Bestsellers Deconstructed: SIWC 2009

Surrey International Writers' Conference, October 23, 2009

In October 2009, Robert McCammon attended the Surrey International Writers' Conference in Surrey, BC, Canada. Author J.J. DeBenedictis posted a blog summarizing the panel "Bestsellers Deconstructed," which featured Robert McCammon, Michael Slade, and others. Ms. DeBenedictis graciously granted permission for the reproduction of her blog here.

On Oct 23-25, 2009, I attended The Surrey International Writers' Conference, which is one of the best conferences in North America for improving your writing skills and learning about the publishing industry. The conference is extremely well-run, focuses on craft, and includes (for free!) one ten-minute agent/editor pitch and one ten-minute author/editor "Blue Pencil" clinic.

I'm going to summarize the useful information from my workshop notes here on the blog, but I'm going to have to break it up over several weeks' worth of Meaty Mondays, because there's LOTS to cover.

These summaries will be in point form, because my notes aren't much more than that, plus doodles.
This week:

Panel: Bestsellers Deconstructed

All the authors have been New York Times bestsellers.
I use the following abbreviations to denote who is speaking:
DM = Donald Maass, moderator
TB = Terry Brooks
MS = Michael Slade
DG = Diana Gabaldon
AP = Anne Perry
RM = Robert McCammon
RD = Robert Dugoni
RS = Robert J. Sawyer
Funny stories first:

- Terry Brooks came in early, decided he wanted to sit beside someone he hadn't met already and swapped his name-tag on the table. Then, out of pure mischief, he began swapping all the other name-tags around, including promoting Michael Slade to moderator.

- Michael Slade is a loose cannon and hilarious, and he apparently is a talker because both the moderator and other panelists teased him, throughout the workshop, about keeping his remarks short (which he actually did.)

- Michael Slade, Robert Dugoni, and Terry Brooks were/are all lawyers by training. At one point, Terry Brooks joked that of the three of them, the guy who writes about elves is the sanest.

- Anne Perry and Robert J. Sawyer got into a brief, energetic argument about the health care debate in the United States. Amusing, since neither of them is American.

Panel starts:

DM: Talk about your beginnings.

- I knew from 10 years old I wanted to be a writer
- I knew fantasy was a good fit mainly because Sword of Shannara was the first book I actually finished

- all you need to succeed is a great agent

(audience laughs, because DM is AP's agent. DM steps over and pats AP on the shoulder with a very smug expression.)

AP: (continues)
- I knew mystery was a good fit for me because the non-mystery books I had written previously were weak. My first mystery had a stronger plot
- I wanted a soapbox or a pulpit; since a woman couldn't be a minister at that time, I became a writer

- I wrote Jurymaster and was rejected--including by you, DM

- so you keep reminding me

- then I wrote a non-fiction that was published
- this led to Jurymaster finding a home

DM to RD:
- you were a lawyer--did you write what you know?

- I didn't know much, so no. I wrote what I could learn, not what I knew

DM: Did you do it for the money?

- never do it for the money.

- write books you care about
- I became a journalist to make a living at writing, but my boss refused to let me write anything for the paper. It was a dead end job, so I realized I had to do something else, and I wrote a novel

DM: Where do your ideas come from?

- I don't know

- (waves hands vaguely in the air to tease RM)

- They're natural to me. I grew up on ghost stories and the Southern Gothic vibe. Towns down there are built around cemeteries

DM: How do you pick your protagonists?

- my heroes are a compilation of the 1000s of cops I have met
- I represented, and got acquitted, the first prostitute charged with solicitation in Canada (after the law was redefined from vagrancy to solicitation). Word went out among the prostitution community, and I ended up representing 500 hookers in my first year of practise
- I used to ask them to describe their weirdest john
- my story's villain was a compilation of about 250 of the worst stories of sexual predation I heard from these women

- I overheard DM once describe MS's books as novels which first make you read until 3AM and then make you throw up

- (chortles and seems delighted by that description)

RD: (sitting beside MS)
- Can I change seats?

- how did he get paid [by those prostitutes]?

- Ahem. We were talking about protagonists, remember?

- my book is about the world wide web becoming sentient and our fears of technology
- a book must have something of intrinsic interest in it to hook the reader. Even your grandma doesn't really care you wrote a book. People care about what's in the book, not you.
- I chose my protagonist because she's so different from me. I wanted it to be hard for me to write in order to keep it interesting for myself

- choosing Lord John as a new protagonist was an accident
- I tried to write something that was less than 300,000 words--a short story
- I mentioned to my agent and editor I had almost finished, and my short story would be 90,000 words. They exchanged glances, then pointed out that's the size normal books are. Hence, I have a new novel coming out.

- my protagonist is based on a member of my family who died before I was born
- my protagonist is a chaplain in WW1 faced with offering comfort in circumstances where there is no comfort. He finds the only thing he can offer the soldiers is: "I will not leave you."

DM: Outliner or intuitive writer?

