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Q&A with thriller author Matthew V. Clemens

ClemensLong-time MWW attendee, faculty, and board member Matthew V. Clemens, with his collaborator, Max Allan Collins, has penned 17 TV tie-in novels including  CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: Miami, Dark Angel, Bones,  and  Criminal Minds. Twilight Tales published the pair’s collected short stories in  My Lolita Complex and Other Tales of Sex and Violence. They also have authored thrillers — You Can’t Stop Me, No One Will Hear You, What Doesn’t Kill Her, and  Supreme Justice for Thomas & Mercer. Fate of the Union was released in November 2015, and the next Reeder and Rogers thriller is due this year. A resident of Davenport, Iowa, Matthew can’t quite recall if he first discovered MWW in 1990 or ’91, but he’s attended every conference since. Matthew’s high regard and affection for MWW is mutual, and we look forward to welcoming him back to Muncie for his 25th (or is it his 26th?) conference this July.

MWW committee member Janis Thornton won the lottery, and her interview with Matthew follows.

MWW: You identify author R. Karl Largent (a frequent MWW faculty member until he died in 2003) as a writing mentor, who greatly influence your writing. (1) What other MWW faculty have made a positive impact on your career? (2) What were the most inspiring and helpful insights they taught you about writing? (3) How have you applied them to your writing over the years? (4) How do you incorporate those lessons into your workshops and pass them on to your attendees?

MC: 1) Holy frijoles, all of them. I’ve met amazing people, legends, at MWW since my first conference in 1991. Joyce Carol Oates, George Plimpton, William Brashler, Donald E. Westlake. So many people that I read when I was learning. More recently, I have learned a ton from John Gilstrap, William Kent Krueger, and Julie Hyzy, in particular. You never know enough about storytelling. I don’t care who you are, and the moment you stop learning is the moment you begin to wither.

2) I have no real idea how to answer this. Every insight is helpful in some way. Karl taught me PYAITCAW — Plant Your Ass In The Chair And Write. That, more than any other tidbit is the one that has kept me going. I’ve learned to write tight, to get in and get out, and a thousand other bits that are all part of the process.

3) This is a weird one. Some lessons you know right away — okay, I can use that, I can do this step better because I’ve learned this tip. But I remember after my very first writers’ conference that I went home annoyed, thinking I hadn’t learned much. Then, about a month later, I wrote something that made me just stop as I realized that before the conference there was no way I could have written that piece, that paragraph, even that sentence.

 These tips we learn, they all go into the simmering soup that is our creative brain, and we may not even know they’re there, like bay leaves, but sooner or later they surface and you understand how important these little bay leaves of knowledge are to what you’re trying to accomplish. Not everything is cayenne pepper and immediately noticeable, but it is all part of the whole.

4) My first conference as a student was 1987, so almost thirty years of learning to tell a story as well as I can, the last twenty-four as a professional and I still feel there’s so much to learn, but when I teach, I try to bring up as much of what I’ve learned as I can. You throw it all out there and some of it will stick in this person’s brain, some totally different item will be important to someone else. It boils down to teachable moments and hearing the thing you need when you’re ready to hear it. Writing is not a destination; it’s a journey. The sooner you understand that, the easier it is to accept that not everything you do is perfect, or even good sometimes, but you keep at it, you keep learning, and you get better.

MWW: You met your favorite author, Max Allan Collins, at a 1987 writers’ conference, when you were still a budding writer. At that event, Collins told you that your writing had possibilities. Just five years later, you sold your first short story and quit your day job. To top it off, before the decade ended, Collins had become your writing partner. So the burning question is: What did you do after 1987 to hone the writing skills that helped you land a partnership with Collins.

MC: I wrote every day. I read every day. Then eventually, I started working as a freelance editor. Along the way, I met Pat Gipple and we collaborated on Dead Water: The Klindt Affair. That was a true crime book about a murder in our hometown. In doing that, I met some police investigators who became friends. About that time, Max and I started writing short stories together and looking for something we could do in a novel format. When he was offered the tie-in gig doing novels for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, he called me and asked if my cop contacts would help us get the forensics right. I sat down with a crime scene investigator I knew who fed us the correct science, and Max and I ended up doing ten novels, four graphic novels, and short stories for eight CSI jigsaw puzzles and even designed the story for a CSI: Miami computer game. Our collaboration has continued, and now I’m putting the finishing touches on my draft of our twenty-fourth novel.

MWW: When did fiction thrillers and true crime first draw you in as an author? What about them attracted you?

MC: I started reading mysteries in grade school. First, it was Donald Sobel’s Encyclopedia Brown series, then I skipped the Hardy Boys and went straight into what has been a lifelong love of Sherlock Holmes. As both reader and writer, I am attracted to seeing justice meted out, and as I have gotten older, I’m interested in trying to understand what makes people capable of the cruelty we inflict on one another. There is always a conflict of some sort to be resolved, and honestly, I like to see the good guys win.

MWW: Just as your books thrill readers, whose books thrill you?

MC: So many authors, so many good books. Because of my schedule, I tend to read my friends. I love Gilstrap, Hyzy, and Krueger. I’m late to the party on people like Johnny Shaw, Sean Chercover, and Lou Berney, but they’re all great, too. A lot of what I read is in my capacity as a consulting editor. Some of my clients are published, some not, but I read a lot of good books that way, too.

MWW: Your intensive workshop, “Making Your Thriller Thrilling,” promises to reveal steps for writing a suspenseful thriller: characters, settings, building suspense, incorporating other ingredients such as humor. What do you want your attendees to know before they step into your classroom?

MC: You need to know we’re going to write in class. Writers write. I’ll talk a lot, but we learn this craft by doing, so we’re going to spend time writing and talking about what we’ve written. I would love them to all take a couple of hours before class to watch “Jaws.” That movie is a great tool for learning how to create suspense, and how to use humor to break tension.

MWW: And now, before we close, I’d like to offer you the last word — perhaps you’d like to share a tidbit of insight to put attendees at ease, or maybe you’d rather ramp up the tension with some intrigue. It’s up to you, Matthew!

MC: Put my attendees at ease? I’m going to make someone cry. Happens every year. I have a streak to protect. Seriously, we’re going to have fun, we’re going to work hard, and if this works like it should, we will all learn something new. Even when leading a seminar, I learn something too. Storytelling is a vast art form, and there are as many ways to do it, as there are people who imagine telling a story. What I will do is pass along what I’ve learned, and what has kept me afloat in an ever-changing publishing world for the last quarter century.

*  *  *
Matthew’s Part I session is:
Making Your Thriller Thrilling:  From inception to completion, we will touch on the steps to writing an exciting, suspenseful thriller.  Creating real-life characters, intriguing settings, building suspense, and even using humor. We will also discuss adding tools to your writer’s toolbox that will allow you to succeed regardless of your chosen genre. Not just a lecture, we will do numerous writing exercises in a workshop setting. [NOTE: this session is 53% full! Register soon!]
His Part II sessions are:
Saturday, 1:15-2:15 p.m.– Panel on the crime writing business (also includes Lori Rader-Day, Larry D. Sweazy and D.E. Johnson)
Saturday, 2:30-3:30 p.m.– Master Class: Nuts And Bolts: Basics Of Novel Writing + The Book Doctor Is In. A discussion of completing a novel from the first glimmer of an idea through writing a complete manuscript. Gleaning an idea, developing it, researching it, writing the first draft, revising, and editing, all the way through to searching for the perfect agent for your work. Including a 25-point checklist to know if you’re done with your novel. Matthew uses the checklist is his own work and as a developmental editor.

Interview with author Matthew V. Clemens

Matthew ClemensMatthew Clemens, in collaboration with Max Allan Collins, has penned seventeen TV tie-in novels including CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: Miami, Dark Angel, Bones, and Criminal Minds. Twilight Tales published the pair’s collected short stories in My Lolita Complex and Other Tales of Sex and Violence.  They have also authored a pair of thrillers You Can’t Stop Me and No One Will Hear You for Kensington.  Look for What Doesn’t Kill You in 2013.

MWW committee member Cathy Shouse interviewed Matthew.

