Thursday, January 01, 2009

Guest Author: John M. Wills

Author John M. Wills is stopping by Straight From Hel today to talk about how he wrote his suspense novel, Chicago Warriors, Midnight Battles in the Windy City. Before I give the blog over to him, though, let me tell you a bit about John.

John Wills is certainly qualified to write the character Pete Shannon, a Chicago police officer, since John was a Chicago police officer for 12 years and received numerous awards and commendations. After that position, he became an FBI Agent, a career he retired from after 21 years. John has been published in
Police & Security News, Vegas Beat, The Rap Sheet, Law Enforcement Technology, and New American Truth, but this is his first novel.

I know John will be open to questions about his work in the police force or as an FBI Agent, but he’ll especially be able to answer questions about his book and how he set about writing it, which is what he’s going to talk about today.


Welcome, John M. Wills.


I first found “Straight From Hel” last year while scouring the internet for advice on how to write a novel. I came across Helen’s blog and found it, as well as all of its many links, to be informative and helpful. I had been writing professionally for several years, mainly articles for law enforcement websites and magazines, but the urge to write my first novel finally became so strong that I could no longer ignore it. Until then I had shrugged it off, thinking that I was not prepared for such a daunting task. I had not had any formal instruction, nor had I researched how to write a book. But the desire to finally tell the story that had been rattling around in my head finally won out.

Where to begin? I had no clue. I was spending a lot of time on the road with my job which gave me time to read. Being a logical thinker, I went to a bookstore to buy a “How-To” tome that would show me the footsteps that I should follow. Of course when I got there and looked at an entire section of books devoted specifically to “writing your first novel,” I was back at square one—too much information. I did some research on the internet. Have you ever Googled “how to write a book?” I found that there were hundreds of titles that purported to explain the process. I finally decided on reading a sampling of a few internet summaries, and then purchased
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel.

I poured over chapters in “The Guide” that explained abstract ideas such as having the right temperament, creativity, plot engines and developments, characters and settings…I now was more confused than ever. I almost decided to postpone writing my novel until sometime later—except that I had already done that. I finally made a command decision: Just sit down and start writing!

And so that’s what I did. I had no outline, no written plot or characters, but what I did have was a story in mind that I believed people would enjoy reading, and more important, one that I was anxious to write. And so I began…writing…chapter after chapter. Learning as I went along—developing characters, multiple plots, tying and connecting people and places. It was a marvelous experience. I found myself getting so involved with my characters that they became real to me. I agonized over needing to kill one off, feeling guilty about it and trying to think of a way not to kill him. My wife thought that I was crazy, “John, it’s only a book. Get a grip!”


I continued with the process, getting deeper and deeper into wordsmithing like never before. When did I write? Just about every day, but it had to be something that contributed to the story, not just writing for the sake of writing. The time of day was really unimportant; I wrote when I had the time, be it day or night. I wrote at home, in airports and hotel rooms. I even wrote aboard cramped airplanes enroute to jobs. It didn’t matter the time or place. All that mattered was the story. When I was finished with the book I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment, but also sorrow—it was now over.


I discovered that my anxiety about writing my first novel was due in large measure to fretting about the mechanics. What’s the process, how does one begin? Once I convinced myself that the best way to write anything is to simply start putting the words on paper, I was fine. And as the chapters increased in number, so also did my comfort level. When I approached writing as an enjoyable endeavor, rather than a task that needed to be done, the words flowed.


This post may help someone in their quest to write their own novel—I hope that it does. And even though I have completed my first book and have had it published, Chicago Warriors Midnight Battles in the Windy City, I do not consider myself qualified to give advice on the subject. But here’s what I do know… There are thousands of “How To” books written on this topic, and there are countless numbers of people that have written books. Did they all follow the same formula? I think not, and so I’ve decided that the best way to write a novel is to just start writing!

Thank you John!


John will be available today to answer questions, so feel free to join him in the Comments section. Also, he’s going to give away a free e-book of
Chicago Warriors, Midnight Battles in the Windy City. All you have to do is leave a comment and you’re entered in the drawing!

32 comments:

  1. Mr. Wills, Congrats on your new book and best wishes for commercial success!

    Helen, Happy ten year anniversary on your newsletter and thanks for sharing so generously with writers.

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  2. Thank you so much...Happy New Year! As with most authors, just seeing your book in print is a success story itself.

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  3. John, I bet since you've been a police officer and an FBI agent, you've had some harrowing, even scary, experiences. How does facing an audience who wants to hear about your book rate next to that?
    Helen

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  4. Even more scary Helen, I trained to face the bad guys and knew how to handle them. The book reading public, while not as dangerous, is nonetheless just as scary. Even worse are fellow writers--I haven't really become comfortable with that scrutiny yet.

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  5. That made me chuckle, John. Never thought of other writers as being scary!

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  6. I'm interested in hearing how you controlled the facts you know, in terms of not letting them overwhelm the story. Did you find it just wasn't an issue for you, or were there times when you elected to revise or shorten factual passages. How did you interweave your knowledge of the facts with the fiction?

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  7. John, your book sounds like something my husband & I would enjoy reading. Congrats! I know how you feel about seeing your book in print for the first time, as I just had my first novel released in December. What a thrill!

    Are your characters and the incidents in the book based heavily on real life experiences?
    Heidi
    author, Cowgirl Dreams

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  8. Carolyn, I didn't want to get bogged down in police procedure. I felt that the characters were more important, as was the spiritual message that I was trying to convey. I think that sometimes in police fiction there's too much emphasis on "police work," if that makes sense. Thanks for the question.

