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James Swallow on Maintaining Momentum in a Series

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Shadow, available on August 3rd, is the 4th book in James Swallow’s Marc Dane Series! Since he’s a seasoned series writer, James joined us on the blog to share some writing advice on how to keep ideas fresh and, as he says, “maintain your dramatic momentum across multiple novels”.


By James Swallow

I’d love to say I started writing my Marc Dane action thrillers with a grand plan for an ongoing series, some gigantic conspiracy wall of narrative filled with f-tons of material… But the truth is, back when I sold NOMAD, the first novel of Marc’s adventures, I was just happy to get it published. Sure, I had some thoughts about where to take the characters, and files of half-finished ideas and story seeds – but when it became clear I had a full-blown series on my hands, I realized I was looking down the barrel of a challenge I had never faced before.

My previous writing had all been stand-alones, tie-in fiction or series works with several writers. For the first time, I had to build a coherent narrative on my own that would reward readers who bought in to the whole journey of my characters, and lay in (and pay off) plot threads that would unfold from book to book.

But how do you maintain your dramatic momentum across multiple novels? How does a writer keep the work fresh and interesting, not just for themselves but for their readers?

The first thing I did was go back to the series written by the writers who had inspired me. How did Ian Fleming evolve James Bond? How did Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan grow? What did Robert Ludlum and Eric Van Lustbader do with Jason Bourne? And I looked to the big screen too, to blockbuster franchises like the Fast Saga, the Marvel cinematic universe, Bond movies and the Mission: Impossible movies.

As I write this piece in the late summer of 2021, my third Marc Dane novel GHOST is out in paperback and the fourth book SHADOW is about to release in hardcover across North America. Writing the Marc Dane novels, my goal was to create a fast-paced, tech-savvy espionage thriller for the digital age, set in a post-Snowden, post-WikiLeaks world where private military contractors, agile terror cells and corporations wield as much power as national intelligence agencies.

Marc is an MI6 field operative accused of betraying his country who uncovers a horrific conspiracy. Relying only on his skills and his wits to stay one step ahead of those hunting him, Marc joins up with ex-Special Forces sniper Lucy Keyes and her boss, the enigmatic African billionaire Ekko Solomon, who funds his own private team of vigilante black ops specialists. In each novel I feature a new threat and a key antagonist, but I also evolve the abilities and relationships of my main characters – and the plans of a shadowy cabal of over-arching villains, whose influence is felt throughout all of the books.

The key lessons I learned from experience and from my favorite books and movies came down to six key points:

1: Don’t give it all away at once

You can understand the writer’s urge to put everything they have into the first novel in a series – after all, it might be your only shot, what if it’s not popular and you never get to go the distance? But revealing every last detail of your characters and their world is like filling in all the blank parts of the map. Once you’ve done it, it becomes progressively harder to find new ground to explore.

So keep a few cards in your hand, hold on to a little doubt and uncertainty. Drop hints about unseen, unknown bits of backstory that you can revisit in future books. Set up questions in the mind of the reader that will bring them back for the next installment. But if you do so, make sure you pay it off.

2: Give your characters somewhere to go

If your heroes are the best at what they do right at the start, it will be hard for you to find antagonists who can match them in future stories. Give them space to learn and develop, make them a little fallible, then let them grow.

And this goes for the ‘scale’ of your narrative as well. If Hawaii sinks into the ocean in book one, how do you top that for book 2? Or top the next thing for book 3?

I think of this one as the Predator Rule: back in the 80’s, Arnold Schwarzenegger was the biggest, toughest action hero in movies – so much so that there was no screen villain that audiences would accept as realistic threat to him! So producers literally had to create an inhuman antagonist from another planet in order to present a believable challenge.

3: Hit the reset button

As your characters move through the series, they’ll gather things around them – a home and a family, a great job, a nice car, a heroic reputation – but the savvy author always remembers that all is fleeting.

Growing and evolving characters means giving them things, but it is important to remember those same things can be taken away, by happenstance, by deliberate choice or a tragic turn of events.

Don’t allow your heroes to get too comfortable in their lives. Maybe they’ve worked hard to earn that Ferrari and the penthouse in Monaco – but oh no, someone just blew them up and now they have nothing but the clothes on their backs. And all the cool gadgets and resources your spy agency has on tap mean nothing if you just got a burn notice and your access has been revoked.