Cathy: Please tell us how you first came to MWW and how many years you have been involved.

Matthew: Wow, first MWW, 1990 or 1991. I’ve attended every conference since. One of my mentors was R. Karl Largent (the man whose name is on the writing prize). He came to my home conference, David R. Collins’ Mississippi Valley Writers Conference, to teach in ’89 or ’90, and suggested that, if I was serious, I should attend other conferences as well, and he pushed MWW. The next year, I came. He was right. I first came as an attendee, have been fortunate enough to be asked in as faculty, and have just generally served as the camp mascot other years. These people have become not just my friends, but my family.

Cathy: Since this summer is the 40th workshop, the committee has been reminiscing about the people and events in years past. What are some special times and/or people that were especially memorable for you?

Matthew: And you thought the last answer was long-winded . . . Special people? Earl Conn, Karl Largent, Jama Bigger, Helen Tirey, Alan Garinger, Fred Woodress, Ron Groves, Wes Gehring, Glenna Glee Jenkins, and the current committee members, and speakers like Donald E. Westlake, Joyce Carol Oates, the incomparable Bill Braschler, John Gilstrap, Julie Hyzy, and George Plimpton. Those are just the names of some of the people off the top of my head.

Good times? A few. Wes convincing me to dress up as Sister Arnulfa, Karl’s nemesis, when Karl received the Dorothy Hamilton award. There was the time Jama, Wes, and I had breakfast with George Plimpton while he regaled us with tales of sitting atop the Green Monster in Fenway Park. Singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” as my eulogy for Karl. My favorite? I still cry when I think about receiving the Dorothy Hamilton Award. To be considered highly enough to get the same award as one of my writing fathers was as touching as anything that’s happened to me. In short, I feel I owe my career, my entire writing life to MWW.

Cathy: Of your many career achievements, which ones stand out as the most significant to you and why?

Matthew: Okay, the Dorothy Hamilton thing probably should have come here, because other than that, I don’t put a lot of stock in nominations, awards, and things of that ilk  The most significant achievement is that people seem to like what Max Allan Collins and I do enough to keep offering us contracts  I haven’t had a day job for twenty-one years. I’m proud of that. I get to do what I love for a living, and I don’t have to wear a watch.

Cathy: The publishing industry is undergoing so much change. From your perspective as someone with a long-time career, do you have any insights or truths to hold onto for those who may be just starting out or are not too far along on the journey?

Matthew: Insights? I wish. I would use them myself. The industry is undergoing tectonic changes  It will be a different world in another ten years, maybe even sooner. What that means to beginners is more opportunities. I would dearly LOVE to be a beginning writer today. There are so many more storytelling venues than even when I started in 1992. The Internet is the final frontier. No wait, maybe it’s television, no wait, video games. There are more storytelling platforms than ever, and they all need content. I’m not a novelist, someday I may not even be a writer, but what I will always be, in some form, is a storyteller.

Advice:  NEVER give up. Grow dinosaur skin. Remember it’s never personal, even when it is to you, and write the next thing.  ALWAYS write the next thing.

Cathy:  I am hooked on your daily Facebook manifestos, the Matthew Clemens equivalent of “Seize the Day.” I’m wondering if those posts were designed to work into your “marketing strategy,” are just for fun, or what purpose they may serve for you? Has the number of FB followers changed because of those? I tried to find you on Twitter and wasn’t sure which one you are. How do you feel about Twitter?

Matthew: My note for the day has nothing to do with marketing strategy, I’m not that smart. Steve Brewer does his Rules For Successful Living, then when he gets enough, he puts out a book  I’m not even that smart. It started with me having a bad day and I fired off a letter to a particularly lowly Friday. Then did another when Saturday didn’t live up to expectations, then before I knew it people were telling me they were reading them every day and sending them to friends. There was a brief period where I tried to be clever. Stopped that and went back to just writing whatever pops into my brain. So, yeah, the number of FB fans has grown slightly, but it ebbs and flows. Sometimes what pops into my brain are swear words, and that will drive some people away. No harm, no foul. I am not for all tastes there, but my page, my rules. In the real world, I’m learning to be a bit more genteel.

