The best-selling author of the Alex Cross novels, whose new book First Love, co-written with Emily Raymond, is out now, talks about how much of his life is spent writing outlines, and what an aspiring writer can do differently to prepare for a career in popular fiction as opposed to literary fiction.
Describe your morning routine.
I pretty much write seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. I’ll get up around 5:30, put my house in order, write a little bit, maybe an outline for that day. Then I’ll go out around 7, frequently walk a golf course for an hour by myself. Then I’ll come back and write until, oh, 11 or 12. It’s a combination of any business I have to do, whatever novel I’m working on, outlines … I was just compiling the number of outlines I do and found that I write about 900 pages of outlines a year. Most outlines are three or four drafts, so it’s a lot! Then one full novel a year, and whatever polishing … If you came to my office, Noah … Sorry, maybe we’ll only get through one question here…
No problem. If you’re on a roll, keep on rolling.
So what you’d see at the office are shelves all around the room. There are currently 50-60 manuscript piles, and those are all live projects. So it’s a lot of writing.
How do you coordinate so many projects? I know that some you write alone, some you write with others. How does the process work and how does it differ if you are writing solo or with a colleague?
It’s not terribly different, in the sense that I only work with people who understand that, ultimately, the end product has to be a book that I’m delighted to put my name on. Which means fast-paced, good writing. I always go for highest common denominator. I mean, I write popular fiction, but I only want to write good popular fiction. The books I do myself involve several drafts. The first thing I’ve got to do is get the story right. If you polish too early, there are chapters that you love that really shouldn’t be in the book, or paragraphs that you love that shouldn’t be in the chapter, or sentences that you love that really shouldn’t be in the paragraph. I always find it best to get the story down first, and then you can polish forever if you want to. I tend not to do that, but you could.
With the co-writing, I’ll write a long outline, anywhere from 60-80 pages, and pretty much every chapter is dealt with, at least 80 percent of the chapters. I then ask the cowriter to contribute to the outline. For two reasons: two heads are better than one, but I also want them to feel that they’re part of the process, that they’ve contributed throughout, even early on with the outline. I then ask that I see pages every few weeks. Unlike with the publisher, a year later or 18 months later you turn in the manuscript, and they might say, “Well, that isn’t quite what I expected!” It isn’t like that. I think it’s better, every couple of weeks, to get some pages and talk. Sometimes it’s just “This is terrific, I love the way it’s going,” and sometimes it’s “We’ve come off the tracks somehow.” If I don’t like the characters or if I’m finding it predictable—if I know where it’s going, then I won’t want to read anymore. Ultimately, when I get the full draft from the cowriter, I’ll then polish and/or write several more drafts myself, depending.
How do you pick a co-writer? I bet that’s a sought-after gig. Anything you look for in an up-and-coming writer that would suggest a potential collaborator?
In a lot of cases it’s people that I’ve known and just feel I can work with. I like writers who can write scenes, and who are willing to listen to reason, then I can work with them. I have a lot more trouble writing with Hollywood screenwriters, who always feel that they know a better way to do it than I do. Somebody gives them War and Peace to adapt, and then two weeks later they give them their “take” on it.
I never get writer’s block.
The executives like the War part, but think they could lose the Peace…
It’s part of a strange environment out there [in Hollywood] and one I’m not quite as comfortable in. For the co-writers they’re people I’ve known and perhaps worked with in the past. I just feel that we’re simpatico. It’s generally a nice process. Nobody has quit. Some have gone off to do their own novels, but most people enjoy it and think it’s a good gig. You don’t have the difficulties that some people have with editors. I don’t ask people to go back again and again and again. It’s a fairly satisfying and comfortable process.
What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?
I write in pencil, for one thing. I don’t use a computer. That’s the craziest thing. I’m sitting here looking at three or four things on my desk, all written in pencil, and I have an assistant who will type up pages, or I’ll dictate over the phone. I drink a fair amount of orange soda. I find myself chewing bubble gum at least once a day. I was chewing just before we began to speak, in fact! I never get writer’s block, because I always have a good dozen projects that I’m working on, so if something isn’t working I’ll just switch gears.
Tell me about the invention of Alex Cross. Did you envision him as a series character, and if so, how much of his story did you pre-design before writing the first book?
When I started to write Alex it was Alexis, a woman. I wrote about 60 pages but I didn’t like what was happening, and I changed the character to a male. In that period in particular, there was a lot coming out of Hollywood with African-Americans walking around with boom boxes on their shoulders and not a lot of sense of responsibility. So I wanted to create an African-American character who solved problems with his intelligence, who was the anti-caricature. He’s raising kids by himself, he takes care of his grandmother, he solves problems with his head rather than his fists. So that moved me to develop his character.
How has the way books are marketed changed since your early success with a television advertisement for Along Came a Spider?
The first book…I told the publisher that I’d like to do a television commercial, and they said, “Absolutely not, we don’t do TV commercials.” So then I went and created a very inexpensive commercial myself—it only cost about $2,000 to produce. I showed it to them and they said, “Oh, we like that.” So we did run the commercial and the book jumped on the best-seller list. We only ran it in three cities initially, New York, Chicago, and D.C. In those days, you know, it was really all bookstores. You didn’t have to sell that many books to get on the list. A reasonable amount. Now, at least initially, ebook sales can be 40-60 percent, it’s not as easy to reach an audience. It’s something that I’ve not yet completely figured out, in terms of what’s an effective way to reach people buying in stores and buying online.
What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
I think we’re always looking for things that surprise and shock us. Surprise is the key. You thought someone was going to say something and they say something completely different. I laugh a lot on the inside—I don’t guffaw as much as some. But I do find most things in life kind of amusing.
Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.
This interview belies it a little bit, but for the most part it’s hard to get a straight answer from me.
If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?
It would have to be a woman who I lived with, who died way too young. Her name was Jane and she died in her late 30s. Just delightful, still the nicest person I’ve ever met. I like to see her get a full ride. That’d be a nice thing.
Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?
When I was 26, I got a phone call and this woman said that she was with the Edgars, the Mystery Writers of America award, and that I had to come to this event at the Commodore Hotel two nights from then, because I’d been nominated to win an Edgar Award for best first mystery. I told her that I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t go that night. She said that I have to come, I’ve been nominated. I said, “I really can’t.” She said, “No you have to come! You won!” I said, “Oh!” I brought my parents. I was nervous, even though she told me I’d won, I wondered if maybe she just said that to get me there. So I still had that nervousness as I sat waiting for the name to be called. When they did call me and I walked up, I remember I said, “I guess I’m a writer now.” For a lot of people, if you haven’t been published, and you tell someone what you’re doing, but you haven’t been published, they’ll go, “Oh … then why do you think you’re a writer?” So I’d been published and won this fairly-prestigious award, so at that point I considered myself truly a writer.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
People that want to write commercial fiction, for them I still think the three rules are story, story, story. You really should be able to tell somebody, in a paragraph, what your idea is and they should say “Ooh, ooh, that sounds really good.” In terms of more literary stuff, that’s just a matter of preparing yourself for disappointment.
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
Just the birth date but no date for the death…