Mark Terry

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

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.

Best,
Mark Terry

16 Comments:

Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Your observations about the impotance of setting in the writing Mary and I do is, I think, right on target. As you point out, I spent my youth reading sf and fantasy, and so did Mary. (Whether I did so because I've always loved exotic settings, or learned to love exotic settings by reading so much sf, I can't say, but the result is the same.) We write about sixth century Constantinople in the same way we'd write about an alien world, which in many respects it is. Also, our books always contain borderline fantasy elements, what Mary calls "woo woo" moments. We have always given rational explanations (sometimes rather weak ones) for things that happen in the books, there is a lot that could be interpreted as magic or supernatural -- which is the interpretation most people of that era would have given. To an extent, leaving open the possibility that not everything has a rational explanation, is an effort to depict the mindset of the times. Not to mention a way to write fantasy without actually doing so.

I would very much like to write fantasy. The trouble is, the kind of fantasy I would prefer writing would not, so far as I can see, fit today's markets. The whole style and attitude seems to have changed, in ways I don't like. So we put touches of fantasy into our historicals.

Our method of writing about the sixth century, by the way, dervies from Robert Heinlein's idea of just throwing readers into the world and letting them see it and experience at as those who live there would, rather than explaning things at length and leading them along by the hand.

I also enjoyed the scientific puzzles which you used to find in sf stories. I don't have the science knoweldge to construct science puzzles, but I can at least satisfy my desire to write puzzles by writing whodunnits.

So I do choose to write what I like while at the same time keeping an eye on the market. I don't think I could write something I didn't enjoy reading, and unless someone was going to pay me a fortune, why would I want to? I can't tell you how many times I've heard of people deciding to write a romance novel because there's such a demand. But how many writers with that attitude succeed. There's no way I could see myself writing a romance, however great the market for them might be, because I don't care for romances.

Last year we made a mistake and forgetting about markets, we wrote a novel of exactly the kind we wanted to write, which is to say a historical with actual fantastic elements. It doesn't look like it's going to see print any time soon. Compromise is sometimes the best policy.

12:16 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Yes,
I was originally going to post this, but my agent got the proposal on the medical thriller I pitched and only made it through the first 3 chapters (of 7), and e-mailed me today to say, "Sorry, couldn't get into it."

I do think I was trying to write a medical thriller just because there's a market for it. The other title Irene is marketing is, in many ways, similar to the Derek Stillwater novels--action-oriented, fast-paced: in some ways I think of the Derek Stillwater novels and that one as being like trying to solve a mystery on the run.

I commented to my agent that maybe I would just concentrate on the next Derek Stillwater and she responded that she thought that was a good idea.

Who can tell?

BTW, I think you would very much like reading "Crystal Rain" by Tobias Buckell, and I think in many ways it resembles your own book--it's SF, but it's more anthropology than science and setting and culture is a very, very big deal to it. Check it out.

Best,
Mark

12:42 PM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Oh man, that's sickening about that proposal. My stomach just kinda churned even though it's not mine -- not *this* time -- but there have been enough times of my own.

What happens, though, if you have an agent, and you do something the agent doesn't want to sell? Can you still sell it on your own (if possible)? Or is that verboten?

We've already got editors guarding the doors, but to have to filter through the agent, who then has to get through the editors...sheesh.

1:09 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I suppose I could try to sell it on my own. I value her opinion, though, and know how hard it is to sell stuff she likes. Right now I'm going to concentrate on the book I'm contracted to write. Maybe I'll have some thoughts later on about what to do with this, or I can get far enough away from it to be more objective.

I'm also thinking about a comment David Morrell made in an interview I read by him years ago. (In fact, this line is spiraling through my head pretty strongly, at the moment). He took a year or so off from writing novels to write original screenplays and never sold any of them, although he noted that he had some nibbles. And although he learned some things of value from writing them, doing it any more was "throwing good time after bad."

So that: "Don't throw good time after bad" line is pretty strongly in my head at the moment.

1:34 PM  
Blogger Devon Ellington said...

It's one reason I publish under different names. I can play. I can stretch. I can learn to bring up the skills that are lesser to par with those that are strong -- dialogue, in particular is my strength because of all my years working in the theatre.

Regarding your comment on Joe's blog about people hinting at wanting to know how much you make by "how's the book doing?"

I have strict rules and anyone who knows me knows them -- I don't discuss money. I'm happy to help fellow writers set rates for various projects, but I do not discuss contract dollars, especially with non-writers. It's none of their damned business, and I will tell them so to their face.

When I'm feeling kind, I'll say, "More than hoped; less than I'd like."

