We sat down with award-winning thriller author Brad Parks at Succeed2gether’s Montclair Literary Festival. We picked his brain about how being a journalist influenced his fiction writing, the mistakes he made on the path to publication, and how he found the right literary agent and set himself on the road to publishing success.
Watch the video or read the transcript below.
David: Hello. We’re the Book Doctors.
Brad: I’m not a Book Doctor.
D: No. We’re talking to Brad Parks, who just told us that he has all his own teeth, and I think that’s important as a writer. Not that you can’t be a writer if you’re missing teeth. . .
B: No. It’s not necessary to the writing process. I’ve never tried to type with my teeth, but it’s good to know I could if I wanted.
How Being a Journalist Helps Brad Parks Write Novels
D: We were just talking about journalism, and you were a journalist first. I always tell people when they’re young and out of school that it’s a great way to learn how to be a writer because you’ve got to pump out the words in a small space.
Arielle: And on a deadline.
Finding a Story
D: Will you talk about how that helped you?
B: How did it not help me? For starters, I was a sports writer starting out, and in modern day sports, everybody knows the score already, like they’ve seen the stats, and so you’re going to the ballpark every day and it’s find a story, tell a story. Find a story, tell a story. That’s a great muscle.
And then there’s the discipline. You don’t say, “I don’t feel like making a deadline today. I’m not inspired.”
D: The muse hasn’t struck.
B: We were just talking off-camera–not that they would know–about my young days as a reporter for The Star-Ledger. I’d just gotten hired at the paper and our Yankees beat writer left, so suddenly they threw me onto the Yankees beat in a temporary situation. So big pressure.
The sports editor sat me down and explained that sometimes they would hold an entire edition of the newspaper waiting on the Yankees score. And you have to hit the button as soon as the game ends. He said for every minute the trucks and presses are waiting, it costs $15,000. “And what do you make a year, young man?” That’s a deadline, my friends.
D: We always say, “What are the stakes in the story?” The stakes are high.
B: The stakes are very high. And you can’t sit there going, “Is that really the word? I’m just, I’m not sure that has the right shading.” No, you’re just jamming it out.
Debut Novel Writing Mistakes
A: Before you sold your first novel and you were writing it, did you set your own deadlines?
B: No. So before I sold my first novel, I did everything wrong.
Lack of Discipline
I am the poster child for writing discipline because I would make excuses for myself, like I had this full-time job that involved writing and so I would do the worst thing you can possibly do, which is I would write really dedicated for a month or two and then something would happen, news would break at work or something would happen in the family, and two months later I’d be coming back to this going, “Wait, what? Aunt Ellie? Who the hell is Aunt Ellie? What was I doing with her?”
And then a beautiful thing happened. I sold a novel and signed a contract. Now I’m a journalist so deadlines are meaningful to me. I signed this contract in July that said the second book in the contract was due in January, and it was like, “Whoa!”
A: And you hadn’t written it?
B: I had not written a word.
We were offered a two-book contract and my agent was like, “Oh, you have a second book, right?”
And I’m like, “Oh, yeah. Of course I do. I just want to polish it a little bit.”
How Brad Got His Discipline Back
So I did a thing where I’m a nerd and I did a spreadsheet, and I figured a thousand words a day, that’s a newspaper article plus a little padding, and I can do that. What a difference it makes when it’s a thousand words every day and you’re into the story. I always say it maximizes your bottle-washing time. I call it bottle-washing time because we had small kids at the time so I was washing a lot of bottles. While you’re doing this monotonous thing, your brain is always churning on the story and you’re just staying in touch with it. So even now, I’m a thousand-words-a-day writer. That is my thing. That is my jam. That’s my discipline.
D: There’s some one, one of those old writers, Somerset Maugham or somebody, who would write 500 words in the morning when he woke up, and no matter where he was in the sentence at the 500th word, he’d put the pen down and say, “Time for a martini! That’s a good day’s work done.” You crank out 500 or a thousand words every single day, you’re going to have a book very quickly.
B: If you do a thousand words a day, you’re going to have a draft three months later.
And, of course, that Somerset Maugham reminds me of my favorite Somerset Maugham quote, which is: “There are three things that make a great novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.”
A: We have that quote in our book, actually. It’s a wonderful quote. We want to always know the publishing breakthrough side of your story because we are here to help people get published successfully. We’ve already heard something you didn’t do right.
