Monday, May 7, 2012

Mark Stevens: Author, President of RMFW, and former Master of Disaster

Today, it is my very great pleasure to welcome Mark Stevens to the Rock.

A best-selling author and current President of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, Mark started his writing career as a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor in Boston and Los Angeles. Following a move to Denver, he worked for The Rocky Mountain News and then joined the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour team. For six years he produced field documentaries across the U.S. and Latin America, including the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, NASA’s space shuttle disaster, and political upheavals in Nicaragua. He was told his “master of disaster” title referred to the stories he covered, not the quality of the reports!

After a brief sabbatical to write, he joined The Denver Post to cover education. Those five years of reporting led to a position as Director of Communications with Denver Public Schools and then with the Greeley school district and the state department of education. Mark currently focuses on writing while also working in public relations.

Buried by the Roan, the second book in his Allison Coil Mystery Series, was released in 2011, and Mark was named a finalist for the 2012 Colorado Book Award and the 2012 Colorado Author League Award. The first book in the series, Antler Dust, was a Denver Post best-seller in 2007 and 2009.

CIR: Welcome to Chiseled in Rock, Mark! You’ve worn many hats, from reporter to producer to novel-writer. How do you describe yourself (the top three things that come to mind)?

MS: Not being a big fan of mirrors, do I have to answer this one? Um, er, uh – happy family guy (two amazing daughters, one terrific and artsy and talented wife), writer, and fan of stories (movies, television, books) and music (rock, funk, blues, etc).

CIR: What are your current writing goals and challenges? (What are you working on?)

MS: I’m finishing up the third book in the Allison Coil Mystery Series. I might actually let somebody read it in a month or two, to see if there’s a story there. Publisher is thinking mid-2013 if all goes well.

CIR: Fracking has been a hot topic in the news, and the controversial practice is addressed in Buried by the Roan. Did you anticipate that public debate and has it impacted your presentations about the book?

MS: When I first thought of weaving the controversy over fracking into the story, it was late 2007. I wasn’t sure that fracking would remain in the news, but I also didn’t think it wasn’t going to be resolved as an environmental debate. So I didn’t think there was much of a risk of being outdated. However, I had no idea the controversy would explode. The movie “Gasland” had a great deal to do with this and now it’s a near-global concern. (If there’s one thing I bet the energy industry wishes it could take back it’s the short-hand term “fracking.”) As far as presentations go, it hasn’t really affected them too much—although I’m finding many individuals out there who are concerned and think the state could do more and should do more to protect and regulate the industry. This is Colorado, you know. It’s worth setting the highest standard possible for environmental management. I’m still looking for one other piece of fiction that incorporates fracking. Don’t think it exists (yet). There is an anti-fracking movie in the works, “Promised Land” with Matt Damon and Frances McDormand, among others. That should be interesting!

CIR: You are currently President of RMFW and a long-term volunteer. How has the organization helped you advance your career?

MS: In every way you can imagine. I am not a big ‘joiner’ in general, but RMFW has offered a tremendous boost—getting to know experienced writers, attending workshops, diving into the conference and education programs. It’s partly about learning techniques and the craft and it’s partly about being around other dedicated writers. The networks are invaluable, the friendships long-lasting. You pick up a tip here, an idea there or maybe a whole new way of thinking about dialogue and narrative. It’s like a big idea and inspiration bank, open all hours of the day.

CIR: When you agreed to serve as President of RMFW, did your writing goals change?

MS: No. Gotta write.

CIR: Have you or the RMFW Board proposed any new long-term goals for RMFW that you might share?

MS: We have had only one meeting as a new board and our first order of business was to make sure the RMFW web site functions on all cylinders for membership, programs, the Colorado Gold contest, the conference itself and all other needs. In general RMFW works so well that I’m not sure you’ll see this board head off in any radical directions. For a volunteer organization, there’s a tremendous amount of activity and top-notch programs.

CIR: What are the two toughest things about writing?

MS: Keeping the prose fresh and keeping the character alive on the page. Oh, and getting the story to the point where the reader is lost in his or her imagination and isn’t even aware of the words on the page. Okay, that’s three things.

CIR: What do you predict for the future of the publishing industry and where do you fit into that?

