So You Want to Write a Book?

Four alumni novelists talk about what it takes

They all agreed; it takes discipline. Four St. Thomas alumni recently shared their thoughts about their new books and about writing in general. Mick Cochrane ’79, author of Flesh Wounds, is a first-time novelist. Transfer of Power is the second political action thriller penned by Vince Flynn ’88. Dave Housewright ’77 has four mysteries in his Holland Taylor series. The third in this series, Practice to Deceive, was released in October. The fourth will be published this year. Slump is a book for young adults by first-time novelist Dave Jarzyna ’79.

Discipline, determination and doggedness

According to Housewright, the difference between people who have written a book and those who wish they had isn’t talent or craftsmanship or skill; it’s the discipline to finish a book. "You just have to sit down and do it," he said.

Cochrane concurred. "You have to get up, get to work and stick with it. Another writer once said that writing a novel was like painting a barn with a paint-by-number brush. First you have to stop wishing you had a roller." Another writer likened it to walking from New York to Los Angeles on your knees.

Sometimes the process seems endless. It took Cochrane two years to write Flesh Wounds and another year of revision, then finishing touches before it finally was ready. That’s a far cry from the time needed to write a short story, which is all he had previously done. "It’s like comparing a sprint to a marathon," he said. "I didn’t think I had the character for a marathon in me, but I guess I do."

"Unless you jump into the arena, the dream won’t happen," said Flynn, who showed remarkable determination in getting his first book, Term Limits, into the bookstores. Frustrated by the ritual dance required to find an agent and publisher, Flynn decided to self-publish. Four investors put up the money to cover printing and marketing of 2,100 copies, which quickly sold out. So did a second run of another 2,000 books. That’s when Pocket Books picked up the rights, helping to launch Term Limits onto the New York Times best-seller list.

How they work

When he’s "in the writing groove," Flynn is at his table by 7:30 a.m. and he stays there until noon. Sometimes he squeezes in another couple of hours in the afternoon. "At the end of a project, however, I’m writing nine to 12 hours a day," he laughed. "I’m hooked."

Cochrane also confesses to becoming "engrossed in the process." His writing day begins very early in his office at Canisius College, a Jesuit college in Buffalo, N.Y., where he is writer-in-residence. "I usually get there at 5 a.m. and try to steal a couple of hours of work before my teaching day begins," he said. Cochrane describes an output of one page a day as "good." But production seems to be the key. "When I sit down, I always make words," Cochrane said. "I may not use all of them, but I always make words."

Housewright’s office is in the basement of his Roseville home and his writing day is flexible. "I don’t insist on writing a certain number of hours every day. I don’t work that way," he stated.

Housewright plots his mysteries very carefully, beginning with the book’s ending. "Next, I figure out what action I want to take place," he said. "Then I fill in the details — who are the characters, where does the action take place." Housewright first works things out in his head, although he usually has a notebook within reach. He also has a profusion of envelopes, scratch paper and napkins on which he notes fleeting ideas, names that appeal to him and interesting professions. These he keeps in envelopes, which get dumped out and sorted through when he’s ready to begin the actual writing. Finally, Housewright puts it all into his word processor. "I keep adding to the story, arranging things, changing them," he said. "I make changes all the time. The only thing I don’t change is the ending. I always know how it will be resolved."

According to Flynn, his genre of political action thriller focuses on plot and timing. "For my kind of books, pacing is everything," he said. "I have to pull my readers through the book. They want to know what’s going to happen next." To keep things straight, he uses a series of 3-by-5 cards to create a flow chart for major scenes. Stretching across the bulletin board in his den, the cards map the action. Usually starting with only 10 cards, Flynn adds scenes, characters and locations, expanding them, interchanging them, linking them together.

It took Cochrane nearly three years to write Flesh Wounds. Before beginning, he filled four or five looseleaf notebooks with scores of notations, lists, plot directions and sentences. Miscellaneous thoughts were inscribed on paper scraps and backs of envelopes and transferred to notebooks. Cochrane works on one project at a time, writing his stories from beginning to end, taking breaks only for occasional reviews and essays.

