This week’s author spotlight is on indie author superstar David Lender. David had the poor judgment to agree to speak with me about writing (no doubt because I lied about being with the NY Times) and his new breakthrough bestselling blockbuster Vaccine Nation, in which he tells a gripping and chilling story I would have gladly plagiarized if he’d have only sent me an advance copy.
Russell Blake: Welcome, David Lender, bestselling author of a number of terrific Wall Street thrillers, the latest of which is racing up the Amazon sales rankings as we speak. I’ve read every book you’ve written, and am a fan. I’ll be reading Vaccine Nation, your latest, within the next week or two. You’re an automatic purchase for me. Slavish flattery aside, thanks for coming on to my blog and answering some questions about yourself, your process, and your literary journey. Let’s start with some overview.
Give us the elevator pitch on your background. You had a career on Wall Street, so know what you’re writing about. What did you do, and how does your experience color your work?
David Lender: I was a mergers and acquisitions investment banker for over 25 years, doing mostly international deals. The egos, ambitions and in many cases, sharp-elbowed tactics that characterize the personalities that inhabit Wall Street and the corporate world are what I write about.
RB: Your latest smash, Vaccine Nation, is interesting to me, having read about some of the ugly science behind vaccines, and the massive financial interests that drive big pharma. Tell us a bit about the book, and why it’s significant.
DL: Vaccine Nation is the story of an award-winning documentary filmmaker who is handed whistleblower evidence about the U.S. vaccination program, and then races to expose it before a megalomaniacal pharmaceutical company CEO can have her killed.
I modeled it after stories like Six Days of the Condor or Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, intending it as a fast-paced action thriller occurring over a few days. While the book is designed to entertain, it also explores the very real issues in the current debate over vaccine safety in the mandatory U.S. National Immunization Program. Vaccine Nation is a dramatization of this debate, presented in the form of a thriller that will hopefully leave you breathless and make you think.
In Vaccine Nation, Dani North just won at the Tribeca Film Festival for her documentary, The Drugging of Our Children, a film critical of the pharmaceutical industry. She’s also just started work on a new documentary on autism. When a pharmaceutical industry vaccine researcher hands her smoking gun evidence about the U.S. National Immunization Program seconds before he’s murdered right in front of her, Dani finds herself implicated and pursued by the police. Dani realizes what she’s been handed could have crucial implications on upcoming hearings by a Senate committee. A key issue the Senate committee will consider is whether Congress should continue the immunity it granted in 1986 to the pharmaceutical industry for claims by parents on damage to their children from the U.S. National Immunization Program. That puts Dani on the run in a race to understand and expose the evidence. That is, before the police can grab her, or Grover Madsen, a megalomaniacal pharmaceutical industry CEO, can have her hunted down by his hired killers. Madsen knows exactly what Dani has and how explosive it is for the pharmaceutical industry: it has the potential to make the tobacco industry’s lawsuits and subsequent multi-billion dollar settlements seem like routine slip-and-fall cases. Madsen uses all his company’s political and financial resources to track Dani.
The facts in Vaccine Nation are accurate—the 1986 Congressional grant of immunity to the pharmaceutical industry for liability related to their vaccines for the National Immunization Program, the toxicity of certain ingredients of vaccines, the controversy surrounding the safety and side-effects of vaccines, and vaccines’ suspected relationship to the autism epidemic. The issues in the book are nonfictional and the debate on vaccine safety is increasing: recent CDC statistics show that 10% of parents (up from 2% to 3%.) are avoiding or delaying vaccinating their children because of concerns about vaccine safety.
RB: Many of my readers are authors, so let’s talk process. How do you conceptualize your books – what do you do from idea, to where you start writing? Do you outline your characters? Do a beat by beat outline? Or just grab the tequila and start typing?
DL: If I was going to grab anything and just start writing, it would be red wine, but I’m afraid the writing wouldn’t be very good. I was taught by my first editor (who also, I’m thrilled to say, edited Vaccine Nation) to do character bios and a scene-by-scene outline of the entire novel before starting to write. Since then I learned some techniques from an experienced Hollywood script development exec, like starting with a one-sentence log line (the first sentence of my description of Vaccine Nation above is one, a bit long at 36 words) that captures the story, and then build the outline, including key dramatic steps, in three acts from there. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat has a great “beat sheet” that I use.
RB: You’ve written books with both male and female protagonists, as have I. What’s that like for you, and why do you do it? Is it more of a challenge to write from the female POV, or the male?
DL: I write each scene from the point-of-view of the one character I feel best suited to present it, using that character’s vocabulary and speech mannerisms, and laying out her/his thoughts, physical reactions and feelings. Once in a while I change POV within a scene if I think it’s essential. That means I’m always stepping in and out of both male and female minds and emotions as I write. So it doesn’t really matter to me whether I’ve got a male or female protagonist, antagonist, or incidental character, because I have to write from both female and male POVs all the time. If I wrote from an omniscient viewpoint I might feel differently, might be more comfortable writing male instead of female protagonists, but given my approach it doesn’t present more of a challenge one way or the other. With either female or male characters, I’m always bouncing ideas off others, testing to see if the emotions or behavior are realistic. Most frequently I bounce them off Manette, my fiancée.
If you’d asked me if I know how women really think, my answer would be different; I’m twice divorced.
RB: Well, at least we know what two were thinking…How many hours a week do you shoot for when you’re writing? What pace do you set for yourself, and do you usually hit it?
DL: I shoot to average 1,000 words per day, meaning 365,000 words per year. When I’m actively working on a book I keep count. I’m always playing catch-up. Vaccine Nation came in at about 72,000 words, less than what I was targeting (after editing and rewrites it ended at about 65,000). I finished it on schedule over the summer, some days writing over 5,000 words in order to catch up for days I didn’t write,. I know for some writers, like you, 365,000 words per year is easy. Not for me. I’ll never catch up for 2011. I’m only just outlining my next book. Outlining doesn’t count, although my outlines run about 35-40 pages.
RB: I wouldn’t say it’s easy for me. Next year I’ll average about that if the river don’t rise. David, your books are selling remarkably well. Do you have any advice for your fellow indie authors?
DL: It starts with the writing. I don’t see how anyone can be successful, or grow as a writer, without an editor. I’m not talking about a beta reader, copyeditor or proofreader, I’m talking about a developmental editor. Your mother will always (well, usually) tell you she loves your book. Your girlfriend, boyfriend or wife will usually be a little more honest, but doesn’t have the technical skill or experience that a professional editor does. And an editor, whether she’s the best in the business or only mediocre, will give you an objective viewpoint and be honest. That’s perhaps a long-winded way of saying what Joe Konrath says: “Don’t write shit.”
The next thing is to treat epublishing like a business, because it is. Educate yourself. Look at what successful authors are doing with pricing, their platforms, their content. Read blogs and other tools to learn the business. Joe Konrath. Kindle Review. Kindle Nation Daily. Kindle Author. Read Steve Windwalker’s book on pricing ebooks for Kindle. See what people are talking about on the KindleBoards.
Next, find people to proofread, format and produce professional covers for it. Buy a Kindle, even a Fire, and a Nook and see what your books look like on them, and on the mac or PC version of the Kindle or Nook Readers before you release them.
Then spend at least a few hours of every day staying current with the blogs, maintaining your social network presence, corresponding with your readers and doing everything you can to expand your readership. Solicit opportunities to guest blog or be interviewed on others’ blogs. Try book-of-the-day sponsorships on Kindle Nation Daily, eReader News Today, The Frugal eReader or Kindle Author to see if they work for you. Don’t spend all day writing.
RB: Describe who your typical reader is, in your mind’s eye. Is there one? What do you imagine they’re like?
DL: A thriller reader who likes other types of novels and nonfiction as well. My first book, Trojan Horse, had broad international settings and themes based on my own travel and my research into the Islamic culture, computer hacking and the oil business. I think my reader liked it because she/he’s a thriller reader first, but is also interested in other cultures, technologies and exotic places. My other books are set either on Wall Street (The Gravy Train and Bull Street) or in a corporate and legal/political world (Vaccine Nation). I think my reader was drawn to them because of an intellectual curiosity about different worlds they don’t experience every day, regardless of educational level or background. Anybody can relate to my characters, I think.
RB: What’s next? What’s your WIP? How many books can we look forward to over the next 12 months from you?
DL: I’m outlining a prequel to Trojan Horse, with Sasha, one of the protagonists of that novel, reprising that role. Also a family memoir, jointly with Manette and her son, Zac, of the first year of Styles, our beloved pitbull, joining our family. Realistically, I hope to put out two thrillers per year, but my real goal would be to produce three. Not sure I’ll make it for 2012, but I’m a grinder.
RB: What’s your favorite book you’ve written to date, and why? Let’s take that in two parts: Favorite story, and favorite character.
DL: Bull Street, because it’s the most steeped in the world of Wall Street and its inhabitants, which is which is where I came from. Richard Blum is my favorite character because he’s a lot like I was in my early years on Wall Street; I dug deep into my own emotions and learning experiences to create him. I feel sentimentally attached to him because that was a unique time in my career and life.
RB: Do you ever experience writer’s block? Procrastination? How do you deal with them when and if you do? If not, you should bottle your secret sauce and sell it by the six-pack…
DL: I wouldn’t say I get blocked, because of how I work, with detailed character bios and scene-by-scene outlines. I might get stuck in the outlining process, but that’s stuck, not blocked. I’m also a grinder at pretty much anything I do. I could give you a thousand examples. One: a seven-foot section of the stone wall around my weekend house was ready to collapse into the street and wouldn’t have made it through the winter. I’ve had two masons retire on me, and haven’t found another. So from Friday to Sunday on the Thanksgiving weekend I kissed Manette goodbye, went up to Milford and was outside by 7 a.m., working until it got dark each day. Wet, cold, dirty, backbreaking work I slogged through because it had to get done. That’s what my first drafts of scenes are like some days, but I won’t let myself give up on them until I’ve gotten them done. Even if they suck and I have to rewrite them.
RB: If readers could only choose one of your books to read as the best expression of what you do, which would it be?
DL: Vaccine Nation, because it’s the most current example of how I write, and reflects the best I can do, just as each of my last books reflected the best I could do at that time.
RB: I want to thank you for stopping by the blog and sharing your thoughts with us. I’m quite sure we’ll be hearing a lot more about you. Congratulations on the success of Vaccine Nation, to date – it’s inspirational for other indie authors to hear success stories like yours.