Highly popular mystery suspense thriller author Michael W. Smart is my guest on Author CenterStage for a round of questions on his writing experience. Michael’s published novels are: Dead Reckoning, Deadeye, and Deadlight. All are full-length, stand-alone thrillers that have kept readers up all night! Michael, thanks for joining us and answering questions!
Michael: My pleasure Candi. Your erotica novels enticed me into a genre I don’t read much, so being your guest here to talk writing is a real pleasure.
Candi: I’ve gathered some frequently asked questions from readers to share with you. So, let's begin with a couple of key questions: How did you arrive one day with pen, ink and paper in your hands as you began your first novel, Dead Reckoning? What tipped the balance scales of your motivation to write the first word, the first page?
Michael: Well first of all, I’ve been writing since my early teens, mostly as a hobby, my form of artistic expression I guess. And the first novel I actually completed, at age sixteen, is the science fiction story I’m releasing this summer, after a massive year long rewriting of course. It wasn’t until five years ago, as I contemplated returning to the Caribbean, that Dead Reckoning materialized. I knew returning to live in the Grenadines wouldn’t be the same, some things I wouldn’t be able to still do. Climbing to the top of a mainmast for example, was out of the question. Too much time had passed, my perspective and my body had changed. And so had the island. I wondered what it’d be like living there again in middle age. As I pondered those questions the character Nicholas Gage developed, and also the themes. Gage arrives in the Grenadines with an entirely new perspective than in his past life, and he has to cope with reinventing himself at an older stage in life. I started scribbling notes about him, and by the time I looked up, Dead Reckoning had taken form. I decided later to make it a series.
Candi: It is a terrific series! How old were you when you first noticed your desire to put words on paper to tell a story? What were early influencers, books, people?
Michael: Thirteen I think. My early influences and inspiration were the authors on whom I cut my reading teeth. Pioneers of the mystery and science fiction genres like Dashiel Hammett, Spillane, Ross Macdonald, John D. MacDonald, Leslie Charteris, John Creasey, Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Verne, H.G Wells, to name a few. I wanted to write and tell stories the way they did, making my readers disappear into the pages as I did when reading these authors.
Candi: I knew nothing of your writing background while reading your novels, but I recall thinking of MacDonald and Spillane. So you keep good company, Michael. Your three titles comprise the series, The Bequia Mysteries. What is behind the name Bequia? What are the details that led you to write and publish mystery suspense thrillers? Were there any particular experiences or interests that influenced your interest in the suspense thriller genre?
Michael: Bequia is a small island, only nine square miles, in a group of islands comprising the island nation St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the eastern Caribbean. Though the stories in the series move among other islands in the Grenadines, the Caribbean, and even the U.S, the main setting is Bequia. It’s where the main characters live. After college, in my mid-twenties, I retired from the work-a-day world to travel the world. I spent eight years sailing around the Caribbean and living in the Grenadines. As I mentioned, Dead Reckoning materialized at a time I was contemplating an early second retirement, and returning to the Grenadines. I set the series in the Grenadines as a means to write about my adventures when I lived and sailed there. As for the mystery-suspense-thriller genre, that’s the genre I cut my reading teeth on, and enjoy reading the most. I guess it’s natural for me to also write in that genre.
Candi: The maps you included in the series were of great help. As I read, I could follow your characters. Since the setting for The Bequia Mysteries is the exotic Bequia Island, and you having lived in that area, has there been any particular reactions or repercussions from local citizens? I’m reminded of Thomas Wolfe who wrote Look Homeward, Angel, and the backlash he experienced from his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina.
Michael: The few who are familiar with the novels have been very receptive and supportive. They want me to get actual physical books into the local bookstores and souvenir shops. But the most gratifying reaction I’ve received was from a UK couple, who while researching where to vacation in the Caribbean, discovered the Bequia Mysteries, and enjoyed them so much they decided to vacation on Bequia. They wrote me the most wonderful email about reading the books during their vacation on Bequia, visiting the locations featured in the novels, and even looked up some friends for me. They had a wonderful time thanks to the Bequia Mysteries.
