"...those who enjoy the darker side of the genre are in for some serious thrills with this..."
Laura Wilson, The Guardian
Published in the UK by Polygon (March 19th, '09) and in the US by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Nov '09).
What Burns Within: Sandra Ruttan
interviewed by Damien Seaman
Sandra Ruttan is one of the best known personalities in the online crime fiction community – and maybe one of the busiest. She edits Spinetingler Magazine, she blogs frenetically and she’s also a prolific contributor to social networking site Crimespace.
Sandra’s debut novel ‘Suspicious Circumstances’ was published in January 2007. ‘What Burns Within’, her second book, is due out in May from US publisher Dorchester, with a sequel ‘The Frailty of Flesh’ slated for release in Autumn. These books are the first in a series introducing detectives from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police solving crimes in the Tri-Cities area of British Columbia.
Damien Seaman: How did you get the publishing deal with Dorchester?
Sandra Ruttan: The shopping phase took three-and-a-half months. I understand that’s actually quite short. My agent sent a couple of sample chapters along with my proposal to different editors.
Dorchester was in the second batch of publishers we submitted to. They came back after a week and wanted the full manuscript and then they offered a deal three months to the day after receiving the initial sample chapters. From that point on we had to make a quick decision because Dorchester wanted to put it out in Spring 2008, which didn’t give us much time.
DS: ‘What Burns Within’ features multiple viewpoints. Why did you do this and how did you get away with that with your publisher?
SR: When I wrote it I realized there were points where it would be impossible to tell the story without adding extra perspectives. Taylor Brennan’s viewpoint was an important extra dimension to give the reader. I don’t think Lori’s storyline would have anywhere near the power it has if I didn’t step inside her head.
It would have made writing the book easier to avoid stepping into the mind of the killer too, but sometimes you need to give enough information to let readers know when the police are starting to get on the right track. That’s because it’s not always WHO dunnit that’s most interesting – I want to find out why.
It can also be a risk when you avoid extra points of view because then the denouement can feel like you pulled a rabbit out of your…the hat. I had to ask was I short changing readers by not including the POV of other characters.
Even in the rejections I got, only one publisher felt it was confusing. And honestly, the wording they used made me think they didn’t have a high opinion of their readers. For all the criticism about books following patterns it’s funny to say we want something original and fresh but only if it’s done in certain ways. As for why the publisher allowed so many POVs, I can only assume the editor agreed with my reasoning.
DS: You write the first drafts of your novels very quickly. How can you do this without pre-plotting or outlining? How much do you rewrite? What’s your editorial process?
SR: I wrote the first draft of ‘What Burns Within’ in six weeks. I tend to lock myself in on it. I used to sleep in my office. Even now I keep a pad of paper and a pen beside the bed in case I wake up in the middle of the night and need to write something down.
Everyone works differently. I wish sometimes I could be slower and more balanced. I’m a horrendous partner. It takes a real toll. That’s a bit about my obsessive personality.
I write for a day. Next morning I re-read, tweak and correct what needs correcting. At the end of the day I write down what should happen next. For ‘What Burns Within’ that was fairly easy because I just followed the investigation. Police procedurals have a certain structure when going heavy on the procedural aspect; the investigation becomes the backbone of the story.
I don’t pre-plot but for ‘What Burns Within’ I knew how the novel was going to end. It’s incredibly handy to know the last scene because you know what you’re working towards. Laura Lippmann calls it ‘distant shores’. The current might carry you further than you intended but you can steer back on course when you know the beginning and the end.
I’m now at the point where I tend to write the first draft and put it aside. Then I go over it and make sure everything fits – see if I need to revise the storylines – and take a couple of weeks to go back over the draft, dusting it up until it’s nice and tight before sending it to my agent.
‘Frailty’ was different, though. Challenging. There were more personal aspects to consider, more things that had a bearing on the story. With ‘Frailty’ I didn’t know the ending but I did know a major scene within the book. I considered a couple of different endings for it.
DS: How do you get in the zone to write so quickly? Do you listen to music?
In part knowing I now have to deliver has actually eroded my confidence. Before, I had no problem being focused and self-motivated. I have no shortage of ideas and I used to be able to work on whichever shouted the loudest, but now I have a specific contract to finish. What I write is going to an editor who’s already bought it, and what if they don’t like it? I’m unnerving myself over that a bit.
