David Vinjamuri is the talented author of Operator, one of my top reads of last year – and you have to know that I’m picky, especially when reading a genre I write in. I was struck by how well-edited and generally thought out that book was, and as I learned more about David’s journey, I thought his story would make an interesting blog, especially considering how much I harp on quality and consistency. David writes a column for Forbes.com, in addition to having a fascinating background in the intelligence field, and just released his sequel to Operator, titled Binder. He was kind enough to take out a few hours of his time to put up with me pestering him. The below represents the results of that interrogative.
Russell Blake: David, I enjoyed your first novel, Operator, a great deal. It was one of the better written indie novels of 2012. As I began stalking you, I discovered that you write for Forbes.com – what’s it like to write fiction while working for a pub like Forbes?
David Vinjamuri: I enjoy the combination. On my Forbes column I write about brands and increasingly about publishing. It’s completely grounded in reality and gives me a chance to make structured arguments. Writing thrillers is more about telling stories, which is the other thing I love.
RB: How did you get hooked up with Forbes?
DV: I traditionally published a marketing book called Accidental Branding in 2008. It got good exposure and I was invited to write articles for BrandWeek and Advertising Age as a result. Then my editor from AdAge moved to Forbes and invited me to become a contributor.
RB: So why sully yourself with writing action/adventure novels when you have a real career?
DV: It’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was twelve. My first real job was working as an intelligence analyst at the State Department. I had an offer to join the CIA a couple years later but decided to go to grad school instead. I went to The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy and planned to return to government when I graduated but when I considered the size of my student loans I ended up in the private sector. I worked for Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola, DoubleClick and others in marketing. But I always wanted to write thrillers. So when the opportunity to write a business book came along I was really thinking it was a sideways way to get into writing fiction.
RB: Interesting. I think your intel background shows in your writing – certainly in Operator. Let’s just say it had a certain veracity to it that’s often lacking in the genre. Now let’s move on to process. How do you come up with your ideas? And when you have one, how do you proceed from there?
DV: The four thrillers I’ve worked on (one finished but unpublished, Operator, Binder and the one I’m currently working on) all started with an idea for the opening scene. When I lived in DC, a girl I’d dated from my hometown killed herself with a gun. At her funeral a guy who’d been stalking her overseas showed up and claimed he was her fiancé. That became the jumping off point for Operator. For Binder, I imagined a scene from the sixties – a bunch of protestors pulled off a bus at night by men in hoods and beaten. One of the protestors goes missing but it turns out she was never on the bus. Then I think about what will create the central tension in the book and wind a story around that.
RB: Interesting, and a lot like how ideas like JET started out, with just the name and a rough concept of a killer chase sequence.
DV: Like minds…
RB: Let’s talk about craft. Are there specific things you focus on with each book? Do they change?
DV: Absolutely. With Operator, I was very focused on language and the kinesthetic issues. I have been a thriller reader since I was eight years old, but I also read a lot of literary novels. I was frustrated by some of the writing in mainstream thrillers. That’s part of what made me want to write thrillers. My other pet peeve with thrillers was the mechanics of the action sequences. I was a wrestler before college and I studied judo, aikido and tang soo do. I was also a weapons analyst at State. I really wanted to write something that wouldn’t make experts cringe.
With Binder, I had different issues. I wrote Operator as an origins story. Michael Herne, the main character ended up being a little aloof, probably more than I wanted. I also thought that my female characters were one-dimensional. So in Binder I was focused on making Herne more relatable and introducing some stronger women. I still think Nichols is too generic but she will return and I’ll make her more human. The second big issue with Binder was pacing. Operator was really trans-genre. It started as a mystery but ended as a thriller. I wanted to do the same thing with Binder, but I knew that some people got bogged down at the beginning of Operator. So I looked at serial novels all the way back to Dickens to understand how serials pull you from chapter to chapter. That also helped with plot. Twists and surprises are a great way to maintain tension.
For the next book I’m working more on character and on dialogue. Most of my writing before Operator was expository, so dialogue does not come naturally to me. I want to improve at writing characters that can be identified by their speech patterns alone.
