Category Archives: Guest Bloggers

Wisdom, Wit and War Stories from An “A-List” NY Times Bestselling Novelist

An Interview with Robert Dugoni, author of “My Sister’s Grave.”

Product Details

If you’ve haven’t heard of My Sister’s Grave, you haven’t been paying attention to the fiction world in a while.  The book was a recent top-1o New York Times Bestseller, currently the #1 legal thriller on Amazon, has (as of this writing) 6,437 reviews on Amazon, and is basically all over the place – bookstore windows and shelves, Amazon mailers, in people’s laps at Starbucks..

This is as big as it gets, from an author who has been there before.  And it isn’t Robert Dugoni’s first visit to the NY Times bestseller list, either, though his enthusiasm and humble joy (as seen on his Facebook page) is as infectious as a first-timer.

I was fortunate to make his acquaintance last year, when a mutual friend suggested I reach out for a blurb for my new novel, “Deadly Faux.”   He read the book – like many at that level, he doesn’t blurb just anything, he has to really love it – and it turned out well for me.  He did love it, and his blurb is a shining endorsement that I treasure.

I invited Bob to do this interview, and he didn’t hesitate.  He’s a class act, in addition to being a wise and accomplished author with lots to share with us.

The Interview

LB: Let’s start with the explosive breakout success of your latest novel, “My Sister’s Grave.” All of your books have been well reviewed and have achieved commercial success… so how do you explain this particular book? What’s different about it, if anything, and was that a strategic decision on your part, or an escalation in craft? Or was it, as much as anything (because you were a stellar novelist before, and it’s hard to take “stellar” to an even higher qualitative level) market timing or some escalation of your publisher’s promotion or distribution effort?

RD: I think it was a combination of things. As a writer, you’re always trying to get better and I do believe I am a better writer than I was when I wrote The Jury Master. I also deliberately moved away from a straight legal thriller to a police procedural, which has a wider audience in the mystery/thriller genre.

Second, the subject matter of My Sister’s Grave seems to have touched an emotional place in many people. I receive at least one email a day from someone who is a relative of a victim of violent crime. The relationship between the two sisters, in particular, is powerful to many people who have read the book.

Third, my publisher, Thomas & Mercer, has done an outstanding job getting this book into as many readers’ hands as possible. Even three months out they continue to find ways to promote the book and get it into new stores. The more people who’ve read it, the more they’ve talked about it. The more they talk about it, the more others read it. This was truly a partnership and for that I am very grateful.

LB: Some cynics say – and I’ve said this myself – that some bestsellers are ordained as much as they earn the tag. Which means, sometimes an author’s earlier work is every bit as good as the book that suddenly makes them a Very Big Deal. Do you agree, or am I (having achieved critical success but nothing close to this) simply a cynic after all?

RD: I agree that there are a lot of talented writers out there writing very good books who aren’t being promoted enough, or correctly, and so are not being read widely.  I say all the time that best seller doesn’t necessarily mean best written.  Sometimes a book just touches people and the word of mouth spreads.  Sometimes the publisher promotes the heck out of a good book and sales become great.  With the success of My Sister’s Grave, a whole new audience has found my earlier novels and readers are really enjoying them. They’re the same books I wrote years ago, but now they’re being more widely read.  A third factor is pricing.  In this day and age, a book price can be the difference between 500 people reading it and 500,000.  I’ve learned that there are many people on fixed incomes who love to read 10 books a week and can’t afford to pay even $7.99 for a paperback, so they’re selective.

LB: Dennis Lehane (an example of the above) attributes the ignition of Mystic River to a killer review in People Magazine, among other venues. What is the role of reviews in the bestseller phenomenon, and did reviews have a role in yours?

RD: I definitely think that reviews in a major publication can do wonders for a book. The Jury Master took off after a killer review in the Seattle Times and then Parade Magazine. But honestly, after 9 novels and a non-fiction book, I’m convinced it is word of mouth. When readers start talking about your book they sell it for you in a way that no advertisement or review could.

LB: Were you surprised by the breakout success of MSG, and when/how did you know it was in full swing?

