Crime fiction can be a very tough genre to break into, even for a cop. But police officer and author Neal Griffin did it with gusto as his 2015 debut novel, “Benefit of the Doubt,” reached #8 on the Los Angeles Times bestsellers list. His new book “A Voice from the Field,” just came out this month. I had a chance to sit down with him at the San Diego State University Writer’s Conference in January to talk about his writing and the challenges of drawing on the often macabre experiences of a police officer to create great fiction.
RE: You’ve been a police officer for 25 years. I’m fascinated by officers who are able to take that experience and bring it into their writing. Is this something that you always wanted to do or did it come later? What was your inspiration?
GRIFFIN: I think cops are storytellers by default. If you’re a cop, you’re a storyteller. People insist on it. They want to know what it is you do, what you did at work that day. With some of the stories cops can come up with, you can be, if you desire, the center of attention at cocktail parties. And I was no different. I’ve always enjoyed telling stories, I love my work. At some point a number of years ago my wife challenged me. She said, ‘you’ve got a lot of great stories, you should write a book.’ It was put out there as a challenge. I had reached a point in my career where I was looking for something different, and so that’s what I did. I started playing with the idea. I tell people that when you write fiction you spend a lot of time with imaginary friends. So I came up with a pretty good list of imaginary friends that were based on no one directly that I ever worked with but some of the best and worst aspects of the police officers that I’ve worked with. And the next thing you know, you’re working your way down a story and a mystery, and of course there was a lot of hit and miss, a lot of rejection, but finally I started figuring the craft out and eventually I came up with a story that was good enough that my agent [Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Agency] wanted to take a good hard look at it. So we crafted it some more, massaged it a bit, and eventually it caught the attention of a great editor in New York and I sold it to Forge Publishing.”
RE: Did you struggle with balancing the load of police work and writing?
GRIFFIN: That’s a great question because it really goes to the heart of it. I can’t write after work. If I come home from work, I don’t even try. What I try to do is get up in the morning with a fresh head at about 4:00 or 4:30 and just get right into writing. That means no social media, no MSN, nothing like that. I find that I can take some of the experiences I’ve had and after a good night’s sleep I can just zone in. I was talking to someone today and they said they like to use that schedule too, but it takes about an hour, hour and half to get your head in the game, and that’s true. So if I get up at 4:00 or 4:30, I’ll write for an hour to an hour and half. When I work nights, I can get the kids to school, come back and really turn to it. You have to be disciplined. Having a full time job, being a full time cop is enough, but there’s time for a hobby. But it went from a hobby to being a part time job of sorts. So it’s a balancing act. But what I have found is, once I come home from work, that’s it. I have to wait until it’s a fresh day and I have a fresh head, and then I can usually throw myself into it.
RE: How much of the experiences that you live in the course of your day end up going into the books and how to true to those experiences are they?
GRIFFIN: Nuggets from my day. The murder scenes that are prominent in “Benefit of the Doubt.” I’ve been told it’s a little bloody, which is funny because I always thought I was holding back in that book. So there’s nuggets. In “Benefit of the Doubt” there’s what I call the prostitute in the bathtub scene, and there’s a nugget of truth to that. And I can guarantee you that in a situation like that, that’s what it would look like. That’s one of my things. These days when I go to a crime scene or think about a crime scene, I try to think about what happened before we got here. That’s what any good cop is trying to do, to say ‘Okay, here’s what we’re presented with, but what happened before we got here?’ So what I can do now as a fiction writer is say, ‘Okay, I was at that crime scene, what could have happened before we got here?’ Not necessarily what did actually happen – I don’t have to worry about that anymore because this is a fiction world. As a cop, my job is to find out what really happened. As a fiction writer, I’m making stuff up. So I can still think of murder scenes I’ve been to or particularly humorous things I’ve experienced and say, ‘how could that have happened?’ And I’ll just make it up.
RE: How influenced are you by other similar writers?
GRIFFIN: You obviously have to be real careful of that, but then again there are no new stories. My story is about a disgraced cop and a revenge-fueled convict and a bloody path to their eventual confrontation, I could probably think of several stories like that. I do like to read other writers in the genre. I’m a big fan of Michael Connelly. I also really enjoy James Carlos Blake. I hardly ever speak to anyone that’s heard of him but he’s a fabulous writer. He’s often compared to Cormac McCarthy. James Carlos Blake once read said ‘violence is the most elemental truth of life.’ I think that’s such a powerful statement. I don’t know that I agree or disagree with it, but it says a lot about his writing because it’s a very visceral kind of writing, much like McCarthy. So I’ll read something by Blake, which is a literary crime fiction, to get my head where I want it, but then I just have to go off on my own. You have to be your own sort of writer. The stories might feel familiar, but the characters and the way you drive those characters has to be unique for each writer.
