Today’s interview is with author Dana Haynes, whose latest high octane thriller, Sirrocco, is reviewed above in MBR No. 433. He’s the true professional; a writer who’s hard-working, dedicated to the craft, and possesses an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of a great story. And, best of all he’s willing to share his knowledge with all of us.
With many thanks Mr. Haynes, here’s our first question . . .
Where do you write?
I “grew up” in newspaper newsrooms, so I need a certain level of cacophony around me to be productive. Total quiet drives me nuts. Before the pandemic, I loved going to coffee shops, especially ones near or in bookshops. With social distancing, I’ve created a nook in my apartment, one specific chair, that’s my “writing station.” I also listen to the soundtracks of thriller movies when I write. If I’m writing a chase scene and I’ve got John Powell’s score from “The Bourne Identity” playing, wow: I’m totally focused on the chase.
Why do you write?
I literally can’t help it. I write my novels for me as the first reader. I’m the one I’m trying to entertain. True story: Between my third and fourth novel, I had a, ah, “dry period,” shall we say, of 15 years. During those years, I just could not get published. But I wrote damn near every single day during that time. The worst hour I ever spent writing beats the best hour I ever spent at my first grown-up job, as a janitor at a car dealership.
How long, start to finish, do you take to write a finished novel, on average?
Do you have a daily writing goal you shoot for?
I’m very fast. That’s not a brag, it’s just that I have worked as a print journalist since high school and we’re fast writers. You go to a City Council meeting, come back and hammer out exactly the right length of story to fill the space your editor gave you. Reporters: We don’t call it writers block; we call it unemployment.
So I can write a first draft of a 400-page novel in three months.
I also write first drafts in longhand, with a mechanical pencil and a steno pad. I write (creative brain) in the morning and transfer that writing to my computer (analytical brain) in the evening. If the scene’s good, I can diagnose it that day. If it failed, I can diagnose that, too.
My daily writing goal is a complete scene.
How do you deal with a negative review?
I have a terribly thin skin. I’m that guy who wakes up at 3 a.m. and remembers something dumb he did or said in the fifth grade. It’s totally unhealthy, but there it is.
On the other hand, I love really, really stupid negative reviews. For “Crashers,” a guy wrote to tell me I didn’t understand the engineering of the downed airliner, a Vermeer 111. I wrote back that there is no such thing as a Vermeer 111; that I invented it. He wrote back and explained that, no, I got the details wrong.
Do you plot-outline or wing it?
I’m a former theater guy, so I write in the three-act structure, with plot points that kick the story into Act II and into Act III. Generally, when I start a new series, I know the protagonists, the antagonists, and the basic story . . . to a point. I also have a pretty good idea of the plot points. What I don’t know is how the story will end.
Example: “Sirocco,” the book that came out in January 2021. I knew that Act I would establish a mad bomber who’d made fools of U.S. and European intelligence agencies, and that a macho, American private military contractor would be strutting around, mucking up things for my protagonists, Michael Finnigan and Katalin Fiero. And I knew that the B story would swerve from trying to stop the bomber, to trying to save Fiero’s own family (contrary to popular belief, it’s good to ratchet down the goals in a thriller: Go from trying to save some amorphous “them” to trying to save a very specific “him.”
But how it would end? That I didn’t know until I got there.
What method do you use to keep track of plot details?
Every 10 pages or so, I go back and read the last 20. That is: When I hit page 130, I go back and read 110 to 130. I write 10 more, go back 20 (120 to 140). This lets me focus on a small, truncated coda of the story. (Did I get those scenes right?) Then, every 100 pages, I stop, print it out, wait a week or two, and read the whole manuscript. This lets me see the story from the 30,000-foot level. (Am I getting this story right?)
What type of scene is most difficult for you to write?
Sex scenes. My mom reads my books. I cannot afford that much therapy.
Don’t write what’s “hot,” write a book that you’d pay money to read. You are your own first audience. If you don’t love the story, it’s unlikely any other reader will, either. If you do a great job entertaining yourself, you’re more likely to have a publishable novel on your hands.
Thanks Dana, it’s been an absolute pleasure! And please keep us up-to-date on your next St. Nicholas Salvage & Wrecking yarn.
Dana Haynes is the author of nine published mysteries and thrillers from Bantam Books, St. Martin’s Press and Blackstone Publishing. His first short story appeared in the 2019 anthology for the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention, and the second will hit the stands in 2021 in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. He is an award-winning newspaper journalist and former political speechwriter. His latest series kicked off in 2019 with “St. Nicholas Salvage and Wrecking.” It was followed in January 2021 with the sequel, “Sirocco.” Dana lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Katy King, and their cat, Violet. For more information: danahaynesmystery.com
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