Sunday, August 12, 2012

Beth Anderson. One accomplished Writer

A friend of mine, Beth Anderson, writes romantic mysteries.  And/or political puzzlers.  But more than that she's a writer who, like so many writers I know, kinda grew up writing the moment they learned their ABC's.  She wrote love stories for her friends, who paid her for them, while she was in school as a child.  She grew into adulthood writing . . . honing . . . her craft until finally, finally, she sold her first major piece to a publishing firm.

I like that.  First learning to read---and then getting bitten immediately by the urge to write.  What I like even more is seeing a writer becoming something else . . . that elusive dream of becoming a  published 'author' so many of us strive to become ourselves.

I had a hunch if I approached her politely she might agree to answer a few questions about writing, and her career, and share them with us.  Don't care who writes the questions----read about a writer and their creative process and you can always walk away with something to think about.    I think you'll find a jewel or two in this interview.

So let's get to it.

1. Beth . . . the writing bug;  when did it first bite you?  And when did its fury finally burst onto the scene and send you down this lovely torturous path?

Ha!  I’ll give you torturous for sure. Lovely I’ll have to think about, although now that I think about it, the writing biz has had many lovely moments. I think my first signal that I was going to be a writer really got my attention was when I was eight years old. I was lying on the floor with my eyes closed, listening to the radio and visualizing the scenes, when I heard an announcement that they were having a contest: Basically, whoever wrote the best radio show script was going to win a hundred dollars. The fact that the show was a medical drama didn’t faze me at all even though I knew nothing about being a doctor. Oh, and I also didn’t know how to write a script. But for some reason, I had the feeling that I could do that, I really could! It didn’t take me long to realize that first and foremost, my spelling was atrocious and when I wrote the script, even I couldn’t decipher it. But something in the back of my mind still said I could do it. I remember the utter strength of those words running through my head even though the evidence was right in front of me that I had a long, long way to go. I still knew I could do it.

Raven Talks Back

 Life and logic intervened, of course. I went on to school, got horrible grades in English, tried to write romance stories about my junior high girlfriends and their boyfriends for a dollar apiece, got caught and almost expelled. Not a good start, although my friends liked the stories.  Eventually I grew up, sort of, got married, produced four children and somewhere along the line managed to win a magazine contest for a short story with my eight page opus about a widow with a head cold and a widower with two small sons he was taking out Trick or Treating. I think the prize was a bottle of perfume or something like that. Certainly not publication. I deduced from that episode two things. One, they must have been really desperate to have a winner but they weren’t going to spend any time editing it.  And two, I probably really should study up on how to actually put a publishable story together. I still wasn’t ready though, until many years later, when I met up with a group of women who were forming a romance writers’ group. I always knew I was never going to be a romance writer, I was thinking from the git-go of heavier stuff, but I figured good writing is good writing no matter what the genre. That went on for, I would say five years, with me writing manuscripts (on an electric typewriter) then re-writing them and sending them out and dealing with the rejections. Same thing most writers do unless they have some heavy duty help from someone who knows what they’re doing, but none of us knew what we were doing and most of the ladies fell by the wayside or decided writing was just too much trouble and they’d read someone else’s books instead.

Then one day as I received probably my fiftieth rejection and was about to quit, I walked into a friend’s bookstore and had what I can only describe as a Magic Moment. My eyes, for some reason, traveled all around all those shelves of books and for the first time really focused on the enormity of the effort that had been expended to have had All Those Books actually printed. At that moment it almost seemed as if those shelves lit up with some kind of glow and I thought, “If all the writers who wrote all those books got published, so can I.”  That was the moment that sealed my fate. I went home, hunkered down, and even though it took me three more years, every day I knew I was getting closer until finally, while I was at a Romance Writers of America Conference, I met the head of the Superromance section of Harlequin Romances, the closest romance subgenre to mainstream without being actually mainstream. We passed going through one of the doors, she glanced down and read my name tag and said, “Oh! Your book is sitting on my desk right now. We all like it, but we need some changes made.  Would you be willing to do them before we offer a contract?”

Would I?  YES I WOULD! Two, not one but two, grueling edits, during which I finally learned how to write a book, and I had my first contract. You can about imagine how I felt three years later (their normal lead time then) when I finally held that first book in my hands. I’d say it was a miracle, but the pragmatic part of me says, “Oh, no, it’s not a miracle. You worked your butt off for this.”

 2. The mystery genre seems to be your weapon of choice when it comes to writing.   Why?  And while answering that, you might throw in some thoughts about your willingness to infuse large portions of horror into your works.

I’ll answer the second part first. I’m probably never going to infuse large portions of horror into my works. Real horror keeps me awake nights. There are some authors I love, but I can’t read their books because there’s too much horror in them and they’re such good writers that the first sentences will set the hair on the back of my neck standing straight up, and I know right then that I have to close the book and leave it closed. The strange thing is, I can read a Steven King or a Dean Koontz straight through and be happy because I’m being hugely entertained. I admire both of them tremendously, but I’ve never actually been so frightened at one of their books that I had to stop reading. They’re just, to me, fun.  BUT then one day I picked up a book by Rick Reed, who writes gay mysteries. I read one and a half pages into it and I honest to God had to put the book down and I could not go back and read it, because in that one and a half pages he had managed to create so much real terror and tension that I knew something really, really horrible was going to happen and I couldn’t bear to read on. Just couldn’t do it.

