My first novel

A brush with death caused my first novel.

In 1982, while I was appearing in a dinner theater production of Damn Yankees, my neck hurt and I went to my chiropractor who told me it was a lump. He sent me to a regular doctor. That doctor immediately called an oncologist and got me an appointment.

After seeing the oncologist, I was really scared. It turned out that I had cancer. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He started me, that day, on five weeks of daily radiation treatments to bring the lump down in size and told me they would attempt a radical neck dissection to get the cancer. I made a stupid joke, like “don't do anything radical” and asked my chances.
He said, “50-50.”

Five weeks of radiation, five weeks of waiting, and a five hour operation cured me of cancer. (And you wonder why my lucky number is 5?)

I only have one real skill: the ability to write. 

My stay in the hospital, and reading Writer’s Digest, had convinced me that what I really wanted to do was to write for a living.

Since I had some advertising background, I started by writing advertisements for my plumber, Standard Plumbing in Sarasota. Soon I heard of a couple of folks who were starting up the Florida Business Journal, a bi-weekly tabloid newspaper. I wrote two thirds of the content for their first few issues.

Although I had been a broadcast journalist for years in radio
(writing what I called “disposable non-fiction:” you write it, you read it, you throw it away), my full time freelance writing career began in October 1984 when I bought my first computer (a Kaypro with two floppy disk drives and a 9-inch green screen). 

I worked diligently, and uncommon success came quickly. From October 1983 to June 1987. I sold and wrote more than 405 articles for two dozen regional magazines. Business magazines were hot at the time and I wrote for three of them regularly. I also wrote a humor column for Tampa Bay Magazine and a computer column for Northeast News.

However, as early as 1985, I realized that I really wanted to write a novel. Problem was, I had no idea whether I was capable of writing publishable fiction. So I set the goal of learning how to write fiction while making a living writing non-fiction.

To further this end, I attended my first Florida Suncoast Writers Conference at the University of South Florida’s Bayboro campus in St. Petersburg.
(After only one workshop session, I realized this was something I could do. Thus began a sub-career that led to my teaching just over a hundred writing workshops between 1984 and 1990.)

During a workshop he was teaching at the 1985 Florida Suncoast Writers Conference in St. Petersburg in 1985, Mel Parker, then senior editor at Berkeley, said, “You know what I would like to see? A non-traditional investigator in a non-traditional setting. I am especially interested in seeing a young female protagonist.”

Editor Mel Parker’s request for what he wanted to see from writers had given me a great idea. 

So, that February 1985 afternoon, I grabbed a steno notebook and pen, and ducked into the The Tavern, a campus-pub/sandwich shop on USF's Bayboro campus, and wrote one page of notes which became the basis for what I decided to call the Veronica Slate mystery series. 

My protagonist was 30-year old Veronica Leigh Slate, a late night radio talk show host on WAQT Talk Radio 1020 in Tampa, Florida. She lived on Coffee Pot Boulevard in nearby St. Petersburg with two cats and a personal computer. I saw her looking like actress Connie Sellecca.

The next day, I walked up to New York Literary Agent Jim Trupin at the writers conference, thrust my business card into his hand and said, “When you hear from me in a week, just remember that I'm the guy who looks like Pavarotti.” (You know: Bearded. Fat.)

Two days later, I sent Jim Trupin a proposal for the Veronica Slate series, including basic plots of the first ten books. 
He wrote me the next week and said that “Veronica Slate is clever enough to make a series. I’d like to show the proposal to Parker and see what he says.” 
Remember Mel Parker was the editor who claimed he wanted “A non-traditional investigator in a non-traditional setting. I am especially interested in seeing a young female protagonist.”
Parker didn't care for Veronica Slate.

Jim spent the next month showing the proposal to other editors.

Christopher Cox at Ballantine, wrote, “ would be a fun project, but I have no idea if Lary Crews can write.” 
I thought that was a valid concern.
Hell, Lary Crews had no idea if Lary Crews could write publishable fiction.
In his patented low-key way, Jim wrote, “Apparently the idea is finding favor but if it is going to sell, you'll have to write the first book in the series.”

(Sarcasm Alert) I've got to WRITE the book? Well, YEAH!!!!

