books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fighting Those “This-Manuscript-Sucks” Demons: Advice from Two Bestselling Novelists: Ruth Harris and Michael Brandman.

Today Ruth brings us a great pep talk from screenwriter and mystery novelist Michael Brandman, who this year was asked to take over the Jesse Stone novels of the legendary mystery writer, the late Robert B. Parker.

How would you feel if you were suddenly asked to be the “continuator” of a book series written by your idol? Turns out we face the same fears no matter where we are on our writing journeys--and even award-winning screenwriters suffer moments of doubt

As Ruth tells us, the publishing business is full of more zigs and zags than any of us imagine. Certainly my own career has been zigzagging so fast recently I’m getting whiplash.

A year ago, I was almost ready to give up. I had two out-of-print books and five years’ worth of rejections on all my new novels. I’d had dozens of close-but-no-cigar reads from agents, but no offers. I seemed to be moving farther and farther from my dream of becoming a successful novelist. I had a little blog with less than a hundred followers and a fast-fading dream.

But this week, the revised edition of my comic thriller FOOD OF LOVE debuted in ebook, with paper to follow, and my romantic comedy THE BEST REVENGE will follow soon after.

And next week I’ll be announcing some more seriously awesome news about my own career. Blind-sided is the perfect word for it.

So here’s some great advice from a couple of pros:

BLIND-SIDED BY OPPORTUNITY: WHEN YOU NEVER SEE IT COMING
by Ruth Harris

The writer is all-too-often the last to know. Sometimes that applies to the ending of a novel which comes as a complete surprise—especially to the author. Other times, it’s the astonishing zigs and zags an entire career can take.

I’m known for my bestselling women’s fiction. My DH, Michael is known for his bestselling non-fiction. So, of course, we decided to do the next logical thing and write a thriller—a form both of us love whether in book or movie form, but neither of us had ever written before.

We wanted the challenge of trying something new and thought since we are both pros, we would know pretty soon if our thriller was working or not. Michael is an excellent editor with special strengths in organizing and outlining. I shine when it comes to manuscript editing, revising and rewriting. Depending on who felt more strongly about which scene, we both wrote first draft and the further we got into our thriller, the more convinced we became that we were on the right track.

We had surprised ourselves and become thriller writers.

And now HOOKED, a medical-political thriller, is on TWO Kindle best seller lists.

For my friend, Michael Brandman, a television writer and producer, the surprise he never saw coming was the chance to sub for his long-time friend and colleague, and mystery writing superstar, Robert B. Parker. Here’s Michael’s story:

REFLECTIONS OF A CONTINUATOR
by Michael Brandman

 Robert B. Parker died suddenly in January, 2010.

Bob was an Edgar winner, a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master, a prolific practitioner in the genre which he helped define. He was enormously skilled, a minimalist, whose simplicity of style and economy of language appeared effortless. 

I was a huge fan, gulping down his every offering, anxiously awaiting the next. Years ago, when I was offered the opportunity to meet him, I grabbed it. Thus began a decades long friendship and professional collaboration. 

We made twelve films together. We worked on two westerns, the first of which, “Louis L’Amour’s Crossfire Trail,” we revised, unbilled. The second, the re-make of Jack Schaefer’s “Monte Walsh,” we wrote together and were afforded credit.

We filmed adaptations of three of his Spenser novels. Bob wrote ‘em. I produced ‘em.

He lived to see seven of the Jesse Stone series of movies which Tom Selleck and I continue to write and produce for CBS. 

Bob and I talked constantly and over time, he shared many of his writerly stories and secrets with me. I listened avidly and learned a great deal. His work ethic was astonishing and he left behind a prodigious body of work to show for it. 

Late in April, 2010, I was hanging around, minding my own business, when I received a call from Helen Brann, Bob’s long time literary agent. She explained to me that the Parker estate was interested in continuing the Jesse Stone franchise of novels and they, along with Putnam’s, Bob’s publisher, were wondering if I might be interested in writing them. In becoming a “continuator.”

What????  Excuse me????  Continuing the franchise????  Writing Robert B. Parker novels????   Has someone out there lost his or her mind????

Of course I immediately agreed. I mean, what the hell. Why not?  The worst I could do would be to fall  on my face.

I told them I would do it on spec. I’d submit pages as I went along and they would read them and either encourage me or fire me. Fair enough, they said.

So I started. At first it became clear that I was no where near Bob’s voice.  Despite the fact that I had read everything he had ever written and had even briefly been his writing partner.

I wrote five chapters and threw five chapters away. A number of times.  They all stank.  So I decided to do an exercise in dialogue writing.  Having written and/or supervised the writing of all seven of the Jesse Stone movies, I figured that gave me a leg up on understanding each of the characters and how they spoke.

