A Ticket to NovelWorld
November 30, 2006
I was just over at author Lynn Viehl's blog
and she has a wonderfully insightful and hilarious piece called NovelWorld.
* * *
At the Fiction Freedom Force's modest beachfront cottage headquarters, Captain Conflict and his workout partner, Major Action, started the day by sparring together on the beach.The major, tanned and toned to a tee, avoided his mighty leader's headlock by feinting left before throwing a classic right hook. "Eat fist!"
"Is that the best you can do?" the silver-haired captain snarled as he easily avoided the punch and kicked sand into the major's face. "Where's the build-up? Where's the finesse? If you knock me out, what are you going to do for the rest of the morning?"
"I dunno." The major knuckled his eyes. "Your wife busy?"
"You're going to lose a tooth for that," the captain promised just before he lunged.
* * *
Rush on over and read the rest! Have a good day.
Should You Self-Publish?
November 29, 2006
There's been a little mini-furor over some posts made by Keith Snyder on Lee Goldberg's blog about vanity presses and self-publishing, and it carried over to Eric Mayer's blog, where I posted a lengthy response about this subject, which I am going to post here and add to, to whit:
I was fairly amused by Keith's post as I am about Lee Goldberg's posts on the same subject, because both of them take fairly hard, one-sided opinions on the subject. (And I'm easily amused).
When I've given talks about publishing and am asked about POD like iUniverse, etc., my response has always been, "It depends on what you're trying to accomplish and what you expect to get out of it." If you want to have your book published, ie., in book form, available on Amazon.com, a couple copies on your shelf and some copies to sell to family and friends, then by all means, go for it. This is a very reasonable way to go and it's not that expensive. If your intention is to have a career as a writer, specifically novelist, and you're thinking:
1. I'll self-publish and I'll be one of those people who sell really well and get picked up by a major publisher, or,
2. This will help build a track record so I can attract an agent or bigger publisher, Then, I tell these people, you're deluding yourself.
As for #1, you're more likely to get struck by a meteor. Yes, occasionally a writer who publishes by iUniverse builds up a decent readership and some big NY publisher picks up their books. But it's very, very rare and the reason you hear about it is because it's very, very rare and because the POD publishers WANT you to believe this might happen to you.
As for #2, editors and agents don't give a damn. I published something via iUniverse (Catfish Guru) and although my reason for doing so was a bit different than those who "just want to get published," it's not been useful information for acquiring editors or agents, who recognize that the ability to complete a manuscript and pay someone to publish it is not a reflection of competence or salability, but a reflection of an ability to use a word processing program and own a credit card.
I also want to point out one story here and that is the young man who wrote Eragon, I believe his name is Christopher Paolini. Yes, that book was self-published, and yes, he did acquire a major publisher, he did become a bestselling author and he will shortly have a major film released based on the first novel. So, is that a reason to go ahead and self-publish? Let me sort out a few facts here that might explain where Christopher was an exception and how he was also struck by lightning.
1. Christopher's parents are publishers. They did the publishing, so they knew how to do it and as a result, this didn't really cost him much of anything.
2. The book was only being handled in local bookstores, probably bookstores who handled books already published by his parents' publishing company and through his quite exhaustive marketing efforts. He used to do school visits and dress up as characters from the books and hand-sell.
3. He was struck by lightning. Bestselling author Carl Hiaasen was vacationing in the area and picked up a copy of the book, read it, liked it, noted it was basically self-published, took it to his publisher (Knopf) and said, "You should read this. It's fantastic."
4. The editor apparently agreed.
Now, can that happen to you? Geeze, I don't know. Don't hold your breath. There's often a knock against the quality of self-published novels, which may or may not be true. Like everything, most are mediocre, some are pretty awful and a few are probably pretty damned good. A basic bell-shaped curve, in other words.
But to stay on the Paolini story for a moment, in an article in Writers' Digest, Paolini commented that his editor at Knopf made him cut 400 pages!!! from his novel before they viewed it as publishable. So clearly, although there was apparently something good in there, it needed a fair amount of work to be publishable. And although I can't guarantee this, I have to wonder if, with that excess 400 pages, if Paolini had tried to attract an agent or editor in the traditional, query letter extravaganza, if he would have been successful, or if agent after agent would have said, "It's fairly entertaining, but way too long to be marketable."
Another thing I say when this subject comes up is this:
A publisher is someone with money who publishes books. Period.
There is no certification, school or credentials required to call yourself a publisher and start publishing. Somewhere along the line Bantam, Random House and Putnam were basically started by somebody with money who wanted to publish books.
It always reminds me of a line from Ross Thomas's "Voodoo, Ltd." when he describes the multi-billionaire newspaper heir who moved to Los Angeles and said, "I'm a movie producer," and everybody said, "You have money like that? Yes, you are a movie producer."
If Bill Gates decides to stop throwing money at Africa and decides for some unbelievably foolish reason he wants to start a major publishing company, guess what? He can and who's to tell him no?
But the reality of the situation is that in the U.S. and in most countries, the publishing industry at its highest level is a series of multi-national conglomerates that have a track record of publishing a certain quality of books and have the money to do so profitably and the distribution channels to make it work. The task for the majority of novelists is to figure out exactly what type of quality and product that is and keep knocking at the doors of those various companies until somebody lets you in.
Self-publishing is an attempt to make an end-run around that business model and although it may or may not work on a small business/entrepreneurial level, and may or may not work on a creative level, it does not necessarily mean you are a novelist to the same degree.
Put it this way: there's major league baseball and there is minor league baseball. Then there's your town's intramural league and then there's your company's softball team. Does anybody who plays for the company's softball team really think they could play baseball at the same level as a A, AA or AAA minor league player, let alone a major league player? Maybe on some rare occasion there's somebody out there who's really, really talented and can go all the way. And that's just like publishing.
There are also plenty of AAA minor league players who could make it in the major leagues, but just haven't had that lucky break that will get them there.
A Writing Lesson From John Ramsey Miller
November 28, 2006
I'm reading John Ramsey Miller's first published novel, THE LAST FAMILY, and I hit this paragraph:
Aaron watched the men out of the corner of his eye as he sorted the mail. The larger of the two had jet-black hair, a high forehead, and eyes the color of topsoil. The other was five seven or so and looked to Aaron to be wound up tight as a truck spring. They were physically different as a dime and a dollar, but they could have grown up sucking at the same hind tit for all the real difference there was between them. They were tough characters, no question about that, and IRS serious.
Now, let me say that this probably would not work in a typical Mark Terry novel. Too much for my relatively spare style, although there are things there that I need to be reminded of from time to time. And I don't want to belabor things much, so let me just point out a few things that I noticed and you can think about them when you do your own writing.
1. This is told from Aaron's point of view, and pretty much in his voice, too. He's an old-timer in the Montana mountains who runs a general store.
2. The paragraph is a descriptor, but begins with a sentence of action.
3. Although there is basic physical description--jet black hair, high forehead and five seven--those are practically wasted. But eyes the color of topsoil? I love that. Of course, topsoil has a lot of different colors, doesn't it? It could be rich peet black or earthy brown or if you're from Georgia even rusty red. It doesn't matter. The reader automatically knows something about this character from that choice of words.
4. The important description is "wound up as tight as a truck spring" and "IRS serious." Everything else is superfluous. In my books I might be better just going with that, but John's got a much more lush style than I do.
5. And think about this, because this is maybe the most important thing here. Since this is from Aaron's POV, how much does this paragraph tell us about the two characters he's describing and how much does it tell us about Aaron (who is a relatively minor character)???
Oh, and by the way, the book is pretty damned good so far.
