How to write a bestseller

Did you miss me?

It always takes me awhile to get back into the swing of things once I get home from a trip.  But now I’m back at my desk and thinking about what a great time I had at the San Francisco Writers Conference — and what a terrific town San Francisco is.  Ages ago I went to medical school there, and every time I go back, I’m reminded that there’s no place like it in the country.  How many towns can boast a female chief of police AND a female fire chief?  Then I opened up the local newspaper and on the front page was an article about a local official’s boyfriend, who’d set fire to their residence.  It wasn’t until a few paragraphs into the article that I realized the “local official” was a man.  Oops!  In San Francisco, you can’t assume anything.  The town is full of surprises — and delights.

The Writers Conference was another delight.  Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen have built it into a classy event that covers a wide range of topics.  One of the sessions I was anxious to attend was the talk “writing the breakout novel” by literary agent Donald Maass.  I’d been hearing about Donald Maass for some years, from people who’d raved about his how-to course on writing bestselling novels.  Even though I do happen to write bestselling novels, I’ve always wondered if I really know the “secret”.  Most of the time I think I’m just operating on my storyteller instincts, with a lot of luck thrown in.  Could Maass help me pin down exactly what makes a bestseller?  Or is it all just fairy dust?

When I finally did catch my first glimpse of Maass, I was surprised he was so young.  I’d been hearing about him for so many years, I’d expected a gray-haired gentleman.  He read off the titles on the current New York Times fiction bestsellers list and challenged the audience to list what those bestsellers had in common.  The result?  Not a lot.  There were thrillers and literary novels, books with heroes and books with heroines, a book set in Afghanistan and a book set in Jersey, books with high stakes and books with quietly personal stakes.  As he pointed out, you can’t predict which topic or which plot will hit the list.

But you can find certain things that bestsellers have in common: characters you care about, stakes that matter to them, and what he referred to as continuous “microtension” – a story with a high level of conflict, an underlying sense that something important is always about to happen, or could happen.  He also said something that I myself have concluded (and in fact blogged about sometime ago): action, in and of itself, is not tension.  In fact, it can be downright boring.

I found myself nodding in agreement with everything he said.  He managed to verbalize what I’ve tended to do by instinct.  Wow, I thought; there really is an algorithm for writing a bestselling novel! 


Off to San Francisco

I’ll be gone for the next week, first to speak at the San Francisco Writers Conference, and then to spend time with family.  I’m sure I’ll have plenty to blog about when I get home!

The Writer’s Guide to Staying Sane

The publishing business is already enough to drive a writer crazy, so why should we make things even worse for ourselves?  Here are some sanity-sparing suggestions that I myself am trying to stick to:


Yep, that means you.  Unless you’re checking the effectiveness of a particular promotional tool (in which case you may want to see how the index responds) you really shouldn’t be looking at yourself on Amazon at all.  In particular, avoid looking at the reader reviews of your books.  Some of those readers are nasty, vicious people, and why do you want to torture yourself by reading a lousy review of your latest book?   Sure, you may find a really great review, and that’ll make you feel good … for about an hour.  But a lousy review will leave you feeling miserable for a week.  You wouldn’t volunteer to get your fingernails wrenched off with pliers, would you?  So why let anonymous readers torture you on Amazon?


For the same reason I told you not to look up your own books on Amazon.  Sure, maybe you’ll find a website that says nice things about you.  But you might also find a site that calls you the spawn of Satan.  So don’t even look.  Because ignorance truly is bliss.


Writers are often told to jump at every chance to promote ourselves.  So we accept every invitation to speak at libraries, schools and writers’ conferences.  We’ll travel a thousand a miles, take three days off from our writing, to smile at a gathering and sell only thirty books.  When you’re starting off and still trying to establish your name, these are probably good investments of your time.  But you have to learn when enough is enough.  Don’t let the gigs take over your calendar.  Don’t let them eat too deeply into your writing time.  As Sue Grafton once said to me, “Don’t be a literary slut.” 