It started to work. I wrote numbers of conversations and began to get the feel of writing them as prose as opposed to script dialogue. 

Using the movies as a guide, I reasoned that at the start of the novel, Jesse should have nothing on his plate. He’s a small town police chief and he’s been reduced to writing parking tickets.  From that standing start, I filled his plate. Suddenly a spate of crime broke out. A killing. The infiltration of mob activity. His personal life also became enlivened. He met someone to whom he was attracted. He moved from his condo to a house, redolent of the house in which he lives in the movies. He adopted a cat.

As I trucked on, Bob’s voice became clear in my mind. Maybe because he was sitting on my shoulder, with a sharp stick in his hand. I found I was able to replicate his rhythms. Every sentence I wrote, I re-wrote several times...ridding it of gobbledygook, excessive verbiage, irrelevancies. It was an exercise in economy.  For the most part, it passed muster.

Bob’s long time editor, Christine C. Pepe, was assigned the book and both she and Ivan Held, the publisher, read the work in progress. As did Helen Brann. Although Chris would later come to dog me with much more detailed comments and notes, at the earliest stages, she was encouraging and immeasurably helpful.  

When I reached the mid-way point, approximately a hundred and fifty pages, Putnam’s gave me their official blessing. I blithely finished my first draft, submitted it and thought, hey, I’m a novelist.

For the next four months I worked avidly with Chris Pepe, making comprehensive revisions. Each time I thought I was done, there came another set of notes. And when Chris was done and I was once again in self-congratulatory mode, I encountered the copy editor.

By the end, however, each revision made the book better. Chris’s unerring ear for Bob’s rhythms and style brought me closer to what I had originally hoped to achieve.

I still shudder when I read it. My biggest fear is that I’ll bring the entire franchise crashing down around me.  Although Joan Parker, Bob’s widow, continues to encourage me by suggesting that somewhere Bob is smiling, I interpret that to mean that he’s somewhere snarling, questioning the logic of why the escutcheon was handed over to a blithering idiot.

Yet, somehow, Putnam’s agreed to publish it. And although I learned from my years as a filmmaker never to read reviews, I did sneak a peek at some of the early notices and in the immortal words of Sally Field, “They like it. They really like it.”

Putnam’s has rewarded me with a two book contract and I’ve already completed the draft of my second Jesse Stone novel, FOOL ME TWICE, which will be published in 2012. 

It’s been a great adventure. It taught me that after years of finding ways of convincing myself not to write fiction, I should have “taken the bull between my teeth,” as Sam Goldwyn was fond of saying, and done it a whole lot sooner.

For those of you out there sitting on your hands and convincing yourself not to write that novel you’ve always dreamed of writing, quit it. Do it. Full speed ahead. You have nothing to lose. And everything to gain.

And as Bob Parker was fond of saying, “Please buy my book.”
 *******
Michael Brandman is the television and film producer who, along with Tom Selleck, wrote and produced Robert B. Parker's Jesse Stone movies for CBS. Production was recently completed on an eighth Jesse Stone CBS movie, "Benefit of the Doubt.". After Mr. Parker's death, Michael who had a long association with the author, wrote a new Jesse Stone novel, KILLING THE BLUES, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons in September, 2011.
*******

Michael is right: Full speed ahead. You all know the famous story of Stephen King’s wife rescuing his manuscript of CARRIE from the trash, the novel that started his spectacular career. SK got discouraged and dumped it. His wife—as wives often do—knew better.

Do you ever think of giving up? Don’t. Ass to chair. Nose to grindstone (aka computer screen). Keep slogging away. Deal with your demons—the insecurity demons, the I-can’t-do-this demons, the lousy-review demons, the this-manuscript-sucks demons—because, if you’re a writer, you just never know what’s going to happen next. After all, what have you got to lose—except the completely unanticipated surprise that can turn your life and career round?


Have you ever had a moment when you were about to give up the writing dream, only to have some unexpected opportunity come at you from nowhere and get you back on track? We’d love to hear your stories.

Ruth has some very nice cyberink at Kindle Nation Daily this week along with an excerpt from her newly re-released novel DECADES, first of her 20th Century Trilogy.

Today Anne is blogging over at Mark Williams International http://markwilliamsinternational.com/ with more advice about riding the roller coaster that is 21st century publishing.

            

27 comments:

  1. I love the Jesse Stone series and am happy to hear it will live on...I was also a huge fan of Robert's. A lot of great information here...Thanks so much.

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  2. I could never continue another author's work. That's just too much pressure.
    My first book was a surprise, but not nearly as much as my second one!

