Writer to Writer: An Interview with Author Mindy McGinnis

DIANE: Welcome to Writer to Writer, my author
interview series. I’m Diane Callahan, and I’m here with author Mindy McGinnis. She’s
published seven novels to date, including Not a Drop to Drink, The Female of the Species,
and A Madness So Discreet, which won the Edgar Award. She also hosts a writing podcast and
blog called Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire. So, tell me a little about what the road to
publishing your work has been like for you. MINDY: Well, it’s definitely been rough,
that’s for sure. I started writing when I was in college, and I wrote four novels
before my fifth one was finally picked up by an agent and published, which was Not a
Drop to Drink. It’s post-apocalyptic survival. And I was trying for about ten years to get
an agent. Now, that was on and off—it wasn’t constant querying. Maybe two/three-month breaks
between feeling so dejected I couldn’t continue anymore. But yeah, that’s something I like
to tell people—aspiring writers—often, is that yeah, I was querying for ten years
and among my published writer friends the average is about seven years. And while that
might be kind of a bummer of news, I think it’s also kind of positive because it lets
people know that you don’t have to be an overnight success. You can wait. You can plod
along, and that’s fine. It doesn’t mean it’s not gonna happen for you; it just means
that time is moving in that manner for you, and it’s gonna be a slower crawl. And, honestly,
when I look back at the work I was querying at the beginning, I needed to write four mediocre—well,
maybe two mediocre and two really bad—novels before I wrote one that was worthy of representation.
DIANE: You just released your second book in a fantasy duet, Given to the Earth, which
is the sequel to Given to the Sea. So, what was your elevator pitch for that series?
MINDY: That’s a great question. The elevator pitch for Sea I use now when I’m talking
to people, when I’m table-selling, or if I’m just throwing something out there really
quick, I call it “Game of Thrones with less raping and no dragons.” That’s kind of
the best pitch. It’s very complicated. It’s got a complicated plot and complicated world-building.
So, it’s actually very hard to summarize fantasy quickly. Another way to put it, because
it’s set on an island where there are four different cultures living, and they all discover
right around the same time that the seas are rising and they’re never gonna stop. And,
basically, whoever has land will survive. And so, if you take the children’s game
King of the Mountain and The Floor Is Lava, and you combine those, that would also be
a decent way to pitch that book. DIANE: So, there are four points of view in
there, and they’re from the four different cultures.
MINDY: That’s correct, yes. DIANE: Did you face any challenges writing
that many points of view? MINDY: So, it became more of a challenge with
the second one as far as differentiating because there’s a brother and sister pair that each
have their own POV in the second one, and they’re from the same culture—so, making
sure that everyone has unique and individual voices. I’ve been very lucky in that my
reviews—especially I believe my review from Kirkus and one from School Library Journal—said,
“There are six points of view, and they all shine.” And that made me feel really
good, when you have a professional review that said, “Yes, she can handle six points
of view.” That was a compliment that really made me smile.
DIANE: And what was the word count on your fantasy books?
MINDY: I think the first one was just a shave under a hundred thousand, like ninety-eight.
And then the second one might’ve been ninety-nine. It was close. I originally was over a hundred
thousand, and then we trimmed down just enough. They’re big books. They’re long books,
both of them. DIANE: This is your first fantasy series,
right? MINDY: It is.
DIANE: That’s something that really interests me about your work—how you’ve written
books across various genres. You have your fantasy there, you’ve written dark contemporary
YA, a Gothic historical thriller, and of course your post-apocalyptic survival stories. Do
you have any writing tips for crossing genres or switching genres?
MINDY: I think when you’re crossing genres that it can be very difficult to watch what
you’re reading while you’re writing. When I’m drafting a book, I make sure that I
am not reading in the same genre that I’m writing in, because that can be difficult
to keep your voice distinct from the voice of the fiction that you’re reading. Sometimes
that author’s voice might sneak in. So that’s something that I am very conscious of. But
I think if you are immersed enough in the genre that you want to be representing that
you will be able to present it honestly. For A Madness So Discreet, which is the Gothic
historical thriller, it’s set in 1890. So, before I started writing that book, I read
novels that were from that time period, like eight or nine, back to back to back, just
to absorb sentence structure and the way people spoke and vocabulary—all those kinds of
elements that are really gonna create an immersive historical experience. And then while I was
writing that book, I don’t believe—because I wrote that book very quickly; I wrote it
