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Q&A with Pop Fiction Winner Marcy Kennedy

Here's a Q&A with Marcy Kennedy, winner of the 2009 WD Popular Fiction Awards.

1. How long have you been writing? How did you start?

I’ve loved writing since I learned to put letters together to form words, but I’ve only recently begun attempting to make a living from it. I think my innate love of books and reading made me want to create my own stories.

2. Who has inspired you as a writer?

Jane Austin. A writer in any genre can learn from her attention to detail and subtle wit. Moreover, the way she portrayed life in her work is something I’d like to emulate. She was able to deal with unpleasant realities without abandoning hope, and she didn’t take herself or her society so seriously that she lost the ability to poke fun at the absurdities around her.

3. Do you write in genres besides thriller/suspense?

Thriller/suspense is my favorite genre, but I also write romance, fantasy, and literary stories, as well as non-fiction articles.

4. What do you like about writing thriller/suspense?

I think the tension is the most appealing aspect of writing thriller/suspense. It’s exciting. You can let your paranoia run wild. I also love the challenge of coming up with plausible motivations for the disturbing actions of my characters. Psychopaths are extremely rare in life, and they should also be extremely rare in fiction. So if these people aren’t psychopaths, what has brought them to this point?

5. Do you write novels or poetry in addition to short stories? If so, what do you like about each genre?

I write novels as well. Although I appreciate the conciseness that short stories teach, I think that the length of a novel allows for the creation of a more complex plot.

6. Describe your writing routine.

I’d love to be able to tell you I use some unique schedule, but the truth is that each morning after my workout, shower, and breakfast, I sit someplace with my laptop and I write. If I need to do research, I research. It’s quite blasé really. When I stop depends on what I might have going on in the evenings or if I’m also working on a freelance editing job that I need to finish.

7. What's the one thing you can't live without in your writing life?

Music. I have an easier time concentrating on my work when I have music playing. I’ve also used it to help me enter the right mood and mindset for the scene or story I’m working on. Sometimes I’ve even created a playlist of songs that seem to represent the personality of a character that I’m writing. I find that especially helpful when working on a novel with more than one point-of-view.

8. Where do you get ideas for your writing?

I get ideas from everywhere—a line from a song, a picture, an overheard conversation, or a situation in real life. Sometimes I’ll even get ideas from “prompts” in writing books. A couple years ago, I read a prompt somewhere that said, “what if a prodigal daughter came home?” That turned into my short story “The Replacements,” which won the suspense/thriller category in 2007.

9. Where did you get the idea for “A Purple Elephant?”

I came home from grocery shopping one day tired and distracted. Instead of putting my truck keys where they belonged, I tucked them into the freezer when I put away the bag of frozen peas. After I realized what I’d done, the kernel idea for “A Purple Elephant” formed in my mind.

10. What types of research have you done for your work? How have you gone about your research?

In terms of method, I tend to write an outline for my stories first, do preliminary research to ensure my plot is feasible, write my first draft, and then do more intensive research and fill in the fine details near the end so that I don’t have to stop writing to search for something. At different times I’ve conducted interviews and used the internet and university or public libraries. I usually start with books, articles, and websites, and then turn to live sources if I can’t find what I need.

11. If you could change one thing about publishing, what would it be?

I’d love to change the long wait times between submission, acceptance, and payment. Waiting weeks or months to know if you’ve sold a piece (and even longer when writing non-fiction because of the additional step of query letters) and then weeks on top of that to receive your check can be trying at times. I attended a writers’ conference two years ago where agent David Sanford said, “If you’re in to instant gratification, you’re in the wrong business.” It’s very true, and I have friends and family members who don’t understand how I can stand the delays.

12. What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities?

More than anything else, I think my willingness to learn is my greatest strength as a writer. I welcome advice on my work from people who are more experienced, better writers than I am. If they can point out weaknesses to me and tell me how to fix them, they have my gratitude. Does it sometimes sting to hear your work criticized? Of course. But I believe that good writing is based more on hard work than on talent and that everyone has room for improvement. As for how to develop this quality, I’d say learn to bit your tongue, find someone you can vent to, and then figure out how to come back to your work with an objective eye and ask “were they right?” Even if you don’t think they were, consider trying to their way and comparing the results.

13. What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas?

Learning to write believable dialogue is something I’ve worked hard at. Besides reading everything I could about how to write good dialogue, I started listening to the way people talk. Not so much the content because, in the course of a day, we discuss a lot of mundane items of business, make small talk, and include an overwhelming amount of filler. I started to listen instead to how we talk. When do we repeat ourselves? When do we interrupt each other? When do we use sentence fragments? When do we talk around issues rather than addressing them directly? I also found that reading what I’d written aloud to myself helped. If it didn’t sound natural coming from my lips, it wasn’t going to sound natural to the person reading it.

14. What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Writer’s block is an excuse. Neurosurgeons aren’t allowed to wake up in the morning and say, “I have surgeon’s block today. I think I’ll stay home and play Sudoku.” If you want to be a professional, you do your job whether you feel like it or not.

15. What your proudest moment as a writer?

I’d don’t have a particular proudest moment per say, but whenever someone tells me that something I wrote helped them, or made them laugh, or made them cry, or made them shudder, I’m glad that I made the choice to be a writer.

16. What are your goals as a writer, for your career and your work?

I knew from the start that if my goals were money or fame I needed to change careers because most writers have a modest following and an equally modest income. I think it’s more important to concentrate on producing quality work that will help or entertain the people who read it. That’s my goal for my work. My long-term career goal is to be able to concentrate on writing novels and to spend less time on non-fiction. Right now I’m looking for an agent for my romantic-suspense novel. I’m also interested in teaching writing later on.

17. Any final thoughts?

I think every writer needs two things if they want to be able to stick with it. They need someone who believes in their talent but isn’t afraid to tell them when something they’ve written needs work, and they need a library of books on how to write well so that they never stop honing their skills. I’m thankful to God for giving me both.

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