About Lisa Lutz


Subject: Lisa Lutz

Background: Grew up in Southern California.

Mis-education: UC Santa Cruz, UC Irvine, University of Leeds in England and San Francisco State University (although she still does not have a bachelor’s degree).

Rap sheet: Lisa spent most of the 1990s working a string of low-paying odd jobs, including a temp position with a family-owned private investigation firm while writing and rewriting a mob comedy called “Plan B”. Ultimately made a decade after its inception starring Diane Keaton, “Plan B” goes straight to DVD; opinions on IMDB include “a major stinker”.

Previous offense: After vowing to never again write another screenplay, Lisa starts looking for her own, ahem, Plan B(come on that was too easy) and starts writing her first novel. In 2007, THE SPELLMAN FILES was published to great acclaim (seriously, it was kind of ridiculous), saw rights sold to 20 foreign countries, was named a Book Sense pick.

Caught red handed (on screen): Movie rights were quickly scooped up by uber-producer Laura Ziskin of Spider Man fame; project is currently in development.

Location Unknown: Though she’s not on the lam, and currently can be found in the San Francisco area, Lisa has not had a permanent residence in over two years.

Posts by Lisa

My Genre: The Sort-of Mystery (Guest Blogger: Lisa Lutz)

Lutz_lisa_250 After my first novel, The Spellman Files, was completed, I often found myself in situations in which I had to answer the question, "What's your novel about?"

The rest of the conversation would go something like this:

Me: It's a novel about a family of private investigators and how the tools of the trade affect their family life.
Other person: What's it called?
Me: The Spellman Files.
Other person: It sounds like a mystery.
Me: It's sort of a mystery.

The covers of mystery novels often display the word "mystery," which helps booksellers place it in the store. Both of my books simply say "novel," but if you go into a bookstore, you're more likely than not to find it in the mystery section.

I have a mixed reaction to all of this. On the one hand, the mystery audience is huge, and many mystery readers wouldn't pick up my books if they thought it was just a comedic novel about a family. On the other hand, "mystery" creates certain expectations that my novels weren't intended to fulfill--there's no murder, no drug rings, nothing terribly sensational in the plot, no giant twists or turns (a few minor ones), and the story focuses fairly little on the external cases the Spellmans solve. At an early publicity meeting with my publisher, months before publication, my editor was adamant that we not push the novel as a mystery. "It doesn't succeed as a mystery," she said.

141653240401_mzzzzzzz_ She was right. I never conceived The Spellman Files as a mystery. I read and enjoy all kinds of mystery and crime fiction, but they're not genres I felt inspired--or equipped--to write. If pressed to choose a genre for the Spellman books, I guess I'd call them comedic novels (sounds kind of blah, but the shoe fits). I liked the apparent contradiction of a novel about a family of private investigators that wasn't a mystery.

About a decade ago, I worked for two years at a private investigative firm in San Francisco. I'd like to repeat again in writing that I was never a licensed private investigator. I was an assistant at a private investigative firm--the lowest on the totem pole, in fact. I answered phones, I generated bills, and when business was really slow, I was sent to the basement to shred old files.

While I had a few intriguing assignments--I managed to work my way onto one or two surveillance teams--for the most part it felt like any old office job. In the two years I worked there, we didn't solve a single "mystery." What we did was answer questions. Sure, sometimes the "plot thickened." For example, say a wife was having her husband investigated for having an affair; maybe we'd learn that he was not only having an affair but also gambling away their retirement fund. (This specific twist never happened, but it illustrates the kind of turns investigations sometimes took.)

What we didn't do was hunt serial killers or uncover child pornography rings. We might have been asked to look into a cold missing-persons case, but we didn't solve it. As far as I recall, no one got into a fistfight, fired a gun, or was followed by a shady character who thought we were getting too close to the truth.

