Matt has been a professional writer for over 40 years. One of the hardest aspects of writing is the beginning – both the beginning of the book but also starting a book.
Let’s move on and talk some author stuff. And we have a really good topic today. A lot of authors want to talk about finishing your book and that we’re going to talk about beginnings.
Before we do that, though, you have been writing for a long time, so what are some things and, and even your fiction, you’ve been writing for quite a while. What are some things that you’ve learned through that time that you’re doing different with your writing than you used to?
Matt: I was always pretty good right from the beginning.
I, I sold my first short story that I ever wrote in 1982. And I’ve sold virtually everything I’ve written since. I had a knack for it. That’s, and it certainly didn’t hurt that I spent decades writing speeches that is writing for the voice and bringing across charact. To audiences who sit there saying, why am I listening to this guy?
It’s cause I can make you listen. But I know some things, and I think I knew them pretty early on. One thing, as I said before it’s always about conflict ERs have to contend against each other and their circumstances. One thing that I find most obvious when I give advice or teach or do critiquing or editing for people who are trying to learn how to do this business is that you have to do a really good opening.
And recently I looked at a few pages of someone I know. Who asked me to have a look at what he was doing. And it started with a guy getting up in the morning and going in the kitchen and having coffee and talking to his mother. And then his friend showed up and they talked a little and absolutely nothing happened.
They all got along very well with each other and it was here’s the thing. The real problem, and it’s got nothing really to do with literary considerations. It has to do with how the market works, the industry agents and editors are the gatekeepers now. Used to be, you could write a thing and send it in to a publisher and there would be somebody there who would read it or read some of it and decide whether or not it was worth looking at.
They were called slush readers, and Slush was the stuff that came in, as they would say over the transom. All of that ended decades ago. The corporations took over the independent publishers and turned them into profit centers. And one of the things that makes profit is to cut costs. So they got rid of all those slush readers, assistant editors, and they pushed the job of winnowing, triaging.
They pushed that down onto the agents. The agents responded. They said, We’re no longer gonna take 10%, we’ll take 15%. Cuz now we have to do all this extra stuff. And that happened. So there’s a story that a famous, very powerful New York agent tells at writers conferences. He says that they they get 800 queries a month.
Seven to hundred to 810% of which they send a note saying, send us the synopsis and the first chapter. And then once a month, usually on a Friday afternoon, they gather only agents gather around a big table in the conference room and they have this stack of 70 or 81st chapters and they start to pass them around.
And what they’re doing is deciding. Am I gonna read this on my own time on the weekend? Cuz nobody ever has time to read. They’re always so busy marketing, reviewing contracts, looking at manuscripts for people. They already represent the idea of reading something new and seeing maybe we’ll represent this person that’s done on their own time largely.
So say there’s six agents sitting around a table and down comes the first chapter and a guy looks. and reads maybe the first page, if it doesn’t catch his interest, he gives it to her. She reads it. Maybe it catches, maybe it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, it goes around the table, goes into a stack and. That person will get a form letter on Monday morning from one of the secretaries saying, sorry.
It didn’t catch us. It didn’t click with us. Good luck. So here’s the thing. I always recommend to people that in order to get past this gate, the gate, You don’t start your story with establishing character or background. Certainly don’t write a prologue about the history of the world, the fantasy world you’re talking about.
Start with your character in motion, in conflict, in something is happening, and we know the story has started. It’s not gonna start on page five. It started on page one, the Louis Lamore approach. You know you have your character in trouble on page. And if you do that and you weave in the backstory bit by bit, little penny packets of backstory, you should go along.
You’re much more likely to get past that first triage as you go around the circle or whatever it is. Somebody picks up your story and gives it maybe a page and a half, and they decide then, oh they don’t read 20 page to 30 page. If it doesn’t catch them in the first couple, and the trick is to know that character does not have to be described.
You don’t have to introduce your characters and who they are and what they’re all like. Never mind that characters are what they do. You show the characters in action in conflict. Doesn’t have to be big. Conflict, doesn’t have to be a brawl or a sword fight. It can be just two guys. Arguing with each other, maybe with humor even doesn’t matter.
