Posts Tagged ‘Mystery’


Not only is Michael Craft one of the coolest writers I know, he’s one of the coolest people I know. I happened upon one of his books at a library several years ago, and although I can’t recall what prompted me to pick it up, I’m glad  did. I’ve been a big fan of his work for a lot of years now, so getting to know him has been pretty exciting for me.  Mike has become a very good friend to me. He has offered me great writing advice, and even listened (very patiently) to me when I have thrust myriad personal frustrations upon him~ so it only seemed natural that I should interview him here on my blog!

Michael is the author of more than a dozen novels, the Mark Manning mystery series, and most recently, The MacGuffin (which I’m honored to have a signed copy of!) You can learn more about him at: or: You can contact Michael at: To get a copy of his latest book, The MacGuffin, go to:


Q: You have written over a dozen books. Does writing get easier or harder as the time goes on?

A: For me, the actual writing does seem to get easier, and I hope it’s also getting better. It would be nice to think that experience brings not only efficiency, but also improvement.

What has not gotten easier with the passage of time is the purely creative aspect of inspiration. I have always found the most difficult and unpredictable aspect of any given book project to be the initial idea. In other words: What’s it about? Once I’ve found an idea that sufficiently jazzes me, I can rely somewhat on technique, craft, and discipline to pull me through the process of committing 100,000 words to paper.

Q: How long did it take you to get the attention of a literary agent or a publisher?

A: My first novel, Rehearsing, was a slim little literary paperback that took 12 years to find a publisher. Over those years, the manuscript was rejected 27 times (I filed them but didn’t have courage to count them till the book finally sold). Some of the rejections were postcards or form letters, but others offered both praise and advice, which I looked upon as golden nuggets of instruction from the professional publishing world. So I was continuously reworking that first book, not merely repackaging it. And it was eventually published by a small press in San Diego in February 1993 — hard to believe that’s nearly 20 years ago.

Rehearsing never achieved much in terms of sales, but it did get me over the hump of being unpublished, which made my efforts with a second book, Flight Dreams, somewhat easier. This time around, I was determined to go the New York route, so I focused my efforts on finding an agent. It took four years, but I finally got lucky when the manuscript landed on the desk of a new agent at Curtis Brown Ltd., a highly respected and long-established agency. Mitchell Waters took me on as his first client, and Flight Dreams was published by Kensington Books in June 1997. I’m proud to note that it was Kensington’s first gay-themed title, and a great many others have followed.

Q: Growing up, what were your favorite games to play?

A: If you’re expecting me to answer “Clue,” sorry. I was always more partial to Monopoly. And no, I did not, as a result, blossom into a Young Republican.

In college, people kept telling me that I would make a good bridge player, and I tried to learn the game at a couple of junctures, but I never got the hang of it. Looking back, I guess card games have always eluded me.

Over the past year or so, I’ve developed a minor addiction to the Sudoku puzzles that appear in the daily paper. It’s become part of my waking-up ritual, along with coffee. The puzzles get more difficult as the week progresses, so Mondays and Tuesdays begin on a happy note, while Fridays and Saturdays do not.

Q: Is your character Mark Manning based off anyone in particular? Where did he come from?

A: At the time I began brainstorming the first of the Mark Manning stories, I was working at the Chicago Tribune as a graphic designer and living with one of the paper’s reporters. So it’s easy enough to see where I got the idea of creating a protagonist who was an investigative reporter for a big-city daily. But the particulars of the character were entirely my own invention.

At the time, I was going through an Ayn Rand phase, and I much admired the “heroic” qualities with which she imbued her protagonists. So you’ll detect quite a bit of that in the earlier Mark Mannings — to the extent that many readers found the character overly smug. But he does evolve over the course of the series, becoming much less sure of himself.

I really enjoy the process of naming my characters. In the case of Mark Manning, I felt the name had three things going for it: The double-M initials are appealing. Mark is a strong, short name with no nickname. And “Manning” seems to make a verb out of “man.”

Q: What can you tell us about The MacGuffin?

A: Snappy response: It’s fabulous! Buy the book!

But here’s a more considered response. After publishing, on average, a book a year for nearly a decade, I simply needed a break. What’s more, my two concurrently running series (Mark Manning and Claire Gray) had reached their natural conclusions, and on a personal level, I was going through a lot of upheaval that involved a cross-country move and a mindset of “starting over.” So the next book needed to represent a departure for me, and it took me six years to pull it together.

