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.
I like to listen to soundtrack music while I write. In fact, I’m just sitting down now to start working on the sequel to my upcoming novel LOST HILLS and I’ve been listening a lot to THE QUINN MARTIN COLLECTION VOL. 1 and the soundtrack to the 1975 TV series ARCHER. Both albums contain a lot of Jerry Goldsmith’s best 1970s TV work.
Here’s the music I was listening to when I wrote my new release KILLER THRILLER, the sequel to the #1 Amazon Charts and Washington Post bestseller TRUE FICTION.
I’m a huge fan of Lalo’s TV themes (Mission Impossible, Mannix, Petrocelli, Bronk etc) and his two forays into “kung fu” cinema are pure 1970s action-score gold. A big chunk of KILLER THRILLER is set in Hong Kong and these soundtracks put me in the perfect frame of mind to write those scenes. (Yes, I know Rush Hour was made in the late ‘90s, but Lalo’s score was basically a reboot/homage of his Enter the Dragon work)
These are two pulse-pounding, soaring, propulsive, contemporary action scores based Lalo’s original themes …and evoke the foreign locales and over-the-top stunts of the Tom Cruise feature, putting me in the right frame of mind for writing the chases and fights in my book.
I love Morton Stevens, one of the best television composers ever (he also did the theme for Police Woman), and this classic soundtrack screams adventure, mystery and, of course, Hawaii to me. Although nothing in KILLER THRILLER is set in Hawaii, this soundtrack is always part of my playlist when I’m writing anything with action and colorful locations. It also creates a great tempo for writing punchy dialogue.
This is the iconic Bond theme song and is still the best of the Bond movie scores (though I am also a fan of David Arnold’s TOMORROW NEVER DIES score, which is essentially a contemporary rethink of Barry’s style and is also part of my playlist). GOLDFINGER immediately transports me to a world of intrigue and adventure…and puts me in a 007-frame of mind. Perfect for writing spy fiction.
These soundtracks are the gold standard for the modern espionage tale…Powell’s score is dark and moody at times, thrilling and propulsive when the action reaches a fever pitch. Moby reworks his end titles / theme song Extreme Ways for each film in the series and hearing it always puts me in the mood to either see or write some kick-ass spy action.
I absolutely loved The Wild Wild West when I was a kid. If you don’t remember the show, it was a western take on James Bond starring Robert Conrad as superspy James West and Ross Martin as Artemus Gordon, his partner and a master of disguise. My sister and I used to pretend we were the two of them….I was always West, of course, and she was always stuck being Artemus. Even way back then, I had Wild Wild West music, recorded off the air on my cassette deck, playing when we were pretending to do cool stuff. Little did I know I was rehearsing for what I’d be doing decades later as a writer. Hearing the iconic themes and individual cues sparked my imagination as a kid and they still do today, putting me into the “let’s pretend and have fun” mode that I need to be in to write fiction. Although this is a “western” score, it’s still in the spy genre for me and is the perfect for writing about Ian and Margo.
Research is absolutely necessary when you’re writing thrillers…and it’s a part of the process I love, perhaps because I come from a family of journalists (and I was one once). The danger, for me, is that the more I learn about a topic, the more I want to learn…and it’s easy for me to end up spending far more time than is necessary on the research (it’s also a great form of procrastination.. you can fool yourself into thinking you’re working instead of actually avoiding work). I can talk to dozens of experts, and read three or four books and countless articles, for what might end up being only a few lines of dialogue or description in the book (or, OTOH, what ends up being the core of the story). But that’s always better than writing pages of exposition, description, or dialogue to show off how much research you’ve done. I’m a big believe that one sentence offering a telling detail is far better than a paragraph of description. That said, having the “extra” knowledge on a particular topic in the back of your mind as you write ends up deepening the story and the characters in subtle ways… and often, at least for me, research inspires new characters or plot twists that I never would have come up with otherwise.