D: And something you did do right.
Debut Publishing Mistakes
A: So in terms of the “I got my novel published,” what was something that really got you to that point that you think you did well?
The Wrong Agent
B: How much camera film do you have there? I’m gonna break the cloud if I’m talking about everything I did wrong. I did everything wrong, absolutely everything, because I did it like a newspaper reporter. I figured out I need to get an agent, and what I did was I said, “Who do I know?” “Who do I know” is not the way to go about it. I have become an evangelist for the query process and for actually doing it correctly because “who do I know” is not necessarily going to lead you to the right agent.
It led me to a woman who was very wonderful and very smart, I can say nothing bad about her, except she wasn’t truly a mystery/thriller agent. So when she would walk into those publishing houses and be pitching those editors, they were like “who is this lady?” because she didn’t have anybody else in the genre. That kind of led me to a spot where I wasn’t being taken as seriously.
A: Did you sell a novel with her?
B: I sold a novel with her. But did I sell it well, Arielle?
Before you publish, you think, “If I could just be published, that’s the mountaintop. There it is.” And then you realize it’s the base camp, and there’s this whole other thing you have to climb. I mean, it took a number of years for me to undo the mistakes I made early on in my career.
D: We always tell people to research when you try to find an agent because if you’re a mystery writer you don’t want to get a romance agent or a nonfiction agent.
B: That is very, very true. The wrong agent is worse than no agent.
D: It kind of is in a way.
B: That’s very true.
Making a Weak First Impression
A: Also it can be very hard to sell a second book if the first book doesn’t do as well as everybody had hoped.
B: I always say that you only get one chance to make a first impression in this business, and your debut novel is like this capital that you get to spend once. And everybody is going to be looking at the new kid in town. They’re going to be looking at Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing. And suddenly, Reese Witherspoon likes it. And by the way, Reese, you would love my books. Let’s talk.
You have that one time you get to be that debut novelist that everybody’s going to be checking out. Man, hit that one time right and everything else is smooth.
A: You’re saying you didn’t; yet, you have had prolific–
B: Here I am.
D: You’re the only writer who won the three awards that nobody ever has. . .
B: That is true.
D: What are they?
B: They are the Seamus, Nero, and Lefty awards, which is a little bit like saying, you know, nobody’s ever skied down a ski slope in Florida while making French fries. It’s an odd miss of awards because the Seamus Award is for hard-boiled PI, and the Lefty Award is for humor, and the Nero Award is, like, books written in the tradition of Nero Wolfe.
D: That’s a cool thing. It’s kind of a weird Triple Crown.
A: I think nobody does it exactly right.
D: Stephen King.
B: No. Stephen King struggled at first. David Baldacci did it right. He sold his first book for a million dollars and the movie rights for two million dollars. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.
A: Sometimes luck and doing it right come together. I mean, most people who are novelists aren’t even making a living at it. They are doing other full-time jobs.
B: Right. Making a living . . . (knocks) as I knock on this faux wood . . .
How Brad Found an Agent, Lost an Agent, Then Found the Right Agent
A: I’m going to take exception to you saying you didn’t do it right because you’ve done many things right. So at a certain point you said, this is not the right agent for me, and then what happened?
B: Oh boy, are you sure you have enough film footage? You know, so really, I had at that point launched a series, and it’s very hard to move a series as we all know, so we kind of formulated that, all right, you’re going to have to do a stand alone.
A: With the new agent?
B: With the new agent.
A Series of Rejections
So I have to do a stand alone with the new agent. I’m going to cut to the chase on this. I wrote one, threw it away. I wrote another, threw it away. I wrote another–
A: Wait, I have to interrupt you. When you say, “throw it away,” had you sent each of these to the agent?
A: And the agent said?
B: This is good but . . .
Then we got to the fourth one, the one I really thought was it, he fired me. He said, “Look, I can’t do this anymore. You know, he got to a point where he felt like . . . I’d made a bad storytelling choice, admittedly, and I think the weight of the previous three novels, he just felt like he couldn’t.
It was a wonderful and devastating thing to have happen, but it really made me go back and I actually did the query process right for the first time. I actually said, “Okay, really, truly who do I want? What am I looking for?” I talked with a number of agents. I spent five months looking for an agent, which by that point, as a guy with my track record, I could have called somebody and said, “Will you represent me?” They would have said yes. Done. But I really wanted to make sure I did it right.
