Ellen Hart interview with David Alan Binder
Post date: Feb 22, 2017 12:46:00 AM
Ellen Hart interview with David Alan Binder
Her bio from her website: Ellen Hart is the author of over thirty crime novels in two different series. She is a six-time winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Mystery, a three-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award for Best Popular Fiction, a three-time winner of the Golden Crown Literary Award in several categories, a recipient of the Alice B Medal, and was made an official GLBT Literary Saint at the Saints & Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans in 2005. In 2010, Ellen received the GCLS Trailblazer Award for lifetime achievement in the field of lesbian literature. In 2016, she was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. The award "represents the pinnacle of achievement in mystery writing and was established to acknowledge important contributions to this genre, as well as for a body of work that is both significant and of consistent high quality."
For many years, Ellen has taught "An Introduction to Writing the Modern Mystery" through The Loft Literary Center, the largest independent writing community in the nation. Ellen's latest Sophie Greenway mystery is No Reservations Required (Ballantine). Fever in the Dark, the twenty-fourth Jane Lawless mystery, was published by St. Martin's/Minotaur in 2017. Bywater Books has been releasing Ellen's latest titles in paperback, starting in October 2013 with The Mirror and the Mask and The Cruel Ever After. Also,Audible.com has been releasing all of the Jane Lawless mysteries as audiobooks.
1. Where are you currently living (at least the state or if outside US then Country)?
2. What is the most important thing that you have learned in your writing experience, so far?
I’ve taught “Writing the Modern Mystery” for the last seventeen years. During my first class, I always tell this story because I think it’s instructive. Every writer has an odyssey, and this is part of mine.
My first book was published fairly easily. The publisher asked me to write another and so I did. I sent it to them and they sent it back, rejecting it and giving me their thoughts on how I could make it better. I didn’t really agree with their critique, so I put it on the shelf and began a third story.
This time, I figured I knew what they wanted so I set out to write that book. I sent them Vital Lies a year later. Again, they rejected it!
I was confused and thoroughly dismayed. They sent their ideas on how I should change the book. Essentially, they asked me to “beef-up” the feminist parts and add more gay characters. Again I felt this wasn’t good feedback, having more to do with politics than the essential story. I agreed that the book had problems, but again, not with their solutions. I thought about it for quite some time, and then began rewriting.
Here’s what I learned because of these two rejections. My first book, Hallowed Murder, was as flawless as I could make it at the time. It’s a first book, with many first-book problems, but it was good enough to be published. My second book was rushed. I didn’t take the time with it that it needed and it showed. So I shelved it. My third book, (which came out as my second), Vital Lies, was essentially my attempt to pander to my publisher’s tastes. I thought I understood what they wanted, but clearly, I didn’t. When I rewrote the book, I took out some of the gay characters because they didn’t work. I cut much of the feminist elements because it slowed the story down. In essence, I pretty much did the opposite of what they suggested? and here’s the kicker. They took it! I’d strengthened the story, not the politics. I’d written the book I wanted to write.
Those were two huge lessons. First, don’t send off a book hoping your editor will find the nugget of genius in the deck you send them. The book has to be the best you can possibly make it in every way? and second, you have to write your book. You can’t pander. You can’t look around and see that X or Y is popular at the moment and try to write some kind of clone. The book you write has to be authentic, has to come from within you. After I learned those two important lessons, I’ve been published ever since.
3. What would you say is your most interesting writing, publishing, editing or illustrating quirk?
I write to a title. For me, the title becomes something I riff off of, something that helps me find my way thematically into the story. I’m always looking for a title that resonates. From there, I usually need to think about a book for a few months, sometimes longer, before I can begin. I seem to reach a place in my mind, where the book comes together enough for me to begin. I need a clear idea of the hook, the first chapter, and the next few chapters as well. Beyond that, it’s all a dark road. I sometimes know the end, but never how I’ll get there. In a way, I put the characters on stage and watch them behave. I know generally what needs to happen, but the book unfolds as I write it. In a way, I think you could say that I come to the story the same way my readers do. If I outlined, I don’t think I’d be all that interested in writing the book. I remember reading about Alfred Hitchcock. (I love reading about directors. They seem to do many of the same things writers do to create a story.) He’d get all his shots lined up, do the story board, nail everything down, and then he’d lose interest. Shooting the film was anti-climactic. That’s how I’d feel if I outlined. There would be no surprises. The surprises, the twists and turns, make me want to get up every morning and write. If I’m surprised, I hope my readers will be, too. On the other hand, writing process is completely idiosyncratic. Students often come to my classes looking for concrete answers. I can help them with craft, but I can’t teach them to write. They have to do that themselves--by writing
4. Tell us your insights on self-publish or use a publisher?
That’s a hard question to answer. I think a publisher’s role is sometimes minimized in people’s efforts to get to the finished product — the completed book in their hands. Writing is enormously hard. Editing is vital, as is every other step in the writing and publishing process. To take that all on yourself, especially when you know little about the industry, can be a recipe for failure. Publishers and agents, for good or ill, have become our literary gatekeepers. They weed their way through books that really shouldn’t be published for one reason or another. Do they miss great stories or fail to see certain book’s potential, especially if they fall out of the mainstream? Sure. And that’s frustrating. I believe that’s where small publishers come in. These small presses take on many of the books mainstream publishers reject, and I believe firmly that it keeps the entire book industry honest and vibrant. Self-publishing, as easy a road as it might seem at the outset, can often be a dead end. Shortcuts don’t serve anyone in the end. My feeling is, if you have the talent, the desire, the passion, the determination and the discipline, keep working at your craft. Good books will find a publisher.
a. Who is the name of your publisher and in what city are they?
