Writers and desperation

Okay, so I got things a little stirred up with my post on self-publishing.  In fact, the subject even got a mention (and generated some lively debate) over at Lee Goldberg’s always-entertaining blogsite.  What all those reader comments did was remind me of just how heartbreaking this business can be.  We write our stories and we want to be read, but there’s this giant monolithic barrier called “The New York publishing house” standing between us and Getting Published.  It’s not as if I don’t know the agonies that new writers are going through.  I’ve been there myself.

And back then, I was every bit as desperate and hopeless.

What makes a new writer today think he should be immune to that desperation I felt?  What makes him think this is SUPPOSED to be easy?  What makes him think his very first book is going to get published — or deserves to get published?

Here’s the truth.  I wrote three books that didn’t sell.  And then I sold my fourth — to Harlequin.  I have a good friend who wrote seven — SEVEN! — manuscripts that didn’t sell.  Think of her desperation, her hunger, to be published.  It had to be there, driving her, or she would have just given up.  But she just kept going and wrote manuscript #8. 

And it sold.

Think about that — writing seven books that don’t sell.  Would you have the persistence to start writing #8?  Do you accept the fact that, yes, there’s an apprenticeship involved in being a writer, a period of training that you will be forced to undergo before you finally understand what the craft is all about? 

No, it isn’t easy to get accepted by a publisher, and get paid for your work.  It’s a lot easier to whip out the checkbook and pay a vanity press to print your manuscript.  But which one would make you truly feel like a Published Author?

And if you can just pay to get published, where’s the incentive to hone your craft, to study your own work with a critical eye, to polish and polish some more?  Where’s the incentive to write books number seven and eight and nine if each one is just going to mean you have to whip out that old checkbook again to pay to see yourself in print?

Not everyone can write a publishable book.  That’s just the hard truth.  Too many people think: “Hey, I know how to write a sentence.  I know grammar, and I can come up with a story.  Why don’t I just take a few weeks off a write a novel and get published and get rich?”  It’s amazing to me that people think this, but they do.  And many of these are otherwise accomplished people, intelligent people, who could probably do very well in any number of fields.  But none of them would dream of working as an engineer or a doctor or a carpenter without first learning their craft.  They’d expect to put in at least four years before they’d feel competent.

So why do they think that they can write a publishable novel their first time out, without bothering to first learn the craft?

I know I sound like one of those old surgeons we medical students used to groan about, the seasoned veterans who’d tell us “We went through hell to become surgeons, and so should you.   So just suck it up and take it, or you don’t deserve to hold a scalpel.”  I used to think that their “trial by fire” philosophy was B.S.  Now I’m beginning to think it wasn’t so dumb after all.  A surgeon who’s on call every other night sees a lot of cases, learns a lot of hard lessons.  And on the other end of it, he’s a much better doctor.

Maybe that’s true for writers as well. 

If you really want to be a published novelist, you’ll stick with it.  You won’t say “I’ll give it a year, maybe two.”  You’ll say “I’ll keep at it, I’ll keep improving my craft, year after year.  Even if it never happens.” 

Because it may never happen.  That’s the tough reality.    

Sisters in Crime Calendar now on sale!

Great Christmas presents for your mystery-loving friends!  Included in the calendar are photos of new England mystery authors Janet Evanovich, Linda Barnes, Sarah Smith, and others.  (I’m on the page for January.)

Check it out here:


why self-published books fail

Yes, I know I’m going to be barraged with emails telling me that I’m wrong, that title A, B, or C managed to hit bestseller lists even though they were self-published.  And I agree, there are several notable examples of self-published books that did do well: The Chicken Soup series, for example.  And The Celestine Prophecy.  And a book that came out in the 90’s called The Messengers.  Those three books sold well because the authors took them on the road and sold tons out of the trunks of their cars or on the lecture circuit or through their contacts in churches.  (Although I should point out that the latter two titles didn’t really hit blockbuster status until they were subsequently sold to, and published by, big-name publishing houses.)  But for the most part, self-published books just don’t sell in big numbers, and for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of writing or the lack of editing (although we can talk about those flaws, too.)  It all gets down to the one huge weakness in the self-publishing business model.


I was reminded of this at a booksigning at a Barnes and Noble in New Hampshire.  After the signing, the events coordinator thanked me for being “so easy to work with — unlike some other authors.” 

“But I would think that most authors are pretty nice,” I said.

“Most are,” she said.  “But the self-published ones are horrible.”  Then she described an incident that had happened earlier that week.  A local self-published author had requested that the store arrange a booksigning for him, and she had turned him down flat.  Enraged, he’d thrown the book on the floor and asked: “When the hell am I ever going to get a signing in this store?”

“When pigs fly,” she’d snapped at him.  The man couldn’t accept the fact that their store almost never hosted signings by self-published authors — even if the author was local.

“Why not?” I asked.  “Is it because of the quality of the books?”

“That’s only part of it,” she said.  “The real reason is that we can’t return them.”  

This was a revelation to me.  She explained that when they order books from a subsidy (self-publishing) press, the books are non-returnable.  If the store can’t sell them, then they’re stuck with them.  And they lose money. 

