May 13, 2010

LIGHTNING From the Author

Most publishers are happiest with a successful novelist when he or she writes the same book every time. They don’t care if he bathes only on the summer solstice, drinks himself into a stupor every day by 2:00 P.M., lives in sin with a llama, thinks SpongeBob SquarePants is the greatest actor of his generation, and spits on the floor–as long as, at the keyboard, he can slavishly repeat himself manuscript after manuscript. From story to story, if the writer always features lead characters who are lawyers, for example, the publisher will smile and pat him on the head. If each of these lawyers (or cops if the writer is a cop novelist, or boiler repairmen if the writer spins boiler-repairman tales) is like all the others, in terms of his world view, psychological makeup, and narrative voice, then the publisher will beam with delight at the mention of the writer’s name. If in fact the lawyer (or cop, or boiler repairman) is the same lawyer (or cop, or boiler repairman) by name–in other words, a “series character”–the publisher will not only swoon at the mere mention of the author, but will pretend, with convincing earnestness, to like the author as an artist and as a human being, no matter how thick his disgust and how poisonous his hatred for the author may actually be.

(To be fair to all publishers, it is an undeniable truth that a great many successful writers are so egomaniacal, so temperamental, so consumed by envy of other writers who earn even two dollars more per book, so stubborn, so humorless about themselves, and so mean-spirited that if they were elephants, their fellow pachyderms would turn them over to criminal poachers with instructions to make knickknacks from their tusks and umbrella stands from their feet.)

Most publishers–not all–believe that a successful writer must produce always in precisely the same genre, delivering characters and plots and themes that are comfortably familiar to his readers, working reliably in a narrative voice that strikes the same note in story after story. This desire for sameness springs partly from the publisher’s need to develop and sustain a market niche for the writer, “branding” him in the same sense that Campbell’s Soup or Log Cabin Syrup is a brand. In truth, however, it also springs from most publishers’ conviction that the reading public is composed of well-defined herds of sheep, each of which can–and must–be driven to the same pasture from which it has grazed previously.

(To be fair to publishers, there is evidence that a portion of the reading public does indeed enjoy being herded to the same pasture day after day, to graze upon a single flavor of grass. Consequently, the forty-ninth installment of Author X’s series about a vegetarian homicide detective with two thumbs on his right hand is a reliable bestseller.

Except in recent years, I have been at odds with publishers throughout my career because I find it too dreary to deliver the same book over and over (being easily bored, I must first keep myself entertained); furthermore, my average novel does not fall entirely into any single genre. I write cross-genre books–suspense mixed with love story, with humor, sometimes with two tablespoons of science fiction, sometimes with a pinch of horror, sometimes with a sprinkle of paprika…. Until I delivered a novel titled WATCHERS (my original and preferred title had been GUARDIAN, but that’s another story), my publisher was frustrated with me and ceaselessly lectured me to the effect that my failure to embrace a single genre and to write within its narrowest confines would ultimately–and soon–destroy my career. (There is no exaggeration in the use of the word “ceaselessly,” for these lectures barely allowed me time to eat.) WATCHERS was a cross-genre novel that broke many of the publisher’s own rules, but she liked it so much that she put aside her usual objections.

After WATCHERS, I delivered LIGHTNING, and the proverbial dung hit the radiating blades of the air-circulation device. LIGHTNING not only broke most of the publisher’s rules: It pulverized them. I was told that the book was unpublishable because (1) it was a suspense novel unfolding over more than thirty years of the lead character’s life, though common publishing wisdom (henceforth CPW) insists that taut suspense cannot be sustained in a story with such a long time arc; (2) the first quarter to a third the novel took place during the lead’s childhood, though CPW insists that this makes it a young-adult novel of no interest to the adult reading audience; (3) the book contained more than a little humor, though CPW insists that readers will not abide the combination of suspense and humor; (4) the themes, according to my publisher, were “too complex and profound for popular fiction, and most readers will be unable to understand them.” I was told that LIGHTNING could not be published after WATCHERS because it would chase away the steadily growing readership that I had developed with WHISPERS, PHANTOMS, STRANGERS, (none of them my original and preferred titles, but that’s another story), WATCHERS, and other books. For my own good, I was told to put it on the shelf and write another novel. My publisher said, “In seven years, after you’ve built a bigger and more loyal audience, we can risk publishing LIGHTNING without doing too much damage.”