‘What Burns Within’ had lots of action. Now ‘Frailty’ doesn’t have so much. But as far as I’m concerned there’s no point doing a series unless you get to know the characters better. In ‘Frailty’ you learn more about Tain and Craig’s backgrounds. With Ashlyn it’s more current.
I’m nervous about this book because it’s more personal territory. But you don’t have to drop bodies every chapter to make a story more devastating. Craig doubts his father in the novel. Having those doubts undermines all his security and sense of self-worth. These are the things that can cripple people, things that go through people’s minds.
DS: You’ve had the likes of Al Guthrie, Ken Bruen and Stuart MacBride look over your work to give feedback. Do you do the same for other writers?
SR: Yes, there’s a group of us who connected online. Though that group is a year and a half old now, there are a number of people in it I stay in touch with and send different things to – shorts, flashes, query letters. The group includes Daniel Hatadi from Crimespace, Stephen Blackmoore, Christa Miller and Patti Abbott amongst others. But it gets a bit tricky now – whenever someone wants to submit something to Spinetingler I need not to have seen that.
We’re also moving through different phases in our careers. Now that I have a deal with Dorchester I’m at a different stage and looking for different kinds of advice. It’s hard for some of my friends who aren’t published authors to feel they can give me the level of feedback they used to.
DS: Does that strain any of your friendships?
SR: Yes, it did. I ended up leaving a writing group I was part of when it became clear other members were unhappy with me being there. One person distanced themselves entirely, and I hadn’t been aware of any other tensions in the background. When the news of the deal came out, the separation was pretty much instantaneous. I knew about the deal in July . In September it came out in Publishers Marketplace. There was somebody I felt personally obligated to tell. When I told that person, they stopped speaking to me.
DS: How did that make you feel?
SR: I understand it’s difficult for people who don’t have a deal and they ask ‘why isn’t my book being picked up?’ Part of the problem – two problems, really – is the pressure to perform versus quality of the work. People used to be able to grow through the backlist, and break through with book six or seven. But now you have to have a bestseller with book one or two. When authors see others achieving this it puts more pressure on them and they get frustrated. They’re worried about their careers, and I can understand that.
Some incredibly talented people have not landed book deals. A lot of it is down to luck – they’ve not landed the right agent or at the right time – and that’s hard to deal with. But we’ve all been there, and those writers who’re put on a pedestal can crash tomorrow. We don’t want to think of ourselves as too far above anyone else because we can disappear. I’ve seen authors who’ve experienced extreme backlash from fans. And I know people who used to have a book deal and no longer have one.
DS: What keeps your feet on the ground?
SR: There are some people who naturally have more of an ego. Honestly I’ve never been one of them. If anything, I tend to err on the side of constantly holding up my mistakes. I can always look back at my earlier short story efforts if I need to keep my feet on the ground, because I’ve always found shorts more difficult to write. Every word has to count. You’ve got to convey the story on such a small frame. I like subplots and tangents and in a short story you can’t indulge that.
DS: If you find short stories so difficult, why write them?
SR: With it not being easy to get an agent, one way to build a profile is through a short story portfolio. You also get to explore things in a short you don’t or wouldn’t in a novel. I have written characters I wouldn’t want to spend 100,000 words inside the heads of. For short stories I set a specific goal for myself, like for ‘What Every Guy Wants’ I challenged myself to spend x number of words inside the head of a guy who cuts up women and kills them. I enjoy forcing myself to imagine how a person like that thinks.
DS: Your novels explore serious issues about society. Is this what drives you to write?
SR: I want to entertain as well as touch on important themes and topics. I think we have become a culture that questions authority and that’s good, but we are still reluctant to question those things that make us uncomfortable. Take the recent example of prostitutes being killed in Canada. There are societal issues to deal with. The press coverage showed there’s a hierarchy of what’s considered important. If a business woman was abducted and killed there’d be more of an outcry, but since it was prostitutes…
DS: Do you think that reflects class differences?
SR: Partly it reflects a hierarchy of class or race – how we feel we are better than others. Part of it is consoling ourselves that it couldn’t happen to us. People either identify or they don’t with the victims. When you have the brutal murder of prostitutes, people assume they were drug addicts or had a high-risk lifestyle. It’s not until the ‘average’ citizen becomes a victim that people go ‘that could happen to me’ and consider themselves at risk.
DS: Is that why your work often focuses on children in peril?
SR: Not exactly. In ‘What Burns Within’ the girls being abducted are a bit older than children – they’re closer to teenagers. In ‘Frailty’ there’s really only one child victim. ‘Frailty’ is more of a platform for exploring family dynamics and what’s explored rips everybody’s lives apart on some level.
