Stories have arcs. Characters have arcs. Writers have arcs. We write, we get better at our craft. We read, we get better at our craft. We interact with other writers and our readers, we get better at our craft. Whether you are a professional writer or just starting out. Hobby or career. We are all in this together. Welcome.

Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

Edgar Award Nominated Debut Author Lili Wright talks about writing, teaching, and travel

This weekend I'm excited to spend time with ITW Debut Author, Lili WrightHer work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Down East, The Cincinnati Review, The Normal School, Cream City Review, and many other publications. 

She has lived a year in Paris, a year in Italy, and two years in Mexico—and now mixes all three languages together. When not traveling, she teaches English at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where she lives with her family in a yellow Victorian house that always needs repair. 


Your debut novel is gaining tremendous critical acclaim, including an Edgar Award nomination and an acquisition by Hollywood for a potential film. How long did you work on this book? Was it your first novel? or the first novel you had published?

Dancing with the Tiger took me six years to write. It’s my first novel, my second book. My first book was a travel memoir called Learning to Float. The novel took a long time because I’d never written fiction before and had no idea what I was doing. I just sat down and started writing. 

Interestingly, my first sentences are still in the book, though many pages, characters, and scenes wound up in the trash. I had bank robbers. Gone. I had different villains. Gone. I learned about plotting the hard way: trial and error. That said, once I met my amazing agent, Molly Friedrich, things moved quickly. Two months after my initial query letter, she sold the book. 

This novel transcends genre, crossing between literary and thriller, plus it uses multiple points of view. What made you tackle such a complex novel? How did you arrive at your style?

My greatest fear is that I will be boring. Any sin, but that, so I like to have a lot of balls in the air. Also, I’ve always loved stories where you meet an odd set of characters whose storylines converge. Dancing with the Tiger is told from three principle POVS, although other characters make cameos—from a drug lord to the Angel of Death to a pack of wild dogs.

 At first, I thought I would never be able to write from the perspective of a Mexican gardener or a meth addict, for example. But, gradually, I gained confidence. I attended a Robert McKee screenwriting seminar, where he said fictional characters are comprised of one third you, one third people you know, and one third pure imagination. This helped a lot. Once I understood I had to be all the characters, I could imagine—if I were a meth addict, what would I think or say or feel? As for my writing style, I’ve been writing for 30 years so I guess I have a style, but it’s like breathing now. Or walking. (Great advice from Robert McKee!)

You have traveled extensively and lived in France, Italy, and Mexico. How has your worldwide adventuring impacted your writing?

I consider myself first and foremost a travel writer. Setting is always enormously important, a character, in my stories and essays. My protagonists are usually running away from their troubles and themselves. I like playing with foreign languages, finding humor in cultural differences, and highlighting the loneliness and joy of being away from home. When you’re in a new place, you pay attention. Your senses run on overdrive. When traveling, I take notes. I watch and listen and think. My daily routine rarely affords such luxuries. 

When you're not traveling and writing, you teach English at DePauw University in Indiana, how does your teaching inform your writing and your writing inform your teaching?

It’s a symbiotic relationship. I use lessons I’ve learned as a writer in the classroom. War stories, if you will. Or insights. Teaching also keeps me reading great works of literature. We close read and study why certain passages are effective. Students often notice things in texts that help me see them in a new light. You don’t really know something until either you write about it or teach it. Both force you to achieve absolute clarity.

You are an experienced writer, but a debut novelist, what has been the biggest surprise about having your first novel out?

I feel as though I have joined a national conversation or have walked onto a larger stage—The Edgar nomination, the movie option, a full-page review in The New York Times, joining groups such as MysteryWriters of America and International Thriller Writers. This vast network of writers inspires me to press on. Where’s the next book? everyone asks. Writing a novel makes you a novelist. Duh. But this new title feels like an honor I have to live up to by writing a better book next time.

What are you working on now?

See? There you go. That question! I am beginning a novel set in Italy about a woman who goes on a double quest—to solve a crime and find God. I don’t like talking about it much. I don’t want to jinx myself or have it get stale. (But you knew I had to ask, right?!) 

Final Words of Wisdom:

God is in the details. My former newspaper editor used to say this and I love the idea. My own version: Everything is interesting if you get close enough. Another version: Get the dog’s name. I learned that as a tabloid reporter. Lord help you if you forgot to ask. Luckily, with fiction, you can always make it up! 

