Pub Rants

Category: Writing As A Career

Making It Up with Carter Wilson

This month, the NLA team wanted to share with you our latest, greatest writers-in-the-know online find: Making It Up. This web series, launched in March 2021 by USA Today bestselling thriller author Carter Wilson, has already racked up nearly 50 episodes. In these candid conversations with writers of all genres and backgrounds, Carter gets his guests talking about influences, creativity, luck and loss, tools of the craft, and the highs and lows of publishing.

Our favorite part of each episode comes at the end, when Carter and his guest pick a random sentence from a random book on Carter’s shelves and use it to create an impromptu back-and-forth short story. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll leave the lights on. Nothing like a little on-the-spot creativity to wake up the muse!

Check out this impressive episode list (especially episode 44, which features NLA client Katrina Monroe), and then head on over to the Making It Up YouTube channel and hit subscribe. And, hey, pick up one of Carter’s tense-as-heck thrillers while you’re at it.

Ep 1: Alex Marwood
Ep 2: Julie Clark
Ep 3: Joe Clifford
Ep 4: David Bell
Ep 5: Sean Eads
Ep 6: K.J. Howe
Ep 7: Lynne Constantine
Ep 8: Mark Stevens
Ep 9: Steven James
Ep 10: Julia Heaberlin
Ep 11: Graham Hurley
Ep 12: Emily Bleeker
Ep 13: Erika Englehaupt
Ep 14: Mark Sullivan
Ep 15: Sabrina Jeffries
Ep 16: Clare Whitfield
Ep 17: Xio Axelrod
Ep 18: Brad Parks
Ep 19: Barb Webb
Ep 20: Adrian Goldsworthy
Ep 21: Stuart Turton
Ep 22: S.A. Cosby
Ep 23: Daniel Handler
Ep 24: Maureen Johnson
Ep 25: Sarah Fine
Ep 26: Matthew Fitzsimmons
Ep 27: Robert Dugoni
Ep 28: Farrah Rochon
Ep 29: Alverne Ball
Ep 30: Drew Magary
Ep 31: Dr. Ian Smith
Ep 32: Yasmin Angoe
Ep 33: Gabrielle St George
Ep 34: Amanda Kabak
Ep 35: Lynne Reeves Griffin
Ep 36: Allen Eskens
Ep 37: Daniel Jude Miller
Ep 38: Alex Finlay
Ep 39: Aaron Philip Clark
Ep 40: Lara Elena Donnelly
Ep 41: J.T. Ellison
Ep 42: Erica Ferencik
Ep 43: Katie Lattari
Ep 44: Katrina Monroe
Ep 45: Ananda Lima
Ep 46: D.P. Lyle
Ep 47: Jess Montgomery
Ep 48: Elle Marr

Are you a writer with a favorite go-to website or writerly online resource? Drop a comment below and share it with us!

This will probably be the shortest article ever because, in short, if it were possible to sit down and write a bestselling novel, wouldn’t every author do just that? According to Google, a writer simply needs to (1) have a big idea (simple—they grow on trees), (2) write with an audience in mind (always handy), (3) package the book to sell (definitely helps), and, my favorite, (4) use a female lead character, as there is a higher number of bestselling titles with female leads (okey-dokey). Interesting, Google. So can a writer set out to write a bestselling novel? That’s probably the wrong question. Here’s a better one. 

Since I’ve represented (at this point) 53 New York Times bestselling novels, you’d think I’d know a thing or two about them. But honestly, it’s a wonderful surprise every time a client of mine hits the NYT list. (The latest was Shelby Van Pelt’s debut Remarkably Bright Creatures in May.) When talking bestsellers, James Patterson is probably the best person to interview. He has cracked the code for sure, given the number of works he has on the NYT list at any given time. But my answer to this question is no, a writer can’t really set out to write a bestselling novel. Over the years, I have observed a few things about bestsellers.

Observation 1: None of my clients set out to write one. They all began with a story that felt personal to them and that they were passionate about writing. My NYT-bestselling clients also said they started with the voice of the story. It was unique, clear, and, once found, natural to write. 

