When I began writing my first novel, ANGEL FIRE, I was confident—no, cocky—about the ease of transitioning from journalism to book-writing. They’re both storytelling, right? They both require punctuation and spelling, right? So all it takes is a shift of gears, right?
Poets, anchorwomen, songwriters, novelists, screenwriters, newspaper reporters, bloggers, historians … they’re all storytellers. But is a poet naturally a good screenwriter? Can an anchorwoman effortlessly write a beautiful song?
Writing a book runs counter to almost everything I learned as a news reporter in 30 years: Write short and fast, strip away all the excess details, get the most important thing first, and sever yourself and your emotions from the story. Of course, we must never fabricate anything—that’d be fatal for a novelist!
You came to understand what all writers learn - writing a novel takes a lot of time and effort, right?
Yes. I had to learn the special conventions of long fiction. So I literally went back to school and learned about novel-writing. I destroyed the first six months of work on the novel and started over again. It must have worked: ANGEL FIRE became a USA Today bestseller, and the San Francisco Chronicle listed it among the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century West.
I began writing ANGEL FIRE in 1995. Unhappy with it, I re-started from scratch six months later. In all, it took me about 18 months. My writing process, influenced by my daily journalism experience, doesn’t involve a series of drafts, but is a kind of rolling revision. I’m constantly reworking all the words I’ve drafted. It’s not a process I’d recommend for beginners or OCD sufferers
I see that book was picked up by Berkley and republished. How did that come about?
After 38 rejections, ANGEL FIRE was published by a small, upstart house in Alabama. That’s when Berkley, a Penguin imprint, swooped in and snatched it for its Signature series. Oddly, Berkley had rejected the manuscript when it first circulated, so it appears the big house was simply letting somebody else take the first risk on an unknown literary novelist. It’s not about art; it’s about business.
What made you jump from fiction to non-fiction?
It wasn’t a deliberate shift from fiction to nonfiction, but reflected my writing philosophy: Write whatever excites and intrigues me. I believe in the power of storytelling. Whether fiction or nonfiction, sometimes it’s helpful for us to have all our memories, fears and dreams collected in one place, where we can easily find them.
I had written three novels in the late 1990s and I was already using some of what I learned about dramatic storytelling in my articles for the Denver Post, where I was a senior writer.
The story of what happened to my friends at Fremont Canyon Bridge in 1973 had haunted me since I was 16. It represented a cruel rite of passage: The moment when I realized the world was much more dangerous than I had known, and that evil lived just around the corner. Everyone comes to that realization sooner or later, but for me, it was 1973.
I finally decided to write about it when evil showed itself again in 2001. Less than a month after Sept. 11, I was dispatched by the Denver Post to the Middle East, to wander the Arab street and try to find answers to questions we still haven’t answered fully. On my long trip home, I picked up a European news magazine that showed a photo of two people falling from the World Trade Center on 9/11. They were holding hands. In them, I suddenly saw Amy and Becky, and in them, I saw a story that transcended Casper, where I grew up. It also transcended my own personal fears. I was compelled to tell it.
Certainly, THE DARKEST NIGHT allowed me to use a lot of what I’d learned as a newspaperman. But it also successfully blended the muscular elements of journalism with techniques I learned as a novelist. The resulting story is completely true and meticulously researched, but reads like a dramatic, evocative novel.
Since your more recent books deal with crime and “the evil that men do” (to quote Shakespeare), how do you not become hardened and cynical about people?
I am attracted to stories about people in their most extreme moments. At war. Near death. Victimized. In those stories, we see people at their worst … and their best.
Unlike other true-crime writers, I’m not especially fascinated by mass murders or serial killers, except as the catalysts that set greater human stories in motion. They are freaks and we love freak shows. They live in a netherworld we don’t occupy, but they occasionally creep into our nightmares, our mythology … our homes … and steal away something. Security. Trust. Life.
I’m far more interested in the people who are splashed by this horror and who must deal with it. The greater the evil, the greater the hero. In DELIVERED FROM EVIL, I spent a year of my life with 10 survivors of mass killers and I was inspired by their stories of recovery, redemption, and resilience.
Evil surrounds us like bad air. Always has. We have no choice in the matter. But we can choose how we respond to it. We can hide from it, and fool ourselves that there are safe places in this world … or we can live. I think we must never give up the fight for justice in this world, but I think we must live our lives as if tomorrow might not come. In THE DARKEST NIGHT, Becky Thomson, who was given a chance for a second life, showed us what fear can do. It’s her gift to us.
A life in journalism and this experience together convince me there is no genuinely safe place. But it hasn’t made me fearful about living life; it’s merely made me understand how important it is to live. As someone said: Some people are so worried about dying they never start living.
I’m an old-school journalist. I want to know everything and I pursue it doggedly. I subscribe to the Iceberg Theory: You might only read 10% of what I know, but it will feel absolutely authentic because you’ll sense that I know my subject intimately.