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  3. I can't express how excited I am that the Jesse Stone movies will continue! I just watched several the other day on the television for the third or fourth time, wondering whether I'd ever be able to see a new one come out. Now I know! And what great advice for all of us - never quit. Believe in yourself and your dreams.
    Patti

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  4. Lee--Isn't Jesse terrific? He's sort of like someone I know or could know. RBP was a writer's writer—and no one knows it better than MichaelB. Great news that MichaelB's book is already on WSJ & PW bestseller lists!

    Alex—I know where you're coming from. Very scary stuff indeed & Michael's a brave (and very talented) guy. We're lucky to have him to carry on.

    Patti—I love those movies, too! CBS always does great ratings with them. They're lucky to have MichaelB, TomS & of course RBP in charge.

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  5. Thanks so much for a great interview, Ruth, Anne and Michael.

    Jesse Stone is one of my favorite characters. I'm glad he will "live on".

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  6. I am Florence, and once more google is diddling with wordpress subs and making it impossible to leave comments. I sign this as anon.

    I might find myself over-writing here, not knowing where to comment first. Okay, first. Thanks to Anne and wonderful news from both Anne and Ruth.

    Okay, I loved everything about Robert Parker, the Spencer series, and the Jessie Stone series. Loved more that I feel Tom Sellick is Jessie.

    Mystery is my first love and since I got a great gift cert. for my B-day, I know exactly where to spend it.

    Michael, your story inspires. Who doesn't sit up in the middle of the night and ask, "What the hell do I think I'm doing?"

    Onwards to greater success for all three of you, and I look forward to continuing my love of Jessie as Michael continues his legacy :)

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  7. Okay, I haven't had an 'unexpected opportunity come at me from nowhere,' but I sure have had some really positive experiences when I really needed them!

    My response to this post? YAY!

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  8. Agh, I'd go crazy if I had to suddenly write like someone else and live up to their standards - particularly if that someone was nothing like me (or a much better writer, that would slay me entirely)

    However, as I don't have any books published yet, I shall sit here in the corner and listen to the professionals rather than trying to make a point and sounding like a blithering idiot :P

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  9. I quit writing about 12 years ago and regretted it. That's what keeps me on track now.

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  10. "Have you ever had a moment when you were about to give up the writing dream, only to have some unexpected opportunity come at you from nowhere and get you back on track? We’d love to hear your stories."

    Yes. When I first started writing, I actually did graphic novels (well...the scripts anyways since I lacked an artist). I also did short stories and although I tried to do novels, I never seemed to get past half of the first chapter.

    Anyways, there was this one comic book series that I had put a lot of my soul into. I gave it to my brother for feedback and he gave me an honest critique. I was crushed. Looking back at it, it wasn't a harsh critique. He simply gave some improvement ideas that were right. But that's not how it felt back then, especially from a 21 year old's perspective and I soon gave up.

    I tried getting back into it but it didn't feel right. So for about six to seven and a half months, I didn't really write at all (except for magazine articles for my college). Then I decided I really wanted to give it another shot. Not as a comic book writer but as a prose writer. I bought a book called "The Writer's Portable Therapist" by Dr. Rachel Ballon. This was one of the best decisions I ever made and the book helped me take a different perspective on it all.

    Soon I found myself writing again with ease. And to my surprise, I found myself writing a novel with no bad start ups or writer's blocks. It felt like the first time I stopped falling on my ass and actually rode a bicycle.

    So in some ways, those six months of giving up helped buy me some time to take another look at it all, read a lot more books, and stir up my creativity. But that's just my case with it.

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  11. Great post, Ruth. I love inspirational stories like this.

    Great advice, and in the new digital world the insecurity demons have an uphill battle aganst any writer with a modicum of skill and a lot of determination.

    And just love the new covers!

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  12. I can't begin to imagine the pressure of continuing another author's work. Wow, just wow.

    Great stories, Anne. This is why I love your blog.

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  13. AnneG--Yes, indeed, JesseS will live on. Watch for him on CBS TV--MichaelB is working on another Jesse movie right now!

    Anon/Flo--Glad you figured out how to defeat the cyber-gremlns. Agree that TomS IS Jesse & anyone who doesn't wonder "What the hell do I think I'm doing?" needs an arrogance-check. Or maybe a delusion-check. lol

    JB--Let's hear it for positive experiences! They can—and do—keep us going, especially when the going gets rough.

    Spook--MichaelB talks openly about his anxieties and how, step by step, he confronted them & managed to overcome them. The result: he's got a best seller! So just remember what you heard while sitting in your corner—one day your chance might come, too, & you'll know just which blog to re-read.

    Lynda—thanks for a brief but compelling comment about regret & staying on track. Important for all writers to remember.

    Andrew--Creativity is a cranky and unpredictable critter with its own schedule. As you say so intelligently, your six months of "giving up" allowed you to go forward. I have found that very often "doing nothing" (which always puts me in a highly fretful state) allows me to find the solution to whatever problem has been thwarting me.
    Thanks for the book rec—your story is the best possible review!

