“An absolutely amazing thriller! Steel Fear comes in hot and never slows down. Exciting, action-packed, and twisty from stem to stern. This will be one of the hottest books of the summer!” – Brad Thor #1 New York Times bestselling author of Black Ice.
Editor’s Note: The following is an interview of Brandon Webb and John Mann about their new book Steel Fear. It was originally published in Publishers Weekly.
Steel Fear a Thriller
Bestsellers Webb and Mann (Mastering Fear: A Navy SEAL’s Guide) effortlessly transition into fiction with this nail-biter set aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, which is about to leave the Persian Gulf and return to the States. Since a deadly helicopter accident, morale has been low aboard the aircraft carrier. Then a crew member apparently commits suicide by jumping off the ship, followed by a second similar death six days later. Both left typed notes, raising the possibility that a murderer is responsible. Attention focuses on Finn, a Navy SEAL who arrived shortly before the first fatality. Suspecting foul play, Finn investigates, but he’s unsettled by his loss of memory around the times of the fatalities, as well as by his last operation, in which his team failed to stop a terror cell from massacring civilians in Yemen. The authors effectively integrate former Navy SEAL Brandon Webb’s military experiences into the plot, making every detail ring true. That more thrillers are to come from these authors will be welcome news to readers who appreciate carefully plotted and intelligent suspense.
Is that a factor of the branch of the military that would be involved in dealing with such a crime, or mostly the isolated setting?
JDM: Both. By the nature of the beast, the navy is a spit-and-polish operation and discipline on a ship is necessarily high. I’m guessing this kind of incident would be somewhat less of a complete surprise in, say, the army. And the isolated setting is definitely a factor: there’s no NCIS or other investigative body on board; if this had happened portside it’d be a different story.
BTW: The isolated setting and inability to quickly involve the right authorities to help is a major factor that makes it unique to the US Navy.
Note: This interview was originally conducted for Publishers Weekly with Lenny Picker. These were the unused Q&A that John and I picked up from the cutting room floor. They have been published for the first time here for the SOFREP community. Enjoy. You can read Lenny’s interview here.
The initial plot idea came to Mr. Webb about 25 years ago – to what extent has the story changed from the original concept?
JDM: Quite a lot! The initial story idea was a fantastic set-up, a classic what-if: what if there were a serial killer on an aircraft carrier? But the question was always, okay, then what happens? Once we started active work on the book, there was that whole unknown plot still ahead of us. In the original concept, there was no Finn. Creating the person of Finn was the single biggest catalyst that took us from story idea to actual story.
BTW: I agree with John on Finn, as it’s really a hero’s origin story. I had been writing nonfiction for my site, SOFREP.com, for years and developed my own writing style, and have written a few solo projects. When I started to type away at Steel Fear in my New York apartment I got to a point where I realized I needed someone of John’s caliber to help me finish the book, and I went back to school to learn the craft of writing fiction, very different. While I planted the seeds, John was incredibly important, really helping us develop a strong lead character, and enriching the other characters that were starting to take shape in the book. The whole experience for me was a bit like drinking from a high-pressure fire hydrant but made me a much better writer and much more appreciative of how talented John is. I’m really excited to work with him as a partner on developing this into a strong series for years to come.
Did the identity of the killer (no spoilers!) change?
JDM: The killer’s essential nature was there from the start and that remained unchanged. We even had some pretty substantial back story on this guy that doesn’t appear in the book, but which helped us immensely in the writing. Here’s one big thing that did change, though: in the original idea, we were going to follow the killer all the way through. You knew his identity from the word go. The moment we started actively developing the story we knew we had to throw a tarp over him and keep his identity veiled till the end.
BTW: Again, this is where John’s maturity as a creative writer really helped. Keeping the identity hidden until the end just added to the intensity. Even re-reading this several times, even knowing the denouement, I still could feel the tension and uncertainty as several of the suspects are very compelling.
The lead character?
JDM: In the original story idea Scott was the lead character. There was no Finn. Finn was the missing element, the X factor that gave the story dimension and made it come to life on the page.