Thank you for joining us Lili! We'll leave you to writing that second book ... and working on that fantastic yellow house! 

LS Hawker talks about Writing, Publishing, and the beauty of Kansas

To shake things up a bit this week, I'm including an added bonus interview. LS Hawker debuted her first novel, The Drowning Game on September 22, 2015. Her second, Body and Bone came out May 6, 2016, and her new novel, End of The Road launched January 31, 2017, all with HarperCollins Witness. Not only is LS a fantastic writer, but she's also part of the ITW Debut Author Program team. Thank you for joining me to today LS! 

Let's start out with a little bit about LS: LS Hawker grew up in suburban Denver, indulging her worrisome obsession with true-crime books, and writing stories about anthropomorphic fruit and juvenile delinquents. She wrote her first novel at 14.

Armed with a B.S. in journalism from the University of Kansas, she had a radio show called “People Are So Stupid,” edited a trade magazine, and worked as a traveling Kmart portrait photographer, but never lost her passion for fiction writing.

She’s got a hilarious, supportive husband, two brilliant daughters, and a massive music collection. She lives in Colorado but considers Kansas her spiritual homeland.

The Interview

Tell us about the road to writing your first novel.

​THE DROWNING GAME was the first novel I published, but not the first one I wrote. The first one I wrote when I was 14, and it was crap! But I digress. It took me about three months to write the first draft of THE DROWNING GAME, and then I rewrote and polished for another eight months before I pitched it to Michelle Johnson of Inklings LiteraryAgency at Pikes Peak Writers Conference. She asked for the full manuscript, which I sent her. Then I didn't hear anything, so after three months, I figured that was a "no." So I sent it out a few other places and had some solid interest from a small press. 

Then on Super Bowl Sunday, 2015, I got an email from Michelle requesting a phone call. We talked and she offered me representation. I told her about the small press and she asked me to make a few minor changes so she could send it out to the big 5 that coming week, which I did, and she did. Most of them requested the manuscript, and Michelle sold it to HarperCollins Witness Impulse within 50 days. Six months later, it was published. Seven months after that, it was on the USA Today bestseller list.​ (Super Bowl Sunday, 2015 will forever go down in my memory as the day the Seahawks lost to the Patriots ... I'm going to try to replace that image with LS's excellent phone call!)

You've written three wildly different novels, how did you prepare for such different characters and plots? What is your research process like? 

​I typically take situations from my own life and friends' lives, or stories I've heard. Often I will do a mashup of several different stories to come up with unique plots. I love radio programs and podcasts where people tell true-life stories, and I've used those for inspiration more than once.

I always consult with a Jefferson County Colorado deputy sheriff for police procedure and an Arapahoe County Colorado prosecutor for legal issues. They're very helpful.​

You've lived in Colorado and Kansas. How has that environment impacted you as a writer? 

People think I'm nuts when I say this, but Kansas is a magical place for me, stretching back to when I was a kid. My grandparents lived in a tiny town that was picturesque, and very different from suburban Denver. And now that small towns all over America are dying and agriculture has transitioned to factory-based instead of family farms, Kansas is a great setting for thrillers and suspense, because there's a sense of loss there, a lot of abandoned buildings and even whole towns, a bleakness that adds to the feelings of terror, desperation, and sadness that I like my thrillers to evoke. (I'm going to do a book club meeting in Hays, KS in April ... I'm so excited to visit!)

Now that you have three published novels under your belt, what do you wish you'd known when you started?

That's a tough one, Elena, because my journey with HarperCollins has been so wonderful. It has exceeded my dreams, to be honest, which is not something you usually hear, right? I guess I'd have to say that I wish I'd learned how to write even when I don't feel like itI had to learn to do that after I got my contract and had to produce! (Wonderful about your journey! And a good lesson to learn)

The publishing industry is going through big changes with ebooks, audio books, and multiple paths to publication. Where do you see the industry going? How would you like to see your career go?

The thing I'm excited about in publishing is the multi-media aspect of it—the integration of video, audio, and graphics into what used to be a very two-dimensional form. One way that I've leaned into that is by creating websites for my novels—for the current release, END OF THE ROAD, I've created a website for the company my protagonist works for, which adds another dimension to the book (sipratech.com). For my second book, BODY AND BONE, I put up a blog for my main character (unknown-legends.com). I also make music playlists for each release.