    Mark--Definitely, those insecurity demons need to be cut down to size. As you say, determination is one of the keys. No one in whatever field got anywhere without a very large application of determination.

    Thanks for the nice words about the new covers—we (my designer is Stewart Williams—he's at www.stewartwilliamsdesign.com) work hard on them. Sometimes they come easily; other times, not so much. Just like a book.

    Jennifer--Talk about terror! There are two choices: flee or fight. MichaelB chose to fight & I think everyone here would make the same choice. Just because something seems really, really hard doesn't mean it's impossible.

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  14. Thanks so much Michael and Ruth, for all these words of wisdom-- and thanks to everybody who's commented.

    Andrew, I really appreciate you taking the time to share your story. I think we all go through those times. And as Ruth says, it's part of the process. You have to send your muse on a little vacation to recharge her batteries.

    This post is getting fewer comments than usual, but lots of hits and new subscribers, so my feeling is that a lot of readers may be new at this and not quite up to go jumping through the commenting hoops yet.

    So to the lurkers out there--we love you, too!

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  15. Anne, I noticed the paucity of comments on Sunday & think there was a cyber-glitch --Florence/Anon says as much in her comment: Anonymous said...

    I am Florence, and once more google is diddling with wordpress subs and making it impossible to leave comments. I sign this as anon.

    If not, then we can just blame Canada (as they do in the South Park movie) lol

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  16. I just heard from a reader that the RSS feed is two posts behind, so who knows what else the Blogger elves are up to? Let's hope it gets fixed soon. But I do know lots of people really appreciate Michael's heartfelt advice here. It's inspiring to know all writers feel the same doubts, no matter where we are on our writing journey.

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  17. Also heard from another WordPress blogger that Blogger is blocking WordPress users unless you sign out and sign back in again. Or sign in as anonymous. I really, really want to believe this isn't Google being competitive and evil, but if it isn't fixed soon I'm going to stop recommending that anybody use Blogger.

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  18. I almost stopped writing at the beginning of the year, but then one discussion with a writing friend (who didn't know what I was thinking) and ended up with a ton of ideas and a renewed passion for writing.

    Now I have two drafts done.

    :-)

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  19. Congratulations, Misha. So glad your friend helped you jumpstart the writing again.

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  20. Anne – I can’t wait to hear your big news! And I think writing in the voice of another writer is extremely difficult. Ghostwriting is intimidating enough, but continuing a series by my hero would be enough to give me high blood pressure. Kudos to Michael, who sounds like he’s done an amazing job.

    As for giving up writing, there are moments when I read a chapter I’ve written that isn’t working the way I want it to and wonder if I should scrap my manuscript and start over. Then I read a chapter that IS working and get excited about the project again. It’s a delicate balance.

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  21. I understand thinking that I'd never be able to fill another writer's shoes. I can only imagine the challenge it was to 'get it right'. Michael's experience shows what dedication and discipline can achieve.

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  22. Meghan--IME lots of times the process boils down to "hold your nose & type."
    You can fix it later—revising, rewriting, polishing all make a huge difference.

    J.L.--Completely agree but I'd add a third "D"—Determination. Michael respected RBP so much that he was determined not to let him down...

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  23. What a great topic - and very timely for me.

    As my publishing date nears (October 4), I'm having trouble sleeping at night as the demons in my head ('this is utter crap') war with the memories of comments from my beta readers ('I couldn't put it down').

    Regardless of whether you have a publishing team behind you or you're doing it yourself and hoping you've hired the right editors (like me), putting that first baby out there for public consumption is quite daunting. I guess it's reassuring to hear that even the pros have their moments of self-doubt.

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  24. Roh--We all understand but try not to drive yourself crazy. The great thing about epub is that if you (or your readers god forbid) decide your book really stinks, you can unpub it, fix the problems & reupload.

    Sort of like wash, rinse, repeat--something that was never before available to writers. What got printed, stayed printed. No more & isn't that great?

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  25. Thanks to everybody who's commented this week. And to everybody who hasn't been able to--many apologies. Blogger finally seems to have fixed its glitch, but I know a lot of people were disappointed when your comments didn't go through.

    And a very, very special thanks to Michael for sharing this heartfelt story--and showing us that all writers feel self-doubt-no matter what stage we've reached in our careers.

    And many thanks to Ruth for bringing Michael to us!

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  26. My favorite movies keep up the good work big fan of Tom Selleck no one could play this part better 5 stars to both the writing and the movies and to Tom

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  27. I read Killing the blues. The only thing different was I didn't finish it in two days like I did with Mr Parker's

    The words seemed to flow with ease as it does with the other Jesse Stone novels.

    Hoping to read the next two installments of the Jesse Stone books and Can't wait to see the movies as well

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