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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