Mindy McGinnis, mystery, suspense, thriller author and dog haver, joins the Good Story Podcast to talk about her upcoming work with James Patterson, shit-shoveling, book snobbery, and showing characters' humanity.
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Mary: Hello. This is Mary Kole, and "The Good Story Podcast," helping writers craft a good story. With me, you will hear from thought leaders related to writing, and sometimes not, about topics important to writers of all categories and ability levels. Here is to telling a good story.
Thank you so much for tuning in to "The Good Story Podcast." My name is Mary Kole, and with me, I have a friend of the show and me, Mindy McGinnis, mystery, suspense, thriller author, dog haver. If you are watching the video version of this, you will see a beautiful Dalmatian reclining just behind our featured guest. And he might make an appearance and make himself known throughout the interview. But we are very a dog-friendly show.
So, Mindy, welcome. Why don't you introduce yourself and tell listeners a little bit more about you, your books, anything you have that's exciting coming up? And then we'll get into it.
Mindy: Yeah, sure thing. So, I'm Mindy McGinnis. I write YA. And I have about, I think, 12 books out now at this point. I do write across genres, but generally, there's always a suspense and a thriller element at work. I have written fantasy, I've written historical, I've written dystopian. But I kind of seem to be settling into a groove of mystery, thriller, suspense. So, I'm really excited about that. This is Gus. He is licking his balls right now. So, we're going to try to make that stop. Hey. Gussy.
All right. So, I do have a Dalmatian, and he is my sweet, sweet boy. So, he will be...right, there he is. Yup. He needs to be with his mommy a lot. So, this is my pandemic puppy, and he's with me constantly. People...I get requests sometimes if I'm doing a video interview or a school visit. Some people say, "Can Gus be there? Is that possible?" And I'm like, "Yes. Gus can be present." In fact, it's hard to get him away from me. So, this is my Gus.
In terms of things coming up, I have a...I'm really excited about a release I have coming in November — I believe it's November 29th — with James Patterson. I co-authored a book, part of a continuation of a series of the "Maximum Ride" series from the early 2000s. And it centers on "Maximum Ride" and Fang's daughter whose name is Hawk. The first book of that series is already out. It is simply called "Hawk." The second book is the one that I co-authored with Mr. Patterson, and it is called "City of the Dead." So, that will be out in November. And I'm really excited about that.
Something else that's not quite available yet, it's out in the public, but it's not available for order, is that "The Female of the Species" which is probably my best-selling book is actually getting a new cover. And I'm really excited about because it means a lot of different things. Like, within the industry, I know that it means that my publisher has faith in me, and that they're putting money into continuing to promote my backlist and rebrand me, and put me out there, and put some of my older titles in front of people alongside my newer ones. Because "The Female of the Species" is getting a cover that matches the new covers for my Edgar Allan Poe series, which is "The Initial Insult" which is out now, and "The Last Laugh" which releases in March of 2022. So, they're rebranding "The Female of the Species" with a cover with art from the artist Corey Brickley. And the cover is really awesome. I'm super excited about all of those.
And much like...we are nowhere in the same range as far as, like, income or celebrity or even what we write, but it's kind of fun because when I explained to people, you know, Jodi Picoult gets new covers, like, every five years. They redo everything she's ever done. And I'm like, "It's like that, but really dark and twisty."
Mary: Well, I think that's awesome. Why don't we talk a little bit...because you are a working writer. You are a multi-published writer, right? So, who came... Did the publisher just swoop in one day through just your agent or whatever and say, "Hey, we're going to repackage this. We really want to keep a good thing going"? Is that...it sort of was bestowed upon you as good news?
Mindy: Yeah. It truly was a gift from the gods. What happened was that my cover designer...I've had the same cover designer for all of my books from HarperCollins, which is pretty rare. So, her name is Erin Fitzsimmons. And Erin and I have worked together on my books since "Not a Drop to Drink," which came out in 2013.
So, she has done all of my books. And unfortunately, when it came time for "The Initial Insult" to be released, she was out on maternity leave. And I was actually, like, kind of broken because even though all of my covers are very different, I know that Erin has done all of them, and she reads my books, and then, you know, uses everything she knows about art and then other artists that she brings in, to really capture the book. And she's always done an excellent job. She's actually won awards for some of the covers that she's put on my books. So, I've always been really happy with her.
And while I did like the cover that came out for "The Initial Insult" for the hard cover, I really liked it. As soon as I saw it, I was like, "No, this is cool. I like it," but I also instinctively...I was a librarian for 14 years. I was like, "I love this cover. It says so much about this book, but I don't know if this is a cover that you'd pick up and grab," because you're like, "I want to touch this." Like, I don't know if it does that. And I think that perhaps...I don't know what my sales were. It's still too early to really know what my numbers were for that book. But I think that my publisher must have kind of come to the same decision.
And when Erin came back from maternity leave, they reached out to me and they were like, "Hey. Erin's back. Would you like to get a fresh shot at the covers for your Edgar Allan Poe series? And we'll redo 'The Initial Insult' for paperback release. Scrap what we were going to do for hard cover for 'Last Laugh.'" And then once we got that work with Erin and then this artist Corey Brickley that she brought in, they were like, "We love these so much. How would you feel about redoing 'Female of the Species?'" I was like, "Yes, please. Very cool."
Truly, I'm just very fortunate that my publisher believes in me and they backed me. And my editor in particular is always in my corner. Also, the imprint that I'm with, I am with HarperCollins, which is, of course, a huge...one of the big five. But I am with Katherine Tegen Books, which is an imprint and an arm. And it is small, it is tight, it is family, and I've been with them for 10 years now. So, it's just got a more of a family feel inside of it. And they like me, and they want to keep me, and they treat me well.
