The Quest: Five or Six (Hundred) Easy Steps to Overnight Success
by James Grippando
Autumn 2004 marked the ten-year anniversary of the publication of my first novel, THE PARDON. Nine novels later, I suppose it's time to look back and ask, COULD I DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN?
The answer is a resounding: ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?
I wrote THE PARDON in seven months, and HarperCollins snatched it up in just a few days. A snap, right? Wrong. My first PUBLISHED novel was not my first novel. And its debut came a full six years after I began my labor of love --- that first misstep in the unending quest for the Holy Grisham Grail.
In January 1988 I turned thirty, five years into the practice of law. A trial lawyer is in many ways a storyteller. Still, I had no idea how to become a novelist. I was on track toward partnership at Steel Hector & Davis, a prestigious Miami law firm considered by many to be Florida's finest. Attorney General Janet Reno got her start there. The presidents of both the American and Florida Bar practiced there. Young lawyers like me were supposed to follow career paths that might someday lead us to similar distinction. No one at Steel was on track to becoming a writer.
So, I set a couple of ground rules. First, I would do my writing on the sly, nights and weekends, while continuing to bill my obligatory two thousand hours a year. Second --- and this was by far the most important rule --- I was determined to keep it fun. With that, I set out on my adventure, keeping a journal along the way. What follows is a selective chronology of events. I've kept it light, though many of these things weren't very funny at the time. But at least there's a happy ending --- along with the highs and lows, fits and starts, warts and all.
A NOVEL IDEA
LABOR DAY WEEKEND 1988. At a holiday barbecue, friends are knocking off spare ribs and gushing over Scott Turow's PRESUMED INNOCENT. "And he wrote it while riding to work on the train," someone says. I tell no one, but I decide to write a novel.
NOVEMBER 24. My girlfriend thinks my first hundred pages are kind of interesting, but the x's and y's are driving her crazy. She suggests I actually NAME my characters so that it reads more like a novel and less like an algebraic equation. I want the lead lawyer to have an Italian surname, like me, so I come up with Bianchi. The name nags me a little --- sounds familiar, but I can’t quite place it.
NOVEMBER 25. Bianchi is out. He was the California Hillside Strangler.
JANUARY 1989. I focus my story, and --- surprise! --- it's a legal thriller. Can't decide whether the lead character should be the young and beautiful lawyer or her silver-haired mentor. So I make them BOTH lead characters. Mistake Number One.
MARCH 1. I write my first love scene.
MARCH 2. I cut my first love scene. Check out D.H. Lawrence from the library.
JULY. After ten months of writing, I print a hard copy. And print, and print. Twelve hundred pages! Every interesting tidbit I've read in the newspaper or picked up at cocktail party since Labor Day has somehow made its way into the story. And it reads more like a family saga than a legal thriller. Which is it? BOTH, I decide. Mistake Number Two.
HOW TO GET PUBLISHED, NOT EXACTLY BY THE BOOK
AUGUST-NOVEMBER. I circulate finished drafts to friends for serious feedback. The operative word here is friends. Kind of like asking my mother if she thinks I'm handsome.
JANUARY 1991. I go crazy buying "How To" books. But they DO teach me one thing: I must have a literary agent. I aim right for the top: Robert Ludlum's agent.
APRIL 26. Success! Ludlum's agent wants to read my manuscript. He is concerned, however, that the market for lawyer-novels may be getting over-crowded. No kidding, Sherlock.
JUNE 2. Rejection from Ludlum's agent. Says a first novel should be about 100,000 words. I run a word count on my computer. Over 250,000 words. I've created a monster.
JUNE 3. There's a new kid on the block, some guy named John Grisham. I wonder how his agent would feel about a 250,000-word . . . trilogy --- yeah, that's the ticket. A TRILOGY.
JUNE 27. Still waiting on Grisham's agent, I mail off another query to Arthur Pine. Pine's listing in THE WRITER'S MARKET says George Burns is a client. Nice reference. Anybody who represents God must be honest.
JULY 2. A phone call from Artie Pine. Likes my story, but he senses it probably needs a shave and a haircut. What a diplomat. I think the diagnosis from Ludlum's agent was "terminally obese." Artie wants to see the first two chapters and the big climax. Terrific. Now all I have to do is figure out what's my big climax.
JULY 12. Unable to find it, I write the big climax and FedEx the package to Artie.
JULY 14. Artie likes it but says no publisher will buy a 250,000-word manuscript from a no-name author. If I'll agree to cut it to a marketable length, he'll agree to represent me. That sounds like a fair offer. I don't tell him it's my ONLY offer.