4: Shake up the status quo

Point #4 is a direct follow-on to Point #3, but it has a specific quality that I think deserves its own entry – and that is, don’t be afraid to swing the executioner’s axe now and then.

No character should ever be invulnerable. Jeopardy is part of drama, and in order to make the stakes feel authentic, there must be loss.

But don’t make this choice lightly – remember, even Conan Doyle grew to regret killing off Sherlock Holmes and retroactively brought the great detective back to life. Think carefully when you consider a character’s final fate, and make it meaningful as well as painful. Because like the gunslingers of the Old West would say, if you pull it, you better use it.

5: Visit new places

The world is a vast and fascinating canvas, and there’s so much of it to see and experience. Keeping your characters in just one part of it might allow you to heavily detail that background, but ultimately familiarity breeds contempt. New locales put different stresses on your narrative.

If the only limitation is your imagination, why not venture far and wide? Travel broadens the mind, as the saying goes, and it can also broaden the experiences of your characters, and create new challenges for them to face.

6: Have an endgame in mind

There has to be an ending, and in the author’s ideal world that ending should be one of their choosing, a way to run down the curtain in a manner that serves their characters and brings closure to their narrative. Even if you have enough ideas to fill a hundred novels, it helps to have a sense of how you might conclude things.

And also remember that an ending doesn’t automatically mean “the end” for all time; it can be the completion of a story arc, the final pay-off for something set up in a previous novel, or the closing of a narrative ‘phase’. One arc concludes, but another one begins – and your heroes, refreshed and renewed, carry on to their next adventures…


James Swallow is a New York Times, Sunday Times and Amazon bestselling author, a BAFTA nominee, a former journalist and the award-winning writer of over fifty-five books, along with numerous scripts for video games, radio and television.

His latest novel SHADOW is the fourth in a series of fast-paced action thrillers featuring protagonist Marc Dane, out now in hardcover; the previous novels in the series – NOMAD, EXILE and GHOST – are available in paperback from Forge Books.

You can also follow James on Twitter at @jmswallow or visit him on his website at www.jswallow.com, which features free downloadable fiction, including the original Marc Dane novelette ROUGH AIR.

Pre-order a Copy of Shadow—available August 3rd!

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Excerpt: Shadow by James Swallow

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James Swallow’s New York Times bestselling The Marc Dane series continues with Shadow.

A ruthless far-right terrorist has broken out of captivity.

A mysterious bio-scientist with a terrible secret is abducted.

A lethal virus threatens millions of lives across Europe and the Middle East.

Ex-MI6 officer Marc Dane and his partner, Lucy Keyes, are bound together in a desperate search for the sinister organization plotting the release of a deadly virus on the world. In their frantic race against time, Dane and Keyes will be tested more than ever before as they seem to find themselves one step behind at every turn. It will take everything they have to expose the evil forces lurking in the shadows and put a stop to this unstoppable pathogen … and even everything might not be enough.

What price would you pay to stop a global catastrophe?

Shadow will be available on August 3rd, 2021. Please enjoy the following excerpt!


 ONE

Through the window of the carriage, the close ranks of the fir trees crowded in along the sides of the railway line. The green of their foliage was dark enough to be almost black in the splash of light spilling from the fast-moving train. They blurred into a single mass, a wall of gloom supporting a heavy night sky that threatened rain.

Jakobs turned away, rubbing the bridge of his nose, deliberately blinking to force away his growing fatigue. The repetitive pattern of the view would have a soporific effect if he allowed it, lulling him, robbing him of his necessary edge.

It was important to stay absolutely focused. Too much was at stake to let his attention slide now, even for the briefest of instants.

He rocked with the motion of the train, standing in the vestibule that connected this carriage to the next. He considered the locked door in front of him and the cargo in the compartment beyond it.

How long had it taken to get to here? How many man-hours, how many  false leads and failures, how many deaths? The bill coming due was lengthy and Nils Jakobs knew every last detail of it by heart. He carried those losses on his shoulders—not that he would ever have been allowed to forget them. His commanders in the Federal Police, in their comfortable offices in Brussels, would not permit that.

For years, they had said that the singular dedication Jakobs showed toward his quarry was barely on the right side of obsessive, but they tolerated him because he got the job done. His fixation meant that he would never rise above the rank of aspirant-inspecteur principal, but the men in Brussels told him that as if they thought it was a criticism. Jakobs didn’t care. All he had ever wanted was the job, and his job was to catch the worst men in the world.

