If you are even a casual reader of this site, you know that I am passionate about reading and books. Though we usually feature non-fiction on this site, I am often found lost in a book of fiction and most often thrillers.
My friend John David Mann sent me an early copy of Steel Fear and I made the mistake of picking it up way too late in the day. It’s one of those books that pulls you in and somehow sticks to your fingers, refusing to let you put it down. Read it and you’ll see why the early reviews by some of the biggest thriller writers are glowingly positive.
John shares some unique perspectives and advice in my discussion with him. We talk about everything from lessons for leaders hidden in fiction to advice for writers. As someone whose books have sold more than 3 million copies in 3 dozen languages, including the bestselling classic THE GO-GIVER with Bob Burg, the New York Times bestselling memoir THE RED CIRCLE with former Navy SEAL Brandon Webb, and the New York Times bestselling parable THE LATTE FACTOR with personal finance legend David Bach, you will enjoy his perspective.
John, let’s start in an unexpected place for the author of a phenomenal new thriller. We share a passion for music. You are a cellist and I’d like to start by exploring the impact of music on your writing.
I can’t overstate it. Music is my first language, the machine code of my operating system. When asked what advice I’d give aspiring writers I invariably say, “Read great writing,” because reading is the inhale to writing’s exhale. But now that you asked, I think I’ll start adding, “…And listen to great music!”
I think effective writing — whether you’re writing a novel, a how-to book, a LinkedIn post, or an email — works on several levels at once. There’s the meaning of the words and sentences, the specifics of the content. Underneath that is the music — the rhythm, pacing, tempo, and texture. The actual sounds of the words. And the larger musical structure of it, too, the sequences and variations, the alternation of lyrical and rhythmic, modes and keys, the way early themes come back toward the end with an entirely new meaning … I don’t always think about this stuff consciously, but it’s always there, guiding everything from specific word choices to the overall direction of the thing.
I had an agent once caution me that all the chapters in a given book should be about the same length. Really? Yann Martel sure didn’t do that in Life of Pi. Paulo Coelho didn’t do that in The Alchemist. And those worked out pretty well. Chapters are like paragraphs, or sentences: some may be short, some long; the variation of pacing, of phrasing, of crescendo and decrescendo, all has its own meaning and impact.
In The Go-Giver, the first chapter is called “The Go-Getter” and the last chapter is called “The Go-Giver.” That’s a musical choice as much as a semantic one. The longest chapter is 3,200 words; the shortest is 600. That’s a musical choice. In The Go-Giver Influencer, the first two chapters both open with a paragraph consisting of a single sentence; both sentences are exactly eleven words long. That’s not an accident — it’s a kind of rhythmic rhyming. The book is all about finding common ground between people who seem opposed to one another; those two opening chapters are about two characters on opposite sides of a tough negotiation, and the rhythmic rhyming is a way of showing that they have a great deal more in common than they think. I don’t think there’s a reader on the planet who will notice that consciously — but it’s all part of the composition.
Though this site most often features non-fiction, I escape into a thriller whenever I can. Steel Fear delivers, one of the few books that should come with a sleep deprivation warning on the cover. It’s a very different book for you writing about serial killers on board a navy ship. How did your writing style and method change to pull this off?
Speaking of rhythm and music, for Steel Fear I decided early on to go with very short chapters — the shortest is 20 words long! There are 150 chapters, with an average length of under 700 words. The big challenge was to maintain a high level of suspense and concentration for over 400 pages — to spin out a barn-burner of a mystery that would play out for 100,000 words without losing the reader for even a moment.
Steel Fear was the most demanding writing I’ve ever done. It forced me to embrace an extreme economy of words. In the process I learned more than I thought possible about how to strip away the superfluous and inessential. There were passages (in fact, entire chapters) that I deeply loved, in some cases where I thought I’d done my best writing — that had to go. Because they didn’t serve the story. Ultimately, they didn’t serve the reader
A thriller is all about the reader. It’s right there in the term: “thriller.” Well, who’s getting thrilled here? When you write a “memoir” … aha! The term is again a giveaway. Whose memories? Who is doing the remembering? The writer. I’ve ghost-written or co-written a handful of memoirs, and I certainly hope they resonate with readers and serve them well, but ultimately they are about the author. A thriller is all about the reader.
Speaking of your personal history, your co-author, Brandon, and you have written numerous books together. Brandon had two radically different experiences on board two ships. Would you share this story?
This came in the first book we wrote together, The Red Circle, which traced Brandon’s story from childhood through SEAL training, deployment in Afghanistan, leading and revamping the SEAL sniper course, and exiting to the private sector.
All fascinating stuff. But there was one story in the middle that most caught my interest. It was probably the single story that most connected the two of us, and here we are, seven books later, still a writing team. The upshot:
Very early in his Navy career, before his SEAL days, Brandon did a six-month tour in the Western Pacific as a helicopter sonar operator and rescue swimmer on the USS Abraham Lincoln. Super-modern, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, exciting, hot stuff. Right? It was miserable. Terrible morale, place not well kept, people got sick. Brandon came within inches of dying in a near-crash over the Persian Gulf, when a helo he was crewing nearly went down — pure pilot error: the pilot lost his bearings and panicked.
