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.
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.
Enter the Dragon and Rush Hour by Lalo Schifrin
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)
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation by Joe Kraemer & Mission Impossible 3 by Michael Giacchino
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.
Hawaii Five-O by Morton Stevens
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.
Goldfinger by John Barry
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.
The Bourne Film Soundtracks by John Powell and Moby
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.
The Wild Wild West TV Soundtrack by Richard Markowitz et al
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.
I had a great time as a guest of honor at two conferences in Alabama last weekend — Murder in Magic City in Birmingham and Murder on the Menu in Wetumpka. But things got off to an embarrassing start.
I arrived in Birmingham airport late on Friday. The volunteer who was picking me up texted me a message as I got off the plane — “I’m the blond in the blue Honda Pilot parked outside of baggage claim.”
So I stepped outside, spotted the blond in the Honda Pilot, knocked on the window, opened the back door, tossed my luggage on the seat and climbed in.
We drove a couple of yards and she glanced at me in her rearview and said “Are you John Ballard?”
“No, I’m Lee Goldberg.”
“Then what the hell are you doing in my car?”
“You’re a blond in a Honda Pilot parked at baggage claim.”
She came to a hard stop. I began to explain when another, identical blue Honda Pilot with a blond at the wheel drives up.
I said, “Oops, wrong blond.”
I apologized, grabbed my luggage, and hopped out. I felt like an oaf…but at least she saw that it was a genuine mistake.
Things went more smoothly after that, I am pleased to say. I joined Sue Ann Jaffarian (who arrived in her new RV), Matt Coyle, Stacy Allen, Hank Early, Carrie Smith, JD Allen, Emily Carpenter, Christopher Swann, Toni Kelner, and many other authors to discuss mysteries, the business of writing, and our journeys into print. The first conference was held at a library in Birmingham and we stayed at a hotel that had a free soft drink dispenser in the lobby. Free-flowing Diet Coke. That’s a perk I could get used to.
On Sunday, we were taken an hour or so away to Wetumpka, an adorable little town on a river that was nearly wiped off the map by a tornado a few months ago. We were greeted warmly by the Mayor, given our own library cards by the library staff, and then went out to speak to an enthusiastic audience.
I had a great time. That said, during the signing, a reader caught me off guard with this comment:
“I keep falling asleep while reading the first chapter of your book so I jumped to the last chapter & it put me to sleep too… but I’m not giving up on you.”
I told her I appreciated her faith in me…
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’ve just learned the sad news that author Tom Kakonis has passed away. I first met Tom at the 1994 Bouchercon in Seattle. I was a big fan of his work and was delighted when he invited me to sit and chat with him…and I was thrilled when he later blurbed my book MY GUN HAS BULLETS. It meant a lot to me that a writer I admired as much as Tom would endorse my work.
Two decades later, when author Joel Goldman and I launched Brash Books, I called Tom about publishing his out-of-print backlist. Not only did he say yes, but he surprised me by offering us an unpublished manuscript that had been sitting in his drawer for years. His dark-comic thriller TREASURE COAST was the first original novel that we released, so as long as Brash Books is in business, he will be an integral part of who we are as publishers, what we stand for, and what we aspire to achieve.
Tom was a great writer who didn’t get the recognition or wide readership that he deserved. I wish I’d been able to change that. Do yourself a favor and read MICHIGAN ROLL, his first and most acclaimed novel… I guarantee you’ll be hooked by this man’s talent and humor. He was a hell of a storyteller.
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)
I’m so sad to hear about Sue Grafton‘s death. Not only was she incredibly talented, she was also a very nice woman.