Dennis McFadden’s short stories have been included twice in Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Mystery Stories series (2011 and 2013). But his work isn’t confined to the mystery field: He’s been published in a number of literary journals, such as The Missouri Review, The Massachusetts Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Fiction, Crazyhorse, and PRISM International. As he suggests in this post, the hallmark of his work is realism, but it’s a realism from which he draws a lot of dark humor. Nowhere is that more apparent than in his two stories for EQMM, both Christmas tales: January 2014’s “The Purloined Pigs” and January 2015’s “God Is Good.” (The latter issue is just out!)—Janet Hutchings
If only I had a nickel for every time a fan has walked up to me and asked, “Dennis, how did you become a part-time part-time mystery writer?” . . . well, let’s just say I wouldn’t know what to do with all that nickel. (For those of you on the outside looking in, noses pressed up against that window of envy, and who might not be familiar with all the argot and jargon associated with the part-time part-time mystery writing racket, a part-time part-time mystery writer is a part-time writer who writes part-time mysteries.)
So, anyhow, here’s what I tell them:
- Get yourself raised poor. Be a son or daughter of the Depression, which is not to say that you should have experienced the Depression firsthand yourself, elsewise you’re probably deceased, but it is to say that your immediate predecessors should have. And were poor. Extra points if you remember accompanying your mother to collect surplus food (indeterminate cheese and mysterious canned meat that didn’t make bad hash) at the Y, and if you had something of a feckless father who wasn’t always there, and who, when he was, seldom read bedtime stories, though he might have told a few bad jokes when he was drunk.
- Discover the Hardy Boys. Read same.
- Have a high school English teacher who, to your surprise and delight, thinks you’re the best writer since Shakespeare, and, therefore, start to think that you can write. Get the idea of writing in your head. Preferably that high school English teacher’s name is Macbeth. Bruce Macbeth, maybe, but Macbeth nevertheless. This helps a lot.
- Be the first person in your family to go to college. A rich, liberal arts college is best, where you’re among the poorest kids there, known for bumming cigarettes and hiding them behind your ears because your hair is uncommonly long enough to do so.
- Major in English. Natch. Write some, study a little, party a lot. Publish a couple of stories in the old lit mag. Play the poor artist card when you’re trying to get laid.
- Upon graduation, don’t even think about going into writing or the publishing field. Don’t even let that idea enter your mind. You’re poor, remember? Get a real job. Know exactly where your next meal is coming from.
- As a matter of fact, take a decade or so off from writing altogether to drink a lot and earn that paycheck. Get married. Find a good civil service job in which to wallow. Have a kid.
- At some point think, hey, I’m not getting any younger, maybe I ought to give that writing thing another shot.
- Write a novel or two while still earning a regular paycheck. Now you have the part-time writer part down. (The part-time mystery part will come later. Be patient.)
- Get serious about it. Write a good third novel. Latch onto a real, honest-to-God New York City literary agent to represent you. Put the champagne on ice. Get ready to celebrate. Wait patiently.
- When all she can manage is a higher class of rejection slips than you’d been getting on your own, and she jettisons you after a year, get depressed. Decide the hell with it. Decide to quit writing. Decide who needs this shit.
- Get caught on the rebound by Irish activism. Work hard to get England out of Ireland. Write propaganda. Do not, I repeat do not, write novels or short stories. In fact, avoid writing fiction altogether for at least another decade or two. Get out of Irish activism when peace breaks out. Think, I’ve got an awful lot of time on my hands now.
- See step 8. Repeat.
- Write some short stories. Look into getting them published. Think, jeez, look at this crap they’re publishing. Think, my stories are better than that. Think, this should be a piece of cake. Find out how to go about submitting your stories to journals and magazines. Start submitting them.
- Be shocked at how hard it is to get your stories published.
- Think, who are these fools rejecting my very good stories?
- Keep at it. You’ll show them. Write more and more. Read more and more. Write better. Keep reading and keep writing.
- Write about what you know (you read that somewhere). Inasmuch as what you know is everyday life, for example, being raised poor, write realistic stories. Eschew modernism, postmodernism, magic realism, this ism or that ism, eschew anything but realism. See how many of your stories involve mystery, because the realistic life you’re writing realistically about is full of mystery, which is because, hey, you can never know a fraction of what’s really going on in the lives of other people, or, for that matter, in your own life. Motives are a mystery. Everybody’s. Even your own. Why did I say that? I should have said that instead. Why did I do that? I can’t believe I did that. Why? Life is a mystery.
- Now you have the part-time mystery part down.
- Start getting your stories published in journals and magazines.
- Start getting your stories published in better journals and magazines. Be in the right place at the right time and maybe get a collection published.
- Keep your day job. Maybe you’re not poor now, but why take a chance? Besides, there’s an added bonus: when someone wonders why you aren’t more of a success in your day job, you can always say, hey, look, my real love was writing; I devoted so much time to writing, I never had a chance to focus on my career. And when someone wonders why you weren’t more of a success at writing, you can say, hey, I was poor, I had to work for a living, I didn’t have enough time to focus on my writing.
- Live happily ever after.
- Except for the times when you’re wondering how far you might have gotten in your day job if you hadn’t spent so much time writing. And wondering how good a writer you might have become if you hadn’t had that goddam day job. This last one is probably the one you wonder about the most, particularly when you’re writing about writing. Wonder and wonder.
- Think, it’s a mystery to me. Write that down.
Ah, Dennis, this is so funny, sad, real,hilarious, poignant, true! (I know that looks redundant, but think of the subtle differences!) I’m going to pass this around and at least be able to claim I can recognize honest writing when I see it. Love this: “you can never know a fraction of what’s really going on in the lives of other people, or, for that matter, in your own life. Motives are a mystery. Everybody’s. Even your own. Why did I say that? I should have said that instead. Why did I do that? I can’t believe I did that. Why? Life is a mystery.”
Thank you, Nancy.
Yes, one question, Dennis–are you me? This was very funny, because it’s so realistic. Where did those English go, anyway? I’ve often wondered.
I have one word for you, David: doppelganger.
Wow, thank you for this road map. I’ve chipped away at this list, but now I see all of the steps I’ve missed and I understand why I have not yet reached step 22, partial success/partial failure. I’ll keep trying.
You’re welcome, Diana. I’m glad you enjoyed the road map – now I only hope you can get it folded again and back in your glove box.
Thank you for this! Really loved it. The part-time part-timers among us can definitely relate. Recurring obsessive thoughts of mystery #24 mark my existence, particularly during long commuter railroad rides while sitting next to a loudly snoring passenger.
My pleasure, V.S. My own long commute is behind the wheel of my Nissan, alas, and the only person snoring is me (glad I have cruise-control).
LOL, Yes, I can relate to all of those. Except my Number Two was “Read Nancy Drew.” And instead of the Irish thing I worked as an artist (or tried to). I just wish I’d realized that all those murderous thoughts I had while holding down real jobs could have been put to better use in stories.
Most of my murderous thoughts took place during the Irish activism phase.
Darn it. Now I’m going to have to explore more of your work – what a treasure this write-up is.
My teacher’s name was Mr. Devine . Wherever he is, I hope he knows what a gift he gave me over fifty years ago. I was too painfully shy to let him know then.
Thank you, Marian. I hope you’re using your Devine gift well.
Change a detail here or there, some for the better, some for worse, this is my roadmap. Thanks for spelling it out; I now feel much better about the last few decades.
It seems I’ve become an expert cartographer – thanks, Lou.