Don’t Ever Mail It In

by James Scott Bell

Jessica Strawser, editorial director of Writer’s Digest magazine, and soon-to-be debut novelist, tweeted this from the recent WD conference in New York.

I agree. The dread mistake is called “mailing it in.” It’s when you think you’ve reached a certain point in your writing where you don’t have to improve. You’ve had some success, so why sweat and strain?

That’s not how a real writer thinks. How do I define a real writer? It’s someone who honors the craft and never settles. The real writer always sets the bar a bit higher than the last jump.

Mailing it in sometimes afflicts even the A list. A series that catches on in a big way can afford the author the opportunity to spend more time on a yacht than behind a keyboard. I’ve seen that happen a couple of times, and it’s not pretty.

On the other hand, you have a writer like Dennis Lehane. There he was with a popular PI series that he could have sat on. But then he proceeds to write one of the great stand-alone crime novels of our time, Mystic River. Not content with that, a few years later he writes an epic historical called The Given Day. I’m not sure he meant this to be a series, but I suspect the popularity of the novel gave rise to the idea. Now that series character, Joe Coughlin, is going to get the Ben Affleck treatment in a major motion picture.

I like what the Amazon “best books of the month” reviewer said about the second Coughlin book, Lived by Night: “Incredibly, Lehane … becomes more masterful with each book…”

That’s the kind of accolade for which a real writer strives. Because, you see, there is a joy and a satisfaction in the striving itself. The mail-it-inners don’t have that anymore. It’s a loss to the soul.

paulnewman460I’ve referred several times to that speech Paul Newman makes in The Hustler, one of my top ten favorite movies. He is “Fast Eddie” Felson, low-level pool hustler whose been told he’s a “born loser” by the satanic gambler played by George C. Scott. One day he describes to his girl, Sarah, what the game of pool feels like when “he’s really going.” It’s…

…like a jockey must feel. He’s sittin’ on his horse, he’s got all that speed and that power underneath him… he’s comin’ into the stretch, the pressure’s on ‘im, and he knows… just feels … when to let it go and how much. Cause he’s got everything workin’ for ‘im, timing, touch… it’s a great feeling, boy, it’s a real great feeling when you’re right and you know you’re right. It’s like all of a sudden I got oil in my arm. The pool cue’s part of me. You know, it’s a pool cue, it’s got nerves in it. It’s a piece of wood, it’s got nerves in it. You feel the roll of those balls, you don’t have to look, you just know. You make shots nobody’s ever made before. I can play that game the way nobody’s ever played it before.

Sarah looks at him and says, “You’re not a loser, Eddie. You’re a winner.”

Eddie looks at her quizzically. And she says, “Some men never get to feel that way about anything.”

Get it? Don’t ever settle for mailing it in.

Now how do you get to that “Fast Eddie feeling”? These things work for me:

  1. Read widely, not just in your preferred genre. I love reading great writing, fiction or non-fiction. Right now I’m reading three books at the same time (do you do this?) I’m reading L.A. Noir by John Buntin (about Chief of Police William Parker and mobster Mickey Cohen, and the battle for Los Angeles); a collection of short stories by John O’Hara; and a two-volume biography of Andrew Jackson published in 1938 (elegant prose here of the kind we rarely see anymore).
  1. Be intentional about studying the craft. What I mean is look for books and articles and blog posts on specific subjects that are chosen to address your own writing needs. I break down the craft into what I call “seven critical success factors” –– plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice, and meaning (or theme). I advise you try to locate your weakest area and design a self-study program that lasts a minimum of six weeks. Read books and articles on the subject, and do practice writing. Get feedback on your exercises. What if you took the next year and set out to raise your game in each area? What if you designed seven 6-week courses for yourself? (If you would like a ready-made course of study, I do have one available). Your growth will be tremendous. You’ll feel it. Just like Fast Eddie.
  1. Be a risk taker. Go to new places in your writing. You don’t have to jump genres if you’re trying to build a brand. But do something more, different, deeper in your next book.

Early in his career Dean Koontz was rolling along writing bestselling paperback thrillers under several pen names. But he wasn’t satisfied. So he set out to deepen his characterizations. He studied up on psychology and used what he learned to write Whispers. Would his wide audience for fast-paced thrills like it? It was a risk … and it became Koontz’s first New York Times bestseller.