My point is, after gaining some insight into the real world of private investigators, I wanted to write a novel that took a more realistic approach. From the start, I always knew that what I was writing was only "sort of" a mystery. I used the PI angle as a way into family dynamics and the mysteries of everyday life.

So maybe what I'm trying to suggest is that we broaden our scope about what a mystery is. Anytime you have an unanswered question, it's a mystery. Watch a complete stranger on the street for 15 minutes. I bet you'll notice something--however small--that seems completely inexplicable. And if you do figure it out (let's go double or nothing), I bet it'll be weirder and more intriguing than your initial puzzlement.

Recently I was walking down the street behind a guy carrying a baseball bat. He was dressed in street clothes, wasn't carrying an athletic bag, and didn't exactly fit the profile of a mob goon. When I couldn't stand it any longer, I walked up alongside him. "Hey," I said. "What's up with the bat?" He proceeded to tell me a very long story about getting a paw print for his friend's dog. Somehow the bat was involved, but his explanation was so long-winded and nonsensical, I never uncovered the truth. Like so many real mysteries, that one too remained unsolved. --Lisa Lutz

The Dog and Pony Show (Guest Blogger: Lisa Lutz)

Lutz_lisa_250 It seems that a few people are curious about what a book tour involves, so I figured I'd take a stab at describing the experience in a kind of diary form.

Let me preface everything by saying that a book tour nowadays is a rare opportunity to promote your book. They cost publishers a lot of money, and no one is entirely sure how effective they are as a marketing tool. That said, if you're sent on a book tour, it's a good sign. Authors (especially new ones like me) need to be grateful for the vote of confidence it represents. That means they have to suck it up and be pleasant. At all times. Here's just a sampling of my most recent book tour experience:

Day 1. I wake up at 4:30 a.m. for a 7:00 a.m. flight to Philadelphia. I've slept only two hours because of my anxiety about the alarm clock not going off--a theme that marks much of the tour. My flight is almost on time, but my luggage is an hour late. When I arrive at the hotel, I have only an hour to clean myself up for the event. My media escort picks me up from the hotel and we drive about an hour to the event. I've been suffering motion sickness all day and the car ride is no different. I do the event with another author, Nancy Martin, who has brought in most of the crowd, which saves me the embarrassment of arriving at a bookstore with only one or two people in attendance. The evening ends well, however. Someone has made me a cake fashioned after my book jacket.

Day 2. Happens to be my birthday, but I keep that on the down-low. This is the day I've been dreading. I have a television interview on a local morning show. The whole idea of my nervous face being broadcast into thousands of homes makes me want to wretch. What gets me through is that it's local television and I know that neither I nor anyone I know is likely to ever see the interview. In this particular instance, I went to great pains to keep my friends in Philadelphia from discovering what I was up to that morning. I complete the interview and go back to my hotel room.

In the evening I'm interviewed by a local celebrity reporter at an event that sold tickets for $15 a head. I heard they sold six tickets in advance, but only two people show up. My friends had big plans to heckle me, but couldn't work up the nerve in a crowd that small. I wouldn't pay $15 to see me either, so I wasn't offended by the paltry crowd.

Day 3. I didn't get enough sleep the night before. Maybe four hours. I catch a 9 a.m. flight to Fort Myers, Florida, for a reading festival. There's a reception in which I can't drink my allotted booze because the shuttle driver took off before the last departure time, so I had to drive a number of authors (who were also not early) to the event.

Day 4. I'm 10 minutes late for my panel because I thought I understood the map and I didn't. I arrive apologetic and harried and hugely embarrassed. I also have no idea what's going on. I say a few things, but not much. I sign some books and then I go to my next panel. I am what I like to call a panel slacker. I don't feel comfortable fighting for attention, so I often end up saying very little and drinking more soda than I planned. That afternoon, I went back to the hotel and did laundry because they had coin operated machines and I didn't know when I'd have that opportunity again.

