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Man from the South: Author John M. Floyd Speaks!

Sometimes all it takes is one short story to know you're in the hands of a truly gifted writer. John M. Floyd is such a writer, and the story that turned me on to him was "Nothing but the Truth," which appears in the 2007 issue of the annual "Champagne Shivers" magazine. It's a chilling work of poetic justice with a whopper of an ending. Amazingly, his collection of suspenseful short stories, "Rainbow's End," is loaded with tales of equal or surpassing power.

John's fiction is by turns clever, nail biting, funny and jaw dropping. If you enjoy stories that fling you through their pages like a stone from a slingshot, John M. Floyd is a writer you want to be acquainted with.

Lucky for Fearfodder, John is every bit as gracious as one of his villains, and he has kindly agreed to endure an interrogation session. The light is in his eyes, his constraints are secure ... We are ready to begin.

Fearfodder: You published "Rainbow's End" in 2006. Can we expect another collection of short fiction from you? Do you anticpate publishing a novel?

John Floyd: My publisher says he's considering another collection of my stories, since the first one has done well. As to a novel, I've completed three now, and I do realize I should start aggressively marketing them. I've chosen so far to focus more on the short stuff, because I enjoy it so much (both the writing and the marketing) and because I'm teaching several short-story classes. Besides that, with short stories I'm pretty sure I know what I'm doing; novels are still uncharted territory.

FF: I understand there are two film projects in the works based on stories from "Rainbow's End." Can you talk about what that experience has been like?

JF: It's been great fun. The first will be a short film called "The Death of Pinto Bishop" (the producer changed the title slightly), about a young boy's encounter with a legendary outlaw in the 1880s. I co-wrote the screenplay, and was recently invited to attend the screen tests and auditions; it was quite a kick, for me, to hear actors reading lines that I had written. Locations have been chosen, and shooting will begin in October. The second film, "The Bomb Squad," is based on a much longer story, and is tentatively scheduled for late 2008. Since I'm a lifelong movie addict anyway, I've been having a great time with all this.

FF: Your stories tend to have deeply satisfying resolutions that stem from character revelations. Do characters drive the outcomes of your plots, or is it the other way around, or neither?

JF: I agree with most other writers that characterization is the most important element of fiction, but I also believe that a good plot is essential to the success of a story. And by plot I mean suspense, conflict, tension, anticipation. To have too much of one (character or plot) and too little of the other seems a shame, in my opinion, great characters are wasted if nothing interesting happens to them, and the most action-packed storyline in the world is wasted if readers care nothing for the people in the midst of the conflict.

The best approach, obviously, is to try to create both: (1) strong, believable characters involved in (2) a difficult and suspenseful situation. How do you do that? There are many ways, but one is to include (when possible) a lot of dialogue. It's great for plot, because nothing moves a story forward as effectively as tight dialogue, and it's also an excellent way to develop your characters and reveal information about them to the reader. Good examples are the Spenser novels, and anything, books or short stories, by Elmore Leonard.

FF: What are some of the hallmarks of your writing process? Do you write in longhand, with a typewriter or on the computer, for instance?

JF: I used to always write stories in longhand first, on a lined notepad, and key the result into the computer later, and I still sometimes write in longhand for that first, very rough, draft. Lately I've been more apt to do the whole thing on the computer, from first draft through final manuscript, without ever writing a single word on paper. But I do hit the SAVE key pretty often during the process. (What's the old saying? I may be crazy but I'm not stupid.)

FF: Do you generally have a clear idea of where you're headed when you begin a story, or are you often surprised by what presents itself once you've started?

JF: I always have a good idea of where I'm headed with a story, and even what the ending will be, before I ever sit down and start typing. That doesn't mean it can't change direction during the process of writing, because it usually does. But I can't seem to start writing without having the storyline mapped out beforehand, at least in my head. What that means is that I spend almost as much time pre-plotting the story as I spend writing it. That's just the way I like to do it (maybe I am stupid), and I realize that doesn't work for everyone. But I have to know where I'm supposed to be going before I get behind the wheel and pull out of the driveway; if I didn't, there's no telling how long it'd take me to arrive at my destination.

