Paperback Writer

A Depth Charge debrief

Today marks three months since I officially released my first novel, Depth Charge. Honestly, it feels like a lot longer, given all I’ve experienced and learned since April. Call it imposter syndrome, but I’m still not fully comfortable calling myself a “novelist,” as if writing one 260-page piece of fiction was a fluke, in the way my Mount Rainier climb does not qualify me as a “mountaineer.” When I read the reviews, see the photos of my book posted on Instagram, and hear people refer to the book, it almost seems like I’m outside a window looking at someone else’s work. But I still have a few cartons of the paperbacks in my basement and whenever I take one out to sign and ship to a new reader, I feel the same thrill I did when I first saw the book with my name on the cover.

The response to Depth Charge surpassed all of my expectations. I had modest goals, thinking that if I sold a few hundred books and had one to keep on my own shelf, I could tick a box on the bucket list. But at last count there are close to 4,000 books out there in the world. That hardly qualifies it as a New York Times bestseller, but by my metrics, it’s a blockbuster success. Feedback from readers has, by and large, been incredibly positive and supportive. I have no illusions that this book will be on English Lit syllabi in 100 years, but I’m proud of the story I wrote and of the work that went into it. And boy, was it a lot of work.

I’ve always been motivated to try new things out of a deep sense of curiosity. Sometimes it’s related to exploring my own personal limits—physical (swimming from Alcatraz), professional (going freelance), or mental (acting in a German language play in college—don’t ask). Writing a novel challenged me on several levels and forced me out of some deeply furrowed comfort zones. First of all, I’d never written anything longer than about 3,000 words. I’ve always been a pretty fast writer and my articles over the years typically were the results of single day efforts at the keyboard, admittedly preceded by research and thought, and followed by a buff and polish edit. But the prospect of sustaining a story over 60,000 words was daunting to say the least. It was the writing equivalent of standing on the gunwale of a boat bobbing in San Francisco Bay just offshore of Alcatraz, and seeing the shoreline in the distance. How would I ever get over there? Turns out, just like swimming, it’s all about one stroke, one chapter at a time. 

I’ve unashamedly said that one of my literary inspirations for writing Depth Charge is Ian Fleming and his James Bond novels. I’m not going to pretend I’m Fleming’s equal, but if you’re setting out to write a thriller, why not emulate one of the best at the discipline? Two areas I admired about his books were chapter length and pace, and his focus on details. The 007 novels are not long—220 to 260 pages mostly. The chapters are short and start with a scene and end with some compelling reason to turn the page and continue. These are books you finish in one day, maybe two, because you can’t put it down at 2am. You just have to see how Bond gets out of a predicament. Fleming also was a master of chapter names, another thing I wanted to do. “Sour Martinis,” “The Red-Eyed Catacomb,” “How to Eat a Girl”… No “Chapter 14” for me. 

Fleming also imbued his writing with a lot of small details. Bond’s clothing choices (Sea Island cotton shirt), his Bentley’s driving lights (Marchal), the brand (and vintage!) of the champagne he drinks. I feel like this adds a level of authority to the writer, realism to the story, and allows the reader to visualize the scenes more vividly. So I gave Tusker an Aquastar watch, Rausing’s henchman Scubapro Jet Fins, and a Kirby Morgan helmet.

I approached each chapter of Depth Charge like I would one of the articles I have written for various publications, whether a travel piece, a watch review, or a gear review. So each one ended up being around 2,000 words, the amount I could comfortably write in a solid day at the keyboard. Each chapter also is like a scene in a movie. It has its setting, its action, starts in one place, finishes in another and propels the action forward. I think this is what sets the thriller apart from other book genres. There aren’t “sedentary” chapters, full of reflection or philosophical musing or inner dialogue. It’s all about moving ahead, usually at a fast pace.

About two-thirds of the way into writing Depth Charge, I still lacked the primary motivation for the villain’s actions. That seemed fairly important and I struggled with it for a long time. There’s a literary device, particularly in thrillers, known as a “Maguffin,” first coined by Alfred Hitchcock. A Maguffin is a device whose sole function is to propel the action forward and motivates the conflict between hero and villain: the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the transit papers in Casablanca, for example. Does anyone think of those things first and foremost when recalling these stories? No, we think of the action and the interplay of characters. What seems like it should be the main focus fades from importance as we follow the hero on his or her journey. I won’t give away the plot of Depth Charge here, in case you haven’t read it yet, but suffice it to say, the reason for Rausing’s mischief is not really what the story is about. It merely is an excuse to put an American in a foreign place doing dangerous things under a lot of pressure.

The above having been said, if I were to do it all over again, and as I embark on my second novel I will, I’d do a better job of mapping out the plot and timeline before sitting down to write. For Depth Charge, I literally sat down and starting typing from Chapter 1 onwards and built the story as I went. It turned out all right, but I could have saved a lot of rearranging and rewriting later if I adopted a more disciplined approach upfront. Lesson learned. For the next book, I already have pages of notes and a sketched timeline. I’m starting to work like a novelist rather than a writer of articles. The comfort zone is being stretched.

The publishing process was another massive learning experience. Early on, I shared an excerpt of Depth Charge with a literary agent, hoping for feedback and possible help shopping it to publishers. I waited a couple of months for his reply and when it came, it was full of helpful comments, but then also a polite “no thanks.” By that time I’d also spoken with a small publishing house in Michigan about their process and decided I wanted to publish this on my own. Going with a traditional publisher has many advantages. They have a network of editors, designers, proofreaders, and printers to help create the book, and the reach to get it marketed and distributed. But I was already well down that path, with a talented designer to create the cover and do the typesetting, a good editor and proofreader lined up, and I felt that with my fairly ample “reach” on social media and publications, and the TGN podcast, I could do a decent job marketing the book myself. It was the right decision and I feel like self publishing is the way of the future, at least for me. 

It has been incredibly rewarding to work on every aspect of the book myself, from collaborating on design, to hosting a launch event on Instagram and in person, and even making some peripheral merchandise in the way of stickers and T-shirts based on fictional elements of the book. Shipping books out and interacting with readers has made the writer/reader connection very powerful. To see where the books have gone in the world has been particularly fun to see and to get the encouragement from people to write a sequel or even inspire others to write their own books has been invaluably satisfying.

The upshot of my “success” with Depth Charge is now the pressure to write a followup book that is at least as good. Fleming wrote a book a year for over a decade. So did Alistair Maclean. I’m hoping for about an 18-month cycle between publications. And so, as I mentioned, work has begun on a sequel of sorts. Yes, Tusker will be back, this time in a new part of the world and a new set of challenges. Villains, sidekicks, and love interests are firmly TBD. There’s so much I want to do with this book to expand on Depth Charge. I want to continue to develop Tusker as a character, give him more, well… depth. I want to have more fun with my villain. And I want the plot to have a little more layered nuance, Maguffin or not. I’ll take what I learned from writing Depth Charge about organization, work process, and discipline, and apply it to the next book. I think it might even make it more enjoyable to write, since I won’t have to figure out everything from scratch this time. And maybe, after a second one is published, I can confidently call myself a novelist. 

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