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  9. Heidi, yes, it's all based on my experiences. Several of the characters are bits and pieces of myself (mostly the undesirable traits). But the most important part of my book is allowing the reader to see that many of us in law enf have a very close relationship with God, despite the gruff exterior that may be visible.

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  10. John, your comments about starting your book were quite helpful. Good luck in your new career.

    I don't have the mechanics worked out in my story enough to ask my question yet, so what do I do when the day comes that I need to ask a police officer or FBI agent for information? Are there people on the force who answer such questions (without laughing at writers)? How do I approach them?
    Thank you --
    CT

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  11. I have a question about the FBI -- what determines when the FBI will get involved in certain local cases? Is it the type of crime -- bank robbery, kidnapping? Is there some other criteria? And is the involvement by request or automatic? Does the FBI handle terrorist domestic terror threats or is this handled by Homeland Security now?

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  12. John, I think it's great that you had the background to write such a novel. Also, it's wonderful to try something new and get immersed in the process.

    Much success with your release.

    By the way, I'm a Chicago native and work Downtown.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com
    http://www.morganmandel.com

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  13. Mr. Wills, Congratulations on your novel, may you achieve success with with.

    Where can a writer find accurate information about the inner workings of police departments to make everything real, with out being in some form of law enforcement?

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  14. Dear Anonymous from CT,

    There are many people like me who don't have a problem answering questions about our jobs as long as we don't divulge specific investigative techniques. First, simply call your local PD and explain that you are a writer and need some info. If you get someone that is reluctant to help, I would use a resource such as what we're doing right now. There are plenty of former LE types that are happy to help (some are writers themselves).

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  15. Good question pabrown. The Bureau derives its jurisdiction from Federal law which covers things like bank robbery (banks come under FDIC) kidnapping (if the victim is tender age or taken across state lines). Domestic terrorism is still handled by the FBI. Lastly, even if the crime is not a federal offense, if the locals request help from the Bureau, that serves as our justification.

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  16. Lucky you Morgan...to be in my beloved hometown! I miss it, especially the food... Were it not for the FBI's transfer policy, I would still be there. But alas, our many moves have left us with children and grandchildren every place but Chi-town.

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  17. R.J., if you will read my response to Anonymous, you will have your answer. BTW, both of you have a great resource now--ME!

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  18. Thank you, John! That's much appreciated --
    CT

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  19. John,

    Thanks for sharing how you wrote your first novel. It's always interesting to see how other writers work.

    My characters tend to take over the story. It doesn't sound like you had the problem. You seemed in control throughout the process. Maybe it's because you based the story on life experiences and you knew what happened.

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  20. I have always found local police departments to be very cooperative in offering interviews and information. I haven't tried the FBI yet, but I will.

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  21. A post on Twitter about your appearance caught my eye. I edit the Southern Review of Books - but years ago, was a reporter for the old Chicago Daily News (when Mike Royko was a cub reporter on the sports beat) and then edited the Kane County Herald in Batavia. Still remember many of the Chicago political machine shenanigans. I reported on crime syndicate penetration of harness racing - which sent Otto Kerner to jail.
    - Noel Griese, Atlanta

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  22. This paragraph-

    "I continued with the process, getting deeper and deeper into wordsmithing like never before. When did I write? Just about every day, but it had to be something that contributed to the story, not just writing for the sake of writing. The time of day was really unimportant; I wrote when I had the time, be it day or night. I wrote at home, in airports and hotel rooms. I even wrote aboard cramped airplanes enroute to jobs. It didn’t matter the time or place. All that mattered was the story. When I was finished with the book I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment, but also sorrow—it was now over."

    Such passion and commitment. Really appreciated this post, John, and Helen. Best wishes for your new book and your career, John. You are inspiring and I can sense you are a worthy author, dedicated and sincere.

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  23. I'll try to give your book a plug in the new Southern Review. Have a next-door neighbor here in Atlanta who's a retired FBI agent. Every now and then my wife assigns him to track me down when she can't find me.

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  24. A post on Twitter about your appearance caught my eye. I edit the Southern Review of Books - but years ago, was a reporter for the old Chicago Daily News (when Mike Royko was a cub reporter on the sports beat) and then edited the Kane County Herald in Batavia. Still remember many of the Chicago political machine shenanigans. I reported on crime syndicate penetration of harness racing - which sent Otto Kerner to jail.
    - Noel Griese, Atlanta

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  25. First off, the Comments section is not closed, by any means. But I wanted to take the time to say thank you to everyone who has commented and asked questions. Especially considering it's a holiday!

    I soooo enjoyed reading John's post and keeping up with the conversation going on here in the Comments section.

    Keep the discussion going!

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  26. Lillie, thanks for your comments. I will always be fond of my first effort. The characters were based on real people.

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  27. You're right L.J., and if you do encounter one that isn't ready to help, there will always be one who is.

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  28. Noel, you must be thoroughly enjoying what's happening now in Chicago...looks like another Governor is headed to the slammer!

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  29. Marvin, thank you. I'm probably not unique, I'm sure that my fellow writers must have the same passion and excitement otherwise there would not be so many wonderful books on the shelves. I thank God for his direction...without His help the book would still be in my head. BTW Marvin, I recognize you from several other writers' blogs...

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  30. Jackie Edwards1/02/2009 8:03 AM

    John,
    A quick question about whether the FBI has an art unit, i. e. a group concerned with fraud and theft of art. If so, what's it called?
    Thanks,
    Jackie

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  31. Jackie, they sure do. They work out of HQ in D.C., here's the link: http://www.fbi.gov/hq/cid/arttheft/arttheft.htm

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  32. That's interesting, John. I wouldn't have thought of the FBI having a unit dedicated to art theft, fraud, etc.

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