As to Twitter, I use it when I remember, but 140 characters? Please, it takes me a thousand words to say hello.

Cathy: Tell us a little about how your intensive will work. Will there be writing exercises? What do you hope that people will take away? Do you have a favorite short session you’re presenting that attendees should be sure to attend? (I know, all of them! haha)

Matthew: The intensive workshop will be LOTS of writing. I’m a believer in writers write and sweat equity.  There’s no writer’s block, there’s no “I’m just not feeling it,” none of that. We’re going to work hard that day because that’s the JOB. Not the hobby, not the fun time…okay, that’s a lie, it’s all fun time, but we will write.

What do I hope people will take away? That this is a hard job, that it’s time consuming, that it’s a pain in the backside sometimes, but that they can do it, too. That they have to believe in themselves, in their talent, and in their desire. There’s a lot of rejection in this business, but if you’re willing to endure it, the rewards are…magical. More than anything else, go away with the knowledge, the belief, that good writing sells.

Do I have a favorite session? Like any good parent, I love all my sessions fervently and equally.

Cathy:  Is there something you wish you had known earlier in your career? What is the best advice you’ve ever been given about writing?

Matthew: I wish I had known EVERYTHING earlier in my career. I wish I had trusted myself enough to go to college to be a writer. I’m late to the party. I attended my first conference at thirty-one  I turned pro at thirty-five. What kept me from feeling that I was horribly behind everyone else was that Raymond Chandler was forty-five before he got published and it seemed to work out for him. This isn’t just publishing, this is what I wish I had known earlier in life. You can be anything you want, if you’re willing to work harder at it than you have anything else. Best advice I ever got, I heard wrong. Karl and Max both told me early on, “Don’t quit your day job.” Ever the editor, I stopped listening at don’t quit  So, that’s my advice…DON’T QUIT!

Cathy: Would you like to add anything else to share with our readers?

Matthew: Do I have anything to add? For the first-time attendees: Don’t panic. Breathe. There’s plenty of time, really. Be patient. Did I mention don’t panic? There will be a time toward the end of the weekend when your brain locks. DON’T PANIC. Happens to everyone. You will still learn. You might even do what I did after my first conference. I went home, brain completely fried. Convinced myself I hadn’t learned anything, just too much stuff in too short a time. Then, a couple weeks later, while writing, I did something I couldn’t have done before the conference. It was like the sky opened up and the sun came out. Just remember, the first time, in most things, is the hardest. Come, sit, write, share. Some of the others don’t even bite. Just know, we’re all sitting in the same pew here, and you are welcome.

*****

Matthew’s Part I session is:

Researching and Writing the Mystery/Suspense/Thriller Thing — This interactive session, with a focus on craft, will touch on the differences in genres, the elements of plot, character development, dialogue, writing stronger sentences, and the building and acceleration of suspense. We will discuss many aspects of the writing process from getting ideas to building them into a saleable novel. The only pre-class assignment is to watch the film “Jaws.”

Last week to still sign up for just Part I and take Matthew’s class!

Matthew’s Part II sessions include:

  • Two Paths to a Common Goal (with John Gilstrap). No two writers follow the same path to success. In fact, even the definition of “success” is hard to nail down. John Gilstrap and Matthew Clemens came at the challenge from entirely different directions. In this session, they’ll talk about their respective journeys – the successes and the failures. And they’ll answer any questions you may have about what works and what doesn’t.
  • Dialog: It’s Not Just He Said, She Said. This session will assist you in the writing of realistic dialog and building a scene around what is far more than just the conversation.
  • Character: It’s More than Just a Name on the Page.This session is devoted to creating and developing characters that live on the page, as well as in our mind.  We’ll work on building characters that will stick with the reader even after the book is finished.

Mike Lawson: Writing Thrillers

2011 Midwest Writers Workshop – “What I’ve Learned About Writing Thrillers/Mysteries” – Mike Lawson. Author of six acclaimed political thrillers, Mike will share what he’s learned about the craft. Topics include the need for a strong beginning and how to create one; the pitfalls of writing a mystery series; how to make your stories ring true; how to improve the pace of your mystery/thriller; and some practical advice on of the business aspects of writing such as the author/agent/publisher relationship and lessons learned in promoting books. Participants will be requested to share their experiences.