Benefits of Having the Right Agent
I found a woman named Alice Martell, who really worked the book with me in a rigorous way. It’s like that one person who can force you to dig deeper and say, “Nope, that wasn’t good enough.” And like, “Right here, you need to step on the gas pedal for about a paragraph or two.” I do? What? You want more? Okay, there’s more there, I’m sure. Somewhere.
D: The funny thing is when the person is right, you always go back and say, “How did I not see that?”
B: It’s so funny. Publishing moves so fast sometimes editors don’t really have time to edit. This is where being an ex-newspaper guy is a bit of a curse. If you write clean copy, they kind of go, “Okay, well, that’s good enough.” Here was somebody finally in my life saying this is not good enough. We went back and forth for about another five months doing, I think, three more rounds of edits. She finally said, “Okay, it’s time.” Within a week, she had two major houses bidding against each other, and that novel, Say Nothing, has since sold in 15 countries. It was a best seller in Germany.
It’s a wonderful story but it only took about seven years to get to that point.
How Brad Dealt with Rejection
A: One last question. When you had the agent, how did you deal with that form of negative feedback around your work? Did you go into a hole? Did you say, “I’m going to come and kill you during the night?”
B: All of those things. Actually, the first book I was okay. The second book . . . I always say that the first time I ever saw my father cry was when his dad died. The first time my kids saw me cry was when that book died. The third one, I felt I dealt with it in a much more mature way. I snapped at my kids for no reason, stormed out of the house, went to the local grocery store, bought a box of cookies, and ate them in the car with tears streaming down my face. That’s how you’re supposed to deal with your feelings. (Laughter.)
D: That’s a wonderful image.
B: Man, we don’t talk about this enough as writers, but it’s grit. You’ve got to have grit.
I’m fortunate in that I have no other marketable skills so it’s not like I had anything to fall back on. But man, you’re going to get knocked down so much, and you got to get up off the mat and try a different way.
A: Many people would have given up after the first one. And this is the thing that we tell people all the time is the perseverance.
B: It is.
A: That’s a beautiful story. Thank you.
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International bestselling author Brad Parks is the only writer to have won the Shamus, Nero, and Lefty Awards, three of American crime fiction’s most prestigious prizes. His novels have been translated into 15 languages and have won critical acclaim across the globe, including stars from every major pre-publication review outlet. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Parks is a former journalist with The Washington Post and The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger. He is now a full-time novelist living in Virginia with his wife and two school-aged children. Learn more at BradParksBooks.com.
The Montclair Literary Festival is a community-wide event that aims to exchange ideas, inspire future literary works and engage with different points of view. Working closely with the Montclair Public Library, Watchung Booksellers and a team of local volunteers, the festival will also generate lasting connections between arts institutions, the schools and the community, benefiting a broad cross-section of participants and attendees.
You wrote your 50,000 words (or got pretty close!). You’re a winner. You felt the high. Now what are you going to do with your precious manuscript? That’s where we, The Book Doctors, come in.
For those of you not familiar with Pitchapalooza, here’s the skinny: You get 250 words to pitch your book. Twenty pitches will be randomly selected from all submissions. We will then critique the pitches during a live webinar on March 16, 2019 at 12PM PT / 3PM ET, so you get to see what makes a great pitch. At the end of the webinar, we will choose one winner from the group.
The winner will receive an introduction to an agent or publisher appropriate for his/her manuscript.
Beginning February 1, 2019, you can email your pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org. PLEASE DO NOT ATTACH YOUR PITCH, JUST EMBED IT IN THE EMAIL. Include your title and your name at the top of your pitch. All pitches must be received by 11:59PM PST on February 28, 2019.
We will also crown a fan favorite who will receive a free one-hour consult with us (worth $250). On March 17, 2019, the 20 random pitches will be posted on our website, www.thebookdoctors.com. Anyone can vote for a fan favorite, so get your social media engine running as soon as the pitches go up! Connecting with your future readers is a vital part of being a successfully published author today. And this is a great way to get some practice. Voting closes at 11:59PM PST on April 1, 2019. The fan favorite will be announced on April 2, 2019.
If you purchase a copy of our book, The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published, by April 2, 2019, we’re offering an exclusive one-hour webinar where you’ll get the chance to pitch your book. Just attach a copy of your sales receipt to your email and we’ll send the link to the webinar dates.
