A Success Story

Over the holidays I had dinner with a friend from Vermont who asked me what it was like to sell a novel. He’s interested in writing fiction and I think he was looking for some inspiration. So I told him one of my favorite stories: “The Day I Got The Call From My Agent.”
It happened seven-and-a-half years ago. By that point in my life I’d been a journalist for twenty-three years, and for nineteen of those years I’d written novels on the side. Over those two decades I’d finished four novels that hadn’t sold. The first was a literary thriller about a Southern governor similar to George Wallace; the second was a satire about a New Hampshire farmer who starts a new religion; the third was a romantic comedy about a beautiful con artist; and the fourth was a murder mystery set in the porn industry. I’d had particularly high hopes for that last book. I thought, “It has sex and violence! It’s got to sell!” But it didn’t. Some of the publishers who saw it were perplexed. Others were appalled.
In 2005, though, I got a new agent, and that turned out to be my lucky break. He advised me to write a strictly genre novel rather than the weird hybrids I was producing. At the time, I was a staff editor at Scientific American and we’d just put out a special issue on Albert Einstein, so I decided to write a thriller about a secret Theory of Everything that Einstein refused to publish because he knew it would lead to weapons even worse than nuclear bombs. I finished the novel two years later — it was eventually titled Final Theory — and my agent sent it out to publishers in the summer of 2007.
Although this book was more commercial than my earlier efforts, I was still anxious. And my anxieties multiplied as the weeks went by and I didn’t hear anything from my agent. By the time I went with my family on our annual vacation to northern Michigan I was quite morose. At one family dinner my brother-in-law asked, “So, any news about your novel?” and I launched into a bitter rant in which I predicted that no one would buy the book and it would end up in the same cardboard box where the dusty manuscripts of all my other unpublished novels lay a-moldering.
The next day was a particularly beautiful one on Lake Michigan. My in-laws took my wife and son sailing while I stayed at the cottage with my five-year-old daughter, who loved to dig holes in the sand at the lakeshore and throw rocks into the water. That afternoon we noticed some unusual activity on the lawn of the neighboring cottage, where a pack of young grandkids had just arrived. A teenage babysitter was setting up an inflatable Bouncy Castle playhouse from somewhere similar to JungleJumps on the grass. I could tell that my daughter was dying to try it out, so I approached the babysitter and chatted her up. While she was distracted my daughter slipped into the Bouncy Castle and started jumping around.
Then, as I silently congratulated myself for this clever ploy, my cellphone rang. It was my agent.
Are there any words in the English language better than “We got an offer”? There’s “I love you” of course — that’s good too — but sometimes people say those words without really meaning anything. But there’s no doubt about the meaning of “We got an offer.” It means they want you. There’s money on the table.  
And it was more money than I ever expected to make from writing fiction. My first reaction was simple: TAKE IT! But my agent said he thought we could do even better, and after a day of negotiation he got the publisher to triple the offer. I was flabbergasted.

My friend from Vermont liked the story, and I think it had the desired effect of inspiring him to finish his own novel. And it made me happy to remember that July afternoon by the Bouncy Castle. The writing life can be lonely and frustrating, but if you keep at it long enough there are occasional moments of bliss.

