I’ve spent the past week going over my editor’s suggestions for revising my next thriller (working title: The Furies). They’re great suggestions, I’m happy to report. I feel an enormous sense of satisfaction as I go through the manuscript, repairing all the inconsistencies and gaping omissions that my editor pointed out. I’m a lucky guy to have such a careful reader. And my gratitude is enhanced by the fact that I know what it’s like to have a bad editor. Worse: I know what it’s like to be a bad editor.
For the first fifteen years of my journalism career I was a reporter for newspapers and magazines, but in 1998 I became a staff editor at Scientific American. This is a fairly typical career path because editor jobs usually pay a little better. (I’d like to emphasize the world “little.” Don’t go into journalism if you want to make a lot of money.) The new job involved some writing, but my primary responsibility was editing the magazine’s feature stories about breakthroughs in science and technology, most of which were written by the scientists who did the research. It was fun work because the topics varied so much. One month I learned all about metallic hydrogen; the next month I became an expert on the sex life of orangutans (which, by the way, is pretty damn fascinating, but that’s a subject for another blog post).
The stories were usually between 3,000 and 4,000 words, which were spread across six or eight pages in the magazine. Although most of the scientist-authors had extensive experience writing articles for research journals (such as Nature, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, etc.), very few had written for a consumer magazine before. Therefore, the stories they submitted were full of terrible writing: lots of incomprehensible jargon, egregious overuse of the passive voice. On the other hand, the scientists were usually so delighted to be published in Scientific American -- it was a big ego boost for many of them, and often a career boost as well -- that they would tolerate heavy editing (and sometimes wholesale rewriting) with little complaint. And thus a monster was born.
In short, I became a tyrant. Each month I would rewrite the entire story, altering nearly every sentence. I wouldn’t have discussions with the author. I wouldn’t give the author the opportunity to make changes to his or her first draft. I would make all the changes myself and send back the rewritten manuscript with a standard note: “Please correct any factual errors I may have inadvertently introduced.” My justification for this approach was that I didn’t have the time for a lot of back-and-forth. It was quicker and easier this way. And I truly believed that I was doing my authors a favor. I was making them look good, I thought, by commandeering their stories.
I took the same attitude with the illustrations that accompanied the articles. I would draw them myself, in pencil, and fax my sketches to the artists. If their illustrations came back looking significantly different from what I’d drawn, I’d force them to do it over. I was drunk with power.
Luckily, I was saved by a book deal. After selling my first novel and getting a contract to write two more, I scaled back my duties at Scientific American. I became a contributing editor who meekly suggests story ideas instead of a staff editor who shapes and packages them. And in my new career as a novelist, I was as powerless as a cub reporter. I could no longer give orders to anyone but myself. For instance, I could suggest titles for my novels and offer my opinions on alternatives, but the final decision was up to the publisher. The same rules applied to the cover art. Most humbling of all, I had to acknowledge the fact that I made mistakes too and that my own writing could be pretty terrible sometimes.
If we lived in an Old Testament kind of world, the gods of publishing would punish me for my sins. They would make sure that the people editing my novels were just as bad as I was. My editors would force me to rip out the heart of each book, to chop up the manuscript to the point where it became unrecognizable. But apparently I’ve been granted a dispensation. My editors have always allowed me to come up with my own solutions for fixing the problems in my drafts. And the process can be intensely gratifying, like working out your problems in therapy. There are lots of Aha! moments. “Of course! The answer is so simple!”
I really don’t deserve such good treatment. If I ever become an editor again, I’ll try to be more patient and open-minded. (Who am I kidding? I’d probably go right back to being a tyrant.)
Posted on Saturday, May 4, 2013
It was a terrible week in the news -- the bombs in Boston, the explosion in Texas, the failure of the background-check bill -- so it was a great relief to plunge into fiction. And fiction-wise, it was a wonderful week for me, because I completed the first draft of my next novel. My daily word count always rises to extraordinary (at least for me) levels when I’m nearing the end, partly because I get caught up in the climax of the book and partly because I just want to finish the darn thing. I love writing 2,000 words a day, but it also makes me feel bad about how little I write at other times. I say to myself, “Why can’t you write this much all the time? Then you could knock off a novel in two months and spend the rest of the year on your tennis game.”
I can’t reveal any details about the book because I hate talking about my novels while I’m still writing them. And I know I’ll be revising this book for the next few months, so it’s not really finished. But completing the first draft is a big milestone for me. At least I know now how the book will end. I had a vague idea of the ending while I was writing the manuscript, but I wasn’t sure how it would all come together until I started the final chapter. Before that moment I worried I would hit some unforeseen obstacle -- a logical inconsistency, or maybe a hopelessly implausible plot twist -- and the whole enterprise would fall apart.
But it didn’t. At this point I have no idea whether the book is any good, but at least it hangs together. Now I have to wait to hear from my editor. He already read the beginning of the book, and he liked it, but I don’t know how he’ll feel about the end. I’m not even sure how I feel about it. I’m too close to the thing. But I’m cautiously optimistic. The reason for my optimism: bullet ants. The ending has a scene featuring bullet ants. You see, I just broke my rule about never revealing details of a novel-in-progress, but I couldn’t help it. Bullet ants are fascinating creatures.
Although I still have lots of work to do on the book, I decided to reward myself for finishing the first draft. So I spent three days biking and playing tennis. (I have to work off the five pounds I gained while writing the novel.) The best reward, though, was simply writing THE END at the bottom of the last page of the manuscript. I have no idea how many times I’ll be able to write those words in my life, so I intend to enjoy the experience as much as possible every time it happens.