Regular publishers, on the other hand, ship books on a refundable basis, so if the store orders 100 copies and only sells ten, they can ship the 90 unsold copies back and get a refund.  In this case, there’s no risk on the store’s part, so they’re happy to host a signing and order tons of books because they know they won’t get stuck with them.

“That’s why self-published authors can’t get their books into the large chains,” she explained.  “It’s all about non-returnability.”

So if you’re an author who’s thinking about going the self-published route, this is a cold splash of reality.  No matter how good your book is, good luck getting nationwide distribution unless you can guarantee the stores you’ll take back the unsold copies. 

It also tells me that we’re stuck with the current system of bookstore returns.  Bookstores are too afraid to take the risks of getting stuck with unsold stock.  They’d as soon not order any copies at all, and would only order the blockbuster titles they know they can sell.  In the end, it would be the new and quirky titles that would suffer — and all of us, readers and writers alike, would be the losers.

from the hate mailbag

Just a taste of some of the not-so-nice mail we authors get: 

Ms. Gerritsen
What a waste of talent,time and paper, to write a book such as The Sinner. This is the first of your novels I have read and half way through it, I tossed it the garbage where it belongs.
Hal K.

I don’t even know the man.  But he felt p.o.’ed enough to hunt down my email address and send nasty thoughts my way.  

Who are these people?

This, by the way, is one of the mild ones.  I can’t count the number of times readers have told me I’m going straight to hell.

Murder and Mayhem in Muskego

                           Muskego 001 email.jpg 

(with writers Ann Voss Peterson and Julia Spencer-Fleming)

This past weekend, I had a lovely time at the Muskego Library’s Murder and Mayhem program.  Not only did I share the bill with fabulous writers, I also got the chance to party with them as well!  (For more images, and a complete list of the guest authors, check out Jon Jordan’s website at http://centralcrimezone.blogspot.com/) 

The most interesting things I heard, though, didn’t get said during the official program.  Rather, it was what I heard during the informal huddles over drinks and chili at Jon and Ruth’s house, while we all sat around getting slightly tipsy.  In the comfort of each other’s company, we admitted to all the fears and anxieties we have about our careers, the publishing business, and about who we really are, once you get past our public personas.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m an introvert who finds hanging out in crowds exhausting.  I love being shut away alone in my office, and a book tour leaves me feeling like my soul’s been sucked out.  But imagine my surprise when the maniacally effervescent JA Konrath admitted that, during his 600-bookstore driving tour, he too was desperate for some time by himself.  But he was traveling on a budget, staying in the homes of friends and acquaintances, so he spent almost every waking moment feeling the need to perform his schtick.  It was emotionally and physically draining for him.  We other authors, hearing this, somberly nodded in agreement.  We don’t know how he came out of it sane.  (At least, we think he’s sane.)

David Morrell offered his own fascinating insight into the psychology of writers.  “Why do we choose to write what we do?” he asks.  And he believes that the answer lies in the childhood traumas we’ve experienced.  A child who was abandoned by his parents will find that as an adult, he can’t stop writing about that theme of abandonment.  The child who was an outcast will later write about heroes who are outsiders.  I think he’s absolutely right.  I see it in my own writing, and I suspect that almost every writer, when he thinks hard about it, will probably find something in his own past to explain his chosen genre. 

Over barbecued ribs and tequila shots the second night, we whined about Hollywood, gossiped about bad books, and came to the unanimous conclusion that Blake Crouch looks like James Spader.  I think I may have said (or done) a few blackmail-worthy things. 

I just hope the photographic evidence doesn’t rear its ugly head.

Doctors just wanna write books

                         with michael palmer 

        Michael Palmer and me, with one of our doctor-students


Over the weekend, fellow thriller writer Michael Palmer and I taught an intensive writing workshop exclusively for doctors who want to write fiction.  Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: Doctors?  Don’t they make boatloads of money?  Why would they want to trade in their stethoscopes for a semi-impoverished life as a novelist?

The truth is, doctors don’t make boatloads of money these days.  Michael and I are both physicians, so we understand their lives.  They make comfortable livings, it’s true.  But their jobs are stressful, the hours are long, and there’s always the threat of a malpractice suit hanging over their heads.  Many of them want out of medicine.  And they want to tell stories.  They’re hungry to tell stories. 

They’re just like other budding novelists — except they’ve got the M.D. behind their names. 

Among agents and editors, though, doctor-writers have bad reputations.  Some doctors are indeed arrogant, simply because they’ve achieved so much in their careers and they’re used to getting straight A’s.  They assume that novel-writing is like any other intellectual endeavor: you study the guidelines, read a few books about writing, do the work, and of course some NYC editor will want to publish your 600-page masterpeice.

It’s a rude awakening when they get their first rejection letter.  They’re stunned.  Maybe they’re angry.  What’s the trick? they demand.  Whom do you have to kiss up to?  That’s the secret, isn’t it?  You have to know someone!