RD: I honestly believed I’d written a strong novel. I knew the relationship between the sisters would be powerful, but no, I didn’t expect this type of runaway success. I don’t think anyone really can. I was amazed when we hit 1,000 reviews and I’m amazed we’ve hit 6,000. The moment I knew things were really happening was when I realized that 95% of the reviews on all the review sites were 4 and 5 stars. I knew that meant there were a lot of people who were going to turn to family and friends and say, “You should read this book.”

LB: You released a short story (The Academy) two months before the November ’14 release of My Sisters’s Grave, and then a non-fiction biography (The Cyanide Canary, with Joseph Hilldorfer) a month after, as well as a couple of other titles (which I assume were republished titles). Was the timing of these releases a strategy tactic relative to the latter?

RD: I have a terrific agent and she was able to secure the rights back to two novels, Murder One and The Conviction and the non-fiction book, The Cyanide Canary. We were aware of the significant promotional campaign T&M planned for My Sister’s Grave and made the business decision to re-release those books at the same time hoping people who liked My Sister’s Grave would want to read them. The Academy was originally going to be part of a novel, but my agent liked it so much she thought it might be strong as a short story. I didn’t want to charge readers for a short story. Readers have been very loyal to me and my intent was to give away The Academy for free. It was not intended as a gimmick to get people to buy My Sister’s Grave. You don’t have to read it to understand My Sister’s Grave. They are separate and complete stories.

LB: You aren’t new to the NY Times bestseller list… how is the experience this time around compared to the first?

RD: This time was a surprise to everyone. The NY Times has been reluctant, as I understand it, to include Amazon sales. So this meant the book was selling widely. The other anomaly was that the book came out in November but hit the list in February. That meant that it started to really take off, people were talking about it. For an author that was incredibly satisfying and pleasing. We popped the cork on a bottle of champagne at the house to celebrate that first Friday when we got the news and the next two weeks weren’t bad either.

LB: How does a “republishing” event even happen? For me, rights to my first four novels were returned to me (after eight years) by Penguin-Putnam, and my agent landed a deal at Turner Publishing to republish them as trade paperbacks. What was your experience and path toward your new/current publisher?

RD: When we got the rights back to my three books, Thomas & Mercer was terrific about guiding us on how best to get them out to the public. We decided to republish them myself through the Kindle Direct Program. My agent has an agent in her office who is a whiz at this stuff, and she worked quickly to get the books re-packaged and up on the kindle site with strong placement. The sales have been incredibly strong and that has really been special to me to know so many more readers are reading those novels.

LB: You are publishing with Thomas and Mercer, an Amazon company that also releases in traditional bookstores. T&M is widely held as a response to new digital markets, and they’re taking on name authors (like you) who were previously published by so-called “Big 5″ houses. How did you end up there, and what’s the experience like compared to the old days?

RD: When my agent was shopping My Sister’s Grave, Thomas & Mercer invited me to lunch. Frankly, they blew me away. The energy at the table was incredible. They had a game plan already in place on how to sell not only My Sister’s Grave, but also a game plan for sequels and thoughts on how to sell my backlist. I found them to be incredibly smart and pro-active.

I had good experiences with my other publishers. I’ve met some terrific people. If anything, I think Thomas & Mercer is more involved and always looking for a way to keep selling my book, even months after publication. The promotions are incredible. I just learned my book will be in 600 Sam’s Stores and 1500 Wall Mart’s starting in March. Another marketing campaign is going to start in April. The book will be released in Germany in April and in Italy later in the year. They work hard to make a book successful. The editing process is also intense. We work together back in forth over a month to get a completed manuscript. Finally, the author team never fails to make sure everything is going well, that I’m happy with how things are progressing. They seek my input on titles and covers and when we hit sales benchmarks they’re quick to congratulate me with a gift. Feels like a home, frankly.

LB: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard? And – I gotta ask – the worst?

RD: The best writing advice I’ve received is writer’s write. It’s a job and you have to take it seriously. There are a lot of reasons not to write. You have to find the reasons to sit in a chair on a beautiful day and go to work.