Yes, it’s a mystery, like most of the prior books, but The MacGuffin involves more than 30 entirely new characters, including the protagonist, architect Cooper Brant. And I wanted to experiment with telling the story with a more distinctive and focused narrative voice. What resulted is a very-limited omniscient third-person narration that I had not used before. Cooper Brant is the sole character whose thoughts are shared with the reader, so the narration has a first-person feel to it, but it’s not; it’s third-person all the way.

Most readers will have no awareness of the narrative technique, but it’s crucial not only to the story’s “sound” and feel, but also as a delineator of what kind of story could be told. I apologize for belaboring such a technical point here, but it does in fact color every page of The MacGuffin.

As to what the story is “about,” the jacket blurb sums it up nicely:

A cold-case murder 15 years ago halted promising developments in the quest for clean energy when the rumored prototype of a groundbreaking water engine was stolen or destroyed. Now the race is on to repower America, and Cooper Brant, still grieving that long-ago murder of his father, suddenly finds his family visited by a second violent death, raising the stakes to unearth lost secrets. When Coop discovers how the two crimes are linked, a grim message becomes clear. He’s next.

Q: Will there be a sequel?

A: I conceived The MacGuffin as a stand-alone novel, not intended as the basis for a series, but I developed a real affection for some of its principal characters, and now a sequel seems likely. The inspiration — the kernel of an idea for what the story will be about — has been fermenting for some time now and seems both solid and compelling, but I have not yet worked out all the details.

In the past, I have been a strong advocate for outlining fiction, particularly mysteries, as their plotting is so dependent on intertwined details. But many fiction writers bristle at the very notion of outlining, and I have been wondering if perhaps I should try (to borrow a term from music theory) “through-composing” this next one — in other words, flying blind. This would be a significant departure for me.

Then, Jared, not long ago, I read your blog titled “The Sequel,” in which you describe a process of diving right into your next project before the ink has even dried on the first, and I thought: this is telling me to get my butt in gear and just start writing. I always feel better when I’m actually writing, as opposed to thinking about writing, so let’s just say that I felt inspired by your energy.

I’m happy to report that I have actually begun the first few pages of the sequel to The MacGuffin. It’s working title: FlabberGassed. Yes, as the title suggests, there’s a good measure of humor in this one.

Q: Which comes first, the characters or the storyline?

A: Well, that’s a debate that has torn writers for at least a century now. Writers of literary fiction tend to believe strongly that their stories need to be character-driven (which can result in “action” consisting of little more than protracted discussions over the kitchen table). And writers of genre fiction tend to lean toward plot-driven stories (which can result in one-dimensional characters with no more depth than an old-time melodrama).

Obviously, both character and plot are essential to any well-rounded and compelling modern novel. The writer who gives short shrift to either is at risk of producing a thin story that lacks credible actors, or dramatic authority, or both.

Q: Will there be any more Mark Manning Mysteries?

A: No. Each of the seven Mark Manning installments has a self-contained “action plot” (the whodunit) that does not require knowledge of other stories in the series, but there is also what I like to call an overarching “emotional plot” that focuses on Manning’s evolving character. If you read the seven installments in sequence, you see Manning deal first with coming out as a gay man, then committing to a partner, then dealing with temptations that could risk losing the partner, then taking on the responsibilities of parenting an adolescent, and finally adjusting with his partner to the empty nest.

An even more important evolution for Manning regards his deeply rooted mindset and self-identity. At the start of the series, he’s a know-it-all; by the end of the series, he has learned to know what he doesn’t know, and he is far less judgmental, simply exploring the mysteries of life. The seventh installment, Bitch Slap, leaves him exactly where I want him to remain.

Q: Has your identity as a gay writer helped you, hurt you, or not mattered?

A: Early on, when I was first trying to get published, I felt that my gay identity might have been a detriment. Then, when I finally did secure a contract for the Mark Manning series, there was no question that my gayness had worked to my benefit because the series was intended to serve a niche market, the gay market, where I’ve built an audience. But I had plenty of crossover readers, particularly straight women, which encouraged me to try writing stories for a more general readership, and that’s how my Claire Gray series was born.