Posted on Saturday, April 20, 2013
I feel reluctant to give advice on this subject, since I’m still figuring out how to do it myself. But I’d like to share what I’ve learned so far.
Last year I read a story in the Times about organizations that sponsor entertaining lectures at various nightspots and performance spaces across New York City. Because several of the lecture series focused on scientific topics, and I write science thrillers, I decided to contact the organizations. I thought this might be a good opportunity to find some new readers.
One of the organizations was called the Secret Science Club. It took some persistence to get in touch with the woman who ran the lecture series. And when I finally did reach her, she said her group preferred lectures by actual scientists rather than science journalists or writers of science thrillers. So that was a dead end.
I had more luck with an organization called Nerd Nite. I’d never heard of this group before, but as it turns out, they sponsor lectures in dozens of cities around the world. Who knew! After exchanging a few e-mails with the man who arranges the New York City lectures, I got on the schedule. I’m going to give a talk about the merger of man and machine -- which is the subject of my latest thriller, Extinction -- at the group’s event in Brooklyn on the evening of April 19th. (If you want to come, go to nyc.nerdnite.com for information on buying tickets.)
The great thing about participating in this kind of series is that someone else does all the marketing (advertising the event, selling the tickets, etc.) Better still, it gives me the chance to connect with an audience that’s predisposed to enjoying the kind of novels I write. One of the other presenters for the April 19th event is an expert on the costumes worn by the characters on Star Trek. And I thought I was nerdy! I’m ashamed to admit that I know nothing about this topic except that the characters who wear the red shirts are the ones most likely to die while exploring strange new worlds. (Here’s the data from Wikipedia: Of the 59 Enterprise crew members killed in the original Star Trek episodes, 73 percent wore red shirts.) But I do know that anyone who’s that interested in Star Fleet uniforms is also likely to be intrigued by Extinction, a novel that features swarms of cyborg insects and other science-fiction terrors.
So I’m looking forward to the event. And I’m sure there are plenty of other promotional opportunities that I could take advantage of. Hordes of potential readers are out there, like strange new worlds waiting to be discovered. But it takes work to find them.
Posted on Saturday, April 6, 2013
By the time you read this, I’ll be in South Africa. The Alpert family is going on safari. Our main destination is the Okavango Delta in Botswana, but we’ll also visit Victoria Falls in Zambia. And we’ll make a stop at Soweto so we can give the kids a little history lesson about Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement.
As a side benefit, I’m sure I’ll find some thriller material. I’m already terrified of the killer hippos that supposedly inhabit the Okavango wetlands. They can move surprisingly fast through the swamp and have been known to chase boats that come too close. Sounds like a fun scene, right?
I’ve gotten some good stuff from previous international trips. In 2008 I toured the Central Asian country of Turkmenistan, which I described in my second book, The Omega Theory. A year later I went to China for two weeks, visiting the places that would become settings for Extinction, my latest thriller. And last year I went on a river cruise in the Peruvian Amazon, an experience I’m reliving now as I race to complete my fourth novel, which will come out in 2014. I’m only a couple of chapters from the end. I’m hoping to finish the book on the 15-hour flight to Johannesburg.
Because there’s often a long lag between when I take the trip and when I write about it, I’ve developed some techniques for helping me remember the places I visit. I take lots of photos, of course. More important, I give myself instructions: LOOK. LISTEN. Pay attention to EVERYTHING. I’ve discovered that simply telling myself to pay attention really helps me remember things later on.
This technique, by the way, is also helpful in lots of everyday situations, like when I’m trying to remember what my wife told me to buy at the supermarket. It’s good all-purpose advice: life is short, so pay close attention.
Posted on Saturday, March 23, 2013
This is an exercise I invented the other day when I should’ve been working on my novel. I tried to come up with a list of surefire hooks, subjects that have an irresistible appeal to a vast number of readers. A novel that incorporates one or more of these hooks, I thought, is sure to attract some interest, even if it’s a terrible book. I used gut instinct alone to compose the list. Some subjects just seem to be universally popular.
The first hook on my list is Albert Einstein. I thought of this one because my first novel, Final Theory, was about Einstein, and I think that’s one of the reasons why the book sold fairly well. Who doesn’t like Einstein? Well, the Nazis didn’t like him, and neither did J. Edgar Hoover, but other than that, the guy has pretty widespread appeal.
The second hook is Marilyn Monroe. I’m surprised more books haven’t been written about her. Yes, her appeal was mainly visual, but her story was also pretty interesting. And she was a good actress too, at least in some of her movies. I thought about adding Elizabeth Taylor to the list -- she was an even better actress -- but I’m not sure her appeal is as deep and wide. Would just about anyone want to read about her?
Two U.S. presidents made my list: JFK and Lincoln. Everyone loves those two. Look at the popularity of the recent Stephen King book (11/22/63) and the Steven Spielberg movie. President Washington seems harder to warm up to. The audiences for FDR and Teddy are a little narrower too, I think.
Even in this secular age, the Bible is still a damn good hook. If you can work Jesus into your fiction, God bless you.
War can also be a good hook, but it really depends on which conflict you choose. The Civil War has the most appeal, I think, followed by World War II. I love books about the Vietnam War, especially Tim O’Brien’s novels and short stories, but I think they have more of a niche readership.
Babe Ruth also made my list. My favorite part of Dennis Lehane’s novel, The Given Day, was his fictionalized Bambino. And at the last minute I added Elvis to the list. I know at least three novels with the title Heartbreak Hotel.
It was a fun exercise, but then I ran out of steam. (And I had to get back to writing my novel.) Please feel free to add to the list or tear it up, as you see fit.
Posted on Saturday, March 9, 2013