Ep 19 Is the book industry living or dying? Why journalists are less trusted than lawyers and author behind the Marika Hartmann series, Greg Barron.

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In Episode 19 of So you want to be a writer, we chat about why Valerie makes people cry, is the book industry living or dying? Why journalists are less trusted than lawyers, how to become a wildlife journalist, should you consider a career in technical writing? Books That Changed the World by Andrew Taylor, blog naming woes, why bloggers need to do more than just trademark their name, Writer in Residence and author behind the Marika Hartmann series Greg Barron, writing on a green screen, how to tell if a publisher pays and more!

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here.

Show Notes

Now tell me what your REALLY want

The Book Industry: Living or Dying? Three Experts Have Their Say

Journalists less trusted than lawyers, taxi drivers and baggage handlers

Technical Writing May Offer a Secure Career Opportunity for the Working Writer

Books That Changed the World

Big changes coming to IKEAHackers

Why Bloggers Need to Do More Than Just Trademark Their Blog Name

Writer in Residence

GregBarronFiction writer and terrorism expert Greg Barron has lived in several continents, and studied at Scotland’s prestigious St Andrew’s University. His books, both published by HarperCollins, are gutsy pageturners that tell the truth about the world as it is now. Rotten Gods was longlisted for the prestigious Ned Kelly awards, and has been lauded as “one of the most sophisticated geopolitical thrillers ever written.” Savage Tide was described by ABC Radio reviewer Rob Minshull as; “Both supremely intelligent and written at breathtaking pace.”

Rotten Gods, Savage Tide, Voodoo Dawn and the upcoming Lethal Sky all feature Marika Hartmann, the intelligence agent who is winning the hearts of readers all over the world.

Buy Greg’s latest book

Greg’s website
Greg on Twitter
HarperCollins on Twitter

Web Pick

Writer

Working Writer’s Tip

How can I tell if a publication pays?

Your hosts

Allison Tait
Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait
@valeriekhoo

Transcript

Allison

Greg Barron is the author of two thriller novels and one digital novelette called Voodoo Dawn. His books are full of action, adventure, explosions and more. He’s fairly adventurous himself, having visited five of the seven continents, canoed down a swollen river and crossed Arnhem Land on foot. His new book, Lethal Sky is out on July 1st, and offers more thrills and spills.

 Hi, Greg.

Greg
Hi, Allison.

Allison
Here you are on solid ground, no adventures this week?

Greg
None outside the ordinary. We did have a long drive on the weekend, down to the Riverina, which was a great. Love exploring Australia, as the rest of the world, it’s a wonderful country.

Allison
Let’s talk about sort of action thrillers, because that’s obviously what you specialise in. What first drew you to writing this kind of story?

Greg
Most definitely reading this kind of story. I grew up reading all of the great thriller writers of the day, Alistair MacLean, Ian Fleming, Wilbur Smith, Tom Clancy, Jack Higgins. I used to read, like a lot of people, under the bedclothes at night, with a torch under my desk when I was supposed to be studying, in the bath. I came from a big family so we handed books from person to person, we talked about books a lot. I just loved the way a book could carry me away, just purely with words and images. I just wanted to do that for other people.

Allison
When did you write your first one? Was it just that you sat down to write something and this is what came out or did you specifically set out to write a thriller?

Greg
That’s a really interesting question for me, because I never saw myself as a thriller writer, and it took me a long time to get published, more than ten years before I found a publisher. I wrote in several genres during that time, but I always wanted to write page-turners.

I couldn’t not write things with a powerful story that took you along. But I’ve always struggled a little bit with the genre tag, I always wanted to be a mainstream writer in a way, I wanted to write books that everyone could read and not try and limit it. I think being put into a genre is partly a publishing thing. Bookshelves like it, the publishers like it, they know exactly how to market you, the know exactly your placement in the market, so they like to give you a tag and for you to continue to produce in that genre.

