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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Keeping the Tension Tight: An Interview with Award-Winning Suspense Writer, Terry Brennan

I am pleased to announce my interview today with Terry Brennan who just won the Carol Award for 2016 best Suspense/Thriller at the ACFW Conference in Nashville last month. The award was for The Aleppo Code which is the third book of THE JERUSALEM PROPHECIES series.

I met Terry in August at a writer's conference where we were both in the same workshop. I'm a regular reader of suspense/thriller and wish I could write one. Unfortunately, that is not my forte, but it apparently is Terry's. So let's hear how he came to his writing success. 

What drew you to the idea of writing your suspense novel? Was there a specific book or author that made you think – I could write like that?
When I was a boy, I grew up on Saturday matinee adventure movies and the books that spawned them. I probably would have been reading my books – if that was possible. I grew up reading H.G. Wells, Sherlock Holmes and an author named Sax Rohmer, who wrote the Fu Manchu mysteries. 

Later it was classics that were a bit darker – Dracula and Frankenstein – but always for the suspense. Dracula is creepy, but it’s also an incredible adventure tale. And I’m still reading suspense and thriller books, spy stories, chases and shoot-‘em-ups – like Joel Rosenberg, Daniel Silva, Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben. There are times when I’ve read the literary classics (I adore Steinbeck’s use of language) and contemporary best sellers, but action/adventure is still my favorite.

I'm a big fan of Rosenberg and Steinbach, too. How did the first novel come about?
My first novel was really an accident. I had an idea about the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that was kicking around in the back of my mind for years. Then, one day, I was standing in the back of The Bowery Mission’s chapel, looking up at the organ pipes. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if there was a room hidden behind those organ pipes. In 2006 when I went to my first writer’s conference, everyone had to ‘pitch’ a story idea. So I sat in the back of the room and scrawled out a plot for a suspense novel based on that one idea.

After that short scrawl of words, how long did it actually take for you to write the book?
Essentially, I wrote The Sacred Cipher in a year of Saturdays. Throw in some vacation time, or late nights – but it was essentially a year of Saturdays. At the time I was working my full-time job as Vice President of Operations & Administration for The Christian Herald Association, the parent organization of The Bowery Mission and three other ministries in New York City.

My wife, Andrea, was gracious enough to allow me that time. We lived in a small apartment in The Bowery Mission, and I would close myself up in a small corner of our bedroom, where my computer was, and work from early morning, often until well into the evening, on every possible Saturday.

So, it took me a year to write the book, another year to find an agent and secure a contract with a publisher (Kregel Publications) and then almost another year to work on editing and marketing preparations for the book.

How about the next book? How long did that take to write?
The sequel to The Sacred Cipher took four years to emerge. One reason it took so long was that I never dreamed I was writing a series. But people kept asking me when the sequel would be published. I had no sequel. In fact, I was deep into a new manuscript, called Hunger’s Ransom. But the questions about the sequel kept coming so I wondered, how would the story continue? 

There were lots of false starts and big chunks of copy on the editing room floor but The Brotherhood Conspiracy came out in 2013 and the third book – of what became THE JERUSALEM PROPHECIES series – The Aleppo Code was released in October of 2015. So, essentially, there was a four-year gap between the first book and the sequel, which was much more difficult to write. The third was a snap.

So tell me about the series.

Each book can be read on its own, but there is one story that flows through all of the books. They are an Indiana Jones/Bourne Conspiracy/Da Vinci Code amalgam of ancient messages, extinct languages and secret ciphers that lead a reluctant team of archeologists and historians chasing ancient secrets through a maze of treachery, death and destruction. The quest in The Aleppo Code is to unearth the most powerful weapon in the history of the world.

Sounds exciting and a great page turner. What type of research do you do for your books? Tell me about the process.
My books are global in scope and built on a foundation that crosses historical fact with fictional characters of today. So I spend a great deal of time doing research – perhaps almost as much time as it takes me to write the book. The plot elements of the series included an extinct Egyptian language that is the third language on the Rosetta Stone; a simple cipher written over 150 years ago by the English composer Sir Edward Elgar that has never been deciphered; megalithic tombs in the hills of County Meath, Ireland that are older than the pyramids of Egypt and the oldest, most complete copy of the first five books of the Bible – the Aleppo Codex.

How intriguing! I've seen the Rosetta Stone in England and I've been to the megalithic
tombs in Newgrange in Ireland and found them fascinating. Where did you do your research?
Most of this research is either done online or at New York City’s massive main research library on Bryant Park in Manhattan. I spend a lot of time in the Rose Reading Room. My wife and I have also traveled to Israel (Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the Sea of Galilee), Jordan, Ireland, France and England to do physical research for the books.

And I use Google Earth a lot, to get an understanding of the area I’m writing about. Interestingly, the first book was written before we had a chance to go to Israel, so it was all based on observations from Google Earth and my research. It was interesting to see, in 2011, how much I got right, and how much I got wrong. I was right most of the time.

How did you go about finding your publisher?
I was fortunate enough to have another suspense author recommend me to her agent after she saw the manuscript for The Sacred Cipher, the first book of THE JERUSALEM PROPHECIES. Prior to that I pitched the book to anyone who would listen at the Philly Christian Writer’s Conference and the Colorado Christian Writer’s Conference. 