CRYSTAL RAIN by Tobias Buckell--a review
November 27, 2006
My brother gave me a copy of his friend's first novel back in the spring. It's a science fiction novel called CRYSTAL RAIN and I sort of dicked around getting around to reading it, nibbling a few pages at a time. I finally cleared the deck and finished it and I thought it was so unusual it was worthy of a review. So:
CRYSTAL RAIN by Tobias Buckell
The novel takes places on a planet a long way from earth in a very distant future. The equatorial regions of the planet are populated primarily by people from the island regions of earth--Bahamian, Jamaican, etc. Three hundred years earlier, something catastrophic happened to destroy the wormholes that allowed travel to the planet; the same event also decimated most of the technology on the planet. Three hundred years later, the cultures have changed and most of the technology is but a distant and fond memory. On one side of the Wicked Highs mountains are the Nanagadans. On the other side are the Azteca. Both have in their presence "gods," in the case of the Azteca the Teotl and in the case of the Nanagadans, the Loa. The Loa are largely uninvolved in what's going on in Nanagada, but the Teotl encourage their worship and human sacrifice, and now, after generations of toils, the Azteca have built a tunnel beneath the Wicked Highs and are mounting a slash-and-burn war on Nanagada.
The main character is John DeBrun, a fisherman who has very little or any memory of what happened to him prior to about 20 years earlier when he washed ashore on Nanagada. He has settled into his life here, has a wife and son, and is notable for having a hook for a hand, which he lost on a trip to the "north," which he lost to frostbite. When the Azteca attack, John and his family are separated and John is captured by Azteca who plan on sacrificing him, but he is rescued by an Azteca who has been told by a Teotl that he must find John DeBrun and torture the location of the Ma Wi Jung out of him.
John has no memory of the Ma Wi Jung and as he and the traitorous Azteca travel to Capital City, they strike up an odd friendship. Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Pepper is hunting for John. Pepper is clearly not a normal guy, having unusually ferocious battle skills and unusual weapons and healing abilities. He also seems to have some idea of what's actually going on between the Loa and the Teotl, who, as it turns out, are not gods, but two separate alien races (though similar) who have unusual shape-shifting powers, but have lost their technology 300 years earlier as well. And they both want the Ma Wi Jung and understand that John DeBrun is the key to this mysterious weapon.
As the Azteca besiege Capital City, John and Pepper and a crew take a desperate ship voyage to the "north" to acquire the Ma Wi Jung and turn the tide of battle.
I haven't read much if any sci-fi in 25 years or so, so I have no idea if this is typical of what's being done. I found it fascinating. The depth of Buckell's imagination is nothing short of astonishing. The characterizations are complex, but so is the sociology. Not only has he created a complex world with multiple religions and cultures, but language and behaviors, all within a universe that has a complicated history as well.
The last third of the book is the big payoff, absolutely riveting. I found the first part a little hard to get into, but it was worth it. Buckell teases the reader, careful not to reveal too much up front, so what the reader gets is layer after layer of mystery, which can be a bit frustrating, although it all comes clear by the end. Not only does it come clear, but it sets up an apparent universe of potential stories and sequels. I am looking forward to his next novel, Ragamuffin, just to see what happens next.
For scifi fans, I would think this is a must-read. For people who aren't into sci-fi, I still recommend it. It's a rich, textured novel that, for me at least, is highly original and entertaining.
Mystery Scene Magazine Raves About THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK
November 23, 2006
I got a head's-up about an upcoming rave review from Mystery Scene Magazine for THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK. Here it is:
It’s 1991, and Derek Stillwater and Richard Coffee are doing recon on an Iraqi ammunition depot. Just as they provide the coordinates for the US bombers overhead, they are discovered by their enemy. At the moment the bombing commences, the wind shifts, carrying poison gas straight towards them. The two Iraqis die within seconds; acting quickly, Stillwater inoculates himself, then Coffee, before fleeing the scene. Later, he passes out. Upon waking, he’s told Coffee didn’t make it.
Cut to the present. Terrorists have obtained samples of Chimera-13, a lethal manmade virus, and are threatening to unleash it in Washington, DC. Now a troubleshooter with Homeland Security, Stillwater is called in to track the terrorists. His investigations and instincts tell him that the theft is the handiwork of his ex-partner, who has seemingly risen from the dead. Questioning his conclusion, and struggling with panic attacks that threaten to shut him down at any moment, Stillwater pursues the dangerous specter from his past.
A thrill ride in novel form, The Devil’sPitchfork is hands down one of the most gripping novels you’ll read this year. The plot resonates deeply in our post 9/11 world and it also features one of the more compelling leading men in recent memory, Derek Stillwater. Quick-witted, willful, but somehow vulnerable, Stillwater is Jack Ryan before he lost a step. Rooting for him in his highstakes race against time is easy; anticipating his reactions to each successive shock and surprise is great fun.—Hank Wagner
Well, I'm having a very good Thanksgiving with much to be thankful for.
Goals & Faith
November 22, 2006
I'm going to make an assumption that the majority of the readers of this blog are people who are writing novels but aren't yet published. I know some readers are already published. If you're in that first category, I imagine that you have been through a fairly typical experience of having been repeatedly rejected by agents, repeatedly rejected by publishers. I've been there. Although I don't often advertise the fact, I have something like 10 unpublished manuscripts laying around. It puts me in a big club--Jonathan Kellerman, Stephen King, Joe Konrath and a whole bunch of others who have a trunk full of unpublished (and probably unpublishable) manuscripts.
I'm here today to tell you that you can make it. That if you have the goal of eventually getting your novel published, that yes, persistence and constantly trying to improve your craft will eventually win out and you will get published. I believe it and you need to as well.
I'm quite confident that any of you CAN get published. I'm not as confident that you WILL get published. That's up to you, mostly. Luck definitely plays a factor, but you can mitigate luck by working the odds in your favor--be persistent and learn to write well. Changing CAN to WILL is tougher and only you can control that.
Then you're on to your next goal, aren't you?
Which is kind of where I'm at today. After spending most of two decades wanting to get published and making my living as a writer, I'm now regularly getting published (novels as well as nonfiction), and I'm making a living (quite decent) as a writer. My dream come true in so many, many ways.
I, naturally, want more. Seems to be human nature. Not just more money (which would certainly be nice, but is not required), but my goal is to make a living as a novelist. Another goal is to publish more than one book a year, perhaps the second under a pseudonym. I might write at some other time about this compulsion to write more than one novel a year, but since I don't completely understand it myself, it will just have to wait for another time. I have gotten it into my head lately that I would like to write a screenplay. After all, I have 10 or so unpublished novels sitting around, most of which are perfectly good stories just not told well enough, and I might have the writing chops now to figure out what I did wrong and be able to do some of them in a different format. Maybe. We'll see. My initial approach to that is to read a number of screenplays to see if I can get that type of storytelling straight in my head.
Anyway, I was having a down moment yesterday for no other reason than because a writer is often his or her's own worst enemy, and I was thinking, well, the Derek Stillwater novels are doing reasonably well and you have a good career going even if some of these clients are driving you nuts, and this ISN'T going to happen, and this ISN'T going to happen, and you're kidding yourself with the screenplays, and...
There can be a pretty pessimistic, gloomy bastard of a dark angel on my shoulder from time to time, and I'm better off telling that prick to fuck off and go away.
Which is what I did this morning while fixing my breakfast of Corn Flakes and toast. I started getting into the "what are you wasting your time for" thought processes, and thought:
"This is bullshit. You didn't get to where you are now thinking this way. You were convinced it would happen, you were willing to work hard and do what needed to be done until you achieved your goal, no matter how long it took."
Ahem. Get it?
So I told myself, "Just do it. Work on these things. You'll get there."
And I'll see YOU THERE when YOU get THERE.
Getting A Literary Agent
November 21, 2006
Over on PJ Parrish's
blog, she has a post about "Mystery Date," which refers to the hunt for a literary agent. I suggest if you don't have an agent (or if you do), you go over and read it. (You might also consider picking up one or all of her (their) books, too). She's specifically talking about when agents ask for exclusivity and I give my 5 cents worth on that topic there, as well. But, every few months I feel obliged to give suggestions on my blog about how to get a literary agent. I figured today was as good a day as any.
1. Write something. Complete it. Make sure it's really, really good.
2. Find a list of agents. I suggest the Association of Authors' Representatives
although my own agent does not actually belong to AAR. Many do. My agent, for whatever reason, follows their guidelines, but does not belong. Or, go buy the 2006 Guide to Literary Agents
by Kathryn Brogan, although I actually suggest you wait until the 2007 version comes out. That or some similar book that has a nice, reasonably comprehensive list of agents in it. Either start at the beginning, at the end, or anywhere you want and...
