Completely Annihilated

No, "completely annihilated" does not mean this a column about drinking.

This is about something Mario Vargas Llosa once said.

Okay, I’ll back up.

Last week I had a cool opportunity in New York to moderate a panel at the Edgar Symposium. This is a day-long event prior to the Edgar Awards, the annual prizes for the best in mystery and crime fiction.

The title of my panel was “The Author’s Life.” My panelists were all finalists for one of the top Edgar Awards—best short story, best paperback original, best novel, etc.

Left to right: Tyler Dilts, Reed Farrel Coleman, Wendy Corsi Staub, Megan Abbott, Patricia Abbott, yours truly.
My panelists were Patricia Abbott (“Shot in Detroit,” best paperback original); Megan Abbott (“Oxford Girl,” best short story); Wendy Corsi Staub (“Blue Moon,” Mary Higgins Clark award); Reed Farrel Coleman (“Where It Hurts,” best novel); and Tyler Dilts (“Come Twilight,” best paperback original).

In prepping ideas for the group, I thought it might be fun to pose the same questions to my panelists that were also asked of famous writers by The Paris Review.

For instance, in 1957 Truman Capote was asked “Do you like anything you wrote long ago as well as what you write now?”

In 1996, Richard Price was asked, “When you’re writing a book do you tend to avoid reading other books?”

In 1993, Don DeLillo was asked: “Athletes—basketball players, football players—talk about ‘getting into the zone.’ Is there a writer’s zone you get into?"

In 2013, Ursula LeGuin was asked, “Did you ever catch yourself thinking about potential book sales when you were considering a project?”

And in 1968, John Updike was asked, “Are you conscious of belonging to a definable American literary tradition? Would you describe yourself as part of an American tradition?”

After we went around on the panel hearing answers from Edgar Award nominees, I read a portion of the answers from what the writers said in The Paris Review. It was interesting. There’s not enough room here to include the Paris Review answers or what my panelists offered up, but it was fun.

Llosa was asked: “Do you choose the subjects of your books or do they choose you?”

(Great question, huh?)

I highly recommend the entire interview, but his answer to this specific questions prompts Llosa to make a great case for the “irrational” elements of literary creation.

Llosa says he wants to write novels that “read the way I read the novels I love.”

And then he says this: “The novels that have fascinated me most are the ones that have reached me less through the channels of the intellect or reason than bewitched me. These are stories capable of completely annihilating all my critical faculties so that I’m left there, in suspense … I think it’s very important that the intellectual element, whose presence is inevitable in a novel, dissolves into the action, into the stories that must seduce the reader not by their ideas but by their color, by the emotions they inspire, by their element of surprise, and by all the suspense and mystery they’re capable of generating.”

Yeah, who doesn’t want to write a novel that is capable of “completely annihilating” all of a reader’s critical faculties.

Just a new standard to shoot for.

I thought I would share.

Sometimes you have to put technique aside and let the imagination go.

Right?

++++

PS: The guy who ultimately won for best paperback original (Adrian McKinty, “Rain Dogs”) was unable to sit in on my panel due to personal issues, alas.

PPS: Megan Abbott and Patricia Abbott are the first daughter-mother combination of writers to ever be finalists for the Edgar Award in the same year. How cool is that??

Rocky Mountain Writer #82

Margaret Mizushima & The Timber Creek K-9 Mystery Series

It’s been about 17 months since we had Margaret Mizushima on the Rocky Mountain Writer podcast, way back on episode number 23. At the time, her debut novel Killing Trail was a few weeks from publication and the buzz was just building for the Timber Creek K-9 mystery series.

Now, her second book Stalking Ground is a finalist for the Colorado Book Award, the release of her third, Hunting Hour, is only a few months away, and she is writing her fourth. And the series is set for its United Kingdom debut in early May with plans for publication in France coming, too.

So it's hard to imagine a better time to chat with Margaret Mizushima, who catches up with her cast of characters, including K-9 cop Mattie Cobb, her dog Robo, and local veterinarian Cole Walker.

