Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Making of an Author

I’ve been thinking lately about how writers learn the craft of fiction.  Some set out on their journey with formal education and during the learning process complete their MFA, but I’d imagine that the majority of authors begin with an idea and start writing.

For me it started as an idea for a novel that I began sketching during lunch breaks from work.  I started visiting the local library and reading many of the books about fiction, creative writing, editing, revision, and other more specialized topics like How to Write a Thriller Novel.

I cranked out my first draft relatively quickly during that first summer of writing and started sharing my creation with willing readers.  I spent that winter revising and edition and the following spring took an Intermediate Fiction Workshop.  It was in this class that I began to realize my work of art needed some work.  The instructor had her Phd. in English and while she, and my fellow classmates gave good feedback on the issues I needed to address none of them knew much about Commercial Thriller Fiction.

I continued writing and rewriting, and eventually realized my first attempt at a novel was in need of a major rewrite.  It was at this point that I went back to the library to read all the rest of the books in the writing section.  Soon afterward I started reading all the authors I’d heard of who wrote bestselling thrillers.

A few months later after reading a novel by Raymond Chandler I came across a real life news story about a woman who had murdered her husband and set up her lover to take the fall for his murder.  This true-life story intrigued me and I downloaded several articles about the trial of this woman who’d been free for ten years after committing her crime.

I started this new novel differently from the first, which still resides in a bottom drawer of my desk.  I bought a notebook and wrote 150 pages of backstory about the man who would be gunned down in the prologue.  The story began in a Noir tone with a PI and showed the influences of Raymond Chandler.

A few months later with a 27-page outline, and an Excel spreadsheet with character sketches for all of the main characters in my hand I set down to write the first draft. During the past 18 months I’ve completed multiple drafts of the new novel and am currently working on what I hope will be one of the final drafts before I begin querying agents or make the decision to self publish.

In studying this topic both through my own learning experiences and those of writers I have met along the way I’ve come to the conclusion that the craft of writing is not learned in a linear fashion. It is learned more in a series of steps like those on a staircase.

A beginning author learns most through criticism from his readers or members of his critique group, and by reading the work of his peers. We debut authors are lucky because when we encounter a problem in our writing all we have to do is pick up a book and see what the guy before us did to fix the problem.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Author interview with Keri Beevis the Award Winning author of the debut novel Dead Letter Day.

Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Keri Beevis the Award Winning author of the debut novel Dead Letter Day.  Keri comes to us from the UK.  Enjoy the interview.

Tell me about yourself Keri.
I have always had a voracious appetite for books and movies. I grew up in Norfolk, England, on a diet of horror and suspense and quickly learnt that psychological build up is far scarier than blood and gore. The mind is a powerful thing and can conjure up worse images than what is seen on screen or given away too early in a book. It’s the sense of unknowing that can give the best scares and keep you on the edge of your seat.
My goal as an author is to create page turners, with engaging characters, fast paced plots, plenty of twists and turns and hopefully a few chills along the way. Dead Letter Day is my first published book, but not the first I have written, and it has taken twenty years and a couple of near misses to get to this point.

When did you know you wanted to become an author?
Writing has always been second nature to me and from a very young age I was filling up notebooks with stories and plays. When I was nineteen I was holidaying in Tenerife and reading a Stephen King book. I remember thinking at the time how much dedication and commitment it must take to complete a full novel. Within a couple of months of returning home I had decided to give it a go and was hard at work on my first book. From that moment on, being a published author was the only career I wanted.

Is there a central theme to your books?
My stories are all mystery thrillers with plenty of red herrings and twists, and a little bit of dark humor. Despite only being out a couple of weeks, I’ve already had people asking if there will be a second book involving some of the central players from Dead Letter Day. The book was intended as a stand-alone novel, but I enjoyed spending time with the characters so am considering it.

What books have inspired you the most in your life?
As a child it was Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree. As an adult it has been Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca (inspiration for the name of Dead Letter Day’s protagonist, Rebecca Angell) and Stephen King’s The Shining – Room 237 is the scariest place I have ever been. I am also a big fan of Tami Hoag, Nora Roberts and Lisa Gardner.

