Mark Terry

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Thoughts On Mysteries Versus Thrillers

January 31, 2007
I decided to wade into a sometimes touchy subject--mysteries versus thrillers. Although sometimes the definitions remind me of the definition of "obscenity", ie., we know it when we see it, I've used this definition: a mystery is about solving a crime after it happens and a thriller is about preventing a crime from happening.

I've also described my thrillers as "solving a mystery on the run." And certainly some mysteries, especially the serial killer novels, are both, because the first killing occurs, or a body is discovered, and it's the opening salvo in an escalating series of killings.

One reason this gets so fuzzy is because of marketing. For a while there thrillers were kind of out and mysteries were kind of in and as a result, publishers, editors, agents and marketing folk were always calling thrillers mysteries. There's also, from a marketing perspective, a desire to refer to most crime fiction as thrillers or suspense because those two categories (or subcategories, or sub-subcategories) sell better outside genre fans. I think the trend has shifted again, for a number of reasons that I won't go into today, and mysteries are kind of out and thrillers are kind of in. (Sort of like chick-lit, which is so yesterday until, well, it's hot again, which it probably will be again, and everybody in publishing can jump back on that bandwagon all over again).

I just want to point out that I've always been a little puzzled when books by Jonathan Kellerman and Sue Grafton are dubbed thrillers or suspense by their publishers, because to me, both are pretty solidly in the "mystery" category, especially Grafton. So I guess we're back in the breakfast food aisle looking for the healthy grown-up cereals (you know the ones, made out of bran fiber, but having plenty of honey, molasses, raisins and dates in them) instead of the Cap'n Crunch (sugar).

I love a good mystery. I spent years writing them--unsuccessfully. Dirty Deeds, my first novel published by anybody else, is pretty much a thriller. The Devil's Pitchfork and all the following Derek Stillwater novels are thrillers and I don't have any ambivalence about that definition. Were my unpublished mysteries poorly written or poorly constructed? Well, my writing and story construction is a lot better now than it was, but I suspect most of these were publishable, and some of them clearly were. But they were mysteries, and mysteries have some problems that thrillers don't necessarily have.

I read an interview a few years ago with authors Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston. Child, I believe, was an editor with St. Martin's Press and Preston was working as a writer at the New York Museum of Natural History. Preston, if I have my history correct, had written a nonfiction book about the museum called, "Dinosaurs in the Attic." One night he took Lincoln Child on a tour of the museum (I myself am deeply jealous). At some point Preston said, "Wouldn't this be a great setting for a mystery novel?"

Child apparently sighed and said, "Mysteries are a dime a dozen and they're really, really hard to pull off. Maybe a thriller."

And then the two gents collaborated on a technothriller called "Relic" which went on to become a bestseller and a successful though largely forgettable film that took place in the museum and launched a career that is pretty spectacular for both men, who continue to co-write thrillers as well as write their own individual thriller novels.

I've pondered the "dime a dozen" statement and the "hard to pull off" statement for a long time. And I've come to the conclusion that Child was probably right. I suspect mysteries are overpublished. My impression is that there are tons of mysteries published with the notion that they will only sell a few thousand copies. (A St. Martin's Press specialty--the fling the spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks business model--publish a lot of books in low numbers). I hesitate to say it for fear of really pissing people off, but I've read a TON of mysteries and this is a genre--especially the so-called cozy mystery--that seems to produce a lot of half-baked books. Yet they get published. They get read. Careers are made.

One of my problems with cozies--and no, I don't agree with Otto Penzler's rants on this subject--is how often they seem to be written without much to go on. It's the caterer, dog walker, suburban housewife, insurance rep, retired nurse, freelance writer (I love these--the reason the characters make so little money is they're out running around solving mysteries instead of sitting in their chair at home working), retiree, widow, widower, marine biologist, scubas diver, rock climber, lawyer, paralegal, skydiver, blah, blah, blah, who stumbles onto a dead body than solves the mystery ... again and again and again. The books are character-driven, fine, but they're also weirdly artificial and their own internal logic doesn't work.

Well, anyway, there's a big discussion there. Let's look at something slightly more concrete.

I mentioned a week ago that I had lunch with an editor from Tor/Forge and Toby Buckell. One of the things we talked about was "returns" and "reserves against returns."

