Saturday, May 25, 2013

What I Learned About Writing By Writing, Part 5

This epic blog is all about those doors that open and whether or not you choose to go through them or not.

In late 1995, the biggest door I've encountered in my career opened for me. It was totally unexpected. I didn't ask for it. I never dreamed it was possible. It wasn't even a fantasy because it was such an improbability.

I was asked by Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. if I was interested in taking over from John Gardner to write official James Bond novels.

The invitation came out of the blue. I was still working as a computer game designer/writer when I received a phone call from Peter Janson-Smith, the Chairman of IFPL--at that time it was called Ian Fleming (Glidrose) Publications Ltd. He said John wanted to retire from the gig after 15 years, and he asked me if I wanted "to give it a shot." As mentioned in an earlier part of this blog, Peter and I had gotten to know each other when I wrote The James Bond Bedside Companion, published in 1984. We had stayed in touch, become friends, and I had performed little oddjobs (no pun intended) for the company over the next decade. Although I had not had a novel published, Peter and the Fleming Estate people must have been confident that I knew Bond's universe well enough to tackle the job.

The shoes to fill were huge. Ian Fleming? Kingsley Amis? John Gardner? Were they kidding? Me? An American with no previous novel published? Yes, I knew how to write fiction. I had spent the last decade penning fiction, just not in the format of a novel. I could easily have said, "No, I'm not up to that task, find someone else," but come on, how could I say that? I had to "give it a shot." I would have always wondered "what if?" if I hadn't.

There was an audition of sorts. I had to write an outline of a plot on spec, which would have to be approved by not only IFPL but also the British publisher and the American publisher. This is where I learned that the outline is the most important piece of writing a novel. Of course, there are plenty of authors who don't outline, and that works for them. There are also plenty that do. It works for me, and since Peter insisted on an outline, it trained me to do one for every bit of fiction I've written since.

My outlines are really prose treatments. They're broken down into block paragraphs, and each paragraph represents a chapter. In each block paragraph I detail what happens plot-wise. There's no dialogue or setting description. Just plot. "X goes to <location> and finds <plot device>. He is discovered by Y. Big fight. X wins but is badly injured. He escapes with his life and the secret <plot device>." That kind of thing. It goes on for about 15-20 pages, single-spaced. I spend a long time on the outline, maybe a month or two, because this is where I work out all the twists and turns, the red herrings, the act structure, the climax, and the ending. It becomes the blueprint of the novel. It doesn't mean I'm married to it. If, when writing the actual book, I get another idea--I simply change the outline!

After the outline was approved, I had to write the first four chapters on spec. Same approval process. When all was said and done, I got the contract to write the next James Bond novel. By then it was Spring 1996. I remained in my day job as a game designer for another year while I wrote the book. But I took some time off to travel to the locations and do research. I traveled to all my Bond locations--it was an essential part of the process.

My first published novel was a James Bond novel. I'm still pinching myself. Zero Minus Ten was published in April 1997. Then I quit my job and became a full-time author and haven't looked back. What followed was six more years of "Bondage." Part of my duties as the Bond author was to novelize the current films (because they were original screenplays). In total, I wrote six original novels, three movie novelizations, and three short stories. I traveled around the world and met dozens of very cool people. I was thrust into a spotlight. This was also at the time when the Internet was just becoming The Next Big Thing, and fans of all big franchises (Star Wars, Buffy, Star Trek, Batman, whatever) suddenly had a vehicle through which to gather, criticize, discuss, criticize, fawn over, criticize, and deconstruct their favorite things. And they could do it anonymously if they wanted. I quickly found that I had millions of fans who loved me and just as many who hated me. I received love letters and death threats. It was truly a bizarre, sometimes unnerving experience. Those seven years became a roller-coaster.

But I survived it and am very proud of the work I did for Bond.

WHAT I LEARNED: The outline is king. It's the most valuable tool a writer can have if it's done correctly. I also utilized new kinds of time management (there's that theatre training again) and discipline. When I wrote my first novel back in the 80s, I discovered that just completing the darned thing was an achievement. With Bond, I had to not only finish the books, but I had to do them fairly quickly. For the movie novelizations, I usually had around six weeks from start to finish! The original novels had a much more relaxed schedule, but there were milestones that had to be met within a year. The outlining, traveling, research, writing, and revising all had to be done in twelve months. Finally, I learned to grow very thick skin. Like with all big franchises, Bond fans are very opinionated. Most are lovely people. Others... well, we won't go there. At any rate, the Internet, with its message boards and fan sites, allowed readers to praise and criticize authors in ways that were unprecedented. And that was the biggest lesson of those seven years.

To be continued...


  1. Nice insight, loved your books. They really helped me bridge my way from the movie Bond into the Flemming book version. I found Fleming very difficult to read when I was younger, and your work helped ease me into his. Thanks a ton.

  2. Dear Mr Benson
    I have enjoyed all your books and now especially enjoyed your blog pieces on learning about writing. As a fledgling author I am most appreciative. Frank B. Miller MD

  3. Dear Mr Benson,
    I and my family absolutely loved your James Bond books and I even adapted the plots for role-playing game adventures for my sons and their friends. Those boys' interaction with the twins in Doubleshot was absolutely hilarious!
    Your writing has inspired me to dabble in writing myself and one day, I may get enough nerve to attempt to publish something.
    My only gripe is that there is no access to your Bond short stories. Since I don't buy Playboy magazines, I've missed out on those. Is there any reason why they were never compiled into a book?
    Many thanks for creating brilliant stories
    Emil Loustau.

    1. Thank you very much Mario! The short stories *are* published in anthologies: "THE UNION TRILOGY" contains three novels and one short story, "Blast from the Past" (the full-length, director's cut!), and "CHOICE OF WEAPONS" contains three novels and two stories, "Live at Five" and "Midsummer Night's Doom."