Writing what you know

"All fiction is a lie," Housewright said. "It’s a story that someone made up. But the most successful lies are 90 percent truth, and if you make what you write believable, you can take your readers anywhere you want with the remaining 10 percent." As a result, Housewright takes his research very seriously.

"Authenticity is important, so you have to get it right," he said. "All the places I write about exist, even though the names or locations may be changed. One day I was driving down University Avenue and passed by the site of my first job at the Midway Car Wash. It had been torn down and replaced by the Mosquito Control Agency. I got the idea of having a character in Dearly Departed work there, but that meant I had to do a lot of research to find out how the agency worked." In another book, scenes take place at La Cucaracha "because I like the food" and the IDS tower.

Flynn finds research in his genre to be challenging. "The vocabulary is constantly changing," he said. "And there’s rarely a consensus among resour-ces, especially when you’re dealing with competing agencies like the FBI and CIA and the Secret Service." Frustrations have their compensations, however. Flynn gets to "meet a lot of neat people and hear a lot of wild stories."

Jarzyna, who has two daughters, 16 and 13, created a male protagonist for Slump "because I’ve always been one," and he’s surprised by the response he’s gotten to his female characters. "I’m proud of that," he said. "Maybe it’s because I’ve spent most of my time around girls."

"I’ve always paid attention to what my daughters were reading," Jarzyna said, "and I discovered there were certain things missing. The books were generic in tone, in their setting and character development. I figured that kids were smarter than that, and I wanted to do something that would reflect how kids really talk to one another." Jarzyna credits his success at capturing the feeling of adolescence by explaining, "Every good writer is a good listener."

Encore, encore

Flynn believes once you’ve written a novel, it becomes easier to find your voice and do the necessary research for the next one. "People are more willing to talk with you when you’ve been on the best-seller list," he laughed. "But subsequent books are harder because the bar is higher. You want to make The New York Times list again. There’s pressure to produce." Flynn says his publisher would like to get a book every year.

Right now he’s working on Third Option, scheduled for publication in October 2000, and he has just thrown away 100 of its pages because of a major plot change. "Things weren’t feeling right," Flynn said. "It was hard to cut them, but it will make a better book."

Housewright finds that after one book, subsequent books get easier, both mentally and emotionally. "The big idea is easy," he admitted. "I have 30 to 40 ideas jotted down. What’s hard is coming up with worthwhile things to say while telling the story. A good book is a good book no matter what the genre. A good book speaks of the human condition and explores the little truths of life. Mysteries should do that, too. They should be about more than who killed Col. Mustard in the library."

Nearly complete is Dead Boyfriend, the first book of Housewright’s new series featuring Rebecca Blade, a 23-year-old female detective in Minneapolis. "I wanted this new series so I could explore other themes and issues," he said. Housewright’s first book, Penance, won the prestigious Edgar Award for best mystery novel by an American. His second, Practice to Deceive, won a Minnesota Book Award. His fourth book featuring Holland Taylor, Hard to Get There, will probably be on the bookshelves next year.

Jarzyna plans to continue writing books for young adults. "It's an audience I feel comfortable with," he said. In the works are a historical novel with a female protagonist, a humorous fantasy book for younger readers and another book with a sports setting.

Cochrane’s newly completed second novel, Sport, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in fall 2000. He describes it as "a first-person book set in St. Paul in the ’60s, with more than a glancing reference to baseball." Both his novels grew out of short stories that "burst at the seams." Cochrane knew the stories would take more than 18 pages to explore, and that meant writing a novel. In Sport, a short story turned into the book’s first chapter.

Cochrane begins a sabbatical year in January 2000 and he’s looking forward to writing full time.

Teachers don’t just teach, they do

Cochrane has taught at Canisius College since 1985. "I love to teach and I think it’s essential to take writing courses from writers." He is quick to give credit to his St.Thomas mentor: "Lon Otto is a wonderful teacher, wonderful writer, wonderful friend. He has a way of taking your work seriously and helping you to develop a sense of craft and precision."

