MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Jon McGoran a/k/a D. H. Dublin. Writing as D. H. Dublin, Jon McGoran is the author of the forensic crime thrillers BODY TRACE, BLOOD POISON, and FREEZER BURN from Penguin Books. As Jon McGoran, his fiction has appeared in several anthologies, including LIAR, LIAR and THE STORIES IN BETWEEN and the upcoming “Zombies Versus Robots” anthology from IDW. He is a member of the Philly Liars Club, the MWA and the ITW.
Jon and I met at the Writer’s Coffeehouse near Philadelphia and he has provided some excellent advice for me in the past concerning my fiction.
Jon, they always say “Write what you know.” What background do you bring to your crime thrillers?
JON McGORAN: I have no background in law enforcement, either side it — or zombies or robots, for that matter, — but I think the whole “Write What You Know” axiom is worth considering. It sounds like great advice, but I think it only goes so far. Everyone I have spoken to in law enforcement pretty much agrees that all fictional depictions of their jobs are wildly misrepresentation, even the good ones, and in some ways especially the good ones.
Take a private eye novel: the vast majority of what goes on in the work life of a PI would never make it into a book, not should it. No one would want to read a truly realistic portrayal of the life of most private eyes. I am not saying there are not many, many valuable insights into the world of the cop or the criminal that can only be gained by living those lives, but for the most part, there is a lot of drudgery in those jobs, and very likely most of those professionals rarely if ever encounter the excitement twists and turns in most PI novels.
I think, to be honest, most PI novels, and most genre fiction, is more informed by the conventions of the genre than by the realities of the world it purports to depict. (And if you write a series, you are almost by definition writing off any level of realism; the events in each novel would take a huge toll on the main character, and who would want to read a PI series where after the fourth book the protagonist just sits in a corner and rocks back and forth?).
People generally don’t want to read about the mundaneity of everyday life. They want to read about something special. But they want to read about those fantastic things happening to people who are on some level very real. That’s what makes them care.
So, I would replace “Write What You Know” with two other axioms: “Write Who You Know,” since the essence of writing a good novel of any sort is knowing the characters in it, and depicting them realistically; and “Know What You Write,” because while you do not have to start out an expert in the area you are writing about, you have to become one in order to do it well. Especially in a genre such as forensics, you have to do your research. Apart from the importance of writing knowledgably and with confidence about a given topic, it can be devastating to the reading experience to catch the author in an error. Research can be hugely fun and fascinating, but when it comes down to it though, your job as a writer is to make stuff up.
VENTRELLA: Having helped teach the “Write a Novel in Nine Months” course, what are the biggest mistakes you see new writers make?
McGORAN: I used to hate it when writers would pontificate that character is everything, and I still don’t like it (because nothing is everything, that’s why there is other stuff) — but character is hugely important, and while plot and setting, etc., are also important, one of the hardest things to grasp is how important it is that character thoroughly pervades every other aspect of a story. That point of view and voice impact everything, and they all stem from character. You learn about plot and setting and character as different things, but when you get to that next level, you have to learn in order for your writing to be immersive for the reader to lose themselves and get absorbed in it, everything must be experienced through the lens of character. As with so many aspects of writing, that is easier to grasp than it is to keep in mind while you are writing. One of the greatest perks in teaching the Novel in Nine Months class, apart from meeting so many talented writers, is that by reiterating the lessons of good writing, you are reminding yourself, and reinforcing your own writing.
VENTRELLA: What mistakes did you make when you first started writing?
McGORAN: The full list of mistakes I made while writing my first novel would be longer than the novel itself, but I learned a lot from making those mistakes, and even more from correcting them. The biggest mistakes had to do with point of view. It was a sprawling, raucous thriller with four or five plot lines and maybe ten different points of view. Unfortunately, it was only after I finished the first draft that I fully grasped what “Point of View” really meant. There were POV errors on every other page, and scenes with shifts of POV that were physically impossible. It took me months to sort it out, maybe full year, through several rewrites and drafts, before I had fixed all of the POV errors and inconsistencies. But through the process, I learned a lot about the importance and the subtleties of POV.
