Thursday, August 28, 2014

An Interview with Carrie Stuart Parks

There's a new book you need to read, called A Cry from the Dust.  It's exciting, full of suspense and twists, and fascinating, full of conspiracy and historical revelations. The author, Carrie Stuart Parks, is a forensic artist who has worked with law enforcement, as well as being the protege of the incomparable Frank E. Peretti.

Here's an endorsement I wrote for the book:
Things I loved about A Cry from the Dust: the fascinating and painstakingly researched historical tapestry into which the story is woven, the frantic but intensely believable arc of events that makes you hold on extra tight, the compelling and flawed heroine who has absolutely no idea she's the heroine. Part CSI, part Lie to Me, and all relentlessly original, A Cry From the Dust blends rich characters, little-known history, and a dose of conspiracy into a very modern storytelling style. Can't wait to tear into Gwen Marcey's next adventure.

You can buy A Cry from the Dust here (and you totally should).

I'm jazzed that our publisher is cross-promoting our books (meaning, a chapter of my book Playing Saint is featured in the back of A Cry from the Dust and vice versa) and I was lucky to have a chance to interview Ms. Parks a couple weeks ago.

You have one of the most fascinating backgrounds of any novelist I've read (forensic art). How did you get into that field?
I was an artist. My dad was the director of the N. Idaho Regional Crime Lab. He needed someone to prepare the trial charts and diagram the crime scenes. He hired me because he said I was the best artist he knew. I was the ONLY artist he knew. Ha! In 1985 he sent me to the FBI academy to learn more about forensic/composite art. Interestingly, ten years later, I was hired to teach the FBI artists. Starting in 1988, I taught forensic art across the US and Canada. The biggest thing I think I bring to the field of forensic art is my ability to teach anyone (without learning disabilities)  to draw a face:

Is it unusual for someone to be both a forensic artist and fine artist?
Hmmm. There are a couple of us. I was an award-winning artist first. Signature member of the Idaho Watercolor Society. I have a few folks that I trained that were first artists. Some of my students learned how to draw from me and went from there.

How did you make the leap from visual artist to the written word?
As a teacher, I used words as well as visuals to teach art techniques. When I started writing fine art books, I just wrote down what I said in class. When I wrote a book on signs of deception, I fictionalized some of my cases, and from that, I felt I could … just maybe … write fiction.
Were you a fan of Frank Peretti first, and then become his neighbor? Or vice versa?
I had NO clue as to who he was. He became my “neighbor” (in an Idaho sense--about four miles away.) I live on a ranch that’s been in my family since the 30s. He was my husband’s banjo-picking buddy.

Would it make you think less of me--as a person--if you knew that I went three days and nights without turning my bedroom lights off in 1988 because I had read This Present Darkness and I was freaking out that demons were flying in and out of my house? Acutally, that may be more of a rhetorical question...
Naaaa. I spent the night sitting upright in bed, terrified after watching The Exorcist. Then there’s the small matter of not swimming in ANY body of water after Jaws.
The Mormon church and its history are at the center of your debut novel; do you have a background in Mormonism? If not, what drew you to this topic?
I’ll go into a slightly different answer than what I wrote in the author notes. Or maybe I should say, I’ll explain a bit further back.
I started studying the LDS church when I became a close friend of a staunch Mormon. We talked about beliefs at length, and I got to wondering just how far “off” from Biblical Christianity someone could be and still be saved. I mean, there are some pretty meaningful differences between different Christian denominations: pre/mid/post trib, speaking in tongues, Calvinism vs Arminianism. It was a dedicated, two year study. Sadly, I determined that someone believing in the tenants of the LDS church did not know the Biblical Jesus. Jesus is not Satan’s brother, was not born of a physical union between God and Mary, and is capable of completely covering our sins, and through grace alone are we saved. This actually gave me a heart to reach Mormons. They really want to know God, to worship, to live moral lives.
How much of your protagonist comes from you yourself?
Gwen is prettier, younger, and slimmer! She is less secure, gets more rattled at things, and doesn’t have as … rip-snorting? sense of humor. The knowledge of all things forensic art is totally me. We’re the same, but different. (how’s zat for a dumb answer?)
Have you ever gotten a little too personally wrapped up in a case?
I have followed cases, but getting personally wrapped up is very unprofessional—in fact, the first name for this debut novel was “Superman Syndrome,” a negative term to describe someone who gets too involved. I have cried with victims and prayed for victims.