Probably most of you, even unpublished, have heard of returns. What this means is that bookstores order copies of your book from the distributor or the publisher, and if they don't sell them in a certain amount of time, they return them to the distributor and/or publisher and get either money back or credit toward their next order.

So what are "reserves against returns"? This lovely little phrase refers to what your publisher does to YOU, the writer, on your royalty statement. Let's say your publisher has had orders of 1000 copies of your book. You should get a royalty (let's assume this is AFTER you've earned back your advance somehow) of, say, $1 (I'm trying to keep the math simple here) per copy, so, you can expect a royalty check of $1000, right?


First, your agent will get that $1000 check anda take 15%, so the check would only be $850 anyway. But that's not the point.

Second, your publisher has the right to reserve a percentage of that money in case some of those books get returned to them. That is to say, instead of sending your agent a check for $1000, they have reserved 10% or 15% or 20% (or more, I'll get to that) against reserves. So your agent, instead of receiving that royalty check for $1000, receives a check for $800 with something in the statement indicating a 20% reserve against returns. (Then your agent takes 15% of the $800 and sends you a check for $680, and you promptly save $200 to pay your taxes and the remaining $480 goes onto your Visa bill, which has a balance of $5000, mostly from money you spent promoting the novel--website, mailings, gas for store visits, hiring a publicist, going to a conference... having fun yet?)

Here's the thing about reserves against returns: 10 to 20% is probably typical and industry standard (go back into my archives for that phrase to pop up), but for some books and some publishers, this reserve against returns can go really, really, really high, into the 75% or higher range. (Or so the rumor goes).

Anyway, what does this have to do with mysteries? Jim, the Tor/Forge editor, sighed and said, "Mysteries are a hard-sell within the industry because they have amazingly high returns. You can find a mystery you really love and have problems selling it to the publisher simply because mysteries have such a high return rate."

Well, some food for thought here, anyway, and I thought you might find a slightly different perspective on this issue interesting.

Mark Terry

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Bit By The Bug

January 30, 2007
I wasn't one of those people who knew he wanted to be a writer since he was 8 or 9. I was always a huge reader--still am--and I kept a journal/diary off and on and tried my hand at the occasional story in my youth--I remember writing a musical version of Dracula in 8th grade on my own, which I turned in to my English teacher, who gave me extra credit for it.

If you had asked me in my senior year in high school--assuming you could have gotten past what I thought people expected me to say (namely my parents)--I would have said my biggest passion was for music. I played sax and piano. I was good at the sax without trying and good at the piano by trying very hard. I had no desire to be a high school band director and was pretty much brainwashed into believing it was impossible to make a living performing music. I could have majored in piano education (I would have gotten blown away in a piano performance major--I was only good; they need to be great and even then the competition will be amazing) and once I got my degree, played for weddings and maybe in a band or as an accompanist for other musicians and for church services and taught more or less fulltime. At the time this wasn't quite what I wanted to do--spend my days in a small room teaching reluctant kids how to play the piano--although I note that now I spend my days in a small room by myself. (Well, it's not that small).

My parents, children of the depression, were quite adamant about the need to major in something that would get me a job. (This notion of college as a trade school is one both my wife and I believe is tied in with parents who didn't go to college; her parents felt quite the same way). I didn't really know what to major in, but I knew engineering and computer science were out, but I thought I was okay with lab stuff, so I started in out medical technology, hated it, fished around for a while considering technical writing (irony! I thought I couldn't get a job in it.) and German (boy, things might have been different) and finally decided microbiology (which, you may note, is almost totally like medical technology, which I hated).

I might have considered music, but again, my brother was in doctoral school for music and I'd spent the last 6 years listening to my mom bitch about his school and career choices, so the brainwashing was pretty severe. She bitched about microbiology, too, but...

Anyway, although I was a good high school student, graduated 31 in a class of 500, almost all A's with the occasional B, had sky-high PSAT scores and high ACT scores, I wasn't much of a college student. Not because I was partying (another missed opportunity--damn) but because I was in the wrong field. All my grades in English and history and humanities were typically A's, but my science and math grades were abysmal.

