“Speed kills” has always been identified with fast-moving cars and drugs. But today it best describes the crime novel genre, which combines murder with a quickened pace to compete for the conscious mind of an Attention Deficit Disorder society.
“It is a different world now and we can’t deny attention spans are shorter. That’s not going to change,” says bestselling author Jeffery Deaver. “…We authors are up against a different medium for storytelling—TV and video games.”
Today’s culture becomes more problematic when you consider authors are trying to write stories that engage their readers even closer. How do you do that in a world with the attention span of a gnat?
“I believe a reading experience is the most intense story engagement we have. You read a book and it’s integrated within your spirit and your art,” Deaver says. “Books are threatened now because we watch TV.”
“I write differently now. I call it a streaming style. Readers want a story experience they get on TV because it’s easier. I want to grab those people so you can have a more intense experience. So, what does this mean? I write shorter books, shorter chapters… More dialogue, more interaction instead of interior monologue about a relationship. I show the relationship.”
Today, his novels never exceed 100,000 words while previously they could run much longer.
Deaver’s willingness to change with the times is one reason he has stayed at the top of his game and at the top of the crime novel bestseller lists. But how did he get there?
Since he was a pre-teen, he wanted to write fiction.
“I just found stories were a good thing. They brought us together. They created emotional engagement, and they were the sort of thing I felt I could do…In the back of my mind I was going to be a fiction writer.”
So, he got a journalism degree from University of Missouri, still one of the top three journalism schools in the U.S., and then went to law school at Rutgers.
“I went to law school to get a good journalism job reporting on legal issues. But it wasn’t really me. All that time I was writing.”
He was working as an attorney for an advertising agency doing licensing work and talking to agents of stars, authors, and musicians. He struck up a friendship with an agent who repped artists and asked if he ever represented authors.
“He said he’d look at my manuscript and said he would try to sell it. He did.”
Soon Deaver had a contract with a small publisher—the only one to express interest. But it was so small he got page proofs without a single copy edit.
His novel, Voodoo, was a story about a Mambo, a voodoo priestess, and a neurosurgeon in New York City who come together to save the life of a woman with mental health issues who might be a murderer. It ends with a big climactic scene, says Deaver, but not enough to save his first published novel from oblivion.
“I didn’t know how it worked back then,” he says. “It was in stores, but it was bad in the sense that it should have been edited.”
He was young and naïve about the business. “I wasn’t sure what genre I worked in. I didn’t read that much occult, so why was I doing this?”
“Then I said it was time to do crime.” He wrote a caper, Always a Thief, about an artist whose creativity takes him only to a certain level before he becomes the world’s greatest art thief. It includes a 40-page orgy and wasn’t reviewed anywhere. But he got one comment: “The book was too short and there’s not enough sex in it.”
“I decided to stick with what I really know (from reading the crime books he enjoyed).” He was already writing his next book, Manhattan Is My Beat about the New York underground club culture in the 1980s.
He began asking fellow authors about agents and one friend gave him several names. He submitted three queries and Debra Schneider answered, but with one stipulation. She was pregnant and would represent him after her baby was born. Months later, after completing her blessed event, she landed him a three-book contract with Bantam.
Manhattan Is My Beat was nominated for an Edgar Award and it got reviewed as a paperback original. The difference from his previous work was editing, Deaver says. The novel not only had a developmental edit, but he’d hired an independent copy editor.
Deaver failed to win the Edgar and today has been nominated eight times—losing every time. “I’ve become the Susan Luci of novels.” The soap opera star made a name for herself by not winning a daytime Emmy until she finally did. “Now I don’t want to win,” Deaver jokes.
Still relatively unknown after the success of Manhattan Is My Beat, Deaver embarked on a book tour. A dozen chairs were set up for a talk and signing at a Borders Books in Towson, Maryland. Six were occupied and the bookstore staff filled the remaining. At the end of his talk, an audience member walked up to Deaver and asked if he would give him a ride back to Baltimore, where Deaver was staying.
“I did. He could have been a movie producer for all I knew.” He wasn’t, but the stranger got a free chauffeured ride.
Later, Deaver was touring with author Justin Scott. “We were doing a joint thing. Neither of us was well-known. Five people would show up who were serious about our presentation. We did a short reading, like a standup comedy bit. Toward the end of the tour, we said screw this. We both had two margaritas. We’re in Naples, Florida—a lot of retirees there. We walk into the bookstore, and it’s packed to the gills—70-80 people waiting to see us—and we are toasted,” he says. “Writers can be drunk. That’s okay. That’s part of our image and we didn’t embarrass ourselves. Wouldn’t you know it? The one time we had a full house, we weren’t prepared.”
Another time, in California, a lady from a retirement community said she was representing her friends who couldn’t come to his book signing. “The ladies ask me to ask you about the violence in your books,” she says. “We think you’re going soft on us. In this latest book you killed one person, and they stabbed two others and they lived. We want you to get back to your roots.”
“I had to laugh,” he says. “I don’t write violent books. All violence is off stage. Violence is a creative failure. It doesn’t create suspense. Hitchcock didn’t have explicit violent. Blood and guts is easy.”
And like avoiding violence in his novels, Deaver has stayed true to himself and his writing, striving to create a more intense, more personal experience for his fans. While he has adapted to the public’s shortened attention span, he still insists on murdering his characters out of sight, but for his readers, never out of mind.
Manhattan Is My Beat
Writing Time: 9-12 Months
Agents Contacted: 3 Agents
Agent Responses: 1
Agent Search: 1 Month
Time to Sell Novel: 2 Months
First Novel Agent: Debra Schneider
First Novel Editor: Kate Miciak
First Novel Publisher: Bantam
Inspiration: Ian Fleming, John le Carré, John D. MacDonald, Ed McBain, Arthur Conan Doyle, J.R.R. Tolkien
Advice to Writers: Plan out what you are going. Do an outline, the more extensive the better. Joyce Carol Oates said you can’t write the first sentence until you know the last. Write in the genre you enjoy reading. Take a book that is a model for what you want you want to do and pull it apart. Outline it. Study the book. Write down passages you like. See how the structure works. Get an agent. Remember that rejection is a speedbump. It’s not a brick wall. Ignore it. Keep writing. Take your time. Don’t take time selling a book. Aim for a conventional publisher.
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