John DeDakis believes in writing what you know. Even when it hurts.
In his latest suspense novel “Bullet In The Chamber” the Baltimore-based writer turns personal tragedy into a rich subplot related to America’s national opioid epidemic.
The longtime journalist turned crime novelist is the keynote speaker at this year’s Writers Project Runway conference Saturday, April 1 in Leesburg.
DeDakis, who spent 25 years as an editor for CNN, is known around the DC region for his workshops on how to get published,
“It’s sort of a crash course in how to write a novel,” DeDakis said. “It doesn’t necessarily go deep, but it gives a first-time writer or a person who has started the process and gotten discouraged a sense of what they need to keep in mind, and some of the things I’ve learned along the way.”
In the mid-’90s, DeDakis, 66, was an editor for CNN based in Atlanta, but he felt compelled to write a novel inspired in part from tragic events in his own past.
“Editing is tedious and I needed a creative outlet so I taught myself how to write fiction,” DeDakis said.
Starting with a writers’ conference at the University of Georgia, DeDakis set out on the decade-long journey that would lead to the publication of his first novel “Fast Track” in 2005. Through relentless editing and learning to eliminate extraneous details, DeDakis was able to get to the heart of the story.
“The first novel went through 14 major revisions, and during that process I learned more about the [crime fiction] genre,” he said. “It transitioned from being a 150,000-word mishmash to a 75,000-word mystery novel. That was what was buried in there. I just had to get rid of the extra stuff.”
“Fast Track” was also the debut of DeDakis’ protagonist, Lark Chadwick a young journalist who solves the mystery surrounding the train crash that orphaned her as a baby. The novel draws on a train crash DeDakis witnessed as a child in 1959—and on his sister’s suicide in 1980.
For DeDakis, creating a female protagonist was initially a stretch, but has been a creative boon.
“When I first started writing fiction, someone suggested that I should write in a way that stretches who I am,” he said. “I discovered that it wasn’t quite as difficult as I thought it would be only because I decided to understand myself. You write what you know so I was still able to take who I am and create a new character.”
In the decade that followed “Fast Track,” DeDakis published two more Lark Chadwick novels, “Bluff” and “Troubled Water” while continuing to work for CNN. But “Bullet In The Chamber,” published last fall, may be his most personal novel yet. In 2011, DeDakis’ son Stephen, the youngest of his three children, died of a heroin overdose at the age of 22. DeDakis has woven a subplot on opioid addiction based on Stephen’s story into his new novel.
And while “Bullet,” which tells the story of Lark’s action-packed first days as a White House correspondent, is an entertaining political crime thriller, DeDakis has worked in some heartfelt public information about addiction.
“I hope that to a certain extent it will destigmatize the whole addiction situation and maybe even inform people a little bit about how and why it’s spreading,” DeDakis said.
DeDakis, whose work at CNN included years as a senior copy editor for “The Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer,” retired from journalism in 2013. He now works full time as a writer, speaker and writing coach. And as much as he loves working on his own material, DeDakis thrives on helping aspiring writers get going.
“I’ve got sort of a teaching gene,” DeDakis said. “I have a real strong desire to encourage people in their writing and deconstruct the process so that doing it becomes less daunting and they can see the possibilities.”
In an industry where self-publishing is a trend, DeDakis’ talks focus on the traditional publishing route: getting an agent and a publisher.
“There was something deep in me that wanted to do the traditional route. I figured it would add an extra sense of energy to my writing and to my self-esteem if someone who wasn’t my mom and didn’t have to do this to be nice decided, ‘Hey, I think I can sell this.’”
DeDakis, who regularly gives full-day workshops at DC’s Politics and Prose bookstore and The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD, met Project Runway organizer, local author Bobbi Carducci, at a Pennwriters workshop a few years ago, and Carducci jumped at the chance to feature him at this year’s conference in Leesburg.
“I am thrilled to have John DeDakis as the featured speaker this year. Not only is he a talented writer, but his generosity and willingness to mentor beginning and emerging writers makes him an invaluable mentor,” Carducci said.
As keynote presenter, DeDakis will give his seminar in both the morning and afternoon sessions at the April 1 conference. Other highlights include a seminar on non-fiction storytelling by Loudoun Now Managing Editor Danielle Nadler, who published her first book last year, and a workshop on photojournalism by Loudoun Now’s Douglas Graham.
The third annual Writers Project takes place Saturday, April 1, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Ida Lee Recreation Center in Leesburg. Tickets are $80 for Pennwriters members and $115 for nonmembers ($95 for students) and include a catered lunch. For tickets and information, including a full schedule of workshops, go to pennwriters.org. For information on John DeDakis, go to johndedakis.com.