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Thomas O’Callaghan: “Write drunk edit sober”

Write drunk edit sober. The key is to get the story out. To that end, it’s important to write a first draft of a chapter which entails typing without concern for spelling, punctuation, or cohesion, in essence, drunk. It’s important to get the thoughts on paper as quickly as possible without listening to that inner […]

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Write drunk edit sober. The key is to get the story out. To that end, it’s important to write a first draft of a chapter which entails typing without concern for spelling, punctuation, or cohesion, in essence, drunk. It’s important to get the thoughts on paper as quickly as possible without listening to that inner voice telling you “Oh, that’s not good.” Once that’s done, it’s then time go in and rewrite the chapter sober.


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 Thomas O’Callaghan.

Thomas O’Callaghan’s work has been translated for publication in Germany, Slovakia, Indonesia, the Czech Republic, China, and Italy. As an internationally acclaimed author, Mr. O’Callaghan is a member of both the Mystery Writers of America and the International Thriller Writers associations. His debut novel, BONE THIEF, introduces NYPD Homicide Commander Lieutenant John W. Driscoll. THE SCREAMING ROOM is the second novel in the John Driscoll series. The third book in the series, NO ONE WILL HEAR YOUR SCREAMS is available now from WildBlue Press.


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

Aside from essays in college I’d never written in a narrative fashion. When the insurance company I’d been working for opted to change the way they paid their sales employees I opted for retirement at the age of 49. With a great deal of free time on my hands a good friend suggested I either take on a new job or devote time to a hobby I’d enjoy. Since the company I’d left had offered me a decent financial incentive to take an early retirement I opted for a hobby. My first venture toward that end had me wandering through Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY armed with a 35mm camera taking photographs of nature-in-the-raw. That interest waned after four or five weeks. I then enrolled at HB Studios in NYC to study the art of ‘acting’. It was fun, but after two months I began to lose interest. Since I enjoyed reading mysteries and thrillers, my trusted friend suggested I write one. Me? Write a book? I haven’t a clue as to where to start, I argued. She suggested I write an opening chapter similar in style to what I liked to read. And so I did. After she read it she asked me what I had in mind for the next chapter. This went on for several weeks at the end of which I had written the opening of a story that only she and I had read. I didn’t think it was very good but she encouraged me to call a friend of hers, a “writing coach” of sorts, which I did. His name was Stephen Ohayon. He had once taught the art of writing on a college level and offered to work with me to turn my feeble attempt into a saleable novel. We met weekly in his office in Manhattan where his day job was as a psychotherapist. He scheduled time for me between patients. I brought him a typed chapter and during a one hour session he helped me push that chapter from first draft to second, third, fourth and fifth. When we reached the last chapter, I set out to market my first book. It eventually sold close to 100,000 copies and was translated and published in Germany, Slovakia, Indonesia, the Czech Republic, China, and Italy.

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

I was asked to sit on a writer’s panel hosted by the International Thriller Writers Association during ThrillerFest, the organization’s annual convention where, on average, 400 to 500 thriller writers from around the world get together with other industry professionals, literary agents, and readers every July in NYC. The theme of this particular panel was to introduce the madness and the medical aspect of writing thrillers, ones that deliver a heightened level of fright to the reader. The panel consisted of five published authors. Four held a medical degree. One did not. While the four notable physicians spoke of such things as the effects of various poisons on the human body and other medically themed methods of murder I had a chance to speak of the madness that drives murderous villains. It was exciting, to say the least. Shortly after that presentation authors who’d sat on a variety of panels during the day had a chance to meet and greet thriller enthusiasts who wanted to have their recently purchased books signed. Beside me at that signing was international number-one bestselling author Jeffery Deaver who had written THE BONE COLLECTOR. When he realized fans were there to have my debut novel, BONE THIEF signed, he leaned over and told me he liked my title better.

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

My biggest challenge was accepting the reality that getting a manuscript from “word one” to published takes time. In my case it was a twelve year journey. I overcame it by resilience. Here’s a piece I’d written years ago which, I hope, may encourage an aspiring writer to persist.

The Road To Publication

Recipe for getting your book published: Baste it now and again . . . then let it bake for twelve years!
 
I was never much of a reader until one day, in the early eighties, I picked up a copy of Helter Skelter, by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. This is an often used adage, but I couldn’t put it down. The author’s attention to detail fascinated me. After that, I was hooked on novels depicting murder, mayhem and suspense. I soon discovered such notables as Thomas Harris, John Sandford, Lawrence Block and Ed McBain, just to name a few. Unlike, Helter Skelter, where the storyline was based on an actual murder, Harris, Sandford, Block, McBain and company, created murder and the intrigue that surrounded it. I was enthralled all the more. Read on, I said, and so I did.
 
