Thursday, September 25, 2014

I am supposed to have a writing process? Who knew?

Before I start making fun of myself (talk about a wealth of material) I want to take a moment to thank Susan Clayton-Goldner for inviting me to follow her on this blog tour about the writing process.  For those of you who don't know about Susan, let me say that her writing speaks for itself, but consider this: there is something about the way Susan writes that slices through the facade of everyday life to expose the fragile skeleton of human existence. And who doesn't want to see what's on the inside? If you are looking for a new author or a new perspective, click on the link for Susan's Website.

What am I working on? 

I get this question all the time, usually from my patients who want to know why I'm not in my office all the time.  The answer: I am currently working on Absolution, the first book of the Jesuit thriller series. In today's crowded and competitive thriller market, a debut author has to make sure all aspects of the book--plot, pacing, dialogue, narrative and characters--are all in good form. For those of us many trying break in to the ranks of Daniel Silva, Steve Berry, Preston Child, Olin Steinhauer et al, the breakthrough novel has to have it all, and from the wonderful comments I received in my first go-round (thanks to all the editors who took the time to write them) I needed to spend some time developing two of the characters from Absolution.  So, that is what I have been doing, under the careful guidance of an editor from my literary agent's office who specializes in character development. 

This is usually where someone (again, one of my pesky patients) asks why I don't just say the hell with it and publish the damn thing myself. The truth is, Absolution was a good book when Liz Kracht, my literary agent (more on her later), sent me an offer of representation. After multiple revisions and edits and cuts and additions, however, it is a damn good book. When I get through this latest round of work, during which those two characters have already become as real and 3-dimensional as my wife sitting next to me, I see that Absolution is going to be a hot damn good book. And then, after that, when I get a book contract, there will be another round of revising (this time under the supervision of the publishing editor) and then and only then will Absolution reach its full potential, a real hot damn good book--and to me it's worth the time and energy. 

How does my work differ from others in the same genre?

I write thrillers. One of the many cool aspects of the genre is its diversity: there are international thrillers, political, medical, legal, and religious thrillers, young adult thrillers (Stalking Sapphire by Mia Thompson), ecothrillers, spy thrillers (such as The Africa Contract by Art Kerns), historical thrillers (Lincoln's Bodyguard by Tj Turner), and techno-thrillers (3 Lies by Helen Hanson), psychological and suspense thrillers (Saving Laura by Jim Satterfield). But, despite the diversity, there is a uniformity about the genre, a uniformity that stems from the frequent choice of main character. How many thrillers have you read in which the MC was a rogue MI5 operative with a license to kill, or a defrocked CIA agent hardened by years on the job and a drinking problem, or an ex-Navy Seal whose wife was killed by the terrorist he failed to track down? There is a lot of merit to these main characters, but they have been done before, and if there is one thing I learned from my first--infamously unsuccessful--attempt to garner a literary agent, it is that a debut author like myself has to to bring something new to the table. 

I wanted to create a different kind of protagonist, one who experiences more than just the usual kind of conflict. Perhaps it is because of my Jesuit education; maybe it is the strong influence Graham Greene had on me; or, quite possibly, it was just a visit from serendipity; whatever was the case (I favor the latter) I eventually stumbled upon the MC for whom I had been searching, Marco Venetti, forty-year old Jesuit priest from Monterosso, Italy. And then I thrust him into a violent and belligerent world for which he was poorly prepared, just to see what happened. The best part of it--and this goes back to the writing process which I have yet to address--is that I did not know what was going to happen. I have found through hard experience that my writing suffers when I have too tight a window to write through; I do much better when I begin with a specific character and let things develop from there. In the case of Marco Venetti and Absolution, the events surrounding the character unfolded easily, which speaks, I think, to the uniqueness and great possibility of Marco's character. (And yes, I do think about him as if he is a real person.)

Why do I write what I do?

