Journalist, Novelist and Writing Coach John DeDakis is a former Senior Copy Editor on CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.” DeDakis (pronounced deh-DAY-kiss) is the author of three mystery-suspense novels, Fast Track, Bluff, and Troubled Water.
Strategic Media Books is publishing Bullet in the Chamber, the fourth novel in the Lark Chadwick series, on October 1, 2016. The story deals in part with the death of John’s 22-year-old son Stephen in 2011.
During his award-winning 45-year career in journalism (25 years at CNN), DeDakis has been a White House Correspondent and interviewed such luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan.
DeDakis is a writing coach, manuscript editor, writing workshop leader, and has taught journalism at the University of Maryland – College Park, and American University in Washington, D.C.
John’s website: www.johndedakis.com.
Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Bullet in the Chamber. To begin with, can you give us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?
A: Thank you.
In a nutshell, Bullet in the Chamber, begins on Lark Chadwick’s first day on the job as a White House correspondent for the Associated Press. The Executive Mansion is attacked, launching Lark on a deadline-a-minute thrill ride. The president is missing, the first lady’s life is in danger, and the man Lark loves disappears.
The book is the logical next step in Lark’s developing journalism career, but her story took an unexpected detour when my son Stephen died of an accidental heroin overdose. I was literally compelled to write about it, but folded it into a bigger story of drugs, drones, and journalism.
Q: What do you think makes a good mystery-thriller? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?
A: 1. By definition, the one essential element you need for a thriller is the ticking clock. There’s nothing like a deadline to get a journalist’s (or a reader’s) heart racing.
- I think another critical element is High Stakes. And there’s no stake higher than life or death.
- And there needs to be a dash of mystery – the unknown. Who’s the bad guy? Or, if the villain is known, how will he or she be stopped? In my opinion, everything else (setting, dialogue, other characters, etc.) is texture.
Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?
A: By nature, I’m a planner. I don’t like to figure it out as I write because, for me, being a seat-of-the-pantster feels like I’m spinning my wheels. I prefer having a map, yet I often give myself permission to take detours.
But creating Bullet in the Chamber was different.
I write in the first person, so that automatically makes my job more difficult because my point of view is limited only to what Lark, my protagonist, sees and knows. It’s a lot like real life that way.
But, as the writer (God) I also know what Lark doesn’t.
In Bullet, I knew who the villain would be, but I didn’t know how Lark was going to figure it out. So, about halfway through the first draft, I would begin writing a chapter not knowing how it would end. No amount of ruminating or advance planning would suffice. I just had to write. And, as I wrote, the path became clear. Spooky.
That agonizing approach lasted all the way to the final paragraph where I could have gone in three different directions. I wasn’t able to choose until I was actually writing.
So, by creative necessity, I’ve incorporated seat-of-the-pants writing into my tendency to plan. I’m now a plantster.
Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her.
A: Lark can be angry and impulsive – but she’s working on it. At times, she can be courageous, but often she’s riddled with fears and insecurities, which she masks by pressing ahead anyway. She’s well (perhaps too well) acquainted with grief and loss. When it comes to men, she has a highly calibrated bullshit-o-meter, yet she still vexes herself by the choices she makes, which leads her to distrust men all the more – and herself.
I first began writing as a woman because someone suggested I should write in a way that stretches who I am. I settled easily into the Lark persona when I realized that emotions aren’t gender specific, so I just took my emotions and put them into her.
But, in my experience, women are more nuanced than men in how they express those emotions. It helped that as I was creating Lark, I was also in daily contact with young women where I worked at CNN. When I’d ask them questions, they’d open up and tell me stories about their careers, their parents, their boyfriends, and their lives. Their voices became embedded in my psyche and subconscious. Later, I would let them read early drafts of my manuscripts to see if Lark seemed authentic to them. Their feedback has been – and still is – invaluable.
Q: Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?
I do some of that, but not too much. Usually, one sit-down “job interview” with a new character is enough to get the creative juices bubbling. I’ll ask a question and just listen to the voice that pops into my head, then dutifully transcribe it. Usually those exercises don’t end up in the actual story, but they serve to bring the character to life in my mind and imagination.
Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?
A: Before retiring from CNN in 2013, I’d been working in day-to-day just-the-facts-ma’am journalism for forty-five years. There’s nothing like real-life villainy to introduce a writer to evil antagonists. They’re everywhere!
