By Connie Berry
Someone once said, “The path to true love never does run smooth.” Neither does the path to publication. Overworked agents seem to be looking for reasons to push the reject button. Publishers are under mounting pressure to make a profit. Publicity is increasingly up to the author, who often feels unprepared to take on that task. And behind the scenes, the process of taking a book from concept to bookshelf takes time – lots and lots of time.
The good news is that out of this quagmire, excellent writers emerge to make their mark. One of them is Carl Vonderau, author of the multi-award-winning debut novel Murderabilia. I met Carl (briefly) at the ill-fated Left Coast Crime convention in March of 2020, which ended literally before it began. Murderabilia was up for Best Debut, which it eventually won. Carl has graciously agreed to answer my questions.
Welcome, Carl. Tell us about your writing life and journey to publication.
My writer’s life started a long time ago. I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, went to college in California, and started work as a banker in Chicago. At some point while I was there, I took a writing class and started writing fiction. My family and I subsequently moved to Montreal and San Diego, where I continued to work in banking. A few years ago, I decided to devote full time to writing and wrote the novel that turned out to be Murderabilia. But that was not without a good deal of suffering and pain.
During that time, I was lucky enough to work with Jacquelyn Mitchard. Her novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, won the first Oprah award. I learned a great deal from her, as well as from a San Diego writer’s group I joined. I thought my future was about to take off when I landed a well-known agent in New York who liked the draft of my book but wanted changes. He and his team went through it three or four times for almost a year and then decided not to represent me. That was devastating, but the book did get better.
I then had to start over finding an agent. I thought maybe my problem was that I hadn’t pitched the book well. So I went to an Algonquin writer’s conference on how to pitch a novel. Then to the San Francisco Writer’s Conference. At a cocktail event at the conference, I spoke to an agent who asked me to describe my book in one sentence. I had it! Michelle Richter became my agent.
Little did I know that I was just in the middle of getting published. When Michelle queried publishers, twelve were interested in the book. But only one made an offer — Midnight Ink. Then I learned something else about traditional publishing. Once someone has bought the book, it takes a year to get it into print. Time for another surprise. Three months after signing the contract, Midnight Ink’s owner, Llewellyn, decided to close the imprint. That was a jolt. But Llewellyn promised to promote the books they’d purchased so I continued with them.
Things looked up in 2020. Murderabilia was nominated for Best Debut Mystery at the Left Coast Crime conference. I was really excited. Until the conference was closed after one day because of Covid. But the news was still good. Voting for the award was online and Murderabilia won. It also won a San Diego Book award and a Kops-Fetherling award.
So I guess there’s one lesson here. Tenacity is more important than talent.
Fortunately, you have both tenacity and talent, Carl. You’ve described yourself in interviews as an analytical person. Does writing require a different mindset, and if so, how do you tap the creative side of your brain?
I think I use both types of thinking in my writing. Banking actually uses both, too. I always do my first drafts of scenes by hand. I will scribble as fast as I can to short-circuit my editing brain. This is the creative side that follows the voices and ideas that occur to me as I write. Often this first rendition is mostly dialogue with spaces to be filled in later. Parts of the writing don’t work at all, and new ideas may occur in the middle or at the end of the scene. When I’m confident that it kind of works, I’ll type a draft into my laptop. Throughout, as I do other things like exercise or dish washing or make the bed, ideas float into my mind. Even when I’m reading someone else’s work, ideas pop into my mind, and I write them down before I forget them. When I re-work scenes for my writer’s group, I usually get more ideas about what my characters are thinking or feeling.
Then the more analytical side kicks in. Do those characters’ actions and dialogue make sense? Have I repeated things? Often a description and the dialogue will convey the same thing so I can cut one or the other. Maybe I need more beats: reactions and thoughts and description between lines of dialogue. How are the characters changing? Is the description accurate? Do I need more evocative details? Do my scenes use all the senses? Have I lost a character’s voice?
How do you approach the writing process (plotter/pantser/other)? Would you call yourself a disciplined writer?
I don’t know what a disciplined writer is, other than writing every day — which I do. As for pantsing and outlining, I do both. I hate outlining but realize I need to do it to stop my mind from going off into directions that deaden the book.
