He went from the Downtown comedy clubs to the hallowed halls of the J. Walter Thompson ad agency.
He started by writing ads and followed his mentor, James Patterson, into the world of writing mysteries, becoming an advertising creative director along the way.
Who is he?
He’s mystery writer, copywriter, screenplay writer, creative director, improvisational comedian and now children’s book author, Chris Grabenstein, that’s who.
And I was fortunate enough to be able to interview him… oh, so many years ago back in November 0f 2009. (I was stunned by how much wisdom is here on review in Feb. 2018.)
How has Chris been able to achieve so much in so many different areas?
It’s really no mystery.
Chris shares over 30 years worth of strategies for succeeding in the world of advertising and fiction, attention getting communication and winning productivity habits.
Here’s some of the nuggets you’ll glean from this interview:
- How a cream pie in the face can earn you millions
- Why there are no losers in advertising…only unemployment
- How to “leave out the part that readers tend to skip”
- Why improvisational comedians outperform door-to-door salesman in advertising…sorry Claude Hopkins
- Why no one cares about your product (or if you spent a year on R&D)
- A foolproof system fiction writers can use to hold themselves accountable
- Why there’s always another winning idea…even after everyone else has given up
- Why you must EARN people’s attention in advertising (or any kind of writing)
- The copywriter-mystery writer connection
Lawrence Bernstein: Chris, I’m delighted we can finally talk.
Chris Grabenstein: Yeah, thanks for finding me the J.W.T. copywriting test. People are always asking me about that test and I think I lost my last copy of it. Then one day I found it. I was looking for the visual of it for a presentation, and that’s how I found your Web site.
Lawrence Bernstein: Terrific. Incidentally, I just discovered the J. Walter Thompson copy test a few weeks before posting it. After I posted it, you surprised us by provided your winning answer. (Only 10 respondents out of thousands of submissions made the grade and got a job offer from JWT.)
Just to recap it here: (Chris’ answer is to one of the eight copy test questions.)
Question: “You’ve heard the story about the man who made a fortune selling refrigerators to Eskimos. In not more than 100 words, how would you sell a telephone to a Trappist monk, who is observing the strict Rule of Silence? (But he can nod acceptance at the end.)
Answer: (“Well, remember this was 1984. Computer modems were these cradles you had to jam a telephone handset into.” )
“So I told the Trappist the rest of the world had caught up to him. We stopped talking and started communicating. By purchasing a phone and modem, he’d be connected to Monk mail, a way to stay connected with Trappists all over the world. Weird how really true it came.”
Chris Grabenstein: Yeah, you don’t need a phone anymore.
Lawrence Bernstein: Foreshadowing.
Chris Grabenstein: Who knew? Now we’re connecting, via cable wires and DSL and satellite signals. There must have been just an inkling of community boards just starting over modem back then or I’m sure I wouldn’t have come up with it.
Lawrence Bernstein: I vaguely remember the Bullet Board Services (BBS’s). My friend had an Apple IIe in those days. But I didn’t have any real involvement till over a decade later.
Chris Grabenstein: Right, exactly.
Lawrence Bernstein: Well the Trappist answer was the flashpoint for igniting interest in the copy test. Then I thought, “what’s going on here…what’s the connection between highly accomplished copywriters and mystery writers?” when I realized that James Patterson had recruited you through the copy test, and today you’re both renowned mystery writers. And I want to get to that in a bit.
But first, knowing the sort of success many ad writers with a background in door-to-door selling have, what did your stand-up comedian background offer you as far as becoming a highly accomplished writer (both in advertising and fiction) as well as being an agency heavy when you were creative director at Young & Rubicam.
Chris Grabenstein: Right. Well I was doing what is probably best described as improvisational comedy, which most people, if they saw the show Whose Line is it Anyway? with Drew Carrey, would recognize. It was on for a long time. I was doing that for five years, where literally there’d be a group of six us and we’d get out on stage and we’d say, “Can we have a personal problem that you or someone you know might have?” and someone would yell out, “Acne,” and our piano player would hit this song, and we’d have to make up a blues number right on the spot, or we’d do a scene with, “Give us a relationship and an object two people can hold in your hands,” and we’d create whole scenes.