Candi: One of the most popular fiction genres today is the thriller category. What are the ingredients or elements that turn a plain vanilla thriller into a mystery suspense thriller?
Michael: I’ve actually been wrestling with this whole genre question recently, because I also write science fiction, my other favorite genre. It seems to me the question of genre has become more complicated and convoluted than it needs to be. Perhaps the tendency in our polarizing society to constantly classify, categorize, and pigeonhole things into separate little boxes. I look at mystery and thriller as two distinct genres. The thriller is usually plot driven and fast paced. Mystery, while also well plotted, is mostly character driven. Both, or any genre for that matter, can include suspense, which I view as a literary ingredient similar to drama, rather than a separate genre or subgenre. Personally I enjoy novels with elements of multiple genres.
Candi: Readers want to know what an author does with her/his time. What is a typical writing day like for you? When does it begin and end? And do you use a lot of expensive equipment or materials in writing your novels? Can you write with background noise or do you prefer quiet?
Michael: A typical writing day for me begins around one or two in the afternoon, depending on when I awake and get out of bed. I’m usually writing until three or four in the morning. Many times I pull all nighters. If the juices are flowing and my eyelids aren’t drooping I’ll just keep going. If I get into bed with too many scenes, action, dialogue, or story notes running around my brain I can’t sleep anyway. Rather than toss and turn, I simply get up and continue writing. Usually the first thing I do is go through my email, check my social sites, browse any blogs which were shared and the ones I follow, make comments and respond to emails, check the day’s headlines, make notes on what I need to follow up on, including any marketing I need to do for that day, all over a cup or two of coffee. That usually takes about two hours. Then I shower and dress and get ready as though I’m going to the office, which I am. I settle into a favorite nook, reopen my laptop, and I’m there for the next ten to twelve hours with breaks for food or drink or to stretch my legs. Sometimes I’ll write to music, sometimes I want complete quiet. Depends on my mood, or what I’m writing. When I write to music it’s usually a classical piece or movie soundtrack. Debussy’s La Mer, and soundtrack composers like Lisa Gerrard, Hans Zimmer, and Trevor Jones, are on that writing playlist.
Candi: Well stated—writing is not a precise time-clock activity. A popular question for authors is: Have you experienced writer’s block, and how do you deal with it or prevent it?
Michael: I don’t experience what is typically termed writer’s block. I’m never at a complete loss for something to write. And on days when I can’t conjure a new passage or chapter, I’ll work on revising passages or chapters I’ve already written. On occasion I do get stuck at a particular point in a story where I’m not sure where to go next, or how to proceed with the plot. I’ve learned after five novels to take a step back and allow the work to sit for a while, because I now know even if nothing is happening on the page, it’s happening in my head. My characters are constantly speaking and interacting with me. They’re wrangling the problem and trying to figure out what to do next. It also helps when writing a series, because I’m dealing with the same characters, and I’m more familiar with them as the different stories unfold. Usually after this break, I’ll wake up one day to discover the solution fully formed in my head.
Candi: To what extent do your story characters shape your novels? What do they add? Isn't it enough to just tell the story sort of like a newspaper article? You know, just the facts? What distinctions do characters bring to a story?
Michael: The stories in my novels, whether mystery or science fiction, are all character driven. My characters don’t merely exist in the story, they’re essential to shaping and narrating the story. Neglecting this is a shortcoming I see in too many indie-published, and even some traditionally published novels, where telling the story takes precedence over the craft, and writing creatively doesn’t seem to matter. Personally, I can only get through a novel if the story is well crafted, with compelling characterizations, and writing which engages me on a visceral, emotional level. For me, that’s where the joy of reading comes from. Otherwise I lose interest, no matter how imaginative and intriguing the story may be. I work extremely hard to avoid this in my own writing and storytelling. I want my readers to enjoy reading the words and get so lost in the page, they don’t see me, the author, on the page, or notice being swept along by the story. I’m not there yet. But I’m constantly working at it, every day.