in like three weeks. I don’t believe I read at all while I was writing that book. I was
just trying to maintain that status quo of that voice and that immersive world while
I was writing it. When it comes to beyond the craft of actually jumping genres and SELLING
across multiple genres, I think YA is kind of forgiving, in that you’re able to be
more than one thing when you’re writing YA. But I haven’t had a major hit yet. I
haven’t hit New York Times; I haven’t had a huge bestseller. And sometimes if you
are a writer that really blows the doors off the barn with something amazing, they want
you to keep replicating that. They want you to keep giving your audience THAT thing. So,
in some ways, it’s a good thing to be a mid-lister because you are free to experiment
a little bit more and wander into genres that otherwise you might be limited with in your
success, which is a weird thing to say, but success can limit you.
DIANE: Are there any genres you haven’t written in yet that you’d like to try?
MINDY: I would like to write an adult literary. I would like to write an adult literary with
multiple—with dual timelines—one in the past, one in the future. That’s something
I’m looking forward to working on over the summer. I don’t know if it’ll ever see
the light of day, but it’s something I want to try. I can probably commit to never writing
a romance—that’s just not gonna happen. Writing a fantasy was really a goal for me;
it was something I’d always wanted to do. It was the most challenging thing I’ve ever
written, and so being able to execute those was for me a major, MAJOR goal.
DIANE: I want to talk about one of your contemporary young adult novels, which felt more on the
literary spectrum to me, and that’s The Female of the Species. I read it a few months
ago and absolutely loved it. It just has an engaging writing style, very interesting characters,
and those three first-person narrators. So, how would you describe that one? Do you have
a one-sentence log line that you use? MINDY: I called it “Dexter, if Dexter were
a teenage girl that only killed rapists.” Or, I think I just referred to it as “rape
revenge/vigilante justice.” I know that my editor pitched it in-house as “The Girl
with the Dragon Tattoo goes to high school.” I’ve been fortunate in that when you are
already working with an editor and they’re asking to see what you have next that you’re
able to put two or three pages in front of them. You’re able to write a synopsis or
an outline, or pitch an idea but have more room. You don’t have to do that quick elevator
pitch and grab attention, but that does come later, when you’re trying to sell, personally—when
you’re trying to pitch at a book festival. Or in interviews people want those quick,
easy digestibles. DIANE: Do you usually have to compare your
book to something else as part of the sales aspect of it?
MINDY: Sometimes. Usually they’re comp titles like that. That’s pretty typical. I don’t
worry about it too much because if you’re already published, you have an editor working
with you, and so he’s the one—or she is the one—trying to build up in-house enthusiasm
for it. And usually comp titles are the way to go. And that can be really fun. It’s
like taking things that you really love, and you’re not taking characters or voice—even
plot. Sometimes you’re just taking the FEEL of it. So, when I’ll pitch A Madness So
Discreet, I’ll say that it is American Horror Story Season 2 meets Sherlock. And deeply,
it has nothing to do with those things, but that captures the feel: insane asylums, detection,
and murder. You know? So, it’s like you can find TV shows or movies or books that
are easy mashups that are a really quick way to convey what you’re trying to create with
something new and different. DIANE: Earlier, you mentioned that you’d
written several books before selling your first one. When I spoke with you at the Ohioana
Book Festival last year, you mentioned that you wrote the first draft of The Female of
the Species as a teenager, and then years later, you just scrapped the whole thing and
started with that kernel of an idea and rewrote it. How do you even tackle that level of revision?
MINDY: I think I would’ve been about twenty maybe when I started writing The Female of
the Species because I was in college. I think I was a sophomore. It’s possible I was 19.
But that level of revision, honestly, once you’ve realized that the words that you’re
grappling with, that you generated in the beginning of the process, aren’t doing their
job, you just scrap ‘em. You just get rid of everything. It wasn’t revision so much
as it was complete and total starting from the beginning. I filed a new document. The
only thing I brought over from that old manuscript was the title and two of the characters’
names. Like, that is IT. That is actually a much better approach when you’re working
with a manuscript that you wrote when you were not as good of a writer as you are now.
If you’re trying to revise with already-existing words, you’re just kind of tinkering, and
it’s gonna be very hard to reshape that into something that reflects the writer you
are now. So, when you’re working with a very old manuscript, and you have improved,
hopefully, from where you were when you wrote that—in my case, it was fifteen years, so
a long time had passed. And I advise just taking that core, general seed of that idea
