Archive for May 10th, 2021

Amy Rivers writes novels, short stories and personal essays. She is the Director of Northern Colorado Writers. Her novel All The Broken People was recently selected as the Colorado Author Project winner in the adult fiction category. She’s been published in We Got This: Solo Mom Stories of Grit, Heart, and Humor, Flash! A Celebration of Short Fiction, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Nurses, and Splice Today, as well as Novelty Bride Magazine and ESME.com. She was raised in New Mexico and now lives in Colorado with her husband and children. She holds degrees in psychology and political science, two topics she loves to write about. Visit her at www.amyrivers.com.


Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Complicit. To begin with, can you give us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?   

A: When a student is brutally murdered, high school psychologist Kate Medina is reluctantly drawn into the investigation. She bumps heads with the lead detective who is also a former friend, and struggles to manage the stress of her father’s failing health and her own post-traumatic anxiety. As with many of my novels, Complicit looks at dark topics like sex trafficking and interpersonal violence through a very human lens. My former work with victims of sexual assault taught me that there is no typical reaction to trauma, and despite what people think, bad things happen to good people and “good people” do bad things. I wanted to bring that out to forefront in this book.

Q: What do you think makes good psychological suspense? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?

A: Interesting scenarios and high-stakes drama are certainly part and parcel, but the most important element is certainly characterization. Unlike other types of crime fiction, psychological suspense moves a bit slower so that we (readers) can really dive deep into the motivation and behavior of the characters. These books feature complicated and greatly flawed protagonists that are battling something sinister while wrestling with their own demons. A well-drawn antagonist is also essential. It’s not enough for the villain to be evil. Readers need to understand and even sympathize with the antagonist in some way. That way, the relationship between the hero and the villain feels more intimate—the action taking place on a much smaller stage.

Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?

A: I’m not much of a plotter. When I start writing, I have a general idea of the main events that will happen in the book. The inciting incident. The main conflict. Most of my pre-writing work is in character development. I usually know more about my characters than I do about what’s about to happen to them. Their personalities and baggage lead the action, sometimes in different directions than I would have imagined. It’s a really joyful process to let things unravel as they may.

That being said, I spend a lot of time in revision to tie up loose ends and fill in plot holes. I think that’s both the advantage and the drawback of not outlining my novels. My friends who do outline seem to have a smoother process of drafting, without nearly as much revision. Every time I try to add more structure to my process, it kills my creativity, so I’ve learned to accept and even enjoy the revision process as a natural and necessary part of my writing life.

Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?

A: I knew when I started writing Complicit that I wanted Kate Medina to have left a career she loved in the criminal justice system to return to her hometown. As I started constructing Kate’s persona, I realized that one of her biggest challenges (and ensuing personality defects) had to do with success. In her work as a forensic psychologist, she felt fulfilled—like she’d “made it” in terms of her personal and professional goals. Having to leave that behind, even if it was her decision, chips away at her sense of self. Working at the high school is the antithesis of everything she envisioned for herself, and it makes her a really abrasive person. Readers may not love Kate, at least not immediately, but I’m sure that most of us can relate to what it feels like to fail at something—how it can eat away at you. 

Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?

A: The organization behind the trafficking ring remains largely in shadow, but Benny Parks is the primary visible antagonist in Complicit. He’s a creep and he does some really horrible things, but he’s also a pretty classic thug with an inferiority complex. He knows people in high places so he’s over-confident. Everything he does is overkill. Benny provides our first glimpse at the organized crime aspect of the trafficking ring. I watched a lot of mob movies when I was working on both Benny and the organization behind him.

Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?

A: I try to focus on two things. The first is pacing. As the reader is making their way through the story, it should feel like a smooth progression. Sometimes its hard not to want to over-share background details and over-explain situations. Maintaining the balance between giving too much and withholding too much is something that comes with time and practice. Beta-readers can help you identify places where the pacing feels off so that by the time your book makes it on the shelves, those kinks are worked out.

