Two Degrees of Separation

Steve Berry, Michael Connelly and James Lee Burke

Before he became a New York Times bestselling thriller author, Steve Berry wrote a 170,000-word legal thriller, “which will tell you how bad it was right off the bat,” he says, Yet, “it’s the best thing I ever wrote in my life.”

It never sold. The average thriller is 90,000 words. Today his failed manuscript sits on his desk like a giant paperweight reminding him daily just how bad it is. Why would he revere such a bad piece of writing? Because he finished it. “Ninety percent of people never finish the novel they set out to write. Luckily, I did,” Steve says.

So what do you do when you write a horrible manuscript? “You write another one,” he says. He learned quickly writing is hard. “There is a craft here and there are actually right ways and wrong ways to do this. The good thing,” he says, “is there are infinite ways to write.”

For years while living in Georgia as a small town lawyer, he would drive an hour south of Jacksonville, Florida every Wednesday night to meet with his writing critique group. There, they would discuss the previous week’s pages of each other’s manuscripts. “Seventy percent of what you hear is garbage,” he says. “The rest is gold.” And how do you know the difference? “Time,” he says.

Experience counts for something.

When he finally thought he was ready, he sent out 400 query letters to agents. About ten responded. He signed with Pam Ahearn and she spent years sending his manuscript to publishers. He was rejected 85 times before Pam called and left a message in his hotel in Copenhagen while he was vacationing, that he had sold not one, but two books accompanied by a $75,000 advance.

So if you’re serious about getting a novel published, first learn your craft and then be persistent in getting it into the right hands. Too many people never finish their novel or give up too soon on trying to get it published, which is why so many people are self-published. The average self-published author sells fewer than five books, according to Smashwords.

Persistence II

Following this same thread: In the late 1970s, Literary agent Philip Spitzer met James Lee Burke. It took Spitzer nine years to sell Burke’s manuscript following 112 rejections. (Who would have thought someone would exceed Steve Berry?) So think of Burke and Berry when you are about to give up on your writing, thinking no one out there is interested in what you have to say.

Spitzer, as you know if you’ve been following me, represents Michael Connelly, one of the biggest crime writers in the U.S., if not the world. He has his on Amazon television series, “Bosch,” about his books’ protagonist L.A. detective Harry Bosch.

One of the editors Spitzer contacted about Connelly’s first manuscript loved the story, but her bosses were at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair so she couldn’t get a decision. Spitzer knew he had something special and wasn’t going to wait. Another publisher then turned it down and he was incensed. Spitzer knew the editor and said he had “a snotty attitude.” The editor wrote in his rejection letter “this is a pretty good story but the writing is not elevated enough for our list.” Spitzer has the letter to this day. “I look back at that and I say, ‘f#ck you!’ ” The publisher, he says, “has not published anything nearly as good as Michael.”

You gotta love an agent who speaks his mind, no matter how profanely.

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Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke share an agent…

…and John D. MacDonald didn’t have a book published in hardback until his 20th novel, so says Philip Spitzer, agent for both Connelly and Burke.

I talked with Spitzer while reporting  my story about crime novelist Michael Connelly. Connelly is a former journalist (so there’s hope for me yet) who hit the big time with his third Harry Bosch novel. He finally quit his day job at the LA Times and went on to write dozens of bestselling crime thrillers. But he had to begin somewhere and that’s what I write about.

But back to Spitzer. He chatted about  Connelly and about how he never met Connelly until they were about to publish his first novel (Connelly was in LA, Spitzer in NYC and neither had the money at the time for frequently cross-country  travel.)

When Spitzer started out in publishing way back, (’60s and ’70s) mysteries were mostly issued in paperback. They weren’t given the respect they are today (economic, at least). Which is why MacDonald didn’t have a hardcover novel for a long time. Oh, and Spitzer has plenty to say about snotty publishers. More about that in a later post.

It was a different world when Spitzer got into the publishing business in 1961. To make ends meet before he landed some great authors, he drove a cab. One day he drove Katherine Hepburn to the moves. He also moonlighted at a flower shop and delivered a bouquet to Nat King Cole. Today, Spitzer no longer has to worry about money, repping both Connelly and Burke and such books as Andre Dubus’ House of Sand and Fog, which became a major motion picture. Of course everyone knows about Connelly’s Bosch series on Amazon. They are hoping to film the seventh and final season later this summer. (The Coronavirus will be the final determinant on that. )

Spitzer, who is in his 80s, doesn’t go into the office much any more (He has people, after all.). I’ll have a lot more tidbits from him in future blogs.

This month’s column in CrimeReads features Tess Gerritsen, who most people probably know for her Rizzoli and Isles series, which was a television show for seven years. She also wrote a novel that sounds and looks a lot like the movie “Gravity,” but Hollywood doesn’t admit to anything. More on that and more on Tess later… Column Begins

My first monthly CrimeReads column on Lee Child appeared today in the online magazine. is the largest website dedicated to reading and writing crime/thriller/mystery novels (up to 900,000 circulation). You might recognize Lee’s story from my website.

Unlike other writers, he had a fairly easy time getting his first book published and since then has had an incredible run writing Jack Reacher novels. He recently announced he’s retiring from the franchise and is turning over the reins to his brother.

Other famous authors who will appear soon in my  CrimeReads column include Michael Connelly, David Morrell and Steve Berry. Watch this space for more first-timer stories.