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There’s No Place Like Home

All of my novels begin in New York City. It’s been my home for most of my life, so I guess I think of it as a natural starting point. For example, in my first novel, Final Theory, the hero is a professor at Columbia University who is arrested by the FBI and taken to an interrogation room downtown. Later on, he manages to evade the federal agents at Penn Station by mingling with a bunch of late-night suburban revelers returning to New Jersey. The authorities chase him across the country, and eventually he arrives at the Fermi National Accelerator Lab near Chicago, where a high-energy physics experiment threatens to unleash some nasty apocalyptic phenomena.
That first book established a geographic precedent for my subsequent novels. My next three thrillers start in New York City and end in the deserts of Central Asia, the mountains of China and the jungles of Colombia, respectively. My forthcoming Young Adult novel, scheduled to be published in June, starts in the suburban town of Yorktown Heights, New York, and ends at a sprawling ICBM base west of Saratov, Russia. But the novel I’m writing now (it’s due in November!) breaks the mold somewhat. The action begins in New York and stays there. There’s one scene in California, but everything else takes place within the city limits of my hometown.
As it turns out, though, many of the novel’s chapters portray places in New York that I’d never visited before. For instance, I wanted to write a scene set in a Con Edison manhole. I’ve spent my whole life walking past hundreds of these manholes, literally just a few feet above them, and yet I’d never seen the inside of one. But the city’s electrical infrastructure is in constant need of repair, and on any given day I’m likely to see Con Ed crews at work somewhere in my neighborhood. As it turns out, these workers are pretty darn friendly and if you show an interest in what they do they’re more than happy to talk about their jobs.
For safety reasons, the Con Ed folks couldn’t actually let me descend into a manhole, but I got a glimpse of what’s down there. And boy, it’s a mess! Rainwater (and all the crap that flows with it down the street) drips through the vents in the manhole covers and collects at the bottom of the underground concrete box. It seems like a perilous combination — filthy water and electrical lines carrying 13,000-volt current — but I guess that’s why the lines have so much insulation. Sometimes the insulation gets damaged or corroded, though, which can cause fires and the leakage of stray voltage to metal structures on the street. When the workers need to make repairs in the manhole, they first send over a special truck that sucks all the watery gunk out of the box. I’ve seen these trucks on the street many times, and now I finally know what they’re for.
Here’s another example of some hometown research: I wanted to write a scene set on Rikers Island, the sprawling jail complex for all New York City residents who are awaiting trial and can’t make bail. It’s a little difficult to get a tour of Rikers these days because the jail is facing a ton of criticism. The guards there have been accused of some horrible abuses, savagely beating up mentally disturbed inmates and adolescent offenders. Because the New York City Corrections Department is under fire right now, they’re not likely to allow a novelist to roam around the cellblocks. But when I worked as a newspaper reporter I visited other jails around the country. (I remember one particular visit with intense revulsion — I had to interview a man accused of raping and murdering his sister.) And I found an unexpected source of information about Rikers: the videos recorded by evangelists who go to the jail to proselytize the prisoners. The videos are incredibly cheesy, but they show you exactly what the jail’s cells and dormitories look like.   

This week I’m writing a scene set in one of my favorite places in New York, the American Museum of Natural History. I’ve visited the museum many, many times in the past, but I went there again last weekend to answer a novelistic question: What would be a plausible way to break into the building? After much snooping around I came up with a plan. But I’m not going to give it away here. You’ll just have to read the book. (It’ll probably be published late next year or early 2016. Assuming I finish it, of course.)

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What the %#$@?

Tomorrow is the hundredth anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Dubliners. It’s perhaps the greatest short-story collection ever written, and yet Joyce had to struggle for eight years to get it published.
Why did it take so long? For one thing, publishers objected to disparaging comments about the English royal family in the story “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” They were also worried about the sexual references in “Counterparts” and “Two Gallants.” But one of the strongest objections was to Joyce’s frequent use of the swear word “bloody.” Joyce eventually agreed to remove the offending word from some of the stories, but not all of them; it remained, for example, in “Two Gallants” (“two bloody fine cigars”) and “The Boarding House” (“if any fellow tried that sort of a game on with his sister he’d bloody well put his teeth down his throat, so he would”). Joyce insisted that in those instances no other word would do.
But Joyce was a genius, so he could take certain liberties. What about the rest of us, the merely mortal writers? How do we walk the fine line between underuse and overuse of vulgarities and swear words? Many characters in thrillers are unsavory types, and in the real world such people often use words that are a lot more offensive than “bloody.” If we’re going to show their dialogue and thoughts in a realistic way, we can’t avoid typing “shit,” “fuck,” “piss,” and all the other dirty words on George Carlin’s famous list. And yet many readers strongly object to the foul language.
I confronted this issue a few years ago when I got an e-mail from a reader who enjoyed my first novel Final Theory. She wanted to share the novel with her 13-year-old son and asked me if there was a kid-friendly version of the book with none of the swear words. I had to tell her there was no such animal, but I made a solemn vow: if I ever wrote a Young Adult book intended for the twelve-and-up crowd, it would contain no swears whatsoever.
I started writing a YA novel a couple of years ago, and in the beginning I had a hard time complying with my no-swears rule. For instance, I’d developed the bad habit of having my characters either think or say the word “Shit!” whenever something shocking happened. I realized that I was using the word as a crutch, an easy way to signal strong fear or surprise. When I forced myself to avoid the word, I came up with more imaginative ways to convey these emotions.
In the end I wrote nearly 100,000 words with nary a vulgarity among them. The most offensive word in the whole novel is “freaking.” The book is scheduled to be published a year from now. (We haven’t officially announced it yet because we’re still trying to choose the title.)

