Alex Segura Discusses Crime Fiction, Comic Book Writing, and His New Book Blackout

Crime novelist and comic book writer Alex Segura is making waves in the publishing world these days. Not only has his book Blackout (released 5/8 from Polis Books) earned attention from reviewers far and wide, but his Pete Fernandez Miami Mystery novels—which include Silent CityDown the Darkest Street and Dangerous Ends—have recently been optioned for a Miami-based TV adaptation by writers Eduardo Javier Canto and Ryan Maldonado of Chicago P.D. and Code Black.

He’s also authored critically acclaimed and best-selling comic books including Archie Meets KissArchie Meets Ramones and The Archies, and his work has appeared in anthologies and publications including The Daily Beast, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Strand, Mental Floss, LitReactor, and more.

And of course, I’m most thrilled to hear him speak at the 2018 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in NYC on August 11.

Read on to learn about his work, his best advice for writers, and what he’ll discuss at the conference.

How does writing novels compare to writing comic books? E.g., what aspects to you have to prioritize or take into consideration when writing one versus the other?

Comics are collaborative—and much more about filling a space: You’re given a certain amount of pages and should stick to a certain number of words per panel on a given page. So, you’re working from that framework, which isn’t as limiting as it sounds. You don’t want to overwrite because then you’re stepping on the artist’s toes—it’s their job to relay the story, and you’re layering your part on to augment the art. Think of the artist as the director, and you—the writer—are the screenwriter. They decide the visual language for your script.

Comics are a visual medium, first and foremost. Working on a comic is more akin to jamming with a band—we’re all doing our part to create a (hopefully!) greater whole. With prose, you’re all alone—pecking away at your keyboard and hoping to get that piece of work into some semblance of shape. I outline novels and comics, but the outlines look very different. A page breakdown for a comic is more a list of actions, and I fill in the nuance and character bits as I get to the script stage, whereas with my novel outlines, I focus on character and that leads me to action.

I think one of the big things you have to keep in mind with comics is how your actions affect your collaborator. I can’t just write “a legion of thousands storms the gates”—without understanding that someone will have to draw that. It’s not just about being nice, either—you want to play to the artist’s strengths, too. You want the product of your talents to be greater than any singular contribution.

With novels, I prioritize characters and their stories, with an understanding of what the plot and big beats are going to be. I think about each major character and their arc. Novels are marathons. You want to feel like the reader is getting a payoff at the end that works on many levels—not just plot/story. You want them to feel like they’ve been on a journey with these compelling, interesting people. Otherwise, you’re just writing a story exercise, and it doesn’t resonate if the characters don’t evolve.

The Differences Between a Crime Novel, Mystery Novel and Thriller Novel

Tell us about your upcoming crime novel, Blackout. How long did it take you to write it, and what did you learn in the process?

Blackout is my fourth Pete Fernandez Miami Mystery—Pete, when we meet him in the firs novel, Silent City, is a mess: drinking too much, in a dead-end newspaper job, reeling from his fiance leaving him and his dad dying. He gets pulled into a missing person’s case and finds that he likes playing the role of investigator, especially in his hometown of Miami. But it’s a journey—and because Pete is dealing with these major personal problems, it’s not an easy one. The series has always followed the story of Pete’s personal evolution—from fall-down drunk to a competent, if not completely without struggles private investigator. So, when we catch up with him in Blackout, he’s got a PI business going in New York and he’s living in a self-imposed exile from Miami after the events of the previous novel, Dangerous Ends. But when Pete crosses paths with an ambitious Florida politician looking to track down his runaway son, Pete discovers a connection to a cold case he investigated years before, a case he failed to solve because he was a mess in terms of his addictions and behaviors. Looking for a shot at redeeming himself, Pete returns to Miami to try and track down the man, and also get a lead on the frigid murder investigation he failed to solve years before. At the same time, Pete and his off-and-on-again partner Kathy Bentley find themselves ensnared in the tentacles of a Miami cult called La Iglesia de La Luz, and come face to face with an evil that’s been dormant for years.

It usually takes me five to six months to write a first draft and a few more months to rewrite/revise to my liking—meaning I’m ready to share with my agent and editor. After that, we go back and forth a bit and I have a draft that’s good to go.

With Blackout, I really wanted to focus on language and prose—I felt like the story and plot was strong, and I really wanted to showcase that in a meaningful way. Which isn’t to say I ignored that in previous novels, but I felt like I wanted this book to be a much more personal and jarring story, that took Pete back through his past mistakes and put a mirror to him in his current state—as a man who’d stopped drinking but maybe hadn’t started living yet, all while keeping the story moving with action and surprises. I hope I succeeded.

