How a great story can change the world

by Matt Richtel


TKZ is once again delighted to host Pulitzer prize-winning author Matt Richtel. His latest release, THE CLOUD, just hit bookstores, and I can personally highly recommend it!
This true story ends with me sobbing. In public.

The story starts five weeks ago, on a Monday night, with a text. I was amid an exciting time, working on a front-page story for the New York Times (my day job) about a controversial new twist involving computers and schools, and I was preparing for the Jan. 29 release of my new thriller, The Cloud. 

The text came at 8.06 p.m. It read:  “Call me.”

The text was from Adam, a good friend of mine and editor at The New York Times. About a year earlier Adam had been put in charge of a group of eight, mostly veteran reporters, including me. The group was called “How We Live,” and its charge was to make a journalistic beat of the way people live their lives; how we eat, sleep, learn, fight, procreate, and how we die.

We were supposed to be a new generation of newspaper story tellers – part of an overall move in the newsroom to infuse stories with narrative, voice, and character. The days of authoritative top-down explanations in the New York Times were increasingly giving way to showing and not telling, and sophisticated story telling, appealing to heart not just head.

We were responding to the need to capture and keep reader attention amid the white digital noise of an Angry Bird world.

In response to Adam’s text, I called him. Before I tell you the shocking news he told me, please indulge some additional, necessary, backstory. 

Over the last year, my fiction career was also evolving to suit the digital world. Like many thriller-writing peers. I was writing more and more, adding to the already heavy book-a-year-load.

In August, I published a short story, Floodgate, 15,000 words I hadn’t anticipated writing, aimed at staying in touch with an audience feeding from the all-you-can-tweet-buffet.

And I took hard to Facebook, something initiated as a marketing tactic, but that transformed also into a usually welcome labor, in which I write stuff my toddlers say (funnier than I could ever make up) and occasionally quip about story telling. 

I amassed some 20,000 Facebook subscribers on my personal page. And several thousand likes on my fan page. We got nice press for Floodgate. Apparent success on all fronts.

The New York Times stuff seemed to be working out too. The How We Live team killed it. Something like 35 front-page stories and 90 stories for the front of our feature sections, like Dining, Home, Travel. We generated a ton of traffic. We were a hit. 

Then, fast forward to five weeks ago, I got the text. From Adam, on the Monday night. “Call me.” I called. In a nutshell, he explained, the paper was disbanding the How We Live group. And not just that; the paper was doing a whole bunch of shifting, all over the place. Voluntary buyouts, long-time editors and friends leaving, reorganization.

Why? Stating the obvious: because the paper’s news gathering operation – the news gathering and storytelling operation – cost too much. It was built in a different era, when our costs were supported by print advertising. Remember that old thing?

I’m no stranger to the ups and downs of the changing media landscape. I started and worked my way up from small newspapers, starting in 1990, at which I survived probably half a dozen rounds of layoffs. I know not to let macro-economic forces get me down.

But after I talked to Adam, I went into a tailspin. One that had been a year in the making, at least.

All this hard work. All this adaptation. So much terrible uncertainty. Part of what I experiencing, I am adult enough to know, was the personal uncertainty of the reality I’d need to find a new job inside the paper (I have), and that I was poised to have The Cloud come out (it did, two weeks ago). That meant marketing, travel, speaking, radio, and the subterranean terror that accompanies a book release: will only my family buy it?

But there was something much bigger for me too. I was confronting, squarely, for the first time, the reality that we don’t know what works. We.Do.Not.Know.What.Works.

What has value? How much value? Will we have mere chaos, only chaos, since Jack Dorsey, of Twitter, wrote his infamous missive:  “…we came across the word ‘twitter’, and it was just perfect. The definition was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information,’ and ‘chirps from birds’. And that’s exactly what the product was.”

Inconsequential? Only if you’re not competing against it to pay the bills, and satisfy your muse.


My sleep deteriorated. I experienced a very unusual level of anxiety. I couldn’t write. I was a rotten dad. For two weeks, I felt like crud. I couldn’t find steady ground.  

Then on a Monday, two weeks after the text, I took myself on a Monday afternoon to see Lincoln. No sooner had the opening music began to swell then I had tears in my eyes. They stayed there, persistently, throughout. And by the time a bereft Sally Fields dropped to her knees during a particularly emotional scene with Daniel Day Lewis, I began sobbing. Just lost it.

I was a mess the rest of the movie.

When I walked out, it was the best I’d felt in weeks. Cleansed.

And it’s when I finally understood the thing that had been eluding me for weeks, maybe for much longer. I finally understood the value of The Story. And of storytelling. And of its place in the digital world.

I’ll tell you first my conclusion, and then explain.

My conclusion: The bad story and story teller has little value, or, at best, ephemeral value; so too the mediocre story and storyteller, and even the merely good ones.

The great story and story teller is more valuable than they have ever been.

They are a port in the storm. A place to pause and heal from all the white noise the world throws at us, a tiny closet to cower inside and rest from the swirl of inconsequential missives.

