I get asked a lot of questions about my writing process. While I’m not going to discuss that on this page (there isn’t enough space, ha), here is a list of resources that have each made a material impact on my writing journey. I’m always happy to discuss writing and the storytelling process; please drop me a line here.
Two caveats. First, because I write in the thriller genre, these resources are primarily focused on writing fast-paced suspenseful commercial fiction. Second, marketing fiction is a whole ‘nother beast. My thoughts on book marketing, in brief, are at the bottom of the list.
Top Five Resources:
#1 – Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne
This book and the accompanying materials forever changed how I write and catapulted me from wandering around lost in the dark to able to structure a thriller that moves. It goes deep by analyzing how The Silence of the Lambs is structured through acts, sequences, and scenes.
The Book: Amazon
The Website: The Story Grid
#2 – The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
Joseph Campbell popularized the hero’s journey in his seminal 1949 work The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Christopher Vogler made the mythology accessible in The Writer’s Journey. I regularly employ the tropes from this body of work in my writing and the title of book five in The Russian Assassin series comes directly from the hero’s journey. And if you want a bit of trivia, the six-book series staring Max Austin itself follows the hero’s journey. In book five, he’s staring into the abyss. In book six, which wraps up the saga, Max returns with the elixir.
This book is the only one that stays on my desk as I write.
The Book: Amazon
#3 – The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
The key to writing is consistency and doing the work. You have to get your butt in the seat and write even when you’re tired or grumpy or would rather Netflix and chill. Your mind toils endlessly to prevent you from doing the work and has countless diabolical tactics to lazify you. Steven Pressfield calls this resistance. In this must-read treatise, Pressfield offers strategies for combating your own worst enemy; yourself.
I reread this book yearly.
Honorable mention goes to another Pressfield classic called Turning Pro.
The Book: Amazon
#4 – Story Seminar by Robert McKee
The art of story is something a lot of fiction writers don’t get but that most screenwriters know in their bones. If you can’t write a good story, nothing else matters. Study and learn the craft of story before you do anything else.
I first heard of Story Seminar in the movie Adaptation, which was, ahem, adapted from Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief. The excellent Spike Jonze film, screen written by Charlie Kaufman, stars Nicholas Cage as Kaufman as he struggles to adapt the book into something Hollywood-worthy. As he fights against introducing banal Hollywood tropes into the story to appease the studio suits, Kaufman attends McKee’s Story Seminar (in which McKee is played flawlessly by the great Brian Cox).
I’ve owned the book for over a decade. It’s dense material, and it wasn’t until I attended the seminar in New York in 2016 that it crystalized. The program is three intense days of McKee himself standing on stage like the sage diety that he is while explaining the art of story. I have a hundred pages of notes which I still refer to today. Part of the discussion is an in-depth analysis of why Casablanca is the classic film it is.
Take the seminar if you can. Read the book if you can’t.
The Website: Story Seminar
The Book: Amazon
#5 – The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
Some say there are two eras of thriller fiction; before The Da Vinci Code and after The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown forever changed suspense fiction pacing when he started Robert Langdon running in chapter one to beat a clock, solve a mystery, clear his own name, and save the world from disaster. Yes, this happens in other thriller novels, but Langdon doesn’t slow down until the end. There is almost no ordinary world, little character development, and there is definitely no navel-gazing. This book embodies page-turner, it sold over 80 million copies, and it forced thriller writers everywhere to re-think how they plot and write.
Do yourself a favor and outline this book for yourself. The process will teach you how to roll plot, pacing, conflict, character, setting, theme, and structure into one neat little thriller-ball.
As a bonus, Dan Brown teaches a MasterClass called Dan Brown Teachers Thriller Writing. For $15, you can join the website for a month, take his class, and then turn off the membership.
The Book: Amazon
Bonus One: Editing Resources
The Last Draft: A Novelist’s Guide to Revision by Sandra Scofield
My editor gave me this book. She’s old-school (30 years in big publishing) and this book is old-school. However, as a writer who cares more about story and craft than whether my past participle is conjugated prior to the royal order of adjectives, I turn to this book all the time.
From scene to exposition to narrative, Scofield asks questions like, Who is the story about? What happens? Why does it matter? She’ll urge you to write summaries of your novel to explore the long arc and the short arc. Is the sum greater than its parts? This is an analyst’s tool in an academic’s clothing. If Coyne is the construction foreman clad in steel-toed boots and hard hat with a chaw in his cheek, then Scofield is the think-tank theorist in the cutaway blazer holding the martini.
The resources at the back including sample scenarios, storyboarding, and scene templates are alone worth the price of admission.
The Book: Amazon
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman
Another gem from my editor. Apparently, Lukeman is a kind-of-big-deal-but-over-worked literary agent and former editor in New York. His schtick in this book is to beguile you with all the trials and tribulations his ilk must endure while culling through the dump truck loads of manuscript dreck that land on their undersized desks each day. As such, he points out that they couldn’t possibly be bothered to cut short their three-martini lunches to read much past the first five pages of any of them.
My favorite quote in the book is right there in the intro to Part 1. “A great writer can produce an amazing piece of writing with virtually no plot at all.” He says this to point out that many writers spend too much time plotting and not enough time on their prose. In a sense, I guess he’s correct. But a piece of writing is not a story.
Anyway, the book provides useful insight into the thankless lives and minds of the gatekeepers who stand in the way of your book making it into mainstream publishing. You’ll learn to format the manuscript correctly, eliminate all adverbs, write snappy dialogue, and how to show instead of tell. Despite my snark, I appreciate that Lukeman doesn’t take himself too seriously. I enjoyed the snippets of publishing lore at the start of each chapter and I learned a ton. Yes, you can write a great story, and you should write a great story. But a great story isn’t enough to make it through the sausage factory of publishing. This book will show you all the wildcards and reveal the Oscar Diggs behind the great publishing Oz. Sort of.
