Brian Drake is a fellow thriller author who has been steadily building an action-packed body of work. He has several books and characters to his name, including a new series he is about to launch that focuses on CIA operative Scott Stiletto. Stiletto #1: The Termination Protocol is available for preorder on Amazon now, and will be launching shortly. You can bet I’ll be first in line to see what exciting developments Brian’s new series has in store for us! But first, I thought my readers might enjoy an an interview with Brian, and sneak peak into the birth of an new spy-thriller series:
Tell us about yourself… how did you become a writer? What other writers influenced you and your work?
I started writing as a teenager and it soon became a lifelong sickness. Once I read about Stephen King signing a multi-million-dollar deal, I said the hell with regular work. Thirty years later, we’re not there yet, and since my regular job is talking on the radio as a news reporter, I haven’t made out too badly anyway. I wasn’t influenced by “high-brow” writers like my Minnesota brother F. Scott Fitzgerald until later in life (we were born in the same city, albeit eras apart), but growing up all I read were books by Ian Fleming, Jerry Ahern, Don Pendleton, and Robert Ludlum. Later on, it was Hammett, Spillane, Richard Stark, Max Allan Collins, and my dear friend Rebecca Forster. Throw ‘em all together and I eventually learned some things.
Tell us about Scott Stiletto. What led you to come up with the character and this new series?
Stiletto was actually the first character I “made up” myself while scribbling between classes in junior high. Prior to that I was doing what we call “fan fiction” now—writing stories about James Bond, the Man from UNCLE, etc. He’s been on the shelf for decades and I never really intended to use him again, but when I was looking for a break from my Steve Dane series (The Rogue Gentleman, Mine to Avenge), I thought why not bring him back?
Stiletto starts out as a CIA agent who takes on the tough cases for the Special Activities Division, which really exists, though not necessarily as I depict. When he’s not teaching terrorists and assorted misfits how it feels to be hunted, he’s usually working on restoring a 1977 Trans Am. He smokes Montecristo cigars, the Dominican variety, though he has been known to sample a Cuban version or two. He’s also a very capable artist who always has a sketch pad handy. He was an army brat when he was young, and had a hard time making friends, so he learned to draw to fill the solitude. Later in the series he faces some challenges that force him out of the CIA and into freelance work. I didn’t want a static, never-changing series so every few books his comfort zone gets shaken up, but we’re not there yet as book one begins
What do you think are the key ingredients of a page-turning spy thriller? What do you look for when you read for your own pleasure?
The only real requirement of a thriller is that thrilling things have to happen to the story’s participants. You need a fast pace, a little mystery, a certain amount of action, and the writer must choose if the story is going to be ridiculous and over-the-top, or somewhat grounded in reality. Sky’s the limit. What I like about this particular subject matter is that, while I tend to focus on spies, thrillers can have any kind of hero, from the professional secret agent to the Everyman. My friend Rebecca Forster writes great thrillers featuring lawyers. You’ll never find a gun or bomb in her books but you can’t put them down, either.
As for what I look for, I’m so picky now it’s not funny. I don’t read a lot of contemporary work. There’s simply too much to keep up with. I read my friends, of course. I like writing that is tight an economical with no wasted words, and that’s rare. If I’m mentally editing as I read, I can’t enjoy the book.
At the risk of offending some of those friends I mentioned, I’ll go ahead and name some top favorites and why. Ian Fleming, of course, you can’t go wrong with as a reader or a writer. Everything you need to know about writing is in the James Bond novels, and I can teach an entire class on those books. Frederick Forsyth weaves a plot like nobody else, ever. He may be weak in a lot of areas like characterization, but his plots are fantastic. Gerard de Villiers is good because of his insider knowledge and use of real world events, which is also a negative, because his endings are often forced to follow those events, and you don’t get the smash-bang climax you might expect. You will, however, know more about current geopolitics than what the media tells you. Leslie Charteris, who wrote The Saint, mixes action and humor better than anybody and is an absolute joy to read, and while his books are heavily dated, they are contemporary in many other ways. Robert Ludlum just flat out entertains you no matter what mood you’re in, and his contributions to the genre, which are more than just Jason Bourne, cannot be ignored and only a fool would try. Eric Ambler makes my list because he writes some of the best nail-biting novels I’ve ever read. Get anything by him and lose yourself in a world of paranoia and constant danger and pay particular attention to his slow-burn technique. His books are like a lit fuse inching toward the blasting cap. I can’t leave out Donald Hamilton, who got famous for writing Matt Helm but turned out some great stand-alone thrillers too and was probably the best of his generation. And if there is a better mystery writer and hard-boiled stylist than Mickey Spillane, I haven’t found him, and that includes Dashiell Hammett and Paul Cain. Maybe Max Allan Collins is a good second, but Spillane will always be first for me when I think of murder mysteries with an edge.