THE SLIM-FAST DIET FOR BOOKS
AUGUST. Nothing happens. If ever I decide to take over the publishing industry, it will be in August. No one would suspect a thing until they all returned from vacation after Labor Day.
NOVEMBER 17. Each November means The Miami International Book Fair, and I hang on every word as a panel of experts --- a first-time author, two literary agents and a publisher --- explain how to get published. During the Q&A session, frustrated writers step up to the microphone and beg the panelists to PLEASE read their manuscripts. I wonder if next year I'll be one of the panelists or one of the desperate souls stepping up to the microphone.
DECEMBER. A trip to NYC to meet my agent on West 57th Street. Simple offices, but the collage on the wall tells the story. A colorful scattering of hardcover book jackets --- bestsellers, books-to-movies, and a huge blow-up of the NEW YORK TIMES list with James Patterson at #1. Patterson has not yet hit #1. He made the blow-up to help his agent visualize the goal. "Patterson will be huge someday," says Artie.
MAY 1992. A thousand pages have been whittled down to five hundred and change. Nearly four years of work may actually pay off. Artie makes no predictions but thinks it will sell. I'm sure of it: I'M GOING TO BE AN AUTHOR.
AT LEAST HE GOT KISSED
MAY 21. I have a blind date with Tiffany Russell. She's beautiful -- and a voracious reader with a degree in English Literature. I tell her about my novel. She'd love to read it, can't wait to get inside my head. INSIDE MY HEAD? Suddenly, I feel naked, or at least like my fly is open.
JULY. Artie calls. We've gotten a few rejections. Not to worry. "It only takes one."
AUGUST 24. Hurricane Andrew rips through south Florida. The Russell home is destroyed. Tiff, her mom, dad and grandmother move into my two bedroom town house for the week. Lucky for them they gave my book a favorable review.
LABOR DAY WEEKEND. Artie forwards me a two-page letter from a big New York editor. She's impressed, thinks the characters and story are rich and fully developed. I read on. My hand begins to shake. Unfortunately, she writes, we are in an age of minimalist writing. "After a lot of thought, I've decided against it." My heart sinks. She was our last shot. We crashed and burned. The book didn't sell. I step outside and pitch her letter in the mountain of hurricane debris that used to be my parking space. Writing sucks.
SEPTEMBER. I'm a lawyer. I love practicing law.
MID-SEPTEMBER. Artie calls. I brace myself for something along the lines of goodbye and good wishes. But Artie the optimist proves true to form: "Jim, you got the most ENCOURAGING rejection letters I've ever seen." I figure Artie must have invented the word "spin." But what the hell. New book. New idea. Am I up for it? Of course. I'm a writer. I love to write.
September came and went, life after Hurricane Andrew was becoming somewhat normal, and I had made zero progress on my second book. One night around one a.m., I needed a break from my computer, so I went for a walk. As I reached the dimly lit street corner, a squad car appeared out of nowhere. It came to a halt on the grassy part of the curb, blocking my path.
"Can I see some identification?" the cop said.
I had none --- no wallet, no drivers license, nothing. The lawyer in me was tempted to explain to this fascist that the Constitution doesn't require people in this country to carry ID, but he cut me off. Someone reported a peeping-Tom in the neighborhood. I stood nervously beside the squad car as he called in on his radio for a description of the prowler. Our eyes locked in a tense stare, and as the dispatcher recited the physical description, I could almost see him ticking off similarities on his mental check list.
"Under six feet," the dispatcher said. CHECK.
"Thirty to thirty-five years old." CHECK.
"Brown hair, brown eyes." DOUBLE CHECK.
"Blue shorts, white T-shirt." HOLY CRAP! I'M GOING TO JAIL!
"And a mustache," the dispatcher finally added.
The cop narrowed his eyes, trying to discern whether someone could have mistakenly thought I had a mustache. Finally he said, "Go home."
I walked quickly, thankful I wasn't riding downtown in the back of a squad car. An arrest would have surely put me in the newspaper --- PROMINENT ATTORNEY CHARGED AS 'PEEPING TOM.' Just being arrested could have ruined my reputation. When people watch the news at night and see that guy stuffed into the back of squad car, their first thought usually isn't, "Oh, look honey, there goes another innocent man off to jail." It's usually something along the lines of HE DID IT. Or, IF HE WASN'T DOING THIS, HE WAS PROBABLY DOING SOMETHING. Or even better: IF HE WASN'T DOING IT THIS TIME, HE'S PROBABLY DONE A WHOLE LOT OF OTHER THINGS. . . . Your last thought is that this is a totally innocent person. It's only human nature.
