TweetMark Piper has been writing professionally his entire adult life. He holds a P.D in English from the University of Oregon and has taught literature and writing at the college level for several years. He has published two novels, You Wish, which earned first place gold in the 2019 American Eagle Book Awards, and the recently released, The Old Block. His short stories have appeared in Short Story America, The CWC Literary Review, and several online literary magazines.
Time to chat with Mark!
What is your latest book?
My second novel, The Old Block, was released in October of 2020. It’s a literary novel, that touches several genres, including coming of age, contemporary, mainstream, mystery, and even a bit of romance.
Tag line: What would you do if you discovered your father might not be the person you always thought he was?
Shortly after his father dies, 24-year-old Nick Castle discovers what seems to be a draft of the novel his father had always hoped to write. But a clue at the end causes Nick to fear that this story of a serious federal crime and escape from the U.S. may not be fiction at all. When Nick sets out to find out the truth about his father’s past, he learns more than he ever expected—about his father and about himself.
How did you choose the genre you write in? Or did it choose you?
I’m not really a genre author, the fiction I write—and read—is eclectic and sometimes difficult to fit into any specific genre. Novels have to be categorized for marketing, though. I wrote my debut novel, You Wish, primarily for adults, despite the fact the protagonist is fourteen years old.
Despite my best efforts, the book is labeled young adult and sometimes even children’s books. At the very least it’s YA Crossover. So far all the reviews I’ve received are from adults, and I doubt any teenagers have even read it.
My most recent novel, The Old Block, is a literary novel, but it features large doses of mystery and romance. My current WIP, Until Proven Innocent, has thriller elements laced with comedy, mystery, and even a bit of horror. But it doesn’t strive to hit all the expected/required tropes of those particular genres.
Even though I don’t usually hold to the boundaries of a specific genre, I have a great deal of respect for any authors who do them well. My academic career focused on American and English literature with a specialization in the Nineteenth-Century novel. I suppose that influence is why my preference is to write literary novels, most of which unabashedly steal bits and pieces from other established genres.
Do your books begin with ideas for characters or plots? Something else?
The starting point for most of my fiction is a “what if” question, as advocated by Stephen King and several others. So, I usually have an clear enough idea of my main character, his or her goals, and where the story is headed. The rest falls into place as I write it. The story develops almost on its own, while I do my best to keep up with the characters. Always there are surprises, but the core idea usually holds true. Not surprisingly, this method can mean I don’t know for sure the details of how the book will end. I know where I want the plot to go, but sometimes I rewrite the final chapter several times before I get it right.
How much of your own personality goes into your characters?
It’s no surprise that many of my protagonists share my world view, my expectations, and my values. But my characters are never me, and I don’t want them to be. In person, I’m inclined to sarcastic humor, perfectly okay when your audience can see your expressions and know your intent. For some readers, though, sarcasm doesn’t translate so well on the page. Readers who know me thought the early drafts of Until Proven Innocent were hilarious. Some of those who didn’t, hated my MC. I’m in the process of softening the sarcasm as I edit.
On the other hand, most of my protagonists aren’t much like each other or me. For instance, Jake Parker (You Wish) is fourteen years old; Nick Castle (The Old Block) is twenty-four; Mac Faulk (Until Proven Innocent) is sixty-two; and Judith McPherson (in another WIP, Beholder) is thirty-four. I’m older than all of them, and I was when I first met them.
What is the worst writing advice you’ve ever received? The best? Any advice you’d like to offer to readers?
I’ve been told by instructors and other writers, “If you don’t grab the reader on the first page they won’t read any further.” As an avid reader myself, I know that’s not true, but many still hold onto this rule with both hands. It applies well enough for certain genres—mystery, detective, thriller—but not all. Given my background in literary fiction, I have no problem not having to step over a dead body to start the journey.
Like most writers I’ve combed the how-to books, studied the authors I respect, and sought out advice in conferences and critique groups. The problem is, expert advice can be sometimes confusing, sometimes absolute, and sometimes contradictory—e.g., always use “said” for dialogue attribution because it’s an “invisible word” vs. never use “said” because it’s hackneyed and lacks imagination. So, seek out expert writing advice for sure but ferret out what’s most useful to you. Just be wary of absolutes. We’d all be wise to take Pablo Picasso’s advice, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?
Yes, you need to have a pretty good idea of how your story is going to end, but in my experience, the ending of a novel always ends up being tweaked considerably. You need a solid grip on where your MCs are going and how they will manage to get there, but I’ve found it best to not hold on to that preconception too tightly. Strong characters soon develop minds of their own and can take your story in directions you don’t expect. And that’s usually a good thing.