Margaret also talks about how being under contract and facing deadlines has changed her writing process.

After earning a master’s degree in speech pathology, Margaret Mizushima practiced in a hospital and her own rehabilitation agency, and now she assists her husband with their veterinary clinic and her of Angus cattle. She enjoys reading and hiking and lives in Colorado on a small farm where she and her husband raised two daughters and a multitude of animals.

Margaret Mizushima's website

Intro music by Moby Gratis

Outro music by Dan-o-Songs

For suggestions about content or to comment on the show, email Mark Stevens. Also feel free to leave a comment about the podcast on iTunes or your favorite podcast provider.

Host Mark Stevens: http://www.writermarkstevens.com

Rocky Mountain Writer #23

Margaret Mizushima - Killing Trail

First-time author Margaret Mizushima, whose debut mystery Killing Trail launches on Dec. 8 (2015), talks about her path to publication and how she developed a police dog, Robo, as a major character. She also talks about a key moment at the Colorado Gold conference where she opted for patience—a moment that led to a key pitch and a book contract. After earning a master’s degree in speech pathology, Margaret practiced in a hospital and her own rehabilitation agency, and now she assists her husband with their veterinary clinic and Angus cattle herd. Her short story “Hay Hook” was published in the 2014 Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers anthology Crossing Colfax. Killing Trail earned a starred review from Publisher's Weekly.

Show Notes:

Margaret Mizushima

Crooked Lane Books

Intro music courtesy of Moby Gratis
Outro music courtesy of Dan-o-Songs

For suggestions about content or to comment on the show, email Mark Stevens. Also feel free to leave a comment about the podcast on iTunes or your favorite podcast provider.

Host Mark Stevens: http://www.writermarkstevens.com

Margaret Mizsushima

Crooked Lane Books

Honoring Your Contract

By Katriena Knights

One of the most important things you can do is a writer is honor your contracts. I’m not talking about your contracts with your publishers. I’m talking about your contracts with your readers.

Wait, what? Authors don’t sign contracts with readers, do they? So what am I yapping on about this time?

Readers have expectations. These expectations vary depending upon what kind of book you’re writing. Or, in some cases, the kind of book you claim to be writing. Violating these expectations can lose you your readers—sometimes permanently.

Of course this is more true with genre writing than literary. Most mainstream books have some built-in expectations, as well, but they’re a bit more fluid. Still, when you move from writing for yourself to writing to an audience, it’s a good idea to keep those audience expectations in mind. Most of these expectations have to do with the book’s ending.

For example, in a romance, your reader expects a happily-ever-after ending—an HEA—or at least a happy-for-now—HFN. If your romantic couple decides to go there separate ways, or if one dies horribly, your book isn’t a romance. If you market it as a romance and it lacks the HEA or HFN, your readers will discover you’ve violated that contract and probably won’t come back.

Mystery readers expect the crime to be solved, whether it’s a murder or petty theft. The solving of the crime should drive the plot, and the solution should drive the climax. Loose ends might be left here and there, but the main crime should be wrapped up. If you decide to be extra “edgy” and “realistic” and leave the crime unsolved, you’ve violated your contract. (There are mystery writers who’ve successfully published books that don’t wrap everything up, but they were long-time, established authors with a fan base willing to go along for the ride.)

With any book, of any genre, readers expect a conclusion of some sort. If too much is left hanging, plot points are tied up, or characters are left without resolution, you’ll lose some readers. This is why my copy of Trumpet of the Swan fell apart after about ten readings, but I only read Stuart Little a couple of times. Louis got a nicely constructed happily-ever-after, but poor Stuart didn’t get a nicely tied-up ending. I suppose maybe it was appropriate for his story, but I’m still bitter about it.

However, that’s an example where the genre didn’t dictate the ending. It wasn’t a violation of a genre contract, but it didn’t live up to my personal expectations. As a writer, there’s nothing you can do about that, so there’s no point trying. But do keep in mind the expectations of your genre and of your average reader when you’re stitching that plot together.