My life had nearly changed forever. And in a way, it had. More than four years after starting my first novel, I suddenly had an idea for a second.
OFF TO THE RACES
OCTOBER 4, 3 A.M. Page One, Chapter One. A death row inmate faces imminent execution for a murder he may not have committed. I call it THE GOVERNOR'S PARDON.
MARCH 6, 1993. Dinner with Tiff at Lutece in New York. Snow falls on Saturday morning as we skate at Rockefeller Center. When the right music finally plays, I chase her around the ice until I can get her to stop in front of the gold statue of Prometheus. Irving Berlin's I'LL BE LOVING YOU ... ALWAYS, is in its third chorus by the time I get my glove off and show her the ring. When she hugs me and accepts, the surrounding crowd looking down on the rink cheers. Good thing this is real life. It would make awfully corny fiction.
APRIL 26. After seven months of work, Artie loves my new novel. We're changing the title to THE PARDON, and he's going to hold an auction. This concerns me. When I think of auctions, I conjure up distress sales --- you know, bankruptcy, going out of business. Artie laughs and assures me that an auction is a good thing that happens only to big books. I'm appeased for the moment. As I recall, however, they auctioned off Eastern Airlines, too. THAT was big.
MAY 7. A call from Richard Pine, Artie's son --- the other half of the dynamic duo. Rick Horgan, a senior editor at HarperCollins, wants to talk to me on the phone.
MAY 8, 3:10 P.M. Horgan calls. NOW what? He wants to make sure that I'm open to a few changes. I don't tell him, but he could probably persuade me to turn it into a comedy. Maybe call it PRESUMED IGNORANT or TO MOCK A KILLING BIRD. Just BUY the damn thing.
THURSDAY, MAY 13, 10:42 A.M. It's Artie on the phone. My heart stops. "Congratulations, Jim, you're an author." He jumps to the bottom line --- the advance. He mentions a modest five figure sum. It's okay, I say. It's not about the money. I'm smiling and pacing across the room with the phone against my ear. Artie's explaining hardcover, paperback, foreign rights. Then he asks, "What did I say your advance was?" I repeat it. Artie snickers. "Oh, I'm sorry. I left off a zero." My jaw drops. To think, I probably would have paid THEM to publish it. Thanks, Artie, for saving me from myself.
Naturally, I dreamed big. Bestseller. Hollywood. At work, where I had managed to keep my writing a secret, I kidded the entire firm management committee about appearing in my next novel as hatchet murderers, drug addicts and prostitutes. They laughed --- NERVOUSLY.
My friends had very high expectations, which stemmed partly from their faith in me, but mostly from their apparent unawareness that the average first novel does not sell quite as many copies as, say, THE BIBLE. They seemed to think that, once you sell the manuscript, all you do is run it through the spell-check and pick a typeset. Wrong.
ESCAPE TO NEW YORK
JUNE 18. I'm going to New York to meet my editor. I always wanted to say that. Cool.
JUNE 19, LUNCH. Rick takes me to some Italian place. Tells me they just sold THE PARDON to the Dutch, which is a nice ice-breaker. I like him. Good sense of humor. Honest enough to admit that he was one of three editors given an early look at Grisham's THE FIRM and turned it down. We get to talking about the American Booksellers Association convention that just happened in Miami Beach and how everyone thought the hotels were dreadful. I apologize, as if being from south Florida made the accommodations my fault. Afterward, Rick takes me around the office. I meet the Editor-in-Chief and her husband --- HUH? --- the publisher. They're in the middle of a meeting with an important-looking fellow who smiles and claims to have signed my check. I figure now isn't the time to mention I still haven't GOTTEN my check.
JULY 7. The draft contract arrives from HarperCollins for my review. Being a lawyer, I can't resist making some change, so I get out my red pen and go for it: I add my middle initial to the signature block.
AUGUST 24. The check arrives. I guess it took six weeks for the publisher's lawyers to approve that middle initial I added. I wonder if they billed for all that time.
AUGUST 25, 2 A.M. Panic grips me as I lay awake in bed. Nearly three months into the editing, and I still don't have the big new ending to the story my editor wants. I wonder if I should cash the check.
