How to Gain Traction in Your Career: Q&A with The Thriller Zone’s David Temple | Jane Friedman

How to Gain Traction in Your Career: Q&A with The Thriller Zone’s David Temple | Jane Friedman

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Podcast host, author, and actor David Temple discusses his shift from being in radio to writing novels, how to navigate author interviews from both sides of the desk, what it takes to make your own book-to-film adaptation, and how he got some of the best known names in thriller writing to appear on his podcast, The Thriller Zone (@thethrillerzone).

Having spent his entire career as a broadcast professional, David Temple has hosted top-rated radio shows in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Charlotte, and on both the Westwood One and Armed Forces Radio Networks. Throughout his career, David has been a filmmaker, a news anchor, a television producer, a home-shopping host, and even had a short stint as weatherman. Temple acts occasionally in films and television shows, and has been a career voiceover artist for radio, TV & film commercials and trailers. In his spare time, Temple records audiobooks, and hosts a weekly thriller fiction podcast on Apple, Spotify, AmazonMusic and iHeart Radio. David is currently crafting his tenth novel, and his first nonfiction book on health and longevity, as he battles prostate cancer. David and wife, Tammy, enjoy travel, books, films, and hiking in and around their home in San Diego.

KRISTEN TSETSI: Your foundation as an artist was voice: radio, voiceover work, etc., and you transitioned into doing some screen acting and directing. There’s some cultural overlap in voice and screen acting, so going from one to the other might be relatively smooth. But to make a shift to novel writing is to navigate an entirely different system, a new artistic “clique” (for lack of a better way to say it). What challenges, if any, did you experience when jumping cultures?

DAVID TEMPLE: Now this is a complex question, with all sorts of nuances, so thank you.

First of all, as an “artist”—which I believe we should call ourselves, if indeed we find enjoyment in crafting something extraordinary out of the ordinary—we are called to a higher purpose. That purpose involves entertaining the masses (outwardly), but also entertaining ourselves (inwardly).

While I had always known I had the gift of conversation, my confidence didn’t lie as much in the two-way interaction with family, friends, and neighbors as much as it circled around the imaginative world of the mind. I can recall decades upon decades ago how—even with mundane chores like mowing the yard—I would create conversations between people in particular situations. Some of those situations reflected scenarios I may have seen on television. Or, just things I think would make for an interesting story. (Now, before you call the white jackets to put me in a padded room, allow me to say I have always had an overactive imagination.) So, after spending decades in a profession that was my first love—radio—and after achieving so many of the goals I had fashioned for myself, only to see the “business” of the business shifting from what was once a very creative avenue of expression, I decided to get out.

Referring to your description of my spending time honing skills in voiceover work and acting for the screen, I became frustrated with the lack of control in so many of the competitive environments. Here’s what I mean. I could audition for a television show, or a film, and run up against so many people all doing the same thing, while so many of them looked much like me, yet perhaps with more talent. The real bottom line here is “lack of control.” Turning to the inward muse, and knowing I had the ability to tell a good story, and while working on something I could control, I turned to writing.

I figured it would be hard work, take a lot of time and energy, and would be very competitive; however, I always felt that I had some innate talents, plus a more than healthy drive, not to mention an insatiable tenacity to achieve my goals, so I put my mind into motion, my pen to paper, put in the time required to fail, and with the understanding that even with all the outward competition, my inward competitor would (more than likely) succeed and prevail. Have I yet? Well, I crafted my first nine novels on my own, as I “took myself to school” by learning how the world of self-publishing worked.

I’ve always been a student. Always. If there’s something I’ve wanted to learn to do, I simply started by giving myself a crash course in learning. Wanna write a screenplay? I bought the top five books on the subject and started learning. Then I started writing them. Sure, the first couple were horrible. and long. and just bad. But they got better. Want to learn to act? Read up, take a course, but best of all? Go audition. It’s the single scariest thing in the world to do, but you just do it. and fail. Badly. Then you do it again until you get better. Same with directing a film. Don’t know how? I bought ten books on the profession and/or procedures and/or how to do pretty much anything. Then I started writing shorts. and hiring my friends and family to play along. It helps that I had a circle of friends who made them as well. and we failed, but only until we didn’t. 

Back to books: I had no idea what a Kindle was. Never used one. Didn’t matter. I just found some software on how to format. Then I tried my hand (miserably, at first) at crafting covers—I’m pretty good at Photoshop and Canva Pro—and made covers that sucked. To get better, I practiced and studied the covers of authors who were among the top sellers. After all, it’s about the Benjamins! 