The Book: Amazon
I tend to get this question more than I get questions on craft, which bums me out. The “hey I wrote a book how can I get more sales?” question. My first answer is almost always “write a better story” which usually doesn’t go over very well but tends to cut short the conversation. Assuming you’ve poured your soul into making the story as good as it can be, here are my top four ways to sell more books along with two excellent book marketing resources.
Caveat: I write and publish independently, therefore this advice is skewed towards those brave souls seeking to self-publish.
#1 – Professionally Edit Your Book
Unless you’re David Baldacci, you can’t edit your own books past the four or five self-edit stages Scofield teaches. Oh, wait, Baldacci uses a professional editor. The man who has sold over 100 million books still uses an editor.
An independent author (who will go unnamed) who inspired me to write in my genre and publish independently has recently started to short-change his editing. I suspect it’s to help him publish more frequently. Unfortunately, the quality of his writing has suffered to the point now where I can’t bear to read one of his books.
An excellent story and quality editing matter, and will help your book rise above the fray. Editing will help your book achieve good reviews on the platforms where you distribute, which will then help your books sell. Editing will also teach you a ton about the craft of writing. My editor, bless her heart, has made me a much better writer.
Yes, professional editing is not cheap. And professional editing is not fast. But think about it like you’re starting a business. Invest in yourself and your finished product and you’ll be much happier in the long run. And your readers will stick around for the next book.
#2 – Write Another Book
It’s an old adage in independent publishing that the best way to market your book is to write another one. Like it or not, book publishing is a numbers game. A single book will get lost in the shuffle. Readers will pass it over because they’ll think the author is not serious. Why invest their precious time in a book when, if they like it, there is no way to continue following the characters? The Amazon algorithms will pass it over, as will readers.
Think of it like shelf space. If you wander into the Basalt Library, how do you look for a book? You probably swing by the new releases and best seller section, which is full of multiple-book authors. Then you probably wander back to the genre section and browse the aisles. Is your eye more likely to stop on the extensive row of books by Stephen King or the unknown author with a single book buried in the stacks with only a half-inch of spine visible?
Write more quality books, write in a series so readers become invested in characters, and the sales will come.
#3 – Get a Professional Cover
I’m shocked I still have to say this, but unless you’re an award-winning graphic artist, don’t design your own covers. Skip the Starbucks for a few weeks and shell out the $500 required to hire a professional. Fiction book cover design is a unique skill set and you do not have that skill set. Trust me. Unless you’re Erik Carter who writes the excellent Dale Conley Thrillers set in the groovy 70s, in which case you have those skills in spades.
I use Damonza and can recommend them without reservation. They are fast and high quality.
Or maybe Erik will make you a cover, although I suspect he can charge way more than $500.
#4 – Pay To Play
Like it or not, we live in an advertising-centric world. Go over to Amazon and search for some books. You’ll notice that the “people who bought this also bought that” has been replaced with “sponsored products.” “Sponsored products” is just another name for advertisements. My accountant blanches every time she sees how much I spend on advertising. Remember, James Patterson, who was an advertising executive before he started writing, bought television ad spots for his books before that was even a thing. And his book income was $95 million in 2016.
This is a business, and you need to treat it as such. Spend money to make money. Get over it and learn to advertise your books.
Bonus Two: Book Marketing Resources
The Creative Penn – Website & Podcast
The number one worldwide resource for indie book marketing is The Creative Penn website, podcast, and associated training materials run by the ever-sanguine and wicked-smart Joanna Penn. And that’s Penn, with a double n. Brilliant!
Joanna is single-handedly responsible for getting me into the indie writing racket. When I first tuned into her podcast, I became aware that I could marry two of my passions; writing stories and entrepreneurship. Later, when I first met Joanna at Thrillerfest in 2015, I was a nervous fanboy. It took me hours to summon up the nerve to say hi. Now I count her as a de facto mentor and my primary inspiration. Someday, my goal is to be on her podcast. Only then will I know I’ve arrived. Heck, I even included Bath, England as a setting in The Abyss. In her honor.
Start here for the authoritative source on independent book marketing.
Mark Dawson’s Self Publishing Formula – Training & Podcast
Mark is another one of my inspirations. As legend has it, he would write his novels on the train to and from his day job in London. By his thirteenth novel, he was able to quit his day job to write full time. Now he boasts himself as a ‘million-selling author’ and runs a website called Mark Dawson’s Self Publishing Formula.
He is also the most analytical author out there and would almost rather tweak his extensive spreadsheets on Facebook ads, Amazon ads, and Bookbub secrets than write his fiction. He knows the Amazon algorithms so well that Amazon calls him for advice. Now, he and his sidekick James Blatch run a series of training courses and podcasts that cover topics like list building for authors, self-publishing 101, and ads for authors.
The brand is a little unfortunate because there is no formula for this game. There are only long days and longer nights of researching, writing, teaching yourself skills, and employing the grit to keep with it.
That said, Mark and James do a great job and your money is well spent with them.
Bonus Three: Russell Blake’s Blog
Russell Blake is in a category all his own. Thriller writer, independent publisher, and co-writer alongside the indomitable Clive Cussler, Blake is the truth serum spewing curmudgeon of the indie suspense commercial fiction space. His blog is raw, unapologetic, and tells it like it is. His Facebook page is, I suspect, a carefully curated thatch of libertarian vitriol crafted to spur debate and contention. Known as the prolific producer of 5,000 words a day and eight to nine novels a year, Blake has the rare and uncanny ability to produce decent quality at pace, which puts him at the top of the indie-publishing heap.
Read his blog and follow along as Blake tells truth to power.