Last autumn, I sprained my knee while hiking down a mountain.  For two months I could barely walk, much less hike.  Stuck at home, I got grumpy and flabby.  Then winter set in, and the roads got icy, prolonging my inactivity.  Finally I got fed up with how listless I felt and made one of the best investments of my life: I bought a treadmill.  It sits right here in my office and it’s my new best friend.  First thing in the morning, I turn on National Public Radio, climb onto the treadmill, and take a brisk uphill walk for half an hour.  When I’m done, I feel pumped and ready to dive into my writing.  And I can stop feeling guilty about my sedentary job.


Indulge your hobbies.  Feed your curiosity.  Life isn’t just about meeting deadlines and seeing another one of your books on the stands; life is also about doing and learning cool stuff.  We get about eight decades on this earth.  That seems like a lot of time, but as I get older, I realize how precious little time that really is.  Although I spend most of the year racing to meet my book deadlines, I’m also learning how to read ancient Greek.  I’m trying to read through my copy of Herodotus, which sits on my nightstand.  I’m trying to memorize a Chopin Ballade on the piano.  Probably none of these hobbies will end up being used in a book, but why does everything have to be about the writing?

And on the bright side…

Writers are indeed a lucky bunch.  We do what we love, and we get paid for it. 

Although the topics of my most recent blogposts have focused on the down-side of the business, I’m well aware that I’m fortunate to be living my dreams.  Still, this is a writer’s blog, and where else are you going to see those problems addressed?  If I were only to give you the sweetness-and-light aspects of being a writer, this blog would become boring in a hurry.  All I’m trying to get across is that all writers suffer from the same anxieties.  That no writer is immune to the demons of self-doubt, no matter where they are in their careers. 

Yes, I have the greatest job in the world.  But it wasn’t always this way.  And here’s where I take issue with people who say that writers have no right to whine because they don’t have the same concerns of other working stiffs. 

When you’re just starting out as a writer, you’re working completely on spec.  You’re pouring long hours and your genius into a manuscript that may never sell.  You’re working for nothing, plus you’re probably holding down a regular job at the same time.  Any other worker can at least expect to get paid for his labors, but for a new writer, nothing is assured.  He may have to write two, three, even ten unpublished manuscripts before he gets “the call.”

Then let’s suppose — oh joy! — he finally sells his manuscript.  What’s the pay-off?  If he signs an average first-time paperback original deal, he’ll probably get an advance of under $10,000.  (And many first-time deals are far less, more like $5,000)  He’ll probably get half of that advance when he signs the contract, and the other half when the book gets published.  Now, I don’t know how quickly other writers work, but it takes me about ten months of full-time writing and revising to produce a 400-page manuscript.  How many of you would work ten months for a starting salary of $10,000?  With no health benefits and no retirement plan, plus having to pay self-employment taxes?  (And remember — you also have to pay 15% of that ten grand to your literary agent.)  How many of you would devote years to doing spec work, with no assurance that you’ll ever get paid for it? 

If the writer’s blessed, and that book sells well, and he manages to write other books that also sell well, he’ll go on to earn more with each successive contract.  And while it’s natural to envy his eventual success, you must also factor in the years of unpaid labor that he devoted to his craft.  He had to pay his dues.  He may have spent years barely making a living with his writing, so when success finally comes to him ten years down the line, it’s not as if he suddenly woke up one day and won the lottery.  Very few writers hit the big-time.  Even writers who work hard and write great books. There’s an unpredictability about this business that confounds even the most brilliant publishing professionals and drives all the rest of us insane.

So I count my lucky stars that, after twenty books and twenty years, I’ve reached this point in my career.   But it required taking a lot of risks, a lot of unpaid years of work, and a lot of sleepless nights. 


And here’s an interesting item I found in Nicholas Kristof’s column in today’s New York Times:

“In one common experiment, the ‘Goldberg paradigm,’ people are asked to evaluate a particular article or speech, supposedly by a man.  Others are asked to evaluate the identical presentation, but from a woman.  Typically, in countries all over the world, the very same words are rated higher coming from a man.”

