Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Instant Experts

Last week Stan wrote a summary of how we started writing together (indeed, how we started writing fiction at all), where it went, and where – hopefully – it’s going.  Apart from getting published in the first place, three things really surprised us when our first book was published.  Here we were, two academics, neither of us in the arts let alone experts in creative writing, who had somehow put together a book that some people seemed to enjoy and find worth reading, and even pay for.

The first surprise was that we were suddenly instant experts.  Clearly we had discovered the secret of writing successful fiction, getting big advances from publishers, and gathering award nominations.  A few prospective writers felt it would be reasonable for us to share this secret so that they too could become successful scribes.  Yet the only advice I felt I could offer with any confidence was “You have to be really lucky" and "Don’t give up your day job.”  This wasn’t what they wanted to hear, and many drifted off with the attitude that we were meanly keeping our secrets to ourselves.

The second surprise was the reaction we had from other mystery writers.  Surely people who had been writing for twenty years, learning the trade, and hammering out rejected manuscripts as they honed their skills, would hardly welcome two Johnny-come-latelies who admitted that their formal training in writing was obtained from a few books recommended by writer friends.  Instead, we found positive interest and generous support.  The established writers were keen to help, supporting us and our books, making introductions, offering blog spots.  We’ve been told that not every genre behaves that way, but in the mystery circle the attitude almost universally seems to be one that the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts i.e. that one more successful mystery book or successful mystery writer improves the chances for everyone. This is how one would like the world to work, but, in practice, it seldom does.

The third surprise was that our mystery writer colleagues also came from diverse backgrounds and seemed to have been drawn to mystery writing by the love of storytelling and the genre rather than by any academic route.  That’s not to say that they hadn’t worked their way up, learning the ropes, earning their stripes.  Quite the contrary.  Most had done exactly that, but few had followed an academic route.  (Take a look at the backgrounds of the other writers on this blog and you’ll get the point.)  They worked to improve what they did anyway – write fiction.  The issue was to write it better.  It’s almost a tautology to say that the best way of learning something is to do it.  I can’t think of any area where this is not true to some extent – usually a large extent.  I often do presentations to my classes in image processing and watch the students making notes and – not infrequently – drifting off.  I don’t care as long as they go to the computer labs afterwards and see how it all fits together.  Then they will go back to the notes and study what they can find to help them with what they want to do.

Stan and I didn’t know anything about writing fiction when we started.  A CARRION DEATH took us three years to write mainly because of that.  Most of what we wrote was thrown away.  Most of it was just learning not writing.  Hopefully what was left was worth something.  We had no idea.  We didn’t even know enough about writing fiction to know that the conventional wisdom was that two people shouldn’t do it together.  Most of our writing colleagues are amazed that we do just that and that it works for us.  When we learned a lot more, we discovered that there are quite a few successful fiction writing teams, but that most of them write – like us – under a single name.  Another thing we believed was that our rather random development of the plot from a premise, a few ideas, and some characters was another symptom of our lack of knowledge and experience.  We were smugly pleased that our second book, THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU, was planned and plotted and followed the synopsis.  More or less when we finished it, we discovered that more often than not, mystery writers use a premise, a few ideas, and some characters and let them drive the story – pantsing not plotting.  So much for the instant experts!

Still, we are teachers.  There we do have experience although teaching at college level involves about as much formal training as we have in writing fiction.  So last year we found ourselves giving a couple of sessions at a mystery writing workshop in Minneapolis.  The topics were collaborative writing, and dialog in foreign cultures.  Maybe we’ve learned something about these areas.  Certainly we enjoyed the workshop and Kent Krueger’s plenary talk gave us the kernel of an idea which led to our new Kubu novel.  We were happy to join the gang, try to help aspiring writers as others have helped us.  We met a great group of people and enjoyed their ideas, their questions, their thoughts.  One of them – Dr. Tom Combs - let us give him input on his first novel, NERVE DAMAGE – a tight medical thriller with a really original premise and some great characters.  In return, he’s helped us with medical issues related to our books.

It’s a great community of people – the writers, readers, editors, developing writers.  We’re grateful to be a part of it.

Michael – Thursday.


  1. Thanks, Michael! The field of mystery writers does seem to be very friendly and helpful, with a few minor exceptions... COUGH-Jeff.

  2. I attended a women's writers conference in Matera Italy once. Being used to the friendly, 'Where's my drink gone?' culture of crime writers I was in for a shock. When they were in school, romantic fiction writers never let anybody see their homework and they would never give you their last Rolo. Or their first.
    I think they are bitter because they are constantly writing and thinking about Mr Right...and find reality sadly lacking..

    1. Ah, Caro, I like your theory. I always thought our tribe was the friendlier because we pour all our negative emotions into our stories, so that when we stand up, we have all our love and light to spread around. Whereas, they pour all their LOVE into the book and have only spite leftover for one another. But now I will quote you. For them, reality pales in comparison to their love story. For us, reality is a party compared to dark back streets and the murder and mayhem!

  3. Makes sense to me! Funny, but it is exactly the Romance group that we were told to avoid socially. Must be something in Caro's theory!

    1. I've always avoided romance. Besides, murder is much more to the point than flowers.

      And on the subject of the camaraderie benefits of "our genre," you're Exhibit 1, Stan, Caro, you're Exhibit A, and Annamaria, you're all Exhibit AA. As for Everett, well, let's just say you bring another AA to mind. :)

  4. Michael -

    As a beneficiary of your selfless support I can attest to your and Stan's remarkable friendliness and generosity.
    You not only read a version of NERVE DAMAGE and made excellent observations and suggestions BUT then read it a SECOND time and commented on my revisions! I was astounded by your generosity.

    My experience with other authors supports your statement about mutual assistance and interest. Wm Kent Krueger, Ellen Hart, the late Vince Flynn, Marcus Sakey, David Housewright, James Scott Bell and many others shared of their knowledge and experience without thought of "payback". And yes,(to those who are nudging our Romance colleagues) EVEN two of that genre provided instruction and support.

    The writing community is generous. Suspense, mystery, thriller folks are not only generous but almost always fun and friendly! Michael, you and Stan stand tall within our ranks. Great fellows of remarkable class - a pleasure to know you, sirs!
    (and btw - my special pre-release read of the new Kubu novel was a treat. Brilliant!