Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Just like me...?

Sandra Parshall

I always feel a certain amount of quiet glee when I listen to world-famous writers talk about their years of rejection, their tendency to procrastinate before starting work each day, the “What if I can’t do it again?” fear they sometimes feel when they finish a novel.

Ah, I think. They’re just like me!

Well, except for the world-famous part. And the top-10 bestseller part. And then there’s the million-dollar advance part.

But beyond those frivolous aspects of their lives, they are simply writers who have to sit down alone at their keyboards and somehow produce made-up stories that people will pay to read. That isn’t easy for anybody, unless they happen to be James Patterson or Nora Roberts (who recently published her 200th novel, is only 61, and will probably continue writing several books a year for the next 40 years).

At the recent Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesvile, I heard three superstars of mystery/suspense talk about all the things that make them just like the rest of us humble wordsmiths. 

Jeffery Deaver, who writes the Lincoln Rhyme mysteries, spoke at the Crime Wave lunch and kept everyone laughing with his tale of false starts and rejections before he settled on the kind of books he should be writing and learned enough about the craft to make them publishable. Deaver’s hero is a prime example of what mystery editors mean when they say they want something fresh and different. Rhyme is a former detective, a genius at crime scene examination – and a quadraplegic. He still uses his brilliant mind to solve crimes, and anybody who dares to pity him risks being turned to stone by his glare or a sharp rebuke. Once Deaver had the character, he started selling.

Ellen Crosby, author of the Virginia Wine Country Mysteries, did a great job of interviewing Steve Berry and Lisa Gardner on Friday night at the festival and coaxing them to reveal their work habits, good and bad. I interviewed Berry, author of the Cotton Malone novels, last year for the International Thriller Writers newsletter, so I already knew a good part of his story. But that interview was conducted via e-mail, and his charming southern accent came as a surprise when I heard him speak. Berry wrote for 12 years, accumulated 85 rejections, and quit three times before he sold his first novel. Like Deaver, he took awhile to discover his genre. Reading The Da Vinci Code sparked the revelation he needed. Since then he’s written more than a dozen bestsellers with sweeping international plots that dip into history. (Dan Brown is now a personal friend.)

Lisa Gardner, author of the D.D. Warren novels, the Pierce Quincy/Rainie Connor series, and other suspense titles, is one of my favorites. She is so personable and funny that I couldn’t hate her when she said she sold the first book she wrote and has never endured rejection. She endeared herself to me by confessing that “I procrastinate in every possible way” before beginning a day’s writing. She is “totally addicted to computer games” like solitaire. On some days, she’s capable of wasting virtually all of her writing time. Then around 2:30 in the afternoon she realizes her kids will be home from school in half an hour, and “in the next twenty-nine minutes, I can be amazingly productive.”

Berry has a goal of writing 1,000 words a day. He swears that when he’s out on the golf course he’s plotting in his head, not procrastinating. He did his early writing in “the total chaos of a law office” and still finds writing in a silent house difficult at times. He’s been known to seek out his wife, Elizabeth, and “aggravate her” into a squabble just to bring a little tension into his writing atmosphere. 

Gardner finds the first 100 pages of a new book the hardest to write, and during this period research serves as a fine form of procrastination. Because Berry’s books rely heavily on history, he can justify traveling all over the world to gather material before he dives into a new book. Gardner writes plot points on index cards and spreads them on the floor and scrambles them to find the best sequence of events. Berry also uses index cards to keep track of his plot, but his cards are in a computer file.

Both Gardner and Berry have written their share of violent scenes, but Berry says he gets the most complaints from readers when he deals with religion. He recalls “a woman screaming at me at an event” because she felt he had harmed the Catholic Church. It’s only fiction, he pointed out. The Catholic Church will not live or die because of something he writes in a thriller. He also heard complaints from readers when a dog was sacrificed in one of his books. Three human beings died in the same chapter, but nobody complained about that. Now, he says, he won’t kill an animal or a child in a book.

Her readers, Gardner said, seem to be tolerant when she takes them to “bad places” as long as she brings them back and leaves them in a good place with a satisfying and hopeful resolution. She doesn’t write noir, in which the situation is often worse at the end than at the beginning.

I enjoyed being on a panel and seeing friends in Charlottesville, but the highlights were Deaver’s talk on Saturday and Ellen’s interview of Lisa Gardner and Steve Berry on Friday evening. For a little while, at least, I could feel a kinship with these superstars of crime fiction and think, They’re just like me.


Julia Buckley said...

Interesting! And you're right--they're just like you, and even they probably sometimes wonder how they became so successful while other good writers did not.

But listening to their work habits explains a lot about how they keep getting published. :)

Sheila Connolly said...

It still surprises me how many now-famous writers came up through the ranks, starting out with romance series books (think Nora Roberts). And most remain reasonably normal people, except with a lot of voices in their head and an encyclopedia of ways to kill people.

I had the nerve to barge in on Lisa Gardner (who was deep on conversation with Suzanne Brockman) at one of the first RWA conferences I ever attended. The result was a consulting role for my entomologist husband in her book with the spiders (Say Goodbye).

I love writers!

Anonymous said...

Interesting to know how novelist think. I never knew that they got such a fear like that. I just thought that they can definitely do it again and again.

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