Monthly Archives: July 2011

An Interview with NY Times Bestselling Author Chelsea Cain

Be afraid.  Be very afraid.

Chelsea Cain is one scary writer.  And one very cool lady. 

And perhaps those two attributes help describe her success… in the first three of her first fourbestselling novels (HeartsickSweetheartEvil at Heart, the fourth being The Night Season), she brought us the sinister Gretchen Lowell, the most beautiful and sadistic serial killer to have stalked the pages of any thriller, ever. 

That alone is a killer idea.  And look what happened.  One word: superstar.

These novels, when considered together, become a clinic in not only writing a crime series, but one with a recurring antagonist (not an easy trick) that tries to push the hero (the cool, calm and very manly Detective Archie Sheridan) off center stage.  Will Gretchen return?  Only Chelsea knows for sure.  (Sidenote: the movie is in development.)

By the way, Archie does just fine in the fourth book, while Gretchen is safely behind bars, with critics raving.

Here’s what she has to say for herself.

SF:  Your books are on the dark side. Is there anything you are exploring within yourself, or your past in your stories (ala Dennis Lehane with his consistent themes of child abduction and abuse), or is this stuff coming from some other place?
No.  Except maybe a childhood love of mysteries and TV cop shows. 

I had a very independent childhood.  I was raised by a single mom, who was also a feminist and a bohemian, so I was given a lot of freedom.  Even as a young kid, I went where I wanted, and was left to my own devices a lot.  I think this gave me an absurd sense of self-reliance and a sense of being safe in the world.  (It also meant I had to learn to entertain myself, which made me good at making up stories in my head.)  When you protect kids from everything they tend to grow up thinking the world isn’t safe.  When you don’t protect them (ironically) they grow up thinking the world must be very safe. 

I don’t have the base level of fear that many of my female friends have (about being alone in the house at night, or walking in an “unsafe” neighborhood alone, that kind of thing).  So because of this, because I am not afraid, I am able to go to dark places in my imagination and then leave it on the page. 

Interestingly, I also have a very violent imagination.  (This is why I am a vegetarian, I think.)  Even as a kid, I loved sneaking into the medical book section at the library and pouring through the pictures of terrible deformities or surgeries.  It seemed at once forbidden and compelling.  I like going places that make me feel a little uncomfortable.  I think I just have to go farther than most to reach that point.   
SF:  When people ask if  you are Gretchen, what’s your response, and do you kill them later?   

What’s incredible – and it’s taken me a few years to realize this – is that these people mean the comparison as a compliment.  I am not Gretchen.  She is made up completely.  She is the most made-up character in the books. 

When I first started writing Heartsick and started researching violent female serial killers (of which there are few) and psychopaths (who are, as a group, not nearly as interesting as Gretchen is) I knew I was going to have to just go for it and make her the person I wanted her to be, and throw the criminology textbooks out the window.  She is beautiful.  And she’s clever.  And witty.  And seductive. 

So I get that readers like her.  And they really do.  I had no idea when I started the books that they would become The Gretchen Lowell Series.  I thought of them (and still do) as The Archie Sheridan Series.  But I think that fiction has so few strong female archetypes, you know?  So Gretchen really resonates.  She sucks all the power in the room (and on the page).  So, as a person, when readers tell me they love her, I am troubled, but as a writer I love it.   
SF:  Do you read within your genre for pleasure, or is it all business?  If not, what/who do you read?
I read much more for business than I ever did before the series – this is one of those things you don’t think about when you dream about hitting the big time.  There are SO many ARCs (Advanced Reading Copies) to read.  I probably get asked to read an ARC a few times a week.  Those books pile up.  Also, I read a lot of non-fiction criminology or medical stuff – always looking for inspiration.  So I have to choose my pleasure books very carefully because I don’t have time to read something lame. 

Right now, and this is surprising even to me, I am reading “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis.  It’s about baseball, which I don’t care about at all, but it is so well written and smart that I am completely intrigued.  Maybe I will have to have Gretchen murder someone with a baseball bat.  See that – I am always working.  
SF:  What’s your take on the current trending in publishing toward self-posted ebooks, the difficulty in getting and keeping a contract, and the explosion of Kindle and other digital formats?
That’s a big question.  I think that self-publishing will do quite well for a few people for a short amount of time, but that it’s not a viable long term solution.  Someone needs to cull and aggregate.  Or we end up with this glut of unformed work and no way to sort through what’s good and what isn’t. 

When I buy a book, I like knowing that an agent had to reject 500 manuscripts before accepting this one, and that an editor worked on it and a copy editor and a graphic designer, etc.  I cannot believe the number of people who work on my books.  And because I work with a publishing house I have to work on my own book long after I think it’s done.  I’ve gotten incredibly important editorial advice that has made the books so much better.  I think too many self-published author put their work out there before it’s cooked. 