But a good villain (so to speak) is not perfectly evil any more than a realistic hero is perfectly perfect. Heroes have flaws and villains have at least some redeeming characteristics. If you think about the villains in your life, chances are you’ll realize that at first those people didn’t appear to be villainous. In fact, in some cases, you might even have married that person before you saw their true colors.
So, I feel the best rule of thumb when creating your villain is to find a way to like and empathize with that person. It makes them resemble the complex people we all are.
Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?
A: The writing technique that works best for me I got from the book The Weekend Novelist by Robert Ray. He strongly suggests writing the first draft all the way through with your Inner Editor turned off. Just write. Don’t self-sensor. Don’t loop back and get bogged down correcting nitpicks. Just write.
Ray argues that after you’ve completed the first draft you should read it through objectively, like a reader, to see (and feel) where the narrative drags and needs fixing.
Another trick I learned goes back to my days as a broadcast journalist. There’s tremendous pressure to write tight because time is of the essence and attention spans are short. So, even after I’m two words into writing a sentence, my Inner Scold barks, “It’s too long!”
So, to answer your question, first I write long and uncensored to find out what’s going on in my subconscious. Then, I go back, and look for ways to tighten so that the story moves along briskly.
Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?
A: The next best thing to being there is to talk with someone who’s in that setting now.
When I was a White House correspondent between 1985 and 1988, Reagan was president, the Internet as we know it didn’t exist, and there were no cell phones. I needed someone to help me understand how the presidency is covered in the digital age. Fortunately for me, Josh Lederman, a former CNN intern who took the broadcast news writing class I used to teach in CNN’s D.C. bureau, is now a White House correspondent for the Associated Press – the same job my protagonist Lark Chadwick has.
So, Josh agreed to read an early draft of the Bullet manuscript and then met with me over drinks to give informed insight into my portrayal of covering the president in the Twenty-first Century. Josh then wrote a generous blurb for the book:
“Bullet in the Chamber” manages to capture all of the intensity, grit and breathlessness of covering the presidency in an age of nonstop news and fierce competition. Lark Chadwick stands out as a protagonist who is at once compelling and compulsively true to form. John DeDakis gets inside the head of a modern-day White House journalist who has no idea what’s in store for her when she begins this rollercoaster of a ride.
Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?
A: For me, the act of writing is how the theme emerges. At its most basic, my novels are about a young woman trying to figure out what to do with her life. Arguably, that’s a universal theme that’s true for all of us every day of our lives.
Q: Where does craft end and art begin?
A: Oooooo. That’s a tough one. The question presumes that craft comes first. It can. But it doesn’t have to. Sometimes art (inspiration) comes first – the spark that ignites a story. Craft then takes the idea and gives it shape. But, it seems to me, when creativity is at its height, art and craft work in sync like an internal combustion engine firing on all cylinders.
Q: Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?
A: Absolutely not! (Unless you’re cursed with a heavy-handed editor who can suck the creativity out of what you’ve written. I’ve endured my share of those throughout my journalism career!) But, when writing fiction, you’re your own editor for most of the process. In that context, editing is like the buffing and polishing that transforms a hunk of stone into a shiny sculpture.
Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?
A: 1. Courage to move forward in spite of your fears
- The ability to learn from your mistakes.
- Diligence and persistence to see your project through to the end and not give up.
Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?
A: I think that’s probably true. It all depends on your perspective. It’s a daunting thought if you hate homework. If, however, your philosophy is to be a life-long learner, then writing is no longer drudgery, but something one pursues eagerly.
Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?
A: When I was first teaching myself how to write fiction, Writer’s Digest magazine was an excellent resource. Now their resources are just a click away at writersdigest.com. Robert Ray’s The Weekend Novelist is an indispensible practical guide to the novel-writing process, especially if you have a day job and other responsibilities that threaten to muzzle your muse. Finally, I suggest finding writers’ conferences that stress craft, feature author speakers, and are attended by agents looking for clients. There are many good writing conferences, but one of the better ones is Killer Nashville (killernashville.com). Finally, I was rusty when I began to write my fourth novel, so I bought an inexpensive writing program, StoryWeaver, to jump-start my creativity. It’s available at storymind.com. It helped me a lot.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?
A: If you have a strong desire to write because you feel you have a story to tell, then don’t give up. Giving up guarantees that your story will remain untold and you will remain unpublished.