RE: I remember an interview with David Simon about a scene in “The Wire” where Omar jumps out of a 4th story window, and people didn’t believe that it happened. And he said, ‘you’re right, it was the 6th story. But people wouldn’t believe it.’ Do you ever find yourself thinking, ‘I would love to use this but it’s so bizarre, even though I know it really happened no one is going to buy it?’
GRIFFIN: I’ve had that experience. Even with “Benefit of the Doubt” people think, ‘cops should never do this’ or ‘that could never happen’ or ‘a crook could never do that.’ I just knowingly shake my head and say, ‘it didn’t happen but it could happen.’ So loosely, yes it’s true. You mentioned “The Wire. Now there’s this new phenomenon, “Making a Murderer” on Netflix. I watch that and I connect to it because it’s really about incompetency in law enforcement. Not to call those police officers incompetent – that’s not fair – but when police don’t do their best work people start questioning their assumptions about police. Whether it’s “The Wire” or “Benefit of the Doubt” or whatever book Michael Connelly might write, I think that’s when you’re successful as a crime writer. When you can make people think, ‘maybe it would happen like that’ or ‘maybe that could happen.’ My goal is to make people question what they thought they knew about how crimes are investigated or how police conduct themselves. So I try to take the very best and the most questionable things I’ve experienced and fictionalize them.
RE: How have your colleagues responded to your success and your books?
GRIFFIN: I kept it a secret for a very long time. Most writers do. We write in our own little enclaves. It reached a point, though, where obviously it wasn’t a secret anymore. It kind of dribbled out there, different things on the Internet that people would pick up on. But now there’s no keeping the secret. But reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. And I was concerned about that, because I don’t think police officers are comfortable with public lives. Not as individuals. We are part of an organization that is about service above self. It is really basic to police work that we don’t step out and take positions on things as cops. So I really tried to be respectful of that. I draw the line between being a writer in my own world and on my own time and being a police officer. I think I’ve done a good job on that. And most of the response I’ve got – almost all of it – has been really positive. Don’t get me wrong – guys give me a hard time. Cops aren’t happy unless they’re breaking balls, so there’s a lot of that. But it’s been good natured and they look for people they think they recognize. I just shake my head about that. Writers like to say ‘write what you know not who you know.’ I try to stick with that rule.
RE: Back to your process of writing. Do you work off an outline, are you seat of the pants? How do you start to formulate a story and then follow through with that?
GRIFFIN: I’m trying to be a better outliner but I’m pretty much seat of my pants. I have an idea book that I carry around with me everywhere. It’s on my bedside table. I’m waiting for the story to germinate in my head. Some of the best twists of “Benefit of the Doubt” came at 2:00 in the morning and I thought, ‘that’s it, I just solved that issue or problem.’ Some really good twists in my new book, “A Voice from the Field,” are the same way. I’m letting the story takes its own path but at the same time, I like to be ready when an idea hits me and be ready to work that into the story. I haven’t been able to outline yet, but I’d like to learn because I think that must be a much better way to go about it, coming up with an outline. But even the people who outline tell me you have to keep your head open to new possibilities.
RE: Some people don’t realize how much of the structure gets moved around. That’s hard for a lot of people. How did you find it was for you handling rejection?
GRIFFIN: I’ll answer that by saying this, the two best pieces of advice I ever got were from people who rejected my work. One was Andrew Gross, who is such a great crime novelist, who wrote with James Patterson. He read what, at the time, was a 10-page prologue and he said, ‘there’s no such thing as a 10-page prologue. This should only be five pages.’ I was put off at first and taken aback. I won’t say I was resentful, but I wasn’t sure I agreed with it. But the bottom line is he was right. It was a ridiculous prologue, and I cut it from 10 to five pages. And now I think the prologue of “Benefit of the Doubt” is great. And along those same lines, an editor I was working with early on said, ‘you’ve got way too much going on,’ which was another good piece of advice. Both of them were editorial criticisms that you have to be willing to accept. In both those cases, I had to go back to the drawing board and refocus the story. I think “Benefit of the Doubt” ultimately came in at 94,000 words, but at one point it was 110,000 or 112,000 words. I just took a cleaver to it. And it became a much better book. You have to be willing to accept that kind of criticism and take it to heart.
