Today we sit down with mystery/suspense author, V.S. Anderson. She is going to share a bit about her inspiration and work. Please enjoy this edition of 20 Questions.
Q1) When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I suspect I didn’t start thinking about “being a writer” so much as I just always wanted to put things into writing. I got a lot of praise for being able to write well, and i found the process of creating language emotionally fulfilling–in ways that I suspect most people who write compulsively, as I do, understand. The agent I had back in the ’90s once lamented the amazing number of books on bookstore shelves and said, “It just amazes me that people continue to write with so much competition.” Then she looked at me and said, “But you just can’t help it, can you?” That’s the source of the title of one of my blogs–Just Can’t Help Writing. I think there are a lot of us like that.
Q2) How long does it typically take you to write a book?
It seems to depend on the book. My first book, King of the Roses, about a champion jockey who is offered a huge bribe to throw the Kentucky Derby, took ages. It was a labor of love and it went through many iterations over the course of at least ten years. Although I had internalized most of the rudiments of plotting from the massive amount of reading I’d done all my life, when it came to creating suspense and delivering payoffs, I had a lot to learn. Since then, I’ve probably spent more time revising than generating first drafts. Once a story has a hook for me personally, producing text is pretty easy. That said, my ideas err on the side of complexity, and pulling all the parts together takes a while. The result is that I ran into real trouble when I tried to write a complex, ambitious novel on deadline. I call that my Failed Novel. And boy, did I learn a lot about myself and my writing through that failure!
Q3) What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
Well, I’m never really not writing, since even when I’m not putting down words, I’m incubating and mentally revising. During my career as an associate professor in a university writing program, most of my writing was job-related, a lot of it in response to student writing but also for program business and for academic publication, and I wrote what had to be written. Now that I’m no longer teaching, I have multiple projects going. I write as much for my blogs as for my novels. I make the projects manageable by setting a timer and working on each project for a designated chunk of time each day. Setting reasonable daily goals, working steadily rather than feverishly, helps me produce.
Q4) What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
Hmmm. Maybe that I always write first drafts in longhand. But I think that’s pretty common. I guess, too, that I much prefer to write outdoors. When I lived in Florida, I would grab a cooler and a few beers and my notebook and put my little one-person canoe in the Hillsborough River, paddle to a secluded cove, and pump out text. Now when I possibly can I set up on my back deck. This does create problems because I am into bird-watching, and I’m easily distracted by interesting songs and mysterious flutters in the leaves.
Q5) How are your books published? (traditional, indie, etc.)
When I wrote my first books, the only alternative to traditional publishing was vanity publishing, which as we know was as good as an admission that your books were no good. 🙂 My mystery novels were published by St. Martin’s and Bantam, and the two “category romances” I took on by New American Library. There are stories behind each of these experiences, but in the interests of space and time, I’ll just say for now that i realized I needed a day job and I went back to school. Anyone who has ever taught writing knows that it is a completely overwhelming commitment, so although I continued to write fiction, I back-burnered the whole “professional writer” part of myself for nearly 25 years. Once I quit teaching, I jumped back in with both feet, recovered my rights, and published two of my previously published horse-racing mysteries as ebooks. I’m just now getting POD versions uploaded. For my current works in progress, I’m pursuing traditional publication, but one of them is so quirky that it may end up being self-published. So I have a foot in both camps, and relish the freedom and opportunities of self-publishing. I just simply love that it’s really all up to me! Brava indie publishing!
Q6) Where do you get your ideas for your books?
I’m not sure I can answer this one. If I have to make a claim about what makes a book idea start to jump up and down for me, it would probably be a character who has to make a decision or solve a problem, but is held back from doing the right thing by something driving him or her that makes the right decision really hard. In my quirky book, I wanted the story to be about the impossibility of ever really knowing that you’re doing the right thing, and the need to make decisions without certainty. The idea came from a brain explosion I had one day out of the blue combined with my memory of my father, who always thought he was doing the right thing as a parent—and how easy it is to look back and blame him for being wrong. Was he? It’s one of those things that can never really be known for sure. I think that’s the only book, though, in which I’ve drawn on my own family.
Q7) If you don’t mind sharing, when did you write your first book and how old were you?
I wrote my first book in pencil on notebook paper when I was about ten years old. It was about horses, naturally. My hero was this wild black mare who ruled over a bunch of escaped horses that lived in a hidden valley in the north Georgia mountains, where I’d been camping several times with my family. Shades of The Black Stallion, of course, but also of Walter Farley’s other shorter series, The Island Stallion. Long before Elvish or Klingon were dreamed of, I invented a whole secret alphabet that my horses used. I still have that book; the pencil has smeared so much that it’s almost unreadable. But it reminds me of a kind of imaginative energy I probably will never be able to recover.
Q8) What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I have a horse, Paddington—Paddy—that I ride three or four days a week. He’s a hunter: we jump over (very tiny) things. I rode and taught riding when I was younger—those days were the sources for my two current e-books. After a fairly long hiatus, I came back to riding, so Paddy has a lot of old(er)-person stuff to put up with. I also garden, though not expertly, but in keeping with my belief that people should grow food, not lawns. I also watch birds. The past couple of years I’ve been working on learning to recognize bird calls and songs. And of course, I read. My blog College Composition Weekly, which summarizes current research for college-writing professionals, requires a good bit of academic reading, but I also read fiction as well as history and other kinds of non-fiction. I usually have two or three books going at once. I’ve been trying to explore the indie universe of horse stories and reviewing the ones I like for my blog Just Can’t Help Writing.
Q9) What is your favorite book?
Impossible to answer! I love so many. I tend to like books that are complex, psychologically, emotionally, ethically, and structurally. Two that I’ve loved recently are Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder and Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests.
Q10) What do your family and friends think of your writing?
I think they think it’s quite nice that I do this, but I can’t say that they’re “fans.” I don’t have much family, and most of the people I know are crazy busy, especially my colleagues from my university years. They read all day, every day, for their jobs, and moreover, they are often “literary” readers for whom mystery/thrillers are a world apart. When they do read my books, they like them, but I think they’re more forgiving of my foibles and wrong turns that an agent or editor would be. But they’re lovers of language, and I am thrilled when they enjoy something of mine that I’ve shared.
Q11) What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
How much judicious cutting could improve a book! My original ms. for King of the Roses was 700 pages (eeek). My wonderful St. Martin’s editor modeled the process of cutting down this monster for me and helped me make decisions about what I needed to tell readers and how many times I needed to tell them. I was able to follow his lead and the result was amazing. Sadly, I didn’t follow his lead as much as I should have when I moved on to a new situation. Now, I find that chopping out my habitual overwrites is one of my main chores in revision.
Q12) What do you hate most about the writing process?
I really don’t hate any part of writing. I do find marketing really hard.
Q13) How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?
I published five all-told before returning to grad school—three mystery/suspense novels and two romances. I now have three ms. in hand: two out for beta reads and submission, and one well underway. At least one other ms. languishes in the dresser drawer, hopefully to be pulled out and shaken up a little one day. So I guess I’ve written nine (not counting stuff I wrote in high school).
Your first novel that works probably has a special place in your heart. King of the Roses is the most tightly constructed and at the same time the one that captures a long stretch of my life, so I guess it’s my “favorite.” I’m enjoying the one I’m working on now and am interested to see what it becomes when it grows up.
Q14) Do you have any suggestions to help us become better writers? If so, what are they?
Goes without saying: read! Not just in your genre. Try some stuff that makes you work a little mentally or takes you into unfamiliar territory, just to see what the possibilities are. So much of what I pick up to read just replays what I’ve read a thousand times before. Only by wandering widely can a writer collect the resources to craft something that delights by surprising.
Shepherd words! Gather them and keep them. When I was writing my first book, I found Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer and fell in love with the precision possible in words. True, some of the distinctions are so fine that few readers will recognize them (and sometimes so fine that the people laying out the rules break them even in the act of proclaiming them), but the more you know about the words in your flock, the more equipped you are to convey exactly what you want readers to hear and feel. I collect words like crazy: when I find a writer whose voice and style delight me, I watch for nouns and verbs, verbs especially, that match Mark Twain’s insistence that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. I record these special words and try them out in sentences describing my own characters and their actions and settings. So I would hope that writers would reach for vibrant, precise language that does more than just fill in the slots.
And learn about sentences. Learn what a cumulative sentence is, what parallelism can do for your rhythm, the power of long sentences when they’re handled right, how fragments can deliver a punch. Learn what a dangling modifier is, and don’t do it. One time-honored exercise is imitation: writing a paragraph of your story in the style of an author you admire, noting how the clauses and phrases hook up together, how they play with each other, how they set off each other.
And I would hope that writers would go for the surprise. I know we are safest when we write in genres—my own books never seem to quite fit in a specific place on the shelf, and I’ve paid a price for that rebelliousness. There’s always a tension in fiction between the too-familiar that doesn’t take us out of our own worlds and the startling that’s so uncomfortable that we just can’t bear to spend time there. But somewhere there’s a sweet spot that shows us our worlds through new lenses, gilds the formulas. I want to live in that sweet spot.
Q15) What do you think makes a good story?
Conflict, conflict, conflict. Conflict, conflict, conflict. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve recently received, from Brian Klems, online editor for WritersDigest.com., at a conference I recently attended, is to begin with conflict, not crisis. Unless we know something about your character, have some kind of frame of reference or reason to be engaged, we sadly could care less if he or she gets blown to bits by that bomb going off on the first page. But if you follow some advice from Stephen King that has been making the rounds recently, and abandon “plotting” in favor of “putting people in situations,” you’ll plunk your readers down right between people, and after all, that’s where stories happen. And readers, perverse creatures that they are, like trouble. They like people with problems. I find over and over that Donald Maas’s breakout novel formula works: “It couldn’t possibly get any worse than this . . . oh, yes, it could!” In my view, the number one question a writer ought to hope for from readers is “How in the world is she (or he) going to get out of this?!”
Q16) Where can we find your books?
My web site, www.virginiasanderson.com, provides links to purchase my two e-books, King of the Roses and Blood Lies, both of which are mystery/thrillers set in the horse-racing world. My Amazon author page is www.amazon.com/author/virginiasanderson. Anyone interested should note that the recently published e-books are slightly revised from their original versions, and in my view a bit better, so I recommend them rather than the St. Martin’s or Bantam editions that are available as used books. I’m just now getting a POD version of King of the Roses done at Ingram; I hope it will be available on Amazon after its publication date of June 1, 2016. The POD version of Blood Lies will follow soon.
I’m proud of the editorial reviews for my current books. I’ll paste in excerpts:
For King of the Roses:
Intricately plotted, filled with interesting track types and vivid descriptions of what the author calls “the Derby week buffoonery,” this is an impressive debut by a superb writer. In addition to the never-lets-down suspense, there are two elements that deserve special mention: the bitter, pungent dialogue and the magnificently exciting description of the race itself. —Publishers Weekly
No racing novel since the advent of Dick Francis’s series of mysteries has captured my admiration like this book. Highly reminiscent of Francis’s work, King of the Roses is a mystery with a racetrack theme. . . . I have always felt that Dick has no peer. Now I’m not so certain. . . . To those of you readers who enjoy Dick Francis, I rate King of the Roses a must.–The Maryland Horse
For Blood Lies:
Action abounds, and it all centers on characters, the boy especially, who have dimension, including depth. A real winner, this one. — Charles Champlin, Los Angeles Times
An experienced horsewoman herself, Anderson knows about the details of horse breeding and about the money that is involved in it. . . . The plot is complex, the character development is detailed and the style is eminently readable. —St. Petersburg Times
Q17) Will you give us an excerpt from one of your favorite works?
I’ve posted sample chapters of both King of the Roses and Blood Lies, as well as of my works in progress (and I’d love to hook up for beta reads!) on my blog, http://www.justcanthelpwriting.wordpress.com. I’ll be glad to paste in some text here if that’s the better option. Just let me know.
Q18) Can you provide a short bio so we can get to know you?
V. S. Anderson always been a horse nut, and as a young person, was a rabid horse-racing fan. So it’s no surprise that her first novels were about horses: the Kentucky Derby and the glamour of a Thoroughbred breeding farm—but with a little mystery and mayhem thrown in! For King of the Roses and Blood Lies, she drew on her years of working in the horse world, teaching riding, showing hunters, moonlighting on the racetrack, and for a while, owning and galloping her own racehorse.
Since then she has used her doctorate in English to teach writing at a regional campus of a Midwestern university—right across the river from Louisville and the Derby, in fact! She lives in New Salisbury, Indiana, where she gardens, watches birds, writes mystery/suspense, and rides Paddy, her sweet, sweet horse.
Q19) Where can we read a sample of your work?
Q20) How can we connect with you?