Thursday, October 27, 2011

Can A Real Spy Write a Spy Thriller?


3 Things to Consider when Your Day Job is the stuff of Novels

by Alma Katsu

When I was an analyst at CIA, many of my coworkers thought about sitting down one day and writing a spy novel. Obviously, few did. (Even I didn’t: my novel, The Taker, is historical with a supernatural element and had nothing to do with my intelligence career.)

But one analyst had penned a spoof of The Hunt for Red October as if it had been written in the rigid style taught to analysts in the Directorate of Intelligence. I wish I could show it to you—I’ve been told that a copy is floating around the Internet, but I couldn’t find it—because it perfectly illustrates the difference between being a spy in real life and being one in a novel. Needless to say, it made real intelligence analysts laugh so hard they’d blow Coke through their noses when they read it.

I worked in intelligence for nearly thirty years, splitting my time between the National Security Agency (known to you civilians as “the super-secret National Security Agency”) and CIA. Thirty years is a long time to do anything, long enough to ingrain the many quirks and peculiarities of the intelligence business into my DNA. (For instance, I find I must correct the inaccurate statement I made above, though it is a common misconception: technically, intelligence professionals are not “spies.” The people they recruit to give up secrets are spies.) almakatsu

I was midway through my career as an analyst when I decided to return to writing fiction, something I’d abandoned once I started at NSA, as being a published writer is pretty much incompatible with working in intelligence. When literary agents found out about my day job, they’d invariably encourage me to write a spy novel. “You could show what it’s really like,” they’d say, and I took them at their word.

So I wrote a spy novel. It was a lot of work. I wanted to pick the right international conflict, one that I found interesting and I thought Americans should know more about. I wanted it to be accurate: my professional reputation was on the line.

I showed it to agents. To say they were underwhelmed is putting it kindly. I remember one telling me pointedly, “No one wants to read about someone doing their job.”

Of course, many writers are perfectly able to write great thrillers based on their day job: bookshelves are crammed with novels written by doctors, lawyers, police officers, pathologists, detectives, military personnel, police, you name it. For me, the decision not to write spy thrillers came down to this: it wasn’t fun. To me, writing is a means to be somewhere I want to be, with characters I want to be around—an escape. Writing spy novels kept me tethered to my workaday world, and it wasn’t rejuvenating.

You may be in a similar conundrum. What should you do if you’ve got a day job that seems custom-made for a novel but your heart is in writing an epic fantasy? Here are a few things you might want to consider:

1. Platform:

Having that killer day job—Navy SEAL, coroner for LA county—is a leg up for a writer, whether you decide to use it for your novel or not. Even though my book, The Taker, has nothing to do with the world of intelligence, mention of it tends to give me an extra second’s worth of consideration with reviewers and the publicity machinery. There’s a trade off, though: it’s really easy to confuse your potential audience about your product. They may be drawn to the killer day job and have no interest in your type of book (zombie apocalypse, romance.) If you go this route, you need to scrupulously manage your platform to ensure it doesn’t affect how your book is perceived.

Taker US cover final2. Your work leaks into your writing anyway:

You know how people are always advising you to ‘write what you know’? I’ve found if you worked in a particular environment for a long time, you’ve absorbed enough of its culture that it’s going to come out in your writing. In other words, the ‘what you know’ will come through anyway, even if you don’t use specifics. For instance, I thought I’d left the spy business behind when I wrote The Taker, but someone at the publishing house pointed out that all my characters tend to be secretive and manipulative, never telling the truth when a cleverly managed facsimile of it will do. It hit me between the eyes: I’d duplicated the atmosphere at my former job.

3. Hold it in reserve:

Never say never. You may find one day that the prospect of writing that trial novel (if you’re a lawyer) or heist novel (if you’re a jewel thief) suddenly appeals. Now that I’m no longer working for any three-letter agencies, I’m thinking that one day I may come up with an idea for a spy novel that I can’t resist. Particularly if the series I’m writing now doesn’t work out. As a working writer, you owe it to yourself to use every tool in your toolbox.

Alma Katsu is the author of The Taker, the first in a trilogy of novels that have been compared to the early works of Anne Rice: historical thrillers with a supernatural element. The Taker was named one of the Best Debut Novels of 2011 ay ALA Booklist magazine. The second novel in the trilogy, The Reckoning, comes out in June 2012. She also blogs for the Huffington Post on intelligence and policy.

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jenny milchman said...

I loved this post! I never before considered the down side to writing about your exciting milieu, if you're lucky enough to have one! Still, your debut sounds so intriguing, and I bet your readers are happy you wrote what you did. Even if the "spy" novel one day comes :)

Serena said...

I really like the insight you bring to writing even if you have an exciting day job, it may not appeal to write about it. Thankfully, my day job is boring. LOL

Unknown said...

Ha, Serena.

My job is boring, too. However, because of novels and bad reality shows some think that PR work is glamorous and that we all look like supermodels in kitten heels. Real Talk... it's not even close. So when I received my book deal everyone assumed it would be a Devil Wears Prada behind the fourth wall kind of thing. Instead I'm writing about a bounty hunter mom.

I've been curious how some authors can spin their careers into their stories. So glad Alma shares why up to this point it isn't what she wants to do.