What’s a typical day in your writing routine like?
I have a full time job to work around, so it’s snatching time whenever I can, usually in the evenings. If I am lucky enough to have a whole day to write and I find myself in the zone, I will only emerge for coffee, and God help anyone who disturbs me. I’m typically a very laidback person, but break my concentration when I’m in full flow and I’m a bit like Jack Torrance towards the end of The Shining.

What is it that you do to relax?
I drink red wine, hang with my cats or have a gossip and a laugh over dinner with my girlfriends. All of these things work for me.

Do you use an outline or do you write organically?
Some writers use a storyboard; I prefer not to. My plots begin with an idea and grow in my head until I have a beginning, an end of sorts and a couple of revelations. When I start writing I don’t know exactly where the story will take me and part of the fun for me is finding out.

Have you ever had writer’s block and what did you do to push past it?
I wouldn’t say I’ve had writer’s block. I have the odd days where I struggle to put anything decent down on paper. I used to force myself to write when this happened, but nearly always ended up trashing the end result. Now I find it better to step away for a few hours. It equals itself out because for every bad day there is a good day when you are so in the zone, it’s almost as if your fingers are telling you the story as they type.

Is there a certain time of day when you are most creative?
Usually evenings and if I find my flow, I will write until two or three in the morning.

How many drafts do you usually write of a manuscript and what is your editing process like?
I write the first draft, often stopping to tweak along the way. Once complete I go back and attack a second and sometimes a third, fourth or fifth time. I am not afraid to make some major changes if I feel the book needs them and the published version of Dead Letter Day has very little resemblance to the first draft.

What do you think of the recent changes in the publishing world?
I think they’re mostly good. I came incredibly close to getting published when I was in my mid-twenties. After four years of struggling I managed to get signed by a top agent, but still failed to get a deal with one of the biggest publishing houses because ‘I was more RL Stine than Stephen King’. They admitted RL Stine was a best-seller author, but they wanted someone who was going to be bigger. As an unknown author, the big guns just weren’t interested unless they thought you were going to make them a fortune. With the recent successes of some indie authors, some of the power has been taken away from publishing monopoly and it’s refreshing to see budding (and probably extremely frustrated) writers are getting a fair opportunity to put their work out for the public to decide.

Out of all the books you’ve written do you have a favorite, and if so why?
I have two favorites. Dead Letter Day is the book I am most proud of. I like the characters I created and the way I managed to pull all the twists and turns together. I also have another novel I have written, tentatively called Pandora’s Box. Again I am fond of the characters, though the story is slightly slower paced, and I may try to change this before publishing.

What are you working on now?
Another fast paced thriller that should appeal to fans of Dead Letter Day. All I can reveal at this stage is that it features a serial killer who reenacts scenes from an author’s books.

Where can we buy your books?
At the moment, primarily Amazon. The Kindle edition went on sale a couple of weeks back and the paperback has just launched. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Interview with Bruce DeSilva an Edgar Award Winning Author

Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Bruce DeSilva the Edgar Award-Winning Author of “Rogue Island” and the Critically-Acclaimed Sequel, “Cliff Walk”.  I met Bruce last summer at the Killer Nashville Writers Conference and really enjoyed getting to know him.  I hope you enjoy the interview.

Tell me about yourself Bruce.

I grew up in the tiny mill town of Dighton, Massachusetts, where the mill closed when I was ten. I had an austere childhood bereft of iPods, X-Boxes, and all the other cool stuff that hadn’t been invented yet. In this parochial little town, metaphors and alliteration were also in short supply. I spent my days catching frogs, chasing girls, chasing girls with frogs, rooting for the Boston Red Sox, and playing baseball and hockey. When I left town to study geology in college, my favorite high school English teacher told me that I would eventually find myself writing from compulsion. He was prescient. After college, I took a job as a newspaper reporter and remained in journalism for 40 years, the last 14 at the Associated Press, where I ran an elite department that specialized in investigations and other national reporting projects, and where I served as the news service's writing coach world-wide. I took early retirement five years ago to write crime novels. The first, Rogue Island, won both the Edgar Award and the Macavity Award. The second, Cliff Walk, was published to rave reviews last spring, and the third, tentatively titled Providence Rag, will be published in March of 2014. I live in New Jersey with a college-bound granddaughter, two enormous dogs, and my wife Patricia Smith, who is one of American's greatest living poets.