(My publisher would probably pay for hotel laundry services, but they're outrageously expensive and I simply can't justify using them. I ranted about this in the acknowledgments section of my latest book, which will presumably not go unnoticed by the hotel industry. Stay tuned.)

Day 5. There's something wrong with the hotel coffee, but I can't put my finger on it. It's only when I'm in the middle of my two-hour drive to Tampa that I realize I've been given decaf instead of regular. My head is pounding.

I'm exhausted and when I finally get to the city of my next event, I use the GPS to find a local Starbucks. I begin to wonder how anyone ever survived without those things. It is a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Tampa and the store is lovely and the owner reminds me that on a day like today, I shouldn't expect much of a crowd. The two people who do show up are a delight, and one of them is actually named Spellman. We sit and chat for about an hour; the store gives me a free book and I head off to the airport with time to spare. I'm told that the airport is about 20 minutes from the store. The process of finding a gas station and returning the rental car takes me about two hours total. I don't want to say anything bad about Tampa, but it's so flat you can't see the exits even when your GPS is telling you to exit. I fly to NY that night.

Day 6. St. Patrick's Day. I'm allowed to sleep in, so I'm ecstatic. That afternoon, one of my publicists and I take a car service around the city, where I sign stock at variety of bookstores. We give up early because the street traffic on that day is unbelievable. I have drinks that evening with my editor and dinner with a friend.

Days when I'm not required to stand up in front of people and talk always seem kind of perfect.

Day 7. Also an easy day. I have the whole morning to write. I can't say I got much done, but I tried. I arrive at my agent's office in the afternoon. They serve me cake and strong coffee and we head off to my event. There are a few places, namely NY and LA, where I know enough people that I can usually rely on something resembling a crowd.

However, a handful of complete strangers have shown up just for the event, which is always a pleasant surprise.

141653241201_mzzzzzzz__3 Day 8. I fly to Houston. As I arrive at the airport, I realize I've caught a cold and I buy massive amounts of tissue. The flight is four hours and I'm in the very back row, feeling quite sorry for myself and cranky. The cab ride from the Houston airport to the hotel takes almost an hour. We have to stop at an ATM so I can get more money out. I have just enough time to shower and change before my escort arrives to take me to the event. I am convinced for a variety of reasons that no one--or maybe one person--will be at the bookstore. I am pleasantly mistaken.

"There are people here!" I shout at no one particular. It's moments like this that make the long travel days feel worth it.

Day 9. No sleep again. Early morning. I'm flying to Denver today. I have a middle seat and my cold is in full bloom. I blow my nose constantly, stuffing tissues into my pocket, trying not to disgust the passengers on either side of me. I feel miserable. I want to crawl into bed and stay there for a week.

My escort meets me in baggage claim. She's about 90 pounds, but she manages to lift my 50-pound piece of luggage into the trunk of her car, which is a good thing because I've discovered I can barely lift it. We drive to Boulder; I'm interviewed for an hour for a radio show; we drive back to the hotel. I clean myself up and go to a bookstore for a reading that night. I'm in desperate need of sleep. Before I go to bed, I try to decide whether a sleeping pill or nighttime cold medicine is my best bet. I go for the sleeping pill and manage some rest.

Day 10. I have a phone interview in the morning, but I'm so turned around by the time difference, the cold and maybe that sleeping pill, I completely forget to call into the radio station. I phone my publicist and apologize. I spend the day in bed, trying to get over my cold.

That night I go to another bookstore event and I get another cake.

Day 11-12. I fly to Phoenix. Because it's Easter weekend, I have the rest of the weekend free. I catch up on sleep; my cold finally goes away. I regroup for 10 more days of the same.