Once I had an agent, WordServe Literary, my agent helped me put together a book proposal that she then sent to more than a dozen publishers. Kregel Publications offered us a contract in the summer of 2008. Since then, I’ve been able to offer my books to Kregel without a proposal.

What type of publicity do you do to promote your book? What has worked best for you in generating sales?
Hard question to answer effectively. With Kregel, we’ve done blog tours for all three books and marketing on book websites and social media. I’ve done author interviews for/with bloggers and also radio and podcasts. For the first book, my wife and I went to every Barnes & Noble store in Manhattan (when there was a bunch) and some in New Jersey, handing out promotional post cards and signing books. I’ve done book signings at our local libraries, at bookstores … even at a pub. We had book launch parties and on-line launch parties. 

For the third book I concentrated on social media and a year-long, pre-launch marketing plan that I put in place personally and which the publisher responded to with some additional marketing efforts. I’ve more than tripled my Facebook “friends”, added an Author Page on Facebook, updated my website to make it look better and easier to access, put together an email newsletter mailing list of over 1,000 addresses, of which nearly 800 are still active, and send out a newsletter each month.

I think you need to do it all, and then pray it helps get word-of-mouth cooking.

What do you know now about writing/publishing now that you wished you had known sooner?
I wish I had known about the craft of novel writing. I was a journalist for 22 years, but writing for newspapers is totally different than the world of fiction. I know now how important it is to read the best books about writing and the importance of being active in the writing community – not just for critique groups, but also to develop relationships that can lead to book endorsements (one of the most difficult things to get – no writer has time to read a book just to write an endorsement).

I tend to do my writing in a bunker. This is what I write and I’m just going to keep banging out the words. But there is a lot that needs to be learned about the business of publishing, so being in a bunker is not a healthy way to operate your writing “business.”

What surprised you the most in a good way in writing your novels?

That the characters tell their own stories and that the stories often tell themselves. I started with one idea (What if there was a room hidden behind the organ pipes in The Bowery Mission’s chapel?). That was it. One idea. Ten years and three books later, it’s clear that God had a lot of other ideas He wanted me to include. There are statements or plot elements in the first book that were critical to the evolving plot in the second and third book – things that were in the first book which I had no clue would be important later. There is a character, Sammy Rizzo, whose personal story I didn’t know until half-way through the second book. And, honestly, Sammy told me his story.What’s been the most frustrating?
The most frustrating thing currently is that I just retired at the end of July and now that I have all this time on my hands I find so much more pressing in to steal it. And it’s been a bear trying to figure out the right schedule, how to prioritize things, and how to actually make some time to write.

It’s work for me to press in and keep to a schedule with my writing. Before retiring the challenge was balancing a very time-demanding and energy-demanding “real job” with carving out time to write. So far, I did a better job at it when I was working full time than I am now.

What is the best advice you've been given about writing or that you've learned that you would like to pass along?
Be yourself. Write like yourself, for yourself. That covers a lot of ground, but one first thing is to write your stories as if your best friend is in the room and you’re bursting with something you want to tell them. Spit it out! But write it as if you’re having a conversation with your buddy. Because that’s what you are doing, conversing with your reader.

Lately, I’ve been taught, and read, a lot about what makes “authentic” writing … and writing that is “high-impact”. Both of those themes have to do with writing from the depth of your heart, and not just from the depth of your mind. Ted Dekker says, find the scars in you. Write from the scars. Make them tattoos of victory. I just started reading Donald Maas’ Writing 21st Century Fiction. It’s all about high-impact writing.

What other works do you have in the process?
I have the manuscript for Hunger’s Ransom, which is still kicking around. It really needs some editing and character development along the lines of high-impact writing. That’s what I’m working on now, getting that manuscript sharpened and “singing” so that we can market it to publishers.

I’ve also started a new action/adventure/suspense/thriller series that is again set in the Middle East. It’s a whole new story line with a new cast of characters. Still working on a heavy, detailed outline and I’ve written some scenes for the first book of what could be up to four books. It’s about how the ancient empires of the past are, right now, rising once again and how all of those Empires are going to want the same slice of real estate at the same time – and how that all plays out on the prophetic stage.

Anything else?
I’m most excited about a non-fiction book that is just being born. The bones are beginning to appear. It’s a subject that is very personal, but one which I believe will strike a chord in the hearts of men the world over. That’s all I can tell you for now.

Are there any other points you’d like to cover?
My wife, Andrea, and I went to Town Hall in NYC last year to hear Joan Baez in concert. The legendary folk singer with the crystal-toned voice was celebrating her 50th year as an entertainer. During the concert, Ms. Baez had a running, one-way, conversation with the audience. At one point she said, “People always ask me about my voice. I always tell them, ‘The gift is from God. My job is just maintenance and delivery.’

The gift is from God. I can’t take credit for it. It’s the way God wired me. But the other part of the gift is the way God works through that gift he gave me. He takes the tool and uses it to create something of which I am totally unconscious. All too often, the words that come out of my fingers never went through my brain. They only went through my spirit, straight to my fingers.

My job is maintenance and delivery.

So sit down, put your fingers on the keyboard, say a prayer, and create with God. The gift is His to give.

That's all for today's interview. Thank you for your insight, Terry. To learn more about
Terry's writing (and to give you some marketing ideas), here's some links to get you started.

Video for The Sacred Cipher:
Video for The Aleppo Code
Twitter:  @terrbrennan1

Author Page:

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