On that WestPac, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.
Time goes by. He’s booked for a second WestPac, this time on the Kitty Hawk, the oldest carrier in the navy. Pre-nuclear, an oil burner. Falling apart. Sailors privately call it “the Shitty Kitty.” And Brandon figures, Oh no, if life on the Lincoln was miserable, this is gonna be sheer torture.
It was the opposite. Six incredible, inspiring months.
What made the difference? Just one thing: the leadership.
On the Kitty Hawk, the captain got on the 1MC (PA system) every morning with a “GOOD MORNING, KITTY HAWK — IT’S ANOTHER PHENOMENAL DAY AT SEA!” and gave a 10-minute talk, report, and homily. Brought everyone up to date on where they were sailing and why. Addressed complaints and issues. Singled out one crew for praise. Inspired them all, down to the last man and woman on board. And then they all got on with their day.
On the Lincoln, the captain never showed up. Not once. It was a complete abdication of leadership. And just as the great Kitty Hawk captain’s leadership spilled over everywhere, creating excellence and good will throughout the ship, so did the terrible Lincoln captain’s leadership, infecting the entire place with its mediocrity. The natural result? Entropy. Chaos. And a miserable six months.
And Brandon’s experience on board also is where the storyline started for this new book. Tell us a little about that.
On the Lincoln (the first deployment, the one with the terrible leadership), a series of bizarre and terrible events occurred. This was 1995, when women had just started being integrated onto naval ships in combat roles, so it was an enormous culture shift. There was a serial sexual predator on board. This guy would sneak up to the women’s showers, reach his hand in the door, switch off the lights, then run in and grab someone. It never escalated to outright rape or physical harm, but it was plenty enough to creep everyone out and create a kind of terror.
The leadership was completely incapable of handling the situation, and the man was never caught, nor even identified. (For all we know, he’s still out there, doing bad things.)
At the time, Brandon thought, “What if these were murders?” — and that planted the seed for Steel Fear.
Talk a little about some of the leadership lessons masked in fiction in this book.
It’s curious how this worked out — we told that story of the two captains in The Red Circle, and it’s turned out to be an underlying theme that has shown up in everything we’ve done together since.
I’ve been fascinated with leadership all my life. My dad was a great choral conductor, one of the most explicit examples of a “follow the leader” profession I can think of. I’ve coauthored a bunch of books on leadership. When I led a team of 100,000 in a direct sales operation, I called my newsletter “The Leadership Letter.”
In Steel Fear we took the whole idea of leadership great and terrible to another level. Here’s how the hero, Finn, describes his own take on the topic:
“Finn had encountered two types of leaders in the military. There were those who grew to fill the high positions they were given. Who became bigger versions of themselves and used their elevated standing to protect the weak. And there were those who used the position to arrogate power to themselves. Who became smaller versions of themselves. Small men in high places.”
In the thriller — which takes place on the very same USS Abraham Lincoln as the actual ship of Brandon’s first WestPac — there is a serial killer who casts a pall of terror over the entire ship. The plot of the book revolves around the questions, what exactly is happening, how is it happening, and who is doing it?
But to me there’s a more fascinating underlying question: What allows such a thing to happen?
What causes morale at one business to suffer, while at a parallel business everyone is enthusiastic and full of energy? What causes one organization, one community, one congregation to thrive and spread positivity to everyone it touches while another similar organization descends into unhappy chaos?
In Steel Fear the serial killer exists and is allowed to flourish because of a terrible captain who generates a terrible on-board culture. It’s akin to a weakened immune system that opens the host organism up to invasion and infection. In the story, the ship’s AC system goes on the blink. The lights stop working properly. A food-borne bacterial illness spreads through the crew. And, of course, people start dying in terrible ways.
But there are really two villains here: the actual killer, and the small-minded, fragile-egoed captain whose failed leadership creates the context for evil to take root and flourish.
Small men in high places.
Yes, it’s a whodunit, a thriller, a locked-room mystery with 6,000 suspects — but at its heart, it’s a leadership parable. It looks at what kind of impact does the quality of leadership have, how deep and far-reaching are the results?
And for me the answer is: incalculably enormous, reaching into every aspect of the community’s behavior and out to the furthest stretches of the galaxy.
You also co-write books with my friend, Bob Burg. Would you share a little about the Go-Giver with those who don’t know about it?
Haha! I love that hairpin turn. Because, certainly on the surface, the gentle, sweet, short little stories of the Go-Giver series are about as opposite as it gets from the sprawling, complex murder mystery of Steel Fear.
The Go-Giver is a parable about how shifting one’s focus from “what’s in it for me” to “what can I do, what can I offer, to improve the other person’s experience?” — from a me-focus to an other-focus — is not only a noble and satisfying perspective, it’s also quite pragmatic. Genuinely put other people’s interests first, approach life with a spirit of generosity, and you end up doing well for yourself, too.