Mary Higgins Clark
and Lary Crews in Florida
Because I had never before written a mystery, I started reading every mystery with a female protagonist I could find. I did this while still writing 40 magazine articles and figuring out the plot for my first book. 
(One of the best authors I read was Mary Higgins Clark. Years later, I met her while we were speakers at a writers conference and thanked her.)

I began outlining the first book in the Veronica Slate series on June 18, 1985. (Keep that date in mind because something pretty amazing happens exactly two years from the moment I began outlining it.)

January 24, 1986 
Back at the Florida Suncoast Writers Conference at the Bayboro USF campus, I had coffee with Jim and Liz Trupin and talked them through the plot of the first book Kill Cue. They liked it a lot.
I was so na├»ve that I asked Jim, “Does this mean you are now my agent?” Jim said, “If I wasn't, I wouldn't have bought your coffee.”

February 4th, 1986 I resumed writing the first book.
I had cultivated the habit of crawling out of bed at 4:30 in the morning, making coffee, and then writing my novel from 5 to 7 each morning. I had to continue my 9am to 6pm magazine writing, because that - along with my wife’s job at a title company - was our only source of income.
It took me eight months of two hours a day about four days a week to write, rewrite and revise the book. 

(Actually, for the pedantic in the audience, I wrote the first book in 397 hours spread over 140 individual days, but who’s counting.)

July 1986, I took the entire manuscript of Kill Cue to the library, to escape the phone, making corrections in a red pen on my manuscript. It took me three six-hour days.
Finally, Thursday, October 3, 1986, I printed out the entire 25-chapter, 317 page, 83,660 word manuscript, and mailed it to Jim.

(I couldn’t decide to insure it for $25, the cost of the paper, or $35,000, its value to me.
The lady at the post office saw things more clearly and insured it for $50.)
Then, came the waiting. I won't kid you. It felt like eternity. At first, I vacillated between expecting it to sell immediately and expecting it to never sell at all. I lapsed into a kind of daze as months passed with rejection after rejection.

I had done one good thing. I had started on Extreme Close-Up, the second book in the series, in January 1987. By the middle of June 1987, I was up to Chapter 12 in the second book.

I'll probably never forget it. It was four in the afternoon, June 18, 1987. (Exactly two years since I had begun to outline my first mystery novel.)
I had been working all day on an assignment for a business magazine.
It was hot and muggy outside and Jellico, one of our three cats, was asleep on my left arm.
I had to leave for my night job at 5:30. (I was working 6 to midnight at WDUV/WBRD Radio in Bradenton because we needed the money.)
I thought, “I might as well check in with Jim and Liz and see who rejected my manuscript this month.” I am not, by nature, a pessimist but my first mystery novel had been making the rounds for eight months and even I was beginning to lose hope.
  • I had started out calling my agents once a week. 
  • After two months, I had dropped down to twice a month. 
  • By March 1987, it became a monthly phone call.
To date, my book had been rejected by some of the best in the business, including Mysterious Press. 

(Imagine being turned down by a publisher who specializes in mysteries.)

So, on June 18th, I called my agent, Jim Trupin, at JET Literary Associates in New York and his wife, and co-agent, Liz answered.
“Hi, This is Lary in Sarasota. Just checking to see…”
Liz cut me off, “Hi. You were on our list to call this afternoon. We just sold your first six books.” Then, and this can only happen in real life, she said, “Can you hold on a moment?”
She put me hold, with my future as an author hanging in the balance.
A moment later she came back and said, “Okay. We worked a six-book deal for the Veronica Slate series. Jim will call you with the details in an hour.”
Longest forty-two minutes of my life.
Then, I got off the phone and waited.
To his credit, Jim Trupin called me back at 4:45pm and told me the deal.

Basically, Lynx Books, an imprint of famous Bantam Books, wanted to sign me to a six-book contract with a $38,000 advance and a 7% royalty figure. 

When Jim said I would get an advance check on “D and A of each book” I was so nervous and astounded, I had to ask what that meant. Jim was kind. He did not make fun of me.

“That’s delivery and acceptance, Lary.”

When my books sold June 18, 1987, we were behind in our mortgage and had only one car running, a nine-year old Pontiac. My ten year old Honda had died in 1986. 

For years I kept the ATM receipt from May 6, 1985, the day I checked our bank balance and saw that we had just 87 cents in the bank.