RE: Was there a point where you said, this is exactly the collaborative process I want?
GRIFFIN: Not exactly the process I want, but certainly one where I know how good it is. I know that my opinion is respected, that my work is respected. But Jill and Melissa Singer, my terrific editor at Forge, have their fingerings all over the book. Now I can sit in a writing group and soak it all in and go, ‘this criticism is what makes the book better.’ And I wasn’t always able to do that. I don’t think any of us like to be criticized to that degree, but you have to be able to develop that thick skin. Rejection is the blood brother and the evil twin of the publishing industry. You have to get used to the fact that you’re going to have to go back to the drawing board a lot. And it is a collaborative process. Jill liked the final manuscript for “Voice from the Field” and sent it off to Melissa Singer. She wrote me back a 13-page single-spaced editorial letter, all of which is very constructive criticism, but it’s a lot of work. But now I love having it. I love pouring over it and saying, ‘let’s do this again and shape it up.’ So it is a collaborative process and it’s a lot of fun.
RE: This whole thing is based on persistence and drive, because our first drafts always suck.
GRIFFIN: Rule number one is you can’t quit, and rule number two is you can’t break rule number one. I don’t know that I would give that advice to anyone. It’s a tough row to hoe. I told you early on that I was a storyteller, but I think I got three or four years into this and I put it away for a long time. And it was only when my youngest boy started kindergarten that is said, ‘Okay, I’m going to get back into this and I’m going to approach it with a more professional attitude.’ I went to some conferences when he was in kindergarten, and I sold the book when he was in second or third grade, and it published last year when he was in fourth grade. So from kindergarten to fourth grade, that was my wheelhouse. But a lot of it was a self-education process. It really is a craft and you really do have to practice. You have to treat it like anything else and believe that you’re going to get better with time. I think we all think that these words just flow off a great writers fingertips, but that’s not the case. It’s a lot of work.
RE: A great writer is a re-writer.
GRIFFIN: A friend of mine is a painter and he says, at some point you just have to step back and say the painting is done. I don’t know that I’m ever ready to do that with a book. Now, it’s done because it’s in print, but I could probably go in there and say, ‘oh I should change this or that.’
RE: What other words of wisdom do you have for writers that are struggling?
GRIFFIN: Like I said, you can’t quit. The basic rule of success has to be that persistence is an absolute, because it’s not going to happen overnight. You are learning your craft and most of us come into it not as professional writers but as people who have enjoyed reading, and probably have never put pen to paper. So I think the essential elements are persistence and to read your genre every day. Not for the purposes of copying anyone, but to understand when you read a book that you can’t put down, what was it about that book that made it that way? Why couldn’t I put it down? How did I read that whole thing in two days? And then read books that you can’t quite get buried into and say, ‘what it is about this book that’s not grabbing me?’ And then of course you have to write everyday. That’s the standard. If you write 1,000 words a day, even if you took a few days off that’s 25,000 words a month. Of that 25,000, if 13,000 are really pretty good in six months you’re going to have a pretty good first draft. And if you put that first draft away for 60 days and then come back and say ‘I’m going to shape this up again,’ you’ve still got a couple months. I think it’s a good goal to write a book a year. If you want to be a writer you should be writing a manuscript a year, 12,000 to 13,000 good words a month. If you start in January you’re going to have it in August. In October you can pull it out and shape it up again, and maybe by the next January you’re going to have something to send to an editor. It probably won’t be anywhere near done yet because they’re going to tear it up and start over again, but at least that’s a good formula.
RE: You have to see it as a second job.
GRIFFIN: In the artistic community, this is an art form. But it’s probably the most mechanical of all art forms. It’s not singing, it’s not playing an instrument or even painting. I think there’s a great deal of mechanics to that as well, but I can tell you this is grunt work. Writing a book is grunt work. You have to get in there and roll your sleeves up and somehow keep pounding away at it. Little by little it starts to take shape. I’m really proud of “Benefit of the Doubt” and I love “A Voice from the Field,” but I realize how many different versions and efforts I had to go through to get to that point. So the persistence has got to be there.