THE PREY Revisited

on August 30, 2007

Before the RWA conference, I received an email from Ballantine that I won the 2006 Debut Author award from Borders. I was thrilled. The award was officially announced at an RWA luncheon, and a beautiful ad was in the program. I sort of forgot about it until yesterday, when the actually AWARD arrived. It’s lovely, and I can hardly wait to move into my new house–where I’ll have a private office–to display this beautiful acknowledgment of my debut novel.

Seeing my book encased reminded me about the story itself and how I have grown as a writer since that first book. When I talk about THE PREY, it’s usually in context of my road to publication–THE PREY was my fifth completed manuscript, it was sold in a pre-empt to Ballantine, yada yada. But the story itself is rarely discussed because I’m now in the middle of writing my eighth book (twelfth if you count the four I never sold.)

When I wrote THE PREY, I sensed it was IT. The book that would sell. I don’t know why, it was just a feeling under the surface, a vague excitement and fear. I just felt that it was something . . . special. It kept me interested, I loved my characters, and I let the story go where it needed to go. It was the first time I wrote without second guessing everything I did. I made some choices that ultimately have defined me as an author, specifically something that Jill Smith, the RT reviewer for FEAR NO EVIL, acknowledged:

… this author is making a name for herself by producing not only memorable heroes but also unforgettable villains.

In THE PREY, I decided to go deep into the killer’s head. I didn’t pull any punches. He remembered as a child killing the neighbor’s cat with this new BB gun. But I didn’t stop there. I went on to try to figure out what made him tick, what caused him to turn into the violent predator he is today. That means going beyond stereotype and putting myself in the killer’s shoes. WHY does he do what he does?

In THE PREY, I went with a strong, independent female lead–and I have kept strong, independent females integral to my heroines. They can be a variety of things–scared, fearful, worried, whatever–but they must, at their core, be strong and willing to overcome their fear to save themselves or others, even if they are not in law enforcement. These may or may not be kick ass heroines, but they must be internally strong. That started with Rowan Smith who, though colder than most of my heroines, became a model of sorts for someone who overcame tragedy.

And my hero . . . well, John Flynn may very well come back in my FBI series because he’s just too good to leave alone for too long, living in the Colorado mountains with Rowan. And where John goes, so does Rowan because, as they tell each other at the end of the book, they are better together than apart.

When I look at THE PREY today, though it will always have a soft spot, I see the flaws. I see things that now, eight books later, I would have done different. The truth is, at the time it was the best book I could have written.

As a published author, I am constantly striving to make each book better than the last. When I finish a book, I think, “This is garbage.” After my editor and I go over the strengths and weaknesses, I think, “Well, it’s not that bad I guess.” After revisions, I’m thinking, “Okay, I won’t be red-faced in shame if someone read this.” And when I read the page-proofs, I’m thinking, “OMG, I’ll never be able to write another book like this. My career is over.”

It’s not that I think any individual book is brilliant, but every book is the absolutely best I can write at the time I write it. I fear that I’ll never get better, that this is it, that I have plateaued and stuck. I think part of this is quick publication of my books–I don’t have a lot of time to think and reflect on the story as I’m writing it, or even after it is released because there’s another book to write. Maybe this is actually a good thing. Too much contemplation and second-guessing can really mess with my head.

I’m in the middle of writing SILENT SCREAM, the second of my prison break trilogy. It’s garbage. Right now, I hate this story. I have no idea what’s going to happen, my characters were flat, they did things I didn’t understand, and I don’t understand my villains. I have seventy pages of total bleck. Well, the last chapter I wrote wasn’t complete trash. I’m beginning to see the potential–but it’s nowhere near KILLING FEAR.

Have I peaked?

The I look back at THE PREY. I felt the same way about that book. That I could never write anything better. That Ballantine would be so disappointed in anything else and never want to publish anything else I wrote.

But I can honestly say that each book is better than the last. Now, some people might not like an individual story or a specific character, but from a writer’s perspective, I have felt that each book is stronger–once all is said and done and I’m beyond my panic mode which is . . . well . . . about a month after the book comes out.

In KILLING FEAR, I have my first non-law enforcement heroine. It was a challenge. When I first wrote the book, I really thought it was awful. But then my agent said it was her favorite book since THE PREY. And that sort of surprised me. I mean, haven’t I gotten better since my first book? Why this one and not FEAR NO EVIL which is my editor’s favorite? Or THE HUNT which is my mom’s favorite? Or THE KILL which is Anna’s favorite?

It is so subjective, and even for the author, it’s subjective. I’m looking at the story in a completely different way than anyone else. A series of character choices and the fear that with every page, the wrong story choice is made. Every story is about the instincts of the author. A gut feeling about the characters–who practically become real people–about the pacing, about the ebb and flow. And then fearing I can’t trust my instincts.

But, inevitably, when I start doubting my instincts, when I start taking too much control from the characters, the story stagnates and writers block hits. Not writers block, but more a character mutiny.

Looking back at THE PREY, I can’t help but feel it’s the favorite child, warts and all. And I’m very proud to display my new award.