My disclaimer, of course, is that there are some terrific self-published books out there as well.  As for the difficulty of getting and keeping a contract, I’ve been really lucky, so I’m a bad person to weigh in on this.  It’s a tough market out there and the industry cuts a lot of people loose too soon, and agents reject a ton of amazing manuscripts because they don’t think they’ll float in the current economy.  I have friends who have written incredible books and they can’t get anyone to represent them.  So I get the frustration.  I get why people just want to put it online and say, okay, it’s in the world, it’s for sale.  And I have friends who go this route, too. 

Honestly, it’s the Wild West right now.  We’re developing a whole new platform (e-readers) and the industry is going to look like something else completely in five years.  What it will look like, I don’t know.  No one does.  So there is a lot of scrambling.  I think e-readers are great.  Anything that will get people reading is great.  Half of my sales are electronic.  But it’s a game changer.  So it makes me nervous.  And while I have a Kindle and an iPad, I only read books electronically when I’m traveling.  Then I love the format.  It’s terrific and easy and convenient.  But when I’m at home, I like to pick up a book-book.  I stare at a computer screen all day long.  The last thing I want to do when I’m sitting down with a good read, is to look at another screen.  
SF:  Are these self-published books viable, or is this all a watering down of the marketplace?

Some self-published books are indeed quite viable.  But, in my opinion, many are undercooked.  The trick is in finding the ones worth reading, which has historically been the job of the “legacy” publishers. 

I think the numbers we hear are a little misleading.  They’re selling books for a dollar.  People will buy anything for a dollar.  With the right marketing you can get a million people to buy a rock for a dollar.  So you’ve made a million dollars off of rocks.  It still doesn’t say much about the product.  How many people are reading the books they’re buying for a buck?  And as long as I’m ranting, the whole Amazon delivery system worries me.  The feds broke up the movie studio monopolies that made the product (the movie) and then sold it (through the theaters they owned), and I wonder sometimes if Amazon isn’t positioning itself as another monopoly.  What will writers and readers do when it is the only place to self-publish and the only place to buy books?    
SF: What will you be writing five years from now, and if different than your current lane, what is taking you there?
I will be finishing book 10 of the Archie Sheridan series.  And I will have another thriller series (also set in Portland, but with occasional mysteries in Hawaii, which I will have to visit often for research).

Visit the Chelsea Cain Author Page on Amazon, and her website, to learn more about her books, her life, her thoughts and other cool stuff.

And be sure to check out her newest, The Night Season, for the latest Archie Sheridan caper. 

The Night Season


Also… if you prefer your villains seductive and gorgeous and deliciously female, please consider The Dark Lady in my USA Today bestseller, Darkness Bound.  She’s not exactly a serial killer, per se, but she’s in Gretchen’s league when it comes to pure feminine evil of the sadistic variety.  And, like Gretchen, she’s smokin’ hot. 

Darkness Bound



Filed under other cool stuff

Five More Mistakes That Will Expose You As a Rookie

Last week we looked at five common mistakes made by writers at all levels, but perhaps most commonly by newer writers.

The terms “newer” and “rookie” make me nervous, because they may be interpreted as “less than.”  Not my intention, because it’s not true: experience doesn’t always equate to quality or knowledge, and very often a new writer comes out of the chute to blow the rest of us crusty old vets off the page.

My hypothisis: a newer writer who embraces the principles of craft will quickly fly past the still-trying-after-all-these-years writer who won’t.

Rookie mistakes, in the intended helpful context used here, refer to traps that are easy to fall into.  One can remain stuck in these traps – sometimes for decades – until someone (like, a crusty old vet) points them out.  It’s like dieting and salad dressing… rookie dieters sabotage their goals within otherwise salad-intensive best intentions, and experienced yo-yo dieters know better. 

Not all diets are created equal, and any diet that works relies on the exact same principles of nutrition and human biochemistry, no matter what or how they suggest you eat.

Best analogy I have for you today.  But I bet you’ve been there.

1.      Multiple dialogue paragraphs.

This rule is inviolate: when you change speakers, you change paragraphs.  Every time.  No exceptions.

This is wrong:

“Great concert,” offered George, who was driving because the others had drank too much.  From the backseat Gretchen chimed in, “Yeah, if you like nostalgia groups in which only the drummer actually played in the band.”  To which George replied, “Now playing at a casino near you.”

This is right:

“Great concert,” offered George, who was driving because the others had drank too much. 

From the backseat Gretchen chimed in, “Yeah, if you like nostalgia groups in which only the drummer actually played in the band.”

To which George replied, “Now playing at a casino near you.”

2.    Your first writing teacher is dead.  Or at least obsolete.

Maybe.  At least, if they told you any of these things:

–         Never write a story in first person.

–         Describe the hell out of places, people and things.

–         Never tell a story from multiple points of view.

–         Adjectives are evil.

–         Grammar is holy.

–         Exposition should never be conveyed via dialogue.

–         Character trumps plot.

–         All good stories will find a publisher.

–         All published stories are good.

All of these things are wrong.  All of these things can lead to your exposure as a rookie relying on out-dated, and now dangerous advice.