DS: How will you develop the series, aside from delving deeper into the characters?
SR: Vancouver has the Olympics coming up. Canada is uniquely poised to deal with issues of Arctic sovereignty. These go very much hand in hand with native sovereignty issues. Aboriginal people have a lot of reason to mistrust the institutions of this country. Native children were taken away and raised by church schools. Rebuilding a sense of country and identity are a whole different challenge for them. These are some of the issues I’d like to address in the books coming up.
DS: What impact do you think editing Spinetingler has had on your publishing career?
SR: I could be wrong, but I get the sense that when it comes to the business, the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing. Editors buy books because they love the writing, the story, the concept. I don’t think it’s usually because they think the author is marketable. The people I deal with in publishing because of Spinetingler are almost never editors, they’re publicists, so I don’t think Spinetingler helped me get a deal.
On the other hand, Spinetingler has taught me a lot about promotion, about writing and editing, and I’m sure those things have helped me.
DS: Can you tell me about the Spinetingler Awards and what you hoped to achieve with them?
SR: I want to find ways to give more exposure to great writers. I’ve been able to do that through interviews in the past, but the awards were structured in such a way that we could give more exposure to newer authors, the ones who can benefit most from it. I think it’s incredibly difficult for authors in the two, three, four book range, because they’re competing for all the awards against the NY Times bestsellers, and exposure is critical. If this ends up bringing attention to some worthy authors and boosting their readership, it will be worthwhile.
The structure for the awards will change a bit this year. Part of the reason is because I joined the team at Mystery Bookspot at the end of January. Spinetingler and At Central Booking will move to MBS. We’ll be running a book tournament in the fall, leading up to the announcement of the nominees. The nominee lists will be drawn up by the MBS team this year. Obviously, books we’ve read and reviewed stand a much greater chance of making the list. I’m very excited about working with MBS because they’re also financing Spinetingler and as a result, as of the fall issue writers will be paid $25 per story instead of $10. I also have technical support, which is fantastic.
The awards is really just an extension of what I already do. Spinetingler, the interviews, the short stories, the reviews… It’s my way of giving to the genre. This is something I can do that benefits writers at all stages of their career, and it’s important to me that authors give something back instead of just expecting to get all of the time.
DS: Jack Getze guest edited the Winter 08 issue of the magazine. Was this just to help reduce the pressure or do you plan to have more guest editors?
SR: Initially it was to help with my schedule. Most of our editorial team has gone on hiatus, and I don’t expect some to be back. We don’t pay and people are busy, so that’s the way it goes.
Jack has a background in journalism and a keen eye. He’s easy to work with and professional. I also hoped he could benefit from the extra exposure leading up to the release of his new book.
I don’t know if we’ll have more guest editors now, with the move to MBS. But because I have technical and web support now, it enables me to manage my time better.
DS: Who do you see as the most promising up and coming writers? Who are the most promising writers who got their start in Spinetingler?
SR: What an evil question. Now, if I say one writer and not another, I’ll be getting letters… Okay, honestly, there are a few who come to mind. One was a 17-year-old Canadian girl called Katelynn Northam. She wrote a great story, titled Outpost, that was in our Spring 2006 issue. Another is Nikki Dolson, who we published in the Summer 2007 issue, with a story called Laura and the Cowboy. Both contributed memorable stories I really enjoyed, and I think in both cases it was their first published work. I look forward to seeing what they do in the future.
I’ve had the privilege of reading a fair bit of stuff by people who don’t have book deals yet. Some of my best friends, and critiquing partners of the past and present, are in that category. MG Tarquini writes wicked humour. Angie Johnson-Schmit has a work in progress that is going to put her on the map. I think when people ask about great female noir writers in future, she’ll be on the list. Patrick Shawn Bagley, Stephen Blackmoore, Steve Allan, Daniel Hatadi, James Oswald, Russel McLean... These are all people I’ve read work by who I think are tremendously talented authors-in-waiting. Oh, and don’t forget Patti Abbott and Christa M. Miller. You know, that’s the problem. I could probably give a very long list, and still overlook someone.
As for newer authors who I think are worth watching, I’m not sure if Steve Mosby and Allan Guthrie count, as they each have three books out, but I think they’re both incredibly talented. Sean Chercover. New to fiction, Gregg Olsen. Craig McDonald. We could be here all day, really.
DS: Are there any common mistakes you see in the work of new writers who submit to Spinetingler?
