted the proposal, which my agent and editor loved. I shelved the story until April 2014, when I was finished with my six months of the year I dedicate to Catherine and could think about it.

I started writing April 3. My publisher needed an excerpt for the paperback of WHEN SHADOWS FALL, so I wrote an opening. Cobbled it together, really. And in so doing, realized the story I thought I was telling wasn’t the story that wanted to be written.

It happens that way sometimes. You think a book is about one thing, but it surprises you, takes on a life of its own, and suddenly, you’re left with a completely new story. The characters dictate the story, obviously. And a lot happened between October 2013 and April 2014. Weird things, and good things.

Several wonderful people gave money to charity to have their names appear in the book. When I accept these kinds of commissions, I don’t just toss in a name. I want the donor to get their money’s worth. I create real characters, with real purpose to the story. Tommy Cattafi became my dead medical student. Robin Souleyret was his contact, also dead. (There’s another character name I can’t share, because I don’t want to spoil the story for you. You’ll see that one in the acknowledgements.)

And then the story decided it didn’t want to be about dead people. It wanted to have live people, who did amazing things. Every day, while I watched, it wove itself into a completely different entity. Tommy Cattafi wasn’t dead, but gravely injured. Robin Souleyret was very much alive, and a former CIA agent. What? She had a sister who was FBI, and her name was Amanda. She was murdered and Cataffi injured in what looked like a murder suicide. Their names became so intrinsically involved that, because of these character names, the story itself changed. It evolved. It became about Sam and Robin, the push and pull of the investigation, and the power of love.

There were other issues with the story as well. At its heart, WHAT LIES BEHIND is about a bioterror attack on the U.S. using an Ebola-esque hemorrhagic virus. Yeah. Topical much?

I was more than halfway through the writing well before the African outbreak, and as the virus, and the story, continued to spread, I kept having to change the book so it didn't look like I'd stolen the story from the headlines. Because I, apparently, am simply too prescient when it comes to writing about current events.

And then we have Sam and Xander and Fletcher. The backbone of these books. Vital, one might say, to their longevity. Samantha really comes into her own during this investigation. It was such a blast to watch her take over. She’s always been a smart cookie, but now, she’s smart and tough and isn’t about to sit back when she sees injustices. To put it mildly, she kicks ass.

It took five months to write this book, because the story was a moving target, day after day. When I finished the book, I was almost afraid to turn it in. The synopsis I’d given my editor months before was unrecognizable outside of a young man cut down in his prime. Completely different from the finished book. Happily, she loved it, and here we are.

It’s always fascinating to me to relive the writing of a book. WHAT LIES BEHIND was possibly my most challenging to date, simply because it did not behave. It didn’t do what it was told. It’s fitting WHAT LIES BEHIND was the thirteenth novel I’ve written. It seems I’ve just given birth to my first teenager. 

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12.15.16 - I Have an Idea...

First, thanks so much to Amy for her great piece on the Barnes & Noble Concept Store. Don’t know about you, but I vote for more Amy blogs here, don’t you?

Okay, onward.

One of the questions I get most often is, “JT, where do you get your ideas?”

I answer the same way every time — where don’t I get my ideas?

Ideas are everywhere. They’re the easiest part of being a writer. The world, nay, the universe, is brimming with concepts and inspirations. I can’t walk down the street without coming up with four or five solid concepts.

The question that you should be asking is: “How do you decide which idea to write next?”

This is the tricker of the two questions, mainly because oftentimes, there are deadlines and reader expectations and contractual obligations for stories, especially when you write a series. It would stand to reason that, for the sake of your career, you find a great idea and funnel it directly into your next series book. 

My problem is, I write three series, all slightly different but firmly entrenched in the thriller genre. I also write standalone novels. And I write a couple of short stories every year, too. How do I decide what goes where, and in what order to proceed?

The logical answer is: I focus on deadlines, and try to channel all my energy into the book that’s due next. But sometimes, this is wishful thinking. Sometimes, an idea sparks, and you have to decide whether to abandon your current project to follow that fire.

It’s a tricky business, ideas. I often warn about finishing the story you’re working on lest the trail of half-eaten sandwiches start taking over your house. 

Less disciplined (AKA new) writers often see that shiny new object and pursue it, and end up with multiple unfinished stories. You gotta finish. Rule #1 for a successful writing career.

Because writing is hard. It is. That’s no lie. One of the biggest challenges is sticking with a story to the end when you haven’t done it multiple times and you’re being assailed by cool new ideas.