Ten years ago, I was reading one of the many hundreds of thrillers I have read when I set the book down and picked up a pencil and pad and started writing my own. It occurred to me then that I could do a better job of writing a thriller, and so I set out to prove it. (Nothing like making a life changing decision on whim.) I learned three things in the next few years: 1) writing a good novel is a lot harder than I thought; 2) creating characters that pull the reader into the story is even harder; and 3) writing a novel is a better test of your imagination and ability to tell a story than it is your grammar and vocabulary skills--and thank heaven for that.
I also learned that I didn't like to write; I needed to write. I came to understand the difference in these two things after I shelved my first manuscript after 3 years of writing, revising and unsuccessful searching for a literary agent. Silly me, I thought I had escaped unscathed, free to conduct the rest of my life as I saw fit. Ha! Within six months, much to my wife's dismay, I was back at it again, writing scenes about a character who would eventually become Marco Venetti, SJ.

I recently turned 50, an anniversary marking the tenth year since I picked up an old college note pad I found underneath my couch on a Saturday night (I was looking for a tennis ball my dog had failed to retrieve) and started my 2nd novel (I wrote my first one in the eight and ninth grades.) After ten years I have finally figured out (talk about a slow learner) what it is that makes a good story. It is good characters, plain and simple. Fluid prose, genuine dialogue, non-stop action, fast pacing, and a good premise all help, but without characters who make the reader care, all these things fall flat. And that is why I write what I do, because I have created a dozen or so characters who are real and interesting people, and I want to see what happens to them as the Jesuit thriller series unfolds.

What is my writing process?

There's supposed to be a process? Who knew? I would like to say that the last few lines are in jest but the simple truth is that they are not. Like most writers (Steven King and James Patterson not included) I have a regular job (my wife and I are family doctors with our own practice.) We also have four children and a Cairn Terrier named Hermione who demands four walks a day, and a pet fish named Molly. It would be great to have a week to write without interruption, but writing time does not take precedence over the patient bleeding out in room 4, or my daughter's soccer game, or taking Herm for a hike.

The good thing, though, is that writing is an emotional business. The stronger the emotion the author feels, the better the writing. So, I have learned to harness my life, to use a long day at work to flesh out a character more fully, to absorb the ups and downs of family life so as to bring conflict alive on paper.

I guess I do have a process after all: I live, observe, and then I write. When my father gave me an 'eehhhh' in regards to the book I started in the 8th grade, he gave me this advice: Go live your life, Peter, and then you'll have something to say. 

When I say observe, I don't mean making a mental note of an unusual shade of nail polish or the color of the blazer that just walked past (although you can bet I do that as well.) I am talking about the feeling in my stomach when I have to deliver bad news to a patient or the look on my daughter's face when she feels like she let me down. Those are the things that make a great manuscript, and those are the things that I like to download into my memory to slap down on the keyboard when the time is right.

Who's Next?

Sue Coletta is a crime fiction author from New Hampshire, and a proud member of Prose&Cons and Sisters in Crime. If you want to look into the mind of a crime writer, click on this link for Susan's blog, or tune in to the next post when Susan will talk about her writing process--hopefully with a lot fewer semicolons, em dashes and parentheses


Peter Hogenkamp is a physician and author living in Rutland, Vermont. Peter's writing credits include ABSOLUTION, the first book of The Jesuit thriller series; THE LAZARUS MANUSCRIPT, a stand-alone medical thriller; and The Intern, a serialized novel based loosely on Peter's internship, published bi-weekly on #Wattpad. Peter can be found on his Author Website as well as his personal blog, PeterHogenkampWrites, where he writes about most anything. Peter is the founder and editor of Prose&Cons; a frequent contributor and reviewer at ReadWave; the founder and moderator of groups on Facebook (The Library), Google+ (Fiction Writers Anonymous), and LinkedIn (Tweets, Novels and Blogs); and a Beta-reader at StoryShelter. Peter tweets--against the wishes of his wife and four children--at @phogenkampvt and @theprosecons. He can be reached at or through his literary agent (Liz Kracht of Kimberely Cameron & Associates) at



Eliza Cross said...

Thanks for taking the time to share more about your writing, Peter. I must say, I can't wait to read about the adventures you've created for Marco Venetti in ABSOLUTION!

Peter Hogenkamp said...

Thanks, Eliza, I am getting there soon!