As long as you’ve got something going on like that you can fill in all the rest of it later. It’s what I do. And I’ve now I’ve sold 24 novels and almost a hundred short stories in novels and whatnot, and that’s my standard approach. I start with a character in.
Stephn: And I, and that one of the things, I’m obviously nowhere near as experienced as you are, but one of the things I’ve found for myself is that I need to just write.
And if I could go back to when I first started writing, I would tell myself, quit reading the craft books. Quit going to the conventions. Quit listing to every podcast. Sit down and write a book. Write a couple short stories, then write another book. Try out the other stuff, see what education you need, and you have to have that writing experience.
Cuz I heard a lot of feedback from people saying this first chapter needs to be improved. And I know a lot of authors spend 10 times more time on the first chapter than the whole rest of the book. And that’s not good either. Sometimes, nope. But it is a trick to. Put a first chapter, that’s part of the whole story, not just an action sequence necessarily, unless it’s Indiana Jones.
Like if you’re writing about middle schoolers, it might be the kid going in the school, but you could have a conflict with the bullies and he is late to class and he forgot something. But it introdu it tells you, like you said, tells you who the character is through all the actions. But you feel for this kid.
And that sets it up rather than, like you said, he get. To his mom argues with her about going to school, eats his toast. That’s boring. So actually
Matt: I sold a series of stories to fantasy and science fiction about a wizards henchman called Baltimore. And it started off with him as a 10 year old actually arguing with his mother, cuz his mother said, you’ve gotta go to school.
And he said, no school. But she gets sent and the moment he arrives, At the alley that leads the school. There are three bullies there to pay school tax. Give me your lunch money.
Stephn: I just nailed your story, .
Matt: But that one really worked because the place where he crosses the market square to get to the alley that leads to the school is where some money.
Changers work and one of them has a debt collector, big guy called V, and the kid decides he’s gonna hire vent to sort out the bullies. You pay him a half a penny a day, okay. Cause that’s all he can afford. And then becomes a relationship. And then all kinds of things develop after.
Stephn: So what would you tell new authors listening?
How do they figure out the beginning of their book, the first couple pages, how do they figure out if what they wrote is something that should be jettisoned or what to write? How do they do that? If you’re a new writer and you’re like this is my character, I need how you, the brain.
What advice do you have for them to tell ’em, here’s how to figure out what you should have in that first chapter?
Matt: The classic thing in genre fiction they always say is show don’t tell. By which I take it to mean don’t explain your character to me. Don’t tell me what that character is show me what that character is like by what the character is doing, and pick the key details.
Of what’s going on in that scene. Details that really go to character. If you do that, you stand a very good chance of actually getting an interesting character. But if you’re gonna explain to me how Prince Harry, who was raised to be this and no no, I wanna see Prince Harry being who he is and always characters are what they do.
Characters are not real people. They’re story element. And they are what they do, and I very often don’t describe a character at all. Yeah, I don’t , for example, that, that character, I take him from 10 years old to retirement, most of which he spends as a wizards, henchman not a very nice wizard either.
Tries to get him killed a lot. I don’t describe Baltimore at. And I’ve not had thousands of people read the stories in the magazine and more of them have bought the collection of stories that I put together, which is now an ebook a paperback and a very good audiobook. I’ve got a guy does wonderful voices to do that, but I have not had anybody ever send me an email or make a comment.
On a Facebook page or something. I don’t know what Baltimore looks like. You don’t describe him. They don’t care what he looks like. It doesn’t matter what he looks like, what matters is what he does in a story. So
Stephn: agreed. And I’ve noticed with some series where you have the same characters, you’ve grow to love the characters.
I’m thinking of the Spencer Books, but there’s other. Where the first chapter doesn’t even necessarily have to involve that main character after you’ve gotten that first book or so done it. The mystery that’s getting started, it’s focused on the bad guy. It’s focused on the person they’re against the car chase right at the beginning, but it’s not even Spencer or whatever series and characters it is.
That’s a very common thing too. You see it a lot in TV shows too. We’re
Matt: talking Spencer, the detective, right? Robert B. Parker. Yeah. Here’s the thing. Robert B. Parker never described Spencer and. Tales are told in the first person, usually from Spencer, saying, I did this and I did that, and nowhere does he look in a mirror and say, I noticed that I was still six two.