Observation 2: Not unlike what Google helpfully suggested, all NYT titles start with an original concept, so although there are no new stories under the sun, these works felt fresh and original to the readers who discovered the novels and then raved about them to other readers. Some examples: 

  • A 50-year old man searches for the woman he loved during WWII before his love was sent away to an internment camp. (Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet)
  • A giant Pacific octopus helps unlock the mystery of what happened to the aquarium cleaning lady’s son thirty years ago. (Remarkably Bright Creatures)
  • A teen who attends a school for spies funnels her skills into spying on her first crush while also navigating the world of espionage. (I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You)
  • A soulless woman nullifies the power of supernaturals such as vampires and werewolves with her touch and has to uncover why supernaturals are disappearing. (Soulless)
  • A Chinese American teen secretly living below a newspaper company moonlights as the anonymous but wildly popular society columnist Dear Miss Sweetie, whose articles shake up the town. (The Downstairs Girl)

Observation 3: Although publishers try to create bestsellers, for a debut novel to hit the list, there is an intersection of what readers are wanting to read and market timing. Plenty of titles can have the right ingredients, full in-house support, and marketing dollars, yet they still won’t land on the list. In the end, the reading public decides (as well as the algorithm used by the New York Times, but that is a whole other article).

For me, a better and more interesting question is this: What would a bestselling story look like for you personally as a writer? Where is your intersection of concept, passion, voice, and unique characters? Is it possible to analyze bestsellers to see what makes them tick? Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers do just that in The Bestseller Code. As reviewers point out, this book won’t teach you how to write a bestseller, but it will reveal some interesting stats concerning bestsellers and what they all seem to have in common. Would that info give you a fresh perspective on your own story or take you one step closer to writing a bestseller? 

Only you the writer hold the answer to that question. 

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Interview with Shelby Van Pelt

This month, NLA had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Nelson’s client Shelby Van Pelt, author of the debut novel Remarkably Bright Creatures.

In your new novel, Remarkably Bright Creatures (Ecco, May 3), an unlikely narrator—an octopus—steals readers’ hearts. While his wit and charm appeal to readers, Marcellus doesn’t talk. How did you decide the limits of his voice?

Figuring that out was one of the most challenging things about writing this book! At various times while drafting, I played around with allowing him to write (could an octopus hold a pen?) or perhaps chat with the other sea life at the aquarium. But, eventually, I realized I needed his communications to flow one way to reflect his loneliness.

There’s also the matter of where readers would draw the line. An octopus narrator is already weird, at least in a book that’s otherwise realistic. I knew I was not writing a fantasy novel and didn’t have much latitude with world-building; rather than creating a world where octopuses can communicate, I needed to create a communicating octopus that felt at home in the real world.

In your recent LitHub article, “Lessons Learned from a Year Listening to the Fictional Octopus in My Head,” you remind us that “you write…therefore, you’re a writer.” Why is this mantra so important when writing your debut novel?

For anyone who produces any sort of creative work, writing or otherwise, I think there’s this leap when you go from having it be a private hobby to sharing it with others. To selling it, even. To me, at the time, it all just felt so presumptuous. Maybe I even felt a little like Marcellus with his journal entries, firing off words into some sort of void, not sure anyone would ever receive them.

Remarkably Bright Creatures is already making waves since its release earlier this month. What advice would you give to authors hoping for the same result?

Well, I do realize how incredibly lucky I’ve been! But I can’t tell you how many times I really doubted even querying because my book didn’t seem to fit neatly in a marketable category. Finding comps was challenging. It’s an odd book!

So, I guess my advice is: write the odd thing. Or rather, write the you thing, whatever that happens to be. And plan to invest time in your query letter! I spent more hours writing (and rewriting, over and over) my query letter than I did drafting the last several chapters of the book. Capturing the essence of your story in a couple of paragraphs is a huge challenge, and it can take a lot of work to get it just right.

Do you critique or beta read for other writers? What is the value in that?

Absolutely! I would never have finished this book without my critique partners.

There’s this image of a novelist as a solitary creature, sitting in a cabin with a beautiful view, pounding out pages. They’ll emerge at some point with a finished draft, ready to serve up to beta readers. And honestly…that sounds amazing! But as someone with two young kids, that’s not going to be my reality anytime soon. And I’m not sure it would suit me, honestly. I tend to do a lot of critique in real time with my beta partners, exchanging a couple of chapters a week, discussing, then taking time to pause and course-correct as needed. If I did a whole draft without feedback along the way, that thing would be a mess.

I also really enjoy beta reading shorter pieces for other folks in my writing communities. Learning to give and receive feedback is so important, and it’s a skill I try to practice as often as I can.