I’m still using swear words in my thrillers for adults, but now I’m trying to exercise some restraint. I’ve learned that less can be more. As Joyce might say, you better bloody well believe it.  
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What the %#$@?

Tomorrow is the hundredth anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s Dubliners. It’s perhaps the greatest short-story collection ever written, and yet Joyce had to struggle for eight years to get it published.
Why did it take so long? For one thing, publishers objected to disparaging comments about the English royal family in the story “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” They were also worried about the sexual references in “Counterparts” and “Two Gallants.” But one of the strongest objections was to Joyce’s frequent use of the swear word “bloody.” Joyce eventually agreed to remove the offending word from some of the stories, but not all of them; it remained, for example, in “Two Gallants” (“two bloody fine cigars”) and “The Boarding House” (“if any fellow tried that sort of a game on with his sister he’d bloody well put his teeth down his throat, so he would”). Joyce insisted that in those instances no other word would do.
But Joyce was a genius, so he could take certain liberties. What about the rest of us, the merely mortal writers? How do we walk the fine line between underuse and overuse of vulgarities and swear words? Many characters in thrillers are unsavory types, and in the real world such people often use words that are a lot more offensive than “bloody.” If we’re going to show their dialogue and thoughts in a realistic way, we can’t avoid typing “shit,” “fuck,” “piss,” and all the other dirty words on George Carlin’s famous list. And yet many readers strongly object to the foul language.
I confronted this issue a few years ago when I got an e-mail from a reader who enjoyed my first novel Final Theory. She wanted to share the novel with her 13-year-old son and asked me if there was a kid-friendly version of the book with none of the swear words. I had to tell her there was no such animal, but I made a solemn vow: if I ever wrote a Young Adult book intended for the twelve-and-up crowd, it would contain no swears whatsoever.
I started writing a YA novel a couple of years ago, and in the beginning I had a hard time complying with my no-swears rule. For instance, I’d developed the bad habit of having my characters either think or say the word “Shit!” whenever something shocking happened. I realized that I was using the word as a crutch, an easy way to signal strong fear or surprise. When I forced myself to avoid the word, I came up with more imaginative ways to convey these emotions.
In the end I wrote nearly 100,000 words with nary a vulgarity among them. The most offensive word in the whole novel is “freaking.” The book is scheduled to be published a year from now. (We haven’t officially announced it yet because we’re still trying to choose the title.)

I’m still using swear words in my thrillers for adults, but now I’m trying to exercise some restraint. I’ve learned that less can be more. As Joyce might say, you better bloody well believe it.  
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How To Pick A Title For Your Novel

Choosing a title for your novel should be fun, right? So why is it often so frustrating?

I think it’s because there are so many requirements for a good title. It has to tell the reader, in a general way, what the book is about. It also has to convey the tone of the book — a light, amusing title for a lighthearted novel, a heavy, ominous title for a dark, creepy thriller. It can’t be too similar to titles of other recently published or very well-known books. And it shouldn’t carry the baggage of unwanted associations. Above all, it has to be catchy.

One could argue that novelists shouldn’t worry so much about titles. This is an area where the publisher has the final say, because the title is so important to the marketing of the book. The author can make suggestions, but the publisher has veto power. And I’ve learned that the best titles often come out of brainstorming sessions between the author and editor after the book is finished. But I can’t start a novel without giving it at least a working title. I can’t just call it a work-in-progress. Would you call one of your kids a work-in-progress? (Although that’s what children are, really.)