We had a great time doing this. That’s where I started. Bruce Willis was in that troupe. So this was when he was just a struggling actor, too. But it gives you this uncanny ability to think quickly on your feet. I guess it’s something that you’ve already been doing if you’re good at it.
Lawrence Bernstein: There are many writers and creative types who are a heck of a lot more comfortable behind a keyboard than the thought of being up on stage in the bright lights. And knowing the sort of hardened Downtown New York audiences you performed in front of, I wouldn’t exactly relish their reaction to a flat routine. You were down in the Village, right?
Chris Grabenstein: We were down in the Village and some nights it would get pretty rough. I remember one night somebody yelled out, “What’s an activity someone can do?” and someone yelled out, “Arson!” and we were already started and a firefighter was in the audience and said, “There’s nothing funny about arson!” Somehow we came up with a quick comeback, made everybody happy and did a little scene, and we didn’t die.
Lawrence Bernstein: Good save.
Chris Grabenstein: It always held me in good stead in advertising. I always tell people when they ask that. For every one of my commercials you saw on TV I probably wrote 100 of them, ‘cause we’d always go to the client and the client would kill the first round. Then we’d go back and work another week and come back, and maybe the client changed his mind again, so you had to go back for a third round.
I noticed through my career that most of my pals would after about the second round go, “That’s it. I give up. They’re never gonna buy anything.” And I would always go, “Well, there’s always another idea,” ‘cause I’d done improv for so long its like, “I’ll come up with something else.”
Lawrence Bernstein: Right.
Chris Grabenstein: So I had a certain stamina and was never afraid that I’d run out of ideas.
Lawrence Bernstein: Rapid idea generation honed during your stand-up career served you well for the type of agency work which you ultimately did.
Chris Grabenstein: Right. Also, there’s one fundamental rule that underlines everything if you’re an improvisational performer and that is “never deny.” For instance, if you’re doing a scene and they yell out a place where two people can meet, and you start and your partner goes, “Well here we are at the top of the Empire State Building,” and you say, “No, this is the Statue of Liberty,” then you haven’t done anything. You haven’t advanced the scene. You haven’t moved the story forward in any way. But if you were to say, “Yeah. Do you smell bananas?” and all of sudden, “Yeah. Well that big, hairy ape up there, I think he’s the one eating all the bananas,” and all of a sudden you can take it to the next step and add King Kong to it. So it’s an interesting way of just never denying anything and always saying, “Yes, and.” That was the one rule, just say, “Yes” and keep going forward.
And I find in my writing books that I do that quite a bit. I know who my characters are. I put them in situations and I sort of see where they’re gonna take me.
Lawrence Bernstein: There’s so much food for though here, Chris. I’m anxious to get to your novels, but before we jump over there I just wanted to get a glimpse of what it was like after you were hired at J. Walter Thompson. You (and thousands of people) responded to the copy test and you were selected with about ten other people?
Chris Grabenstein: I think there were eight or ten of us at first, and I always say the second guy hired ended up doing even better. A guy named Dan Staley went out and started writing spec scripts for Cheers at night. He would write commercials all day and he would write spec scripts for Cheers. He sent them out and one of them got picked up and within like two years he was co-executive producer of Cheers. So he did a lot better.
The other reason I took the test is I had read a book called Something Wonderful Right Away, which is all about the improvisational scene, if you will, in Chicago where all this stuff started, Second City. You’ve probably heard of that. They would get called into ad agencies for auditions. The advertising people would hand them the scripts and they’d say, “That’s the basic script. Play around with it a little bit. Improvise if you want to, ad lib.”