When I realized my own designs weren’t working, I turned to 99designs (not Fiverr). I no longer do my own covers, as I think it’s the wrong move. I can tell you that there are about three factions, in my experience, of book cover designers: (1) Below $600, you’re wasting your time, (2) $600-$1000 is kinda the sweet spot, and (3) $1200-$2000, which is where some of the “bigs” live. 

Now that I’ve spent nearly three years interviewing some of the biggest thriller writers in the world for my podcast The Thriller Zone, I have come to the conclusion that they, like me, are just as nervous about succeeding, and just as scared of failing, all the while feeling neurotic that someone will find them to be a phony. But they pressed on. and so shall I; thus, the reason I’m working on my next psychological thriller novel, and two nonfiction books based on health and cancer, and science and longevity.

What advice would you give someone whos interested in entering the novel-writing world but is nervous about arriving what they might fear is late” to the community? 

First of all, I don’t necessarily believe in “being late to the community.” I’m sure scores of writers throughout the years have asked a similar question. If one wants to write, then one should write. If that same person feels they’ve “missed the boat” or is “late to the game,” then perhaps they should consider something else. 

I would encourage anyone who genuinely wants to write to simply write. Not for the money (there may never be any), not for the prestige (I feel much of that is fleeting), and not for the attention (who needs any more of that? I mean, really). Bottom line: write as if your life depends upon it, IF your happiness depends upon it. Otherwise, there are many bigger, better, stronger, richer ways to make a living, feed your happiness, or find a pastime that pleases you.

You adapted Chasing Grace for the screen, accomplishing the fantasy of many a writer to see their work performed. It can seem like an improbable, if not impossible, endeavor without knowing someone in Hollywood, though, or having film school friends. Is it more feasible than we might think to self-produce an adaptation of a novel? If so, what’s the first step?

It’s ALL about connections. Period. Seriously, I’m not sure you could do it alone. Not really. I happened to hang out with a lot of creatives who knew various aspects of filmmaking and we just learned (and failed) together. 

When it came to Chasing Grace, I had made enough shorts (about five) to learn the mechanics. Then when I needed to raise money, I just asked. I always figured, “All they can say is no, and I’ll ask someone else.” So, I did that. Over and over. and over, until someone gave me some money. I went to people I knew who, and this is critical, have enough money to not care if they lose it. Read: rich. Or friends who have rich friends. Yes, you can try GoFundMe, but you have to be willing to pay for the donations, or give to get. If you want to raise money, start with friends and family. Just don’t expect to tap that well repeatedly. Then go to business leaders with dispensable cash. Mainly, seek out people of high net worth. Dentists make excellent investors, as they make a lot of money … and they love toys.

All the while I was raising money, I was also polishing my script to have on standby. Then an old friend wanted to work together and he had a long list of contacts, and since we had worked together on various projects before, we put together a film team. and as they say, the rest became history.

One large caveat is that I have always believed it best to surround yourself with people smarter than you, as they will nearly always make you look smarter than you really are. Another bottom line is one question I would ask: How badly do you want it? For you to see it happen, you have to really, truly, sincerely want it. It’s one of the very biggest boulders you’ll ever push up the very steepest of hills. It nearly killed me getting that damn movie made. I worked nearly 16 hours a day, between raising money, polishing the script, finding the crew, raising more money, scouting the locations, asking friends for favors, raising more money, and kept doing that until we got it done. I was E-X-H-A-U-S-T-E-D, but it was worth it, because I wanted to do it. and I’d do it again tomorrow! 

What have you learned about the nature of building and maintaining professional connections?

Connections should be nurtured over time, handled with care, and always respected. Give first, before you take. Be willing to help others with disregard for yourself, to start. Sow seeds of genuine caring. Build a relationship. Find common ground. Study hard. Listen harder. Be willing to lift someone else’s burden, and trust yours will be lifted too. Not to be corny or crass, but truly give a shit—people can tell when you do. It’s not that hard. Oh, and do your freakin’ homework.

Many writers also have fantasies about starting a podcast on writing, or books, or writing and books. In 2021 you started the author-interview podcast The Thriller Zone. Aside from any equipment needed to ensure professional-level sound, what does it take for someone to have a decent podcast? What skills might someone try to cultivate, or what tips should they keep in mind?

Such a good question, and one that I wish/hope people will heed. If you want to do a podcast about writing/books, I have a simple three step process (aside from the equipment notes you made, and I’m happy to elaborate on that in another session). 

Step one: Learn how to LISTEN. Be more ready to listen first and speak second. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves. I see/hear so many people who think, “Oh, I’ll just grab a microphone and a ring light from Amazon, and I’ll start talking to one of my pals.” Wrong. I hear it all the time and frankly, it’s disgusting. It sounds more like two dudes slurping beers in a garage and just talking trash about nothing. There’s a reason Joe Rogan is top dog right now: he reads a lot, and he listens well. Same with Sam Harris; the guy’s brilliant, extremely educated, and insightful as hell. Plus, he’s an incredible listener. 

