Writing a Military Thriller with Potent Authenticity
Something interesting happened at Thrillerfest 2012. A spark turned into a flame, and that flame now blazes atop Amazon’s bestseller list.
What specifically happened at said conference? The get-together for the debut-author class. As Jeff Wilson puts it: “Brian and I met in 2012, when we were both debut authors. Honestly, I’m not all that comfortable in those kinds of social situations, and so I had made an effort to seek out other military veterans, thinking these would be men and women I would have things in common with.”
It looks like Jeff Wilson and Brian Andrews did find that common ground. September 1st is the publication date for their book written together, TIER ONE, winning praise from both high-ranking naval commanders and bestselling authors like Jon Land, who says, “It is one of those rare thrillers that combine blood-curdling action sequences with the steep emotional price paid by modern-day warriors behind all the gunfire.”
I caught up with this hot writing duo to post some questions for The Big Thrill. (Full disclosure: I was in the 2012 class too, and can attest to the Andrews & Wilson chemical reaction.)
Let’s start with this. What did each of you think of your future co-author the day you met at Thrillerfest?
WILSON: Brian and I hit it off immediately. We were both Navy, we had daughters the same age, we both were all about family. We swapped sea stories and became great friends that first night, emailing each other frequently after we left NYC. Our wives became fast friends, and now our daughters are pen pals and video chat. The families have really become close.
ANDREWS: Jeff has a wry sense of humor and tons of charisma, plus an incredible military and medical pedigree. He’s the real deal. On top of that, throw in the fact that our professional interests and family values are pretty much identical, and our friendship was inevitable.
OK, so what made you decide to write as a team?
ANDREWS: At Thrillerfest 2013, one year after meeting as Debut Authors, we reconnected in NYC and immediately started swapping stories. We had both just finished penning individual novels, and we were brainstorming new projects. That’s when the phrase “SEALs & Subs” popped into my head. With Jeff’s experience working with the Teams, and my experience driving submarines, it seemed like a perfect match-up for collaborating. Imagine if Clancy and Fñlynn had collaborated on a book, with Mitch Rapp and the Red October on a mission. So SEALs & Subs became my pitch to Jeff. In the military, everything is team based. Collaboration and teamwork is the key to success on every mission, so in my mind I didn’t see any reason why this same model couldn’t be applied authoring. Enthusiastically, I pitched the idea to Jeff … and he said no.
WILSON: So Brian basically just wore me down. He can be tenacious that way. I’m grateful now that he had the vision to see what we could do by working together, but that few months it was more like “Jeez, this guy is not gonna let this go.” I said no three times, I think. Not because I didn’t respect him and his work, but because I didn’t see how writing with ANYONE could possibly work. All the while, we were brainstorming this great story idea and I was falling in love with the characters we were inventing. Finally, Brian said, “Look, dude. Let’s do this. Let’s write five chapters. If it’s working, then great—we keep going. If not, then you can keep the story and no hard feelings.” How could I say no to that? So we dove in and it was the most enjoyable—and insanely fast and efficient—writing experience of my career. My biggest worry now is if I can still write alone!
What is your system for writing—do you alternate chapters or write different characters?
WILSON: Our system is one that works for us and would probably not work for anyone else. The key to our approach is our frequent “brainstorming sessions.” By the time we are well into the book, we are literally interchangeable. We generally split up chapters by POV, but one author doesn’t always write every chapter for a particular character. We write in parallel, but it is a “divide and conquer” system, where we assign chapters for a given section and then swap and edit. The most important thing that makes this work is that every chapter I write gets a re-write by Brian and vice versa and we do this as we go along. In the end, there is a smooth blending of work so that we can hopefully end up with one voice.
ANDREWS: The power of the system comes from a decision we made very early on that every novel we write is our book,” not his book and my book. This sounds like nuance, but it’s not. The temptation in writing is to become possessive and proud of your prose, after all an author’s prose is the hallmark of his craft. But when you’re co-authoring, you have to throw this mentality out the window. As Jeff mentioned, we want every novel to have a single voice. Using our method of “swap and rewrite,” we blend our storytelling to the point that you have a novel that could not have been produced by either of us individually. By the time the novel is ready to go to press, there are literally no Jeff sentences and no Brian sentences anywhere left in the manuscript. TIER ONE is an Andrews & Wilson book, and one we are incredibly proud of.
TIER ONE excels in authoritative, defining detail. Was that one of your goals, with your combined military background, to make the reader feel that he or she is there?
ANDREWS: The guiding principle we had for TIER ONE was to write a book so authentic and visceral that the reader would feel like they were the proverbial “ghost man” on the team. We wanted you to feel the stress, the danger, the urgency, the risk, the uncertainty—all the things that TIER ONE operators feel on their missions. Because of our backgrounds, we felt we had the experience to write with the level of detail and emotion that the characters were so real on the page, that by the end of the story, not only do you feel like you know them, but you feel like you are one of them!