Finally, what tools in the literary space/community have been the most helpful in your writing process?

I’ll put my plug for writing contests here! Sometimes, a frenzied weekend with a bizarre set of prompts is just what I need to shake off a writing slump. Many competitions also offer formal feedback and/or have a space, like a Facebook group or forum, where you can swap critiques with other participants. It can be a good way to find a writing community.

Classes are also great. I’m a big fan of continuing-education courses, library writing groups, and the like. I’ve participated in several of those over the years. I’m a deadline-driven person, so having regular pressure to prepare material gives me a needed nudge. As a bonus, they’re often reasonably priced, and since anyone can join, there’s usually a nice variety of folks from differing backgrounds and stages of their writing journey.

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt was released May 3, 2022. Order your copy today!

Every week I receive multiple inquiries from aspiring writers asking if there are job openings at Nelson Literary. I applaud the chutzpah (after all, you won’t know if you don’t ask), but alas, NLA is not currently hiring. But I have to say this: Although an inside look at publishing provides a huge education for any aspiring writer, working in publishing might kill your desire to write. 

There are always exceptions to the rule. I can name any number of working editors who also enjoy successful careers as authors. There are plenty of agents who do the same. But I also know that every assistant I’ve ever had was initially an aspiring writer looking to understand the business that was fueling their passion. And almost all of them—Anita, Becky, Jamie, and now Tallahj—chose to leave the daily grind of publishing to embrace their true passion of writing (or a similar creative endeavor). They all ultimately decided that the daily work was killing the creative spirit.

Tallahj came to NLA after she stood up at her high-school career day and declared she wanted to be a publisher because she loved to write. We asked her to come learn all about it with us. Six years, a high-school diploma, and a bachelor’s degree in English later, she is off to a new adventure in the audiovisual graphic arts. I sat down with Tallahj to get the scoop. We laughed (and I cried a little) when we remembered some of the fun stories with her at NLA. Mine was how all of us pitched in to teach her how to type (no two-fingered hunting and pecking!) and cheered her on during her timed keyboarding tests (and presented her with a surprise grand prize when she passed at last). Hers was about when we took her out to lunch and convinced her to try artichoke dip. Whoops! That was an epic fail. Now she loves all kinds of food and is a master of all things social media and video editing—and she can run circles around my typing ability. 

Me: What surprised you most about working in publishing?

Tallahj: Working at NLA shifted my perspective completely on the way I read. Before, if I was interested in the concept, I was happy to read it—even if the writing was only average and all the characterization was on the surface. Now I find myself reading novels and reading between the lines by focusing on what is not on the page as my avenue to understanding characters. Two of my favorite reads that do exactly that are Jason Reynolds’s Long Way Down and Ellen Hopkins’s Crank. Reading and analyzing the opening chapter of Nyxia by Scott Reintgen is what taught me the importance of that as part of the job. 

Me: When working at NLA, did you read less for pleasure?

Tallahj: Yes, very much so. Part of that might also be because I was in school earning my Bachelor of Arts, but it’s also because I changed as a reader. Reading used to be a way to “turn off the brain.” When I was working, I had to do the opposite and “turn on the brain.” By the end of the day, I was just done with words. This was also how I ended up finding my true passion creating videos and doing audiovisual editing. 

Me: Did working in publishing impact your desire to write?

Tallahj: I definitely wrote a lot less during my time working at NLA, but when I do write, I write with more of a purpose now. For me, it changed how I would get to a story’s end. Before, I was always focused on simply writing just to finish the story. Now, I’m much more focused on how I get to the end part of the story. I focus so much more on craft, so I end up with a lot more works-in-progress. 

Me: Now that you are pursuing a different job outside of publishing, will writing be more of a creative outlet?

Tallahj: It’s definitely a creative outlet I want to hold on to. I also want to tap back into the passion I felt for reading before I worked in NLA. 

Me: What are you grateful to have learned during your experience with NLA?

Tallahj: Having the inside look gave me information I never would have learned otherwise, but aspiring writers don’t need to work in the industry to get that information. I learned that so much of it is actually readily available through reading Publishers Lunch, subscribing to agency newsletters, following editors and agents and other writers on social media, and attending critique groups. Aspiring writers should plug into all of that. Working in the field can stifle that passion. 