and just starting over because you’re never gonna be able to inject what you need into
those old words because they’re kind of dead. They don’t have—at least mine—didn’t
have what they needed in order to become what The Female of the Species is.
DIANE: It sounds like, since the time had passed, you didn’t have that emotional attachment
to it anymore, so it was very easy to be like, “Nope, that’s gone now.”
MINDY: Oh, there was no emotional attachment. I was looking at what I had written and like,
“Wow, that SUCKS.” And it did. We’re talking really bad. So, no, there was zero
emotional attachment. I was reading it and making fun of myself it was so bad.
DIANE: I would love to read a passage from The Female of the Species so that everyone
can get a taste of your style. This excerpt is from the perspective of the main character,
Alex, and she’s questioning why she has these violent feelings all the time:
“Still, the question remains: What is wrong with you? Because something is, and I know
that. I’ve tried to find out, looked up the words and the phrases that seemed as if
they should fit. Words like sociopath and psychopath, ones that people like to toss around without
knowing what they actually mean. But neither of them fits. They spoke of lack of empathy,
disregarding the safety of others—when I am the opposite. I feel too much.” I think this quote relates to what you say
in the acknowledgements: “All my books have taken me to dark places, but this one had
special corners where the shadows were quite deep.” So, what are you trying to explore
with these darker types of stories? MINDY: So, for example, with that particular
quote that you just read—for me it was really important to show that while Alex has obvious
problems, she is not particularly diagnosable as someone who doesn’t connect with other
human beings. So, people often misinterpret what a psychopath is. A psychopath has their
own emotions and feelings. They have a hard time believing that other people have those
emotions and feelings so that’s why it is easy for them to hurt others because nothing
they see coming from others seems genuine to them, whether it be pain, or emotion, begging,
whatever the case may be. They’re not gonna react to that because they don’t believe
what’s coming from the other person is real or legitimate. So, to me, if you have someone
like that committing crimes, there’s no struggle there. They don’t feel any remorse;
they don’t feel bad about it. For Alex to be kind of a warrior for others, because she’s
defending other people when she does the things she does, if she doesn’t have any kind of
struggle with what’s she’s doing, there’s no real story there. It’s just someone doing
the right thing for the right reasons in their own mind. So, I needed her to be able to realize
that there’s a gray area she’s operating in. She might be doing bad things to bad people,
but is that okay? She needs to see the people she’s harming as human beings and say, “I’m
gonna shoulder that guilt. And I’m gonna operate with that, and still keep doing what
I’m doing.” So, for me, that is an actual struggle in an actual character. It was important
to have that distinction for me. This is a normal person—this is not someone that has
any type of diagnosable mental illness. This is someone that has decided, in order to protect
others, she’s gonna take on the mantle of guilt and responsibility. So that’s why
that particular passage was important to me. As far as exploring darker themes, it’s
funny because people ask me that a lot, ‘cause all of my books tend to be particularly dark.
And people ask me, “Is it difficult to write these things? Is it hard?” And the answer
is “no.” [evil laughter] This is how my mind works. This is what I think about. This
is the place my mind goes. I would never be able to write a happy book. So, for me, it’s
the same as asking someone, “How can you stand to write such happy things all the time?”
Like, for me, that’s actually a struggle. I would never be able to do THAT.
DIANE: I think it’s interesting the way that you write violence, though. It doesn’t
feel like shock value to me when I read your books. How do you achieve that, where you
write violence in a way that’s honest and interesting, rather than existing only for
shock value? MINDY: I think of it like a horror film. There’s
a difference between like a slasher flick and something that makes the audience actually
cringe because it’s honest. So, when you see someone being murdered—I think there’s
a scene in the Zodiac movie that David Fincher directed when the Zodiac killer is stabbing
someone, and it’s so casual, and it’s so quick, and it doesn’t—there’s not
blood. You don’t see anything. You just see the body, and then it’s just one, two,
three, four, five, stab, stab, stab. And he walks away. And it’s so casual that it sticks
with you. When you can write violence like that, it’s not there for shock value. It’s
like “This is what this would look like.” That’s what I always operate with. Not what’s
shocking, what’s going to make people be like “Oh my God! I can’t believe that
happened!” I want people to be like “Oh my God…that’s what an actual stabbing
would look like.” And walk away from that disturbed.
DIANE: So do you have any more dark projects coming down the pipeline?