Mary: That's amazing. It's always really nice to hear how people are published because it's not just... You know, for a lot of writers when they set out to get published, their criteria is "Just get me published. I want to hear yes." Not a lot of thought goes into fit at that point. And then when you are published, sometimes those fit conversations really do crop up as a result of not feeling that you're supported or having a publisher kind of shuttle you to the side and maybe not pay that amount of careful attention that you're describing. So, I really do want to posit that not all publishing journeys are created equal. And I think it is really amazing that the publisher, your... So, the Tegen imprint within HarperCollins, Harper is a huge house. And I have heard many stories of writers saying, "You know, I feel kind of lost on this gargantuan list." So, I think it's very cool that Katherine Tegen Books is acting sort of as this smaller environment, this very tight-knit family that you're describing, and that they're sort of keeping tabs on your various projects, not just your newest release, but they're keeping your backlist invigorated. And it really does make a difference.
Mindy: It does. And partially, it's not simply because I...and it's certainly not because I make a ton of money for them. I mean, people...there is...within the industry...I mean, you know. The industry is small. And so, it's like, when I travel, sometimes if I'm talking to other authors, they'll be like, "Oh my gosh. You're such a big deal." It's like, you know what? I'm actually not. If I told you my numbers, you would shit your pants because it's like they're actually not that great. I just have a book out every year, and I have a core group of readers that will keep coming back. And I do pretty well, but I'm not a New York Times Bestselling Author or anything like that.
The reason why, I believe, my publisher treats me so well is because I work my ass off. Like, that's the bottom line. I'm always on a phone call with my agent, who I also have a success story. I've been with my agent since 2010. Like, we have never [crosstalk 00:09:54].
Mindy: Yeah. That doesn't happen. Yeah. So, I've been with my agent for 12 years. And I was on a phone call with her the other day, and someone that I may be doing a memoir with, co-authoring a memoir with. And she told this other writer. She was like, "You know, Mindy will never miss a deadline." My agent, who's Adriann Zurhellen, she's with Folio Literary. She said, "She's my only client. Mindy is my only client that I can say that about. She has never missed a deadline, and she has never asked for an extension. It's like you tell Mindy to do something and she will do it. And she'll probably turn it in early."
Like, that's true. I treat it like a job. I don't hang myself...I don't throw myself on any kind of pyre of "I'm too overwhelmed." And it's like, "I am sometimes." I write, obviously, full-time. I also have a podcast and a blog that I operate. I write under a pen name. I have an editorial service. You know what it's like. Like, your email signature has, like, 12 different links to go to. So, it's like you know what it's like to be all over the place and having to manage everything, and be your own business. But it's like it is, in fact, a business. So, when someone tells me this is due at this time, you're going to get it back from me because I... I mean, honestly, I grew up on a farm. To me, I'm not pitching manure around. I can do this. This is not hard.
Mary: I love that. It does sometimes feel like shit-shoveling, but maybe in a different way.
Mindy: Yeah, that's true.
Mary: So, one thing that I...I do a lot of teaching about query letters. And one thing that I have been making sure to mention recently is that you're auditioning the entire time. And so, whether you gloat about your work in your query letter like, you know, this riveting exploration of blah, blah, blah, or this thing that Tom Hanks is sure to go for, it's like you want to convey that not only is your idea strong and you're pitching it in a compelling, but that you are also going to be great to work with. And that is something...that's one of those sort of soft skills, those soft impressions from the query that, I say, is pretty darn important.
So, the pitch is the hard sell, but the soft sell is, "I'm reasonable. I have human-sized expectations. I'm going to be a delight to work with. I'm a great communicator," all of these other things that you can sort of get across about yourself in the query or in a conference pitch, or on your website, or with your social media. And I think it's one of those that...your work ethic, your ability to meet deadlines, your ability to co-author, which we're going to talk about in a second, all of those things go into your personal success story because you're just a delight to work with. And that cannot be overstated.
One of the things that...my business partner is actually John Cusick of Folio. He is also at Folio along with your agent. And one of the things we talk about is, you know, this situation right now where there are a lot of writers. There are a ton of writers on the submission train. There are a ton of writers already on publishers' lists that are meeting mixed success because publishers don't treat all of their authors equally, especially kind of mid-list authors who have sort of gotten maybe a little bit lost in the shuffle. And there's this kind of troubling idea that, well, there's always...you know, there's always someone else in the submission pile. There's always someone next in line.
And so, if you are just an unimpeachable delight to work with and you are able to manage yourself, and you are able to meet deadlines, I just think that's such an asset in the business. Because as much as we think of publishing as this patron of the arts and something that furthers our individual writing craft, it's also a business. Not a very good business model.
Mary: But it's still a business. And I think that professionalism just is so underrated when it comes to these conversations that we have about the craft and writing. I definitely do want to talk about the craft and writing because that's going to be interesting to our listeners. But I just think, I have to give you a gold star now that you meet it for just having your shit together.
Mindy: Yeah. And that's the truth. I always tell people...so, if I'm doing a presentation at a library, if I'm talking to other writers, generally, there are always other writers in the audience. And I say, you know, "I guarantee you that there are writers in the submission pile right now that are better writers than I am. There are undiscovered writers out there that are better than me. But they are undiscovered, and you have to do the work of figuring out how to write a query of knowing who to query in the first place. Going through the hell of figuring out how to write a synopsis." Like, all of these things. And that is...people complain all the time, and I understand because I queried for 10 years. So, I understand why it sucks.
Mary: Oh my gosh.
Mindy: Yeah. Ten fucking years. But it's like, people complain about the process of even getting an agent and how, like, prohibitive it is in some ways. And it's like, it's separating the wheat from the chaff right from the beginning. If you're like, "I'm too good to write a synopsis. My work speaks for itself. I'm going to hand this to you, and you're going to be thankful you met me," no, I'm not. Like, it doesn't matter how great your work is. If you're such a difficult person that you refuse to write a query or you refuse to break down your work into a synopsis because it's so precious, it can't be, you know, contained in a synopsis, then no, I don't want to work with you. I don't care how good you are.