After my interview with Tallahj, my takeaway is that if you are an aspiring writer, maybe don’t work in the field. If you are an aspiring agent (but not a writer and simply a lover of books), then publishing might be a profession worth exploring. 

Thank you for everything, Tallahj. You’ve been a joy in our daily lives for years. We will miss you, but I also know we are going to watch you soar as you choose what you really want to do in your life. 

Main Post Photo Credit: Complot

[Check out former NLA assistant Rebecca Taylor’s latest release, Colorado Book Award finalist The Secret Next Door, and former NLA assistant James Persichetti’s upcoming debut release The Sapling’s Curse.]

Any fiction writer who deals in speculative elements must eventually decide: How much of this story requires a realistic, grounded explanation at the end, and how much can I leave unexplained because, hey, it’s magic, supernatural, paranormal, metaphysical, or miraculous? Can’t I just get to the end and say it was all unexplainable and leave it at that?

My short answer is no. In broad strokes, stories ask questions and then answer them. The human brain has some hardwired, logic-based pathways where story is concerned. Part one: Set up the pins. Part two: Knock them down. Sounds simple, but let’s be honest. It’s not.

The first half of any manuscript is easier to write than the second—which is why millions of would-be authors never finish anything. It’s fun to set up lots of evocative, compelling, mysterious, hooky questions at the beginning of a story. Then you get to the halfway point, and you must come up with answers. And not just any answers, but satisfying answers. Meaningful answers. Twisty answers. Worthwhile answers. Delightfully shocking or surprising answers.

That’s hard.

I attended a panel of speculative-fiction writers at AWP many years ago. One panelist admitted that he, years prior, wrote 150 pages about a guy who lived in a house with a door to an upstairs room that couldn’t be opened. Every now and then, a light would come on in that room and shine through the cracks in the door frame. Although the author was having fun writing about this guy and his creepy house, he eventually abandoned the novel—he himself couldn’t figure out what or who was behind the door. He had some ideas, but he knew that after 150 pages of setup, readers would be expecting a big payoff, and he just didn’t have it.

Stephen King tried three times over several decades to write what eventually became Under the Dome. He knew he wanted to write about a town suddenly and mysteriously trapped under a massive, impenetrable bubble…but he didn’t know where the dome came from. He knew he couldn’t write the story without that key piece of information. His understanding that readers wouldn’t accept “the dome just was”—and his unwillingness to accept it himself—is part of what makes King a master storyteller.

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill is based on a stellar, high-concept premise: An aging rock star who collects occult objects buys a haunted suit on the internet. It’s not enough to ask readers to just accept that the suit is haunted and be satisfied. Readers are literally reading the book to find out the answers to who is haunting the suit, and why, and what the suit wants from the protagonist, and how the protagonist is going to defeat it. Why is the antagonism between them viscerally personal and not merely incidental? Couldn’t anyone have bought the suit on the internet? Turns out, no. And that is part of the mystery that makes Heart-Shaped Box such a satisfying read.

The fun thing about being a speculative-fiction writer is that your explanations can be spectral. They can defy the laws of our natural world. They can presuppose technologies that don’t exist, discoveries that have not been made. But that’s also what makes writing spec-fic more challenging. Since spec-fic writers can leave some things unexplained, they must search for their story’s best ratio of explainable to unexplainable.

For instance, in Heart-Shaped Box, we suspend our disbelief only so far as is necessary to accept that a vengeful ghost inhabits the suit. That’s all. For everything else, readers’ logical story brains require rational second- and third-act explanations. How did the ghost end up in the suit? How did the suit end up on the internet? How did our protagonist, who was the intended buyer all along, happen to be browsing the internet at just the right time and click “buy” before anyone else did? If Hill had said, “It just worked out that way because it’s supernatural,” the book never would have been published.

Leading readers down a path that ends with “it was all supernatural” is too easy—and whatever is too easy for writers is often not satisfying for readers. Think about the relationship between real life and fiction. In real life, people get obsessed with some dark mystery or true-crime drama, like the Amityville Horror house. We search the internet and watch all the documentaries and movies and TV shows and interviews about Amityville. We feed our imaginations with information. The question of what really happened there is just too compelling to let lie! We consider rational explanations (it was just a crazy kid killing his family with a shotgun) as well as supernatural ones (the evil entity that resides in the house made the kid do it) as we try to arrive at our own conclusions. All the while, we are driven almost mad by the reality that we can never actually know the truth.