- intuitive
- I have signpost scenes, a roadmap of sorts. I know my beginning, middle and end. Otherwise, I just write
- (describes a scene from Mr. Slaughter where an elegantly dressed man in a powdered wig jumps through a 2nd floor window to escape justice)
- that image sums up the savagery and elegance of the age, which is what the book is about

- outliner. My outlines are 50-60 pages; they used to be 100 pages
- A murder starts with a motive. The motive bifurcates into many elements of evidence
- I find the motive, sort out the psychology, then map backward to the story's victims
- every scene guides you toward the killer's motive
- profilers look at evidence, then decide what sort of mind would leave that pattern
- I don't see how anyone can write a mystery without knowing the motive ahead of time

- outliner

- also an outliner, but not the way I used to be
- in the last 10 years, I've started only with the beginning and end of the story laid out ahead of time. Between, I write intuitively

DM: All of you write books with a high-impact effect. How do you know when a story is big enough?

- when I can't stop thinking about it

- in the film industry, they ask you to sum up what your story is about in two sentences
- whatever it is about, YOU have to care passionately about that

- for me, stories form like sugar crystallizing out of a solution. I start, and they grow until they are big and deep enough

- you must have great faith in the process

- (she essentially says she trusts her abilities)

- like TB said, when I can't stop thinking about it, it's a big enough idea
- when I tell the concept to my friends, and they sit up all night talking about the ramifications of it, I know I have a winner
- I check for news stories that relate to it, and ask myself: how much of the zeitgeist of this idea is resonating in the culture right now?

- when my authors get a new idea, they immediately start FINDING all sorts of connections in the culture

- it can't be topical, however, because a book takes three years from idea to bookshelf
- (he makes a comment about the US health care discussion being over in two years)

- Really? Two years?

- it will succeed or fail by that point, yes.

(They argue.)

- (stops the argument) As you can see, these people care deeply. Great passion typifies great writers.

- readers don't care if the writer cares deeply about something. They care if the PROTAGONIST cares deeply about something
- if I write about something that touches on, e.g. the Iraq war, I'm not really writing about the war. I'm writing about the characters whose lives have been touched by the war.

- but why set your book in a hot button zone at all, if you think that's not really what you're writing about?

- my book is about the lawyer who can't lose taking on a case he can't win
- (he explains how American law prevents people injured in conjunction with their military duties from suing the government, then notes how sweeping that is--a woman raped by fellow soldiers can't sue, a man experimented on with drugs without his knowledge can't sue, etc.)

- (I really can't reproduce this adequately. Michael Slade launches into this insane, hilarious and very mercenary explanation for why it's okay his book about the Vancouver Olympics is coming out six weeks before the Olympics actually start. His rationale boils down to: "Vancouverites hate the Olympics and will thus buy my book about a serial killer wreaking havoc upon the Olympics out of shadenfreude.")

- in other words, if you're angry enough [about something], your book [about it] will be gripping

DM: How do you keep testing a character to the limits when you're deep into a series?

- take away the thing your character loves most

- the essence of a character stays the same, but they do change with time. I re-imagine my protagonist regularly, so I can find new ways to test her.

DM to RM:
- do you (an intuitive writer) know what will happen to your protagonist deep into your planned 10+ book series?

- Yes. I can see it.

- see it?

- I can see a few scenes from those books now

Audience question:
- What do you love about writing now? Is it the same as when you started? What keeps you going?

- that I'll get the next novel RIGHT.

- that I'll top myself

- my favourite book is always my WIP or my most recent, because I like to think I'm getting better

- ditto, regarding topping yourself

- (makes a joke about what that means in British slang, i.e. cutting your own throat)

- I've always wanted to be a writer. It was the books I read as a kid that convinced me.

- (to audience as well as panel) aren't we all inspired by the irresistable books we read as children?

- Agatha Christie did it right. She closed off all the threads before she died. I want to do that.
- Also... (tells a story of a woman who told him she had put off suicide to read his latest book. He made a pact with her that if she continued to put it off, he would keep writing (i.e. not retire) for her. She still comes to all his Vancouver signings, so he knows she's keeping up her end of the bargain. He intends to also.)

Audience question:
- What has been your biggest obstacle?

- my first books were bad--

- you actually refused to let your first four books remain in circulation, correct?

- yes. I was lucky to get published, but it had its downside. I had to learn to be a good writer

- self-doubt. My father was an economist and brought me statistics to back up his assertion that writing was an unwise dream to pursue
- I view myself as trying to minimize my death-bed regrets. Even trying and failing would have been better than never trying at all.

- self-doubt coupled with a big ego
- craft is an important part of writing, and I had to learn that

- I had huge debts, and a daughter, and I switched to writing in the middle of this. Everything rested on this one roll of the dice. I sometimes wept with fear and self-doubt because if I failed, I knew I was completely screwed
- to keep myself going, I remembered this: when I was a kid, I created a book in my room and took it to Bill Duthie, who opened the first independent bookstore in Canada.

He took the book and said he would read it. When I came back the next week, he claimed to have lost it. I kept coming back to ask about it, and when I was almost hysterical, he produced the book--bound professionally with my name on the spine.

He said, "I wanted to see if you were serious about writing. You're published now, but this is a print run of one. You have to do better. I want to sell your books on my shelves someday."
- In my moments of self-doubt, I dug that book out and kept telling myself, "I can do this. After all, I've already been published once!"

DM: (To audience)
- These people are not motivated by money. They are motivated by their passion. They infuse their stories with conflict and emotion. And they have all struggled with self-doubt. (pauses, smiles) Sound familiar?

Panel ends

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis
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