The one Jakobs wanted the most was on the other side of that door, in manacles. Marking off the hours until they crossed into Belgian territory and he became property of the nation he was born in. The nation he had shamed.

The quality of the light through the window changed suddenly as the train thundered through a rural station—Jakobs caught sight of the name Východná as it flashed past at speed—and then the dark treeline was back in place. The train wouldn’t stop until it reached the border with Austria several hours from now, moving swiftly through the Slovakian countryside, following the northern edge of the Low Tatra mountain range and then down toward Bratislava. Jakobs would have to get a little sleep at some point, but that thought was disconnected and vague. He couldn’t shake the sense that something would be missed if he wasn’t there to observe every second of the prisoner transfer.

Without warning, the sliding door leading to the passenger carriages juddered open and a civilian was revealed in the connecting tunnel, a man of narrow build with an oily black beard and a rumpled jacket. He almost bumped into Jakobs and held up his hands apologetically.

“Sorry! Sorry! Looking for the toilet . . .”

Stale breath that smelled of cheap tobacco wafted up, and Jakobs thought of how long it had been since his last cigarette. He’d quit six years ago, on his fortieth birthday, but the urge for a smoke was suddenly right there, testing his resolve.

Jakobs deliberately stepped across to block the man’s path. He’d picked up a little Slovak during a secondment to Interpol, enough to warn the civilian that this car was off-limits. To underline the point, he peeled back the lapel of his jacket to reveal his police badge hanging from a chain around his neck. The action also exposed the butt of the Smith & Wesson semi-automatic pistol in Jakobs’ belt holster, and the man’s eyes widened as he caught sight of it.

From behind Jakobs, through the locked door, someone let out a noise that was half-laughter, half-snarl. It was an animal sound, full of threat and hate, and it startled the civilian even more than the sight of the handgun.

He made a show of looking past Jakobs’ broad-shouldered frame toward the door, giving a nervous chuckle.

“What do you have in there, a dangerous animal?” Jakobs gave a solemn nod. “In a way.”

He gestured toward the front of the train and the civilian got the message, retreating through the sliding doors. He waited until the bearded man was out of sight, then turned back and used the thick metal key the train conductor had given him to open the locked door.

His prisoner looked up at him as he entered, but Jakobs didn’t return the courtesy. Briss and Stodola, the two escorting officers from the Slovak Republic’s National Police, met his gaze and said nothing. Still, Jakobs couldn’t miss the way that Stodola was nursing his knuckles, or the new bruising on the face of the man in the steel chair bolted to the floor of the otherwise empty cargo wagon.

“I stopped a civilian coming up,” he told the two cops. “That shouldn’t happen.” He jerked a thumb at the door and nodded to Stodola. “Stand your post out there. Discourage anyone else who wants to take a look, yes?”

“Sir.”

Stodola straightened up and did as he was told.

Jakobs waited for the door to slide shut and the key to turn in the lock before he finally graced his captive with his direct attention.

“Your boy is easy to needle.” The man in the chair deliberately spoke in Dutch, a language he knew the Slovaks didn’t understand, and his face split in a wide grin.

Jakobs had always thought the prisoner had too many teeth in his head, as if it unbalanced the hard, rectangular shape of his aspect. The ones at the front were uneven, chipped in street brawls and prison fights. The man’s hands came up to run over his shorn scalp and scratch at the blue-black tattoos poking up over the collar of his featureless penal jumpsuit. The handcuffs holding his wrists together and the chain fixing them to the floor jangled with each movement.

The prisoner’s grin held firm. “Not like you, Nils. You don’t crack a smile. Not even when you and I were part of the team.”

“You were never part of the team,” Jakobs replied without thinking, then cursed inwardly, annoyed at himself for allowing the man to goad him into a reply.

“This says different.”

The prisoner pulled up a sleeve to show the tattoo of a winged dagger above a scroll that read Geef Nooit Op: “Never Surrender” in Dutch. The symbol of the Belgian Special Forces Group was surrounded by larger, showier designs, bellicose imagery of lightning bolts, lions and spindly Norse runes.

“Any idiot could get that kind of ink,” Jakobs replied. “But no real soldier ever would.”

That touched a nerve, and the prisoner scowled. But this man had been, if only for a short time, a member of Belgium’s most elite soldier corps, as repellent as that truth was. Jakobs remembered the day that Noah Verbeke had joined his unit, grinning that cocky predator’s grin, winning over the top brass with his obvious skill and cunning, even though he was a complete fucking prick.

