Interview with Alan Gratz

I'm lucky (or cunning) enough to have lured yet another successful writer over to my blog for an SAT - Successful Author Talk. SAT authors have conquered the query, slain the synopsis and attained the pinnacle of published. How'd they do it? Let's ask 'em!

Alaz Gratz is the author of SAMURAI SHORTSTOP and THE BROOKLYN NINE, as well as SOMETHING ROTTEN and SOMETHING WICKED - modern retellings of Shakespearean plays, featuring the classy and intelligent teen detective Horatio Wilkes.  Seriously my readers, if you think I'M funny, you've got to check this guy out.  I was inspired and depressed when I read his Horatio books - the first because I had something to aspire to, the latter because I knew I could never be as funny as him.


SOMETHING ROTTEN and SOMETHING WICKED focus on modern retellings of famous Shakespearean plays.  What prompted you to take this approach - something you saw happening in the market, or was this an idea that sprang freshly from the gray matter?

This definitely wasn't a market-driven idea. In fact, it's something I'd been toying around with for almost fifteen years. Not that whole time, of course, but I'd first had the idea to retell Hamlet as a murder mystery back in college, during a Detective and Mystery Fiction writing course I took. There have certainly been a lot of re-tellings of classics of late, but the Horatio books ended up just being part of that trend, not a response or reaction to it. I think it's kind of dangerous to look at something that's trending in the moment and then try to write for that trend. Things take so long in publishing that IF you sell it, by the time finally comes out the trend may be long past--or worse, readers and reviewers may even be jaded and react negatively to another book in the already passe trend.

The Horatio Wilkes series are hilarious.  I literally LOL'ed at a few points while reading, and I don't do that.  Ever.  Do you find it easier as a writer to make people laugh, as opposed to other emotions?

Thanks! I'm glad they made you laugh. I think making readers laugh is very difficult. I'd say that I tear up at stories far often than I laugh, because I think it's easier to do tragedy than it is to do comedy. Comedy is hard. There are so many factors involved, and people's tastes in comedy are so varied. With Horatio, my main goal was never write him "easy." That is, if he's describing something big, I didn't just want to say big. I wanted to use a colorful metaphor. If he thinks someone is stupid, I didn't want to just have him SAY that person was stupid. I wanted his take on the world to be unique--and I think that's where a lot of the humor came in. I couldn't do it for every sentence, of course--that would get tedious--but I tried to make sure we didn't go too long without having Horatio say something clever. :-)

Can we expect more from Horatio?  

Unfortunately, no. The sales on the first two books were never what I or my publisher hoped. I actually sold a third idea to them--the book was going to be Something Foolish, and be a mash-up of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Maltese Falcon--but I got the call a month or two back that the book is officially canceled. The book isn't written, or I would release it as an e-book for the folks who've asked me about a third volume. So, live and learn! I love the books, and I love Horatio, but this one didn't break out.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

I'm definitely a planner. I outline all my books in full, chapter by chapter, before I ever write the first word. I know other authors who can't--and won't--do that, but it's the system that works best for me. It takes me a long time to hammer out a plot and then flesh out an outline, but I find that frees me up to be more creative in the writing of the book. I have a lot of young authors ask me how to beat writers block. I tell them that when you sit down with a blank screen or a blank page without an outline, you're trying to do two things: 1) figure out what happens (plot); and 2) figure out how to tell the story (sentences, images, metaphors, etc.). That's two very different, and very difficult things! Break those into two steps. Figure out WHAT happens first, then figure out HOW to tell it. That's what I do, and it works very well for me.

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

The Horatio books took me about a year of writing, including the back-and-forthing with my editor. If the novel has a lot of research, that changes things. SAMURAI SHORTSTOP and THE BROOKLYN NINE, for example, took me nearly two years each.

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi tasker?

I'm usually working on just one project full time, but I'm always thinking ahead to what's next. So you could say I'm in the planning stages for one book while I'm in the writing stage of another. Once I tried to outline one while I was writing another, and I found my attention too divided. Now I just do the brainstorming for what's next in the odd hours during a writing project, but I always want to be able to hit the ground running with What's Next.

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

Well, I certainly suffer from the same fear many writers have, that I am not good enough. That I'm a hack. That I can't do this. But I've been writing since I was a kid. It's in the blood. I can't stop. So I just kept writing until I got good enough to sell something. And that took a while! (And a lot of manuscripts buried in the file cabinet.) I still have these fears, even as a published author. I don't think they will ever go away. If they do, I think I'll be in worse trouble...

How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?

I wrote a bad college novel that was never sent out. It was a valuable exercise, and my first novel-length attempt, but it was bad, and I knew it. But that's one in the trunk, as you say. Much later, when I was a better, more dedicated writer, I wrote two books that I liked and sent out and collected rejection letters on before I wrote and sold SAMURAI SHORTSTOP. And I sold it through the slush pile; I was unagented at the time.

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

I have quit on manuscripts, yes. Unfortunately, not before at least one full draft was done. I suppose I know it's time only when other people tell me it's time. When I get feedback on a manuscript that matches my own fears about it, and if I think I cannot (or don't want to) rewrite it with the changes that would be necessary to sell it, I punt. I have too many of these manuscripts in my file cabinet, though.

Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them? 

I was unagented when I sold SAMURAI SHORTSTOP. I subsequently got an agent, but that turned out to be a very poor fit, and we parted ways. I then sold two more books on my own--SOMETHING ROTTEN, and THE BROOKLYN NINE--before I was introduced to Barry Goldblatt in Brooklyn via a writer friend who was one of his clients. I had begun to think it was time to start looking for an agent again, so the timing was right, and Barry was the right fit. He's terrific for me.

How long did you query before landing your agent? 

I was unagented when I sold my first book. I tried agencies as well as editors with the first book I sent out, but the agency responses were form letter nos, if I got responses at all. The editorial rejections were often personal, and more positive: stuff like, "We like this, but we just did a book with super heroes, so no." Or, "We like the characters, but not the story," or vice versa, often with an invitation to submit whatever I wrote next. So I stopped subbing to agents and just went for editors. I was shopping three different books with editors when I made the sale on SAMURAI SHORTSTOP to Dial. I'd say, off hand, that I had been rejected close to 40 or 50 times all told, between all three books, before Samurai sold.

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?

It's persistence. Seriously, that's all there is to it. Each rejection feels like a punch in the gut, whether it's your first or your fiftieth. It's whether you get up off the mat and take another swing that matters. Eventually you're going to connect. Query in batches of six or eight, be clear you're conducting simultaneous submissions, keep a spreadsheet of what you sent and when you sent it, and every time you get a rejection, send a new one out. It's as easy (and as painful) as that. When I began subbing for publication, I lived within walking distance of the post office--and that was a walk I did A LOT.

How did that feel, the first time you saw your book for sale?

Pretty amazing. I was living in Atlanta at the time, and the day it officially went on sale we drove all over town hitting bookstores to look for it. And of course it wasn't on the shelves! It's not like I had some strict, big-deal lay-down date, so even if the books were in the shop, they were on a table or in a bin in the backstock area, waiting to be shelved. But they started turning up, eventually, and my friends and family all sent pictures of "Samurai Sightings," which was pretty incredible. Getting that big box of books delivered the first time in a book's life is pretty great too.

How much input do you have on cover art?

Zero. :-)

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

Just how hard it is for books to get noticed. That's the biggest challenge facing any author, I think. Obscurity.

How much of your own marketing do you?

I try to do as much social media marketing as I can. I have a blog, an author web site, I'm on Twitter I'm on Facebook. I've begun to blog far less though. I used to try to blog every day, or almost every day, and then I began to think my time might be far better spent just getting more writing done. Since last winter that's been my attitude, and my blogging has suffered. I'm not sure it matters, frankly. (On the blogging end, that is. As for my writing, I've certainly gotten more done.) For my earlier books I bought postcards and sent them to groups and media I thought would be interested, but I've never been able to quantify what kind of impact they had. I think every author ought to have a sort of media kit on his or her web site--author pic, cover scans, bio--but that's about all you need. More important is getting out and meeting librarians, teachers, booksellers, and, of course, when you can, kids.

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

If by "build a platform" you mean create a web site, do it before. Present yourself as professional before you ARE professional. I had an author site up with info about me and my projects before they had ever sold, and I put that link on all my query letters. We live in an age of Googling to learn more. If an editor is interested in me, I want her to be able to learn more when she Googles me. Where I live, what I like, who I am as a person. That's what social media--and social media marketing--is all about, I think. It's less about the product and more about the person behind it.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

I don't think it builds it, but I do think it maintains it, if that makes any sense. People have to find me the old fashioned way--through word of mouth or through stumbling across my books on a shelf. Then they follow me online, and I maintain that connection they already made with me. A SMALL bit of word of mouth may happen through social networking, but I think most readers still find me first in the real world.

Since you ask so much about it, I'll just add that my impression of social marketing and networking is that it's valuable--and perhaps obligatory in today's age--but that it can very easily eat up more time than it's worth. Finding that balance is key. When you're starting out, it's important to become part of that community. Necessary? No. Advantageous? Certainly. But you've also got to put in the work of writing a good book. As long as you can do both, you're golden. :-)