When I think back on the tour, it's a blur of memories that mostly involve going through security, packing luggage, meeting a variety of wonderful people whose names I'm ashamed to have forgotten, and receiving more baked goods than I ever thought possible. When all is said and done, the tour seems like it might have been good for my character. But still, I will always find it ironic that the people who get sent on book tours are typically the ones who are more comfortable being alone, in a room, writing. --Lisa Lutz

The Novel vs. the Screenplay (Guest Blogger: Lisa Lutz)

Lutz_lisa_250 Thank you for the comments and suggestions. It looks like a number of people are curious about the topic of screenplays vs. novels, and since I have a number of things to say on the subject, I’m going to focus on that topic. Keep in mind that there’s so much information that I’m unlikely to do more than skim the surface, but feel free to post comments and questions, and I’ll try to respond to what I can.

Note: For about twelve years before I wrote my first novel, I wrote screenplays. I have written about my saga for Salon and since it’s easy to access online I won’t rehash it here, but will try to address other issues.

Before I become completely subjective, I want to begin with some objective differences between novel-writing and screenwriting, which might be obvious to some people, but still worth mentioning.

  • If you have a completed novel and a completed screenplay, your chances of getting the novel published far exceed your chances of getting a screenplay produced.

This is an obvious statistic when you think of how many books are published every year vs. how many films are made.

  • In terms of money, the scales tip in the other direction. If you have a major Hollywood film made you’re bound to make more money off the script sale than you would from a novel.

According to my agent, the average advance for a first novel is somewhere between $5,000 and $50,000 dollars, depending the type of material and the format in which it would be published. Most novelists have a second job. Obviously there are exceptions to that rule, but we’ve all heard the common lament about how people don’t read anymore (unless Oprah tells them to), so novelists struggle to find an audience—and therefore an income.

141653240401_mzzzzzzz_ I then asked the screenwriters currently adapting The Spellman Files for some rough estimates on what a film script might sell for. Let’s forget about option money for now, which can start at $1, (an option is like renting a script for a period of time) and just focus on the script sale amount. For the most part, the bottom number (for a non-independent film) would be around $50,000. But the numbers shoot up much, much higher based on track record and demand (i.e. if more than one studio is interested in the script). It’s true that the numbers for a big Hollywood movie can often reach into the millions of dollars (which would rarely happen for a novelist). But, like I said before, the chances of that happening are not unlike winning the lottery.

  • A screenplay is approximately 20,000 words (much of that filler—character names, scene headings, etc.); a novel can be anywhere from 70,000 words on.

The obvious point is that you can tell a lot more story in a novel. I mention this because my novel The Spellman Files, about a family of private investigators who solve their personal problems using their professional tools, was first envisioned as a screenplay. In the screenplay, the family has reached a point of crisis in which they’re essentially playing a game of cat and mouse with one another. I showed the crisis, but I didn’t have time to explain how they reached that crisis. The novel, on the other hand, was essentially about how a family could reach that point of conflict. For me, writing a novel meant that I could tell the story I wanted to tell and not just the story that there was room to tell.

  • When you write a screenplay you tend to write by committee. You can get notes from anywhere between five and twenty people. (My screenwriters both estimated that they’d get notes from an average of ten people per project). When you write a novel, there may be some revisions that your agent requires, but primarily you work with one editor.

It might seem that five or six or twenty heads is better than one, but I don’t think so. In my experience (so now I’m getting completely subjective), concurrently receiving notes from several people fractures the consistency. Not all those notes will jibe, not all the people providing notes are as invested as an editor often is. Notes can be tossed around without much consideration for the big picture. It used to drive me crazy that a note that would suggest a change in Act I would not take into account that it disrupts Acts II and III.

My editor, on the other hand, lives with the book for a while. She knows it; she understands the causal effect of small changes. I can’t argue that all movie industry people are reckless with their notes, nor can I argue that all book editors have my editor’s skills—but this is my experience. While revising screenplays from producers’ notes, I’ve often been unconvinced that I’m making the project any better. (There’s that old joke where a producer asks the writer “Can you make the nun a hooker?” which rings truer than you might imagine.) However, working with my editor, there is never any doubt in my mind that we are making the novel better. Now let’s remember something: I was an unsuccessful screenwriter, so I’m happy to admit that I too could have been doing something wrong.

