With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and writer/blogger Cherise Hensley present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.
AUTHORNOMICS Interview with Robert Dugoni
Robert Dugoni is the critically acclaimed and New York Times best selling Author of the David Sloane series, The Jury Master, Wrongful Death, Bodily Harm, Murder One and The Conviction. He is also the author of the best-selling stand alone novel Damage Control and the nonfiction expose, The Cyanide Canary. Dugoni’s books have been likened to Scott Turow and Nelson DeMille, and he has been hailed as “the undisputed king of the legal thriller” and the “heir to Grisham’s literary throne.” Bodily Harm and Murder One were top five thrillers picks of Library Journal for 2010 and 2011 and Murder One is a finalist for the Harper Lee Award for excellence in legal novel writing. Dugoni’s writing has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Writer Magazine, Suspense Magazine and several anthologies. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers, Mystery Writers of America and a board member of Sisters in Crime. A two-time winner of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Award for fiction, Dugoni graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford University. He has spoken and taught the craft of writing novels across the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Your latest book, The Conviction, features the return of attorney David Sloane. What do you think makes Sloane so well received with your readers?
He’s not a superhero. He’s a guy with a strong moral compass and a true sense of justice, but he isn’t jumping out of helicopters, disarming bombs, or otherwise saving the world. His involvement in his cases comes from a deep sense of loyalty to those he loves and to a sense of justice. I think readers who have found my work relate to this and genuinely root for Sloane because they feel as if they’ve come to know him on a deep level. I receive so many emails about Sloane from readers who feel such a strong connection to him it’s almost as if he exists.
As a best-selling author, do you ever feel pressure to constantly outdo yourself? If so, how do you deal with this pressure?
All the time. In this business you’re really only as good as your last novel. It’s a tough market. Publishers can be unforgiving. As much as I’ve enjoyed the people I’ve worked with in the publishing houses, the bottom line is the dollar. Publishers are pulling way back and becoming more and more selective. They’re also doing less and less in terms of publicity, so for an author to maintain consistency is tough. I’ve always kept my part-time job as a lawyer for this very reason, so I wouldn’t feel financial pressure. I write because I love to write and I’m hoping that will always be my motivation. The pressure I feel is personal and professional pride. I want to put out the best books that I can, feel proud about them and do it on an annual basis.
What was your path to getting published like? Did you find an agent early on in your career?
I was practicing law and writing on the side. Honestly, I was naïve. I had written for newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, so I thought, “How hard can it be to write a novel?” Well, it was very hard, as we all know. I knew how to write. I didn’t know the structure for a novel or all the other techniques it takes to put a strong novel together. I suffered a lot of rejection. In 1998, my wife and I moved to Seattle for me to pursue writing full time. The Cyanide Canary, a non-fiction expose was published in 2004. The Jury Master, which I started in 1995, was published in 2005. I remember I went to a conference and they called me an overnight success. I told them I was, if you consider ten years a night. I found an agent early in my career, then he died. No one bothered to tell me. It was an eye opener in many ways. I signed with the Jane Rotrosen Agency when they loved The Cyanide Canary.
Did your career in law help you with ideas for the books you write?
Not so much with ideas, but definitely with plotting and with scenes. The law is very formulaic. At the same time, you have to be analytical and think many steps ahead. Where is this case going? How am I going to get it there? Whose deposition do I need and what do I need them to say? The law can also throw you a few surprises, which is exactly what you want in a novel.
Of all the award-winning books you have written, what has been your favorite book to write and why? Your least favorite?
My favorite was Murder One because it required so much research into criminal law and I was able to meet and interview so many interesting people with interesting careers. The acknowledgements go on for several pages. I love to research. I’m a geek that way. Murder One took a village to write and I was lucky to find a village.
I really can’t say I have a least favorite. Each book is like one of your children. I love to write. Every day at the computer is a blessing. The toughest novel to write was by far The Jury Master simply because it was a first novel and I made so many mistakes. I had to write and rewrite that novel and really learn the craft on the fly. It felt like it took forever to finish.
How do you spend your time when you aren’t writing?
Lately I’ve been trying to find time off! Between teaching, practicing law and trying to complete another novel, as well as be a husband and father, it’s been tough. My kids are teenagers and that window is closing fast, so I’m trying to relish every minute. I try hard to be there for them with respect to their sporting events and their schoolwork. We recently went to Europe – Paris and Spain, and we had an absolute ball. It was great spending quality time as a family, traveling together and playing cards at night. My wife and I really enjoy our kids.
When you are writing, what does your process look like? Where do you get most of your writing done?
I’m definitely more creative in the morning, so I try to get to the computer early. That is usually four days a week, but more if I’m really banging out a novel. I go as long as the muse keeps talking to me. It’s usually 6 to 7 hours, but sometimes it is less. I treat writing as a profession and try to put in the butt time. It’s the only way to get things done. Someone told me, “Writers write.” That’s my mantra. But I also understand the importance of taking a break and talking to real people. There are times when I just have to get out of the house and be in the real world.
On average, how much research do you do for your books? Can you give us some examples of techniques that have worked best for you?
It really depends on the book. When it’s police procedure, I do a lot because it isn’t an area I’m familiar with. I usually get in trouble when I think I know something. The best technique I’ve found is picking up the phone and calling someone, asking if you can buy them lunch or a cup of coffee and picking their brain. Most people love to tell you about their job. I’ve really come to respect police officers. They have a thankless job, but they are true heroes. My best story is when I went to the Seattle Library and asked if they had any books on the White House. The librarian found me a book on miniatures. Someone had put together miniatures of the White House under different Presidents. It showed every room in the building. Then I asked the man if he had any books on how to kill someone with an undetectable gas. He took his hands off the keyboard and said, “I think I better ask you a few more questions first.”
Do you ever experience writer’s block? If so, what are some of your tips for overcoming it?
I’ve been at this a while now so I don’t panic anymore. Exercise and relaxation are key for me. I try to tell myself that it isn’t the end of the world. We have word processors now. We can save everything and start over. I just power through the writing, telling myself, “This is terrible, this is terrible, this is terrible” but knowing through experience that I can fix it and it isn’t usually as bad as I thought. I also know that my brain will solve the problems causing me the writer’s block. Sometimes it just takes time.
What is the best writing advice you can give?
Write. So many people talk about it. In the end, you have to sit down and write. Also, write about what interests you. We’re usually more passionate about things that interest us.
What has been the most effective tool for marketing your novels? Do you do any platform building?
Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve found it yet. The Internet is saturated. If anything, it’s my website, especially if I can drive readers to it. I try to keep my readers informed and up to date. I also travel to a lot of conferences and try to get my name out there as much as possible. Nothing, however, takes the place of a great novel and getting people talking about it. Word of mouth, if you can get it spreading, is what sells novels.
Do you have any upcoming projects or events we can look out for?
I’ll be at the PNWA conference the end of July. I’m teaching a workshop in Albany, New York just before the Bouchercon Mystery Conference on September 18, and I’ll be teaching again this year at the Surrey Writer’s Conference in October. I’m also teaching an intensive four-day workshop in Tennessee October 10-13, which is sold out. On the writing front, I’m finishing two novels and hope to have them both out in 2014. One is a thriller with a new character, Tracy Crosswhite, Seattle’s first female homicide detective. The other is a mainstream novel that’s been my Sunday project for several years.
Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.
Cherise Hensley is an English/Marketing major at Whitworth University. She has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management as well as the Rock & Sling literary journal and has been involved in the production of other print media such as newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks. Cherise is an editor and a writer, and loves discovering new books to distract her from everyday life.