Writing for Money is a Good Thing: The K. Bennett Interview


It’s my pleasure to welcome K. Bennett to TKZ. K’s third Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law book, I ATE THE SHERIFF, is releasing this week. I caught up with K. Bennett at Duke’s in Malibu, where he was eating fish tacos and counting the pelicans outside the window.
JSB: What was the inspiration for your series about a zombie lawyer?
KB: Money.
JSB: Could you be a bit more specific?
KB: A publisher offered me money for the concept and my agent and I thought it would be a good idea to a) accept the money; and b) write the books.
JSB: When publishers give you money they usually like you to write the books, right?
KB: That’s been the standard, yes. But I also loved the idea. Zombies were hot at the time, but only as monsters. I thought it was high time a zombie got to be the hero.
JSB: So you’re saying it’s okay to write for the money?
KB: You’re an odd person.
JSB: Excuse me?
KB: Is it okay for a plumber to work for money?
JSB: Mine certainly does.
KB: Okay then. If he’s a good plumber, you don’t mind paying him. If someone’s a good writer, readers don’t mind paying for the books. And the authors get a piece of that transaction. Writing for money is a good thing, because the only way to make money, generally speaking, is to create value. For a writer, that means writing a great book. The two things—money and excellence—go together.
JSB: How did you happen to make your zombie character a lawyer?
KB: Many people think there really is no difference.
JSB: You say you sold the concept. How did you do that?
KB: I put together a précis and the first few chapters.
JSB: Précis?
KB: Basically a tagline, logline and summary. The tagline was: In L.A. practicing law can be hell. Especially if you’re dead.
The logline was based on the first novel, PAY ME IN FLESH: A zombie criminal lawyer defends a vampire hooker accused of the crime the lawyer herself has committed, even as a zombie-killer closes in and the love of her former life comes back as the Deputy DA she must oppose.
The series summary was a few paragraphs, and included world building: all sorts of demonic and paranormal activity is breaking out in Los Angeles, leading to the theory that Satan is setting up a war headquarters here for a new assault on heaven and earth.
JSB: You’ve chosen to use a pseudonym for this series. Can I ask why?
KB: Sure.
JSB: Um, why?
KB: No comment.
JSB: I’ll pick up the tab on your fish tacos if  you tell me.
KB: Done. I have another name that is an established brand. These books are so different I wanted an easy way for readers to see the distinction. The covers and the pen name do that.
JSB: Can you tell us your real name?
KB: I prefer not to.
JSB: Then tell us about this new book, I ATE THE SHERIFF.
KB: Well, as the title so subtly implies, Mallory Caine, my zombie lawyer, has occasion to eat the Sheriff of the County of Los Angeles. How and why is in the book. Suffice to say that things are not going well in the city. Mallory is representing a werewolf whose ex-wife is trying to take custody of his kids. Her father is in jail. And Satan is on the move.
JSB: What are you working on now?
KB: My third fish taco.
JSB: I mean in your writing.
KB: Ah. I am working on a Mallory Caine short story and, under my other name, several novel, novella and non-fiction projects.
JSB: How about advice for young writers?
KB: I’m all for it.
JSB: I mean, do you have any?

KB: Ah. Well, first off I’d repeat something Lawrence Block once said. “If you want to write fiction, the best thing you can do is take two aspirins, lie down in a dark room, and wait for the feeling to pass. If it persists, you probably ought to write a novel.”
What Larry is getting at here is that it takes more than a minor desire to make it as a writer. You’ve got to be in the grip of it, have a burning desire to do it well.
JSB: Let’s say someone has that. What should they do with it?
KB: Keep it burning. Find a way to stay inspired and motivated. But above all else, produce the words. Set a writing quota. Find out what you can comfortably do each week, up that by 10%, and make that your weekly goal. Add to that the systematic study of the craft.
JSB: You are really talking my language now.
KB: Si finis bonus est, totum bonum erit.
JSB: What’s that?
KB: Another language.
JSB: Oh.
KB: It’s Latin. It means, If the end is good, the rest will be good. The hardest part of the fiction craft is the ending. But you have to nail it. Your last chapter sells your next book, or doesn’t.
JSB: Outside of the Kardashians, you and Tommy Lee Jones are the most famous Ks in America today. How does that feel?
KB: Could you pass the hot sauce, please?
JSB: By the way, what does the K stand for?
KB: Fine writing, I hope.
JSB: Are you going to tell us what the K stands for or not?
KB: It has yet to be revealed. I will someday.
JSB: Just so long as it’s not Korky.
KB: I promise.
JSB: Any last words?
KB: Et tu, Brute?
JSB: No, I mean from you.
KB: Ah. Well, it’s good to reflect on death. You’re not going to be around forever. Your books, most likely, will not be read a hundred years from now, except by accident. What is it besides being a writer that you’ll be remembered for? How do you treat other people? How do you reach out and help those less fortunate than yourself? What will they say about you at your funeral?
JSB: That’s a good way to end this interview. What is it you, K. Bennett, would like someone to say about you as your coffin lies open at the front of the church?
KB: I would like them to say, “Look! He’s moving!”
If you have any questions for K. Bennett today, I’m sure he’ll be pleased to answer them.
K. Bennett will be signing copies of all three of the Mallory Caine books at Mysterious Galaxy in Redondo Beach, Friday, August 24, 7:30 – 8:30 p.m. Go HERE for more information. 

