Interview with Hollywood Writer/Producer, Novelist, and Murderer?… Marshall Karp (and a free book giveaway)

Marshall Karp, an advertising executive who wrote award winning commercials (including the classic “Thank You, Paine Webber” campaign), left a career of interrupting television shows to write for them. He created “Everything’s Relative,” a CBS comedy starring Jason Alexander, moved on to become writer/producer for the NBC hit, “Amen,” then served as writer/co-executive producer for ABC’s “Baby Talk” starring George Clooney, and NBC’s “Working It Out,” starring Jane Curtin.

After writing hundreds of commercials, dozens of TV shows, a play (Squabbles), and a feature film (Just Looking) Karp fulfilled a lifelong fantasy by killing the people he worked with in Hollywood. In his novels only, of course.

FREE BOOK GIVEAWAY! Want to win an autographed copy of Karp’s novel? Simply leave a comment to be entered.

What book or project is coming out or has come out that you’d like to tell us about?

In FLIPPING OUT, the third in the Lomax and Biggs series, a killer penetrates the world our two LAPD homicide detectives live in. A cop’s wife is murdered. She’s someone Lomax and Biggs knew and liked. In fact, everybody liked her. There seems to be no motive.

And then, another cop’s wife is killed. Both victims were part of an ingenious real estate scheme run by bestselling murder mystery author Nora Bannister. Nora buys a house in LA dirt cheap, and then while her partners work on turning it into a showplace, Nora murders someone there — in her next book. When the new book and the house go on the market, there’s a bidding frenzy among people who want to live in a house that’s on the cover of an international bestseller.
Is someone stalking the house flippers or is the murderer after cops’ wives? Either way, Lomax and Biggs have to track down the killer before he (or she) murders the other real estate partners, including Marilyn Biggs, Terry’s wife.
Sorry if I sound like a book jacket. Occupational hazard.

Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head.

Whoever said that happiness is a journey, not a destination, never tried to get a book published.

Most of my life people have paid me to write. I’ve written a TV commercial starring John Travolta, a sitcom starring George Clooney, a movie directed by Jason Alexander, and a tuna fish can label featuring solid white albacore (hey, we all have to start somewhere).

And of course, I always wanted to write a novel. Hey, it’s hard for a writer to spend a rainy afternoon at a bookstore and not think, “I can do that.” But the actual act of doing it seemed daunting. Then one day, Jim, a guy I worked for at J. Walter Thompson advertising asked me to read his manuscript. It was a fantastic thriller called Along Came a Spider, and Jim, of course, was James Patterson.

I watched Jim’s career take off and I was thrilled for him. We kept in touch and about ten years ago, he and I had lunch and I pitched him the basic idea for my book. Over the course of that lunch he gave me brilliant feedback and encouragement. Five years later, I was able to take a sabbatical and decided to give it a shot. I bought a bunch of index cards, pulled out my notes from that long-ago lunch with Jim and wrote on the first card – Chapter 1 – Familyland. Guy inside the Rambunctious Rabbit suit gets killed.

Here are the highlights of the next five years. I hired a freelance editor, blocked out as much of the book as I could, and started writing. After 50 pages, she read it and told me to start again. This time, remember it’s not a film script, she said. She reminded me that I don’t have a location scout, a set decorator, a wardrobe department, actors, and a director to paint the picture. I have to paint it myself. So I went back and rewrote, putting in all the stuff I figured most people skip over.

A hundred pages into the book, my wife informed me that my sabbatical was over and it was time to find a job. I put the book down, and on September 10, 2001 started looking for real work. The next day was 9/11. I was in New York City. My daughter was at Ground Zero.

She survived, and in the soul-searching aftermath of those days, I decided I didn’t want to go back to work, and the world didn’t need another murder mystery. I put it in a drawer for nine months. I finally went back. A year and a half later, Dec, 31, 2003 — New Year’s Eve — I finished the first draft.

I rewrote it for my editor, found an agent (with the help of Mr. Paterson) and rewrote it two more times for my agent. Note to those of you just starting out — even if you land an agent, he or she may tell you that your book needs an overhaul before they’ll submit it.

On Dec. 31, 2004 (New Year’s Eve again) I finished the fifth draft. My agent started sending out manuscripts. Rejections started coming in. They all went directly to him, so he spared me most of them. But he sent me a few. Here’s a few selected excerpts from one of them.

Well, I have to hand it to you — Marshall Karp is really talented. But …

Lomax’s voice is fabulous, but …

I really enjoyed the sense of humor and found the characters fully
developed, but …

What I am looking for in a mystery/thriller is a continuing character with a more original job than cop (not that the rest of the plotting wasn’t original – it was quite clever) and/or the kind of series that can incorporate cutting edge forensics or explosive legal drama.