In the summer before my senior year in college, my girlfriend (now wife) graduated and moved home and took a job; my roommate (Hi Andy!) took an internship in Detroit. (I was at Michigan State University in East Lansing). I didn't have any classes that summer and I was living alone, my friends were gone, and I was working fulltime in the mail room at the Animal Health Diagnostic Laboratory. I spent my free time reading like crazy and haunting the bookstores, used and otherwise. I picked up a copy of a collection of essays about Stephen King called "The Faces of Fear." King had written an intro to it called "The Making of a Brand Name." It was quite a revelation, really. It was the first time it occurred to me that novelists were people who wrote and submitted stuff. You didn't have to be an English major. You didn't have to be a creative writing major. You didn't have to go to classes for it.

You just had to sit down and write.

So I did. My first shot was a science fiction short story called "When Red Eyes Blue" about intergalactic war. Two planets in a solar system had been dueling it out for generations. One of the planets had created cyborgs who looked just like people except they had red eyes. They were very hardy and great warriors, but what happened was, in the course of the war, all "human" life was wiped out and the only remaining humanoids were the cyborgs with red eyes. And built into their genetic programming was the fact that when the war was finally over, their red eyes would turn blue. And in this story, the red eyes turn blue and nobody knows what the hell to do since their entire culture and race has been designed to fight a war.

Well, I can see in retrospect that it's probably a great idea... FOR A NOVEL, but not a short story.

Anyway, I kept writing and submitting short stories, mostly to sci fi mags, although I had an "almost" with Redbook, of all things. Somewhere in that year I started a novel, which carried over into graduating, getting married and getting my first job as a research assistant in the pediatric infectious disease lab at Henry Ford Hospital. I was of the impression that all I had to do was write a novel and it would get published. I was naive, to say the least, and I knew little about writing and even less about getting published.

So that's how I was bit by the writing bug. I can credit or blame Stephen King. At least part of the appeal was he sold "Carrie" for $2500 in hardcover then got a $400,000 deal on the paperback rights (which were split 50/50 with his hardcover publisher--how do you like that?). So I may very well have wanted to write for fame and riches at the beginning, but I grew up (sort of; I still wouldn't mind the riches). And I never stopped writing. Which tells me that it has to do with something more than money.

When and how did the bug bite you?

Mark Terry

Monday, January 29, 2007

Writers Are Full Of Crapola

January 29, 2007
See, I finally wrote it. It was only a matter of time. You're probably here on my site either because you think because I make a living as a writer, I must have some pearls of wisdom on how you, too, can make a living as a writer. (Of course, I'm currently averaging $400 a month in 2007, although I'm owed over $20,000--any day now, any day now... There are days when you can have it, namely when the Visa bill comes around).

Or perhaps there's just something here that keeps you mildly entertained for the two minutes it takes you to read it.

That's all well and good, and thanks for coming by, I hope you get your money's worth.

We're all full of shit.

For a while there every writer had to have a website, and a hardy few decided to try a forum and probably what happens is readers meet there and talk about something else. Now that blogs have taken off, every writer, successful or not, is espousing some approach to writing, the writing life, marketing, the business, how to get an agent, how to get an editor, how to write query letters, how to blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

God, as much time as I waste on other writers' blogs, you'd think I wouldn't be such a damned hypocrite. But doesn't a tiny piece of you wish that we'd all cut it out with the Internet equivalent of an Informercial and go back to writing the stories that you like? Remember when the only thing readers gave a damn about was when the writer's next book was coming out, not what pearls of wisdom they were crapping out of their shells every day?

I read this recently on the Bookends Literary Agency blog. They're not my agents--although at one time or another I've had manuscripts rejected by them, but that's a large club--but I find her straightforward, non-snarky (ahem) approach easy to swallow.

How you write is truly personal, which is why I'm often amazed, and sometimes frightened, by the number of workshops authors will attend on how to write. Or the number of conversations I have with my own clients (people obviously having success with what they're doing) on how they can do it differently. Why fix it if it's not broken? Sure you can always find new techniques that might work for you, but let me tell you this, you are never going to be able to do it the way someone else does. How one person writes is not necessarily the best way for you.

I wish I'd said. I'm reminded yet again of Raymond Chandler giving a lecture on writing and being badgered on how to do this and how to do that, and finally jumping to his feet and shouting, "Write it any damn way you please," and stomping out of the classroom.

The point being, I think: write it.

