Despite being one of Australia’s best-known non-fiction authors, JAMES PHELPS dropped back to rookie writer gear when creating his first action-thriller hero: Riley Jax, The Inside Man.
Before I built him, I broke him. Utterly and completely. Think about the worst thing that could happen to a young man in prison. Yes. THAT. Well that was just the start of Riley Jax’s trip to hell.
Unlike James Bond, Jack Ryan and every other action hero that has been created since, Riley Jax does not learn his craft at spy school. No. It isn’t the military or a government agency that teaches him how to fight and lie, to shoot, stab and steal — he learns all his skills simply to survive prison.
Anyway, enough on that. I can’t tell you too much or you won’t have to buy the book. Rather than ruin the plot — and it is a screamer of course — I thought I would tell you about why and how the book was written.
Firstly to the why, which is an easy one. I wrote the book because I love fiction. While I have written ten non-fiction books — some of them good, apparently — it has always been my dream to write fiction. But that dream was put on the backburner, mostly because my non-fiction books kept on selling, until HarperCollins offered me a two-book deal to write fiction without so much as receiving a pitch. Yes. I thought they were completely crazy too.
Anyway there were only three stipulations. The first was that it had to be an action thriller, the second was that I had to create an action hero that could sustain a series, and the third was that it had to be set in an Australian prison.
“Give me a pen,” I said. “Where do I sign?”
I thought writing an action thriller would be relatively easy given I am now a veteran journalist and an established author of non-fiction.
I was wrong.
While I was under no illusion that forming character arcs and plots would be a challenge after agreeing to create an Aussie Jason Bourne, I thought my experiences as author and reporter would make the rest fairly straight forward.
Writing is writing. Right?
Ever heard of a second-person point of view? Well, I hadn’t. While I knew about first person, which is when the writer speaks from a character’s point of view with “I”; and I knew about third person, which is “he”. I had never heard of second person. I started going through my rather large collection of fiction. They were all written in “I” and “He”. What could this mystery second-person be? I couldn’t think of another POV other than I or He.
“Ah Choose Your Own Adventure,” I muttered when I finally found a book that used “You” instead of “I” or “He”.
“Why would anyone use ‘You’?” I thought. “And why do I still have a book that I read in Year 4?”
I quickly dismissed using second person — but kept the tattered book — and settled on third person. And that’s when things got complicated. While I had often written in third person – both in newspapers and books — I wasn’t aware that third-person POV was in fact complicated and contained numerous subcategories. That third person could be limited, objective, and omniscient. That sometimes they could be both, like limited omniscient, a seemingly impossible contradiction that is actually a thing.
Not even my non-fiction book writing experience helped. It actually hindered. Turns out I had developed a taste for getting all knowing and godly. For being omniscient, which is revealing facts that the character could not know and interjecting with a “godlike” voice. Losing that superpower was tough.
I soon found out that most first-time fiction authors write in first person. One voice. One tone. No divine temptation.
POV wasn’t my only challenge.
I realised I had developed a habit of writing all the best action first, which shouldn’t have been a surprise given all my news reporting. After 16-years of 550-word leads, I would instinctively write top-to-bottom, best-to-worst, attempt to tell the story in a ten-word intro. I have never heard an editor say, “Take your time, let it run. Give me 100,000 words.”
Having always considered myself a storyteller first, writer and reporter second, I found the plots and plans, the twists and turns, and the general narrative came relatively easy. Almost naturally.
I did however have to work hard on all the dialogue and finding a unique and memorable voice for each and every one of the characters in the book.
So, back to the plot.
My story starts and ends in a prison. In between, a young man becomes a monster. Our monster. And he would kick Jason Bourne’s arse.
That’s all you get. We will talk again after you read the book.
The Inside Man by James Phelps, published by HarperCollins Australia, is on sale now. Our new Book of the Month is Campbell Mattinson’s We Were Not Men. Head to Bootopia and enter code ‘CAMPBELL’ at checkout to receive 30% off the RRP of $32.99. And visit the Sunday Book Club group on Facebook.