New Interview in Mysterious Book Report
Mysterious Book Report posted a new interview today. See the interview here. A couple of my answers needed to be edited for length, so the full answers are here.
Our interviewee today is bestselling and award-winning author John Stith, whose newest thriller is reviewed in MBR No 354, along with a brief account of our own serendipitous introduction by Ms. Nickless. It’s an honor to be able to speak with you, and please accept our sincere thank you for doing so. That said, here’s our first question:
Who’s your favorite mystery author?
That's a very tough call. I can narrow it down to, at the moment, Nelson DeMille and Lee Child. Both write about intelligent, resourceful characters who typically go their own way, more or less regardless of what nearby law-enforcement officials say. Both offer interesting insights into whatever location they find themselves in. DeMille's Up Country has a fascinating portrayal of modern day Vietnam from the perspective of someone who was there decades ago in a much different capacity. DeMille's The Cuban Affair offers an intriguing tour of the new Cuba. Child's observations of various communities in America ring true and make me feel I've spent some time in each place.
I love DeMille's sense of humor, which really adds to his work. Child offers pretty little humor, and often includes a page or two that passes my violence comfort level, but his plotting is wonderful and it's exhilarating to see Jack Reacher a step ahead of where I expect him to be.
Do you plot-outline or wing it?
I'm an outliner. Part of that is I already have to do enough re-writing. Writing a book in which you place clues, and foreshadow where you're going requires a level of structure that either has to be baked in or has to be kneaded back in after the cake is baked. I want the reader to have to opportunity to get to where my protagonist is just before the protagonist does. Too early and the protagonist looks dim. Too late, and the reader can get the idea the author isn't playing fair.
That said, outlining doesn't preclude surprises along the way. It's like I plan a vacation to a Estes Park but I might decide to pick up a hitchhiker or I could suffer a tire blowout along the way.
Do you read your reviews?
Yes, sometimes. Becoming a writer requires one to develop a thick skin or quit. Most writers get plenty of rejections along the way, and the notion that you can’t please all the people all the time is one of the things we all learn early.
The internet brings out the nastiness in some people, but it’s not too hard to distinguish a troll from a reader who just isn’t in your target audience, or an instance where I could have been more skillful. If a troll gets under my skin, the best antidote for me is to read a few negative reviews of books I love. It’s a reminder that even the most beloved works don’t please everyone. Writing a negative but helpful review is a skill that’s rare.
What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
Quit if it's easy to quit. Make writing a habit. Read vociferously in the area you want to write in. Don't try to keep pace with trends. Write what you love. Say only what you need to and then stop.
What makes a character endearing?
A save-the-cat moment is often a good start. By that I mean the character rescues an underdog, or takes an action that shows us he or she is a fundamentally decent person. (See Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.) A sense of humor can take the edge off a crusty character who might otherwise have less appeal. Doing the smart thing is always good, whether the character is brainy or average. (It’s the characters who go down in the basement needlessly that I lose patience with, even though I know the writer is directing the foolish behavior.)
How did your first book get published?
I will boil this down to the essentials. I wrote a first draft. Then I wrote another half-dozen drafts. I sent it out and had it rejected a few times. I joined a writers workshop where we all gave each other feedback that helped us hone our craft. I did another major draft, and then a couple more drafts, and then tried contacting agents rather than publishers. The first agent said no. The second one said yes. A year later, he called with an offer from Ace Books.
How long did it take?
Start to finish about three years. I was reading my second novel to send to the agent when he called with the good news about the first.
Do you belong to a writers group?
I've belonged to several writers groups over the years. I found them all extremely helpful, thanks to having a fortunate mix of members. The Colorado Springs Writing Seminar was the group I was in the longest, from the early 80s until the late 90s. I also made the trek to the Northern Colorado Writers Workshop for quite a few years. (NCWW is the only group still meeting.) And finally, I participated in a series of workshops we called Milford Minor, spearheaded by Cynthia Felice, Connie Willis, and me. Milford Minors took an entire long weekend, roughly every 6 to 9 months.
The Milford Minor group changed over time, but we were lucky enough to have Vance Aandahl, Jerry Earl Brown, Ed Bryant, Carol Emshwiller, Simon Hawke, James Patrick Kelley, John Kessel, Jerry Oltion, Dan Simmons, David Skal, Melanie and Steve Tem, Sheri Tepper, David Zindell, and others. The monthly workshops saw talents like Thea Hutcheson, John Kennedy, and Barbara Nickless and many others.
The monthly workshops met on a Saturday or Sunday for a few hours. In all the workshops, the basic format was that people turn in manuscripts, usually a short story or a chapter or two of a novel, and each member in the group critiqued the pages, identifying what worked and what didn't. We tried to offer insight that would help a writer best tell the story he or she wanted to tell, not tell the writer how we would do it. Sometimes I would see that the story in my head wasn't the story that made it to the page. And I would see better ways of accomplishing what I wanted to do. In essence, the process shortened my learning curve, and served as informal writing classes. Membership in all the groups was capped at around 20, and people were required to submit their own work periodically to stay active.
Where could you be reached on the World Wide Web?