Shauna Kosoris: Prior to working on The Dolls with James Patterson you were working as a journalist for over a decade. Did you have a hard time switching from nonfiction to fiction writing?
Kecia Bal: Actually, part of what drew me to the James Patterson MasterClass was the idea of using fiction techniques in my nonfiction. I’ve always been interested in ways to keep readers reading, whether I was working on a nonfiction book or a magazine article. Writing fiction is easier in some ways (and, of course, harder in others). In nonfiction, you have to dig for facts and make real-world observations to support a mood or idea. In fiction, you have the luxury of making them up (but also the challenge of making them feel real). In nonfiction, you’ve already got a “sandbox” of ideas and information to work within. Those boundaries can be helpful. I have found research to be a great catalyst for fiction; if nothing else, it gives you a sandbox of ideas as a starting point.
Why were you so interested in taking a Master Class with a fiction writer to improve your nonfiction?
I thought that if Patterson could teach me just one trick to make my writing more suspenseful – fiction or not – it would be worth the time invested. I’m always interested in ways to tell a better story. I also had always wanted to write fiction, but never made time. The co-author competition seemed like my green light to jump in.
What was the most important thing you learned during the class?
Every chapter has to move the plot and characterization forward. Every chapter.
Have you taken any other Master Classes?
Yes! I’m a little obsessed. I’ve taken most of their writing courses: Judy Blume, R.L. Stine, Shonda Rhimes, David Mamet, and Aaron Sorkin. Malcolm Gladwell is on my list, too, though I’ve studied his writing a lot already for my past nonfiction projects. I’ve also taken others, just for fun or with my kids because they line up with their interests.
Oh, how fun! So where did you get the idea of The Dolls from?
I’d been writing a lot of business and tech stories, so those ideas and environments had been simmering in my head. Obviously, for it to be a thriller, there needed to be a dead body or two. It was sitting down and tying two or three ideas together until the moment when something felt different (in a good way).
Have you ever co-authored a book before?
I have ghostwritten books before, which is a rewarding process. Most writers know the burden of carrying an idea around but not having the time or resources to get to it. For ghostwriting clients, I’m helping them in a meaningful way. Plus, it’s good writing exercise.
I have to ask: what was it like working with James Patterson?
Working with Patterson was a dream. I’ll never forget sending in my first submission, wondering whether it would even be close to what he was looking for. I ended up missing his call while I was at a wedding. After the ceremony, I listened to the message and started slapping all friends within arm’s reach. He loved it. I thought I was going to fall over.
Well congratulations! So what is your writing process like? Does it differ when you’re working on a nonfiction vs. a fiction piece?
Both start with research (as noted above) and a lot of reading. Once I feel like I’ve done enough gathering, I’ll start on an outline. I hate to preach detailed outlines, but they are incredibly useful. They help me avoid getting lost – or like I have to bridge the gap blindly from a strong beginning and strong ending. The middle is where most people get stuck.
What are you working on now?
I finished a first draft of a techno-thriller earlier this year and just got positive feedback from early readers and my editor. (The nervousness of hitting send never goes away!) It will be a summer of rewrites and polishing for me.
I have just a few more questions to finish up. What book or author inspired you to write?
This is a big question. I don’t think I have a single writing hero. Anybody who ever made magic on a page inspires me, best-selling author or not. The books I’ve reread the most are those that move you without you realizing it’s happening. Their Eyes Were Watching God is probably the book I’ve gone back to most often.
Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?
Also a big question. I think everyone has to find what, or who, speaks to them.
That’s fair. Finally, what are you currently reading?
Artemis by Andy Weir
Best Friends Forever by Margot Hunt