I had the pleasure to interview Robert Walker, author of over fifty books. He walked out on New York City and their publishers, and he is here to tell you why. Do you want to learn the truth about a writer's life? Is Kindle worth it? Does Clancy write his own books? Patterson?
Who is really in charge when your book is getting published?
Read this whole thing. I thought of publishing it in Part One and Part Two, but I couldn't do it.
Hello Robert, thank you for coming. You have been writing for a very long time. Recently, you moved to Kindle with great success. What brought that on?
ROBERT ~~ Well, I had an eleven book series. For some reason, they wanted the character dead. They wanted the series dead. Two series at once! Instinct & Edge series were going to be killed.
Have you had more success on Kindle?
ROBERT ~~ A lot more money on Kindle, I'm not kidding. More advance on publishers. On kindle you get way more money. Averages 1000$ a month. More recently $2000 a month!
The publishers in New York get to make all the decisions. I've had a few title fights where they wanted to change the titles. They changed Abbadon - the creature from Revelation. They switched it to Salem's Child. They said, “It's like Salem's Lot.”
They also said no one would Know what Abbadon meant. Instinct books, I wanted more of a literary feel, calling it By Instinct Alone, and they went with killer instinct. The publisher wanted two word titles. Fatal Instinct, Primal Instinct, etc.
I noticed they named with two word names.
ROBERT ~~ Right - good eye. Every instinct is a two word title. I'm running out of two word titles. Actually, Koontz will never use a two word title again! The publishers had him on the same treadmill with 2-word titles, ha! We used to write each other back in the 80's. At the time I was getting really depressed, and I wrote 10 bestselling authors. Koontz and who else - Dick Francis - were the only two that contacted me back. Six page letter from Koontz and a call from Francis.
I was on the verge of giving up and then, at one point, I wondered if I would still write without being published. When I they talked with me, I got that answered.
Then I knew that I just knew.
I know you teach as well. Where can someone take your class?
ROBERT ~~ West Virginia State University. Or you get hold of my Dead On Writing, a how-to from www.wordclay.com as a POD or as a kindle title as ebook.
And which classes do you teach?
ROBERT ~~ English 101-102 and Creative Writing. I did that for 15 years in Florida. Writer in residence.
How do you do get into a 'writer in residence?'
ROBERT ~~ The Chronicle of Higher Education will list the openings - at the library. I got my Masters in English Education from Northwestern outside Chicago. Years later, I was living in Florida at the time and looking for part time, and they had it in the paper. I taught freshman English and creative writing classes at night back then.
What is the book that teaches what you write?
ROBERT ~~ Dead On Writing is the book I wrote about writing, but I also blog on the subject at several blogs and have written articles for a number of online mags.
Like King's “On Writing?”
ROBERT ~~ You know, when I wrote Koontz, I had also written same plea to Stephen King (how do you survive this so-called business?), but his then agent wrote back and said, “Thanks, King is rather busy.” I'd hoped for more.
So, before you lived in Florida?
ROBERT ~~ Grew up in Chicago - born in Mississippi. My dad drove a truck throughout the war. He was in the military. Went in when he was 18, came out when he was 22. He was messed up by the war.
It was hard sometimes: I was always trying to get information out of him. I got more from everyone else but him. He never wanted to talk about it. He told me a few things, but very little and much later in life.
Who did tell you stuff about it?
ROBERT ~~ Army - Fellow army men. My Uncle John, books (Men of Company K), films like Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan.
Do you think they helped you understand him?
ROBERT ~~ Yes. They helped a bit. I couldn't imagine, before Band of Brothers, what they went through and the amount of courage it must take. It is awe inspiring.
You wrote some books here in Portland. What book were those?
ROBERT ~~ Absolute Instinct. Fascinating area in Portland, but it was not set entirely in Portland.
Writing so many books (50) has to have taken a while. How long do you spend making the typical book?
ROBERT ~~ I started writing when I was in high school. Wrote my first novel when I was a sophomore. I realized how little I knew. Research for the theme of an underground railroad, about a Huck Finn-like character. Arrogant, I realize, but it got me into a college. I had no chance of getting into Northwestern on my good looks or my grades, but the novel opened up a door. And I got a full ride.