3. Write a really hellaciously terrific query letter. No longer than one page. This is your introduction. Typically there are 3 parts. The first part says something like, "I have completed a thriller novel titled YOUR TITLE HERE that runs 95,000 words." Then go on to briefly describe. By briefly I suggest 3 or 4 sentences. Second paragraph, who you are. If you are a published writer, say so. If you have won awards, say so. If you are writing a medical thriller and are a doctor, say so. If you wrote a forensic thriller and you're a criminalist, say so. If you wrote an espionage novel and you're an accountant in middle America, keep that to yourself. The agent really doesn't care what you do for a living if it isn't relevant to the book. Get this clearly in your head: YOU ARE A WRITER. That's what you're selling yourself as. The third paragraph is a closer, something that explains what you have enclosed and the final question: Would you be interested in reading...? Keep in mind this is a business letter. You are trying to create a business relationship. Rewrite this letter until it sparkles.
Let me repeat this, because I didn't do this until much later, and I'm sure most aspiring novelists don't either: REWRITE THIS LETTER UNTIL IT SPARKLES.
4. What to include:
There are, as far as I can tell, 3 different philosophies on what to actually send an agent. Most of the agent articles and books suggest you send:
A. A one-page synopsis and a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). Yep, that's it. I don't actually happen to agree. One, I hate reading synopses, and two, what you're doing at this point is saying, "Would you be interested in reading part or all of my book?" Which gives an agent a really nice opportunity to say, "No," and drop a pre-form rejection letter in your SASE and send it back to you.
B. A chunk of your manuscript along with an SASE. This is my recommendation. How much of the manuscript? 50 to 100 pages. Enough so an agent can take a peek at it. I know you've probably heard that agents make a decision in the first 50 pages. Guess what? I think that's total bullshit. Agents make a decision in about the first page, but probably give it five. They know whether you can write by then and whether it's salable. I was a bit skeptical about this until I agreed to read a couple novel partials for people. I'm doing it now, as a matter of fact, for the MWA mentoring program. In the previous manuscripts I reviewed, I could tell in the first page. If not by then, in the first couple. Everything after that became a chore. Interestingly enough, the one I started reading yesterday sucked me right in. The prologue is terrific. This guy can really write. The first chapter, however, has got some issues. So that's why you send 50 to 100. Why give the agent a chance to reject you twice?
Now, a word about SASEs. I wish these would go the way of the Dodo. I would think e-mail would cover this. If you're sending 50 to 100 pages, should you send an envelope and postage enough to cover it? Nope. Just send a #10 envelope with your usual 39 cent postage stamp on it. I used to write something like: "...if this manuscript does not meet your needs, feel free to discard it and let me know in the enclosed SASE..." but decided that it was just sending the wrong message, as well as the fact that agents and their staff are probably not idiots, and can figure out what you want them to do here.
Two follow-up points regarding SASEs. One, but don't you want your manuscript remnant back? No, you do not. An agent is very, very, very, very, very unlikely to write a useful comment on it. They are veryX5 likely to spill coffee on it, get the corners all beat up and get it crinkled to pieces sticking it back in any envelope you have. It will not be usable if they send it back.
And two, there are a number of people who suggest not sending an SASE. Like my earlier line about sending it back, they feel it sends a message that you're expecting it to be turned down. (Gee, why would authors think that?) Also, if an agent really wants to read the manuscript or represent you, they're not going to stick it in an envelope, they're going to phone you (or possibly e-mail you). So why bother? It's a perfectly legitimate question and I'm inclined to agree with them. The reason TO send it is that it's a courtesy. Period. There's really no other reason.
C. Send your whole freaking manuscript with a cover letter. Why just send a partial? Well, because it's presumptuous and a waste of paper, toner, and postage. Yes, it's possible an agent will like it so much they'll read the whole damned thing just because you send it. Some might even feel obligated to read the whole damned thing because you sent the whole damned thing. Most will be pissed. Some will be so pissed that they'll just automatically send it back without looking at it. Mostly,+ don't do this because it's too expensive. And one of the reasons it's too expensive is:
5. Getting an agent is a numbers game. Not all agents are looking for clients. Many agents are always looking, but they're very, very picky about who they pick up. One thing I read lately suggested agents only bring on 1 or 2 new clients a year, yet they receive several hundred queries and manuscripts a WEEK! They have to respond to your work and think that you as a writer show promise and that the work in general is salable. If you sent out a single package and the agent picked you up as a client, you, my friend, are one in a million. Most likely you'll send out dozens, even hundreds. I acquired my agent somewhere between letter 85 and 100.
So here's the point. Don't do this once. My recommendation is pull out 10 agents who handle your type of work, customize your query letter, photocopy the first 50-100 pages of your manuscript, get 10 SASEs, and send them out simultaneously. Then wait a week (or so) and do another 10. And another and another...
And here's the really important part:
UNTIL YOU GET AN AGENT TO REPRESENT YOU.
Don't get frustrated at 50 and say, "I suck, no one will represent me." (It may be true. You may suck and no one will represent you, but how can you tell?) Stick to it until you get an agent. If you run through the list of agents who handle your type of material and you had some read your stuff, but turned you down, what should you do?
Well, first I would take a cold, hard look at your manuscript and see if they have a point. Maybe you do suck. Or maybe there are obvious typos. Maybe (gulp) you're just not as good as you think you are (hint: none of us are). In that case, do a rewrite and start over again.
Otherwise, start over again. Many big agencies have multiple agents handling similar materials. If you tried Joe Schmo at BIG BAD LIT AGENCY and he turned you down and you've already tried 200 agents, then try Jane Schmee at the BBLA this time.
Just a few miscellaneous thoughts.
There are agents who charge a fee to read your manuscript. Sometimes this fee is quite small, like $25 and sometimes it's hundreds of dollars. Avoid these agents. Some are undoubtedly legitimate, but the AAR disapproves of this. And with few exceptions, it's just a scam. The agent (or so they call themselves) is just picking up a nice tidy income off reading fees, but not actually selling any or many manuscripts. Agents make their living off their commissions from manuscripts sold, which is 15%.
My agent charges me (sometimes) a photocopying fee. We've been kind of inconsistent on this since I started getting published. It's a minor expense and I go along with it. Not all agents do this. How you handle it is up to you.(We also seem to be making a shift toward PDFs, but that's a different topic for a different day).
Keep in mind at all times that this is a business relationship you're trying to get going. This person not only will be your representative, but they will handle your money (before you do), so it needs to be built on trust and respect.
And my final comment. Sometimes we get caught up in the "I want a hot agent like so-and-so has, look at the deal they get." Yep. But what we really want in an agent, above everything else, is someone who thinks your writing is great, who thinks YOU have what it takes to make both of you rich.
Fear & Arrogance
November 20, 2006
If you remember the movie "Bull Durham," at one point Kevin Costner's character, Crash Davis, tells Tim Robbins' character, Nuke LaLoushe, that "you have to play this game with fear and arrogance."
To which Nuke says, "Fear and ignorance. Got it."
Well, when it comes to the fiction biz, maybe they're both right.
I've often thought it takes a serious kind of arrogance (bordering on megalomania) to think that our daydreams not only would be of interest to other people, but of such interest that they would pay money for the privilege of sharing them. I know I'm supposed to say that there's a fine line between confidence and arrogance, but I actually suspect in this case that there's a wide gray borderland here littered with the corpses of unfinished and unpublished novel manuscripts, lying alongside abandoned dreams and failed writing careers--this is where the artist resides most of the time, and has to for their own protection. If there's anything that can kill a creative project better than fear, I don't know what it is.
I've started working on the 4th Derek Stillwater novel, THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS. I'm not very far into it, maybe 20 pages, and I'm pleased with what I've written so far ... and afraid that I'm kidding myself, that it's not good, that...
