Saturday, January 22, 2011

Where Do You Write?

This is the final post in my sequence about the Why, What, Who, When, and Where of writing. It is also the most difficult to tackle. Why should where you write be important? I'm sure that some writers require a very comfortable and carefully arranged setting. Others jot ideas on Post-It notes and write the finished version on a clipboard pad while watching television. Some even dictate their materials into a recorder and get someone else to transfer their thoughts to computer input or paper. Some like isolation, while others do their best writing in a coffee shop. The most important aspect of Where is that it must be a setting that works for you. At least a pen, a laptop, and a smartphone are portable devices. You can easily test a variety of writing venues until you find the one that makes you feel most efficient, has the fewest distractions, or is the most likely to keep you stimulated. Wherever you write, try to write something every day. Writing is habit forming, and the more you do it, the better the writing habits become.

When Do You Write?

I have to plead guilty to a terrible defect when it comes to writing. I take care of all my other chores and answer all of my e-mail and write blog posts before I get to working on my current book. It is very inefficient with regard to my books but tremendously efficient for all of my other work. I think this deficiency has to be due to the fact that I am easily distracted. Once I start working on the book manuscript, I don't want to be distracted by other obligations. I take the easy way out by completing the other obligations before I do the work that I most want to do. Some writers manage to allocate a certain period of time each day for writing on their primary project. I would like to do that, but I fear that I would have to cancel most of my other obligations and become a hermit to succeed at it. I do have the consolation that while I am doing other things, I get ideas for the next phase of my book project, so that when I do sit down to work on the book I can jump right into it. I have to conclude that this jumping from job to job and clearing out the background noise projects before launching into my main writing work is my personal style. Each of us has to develop a schedule for writing with which he/she can be comfortable. Mine is a random walk through all of my jobs. I just have to continue to improve my efficiency at it. Maybe your routine is more rational, or perhaps it is even more quirky. Either way, enjoy your writing. I find that no other task is as satisfying.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Who Writes Your Fiction?

The title of this piece initially sounds nonsensical. Of course you write your own fiction. Who else is going to do it? I like to think that my characters and their situations write my books. I'm just along for the ride. What I mean by this is that I create the concept of the book, along with the characters and the initial situation. Usually, my initial situation is dynamic; the novel starts with something going on. Then the characters have to continue the action and/or react to it. Given the characters you select for any given chapter and their scene/situation, you can write the book from the inside. Instead of hovering over the scene and manipulating people, you can put yourself into the mind of each character and know what they would say and do to move the story forward. The characters interact in a series of actions and reactions that lead you to know what has to come next. If you have created meaningful characters, you will know what the tone of their comments will be and their approaches to getting out of the problems you have created for them. Your only requirement is to give them a continuous series of obstacles and problems to overcome. Just as in your own life, your characters will develop more as they face and overcome adversities. They will also come to learn more about each other and will become more believable and real to the reader.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Dick Davidson Interviews Marshall J. Cook, Part 2

Q: Given the violent world we live in, what should a mystery writer do to keep the reader's attention when he/she sees murders every day on the news, and the writer is creating a whole novel about "only" one or two murders?
A: You can't outdo life for gore, violence, and inhumanity. I don't even try; that's one reason why I write so-called cozy mysteries. No matter what you write, though, I think you earn and keep the reader's attention by creating credible characters and giving the reader a reason to care about them. Shockingly, some of my favorite [mystery] novels don't have any murders at all!!!!
Q: When I write a novel, I try to add significance by framing it around events that might have "national news impact" and bring in the historical background behind what is happening now. This is my style, and it gives me confidence that the reader will learn something from my novel. What do you think about the importance of style and voice to an author?
A: I think they're important, and I'd add "attitude" and "way of looking at the world" to the list. That said, I think the writer should absolutely forget all about such things and just try to tell a story as truly and sincerely as he or she can. Your style and voice will emerge naturally out of who you are, your experiences, your passions, your convictions.
Q: Catherine Wallace has said that there are many more reasons to write than there are to publish. Given this point of view and the hundreds of thousands of books that are published each year in the U.S. alone, would you ever suggest to your students that they write novels or nonfiction and never even try to publish them?
A: My job is to encourage, nurture, and help them do what they want to do. I do stress, though, that the act of writing itself, for oneself, is inherently valuable and needs no further justification, including publication. Writing is communication, sure, but it's also therapy, self-discovery, exploration, mastery of skills and forms -- all very good things.
Q: I've always been fascinated by authors like Isaac Asimov, J. R. R. Tolkien, and J. K. Rowling, who created their own worlds. Then they determined the natural laws and relationships that controlled those worlds. Have you ever thought about creating your own version of reality in a book? Would you like to play God in that sense?
A: I've never felt called to write science fiction, in that sense, but I think every fiction writer creates his/her own version of reality, a whole world. You are in that sense the God of your own little universe.
Q: It has to be very frustrating to authors to see that anyone with a bit of celebrity or notoriety can get bigger contracts and sell more books than most professional writers. What do you think about "star power" in publishing, and what do you think about the quality of most celebrity books?
A: Two Different questions.
Celebrity "books": Most of them aren't books at all. They're a little scrap of the celebrity, like a signed picture, something of that person that we can have for our very own. In terms of the quality of the book: Aw, you know they generally aren't very good. You don't need me to say so. But the 'star power' writers -- Stephen King, Danielle Steele, Patterson, Clancy, all the rest -- I say more power to them, and thank God for them. If we didn't have superstar fiction writers, only the courageous small press publishers would publish any fiction at all. And the stars get folks reading novels, which they might not otherwise do at all. And finally -- some of those 'stars' write really good stuff. Lonesome Dove was a blockbuster; it's also a great American novel.