ROBERT ~~ Scholarship! For the undergraduate work. For the grad work, I had to pay! So, I got a job working for the Registrar's Office at NU. I did admin work. Assistant Register for four years because there was no teaching work - I checked Hawaii and Alaska. Seemed like, back in 1972, we suddenly had too many teachers. The TV was advertising, “We need teachers. We need teachers” when I began college, but no more five years later!.
But do you like teaching?
ROBERT ~~ It supports my writing habit. But we really are the best people to ask. If you're taking a flight class, go with someone who has flown. Don't ask the mechanics.
Any best sellers?
ROBERT ~~ Had a lot of critical acclaim. Won the Lovey Award twice from the Love is Murder folks - Chicago Conference. Great city to visit. Great to grow up in. So much history and the people are great.
The Harper Collins books, City for Ransom and Shadows in the White City -the backdrop is the Chicago world fair as with the third one, City of the Absent. Sherlock Holmes type of thing. The film Titanic came out right around the time of my series. The editor loved the books but the company couldn't sell enough.
You should know that the marketing director takes control. The editors know the book in and out. The copy editor and acquiring editor get in a meeting with PR and the marketing director. Suddenly, the marketing guys are making all the decisions.
He has more power than the editor. He is the guy that decides the cover, if you go hardback first or in larger trade? What will it look like? What size of print? Hell, the author's name goes small at bottom, large over top, etc to this size point.
Who has the most control of the content?
ROBERT ~~ The writer. They suggest things, but it is your book. You will make a decision they can't live with, but they will insist you change it. They once told me to take out a spot where I cut off a priest's nuts.
Don't get me wrong, I'm very proud to work with Harper Collins. They have a rich history. Mark Twain, my hero, was among their early writers! HA!
But every royalty statement is like a lie. They withhold information. They withhold funds against returns. An endemic systematic lie that after 30 years begins to wear on a person.
Once a book is returned, it takes back out of the royalty. The publishers will cook the books to hold back against the returns. As good as the books were, if they didn't earn out their keep, they change their mind or drop you.
What happens a lot of times, they get excited and by the time it goes through the whole process, the interest level drops too much. Sometimes, even the editor is burned out by the end.
The Jersey Girl no-talent person named Sookie writes a so-called novel and suddenly a new genre -- Sookie books! (That is really me in disguise. I'm Sookie.) It's really a joke on the entire world of serious writers and readers. I'm only kidding, unfortunately. This celeb book is earning big, but it saddens a real writer to watch this nonsense .
Such celeb books kill me because I spent a lifetime crafting and rewriting sometimes as much as forty or fifty times, then an idiot comes out and writes a stupid book (celebrities) and people all buy it. It makes me both sad and mad.
I spent those four years working on my craft--a kind of self-imposed PhD program in writing--just WRITE for four years straight! So it may be understandable that when I see huge sums of money paid out by a major publisher for inane crap like What's-her-name? Palin's book.
So you like publishing with Ebooks?
ROBERT ~~ Ebook publishing is perfect for midlist authors with a big backlog of 'dead or out of print' books. I was able to put up 40 titles and 6 more. I'm working on new ones. I'm going straight to kindle. I'm not going to NYC anymore. I went through 4 or 5 agents. I never got the right marriage. The guy I stayed with for a while - we never got along. He tried to micro-manage my writing. Then I go in with a Huge company - PR central. They wanted to micro-manage and edit the book. Foiled again!
That isn't your job. That is between me and the editor - not the agent. I don't want the agent telling me how or what to write. I want to make changes and not do the same book over and over. I don't want to be pigeon-holed or pigeon toed. I want to write what I want to write.I want to work with the characters that I've created.
I was told no one wants to read about the Titanic or the Chicago books by agents.
They said it has all been overdone. No one will want it. So I shelved it. I came up on this Chicago history book, City for Ransom, and someone came out with The Devil in the White City. Someone else came out with a book like what I wanted to. Because the other book is taking all my steam, they didn't want to put mine out.
