“Don’t Run from the Pain” by Chris Mooney, author of Blood World

Before Chris Mooney got his first book deal, he received powerful, career-shaping advice from Richard Marek—an independent editor who worked with Thomas Harris and Robert Ludlum—about mining his own fear and pain in pursuit of story. Read on for Chris' takeaways from Richard Marek, and check out Chris' newest novel, Blood World, available now!

In early 1996, I finally landed my first agent, a wonderful woman named Pam Bernstein, who shopped my debut thriller around to several publishers, all of whom turned it down because the book needed editorial work.

Pam suggested an independent editor read the book, and she had just the person in mind—a man by the name of Richard Marek.

“He discovered Robert Ludlum,” Pam told me. “And he worked with one of your favorite authors.”

“Who?”

Thomas Harris. Dick edited The Silence of the Lambs.”

That book was not only my personal favorite, it was, arguably, the best thriller ever written. I didn’t need further convincing. We sent Dick the manuscript on a Thursday. He promised to fax me his editorial letter on Monday. He suggested that, after I read the letter, to sit with his comments for a couple of days, and then we could set up a time to talk.

The fax came through Monday morning. In the first line, Dick said that he read my novel with “considerable admiration and, because of it, a growing sense of frustration.” My writing was certainly on a professional level—I had “a good sense of action and climax, a solid narrative style”—but as for the story, there was no quick fix. I would have to rewrite it from page one.

But it was his last paragraph that stuck out—and stung—the most:

I don’t believe you’ve really gone deep enough into your own fear and your own pain; rather than facing them, I think you’re using the book to run from them, and that won’t work. (Forgive the glib psychology, but it’s the way the book made me think).  Thomas Harris, for example, has Lector in him (it’s the reason he hates writing so much); Bob Ludlum (with whom I’ve also worked closely) really believes that giant corporations or government agencies are out to get him; Stephen King has been quoted as saying his books are his nightmares. Writers expose themselves to themselves (it’s a terrifying and brave act) and then use their books to disguise what it is they discovered as a way to expunge the demons. This may sound melodramatic, but ask any writer. You, too, I’m sorry to say, must do the spade work and experience the pain.

There are painful times in your life where, if you’re lucky, you discover a larger truth about yourself. As I was reading, I knew Dick’s insights were correct because, when I was writing, I deliberately went out of my way not to write disturbing scenes or delve into dark psychological matters because I was afraid people would judge me, think I was weird. I censored my imagination and thus the story. The book, while good in a technical sense, was one big lie, and deep down I knew it. I wrote a vanilla, connect-the-dots thriller with somewhat interesting characters but ultimately, it wasn’t psychologically compelling or scary.

I censored my imagination and thus the story. The book, while good in a technical sense, was one big lie, and deep down I knew it.

I agreed to work with Dick on the rewrite, which was, essentially, a new novel. I took the brakes off my imagination. The first area I attacked was the opening, and I came up with something that scared me. I didn’t censor myself this time, put everything on the page. Dick helped me refine and expand some of the darker psychological aspects, but where he reined me in was in the area of showing actual violence and gore. “Less is more,” he told me. “Remember, what the reader thinks is going to happen is a thousand times more terrifying than you showing what actually happens.”

That year, I learned more about the craft of storytelling—and writing thrillers—than I had in all my undergraduate and graduate writing courses combined. The book that came out of it, Deviant Ways, sold in less than a week.

I worked with Dick (who, sadly, passed away earlier this year) on several other novels, and I always think of his advice every single time I sit down to write. Early on in my newest novel, Blood World, my imagination produced a disturbing opening scene that was, creatively, very exciting; and while it wasn’t gory or violent, it was, without a doubt, one of the most psychologically unnerving things I’d ever written, and a part of me said, If you write this, people are going to think there is something seriously wrong with you.

I went ahead and wrote it. Why? Because the story demanded it. My agent had his reservations about it, but I convinced him to submit these early pages to the editors.

They loved it, and we sold the book.

As I wrote Blood World, I continued to expose many of my fears, frustrations, and pain; the things that were terrifying and uncomfortable and difficult to face.  That’s the secret of great storytelling.  The story, as Stephen King likes to say, is the boss. My job, as the writer, is to show up and tell the truth.


About Blood World by Chris Mooney:

Everything changed when scientists discovered the drug. It looked like the cure for aging, but all progress comes with a price tag. Now, eternal youthfulness will be paid for by the blood of the innocent. 

The blood of “carriers” is the most valuable commodity on earth. When treated with a new wonder drug, it cures disease, increases power, and makes the recipient a virtual superman. 

It also makes the carriers targets. Young people with the right genes are ripped from their families and stashed in “blood farms.”

Ellie Batista became an LAPD officer specifically to fight this evil as a member of the Blood Squad, but her ambitions are thwarted—until the day she and her partner are ambushed during a routine stop. The resulting events plunge her into an undercover world more dangerous than she could have ever imagined.

Because a madman has found a way to increase the potency of the blood to levels previously unimagined. As he cuts a bloody swath through the already deadly world of blood cartels, Ellie is the only hope to stop him before the body count explodes.

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