And, more than that, great stories are the place where we will change the world. In Lincoln, Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg, two of the greatest story tellers of our age team up to make a movie that is, perhaps above all, an homage to storytelling. They teach us that Lincoln used story-telling, narrative, anecdote, quip and emotion, to deliver the United States from slavery. 

I know this doesn’t answer the business-model question. That’s the one that plagues us, still. Will the New York Times face bigger challenges? Yes? Will The Cloud take flight? Not as it might have when the institutions of publishing had more power (It is my most ambitious and mature and entertaining work to date).

But it’s not the business model question I needed an answer to. It was the emotional one, the real one. And I got that answer sitting in a movie theater, sobbing. 

Fellow story tellers, take seriously your duty. The world seeks deliverance. You hold its key.
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Who Created Writers? The Man With One Black Glove

by Matt Richtel
Today Pulitzer prize winning journalist Matt Richtel join us again for a fascinating real life story…read on to find out more…
It was one of those arid summer days where you can see heat rippling from the pavement. Air conditioning in the cranky Chevrolet up full blast. Kermit and the Muppets on the stereo singing about a rainbow.
And then the black car appeared. A Mercedes, tinted windows. One curve ahead of us. My father, driving, spied it first.
“It’s him.”
Strapped into the backseat, a determined 14-year-old, I strained to look over the tall gray back of the front seat.
“It’s him, Matthew. It’s Carlos.”
The Jackal.
“No way.” I paused. “Do you think he’s on to us?”
It was the summer of 1980. We were on a family car trip; me, dad, my younger sister and mom. I tell you the beginning of this all-too-true story to address the question: do thriller writers get born, or made? Do we start seeing conspiracy everywhere, imposing over-active imaginations, like covering the world with a transparency dotted with daggers and police tape?
That summer, I was traveling with Robert Ludlum, or, rather, his book, the Bourne Identity, one of the first hardbacks I mainlined, just after dad finished it. Carlos the Jackal, terrorist and Ludlum antagonist, had crept into our zealous imaginations.
Maybe dad was escaping a little bit too, maybe we all were. Mom and dad hadn’t been getting along so great. Nothing overt. A tear in the fabric.
With the Mercedes just ahead of us, we reached our destination, a local steakhouse at the top of a small hill. Dad and I were still in the thrall of imagination – is it Carlos in the car? Headed to an assassination? One we can prevent? — when out of the black car stepped three men.
Dark jackets, short haircuts. Stern. One wore a single black glove.
“Oh my God, Matthew. It’s really him.”
Unlike some people who write for a living, I never pictured myself becoming a writer. I knew I liked being swept away, teased by the promise of some terrific answer. But even after I became a journalist, I thought the idea of writing books seemed ambitious bordering on obnoxious. Who writes 90,000 words about anything?
Then, in 2002, processing the end of a long relationship with my college girlfriend, I wrote two pages of a story that starts with an explosion at a San Francisco café, in which the protagonist is saved by a beautiful and mysterious woman. Who is this woman, I had to know. Five months, and 90,000 words, later, my first thriller, Hooked.
I couldn’t stop writing. My third thriller, The Cloud, comes out in January. This week marked the release of my first short-story, Floodgate. It’s had me thinking about my chronic case of the muse. I fear my publisher, Harper Collins, will find out: He’ll do it for free!  
Is there a connection between the story of the Man With One Black Glove (stay tuned for the surprise ending) and the muse that haunts me?
Almost certainly. But not for the most obvious reason: that I learned some form of escape. That retreating into a fantasy was easier than, say, thinking about parents not getting along (they eventually, amicably, divorced) or directly processing the end of my relationship with a girlfriend. That may be part of it but not the lion’s share.
The biggie, for me, is that I was given permission. Permission to fantasize, tell stories, let my mind wander. My father facilitated that through his own playfulness, through the spy novels he read, the upholding of men and women of glory. My mother did so through her own love affair with fiction, character-based stories, novels, literary and close to it.
My folks didn’t read the same books but they read and read and put spines on a pedestal.
For many years, I didn’t give myself the permission they’d gifted me. I suspect I went into journalism because it let me write, but not whimsically; I wrote about ideas, “important” things. Then, as I got more comfortable with myself, I started hearing something. A voice. It would say: what if.
What if the café exploded? What if grandma knows a secret? What if they’re watching us?
I started to mix the maturity of a seasoned journalist, someone who had learned to knit a narrative, with the whimsy of a child? I got the hell out of my own way. I am rarely more peaceful than asking:
What if?
What if the clown is packing? What if a note falls from his pocket? What if that man with one black glove is Carlos?
The story did not ending the parking lot.
That balmy night on the car trip, we walked inside the restaurant. The three men were seated at a table in the middle. We got sat two tables away. Dad and I trying not to stare, staring. Overhearing.
“They’re talking in a foreign language,” I gasped and whispered.
My dad: “It’s German.”
I am not kidding you.
Oh, by this point, things go crazy inside our brains, and also get a bit conflated. Carlos the Jackal was, we think, Spanish. But these guys were German, which is, we decided, even crazier. Nazis, on our soil! We had to slightly redo the plot; who cared, it didn’t really matter. Sometimes easy resolutions and explanations fail you. Especially in thrillers. But sometimes, if the setup is great, if you ask the right questions, it doesn’t matter. The payoff is the telling.
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What Killed the Thriller Writer: Your Attention Span

by Matt Richtel

Today TKZ is delighted to host Pulitzer Prize winning NY Times reporter and thriller author Matt Richtel. His post today ties in nicely with a discussion Clare began on Monday: read her post here if you missed it, and let’s continue the debate…

Body counts are rising, blood spilling in buckets. It’s a conspiracy pandemic. Thriller writers entering an epic age of mayhem.

Credit the muse? Maybe.

For sure blame the Internet.

It is responsible for a fascinating new trend among, in particular, mystery and thriller writers. We are writing more than ever. No longer just a book ever year. In the last year, it has become au courant for us to also publish short stories at least once a year, between book releases.

Lee Child, Lisa Gardner, Steve Berry, go down the list of the heavyweights. They’ve all getting into the short-story game, creating a thriller wellspring, or, if you prefer, a bloodbath. I enter the fray myself this month with “Floodgate,” a political thriller, my first short story.

But as with any good plot twist, there is well more here than meets the eye, a backstory, and some troubling questions, including, chiefly: is this a good idea? Or are we at risk of murdering something truly dear: our craft?

First, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the facts:

It’s long been tradition for thriller writers to put out a book once a year to keep audiences attached to characters and authors and, bluntly, to their brands. This was not necessarily an easy schedule for writers, especially those who really invested in depth, but it was doable and simply understood as necessary.

I’ve had some big-name thriller-writer friends tell me that when they didn’t write a book one year – say, because of a divorce or contractual dispute – they’d see a material decline in their sales.

Then along came the Internet, with all its mixed blessings (see, duh: Amazon). More competition, less shelf space, less control for publishers on distribution (see: almost none). How did short stories become a response?

The publishers (and we writers, by extension), began to fear that we’d get lost in the white noise of competition. Make a reader wait a year for a new book? Heck, by then even loyal readers might’ve made for the nearest cat video. So part of this is an effort to keep our names in the LED lights.
       
There’s also a more direct marketing reason. The short stories are “e-pub,” electronic only. They are relatively cheap, 99 cents or so, so there’s little incentive for a reader not to at least give it a shot, particularly if written by a favorite author. At the back of the short story, there often is the first few chapters of the author’s next book, and a “click-to-buy” button.

If readers like the story, they pre-order the next book. Pre-orders are great because they build the so-called “first-week sales,” which, if those mount, can get the writer on the bestseller list. In short: the short story as loss leader.

Writers privately grumble: you mean I gotta write something else, for free, while I’m already on a breakneck cycle of write, edit, publicize, repeat? Oh, and did I mention blog, Facebook update, tweet, repeat?

How good can these stories be if we’re writing on a treadmill?

So it all sounds like marketing, and nothing more, right? Like: gag me with a spoon (and put police tape around my utensil-strangled body). Not so fast. There’s, potentially, a lot to like here.

First of all, short stories, when done well, can blow the mind. Swift movement, concision, detailed and fast character development, a flurry of clues. A short story can make every word count, the language itself pregnant with clues.

(One great short story making a lot of rounds is “Wool,” if you haven’t read it; I’m told it has been optioned by Ridley Scott).

The medium also is a chance to introduce or try on a new character, not your usual protagonist. In the case of Floodgate, my latest, I’d long been aching to write about Zach Coles, a bitter, hostile out-of-work journalist who once punched an editor for misplacing an adjective; he’s tall and awkward, moving like a drunken Ostrich but fighting like a Ninja.

One friend with a string of bestsellers urged me to weave into Floodgate my regular protagonist, create a bridge, if you will, between short story and my other books. And creating, in turn, for my regular readers, a bit of an Easter Egg.

In the end, it was extra work I hadn’t contracted for. More bodies piling up. Another conspiracy I hadn’t expected to execute this year. An experience driven in the first instance by marketing, not the muse.

But she did take over, the muse, wrestling away what might’ve been a very cynical process.  I gave a damn (unlike Zach Coles, whose venom makes it very hard to save the world). No wonder. We, thriller writers, don’t kill because we have to. It’s because we need to.

Meantime, Harper Collins is doing its part, meeting me more than halfway, putting out some swanky videos, radio spots (Don Imus!) and banner ads they hope will make it viral (fat chance but not less-than-zero). So blame the Internet for mass murder. But hopefully we can rely on the muse to spare us and make the killings artful.

Matt Richtel is a Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter and bestselling thriller writer. His latest, Floodgate, a political conspiracy that puts Watergate to shame, comes out this month. He can be reached at mattrichtel at gmail dot com.

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