There are more in the series; we also co-wrote a Go-Giver book on sales, one on leadership, one on influence, and I’ve got one more (co-written with my wife!) coming out next spring on marriage and relationships. The books have a wonderful community of readers and evangelists all over the world. It’s a lovely universe to write in — very different from the morose, claustrophobic, terrifying environment of Finn’s adventures on the Lincoln!
Yet even so, the stories themselves feel similar to me. They are both about a shift in focus, and the implications and ramifications your own attitudes and perspectives have on the people around you. And they are both, ultimately, about a triumph of the human spirit.
This passage Bob and I wrote toward the end of Go-Givers Sell More could fairly easily have been transplanted onto the deck of the Lincoln and dropped into the thoughts, say, of Master Chief Jackson, one of the novel’s principal characters:
“The world can be a large and daunting place, at turns lonely and intimidating, brutal and perplexing. It is easy for us frail humans to feel jaded, burned and embittered. Painful things happen. Deaths and betrayals, losses and failures, wounds and disappointments… These losses and failures have deep value. They have helped make you who you are, and they have given you greater depth, compassion and understanding. The key is to embrace those experiences and, rather than letting them diminish your sense of trust in the world, let them deepen that trust. Yes, those things happened, and yet here you are, and a richer person for it.”
John, what advice do you have for those who want to emulate your incredible writing success?
First, understand that writing is a practice. You practice it. That means, just as you would if you wanted to learn to figure skate, or play the violin, or speak German, you spend time doing it every day. Practically speaking, at least an hour. When I was a practicing cellist, I played at least an hour a day, often three or four or more. But even if you have an enormously busy life and very little discretionary time, if you aspire to write, then you ideally want to be doing some writing for at least an hour a day. (Even a half hour, if that’s all you can manage!)
Second, make the decision that you’re going to split that time into two totally different activities: drafting, and evaluating/revising. Trying to improve something you’re writing while you’re in the process of first getting it down on the page is what smothers most writers in the cradle. When you write, write with abandon. But don’t send it out — yet. (Good advice for emails, by the way.) Later — later that day, tomorrow, next week, however long it takes to gain emotional distance — then go back and evaluate it. Improve it. Revise it. Rewrite it.
Respect the fact that these are two completely different mindsets — writing and revising — and don’t mix them.
Commit to making your writing better. Believe that you have something to say and that the original impulse that drives you to the page is a good one — and accept the fact that the first time you write it down it is likely to be, um, imperfect? (I’m trying not to say “terrible.”) The best writing starts out as drivel. That’s okay. That’s normal. My most successful book to date, The Go-Giver, was honestly pretty bad in its first draft. In my book How to Write Good (Or At Least, Gooder) I spend an entire chapter on the first page of that fairly terrible first Go-Giver draft and everything we did to turn into the version that went on to sell over a million copies. We all write terrible copy. The key is where you go from there.
Read. A lot. And don’t read mediocre stuff. Read great writing. Whatever genre you like. Soak it up. Let its minerals and phytonutrients and carbohydrates and proteins nourish your brain cells. You can’t write if you don’t read, and the quality of what you do read will have enormous implications in the quality of what you write.
Read screenplays. Can’t overstate the value of this. When Bob first approached me about writing The Go-Giver with him, I’d just finished an in-depth screenwriting program with a great teacher, Hal Croasmun, and it had a huge impact on the writing. Great screenplays teach you strong dialogue; they also show you what’s possible with an extreme economy of words. Which is crucial. Most bad writing is bad because it uses too many words. Most good revising involves removing inessential words
When you write a book, the movie is what happens in the reader’s head when they read it. All you have control over is the consonants, vowels, and punctuation marks on the page. That’s your screenplay. Read great screenplays to see, how did they do that
One last bit: Find an avenue where you can write and publish in short form. By this I mean a blog; a weekly LinkedIn post; a regular opinion column in a local newspaper or organizational newsletter; a bimonthly thought piece you send to a subscribing readership of friends. Whatever the channel, it should be regular (daily is probably too frequent to really work on it, monthly is probably too infrequent to effectively tone your writing muscles; weekly or every other week is perfect), somewhere between 400 and 800 words.
And publish it! That means you have time to revise it, but you can’t keep revising it for a year. You have to finish it. It only counts if other people read it!
This gives you the opportunity to take an idea, flesh it out in words, then revise and hone and polish that little piece of writing as far as you can (on a deadline!), and then give it to the world. Congratulations.
You’re a writer.
More about Steel Fear
The moment Navy SEAL sniper Finn sets foot on the USS Abraham Lincoln to hitch a ride home from the Persian Gulf, it’s clear something is deeply wrong. Leadership is weak. Morale is low. And when crew members start disappearing one by one, what at first seems like a random string of suicides soon reveals something far more sinister: There’s a serial killer on board. Suspicion falls on Finn, the newcomer to the ship. After all, he’s being sent home in disgrace, recalled from the field under the dark cloud of a mission gone horribly wrong. He’s also a lone wolf, haunted by gaps in his memory and the elusive sense that something he missed may have contributed to civilian deaths on his last assignment. Finding the killer offers a chance at redemption . . . if he can stay alive long enough to prove it isn’t him.
Image Credit: Aaron Burden