How would I like my career to go? I want to write novels until I croak, plain and simple. (Love this answer!)

Final Words of Wisdom:

This isn't that short, but I've had this hanging above my desk since I first got out of college, way last century. It perfectly illustrates why I've succeeded in this crazy business:

Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and Determination alone are omnipotent.”

Calvin Coolidge

Writer Shaun Coen joins me to talk about The Bronx and Publishing his first novel!

Continuing my series on the Debut Authors Program from the International Thriller Writers, I had the opportunity to visit with Shaun Coen. I love that Shaun is a fellow playwright!

Shaun Coen is an award-winning playwright, columnist and feature writer. The Pot O'Gold Murder is his first novel.

The Interview

You have worked as a playwright, columnist, and feature writer. How was writing a novel different from working in those other forms? 

As a novelist and a playwright you are completely in charge of your creations, whereas columns are typically opinions supported by facts (or “alternative facts”) and in writing features you allow for your subject matters and other sources to reveal the story. But it's all storytelling, and there are similarities—you always want to make the characters, whether real or imagined, seem as believable, relatable and as “human” as possible even if they're inhumane. 

(I love that you include "human" as possible even if they're inhumane. It's always interesting when a writer sees people or characters as real, regardless of their behavior. Most people aren't all good or all bad, I think it's important to remember that.)

The Bronx comes to life in your work. How has your writing been shaped by your community?
Community always affects your writing because those are the surroundings you're familiar with and the people you interact with on a daily basis. My community was populated with a lot of quick witted, hard working, often hard living but good hearted people. The Bronx has a special vibe, particularly the Irish enclave of Woodlawn, and I wanted to capture its essence. To the best of my knowledge, The Pot O'Gold Murder is the only book that takes place in Woodlawn and I wanted to introduce readers to the colorful characters who inhabit this unique neighborhood. 

(I think I have the only mystery series set in Bellingham, WA, I totally understand wanting to capture a place most readers aren't familiar with)

The Pot O'Gold Murder incorporates humor alongside the gritty reality of crime. Are you naturally funny or was that an aspect you had to work at? 

I'm the youngest of six so I learned at a very young age that if you wanted to get noticed it helped to be funny. Growing up in The Bronx, sometimes you had to be quick with a joke or your fists in order to avoid trouble. I enjoy reading humorous, fast-paced stories with well developed characters and I try to incorporate those elements into my writing especially if it serves the characters and the plot. With this novel the humor made sense and it softens the blow of the some of the horrible acts and behavior.

Tell us about your writing process...

Some days I attack the blank page in a flurry with the funniest, fiercest, most honest dialogue and storyline that my antennae receive. Unfortunately, days go by where the reception is hazy, so I cherish the days when my fingers catch up to the thoughts running amuck in my head and hopefully at some point I look over the pages amassed and think, “Well, that doesn't suck.” Then I rewrite, edit, rewrite, edit and hope it still doesn't suck. (We all love that "that doesn't suck," don't we!)

What has been the biggest surprise so far in your first year as a debut novelist?

There's been several: the number of people who think characters in the book are based on them; the number of people you know who truly couldn't care less that you wrote a book and have no intention of buying it; and the nicest surprise has been hearing from complete strangers or people who you never expected to hear from again who champion the book and tell you how much they enjoyed it. There is so much content out there competing for an audience so I really appreciate those who made the effort to let me know that they were really engaged in the novel and try to spread the word.

What are you working on now?

Trying to hit the curveball. Struggling with promoting this book while working on others and working full time and raising a family and dealing with all the challenges life throws at you. But, if you want to play in the big leagues, you gotta learn to hit the curveball. (Great analogy!)

Final Words of Wisdom: Be fearless. Don't fear rejection, it's inevitable. Don't let what you think other people will think enter into the writing process, be brutally honest with yourself and to your characters and let it all out. Life is messy so don't be afraid of writing about it. People have lived through horrible things and bleaker times; they want to escape by wading through other people's shit for awhile. Keep at it and you'll find people who support and connect with your writing.

(Thank you, Shaun, for hanging out with me and my readers this week! Congratulations on your debut novel. Hope to meet you in person this summer at ThrillerFest!)

Don't miss my added special interview this week - LS Hawker
LS was a previous ITW Debut Author who has just come out with her third novel!