Rather depressing, isn’t it?



“payroll author” — real or imagined?

Among the comments about my last post, M.J. makes a very good point:

“If the writer believes this, he or she has misunderstood the situation.  Which sounds like the agent has not been doing his/her work. Or – The author is suffering from real and serious issues and needs outside psychological help to resolve her conflicts.”

M.J. brings up a very good question: are these pressures the author feels real or merely perceived?  Is she making herself crazier than she needs to by inflating her own importance to the publishing house?

I do think the term “payroll author” is a valid one.  I’ve certainly been hearing it a lot lately — from various sources referring to various authors.  The prime example of a payroll author is J.K. Rowling, who singlehandedly changed the fortunes of Scholastic.  The other name I’ve heard associated with that term is Dan Brown, whose publisher is breathlessly awaiting his next book, and no doubt counting on that book to wash away their red ink.  I’m certain that quite a few other names also qualify as payroll authors.  Although publishing houses make money on backlist sales, many of those backlist sales are driven by frontlist sales.  Every time Grisham comes out with a new book, sales of his backlist also spike.  If an author stops producing, his backlist sales will gradually wither away and die.  But payroll authors are a very select group indeed, and agents and publishers want to hold onto those writers and keep them working hard.

Sometimes, though, they work those authors way too hard.  And then they risk killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Authors are an insecure bunch to begin with, and when an agent or editor tells them that slowing down or taking a year off will kill their careers, they absolutely believe it.  Because there’s a certain amount of truth to that statement.  A writer doesn’t want to go unpublished for too long, because once you’ve stepped out of the yearly publishing cycle, readers forget you. Booksellers forget you.  If you stay away too long, you may never be able to jump back in.  We writers are advised to write at least a book a year, just to stay in the game.  We’re terrified of backsliding.  No matter how successful we may be, we feel entirely dispensable because there are a thousand other writers ready and willing to take our publishing slot.  So we write book after book, year after year, and some of us manage it with no problem.

But for others the stress piles up, and eventually you’re like that author who throws up every morning.  She’s lost sight of what it means to have a life.  A real life.

Some writers muster up the backbone to call a halt to the madness.  I remember when Sue Grafton, about halfway into her alphabet series, announced that she was exhausted and she planned to take a year off.  I remember the noise that generated within the publishing industry, and all the speculation that it would hurt her mystery series and permanently damage her career.  She did it anyway.  And when she came back, she was bigger and better than ever.  In a recent interview with Romantic Times, Grafton marked a milestone — the release of her 20th novel in 25 years.  (Which makes me think she must have taken off more than just that one year.)  Her latest title, T IS FOR TRESPASS, earned her some of the best reviews of her life.  And her sales don’t seem to have suffered one whit from the sabbaticals she’s taken.

In fact, I would guess that her career has been helped by taking that time off.  It gave her time to rest and recover.  It gave her time to re-charge her creativity.

Our stories have to come from somewhere.  We can’t just pull them out of barren soil.  We need to keep feeding our imaginations with fresh information, fresh experiences.  I couldn’t write the books I write if I weren’t pursuing my interests in other fields.  The book I’m writing now is inspired by my interest in Egyptology and my two trips to Egypt.  (Yes, it’s a Rizzoli story.)  My visit to the catacombs of Paris inspired BODY DOUBLE’s early chapters.  My fascination with Biblical archaeology was what inspired THE MEPHISTO CLUB.  Had I not traveled so much, had I not devoted so many hours to my rather obscure hobbies, I could not have written those books.  I might be reduced to writing variations on the same old serial killer stories again and again.   And yes, they would probably sell fine.  But how many years can you re-write the same book before the spark goes out of your writing?

