This time it’s off to the Middle East to talk with suspense, thriller, and hybrid writer JD Weston.
Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?
I am a Dubai based author and photographer, I find the sunshine helps my creativity (smug grin). I have lived in Dubai for close to ten years now and enjoy the central location to the rest of the world. Since being here, I have traveled to Africa, Asia, America, and all over the Middle-East, to places that from my home city of London, would have been slightly more difficult to get to, and likely would have never crossed my mind.
Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.
I have just finished a duology called, The Alaskan Adventure Series. The second part, From the Ocean to the Stream, was published on the 7th September. The story outlines the memoirs of a young man called Jim, who picks up from his father’s story in the first part of the series, during which time the family travel to France and undergo the horrific experience of their ship sinking. With the family split, each of them take on their own battles with the ocean and struggle to survive any which way they can before returning to Alaska.
From the Ocean to the Stream, sees Jim take on Alaska, his father’s birthplace in their log cabin on a lake deep in the Rocky Mountains. The horrors of the experience on the ocean and the things that Jim had to do to survive continue to haunt him through similes that lie in the shadows of the woods. His battle to overcome the memories and to find solace and peace in the wilderness, and to truly find himself are put to the test as the greed of man seeks to destroy all his family have ever worked for.
Alaska has an important place in your work. How did it become such a key feature of books written by someone born in London and living in Dubai?
That’s a great question. I am a country boy at heart and a lover of the outdoors. I have family in Montana, where nature rules and the landscape and wildlife aren’t too dissimilar and as a result I’ve spent a lot of time there. Alaska is not far to travel from Montana and had always been on my list, so during a trip to Montana, I went further into Alaska and was blown away. Once I’d been there and had stood deep in the silent wilderness; fully aware that I was far from the apex predator on so many levels; it left me feeling humbled and totally appreciative of the balance of nature. I was awed by the stories of the frontier; tales of men grunting their way through the hard winters, foraging and hunting and much like early man, constantly aware of the dangers. This is something that I think appeals to many people, it’s a sense that has evolved in man within the confines of the cities, where the dangers are still there but in a different form. Life in the remote parts of Alaska is not easy. Everything you do requires effort and planning. Boiling water requires wood, fire and effort. Finding food often involves patience, hiking and danger. I grew up in London, where many things are a phone call away, or the flick of a switch or remote control. I think that exposure to both the big cities and those remote wild places really gave me the holistic perspective I needed to identify life in the wild in a way that someone who has never experienced it could appreciate.
I used the trips to Montana to sit and reflect on the Alaska trip and to fill in the gaps in the flora and fauna that flavoured the books. I spoke to men who through experience were able to add substance to my own knowledge of the way things are done in the wild. Above all, in both Alaska and Montana, the feeling of sitting by a lake, high in the mountains with no other people for miles around is something that not everyone gets to experience. The silence of nature and the smell of the wilderness is captivating. It had such an impact on me, I had such a powerful connection with it all, I simply had to put it down in words.
In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?
Perhaps like many authors I find my genre is a hybrid of many, with flavors of others. I enjoy the graphic detail and suspense that I am able to spin into a thriller, and the wild places that beg for action adventure. But yes, there’s a hint of romance in most of my books, just to spice it up a little.
You mention that your books tend to be hybrids, crossing genre lines. Has it been difficult finding a audience for such works? How have you connected with readers without being able to hang a clear genre label on your work?
In short, yes it has been difficult. The first book has received some fantastic feedback, but as I mentioned, it was a story that was inside me and I just had to write it. When I started, I had no intention of publishing it, I was simply enjoying writing; I loved the faraway places the story took me and at the time was unaware of writing to an audience, I was writing for myself. That first book was like lighting a fire beneath me; I had to write a second, which as I mentioned, followed more of a plot, and actually is channeled into a thriller genre more than any other, although it would still appeal to readers of adventure. Perhaps rather selfishly, it also gave me another excuse to visit my favourite place.
Now that I have the first two books complete, I am working on a new series with six books planned for the next year, all of which are specifically crime thriller and are written for that particular audience.
The Alaskan Adventure series was written with fluid, empathetic descriptions that convey the smells, the sounds and the feeling of being in the wild. Whereas the new series contains much more concise sentences, with the sharp dialogue of London’s east end organized crime scene, (think Snatch meets Jack Reacher). As I am writing, the voice in my head takes on the dialect of the character. So, while writing the Alaskan Adventure series, I spent a huge portion of the time with my own thoughts talking in that loveable, wild, North American slang which I adore. The new series sees me going back to my roots, with my head in full cockney mode, which the dialogue benefits from hugely. I think the audience of the crime thriller genre will identify with this accent, and it will become an underlying tone across the entire series.
One of the benefits of the east end/cockney language is that it can be written in plain English and the reader can still hear the cockney tone through the use of language and dialogue. Whereas I found with the Alaskan Adventure, the most effective way to really give the reader a sense of language, was to write in the actual dialogue, which raised some issues with the writing application during editing, but enables the reader to quickly slip into the tangle of trees and sit by the lake with the tastes and smells that the characters describe far easier than if they were written in plain English. In the end I compromised and changed the story to plain English, and kept the dialogue in the slang dialect, but I still prefer the original. It takes me away to some very special places.
Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways of the first two books, was indeed, identify the audience and then write for them and not for myself. I am a huge fan of Lee Child, Mr. King, and Wilbur Smith’s African themed Courtney series. I think my stories will always have a taste of the outdoors, it’s something that has been close to me for as long as I remember, but my experience of the cities allows me to focus on my audience now. As I mature as writer, and begin to find my feet, I feel I can channel the experience of city life into the thriller series, and throw in realistic tones of the outdoors.
Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.
The first book I wrote started out as a chapter that then became two chapters, then three; pretty soon it was a book. The book that followed had a plot, aha, I’m learning new things. Since then my approach has differed.
The series I am working on now saw me outline an entire series on an A0 piece of paper, with individual story arcs and the full series arc. So now all I have to do is fill in the gaps with words.
I typically start writing at 0530 am for two hours and then again at midday. The break allows me time to digest what I have written, compare it to the story and series arcs and develop some ideas to follow it. I aim for around 3,000 words per day, so around 8 weeks for a finished story, sometimes less. I’ll get the covers done halfway through the book, and try to do a book trailer as early as possible, these give my story a feel and of course allow me to shout about the book before it’s done. Once complete, I’ll fire off the manuscript to the editor, which is then butchered and the remains are then returned for me to do a final draft and send back for a final and edit and format.
It sounds like you edit as you write, rather than finish one draft then go back and take a next pass on it. How do you balance the editing with the need to push forward, getting plot on the page?
I do like to revisit the previous days writing to clean the phrasing up and improve the flow, and then by the time I pick where I left off, I am fully in the zone and ideas are already bouncing around. Once complete, I read the book through aloud and make changes before sending it to the editor. I set myself a target of 2,200 words per day, which I normally smash. The series I am working on has the series arc laid out, with individual story arcs, so often the words are itching to get out before I even sit down. As a writer who is new to fiction, I am still finding my feet; the more advice I listen to, the more I understand the need to spew the words onto the page and edit later…but I can’t help myself, I love to go back and read what I wrote the previous day, if anything, for continuity of writing style and feel.
Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?
The first character I ever created in my first novel, Where the Mountains Kiss the Sun. Sonny was born and raised in the wilds of Alaska. There was nothing he couldn’t do, hunt, fish, trap, fell trees, start fires, and boy he could shoot. But one day, when he was just 18, his family had died leaving him alone, so he set off into the new world seeking adventure. He meets people for the first time, learns about civilized life, and goes to war with his nation where he experiences hell. His naivety and innocence find him a loving wife but also sends him to prison. His loyalty and devotion places him on a ship to France that sinks, and his courage and tenacity help him find his family again, where he can return to his home, Where the Mountains Kiss the Sun. Sonny is loveable, adorable and naïve in the city, but in the wilds of Alaska, he’s the king.
What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?
I have had to research many weird things, often sat in a café’ where people who may be looking over my shoulder would see me frantically trying to understand what life was like in a New York prison in 1930, or how big the ships were that carried troops across the ocean and how many funnels they had. Or they may see me learning how to field dress and skin a deer. At number one on the weird list though, I would have to say is the long term effects of cannibalism on the human mind, and what the best parts of the human body to eat are. I probably got some odd looks during that phase; in fact, I probably shouldn’t go back there. Ever.
What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?
Patience. Plan, prepare and execute only when you are ready. There’s hundreds of blog posts and articles on release strategies and target audiences and all the other marketing elements, and don’t get me wrong, these are crucial to success. But before all those elements, you need to write a good book. Close off loose ends, spell check, edit, proof read, edit, proof read and format well. If none of those things are done and the book isn’t your absolute best, then it doesn’t matter what advertising, or keywords you use.
If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?
I’d like to think I would continue to write and photograph, but I’d be doing it in various parts of the world, where the variety could influence both of my passions in a positive manner.
What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?
I personally like to read long books, or series. I bumble around from author to author, and often listen to audiobooks in my car as I drive to work. I recently found Jeffrey Archers, As the Crow Flies. He somehow manages to interweave story lines and timelines into a jumble of superbly written chapters with such vivid characters, that I almost feel I know them by the end of chapter one. He is of course, an extremely talented man, and I have read many of his books, usually in awe of the detail he provides the reader.
I have to give credit to the narrator also. John Lee is one of my favorite narrators and can throw his voice in so many different directions. He bounces from accent to accent in the midst of Jeffrey’s heavy reams of dialogue, and yet he does it such dexterity and grace, barely pausing for breath, that I often sit in my car waiting for the end of the chapter before heading into my office.
What do you think you’re next project will be?
I’m actually currently working on a thriller series based in my home town of London. It’s based around the story of a man who was raised to be a killer for a crime family, who strives to escape the life that accompanies such a vocation. During his efforts to escape he turns his talents to better purposes, cleaning the gene pool has never been so much fun.
When I write, I tend to think in the accent of the person; kind of like a bad movie going on in my head. The last series was based in Alaska, so I had two years of speaking like a backwoods hillbilly. The new series as I mentioned, is based in London, so I’m allowing my cockney self to run free and colour the dialogue that spills out daily. I find it’s a great way to actually put myself there at the scene, see the details and provide imagery that takes the reader there.
I aim to release books 1-6 every four weeks starting in May 2018. And right now, as well as writing like I’m possessed, I am working on campaigns, covers, book trailers, keywords and all the rest.