Steve Berry is the New York Times and #1 international bestselling author of The Lincoln Myth and several other books. Steve has sold more than 19 million books and is a modern-day success story in the publishing industry. After Dan Brown’s novels took off in the early 2000’s, Steve was finally able to land a traditional publishing deal for his books which are also in the international thriller / mystery genre.
In today’s show, Steve shares the story of his journey from an unknown, unpublished writer to becoming one of the world’s top novelists. He’ll also share his magic number for how many times he edits his novels, and how you should think about the editing process before you seek to get your book published.
Steve Berry practiced law for 30 years before becoming a professional author. He always had a voice inside him telling him to write. In 1990 he decided to listen to that voice and start writing. Over the next year he discovered that writing is hard. Over the next 12 years Steve taught himself the craft of writing.
During that 12 year period Steve submitted eight manuscripts to different publishing houses. Five of those manuscripts were rejected a total of 85 times. He actually walked away from writing three times in that 12 year period, but the voice in his head wouldn’t let him give up.
He finally became a published novelist in 2003 with his book, The Amber Room. Since 2003, Steve has sold over 19 million books in more than 50 countries.
Listen to the Voice inside Your Head
If you have a voice inside your head telling you to write a book, listen to it.
If you’re going to be a commercial fiction writer you’re going to hear a whole lot more negativity than you do encouragement. You’re going to get one-star reviews. You’re going to get readers telling you your work is crap.
The only way Steve has gotten through all the negativity is by listening to the persistent voice inside his head telling him to write.
Learning the Writing Craft
The number one thing you have to have is a good story. You can’t build an author platform until you have a story that people want to read and tell their friends about.
Steve took a systematic approach to learning the craft of fiction writing.
He wrote 1,000 new words of fiction every day.
He went to a writer’s group every week for six years.
Consistent repetition is what it takes to learn the craft of writing.
“There’s no such thing as a writing teacher. There are people who can teach you how to teach yourself how to write, and those are the folks you need to find.” – Steve Berry
How to Become a Successful Fiction Writer
- Read your genre.
- Study your genre.
- Write new original words every day.
Writing is an acquired skill, and anybody can acquire it, all you have to do is put in the work.
There are no shortcuts when it comes to being a successful writer. You just have to do the work. Write every day. Submit your manuscripts, and keep going until you catch a break.
“If you’ve got a manuscript that you’ve gone over 60 to 70 times, and you feel comfortable you have the best manuscript you can write, it’s time to find an agent.” – Steve Berry
You can browse our list of literary agents to find the ones that might be a good fit for you.
The only way to be a successful author is to be persistent. You have to keep going after you get rejected. Steve learned how to get an agent, how to sell a manuscript, and how to market books by trial and error.
The problem with people today is that people aren’t patient. Everyone wants success right now. That’s not how success works.
“You make your own luck by hanging in there. I caught a break in 2002 when the world caught up to the type of book I was writing. You have to stick with it.” – Steve Berry
What Steve Has Learned about the Craft of Writing
- Don’t bore the reader.
- Don’t confuse the reader.
- Shorter is always better.
How Steve Researches His Novels
Steve writes thrillers set in the modern day that are connected to history in some way. For every novel, he goes through these steps:
- Goes through 300 to 400 written sources.
- He takes extensive notes on the history he’s referencing.
- He usually takes 1 to 2 trips researching the locations in his novel.
- He organizes all of his research, and then begins the process of writing his first draft.
He will only use 20% to 25% of his research in any book he writes. He’s writing fiction. His job is to entertain you.
Choosing Your Genre
“Don’t write what you know. Write what you love.” – Steve Berry
Steve enjoys writing contemporary thrillers with a connection to the past. He enjoys conspiracies and mysteries. So that’s what he writes.
He’d like to branch out someday, but he’s going to stick with his genre for the foreseeable future. He likes those books and that’s what his audience expects from him.
Editing and Rewriting
Steve’s favorite part of the writing process is when he’s written the last word of the book. He never has to read that book again or do any research connected with that book. He can move on to the next project. Every time he writes a novel he reads that novel an average of 70 times, going through it, revising it, and making it as good as it can be.
Steve doesn’t read every word of his manuscript 70 times. On certain passes of the manuscript he’s looking for specific things, like repeated words and active verbs. About 35 of Steve’s readthroughs are from word one to the end of the novel. If you’re not willing to read through your manuscript at least 35 times, you’re not giving your manuscript the best chance to succeed. One of the rules of writing is that good writing is rewriting.
You can’t rely on somebody else to make your manuscript readable. If you want to have someone else look at your manuscript after you gone through it 50 or 60 times yourself, to have a fresh pair of eyes on it, that’s okay. But you shouldn’t rely on an editor to make your story make sense. Only you know what your story is supposed to be, so take the time to do the editing you need to do.
Only three other people see Steve’s manuscripts before they’re published: his wife, his agent and his editor.
One of the rewards of self editing your work is your book reads better, and you feel better about it.
Steve doesn’t like to be compared to other writers. He prefers to compare his own work to previous drafts. His only goal is to make this draft better than the last draft.
“All you can ever hope for as a writer is that what you wrote today is better than what you wrote yesterday.” – Steve Berry
It is important to edit your work, but it’s also important to know when to stop. You’re never going to make your writing perfect. All you can do is the best you can do.
“Once I’m done, I’m done. I’ve done the best I can and I go to work on the next project.” – Steve Berry
The rewriting phase of Steve’s production process usually takes about 12 months.
Writing Is Rhythm
You’ll know you’re done editing your manuscript when you’re reading through it one more time and you make very few changes.
