Matt L. Holmes Talks About Writing and No Brother of Mine Part II

No Brother of Mine CoverLast week part I of my interview with Matt showed his knowledge about writing, his evolving writing process and, through his excellent answers to readers’ comments, his kind heart. Put that together with his obvious writing skill and you have an up-and-coming writer to follow. Thank you, Matt, for taking the time to answer in such detail and to give us such an in-depth look at your writing techniques.

Part II

  1. When I started thinking of questions to ask you for this interview I went back and reread the opening pages and I was struck with the subtle hints you gave that Mitch was interested in Detective Constable Wozniak. First, did you pick her last name for any special reason or is it just a coincidence that it makes me think of Steve Wozniak, the only other person I’ve ever heard of with that name? Did you always know that Mitch would be interested in her or did this evolve by itself? (By the way, I love the unexpected ending with this subplot.)

I’m vaguely aware of the Wozniak of whom you speak, but I actually chose the name as a tip of the hat to a friend of mine with the same last name.  I liked it for its ethnic suggestiveness and sound.  I’ll admit to being pretty lazy when it comes to making up the names of most of my characters.

I originally pictured the two detectives as both being men, and only when I started writing the scene did it occur to me that my assumption had been unintentionally sexist.  Detectives aren’t automatically male, after all, so why were mine?  Once I’d made that change, then I liked how easy it was to write the two detectives more distinctly.  I suppose if I’d really wanted to show I wasn’t sexist, I would’ve had the female be the gruff one and the guy, the compassionate soul.  But I personally think one of the assets women often bring to a workplace that has traditionally been male-dominated is their desire for fairness, as well as humanity and sensitivity.  So I ended up having a ‘good cop, bad cop’ pair on my hands that I could use later on (in the interrogation scene), but the idea of having Mitch become interested in Christine just developed organically as I went along.

As should be obvious by now, I’m not a big planner when it comes to writing.  When it comes to characters, I generally don’t feel that I know who each one is until I’ve written them for a while.  I didn’t have a good read at all on young Ray, in No Brother of Mine, until he started taking care of Rex, the Wonder Dog.  That relationship crystallized the boy for me, after which he was easy to write.  For Game Over, I was writing a scene involving the three main characters where a major, shocking revelation by one of them is shared with the other two.  The way I’d imagined the scene in my head, before writing it, was that all three were in agreement and they went from there.  As I was typing it, however, one of the three characters rejected the revelation!  Every time I tried to have her say something like, “OK, where do we go from here?” it came out gibberish.  My inner editor was telling me that she wouldn’t buy the ‘revelation’ that the other two had swallowed, and so I had to take the story in a different direction.  When that happened, I knew I’d found that character’s voice and she wasn’t to be trifled with!

  1. Matt, you are a staunch self-publish/e­-publish author. Can you tell us why? Would there ever be a scenario where you might accept traditional publishing, with an agent, editor, or big publishing house?

I knew this was going to be the hardest of your questions to answer, Elaine, so I’m glad you didn’t put it at the top or it might’ve scared me off!  The short answer is, I self-publish because I fear rejection and loss-of-control in equal measure, and the current Information Age allows self-publication in ways that authors even twenty years ago couldn’t have imagined.

My wife believes I should send No Brother of Mine to publishers because, as she puts it, “What do you have to lose?”  The fact that I haven’t done that, as of yet, shows that I must think there’s some risk involved.  My primary fear is that I’ll be provided with professional assurances that my writing is in fact crap, or at least substandard in some significant way.  I know that some egos can quite happily wallpaper a den with their rejection letters, but I’m afraid that mine wouldn’t take any such assessment so well.  It’s a stupid stance to take, and I may eventually amend it.  But so far I’ve held fast to my position.

