Friday, April 29, 2011

Writing Process Interview #5: Mystery Author Wade J. McMahan

It's time for the next installment in my 2011 interview series, "Inspiration to Publication".  We are currently working our way through the "writing process" phase of the series, and for this interview, we will be spending some time with mystery author, and fellow Untreed Reads colleague, Wade J. McMahan.  His Richard Dick mystery series has been a bestseller in both the US and the UK, and his Richard Dick mystery bundle has performed incredibly well at the Sony eBookstore.

Welcome to the table:  Wade J. McMahan!

The Accidental Author:  After a short hiatus, during which my wife and I welcomed our second daughter into the world, it's time to get back to finding out what makes certain authors tick.  Today, I'm asking some questions of Wade J. McMahan, author of numerous eBooks from Untreed Reads, including the Richard Dick mystery series.  Even though I will spend most of the interview asking you about the “nuts and bolts” of your writing process, tell us a little bit about Richard Dick.  Where did he come from?  Is he loosely based on someone (or multiple people) you know?

Wade J. McMahan:  Thanks for inviting me for an interview, Jesse, and congratulations on the arrival of your newest family member.

The concept behind Richard Dick actually sprang from a short-short “news release” I wrote for an e-mag.  In the story, the news reporter divulges that the Yellow Fever virus has been placed on the Endangered Species List.  That little piece got my “What if” juices flowing.  What if…instead a news reporter, the protagonist is a private detective?  And, what if…this detective uncovers similar madcap situations?

Richard Dick (please just call him Dick) is someone we all know, your “every man,” who just happens to be a private detective.  He’s the average Joe who lives next door, the guy who trudges along and attempts to cope with whatever obstacles life throws in front of him.

Dick is loosely based on famous prototypical private dicks from literature, radio and TV.  Think of Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, Boston Blackie, and Magnum PI who are glamorous, tough, clever, and daring.  Essentially, I blended those characters into one, flipped their qualities upside down, and Dick spilled out onto the page.   

AA:  You've written three installments in the Richard Dick mysteries.  Tell us a little bit about how you make sure that the character of Dick remains consistent from one book to the next?

WJM:  I know Dick well, and what makes him tick.  I know what motivates him and how he will react in a variety of bizarre situations.  That’s not to say he doesn’t occasionally surprise me, but isn’t that true with everyone you know?   

AA:  Did you deliberately set out to write mysteries with an element of the supernatural in them (“Witches Witch?”, for example), or did that come naturally while you were writing?

WJM: Speculative fiction offers especially fertile ground when you are looking for wacky characters, adventures, and situations.  In my first Richard Dick Mystery, “Bite This!” Dick is introduced to numerous forms of shape-shifters.  If there are such things as werewolves, could there be other similar critters out there, like werepossums?  Why not? 

I wrote the second Richard Dick, “Witches Witch” as a Halloween story, and it was published by Untreed Reads just prior to the holiday.  You can’t have a true Halloween tale without witches, can you?   And, if Dick encounters a witch, naturally she’s going to turn him into a frog, isn’t she.  Naturally!

Jay Hartman, the Editor at Untreed Reads asked that I spin a Richard Dick Christmas/Hanukkah crossover yarn.  The emotional rollercoaster, “Naughty or Nice?” was the product of Jay’s challenge, where Dick assists Santa Claus, and uncovers an amazing secret at the North Pole.  The holiday season is about kids, so I wanted to write a memorable story that also included a serious life lesson (Honest!  Swear to God!). 

AA:  When writing a mystery, how do you plot out the story arc?  Do you know pretty much how it ends, and you work backwards, or do you have some vague idea as to how it ends, and you work from beginning to end?  Or do you do something entirely different?

WJM:  I begin each Richard Dick mystery by first planting my tongue firmly in my cheek.  I’m not a formulaic or outline writer—I just start writing.  While I obviously begin with a general idea of how the story will unfold, to be perfectly honest, early on that’s not all that important to me.  All that’s important is what’s actually transpiring within the story as I write it.

My loose writing method might drive some writers nuts.  Still, I prefer it because it leaves all the creative options open as the storyline develops—take it where you will!  Who cares where it goes so long as it’s good?  When I’m writing, nothing is set in concrete until the storyline is complete, especially the ending.  For me, that’s half the fun of writing.  Just like a reader, I can’t wait to see what happens next, and in the end. 

AA:  What is Dick up to these days?  Is there another caper on the horizon?

WJM:  Capers, capers, capers!  Dicks’ backlog of cases is growing!  His latest case, “The Lincoln Park Horror-A Richard Dick Mystery” is currently undergoing final edits at Untreed Reads Publishing.  Dick’s penchant for attracting screwball clients who drag him into outlandish predicaments holds true again, when he’s hired by—a ghost!  Really!  Please watch for Dick’s new novelette, because “The Lincoln Park Horror” will be hitting e-bookshelves around the globe very, very soon!