RB: If you have this sense of forward movement, does that mean you’re dissatisfied with what you’ve already written?
DV: I always pick up an older book or article and say “how could I write that sentence?” I hope that I am developing as a writer. I have a very clear idea of the kind of writer I’d like to be. I’m not interested in rambling soliloquies or extended artful descriptions. I want to evoke images and feelings with the fewest number of words possible. I also want every single book I write to cause half my readers to miss a night of sleep. But I’m not there yet. I have more to learn. I like writing as an indie because I can bring an audience along with me as I grow.
RB: Do you outline or are you a pantser?
DV: I’m somewhere between the two. Before I start a book I’ve thought about it for a couple of months at least. I think of that inciting incident, the central tension, the characters and the layers of the story. But I don’t try to lay out the plot in detail. Since I’m writing in first person, I want to be authentically surprised by the direction that events turn. I spend a lot of time as I’m writing trying to figure out the next twist and plot turn. I am very detail-oriented.
RB: How many drafts do you do? And how do you know when it’s “done?”
DV: I did seven drafts of Operator but only three of Binder before it went to the editor. It goes to the editor when I can’t make it significantly better on my own.
RB: Let’s discuss editors, beta readers, proofreaders, etc. Do you use them, and if so, how? What’s your approach?
DV: After I’ve advanced the story as far as I can, a couple of friends with specific talents read the book. One holds the opposite political views I do and he helps me scrub bias from the books because they’re not meant to be political. Another reads just for relationships – she’s not a thriller reader and tells me honestly when something Michael or a female character does makes her cringe. Once I’ve done that it goes to a developmental editor. I get back a few pages of thoughts on pace, plot, characterization, dialogue, etc as well as margin notes, and I redraft. Then it goes to my Army contact (a Master Sergeant at Fort Bragg who runs the armory and is an instructor at the Special Warfare school) for technical review. Then the manuscript goes in for line editing and finally proofreading and formatting. The process is expensive and time-consuming but I am very sensitive about the quality critique of Indie authors. I obsess over my work and I like having total control. That doesn’t mean that mistakes don’t slip through, but I try my best.
RB: Operator was one of the cleanest self-pubbed books I’ve read, so your best is better than many. What’s your preferred writing environment like? Silent, or music? If so, what kind?
DV: It’s generally silent because I get into a zone and I forget to put on music. But I have a playlist which includes everything from Adele and One Republic to Johnny Cash, The Stones, Pitbull, blues and classical. I have eclectic tastes.
RB: How many hours a day do you write when you’re writing fiction? And how do you approach a novel? Immersion? Organized? Chaotic?
DV: Unfortunately I’m juggling a bunch of different things. I teach master’s degree students at NYU, train corporate marketers, write the column for Forbes, speak professionally and do some consulting. There’s very little predictable about my schedule. Some weeks I can spend two or three full days writing, other weeks I’m caught up with other stuff. Because I have two small children I try to do my work during business hours or late at night if I must, but I write better during the day.
RB: How many hours, total, would you guess you have into a first draft, and then any subsequent drafts?
DV: At least a thousand, possibly more. I’m afraid to count.
RB: What are you working on now?
DV: The next story in the Michael Herne saga. I’m determined to get it out in 2014.
RB: What counsel would you offer to other authors desirous of going down the indie path?
DV: The writing has to be its own reward. Every writer wants readers but even successful writers may have a period of years when there are very few of them. If you can’t find happiness in the process of writing, the road will be too steep and uncertain to succeed. That’s true for both traditional and indie writers. You also can’t assume that writing a good book will ensure that it sells. That’s marketing and it’s a completely different job. Unfortunately traditional publishers market very few titles actively, so this also applies to both kinds of writers. What’s different for indies is that you don’t have the benefit of a disinterested agent or acquisitions editor telling you “this is a good book” so you have to have the stubborn self-confidence of an entrepreneur to succeed.
RB: Any last words of advice?
DV: Things are changing fast. The most important thing for indie authors right now is to focus on craft and quality control. The more feedback you can get in the process – from editors to independent reviewers – the better chance you have to improve as a writer. I want to get better with every single book.