Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"You're Going to be Huge!" - The Ups, Downs, and Sheer Absurdities of the Writing Life

Boston Globe article from the very talented Ben Mezrich.



I had been dreaming about the moment for so long that when it actually happened, it caught me by surprise. It was a Wednesday afternoon in 1995, and I was sitting at my desk in my tiny Back Bay basement apartment. The walls around me were covered in rejection slips - 190 of them, to be exact - from nearly every book editor in the country. My desk was weighed down by the nine unpublished, seemingly unpublishable manuscripts that I had written since graduating from Harvard four years earlier, a 3,600-page morass of words in search of a voice.

While most of my classmates were finishing up law school or bringing down six-figure salaries on Wall Street, I was subsisting on peanut butter and jelly and using multiple credit cards to pay my rent. Maybe a little more foolish than noble, I was getting used to failure, getting good at failure. So when the phone rang that afternoon, I assumed it was just another creditor checking to see if I was alive.

It was my agent, Jay Garon, and he had news about my latest submission, a thriller about the Human Genome Project gone bad. HarperCollins had just made a sizable offer for the book. Along with the offer had come a promise of a first printing of 100,000 copies, a planned multi-city book tour, and my very own publicist. In publishing terms, I had hit the jackpot. I was going to be Harper's ‘Boy Wonder,’ Jay enthused, a description he had fashioned to describe the publishing house's penchant for picking salable young men and turning them into phenomenons. “Everything's going to change. You're going to be huge.” I remember how the phone trembled against my ear. Jay Garon was the agent who had pulled John Grisham out of the slush pile, after all. The fact that he had worn a cape and carried a cane with an ivory head the one time I had lunched with him, at the Russian Tea Room in New York, now seemed irrelevant. “You're going to be my next Grisham,” he told me, and at the time, I was naive enough to believe that it would be just that easy.

Since that day nearly seven years ago, I have learned a lot of hard lessons about the publishing industry and what it takes to survive as a writer in these strange times. As Jay had suggested, everything changed with that phone call: I was tossed into an adventure that at moments has been glamorous but, for the most part, has tended more toward the absurd. For the record, since 1995, I have published six novels with a combined printing of more than 1 million copies in nine languages. I've done a TV movie and written a novelization for the X-Files television show. Recently, I represented Massachusetts in Fox TV's Sexiest Bachelor in America pageant (prancing around a Las Vegas stage in my bathing suit, by far the palest man ever to appear on national television).

Along the way, I have been written about (sometimes kindly, sometimes not) in Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, and People magazine, as well as hundreds of local papers around the world. I've also had a chance to experience the frustrating liquidity of the profession, skating my way through six agents, five editors, and four publishing houses in less than five years. I've been alternately seduced and repulsed by Hollywood, spending weeks at a time carted about Los Angeles by a handful of agents who were certain, as Jay was, that I was “going to be huge.”

Blinded by so much heady optimism, I've made enormous mistakes with my money, learning the lessons of feast and famine over and over again. I regret nothing, but I remember everything - because the details of my adventure have chopped away much of my naiveté, and, I hope, I am a stronger writer for it.

I received my first dose of reality around six months after Jay's phone call, when I began my book tour for Threshold, the novel that had rescued me from my noble state of squalor. My first stop was New York, where I met with my publicist to go over my itinerary.

With stars in my eyes, I expected to see a list of my favorite prime-time talk shows, sprinkled with some morning, coffee-talk, high-profile fare. Instead, I learned my first important lesson about the writing life: nobody wants to see an author on prime-time television. In fact, for the most part, no one wants to see an author on TV at all. People want to see movie stars, rock stars, models, and athletes. Authors spend most of their lives locked in their rooms, staring at computer screens. As a breed, we are pale, twitchy, and bookish. If we had exciting lives to talk about, we wouldn't be writing, we'd be living.

