Amanda Kyle Williams on Writing, Inspiration & Her Latest Hit

I was packing my bags in New York after attending ThrillerFest this past summer and nearly left Amanda Kyle Williams’ The Stranger You Seek as the hotel maid’s gift. Don’t get me wrong. The cool-book-take-away is a major perk of writer’s conferences. But I was using all of my might to close my overstuffed suitcase and refused to pay the $30 fee for checking it. (A matter of principle. Besides, wouldn’t you prefer books in lieu of cash tips?)

But then I read the first page. And the next and the next… I couldn’t put it down. The “stranger” I nearly abandoned kept me enthralled through a subway ride, airport security lines, a layover and a lengthy flight to Los Angeles, so much so I jumped when the flight attendant asked whether I’d like a beverage.

If you love thrillers, mysteries, suspense, captivating characters, supreme wittiness, great stories and great writing…Heck, if the last book you read was that dilapidated phone book in the back of your closet…I suggest you read this book. It’s so fantastic, I feel guilty having not shared it with the hotelkeeper and my bookworm heart aches at the thought of nearly missing it. (Reaches for a tissue. ;))

What others are saying about The Stranger You Seek:

“An electrifying thriller debut, The Stranger You Seek introduces a brash, flawed, and unforgettable heroine in a complex, twisting novel that takes readers deep into a sultry Southern summer, a city in the grips of chaos, and a harrowing cat-and-mouse game no reader will ever forget.”—Random House

“This is a character-driven, nonstop thriller with flashes of wit and romance that builds to a harrowing climax; fans of the genre will want to get in at the start.” —Booklist

“An explosive, unpredictable, and psychologically complex thriller that turns crime fiction cliches inside out….Those looking for a strong female protagonist not a sexpot and as intelligent, tough, and flawed as any male thriller hero will be richly rewarded.” Publishers Weekly 

Now, without further ado, Ms. Amanda Kyle Williams…


AM: THE STRANGER YOU SEEK is what one might call your “breakout” novel. How does it feel to move from pre-published mystery novelist to celebrated author?
AKW: Well, it is my first major market novel so I’m pretty excited.  It’s okay to walk up and down the street wearing a sandwich sign advertising it, right?   To be honest, I’m still a little amazed. I’m a new name in mainstream crime fiction, but I’ve been blessed with some really fabulous reviews from Publisher’s WeeklyKirkusBooklist, and The New York Times. And some wonderful established writers have taken me under their wing and been very kind in helping to promote the book. I have a great publishing house that supports me and is willing to invest in the success of this series. We’re hoping word will spread about a new kind of thriller with a very different kind of protagonist.

AM: Your main character is unique and likable. We really feel as though we’re in her head. How did you come up with Keye Street?
AKW: She’s in my head too.  Can you make her go away? Seriously. Okay, I’m kidding. Kind of. Truth is, Keye sort of just arrived on my doorstep fully formed. It’s the only experience I’ve ever had like this in creating a character. I heard her voice, her irreverent tone; I saw her face.  I knew a whole lot about her without doing any of the preliminary work I would normally do in sketching out a character. I really have no explanation for this. Keye was handed to me. But it took a bit of inspiration to get to that point.

I knew I wanted to write crime fiction. I’d been doing my homework for years to prepare to write a criminal investigative analyst intelligently. I wanted to understand how an analyst or profiler would approach a crime scene, an investigation, how one might work with a police department, and how a police department would work with a consultant. So all this had been running through my head, but I hadn’t found that voice, that right character. I ended up finding it in the most unusual place.

I was at my brother’s house one Thanksgiving. He had adopted my niece Anna from China as an infant. She was four or five that year. So this gorgeous Asian child looks up at me and says something. I don’t even remember what because I was so knocked over by her accent. She’d learned her English in the hills of North Georgia and she sounded like Ellie May Clampett. I started thinking on the drive back to Atlanta that night about what it would be like to grow up looking different from the neighbors in the South, while being a full-fledge Southerner.

I began to envision a character with these differences: Chinese, adopted by white southern parents. I pulled over that night on the Interstate and wrote the early lines for the book.  Everything else about Keye Street just landed on me. Her insecurities, her sense of humor, her propensity for inappropriate laughter,  and her Krispy Kreme habit.  And the dark side— her other addictions and demons, her past with alcohol, intimacy issues,  and her ability to make sense of behaviors evidenced at a crime scene. I was working two and sometimes three jobs at the time so it took more years to finish the book, but it began for me that night when Keye was born on I-75 South to Atlanta.