Important NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza dates
Friday, February 1, 2019–Pitch submission opens
Thursday, February 28, 2019–Final day to submit pitches
Saturday, March 16, 2019–NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza live on YouTube
Sunday, March 17, 2019–Voting for fan favorite begins
Monday, April 1, 2019–Final day to vote for fan favorite
Tuesday, April 2, 2019–Fan favorite announced
NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza success stories
It’s been a great year for past NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza winners. Gloria Chao’s novel American Panda (Simon Pulse/Simon & Schuster) released to multiple starred reviews. Read Gloria’s winning NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza pitch.
Stacy McAnulty is now the award-winning author of 19 books for young readers. She launched her middle grade novel The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl with multiple starred reviews and a spot on the Indie Next List. Read Stacy’s winning pitch.
“Winning Pitchapalooza gave me confidence and the courage to keep fighting. It also helped bring my manuscript to the next level.”
Are you feeling a little unsure about exactly how to craft your pitch?
10 tips for pitching your novel
- A great pitch is like a poem. Every word counts.
- Make us fall in love with your hero. Whether you’re writing a novel or memoir, you have to make us root for your flawed but lovable hero.
- Make us hate your villain. Show us someone unique and dastardly whom we can’t wait to hiss at.
- Just because your kids love to hear your story at bedtime doesn’t mean you’re automatically qualified to get a publishing deal. So make sure not to include this information in your pitch.
- If you have any particular expertise that relates to your novel, tell us. Establishing your credentials will help us trust you.
- Your pitch is your audition to show us what a brilliant writer you are, so it has to be the very best of your writing.
- Don’t make your pitch a book report. Make it sing and soar and amaze.
- A pitch is like a movie trailer. You start with an incredibly exciting/funny/sexy/romantic/etc. close-up with intense specificity, then you pull back to show the big picture and tell us the themes and broad strokes that build to a climax.
- Leave us with a cliffhanger. The ideal reaction to a pitch is, “Oh my God, what happens next?”
- Show us what’s unique, exciting, valuable, awesome, unexpected, about your project, and why it’s comfortable, familiar and proven.
NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza FAQs
Q: May I submit more than one pitch?
A: Yes, you may submit multiple pitches. Please include your book’s title and your name at the top of each pitch.
Q: How long is a pitch?
A: You get 250 words to pitch your book.
Q: How are the 20 pitches selected?
A: The 20 pitches are randomly selected; however, we read all the pitches.
Q: Are the choices for fan favorite also randomly selected?
A: Yes. They are the same 20 pitches that we read during the webinar.
Q: If I buy a copy of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, how does the one-hour webinar work?
A: We limit each webinar to 20 people, which gives everyone the chance to pitch and get feedback.
Q: Where can I learn more about writing my pitch?
A: We offer resources on our YouTube channel. We recommend that you watch “The Art of the Book Pitch”, last year’s NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza, and our Pitch Tips playlist. Hungry for more examples? Check out our Pitchapalooza playlist.
So many writers, unpublished to bestselling, are networking-phobic. They didn’t become writers to schmooze, mingle, and hobnob. If this is you, and you want to NOT get published, and NOT find readers, by all means, continue to ignore this seemingly heinous but totally essential part of the publishing business. Lucky for you, dear friends and writers, we have a new Book Doctors video to help you stop being allergic to promoting and marketing.
When David first comes up with a book idea, he writes a pitch. He starts memorizing that pitch, and whenever anyone asks him what he’s up to, he says, “I’m writing a book.” Now, he’s not one of those people who gets right in your face and goes, “I’ll tell you about my book!” No, someone has to ask what the book is about. Then he has one minute to answer what his book is about. One minute. That’s his pitch. Networking makes you understand what a pitch is and how to make it better.
Why networking is important
While you’re at a party, talking about your book is important because you never know who people know. It turns out, your cousin’s best friend from college is now an editor at Simon & Schuster. Who knew? Talking about your book, while difficult for many people, is essential to getting this book out into the world. Networking could get your name in the subject line of an email to an agent, which will put you at the top of the slush pile. There’s no way to make these connections without opening your mouth.
Writers’ objections to networking
People are shy about their work, nervous about sharing it. They’re afraid. It’s time to confront those fears.
“I’m afraid someone will steal my idea.”
No one is going to steal your idea. Arielle has been working as an agent for twenty-five years, and she’s never seen that happen.
“I don’t want to brag.”
