Interview: Guest lecturer Brendan DuBois

Brendan DuBoisGuest lecturer Brendan DuBois is an award-winning mystery, suspense and science-fiction author. Mr. DuBois is a former newspaper reporter and a lifelong resident of New Hampshire, where he lives with his wife Mona, their hell-raising cat Bailey, and one happy English Springer Spaniel named Spencer.

He is at work on his seventeenth novel, and his latest Lewis Cole novel, Fatal Harbor, was published in May 2014. Last year, he published his science fiction trilogy, The Empire of the North, made up of The Noble Warrior, The Noble Prisoner, and The Noble Prince. His recent thriller, Twilight, received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. DuBois has been published in ten countries by such publishers as St. Martin’s Press; Little, Brown; Time Warner UK; Houghton Mifflin; Pegasus Books, and many more.

His most widely published suspense-thriller, Resurrection Day, has received world-wide acclaim. It takes place in October 1972, ten years after the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted into a full-scale atomic war, destroying the Soviet Union and decimating the United States. Called “one of the most inventive novels of alternative history since Robert Harris’ Fatherland,” Resurrection Day is a chilling tale of what might have been. At the 58th World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago, Resurrection Day received the Sidewise Award for Best Alternative History Novel.

His short fiction has been awarded the Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America and the Berry Award for Best Mystery Short Story of the Year, has been nominated three times for an Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and has been nominated for the Anthony Award for Best Mystery Short Story of the Year.

He is also a one-time Jeopardy! game show champion.

You write mainly mysteries, including your popular Lewis Cole mysteries, and suspense. What drew you to write in those genres? You also write science fiction. Does writing SF appeal to you in the same way as writing mysteries and thrillers?

I sort of backed into it, to tell you the truth. Ever since I was a child, I was enthralled with SF and fantasy, and pretty much, that’s all I read. My first short stories–scores and scores of them–were all part of that genre, and they all got rejected. But one day a short story that I originally considered [to be] SF was rejected, and in re-reading it, I thought it had enough mystery that it might appeal to the mystery market. I submitted that first short story to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, which bought it, and I soon found I had a previously-unknown knack (or talent) for writing mystery and suspense.

That eventually led to novels, and more mystery and suspense short fiction. Yet I still maintain my love for science fiction, such that my first true SF novel, Dark Victory, will be published in early 2016 by famed SF publisher Baen Books.

Writing mysteries and SF are both appealing to me, but SF has that special “extra” that comes from fulfilling a childhood dream.

Are there tips you learned from writing mystery and suspense that can be applied to other genres, such as science fiction, fantasy, and horror? Can you share some of those with us?

I think there are some basic tips that can be applied to all types of writing. First of all is the commitment, the drive to write day in and day out. Brendan DuBois Resurrection DayTo me, that’s most important. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. Don’t dream about it, fantasize about it, or plan to write sometime in the future. Do it now, and don’t hesitate. The drive is more important, in my opinion, than talent. Everything else is pretty much window dressing. You need to write, finish what you write, edit what you write, and submit what you write. That’s pretty much it.

Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece? What were you doing wrong in your writing in those early days? Why do you think your work began to sell?

I started writing short stories when I was twelve years old, and started submitting them to science fiction magazines. They were instantly rejected, of course. I returned to writing short stories off and on through high school and college. I worked for a number of years as a newspaper reporter, and then decided to make a dramatic plunge by exiting journalism and working in a corporate environment as a tech writer and editor. With my life being on a regular schedule, I was able to devote more time to my fiction. Within a year of doing this–in 1985–I sold my first short story to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

I don’t think I was doing anything wrong at the time. I was going through the necessary apprenticeship that most writers experience, and I began selling when my work started improving.

How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to a publisher? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft, and how much time is spent in revision? What sort of revisions do you do?

A lot depends on how the story goes. There are a number of short stories that get completed in a straightforward way and go right out the door. Then there are other stories when I write them and come back a few times, polishing and polishing until I feel it’s right. As to novels, I usually do a couple of rewrites when it’s completed, and then listen to the input from a couple of beta readers, including my wife.

I’d say that 80 percent of the work is writing, 20 percent is revisions. As to revisions, I usually stick mostly with a first draft, with some light revisions and polishing. I don’t usually tear out major chunks.

What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?

I think my biggest weakness in my writing is going back to my newspaper reporter days, when I was satisfied in getting a draft down and sent off to an editor. I still have that compulsion of not taking the time to let a story “settle,” to spend the necessary time to review, rewrite and edit. To cope with it, I just try to force myself to take the time to get it done in the best way possible.

Your eighth Lewis Cole mystery, Fatal Harbor, came out this past year. How do you keep recurring characters fresh? Do you prefer to outline a series and work toward an ending you’ve already decided upon, or do you prefer to plan and write one book at a time? Do you think a series protagonist should remain the same or evolve over time?

Brendan DuBois Fatal HarborI keep the recurring characters fresh by ensuring they grow and change with each novel. For example, Detective Diane Woods started off in the series in this police role, but is now a Detective Sergeant, and I can envision a time when she is promoted yet again. Lewis’ sometime love interest Paula Quinn started off as a reporter, and is now an assistant editor, and is also engaged to marry another man. Lewis has also grown and changed, having a love affair and then losing same.

I don’t plot out the series, I prefer to do it book-by-book, and I strongly think that a protagonist should evolve over time. A protagonist that doesn’t change is frozen in amber.

As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

To take yourself and your work seriously. At some point all published writers were beginners; that’s how it starts. And if you want to be serious about being a writer, then treat yourself and your work with respect. There are no easy shortcuts. It takes lots of work, and it also takes a lot of rejection. I’ve sold more than 140 short stories, and my work still gets rejected. It’s all part of the process.

What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?

I’m currently working on the tenth novel in the Lewis Cole series, tentatively titled Storm Cell, and I’m always working on new short stories. I have a new stand-alone thriller out with my editor at Midnight Ink, and in early 2016, I have a science fiction novel called Dark Victory coming out from Baen Books, and another thriller called Night Road, being published by Midnight Ink.

Other than that, nothing much else is going on.


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