VENTRELLA: What is the process you use to create believable characters?
McGORAN: For me, writing process is closely related to character development, and getting inside the heads of characters, especially characters in some ways very different from me. I have always been a strong proponent of outlines, and the more I write, the more convinced I am of their importance. I know some writers do not outline, and it seems to work for them, but it is an essential part of my writing process. And when writing a story with a mystery at its core, outlines are particularly important, because you’re not just concerned with the structure of the plot, you also have to think about how you reveal information, both to the characters and to the readers. You almost need a second outline, just dealing with the revelation of clues and other information needed to solve the crime. When writing a forensic mystery it is even more important: you are not just getting information from witnesses or informants, you are deriving it from forensic techniques; evidence that has to be discovered, then interpreted, and often reinterpreted. The revelation of that information is part of the pacing of the story, and I think it’s almost impossible to do it well without a solid outline.
So what does all this time spent outlining have to do with believable characters and being a male author writing from a woman’s point of view? I think preparation is hugely important, and outlines are a big part of that. As I was preparing to write BODY TRACE, the first book in the D. H, Dublin series, I was a little concerned about writing from a woman’s point of view. But my outlining process helped me a lot, because the time that I spent working on the outline, I was really getting to know my characters, especially Madison, the main character. By the time I started writing the first draft, I had already been so immersed in the outline, and so immersed in Madison, that her point of view was second nature for me. This is not to say that there weren’t surprises or revelations about her while writing that draft, and there were definitely aspects of her character that revealed themselves toward the end of the book, causing revisions of earlier passages, but for the most part, I knew Madison before I started the draft. By the time I started writing, I was no longer worried about, “Is this how a woman would think or act,” I was thinking “Is this how Madison would think or act?” And by outlining so extensively, I had already answered many of those questions for myself, which helped define Madison in my mind. Writing a detailed outline helped me in the ways that a detailed outline always helps, but in addition, that added time spent living in Madison’s world before I starting the first draft helped me to become completely comfortable with her point of view, and her voice. By the time I started writing the first draft, I had a fully-formed character to occupy –- a character for whom being a woman is just one of many defining characteristics. The same is true for the other characters in the book: All that time spent in preparation is time your are getting to know all of your characters better, so that they are more or less fully formed before you start your draft.
VENTRELLA: What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about the publishing business?
McGORAN: I would say probably the biggest misconceptions in the publishing industry these days are things that were stated with absolute certainty by well-informed experts six months ago. Things are changing, and fast. Frankly, I am torn, at times trying to keep up and make sense of the constant changes, and other times keeping my head low, concentrating on my writing, and wondering what it’s all going to look like when things finally settle down.
Self-publishing is absolutely not what it used to be; it is a viable alternative, and one that many successful authors are exploring, and many new authors are having great success with. That said, some of the major knocks against it remain true: while there is a lot of great stuff being published, there is much more that is not very good, and your great self-published book will have a hard time punching through all that clutter to get any attention. And when you self publish, you are not just a self-published writer, you are now a self-publishing publisher, and you have to do all of the things that a publisher does, including all the production, promotion, distribution, and sales. Some people say the traditional publishing houses barely do that stuff anymore, but don’t kid yourself: they could certainly do more, and they could do some things better, but they do a lot. Self publishing can be a great option if you have the time to put into it, but make no mistake, you are taking on a whole other job, and a big one at that, one that could take up all that time you would have been able to spend writing that next great novel.
VENTRELLA: As a fan, who do you enjoy reading?
McGORAN: There are a number of local writers whose work I really enjoy, including our friends Jonathan Maberry and Dennis Tafoya, as well as Duane Swierczynski. Still, though, I think my favorite author is Elmore Leonard, he of the crackling dialogue and zero percent body fat prose.