Lance Charnes is the author of thrillers and art crime fiction, and a darn good one at that. His curriculum vitae is also impressive, what with his stints in the U.S. Air Force (including time at the White House — yes, that White House), the I.T. department for the construction manager of the Los Angeles subway (wait…L.A. has a subway system?); Activision and 3DO as a game artist; and is currently working in the field of Emergency Services.
He’s a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserves, the last years of which he served as an intelligence officer (Note: There are highly unsubstantiated rumors that Lance is still in the intelligence community and an active spy and an international man of mystery, though you didn’t hear that from me).
If all that wasn’t enough, Lance has been diving for almost twenty years (no, not the Olympic kind, but the scuba kind) and is a certified advance open water, rescue diver and EAN (no idea as to the acronym, you’ll have to Google that one). His oceanic pastime was sparked by his childhood interest in shipwrecks and maritime archaeology. Interestingly, he has yet to write a novel involving shipwrecks and maritime archaeology (what’s up with that, Lance?).
Before we go any further, time for full disclosure: I have known Lance for about ten years through a writers critique group. I wanted to interview Lance because he’s one of the best writers I know personally, and his knowledge and understanding of the craft is second only to mine (haha, just kidding…maybe).
Anyway, here you go:
Casey: What attracted you to writing novels? Why do you write them?
Lance: I’ve never been able to write short form. It may be because I’ve never much enjoyed reading short stories. The characters I dream up and the stories I drop them into don’t fit in forty or fifty pages. I like to have room to let the characters run and get into trouble.
C: You’ve written novels in the thriller genre and the (art) crime genre. Why these genres?
L: My first two published works were thrillers because that’s what fit the plots. Before that, I’d tried an archaeological mystery series (didn’t work) and a Tami Hoag-ish suspense novel (didn’t work).
When I embarked on another series, I knew I didn’t want to make them thrillers because I generally dislike thriller series – I’ve never bought that the hero can survive repeated near-death experiences or save the world multiple times without deciding to chuck it all to live in a cabin in the woods. I’d been reading a lot about art-related crime and figured there was enough fodder for several books before I ran out of stories. The protagonist I built to fit the plots isn’t an action hero in any way, shape, or form, but he fits the crime/caper genre well.
C: Are you interested in writing other genres?
L: There’s an espionage novel that’s been living in the back of my head for a long time that may eventually get out. I’ve also toyed off and on with a modern military action story (which may be another way of saying “thriller”; I’m not sure yet). I doubt I’ll start writing S&M erotica, though.
C: I know your writerly talents go beyond writing fiction. Can you tell the readers what else you write?
L: I write TV and book reviews for Macmillan’s Criminal Element website, as well as a few more journalistic pieces. My day job has me writing emergency response plans, which can be kind of like writing very detailed thrillers, though without much characterization.
C: Do have any background in formal writing education, e.g., creative writing classes, MFA, etc., and if not, how did you go about learning the craft/art form
L: None. I’ve learned by doing. The first writing I remember doing was Adam-12 fan fiction back when I was in fourth grade. I’ve read a lot and have absorbed the form from that, as well as from a few books on writing written by actual authors.
C: Who are your top three inspirations for your writing and why?
L: Alan Furst. He writes espionage/intrigue set in interwar Central and Eastern Europe. He has a gift for writing about obscure people doing obscure things to each other in obscure places, and making it absolutely fascinating.
Don Winslow/Elmore Leonard. Both men are/were absolute masters in naturalistic dialog. It sounds like they simply transcribe what the characters are saying and clean it up a little. That’s really hard, and they make it seem so simple.
Michael Connelly. He does inside baseball better than anyone else I know. His version of the LAPD – with all its politics, skullduggery, backbiting and empire-building – sounds and feels so real that it hardly matters if it is or not. If I could make the art world come alive the way he does the police world, I, too, could have an Amazon series and an endless number of books on sale.
C: Can you discuss the importance of professionalism in terms of crafting the “product,” and also in terms of being a published author, which essentially means you’re running a business and out there hustling?
L: There are a lot of people out there today who are publishing books that aren’t finished. This has given indie books a bad name (though legacy-published books aren’t immune). It may seem self-evident, but it apparently isn’t: if you’re going to write and publish a book, the minimum acceptable skill set involves not only some nodding acquaintance with standard American English, but the ability to write. By that I mean the ability to create plot, characters, setting and atmosphere. Producing a professional-grade product makes you stand out. It’s not an innate skill for most people, but it can be learned with enough practice and effort. I cringe whenever I see authors boasting on Goodreads about publishing the very first novel they’ve ever written. Doha 12 was my seventh full-length novel, and the first one that made it out into public. Dave Putnam, a crime writer with whom I’ve shared a couple author events, says that he’d written 38 novels before his 35th one got published, his first in print.