More and more I think the worst advice is “show don’t tell”. I know this will be controversial, but the problem is people don’t understand what that means. It is impossible not to tell in a 400 page novel. Of course you have to do some telling. The show relates to the essence of the character. I see so many writers stringing out long metaphors and similes because they don’t believe they can simply say, “He was six feet tall.” All that does is cause an excess of words and strained descriptions.

LB: You were kind enough to provide a blurb for my recent novel, Deadly Faux.  Bestselling authors don’t do this lightly, they have to really like a book before putting their name on it… which is why I was/am so excited to have your very enthusiastic endorsement. How many blurb requests do you get, and what gets your attention to spend the time, which is significant? What do you do in the sad event that you don’t really like the book?

RD: I loved Deadly Faux. That was an easy blurb for me because the protagonist was engaging and the plot was intricate and the writing was superb. It was my kind of novel.

I get asked to blurb quite a bit now. The problem is I just don’t have enough time to do them all. I won’t blurb a book unless I’ve read it all the way through. It’s important that I’m honest. I have had to say no a couple of times. I just explain to the writer that not every book is for every reader. It doesn’t mean it isn’t a good book, it just wasn’t right for me. I had one guy not take it very well. Even though I’d blurbed his prior book favorably, and he used it in marketing, he decided to go on Goodreads and “get even” by giving me two stars for My Sister’s Grave. I had a good laugh about it. No good deed goes unpunished, right?

LB: You have a new novel releasing in September, a sequel to My Sister’s Closet (thus, establishing The Tracy Crosswhite series), entitled, Her Last Breath. Based on that timing, it appears this was the plan all along, correct? Or was the new book rushed into the schedule based on the success of Sister’s?

RD: I knew I wanted to do at least three books in the Crosswhite series and Thomas & Mercer was open to that. Now that MSG has done so well, there might be more. I won’t rush a book. I write fast, but I am a really slow editor. I’m by no means a wordsmith and I’ll never win a Pulitzer for my writing. I have to really work hard at it and work hard at the editing so I don’t make embarrassing mistakes.

LB: Any parting shots for writers who want a piece of this kind of action (including the well over 6000 Amazon reviews you’ve scored for MSG as of this writing)?

RD: Write what you’re passionate about and write to your theme. If you’re book is about obsession then make sure you’re hitting it at the climax and at the resolution. When I wrote My Sister’s Grave I very much kept in mind what a homicide detective told me. “We can help a family find justice. We can’t help them find closure. People have to find that on their own. Some never do.” Powerful stuff. It was in my mind the entire time I wrote My Sister’s Grave.

*****

Many thanks to Robert Dugoni for joining us here.  Check out My Sister’s Grave, you’ll have a great read and you’ll learn a lot about what craft looks like in the hands of a real pro.

Robert Dugoni is the critically acclaimed and New York Times–bestselling author of the David Sloane series: The Jury Master, Wrongful Death, Bodily Harm, Murder One, and The Conviction. Murder One was a finalist for the Harper Lee Award for literary excellence.

Dugoni is also the author of the bestselling standalone novel Damage Control, and his nonfiction exposé, The Cyanide Canary, was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year selection. Dugoni’s books have been likened to Scott Turow and Nelson DeMille, and he has been hailed as “the undisputed king of the legal thriller” by The Providence Journal.

Visit his website at www.robertdugoni.com, and follow him on Twitter @robertdugoni and at www.facebook.com/AuthorRobertDugoni.

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Interview With a Breakout Romance Novelist

Heather Burch talks process, craft, her amazing ride as One Lavender Ribbon continues its global explosion, and what’s next.  For her, and for all of us who write.

One Lavender Ribbon

One Lavender Ribbon, by Heather Burch,  as of this writing has 4,285 Amazon reader reviews, the vast majority bearing four or five stars.  That alone is worthy of our attention, but in Heather’s case she represents everything that a breakout novelist should be.  She earned her chops with a successful YA series (The Halfings and other titles), and she is a passionate student of craft and story architecture. 

I met Heather last Fall when her writing group invited me to Florida for a weekend writing workshop (I’ve written about the one several times here), and we immediately recognized kindred spirits relative to the craft of storytelling.  I read OLR in one sitting and used it the next day as a deconstruction model in the workshop, and have watched it continue to succeed (over 175,o00 Kindle downloads alone in the first several months, and now,  with editions in several other languages). 

