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:

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:

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 with more advice about riding the roller coaster that is 21st century publishing.


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