SPS-185: ThrillerFest 2019 Inside Stories Part 2 – with Lisa Unger, Jon Land, Lee Goldberg & Robert Dugoni
In part two of our series from ThrillerFest, James talks to four authors who are continually learning about their craft and making sure they stay focused on their readers.
- On PublishDrive’s new royalty splitting service, Abacus
- How Lisa Unger knows which story ideas to pursue
- Writing organically and seeing what shows up each day
- How to get inspiration to meet you on the page
- Writing for Hollywood with Jon Land
- Why Hollywood wants the same thing but different
- Why pitches have to be succinct and emotionally resonant
- Seeking the opportunities in writing challenges
- Using TV and film techniques to make your thrillers more thrilling
- The importance of conflict in every scene
- Getting the legal details right with Robert Dugoni
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
ROYALTY SPLITTING: Abacus is the new service from PublishDrive, for those authors who co-write or who have a small publishing company.
Transcript of Interviews
Announcer: On this edition of The Self Publishing Show.
Lee Goldberg: Readers don’t care, they just want to be transported. What they need is the one detail that you glean from your research that’ll make your story come alive. You don’t have to prove to the reader that you went to Lisbon for this book or that you looked at an autopsy. We believe you. Just make us happy with a good story.
Announcer: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers. No more barriers. No one standing between you and your readers.
Do you want to make a living from your writing? Join Indie bestseller, Mark Dawson, and first-time author, James Blatch, as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is The Self Publishing Show. There’s never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello. Welcome back to The Self-Publishing Show. This is episode two of three from New York City, where Tom, I and John Dyer have spent the week at ThrillerFest. Tom Ashford standing in for Mark Dawson, on a well-earned break.
Tom, how was your first episode?
Tom Ashford: It was pretty good.
James Blatch: He’s a man of few words, this Tom.
Tom Ashford: That’s why my books are so short.
James Blatch: I’ve got to be honest, it isn’t the ideal quality for somebody presenting the podcast.
Tom Ashford: No, it’s been great.
James Blatch: Oh, excellent. There are three more words.
Tom Ashford: I’m adding more. We might go up the World Trade Center later.
James Blatch: He’s written nine novels. How many words have you written?
Tom Ashford: Oh, about four between them. No, probably about 600,000 words.
James Blatch: 600,000 words. I’ve written half that, and I’ve only got zero novels.
Tom Ashford: Well, yeah. That doesn’t make any sense at all.
James Blatch: It makes no sense. Okay, look, we are still in Dumbo. You can see the Brooklyn Bridge behind us and bits of Manhattan.
I want to talk to you about a new product we’ve been briefed about this week. We had lunch on one of the days this week, I can’t remember which day, with PublishDrive with Phyllis from PublishDrive who works here. And we’ve had Kinga Jentetics. I think I can say that. It’s Jentetics. All here on the podcast in the past.
Now, Kinga told us a little while ago that within their dashboard on PublishDrive, which is an aggregating service that will put your book up to all the various retailers, that they had a split-royalties option.
For instance, if you and I, Tom, the dream team, Ashford and Blatch, wrote a novel together, and we split the royalties 60/40 in favor of me, if we did that, always be negotiating, then PublishDrive would do all the maths for you. And your report at the end of the month would show you the royalty split after expenses and so on. That’s really useful.
In fact, it’s particularly useful for those growing number of indie authors who are publishing other people’s books. There are little indie imprints to do those split royalties. Well, it’s been so successful, embedded into PublishDrive, they’ve extricated it and they’ve extended it to cover Amazon and Kindle Unlimited.
It is called Abacus. It’s a standalone product. It’s just been launched. We were briefed on it just ahead of its official announcement, and if you want to try it out, I think there’s a month at the moment for free. That might just be running out, so beats the period. After that it’s going to be $2.99 per book, per month.
But like I said, if you’re running a small imprint, that could be useful. We’re going to put the link to Abacus on PublishDrive in the show notes, so you can get them there on the website.
Right, so let’s move on to today’s interviews, or this episode’s interviews. As I said, we’ve been here at ThrillerFest. We’ve been listening to all the craft sessions from fantastic, well-renowned, world selling, bestselling authors, who’ve imparted their knowledge to us.
And you don’t have to come to New York, if you don’t want to, to watch ThrillerFest. You can just watch these three episodes, and we’ve pulled out these 10 to 12-minute interviews with each of these protagonists, and we are now going to talk to Lisa Unger, who had the rather vague title of How to Write a Novel.
That was literally the title of her session, wasn’t it?
Tom Ashford: That was it. No clues at all.
James Blatch: But she’s somebody who knows how to write novels, who’s got fantastic success behind her. Many of you will be familiar with Lisa Unger’s work and as I mentioned at the end of the last episode, a lot of this stuff pertains to you, as an author of whatever genre you write.
It’s not just about thriller authors, and Lisa, actually, of course, turned out to be quite detailed and good advice, so let’s hear from Lisa.
Lisa Unger: I’m Lisa Unger, and I am the New York Times bestselling novelist of 17 novels of psychological suspense, including The Stranger Inside, which comes out this September.
James Blatch: Super. You’ve had excellent success, which is amazing. Congratulations.
Lisa Unger: Thank you so much.
James Blatch: Always exciting and inspiring.
Lisa Unger: Thank you.
James Blatch: And you led a session yesterday. Quite a lot of the session titles are fairly niche.
Lisa Unger: Yeah.
James Blatch: Your session was How to Write a Novel.
Lisa Unger: Right. Which could hardly be looser, right? Could hardly be broader because is there one way to write a novel? No, there is not one way to write a novel.
There probably are as many different ways to write a novel as there are writers, but there are some basic concepts that I kind of went over in my talk.
One thing is that obviously, we all start with an idea. For me, that idea can come from anywhere. It might be a line of poetry or a news story, or in one case even, a piece of junk mail.
And then usually if I get that excitement or this buzzy feeling that I get, it leads me to a sloth of research. So, we talked a little bit about research in that class and how important it is to all your subject matter what you know and then what you come to know through your research.
And then, for me, the best way I can describe it is if it connects with something larger that’s going on with me, then I start to hear voices, and it’s these voices, it might be one voice speaking like a very intimate first-person voice, it might be multiple voices, and these voices lead me through my narrative.
James Blatch: So when you say speaks to something larger, you’re talking about a thematically or emotionally?
Lisa Unger: Psychologically, neurologically, spiritually, whatever it is. That’s the only way I can explain the level of intensity that is required to write a novel. It’s a very organic and personal process for me so I have to be deeply engaged. Not just with my subject matter, but also with my voices, with the characters living in my head.
We talked a little bit about that in my talk, and then we talked about how, at this point, a lot of people have to make that big decision about whether they’re an outliner or the… I know they call it pantser.
James Blatch: It’s a horrible word, isn’t it?
Lisa Unger: Which is a horrible word. It completely does not describe the essence of the people who write the way I write.
James Blatch: We need to come up with a new expression.
Lisa Unger: I know.
James Blatch: Like the dynamic writer or something, yeah.