Suddenly, like the dream we all have of winning the lottery, our lives were changed by the signing advance and the advance on the first book, a total of $9,000. In a month of almost non-stop check writing, we paid every debt we owed.
Then we bought a 1987 Hyundai and got a personalized license plate that read, “First Advance.”

According to my editor, Judith Stern, Kill Cue would be in book stores, airports and bus stations by Christmas 1988, with the other books to follow about every three months after that. What amazed me at the time, and something for which I had not been prepared, was the unique way my book sales changed my life. For one thing, I began to think of myself as a competent writer.
Over the next year, my name was in all the local papers.
I was on TV a half-dozen times and I spoke to 25 local writers groups, writers conferences and at libraries before the first book even came out. The gist of my speech: “If I can do it, anyone can do it!”

My first time seeing Kill Cue, my first book, was in a drug store right before Christmas 1988. It was on a rack at Walgreen’s. I bought two copies of it. 

At the writer's conference in February 1989, one of my first fans showed me that she had bought the book and said, "Take a Picture."

I finished Extreme Close-Up, the second Veronica Slate book, and sent it to my editor. It was based on my experiences working on HEALTH with Robert Altman and was set at the Don Cesar Resort Hotel. To my mind, it was my best book. It came out in February 1989.

At that point, Lynx asked me to get the third book to them by January 30, 1988. That meant I had 32 days to write the book.
With the already finished cover staring at me, I did it. 

It was called Option To Die and it featured a killer of real estate agents in Sarasota and a (fictional) theme park I created called CircusLand. It came out in May 1989.

(Important fact: I had no say about how the covers would be drawn except to tell them things they could add that referenced the books. Why Lynx decided to go with this odd artist, I will never know.)

From December 1988 to May 1990, I did 77 book signings at bookstores and libraries, selling and autographing 1,664 books (gross sales $6,240), an average of 22 books at each signing.

Each time one of my books came out, I did signings at about a dozen of the same stores and appeared on the local TV show Murphy in the Morning.

Every newspaper in the area wrote about me. Even Writer’s Digest wrote about me and my writing success. (Naturally I wrote the editor and told her that her magazine had led to all my success as a writer.)

I got some bad news the summer of 1989. Lynx had suddenly gone bankrupt, making my six-book contract a three-book "fate accompli."
I had just finished Death Rehearsal, the fourth book, and Jim tried for six months to sell it with no buyers. So I created a new Veronica Slate book called Father Figure. Again, no interest.
So I got a new agent and she tried to sell a new series about a guy named Frank Tasker, a detective who saw an analyst twice a week. No luck.
In 1993, I was the keynote speaker at the Romance Writers of America national convention in Kansas City. I was still getting jobs speaking, and my three books were still selling.
However, I had to face facts: my fiction writing career was over.
However, something else was growing at the same time as my fame as a writer had taken off. At first, they called it the World Wide Web, but soon they changed it to the Internet. 
What had made me such a popular speaker and two dozen writers conferences was that I taught people what I had learned from hard-fought experience, often immediately after having learned it.
So, I experimented working as a writing expert for Prodigy and CompuServe, two early Internet companies. It was easy for me to answer questions from other would-be writers. Soon, Prodigy started an “Ask Lary Crews” folder and hundreds of writers asked me for advice.
I must point out that this was 1990 and the web was in its infancy at the time. My first “dial-up” modem was just 300-baud (compared with high speed Internet today.) In other words, to download Hey Jude by the Beatles would take about 35 minutes with my first modem. The same song took 19 seconds, just now, with my Charter Cable modem at 66.37 Mbps.

The Internet was so new back then that our local NBC-TV affiliate did a half-hour television special about me helping writers learn online and the web.
In 1993, the folks at the Online Campus at America Online came calling. 
They had seen my appearance on a local NBC affiliate talking about teaching people how to write, online, something which did not exist at the time. They knew that I had gotten my feet wet working online as a writing expert for Prodigy and CompuServe, two early adopters of the Internet.
So, in 1993, right after I got back from the national Romance Writers convention where I was the keynote speaker, America Online hired me. 
I was America’s first online writing instructor, in on the ground floor of Internet Education.  
Two early evenings a week, I taught students whom I had never met, in states I had never visited, how to write their first novel. 
We did it via the early form of chat rooms and with text libraries and email. My classes had become very popular. 
(When I stopped teaching in the winter of 2000, AOL told me that I had taught 4,125 students in 15 years.)

Lary Crews