Frank Zafiro Interview

Frank Zafiro is the author of the River City crime novels and also writes mainstream fiction under the name Frank Scalise, which is his actual name. Born and raised in Spokane, he joined the U.S. Army after high school graduation and served in Military Intelligence. He’s been a Spokane police officer since 1993 and has served as patrol officer, corporal, detective, sergeant and lieutenant. His current title is captain.

Zafiro has written seriously since he was thirteen, starting out with short stories and poetry. Last week I reviewed his River City series. If you didn’t read that post, let me summarize: I’m a big fan.  As Frank’s latest stalker groupie, I emailed him with a bunch of questions about his journey towards publication and being a writer while working full time.

Here are the questions and his answers. Enjoy!

When and why did you begin writing? 

When?  Well, like most writers, I began pretty early.  Maybe eight or so?  But by ten, I knew I wanted to be a writer, so that is the age I usually give in response to this question.  To be honest, I don’t ever remember I time where I didn’t want to be a writer.

Why? The same reason almost each of you write…because I’m a writer.  

I know that sounds like I’m being a smart alec, but I’m really not.  Much in the same way that a musician plays music or a carpenter works wood, I write because it is who I am.  I’d write even if I couldn’t get anyone to read what I’ve written.  I am a writer.  I write.  I suspect that most of the people reading this understand perfectly.  The rest probably think I’m being pretentious.

Are there any particular authors/books you looked/look to for inspiration?

I think this is an answer that has changed over the years.  As a youngster, I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, so I looked to people like Frank Herbert, Piers Anthony, Terry Brooks (and don’t forget Spokane’s own, David Eddings!) for inspiration.  As time passed, I broadened my reading and found others.  I have to say, though, that Stephen King has been an inspiration for a long time.  Not just his personal story (and his book, On Writing), but the masterful way that he writes.  Yeah, no one will confuse it with high brow literary fiction, but he has a way of capturing an image, an action and an emotion that I think we can all learn from. 

On the crime fiction front, I have looked to Waumbaugh, McBain, Block, Lehane…all the masters, as well as people like Steve Hamilton (his Alex McKnight series rocks).  

Is there anything you find particular challenging in your writing?

Working in the time to get the stories out of my head and onto paper (or pixels).  It’s difficult to juggle a full time job, especially one as involved and “heavy” as mine can be, along with children and a family, and still find the time to write. 

In the writing itself, I think my most challenging area is narrative description.  How do you describe the farm house without simply spending two paragraphs describing it as if it were a real estate ad?  Dialogue is my strongest suit and I think of ways to work description into those threads, but finding the balance between painting a picture for the reader without losing her in the exposition is always a challenge.

Your first two River City crime novels were released by Wolfmont Publishing and then re-released by Gray Dog Press. Could you talk a little bit about your experience with first getting published and then switching publishers?

Actually, the first was from Wolfmont but the second was from Aisling.  Gray Dog is the third (and hopefully final) home of the River City series.

Under a Raging Moon, published by Wolfmont in 2006, was my first published novel.  The publisher was a small press in Georgia, and a fairly new one at the time.  So I guess we were both learning.  I made the mistake of not making sure that certain distribution levels were going to be met (something as simple as being listed in Ingram, and accepting returns).  I also discovered this publisher didn’t believe the second novel would be one that anyone would read, due to the subject matter.  So we had a cold but amicable ‘divorce’ and I took the second book elsewhere (of course, Wolfmont held onto the rights to that first book until they expired in 2008).

Aisling was also a newer publisher but much more progressive.  They did a good job on the cover of Heroes Often Fail and they marketed it well for a small press.  However, the Chief Editor also wrote under several pseudonyms and I suspect that they simply overextended.  So, despite selling more copies in one quarter than the first book at Wolfmont sold in a year…Aisling folded.  They went about it in a rather immature fashion, ignoring emails and phone calls for months as deadline after deadline passed, but ultimately ponied up and released all rights to all of their authors before shuttering the place.

So at that point, I’m starting to feel like the bad luck crime writer, even though I had good sales and good reviews.  So when I was invited to a local author function at Hastings here in Spokane and met Russ Davis at Gray Dog Press, I was both excited and cautious.  I like the small press experience immensely.  As the author, you are so much more involved in the development of your book.  The editor actually listens to you and follows good advice or ideas.  You end up with something much closer to what you envisioned when you first wrote the thing than I think you might with a large publisher.  Of course, the down side is less distribution and a lower profile.  You most definitely have to consider it a marathon and not a sprint.  Sales will spike a little at the release and then trickle on after that.  If you expect NYC Publisher-type treatment and results, you will be disappointed.  But, as I mentioned, you do get to be part of a much more closely knit team and someone(s) who cares intimately for your novel.