MINDY: I do. I have a book coming in March of 2019 titled Heroine—“heroine” with
an “e” on the end. And it is about the opioid epidemic. It’s about a young female
athlete who has an injury, and her team needs her in order to hit the levels that they’re
supposed to attain in their senior year season. So, she ends up relying on opioids to get
through her recovery, and then the slow slide down into heroin addiction begins for her.
So that comes out in March of ’19, and then I have a book coming out in the winter of
2020 that’s called Be Not Far from Me. It’s about a girl who’s lost in the Smoky Mountains,
and she’s out there for a very long period of time, all alone. And that was particularly
difficult to write because when you have one character with no one to talk to, everything
is internal. DIANE: Is it really common to be expected
to pop out a book every year like that? MINDY: Generally speaking, yes, you want to
have a book out a year. Now, I do also—I mean, that’s a choice. I also—this is
what I do for a living. I don’t work outside of writing, and so I have to have a book a
year or else I won’t survive. So, I mean, yeah, typically if you want to keep your momentum.
But there’s nothing wrong—people take breaks all the time. Justina Ireland, she
wrote two books, Vengeance Bound and The Promise of Shadows, and that was 2013 and 2014. And
then she didn’t have another book come out until just last month, and that was Dread
Nation, which hit the New York Times. So she took a big break and came out swinging with
a New York Times bestselling book. So, you know, it’s up to you and what you’re generating,
and how you want to operate within your career. DIANE: Do you usually have to meet deadlines
for specific sections of the book? Or do you have some kind of weekly or daily routine
that keeps you writing? MINDY: No, generally, you’re given a due
date in the future, and that is to turn in your full, complete first draft. When I’m
drafting, I tend to write 1,000 words a day, which is about five pages. If I can hit 1,500,
great. But generally, it’s 1,000 or 5,000 for the week. So, if it is Friday and I only
have 3,500 words, then I’m not taking the weekend off, and I gotta write 1,500 before
we recycle on Monday. So, yeah. When I am drafting, I make daily goals and weekly goals
for myself, and you hit them no matter what. So, if it’s Sunday night and I haven’t
written a word, I’ve gotta write 5,000 words. DIANE: Do you have any tricks that you use
to keep yourself going if you start losing interest in a project?
MINDY: Not really. When you write for a living, the trick to keep yourself going is “I have
to pay my bills, so I have to sit my ass down and write.” Like, there’s no—there’s
no choices involved. I will delay. I will find other things to do. But in the end—because
procrastination exists in all of us. ‘Cause we’re scared. We’re scared we’re not
gonna be able to do it this time, and it happens to me, too. But it doesn’t matter. I have
a due date. If I don’t hit the due date, I’m not gonna get paid. I have to have the
money in order to pay my bills and pay for my house and have food to eat. So that’s
all the motivation I need. DIANE: Do you have any advice you would give
your younger self, looking back on all these books that you’ve published?
MINDY: Probably “don’t think you’re so awesome.” ‘Cause I was so convinced
that I was so great and that nobody understood my genius, and the world was missing out on,
you know, true talent. And, oh my God, I was writing crap. I was producing junk. But it’s
interesting because—and I’ve talked about this before in my podcast with other writers—in
order to be a writer, you really do have to have this balance of ego and extreme humility.
Because you can’t be working on something believing that it sucks. You will never finish.
You will never write it if you believe it sucks, so you HAVE to have that “Oh yeah,
this is awesome!” You have to believe that. But you also have to be able to realize that
it MIGHT suck so that when someone gives you feedback, you’re like, “Oh okay, yeah,
I see that. Okay.” It’s an interesting balancing act.
DIANE: Mindy’s books can be found on Amazon or at your local bookstore. I highly recommend
The Female of the Species. Whatever you do, keep writing.

5 thoughts on “Writer to Writer: An Interview with Author Mindy McGinnis

  1. Very interesting interview! I like the author's straightforward and engaging way of addressing the questions you put to her. I think this interviewing series has promise. It's also nice to hear you read, Diane! I don't think I'm alone when I say, it seems that audio loves your voice the way the camera loved Marilyn Monroe. Thanks for another great post!

  2. Interesting. I am currently working on a story with dual timelines: the parallel lives of two men – one the ancestor, the other his descendant. One from the 19th century, the other in the 21st.

  3. Love the honesty in this interview πŸ˜€ Doesn't sound like she's putting on a persona or ego — she's just saying what comes from the heart and from the top of her head.

    Very good interview with authenticity.

  4. Loved this. I think this was very refreshing. The video was very well put together and i enjoyed that. I'm used to the two way interview were you see both persons but i prefer this style.

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