Monday, August 18, 2014

Interview with Ray Daniel

A short time ago, I attended the book launch for Terminated, the debut novel by Ray Daniel. I read it and was so impressed, I figured everyone should know more about Ray and his work. So we asked him some questions, and here's what he had to say.

Q: So how did this novel come to be? Was it envisioned from the start as a bigger canvas, or did it expand organically out of an idea? Please tell us a bit about the origin.

A: In 2005, a company named Avant! plead no-contest to having stolen computer code from the industry leader, a company named Cadence. It turned out that Avant!’s main product was nothing but Cadence’s product repackaged.

That got me thinking that high tech could be a great backdrop for a mystery. My first image of the book, one that never made it in, was an opening scene where a drop of blood traveled along a computer’s case and dripped into a pool on the floor. I thought I’d tie that to stolen software. The image never made it into the book, but stolen software did.

Q: Did you start with the germ of an idea and start writing to see where it went, or did you map a good deal out in your head (or even outline) before crafting?

A: I start all my books with the tag line. If I can’t figure out the tag line then I know I’m not ready to write the book. For example the tag line for Tucker’s second book Corrupted Memory is “Tucker didn’t know he had a brother until the man was found murdered in front of Tucker’s house.”

Once I have the tag line I follow the three-act structure from movies. In fact, I want my stories to be like those movies that you can watch over and over even though you know the ending, such as The Matrix, Star Wars, Chinatown.

I use a structuring system called a “Beat Sheet” that I got from a fantastic book named Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. The system is simple and helps you figure out your story’s plot points. Once I have the beat sheet figured out I start writifng and make it up as I go from point to point.

Q: What do you feel is the main theme(s)?

A: Marriage is hard.

Q: Why do you feel this is important, and what would you want a reader to take away from reading this book?

A: In this case the theme rises organically out of the story, that is, I didn’t have it in mind when I wrote the book. I think the primary effect of a book’s theme is to increase the reader’s enjoyment. Themes give a novel an overarching coherence that feels satisfying when you reach the end of the story.

I don’t enjoy novels where an author with an axe to grind wrote a novel as a way to grind it. Isaac Asimov told of his editor who said, “If you want to give the reader a message, write a telegram.” I agree with that.

Q: What makes a good book or engaging story?

A: A great novel has multiple story lines that start out loosely connected but then collide and tangle and twist until they squeeze all the options out of the story, forcing the hero into an impossible situation.

Q: Are there writers with similar themes to yours? Who are your influences (can be writers, or even artists, musicians, or others) and what is it about their work that attracts you?

A: I became a mystery writer because of Robert B. Parker. Today I tell people that I write “first-person, wise-cracking, Boston-based mysteries.” Before I was a writer I told people that I liked to read “first-person, wise-cracking, Boston-based mysteries” and what I was essentially saying was that I liked to read more work like the Spenser books.

I’m also influenced by popular music, not so much by any particular artist, but by the process of invoking strong feelings in the audience quickly. Our first job as artists is to make the audience feel emotions. Pop music does that well.

Q: Is storytelling mostly entertainment, or does it serve other functions? Do you have particular goals other than telling a good story?

A: I imagine my reader buying a copy of Terminated in Logan Airport, flying to California while reading it, and not realizing that six hours has passed. Creating an experience in which the reader gets lost in the story, drawn along by the emotions and curiosity that it evokes, is my most important job.
That said, I think novels serve a vital role in society by increasing the empathy we feel for each other’s situations in life. But that empathy has to be the byproduct of a great story; it cannot be the novel’s primary thrust.

Q: Any other goals you’ve set for yourself, professionally or personally?

A: In my perfect world I live a life of writing novels, attending conferences, and teaching the occasional writing class. I’ll either start living that life when I retire from engineering at a typical retirement age or when the books can replace my engineering income.

Q: Some writers write fast and claim not to rewrite much. Do you do this, or painstakingly revise? When you send the book off to the publisher, are you happy with it, or just tired of it?

A: I follow an approach I learned from the book The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray (1993 first edition). That book recommended writing a discovery draft to learn the story, a meditation draft to highlight the themes and cut extraneous material, and a final draft to clean up the language.

I use the Book Architecture Method outlined in Blueprint your Bestseller by Stuart Horowitz to go from the discovery draft to the meditation draft.

I always send the publisher the best possible manuscript. I get back very few notes.

Q: Do you have good editors, and if so, how do they help you? Do they look for particular things? Do you have different people for different editing levels?

A: I have an excellent story editor who takes my final draft, helps me find plot holes, and fixes quirks in my language. She basically tightens the whole thing up. Then I have two readers who are amazing copy editors. They clean up missing words, punctuation errors, and the like.
The manuscript I send to Midnight Ink is as clean as possible.

Q: If a writer came to you for advice, how would you help?

A: I would advise the person to write every single day. There is nothing more important to one’s writing than to put words on pages. I’ve written pretty much every morning since I started writing in 2002. I don’t think I got good at it until I’d written over 500,000 words.

Also, anyone who wants to write mysteries should join Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. Writing is a tough path and it’s more fun when you follow it with friends.

Q: Stories can be told by using a different medium. Can you see your book as a film, audio, etc.? How would that alter the telling?

A: I absolutely see Terminated as a movie (Could someone get a copy of Terminated to Ben Affleck, please?) because it follows the screenwriter’s three act structure. I could also see a Tucker television series.

In both cases the biggest difference would be that we wouldn’t have Tucker’s unique voice describing Boston. Instead the movie makers would have to get the sense of the scenes across visually (I’m not a big fan of voice-overs in movies.)

Q: What’s the next step in your writing world?

A: I’m working on the fourth Tucker novel: Hacked. Its tag line is “A serial killer is killing hackers, including students that Tucker has been mentoring. Now Tucker is in the crosshairs.”
I’m still doing research but I’m already excited to tell that story.

Q: Tell us a fun fact about yourself.

A: Back in high school I was fired from a volunteer job at the Museum of Science because I was absolutely terrible at cleaning animal cages. It didn’t seem funny at the time, but it’s pretty funny now.

Q: Any other information you’d like to impart?

A: I will be talking about high tech crime and Terminated at Brookline Booksmith on Wednesday, September 3rd at 7PM. It’s going to be fun!

Thank you, Ray, and best of luck with your new book series!


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