I had a great conversation with Kathleen Sharp, the editor of the ITW Report, a newsletter put out by International Thriller Writers, Inc. Kathleen is the author of several nonfiction books, and on that particular day I was suffering what could reasonably be called a crisis of confidence over the nonfiction book-length project I was trying to finish (a confidence meltdown might have been a better description). We got to talking about all the times we've heard novelists talk about how difficult writing a novel is, and I had to argue that compared to nonfiction, writing a novel is a total breeze.
I still think so. But...
The thing that makes novel writing so difficult is it's absolutely impossible to know if you're doing it right (or well). It's almost impossible to be objective about your own work, especially when you're in the middle of it. You may spend weeks or months or years working on something that you think is wonderful only for it to be a piece of crap. Or you may struggle with something you think is a piece of crap, but when you finish it and read it, find that it's just as good as anything else you've written. I know this feeling all too well. Both of them, actually, but luckily I find now that I might think something's not working, but in reality it does. I think this shift comes after writing a million words or so and when your technical expertise is actually in existence, the craft in other words; the problems come not from craft, but from the story itself.
Most novelists I've talked to who are regularly published also have this fear: I'm not going to be able to do it again, I won't get published and I'm going to have to go get some "real" job that I hate.
When really stressed, I have dreams (nightmares) that the writing didn't work out and I had to go back to work at the hospital.
PJ Parrish commented that when she's stressed, she has nightmares about the writing not working out and having to go back to working at Big Boy.
I believe it. I bet Joe Konrath has the occasional nightmare about going back to working as a waiter at the Macaroni Grill and Jeff Abbott has nightmares about going back to work where he worked before the writing worked out--was it an ad agency?
It's a dream job, but it's not all roses. I'm not whining. I'm just pointing out that Crash Davis (or the scriptwriter, whose name eludes me at the moment) was probably right: we play this game with fear and arrogance.
ForeWord Magazine Raves About THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK
November 18, 2006
ForeWord Magazine gave a long review of THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK. I'm too lazy to type up the whole review, but here's the last two paragraphs:
"Writers are often advised to write what they know. This author, a microbiologist with experience in tissue and cell culturing, has done that with frightening effectiveness, promising sleepless nights for his readers. Reminiscent of recent terrorist acts in the news, Terry's tale stirs together a sense of imminent death and destruction for thousands across the globe, a conspiracy that involves people in the upper echelons of government, and discord and disagreement between the very agencies, like the FBI and the military, meant to help save the world. He keeps the nightmare real and personal as Stillwater fights his own panic attacks before each exposure to a bio-hazardous situation, and an attractive scientist who participated in the creation of Chimera fights for her life after inadvertently infecting herself with the virus.
"Terry is a freelance writer, editor, and novelist (his previous books include Dirty Deeds: A Meg Malloy Mystery
and a collection of novellas). Here, he successfully writes a truly scary scenario, but what's even more frightening is that the events are all too possible, including the terrorists' plan to spread the virus by means of soda cans carried on to airplanes heading to different countries. It makes the reader wonder--and worry--about how much fact is in this author's fiction, and just who has control of the devil's pitchfork."
Who's point of view?
November 17, 2006
Obi Wan Kenobi rather memorably told Luke Skywalker that most of our cherished positions depended greatly on our point of view. Of course, he was talking about how Anakin Skywalker was his friend, but Darth Vader was his enemy who killed his friend.
Anyway, point of view is one of those things that writers are always going to trip over unless they're working solely in first person, although 1st person offers up its own problems and challenges. Even within third POV we've got issues of how close to be--are we writing from deep in the POV character's head, or are we somewhat omniscient, in between, or are we doing everything all at once, a technique that is generally frowned upon and with good reason.
The rule of thumb is that you pick a pov character, at least in each scene, and stick with it.
So I'm reading DEAD RUN by PJ Tracy and what are we to make of this passage?
"Annie was hoping for sanctuary. Her heels were already blistered from the ill-fitting purple high-tops, and her muscles were screaming from tension and all the unaccustomed exertion. All she wanted was a few blessed minutes to stay in one place and let her heart slow down, and the barn seemed like a logical place to fulfill that fantasy. Even if the soldiers did come back, it would take a hundred of them to search every nook and cranny in a building that big.
"Sharon was hoping for some kind of drivable vehicle behind the giant tractor doors, since there hadn't been a single one in town. Every old barn she'd ever been in contained a vehicle of some sort, from old hot rods buried under decades of hay dust to pristine classics preserved under heavy tarps. This was no bachelor pad; this was a family farm, and if there was one thing farms had in abundance, it was vehicles. Normally they were scattered all over the yard, tucked in long grass behind buldings, sheltered under an open shed, and certainly lining the drive. But there wasn't one of any kind in sight here, and that, almost more than anything else, seemed so dreadfully wrong. Surely the people who lived here couldn't have driven away in every single car they owned.
"Grace was staring intently at the barn. Too big,
she thought. The damn thing had to be at least eighty feet long, and that was too long to be out in the open. But if the inside was safe, they could travel through the barn to the back and, she hoped, a way out of this godforsaken town. She took a breath, glanced at the others, then moved.
"They all darted from shadow to shadow across..."
OK. What lessons do we learn from this acclaimed bestselling author (who is actually a pseudonym for a mother-daughter writing team, not to be confused with PJ Parrish, a sister-sister writing team)?
Well, one lesson I think we learn is that if you're a bestseller you can get away with things unpublished authors maybe can't. Don't like that? Tough. Become a bestselling author and you can do what you want, but until then you're probably out of luck.
Second lesson, well, I happen to think that PJ Tracy made a mistake in this book. They have three lady friends on the run in rural Wisconsin and instead of choosing one of them for pov throughout the book, or even in each scene, they mix and match. Frankly, although I think they're good writers, I hate it. I'm reading along, comfortably in somebody's head, then I get all confused because the POV has changed and it KEEPS TAKING ME OUT OF THE STORY!!!
They do this all the time. The is the third book of theirs that I've read and I enjoyed the previous 2 reasonably well, but given the amount of acclaim these women and their books have received, bestsellerdom, good reviews, blah, blah, blah... I've always expected better. Sorry, that's me. Their first novel, MONKEEWRENCH was hoisted on the reading public as a miraculously fresh, startling take on mystery and suspense, and so when I read it I thought, "Uh, they're good, but..."
To their credit, at least in this passage, each POV change is marked by the character's name. That is not always the case, and that's why this novel is driving me a little nuts.
There are two other points about this particular book and these particular authors that I want to make.
One, they're really good writers. Their writing sparkles. It's lively, imaginative, vivid and entertaining. This helps them jump hurdles like bizarre shifting POVs that less dazzling stylists might have problems with.
Two, they're good storytellers. I was on the listserv DorothyL for several years. A thread was going on about the various rules of writing, citing Elmore Leonard and a whole bunch of others. I posted to suggest that the only writing rule that mattered was, "Don't be boring." Somebody e-mailed me personally to tell me that my comment wasn't worth the bandwidth it took up. Which inspired me to drop out of DorothyL, because, well, life's too short. And I stand by my comment.
The reason PJ Tracy gets away with this is their book is entertaining. It's not boring.
From what I can see, these ladies had a technical challenge--they had 3 characters on the run and they wanted to get inside all of their heads. So their solution was to go with a shifting omniscient POV. It's not a choice I would have taken (or recommended). But they sell a hell of a lot more books than I do. Did they decide consciously to do this? I don't know. I hope so, but it's possible they didn't, they just went ahead and wrote it.
And just for a moment, I want to strengthen a point about being boring. I read an essay about Stephen King written by his friend Peter Straub, in which he talks about his first exposure to King was in his novel 'SALEM'S LOT. And he printed out the paragraph or two where Barlow, the vampire, first appears at the dump. Then Straub goes on to talk about all of the things that are wrong about that passage, the use of passive voice, some awkwardness in the writing, and then he says something along the lines of: "And none of that mattered. It was breathtaking how Stephen jumped a hurdle without even showing any effort."
