Thursday, April 26, 2012

An Interview with Steve O'Brien

Image of Steve O'Brien

Is there any special method to your writing?
I’m not sure it is special, but what works for me. I plan and outline for months. Optimally, I try to break the story into four sections. Set up, Reaction, Attack and Resolution. Each section ends with a “turning point.” This is an event or reaction to an event that causes a change in the story or a character’s motivation in response to what has happened. Then I prepare a beat sheet of each scene. Some beat sheets can be very lengthy. Mine is just a word or two about what will happen and I identify the point of view character for the scene. Sometimes scenes will be entire chapters, sometimes multiple scenes will go into a chapter. It all depends upon the pacing I am trying to create. Once the beat sheet is done I start writing. Much will change from my original design and beat sheet as I get into the writing process, but I have a “map” for the story which I follow. Odd as it sounds I go back and completely re-write the first chapter after the initial draft is done. The first chapter is critical and I don’t think it can be written until the whole story is on paper. Then I re-write, re-write and re-write. When I finish that, I re-write some more.

How many hours a day do you spend reading/writing?
My days vary considerably. I would love to be able to say I write every day, but I don’t. I read every day and on days I write, it may be 30 minutes or three hours. I have a personal neurosis that once I envision a scene in my head, I can’t move on until I’ve put it all on paper. That keeps me focused on the current scene or chapter rather than worrying about all that will come after.

What inspires you to continue being a writer?
I love the process. My best days are when I write something that I think is particularly good. The other thing is, like any craft, the more you do, the better you get. That doesn’t make it easier; it just makes it more exciting.

If you could have been the author of any novel, which title would it be and why?
Wow, great question. I’d have to go with To Kill A Mockingbird. It is a brilliant story that incorporates justice, fairness, innocence, righteousness, tension, action, and compassion. I think having the character Scout as the narrator was in itself a stroke of genius.

Do you think you will ever change audiences?
I don’t think I want to change audiences as much as broaden my audience. I think of authors like Richard North Patterson or the late Michael Crichton. Rather than repeating characters with new plots, they specialize in unique one off stories that have extremely diverse settings and themes—to the point that they become almost social commentators. Each book is its own dimension and the topics broaden their audience rather than trying to jump to a new genre completely.

What advice would you give anyone who wants to become a published author?
1)      Write because you love it. This is really the only rule that matters. If you don’t love it and love the process of writing, then the work won’t be authentic.  If you don’t love writing, do something else with your life.
2)      Become a critical reader. Study works by other writers and deconstruct their books. Don’t copy what you find, but learn and apply the discoveries to your work.
3)      Opinions about your writing are neither right nor wrong. They are just opinions. Value the ones you think are right and discard the ones that you think are wrong. No book is perfect for every reader/editor/publisher.
4)      Your best book is not the one you’re working on. It is the one after that and the one after that and so on. If you believe in number 1) above just keep going. Don’t ever stop.

And do you have a list of favorite books/authors?
The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy (actually anything by Cormac McCarthy)
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Donald Miller
The Mayor of Lexington Avenue, James Sheehan
I also love anything by Greg Iles, James Rollins and Lee Child.