Q: You pointed out earlier that in the U.S. only about ten percent of the books that are published each year are fiction. With a nonfiction book, it is fairly easy to determine your (somewhat specialized) market and your platform for promoting it. I know people who have written novels that have appeal to a specific geographic or historical interest market. How do you feel about writing a novel to suit a marketing plan?
Q: What do you think about writing contests? Do they work better when everyone writes to meet a specific assignment, or are they best for assessing the value of already-published works?
A: That's not really an either/or, is it? They certainly both have value. (I think the ones with a specific assignment are more interesting and fun.) I've never been much for entering contests. (For me the 'contest' is "Do you want to publish this?") But I think they're great if they encourage writers.
Q: I know that you teach some writing courses online. Do you think that writers get more out of a short in-person course or a longer self-study online course?
A: Depends on the learner and the learning style, I'm sure. I love classroom/face-to-face teaching and had my doubts initially about online teaching. I've been amazed at how wonderful it is. You really can teach writing this way, and you develop relationships with your students that are in many ways deeper and more authentic than face-to-face ones. It's great!
Q: I think that the best way to learn how to write is to write. @@@Amen, Brother!@@@ While you are in the process, and when you are revising, you can apply skills and information you have picked up along the way. As an educator, do you think there are skills that should be honed before one tackles creative writing? Should a novice writer feel self-conscious about writing down his or her thoughts?
A: Should you learn your scales first and jump right in and try to play a song, right? I'm definitely of the second school of thought. Get in there and tell stories. You start figuring out right away what you don't know and what you need to know. It's organic.
Q: I was fortunate to have a great Creative Writing teacher back in high school. He said that the secret to any written work could be found in two words: unity and coherence. (HMMM. Nobody told William Faulkner, I guess.) Do you have any similar succinct keys that are favorites?
A: They aren't similar, but over 40+ years of teaching, I've got it honed down to seven words:
Pay attention.
Try stuff.
Don't give up.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Dick Davidson Interviews Marshall J. Cook, Part 1

Interview conducted by Dick Davidson, OCWW and

1. Q: In your many years of teaching at University of Wisconsin, Madison, you have influenced many fledgling writers. Have you seen variations and trends over time suggesting differences in the kinds of people who write and their levels of proficiency?
A: More and more people are writing—and publishing—fiction now, which I of course think is wonderful. Proficiency is and always has been all over the place, but pretty much every student I interact with is scared and doesn’t think he/she is any good at it.

2. Q: The last figures I saw showed you as the author of 21 nonfiction books and 6 novels. I believe that your mystery series contains your most recent works. You were once quoted as saying, “I love writing. Fiction, nonfiction, grocery lists, doesn’t matter.” Do you currently consider yourself more of a novelist, and do you plan on more mystery novels in the future?
A: You’re missing the most recent, Walking Wounded: A Wartime Love Story, my seventh published novel. (And by the way, I never stop being amazed and thrilled every time a new book comes out.) I’m definitely focused on the novel now; it was always my first love. I’m hoping for a fifth book in the Monona Quinn Mystery Series, and I have a couple of other things rattling around inside.

3. Q: I have read that Murder Over Easy was based on the real-life murder of a diner owner. Do you recommend basing a mystery novel on an actual event, or do you think authors do better when they use their imaginations without being restrained by headlines? (One television series deliberately characterizes its plots as being “ripped from the headlines”.)
A: We do better when we aren’t restrained by anything in terms of material to write about. The first two novels in the Monona series were based on real events. Three and four are not. All four are total works of fiction, meaning I made the stuff up.

