eBook Dynasty August 2013 Resident Writer Q & A: Mark Reutlinger

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Q: Can you please describe how you started writing? Why do you think you have to write?

A: Although I always enjoyed writing, I didn’t begin writing seriously until I entered law school, and then as an attorney and law professor, writing became part of my everyday life. When I retired from teaching, I had the time to begin more creative writing and found that I really enjoyed the freedom to wander beyond the strict limits of legal doctrine. Writing has become one of my main creative outlets, together with art and music, an activity I enjoy just for its own sake.

Q: Among the world’s writers, who do you think have most influenced you?

A: Although I might like to say such “heavyweights” as Shakespeare and Hemingway were most influential, in truth I was most influenced by the authors I most enjoy reading and whose styles I most would like to emulate. I have always loved P.G. Wodehouse’s wonderful use of the English language, as well as the humor in his writing. E.F. Benson could be put in the same category, if not quite as high on the list.

My favorite genre to read is mystery and detective stories that present fascinating puzzles without being overly violent, beginning with Agatha Christie and including such others as Martha Grimes and Dorothy Sayers. The author whose style and sense of humor has most influenced my more lighthearted and humorous novels (not, therefore, including Made in China) is Donald Westlake. I have tried to make my writing as clear, compelling, and elegant as that of these authors.

Q: You have recently published Made in China as a Chinese ebook. What do you try to convey in this book?

A: Made in China has two purposes. First, it is a combination of love story, murder mystery, and political thriller, intended to entertain the reader with a good story. But it is also a political statement, a cautionary tale perhaps, intended to remind readers that there are substantial risks in putting a country’s economic and material well-being in the control of another country, especially a potential enemy.

Much as been written about America’s indebtedness to China and the potential for military conflict in the future. But virtually no one is asking what to me is an obvious question: What if, having closed down our factories and became dependent on China and others for almost all of our manufactured goods, those sources of supply were to disappear? Where would we turn for everything from paper clips to television sets to pharmaceuticals? Made in China asks that question, and provides at least one possible answer.

Q: You are from a legal background, have taught many years in this area, and have written extensively on the law. What do you think this background has helped you as a creative writer?

A: As I indicated earlier, writing is a major part of law practice and law teaching, even if the writing generally is not very “creative”. These years of writing have made me more technically proficient, which is extremely important whatever kind of writing one does. And the few times I could exercise more creativity in my legal writing, such as drafting examination questions or writing material for the annual law school “follies”, whetted my appetite for when I would be able to devote more time and effort to writing beyond the limits of legal doctrine.

Q: In terms of writing a novel, what do you think a writer should be aware of when constructing plots, creating characters and managing the overall themes?

A: Writers differ in how they go about creating their characters, plots, and themes. Some are very organized, constructing detailed outlines of the story and character development (perhaps using story arcs, character arcs, etc). Others begin with a more general idea of the plot and characters, which then take shape as the writing develops.

I probably fall somewhere in the middle, beginning with a rough outline, changing and adding to (or subtracting from) it as I go along, and sometimes surprising myself where I come out. (For example, in Made in China, Linda was originally going to be only a supporting character, not the strong female protagonist she turned out to be. But after I created her, I liked her so well I adjusted the plot to keep her in the center of it.)

I don’t necessarily recommend any particular approach, as it depends on the writer’s personality and style and also the type of story. Whatever method is used, however, the theme should be consistent, the plot should be well organized and constructed to grab the reader’s attention and hold it to the end, and main characters should be believable, three-dimensional, and developed in a way that makes us like those we should like, dislike those we are meant to dislike, or be indifferent toward those who are there just to keep the plot moving along.

Q: Have you ever encountered problems while writing? How do you conquer them?

A: Like most writers, I encounter periods when I seem to have nothing to say, the proverbial writer’s block. It may be coming up with my next story line, or, having done that, how to begin the novel, how to write a scene, or simply what to say next. Usually I just take a break for however long it takes to get back on track. If I’m between stories, I may spend more time on business matters or other pursuits, such as music or volunteer work. If it’s in the middle of a story, a long walk or bike ride may get my mind unstuck.

What I try not to do is force the issue and end up writing something I’ll just have to delete later (or worse, regret keeping). I know some writers try to “write through” a block and force themselves to write anything, as they can always delete it later, but I’d rather wait until I “feel creative” again before carrying on.

Q: In your view, what is the most difficult thing about writing a thriller?

A: I suppose the most difficult thing is what might be the most obvious: making it “thrilling”. That is, a thriller should grab its readers at the outset and carry them along from scene to scene with increasing intensity. It should, I think, build suspense and anxiety. But if possible, it should do so without relying on cliches and plot devices readers have seen a hundred times. It isn’t easy to come up with fresh ways to build tension and leave a reader breathless at the end, and disappointed that the ride is over.

Q: If someone asks you how to become a writer, what will you say?

A: I generally distinguish between a writer — one who writes, for business or pleasure — and an author, who works at writing as a craft that leads to being published. To become a good writer, one should practice writing in whatever context is available: letters, essays, short stories, etc. To become a published author, in addition to practicing, it’s necessary to be a good reader, noticing what makes the books or articles or essays one reads “work”, what makes them read easily, hold one’s interest, stand out from others. It is often said one should write what they know. But it’s equally (if not more) important to write what one wants to write, either because it is an issue one feels strongly about or because it is a genre or style one particularly enjoys and admires.

There are numerous workshops, conferences, writing groups, books, and articles on how to write this and that kind of book, how to get published, how to be a freelance author, etc. A lot of this “expert” advice is of marginal value, and sometimes it is even contradictory or inconsistent, or the blind leading the blind. So read critically, practice writing often, and write what interests you or you feel passionate about.

Q: Among all the books out there, especially novels, about America’s future, which aspects do you think should be further developed and promoted?

A: The novels about America run the gamut from bitter criticism to blind admiration. I think writers should write what they feel, regardless of how it might paint America’s future. There are, perhaps, too few books that emphasize the country’s potential for good, but that may be just a corollary of the fact that bad news sells better than good news: criticism sells better than praise. In any event, I believe how others outside of America view my country is influenced far more by American television and the social media than by books, even if it should be the other way around.

Q: You have published both traditionally and digitally. As a writer, in your view, what are the advantages and disadvantages of publishing your writings as ebooks?

A: Perhaps the most obvious advantage of publishing as an ebook is the wider audience one can reach than in print. Many people, especially younger readers, do not read print books at all, relying on their laptops, tablets, smart phones, and e-readers for all of their reading materials. The cost of an ebook is also generally much less than a print book, which further widens its potential audience. Also, publishing only digitally is much faster and far less expensive, and it allows for quick and easy changes in the text.

On the other hand, publishing only digitally excludes another segment of the market, readers who only like to read print books. It means one’s book will not be available on a bookstore’s or library’s shelf, to be pulled down and perused, which cannot be done satisfactorily in a digital context. And for me, a book isn’t altogether “published” until I can hold it in my hand and turn the pages. To me a book is still a unique and special object, and not just an assemblage of words. Therefore, the ideal is to publish both in print and digital formats.

Mark Reutlinger welcomes questions relating to writing and creativity from all readers. Please post your questions below, and we will publish all questions and answers below.

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