A Conversation With Evan Marshall

by Claire E. White

Evan Marshall has always loved books. His love of reading as a child helped influence his decision to pursue a career in the book industry. A former senior editor at Dodd, Mead, he now heads his own literary agency. He is a nationally acknowledged expert on the writing, selling and promoting of novels, and is
Photo of Evan Marshall
the author of the highly regarded writing system, The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing (Writer's Digest Books, 1998). He is the president of The Evan Marshall Agency, a leading literary agency that specializes in representing fiction writers. He has contributed articles on writing and publishing to Writer's Digest, to which he has been a correspondent for over a decade, and other magazines. He is the author of Eye Language and the Jane Stuart and Winky mysteries from Kensington Publishing Corp. The first novel in the series, Missing Marlene, is an exciting cozy mystery starring literary agent and part-time sleuth Jane Stuart and her cat Winky. Evan is a member of the Association of Authors' Representatives, Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime. He lives and works in Pine Brook, New Jersey, where he is at work on the second Jane Stuart mystery, Hanging Hannah.

Evan spoke with about his new book, Missing Marlene, and gives some excellent advice to apsiring novelists about finding -- and keeping -- an agent.

What did you like to read when you were growing up?

I was not your typical child reader. No Hardy Boys for me. I stepped right into the classics and then quickly discovered mysteries. I had read all of Agatha Christie's books by the time I graduated high school. (Little did I know I would one day be a senior editor at Dodd, Mead, her American publisher.) I also developed a penchant for best-sellers from earlier times. For example, I read Forever, Amber; Portrait of Jennie; Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House; The Ghost and Mrs. Muir; Good Morning, Miss Dove; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and of course, Valley of the Dolls (one of my favorites). I wanted to know what people used to read, as compared with what they were reading now. This practice gave me a good grounding in the development of popular fiction.

How did you become a literary agent?

I was a book editor and, frankly, became disillusioned with this career choice. I felt it was a thankless, low-paying, drudgery-filled job. And yet I adore working with books. So being an agent seemed the only choice. (Yes, I was already writing books--my first came out when I was 29--but I knew writing wasn't going to support me!) I set myself up as an independent agent, but was immediately approached by Sterling Lord to work in his agency. I did work there for several years before going out on my own again, nearly fifteen years ago now.

What do you love most about being a literary agent?

What I love most about being a literary agent is seeing the writers I represent rise in their careers and achieve greater recognition and success--seeing them achieve their dreams. I also love discovering new talent--and making that wonderful phone call to tell an author her first novel has been sold.

As a literary agent, what about a new mystery manuscript really catches your eye?

What catches my eye in a new mystery manuscript is impeccable writing--writing that exhibits a thorough knowledge of craft--and a strikingly original "hook." The hook is a fresh and interesting occupation for the sleuth, a setting or time period we haven't seen before, or some other aspect that sets this book apart from thousands of others.

What mistakes should new writers avoid when dealing with agents?

"New writers erroneously believe that if we don't know the book's lead well, and if we don't know all the circumstances that have led up to her being where she is, we won't care about that person. But this is untrue."
The first contact a writer makes with an agent is usually via a query letter. Writers should learn to write good query letters. They should stop trying to be cute and attention-getting and understand that the query letter is simply a business letter in which a writer describes her project and credentials and asks whether the agent would like to consider the work in question. It's the rational, professional query letter that makes me want to see a manuscript. Writers should also understand that agents have many clients. Writers who place too many unreasonable demands on their agents introduce tension that prevents a smooth working relationship.

How has the publishing industry changed since you first became a literary agent?

The most obvious change is that there are far fewer publishers than when I started as an agent. Editors don't edit as much anymore, and books are seen more as products than as works of art. If books don't have strong hooks, they usually don't get bought. In general, publishing is a colder, harder business than when I started.

What inspired you to cross the line from literary agent to novelist?

I had wanted to write my own fiction for years, and finally challenged myself to complete a novel and submit it. It had become frustrating for me to sell so many novels by other people, yet not to have sold one of my own.

Why did you choose to write in the mystery genre?

I take a highly plot-oriented approach to the creation of fiction, and the mystery's puzzle seemed an excellent "skeleton" on which to hang other aspects of the novel such as character development and suspense. Also, mysteries are my favorite reading, so I was passionate about the genre and knew much of what had and hadn't already been done.

How did growing up in a small town influence your writing?

My observations about small-town life had a strong influence on my fiction set in Shady Hills, a town much like Sharon, Massachusetts, where I grew up. It appears pretty and peaceful, but as in all small towns, secrets and sin lie just below the surface. These underlying elements, and the lengths to which people went to hide them, fascinated me, and I resolved to explore them one day in my novels.

Let's talk about your new mystery novel, Missing Marlene. How did this book come into being?

Missing Marlene
by Evan Marshall
Once I had decided to write a mystery, I needed a story idea. I searched and searched--and rejected and rejected ideas as not good enough. One day I had lunch with a friend who told me about a couple he knew whose nanny, who had seemed happy in her job, suddenly vanished! For years, no one heard from her or knew where she went. Then word filtered back to the couple that their nanny had simply gone home to the West Indies without bothering to give notice. My wife and I had also had a nanny for our children, and this story grabbed me. I began to wonder what effect the sudden disappearance of the nanny would have on a widowed working mother (my sleuth, Jane Stuart). I also wondered what other, more "interesting" things might be responsible for a nanny's sudden disappearance. This scenario fit in perfectly with the village life I'd created for Jane in Shady Hills, and I decided to go with that idea. Jane's nanny is--you guessed it--Marlene, and I'll leave it up to readers to find out why she's missing....

Jane, the star of Missing Marlene, is an interesting and entertaining character. How did you create Jane?

