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

Writing Dark Thrillers: Debut Author S. A. Stovall

This week I get to hang out with ITW Debut Author S.A. Stovall. Her first novel, Vice City is available on Amazon, Barnes & Nobel and DSP Publications

S.A. Stovall grew up in California’s central valley with a single mother and little brother. Despite no one in her family having a degree higher than a GED, she put herself through college (earning a BA in History), and then continued on to law school where she obtained her Juris Doctorate.

As a child, Stovall’s favorite novel was Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. The adventure on a deserted island opened her mind to ideas and realities she had never given thought before—and it was the moment Stovall realized that story telling (specifically fiction) became her passion. Anything that told a story, be it a movie, book, video game or comic, she had to experience. Now, as a professor and author, Stovall wants to add her voice to the myriad of stories in the world, and she hopes you enjoy.

To learn more about S.A, follow her on Twitter @GameOverStation


In addition to being a debut author, you went to law school and teach history. How do those three things intersect?

First off, having a law degree and a history degree help me craft stories, especially for thrillers (which often have a legal aspect to them) and sci-fi-fantasy (as worldbuilding draws a lot from human history). I want to thank all my professors over the years for their insights and knowledge. It’s because of them that I can do what I love.

Secondly, teaching history at a college level helps me interact with people I otherwise would never meet. I see people from all walks of life and understanding them helps craft believable characters in my stories.

Overall, my knowledge and experience is the foundation from which I build each new tale.

Tell us about your path to publication.

My path to publication is a traditional one, I think. Well, as traditional as you can get in an industry where every path to publication is a viable one.

I wrote several novels (epic fantasy, 240k+ words) before my friends convinced me to pursue a path in publishing. Once I decided, I went to a few writing conventions and learned the ins and outs of industry. Specifically, I learned what agents are looking for, what editors are looking for, how to craft an engaging query letter, and to how to engage the audience from the first page.

After that, I wrote a few more novels (Stephen King famously said you need to get a few million terrible words out of your system before you write anything worth reading) and managed to gain the interest of several agents. The agent I signed with really liked my debut novel, VICE CITY, and I signed with him after talking about it with my family. (Shout out to Evan Marshall, who is awesome—check him out if you’re looking for an agent!)

Since then, he’s sold two novels for me, and continues to take my new novels (commenting on them when I need to change something, and offering up praise when he thinks they work) so I love working with him.        

Along the way I sold a few short stories and novellas, but novels are my passion and I focus my efforts on those more than others.

What kind of research did you do for your debut novel?

I read up on Chicago for a long period of time. I was originally going to set the novel there, but after some consideration I opted for a fictional city instead. That way if I had corrupt cops, or lots of gang activity, I wouldn’t be insulting the men-in-blue of Chicago, nor would I be making light of the actual gang violence that happens in Chicago on a daily basis. Additionally, I have more freedom with the layout, population, and industries, all of which helps me craft interesting stories.

I have the legal stuff down, and I know a fair deal about guns, so my primary area of research was the city itself (which is darker version of the real-world Chicago).

You write in first person, present tense. What made you choose that style?

I like first person, present tense because it feels more immediate—the action is happening right now, this isn’t a story that happened years ago.

Additionally, first person is great if the main character has a lot of voice and personality. Their attitude colors the whole feel of the novel. A story told by a jaded old veteran feels a lot different than a story told by a wide-eyed high school student, that’s for sure, and my protagonist is a guy with a lot of colorful things to say about the world.

And since my novel, VICE CITY, is more of a noir novel, it’s fitting that’s it’s told from the viewpoint of a single person, rather than a detached third person narrator.

Your writing is dark and violent, how do you get yourself into that mindset? (I often think I should learn to write darker!)

I love books with a solid tone. I love it so much I even wrote an article on it for The Thrill Begins! "How Do I Write Tone?" 

And dark/gritty settings are some of my favorite in terms of tone. Maybe it’s because I live a happy life with friends and family that I enjoy seeing darkness in my entertainment. It’s a world and setting I would never want to personally live in, but stakes are high and the consequences dire. That kind of excitement gets my heart rate up, even if I’m just reading a book.

I get myself into this mindset usually through other mediums—old gangster movies, comic books with hard grit, or even music with a melancholy melody. These sources of inspiration get me thinking about the darkness that dwells in all corners of life.

I almost always end on a happy note, however.

But the happy ending feels earned when the protagonist goes through so much to reach it. It’s the best way to end to a sprint through a gritty crime thriller!

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m working on a sci-fi adventure novel. Science-fiction is my first love—all my favorite books fall into that category—and I think I’m always going to write in that genre, even if I continue with my thriller series.

Final words of wisdom:

Don’t stop writing.

I got tons of rejections out the door, which is a common story among writers. If you continue to write, you’ll get better, which increases your chances of getting noticed, which increases your chances of succeeding. If you stop, all your chances fall to 0, so persevere!

You can do it!

From Television News to Debut Novelist, Christina Kovac launches The Cutaway

On this very smoky Sunday (for those of us in the Pacific Northwest...) I bring you Christina Kovak! Debut author of The Cutaway.