So instead of Letterman and Leno, my first book tour was spent shuttling among tiny radio stations, suburban bookstores, and high school auditoriums. Through the blur of indistinguishable hotel rooms, carbon-copy shopping malls, and rushed fast-food lunches, a few indelible moments stand out. On my second day, for instance, I found myself debating a dwarf on a cable-access TV channel in Boston. She had somehow gotten the idea that my genetically themed novel was going to lead to the "eugenicizing" of the dwarf population. I tried to explain to her that I had nothing against little people, but she would not be appeased. Barely escaping confrontation, I was rushed to my next interview, twenty minutes of live airtime on Tunnel Radio, an AM station that only airs in the few hundred yards of one of Boston's downtown tunnels.

In between the interviews were the bookstore appearances. Hopping from shopping mall superstores to small, independent booksellers, I toted a marked-up copy of Threshold from city to city, reading passages to anyone who would listen. Since I was a first-time author, it was often hard to draw a crowd. In fact, my first signing audience consisted of just two people: a 12-year-old kid whose mother had left him while she went shopping and an elderly gentleman who had thought there were going to be refreshments (another important lesson: always arrange for refreshments).

Over time, the signings began to draw more people, but with more people came the added pleasure of dealing with a handful of mentally unbalanced fans. There was the woman in New York who demanded to know “what the characters are doing right now.” A few of these fans grew into bona fide stalkers (another perk of the business), including the woman who writes me letters in “the red pen I use when I get emotional” and the gentleman who sends me underlined passages from my books along with photos of himself in various states of undress.

Of course, the signing experience wasn't all bad. In Philadelphia, I read to a packed house (someone at The Philadelphia Inquirer had called me “cute, in a young, Richard Dreyfuss sort of way” - why is it never “cute, in a Brad Pitt sort of way”?) and was approached afterward by a blond bombshell in a low-cut blouse. Turns out, she was the former head cheerleader from my high school, the one who had never spoken two words to me. After I signed her book, we had a nice laugh over the fact that the female romantic character in my novel shared her name. Coincidence, of course, certainly not a lame attempt at re-imagining a past where I didn't spend much of high school hiding inside a gym locker because I weighed 80 pounds and knew more about Hemingway than football.

Aside from attracting cheerleaders from your past, the point of the book tour is to get yourself publicity. Since booking television interviews is nearly impossible, most of this publicity comes in the form of print features and reviews. The glossier the magazine, the better. Because I was young, more or less presentable, and because HarperCollins was pumping me up behind the scenes, I landed plenty of features. But perhaps for the same reasons, some reviewers could be less than kind. My first major notice in The New York Times Book Review (two full pages) actually contained the line “This is a bad book - someone should option it for the movies.”

But the reviews weren't all bad. A slow buildup of positive reinforcement finally led to the feather in my cap, a People magazine “Beach Book of the Week” review in which I received the holiest of holy praises: “May give Michael Crichton a run for his money.” At 26 I had now been compared to both Grisham and Crichton. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood came knocking.

That first knock came in the guise of an Armani-clad agent at Creative Artists Agency (CAA), the top deal maker in Los Angeles. I was flown out to Hollywood, put up in a suite at the Century Plaza, and squired around town by said agent in his Mercedes convertible. It was like something out of a Robert Altman movie, a bizarre montage of moments that could only have occurred in LA. At one dinner, a producer offered me $10,000 at the table for a one-sentence idea. In retrospect, I probably should have complied. Another producer promised he could “hook me up” with Madonna if I let him have a first look at my next novel. I didn't take him up on the offer.

By the end of the week, we had managed to sell the rights to my second published novel, Reaper, to TBS, to be produced as the Superstation's premiere TV movie. It wasn't a huge project - underwear model Antonio Sabato, Jr. from Melrose Place was going to star, opposite Robert Wagner as the bad guy - but my foot was in the door. This was all that the agents at CAA needed to spur them on. They begged me to stay one more week to pitch more TV-movie ideas to the other studios in town. Visions of a David Kelley-esque lifestyle filling my head, I readily agreed. It didn't seem to matter that I hadn't prepared any other project ideas or that I didn't even have my laptop with me. I was a writer, and this was Hollywood: the Wild West with pens and checkbooks instead of guns.

