Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Conversation with Techno-Thriller Writer Thomas Waite

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Thomas Waite
with Thomas Waite

We are delighted to welcome back novelist Thomas Waite to Omnimystery News today.

Thomas first visited with us late last year just after his techo-thriller Terminal Value was published, and we recently had a chance to catch up with him to talk about it and what's next for him.

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Omnimystery News: We introduced Terminal Value as a techno-thriller. Would you agree with that description?

Thomas Waite
Photo provided courtesy of
Thomas Waite;
Photo credit Allana Taranto

Thomas Waite: Well, one reviewer wrote that she believed with time that I "will be called the John Grisham of the murderous technology novels." Only a fool would choose to disagree with a statement like that! However, I think a more accurate (and humble) answer is that I write techno-thrillers that I hope will both entertain and educate my readers. My first novel, Terminal Value, centers on a mobile computing start-up being acquired by a large technology company that is about to go public. Then bad things happen — very bad things — and of course the novel hinges on its characters and plot, not the companies. My fans seem to enjoy both the story as well as gaining some insights into technology. My second novel, which isn't published yet, is in the same genre. Once again I am hoping that my readers will enjoy the twists and turns of a thriller while at the same time learning something new.

OMN: Do you think that there are any advantages — or maybe disadvantages — to such a genre categorization?

TW: Yes, but I think that is true of any genre. In my case, I believe the advantage is that I am writing in an emerging genre and one that I personally believe will grow in the coming years. Many people are intrigued with technology, and as long as you can make it accessible to them and entertain them at the same time, you should be fine. The disadvantage, of course, is that some people may simply either have no interest in technology or assume that my novels are highly technical, which they are not. I was pleased when another author who read my first novel wrote that it was one that "even a technophobe could appreciate." I simply believe if you write a great story, good things are likely to follow.

OMN: How would you describe Terminal Value if you were tweeting about it?

TW: A thriller about a technology start-up, the anticipated riches of an IPO, the horrific murder of a friend, and the dark side of business.

OMN: Did you bring any of your own personal or professional experience into the book?

TW: In the case of Terminal Value, the novel is informed by my experience in business as a former entrepreneur, as well as executive and Board positions in technology-related companies. While the story is completely fictional, I could never have written it had I not personally experienced some of the events that occur in the novel (excluding, of course, murder!). This includes, for example, having sold a company I founded and having worked for a company that tried to go public through an initial public offering (IPO). The characters are basically composites of people I have encountered in business, though again it is completely fictional. For this novel, there was a story in my head that literally just had to get out. While writing Terminal Value, I felt like I was taking notes during a film playing in my brain and turning it into a book. That's not to say that I didn't have to do any research — I certainly did. But much of it was very familiar.

OMN: What is the best advice — or harshest criticism — you've received as an author?

TW: In terms of the best advice I've received, it is probably a few things. The first quite naturally is about discipline. Someone forwarded me a comment by the novelist and short story writer Peter S. Beagle: "There's a phrase, 'sitzfleisch,' which means just plain sitting on your ass and getting it done." It's like starting a company — either you are willing to commit to it and see it through to its completion, or you aren't. Other great advice included to write "inch by inch" and not let yourself get overwhelmed by the challenge; to believe in yourself and your "voice;" to not fall in love with what you wrote (because you are going to have to kill a bunch of it before you are done, which for an author can almost feel like killing your baby); and lead (and end) with your very best.

In terms of criticism, I think the harshest criticism came from a literary agent (who shall remain nameless). This person completely skewered my work and told me in no uncertain terms that it was terrible and would never be published. Interestingly, I asked her a trick question that revealed this agent hadn't read the manuscript at all (but perhaps had an underling read it). I admit I took solace in Saul Bellow's famous quotation: "I've discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, 'To hell with you.'"

The other thing that happened to me was when I worked with someone I was told was the best marketing person in the industry. I suggested we market my novel to people who worked in business, particularly technology. The response was "That's ridiculous. No one wants to read fiction that reminds them of their work." Fortunately I ignored this "expertise" and my novel has done well with that audience, as well as others.

As far as lessons learned, I would say seeking criticism from others is very important, even if it can be deflating at times. I certainly received some great advice that I took to heart. However, at the same time, I found that opinions varied widely, making it difficult in some cases to know what advice to follow. In the end, you need to be true to yourself and produce the novel you believe in.

The other thing I learned in writing this book is just how difficult it is to finally "let go" and declare the novel finished. Even when you receive the proofs before the book is printed, you still want to change it. That's just the way it is.

OMN: Describe your writing routine for us.

TW: When I write, my normal routine is to get up, pour myself a cup of coffee, and start writing virtually every morning. Sometimes it is productive and I can go for many hours, and sometimes it is not and I quit and do something else. And, of course, I do some writing in the evenings as well — particularly when I have a breakthrough idea come to me when out for a jog or doing something else.

I guess I am underlining that you really have to have discipline to be a writer. When I was a kid, John Updike had an office upstairs from my Dad's dentist office. He had a routine — literally getting out of the house and going to an office to write every day. It's not easy, but you need to get into a routine — just like you do if you want to get in shape or accomplish other things. If you are having trouble, try out different things until you find a routine that suits you best.

OMN: We're always intrigued by how books come to be titled, and the thought process behind a cover design. Were you involved in either of these activities?

TW: I actually "designed" the cover myself — sending a sketch to an artist to complete. I had already conceived of the color and image for the jacket — probably due in part to the fact that I had worked on business books previously in my life. I was looking for a highly stylized cover with a bold image that conveyed the essence of the novel. That's how I came up with the idea of a stock chart-like line piercing a figure with a small pool of blood below it.

As for the book title, Terminal Value, most authors don't settle on a title until the book is finished. Honestly, I came up with the title when I started the novel. I'm not sure if that is good or bad.

Thankfully it seems to have worked out and people often comment about the cover and title. In addition to the stylized cover, I guess the juxtaposition of the words "Terminal" and "Value" people find intriguing. Maybe it also sounds vaguely sinister. The title is actually a double-entendre because this thriller both takes place in business and involves a murder. "Terminal value" is a financial term that means the value of an asset at the end of its useful life. I did worry that people would confuse it with "Terminal Velocity." But I got over it.

When the cover was complete, an author friend told me I should add "A Novel" to the cover. I thought it was strange, but if you Google "terminal value" — even at Amazon — you will understand why it was a good idea.

OMN: Your guest post for us last year was about setting. How important is setting to Terminal Value?

TW: I deliberately chose Boston and New York City because I have lived in both locations and I know the cities well. And I tried my best to capture the geography and essence of these cities as best I could. While you can do research, look at maps, and even read guidebooks, there is no substitution for experience. If you have lived in a city, you know its character, the local customs, and the weather. For example, in my novel, I describe a "classic Nor'easter" and not only how these storms form, but also how they feel, and what the aftermath looks and smells like. I have also spent time with people in Boston and New York, and they talk, act, and think differently.

I believe the setting of a novel is critical, particularly for a mystery or thriller. After all, in addition to providing details that enrich the story, the setting can actually assist, or impede, an investigation. Choosing a familiar setting is usually a good idea for a mystery or a thriller because it should directly influence the characters and the plot.

At a more detailed level there are sub-settings — streets, parks, offices, police stations, restaurants — that have their own vibes and traditions beyond the place where they are situated. In the case of Terminal Value, I visited all of these sub-settings (except, of course, the offices of the fictional companies, but even those were based on other companies I was familiar with). In the opening of the novel, Dylan, the protagonist, leaves his condominium in the Back Bay section of Boston, drives by the Public Garden, down a street, across a bridge, to the office of his start-up, and takes an old elevator and enters the office. I drove this route myself, and describe various sights and sounds along the way that are both authentic and "educate" the reader about the environment.

Here's an excerpt to illustrate my point:

Rush-hour traffic seemed unusually heavy for a cold January morning. Dylan glanced out through the frosty window at the Public Garden Lagoon. In the summer, swan boats and tourists filled the park. Now it was empty of water and people—a sure sign of a prolonged winter. He and his friend Tony had discussed the mobile computing revolution during many strolls through the garden.

The importance of setting doesn't end there. A good writer will develop their characters by deliberately describing elements that build both an image and understanding of the characters in the reader's mind. Why does one character drive a certain kind of car while another drives a different car? Why does one person have a messy office and another a pristinely organized office? What is it that upsets or stresses a character — heavy traffic, noisy office mates, certain smells — and what does it tell the reader about that character?

Setting is more than just place. It is also time. In Terminal Value, there is a certain rhythm in the novel that reflects the changing seasons in Boston. Settings in my novel include a raging winter snowstorm and an abnormally warm, foggy spring night. These are important because they can lead to a sense of gloom, tension, joy, and so forth that is important to the storyline itself. Consider this excerpt:

At nine-thirty, Dylan stepped out onto the damp cobbles of Beacon Hill. The unusually warm spring temperatures foretold a hot summer ahead, and after a brief shower, the resulting mist wrapped eerily around the lampposts. Dylan admired the old neighborhood, with its Federalist and Greek Revival brick row houses, most of which were built between 1800 and 1850. After the turn of the century, many of the wealthy residents moved to the suburbs, and the old houses were subdivided into small apartments and, later, condominiums. Tony had moved into one of the roomier apartments shortly after their initial MobiCelus success. True to his character, his eclectic furnishings barely filled the space.

A great novel is one that takes place in a richly detailed world that gives the story authenticity. As Stephen King famously wrote in his classic, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: "Description begins in the writer's imagination, but should finish in the reader's."

OMN: What kinds of books did you read when you were young?