Lisa Unger: Somebody said dynamic writer. I like that. Organic writer.
James Blatch: Organic.
Lisa Unger: Yeah, organic writer. I like that. I think that we’ll go with that.
James Blatch: Yeah, let’s go with that.
Lisa Unger: So when you have that organic process, I follow those voices through the narrative, and I don’t know what’s going to happen today.
James Blatch: That is your process.
Lisa Unger: It is.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Lisa Unger: I don’t know who’s going to show up. I don’t know what they’re going to do, but I have written 17 novels by following my voices through the narrative and sort of all my plots flow from character.
James Blatch: Just on your process then, Lisa, you get to the end of that first draft.
Lisa Unger: Yes.
James Blatch: How did you work forward through it, or do you go back and revise?
Lisa Unger: I’m pretty linear because I am following voices. So I feel like in a lot of ways, I’m writing for the same reason that I read because I want to know what’s going to happen. So the novel does build on itself that way.
And usually, by the time I’m at the end of a first draft, which generally takes about nine to 12 months and it may be 100,000 words or a little bit more at that time, usually it’s about 95 percent there structurally.
James Blatch: Oh, really? Wow. Considering if you’ve worked with a linear sense-
Lisa Unger: Exactly.
James Blatch: That’s amazing.
Lisa Unger: Yeah, so structurally it’s very much there. There might be some sort of moving around of sequences and stuff like that, but generally, structurally, the bones are there. There’s, of course, another year of editorial work, but that structure is pretty solid at that point for me.
So we talked about in my class, I talk about the idea. I talk about research, talk about voices, outlining, and stuff like that. And then I talk about the actual hard part, which is you just sit down and write your book, and there are no shortcuts there.
James Blatch: No. At the end of the day, you need to, someone said bum on seat, hands on keyboard.
Lisa Unger: Exactly. Nose to the keyboard, right. Exactly.
James Blatch: Is there a way that you make sure that you’re doing that? Do you have a routine or do you advise people to find a motivation for that?
Lisa Unger: I absolutely do. I think that what I tell aspiring writers, because always the thing that you hear is, “I really want to write, but I just don’t have the time”, and I had a creative writing teacher who I heard speak one time, and she said, “Hey, you know what? If you’re not creative enough to find the time to write, then you’re not creative enough to write”.
That’s pretty harsh, but there is a kernel of truth to that. So the number one thing I tell all aspiring writers is that you need to schedule the time to write as you would schedule anything that is important to you, and then you honor the schedule. It really is that simple. It’s just not easy, right?
James Blatch: Yeah.
Lisa Unger: So for me, my golden creative hours are 5:00 a.m. to noon. That’s where I am at my most creative, my most high energy. So generally, for me, I’m trying to get to the keyboard as early as possible. 5:00 a.m. is ideal.
Of course, I’m a mom and I have a home and a husband and a daughter. And as long as nobody was up at 4:00 a.m. puking for some unknown reason, that’s what I shoot for.
James Blatch: Any one of those three could have been-
Lisa Unger: Could have been any one, right?
James Blatch: The dog.
Lisa Unger: Especially the dog.
James Blatch: We have a similar situation, yeah.
Lisa Unger: Right? 4:00 a.m. is the witching hour for the dog apparently.
James Blatch: Right.
Lisa Unger: So try to get to my desk by 5:00 a.m. I would try to get that first creative cycle between 5:00 and 7:00, and then my daughter gets up and I get her ready for school and either I or my husband will take her to school.
Then I’m back at my desk by 8:15, and then that second creative block will be about 8:15 to 12:15. So it’s a solid four-hour creative block, and that’s a really important one. That’s like a super important one.
Then I generally break in the middle of the day where I’ll eat and then exercise because exercise is a big part of my process. It’s where a lot of stuff sort of gestates, and then it comes to these kind of bursts of ideas and narrative problems fixed or whatever.
And then I try to get one more creative cycle in before my daughter gets home from school, and then I batch the shallow work, which is a phrase from a book called Deep Work by Cal Newport. I batch the shallow work in the afternoon, email, social media, all the stuff that’s the business of being a writer. So that’s kind of how I do it. That’s the ideal schedule.
James Blatch: I think there’s going to be slight variations of that work for different people.
Lisa Unger: And some people, they’re not early birds, and they’re never going to be early birds and their golden creative hours might be from midnight to 3:00 a.m. It’s like
I think the most important thing to take away from that is to find those hours in your life that nobody else wants. Nobody else wants the hours, for example, of 4:00 to 6:00 a.m. Nobody wants that, not even your children, hopefully, will want those hours.
James Blatch: The dog maybe.
Lisa Unger: Sometimes the dog might, yeah.
James Blatch: I’ve got the feeling the dog’s quite needy at that time.
Lisa Unger: He’s very needy, yeah. He’s always the wild card, and then my daughter is not needy at all. She’s like all herself, but the dog is still like a perpetual baby.
James Blatch: Clinging on.
Lisa Unger: Very clingy. So find those hours that are just yours, but you have to make a commitment to that time, and you have to think of it as if you’ve made a commitment to your friend, or you’ve made an appointment with a personal trainer.
James Blatch: Take it seriously.
Lisa Unger: Or whatever. You wouldn’t let your friend down. You wouldn’t miss an appointment that you made. Why are you letting yourself down? Why are you missing an appointment that you made with yourself?
When you find that block of time and you have it and you’re sitting down at your keyboard instead of doing the focus work of writing, you find yourself on Facebook, watching cat videos, or whatever it is that people do on the internet now, take a quiz to find out what your spirit animal is.
If you find yourself doing that, then the simple truth is you just didn’t care enough to write your book and it’s all about that. It’s all about the writing. It’s all about the words on the page, and it never, ever stops being about that even after I’ve published 17 novels.
I think a lot of people think of that, oh, I’m going to get this first book publishing contract, and it’s going to be like a windfall, it’s going to be the end of a journey. But to be honest, it’s only the beginning. It’s just an open door to the writing life and the most important thing, never let… It never stops being the words on the page, that you wrote the best book that you could write every single time.
James Blatch: Just on a practical level, do you set yourself word count targets for the day?
Lisa Unger: I really don’t. I’m at least a thousand words.
I know a lot of people are like, I’m putting those words down no matter what, and I can always fix it later. I don’t necessarily prescribe to that, but I will say is that there are these days where you’re just alive with it and the inspiration is high and you can’t keep those pages from coming. Then there are the days where you’re really leaning on your craft.
I’m a professional writer. I’ve been writing professionally for 20 years. I was a writer long, long before that. So I sit down and write whether inspiration is high or not, but I’m not just going to put words down onto the page.
You wait for that organic moment where you see your way to the next thing and that’s not always linear, it’s not always the same amount of pages every day, but it’s basically knowing that you’re available during that time.
You make a time where your brain is available for the story, and you will be amazed at how often inspiration meets you there. It’s sort of this union between the magical element of it and just the discipline of being and working creatively.
That’s something I think everybody can benefit from thinking about. Be there, be there at the time, be available, schedule the time, honor the schedule, be there even if the inspiration is not there, and maybe it will meet you there.