Seven years. I didn’t understand why seven instead of six or eight–or four hundred. All I knew was that I had worked hard on LIGHTNING (not my original and preferred title, but that’s another story) and that even though it was a very different book from those I’d done previously, I believed it would please readers who enjoyed WATCHERS. I insisted that it be published after WATCHERS, and this insistence led to an exhausting and depressing four-month wrangle with the publisher before at last my point of view prevailed.

In addition to all the aforementioned aspects of the novel that displeased my publisher and therefore also greatly dismayed my agent, there was one other “flaw” that at times seemed to be the one that most concerned them: LIGHTNING did not include a dog as one of the major characters. You, being an innocent reader searching patiently for fresh storytelling with unexpected qualities, will not understand why CPW would insist that lacking a dog in a lead role, a novel must inevitably fail. You might point to GONE WITH THE WIND and ask me to remind you which of its colorful cast was a canine, and I could say only that Scarlett O’Hara, while not a dog, was something of a bitch.

You might observe that Dostoevsky, Dickens, Hemingway, and Jackie Collins wrote numerous bestselling books without including dogs as major characters, and I could not argue. With some success, my novel WATCHERS included a dog as one of its three lead characters, however, and my publisher felt strongly that I should henceforth incorporate this element in each of my stories. I didn’t write cop novels, doctor novels, or lawyer novels, but I was advised to write dog novels if I were to have any hope of a continuing career as a bestseller.

LIGHTNING was published without enthusiasm–and at once became my biggest success to date. Frequently during LIGHTNING’s run on the bestseller lists, booksellers and wholesalers were out of stock and could not fill reader demand until one reprinting or another dribbled into stores. I followed LIGHTNING with MIDNIGHT (not my original or preferred title, but that is another story), in which a dog played a secondary role. CPW held that this book was too different from LIGHTNING to be a success, but it included a dog in a secondary role, which pleased my publisher, and it became my first #1 bestseller in hardcover. In my next book, THE BAD PLACE (not my original or preferred title, but that’s another story), I brought a dog into the story again–but on the last page. This little inside joke was noted but not appreciated by my publisher.

Although I greatly enjoy writing about dogs and, in the judgment of some critics, have a knack for it, and though I would have enjoyed including them in certain subsequent books, I featured four-footed furries only in secondary roles and only in two of my next seven novels. When it suits me, I can be as stubborn and as temperamental as anyone, and if you try to make an umbrella stand out of one of my feet, you’re in for one hell of a fight.

To date, the four of my books that generated the most reader mail on publication are also the four that continue to bring the most mail year after year: WATCHERS, FEAR NOTHING (and its sequel SEIZE THE NIGHT), FROM THE CORNER OF HIS EYE, and LIGHTNING. If I had accepted the common publishing wisdom that readers are sheep who prefer to graze on the same flavor of grass, I would have written far different novels from those I delivered. Had I written those stories instead of what I chose to write, sales of my books might not now be nearly 300 million copies worldwide–and without doubt, I would not have been as happy at the keyboard as I have been these many years.

Readers are not sheep. They are wolves, filled with curiosity, adventurous, always hungry for a tasty treat with at least a little substance to it. The readers I know and love, the kind of readers to whom I owe my career, are more likely to say “woof” than “baa,” and not just because I sometimes write stories with dogs in them. Thank God you’re out there. If my writing career had failed, I would have made a lousy plumber; if I’d taken up carpentry, I’d now have six instead of ten fingers, and everyone would call me “Stubs.”

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