Now a team of Armani-clad agents shuttled me from studio to studio in a shiny black SUV. At first I was intimidated by the posh offices and well-coifed executives, but I soon got into the groove. Instead of the thirty page outlines that novelists use to sell books, I was spewing out one-page ‘treatments’ based on whatever trend the Hollywood machine was seeking that particular morning. The lure of fast money - and, more than that, the constant ego stroking of the agent-sirens - quickly dissolved whatever was left of my writing integrity. I reached a personal best in the offices of NBC while pitching a project about a giant comet that sweeps by Earth, depositing tiny white spores that hatch into foot-long carnivorous lizards. I actually debated with a high-level executive the relative merits of foot-long lizards and foot-long cockroaches, both carnivorous, of course. Then, on the way out of the studio, I overheard one VP say to another: “You know why the miniseries The Odyssey is going to do so well on Monday night? Because it's so new.”

In the end, I didn't sell any more TV projects, but the week wasn't a total loss. At a dinner party, I was seated next to Jason Hervey, the guy who played the older brother on TV's The Wonder Years in the late 1980’s. He was producing World Championship Wrestling events, and now I get free tickets. On a more professional front, I also managed to land a meeting with Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files. I was driven to his trailer on the Fox lot and introduced to his production staff. To my surprise, I was immediately offered a writing job on the show. However, I had no interest in moving to LA (I don't drive; this is one of my many charming neurotic eccentricities. I also wash my hands fifteen times a day, am such a hypochondriac that my doctor won't let me schedule appointments anymore, and can only fly in airplanes with a magazine open to a picture of a happy person). I respectfully turned down the gig.

Carter then asked if I'd be willing to write a novel based on the series, a thriller featuring Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. Hell, it wasn't Hemingway, but it seemed like a fun way to be involved with Hollywood without leaving the safety of Boston. Carter asked if I had any ideas, and although I considered telling him about my carnivorous lizards, I instead racked my brain for something better. I remembered that my younger brother, a medical student in New York, had a part-time job with the New York Fire Department's skin bank, harvesting skin from the recently dead in trauma centers around Manhattan. I pitched the grisly idea to Carter, who bought it on the spot.

Returning, victoriously, to Boston, I was shocked to discover that while I was gone, Jay Garon, my agent, had died. I immediately called Jay's assistant, who acknowledged that Jay was dead but added, “That doesn't mean your contract with us is up.” It seems I had signed a three-year contract with Jay's agency, which meant that even though he was no longer alive, I was somehow bonded to the company that still bore his name.

Six months of legal haggling later, I managed to free myself from my deceased agent and move forward with my career. Signing with Aaron Priest, one of the premier agents in New York, I immediately sold two more books to St. Martin's Press. I was now working with my third publisher - and fourth editor - in three years. Furthermore, since I was still under an option agreement with my first publisher, I could only publish the St. Martin's books under a pen name. My new agent advised that I come up with something ‘non-ethnic’ (it was obviously the ‘z’ in my last name that was holding me back from the Grisham/Crichton level of success). My first choice was Holden Storm, but Aaron thought it sounded too much like a local weatherman's fake name, so we settled on Holden Scott.

A year later, Holden Scott came out with his first novel, a ghostly thriller called Skeptic. With a paperback printing of 200,000 copies, it was a much bigger book than my last few and was ‘front racked’ at nearly every bookstore in the country. Along with publicity - and perhaps more important than publicity - proper book placement at mega-chain bookstores can make or break an author. The publishers pay for shelf space in the same way that businesses pay for retail real estate: the better the location, the higher the cost. Publishers even pay to determine whether the front or the spine of the book will be showing. One of the main reasons that authors travel from store to store doing book signings is to get their books placed in a better selling position.