Look Who’s Coming to the Colorado Gold Conference: Meet Bestselling Author William Kent Krueger

Interview by Susan Spann

New York Times Bestselling author William Kent Krueger is not only a talented author (and the winner of the 2014 Edgar Award for Best Novel), also a fabulous and approachable person. I'm looking forward to meeting him in person at this year's Colorado Gold Conference, and after this interview, I'm sure the rest of you will be looking forward to it, too. Since his website leads with "Call me Kent," I hope he'll forgive us that liberty here as well:

Here's a little more about Kent: 

WKKruegerRaised in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, William Kent Krueger briefly attended Stanford University—before being kicked out for radical activities.  After that, he logged timber, worked construction, tried his hand at free-lance journalism, and eventually ended up researching child development at the University of Minnesota.  He currently makes his living as a full-time author.  He’s been married for over 35 years to a marvelous woman who is an attorney.  He makes his home in St. Paul, a city he dearly loves.

Krueger writes a mystery series set in the north woods of Minnesota.  His protagonist is Cork O’Connor, the former sheriff of Tamarack County and a man of mixed heritage—part Irish and part Ojibwe.  His work has received a number of awards, including the Minnesota Book Award, the Loft-McKnight Fiction Award, the Anthony Award, the Barry Award, and the Friends of American Writers Prize. Northwest Angle (2011) and Trickster's Point (2012) were New York Times bestsellers. 

A stand-alone novel, Ordinary Grace, was released in March 2013 and also became a New York Times bestseller. The thirteenth book in the Cork O'Connor series, Tamarack County, is scheduled for release in August 2013.

And now, let's get to know even more about this very special guest:

Susan Spann: How and where did you come up with the idea for your first novel?

Kent Krueger: Iron Lake, the first novel in my Cork O’Connor series, was an evolutionary process. I began with the seed of an idea for a character. All I knew about him at first was that he was the kind of guy who was so resilient that no matter how far life pushed him down, he would always bob back to the surface. His name would be Cork. My next decision was to set the work in the great Northwoods of Minnesota. Then, because I was a great fan of Tony Hillerman, I decided that I would include the Ojibwe culture as an element. And my final decision—probably because of Hillerman—was that it would be a mystery.

What I’ve described sounds very linear, but in truth, it was all a jumble that I was sorting out as I thought everything through. I’d been trying to write the Great American Novel for years, and was sick of it. I wanted to write something that would appeal to a broad range of readership, and when I really took a look at what people were reading, I saw mystery novels everywhere. I thought it might be a refreshing change, so I altered my literary course and found a direction that proved satisfying to me on so many levels.

SS: I understand that you prefer to write in a coffee shop. Do you ever write anywhere else? And how does the coffee shop environment create an inspiring and positive influence on your creative process?

Kent Krueger: I began writing in coffee shops for a very practical reason. My wife was in law school, we had very young children, and I was the sole support of our household. When I came home at the end of a work day, I had no time or energy to write. But I knew that if I wanted to develop my art, I needed to find a way to do that on a regular basis and still meet my responsibilities to my family. I took a lesson from Hemingway, who loved to rise at first light and write. He felt it was the most creative time of the day. We lived a couple of blocks from a coffee shop that opened its doors at six a.m. So there I was every morning with notebook and pen in hand waiting for them to unlock. I’d sit down, they’d pour me coffee, I’d open my notebook, and for the next hour, I’d bend to the writing.

I find now that if I try to write at home, the environment is too quiet. I hear everything—the furnace cycling on and off, the dishes crying from the sink to be washed. The phone rings or someone knocks at the door, and I’m required to answer. At the coffee shop, I have no responsibilities except to my writing. In its odd way, it’s a very liberating environment.

SS: If you could return to the beginning of your writing career, knowing everything you’ve learned along the way, would you do something differently? Why or why not?