3.   The two legit choices of manuscript font.

There is one standard typeface for professional submissions: Courier, and lately, Courier New.  All in 12-point.

Because of the advent of word processing, writers now have choices in this regard.  Most of them are wrong.  Times New Roman is acceptable in traditional publishing, but anything other than these two fonts will label you as… new.

Some fonts, like Georgia, Garamond or Palatino, are close enough in today’s liberal environment to sneak by.  Others, like Arial, Veranda, or God-forbid, something sexy like Broadway or Papyrus (great for chapter titles, though) or something else that looks like copy from a Hooters ad, will get you thrown out of the game.

Using bold or italics as your default narrative fonts: never.  You’ll not only get rejected, you might get assaulted.

Of course, you may not be intending to submit your work to a traditional publisher, large or small.  In that case, all the font rules go out the window.   Which is why self-publishing in digital is still a wild, untamed frontier, and is quickly, explosively, becoming a depository for the manuscripts that New York is sending back in a S.A.S.E.

Sometimes for the very reasons you see here. 

The bottom line is this: success in the ebook world should have, and will have, the same standards of professionalism that traditional publishing clings to, and with good reason.

Which means, rookies will stand out as rookies in any venue.  Writer beware.

4.    The name game.

There are two common mistakes that rookies make when bestowing names upon their characters.

First, they use names that sound too much alike.  That alliterate like names of twins.  Bob and Bill.  Mary and Carrie.  Andy and Amy. 

Instead of naming two characters Stella and Bella, name them Stella and Gretchen.  Instead of Robert and Rupert, name them Robert and George.   Try to avoid using the same first letter across your entire roster of names, and try to avoid using names of major characters with the same number letters, or close, like Larry, Barry, Harry, Carrie, Willy, Milly, Sherrie, Terry and Cher.

Obvious, perhaps, but you’d be surprised how often it happens.  Anything you do that makes the reading experience confusing or frustrating will always work against you.

This problem extends to the other common mistake in this name game, usually in science fiction, fantasy or even historical genres: your names are gobbledygook, unpronounceable, unfamiliar and difficult to remember from one page to the next.

Notice that J.K. Rowling used made-up names that still held some semblance of a connection to the human experience: Dumbledore, Bellatrix, Sirius… just a twist of the tongue away from familiar.  Notice, too, that the main characters are named Harry, Ron and Hermione, rather than something like Dysteronius, Anaconsiskboomhah and Xphenetieria, or the like. 

You know who you are.

Don’t do it.  Rookie mistake.

Go HERE to see a list of Harry Potter characters, by the way, and see how brilliantly Rowling navigates this issue.

5.  Don’t belabor the backstory.

Backstory is wonderful.  Backstory is critical.  Backstory is tricky.

Just as true: backstory is art.   The degree to which an author weaves in necessary backstory that creates context, sub-text and even sub-plot is the degree to which the entire tale is rendered artful.  It can take years to get it, years more to give it properly.

The best advice – after you have a complete command of what backstory even is, and how it is used to make a story compelling – is to look for how the authors you love handle it.  To notice how it pops up when and as necessary, and how (usually) less is more, and relevance trumps excess.

Notice, too, that exceptions to any of these rules that are otherwise successful are almost never written by new authors.  Never imitate a mistake or bad execution, even when it has a famous name on the cover.  They got away with it… you won’t.

The empowering golden goose here is to know your story as you write it, which means either a solid story planning and vision process before your first draft, or a series of drafts that incorporate the solidification of the story as you go.

The study of craft can keep these demons at bay.

Some writers desire to make their own way, discovering craft as their writing career moves forward, sometimes in the mistaken belief that they are inventing it for themselves.  (Note to such resistant writers: it must be a coincidence, then, that virtually all commercially successful novels and even movies adhere to and demonstrate the same execution of a set of core principles, which those authors did not make up for themselves.)

All of these things, including the five rookie mistakes offered in the earlier post, are available out there, in many forms that end up saying the same things, as standards and benchmarks that apply to all stories, all writers and all story development approaches.

Life is short.  Craft is out there waiting to help you, not tie you down or limit your experience.  Ask any writer who has successfully evolved from rookie to proven professional, they’ll agree that craft is king, and that the king is not dead.

How do I know so much about rookie mistakes?  Two answers:

One, been there, done that. 

Two, I read unpublished manuscripts as part of my work as a story coach.  If you’re interested in having your novel or screenplay critiqued and coached, contact me, let’s see if we can get your story working up to its highest potential.

For more craft, please consider my book: “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Competencies of Successful Writing,” published by Writers Digest Books.

If you’d like to see if I walk the walk, please consider my newly re-published novels (issued as paperback originals from Penguin Putnam): Darkness Bound (my USA Today bestseller)… The Seminar (originally published as Pressure Points)… Bait and Switch… and (from Sons of Liberty Publishing), Whisper of the Seventh Thunder.

All of the links above take you to the respective Kindle pages.  But all are available via Smashwords and Nook, as well. 



Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)