Recently, I had the pleasure of chatting with Dorothy (D.J.) McIntosh, author of acclaimed historical thriller, The Witch of Babylon (Penguin Canada). Not only is Dorothy the winner of several prestigious literary contests (the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished Crime Novel to name but one) she is a fabulous woman, full of spark.
As a writer, I was giddy with the prospect of having Dorothy’s undivided attention. I formulated questions that, for the most part, were on my list of unknowns. As a woman, I was intrigued by her prowess and proud of her success. She answered every question with great thought, fuelling my spirit and leaving me breathless for more.
Grab a tea and pull up a chair. You absolutely must join us….
Denise Willson: When I joined a critique group, the members decided in the first ten minutes that the one word to describe me was “determined.” If someone made a list of character traits that described you, what would they be and why?
Dorothy J McIntosh: “Persistent” and “dedicated.” I started writing The Witch of Babylon 11 years ago and stayed committed to seeing it through. Also, “imaginative” – for creating a fantastical world on paper.
DW: What inspired you to write The Witch of Babylon?
DJM: It’s important to care deeply for what you’re writing about. It will show in your writing if you don’t. I felt a fascination with the Middle East and a deep sense of injustice about the war in Iraq, especially regarding the lack of media attention on issues like the looting of museums and shooting of journalists. Of course, this passion had to be woven into a greater story.
DW: It took me a long time to stand up for myself, to confess that I was seriously writing a novel. When did you consider yourself a writer?
DJM: There was a period of time, when my editor was looking over manuscript changes, and I had time off from writing. I was free. Yet I felt like I needed to be writing, like writing had become something I had to do. I knew I was a writer then.
DW: Usually writers are avid readers. Are there books / authors that have influenced your writing?
DJM: I learn from reading. When I read a book I pay attention to how it’s written, how the dialogue flows, what I like and don’t like. I love lyrical, poetic writing, like the works of Cormack McCarthy, Jeff Long, and Ann Michaels. I like historicals, horror (not grizzly), and thrillers. I’m not fond of romance novels. Every few years I come across a book that wows me. Michael Kortya’s, The Ridge, is my latest gem.
DW: As writers, we have strengths and weaknesses, things that come easy and things we struggle with. What do you struggle with when writing, and what comes naturally?
DJM: First drafts are always the hardest for me; getting the words out, down on paper. I love the editing stage. I love adding rich descriptions, even though they’re not in vogue. Revising The Witch of Babylon took much more time than writing the first draft, but it was more fun. The first draft was taxing.
DW: A strong and unique narrative voice is what makes a story work for me. How did you go about developing or finding the narrative voice of your book?
DW: Some new writers have the tendency to cripple themselves with revisions, rather than move forward. Do you have an inner editor and does she ever get in the way of writing?
DJM: Yes, I have an inner editor and she often gets in the way. But not in my writing, she gets in the way of my reading. Overuse of the word had, was, and unnecessary words drive me mad. A character acting in a credible way is important. If belief is stretched too far it’s a concern. For many years my world has revolved around revisions and so I see this in everything I read.
DW: Blogs are filled with advice for writers, some for planners and some for pantsers. Do you plan and plot before writing or do you develop as you go?
DJM: I’m a planner. Plot twists are hard to write and I have to put a lot of time into thinking them through. I write scene by scene plans, character profiles, etc. I also spend a vast amount of time researching. Considering the subject matter – ancient history, alchemy, Mesopotamian culture – The Witch of Babylon required detailed knowledge of prehistory, both science and folklore.
DW: I think, when one has finished editing one’s novel, there should be a gatekeeper with a sign that says, congratulations and welcome to Query Hell. What was your query experience like?
DJM: I didn’t query because I was a slush pile coward, fearing the manuscript would not be looked at. Instead I focused on literary contests. When The Witch of Babylon was shortlisted and honored, several agents approached me. The Witch of Babylon trilogy sold to Penguin and will be published in over 15 languages, and I’ve never written a query. Now, synopses, they’re a whole other beast…
DW: Are you part of a writing or critique group? What has your experience been in regards to critiques?
DJM: Yes, I am part of a group. I’ve had good experiences and I think these networks are worth forming, but the advice you receive from a critique group is very different from the advice you receive from industry professionals, such as agents and editors. That said, it’s important to be open to all critiques, no matter the source. And you must be willing to make changes.
DW: I find genre lines to be extremely blurry and The Witch of Babylon is a perfect example of a plot line that dabbles in several genres. How has this affected the marketing and publishing of the book, if at all?
DJM: I think crossing genres is a good thing. It expands your potential audience. I think Canadian literary writers (as opposed to commercial writers) have a better shot of getting published. There’s a worldwide following for Canadian literary writing, so these writers have an easier time finding agents, getting editorial assistance, and sourcing marketing (exposure) dollars. Most Canadian genre writers don’t do as well, financially, compared to U.S. genre writers, even though genre often beats literary in sales, particularly in the United States.
DW: No matter your background or experience, one plus one is always two. Publishing a blockbuster novel doesn’t seem to have a formula. Is there a method to your madness?
DJM: I wanted a major publisher. Although there are exceptions, an author needs a good literary agent to get a major publisher. There are lots of good manuscripts out there, but a unique premise has a better chance of selling. Manuscripts that follow a trend can also do well, as long as the trend hasn’t been saturated. You don’t need to be a literary genius, you just need to be a reasonable writer with a great story; a completed and polished story. The publisher’s willingness to promote your book also helps. And placement is important.
DW: There’s a lot to be said for the people involved in the publishing of a book. What valuable advice was given to you by industry folk and what piece of advice could you have done without?
DJM: The best advice given to me was regarding editing: where to end chapters, how to improve upon my protagonist. Agents and editors know what sells. I’ve never received criticism I could have done without; all advice is good advice.
DW: I understand you are currently working on book two in the series. How is this going for you?
DJM: I’m in first draft hell.
DW: What tidbits can you offer the beginner writer; knowledge you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
DJM: Don’t set your sights too high. Trying to write a best seller is self defeating. Write the kind of book you’d enjoy reading, something you’re proud of. And when you’re done, appreciate how much work you’ve put into it.
I’d officially exceeded my caffeine level for the day, but after nearly four hours of enlightening conversation, I felt obliged to add to Dorothy’s list of character traits: "Brave" was the first that came to mind.
Now go buy The Witch of Babylon.
Denise Willson lives, works, and writes among Ontario’s escarpment country evergreens, has a talent for exaggeration, compulsively apologizes to road kill, and can parallel park like nobody’s business. She’s in search of an agent for her paranormal novel, A Keeper’s Truth.
Quick Brown Fox welcomes book reviews and other book-related articles. Guidelines here.
See Brian Henry's schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Kingston, Peterborough, Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Georgetown, Oakville, Burlington, St. Catharines, Hamilton, Dundas, Kitchener, Guelph, London, Woodstock, Orangeville, Barrie, Gravenhurst, Sudbury, Muskoka, Peel, Halton, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.