I gave that a lot of thought afterward and I finally realized that what he had done, and superbly, was taken a perfectly normal scene, a guy walking around his apartment getting ready for a date with a guy he had never met. In that short space of time, I had already decided I liked this guy enough that I didn’t want him to die, but more and more I got the sinking feeling that very soon after his company walked through the door, this guy that I already liked was going to die a horrible death. Now that is some genius horror writing and I still shiver when I think of it but I have no idea what happened to the nice guy because it scared me so badly I had to stop reading. Probably not what Rick wanted to happen, but it did. The upshot was, I learned how to create real horror and I also learned I don’t want to do it.

 As for why I write mystery and jumped right into it after that first contract for a romance (although there was a mystery in that book too) I think a lot has to do with the personality of the writer and how he or she thinks. For one thing, I like the idea of creating all kinds of imaginary chaos, usually in one family, and then setting it all right again for them. Almost like playing dollies when you’re a kid. Give them a problem, then help them solve it.  Make the world right again, whether the end result is a Happy Ever After one or not. I think mysteries are true to life, at least the ones I like to read are. I don’t think people always live happily ever after, but I do think when you fall into a serious mess, it can usually be managed with common sense. That, to me, is actually how  mysteries are solved by the main protagonist. He or she has to be capable of solving huge problems by using common sense, not emotion or gimmicks.

Second Generation
 3.  Do you find it easier, or more difficult, cracking into the genre being a woman?  Or has the issue of sexism ever come up?  While we're on this subject, what is your take on the idea of the mystery genre being so attractive for female writers?

Hmmm. Tough questions, but I’ll try. There has long been a watch on male-female ratios in crime writing sales at Sisters in Crime. More and more and more there’s not that much of a difference cracking into the genre, with minor exceptions.  Traditionally, it is a little harder for most woman writing serious, hard-hitting, shoot ‘em up mainstream thriller/mysteries because those more often than not feature serious, hard-hitting, shoot ‘em up men. It just seems to be easier for most traditional publishers to accept that a woman wrote a cozy, particularly a hobby cozy, and female writers do predominate in that genre. I know many will probably argue with this, but I can’t offhand recall the names of any male hobby cozy writers and I know I’ve never read one. By the same token, it’s harder in traditional publishing for some (I said some, not all) women to be published with edgier books whose protagonists are mostly very tough men, i.e. Jack Reacher heroes. I think the protagonist’s personality has to be understandable right down to the core to the writer to be realistic, and although I did write one book completely from a male point of view, and successfully, I really had to go some to get into his head first and then stay there. I think someone like Lee Child, for instance, could probably have done it better. 

But then today we have the self-publishing thing, and there, the sky’s the limit.  Nobody has to worry about what sex you are when you’re your own boss. There, there is no discrimination, no matter how minor because you, as publisher of your books, get to make all the decisions. Readers today don’t seem  concerned about the sex of the writer, or the name of the publisher, or anything else for that matter, as long as you give them a good, well edited book. I haven’t done any self publishing yet, but that doesn’t mean I won’t.

 4.  In your opinion what are the components for a good crime/mystery novel?  Rate, if you will, the importance of plot, characters, descriptive detailing, and believability in writing a genre novel.  Of the four items listed is there one which is more important than all the others?

In my opinion, believability is the most important component in any book.  If you don’t make sure you have believable dialogue and cohesive believable narrative, you’re lost because even regular readers can spot unbelievable dialogue even if it’s only that they get a disquieting feeling they can’t identify while they’re reading, but they know they’re having difficulty enjoying the book.  So many times it’s dialogue that doesn’t fit the character, and when that happens I do spot it immediately and I do know why that is and I do put the book down, unfinished. Life, in my opinion, is too short and too full of things we have to do for us to waste time struggling through a book with bad dialogue, which is always unbelievable dialogue.

Next in importance would be characters. You have to have characters, particularly your main characters, who readers can relate to; in other words, people your readers would welcome into their own homes. It has nothing to do with their station in life because money has nothing to do with character anyhow; we all are aware of that. Your characters must have multi-faceted characteristics because we all do. The worst criminal in the world will still have at least one or two endearing qualities even if it’s only that he stops to pet a dog on his way to commit whatever atrocity he’s bent on committing. There’s a lot to be learned about building characters, way too many to enumerate here.  ;-)

I would rate plot next after characters in importance. You can have a plot in mind and then build the characters, but in my case the lead has always popped into my mind first, and I spend some time with them getting to know them from the inside out before I start building a plot around them. It may work differently for you, but here’s why I put plot after characters. You can have a so-so plot, but if you have a lead character that’s a series character who you know your readers love, they will forgive you and many times won’t even notice when the plot’s not that strong, but get your characters wrong and you’ve got an angry reader on your tail.  I read most of the posts on DorothyL, a huge list full of librarians and booksellers and authors as well as ‘civilians’, and most of the time if a person tires of a series it’s not the latest plot that irritates the reader, it’s that the writer changed the lead character or he became boring over time or just about any reason, but it almost always falls on the lead character. As I said in the paragraph before this one, you have to get your lead characters right.