So these great guys, probably people like Bill Murray and John Belushi and all the people that were in Second City Chicago would go in for these auditions and horse around with the script and add lines, and the copywriters were in the back room furiously writing down everything these funny people said and never hired the guys, but they took a lot of their lines. So I knew there was a connection, even though it might be unethical, between improvisational comedy and writing advertising.
Lawrence Bernstein: I don’t think anyone would argue against someone who’s got the tools to hold a Downtown audience at bay, screaming “arson,” becoming a talented adman or woman. Your improv background serves you in so many ways.
But what of the copywriting/advertising connection to mystery writing?
It obviously leaped to mind that James Patterson, as executive director, came up with that ingenious copy test, you got hired and you went on to blaze a trail. You were later a creative director at Young & Rubicam.
How many other colleagues do you have that have followed the same career path, in other words, starting in advertising and copywriting and then moving into mystery writing?
Chris Grabenstein: Well there’s a bunch that I know of. There’s probably been more that I don’t even know of. Stuart Woods is an advertising guy. He’s very popular. He writes two books a year.
Clive Cussler, you know the guy who writes all the usually nautical mysteries and thrillers.
Lawrence Bernstein: Yes, I know the name.
Chris Grabenstein: He was an advertising guy. He has a really funny story. Ted Bell writes thrillers. I worked for him at Young & Rubicam. He’s become a best selling author of thrillers. I think his most recent one is called Tsar, T-S-A-R. He writes them with this – I think his name is Hawk, this kind of super-spy. It’s almost like a modern James Bond with a lot of nautical stuff.
There’s a friend named Louise Ure, who’s an award-winning author of mysteries. She was an advertising writer.
It’s interesting because my first publisher said he loved advertising people because, first, we always made our deadlines, and second, we didn’t waste readers’ time.
Lawrence Bernstein: Chalk one up for the copywriters!
Chris Grabenstein: As Elmore Leonard famously said, you “try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” You don’t belabor all these descriptions and flowery purple prose, probably because we all grew up in a world where you had 70 words if you were talking wall-to-wall in a 30-second commercial, which you never wanted to do. So we knew to get to the point quickly.
Lawrence Bernstein: Right.
“How a cream pie in the face can earn you millions as an ad writer”
Chris Grabenstein: We used to have a training program when I first started at J. Walter Thompson. I don’t think they do it anymore. It was called the PDP, Professional Development Program. Jim (Patterson) always gave a lecture the first day to the copywriters, comp people, marketing people and media people…all the new hires. They put, like, 20 of us together and almost threw us into little teams and we’d have competitions and stuff.
But the first day of training, when Patterson came in, he stood at this podium in a really big, impressive conference room at J Walter Thompson there on Park Avenue. He said, “I’m now going to tell you how to make a million dollars writing advertising copy.” Almost as soon as he said that some weird person came running in the door with a cream pie and slammed it right in Jim’s face, and his face is all covered with cream and stuff. We’re all going, “[Gasps] ahh,” and then the guy runs out.
Then Jim said, “Okay. Now that I have your attention, I’m gonna tell you something smart. That’s exactly how you will write advertising. Throw a pie in their face, and once you have their attention say something smart.” It was like that stuck with me for years and I passed it on to every copywriter I trained. It was like, “Throw a pie in my face. Do something upfront.”
If you look at a lot of these thrillers and mysteries there’s some kind of awful, bang opening like, “[Gasps] oh my god.” You think of the Da Vinci Code with that guy sprawled out on the floor. But it’s all good writing.
I was just at a high school last week talking to some kids and I said, “Get their attention with that first line. Hook them, and once you’ve hooked them then tell them what they want to know.” Jim’s other big point when we were writing advertising is no one cares about your product. No one is at all interested if you spent a year or more in research and development, making this the best bleach in the world or the best car in the world. You got to get their attention, and once you have their attention tell them something that’s smart or something they can learn or what’s in it for them.”
