Hit and Exposed) to the Chandler trilogy. These short novels lead up to the events in Flee, Spree, and Three.
It follows a similar formula to the others in the series; a spy faces impossible odds, nonstop action, sex, and violence ensue. Think a female James Bond, but with a much faster pace.
Ann: I wrote the lion's share of Exposed and Hit, the other two prequels. So Naughty was your turn to do the heavy lifting. What was it like to make bad girl Hammett the heroine of her own story?
Joe: It's a challenge to make a villain into the main protagonist. I did something similar in my Jack Daniels novel Cherry Bomb, where fully half the book was in the killer's point of view. But those scenes were balanced with Jack chasing the bad guy.
Hammett is the bad guy for the trilogy, and the reader should justifiably fear her in Flee, Spree, and Three. But in Naughty, she's the protag. I couldn't make her too heroic, because she's psychotic. But I also couldn't make her too evil, because then the readers would be detached.
So it was a tightrope walk between being too extreme and not extreme enough. Hammett does some terrible things in this story, but she does them to terrible people. Hopefully she's compelling enough to carry the story, and readers will root for her, but then root against her in the later books.
Ann: You've mentioned that Heath is your favorite of all the characters I've created (Hit, Three), and he makes an appearance in Naughty, too. I thought you did a great job. What did you enjoy most about writing him? Least?
Joe: Thanks for the compliment. Heath is a terrific character—a Mexican assassin who is charming, funny, sexy, and very dangerous. I did a Heath scene in Hit (when he and Chandler played blackjack) and wrote some of his lines in Three, but this was the first time I got to do whatever I wanted to with him. Which, predictably, resulted in a shootout and an extended sex scene.
Heath provides some much-needed humor in Naughty, as well as some much-needed heat. It's a lot of fun, as an author, to make the reader feel different things. Fear, joy, surprise, arousal, sadness, laughter. What makes Heath such a great character is that he has an unusual ability to amuse, titillate, shock, and excite, often on the same page. Most characters aren't that versatile.
The only thing I don't like about Heath is that you created him, not me, so I can't write a novel with him as the hero. That would be a lot of fun.
Ann: Naughty also features the other four sisters to Hammett, Chandler, and Fleming; Ludlum, Forsyth, Clancy, and Follett. And we get to see them in action.
Joe: Without spoiling anything for new readers, this series is about a secret government agency called Hydra that trains spies to become super-assassins. I felt like there was a lot of juicy backstory that we didn't get in the novel trilogy, so it was fun to revisit these characters in the prequel trilogy. As a result, they become fleshed-out, and readers learn a lot more about the world they inhabit.
Ann: You've written some sex in our other books, even though readers often assume I wrote it all. In this story, you wrote all the sex, with just a few additions from me. Do you like writing sex scenes? What do you think sex adds to a thriller?
Joe: Sex scenes are really entertaining to write, and I hope my enthusiasm comes through in the final product. But unless you're specifically writing erotica, the sole purpose of which is to arouse, then the sex has to be more than just friction and fluids.
In Naughty, there are two sex scenes, a brief one early on and then one later that's about 2000 words long. They help establish the kind of person Hammett is. They also further the plot and create an internal conflict in Hammett—something that gives her the opportunity to change and grow. A good character is a dynamic one; she has to change as a consequence of the plot.
The longer sex scene was unusual in that the point was competition—both characters are trying to make the other orgasm first. Their competitive nature was established earlier, and this was an obvious, and needed, escalation of that.
As I mentioned earlier, and many times on the blog, stories are way for readers to vicariously and safely experience emotion. I love to make readers laugh. I love to scare readers. I also love to turn readers on.
And I think I'm getting pretty good at it. My secret pen name writes erotica (as many of you have suspected) and those books have been getting great reviews and are selling well.
In thrillers, which are all about quick pacing and suspense and action, sex adds another layer of urgency and playfulness to the story. Reading about Hammett killing bad guys and kicking ass is entertaining, and adding some mind-blowing, over-the-top sex makes her character, and the story, more like the thrill ride it is meant to be.
I've read reviews of the Chandler books—all of which have some hot love scenes in them—from readers who felt the sex wasn't needed. And then they blame you for it, Ann, since you've written thirty romantic suspense novels.
I find these reviews fascinating. People are okay with us torturing someone for information, but consensual sex between two adults makes them upset.
Sex is the reason all of us are here. Sex is one of the most fun things you can do. If you don't like fiction that gets you aroused, there are plenty of other things to read.
Just remember this important point: if you read the sex scene and are offended, blame Ann.
Ann: Whenever I talk to authors who have self-published or are considering it, they overwhelmingly focus on the business end of publishing; namely self-promotion, sales numbers, and reviews. Are those the measures of success we should be focusing on? Shouldn't the actual writing be somewhere on the priority list?
Joe: You and I have talked extensively about this. I've also had similarly long discussions with Blake Crouch.