Listen to the Book

James Scott Bell

TCM, may favorite channel, showed a clip the other day of the great actor Eli Wallach talking about Method acting. This was the movement that took off in the 1940s, inspiring a new generation of actors like Brando, Newman and Dean.
Wallach reflected that as a young actor it was exhilarating to work things out with the Method. It was a like a big gymnasium and the actors were all playing off each other, trying things, letting scenes happen naturally.
But as he grew older, he said, he got more cautious. He would sometimes forget those lessons of youth, that sense of play. To break out of his torpor he would reflect back on his early days.
“The Method tends to put you back on the track to enjoy what you’re doing, to listen,” he said. “The big secret to acting is listening. A thought on the screen is amazing. And if you really listen, it comes to life.”
This hit me as something that applies to writing as well. We don’t put our best words on paper unless, in some form or fashion, we listen to the story as it unfolds. Madeleine L’Engle put it this way: “A writer grimly controls his work to his peril.  Slowly, slowly, I am learning to listen to the book, in the same way I listen to prayer.  If the book tells me to do something completely unexpected, I heed it; the book is usually right.”
So how do we listen to the book? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Listen in the morning
A valuable literary practice is to write quickly, first thing after you wake up (I will allow you a minute to start the coffee brewing, of course, but sit down ASAP and write, with pen and paper even, in stream of consciousness mode.)
Dorothea Brande recommends this practice in her wonderful little book, Becoming a Writer. It’s a way to capture that netherworld we inhabit between sleeping and waking, and therein lies treasure. Also, a lot you’ll throw away. But that’s the nature of creativity. The idea is to record as much of the mind stuff as possible, and then use whatever you find that’s valuable. Like panning for gold, you get a whole bunch of the riverbed in your pan then coax out the gold a bit at a time.
2. Use a novel journal
Sue Grafton does this, and that’s good enough for me. She begins each writing stint with her journal (she creates one for each novel). She starts with a diary entry, something about her life at the moment. Then she starts asking herself questions about her WIP. She may want to work on a scene, or a character, or some plot twist, or whatever else is popping up in her mind. Writing freestyle, is a way to open up her mind to hear what the story might be saying. It’s a conversation with the book.
3. Go to the place you fear
Going to places we fear is often where the deepest and most vital material is waiting. I never thought I’d write paranormal (abnormal, maybe). But when I came up with an idea that just wouldn’t go away, a zombie legal thriller, I went with it. It sold. Then, during the writing, I had to listen to what this new genre was telling me. I had choices, to go horrific or dark humorous or serious, throughout the writing of the first book in the series, Pay Me in Flesh. I listened intently, feeling my way along so the book had its own rhythms.
My agent, colleague and friend, Donald Maass, is a master at helping writers press beyond safe pastures. A question Don likes to ask in his workshops is, “What is something your character would never ever do or say?” Then, find a place for the character do or say that thing. Or at least think it, showing a ferocious inner conflict. Wow. Try that some time and then pick up the pieces of your head.
If you ever get stuck on a project, or the inspiration for it has given way to drudgery, remember what Eli Wallach said. Maybe it’s time to listen. Give the book your attention. Allow it to play. It wants to help!
Are you attentive to what your story is trying to tell you?

You’ve Got to Please Yourself

James Scott Bell

But it’s all right now,
I learned my lesson well.
You see, you can’t please everyone,
so you
got to please yourself.
– “Garden Party” by Ricky Nelson
So, writer, do you write to please yourself? Do you write for “the market”? Or is it something in between?
I advocate that you know about the market, have a sense of what’s out there. This is, after all, a business. Publishers actually want to make money. Editors will talk about seeking fresh voices, but they also know they can be “too fresh” to sell to their pub boards.
But in the end, when you finally decide what story you’re going to devote a significant chunk of time to, you’ve got to please yourself.
This is the pattern I followed for Pay Me in Flesh. I came up with a concept I thought was great for the market, something that hadn’t been done before. Kensington took it on and I proceeded to write a book that pleased me—because that’s the only way you can write something ultimately refreshing to readers.
That’s my view, anyway.
Which brings me to Edna Ferber.
(What? How did he go from zombie legal thrillers to Edna Ferber? Watch!)
No one seems to read Edna Ferber much anymore. But in the early twentieth century there was scarcely a more famous, or more popular, American writer. From her first novel in 1911 to her last in 1958, she had one of great careers in American letters. Not just novels, but plays (co-writing, among others, Dinner at Eight and The Royal Family), short stories, memoirs and newspaper columns.