When did you know you wanted to become an author?

For most of my journalism career, writing a novel never occurred to me. But one day in 1994, I got a note from a newspaper reader praising a “nice little story” I’d written. “It could serve as the outline for a novel," the note said. "Have you considered this?” Normally, I would have just tossed it in the trash, but this one was signed by Evan Hunter, who wrote fine mainstream novels under his own name and the brilliant 87th Precinct police procedurals under the pen name Ed McBain. I sealed the note in plastic, taped it to my home computer, and started writing. That could have been the start of something -- but it wasn't. I didn't get far before my life suddenly turned upside down. I took a demanding new job in Manhattan. I got divorced. Then I got remarried to a woman with a two-year-old child. In this busy new life, there was no time for writing novels. Years streamed by before I found the time to return to fiction. When I finally finished Rogue Island, I dedicated it to the memory of the author who first encouraged me .

Is there a central theme to your books?

The protagonist in my first three novels is Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter at a dying Providence, R.I., newspaper. That makes him among the last of a dying breed. I decided to write about an investigative reporter instead of, say, a private detective or a cop, because I'm deeply worried about the price the American democracy is paying for the decline of the newspaper industry. There is nothing on the horizon capable of replacing the quality local, national and international reporting that newspapers once did. My hope is that as readers watch Mulligan's skill and dedication as he goes about his job, they will gain a greater appreciation for what is being lost. That said, each of the Mulligan novels also has its own unique theme. Cliff Walk, for example, is both a hard-boiled crime story and a serious exploration of sexual morality and religion in the age of ubiquitous pornography.

What books have inspired you the most in your life?

My God, that's a terrible question to ask a lifelong reader. Recently, my wife and I culled our personal library, giving away hundreds of volumes in anticipation of a possible move. That left our shelves holding only our 7,000 favorites. So one way to answer this question would be to list all of those titles. When I was a kid, you'd never find me without either a baseball glove, a hockey stick, or something to read in my hands. Around the fifth grade, emulating my father, I started reading the daily newspaper cover to cover. The stories about cops and robbers, generals and politicians, tycoons and scientists, entertainers and ballplayers, never inspired me to be any of those things. Instead, I imagined myself as the guy who told their stories. By sixth grade, I was devouring Kenneth Roberts' historical novels, which inspired not a love of literature but a live-long love of history. In junior high, I found Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and fell head over heels for crime fiction. And today, I'm inspired by many contemporary writers, especially Vermont novelist Howard Frank Mosher for his quirky characters and poetic style. And no one's body of work has ever inspired me more than my wife's. That said, my favorite passage in all of English is the first page of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row.

What’s a typical day in your writing routine like?

After I finish a novel, I spend a few weeks puttering around the house, playing with my dogs, and mulling over what to write next. I'm not thinking about plots; I'm thinking about themes, trying to decided what subject is worth spending the next six to nine months of my life on. Once I've got an idea, I sit down and write at least a thousand good words every day, no matter how long it takes. Sometimes, I get them down in a couple of hours, and when I do, I give myself the rest of the day off. But when the writing comes hard, I remain at the keyboard until I have my thousand words. This, I believe, is the secret to finishing a novel. If I write a thousand words a day, which isn't much, I can finish an eighty-thousand-word crime novel in three months.

What is it that you do to relax?

I read, watch the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Celtics and the Bruins, and play with my dogs, who are named after Tom Brady and Rajon Rondo.

Do you use an outline, or do you write organically?

I begin with a theme, set my characters in motion, and wait to see what develops. I enjoy discovering the story as I go along; and I figure that if I don't know what's going to happen next, my readers probably won't either.

