IDOL TALK: William Styron Stumbling. Lee Child Retiring. Scott Turow Intimidated. Chevy Chase’s Dad Edits.

William Styron was “so wildly drunk, it was embarrassing,” says Scott Turow, the man who created the modern legal thriller. Turow shot to fame (and fortune) after publication of his first legal thriller Presumed Innocent (which became a major motion picture starring Harrison Ford).

Turow’s description of acclaimed novelist Styron followed a New York City luncheon where Scott was awarded a Book of the Month writing fellowship. Styron was on stage handing out the awards that day, or at least attempting to. Turow, at the time, had just graduated from college. He went on to teach writing at Stanford and later attend Harvard Law School. At the time, young Turow found the whole scene intimidating. “New York scared the shit out of me in those days.”

Turow later authored a book about his freshman year at Harvard Law School called One L, Harvard’s computer acronym for first-year law students. He says he doesn’t know what Putnam Editor Ned Chase saw in his book, but he’s glad he chose it. Turow’s been receiving royalty checks ever since. For more than three decades One L has become must reading for law students and those considering law school. Chase, a top book editor in his day, was father of comedian Chevy Chase. Before Turow entered Harvard, his agent told Chase about Turow’s idea for the book. Chase wrote up a contract before Turow even entered Harvard. It was Turow’s first published book.

I talked with Scott Turow recently for about what it took to get his first novel, Presumed Innocent, published. What it took was years. Click here to read the story. Presumed Innocent is the novel that sparked my interest in writing thrillers. I remember staying up into the wee hours unable to put it down.

When you become as big as Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series, strange stuff happens, he says. In his sixth novel, Echo Burning, he included an attempted assassination. He traveled to Denmark on a book tour just as an assassination attempt on a public official came to light. Child, expecting to be interviewed about his latest novel, was instead asked about the assassination attempt as if he were an expert.

He was candid about it saying he was no expert at all. “I just make things up.”

On another occasion, a member of the Australian Federal Parliament cited Child’s Jack Reacher character during a floor debate in the legislature. You know you’ve arrived when your novel’s protagonist is used in political discourse halfway around the world.

Child’s Jack Reacher series, which has spawned 25 books, is the largest selling thriller series in the genre. Child has sold more than 100 million books. But not any more. He is retiring from writing the franchise and turning the reins over to his younger brother Andrew Grant, also a novelist. For the series, Grant will write under the pen name Andrew Child. The Sentinel, written almost entirely by Andrew Child (with Lee Child’s name still larger than anything else on the cover), was launched this week.

Lee Child says retirement includes buying a new couch to lounge on and do what he loves most. Read books. He will also be busy as executive producer of Amazon’s upcoming Jack Reacher streaming series, which is scheduled to debut in the fall of 2021. Prepare to binge.

I talked with the brothers Grant (Lee Child’s real name is Jim Grant) for a story in The Big Thrill magazine. You can read my story in the upcoming November issue. The Big Thrill is the official magazine of the International Thriller Writers.

BONUS: Ever wonder what goes into designing a book cover? Read my story on the many failed attempts for my novel, Naked Ambition. I learned a lot from this experience. Maybe you will too. It gives you an idea of what goes into the process.

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Please excuse any typos. The editor, like the author, is in solitary.


IDOL TALK: After a Bestseller, What Are the Odds of Future Success?

Editors and agents constantly tell writers to include plenty of conflict in their novels.  For some authors, it’s easy. They lived it.

“My career has been one disaster followed by a victory, followed by a disaster. I think that’s true of most writers,” says Gayle Lynds, one of the most popular spy novelists in the world. Gayle fought sexism her entire career as a writer—whether in the newsroom at the Arizona Republic, or with a book editor who told her women don’t write spy novels. And for Gayle, it wasn’t just men putting roadblocks in her path.

But in the end, one woman put Gayle over the top. Her first novel, Masquerade, was published in hardback and did well, but it wasn’t flying off the shelves. Then Phyllis Grann at Berkley Paperbacks read it and loved it. At a marketing meeting she held Masquerade up and waved it before the assemblage proclaiming, “See this book? It’s a great book. We’re going to make it a bestseller.”

And she did.

Masquerade arrived on the New York Times bestseller list at number seventeen and Gayle has made it one of her favorite stops ever since.

Scott Turow, considered the father of the modern legal thriller and famed for his gripping novel Presumed Innocent, struggled for years on a project that went nowhere. Prior to his fame and fortune, he spent four years on a novel about a rent strike in a Chicago filled with fraud and a secret landowner.

“The main problem, I worked on it for too long,” he says. It was 1972 and Richard Nixon had just been elected president. “The message was America was not having more of this hippy shit,” he says. “That’s what my novel was basically about . . . but the public was sick of the rebellion thing.”

Or take Lee Child. Way back when, when he was still Jim Grant, he worked for the BBC as a producer. He was also the union shop steward, which put him in the crosshairs of management. He was eventually fired and needed to make some money fast to feed his family. He’d been thinking for some time about writing a novel, so he sat down with a legal pad and pencils and Jack Reacher was born.

Year’s later after he was rich and famous, he ran into his old BBC boss at a museum opening in London. While Child was gratified to know he had accomplished so much—more than his former boss who had fired him ever would—the Brit kept a stiff upper lip and a smile his face. Who says you can’t get no satisfaction?

The lesson here, Lynds says, is in book publishing there is the “What have you done for me lately?” culture among publishers. It’s a fickle business. Writers must constantly be hammering their keyboards on their next book to make a living because there are no guarantees of future success in book publishing.


IDOL TALK: 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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