We are focused on growing our existing authors and taking on new projects only if we believe they can really compete in this overcrowded market.

If Mr. Karp decides to write something else — mystery or no mystery — please feel free to send it my way. He seems to have the gift of the voice, which is where it all begins.

With rejections like that, it’s hard for the rejectee to feel sorry for himself. She liked me. She turned me down, but she really liked me. I sent her some nice lingerie.

On August 31, 2005, nine months after the rejection slips started coming in, I fell in a lake and almost drowned. It was an accident. Really. The fact that I was bummed about my writing career had nothing to do with it. I almost drowned as a kid, and despite learning how to swim many times, I’m still phobic. So when I was alone with the dog on a rock by the lake and I slipped and dropped straight down into about twenty feet of water I thought — no I knew — it was all over.

Going down for the third time I finally gurgled for help.

And somebody came running out of the woods, grabbed a huge branch and dragged me out.

Suddenly being an unpublished writer didn’t feel so bad. I was a living, breathing, grateful unpublished writer.

Twelve days later — less than two weeks into my new life — my agent called. A publisher wanted to buy my book. Two books if I’d be willing to write another one. They would publish it in the Spring. They said it was so tight, that the rewrites would be minimal.

“But that publisher rejected it six months ago,” I said.

“They rejected it because they never published a mystery before. But they decided your book was so good, they just had to publish it.”

You asked what went through my head. To the best of my recollection, it was joy and disbelief. But not necessarily in that order.

And that’s a story I’ve never told before. I’d like to say it was quite a journey. But it’s far from over. That’s the best part of selling your first book. You start to believe that the real journey is just about to begin.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work?

No. But with an asterisk. Neurotic, insecure writer is a redundancy. But these days, while I may have doubts, they’re not about self.

I’m often not satisfied with a chapter, a character, or a plot twist, but I’ve learned to question the work on the page, not the guy who writes it. I won’t get it right every time, but that’s not a problem. I learned years ago to stop striving for perfection. I strive for excellence. I’ve gotten there before, and I have no doubt that I can get there again.

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication?

None that I regret. Meaning that I didn’t piss off too many people in the publishing world. I think my biggest mistake was putting pressure on myself, and judging myself based on the reactions of others. But I think all writers looking to get published spend half their time thinking of how to get published and the other half second guessing. A lot of that time would be better spent writing the next book.

What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing/publication?

There are a lot of people who can prevent you from becoming an author, but only one person who can stop you from being a writer. I don’t know if someone said that to me or it just took shape in my head, but it’s something I tell every aspiring author who is ready to throw in the towel because they’re not yet published. Some of them are inspired. Occasionally some idiot asks me who the one person is who can stop him from being a writer.

What’s the worst piece of writing advice you’ve heard?

They’re not buying that. You need more “cutting edge forensics or explosive legal drama.” The six words in quotes are from the rejection letter above. Writing is a ridiculous and complicated balance of art and commerce. The publishers are interested in what’s going to sell. They will also be the first to tell you that if they knew the answer, they would only publish best sellers. There’s nothing wrong with an author having his finger on the pulse of the marketplace. But don’t listen to people who push you in the direction of what’s selling now. By the time you figure out how to do it, (assuming you can ever really figure out cutting edge forensics), what’s selling in the new NOW will be something else. You’re a writer. Write. Don’t take dictation.

What’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

If you’re an aspiring author, don’t have a timetable. No matter what date you set to finish a first draft, find an agent, land a publisher, you’ll be wrong. You won’t even be close. And every time you miss one of your self-imposed deadlines, you’ll have convinced yourself that you failed. Just write it. You’ll know when you’re done.

Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share?

In 1990 a film production company fell in love with my screenplay for “Just Looking.” “But it’s just not quite there yet,” they said. They asked me for a rewrite. I worked at it for nearly two months. And then they said no. I was crushed. But ten years later, it was that vastly improved draft that got sold, and turned into a feature film.

What are a few of your favorite books? (Not written by you.)

The Disappearance by Philip Wylie.

It’s about that eternal conflict. No, not liberals vs. conservatives. Not the Yankees vs. Boston. But men vs. women.

Men, imagine if suddenly every single female in the world disappeared. They do in Chapter 1. Now ladies, imagine if every single male disappeared. That’s Chapter 2. From there on we follow their parallel universes.

The book was written in 1951, so cold war politics and a world where girls weren’t trained to fly airplanes, much less run governments, will feel dated. But the essence is timeless. I read it when I was young and impressionable. It was reprinted in 2004. I read it again and continue to be impressed.

Rather than single out other books, there’s a long eclectic list of authors whose work I have loved and whose writing has influenced mine. Here are just a few: William Goldman, Meyer Levin, Leon Uris, Joseph Heller, Katherine Anne Porter, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Nelson DeMille, David Baldacci, Jeffrey Deaver, Frederick Forsythe, Stephen King, Harper Lee, Neil Simon, Dave Barry, Woody Allen and my former colleague in advertising, James Patterson.

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?

During those nine months after 9/11 when I put down my first novel, and began searching for something meaningful to do with my life, I discovered Vitamin Angels. It was founded in 1994 by Howard Schiffer. Howard would ask vitamin companies to donate their products, and then, with the help of volunteer organizations, distribute them around the world where vitamins and nutrients could literally save lives. He was unpaid and did it all in his spare time.

I called him, and I was immediately captivated by the mission — providing basic nutrition to people in need. I told him I didn’t know companies who could give away vitamins. But I knew some who might donate money. He had never thought about that, so we decided to give it a try. I was struck by a few basic facts. Millions of children go blind from a lack of Vitamin A. Half of them die. All it takes to prevent that is one megadose of Vitamin A, administered twice a year. Total cost — twenty-five cents to save one child from going blind.

An idea formed in my head — Operation 2020 — a campaign to eradicate childhood blindness on the planet by the year 2020. With one phone call we found our first corporate sponsor. Then we began to attract others — schools, individuals, even kids willing to part with tooth fairy money to save another kid’s life.

Last year Vitamin Angels reached (and saved) over 7 million children. We are operating in 40 countries. We are distributing 100 million prenatal vitamins a year. In one country our newborn initiative shows that by giving one dose of Vitamin A, two days after birth, we can reduce infant mortality by 20%.

As for me, I’m still deeply involved in the organization. I do a lot of writing for them. Speeches, brochures, letters — when Howard calls, I’m there. And somewhere over these past eight years I wrote six words that are as meaningful to me as the 130,000 words in my first book. It’s our tagline.

Be an Angel. Save a life.

And as long as I have your attention, I’ll ask for your support.
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?

It’s not like any business I’ve ever experienced. I think that’s because I’m not really in the publishing business. I’m a product. I’m that thing my publisher sells. In many ways I’m like the bottle of Coca-Cola, the jar of Grey Poupon, or the carton of Minute Maid orange juice I used to sell when I was in advertising.

Consumers may have strong feelings about the product, but ultimately it’s the marketing, sales, and publicity departments who decide how you’re marketed, sold, and publicized. I understand it in part. The actress who stars in a movie doesn’t decide where and when the movie opens. My job is to write the books, and have a relationship with my readers. But after all those years being the guy who did the marketing, I miss being entrenched on that side of the business.

I don’t know if that’s a pet peeve or a regret. Or just some inmate wishing he could run the asylum.

Take us through your process of writing a novel briefly—from conception to revision.

It all starts with an idea that will help shape the book. In THE RABBIT FACTORY it was the first chapter. In BLOODTHIRSTY I had a motive and means of killing I had never seen done before. In FLIPPING OUT I wanted the victims to be cops’ wives, something that would hit close to home for my characters.

The idea is the beginning. Something to build on. I kick it around with one or two trusted people — not always my editor, because I want her to see the fleshed out idea with a fresh eye. Then I build the crime story. This is the point where I do the most research. Talk to cops, visit the morgue, drive through a neighborhood, stick up a liquor store.

At the same time, I think about how the arc of my main characters will develop. Mike met Diana in Book 1. By the end of Book 2 they were living together and people were asking me when’s the wedding, and where are the kids. The character arc usually is the basis of the B plot, and then I have to think about how the A and B plots will converge

But I don’t write the book until I see the handwriting on the wall. My handwriting on about 60 index cards. My books are called (and I hate the term) police procedurals. That’s because I start with a crime and the reader gets to follow Lomax and Biggs through the process of catching the killer. So my index cards not only tell me what happens, they also include a timeline and a calendar so I can track the events hour by hour, day by day. As the author, I have to be aware if my characters are going through something on a Monday morning or a Friday night, because people think and act differently depending on what day of the week it is.

And then I write. There’s usually a deadline, so I set goals. It averages out to about 500 words a day. But of course, Chapter 1 can take a week to write. By Chapter 60, I’m on a roll, and it can take less than a day. I write mornings, afternoons, and/or late into the night. I work at home, so I have plenty of time to goof off, but the commute is short. No matter how much research I’ve done up front, this is where the story unfolds and the details become critical. That’s where Google comes in. I can find anything on Google. I can even scout a location using Google Earth. It’s indispensable. Thank you, Larry and Sergey.

After my editor has read the first draft, I get her notes and go over them with her. Sometimes I disagree and she accepts my logic. But more often than not, she winds up pushing me in a direction where rewriting makes it better. Which if you don’t know already, you should learn in a hurry. Writing is all about rewriting. After first draft revises, there are probably two more rounds, each one shorter than the last. And that’s it. There’s no pat formula. Every author has his or her own way. This is the one that works for me.

Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?

I want to continue writing Lomax and Biggs mysteries as long as people want to read them. If I ever stopped, I’d really miss those guys. But I also have a burning passion to write a non-fiction book about my favorite personal topic, mid-life career changes.

I was 40 years old when I first woke up to the fact that the 21-year-old Marshall wound up in advertising because he couldn’t bother to read beyond the A’s in the Help Wanted section. Was the 40-year-old Marshall going to follow that kid’s plan for the next 30 years? I decided that the answer was no. I didn’t want to spend the rest of his life (now my life) in advertising. I wanted to be sitting in my house in the woods, dog at my feet, getting paid to write murder mysteries. All I had to do was walk away from the life that 21-year-old Marshall had planned for me.

Now, having done it, I want to write about it and see if I can help other people without sounding too self-helpy. The working title is Confronting the Teenager Who Screwed Up Your Life.

There are a lot of middle-aged dentists, lawyers, ad guys, and English teachers who look at themselves in the mirror in the morning and wonder — is this all there is? I plan to interview a bunch of people who wonder why they’re stuck, and a bunch of others who got unstuck.

This will not be a dry self-help book. It will be hilariously real, because the official formula for being funny is Pain plus Time equals Comedy. My own mid-life crises (yes, plural) were painful. But enough time has passed so that I can turn it into belly laughs. I think it’s a book that a lot of people over 39 are going to want.

And I lived it, so I know I can write it.

Was there ever a time in your writing career you thought of quitting?

I quit advertising. I left television. I gave up screenwriting. But I will never, never, never quit writing.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?

Fave: Getting paid to do something I would gladly do for free.

Lest fave: Waiting for feedback.

How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?

A ton. More than I ever could have imagined. My website, updating it often, blogging regularly, writing letters, emails, answering fan mail, blog tours, store visits, books signings, contacting booksellers, reviewers, posting on Facebook, Twittering…

Here’s the good news. I spent half my life in the marketing business. I don’t know book marketing per se. That’s because no one does. But I know a few things, and I’ve learned a lot more. In fact, my friend Joseph Finder (I like to be seen with best selling authors) recently suggested that I start posting a few marketing tips for authors (both published and aspiring) on my blogs. I don’t know. Feels a little presumptuous. But if anyone has read this far, I could use some feedback.

My advice for now? Figure out what works and concentrate on the places where you get the most return on your investment. Oh, and if you’re still teachable, learn to type with more than two fingers.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response?

Many. Some are so complimentary I can’t repeat them. Some are from people from my past. Army buddies, high school friends, people I worked with, old girlfriends… it boggles the mind. Then there are the people with problems. Not many, but most often they complain about the profanity. I always try to answer thoughtfully, and in fact, I finally wrote a blog about it.

But the most memorable was a real heartbreaker. First you’ll need some background: For those of you who don’t know, Mike Lomax, one of my two protagonists, is a recent widower when we meet him in THE RABBIT FACTORY. His wife Joanie, who died six months before the book opens, has left Mike a series of monthly letters, so even though she’s gone, her presence is felt. In fact, she is writing to Mike (and to us) during the time when she is going through the final stages of her life.

Here’s what this reader wrote.

Evan Hunter is alive. I’ve finished BLOODTHIRSTY and hope you are almost ready to release the next Lomax and Biggs episode. Both books were what a novel should be. Good luck and thank you for the enjoyment. Like Joanie, I am soon to be gone from cancer. I like that you don’t sugar coat that aspect.

I wrote to him immediately, but my response bounced back. His email didn’t accept incoming mail from anyone not in his database. The best I could do was to put his name in FLIPPING OUT and hope he’s around to read it.

Parting words?

Novel Journey is a site for writers. Published, aspiring, rejected, accepted, happy, confused, neurotic, manic, depressive, busy, lazy, full-time, part-time, busy Mommy, stressed out Daddy, hard working, pipe dreaming, self-doubting, overconfident, I-have-a-better-chance-of-winning-the-lottery-than-getting-published, wannabe writers.

If you fit into one of those slots, and In case you missed what I said before, let me say it one more time.

There are a lot of people who can prevent you from becoming an author, but only one person who can stop you from being a writer.

Write on, boys and girls