How did you get involved with self-publishing? What do you think the future of publishing will be for independent writers like yourself?
I started self-publishing back in 2010 with one hand holding my nose because I thought it was only for amateurs. I decided to get involved when I finally saw how I could build a following, which I would then use as leverage to get a “real” book contract. Couple things happened: I realized I was wrong, professionals were embracing self-publishing and doing it very well indeed, and I started getting noticed. I got offered writing jobs for two series (Fight Card, a series about boxing; and Blaze, an adult western), and invited to write for an anthology (Pulse Fiction from Pro Se Productions), and I’ve made some great connections with writers who look at me as a pro who does good work and meets his deadlines. I’m glad I was wrong. A publisher eventually took notice as well, but all I can say about that is “negotiations are in progress” and part of the deal is that I get to keep publishing my own work and do stuff for them too.
As for the future. . . .who knows. I think Indie publishing will continue as a viable option for writers, which is a good thing, but we have a glut of material, which is bad. Readers may not stick with one writer over another, but eventually they’ll be so much to choose from they’ll only stick with their favorites. I could go on about this, but everything has its plusses and minuses. You need to be in this for the long haul rather than a quick fix; you need to study the market and study what other writers are doing and copy that. I spent the last seven years releasing as many books with a doe-eyed laissez-faire attitude of just release and the readers will come, and that hasn’t (financially) really worked (it did earn me a lot of beer money and bring the attention I mentioned, so there’s that). With Stiletto, I’ve been watching what sells, who sells it, and how. I’m a slow learner. If I had been doing that from the beginning, I’d own a house by now.
And when I say “copy” it’s important to mention I don’t mean copy their stories. I mean copy their sales and marketing approach. What are they doing that sells their books, and how can you apply those tactics to your own?
How important are branding and marketing for self-published authors? How do you approach these areas in your own work?
Very. I’d say it’s critical. I didn’t learn the importance of series-branded covers until my third Steve Dane book, when somebody pointed out they couldn’t tell my books were in a series and that was hurting sales. I paid no attention to all the talk I was hearing about mailing lists; or advertising; anything like that. Didn’t think I needed it. Part of the turnaround in my thinking was downloading the top indie action novels and going back and forth through the books to see what the other guys were doing, how did they chum for list sign-ups, what did their web pages and Facebook pages look like, what did they tweet, if anything. Copy all of it until you figure out your own approach. Read the Passive Voice, read the Kindle Boards Writer’s Café (both will help you keep up with the constant changes indie writers face), link up with other writers on Facebook. Share ideas, ask questions. Most of the time nobody knows nothing, but within that nothing is something you can use. I’m not sure I believe in “luck” as a tangible force in life, but I suppose you need some of that too. I’ve always made my own luck by showing up sober and wearing a suit. Smiling doesn’t hurt, either.
What’s next for Scott Stiletto? Do you plan to stick with spy thrillers, or are there other genres you would like to write in?
Stiletto has a bright future. Three books done and in the can, five more either in the outline or sketch stage. I’ll eventually get back to my Steve Dane series, either with the publisher I mentioned (they want all five books), or on my own if the deal falls through. I have a crime series planned about a vigilante named Wolf, which I started as a series of short stories under a pen name but will now bring out under my own name. I’d love to do many different things, including an erotic spy parody called 50 Shades of Agent 69 and its sequel, OO7 Inches is Not Enough, but while I keep threatening to do so, I doubt I ever will. I seem to get a lot of laughs just mentioning the titles, and that’s probably all I need.
I would like to branch out into other genres. Maybe some sci-fi, someday. I tried a romantic suspense once (Bulletproof Hearts under the name Brianna Cain), but haven’t done anything to promote it so it just sits. I had fun writing it, though. But there’s only so much time in the day, and in life, so I doubt I’ll ever get to everything I’d like to do.
If you could be any hero of the spy thriller genre for a day, who would you choose and why?
Ha! Nobody. I’m my own spy hero. My characters are all patterned after me anyway, which is why Stiletto, since we’re focusing on him, has so many of my traits. My adventures don’t feature car chases or gun fights, but they’re just as challenging and I get to go home with a better woman every night than Scott Stiletto or James Bond will ever find, and if Stiletto ever does find one, she’ll be modeled after mine. I’ll give you an example of how great she is. We’d barely been dating a year when I found a collected volume of Fitzgerald’s work but didn’t have the cash. Come Valentine’s Day, she bought me the book. I would have married her that night. James Bond may have the license to kill, but I have a better license.