So, yeah. And I see a little bit of that sometimes, like, as a... I do an editorial business on the side. And people will reach out and they'd be like, "Hey. I'd like to hire you." And I'm like, "Cool. These are my rates." And they're like, "Well, maybe you could give me a discount." And I'm like, "No. These are my rates." And they're like, "Yeah, but I'm really good and I will give you a shout out when it gets published." And I'm like, "Okay. These are my rates. And if you would like to work with me, you will pay the same rates as everyone else," you know. And so, it's like, I don't...you're not going to impress me by being egotistical. Like you were saying, you have to have confidence, but you can't be egotistical. And that is a line to walk. You figure it out. You probably have to be over 30 to figure that out, I think.
Mary: Yeah. I mean, I... So, I have this client who is a current student in Story Mastermind which is my small group writing workshop. And he actually comes from the NFL, former professional athlete. And we were having the most interesting conversation the other day because he has sort of been forged in this crucible of this highly competitive environment. You know, there was merit, but there's also hype. And kind of working your way up those ranks is...you could find comparisons with being a writer on the submission trail. And he said something that really stuck out to me. He's like, "You know, he playing field is equal, but it's not always fair."
Mary: You know? Everybody has that shot, but then what you do, how you act, how you comfort yourself, your natural, inane talent that you bring... Sorry, innate. That you bring. Those are some of my thoughts about football leaking out. That's going to sort of...that's going to determine your journey. So, everybody has the same shot, but what you do with that shot, what you make of it, how you present yourself and the talent that you bring to the page, those all go into this stew of what your experience is going to be.
I don't want to babble on another minute. Speaking of bajillionaire writers and kind of all of this stuff, tell me how this James Patterson collaboration came about. I am just fascinated, deeply, like, in a sickening way, by the Patterson machine.
Mary: And you have now been on the inside. So, you probably are bounded to a hardcore NDA. But whatever you can share about the process, I would love to hear.
Mindy: Yeah. It was really cool. So, the way that it happened was that James Patterson had decided that he wanted to revisit the "Maximum Ride" world because it was immensely popular. I was actually a librarian when the series was first coming out. And even my reluctant readers, they were just like, "Oh my God." Like, they were all over it. They loved it so much. If I had a reluctant reader, I knew I could start them on "Maximum Ride" and they would be in, and usually finish the whole series. So, it was always kind of a go-to for me.
So, you know, 10, 15, 20 years later, he decides he's going to reboot with, like, the next generation, and had a co-author for the first one. And he likes to... I hate using the phrase, but it's true. Like, literally spreading the wealth. He likes to work with different people so that everyone benefits a little bit. And so, he had done the first series with an author that he had worked with before on a different series. And then he was looking for someone else to help with the second book.
And as we've said before, it's so true, publishing is a small world. And basically, just, you know, that flare went up. James Patterson is looking for a co-author. And my agent, you know, was aware of this. The memo went out. And she shot me an email. She knows that I'm a work horse and I'm always looking for whatever an opportunity could be. And she was like, "Hey. Would you be interested in doing this?" And I was like, "Yes, I would absolutely love to because I'm familiar with the content, and I know the characters. This would be a really cool opportunity."
So, you had to, like, you know, throw your hat in the ring and be like, "This is who I am. And these are some things that I've written." And so, Mr. Patterson basically, you know, saw my name on the list and read some pages from "Not a Drop to Drink" and was just like, "Yeah, I like your style. And let's have a phone call." And so, you know, we talked. He was really cool and really sweet, very nice. And, you know, I got the job.
And I was so... Gosh. Like, it was so cool because... I mean, it's James Patterson, right? So, I was like, "I was reading your books when I was in...you know, I was reading Alex Cross books when I was in high school." And he's calling me on my phone, you know? It was just this moment where I was just like, "Be cool. Be cool. Be very cool," you know. And I managed to get through it without making an ass of myself.
And I had a really, really cool experience where I had just started dating someone new. And it was someone that I really liked a lot, and was...and I'm not intimidated by many people. But he's just, like, someone that I really, really liked. And so, I always wanted to, like, be cool and make sure the date is going well. And I was hanging out with him. We had just started seeing each other. We'd only been seeing each other for, like, maybe four weeks.
And my phone was sitting on the dining room table. Like, we were eating and we were talking. And my phone rings and it says, "James Patterson." And he looked down and he goes...and, of course, at this point, I'm not allowed to talk about the project. And he looks down and he goes, "Is that for real?" And I said, "Yes, that is James Patterson calling me." And he was like, "Do you need to take that? Like, I can..." And I'm like, "No, I'm on a date. It's okay."
Mary: Oh, nice.
Mindy: And he was like, "Oh, that was baller." So, I have so much to thank James Patterson for. It was, like, this wonderful...you know, we've been together two years now. But I think that really, like, sealed the deal for me. He was like, "She ignored a call from James Patterson for me. Felt pretty good."
Mary: That's amazing. And that's something... So, a lot of people might find faults with James Patterson for writing...or having this, like, writing assembly line where he partners with co-authors. It just seems like such a factory and so anathema to, like, the art of books. But to your earlier point, these stories connect. These characters connect. He has this storytelling style and sort of he's codified the blueprint for telling a really gripping, compelling story. He has done more for reaching readers like some of your reluctant readers in the library, in the school library setting. I think it's so rad that you're like, "You know what? I will take this experience. This is a feather in my cap. I will do it. It's maybe not..." You know, you're co-authoring, but you're down to clown, as they say.
Mindy: Heck yeah. Like, you're so right, what you're saying. It's like, he has cracked the code for pacing and just, like, page-turning. And people really like that. Your average, everyday reader that wants to just read a book, sit down at the end of the day, unplugged, relaxed, read a book. You know, someone that's looking for that. Because I'll do that. I alternate. Like, I'll read something deep and heavy with freaking... Every winter, I pick a really, really big book. I think, last winter, it was "Moby Dick." So, it was like...
Mary: Oh, wow. Yeah.