It was really hard to sell that City for Ransom book. My agent took it everywhere. Harper came in really low ball. This is where they were stopping the large advances. I got 100k for 4 Instinct books at one time. That was damn good. By the time I wrote all 4, that was gone. Took 4 years. That is living on 25,000 a year….Crazy!
ROBERT ~~ Yeah. You know, there is no confusion with kindle. You get daily reports. You get it more like business. Nothing is hidden. “Be professional and have ethics,” NY people say--I laugh. We crack up. There are no ethics in publishing. Publishers expect morality and have “morality” clauses in their author contracts! For the authors, but the publishers ignore them. There is no morality on their part.
Wow. That is a lot of information to digest. I'm sure people are blown away. Now that the floodgates are open, how do you write? Outline or free?
I don't like outlines. Say you take a big ball of twine. There are hidden answers in the ball. You have to slowly unwind it. In the first chapter, you raise 20 questions. What is going on? The plot is the unraveling of those questions.
My book, Brain Stem opened with an operation on a child's brain. This first scene never explains what they are doing. They are operating on this infant, and the details make you cringe. It's 1955.
Then it leaps to the present day and the guy is an adult. He has no ethics, so the kid is a 'designer' genius. The first scene they had Einstein's brain rolled out in a jar. The guy in charge of the operation in '55 was an Asian and the kid had Asian eyes. The mother was a psychiatric patient used as an incubator.
There is so much in the opening scene going on! But when beginning, I have no idea of what I want to cover, and I don't know how it will come out until I get there.
So some use outlines. One guy opens a notebook in front of people and shows a whole list of do's and don'ts. Which is OK for some, as in writing the last chapter first for a mystery or thriller, but at the same time of no use to me.
That's hogwash if someone says this is how (all) novels should be crafted. I stick to the rules of grammar and English. I know what I am doing. But I won't outline an entire novel and say 'this is how everyone can or should do it.'
However you do it, it's a miracle. There're many rivers to the ocean, and your job is to find your tributary. What works for you, your mind. And writing myself out of corners is the best part. I love challenging myself. I love to write from a female's perspective or another race. It is challenging.
Get yourself out of the normal and do something in another nation. I love that.
Do agents like that?
ROBERT ~~ The agents sometimes tell you the opposite of what your research is saying. They say they have no cell phones in Cuba. No cell phones in Cuba? Hell, that is all they have! They get them from Russia. They are ahead of us, technologically. They said, no no - not true.
I think a lot of it was that the agent was part Cuban and she didn't like it. We had a falling out over stupid, inane things.
Made friends this way?
ROBERT ~~ Joe Konrath, my best writing buddy, says I've burned more bridges than I've crossed. I don't want to be labeled as any type of writer. The story dictates me. Once you label yourself, you get advantages. But you get resistance when you write other things.
The name Walker became a franchise for Berkley. They even went so far as to want me to use a pen name for a horror novel they didn't want associated with the previous book. Now I put my name on everything. The array is evident. I'm doing a lot of historical suspense. Touch of supernatural. Mystery here, horror there.
Anything weird or supernatural happen to you?
ROBERT ~~ Wierd? I had a guy that kept showing up at my signings in a black suit. Looked like FBI. Thought I had a stalker. I finally asked who he was. Introduced himself, said he wrote a book. He put his house up for mortgage to print up the book. And he gave me a copy. It had so many complicated mistakes. I felt badly for the guy as he had paid to have it edited! Yet it was riddled with errors.
Because he took years to write and rewrite his first book, Clancy never wrote as well after his first book because why? Failures in rewriting, time constraints. On the rewrites, I go through and I dialogue it out. Why can't this be turned into dialog? Why can't it be a conversation? Anything that stops the flow needs to be cut - do it ongoing but don't stop the action while describing a person, place or thing.
Keep the action moving. Don't drop the characters. Flow the stories through their thoughts.
I remind people that Shakespeare only had 4 sentence types to work with, same with you. Simple, compound, complex, compound complex. Use them all, mix 'em up. When speaking of new or inexperienced novelists, a lot of people can extrapolate from a single page of corrections made by an NYC editors or an author like myself, and they know quickly what needs be done throughout their books. Others, however, need hand-holding on every page.
How did you do with your book on writing?