Candi: You nailed it; remove characters who can emotionalize the reader, and the book disappears. So how to you fit characters and all the other pieces together? How do you conceptualize or layout the plan of your approach to the plot for a novel you're about to write? What's the time sequence like? Is it finished over a cup of coffee or over a period of days or weeks? And what are the particular challenges of the process of solidifying and nailing down the plot? What challenges does an author face when doing research in writing the book?
Michael: I do have a concept of the plot and story before I begin writing. I do outline to a certain extent, but I don’t require a complete or detailed outline to begin writing. It’s more like an abbreviated storyboard, I know what the story is about and where I want to take it. Once the idea is crystallized in my head, I can usually knock out those notes in a couple of hours. Then I work on what I call casting, which is a longer process, usually a day’s work. I already know my characters in a general sense, where they’re from, what they look like, any particular features I want them to have, enough characteristics to begin fleshing them out, what they’ll be doing, and the situations and internal struggles they’ll have to face. I search online for an image closely resembling my character, and I have that image on the screen as I’m writing, allowing me to have a constant visual reference to their physical features. This is also an aid to prevent me from giving the character brown eyes, dark hair, and a scar in one chapter, and blue eyes, blond hair and no scar in another. I also conduct extensive research for my stories. This is the lengthiest process, anywhere from a couple of weeks to a few months, depending on the story. I spent days at a firing range for Dead Reckoning. And I’ll usually need to do more research on a particular detail as I’m writing. Thank goodness for the internet, or I’d be spending a fortune travelling to libraries and universities. I also conduct phone interviews for my research. Before and during the writing, I’m constantly making notes on the current project, but also future projects whenever my research inspires future plot ideas.
Candi: There’s a ton of work embedded in your answer. So how long does it take you to write and publish a book, from start to finish? It must be easy and simple with all the advanced technology available today. Are there any major ups and downs during that process?
Michael: Dead Reckoning took me two years to complete and publish. I spent almost a year researching and studying indie-publishing before making the decision to go that route. And even though I indie-publish, every once in a while I’ll send out a query to a literary agent, but now I’m able to do so at my leisure, and I have the leverage in accepting any offers. Subsequent Bequia Mysteries titles take about four months once I understand the plot, because I’m more familiar with the characters now, what they’ll do and how they’ll respond. And I know what’s going on in their lives and relationships. Although every once in a while one of them will throw me a surprise just to keep me on my toes. My other novels take between six months to a year depending on the amount of research I need to do. And I don’t publish immediately. I want at least six to eight months, perhaps a year, between the release of new titles. That’s sufficient time for the previous release to garner notice, begin to sell, and reinforce the brand. And it allows me time to have future titles completed and in the pipeline.
Candi: So you’re saying writing and publishing is not 100% easy. So, what advice do you have for a person, let’s say my neighbor down the street, who says she wants to write a book? She’s got this great idea for a bestseller novel. Should she enroll in the nearest college writing class, buy 10 books on writing, or what?
Michael: The first thing to understand is writing is hard work. It requires discipline, dedication, and commitment. The reason so many who say they want to write a book never do. The second thing, if you want to write really well, you have to learn and practice the craft. You can have all the elements of a great story, the characters, plot, etc. You can make the time, and pour your soul into writing, but if the craft is missing in the writing, then even the best ingredients, and the time spent, won’t matter. This is a ghostwriter’s bread and butter. Learning how to manipulate words and language is vital to writing, because what’s going on in one’s imagination doesn’t necessarily get translated to the written page. And it doesn’t happen by itself or by accident, no matter how ingenious the story. That doesn’t mean you need to take writing courses or get a degree in creative writing, there are other ways to learn the craft. One of the best ways is reading, especially in the genre you enjoy and want to create in. But do more than simply follow the story. Ask and answer what is it about the writing, the language, that engaged you, captivated you, enthralled you. How did the author’s choice of words, or turn of phrase, or scene setting, or character pathos, produce the emotions and imagery you experienced from reading the words on the page. Why couldn’t you put that book down until you’d read the last page, the last word.
Candi: Your novels reflect that you practice what you preach. Okay, time for a challenge question: You’ve just been notified that you’ll be teaching a university course entitled: Writing Your First Mystery Suspense Thriller. What 3-4 points or pillars would you consider essential to the course?