Have you ever had writer’s block and what did you do to push past it?

Journalism taught me is that writing is a job--something I do every day whether I feel like it or not. I do not wait for inspiration. I do not search for my muse. I put my butt in the chair and write. Writers' block is for sissies.

Is there a certain time of day when you are most creative?

No, but there is a time of day when I'm least creative. That would be whenever time the Patriots are on TV.

How many drafts do you usually write of a manuscript, and what is your editing process like?

I revise as I go, moving on to the next chapter only after I'm satisfied with the last one. So, when I get to the last page, the book is done. At least that's pretty much how it worked with the first two Mulligan novels. When I finished drafting the third, however, I liked each chapter just fine, but they didn't fit together right. Darned if I could figure out why. I sent the book off to my agent, Susanna Einstein, who is also the best story doctor I've ever met. She identified the problem, which required me to completely restructure the first half of the novel.

What do you think of the recent changes in the publishing world?

I prefer holding a physical book in my hands, but I have no problem with e-readers. Anything that encourages people to read is fine with me. I think the consolidation of major publishing houses, and the way they are eliminating so may mid-list writers to concentrate on best-sellers, is bad. I think the flood of self-publishing that e-readers have spawned is good because it's gives a handful of talented writers a new way to find an audience -- and bad because it floods the marketplace with vast amounts of dreck. I think that if e-readers had been invented 20 years earlier, I could have saved tens of thousands of dollars because I wouldn't have needed a library and could have bought a smaller house.

Out of all the books you’ve written do you have a favorite, and if so why?

The last chapter of my second novel, Cliff Walk -- the way it portrays both my main character's loneliness and his confusion about the book's theme of sexual morality -- is the best thing I've ever written. But overall, I like Providence Rag best because the story is more textured and complex. The novel confronts Mulligan and his newspaper colleagues with a life-and-death ethical dilemma that has no right answer. No matter which side of the issue they come down on, they are forced to do something contemptible.

What are you working on now?

I'm writing my third hardboiled short story for an anthology, this one for Akashic Press's Providence Noir, which will probably be published late next year. And I've just started fooling around with two new novels. One of them is another Mulligan novel and the other introduces a new main character, a young guy named Dante who is trying to decide which side of the law to live his life on. I haven't yet figured out which one I'll write first.

Where can we buy your books?

They're available at many bookstores and from Amazon in print, e-book, and downloadable audio editions.
You can learn more about me and my books at my website and at my blog.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What’s next this week on The Writers Cabin?

I’ll be interviewing Bruce DeSilva the Edgar Award-Winning Author of “Rogue Island” and the Critically-Acclaimed Sequel, “Cliff Walk”.

I had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with Bruce last summer at the Killer Nashville Writers Conference.  Check out his website - Bruce DeSilva

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Author Interview with Joan Johnston

Today I had the pleasure of interviewing New York Times Bestselling Author Joan Johnston.

Tell me about yourself Joan.

Writing has made my life fulfilling and happy.  Having said that, it’s one of the most grueling, demanding, and lonely jobs in the world.  I’ve written 54 novels and novellas and have more than 10 million copies of my books in print in 19 languages and 25 countries.  I’m a top 10 New York Times (highest #5) and USA TODAY (highest #8) bestselling author.  I’ve worked with five top agents (Irene Goodman, Richard Curtis, Denise Marcil, Al Zuckerman and Robert Gottlieb) and four major publishers (Simon & Schuster, Random House, HarperCollins and Harlequin) over a 27-year career.  I currently write for Random House (Penguin Random once their merger is complete).

When did you know you wanted to become an author?

I was working as an attorney in the largest firm in Virginia and had a six-month-old and a six-year-old, trying to be Superwoman and failing miserably.  To escape from the stress, I started reading romance novels, where the woman faces great adversity and triumphs in the end. 
After reading about 400 books a year for a couple of years, I read a not-so-good romance novel and thought, “I can write a book better than that.”  (It’s a good thing every book isn’t written as well as Prince of Tides or none of us would ever think we could write a novel).