So keep the edge. Make the writing itself (not just the results) the object of your affection. That way you’ll leave behind no regrets when your personal mail is delivered by the groundhog.screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-1-08-22-pm

It’s No Longer an Either/Or Publishing World and Other Notes from ThrillerFest

Last week I had the honor of being the first author to final for an International Thriller Writers Award for a self-published work, One More Lie. ITW has been forward thinking in this new era, recognizing that the future is now and a thrilling story works no matter what the delivery system.
Although I didn’t take home the top prize, it was cool to be there (along with former blogmate John Gilstrap and others) and to be confirmed in this: it’s no longer an either/or publishing world, but a both/and and why-the-heck not?

Mrs. B and I had our usual wonderful time in New York, where I used to pound the boards as an actor. We had dinner with my agent, Donald Maass, at a nice bistro in the Meatpacking District (really hopping these days). We talked about the craft, natch, and something Don said in passing I had to write down (this happens a lot when you listen to The Man): “Backstory is not just for plot motivation, but deep character need.”
Chew on that one for awhile.
Dear wife and I saw a hysterical Broadway show, One Man, Two Guvnors.It’s hard to describe, but suffice to say the Tony Award winning lead, James Corden, is a comedic genius.
Also saw about two hours of the amazing 24-hour film on time called The Clock.
And I got to teach at CraftFest. The room was packed! Then I realized Lee Child was teaching right after me….still, a good time was had by all.
The most interesting talk at the Fest, for me at least, came from Jamie Raab, senior vice president and publisher at Grand Central Publishing. Some notes:
Ms. Raab stated that, of course, the industry is in flux. Mass market paperbacks, for instance, are in steep decline as a category. Ms. Raab did not see any way for that format to come back to what it once was. Just what this means to the industry is not known at this time (like so many other things!)
Hardcovers, too, are heading south, simply because they have to be priced too high to cover costs of production. But, as we all know, prices are trending downward as more and more ebooks become available at consumer-friendly price points. Consumers are getting used to certain levels, and there’s no way to fight that. Consumers are co-regents with content in the marketplace.
Ms. Raab spoke about the thrillers she’s read over the years that were “game changers.” Not merely good books or great reads, but books that did something so amazingly original or compelling they actually changed the way the books after them were done.
The titles she mentioned:
Marathon Man by William Goldman
Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
The Firm by John Grisham
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
Absolute Power by David Baldacci
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Each of these titles did something “more.” Marathon Man, for example, had one utterly unforgettable scene. You all know what it is. If you’ve ever been to the dentist, that is.
Absolute Power begins with another unforgettable moment, a burglar hiding himself in a swanky house, witnesses the murder of a young woman by the President of the United States. That scene, and book, changed the course of political thrillers.
So here is what you ought to consider as you write: what are you doing that is “more” than what you’ve read before? What is it about the idea, the scenes, the characters, the plot itself that comes from the deepest part of you?
Here’s the nice thing, as Leonard Bishop once put it. “If you boldly risk writing a novel that might be acclaimed as great, and fail, you could succeed in writing a book that is splendid.”
Splendid isn’t a bad place to be.
Are you reaching for “more” in your writing? 

Can A Bestseller Be Engineered?

By John Gilstrap

In 1997, a literary author named Bradford Morrow made big headlines in the book industry when he allegedly told a reporter from New York Magazine that his publisher, Viking, was trying to engineer a bestselling thriller out of his next novel Giovanni’s Gift. To support the book, and to give it a leg up on sales, the publisher spent a lot of dough promoting it. That’s a good thing, right?

Well, not necessarily. When the New York Magazine story was published, New York Times Book Review writer Walter Kirn tore apart not only the book, but also the author and publisher. Here’s a link to a piece that Salon did on the brouhaha:

While some reviews leave room for interpretation, I think intelligent minds can agree that this is gratuitously awful: “an unintentionally campy blend of artistic ambition and commercial cynicism … a case study in the novel as gilded kitsch — a book that proposes to elevate its readers even as it takes calculated aim at their presumed stupidity … a thin romantic melodrama insulated in operatic twaddle.”

Morrow’s offense, such as it was(n’t) was his decision to share with the world his desire for commercial success. (In future interviews, he maintained that he never writes for money.)

How the world has changed, huh? In a mere fourteen years, we have come to a place in history where it’s okay for an author to publicly state his desire for commercial success. (I’ve long believed that even literary writers secretly want to make money off what they write.)

Carrying on with this week’s theme of finding the right strings to pull to engineer a bestseller, I continue to question whether any individual writer can do anything to significantly influence sales. Sure, there are outliers and exceptions (paging Joe Konrath), but in Joe’s case you have to give credit to the power of being first.

Yesterday ended a 10-day run for my book At All Costs on the Kindle Top 100. (As I write this, it sits at #105, having gotten as low as the 20s.) This is great news for a book that was written in the same year when Giovanni’s Gift was released. Could it possibly be that my fan base has finally reached that self-sustaining critical mass?

Maybe. I hope so. But I have serious doubts about that. If that were the case, my Nook sales rank would be substantially lower than 10,223, which is where it sits as I write this. So, what’s going on?

The answer in two words: Paid Promotion.

My publisher is spending real coin at Amazon on my behalf for banner ads and email blasts that alert anyone who has ever bought my work or the work of anyone who writes similar thrillers that there’s a new Gilstrap eBook out there at the readily affordable price of $1.99 (down from the original $4.50-ish). I assure you that it’s no coincidence that everyone who buys the At All Costs eBook will get to read the first chapter of Threat Warning, the front list book coming out on June 28 as an eBook and July 1 as a pBook.

Words cannot express how grateful I am to Kensington for getting behind me and my work this way. It’s all part of a strategy that was engineered and is continually tweaked by several departments of professionals who promote books for a living. If they’re doing this for li’l ole me, can you imagine the horsepower that’s behind the likes of Baldacci, Coben and Deaver? Sure, at the end of the day, the quality of the work is paramount—an author has to entertain his audience—but a lot of the frenzy that surrounds the release of a book is bought and paid for, including much of the stuff that seems spontaneous.

I have no idea what the price tag of all of this is, but I’m going to guess that it’s significant enough to be out of range for most people I know. It’s not just the absolute value of the time and the cash that’s involved; it’s the risk factor, too. There’s no guarantee that they’ll ever see a return on their investment.

My writing career is eight books deep now—eight books published, anyway. I’ve hired two independent publicists in that time, I’ve arranged book tours, I’ve typed my fingers bloody on blog tours, yet I can tell you without hesitation that nothing I’ve done in self-promotion comes close to providing the results of what Kensington is doing for me. And it’s not just the money; it’s the know-how.

I’m the first to say that I’m perhaps overly blessed at the moment, but some really dark times preceded the last couple of years. This is a tough, tough, business, and with few exceptions the road to success—whatever that means to whoever it means it to—is paved with divots and bloodstains.

Jeffery Deaver and I used to meet for drinks and dinner every Thursday evening for five or six years, and during the darkest of the dark times he endured my pity party for a while. Then, when I asked him what he’s doing right that I’m doing wrong, he put it in perfect perspective for me: “I’m twenty books ahead of you,” he said.

And there it is: the secret to publishing success. And after the twentieth book comes the twenty-first. I’ve come a long way since that chat with Jeff, but I have a long way to go.

Finally, at long last, I’m part of a team that supports me; but part of the reason they support me is because they feel I’ve earned it, a book at a time and a fan at a time.

Can you engineer a bestseller? I believe it’s done all the time. But key elements of the blue print include an established, enthusiastic fan base, and a proven ability to turn out good work.

Can a first time author engineer a bestseller on his own? The occasional exception notwithstanding, I believe the answer is no.

Nobody Pinch Me

By John Gilstrap

I’ll start with an apology for shirking my blogging duties last week. I was at ThrillerFest and had neglected to plan ahead. I suppose I could have just ignored the parties and . . . Nah, people who know me understand that I am incapable of ignoring the parties.

Those who’ve been to T-Fest know that the parties there are different. Those other people in the bar or at the receptions aren’t just regular folks that you see at work every day. To a person, the people I met there in New York—from fans to fellow authors and everyone in between—were friendly, intelligent and fascinating. It’s what makes the conference a not-to-be-missed event for me every year.

I arrived on Wednesday afternoon on the heels of some media events in Boston the previous day, and I went to dinner with Jeffery Deaver. We had drinks at a little hotel bar on 44th Street, and then we ate at a largely forgettable restaurant whose name I’ve in fact forgotten. We were done by 9:00 and not yet ready to go our separate ways, so we wandered into the bar at the Algonquin Hotel. THE Algonquin Hotel, of Algonquin Roundtable fame.

That’s when it hit me: I’m living my own dream. Sitting there in such a famous room, I realized that had I been around in 1925, I might have had a place at the table. I might have participated in the conversations of those literary and critical giants, laughing at their jokes and maybe even offering up a few of my own. (Conversely, I might have been rejected as a commercial hack and banned from their presence, but this is my fantasy, so let me run with it.)

Now, of course, all of those giants are dead. Instead, I spent my time engaged in conversations with Joe Moore, Jeff Deaver, David Baldacci, Harlan Coben, Andrew Grant, Gayle Lynds, Joe Finder, Brett Battles, Kathryn Lilly and dozens more brilliant, witty writers. Forgive a moment of aggrandizement, but it occurred to me that collectively we might all be remembered as the next famed group. Given the level of talent in the room, I’m certain that at least a few will be tagged with greatness.

And I was there. God willing, I’ll be there again.

When I was a kid, I was in awe of writers and writing. I had little opportunity ever to meet an author in person, but on the occasions when I did, I stood there star struck. To think that I might ever join that elite club—if not as an equal, then at least as a colleague—was beyond my ken.

Yet there I was in New York, surrounded by talent. During the course of the next few days, I would have lunch with Anne Hawkins, my agent, and dinners with Michaela Hamilton, my editor, and Sam Franco, the producer who optioned Six Minutes to Freedom.

I’ll say it again: Agent, editor and producer. Never in a million years would I have dreamed that the guy at those meetings would be me.

Last Wednesday, as we sat in the Algonquin sipping scotch and chatting about whatever we were chatting about, I asked Jeff if he ever stopped to think about how cool this whole experience is, about how lucky we are.

“Every day,” he said.

Exactly. Every day. I am an author. I am what I’ve always wanted to be, and every day I wake up wondering what I did to deserve the good fortune.

And I pray that I don’t do something to screw it up.

Does anyone else find themselves amazed at where they are, and fearful that it might all go away?

Notes from Thrillerfest

I just returned from my first Thrillerfest–it was a fantastic conference! Fellow Killers John Gilstrap, Joe Moore, and James Scott Bell were there, and it was great to see them. Thanks to everyone here for holding down the blog-fort while we were in NYC.

A few notes from the Thriller front:

Drumroll, please!

As a former journalist I know better than to bury the lead. During the conference it was announced that our own Joe Moore is the incoming co-president of ITW!

Joe moved onto the board of directors last October as Vice President, Technology, and will officially take over the co-presidency on October 1st 2009. He replaces James Rollins as he steps down due to term limits. Joe’s fellow co-president is Steve Berry. Joe and Steve are in charge of setting the direction for the future of ITW as well as acting as executive directors.

Congratulations, Joe! You deserve the honor; we’re proud to be your blog-mates.

Star power
Thrillerfest ’09 featured some of the brightest lights in the thriller-writing cosmos: Sandra Brown, Clive Cussler. Robin Cook, David Baldacci, David Morrell, and many more! We got to ask them lots of questions during the breakout sessions. I brought home many writing tips that I’m already putting into practice.

Panel fun

I was on a panel with NYT bestselling author Peter De Jonge and Kathleen Sharp, where we shared stories about what it’s like to jump from journalism to a career in fiction. I got a lot out of all the panels I attended, especially “Can you cross genres?” with James Rollins and Jon Land. I hate to miss anything, so I brought home CDs of many of the panels I was not able to attend.

Goin’ to the dogs

There was a dramatic K9 demonstration of “tactical” dogs (the preferred term instead of attack dogs) and explosives detection. The very brave Panel Master, Andrew Peterson, put on a padded sleeve to demonstrate how the tactical dog takes down a suspect. An ATF officer explained that the dogs think they’re playing a game when they attack. But this is one game that the criminals are bound to lose!

To sum up, Thrillerfest ’09 was indeed a thriller–I can’t wait until next year!