Mindy: I'll read something like "Moby Dick," and then I'm going to read 10 Janet Evanovich books. So, it's like, that's...you know, it all depends on what you want and what you need. But, yeah. I think, too, when it comes to James Patterson also, I know that...because I hear people, you know, that they do talk about it as the machine or a factory or whatever. And I understand, and I understand why to some people, it would be off-putting. But as someone that has directly benefited from it, I do think there's also...just literally the amount of money that he pumps into publishing and the surrounding...everything about it — libraries, independent bookstores. I mean, I don't know numbers, but it's a lifeblood for a lot of individuals.
I mean, I know that, for me, it was just...I mean, it was literally lifesaving. It happened right when the pandemic hit. I was still...I had income, monthly income coming in from this project at a time... I make a lot of money doing appearances. I shouldn't say, "I make a lot of money doing appearances." I make a large percentage of my income, a lot of my money is from doing appearances.
Mary: It's a significant stream for a lot of people.
Mindy: It is.
Mary: And that's dried up.
Mindy: It was gone. I lost 56 events because of the pandemic. And all of any money that I had sunk into hotels and, you know, travel and all that stuff, it turned into vouchers, but it was essentially gone. And it was just...literally kept me from having to go get a nine to five. I was able to continue to just be a writer and keep my head above water because...I mean, James Patterson had me on his project. And it made all the difference.
So, it's like, I do understand the viewpoint of looking at it like, you know, this is a machine that is churning out material. Like, I understand. And there may have even been a time when I felt that way, but then I actually experienced it, and I was in it.
Mindy: And I was having phone calls with James Patterson where we were talking about what I had just written, what he had just written. And he was also...he would be like, "Don't be afraid to mess with what I wrote. It's not gold. Go in there and then, like, mess with it if you want to." And I'm like, "I don't know if I can do that." He's like, "No, do it." I mean, it was just, like, a really cool experience and just respects on both sides. And I felt like...I mean, I really felt...I didn't feel like a cog in a machine. I really did feel...like, every time he called me and we had a conversation, it felt like a real conversation. It really did.
Mary: That is amazing. And again, I have to come back to just your attitude of, like, "This is awesome. I am an equal here, and I'm going to learn what I can. I'm going to contribute, and this is just another way to build a career in writing," you know. I think that is so amazing, and I would have loved to have been a fly in the wall for some of those conversations. I think his masterclass is phenomenal. And you're right. It's like, you see somebody in the airport reading James Patterson and it's like, "Huh," you know. People can have these kind of lofty opinions, but at the same time, to your point, so much of the publishing industry is getting capital, is getting excitement, is getting engagement with the reader, kind of that end user of all of this art and creativity and this entire business down to James Patterson. He has done so much for the industry, and he is one of those people that gives back.
Mindy: Yes, he does.
Mary: You know, he has made capital contributions to the industry, in addition to artistic contributions and just generating excitement for books and reading.
Mindy: Absolutely. And I had a conversation... And it's not...I mean, it's not just James Patterson. I had a conversation the other day with one of my editorial clients that I actually work with, like, a lot. And, you know, we've gotten friendly. And he emailed me. I had just done some of his pages, and he emailed me back. And he was really...he's very receptive of criticism. But he was like, "You know, I get so frustrated when I see a book like 'Twilight' that becomes...makes billions of dollars." And I emailed him back and I was like, "Look. If it wasn't for 'Twilight,' I wouldn't be published." Because "Twilight" blew up YA and it suddenly gave...the industry was making money hand over fist. Publishers...whenever a book does really, really well, like, even if you hate it, if Madonna's picture book for children does really well and that [crosstalk 00:29:58], it's like, I get it, but now that publisher has all that more money that they can use to take a chance and take a risk to maybe sign on some more debut authors.
So, it's like, you know, I get ticked off sometimes, too, when I see, like, you know, the next reality TV show star that suddenly wrote a novel. And I'm like...and I have that...and it makes me angry. But I truly do believe that, you know, a rising tide lifts all boats. And if there is someone out there that has never read a book in their life and...I mean, "Fifty Shades of Grey," I have a lot of opinions about "Fifty Shades of Grey," but I know women that have never read a book in their life and then they read all of "Fifty Shades of Grey," and they were like, "What is this reading thing? I like it." And now they're reading, and it's because of "Fifty Shades of Grey."
So, it's like, I used to be a little bit more of a snob especially after I graduated from college. I was like, "I will not read it unless it's on, you know, 100 list of books to read before you die." And I have completely changed my opinion on that after being in the industry and understanding a little bit more about... Whatever makes a reader... Well, I think, being a librarian had a big impact on me in that way, too, because, you know, I would be giving books to 12, 13-year-old boys that I would rather eat it than read it. But these kids would come back and be like, "Can I have the next one? Is it a series?" And I'm like, "Oh, okay. It has worth. It has value."
Mary: I think that is... Oh, I am just picking up what you're putting down so hard today. And I want to really thank you for bringing this perspective. And I think it speaks to that maturation and that, you know, sort of grinding down of the ego that happens after a while in the industry. Because you're right. If Madonna's book does well, her picture book, then that publisher has a fresh flush of cash to take risks on. And everyone can complain.
Another complaint that I really hear a lot is the standards for getting over that first obstacle of getting an agent, getting published, are so much higher, it seems, than the standards for already published authors in terms of...you know, your manuscript has to be so tight and just completely unimpeachable. And then, you know, a couple books in and the standards seem to relax, especially if it is a best-selling or a celebrity writer. So, I hear a lot of complaining, but I'm like, you know, you got to learn the ropes. You have to learn your craft. You have to demonstrate that you can do it. And that's...in today's world with traditional publishing, consolidating endlessly, it is a higher bar.
There are people who take the indie route, who find great success. There are a ton of strategies that they can use to generate and cultivate a readership. So, that's always available. But if you want that brass ring of traditional publishing, there is a certain level of work and output and grit required.
Mindy: Oh, yeah. And you got to crawl through glass and set yourself on fire and [crosstalk 00:33:32] and have fresh skin and be like, "I'm going to do it again." I mean, it sucks. It's like, I can't...I always tell people...like I said earlier, I queried for 10 years. It's like, I'm not...I am certainly not someone that haven't...I paid my dues, you know.