Michael: First, define the genre. Is it a mystery, or a thriller? What are the essential characteristics of each? Is it a thriller encompassing a mystery in the plot? Or a mystery with elements of a thriller? Second, the story or plot. What the heck is happening? What is the ‘Magoffin’ driving the plot and everyone’s actions? What are the stakes? Third, the characters, and this applies to protagonists, antagonists, and secondary characters. Who are they? Where are they from? What is their backgrounds and history? How did they become involved in this situation, this plot? What motivates them? What obstacles, internal and external, must they overcome?
Candi: I see the lines forming for those wanting to take a class taught by you, Michael. Since the advent of digital capabilities and technology related to publishing and the rapid changes within the publishing arena, what do you see as the top two or three challenges facing writers today, and how are they to overcome them? What are the biggest challenges facing new writers today?
Michael: I think the biggest challenge, especially for new writers, is recognizing that writing involves a learned craft. I sincerely believe the changes in publishing, particularly the advent of digital self-publishing, is a beneficial windfall for both authors and readers. But it has spawned readers and writers who are unaware of, or pay little attention to, the craft and quality of writing. I don’t need to go down the quality-in-self-publishing rabbit hole here, or ever, since I believe given time and maturity of the industry, the issue of quality will work itself out in the marketplace. The challenge now, is recognizing that the easy ability to put together a story and upload it is not a substitute for the craft, or a license to neglect creative use of language to mould characters, stage scenes, narrate a compelling story, and evoke emotional responses. In interviews I often say words are merely the raw materials, how we as authors choose them, and string them together, is our art.
Candi: Your answer is worthy of being read each day! It's been reported that Amazon has over ten million titles (books) listed on their website. What are the challenges for readers in selecting “goodreads” from that many choices? What's your best advice for readers on how to choose an entertaining/interesting book?
Michael: I think for readers, having that many choices is great, fantastic. Readers will naturally gravitate to the books and authors they’ve enjoyed in the past, and like me, may even discover a new author or genre they haven’t tried before. The real challenge is for authors, how do we differentiate our work and get noticed in such a vast crowd.
Candi: If you could start your writing career over what two or three things would you do differently and why?
Michael: Another interviewer once asked me this question, my answer was, nothing. I wouldn’t do a thing differently. Everything happened in the manner and time it was supposed to for me to get where I am now. I could’ve decided to pursue serious writing and publishing earlier. But I wouldn’t have possessed the level of craft I do now, or had the life experiences which shapes my writing. Changes in the publishing industry and the opportunity to publish outside the traditional route would not have existed. I believe my perspective and my writing is right on target now.
Candi: Isn't it enough for a writer to simply have all the facts for his story and just write it and publish, or to what extent does the writer's imagination play a part in crafting a page-turning novel?
Michael: If I were writing a news article or essay, maybe. But fiction by its very nature requires imagination. The page-turning, non-stop-read part comes from how an author wields the language to create characters, scenes, atmosphere, suspense, drama, all the other elements. The craft I keep mentioning.
Candi: Some have said writing is not an end result, but a journey that never ends. Do you agree or disagree with that and why?
Michael: I personally agree with that. It comes down to what you want to accomplish with your writing, what it means to you in your daily life. For me, it’s the writing itself, wrangling the language, constructing a great sentence or phrase, setting a vibrant scene with words, giving life to a character by the words and manner I use to describe him or her, continually learning and improving my craft, that’s a journey I can’t see ending anytime soon.
Candi: From what I gather, many years ago (think post early printing presses) authors and readers rarely connected or communicated. A reader was lucky to just read the written book. But today the Internet is one huge gathering place where authors and readers communicate freely. How do you feel about those dynamics and how do both authors and readers benefit from that kind of environment? How do you enjoy making and keeping in contact with your readers?
Michael: I think it’s great. Which is not a judgment on how things were in the past, or to say the technology we have today is inherently better. You adapt and exist in the time you’re born and live in. That is the history of humankind. There are advantages and disadvantages to having instant communication and feedback, and being constantly connected. But for the most part I enjoy connecting with and interacting with my audience, whether it’s online digitally or in person.
