Why the Pseudo? It’s the question I get asked most when talking about my debut novel, I WILL NEVER LEAVE YOU (Thomas & Mercer, 2018). If you look on Amazon, you’ll find the author of that book is “S.M. Thayer.” Which doesn’t match the name listed on the byline of this guest post. So what’s up with that? Until a couple years ago, I saw myself as a writer of wry absurdist fiction. Despite the efforts of several really good literary agents, none of my novels came close to being published though. The emotional toll of writing these failed novels was high. Something had to give—I either needed to stop writing to spare myself of the heartache of failure or drastically reconceptualize what I wanted to do. In January 2016, I read Paula Hawkins’s THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. It was my first dip into the domestic suspense/psychological thriller genre. Hawkins’s fast-paced twisty plot, her bevy of largely unlikeable characters, and the inadvisable choices these characters made, provided immense readerly pleasure. More than anything, I was struck by the novel’s narrative propulsion. I tore through the pages and then dweebishly Googled, “Books like GIRL ON THE TRAIN” to find similar books. The genre had me hooked. I devoured domestic suspense and psychological thrillers like nobody’s business, reading about twenty of them over the course of a few months. More than anything, I wanted to write a domestic suspense novel of my own. Before beginning to write I’LL NEVER LEAVE YOU, I never tried to write an accessible plot-based novel. It felt immediately different to me, and exciting. My characters were fundamentally selfish in an underhanded way, yet human enough to have moments of sublime generosity and noble aspirations. The conflict between selfishness and generosity hooks each of these characters up and creates the novel’s tension and narrative momentum. The novel had life. Which, honestly, was what my failed novels lacked: life. Several agents offered to represent this new novel. A couple voiced concerns that the digital footprint I established as “Nick Kocz.” If you Google my name, you’re apt to find a bunch of bizarre short stories that could prejudice the way potential editors and readers approached my novel. To get around this problem, I weighed the idea of using a pen name. I’m a Scott Fitzgerald buff. During Fitzgerald’s last years, he’d been unable to sell his stories to top-flight commercial magazines. The Saturday Evening Post, which had long been Fitzgerald’s cash cow, quit publishing him in 1937. By 1940, he was desperate. In a letter to one of his editors, he wrote,“I’m awfully tired of being Scott Fitzgerald anyhow, as there doesn’t seem to be so much money in it, and I’d like to find out if people read me just because I am Scott Fitzgerald or, what is more likely, don’t read me for the same reason.” Fitzgerald’s solution was to try using a pen name. Lord knows, there’s really no money to be had in being Nick Kocz. I wish it were otherwise. None of my previous book-length manuscripts have been published. More than anything, I wanted to give I’LL NEVER LEAVE YOU the best chance possible at finding a readership. The novel represented a rebirth for me, something befitting of a new name. So I offered to let the novel go out under a pseudonym. If Fitzgerald was willing to try a pen name, who was I to say I was above giving it a try? In the end, the name on the cover means nothing. What matters are the words and stories between the covers. Nick Kocz’s debut novel, I’LL NEVER LEAVE YOU (Thomas & Mercer, 2018) was written under the pen name of S.M. Thayer. He’s an award-winning fiction writer and McDowell Fellow whose work has appeared in numerous publications and received several Pushcart Prize nominations. A native of New York, Thayer lived for decades in the Washington, DC, metropolitan region before moving to rural Virginia and earning an MFA from Virginia Tech. He lives in Blacksburg, VA with his wife and three children.Read more
Did someone say research? This isn’t grad school….. which is what I have to keep telling myself as I delve into books and articles about a subject I’m considering for a new book. Preparing for graduate degrees in history I read a lot. Let me repeat that: a lot. It quickly became clear that I needed to absorb the essence of the argument, and not necessarily every supporting detail. When in a real hurry I would read the first and last sentence of every paragraph, stopping for a more complete read only occasionally. Why did this work? Because I needed to understand the history of history. What were the arguments supporting or deflating theories of the Why about our past. How had opinion about cause and effect changed over time with changing attitudes and newly discovered primary resources? This was what I needed to understand. Researching to write fiction is entirely different, at least in a few important ways. Reading