Lawrence Bernstein: While you were relating that I recalled the famous ad writer, Gene Schwartz, saying, “If you want to be an effective copywriter, just follow the scene structure and rhythm in Joel Silver’s Lethal Weapon series. Every film in the series has the following cadence: three minutes of dialog…followed by a three minute scene centered on a car explosion…then there’s another three minutes of dialog…then a gunfight. Analogous to James Patterson’s first day lecture about getting and keeping their attention?
Chris Grabenstein: Yeah, it is. It’s get their attention first. You have to earn people’s attention in advertising or any kind of writing. You can’t expect them to go, “Oh great, here comes a commercial. I wonder what news they’re going to impart.” And imagine you’re in direct marketing, which I never did really much of. It’s even harder to get someone to open that letter. What do you do to get their attention to read that paragraph?
Lawrence Bernstein: Always a tough assignment.
Chris Grabenstein: It’s murder.
Lawrence Bernstein: So, Chris, you went from the comedy club Downtown to a respectable office on Park Avenue. What was it like your first days and weeks at the revered J. Walter Thompson agency, and what were your first assignments?
Chris Grabenstein: It was pretty neat, ‘cause they have a really cool office. It’s called the Park Avenue Atrium. It’s one of these buildings where they have glass elevators. It’s almost like a Hyatt Hotel. It’s really kind of cool to go in there. I saw that all the copywriters were allowed to wear blue jeans and tennis shoes, and so, okay, that’s cool.
They put me in my little cubicle and I had a terrific boss. I only remember his first name was Bill, ‘cause Jim was the top creative director. So at that point I was a junior copywriter, probably reporting to an associate creative director, who reported to a creative director, who reported to a creative director, who reported to Jim. By the time I was done I was one of the few creative directors almost at the very top.
But at that point this guy, Bill, he sat me in a room with the one show book and a couple of the award shows, and the first day he said, “Here, just read these,” because he wanted me to sort of soak up the structure of good radio and print ads. At first I didn’t quite know why he wanted me to do it, but I started looking at it and I said, “Oh, I see. I’m doing radio. They do 40 seconds of funny and then the announcer comes on for ten, and then they do a five second funny bit, and then they do a little five or ten second wrap-up at the end. Oh, okay.” You saw a lot of those had won awards and you started seeing through the structures.
Then in time, my first writing assignment I always remember was rewriting the copy on the back of a Nestle white chocolate bar. You know, on the back where it says – I don’t even know what it says, “This luscious blend of pure white milk chocolate.”
Lawrence Bernstein: Not much room for creative expression
Chris Grabenstein: No. That was kind of my first thing. I think I started working on Nestle right away. I remember going up to Nestle — the first time going to a client. I was going up to Nestle and tasting chocolates. At the time we were kind of thinking of Henri Nestle premium chocolates. I remember that now. They were like little bags of chocolates, very much like Pepperidge Farm cookies.
Chris Grabenstein: We finally did make the commercial about a year later. It took about a year of testing. So I learned all about testing and research and client meetings. Then I think Burger King was one of the biggest accounts at the agency, so it was typically all hands on deck. Let’s work the weekends.
That was another great thing learning about advertising. Oh great, you work a lot on the weekends. You come in on Friday and Saturday and Sunday.
Lawrence Bernstein: That part of Park Avenue is a ghost own on Sunday mornings. Only the diehards show up.
Chris Grabenstein: Yes, working on an account. And always, everything that we worked on was killed. Jim would kill it Monday morning. The strategy would change. But you had to be there and you’re in there working away. Of course, I was just married at the time, so that added some strain. Very interesting times, but it was also a lot of fun. It was all just coming up with ideas and learning how to do that.
My first commercial I ever sold and got produced was something for a Burger King breakfast promotion. I remember it took me almost eight months before I sold a commercial. I’d been at a lot of meetings. It got to the point where I was like the funny one they showed second to last in the meeting, just like, “Ha ha, that’s a funny commercial, if we wanted to do a funny commercial, but here is the song we’re gonna do instead.” So I was the guy that showed the clients, “If you really want that whacky creative stuff we could do it, but we know you’d rather buy a song and change the lyrics.”
