Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Conversation About Writing with Crime Thriller Writer Matthew Clemens

Crime thriller writer Matthew Clemens is the author and co-author of a wide variety of crime thrillers and true-life crime stories.  He has worked extensively with Max Allan Collins on numerous projects, including the best-selling CSI novels based on the television series.  

He is also an integral part of the Midwest Writers Workshop, so much so that Matthew claims status as the conference mascot.  New week the Midwest Writers Workshop will hold its 40th annual conference, and Matthew will be one of the featured instructors.

I interviewed Matthew this Spring on my online radio show, Stephen Terrell: Just Us.  Among other topics, Matthew discussed the genesis of his writing, collaborations with Max Allan Collins, and his advice to those striving to be professional writers.

Beginning of a writer:

I actually started writing in the third grade because I had bad penmanship. That was the genesis of the entire career.  I was the only a third grader in 1965 with homework. And I had to go home and fill a page of that tablet every night with cursive.  When I copied it out of a book, it took forever.  I hated it. 

One night, I cant tell you why, I just wrote what was in my head. And I was done in five minutes. And that was the ah-ha moment.

After college I took a long time when I didn't write. It could be that I just didn't know enough.   You have to have a certain amount of life experience to have something to write about.  Consequently when I was 31, I started going to writers conferences, and it's all sort of blossomed from there.

That's how I got started was third grade bad penmanship.

Honing the craft of writing:

I started going to conferences when I believe I was 31. And I was always smart enough to know that I didn't know what I was doing. 

A lot of writers, when they go to conferences, the first thing they want to know is how to get an agent.  The first thing I wanted to know was how to write a book.  So consequently over the course of four or five years, I went to conferences and I kept learning more and more.  And my fiction improved as I went. 
The first year I was lucky enough to win a couple of awards. That encouraged me. But even then I knew that I sucked.  It was just a matter of trying to get better and better.

Becoming a professional writer:

Finally, in 1992, five years after I started studying, I decided to hang out my shingle as a book doctor because it seems I have an eye for catching problems in manuscripts.   I've read a lot of books over the years. . . .  You learn to spot problems. And that was what I first started doing. 

First it was a non-fiction book, a true-crime book about a chiropractor in my hometown who killed his wife and cut her up with a chain saw.  That was the first book that came out.  It was called Dead Water {NOTE: Dead Water is now again available as an ebook and in print}.  Actually the guy wouldn't have had as much of a problem, but people really took umbrage about the chain saw.

Collaborating with Max Collins:

Eventually it dove-tailed into Max Allan Collins calling me. . . .  Max Allan Collins has written over 100 books, the most famous of which is the graphic novel Road to Perdition, which became the Tom Hanks / Paul Newman movie. He's won Shamus Awards. He's one of the masters of detective fiction and also one of my first teachers.

We had been searching for something to do that would allow us to work together, to collaborate.  I had collaborated on Dead Water with a guy named Pat Gipple. So I didn't mind collaboration, so when Max came to me right after CSI came on the air, and said 'I think this is the property we should do together.' It was under his by-line because it was a job they had approached him to do, but we did the books together.  He knew I watched the show and I had a true-crime background, and I had access to forensics people, so it made it a very easy thing to get in to.

We did eight novels based on  CSI: Las Vegas, two on CSI: Miami, three graphic novels for Vegas,  one for New York, and eight jigsaw puzzles.  CSI kept us very busy for about 5 or 6 years. 

 The CSI books made the USA Today Best Seller lists (and) sold millions of copies.

Where story ideas come from:

The whole world is full of them.  All you got to do is look around.   Every crazy SOB on the planet is   And it's just finding that 'what if' moment in there that allows you to write a different story than has been written before.
going to do something, and all I've got to do is watch it, then ask "what if?"

The work and craft of writing:

Two thousand words.  Every day, two thousand words.  Six days a week.  And if I'm on deadline, 7 days a week.  The idea is to get from the beginning of the story to the end of the story as fast as I can so I know I have a story.  And then you actually go to work.  You do all the hard stuff after that

When I got into the business, I was told it was 40 percent writing and 60 percent re-writing.  I think that's wrong. I think its closer to 30-70. 

When characters write their own story:

There is a moment when you're writing a book where the character does what he has to do instead of what you want. That is the moment you're looking for, because then they're real.   If they're not real for me, if I can't make a character real enough that I believe in, I can't make you believe it.  It's that simple. It really is.

We can think of a thousand endings for stories.  The characters will show us the correct end by the time it's all said and done.  I know how I want this book to end that I'm working on now.  I have no idea if that's how it will end since I'm not done yet.

Closet writers:

America's closets are just filled with first chapters. But its being able to write all those other chapters, and then saying "Okay, now I'm going to show this to someone who doesn't like me -- someone that has no vested interest in making me feel better."   That's the hard part.

If you can put it in the closet and leave it, do it.  If you wake up in the morning and you have to write, go seek out professionals and learn how to do it.  Those who do this professionally, who are serious about it, we don't really worry about getting paid as much as we do about we have to get this out.  You have to do it. 

How to become a professional writer:

This isn't the sort of job people pick to do long term because it's a cool job to have.  It's really hard.  You sit in a room by yourself all day.    And in my case I even have the door closed even though I'm the only one home.  It's not a job for everybody.

But if you have that thing that says you have to do it, there are writers conferences, there are writers groups, all kinds of ways to learn how to do this.  The Internet makes life easier.  There are classes.  There are books on writing: Karl Largent, Stephen King, Lawrence Block.  There's great books on how to become a writer. 

But the bottom line, the very bottom line to all of that, is to put your ass in a chair and write.  That's how you become a writer.

The value of Midwest Writers Workshop: 

They're family.  I've been coming since 1990.  I started as a student there in 1990. Karl Largent, who was on the board at MWW . . . told me that if I wanted to get better, that the more conference I went to, the better off I would be.  And go to Midwest Writers. 

And I've been there ever since. I have gone from student, to faculty, to now into sort of campus mascot.  But it is a place loaded with really good writers, and more importantly, really good teachers.  That would be the place I would recommend for everybody. There are all kinds of resources available.  And Midwest prides itself on the fact that its faculty is available outside the classroom as well.  It's also where I go to dip my toe back in the water and get my enthusiasm back.

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