Bottom line? Have Something To Say. and take time to Listen First. 

As for the skills to cultivate, read everything you can get your hands on that surrounds the person you’re interviewing, or at the very least, read the very latest thing they’ve written and be able to ask smart questions well aside from the classic, “What inspired you to write this story,” or “Where do you get your ideas?” 

Put in the time. People often ask me how much time I put into a single podcast. You may be surprised to know that I can spend anywhere from 10 to 20 or even 30 hours working on a single podcast—and that doesn’t even include reading the book. Excellent work doesn’t just happen. PUT IN THE TIME! 

Last note: reach inside yourself to ask questions that not everyone else asks, and—perhaps like me—start a conversation that doesn’t have a single thing to do with the damn book; you may be surprised to see the author is pleasantly surprised that you asked about them.

Your guests have ranged from debut authors to Dean Koontz, who is a category unto himself. How does someone relatively new to the fiction world secure interviews with some of the genre’s best-known writers? 

Ask them. 

I researched the people I wanted to speak with, found their publishers or publicists (Publishers Weekly is a good resource), and reached out asking if they’d like to be on my podcast. I did, however, mention my background in radio (25+ years) and markets in which I’d worked (NY, LA, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, etc). I shared my experience and told them some people I’d already had committed to appear. 

If I wanted Stephen King, for example, I’d most likely go to one of his books, see who he has thanked in his acknowledgments, and start there. I’d also reach out to his publisher, his publicist, and his agent. In fact, now that I think about it, perhaps I’ll reach out like this.

You have to have a looooot of patience. As in: I wanted Don Winslow. I loved his books. So I went to one of his book signings. Then another. and another. I think by the third time, and he knew who I was, I said I had a podcast and asked if he’d like to be a guest. He said yes, gave me his number, I called and arranged it, and done! 

Don was one of the very first people I wrote on my list. Dean was in the Top 10. I’m big into visualization and making my dreams known to the Universe. Pardon the woo-woo, but it’s true-true: I’m a big believer in seeing it and attaining it. Plus, I have very little fear about stuff (well, except sharks, crashing waves against rocks, cancer, and crazy people who have nothing to lose. Oh, and big spiders).

One of my mantras—and it’s not original—is The Worst They Can Say Is No. and I’ll Ask Someone Else. Have faith in yourself, and remember this one…very…important…aspect: you’re helping them sell their books, which in turns makes them money.

Can you recommend a particular platform for beginning podcasters? 

This is such an in-depth conversation, but I’ll simply say this: Low budgets with little experience: Buzzsprout. Bigger budgets with more experience and most of the bells/whistles I need (and the one I use):

Buzzsprout is dirt cheap. Transistor is (almost too) expensive. Both sites provide pricing.

I’m on all podcast directories. It’s not hard to get on them. The best? Apple, far and away, for exposure and reach. Spotify is second. 

When you aren’t reaching out to potential guests to talk about their books, authors are probably reaching out to you. What approaches are you more receptive to, and what’s likely to go unanswered or rejected? 

I’ll respond with last first. Don’t “Dear Colleague” me. If you haven’t taken the time to know my name, I will not give you the time to respond—much less even finish reading the first sentence. Nope, you can count on DELETE, just like that. I borrow some of the thinking of agents: use my name and address me correctly, show me that. If you’ve heard the show before, perhaps mention a favorite episode and just be patient knowing that I’m being pitched every single day, just like agents.

You should seem as though you really want this as a career, with at least one or two books already published, either self or trad. That’s the start. 

One of the biggest draws for me, and yes, it’s as old as dirt and as cliché as they come, but it’s absofreaking true: We DO judge a book by its cover. Invest in a good cover? If so, you’re 50% there! Bad cover? It hits my personal slush pile. Oh, and if you’re tenacious and repetitive and nearly obnoxious in your pursuit to be interviewed about this one book but can’t read between the lines of my cordially structured “I’m not interested in this book,” read my earlier statement about listening.

Show that you have the drive, the dream, and the determination. This includes a solid social media presence and a rock-solid website. Invest in a good headshot that best represents you. Invest in book covers that either take your breath away, or at the very least snag my attention and show me something I haven’t seen yet—or if I have seen, perhaps just not that way.

Send me your book, allow me to read it, and if I don’t pick this book, know that I may pick your next book. I can’t tell you how many times people have sent me books only for me to never cover them. Until one day, something clicks. and there’s no explaining WHAT or WHY something clicked, but it did. One such was Terrence McCauley. That guy hit me up near the beginning of my podcast. I didn’t read the books, and I’m not even sure I even thanked him, until one day, he hit me at the right time, with the right book, and we clicked, and I invited him, and he showed up prepared, and it was a solid interview, and we’ve actually become friends since then. His tenacity paid off. Plus, the guy is a prolific writer. He just keeps writing. I’m impressed with that. 