So I was there for about four years and I did some ads, I believe for Matilda Bay wine cooler that won some awards and got some sort of recognition. I think we might have gone to the Cannes Film Festival and maybe we actually won one show award. I know we had a lot of certificates for things that I was able to use to get my second job at Backer Spielvogel Bates, which was run by Bill Backer, the guy who wrote, “I want to buy the world a Coke.” So that was kind of fun to work for him.
Lawrence Bernstein: Must’ve been fun. That commercial was everywhere back then. So, was this in between your time at J. Walter Thompson and Young and Rubicam, where you were Creative Director?
Chris Grabenstein: Yes. This was my first move. I made two moves. I went from JWT to Backer Spielvogel Bates, which is one of the merged. Saatchi Brothers bought Ted Bates and Backer Spielvogel, merged them all together. Ted Bates was famous for its “hit them in the head” advertising. They wrote things like, “Four out of five dentists surveyed recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum,” and, “Rolaids consumes 47 times its weight in excess stomach acid,” where Backer Spielvogel was famous for doing the Miller Lite commercials with Bob Uecker.
Lawrence Bernstein: Oh yeah, those were good ones.
Chris Grabenstein: Yeah. “I’m in the front row. I’m in the front row,” and Hyundai commercials. It wasn’t a great marriage, but it was fun. I was there for three years and it was really probably the most fun I ever had ‘cause I did get to work on some pretty high profile accounts like right away.
Lawrence Bernstein: And how much of a role, if any, did copywriting play with these big league accounts? I’ve never set foot in an agency and write copy for boot-strap entrepreneurs like myself. Mind you, some of them are highly successful bootstrappers, pulling in tens of millions a year but at the end of the day, they still have a bootstrapper’s mind set – world’s away from the Fortune-5 setting you were in. Sounds like you went from nailing the J.W.T. copy test to being thrown straight into the deep end.
Chris Grabenstein: Yeah. It’s very interesting, but look at creative departments in most agencies. There are a lot of 20 and early-30-something people. That’s who they want writing this stuff. So yeah, thrown right in the deep end. Sometimes I’ll just have a giggle, you know. Here I am, this 32 year old kid and we’re getting ready to shoot this whole football game spot, where “less filling” played “tastes great,” and they have Otis Sistrunk, the big football player who Don Madden famously called “from the University of Mars” during a game, because of something coming off his bald head and he looked so creepy.
Lawrence Bernstein: Madden, Uecker and the Miller Lite commercials – what a hoot. We had so few media channels going on. If you ask somebody today, “Try to remember a television commercial from 2008,” well how the heck am I supposed to remember it? We’ve got Facebook, Twitter, and 20,000 satellite channels. So, it’s fascinating to recall just a few years back and boom…we all have the same reference points.
Chris Grabenstein: Right, exactly, and even to the point that Miller Lite had a pretty simple media buy — sports and sports. So you knew this was the same audience watching the commercials every Sunday. I don’t think they did too much beer advertising in college football games in those days. So we were able to do a series, because we knew they’d come back the next Sunday.
This whole Miller Lite football game we did — and I did another one, a bicycle race for Miller Lite — it was a six or seven part series where the teams arrive, then we did some practice, and then we did the first quarter, and then we had halftime. It was really kind of cool. It was like doing a little movie and stretching it out. It was a lot of fun. Really, it’s a terrific job for young people if you can get into it.
Lawrence Bernstein: Chris, I don’t want to miss this, you wrote a TV screenplay for a Hallmark movie, didn’t you?
Chris Grabenstein: Yes. Now back in the comedy days, also in addition to improv I was doing stand-up comedy with an old college buddy and we got kind of bored with the whole club scene and we started writing a movie, and it actually got produced. It was called The Christmas Gift staring John Denver. I think we wrote it in like ’83, ’84. It was finally produced in ’86.
