Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Visit with Chris Grabenstein

A prolific novelist, Chris Grabenstein began his career in a comedy troupe with Bruce Willis. He also wrote for Jim Henson and the Muffets as well as television and radio commercials, his mentor James Patterson. He now concentrates on thrillers, children's ghostly novels and screenwriting.

Chris, what was it like to perform in the same comedy troupe with Bruce Willis during the early 1980s?

A lot of fun! Improv, like they did on the TV show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" is a terrific way to force your imagination to come up with something wonderful right away. I still use improv techniques every day when I write. Back in the early 80s, Bruce Willis was just, well, a young actor named Bruce who had moved to New York City, like everybody else in the troupe, looking for his "big break." Agents and casting people would come to our shows, hoping to discover talent--like that scene in "The Goodbye Girl" where Richard Dreyfus is in that horrible production of Richard III down in a Greenwich Village basement. That was us. Bruce, as I recall, was tending bar. I was a temp secretary. Others were waiters. We all did our day jobs to make money and then came alive at night when we went to rehearsals or did our shows.

How did James Patterson discover your writing talent?

In 1984, tired of making ten dollars a show doing comedy while spending forty hours a week to make money to support my "habit," I decided to look for a job where I could be creative during the workday, too. Mr. Patterson at the time was the creative director of J. Walter Thompson Advertising in New York and ran a full page ad in The New York Times, headlined "Write If You Want Work." Two thousand people took the test. I was the first person hired. Jim took me under his wing and taught me how to write copy...techniques, which translated, later, into how to write books people can't put down.

Tell us about your writing background in advertising and screenwriting.

I spent seventeen years writing (mostly) television and radio commercials, ending my career as an executive vice president and group creative director at Young & Rubicam. In my early years of writing advertising, before it became an 80 hour a week kind of career, I also found time (following Mr. Patterson's example) to work on screenplays, etc. "The Christmas Gift," a made for TV movie I wrote with a college buddy, is still on the air every year. Starring John Denver, it premiered on CBS in 1986 but still earns residuals every year. In 2009, my partner and I split $26. We're talking big time. I also wrote for Jim Henson and The Muppets and took a lot of screenwriting courses. A lot of what I learned in all those writing experiences helps me in my day to day novel crafting.

Six of your mysteries have been published since 2006 when you won the Anthony Award for your first novel, Tilt a Whirl. Are you a rapid writer or did you have unpublished manuscripts in reserve when the first was published?

Well, actually, a few more than that have been published since September, 2005 (right before my 50th birthday). Six Ceepak mysteries (Tilt a Whirl, which won the Anthony Award for best first mystery, Mad Mouse, Whack a Mole, Hell Hole, Mind Scrambler, and this month, Rolling Thunder), two Christopher Miller Holiday Thrillers (Slay Ride, Hell for the Holidays), and three middle grades ghost stories in my Haunted Mystery series: The Crossroads (winner of the Agatha and an Anthony), The Hanging Hill (winner of the Agatha), and, this August, The Smoky Corridor. So at the end of 2010, I will have had eleven books published.

I am, I think, a disciplined writer and, after all those years in advertising, used to sitting down and writing for a good long time every day. I also have a bunch of unpublished manuscripts as, it seems, I typically write 3-4 books, a short story, and a play per year.

How did your children’s ghostly novels come about? Did you plan in advance that your wife would do voice overs for the audio editions?

I wanted to write something that my nieces and nephews could read--since the adult mysteries and thrillers were all a little too adult. And, even though the stepmother, Judy Magruder, in the books, is based on my wife J.J. Myers, it wasn't our plan that she do the narration for the audio books. When, however, Random House asked me for suggestions, I gave them two: If they wanted a male, go with Jeff Woodman who does a brilliant job on the Ceepak books for Audible, or J.J. Myers, who knows the material inside out, because she is my first editor. They picked J.J. and she won a Headphones award for her work on The Crossroads. She is really, really good. Created not just voices but characters for all 42 people in that book.

You have quite a family of pets. Have they helped with your storylines?

Definitely. Fred, the dog, helps me on a daily basis because I use his dog walks to day dream about story lines. He is also the inspiration for much of what Zipper does in the YA books. My first dog, Buster, was the inspiration for Ceepak's dog Barkley. The cats help, too. Parker, the gray guy, became the crazycat Jinx, the back-from-the-dead feline in The Hanging Hill, and Tiger Lilly, who is always getting into everything around our apartment, was the inspiration for Curiosity Cat, the character Judy Magruder writes children's books about and who we brought to life this year in a play I wrote for the Children's Theatre of Knoxville, called, "Curiosity Cat", of course. That play, which had its world premiere last month and was a big hit with the kids in the cast as well as the audiences, will be available for production everywhere soon via The Samuel French Company.

What’s your writing schedule like? Do you aim for a certain amount of words or hours at the keyboard each day? And do you write every day, including while you travel?

I try to write 2,000 new words every day, no matter how long it takes. Some days, I'm done in 3-4 hours. Others, 8 or 10! I try to write Monday--Friday and have found that trains and airplanes make great writing rooms, if I have my headphones and a good iTunes playlist. I take a week off between projects to recharge my brain and usually spend the time doing something that allows me to daydream--like washing windows or working on our roof garden.

What are the main ingredients in a bestselling novel?

Gosh, if I knew, maybe I'd be a best seller! I try to write the kinds of books I loved to read when I was working in advertising and flying around the country on shoots or to visit clients: Page burners. Compelling characters and stories that you can't put down. Conflict and tension on every page. Lots of reversals and twists. The longer I am in publishing, however, the more I realize becoming a true best seller requires the major support of your publisher to position you to become a best seller. Without it, you can write the best book in the world and very few people may ever know.

What’s the best way to attract an agent?

Write a story they can't put down. Something they haven't seen. Something with your own unique voice. When I was a group creative director, I always hired copy writers who had something in their portfolio that made me say, "Man, I wish I had written that ad!" With manuscripts, you need, now more than ever, to elicit a similar response. The best place to "meet" an agent, I think, is at a conference or seminar. I've heard agents say the same thing.

Advice to aspiring writers?

Keep writing every day. And--this was the hardest advice I was ever given--decide whether you want to be a writer or to write the one book you have written and keep rewriting because you know it will be a best seller just as soon as people stop rejecting it. To be a writer means becoming someone who is constantly writing something new, not constantly reworking the same idea until someone buys it. Eventually, you need to put that first book away and move on to the second or third. Tilt a Whirl, my "first" book, was my fourth manuscript.

Also, learn from others. Find a book you love and tear it apart. Strip it down and analyze its structure. Look for the ghost in the machine. What makes it tick? Learn the craft from a master craftsperson you admire.

Thanks, Chris, for taking part in the series.

Chris's website: