My friend Steve Wellington was born to write. He and I have both threatened to write the Great American Novel for years, but Steve finally sat down and took the time to create something. And what a thing! Steve’s first novel Practice to Deceive—hopefully the first in a series—was published recently by Post Mortem Press. It is an engaging thriller that well deserves your time and attention. I asked Steve about the book and his writing process and he was kind enough to share some thoughts. Because, like me, he’s a publicity whore.
Jerry Smith: Tell me about Practice to Deceive.Steve Wellington: Practice to Deceive is the first novel in my mystery/thriller series starring Jim Greyson. The book has plenty of action with real characters. None of them have to take time to empty the dishwasher like I do, but they hate and love and want more out of life like everyone else. And most of them are willing to shoot someone in the eye to get it.
A lot of writers ask which is more important – plot or character? That’s like asking which is a better pizza topping: green peppers or onions? Readers have to care about the characters while not being able to wait for what happens next in an amazing plot. So the true answer is: plot and character have to work with each other for a story to succeed. Which is why I always order green pepper and onion pizzas. Trust me, it’s good.
Back to the book, Practice to Deceive is set in Harts Bay, Maryland. A city I made up so I can take the best and worst parts of a lot of cities and put them all in one place. The novel starts with Jim Greyson in jail in Georgia. He is blackmailed by an FBI agent into going undercover and spying on an old family friend, who happens to launder money for a Russian mobster. Happens all the time. Of course none of this would be legal and used in court. So it doesn’t end well for a lot of people.
JS: What makes Greyson an interesting character to write about?SW: I’m a big fan of real characters that make real mistakes which result in real consequences. I always tell people to think of Travis McGee or Matt Scudder when thinking of Jim Greyson. These are the guys you would want to close a bar with. Then you want them at your side when the night unexpectedly takes a turn for the worse. (Yes, Scudder in his later days would stick with Diet Coke, but someone has to drive everybody home.)
Jim Greyson doesn’t look for trouble. He just knows what to do when trouble presents itself. But he doesn’t know everything. He asks a lot of questions. Then he listens. I’ve always felt there was a trustworthiness to a guy that isn’t a know-it-all. He’s not the best at what he does. That gets redundant. So Jim is trying to get along in life and get home in time for a beer before he has to get up and face the world again. Like most of us.
JS: How do you feel about explicit sex and violence in your writing? Do you have limits, or does the story dictate the content?SW: I have limits because the genre I’m writing for has limits. Without going too post-graduate literati on you, there are sub-genres and sub-sub-genres. But the main mystery/thriller genre stays with a PG-13 rating for sex and violence. Okay, maybe an R these days.
The gratuitous stuff is best left for the sub-sub-sub-genres. That’s not me. I’m not old-fashioned, just old. It’s the implication of violence and raunchy sex that lets the reader fill in the holes, so to speak, using his or her own twisted mind. And we know some of you are rather twisted, right?
Thank goodness there are plenty of web sites for folks that want to explore those sub-sub-sub genres in the privacy of their own basement.
JS: What does the future look like for Jim Greyson?SW: Other parents check their e-mail during their kids’ basketball games. I think about ways to mess with people’s lives so a sarcastic thug-for-hire has to come save them. I’ve outlined the second Jim Greyson thriller and if I can maintain a good daily BIC ratio (Butt-In-Chair), I hope to finish the novel by the end of 2014.
All Jim wants to do at the end of this first book is get used to not looking over his shoulder every ten minutes. But like I said, I’ve already outlined Jim’s next adventure and there are two more taking shape in my head. A good thriller series has to have a reason for the hero to get into the action in book after book. Jim is not a cop or even a licensed anything, but he has a reason to see more action in upcoming books. He has to pay his lawyer.
JS: How about a peek into your writing process?SW: You know that rush you feel after going full force on the treadmill for 30 minutes? That’s the feeling I get after a good writing session. (Full Disclosure: It’s been too long since my last true treadmill-induced euphoric feeling, but I am working on my weekly BIG ratio. That’s Butt-In-Gym for those keeping score.)
Maybe my heart isn’t pumping like mad at the end, but I’m feeling the endorphins course through my system. I love to write. I write a lot in my real world job and writing is just a wonderful way to waste away long, silent, incredibly isolated hours every day. Sounds just wonderful. I know some writers that just start a book without any sort of outline. Sorry, that’s not me. Maybe other genres can work that way, but a real mystery/thriller needs a plot that is believable and builds suspense. That means it needs to be outlined. However, I’m guilty of throwing in a scene or a location because I think it’s cool. Hey, it’s my make-believe world and where else am I going to be so self-indulgent?
My outlines tend to get filled up with lines of dialogue as I type up the scenes. The characters just naturally start talking to each other. I fought that a lot and then just gave into it. So now my outlines make no sense to anyone but me, but it’s the way that works for me now.
I’m also one of those writers with the first chapter re-written hundreds of times and honed to perfection with almost nothing completed for the rest of the book. That is a terrible trap to run into with any sort of project. “Look at those perfect stairs to the tree house!” “What tree house?” So I stopped doing that quite a few stories ago. Now I read what I’ve written in the last few days, correct any typos, and get started typing away.
And the outline does change at the novel progresses. Want to make God laugh? Make plans. Sorry, old joke. But you can see where I’m going.
Finally, here’s a secret I discovered about myself that all you writers should use if you want. You don’t even have to give me credit for it. I was on a car trip with a friend and we had hours to kill. So I told him the outline for my next Greyson novel. A lot of plot holes and complications and “how could that happen(s)?” came to mind as I was relating the plot aloud. Which is what I do now. Even without the captive audience, I speak the plot out loud to see if it works. It’s best if you can find a friend or a stranger you can tie down to listen. That way you have a sounding board. But if you can’t verbally describe what happens in the story, there ain’t no story.
JS: Makes sense. What are you reading now, or what would you like to recommend?SW: There’s what I read at home and what I listen to in the car. I’ve always been a big audio book fan. But I find that many books don’t work well for me in the car. Right now, I’m working through C.J. Box’s series of Joe Pickett novels in my car. This series is a great example of what works for me in an audio book. The story moves at a good clip and the dialogue is engaging and distinct – especially when it is performed well by the narrator.
Box’s style of writing just works for me in the car. Is that a compliment? I hope so. He paints a picture of each setting with a few quick words. And while the books are set in the Wyoming wilderness, his characters are the real driving force of each story.
When I’m actually reading, it’s usually a collection of short stories. My daily BIC quota means that I can only read a few stories in that time between when I just can’t see straight anymore and I’m off to Sleepytown (yes, the tough mystery writer just used the word Sleepytown). Right now I’m reading a collection of stories by Russell Banks that is showing me how deep a story can go with just dialogue. I also have a collection of stories from Lawrence Block and some sci-fi stuff.
But to experience a great mystery series with characters that age physically and otherwise, pick up the first Matt Scudder book (The Sins of the Fathers, there – looked it up for you) by Lawrence Block and find a comfy chair in good light.
Wait, go read Practice to Deceive first. Then work your way through the rest of my fellow authors at Post Mortem Press. My publisher will kill me if I didn’t say that – and he hangs with a despicable, desperate group of people. Horror writers.
Steve Wellington lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with his family. He loves to write about bad things happening to good people in spite of a very happy childhood.