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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Athol Dickson: A Craftsman of the Written Word

            On my previous posting, I reviewed LOST MISSION, a fine suspense novel by critically acclaimed author Athol Dickson.  For those of you who are not yet familiar with Athol, I would like to give some background about him and his work.  I also had an opportunity to ask Athol about the job of being an author and some questions about LOST MISSION. 


        Athol Dickson grew up in Texas, where he worked a variety of jobs before becoming a architect.  It was while he was still practicing architecture that he wrote his first two novels. After the release of a best-selling memoir, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MOSES, Athol left architecture to become a full-time author.

        Two of his novels, RIVER RISING (2006) and THE CURE (2008) won the Christy award for best suspense novel.  His novel WINTERHAVEN was a 2009 finalist in the Christy awards and was named one of the Best Ten for 2008 by Christian Fiction Review. The novels of Athol Dickson have received numerous other accolades from other literary groups and have ended up on many top ten lists. Consistently acclaimed by critics, Athol Dickson is certainly one of the finest novelists of our time.

          You can find much more information about Athol Dickson at his website .  So without further ado, I'd like to present some questions that I had for Athol and his answers:

           Many of the readers have recently participated in or have followed the National Novel Writing Month challenge. What is your take on an event such as  NaNo? How long does it typically take for you to write your a novel until it is ready for you to submit to your publisher?

        I don’t know much about the National Novel Writing Month challenge, but I’m all for anything that encourages writers.  I usually take from two to four months to work up a plot, and another four or five months to put a fairly well polished draft together. Then the back and forth with editors takes another four months or more. A complete novel, from raw idea to final draft, takes about a year.


            One thing I see discussed on many of the blogs is getting an agent or finding a publisher. What are your best suggestions for a new author who has something that they feel is ready to find an agent or publisher? Any special words of encouragement that you can give these new authors?

          The best advice I have is don’t be afraid to tell a unique story, and never stop improving your craft. Blogs and websites and social media are useful to convince a publisher you’ll help with marketing, but an intriguing story coupled with excellent craftsmanship is what gets most people published. Every agent and acquisition editor’s dream is to open their mail and find a manuscript there that draws them in so completely they forget they are publishing professionals for a while, and just sit there and read. You want to be that good. You want to turn agents and editors into just plain readers. If you can do that, you will certainly be published.

 Writing is now your primary work, correct? Do you have a particular writing schedule that you follow? When writing a novel do you have any particular methodology that you use that works best for you?

Yes, I write full time.


My schedule is pretty similar to most peoples’ who have jobs, except I work at home, so I get to wear a robe and slippers until lunch time. I usually work from about 7:00 in the morning until noon, then break for lunch and a nap (another perk of working at home), then I go back to work until about 6:00 in the evening.


I tried writing by the seat of my pants one time, and ended up having to re-write most of the novel because I got stuck without a satisfying ending. So now I outline. I brainstorm with myself (which is very hard) for several weeks to several months, struggling to come up with an intriguing storyline. I spend a long time on that because without a great story at the core, nothing else matters. When I’m confident in the story, I write an outline, which is really a list of scenes. When that’s done I begin the first draft. I average 1,000 to 1,500 words per day on the first draft, but it’s very rough when it’s done, so I go back over it at least twice before sending it to the developmental editor. He usually suggests some fairly major changes, which I almost always agree with, so I spend another month or two on yet another re-write. Then I send it to the line editor, who suggests still more changes, sometimes big ones, so I do another re-write. After that there are usually two more passes through the novel, but those are mainly about the grammar and punctuation.

 Now with several book successes behind you, has the job of writing become easier for you? How much active promoting do you do personally? What do you learn from book signings and occasions where you meet your reading public?

          No, it’s not easier. Every time I sit down to start another novel, it’s as if I’ve never written one before. Experience hasn’t provided me with a formula or routine. If I was a sculptor I think I’d say every block of raw marble is completely different, and must be approached on its own terms. That’s how my stories are.

        I do a little public speaking, and I blog when I can, and I’m on Facebook. I enjoy promoting my work, actually, because in fact it’s more about getting to know interesting new people, and keeping in touch with readers, who become my friends. I love to do readings if I can be sure of a decent sized crowd, because I get to see readers’ reactions, and talk with them about the story afterwards. That’s a rare opportunity for novelists. Unlike a screenwriter or a playwright, we seldom get to watch our audience. So readings are great. But I don’t do booksignings. Too few people come.

 Who is your primary audience? What has been some of the response you have received from readers?

         Honestly, I don’t think I could tell you who my typical reader is. They seem to be split pretty evenly between men and women. I seem to have both young and elderly readers. Basically, I just write stories I would want to read myself, and hope for the best, readership-wise.

         So far the response from readers has been almost universally positive. Some of my well-established author friends tell me about getting letters from blue haired church lady types who take them to task for doctrinal infractions or naughty words or whatever, but I never get those kinds of letters. Some people do say my novels start a little slow. I think that’s because the books are sold as suspense novels for want of a more accurate label, so people who aren’t familiar with my work will open them thinking they’ll take off like a rocket, but my stories are intended to be read slowly and carefully. Almost always though, the same readers will go on to say by the time they got a few chapters in, they were completely hooked and couldn’t put it down.


