Monday, January 21, 2019

Interview With Mystery Writer Maureen Milliken

Today we've got our first interview of the year, meeting mystery writer and long-time journalist from Maine, Maureen Milliken.

Her latest mystery, Bad News Travels Fast, came out last October.

Let's find out more about her and her work.

Q. So how did this novel come to be? Was it envisioned from the start as a bigger canvas, or did it expand organically out of an idea? Please tell us a bit about the origin.

A. Bad News Travels Fast is the third novel in my Bernie O'Dea mystery series, so some of it was a natural progression from the second novel, No News is Bad News. But it also has a bunch of other origins, as far as the plot and more goes.

I've worked for newspapers for many decades, and a few very interesting things happened in the Maine woods in the area the last newspaper I worked for covered, shortly before I started writing Bad News Travels Fast. I like to set challenges for myself as a writer, and also, when I'm intrigued by something, I can't let it go. So I asked myself, "I wonder if I can take these three really interesting things and somehow weave them together into a plot that'll make sense once it's all done?" I hope it worked!
I also always have bigger themes in my books about people and how they interact in the world, and while I try not to hit readers over the head with it, that's as big as the plot. There were certain things I wanted to say about friendship and loyalty. I also wanted to say something about how people who are different or don't easily fall into what's expected by the culture around them can get jerked around through no fault of their own.

Q. Did you start with the germ of an idea and start writing to see where it went, or did you map a good deal out in your head (or even outline) before crafting?

A. I usually have a bunch of germs -- a real petrie dish. Ugh, I don't like where this metaphor is going. But in any case, I usually have some scenes, some general plot stuff, some bigger-theme things, then I start writing. It helps to have a beginning point. The one I'm working on now I haven't totally figured out where it's going to start and that's got me a little bogged down. Once I get going and things start to happen, the book usually takes on a life of its own, though I always try to keep my bigger themes in mind.

The outline usually comes when I'm about two-thirds of the way through, so I can figure out where I am and where I'm going. I do it on a giant whiteboard, color-coded.

Q. What do you feel is the main theme(s)?

A. The bigger themes in Bad News Travels Fast are what friendship and loyalty mean. Really mean as opposed to people giving it lip service. It's easy to give up on people, or to use a slight, perceived or real, as a reason to screw over a friend. The people who don't do it are the heroes of the world. There's also a theme of marginalization -- many of the characters, in either really obvious ways or more subtle ones don't fit an expected mold and are punished in a variety of ways for it. My protagonist included. People who march to their own drummer often end up paying for it in one way or another, even though it's a cliche to urge people to be themselves and march to their own drummer. Often, people don't really mean it.

Q. Why do you feel this is important, and what would you want a reader to take away from reading this book?

A. First of all, I want to stress that I try not to hit people over the head with the heavy stuff. It's a mystery novel with a bigger-picture focus, but I don't want anyone to think they're going to get preached to if that's not their bag. But I do feel how people interact, how they feel about each and care or don't care, is a big part of life and also essential to any plot. I don't want to read a book without characters I'm interested in or care about, and I assume other people feel the same way. The themes in this book are ones that I think a lot of people come up against in life, but everyone wants to fit in and no one wants to stick their neck out too far, so they're kind of glossed over day to day. Then feelings get hurt, or worse. That said, I believe that readers takes away whatever they take away. If they don't get what I was going for, I hope they still enjoy the book. I'm not going to alter my writing, though, or what goes into it, no matter how people feel about it. If I'm not writing from the heart, I don't see the point in writing.

Q. What makes a good book or engaging story?

A. Lots of things -- compelling characters, a fresh approach and voice go a long way toward making a good book and story. I don't want to read something I've read before. A writer who avoids cliches, both in writing and with characters and plot is someone I want to read. Also, writers who respect the craft. I can't get through a book that is poorly written, including things like too many adjectives, overwriting and wordiness, but also poor editing, grammar and structure.

Also, lack of voice makes a book boring. A writer may be the most technically adept in the world, but if there's no voice, the book can be really boring.

Q. Are there writers with similar themes to yours? Who are your influences (can be writers, or even artists, musicians, or others) and what is it about their work that attracts you?

