My brother Tod, also a novelist, and I sat down with the good folks at Thrive Global for a long, and very detailed Q&A to discuss what it takes in terms of skill, experience, and dedication to sustain a successful writing career and write bestselling novels. Here’s an excerpt:
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a bestselling author? How did you overcome it?
Lee: I think it’s rejection and failure, which are inevitable in the writing business. Your manuscripts will be rejected again and again and again before they land a publisher. But some books simply won’t sell. Some of your published books will bomb and be savaged by reviewers. Not everything you write will be a winner or find the right audience. The key is not to become crippled by self-doubt and pain but to learn from the experience (Why was the manuscript rejected? Why did the book bomb?) and incorporate those lessons into your next book. The only way to overcome the failure is to keep writing.
Tod: Well, finding out what I was meant to write was a big part of it for me. When I was starting out, for some reason, I was averse to writing crime fiction and so I wrote these kind of quasi-literary books that even I wasn’t interested in reading. The public responded in kind! Once I finally decided to write crime fiction, everything sort of began to line up for me. But, too, as Lee said, self-doubt can be paralyzing. It’s odd. A coal miner isn’t paralyzed by self-doubt that prevents him or her from working, so talking about it as a challenge seems sort of silly in context. A job is a job, be it creative or physical. It’s what you do to make a living. I think once I began to think of writing as a job, as the thing that fed my family, these more ephemeral things began to fade away. Still, you have to write books people want to read.
You can find the entire interview here.
This has been a passion project for me ever since Bill Crider and Paul Bishop introduced me to the Hardman novels five years ago. I immediately decided I had to get them back into print, so I sought out the advice of my good friend Joel Goldman…and as a result of those discussions, a partnership and a publishing company were born. Now, after the publishing nearly 100 titles together, we are finally putting out the novels that we’d hoped would be our first releases.
Ralph Dennis isn’t a household name… but I believe that he should be. He is widely considered among crime writers as a master of the genre, denied the recognition he deserved because his series of twelve Hardman books, which are beloved and highly sought-after collectables now, were poorly packaged in the 1970s by Popular Library as cheap men’s action-adventure paperbacks with numbered titles.
Even so, some top critics saw past the cheesy covers and noticed that he was producing work as good as John D. MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross MacDonald.
The New York Times praised the Hardman novels for “expert writing, plotting, and an unusual degree of sensitivity. Dennis has mastered the genre and supplied top entertainment.” The Philadelphia Daily News proclaimed Hardman “the best series around…”
Unfortunately, Popular Library didn’t take the hint and continued to present the series like hack work, dooming the novels to a short shelf-life and obscurity…except among generations of crime writers, like novelist Joe R. Lansdale (the Hap & Leonard series) and screenwriter Shane Black (the Lethal Weapon movies), who’ve kept Dennis’ legacy alive through word-of-mouth and by acknowledging his influence on their stellar work.
There’s a short, new video interview with me from Amazon Publishing that talks about my shameful addiction to storytelling…and how it culminated in my new Washington Post bestselling thriller True Fiction. I think you might enjoy it.
Creating a strong antagonist in a crime novel can be the key to the success or failure of your story. I’m a firm believer that “the bad guy” has to be as smart or, preferrably, smarter than my hero…and someone whose personality and actions will highlight all the weaknesses and conflicts that make my hero who he is.
I also make sure my “bad guy” is more than just a bad guy…he’s someone with his own agenda, his own demons, his own needs, someone who has more going on in his life than whatever criminal act he is engaged in (or that he has already committed). And that’s very important. Rarely is anyone just pure evil for evil’s sake…except in cartoons, Batman episodes, or James Bond movies.
I always try to look at the story from the bad guy’s point of view and ask myself what he’d be doing if he was the hero of the story…and if my protagonist was, in his view, the “bad guy.” I have to invest as much thought in my bad guy as do in my hero if the story is going to work.
You can learn a lot about making bad guys rich characters by watching THE SOPRANOS, a show that’s ostensibly all about the bad guys. Sure, they killed people, but they also had mortgages to pay, worried about their kids, read the morning paper, had all the responsibilities, hopes, dreams, and anxieties that “good guys” have. They didn’t wake up each day and ask themselves “what evil can I do today…mwa-ha-ha.”
I learned to make my bad guys fully-rounded characters, with lives and goals of their own, from watching COLUMBO…and later working for Stephen J. Cannell…and reading Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry.
