Ethan Cross: A Q&A with Ethan Cross

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EthanCrossBefore we get to the interview, can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself.

I am the international bestselling author of The Shepherd, The Cage, Callsign: Knight, and my latest, The Prophet – a novel described by bestselling author Jon Land as “The best book of its kind since Thomas Harris retired Hannibal Lecter.” I live and write in a small town in rural Illinois with my wife, two daughters, and two Shih Tzus.

How long have you been a writer?

It started as early as I can remember. I wasn’t an only child, but since my three sisters are so much older than I am, it felt that way growing up. I’ve always been an introvert and my favorite pastime as a young boy was playing pretend with my action figures and my imaginary friends (as my parents called them). But I’m not sure if they were truly the imaginary friends that we traditionally think of. I say this because they were more like characters in my own little movies. At the time, it was a boy playing with his imaginary friends, but I still do basically the same thing as an adult, only my imaginary friends find life on the pages of my books.

Do you have a “day job,” or is being an author your career? When you write, do you adhere to a strict work schedule, or do you work whenever the inspiration strikes?

Writing is my “day job”, and so I treat it as such. Since I’m not much of a morning person, I start out with answering e-mails, conducting promotional activities, research, learning, etc…essentially the business side of things. Then, once I’ve got some caffeine in my system, I start to write/outline. I usually quit around 6:00, depending on when the kids have activities or we have plans for the evening. Then I usually have a little time to work some more once the kids and my wife have gone to bed.

During the outlining and development stage, I try not to force things too much and let the ideas come naturally. But once those ideas are down on paper in the outline, I work off of a daily word count that’s based upon approximately how long I expect the book to be and when the deadline is. I try to stick to that number, but I also try not to limit myself if I’m on a roll or chastise myself too harshly if a certain section needs extra attention.

What inspired you to become a writer? Describe your journey as a writer.

Telling stories on a grand scale has been my dream for as long as I can remember. When a fireman or a policeman would come visit my school, most of my classmates’ heads would swim with aspirations of growing up and catching bad guys or saving someone from a blazing inferno. When these moments came for me, however, my dreams weren’t to someday be a cop or put out fires; I just wanted to make a movie or write a book about it. And my dream came to fruition with the release of my first book, The Shepherd.

I had written a partially-finished screenplay in high school, and at one time in my life, I had considered moving to California and attempting to break into the film industry. But I knew that was an uphill battle, and much of my time was being consumed by another dream: music. While reaching for that dream, I was able to play all over the Midwest, record a few CDs, and open for national recording artists as a lead singer and guitar player. But I never gave up on my dream of telling stories, and I continued to develop the ideas in my head.

Up to this point, I had never been a big book reader, but then a friend introduced me to a series of Star Wars books that picks up where the original movies left off. I had always been a Star Wars fan, so I decided to give the books a shot. I loved them, but I also discovered a love for books. It wasn’t long before I was reading three to four books a week, everything from suspense thrillers to action and adventure. I had always considered writing a novel, but it was at this point that I knew that was what I wanted to do. So I began writing The Shepherd, which was based upon a short story that I had written for an English class during my senior year of college. My main goal with The Shepherd was to write a book that I would want to read, and the books that I loved were fast-paced with a lot of action. After more work than I could’ve possibly imagined, I finished a first draft. But the book was far from finished.

After doing a lot of research and knowing that I couldn’t get my book published without an agent, I decided to attend a writer’s conference in New York City called Thrillerfest. It included a period of time where you were able to pitch your novel to a group of agents, but you only had three minutes with each. I did well during my pitches and generated interest from all but a couple of the agents with whom I spoke. However, during Thrillerfest, I also attended three days of classes taught by some of biggest authors in the world. It was at this point that I realized my book wasn’t ready for primetime, and I still had a lot of work ahead of me. I also made a lot of new friends and contacts within the publishing industry, and one of them referred me onto a man named Lou Aronica.

The funny thing is that Lou had been the head of several of the big publishing houses, and while heading Bantam Spectra, he was the guy that came up with the idea of having Star Wars books (the same books that got me into reading). It all felt very serendipitous, so I began working with Lou to take my work to the next level. But Lou wasn’t finished with me yet. He also loved my book so much that he referred me onto my agent, Danny Baror – a man who represents some of the biggest authors in the world. Then, a few months later, Lou contacted me about a new undertaking. He had decided to start a new publishing imprint that was going to be invitation only. He asked if I would want to be one of the first authors to be published under this new imprint. I was, of course, excited to continue working with Lou and accepted. Since then, I’ve signed on with Random House in the UK and have deals in several other countries as well including Germany, Russia, Italy, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, the Czech Republic, etc.

What was the inspiration for The Prophet?

With The Prophet, I wanted to touch on the world of doomsday cults and the abuse of power wielded by the charismatic leaders of such groups but also on the impact of abuse and how the sins of the parents affect their children. Throw in some gun fights and explosions, and you’ve got yourself a story!

How did it feel to have your first book published?

It was an incredibly satisfying experience, and everyone has been very supportive as I’ve followed this once crazy dream. But I often feel that I still haven’t “made it,” that I’m still not a real writer – even though I write full-time, have been published in several languages, and hit several bestseller lists. The writer’s life is truly a roller coaster ride, but for me, it’s also a dream come true.

Do you write books for a specific genre?