Personally, I have an Evernote folder for every book, current and upcoming. When I see a cool, shiny new idea, I clip it to Evernote, open a Scrivener file with the concept laid out (I call these “treatments”) and move on with my current story. This works 90% of the time.

But every once in a while, an idea is too good to pass up, and I all-stop on a project to write it. NO ONE KNOWS is a good example of that. So is THE OMEN DAYS. And it’s just happened again. I’ve been working on a new standalone, but something’s been holding me back — an idea that bloomed fully-formed in my head back in August. I wrote it all down, gave it a Scrivener file and an Evernote notebook, but it’s been eating at me. I finally stopped the standalone and indulged this new idea. 50 pages later, I have a super weird, surreal horror story finished, and now, at last, I can return to the standalone unencumbered.

For me, it’s a fine balance between controlling (though corralling is perhaps the better term) the new ideas (Shiny! Exciting! Happy!) and finishing the current work in progress (WIP = long hard slog). It gets easier with practice. And as Stephen King says, when an idea is so great that you don’t need to write it down, you know it’s a keeper. I still write everything down, just in case, but I’d amend King’s concept to this: the idea that won’t leave you alone is the one you need to write next.

Just make sure you FINISH!!!

5.17.15 - What Lies Behind the Book (see what I did there?)

On July 24, 2013, I read a story about a young med school student named Paul DeWolf who’d been killed in his apartment. No motive, no witnesses, no suspects. By all accounts, DeWolf was an exceptional young man. He excelled in everything from school to his military training to sports and his faith. He was perfect. Everything about him foretold a brilliant future. And here he was, his promising young life cut short. I couldn’t get him out of my mind. I read everything I could find on the case. And there was a single conclusion to be drawn. 

It was a perfect murder…

That became the first line of WHAT LIES BEHIND. I let my imagination run, wrote up a somewhat outlandish proposal. By August 12 I had a title, one that fit beautifully with the idea of a locked room mystery, and the futility of a life lost too soon. The title comes from the Thoreau (or perhaps Emerson, no one knows) quote:

What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us  

are tiny matters compared to what lives within us.

Oddly enough, the day I decided on the title, I was in Ace Hardware looking for plants, and saw a plaque with beautiful birds on it. Up close, I realized it was the very quote I’d used to title the book. (I snatched it up, and it resides in my office in a spot of honor.) I knew then I had something special. Sometimes, the universe tells you when you’re on the right track.

In October, I submitted the proposal, which my agent and editor loved. I shelved the story until April 2014, when I was finished with my six months of the year I dedicate to Catherine and could think about it.

I started writing April 3. My publisher needed an excerpt for the paperback of WHEN SHADOWS FALL, so I wrote an opening. Cobbled it together, really. And in so doing, realized the story I thought I was telling wasn’t the story that wanted to be written.

It happens that way sometimes. You think a book is about one thing, but it surprises you, takes on a life of its own, and suddenly, you’re left with a completely new story. The characters dictate the story, obviously. And a lot happened between October 2013 and April 2014. Weird things, and good things.

Several wonderful people gave money to charity to have their names appear in the book. When I accept these kinds of commissions, I don’t just toss in a name. I want the donor to get their money’s worth. I create real characters, with real purpose to the story. Tommy Cattafi became my dead medical student. Robin Souleyret was his contact, also dead. (There’s another character name I can’t share, because I don’t want to spoil the story for you. You’ll see that one in the acknowledgements.)

And then the story decided it didn’t want to be about dead people. It wanted to have live people, who did amazing things. Every day, while I watched, it wove itself into a completely different entity. Tommy Cattafi wasn’t dead, but gravely injured. Robin Souleyret was very much alive, and a former CIA agent. What? She had a sister who was FBI, and her name was Amanda. She was murdered and Cataffi injured in what looked like a murder suicide. Their names became so intrinsically involved that, because of these character names, the story itself changed. It evolved. It became about Sam and Robin, the push and pull of the investigation, and the power of love.

There were other issues with the story as well. At its heart, WHAT LIES BEHIND is about a bioterror attack on the U.S. using an Ebola-esque hemorrhagic virus. Yeah. Topical much?

I was more than halfway through the writing well before the African outbreak, and as the virus, and the story, continued to spread, I kept having to change the book so it didn't look like I'd stolen the story from the headlines. Because I, apparently, am simply too prescient when it comes to writing about current events.