I remember I was already at J. Walter Thompson, ‘cause I brought the cassette in and we all – a bunch of my buddies — we got one of the big conference rooms and we watched the video on one of the big screen TVs in the conference room, which was kind of cool. We had very little to do with the production of the movie, but yeah, the first movie script we ever wrote got purchased and bought and rewritten. First it gets rewritten by a Hollywood guy, so there are some lines I don’t take credit for, but it’s on every year.
Lawrence Bernstein: I guess by the time you were working at JWT, whether that came through or not probably was less important to you than when you had originally written it, but it must have been a nice payoff to have one of your screenplays adopted.
Chris Grabenstein: It was. You’re absolutely right. I think I probably did not enjoy it as much as I might have if it was all I was doing, because that stuff coincided with those early years of how do I get these commercials produced. It’s almost “produce or perish” in advertising-land, so I was probably chasing that and going, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, this movie,” ‘cause we had written it two or three years earlier, the actual writing of it, but it was really cool to see it.
My mom was so happy when it was on. I remember when it aired on CBS and my name was on screen. Again, it was a national broadcast. I think it was like the top 12th ranked rated show of the weekend, the night of the week it was on. So it did pretty good.
Lawrence Bernstein: Have you always been a writer? I guess you were preparing your routine when you were doing comedy. So you always had writing in your blood?
Chris Grabenstein: Yeah, I’ve been writing since I was about ten years old and always wrote for the school newspapers. I actually got a degree in journalism broadcasting and advertising as something to fall back on when I went to college, but I spent all my time at the theater doing shows. So I’ve been trained as a writer for – and a writer with deadlines for a real long time.
Lawrence Bernstein: Deadlines…this is one of the things that a lot of freelancers and entrepreneurs really have to get their butts kicked a few times to honor, because we don’t have a director standing over our shoulder and threatening us if we don’t meet the deadline.
Lawrence Bernstein: OK, Chris, onto the copywriter-mystery writer linkage. Besides James Patterson and yourself, there are several other ad writers turned mystery writers: Clive Cussler, Ted Bell, Louise Ure. So, what role did James Patterson’s transition from agency head to mystery writer have on you?
Chris Grabenstein: Funny, I saw Jim at some mystery function. I said, “Jim, I just hope I can be one-tenth as successful as you,” as a way to say how in awe of him I was. Of course if you do the math, if you’re one-tenth as successful as James Patterson you’re making like, what $10 million a year?
Lawrence Bernstein: Yeah. He’s probably in the top one one-hundredth of one percent.
Chris Grabenstein: Yes, every tenth book in America sold is one of his. He said, “Well you’ll be doing really well if you did that.”
Lawrence Bernstein: An honest insight.
Chris Grabenstein: Again, I thought that – improv people and advertising — there’s a connection. Then seeing that Jim make his transition from writing copy to writing books made me think, “Oh, maybe there’s a connection,” and as I started getting into it I realized, well, there is. It’s all that stuff that we talked about, say something smart, get their attention, say something smart. Don’t waste people’s time. Earn the desire to turn the page.
Lawrence Bernstein: Well said. I’m reading your book, Mad Mouse, right now. I’m enjoying the flow of the narrative as well as relating to the New Jersey backdrop, as a kid who’s been chased around by the cops in Seaside Heights and Wildwood.
Chris Grabenstein: Some minor transgressions.
Lawrence Bernstein: Minor.
Lawrence Bernstein: I just love the punch of the dialog. I found this in a New York Times book review from almost four years ago. The writer is speaking about your debut novel and says, “The strength of Chris’ debut novel is the two-cop protagonists. Ceepak is a larger than life former military policeman just returned from Iraq, a straight arrow who quotes Bruce Springsteen, never lies, and is singularly lacking in humor, Arnold Schwarzenegger without the accent. Danny is an overgrown kid, who likes being a summer cop because chicks dig the cop cap. Ceepak plays Holmes. He sniffs the air for transient evidence and analyzes tobacco residue to Danny’s Watson. He observes and narrates. A native of the summer tourist of Sea View, Danny has ins at the local greasy spoons and no-tell motels. Grabenstein has constructed a story that’s like a Tilt-a-Whirl ride, full of unpredictable twists and turns.”