By now my bias is obvious. But let me finish by explaining the primary reason that I prefer writing novels to screenplays. There are a lot rules and limitations structure-wise to a screenplay. For years I always felt comfortable with these rules. I liked writing dialogue; like most people I’m an avid film consumer and so that language felt natural to me. However, at some point, at least ten or so years after writing my first screenplay, I began to feel stifled by the rules. So when I finally resorted to writing a novel, I decided there were no rules. If I could figure out a way to hold the reader’s attention, it didn’t matter to me how I did it. What I didn’t anticipate was how much more I enjoyed writing when I was free to do it the way I wanted to. It is now hard for me to imagine returning to the screenplay; I imagine it would feel something like writing with one hand tied behind my back.  --Lisa Lutz

Where to Begin? (Guest Blogger: Lisa Lutz)

Lutz_lisa_250 When my editor first mentioned to me that Amazon had invited me to guest blog for Omnivoracious, she explained it like this: Michael Pollan was their first-ever guest blogger and now they want you! She sounded both incredulous and pleased and maybe a little bit concerned about the folks at Amazon central. Sure, this makes sense. We'll invite an Oxford-educated professor with several critically acclaimed bestsellers in his wake and just when we've raised the bar of expectation, we bring in Lisa Lutz.

Why thank you, Amazon. I admire your sense of variety.

My problem is that I have no idea what to blog about. See, I write fiction, which for me means that whatever I have to say, I like to put in the form of a story. The story I'm going to tell you about today is my struggle with blogging and self-promotion.

The following is a fictionalized version of my conversation with my editor when she told me about Amazon's blog invitation:

Me: Oh that's great.

Editor: It's fabulous.

Me: What am I supposed to blog about?

Editor: Something related to the book.

Me: Like what?

Editor: Make sure it's funny.

The following is a fictionalized conversation with a friend whom I asked the same question:

Friend: Just read other writers' blogs and do what they do.

Me: Well, I just read Michael Pollan's blog and I really don't think copying him would be a good idea. Plus, it would require a lot of prep time.

And then a fictionalized conversation with a bartender:

Bartender: Write what you know, is how the saying goes, I believe.

Me: Could you be more specific?

Bartender: Trust your instincts.

Me: When does the next bartender start his shift?

If you're thinking I stopped there, I didn't. I asked all sorts of people--friends, relatives, hotel managers, valets (I'm currently on a book tour, so I have access to a wider variety of people).

The conclusion I came to was that I should ask you (you being whoever is kind enough to get this far in the blog). I have some vague ideas of what might make some interesting topics for the rest of the month, but I thought I'd put the question out there and see what happens.

But before I pass this responsibility on to you, let me tell you a little bit about myself.*

141653241201_mzzzzzzz_ I am the author of The Spellman Files (now available in paperback!) and Curse of the Spellmans, the first and second books in a series that chronicles the lives of the Spellmans, a family of San Francisco-based private investigators. Before I wrote The Spellman Files, I spent a good ten years writing screenplays, working odd jobs, and waiting for my big break. Thirteen years after I wrote my first screenplay, I realized that my screenwriting career would never be and I made the very wise decision to write a novel.

Now let's say you've come upon this blog without any knowledge of me or the Spellman books. I'm going to provide a short list of potential blog topics. These are subjects I might have something to say about, but I won't know until I actually get to it:

  • Writing screenplays vs. novels.
  • What is a mystery?
  • The experience of finding success after years of failure.
  • My writing process.
  • The book tour experience (AKA The dog and pony show).

So please vote for a topic or suggest a new one altogether. I leave the future of this blog in your hands. --Lisa Lutz

*Note: This is an actual bio, not a fictionalized one.

Instructions: Leave a comment or send me an email at contactlisa@lisalutz.com