The second where I focus is the hanging question. Every chapter should leave the reader questioning something—what will happen next, who will she tell, what will he do? The trick is not being too heavy-handed with these cliffhangers. You want the question to be subtle—a mystery for the reader to solve by turning the page.

Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?

A: If possible, I always visit the places I am writing about. I write realistic fiction so this works for me. Being on the ground in the setting makes it much easier to notice details and details bring the setting to life for the reader. This can be especially helpful when writing about a place you are unfamiliar with.

That being said, it’s not always possible to visit your setting in-person, but luckily we live in the Internet age. Google Street View let’s you travel down country roads or through city streets as if you were there. Government and tourism sites offer details about demographics and things that make the place unique. I would also suggest reading other books set in that area to help get a feel for the nuances.

In Complicit, I wrote about my hometown in New Mexico so I was already intimately familiar with my surroundings. But I still visited, taking copious pictures, and notes. I journaled about the things that had changed since I was a child. I took friends who’d never been there and asked about their impressions. And I had people who live there read the book to see if it rang true. These are all very useful tools in creating a compelling setting.

Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?

A: Though I start most of my work with character, I always have a sense of theme before I start writing. In Complicit, I knew I wanted to look at domestic human trafficking, the relationship between sisters, and surviving trauma. These are themes that tend to pop up in a lot of my work. More broadly, I’m always interested in how secrets contribute to the psychology of a situation. For instance, when we show a new love interest our “best side” are we creating a duplicitous start to a new relationship? These are the sort of questions that I love to ponder.

Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?

A: For me, the process is very intermingled. As an author, I have a vision that guides the work I do, but craft gives me the foundation for communicating that vision. Editing is just part of that. Is the editing process artistic? Not terribly, at least not for me. It’s more about adding structure and consistency to what I’ve created. But editing also doesn’t destroy anything for me, creatively speaking. I understand that it is a necessary tool for ensuring that the story I want to tell is the best story it can be.

Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?

A: Perseverance, tenacity, and a sense of humor. Human beings are super interesting, all of them. We all have stories to tell. What makes a successful novelist is the act of following through. The perseverance and determination necessary to write 90,000+ words and then hack it to pieces to make it good. The ability to find humor and joy in what can sometimes feel like an incredibly dull or daunting process. Anyone can tell a story, but writing a novel takes more than that.

Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. Thoughts?

A: Absolutely! But I always loved homework so I guess I’m weird that way. What I would say, especially to aspiring authors who might feel that description is a bit depressing, is that it’s more like doing homework in your favorite class for the rest of your life. That’s not really much different from any other career choice. If it’s something you want to do, the work becomes a necessary and even enjoyable part of the process. Whether you’re a novelist or a research scientist, you’re going to spend the rest of your life engaged in work—sometimes exciting, sometimes horribly dull—but that work is invariably tied to something that brings you satisfaction and fulfillment so it’s worth it.

Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?

A: Literally too many to name. In the early days of my writing career, I attended a lot of craft classes and conferences where I took in every word the presenters had about story arc and character development and revision. As I progressed in my career, I needed different things. A focus on the business and promotion aspects maybe, or advanced craft classes. I can’t say enough about attending writing conferences because you learn a ton and you realize you’re not alone. It really helps. Two books I highly recommend for writers at any level include Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat Writes A Novel and Steven James’ Story Trumps Structure. I would also highly recommend Angie Hodapp’s book Query Craft: The Writer-In-The-Know Guide to Getting Your Manuscript Requested if you’re looking for an agent and if you can, attend one of Angie’s workshops. She’s a phenomenal instructor. 

Q:  Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?

A: My best advice on craft is to never stop learning and improving. There are so many wonderful resources out there for authors and there’s always something new that you can add to your writers’ toolkit. I never fail to learn a new trick when I take a class.

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