Last I would list descriptive detailing because to me, descriptive detailing is the least important part of any story and in fact, stops the action if there’s too much of it. One exception would be in reading a book by someone like James Michener, who was known, and not always favorably, for his descriptive detail, although I’ve noticed that on the flip side of all those pages and pages of detail are wonderfully drawn characters, some human, often animals, and he brought them all to life equally well in the middle of all that detail. But for the most part, I prefer books with not so much detail because too much of it slows the action. I’ve had editors add detail in my fast moving scenes when they never, ever should have done so. (Sigh…) Too much detail and you’re accused of padding the book-- in some cases to try and hide the fact that you don’t have enough plot. You might not even realizing you’re doing that, particularly in the case of brand new writers, but if you are, experienced editors will spot it.

  5.  What is the state of health these days for fiction in general and  the mystery/detective genre in particular?   What trends do you see growing stronger--and conversely—any trends fading away which might be soon forgotten.

The state of fiction is healthy enough. Historical fiction seems to be coming back. People are actually reading more now because of e-readers. The state of traditional publishing is dwindling because (see previous sentence). From what I’m seeing, the mystery/detective genre is increasing, in part because the whole traditional publishing world is shrinking and along with that trend, many, many former romance writers are turning to mysteries and liking them because they can combine them with romance, which is becoming more accepted nowadays.  Just a few years ago a lot of mystery readers would tear down the walls at the suggestion of adding romance to mysteries. Now, they’ve begun to accept them although there are limits even there. Most diehard mystery readers would much rather not be bombarded with romances that are too erotic, but there are plenty of opportunities for erotica writers even within the erotica genre. People know where to go to get what they want to read, and they do. There’s room enough today for all genres and all methods of presentation.

  6.  What's your next book going to be about?  Is there any novel of yours you are particularly fond of?   Are we to see any cinematic productions of any your novels?  Any television series in the works?

Ha!  I could tell you but I’d have to kill you, re the first question. ;-) I’m currently zapping in between three books that I really want to write. All are about murder of one kind or another.  It’s hard to pick a favorite of all my published novels. The most fun to write was Night Sounds, the one with the male protag who carried the whole book and somehow, he did it all almost effortlessly. It was just one of those fun books you start writing and giggle to yourself all the way through writing it, even though it is a serious murder mystery. And here’s a funny thing about that book, which takes us back to Question 5. There’s a lot of hot romantic scenes in it between Joe and Zoey. Those were almost universally the most talked about scenes in the book. It was always mentioned somewhere in almost all reviews. Conversely, the basic part of the mystery (whodunit?) was an element of a big money scheme which was tricky and I was so  proud of myself for dreaming it up. I spent tons of time researching exactly how to do this thing, and wrote it as simply as I could so everyone would understand it (and hopefully admire the mind that thought it up). Catch this: Not one reviewer OR person who spoke to me about the book ever mentioned the money caper part of the mystery. Not one. Nope. They were all interested in the romantic angle. The success or failure of how they felt about that book was based on Joe and Zoey, who grabbed all the attention. So like I said earlier, you gotta have characters your readers will love.  

I think I still have to say, I don’t have one book I can point to that’s the best, because they’re all different. I don’t do series, which I wish I could say I do because I’d be making a lot more money than I am, but I put my people through so much misery that once I pull them out of it, I just want to leave them alone to enjoy the rest of their lives because they’re all very much alive to me. So all of my books are mainstream standalones. I don’t ever anticipate writing a series. I thought for a time maybe I would for my last book, Raven Talks Back, but even there, at this point I just want to leave them alone.  Besides, I’ve got those three new novels jockeying for position in my head right now.

Movies and Television shows? There’s always hope. Raven Talks Back has been mentioned by reviewers as movie material and I have to tell you, that’s how I saw it, and God, what a beautiful, exciting movie it would be.0 But there’s a lot of difference between a book and a movie script. It could be done, but will it?  Time will tell. And there’s always that one out of the three running around in my head, the one with one character who has multiple personalities…   I do make life hard for myself, don’t I? 

Stay tuned! Come by and check out my newly updated website, which actually isn’t quite finished but you can grab a look and see how it hits you. Had to change it and I’ve neglected the blog lately because I moved from Chicago to Washington State. .  There’s lots there besides chapters of all my books. Lecture pages on different writing subjects. One especially famous one that I’ve had thousands of emails from new writers who loved what I had to say about a new way of Writing a Tight Synopsis. I’m on Facebook, you can find me there. And you can find my last four books up at Amazon and Barnes & Noble online, just go to their sites and type in my name, it’ll take you to my author page on both sites.  Come see me, we’ll have a cup or a glass of something and talk.  B.R., thanks for allowing me to run on  and on about one of our favorite subjects-Writing!  Ciao for now!

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