I had the opportunity to interview Ronald Malfi, an award winning author of several horror novels, mysteries, and thrillers. Ronald is the winner of a Silver IPPY Award, a Gold IPPY Award, and has been nominated by the Horror Writers Association for best novel. Ronald has published eleven novels and six novellas, and will be a keynote speaker at this years’ Colorado Gold, the annual writers’ conference of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. You can follow Ronald Malfi on Twitter @RonaldMalfi. You can find Ronald’s works on Amazon.
Hi Ronald. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Tell me a little bit about your background. How did you get involved in writing? How long have you been writing?
I’ve always loved stories, and started writing at a very young age. It wasn’t until I was maybe 10 or 11 that I started writing more seriously—setting aside time in the evenings to hammer out short stories on an old manual typewriter I think I picked up from a garage sale or an old relative’s house. These early stories essentially just plagiarized whatever book or movie I was into at the time, but the writing helped me refine the basic elements of storytelling, not to mention grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Even back then, I wrote every day, and I still have all those stories stored in a steamer trunk in my basement. I drew covers for many of them, and stapled them together so that they looked more like real books. And then, of course, I pestered friends and family to read them.
I’m 36 now, the author of eleven novels, and I’m happy to report that my passion for the craft hasn’t lessened since those early days. Necessity has forced me to trade in my old typewriters and word processors for the efficiency of a laptop computer, though lately I’ve been corresponding with a director in L.A. and we’ve taken to writing each other the way we used to write—in his case, by hand; and in my case, on an old Canon ink-jet word processor that smells like burning circuitry when it gets too hot. It’s like settling into the worn cushions of a favorite chair.
Some people think that writing a novel is simply taking your characters from point A to point B, but there is much craft and skill involved in doing this successfully. How did you go about learning your craft?
Listen, I’m a compulsive, voracious reader. I read everything—horror, sci-fi, mainstream lit, westerns, fantasy, you name it. I’ve found most writers to fall into that camp. So I think the “learning” is really just a natural continuance of that compulsivity—I’ve read so many great stories when I was very young, which in turn moved me to make up my own. It seems natural to me. All this reading lead me to understand how to use grammar correctly, how to pace your storytelling, how to establish and maintain atmosphere, etc. It wasn’t active learning; it was simply digesting and comprehending what I was doing every day, which was reading. You cannot be a good writer—or even a mediocre writer, for that matter—without also being a reader.
I have never been a plot-oriented writer. I’m big on character and atmosphere, and utilize those tools in constructing the story, which is the most important thing. Strong characters will guide your story, and the right atmosphere will set the tone. I’ve little interest in mapping out that so-and-so uncovers such-and-such in chapter 10, and so on. Let the characters breathe while wandering through the landscape and see where they take you.
What do you feel is the most important craft element for aspiring writers to master?
Tell me about your writing process.
I guess I’m fairly unorthodox in that I don’t outline my novels, nor do I really know everything that happens in them along the way, to include the ending. I write as if I’m the first reader, and decide as I go where I’d like to see the story end up. And, of course, if the characters have been fleshed out enough, they will often dictate where the story will go. I find that enchanting, and it still makes me giddy when I see a particular character act out something that may steer the story in a different direction but is just so true to their personality. That means I’ve gotten it right.
I’ve attempted to outline in the past, and have had to write a semi-outline for just one of my novels, Shamrock Alley, due to the collaborative nature of the book (I wrote it with my father), but overall I find that process stifling and restrictive. I’m probably a little ADHD when it comes to this stuff, and I’m certainly compulsive about it, so to me an outline slows the process then ruins the joy of learning about a story as it unfolds by rushing you right to the end. It’s like Cliffs Notes for the author, or an abridged audio book, and what fun are those? The times when I’ve written outlines, I am quickly bored by the story—after all, I now know how it ends, right?—and find that I never actually get around to writing the book.
I used to write daily, and recommend that any writer trying to hone his or her craft do so. After I became a parent, with my daughter taking up much of my attention, I find it’s a little more difficult to write every day, although I still try to. For the past year or two, it’s more like I’ll let a few days go by without writing and then sit down to an all-day writing marathon, where I’ll compose anywhere from 20 to 40 pages. Doing it this way still ensures that I will have a manuscript completed in around the same timeframe. It takes me around three to five months to finish a novel, including my first round of edits, which I make as I go.
Some people believe that writing is easy and the writer’s life is a glamorous life. Is this true for you?
Maybe for some it is, but for me it’s neither easy nor glamorous. It’s often not as rewarding as people might suspect, too, and I think that’s an important thing to highlight for anyone who’s just getting started in this business. I’ve attended writing conferences where I’ve spoken to folks who are just out pedaling their first manuscript to publishers or agents, and when they meet me, they assume I live in some big castle on a bluff somewhere, and after I eat a big meal I wipe my mouth with hundred-dollar bills. This is not true. I find time to write between mowing the lawn, taking care of my daughter, spending time with my wife and family, paying bills, and fixing the garbage disposal. Often I’ll stop in mid-sentence to take care of some household emergency or just to show my face around the house so my family knows I’m still alive.
Writing is easy when the story is going well, and really moving along—when the hours flit by like seconds and you blink and it’s suddenly midnight or four in the morning. It’s glamorous when you hear from a reader who loves what you do.
How much writing (how many novels etc) did you complete before you were published?
Maybe around six. These were manuscripts that totaled around 80,000 words each and they were written just before and during my college days. Upon graduating from college, I was determined to take what I thought was the best of these manuscripts and get it published. I submitted it to countless publishers, most of them small press since I didn’t have an agent at the time. These were publishers I had found in the latest copy of Writer’s Market, and based on the undeliverable packages I received in the mail, quite a few had already gone out of business between the time that edition of the Market was published and when I’d sent them my query letter and three sample chapters. Ultimately, the novel was sold and published by a small press, and although I would become disenchanted with that publisher and, frankly, with the book itself, it was my first real experience of what it meant—and what it didn’t mean—to be published.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about the publishing industry that you didn’t know before you were published?
I’ve learned a lot. I guess the most interesting thing is the realization that editors generally look for reasons not to publish a book, which means you’ve got to convince them straight out of the gate that this novel is something they do not want to pass up. It seems counterintuitive to their professions, but you’ve got to realize that there is a lot of money riding on the publication, promotion, and release of a book, and if that book fails, then that editor is accountable, particularly if they’re taking a chance on an unknown author.
What is the most important piece of advice you could offer to aspiring authors?
It’s quite simple: you must read and you must write.