Thanks, Alma. :)

K.L. Brady said...

Wow! Your blogpost couldn't be more timely for me. I'm a former FBI CI analyst (20 years in the community) and I decided to write a spy novel--a female FBI agent who catches spies operating in the US. I'm in the process of writing it as we speak. Here's what I'm finding. 1. It seems a lot less interesting when you tell what you actually do. I have to embellish a lot! 2. I struggle not to include too much so that I don't compromise any tradecraft or methods of operation that they may still use. 3. I used to crack up laughing at movies and their portrayal of CIA and FBI operations. It all seemed ridiculous to me. Now...I'm writing the ridiculous because if it's too real it probably won't sell.

It's been an interesting undertaking to say the least. I love the don't often see black FBI agents catching spies (and women are even more rare), so I hope to shed some light on some of the awesome women I've worked with in the past.

And I would LOVE to read that Hunt for Red October spoof. I'd buy that in a heartbeat!

PatriciaW said...

Alma, I completely get how the culture of your former workplace becomes grafted upon your DNA. I've worked in IT for years, and I drive my Hubby crazy with my analytical approach at times. Did you find it difficult to unleash your creative side and to write in a fashion that would be appealing to fiction readers?

Gary Kriss said...

I'm one of those who believes, for the most part, never write about what you know, however interesting it may be.

To do so is to miss some of writing's little promoted joys, including learning about new things.

Teachers know that often the best way to teach a subject is to learn it a few steps ahead of their students. It sharpens their abilities to explain often difficult concepts so that they are more easily comprehended--a handy tool for novelists. (Much like the college where a Ph.D. in music teaches a course in quantum mechanics one semester and political science the next, if you saw the recent article on this).

Writing a novel is like acting i9n a movie: you can be a pirate one day, a noble the next. How great is that!

Remember, books allow writers as well as readers readers to escape. Why in the world would you want to escape to the same?

Fear not: as Alma rightly points out, the you that is you, a delightful mix of the psychological, cultural occupational . . ., will inevitably trickle into your work anyway. Let it remain a trickle rather than a torrent.

I realize not everyone will agree, but "write about what you know" is one of the first rules that should be tossed in the waste bin. One of writer's greatest assets is imagination. Why in the world would you want to do anything that could stiffle that?!

Of course, if you've had a long and distinguished career as a porno star . . .

K.L. Brady said...

LOL Alma!! The superbad NSA person is absolutely HILARIOUS. You're so right that people just don't understand the missions. I'd bet if the author knew, they'd probably do give their own idea an eye roll.

I'll definitely stay in touch. I would welcome the opportunity to sit in on a panel in the future. :)

Unknown said...

I think it's hilarity that you (Alma and K.L. )find the bad NSA character both puzzling and wrong. I wonder where that caricature of that particular career started.

There are other professions that we vilify and/or put on pedestals in Entertainment. What I'm challenged with is when editors want you to write to stereotype in order to appease the reading public.

I've tried to do that with public perception of bail recovery agents. (i.e Dog the Bounty Hunter Show)

If you were to write a spy novel one day--and you could find an interesting character and premise-- what myth would you debunk in it?

Shelia Goss said...

Alma, I know my day job is boring...but sounds like your job was exciting. :) I'm working on a novel now based around a secret government agency so would love to pick your brain.

I do think whether its work or other things, it will leak into our writing in some form.

Gary Kriss said...

BTW, Alma--forgive me for being remiss: an excellent post from a person who seems to have written a blow-out book, CIA or No CIA!

K.L. Brady said...

I would debunk the myth that there's all this gun play. I mean, it's hilarious to me. I laughed quite a bit through the movie Salt. Of course the CIA gets into some sketchy situations that require firepower sometimes. But for the most part--no guns, especially not the ones operating here in the United States. I worked with FBI counterintelligence agents whose guns collected lots of dust in their desk drawers. LOL The cases are still VERY interesting and mentally challenging--more like chess. If you see an FBI agent shooting at a spy in the United States, get him some Prozac. He's lost it. LOL

Unknown said...

K.L. I laughed through Salt to, but for very different reasons. I'm sure. lol

Amy Rogers said...

I guess I have the best of both worlds; I was trained as a scientist, but I don't work as a scientist. So when I put a lot of science in my debut thriller, it was an opportunity for me to learn new stuff building on a strong foundation of what I already knew. I can totally see how writers with the "perfect" thriller day job might not want to confront that job in their writing time. But it's still ironic, that the expertise outsiders crave is tossed aside by an insider.

Even if writing about spies isn't your bag, Alma, I hope you'll share some of what you know on panels at ThrillerFest!

K.L. Brady said...

OMG Alma! I was at the Pentagon in the J2 (NMCC) during the war...up until late 2007. That's amazing!

Laughed at the "They wouldn't be running." Definitely more of the pocket-protector/hacker types. :)

Good stuff. Enjoyed the discussion!

K.L. Brady said...

Ohhh...and as for SALT. She's CIA--Russian-born, illegal type. If you want a laugh...this is definitely the way to go. Although I will say the action was good...the PLOT. OMG funny in places.

Tracy March said...

Hi Alma. I enjoyed your post. It is very interesting to learn more about the author of the very book I am reading right now on my nook!

I am really enjoying The Taker!