The second irrational fear I have involves losing control of my characters and stories.  I’ve read just enough horror stories about unknown authors signing contracts without fully understanding just what they were giving up to want to avoid that, at any cost.  I absolutely cringe at the thought of Mitch, Ray, Sarah and the rest of my ‘babies’ being co-opted for some crap movie in which the final act involves a car chase through the streets of Los Angeles while terrorists hold Dodger Stadium hostage.  On the other hand, as my wife points out, that summer blockbuster version of NBoM starring Russell Crowe, Mark Ruffalo and Emma Stone might just drive millions of people to seek out the original source material – where they can then be disappointed by the lack of car chases!  Seriously, I’d love to see a movie made of my story, as I think it’s a lovely tale that could be translated to the screen with ease.  But chances are it’d be gutted and unrecognizable by the time it got there.

Along the same lines, I don’t doubt that a professional publisher and/or editor could make No Brother of Mine a better book; it just wouldn’t be my book.  Right now, every word, every punctuation mark and every strange choice of chapter title reflects my sensibilities and is delivered in my voice.  I can hand a copy of NBoM to anyone and say, “I wrote this.”  I’m not sure that would still be true if someone wiser and better-paid than me had the final say on its contents.

I also enjoy some aspects of the self-publication process.  I like figuring out what the cover should look like, and then finding some friend who can help me make it a reality.  I’m not good at promoting my books, although my wife does her best to make up for it!  I just recently made my hundredth sale on this book, approximately nine months after it was released.  That’s certainly not anything a person could live off of, but fortunately I don’t have to support anyone on my book revenue.  I do have a growing readership, though, and can imagine the day when I might have several hundred pre-orders for the next novel, whenever that might be.  In that scenario, I’d feel that I was being well-read and could take considerable enjoyment from such modest sales numbers.

So is there a scenario where I’d be willing to eschew self-publication for the Big Time?  Sure: it’s the scenario where I get to retain all control, and the publishers and I split the profit in some reasonable fashion.  I’m just not confident that I’m likely to find that, assuming that the book’s even good enough to warrant a publisher’s time in the first place.

  1. Your book is well edited, Matt, which is not always the case with self-published authors. Do you use a professional editor and, if so, how expensive is that? Sorry for the snoopy-type question!

Once again, thanks for the compliment, and your question isn’t at all snoopy.  No Brother of Mine is actually my fifth book, as my first three publications were all non-fiction.  Having said that, NBoM is the least-edited book I’ve written so far.  In the past, I’ve always enlisted friends and family to edit my second or third drafts, at which point they’re often able to find more than the occasional typo or example of poor writing.  My routine prior to No Brother of Mine had been to sign up three or four volunteers for that activity, knowing that at least one of them would likely get busy and not be able to finish it within the time frame I’d set aside for editing.  That had worked well in the past, and I’d planned to do the same for my second novel.  However, I think I’d depleted my supply of willing victims by then, thanks to so many previous book projects.  Still, my daughter Tammy provided edits on most of the chapters from her faraway post in Australia, and my good friend and co-plotter Julie sent me feedback and corrections on the first four chapters of NBoM.  My wife Vicki also reviewed an early draft but apparently didn’t find much to quibble with (which is always a good sign!)  This, however, left me in the rather terrifying position of publishing a novel with chapters that had really only been thoroughly edited by its author.  I did find several small errors after I’d done the initial print run, but they’ve long since been fixed for both paper and eBook versions, such that only the very earliest buyers ever saw those original typos.

I’ve been told in the past that I’m a fairly decent editor, as that was something that even the Human Resources department at my software job used to ask me to do on some of their publications.  I think it’s true that some writers can’t edit their own work all that well because they tend to read the words the way they’d intended them to come out rather than how they actually appear on the page.  I’m fortunate enough to be able to spot most of my own errors as I type them, and a lot more on the first pass of editing.  However, even by the sixth or seventh draft I’ll still miss the occasional mistake, or worse yet introduce a new one in the editing itself.

It’s therefore a bit of a hit-and-miss proposition for me, but I’ve never been able to justify the expense of bringing a professional editor on board.  My best guess is that the services of an editor who’d significantly elevate the quality of my work would run into the thousands of dollars, which would far exceed the amount of profit I typically see on a book project.  Hence it’s not anything that I’d consider unless I start selling a lot more books in the future.  And yes, I realize that could be a classic chicken-and-the-egg scenario that I’ve just described!

