FRESNO, Calif.—David Morrell estimates there are no more than 2,500 people in the United States earning a living writing fiction. In fact, he pegs the number at closer to 1,000.
“You might as well try to be a professional football player,” says the author of “First Blood,” the book upon which Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo” series was based. “Yet, there we are, with the odds against us, plugging away and plugging away.”
Morrell, the keynote speaker at the fourth-annual Yosemite Writers Conference, has a theory: Novelists are damaged people, and writing is how they repair their psyches.
“Somewhere along the line, something happened to us which we knew in our hearts wasn’t right, some kind of trauma, and we have been adjusting to it ever since,” he says.
Becoming a successful author, Morrell says, takes more than writing an interesting story. He shared a half-dozen basics for forming a game plan.
Find your voice. Morrell sees many instances of people imitating their favorite authors.
“They never get where they want, because people are always reminded of other writers when they read the person’s work,” he says. “I was trained that the key to a career was to be yourself.”
Doing that sometimes requires heavy emotional lifting. In Morrell’s case, he was orphaned at a young age. When his mother retrieved him, the youngster lived with an abusive stepfather who so frightened him that he tucked pillows beneath his covers at night and slept beneath his bed.
Difficult father figures have been a motif in much of his fiction, particularly early on. Digging into turmoil can be upsetting. But, Morrell says, “As a motivation to write, it’s just enormous.”
Identify your audience. Telling an interesting story is half the battle. Publishers want to know who’s going to buy the book, and if you don’t identify that audience for them, odds are slim they’ll buy it.
Editors and agents these days often test the waters by going to big chain booksellers with an unpublished work and asking whether they would be interested in stocking many copies. If not, the story, no matter how well written, goes nowhere.
“The people who make the decision will be less the editor and more the marketing people who are trying to figure out who the audience is,” he says.
Do it yourself. Not necessarily publishing but promoting. Morrell has a friend who drove across the United States for two months, visiting hundreds of stores and signing his books every chance he got.
Morrell says when it comes to the realities of promotion, many writers are stuck in the 1980s, when book tours first became popular.
“Unless you are Stephen King, the chances are you’re going to get no promotion from your publisher and that you have to become an expert in publicity,” he says.
Heed your calling. Morrell is a former professor of American literature. He’s also been hailed as the father of the modern thriller, a genre some consider trashy and beneath serious writers.
Morrell, co-president of the International Thriller Writers organization, thinks of himself as sort of a classically trained musician who’s switched to jazz. Writing genre fiction, he says, doesn’t prevent him from tackling big themes.
“I am proudly a thriller writer,” he says. “It’s a form I absolutely love. It’s an opportunity to communicate with masses of people, to deal with themes they might otherwise never come into contact with. Thrillers really are about the modern world.”
Experiment gladly. When Marvel Comics asked Morrell whether he’d be interested in writing a six-part Captain America series, he jumped at the chance. The first one is scheduled for publication in September.
“It’s not at all campy,” he says. “It’s about the burden of being a superhero in today’s troubled world, especially if you’re a superhero named after the United States. It’s very real. It’s about 9/11 and the stuff we’ve been going through.”
Do your homework. It peeves Morrell when writers describe action in which completely ridiculous things happen—such as that old Hollywood standby, the exploding fuel tank.
His training includes outdoor survival, hostage negotiation, spy methods, knife fighting and shooting firearms. He spent a couple days learning driving techniques—what he calls “car fighting.”
“Part of the training, what we were taught to do, is shooting at vehicles, old junkers,” he says. Making one blow up with a bullet? No way. “It would leak fuel, but it would not explode. Even if it did explode, it would be only fumes.”
Morrell, who’s working toward his pilot’s license, wishes more writers would take the time to learn what really happens in such extraordinary circumstances as a chase or firefight.
Besides, it’s fun.
“My trade craft is really wonderful,” he says. “It’s so much fun to put that into a book.”