AM: What’s your writing process like?
AKW:
Well I can tell you that it was much more disciplined before The Stranger You Seek was released. Publicity is a welcome distraction. I’m so grateful for it. But it is certainly a distraction.  I’m fighting now to get back to my usual, which is treating it like a job, showing up after morning dog walks and chores by about ten a.m., and putting in a minimum of six hours, more if I have it in me. I’m a slow writer and a relentless content editor. I’m that writer that will spend an hour tweaking one sentence and feeling unable to move forward until it’s tweaked. This slows the process. It’s not recommended. I’ve read all kinds of books about silencing the editor within but it’s not happening for me.

AM: Please tell me you have a cat named White Trash! 😉 What role do animals play in your writing? 
AKW: That’s so funny. Actually, my first cousin had a cat named White Trash many years ago. I thought it was hilarious. I was committed to bringing her to the page one day, this cat with the bad attitude and a mighty sense of entitlement. Animals are part of my life and, in fact, every one of my friends has animals. I had a pet sitting and dog walking business before I was a writer full-time, and I’m a founding director at a local no-kill shelter, which I link to on my website www.AmandaKyleWilliams.com. When I’m traveling, I miss my dogs and my cats. Besides bad coffee, I’m finding it’s the hardest part of leaving home.

It feels natural to bring this to my writing in small ways. Keye’s mother, Emily Street, has been working in the humane community for years and is kind of the crazy cat lady on the block. I will bring a dog into one of my character’s life by the end of the second book, Stranger In The Room.  I don’t want to distract from the fact that I’m writing a thriller series. The books are creepy as hell. But it feels natural for my characters to have to think about getting home to feed a cat or hire a dog walker or whatever.  And I will never, ever harm an animal in fiction. Never. I heard writers on a panel not long ago saying they do this to illustrate the disposition of their killer. Whatever. I’m not doing it.

AM: What do you find most challenging about writing?
AKW: 
Just f-ing doing it, man. (Laughing) Sitting down. Being still. Being calm. Clearing out the cobwebs.  Listening to the story, to the characters. Slogging through the first few hours of writing total crap to get to the good stuff.  The good stuff will come if I just trust the process and nail myself to the chair. Some days this is easier than others.

AM: What do you love most?
AKW: Reading back through something and discovering it works, that it flows, that it’s smarter than I am, that somehow my writing took flight.  That and hearing my editor say the draft was approved.

AM: Any tips for up-and-coming authors?
AKW: Don’t wait for the big idea. Don’t wait for a rush of inspiration. Just sit down and start building a foundation brick-by-brick, word-by-word. The inspiration comes for me after I’ve pushed through building some kind of framework. That’s when you get to write the fun stuff.

AM: Can we look forward to more Keye Street adventures soon?
AKW:
Absolutely. Stranger In The Room is being polished up right now and will be released sometime summer/fall 2012. The third book in the series, Don’t Talk To Strangers, comes out in 2013. Bantam will publish the next two. I have many more books planned in the series. And we’re fielding offers to adapt The Stranger You Seek for a television series… Did that sound cool or what? Like this kind of stuff happens all the time. I’m practicing being all casual. Apparently squealing like a little girl and jumping up and down is embarrassing to my friends and family. Go figure.

******

CONTEST! Purchase The Stranger You Seek and email me a copy of your receipt. I’ll place your name in a drawing for a $15 Amazon.com gift card.

Any thoughts to share with the fabulous Amanda Kyle Williams? Favorite books you almost didn’t read? I always love hearing from you.

Author Mike Sirota on Writing and His Latest Work

It’s been said that thriller and horror authors are the nicest people on the planet because they get all of their angst out in their fiction. Doubtful? A conversation with renowned horror author Mike Sirota might convince you otherwise.