I was closing a $65,000,000 City of Virginia Beach bond deal in New York the same weekend as the 2nd Annual Romantic Times Conference.  I went to the conference and met a few of my favorite authors and, lo and behold, “They had two eyes, one nose, two ears, one mouth—just like me!”  The fact that those authors turned out to be “normal people”  gave me the courage to start writing.

That summer I moved from Virginia to Florida to work for a different law firm and began writing my first book.   I had to retake the bar exam, because Florida doesn’t have reciprocity.  I passed the bar and sold the book.  

Is there a central theme to your books?

My books revolve around abandoned and neglected children—whether they’re still children or grownups.  I asked my mom why I’d be writing that theme, because my parents remained married until my father’s death when he was in his late sixties.  She told me a story I’d never heard.

When I was 4 years old, my Air Force father left my mother and me and my two older sisters behind in Arkansas with my grandparents while he went to the Philippines.  I went to bed every night with an 8x10 photograph of my father and cried myself to sleep until the picture was in tatters.  I didn’t see my father again for a year.  Hence, I was “abandoned” at an early age.

It was startling to realize how an unremembered part of my life affected my choice of writing theme.

What books have inspired you the most in your life?

Okay, you aren’t going to get the classics here.  I mostly read Walter Farley horse books and Jim Kjelgaard dog books growing up.  We lived in Morocco, where there wasn’t any TV, so those were the books I chose.  I have a background in theatre, so I understand a great deal about character, plot, theme, and conflict from reading, acting in, and directing plays. 

I love Mary Balogh’s Regency novels.  Her theme is the power of love to mend families.  Her stories are always powerful and poignant.  Since I’ve become a New York Times bestselling romance author, I’ve mostly stopped reading romance.  If the book is great, it’s too intimidating (“I’ll never write as well as that!) and if it’s terrible, why waste my time? 

Instead, I read a lot of suspense, including Lee Child, Robert Crais, Brad Meltzer, and Stephen Hunter (love his Bob Lee Swagger novels).  These books give me insight into the male point of view, something I need because I grew up in a family of  six girls with one younger brother.  I especially like books with a continuing story (which I also write), so I enjoy reading and re-reading W.E.B. Griffin’s World War II and police procedural sagas.

What’s a typical day in your writing routine like?

I write in the morning, because that’s when I’m most productive.  I write directly on the computer at home (I’m still using Wordperfect 5.1 for DOS, which requires a Windows 98 computer to translate the DOS into a document that can be read by most computers).  I’ll write until I reach a spot where I don’t have more to say, then go away for a while, think about where I want to go, then come back and write some more.

I don’t commit to a certain number of pages.   I’ve discovered that it’s counterproductive for me to “just keep writing.”  It’s too hard to cut copy after the fact.  If you’re just going to cut it later anyway, my philosophy is:  Why sit there writing junk?  Come back when you have something worthwhile to put down on paper.  I edit a chapter until it’s as good as I can get it, then move on to the next chapter.

What is it that you do to relax?

I play tennis and hike in the mountains.  Tennis works up a good sweat, and hiking in the forest feeds my soul.   I also go to the movies every Friday afternoon, “toprove I don’t have a real job.”  If I had a “real job” I’d be at work Friday afternoons.  Of course, folks don’t see me writing till midnight to make up for the fact I went to the movies on Friday afternoon.

Movies are a good source of learning for writers.  Plots, characters, conflict—you can learn everything there is to know about writing a good book.  I’ve seen The Impossible four times, because I wanted to figure out how that movie (about a family of five’s experience in the tsunami that killed 200,000) was able to make me cry.  Is it the shared tragedy?  Is it the reuniting of separated families?  The latter theme is especially important to me, because my current Mail-Order Bride series, Texas Bride, Wyoming Bride, Montana Bride and Blackthorne’s Bride involves a separated family.  I want to be sure to “go for the choke” when they’re all reunited in the final book.