  1. Can you describe your marketing plans for your books, both this one and the first one? Are there things you have learned that are making a difference? To what extent do you use social media for marketing your writing?

Marketing is such an important part of the process, and something I seriously suck at.  As silly as it sounds, I often feel as though promoting my own books is a form of bragging, which I’m very reluctant to do.  However, I recognize the need to ‘get the word out’, as it were, and so I tried something with No Brother of Mine that I’d never done before: I created a 1-page flyer for it and distributed roughly 400 copies of it around our neighbourhood.  It was an idea that came to me out of the blue, and I almost didn’t try it.  It seemed ridiculous that people would want to buy a book simply because a piece of paper about it arrived in their mailbox, and yet I got respectable results.  I needed to sell one book for every 50 flyers, give or take, in order to break even.  I ended up moving nearly three times that many copies, which qualified as quite the success in our household!

I’ve also put lots of material about the book on my blog, Twitter and Facebook.  I include quotes from readers who’ve thoroughly enjoyed NBoM, of which there have fortunately been many.  Since my followers and friends in those circles number in the dozens rather than thousands, however, social media isn’t exactly lighting up my sales charts.  I also need to try to get the book into some of our local bookstores but haven’t yet been brave enough to attempt that.  It’s that whole fear of rejection thing again.

One of the things I’ve learned in the wake of Game Over and No Brother of Mine is just how important the proverbial back cover blurb is for hooking readers’ interest.   My first novel is very hard to sum up without giving away many of the surprises in it, and so creating a short, intriguing description proved very difficult, to say the least.  NBoM, on the other hand, was dead simple:

When Mitchell James answers his doorbell on a quiet Monday evening, he’s not expecting to find two detectives standing on his porch.  And he’s certainly not expecting the pair to begin asking him questions about his brother, Ray, who he hasn’t seen or spoken to in 20 years.  But when the detectives go on to tell him that they believe Ray’s dead body may be lying in the morgue, Mitch’s comfortable little world is rocked.

As the shock of that news forces Mitch to re-examine memories from a painful childhood, he begins a journey to discover the truth about what has actually happened to Ray since their falling out so long ago.

Will the secret the two brothers share come to light now, after being buried for all those years?  What part did it play in setting up the events of the present?  And after working so hard to keep that secret from ever coming out, will Mitch have no choice but to watch its discovery destroy his own future?

Now who wouldn’t want to read that as soon as they could in order to find out what went on between the brothers that caused such a dramatic rift, as well as to learn if the body in the morgue really does belong to the younger one?  I came up with that blurb in less than an hour, whereas the Game Over description took days and still never really delivered the goods.  I think No Brother of Mine’s catchy hook resulted in quite a few sales, including most if not all of the purchases that came as a result of the neighbourhood flyer.

Still, I would have to say that promoting my books has definitely been my weakest area.

  1. What are your goals as far as writing?

AgileMan SketchWell, I love goals, and I always have lots of them.  With my novels, I try to explore themes, philosophies and possibilities that I find interesting.  At the same time, though, I’m always striving to tell a compelling story.  As a reader, I’m afraid I get bored with stories very easily.  If something feels ‘written’ rather than natural, I tend to be turned off.  If the dialogue isn’t believable and realistic, I lose interest.  If I can predict what’s going to happen in the next fifty pages or simply don’t care enough to keep reading in order to find out, then the book usually gets put away unfinished.  So first and foremost, anything I write has to completely hold my interest as I write it before I’ll ever believe it’ll hold anyone else’s interest as they read it.

I’ve set out in each novel so far (including the third one that I’m writing now) to strike a balance between events and characters.  As anyone who’s read either of my novels knows all too well, I’m not a big one for descriptions.  I can’t bring myself to spend much time talking about the clothes worn by my characters, the décor of their homes, or the types of cars they drive.  I know of authors who not only do all of that for every scene in their books but do so with the most delightful and fascinating descriptions you could ever hope to read.  Unfortunately, I don’t have that skill nor the desire to develop it, at this point in my growth as a writer.  I want things to happen, and the people to be interesting.  So those are the two main drivers in my books.

