I don’t write or edit suspense/thrillers because I could never make it authentic. Today, however, former CIA analyst-turned-author Susan Ouelette tells us how her experiences gave authenticity to her debut novel.
Thank you for being here! What do you write? How did you pick your genre?
I write spy thrillers. Specializing in this genre was a natural choice for me because of my background in intelligence. Early in my career, I worked as a CIA intelligence analyst and then for the Intelligence Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. Both jobs provided excellent material and inspiration for The Wayward Spy.
If you’ve written multiple books, which was harder: the first book or the following books?
I have written two novels in this spy thriller series (and I’m working on the third). As my first novel, The Wayward Spy was the more difficult of the two stories to write. All of those blank pages that I had to fill with non-stop tension and intrigue! Before I began writing, I read multiple books on writing and tried to incorporate advice from ALL of them. The result? An overly complicated plot. Once I realized that I couldn’t explain the story succinctly, I knew it needed a major rewrite. Writing the second novel was easier. My experience with the first book taught me a lot about what NOT to do the second time around.
What conference do you most want to attend? Why?
I most want to attend ThrillerFest, the annual conference of the International Thriller Writers (ITW), so that I can connect with other thriller authors. Unfortunately, the 2021 conference will be virtual, but I will still “attend.” On the bright side, ITW already has set the date for an in-person (!) ThrillerFest in 2022.
What’s your writing day like?
I wrote the first draft of The Wayward Spy at night, when my young children were in bed, because I needed silence and solitude to get into my characters’ heads. As my kids got older, I began to write on weekends at a local coffee shop. As a full-time working mother, it hasn’t always been easy to find large blocks of uninterrupted time. When I find them, I try to put them to good use.
How do you prepare to write your books: pantser, plotter, both, something completely different? Describe your strategy.
I am a pantser. For both The Wayward Spy and its sequel, the easy part was coming up with the inciting incident – the event that sets the story in motion. And before I sat down at the keyboard, I already knew how the stories would end. The challenge was how to get Maggie and her supporting cast from page 1 to “The End.”The thought of outlining the plot paralyzes my imagination. I prefer to dive in and write. Necessary characters and plot twists somehow materialize as I need them, and it all comes together at the end … well, after a few rewrites!
What advice do you have for new authors?
At the risk of sounding trite, my advice for new authors is “don’t give up.” Here’s the caveat—giving up is not the same thing as quitting. I “quit” writing multiple times. Because of rejection. Because of “I’ll never be good enough” thinking. Because of work and family commitments. That said, even though I “quit,” I never really gave up. I’d rewrite here and there. I’d send out a new batch of queries. I’d attend a writing conference. And eventually, the writing and the opportunities aligned, and here I am – a published author. So, go ahead and quit if you need a break. But don’t ever give up.
If you’ve ever worked with a freelance editor, how did you find that editor? How would you describe the experience?
Working with a freelance editor is what got me from frustrated aspiring author to published author. In 2015, I attended a writers conference where I met Elaine Ash, an author and freelance editor (www.bestsellermetrics.com). It took her two years to convince me to send her my manuscript (I was in one of my quitting phases—see above). Finally, in 2017, I sent her The Wayward Spy. She saw great promise in the story and for the next year-and-a-half, we worked to fix the overcomplicated plot. Elaine has an uncanny ability to see the anatomy of a story. She can spot and fix the broken bones, the atrophied muscles, the excess fat. Simply put, without her editing skills, friendship, and persuasive personality, I wouldn’t be a published author today.
What does your revision process look like?
The revision process includes deleting unnecessary scenes, removing or combining secondary characters, and making sure the story’s timeline makes sense. I always vow to read the entire story once through before I begin revising, but inevitably, I find myself tweaking scenes and streamlining the prose as I go. For both novels, I placed major plot points on a calendar to ensure that events are happening sequentially and logically. At the end of the revision process, I like to read the story aloud to catch clunky dialog and repetitive prose. It’s a bit time-consuming, but well worth the effort.
Susan Ouellette is a former intelligence analyst for the CIA. Her debut novel, The Wayward Spy (CamCat Books, March 2nd, 2021), heavily draws on her experience at the CIA and as a professional staff member for the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI). It was there, during quiet moments in the attic of the of the U.S. Capitol Building, that Ouellette conceived of Maggie Jenkins in The Wayward Spy, an intrepid young woman thrust into a life-threatening situation borne of tragedy.
Publishers Weekly calls The Wayward Spy a “gripping debut and series launch . . . Ouellette, a former CIA analyst, brings plenty of authenticity to this fast-paced spy thriller.”