On COLUMBO, we spent the first half-hour of each episode watching the bad guys, getting into their lives, understanding why they had to kill. But what ultimately made COLUMBO such a pleasure was that he was always outmatched by the bad guys…and beat them anyway. The smarter the bad guys were, the smarter he had to be to beat them. Or, to put it another way, the best bad guys brought out the best in Columbo.
It was Steve Cannell, one of my mentors, who taught me to always ask myself “What is the bad guy doing?” “What does the bad guy want?” “What is the bad guy thinking about?” in every scene where the bad guy wasn’t on screen. The bad guy always had to be doing something, not sitting around waiting for the detective to catch him or simply throwing obstacles in the detective’s way.
Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry (in his westerns) made their “villains” as likeable, layered and interesting as their heroes…in fact, some times they were even more compelling. Leonard and McMurtry excelled at creating likeable, funny, believable psychopaths and killers.
The bottom line: having a strong antagonist makes your hero stronger and your story better.
(This post was originally written for April’s The Big Thrill Roundtable)
My writing ritual is simple. I do my best writing from 8 pm-2 am…and I usually start my day at 10 or 11 am by rewriting what i did the day before. When that is done, I start writing “the new stuff.” I repeat that process until the book is done.
I’m a big believer that writing is rewriting…and that it’s always easier to rewrite crap than it is to fill an empty page…
Get. Something. On. The. Page.
That is my writing mantra.
But that often means that what I end up with at the end of the day is terrible or just the broad strokes of what I am going for. I know I will go back, sharpen the dialogue and color between the lines, adding the character or details left out in my eagerness get something down. Or it can go the other way…I’ve written endless reams of exposition and dialogue that I need to trim with an ax. Ten pages of blather becomes three pages of tight, lean writing. If what I’ve written doesn’t further the plot and reveal character then it has to go. I am also very aware the beat of my story, the pace…it’s almost like tapping my foot to music. If i lose that beat, cuts or revisions need to be made to move things along.
I typically go through the pages with an eye toward cutting all the exposition that I possibly can,all the unnecessary details that slow the pace, and taking whatever clever lines I come across in prose seeing if I can put them into my characters’ mouths instead. I strike out any cliche phrases, which were left as place-holders for actual writing that I’d do in the revisions.
I will often rewrite a scene four, five or six times before a book is finished. So when I complete my first draft, it’s pretty close to done. Anything I do at that point, before turning it in, is more about tweaking and polishing.
PS – I should also mention that I always work from an outline, I never just wing it. I need to know where I am going so that when I’m writing I’m concentrating on writing, not plotting. My plot may change (and often does) as I write, and when that happens, I revise my outline. That is a continual process. I usually finish my outline, which I call a living outline, about a week before I finish the book.
(This post was originally written for April’s The Big Thrill Roundtable)
My friend Bruce DeSilva’s The Dread Line, the fifth book in his Edgar award-winning Liam Mulligan series, is coming out in hardcover and digital editions next month and is available for pre-order now. I asked Bruce to share with you the creative struggle he went through writing his new novel.
An unanticipated disaster struck as I was writing the fourth novel in my series featuring investigative reporter Liam Mulligan: The failing Providence, R.I. newspaper he had been working for abruptly fired him, creating a crisis for both of us.
It was a crisis for Mulligan because he considered journalism his calling, like the priesthood but without the sex. He’d always said that he could never be good at anything else—that if he couldn’t be a reporter, he’d end up selling pencils out of a tin cup.
It was a crisis for me because I owed my publisher another Mulligan yarn.
What was Mulligan going to do now? How would he make a living? And more importantly, how could he continue his life’s work of exposing greed and corruption? It was as if Joe Friday had been stripped of his badge, as if Superman had lost his cape, as if Robert B. Parker’s Spenser couldn’t be a private investigator anymore.
As I sat down to write, the first thing Mulligan and I had to do was invent a new life for him.
I’d never planned on Mulligan getting fired. Fact is, I don’t plan anything when I write. I don’t outline. I never think very far ahead. I just set my characters in motion to see what they will do. But looking back on it now, I can see that Mulligan’s firing was inevitable.
When I first made him a newspaper journalist in my debut novel, Rogue Island, I didn’t know that the book would be the first in a series, so I gave no thought to the possibility that I was writing myself into a corner. I made him an investigative reporter in Providence for three reasons.