Travel is my favorite part of research (and it was a lot of fun to do for KILLER THRILLER, my latest release). Sure, you can use guidebooks, watch Bourdain or Rick Steves episodes, and do a deep dive into Google Earth to fake it, and I’ve done that a few times out of necessity, but I truly believe that nothing beats “feet on the ground” to get that tiny detail, smell, taste or sound that will bring a place, a moment, or a character to life. It’s important to truly experience the place you are writing about. That means not just hitting the tourist spots, but the places where the “locals” live and work. It also means being gregarious and talking to those people — so you can create realistic characters who truly reflect the places you’ve been. I usually already have my story in mind before I travel for research… but inevitably, my story changes dramatically after what I learn from actually experiencing a place I only imagined as I was plotting.
To write my books, I’ve traveled to France, China, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, and all over the United States, among other places. But travel research can mean just stepping outside your door and seeing your own city in a new way.
I’ve lived in Los Angeles for over 30 years. In my novel THE WALK, a guy is stuck in downtown in LA when the big one hits and has to walk across a landscape of destruction back to his gated community in the San Fernando Valley. I know the L.A. well, but I still read a bunch of books and articles on the city, the architecture, and the neighborhoods that make it up, on earthquakes and what experts expect the damage from The Big One is likely to be. I had the story plotted out but then decided, if I was going to do this right, I really needed to take the walk myself. And when I did (not all at once, like my character), I saw things that made me rethink my plot and I picked up the key details of place and character that made the book come alive. When it was over, I had a better understanding, and a new affection, for the city I live in and thought I already knew.
I attended a homicide investigators training conference almost two years ago — I was one of only three civilians invited — as research for a book I was thinking about writing (and had already loosely plotted). While I was there, however, I learned about a case that I couldn’t get out of my head. I was smart enough to throw out my story and to focus instead on using this real case as the inspiration for my novel. I introduced myself to all of the detectives, forensic specialists, etc. who were there to present the case, told them I intended to write about it, and asked if they would let me talk with them in more depth in the weeks following the conference. They all agreed. The novel that came out of that wonderful research experience, LOST HILLS, is being released this fall and I’ve already signed to write the sequel. The book would never have happened if I hadn’t done the research my story…and been open to the inspiration that can come when you begin exploring the “reality” that is the foundation for our fiction.
I’m so excited about this! Yesterday KILLER THRILLER launched and today my novel LOST HILLS, the first in a new series, is now available for preorder on Amazon.
Here are just some of the pre-release blurbs:
“Lost Hills is what you get when you polish the police procedural to a shine: a gripping premise, a great twist, fresh spins and knowing winks to the genre conventions, and all the smart, snappy ease of an expert at work.” Tana French, New York Times bestselling author of the Edgar, Anthony, Barry and Macavity award-winning Into The Woods and a winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
“Lost Hills is a tense, pacy read from one of America’s greatest crime and thriller writers. We have a sense of real characters doing real police work, not snatching answers out of the air.” — Garry Disher, the Ned Kelly Award-winning, international bestselling author of the Inspector Challis series
“Thrills and chills! Lost Hills is the perfect combination of action and suspense, not to mention Eve Ronin is one of the best new female characters in ages. You will race through the pages!” — Lisa Gardner, New York Times bestselling author
“Lost Hills is a top-notch procedural that shines like a true gem.” —Craig Johnson, New York Times bestselling author of the Walt Longmire mysteries, the basis of Netflix’s Longmire
“A winner. Packed with procedure, forensics, vivid descriptions, and the right amount of humor. Fervent fans of Connelly and Crais, this is your next read.” —Kendra Elliot, Wall Street Journal bestselling author of A Merciful Secret
“Brilliant! Eve Ronin rocks! With a baffling and brutal case, tight plotting, and a fascinating look at police procedure, Lost Hills is a stunning start to a new detective series. A must-read for crime fiction fans. –-Melinda Leigh, Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon Charts Bestselling author