Mark Terry

Friday, December 08, 2006

Where Are You?

December 8, 2006
For better or worse, I've been a reader of Writers Digest for a very long time. For several years, the script columnist was J. Michael Straczinski, who went on to be the creator and producer of "Babylon Five."

Two specific thing Straczinski said in his columns have stuck in the forefront of my brain. I thought I'd share them with you today.

1. Wherever you are in your writing career, that's where you belong.
I'm not entirely sure I agree 100% with this comment, and if I remember correctly Straczinski got this notion from a writing instructor. Alternately, I do agree with this. Yes, there are undoubtedly some fine writers who for whatever reason haven't gotten published yet or haven't reached as wide an audience as their writing deserves, etc. At the same time, there may be holistic reasons for why their writing hasn't reached a wider audience or been published yet. Do they market their work enough? Do they persist in trying to find an agent or a publisher? Do they target the wrong audience?

This strikes me as being a very true statement, though, for unpublished writers, by and large. If your novel hasn't been published yet despite the efforts of your agent, or you can't get an agent, it's possible the work just isn't as good as you think it is. Now, "not good enough" can also be defined as "non-commercial," which can cause problems for any agent or publisher, no matter how beautiful the writing. I'm a believer that quality writing will win out--in the long run.

I've been outlining an older unpublished novel of mine with the intention of writing a screenplay based on it. It's a lively story and at the time my agent was real hot on it, but couldn't sell it. Several years later I rewrote it, surprised at how sloppily it had been put together in terms of typos, etc., and shopped it around a bit on my own with no luck. As I'm going through it now I'm seeing a lot of issues with it that I didn't see as recently as three or four years ago. I think the story is good, the line-by-line writing is good, but there's nothing like outlining something with the intention of turning a scene in a book into a scene in a movie script and discovering that pages go by with nothing happening, with page after page of backstory and flashback that couldn't possibly be filmed, to give you an idea of what went wrong with this particular story. So I think it's quite possible that if you're unpublished or your career's not taking off the way you hoped, one of the big reasons for it is that your skill and craft just aren't ready yet.

2. No writing is wasted.
I believe this 100%. Ray Bradbury estimated that before your novels would become publishable you needed to write about a million words, and if that's the case--and it probably is--then are those million words wasted? Of course not. They're part of the process.

And I find that over the years I've written some chunks of novels that for one reason or another didn't work out and rather than think that I've wasted my time, I prefer to think I was just trying out techniques and storylines and auditioning characters--what is sometimes referred to as "boring drills," where you test to see if it's boring or not--to see what works or to see if they catch on fire with you. In some ways I do more of this now than I used to do, but I try to do it more in my head (saves time, which, unfortunately, can be wasted). That said, as regular readers of this blog know, I recently wrote 100 pages of a medical thriller that failed to thrill my agent, so apparently I'm still doing this. Was that time wasted?

Welllllllll....

In the long run, probably not. It FEELS like I wasted my time, but I did make the acquaintance of an interesting character or two and tried something different. And maybe this was just a process I had to work my way through in order to get to a better story. Time will tell.

I'm going to add an addendum here, actually. I write mysteries and thrillers. Early in my writing ambition I wrote some sci-fi and some horror. I spent years working on PI novels and mysteries and finally seem to have found some success in thrillers. I also write a lot of nonfiction of various types--book reviews, business reports, feature articles, etc. I think all of this has made me a much better writer. From time to time I read a book by someone and it's a fine book, but I can sort of tell that they've spent all their time writing a certain kind of writing.

I think if you're a writer of mysteries and thrillers, it can be a very good thing to go out and read a romance novel or a sci fi novel or a mainstream novel or whatever, and maybe try your hand at it. Not necessarily of novel length or even with the intention of selling it, but to exercise different muscles. It'll help your overall writing.

And I think that should probably be out goal--to be good writers.

Best,
Mark Terry

5 Comments:

Blogger Ron Estrada said...

Good points. Now I can justify having a blog. That's writing! It counts!

9:14 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Well, Ron, blogging probably does count, although I don't know that it gets you any closer to getting published.

This spring/summer when I wanted to pull together the little e-booklet on writing that I have for free on my website, I was absolutely stunned to find that I had written--for free--the equivalent of a novel's amount of words on my blog. I can't help but wonder if that time might have been better spent working on fiction or nonfiction to sell (or query letters, for example), but I guess it's water over the damn, or under the bridge, or wherever the hell it goes.

9:21 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I think one of the most important steps for getting published is figuring out what sort of thing you can write in a publishable manner. I wasted scads of time writing horrible sf. I thought because I had grown up reading sf I ought to write it and I kind of fixated on that. Eventually I discovered that although I could not sell sf I could sell nonfiction and then I found I was much more comfortable with mysteries than sf. I would still love to write fantasy. However, having read a little of what's acceptible today I realize that any fantasy I would write, in the way I wanted to write it, would be for myself.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Joe Moore said...

All good advice, Mark.

The old adage that "writers write" is some of the best advice I’ve ever heard. It doesn’t matter what it is, the act of stringing words together in a coherent, clear, concise manner to communicate with another human is part of honing the craft. Whether it’s a corporate business plan (many of the ones I wrote fell into the fiction category), short story, book review, magazine article, blog entry, or novel, it’s writing. Every line written will make us all better writers.

Joe

7:34 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Joe,
Business plans as fiction--I love that. I spent a big chunk of this year writing a book-length business report and I from time to time felt like I was writing fiction as well. Of course, part of that's because I was basing much of my data on company annual reports, which often seem like fiction.

4:34 AM  

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