I write crime thrillers. I’m not sure where my fascination first stemmed, but I can say with almost one hundred percent certainty that I’ve never read a fictional book where no one was killed or no crime was committed. It sounds pretty morbid when I read those words, but honestly, I think it all comes back to what’s at stake. The more that’s at stake, the higher the level of excitement and tension. My goal with writing is to create a book that I would want to read, and crime/action thrillers are the type of books that excite me because they have the highest stakes.

What genres are your favorite(s)? What are some of your favorite books that you have read and why?

I enjoy any book that’s action-packed, regardless of genre, and I’ve been known to read three or four books in a week. I love David Morrell, James Rollins, Lee Child, F. Paul Wilson, Dean Koontz, Jeffery Deaver, James Patterson, Douglas Preston, Clive Cussler, and many, many more.

Do you have a special “spot/area” where you like to do your writing?

I mainly write on a laptop while sitting in a brown reclining chair in my office

How do you come up with the ideas that become the storyline for your books?

I typically start by just thinking of everything I want to happen in the book (character moments, action sequences, etc). Then I begin to fit those pieces together. I have a dry-erase board and a cork board in my office as well. I brainstorm on the dry-erase and then begin lining up notecards on the cork board. These cards contain just enough info to let me know the linear progression of the book and how the pieces fit together. Then I craft an outline.

I’m an obsessive outliner. For The Prophet, I wrote a 170-page outline that went through two major drafts with feedback from my editors. This outline contains pretty much everything that’s going to happen in the book, even thoughts, research, and snippets of dialogue.

But for me, that’s the hard part. Once that’s done and the “writing” begins, things flow, and I’m able to focus on the intricacies. After the outline was done, I wrote the 125,000 words of the book in about a month and a half.

What aspects of storytelling do you like the best, and what aspects do you struggle with the most?

One of the most exciting parts of being a writer is having the opportunity to experience new things, meet interesting people, and travel to fascinating new places. This is, of course, done in the name of research. We’ve all heard the expression “write what you know,” but I believe that it’s actually closer to “write what you want to know.” Through that kind of thinking, a writer can enrich their life and broaden their horizons while also taking their readers to places that they never knew they wanted to go.

Writing novels has been one of the most rewarding adventures of my life, but it’s also the hardest job that I’ve ever undertaken. Creating a book is a labor of love. I’ve worked in several different places and companies doing work ranging from computer programming to roofing and construction work. The job of “author” is the most challenging position that I’ve ever held.

Don’t misunderstand me, I love telling stories, and it’s a dream come true to be able to do so on a full-time basis. However, there’s a lot more that goes into writing than having a good idea and sitting down at a computer. There are countless levels of revision and editing that need to take place. There are marketing issues that must be addressed. There are endless anxieties over everything from sales to word usage to grammar mistakes.

And then comes the worst part…you have to contend with online reviews coming from sites like Amazon. For the most part, I’ve been blessed to have great reviews, but I’m also cursed by an obsessive personality and a true drive to create something that my readers will enjoy and love. This means that positive reviews make me smile and breathe a sigh of relief, but negative reviews truly haunt me. I’ve literally lost sleep over those reviews. The authors of these character executions seem to not realize that the book they read in a few hours took thousands of hours of hard work to create.

And even after all of the work, there are no guarantees. No one can predict what books will sell and which ones won’t, and all that a writer can really do is to produce the best book they can and hope that it is well-received. So far in my career, I’ve had a few stumbles but have also enjoyed great success. My goal is to make every book that I write the best book I’ve ever written and continue to grow as an author and storyteller. Hopefully, this will show through in my work, and I’ll have the opportunity to live my dream for many years to come.

What are your favorite things to do when you are not writing?

I’m a huge movie buff. My wife and I religiously have date night every week and take in a movie. And if I’m not writing or watching a cool story, I’m probably reading one.

What is/was the best piece of writing advice that you have received?

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” – Stephen King. I think this sums it up. You can learn more on the craft of writing by reading great writers than by sitting in any classroom or attending any conference.

What is the most gratifying thing you feel or get as a writer?

I think the best thing about being a writer is the act of creation. I’m happiest when I’m enjoying someone else’s creation or bringing one of my own into existence. Forging something new from nothing using only your imagination is a very therapeutic and fulfilling experience.

How do you usually communicate with your readers/fans?

I’m available through my website, Facebook, and Twitter. I try very hard to personally respond to every question and comment from my readers and love hearing from them.

Is there anything in your book based on real life experiences or are they purely all from your imagination?

Many of the places/details are based upon real locations/events/technology (and I do a ton of research), but for the most part, the stories told in my books come purely from my imagination.

What is your definition of success as a writer?

I’m an ambitious dreamer, and so I probably won’t feel like I’ve “made it” until I hit number one on the New York Times list, have a hit movie based on my work, and have won every award out there. And I probably still won’t feel like my work is done if I reach that point. But if I’m honest with myself, being able to support my family by telling stories that people enjoy means that I’ve achieved great success.

Are you currently writing a new book? If yes, would you care to share a bit of it with us?

I’m currently working on a new series that will feature a special investigator for the Defense Criminal Investigative Service…who’s also blind. It kicks off with the murder of the Commandant of the Marine Corps under very strange circumstances. I’m very excited about this new series, and I think (hope) that readers will be as well.



International bestselling author Ethan Cross is The Story Plant’s Author of the Month, which means we are offering sensational deals on his work. You can read more about the program here.

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On March 20, 2013
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