Your manuscript is done when your sentences, paragraphs, and chapters blend together.
A story should pull the reader into it so they forget their reading, and they just experience the story. When you’re rereading the story for the last time, if you get all the way through from word 1 to the end without being pulled or jarred out of the story, the manuscript is done.
Steve’s Writing Schedule
Steve writes 6 to 7 hours a day when he’s working on a manuscript.
He’ll work for about five hours in the morning from 6 AM to 11 AM, take an hour or two off in the afternoon for lunch, and work two hours in the afternoon.
How Steve Builds His Author Platform
Steve is traditionally published, so his publishing company does a lot of marketing for him, but he doesn’t rely on them exclusively. He’s very involved in his Facebook page. He has a growing fan base that he interacts with directly there.
- He has a website that gets between 500 and 700 hits per day. On average, his visitors spend two minutes per visit on his website.
- He has an email newsletter that he sends out 8 to 10 times a year.
- He also has an app where he keeps news of his books up-to-date.
Steve is heavily involved in all of the marketing of his books. From book descriptions, to blurbs, to taglines, Steve had a hand in all of it.
Every writer should get involved in the marketing of their book. Nobody knows a book better than its author. Authors need to be involved in marketing their books because they know what they were trying to say in their book and the audience they were aiming their book at.
The business of selling books changes rapidly in the Internet age. You need to be aware of the marketplace and actively involved in marketing your book.
The Lincoln Myth: A Case Study
The Lincoln Myth is one of Steve’s recent novels. He and his marketing team decided they wanted to market the book to right-wing readers, because they felt like the story was something right-wing readers would enjoy.
They advertised in communities where right-wing readers gather. They advertised on various sites like:
- Rush Limbaugh’s site
Steve got an appearance on Lou Dobbs show. And Lou Dobbs loved the book.
The secret to marketing and novel is figuring out who you want to read it. Who would like your book? What other books might they be reading? What types of books does your ideal reader like to read?
Steve and his team designed ads and taglines that would appeal to the right-wing audience.
Targeting the right-wing audience worked very well. The book debuted at number three on the New York Times e-books list, and number four on the hardcover list.
The way you figure out how to market your book is just to think about who would naturally like your novel. Steve knew that right-wing readers would be interested in the subject matter of the book, because it dealt with Lincoln and the question of presidential succession. Those are topics right-wing readers enjoy thinking about. Lincoln is a heroic figure to right-wing readers. He is the most successful Republican President, and he kept the union together.
It seems easy when it’s spelled out in print. Not every book is as clear-cut. But all you have to do is think about your audience when you go to market a book. Spend some time figuring out who might like your book and how to reach them.
How Steve Stays in Touch with His Audience
Steve reads every email he receives through his website. He has an assistant who responds to most of them, but he reads every one.
Steve also reads his Amazon reviews. He modifies his writing style based on the valid criticism he’s gotten repeatedly in some of the reviews. After he altered his writing style the criticism disappeared. Steve credits his training in writing workshops for this willingness to respond to criticism that makes sense.
There are going to be times you get criticism that doesn’t make any sense. When that happens just ignore it. But if you repeatedly get the same criticism and it makes sense, try to address it in future novels.
Knowing the difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism is difficult. In time you will learn to tell the difference.
The Value of Writers Workshops
Steve has been attending a writer’s workshop regularly for over a decade. He was invited to join a writer’s workshop early in his author journey, and he finds them tremendously valuable.
“75% of what you hear in a writer’s workshop is pure garbage. 25% of what you hear will be pure gold. I still live by the 25%. Time teaches you the difference.” Steve Berry
Steve teaches writer’s workshops where he separates the garbage from the gold.
History Matters is an organization that helps fund historical preservation projects.
Steve and his wife travel around the world and promote different projects at every community they visit. Steve will do whatever type of event the community wants, whether that be a paid speech, or a writer’s workshop, or something different. When people pay to attend the event all the proceeds go to helping fund the historical preservation project Steve is promoting.
Steve and his wife have raised over $750,000 in just under six years.
The idea for the History Matters organization came about while Steve was touring for one of his books.
If there’s a project you think fits with History Matters’s mission of helping preserve history you can contact Steve directly at steveberry.org/contact and tell him about your project.
How Steve Handles the Business Side of Writing
Steve spends 2 to 3 hours a day keeping up with the business side of writing. He reads publishers weekly and all of the trade journals.
If you want to be a professional fiction writer you have to stay current on publishing news. It changes every day.
You should read Publisher’s Weekly and Publisher’s Lunch. They are Steve’s go to sources when it comes to news on the publishing industry.
Beyond that you should ask questions of knowledgeable authors in your genre. Steve is a member of the International Thriller Writers Association.
You should look for professional organizations like the ITWA, join them and go to their conferences.
Every year, Thrillerfest happens in the first week of July. If you’re a thriller writer you should be attending Thrillerfest.
Resources Mentioned in This Interview
Steve mentions The Da Vinci Code as the book that people got interested in the historical thriller again.
Links and Resources Mentioned in This Interview
http://steveberry.org/ – Steve’s website
The Lincoln Myth: A Novel (Cotton Malone Book 9) by Steve Berry
http://steveberry.org/events/ – go here to learn about future lectures for writers with Steve.
The Amber Room Steve Berry’s first novel
http://steveberry.org/contact/ – contact Steve directly using the form on his website.
https://www.publishersweekly.com/ – the industry standard for publishing news.
http://thrillerwriters.org/ – the website for the international thriller writers Association
http://thrillerfest.com/ – the website for Thrillerfest 2018. If you are a thriller writer you should be there. You should try to learn as much as you can from other thriller writers.