How did you become a writer?
Ah, a simple question with a complicated answer. It wasn’t something I planned. For me, law school after college was always as certain as college was after high school. But early on at Brown I fell in love with the process of writing anything, mostly term papers. There was something about it—the organization, the challenge of smooth transitions, of finding a style that was interesting to me so it would be interesting to professors—I just took to right off the bat to the point that I tried my hand, rather successfully, at journalism and ended up falling in love with seeing my name in print too! Now, because of Brown’s exceedingly liberal curriculum, I was able to change horses in the middle of the stream and some terrific professor mentors stepped up and took a chance on me when I decided I wanted to write a novel as a my senior thesis. The concept was to show what I’d learned about the novel by actually penning one. Little did I know at that point my senior thesis was going to end up as a thriller!
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Well, studying English and American Literature at Brown infected me with a love of reading that left me turning toward it for entertainment too. I devoured Robert Ludlum, Stephen King, Clive Cussler, and David Morrell. More than anything, I wanted to write like they did which, I guess, makes them my primary influences. But long before then as a little kid I’d fallen in love with the early James Bond movies starring Sean Connery. I think those movies influenced my approach to structure more than anything else—you can still somewhat see them in every book I write. I also became a huge fan of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. So I guess you could say I actually fell in love with storytelling because on a weekly basis that’s what those shows did—told great stories. Long before I was a writer, I was a storyteller too. I just didn’t realize where that foundation was going to end up taking me.
When and where do you write?
I have a second bedroom in my townhouse I use as my office. It’s my comfort zone and finding that comfort zone is crucial to becoming and staying a writer for the consistency, familiarity and security it provides. When I write is a harder question to answer since there are so many demands on my time outside of the process itself. There always seem to be galleys to proof, a copyedited manuscript to review, or something I’ve got to get done on social media. I’d be thrilled if all I had to do was write, but it’s only a part of a much greater whole now. I ordinarily work in two shifts, like 11-3 and 8-12 seven days a week for the most part. And when I’m doing a first draft I normally set aside two hours in each of those blocks. That’s about as far as I can go without feeling stale and, since I write very fast, a four-hour writing day is easily 15-20 manuscript pages. And, of course, there’s the rewrite process to consider as well. To me, a first draft is about getting it down and everything else is about getting it right. I don’t outline, so my first drafts tend to be crammed with stuff that ends up getting dumped once I figure out where I’m really going. I normally do 4-5 drafts with each one getting progressively more specific and precise. Sometimes I wish I was more of an outliner since there are always a few spots in a book where I end up having no idea how I’m going to tie everything together. Thank God, my characters figure the way out of the mess to bail me out!
What are you working on now?
I’m actually trying my hand at my first horror story. It’s a work-for-hire project based on someone else’s concept that I’m developing from scratch. I’m actually having fun with it, but I hate the process because I didn’t get into this business to have somebody else tell me how and what to write. It’s like having a real boss, for God’s sake! But one of the keys to survival in this business, never mind thriving, is to continually be willing to reinvent yourself. You can’t be rigid in determining what you will and won’t do if you want to maximize your opportunities for success. That’s why my second nonfiction book/thriller is coming out in March. That’s why I’ve joined forces with the romantic suspense icon Heather Graham to pen a new science fiction series. And that’s why I’ll do work-for-hire even though it goes totally against my nature. Very few writers these days make it going through the first door they see; it usually takes lots of doors and, in my case, several doors at the same time and writing what amounts to three books a year. Gotta pay the mortgage, right?
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I’m happy to say no, never. I don’t believe in it. Writing is my job and it’s no different than any other. Avoiding writer’s block is all about controlling the work instead of letting the work control you. But I also have three strategies I employ to keep writer’s block the phrase that won’t be spoken: (1) I always leave off in the middle of a page, paragraph or even sentence so I get a running start in my next session. In other words, don’t stop when you finish a chapter, start the next one so you know where you’re going. (2) I save books by my favorite writers so I’ll always have them to read a little of before I start my own writing. It inspires me and puts me in the right mindset, reminds me of who I am and what I’m going. (3) I let my characters do the heavy lifting, let them dictate to me where the story is going. When you trust your characters, writer’s block is vanquished by their ability to command the narrative. The great John D. McDonald once said that story is stuff happening to people you care about. And I make sure everything I write fits into that rule.
What’s your advice to new writers?
First and foremost, tell a story. I don’t care what kind of writer you are or what genre you’re writing in, you need to have a strong narrative—a coherent beginning, middle and end. That means you need to have a firm grasp of structure which comes as much from reading as writing. Robert Louis Stevenson once said that you can only write what you would read if someone else had written it. So being a great writer means you have to be a great reader first. Find the authors who inspire you the most, who you enjoy reading the most, and you’ll know what it is you’re supposed to be writing. All art, all creative expression, starts with imitation. You sing in someone else’s voice until you find your own and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. William Goldman never could have written Marathon Man right out of the box, any more than Robert Ludlum could have penned The Matarese Circle, Stephen King The Stand or Clive Cussler with Raise the Titanic. There aren’t many thriller writers who hit their stride and find their voice with book one. The whole process is based on growth, self-learning, and when you think you’ve got it all figured out, that’s the time you need to worry.
Jon Land is the USA Today bestselling author of 37 novels, including the critically acclaimed Caitlin Strong series that includes Strong Enough to Die, Strong Justice, Strong at the Break, Strong Vengeance, Strong Rain Falling, and Strong Darkness. Strong Rain Falling won both the 2014 International Book Award and 2013 USA Best Book Award for Mystery-Suspense, followed by the 2013 USA Best Book Award for Thriller, followed by Strong Darkness winning the 2014 USA Books Best Book Award for Thriller. His most recent book, Black Scorpion, was published on April 7 with the next in the Caitlin Strong series, Strong Light of Day, coming in October. He's a 1979 graduate of Brown University, lives in Providence, Rhode Island and can be found on the Web at jonlandbooks.com or on Twitter @jondland.