Prior to writing fiction, Christina Kovac worked in television news. Her career began with a college internship at Fox 5’s Ten O’Clock News in DC that turned into a field-producing job—making minimum wage while chasing news stories, gossiping with press officers, and cultivating sources—while somehow making rent on a closet-sized apartment on Capitol Hill. After a stint as weekend editor at WRC TV and senior editor at the ABC affiliate, she went on to work at the Washington Bureau of NBC Network News, as a desk editor and news producer in such stories as that of missing DC intern, Chandra Levy.  

To learn more about Christina, visit her on Social Media:


You've spent years working in television news, how did that prepare you to write a novel? 

Writing a novel and working on a two-minutes story with video are such entirely different beasts, and none of my friends in TV could understand why it was taking me so long.  Our deadline was always 6:30:00.  Every night.  The show had to get done. 

One of my friends used to joke that he’d use his social security payment as a book marker for whenever I finished my debut (I got it done before his retirement, so ha!  But long after the many stories he wrote for the Today show). 

That said, working television news gave me stories that somehow weave together into novel form, as well as opportunities to observe and talk to people I may never have met otherwise, and these people sneak up on the page.  The DC metropolitan area is so vibrant and diverse, so beautiful and misunderstood, and sometimes quite dangerous, which is perfect for fiction.  

What's it like balancing family, writing, and promotion of your debut novel?

Oh, you know, it’s a breeze.  I get up before sunrise and churn out thousands of words before my 5K run and do some afternoon social media postings and blogs, etc., as I cook a gourmet dinner for my family every night.

Just kidding!  (Although that’s the actual schedule of a writer-friend of mine who’s on her sixth book).  My life?  Every day is a triage situation.

I write during the day, mostly when my family is at work or school, but the work often bleeds over into the evening hours.  I’m lucky that we’re all supportive of each other’s work and studies and activities, etc.  When they see me at the desk (like now), they know to approach slowly, quietly, until I lift my head and make eye contact.  Sometimes, if I’m deep in a scene, I wear big blue Bose headphones, so they know it’s dangerous to approach.
Other times, I just growl. 

I don’t remember anything about the month before and after the launch, except we kept running out of clean towels.  Finally, I ordered a dozen more towels. 

For the next book launch, I’ll make sure we’re stocked up on socks, too. (Excellent planning and foresight)

Tell us about your writing process.

I’m still figuring it out.  THE CUTAWAY was written on pure adrenaline.  Like most debut novelists, I had no idea what I was doing, only that I had to get some of the awful news stories out of my head and onto a page, in some form.  Book Two is entirely different.  I’m more relaxed.  I know I can finish a book, and I know what the book needs, although the big fight now is to meet deadline. 

So, I tried this:  I wrote an incredibly bad first draft as quickly as I could to feel the form of the novel and see the characters and how they interacted and where the beats are and how it all ends.  Now that I have an ending, I know what I need, and can write the scenes. 

Knock on wood.  This feels like it’s working. (Fingers crossed for you!)

How has news coverage of politics in Washington DC changed over the years?

This is a great question, but two things:  I haven’t worked in television since the Obama administration, so I’m not in the muck of news now.  Also, it appears that the ground is still shifting, and everything still changing, and hard to say, day-to-day, what anyone will face when they hoist a camera over their shoulder.  It seems like anything can happen.  Who knows? 

There was always gamesmanship in the way the press and official Washington dealt with each other, but recently, the relationship has become surprisingly antagonistic.  Basic facts have become a point of debate, which is sort of crazy, if you ask me. 

Public information generally provided by government institutions (under the law) is harder to access, if at all, and a lot of the information that is released often has a fog of war feel to it. Quite a bit of misdirection, spin, and dishonesty, from what I can see.  This makes newsgathering a free for all of leaks, which results in government countermeasures against leaks, and networks and newspapers digging in and pushing harder. 

But look, there are still very good people on both sides—government and press—that care about their work and our country, and the good journalists will do their job, despite the obstacles.  They have to.  For many of them, their job is who they are. (Great point. I think we forget this sometimes.) 

The Cutaway has been out since March, what has been the biggest surprise launching your first novel?

The voice of the main character, Virginia Knightly, had been so loud in my head for so long, I felt so attached.  Like I could never leave her.  I was so obsessed with her voice and her life and her loves and hates and all the terrible plot points I threw at her.  But now, I’ve forgotten it all.  I might write about the book in a blog, or talk about her at events, but it’s all very distant to me.  Her voice is gone, too.  These new characters are taking up my full bandwidth. 

What are you working on now?

Another standalone that takes place in present-day DC, this time of a young woman who’s been accused of a crime she says she didn’t commit.  Same world of story with police, lawyers and politicians, journalists, etc.  That’s my playground, I suppose. 

Final words of wisdom:

When you’re alone in a room writing that difficult manuscript:  The first couple of times through the manuscript takes grit in search of a little flow, and honestly, you’re going to have to depend on grit more than flow.

Once you publish:  Know that your book is neither as good or as bad as anyone says, and in many ways, approval and criticism are both beside the point.  That book’s already written.  Nothing you can do now.  The real goal is to create a body of work.   To do that, work hard every day. 

Thanks for hanging out with me on my blog, Christina. Hope to see you soon!