Do you use an outline or do you write organically?

I write a 20-25 page outline for a 400 page book (which the publisher pays me to write), then I never look at it again.  Okay, so I might peek at it if I get stuck and don’t know where to go.  But essentially, I know where the story is going to end up before I start the book.   If you think about it, however, 20 pages doesn’t tell you much except basic character, basic conflict, and resolution.  Everything else has to come out of your head during the writing process, so you have plenty of places to go.

Having said that, because I write for a living, and because it’s important to finish a book in a prescribed period of time (I’m writing about two 400-page books a year), I never let my characters head off on a tangent.  I don’t have the luxury of throwing away 50 pages when I figure out “This doesn’t work!”

Have you ever had writer’s block and what did you do to push past it?

Oh my God, yes.  It was caused by an incident with a friend who told me, “Your life is out of balance.  You’re spending too much time writing [Granted, I’d been writing 5 books a year for 5 years in order to pay my rent and feed my kids].  That’s all you ever do! That’s all you ever talk about.  Get a life!”

I took what she said so much to heart that I became nauseous whenever I got near a computer.  It took almost a year of work with a life coach before I was writing productively again.

Is there a certain time of day when you are most creative?
 See 5 above.

How many drafts do you usually write of a manuscript and what is your editing process like?

I’m endlessly editing while I’m writing.  Once I’m done, I’ll read through the manuscript and track the external plot (problems the hero and heroine have that have nothing to do with the romance) and the internal plot (relationship/romance problems the hero and heroine have) to make sure each step of both plots are inextricably intertwined and build to a climax/dark moment.  I also make sure I have a denouement.

The book is “clean” when I submit it.  That is, I have no misspelled words, no typographical errors, no problem with eyes turning from brown to blue. 

If the book doesn’t make me feel something, it isn’t going to make the reader feel anything.  I make sure I’ve focused on setting.  I make sure I’ve employed the five senses.  I make sure the conflict is never resolved until the very end.   I make sure every chapter starts and ends with a hook—so the book is “unputdownable.”

What do you think of the recent changes in the publishing world?

The most difficult change for new writers is the fact that there are only a very few large publishing houses left.  This means you have fewer choice of where to submit your work.  E-books are great, but Amazon’s stranglehold on the publishing industry (forcing big publishers to conglomerate to survive) doesn’t bode well for the future.  I fear that once Amazon has the monopoly they’re on their way to achieving, authors will find themselves earning a pittance, instead of the generous amounts Amazon is offering now in order to lure authors away from major publishing houses.

Out of all the books you’ve written do you have a favorite, and if so why?

Okay, which of my 54 children do I love best?  Not a fair question!  I write books in a series, so they’re essentially all family sagas.  Captive is a favorite because it was my first Regency novel.  It’s followed by After the Kiss, The Bodyguard and The Bridegroom.   The Cowboy, The Texan and The Loner are favorites because they were the first of my Bitter Creek series to become New York Times bestsellers.  I love the current Mail-Order Bride series (see titles above), because it’s a prequel to my Bitter Creek series and a sequel to my Sisters of the Lone Star series, Frontier Woman, Comanche Woman and Texas Woman.  And I can’t forget my Hawk’s Way series, where The Virgin Groom, The Substitute Groom and Sisters Found are among my favorites.

What are you working on now?

I’m just finishing Montana Bride, third in the historical Mail-Order Bride series.   I have one more book in the series to write, Blackthorne’s Bride before all the sisters who were separated in the beginning of the series are brought back together.

I’m also excited to work on another Hawk’s Way book, which I’ve tentatively titled Susannah.  I just need to find the time to write it!

And finally, I have the Benedict Brother series.  The Benedicts are related to the Blackthornes, who are featured in most of my series novels.   I’ve been trying to finish  Unforgettable and hope to get to it sometime this year.

Where can we buy your books?

Readers can buy my novels wherever books are sold in stores or on-line.  You can reach me directly at or find me on Facebook at  I look forward to hearing from you!

Joan Johnston's Website

Joan's Facebook Page