When will Gwen Marcey's next adventure be hitting shelves?
I just turned in book #2 about the Phineas Priesthood and Gwen. I suspect next August, unless something changes.
How many books in this series do you have under contract?
It was a three book deal.
How many germs of stories in your head?
Several strong ideas, one pretty complete plot. The books involve a lot of research, so I have to look for the story idea long in advance. Then I have to figure out how a forensic artist would become involved. I don’t want a “Murder She Wrote” situation where Gwen shows up and someone dies. I mean, you lose a lot of friends that way. No one wants to invite you over… I also have to like the subject because of the time I’ll be researching it. 
What are some other themes you want to explore in future novels?
I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you……….
What was it like being mentored in writing by Frank E. Peretti?
OOOooooooooooooooooooooooooooooh, it was heaven. I would bring over a chapter or three, sit at his kitchen table, hand him a copy and have my own along with a highlighter, pens, post-it notes, and my computer. Barb would serve munchies and lattes. I’d read, Frank would comment. I kept a few pages to show my notes (scrawled EVERYWHERE.)
Which of his books is your favorite?
Well, I have to confess that the YA series, the Veritas Project, is loosely based on my dad and I working together in the crime lab. I tend to like his later books.

What's the most bizarre case you actually worked on as a forensic artist?
I did a TV special for the History channel where I interviewed and sketched folks who claimed to have seen bigfoot…..LOL. We are consulted for local forensic artists to work on “The Dead Files.” I did refuse to work on a case where the person wanted me to age Amelia Earhart. They said she survived and was a Tupperware salesperson in New Jersey…..sigh.

If your readers take one thing away from A Cry From the Dust, what do you want it to be? Aaaah….just ONE?

Christian takeaway and emotion: a feeling of satisfaction, that even through the darkest days, God has a plan for our lives. We may not know it at the time, but someday we will. In the meantime: all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to [his] purpose.

Non-Christian takeaway and emotion: A satisfying story with a strong protagonist, life problems they can relate to (acting out kids, divorce), and a message of hope.

Mormon takeaway: I wove actual events from the LDS past together in such a way that should they research it, they’ll be shocked that it’s true. Within this story are additional points I want them to examine: does God change his mind? Did Brigham Young and early leaders re-write their history? What happens when someone has complete power and control (in the past: Mountain Meadows massacre.)I hope they will experience a cognitive dissidence.

Cancer survivor takeaway: the humor of being bald. And how useful it can be at times. :)

Carrie Stuart Parks has also written and contributed to more than twenty instructional books and DVDs about drawing (particularly drawing people and faces), some of which you can find here.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book Giveaway!

So my book Playing Saint comes out on October 7. Three weeks later, we're having an in-store event at Baker Book House in Grand Rapids. Thankfully, it's shaping up to not be my worst nightmare (i.e., me, card table, stack of my books, sadness), but I'd still love to have more people coming.

SOOOO, I offer this small incentive: if you live close enough to come,  click over to the event page and RSVP. At the end of the week, I will pick four people to receive Advanced Reader Copies of the book, a couple months before it even comes out.

If you live far away from Grand Rapids, I feel sorry for you, but you too can be in the running for a book by tweeting about the book or the event (include my twitter handle, @AuthorZBartels and hasthtag #PlayingSaint).

Friday, August 1, 2014

"But It's Fine the Way It Is . . . "

I’m leading a workshop about indie and traditional publishing at the Breathe Writers’ Conference this October. This is my second year being involved with the conference (sat on an authors’ panel last year) and I’m looking forward to it.