A. I'm sure there are! And just a note, the people I'm going to name are really good writers. I'm not saying I'm necessarily in their league. I've always, since I was a teenager, been impressed by Stephen King's empathy and focus on people who aren't in the popular crowd. He's really, really good at that. I love love love the way Eleanor Lipman (not a mystery writer, but a really good literary fiction writer) writes dialogue. She's a master at it. One of my peeves in a book is dialogue that sounds like someone studied buddy movies before they sat down to write. Lipman has an ear for how people really talk, and how big things can be said in little ways, or with non-sequiturs. She also never has totally bad or evil people in her books -- another sign of empathy and understanding. One of my favorites is Richard Russo -- he also gets people and how they act, and his writing is so good I forget I'm reading a book. I'll add that "Empire Falls" is my least favorite, and the movie I can't watch. Those fake Maine accents kill me. But that isn't his fault. Dorothy Sayers was the first mystery writer I read as a kid (adult books, though) who cares as much about character as plot, and it was a wonderful eye-opener. Carl Hiaasen isn't afraid to use his voice and he's great at it. Also Sarah Vowel, who writes nonfiction, is very confident in voice and writing, and her books are fantastic. Other fearless writers I love, those who aren't afraid to write the way they want to and are so good at it, are Kate Atkinson and Denise Mina. I know any time I pick up one of their books, I'm going to love it and not be able to put it down.

As far as more specific themes, Gerry Boyle, a longtime Maine mystery writer, is a former newspaper guy, and when I read his first book, "Deadline," in the 1990s, I could tell he worked for newspapers and he gets them right in his books. He was doing what I wanted to do. Paul Doiron, another Maine writer, is great with Maine settings. People here in Maine have compared me to both of them, and it's flattering. But all three of us are very different when you get down to it.

Q. Is storytelling mostly entertainment, or does it serve other functions? Do you have particular goals other than telling a good story?

A. Storytelling as entertainment is important in itself -- telling good stories is the lifeblood of human connection, history and communication. [Can you tell I have a Jesuit education?] But I always want people to take away some human understanding. I want to do more than just weave a mystery plot. I want people to feel something when they're reading, and also maybe take away something about the world around them they didn't think about before they started. I'm sure people don't take away life-changing things from my book, but maybe, in some little ways, their world is different. That said, few things make me happier as a writer than when someone tells me something in one of my books made them laugh or cry.

That all said, I hope at least a reader is entertained and didn't feel reading the book was a waste of time.

Q. Any other goals you've set for yourself, professionally or personally?

A. My biggest goal is to someday be able to write for living -- not to be hugely rich [though I wouldn't say no to it], but to be able to pay the bills without working two jobs. That's two jobs besides being a writer. If I didn't have to worry about paying the bills and could write, I'd be a better writer too. It blows my mind how much better I'd be if I could devote the time I'd like to writing. My jobs also take up a lot of space in my brain that I'd like to use for my writing. I always have to push the book out of my head so I can get my work done. So, despite the fact I'm so grateful for my publisher taking a chance on me and putting their resources behind me, I have a goal of getting an agent and finding a larger, more effective publisher, and taking my career up to another level.

As far as the writing itself goes, I want to become better and say what I want to say more effectively. I see a lot of possibilities and want to explore them.

Right now, I'm writing a standalone before I get back to the fourth book in my series, and I hope it'll help me get to those next steps.

Q. Some writers write fast and claim not to rewrite much. Do you do this, or painstakingly revise? When you send the book off to the publisher, are you happy with it, or just tired of it?

A. It is a long journey for me -- but I love it. As a newspaper reporter, I banged out stories as fast as I could, and it was a very linear process. It took me a book or two to learn my fiction writing process, which is two steps up and one step back as I figure out where I'm going. That said, I write fast because I've learned top put down whatever's going on in my head, then to go back and worry about what words I'm using and how the sentences are structured, and taking out exposition. I'm always rewriting. Always. I don't set a word goal for myself when I sit down to write, because I can bang out thousands of words at a sitting, no problem. But then I have to go back and refine it. I have files and files of scenes I've taken out of my books as I'm writing, because I don't throw anything away. Then, when I'm well into the book, I go back and review and see if I took out something I need to put back in somewhere.

The book I'm writing now, so far, I have a lot of scenes that've just come to me. The plot came quicker and easier than my first three books, but I don't know all the details yet, just a very basic outline. Every time a scene comes to me, even if I don't know how it's going to fit, I write it. If I got hit by a bus tomorrow (no chance, since there are no buses where I live in Maine), and some kind soul decided to honor my memory by finishing the book for me, they wouldn't be able to. It's a bunch of scattered pieces. I have an idea where they're going, but the big picture has yet to take shape anywhere but in my head.

There's really no such thing as a first draft for me, because I'm going foward, going back, revising, adding, taking away. Then I go through and refine many many times before I feel like it's good enough to send along. By the time I get it to the publisher, I'm a little sick of it and have no idea if it's any good or not, but I also know that at one point I thought it was good, and since then I've made it better, so it's probably okay.

