By Mikaela Gilbert-Lurie
Eric Beetner, having published 10 crime novels and more than 60 short stories, is a veritable mystery expert. When he’s not dreaming up high-stakes, fast-paced scenarios for his characters, you can probably find him watching noir films. He’ll be teaching two classes, Writing The Suspenseful Novel (5 Wk) in Westwood and a live online class, Crime Scene Confidential: Private Eyes and Procedurals (1 Day), this Fall at Writing Pad to help you add some suspense to whatever stories you write.
We had the privilege of asking Eric a few questions about his craft.
1. How did you discover that hard-boiled detective stories were what you wanted to write? Are those the kind of books you read growing up?
Growing up, I read all over the map. Mostly stuff I borrowed from my older sister. It was through my love of film and film noir that led me to the literary heritage behind it. From there it is a short leap to Cain, Chandler and Hammett. Since then I’ve dug deeper and found writers I like even better like Cornell Woolrich, William P. McGivern, Lionel White, W.R. Burnett. I’m more drawn to noir stories about average guys and losers vs. detectives and heroes. I like my stories down in the gutter. Making unheroic characters sympathetic is really challenging, yet really rewarding as both a writer and a reader.
2. Who is your favorite crime fiction writer and why?
So unfair! Rather than call out a favorite I’ll point out the writer who I own more of than anyone else – Joe R. Lansdale. I have 33 Lansdale books (and that’s not even all of them). 31 of them are signed by Joe. He genre-hops a bit into horror and the outright bizarre, but his writing is always so evocative, so unpredictable and the voice of whatever character he is writing is so strong and singular I get lost in it. His work ethic is admirable and the sheer imagination behind his work is staggering.
3. You’ve published over 60 short stories and 10 novels. Which do you like writing better and why?
Novels are very satisfying to spend time and develop character over time, but short stories are the daily workout of the writer. Novels are the marathon. I admire brevity and an economy of words in writing, especially crime writing. Shorts give a writer a good excuse to cut away anything extraneous. Plus, shorts are a great creative palette cleanser between longer projects. It gets the juices flowing by cranking out short ideas, seeing them through to the end. Work begets work and once ideas start flowing, it’s hard to stop them.
4. What advice would you give to people trying to write their crime or detective story?
Keep the story constantly propelling forward. Don’t go off on tangents. Show, don’t tell. And be aware that your reader will be trying to second guess you more than a regular fiction reader will. Be aware that everything your character does is leading toward the next clue or next action. Readers are working hard to be one step ahead of you and if they realize you led them down a dead end with no payoff, you’ve lost their trust and you’ve lost their attention.
5. Your most recent book, The Devil Doesn’t Want Me, was published as an eBook. How do you feel about eBooks as opposed to traditionally printed ones, and what is your hope for the future of publishing?
I’m fine with ebooks. I don’t read very many myself. Not that I don’t have about 100 on my iPad waiting for me. I think however people want to read I’m all for it, and I think the lower price point is a good thing.
I don’t think print books will go away. I never understand why publishers don’t give the option, especially now with print on demand. I guess I do understand from a business standpoint of not wanting to split profits with a 3rd party, but I wish publishers would start their own POD services. Seems shortsighted to me that they don’t. But I digress…
The book is one of those perfect inventions like a bicycle or a fork. You can’t really improve the basic design, but there is room for interpretation. Books will survive, even as a niche market like vinyl records today. And writers will always write. Maybe not for millions in profit anymore, but the impulse to tell a story will never vanish.
6. Which part of the writing process do you find more challenging, generating new material or editing?
Editing. Ugh. I don’t care for it. My first drafts are very clean, tightly plotted and require very little revision. (my editor at Dutton for The Devil Doesn’t Want Me said it was “the cleanest manuscript I’ve ever gotten.”) I plan ahead. I outline. I don’t rewrite, only revise slightly.
New ideas are the easiest thing.
7.Can you tell us about your creative process?
I don’t recommend it to anyone else, but it works for me. I tend to think of an idea, then not write it down. If it is still with me a few days later, I think I might be onto something. Maybe I’ll jot down the basics. Then I let it stew for a few weeks, months sometimes until the characters gel and start to become clearly defined. Only then do I sit down and outline.
I keep it simple and very skeletal, but I know where my story is going. Any potential pitfalls I work out in outline, not in prose. Writing the scenes is the fun part, but I enjoy crafting the story almost as much.
8. What are the classic rookie mistakes that you see new writers make when writing mysteries?
Relying on tired tropes (the alcoholic detective, the mysterious past) and over-writing. Telling us too much all at once and not keeping the suspense, which comes from withholding information. Also if writing a detective, either amateur or pro, it’s easy to make them too passive since they are gathering information from other sources. Characters are defined by their actions so they need to DO something. They can’t be casual observers in their own story.
9. You’ll be teaching a class on how to add elements of mystery to short stories. What can students expect to learn in your class?
We’ll go over how to tell an effective story and keep the reader compelled. We will work on planning your story, outlining and plotting effectively. We’ll work on revealing character through action and setting, adding depth through character to balance the action. And we’ll work on building suspense, writing great action and writing compelling anti-heroes. Thrills, chills and kills, baby!
Thank you so much for that informative interview, Eric! Catch his classes Writing The Suspenseful Novel (5 Wk) and Crime Scene Confidential: Private Eyes and Procedurals (1 Day Online) this Fall at the Pad.