 LOST MISSION deals with people from differing backgrounds. As I was reading I felt closer to the Hispanic characters—they seemed more vivid and real to me—was that intentional?

Well, the two characters who mostly get it right in LOST MISSION are from Spain and Mexico, and they were the main protagonists, so I can see why you might identify most with them.


 The settings seemed like very real places and yet the place names were not. Did you model the locales in this novel on actual places? Why didn’t you use actual place names as your settings? Rincon de Delores seemed very real as I read about it. Is it a place that really exists or is it based on a place where you’ve been?

             All the settings are amalgamations of many places I have visited. Rincon de Dolores is a combination of San Miguel de Allende and a lovely village in Jalisco called El Tuito, which I have been to many times. The mission is based on several actual missions I’ve visited in California, including San Juan Capistrano, San Diego, and San Juan Bautista. Blanco Beach is very loosely based on Laguna Beach. Wilson City is a combination of many small farming towns in Imperial County in far southern California. The canyon road between Blanco Beach and Wilson City is based on the Ortega Highway between San Juan Capistrano and Lake Elsinore.

            I didn’t use actual place names because the settings don’t exist as I describe them. Laguna Beach is several hours away from Imperial County, for example, not a half hour drive as LOST MISSION describes the canyon road between Blanco Beach and Wilson City.

This book could have easily just focused on the historical story of Fray Alejandro and the Spanish Mission and been an interesting story.  Did you at any point think about just writing a historical novel? What inspired the idea of moving back and forth between the centuries as you have done here?

            I might write a straightforward historical novel someday. I do have one in mind. But in this case, I wanted to tell parallel stories, moving back and forth between the past and present, because I wanted readers to get a sense of humanity’s true condition in time, the fact that people are the same through the centuries, that there is no real progress being made except on an individual level, that we repeat the same mistakes, and make the same courageous choices and the human race continues in a desperate struggle, just as it always has since the first man and woman ate forbidden fruit. So on one level, LOST MISSION is about the importance of remaining objective about life, not getting so caught up in the moment that we forget our place in the cosmic scheme of things. I felt I needed a story that spanned at least two centuries to get that idea across.



 The story deals with Christians from different denominations, but the churches have failed in what they should have been doing. I sensed that the message here is the responsibility of bringing Christ to the unsaved is the job of the individual more than the organized church. Were you suggesting that the organization that we have known as “the church” has fallen short in its mission throughout history?


            Absolutely we have fallen short. Just look at the moral state of America today. In LOST MISSION, Lupe thinks of us as a nation of pagans who are badly in need of a revival of faith, and it’s very hard to argue otherwise from the facts on the ground. But I don’t think we can blame some entity called “the church.” Christian people are the church. If the church falls short, that can only mean Christians have fallen short. So yes, you’re right to say LOST MISSION deals with the responsibility of the individual. Many of my Christian friends seem to think we can blame America’s moral decline on other people outside the church. I think it’s completely our fault.

 You create very vivid images in LOST MISSION—I was vividly seeing everything that I was reading on the pages. I thought it was very cinematic.  Have there been any movie offers for this book or any of your others?   There have been some very successful movies in the past years that have been backed by Christian organizations—any interest on that front?


         I’m glad you had that kind of experience with LOST MISSION. I work hard to make the people and settings come alive.


        Some people wanted to make a movie based on my first novel. It got into pre-production, we were scouting locations with a director and working on the screenplay, then one of the producers stole a lot of money from the production company. That left a sour taste in my mouth about the whole motion picture thing. I’m not interested in doing business in that world. If they came along with a lot of cash up front or a percentage of the gross, I’d consider it, but that’s not going to happen. You have to be a Michael Crichton to get that kind of deal. Everybody else in that business just gets ripped off on the back end as far as I can tell. Maybe that’s not true for some of these recent pictures backed by Christians, but the producer who stole from that first production company was supposedly a Christian, and the worst experiences I’ve had in business have almost all been perpetrated by so-called Christians, so I don’t think that’s any guarantee of honesty or fair dealing.

 What projects do you have coming up in the future?

              I’m always working on a novel. There’s one already in the pipeline with my publisher, which should come out in late 2010. It’s about a boy who escapes from a kidnapper and struggles to get home, and a father who will sacrifice everything to save his son. I’m working on another for 2011 about a world famous artist who is consumed with a desire to paint the face of God.

                                             #####
          I want to express my sincere thanks to Athol Dickson for taking the time to do this interview with me. With Christmas coming up you may want to add some of these fine novels for the readers on your gift list. And don't forget to include yourself by adding some or all of these titles to your home library.  You will want to visit Athol's blog for some more of what he has to say.  His books are availble at Amazon and many other booksellers.

