Note: Lee is one of the guests at the upcoming Love is Murder conference in Chicago. He's also the author of too many books to mention, as well as being a TV scriptwriter and producer. Visit him at www.LeeGoldberg.com
You’ve spoken candidly about your decision not to “ghost-write” any more Monk books. What would you tell any writer considering work-for-hire? Is it ever a good idea, and if so, why? If not, why not? What pitfalls can you tell people to avoid?
The Monk novels are not “ghost-written.” My name is on the cover. Ghost writers, by contrast, are not credited and do the actual writing for the person whose name is on the cover. But while I write every word of the books, I don’t own them. The rights belong to USA Studios and Andy Breckman, who created the show. At this point in my career, in this fast-changing publishing world, it doesn’t make any financial sense for me to write books that I don’t own. For a new writer, though, taking on a tie-in can be a shrewd move…introducing your name and your talents to thousands of readers. You get to ride on the coat-tails of an established franchise. My brother Tod was an established author of literary fiction when he took on the Burn Notice books. He sold more copies of his first Burn Notice novel than all of his previously published books combined…and saw an immediate bounce in sales of his backlist. He quit writing the Burn Notice books when the drawbacks (two books a year, small royalty, non-ownership, etc) outweighed the benefits. To learn more about tie-ins, and the business behind them, check out the book Tied In, which you can find on Amazon.
You were published very early, but never saw a dime from that first book. A lot of people get overly excited when offered a contract and jump at the chance to be in print. What would you counsel them?
You can’t really compare my situation thirty-some years ago to a new writer being offered a contract today. The business has radically changed…and is still in the midst of turmoil.
The benefit of taking a contract -- from a known, reputable publisher -- beyond just getting some money is the opportunity to have your work professionally edited and marketed, to have it reviewed by respected publications, to become eligible for membership in professional organizations (SFWA, MWA, Authors Guild, etc.) and awards, etc.
For the time being, it still means something, it still has cache, to be published by publishing company. But financially, it might not be the best move…because you are likely to get a lousy advance and, for all intents and purposes, be trading ownership of your book forever.
The action in publishing is moving to ebooks, and there’s very little these days that publishers can do for you that you can’t do for yourself self-publishing (with the possible exception of the Amazon Publishing imprints, which have the benefit of being able to promote your book aggressively on the Amazon site and directly to its customers). You will own the book and the royalty rate is far, far better than anything publishers can offer you. However, if you self-publish, and if you want to do it right, you will need to hire a great content editor (i.e. ex-editors from major publishing companies) and commission a terrific cover, so your book will read as well, and look as good, as the stuff coming from major publishing houses. That will cost you money. Whatever you do, however, NEVER go to a company like Authorhouse (or their other imprints), Tate Publishing, etc. They are scams that prey on an aspiring author’s desperation and naiveté that will empty your bank account and, worse, eat up a huge chunk of your sales…assuming you ever get any through them, which is highly unlikely.
It costs nothing to have your book published as an ebook on Amazon or as a paperback from CreateSpace. The cost is in hiring the editor and cover artist. Take on that cost yourself personally, not through some third party that offers to do it all for you for a steep price. You will not only lose money now, but future royalties, too
Probably because of your work in TV, your books move swiftly. They are incredibly cinematic and crisp. Any tips on how to keep a manuscript tight? How do you plot? What’s your process?
Writing murder mysteries is, by far, the hardest writing I've ever had to do. It’s not enough to just tell a good story, you also have to come up with a challenging puzzle. It's twice as much work for the same money.
There is no right way to devise a murder mystery. For me, it never starts with the murder. It always begins with the detective, especially if the story I am setting out to tell is part of an ongoing series.
The idea for the mystery will arise from the personality of the hero, and what aspects of his or her character I want to explore, what arena (a place, industry, sport, culture, etc.) I want to put him in, and finally what kind of conflict I think will best bring all of those aspects together and give me a narrative engine for my story.
Once I have that, then the broad strokes of the murder will come quite easily, because it’s an organic part of the story, one that serves to create conflict and reveal character, rather than just a clever device, a really cool idea for a murder, in search of a story to put it into. Often at this point I will discover the story’s thematic through-line -- what the story is actually about -- that will be in every scene and expressed, in some way, in action or dialogue or attitude, by every character.Now I can get into the nuts-and-bolts of figuring out the clues, and how the hero will discover them.
At that point, I beat the story out the same way I would an episode of a TV show. I create a “beat sheet,” a few lines about each scene and the key conflict/story point that justifies the scene. If the scene doesn’t reveal character or movie the story forward, and if it doesn’t crackle with conflict, I cut it.
The Walk was frightening, funny, and poignant. It’s the story of a man who survives the “Big One” in LA and decides there’s nothing more important than getting home to his wife. Having only met you once, I wondered, “How much of Lee Goldberg is in the protagonist?” How much of Lee Goldberg is in any of your characters? What inspired that book? Did you ever have a similar life experience with the California earthquakes?
I’ve lived in California all of my life, so I have been through a lot of earthquakes, particularly the on in 1994 that destroyed my house. The idea for The Walk came to me while I was producing an episode of the TV series Martial Law on location in a terrible section of downtown Los Angeles. As I was standing there, I thought how horrible it would be for me if the “Big One” hit at that moment. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had a great premise for a book. The only things that reflect me in The Walk are that the hero is in the TV business and lives in a gated community in Calabasas. Other than that, I made it all up.