So this is being written about your debut novel, Tilt-a-Whirl. The John Ceepak character, I’m really wondering where he comes from. Who’s the motivation for John Ceepak?
Chris Grabenstein: Well there’s actually a bit of an advertising connection here because I analyzed Jim’s career. Jim was writing all sorts of books but he really broke out when he started doing Alex Cross and his series that was branded with titles taken from nursery rhymes, like Along Came a Spider, Jack and Jill.
Lawrence Bernstein: Kiss the Girls.
Chris Grabenstein: Kiss the Girls. They’re all nursery rhyme lines. I said, “Oh, I see how he did that.” So I came up with the idea, I’ll name all mine after amusement park rides. I also thought that would be a pretty cool setting, the seaside resort town, ‘cause it would be a transient population and you wouldn’t have Cabot Cove syndrome with Jessica Fletcher (Murder She Wrote), and everybody in town on Sunday knowing somebody was gonna die. In a tourist town different people could come in and out.
Then what I did is sort of like with advertising. We say, “What’s the competition doing? What’s out there already?” And I realized that most of the cops and detectives in books were these sort of hard boiled, hard drinking, bitter, divorced, ex-cops who had no code but their own and all that kind of dark noir stuff that’s done really well, but I said, “I think I will create the opposite,” which is what we often did in advertising.
It was like, “If (blank) is doing this, we’re gonna do that,” so you can have a clear distinction. So I thought what if there were a straight arrow cop, who was like an overgrown Eagle Scout, who would not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do. I started watching one of my nephews who was a soldier in the first Iraq war. He sort of looks like what Ceepak looks like.
Lawrence Bernstein: Did he have that kind of unbendable moral code as well?
Chris Grabenstein: No, not really. I get some of the phrases like, “It’s all good” from him. My buddy, a captain in the New York Fire Department is closer to the code. If you throw your beer cans out on his street you’re gonna hear from him. He’s gonna come over and ask you what’s the problem…no littering here. I met some other soldiers. I think part of it is based on my old Boy Scout leader that I used to have, who was always saying 10-4 to us. It’s just that whole “by the book” thing.
So once I had him I thought, “Well, that’s a great new sleuth that hasn’t been done yet.” I knew he could not be the narrator. It’s interesting that the critic picked up on it, that I really likened it to Sherlock Holmes, who if he were to narrate, you might throw the books away because he could be sort of arrogant and annoying. So Doyle created Watson to do the narrating for him, and I’ve got Danny.
Lawrence Bernstein: Okay Chris, I really want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule. What else, if anything, would you like to add about the projects you’re currently working on or your latest novel?
Chris Grabenstein: Branched into writing for – and I’m having a lot of fun doing this, because boy oh boy, talk about short attention spans, I’m writing now for kids. My books have started winning awards for kids, for middle grade readers, and I think a lot of that kind of stuff helps there too, because if grownup readers don’t want to read the part they don’t want to read, kids do not. You’ve got to really move and be honest with them. So that’s been a lot of fun writing for them.
My most recent book is the second in a series for kids. I’m actually even today working on Ceepak number six – yeah, number six. It’ll be out next May, if I meet my deadline, which I will.
“On deadlines and productivity.”
Lawrence Bernstein: Deadlines again. I know this is obvious to you. Not everyone gets how vital they are. Do you always meet your deadlines?
Chris Grabenstein: Oh yes, always. There’re no losers in advertising. There’s only unemployment.
Lawrence Bernstein: Well said. So, do you have any techniques for keeping your projects moving along?
Chris Grabenstein: I stick to a really rigid routine, which a lot of my friends go, “Really? You don’t go to the kitchen and eat snacks all the time or watch television?” It’s like, “Nope.” I’m at my desk usually by 9:30 am and I write 2,000 words a day and I don’t leave until those 2,000 words are done.