After I finished reading my twelfth 87th Precinct novel, I thought: I could do that! And so, on a gloomy, rain-soaked Friday afternoon, that happened to follow Thanksgiving, I began writing Nightkills, which would later become Bone Thief
 
That was 1993!
 
No one had even heard of ‘cut and paste’ back then, at least I hadn’t, so a typewriter was the vehicle to write on. So, there I sat, pounding away on an old Smith Corona, a large supply of correction fluid at the ready. Some would say I’m a bit of a perfectionist. The large quantity of the Liquid Paper supports that assertion, I suppose. In any case, after three hours of pecking away at the keys: Voila! My opening chapter. s I recall, it had something to do with a woman returning videos to a local retailer. As she was returning to her car, she was abducted. We meet her again, bound and gagged in chapter two. That’s how it was written for Nightkills and, after a bit of editing, that’s how it’s featured in Bone Thief.
 
On I went with my writing. Along the way, I had the luxury of having flexible hours on my real job, a quiet room in which to write and a very supportive wife. If she hadn’t gifted me my first laptop one Christmas, I’d still be using the correction fluid. And, I hope my former boss doesn’t find out, but I used my “field time” to write what was sure to be a blockbuster. In my mind, at least.
 
I’ve discovered much along the twelve year trail toward publication. I learned when to use lay and not lie. I found out that laptops don’t operate at peak efficiency after being dropped on a tile floor. And, that friends like to be featured in your book. Even if they appear as a corpse.
 
A background in sales helped me deal with something that new, idealistic, hopeful and naive first-time novelists don’t plan on: Rejection. And lots of it! You see, there’s a nurturing chain that exists on the road to getting published. It starts with the writer pecking away at a somewhat confusing arrangement of the alphabet, twisting and turning those little letters into words, paragraphs and chapters. Sometimes, not necessarily in that order. Next, when you think you’ve put the final spin on your collection of words, you visit the number two guy on the chain, the fellow at the copy center. I once read that a very famous author, whose name eludes me right now, once mailed an original manuscript to his editor and . . . you guessed it. It got lost in the mail. The author hadn’t kept a copy so the novel went unpublished. That’s why the guy at the copy center holds an important place on the chain. You see him, excitedly explain how important it is that he gets the ‘copy’ part right and he says “color or black and white”. Now you’re puzzled. Would it actually look better in color? You opt for black and white. It’s your first book, your baby, but you’re not Rockefeller. You go for 8 cents a copy on heavyweight, bright white and hope for the best. An hour or two later, you’ve got a copy, or perhaps several. Where to now?
 
The number three person, the point man if you’re a basketball enthusiast, is the literary agent. Here, you’ve done your homework. You’ve gone to Barnes and Noble and purchased any one of a number of books detailing how to get your work published and each and every book suggests submitting your manuscript to an agent. Letting the agent submit it to the publishing house gives you a better shot at seeing the work in print. What you hadn’t planned on is the agent not liking the book. Good grief! Why not? It’s brilliant writing, you reason. Not so, in the eyes of the agent. Here’s where the years start to accumulate. Rewrite after rewrite after rewrite. Remember, writers write, but published writers rewrite. Got the rewriting part down? Good. Armed with a copy of the current year’s Guide to Literary Agents, you narrow down your search for literary representation, (some new words you have discovered). You target one, two, three, or a dozen agents that are open to receiving work in your particular genre and you send them a query letter. (Something else that’s new to you.) Here’s where the tough part starts. You’ve decided to target a dozen agents, or if you’re me, a hundred. In either case, your query letter produces either a friendly ‘no thank you’ or . . . a ‘please send the entire manuscript’. If the latter applies, you’ve broken ground. Number three person on the nurturing chain likes your idea for a story well enough to want to read all of it. Wow! You’re in a hurry now. You’re very pleased that you let the number two guy make the copies because you want to get the manuscript out to your agent before he changes his mind. Or, God forbid, someone else publishes a book exactly like yours!!! You sprinkle some holy water on the box, cram your manuscript inside, and hand it over to FedEx for an overnight delivery. Then you sit by the phone and wait and wait and wait. Did I say wait? No one warns you about the waiting part, unless you scrutinized the notation in your Guide to Literary Agents, where it says: “This agent responds in four months to requested manuscript.”
 
Over the next several months you’ve amassed enough paper rejection slips to wallpaper your office, either from the agent that agreed to read your book, or others whose door you chose to knock on. Along the way, though, a helpful agent suggests you seek the help of an editor, a book doctor of sorts. It’ll give the book marketable legs, you’re told. If you’re like me, you’ll follow the advice. I hooked up with a wonderful freelance editor named Dick Marek. He helped me successfully forge the manuscript into a book. 
 
Then it happens.
 