- I’d been one myself, and they say you should write what you know.
- Reporters can’t get search warrants or drag people in for questioning, which sometimes makes their jobs more challenging than police work. But they also have an advantage because a lot of people who talk to reporters would never spill anything to the cops.
- But the main reason is that I wanted my novel not only to be suspenseful and entertaining but also to address a serious social issue.
American newspapers are circling the drain. Many already have gone belly up, and economic changes triggered by the internet have forced virtually all of them to slash their news staffs. This is a slow-motion disaster for the American democracy, because there is nothing on the horizon to replace newspapers as honest and comprehensive brokers of news and information.
As someone who spent forty years in the news business, I’ve always been annoyed that journalists are usually portrayed as vultures in the popular culture. The truth is that most of them are hard-working, low-paid professionals dedicated to digging out the truth in a world full of powerful people who lie as often as the rest of us breathe.
It was my hope that as readers followed the skill and relentlessness with which Mulligan worked, they would gain a greater appreciation for what is being lost as newspapers fade away. I made that first novel both a compelling yarn and a lyrical epitaph for the business that Mulligan and I both love.
But as the first novel led to a second, and then several more, the financial health of Mulligan’s employer, the fictional Providence Dispatch, became increasingly desperate. Circulation shrunk, advertising dried up, and hordes of Mulligan’s newsroom colleagues got bought out or laid off.
Fiction followed fact as the once-great Providence Journal, on which The Dispatch was loosely based, also spiraled downward. The newspaper had 340 newsroom employees when I worked there in the early 1980s. It has only 37 reporters and columnists now, and another buyout has just been announced by the chain that bought it a few years back.
As I was completing my fourth novel, A Scourge of Vipers, it became evident that Mulligan’s newspaper career, too, was coming to an end. The Dispatch had been sold off to a predatory conglomerate that had no interest in investigative stories and saw news as something to fill the spaces between the ads. Forced to spend most of his working hours on the routine tasks of putting out a daily newspaper, Mulligan ended up doing most of his investigative reporting on his own time. And his increasingly heated squabbles with his editors were making life untenable for both of them.
By the time that novel ended, Mulligan had been fired in spectacular fashion, accused of a journalism ethics violation that he had not committed. So as I began The Dread Line, the new novel in the series, Mulligan and I sat down together and looked back over his life, considering whether it offered him any hope for the future. There, we discovered a handful of possibilities.
Edward Mason, his young colleague at the paper, was leaving to start a local news website and invited Mulligan to join him. But the new business wasn’t making any money yet, so Mason could only offer starvation wages. Mulligan’s pal Bruce McCracken ran a private detective agency, so perhaps Mulligan could do some work for him. And Mulligan’s mobbed-up friend Dominic Zerilli was retiring to Florida and needed somebody to run his bookmaking business.
What should Mulligan do? Why not all three?
The opening of The Dread Line finds him no longer living in his squalid apartment in a run-down Providence triple-decker. Instead, he’s keeping house in a five-room, water-front cottage on Conanicut Island at the entrance to Narragansett Bay. He’s getting some part-time work from McCracken, although it rarely pays enough to cover his bills. He’s picking up beer and cigar money freelancing for the news website. And he’s running the bookmaking business with help from his thuggish pal, a former strip-club bouncer named Joseph DeLucca.
For the first time in his life, Mulligan has a little money in his pocket at the end of the month. After twenty years as a newspaper reporter, he says it feels strange to be living above the poverty line—and even stranger to be a lawbreaker. But as Mulligan and I see it, he’s not breaking any important ones.
And of course, he still manages to find trouble when it isn’t finding him.
He’s feuding with a feral tomcat that keeps leaving its kills on his porch. He’s obsessed with a baffling jewelry heist. And he’s enraged that someone on the island is torturing animals. All of this keeps distracting him from a big case that needs his attention.
The New England Patriots, still shaken by a series of murder charges against one of their star players (true story) have hired Mulligan and McCracken (not a true story) to investigate the background of a college star they are thinking of drafting. The player appears to be a choirboy, so at first, the job seems routine. But as soon as they start asking questions, they get push-back.
The player has something to hide, and someone is willing to kill to make sure it remains secret.
Mulligan may not be an investigative reporter anymore, but he and I are still in the crime-busting business.