Now, 20 years after entering the ranks of published novelists, the market — and society as a whole — has evolved to the point that a writer’s sexual identity is merely a footnote, if that. Since my personal view of gay rights has always been very much that of an assimilationist, I find this literary evolution largely positive. So when I began brainstorming the story that would become The MacGuffin, I really didn’t agonize too much over its intended market or the sexual identity of its protagonist. As the story evolved in my head, it became clear that the protagonist needed to be straight. So he serves the needs of the story, not the needs of a social or political cause.

Still, I am what I am, and even my novels that are not explicitly gay-themed (about half of them to date) still contain a significant “gay presence.” As they always preach to fledgling writers: write what you know.

Q: Does location and/or environment have much to do with your ability write?

A: Location and environment have played a big role in all of my novels, and many readers have commented that the location often seems to be an actual character in the story, particularly those that are set in the desert Southwest, where I now live. I take this as a high compliment.

But your question seems to refer more directly to the influence of my physical writing space. Yes, I suppose my workspace does play a role in motivating me to write. I mean, we all like to be comfortable, and I have designed my home office with care. It’s a comforting place to spend all those hours at the keyboard. And I don’t travel as frequently as I used to, so I rarely need to work on a novel while on the go.

Q: Have you ever had to write under extremely difficult circumstances, and if so, how did you get through it?

A: I find that writing — particularly fiction writing — takes tremendous focus. I need silence and no distractions; I never, for instance, play background music while I write. So if the physical circumstances are difficult or distracting, I just don’t write, as the results would not be my best work. Along similar lines, I never write when I’m tired, and I find writing itself to be a tiring activity; I rarely attempt to write for longer than four hours a day.

Q: What is the nicest thing a reader can say to an author?

A: “Are you single?”

Q: What are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen in the publishing industry since you first got published, and how do you feel about these changes?

A: As discussed above, I think there’s been a significant blurring of the distinction between gay writing and mainstream writing, and I think that’s great for everyone involved.

Obviously, however, the most significant change in the publishing industry has been the advent of electronic publishing and the resulting explosion of self-publishing, both through e-books and print-on-demand paper books. This has rocked the entire industry, and no one can reliably predict how the dust will finally settle. But the entire landscape has changed.

While the stigma of self-publishing as “vanity publishing” is disappearing, it is nonetheless true that self-published books are not subjected to the same vetting and editing process that is undergone by traditionally published books, so the results are very uneven, to say the least. Garbage in, garbage out. At the same time, we are now seeing tons of self-published titles that are fully up to snuff and indistinguishable from their traditionally published counterparts, and I believe the trend will continue in this direction.

The result is that more authors are finding more readers at a time when traditional publishers have grown increasingly adverse to artistic risk and have entrenched themselves ever deeper in the blockbuster mindset.

How do I feel about these changes? It really doesn’t matter how anyone feels about this — the rules have simply changed, and that’s that.

Q: Do you have any storylines that you haven’t gotten around to writing yet?

A: I’ve long thought of plot ideas as my most precious commodity. After all, when a plot notion really grabs me, I commit to it for roughly a year’s work. Having recently begun the sequel to The MacGuffin, I had emptied my idea hopper — until a few days ago.

An old college friend, whom I hadn’t seen in at least 30 years, popped into mind, and I thought it would be nice to send him an e-mail and reconnect, so I Googled him. I typed in his name, plus “New York attorney,” and he popped right up, along with his address. Just out of curiosity, I continued scrolling down the search results, and on the second page I found a reference to him as “Mother Smith’s husband.” (The name isn’t actually Smith.)

This stopped me in my tracks, so I opened the linked site, which belonged to a small-town Episcopal church in Connecticut. Episcopalians address women priests as “Mother” (as opposed to Father or Sister), and it turns out my college friend’s wife had had a later-life calling to the priesthood. I had met her ages ago, before they had married. She was a fashion designer.

But she’s now a graduate of the Yale Divinity School, a priest leading a small flock of Episcopalians in a quaint little Connecticut village, while her husband (my college friend) is a high-power Manhattan lawyer who comes “home” to the parsonage on weekends, when of course she is working.

This isn’t quite a plot yet, but it sure as heck is a promising situation for development, kind of a topsy-turvy spin on that old Cary Grant movie, The Bishop’s Wife.

Q: What are some of your best marketing strategies for getting the word out about your novels?

A: The number one priority is to have a well-designed, well-written, well-edited, well-illustrated, professional-grade website. This makes any author “real.” It allows you to present yourself to the public in the manner you wish to be presented. It allows you to tell your story the way you want it told. And it allows readers to connect and feel invested with you. Conversely, in this electronic age, if you don’t have a website, you simply don’t exist.