Lawrence Bernstein: Now, it doesn’t matter if those 2,000 words take you till noon or take you till midnight.
Chris Grabenstein: Exactly. You’re exactly right. The days when I’m doing dialog, where it’s bouncing back and forth, I can be done in two hours. I’ve also learned that if I do more than 2,000 I start getting sloppy and it gets a little kind of lazy, and then the next day I immerse myself back into the world of the story by going through that 2,000 I wrote the day before and tightening it up a little bit and getting rid of any glaring errors, not really fine tune editing, but just kind of getting back into it. Maybe something else funny will occur to me and I’ll put it in, and then I go forward 2,000. So it’s always going back 2,000, forward 2,000 each day. It takes about an hour to go through what I did the day before and get back into the groove.
Lawrence Bernstein: You’re working on your sixth John Ceepak mystery and I’d guess the wheels are pretty well greased as far as the writing process goes. I imagine a lot of the plot and dialogue is flowing versus having to do any kind of hardcore research. Is that accurate?
Chris Grabenstein: Well the characters definitely. I no longer have to imagine who these characters are so much, because I know them so well. By now there’s been audio books done, and the actor who does them does such a great job. It’s like I can literally hear what they sound like in my head. So that part is done.
But still, in my series the characters are growing a little bit across the books. Danny started out as a kid who only wanted a job as a part-time cop so the girls would be impressed. By about the third book he’s stepping up. He’s not as good as Ceepak, but he’s getting better with each book.
I always find I try to give myself challenges and not repeat myself. Again, I guess it goes back to advertising. We never really want to do a commercial that someone else has done. So we’re always pushing ourselves to come up with a new idea. I’m always doing that with these books as well.
Lawrence Bernstein: I’ve got a very large archive of direct response advertising – both in print and direct mail. Most good ad writers have sizeable swipe files as well. But there’s a dichotomy here. On the one hand, some people take the swiping approach to creating advertising too literally by robotically mass-adopting ad copy from one industry or period of time to another. But on the other hand, there’s nothing new under the sun – we’re influenced both consciously and unconsciously by the ads and novels we read which contribute to our foundations as writers. Ultimately, it’s up to us how to construct the story plot or the ad structure.
Chris Grabenstein: Right, exactly. There probably were only five original ideas in the whole world, but each time you go at it you want to put two things together that have never been put together before and surprise people. Again, it goes back to that pie in the face. If you’re reading my book and its like, “Oh, I’ve read this book before,” then that’s not a very good pie in the face. I haven’t surprised you.
I find myself now; I’ve become a tougher reader. “Ah, I know where this is going,” and I toss the book aside. So I don’t want people doing that with my book, so I try to keep them fresh and entertaining.
Lawrence Bernstein: That’s great. Well once again, I want to thank you, Chris.
Chris Grabenstein: Well thank you.
Caleb Osborne says
This was pretty amazing! I had no idea James Patterson used to be a copywriter. cool 🙂
Jan Bear says
Great interview. I’m a longtime fiction writer, new at copywriting, and it’s been a revelation to discover the cross-pollination between the two superficially different types of writing. Thanks for posting the interview.
Paul, SuperPowerCopy.com says
Great interview. There’s a lot of overlap between copywriting and writing fiction. I intend to get into fiction writing one day soon, so this is a very useful article.
That was pretty damn informative, and fun. But maybe a bit too long to read fully, so I had to be content with reading the appetizing parts and the highlighted areas. (Which proved to me the importance of “leave out the part that readers tend to skip”)
James Steadman says
Mate! Great interview, once again.
Very interesting to see how many authors also worked in advertising. And the connection between stand up/comedy and copywriting is something I too have noticed.
I guess it all comes down to making new ideas from the old and then getting that to people as direct as possible.
Lawrence Bernstein says
Thanks, James. I learned a lot from that chat with Chris. Time for me to get back to some interviews.