That is exactly why fiction is so satisfying! Because the author takes us where reality cannot. The author gives us conclusions and explanations that in real life we will never have. The author answers all the hard questions in ways that our logical story brains accept—at least for as long as we are inside that story world, and sometimes longer. Sometimes, with the very best fiction, forever.

After all this, I wish I could give you some magic ratio of explainable to unexplainable that will make every story you write satisfying. I can’t. Every story is different. Every speculative subgenre shoulders its own set of reader and fan expectations.

What I will offer is this: Readers won’t suspend their disbelief if you’ve given them nothing to suspend it from. The more suspension of disbelief you’re asking of readers, the stronger your story’s logical, rational, realistic framework has to be. Build plausible conditions in which your speculative conditions can thrive, and tie up all your loose ends. If you want happy readers, that’s a good place to start.

This month, NLA interviewed Kristin Nelson’s client Luke Smitherd, author of the recently released novel The Stone Giant.

Your latest novel, The Stone Giant, is book three of your Stone Man series. How do you get readers caught up on what happened in books one and two? How do you gauge when to introduce new antagonists and when to return to past ones?

I wanted the fates of the surviving characters from The Stone Man to form part of the mystery of The Empty Men for the reader…but I also knew I wanted to bring the survivors back for The Stone Giant once the new stakes were well established and answers were required (that, and I’m a sucker for a team-up). The backstory, or in this case the five-year gap between books one and two, is a huge part of the plot of The Stone Giant, and I had a lot of fun dropping the various reveals into the story. Books two through four were heavily plotted out before work was started, and keeping the past-and-present continuity tight over the three or four years I was working on these books isn’t something I particularly ever want to do again! 

Which of your characters have you had the hardest time leaving behind once the novel was complete? Which character was the easiest to pick back up?

Maria was probably the hardest to pick up again by far, because the events of The Empty Men change her so much; likewise with many of the other protagonists. They’re very different people now. (But Brigadier Straub was easy as pie.)

How do you get to know your characters?

I get to know my characters—as cliché as it many sounds—as I go on. Then on the second draft I lean into the elements that have come out organically through the first draft.

Describe a scene from one of your novels that was particularly difficult to write. Why was writing it so difficult?

The scenes that are difficult for me to write are always logistical issues, especially with sci-fi. I know what I want to happen, and the effect required, but how do I describe something magical or otherworldly in a grounded way? I’m a real stickler for detail in that regard so it has to be right.

When editing, what aspects of critique do you apply to your novel? What aspects do you feel require the context of the whole manuscript? 

As you can probably tell by this interview, I talk too much. Editing is all about trimming for me. After that it’s all about checking that the characters appear on the page the way they do in my head, and—to answer the context element of the question—that the way they change (or don’t) through the text is consistent with the (usually awful) events and/or crazy things they’ve encountered.

The Stone Giant by Luke Smitherd was released March 29, 2022. Order your copy today!

For twenty years, I’ve worked with extremely talented writer clients. Having done so, I’ve learned that talent and mastery of craft cannot fix a story if it’s not the right story the writer should be telling. Here’s why. 

All writers need to learn this one simple lesson: Give yourself permission to “fail.” In doing so, you might actually discover the story you should be writing. Here are two real-world examples of the power of letting go. 

Scenario 1: When Marie Lu first conceptualized and wrote the opening chapters of The Young Elites, the story concept just wasn’t coming together. After the two of us had multiple brainstorm sessions and Marie tackled several revisions, she finally realized that the story was being told from the wrong POV. The minute she figured out that it was Adelina Amouteru’s story (who was only a minor side character in the initial concept), everything clicked into place. The rest is history for this New York Times bestselling book, the first in a very successful trilogy. 

Takeaway for aspiring writers: Marie is incredibly talented, but numerous attempts at revision were not going to fix the fact that she initially had the wrong POV character. All her writing mastery wasn’t going to transform those opening chapters into the right story. If a project isn’t coming together, try a radical shift in POV, first person to third, change up the narrative timeframe. Established authors do this all the time. If the right story emerges, you’ll know by how readers respond to it. But also know that the magic doesn’t happen every time, which leads me to the second scenario. 

