Five things you need to know to become a great author: “You can never make your characters deep enough” with Robert McCaw and Chaya Weiner

You can never make your characters deep enough: I once saw a mini-movie called the Powers of Ten, which starts with a vertical shot of a couple on a blanket in a Chicago park and repeatedly expands the view ten times, so that the viewer sees the couple, the park, the city, the state, the […]

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You can never make your characters deep enough: I once saw a mini-movie called the Powers of Ten, which starts with a vertical shot of a couple on a blanket in a Chicago park and repeatedly expands the view ten times, so that the viewer sees the couple, the park, the city, the state, the nation, the world, etc., until you are looking at the whole universe. The movie then reverses back by powers of ten through the couple on the blanket and into the microscopic world through blades of grass, molecules, atoms, electrons, and ultimately quarks.

As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert McCaw, author of the new mystery, Off the Grid. McCaw grew up in a military family traveling the world and after graduating from Georgetown University, he served as a lieutenant in the US Army before earning his law degree from the University of Virginia. Thereafter he practiced as a partner in a major international law firm in Washington, DC, and New York City — and maintained a home on the Big Island of Hawai’i. McCaw brings a unique authenticity to his Koa Kāne Hawaiian mystery novels in both his law enforcement expertise and his ability to portray the richness of Hawai’i’s history, culture, and people. McCaw lives in New York City and La Jolla, California, with his wife, Calli.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

My path to becoming a full time author started in the 1980s while I was pursuing an active career as a securities litigator with a major national law firm. I’d always loved mysteries and particularly enjoyed the fact finding aspects of litigation — absorbing the key documents, interviewing witnesses, and piecing together the story of what happened. I suppose too that I’d long harbored a secret desire to write a novel.

These threads coalesced on a trip to the Big Island of Hawaii. I felt the magical power of the Hawaiian mountains. I went on a star gazing trip to the top of Mauna Kea, a 14,000 foot extinct volcano topped by more than a dozen telescopes. I became fascinated by Hawaii’s unique history and wonderful anthropomorphic legends. I began writing what became my first novel, Death of a Messenger. Given the demands of my legal career, it took me more than 25 years!

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

I’ve been fortunate to participate in a number of high profile events in my career, but perhaps none more significant than the Pentagon Papers case before US Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black, for whom I clerked after law school. Justice Black viewed the government’s effort to suppress publication by The New York Times and the Washington Post of the Pentagon Papers, which detailed the circumstances leading up to the Viet Nam war, as violation of the freedom of press guaranteed by the First Amendment of our Constitution. He struggled to find the right words to express the supreme importance of the press’s right to publish, and the public’s right to know, the circumstances under which Americans would send their sons and daughters off to war. He found those words in the following sentence — “And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell” — the last phrase of which comes from an old Southern drinking song that the Justice recited for his clerks, including me. Steven Spielberg recently produced and directed the movie, The Post, in which Tom Hanks played Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of the Washington Post, retelling part of the Pentagon Papers story.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Given my experience with legal writing, the first draft of my first chapter read more like an appellate legal brief — sticking strictly to facts and full of argument — than a novel. Never failing in honesty, my wife’s first reaction was a single word: “Really?” The experience was funny only in retrospect, but held an important lesson. Novels are more like jury trials — where witnesses tell their stories — than appellate briefs that summarize the facts and draw conclusions.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I have three key projects at the moment. First, I’m putting the finishes touches on my new novel Fire and Vengeance to be published by Oceanview Publishing in July 2020. Second, I am updating my first Koa Kāne Hawaiian Mystery, Death of a Messenger, for reissuance by my publisher. Finally, I’m at work on the fourth Koa Kāne series, a story that will take the reader deep into Koa’s character while simultaneously introducing an exciting new female player. Together these protagonists will explore new aspects of Hawaii, its landscapes, people, cultures, and language.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

There are many parts to becoming a writer — persistence, imagination, self-confidence, research, learning — but I put determination at the top of the list. I do so because writers need so many of the synonyms associated with both of its common meanings — resoluteness, discovery, deduction, diagnosis, verification, and confirmation.