None of what you do get, hang on. Very interesting technique. And he does it well. He’s dead now, but he did it wonderfully well. Other people react to Spencer in a way that tells you that he’s big, he’s handsome. He’s very well coordinated. All of that from how other characters react to him, which I think is brilliant.
Stephn: And I guess Spencer wasn’t the best example. You just mentioned him earlier, and I know he has a big series, but some things like Mac Bolin or like what I was thinking, the uh, supernatural TV show and stuff, the first segment up to the music. Is not even the main characters.
It’s usually somebody else in whatever demonn of the week and the setting up that oh my gosh, they’re being possessed and then you get to the characters. But we know the characters so we don’t have to have ’em introduced every time. It’s that what’s going to happen with this situation?
Matt: I had a trilogy from Angry Robot books called to Helen back comic, but also serious about. Highly high functioning autistic actuary who accidentally calls up a demonn, refuses to make a deal, causes hell to go on strike cause a big keuffel. And then out of that he, he ends up as what he’d always wanted to be.
He’s a big comics fan and he wants to be a costumed crime fighter. Which he has helped from a weasel headed sabertooth demonn who goes around with them and does things. Now I did three of those books, and the second one, I think it was the second one might have been the third one of them opened with an entirely different character, a nasty psychopathic con.
Who fleeced old ladies out of their their life savings and mortgages and so on. And I did a whole chapter on him, and then my hero came in and sorted him out. But it was, it worked perfectly well. People liked the book. Yeah you don’t have to do what so many people try to do, which is just start an ordinary.
You can make a situation. It doesn’t have to have the hero in it. Although, as a general rule, I like to have my hero on the first page. Although most of my heroes are actually anti heroes, they’re not particularly nice people. At their best. They’re, they can be highly egotistical. Yeah. .
Stephn: So let me ask this then.
The beginning of the book and what you should do for the beginning of the book, what would you tell people? Cause I know a lot of people get that first book done or they just have a blank page and they’re like, I don’t even know how to start. I don’t know what the beginning of writing a book is like.
What would you help say to help them with getting that second book started or even the first book?
Matt: There’s all different ways into the forest. And this is important for people to understand when they start to do this seriously. They’re really trying to write some people, they have to do a big detailed outline, everything to work the whole story out right from the beginning to the middle, to the end, and then they start writing the scenes.
Other people cannot do that. I cannot. One of the blind alleys I went down into when I was first interested in doing this stuff I was reading how to books and I read one that was written by Ken Follett’s agent and he said, the only thing you’ve gotta do is do a completely detailed outline, cuz that’s what Ken does.
And then once you got that outline all worked out, then you just type I tried that. Can’t do. I’m what they call a fencer seat of the pence. I start with a character, a situation, something happens. Of course there’s a problem. The character reacts to it, other characters come involved, react and organically out of the guy in the back of my head, I create the situations and they move forward and.
I’m lucky in that the guy in the back of my head seems to know exactly what he’s doing, cuz my first drafts are like 90% of the final. The story just seems to unwind naturally, organically as I do a thousand words a day. So there are people who are complete outliners and there are people like me who are complete panthers.
And then there’s a spectrum in between and different writers fall into. Parts of that spectrum. And the way you find out which one you are, where you fit on that spectrum is you write and you see what works for you and you see what doesn’t work for you. Like for me, outlining does not work, so I never do it.
I just make the character and get ’em rolling and then see what happens.
Stephn: And I think that’s what I’ve discovered and that’s what I think’s the best advice. I don’t understand the people who will debate endlessly as to which one’s better or which one you should do. And it’s like, just start writing.
I know people who have been planning to write their first book for six months, or people that. Are working on their book for four and a half years because they’re not sure if they should outline it or if they’re, if they should do this. It’s just write. I’ve been working with kids on storytelling.
Yes. And I the teachers teach grammar. They teach sentence structure and spelling good. I’m working with them more. Using your imagination and getting that out, getting a story out. And that’s what I work and tell ’em. Story is the king. If you have a few little grammar mistakes, but the story is really strong, people will like it.