What led you to write crime novels? Do you envision yourself writing novels in other genres as well?

I’ve always loved crime fiction, reading Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie as a kid. My first experience with true, gritty pulp fiction was Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, which I read as a young kid—maybe too early, but it all worked out. So, when I moved to New York to work a PR job in comics, I returned to crime fiction and tapped into more modern masters, like Lawrence Block, Laura Lippman, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Megan Abbott, James Ellroy and Reed Farrel Coleman.

I was drawn to their stories of flawed and challenging heroes and I loved how they used setting—each book felt so unique and alluring, I felt like I was visiting places like Baltimore, DC and so on. It really felt like the next step from Chandler and other past writers. It made me want to write my own crime novel, and in my youthful hubris, I tried to write a Miami PI novel, because I wanted to read that book—so that’s how Silent City was born.

I love sci-fi and fantasy, so I could see myself taking a stab at that, or at least blending those genres a bit with what I’m already doing. I’m a big fan of Isaac Asimov and Stephen King, and I try to read all kinds of books, because I think that’s a great way to inform your own work, even if you’re staying within a certain genre.

[Enter the 87th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition]

Your crime novels are set in Miami, where you’re from. How important is setting to your work, and how do you go about building that setting?

For my money, the best crime fiction pulses with setting and place—where the city is a character as visible as the protagonist. Miami is essential to the Pete novels, so much so that, even when the characters are elsewhere, the pull and power of Miami is felt on every page. So, setting is vital.

I want the reader to feel like they’re taking a trip and being lead down the streets and alleys by an expert, by someone who’s lived there and is showing them their version of an important place. Part of that is in the details—making sure the information is right, but a lot of it is in tone and how you describe these places. I also try to avoid giving the tourist-y stuff much “screen time” because those are the places you’ll see on TV or in the movies—I like to go off the beaten path.

How did you end up writing Archie comics? What sort of research went into those projects?

My first big Archie project was Archie Meets Kiss, and that was a mix of luck and timing: I was working at Archie (still am) doing PR, and our CEO Jon Goldwater mentioned that Gene Simmons was interested in crossing over with Archie. I’d written a few standalone issues of Archie at that point, so I threw my hat in the ring. My pitch was approved and here we are—with a Ramones crossover under our belt and an ongoing, monthly comic featuring The Archies as a band just winding down, which featured bands like Blondie the Monkees, CHVRCHES and more.

In terms of research—not a lot that felt like work, to be honest. Obviously, you want to get the details right about each band, but I’m a fan of most of the bands I’ve written about, so it really just meant spending time listening to their music. I do try to read any books or feature-style articles about the bands before Matt and I write our scripts, to get some color and fan-friendly moments in there, though, but that doesn’t feel tedious or research-like. It’s fun.

At the WD Annual Conference, you’ll be speaking on a panel that addresses the topic of success as a mystery/thriller author. What’s your best piece of advice for writers looking to publish in that genre? What can they do to set themselves up for success?

Make sure the work is good. It sounds so simple, but I feel like there are so many steps in the journey that new writers get caught up in the future—how to get an agent, how to get published, how to network—and they lose sight of the key element that will allow for those future steps to happen: the work.

Write the best book you can. Pour your heart into that book. Then edit it and rewrite it until you can’t anymore. Then share it with people that will give you real, honest notes and revise again. Keep doing that until you can’t really change a word. Then do it anyway. It’s a long, painful process, but priority No. 1 should be the novel, the book. The rest can be tackled with gusto once you have a draft that you think is ready to be printed immediately.

In a WD guest post, you talked about the best ways to get the most out of your writing conference experience. Can you share a recent experience from a conference that helped you become a better writer?

Just last month I was a guest at the Virginia Festival of the Book—which is an excellent event—and got to listen to Attica Locke speak about her latest novel, Bluebird, Bluebird, which I very much enjoyed.

She talked about process and about her inspirations, but one thing that really resonated with me was her thoughts on writing, and how you don’t need to write each day—you just need to engage with writing each day: Read a book, work on your outline, think about your book. So many people probably get discouraged about writing because they just can’t make time to write each day, because of work, or kids or whatever.

But I love that she said that, and that she opened the door to people that want to write, because as long as the work gets done and you finish your draft, it doesn’t matter if you skipped a few days of literal writing, as long as you were working on the book in some way—even if it means reading other books or listening to writing podcasts or what have you. We all create our own processes, and as long as they work for you, nothing else matters.

Learn more about Alex at alexsegura.com, follow him on Twitter at @alex_segura, and don’t miss his panel at the WD Annual Conference, August 10-12, 2018.


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