James Blatch: Honor thyself.
Lisa Unger: Exactly.
James Blatch: I do remember this, I don’t know who said it once, but there’s no such thing as writer’s block, and there’s just not writing.
Lisa Unger: Exactly.
James Blatch: Another tip we got from JD Barker in an interview last year which I took on, and as often as I did worked really well, is when you stop your obsessive writing, stop at a point where you’re really enjoying it. It’s such a small thing, but-
Lisa Unger: It is.
James Blatch: Because if you got to the end of a chapter, and you know your next thing is a beginning, it can be a bit off-putting to even start.
Lisa Unger: Right, stop in the middle. I’ve heard people say stop in the middle of a sentence, stop in the middle of a page, in the middle of a chapter, yeah, that makes sense, that makes a lot of sense.
James Blatch: I felt like for me that was such a good tip.
Okay Lisa, do you know what? That was brilliant. We are going to have to get you on for a full kind of 30, 40 minutes chat about this.
Lisa Unger: Absolutely, I would love it, I would love it, yeah.
James Blatch: This has been a taste of the Lisa Unger system of getting shit done.
Lisa Unger: Exactly, get it done.
James Blatch: Thank you so much for joining us.
Lisa Unger: Thank you.
James Blatch: Well there you go, that’s Lisa Unger. I really, really enjoyed Lisa’s interview, I thought she was fantastic, I thought she was very SPF and the sort of person that we love on The Self-Publishing Show.
She talks very clearly, no mincing her words, about what you’ve got to do to get the work done, and here are some ideas to modify your routines to make sure you get the words done.
Lisa’s based down in Florida, near St. Pete where we’re going to go for NINC in a couple of months, so we’ve promised to bring our cameras down there, and spend maybe 30, 40, minutes with Lisa and do a full podcast episode with her, because I think that would be really worthwhile.
Tom, do you have a particular routine for writing?
Tom Ashford: Yes, see I work with you guys with SPF, so I prioritize that in a way that someone might prioritize a day job, regular job.
James Blatch: He’s just saying that for us, but you can carry on.
Tom Ashford: I get two hours of work done a day, and then after that, I just work until dinner usually, and then that might two and a half, three hours or something maybe, and then after dinner if I’m still feeling fresh, I’ll carry on writing, and if I’m not then I’ll just, that’s my chilling out time to recharge.
James Blatch: Yeah. I’ve been pretty good at writing, certainly got my words done, but I don’t have a particular routine. I liked the way Lisa talked. I need to probably work something out that’s going to work well for me. Maybe when the book’s published and the next one’s being drafted, I’ll come over here.
Tom Ashford: In 2030.
James Blatch: Rude. Okay, now we’re going to talk about TV. We’re going to talk about TV and Film from two perspectives.
First of all, we’re going to hear from Jon Land, who’s going to talk to you about getting into the industry, about what it is you need to do as a novel writer to eventually see your book on TV or in film. He’s got some practical really good easy tips for that and also some realism thrown in there about what the industry’s like.
Then we’re going to hear, directly after Jon, from Lee Goldberg. Now Lee is somebody who knows TV inside out. He’s the guy who writes episodes of Diagnosis: Murder, and if you’re in the UK, you’d be intimately familiar with Diagnosis: Murder because it’s on, frankly, every lunch time.
It’s been on TV I think more or less every day of my lifetime. It’s Dick van Dyke, is it?
Tom Ashford: Yeah.
James Blatch: Unbelievable.
Tom Ashford: I watch it.
James Blatch: Dick van Dyke. Lee has written episodes for lots of TV shows that you would have watched in the past. He’s a really great guy and he talks not about how to get into TV. He’s left that behind now and moved on, he talks about the techniques that you use in television to grip your audience, to keep things ticking over for them and embedding those, learning from that and using those in your novel writing. So Lee’s coming second but first, let’s hear from the irrepressible Jon Land.
Jon, here we are again.
Jon Land: We are, an annual tradition.
James Blatch: I have to say I heard you coming.
Jon Land: Uh-huh.
James Blatch: I heard you coming as you emerged from the door. We know Jon Land is in the building, we can hear the conversation-
Jon Land: My ego hits you before our eyes meet.
James Blatch: We love it, there’s never a dull moment and you’ve had a session this morning already, and we want to talk to you about Hollywood I think.
Jon Land: I did. Okay.
James Blatch: So you’ve been setting out this idea, a quote I think you just told us about that Hollywood wants the same things but different, and that was-
Jon Land: Give me the same thing only different.
James Blatch: How do we do that?
Jon Land: It’s kind of like Christmas morning. Everything’s all wrapped up, but the gifts all look different even if they’re pretty much the same, because of the way they’re packaged.
What you’re doing with a film, depending on the genre, if it’s a haunted house movie, we had Jaws, then we had Jaws in space which was Alien.
You have Die Hard, Die Hard on a plane, Die Hard in a building, Die Hard in a train, Die Hard on a boat, Die Hard in New York City. So it’s a matter of finding a new backdrop, it’s coming up with something that works so that when you give them something that’s comfortable, you’re giving them a package that they feel they want to open because it’s familiar to them and yet it’s different enough to make them think that they’re doing something for the first time.
James Blatch: Yeah, and that is a balance, isn’t it? This goes, I think, to everything really, to choosing your genre, etcetera, is that it’s a mistake to try and do something different.
There’s a reason why people are doing the same thing, but it’s also a mistake to just do a copy.
Jon Land: What’s amazing about Hollywood is that no matter what you give them, they tell you they’ve already got it, or they’ve already done it, so what it becomes is finding someone who wants to do what you have.
It’s all timing, but it’s also, the thing about what the doorway into Hollywood today, through all the low budget films that are happening, also there are 500 scripted series on the air right now, and there are going to be more, because of what Apple has just announced, that they’re getting into it.
This is a great time to be a writer if you’re able to package what you do into a format.
I’ll give you an example: Bob Kosberg is the master of pitching. He once walked into a room of producers and sold the movie with three words, Jaws with paws. It was Jaws with a dog. It was a terrible movie, but it got made. He got paid, it got sold.
James Blatch: It’s the ultimate high concept.
Jon Land: It’s the ultimate high concept, and this is the thing, the same thing only different means something you can sell the movie on. If you can’t summarize it in an elevator and from floor one to floor 20, then there’s something wrong because you need to be able to say what your movie is about, which means it has to feel familiar but also be an original take on something that is familiar. It’s kind of like the same Armani suit as last year, only a different color, but it’s still an Armani suit.
James Blatch: So it’s still the same. Hollywood still requires you to distill your message down to a sentence that’s going to grip from the beginning.
There’s no sort of level of sophistication now where you can submit a treatment for them to read through.
Jon Land: It’s even more true now than ever. Why? Because the bulk of films that are sold are not sold to theaters, they’re sold direct to video or streaming sites, so when you’re looking through those 30 movies that got released this week on Video on Demand, 50 movies, 100 movies, what are you looking at to get you to read, to watch the preview?
You’re looking at what that one sentence thing is, and you try to catch those keywords that make you feel.
