Fiction, the Wild West, different planets and getting suspended from school for writing erotica...
One of the real positives about working with a publisher is the opportunity to speak to other authors - all far more established and experienced in the murky world of making stuff up than I am. Recently I had a chat with the best-selling US author TJ Brearton and it turned into a rather fascinating insight into the world of someone who writes for a living:
Q: T J Brearton. The author of many-a-thriller. How many books do you have out?
Uhm. Let me just look that up for a second…
So, eleven. But that’s eight novels, one omnibus, one “deluxe” version of a novel, and one short story collection.
Twelve, if you still count an older self-published book I still have hanging around – though that’s not on my Amazon author page. I sort of abandoned that one. It’s like I had only one friend for a while, and then I got a whole group of newer, “hipper” friends, and I stopped hanging around with the old one.
I’m a jerk.
Q: And are you happy with being labelled a ‘thriller writer’?
Sure. Though I don’t think anyone has ever called me that to my face. I go by daddy, babe, and Tim, in order of daily frequency.
But I guess what you’re asking is am I happy with that as a label. Absolutely.
Q: Have you ever written in any other genres?
Yes. All of them.
Seriously. In twelfth grade, I wrote erotica.
Unfortunately, it referenced real people from the high school.
One day I opened my locker to get the erotica notebook, and it wasn’t there. I realized I’d left it in physics class the previous afternoon, where I did most of the writing. But, of course it was gone.
Someone had stolen it, then made copies of several pages and pinned them up in the bathrooms.
I was suspended.
Otherwise, I wrote lots of sci-fi and horror as a young man. I’ve also written plenty of bad poetry, experimental or, “speculative” fiction. But these all killed each other off and what was left standing was crime fiction.
Q: As you write more and more, do you find it easier or more difficult?
Boy that’s a good question. I ask myself this quite a bit.
But I’m going to have to go for the non-answer answer, Charlie, which is that it’s a bit of both.
Q: You’ve just released ‘Dead Gone’. Using this as an example, how did you make a start? Do you make plans, write some scenes or hang upside ’til all the story’s fallen out of you?
Usually it starts with two ideas. Two things, and so there’s a conception of an idea. Then I try to rocket through, fast as I can go.
I like to be surprised when something happens as I write. If the ending comes as a surprise, and it all works without major revision, that’s the best.
One book, DARK WEB, just started with the opening couple lines. I had those in my head for several weeks before another idea joined in, and then I got moving on it.
Occasionally, I’ll write a scene or two off to the side and then fit it in. But usually the story comes together in scenes written consecutively, daily.
DEAD GONE was written somewhat politically. Meaning, I almost wrote it as an exercise. Things that I wanted to do with a story, improvements on past books. I actually started that one, got twenty thousand words in, then basically erased all of that and gave it a second go.
I’ve read a compelling argument that a writer made about outlines. He said that we all outline, even if we don’t think we do. If you’re not writing an official outline for weeks before you start going on the actual prose, chances are you write more drafts. In this way, your rough draft is your outline. So, I guess that’s me.
Q: How long does it take you to write a book - on average. And do you find this is becoming longer or shorter as you write more?
The longest published book took about two years from day one of the rough draft to publication. That was HABIT, my first commercially published novel. So, part of that time was spent submitting.
The shortest one went from the first-word-written to actual publication in about six months. It wasn’t my latest, but recent. So I guess they’re going quicker.
I’ve definitely gotten faster writing rough drafts, but this may be circumstantial; I’m writing full time, so I have no excuses. Also, I’m very impatient.
Q: What’s your inspiration for writing?
Richard Wright said “All literature is protest,” and I think that describes some of it – I’m very inspired by people overcoming adversity and inequality and injustice. But mostly, some idea will just get stuck in my craw. For example, one book (BLACK SOUL, not released yet) really rode on this one conversation I had with my sister, about her experiences as a cop, and the frustrations, the limitations of the system. It also might be some cutting edge technology that greases the gears, or something controversial in the news. I’m veering away from conspiracy theory, but that shit is like catnip to my fiction-writer’s mind.
Very often, this happens – I think psychologists call it “frequency illusion” – when you’re thinking about something and suddenly it’s everywhere. When I was working on Dark Web, I was just learning about the deep net, the dark web, and hadn’t heard much of anything about it. But then I’m in the middle of the third draft and I’m in the car and something about the ‘dark web’ is on the radio. Then it’s in a magazine. Then a friend brings it up to me. Suddenly it’s all over! And I’m thinking, Go! Must publish this book nooowwwww!
And then of course, the book comes out and it’s like, Oh. Okay. Most readers didn’t really care about the internet parts of the book anyway.
I have to remind myself of this. I get all nerdy-infatuated with some new piece of tech, or breaking controversy, or conspiracy about the FBI, but readers tend to be reading for the characters and story.