But usually I tell them, "I don't discuss money."

If they press, I say, "When you give me access to your financial statements, we can start to negotiate."

Shuts 'em up right quick.

Best wishes to you!

1:36 PM  
Blogger Devon Ellington said...

PS If you love the medical thriller you wrote, sell it on your own.

Agents are getting more and more specialized, while many writers tend to be what I call "renaissance people" -- capable of more than one thing.

Go with your gut.

1:37 PM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

As for whether you'd be throwing good money after bad I guess it's too early to judge but, no, you don't want to do that. Years ago I had a novel I kept monkeying with, but it just never started working and finally I ditched it. I didn't know then why it wasn't working but now I do know (at least some of the reasons) and I realize it's a good thing I didn't waste more time on it. Well, if we could get a million dollar contract then we'd be getting great pay even if you caount the non-sellers as part of the job!

2:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm curious about "selling a book on your own" when you have an agent.

I assume this means you would hit up the smaller presses where the advance is lower. True? I know a few of the larger houses accept unsolicited mss, but I can't imagine your agent would be very happy if she found out you'd sold something to Kensington or Tor without her assistance--even if she didn't like the book. Or if you found a publisher on your own, would she help negotiate the contract?

I'd love to know more about how something like this would work.

I'm currently agented, but my contract covers all my fiction writing, as opposed to a particular book. Perhaps I should have negotiated this point, but--too late now.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Devon,
Good advice about money. I need to get better at keeping my mouth shut in this area, although I really think I get the most snoopiness on this issue when it comes to my novels. On the other hand, when I first started freelancing fulltime people (especially family) seemed to be asking me a lot about money, primarily because they thought I had been delusional when I quit working at the hospital to write. When I assured them I made the same amount the first year, it didn't shut them up. Luckily, this year, I've had a good year and was able to tell them that I made the same amount I made the first year by June, which sort of shuts them up. At least enough so that next year I should feel comfortable saying, "I'm doing fine."

Eric,
I would think if I were to try something different again, it might actually be more along the lines of the Derek Stillwater novels (ie., action with a political thriller/espionage bent), or, perhaps, really go off the reservation and try something like a YA novel. I do have a kind of concept for a SF/fantasy novel that would be good for the middle school/early high school age, but if I did try that, it would be because I thought it would be fun, rather than because I thought I could sell it.

I've also had the notion of trying my hand at a movie script based on one or another of my unpublished novels, but who knows? I've also considered (far more seriously) pitching some nonfiction books in the popular science-type areas, since I write a lot of that type of thing.

Or...

Anonymous,
I don't have an agency contract, more of a handshake deal, so I suppose I can do what I want to do, although like I said earlier, I'm just not going to think about The Unfolding for a while. If it sticks in my brain, I might have to do something about it. If I decide it's better off dead, well, then it's better off dead. Several months ago I put up a chapter or two of a novel chunk I had sent my agent that she hated, and if I were going to go ahead and do finish something she didn't like, that would be the one I'd want a shot at, because it's a story that won't go away. And now that I think about it...

4:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I learn so much from your blog, Mark. Thank you!

-anonymous again

P.S. Everyone assumes that as soon as I get a publishing contract (which could be a long time coming) that I can quit freelancing as a copywriter because I'll be rich, rich, rich!

I tell them that most fiction writers aren't rich unless their name is Stephen King or Nora Roberts, and an author's payment for each paperback sold is about 60 cents, and hardcover earns them about three bucks.

Their jaws always hit the floor with a mighty thud.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Noelle Ashley said...

It's great advice - write what you do best and what you read so you know what's been done and how to do it well but in a fresh way. Thanks for your interesting blog. I'm doing travel writing on my blog now while writing my next novel.

6:49 PM  
Anonymous spyscribbler said...

Wow, Mark. Thanks for posting this. I've been really trying to figure this out lately.

I do need to work on action and description, that's for sure. How did you discover your strengths? Could you just tell, or did other help you identify them?

I can find my weaknesses easily, LOL, but not my strengths.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

spyscribbler,
I've always felt I wrote action well, but PITCHFORK was the first novel I ever wrote that I would call "action-based." I wrote a number of first-person PI novels nobody wanted, and too many books about a forensic toxicologist that nobody wanted (sort of; I had a publishing house go under on me prior to publication). Those were fine, but they were at their strongest when things were happening.

I'm afraid that the only way to really pin down what you do well is to pay attention to feedback from readers--actually ask them what worked and what didn't, what was best and what wasn't, hoping for honest, thoughtful answers.

Figuring out what we don't do well is easy, I'm afraid.

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