Mary: You didn't just stumble into your success one day.
Mindy: No, not at all. So, when I hear people complain about these things, I'm like, yes, yes, yes. Yes to all of it. It sucks hardcore. But that callous that you're building up on your skin and on your heart and on your soul, you're going to need that when you're in publishing.
Mary: That's going to be my new band name, Soul Callous.
Mindy: Soul Callous.
Mary: Okay. So, instead of bumming everybody out with the reality of the industry, why don't we shift to something that actually came up? It was a beautiful segue in your James Patterson anecdote, which is pacing. You write mystery, thriller, suspense. And pacing and I would say the disclosure of information are two things that are crucial to that category. I would say pacing is crucial to anything that anybody wants to write. But when your books are predicated upon learning a piece of information or withholding a piece of information or red herrings, MacGuffins, like, all of these tools that are available to you, I think mystery, thriller, suspense tend to be more exquisitely plotted along those lines of what you reveal, when, what you want your reader to think. There's just a heavier hand involved in planning all of that.
One of the questions that I get the most is sort of, you know, if I have a reveal, how do I pace it? How do I make it that I give readers enough information that they care, but not give the farm away if I have something planned for later? So, how do you approach that?
Mindy: Yeah, it's hard. So, it's a really good question. Usually, what you want to do, in my opinion...and I don't plot heavily. I do a lot of fly by night and writing by the seat of my pants. But with mysteries, like, you can't necessarily do that. So, you have to know the answer before you start writing. But I think that you can play a little bit with subplots. As for the master plan of what happened or who done it, that, you have to know the answer to. But subplots, I think, I personally can be a little looser with.
So, I do think that subplots are key to keeping the reader interested and invested. But also, any piece of...you have to give them some answers because, otherwise, they're going to get frustrated. They're not going to, like, watch all the way to the end of season seven to finally find an answer. You have to give them something as you're going.
The key is letting the answer make you ask more questions. So, once you have that answer, the answer should unlock 30 other doors and make you go, "What the fuck?" So, like, the best...one of the best examples I have for this...and a lot of people trash the show because of the ending, and I understand. But "Lost," when...
Mary: Ah, I thought you might have been going there. Yeah.
Mindy: That show. Oh my God. Like, it is, in some ways, genius. So, it's like, you know, John Locke is going to dig up this...oh, shoot. What's it called? The pod that's buried, you know. He's going to dig this thing up and they're like...and it's like, he's...I will never forget the episode where he's pounding on the door and he can't get the door open. And he's just like, "Why won't you let me in? I did everything right." And he's just, like, kind of hanging over the window. And he's like, "Oh, God." And you've been wondering for eight, nine episodes, what's going on, what's on the other side of this door. And instead of getting the answer, a light comes on. And you're immediately like, "Holy shit. There's a person down there," you know. And it's not like, "Oh my gosh," you know, he found a treasure or the answer to why the plane crashed. You get an answer. There's a person down there. And then it's like, "Well, who is it? How did they get there? How long have they been there? How are they living? I don't understand."
And, like, I will never forget, as a writer, as soon as that light came on and it shoots, like, straight up in the sky. So, it's this amazing visual. And then the end of the show just...it's that noise, and everything goes black. And I'm just sitting there on my couch, literally going, "Oh my God." And that is like...to me, that's how you do that. You give a little bit and then you're just like, "Oh." It has to cause more questions and make you even more deeply invested.
So, a modern example...I haven't finished it yet. I just started watching "Squid Game." Have you watched it?
Mary: No. And I did want to sort of ask you about writing dark and dystopian stuff in a post-pandemic world. So, you have sort of scooped my second big question, but I just read a news item today that at a "Squid Game" pop-up in France, an actual brawl erupted with, like, 700 people in the streets. And I was like, "You know..." There was this great article about hopepunk that I read the other day. And I forget the science fiction writer that was profiled in this article. I might put it in the show notes if I ever find it in my 2,000 tabs that I've opened.
But I was like, you know...like, when I read the premise for "Squid Game," I was like, I know it's the most popular thing in the whole world, but I've been like, I need to insulate myself from, like, dark shit.
Mindy: Oh, yeah. You need...that soul callous needs to be pretty thick before you go into "Squid Game." I'll just...
Mary: I'm usually, like, a huge fan, but I think I'm just like, I'm that rope that has gotten whittled down to the last thread on my...like, my dark shit quotient is all but maxed out. But from the story perspective, I need to watch it. So, what are your insights?
Mindy: So, I just came off. Well, I don't get to watch a lot of TV because I'm constantly working. I also indie publish under a pen name. And so, it's, like, just constant, constant, constant work. And...
Mary: So, when your plate is full, you go back to the buffet, is what you're telling me.
Mindy: Oh, yeah. I do it all the time. We need Roman vomitoriums for me. Like, I probably have a workaholic problem. I...
Mary: Hey. I do, too. I resonate with that so hard. And I justify it with the moral high ground of, "Well, you know, there could be a lot worse problems to have. At least this one is productive, and it serves others."
Mindy: I love what I do. Like, I genuinely love what I do. I don't come home from the brick factory and make more bricks in my backyard. It's like, I love what I'm doing. And so, it's like I'm constantly working with words. But, yeah. I had the chance. I finally watched "Schitt's Creek." I'm so backed up [crosstalk 00:41:37].
Mary: Ugh. Yes.
Mindy: So, I finally watched "Schitt's Creek," which, I think, gave me that lift that I could go watch "Squid Game" after.
Mary: Yes. It is absolutely effervescent. It's like eye bleach on the internet.
Mindy: Oh, I know. It's so beautiful and so sweet. And so, it's like, I was able to watch "Squid Game" because of "Schitt's Creek." But I think, like, that darkness... Gosh. "Squid Game" is dark. I mean, wow. Some of the things that they do... I almost, like... If anyone has seen "Midsommar" from A24, it's similar to that in feel and look because "Midsommar" takes place over...there's no darkness ever. It's when the sun is up there, and it's not moving. And so, the equinox. And so, the entire horror movie takes place in broad daylight, which is part of what made "Midsommar" so powerful.