I think any editor or agent who pushes an exhausted writer to keep writing is being shortsighted.  They are killing the gift that made that writer special to begin with.  And any writer who allows herself to be forced into a killer schedule is going to end up sick or completely tapped out.  That helps no one.  That ruins the books, disappoints the readers, and wrecks writers’ lives. 

We should all strive to be as sane and sensible as Sue Grafton.  We should pay attention to our own bodies, our own anxiety meters.  We should recognize when it’s time to say, “That’s enough, I need a break.”

We should.  But too often, we’re afraid to.


when the business runs your life

One of the great things about attending a writer’s conference is that you hear juicy gossip.  I myself am worthless as a source of gossip; living up here in Siberia, otherwise known as Maine, I never know anything about anybody. I rely on others to tell me what’s going on.  While in Chicago, I heard about the travails of a bestselling author who’s under so much stress trying to meet her deadlines that she’s a physical wreck.  “She says she throws up every morning,” my source said.  “She’s a nervous wreck because if she doesn’t deliver her manuscript on time, the publisher’s bottom line suffers.”  Which means that people might lose their jobs. She feels personally responsible for the livelihoods of a whole host of people — editors, publicists, and assistants.

She has become what’s known as a “payroll author.” 

On the surface, it sounds like a great position to be in.  Wow, what a power trip to be so valuable to a publishing house that they need your new book just to balance their budget.  We all want to be needed, right?  We all want to feel indispensable.

The problem is, this author no longer feels in control of her life.  She’s a millionaire several times over, she’s got a guaranteed slot on the bestseller list, she has legions of fans, yet she’s so stressed out, so overwhelmed by the responsibility, that she spends every morning heaving her guts into the toilet.

Is that the kind of success anyone really wants?

Looking at this author’s career, anyone might feel a twinge of envy.  But when you hear what her life is like behind the scenes, when you hear the turmoil she has to go through to earn those multi-millions, it reminds you that getting to the top isn’t for sissies.


Love is Murder conference

I’m still pretty tired after my trip home from the Love is Murder conference (complicated by a cancelled flight and an unexpected extra night in Chicago) but I wanted to share a few photos and some fine memories of what was a terrifically fun event.  With snowstorms and a brief shut-down of O’Hare Airport, I was lucky to get there at all — and I’m so glad I did!

About 300 writers and fans attended, and it was a lovely crowd.  At any time, up to eight classes or panels were going on simultaneously, covering a whole host of topics – everything from a karate demonstration by Barry Eisler to a crime scene reenactment by real cops.  And once the sun set, the action didn’t stop.  The first night, we had readings of Edgar Allan Poe along with a chocolate feast.  The second night, after the banquet, we were treated to a bagpiper and a whisky tasting, which I got so wrapped up in that poor beleaguered J.A. Konrath had to come and pull me out of the room for my next event.  (Sorry Joe!)  

The next morning, Joe interviewed me during breakfast.  If you don’t know about J.A. Konrath, hurry on over to his blogsite, one of the best writer’s blogs out there.  Not only does he write a marvelous mystery series, he’s also one of the funniest and most savvy guys I’ve ever met.     

My only regret about the conference?  There was so much going on, I couldn’t attend every single session — and there were many good ones.  I thought it was nice that so many romantic suspense authors were in attendance.  Most mystery conferences tend to treat romance authors as third-class citizens.  At Love is Murder, everyone was welcome, and many panels were devoted to romantic suspense. 

I was the moderator for one such panel.  Here I am with my fellow panelists (clockwise): Ann Voss Peterson, Julia Buckley, Patricia Rosemoor, and Sherrill Bodine.

romantic suspense panel

The conference also allowed me to meet some new faces, and I got the chance to talk with Barbara Vey, who blogs for Publishers Weekly:

with Barbara Vey

Finally, I got to catch up with some old friends, including this hilarious gathering of “Friends of Dave”  (Dave being book reviewer Dave Montgomery.)  Here I am, lucky girl, with four gorgeous men (L-R): Lee Child, Paul Guyot, Dave, and Barry Eisler.

friends of dave