That had been years ago, and a lot had changed since then. Now Jakobs was an officer in an anti-terrorist police unit and Verbeke . . . well, he was still a fucking prick. But no one had realized how ruthless and hateful he was until it was too late.

There was a trail of death and terror across Europe, and a slick of poisonous ideology that wound back and forth in Verbeke’s wake. Not a day passed when Jakobs didn’t wish that he could turn back the clock to that day in the barracks, to step into the moment and use it to snap the other man’s neck.

“You have always been a miserable shit,” Verbeke told him, meeting his gaze. “Even now, after your Slovak friends caught me, you still cannot be happy about something. It is not in you.” He made a back-and-forth motion with his fingers. “When this is the other way around, I will smile and smile.”

“You will not slip away this time,” Jakobs countered. He nodded toward the walls of the train carriage. “Did you wonder why we are transporting you by rail in the dead of the night, instead of by road or by plane? Interpol knows about your network of white power hooligans and alt-right sympathizers. We made sure they didn’t get word of your transfer.” He leaned in. “No one will know where you are until we trot you out like a whipped dog, in front of the General Commissioner’s office for the TV cameras.” Jakobs considered that for a second. “I might smile then.”

“That is a pretty little fantasy,” replied Verbeke. “But you and the rest of these worthless mongrels are never going to get what you want.” He snorted loudly. “When are you going to wake up, Nils? How deep does the tide of immigrant rapists and foreign parasites have to get before you finally accept that we are at war?” He jabbed a finger in his direction. “You are the whipped dog, but you will not accept it. You are a race traitor.” He shook his head. “It is actually very sad. You could be—”

Jakobs came forward and snatched at the chain, jerking it so Verbeke jolted forward, choking off his words in mid-sentence.

“If you try that we are not so different bullshit on me, you will regret it.” “My mistake.”

Verbeke recovered quickly, shrugging off the moment, but there was a murderous glitter in his eyes. Jakobs had seen footage of his prisoner at rallies, whipping up his supporters with the same words—and other images too, of him beating people with bricks and kicking a helpless man into a gory mess.

Noah Verbeke was crafty, but he had a thug’s manner and the morality of a violent child. In the end, that had been what allowed the Slovaks to arrest him. A night of sinking beers in a drinking pit in Košice had spilled out into a fight on the street, and Verbeke would have slipped away, if he’d been able to resist the urge to get his hands bloody.

But that’s not in him, thought the police officer, silently echoing the other man’s statement. He can’t see weakness without wanting to stamp on it.

“When we are done with you,” Jakobs began, savoring the thought as he spoke, “daylight will be a distant memory. You will spend the rest of your wretched life in a tiny concrete box. It will be much more than you deserve.”

Verbeke showed his teeth again. “That is not going to happen.”

Behind them, something heavy—like a body—slammed into the locked door, making it judder on its slides.

***

It had rained the night before, and the humidity hanging in the air convinced Susan Lam to wear a baggy cotton dress to work over her underclothes. Soon enough, she would be in her lab coat and work trousers, inside the perfectly climate-controlled environment of the research laboratory, but the industrial campus where it was located was a good drive from her home in Dempsey Road, skirting around the traffic flooding into the city core of Singapore.

She would be hot and sweaty if the journey caught her in the wrong place, and that was no way to start her day. Today they were going to start the trials of the newest drug batch, with the modified T-lymphocyte structure, and she was eager to get started. Months of preparation and incremental advances had brought Susan and her team to this point. If this test series performed well, it would be a major milestone in the project.

She paused over the cup of black tea in her hand, inhaling the aroma and considering the situation. A part of her—the clinical, reductionist element of her persona that was the unemotional scientist—weighed the value of her work against the rewards it had brought her. The other part of Susan Lam—the wife and stepmother, the woman in her late forties with her cozy life and her nice, colonial-era home—basked in the feeling.

A decade ago, she would have dismissed the life she had now as a foolish pipe dream. She would have rejected it outright as worthless and decadent.

So much has changed, she thought.

Bare feet slapped on the tile floor of the kitchen and Susan turned to hear a stifled yawn. Michael wandered in from the living room, the child rubbing at his face with one hand, feeling his way along the countertop with another. Her stepson had slept badly the night before, recovering from a stomach bug spread to him by one of the other boys at his school.

“Hello, drowsy,” she said gently.