quickly is still an asset. However, now I’m searching for interesting tidbits, facts, stories, details, descriptions. It is a needle in a haystack. There are a few go-to places for descriptions of, for example, clothing. There are collections of photographs (and paintings) of places. But what did people eat? Who ate what? (Today, if I hear that someone loves fast food from Bojangles I assume they have lived or traveled extensively in the American South. If they love McDonald’s that tells me nothing about geography, it is truly worldwide.) Most ‘history’ books are still about great events, although this is changing. Still, even books about women, or workers, or peasants/farmers (depending on the era and location) bring information together to make generalizations: nursing becomes a socially acceptable profession for women, or nutrition improves among the working poor, etc. As a writer, I want more; more daily detail. Therefore, I turn to memoirs. An historian evaluates the memoir in the context of other known details (aka facts), for example, checking to see if the village really was overcome by the Allied forces and the residents forced to flee. As a writer, I might not be interested in this (maybe I’m writing about a fictional village or a different one). I want to know what the residents felt as they fled (maybe they weren’t ‘forced’ to flee but chose to? After all memory is hazy…..). What were the relationships, the wants, the needs, the threats? What did they regret leaving behind, what did they choose to take. Until recently, memoirs available to the general public were mainly those of famous people or people made famous by circumstance (for example, the memoir of a world leader or that of Anne Frank.). Now there are many more memoirs available, often self-published and sold on line. Can each line be taken as fact by an historian? No. But as an aid to a writer, there are many memorable stories that create a collective fabric of life in other places and other times. So, I’m eyeing my tall stack of books collected from the library, eyeing the memoirs first as a window into actual lives. Later, I’ll read the dry facts. In both cases I hope to avoid the rabbit hole of information overload! What tools do you use to research the past?Read more
Synopsis. Say that word and you hear a collective gasp of stress throughout the world of writers. One page, maybe a few pages, and it is daunting to people who routinely pound out 350. Writing a synopsis prior to creating a long work is a helpful path, although of course it will most likely change by the end, and need updating. Whether written partially before or entirely afterwards, the devil is in the details of a synopsis. There are no secrets in a synopsis, all must be revealed. On the other hand…. (there is always another hand)…. subplots may – must? – be cut. This is where the pain and agony begin. How to cut a subplot (viewed as essential by the author) yet maintain the essence of the story. How to reduce a long piece to what feels like nothing. Some things I’ve learned that might be helpful: 1) Remember the synopsis is a SUMMARY. Does the book have a beginning, middle, and end? What is the inciting incident and what is the conclusion? Reveal everything major that happens in the book, including the ending. (Yes, mystery writers, reveal whodunit!) 2) This is the time for lean writing. “Jane shot Bob. He died.” At the same time don’t step out of the narrative (meaning don’t interject phrases like: and at the climax….). 3) Follow standard formatting rules. The length of a synopsis may vary depending on who requested it (standard is one or two pages). Capitalize character names when they are introduced. Keep this list to the five or, at the absolute most six, important characters. This will also help trim the subplots. Writing a synopsis can be a letdown at the end of a long project. All this time spent on a few pages of summary when the ENTIRE THING is ready to be read! Persevere and give it your full attention. The synopsis is the tool that will (hopefully) get EVERYTHING read. Write, review, put aside, ask a Beta reader of the book to read it. Repeat. Put as much attention into the synopsis as you did to the book….. and then call it done! Thoughts on a synopsis…. join MissDemeanors on our Facebook to share!Read more