ROBERT ~~ I shopped it around for years, the idea of a how-to from moi. No one would take it. An agent was interested but she didn't like the examples all being from my work. Easier to pull from memory what is in my books. She wasn't' interested. It was just her excuse. I put it on kindle and I've had so many people read it and say they couldn't have finished their books without it.
It makes me feel great because I am a teacher at heart. I love the idea of having my own publishing company . The name would have to be INSTINCT INK..
It would take a lot of networking. Do you like that kind of stuff?
ROBERT ~~ Since I got on Facebook, I just enjoy talking with so many people. Networking and tit for tat is really fun. I've come to enjoy speaking about so many issues. However, actually editing and publishing the works of others sounds like maybe toooooo much work!
How do you get story ideas? They just come via random association?
ROBERT ~~ I like to do outlandish things or answer questions that have never been answered. Like spontaneous combustion? Or what happened on the titanic? Why wasn't the captain held to account?
There are so many questions - I want to explore them. I like to challenge the questions that can't be answered by most. My answer may be crazy, but they always work.
What was your favorite work?
ROBERT ~~ I'd say Titanic 2012 - Curse of RMS Titanic and/or the Children of Salem Witch. I thought that both were important. That was really about separation of church and state. The court system is run by the religious community. We have so many people that have no sense of history and read no history. That's partly because we have so many teachers that don't make it interesting.
A Chicago historian said of my writing that it is 'historical fiction that will make people want to read history.' It has to be compelling at all times. We have to make it go fast. Talking heads better be sizzling. Use a lot of exclamation points, dashes, all the symbols.
The first book that I ever sold I wrote as a spoof. I sold it a month after I wrote it. It was supposed to be a spoof on a disaster novel or flick. They thought it was a novel, not a spoof. I wasn't going to say anything. I insert a lot of dark, gallows humor and tongue in cheek. I love to do that. That book SubZero is now an Ebook, and a similar book, Aftershock is my second highest grossing Ebook title next to Children of Salem - the more serious and challenging work.
In Horror Category, you want to write quality camp. Your readers expect campy humor and gross out humor.
Anything new coming up?
ROBERT ~~ I just had someone read the first 100 pages of my new novel and I wanted to have someone check it out before I continued. I sent it out to this fellow and he was so excited about it that it made me want to finish it. If you can get some feedback, that is really good--what better motivation? I had an inkling that Bayou Wulf--a werewolf novel-- was going well, but that really helped me to hear this early reader ranting wildly about the early pages.
What do you think are the biggest problems in the publishing world? What would you change?
ROBERT ~~ Off the top of my head? They need to treat an author with more respect. Don't use and lose. It comes down to divide the money with all the authors, don't give it all to one.
A large stable of authors don't get any money at all. “You can't sell a book through radio and TV,” they say. But they sure use it on the big names. They say that so they don't have to spend the money. The so called “business.”
Do you think they are getting to cookie cutter? To trendie?
ROBERT ~~ Absolutely. One thing I love about publishers weekly are the white elephant books. They show all the books that didn't sell worth a flip. Where companies wasted millions of dollars on a title that didn't go anywhere. The kind of article they do in Spring issue. It works on you over the years, knowing you wouldn't have flopped had they put that kind of money up for YOUR book. This fact makes E-publishing even more attractive.
Don't you think you need the brand name first?
ROBERT ~~ Branding helps like any “product” but there is room enough and time enough for anyone to become a brand online. People of unknown brand are selling up a fortune right now via ebooks. Proof is found every day at Joe Konrath's The Newbie's Guide to Publishing. But honestly, everyone doing indie publishing needs to GET professional editing or a series of early readers you learn to totally trust.. Someone who is VERY well known or really knows what they are doing.
Do you want to do so many genres because you don't want to limit the scope of your ideas?
ROBERT ~~ I just get excited about a What If that gets my juices flowing, and I want to follow where it takes me. I don't like the notion of “cookie-cutter” formula novels. I enjoy doing one for money--say a fast horror novel, and then one for art, say a historical thriller.
Do you consider writers to be like directors. With that in mind, would you say writers are like directors?
