From Beer to Bookshelf

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

In keeping with last week’s post on risk-taking and writing what pleases you, I’d like to tell you the story of a dead lawyer.

Back in 2008 my agent, Donald Maass, and I were at a writers conference in the midwest. One evening we slipped away for a beer to talk new ideas. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies had just come out was going wild. I was thinking, why not combine zombie fiction with a legal thriller? And to make it more interesting, let’s have the zombie be the hero, a lawyer practicing in L.A. What if this lawyer specialized in defending outcasts like vampires and werewolves? Maybe Frankenstein’s monster has been denied health insurance because of a pre-existing condition.

We started laughing, and then Don said, “Write up a proposal.”

So I started my development process. All I knew was that I wanted to write in the hard-boiled tradition I love and make them true legal thrillers with a paranormal twist (example: if a vampire is accused of murder, doesn’t she have the right to have her trial held at night so she can be present in court?). I was inspired, too, by the mashup vibe of the Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher.

Things started bubbling, and I came up this concept:

TAGLINE:

In L.A., practicing law can be hell. Especially if you’re dead.

PITCH:

In an increasingly hellacious L.A., zombie lawyer Mallory Caine defends a vampire hooker accused of the crime Mallory herself committed, even as a zombie-killer closes in, and the love of her former life comes back as the Deputy D.A. she must oppose. At the same time, Lucifer begins setting up L.A. as his headquarters for a new attack on heaven and earth, as Mallory slowly discovers she may be the only one who can stop him.

Well, doggone if Don didn’t go out and sell it to Kensington. I was happy with the deal. I’d always wanted to be in mass market originals. But we had to make a decision. Should I use a pseudonym? We decided yes, so bookstores wouldn’t be confused on where to shelve me and because it was jumping into the entirely new genre, one in fact I’d created: the zombie legal thriller!

That’s how I went from beer to bookshelf. Three books, fun to write, with a complete arc.

Time and Kindles march on. I got the rights back to the trilogy and have now published them myself. This time with my own name attached. Because in the indie-digital world, you can easily cross-pollinate. New readers discover you and loyal readers might try out something new.

In celebration, this week I’m making the books available for 99¢ each.

Are you a risk taker as a reader? You’ve come to the right place. And while it is a requirement that zombies eat, um, us, to stay alive, I don’t go graphic…nothing more than you might have seen at a drive-in horror movie in the 1950s. Here are the Kindle store links:

PAY ME IN FLESH (#1)

THE YEAR OF EATING DANGEROUSLY (#2)

I ATE THE SHERIFF (#3)

 So how do you go from beer (it can be root beer if you prefer, or even that writing staple, coffee) to bookshelf?

  1. Sip and come up with concepts

You should do this periodically anyway. Spend time in pure creation. Generate several ideas in a session. Put them all in What if? form, e.g., What if there is a boarding school for young wizards? What if a Great White shark feeds in the waters during tourist season?

  1. Pick the concepts you enjoy most for further development

Assess your ideas later on, when they’ve had a chance to cool a bit. Which ones give you the most excitement? Prioritize them. Come up with a tagline and a pitch for the top three (as shown, above). Tweak these until they really shine.

  1. Write the first three chapters of your favorite concept

This is really fun. You can write without fear because you haven’t yet made a long-term commitment. Use all your craft to make this opening as gripping as possible. Let the pages rest for a week (while you do other writing), then revise and refine them.

  1. Get feedback

Ask your beta readers (or agent) for their assessment. Put your idea through a grinder. Pretend you’re an acquisitions editor. Would you buy this book? Is the concept be attractive to a sufficient slice of readership?

  1. Write with joy

If everything is positive, and you’re still excited about the idea, finish the thing. Write hot, revise cool.

One of the ways to do this is by making the book a NaNoWriMo project. In fact, the second of my Mallory Caine books began as a NaNo. After I finished the draft I let it cool until January, and then began the rewrite.

In all my years practicing law I met, in court and out, many a lawyer. To the best of my knowledge, not one of them was a zombie. But you never know…

Is there a wild idea sitting on your back burner? What are you going to do with it? 

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31 thoughts on “From Beer to Bookshelf

  1. Love it, Jim. Great post. My version of number 3 is your 3 and 5 combined. Write the opening (say 500-800 words) of your favorite concept and if it runs, go with it. Great stuff.

  2. Interesting, fun, and inspiring post. Love the idea that it’s okay to explore different genres, gives me affirmation to continue with my new one. Then, fantasy isn’t all that far off from paranormal thrillers…

    Making notes of your process. All sounds like great ideas to me! I usually start with a concept, write the blurb, play with the cover design (all to be tweaked later as necessary), and then start writing, but may tweak that to include your suggestions.

    The cooling off period is a really good idea. Does the story premise still sound intriguing after the initial creative rush?

    I have read several of your novels and have enjoyed everyone I’ve read. I’m not sure about zombie lawyers, not usually a zombie fan, but hey, maybe it’s time to try something new. ***Grin***

    • Thanks for those kind words, Cecilia. I think you’ll like hanging out with Mallory Caine, even if you disagree with her dietary plan.

      You mentioned a cover mockup. I do that, too, once I’m off and writing. When I revise, I like to do it in hard copy and print out a cover, too, with a blurb on it, such as, “Bell has given us the Citizen Kane of zombie legal thrillers.” – Jim Butcher. I do that to get myself into the mood of a reader who has just picked up the book at full price. Then I read through without stopping to edit.