It took me five years to get an agent, and during the next five years when he helped me towards publication, he helped me to understand that what I was writing loosely fitted into the thriller genre. When I did finally get a contract from Harper Collins and they picked up the first of what has ultimately become a three-book series, Rotten Gods, they said to me, “What are you working on now?” This was in the boardroom at the Harper Collin’s office down in Sydney. I had everyone from the head of publishing down sitting around the table. They said, “Well, what are you working on now?” I said, “I’m writing a book it’s set partly in ancient Egypt and partly in –” they cut me off and they said, “What about writing two more of these? Can you give us something with these same characters in a similar world and basically give us three thrillers just like this one?” I said, “Of course.”

Allison
Why not?

Greg
Yes.

Allison
No pressure.

Greg
So, actually, the impetus to continue along the thriller genre path came from the publishers.

Allison
OK, but it’s obviously something that you really enjoy writing?

Greg
Absolutely.

Allison
Yeah, which is great.

Greg
The more I think about my older work the more that I realise that they were thrillers, sometimes I didn’t quite realise that.

Allison
Do you think you need to be the adventurous type to write gripping adventure?

Greg
I think you need to have experienced a lot of things to know how they feel. I think you need to have experienced fear to be able to describe it. I think you need to have experienced some of the people in the world who are very scary, you need to have been in situations where your life is possibly at risk to be able to describe those things.

I think writers become writers because they’re very good at putting themselves in other people’s shoes. No, lack of experience is insurmountable with writing, but it certainly helps.

Allison
OK, so what do you think are the key hallmarks of a great thriller?

Greg
A really good thriller has to be big in scope. Thrillers tend to describe major events or be involved with major events rather than small ones. If you’re writing a thriller set during World War II you would tend to have characters who are movers and shakers, decision makers, at a global level. If you’re writing a small literary novel you might concentrate on one family in Berlin living through the war, or one family in England doing the same thing. But, a thriller has to have characters who are doing things and driving decisions and making stuff happen.

I think the other hallmark of a thriller is that detail is important to thriller readers, and in some more military styles you’ll see they spend a lot of time discovering military hardware, I’m kind of halfway down that road, but not at the extreme level. Thriller readers tend to like things to be right, to be exact. If you make a change in historical context for the sake of the story I think it needs to be noted somewhere. What I have found is that readers know a lot of stuff, collectively your readers know more about your topic than you do, at least before you started researching it. It has to be good, your detail has to be spot on.

The final thing about thrillers, you have to really immerse the readers’ senses in a story. It’s not just about a matter of telling them what’s happening in the story, you need to involve as many of their senses as possible so if your character is wading through freezing cold water you have to describe his trousers winding around his legs and the goosebumps on his skin. That is the kind of detail that will really get readers feeling as if they’re there, and that’s the ultimate aim.

Allison
It’s not just about action scene after action scene after action scene, it’s actually about immersing the reader in the story?

Greg
Yes, absolutely. Action without involvement in the characters is very empty, and it can be actually boring, believe it or not. Action only works when you have well-developed characters that the readers are sympathising with and is really going along for the ride with.

Allison
Do you start with your characters or do you start with the story?

Greg
It’s a hard question, because, for me, a few things tend to come at once. But, I would probably start with the story first and then start to develop some characters or the characters start to present themselves to me and put their hand up and say, “Look, I want to be in this,” and you can see them in your peripheral vision and you invite them to come center stage and you examine them and you decide whether they’re going be part of the story.

Like a lot of writers there are a lot of false starts out there. The first thing you have to decide when a story idea comes along is whether it’s got the legs to make a novel, because a lot of story ideas are two or three chapters worth, or a long short story, but they’re not actually big enough to develop into a full-length novel.

I probably have some kind of story idea come along every couple of weeks. I do tend to note them down for future reference. Sometimes I’ll even get really excited and just write a couple of chapters and just see what happens, then I might put it away for two years before I come back to it again.

I have a project that I’m working on at the moment and I wrote the first word of that something like nine years ago and it just won’t leave me alone. So, I know that story has got the legs, and I’ve developed it and I’ve written all of these bits and pieces over the years. I’m just trying to bring it all together and see what happens.

A lot of the stories are false starts, you realize after a while and you just put them aside.

Allison
I mean nothing is ever wasted is it? Because some of the stuff you come up with those particular stories may be used elsewhere or down the track it may develop into something bigger?

Greg
Yeah, absolutely. I never throw anything out. I save drafts.

I have a whole series of files on my computer that are called ‘bits’ and it might be
Rotten God bits which were discarded sections from there. Occasionally, I’ll be working a new book and I’ll go, “Hang on, didn’t I have a guy climbing across a whole bunch of building roofs and then climbing down and running away in another story?” and you can kind of recycle it to a degree. It doesn’t happen very often though.

Allison
No.

Greg
Occasionally also you write a couple of really good lines that don’t fit into the current story that do get a run elsewhere and that’s really nice.

Allison
You feel like you’ve done the work before, don’t you? It’s like a bonus.

Greg
It is a little bit, it’s always easier to play around with text rather than write it for the first time.

Allison
Yeah, isn’t that the truth?

That brings me then to your writing process. You were talking about you’d sort of take an idea and have a look and see how good its legs are. Do you plot the whole novel out in advance before you start writing? Or does it develop as you go?

Greg
I’ve done both. Virtually all of my stories I plot to some degree, my technique usually is to create, first of all, handwritten notes. Then I’ll often make a table in Microsoft Word with scene numbers, chapter numbers, beginning, middle and end. In each square I’ll list the characters involved, the location, and then a quick summary of what happens in that scene or chapter. Often I’ll also add another thing saying, “What is the purpose of this scene? Why is this scene in the story?” And if I can’t come up with a valid reason for that, I don’t write it. It gets left by the wayside.

After a few weeks I’ll play around with that, get the plot structure pretty tight and then I’ll often write two or three chapters and then I’ll rewrite my plan, or find a direction I had originally thought of wasn’t working, so then I’ll often rewrite. Normally that will keep me going through the first draft, and I’ll finish the first draft over a period of two to three months.

I find often I’ve finished the first draft and I go, “Hmm, that’s pretty good. I’m pretty happy with that.” And then I’ll put it away for a couple of weeks, maybe a month, and then I’ll read it again. That’s when I go, “Oh dear, that’s not very good at all.”

It’s almost like a form of depression, I just go, “This is awful,” and I’ll mope around for days and days and then reread it and make notes. Then I’ll be out walking somewhere and I’ll go, “Hang on, what if I do…” such and such…”…make Emily a school headmistress instead of a vagrant?” or something like that. Then I start to rebuild — and I rebuild my own psyche at the same time as I’m rebuilding the book.

Over the next few months I’ll be making heaps and heaps of handwritten notes again. I might completely plan it again, and slowly I’ll start to get a second draft. The second draft, for me, is working out exactly the story I want to tell, which I was never completely certain of in the beginning. You’re searching for the core, every story has a core. They talk about elevator speeches, they talk about being able to state the story’s premise in two sentences, it’s true. You need to be able to say basically what your story is about in a few sentences.

Allison
So if someone says to you, “What’s this book about?” you’ve got an answer.

Greg
You do. And it’s hard. I find when I do book signings the first thing people say is, “What’s it about?” And you go, “Oh, I don’t know…”

Allison
“It’s just a really great story…”

Greg
“It’s about a couple of characters who do…” and you start raving on. The times when I have actually learnt a succinct plot summary it’s helped enormously, not just for the writing process, but also in the title spaces.

Allison
All right, so I’m going to test you now. Tell us about your new book, Lethal Sky out on July 1. What’s it about, Greg? 

Greg
It’s about a group of terrorists who get a hold of a biological weapon and they’re threatening to use it against the world’s great cities.

Allison
Fantastic. See, right there? I’m in. Someone is going to save the world, aren’t they?

Greg
Exactly.

Allison
Fantastic.

Greg
That’s what I was saying about scope with thrillers, big stuff, you know? The stakes have to be high. It could be the death of a civilization, it could be the death of the world, it could the wiping out of a city — the reader has to be worried that something really bad is going to happen, not just that John is going to stub his toe, it has to be serious, serious stuff.

Lethal Sky has been really interesting to me because it’s the first time I used Australia as a setting. About a quarter of the novel is about Sydney, which was great for research, it saved me a lot of travel and a lot of Wikipediaing, very fun for me to use locations I knew. And even just to sit in an airplane over Sydney, because part of it is set in an airplane over Sydney and just draw with words what I saw. Sydney from the air is immensely interesting, as you know.

Allison
Definitely.

Greg
Just to use those kinds of images in the book was fantastic for me.

I also think the local angle will be great for marketing, because people can relate to it.

Allison
Yep, because there aren’t that many thrillers set in Australia either.

Greg
No, not kind of big terrorist stories.

Allison
No.

Greg
Yeah. I didn’t do that as a deliberate at all, because I had an Australian character it just kind of worked that way.

Allison
Bonus. We talked earlier about research and you said how important it was to get your guns right and your explosions right, and all of that sort of thing. How long does it take you to research a novel, like how long did the research for Lethal Sky take?

Greg
I research as I write, I use several different techniques. I’ve learned a fair bit of stuff that I didn’t already know through the research in the previous novels, but if I get to something I don’t know and I’m writing a first draft I’ll tend to just write XXX. I’ll ‘X’ it out, or there’s a couple of code words I’ll use for researching later. Either at the end of the day’s writing I’ll come back and look them up, or if they’re more difficult and I’ve got to contact someone I might email someone at the end of the day, otherwise it gets left to the second draft, at which stage a very slow and tortuous process of pulling it all together I find out what I need to know. I don’t have a research stage.

Allison
Right, because you could research forever, couldn’t you? I think a lot of people get themselves so enamored of the research that they never actually get to writing the book.

Greg
Yeah, yeah. Doing it upfront, it suits some people. Some people — I’m a bit of a risk taker, some people are perfectionists from the word ‘go’ and they love to just get it right and know everything they need to know before they write a word, and that’s fine, that’s a different personality type. I’m happy to get it close in the first draft or have a guess in the first draft and then I’ve got the second, third, fourth, et cetera draft to get it right.

To give you an idea the first draft of Lethal Sky I did in between in between the finishing bits and pieces of Savage Tide. It probably took me about five months, all up, to write the first draft, then I’ve spent at least 12 months rewriting it — at least. And that’s before it even goes to the editor, and they do their structural drafts and then they do their copy edit. My rewriting is extensive, torturous, I make huge structural changes.

In fact, with Lethal Sky I got the initial report back from the structural editor and after that I made huge changes to that manuscript that weren’t asked for by the structural editor, but she made a couple of comments that made me think, “There’s a better way of doing this overall,” and I cut a 110,000 word manuscript down to 65,000 words. This is just basically a month before I had to hand it in for the copy edit.

Allison
Wow.

Greg
I wrote a new 50,000 in a four week period.

Allison
Wow, I’m feeling much better about my own structural editing now.

Greg
I’m a nut case, really. Because I could have just stuck with what I had, it was a pretty good novel, you know? This is what the structural editor said, she said, “Well, it all works pretty well…” blah, blah, blah, but I just felt that I could do it better, so I did. I caused myself an awful lot of sleepless nights and late nights. I basically hardly saw my family for months. It’s there now, it’s done, I’m happy with it.

Allison
Fantastic. That’s the key to it, isn’t it? You have to be happy with it at the end of it.

Greg
Yeah.

Allison
What do you think are the key characteristics of a great action hero? What have you got in your head when you’re pulling your protagonist together?