Heather Burch
LB: Let’s begin with the obvious – your home run with One Lavender Ribbon. It’s truly a “breakout” book… was it designed with that in mind, or were you surprised by the market response?

HB: When I started my writing journey, I took a class that stressed the importance of writing breakout fiction. At that moment, I said, “Okay, that’s what I want to do.” I’ve spent the last several years honing my ability to distinguish between a “breakout” idea and just a “good” idea. Yes, in answer, it was intentional. But one never knows how a novel will hit the readers. I’ve been very fortunate to have this level of success.

LB: In your view, how and why did this happen (other than the fact it’s a stellar novel on all fronts… is that all it takes?)? Were there elements of timing, luck, strategy or other unpredictable factors involved?

HB: Even a great novel can fall flat if it’s released at the wrong time. I’ve seen it happen. So, yes, there are always different pieces of the puzzle that fit together—often things the author has no control over. One Lavender Ribbon released at the time of the 70th anniversary of WWII. I think that played a part in its success. Across the nation, people were thinking about that generation.

LB: How has this success changed your career and your life?

HB: I’m busier now than I ever expected to be, that’s for sure. And I’m having to take a real strong look at things like hiring an assistant. Also, the monetary success has been nice and because of it, my husband gets to travel with me.

LB: You are a student of craft, in a way that makes guys like me smile. No muses whispering to you from the clouds, it’s pure concept-driven craft executed with a keen eye toward story architecture and story physics. How would you describe your awareness of these issues and essences as your career has progressed?

HB: I’m very comfortable with my process. In fact, way back I tried to alter it to be more productive and just messed myself up. Basically, I’m constantly on the hunt for a high concept idea. Once I have that, I begin generating “obstacles” that would keep that idea from being “too easy.” I think of high concept as a story where two worlds that should never meet do. (This is another workshop altogether!) It can also be a new twist on an old storyline. Hollywood is great at this!

As far as craft, I try to continually study writing books to help make my own craft stronger. I dissect novels to see why they did/didn’t work and ponder what would have made them work better. I think a student is a student 24/7. We don’t even think about it, we just choose to be sponges soaking up everything! (FYI- my area of study right now is micro-tension) But all of my process comes back to a book I read years ago titled SCREENPLAY by Sid Field. It broke down—in simplest terms—the idea of plot points, for many years I’ve built on that foundation. When I finally sit down to write, much of the plot happens organically. I don’t say, “What can my characters do now?” I say, “What can go wrong now?” There’s no story until things begin to go wrong.

LB: You broke in with success in YA/paranormal, with your Halflings series. Why did you move from that into the romance genre?

HB: I had never intended to write YA. I was writing books that were more on the order of One Lavender Ribbon, but this high concept idea hit me and it was all about teens who were half-human and half-angel and though they were outcasts on every level, they were sent to save the world. I couldn’t resist.

LB: This had to have been fun. What’s the emotional journey of a bestseller like?

HB: I’ve been around long enough to know that each book will have its own lifespan. You can’t compare…much like it’s dangerous to compare your children. I write for two publishers (I write YA for BLINK, HarperCollins and adult romance/fiction for Montlake.) Each publisher handles their titles differently. There is a completely unique experience with each. I will likely always write YA. I love having that connection with teen readers and giving them a little “hope” in a world that all too often offers them nothing but sorrow. But my heart also loves big, epic love stories. So, I will concentrate on the adult stories like OLR, but try to write at least one YA every year

LB: Your new book, Summer by Summer, releases in April. After a breakout hit like OLR, are you anxious about it?

Product Details

HB: Summer by Summer –  about two teens stranded on a deserted island in Belize – releases in April and targets a completely different market. It’s another YA from BLINK and those are largely sold to libraries and of course, and it will be in book stores as well as online venues. And yes, I’m anxious, I’m always anxious and hopeful when a new book releases.

I can’t expect the same “type” of response for Summer by Summer because it’s geared to a different audience. Many of my One Lavender Ribbon fans will read it, but I think the instant visceral response will be for a younger reader.

