Welcome to the fifty-fourth of my blog interviews with novelists, short story authors, poets, short story authors, bloggers, scriptwriters, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with suspense author Marla Madison. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate the author further. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here.
Morgen: Hello Marla. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Marla: It’s strange, but like a lot of writers, I find it difficult to write about myself. Being honest with you, I’m a sixty-something woman, twice divorced, who is addicted to writing, reading, food, and spider solitaire.
Morgen: Ooh, I love solitaire. I don’t play it much these days but the spider version sounds like fun.
Marla: And I swear too much! On the lighter side, I live on a small chain of lakes in northwestern Wisconsin with a significant other. We enjoy golfing, pontooning…
Morgen: ah pontoon… a blast from the past.
Marla: …and play duplicate and tournament bridge. Love playing cards in general, grew up on Rook, 500 Rummy, penny-ante poker, canasta and pinochle. Also love hearts. Currently I’m retired from my job as a Federal Mediator and work occasionally now doing Arbitrations for the state of Iowa and FMCS. Becoming a writer follows being a lifelong reader. I’ve been a reader since I was a very young child and read fairy tales. I’m sure all of us readers plan novels in our heads and I am no exception. It’s only in the past few years that I started putting them down on paper.
Morgen: Me too, about six years. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Marla: My debut novel, She’s Not There, is a suspense novel and so is the second one that I’m working on now. I write suspense because that is what I love to read. Reading suspense is like watching the soap operas. (I’m a closet Young And The Restless fan) They both take you away from reality, allowing you to de-stress. Kind of like meditation without the chanting!
Marla: I haven’t considered any other genres, although I’ve done some short stories on Fanstory, which covered many different genres. I even tried a “Purple Prose” piece (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purple_prose). It was fun to write but shocked some of my friends. My favorite piece was a short story in which I had Adam Lambert playing a role. It was a hoot to do, and I won a small contest with it. (Didn’t know there was such a thing as fan-fiction at the time. And I never heard from Adam Lambert, thanking me for writing about him!)
Morgen: How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Marla: As an e-published author, I’ll be doing my own marketing. I plan on doing the bulk of it online. This will be a challenge as I’m just getting started with things like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. I’ll need a twelve-year-old to show me the ropes!
Morgen: I’m 31 years younger than that but if I can help, let me know. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Marla: Only the short story I referred to above and it was a very small contest. I think that with the changing scene in publishing today, that type of thing (contests and awards) will become less important. With e-publishing, it’s all about marketing, marketing, marketing, just like successful real-estate is all about location, location, location.
Morgen: I like that. 🙂 Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Marla: Again, I believe this is changing with the digital movement. One of the things most attractive to an e-publisher like myself is having control over how your book is marketed, with no-one to tell you that you can’t write a certain way. Or tell you in order for a suspense book to be successful you need a dead body on page one and follow a formula for your genre.
Morgen: This is what appeals to me: choosing my own cover, title and first reader-edited content. And thereafter who knows?
Marla: My novel begins with a definite lack of dead bodies but raises a question about why abused women have gone missing in such high numbers. Against typical expert advice, my suspense builds as the novel progresses rather than slapping you in the face with it in the first four chapters.
Morgen: Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Marla: Yes, my first novel, She’s Not There, is available as an e-book on all the popular readers, and can be purchased on Amazon and Smashwords. The e-publishing process is a technical nightmare not for the faint of heart or brain unless you’re a computer nerd. I managed to survive it with a minimum of hair-pulling, teeth gnashing and tossing of heavy objects. Unless one is gifted with a heavy dose of patience, I recommend spending the money to have someone else format it for you.
Morgen: That’s interesting. I’ve heard mixed reports on the process of eBook publishing but at least you survived it. 🙂
Marla: I do read e-Books. I was a holdout for a long time and finally decided if I was going to e-publish, I’d better learn to use the darn things. My first e-purchase on my Kindle was Brian Freeman’s “The Bone House,” and I loved reading it on my Kindle. The book is great read for any of you suspense lovers out there. Since I’m an avid reader, I’m anxiously awaiting the library system to become compatible. It’s happening, but not quite there yet.
Morgen: Ours has although I listen to audiobooks more (walking the dog, to/from work etc). Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Marla: Ah, that is the beauty of e-publishing – no rejections! An author only has to worry about bad reviews and poor sales.
Morgen: What are you working on at the moment / next?
Marla: My second suspense novel. This one takes place in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and begins with a brutal home invasion. I’m really excited about this one. The characters are very real and I believe the reader will identify with them.
Morgen: Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Marla: Yes, I either write or edit every day with only an occasional exception. Now, I’ll have to add marketing to my list of every day duties! Won’t be as much fun as writing.
Morgen: Is anything? 🙂 What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Marla: Hah! It is real and it isn’t pretty. I think (for me anyway) writer’s block sets in when my confidence in my writing droops. I took about a three-month hiatus from She’s Not There, did some short stories, and developed an idea for novel #2 when I fell into a slump. If I were to give advice for a cure, it would be to go for a walk, preferably with a loving dog.
Morgen: I have one of those. 🙂
Marla: My creativity regenerates when I walk, as does my positive attitude. Negativity breeds writer’s block.
Morgen: Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Marla: She’s Not There took on a life of its own as I wrote. For this second novel I am using more structure, but I find I tend to be resistant to it. I think some structure is an advantage, especially in the revision process. Hard for me though, I prefer just going with the flow.
Morgen: I do a bit of each. I don’t plot too much as I know it’s unlikely to stay true to it, and usually goes in a better direction than I planned anyway. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Marla: Characters need to be varied and they need to be real. As a reader, I’m weary of every woman being a raving beauty who manages to stay that way forever and every man they meet lusts for them. My women are less than perfect, struggling with the same issues as all women – things like body size, eating habits, attracting men, sexuality, etc.
Morgen: Oh so familiar. Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Marla: Always my critique group. We meet every other week. My significant other has never read any of my writing except for one or two or the short stories I did. I figured we had enough to argue about. I wasn’t going to add my writing to the mix.
Morgen: Oh dear. I’d recommend writing groups for every writer, published/established or otherwise, although some are better than others (I’m very lucky with mine). Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Marla: Good question. I have discovered there are two kinds of writers. The first group, like myself, sit down and write. Then edit repeatedly. For us it is all about getting the thoughts out there, and then refining them. The second group, (and three of the authors in my critique group belong in this category), labor over every word and sentence as they write. That doesn’t work for me. There’s nothing wrong with either method, but an author needs to discover what works best for him/her and stick with it.
Morgen: Oh no, I’m with you. I’m too impatient and you can edit too much; when all you do is change / change back or edit for the sake of it. What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Marla: Another interesting question. I’ve always felt like I am not creative at all, but I’ve discovered creativity is really just a skill like any other and needs to be worked on. I get my best ideas while walking, letting my imagination go. Kind of like daydreaming, I suppose. And I have found that sometimes I have to force my mind to run through an outline of where I am in the novel. Surprisingly, that often works. Sort of a mental kick in the butt!
Morgen: We can all do with that. Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Marla: Always a computer. I own an Imac and a Mac laptop. My handwriting sucks.
Morgen: I’m a Mac owner too (wouldn’t have anything else now) and whilst my handwriting is legible, it’s definitely slower than my typing (the advantage of being a secretary for over 20 years). What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Marla: Hmm. Not sure I would try second person. It seems cumbersome for suspense.
Morgen: I love it but yes, it only suits a certain type of writing, darker but really it can only go so far. There have been a couple of novels written like that (may be more) and I’ve been reading Jay McInerney’s ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ which is very gritty but at the same time tiring so I only read it in chunks. I’m planning on eBooking a second person anthology so we shall see how that goes.
Marla: I write in the third person, and admittedly do some head-hopping, although I always do a scene change when that takes place. I tried doing my new novel in a combination of first and third person. Unfortunately my critique group liked my writing better in third person, so I scrapped the first person idea. I enjoy reading first person novels and will probably try using that POV again sometime.
Morgen: Apparently first person present tense has been very popular recently but flooded the market so agents are now tired of it. I spoke to a couple of agents recently who said you can’t beat third person past tense. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Marla: One or two short stories.
Morgen: What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Marla: The best aspect has to be getting positive feedback from my group of writer friends. Or any reader. It’s quite a rush to entertain people, to actually take them to another place of your direction. Least favorite is having to make a major storyline overhaul due to an error in my research or thought process.
Morgen: Oops. At least you realise.
Marla: Another problem is getting enough quiet time in which to write.
Morgen: Tell me about it. If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Marla: I’ve always been able to succeed at anything I really put my mind to. My biggest surprise was how much I had to learn. I thought I knew how to write, but quickly discovered there was a long, arduous learning curve.
Morgen: It’s taken me the last six years to get that I feel like I know what I’m doing. It’s like anything, piano playing, painting etc., it’s all just practice. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Marla: Read as much as possible, especially in the genre you plan to write. Then try to emulate your favorite author’s style, or an author who writes in a style you would be comfortable writing.
Morgen: a lot of new authors are worried about reading influencing their writing (that they’d use some of another writer’s work) but unless they lift particular passages, or they have a photographic memory, it’s only the voice that soaks in.
Marla: Become part of a GOOD critique group.
Morgen: Here, here.
Marla: I’ve been fortunate to have one in my area, but an online group would be helpful too. Being in a writer’s group not only helps your writing, but also will bring new people and friendships into your life. A common love is a wonderful bond.
Morgen: Absolutely. What do you like to read?
Marla: I read mainly suspense. Some favorite authors are Brian Freeman, Jonathan Kellerman, Jeffrey Deaver, Tami Hoag and Tess Gerritson. I read a LOT. I like books on CD in the car and prefer a good story line to suspense I enjoy when I read a book. Jodi Picoult is an author I love for long trips. She is an amazing writer.
Morgen: Yep, big fan of audio. One of my recent favourites is James Patterson / Michael Letwidge’s ‘Step on a crack’; just thrilling. Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Marla: I found http://fanstory.com great fun and helpful when I’m blocked. They have lots of contests and great feedback. Positive feedback gives a writer a real boost. (I will warn any Mac users that Safari doesn’t support it. I had to switch to Firefox.)
Morgen: I have a Mac but use Firefox anyway (as my website software isn’t Safari supported).
Marla: I belong to http://sistersincrime.org, and their site is packed with info. One of their subgroups, the Guppies provides names of people looking for other writers to form critique groups with and also manuscript exchanges. I have shelves of books on writing. Unfortunately, many are unread. They are great as references when having a problem, though. Hard to point one out, there are many excellent books out there. I do own two great thesauruses; one is Descriptionary and the other, Roget’s international thesaurus. Great to use when the perfect word just won’t let itself out of my brain. They are both available on Amazon, I believe. For the mystery/suspense writer, one book I love is Reardon’s “Don’t Murder Your Mystery.” Sorry, it’s been a while and I don’t remember where I bought it. I’m sure it’s still available online. I think a friend bought a copy on Amazon. Don’t mean to keep plugging them, but they are the biggest game in town for books.
Morgen: That’s OK. Some writers reading this will sell their books there so be happy that you’re plugging it. In which country are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Marla: I’m in the USA, the Midwest and live in a very small town in Wisconsin. This would be a hindrance if I were planning to do a lot of “live” marketing, but I’ll probably go the social networking route to promote my books.
Morgen: I think most writers are. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
Marla: Yes, I’m on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin. Hard to say how valuable they are since I am in the early learning stage of becoming accomplished at using them.
Morgen: Let me know. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Marla: The field of writing and publishing is definitely in transition. It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out. My personal opinion is that eBooks are here to stay and will be getting a bigger and bigger corner of the marketplace. But I don’t think books themselves will ever be obsolete. But then I said that about VCRs. And the Bull Market of the tech stocks!
Morgen: I can’t see it myself either, most people I speak to want both and I do; eBooks for travelling, pBooks (as paperbacks are now being called) for home. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Marla: I’ve probably talked too much already! Hope I didn’t lose everyone at sentence one. A big thanks to those of you who have hung in there with me.
Morgen: Not at all – great having you, and I’ve learned something (new websites) too. Would you like to include a self-contained excerpt of your writing?
Marla: An excerpt from chapter 1 please:
Lisa scanned the page, her eyes stopping on a line highlighted in fluorescent yellow. It revealed a dramatic rise in the percentage of abused women who’d gone missing in Milwaukee and its neighboring counties. The line seemed to levitate from the paper—the number far too high to be a statistical aberration. If accurate, what was happening? A predator—targeting abused women? There had to be another explanation. Her eyes could not leave the number. Lisa whispered, “Abused women were the topic of my dissertation too.” “I know. I read it. I thought you’d know what I should do.” Jennifer’s honey-brown eyes looked to Lisa for guidance. “What’s happening to them?” Lisa reviewed the testing method for accuracy. Everything seemed to be in order. “There has to be a mistake somewhere. I’d recommend you recount your data, and run the numbers again.” When she looked up, the girl had vanished from the room as silently as she’d arrived. Lisa squirmed in her seat. She’d dressed in anticipation of meeting Tyler. The new, yellow lace lingerie she was wearing under her sedate, gray pantsuit wasn’t meant for sitting in plastic classroom chairs. What she’d just learned had her heart racing but no longer with anticipatory lust. It seemed that Jennifer Hansen had dumped the matter into Lisa’s hands.
Morgen: I love the fact that her underwear matches the highlighter (possibly not intentionally written like that) and that we don’t know where she is until the mention of the chairs. Great hook and end. Thank you, Marla.
UPDATE MAY 2012: Hello readers, I’m now at the editing process of my new novel, Relative Malice. Another suspense story, it isn’t a continuation of She’s Not There, although a couple characters from the book play cameo roles. Kendall Halsrud, a new police detective in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, becomes lead investigator in a case involving a home invasion that left four members of a family dead. The baby is missing, but presumed dead when drops of her blood are found on the nursery floor and a suspect is arrested who claims he killed the baby. Kendall refuses to believe his confession, and continues to search for the child, aided by a security officer hired by the child’s uncle and a spurious card reader who turns our to be a computer hacker. Like She’s Not There, Relative Malice proceeds with a cast of compelling characters and many detours leading to the unexpected ending. I’m hoping to have it published by August. Happy reading, Marla
Marla Madison works part-time doing arbitrations for the State of Iowa and the Federal Mediation Service. Working full-time as an author, Marla is busy penning her second novel of suspense. She’s Not There, her first, is now available as an ebook. At home in Northwestern Wisconsin, she lives on Prairie Lake with her significant other, Terry, a beloved shelter-dog, Skygge, and Poncho, an opinionated feline from the same shelter. Some of her favorite things are playing duplicate and tournament bridge, golfing, reading, pontooning. and taking long walks with her dog.
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