I follow a lot of my peers on Twitter, as I’m sure we all do. In the last few weeks I’ve noticed birthday acknowledgments of literary greats like Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Chandler. This prompted me to look up other authors born in July, like me 🙂 The list includes people like JK Rowling, Emily Bronte, Aldous Huxley, Cormac McCarthy, and the author of the “book” for West Side Story, Arthur Laurents (one of my favorite musicals of all time). Who knew it was such a banner month? Which authors were born the same month as you? Tracee: At the top of the August list is Dorothy Parker! She and I are joined by Ray Bradbury, Conrad Aiken, Herman Melville, Isabel Allende, PD James, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Guy de Maupassant, Wendell Berry (Kentucky born so I’m extra happy about this), Alfred Lord Tennyson, Daniel Keyes, Thomas De Quincey, Stieg Larsson, Georgette Heyer, Charles Bukowski, Annie Prouix, CS Forester, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Goethe and my personal hero, Leo Tolstoy! We Leos are a proud and, I suppose it’s fair to say, prolific and diverse bunch. Michele: Fun question, Robin. I’m not sure whether I should start with Stephen King or Agatha Christie. Then there’s F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Mary Oliver, Roald Dahl, Truman Capote, D.H. Lawrence, Ken Kesey, Leo Tolstoy, T.S. Eliot, and Upton Sinclair. Not to forget George R.R. Martin, Phyllis Whitney, Ann Beattie O.Henry, James Fenimore Cooper, Fawn Brodie, Robert Benchley, Jane Smiley, and Fannie Flagg. Honestly, with all of those September birthday parties, I barely get a word written! Tracee: Michele, note that Leo Tolstoy makes the list for both August 28 and September 9 because the Russian Empire changed its calendar! Yeah! He deserves two months, mine and yours.Michele: We’ll just have two parties for him 🙂 Tracee: Likely this is what Leo would expect! Robin: Geez September sounds awesome! And here I was feeling so pleased with July… Alison: This is a fun question! For February: James Joyce, Ina Garten (love her cookbooks!), Gertrude Stein, Betty Friedan, Charles Dickens, Sinclair Lewis, Jules Verne, John Grisham, Alice Walker, Boris Pasternak, Judy Blume, Matt Groening, Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, Anaïs Nin, Chuck Palahniuk, Victor Hugo, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Oh, and John Steinbeck. Alexia: I had to look this up:James Herriot (1916)Frank Herbert (1920)Elmore Leonard (1925)Virgil (70 BC)Roxane Gay (1974)Oscar Wilde (1854)Ursula K. Le Guin (1929)Carrie Fisher (1956)Augusten Burroughs (1965)Zadie Smith (1975)Dylan Thomas (1914)John Keats (1795). Robin: I sense a theme about your sense of humor 😉 Cate: This is from Bookish… edited by me: Do you share a birthday with your favorite author? Here, we take a look at novelists, poets, journalists, and other writers born during the month of December.Elizabeth Berg (1948)George Saunders (1958)Ann Patchett (1963)Joseph Conrad (1857)Willa Cather (1873)Noam Chomsky (1928)Emily Dickinson (1830)Gustave Flaubert (1821)Jane Austen (1775)Donna Tartt (1963)Mary Higgins Clark (1927)Stephenie Meyer (1973)Henry Miller (1891)Jean Toomer (1894)David Sedaris (1956)Rudyard Kipling (1865)Nicholas Sparks (1965) Susan: Alexia, I’m October too! I’d add in Graham Greene, John Le Carre and Elmore Leonard. Paula: I was born in March, just like Albert Einstein. We’re Pisces, the dreamers. My fellow fish include three of my favorite writers: Alice Hoffman, Dr. Suess, and John Updike. How about you, dear readers? What literary luminaries were born the same month as you?Read more
There’s been a running joke throughout my career as a criminal investigator that my Google works better than other people’s Google. I routinely find tidbits and data points that others can’t. It’s a handy skill to have as an investigator but it stumped me for years, wondering where that skill came from. It occurred to me as I’ve been finishing up the current revision of my latest novel – it’s because I’m a writer. As writers, we learn to describe everything from facial expressions to a city block to worlds that exist only in our imaginations. We hide clues in plain sight. We figure out ways to say the same thing eighteen different ways. In short, we use our words. This is a critical skill in research. Whether it’s researching the aurora borealis or the Aurora Incident, the method is the same. Start with the topic at its highest level then drill down or pivot on points of interest. Hone the search terms as new ways to approach the subject reveal themselves by what’s turned up. Keep going until you get to the level of detailed information you intended to find, and keep notes about the nuggets you found along the way. Not finding what you want? Find another way to phrase it. When I was little, before the days when I could search for information using only a cell phone, I discovered that libraries had information desks. I could call the information desk of my local library and they would research any question I dreamed up. It got to the point where I would invariably ask more questions when they called me back with the previous answer. After one particular week in the summer when I kept asking more and more questions, the research librarian spent an afternoon with me to show me how to do the research myself. The reason for all my questions? I was writing a story. I owe a lot to that librarian. That one skill set changed my life. I wish I remembered her name. I think I’ll Google it.
