Barry Eisler and Pioneering the Path

Barry Eisler How Writers Revise

Barry Eisler and Pioneering the Path

This post is part of the monthly How Writers Revise series, where I talk with successful authors about their editing and revision processes, as well as the challenges and setbacks they’ve faced in their careers and how they overcame them. If you’d like to receive these and my weekly writing craft posts in your in-box you can sign up here.

I’m always excited to talk to authors whose work I admire, but when I had the chance to interview author Barry Eisler for this feature, I admit I fangirled out a little bit more than usual—but not entirely for the reasons you might think.

While I am a fan of his books—he writes award-winning, bestselling thrillers that not only keep readers on the edge of their seats but offer thought-provoking, sometimes unsettling insights into human nature, geopolitics, national security, and the media—Barry Eisler first raised my antennae for the way he approaches his writing career.

He didn’t actually set out to have one—in fact his path couldn’t have looked less like that of a future bestselling novelist.

After graduating law school, Barry worked for three years in covert operations with the CIA. After that he joined a law firm in San Francisco, then worked for major multinational conglomerate Matsushita (an early incarnation of Panasonic) in Japan, where he also earned his black belt at the Kodokan, the world’s premier judo institute, and later joined a start-up back in the States. It wasn’t until 2002 that he tried his hand as a novelist.

He received 50 rejections from agents before finding representation, and his first book, which launched Barry’s bestselling John Rain series, sold to Putnam, an imprint of big-six publisher Penguin at the time, in 2002.

Over the course of his next five books with Putnam he hit the New York Times bestseller list, and then in 2007 sold his next two books to Ballantine (a Random House imprint). In 2011 he was offered a major deal with St. Martin’s Press (Macmillan) for two more titles.

And here’s where Barry shook up the industry: He famously walked away from the St. Martin’s deal—and all of traditional publishing—and decided to self-publish.

Reading this today, his choice may not sound as shocking and singular as it seemed then, but this was at a time when the indie-pub movement was seen as little more than vanity publishing—a major financial risk at best, an embarrassing, career-ending stigma at worst.

But Barry, as he does with nearly everything, did some deep analysis. “I looked at what I was doing in publishing at the time: My digital sales were exploding, my paper sales were shrinking, and I realized, I don’t need a publisher,” he says. “I ran the numbers. And I just felt like I could make more money doing this myself. Paper wasn’t my future. Digital was my future.”

He became an early proselytizer for the self-pub movement, along with a number of other authors who were pioneers within it. “I was pretty vocal and even obsessed with it, because it was a time of such change and ferment,” he says. “I had this feeling that the prevailing ethos that was being fed to authors from on high, about the rich guardians of literary culture and all that, was worse than self-interested. It was inaccurate. And that kind of thing always engages me and makes me want to push back.”

But then Barry shook up the industry again when he decided to partner with Amazon Publishing in its earliest days, when it was seen as an unproven upstart in the publishing world, and signed with its Thomas & Mercer imprint.

This time it was his fellow authors who decried his decision, those writers who had hailed him as a hero of the self-pub movement now calling him a sellout—a criticism he again brushed off.

“My approach to the world is I try to avoid cliché, to try not to do things just because they’ve always been done that way,” he says. “If you’re a writer and someone gives you a hard time, don’t take it personally. And even if it is personal, who cares? If you don’t take it personally, and you look at it as an opportunity to treat people with respect, to try to understand their perspective, and then within that framework to try to open their minds to understand the new perspective you’re trying to share with them, you can make magic happen.”

Barry Eisler has made a lot of magic happen in his own writing career. He’s written 18 novels, four short stories, and several screenplays. His books have made numerous bestseller lists, been translated into nearly 20 languages, and been optioned for film and television. He writes thrillers that delve a little deeper than just action, exploring his fascination for human nature from the individual level to the systemic.

“If you’re not depicting some universal aspect of human nature in your stories, then it’s just not a story for me,” he says. “There are probably stories that sell a lot of copies, but that have cardboard characters and don’t really have anything to say about the human experience, about humanity, etc. That’s just not the kind of story I’m not interested in reading. And it’s not the kind of story I want to write.”

“I think I might have something worthwhile to say, which even as I say that it sounds a bit arrogant. But if you write anything, you must think you have something fresh, original, insightful, useful, valuable to say; otherwise why would you do it?”

–Barry Eisler

Barry is also an exceptionally prolific blogger, writing about national security and the media in not only his own regular blog, The Heart of the Matter, but contributing to many other outlets as well, a pursuit he’s passionate about.

“I don’t do it to sell books,” he says. “I really just do it because I care. And I think I might have something worthwhile to say, which even as I say that it sounds a bit arrogant. But if you write anything, you must think you have something fresh, original, insightful, useful, valuable to say; otherwise why would you do it? I feel that way not just about my fiction, but about my nonfiction too.”

