Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Joys and Pitfalls of Co-Authoring a Thriller, or Why I Made My Partner Root for the Cubs

By Dennis Hetzel

Probably the hardest part of co-authoring a book with my friend Rick Robinson was getting Rick to sympathize with the Chicago Cubs instead of relishing their curses and defeats.

Dennis Hetzel and Rick Robinson
Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Crestview Hills, Kentucky
Rick is a lifelong Cincinnati Reds fan, so he couldn’t quite bring himself to pose as a Cubs fan in our author photo on the back page of Killing the Curse, our sports-political thriller. “Curse” imagines the Cubs, perhaps the most iconic symbols of failure in sports, playing in the World Series – a place they haven’t been since 1945 or won since 1908. It also involves a crazed fan who will do anything to ensure they win, an egotistical sports-radio talk show host and the host’s boyhood friend from the Chicago suburbs, a passionate Cubs fan who happens to be President of the United States.

For several reasons, Rick gets credit as a “with” author on the cover. First, he helped me hatch the idea and pitched it to his publisher, Cathy Teets of Headline Books. Cathy trusts Rick’s judgment, so I had a publisher. Every author can appreciate how much that helps.

I also had a selfish reason for wanting Rick’s name on the cover. He already has an audience that includes several thousand fans and contacts. Why wouldn’t I want to leverage that?

Most importantly, because Rick has written successful political thrillers, he knows the drill. He offered invaluable perspective on structure, dialogue, plot development and characters. He wrote the prologue and important sections of early chapters. One of the key characters, the daughter of our talk-radio host, is based on an actual bartender Rick meant – a smart, sexy woman who can hold her own with the guys when it comes to arguing sports and politics.

Once I got rolling, he functioned more as an editor and critic reviewing fresh drafts. I worked as a reporter or editor for decades, and I think I know how to write. However, every smart writer knows that good editors make writers better. Such editors also have an alarming habit of being correct.

For example, Rick reminded me several times that journalistic writing is different than literary writing. In most journalism, quotes are like spices sprinkled sparingly onto the main course. Only the best quotes that add the most value pass muster. Reporters keep stories as short as possible, using paraphrases and summary paragraphs as dominant techniques. In fiction, you need great dialogue. Stories can’t be ponderous, of course, but they can breathe. Characters come to life at differing paces.

Since novels usually are singular efforts, I’m often asked whether it was difficult to have a collaborator, and it honestly wasn’t. I can’t recall a serious disagreement, though I resisted a few times before surrendering. (For example, Rick, his wife and my wife were right: You have to break up back stories into smaller pieces.)

Here are three other tips for successful collaboration that might help others:
  1. Have compatible styles. Rick and I have differences. Arguably, I’m a little more interested in character development; he pays more heed to physical descriptions. But, if you read his books and then go to “Curse,” I think you’ll find a lot of similarities.
  2. Have compatible interests. Rick and I both love sports, especially baseball, and we’re political junkies. He knows the political world from the perspective of a former candidate and campaign manager. I offer the perspective of years in the news media. We’re both registered lobbyists in our current lives.
  3. Have a friendship that can survive a for-profit project. So far, so good. We’re grownups. It’s not like my high-school rock band days when we’d get mad at each other in massive “creative disputes.” We have an agreement on how to distribute the proceeds of “Curse.” The book is off to a good start, so here’s hoping “Curse” will generate enough income so that’s a meaningful discussion.
Rick has changed, too. I know it wasn’t easy, but he even wears a Cubs hat now when he helps to promote the book. Just don’t tell too many of his friends in Cincinnati or Northern Kentucky.
I also think the Cubs will finish ahead of the Reds in 2015 and are building a team that could win the World Series. Hey, it could happen.

Killing the Curse is Dennis Hetzel’s first published fiction. He can be reached at

The Chicago Cubs haven't won a World Series for more than 100 years or even played in one since 1945. Now they're positioned to win the Series for the first time since 1908--if only curses and bad luck don't haunt them as usual. Then a swarm of gnats helps the Boston Red Sox tie the Series at three games each. No one wants the Cubs to win more than Luke Murphy, President of the United States and lifelong fan. Leading the chorus of disbelievers is Murphy's boyhood friend, Bob Walters, a sports radio talk-show host who built ratings by being “the man Cub fans love to hate.” The Cubs have someone else on their side--a brilliant, crazed fan who will do anything to make sure they win. It starts with an attack on the father of Boston's best pitcher and grows into an escalating threat that could destroy Murphy's career, expose childhood secrets, and kill hundreds of innocent people. Everything comes to a head as Game Seven unfolds--a game the Cubs must win no matter what.

Dennis Hetzel has been a reporter, editor and media executive at newspapers in Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Ohio. He has won awards for writing, industry leadership and community service, and taught journalism at Penn State and Temple universities. Since 2010, he has been executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association in Columbus, Ohio, and president of the Ohio Coalition for Open Government. A native of Chicago, he has a degree in political science and a minor in journalism from Western Illinois University, where he met his wife, Cheryl. They have three grown children, a dog, a cat and a home they love in Holden Beach, North Carolina.

Rick Robinson, the 2013 Independent Author of the Year, has 30 years experience in politics and law, including a stint on Capitol Hill as Legislative Director/Chief Counsel to then-Congressman Jim Bunning, R-Ky. He has authored four award-winning political thrillers. His recent book, Writ of Mandamus, was grand prize winner at the London Book Festival. His contemporary fiction novel, Alligator Alley, won the grand prize at the Great Southeast Book Festival in 2013. His new novel, The Advance Man, will be published by Headline Books in 2015. He commutes between Fort Mitchell, Ky., and Washington D.C. He and his wife, Linda, have three children.

1 comment:

clpauwels said...

My writing worlds have collided! I met Rick at the Mad Anthony Writers' Conference in Hamilton, Ohio, four (five?) years ago. He mentioned the idea for this book at that time, and since I'm a fan of all things baseball - Cubs or Reds! - I'm heartily glad to see it's out. Can't wait to read it!