SR: Well, I don’t know why I’m surprised anymore that people don’t follow the submission guidelines. I’m not as gracious or forgiving about it as I used to be, in part because I don’t have the time. I set aside a certain window of time for Spinetingler, and most of that is taken up with formatting and interviewing. More and more writers are getting general rejections because they send incomplete submissions.
Beyond that, there are some basic things that come up again and again in the rejection process. Ambiguous endings that leave readers confused. Point of view mistakes. Head-hopping is one of those things that only the extremely skilled should try to do, because it’s often jarring. It’s amazing the number of people who submit work that clearly hasn’t been spellchecked or even self-edited. I’ve had work submitted with editing notes written in it, so one minute you’re reading the story and then you hit a side debate about the character name or whatever, and it’s typed right in, so you can’t turn it off. After five minutes I just reject it. I literally can’t read it without going mental. I suppose it’s the email equivalent of mailing in the manuscript after you spilled coffee on the pages and then the dog chewed on it before you could mail it…
As the volume of submissions increases, the best advice I can give writers who want to be seriously considered is to make sure the copy they send is clean, and that the submission is complete. Second, a compelling beginning is going to keep our attention. Sometimes we read a few pages and make a decision, so if stories are vague, filled with mistakes, and not holding our attention we may not even finish them. I know some people might think that’s unfair, but if the strength of writing hasn’t shown through in the first thousand words, it’s too late.
And obviously, clichés should be avoided.
Beyond everything else, arguing over a rejection is a guaranteed way to get yourself remembered, and not for the right reasons. Ultimately, acceptances and rejections come down to opinions. We’ve rejected good stories. Writers may disagree with our decisions, but after I’ve put a story through three or four different readers and the decision has been made, it’s final.
DS: Why do you hate the marketing side of the business?
SR: Hate might be a strong word for it. What I don’t like is how marketing is overtaking the emphasis on writing. To be blunt, many authors are spending all of their advance money on marketing, and some presses are so uninvolved in that aspect of publishing now that these authors are doing almost all the work self-published authors do. Most authors do not have the luxury of writing full-time, and have jobs and families. When they’re under pressure to spend their money on book tours, appearances at conventions, running contests and whatever else they can think of to generate publicity, I find myself wondering when they have time to write. I see how much time Spinetingler and blogging take from my schedule.
I hear more and more authors talk about burning out. Simply put, if authors wanted to be salespeople, that’s what they’d be. I’m also concerned that it’s now the authors with the catchy gimmick who get ahead, instead of the greatest writers.
I can talk out of both sides of my mouth on this. On the one hand, there are authors who won’t do interviews, won’t do anything to promote themselves. You have to. The interview requests you have today may be gone tomorrow, so be thankful for the interest in your work. The fans who buy your books deserve to have the chance to get them autographed. I’m not the greatest conversationalist myself, believe it or not, but I think people who spend money on books deserve the chance to meet you. When I hear about authors who are rude at signings I’m really turned off.
On the other hand, there are people who take it all to extremes, and when I see people going crazy on the marketing and promotional side, I start to lose interest in checking out their work. There were a few books I bought by authors I considered… zealous promoters… and there were a lot of mistakes in the books, more than average. I’m not sure if it’s fair to say it’s because they were too busy with promotion to pay attention to details, but it’s very important to balance the promotion and writing. At the end of the day, the writing comes first. If it doesn’t, you’ll lose out because the people who loved your work will find it to be substandard, and stop reading you.
In fairness, I must point out that I receive a lot of stuff from publicists, so I am inundated with promotional material on a regular basis. When authors repeat the process, I’ve had my fill of exposure. When I then see their push repeated on lists or blogs or forums over and over again, well, I just get sick of it.
DS: Having had a fair amount of experience in marketing yourself, what advice would you give other writers on this subject?
SR: One of the biggest turn-offs for me is when authors go on forums or discussion lists and constantly talk about their work. You know, someone asks for referrals for mysteries set in Africa, and an author jumps in, pointing out that their protagonist collects stuffed giraffes, which are animals that live in Africa, and damn if it isn’t the greatest book ever and everyone should read it.
And for the record, if anyone ever put their book in my shopping basket they’d be lucky if I didn’t tell them where to stick it. I hate pushy sales people. I don’t care what they’re selling. Honestly, I don’t answer the phone to telemarketers, and I don’t answer the door unless I’m expecting someone. I will cross six lanes of traffic to avoid an in-your-face person with something they want to sell me.