St. Martin’s/Minotaur. NY
5. How did you or would you suggest acquire an agent? Any tips for new writers on getting one?
In today’s world, it can be as hard to find an agent as it is to find a publisher. My advice would be to talk to individual writers and ask who their agent is. If you attend conferences or conventions, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to talk to writers directly. Buy them a drink or a cup of coffee. Ask them what they think of their agent, what they expect from an agent. Ask about fees. Generally speaking, the fundamental notion of agent-ing is that, just as you risk your time and effort writing the book, they risk theirs by trying to sell it. Most writers are happy to tell you who their agent is.
6. Do you have any suggestions or helps for new writers (please be specific and informational as possible)?
Write. Write. Write. Classes can help you with motivation, and understanding craft, but you learn to write by writing. It’s hard work. It’s not always fun. Don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration will come, but you have to be at your desk writing to take advantage of it.
Some days you’ll think you’re writing Pulitzer Prize winning prose. Some days you’ll think it’s all junk. You can’t listen to either voice. Just keep going. Toughen up. Critique is hard, but you can’t grow as a writer without it. Expect magic to happen. It will, but only if you put in the time.
Read, read, read. Reading will help you learn. The more you write, the more you’ll see what you do well, and don’t do so well. Once you begin to see your weaknesses, your reading will take on new meaning. You’ll begin to see how other writers handle the same issues ? the solutions, often elegant, that they’ve found and you can learn from. Reading like a writer is to see not just the story, but the nuts and bolts, the underlying structure. Anything you do to put off writing is probably a mistake. Write!
7. How many books have you written?
8. Do you have any tricks or tips to help others become a better writer (please be as specific and information as you possibly can)?
Well, because I think one element differentiates writers who get published from writers who don’t, let’s talk about discipline. I’ve been teaching a class called “Writing the Modern Mystery” for seventeen years. During that time, I’ve come across lots of wonderful writers. What I don’t know about those people is -- do they have the discipline to actually spend the time to finish a book. It may sound simplistic, but it’s the people who finish books who ultimately get published, not people who work erratically on a story year after year. You have to be a self-starter. In my opinion, you have to take the decision -- to write or not to write -- off the table. You make a commitment: Every Monday and Thursday evening I will write for two hours. Or every Saturday afternoon I will spend four hours working on my book. No excuses. Now, of course, life doesn’t always work like that, but the more you can do to take the decision away from yourself, the better off you’ll be if you have trouble with discipline.
9. How long does it take you to get from the initial proposal/concept, to the final draft?
A. Mystery novels are, by popular definition, considered commercial fiction. In NY, commercial fiction means a book a year. That’s my deadline. It usually takes me a month or two to do the research, think through the story-line, the plot and the characterizations. At some point, I sit down and begin. I never know when that will be -- it’s some sort of mental threshold I cross. Can’t explain it much beyond that. The first draft takes five to six months. Once it’s done, I do a second draft right away -- based on what I know I need to change. (I take notes as I move through the book.) I may do another draft or two, and then it goes to my writing group. I’m blessed to have some pretty amazing writers that are not only friends, but help me with my work. Once they’ve torn the book apart and given me all their sage advice, I do a final draft. At that point, it goes to my editor and agent, which means another round of editorial revisions. And finally, the manuscript is copyedited, which is another round of revisions. It’s a long, but important process.
10. What is it about the human psyche that draws us to the mysterious?
That's a rather large question, one that’s been the subject of entire books. As Albert Einstein once said, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all art and science."
More specific to the mystery genre, I believe human beings are innately curious. Since the element of mystery is the quality that keeps us reading any book, when you give it center stage in a novel, you get a leg up in grabbing a reader’s attention. That's one reason why we find so many mysteries and suspense novels on the bestseller lists. They are entertaining, compelling stories, but in a strange way, they’re also comforting. When you enter the novel, you come upon a world in chaos. There’s often been a murder or a significant crime. People’s lives have been turned upside down. The story might not move from sadness to happiness, but you know that there will be a resolution. We all live in a world where resolution is hard to find. Thus, in a sense, mysteries give us something CNN can’t.
11. What are some ways in which you promote your work?
My first book was published by a small press in Seattle. During that time, I was lucky enough to work closely with an energetic publicist who encouraged me to do as much self-promotion as possible. Early on, without much help, I set up author events at libraries and bookstores, sometimes as many as fifty events during the rollout of any novel. I often asked other writers to join me in these efforts, feeling that two or three authors together made for more of an event. Later in my career, I hooked up with William Kent Krueger and Carl Brookins, two local friends and fellow crime writers. We dubbed ourselves “The Minnesota Crime Wave” and spent eleven years traveling together, doing three national tours, teaching workshops, editing several mystery anthologies, creating a cable TV show “The Minnesota Crime Wave Presents,” and generally doing hundreds of gigs at libraries, bookstores—pretty much everywhere we were invited. We had a ball doing it, and we made enough money through our promotional efforts to pay for all the travel.
12. What is the one thing you would do differently now (concerning writing or editing or publishing or illustrating) and why?
13. What saying or mantra do you live by?
Don’t really have one.