Scenario 2: My wonderfully talented author Rhiannon Thomas (A Wicked Thing, Long May She Reign) had a fantastic concept for a young adult fantasy. She wrote a brilliant first 75 pages, but from there, she simply could not wrangle the story into shape despite a number of attempts. Subsequent chapters didn’t showcase her writing talent. After multiple revisions, she bravely set this story aside to tackle something new. Her current work-in-progress makes it is absolutely clear this is the story she is meant to write—her voice shines on every page. 

Takeaway for aspiring writers: It’s okay to “fail” because in doing so, the real story you are meant to write might emerge. If you’re in the query trenches and not getting requests for full manuscripts, or if the requests are coming in but are then followed by passes, be brave. Set it aside and write something new. Too often I see queries in my inbox from writers who have revised a manuscript I declined to read years ago. What if they’re spending year after year working on revising a story that isn’t allowing their writing talent to shine? That means the right story might never get written. For me, that is the real tragedy.

I remind aspiring writers that, for many of the clients I represent, I rejected the first work they sent to me. It wasn’t the right story. They didn’t give up. They “failed” and then found the story that actually needed to be written. Then a career was born. 

You have the power to let go and do the same. 

Photo by Pixabay

If the first three months of 2022 are any indicator, the pandemic is still informing what creators are writing about, and the proof is in the inbox. Here are the two very clear directions writers are pursuing:

  1. The world is dire.
  2. Time to escape. 

Big trends showing up in our query inbox

  • WWII is back with a vengeance—although it’s perennial as a historical subgenre and, therefore, never really goes away. But there seems to be a yearning for a time when the world united against a great evil and prevailed. I do appreciate wishful thinking, and with all that is unfolding in the Ukraine, WWII stories are not a hearkening to a time that was simpler, but to a time when the moral compass seemed clear.
  • Post-apocalyptic fiction is surging, especially climate-based stories.
  • Dystopian fiction featuring evil dictators. (Ahem: Putin anyone?)
  • Demons, demons, so many demons. We think this might be a way to personify an evil that, at least in some stories, can always be defeated, and in other stories, turned to good or leveraged for the protagonist’s benefit. There is catharsis in the ability to create on the page that which might not be happening in the world.
  • Horror. This is super hot in Hollywood, so it’s not a surprise to see so many horror projects in our query inbox. What we’re seeing most in the horror space? Contemporary stories with some horror edge.
  • Gods-based fantasies in which the protagonist is a god, must become a god, is descended from a god, or must defeat one or more gods. Perhaps this is another way of creating a palatable world to be in.
  • RomComs! The heartwarming, engaging beach read. Yes, bring it on! All of us can use this type of escape, and I know editors are looking, which means we’re looking too.
  • Intrigue in historical settings. Anything set in the past is an escape of sorts—although I imagine writers don’t necessarily think of it that way. 

Other interesting trends

  • Middle-grade stories in verse. Poetry is having a cultural moment. It’s no surprise that’s currently mirrored in current storytelling.
  • LGBTQ everything. There is always room for great stories. Take that, Texas and Florida.

Photo by Jan van der Wolf from Pexels

Interview with Stacy Stokes

This month, NLA had the pleasure of interviewing Joanna MacKenzie’s client Stacy Stokes, author of the recently released novel Remember Me Gone

What challenges did you face writing about memory and memory loss?

I love keeping secrets from readers, so I had a lot of fun sprinkling breadcrumbs throughout the story for the reader and [the protagonist] Lucy to discover together. The novel is told in first-person present, which allows the reader to experience things with Lucy as they happen. But it also presented a unique challenge—there are moments in the book when the reader knows more than Lucy. Finding the balance between Lucy’s discovery and the reader’s knowledge was tricky at times, but also fun to navigate. 

What inspired the family business featured in the novel?

The inspiration for Remember Me Gone and The Memory House came from an episode of True Blood, the HBO series based on The Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris. In the episode, someone hires a vampire to erase her husband’s memories in the hopes of curing his PTSD. I started wondering what it might be like to run a memory-taking business, and, boom! The idea was born. Sans vampires.

The first line of your novel, “People come from everywhere to forget,” is so great! What advice would you give authors on nailing their first line?

A good first line should not only suck readers in but convey something unique about the story that sets the stage for what’s to come. Think about the key elements that make your story special and try to work at least one of them into the opening line. For Remember Me Gone, I wanted to introduce the concept of memory-taking while also working in the remoteness of [the town of] Tumble Tree.

