Relating with David Baldacci (oh, sure)

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David Baldacci (and apparently John Grisham’s foot)

My Hour with the #1 New York Times Best Selling Author

David Baldacci’s office suite in a Washington, D.C. suburb looks exactly how yours would look if, you know, your books had sold more than 100 million copies. The walls are lined with warm mahogany shelves and framed book jacket posters, as if Baldacci opened the palm of his hand and blew off writer dust bequeathed to him by a dead English poet.

I was afforded the opportunity to meet with him there shortly after I sold my first book.  A friend knew I was in desperate need of some mentoring as I discovered that, for writers, finishing the manuscript draft is only the beginning of the story. And as luck would have it, she runs Baldacci’s office.

I politely thanked my friend for the offer and then refused to take advantage of it for months, too afraid to pose a nuisance and quite certain that Baldacci’s time was far too valuable to spend with a fledgling writer like me. How could I relate with a writer who sold his first book for more than $1 million, and then proceed to ask him how to plan a book launch?

But those were the questions I had—basic, functional, and all of them seeming to begin with some version of, “Where do I start?” In fact, most of what I needed to know in that moment was less about how to write and more about how to get read. These were the things that Intro to Creative Writing never taught.

After months of delay, I was reminded of an important principle that every writer, particularly Baldacci, knows.

Your character must always open the door.

This is, after all, how plots move forward. Characters open the door when someone’s knocking, or when they’re curious, and even when they’re locked out. Eventually I found myself walking through the entry of Baldacci’s study with a long list of questions in hand. My friend pulled me over to a bookshelf as we waited.

“Fan mail,” she said, smiling.

I examined the hand-written letter. It was signed by former President George H.W. Bush. He was looking forward to Baldacci’s next read. Naturally. (And yes, there’s a note from former President Bill Clinton, too.)

At that moment, Baldacci entered the room, introduced himself like an old friend, and gave me the next hour of his time. For those of you who are wondering… Yes, he really does look like a movie star. No, he neither confirmed nor denied the future of the Camel Club. And, yes, he is open to adapting more of his page-turners into a story for the big screen.

With a soft smile and full attention, Baldacci answered my countless questions as I filled a memo pad with my star-struck version of short-hand. If only I had John Puller to crack the code of those notes.

My first question: When do you get time to write in the middle of all of this?

He gave a simple answer in the way people do when their priorities are clear. “I am always writing.”

Baldacci writes every day, even in the course of a book launch. Even when reporters are calling. Writing holds a fixed place on his calendar. This mix of passion and discipline has propelled him to publish 26 novels since 1996.

As many fans know well, Baldacci is a former practicing lawyer. After writing his first book, he visited with many would-be agents who assured him that they could help land the greatest deal. But it was Aaron Priest who asked Baldacci how many books were in him, even beyond the winning debut. Priest was interested in representing “careers, not books.” Baldacci’s been with him ever since.

Story ideas come from anywhere for Baldacci, and so he is always thinking about new ones.  One of his favorite parts of the publishing process is conducting book tours. He loves to make a personal connection with his readers, and he always tries to make them laugh when he’s with them.

He says that one of the only downfalls to living the writer’s dream is that the people in your life think twice before telling you things. “They don’t want to see it in the next book.”

Their names, however, are a different story. Baldacci frequently selects the names of friends to serve as characters in his novels, my friend’s father included.

And while Baldacci’s successful writing career may be the stuff that writers dream of, it has also paved the way to help fulfill the dreams of those who can’t yet read. Concerned with adult illiteracy in the United States, Baldacci and his wife founded the Wish You Well Foundation to find solutions for the problem and promote the development of new and existing literacy and educational programs.

When I asked Baldacci what his biggest piece of advice is for a new writer, he offered plainly, “No one cares about your career more than you do.”

He encourages hopefuls to educate themselves on every aspect of the writing world, concerning both the craft and the publishing industry. No one, not the best agent or editor, can do that for the writer. He/she must own the quality of his/her work, and what it takes to put it in the hands of readers.

Baldacci’s comments speak to the concerns of so many of us new to the field. Navigating the publishing industry and understanding the difference between a line edit and a galley proof can be daunting at first. Beginning writers do it by walking through one door at a time, just like our characters. That means we join critique groups when we don’t want to share our work yet, and we submit to contests before we are ready. We sit in writing seminars when we don’t understand their titles, and we spend time reading the work of others even when we don’t have to time read our own.

It’s nice to remember that a successful writer like Baldacci has walked through many of these doors, too, just like writers will do long after him. Although I couldn’t relate to navigating through a publishers’ bidding war or going on a worldwide book tour, I could relate to something that I am sure Baldacci would agree is much more important—the great passion for the written word.  When he speaks of this, he still lights up. Baldacci writes because he has to write. There is no complete satisfaction without it. If you’re reading this, odds are you can relate with David Baldacci, too.

P.S. Be sure to check out Baldacci’s latest page-turner, THE HIT, and be sure to check out TNT’s “King and Maxwell” based on Baldacci’s popular characters.

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