Michael Prescott Interview

Male villains, on the other hand, are easy to write. They're nuts, or at least wildly grandiose, so they can have any kind of thought or feeling. In general, I like to play off a really scary, dangerous male villain against a smart, strong, but emotionally vulnerable female protagonist. That combination seems to work best for me.

FF: Can you describe your revision process? Do you revise as you write or do you plod through to the end and then start revising from the beginning? Do you have any advice for a new writer who has just completed/is close to completing their first novel's first draft?

MP: I revise each scene after writing it, but then I go over whole sections of the novel and revise again. Once it's all written, I review it and revise again. Then I get editorial feedback and, you guessed it, I revise again . . ..

When you finish your first draft-- celebrate! I usually order a pizza. As celebrations go, this is pretty boring, but it's what I do. Then, if possible, take a little break--a week or two. Put the book out of your mind. Go to the movies. Play tennis. When you take a fresh look at the book, expect to feel a little disappointed with it at first. In your  editing" mode, you may tend to be super-critical and see only mistakes. It's good to remind yourself of all the good things you've done with the story. On the other hand, if you see only good things and keep telling yourself it's a masterpiece, you're not being critical enough! Cultivate the little voice in your head that will tell you, politely but honestly, where the book needs work. That little voice is the one essential difference between a professional writer and one who is not yet a pro.

I'm not saying you can ever achieve complete objectivity with regard to your own work, but you can try to be as objective as possible. Remember that the main thing is simply to tell the story. If you have wonderful stuff in the book that you really love, but it doesn't advance the narrative, it may have to go. Raymond Chandler called this "murdering your darlings." Think of it as a sculptor chipping away every part of the marble that's not an elephant until what is left is pure, unadulterated elephant.

FF: Do you work with a critique partner or group?

MP: No, but I get editorial advice from my editor, Joseph Pittman, and recently I've started to work with my agent's assistant, Miriam Goderich, who is quite a talented editor in her own right. My agent, the editor-in-chief, and the publisher all read the books and often give suggestions, so I get plenty of feedback.

I would not want to share an ongoing project with a critique group. Frankly, I think it's better to keep the work private and internal as long as possible. A story is fragile, and insensitive or ill advised comments from other people may kill it before it's strong enough to defend itself. This can happen even if the critic "means well." And a lot of people enjoy criticizing someone else's work a little too much. For some of them, it's a control issue. They may like to think they're "just being helpful," but often their "help" can sour you on the whole project at an early stage.

Of course, it's different if the people offering criticism are genuinely knowledgeable and
well-meaning, but even then, there's something to be said for keeping your story close to the vest, nurturing and sheltering it for as long as you can. All it takes is somebody saying, "I saw something just like that on TV last week," and--poof! --your enthusiasm goes up in smoke.

FF: What advice do you have for aspiring writers working on their own psychological suspense novels?

MP: The best advice is two rules of thumb that are closely related. First, always assume your characters are smarter than you are. Second, always assume your reader is smarter than you are.

Dumb characters, for the most part, have no place in serious thrillers. Make everybody smart. I don't mean that all the characters have to be intellectuals, but they should be always thinking, coming up with shrewd or clever insights, looking two or three steps ahead, overlooking nothing. And they should be as self-aware as possible. Self-awareness is often what makes the difference between a stereotyped character and a
realistic, multidimensional portrait. If a character has an eccentricity, show that he knows it's an eccentricity and it doesn't bother him because he's comfortable with himself. If a woman in the story is a workaholic, show her thinking about her workaholic tendencies, aware that it's something she needs to deal with. Layers of self-awareness make the character come alive by giving the character depth.

So respect your characters, and don't caricature them. Respect your readers too. Don't think that you can just make up some minor "fact" because nobody will know the difference. Someone will know. There are a lot of smart people out there, especially among the segment of the population that reads for pleasure. Do the research and get the authentic facts. Not every reader will appreciate the extra effort, but some will. And if you see a flaw in your storyline, no matter how subtle, don't assume that nobody else will notice. Remember, your reader is smarter than you are! So you'd better fix that flaw, because what is subtle to you will be glaringly obvious to the super-intelligent beings you're writing for!

If you train yourself to think this way, you'll avoid the mistake of "dumbing down" your story, and you'll end up expanding your own talents and capabilities as a writer.

I have to add that even if you do all this, you will never please everybody. For instance, early in COMES THE DARK, the heroine ventures alone into a secret cave, looking for evidence that will tie her brother to a murder. Several readers criticized this plot development, saying that the woman is "too dumb to live," because if she'd ever seen a scary movie, she would know that she shouldn't go into that cave alone! So did I violate my own rule by writing a dumb character?