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Originally published Monday, July 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Lit Life

Best-selling author James Rollins to aspiring writers: Write, read and don't give up

Best-selling thriller/fantasy author James Rollins, the keynote speaker at this month's Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference, gives a how-to-succeed lesson for aspiring authors.

Seattle Times book editor

Lit life |

It's almost time for the conference for aspiring Northwest writers — the Pacific Northwest Writers Association's annual summer conference in SeaTac. I recommend this conference (July 30-Aug. 2 at the Hilton Seattle Airport Hotel) to folks seeking writing advice, an agent or simply the comfort and company of fellow writers, whose fondest hope is to get picked up by a mainstream publisher and whose biggest frustration is the minuscule chance of same.

Keynote speaker James Rollins is a mightily successful thriller and fantasy author — his latest, "The Doomsday Key" (Morrow,$27.99), hit No. 2 on the Publishers' Weekly best-seller list last week. I rang him up to get his take on writerly success.

Rollins is a former veterinarian. His books read like the "Bourne" movies — an explosion or assassination around every corner — but they keep the brain exercised because of his engagement with issues of science and history ("Doomsday Key" features genetically engineered crops and the history of Celtic Christianity).

He likes to talk to writers. What does he tell them?

Rollins repeats the adage of "write every day," but adds, "read every night." With no formal training in writing, he educates himself by studying writers who are good at certain things. Lee Child (author of the propulsive Jack Reacher novels) for pacing. Sarah Langan ("The Missing") for horror. Elmore Leonard for dialogue. Rollins says Leonard's dialogue has "authority" — I knew what he meant, because when I read Leonard I always imagine that the characters speaking are in the room. How about getting published?

Rollins advises writers to ignore directions to send a one-page query to agents summarizing their work (though that's exactly what many agents say to do, for fear of their mailboxes overflowing). Submit 50 pages of your book and a synopsis of the rest: "Agents already have a bevy of authors, their cash cows, so it's hard for them to break out of their apathy to represent a new author ... your writing should be breaking through that wall."

Now here's something jaw-dropping. Rollins, whose books sell so well his publisher probably has a tasteful shrine to him in the office, submitted his first book, a thriller, to 50 different agents before it was accepted.

The first 25 times, he tried that one-page query business — no takers. The second 25 times, he tried sending a partial manuscript. "After the 30th and 40th rejection I thought maybe I wasn't a thriller writer, so I started working on fantasy. Within a week of selling the thriller, I sold the fantasy."

Unsurprisingly, he has one more recommendation: "Be persistent ... Have confidence in yourself, keep sending it out. Don't just be a marketer ... write something new ... [One question] is always going to be, what are you working on now? They want to hire on somebody who will be producing a book a year."

Rollins had other things to say, so go to the conference to hear them. For conference info, go to www.pnwa.org or call 425-673-2665; for more on James Rollins, go to www.jamesrollins.com.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com. Mary Ann Gwinn appears on Classical KING-FM's Arts Channel at www.king.org/pages/

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Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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