Interview With Author John Howell

John Howell

This week I welcome John Howell to the interview. You can find John on his Blog, Facebook, Twitter, Authors db, LinkedIn, Google+, Goodreads, Shelfari, Amazon and finally Martin Sisters Publishing. 

Photo by Tim BurdickWhat are you currently writing/working on?

I am working to edit the final book in the John J. Cannon trilogy which tells the story of a billionaire terrorist attempt to use patriot hero John J. Cannon to successfully destroy symbols of America’s strength. . The first My GRL is published and the second titled His Revenge is with the publisher now. I have also just completed a new book which tells the story of the rise and fall of a very successful athlete and business person.

When and how do your characters come to you? Is it in a moment of inspiration, an epiphany? Or do they grow in some murky recess of your mind?

All of my characters have been born out of the need for them to interact with the story that is in the murky recess of my mind. I begin each book by writing the last three lines which pretty much guides me through the beginning to the end. The characters pop up like mile markers as I need them. 

There’s an acceptance that authors often write in traits or characteristics of themselves into their work, is there any part of you in any of your characters?

I think each character has a little bit of me in them since I’m the one doing the creation. It is hard to develop a character without putting a little of what you know best into their personality. In this way, the character tends to remain consistent in actions and reactions throughout the book 

How do you develop your characters? Do you let them brew in your subconscious, use character interview sheets or something completely different?

I look at the story line and then develop the characters to “act out” the part that I have created. I would say it is more of a subconscious molding of the character based on need.

Are you a planner, or free writer?

I free write. As I mentioned, I have an ending (or at least the last three lines) and a story in my head. I do put down some notes in my iPhone just to make sure I capture the idea that came to me. I then begin with chapter one and start writing. The story itself tend to carry me along, and an outline isn’t necessary.

When you are developing a book, what tools or techniques do you use, e.g. timelines, mood boards, character interviews, scraps of notes?

I use a pretty simple set of tools. I keep my notes in my iPhone and a composition book on my desk. As I write the story, I record salient facts in the composition book. These usually names of characters, a description and relationships to each other. I also record chapter breaks by page number. As I write, I tend to forget where I am and when I want to break a chapter I need a reference to the last break making sure I’m not too early or too late. I also record certain plot twists so that I don’t forget to put them in the story. That is about it.

Has your technique changed over time?

Yes definitely. I used to outline the book before I started. I found this to be a waste of time since the story tended to go where it was most natural, and the outline became obsolete and thus a waste of time.

Where do you draw inspiration from? Do you actively look for it?

Inspiration for me comes from living and being involved in daily life. My first book has as inspiration a trip to a floating museum and wondering how such a treasure could be secure from a terrorist act. I think if a person lives a normal life there is inspiration all around. One does have to be receptive and alert to those things that may make a good story. 

What kind of an environment do you write in? Day/night/silence/music/desk/sofa etc

I have a wonderful office on the third floor of my house that looks out over some water. My routine is pretty much the same each day. I will take care of a few things in the morning and then sit down at my desk and write a minimum of one thousand words. To help me, I have a nice sound system which is on while I write, and I have recently discovered iHeart radio. I used to listen to Queen CDs but now choose from a number of songs and artists. My cat Frankie lies on my desk and keeps me company while writing. After the thousand words, I’m free to continue to work on other things

Half way into writing my first novel, it’s taking over my brain! What advice can you give me on completing it? Or maybe an easier question. What do you wish you had known about writing a book before you started?

Let me take the harder question. To complete a novel, you must write every day. You should set a word minimum and not let yourself up from the chair until your target is complete. You also must not let anyone look at what you are writing until you have finished the first draft of the manuscript. Why? Because well-meaning people will be the cause of you losing confidence in what you are doing. They don’t mean to do it, but they do. Statements like, “OH wow, I didn’t know you had such a miserable childhood,” are motivation killers. Once you are finished, there is enough time for edits and correction of misguided story lines not while you are writing the novel.

The publishing industry is in decline across the board. Do you think things like the Kindle are bridging the gap, is there still the same love for the written word, or is it being diluted by the modern obsession with tech and gadgets? 

I think people still love to read. The Kindle has made it easier for them and so I see more people getting devices which enhance reading. Having said that, I think there is a subset of the population who simply would rather play games, tweet, and use other social media than read. Eventually they all come around to picking up a book. It may be an age thing, but each generation goes through the same passage. After college, I think there is a dry spell that picks up when maturity sets in. 

50 Shades of Grey author EL James was reported to make around £100k a day at the book’s height, and the upcoming film will make her millions. Do you find it a shame that the most lucrative and famous book franchise of the moment is one so widely derided for its lack of literary value? Or is it just good to have a book going mainstream?  