Mindy: Yeah. And I think "Squid Game" operates in a lot of the same ways because you'll just have these people that are out in, like, oversized playgrounds and the sun is shining, and the sky is blue, and there's birds flying, and there are snipers just shooting them if they do the wrong thing. And they're playing...they're literally playing children's games. So, it's just...I don't know. I can't even describe, like, the horribleness of it. Yeah, how effective it is.
I think, when you're writing something dark and horrible, you're going to have to admit that you're just going to lose some people. You're not going to be [inaudible 00:43:22] some people. So, for example, one of the readers that I alienated right away was my own mother. She was just... My mother, like, starting with "The Female of the Species," was just like, "Mindy, I just don't know if you should be [crosstalk 00:43:40]." And I was like, "Mom, this is how I operate. This is who I am."
That's the other thing. As far as the darkness goes, I stopped apologizing for it so long ago. Like, this is what I'm interested in. This is what I like. It's what I read, it's what I watch, it's what I want to write. And, you know, I was like that when I was a kid. And I don't have... From, like, an actual nuclear family in Midwestern heartland, I have no trauma in my life. I have never seen a dead body. I mean, it's just...I don't have...there's no reason. There's no deep psychological loss. I'm just this way.
Mary: The wound. In a character sense, this is the wound that sort of made the Mindy. So, you're saying, there is...don't go poking around. It's just not there.
Mindy: There's no primal wound. I'm just weird. Like, that's just the way it is. And I remember when I was a kid. I liked to be scared. You know, I would read things and watch things, and get myself all upset and not be able to sleep, and be, like, kind of panicked. And my mom would be like, "Then why did you read that or watch that?" And I'm like, "Because I liked it," you know.
And so, I mean, my parents were really, really wonderful, and they didn't censor. But, you know, there was always this feeling, and it wasn't in my parent...in my household, but there's always like, "You like weird things," or "You're weird," or "Why are you interested in serial killers?" Because that was before true crime was a thing. It's like, I was reading...well, it's always been a thing, but it wasn't like, this is what all the women are doing. You know, I was reading "Helter Skelter" when I was, like, 12. And people are like, "There's something wrong with you," you know. And I'm just like, "No, I'm just, like, way ahead of the times."
You know, it's like I...this is what I like. It's what I'm interested in, but not exclusively. People who read my stuff, and then I show up and I do an event, and I'm just wearing, like, jeans and a flannel, and I make them laugh. And they're like, "This is not what I was expecting." And I'm like, "No, I'm not..."
Mary: They wanted you to, like, show up, like, dragging a dripping axe across the floor.
Mindy: Yeah, or, like, literally just carrying a dead body. Like I just killed this guy in the parking lot. He made me mad, you know? No. You know, it's...I love being just totally a normal ass person that thinks about really fucked up things. Like, that's just...it's just who I am. And so, that's what I write. And like I said, when you want to go that way, when that's what you're interested in, I don't think you should ever question your own likes and drives. Now, in the real world, if you want to hurt people, that is bad. You should never hurt people. But...
Mary: Yeah, just time out for a second. This is not...we're not advocating that you actually...through the fictional instrument, you can work out whatever shit you got going on. Not in the real world, keep the curtain drawn between the two.
Mindy: Very, very heavy curtain drop there. Yes. In the fictional world, you can do that exploration. And that's what I always talk about when...we talk about, like, youth reading some darker stuff. And it's like, number one, a lot of them have already experienced it. And number two, if they have it, this is safe exploration — drugs, sex, drinking, whatever. This is safe exploration. They don't have to go do it. They can read this book and be like, "Oh, okay." You do have the vicarious experience through the fictional interaction.
So, yeah, I think writing that stuff...I mean, I've had people ask me, particularly "Female of the Species," but also "A Madness So Discreet." That one's set in a insane asylum in the 1890s. People are like...people ask me all the time. They're like, "Is it hard for you to write this? Like, isn't it difficult to sit down with that material every day?" And it's like, "This is how I feel about romances." How do you ever... I'm divorced, like, twice. So, that's part of it, but it's like, I don't understand how you could ever sit down and be like, "And now, I'm going to write the happy ending." I'm like, "Bullshit." You know? It's like, that's...
So, for me, it's just like, that's my lens. And no, it doesn't bother me to sit down and write, like, a horrific scene in an insane asylum, and then go to my niece's tee-ball game. It's just that demarcation. This is fiction. And now, I'm going to go eat popcorn at a tee-ball game. And there's no, like...that's not a hard transition for me.
Mary: Well, one of the things that we heard going kind of a couple of months of pandemic, and every writer dusted off their viral dystopia to try and sell that because now, you know, this is the hot news item. It's super timely. And then all we heard was that, you know, everyone's tired of dystopia because we're living in one now. No, thank you. We need to be hopeful and uplifting. And I feel like there was that ground swell, but now, with "Squid Game" being kind of universally popular, this is not a new property. This is a Korean show that I think was popular, like, 10 years ago that Netflix kind of picked up, dusted off.
Now that this is, like, taking over the world, it's like, "Oh, are we back on our depraved bullshit as a human species now despite claiming to want only uplifting things?"
Mindy: Right. It's true. So, my books, like we said, most of them are pretty dark. And I was worried in the pandemic and afterwards. I was just like, "Nobody wants to read this right now. Everybody does want that romance. Everybody wants to watch "Schitt's Creek," and that's great. But I think one of the things that is...I think one of the things that is... I don't want to use the word "redeemable," but one of the things that is a draw when it comes to something just, like, horrific, like "Squid Game," is, like, no matter how bad things are, if you can see someone else in a worse and more horrible position, you feel a little bit of relief.