I’ve written four published novels, and each had a working title that was different from its ultimate title. When I started writing the first book I called it “The Theory of Everything” because it was about a dangerous secret theory developed by Albert Einstein to explain all the forces of Nature. (Einstein himself called it Einheitliche Feldtheorie, the unified field theory.) But that wasn’t such a great title for a thriller. It seemed better suited to a literary novel. (And, in fact, there are several literary novels titled “The Theory of Everything.”) So my editor and I put our heads together and came up with “Final Theory.” That seemed more compelling and yet still true to the subject of the book, because physicists believe that if they ever do discover a theory of everything, it will also be a final theory (because they will have nothing fundamental left to discover).

My second novel was a sequel to the first, and I gave it the working title “Quantum Crash” because it was about an attempt to crash the program of the universe. Because the universe is inherently mathematical, some physicists have speculated that reality is the result of a cosmic program; the laws of physics are the operating instructions of this program, while matter and energy are the data being crunched. The problem with this title was the word “quantum.” I think the publisher was worried it would scare off some readers. My editor proposed the title “The Omega Theory,” which had the advantage of conveying that the book was a sequel to the first novel. Luckily, there is a concept in physics called the omega point, and I was able to work this into the book’s plot.

My third book was a stand-alone novel about the merger of man and machine. The working title was “Swarm” because the book’s villain employs swarms of cyborg insect drones — live houseflies with implanted radio controls and bio-weapons — to attack the heroes. But that title didn’t convey the general premise of the novel, which describes the rise of a man-machine network that seeks to exterminate the human race. So my editor and I came up with “Extinction,” which was much better.

My fourth novel (which just came out) is another stand-alone, this one about an ancient clan of witches who have steered the course of human history for centuries. I gave it the working title “Ariel” because that was the name of the heroine, but I knew it would never fly as the ultimate title because of all the “Little Mermaid” associations. In the end my editor and I settled on the title “The Furies,” which are Greek mythological witches of a sort. I changed the name of the witch clan to Fury so that the book’s title would better fit its content.

And right now I’m writing a novel about an alien invasion, and I’ve given it the working title “Interstellar.” But I’m pretty sure this won’t be the title when the book is published because there’s a movie called “Interstellar” that’s scheduled to come out by the end of the year. I just viewed the trailer for the movie and it looks pretty cool. But my novel, whatever it’s ultimately called, will be very different.
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Let Us Now Praise Supportive Spouses


My wife Lisa and I have been together for 24 years, and for 17 of them — that is, until 2007 — I was a frustrated, unpublished novelist. While working as a magazine reporter and editor, I wrote four books that didn’t even come close to selling. I tried my best to be stoic about it but failed miserably in the attempt. I was especially miserable when perusing the shelves of my local bookstore or leafing through the book-review section of the Sunday Times. All I could think was, “Why are they getting published and not me?”

And who do you think bore the brunt of my bitterness? I certainly couldn’t expect commiseration from my colleagues at work. If I told them about my travails in the world of fiction, they’d start to wonder if I was neglecting my journalistic duties to spend time on my novels. And even with my close friends I didn’t share my despair. No, the only person who knew the full extent of my unhappiness was Lisa. She was the one who put up with my complaints. She was the one who urged me to keep at it.

This is what she told me: “When you get published — and it’s a matter of when, not if — you better dedicate that first book to me, because you have put me through A LOT, buster.”

Well, she was right. And I did dedicate my first novel to her. Better yet, I dedicated my fourth novel to her parents, who are the best in-laws in America. Last week we had the launch party for that book — THE FURIES — and Lisa worked her usual magic on the crowd (see the photo above). She’s the director of development and marketing for the Green-Wood Historic Fund, which preserves and protects the legacy of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, the final resting place of Boss Tweed, Leonard Bernstein, Horace Greeley and other New York luminaries. We make a good team — the thriller writer and the woman who works in a graveyard. Romantic, right?