It's always better to use good technique. I think of it as being like a boat. Our story is our cargo and our technique is the boat we built to carry it. If the boat springs a leak, is sluggish in the water, the whole thing might sink or take too long to get the cargo to where it's going. Or as King himself commented, "You can drink Dom Perignon from leaded crystal or you can drink it from a Flintstones Jelly Glass. It's still Dom Perignon, but there is a difference."
November 16, 2006
As I mentioned in my responses to yesterday's post, my agent didn't much like my novel proposal for a medical thriller, so for the moment, The Unfolding is DOA.
Over the course of getting to this point in my writing career, ie., making a living as a writer, getting novels published, like most novelists I wrote a number of novels that never saw the light of day. By and large, the reason for this was that they sucked. There's a learning curve here, and it's a rare 22-year-old who comes out of the gate with a winning novel, particularly one who was as relatively isolated from the publishing world as I was.
Those gems--some of them are quite good, but still did not get published, and by and large I can see why now--are not what I'm writing about today.
I'm writing about those novels you write 50 pages or 100 pages and for one reason or another, are abandoned.
You don't have any of those? I'm impressed.
I have a few of these poor stillbirths, these abortions, abandoned by their creator. In one memorable occasion I write about 120 pages, gave it up, then went back to it about 6 months later, picked it up, read it, thought, "Gee, this is pretty vivid," finished it, sent it out and it became my first published novel, DIRTY DEEDS. It wasn't a stillbirth after all, it just needed some TLC and faith.
I'm not 100% sure I believe in writer's block, at least not the kind where you just ... can't ... write...
I think it was probably Stephen King who commented that he didn't believe in writer's block that way either, but that he did believe it was possible to spend a year or longer writing crap that couldn't be published and that was its own form of writer's block.
In my case, I don't think any of these stillbirths were crap, at least not on a line by line evaluation of their writing, but in some cases they were stories I maybe wasn't well equipped to write, either emotionally or just from a technical point of view.
Here's an example of each of them:
Very early in my writing aspirations, I began a horror novel about a guy who inherits his family farm after the death of his estranged father, only to find that there is some satanic stuff going on in the area. Somewhere in the first 50-ish pages or so I came to a scene where a child, I believe a 7 or 8 year old boy, is going to be kidnapped and murdered as a human sacrifice. Now, this was before I had kids, but when I first wrote the scene introducing the boy, unaware he was going to be a human sacrifice, I envisioned him like my nephew Tim Plachta, who is now a 6-foot-4 adult living in Texas. And I could not continue on with this story. I could not bear to commit that sacrifice in writing. And so I abandoned the novel.
I actually think I could write it now, especially since the death of my own father 3 years ago would give me a great deal of insight into the central theme of the novel. But I have two sons, ages 8 and 13, and I still don't know how I might handle writing a scene of a child murder. I apparently have little problems committing mass murder in print, but I have problems killing children. Hey, Neurotics R Us.
This particular project, which has been named several different things, and which I posted a few chapters on my blog several months ago, is a biotech thriller about a couple adventurer biologists who travel the world trying to find unique and interesting things that might have medicinal properties. I've tried writing it twice, and both times when I moved the characters to the Congo, the book died. The second time, I thought I was ready to move on, but I had enough doubts that I showed it to my agent who said she hated it. I have no idea why, but it was impetus to go and do something else. I'm not sure I'm done with this idea, actually, or at least the characters. There's a prologue I wrote with them almost being killed while rappelling down cliffs in Chile in search of the moss growing on vulture dung, that strikes me as being well done, vivid, exciting, and opens up an entire novel's worth of adventure ahead, but that is very different than what I had originally envisioned. (And now that I think about it, maybe I'll have to pull it out and read it).
The first time for sure I just didn't have the research expertise (or the Internet) to provide me enough detail about Congo for me to get past that technical hurdle. It's also possible, both times, I think, that my ambition might have exceeded my grasp. It would have been a very ambitious book with many multiple characters set on four or five continents featuring a lot of esoteric adventure stuff like mountain climbing, scuba diving, tree climbing, third (or fourth)-world countries, jungle expeditions... and I know very little about any of those things, although I'm getting better and better at research all the time.
And you never know, one of these stillbirths might come back to life and have a rich and profitable life.
The thing I try to keep in mind is whether or not any of these stillbirths stick in my mind. Quite honestly, SCARECROW doesn't and HOLLOWAY'S LIZARD strikes me as being somewhere inbetween. There was a police procedural I played with off and on called DANCING AT THE ZOMBIE ZOO that strikes me as just waiting for me to write it. I know that the first two chapters are dynamite, but it seemed to lose steam after that, so it may be that the dynamic of the characters wasn't right or there was something inherently wrong with the approach I was taking that killed it. Or at least, put it into a coma for a while.
What kind of books do you like?
November 15, 2006
It may seem kind of obvious, but you should try to write the types of books you like to read. It's probably almost always (probably almost always--gee, Mark, can you get any more wishy-washy than that?) a bad idea to try and write a book based entirely on your perception of the markets. One reason I waffle on that statement is because I think you need to be aware of the markets, too. Although there is a series of mysteries based on a character who is a T-Rex living in modern days under disguise, please note that there are not a whole bunch of mystery novels starring dinosaur detectives who are L.A. PIs. We're pretty much talking one of the niche-iest of niche markets, at least if it's written for adults. If it's written for elementary and middle school kids, well, you might stand a chance.
On the other hand, if you're like me, you like a lot of different types of books. I like the horror of Stephen King, the action-thriller of David Morrell, the first-person tough-guy of Robert B. Parker, the softer tough-gal first-person of Sue Grafton, the humor of Janet Evanovich, the thrills and techno-oddness of Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston, the lyricism of Randy Wayne White, the deliberate introspection of Michael Connelly, the elegant pedal-to-the-metal of John Sandford, the spare eloquence of Tony Hillerman...
So then perhaps a better question to ask yourself is this:
What seems to work best in your own writing?
I know Eric Mayer reads this blog, so I'm going to yank him into the forefront here. He and his wife Mary Reed write historical mysteries that take place in 6th Century Constantinople. Setting is a big, big deal in their books. They do it beautifully. I do not.
I also like Nevada Barr and as I've commented to other people, I don't think much of her main character (Anna Pidgeon), but I love the settings, each novel taking place in a different national park. In Barr's case, the setting is what she's selling.
In Eric and Mary's case, the setting is what they're selling (along with the historical things, I think).
In my case, I think, in as much as we can be said to only be selling ONE thing, I'm selling pace, or hopefully a kind of page-turning adrenaline rush. There's not a lot of time to talk about architecture and scenery when you've got to stop the bad guys in a couple hours from blowing someone people up.
My strengths are, I think: pace, able to write action, able to write cliff-hangers, and good dialogue.
I remember a comment Paul Levine made about being jealous of Lee Child's ability to write action scenes that ran on for a dozen pages.
I wouldn't be surprised if Lee Child was a bit envious of Paul's ability to write witty, sparkling dialogue that runs on for a dozen pages. (I know I am).
I suspect we gravitate toward what we like, but more importantly, if we're to have any success at this game, we gravitate toward what we do well. It's probably a case of the market recognizing what we do well. If we write action well and we send off an introspective novel, it may just not work. But our action novels do.
I don't know if you can do anything about this. Maybe. You can try to improve. You should read other things and try to figure out how authors handle things.
Literary agent and author Evan Marshall has noted that what you need to do is figure out what type of writing you do well and like to read, and figure out what types of books utilize that in the market, and then write that book.
And he says that as if it's easy.
And just a comment about Eric--Eric, feel free to contradict me (everybody seems to somewhere along the line)--but one of Eric's first literary loves was science fiction, fiction about other and new worlds. In those stories you have to create the world around you. Which, as a matter of fact, is what you have to do when you're writing historical fiction.
A simpler way to say this is: lead with your strengths.
The Novel Proposal
November 14, 2006
I've mentioned before that I was working on a novel proposal for a medical thriller. Although the Derek Stillwaters could reasonably be called biotech thrillers, I wanted to try something a bit different, and so I put together a proposal for a flat-out medical thriller. I made a big push and finished it off today and sent it off to my agent. Keep your fingers crossed.
