Photo credit: Jessica Scharpf
I spent nearly a decade as a CIA analyst before my first novel, Need to Know
, was published. Now, with a second novel on the way, I’ll share a little secret I’ve learned: authors and spies have a lot in common! It’s true; there are quite a few similarities between these very different fields. Here are seven ways that writing a novel is like working for the CIA:
It’s a team effort.
At the CIA, intelligence successes depend on a team: operators who collect the intelligence, analysts who examine it, and technology and support personnel who make it all possible. Likewise, behind every novel is a team of experts in various fields — editing, publicity, marketing, design, etc. It still seems strange to me that there’s only a single name on the cover!
You think through worst-case scenarios.
I spent years working counterterrorism for the CIA, and a big part of that job is brainstorming the absolute worst that can happen — and then working to prevent it. Writers — especially thriller writers — tend to do the same thing: thinking of how to place characters in the most difficult situations possible, and then finding ways to resolve those conflicts.
You put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
CIA analysts are constantly trying to anticipate how a foreign actor would react to different circumstances, many of which are far beyond our control. Authors follow quite a similar process — determining how a character would react to various situations. Fortunately writers get to create those situations and circumstances; if only the CIA were so lucky!
It’s important to grab the reader’s attention.
The goal of many carefully prepared pieces of CIA analysis is for policymakers to pay attention and take action. Sparking a reader’s interest immediately is critical. Likewise, an author wants readers to feel some sort of connection to the characters or the story so they keep reading.
You fit together pieces of a puzzle.
CIA analysts take mounds of data — human intelligence, technical intelligence, etc. — and piece together what fits and what doesn’t until a clear picture emerges. In many ways a novel — especially a thriller or mystery — is like a puzzle, too. Only in fiction, the writer gets to create those pieces and plant them in the story.
It’s a long process.
It can takes months or years to complete all the investigations and evaluations necessary to be hired into the CIA — and then months or years to develop the expertise to effectively analyze a given topic. It can take months or years to write a novel, too, and then months or years more until it’s published!
You try your best and hope it’s enough.
I was always impressed by how hard my CIA colleagues worked and how seriously they took their responsibilities. But at the end of the day, we all had to cross our fingers and hope for the best — that we gathered the highest quality intelligence, analyzed it rigorously enough, and convinced policymakers to pay attention and take action. It’s a similar feeling when a novel hits the shelves — authors have to cross their fingers and hope that readers enjoy it!
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is a former CIA analyst. She has master’s degrees from Trinity College Dublin (international peace studies) and Harvard University (public policy). Cleveland lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two young sons.