My favorite kind of conversations are the ones that just organically flow to various topics, and that’s what ours did, a fascinating, free-ranging exploration of Barry’s path and the publishing industry as a whole that also dips a toe into everything from geopolitics to Edward Snowden to judo.

You can see the full interview here, which is peppered with excellent advice for authors like:

  • On the study of craft: “If you want to be a writer, you’ve got to write, and that means don’t just read about theory.”
  • On authors taking ownership of their writing career: “All you need for books is people to write them and people to read them. That’s it. Everything else is a middleman…There’s no one size fits all here. What’s changed in publishing is that writers have a choice.”

“If you want to be a writer, you’ve got to write, and that means don’t just read about theory.”

–Barry Eisler
  • On handling reviews: “You’re going to get a bad review at some point; you’re going to get a sarcastic review, an unfair or unjust review. So what do you do with that? Set aside your ego, pretend it doesn’t have anything to do with you. It’s happening to someone else. No book is for everyone. And so this book wasn’t for that person. It’s not a big deal.”

Barry was also gracious enough to offer a glimpse into his editing and revision process:

How Barry Eisler Revises

In my experience, the biggest difference between writing and rewriting is that writing involves the creation of raw materials (character, plot, setting), while rewriting involves the rearrangement and polishing of materials you’ve already created. In this sense, writing fiction involves a uniquely difficult first step, akin to cutting down trees and sawing them into lumber, while revising fiction is something like writing nonfiction, because with nonfiction, you’re writing about people, occurrences, and places that already exist, akin to framing lumber you bought at the store.

This isn’t to say nonfiction or revising are easy—they’re not. It’s simply to say that writing fiction involves a uniquely difficult aspect that’s largely absent from rewriting, and to note what to me is the fundamental difference between writing and rewriting.

I like to revise as I go. I start my writing days tinkering with what I wrote a day or two earlier until I feel it’s polished, and then push ahead. I find that going back to what I’ve already written is a good warmup for the day’s new writing. It also means that when I get to “The End,” I have a lot less revising to do.

But even if you like to revise as you go, to revise the whole manuscript effectively, you need fresh eyes. One way to get them is time, which you can gain by putting a manuscript away for a week, a month, or however long it takes for you to be able to look at it more like an editor or reader and less like the person who wrote it. The other is eyes that are already fresh—that is, beta readers like friends, family, and writing partners.

I’m not sure how common my approach is and the truth is, my method probably doesn’t make sense. I think you could make a good case for plunging ahead without looking back until the whole thing is done, at which point you’ll have a better sense of how to rearrange things, what to add and delete and modify, and how to comb through any tangles. I seem to remember reading interviews with Stephen King where he describes this “all at once upfront, revise after” approach as his way, and you can’t argue with King’s skill, success, or stature. But as with every aspect of writing (and everything else), you should approach rewriting in whatever way you find works best, and should look at what other people do only as examples of something that by definition can work, and that might or might not be right for you. As Bruce Lee said: “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless, add what is specifically your own.”

To revise effectively, you have to be a good diagnostician. Diagnosing means being able to accurately assess, “This isn’t working because of X; I can make it better with Y.” Over the years I’ve read a ton of books and essays, watched innumerable videos, and attended multiple lectures on storytelling, all of which have been a huge help. I recommend investing the time to become more conscious of the craft not just because it’ll make you a better writer, but because it’ll make you a better diagnostician (and teacher) as well.

And if anyone is ever so thoughtless as to tell you something like “Well, you can’t teach art,” you can point out that the bromide is true—and also irrelevant. Art can’t be learned or taught, but craft—that is, underlying principles—can and should be, and there’s no art without craft. If you want to become a better artist, invest in learning the underlying craft. No matter the endeavor—a foreign language, a martial art, a musical instrument, you name it—learning craft always means a combination of theory, drills, and free training. For writing, these three categories translate into how-to books, videos, and seminars; reading like a writer, which means trying to identify why a passage, a book, a story works the way it does; and of course writing itself.

The foregoing is about craft. But one thought about the business aspects of rewriting: remember that your editor might be many things to you—collaborator, coach, friend, whatever. But most fundamentally, your editor is your customer—the person who buys what you have to sell (publishing rights to a manuscript). I don’t think it makes good business sense to show your customer a product that you haven’t first made as perfect as you can, and that means showing the product to other people to get feedback, and then revising, before you present to your customer. My goal is to go to my editor only once I believe she won’t have any editing to do. So far I’ve never quite managed that, but my first drafts are always polished before my editor sees them. That saves her time and makes me look good. It also buys me a certain amount of goodwill and confidence on those infrequent occasions (hah-hah) where I blow a deadline, because my first drafts typically are already strong.

But they aren’t born that way. They get that way from being revised.

2 Comments. Leave new

  • Ken Guidroz
    May 4, 2023 5:07 pm

    This is SOOOO good. To me, your best post I’ve seen (although all of them are good…better than anyone else I follow). How Barry Eisler Revises is just exquisite. His thoughts back up yours to a ‘T’.


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