Kent Krueger: I would give up trying to write the Great American Novel a lot sooner. Now, there’s an aspiration that I’m sure has done in its share of fine young writers.

In terms of my career as a genre author, I can’t think of anything that I might choose to do differently. It’s been a pretty good ride. I’m proud of my body of work. I have a great readership. I enjoy a strong relationship with my publisher and editor and all the folks at Atria Books. I love my agent. I make a decent living. And when I do book events, lots of people gather to tell me they like my work. What could be better?

SS: What inspired you to write mystery novels? What do you like most about the genre?

Kent Krueger: I turned to mystery writing during a mid-life crisis. At the age of eighteen, I’d fallen in love with Hemingway, both his Nobel prize-winning prose and his mythic image. I wanted to be Ernest Hemingway. I tried for way too long to write a novel as he might have written it, which was stupid on so many levels I won’t even go there. In my early forties, I decided it was time to write something else, something someone might actually enjoy reading. I looked around, and what I discovered was that people everywhere, in all circumstances and at all social, economic, and educational levels, enjoyed mysteries.

What I realized when I read and then began to write mysteries was that there is a structure to the story that is simple yet sturdy, and most importantly, flexible. Mysteries begin with something happening. Usually this a crime, often a murder. Investigation follows. And answers are found. That’s it. Simple, right? A structure anyone can use. But its real appeal, I believe, is its flexibility. Within that simple structure, a writer is free to do anything he or she may want to do. Historians write historical mysteries. Funny people write humorous mysteries. And someone who wants to talk about important issues—social, philosophical, spiritual—can do just that within the loose framework of a good, compelling mystery. The reach of the crime genre is so broad that it can embrace any interest that a reader or writer might have. I think of it as a very egalitarian form of prose. There’s a reason it’s called “popular fiction.”

SS: Could you tell us a little about your personal editing process? What happens after you finish the first draft of a new manuscript?

Kent Krueger: I write the first draft rather slowly. Usually I’ve thought the story through significantly, so I know the basic plot. What I focus on in the actual writing are the narrative elements: language, setting, character development, themes, atmosphere. When I’ve completed the first draft, the revision tends to be rather brief (because I hate revising!)

My agent, who is wonderful, always critiques my manuscript before I send it to my publisher. She—and a few of her selected colleagues—read the manuscript and offer me feedback. I revise based on their suggestions, then it goes to my editor. She also has suggestions. As does the copyeditor. (I never feel more stupid than when I look over the copyedited manuscript and see all my errors.)

SS: Of all the novels you have written (published or unpublished), which one is your favorite and why?

Kent Krueger: Ordinary Grace, which is not a part of my series, is my personal favorite. I tapped the deep roots of my own experience for this novel, and that allowed me to speak significantly about issues that have been important to me all my life. When you’re the author of a popular series, it’s risky to write something different. Readers may not be willing to follow you to a new place. But the story of Ordinary Grace, when it finally crystallized for me, was so compelling that I had to write it. I didn’t know if my publisher would be interested. And even if it was published, I had no idea if anyone would buy it. But the reception—the sales, the awards, the personal response from readers—has been so gratifying.

*A Note from Susan: Ordinary Grace, the novel mentioned above, just won the 2014 Edgar Award for Best Novel. On behalf of myself, and RMFW, I'd like to offer special congratulations on the award - it's a wonderful thing when a novel that's so special to the author receives such fabulous recognition! 

And now, the speed round:

SS: Coffee, tea, or bourbon?

Kent Krueger: Oh, coffee, coffee, and more coffee.

SS: Outlines or no outlines?

Kent Krueger: Outlines, usually, though not for Ordinary Grace.

SS: Cats, dogs, or reptiles?

Kent Krueger: None. I travel too much.

SS: What was the last book you read purely for enjoyment?

Kent Krueger: I reread, for the umpteenth time, Harper Lee’s masterful To Kill A Mockingbird.

SS:  Thank you for joining us here on the RMFW blog. We're honored, and excited, to welcome you to Colorado Gold this September!