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News arrow Features arrow HOW TO WRITE A BEST SELLER

HOW TO WRITE A BEST SELLER Print E-mail
February 21, 2002 11:00 pm
Phillip Margolin talks to conference participant after signing book. ().
Phillip Margolin talks to conference participant after signing book. ().

GOLD BEACH Phillip Margolin, with eight novels on the New York Times bestseller list, was the keynote speaker Feb. 15 at the seventh annual South Coast Writers Conference.

I never thought I had the talent and ability to write anything publishable, said Margolin to those who would like to follow in his footsteps.

Margolin, in fact, had no desire to be a writer. He said he wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer from the time he was in seventh grade, probably from reading too many Perry Mason books.

Margolin achieved his goal in 1970 when he graduated from the New York University School of Law.

As an appellate attorney, he appeared in state and national courts of appeal and Supreme Courts.

As a trial attorney, Margolin handled all sorts of criminal cases, and represented 30 people charged with homicide.

His success as a lawyer led him, in a roundabout way, not only to a successful career as a writer, but to the South Coast Writers Conference.

Margolins appearance as the keynote speaker started last year when Bonnie Baron of Coos Bay attended the conference.

She said her husband law-clerked with Margolin 32 years ago. Theyd seen him once since those days, at a booksigning in North Bend.

When I attended the conference here last February, said Baron, I said to myself, I know Phillip Margolin and I have got to get him down here.

It meant a six-hour drive for Margolin, but Baron said his reply to her request was, Yeah, sure Ill do that.

His advice to her on writing? He told me to just do it.

Margolin said he didnt write anything worth publishing until he was in his 30s. He said thinking he couldnt do it kept him from doing it.

Margolin said being a voracious reader made him feel he could never measure up to the great writers.

I got buffaloed and wouldnt take a shot at it, he said.

The ones who get published, he said, are the ones who sit on their butts and write.

Margolin said he always wondered how writers filled up 400 pages. He said his longest works were 25 pages, and those were school and legal papers. He knew he couldnt write 25 pages of fiction.

He finally got a chance to find out. After graduating from law school, he had a free summer.

My summer project was to write a novel to see if I could write more than 25 pages.

He based his story on his experiences as a Peace Corp volunteer in Liberia in West Africa, from 1965 to 1967.

He wrote his book in longhand while sitting in public places. He said passersby were impressed when he told them he was writing a novel.

He didnt finish the book that summer, but he enjoyed writing, so he got up early on weekend mornings and continued to write as a hobby.

Margolin said people were amazed that he could find time to write with a family and law career. He said most people spend time on some hobby. His was writing.

In the end, his first book was 187 pages. He never tried to get it published.

He wanted his second book to be totally fictional. It was the worst mystery ever written, he said. It actually started with, It was a dark and stormy night. As for the murder, guess who did it? The butler.

Margolin said that manuscript is now in an underground vault, guarded by Pinkerton guards who will shoot anyone who ever tries to read or publish it.

I havent even read it, he said.

Margolin had similar success with his short stories. Most were science fiction, with characters with plaid eyeballs, and were rejected.

I thought the publishers hired people to wait by my mail slot, he said. I really got suspicious when I started getting rejection slips before I mailed the manuscripts.

Margolin then tried to write a suspense story, which was rejected by Ellery Queens Mystery Magazine.

He rewrote it, submitted it to another national magazine, and forgot about it. He was shocked when the magazine offered $65 for the story.

I would have paid em twice that, he said.

I was in my early 30s, he said. I had no self-confidence about my writing, and most of it was not very good.

Publishing gave me self-confidence. I was the first published writer Id ever met.

The big difference between publishing or not is, Are you willing to put up with rejection and sit on your butt and keep writing?, he said.

Most writers go through a lot of rejection. The difference is sitting on your butt and doing it instead of talking about it. Then, if you write a stinker, write something else.

At that stage, Margolin was ready to try something more serious. When working in the court of appeals, hed read the brief for the Payton-Allen murders.

It was the single most fascinating case in history, he said, and no one had heard of it outside of Oregon.

He said most case briefs run 40 to 50 pages. This one was 800 pages. Id never seen anything like it before or since, he said.

Using it for his plot, Margolin eventually wrote five chapters and an outline. At that point, fortune smiled on him.

He said an old law school friend called and wanted to get together. It just happened that his buddy was one of three lawyers for the largest literary agency in the world.

Margolin asked him if he would show the manuscript to someone and tell him whether or not he should keep writing.

The next time Margolin saw his friend, he had a bottle of champagne waiting. He told Margolin his agent had sold the book.

I didnt even know I had an agent, said Margolin. My whole writing career has been very strange.

He finished the manuscript and went to New York to meet his editor. The editor, however, was quitting. Over lunch, he explained to Margolin why his book was not yet publishable.

Margolin said hed never had any real training in writing, so he had made basic mistakes. Following the advice of the editor, he spent a year rewriting his manuscript.

The end result was Heartstone, nominated by the Mystery Writers of America for an Edgar award as the best original paperback mystery of 1978. It also made the bestseller list.

The story of another of Margolins bestsellers was even more strange.

The secret to being a bestselling writer, he said, is you have to have an agent who has a son who is getting married in Paris.

The idea for Gone but not Forgotten, he said, was something hed long pondered.

As a lawyer, hed always believed he would represent anyone. He wondered, however, if there was anyone so hideous and horrible, that he would make an exception to that rule.

He finished a 500-page draft of the book, but his agent was going out of the country to her sons wedding in Paris.

While his agent was gone, his friends sent him clippings from the New York Times business section about how publishers were salivating to get their hands on lawyers who could write books.

The one type of lawyer everyone wanted, he said, was a criminal defense lawyer. God had crafted a fad to benefit me, a criminal defense lawyer with a new manuscript.

He said the agent then told him the book was going to be auctioned, instead of being sent to one publishing house at a time.

I was out, he said.

Gone but not Forgotten turned out to be another best seller. It has been sold to more than 25 foreign publishers, and was the main selection of the Literary Guild.

The Last Innocent Man was made into an HBO movie. The rest of Margolins novels have achieved success similar to the first three, and he has just finished his ninth book.

Margolin still thought of himself mainly as a lawyer. It took me until after my fifth book was published, and on the bestseller list, to say I am a writer, he said.

The big secret is working and keeping at it, he said. Write for fun. Never write to get published, because its really hard. Never write for money, because writers dont make much.

Margolin said once a book is sold, it belongs to someone else.

I had as much fun writing the ones that werent sold.

 

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