Beyond that, though, my goal is to tell stories that open up like a piece of origami as you go along.  I’m very proud of my first novel, Game Over, for a variety of reasons – having eventually finished it, after abandoning it for 18 months previously, for example – but there’s one aspect of it that I love more than anything else.  Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that Game Over is a story that appears to be about one thing, only to turn out in the later stages to have been about something else entirely.  Not only that, but a revelation in the final chapter encourages the reader to regard the narrator in a completely new light.  That’s the sort of thing I absolutely love as a reader, when it’s done well, and I was thrilled to try my hand at it in Game Over.

At a higher level, my goal with my writing is to slowly build up a body of work that I can be proud of.  I’d like the readers of my novels to experience a consistency in my fiction in terms of style and sensibilities, while being able to expect a variety of genres and subject matter.  I’m not a big fan of sequels, I’ve discovered.  I want each story to stand on its own and not simply be part of a larger saga.  Personally, I love getting to the end of a book and feeling that there are no unanswered questions left except the big one: “What happens next?”  If the author has hit the mark, then the reader is so invested in the characters and their lives that she’ll feel that she knows where each of the characters will go after that final page.  And that’s what I aim for.  Shortly after No Brother of Mine came out, one of my friends very enthusiastically tried to convince me over lunch that one of the characters from the book went in a very specific direction after the story concluded.  He was adamant about it, and had examples from the book to back up his thesis.  It wasn’t what I had envisioned for that character, but eventually I just smiled and said, “If that’s what you think he did, then that’s what he did.”

Anyway, I’ve finally run you out of questions!  Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk about my book, Elaine.  Your questions were wonderfully insightful and really made me think.

Consider leaving a comment for Matt or myself or peppering Matt with questions about his writing process. He shines at explaining all of it! You can find  his book for sale on Amazon.

Download your free copy of 10 Ways to Improve Your Writing from the link in the side column.


6 thoughts on “Matt L. Holmes Talks About Writing and No Brother of Mine Part II

  1. Hi Matt,
    This is definitely an intriguing plot, so happy to find another author who discovers their characters as they write. I try to do the deep POV discovery beforehand, but until I am writing that scene I honestly don’t know for sure what they are going to say. Sounds like you have that issue too. It can make for some major re-writes. Did you have many major plot revisions where you had to go back and fix character issues because your characters pulled a switch-a-roo on you further into the book?


    • (Matt here) Hi Jessica. Yes, I sometimes find that earlier scenes no longer work once I’ve gotten a better understanding of the characters. It always makes me glad that I’m not publishing in a serialized format (as Dickens and others used to do) as the pressure to have it all plotted out in detail in advance would really force me to write differently in that case. I love my safety net of editing, and the biggest changes usually come between Draft 1 and Draft 2, as that’s the first time I do a start-to-finish re-read of the story, specifically looking for what no longer works. Fortunately, only one or two other people ever see the 1st draft, so hardly anyone ends up knowing how messed up my initial take was!


  2. Matt, interesting interview! I’m so glad to hear another writer say they (1) love self-publishing and (2) do most of their own editing, as I do. So many people believe that’s anathema to a good book, but I beg to differ. The recognition and popularity of indie writers is growing day by day and I’m looking forward to the day we drown out the nay-sayers. As I was traditionally published in the past, I can honestly say that having full control of my book is absolutely the best part of self-publishing. I also enjoy the work–the formatting, the cover design, etc. It is a lot of work, but it’s supremely satisfying, as you know. Thanks for such a candid and interesting interview.


    • (Matt here) Hi Melissa, and thanks for providing some insight into the traditional publishing game! I think all those teenage years of mine where I learned not to worry too much about what other people were thinking has prepared me well for this whole writing thing. Nowadays I don’t get too worked up if someone says “You did XXX and you’re not supposed to do that when writing” because I’m mostly just trying to tell an interesting story in each of my books. If I break some rules along the way, that’s only a problem (in my opinion) if doing so takes the readers out of enjoying the book. That kind of attitude probably won’t ever win me any literary awards, but I really wouldn’t expect to win any even if I tried.

      And yes, that feeling of maintaining control over your work is really something, isn’t it? I love it, personally.


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