It’s been a couple of weeks but I’m still enjoying the afterglow of attending ThrillerFest for the first time. From meeting a few more of my fellow Miss Demeanors to hallway chats with some of my literary heroes, I made the most of the experience. How, you may ask? To paraphrase literary publicist Sara Wigal, by saying yes. When my agent invited her clients to an opening night cocktail party, I said yes. In addition to finally meeting D. A. Bartley, Alexia Gordon, and Cate Holahan in real life, along with seeing Susan Breen again, I met Lisa Gardner (and her mom) and Lee Child. Susan and I somehow ended up in a conversation with Mr. Child about rats. It must have been memorable to him, as well, because he greeted both Susan and I by name on separate occasions throughout the weekend. Life achievement unlocked.
At every opportunity to speak with the authors who generously shared their time and experiences on panels, I said yes. This is how I had multiple hallway conversations with Lisa Gardner, spoke with Meg Gardiner, and fangirled over Walter Mosely. To those people who took photos of my conversation with Mr. Mosely, feel free to post them on our Facebook page.
When riding in an elevator with A. R. Shaw, she asked if I was published and I told her about my forthcoming short story. She said, “Follow me.” I said yes. I ended up on a live broadcast of the Authors On The Air radio blog streamed from the Strand’s onsite bookstore. When several authors, including a best seller, asked me if I’d be willing to give them insights into cyber crime topics, I said yes. I’m now fielding questions and having a blast. Saying yes to the Fest has kept the thrill going as I power through the homestretch with my latest manuscript. I hope ThrillerFest inspired you, too!
Recently my son signed up for a novel-writing class. He’s a great writer and an insightful person, and yet I did have this nightmare image of that argument we once had in Sam’s Club rising up in Chapter 3. Of course, my first novel, The Fiction Class, was about a woman with a difficult relationship with her mother. And the woman teaches a writing class. Clears throat. Anyway, that all led me to wonder if any of my fellow Miss Demeanors had writers in the family, and this is what they said: Robin: My mother was a journalist but it was my father who taught me family is fair game. He was in the advertising department of a national retailer and featured my brother and I in a couple of print campaigns for toys and clothing when we were toddlers. We worked cheap – we each got a stuffed animal. Paula: All my kids are writers. I wrote a memoir called Fixing Freddie (Adams Media, 2010) in which they all appeared. So payback is only a question of time…. Cate: My grandfather was a journalist and non fiction author. He inspired me to write. I would be happy to have other writers in the family though, so far, the English majors have all gone into business. Michele: My father had a master’s in English long before most people went past their bachelor’s degree. He worked under Admiral Halsey in the Navy promoting Victory at Sea, which led to a long career in television advertising. Privately, he longed to be writer. A few years ago, I found a short romance story he had submitted to a woman’s magazine under my mother’s name! I let him read the first few chapters of my first (unpublished) book. I was nervous about his reaction, but he only beamed at me and said, “I knew you had it in you, kid.” I wish he’d been around to see my books on the shelf. Two out of three of my children write, but focus on other careers. Tracee: My father writes all the time, but as a hobby while practicing medicine. I think that he never had the free time to consider publishing, but kept on writing because he couldn’t stop that! As for including real life…. undisguised real life would be hard for me because I come from a very very private family. A memoir might be too red hot to handle. Now, mix things up and call it fiction… where everyone can pretend it really is only fiction? Why not! Alison: Love all your stories! No journalists or professional writers in my family, but my brother is a supremely keen observer (and wrote beautiful poetry once upon a time). We’re extremely close, but I have no doubt he could describe me–accurately–in ways that would make me squirm. Fortunately for me, I don’t think a memoir is in his future any time soon. Alexia: No, I don’t. I’m the only writer and only physician. Susan, again: I realized that I left out my Aunt Lee. She was a reporter in Mexico City during the 1960s and she was a great inspiration. Also, my niece Jamie is a writer. And my oldest son is a reporter for the New Haven Independent. So I guess there are a lot of writers in my family!Read more