To those who insist that an outline, even a mental one, would stifle their creativity, my reply would be that it can't stifle anything unless you're unwilling to change it. If you use an outline as a tentative structure to keep you on the right path, and keep it flexible in case you later see that you need to change that path, it's a great help, at least to me.

FF: How much revising do you do?

JF: Quite a bit. The good part about that is I'm one of those weird people who actually think revising is fun. I enjoy polishing and tightening what I've written, and trying to make each paragraph and sentence and word as perfect as it can possibly be. (I didn't say I'm good at that, mind you, just said I enjoy it.) And the word tightening is key here. I truly believe that every draft should be shorter than the one before, until the manuscript is as focused and tight and compact as it can be. Editors these days won't allow you to waste words in a short story.

One more thing about revisions. I have finally come to realize that it's true what professional writers have always said: it's a good idea to let a supposedly finished story cool off a bit before submitting it. When I do that, and come back to it later, I almost always find things that I need to improve. The trick, of course, is knowing when to quit revising and declare it finished.

FF: The Angela Potts stories in "Rainbow's End" dish up their suspense with a good dose of humor. Which do you find more difficult to write, humor or suspense?

JF: I suppose it's not easy to write either one, but since I so enjoy reading both humor and suspense I believe that makes me a little better at writing them. I think one of the masters of suspense and plotting is Harlan Coben, and my favorite humor writers are Carl Hiaasen and Christopher Buckley and Janet Evanovich, so I try to emulate those folks as much as I can. (And then there are a few authors who manage to successfully combine suspense and dry humor, like Nelson DeMille and Robert B. Parker). All of us can learn a great deal from such writers, even while we envy them.

FF: It's tempting to compare your work to that of such masters of the twist ending as Roald Dahl and O. Henry, but you're as different from them as they are from each other. To what do you attribute the signature oomph that your fiction delivers?

JF: If you're tempted, go ahead and do it. (Just kidding.) First, let me thank you for even suggesting that my writing compares at all with the work of those two; both are among my heroes. As to your question, if my writing does in any way have a signature, it would probably be that I try hard to make every story take unexpected turns, not only at the end but, when possible, during the story itself. Those little reversals are the things that I hope keep a reader's interest; they sure keep mine when I encounter them in other people's fiction.

FF: What have been some of the biggest influences on your imagination, whether from film, television, fiction or reality?

JF: That's a tough question only because there are so many. Some authors who have certainly influenced the way I write are Thomas Harris, Stephen King, Joe R. Lansdale, Jack Ritchie, Ken Follett, John Dunning, Larry McMurtry, Martin Cruz Smith, and the several I mentioned earlier. In the area of film, I think my fiction has been influenced by directors like Spielberg, Scorcese, John McTiernan, the Coen brothers, M. Night Shyamalan, and (of course) Hitchcock. The one thing all the above names, and their work, have in common is an incredible combination of skill and imagination. How can we, as storytellers, not learn from that?

FF: Many thanks, John, for taking the time to give us a window into your work. It's comforting to know that your devious mind is on the right side of the law.

John Floyd's short stories have appeared in "The Strand Magazine," "Grit," "Woman's World," "Pleiades," "Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine" and many other publications. A 2007 Derringer Award winner, he has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize and has more than a dozen stories available at Amazon Shorts. A collection of his short mystery fiction, "Rainbow's End," was released in hardcover last year. John is a former Air Force captain and IBM systems engineer.

--Pete Mesling


Posted by Pete on July 24, 2007 1:21 AM
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I once took an online course in short mystery fiction under John Floyd. He thought that my story "Sweeper" would sell to one of the big mystery mags, but it didn't. However, it is now appearing on www.mystericale.com, the first of six stories about the character Sweeper that Mysterical-E will publish. Sweeper is unquestionably one of the most original characters to hit the mystery genre in years. Seriously. You should read the story and comment on it.

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