He looked better, still a little dehydrated, but nowhere near the same bundle of tears and vomiting he had been a day ago. Susan boxed up the annoyance she felt and crouched so she was at eye level with the ten-year-old. For all the money they paid to that expensive private school, she expected them to take better care of the children. Susan made a mental note to talk to her husband about formulating a sternly worded complaint for the next parent-teacher meeting.

“Can I have juice?” Michael peered up at her, blinking in the morning light. “You can,” she agreed, watering down some straw-colored apple concentrate for him.

“Do I have to go to school today?” “No. Rest up.”

She handed him a plastic beaker and he sipped at it. Michael was definitely not his usual self. Under any other circumstances, such an admission would have made him clap his hands with glee.

“Okay.”

The boy shuffled dolefully back across the room, pausing to meet his father as he entered.

Simon paused to ruffle his son’s dark hair and Susan felt a pang of joy at the simple warmth of the moment. Father and son shared the same pleasant moon-face and brown eyes, the same openness that had drawn her to the man she had decided to marry. Every day she was quietly thankful that fate had fallen in her favor, that it had opened up a path to lead her to this new life. Susan never felt quite as happy as she did in Simon’s arms. And while Michael wasn’t her child, having lost his mother before he could walk and talk, the boy treated her as if he was.

“What?” Simon was looking at her, one eyebrow quirked upward. “Nothing,” she said, around a smile.

“All right.” He shrugged. “I’m going to work from home today. Keep an eye on . . .” He patted Michael’s head again. “I have some lecture notes to prepare. We don’t need to call the nanny.”

Simon taught in the degree program on Law and Life Sciences at the National University of Singapore, where he and Susan had first met at a faculty mixer event, but his son always took precedence over his job.

Michael wandered away, out into the cavernous hallway, as Simon came to Susan’s side, offering her a good-morning kiss.

“He’ll be fine,” she told her husband.

“I know.” Simon rolled his eyes. “Such drama.” He poured himself a cup of tea. “Today’s the new trial set, right? Are you going to celebrate?”

“It’s just test tubes and Petri dishes. It’s not a party.”

She automatically downplayed the importance of the work. It was a reflex she had never been able to break.

He smirked at her, trying to draw her out.

“Are you kidding? You keep telling me, if MaxaBio make this work it could mean—”

“Don’t jinx it.”

The words came out more harshly than she intended them to. But that non-scientist part of Susan Lam didn’t want to say it aloud, in case the act of doing so changed the way everything would play out.

Simon hugged her.

“Things aren’t as fragile as you think they are,” he said, with a baseless confidence.

“Hey . . .” Michael called from the hallway, his voice echoing, and a note of worry in it. “C-can you come here a second?”

“I’ll go,” she said. “He might have thrown up again.”

“I can call the maid in early,” Simon said, smiling widely. “It’s fine.”

But as it turned out, that was a long way from the truth. Susan was three steps into the hallway before she saw what the problem was.

“What’s the matter . . . ?”

She never finished the sentence, the words turning to bitter ash in her mouth. Michael was frozen, shrunk up against the dresser by the wall like a cornered cat, still clutching the plastic cup in his hands. He was staring fixedly at the intruder standing inside the front door, who held it open a few degrees.

The stranger was a white woman. Very white in fact, to the point that she seemed to have deliberately enhanced her paleness through the use of cosmetics. Slender and angular, she wore a simple black pantsuit, matching flat shoes and matte gloves. She was in the process of pulling down a dark muslin scarf to the neck of her collarless jacket, as if she had been wearing it like a mask before Susan appeared. Her lips were red like fire and she had hard, searching eyes that swept over Susan in an instant, measuring her for purpose.

That was a familiar look, an experience Susan knew too well from her old life. Through the half-open door she could see movement out in front of the house, men in black outfits similar to the woman’s emerging from a pair of windowless blue vans, walking up the drive. They carried guns and their heads were lost under shapeless muslin masks that stole away every definition of their features.

All the hope and joy and goodness in Susan’s life dropped out of her in a single bleak instant, swallowed into the earth like floodwater rushing down a sluice.

How many times had she dreamed of this, or something like it? How many times had she bolted awake in the darkness, her heart thudding against her rib cage? How many times had Simon held her as she cried, as she lied to him about the reasons for her nightmares?

The white woman raised a gloved finger to her lips.

“What happens next,” she said quietly, the words issuing out in a French accent made of brittle glass, “that’s up to you.”

Copyright © 2021 by James Swallow

Pre-order a Copy of Shadow—available August 3rd!

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