Read Next: SOFREP Members Are Cordially Invited….
BTW: I agree with John. Spending time on creating strong characters, lead and supporting, is what brings them to life, and the difference between good and great storytelling. Finn is fantastic because he’s flawed, has holes in his background that create interest, and at the same time everyone can relate to him and what he’s dealing with internally.
Where did the character of Finn come from?
JDM: At first from this simple concept: whatever the popular Hollywood concept of a SEAL might be, we wanted the opposite.
Honestly, there’s a bunch of Brandon there in the mix. I’ve known Brandon for twelve years and know a hell of a lot about his life. (Writing six books together will do that.) I started with some elements from him and blended them with a massive dose of trauma and childhood conflict from another military guy whom I knew second-hand. (Turned out, Brandon knew him, too.) So he’s a composite of real-life attributes wrapped around an anti-concept.
BTW: Nothing more to add!
What made you decide not to give him a last name?
JDM: That decision practically made itself. The name “Finn” is part American orphan-adventure-hero (think Huck Finn) and part lethal danger (think shark fin in the water). And no last name? It’s part of the mystery of his origin. What happened in his childhood? Just who is this guy? It doesn’t seem like even he knows all the answers.
And then there are questions surrounding his brother and parents. Are they alive? Dead? Does it matter?
BTW: I really like this component because it allows the reader to wonder, and I think it’s a great element to allow the reader to fill in some of the gaps themselves.
How did your collaborative process work?
JDM: We do the lion’s share by email and hop on the phone whenever we need to get into something in depth—a scene, a question about SEALs or the military, a plot idea.
When we started Brandon had about 12,000 words’ worth of setup fleshed out, including a few major characters and scenes, plus of course the central idea itself, with the murders at first posed to appear as suicides. (For a while we called our perp “The Suicide Killer” but eventually dropped that.) After he handed that over, I did the heavy lifting in terms of word-by-word, line-by-line drafting. But it was highly collaborative the whole process through.
I like to interact a ton with my coauthor when brainstorming a story, then write “with the door closed,” to borrow Stephen King’s phrase. But with something like a complex thriller, tons of questions and challenges come up. Brandon is the perfect collaborator: he leaves me alone when I’m in the laboratory working on the monster, but he’s always right there and available when I need help to figure out how the arm attaches, or where to find a decent liver, or some other assembly issue.
BTW: John and I have been working together for over a decade and as he said, it’s a very collaborative process, in many ways he’s also been a mentor to me. I’m a much stronger writer because of him and his experience. My strength is on story plot, and Clancy-style attention to detail. John’s heavy-lift on word-by-word and character development was the main reason I reached out to him. As I was 12,000 words deep, I was indeed finding myself spitting up water gasping for air! Dialog, character development were all new to me as a transitioning non-fiction writer. John was a life ring for me, and together we are the secret recipe for what I think will be a hit thriller series for years to come.
Did it differ from the process for the nonfiction book you’d coauthored?
JDM: Other than the complexity of the story and the massive amount of rewriting involved (way more rewriting than in any piece of nonfiction!), the actual collaboration was pretty much identical. We clicked into a great working rhythm with our first book, The Red Circle, and it hasn’t really changed. It just seems to work.
BTW: As I said before, nonfiction I feel very comfortable with. Writing fiction I had to literally go back to school on. I read King’s On Writing, watched a lot of online videos from the masters of storytelling. I believe that your environment plays a huge role in making you better at your craft. I am fortunate enough to have friends like John Mann, Kamal Ravikant and attended a few online communities where I’ve met other great writers like Allan Loeb. All of this has made me both a better writer and collaborator. Let me also mention this, as a business owner and writer, collaboration is very hard and rare. Lots of ego involved and potential for hurt feelings. I greatly appreciate what John and I have together because it’s rare to get it to work.
Were there plot or character developments that you’d initially disagreed about, again, without spoilers, and how did you resolve them?
JDM: Nope. Can’t think of a single point we’ve disagreed on.
BTW: Nothing we disagreed on with each other, just some edits with our amazing agent. We both wanted to keep another 30,000 words!