Candi: What are the advantages of the Kindle, Nook, and other e-reader devices? Isn't there something to be said about a real paper and ink book in hand as one sits by the fireside of home and reads?
Michael: You know, every so often I see this discussion popping up on social media and blogs, and I just don’t get it. Personally, I don’t see the choice as either, or, some sort of zero sum equation. I enjoy the convenience of a digital reader when I’m at an airport, or waiting in line. But I can never give up the contentment of lying in a hammock reading a printed novel, having real pages to turn and the smell and feel of a real book in my hands. It’s why all my novels are also available in print format. I also don’t get the fixation of having a Kindle, Nook, or whatever, unless it’s the only digital device you own. But most people have a smart phone, or Ipad, or some other device, multiple devices usually. With ebook applications on my phone, laptop, and tablet capable of reading any ebook format, including the Kindle application, why do I need another devise dedicated solely to reading that particular eformat?
Candi: Refreshing answer! You have a varied professional background and one rich with travel experiences. How has that contributed to your writing? What can readers look forward to from the pen of Michael W. Smart in the next year?
Michael: My life and adventures in the Caribbean definitely inspired and influenced the Bequia Mysteries. You’ve probably also noticed many of my characters share my passion for sailing and flying. In my novels I’ll continue to use settings I’ve travelled to or places I’ve lived, and I intend to return to some of those locations to reabsorb their atmosphere as I decide where to set future novels. For the remainder of this year, look for my science fiction title Davidia’s Seed, due this summer, and next year the fourth novel in the Bequia Mysteries series. I’m also working on another mystery with a sci-fi twist, which will be in the pipeline for 2016 or 17.
Candi: I’m looking forward to your entry into science fiction! Here’s another challenge question: Which of your three novels reveals most about your lead character, Nicholas Gage? What were the dynamics as you developed him on paper?
Michael: As you know from reading all three novels Candi, I use a unique point of view in each novel, a device I personally haven’t seen before in a series. I don’t want to give too much away, your readers will have to purchase the novels to find out for themselves. LOL. So you already know Dead Reckoning, the first novel in the series, reveals the most, but not everything, about the Gage character. The reader learns more about him in the next two novels, and will learn something totally surprising about him in the fourth novel. I touched on the dynamics of his creation in an earlier question. I’d been contemplating returning to the Grenadines but knew the experience wouldn’t be the same as when I’d lived there. That’s how Gage was conceived, as a person who arrives in the Grenadines and on Bequia with an entirely new perspective than he had in his past life, and has to reinvent himself at an older stage in life. The title Dead Reckoning, is also a metaphor for his journey. But the help he finds to accomplish this journey is pretty awesome, don’t you think?
Candi: You have demonstrated your craft well by surrounding Nicholas Gage with interesting characters and the element of yet-to-be-told mystery. I look forward to the surprising element you have in store regarding Gage. Michael, thank you for taking time to share your thoughts and give us an inside look at your fascinating writing world.
Michael: It’s been my pleasure Candi, and thank you so much for inviting me to share. You asked really fascinating questions, and I had fun thinking about and answering them. I haven’t contemplated interviews on my own blog Sea Quill, http://www.bequiamysteries.com/blog/ but you know I’ve reviewed your hot and steamy “Thrill Driven”, http://www.bequiamysteries.com/blog/reviews/book-review-thrill-driven-by-candi-silk/ and I may decide to include author interviews in the future. Anytime you want to do a guest post or contribute a few choice thoughts on writing, you have an open invitation, and you’re always more than welcome to drop by Candi.
Candi: Your website is inviting and I gladly accept your offer. Tell Nicholas Gage my naughty female characters will be looking for him! LOL!
Candi: Here's how you can experience the entertaining writing of Michael W. Smart, author of mystery suspense thrillers:
Michael's Online Links: Connect with Michael!
EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com
AMAZON AUTHOR CENTRAL: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00IYXAH8A
AMAZON AUTHOR CENTRAL UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B00IYXAH8A
LINKED IN: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/michael-smart/a3/395/282
ABOUT ME: http://about.me/michaelwsmart/