By the way, there are a LOT of PR/Pub people out there pushing books (like mad) because they’re being paid to (by authors willing to dish big bucks for exposure); however, so many of them just aren’t that good. and for so many reasons. Best advice: write the very best book you have the ability to write (while reading some of the very best writers in your genre) and invest in both a good artist for the cover and a superb editor for the insides. Next, build up a tidy nest egg to invest in pub and marketing. Show you have traction. Then hit the bricks. and swing for the fence.

Define traction (in what you look for as “traction,” I mean) and why it’s important to you that they have that versus, say, an endorsement from a trusted, well-known name. Sometimes it’s hard to show traction if you can’t get people to interview you until you have traction.

Traction to me means you’re doing the daily work of trying to gain exposure, recognition, position, etc.

I’ve learned in my near-three years that an endorsement, also known as a blurb, is really quite often people doing one another favors. They’re not even reading the books, at least for the majority, but they are scratching backs because everyone needs it and does it.

I’m happy to say I’ve always been a cheerleader for the underdog. and I still am, in part. However, with more demands on my time—including my own books (both fiction and non), and the needs of my wife and family—it just isn’t sustainable to read, research, interview, edit and post. 

If you want an inside scoop on one of my absolute pet peeves, it’s when I go the distance to do everything I just listed, provide a valuable service, as I do, and then the author does either nothing, or next to nothing to further promote his/her appearance on my podcast. It really chaps the hell outta me, as I spend a LOT of time, effort and money to provide a service; the least you could do is repost/retweet/re-whateverthehellitis … and help a brother out!

When someone wants to be interviewed about their work, the “Yes” from an interviewer can feel like a huge win—but the interview itself is what’s important. In all your years in radio, and now podcasting, you must have experienced those who are, and who are definitely not, good at being interviewed, or who at least either do or don’t do a service to their book or to themselves. What’s an example of how a person might sabotage their own interview, and what makes a good interview subject? Are there ways to practice being a good interviewee?

OMG (sorry for my teen outburst but this one’s so good). Here is how 90% of the people who crash and burn on my podcast do so, and trust me, I work very, very hard at making the process as easy and kind and seamless as is possible, but people still continue to completely disregard just a few simple asks:

First and foremost, care about what you look and sound like. Do you own a razor? When’s the last time you saw a hairbrush? Doesn’t everyone by now have a ring light? Trust me, I’m NOT saying “get a ring light” but I am saying please, for the love of God, if you want to be seen, use ambient lighting like a window and let me see you. 

If you only want to be heard—and these days, who wants only that?—then it’s a different conversation. Drop the dime on a good mic. (I’m *this close* to crafting a How To Be Interviewed on a Podcast video.) Don’t rely on those damned dangling headphones. NO, they do not produce good sound. and unless you like the incessant echo of your voice during a cast, headphones would be a good way for you to hear me talking to you rather than your microphone picking up the feedback. 

Be interesting. To me, being “interesting” is like being good on a first date. In other words, don’t be a doofus. Don’t say stupid things. Don’t be rude. Be willing to talk about anything besides your book. There’s more to life than your freakin’ book, even though that’s the main reason we’re chatting. 

If you’re worried about getting nervous, have a good story or anecdote or quote in your back pocket for those moments you freeze. think of an author you really like and learn one of their quotes, or have a sample of their skill that impresses you and that you perhaps used in your work. 

Listen. Ask the host a question or two. Even though “it’s all about you,” take 20 seconds and ask your host something about themselves. Remember that a conversation is a two-way street. Trust me, the good hosts (and I hope I’m one of them) are smart enough to not gobble that time up for themselves, but instead keep the spotlight focused on YOU.

Have your book’s elevator pitch down to a freakin’ science. But keep it truly short and sweet. Use phrases that pull me in, that aren’t the same thing every other person uses.

Finally, be comfortable with yourself. If it’s taking off your shoes, do that. For me, it’s standing. I don’t like to sit in interviews. I never sat during my radio shows. Like, almost never. Standing literally “keeps you on your toes” and you breathe better, and you’re sharper. Sitting makes you lazy, and often boring. and if you can’t stand, lean forward.

Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the post-Roe v. Wade novel The Age of the Child, called a novel “for right now” and “scathing social commentary.” She’s a former adjunct English professor, former reporter/columnist/feature writer for a daily newspaper, former writing instructor, and a former editor of the literary journal American Fiction (New Rivers Press). She lives in Connecticut.

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