Not only does Sirota have twenty published novels (including the recently released Fire Dance) and fourteen years as an award-winning magazine feature writer and editor under his belt, he is a kick-butt writing coach, book editor and friend who cares as much about his writers’ success as he does his own. And he took time out of his busy schedule to answer questions on our behalf. (Thanks, Mike! :))



First, here is what others are saying about Sirota and his work:

“Mike Sirota is an absolute pro of a writer and, even for non-aficionados of ghost stories, these pages sing.” John Lescroart, New York Times bestselling author of Treasure Hunt and Damage

“Dear Mike: What can I say? Because of your expert guidance and fine touch I’m now a published author. When we first hooked up and started working together, I worried that the job of writing my novel would be an arduous task, filled with hours of agony and tedious rewrites, but I was wrong. Your lively comments and sense of humor have made the effort truly enjoyable. You keep editing and I’ll keep writing. It’s a pleasure working with you.” Jeff Sherratt, author of Detour to Murder

About Fire Dance:
LEGENDARY AUTHOR MIKE SIROTA RETURNS! The searing wind whistles through the ruins of Concordia Sanitarium in Southern California’s bleak Anza-Borrego Desert. Now, something else stirs: the tormented spirits of the staff and inmates who perished in an all-consuming fire over a century earlier. As one gruesome murder after another plagues the nearby quiet retirement community of Smoke Tree, Tracy Russell and Mark Alderson try desperately to stop the one inmate that should never have been released—either in life or in death.” ZOVA Books

“Sirota returns…with this atmospheric tale of horror in the American Southwest. Horror fans will enjoy this updated take on the western ghost town.” Publishers Weekly

“So great to have a new book from legendary writing coach Mike Sirota. When he writes, you should listen!” Lisa Gardner, New York Times bestselling author of Live to Tell

Here we are at his book signing at Mysterious Galaxy. Good times!

What inspired you to write Fire Dance?
MS: I go hiking in the Anza-Borrego desert, the setting for Fire Dance, at least once a year. On one trip, the old “what if” kicked in. What if, during the 1870s, they put a sanitarium in the desert where no one could run away, given the heat, the terrain, etc.? What if one inmate—Bruno—was a violent mass murderer? What if they all burned to death during a dance? And what if, over a century later, they all came back…

What aspect of Fire Dance are you most pleased with?
MS: While it is a ghost story—some even call it a horror novel—it has a strong romantic element. Tracy and Mark, the main protagonists, are two emotionally wounded people who come together in a small desert town—a retirement community, no less—under some remarkably challenging conditions. As they learn to love and trust again, their future is in doubt as they face the nightmare that is Bruno.

You have a gift for luring readers in from the get-go. How do you do it? Any tips for other writers?
MS: We call the opening of a novel the HOOK. Engage the reader on page one and don’t let go. Just recently I presented a hook workshop at a writers’ conference and I read the first page of Fire Dance to the attendees. It gratified me that they were so taken with the visualization of the desert, and the inmates wandering around the grounds in their white, ghostly shrouds. Scene builds on scene, each one designed to make the reader want to know more. Don’t bore the reader with expository narration, weather reports, the main character describing herself while looking in the mirror, the history of the world, part I, etc.

Of your many accomplishments, what makes you the most proud?
MS: All writers hope to be reviewed in Publishers Weekly, our major trade publication. Even a bad review can be a good thing. Of my first nineteen novels, not one was reviewed in PW. But Fire Dance was, and positively. It made my day.

What do you love most about writing?
MS: Just about everything. I love it when a scene comes out of my head so fast that I can’t input it quickly enough. I love doing research. The book/Internet research is cool enough, but for my final draft I do what I call “living research,” where I travel to the scene of my story to actually experience the setting. Last month I traveled to the Sierra Nevada foothills, the setting for my next novel, THE BURNING GROUND. Fantastic trip that, after I got home, enabled me to bring my pages to life. I do this for every story.

Do you make mistakes?? 😉 Let me rephrase: What aspects of writing do you find most challenging?
MS: I’m a perfectionist, so I probably go overboard in being anal. As an editor, I want no typos or other errors. As a writer I want every detail to be correct. If the woman is wearing a red dress on page 23, she’d better not be wearing a blue dress in the same scene on page 36. I’ve seen it happen—in published novels.

What common mistake(s) do you see new or up-and-coming writers make?
MS: Oh, how much time and space do you have! Weak opening hooks, inability to handle a POV (point of view), poor dialogue—I could go on and on. If you want to write a book you need to READ READ READ, which sounds basic, but you wouldn’t believe how many writers hardly read. Some writers even try to write in a genre of which they have never read a single book—because the genre is selling, they think.

Take writing classes. Go to writers’ conferences. Join a read-critique group. Read books about all aspects of writing. Subscribe to THE WRITER and WRITER’S DIGEST. Learn your craft!

Anything you wish you’d done differently throughout your career?
MS: I always tell writers to keep their day jobs. Had I followed that advice for myself years ago, I might have kept writing and improving my craft, instead of taking a hiatus of about seventeen years.