Dick is currently involved in a case he’s calling “Fanged,” and as you might suspect by the title, his client is a vampire (one had to show up sooner or later, you know).   The vampire, Count Earl Duke, is a tragic figure <sniff> who is…no, no, <sniff> I can’t go on!  It’s simply too dreadful to talk about, so you’ll just have to discover it all for yourself when “Fanged” is released this summer.     

AA:  Do you tend to flesh out the characters first, or the overall story arc?  In other words, do your characters tend to mold the plot to their will, or does the strength of the plot have power over your characters?

WJM:  Gosh.  I didn’t realize writing is so complicated!  To answer your question though, some of both…I guess…maybe.  Typically, I stage a scene, and slide the characters into it. 

Richard Dick works for me full time, and he rarely strays far from his role.  I also have a fair feel for Dick’s newest client, and allow that character to grow along with the storyline.   When I introduce a peripheral character, they are intended to be scene-driven, although I’ve occasionally had them turn rogue, “steal” the scene and turn it an altogether different direction from where I was originally headed. 

AA:  Besides a computer (or a notepad and pen if you are really old-fashioned), what absolutely MUST be near you when you are writing?

WJM:  I’m probably really old-fashioned in many ways, but I do use a computer.  Past that, my needs are simple, and I can write just about anywhere, though I much prefer my home office.  

AA:  Do you set down a concrete schedule for writing, or do you write when the mood strikes?

WJM:  I write as the opportunity strikes.  I manage my own company, so business and personal matters come first, of course.  As often as possible, I wedge writing into open gaps in my erratic schedule.  

AA:  How do you go about revising your work?  Do you tend to revise “on the fly”, or do you generally complete the first draft before going back and doing some revision?

WJM: I’m all over the place with revisions, and the “Highlight>Delete” functions are my best friends on my keyboard.

Nothing I write is held sacred simply because it hits the page.  Everything is subject to revision or total elimination.  Often, an idea, word, or phrase will pop into my mind during the day that will improve what I’ve already written.  I’ll hurry home in the evening and make changes. 

My system, if I have one, consists of moving the story forward by first focusing on writing the individual primary scenes.  Later I go back to flesh out the action, and backfill to piece everything together. 

Finally, I send out the first draft to my Beta readers, and anxiously stand by for their comments.  I remain true to my own writing instincts, but when one of the readers points to an actual flaw, I’m going to address it.  Those extra sets of eyes are invaluable. 

AA:  Do you tend to read the kind of fiction that you write?  Who/what are you reading right now?

WJM:  I’ll read anything.  Right now, I’m reading non-fiction on ancient Ireland for a novel I’m writing, and just finished a Ken Follett thriller.  Frankly though, I have little time for recreational reading.  Along those same lines though, I spend a lot of time on the road, and my Sirius radio is commonly tuned to the Radio Classics channel where I absorb detective and mystery dramas written by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and a long list of other pioneer mystery writers. 

AA:  Finally, if you had any piece of advice for the author that is trying to make the transition from “writing for fun” to “writing for fun and profit (such as it is)”, what piece of advice would you bestow upon them?

WJM: Writers make a profit?  Really?  Hmm, I need to look into that…  Ahem, now what was the question?  Oh, yes.  “Fun” is the keyword.  You must have fun writing before you can ever hope to earn an income from it.  If you aren’t having fun writing, take up golf.

Write for yourself certainly, but also write for the market.  Your heartrending literary masterpiece detailing the loss of your Aunt Pearl’s dearly departed cat might fascinate you and Aunt Pearl, but truthfully, the world doesn’t give a damn.  When writing fiction, you’ve got to shoot Black Bart in the eye, skewer a pirate, portray a great romance (preferably with a person, not a cat), or sail around the world or to Alpha Centauri. 

Writing professionally is a job, and publishing is a business.  When publishers reject your work, they are making a business decision, but please feel free to take it personally anyway.  I know I do, but after I finish with gnashing my teeth, I concentrate on becoming a better writer, and go back to work.

Wade J. McMahan has published four stories with Untreed Reads Publishing.  In addition to his successful Richard Dick Mystery series, Untreed Reads has published his fantasy spoof, "Flying Solo".  Furthermore, his stories have been published at such places as The Ampersand Review, Crow's Nest Magazine, and Pine Tree Mysteries.  More Richard Dick mysteries are already in the pipeline, or under construction.  Wade is currently writing a fantasy novel based upon an ancient Irish legend.  Owner of a forestry consuting firm, Wade and his wife Glenda live in Tennessee where they enjoy an active life filled with family, friends, sports, travel and three spoiled dogs.

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