An extension of the website should be some sort of presence in the social media. Your success with that aspect of marketing yourself will of course depend on your interest and proficiency in keeping involved with the particular outlet, such as Facebook. A sense of balance is needed here. Obviously, if you’re posting and tweeting all day, you’re not giving much focus to your core writing goals.

Also, if you have some money to work with (such as a respectable advance), you might consider contracting with a professional book publicist for a limited campaign at the time of your book’s release. This is not cheap, and my own experience with this option has been mixed.

Q: Have you ever collaborated with another author? What are your thoughts on that?

A: No, I’ve never collaborated with another writer on a novel, but I did collaborate once on a play script. It was a positive experience, but you really need to have confidence that the two writers are compatible — if not, the situation could get hellish.

Q: You write murder mysteries. What is the most difficult thing about that?

A: Keeping them fresh. Making sure they don’t get too formulaic or predictable.

Readers of genre fiction have a set of expectations when opening a new book, and this is especially true of the mystery genre. Early on, an editor once told me, in no uncertain terms, “I want a corpse by chapter five or page 100, whichever comes first.”

Q: Do you think the authors of mystery stories have inordinately analytical thought processes?

A: Yes, I think that’s a fair characterization of myself, and I presume it’s true of many other mystery writers. A mystery, of course, is a puzzle, with the reader competing with the protagonist, trying to be first to solve the whodunit. Successful plotting is absolutely dependent on subtly intertwined details, so the maker of the puzzle must remain in control of the story at all times.

Q: What got you interested in murder mysteries?

A: I didn’t choose the mystery genre. It chose me. Honest. I set out to be a “literary” novelist, but when I finally secured an agent, he saw strong elements of mystery in the manuscript at hand and encouraged me to push it solidly into that genre. I willingly complied, and then he went out and landed a three-book contract for me with Kensington. That sealed my fate.

Q: What are your thoughts on Agatha Christie?

A: Some years ago, a respected reviewer referred to me as “the gay Agatha Christie,” and it’s a comparison in which I take considerable pride. Mysteries are divided into several subgenres, and Miss Christie is the great master of the “cozy,” which generally involves an amateur sleuth, little violence, and no sex. My gay-themed mysteries, however, contain a fair amount of sex, so I like to describe them as “erotic cozies.” I’ll bet Miss Christie would have approved.

Q: Do you go to writing conferences?

A: Over the years, I’ve attended a number of Bouchercon conferences, serving on various authors’ panels, but those conferences are more fan-driven than writer-driven. In other words, I was there to help sell my books, not to hone my writing skills.

As mentioned above, I took a hiatus from my publishing routine a few years ago, and one of the reasons for this was to step back, assess what I had done, and hone my skills. So I went back to school for a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, which was, in a sense, a two-year writing conference. I attended the low-residency program at Antioch University Los Angeles, which I found to be a rigorous curriculum with a strong literature component — we not only wrote a minimum of 20 pages per month, but we also read, reported on, and discussed two novels per month. It was intense, and also a revelation. I’ve often heard it said that you have to learn to read before you can learn to write, and now I believe it.

Q: In your opinion, what has been your greatest achievement as a writer?

A: It may sound like a modest goal, but after all these years — and after having published some million words — I feel that I can now honestly call myself “a writer” and, more specifically, “a novelist.”

John Lutz is the author of more than forty novels and more than 200 short stories. He has written everything from horror and occult, to humor, thriller, mystery and suspense. His novel SWF Seeks Same was made into the movie Single White Female, starring Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh. His novel The Ex was made into the HBO original movie of the same title, which he co-wrote the screenplay for. John is a past president of both Mystery Writers of America and Private Eye Writers of America. He has won such awards as the MWA Edgar, the Trophee 813 Award, the PWA Life Achievement Award, the PWA Shamus, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Golden Derringer Lifetime Achievement Award.

I met John Lutz at a book signing for his novel Serial. He signed a copy of the book for me, which I have to admit, was one of my most exciting rock star moments! I’ve been reading his books for many years, so when I actually met him in person, I was a little nervous. As it happened, I found him to be intelligent, funny in a charmingly quirky way, and very pleasant to be around. I asked him to be a part of the author interviews on my blog because he is one of the novelists who have inspired me to write. He’s a great guy who has taught me much through his excellent novels and his willingness to answer questions about the craft. I am thrilled and honored to pass on some of his views on storytelling, his thoughts on the publishing industry, and a little bit of insight into his own writing process. So… here are my questions, and here are his answers! (For more information, check out John Lutz Online at:

Q: What year was your first book published, and what are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen in publishing industry since then?