Jane Stuart is, like me, a literary agent. I followed the golden rule of writing what you know. Jane's ideas about being an agent and about publishing are my own ideas. I find it wonderfully cathartic to be able to express these ideas--and my frustrations--"safely" in my fiction. Jane's personality is also a lot like mine. I'm told I have a dry wit and tend to be blunt and sarcastic. All of these factors make Jane a very easy character for me to write and know.

What went into your decision to use a female lead for this series?

On a purely commercial level, I knew as an agent that female sleuths are more appealing to readers, at least in cozy mysteries. But for some reason I felt more comfortable writing about a woman. Many readers have commented that I do this convincingly. My wife says it's because I'm a woman's man--whatever that means. I think it's because I know Jane so well and understand her.

How much of Jane's day to day life as a literary agent parallels your own?

A lot of it! Everything Jane does, from evaluating manuscripts to fighting with editors over deals, comes from my career as an agent. I draw liberally on the details of my workdays to add realism to Jane's office life.

Tell us about Winky. Is she modeled on any cats you know personally? Are you a cat lover?

Long before our two sons were born, my wife and I had several cats, one of whom was a tortoiseshell cat named Winky. We were quite fond of Winky, who, sadly, is gone now. When I decided to give Jane and her son Nick a cat, I felt Winky would be perfect. Winky, too, is an easy "character" for me to mwrite, because she is our very own Winky, acting and reacting just as ours did.

Our cats did not respond well to the introduction of children, and as much as we love cats, my wife and I decided not to replace our furry friends once they were gone. From time to time I do think fondly of having cats, or at least a cat, again, but I think if that happens, it will be once our children are grown.

What's next for Jane and Winky?

Hanging Hannah I've just finished Jane and Winky's second adventure--and must admit I'm delighted with it (I hope that doesn't sound conceited!). It's called Hanging Hannah, and it's about a young woman found hanging in the woods behind Shady Hills' big old inn, Hydrangea House. (Was it suicide or murder?) No one in town knows who the woman is--or if anyone knows, no one's telling. Other murders, including the particularly nasty murder of an especially obnoxious New York book editor (see what I mean about catharsis?), hold a clue to the death of the poor woman behind the inn, if only Jane and Winky can put all the pieces together in time to save themselves from a killer waiting to strike again....

Let's talk about the creative process. Tell us about the process of writing (do you write on a schedule everyday, do you use the computer etc.)?

The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing
by Evan Marshall
As the author of The Marhsall Plan for Novel Writing, I take a structured approach to creating novels, and so I begin by creating an extremely detailed outline for my books. These outlines contain every detail I know about a story before I begin writing it. The outline for Hanging Hannah ran almost a hundred pages. There's still room for fun and discovery, however, as the scenes come to life. When I'm writing a novel, I write at least ten pages a day, working closely from my outline. I write on my computer. My most valuable rule has been never to go back (except to check an important fact) while I'm writing. Nor do I allow myself to print out the novel until the first draft is completed. Only then do I print out, edit heavily, key in these changes, and print out the final manuscript. By this time the work is how I want it.

How do you juggle your work as an agent with your writing?

My work as an agent keeps me hopping Monday through Friday, eight-thirty to six. So my writing happens evenings and weekends. This makes for a full life--and often I must remember to spend more time with my family--but I don't think I could ever give up either my agenting or my writing.

I'd like to turn to your writing book, The Marshall Plan For Novel Writing. What inspired you to write the book?

"Jane's ideas about being an agent and about publishing are my own ideas. I find it wonderfully cathartic to be able to express these ideas -- and my frustrations -- 'safely' in my fiction. Jane's personality is also a lot like mine."
For years I'd read writing how-to books and found them too abstract, too "touchy feely." I yearned for something more concrete. So I began my own study of how novels were constructed, and realized that at the heart of creating every novel is a basic, linear process. I began to teach this process at seminars around the country, and writers began to ask me if I had put this process into a book. When I realized that such a book would be valuable to writers, I proposed the book to Writer's Digest Books. They loved the idea and The Marshall Plan For Novel Writing was born. By the way, a follow-up book, The Marshall Plan Blueprint, will be out in the spring of 2001.

What mistakes do aspiring writers most commonly make when writing fiction?

The most common mistake is ignoring viewpoint. Every scene must be written from the viewpoint of one of a preselected set of viewpoint characters. Another mistake is presenting too much background information, and doing so in the first few pages. Writers should begin their stories with the event that kicks off the story, and then spoon-feed us background information only when it's needed to understand what's going on.

Why is it important to outline a book's plot before you start the actual writing?

I believe it's important, especially in a mystery, so that you won't wander or stall as you're writing. In my opinion, books that are outlined first are richer and treat the reader to more surprises than books that aren't outlined first.

When you're not working, what do you like to do for fun?

Fun? What's that? Just kidding. I love to read, of course, and to spend time with my family and our friends. In the summer months you'll often find me in our pool with my wife and our boys. I also love to wander around the Internet, which always holds something new and surprising. My wife and I enjoy going to movies, museums, ballet and the opera. And, whenever possible, we love to travel.

How much do you use the Internet? Do you find it useful?

I find the Internet invaluable. It is the writer's most vital research tool. Now I can get the facts on countless subjects for my novels without having to leave my office. This ease makes my novels richer. And of course e-mail has become the most convenient method of communication. Virtually all of my clients "do" e-mail, and I am able to keep in closer touch with them than ever before.

What do you like to read for pleasure (other than required reading for work)?

I love--you guessed it--a good mystery or thriller, though I'm on the squeamish side and can't take much gore. I literally grow faint at the sight of blood--especially my own! I also enjoy what I would call literary humor. Some of my favorite authors are Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, P.D. James, Andrew Klavan, Muriel Spark, and Margaret Drabble.

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