New Author interview Series: 'The paris plot' by joseph aragon scores political hit and reveals how to write a novel
Joseph Aragon has enjoyed a fruitful career in politics and business. Like many professional people, his work demanded that he do some writing. And he enjoyed writing short stories, poetry and songs.
But he had a yearning to write a novel. And not just any novel, but an international thriller that would draw on the savvy global insights he gained while working in the White House as a presidential adviser.
The Paris Plot is a complex, action-packed story about an American president trapped in Paris and under siege by a deadly array of adversaries all of whom have their own reasons for wanting the leader of the Western world dead.
Aragon has won praise from Kirkus Reviews, which describes the debut novel as "a fast-paced international adventure..." that takes us on an "exhilarating underground pursuit..." through the French capital and beyond.
Coincidentally, the novel’s publication coincides with the rise of President Donald Trump and his impact on world affairs. No matter which side of the political spectrum you lean toward, Aragon's view of global politics and politicians may strike you as prescient, profound and uncanny.
More importantly, if you are a new author curious about self-publishing a title of high quality, The Paris Plot is an excellent example of setting high standards for creative writing and storytelling.
My interview with startup author Joseph Aragon began while he was in Paris plotting and researching his next novel.
Why did you decide to write a novel?
It was something I'd wanted to do for a long time. I had written a good number of short stories, poems, songs, over the years but had never published any or attempted a full-on novel. Yet, I had a pretty good idea of the type of story I would write. It would be about how powerful people in the world of politics use that power, sometimes for noble purposes and other times for much darker ones. I also wanted to write about how entangling and pernicious the exercise of influence can be and what it does to people. I also wanted to have a bit of fun with a "what if" thriller.
Was it difficult to get started?
Not at all. The first paragraph was easy peasy. After that I suddenly remembered a long list of chores I had been meaning to attend to, like polishing my shoes, updating a dormant Facebook account and learning Tagalog.
You mean, it took time to learn how to discipline yourself as a writer? You were easily distracted?
Time wasn’t the issue. It was more about structure. In the case of The Paris Plot I had done a good amount of writing, but, I was not writing a novel. There had to be a focus and a structure for me to really think of myself as someone who was writing and would complete a novel. I did not have that.
How did you get the structure?
I enrolled in writing class at UCLA Extension. We were treated as serious writers of fiction and were encouraged to see ourselves as such. We were asked to produce at least 10 pages of new material per week. Our submissions were read in class by our mentor and everyone else in the class. Each person was asked to comment on the submission.
This was always stressful because one never knew how others would react to the material. But it was immensely helpful because it provided valuable feedback. The process was also helpful because, like my fellow writers, I did not want to show up empty handed at class. So I did not allow myself the personal luxury of saying, “Well, I’ll get to it next week or the week after that." There was a timetable. There was a deadline.
OK, so that provided a structure you lacked in the beginning?
Yes, and also, there was, if you will, an element of personal pride, or at least, not wanting to be the goat when it came to submit new pages.
As time went by, the fear of sitting down and putting words on the page dissipated, though the anxiety of actually writing something worthwhile did not. I had crossed a psychological threshold. I knew I could produce new chapters and move the story forward, and that made a big difference. It broke the back of that paralyzing mindset that said, "I don’t know what to write, so I can’t write today."
Oh yeah, we’ve all been there. Creative writing prompts can be helpful. So the more you did, the more confident you became?
Absolutely. As I moved further into the story, the more the possibility of completing the novel became real. I came to see myself not as someone who wanted to write, but rather as a writer working his craft. And it is a craft with its own unique requirements. To become a writer you have to learn the craft, just as a composer or a sculptor would need to know the art form in order to create something.
The other important thing I discovered is that when I actually forced myself to sit down and write the next 10 pages it took me far less time than I had imagined. And there were those wonderful days when the story unwound before me like the Yellow Brick Road, taking me to new scenes and characters I had not envisioned.
Fantastic. So, did you have to dedicate your whole day to writing to be so productive?
No! Like many startup authors I had been looking for that perfect, long window of time to write. It rarely happened - and it doesn’t have to. It is a massive fiction, but one I all too often fell victim to, until I got on a schedule not completely under my control.
Now, not everyone can, or will, or need to enroll in a writing program. But everyone needs a structure, a regimen, a set of goals.
What’s your advice for creating that structure?
There are writing groups everywhere. Find one. Join. Share your material. Ask for comments and offer comments. Commit yourself to that group. If it meets weekly, go weekly. If monthly, go monthly. Join more than one writing group if need be. Get to know other writers. And think of yourself as a writer. It is a highly motivating experience.
“Think of yourself as a writer.” Important advice, because many startup authors want to write, but don’t, then punish themselves and never enjoy that feeling of achievement you describe so well.
It’s ironic that so many of us who want to write won’t allow ourselves 10 to 30 minutes a day, just to begin. Your free Ready to Happen course is also a good way to create a personal structure. As you say, think of your writing aspirations as a startup company.
Why did you think you were qualified to write about the subject you chose?
At its heart, this is a story about political intrigue. A large part of my adult life was spent working in political campaigns, all the way from local municipal office, to presidential elections, culminating with service in the West Wing of the White House. In the course of that experience one gets an inside look at the human and political calculations that lead to decisions that can affect millions of people. What happens to them in the pursuit, exercise and retention of power? For some it is an elevating, even ennobling journey. For others it is a descent to moral and political corruption.
