As Good As You Possibly Can: James O. Born on Novel Writing

Florida novelist James O. Born has served as both a U. S. Drug Agent and as a State Law Enforcement Officer.  Over the years, Born spent many “dead” hours on surveillance reading books.  Also in his capacity as a law enforcement officer, Born met the iconic crime writer Elmore Leonard for whom he provided technical assistance.  The reading, the work with Leonard, and a growing discomfort with how storytellers misrepresented law enforcement in fiction all gelled with a desire to write. 


After nearly half a dozen crime novels, including Burn Zone and Walking Money, Born has branched out to write science fiction novels under the pen-name James O’Neal.  The O’Neal books include The Human Disguise and The Double Human, both of which are set in a post-apocalyptic, near-future Miami, FL. 


For more on Born’s double life as police officer and novelist check out “Kicked in the Head: Writing Advice from James O. Born.James O’Neal.” 


Meanwhile, Born talks below about writing novels.


What do you enjoy most about writing?


James O. Born:  I have to stay busy.  All the time.  I love having projects stretching out in front of me and being able to accomplish them on my own schedule.  I like to think about my characters or the story while I’m doing other things like swimming or supposedly paying attention to my wife.


Where do you usually start with a novel?


James O. Born:  I always have a general idea of the beginning and end.  Usually, a good ending first.  The challenge is to keep the reader engaged in between.  I rely a lot on the comments I’ve heard and things I’ve seen as a career police officer.  My background also allows me to let the stories unfold in a realistic and reasonable manner without having to do much research.


I often come up with another novel idea while I’m working on a book.  I will immediately start making notes on the next story so that by the time I’m done working on the current novel can jump right into the next story if I’m not exhausted.


Sometimes the story will be based on something I read about or seen at work but there’s never enough material for an entire novel.  Like any writer I love to ask, “what if?”


What are some of the major pitfalls a beginning writer (and even experienced writers) ought to look out for in the early stages?


James O. Born:  This answer has a default response for me over the past few years.  First and foremost a writer must love to write.  A writer must not confuse the art of writing with the business of publishing.  I find too many unpublished writers focused almost solely on getting published rather than improving their writing.


I teach at a number of writing conferences across the country and one thing I always notice is how many people attend panels on how to get an agent or what editors expect rather than classes on building suspense or creating deeper characters.  I do not fault anyone for learning everything they can about publishing.  I will admit that I am still somewhat uneducated about the industry.  That is why I have an agent that I can trust and I expect her to handle all publishing issues. 


I respect the unpublished writers who want to make their novels as good as they possibly can.  They seem to invariably be the people who also love to write as opposed to the people who just want to be published.


The biggest pitfall to any writer is not understanding exactly why you’re writing.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  He is the Staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.