I started my first novel — Death of a Messenger — in the 1980s when I was engaged fulltime in an extremely active law practice. I would write a chapter on a vacation and then go back to my all-consuming day job. I kept repeating this pattern until I retired and completed the draft. I then moved on to the editing (diagnostic), proofing (verification), formatting, printing, and sales stages. In today’s hyper-competitive market the sales stage requires unrelenting determination before an author receives any reader confirmation.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

Friends in Hawaii told me about an interesting spectacle, and so I went one morning at 7 a.m. to observe the Suisan fish auction in Hilo. I took one look at the six foot six, bald-headed, Hawaiian auctioneer in his size 16 rubber boots with a short-shanked gaff in his hand and knew he’d be a character in my book.

I imagined this character (whom I named Hook Hao) deeply embedded in the fishing industry as a police informer, and had to find a credible way to motivate this proud, powerful man to share waterfront secrets with my chief of detectives protagonist. I had the two of them meet when the police arrested Hook’s son for a minor drug offense.

At the time, I was reading Hawaiian stories and legends, many of which are anthropomorphic and revolve around the ocean and its creatures. I couldn’t find a perfect analogy in Hawaiian legends, so I created a “legend” for Hook to use to explain how he could help the police without compromising his principles. No spoilers. Read the book; it’s a good story!

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

I want people to see that redemption is possible after a terrible crime, if one acknowledges wrongdoing and genuinely devotes oneself to making amends. My protagonist, Koa Kāne is a case in point. As a teenager he killed a man, camouflaged the death as a suicide, and got away with it. Guilt and remorse, coupled with subsequent events, drove him to become a cop and devote his life to the pursuit of justice. He never escapes his past, but something good comes of it. He’s an extreme example, but in my experience most people have hidden secrets. What they do about those secrets is what makes them fascinating personalities.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a bestselling author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

My biggest challenge was securing a publisher. In today’s disrupted book publishing market most traditional publishers are leery of taking on an untested author. Given the substantial expenses of traditional publishing, publishers are predisposed to favor proven authors. The process is also frustrating and slow.

Unsuccessful in my efforts to find either an agent or a publisher, I decided to self-publish my first book. This decision opened up a whole new field of possibilities. Although I learned I could self-publish through Amazon at little or no cost, I would have had little or no help. I found a more full-service route, satisfying my desire to create a professional product, carefully edited, thoroughly proofread, nicely formatted, and professionally published in soft cover with parallel digital publication. I chose Mill City Publishing (subsequently acquired by Salem), a full service, but not inexpensive, option.

While gratifying, self-publishing was an arduous, expensive, educational, and intimidating multi-step process for this first time author. To begin with, my Mill City editor suggested numerous manuscript revisions. I know some authors get their backs up when edited, but I loved the process of working with a skilled pro who not only studied the manuscript but spotted holes and inconsistencies, which I happily corrected. We then moved on to proofreading, where once again dedicated help caught dozens of errors, ranging from poor grammar and misspellings to missing punctuation. Then came formatting, a huge determinant in the quality of the final product.

During this editing/proofing/formatting process, Mill City also assisted with cover and jacket design. Although I had a conception of how the cover should look, and my wife, a skilled photographer, provided the key imagery, the Mill City designers made it work, integrating the cover design and jacket.

Once I was close to the final book, the real work began. Even for established authors working with traditional publishers, the bulk of marketing falls on the author. Finding reviewers, delivering book store talks, library speeches, book club chats, email marketing, social media, Facebook, Twitter, Mail Chimp, blogs, generating Amazon reviews, just plain hawking your work to friends, neighbors, and strangers. This task is endless.

Death of a Messenger was for me a success, but not in financial terms. How can that be you might be asking? I consider it a success because of its tight editing, professional production, and strong reviews on Amazon, all of which proved to be the critical elements in my ultimately securing Mel Parker, my wonderful agent, and a small, high-quality publisher for my subsequent books. Oceanview Publishing released the second book in my Hawaii mystery series — Off the Grid — on July 2, 2019, and has agreed to publish my third book, Fire and Vengeance, in mid-2020.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I love books that paint detailed and unique pictures of the geography, history, and culture of special places. Not surprisingly James Michener is a favorite, but there are many others. No one does Mississippi like Greg Iles or Afghanistan like Khaled Hosseini or Australia like Jane Harper or rural France like Martin Walker.