     Be sure to leave a comment.  Have you read any of Athol Dickson's novels?  What did you think of them?  If you haven't read any yet, do you think you might in the future?


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13 comments:

  1. Well I had not heard of this amazing author until just now. and yes, I will definitely read his work in the future :) What a great interview.

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  2. Awesome interview Lee! Thanks Athol! You have created a gem.

    Lee drop over to my place I left something for you!

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  3. Athol sounds like a very interesting author!

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  4. rLEE-b ~
    Hey, that was a real good interview there, boy!
    I haven’t read anything by Athol Dickson, and to be perfectly honest, I probably never will. But that’s no reflection on any thought I have about him, but a reflection of my reading choices. I did nearly all of my fiction reading in my teens and early twenties. Since then, I have focused almost exclusively on nonfiction, which I find much more valuable and time-worthy. In my opinion, there’s a place for fiction, just as there’s a place for ‘Monty Python And The Holy Grail.’ But there is just a limited number of books a person is going to be able to read in their lifetime, and for me, nonfiction is the wiser choice. But I want to briefly comment on a few things Mr. Dickson said:

    >>[the fact that people are the same through the centuries, that there is no real progress being made except on an individual level]<<

    That’s a good point that I quite agree with. In fact, if I were forced to choose between collective progress or collective regression, I’d have to say we, as a species in general, are now in decline. But Mr. Dickson is right that society has always represented a kind of continual tug-of-war, a back and forth with very little to show for humanity’s struggles through the centuries. Real change only seems to occur within some individuals here and there.

    >>[Many of my Christian friends seem to think we can blame America’s moral decline on other people outside the church. I think it’s completely our fault.]<<

    I don’t think it’s “completely” the fault of Christians. The moral decline rests most with those who are immoral. One of the major failings of Christians, as I see it, is that they remain somewhat ignorant. I’m speaking broadly, of course. A lot of Christians don’t seem to understand who is doing what to society, how and why. Education is the key to understanding this so it can be counteracted. Or to put it another way [please forgive me]: Nonfiction books are the key. TV and fiction should be the exception, not the rule.

    >>[the worst experiences I’ve had in business have almost all been perpetrated by so-called Christians, so I don’t think that’s any guarantee of honesty or fair dealing.]<<

    Oh, I hear him loud and clear. This is really sad to have to say, but more than once I’ve told people that the quickest way to ensure that I DON’T call you to come repair my lawn watering system is to put that little Christian fish symbol in your Yellow Pages advertisement. To me, that symbol screams “TRUST ME!” And, sorry, but I don’t trust the person who tries too loudly to tell me that he or she is trustworthy. This is terrible to say, but personal experience has taught me to take my chances with the secular businessman and eschew the services of the demonstrative Christian.

    ~ Stephen
    <"As a dog returns to his own vomit,
    so a fool repeats his folly."
    ~ Proverbs 26:11>

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  5. Arlee, thank you for the chance to talk about the writing process and my novels, and thank you especially for your very encouraging review of LOST MISSION yesterday. I'm very impressed by the careful attention you put into your own words, your obvious concern for craftsmanship, and I wish you the very best with your writing!

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  6. This is a a great interview, Lee. Good job. I appreciate the advice Athol has provided.

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  7. I'm reviewing this novel next week on my blog. I won't give away too much but let's just say I loooove it! Great interview, thank you!!!

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  8. I'm with Tabitha Bird-I haven't heard of Athol Dickson before, but I will definitely read his books now! Thanks for the interview and review of his books. It's always great to find another author to read! Good post!

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  9. Love this interview--and I Do happen to have an Athol Dickson book wrapped and waiting for my son under the tree. (;

    I appreciate this writer because I can share these books with my son without fear of raw language ruining the pages--yet Athol stories are page-turners and have great messages. Perfect!

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  10. I thank all of you for your comments and let others know about this interview so they can come back to it.

    And a special thanks to Mr. Athol Dickson for giving us the opportunity to share some of his time.

    Lee

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  11. I have read one of his other books and enjoyed it:) I have this one on my wish-list. Maybe get it for Christmas:) Can't wait for his next book!!

    esterried[at]yahoo[dot]com

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  12. The author of tossingitout.blogspot.com has written an excellent article. You have made your point and there is not much to argue about. It is like the following universal truth that you can not argue with: It takes as long as it takes is a stupid phrase Thanks for the info.

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  13. Dear Anonymous,

    Thank you for your compliment? I'm not sure to which article this statement refers as I find your comment ambiguous and esoteric. If you are reading this response, I would really like to have more enlightenment in regard to what you are saying.

    You have said:
    "You have made your point and there is not much to argue about"

    Are you referring to another post? This post upon which you have commented is merely an interview and I was hopefully not trying to make any "point".

    Where does this "universal truth"--
    "It takes as long as it takes is a stupid phrase" -- come from?

    I guess I am just puzzled that a comment like this would come seemingly out of the blue. I love puzzles and mysteries, but I would also like more clues.

    Lee

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Lee