4. Q: You once recommended that a query letter sent to an agent or publisher should pitch a single novel except for the situation where you are writing a series. How would you handle the situation where you are pitching the second novel in a series to a different publisher than the one who issued the first volume?
A: Same process, but you of course mention the existence of the first book (which should help rather than hurt your chances with the second).

5. Q: What do you think about some of the new technical trends in publishing? Will economic trends, better editing, and quantities of titles guaranty eventual parity of POD books with traditionally published titles? Will the numbers game of E-book publishing make it very difficult for any one title to stand out?
A: I LOVE the new technology (and that from one who reveres the book as a holy object). POD and e-books have opened up publishing incredibly and made book publishing much more economical and less wasteful.
That said, it has made it tremendously difficult for any one title to receive any attention and find its readers. (The problem has shifted from getting published to getting noticed.) When I first started teaching, there were 65,000 books published that year in America (about a tenth of them fiction). The number is now 10 times that! (with the same ratio of fiction to non-fiction). Average sale of a POD self-published book is 147—but millions of people are selling them, so the so-called tail of the marketing dragon has become huge.

6. Q: As online book sales become increasingly important, do you think that publishers will do away with the free return policy for bookstores? If they do, what will bookstores of the future look like?
A: Great question.
I think in the not-too-distant future bookstores will have display copies only. When you buy a book, someone pushes a button, and a computer publishes a single copy of the book, your copy, at a regional distribution center. You get your book within a day or so, and there are no returned/remaindered books.

7. Q: What makes British mysteries so special? Is it history, environment, humor?
A: I think every country has lots of “special” mysteries and tons of not-so-special ones. To the extent that there’s a national outlook and a collective consciousness, the mysteries reflect this.
The Brits gave the world the cozy. America and the French gave it noir. Nobody does hard-boiled better than America.

8. Q: The new technologies of publishing make it relatively easy to create a new publishing firm. Would the emergence of many new small, specialized publishers be a good trend? How do you see publishing developing in the future?
A: We already touched on this a bit. Len Fulton (Dustbooks) has been tracking (and nurturing) small press publishers for four decades (God bless him). I join him in thinking that the little indies have been and remain the source of incredible vitality and experimentation in our literature. I love the fact that publishing is becoming cheap enough for many more to do it. This really parallels the advent of the computer in terms of making publishing more accessible.

9. Q: There are genre mysteries, and there are mainstream novels that have mystery aspects to them. Do you think most mystery readers are specialists, or do you see a wider market for mystery writing in one form or another?
A: I think we pigeonhole novels and novelists, primarily because it’s a lot easier to market them that way. But there are and always have been writers who defy categorization and transcend genre. From Raymond Chandler to Elmore Leonard and James Lee Burke, we have mystery/thriller/crime novelists writing great literature.
And tell me Ernest Gaines’ Long Day in November is ‘just’ a kids’ book and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is “just” a young adult novel.

10. Q: Are the better mystery and mainstream novel authors formally taught techniques, self-taught through trial and error, or just born to the art?
A: I think folks are born with the inclination, desire, and even need to write stories. It may even be that the stories pick the writers instead of the other way around. And certainly, just as some folks are born with greater natural athletic ability, some are born with more natural facility with language than others. But I’d never try to discourage anyone anywhere from writing.
Some writers are products of creative writing classes and MFA programs. Many are not. Take Louis L’Amour, who jumped a freight and hoboed around the country at age 15 and taught himself by stopping at the public library everywhere he went. He became our foremost writer of westerns and a true expert on the west.
If I had to choose whether to close down the writing schools or the libraries, I would without hesitation choose the former.

What to Write

One of the biggest problems faced by writers is the very basic one of what to write. I can remember many times when I felt like writing a poem and couldn't settle on a topic. That is one reason why my poetry writing is almost all produced for an occasion. I have written poems to comfort a family after the death of a child. I annually write a family Christmas poem based on a Frosty the Snowman cartoon, and that tradition has gone on for more than twenty years. I write poetic prayers for church publications.
Even prose requires more than just sitting down at the computer. Your thoughts have to be focused and a concept has to give you the incentive to write. My current book series makes it easy for me. I am writing a five-volume mystery series based on phrases from the Lord's Prayer. My overall concept of using the prayer phrases directs my plots toward demonstrating the effects of the title phrase upon the continuing set of characters. To date I have written Lead Us Not into Temptation (Volume I) and Give Us this Day Our Daily Bread (Volume II). I am currently writing Forgive Us Our Trespasses. The concept underlying your writing gives you a road map of sorts. Even when you introduce tangential subordinate plots, you have a basic direction in the story to which you are bound to return. This same technique can be applied to a series of short stories. Nonfiction works without an underlying concept lose their unity and coherence, two keys to good writing of both fiction and nonfiction.