Thursday, December 27, 2012

Author Interview #145: Terminal Value by Thomas Waite

Terminal ValueOur interview today is with Thomas Waite the author of Terminal Value (4.8 stars, 44 reviews). Before we get to the interview a brief book description: “Be careful what you wish for.” That’s a warning Dylan Johnson should have listened to. When his mobile tech company is bought out by Mantric Technology, a red-hot firm 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 his best friend and chief technology officer 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 digital web of deceit and betrayal that will shake everything he thought he knew… Read more on Amazon.

Interview with Thomas Waite

What was unique about the setting of the book and how did it enhance or take away from the story?
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.

When I started writing Terminal Value, I deliberately chose Boston and New York City because I have lived in both locations and I know the cities well. Sure, you can do research, look at maps, and even read guidebooks, but 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. If I were to have set my novel in Little Rock, Arkansas, it almost surely would have irritated people who live there and they would have quickly discerned that I really didn’t understand them or where they live.

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.”
What specific themes did you want to emphasize throughout the novel? What were you trying to get across to the reader?
Terminal Value is a thriller that I intended to provide an insider’s look into the excitement of a technology start-up, the anticipated riches of an initial public offering, the gut-wrenching murder of a friend, and the dark side of corporate America.
At least two reviewers seem to have understood what I was trying to get across to the reader (in addition to an interesting, fast-paced novel). One reviewer wrote: “Please don’t go into business, proceed with your MBA, sell your company, or complete your next deal until you’ve finished this book. Terminal Value peers into the psyches of those with the wrong kind of ambition, allowing a rare glimpse into the dark side of IPOs, acquisitions, and the secret world of high finance, all wrapped in a turbo-timed thriller!”
Another wrote: “Waite’s deep knowledge of the tensions and betrayals that exist at the upper echelons of corporations—where ethical executives confront their unethical colleagues and can suffer unspeakable consequences—make this corporate thriller not only authentically engaging, but sadly reminiscent of many of today’s business headlines.”
How did you create characters that seemed real and believable?
In my view, the single most important factor in creating believable characters is to make them consistent. You want your readers to believe in your story – no matter how outlandish it might be – and to do so it can’t contradict itself. Neither can your characters. You could create a character that is at first unimaginable, but if that character behaves in a manner that is consistent with the traits you have given them and the background you have provided, then the reader will find them believable. If the character seems to deviate from this and changes arbitrarily, your reader will quickly begin to view that character as no longer believable.
Of course, this doesn’t rule out a character being able to surprise the reader. For example, let’s say you have a character in your story that is old and weak. What if you want to surprise your reader by having this character do something physically spectacular at the end of the story? In this case, you have to make sure that there is something consistent throughout the story leading up to this event. So, for example, this character might do some smaller feats (for example, despite their infirmity, they are able to adeptly catch something that is falling). While this may seem a bit odd to the reader, they will likely suspend their disbelief until the end of your novel. But before your novel is over, you need to explain how this ties together. For example, it could be revealed at the very end that this character was once a world-class juggler in the circus – something the character was embarrassed to admit earlier in the story.
Beyond that there are other elements of characters that are important. Where are your characters from and how is that reflected in their traits such as what they know, the words they use, and their perspectives on life? Setting is important as well. Where do your characters live? Not just what city or town, but where do they reside and with whom? How did they end up living there? How do they feel about it? How does all of this affect their behavior?
When the central female character of Terminal Value, Heather, is first introduced, the reader learns that while this is a well-educated, brilliant woman, a reference to her childhood also intimates that she is self confident and not afraid to fight for what she believes and stand her ground: “Heather finished her degree with a concentration in digital media at RISD, the Rhode Island School of Design—or “Riz-dee” as it’s universally known. Her artistic skills notwithstanding, she was always intrigued by the intersection of design and technology. Heather’s astute intuition quickly recognized that mobile phones were replacing computers in many still uncounted ways, and she focused on landing a job that would allow her to work on cutting-edge displays and visual apps. Her comments in board meetings were often insightful, raising issues that others had overlooked.
Heather’s striking beauty showed in her green eyes, blonde hair, and lean, athletic build, but her most outstanding feature was a nose just a shade off-kilter. No one ever asked her about it, of course, but they didn’t need to. She loved to tell the story of how she and her three brothers walloped a group of neighborhood bullies in an epic street hockey brawl that left her with a broken nose. The end result only added to her allure. In fact, Dylan was just about to ask Heather out when Rob barged in to introduce himself and beat him to it, placing Dylan in the back seat for her attention.”
There are many other elements that come in to play as well. For example, age, appearance, and childhood. A character of a certain age is going to do some things, and probably not others. If an old man is playing Words With Friends on his iPhone, you probably have a believability issue. If a short, unattractive and insecure woman is described admiring herself by catching a glimpse of her reflection over a very high bar, you have a problem. On the other hand, if a man had a bad childhood marked by constant fighting between his parents and an ugly divorce and he has trouble committing to his girlfriend, then that is believable.
In this excerpt from the beginning of Terminal Value, the reader understands not only the physical description of Dylan, the novel’s protagonist, but also a hint as to his upbringing and its influence on him: “He stood in the steamy bathroom, leaning against the sink, staring at his reflection. It was a daily ritual he wished he could stop, and yet every day the practice returned. Today he saw his father’s face staring back at him, questioning his choice of careers. Dylan’s resemblance to his father amazed everyone. It was as if the day after his father died, Dylan had become him. At six feet four inches tall, with the same tousled brown hair that shimmered like milk chocolate and deep brown eyes with tiny wheat-colored flecks, Dylan was his father in both appearance and gestures. To Dylan’s credit, however, he had not become his father in attitude or practice. He remained his own person, pursuing his own dreams.”
Other examples might include jobs, personalities, and even names. A man who works on the assembly line in an automobile plant is going to look at the world and talk very differently than a lawyer. How they feel about virtually everything will be dependent in part on their career choices. Similarly a character’s personality has to be in line with everything else we know about them. Since most novels involve conflicts and confrontations, a character has to react consistently and accordingly. So if one of your characters is insulted, do you have them just take it, fight back, or leave and talk about it with someone else? Even names can be important. A character named Henry Lodge Wadsworth III instantly brings an image to your reader’s mind. Bubba Jones suggests a very different kind of person.
So what’s the bottom-line? Creating characters that are believable means knowing them as well as if they were a real person, and ensuring that their actions result from the intersection of all of the elements I’ve described (and more). If you describe them well and they act in a consistent fashion, then they are going to be believable. If they do anything inconsistent, then you’d better have hinted at this along the way so when you do spring it upon your reader, it makes sense.
Was there a basis for your story? A previous experience? Something else?
Terminal Value was inspired by my experience in business. 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 (of course excluding, among other things, murder!). The characters are basically composites of people I have encountered in business, though again it is completely fictional.
What is your method for writing a book? A certain amount of hours every day? A certain routine? Are you character/story builder or an outliner or some other method?
I don’t think my habits are unique, though I confess that when I wrote this novel, it was very different in that I felt like I had a film playing in my head and my job was to turn it into a novel. It was a very “visual” writing experience.
While writing Terminal Value, my routine was to get up, pour myself a cup of coffee, and start writing virtually every morning. Sometimes it was productive and sometimes it was not, but the discipline was important to me. I had the luxury of having sold my company and I was working from home on a project-basis, so there were some days where I could write for many hours on end if I was being particularly productive. Other times I would take a break and not write for a few days and clear my head by doing something completely different. And, of course, I would do some writing in the evenings as well.
For me to be successful, I really need to be disciplined in my writing habits. 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. I’m not saying that my routine is what others do – certainly if any author is having trouble, they should try out different things until they find a routine that suits them best.
Visit Thomas Waite’s website:
Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasJWaite
Find him on Facebook: Facebook/TerminalValue
Get your copy of Terminal Value on Amazon.

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