As I mentioned, I get a lot of material from publicists, so by the time I get it from authors it’s usually the second time already. If I start getting spammed with material I get angry. That’s why I hate spam. People say just delete it, but then it turns into email after email. Every minute you spend figuring out what an email is about and then deleting it is a minute that gets taken away from my Spinetingler time, or my family time, and I have the right to be annoyed about that. Last year I was spammed and the addresses weren’t concealed. Others who were spammed started hitting reply all. A dozen e-mails later, and I’m banning all of them straight to trash. Who has time for that?
I think that’s one of the other big dangers about the marketing push. People who don’t know what they’re doing make mistakes. I certainly have. My best advice is to be interesting. When I think someone makes intelligent, insightful posts on forums or discussion groups without constantly talking about their work I want to check out their books.
DS: Don't you find all your blogging, magazine editing and contributing to forums takes too much time away from writing?
SR: I view forums and blogs as my break time. Nobody can write for ten or twelve hours straight and have it all be coherent, solid work. In other jobs, people chat with co-workers. In mine, I drop by blogs of friends or skim online discussions.
The truth is, I hardly ever watch TV, and I’m a homebody, so if you looked at my writing as a six-hour-per-day job, Spinetingler taking an hour, and an hour for my own blog, that’s still only an eight hour day. My forum or blog time is like my free time in the evening.
DS: You are something of an infamous networker. Are there any living writing heroes you have yet to meet?
SR: Funny, I think of myself as a great big fangirl, not a networker. So for me, the question is, which authors do I admire that I haven’t made a complete idiot of myself in front of yet? I haven’t met Dennis Lehane, David Simon, Peter Robinson, Tess Gerritsen, PJ Parrish, Charlie Stella, David Terrenoire, Shane Gericke… I’m sure I’ll do something suitably stupid and embarrassing if I ever meet them, and there are probably plenty more I’m not thinking of at the moment.
DS: Of all writers living or dead, who would be your ideal dinner party guests and why?
SR: I don’t know. Off the cuff I could say Ian Rankin, but I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in his back yard for four hours and probably didn’t say a hundred words the whole time. I’d be worried he’d be bored. I am actually painfully shy, so dinner with someone I don’t know can be taxing for me.
I suppose if they were coming over for dinner Brian would want me to say James Sallis and Charles Willeford. And to avoid the whole shy, quiet problem I could name people I know pretty well, such as Sean Chercover. I’d have lunch or dinner with Sean any day of the week. Or Al Guthrie, Gregg Olsen, Donna Moore, Russel D. McLean. I’d love to have Barbara Fister and Laura Lippman over for dinner, but again, I’d probably be tongue-tied.
DS: You've done a fair amount of travelling in your time. Which places outside Canada have most influenced your fiction?
SR: Good question. In a way, all of them have had a big impact, because my experiences travelling contributed to my philosophies, to my world view, to my understanding about global issues and cultures and all of that has the potential to seep through in the writing.
If I had to pick a few key places I’d say Germany, because I experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Iron Curtain. You don’t live through something like that and not have it open your eyes. Also, Ireland. When I lived there things weren’t the way they are now. I had more guns pointed at me in Ireland than in East Germany. It was a real eye-opener for me, that some people live with that on a daily basis and it can become normal. Of course, my grandfather was an Orangeman and my grandmother Irish Catholic. I went to The Vatican and saw all its opulence before going to Ireland, and when I was in Ireland I worked with street kids, so I saw all the poverty. It infuriated me.
I was also young enough to be idealistic and think Canada was above all that. When I came back to Canada my eyes had been opened, and I started to see the problems here more clearly.
Finally, I’d add Costa Rica, where wealthy tourists often completely ignore the locals and show no respect for their culture. One of the most memorable conversations I’ve had travelling, next to the guy on the train in Germany who tried to persuade me Hitler was still alive, was with a man in Costa Rica who talked candidly about the impact tourism is having on the deterioration of their culture. For a day I saw his world through his eyes, and it made me sad to realize they’re being exploited.
Copyright © Noir Originals, 2008
Born in Mansfield, UK and baptised in Libya, DAMIEN SEAMAN has vomited orange juice on infamous English football coach Brian Clough and smuggled illegal bacon and booze into Kuwait, his most criminal act to date. His fiction and non-fiction writing has also appeared in Pulp Pusher and Spinetingler and Shots. He is currently between jobs and between countries, working on one of those 'novels' that people talk about so much.