Mr. Webb, what are the biggest misconceptions the average person has about SEALs?
BTW: That we all look like Arnold from Predator! Most are average-looking externally but an iron will inside.
What makes a SEAL sniper a good choice as a detective?
JDM: As much as we think of snipers as highly trained sharpshooters, which of course they are, they are more predominately highly trained observers. A military sniper is fundamentally an intelligence asset; his skills in reconnaissance are as important as his marksmanship. Maybe more so. You might take a kill shot once in twenty stalks; you observe and bring back critical intel in twenty out of twenty stalks.
BTW: Observation, patience, attention to detail, all key traits and what makes Finn such a great natural detective.
How is the Abraham Lincoln in the book different from the real one, or at least the real one you directly experienced?
JDM: I spent one day on the real Lincoln; Brandon spent six months there — so I’d give his answer more weight than mine! But I’ll say this: We did our best to make the ship 100% accurate (aside from some minor shifts and omissions made intentionally to honor OPSEC). I’d say the big difference is personnel. You only meet a handful of officers and chiefs by name in the book; on the actual Lincoln (as any carrier) the actual management is vast. It really is like a small city, with an equally complex administration.
BTW: I think we made the ship about as real as we could for the reader who isn’t already familiar with the complexities and sheer size of a boat like this. It’s really one of the major concerns I had in the beginning, how do we explain this to the reader in a way that makes sense? It was the biggest challenge we had to overcome, and I think we accomplished it.
As you researched the book, what surprised you the most?
JDM: For me, the environment itself—how vast, intricate, and claustrophobic it is. It’s hard to imagine if you haven’t actually been there. In fact, that was one of the biggest challenges: conveying that sense viscerally to the reader, putting the reader in that world so they would feel it for themselves.
BTW: Nothing to add.
I was especially impressed that minor characters, some who just appear very briefly before they’re killed, come across as real people, enabling their deaths to have an emotional resonance; can you discuss how you managed to imbue them with life even in just a few pages?
JDM: As much as I try to do character sketches before setting out to write, it never quite works; I always discover a whole lot more about characters once they’re in motion and I’m asking myself questions about them as they develop on the page. Often I’ll write a good amount of material that ends up being cut (this happened, for example, with Sam Schofield), but I don’t mind; I’m getting to know the character.
My #1 goal, when I’m drafting, is simple: to write until I fall in love with the character. If I don’t genuinely care about them, then the reader won’t care about them, and if the reader doesn’t care about them, the whole thing falls apart.
BTW: As I stated earlier, what I’ve learned from the greats, John included, is that minor characters’ development is crucial. Too many writers will overlook this and put in plain cardboard placeholders for supporting characters, and this dulls the overall story arc. Spending the time to bring all characters to life is what makes a great story, movie or series.
Finally, I am also impressed at your maintaining a high level of suspense over so many pages – could you elaborate on your method?
JDM: For me it’s a LOT of sketching, trying things out, sketching, erasing, and sketching some more. A draft is like a pencil sketch of what will eventually become an oil painting. At first, I might get no more than general shapes—the oval of the head, the curve of the arm. A horizon, a tree trunk. Monica and Scott have a conversation: what do they talk about? I have no idea; I just know it either brings them closer or drives them further apart. But something happens.
There’s another thing in music: your bass line. You listen to the saxophone or piano riffing all the hell over the place, and it’s amazing and entertaining and transcendent—but the bass line is what’s ushering you into the next chord change. So a scene may have all sorts of material going on in the foreground, dialogue, and atmosphere and color and information and conflict and attitude—but the whole time, it’s going somewhere, that sudden revelation or new question, fresh crisis or dawning realization, that progression of bass notes that grabs you at the end of the chapter and says, “Yeah, but THIS is where we’re going next!”
Sometimes I’ll write a scene and it’s all surface stuff; I don’t even know what the chord change is, so I don’t actually know the point of the scene. But in the sketching process, I’ll eventually hear the chord change and find the bass note. (Either that or delete the scene!)
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