Monday, July 7, 2014

Wordcraft -- From thrilling life to thrills of books

Taylor Stevens has the life easier to read about than to live: brought up in a nomadic religious cult in countries across the world, she escaped the cult at age twenty-nine and became a New York Times bestselling author of the Vanessa (Michael) Monroe series of thrillers.

Would I have killed bad guys with my bare hands to meet her? Lucky for the bad guys (and me--I’d be liable to develop hangnails if I turned bare-fisted assassin) all it took to see and hear Stevens was a visit to Saturday’s meeting of Dallas Mystery Writers.

After escaping the cult, New York-born Stevens and her husband made their way to the United States, where she became the stay at home mom to their two small children. The cult had pulled her out of school after she finished the sixth grade, and the remainder of her childhood was spent doing unpaid labor for the group, including begging. Except for a few children’s volumes from elementary school, books were virtually unknown to her. Back in the U.S., while her husband worked, she became a stay at home mom to their two children, making additional money by reselling garage sale finds on the internet. And she found out about books, at first, “because I could mark them up so much on eBay.”

From buying and selling books, she started to read them. And discovered Robert Ludlum, whose Bourne series thrillers. “This was the first time I realized how intense an experience reading could be. I wished I could make other people have the experience in reading that I had.”

The catch was, she knew nothing about writing novels. After internet searching, she found the Gotham Writers workshop and books, and began writing. Her first novel, The Informationist, introduced protagonist Vanessa (Michael) Monroe. The book became a New York Times bestseller, followed by The Innocent, The Doll, and this year, The Vessel and The Catch.

Unlike most writers, who start with some idea of plot or character, the initial inspiration for her books was a country. (She has lived in several of the African countries that served as settings.) Then, since “everything in a book has to make sense, I started asking ‘why.’ Why do people go there? What makes them stay?” and more such questions to build the story.

They were questions she could answer, because as she said, “I’ve been in a lot of third world countries. I know what it takes for a single woman to survive in those countries.”

Her goal when she first started writing, she said (in words reminiscent of fellow bestseller Diana Gabaldon) was simply to finish a book. But during the writing, she began to research literary agents.

After studying the examples at the QueryShark site, she developed two query letters and told herself, “I’m not even going to sweat it until I’ve had a hundred rejections. I’d send one (query) version to five agents, wait two weeks, and send the second version to five more agents. By the time I’d sent to twenty agents I was getting requests.”

“I was very much an organic writer when I started,” she said. Now divorced, her need to write to support herself and her children has given her a decidedly businesslike attitude toward publishing. “Since then, I’ve become much more of a plotter. Plotting gives me much more clarity. I sit down and tell myself the story, building it off scenes. If you know what the key scenes are, you can get from place to place.”

Stevens will make two more appearances in the Dallas area this month--July 15 at Barnes & Noble in Frisco’s Stonebriar Center Mall, and July 26 at the Lewisville Public Library. For more about Stevens, her writing and appearances around the state, see

And for more about the QueryShark site Stevens used, see

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