Seton Hill’s Writing Popular Fiction Program Helps Veteran Find His Voice in the Military Thriller Genre
After Don Bentley failed to sell his second novel during his service in the U.S. Army, he took a trip to the post library while stationed in Germany. When he picked up a fantasy novel, he had no idea it would lead him to Seton Hill and help kickstart his writing career.
Bentley always knew that he wanted to be a writer. He remembers making up alternative plotlines to the predictable A-Team episodes he watched as a kid.
He also knew that he wanted to be in the military from an early age, with previous generations of his family serving in World War II and Vietnam.
“The two aren’t separate,” he said. “I always wanted to serve, and I always wanted to be a writer.”
Bentley has created a career path for himself that allowed him to pursue both of these interests and, with the help of Seton Hill’s Writing Popular Fiction program, is now proudly able to say that he writes military/espionage thrillers full-time.
While still in the service Bentley took a disciplined approach to his writing, getting up around 4 a.m. to fit in time to write before his required physical training. He even completed a novel while he was deployed in Afghanistan as an Apache helicopter pilot, adjusting his writing schedule as needed to accommodate both the demands of his job and his dedication to his craft.
“It was a part of who I was, I was a writer,” he said. “It was just a question - when are you going to find time to write?”
His first two books had gotten him agents, but neither had sold. After the rejection letters stacked up and he didn’t know why, he was thinking about giving up on writing.
He had been considering that didn’t have the right tools in his toolkit with his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering. When he was in Germany on his last duty assignment, he took a trip to the post library. Picking up a book by Maria V. Snyder, who had just hit the New York Times bestseller list, he noticed that her undergraduate degree was in meteorology yet she had found success as a writer of fantasy and science fiction. Out of the blue, he decided to email her to see if she had any advice to offer him.
She said she had faced similar struggles in her journey and recommended the Writing Popular Fiction program at Seton Hill as it had made the difference for her.
It took awhile for Bentley to get to a place where he could enroll in the program. After leaving the military, he worked as a special agent for the FBI and was a member of the Dallas Office Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. After the FBI, Don worked for companies that developed technology for the U.S. Special Operations Community.
When he was ready to return to school, the Post-9/11 GI Bill® and the Yellow Ribbon GI Education Enhancement Program allowed him to earn his master’s degree practically for free.
Once enrolled at Seton Hill, Bentley was able to reconnect with Snyder, who has served as a mentor and lecturer for the program since graduating in 2007. He met his long-term critique partner, John Dixon, learned a lot about writing genre fiction, and completed the program’s mandatory thesis project – his third novel.
“It took awhile for my writing to catch up to the stories I wanted to tell,” Bentley said. “Seton Hill was part of that process.”
But his third novel didn’t sell either and had Bentley questioning once again if he wanted to be a writer. Looking back now, Bentley knows that the third novel – and his Seton Hill education – was a turning point.
“That third novel is the first one where some form of my protagonist, Matt Drake, appears,” Bentley said. “A lot of what shaped him – how I write him, how his voice is – comes from feedback I got from my critique partners, my fellow students, and my advisors at Seton Hill.”
He made some decisions about Matt Drake for his fourth novel, such as choosing to write in the first person and to incorporate some of the dark humor he encountered during his time in the military. He also chose to give his character a job in the lesser-written Defense Intelligence Agency and was able to put his experience with recruiting sources in the FBI into the story.
Once he shifted his focus to his fourth novel, Without Sanction, his writing career quickly gained momentum. That fourth novel landed him a two-book deal in 2018; Without Sanction, which was released in 2020, became his first published novel and the first book in his Matt Drake series.
“At the end of the editorial call when I turned in the second book in my Matt Drake series, The Outside Man, my editor said, ‘Hey, would you be interested in writing in the Clancy universe too?’,” Bentley said. “It was completely out of left field and I wasn’t expecting it at all.”
What Bentley’s editor, Tom Colgan, told him is that a lot of people can write one book, but writers can stumble with the second book given added deadlines, pressure and expectations.
“I was fortunate that I passed the ‘can you write a second book test?’ just as the guy who was writing the Clancy books before me, Mike Madden, decided that he didn’t want to write them any more. Shortly after that I got on the ‘write a book every five months’ schedule. I would write one of my books and then a Clancy book. It was crazy but it actually helps you as a writer because you have to get really disciplined about your process and you start to get a lot more efficient about how you write.”
Bentley is now a New York Times bestselling author who has since published eight novels – with more to come.
“It was a rough two-and-a-half years that I would never want to do again, but it was excellent training as a writer and it got my name out there more,” Bentley said. “If you discount the three books of mine that never sold and the 17 years it took to write them, I’m pretty much an overnight success.”
Bentley advises writers to follow the startup adage of “fail fast.”
“Most people don’t sell their first, second or third books. As writers, there’s an appropriate amount of sulking that has to take place,” he said. “I could have sold my fourth book quicker if I would have done less sulking and just sat down and wrote it and wrote a better book. It’s hard to let go of that novel that you are sure is the one to sell.”
“I have gotten very adept at failing, even in my (non-writing) career. A failure is a setback but it’s not permanent,” Bentley said. “Things that are worthwhile don't come easy. It's the people who are willing to keep showing up that succeed in writing and in life.”
So does Bentley consider himself successful?
“I get to do what I’ve always wanted to do for a living and to write in the series that made me want to write in this genre to begin with, and I’m pretty happy about that,” he said.
Bentley is now faced with a new challenge – he has more opportunities than he has the ability to write at the moment. After releasing three books in 2023, he plans to slow down for a bit. He has stepped back from the Jack Ryan Jr. series for the time being and will be the second person to take on Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp series since the author’s death.