WILSON: I agree with Brian. As a reader, I find it most enjoyable when the writing and characterization is real enough to make me feel like I am part of the team and on the Op. There is no question that we rely heavily on our combined experiences to achieve that. We’ve taken part in enough real world operations that we can write some of the personal, visceral aspects with some authority. We share work with our shipmates still serving sometimes, and our goal is for them to say—“Yeah, if that happened that’s how I would do it.” The greatest feedback we’ve gotten is from former teammates who felt TIER ONE was gritty and authentic.
That being said, we really want readers to understand that our work is fiction. We are storytellers. We would never, ever violate OPSEC and our commitment to those still serving by betraying any real secrets on tactics or gear. We try and pull our stories from real world geopolitical events, but we never compromise any inside information we may have from our previous lives.
How did you plot the book to escalate the suspense so effectively?
WILSON: First of all it’s great to hear that we did, so thanks! It is a struggle sometimes to give the right amount of detail to make the book fun and not so much that you bog it down. In real life these types of events are filled with long periods of tedium and boredom—not great reading. To build the suspense, you have to find that balance, but also the right balance of how much to give away to the reader early.
ANDREWS: We consciously worked on weaving foreshadowing and subtext into the narrative to create that suspense. In TIER ONE, we accomplished this by setting the political stage and revealing our villain’s motivations early in the book. The reader knows that the bad guys are gunning for the Tier One SEALs and intent on inflicting harm on the U.S., we simply don’t let the reader know how and when. That’s an analog for real life. As Americans, we know that terrorist organizations are always plotting, we simply don’t know when, where, and how they will strike. We want our readers to finish the book and say, “Wow, I hope there’s really a group like EMBER and a hero like John Dempsey out there safeguarding this country.”
In the note preceding the book, you say covert operations are often denied officially. How did you conduct any additional research for TIER ONE and did you need to delve into military secrets?
WILSON: There is a lot of public source information out there that anyone can use. The big thing to take away is that our books are fiction and we do not give away real secrets—whether from personal experience or from deep research. We’re storytellers, and ultimately the stakes and intrigue relative to the book’s plot are what matter to us, not trying to delve into military secrets.
ANDREWS: A word on OPSEC, which is an acronym for Operational Security. OPSEC might not be something that civilian authors worry about, but it is something that we take very seriously. TIER ONE is fiction informed by research and experience. What I mean by this is that we use real life events and experience to create the fictional parallel universe where John Dempsey lives. Everything that happens in TIER ONE is certainly plausible in our universe, but is nonetheless 100% a product of our imagination.
What’s your next book together?
ANDREWS: The second book in the series is called War Shadows (Thomas & Mercer) and is due out February 2017. In the next installment, Dempsey is back, and this time he must stop an old nemesis who’s resurfaced after a decade in the shadows. From the deserts of Iraq, through the jungles of Guatemala, to the streets of suburbia, Dempsey faces his greatest challenge yet trying to stop a series of horrific and devious attacks planned against the homeland. Many of the characters from TIER ONE return in Book 2, but don’t worry, we have some tricks up our sleeve that readers didn’t see in Book 1.
WILSON: And we’re already hard at work on book three! There is still a lot in store for Dempsey and his team at Ember, and we are really excited to introduce our readers to some new characters as we fill the team ranks. One of the goals of the TIER ONE series, is to introduce new characters and new partners from the various branches of the Intelligence Community to work with Dempsey in each and every book. As the series progresses, readers will become intimately familiar with all the organizations, and brave men and women who work for them, tirelessly safeguarding America on a daily basis.
Brian Andrews is a US Navy veteran who served as an officer on a 688-class fast attack submarine in the Pacific. He is a Park Leadership Fellow and holds a master’s degree from Cornell University. He is the author of The Infiltration Game, The Calypso Directive and the coauthor of Beijing Red. Born and raised in the Midwest, Andrews lives in Tornado Alley with his wife and three daughters.
Jeffrey Wilson has worked as an actor, firefighter, paramedic, jet pilot, and diving instructor, as well as a vascular and trauma surgeon. He served in the US Navy for fourteen years and made multiple deployments as a combat surgeon. He is the author of three award-winning supernatural thrillers: The Traiteur’s Ring, The Donors, and Fade to Black. He is the coauthor of Beijing Red. He and his wife, Wendy, live in Southwest Florida with their four children.
Andrews and Wilson are the coauthors of Beijing Red, penned under the name Alex Ryan.
To learn more, please visit their website.