I didn’t know all this a year ago. All I knew about Miss Ferber was that she wrote the novel for a film I’ve never been able to get into, Giant (1956). I find the movie overlong and mostly tedious. I’ll watch some of it when it comes on TV for two reasons: a) to look at Elizabeth Taylor in her prime; and b) the final fight scene where an aging Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) takes on a bigoted diner owner.
Anyway, one day last year I got a miserable head cold that had me whining around the house like a bored five-year-old. My wife finally told me to get out of her hair and into a sick bed. Too miserable to read, I turned on TCM to watch whatever was on.
It turned out to be a 1953 film called So Big,starring Jane Wyman and Sterling Hayden, both of whom I like. So I just started watching it and what do you know? I got caught up in the sheer storytelling. It’s about a Chicago girl who grows up wealthy, only to see father lose everything. She’s forced to take a teaching job in Dutch farm country well outside Chicago city limits.
It would seem like a recipe for a disappointing life. But Selina Peake is a woman of grit, with the ability to see beauty in the mundane. The practical Dutch don’t get her at all, until she catches the eye of the big farmer, Pervis DeJong. They marry and have a son, and the story covers about thirty years after that.
I enjoyed the heck out of it.
The film was based on Edna Ferber’s 1924 novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize. So I thought I should read some Ferber. I ordered a used copy of So Big and downloaded what’s free from Project Gutenberg.
So Big was just as enjoyable as a novel. There is also an interesting afterword in my edition, a bit about Miss Ferber’s life and craft. She started to get critical blowback the more popular she became. What a surprise. Some critics said she should have “written better” prose.
Edna Ferber’s response is the reason I wrote this post and titled it as I did:
“Those critics or well-wishers who think that I could have written better than I have are flattering me. Always I have written at the top of my bent at that particular time. It may be that this or that, written five years later or one year earlier, or under different circumstances, might have been the better for it. But one writes as the opportunity and the material and the inclination shape themselves. This is certain: I never have written a line except to please myself. I never have written with an eye to what is called the public or the market or the trend or the editor or the reviewer. Good or bad, popular or unpopular, lasting or ephemeral, the words I have put down on paper were the best words I could summon at the time to express the things I wanted more than anything else to say.”
So, writers, what do you think about that?  

A Legal Thriller to Die For

James Scott Bell

Last week I explained why my next book will bear a pseudonym. It’s really about brand distinction. Man, is it about brand distinction! Here’s why:

About a year and a half ago my agent, Donald Maass, and I are discussing ideas, and I say, “The whole zombie thing is hot now, but it’s all the same, zombies as slobbering, mindless monsters. What if the zombie was the hero? In fact, what if it was a lawyer practicing law in L.A.?”
Don laughed. I went with it. “I mean, how can you tell the difference between zombies and defense attorneys anyway? Most people think there IS no difference. And what if this lawyer specialized in defending outcasts like vampires, who never get a break?”
Don told me to write up a proposal. As with all my ideas for fiction, I had to see if I could get into the characters and the heart of the story. I can’t just write to a market. I know some can. But even with short stories, I have to connect to the material in some essential and emotional way.
So I started doing my pre-writing. I knew I wanted to write in the hard boiled tradition I love. I wanted it to be an actual legal thriller, where I would use my experiences in court (with a paranormal twist. Let me tell you, I’ve been in front of a few judges who I thought came from other planets). I wanted a first person narrator, and then I decided I wanted it to be a woman with a strong voice and attitude and wit.
All that started to emerge. Finally, I came up this concept:
In L.A., practicing law can be hell. Especially if you’re dead.
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 DA she must oppose. And as Lucifer himself begins setting up L.A. as his headquarters for a new attack on heaven and earth, Mallory slowly discovers she may be the one who has to stop him.
Well, doggone if Don didn’t go out and sell it to Kensington, in a deal that was everything I hoped it would be. I wanted the books to come out in mass market, with great cover art and the know-how of a terrific company behind it. I also wanted it priced right for you, the reader, both print and e-book.
It is all these things.
And as far as I know, this is the first zombie legal thriller series on the market. It’s not everyday you get to start a genre. Which, to my mind, makes it imperative that you jump on the bandwagon while it’s hot!
And so here it is, the first in the Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law series, PAY ME IN FLESH by the mysterious yet roguishly handsome K. Bennett.
Find it at your local bookstore or online. Official pub date is on Tuesday . . . just in time to deal with the debt ceiling blues!
You can also check with:
K. Bennett has a dedicated website that will post things from time to time. But right now, it’s all about the launch.
So there is really nothing left to say but Bon Appetit!