An agent, a real, in-the-book, bonafide agent writes to say that he wants to represent your work and market it to the publishing world. You scream. Your first impulse is to tip the mailman. You plan dinner out with your spouse. You tell everyone you know that you’re now represented and that it’s just a matter of time before your book hits the shelves. Finally, after rewriting the work again, this time to satisfy the agent, your agent, he sends it out to one or more publishing houses. The rejection slips come in. But, if you have a considerate agent fielding the slips, like I had in Matt Bialer of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates, you don’t see them.
 Then it really happens!
 
You get the call.
 
Numero four on the chain. An editor of a publishing house, in New York, no less, likes the book and wants to offer you a deal.

But, guess what?
 
You wait. From this point on, it takes a considerable amount of time and energy and a bit more re-writing to get the book on the shelf. But, this time the effort and the waiting aren’t as difficult. You have a contract. Anxiety isn’t casting its shadow over the immediate future.
 
In closing, let me give you some further words of wisdom. Along the way, you’ll discover that you talk to yourself; who better to bounce dialogue off at three in the morning? You’ll resolve a plot issue while showering. What will you do? I’ll tell you what you’ll do. You’ll skip the conditioner, climb out, and write down the resolution while a puddle forms at your feet. Then, the word that’s been escaping you all day, pops into your head just before falling asleep. Mark my words. You’ll hop out of bed and write it down and while you’re up, you’ll find yourself writing down other words. Strings of them! You’ll need a bigger piece of paper! Don’t tell my former boss, but I used the flip side of the business cards from my old job. And one thing more you should be made aware of. You’ll meet some truly amazing people along the way and as your book nears the stores you’ll make some very good friends in many of them.

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?

Once you’ve discovered you’ve made a statement in a book which is totally wrong it can sometimes lead to a humorous anecdotal story. After all, it is a work of fiction. In my case I had given Ray Orbison credit for writing PRETTY WOMAN. Of course it was a typo but if a reader brought it to my attention I’d explain that Roy had a brother named Ray who was his lyricist. I was joking of course and my inquisitor enjoyed the explanation for my faux pas. On another note, admittedly, much of the research for my work is done online via my laptop. However, I do rely on an assist from actual NYPD personnel to be sure I follow proper police protocol when my detectives are investigating the fictional murders perpetrated in my books. Early on, however, I failed to ask what weapons a police officer routinely carries. In the first edition of my debut novel I had my protagonist, Lieutenant Driscoll, release the safety on his Glock revolver. The lesson learned is that had I done a tad more research I would have realized Glock, Incorporated only manufactures pistols and none of them have a safety. On a bright note, my error led to an entertaining conversation with a Lisa Gardner, New York Times bestselling thriller writer who admitted to making the same mistake. She suggested I simply arm Driscoll with a semi-automatic in any subsequent books. Which I did!

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

I’m nearing the completion of my fourth novel. Though it is not part of the John Driscoll series, it does feature a unique serial killer who convinces a New York Times bestselling author to ghost write his life story with emphasis on his string of brutal murders. The book introduces Richard Singleton, an author suffering from writer’s block. When he becomes the owner of a beach house where a heinous murder had taken place, he finds stimulation and is able to put the pen to paper again. His manuscript is progressing well and his faltered career is looking bright again, that is until he gets an anonymous call from the former owner of the house who had perpetrated the aforementioned murders and has plans of his own regarding what this bestselling author should write. The killer remains on the run and this writer sees this assignment to write the caller’s life story as an opportunity to out this maniacal assassin. That’s not as easy as it sounds, but therein lies the ultimate cat and mouse saga. Once that novel is completed, I’ll begin the next book in the Lieutenant John Driscoll series which involves pen pals, but not the sort most people think of when they hear the term.

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

In my latest novel, NO ONE WILL HEAR YOUR SCREAMS, Tilden, a serial killer, is preying on prostitutes. His method of murder is unique. And since this novel is a thriller and not a mystery the reader discovers as the book opens that Tilden’s method of murder is to embalm his victims while they’re still alive. As revealed in the storyline of the book it’s the New York City Chief Medical Examiner who discovers this madman’s blend of embalming fluid includes not only formaldehyde but another mix of components that, on their own, had been used as a method of embalming more than two thousand years ago. Tilden had added myrrh, aloe, and cassia to the mix. They were the purifying fragrances applied to the linens that wrapped the crucified Christ before he was laid in his tomb.