And that’s the other thing, when you create a pitch, an elevator pitch, you want it to mean something emotionally. It’s very challenging to do, but it’s very important, because if you’re emotionally invested, whoever’s looking at your concept, and this is the whole point of the high concept.
Jaws was the ultimate high concept; a killer shark terrorizes a summer based community. I mean there you go. Right there you know you have a winner if nothing else happens, but when you say a police chief who’s afraid of the water tracks a killer shark terrorizing his community, you take it to another level. So that’s the same thing only different because you’ve given it that other take.
James Blatch: That human thing obviously that’s always been an important thing for Hollywood.
I think another good example is Terminator, where you have the robot coming back from the future to destroy somebody who’s going to do great damage, but the key is the mother protecting her son. Once you throw that element into it, that’s when you really got the story.
Jon Land: That’s exactly right. A Terminator coming back to kill the person who’s going to stop his creation is not as good as a mother fights to protect her son from a killer robot sent back from the future to kill him, to prevent-
James Blatch: That’s when you immediately want to know what happens next.
Jon Land: Because now you’ve made the viewer, the reader, who’s wondering whether he should choose or she should choose your movie. You’ve invested them emotionally in what is going to happen. That’s the bow on the wrapping, let’s go back to the Christmas package metaphor, that’s the bow on the wrapping, why do we care? What makes us emotionally invested in the story?
James Blatch: Should writers be chasing Hollywood, or should they just be doing their job as writers?
Jon Land: Doing their job as writers is chasing Hollywood, the question is how much do you invest in your chase. It’s a brilliant question, and here’s why. Writing a script is one thing, but then you get a producer who loves the script and wants to work with you, and says, “I just need you to do a little punch up”. 50 drafts later, you’re still doing punch ups.
James Blatch: With no money yet.
Jon Land: You’re chasing, you’re chasing, and you have to decide as a writer, do you have the time, the energy and the motivation? Is this worth chasing to the point where it may never happen, and that’s the frustration.
It’s one thing to do rewrites after your script has been bought and you have been paid. It’s a whole other thing to do the rewrites as part of the creative process, even sometimes when you don’t believe in what you’re being asked to do. You don’t agree necessarily, you’re being told something.
The producer is trying to do what’s best for the producer, and what he or she thinks they can best package, but that doesn’t mean they’re right, so it’s a decision each writer has to make in their own artistic integrity and the integrity of their own project.
If somebody doesn’t get something, they’re the wrong person for producing it. One of my favorite movies is The Usual Suspects, classic film. It was made independently because they couldn’t raise the money. Nobody understood what the movie was about. One of the execs who actually wanted to make it, who wanted to buy it, said to Bryan Singer, “I will make this move tomorrow, I love everything about it. I’m a big crime fan, I’m a big noir fan, just do one thing for me, one note. Verbal Kint can’t be Keyser Soze.” Kevin Spacey can’t be Keyser Soze. That’s the movie, and this guy said just change this one little thing, and I’ll buy the script.
James Blatch: The one thing everyone remembers from the film.
Jon Land: The one thing that made the film. This is the very definition of chasing; making changes that you know are wrong, and that are going to kill the chances, but the most important rule to go by in contrast to that is get the movie made.
Unlike the book business, which is more, they fall in love with the integrity of your idea, and they want to make it better.
In the film business, there are so many levels that have to be passed, you could have written the best story ever about a 21-year-old girl coming into her own, but if they cast a 35 or a 45-year-old actress, now you have to go back and write the movie to that demographic, to that actress, because that’s who got the movie made. You didn’t get the movie made, that actress got the movie made.
So the chasing, it’s fun to chase when your movie’s getting made, and it’s just a question of how it gets made. The key thing is to be a team player, the key thing is you as the writer, if they come to you and say we’ve bought your script, we’ve paid you but now we have to make changes because this is the actor we really want, this’ll get the movie made, do you say no, I’m not going to do that? Of course not, you say just tell me what you need.
This is my philosophy, the answer is yes, what was the question?
James Blatch: Yeah. It could be soul-destroying for some people, though. Well I guess what you were alluding to earlier, you’ve got to work out whether this is for you.
Jon Land: You have to determine how much you’re willing to compromise, that’s what art is at the pop-culture level, it’s a compromise, but it’s like the old saying; a tree fell in the forest, nobody heard or saw it fall, did it really fall?
You wrote a book, you wrote a movie but nobody ever read it, nobody ever saw it, did you really write it? No, you don’t exist in a vacuum, you write books so people would read them, you write movies so people will watch them and they’ll get made. So the question isn’t will you do it, it’s I will not only do it, I’ll make it better. I’ll make this… it might not be exactly where we started but it’s not the destination for the writer, it’s the journey.
James Blatch: So having an enthusiasm for having the project made, even if that-
Jon Land: That trumps the material.
James Blatch: So maybe think of it as a surprising route to go down, rather than a route you didn’t want to happen, just think okay, it’s a challenge to you as writer.
Jon Land: Exactly, it’s like Churchill said, “Where some people see a challenge, I see an opportunity”, so you look at it as an opportunity. And the other thing is if you don’t do it, they’re just going to bring somebody else in who does.
They’re just going to fire you, they paid you and now… I want the opportunity to take my stuff over the finish line, because what happens when other writers come in is when they make changes that seem major, but really… you just have to find another definition. You have to find another way, it’s putting another bow on the wrapping, it’s putting another bow on the box. That’s all it is, the wrapping is still there, it’s still a present on Christmas morning.
James Blatch: Now for a lot of the people who attend this conference, they will be novelists at the moment, and starting out or maybe a couple under their belt. Everyone loves, I wouldn’t say everyone, most of us love the idea that one of our books would at some point be adapted.
Do we think about Hollywood, even in a kind of abstract way when you’re sitting down plotting your next book, do you think about Hollywood at that stage?
Jon Land: That’s a great point, the answer is no, but here’s the thing. If you write a great story, you are thinking about Hollywood, because what film business is looking for are great stories.
If you write a great story that maximizes your ability to sell to Hollywood. There’s a reason they say they adapt books, they don’t make books into movies, they adapt them into movies. So if they find something in yours that they like, example, one of the scariest best horror stories I’ve ever read was NOS4A2 by Joe Hill, Stephen King’s son, it’s been done on AMC right now, it’s being done brilliantly.
In the book, she was a little girl and then she was a mother, who had a son about the age she was. In the TV production, she’s 80 years old, she was never that in the book. They totally changed the nature of her character, but they didn’t change the story or the challenges her character was facing, they redefine them, it was a different wrapping on the same box in other words. There’s a perfect example.
So not only do they not do the little girl, not only have they not done the grown-up woman with a child of her own being threatened by this devilish character, they invented an entirely new take on the same girl. They started basically with the skeleton and they put the flesh around it.
So when you’re writing a book, that if you’re lucky enough to have adapted, you’re selling them a skeleton, and you’re basically saying, “I’m going to accept the fact you’re going to take flesh off my bones”, and sometimes that’s a great metaphor for what it feels like, but if you’re lucky enough to be in that situation, don’t complain.