I frequently text one of my sisters when I'm writing things like "This is f$%@ng awesome. Best book ever written." Then the next day, I'm texting, "God, I suck. What a piece of s#%t this is." She's learned to take it in stride.

Q. Do you have good editors, and if so, how do they help you? Do they look for particular things? Do you have different people for different editing levels?

A. I have good readers. I've learned since my first book to only have a few. They are very good at getting to the heart of what's working and what isn't, and aren't afraid to tell me. And I'm not afraid to listen.

I have the book edited at least once before I send it to the publisher, and also have a reader or two who read just for typos, but stuff always goes unnoticed. It's the nature of the beast.

Good editing is incredibly important, but the internet is over-saturated with them and it's very hard to find one who really knows what he or she is doing. I can say this because I've been an editor for decades. I was a judge for many years for the Writer's Digest Self-Published Contest and while most of the books credited an editor, I can count on two hands, with fingers left over, the books I read for that contest that I'd consider well-edited. And I read hundreds of books.

Q. If a writer came to you for advice, how would you help?

A. I've sat down for coffee with writers who are looking for advice, and it's great to talk to them and find out about their writing and where they want to go with it. I feel like that's the best way I can help them. Everyone's different, but talking and finding out where they're at is important. I also occasionally -- only occasionally because I have so little time [two jobs!] -- will read a manuscript and give some feedback.

The best advice I can give aspiring writers is simple and something some people don't want to hear: Know the craft; know what you want to say and how you want to say it; do as much homework as you can about how to write the kind of book you want to write; don't even think about agents and publishers until you've completed a book; make sure the book you've completed is not just a first draft. I tell them to go to conferences like Crime Bake, and find out what publishers and editors are looking for, and how the process works. Join Mystery Writers of America or Sisters in Crime, and take advantage of the resources. Find resources online about how it all works. Find a good editor, not the retired English teacher next door, and expect to pay for editing. If your mom says your book is great, that's sweet, but listen to critiques from people who don't have any stake in making you feel good, and take their critiques to heart.
Also: Don't expect someone else to do your work for you, whether it's finding an agent or publisher, or learning about the craft and getting published. Be proactive and figure it out yourself.

Read books. Both good ones and bad ones, and learn from them. Don't get your dialogue from a buddy movie.

Don't give up or listen to people say it's "impossible" to get a book published.

My favorite quote is one from Thomas Edison: "Opportunity is missed by most people because it's dressed in overalls and looks like hard work."

Q. Stories can be told by using a different medium. Can you see your book as a film, audio, etc.? How would that alter the telling?

A. I have the audio rights to my Bernie O'Dea series, and my audio producer, Trudi Knoedler, does a great job with them. [Thanks Dale Phillips for the advice on how that all works!] I wouldn't say no to a movie or TV series, since it'd be nice to be on time with the mortgage check, but I know it would alter the story. I'd want it filmed in Maine, but likely wouldn't have control. They'd try to do Maine accents, no matter where it was filmed, and it'd be a disaster, like it always is. The actors wouldn't look anything like how they look in my head. All of that could alter the story, depending on what happens to my story and who has control. Whoever it is, it won't be me. All I have control over is the story I've told and I'd have to hold on to that. Hopefully, a movie or TV series or something would introduce people to my books, and hopefully they wouldn't be too bummed out when they read them that the police chief doesn't look like George Clooney or Bernie (Bernadette) the protagonist isn't a stick-thin glamour-puss.

Q. What's the next step in your writing world?

A. I'm working on a standalone, because it's hard enough to get an agent/new publisher as it is, but pitching the fourth book in a series would be banging my head against a wall. Not that I don't enjoy doing that. Writing the standalone has also freed up my writing a little -- I can go different places with characters, be a little edgier, think differently. I'm surprised how smoothly that happened. While I'm pitching that book, I'll write the fourth in the series, because those characters are still doing things in my head, and believe it or not, people are now asking me when it'll come out!

Q. Tell us a fun fact about yourself.

A. Not sure how fun this is, but since we all know each other so well now, I'll bring it up. The protagonist in my series has ADHD. I was diagnosed with it the same week I thought I'd finished my first book, Cold Hard News. It was kind of a relief, because it explained a lot about me and my life and also explained a lot of my protagonist's behavior. It still took me more than a year before I revised the book so that she had it, too. That was for a few reasons. I wasn't sure I wanted to "out" myself as having it. It's wildly misunderstood (just heard someone on a podcast say they don't think it exists). It's also not a "sexy" thing to have. When I say in my books that when it comes up, people get uncomfortable, or their eyes glaze over, or they change the subject, I'm not making that up. I'm also not making it up that it's sometimes easier to go through life letting people believe you're just really annoying and obnoxious than to tell them why. But then I realized that it's an opportunity to try to explain what it is and spread a little awareness. It also gives my book a "hook" that others don't have and makes my character easier to understand. And it's also honest and part of life. And, back to the awareness part, an honest depiction of what it is rather than someone who thinks they know what it is writing about it.

