Mark Terry

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Stillbirths

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:

SCARECROW
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.

HOLLOWAY'S LIZARD
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.

Best,
Mark Terry

9 Comments:

Blogger Ron Estrada said...

I like to think those orphans aren't a waste. We have to cut our teeth somewhere. King says to shut up and write, so we did. I imagine the average writer goes through about a million words of unpublishable material before he finally "gets it."

9:40 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Actually Ron, Ray Bradbury has famously said you need to write a million words before being able to write something publishable.

I've also been given to accept something J. Michael Straczinski said (TV writer and producer, creator of "Babylon 5"), which is, "Nothing you write is wasted. It's part of the process."

He also commented once that writers are where they're at in their careers for a reason, and I have come to accept that, too, although I think that's a more complex issue.

10:53 AM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I don't believe in writer's block either. I think sometimes you just have to write different stuff. It needs to get out of you head so you can move on. And stories are everywhere.
Question: If your publisher doesn't like your new idea for a book can you sell it elsewhere? Or is that considered disloyal?

6:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not sure sure I like the "Stillbirth" analogy? I know lots of writers refer to there work as their baby...but the comparison is perhaps a bit crass.

3:20 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I haven't been trying to write novels seriously for all that long and so don't have many unfinished ones. I sure don't want to go into details about the main unfinished one. Except to say that the major problem, I think, was that it was designed to convey a message and thus was pretty contrived, as far as it went. I can stick my messages into a story, which I've thought out beforehand as a story, when the opportunity arises but starting with the message doesn't seem to work.

I also wrote a humorous mystery set at an orienteering meet as a practice novel. Although I didn't intend to try to sell it I did send it out a handful of times (because, hey, finished book -- how could I resist) but I don't see it as marketable, even though I, personally find it hilarious. (I suppose you need to be into orienteering humor...)

3:57 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Anonymous,
Actually, the comparison isn't a bit crass, it's a lot crass. And sometime I'll talk about some of the work I did in a genetics lab. Still, the comparison is apt.

Aimless,
if my current publisher turned down a word I can go anywhere I want. And actually, if I remember the details of my contracts correctly (not a given), they have a first look at the next Derek Stillwater novel, but not others.

This is typically called the "option clause" and generally says something along the lines of: the publisher has the right for first look at the Author's next work featuring Dr. Derek Stillwater, and must make a decision with X number of days, X being 30 or 60 or 90. At which point if the author isn't happy with the contract, they can go elsewhere or if the publisher isn't happy with the author or the manuscript, they can turn it down.

It's a clause you need to pay a lot of attention to, however, because sometimes publishers will try to sneak in things like: they have the right for first look at ALL of the author's works (or in perpetuity) or, and I believe Brad Meltzer recently wrote about this in Writers Digest, it'll say something like, publisher has right to first look and make offer under the same conditions as previous novel. Which is to say, if the contract sucks, you're stuck with it.

When I signed a book contract with Write Way Publishing (although they went bankrupt before the book was published), their option clause called for a 6 month window for them to decide on the next book, something I tried to change, but the publisher wasn't, uh... never mind, let's not go into that. She told me, "Don't worry, I won't take that long." "Then why put it in?" "Well, what if I'm busy?"

And you wonder why writers sometimes get cranky about publishers?

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