Saturday, July 25, 2009

Becoming a Writer-holic

Chris Grabenstein (Guest Blogger)

Recently I realized that, come December 2009, I have been making my living as a writer for exactly 25 years.

I guess I need to buy my laptop a silver keyboard.

It all started when I answered a full-page ad from Mega Ad Agency J. Walter Thompson in the New York Times headlined “Write If You Want Work.”

There were eight questions. Everything from “write a love song for punk rocker Poppy Putrid about stale pizza, moldy butter and a beer that’s gone flat” to “how would you sell a telephone to a Trappist monk who has taken a strict vow of silence?”
The coolest thing about the ad?

It was written by J. Walter New York’s Creative Director, a guy named James Patterson.

Yep. That James Patterson. Before he kissed the girls, he, like I, wrote Burger King commercials.

And he was damn good at it, too. In fact I still use a lot of what Jim (we called him Jim back in the day) taught me when I write my books. On our first day of “training camp” as Junior Copywriters, Jim stood at a podium, preparing to give us what promised to be a long-winded boring lecture.

Then somebody ran in the door and slammed a cream pie in his face.

After we stopped being shocked, amazed, and confused Jim uttered these immortal words: “That’s how you write good advertising: Throw a pie in their face and once you have their attention, say something smart.”

I spent 17 years throwing pies in America’s face. Writing commercials for everything from Matilda Bay Wine Cooler (sheep mowed the lawn in one spot) to KFC (middle name changed to hide the fried) to Miller Lite to Seven Up (as in "make seven...up yours") to Trojan condoms (yes, I created Trojan Man, even wrote his theme song).

I started my writing career on an IBM Selectric and, some days, still wish I had one. I loved that pinky finger correction button. I moved on to word processing programs in a Kaypro computer (the two thousand dollar computer that actually costs two thousand dollars), a boxy thing the size of a Singer sewing machine.

I even bought this cool battery-operated thermo print Canon typewriter that remembered a whole line of copy and only printed it when you hit the return button. I took this typewriter with me to L.A. when we were filming a TV commercial and I still needed to write the radio copy.

I had a great room in the Sunset Marquis, this swanky rock n’ roll hotel (you didn’t want to be staying there during the MTV awards or you would be mobbed by the Pet Shop Boys fans). One day, I put on my sunglasses, ordered a pot of coffee from room service and lived my dream: The Hollywood writer, sitting on his sunny deck, typing away, smoking cigarettes and guzzling coffee.

I was writing some pretty funny spots.

And then I learned something about that Canon typewriting gizmo. Heat made the ink disappear. Everything I wrote faded away in the California sunshine.

I had to give up the dream and head inside to finish writing the copy.

Speaking of cigarettes -- that was the worst part about quitting smoking for me. I had inexorably linked my writing with my smoking. On a good writing day, I’d be at my desk at 7 a.m. Every time I wrote a spot or a good chunk of copy, I’d fire up a Merit Ultra Light and re-read what I just wrote. On a good writing day, I would have fifteen butts in my ashtray by ten o’clock.

In 1995, when my late wife was diagnosed with cancer, we had to quit smoking. It comes with the biopsy.

I thought I would never write again.

Fortunately, when I first quit, all I had to do was go on a shoot. No writing required.

Three months later however, I faced my worst nightmare. A blank page with no smokes.
I learned to drink a ton of water and suck Hall’s MenthoLyptus drops like crazy.
Two years later, I realized: I could actually write without smoking.
I could also run around Central Park and not have stinky clothes or a cough in the shower every morning.

Four years later, after four recurrences, my first wife died.
It was enough to make me want to smoke.

But I didn’t.

I did decide that life was, as advertised, short and I no longer wanted to write about Crystal Light or Jell-O Holiday Molds.

I wanted to tell stories.

So I quit my job but kept to my routine.

Butt in chair. Fingers on keyboard. Regular office hours in the spare bedroom.
Four years later, in 2005, my first mystery TILT A WHIRL was published by Carroll & Graf.

I thought about this when I heard my wife on the phone the other day telling her dad, “Chris is a writer-holic. He gave up cigarettes, took up writing.” And J.J., my wife, wouldn’t have it any other way because she knows I’m happiest when I’m writing.

This month, that has meant doing line edits on THE SMOKY CORRIDOR, the third of my haunted places YA mysteries, handing my agent THE EXPLORERS’ GATE, the first book in what we hope will become a new YA series, starting work on ROLLING THUNDER (John Ceepak mystery #6), and touching up a thriller I’ve been toying with for a couple years titled EVELYN that’s ready to see the light of an editor’s submission pile, while attending to the launch of MIND SCRAMBLER (Ceepak mystery #5) and prepping for the launch of THE HANGING HILL (YA chiller #2).

At the launch party for MIND SCRAMBLER in June, I realized that, when THE HANGING HILL comes out in August, I will have published nine books in less than four years.
And I did it all without firing up one Merit Ultra Light.

I just became a writer-holic instead.

Chris Grabenstein won an Anthony Award for his first John Ceepak novel, TILT-A-WHIRL, and an Agatha Award for his YA novel, THE CROSSROADS.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

You've got a fascinating background, Chris. I always thought it would be a great challenge to write ad spots (short and punchy.) Sounds like you learned under the best.

Thanks for sharing.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Sandra Parshall said...

Chris, I'll never forget hearing you talk about your advertising career when you were the keynote speaker at Deadly Ink. You're not only a talented writer but also one of the most entertaining speakers I've ever heard, and that's an unusual combination.

A couple days ago I listened to the recording of the Stagecraft panel at the Edgar Symposium -- I "attend" the symposium on the cheap, by buying the CDs -- and thought the improvisation bit was priceless.

Chris Grabenstein said...

Thanks! I ordered a DVD of that seminar myself. Katherine Miller Haines and I had never performed together before. She is terrific!
(And a great writer, too!)

college paper writing services said...

It's really hard to quit smoking especially when writing. In some sort, you get your ideas from cigars and puffs.