Housewright has gone to the Roseville Area High School every year since 1996 to speak to its mystery writing class, which teaches his book, Penance. He also has taught at the Loft Literary Center and in a graduate course in writing the modern American mystery at the University of Minnesota. "I love teaching," he said. "The experience has sharpened my own books. It’s a way of honing your skills. You start paying more attention to the fundamentals."

Jarzyna’s wife, Susan, a College of St. Catherine’s ’79 graduate, is a first grade teacher at Rahn School in Eagan and Jarzyna has spoken about writing to a few of the older classes at the school. He says it helps his own writing. "It’s great because they give you good feedback," he explained. "They tell you immediately what works and what does not."

The authors’ stories

"I’ve always loved writing," Housewright said. "Since sixth grade, it’s the only thing that interested me, the only thing I wanted to do." While a St. Thomas journalism student, he had a part-time job with the Minneapolis Tribune covering intercollegiate sports. After graduation, he hired on as a reporter for the Albert Lea Evening Tribune.

In the 1980s, Housewright started a small advertising agency and went on to become co-owner of Gerber-Housewright. In 1992, he sold his share in the business to devote more time to writing. "It was crossroads time," he said. "I could put my effort into becoming a novelist or put it into making a successful agency." He’s now a consultant and working on his fifth novel.

Housewright and his wife, Renee Valois, have two children, 11 and 8, and live in Roseville.

Flynn, who is dyslexic, took two English classes at St. Thomas and got Cs in both; but in his junior year he developed an interest in reading for enjoyment. Frustrated over the death of a friend from St. John’s University, he began keeping a journal to help deal with the tragedy. One of his journal entries contained a plot idea that became the spark for Term Limits.

As he thought about the idea, he became more and more passionate. "I had to write a book," he said. Although he always thought he’d be a businessman, he quit his job with United Properties and left for Colorado to tend bar and write. When he moved back to Minnesota to finish Term Limits, he worked as a bartender at O’Gara’s. "It was very scary leaving my job," he admitted. "Some friends thought I was nuts — literally. They’d ask what I was doing throwing my life away. But writing that book was my dream."

On Jan. 15, Flynn married Lysa Mosher, whom he met at a Vikings preseason game. They live in Minneapolis, where Flynn is finishing his third book.

Slump is Jarzyna’s first attempt at at a book. "I wrote some fiction in college but never dreamed I’d end up writing a novel," he said. He has, however, done a lot of writing since finishing school.

After graduating from St. Thomas with a journalism degree, he worked as a sportswriter and columnist for several suburban newspapers. Presently he is vice president of PR 21, an international advertising and public relations firm headquartered in Chicago. The company opened a Minnesota office in St. Paul in October.

It’s not surprising that Slump has an underlying sports theme. Jarzyna has done "a ton of coaching — baseball, soccer, volleyball and softball in Richfield and Apple Valley, mostly with my daughters’ teams." He also wears a World Series ring, awarded in 1987 when he was the Minnesota Twins marketing director.

"Timing is everything," Jarzyna said. "I was fortunate to be with the Twins at the most incredible time in their history. I’ve always been a huge Twins fan, and it was great to be with them, but jobs like that are very time-consuming and hard on families." Fortunately, when he left the organization he didn’t have to quit his professional sports connection cold turkey. Jarzyna is still loosely associated with the Twins and Vikings as a communications consultant for the Metropolitan Sports Commission.

In high school, Cochrane wrote a short story that appeared in the school newspaper, but he never dreamed he’d be writing for a living. "I guess I was a writer waiting to happen," he said. At St. Thomas, Cochrane was quiet about it but admits to having big ambitions. "I wanted to be an English professor, but I also wanted to keep writing fiction. Lon Otto suggested the possibility to me that one could become both," he said.

When working on his master’s and doctorate in 18th-century English literature at the University of Minnesota, Cochrane stole time between classes to write, and "The Lenny Green Story," his short story about a Minnesota Twin, was published in Minnesota Monthly. "It was the first time I got paid for something I wrote," he said. He spent most of his $50 check on books from the Hungry Mind bookstore.