In their use of shaping the work, deciding which scene needs go first, second, or should we flip-flop time, selecting POV, deciding on whose story is it, who are the satellite characters, yes, we are like film directors in that sense.
What are your favorite things about the language?
ROBERT ~~ That English is so versatile and malleable. My advice, get back to basics, the notion of only four types of sentences but unending combinations. Cut out all those adjectives and WASes (passives). When in doubt, cut it out. Someone took a Hemmingway passage and added adverbs and adjectives. It was horrible.
When you write for a while, you turn a corner and you are confident. It isn't being cocky, you just know what to do and you can pull out a King moment if you need to. I love Bloch. Leonard. The most disturbing of Clive Barker's short stories as they will rip your guts out. They touch something primal. His short stories are amazing.
I love Stephen King's best works and he's a great shorts writer. Hawthorne wrote great shorts in Twice Told Tales. It's a great art form, the short.
Speaking of who write well, with those coming up: What trends are you worried about in writing?
ROBERT ~~ I'm worried that someone is going to put up so much dreck in Ebooks that people won't want to read them anymore. Back in the 80's, everyone was looking for a new Stephen King. They put out so much horror, but you couldn't find a good horror novel. There were too many writers filling whole novels with passive constructions - tell, tell, tell and no show, sow, or tow. Nothing compelling about whole scenes that have no forward movement.
Who is the worst writer?
ROBERT ~~ Are you trying to get me into trouble, Draven? OK, worst for grammar and proper sentencing? Dan Brown. The worst writer for shape and format is James Patterson--in my humble opinion. It is kind of a no-no to speal ill of other writers, but some of those bestsellers, I just don't GET. For me plot alone is not enough. Patricia Cornwall drives me crazy. Stop using telling and just use showing. One paragraph is not a chapter. A chapter needs to be big and rich. Pattern your work after Paterson, but I'm not going to do it.
Who are some good writers?
ROBERT ~~ A book called The Search for Joseph Tally. William Callahan. You should check it out - best he ever written. Read Steven Savile, Joe Konrath, Jeffrey Deaver, Willie Miekle, Ed Gorman, Harry Shannon, Raymond Benson, and some great lady mystery writers--Tess Gerritsen for instance.
Who is the worst publisher?
ROBERT ~~ That is hard to say. There's so many bad ones. (Laughs) The one that bugged me the most was all of them! They all maintain the same practices, and I think they would like to drag the same practices into the ebook world to continue precisely what they do best--rip off writers, give writers far less of a percentage than they deserve. They are already doing this by convincing the authors they have under contract to allow them to put their books online, taking a large slice of the authors' royalties when in fact authors (many naïve authors) are being taken advantage of as they could put their own books online to far, far more royalties.
Why don't book pubs do it the same way that music insiders do? Mentor and pull people up. Use your name to bring up their name, then use each other to stabilize one another.
ROBERT ~~ To a certain degree they are doing that with the Patterson and Clancy books. I knew someone who wrote a few Clancy books, under Clancy's name. Like Patterson now, Clancy just writes outlines and other people write the books. People are writing under their names.
They are going to have to change their whole business approach to writing. Letting the chips fall where they may won't work.
They have to cultivate. They tell the author to go away. I was on a panel once and I watched all these New York editors go gaga when I asked, "What point do you consider the author such an idiot that he or she should have no say so in the cover art?"
The crowd went dead silent. It was the kind of thing you don't bring up. They want you to go away. I got that with my first and last traditionally published book. Harper Collins was better as they did entertain one or two ideas from me, but overall, speaking of all my previous publishers--and we are talking about 40 books--I had next to NO input other than the writing. So you are just not invited to the party, and if you are, they pretty much want you to keep quiet. It isn't your call.
Any advice for new writers?
Read heavily writers you respect; study their styles closely and learn from them to the point of practicing writing a page or a scene using their style…Learn to pick up the style of others. No one owns style, and you develop your own through arduous study of how a guy who has put in his time on craft. I learned from authors before me, and I believe your best bet if you are starting out is to study your favorites closely enough that you can imitate them to the point of “owning” it. I'd encourage everyone too to read my Dead On Writing and read Jerome Stern's Making Shapely Fiction, and always challenge yourself. No story is too big not to tackle.