A) First short story in 1967. Thieves’ Honor, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. First novel in 1971. The Truth of the Matter, Pocketbooks.

I don’t think publishing changed much in fundamental ways until the advent of the e-book. Now it’s changing so fast, and in unpredictable ways, that it’s difficult to keep up with it. Scary, but truly interesting.

Q: When you first got published, what did you do to celebrate?

A) Exhaled. Had dinner with my wife.

Q: How many ‘No’s’ before you got a ‘Yes’?

A) “Many ‘No’s’.  Most writers of my time and ilk would say the same. Usually writers’ “first” novels weren’t first efforts. The e-book has made publishing easier, cheaper. Not necessarily a bad thing.

Q: As a writer, what has been your greatest disappointment?

A) There are a few things I’d sill like to see happen (like seeing one of my novels made into a play), but I don’t think in terms of disappointments. All in all, I feel that I’ve been extremely lucky.

Q: Your novel, SWF Seeks Same was made into a movie, Single White Female, starring Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh. How did that come about, and what was it like for you?

A) As with some other books that my agent thought had movie potential, the manuscript was sent to his west coast affiliate to shop around. And it found a home.  The rights were bought before the book was published. The entire movie thing was great fun. Yes, I did meet the cast. Watched filming in NYC. Attended premier in LA. Was presented with a screenplay signed by cast and crew. A very positive experience.

Q: Did you meet any of the actors?

A) Met them, watched them work, got to look over the director’s shoulder, tried not to trip over any of the cables. Actually seeing a book made into a movie strengthened my opinion that for best results the movie shouldn’t follow the book chapter and verse.

Q: In researching serial killers, what about them has surprised or intrigued you most?

A) The extent of the violence and physical damage in a stranger-on-stranger rape. And the fact that, according to FBI studies, once a serial killer takes a first step toward his intended victim, if there is no interruption, no matter what the intended victims does, there will be a confrontation. Most serial killers are kind of like guided missiles that have locked onto a target.

Q: What is one question you wish people would ask you, and how would you answer it?

A) “Are you going to write more books?” “Yes.”

Q: You’ve been featured in several of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazines and in several anthologies edited by Alfred Hitchcock. Did you ever meet Alfred Hitchcock, and how did his editing style differ from other editors?

A) I never met Hitchcock. To my knowledge he never did any editing, but there was and is a distinct overarching “Hitchcock type” story, featuring suspense, dry humor, and surprising turns. When someone says “Hitchcockian” I think most people have a pretty good idea of what is meant.

Q: What do you think is the greatest misconception people have about you and your work?

A) I can’t be sure about that, because I don’t know what their misconceptions are. Many people do seem to think that writing fiction is easier than it is. You not only have to learn how to write. You have to learn to write. Like you have to learn how to dance before you learn to dance. Takes a lot of dancing.

Q: What do you think is the greatest misconception new and/or aspiring authors have about the industry?

A) That once their book is out there, it will automatically sell. To sell in large numbers books have to be actively sold, ideally through various kinds of advertising that reach large numbers of people. However, the rules are that there are no rules, and sometimes word of mouth can turn a book into a big seller. Or fortunate timing. And yes, now and then a book is so damned good it simply can’t be ignored. But most of those are heavily advertised as books that are so damned good they can’t be ignored. Having said all that, I am aware that I don’t really understand our rapidly changing industry. At this point, I don’t think anyone really understands, or can predict.

Q: In the course of your career, you’ve undoubtedly done an awful lot of book signings. Do you still enjoy them?

A) Sure. It’s nice to make contact with readers, see before you proof that they are actually out there and enjoy your work.

Q: Of the characters you’ve created, who was your favorite, and why?

A) Hard do say. Maybe Nudger, the star-crossed P.I. more suited to selling appliances, with a suicidal girlfriend, a fear of guns, an office above a doughnut shop, and a constant need for antacid tablets.

Q: Are there any of your books that you feel deserved more recognition?

A) Maybe BONEGRINDER, which got great reviews but remains largely unread. It’s kind of hard to fit into a category. Horror, maybe. Or maybe not. It’s recently been republished as an E-book.