You have also been a commentator/narrator on several Discovery TV shows that deal with heinous crimes. How did that come about? Are the videos about the books you’ve done?
True crime has boomed on TV. Whole channels are devoted to it. Producers want established figures to help narrate their stories, sharing the benefit of their experience and knowledge, and helping to dissect what is likely a bizarre story. I’ve appeared as a narrator on several episodes of Investigation Discovery, History Channel, and A&E shows. Most of the time, however, the featured crimes are not stories I’ve written about in my books. That’s just part of TV’s illusion.
Do you have an agent?
Yes. When I was first starting out, agents were a necessity because most big publishers only considered agented manuscripts. With the advent of digital publishing and the rise of smaller houses that are leveraging the power of print-on-demand, ebooks, and Internet marketing, the landscape has changed. But for those of us who still see value in traditional publishing, an agent is necessary to navigate the increasingly complex legal and marketing issues of an industry in flux.
At some peril to my long-term earning potential, I write diverse stories that fascinate me. I’ve done a literary novel, a couple thrillers, a few true-crimes, some quirky history books, and a memoir—frustrating editors, agents, and readers who think a writer should specialize in a single genre. Thus, my sundry manuscripts go to the best homes we can find.
A few have been published by major houses like Berkley and St. Martin’s Press; the rest by respected mid-sized houses such as Globe Pequot or Fair Winds. In the past year, I began experimenting with other bestselling, established authors in innovative independent publishing ventures, just to explore future options as traditional publishing contracts, but I remain devoted to traditional publishing as the best way to get one’s stories into the most readers’ hands.
What type of publicity has been the most successful in promoting your book?
That world hasn’t changed much: Good publicity is a war on multiple fronts. For most books, there’s no publicity better than mainstream print media, but book-review sections are dwindling. TV and radio exposure helps, but doesn’t always bump sales. Blogging, online mentions, Tweets … all good but none will make you a bestseller alone. Too many beginners over-estimate the value of social-media, thinking that 1,500 Facebook friends equals 1,500 sales … when, in reality, it’ll be under 150. So a writer must be ready to promote on many platforms, each of which is part of a giant, 3D puzzle that seems always to be missing several pieces.
What would you steer clear of in promotions?
What would I avoid? Those annoying, desperate daily social-media posts that scream (sometimes literally) “Buy my book!” This cloddish behavior favored by amateurs causes readers to feel intruded upon, chased, manipulated, poked, and probably conned—and thousands are doing it. Social media is about making connections, not blunt-force trauma. If this is your promotion strategy, please just shut up.
Besides writing your own books, you also offer your services as an editor. Why?
I spent a good part of my newspaper career as an editor, so it comes to me as naturally as writing. Trade publishers are doing less and less for authors these days, transferring a lot of the burden for editing, promotion, and other necessities to the writer. And self-publishers bear the entire burden.
Annoyed by unscrupulous “editors” who were taking advantage of would-be authors’ dreams, I began charging a penny-a-word for a few manuscripts. Word spread and demand grew. In the past five years, I’ve edited more than 150 manuscripts, some of which were eventually trade-published and have done well. And my rates doubled … to two cents-a-word.
Have s there been any books you’ve passed on for editing?
Because story theory, grammar, and typos don’t care what genre you write, I don’t either. I have gently suggested that some British or Australian authors seek “local” editing because of differences between our peculiar forms of English, but I’ve also edited such manuscripts with great results.
My peerless pal Lorenzo Carcaterra, author of the great “Sleepers,” once told me: “When you are in your little writer’s garret, you are an artist. When you leave, you’re a shoe clerk in a world of shoe clerks.”
What he said so colorfully was that we must be both artists and entrepreneurs. It’s not enough to just arrange the ink beautifully on a piece of paper. You must then convince someone of your words’ value. The ability to think like a good shoe clerk—to anticipate a need, to make your product stand out, to sell it—is absolutely necessary for a successful writer.
What other books do you have in the works?
My 15th book, MORGUE: A LIFE IN DEATH, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in May 2016. Co-authored with one of the world’s most renowned medical examiners, Dr. Vincent Di Maio, the book explores his most historic, infamous, and heartbreaking cases, from Lee Harvey Oswald to Trayvon Martin.
What is the best advice you’ve been given about writing or that you’ve learned that you would like to pass along?
There are no magic beans. Good writing is about practice, practice, practice. Malcolm Gladwell, who studied the lives of extremely successful people, concluded that mastery of any pursuit requires at least 10,000 hours of repetition—almost five years worth of 40-hour weeks. We all want to be great at something, but there are no shortcuts. If you can’t do the time, don’t add to the considerable word-pollution that’s clogging the pipeline, obscuring quality works, and drowning out the voices of truly gifted, experienced, patient, serious authors.
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