You don’t have to brag to tell someone about your book idea. Talking about your book is part of your job as a writer.
Perfecting your pitch and asking questions
Networking allows you to practice and refine your pitch. You’ll notice as you talk about your book that people might glaze over at certain points. Those are the parts you should cut. You’ll notice when they perk up and when they’re excited, parts you’ll want to accentuate.
Networking is also about being interested in others and asking them questions. Try questions like these the next time you’re at a party or a conference:
- What are you working on?
- What’s your book about?
- Oh, you work at ______, what do you do there? How did you get started?
What if you’re shy?
If you’re nervous about one-on-one, face-to-face networking, turn your attention to social media. You can share where you are in your writing process so others can get involved with the making of your book. Ask other authors about their books. Friend or follow other writers or people in the industry on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. See what they’re talking about and how they’re talking about it.
For example, let’s say you’re writing a book about dogs, and you see all these editors and agents who post about their dogs. That’s important information to know as you network and query your book.
David’s networking story
When David wrote his first book, he didn’t know anyone in the publishing business so he asked everyone he knew if they’d read his book. Turns out, his former commercial acting agent knew someone. She said, “Oh, my goddaughter is a literary agent. Would you mind if I gave her your book?” Well, it turns out that literary agent was Arielle. Not only did David get an agent out of networking, he got a wife.
Read author Kate Forest’s advice for writers, including her thoughts on networking. Need a little more help with networking? We’re here to provide coaching, support, and marketing advice.
One of the biggest mistakes writers make is sending out their books before they’re ready.
In this month’s video, we cover how to be your own reader, how to find readers and critique partners, and when to hire a professional editor. Whether you just “finished” your first draft or are ten years into a manuscript (like David), these editing tips can work for you.
Be your own editor
Sending out a terrific manuscript begins with you. You must be your own critical reader.
Read your work out loud. This practice reveals so much about your manuscript. When you stumble over a sentence, 99 times out of a 100 there is something wrong with it. You get a different effect when the words go in your eyes, through your brain, and out of your mouth.
Once you do everything you can possible do yourself, it’s time to hand your manuscript off to readers.
First, your readers should be avid readers of books like yours. Readers in your genre know the marketplace, your comparable titles, and the category in bookstores.
Second, you need readers who aren’t related to you. Yes, you want your mom to read your book, but eventually you’ll need someone who isn’t tied to you by DNA or relationships. Find people who don’t know your voice.
Here are ways to find readers.
- Join a critique group.
- Visit Goodreads to find people who read in your genre and maybe you can arrange a manuscript swap.
- Edit someone else’s book because it teaches you a lot about editing your own book.
Hire a professional editor
You want to find someone who has expertise in your area to ensure you’re adhering to tropes and conventions within your genre. We’re book doctors, but we want other editors to read our books, too. David has been working on a novel for ten years–he’s on his 90th draft (yes, 90!) — and he has paid four trained professionals to look at his book.
You can find a professional editor no matter how small your budget. If your budget isn’t big, we recommend asking booksellers or librarians who know your genre. There are freelance editors who once worked at publishing houses.
But buyer beware! Do your research before you give anyone your money.
NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza and more!
At the end of the video we share a bit about the live NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza happening on February 28, 2017. We hope you’ll be able to join us on YouTube at 4PM PST. You can participate live at this link. If you can’t watch live, a recording will be available. Learn more about NaNoWriMo Pitchapalooza here.
We’re also offering a free webinar (worth $75) for anyone who buys our book between now and March 15, 2017. You can learn more by watching the video or reading this post.
JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER TO RECEIVE MORE TIPS ON HOW TO GET PUBLISHED.
This Query Letter Webinar was held on December 1, 2016
The query letter is an author’s first arrow in their assault on the castle surrounding the Kingdom of Bestsellers. The Book Doctors are constantly shocked by how many great writers write terrible query letters. Agents and publishers are overwhelmed and inundated; if they don’t fall in love with your query letter, you’re going to get one of those horrible generic responses which, no matter how much sugar they put on it, basically tells the author to drop dead.
This webinar will break down everything you need to know about the query letter, and we will deconstruct and critique (in our kind and gentle way) participants’ randomly selected query letters.
This webinar is FREE to view. To submit your query letter for possible critique, please send it to email@example.com. Include “query webinar submission” in the subject line.
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Our book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published takes you through the entire process of conceiving, writing, selling, marketing and promoting your book.