If you indie publish, you have to become a publishing professional. Among other things, this means having a very clear-eyed view of what you’re good at and what you need others to do for you. You need people to help you edit and polish your writing. You need a professional-looking cover. You need a print text block that looks like what you’d get from a major publisher, and an ebook that works and is readable. When you approach reviewers, vendors, and publicity outlets, you need to be as professional as possible. Indie authors have become notorious for being thin-skinned and intractable; this doesn’t fit the authors I know, but it takes only a few idiots to tar us all with that brush.
If all you want to do is write, go for it, but leave the results on your computer. If you want to publish by whatever means, keep in mind that you’re competing in the big leagues and act accordingly.
C: Do you get writers block? If so, what do you do to get over it?
L: Not “writer’s block,” though I do go through some avoidance behavior at times. Normally, I just power through it. If the writing’s coming hard, it’s usually because something is wrong; it’s my way of telling myself to slow down and pay attention to what I’m writing and whether it works.
C: You are in a writers critique group. Can you explain why it’s important for you to be in a critique group? What are the benefits of a critique group? Any downside?
L: I need several sets of other eyes on my work while it’s in progress and I can still fix things easily. Also, the breadth of reading tastes and experiences can help me with things I can’t work out myself. For instance, an important character in Doha 12 is the hero’s six-year-old daughter. I’ve never had kids and never particularly cared for them (even when I was a kid), let alone spent extended periods of time with them. The critique group made sure she was a believable little girl.
The biggest drawback is that because of the format, the group can’t help with continuity or character arcs – they see the story 3,000 words at a time over the course of months.
C: You also use beta readers outside of the critique group to review your manuscripts. Why do you use a second layer of reviewers (in addition to the critique group)?
L: Because of that last problem I mentioned. Beta readers can read the story the way normal people do and can flag problems with continuity, rhythm, pace, and development. They’re also coming at it cold, so they’ll see all the things the group has stopped noticing.
C: Who are your beta readers, i.e., friends, family members, strangers, fellow writers, et cetera, and how do you choose them, e.g., what are the qualifications, do you want a reader’s only perspective, an author’s perspective?
L: None of my betas are related to me. They’re mostly authors – they’re more likely to volunteer to do it and they’re also used to reading a text critically. I’ve given the two DeWitt art-crime novels to an art specialist so she can tell me how wrong I’ve gone in that realm. The Collection went to an architect I know so she could make sure Matt (the series lead) will sound like the architect he’s supposed to be. I probably need to recruit a few more betas to replace the ones who have fallen by the wayside.
C: When you start on a new novel, do you outline the story or fly by the seat of your pants, so to speak? If you do outline, can you describe how you go about it?
L: I outline a lot because of the kinds of stories I write. I usually start with calendars so I can make sure there’s enough time allocated for the characters to get from A to B to C and that they’ll all end up where they’re supposed to for the climax. Once I get the timeline right, I write the outline in bullet points. I also write outlines of the major characters’ backgrounds so I know who they are.
I just tried Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid process for my current WIP. I’m not sure yet how that will work, but it did help me work out some problems I’d been wrestling with.
C: What’s your overall process in drafting a novel? When do you write? How many hours a day? Longhand and/or computer? A daily word count? What type of software? And whatever else you want to talk about regarding your process.
L: I’m not sure I have a “process.” I write whenever I have time for as long as I have time. I edit as I go along. I write on a computer – I can’t imagine doing anything else now – using MS Word, which is plenty flexible enough for me. I’ve been using Word ever since it appeared on Windows 3.1 back in the ‘90s, so it’s second nature.
C: What’s the ideal workspace for you?
L: I can write anyplace that’s quiet and reasonably comfortable. I can’t have anything with words (talking, TV, singing) going on in the background or I’ll listen to that instead of the voices in my head. Sometimes the cat drops by to help, or “help.” I’ve written in hotel rooms, on trains, and on airplanes (transoceanic flights are best for that – they last forever, everybody’s asleep, and there’s Nothing. Else. To do.)
C: What kind of things inspire you, creatively speaking, and not necessarily in terms of getting ideas for a novel (that question is coming), but in terms of what gets your creative juices flowing (or are you just always self-motivated)?
L: If I’ve got something going, I usually can’t not work on it. Part of that is knowing I need to keep on a release schedule, but part is just wanting to get the story out of my head and onto a page.
C: And now for the infamous and much derided question: Where do you get the ideas for your novels?
L: It depends. Doha 12 is the what-if version of a real-life story. South was my reaction to the 2012 presidential election and the American domestic politics of the time. One of my unpublished previous novels, a beat-the-clock domestic thriller, was entirely an exercise in learning how to write from a female protagonist’s point-of-view. The DeWitt Agency Files books grew out of my reading into art-related crime and my need to come up with a series concept I wouldn’t hate after three books. Both of those and the next two I have planned are based loosely on actual art-crime cases that I’ve blown into fiction. I’d say that I like playing the “what if?” game, but all fiction authors do that, so I’m not special that way.
C: For some authors, writing is a love/hate relationship. What do you love about it? And hate (or stuff that you don’t necessarily hate but find difficult or irksome)?
L: I like writing. I don’t even mind the hard parts – plotting, editing, cutting scenes or chapters I like that don’t work. I dislike marketing. As long as I’m my own publishing house, I have to do marketing, but it’s not part of my nature. It’s not really in most writers’ nature; we like to sit in a room and play with our imaginary friends, not buttonhole strangers and tell them how awesome we are.
C: You write novels that are in the realm of “genre fiction.” And as you have explained to me in the past, genre fiction requires that the author adhere to rules and checklists applicable to the particular genre (in addition to the broad categories of general/good storytelling). Why do you think rules and checklists are important for genre fiction as opposed to the somewhat “wild west” of literary fiction?
L: I think the greatest difference between genre and literary fiction is that in genre, something has to happen. That “something” defines the genre the story fits. Readers select genres because of the kinds of stories they tell. Want love stories? You’ll go for romance or its offshoots. Like action? You’ll read thrillers or westerns or war stories. Readers who like literary fiction respond more to ideas or characters; plot is secondary. The rap on literary fiction is that it’s about spending five hundred pages inside the head of a person who doesn’t do anything – a little extreme, maybe, but there are grains of truth in it.
That said, to choose a genre, you need to have some idea [of] what you’re going to get. You’ll be pissed if you go for a crime story and end up with a romantic comedy. That’s why genres have expected features and rules. Romance has probably the most formally codified rules, mostly because two publishers dominate that genre and they can get away with it, but also because the readers demand it. Mystery has probably the loosest rules because of all its subgenres, but at minimum you need a crime, someone who tries to solve the crime, a pursuit of clues, and an eventual reckoning between the criminal and the character solving the crime. Just because a genre has expected elements doesn’t mean all the stories are the same, though. Look at, say, an Ed McBain police procedural, one of Tim Dorsey’s Serge Storms psycho-killer comedies, and an Agatha Christie Miss Marple cozy. They’re all “mysteries” of one sort or another, but they couldn’t be more different.
C: Does adhering to rules/checklists mean writers of genre fiction can’t or shouldn’t attempt writing something off the beaten path and push against convention? What are the negative consequences of pushing against genre conventions? Any positives?
L: You can write genre and subvert it by breaking all the rules (a la Josh Bazell’s Beat the Reaper), but you have to know the rules before you can break them, and you have to offer fans something compelling in their stead. Also, I think the readers of some genres are more tolerant of that kind of thing than others. The wild profusion of subgenres for both mystery and science fiction seems to indicate that those readers welcome diverse ways of storytelling. On the other hand, the fans of category romance want what they want and apparently get very testy when a book doesn’t fill that specific need.
So, the downside: if you’re too transgressive, the genre’s fans won’t read or like your story, but literary fans will still turn up their noses at you because you’re writing genre. The upside: do it right and you can singlehandedly create a new subgenre, like William Gibson did with cyberpunk.
C: How do you differentiate yourself (i.e., stand out from the crowd) among the many talented folk writing in the competitive field of genre fiction? Is talent enough? How important is branding and marketing to you?
L: I’ve managed to get into one pretty small niche (art-related mysteries) while verging into another (gentleman-criminal protagonists). I know who my competition is in some detail. This keeps me from being trampled underfoot by the big names. I’m hoping to become a bigger fish in this little pond by offering readers an engaging protagonist who does interesting, offbeat things.
I’m not sure that talent has ever been enough. A very talented author could go head-to-head with Michael Connelly or Lee Child and get slaughtered. That same writer can slave away for years in some obscure corner of the writing world, then get discovered by Oprah and become the Next Big Thing. I think the whole milieu is roulette with a lot of “0” and “00” pockets on the wheel.
Branding wasn’t as important with my two standalone thrillers as it is now with the series. Series are, at bottom, exercises in branding. Marketing is how you get readers, so it’s important for me to do it even though I don’t care for it and I’m not very good at it. I’m hoping that marketing a series will be easier than it is for standalones.
C: Any cool projects you have in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
L: Right now I’m focused on Book 3 in the DeWitt Agency series. It features Matt Friedrich, the series lead, dealing with something completely outside his skill set, as well as wrestling with some baggage from his past. After that, Book 4 may showcase Carson (Matt’s partner in the first two books). It may be a straight-ahead action thriller, which will screw up my series branding. We’ll see.
C: Where can people track down your novels and other writings or anything else you want them to find?
All my books are available internationally in English on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Tolino, and trade paperback. In most online marketplaces, you’re better off searching for my name rather than just a title. You can actually walk into a Barnes & Noble and order any of my titles; if you’re a member, they’ll ship it to your home for free.
My website has information about all my books as well as bonus material, such as deleted chapters and book group questions. There are also galleries of all the artworks referenced in both DeWitt books. There’s a lot of stuff in my blog, but very little is recent. My Facebook author page has mostly taken over from my blog; much of what I post now is art-related, though I still pop up some spy stuff. You can find my Criminal Element articles here. I also have a YouTube channel with several dozen art crime-related videos and playlists; it’s how I keep track of my reference videos. I’m a Goodreads author and will, if asked, answer questions on my author page.