I tried to make it an organic part of the book instead of making it seem gratuitous, so I hope it worked. Funny, though, how rarely I get asked about it. And when someone does ask about it and I mention I have it myself, the person asking the question usually doesn't have much more to say.  Sometimes they look like they wish they hadn't asked.

And one more thing -- a lot of creative people have it. I love what goes on in my head and am never bored when I can be with myself. I can't imagine what it would be like to live a boring life, bereft of ideas and all the other cool stuff that can go on in your brain.

Q. Any other information you'd like to impart?
A. One of the best things about being a writer is that people read -- and seem to like -- my books. It may be an obvious thing, but it's not really something I ever thought about before it happened. It's the biggest thrill there is for me as a writer. Whether it's me or some other author you're reading, if you like the books, spread the word. Recommend them to friends who you think would like them. Go on Amazon and Goodreads and do a review. It really means a lot to a writer to know someone out there is reading their books and appreciating them. It makes it all worthwhile.


Web page:

Where to buy:
S&H Publishing
Sherman's book stores in Maine
Possibly other book stores
The trunk of my car.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Last Year in Review

Wow- it's been over a month since I last blogged. The trouble is, I usually get burned out in December, when the end of the year is nigh. Too many social engagements, too much left undone.

Last year was especially bad, and I was too depressed to write, due to the clown show that passes for government in this nation, from the treasonous, Russian-puppet, madman-in-chief, to his traitorous oligarch accomplices. They left the country to burn while they lined their pockets with bribes and stolen money amid their encouragement of racism and bigotry and hatred. The French peasantry had the right idea when their aristocracy went too far; too bad we can't have a dose of that here. There's a long list of villains I'd nominate for guillotine bait. But enough of that.

This last year was a busy one, but one in which I didn't publish a new novel. I wrote, but not enough. Worked on several novels, but only published a single new book of short stories, The Last Crooked Paths, and the collection of all three short books into one: All The Crooked Paths. Not as many stories out as in previous years. Am doing better this year, with over 15,000 new words in less than the first three weeks.

But still it was a banner year, with much going on. Here's some of what happened.
Don't let people tell you you can't be successful as an Independent author!
Attended book launches for friends, including Don Kaplan, Lee McIntyre, and Leslie Wheeler, and a group Noir at the Bar up in Maine.

Interviewed some pretty cool people, including Maine writer Dick Cass, local TV star reporter (and voice narrator) Josh Brogadir, forensic expert Geoff Symon, and journalist Dan Szczesny.
Attended Jeffrey Deaver's workshop, courtesy of the Mystery Writers of America.

Got featured on some awesome sites: the blog of top writer Carmen Amato, on Sci-Fi Saturday Night, on Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers, on the blog of fellow mystery author Dana King, and on Vlad Vaslyn's site, and a video interview by Kameel Nasr!

Gave workshops at the Derry, NH Author Fest and at the Lancaster, MA library, and did a talk at the Pelham, NH library. Sold books at the Boston Book Fair. Spoke on a panel about Sherlock Holmes at the Huntington Theater. Helped put on a Sherlock Holmes talk by Bob Fritsch, and a Christmas event for the Sisters in Crime.

It was a great year for bookstores (for a complete list of places that carry my books on their shelves, check out my website). We had a great signing at a Barnes and Noble in Conn. Got my books into new Indie bookstores in NH, CT, and MA. Thanks to new friends at Water Street Books, The Silver Unicorn, The Freethinker’s Corner Bookstore, and RiverRun Books.

And did book-signing events at my favorite local bookstore, the New England Mobile Book Fair, for Small Business Saturday, Independent Bookstore Day, and the fabulous annual Gala Mystery Night.

Sold books at some fun events, including the Chelmsford Farmer's Market, the Chelmsford Library, and the very cool Moxie Festival, up in Maine.

Lastly, I went to some awesome conferences. Crime Wave in Maine, Crime Bake in MA, Bouchercon, in FL (meeting the grandson of John D. MacDonald, Andrew, was an honor and a highlight), and best of all, Killer Nashville, in TN, where I got to meet a bunch of fun people, including one of my online idols, Indie guru JA Konrath, who is one cool and supportive writer.

So one wild ride last year. Going to be tough to top it, But this year have planned to publish three novels, and more stories. We'll see what the year brings.