But if you have everything spelled right, but it’s a crap story, nobody cares. And some kids need that outline so they can write and do good, but other kids just start going off. And I think it’s just how your brain works. Sometimes
Matt: it is it’s a matter of discovery. You find out what kind of writer you are by.
That’s it. Absolutely. And I’m thinking I, I’ve got a new book coming out before Christmas. I got a lot of books coming out. I was gonna say that
Stephn: you seem to have a couple on the way I’ve got one that’s a reprint coming out before the end of the month, but before Christmas, I have one coming out from PS publishing a very good small press in the uk.
Matt: And I’m mentioning it not just to plug it it’s called Ghost Dreams and it’s about a commercial burglar, not a house burglar. A guy does warehouses and wholesalers and so on. Who gets haunted, you could say, by a woman who was railroaded into an insane asylum in the 1940s cuz she married the son of.
Wealthy family and they didn’t want her, and then he died and they just shoved her into the you gotta judge to say she’s crazy and put her away. And then they took the baby that she was carrying and they gave it away. And so she haunted the asylum and then she haunted the house that was built on the asylum, and that’s how she ended up meeting the burglar.
Here’s the thing when I was 15, 16, my favorite author was Thorn Smith. Now almost completely forgotten, but he wrote these extremely funny books about ghosts and statues coming to life. And everybody was drunk all the time. He’s writing during prohibition and his most famous character is Topper The banker Who meets these his neighbors end up as ghosts, and they take him on wild rides.
Get him drunk. Funny as hell. Forres is what it is. And I started out to write that I was gonna write about a burglar and a ghost and it was all very funny, but as the characters came out of my head and began to develop and extrapolate, it didn’t turn out to be a force. It turned out to be a kinda offbeat romance.
In which two people, one dead, one alive, who had been wounded by life found healing in each other. It’s actually quite a sweet story when you get to the end of it. I had no idea that’s what I was going to write. In fact, I thought I was writing something different, but that’s where it went. So I follow where it goes.
I I did the same thing. I started off trying to. Adult thriller, adult horror, and, just all that. And finally another author, a friend of mine helping me reading my stuff. He says, why are you right trying to write this? Because you’re writing sounds like middle grade. And I was, and it was a, a light bulb revelation because I work with kids a lot.
Stephn: I do a lot with kids, and it made the most. And when you really sit down and look at it objectively, yeah, the writing is very middle grade, so I’m like, okay, now I’m a middle grade writer. There you go. And, but again, I had to write multiple things before I really figured that out and discovered it. So again,
Yeah. That’s the key word, is discover. You discover what kind of writer you are as you do writing. Because after a while, in your case, somebody had to point it out to you, but after a while, it becomes obvious what you doing.
Stephn: Yeah. Yep. All right. So Matt, it’s been really great chatting with you. I’ve enjoyed it.
I’m glad to go look your stuff up. Before we go, do you have any last minute advice for new authors besides just right.
Matt: There’s a guy I used to see at writer’s conferences. His name is Don McQuin, former US Marine Officer who wrote energetic Fantasy swords and Stones, so on. And he always used to give the same advice.
He would say, there are many things that are useful to you as a writer, talent experience of the world, understanding of charact. But if you have to get rid of all of, but one, the one thing you keep is perseverance. You never give up. You no surrender. You keep going no matter what, because it’s gonna be a struggle for most people.
And there are going to be setbacks and disappointments and small victories to encourage you along. But the main thing is if you believe in yourself and you believe you can do. Don’t give up.
Stephn: Nice. Agreed. Like that. All right, Matt, thank you much for being on today, and I, again, I appreciate we had to reschedule.
So I appreciate you being flexible in that. That’s
Matt: quite all right.
Stephn: Thank you. Enjoy the house. Maybe next time if we talk you, we’ll have a new house to look at. Almost certainly. We’re just here till the end of November. We’re right now in a beautiful place. I don’t know. Can you see
It’s a little sunshine. I Is that your wife? Hi.
Matt: Yep. She’s sitting there. Yep. We’re in a place called Salt Spring Island on the the south coast of BC and it’s beautiful. It’s right on the water and there’s birds and trees.
Stephn: Nice. Great. We’ll see where you are if we talk again.
That’d be nice. Okay. Appreciate it.