“What do you write?”
It was a simple question being asked of me at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in Toronto last year. I’d already participated in a panel discussion and answered similar questions, but this time I was being asked by the wildly successful Blake Crouch (Wayward Pines, Dark Matter, Good Behavior, etc.) while we were standing in the hotel lobby. Everybody knew of him. A handful people knew of me.
I shrugged and said, “I just released my fourth breakout novel.”
He smiled politely and moved on to talk to someone who wasn’t spewing gibberish. Looking back, I think this is when my bitterness with the book industry really began to manifest itself and my usual sarcasm and self-deprecation developed more of an edge. You see, my first novel WAS a breakout novel and got a lot of recognition. It’s not like I became a household name or anything, but I couldn’t ask for much more from a debut. The first novel led to the second, which several fellow authors and reviewers referred to as my breakout novel. Then my third breakout novel came out. Then, I started a new series with a new publisher and REALLY nailed it with my fourth breakout novel. My fifth breakout novel is set to come out this September. I think it’s my best work to date.
However, the problem with my breakout novels is they haven’t really ever broken out of the realm of the well-received, but not NYT Bestseller list material. They sell some copies and they get great reviews, but that’s about the extent of it.
Throughout the past year, I’ve watched as several of my author friends received large book deals and sold the movie rights to their books. While I’ve been happy for them, I’m going to make a confession here. I got jealous. Then, I got pissed off at myself for getting jealous. Then, I got furious at myself for not being able to eliminate my pettiness even though I recognized its ridiculousness. Bouchercon came and went and in the meantime I had changed jobs and moved to a new state, causing me to walk away from my latest manuscript. The stress of the move and the career change weighed on me throughout the winter. Then, Super Bowl Sunday came and my wife and I had the television on while I was cooking something in the kitchen.
I wasn’t paying attention, but a commercial came on and I heard my wife say, “Oh, no.”
“Nothing,” she said.
I looked at the television. Sure enough, there was a Super Bowl commercial for a movie based on a book that had beat one of mine for a major award. At the time, critics had praised that author’s debut as a breakout novel. And it was. Hollywood had said so.
It’s been five years since my first breakout novel and a few months since I decided to walk away from writing. I told my wife I was probably done for good. Understanding my frustration and how I HATED that I had let myself feel petty and bitter, she didn’t try to stop me. I told an author I respect, Ed Aymar, I might be done. He called me a dumbass. He’s delicate in that way. Regardless, I went months without typing a word.
Here is the point where you’re thinking, Oh get over yourself, moron. Do you know how hard it is to get traditionally published even one time?
And you’re right.
You’re thinking, Cry me a river, J.J. Stop being such a drama queen and appreciate what you’ve accomplished.
And you’re right.
You might want to ask me, “Are you writing for stupid accolades or for the art itself? Isn’t writing it’s own reward?”
And these would be valid questions.
Three weeks ago, I started writing again. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think it had something to do with the fact I had run into some retirees who had nothing to do after they left their careers. I’m a long way from retirement, but I don’t want to feel adrift when it’s time for the next chapter of my life and writing has always given me a purpose beyond my role in the workforce.
The writing process has been more difficult than it’s ever been for me. I question the characters I create. I question the plot direction. I question the dialogue. These difficulties have made me really evaluate what kind of stories I write and the life choices of the characters I’ve created. The ambiguity I’ve felt about my writing is showing up in how my characters react, or don’t react, to situations. The story I’m writing is taking a direction none of my other novels have. The protagonist is at a crossroads and has come to realize he has very little control over the variables of life. The actions and opinions of others are outside his sphere of influence and while our existences are complex, satisfaction with one’s actions is based on simplicity and learning to accept some of our own demons.
So, I’m writing my sixth novel. It deviates from anything I’ve done to date and the protagonist will have changed a great deal throughout the series. During the construction of this story, both the main character and I are trying to reconcile how our expectations affect ourrealities and vice versa.
I’d been starting to feel negative about the breakout label, but maybe its a good thing if every book is considered a breakout novel. We’re supposed to break into new territory with every new idea. Otherwise, the storylines of our own lives can become stale and predictable.
J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, a Thriller Award finalist which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, Measure Twice, Chalk’s Outline, and other works. Hensley is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.
BOLT ACTION REMEDY
Former Pittsburgh narcotics detective Trevor Galloway has been hired to look into the year-old homicide of a prominent businessman who was gunned down on his estate in Central Pennsylvania. When Galloway arrives, he determines the murder could have only been committed by someone extremely skilled in two areas: Skiing and shooting. He believes the assailant should not be too difficult to identify given the great amount of skill and athleticism needed to pull off the attack. When he discovers the victim’s property is next door to a biathlon training camp, the situation becomes significantly more complicated.
Galloway makes plenty of enemies as he sifts through stories about lucrative land deals, possible drug connections, and uncovers evidence suggesting the homicide may have been elaborate suicide. As he attempts to navigate through an unfamiliar rural landscape, he does his best not to succumb to an old drug addiction, or become confused by one of his occasional hallucinations. Oh, and a Pittsburgh drug gang enforcer known as The Lithuanian—if he’s even real—is tracking Galloway and wants to take his eyes. Galloway would rather keep those.
In Bolt Action Remedy, the typically quiet streets of Washaway Township, Pennsylvania become the epicenter of a mystery involving elite athletes and old grudges. For Galloway, the problems keep piling up and somebody out there believes problems should be dealt with by employing the most permanent of remedies.
An addict is killing Pittsburgh city officials, but Homicide Detective Jackson Channing has his own addiction.
In the Pittsburgh Marathon, more than 18,000 people will participate. 4,500 people will attempt to cover the full 26.2 miles. Over 200 of the participants will quit, realizing it just wasn’t their day. More than 100 will get injured and require medical treatment. One man is going to be murdered. When Dr. Cyprus Keller lines up to start the race, he knows a man is going to die for one simple reason. He’s going to kill him.
And look for my short story FOUR DAYS FOREVER in the LEGACY anthology