And I think like...like, you know, when you drive past a car accident, you look. You look. And people, we do that. Psychologically, like, the reason why we do that is because deep, deep down inside, the little part of you that is pure ego is, like, "That wasn't me," you know, and that is really important. It's pure primal survival. It's shit, but it's true. And I think, watching some of that stuff that is darker and horrible...I mean, I do think that there is some comfort to be found in "It could always be worse."
Mary: And I think also, agency, because I am...I've been kind of paying attention to this true crime podcast, just blizzard. And I think what has really played a part in this phenomenon taking off, largely with female viewers, you know, is that there's this glamor to being an armchair Facebook sleuth. And seeing just, like, real women rip open a cold case and make a difference in the world, and...of course, there is this, like, "Great, we might put closure on this thing. We might give solace to the family. We might explore this really gritty murder," you know, but just this kind of...
There's a persona of empowerment to it, too, where it's like, you know, you see these stories, you sort of compare them to your real life. You might even participate, like join a Facebook group or, you know, do your own internet sleuthing on Reddit. You know, I think it's just this really interesting thing where we may not enjoy darkness when it comes to our lives, but we enjoy participating in darkness even, like, tangentially.
Mindy: Sure, [crosstalk 00:52:48]. Yeah. I also think... This is something that my boyfriend and I have really long conversations about because, you know, true crime obviously is just...like, it's the candy that everyone is eating and has been since "Serial." And even before that, but I feel like "Serial" was kind of the big, modern gateway.
Mary: Oh, totally the flashpoint.
Mindy: Yeah. And I have always been of the opinion that the reason why women are the audience for this, or one of the big audience for this, is that it truly comes down to art of war, knowing your enemy. And I think that there's a lot of solace to be found in just being aware of how serial rapists and serial murderers work. And just like...I do think that there is... You know, it's amazing to me, some of the things that you can pick up that are really simple.
And I still substitute at the school where I work and where I used to work. And I'll talk to, especially the girls, but talk to the students and the girls in particular. And, you know, we all have those, have your phone out...don't walk around by yourself, number one. Have your phone out, have your keys in between your fingers or whatever. But I'm like, you know, the biggest thing is, when you get in your car, don't fuck around. Get in your car, shut the door, lock it, start it, drive away. When you get in your car...
Mary: And check the back seat.
Mindy: Yeah. Always check the backseat. Yes. But it's like, you get in your car and then you read your text messages or you get your music set up or you do all these things. You're not paying attention anymore. And anything could happen. And especially if you're in, like, a parking garage or something. So, it's like...
Mary: Yeah, a total sitting duck.
Mindy: It's very simple, but you just get in your car, you start it, and you drive away. And that window of, "Oh, who texted me?" You know, it's like that...it's just like actually driving the car. You're distracted and anything can happen.
So it's like, that's something that I just picked up from true crime stuff. And I really do...like, that's always been my interpretation of why...one of the reasons why women are so attracted. It does give some power back. Like, I'm seeing how you operate, and I'm learning how to counteract it.
Mary: Because, disproportionately, women are the victims in a lot of these cases, the stalking, the strangling, like, all of that.
So, to bring this back to my initial pacing question, one thing I loved about your "Lost" example was before we got the twist of the light turning on, what would you say to my hypothesis that, if we can't yet give away the information that we're planning for later, one of the things that we can do to sort of keep readers going is connect it to character. And you described it so well of him, like, beating down the door and being like, "I have given you my life," you know. It's that character investment and I think, by proxy, the reader's investment in the character's investment. You know, so, those personal stakes are the thing that keeps us going, the thing to build in before we can build in information. What do you think?
Mindy: Yeah. I think that it's fiction, and you have to make people care about something that never happened to a person that doesn't exist. You can have the most interesting plot in the entire world. And if you don't care about the characters, nothing matters. Nothing matters.
I read a book and I won't say what it was, but I read a book in college in one of my novel and narrative fiction classes. And I read the whole thing. You know, I always was a good girl, and I did the reading. And I came to class and people were talking about plot. And I was like, "I don't care. I don't care. I don't care that this happened to this person. I don't care that this happened to that person." So, I was reading the book, and I was hoping...and this had nothing to do with nuclear bombs. But I was like, "I was hoping that a nuclear bomb would fall in this town and kill everyone so the book would be over."
Mary: [crosstalk 00:57:14] "Mindy, you're so weird."
Mindy: Yeah, they did. They were just like, "Wow, that's really acidic." And I'm like, "No, it's not a good book." But, you know, it's like, that's how I feel about it. You have to care about the characters. I love what you were saying. If you don't care about the characters, the plot doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. Things have to happen to these. We have to care about these people that things are happening to. It doesn't matter what happens if you don't care about them.
The other thing that, I think, is really interesting that you said is talking a about the goals, the character goals becoming your goals. So, in my book "Heroine," my main character is a heroin addict. It happened slowly, but eventually she's a heroin addict. And she is a softball...she's an athlete. And there are multiple times in the story where she has to get a fix before she has to go play a game or else she's going to go through withdrawal. She's not going to be able to play. And because it's first person, she's, like, literally running around town, trying to find some heroin.
And I've had people tell me that they're reading and they'd be like, "Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh, I really hope Mickey finds some heroin." And then they're like, "No, I don't. No. I don't want her to have heroin. That's bad. She's an addict," you know? And it's like, "No, that's perfect." That's perfect. That's how I want you to feel. I want you to want her to get her fix because you sympathize with her now. And so, it's like that...that is key. Like, you've got to sell how important this is to the character.
One other thing when it comes to writing mysteries, something I really enjoy doing is, if the reader knows something that the character doesn't. I think that is kind of...it's a little bit tricky to illustrate, but...and I can't say too much because one of the ways that I utilize this was in my second Poe book, "The Last Laugh," which doesn't come out until March. But there is a character that you have come to trust completely from the first book, and in the second book, that character has an internal POV. And you find out that that person is not who you thought they were. They've been [crosstalk 00:59:24] the whole time and are kind of a main player in the huge overall mystery.