If you could give one bit of advice to writers, what would you suggest? Write for the love of writing. If you write to become a bestselling author and make a gazillion dollars, you will likely fail.

What’s next in the pipeline? I mentioned THE BURNING GROUND. It’s another ghost story, and also a romance, this time with three emotionally wounded people: a man, a woman, and a ten-year-old boy. It also became a statement book, as it involves a small Sierra foothill Native American tribe, the Maidu (they’re for real), and one particular village where everyone is exterminated by miners during the Gold Rush (true). Their spirits remain trapped here, and in the contemporary story their graves are desecrated by “thieves of time” (also a real problem) for artifacts. Now the spirits are really pissed, and guess what…

CONTEST!!! Order Fire Dance or Demon Shadows (Kindle edition). Send a copy of your purchase confirmation to august@augustmclaughlin.com and I’ll place your name in a drawing for a $20 iTunes gift card. And as always, I welcome your thoughts!

Phobias: When Fear Overwhelms Us

“I’m terrified! No, petrified. No… There isn’t a word strong enough to describe it. It’s like I have flu, only with my heart pounding, and it HURTS! Nauseas, dizzy. I can’t stop shaking… Is this what a heart attack feels like? At least that would get me out of here, not that I want to be in the hospital. But maybe…ANYwhere but here. SOMEONE HELP!!!” – excerpt from my 8th grade journal

Any guess what I was referring to? I’ll give you a hint. It stinks, can turn blond hair greenish and sounds like “swish, swish”…or, when I’m around, “AGGGHHH!”

Yep—swimming class. I don’t know where my fear came from, but others in my family share it and trust me, it had nothing to do with the stench or hair tint. And although I made a huge personal step by dipping fully below the water and floating for the very first time about six years ago (I call this swimming), the mere thought of chlorinated swimming pools inspires nausea. *Pauses for a ginger-chew.*

Specific phobia, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, involves “marked and persistent fear and avoidance of a specific object or situation,” including, but not limited to, the fear of heights, spiders and flying. Roughly 9 percent of the U.S. population experiences them, 21.9 percent of whom with severe symptoms.

To someone who’s never experienced such fear, they seem ludicrous. But when you have a phobia, it seems like the most logical thing in the world. When people tell me they don’t recall not knowing how to swim, that it’s as natural as breathing in and out, I’m as dumbfounded as they are when I share my need for floaties and, most preferably, dry land.

Some of the more common phobias, according to MayoClnic.com, include fear of: enclosed spaces (claustrophobia), heights (acrophobia), animals (zoophobia), flying, storms, dentists, injections, bridges, tunnels and my personal fave, water (hydrophobia).

Social phobia involves intense social shyness and self-conciousness. Agoraphobia, which affected Sigorney Weaver’s character in the film, “Copycat,” involves fear of open places with no simple means of escape.

Uncommon phobias, which are debilitating to a very few people, include:

  • Ambulophobia: the fear of walking
  • Anablephobia: the fear of looking up
  • Arachibutyrophobia: the fear of peanut butter sticking to your mouth
  • Barophobia: the fear of gravity
  • Cataptrophobia: the fear of mirrors
  • Chionophobia: the fear of snow
  • Chromatophobia: the fear of colors
  • Chronomentrophobia: the fear of time
  • Genuphobia: the fear of knees
  • Geumapobia: the fear of taste
  • Hypnophobia: the fear of sleep
  • Mnemophobia: the fear of memories
  • Peladophobia: the fear of bald people
  • Siderophobia: the fear of stars
  • PhobiaPhobia: the fear of fear itself (Okay, I made that one up. But it’s possible, no?)
I’m certainly no psychological or scientific expert, but I do know this: Facing your fears can have a profoundly empowering effect. Just ask the two-year-olds in my break-through swimming class! 😉 What personal fears have you overcome? What did you learn? Or is yours still on your ‘someday’ list?

Secret Seduction

I saw a fabulous movie yesterday—”The Debt,” starring Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain and Marton Csokas. I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t yet seen it (I hope you do!) but I will tell you this: It got me thinking…about secrets.

What would I do, if presented with the same secret? How many of us have secrets? What are the advantages of keeping or revealing them? What are the deciding factors that lead us to the secret-keeping decision in the first place? And what are the risks?

These questions are some of the reasons secrets make for such fascinating tales—whether we’re aware of the hidden truth or not. They seduce us with questions that challenge our own beliefs and choices, the proverbial “What if…?”