I wrote a blog post called Quitter Quitter that explained how difficult this business is, how luck plays a huge part, and how there are no guarantees. In the comments, a few writers admitted they were quitting. But the reason why they're quitting is interesting. To paraphrase, they're quitting because they aren't selling well.
This really intrigues me, because I understand it. But it also runs counter to why I became a writer in the first place.
Way back when I was a kid, I wrote for the sheer pleasure of it. I loved making up stories. Then I shared those stories with my very tolerant friends and family, and took pleasure from their enjoyment of my work.
But the end goal was to do this as a job. And once I began to make money, my mindset changed. I began to judge my successes and failures not by how much I liked writing the story, or how much my peers liked it, but instead by how many copies it sold, and how many good reviews it got.
I think most writers fall into this trap—and it is a trap. You go from writing for yourself, to writing for the market. And when the market isn't meeting your expectations, you get frustrated and unhappy.
I'm trying to get back into my original mindset, and write for the sheer joy of it. When I abandoned legacy publishing, I abandoned a lot of the bad stuff associated with it: deadlines, forced edits, word length, bad covers, title changes, lengthy time to publication, book tours, and the biggest one of all; the necessity for my latest book to outsell my previous book or else I'd be dropped.
Now that I self-publish, I no longer have to deal with all of that negative stuff. But I still vary the biggest baggage from those days—I'm still worried about sales. So I've spent a lot of time thinking about how to increase sales, wondering why some sales drop off, trying to figure out some basic rules for selling as many books as possible.
And I learned something profound. NO ONE knows why some books sell and others don't.
Since that's the case, I try to no longer worry about sales. I write what I want to, market to the best of my ability, and then it is out of my hands. Either the book will do well, or it won't.
But if it doesn't do well, so what? I still enjoyed writing it. Maybe it will find an audience next year, or after I'm dead. That's beyond my control. What's within my control is to keep writing.
I'll never stop writing, even if my sales all dry up. I love it too much. And while I treat writing as a business, I refuse to let the business aspect become the reason I write.
Ann: Every time we release a book, we recap what we have coming up. I looked back on a few of those interviews and noticed that we are a bit behind on our promises. For instance, I'm still working on my follow up to Pushed Too Far (now titled Burned Too Hot) and it seems to be taking me forever. Life gets in the way. The rest of the business gets in the way. Any advice on how to balance everything and focus on the writing?
Joe: Heh, you asked me that because you know how chaotic my life is, and how thin I'm spreading myself.
The chaos is self-inflicted, and having too many things to do is a quality problem to have. I'd certainly never complain that I have too much to do.
My ever-present goal is to stay on top of things as they pile up, so I'm never overwhelmed by them. I wish I could work faster and get more done, but I'm only one person and things take as long as they take. Lately, I'm trying to focus on one project at a time, get it done, and immediately jump onto the next project. I've got 14 more Jack Daniels collaborations to edit and release, and I apologize to all those writers whose stories I've accepted, because it's taking longer than I want it to. But when I do get to your story, it will have my full attention, and the end result will be worth the wait.
I don't believe in balance. I equate it with complacency. So instead, I bite off more than I can chew to see if I can handle it. That way, I'm constantly trying to do more, to get better. If my life were balanced, I wouldn't be challenging myself, and I think that taking on more and more is one of the reasons I'm successful.
Ann: So what do you have coming up?
Joe: I hope to get a dozen Jack Daniels collaboration stories up by the end of the year, including a novel I'm doing with Blake Crouch to wrap up the Luther Kite/ Lucy & Donaldson saga. In 2014, I'm going to write a sequel to Origin, the third Timecaster novel, and perhaps the fourth Chandler novel.
Ann: The Codename: Chandler series can be read in any order, and it isn't necessary to read everything to enjoy any story by itself. But if you're a reader who digs reading in chronological order, it goes:
Flee, Spree, and Three all take place in the same week, and Hit, Exposed, and Naughty take place prior to that trilogy.
The prequels can also be read after the trilogy, as the prequels might contain some minor spoilers. If you don't like spoilers, read them as:
Joe: They can also be read alphabetically, but I can't think of a single advantage to that. But if you're OCD, go for it. And when you're finished, come over to my house and organize my sock drawer.
Ann: Soon we'll release a paper edition of the three prequels, along with an ebook box set. The three novels are also available as a collection. What is the advantage of offering box sets?
Joe: The more virtual shelf space you have, the likelier you are at being discovered. So make your novels into box sets, release shorts singly and as collections, and join forces with other authors to exchange fans.
I've noticed that certain readers tend to buy at certain price points. Some may not think anything less than $9.99 is worthwhile, so make sure you have ebooks available at that price. Some don't ever want to spend more than 99 cents, so make sure you have ebooks in that range too.
The goal is to have so many titles available, at some many different prices, that you have something to offer every reader. That's one of the reasons why I hop around in different genres. Besides being fun, it also lets me reach readers who aren't interested in my other work.
Ann: I also want to mention that Flee, Spree, and Three are only $2.00 each for the month of October, so now's a good time to grab them. And check out Hammett's story in Naughty. It's only $2.99.