Why should a fiction reader buy a copy of your book Successful Television Writing? What can the average fiction writer learn from writing for TV?
The fundamentals of character-based story-telling, of generating and sustaining different kinds of conflict, and the key principles of the four-act structure, as well as examples of “beat sheet” outlines, are laid out in the book. You can use those same skills and principles in your novel writing. I certainly do. Television writing is tight…you only have 42 minutes to tell your story. Character is revealed through action and dialogue. The pace is unrelenting. Those are all great qualities to have in a novel, particularly a mystery or thriller.
Your short stories end with wonderful unexpected twists. Any suggestions on how you come up with those “out of the box” endings? Any tips on short story writing?
I’m not really much of a short story writer. I think I’ve done four or five in my entire career. But when I do write one, I try to make sure I have a strong central conflict and a satisfying pay-off. Too many short stories are vignettes that, for me, feel pointless. I want a short story to deliver a strong emotional or visceral punch.
King City is full of contradictions. The protagonist decides to pursue some crimes, and walk away from others. He’s very much a Lone Ranger in his approach. How did you come up with him? Where did you come up with the various scenarios he’s forced to face? Did you talk a lot with cops or is this all your imagination?
I broke both of my arms in a bad accident a few years ago. Part of my recovery involved having my rebuilt right arm strapped into a nasty device from the Tower of London collection that bent and extended my arm for hours each day. During that time, I watched hundreds of hours of Gunsmoke reruns and was surprised by how much I enjoyed following stoic, leather-skinned Marshal Matt Dillon bring order, and sometimes justice, to lawless Dodge City.
Matt Dillon truly lessened my pain. There’s just something about westerns, about the simple concept and mythic characters of Gunsmoke in particular, that’s inherently compelling and deeply satisfying. I wondered what it was, and if I could capture it in a crime novel. So I studied the show and scores of classic western movies.
I discovered that it’s a lot more than just giving a guy a Stetson, a badge, and a gun.
A western puts a man in a lawless, unforgiving, brutal frontier, where he must somehow survive by living off the land, his wits, and his own rigid code. It’s that last bit, I think, that is the core of it all: a personal code of conduct that’s constantly, relentlessly, put to the test.
A true western character ultimately prevails against adversity because of a stubborn, unwavering faith in his own convictions and the righteousness of his cause, a determination to see the world shaped the way he wants it to be, rather than let himself be shaped by it. He doesn’t try to explain or justify himself because it’s pointless. His actions speak for him.
And as iconic and old-fashioned as that all may be, it’s so refreshing in a world where everyone, particularly heroes in crime fiction, are so self-aware and self-obsessed, so eager to accept the moral, ethical, professional, legal ambiguities in a situation rather than take a principled stand on something, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong to everyone else.
That led me to write King City, and to create Sgt. Tom Wade, a man of principle, whose values may be laudable but whose maddening, unwavering loyalty to them costs him almost everything and everyone that he cares about. He’s not out on the western frontier, but exiled to the worst part of a once great industrial city, where he is out-numbered and out-gunned, and must enforce the law on little more than sheer strength of will.
Viewing the tropes and clichés of a modern crime novel through the prism of a western gave me a fresh perspective on the genre that made the book a pleasure to write and, I hope, to read.
I relied on a few cop friends – Paul Bishop, Lee Lofland, and Robin Burcell – for advice and some facts, but mostly I made everything up based on my own experience writing cop shows and novels.You spoke at Sleuthfest about a book you wrote that never earned back its advance of $1500, but that you’ve since re-released as an e-book, and that has gone on to earn $80,000. Please tell us about that—and about what you see as the future of publishing. Do you still want to work with legacy publishers? What direction are you taking your career? Is it possible that this direction is open to you because you’ve already build a following?
That book was The Walk … which was a bomb in print but has been a huge success for me as a self-published ebook. There’s no question that most of my initial success self-publishing came from having an established name, a large backlist, and lots of current titles in print. I had a pre-existing platform to build upon. Scores of midlist authors who were dropped by their publishers, or saw their entire backlists go out of print and thought their careers were over, are enjoying huge success now self-publishing their books. In fact, I know lots of midlist authors who are earning more from their books today than they did when they were originally in print. Amazon’s KDP platform…the ability to put your books on Amazon for free…changed everything for authors. I know authors who are turning down three-book contracts from “legacy” publishers because they can make far more money, and have much more control, self-publishing their books. And I know authors who have actually bought their backlists from their publishers, for as much as $50,000, and earned out on that investment within as little as 90 days.
There isn’t a lot that a legacy publisher can offer a midlist author in return for their massive share of the royalties and what essentially amounts to permanent ownership of your book…which is why you see guys like Brett Battles, Paul Levine, Blake Crouch and Joel Goldman moving into self-publishing and enjoying enormous creative and financial success.
Unless you are a major league author – a Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, Michael Connolly, Stephen King, John Grisham, Nora Roberts etc. – it doesn’t make a lot of sense to work with a legacy publisher anymore, not unless they radically change the way they do business and their relationships with authors, which doesn’t seem to be happening yet.
For superstar, A-list, brand-name authors, legacy publishers are still the way to go because they have the deep pockets, marketing resources, corporate media partnerships and global distribution to make the most out of their literary franchises.
But that doesn’t mean I am walking away from the Big Six. I recently signed a four-book deal to co-write a series of novels with Janet Evanovich for Random House and I couldn’t be happier to be in business with them.