Do you ever wonder how writers get their start? How do you go from scribbling ideas in a notebook to becoming a bestselling author? Come with me on a journey of discovery to learn more about local author (and my son!) Don Bentley. Don is the New York Times bestselling author of eight books including the Matt Drake thriller series (Forgotten War, Hostile Intent, The Outside Man, Without Sanction), the Tom Clancy Jack Ryan, Jr. series (Weapons Grade, Flash Point, Zero Hour, Target Acquired), and the Vince Flynn Mitch Rapp series (beginning in 2024).
When Don was young, we lived in Reading and then moved to West Chester, Ohio where he graduated from Lakota High School in 1992. Before becoming a writer, he spent a decade as an Army Apache helicopter pilot. Following his time in the military, Don worked as a FBI Special Agent and was a member of the Dallas Office Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. He now lives with his family in Round Rock, outside of Austin, TX.
As Don’s mom, it’s been a joy and a pleasure to watch his journey of success, so I thought I’d take some time to get his perspective on what it’s been like to build a writing career. Here are some of his secrets to living the writing dream:
When did it first occur to you that you might want to be a writer?
I remember watching a Star Trek movie with my dad when I was in the third grade. When the movie ended, I sat there thinking of how the movie could have ended better. Over time, I realized I loved storytelling. When I was a senior in high school, my English teacher gave us an assignment to write a short story. She was so impressed with what I wrote, she told me I should try to get it published—and that I had the talent to make a living as a writer.
How do you get story ideas?
When I am preparing to write a book, I settle on an idea that can both bear the weight of a novel and hold my attention for the year or so it takes to write the first draft. I read a lot of current events and technical-centered publications and when something catches my eye, I throw it into an email folder titled “research.” Every so often I sift through the folder to see if will fit into my current writing project. Other ideas come to me randomly. While I’m working on a novel, I keep a notebook full of running ideas/plot threads that I frequently reference. Many of these bits of inspiration find their way into the final book.
Are any of your characters in your stories based on people in your life?
Yes! When my debut novel, Without Sanction, was released, an interviewer asked me if I was my protagonist, Matt Drake. I assured her that while I was most certainly not, I had stood in the same room with men who could be. Before becoming a full-time writer, I spent most of my career working with customers in the special operations and intelligence communities. Many of these folks became inspirations for characters.
After writing three books that did not sell, how did it feel to get your first book deal?
Surreal. My first three books took 17 years to write and garnered me hundreds of rejections. By the time I sat down to write the book that would become Without Sanction, I’d almost given up hope of ever getting published. After agreeing to represent me, my agent at the time gave me a number of insightful revision ideas which took me several months to complete. Once we both decided the novel was ready for submission, she took it out to publishers and sold it within 7 days. My writing career went from 17 years of failure to success in just 7 days.
Most people are not aware of what is involved in getting a book published. Can you describe the process? How long does it take?
Getting published traditionally is a long road populated by countless opportunities for disappointment. After completing a novel, your next step is to query a literary agent. Most traditional publishers only accept submissions from an agent, so landing a good one plays a huge role in your future success. Once you decide on an agent, he or she will probably have thoughts on how to revise your book to make it more attractive to a publisher. After the two of you agree that your book is the very best you can collectively make it, your agent takes your book out to publishers. This is known as being “out on submission” and it is incredibly stressful. The process might last as short as a day or two or as long as a year.
After a publisher makes an offer on your book and your agent successfully negotiates the deal, you will be assigned an editor from that publisher. You and your new editor will make more revisions on your book until you both agree that it is the very best you can make it. During this process, your book will go through copy edits as well as a final editing called “first pass pages.” Publication times vary, but it typically takes at least a year from the date your publisher acquired it. For me, this meant that Without Sanction appeared on shelves about 18 months after my publisher bought it and probably 3 years or so from when I started writing the novel. However, this process happens much more quickly if you’re writing an established series for a publisher. For instance, Weapons Grade, my final Tom Clancy novel, went from an idea in my head to a book on a shelf in a little less than a year.
If I remember correctly, you read Tom Clancy’s books in high school. Did you ever dream you’d be writing for his foundation?
Never. Red Storm Rising was my first Clancy book and there’s a particular scene in that masterpiece which features an F-14 Tomcat strafing a Russian freighter. Clancy had a way of making fiction seem like reality and I remember feeling as if I was the one sitting in that fighter’s cockpit. Clancy, more than any other writer, drew me to the military-thriller/techno-thriller genre, but I never in a million years would have believed that one day I’d be lucky enough to continue his legacy.
What advice do you have for potential writers?
To succeed in commercial fiction, you have to read a lot and write a lot. When someone asks me for writing advice, I always ask them the same question: If your book was published tomorrow, what are the three best sellers in the same genre your novel would be shelved beside? If they can’t answer that question, it’s a big red flag for me. As a writer of commercial fiction, you are crafting a specific product for a specific customer. Folks who buy romance books have different expectations than someone who buys a military thriller. If you want to write genre fiction, you must know the conventions of your chosen genre and you only gain that knowledge by reading.
You can find out more about Don Bentley on his website: www.donbentleybooks.com or follow him @bentleydonb on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.