It’s also my wife’s second year leading a workshop. Last year, she spoke about finding the time and space to write (she also wrote a book on the topic, which you can buy here). This year, she’s delivering a talk she’s been working on for some time, on a topic about which she’s very passionate: editing your work. Seriously, that’s what she decided to speak on. Editing.

Now, I suppose that makes sense, considering that, in addition to having been called “[one] of the greatest up-and-coming fiction writers today” by the Saturday Evening Post, she has also worked in the publishing industry for more than a decade, in both editorial and marketing capacities. She loves putting words together, then moving them around, then losing some, then nixing the whole thing and starting over. That’s her idea of a swell time.

She also likes moving furniture around, so there’s that.

I, on the other hand, am the opposite. I like to find the best arrangement right off the bat and leave things be. That couch goes there, and it stays there. That semicolon goes there and I have no intention of moving it. If I didn’t want it there, I wouldn’t have pushed the little key with the semicolon on it. Suffice it to say, editing my writing is not among my favorite pastimes.

Let me just quickly acknowledge that different people work different ways here. Some writers do their best work when they just vomit everything out onto the page and then later sift through it for what’s good, rearrange it, etc., like that one scene in Columbiana with the flashdrive and the puke (which is probably a double-loser of a simile, in that it’s both really gross and also a reference to a movie that only like sixteen people ever saw). Others (people like me) like to work it all out internally, running through every idea, word, and phrase mentally (and, sometimes, orally and aurally, using a digital recorder) before putting anything to paper. And by paper, I of course mean this ten-year-old word processor.

Both methods have strengths and weaknesses, but the major weakness of my school is that we tend to convince ourselves that there is no need to edit. When you’ve lovingly, mentally caressed the words into exactly the right shape (note: we have left the “words as vomit” metaphor behind at this point), you are loathe to change that shape or—μὴ γένοιτο!—slash some words out of existence. And when someone else (say, my editor at HarperCollins) wants to get in there with the mallet and the scalpel, my first instinct is to defend with all necessary force. That’s step one: plant feet, raise battle axe, and shout This is Spartaaaaa! I’m only on my second time through this process, but I can already identify the rest of the steps:
  • 2. Remember that I am contractually obligated to go through the editorial process and that everyone has do to it and that I’m not a beautiful-and-unique snowflake.
  • 3. Bite the bullet and try to change just enough to appease the editor.
  • 4. Realize that the book is getting better.
  • 5. Go back through with the editor’s notes, with an actual open mind that these changes (the vast majority anyway) might improve the book.
  • 6. Finish the back-and-forth with the editor and discover that the book is far better than the one I originally submitted.
I don’t want to move the couches around, but once they’ve been feng shuied to perfection, I do realize they look better and then I find myself ready to viciously defend the new configuration.

Here’s a couple photos to illustrate. They’re totally extraneous at this point, but they were what initially prompted me to write this post, so it seems a shame not to include them:

This is the south wall of my study. It has looked like this for almost a decade (see also: never moving things around). However, I recently acquired a bunch more books, necessitating more shelves (this little square was pretty much the only wall-space not covered in bookshelves).  I knew I’d need to make room for the coffee maker (and, heck, why not also get an espresso machine?), but the rest of the space would still more than accommodate all my new books. Naturally, I was loathe to mess with it, but when my wife started dropping hints about the stacks of books blocking access to her own new bookshelf at home, I finally jumped in and started the project.

Here’s what it looks like now. Upon surveying the completed project, my first thought was, "Wow! It really looked kind of cluttered and junky before, with all that stuff piled and stacked everywhere." I mean, it was fine the way it was and I was happy to look at it every day, but it’s much better now and I would definitely not click the UNDO button, if that were an option in real life.

So the point is: do yourself a favor. Try a little rearranging. Listen to your editor, your critique group, your beta-readers and just give it a try. You may find that you love it. I mean, not that you love editing. Editing is still the worst. But you may love where it gets you.