International Short Story Prize: An Interview with Matt Johnson - Author the Robert Finlay Series
Our International Short Story Prize is a bit of a big deal. It’s not only the largest prize pool we’ve ever assembled, but it’s also got the largest word count, and is providing over three hundred words of critical feedback for every entrant! We knew we wanted to do something big this year, and it was such wonderful news for us, and for our entrants, when Mr Matt Johnson, international best-selling author, agreed to come on board and crown our winner for us!
Matt’s been writing for a few years now, and has produced a trilogy of brilliant crime thrillers that any genre fiction writer should take note of. His style is a great blend of gritty realism and authenticity. We couldn’t help but pick his brains about how he does it, and whether or not he had any advice to help us with make our own writing a little more thrilling. Here’s what happened.
You’ve got a lot of life experience behind you, and you’ve said before that your work has been based on your experiences - so, with that in mind, how important do you think it is that writers ‘write what they know’?
Benjamin Franklin said ‘either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing about.’ As writers, we have a choice. We write what we know, write about what we’d like to know or, if we’re brave, we write about what we’re afraid of. And it’s not enough to simply write about what you know; you have to build on that, to explore and to grow. Most importantly, I think you should write what you want to read, and be prepared to not follow the crowd, to not ride that latest trend.
How long was it between the first thing you wrote, and the point where you thought ‘Ok, I actually think this might be pretty good’?
Many, many years. I first started writing as therapy for Post-trauma stress – PTSD. The notes I created became the basis for my first novel. It took me several years to write and then a long period with an editor as he polished up my work to the point where it was ready for the commercial market. I learned a lot in that year. It was only when I read the manuscript for the final time that I realised I was being swept along by the story, I was absorbed and enjoying it. I just had to hope that others would also like it!
Is there any advice you’d give to aspiring writers in that regard - things you had to learn the hard way?
Do your homework! There are a lot of very good learning opportunities available to help hone your talent. If you are a storyteller, learn how to develop that into the ability to write a book. It really isn’t that simple and, if it were, a lot more people would be doing it. Think about your audience. Ask yourself, what is it that you can offer them that they haven’t read before? Be true to yourself and learn from your mistakes – we acquire comparatively little wisdom from success.
One thing to think about is dialogue. If you listen to people talking, their conversation is dynamic, often repetitive and wordy. In a book, you cannot replicate that and keep the reader engaged. Dialogue is not natural, but it needs to get as near as you can to that point without becoming too wordy. It’s a balance that takes practice.
You’re writing Crime Thrillers, a notoriously difficult market to break into. Is there anything you’d like to share with writers in that genre to really make their work pop for readers? ‘Thrillers’ have to be thrilling. If you had to sum up how to make writing ‘Thrilling’ - how would you do it?
There are some essential ingredients to writing a thriller. But before you start, I think it important to remember that there are different types of readers. For example, some are passive, some active. Some like action, some are sleuths – reader detectives looking to spot clues and solve a mystery. You have a wide ranging audience with very eclectic taste – so there is no perfect formula to appeal to all of them.
All thrillers need a good story however, something for the reader to engage with. Whether they are ‘slow-build’ or ‘fast rollercoaster’, they all need that hook at the beginning, the start that keeps you reading. Remember that golden rule – show don’t tell. Paint a picture, but allow us readers to use our imagination to fill in the gaps. Your protagonist needs a challenge – and it mustn’t be easy. And perhaps, as we near the end, it may look like they will fail. Teach us something – when we finish the book we should, in some way, be wiser for the experience.
In a thriller, the narrative should always drive the story forward. Spending too long in any particular scene or adding too much padding will lessen the pace and reduce the thrill.
Finally, at the end, make sure all loose ends are tied up. The conclusion should be plausible and consistent with the story as it has developed. Ask yourself – is this believable?
You’re judging Grindstone’s International Short Story Prize this year - so is there any advice you’d like to give to our entrants to improve their chances - anything to avoid doing perhaps? Do you think that competitions like these offer value to writers? If so, why?
Perhaps a key point concerns the quality rather than style of your writing. Nothing puts me off more than poor spelling and bad grammar. Punctuation is less of a concern as there are often conflicting opinions as to the ‘correct’ way of doing things. Check your work, and get someone else to check it. Then read it out loud, it’s surprising how many mistakes can be found by narration. And remember, we are an international audience. Words have varying meanings around the world – be aware of that, grammar convention can differ and spellings will vary. Trust your judge to be aware of these variations – they owe it to you. Competitions like this are fun and they help develop your craft. If you’re fortunate enough to win, it boosts confidence and can help open the door into the world of the publisher. That said, once the door is open, you still have a lot of work to do. But, it’s important to note, failure to win or be short-listed is not a reflection of your talent. Judging is very subjective and what may appeal to the taste of one assessor may not be liked by another. The same is true of agents and publishers. So, competitions are a good way to prepare for such challenges.
What does the future hold for Matt Johnson? Can we expect more books and stories? More Robert Finlay? Something else?
Very much so, yes. I’m enjoying the writing and, whilst I continue to like it, I’ll keep at it. I have a few ideas in the pipeline, one of which will, hopefully, be my fourth published work. I’m twenty thousand words into the first draft as I write this now.
Thanks so much for speaking to us. We can’t wait to see what comes out of the Short Story Prize. No doubt there’ll be some amazing writing on show. We’ll see you then!
You can find Matt’s novels in all good bookstores, and on Amazon. For more information on the man himself, head over to his website: