What Debut Novelist Patricia Wood Had to Say

Patricia Wood’s novel, Lottery, is a quiet novel with a high-concept that caused agents and then publishers to compete for it. Since publication, the novel has sold steadily in hardover (unusual) and is now selling well in trade paperback. It’s one of those word-of-mouth wonders we sometimes hear about.

Wood’s concept: What if a mentally challenged man won the lottery?

Grabs, doesn’t it? And it got me thinking that the “high-concept” concept doesn’t only apply to commercial fiction.

Debut novelists on book tours are a relatively rare event these days, and even more rare is a paperback book tour, so I was curious about how her reading would differ from the likes of Phillip Margolin and David Guterson. There were less than 10 of us, but everyone except me had already read the novel. Ms. Wood was an energetic self-promoter, inviting random book browsers to sit down and have a listen.

Unlike the seasoned novelists I’ve seen recently, Ms. Wood didn’t talk much about craft or process. I got the impression that she was so pumped by her extraordinary, maybe even surprising, success after years of unpublished toil that she wanted to talk about that instead. (I probably would, too, come to think of it.)

Some highlights:

1. What else could prop up hardcover sales besides word-of-mouth? It probably didn’t hurt that Lottery was short-listed for England’s Orange Prize and that actress Sarah Michelle Gellar bought the film rights.

The Internet is a strange, strange world. Apparently, the purchased film rights appeared as a factoid on a website somewhere, and Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer fans everywhere sought out the novel.

2. Self-promotion: She handed out novel business cards in hopes we would pass them on and also signed bookplates to stick into our books. She participates in two or three book clubs a week via iChat or speaker phone (or are those the same thing?).

3. Lottery is her fourth written novel. Another example of patience and perseverence. Her first, second, and third written novels will be her third, fourth, and fifth published novels.

4. And she accumulated about 90 rejections with those first three novels! Patience and perseverence indeed!

5.  Where did her novel idea come from? She woke up early one morning with a voice in her head and this first sentence: My name is Perry L. Crandall and I am not retarded. She wrote the prologue immediately, and it didn’t change much from first draft to published version.

What interested me is that her idea came out of her life — it wasn’t as random as a dream voice telling her to write it down. First, she’s well-versed in disability issues through her graduate school studies and advocacy work. Second, her father won the Washington state lottery back in the 90s. Two distinct areas of her life melded themselves into a pleasing story idea. Gotta love the subconsious mind.

6. Best quote: “Writers are socially acceptable schizophrenics.” I and I and I are down with this observation!

What Literary Novelist David Guterson Had to Say

On Monday night I was eager to hear what David Guterson had to say because I’d gladly include his first novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, on my Top 100 All-Time Favorites list — if I had such a list.

I found myself noting what NOT to do while on my imagined book tour.

Amiable and better looking than his author photos suggest, Guterson launched into a bit of a rant that had me puzzled: What was all this about his luxurious hotel room, the absurd bounty that comes with being born an American, and our “world system predicated on the exploitation of….” I found myself reading the jacket copy of his latest novel, The Other. Others were looking a little dazed.

I didn’t disagree with his politics, but I was there to listen to a writer talk about his craft, his latest novel, his inspirations.

Lesson #1: Don’t get too political out of the chute, and keep politics to a minimum in any case.

It was only after he’d gone on for a bit that he mentioned that he’d actually been describing the worldview of one of his main characters. Character development: now that interested me.

Lesson #2: Mention the connection to the novel before diving into deep topics; keep deep topics on point with novel.

After the reading, he was asked how he “overcame” the phenomonal success of Snow Falling on Cedars. Guterson began his answer with, “All human beings are always changing….” and rambled for awhile.

Lesson #3: Answer questions directly. Keep high-level mumbo-jumbo to a minimum.

Lest I sound too negative, let me hereby admit that I enjoyed glancing at Guterson’s pretty face while noting down these cool tidbits:  

  • On using significant others as readers: He noted that in the early days, his wife read too much into the writing — as a negative indicator of their marriage, for example — and that her sensitivity caused him anxious moments while writing.
  • On this, his most autobiographical novel: The idealistic character mentioned above represents one aspect of Guterson, which conflicts with the part of him that enjoys luxurious hotel rooms. The novel is a fictional exploration of this “schism.”
  • On his bad reviews: He has plenty of positive reviews, but also bad ones. How refreshing to hear a novelist cop to bad reviews — he didn’t seem to care too much either. Still, that’s gotta be hard. A thick skin is always good.
  • On his ideas: His novel ideas often stem from things that cause him the most pain. (Jodi Picoult said much the same thing at her reading.)


And get this: He first got published by sending a set of 10 stories to three publishers (no agent!) with a letter that said something like, Dear editor, here are my stories if you want to publish them. Don’t we wish it was still that easy?


What Thriller Novelist Phillip Margolin Had to Say

In my quest to hear how experienced novelists do it, I arrived along with many fans to listen to Phillip Margolin talk about his latest novel, Executive Privilege. I was curious about him because way-back-when I worked for the publishing company that first landed him on the bestseller lists. I remember the buzz that went around the editorial offices about Gone, But Not Forgotten. He was the “it” author that season.

Highlights from his talk:

1. Advice to writers: Don’t rush the writing on your good story idea lest you peter out prematurely, get dejected, and subsequently set aside what is actually a solid premise. He sometimes develops his plots over years. For example, the premise for Executive Privilege came to him in the early 1990s. (The premise: Can a U.S. president be a serial killer? Hmm…I had a few thoughts on this!)

2. Initial novel ideas: His often revolve around a moral dilemma. For example, Margolin was formerly a criminal defense attorney, and one day he got to thinking about whether there existed a criminal so morally repugnant that he would refuse to defend him, only to have to anyhow. This is Gone, But Not Forgotten.

3. From idea to initial plot ideas: Sometimes, on the other hand, his initial ideas aren’t so deep. His example centered around the image that came into his head upon watching a couple making out on a beach (on t.v.). He imagined a guy in SCUBA gear pulling the woman beneath the waves to kill her. (Gotta love his macabre imagination.)

First, he asks himself the journalistic basics–who, what, where, when, why, how–until he arrives at an interesting scenario that lends itself to conflict. Who is the man? (Judge) Who is the woman? (His mistress) Where are they? (Island paradise) Why? (Privacy) As far as the underwater killer goes: Why would the murderer kill someone in such a convoluted manner anyhow? Then, what does the judge do about his politically disastrous situation? Does he become the main suspect? And so on.

4. Plotting: Margolin is an outliner. He spends months on them, and they can be up to 60 pages long. I asked him whether his stories ever drifted from his outlines. Yep, indeedy. Sometimes the changes come while he’s writing, sometimes as a result of the editorial process.

5. Relationship with publishing house: From what he said, it doesn’t sound like his publisher intrudes too much on his process. Yet, the sales force may suggest title changes. The Courtyard Athletic Club became Ties That Bind, for example.

Or, his editor may point out weaknesses in his manuscript (as all good editors should). He mentioned the case of Proof Positive, in which his original draft contained a point-of-view character in the first chapter that didn’t appear again (yikes!). He was flummoxed as to how to integrate this character into the rest of the novel until an assistant had a bright idea. He then spent eight hours a day for two weeks re-fashioning the novel.

6. Last but not least: My favorite quote of the evening, overheard before Margolin arrived: “I came because I heard rumors that he’s dating my ex-wife.” Now there’s a potential story!

Here Come the Book-Touring Novelists

Springtime brings a flurry of book-touring novelists. Last week I decided to check out two of them. The first novelist I read regularly, and she’s enjoying such immense success that I was extra curious. Plus, she’s a friend of a friend, so I had an excuse to say a little something when my turn came around to have my book signed. I wasn’t as familiar with the second novelist though she’s also a branded name. We are separated by two degrees, so I dropped a name with her also in hopes of learning something very particular.


~ Mysterious Mr. M, who often comments on this blog, shines me on for being a brown-noser. Not fair! I’m just over-eager! Seriously, these days, I’m all about researching the business-side of publishing, so I ask whoever I can whatever I can whenever I can.

~ I’ve lately decided to make a study of book-touring novelists. About how many pages do they read? What kind of reading selection? What kind of introduction? How do they deal with the questions? Do they crack jokes? Do they wander off the topic? And so on. Call me ever hopeful for myself.

So, I’d like to share a few tidbits from last week’s book-signings.

JODI PICOULT. Latest novel: Change of Heart   (S.W.: She passed on a big “hello” just in case she didn’t get a chance to see you in Seattle…)

First of all, I wasn’t expecting the utter chaos. Over 200 readers gathered to hear her speak, and the book store gave out numbered tickets so that we would line up in orderly fashion for the signing. This is a woman whose latest hardcover print run topped a million copies! That’s in the realm of Stephen King and his kind (now her kind also).

  • She read from many sections but from one character’s point of view. These snippets formed their own story arc, and she ended on the cliffhanger question that is the crux of the novel. It interested me that she mixed-and-matched from several sections; authors usually read the first chapter or from a couple of independent scenes.
  • She obviously gets the same questions all the time, no surprise. I imagine most novelists have their anecdotes down pat. In fact, I remember a writer-friend telling me I’d better have some good stories to tell about myself — even if I have to fictionalize them a bit to make them more interesting!
  • She’s a mom so adept at writing in 15-minute increments. Doesn’t believe in writers block. “You can always edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank page.” Too true!
  • I love this quote because it’s so true about character voices inside our heads: “It’s a very fine line between schizophrenia and being a published novelist.”
  • Starts writing when has a general idea — usually a topic that stems from something she worries about — and knows the twist at the end. Her mystery is how to get from A to Z. Does this mean she’s not an outliner? I wished I’d asked…


LISA JACKSON. Latest novel: Lost Souls  (R.V. and J.D: Thanks! She answered my particular question about publicity…)

Jackson is a local author, and her reading was intimate. Interestingly enough, she didn’t actually read from her latest novel. This was a first for me as an audience member. Our questions seemed to launch her off on different writing/publishing topics, and she rambled easily for the hour.

  • She writes mysteries these days, but she started off as a Harlequin romanticist. However, her books are still shelved under “Romance” in the book stores. Why? Because of her long-time readers, because her backlist is so extensive that it’s best to keep all her books together (for sales), and so on. Interesting, eh?
  • I’ve mentioned the current paranormal trend. Well, seems Jackson is starting to dabble also. Her editor had suggested vampires and a story started to grow from there. She seemed bemused by her paranormal dabblings. She said her current novel is a “different kind of novel” for her. The next book will feature ghosts. Just goes to show…market forces…
  • Ever wonder about those novels that seem to just end, just like that, disappointingly? She mentioned a novel by Laura Lippman and that deadlines are often the culprits. It’s not that the novelist wouldn’t like to take the time, she just doesn’t have it. I can see this being a challenge for novelists on the one-or-more-book-a-year schedule.
  • She writes a 50-70 synopsis before starting her first draft! But, she does veer off it. The closer she is to a deadline the closer she keeps to the outline. What interested me: Even given a detailed synopsis, she still doesn’t know her characters until about 150 pages in. She finds beginnings hard for this reason. (Reassured me: I’m the same way.)
  • Here’s a new concept to me: “marketing up.” She mentioned a paperback cover design that got “marketed up” from its hardcover version. This meant making it less “genre,” which in her case, meant taking the woman off the cover. Also, the idea of wanting the cover to “pop” when the book is on the shelf amongst hundreds of others.


 I was a good student last week, wasn’t I?