A good way to find inspiration is to look at the opening lines of your favorite books. My all-time favorite opening line is from Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scopio Races: “It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.” She manages to tell the reader so much about the story to come in just a few words—it gives me chills every time I read it.

Did you write this story in a linear fashion or skip around as Lucy uncovers answers?

I tend to write linearly, but I always have a few scenes in my head that I’m writing towards, kind of like an invisible road map. It’s also a good motivator for me—there’s a sense of accomplishment when I finally make it to one of the scenes. Without giving away any spoilers, there were three scenes I knew I was building towards—the scene with Lucy’s father at the end of chapter six, the scene with the Oklahoma woman in chapter thirty, and the scene with the mirror in chapter thirty-three. I also had a fairly clear sense of how I wanted the story to end. The rest of the process was connecting those dots.

Finally, has being a novelist changed the way you read novels?

Absolutely! For starters, I have immense respect for anyone who completes a novel. Now that I’ve been through the process, I know how hard they’ve worked to not only get their words on a page, but to get them published and out in the world. 

I also often use the books I read as textbooks to make me a better writer. When a story is working well, I can’t help but ask myself why the plot and narrative are so compelling. What is the writer doing well that I can learn from? The same holds true if I’m reading something that isn’t working—thinking about why helps me improve my own craft.

Remember Me Gone by Stacy Stokes releases March 22, 2022. Preorder now!

This month, NLA had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin Nelson’s client Richard Chizmar, author of recently released novel Gwendy’s Final Task.

You have an incredibly fascinating perspective in the literary space. You are the founder of both the horror and suspense publishing company Cemetery Dance and the magazine of the same name. As a publisher, author and a reader, which of these perspective do you feel is the most helpful when writing your novels? Using that perspective, what advice would you give to a writer in the query stage?

I feel like they have all contributed invaluable experiences that (hopefully) have helped to make me a better novelist. Being a publisher has certainly helped me to better understand the reality of today’s publishing landscape: from packaging and marketing to selecting cover art and working with stores and distributors. Editing the book imprint and magazine has helped me understand the basics of what makes a story work and what doesn’t. Whether that be poor characterization, dialogue, pacing, etc. It’s also forced me to focus on the nuts and bolts of writing such as grammar and rhythm. Of course, the most helpful experience has been just sitting down and writing. Finding my voice as a writer. Finding my confidence and learning how to write honest, personal prose instead of pretending to be something I’m not. When I began to write stories that really mattered to me, that’s when I began to find an audience that cared about what I was creating. It took years and years of practice to get there. That’s one thing I always tell newer writers: there are no shortcuts in this business.

In a previous interview with Nightmare Magazine, you mentioned that you do still choose most of the Cemetery Dance published books. When reading for publication, how do you tether the line between a book you personally enjoy and a book you want the publication to represent?

As an independent publisher, those lines are blurred much of the time. Mostly, I tend to publish stories and authors that I personally enjoy. Publishing is such a grind of a business that I’ve never seen the point of promoting folks I don’t like or stories I don’t believe in. Now with that said, there have been times when the business side of publishing has entered the picture and affected such decisions to some degree. I have a handful of regrets, but I’ve learned from them. Still learning every day after almost 35 years.  

The Washington Post writes, “Chizmar’s voice and sensibility dovetail neatly with King’s own distinctive style…” in reference to your recently completed trilogy, concluding with Gwendy’s Final Task (Cemetery Dance, February 15). When working with another author, what does that collaboration process look like? Are there moments in which you each create individually and come together to piece together the final book, or do you communicate and collaborate throughout the entire process?

Each experience is different. For instance, when Steve King and I wrote the Gwendy books, we simply played a game of email ping pong with the manuscript—each person sitting down and writing a chunk of pages, then sending it on so that the other could write his own pages. Back and forth it went with minimal communication about what we thought should come next. We gave each other complete freedom and confidence to do what he wanted with the story. It was creatively challenging and exhilarating, and most of all, a lot of fun. 

On the other hand, when my son, Billy, and I wrote the supernatural novella Widow’s Point, we worked a lot closer together, often times sitting next to each other and each of us contributing sentences to the same paragraph. This was also fun and challenging.

Finally, is there a novel that you find yourself drawn to read again and again? If so, what about it draws you in to come back? 

Stephen King’s It for inspiration and sheer storytelling and a reminder of why I do what I do for a living. Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life for much of the same reasons. And Lord of the Flies for nostalgic reasons.