In my Koa Kāne series, I’ve tried to paint a realistic picture of the real Hawaii, not the phony PR-generated Hawaii of palm trees, tourist beaches, hula skirts, and destination weddings.

How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?

Without diminishing the impact we can have on our families and maybe our communities, I think precious few people actually make much impact on the world and most of those who do are forgotten within a generation. But that said, I hope my novels paint a vivid picture of the beauty and culture that are the real Hawaii. I will be happy if my writing creates enjoyment, and maybe even a smile or two, for my readers.

What advice would you give to someone considering becoming an author like you?

Write what you know and love. Don’t chase fads. Cherish your editors, they will make you a better writer. Write for the pleasure of it but have a day job. It’s really hard to make a living as an author. That said, be shameless in selling your work.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I’m working on my fourth book and still learning, but I would have been further ahead if I’d understood these things from the outset:

You can never make your characters deep enough: I once saw a mini-movie called the Powers of Ten, which starts with a vertical shot of a couple on a blanket in a Chicago park and repeatedly expands the view ten times, so that the viewer sees the couple, the park, the city, the state, the nation, the world, etc., until you are looking at the whole universe. The movie then reverses back by powers of ten through the couple on the blanket and into the microscopic world through blades of grass, molecules, atoms, electrons, and ultimately quarks.

People too have the endless levels of detail coming from an infinite number of life experiences viewed in ever finer increments. Characters in stories cannot have infinite depth, but the more a writer infuses into his or her characters’ lives, the better the writer is able to imbue them with a reality that grabs readers.

I found myself going much deeper into Koa Kāne’s character in my second book, Off The Grid, than in my first one, Death of a Messenger.

Backstory is tricky: Depth of character is critical to formulating realistic scenes and writing dialog, but frequently makes for boring reading. Fiction writers need to sprinkle tidbits — not pages — of back story, and often do so by inference alone.

For example, Koa Kāne’s backstory comes out in his analysis of a crime scene where he’s paranoid about being deceived the way he himself deceived the cops after killing the man responsible for his father’s death.

Not all writing is the same: I worked as a litigator in multiple forums for almost forty years. Good lawyers know that they must not stray from the provable facts lest they lose credibility with clients, adversaries, judges, and juries. It can be a hard habit to break when a lawyer switches to writing fiction. After conquering the transition, the freedom to make up fictional people and facts can be exhilarating, but the same danger exists. Stray too far from the believable, and you create science fiction rather than credible reality-based fiction. I frequently have to go back to previous chapters and insert clues that explain later parts of the story — a luxury I lacked when dealing with real legal cases.

Conflict creates interest: Humans spend the vast majority of their lives cooperating. Think of the coordination that keeps traffic flowing in any major city or the commerce that puts food on supermarket shelves. Yet, we love conflict and the tension it creates. It fills our newspapers, powers our TV shows, and serves as a crucible to define character.

For example, Koa Kāne’s brother has a criminal record and is in and out of jail, creating conflict and tension within Koa’s family. That tension plays a major role in the plot of Fire and Vengeance, to be published next year.

Unfamiliar characters pose obstacles: “Write what you know” is probably the most oft quoted advice to writers, but most writers don’t really know what it’s like to be a person of an entirely different character and experience. Writers can guess, they can have insights, they can do research, they can talk to friends and seek out strangers whose traits they incorporate into characters, but they simply don’t have a firsthand perspective. It’s an important hurdle for writers and takes considerable effort to overcome successfully.

For example, I am not Hawaiian, but wanted a Hawaiian protagonist to relate the history, culture, and language of the islands to my readers. Creating Koa Kāne required getting to know Hawaiians, listening to their manner of speech, understanding their concerns, research in original sources at the Bishop Museum and the University of Hawaii, and the assistance of a Hawaiian linguist. Similar effort is essential to creating any realistic fictional character, and the difficulty of the task increases with the degree of difference in experience.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would sponsor respect, tolerance and compromise. As an Army brat and then as an Army officer, I have lived abroad and travelled to a fair number of other countries. There are lots of different ways of living, talking, praying, contemplating, raising children, learning, and growing. Unfortunately, people have a nasty habit of thinking that only their way is right. That trait is responsible for many of the world’s upheavals and also much hate. We need to listen and respect one another as human beings and work together to make the world a better and safer place for all of us.

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Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

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About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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