Monday, June 10, 2013

What I Learned About Writing By Writing, Part 7

The last several years have shown that no matter how long you've been at it, no matter how many books you've published, no matter how much praise (or not) you've received for your work, making a living as a writer is always a struggle. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not in the upper echelon of successful authors who always land on the New York Times Best-seller list. However, I've managed to stay in business by capitalizing on my strengths, moving forward, and watching for those wonderful doors that appear every now and then. I still believe in walking through those portals--or at least knocking on them--to see what's on the other side.

In 2006, I signed up with Agent #6, Peter Miller--actually he calls himself a "literary manager"--and I've been with him ever since. Of all my agents, I've been with him the longest. My career has been a series of original novels that readers and critics seemed to like, but the public never catapulted to big sales. No "Big Six" publisher has ever published one of my original thrillers, believe it or not, so I've gone with smaller presses. One of those is now out of business. My tie-in work, however, is always published by a Big Six publisher, and that's the area where I've made most of my income. Besides tie-in work, Peter has found ghost-writing jobs for me that has kept me in curry. For a while I had an Italian publisher that promoted the heck out of me in that country--where I became slightly popular--and I made several trips there for book tours and such--but then that publisher recently went out of business, too. I had a couple of near-calls in Hollywood earlier in the last decade, when two of my original thrillers were optioned, but nothing ever happened. 

Recently, though, the Black Stiletto series--my new endeavor on which I've spent six years--is making the rounds in Hollywood and is in development as a television's in the "fingers-crossed" stage at this point.

The words "platform" and "brand" bubbled to the forefront at writers' conferences in the past several years. Authors had to think about their work and career in terms of branding themselves and establishing an identifiable platform through which they could market their books. Fashioning a platform that works is more difficult than it sounds. For example, in '08 and '09, I wrote a couple books that I called "rock 'n' roll thrillers," featuring a detective who operated in the music industry. A Hard Day's Death and Dark Side of the Morgue were humorous, tongue-in-cheek thrillers with lots of in-joke references to rock music. They were fun and readers liked them--one was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best Paperback Original P.I. Novel--but unfortunately they were published by the small publisher that went out of business. So they didn't sell. Bummer. So that "platform" didn't work (but, hey, folks, the titles are still available as e-books and are also collected with a rare short story in an anthology called The Rock 'n' Roll Detective's Greatest Hits!). So I went back to the drawing board and tried something new... the Black Stiletto... and maybe that's going to stick. The jury's still out.

What has really turned things around is the e-book revolution. Back at the beginning of the Millennium, you'll recall, I took a chance and went with a new publisher that was experimenting with e-books and print-on-demand. Ten-eleven years ago it didn't work. Today, that's where the future of publishing lies. All of my backlist titles are available for Amazon Kindle--including my James Bond novels--and I've sold more e-books than I ever did with print. When Amazon put the first Black Stiletto book on the "Deal of the Day," it shot to the top-ten Kindle best-seller list for several days.

Social media has become the main promotional tool for authors. Facebook is a god-send. Authors these days must not only know how to write a good book, but they need to be able to market themselves. Publishers don't do it for you. I spend nearly as much time on promotion and marketing as I do writing. Now there are too many social media sites, and authors must pick and choose which ones work best for them.

I've explored several other doors that have popped up in front of me. I got a chance to teach film history and other film-related courses at a junior college, so I grabbed it and enjoy doing that one day a week--mostly because it's fun and it's a topic I love. I've teamed up with Daily Herald (Chicago) film critic Dann Gire and formed "Dann & Raymond's Movie Club" seven years ago; we perform live shows every month at area libraries for growing audiences--we've become quite popular. I dip my toe into theatre again every now and then--I'll be directing something this fall in Chicago. I continue my music--I've given three solo piano concerts in the past year, and I play here and there and at my synagogue with a klezmer band.

And I keep writing. At this time, I'm nearly finished penning the fifth and final Black Stiletto novel. After that's done, we'll see...there could be another original thriller, or maybe some tie-in work or work-for-hire, or who knows what else on the horizon.

WHAT I LEARNED:  The e-book revolution has turned out to be a good thing. Authors need to know how it works and how to market their books in this new and exciting medium. That said, I've learned that if you want Hollywood to take you seriously, you also need to be published in print (although I know of a few exceptions!). I've also learned that Hollywood is very fickle and indecisive and cheap. Gone are the days of receiving a lot of money for an option unless you're a big name or the book is a best-seller that every studio wants.

I still rely on my Theatre degree--more and more I realize it wasn't a waste! I still use what I learned back in college in everything I do.

I taught myself how to write a novel by writing a novel, and then writing another one, and then another one. It's important to know that every writer has his/her own method of doing it and that there's no right or wrong way to write. A lot of the so-called "rules" can be broken. One story I like came from my friend Lee Child, who questioned the notion that some critics/editors/readers criticize a manuscript by saying, "You must show, not tell," which Lee says is B.S. "We're storytellers, not storyshowers," he says. Folks, authors TELL a story, not SHOW it! That's one of those silly rules you always hear that frankly makes no sense.

I've learned to live with disappointments and try my best to keep looking for doors to open. I'm confident that if "the writing thing doesn't work out" that another one of those doors will open unexpectedly--it's always happened in the past and will again. The main thing is to stay positive, don't compare yourself to other authors, take criticism with a grain of salt, and keep looking for and opening doors to go through.

You never know what's on the other side.


  1. Raymond, you are truly an inspiration.
    I know that the e-book revolution is just starting and everyone will be reading and talking about your novels, if they aren't already!
    Cheers, to you!

  2. Congrats on your success! Interesting take on the "show don't tell." This goes with the "write what you know" rule, I think ;-)

  3. Thank you Marie and Susie! I appreciate you taking a look! :)

  4. The Books of Benson will stand the test of time!

  5. You're one of the good guys, William. :)