It's possible more will be required, but in this case, this is what I sent along:
Chapters 1-7 (about 100 pages ) of the novel.
Synopsis: in this case, about 1-1/2 pages.
Author Bio: Maybe half a page, focusing on my published novels and contracts, including the upcoming Derek Stillwater novels, the French translation rights for PITCHFORK, as well as mention (because it's a medical thriller) of my authoring a book-length business report called LABORATORY INDUSTRY STRATEGIC OUTLOOK 2007 and that I have a degree in microbiology and public health, that I'm a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists, edit the international trade/technical journal, The Journal of the Association of Genetic Technologists and that I write a lot about biotech and medicine. But I also mentioned that I'm a member of Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers, Inc.
Well, we can't forget positive reviews and blurbs, so I included a page and a half or 2 pages of all that glowing stuff.
Will it sell?
Beats me. Maybe. There's a good market for medical thrillers, I'm published with at least some semblance of a track record, and for all my hand-wringing while I was writing the first 100 pages, when I sat down to read it straight through and make edits yesterday I found it quite compelling, which is not always the case (nor am I always able to judge).
We sold books #3 and #4 in the Derek Stillwater series on the basis of titles and one-paragraph descriptions, so the concept of selling a novel this way isn't totally foreign. It's something to kind of work toward as a novelist, I think. We spend so much time working on spec and writing novels beginning to end that may or may not get published, that it takes some adjustment to think that, gee, I can put together a proposal and send this off and publishers may decide I'm professional enough to really consider it this way.
Well, at least I hope so.
Another Word For What Ed Said
November 13, 2006
Ed Bradley died late last week. I was saddened by this because I thought Ed was a class act in a business that has far too few class acts. I not only watched "60 Minutes" last night about Ed, but this morning I read an essay by Ron Allen about Ed and he says this:
"So, how the heck did you do it?" The answer, as I recall, was "Hard work." Doing your homework. Never getting type-cast to do only the "black stories." And something he said to me recently again, "You've got to really believe you can get where you want to go."
* * *
"You've got to really believe you can get where you want to go."
I've never really doubted that I would eventually get novels published, or make a living as a writer. I had doubts, sure, I'm not insane. But I never really, really had that "it's just not going to happen" thing down in my gut. If I did, I would have quit, and I never quit. I kept working (that's Ed's hard work thing) and learning (doing your homework thing).
There's another word for this: faith.
Faith in yourself. In your abilities.
I've always had faith in what I often feel is my key asset as a writer--persistence.
I figured if nothing else I could wear down the publishing world by continually coming back with better things, getting to a point where somebody had to say, "This is good, we'd be fools not to publish this."
Of course, now that I'm getting published regularly, the goal shifts a bit to not only writing so well that editors and publishers say that, but to sell enough copies so that it's not simply (ha!) a quality issue, but an economic one, as well.
In other words, I want editors and publishers to say, "Yeah, Mark Terry's last book sold so well we'd be fools not to publish his next one. And besides, it's great."
You have to believe it'll happen. You have to believe that you have the talent, that you have the skill, that you have the persistence, the craft, and maybe even the luck, to see this through.
It's going to border on obsession unless you do everything right the first time. I've met very few writers that haven't got a boatload of rejection slips behind them (which in many ways never seem to go away). Your family might think you're crazy. There will be times when you'd much rather be watching TV or sleeping or reading someone else's book than working on your own.
You've got to believe it's worth it. And if you don't believe it's worth it, then it's not.
As Ed said, "You've got to believe you can get where you want to go."
Leading With Your Chin
November 10, 2006
If you pop on over to PJ Parrish's
blog, she had a post about how her new editor requested that they (PJ Parrish is two sisters, Kelly and Kris) re-do the lead of their upcoming novel a bit to "get out of the gate faster."
This led to a discussion of what we expect about leads and PJ decided to let people send in an opening and let people discuss it a bit. So, not being of necessarily of sound mind, I sent in the opening to THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS, the 4th Derek Stillwater novel due out November 2008. In fact, the lead was pretty much all I had written and it was pretty rough, but the comments I've gotten back so far were wonderful.
It's never easy to take criticism, either. I admit that my initial reaction wasn't 100% positive, though I remained open-minded. There was a tiny bit of sting to it, something along the lines of, "I know it's good, what possible changes could it require?"
The fact is, it was a rough draft and I would have made changes anyway, but I'm not sure I would have made all the changes suggested. And the feedback was overall quite positive. And last night I opened the file and tinkered and I'm quite pleased. And, perhaps, inspired to work harder.
So, if you're interested, pop on over and read it.
And I encourage you to send PJ YOUR lead so we can help you point the way, as well. Thanks PJ. It was a big help. Can't wait for your upcoming novel.
Still Life With Elephants
November 9, 2006
My wife works fairly close to the Palace of Auburn Hills, the arena where the Detroit Pistons play. It's also a concert venue and overall entertainment venue. They are currently hosting a circus, Ringling Brothers, I think.
The other day the circus came to town and the place where Leanne works was told when they came, indicating that they were unloading the elephants and anybody interested could go watch.
Leanne went out and the Oakland County Sheriff's had closed down the road and the circus folks unloaded their elephants, which then walked in single-file line from where they unloaded (this might be by train) to the Palace. She said they held the tail of the elephant of ahead of them with their trunk, and laughed as she talked about one elephant trying to unsuccessfully catch the tail of the elephant in front of it.
I'm fairly floored that there were people who did not go out and see this. I hope I'm never that jaded.
So here's hoping that you have a life filled with elephants.
NOBODY Knows What Sells Books
November 8, 2006
I've been musing a bit on book promotion, partly because within this small world of the blogosphere of authors and aspiring authors, book promotion seems to be a hotter topic than actually writing. And some of those writers getting great buzz on their sites seem to at least write with rock-solid confidence that theirs is the TRUE PATH.
Hmmm. I doubt it. I was sort of relieved to find on a recent post of Joe Konrath's, where he was talking about promoting all the time, that both MJ Rose and Allison Brennan weighed in to suggest that they both require time away from promotion in order to write, and MJ noted that this issue is a little different for everybody.
I think I've done a fair amount to promote THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK. I sent out nearly 2000 flyers (expensive and probably both a waste of time and money, so although I might send out a limited number of postcards in the future, I won't be making this effort again), paid to have my website professionally redone (very much worth it, I think), my publisher flipped for AuthorBuzz, an e-mail notification and I was quite pleased with the result and will consider it for my next book if my publisher doesn't plan to cover it, and I've visited something like 20 or so bookstores in the area. There's also this blog and the E-Newsletters and I sponsored a contest on the website.
In the past I've also hired a publicist, done book signings, gone to conferences, given Rotary Club talks and given library talks. I'm sure I'll do some of those again.
Unlike Joe, but I bet like a lot of writers, I don't necessarily need a break from promoting in order to write, but I MUST HAVE a break from promoting for my mental health. I feel like the opening sequence for Bill Bixby's "The Hulk," where he warns the reporter, "Don't make me angry. You won't like me when I'm angry." I know that I will hit a point in promotion, especially in-person promotion, where I can no longer put on my happy face successfully and go out and meet the public. When the process starts to piss me off just thinking about it, it's time to take a break for a while. I'm rapidly approaching that place.
That isn't to say I won't do it, and hopefully with grace and enthusiasm. It just means that it's no longer at the top of my to-do list.
I also want to emphasize that in no way does this mean that I'm not wildly appreciative of readers and any folks who have ponied up the bucks to buy one of my books. Quite the contrary . Those folks are golden and I cherish each and every one of you (or both of you, whichever the case may be). It's just that I need a hybernation period in which I crawl back in my den for a while or I can't bring myself to do it any more.
And I'm reminded of something my former agent, Ben Camardi with the Harold Matson Company, told me once: "Nobody knows why a book becomes a bestseller. If they did, that's all they would publish."
I may be fooling myself, but I believe that in terms of novels, there becomes a point of diminishing returns in promotion. Yes, the more you do the more you'll sell. But at some point you may still be doing a lot that's really not inspiring many book sales, but is wearing you out or wasting your time and money.