  3. This is interesting, because it flies in the face of what I’ve heard said by agents and editors at countless writers’ conferences: “Don’t try to write to the market. You’ll constantly be chasing its tail.” Yet we see authors rewarded over and over for doing just that — writing the next amnesia-plot thriller, the next unreliable-female-narrator suspenser, the next military-guy-adrift adventure, the next FBI-agent-with-a-damaged-past procedural. I’m not being snarky or critical here, but I do wonder how you reconcile that (apparent) contradiction.

    • I’m not sure there’s a contradiction, Jim. Note what I said under #4: Is the concept be attractive to a sufficient slice of readership?

      That’s the market part. Agents and editors who say “don’t chase the market” are really saying don’t try to copy the exact same concept that has recently been hot. Then they’ll also talk about wanting a fresh “voice.” But when they say THAT, they are always thinking, “But not so fresh that it won’t sell.”

    • There’s a corollary about how popular that first book that opened a new market is. If that first book of romantic vampires in space sells a bunch of books, the traditional market editors will ask their stable of authors to write romantic vampires in space novels even though these authors don’t write paranormal and have only watched a few episodes of TREK and a STAR WARS movie so they know nothing about writing science fiction. A vast majority of these books will be dreck because the editors don’t know anything about this type of book, or they don’t care. When the audience fails to buy these bad books, the new authors who actually write a good romantic vampires in space novels get rejection letters, and the market dies.

      I saw this cycle numerous times for the science fiction romance and got caught in the rejection cycle each time for STAR-CROSSED because I wasn’t in that editorial stable. Ebook publishing became a thing, and STAR-CROSSED and a few other novels by very talented writers opened a market that remains strong today. Then self-publishing became a thing so that niche is now a viable strategy for authors.

      • Great analysis, Marilynn. And another in the voluminous endorsements for indie publishing. You reminded me of my friend Kerry Nietz’s Amish Vampires in Space which he conceived when Amish was really hot (which was at the same time zombies were hot). The concept alone was clever enough to get the book mentioned on Jimmy Fallon. But it also happens to be a good book on its own merits. That’s the bottom line, isn’t it?

  4. Great post, Jim. I don’t know about zombie lawyers, but being a physician – I won’t finish that joke. I’ll take a risk and try your books.

    As for the answer to your question, I’ve already begun to act on a wild idea – middle grade fantasy with characters based on my grandchildren and the kid next door (handicapped and on crutches), set in the rural Midwest (my own enchanted forest and the magic Mad River), with flying barrel carts, white magic based on Shawnee Indian phrases (with a Shawnee dictionary written by a local Shawnee descendant) and taught to the grandchildren by Gram and Gramps, and an enchanted forest riddled with portals to other realms. Think Harry Potter meets Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in an Ohio rural woodland. The alternate worlds will be body systems. The first is set in the id and ego. Number two is set on the DNA molecule.

    Number one in my Mad River Magic series – “The Hemlock Aperture” – is set to be published soon. I used local honors students for beta readers, and the cover is being designed by a local joint vocational school art department. “Of the reader, by the reader, and for the reader..” Number two is “The Tetra-chrome Spiral Sky-way.” The rough draft is finished and in the cooling off phase.

    A wild idea, yes. And crazy. But I’m having fun writing it. And someday my grandchildren will know how crazy their Gramps really was.

    • Love it, Steve! Using local students as betas for this genre makes perfect sense.

      And having fun is key here, because that’ll show up on the page. The grandkids will say, “Gramps may have been crazy, but he sure had a good time!” (I suspect they’ll have a great time reading them, too. And passing them down to THEIR children).

    • Your project sounds really intriguing, Steve – I’ll have to look it up! I think my kids (and I) might really enjoy it!

  5. I never read a zombie book.
    I never hoped to read one.
    But whether kindle or the nook,
    I’d rather read than feed one.

    Okay, that didn’t exactly work, but you get the idea. These books sound like fun, so I’m going to take the dark plunge. On my way to amazon now.

    Maybe I’ll get some ideas for a cozy zombie novel.

    • If anyone is interested in writing a smart zombies novel, not the stumbling corpses of WALKING DEAD, I recommend you watch a few seasons of iZOMBIE which is a master class on world and plot building. The writers take every clever possibility of the premise and squeeze it dry to end up with a quirky mystery series with a romantic comedy vibe. Yes, really.

  6. I especially appreciate your reminder to chill & have a brainstorming session to dream up concepts. That is one of the most fun things to do & I realize life got busy and I haven’t done that in a long time. It can bring up some amazing stuff.

    Thank you.

  7. I came up with a crazy idea for a story that entails the clone of William Shakespeare saving the world from an alien invasion. Seems ridiculous, but the more I play with it, the less insane it seems to me (I’ve begun development).
    .
    And thanks for the sale on the Mallory Caine trilogy. I snapped those up.

  8. Thank you, sir for a reboot-to-the-seat-of-my-pants… I seem to have drifted into researching and thinking it’s writing, instead of writing and researching as I need to…
    Your point three, and NaNo comment, hit close to home… and I guess I just forgot ’em… and I’ve got a couple of “What if…” ideas that still intrigue me (including the derailed WIP…), and I s’pose I’ve been letting “research” be an OCD excuse…
    All that aside… where was I?
    Oh, yeah…

  9. I completely forgot you were a lawyer (there went my fangirl status). I should have dropped you a note last week when I was finishing up jury duty on a murder trail. No one quite understood just how stressed out we all were. I don’t think either counselor was a zombie, but a couple of us felt like death on a hot-plate. Ugh.

    Thanks for the encouragement to follow something fun for no other reason than you can.

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