Q: Since beginning your career, what invention has most impacted your life as a writer?

A) Has to be the electronic book, but I haven’t yet figured out how.

Q: As a writer myself, I cannot even imagine the days of writing, editing and revising on typewriters. What was it like having to use one for those purposes?

A) I like typewriters. When you’ve run several drafts through one, you have an intimate knowledge of the content, every letter. However, I like writing on computers more. It’s a lot easier in obvious ways, but it takes some tricky adaptation to make the most of it.

Q: Your novel, The Ex, was made into a HBO Original movie of the same title for which you co-wrote the screenplay. How does writing screenplays differ from writing novels, and how are they similar?

A) I think it seems easier to write a screenplay. Maybe it is easier to write a passable screenplay. But they are deceptively simple. To write a good screenplay, worthy of being translated to film or digitalization, is difficult. Lots of people can, and do, write screenplays, but there’s a reason why not a lot of  people write them successfully, and those people, with that rare ability make a lot of money.

Q: What do you consider the highlight of your writing career?

A) I suppose SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, when it was made into a hit movie. It was the number two movie in theaters, and number one in video sales. Would have been the #1 movie if it weren’t for UNFORGIVEN. Also it inspired a lot of women to get their hair cut and dyed in that hairdo that looked great on J,J, Leigh and B. Fonda. On the other hand, maybe I haven’t yet experienced the highlight of my career.

Q: If you could say one thing to a new writer, what would it be?

A) Write, write, write. Write some more.

Any fiction writer knows that characters are crafty and unpredictable little critters who seem to possess minds of their own. While this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the storytelling process, it can also be one of the most frustrating. At times, you want a character to do (or not do) one thing or another, and you spend substantial amounts of time and energy trying to force the desired activity only to learn over and over again that you really aren’t in control at all.

There are endless ways our characters surprise us. There is the good guy who suddenly wants to do something heinous, there’s the bad guy who wants nothing more than to redeem himself, and there are the small bit-players who demand far more of the spotlight than they need. Finally, there are those characters who just mysteriously appear, and of course, their even more mysterious counterparts, the ones who just kind of vanish into thin air. It’s those fictional vanishing acts that intrigue me most of all.

As far as I can see, disappearing acts in the world of the written word date as far back as The Holy Bible when, after stripping Samson of his lustrous locks and Almighty Power, his duplicitous love interest Delilah, slips into the netherworld, never to be heard from again. We don’t know what happened to Delilah, and for the most part, we don’t care; but it does make me stop and wonder what becomes of our own characters who never fulfilled their author-imposed missions.

Of my own characters, the one I’m most curious about is a fellow named Chester. Before a word of The White Room had actually been written, Chester was at the front of the line, lobbying for my attention with sweet little promises of all the various ways he would contribute to the story. It wasn’t until almost two years later, when I wrote those two beautiful, final words, The End, that I realized poor Chester was never even mentioned.

I’ve come to think of writing a novel as something similar to making a movie, and one of the most important parts of books and movies are, of course, the characters who drive the story. So it’s safe to assume that sometimes, certain players just don’t make the final cut. Maybe the story evolves and just kind of leaves them in the dust, or maybe the introduction and evolution of new characters renders the old ones unnecessary. In Chester’s case, I think it’s a matter of the latter, but I don’t think that means he won’t reappear at a later time.

I imagine fictional characters as actors of sorts who are ever-vying for the next best part to play. Maybe this analogy is a bit outlandish, but it’s what makes sense to me so I’m going to go with it. I just can’t accept that the characters we create are accidental mirages of meaninglessness who can fade in and out of existence as quickly as picking up or setting down a pen. We bond with these “people”; we foster them and invest in them. They are, I believe, extensions of ourselves that we’ve found a way to give expression to, and I don’t believe that part of ourselves will go ignored forever.

I still have a lot to learn about this whole fiction-writing thing, but I suspect that in time, I will clearly understand these little mysteries enough that I’ll no longer find myself worrying that people who do not exist didn’t get their chance to shine in a world that isn’t real. Until then, I will just have to comfort myself with the hope that these little disappearing acts will re-emerge when the time (and the story) is right.