One of the reasons I was thinking about this was I heard Public Radio news guy McLehrer on NPR yesterday promoting his 16th novel. And I thought, most everybody in the U.S. knows this guy and he probably sells a lot of books, but he's not a bestseller, is he? And I thought about John Jance, who also writes novels, but is an aviation expert on ABC, and thought the same thing. By most standards, these guys have so much exposure and so much name recognition that their novels should rocket up the bestseller lists, but don't seem to.
That isn't to say they don't sell well. They probably do.
My point is, as I've sort of belabored here, is in terms of book promotion you need to do what you can and what you can afford and what you can put up with, but none of it will guarantee great sales or even continued book contracts. So for God sakes don't short-shrift yourself (or your readers) on putting out the best possible book you can, because that should be a higher priority than the promotion.
Take Your Shot
November 7, 2006
I received an e-mail from a woman yesterday in regards to the journal I edit. One of my associate editors sent her my way and made some comment that I had a movie deal for the books.
Um, no, I had to tell her. (Or, Helen's lips to God's ears...) We've had nibbles from 4 or 5. In fact, just a little while ago I heard that Fox said no. That's okay. I wasn't holding my breath. As I told my optometrist this morning, if I keep getting published long enough, we'll probably get an option on a book someday.
I told the woman this and she commented back that it must be like hockey and real estate--shots on goal.
Well, for you folks who aren't into sports or don't quite get the point, let me belabor it a bit, because it's a good one. I'm not exactly a hockey fan, but I do understand that the team that has the most shots on goal typically wins. The reason for that is simple, even the greatest goalie in the world on a hot streak is going to have a problem covering 150 shots into the net over the course of a game, especially if his team's offense only hits the puck toward the net 25 times during the course of the game.
Way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I had completed my first not-terribly-good-but-I-thought-it-was-wonderful novel manuscript, I sent it off to one agent, whose illiterate high school dropout reader rejected it with an almost nonsensical rejection letter filled with typos and grammar errors.
I was young and stupid (versus today, in which I am older and stupid) and I took that one idiot's comments to suggest the the novel was so bad it was unpublishable.
It probably was so bad it was unpublishable, but that's not the point. The point is I stuffed it in a drawer and went on to write the next novel.
What I needed was more shots on goal, so to speak.
As I'm older and more experienced and frankly, my lifelihood depends on it, I tend to go with confidence that we'll keep peddling things until it either gets picked up or there's no more places to peddle them. That's how it works for my nonfiction, anyway. Since I can't afford to accept no work, if my workload slows down I query until I get work. I don't query and accept the rejection and stew. I keep sending stuff out until I get work.
Granted, it's a little different with novels. There seems to be a fairly finite number of book publishers, and a typical agent has an even more finite (see, I'm a pro-fess-ion-al--I didn't say finiter) number of editors they have a relationship with. Still, I often think that I would send things out to a few more places than my agent does, and I felt that about my previous agent, too. Of course, they may very well have contacted 10 editors and asked them if they were interested in reading such and such, only to have 5 of them say, "No, not for me. What else ya got?"
My point, when I finally get around to it, is that an aspiring novelist has to take a lot of shots on goal. This is particularly true in finding an agent. Don't give up after your first 10 or even your first 100. It may take a while. Janet Evanovich commented on her website that she'd been turned down by every New York agent twice before getting picked up, and I hooked up with my agent somewhere in the 85 to 100 query letter range. Midnight Ink, my current publisher, wasn't the first publisher Pitchfork was shown to. I may ride out my career with them or I may not; my crystal ball is cloudy on this subject.
So keep at it and make sure you take a lot of shots. You know, a thousand monkeys typing for a thousand years, or a blind pig finding an acorn... pick your metaphor.
It Ain't Nine to Five
November 6, 2006
My first year freelancing I pretty much worked nine to five, give or take. I'm typically up about 6:30 and around 7:15 or so I hit the office and check e-mail, make sure I've got the day's to-do list up-to-date and touch on a variety of blogs if I've got time.
Then, after getting my youngest off to school and walking Frodo, I'm usually at my desk by 9:00 with a cold caffeinated beverage awaiting inspiration.
Then around the beginning of the second year I started going to the gym in the mornings around 10:30 or so, and I tended to work a little longer in the day to make up for the time.
And if necessary I'd work in the evenings. Usually evening work was for interviews with sources on the west coast, although sometimes I would find myself proofing galleys or editing the journal I edit. Then weekends, off and on, depending on what's been going on.
The last 6 months or so I was working a lot later, until 6:00 or later, and often put in anywhere from 4 to 12 hours on the weekends. This was because I was working on a nonfiction book, the "Laboratory Industry Strategic Outlook 2007" and I got a slow start on it, plus I had other work to do as I worked on that.
Well, I'm more or less done with the LISO2007 (we're copyediting and proofing it, but it's almost to the printer) and I had a couple other projects to finish, and low and behold, last Friday I hit 3:00 and thought, "There's work to do, but nothing pressing, so why don't you take the afternoon off."
So I did.
Then later that evening I got an unexpected galley. In other words, a galley for the journal I edit came a couple days early. And my editor at Midnight Ink wants a synopsis of THE SERPENT'S KISS for the sales staff by the end of the month. So Saturday I spent a couple hours working on the synopsis and on a novel and on Sunday, despite myself, I worked on the 2nd galley of the journal issue.
Which makes a sort of sense, actually. Today I needed to drive into Clarkston to get my blood drawn (fasting) and I know they always make me wait (35 minutes today), and then I was going to hit the gym, and tomorrow I know I have an eye doctor follow-up and I want to go visit some bookstores on the east side.
Most of the time this writing gig resembles a 9 to 5 job, or at least as much as I can make it so. Sometimes it requires more--much more--and voila, sometimes less. I commented to my sons' guitar teacher when we were setting up their summer schedule that, "Well, I'm self-employed, so my schedule is flexible, in theory." He laughed at the "in theory" part and said he knew what I meant.
It's true I don't punch a clock, but I'm not alone in finding that I need a pretty regular schedule in order to get things done. And also, because I don't have a line-of-sight supervisor (thank God) to make me feel guilty, I can get distracted by things like blogs and websurfing and e-mail and whatever.
Periodically over the years I've read a day-in-the-life accounts by various writers and novelists, and what strikes me most about them is how unlike writers on TV they are--no sipping wine at the outdoor cafe all afternoon, smoking ciggies with your compadres, and having affairs with beautiful women by riverbanks. Most writers who make a living at it, both fiction and/or nonfiction more closely resemble galley slaves chained to their fricking oars, pulling their brains out while Donny the Debt Collector lashes their back with a cat-o-nine-bills. ("Don't rock the boat, baby, don't tip the boat over...")
Back when I was a tiro writer, I often wondered what novelists did with their time? I mean, I was working fulltime with a long commute, had a wife and kids and still wrote about a novel a year, so what did a fulltime novelist do with his time when he only wrote a book a year?
Well, they're pretty rare anyway, but I find that most of the bestsellers I've met and interviewed, like Harlan Coben and John Sandford and Michael Connelly and Barry Eisler and Vince Flynn and Gayle Lynds spend a tremendous amount of time in research and promotion and the business aspects of the job, which if you're at that level can involve interviews, going over contracts from a dozen different publishers around the world, and in the case of Sandford, Connelly, Flynn and Lynds, all have at one time or another done scriptwriting of some sort for TV shows, or consulted with TV producers; Barry Eisler travels to all the locations in his books, as does Vince Flynn.
I think it's a good idea if one of the concepts aspiring novelists lose is the idea that once they've "hit it big," they'll be working a couple hours a day and lounging by the pool the rest of the time. Well... at least most of the time.
As for me, well, maybe someday.
The Writer's 10 Commandments
November 3, 2006
I. THOU SHALT NOT COVET THEY NEIGHBOR'S CAREER
Yeah, Joe got a 3-book contract or Allison got picked up by four book clubs, and Barry has 8 or 9 foreign rights sales, and for God sakes, Joe and Lynn are bestsellers in Poland...