Personally, I like to take a guerrilla approach to getting my book better placed. I have trained various family members to sneak into bookstores and move my books from the back shelves to the front. After the publication of my fifth book, The Carrier, I actually got a phone call from my publisher telling me that a Barnes & Noble in Washington, D.C., was complaining about a strange man in an overcoat who kept surreptitiously carting all of my books to the front window of the store (thanks, Uncle Jack).

Bolstered by Holden Scott's success, I once again felt the pull of Hollywood. TBS had just begun production on my TV movie (it had changed the title of the project from Reaper to the even cheesier Fatal Error), and the producers had invited me to tag along. Once I arrived in Vancouver, British Columbia, it took me about two hours to realize that I was superfluous to the production. The only person who seemed glad to have me around was Antonio Sabato, who kept asking me to help him with the pronunciation of the medical terms in his dialogue. Otherwise, I spent most of my time drinking with the stagehands.

My insignificance was best illustrated the day of the wrap party: when I arrived at the VIP room of the trendy nightclub where the party was taking place, I was stopped by a huge bouncer, who informed me that I “was not on the list.” Even though copies of my book were lined up next to the velvet rope behind him, he wouldn't let me in. Thankfully, Antonio noticed my plight and convinced the bouncer that I was part of the actor's entourage. On the way into the party, Antonio asked me to pronounce ‘tension pneumothorax’ one final time. Through this experience, I learned another valuable lesson: in Hollywood, a novelist ranks somewhere just above the key grip and just below the caterer.

Fatal Error aired a few months later; coincidentally, in that same month I came out with one novel under my pen name, one novel under my real name, and my X-Files novelization. I managed to survive three simultaneous book tours - though, in the process, I ended up switching agents, editors, and publishers once again. Trying to figure out who cuts my paychecks and whom I owe commissions to can be as complex as piloting a 747.

That cluttered month was probably the pinnacle of my adventure so far. The resulting publicity led to an even stranger development, when a few months later I was somehow chosen to represent Massachusetts in Fox TV's Sexiest Bachelor in America show. I was flown to Las Vegas and instructed to prance around a stage in my bathing suit. Worse, the other 49 contestants were hairless male models who looked as if they had been born inside tanning booths. As a lifelong East Coaster, my skin is blindingly pale. In fact, friends in the audience overheard a smattering of concerned whispers as I took the stage: “What's wrong with Mr. Massachusetts? Is he sick?” Although I didn't even make it past the first round of the show, I probably sold a few books.

Despite my brief flirtation with the Vegas pageant scene, most of my time is spent at home, writing.

I am constantly approached by struggling writers seeking advice on breaking into the business. Looking back at my own career, the one thing that stands out is my unwillingness to give up. I am obsessive about writing, to the point of a true neurosis. I still keep all 190 rejection slips next to my computer. I still reread Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises the first of every month. I still try to write ten pages a day, whether it's complete gibberish or a chapter for my next novel. I am willing to do just about anything to get my books noticed, because I know that this is all I'm good at, that this is the only thing I've ever wanted to do.

There's an enormous wall you have to climb to get into writing, but the scary thing is, you have to keep climbing that wall with every book you write. Douglas Coupland, the author of Generation X, once told me that selling your first book is like winning the lottery; keeping your career going in this industry is like winning the lottery over and over again.

The truth is, writing a novel can be painful and horrid. It's like having a stomach virus that lasts three months: you're hunched over your desk, heaving again and again, trying to get the last bit out, but it just won't come. On the other hand, some elements of this business are incredible, fulfilling, glamorous, and life-changing. There's no better feeling in the world than seeing your work on the bookstore shelves for the first time. I may never write the Great American Novel. Likewise, I may never reach the status of John Grisham or Michael Crichton. But I will always follow the advice I got from Mr. Louisiana (a bodybuilder/model/retail broker), a fellow contestant in Fox's Sexiest Bachelor pageant. "You've got to shake what your mamma gave you."

I've just finished my seventh book, a true-life thriller called Bringing Down the House, set in Las Vegas, to be published this fall by Simon & Schuster. So you see, I'm still shaking it the best I can.


Brian M Logan

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