There’s a great line in The Godfather 2, Hyman Roth to Michael Corleone, “Michael, this is the business we have chosen.”
This is part of it, this is part of being a professional. Being a professional is a person who’s willing to compromise what they think is right in favor of attaining a greater good, and if it means, some people will say, “No, I won’t do it, I don’t care if it gets made or not”. I’m not like that, I’ll do anything they tell me if it helps get my movie made.
James Blatch: And let us not be afraid of the fact, this is a business.
Jon Land: It’s a business.
James Blatch: You’re a writer, but you’re also a businessperson.
Jon Land: And it’s a challenge to the creative mind. It’s kind of like if you’re an interior designer and you have great image for what you want to do for somebody’s house, and they hate it, well what do you do, you just give them their money back? No, you come up with another idea.
You come up with another notion. You listen to what they didn’t like the first time, and you give them what they want. Give me the same thing, only different.
James Blatch: Finally Jon, for people who just have a wishful dream about maybe getting a book adapted or making those first steps, have you got any advice for them?
Is it still a contacts game, is it who you know?
Jon Land: Well, it’s two things, the first thing is you got to have a script. You have to have something to sell.
James Blatch: More than a novel, you’ve got to have a treatment.
Jon Land: I think an original script will get… novels tend to be more expensive to adapt if they’re not bestsellers, people will say well nobody bought it, what do we want to make it for, but if you have the original script, you’re getting evaluated on your own merits.
So the question of how best break-in is not to write a great book, the best way to break into Hollywood is to write a great script. That opens doors for you that a book won’t open, because anybody out there can read a script, nobody out there reads books. They’ll read the coverage of it, they’ll read the summary of it, and they’ll look at the sales figures.
So the best way is instead of giving someone a business card, have a script to hand them. Have a script that is high concept, we talked about that, that gives them what they want only different, that is comparable to other movies that have worked in the past, that they understand how they can sell it, how they can package it, and what they can compare it to, how they can attract talent to it.
And I think also, actors want to be challenged but they want to win awards, they want to be lauded. So if you write great roles, or you can also is you’re writing a book, you could write a screenplay version of your own book, because you own the intellectual property already. So that’s also a possibility, but it’s apples and oranges.
What works in a book does not necessarily work in a screenplay. Adapting a 400-page book would be a seven-hour movie, you’ve got to cut that to two hours, unless you want to do a TV show, which is a whole nother thing, that’s much more of a closed world. You need showrunners and everything, but the most important thing is to write a great story. You do that, you’re going to have a shot.
James Blatch: Jon, it’s always great pleasure talking to you.
Jon Land: This was fun, we didn’t talk about this last year, this was fun.
James Blatch: No, this was good, this is value.
Jon Land: Next year, we’ll talk about all the film stuff I’ve got going that came from now to then, we’ll see what we can do.
James Blatch: It’ll be the practical demonstration of what you’ve talked about this time next year.
Jon Land: Absolutely, yes, we’ll put my money where my mouth is, and that’s a lot of money because I’ve got a big mouth.
James Blatch: Thank you Jon.
Jon Land: Thank you very much.
James Blatch: Lee Goldberg, thank you so much indeed for coming on sir.
Lee Goldberg: I’ve been trying to avoid you guys, but you stalked me and chased me down.
James Blatch: We almost rugby tackled you to get you here. Now the title of your session you did yesterday caught our eye for using TV techniques to supercharge your novel, and I think it’s very zeitgeist.
It feels to me there’s never been a closer crossover between novel, reading, writing and watching TV, it’s almost the same thing.
Lee Goldberg: People are so trained for stories to move the way they move on film, they had that same pace, that same economy of exposition, and if you can use those same techniques in your thrillers, they’ll be thrilling.
But so many thrillers begin with pages of boring exposition, they don’t remember that a thriller is supposed to thrill. So if you use TV and film screenwriting techniques, it really jacks up the storytelling.
James Blatch: And this means that we have to start looking at TV in a slightly more critical way because it’s easy to watch things and not really notice how they’re put together.
Would you advise writers to think about how they’re put together?
Lee Goldberg: Let’s take it back, viewers have internalized the structure of a TV show. They expect stories to be told in the three-act structure of film or a four-act structure of a TV show and if it’s not, it feels like something’s lacking.
So yes, I would urge novelists, particularly thriller authors to look at how a TV show or a film is structured, to look at the way they reveal character and story through dialogue and action, rather than exposition, and adopt those same techniques in their writing.
James Blatch: And is this something you think is being adopted by writers or are you still looking at novelists, particularly newer novelists who don’t get this?
Lee Goldberg: No, there are so many novelists who don’t get it. Who just are so in love with their prose, so in love with their descriptions or they’ve done this research and they want you to know it, so they just blurt out all this research, just so you know that they read a bunch of reference books or they went to these places.
Readers don’t care, they just want to be transported. What they need is the one detail that you glean from your research that’ll make your story come alive. You don’t have to prove to the reader that you went to Lisbon for this book or that you looked at an autopsy. We believe you. Just make us happy with a good story.
James Blatch: Let’s get some missing detail; what techniques did you impart yesterday to people in your session?
Lee Goldberg: I said the key to getting ahead is to sleep with your editor or sleep with a producer. That’s the way to do it.
James Blatch: Happily, I’m doing both.
Lee Goldberg: What I imparted yesterday is the importance of having a conflict in every single scene. If a scene doesn’t have conflict, if it doesn’t reveal character or move the story forward, the scene should go, and to have as little exposition, meaning explanation and background as possible. Get rid of the boring stuff as Elmore Leonard would say if he were here.
James Blatch: Yes.
Lee Goldberg: And you’d rather have Elmore Leonard here, let’s be honest.
James Blatch: Yes, and that’s good editorial technique anyway for writing, isn’t it?
Each scene should have a purpose and move the story forward.
Lee Goldberg: Not just a purpose, it should reveal character, it should have conflict in it. A scene of your hero having breakfast, thinking about the predicament he’s in is not a scene full of conflict, it reveals character, moves the story forward, it’s treading editorial water. It’s wasting time, and so many authors do it, because so many authors don’t outline. They make up the story as they go along, they just want to keep typing and the problem is they don’t go back and cut the crap later, because everything they write is gold.
You have to also be a very good editor, you have to learn to be brutal with your own writing.
James Blatch: Kill your babies. You’ve got to slaughter your babies.
Lee Goldberg: Yes.
James Blatch: And the brevity in TV writing, which is shocking and astonishing for most novelists to understand, is obviously a key part of why TV works.
Lee Goldberg: It’s not so much brevity, it’s that stories are told through action and dialogue. So if people don’t say it or do it, it doesn’t happen, whereas in a book, you can do all this stuff inside people’s heads, and you can blather on and on about a location or a fact or a detail.
And it’s very easy to do because it keeps you typing, but it doesn’t really move the story forward, it kills the rhythm of the story, it kills the narrative momentum, and in a screenplay, you can’t do that, you just simply can’t. It’s physically impossible because you need everything revealed through dialogue, and if you have dialogue that’s this long full of BS backstory, it’s going to get cut.
