When I was ten or eleven, I looked at a book called “The Pictorial History of the Third Reich.” I could not understand Adolf Hitler. He made no sense. He seemed to be a human being but he committed such incomprehensible, inhuman crimes. For years I wondered what Hitler was since he seemed to stand apart from humanity. Later I learned about people who lacked a conscience and a sense of empathy: psychopaths. Although I believe Hitler is more complex than a typical psychopath, the fact that some humans lack empathy and a conscience helped me to understand how one person can do terrible things to others. As psychologists began to publish the results of studies describing biological differences between psychopaths and non-psychopaths, I realized that this might be the beginning of a period of increased insight into the minds of people capable of horrible acts. That progress, combined with the popularity and often misrepresentation of psychopaths in television shows, movies and novels convinced me that a popular exploring the biological basis of psychopathy might be interesting to readers. I assumed other people, beside me, would want to explore the possible reasons some people can do seemingly inhuman things.
Once you developed the idea for the book, you had to put together a proposal and sample chapters, which is different from what the majority of writers normally do when starting their book. Can you describe what was involved in putting your proposal together?
I first went to my local book store and bought a book about writing book proposals. I made sure I bought one that had many examples of successful proposals. I examined them all and then wrote a proposal that contained all of the important elements I saw in the successful proposals. But I didn’t follow any other author’s format; I wrote a proposal that I was comfortable with. The audience for the proposal is the agent and publisher. Grab their attention, show them you know what you are writing about, show them you have thought out the entire book (you can change it later), indicate who will read it and why it is different from other related books.
Was it difficult to put together that material without having the book fully written? And how much do you think the final manuscript changed from what you outlined in the proposal?
It is challenging to outline the entire book. You have to make general ideas and thoughts concrete with facts. But, of course, this should be done anyway before you start writing the manuscript to avoid writing yourself down too many dead ends. I had included in the proposal some narrative elements but after some feedback from my editor, I ended up including a lot more narrative elements and stories to illustrate the implications of research results. I also dropped some chapters and added others. The “heart” of the proposal is in the final manuscript but the manuscript ended up with much more “meat on its bones” than I envisioned in the proposal.
How important have you found platform to be as a non-fiction writer? Is this something you thought about before beginning the book, or has this become more of a focus after getting your book deal?
I did not have a platform in the sense of “friends” on Facebook or followers on Twitter. I did write some books about mental health on a contract basis, i.e., for a set fee with no royalties. I hated accepting such bad contracts but it demonstrated to potential agents and publishers that I could finish writing a book length manuscript. I had also used my Ph.D. to write about science and medicine for 20 years as a journalist. Now that I have a book coming out, I am more involved with social media.
In order to keep from being too dry or academic, it is important for non-fiction to be as narrative as fiction writing can be. Do you have a hard time balancing the research and information you include in MURDEROUS MINDS with engaging writing? How important has your editor been in maintaining that balance?
My editor, Jessica Case at Pegasus Books, advised me very tactfully and knowledgably to increase the narrative elements in the sample chapters I sent her. To my surprise, I found I enjoyed researching, documenting and telling the true crime accounts that balance the scientific explanations. Relating the two was fun too.
Would you ever write a work of fiction?
I enjoyed writing the narrative parts of the book so much, I think I would like to try writing fiction someday. After I get some more non-fiction titles checked off my to-do list, I would like to try to develop one of the various nonfiction ideas and snippets I’ve jotted down.
Any advice you would like to share?
If you enjoy writing, write. Prepare a professional proposal and send it out until someone is smart enough to see its value. Keep improving it. Don’t ever believe all agents and publishers know more than you do about the value of your work. They don’t. Sixty agents failed to see the value of the book “The Help” which became a best seller and a hit movie after one clever agent finally accepted it and sold it without a problem. I went through twenty agents and publishers before Carrie took me on as a client and found a publisher for Murderous Minds. I have friends who gave up after a few rejections. Expect to send your proposal out 20, 60 or 100 times. Unless you are James Joyce, listen to the advice your agent and publisher offer. If they were smart enough to see the value of your writing, they are probably smart enough to offer a few suggestions that will make it better. Everybody, except Joyce, needs an editor.
Check out Dean's website and be sure to buy a copy of his book! And as I mentioned awhile ago, if you're in the city on March 5, you can go to the Rubin Museum's Brainwave to hear him speak with Zainab Salbi. Also, Pia Linstrom will interview the author of "Murderous Minds" on "Pia Lindstrom Presents" on Sirius/XM radio. April 1. 1:30 PM.