This is a strange journey, indeed…


You have about fifteen seconds to get their attention, and given the average modern-day attention span, which is about that of a coffee-buzzed gnat, it’s best to try doing it in five. This being the case, one of the most important lines ever written in a novel is the first one. For contemporary writers, the days of Charles Dickens-style, drawn-out opening passages are gone. Not that we don’t still love the “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” type of opening lines of the golden oldies, but we generally adopt a different mindset reserved only for the classics; and even concerning them, that first line has to contain enough intrigue to move readers to the next sentence. This is a truth that has withstood era after era. One of the best examples I can think of to support this is probably the Holy Bible. Even though the bible goes on to confuse, bore, or entirely evade many of us in a literary sense, you can’t help but be a little intrigued by its first line. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth,” is, if nothing else, a pretty good hook. The bible though, is not a novel, so unless I am looking to write my own bible (which I certainly am not), I should probably look elsewhere for insights that will improve my own fiction writing techniques.


Probably my favorite opening line is that of Margaret Mitchell’s, Gone with the Wind. That first passage, “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but seldom men realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were,” is, to me, a brilliant starting point; not because it thrusts the reader into the heart of some on-the-verge-of-death conflict, but because it is so thick with insight into human nature, and as well, gives us an immediate but subtle sense of duality and arguably, deceit. Scarlett O’Hara herself is the conflict, and that alone presents a whole new breed of hook.


Mystery can also be a good approach. Stating something that intrigues a person, yet doesn’t say much at all about what’s happening, can (if done well) propel the reader forward with a strong level of interest. Human beings are, by nature, very curious creatures, and a writer who knows how to strike the precarious balance between not enough information and too much information can carry a reader quite a long way on this tactic alone. A good example that comes to mind which uses this technique is the opening line of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “It was a pleasure to burn.” How can you not continue reading something like that?


In The Servants of Twilight, Dean Koontz begins with the passage, “It began in sunshine, not on a dark and stormy night.” This is a strong opening for several reasons. First, it’s ominous. By saying, “a dark and stormy night,” we know something bad is going to happen, and we all love it when bad things happen. Second, it’s mysterious. We don’t know what “it” is, and we really shouldn’t care, but somehow, we do, (probably because we know it’s something bad).  The third element of this opening line that strikes me (and probably my favorite part of it), is that it gives the middle finger to the dark and stormy night cliché that so many horror stories depend so heavily on. With this line, Dean Koontz is taking fear to a whole new, far deeper level by telling us (as if we needed to be more afraid) that really horrific things can happen just as likely in the broad daylight as anywhere else. Thank you, Dean Koontz.


Shock value, is of course, also an option. Using shock value as an opener is probably the riskiest approach because you chance offending, and thereby losing, the reader right off the bat. In a way, I respect this approach though because if the content of a novel is going to be offensive, at least its author is being respectful enough to let you know upfront. Still, it can’t be said that shock doesn’t do a pretty good job getting, and in the best cases, holding an audience’s attention. The opening of Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth is a shining example of that. With the novel’s opening line, “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over,” we are either immediately hooked, or immediately offended. Whether or not it was Roth’s intention to shock the reader, only he knows, but there’s no denying it’s an eyebrow-raiser. This line, as far as I’m concerned, pretty much has it all: mystery, sex, shock, profanity, and self-confidence; all this in nine words, and with a poetic edge to boot.


Regardless of how I choose to begin each story, I have to keep in mind that the first sentence needs to pack a little punch, and that it doesn’t get any easier from there. In my experience, an interested agent will ask to see five to thirty pages of a person’s work in order to determine whether or not a submission is a worthy investment of their time. I recently re-wrote the first four pages of my third manuscript because as I reread it, I realized I’d given the reader very little, if anything at all, to hold onto. My initial intention was to start in the heart of the action, and while this is often times a fine idea, it was, in this case, not working. So I challenged myself to compact as much into the first five pages as I could, while still moving the story forward. In five pages, I tried to reveal a sense of who my character is, what normal life is like for him, and that some kind of conflict is on its way. This, while introducing a couple of characters, laying down a setting without going too heavy on description and detail, and moving the storyline forward at an interesting and engaging pace, without relying on back story and too much exposition, is no easy feat. But it can be done.  


In an era when people are tapping their feet, impatiently waiting for the microwave as it heats up their frozen dinner; when folks are rolling their eyes and looking pointedly at their watches in the less than ten seconds it may take while the internet uploads an entire library’s-worth of world history on their computer screens, there’s no time to dawdle. You have fifteen seconds or less to get their attention. Make it count.