And then we have Sam and Xander and Fletcher. The backbone of these books. Vital, one might say, to their longevity. Samantha really comes into her own during this investigation. It was such a blast to watch her take over. She’s always been a smart cookie, but now, she’s smart and tough and isn’t about to sit back when she sees injustices. To put it mildly, she kicks ass.

It took five months to write this book, because the story was a moving target, day after day. When I finished the book, I was almost afraid to turn it in. The synopsis I’d given my editor months before was unrecognizable outside of a young man cut down in his prime. Completely different from the finished book. Happily, she loved it, and here we are.

It’s always fascinating to me to relive the writing of a book. WHAT LIES BEHIND was possibly my most challenging to date, simply because it did not behave. It didn’t do what it was told. It’s fitting WHAT LIES BEHIND was the thirteenth novel I’ve written. It seems I’ve just given birth to my first teenager. 

My Favorite Writing Books

 

A wise woman once told me, sometimes you eat the bear. Sometimes, the bear eats you.

This week, I am being eaten, bite by scrumptious bite, by the bear. So please forgive this rather truncated post.

Earlier this week I was asked what my favorite writing books are. I have several, books that influenced me, books that I read over and over, books I think are vital to the writer's process, and to the craft itself. Here are some of my favorites: (click on the link for more suggestions)

On Writing - Stephen King

The gold standard. When I'm approached by writers who are just getting their start, this is the book I send them to first. I tell them, if it speaks to you, you're a writer. If it doesn't, you may want to think about another path. I didn't read this until 2006, and it was like lightning struck my brain.

Write Away - Elizabeth George

Should the previous book speak to you, this is the next on the list. A perfect nuts to bolts book that gives tips on everything from building story to defining characters and outlining. 

Forest For The Trees - Betsy Lerner

The first writing book I ever read. It changed me in many ways, and showed me the path that I eventually found myself on. Well worth it.

The War of Art – Steven Pressfield

This one is for anyone who wants to be a creative - for that matter, anyone with dreams unfulfilled should read Pressfield's little gem. You hear me talk about resistance a lot. Here's the book I got that from. It's a hugely important book, and one I strongly recommend.

P.S. You will see a consistent path from here on out. Interestingly, books about craft aren't as important to me as books about process.

The Creative Habit – Twyla Tharp

I loved this one from dancer/choreographer Twyla Tharp. It's a great book about creating good habits, organization, and other lovely bits. Some of it I already did, and some I added into my routine. Most important rule of all - build your habits, then stick to them.

Bird by Bird - Anne Lamott

The definitive guide to the writing life, by a woman who's both acerbically funny and poignantly truthful. 

Hamlet's Blackberry - William Powers

A superb book about the history of communication and the ways modern technologies change the world. Also awesome for its tips on ways to unplug from the grid. My favorite of all the productivity books I've read.

The Artist's Way - Julia Cameron 

A little honesty for you. Once the excitement of the debut year is over and the reality of being a working writer sets in, that's when the voices start. External and internal, from reviews and reader emails to editor and agent inputs, everything starts changing. Sales goes up and down, proposals are loved and changed, or hated and revamped. The vacuum we start in, writing a little book in our spare time, mostly for ourselves, to see if we can do it, suddenly turns into the machine that controls your life. it's very easy to get thrown off track when things aren't going perfectly. And this is publishing, folks. Trust me when I say, things NEVER go perfectly. For anyone. So when the going gets tough, the tough do THE ARTIST'S WAY. It changed my world, and I'm sure it will change yours too. But it doesn't work unless you're at a certain point. Heck, it doesn't even apply until you're at a certain point. 

The Writer's Journey - Christopher Vogler

I shouldn't call this one of my favorites, because truth be told, I hated it. I've always just written from my gut, and didn't realize that I was following a pattern that had been developed practically since the first people got together under the stars and told tales of their day chasing mastodons. I adore mythology, and somewhere along the way I think I got a sense of story from that. But realizing it wasn't my own method ticked me off royally, and then I started thinking in Vogler's terms, and suddenly, everything was about the three acts, and the Hero's Journey, and it wrecked me for a couple of years. So don't read it. (But if you do, it's a fantastic journey, and it will help you identify the areas of your story that might be sagging. But you'll never watch a movie the same way again. So you've been warned.)

That should be enough to get you started.

Want to share some of your favorites in the comments? I'd love to hear what you like, too!