TW: Being the fifth of six children, there were always a lot of books around when I was growing up. I read most all of the classics by authors like Dr. Seuss, Margaret Wise Brown, Shel Silverstein, P.D. Eastman and others. Later I read J.R.R. Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, William Golding, Jack London, and Robert Louis Stevenson. I distinctly remember that it was during a period when I was reading such authors as J.D. Salinger, Herman Hesse, and Kurt Vonnegut that I began thinking that I'd like to become an author someday. In high school my favorite classes were always literature, but my interest really accelerated when I majored in English Literature in college and took creative writing courses.

As a result of my major, naturally I had read a lot of books by the time I graduated. So in terms of novels that have influenced my life the most, the list is rather long: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Great Gatsby, Brave New World, The Grapes of Wrath, 1984, Slaughterhouse Five, Invisible Man, U.S.A. (trilogy), Lord of the Flies, The Sun Also Rises (to name a few). I think they gave me a good basis of not only understanding good writing, but also the varied styles and genres of modern fiction.

For example, James Joyce's semi-autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, introduced me to his characteristic free indirect speech style and was an early example of his modernist techniques. I read other works by Joyce such as Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, but this novel was my favorite.

In sharp contrast was Ernest Hemingway, whose economical and understated style made a strong impression on me. "A Clean, Well Lighted Place", a short story, fascinated me in how sparse, and yet real, a story could be told. Indeed, James Joyce once remarked that "He has reduced the veil between literature and life, which is what every writer strives to do. Have you read 'A Clean, Well-Lighted Place'? It is masterly. Indeed, it is one of the best short stories ever written."

Hemingway's first novel, The Sun Also Rises, is a great example of a novel written in spare, tight prose that later undoubtedly influenced countless crime and pulp fiction novels. Carlos Baker, Hemingway's first biographer, believed that because Hemingway began as a writer of short stories, he learned "to get the most from the least, how to prune language, how to multiply intensities and how to tell nothing but the truth in a way that allowed for telling more than the truth." My own opinion is that the simplicity of Hemingway's prose is deceptive and that his writing style is very visual and more complex than most people think. He called his style the "iceberg theory," and I would agree that in his writing there is a lot going on under that apparently spartan surface.

Over time, I developed a particular appreciation for fast-paced thrillers and mysteries. I read books by authors such as John le Carré, Ian Fleming, Scott Turow, Ken Follett, Tom Clancy, David Baldacci, James Patterson and Robert Ludlum. These writers, and others, are authors who have produced novels in this genre that I really admire. Their styles are different, of course, but they all have written exciting and engaging stories.

In addition to these authors, given the subject matter of my own novel, Terminal Value, I'd have to say certain novels such as John Grisham's The Firm and Michael Crichton's Disclosure particularly influenced me. It's flattering and humbling that so many reviewers have compared Terminal Value to these other works.

OMN: What are some of your outside interests, and do you think have had an impact on your writing?

TW: I am something of a serial entrepreneur, having started two companies and selling one to an Internet company, and advising many other technology start-ups. I am also on the Board of two technology firms. I have no doubt that this experience has had a strong influence on my writing — and my focus on techno-thrillers.

OMN: What's next for you?

TW: I am currently at work on a novel about cyber warfare. I'd tell you more, but then I'd have to remotely destroy your life!

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Thomas Waite's original plan was to get his Master's degree in creative writing, and then set the world on fire by writing thrillers. Alas, life intervened, and with bills to pay, he was forced into business — ironically as a writer. Waite labored for many years ghost-writing non-fiction for others. While working at one firm, he conceived the idea of publishing three business books and directed the writing and marketing of them. All three went on to become New York Times bestsellers. Waite's name was buried in the acknowledgements and unnoticed.

Frustrated, Waite decided it was time to pursue his real dream and began writing fiction. He believed there was an opportunity to write techno-thrillers that were fast-paced, contemporary, and accessible enough for those without a deep knowledge of technology.

Born in Ipswich, Massachusetts — once home to the authors John Updike, Adele Robertson, and John Norton and the poet Anne Bradstreet — Waite received his bachelor's degree in English from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He now lives in Boston.

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Terminal Value by Thomas Waite

Terminal Value
Thomas Waite

"Be careful what you wish for."

That's a warning Dylan Johnson should have listened to. When his mobile computing firm is bought out by Mantric Technology, a red-hot company about to go public, it seems like a dream come true for the young entrepreneur and his partners. But the closer they get to payout, the more uncertain Dylan becomes.

Something doesn't feel right. When one of his colleagues is found dead on what should have been their night of triumph, Dylan is determined to find out what happened. But asking questions plunges him into a web of digital deceit and betrayal that will shake everything he thought he knew …

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Lance Wright owns and manages Omnimystery, a Family of Mystery Websites, which had its origin as Hidden Staircase Mystery Books in 1986. As the scope of the business expanded, first into book reviews — Mysterious Reviews — and later into information for and reviews of mystery and suspense television and film, all sites were consolidated under the Omnimystery brand in 2006.

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