LB: You were at my workshop with 35 other romance writers last fall. Sometimes I felt like they were staring at me as if I were an alien speaking the language of invasion. Do you think that romance authors have a different take on craft as a group, and is that a legit rationale for viewing craft differently than any other genre?

HB: Largely due to the organization RWA, romance writers are one of the most educated groups of writers on the planet. RWA has incredible workshops on topics ranging from voice to craft and everything in between. But, because it can offer literally hundreds if not thousands of workshops in the course of a year, it’s fairly easy to find the ones that work for each individual process—always honing the skills we have.

What you offered was the bones of writing breakout fiction. And it was in a very solid package with solid walls—that’s the beauty of your classes. These are the MUST HAVES for great fiction. Instead of teaching how to “fix” what they already have, you took us back to the drawing board and said, “Is what you have a strong enough concept for a novel?” Those that were looking at you like an alien, I don’t think they’d ever considered their concept may not be good enough. And that is soooooo important! Especially in romance.

LB: “They’d never considered their concept may not be good enough.” That’s been a bit of a teaching mantra for me lately. (For all of you who are tired of me writing about it… notice that Heather mentioned it here. Your story idea, the core it, is every bit as critical as your ability to execute it.)

HB: Amen to that. The romance market is highly competitive. It also accounts for a large percentage of books sold, the largest, I believe. So, it’s a tough market (aren’t they all) to break into. Agents are looking for high concept ideas. Even in romance, there better be something “bigger” about your story or it won’t find a home in this competitive industry.

LB: I believe that romance is one of the most challenging genres to find “high concept.” Two people meet, they feel attracted, stuff happens, it isn’t easy, it almost fails, then it doesn’t, then HEA. And yet, all of that can be in context to a killer CONCEPTUAL CORE, as well, as you demonstrated in One Lavender Ribbon. That discovered WWII diary, leading to a parallel love story that connects two generations… that’s the very essence of high concept.

HB: I like to think so. Cross-generational romance is a trope of the genre to some extent, and yet, it endures because it works, readers are drawn in.

LB: The highest concepts – vampires, time travel, ghosts, terminal disease – always work. Because they’re conceptual and emotionally resonant at their core.

HB: Absolutely. They imbue the story with context that makes everything work better. Readers say they want love, but they really want to be touched at their core and their imagination. The whole genre is driven by vicariousness, one of your six realms of Story Physics.

LB: What’s your message to new writers these days, relative to storytelling craft, and then, relative to the business of publishing versus self-publishing and the branding that both require?

HB: Don’t give up. Don’t back down. If you write a book and it doesn’t sell, write another. And another. Very few authors sell their first book. Most sell book #5 or #6. If you stick it out for several books and continue to learn and grow, you will sell one day. Join a great organization that can help you along your journey. Read Storyfix and take notes! Find your voice and your process then dig, dig, dig to make it the best it can be.
Have social media, but don’t let it have you. Your #1 author job is to write amazing fiction. Never ever let anything (FB, twitter, blog) get in the way of that!

LB: What’s next for you, both near-term and down the writing road?

HB: OLR just released in Germany. It’s my first title to be translated, so that’s been exciting.

I’m writing a series for Montlake titled the Roads to River Rock. The books follow a military family after the combat death of their father. Book 1 is titled Along the Broken Road. It releases in June this year. Book two is titled Down the Hidden Path and releases in January/February 2016. There will be one or two more Roads to River Rock books after that.

I also have a new writing venture that will be taking me out of the country for some lovely “research” time. Unfortunately, I can’t share details yet. But am honored to have been offered this amazing opportunity. (Yes, I’m smiling as I write this.)

Thanks Larry, for having me stop by. I took so many great nuggets home from your Story Physics classes. I’d encourage anyone to dive in and take a class if they haven’t.

LB: Visual footnote… that’s me in the middle (duh) with my Florida romance author friends (what an amazingly passionate and skilled group of writers).  That’s Heather, second from left.

Two words:  Hog heaven.  The hog, of course, being me.

*****
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If you’d like to pre-order at a discount (pay now… submit any time during 2015), write me to request invoicing at $75, valid until launch (probably next week).

 

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