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

I hope my readers will feel extremely entertained to the point that they’ll recall specific aspects of NO ONE WILL HEAR YOUR SCREAMS again and again. And as they do, I hope they tremble. Should they be moved by my storytelling in such a way that they consider doing a bit of writing on their own I’d be thrilled. Should a reader be considering a career path change it’s never too late to become a writer. Writing fiction is a wonderful way to escape the hum drum of everyday life. Creating characters for the sole purpose of performing in a story that they’ve set in motion is exciting. Personally, I’m fueled by that. And, because it’s fiction, I have the option of weaving memories of times in my life, some good, some regrettable, into the back story of those characters. We all have chapters we wish never to see published, but, with the right finesse, the theme of those blunders can and do add human authenticity to fictional entities. I’d advice that they write whatever it is they enjoy writing with the notion that no one will ever read it. If they follow that advice the critic that occupies space inside their heads will be silenced.

Based on your experience, what are the 5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author? Please share a story or example for each.

1) Write drunk edit sober. The key is to get the story out. To that end, it’s important to write a first draft of a chapter which entails typing without concern for spelling, punctuation, or cohesion, in essence, drunk. It’s important to get the thoughts on paper as quickly as possible without listening to that inner voice telling you “Oh, that’s not good.” Once that’s done, it’s then time go in and rewrite the chapter sober.

2) Though I’m writing fiction, research is vital. Though my novels depict fictional murder it’s important to accurately and definitively describe each and every aspect of the heinous killings. The reader, though he or she knows what’s being read is an imaginary tale must have a sense that the murders, meticulously depicted, could be real. Otherwise well-crafted fiction becomes fantasy. With that writing style in mind, I invite the reader to board a rollercoaster of sorts on page one. I then keep them on that rollercoaster until the last page. The intent is to never let them off. My dedication to clearly describe the killings must carry over into how I depict the procedures employed by my fictional team of homicide investigators who must track down these psychotic misfits terrorizing the general public. But, since I’m neither a killer nor a detective I rely on in-depth research to get both factions right. Failing to do so brings credibility into question. When I created the villain in BONE THIEF it was important to depict an individual who not only craved bones, but had a wealth of knowledge about them. Who better than a radiologist? There are 206 bones in the human body, by the way. I know this because I looked it up. And not being a radiologist myself, I was able to ascertain what a normal workday looked like for such a medical practitioner by searching the web.

3) It’s important to accept the reality that your manuscript may be your work of art but once you send it to a publishing house, a literary agent, or an editor it becomes a product. These professionals know what’s trending in your particular genre. They also know how best to sell it.

4) You need to know that you can tap into your own life story and tell it in a fictional sense by having a character portray it. In NO ONE WILL HEAR YOUR SCREAMS, my third in the Lieutenant John Driscoll series, I feature a character named Larry Pearsol as NYC’s medical examiner. During a conversation with the Lieutenant he reminisces about an embarrassing incident he experienced as a young pupil in elementary school when an overly puritanical nun belittled him in front of the entire class. This was based on an occurrence I witnessed in the 4th Grade where one such nun brought a friend of mine to tears by accusing him of doing something sinful in open class. The reality was, he didn’t. The memory of his belittling stuck with me and added depth to the dialogue when I included it in the book.

5) A writer needs to know it’s extremely important to follow the suggestions of his or her editor. Again, the editor knows what the market will tolerate and what will sell. Case in point, in THE SCREAMING ROOM, my second book in the Lieutenant John Driscoll series, I featured a set of fraternal twins who were terrorizing NYC by luring pedophiles to their deaths. Their motivation was deep-rooted, having being sexually assaulted on numerous occasions as children. I evoked such sympathy for these two killers that my editor agreed that the novel I submitted where they escape capture made sense based on how it was written. However, she insisted I change it to ensure the darling devils were apprehended. It forced me to rewrite the final two hundred pages inside of two weeks to meet deadline.

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?

Perseverance. Every submission of a manuscript to a literary agent seeking representation where I received a rejection letter, basically a ‘no’, brought me one step closer to a ‘yes’. Each and every time that happened I made a point to send the manuscript out to another agent the same day. Another habit would be to write at least one page every day. I had the distinct pleasure of enjoying a beer with New York Times bestselling author John Lescroart. During our conversation he told me if were to write one page every day at the end of the year I’d have 365 pages which is a decent sized manuscript.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

That list would include works of fiction like THE SILENCE of the LAMBS by Thomas Harris, HELTER SKELTER,by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry, THE BONE COLLECTOR by Jeffery Deaver, any and all of Michael Connelly’s books where Harry Bosch is featured, and Dean Koontz’s WATCHERS have had the most influence on me as a writer. I’ve learned much by paying attention to these particular authors’ detailed writing style and their creativity. It’d be safe to say my writing voice was heavily influenced by “listening” to theirs.

You are a person of enormous 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’d start a movement to ensure people be kind to one another each and every day. It’s safe to say that each and every one of us is going through something. So, it’s wise to be kind every single day.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

Please visit my website https://thomasocallaghan.com

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