Over the weekend, Michael and I had to give them the sobering truth: getting published is hard.  Hell, writing is hard.  Even after years as bestselling novelists, both Michael and I admitted that we still get scared every time we start a new book.  We wonder how we did it the last time, and whether we can pull it off again.  We told them that just coming up with ideas for our next books makes us lose sleep. 

But surely that’s got to be the easy part, most students think.  Doesn’t everyone have ideas for a story?

Of course they do, we explain.  But not everyone has a great idea.  And so we take them through a what-if exercise.  We ask them to distill their books down to one or two-sentence questions.  I give them a few what-ifs that I’ve used: “What if a medical examiner encounters a dead woman who is her exact double?” (Body Double).  “What if a serial killer working in a medical lab uses patients’ blood tests to choose his victims?” (The Surgeon).  Michael and I ask our students to share their what-ifs and we critique them.  Many of them fall flat (“What if there’s an evil pharmaceutical company?”).  A few of them hit home runs.  We tried to explain why the good ones worked, but we couldn’t always come up with concrete reasons why they did.  All I could say was, “I know it when I feel it.  When I get that emotional punch.  That’s a good idea.” 

In short, knowing when it’s a good idea is subjective, not logical.  It’s what I feel in my gut. It’s also how I write my books — not with any sense of logic, but by feeling my way through it.  By instinctively knowing what’s dramatic and what’s not. 

And that is a pretty unsatisfying answer for people who’ve been educated in the hard facts of science.  They wanted formulas.  They expected algorithms.  They don’t like this “you’ll know it when you feel it” stuff. 

Halfway through the first day of teaching, Michael and I could feel their frustration.  They didn’t get it, and they were starting to despair.  They wanted to know the secret and we just weren’t telling them!  

But what we told them is the secret to good writing: you feel your way through this.  I don’t use an algorithm to create a character or write dialogue.  I don’t even know who my characters are as I breathe life into them; they take shape on their own, and I just coax them along, massaging color into their faces and their lives. 

By the second day, I think some of our students were starting to understand that writing books isn’t like earning a degree.  You can try and try for decades, yet never manage to write a decent book.  Some of them came with the mistaken belief that they could write three chapters of a novel, and an agent would take them on, just like that.  “Isn’t three chapters enough to show that I can do it?” they ask.

We told them: no, it isn’t.  Three chapters doesn’t tell an agent that you can sustain a story.  It doesn’t prove to her that you understand drama and conflict and pacing.  Write the whole book.  That’s the first step to proving you’re a writer.  

At the end of the weekend, they were exhausted.  And Michael and I were even more exhausted.  In those two days, we had tried to impart the wisdom we’d collected over a combined forty five years of writing experience.  You just can’t teach it all in two days.  But we did teach them the most important thing, and it’s this: writing is hard, and not everyone can do it. 

Even if everyone thinks they can.


Galleys, galleys, galleys!



One of the downsides of book tour — a downside I didn’t even talk about — is what happens while you’re away from home.  There are all the unanswered emails that cram your computer’s in-box, the piles of letters and magazines you have to sort through.

And the galleys.  My goodness, the galleys.

In the photo above are the thirteen galleys and manuscripts that were mailed to me while I was on tour.  All in a span of three weeks. These were sent by editors, agents, and authors who are hoping I’ll read their upcoming books and offer a quote. 

Now, I love being able to help out a fellow author.  I love discovering an exciting new voice, a unique new character.  But I admit, when I look at this pile of galleys, I feel a twinge of desperation knowing that I’ll never be able to get through all of these.  In the meantime, new galleys continue to arrive at my home every week.  Plus there are the galleys left over from last month that I haven’t read yet.

All this while I’m trying to write my own book, keep up with my correspondence, and stay up to date with the news.

It’s gotten to the point where I’ve had to stop accepting any new galleys for awhile because, quite honestly, I’ll never be able to read what I’ve got.  It takes me a week to read just one (I reserve my galley reading for bed-time), which means that just getting through what I have now will take three months.  And that’s not going to be fast enough to be helpful to these authors. I have to pick and choose which manuscripts I even open.

So how do I choose?

Urgent requests from my own editor or agent take priority.  But after that, it’s a matter of which storylines appeal to me.  And that’s all a matter of what mood I’m in.  Historical settings call to me, so I’ll gravitate toward those first.  A hint of archaeology is a plus.  Cat detectives, or any animal detectives, I’m sorry to say, give me allergies.  Paranormal detectives … um, not really my cup of tea.  Humorous mysteries are a plus-minus.  Sometimes I get the jokes, sometimes they leave me cold. 

In short, I’m like an editor in any publishing house.  I go with my own taste.

Today I’m off to Boston and Cape Cod to teach some writing courses over the weekend, so these galleys will have to wait until I come back.  In the meantime, more of them will probably arrive in the mail and the pile will grow higher. I’ll be even further behind.

So if you’ve sent me a galley in the past few weeks, and you don’t hear back from me, you’ll know why. Chances are, I just didn’t have the chance to read it.  I start off with the best of intentions, but sometimes, I just bite off more than I can chew.