David Hagberg on how to write stories that sell

The best-selling novelist provides insight and tips for writing books that are commercially successful.

David Hagberg
David Hagberg

While it’s great to get your book published, if we’re being honest with ourselves, don’t we all wish our advances and royalty checks were a bit more…robust? Perhaps massively so?

This is the question I wanted to pursue with the best-selling author of international thrillers David Hagberg. With over 70 books to his credit, along with a good bit of Hollywood work (including work on Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), he’s one of the most financially successful writers I’ve run across in years. Since we live in the same town, we met up at The White Horse Pub – one of his favorite eateries – and chatted over liver and onions (him) and fish and chips (me), plus an adult beverage (or three).

How did you get your start?

It was with The Writer magazine. I devoured that!

But I really got the writing bug in fourth grade when my teacher, Ms. Violet Nelson, read us Little House on the Prairie and Little House in the Big Woods. At the end of the school year, she said the most astounding thing: “This woman, Laura Ingalls Wilder, writes these books, and she gets paid for it.” Wow! I thought. This is my gig!

By the sixth grade, I was writing mystery stories in spiral notebooks.

Quite a few years later, the Air Force sent me to Madison, Wisconsin. I went up to the English department [at the University of Wisconsin-Madison] and told an assistant dean that I wanted to write. “What do you want to write?” he asked. I said that I might dabble with writing literature, but I’d really like to make a living as a commercial writer. “Don’t come here,” he told me. “We’re going to teach you how dead writers wrote. Go home, have your wife get a part-time job, and give yourself 10 years. You’ll know within five years if it’s going to happen or not.”

In 1975, [my] first book came out from Dell, and I started making a full-time living by 1980 or ‘81. I’ve been at it a long time. There were some tough years. The Nick Carter series was a blessing.

I used to read those Nick Carter books. Phoenix Force, Able Team, Mack Bolan.

I’ve done 20-plus of those. Me and Martin Cruz Smith were putting out one of those a month.

That’s how you cut your teeth in those days. That’s how you learned how to write. Three thousand per book, no royalties, so $1,500 on signing and the rest on delivery, and on to the next book. I put four kids through college with that money.

I’d sign a four-book, one-year contract. Martin Cruz Smith would do the same – this was before he wrote Gorky Park. And another guy did too, Bob Randisi, but you probably don’t know him since he never branded, despite writing 500-plus books. He wrote detective stories, Westerns, mysteries, a bit of everything.

It was the same with the early Harlequins – that was a place to cut your teeth. The only place you can get that kind of writing training now is the local press.

Tell me about the difference between writing literature – literary novels – and writing commercially successful ones.

Now I’ve written literature, been shortlisted for the American Book Award, things like that, and my long-term publisher and editor asked, “David, do you want to be famous or rich?” I said I’d like both. He told me that one of the top literary writers makes her living as a barista at a Starbucks in Seattle. There’s no money in literature, but there is a satisfaction that you’ve done something, you’ve added to the world of art.

So when I run a workshop or class, I tell my students, “I’m not going to teach you literature. You go figure that out on your own. But I’ll teach you how to write things that sell.”

Let’s talk turkey. What’s the difference between a commercially successful writer and other published writers?

Over the years, I’ve been asked to be a judge for contests with organizations like Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and others. Recently, I agreed to read the top six manuscripts for one of those contests, which meant I got to see the first 20 pages of each of those six books.

One was really, really good – darn near ready, though it needed a little editing. But the others? It amazes me that beginning writers make exactly the same mistakes over and over again. Those mistakes, however, are fixable.

Don’t hold back. What are those mistakes?

First of all, modern novels are told in scenes, scene by scene. And every scene has only one point-of-view character. You can’t lie to the reader – the reader has to know everything inside that guy’s head. That’s why a lot of the English cozies were all in first person, because we solved the murder along with them, knew what they knew, etc.

What the reader gets to see is what the POV character gets to see. Same as in the movies.

A second way beginning writers go wrong? I call it layering. You have a POV character. You also hope that every paragraph – certainly every scene – has got to have action, movement. You can’t have characters just sitting around. Plus you’ve got to have access to the characters’ interior world, what they’re feeling, how so-and-so really ticked them off today. Or it looked as if she was ticked off by the expression on her face.

And people have to say something to each other. Even Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz was talking to the tornado, which was a character.

Then there’s description – you describe everything. The day. The character. What they’re wearing. The room they’re in.

Layering is handling all four of those things simultaneously. You layer them together like a cake. Don’t stop to pound a reader with a lengthy description. Keep all of it up as best as you can.

It amazes me that beginning writers make exactly the same mistakes over and over again.

What else do you tell students?

As soon as possible, get branded. The moment The Hunt for Red October came out, Tom Clancy’s branding was [set]. Dan Brown wrote two or three books, but it changed once he wrote The Da Vinci Code. When that hit, they reissued the earlier books (with a lot of much-needed editing), and he’s suddenly got a brand. Now you see The Da Vinci Code’s Dan Brown on the cover on all of his books. His name is in great big letters.

Vince Flynn was a friend of mine. He died in his 40s, and now someone else is writing his books as a franchise and they’re all best-sellers. They’re not as well-written as they used to be, but it has his name on them, so they still sell well. That’s the value of a brand.

It’s the same with Jason Bourne books.

You’re doing more teaching these days. What else do you do to help your students move from being “unpublished” to “published,” and then “published” to “published in a commercially successful way?”

I did this two-year thing, it ran from September to May, and we met one time a week for a couple of hours. All the students learned what their voice was, and we talked a lot about how to research what they needed to make the book work. Then they were off for the summer. They came back in the fall with a substantial portion of the novel written, and we spent the next year working on that.

I told them that you should write about what you know about or what you’re passionate about. One woman admitted that she wanted to write hard science fiction. I said fine, you must have a science background, know about warp drives and all that, wormholes, singularities. “No, no,” she said. “I was a trauma room nurse for 25 years at Miami General.”

I asked, “Why don’t you write about that?”

She said, “Nothing ever happens there.”

Now, I knew a doctor down there, and he said they called it the “Miami Knife and Gun Club.” Yet she refused to write about what she knew well – and couldn’t see the stories right in front of her – and she ultimately never got published because she didn’t know the sci-fi genre well enough.

So young writers should find out who you are and what you are.

So passion is key.

It’s as simple as this. You can’t write fiction unless you’re passionate about something. You can be passionately in love with it or be passionate with hating it. But you have to have passion. If you don’t, go somewhere and read, read, read until you get so interested in a topic that you have to write about it.

I don’t know how many writers I’ve talked to who don’t even read. Doctors read medical texts and have to keep up their education with credits from classes, etc. But writers? They claim not to have the time.

Every semester, I run across one student who tells me that he/she doesn’t read because “I don’t want to damage my own voice.”

That’s crap. Case in point? The Ludlum stuff, the Vince Flynn books. The people now carrying on these brands have busted their butts. They’ve read all the previous books and studied them, and they don’t even have the style down yet. And they WANT to have that style.

Since you’re so well-published in the world of thrillers, what tip can you offer for would-be thriller novelists?

Make sure that each scene has a clear beginning, middle, and end, and be able to stand by itself.

Nowadays in thrillers, they want cliffhangers as much as possible at the end of each scene. Leave them hanging, then go someplace else. It’s hard to do. It’s the same with humor – you have to be born with that knack. You can’t learn it, though you can improve on whatever ability with it you were born with.

You have to pretend that god has given you 1 million sentences at birth. Nine hundred thousand of those are crap.

I’ve heard that you have a writing formula.

It’s called the David Hagberg Handy-Dandy Plot Machine, and it’s based off something Sinclair Lewis used to generate so many of his plots back in the days where short story writers could really earn a good living. It’s this: PPE/C/KISS.

P = Person

P = Place

E = Event

C = Conflict

KISS = Keep It Simple, Stupid

You make a chart with three columns, and label them P(erson), P(lace), E(vent). Beneath each, you come up with possibilities for each category. Then you mix them up by using one from each category, and just like that, you’ve got the ability to create an unlimited variety of plots.

So long as you insist on having conflict in the plot you’ve just created and keep the writing clear and simple, you’re set. Just let it rip.

Say a bit more about keeping the writing clear and simple.

If you look at [most] American literary novels, they’re done at a pretty fundamental fourth-grade, fifth-grade English level. The New York Times is written at [near] that level. As soon as you get erudite, you’re losing people. More Hemingway, less Faulkner.

How much time do publishing pros give a manuscript before they give up on it?

Every publisher, editor, and agent I know will give a new submission one page. You either grab the reader or you don’t. You can see whether the story’s working in the first paragraph.

I tell my students the same thing, but they think I’m kidding. Or they say, “Wait, my manuscript gets REALLY cooking on page 50!”

Throw away 49 pages and renumber the manuscript.

You have to pretend that god has given you 1 million sentences at birth. Nine hundred thousand of those are crap. One hundred thousand are really good. The problem is that you have to type out those first 900,000 first before you get to the really good stuff. If you wrote a million words, you’d be a pretty good writer. If you wrote 2 million words, you’re probably going to be twice as good of writer.

Readers don’t have time for anything but the really good stuff, and the writer needs to deliver on page one.

You’ve been lucky to have amazing mentors along the way. What did Mickey Spillane offer you?

If you have ensemble characters and the plotline begins to sag, kill somebody. And the more important the person you kill is, the more zip it’ll put into the story.

I’ll give you an example. In one of my Kirk McGarvey books, the husband of Kirk’s daughter is shot in the line of duty. Then his wife and daughter get blown up in Arlington.

Now my wife is the model for Kirk’s wife, and my daughter is the model for his daughter, so I kept this quiet and just sent in the manuscript. My agent called me: “What did you do?”

I said that I zipped up the plot.

Admittedly, my wife didn’t want to speak to me for a week.

If you have ensemble characters and the plotline begins to sag, kill somebody.

What else can a young writer do to make their work sing on the page?

Ninety-nine percent of the writers I’ve given this advice to won’t follow it. It’s too much work. But here it is anyways.

A bunch of writers I know – Lee Child, Vince Flynn, Ken Follett, even William F. Buckley Jr. and Mickey Spillane, who were both my mentors – say the same thing: “Figure out your genre as soon as possible.”

Let’s say you want to write spy books like Robert Ludlum. Type out a couple of his Jason Bourne books. Literally type out the entire manuscript. Then go back and create an outline of the story you’ve just typed up.

Reverse engineer the writing process.

Exactly.

And then, if you’ve got the cajones, do three more of them. Print them up. Four piles of manuscript. Now work on YOUR book. Get a couple of chapters of your book finished. Then sit down in your favorite chair and read the first chapter of each of the four and then immediately read yours.

WHOOPS! What didn’t I do that they did?

Most of the young writers violate the dilation of compression of time. The real world? What we’re doing right now at this table is happening at around 125-150 words a minute. That’s what our social intercourse, our newscasting, happens at.

TED talks are around 150 words a minute, I believe.

Right. Here’s the issue, though. People consume books at 250-300 words a minute. So you’ve got to create something on paper that appears to be happening at 150 wpm but only will appear so when you read it at 300 wpm. Like a movie isn’t really a “movie,” but rather it’s 16 still frames that give the illusion of motion.

The way to create that illusion of proper speed of story is by layering. Here’s an example.

A guy watches a woman come into the bar and he thinks, “Wow, that’s one pretty lady.” Who comes into a dive like this wearing three pounds of grandma’s jewelry and wearing a crushed velvet party dress? But wow, is she pretty. Like TV newscaster pretty. So he gets off the bar stool and ambles over to her, then says, “Hello, sweetheart.”

All this fellow did was get up and say hi, but you had to decompress the whole thing. That’s probably the most common mistake beginning writers make. They just zip through it. They’re actually giving us 125 words per minute vs. the 300 we need, so the story feels off.

Writing a screenplay, now, is a whole different thing. With that, you’re writing 125 wpm, and you leave almost everything else. The director has his cut. The set designer has his. The costume designer has theirs. The actors have theirs. Everything else. Screenplays are just outlines, more or less.

With all the dialogue.

And the dialogue is even broad-stroked since so many of the actors say, “I don’t want to read this crap.” Unless you’re writing for a specific actor, they’ll interpret it and say it their own way.

Tower Down
Tower Down by David Hagberg

Did Spillane give you any other advice?

He said, “Let me tell you about ensemble characters. Dagwood Bumstead has been the same age since the late 1930s. Don’t age them.” So Kirk McGarvey is “around 50” and he’ll stay around 50 forever.

Jason Bourne is another ageless one. So’s James Bond.

Those Bond books are far better than the movies, which are all about gadgets. Though in the books, Bond smokes 60 cigs a day, and yet he runs up and down stairs like an athlete. I used to smoke two packs a day, and I was always winded!

Tell me the best thing about being a commercially successful writer.

I don’t pitch ideas to my publisher anymore. For example, I just signed a three-book contract. Now, I just delivered a book a few months back, and I still owe them one more under a previous contract. But I needed some money, so I said, “Let’s do a three-book deal,” and they said “fine,” without knowing what those books would be about.

So long as I’m a selling author, it’s kind of like whatever David wants, give it to him. Now I’m not a mega-writer or anything, but I’m comfortable, and other writers can be too if they take the time to figure out what publishers and readers really want.

—Ryan G. Van Cleave is the author of 20 books, and he runs the creative writing program at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. Web: ryangvancleave.com.