I am honored to be hosting today, my friend and published author, Lee Williams. Lee and I attend the Downers Grove Writers’ Group and I have to say, when one of your group members makes it, it just gives fuel to your own writing passions!
Here, Lee speaks about his writing process, how he used his career as a federal agent to develop stories and characters, his decision to self publish and what he has planned next.
Guest post by Lee Williams
How a Chicago-based Federal Agent became a novelist:
I always had an interest in the written word. It just seems that like most of us, there was never enough time to pursue it. Several times during my career as a federal agent I tried to start working on a novel and then a major trial would come up which would take most of my waking hours for a few months preparing the case and sometimes as much time completing the trial. But, I never lost the desire.
The one thing that I learned in my initial attempts was that I needed some formal training. The last two years I worked as a special agent I took five courses in creative writing at a local community college. I developed a friendship with a fellow in one of the classes, who was a member of a writer’s group and I was invited to join. This was one of the best things I did in terms of developing my writing. I had to have a piece to submit every two weeks.
After I retired, I turned down any offers to work and focused on writing for two years. I had completed my first draft of what was to become In His Blood and having a sense of satisfaction about completing the novel, I began accepting some cases working for defense attorneys while I continued writing on my second novel. I ended up again with several cases that took extended periods of time in terms of preparation and the actual trial. One of the trials lasted six months. To make up for lost time I joined a second writer’s group so I was meeting four times a month with something to be critiqued at most sessions. I also attended numerous writing seminars and attended the University of Iowa’s summer writing festival twice.
On his decision to self-publish:
I had been told of the difficulty of getting a literary agent and the depression of amassing rejection letters. To my surprise, five of the first eight query letters I sent out came back as interested; they wanted to see at least some sample of my work, varying from three chapters to the entire manuscript. I thought this wasn’t so hard. Then reality set in and I went something like zero for twenty. I thought for sure that there was a conspiracy and all these agents had put me on a blacklist. However, I kept at it and finished the first draft of my second novel, then went back to rewrite In His Blood and started a sequel.
Then I was blessed. Ellie Searl gave a presentation at a writer’s group meeting about self-publishing and I immediately knew it was for me. Together, we investigated several print-on-demand companies. Truthfully, she did most of the work! She designed my website (leejwilliams.com) and also designed the cover for In His Blood. I can’t thank her enough and if anyone is looking for someone to help them, at a reasonable fee, I highly recommend her. I hope Mary Jo doesn’t mind me giving Ellie a plug. Ellie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Self-publishing has been a great experience. I guess I’m the kind of person that would rather do it myself than leave it up to someone else. I have friends that have contracts with publishers and agents and from what they say if you’re not one of the big names you’re not going to get much help from a publisher. You’re still going to have to set up book signings and put forth a substantial effort in marketing your novel. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had several book signings. Some of them have been set by friends, others by independent bookstores that have added my book to their shelves, and some by referrals of third parties that I hadn’t met until they contacted me. I never say no to an opportunity to step in front of a group and talk about In His Blood. I also have blurbs about the book mentioned in fraternal newsletters.
And there is one last outlet for your book sales. Another self-published author friend of mine calls it shameless marketing. You always keep a few books in the trunk of your car. People I have met at the health club, church, shopping, the village hall and many other places have purchased my novel.
On his experience as a federal agent:
Without a doubt, being a federal agent gave me ready source for stories and characters. I was very fortunate to blindly walk into a job that I loved. I had kept in touch with a friend who graduated a year ahead of me and became a special agent. He was executing search warrants, making arrests, and conducting electronic monitors. I pleaded with him to send me an application. Three months later, I was on board but after the first week I was ready to quit. One of the senior agents had a case on a subject that was allegedly a front man for a mob owned liquor store. For the first week I sat in a windowless room feeding a microfilm machine with every document the store had generated for four years.
As time went on things did get better. I spent most of my career working cases on dope dealers, money launderers, and corrupt policemen. The cases took me from Chicago’s housing projects to mansions in Beverly Hills, California. It put me on the front line of the war on drugs. We worked cases on drug dealers in the Chicago area and an international drug organization that we were able to tie into the largest cocaine seizure in Chicago’s history. During the years I learned to develop, investigate, and prosecute cases. Many of these cases were complex multi-defendant drug cases. I had to deal with people from all walks of life, learned how to develop informants, conduct surveillances, and testified for hours while being cross examined by a cast of defense attorneys.
On preparing his mind and heart to write:
One tool I find beneficial to my writing, that I don’t hear much about is meditation. It’s something I’ve done long before I started writing. I found that it centered me and renewed my strength. The job of a special agent can be very demanding on one’s time and energy. There were times when I went a couple of months without a day off. I find that when I meditate before I write it takes me to a place deeper within me. I come up with ideas I haven’t thought of before. It might be a keener incite into a character, a new idea for a subplot, or an improvement in dialog in a scene.
On the writing and revising process:
Some of my fellow authors believe it is best to write your novel straight through. This makes a lot of sense to get those characters and your plot down as quickly as possible. But for me I can’t resist the urge to edit as I go. I normally write a chapter and let it sit for a day or two before I read it again and make some revisions. Once the project is completed I’ll review it in its entirety. Don’t forget I’ve also had the advantage of having each chapter critiqued by my writer’s group. The value of their suggestions cannot be underestimated. I was also fortunate enough to have proof copies of In His Blood reviewed by two friends before the final version was printed. Most print on demand companies will allow you to buy one proof copy before your final draft.
The big question Mary Jo asked was how do you know when it’s DONE? When you have that final copy in print or if you have an editor and they tell you it’s time to let it roll.
What’s Next for Lee Williams?
I’m hoping to have my second book, with the working title of The Pact, out by June 2010. It’s been a different journey than writing In His Blood, which was based on many of the cases I worked. The Pact is historical fiction and evolves around the racial unrest of the 1960’s. It involves some of the major historical events of that time. I traveled to Mississippi and Memphis to do research. From there the story comes home to Chicago and a federal investigation. As an agent and a writer you can’t beat Chicago as a fertile ground for a story.
I have also started a sequel to In His Blood, which of course involves Scott Garity and the protagonist from The Pact. I’m hoping to have this complete by November 2011.
I have book signings set for 2010 on January 24th at Centuries and Sleuth bookstore in Forest Park, Illinois at 2:00PM. This is a joint book signing with Don Heinzmann, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who has authored a suspense thriller that takes place in Chicago. The next signing is with the Westmont Auxiliary Police at the Westmont Police Department on February 8th at 7:00PM. Any other activities will be posted to my website: leejwilliams.com
In His Blood is available on amazon.com.
Lee will be popping in all day to answer your questions or comments. One lucky commenter will be randomly selected to win a copy of In His Blood. (US residents only, please.)