At the Florida Heritage Book Festival in St. Augustine this past weekend I saw speeches by novelists Jeff Lindsay (Darkly Dreaming Dexter), Steve Berry (The Templar Legacy) and Diana Abu-Jaber (Arabian Jazz).
I have an unpublished thriller in its second draft that's around 60,000 words long, so I go to these festivals looking for tips on how to become a more gooder writer and also to establish a daily writing routine to finish it. I've proven conclusively in the past year the novel won't finish itself.
Lindsay said that he gets up every morning at 3 a.m. to write about grisly serial murder until it's time to wake up his daughters for school. "I write best when I don't get in my own way," he said. "I write semi-conscious, then when I'm alert, rewrite."
It wasn't until his 50s that he could work full-time as a novelist once the first Dexter book made a killing. He advised writers to learn a marketable skill that lets them set their own hours. "I recommend arc welding," he said.
His most critically well-received book is one he can't admit to writing. "I ghost wrote a book that got the greatest review of my life, and it kills me," he said.
Abu-Jaber wrote a memoir, The Language of Baklava, that revealed some disturbing stories she was afraid would anger relatives. She hears frequently from writers who won't tell their own life story while some family members still around to take offense. To that concern Abu-Jaber said, "If you wait for everyone to die, who is going to read your book?"
Berry, who lives near St. Augustine, is a former lawyer and county commissioner who began writing fiction at age 35. Until Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code reinvented the commercially moribund spy thriller genre with historical conspiracies, secrets and international settings, Berry had five completed thrillers that plowed the same ground which had been rejected 85 times. "Twelve years ago, I couldn't give away a manuscript," he said.
One aspiring writer asked about going the solo route instead of seeking an agent and publisher. Berry said that's a bad idea if you'd actually like to sell books and build a career as a novelist, but he did share one factoid that suggests there's an opportunity for self-publishers in his genre. "Seventy percent of my sales are e-sales," he said. "Five years ago it was 5 percent."
The children's novelist Adrian Fogelin taught a three-hour fiction seminar Thursday on creating a character in which she asked audience members to pick one shoe among 20 pairs. She then put us through a series of writing exercises to create a person to occupy that footwear. I chose a child's green dollar-store swim fin.
I went into the event with no desire to write anything after subjecting myself to hours of dire news coverage about the U.S. ambassador's murder in Libya. But as the exercises went on, I became fond of the 10-year-old aspiring oceanographer who explored the murky depths of a pool at the King for a Day motel outside Joplin, Mo., and counted the minutes until Shark Week.
One exercise asked us to reveal the character's traits through dialogue:
"The shark is the apex predator of the ocean," Ernest explained to the woman on the bus, who nodded in a manner that demonstrated she was obviously impressed with his expertise.
"As such," he continued, "it serves a vital role in the aquatic ecosystem. What is your favorite species of shark?"
"No habla Inglés," she replied.
Seminars like this always make you think you've created the next Holden Caulfield or Boo Radley. But after it was over, I realized I'd been recreating the irrepressible kid from Calvin & Hobbes.