Meet thriller author Mike Lawson

With our 2011 summer workshop fast approaching, we wanted to give you an opportunity to learn more about our faculty. Introducing Mike Lawson — political thriller novelist …
Lawson

Q: What was it like to switch to a writing career after 30 years of other employment?

I write full time now – meaning four or five hours a day.  Before I was published, I worked ten or twelve hours a day (on the good days) and was responsible for the maintenance of reactor plants in U.S. navy ships at half a dozen naval bases on the West Coast. To say the job was intense is an understatement, and the consequences of failure were enormous.  By comparison, writing is a walk in the park, and every time I hear writers whine about how they “suffer” for their art and complain about the ardors of writing, I have to wonder if they ever had a real job. (Like being a mother or a teacher – those are real jobs) I LOVE to write – it’s like having a hobby I’m getting paid for.

Q:  Your MWW Intensive Session also includes working with agents, book promotion and other publishing business topics. How will the session help authors who don’t write thrillers? (It’s been said every genre needs to know how to write page-turners.)

I think you hit on it. Regardless of the genre they write in, I think unpublished writers and even writers searching for a new publisher or agent, may benefit from my experience on the “business” side – dealing with agents, editors, publishers, contracts, marketing, etc.  Second, I think good books, regardless of the genre, all have certain things in common, such as well-crafted characters, a believable and fast-moving plot, and a style that keeps the reader engaged. Writing is so subjective that my opinion on these topics may not resonate with everyone in the class, but I’m hoping it will be beneficial to others whether they’re writing mysteries, romance, young adult, or whatever.

Q:  Were writers’ conferences an influence on your career? If so, how? 

I’ve found writing conferences beneficial in a number of ways. I’ve met booksellers who’ve promoted my books not only because they like them but because, thanks to the conferences, I’ve established a personal relationship with them. The same could be said for critics I’ve met at conferences.  I’ve obviously learned from other writers at conferences by listening to what they had to say on a particular subject. I’ve met big-name writers and when my publisher asked them to “blurb” the next book, I again think that having a personal relationship with them (translation: a drink in the bar) helped. And lastly, conferences are fun!

Q:  What are three tips for those who might be career-changers looking to break into writing novels as you’ve done?

Tip number one – the biggest tip – is: Be persistent. Getting published is about having talent – and talent is something so subjective there’s no point in trying to define it – being lucky – and there’s nothing you can do about luck – and lastly, being persistent – which you can do something about and which means you keep trying until you finally succeed. (It took me a long time to get my first book deal.)

Second tip: Read. I’m always astounded when I meet writers who aren’t readers, particularly writers who don’t read in their own genre. You can learn more from reading good writers than almost anything else if you think about what the writer is doing as you read.

Last tip: write every day, even if it’s only for fifteen or twenty minutes. Like anything else, you get better at it the more you do it, and no matter how busy you are, you can carve fifteen or thirty minutes out of your day to write.  I wrote my first two novels in half-hour blocks of time on the ferry I used to take to commute to work.

Q: What else would you add for the MWW participants? 

Well, I guess I could add a whole bunch of stuff, but I’m saving that for my sessions at the conference.

Lawson cvrMike’s recent novel is House Divided, which will be released July 2011.

 

“A great novel from a great author! Lawson goes for broke in this Machiavellian thriller, where Washington power brokers take on elite super spies with one rather perplexed Joe DeMarco trying to outwit-and outlast-the carnage. Equal parts funny, clever and cool, this book will make your heart race and your mind ponder.” -Lisa Gardner, New York Times best-selling author of Live to Tell

“Lawson’s House Divided is a non-stop thrill ride. The author has created a disturbingly real Washington D.C. and peopled it with eerily familiar characters. He writes with wit and verve and displays a shrewd understanding of bureaucratic irony. Thoroughly enjoyable. The political thriller of the year.” -John Lutz, New York Times bestselling author of Urge to Kill and The Night Caller