(I just peeked at Google and the “frequency illusion” is called Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. And now suddenly I’m feeling this bit of frisson about a story . . . something to do with the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon…yesss…and these people start seeing the same thing everywhere, only it’s more powerful than anything anyone has ever experienced! . . . See, now I wish I was writing science fiction instead of crime and no one called me a “thriller writer.”)
Q: When someone reads your stuff, what emotion do you most want them to feel as they go through it?
Well, that follows nicely from the last question. I mean, typically I’ve wanted people to be really blown away by the ideas. (Frequency illusion! Yesss!) Not because they’re my ideas – they’re not. I’ve just stolen and repackaged them into a story.
But lately I’m focusing on smaller, everyday things. Or, trying to. Some writer once said something like, you could spend your whole writing career just writing about this one street in the neighborhood. And you should.
There’s just so much. You can feel how big the world is when you are trying to cram it all into a book and realize you probably should only focus on this one little tiny piece, right here, that this one tiny piece is everything.
Like, uhm, frequency illusion.
Q: Talk about the editing process. Is this something you enjoy? How does it work for you?
Oh God, editing.
Alright. Let me pull it together. So, what do I say? I think the lines are: “writing is not rewriting…rewriting is writing.”
But, it’s true. I used to think of a book as something I wrote, and it was grand, and it needed a few tweaks and it was good to go. I mean, I would go through it and everything, but without having an outside editor, it’s like you’re teaching yourself to practice medicine. To some extent, okay, you can figure it out. But why are all those people you practiced on walking around with one shoulder drooped, one eye twitching, and they’re all grossly overweight?
So, I don’t know. What is editing? I mean, what is it, at its essence? *passes the joint*
I write about six or seven drafts these days. Then it goes to the editor. That’s all I have to say about that.
Q: In your opinion, what means that a book of yours is a success?
If readers love it and it sells really well.
That’s the easy answer. And it’s true. But there’s another answer that’s more personal, and comes with hindsight – and that is if I truly realized the story. If I took enough time and care. If it holds up, basically, after the blush is off the bloom, and I’m proud of it. Then it’s a success.
Q: In regards to sales - the best books sell the most copies. Discuss!
Not true. Or, maybe it’s true, but I just have a hard time accepting it.
No, I’ll stick with my gut. Not true. I think there are tons of good books out there that didn’t sell well. Partly I think it’s about market muscle.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean a big publisher. I’ve seen some authors very buoyant on the charts and they’re self-published. I’m not talking buoyancy like they cracked the top 10,000 on Amazon Kindle – they’re in the top 100.
Some of that has got to be loyal following. You get loyal readers from writing good books, so yes, the best books sell. But I think those self-published authors with high sales must really be investing in their marketing, too. I think you really have to. There are so many books.
And, for this reason, not-so-great books probably sell quite well, too. I’m not naming any names, but I’ve seen some recent books from major publishers with loads of terrible reviews and they’re still in the top ten or twenty.
Q: You clearly know a little about the US market. Have you read British or European authors? If so, do you think there are major differences and what are they?
I can’t say I’ve been a good writer in this regard and read much contemporaneous British thrillers. Just a couple put out by my same publisher, Joffe Books. And of course the colloquialisms are different, and I think there’s a different relationship to police, or the concept of police in the UK, and it seems there’s lots of perverted sex happening among the baddies, but otherwise the flow is the same. The story beats are very similar.
Q: You would have spent some time writing before you worked with any publisher, when it was just you and a keyboard. How has your attitude changed towards your writing at all. And the content, is it different?
I spent about ten years from the time I first sat down to seriously write a novel and when my first one was published. Up until then I’d written very extemporaneously. But my son had just been born, and other than that, my life was a wreck. I started writing one day and looked up about two or three years later and had this 130,000 word tome I called “Chimera.” It was everything – sci-fi, fantasy, experimental, and very autobiographical.
Each book after that got a bit shorter. I read this one author who described the process of refinement as getting bored with their own writing. After a few books, there was no more justifying why it took the first twenty pages to come to the point. As the writer, you get leaner, and this is partly because you’ve been there and done that.
At least for me. I have to go through it all. You can’t tell me anything. I have to learn it for myself.
This is wonderful for me as a father now that I’ve passed these traits onto my three children.
Q: Who's the perfect fiction character in your opinion and why? You can use book, tv shows or film.
My first thought was, Oh boy, let me think about that.
My second thought, about 2.8 seconds later was, Clint Eastwood as Bill Munny in the movie Unforgiven.
He's tried to start his life over. He's a widower taking care of two small kids. His past is bloody and violent. His wife had reformed him of his ways, but now she's gone. His little dust bowl farm is dying. He needs money. Then opportunity comes knocking.
I think that movie probably sunk deep into my brain and has informed every character I've written since.
Though I write crime fiction, I think there's an element of the American West in every story I tell. There's something about the West that's so perfect for these types of characters. The only other setting that would come close is a world after a major catastrophe, or colonizing some distant planet.
TJ Brearton's latest book DEAD GONE is available via this link: