Laura Lippman and Lee Child share the view from the top

Laura Lippman

Early in your writing career, you have to believe you can reach the top of the best sellers lists even if you never confide that conviction to anyone else, according to Laura Lippman. That was one of the tips she shared at the Q&A session with fellow best-selling author Lee Child at the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Symposiuim last week. Capping a day of illuminating panels, their informal dialogue conveyed a vivid sense of what it feels like to be a best-selling author – and it’s anything but easy.

Lee Child

When they began writing mysteries, both Lippman and Child already had 20 years of media experience, Lippman as a journalist and Child in the TV industry. The initial goal for both? Simply to get published. Child knew he would make it, at least to the entry level of publishing. “You need to be blind to the possibility of failure,” he said. Both began writing to please themselves rather than worrying about the “oughts” of mystery writing or the ingredients for commercial success.

What’s luck got to do with it?

Both consider themselves lucky to have reached their level of success, but “luck accrues to those who work hard,” according to Lippman. She acknowledged, though, that some gifted and hard-working authors just don’t catch a break. Some fall by the wayside, and “the people who persevere may need to reinvent themselves and write under a new name” with a new series if that’s what it takes to keep getting published.

Both authors emerged in 1997 along with Dennis Lehane and Harlan Coben. They all kept “showing up,” publishing a book a year with the goal of making each book better than the one before. Writing never gets easier, said Lippman. If you ever think it’s easy, you’re in trouble. And with increasing success, there’s more pressure and more anxiety.

“There’s nothing that will ever convince you you’ve made it,” says Child. “The horizon keeps shifting” as authors like Dan Brown come along and dominate the best seller charts.

Keeping a series fresh

Lippman has written four stand-alones, including the recent Life Sentences, in addition to her series of ten Tess Monaghan novels. They allow her to explore characters and themes that don’t necessarily mesh with her series, but after the time away from Tess, she’s grateful to be back in her company. “Make sure you write about a character you like spending time with,” she advises.

Child, in contrast, has no plans to write stand-alones. He plans to stick with his protagonist Jack Reacher. “I’m not as smart as Laura,” he quipped. “I’m just trying to get by.” This of course elicited comments from Lippman about his brilliance. Child pointed out that Reacher has the advantage of traveling to many settings for variety. Nonetheless, he said with self-deprecating humor, “It’s okay to write the same novel over and over again with minor changes – it’s what people want and expect.” Over the years, readers build up a relationship where they feel they know Child, and they often write to him confiding things they don’t tell family or friends.

I came away from this discussion with a vivid sense of the unremitting hard work, dedication and self-confidence it takes to maintain a writing career at their level of success. “There’s always something new to chase,” said Lippman. “You’ve never arrived.”

“If you write the perfect book,” Child concluded, “what do you do next? You’re done.”

What about you? Do you have the admirable qualities you need to take your work to the next level? Or do you ever feel as if you’re “done,” perfect or not? I’d love to read your comments. And stay tuned for my report on Donald Maass’s workshop on the breakthrough mystery.

Lee Child’s author photo is copyrighted by the celebrity photographer Sigrid Estrada, whose work I remember from many years ago when I worked at Ladies’ Home Journal. He really does look this good, and he’s friendly and charming as well. Lee is past president of the Mystery Writers of America, and Laura’s the new president. Her author photo reminds me more of Cybill Shepherd than of the unassuming way Laura looks in person – not that she doesn’t look great, mind you. But I decided it was unfair to use a studio glamour shot for the man and a more ordinary candid shot for the woman. 

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