I have to wonder what lack of literary value means. I know one thing if I had a blockbuster like Shades I would know what the lack of literary value means in terms of my bank account. Every author should welcome the idea that a story can catch on and become so popular. The reason so many criticize Shades is wrapped up in the realization that EL James posted her stuff online and built an audience with hard work. Hard work is tough. As an author, I would love to think that if I write well the literary world will beat a path to my door. It is not going to happen. If I get my book in front of enough people it might sell but still no guarantees. So Shades represents the worst of all literary situations for an author who thinks the work should speak for itself. The author had to bust her butt, and the story was something people wanted to read and not necessarily well written.

If a fascist regime was burning the worlds libraries, what books would you save?

Which to save is a tough question. I would like to save a good how to fix everything book. I would save the Bible, a dictionary, everything Homer wrote, Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut, On the Beach by Neville Shute, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, and Mila 18 by Leon Uris. I constructed this list as if I could only save what I could carry. There would be many more, but I’m sure the fascist regime wouldn’t give me carte blanche.

Which publishing route have you taken? Did you always know you were going to go down this route, and if so why?

I took the traditional route, and I guess I always saw myself as inept in the publishing realm. I never considered self-publishing because I didn’t know how to do it. Of course, that has changed, and now I must make a decision about my recently completed book on whether to continue traditional or to go the self-publish direction

my grlWhat do you wish you knew about the publishing process before you started?

I wish I knew just how strong the publisher is in terms of control. I have very little say-so when it comes to the publish date of a book. My first took eighteen months to get out the door. The second has been with the publisher since August and still no date set. This timing would have probably pushed me to self-published

What is the best advice you could give to aspiring novelists like me? Or what was the best advice you were ever given?

I would advise you to be patient. There is no hurry to publish. Once you finish your manuscript, you need to decide which path (traditional or self-published) you want to take. Your manuscript is the most important item. Make sure it is as perfect as you can make it.

Is fanfic to be welcomed as it broadens interaction and the readers experience or a scourge that devalues the ability of an author?

I think fanfic is okay until that magic point where the fanfic effort ellipses the original art in popularity and revenue. I can’t give you an example right now, but this is the only thing that would cause me to declare it a scourge. In the meantime, if it causes an author notoriety it might be welcome as long as the fanfic is tasteful and reasonably well done.

I am finding more and more, that writers often have several creative outlets. Do you? Or is writing your one source?

When I need to rest, I write short stories. They give my brain a chance to relax. I also write poetry and the only form that is public is my dalliance with Haiku. One of my readers called it JohnKu, and I’m still trying to figure out if she meant it as a compliment. That’s all writing isn’t it? Well, I’ve written four novels in three years so maybe it’s time to take up skydiving or something. I do like to cook so I guess that is one thing I do that isn’t writing.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I have been three things before becoming a writer. I was a business person, a consultant and finally a negotiator for a large telecommunications company. I think if I were not a writer I would be laying on my backside by the ocean doing nothing. Naw that doesn’t even sound like me. I think I would want to be a teacher. I have always enjoyed showing others how to do things, and that could be something I would enjoy. Hey, Harvard any need for creative writing professors?

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I think it was in college. I took a couple of writing courses and enjoyed them. I did have to go to work right after to support a family, so I more or less gave it up. I did do some writing after work and at nights. I finished a novel, and it was so bad I never gave it a second look. The manuscript now holds the laundry room door open in a breeze.

What authors do you admire, and why?

Kurt Vonnegut for being able to craft entertaining fiction against a historical backdrop. John Irving for being able to create outrageous stories that carry a common theme. Neville Shute for being able to create a story that was so believable and character rich and it is all about the end of the world.

To find out more about John, read his author bio below:

The author, John W. Howell has been held captive for over forty years by organized commerce. He was finally released in 2012 to begin writing full time. His novel My GRL has been published by Martin Sisters Publishing and is the first of a John J. Cannon trilogy. The second is now with the publisher and the third in the editing stage. John lives with his wife and rescue pets on a barrier island off the coast of South Texas.

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28 comments

  1. Sacha, I really enjoyed reading this interview with John.
    John, I love that you write the last three lines of your book first, and then let the story tell it from there. That’s a technique popular in movies, though that is in the telling rather than the writing, but similar. Love the sound of your office overlooking the water, and like your advice about routine. One thousand words a day is probably a reasonable target. (I’m thinking of that in relation to the length of blog posts.) Your ambition to be a teacher is a good one, but you probably “teach” through your writing. Sounds like you’ve got a strong standing there.
    Thank you Sacha and John.

    1. I agree its a cool place to start writing a book. I too know the ending when I start, although I haven’t as yet started by writing the ending. But it is a great idea, I too may have to employ. a thousand words a day is a GREAT target. I would say if I had guaranteed time I would set myself similar target but with a little boy its a bit hit and miss.

      1. Yes, and it’s important to enjoy the little boy while he’s little. They never stay little for long, and what you sow now you’ll reap in the future. 🙂

  2. A wonderful interview! Like you, I think there’s an age thing related to reading, with a dry spell in mostly everyone’s life.

    I particularly enjoyed the mention of Frankie. My own cat, Perro, also does that. He’s on my lap as I type this! 🙂

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