There's always someone higher on the food chain and lower. This will drive you nuts.
II. THOU SHALT NOT COVET THEY NEIGHBOR'S LITERARY AGENT
Yeah, Rob's agent got him a 6-figure deal and Joe's agent got that 3-book deal, and look at the house her agent hooked them up with, and that movie option...
Yeah, agents have quirks, no doubt about it. And yours may not be working for you. But be careful before you cut and run to make sure if the things that aren't working are your agent's fault or yours.
III. THOU SHALT ATTEND TO BUSINESS
In your office, at Starbucks or wherever, writing, you're an artist. Once you submit the manuscript to a publisher, you've become a business person. Pay attention to the business aspects of writing, whether they be contracts, accounting, taxes, or promotion--yes, promotion and marketing is an aspect of any type of business. How much and what kind you do is between you and you, but at least be aware that almost all businesses require some form of marketing and sales.
IV. SHOU SHALT RESPECT THY CRAFT.
We may be artists, but story and art are the cargo--our craft is what puts the ship together in the first place, and if we don't learn how to write well, our craft might spring a leak and sink along with all our cargo. And don't get complacent. Even the sharpest blade gets dull if you don't take care of it.
V. THOU SHALT RESPECT THY TRADITION
Are you a genre writer? Do you write thrillers, mysteries, romance, SF, fantasy or something else? There is a huge body of work before you in which many of the conventions were created and refined. Ignore them at your peril. Readers (and editors and agents) when presented with a mystery, have certain expectations. Does that mean you can be generic? No. The trick is to write something recognizable but fresh. Original is good, but it's possible to be so original that there's no market for your book. Pushing the envelope is good. Shoving it through the shredder is questionable.
VI. THOU SHALT STRETCH THY WINGS
Go back to the art thing. It's easy, once you are successful at something--your book gets published, for instance--that you do the same thing over and over again. It's a trap. The same but different is good. But be careful of eating yourself and going back to the same well too many times. Making things better, deepening your characters, making your writing crisper, cleaner, more elegant, are all good. And bringings in other elements or trying something new are all good.
VII. THOU SHALT REMEMBER IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT MONEY
If you make a living as a writer, it can be hard to forget that you didn't necessarily start doing this to make money. There is joy in writing and for those writers likely to make a living at it, there is a compulsion to communicate, to play with words, live within the beautiful dream that is the story. Keep track of that, because in many ways the money isn't nearly as satisfying.
VIII. THOU SHALT BE MINDFUL OF THE BUSINESS TRADITIONS
Publishing has its traditions, its way of doing things. Book advances and agent fees and how and what is communicated to whom. We touched on this a bit when discussing basketed accounting, on how if enough writers and agents accept it, it becomes the norm. Be aware that many writers and agents have fought to make things the norm and this is good for all writers, and by saying, "Who cares as long as I get published," you're hurting all writers and ultimately yourself by going along with bad contracts and crappy royalties and bizarre option clauses. This may require you to get help, to get an agent, to get advice from a writers' organization or union. But above all, try to educate yourself on what the norm is in the business.
IX. THOU SHALT HELP THEY NEIGHBOR
The internet has helped writers communicate. There probably isn't a writer out there who's "successful," (whatever that is) who hasn't gone through all the things you've gone through--dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of rejections, self-doubt, snarky agent or editor comments, the belittling by family and friends, publishers going under, etc. Help out how you can. It's a tough business. That doesn't mean you need to put yourself at risk by reading every manuscript that comes your way or by introducing every writer who asks to your agent or editor. That's impossible. It means being accessible and willing to respond and help where you can.
X. THOU SHALT KEEP PERSEPCTIVE
Ultimately, it's just a book. We're entertainers, the court jesters of the modern age. There are precious few writers so famous that the average man-on-the-street would recognize them in a restaurant--Stephen King, maybe JK Rowling, possibly John Grisham. We're not curing cancer, solving world peace or feeding the hungry. And as far as the entertainment world goes, we're minor players. A crappy cable TV show has a larger audience on any given night than most books will have over the author's entire lifetime. Most network TV shows have a larger audience than copies sold of The Da Vinci Code. Life will go on without us and if we all stopped writing books today, there would still be plenty to read.
It Don't Suck
November 2, 2006
I've been a little down this week. Some of it is the weather--fall and winter have really sunk in their claws after a pretty dismal, cold, wet fall. Some of it is the inbetween books thing, some of it is just, well, me. Some of it is that early in the week a contractor down the road cut the power lines and I was without electricity half the day, screwing up my worklife, yesterday one of my clients wanted me on the phone for a conference call, which lasted--for me--from 9:15 until 2:30, and although some of it was relevant to me, most wasn't, and today, my Internet connection was down until just a little while ago, about 1:00. This tends to make me a bit cranky.
But over on Lee Goldberg's
blog, he has a post about author John Connolly noting that he really has nothing to complain about.
Yeah, me, too. Despite no Internet connection, despite the fact that my oldest son called me from school this morning "requesting" that I pick up his math homework he forgot and deliver it to school, I stayed more or less on schedule and did some work on the novel-in-progress, The Unfolding, which is probably going to undergo a name change soon. I hit the post office, the credit union, then the gym, returned home, fixed lunch, walked the dog, and now will kick in on finishing a project due tomorrow.
I'm getting novels published, my publisher is behind me, I'm making a living as a writer, and this year at least, almost doubling my income from when I used to work at Henry Ford Hospital. I'm healthy (knock on wood), doing something I love and making a decent living at it.
Any complaints are minor nuisances, believe me. And I reminded myself this morning that I wouldn't go back to the hospital for anything, so get out of the dumps.
What can I say? The writing life isn't for everybody. But it don't suck. At least for me.
What's Your Franchise?
November 1, 2006
I had a conversation with my brother last week, and somewhere in talking about THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK I commented that I was fairly aware of what my franchise was.
Is it Derek Stillwater?
It might be. I prefer to think that my franchise is both broader and perhaps narrower all at the same time. That is, my franchise is thrillers of a certain type.
Well, as of today, I would say action-oriented with tight timeframes (typically less than 48 hours), dealing with terrorism. Some people call this espionage, others call it action thrillers and I think more broadly and possibly more accurately, political thrillers.
That said, I'm working on a medical thriller with a broader timeframe and in what at this point doesn't have anything to do with politics, espionage, action or terrorism.
What does it have in common with the Derek Stillwater novels? Well, biotechnology and medicine.
My agent is still marketing a novel I wrote under a pseudonym, and I note that it actually has a lot more to do with the Derek Stillwater novels than this medical thriller I'm screwing around with. It has a tight timeframe of about 36 hours, it is very action-oriented and although it doesn't actually deal with terrorism, it very much deals with politics. It also, come to think of it, is a type of tech thriller, although probably not biotech, and actually it does deal in a sort of peripheral way with espionage.
Should I be concerned about this? Should you?
Well, I should be.
If you're a published novelist, I think there's a good reason to think about your franchise. If you're writing hard-boiled private eye novels, it's going to be a little tough to try and sell a light-hearted comedic cozy... or a romance novel... at least, under your own name.
Considering what type of book is associated with your name is important, not just for readers, but for the publishing industry.
On the other hand, if you're an unpublished novelist, I'm not sure you need to really consider this from a practical point of view, except this:
What you get published first will influence what you continue to get published.
That's just the nature of the business.
Does it mean that if you're really in love with an idea that you shouldn't write the novel (or proposal) because it doesn't quite fit into your franchise?
Well, no. We're artists as well as business people, and sometimes the muse speaks loudly (Freddie the Flake or Donny the Debt Collector or Bruno the Barbarian, in my case) and we just need to write something because it occurs to us to write it. And some writers prefer to choose to write what they want to and not worry about being pidgeon-holed into a specific type of writing. (But trust me, the marketplace, editors, agents, publishers and readers, apply pressure for a writer offering a TYPE of book, and ignore that pressure at their writing career's peril).
And on the other hand (lot of hands), I find that I often need to stretch a bit and try different things (just to see if I can, sometimes), and for me that's a very artistic point of view, rather than the commercial point of view.
How about you?