Having experienced three separate small press publishers (more, if you count the ten different publishers I have worked with by being part of their anthologies), I’ve learned that you should definitely read the contract carefully and don’t be afraid to speak up about what you want in that contract.  Also, don’t be shy about giving your ideas and input, as most publishers of this size are very amenable to suggestions. 

How do you find time writing while working full time?

It’s tough!  I guess I’m lucky in that I am what I refer to as a “block writer.”  In other words, I don’t seem to be able to sit down and write for one hour a day every day at the same time, BUT I can sit down (when I am able to carve out the time) for five straight hours and rip off a huge swath of story.  It tends to be raw at that point and in great need of an edit, but all the basic elements are there — character, story, plot.  So that’s how I get it done — in surges.

Do you have a support group of readers and/or other writers that help you with your works in progress? If so, what do you most appreciate about them and what do they most help you with?

I have a couple of writer friends that I exchange work with.  And I have my wife, Kristi.  Everyone brings a different element to the critique process.  My friend from New Jersey, Jill Maser, is a line by line critic.  She hammers every little thing.  Kristi is bigger picture, asking things like, “Are you sure Katie would say that?  I don’t see her being so sad about this.”  These varying perspectives, when I put them all together, really help to put the work into focus and make it considerably better.  This is why I make sure to do an Acknowledgment at the beginning of the novels.  It may seem a tad pretentious for a writer at my stage of the journey, but it is my way of publicly saying thank you to these very important people.

How much time do you spend marketing your books and do you have any good marketing tips?

Every chance I get!  It’s intermittent, though, based on my other responsibilities.  I try to make a big splash when the books come out and then hit the bookstores.  Any chance to be interviewed or attend a book club, I jump on those, too.

And bookmarks.  Readers like bookmarks.

As far as tips go, I think the best advice I can give is never do a hard sell.  Tell people about your books.  Listen to them talk about the books they write or like…and actually be interested!  Make friends with people.  Give them bookmarks.  They may not buy your book that day, but they might later.  Or they might get it from the library.  Or tell someone else that will.  I think that karma has a big role here.  Put out some good karma and just be glad you did.  If it comes back around, and it usually will, great!

Do you have any specific writing tips for people interested in writing series? For example, how do you keep story and character arcs through the sequence of novels?

Most people write a series with a single main character, but River City features an ensemble cast, so my advice is directed more toward that.

I think that if you really “know” these characters, you’ll know whether and how they will change over the course of the books.  Don’t be afraid to let a minor character have a larger role if it works within the confines of the series.  Remain true to the characters — don’t force words into their mouths or actions they wouldn’t take simply because it fits the plot development you want.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you wrote your first book?

 Slow down.  When I wrote the first book, I went through the story at a brisk pace.  That’s good at times (many of the reviews were pleased with this), but sometimes you have to stop and savor a moment or stroll more slowly through a scene.  It allows you to develop a richer, more textured story.

Also, don’t try to jam everything you ever wanted to do in a novel into that first book.  Write what works for that book, and believe there will be another that you can work in those other things.

What’s your next project?

Dead Even, a collection of River City short stories, is coming out in fall 2010.  Then, in March 2011, the fourth River City crime novel, And Every Man Has to Die will be released.  I have a number of completed projects (a crime/suspense novel, a mystery novel and a YA novel) that are looking for the right home.  I’ve just barely begun the fifth River City crime novel, Place of Wrath and Tears.  And I’m about halfway through an unrelated mystery novel tentatively titled At this Point in My Life.

Beyond that, I have a couple of long-standing ideas that I’m starting to whittle away at, but it’s slow going.  There are only so many hours in the day, right?

Any other advice you’d like to give aspiring authors? 

Since all good authors steal, I will provide a pair of illicitly acquired examples…because they inspired me. 

The first is about process and comes from Gary Provost, who wrote back in 1987 that you should find at least one other writer to partner with, because sometimes (and my experience is many times) another writer will understand what the rest of the world does not.

The second is about tenacity and perseverance.  It comes from Joe Konrath, who told us that there is a word for a writer who never gives up. 

Published.

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