In “The Debt” three former Mossad agents keep a secret for decades. As viewers, we absorb the secret’s weighty consequences long before we (or at least I) realize what it is.

One of my favorite books, “The Big Picture,” by Douglas Kennedy, centers on a wealthy lawyer with a seemingly perfect life. From the beginning, we know about the snap decision he makes to save his life and his future, only to end it all for someone else. Yet, we can’t stop flipping the pages.

Keeping an unwanted secret makes way for tumult.

“People will tend to misread the return of unwanted thoughts. We don’t realize that in keeping it secret we’ve created an obsession in a jar,” said Daniel Wegner, a Harvard psychologist who investigated the effects of secret-keeping among humans.

The longer we keep it, the more capacity it has to magnify and grow. Although this makes for awesome fiction, it can zap the pleasure from our lives.

Secrets can also draw people closer together. Two siblings who keep a secret, positive or negative, from their parents, for example, create a common bond. The same might happen for a couple, both of whom cheating on their spouses. They share much more than the same hotel room bed…

One of the worst kinds of secret, in my opinion, are ones we keep about our desires solely within, or even from, ourselves: An artist who never puts his paintbrush to the page…a writer too afraid of failure to write Chapter One… Another in a damaging relationship who never admits she’s unhappy, and thus never leaves.

In an interview with “USA Weekend,” Anita Vangelisti, a researcher and professor of communication studies at the University of Texas-Austin, said that most people say they will keep a secret, only to tell another: “I promised I wouldn’t say anything, but…” Only about 10 percent of people reportedly keep secrets “no matter what.”

So what’s your deepest, darkest secret? KIDDING! I won’t make that silly move, but I would love to hear your thoughts on secret-keeping. If it’s for a good cause, is it all good? What has life taught you about secret-keeping? And…because I love a good thriller—any secretive books or movies you’d recommend?

If you do wish to share your secrets, “there’s an app for that.” Check out Post Secret to share and absorb others’ secrets from around the world.

Facing the Enemy: Vital Steps Toward Success

“I could see him on the three-inch viewer, sitting on a ragged couth, feet on the edge of a wooden utility spool coffee table. He appeared to be alone, a beer in his right hand, his left hand in his lap and partially hidden from view. You hiding something under there, big guy? 

Hovering in the damp air around the front porch, just above the sweet, sick scent of trash and empty beer cans, was the aroma of something synthetic like superglue and Styrofoam. 

I triggered off the safety, then tapped on the front door. ” 

This excerpt from Amanda Kyle Williams’ novel, “The Stranger You Seek” (which I highly recommend) illustrates one of the reasons we love suspenseful tales. The protagonist, knowing the risky nature of her actions, takes them anyway. Why? Because her mission requires them. We cheer the heroine on, living vicariously through her trials and successes, hopefully gaining not only entertainment, but inspiration.

When I tell people I’m a writer, I’m often asked, “What do you do about writer’s block?” “I’m writing a book, too…but it’s so hard to sit down and write,” is also common. Rather than go into lengthy explanatory responses, I usually say something like, “I have my challenges…luckily those aren’t mine.” (I actually don’t even believe in writer’s block, but I’ll save that for another post…)

Regardless of what our goals our, reaching them requires maximizing on our strengths and facing our challenges/obstacles and weaknesses head on. How boring would a suspense novel be if the FBI agent, sensing danger, dashed home to distract herself via Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo! News rather than pursue it?

I personally face a struggle almost every darn night. SLEEP.  It’s taken me years to come to terms with the fact that sufficient sleep is A, necessary and B, damaging to go without it. And if I don’t turn in early most evenings, I won’t have the early-morning gusto to bring to the page each day. Rather than whine about it (okay, I may whine a little…), I challenged myself to rest more often, read a great book by renowned sleep expert Dr. Matthew Edlund, REST: Why Sleep Alone is Not Enough and began changing my sleeping habits—not because I thought it would be fun, but because my success as a writer and my overall wellbeing depend on it.

And simply by posting my sleep goals here, stating them “aloud” for others to see, I’m increasing my chance for success. A Yale study conducted by Dr. Gail Matthews showed that people who share their goals and goal-reaching updates with friends are 33% more likely to accomplish them.

So…yep. You guessed it. I’d like you to share your goals here. You are the protagonist in your own life. What challenges stand between you and your goals? What are you willing to do to surpass them?