Killer Year–The Class of 2007

Welcome Fellow Debut Thriller Author Karna Small Bodman!
April 10, 2007, 6:47 am
Filed under: KillerYear Friends

I was scheduled to be in the staff car with White House Press Secretary, Jim Brady, on March 30 – the day of the assassination attempt. I was his Deputy at the time. At the last minute, Jim said, “You know, there’s a lot of work to do here, a ton of press calls to return. Why don’t you stay back – I can handle this one alone. It’s no big deal – just a speech to some union group over at the Hilton. I’ll be back around 2:30.” He never came back.

We all know that as Jim and President Reagan walked out, John Hinkley fired 6 shots in 3 seconds, combat style with two hands using a devastation bullet that was supposed to explode inside the victim. It didn’t explode because he was using a smaller gun – a 22. Later, after surgery, we learned, but never announced to the country, that the bullet was lodged one inch from the President’s heart.

That day along with many others will always be seared in my memory and when I sat down to write my first novel, CHECKMATE, I spent a lot of time reflecting on those personal experiences, figuring out that I had a heck of a lot of material for a series of political thrillers. Authors are always asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” Of course, any daily newspaper gives a writer a veritable Petri dish of plot points, but I decided that being there is even better.

After that initial job in the press office, I later became Senior Director of the National Security Council where we were dealing with crises on almost a daily basis…any one of which could be turned into a pretty good thriller: The assassination of Sadat (by Islamic Jihadists!), the attempted assassination of the Pope, the rise of the Greens and anti-nuke parties over our deployment of INF missiles in Europe, the terrorist attack on the cruise ship, “Achille Lauro” and their killing of an innocent American, the shooting down of the Korean jetliner with an American Congressman on board (I used that one in my second novel, GAMBIT, out next winter), the explosion of the space shuttle with the school teacher on board; and then there was the bombing of Libya. Now that was actually the basis of Nelson DeMille’s great story, THE LION’S GAME and when I met him at Book Expo, I told him I had been in the Situation Room the night we bombed Libya, so his book brought it all back to me.

The inspiration for that first thriller, CHECKMATE, was President Reagan’s announcement of his Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”). I did a ton of research and realized that in Reagan’s day, there were 8 countries with the missiles and technology to be a threat to us. Today, there are 30 countries with those capacities – and many are NOT our friends. As George Bernard Shaw said, “The best way to get your point across is to entertain.” So I put together a story about a young woman who works for a defense contractor. She invents a breakthrough technology for a defense against cruise missiles, foreign agents are trying to steal it for their own wars abroad, a National Security Council staffer tries to help her while a lecherous Congressman is more interested in her bod than funding her project (hey, it’s Washington!).

I pitched the book to an editor I met at a writers’ conference. We decided to work together. I got an agent and then began a rather long process of finalizing the manuscript. The editor sat on it for months at a time while she was busy with other projects. Then I would get an email saying, “We need to add some more tension here. Can you kill off a character by page 100?” I couldn’t figure out who to kill off at that point, but I did compress the action down to two weeks and we finally had a deal. But that was okay. I knew that nobody prints a first draft. After all, Tolstoy rewrote Anna Karenina 17 times!

Now I had a published novel, but as all my author friends tell me, writing is about 25% of your life, marketing is 75% and boy, is that ever true. Publishers don’t do much for a new author. Oh, they may negotiate the table space in front of the major bookstores (every inch of space on that “New Release” table is paid-for real estate). Even then, it would only be for about two weeks. Then they may ask you to do a couple of signings in book stores. But, for a first-time author, those can be a monumental waste of time. I mean, there you are sitting at a little table on the first floor – or the 4th floor (!) – of a bookstore, totally dependent on a few strangers happening to amble by and being willing to plunk down $25 for a book by an author they never heard of.

Media exposure would be great, but most radio and TV producers book authors of non-fiction books. They want news hooks. You know – “How I lost 18 pounds in 18 days” or some such. Okay, so I actually have some news hooks with my missile defense story since we currently are deploying missile defense systems around the world as a hedge against North Korea, Iran or any number of rogue groups. But still – it’s a tough sell.

So I decided that having a “captive audience” was the best way to go. I contacted dozens of organizations, alumni groups, libraries, author series, even Republican Clubs (since I could tell Reagan White House stories) and ended up putting together a book tour where I have 72 speeches/events for various groups around the country. Granted, I will be spending a ton of my own money on transportation/hotels because I won’t be reimbursed for most of this. However, I figure I’m building up a “fan base” if I could call it that. And at every speech/signing (yes, I’ve done a few), I have a little “sign up sheet” where I ask people if they’d like to leave their email or home address JUST so I can drop them a note when the sequel comes out. I’ve now got dozens of pages of emails – it’s a start.

Also, I learned that it’s important to attend as many writers conferences as you can and especially get to the International Thriller Writer events (this year’s Thrillerfest is in New York July 12-15 – writers, editors, agents and just plain thriller fans will gather – it’s a total blast!)

Finally, for a debut author — or an old hand at the process – we all are inundated with “interesting requests” along the way – the people who come up to you at a signing, tell you their life story and how it’s SO intriguing, but admitting they can’t write and then saying, “So you write it – we’ll split the profits,” or the woman who sent me an email after one of my speeches saying, “I have a friend here from Mongolia who’s written a book on the Mongolian economy – can you get it published?” (Not quite my genre), or the woman who handed me a huge envelope saying, “When you get a chance, could you please critique this? It’s the first three chapters of my nephew’s novel – he’s 13!” And so it goes.

Now, if you happen to read this and have a question or two – I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a note through my website:


5 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Karna…wow. What a base of material you have to work from. Nothing is better than personal experience and you have it in abundance. I look forward to reading your book, and getting the insiders take on things. Thanks for sharing!

Comment by Brett Battles

Hi, Karna!! So glad things have worked out for you–long time since sharing a drink at Sleuthfest a few years ago, eh??

Comment by CJ Lyons

Karna, thanks so much for gracing Killer Year with your story today. Can’t wait to see you in New York!

Comment by JT Ellison

Wow, Karna, the nerves of steel you’d have to have to do your job without feeling like the world was going to explode any minute from the political tensions… I am impressed, and very eager to read your book now. Hope to see you at ThrillerFest in NY!

Comment by toni mcgee causey

Karna, thanks for the thoughtful post. We’ve all been there…or will be there soon enough. I have a friend who has written a novel, would you mind looking at it?



Comment by Gregg Olsen

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