Regarding titles, it’s easy enough to come up with a working title and it doesn’t matter much how bad that early title is, but I’ve come up with the final version of the title for each of my books well after the early drafts have been completed. The opportunity to see and experience the whole story from beginning to end gives you a perspective you don’t have early on. My original title for my debut novel was The Final Wish, which seemed okay until someone at a conference told me they assumed I was writing about a dying teenager. The title that went to press is You Wish, a better reflection of my protagonist and the story. Trial and error to the rescue.
What else have you written?
The first full-length manuscript I wrote was my Ph.D. dissertation on the fiction of Stephen Crane years ago. An academic book, sadly lacking in character arcs, plot twists, or car chases. I worked as a freelance writer for many years, creating corporate marketing materials, internet sites, and video scripts—many or which I also produced and directed. These days I focus almost exclusively on my fiction.
My fist published novel, You Wish, won first-place gold in the 2019 American Eagle Book Awards. More than a dozen of my short stories have appeared in print and online literary journals.
Do you have any advice for first-time authors?
New writers should take extreme pride in completing a first draft of a novel. It’s a remarkable accomplishment, and it’s definitely exhilarating to type “The End” on your manuscript. But you quickly learn you haven’t reached the end at all. It can take a while for first-time writers to fully understand when their work is “finished”—it certainly did for me. The short answer may well be “it’s never finished.” Most published authors find edits they wish they’d made even years after their book has been published.
That said, editing is where the refinement happens. There’s a palpable sense of pride and accomplishment when you see how much better your narrative has been improved. It’s also important to hire a professional editor and proofreader—and listen to what they tell you—before you start the publishing process or query an agent. Neither excellent grammar or flawless punctuation will save a weak manuscript, but the lack of either can seriously undermine a good one.
While you’re writing, get as much feedback as you can from readers who aren’t friends and family. Join a critique group—in-person, online, or both—it’s a great way to get that feedback. Finding a group of fellow writers that fits you, your book, and your personality may take some searching, but it’s well worth the effort. And the input comes from people who are focused on writing, same as you.
How much research was involved in writing your book? How did you go about it?
By far, the most researched of my novels so far is The Old Block. It’s a tale of two journeys. The manuscript written by Nick Castle’s father takes place in the ‘70s during the student anti-Vietnam War protests, and the majority of that narrative takes place in Central America. I experienced the student unrest personally, but I researched the time extensively to make sure I had the details right. The whole time I was working on the first draft, my desk was full of maps of El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and the U.S. southwest—places I’d never been—to help me show the geographical particulars accurately. I tend to research details while I’m writing. The information is only an online search away.
The rest of the novel covers Nick’s quest through Oregon and Washington. That meant more maps. I lived in Oregon and Washington many years, but having the maps in front of me helped me describe Nick’s routes and to understand driving time between locations. Also, I retraced Nick’s journey in person when I followed Nick’s path through Oregon and Washington on my way to settle my dad’s affairs after he passed away. The novel includes some real locations, real towns and cities, real distances and time frames, and in the end, I hope those details helped make it possible for readers to better experience the journey along with Nick and me.
Do you feel your latest book is your personal favorite or one of your previous novels?
Tough question. Sort of like being asked to pick which one of your children you love most. My first published novel, You Wish, won an award and has received good reviews. The idea behind it has been with me since the ‘80s when I first wrote it as a screenplay. Over time I revisited the concept as a novel, and You Wish is the result. I’m not sure I’m ready to call it my favorite, but my editor loves it best. It’s certainly the novel I’ve spent the most time with, and it still affects me emotionally when I reread it. Plus, did I mention it won an award?
Are you an early bird writer or night owl? And do you have any must haves like coffee, chocolates, wine, music or something else?
I’m definitely an early bird. My alarm goes off each morning at 5:00 a.m., and that means I have a quiet work environment every day for four hours or so, until the rest of the household is awake. I have an office where I do my writing. It’s my creative sanctuary, my work cave. Afternoons are usually full of errands and family, but the mornings are mine. If I’m really on a roll with something new, or I’m editing a manuscript, I sometimes go at it again in the evenings. You have to strike when the iron is hot, as they say. Whoever they are.
I know admitting this may get me kicked out of the writer’s union, but I haven’t had a cup of coffee for more than twenty years. But I’m not completely decaffeinated; my morning ritual though includes a chai latte or two. I’ll stalk the cupboards for a snack every so often while I’m working, but I suspect that may be more avoidance behavior than hunger.
We all know the old saying; you can’t judge a book by its cover. This is true. However, how much importance do you place on your book cover design?