How did you choose your story?
I was visiting the American Cemetery in Normandy. It is truly a sacred and beautiful memorial to the thousands of American soldiers who died storming Omaha beach and other landing sites on D Day, June 6, 1944. The memorial sits on a high promontory overlooking the broad swath of Omaha beach far below. It was quite moving to contemplate the rendezvous with death that confronted American GI's tasked to take the high ground. And oddly enough, and counter to what writing conventions would suggest, I knew that that site would be the ending scene of my as yet unwritten story. So, you might say that I knew at that moment where and possibly how my story would end. I would just have to find my way there from page 1.
You mentioned the UCLA Extension class. Did you find a particular mentor to help you with creative writing techniques and writing tips?
I was very fortunate to have a masterful mentor. Linda Palmer, an extraordinary, creative person in her own right, was teaching an extension class in novel writing at UCLA. She was already a bit of a legend among aspiring writers. Along with 10-15 other hopeful writers I attended her classes for a year and a half, learning the basics of story telling, POV, plot, sub-plot, protagonists, the need to have an arc to the story, a through line, and attention to detail, detail, detail. (Editor’s note: Linda enjoyed a remarkable career in Hollywood as a writer and producer before becoming an excellent novelist who wrote under the pseudonym Melinda Wells.
I remember writing an action scene where my female protagonist, Izzy Stone walks into trap. She has her gun, secret service ID and her purse with her when is viciously attacked by her stalker. It's a bloody fight. I finished the scene where Izzy recovers from the attack and walks out of the building. "Where's the gun? Where's the ID? The purse?" Linda asked me. I had forgotten to mention them again. Though she often said, "Remember this is fiction it is not a do cumentary," nonetheless she stressed the importance of keeping the story internally consistent. It was ok to build a story around a seemingly implausible premise (who wants a totally predictable plot?) so long as the story is internally plausible. That is, there has to be a persuasive, pervasive logic to it. When things happen there has to be reason. She was no fan of Deus ex machina when it came to good storytelling. And, of course, I was extremely lucky to develop great relationships with talented writers who became good friends. It never failed to amaze me how generous they were with their time and their feedback. Rarely did I encounter one who was more interested in tearing down rather than helping.
How long did it take you to complete the novel?
About two and a half years. There were stops and starts along the way. I heavily researched for the story since it involved international terrorism, intelligence agencies and foreign locales. I wanted it to be as believable as possible as to time and place.
Did you ever feel discouraged as you were learning how to write a book?
If yes, how did you overcome those feelings?
I would be lying if I said I didn't. Writing is a lonely process filled with self-criticism, insecurity and more than one margarita. I doubt even the finest writers escape moments like that. But it is even more true of first time writers. There is no empirical evidence that your writing is worth the effort, and that fosters a lot of stress. There were many days when I doubted I could finish. Looking at pages I had written and finding them more fit for the round file than in a book was part of the experience. But I drew comfort from the knowledge that all those fears are part of the writer's journey. Linda often warned us of that small demon sitting on your shoulder telling you that you can't write, that you will never finish." Just ignore the demon," she would say. I also acknowledged the obvious, if writing were easy everyone would have a book on Amazon. I lived by General Patton's famous "l'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace!"
After finishing your manuscript, what kind of editorial process did you follow?
Edit, edit, edit. Tighten the scenes. Then tighten them more. Look for logical black holes. If it is a thriller keep the protagonist and the action moving forward. Avoid back story dumps. Use foreshadowing, avoid adverbs and generalizations. Continue to add description while avoiding long digression. Can the reader see it? Hear it? Smell it? Feel it? Create a sense of place. Will the reader feel she/he is there? And do not be afraid to reorder your scenes. Sometimes it is only after you have completed the manuscript that you realize that an event or a scene is more compelling by placing it earlier or later.
How did you feel when the paperback edition of The Paris Plot was in your hands?
Pretty darned good. And strange, perhaps not so strange, is that others, even those very close to you, somehow see you and treat you differently. Maybe it is just their recognition of someone actually having completed the novel and seeing it in print. Maybe it simply says that people generally respect a writer who has seen it through.
What writing tips can you share with other startup authors?
Write about something that matters to you. If you do not write with conviction no one else will care about your story or your characters. Write and keep writing and don't look back, at least, not right away. What I have found is that first time writers want the beginning chapter or chapters to be perfect before moving on. The only difficulty here is that writing is an organic process. The story is a living, breathing, shape-shifting creature. And though one may think that after ten re-writes the first chapter is perfect, inevitably by the time the writer gets to chapter 10, that first chapter will need reworking.
To say nothing of the paralyzing effect it has on you as a writer, forever honing those first words. It's also a form of avoidance. The re-writing process should come much farther down the line. Since I first seriously began writing I have crossed paths with some truly talented writers. Writers who amazed me with their originality and mastery of language.
Yet sadly, most of those colleagues stalled, allowed the demon on the shoulder to prevail and never finished. Just about the worst thing that can happen to someone who stopped writing because of a loss of self-confidence, is to revisit the unfinished manuscript years later and say, "Wow, this was really good."