James Blatch: So do you suggest as an approach, Lee, that people when they set out to outline their novel, they think of it as a film or a TV?
Lee Goldberg: Yes, because in a film, all the facts have to come out through action and dialogue, so if your story can’t be revealed through action or dialogue, there’s a problem with your story.
That’s not to say you can’t have a few paragraphs now and then of what’s going on in your character’s mind or backstory about a location or a procedure, but make it short, as short as possible, down to one line if you can.
James Blatch: What’s your background, Lee, tell us about your credits?
Lee Goldberg: I started as a male model, and then professional escort, and international businessman.
James Blatch: Is that when you started sleeping with your editor?
Lee Goldberg: I started as a journalist writing about the entertainment industry for Newsweek, Los Angeles Times, Syndicate, places like that. And then when I was 19 years old, a student at UCLA, I wrote a book called .357 Vigilante by Ian Ludlow, Ian for Ian Fleming, Ludlow for Robert Ludlum, so I’d be on the shelf right next to Robert Ludlum, and so people would go, “Ian Ludlow, you know I think I read something by him, it wasn’t bad”.
And my book, .357 Vigilante, came out the same week this guy, Bernard Goetz, blew away some muggers on a New York subway train.
My book became a huge bestseller, New World Pictures bought the movie rights and hired me to write the script and I was 19, and I’ve been writing ever since with some male escorting and international espionage on the side.
James Blatch: Were you into scriptwriting ahead of writing the novel?
Lee Goldberg: I love television, and I hadn’t written a script before that book sold to the movies, but what’s interesting that book did well, but the other ones didn’t, and my publishing career kind of died and I went straight into TV and I spent 25 years in the television business, writing and producing shows like Diagnosis: Murder, Seaquest-
James Blatch: Seaquest?
Lee Goldberg: Yeah, Seaquest, talking dolphin, Baywatch, Hunter, all kinds of shows.
James Blatch: You’ve written episodes in all those series?
Lee Goldberg: I have. You have not lived until you’ve written dialogue for a talking dolphin, trust me. I was sitting at the computer going, “I’m writing for a dolphin, how did my life come to this?”, and then I worked on Baywatch, so having written for a dolphin really helped me get into David Hasselhoff’s character on that show.
James Blatch: And when you’re writing TV, a slight tangent really from novel writing, but it is fascinating to talk to somebody who writes TV episodes, how does this work?
Do they say we’ve got an outline of an idea or do they expect you to come up with outline?
Lee Goldberg: Well, it depends. If you’re a freelance writer, you’re not part of the show, you have to come in and pitch an idea for an episode, and then the showrunner will say whether they like it or not, or they’ll say that’s an interesting idea, and go in a different direction with you in the room if they like it.
But the stories for shows are developed in the writer’s room with the executive producer and everybody else in the show involved, because the script is not just a story, it’s a blueprint for production, and a story has to be able to be shot in a way that the show can produce it for their budget and their shooting schedule.
James Blatch: You can’t suddenly say, “And then they all went to North Korea”? If for a Baywatch episode, it has to fit within what they can physically film, what’s possible and budget, I guess, when you’re writing.
Lee Goldberg: For instance on Diagnosis: Murder, each episode had to be shot in seven days. Three days on our standing sets, four days on location. We only had Dick van Dyke for a certain number of hours on a certain number of days, we can only have a certain number of guest stars, we had a certain budget limitation.
So all of our stories had to fit within those realities of production, and it takes a real skill to be able to tell a good story that can be shot for the budget and shooting schedule that you have.
James Blatch: What do you find more satisfying, writing those episodes on TV or your novels?
Lee Goldberg: Very different. One of the joys of television is that you’re in a room with a bunch of really clever writers, and it’s very exciting.
On the other hand, you have a lot of voices involved with the story you’re telling, you also have networks and studios and actors and producers, who’re getting involved, with a novel, it’s just you. No one gets in your way, it’s your pure creativity, but that can also be little less satisfying and more lonely than being in a room with a bunch of other writers.
James Blatch: And I suppose one other benefit, unless you happen to sit opposite somebody on the subway, who you notice is reading your book, which is now difficult because everybody’s on Kindle, you do get the see the finished product, you watch it when it comes up.
Lee Goldberg: Yes, you do, but sometimes it doesn’t reflect at all what you wrote.
James Blatch: Oh, okay.
Lee Goldberg: Because when you’re writing, it’s a document for other people to interpret. So the story I have in my head is very different from the story that ends up on the page and very different from the story that’s directed by the director and performed by the cast and shot by the cinematographer, and also very from the story that ends up after the editing process.
So often what ends up onscreen resembles what I originally had in mind but because so many other people got involved, it can be better or worse or just different.
James Blatch: But it must be quite cool to see big names, David Hasselhoff or Dick van Dyke-
Lee Goldberg: Oh yeah, such a thrill to have David Hasselhoff perform your dialogue.
James Blatch: No, come on, they’re saying your words that you wrote, that must be nice for you.
Lee Goldberg: Yes and no. I still do get a thrill out of seeing my name onscreen. I have a TV series on Hallmark right now called Mystery 101, and I don’t produce it, I don’t write it, I created it, and it’s fun to see my name on that.
James Blatch: Should novelists pay more attention to feature films?
Lee Goldberg: Yes.
James Blatch: And TV episodes?
Lee Goldberg: Well no, I mean no, because it’s informing, it influences what readers expect from your storytelling. You’ve got to be as thrilling as what they’re seeing onscreen if you’re writing thrillers because you’re competing with that, are they going to spend 25 bucks for your book, or 25 bucks to see a superhero throw a train at somebody? You’ve got to give them that same kind of bang for the buck.
James Blatch: Pacing, we haven’t really talked about pacing, but film pacing is so critical to a success.
I would say that’s probably the one area most frequently get wrong in their books, they’re dragging it.
Lee Goldberg: No, every book has its own pace, you just have to have a pace. Once you establish that pace, you don’t want to slow it down. Some people have a natural rhythm or a natural… I can’t sing, I can’t dance, but I do feel the rhythm of a story, and I can feel when it’s slowing down, even when it’s not a book that I’ve written, I can feel the rhythm of the story and I can feel when the writer is out of step with it, and it’s a skill, it’s one you inherit or it’s instinctive.
James Blatch: Superb. Well Lee, we’re going to look out for your name in the credits then.
Lee Goldberg: Oh thank you, thank you.
James Blatch: Just before the director’s, isn’t it? The writer comes up.
Lee Goldberg: Well in the UK, you could see Diagnosis: Murder every week.
James Blatch: It’s on every day.
Lee Goldberg: Every day, I love it, my daughter can go to school.
James Blatch: Thank you.
Lee Goldberg: Thank you.
James Blatch: Okay, that was Lee Goldberg wrapping up that segment on TV. Lee talking about really useful tips, and the most useful one I think you can take away, and I’ve been imparting it who’ve been speaking to me this week about trying to get into film and TV is do an adaptation.