Greg
Number one a really good action hero has to have a strong moral core. You have to have someone who — it is a cliché, but who fights for the right thing. That they have strong values, they value human life and they abhore evil. It’s probably almost essential. You can turn that on its head and have someone who’s questionable morally, but I just don’t think people like to read that. I think at the heart of every human being is some kind of admiration of what we call good. I think at some level they need to have a strong moral core, they need to be considerate, polite — not necessarily polite, actually, that’s probably not quite true. I think of some action heroes who are actually quite brass. But, at some level they’re admirable. They’ve also got to be very capable at what their particular task is. They need to have skills, they need to be well trained.

Usually they need to have a mentor of some kind, who every now and then when they wander off the path a little bit they have a hand on their shoulder steering them back.

Some people would argue that they need to be attractive. I think you’ll find 95 percent of action heroes are kind of described as attractive. It’s just simply an imagery thing. I like it personally when they’re a bit quirky, a little bit interesting. I love them to have a sense of humor, I think that’s really important. Steve Worland, another Australian thriller writer who’s written Combustion and Velocity, he uses humor deliberately as a way of getting close to the reader and getting the readers’ sympathy. His books are quite funny.

I tend to come across humor by accident. I happen to write a sentence and go, “Hang on, this situation is funny,” and then I’ll milk it. Then I’ll go back to and I’ll try to bring out the humor in it and make it interesting. I think all good books have humor to some degree.

Allison
If I was going to sit down and write a thriller what would be your three top tips for me to get me started?

Greg
Think of a really strong concept with high stakes, so start with a really strong idea — an asteroid is going to hit the Earth, or these creatures are going to crawl out of the sea and take over the world, something that’s strong and catastrophic is probably a good start. Catastrophic is a little bit extreme, but, if it is, so much the better.

I would choose a strong character, a strong main character, a strong supporting character, often of the opposite sex, but not necessarily, a mentor type character. Then I would think up some really good obstacles to them preventing the catastrophe that you’ve already thought of. It’s all about those obstacles, it’s all about not letting it be easy for your protagonist to save the day. Also, the antagonist is very interesting, has to be strong, once again. In Rotten Gods I was really keen to show that the antagonist, in this case, Muslim terrorists came from somewhere, that they were believable, that they had laws of their own, and that they actually believed they were right in acting the way they do. I really wanted to show that side.

You do run into some problems there because the very best antagonists are truly evil, you know they can’t walk past a cat without kicking it. They treat other people horribly all the time. That’s kind of the easy way of doing it, but when you want to present them as being balanced it’s harder, but you get a stronger result overall. I wanted all of those characters to be believable. I wanted people to understand where they came from and why they act the way they do.

Allison
Bear that in mind when you’re putting your stuff together.

Greg
Yeah, make them balanced. They always have their soft side, I mean Hitler loved dogs and painted pictures. You know? It’s almost a cliché, but it’s true. No one is purely nasty all the time.

Allison
Do you ever feel a little bit mean to your protagonist, like you make it so hard for them? Everyday is difficult? Do you ever feel like, “I’m being a little bit nasty about all of this?”

Greg
It really surprised me, and I was touched after Savage Tide came out, and something particularly nasty happens to one of the characters, people genuinely were annoyed about it.

Allison
“How could you do that?”

Greg
Coming up saying, “What did you do that to PJ for? Poor, PJ!”

Then when I was writing the third one I was getting messages through my wife from people she worked with, “You better not kill him off in the next book.” Like, serious. I was just like, “People actually care, they really, really care.”

So you do have a responsibility, you can’t just kill people off willy-nilly for no reason. I mean if that’s what has got to happen then that’s what happens, but you don’t do it lightly, and you don’t do it spuriously without any reason, or you’re going to annoy readers.

Allison
You weigh the consequences.

Greg
They have an investment in the characters and they hate losing them. Sometimes they have to lose them, but you don’t just do it on a whim.

Allison
Never kill them off on a whim, there’s some good advice.

All right, thank you so much for talking to us today, Greg.

Greg
Absolute pleasure.

Allison
Good luck with Lethal Sky. I’m so glad I gave you the opportunity to practise your elevator pitch with that one. We shall look forward to seeing them out on the shelves. Thanks very much.

Greg
Thanks very much, Allison.


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