DECEMBER 22. One more meeting with the editor in NYC. Loves my new ending, but now he's not so sure about the beginning and the middle. Hands me the full manuscript with his edits. He wants it cleaned up and back no later than December 28 so the publisher and Editor-in-Chief can read it. Merry Christmas.
DECEMBER 26. I've edited Rick's edits and fired right back at him with a thirty-eight page letter justifying my every change. Ten years of practicing law taught me something about working on holidays. The new and improved version of THE PARDON is done. Alleluia!
BEYOND THE EDIT
JANUARY. Excitement is buzzing in-house. For the first time, I hear Rick utter the words national bestseller --- I'm beginning to think even HE likes it. Sounds beautiful. Oh, one other thing, Jim. The publisher resigned this week.
FEBRUARY. Time to collect blurbs for the book jacket. Turns out, one of my law partners grew up in Mississippi and still keeps in touch with a lawyer in Jackson who considers himself a buddy of another lawyer in Oxford who is pretty good friends with John Grisham. I pitch this to Rick. When the laughter stops, he suggests we try Ernest Hemingway next.
MARCH 4. The script arrives for the audio version of THE PARDON. Script? I thought they would just hire someone to read MY BOOK. Hardly. My 100,000 words have been whittled down to 27,000 and change. Who the heck do they have reading this thing, Mike Tyson?
MARCH 23. The artist's jacket design arrives. The first thing I notice is "By James Grippando" in bold red letters. The second is the naked woman. She's a dark, shadowy figure, strategically back-lighted so that her erogenous zones glow in the dark. Among my friends, the female reaction ranges from a quizzical "Hmmmmmm" to "Her hips are fat." The men basically want her phone number. I'm not so sure about this. Rick tells me they'll work on it.
APRIL. Things are still popping. The German rights sell, and THE PARDON is selected by the Literary Guild, Mystery Guild, and the Doubleday Book Club --- each of which has just acquired a new member for life, or perhaps two, if you count me AND my mother. A visit to the bookstore turns my euphoria to confusion. Book clubs have Selections, Main Selections, Dual Main Selections, Alternate Selections, Featured Alternate Selections. Given the stature of the other authors, I figure THE PARDON must have been a random selection.
SATURDAY, APRIL 16. Fifty million Americans miss the deadline for filing their income tax returns. The literary world mourns the loss of Ralph Ellison, award-winning author of THE INVISIBLE MAN, dead at age eight-one. Tiffany Suzanne Russell marries James Michael Grippando. Says I'm her Main Selection.
EARLY MAY. My publicist at HarperCollins calls. There's a big push for THE PARDON, and he's obviously concerned about finding some way --- ANY way --- to draw attention to a completely unknown, first-time author. I suggest lighting my hair on fire and running through bookstores naked. He says he'll think about it.
MID-JUNE. Chills. My editor sends me a few leftover advance reader editions of THE PARDON. It looks exactly like the real thing, only it's paperback. But for me, it's my first book. I'm a writer. which of course means that I never stop dreaming of real success. For me, that will come only when I get my real first novel published --- that twelve hundred page labor of love now resting on a shelf in my bedroom closet.
My journal stopped just before THE PARDON was published. I'm not sure why, but it probably had something to do with my first bad review. Those things seemed so important back then. Now, my five-year-old son and I make them into paper hats.
I don't remember everything about my first pub date, but even nine novels later, there is one thing I know I'll never forget. It was a sunny south Florida afternoon. I got in my red convertible (which has since been traded in for two kids, a dog, and an SUV) and drove to a cozy neighborhood bookstore in the heart of Coral Gables. I'd been going there for years to browse and dream. This time, however I walked right up to New Fiction, pulled THE PARDON off the shelf and plopped it on the counter.
"That's my book, you know," I told the sales clerk.
She looked at me quizzically. "Yes, it is once you've paid for it."
Part of me wanted to pull out my drivers license, tell her to compare the names, and insist NO, REALLY --- IT'S MY BOOK, I WROTE THIS THING! Instead, I just chuckled to myself and paid her in cash. "Best twenty-three dollars I've ever spent," I said.
She pointed with a nod to the book on the counter. "James Gri . . . Grippa . . . Grippa-na-nando. Never heard of him. Any good?"
"No," I said. "Just lucky."
© 2005 James Grippando
After twelve years as a Miami trial lawyer, James Grippando is now a national best-selling author of suspenseful thrillers. GOT THE LOOK, his tenth novel in eleven years and No. 5 in the Jack Swyteck series, will be published by HarperCollins in 2006. James’s novels are enjoyed worldwide in nineteen languages.