Shake off the Monday doldrums and join us as thriller author PAMELA CALLOW shares tips she’s learned from her agent, AL ZUCKERMAN of Writers House Literary Agency. One lucky commenter will win a copy of Pam’s book INDEFENSIBLE.
Last summer, I was fortunate enough to meet Al Zuckerman, founder of Writers House, at Thrillerfest in New York City. Several weeks later, I accepted representation by him.
Timing, as they say, is everything.
Rewind ten years ago. I had left my corporate career as a strategic services manager at Andersen Consulting when my local office closed. I opted to stay home with my young family. And I decided to return to an old passion: writing. I didn’t have much time to write in those early days, but the simple act of attending an adult education creative writing course once a week kept a certain part of my brain engaged.
I began working on my first manuscript, a time travel historical, eight years ago. At that point, I knew I wanted to make writing a career. But it was only when my youngest daughter started kindergarten that I was able to write regularly. That journey is for a different blog post, but eventually I won some contests, had editorial interest from a large NYC house, and landed my first agent.
But the manuscript did not sell. I decided to try my hand at a different genre: contemporary suspense.
At the end of 2008, I attended a writing conference and pitched my editor. I landed the sale, signing my first two-book contract with MIRA books to publish my legal thriller series.
A year later, DAMAGED, my first release, was chosen by Levy Home Entertainment as a “Need to Read” Pick, with Top Ten Bestseller display in Target and Wal-Mart US. When my editor told me that my book was a ”pick”, I almost fell off my chair.
For various reasons, I realized that I required new agency representation. After I terminated my relationship with my former agent, I queried a few agents whom I had met in NYC. I decided to go with Al Zuckerman because I have huge respect for Al’s work. Al has worked very closely with Ken Follett in the outlining stage of all his blockbuster novels. I am an outliner by nature, and I knew I could learn a lot about structure from him. Also, I had met him, heard him speak, heard Ken Follett discuss Al’s input into his work — and, importantly, I liked him.
Over the past year, we’ve worked together on the outline and revisions of TATTOOED, the third book in my thriller series. Here are some of the best tips I’ve learned from Al – with a few of my own — about outlining. Some of them are new to me, some I knew, and some I had forgotten
• Picture the climax and outline backwards from there. In effect, outline backwards. This was a real change of approach for me. It is almost impossible for me to not work sequentially from beginning to end. However, I like to try different approaches (and if Al advises me to try it, I will try it!), so I did picture the final scene, then I started at the beginning and worked towards it. Then I worked backwards from it. Interestingly, I was chatting with Diana Gabaldon at Thrillerfest this year (huge fangirl moment!), and she told me she pictures major scenes in her books, writes chunks around them, and threads them together.
• For each chapter, detail main event and the conflict
• Identify turning points in book
• When writing suspense, the main character has to be in jeopardy. I write a series, and sometimes other characters have major events that happen to them. Keep your main character in the forefront from the get go.
• Give readers a reason to love your character. Need I say more?
• Keep the number of characters to 3 or 4. Again, when writing a series, there are returning characters and new characters. Sometimes, it’s hard to not want to include your old friends, especially when readers ask you to bring them back.
• In a thriller, villains drive the plot. Protagonists react to what villains do.
• An outline is not the first step to writing your book. Before I wrote DAMAGED, I read Elizabeth George’s book on writing: WRITE AWAY. What really stuck with me is her point that characters – not plot– drive suspense. Suspense is not the exclusive terrain of thrillers. It can – and should — appear in any genre of novel: women’s fiction, romance, fantasy, YA. In essence, suspense occurs when the reader cares about what happens to the character. That is how you get readers to keep turning the pages. Readers don’t care if a car goes over the cliff. They care if the two year-old daughter of struggling single mother Annie is abducted by her crazed ex-husband and he drives the car over the cliff – with the toddler strapped in the car seat. Keeping Elizabeth George’s most excellent advice in mind, I realized I needed to figure out my characters before and during the plotting process of DAMAGED. After writing their backstories, I utilized Debra Dixon’s Goals, Motivation, and Conflict approach. Then I created the outline in flow chart form as I went along.
In closing, what I want to share with you is this: this is your career. Your livelihood. Your future income. Writers don’t have pensions or benefits. We rely on our hard work and perseverance. Thus, it is crucial to surround yourself with a team who can help you capitalize on your efforts. This is business, plain and simple.
There is a lot of discussion about whether we really need agents in this revolutionary time in the publishing industry. I can’t say whether everyone needs an agent. In fact, I’m sure there are many authors out there who are doing very well without one. But I need one. What I have learned – the hard way – is how crucial it is to get the right one. Al has provided me with guidance and advice that has helped me tremendously over the past year. He is invested in my career, and he takes a broad perspective beyond the day-to-day realities of my contract. I know that if I have a problem, he will do his utmost to help solve it. When I call him, he responds that day. He has picked me up when I am down, sometimes giving me a little shake while he’s at it.
What I have learned from Al is what an agent can do for you.
What’s the best advice you’ve received from your agent (if you have one)? If you don’t have an agent yet, what would you like to ask one?
Join us at RU tomorrow when author HOPE TARR discusses strong heroines in a historical setting.
Inspired by a U.S. tissue harvesting case, Pamela Callow wrote DAMAGED, her debut novel and the first book in her legal thriller series for MIRA Books. Pamela drew on her experience working in a blue-chip corporate environment to create series lead Kate Lange, a struggling thirty-something lawyer, whom RT Book Reviews described as “…a standout”. DAMAGED was a Levy Home Entertainment June “Need to Read” Pick, with Top Ten Bestseller placement in Target and Wal-Mart.
In INDEFENSIBLE, book #2 of the Kate Lange thriller series, the managing partner of Kate’s firm is accused of domestic homicide – and his defense lies in the hands of the one person who knows too well the taint of criminal scandal: Kate Lange. TATTOOED, the third installment of her series, will be published in June 2012. A short story featuring a character from her series will be published in the International Thriller Writers’ THRILLER 3 anthology (June 2012).
Prior to making writing a career, Pamela worked as a strategy consultant for international firm Andersen Consulting. She is a member of the Nova Scotia Bar, and has a Master’s degree in Public Administration.
Pamela lives in Nova Scotia, along with her husband, two children and a pug. She loves to go for walks (unlike her dog), drink coffee, and is currently working on the next two books of the Kate Lange thriller series. You can find Pamela at her Facebook Book Page, on Twitter, or contact her via her website.
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