And so, you learn things, but your other narrator doesn't know these things and still trusts that person. So, you're reading her narrative, and you're like, "No, don't go in the car with him." Right? But it's like, if you...because you know that that other person is not to be trusted. So...but your character doesn't. So, I think that that is a really good way to give the reader an answer sometimes, but there's still tons of tension because your main character or another character doesn't know.
Mary: Oh, I think that is so smart. I mean, you do have to reconcile it after a little while because if the reader knows more than the main character for too long, it's like, "Ugh, just rip the scales from your eyes already."
Mindy: Eventually, you're like, "Oh my God, you're so dumb." And then you lose, you lose that empathy of, "Oh gosh, I hope you get to find your heroine soon." Like, you know, you have to have that. You have to keep your main character smart and on the ball, and have all those qualities that made you love that person in the first place. So, no, you can't get away with that for long, but it is a really good way to jack up that tension for, like, three to four chapters.
Mary: So, I could talk to you forever, and I'm sure listeners will feel the same. But we have to look at time. I think I would love to hear your specific take. It's related to what you were just talking about. How do we engender affection in our reader with a character who may not be the best? Like you were saying, you know, we're rooting for the heroin addict here. How do you do that early on so that we don't just reject them out of hand because they have this or that unfavorable quality?
Mindy: So, it's a really good question. A lot of my characters are unlikable, but one of the things that I always say is they don't have to be likable. They have to be interesting. You don't have to like them. You just have to want to know what they're going to do or say next.
So, it's like... I'm going to go back to "Squid Game." But one of the reasons why is because the main character is not likable. Like, in the very beginning, he, like, is stealing money from his mother so that he can go gamble at the race track. He loses his alienated daughter's birthday present because he gambles it away. Like, he's not someone you want to hang out with. Like, he's just...he's not a good guy. And I was...and this was before the actual game and the tension starts. And I was, like, almost lost.
I was watching this, and we're following him very tightly. And I was like, "I don't like this guy. Why am I watching this?" And then he stops at, like, you know, a street vendor. And he buys some food from the woman that's like a mother of one of his friends. And he's like, he's all cool because he won some money. He's like, "Here you go. You can keep the change," you know? And she's like, "This doesn't even cover what you took," you know? And it's just like, he's just a schmuck. He's just a schmuck.
And I'm watching it. I'm like, "I don't like this guy. I don't like this guy. I don't like this guy." And he's going home. And he sees a kitty in the street scrounging around in the trash, and he reaches into his bag, and he pulls out a fish. And he gives it to the cat, and he pets the cat. And he's like, "Are you hungry? Here." And he gives the cat a fish. And it's a purely giving moment. He has nothing to gain from this.
Mary: It is literal save the cat.
Mindy: Yeah, it is literally save the cat. It's like, the cat can never return the favor. He is genuinely...you see this flash. Oh, he's a good person. He had...and then immediately, you have to rethink him. It's like, "Oh, he gambles, but it's like, you know, he's poor. He gambles, he has problems." And it's just like, "But he's actually a good guy because he just gave that cat a fish," you know? And it's just like, it's at the end of the episode, very first episode. And you're like, "Oh, the kitty."
So it's like, honestly, if you can have that...I always say, if you don't know what your character is like, or if you're having trouble, give them a pet and see how they treat it. See what the pet is. Yeah. That's always a key for me. But also, I think, when you have those unlikeable characters, just keep them interesting. And everyone is sympathetic eventually. Once you know them well enough, everyone is sympathetic eventually.
Whenever I'm doing writing classes, I always tell my students, it's like, you know, we all...every one of us, real human beings, we are who we are for a reason. But we are also all the heroes of our own narratives, like, all the time. I'm the hero in my story. But guess what? I'm the villain in some other people's stories. And...
Mary: Right. And that's for...when you're drafting a villain, it's like, they never think they're the bad guy. They are doing what they believe is right, for XYZ reason. It just...they look like a monster to us, but they look in the mirror and they probably on the balance feel pretty good about themselves.
Mary: At the end of the day.
Mindy: Yeah. And I do, too, in general, as a human being. And most of us do, I think. But I mean, I know there are people, like, in real life that I would be the villain in their story. And so, I always tell my writing classes, "Whose villain are you? Because you're someone's." And when you think about that, it kind of makes you go, "Oh, God." And they can really... For one thing, it's a really great, like, personality inventory, but it's also just like a great way to open up that fiction and be like, "Well, I think I'm great, but there was this thing I did this one time. And it was the [inaudible 01:05:42] impression that this person got of me when I was in a bad mood. And I bumped into somebody at the grocery store and didn't say, 'Excuse me,' or like whatever I did. And that person was like, 'Well, she's a bitch.' Right? I was like, 'No, I'm actually not.' It was just that [inaudible 01:05:55]."
So, yeah. I mean, just always be thinking about that. Your villains cannot be one dimensional. Everyone is a human, and if you can find a way to show their humanity in their character, that's how you make them real, and you make the plot matter.
Mary: Well, you are definitely the hero of this podcast and of my heart. Mindy McGinnis, thank you so much for joining us. I have loved the hell out of this conversation, and I hope you listeners at home have as well.
Mindy: Well, thank you so much. It was awesome. I love everything that you do, and I'm always sharing your links. And I think it's a wonderful service to writers that you exist.
Mary: Oh, stop. We are in a mutual admiration society. Mindy, thank you so much again. And all of you listening, here's to a good story.
Thank you so much for tuning into "The Good Story Podcast." My name is Mary Kole, and I want to extend my deepest gratitude to the Good Story Company team: Kristen Overman, Amy Wilson, Rhiannon Richardson, Joiya Morrison-Efemini, Kate London, Michal Leah, Jenna Van Rooy, Kathy Martinolich, Len Cattan-Prugl, Rebecca Landesman, Steve Reiss, and Gigi Collins.
Please check us out at goodstorycompany.com, and I would love it if you joined "Good Story Learning," a monthly membership with new content added where you can learn everything you ever wanted to know and more about writing and publishing for writers of all categories and ability levels. Thanks again for listening. And here's to a good story.