Cochrane met his wife, Mary Hanneman ’80, in the St. Thomas library. They have two boys, 8 and 5, and often return to the Twin Cities area, vacationing last summer near Nisswa. The family lives in Kenmore, N.Y., "six blocks north of Buffalo." Having lived in two of the coldest regions of the country, Cochrane has proven he has the patience required to both "write a novel and shovel a great deal of snow."

Transfer of Power

Vince Flynn ’88, Pocket Books, 1999, $24 (thriller and political fiction)

On a busy Washington morning, amid the shuffle of tourists and the brisk rush of government officials, the stately calm of the White House is shattered in a hail of gunfire. A group of terrorists has descended on the Executive Mansion and gained access by means of a violent massacre that has left dozens of innocent bystanders murdered. Through the quick actions of the Secret Service, the president is evacuated to his underground bunker, but not before almost 100 hostages are taken.

While the politicians and the military leaders argue over how to negotiate with the terrorists, one man is sent in to break through the barrage of panicked responses and political agendas surrounding the chaotic crisis. Mitch Rapp, the CIA’s top counterterrorism operative, makes his way and soon discovers that the president is not as safe as Washington's power brokers had thought. Moving stealthily among the corridors and secret passageways of the White House, stepping terrifyingly close to the enemy, Rapp scrambles to save the hostages before the terrorists can extract the president from the safety of his bunker. In a race against time, Rapp makes a chilling discovery that could rock Washington to its core: Someone within his own government is maneuvering in hopes that his rescue attempt will fail.

Dearly Departed

David Housewright ’77, Foul Play Press, 1999, $23.95 (mystery)

A terrifying tape recording convinces the world that brilliant and beautiful Alison Emerton has been murdered. But was she? The police can’t find a body. Or a clue. And the convicted rapist accused of the crime has nothing to say.

When her attorney hires Twin Cities P. I. Holland Taylor to investigate, Taylor decides to learn the truth once and for all — no matter where it leads.

So begins Taylor’s odyssey into the life and death of the 27-year-old woman, a violent and puzzling journey that takes him from the mean streets of Minneapolis to the gravel-road glamour of a Native American gambling casino in northern Wisconsin. Along the way he’ll meet an astonishing assortment of misfits and malcontents — some who loved Alison, many who hated her, and all with their own motives for making sure she stays dead and buried.

For his efforts, the former homicide investigator will be threatened, stalked, arrested, beaten and shot. And in a blazing finale he’ll discover a hard and terrible truth: Living well isn’t always the best revenge. Sometimes dying is.

Flesh Wounds

Mick Cochrane ’79, Doubleday, 1997, and Penguin Books, 1999, $12.95 (fiction)

When the police come to arrest Hal Lamm, a Minneapolis salesman, for sexually abusing his 13-year-old granddaughter, his entire family must come to terms with their secrets and unhealed wounds. Hal’s wife, Phyllis, after decades of denial and emotional estrangement, must finally confront her husband — and herself. His daughter, Ellie, had relished her distance from her parents but now finds herself back in the midst of her family. Calvin, his youngest son, is a lawyer whose instinct is to defend Hal — until he becomes a father himself. Most poignant of all, the granddaughter Becky, who, inconsolable and suspicious of the therapist she is now required to see, keeps her rage hidden — and nearly tears herself apart.


Dave Jarzyna ’79, Delacorte Press, 1999, $14.95 (fiction for young readers)

Mitchie Evers is truly in a slump. He’s at odds with every single person in his life. His friends no longer seem to appreciate Mitchie’s sparkling wit. His parents are so busy gushing over his perfect older brother that they don’t have time for Mitchie. His teachers and his soccer coach — make that his ex-soccer coach — are fed up, too. Even Annie, a neighborhood friend, has lost patience.

Are things going to stay that way forever? At 13, Mitchie knows that he’s a little young to be in a career slump. But what can he do about it.?