She’s also a tough customer. When she reads something in my books that she doesn’t like, she’s not afraid to tell me. In fact, she gave me the best piece of writing advice I ever received. Back in 2005, when I was bemoaning all my unpublished novels, she told me that my books suffered from a common flaw: the characters were just too weird. I argued, “But weird is good!” and she made a face. “Your heroes have to be more normal,” she said. “Why don’t you make a hero who’s more like you? Because you’re not so bad.”

I took her advice. The hero of my first published novel, FINAL THEORY, is a bit like me. And the heroine is a bit like Lisa.

*******

Before I end this post I want to make an aside about its title. LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN by James Agee is a nonfiction book about sharecroppers in Alabama during the 1930s. I read it for the first time in the 1980s when I was working as a newspaper reporter in Montgomery, Alabama, and it had an enormous effect on me. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it.  
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An Introduction; and Found in the Translation

Please allow me to make an introduction. Next Saturday, September 22, as I make my way down to New Orleans for a legal seminar, movie role auditions, and a bit of urban spelunking, a gentleman named Mark Alpert will make his debut on this blog. He and I shall thereafter alternate in this space on Saturdays. Mark is one of those individuals who is the smartest person in any given room, even when he is several miles away from it. It’s a quantum physics thing, my friends. Mark is a contributing editor to a magazine that I am barely intelligent enough to read — Scientific American — and makes the incomprehensible understandable on a weekly basis. Mark has so far also published two thrillers, FINAL THEORY and its sequel, THE OMEGA THEORY. Both books deal with aspects of quantum physics, and what occurs when science and knowledge are used with evil intent. Pick them up, and prepare to lose several nights of sleep, reading and thinking and worrying.  Mark’s third novel, EXTINCTION, which deals with a hostile artificial intelligence, is on its way in February 2013. I hear good things about it already.  I am sure that in the interim Mark will keep us all educated, informed, and most of all entertained with his contributions here.
               *                                                    *                                           *
Let me now change direction. Does the name “Stieg Larsson” mean anything to you? It probably does, particularly if you are a fan of mystery and thriller novels. After all, it was the late Mr. Larsson who penned that famous trilogy of novels, the ones about the girl with the dragon tattoo who played with fire and kicked the hornet’s nest, which renewed interest in what is variously called Nordic Noir or Scandinavian crime fiction. You might also have read a novel or two by Jo Nesbo, such as THE REDBREAST or THE SNOWMAN.  You are undoubtedly at least nominally familiar with SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW by Peter Hoeg, and THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. But…have you read any novels by Reg Keeland? Or Don Bartlett? What about Tiina Nunnally? How about Alan Blair?
Keeland, Bartlett, Nunnally, Blair  and many other worthies I could name are the individuals who provided you with the opportunity to read Larsson, Nesbo, Hoeg, Sjowall, Whaloo,  and…well, many other worthies I could name. It was Reg Keeland who translated The Millennium Trilogy. Don Bartlett did, and does, the honors for Jo Nesbo. Without Tiina Nunnally, Smilla would have still had a sense of snow, but you probably wouldn’t have known or cared. And Alan Blair made sure that the policeman didn’t laugh to an empty room. None of these people are household names. I think they should be. I think that they, and at least a dozen other individuals, should get some credit for what they do and for how well they do it. I submit that there is much more to translating a work of literature than simply doing a word for word interpretation; you have to…you have to taste it, and get the recipe right. Leave out the spice, add too much of this, and too little of that, and it might be bland, or watery, or inedible. Or, indeed, unreadable. Put something into Google Translate and see what I mean. I adore Google Translate, and it does a good job, but more often than not what you get has to be interpreted for context. What Kleeland and a number of others do is much more than translate Swedish or Nordic or language foreign to English; they take what would be indecipherable to most of us and make it understandable, and insure that the end result is still suspenseful, mysterious, and magical.
Every time I pick up a book by an author whose native language is other than English, I make a point of noting the translator of the work, and for a brief moment, thanking them.  And so, to those who show and share us the magic of faraway places —those I have named, and those I have not — I thank you.
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