I have an article in this month’s issue of The Writer titled “What is this thing I’m Working On.” The idea came to me when one of my students sent me some pages and said, “What is this? ” She wasn’t sure if she’d written, or should be writing, a memoir, a novel, a narrative non-fiction or something else. Though we were certain she was not writing a poem. Although, in my own writing history, I’ve generally had pretty good idea of what I was doing, I could relate because I did stumble into writing mysteries. I’ve always loved reading them, but when I first started writing Maggie Dove, I was really more focused on the fact that she was a mystery writer than that she would be a detective. I’d written The Fiction Class, which was about a woman teaching a fiction class, and thought that it would be nice to have a follow-up about a woman teaching a mystery-writing class. But then a body showed up. And Maggie Dove had to figure out what to do about it, as did I. Sometimes life takes you on unexpected journeys and sometimes those journeys take you off a cliff. But occasionally they take you just where you should be. So that was a blessing. Last week, in the midst of ThrillerFest, I managed to get in another article to The Writer. On time! But you will have to wait a few months to see what that one’s about. How do you know what format your own writing will take?Read more
Last week, as I may have mentioned, I went to ThrillerFest in NYC. Had a fabulous time, and here’s the proof. The conference began with an absolutely fabulous party, thrown by the wonderful Talcott Notch crew of Gina Panettieri and Paula Munier. As you can see, a quorum of Miss Demeanors gathered together and had some fun. At that party were the great Lee Child and Lisa Gardner. They both signed my poster. You can’t see their signatures, but trust me, they’re there. Following that was a barrage of workshops and panels. I heard Alexia Gordon talk about “Werewolves, Vampires or Witches” (in a panel moderated by Heather Graham). Hank Phillippi Ryan talked about “Playboys, Scoundrels or Foxy Floozies.”Paula Munier talked about “Editing Your Manuscript,” on a panel moderated by Lori Rader-Day. And then there was George R.R. Martin, who traded stories with Lee Child, Heather Graham, David Morrell and R.L. Stine. (On a personal note, I spent a good chunk of the 90s reading R.L. Stine to my children and he’s absolutely lovely.) There were also tons of book signings and I came home with many wonderful things to read, among them a signed version of A Game of Thrones. Below is a picture of me meeting with George R.R. Martin. True to form, I could think of nothing fabulous to say, but we did agree it was nice that I did not have to travel a long way to the conference. So there it is!A wonderful time. Anyone else have any ThrillerFest stories to share?Read more
Last week I went to the ThrillerFest Conference in NYC for the first time, and as part of it, I signed up for a Master Craft Class. I was fortunate enough to be assigned to Steve Berry’s class. I’ve been working on a manuscript I thought was good. The opening pages received a finalist award for a fairly impressive literary competition. So I wasn’t concerned about the writing, but I worried they lacked oomph. And if you are writing a mystery or a thriller, oomph is a very nice thing to have. Enter Steve Berry. His class went from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and he gave lots of concrete information about plotting and openings and so on, and then, he met with each of us, one-on-one. I am talking about meeting one-on-one with a man who has sold 25 million books! Or 25 million and 5 because I went out and bought a bunch of them. So I sat down across from him and handed him my pages. I think he likes to read them fresh, to get a sense of how someone just picking up the book might feel about them. He read the first paragraph, the second, the third. Then he went back to the first paragraph, the second, the third. Then he put his head in his hands, which was probably a bad sign. And then he began to ask questions. Who’s this? What do you mean to say here? What’s this? Fortunately I knew the answers because I had spent a lot of time thinking about the plot and the characters, and then he got to about page 6 and said, “This is where the book begins.” He was absolutely right, and it had never occurred to me. Then he began asking about chapter 2, 3, 4, 5 and he began brainstorming how to set up all of that starting with the changes to chapter 1. I was writing down notes like a maniac. It was genuinely the most helpful experience I’ve ever had. I walked out of there, or perhaps better to say I crawled out of there, with a strong sense of how my story should go. Got home, starting making the changes, and now feel so enthusiastic. My manuscript has oomph.Read more