You do the adaptation, you have a screenplay, because as Jon pointed out, when it’s a novel, there’s a barrier to have that conversation. When it’s already a screenplay, even if it’s never going to look like that, even if it’s going to be changed a million times before it becomes the actual film, you have the conversation because they know what a screenplay is, how it should work, they can see the beats, and they can see the potential of it.
So even if you do it yourself as a very rough experiment on your own, trying something out, get your screenplay written.
Do you lie awake at night envisaging your adaptations on the big screen?
Tom Ashford: I find that often when I’m writing, I mean I’m quite a big film and TV nut as it is, but quite often when I’m writing, I’m imagining how it would look as a piece of cinema anyway. So try and get the style and the imagery in there. I would love to see my stuff onscreen.
James Blatch: That brings us on to what Lee Goldberg was talking about, about using those techniques, and he said filmmaking is brutally commercial. So much money, time and effort goes into filming just a single scene of a film that the writing has to be spot on, and so although we often, we’re all critics, aren’t we, about films, the way that the story unfolds in a film, particularly a good film obviously is a real lesson for us in the way we should be unfolding stories of our novels.
Tom Ashford: Yeah.
James Blatch: Excellent, man of few words, an enigma Tom is.
Okay, we’ve got one bonus interview for you for ThrillerFest for the rounding off of this middle episode of our three, and this is what sounds like the rather dry subject of legal issues.
There was an absolutely fascinating panel where a bunch of novel-writing lawyers, many of whom had practiced criminal work in courts here in the US. One guy was a defense attorney, he had, I can’t remember how many cases he said he had taken to the Supreme Court, but it was a lot.
These guys really knew their legal stuff, and they gave a panel basically talking to novel writers about how to get it right, how not to make a fool of yourself when you’re doing a police procedural, when you’re covering court cases, and again these are general principles not just pertaining to here in the States, which by the way, they revealed in the panel, every state’s different, so anyway, it’s what makes it very complicated. But if you’re in the UK or France or Germany, you will need to be aware of the types of things that our guest here is talking about.
He’s Robert Dugoni, I think he began as a criminal lawyer, San Francisco I want to say. And he was an excellent interviewee just to give us that insight on where it matters getting it right and how we should go about making sure that if we’ve got legal issues, procedures in our novels we get that right, here’s Robert.
Robert Dugoni: My name’s Robert Dugoni, and I am a writer and I write police procedurals, and most recently an espionage thriller.
James Blatch: You’re a writer, a very successful writer.
Robert Dugoni: Thank you.
James Blatch: Which has been great to see police procedurals and espionage.
Crucially, also you were a lawyer, which I think is relevant to today.
Robert Dugoni: I was a lawyer, I practiced law in San Francisco for about 13, 14, years, life gets it going, my wife wanted to move back to Seattle, I started practicing part-time there, but I was always a writer. I mean I had written before I ever went to law school, I wrote for the LA Times. So I call myself a writer turned lawyer turned writer.
James Blatch: So I’ve got to cover it quick, we’re going to come onto the lawyer stuff at the beginning.
Were you getting any satisfaction from your legal career for your writing, because there’s a slightly artistic element to law, despite it being factual.
Robert Dugoni: I just was talking about it, the best lawyers are the lawyers that are fearless. They go into a courtroom and it’s a drama. A courtroom is a drama, and a good lawyer has to be a good actor, because you have all the anxiety and stress and everything weighing on you, but when you stand in a courtroom, you have to look like you’re, everything’s great, everything’s going fine, nothing surprises you, and so you have to be a very good actor.
James Blatch: And a storyteller.
Robert Dugoni: And a storyteller. I once was told by a very successful trial lawyer that the best trial lawyers are not the lawyers that tell the truth, they’re the lawyers that tell the best story.
James Blatch: Because whatever we like to believe about the facts and the figures and the procedure, it’s a jury at the end of the day. They’re not legally trained, but stories, well we’re humans, we are storytellers.
Robert Dugoni: Absolutely. I mean you get 12 people in a jury box and they’re not trained, they come from all walks of life, they do all different sorts of things, and they’re looking for the person that could tell the best story, but surprisingly, surprisingly, they’re often able to weed through a lot of the nonsense, and come up with the right decision.
James Blatch: Good, that’s pleasing. Now you’ve had a panel this morning where you’ve been talking about, I think the emphasis really was on getting it right in books which is a bit of a challenge particularly for writers who don’t have a legal background.
Robert Dugoni: Very much so. There’s a specialty there, and it’s not something that necessarily comes naturally to a lot of people. A lot of the things that happen in a courtroom are not natural, there’s a lot of procedure involved, there’s a lot of technicality involved, and as one of the people on the panel was talking about, it varies in every jurisdiction.
So within a state, you can have five, six, seven different procedures that a lawyer has to be familiar with in order to get it right.
I always say the best thing you can do is ask. When I get myself in trouble in a book, it’s because I didn’t ask. Even as a lawyer or as a former lawyer, I have to ask because I’m not on top of the legal system right now, because I’m not practicing right now, and it changes, it changes all the time, so my advice is always to ask, if you don’t know the answer, ask and get it right.
James Blatch: Is it worth going to watch some court cases?
Robert Dugoni: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve sat in on a lot of trials when I was writing a criminal procedure book. I went down to Seattle and I have a friend that’s a prosecutor, a state prosecutor, and I sit in the trial and I just watch what he’s doing and why he’s doing it.
I don’t bug him during the trial, and then after the trial, I’ll say to him, “Why did you do that, what is it that you did?” And he’ll explain it to me and he’ll tell me what he did, and he’s been doing it for a long time, and he’s very successful at it.
James Blatch: I thought that was an interesting question at the end of the panel, which came from the audience, which was when do you sacrifice reality for your story and vice versa, and there was an interesting set of answers, but you didn’t speak on that.
What’s your take on that?
Robert Dugoni: 99 percent of the people that read your book are not going to know whether you ever did anything wrong, but as an artist, you always want to try to get it right.
I think the best answer that was given is there’s usually an answer that you can you get it right, and just go at it at a different angle. I just wrote a book, it will be coming out soon, and I was talking to my brother-in-law, who’s a lawyer, and I ran him through this scenario, and he said, “You can’t do that”, and I looked at him, “What do you mean you can’t do that?”, “Well there’s this thing called the Public Duty Doctrine”, “Well explain it to me.”
He explained it to me and once he explained it to me, I thought that’s an even better story, I can get around that, and I can make it truthful, I can make it honest.
I think that you don’t ever want to look ridiculous. The Perry Mason moments just don’t happen anymore, people don’t confess on a witness stand, so you want to get as accurate as possible.
I think the bigger question is how much do you put in. I think that is really what can bore a reader, and can get away from it is when you try to be too accurate, because 99 percent of trials are boring, but if you can write that one percent, that five percent what Elmore Leonard always used to talk about, write the parts the people are going to read, don’t write the parts that people aren’t going to read, then you can do a pretty good job.
James Blatch: There’s been an interesting surge recently of reality legal, so we have Serial the podcast, Making a Murderer, The Staircase. I particularly enjoyed The Staircase on Netflix, I think that’s excellent. It shows that people are actually quite interested in some of those details.
You still don’t get to see the whole court case, and they still do what you’ve just described, they show you the bits you’re going to remember.
There is an appetite for some of that, nitty-gritty, isn’t there?
Robert Dugoni: Absolutely. I talked about that this morning, there is no greater drama, there is no greater drama. I don’t know other legal systems, but I would adventure around the world, there is no greater drama than when you have a person standing there with either their life on the line or their financial life on the line, and they’re waiting for 12 people to make a decision about their life, and what’s going to happen to their life.
It’s built-in tension, it’s built-in drama, and it’s fascinating for ordinary citizens. It’s fascinating for ordinary citizens to watch this, because as much as we think we know the legal system, we really don’t.
So there’s a fascination involved there and then there’s just drama, there’s really built-in drama.
James Blatch: I couldn’t agree more. I mentioned on the way up here that I was a BBC reporter and covered quite a few court cases and usually, they were serious court cases. That moment of the verdict, it captures your breath, there’s a silence in the court.
You know in the next couple of seconds, lives are going to change, whatever the verdict is.
Robert Dugoni: That was the fascination of the OJ Simpson trial. As much as a circus as that trial turned out to be, and it did turn out to be a circus, and that was really the judge’s fault. As much as that was a circus, that moment when he stood – I was in a law firm at that time, and I was in a lunchroom, and we were all watching the television, and there was one African American lawyer in that lunchroom, and when that verdict came down I think he was the person who was the most disappointed because he realized what the ramifications of that were going to be, the backlash of what was going to happen, and it was horrific. So yeah, that moment is fascinating.
James Blatch: It’s big. One of the things I took from watching Making a Murderer and The Staircase, in particular, was the mistakes that get made by well-intentioned, hardworking defense lawyers in the very early stages that really tie people up in knots later down the line.
I thought that’s a really good way of layering your character a bit, because it’s easy to have your lawyer working hard but not just get the breaks, but knowing afterwards that you could have done a bit more.
I find it really interesting that thing you see in the reality of these court cases.
Robert Dugoni: One of the things that was mentioned in the panel this morning is you have prosecutors that go into a courtroom and they feel like the defense attorney is not doing his or her job, and so you run that risk then of potentially having the whole case thrown out on appeal because the lawyer was incompetent.
So what do you do? He was talking about, he knows prosecutors who have actually helped the defense lawyer in ways just so that don’t get the case thrown out. There’s all different levels of lawyers here in the United States, and there’s all different law schools that lawyers go through, and there’s people out there that are just trying to make a living.
They might not be very good at what they do, and it’s no different than when you’re sick and you go see a doctor, and people say get a second opinion, there’s a reason for that, and lawyers are no different. There are good lawyers and there are not so good lawyers.
James Blatch: And it came across in the panel I think, some of your colleagues on the panel, hinting that it’s been tough for them to deal with that, with going through these cases, and the moral dilemma of defending somebody who they know is guilty, walking away from a trial, thinking they could’ve done more for someone, and they’ve moved into other areas to get away from that. That also would, I think, make good layering in fiction.
Robert Dugoni: Absolutely, I mean it’s the humanity of it, and I did know lawyers who were absolutely fearless. I’d be sitting at a second chair at a trial, and we’d get a verdict against us, and these are civil cases, and the lawyer would just turn to me and go, “Did the best we could.”
I’m broken up inside, and I’m thinking, “Wait a minute, we lost”, but that wasn’t the point. For a good, experienced lawyer it was I did the best job I could and we lost. That’s life, that’s reality, move on. There are some people who are built that way, and there are some people that are not built that way, and I would think, I never tried a criminal case, but I would think for a criminal lawyer that’d be very difficult.
James Blatch: Maybe they cry at home.
Robert Dugoni: Yeah.
James Blatch: Bob, let’s just finish up on your writing now. So you talked about your last book really being an espionage book.
Robert Dugoni: It is.
James Blatch: Describe the difference then for you having moved from police procedural to espionage.
Robert Dugoni: I really had this story fall into my lap a little bit, and even though I didn’t write the story that fell into my lap, I did have a character early on in my novels who was a former CIA agent who left, and I asked the individual, “Would you help me with espionage part of the book?”
I really wanted to put it in a country that was sexy. Something that would catch people’s interest, and for the United States right now, Russia is a very sexy country again, because of all the things going on and because of Putin and who he is and how he does things.
So I set the story of a guy that’s brought back into the CIA for circumstances related to his family, he’s trying to take care of them, his business is failing, and he goes back in to try to make some money, and everything is different than what was represented to him, and by the time he makes it back home, he finds himself being tried for espionage.
Part of that is a true story, and that was the fascination for me, even though I didn’t write this one particular gentleman’s story, that drama that we talked about, about potentially facing prison for the rest of your life for something you did not do, and not only did you not do it, but you do not even have an agency that’s standing up for you, and is saying he didn’t do it because of all the secrecy and stuff that has to be maintained and national secrets and national defense, pretty dramatic.
James Blatch: I can see why you were drawn to the story, I want to know what happens now. I hope there’s some redemption.
Robert Dugoni: I’m not going to say.
James Blatch: No spoilers. Bob, thank you so much for this, it was a really interesting panel, and thank you for coming on the podcast.
Robert Dugoni: Well thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.
James Blatch: That was Bob Dugoni, and he wraps away this episode.
You write sci-fi, so I guess you don’t have a lot of criminal court cases.
Tom Ashford: No, nobody ever goes to court in mine, there’s no repercussions luckily.
James Blatch: Oh, I see it’s an immoral universe.
Tom Ashford: Yeah, I think if you’re jumping between time and space, it’s quite difficult to have a police force, though that is a story in itself.
James Blatch: Don’t the stormtroopers ever come in and say we’re looking for two droids?
Tom Ashford: No, there’s a slight copyright infringement.
James Blatch: Okay.
Tom Ashford: Yeah.
James Blatch: All right that’s a legal issue.
Tom Ashford: That would be a legal issue, yeah.
James Blatch: Yeah, excellent.
James Blatch: Okay, that’s about it for this middle episode in the tryptic of episodes from New York and ThrillerFest.
Next week is a goodie, believe me, because again regardless of the genre you write, we’re going to talk to four of the biggest names who were here at ThrillerFest this year.
We’re going to talk to James Rollins, we’re going to talk to James Grady, we’re going to talk to John Sandford, we’re going to Harlan Coben.
They have sold probably a 100 million books plus between them, I’d imagine. I mean certainly James Rollins, there’s a comment, that’s 20 or 30 million books he’s sold, he does say it in the interview.
But what a surprise when we get to the interviews, down to earth, just basically putting the work in, learning how to write, learning what works, listening to others, reading others, all the things we kind of know that goes into the pot, the ingredients that make a good writer. It’s great to hear it and inspirational to hear from those four guys, so really looking forward to that final episode next week.
The enigma that is Ashford, and we’ll back from Dumbo, under the Brooklyn Bridge, join us for our final episode. In the meantime, I hope you have a fantastic week writing a great week selling your books.
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