Here’s my process — although it is changing all the time. First is the idea that I want to incorporate into the story. The premise. Then I like to outline or write the major few points of backstory that will inspire my protagonist. Much of this I will not use in the book, but some of it will be essential. What is my character’s secret or most enduring pain that he or she both fears and needs to overcome? This will inform the whole book. At the same time I’m trying to revise the outline of scenes and major twists. I usually have an idea for the ending that will last most of the way through the first draft before I think of something better. Then I start writing scene by scene. Throughout I will be reviewing scenes with my writing group, a process that both improves the writing and slows down finishing the book. That’s the upside and downside of writing groups. At least for me.
After the first draft of a book, I will outline character arcs, major plot points, twists, and reveals. I’ll look at the pace and rearrange scenes to make it better. Then it’s time to cut the fat. This is about a third of the book.
I relate to your process — and to your setting. Murderabilia is set in locations around the world. Is setting an important aspect of writing for you, and which comes first — plot, character, or setting?
I learned a lot writing Murderabilia with Jacquelyn Mitchard. The premise came first, then the characters, then the plot. Jackie told me I needed more backstory, and I decided to include some international locations where I had lived and worked. Those were Colombia and Algeria. The settings were like other characters that influenced my main character. In my present manuscript, I’ve limited the foreign setting to Tijuana.
I love setting. I published a short story in the Sisters in Crime anthology, Crossing Borders, based on my trip to Bogota in 1995. At that time, I wandered the streets and just wrote down what I saw. Ninety-five percent I didn’t use in the book I was writing (never published). Years later I used some of those vivid setting details in the short story.
Like many other crime writers, your career was impacted by the demise of your publisher, Midnight Ink. How have you handled that?
Midnight Ink’s closure was a real challenge. My agent offered to try to get the contract cancelled and find another publisher. But I didn’t want to go through more months of search and potentially not be published. At the time, Llewellyn promised to support the manuscripts they had purchased, but what business that is closing its doors can really do that? Still, I got excellent editorial advice from them. The publicity support was limited so I hired JKS. I probably didn’t get the promotional backing I would have from another publisher, and don’t think I would do it that way again. But how can I complain? The book made it to print and won some awards. Now I have the rights back. If we can sell the next book, my agent and I will try to sell Murderabilia to the new publisher as well.
What’s next for you?
The next book has taken longer than I expected. I had a premise and was well into the first draft and spoke to my agent about it. She persuaded me to broaden the book from one voice to more than one voice. It was a challenge. I was also in a new writing group with Matt Coyle and led by Carolyn Wheat, one of the mystery-writing gurus in San Diego. They and the other members of both my writing groups helped me immensely. The book ended up being in third person with three voices: a father, a mother, and their teenage son. It was hard making each of these voices different and sympathetic. But I think I did it, and my writing definitely improved.
So what’s it about? The one-sentence summary is: Two parents must launder money in order to save their delinquent teenage son.
My agent loved the book and feels that my writing had gotten stronger. I’ve made some revisions and we are just about ready to find a publisher. It is tentatively titled: Saving Evan. Wish me luck!
I do wish you the very best of luck, Carl. Thank you so much for spending time with Buckeye Crime Writers — and for your candid answers.
We can’t wait to read Saving Evan!
About Carl Vonderau
Carl Vonderau is the author of Murderabilia, which won The Left Coast Crime Award for Best Debut Mystery, the San Diego Book Award for Best Mystery/Suspense, and the Kops-Fetherling Gold Phoenix Award for Best New Voice: Fiction. Like the protagonist, he has been a private banker and was raised in a Christian Science family. On the other hand, his father was never a serial killer whose photos launched the “murderabilia” market. Carl has worked in the U.S., Canada, Latin America, and North Africa. He is now a full-time writer and revising another thriller that he and his agent are submitting for publication.
Carl is the president of Partners in Crime, San Diego, a chapter of Sisters in Crime. He is also a partner at San Diego Social Venture Partners, an organization that mentors other nonprofits to reach the next level. Carl lives with his wife in San Diego and they have two grown sons.
A short blurb from Murderabilia
A single phone call tears apart the anonymous family life William McNary has built. Everyone has heard of The Preying Hands and the photographs of his victims’ bodies. But no one knows that William is The Preying Hands’ son. Except the stranger on the phone. In an instant, the safe, banker’s life William has built for his young family is torn away. Then the killings begin.
“A story that will lay a cold finger of dread on the back of your neck. Vonderau is a terrific writer who has written a terrific book.”
“…powerful, poignant, chilling and original.”