Hiring a professional cover designer may be as important as hiring a professional editor and proofreader. Certain genres require specific elements and a particular cover look—historical romance and horror come to mind—but I write literary novels for the most part, so the cover options are greater. When I’m online or in a bookstore, and I come across a book with a weak cover I might pass it by. I’m not a snob about it, but first impressions count, and a lot of people assume that a novel with an amateur-looking cover is also full of amateur writing.
For The Old Block, I searched for a cover designer on Reedsy, by posting my book details and personal cover preferences. A designer named “Nick C.” responded from London with a reasonable estimate, and I liked his work. As it turned out, his full name was Nick Castle—the same name as my novel’s main character. Too much of a coincidence to overlook. I had to hire him. Bonus: the cover looks great. It’s the designer’s unique concept and far from what I had envisioned, but I loved it from the start. It reflects the dilemma at the heart of the novel. This is why you hire a professional.
Do you have complete control over your characters or do they ever control you?
Part if the excitement writing fiction is trying to keep up with my characters as the navigate the plot maze I’ve set up for them. They don’t control me as much as show me a better path or offer me insights into their personalities. So, things change as I get to know my characters better. The more I’m able to “become” each character, the more fleshed-out they become, and the better I’m able to see how they would react, rather than how I thought they should react. This is especially true of antagonists—with whom I usually have less in common, and have to make more of an effort to understand in three-dimensions.
A lot of authors are frustrated by readers who don’t understand how important reviews are? What would you say to a reader who doesn’t think his or her review matters?
I didn’t understand why reviews are so important until I published You Wish. Now I know that the sheer number of reviews can be the difference between success and failure, especially for independently published authors. Here’s why reviews are so important. After 20-25 reviews, Amazon may include a book in “You Might Like” and “Also Bought” promotions. After 50-70 reviews, Amazon may highlight the book and include it in its newsletter. Both of these promotional lifts can boost book sales and author recognition. It’s simple common sense really. The wider the exposure for an author or a book, the better chance of a success.
For a playwright, even a stand-up comic, the audience response is immediate. That’s not the case for those of us who write fiction. What we hear is a resounding silence, unless we have a chance for a book signing or an open mic. So, receiving reviews is a crucial way to break that silence. Your review is more than a pat on the back for the author. It provides exposure and some kind words that might just cause another person to pick up the novel. If you’re a shy person who’s afraid of being judged for your grammar and punctuation, don’t worry. That’s not going to happen. Plus you get better the more reviews you do.
Where do you live now? If you had to move to another city/state/country, where might that be?
My partner and I currently live in Santa Rosa, California, about ninety minutes north of San Francisco. Yes, that’s smack dab in the middle of the raging forest fires that regularly devastated the area in recent years. So, I’d love to live somewhere safer, even just an hour south would be better. I grew up in Washington and spent many years in Oregon. Either would be okay, and these days Canada has some appeal, though. For now, we choose to stay close to family.
Care to brag about your family?
Oh, yeah. I have four adult children—three daughters and a son—two grandsons and one granddaughter (with another on the way), and a great-granddaughter. Nearly all have settled near me in Northern California. One daughter is a pediatric nurse, another is a veterinary nurse, another is an executive recruiter, and my son is Director of Marketing for Autodesk Construction Solutions, and my oldest grandson is a realtor. I’m blessed that my partner is an excellent editor. She plays a key role in the quality of my writing. Plus, she’s a lot of fun to be around.
If you could have one skill that you don’t currently have, what would it be?
This is easy. I’ve always wished I had musical talent. I am in awe of people who can play the guitar, piano, harmonica, any instrument actually. Happily, some of my children have those skills, but I don’t. I enjoy listening to good music and talented vocalists as much as I love settling in with a good novel. But at this stage (and age), it’s clear enough that I’m destined to be an enthusiastic, if somewhat jealous, spectator.
What music soothes your soul?
I listen to a wide range of music, but I especially love blues, reggae, classic rock, and folk. That may date me a bit, but the music from your formative years stays with you like an old friend. I remember when my dad was in his nineties, he used his computer almost exclusively to play solitaire and listen to swing bands. He was a fan of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. I thought it was quaint, but understandable. Now I guess I’ve become him, only with more sophisticated computer games and John Prine, Bob Marley, and B.B. King in my ears.
What simple pleasure makes you smile?
Spending time with my toddler grandson as he learns words and discovers the world. Enjoying a good laugh and long philosophical discussions with my partner. Watching my adult children succeed in life and overcome their own challenges. Discovering a new five-star review online. Meeting a stranger who loved my novel. Looking at my own novels on my bookshelf sitting there among the masters as if they belong.
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