MS: My crystal ball refuses to cough up the answer on this one. I have yet to read an e-book, though I have nothing against them. I think books are deep in the same upheaval that music started going through 20 years ago and there is just now less distance and fewer steps between writer and reader. But if you want broader distribution and a bigger audience, those systems still exist, albeit with fewer opportunities. But if you want to “get published,” you can write a story in a few weeks and zap it out to the masses overnight. In some ways, the scene has never been more vibrant and active, which is exactly why writers need RMFW to help sort through the madness.

CIR: Where does RMFW fit into that future?

MS: No matter what format your stories will be distributed in, they have to be the best damn stories they can be. So the first thing with RMFW is to improve the story, front to back, beginning to end, moment by moment, scene by scene. You get the idea. The craft isn’t changing. Good writing isn’t changing. Good critiques don’t change. Reader reactions to emotion and peril and challenges don’t change. An individual’s taste in books and writing style might change over time but there will always be a market for good, strong, polished and well-produced fiction. On the business and distribution side of things, being an RMFW member exposes you to all those who think they know where this is all headed and you can soon learn the art of scratching your head and wondering—just like the rest of us.

CIR: What do you feel your stories are born of?

MS: Wow ... what a great question. Answer: I have no idea. I guess I’m interested most in character, how people are put together. What makes them tick and what makes them tackle certain challenges or pursue certain interests. And, in the case of mysteries, what makes them try to put the world back together after some evil-doing. When I met the woman who inspired Allison Coil, I was fascinated by someone who had made the transition from the city to the life in the woods and I really couldn’t stop thinking about what it would take to make that switch and make it so convincingly, to the point that you were at one with your surroundings in such a complete way.

CIR: Do you ever get writer’s block? If so how do you break through?

MS: A bit here and there but I usually back up a page or two and start over, work up some momentum. If I’m stuck it usually means there’s something structurally wrong with the story and I need to rethink it. I try to bear down on what my character is seeing, thinking, feeling and usually if I’m into the character and if there’s a point to the scene, I can get things moving again. But a page a day is about all I’m good for.

CIR: What one piece of advice would you offer to new writers?

MS: Read and write, read and write some more. Get feedback, whether it’s a critique group or from valuable readers who will give you honest feedback. Evaluate the feedback carefully and revise. And show it again. And network. And join RMFW.

CIR: If you could time travel, when and where would you go?

MS: About five centuries ahead, to whatever planet we have colonized. I’d love to see the view from there and find out how we adapted.

CIR: And lastly, as is our MO on CIR, we’d like to end with a non-writing related question. What did you dream of doing when you were eight years old?

MS: I wanted to play guitar and sing like I was one of The Beatles. Didn’t everyone?

CIR: Thank you for joining us, Mark!

You can learn more about Mark and his writing on his website, on Facebook, his book review blog, or on Twitter @writerstevens.

Plus, you can catch Mark on Monday, May 14 at the Koelbel Library in Littleton (an American Association of University Women event), at Barnes & Noble in Grand Junction on Wednesday, May 16 at 7:30 p.m. (with the store’s mystery club), and on Thursday, May 17 at the “Art Hop” sponsored by Covered Treasurers Book Store in Monument from 5 to 8 p.m.  Mark will also be one of the featured authors on hand for “speed dating” at the RMFW event in Grand Junction on Saturday, June 9, 2012.

By Janet Fogg


Patricia Stoltey said...

Thanks to Janet for this interview with our fearless leader, and thanks to Mark for sharing your thoughts with us. Since I'm a big Allison Coil fan, I'm already looking forward to your next book.

Sisters of the Quill said...

Welcome pres...I'm always amazed to hear about the talented and driven writers willing to contribute to RMFW in so many ways. What a background. Thank you for offering your time to our community! And thanks, Janet for a great interview.

Mark Stevens said...

Thank you Pat & thank you, SOTQ ! FYI that the May 14 talk has been moved to Southglenn Library, 6972 So. Vine Street in Centennial.

Ron at CM said...

Very nicely done! Thanks for taking the reins, Mark! Gonna be a good year.

Aaron M. R. said...

Hi Mark! Thanks for all the work you have done, are doing, and will do for RMFW. Loved your answer to the time-travel question! Yeah, five centuries, I would love to see how the human drama is going to play out in the next hundred years. Could be Shakespeare tragedy, could be Beavis and Butthead tragedy, but it certainly will be interesting.