Mark Terry

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Writing For A Living

January 28, 2007
Since I mentioned a couple blogs ago that I had a recurring nightmare that I had to go back and work at the hospital, it seems clear to me that there is precious little else I would be happy doing for a living (although if someone wants to give me a few billion and run a philanthropy, I'm open to the idea). This guy, whose name is Charlie, wrote a great blog about the truth of writing for a living. Here's a sample:

Being a self-employed writer is not a lifestyle that suits everyone. In fact, there are a lot of misconceptions about what the job entails. I've been doing it full-time for over six years now, so while I can't claim an encyclopedic knowledge I can at least give you a brain dump of my personal perspective on it.

Firstly, forget the romance of the writer's lifestyle and the aesthetic beauty of having a Vocation that calls you to create High Art and lends you total creative control. That's all guff. Any depiction of the way novelists live and work that you see in the popular media is wrong. It's romanticized clap-trap. Here's the skinny:

You are a self-employed business-person. Occasionally you may be half of a partnership — I know a few husband-and-wife teams — but in general novelists are solitary creatures. You work in a service industry where output is proportional to hours spent working per person, and where it is very difficult to subcontract work out to hirelings unless you are rich, famous, and have had thirty years of seniority in which to build up a loyal customer base. So you eat or starve on the basis of your ability to put your bum in a chair and write. BIC or die, that's the first rule. Lifestyle issues come a distant second.

Mark Terry

Friday, January 26, 2007

Reading Meme

January 26, 2007
I borrowed this from Lynn Viehl's blog, but I'm modifying it for my own nefarious uses. Especially since I was originally going to write a post titled: WRITERS ARE FULL OF CRAPOLA.

Contemporary, Historical, or Paranormal?

Hardback or Trade Paperback or Mass Market Paperback?
I'm not picky. Any. My eyes are getting old, though, so I like hardbacks. But I'm published in trade, so who's to judge?

Connelly or Crais?
If I had to choose, I'd say Crais, but that's not a knock on Connelly.

Amazon or Brick and Mortar?
Oh boy. Well, Amazon for convenience and a guarantee I'll actually find the book, but I prefer to wander a bookstore in a daze, getting surprised.

Barnes & Noble or Borders?
Borders is closer. We used to go B&N all the time until Borders opened up nearby--about 10 miles away. The nearest B&N is closer to 20 miles away in Rochester. I used to really like the dark wood thing at B&N, but now I like the lighter wood and feel at Borders.

Robert B. Parker or Sue Grafton?Jesus. Probably Parker, although I think Grafton's "I" is for Innocent is one of the best mysteries ever written.

First mystery novel you ever remember reading?
Something about the Happy Hollisters, probably. Even before Hardy Boys.

Alphabetize by author, alphabetize by title or random?
This one makes me laugh. Random, to say the least.

Keep, Throw Away or Sell?It used to be keep, but I'm running out of room. Then I donated a few hundred to a nearby assisted living place. I reluctantly admit--hey, I was a book reviewer, so I would get mailed hundreds of books a year--that from time to time I've just tossed them. It pains me to say it.

Read with dustjacket or remove it?
Remove it.

Douglas Preston or Lincoln Child?Ha! Trick question. They write books together. I love those. I also love their books they write separately. I would have said, after Child's "Utopia," that I preferred Child to Preston, but I loved "Tyrannosaur Canyon" by Preston just as much as I loved "Utopia." And Child's next solo novel comes out next week. I can't wait.

Stop reading when tired or at chapter breaks?
Chapter or section breaks when I run out of time. And I'm not sure that getting tired ever stops me from reading.

It was a dark and stormy night or Once upon a time?Geeze, gimme a break. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. C'mon, Charlie, which was it? The best or the worst? Make up your mind.

Dick Francis or John Sandford?
Apples and oranges.

Buy or Borrow?
Buy, almost always, unless the publisher sends me copies.

Buying choice: Book Reviews, Recommendation or Browse?
Gimme another break. Even though I wrote book reviews, that's not a big influence. Browse, more than anything.

Tidy ending or Cliffhanger?

Morning reading, Afternoon reading or Nighttime reading?

Series or standalone?Series, but I'm appreciating more and more the difficulty for writers in maintaining them. On the other hand, a good standalone...

Favorite book of which nobody else has heard?
It's a toughie. Should I recommend Jeff Cohen's Aaron Tucker novels, like, "A Farewell to Legs" or a novel by Randy Wayne White like "Shark River" or one of Eric Mayer and Mary Reed's John the Eunuch novels, or "Private Wars" by Greg Rucka, or "Bad Guys" by Linwood Barclay. These are all people whose sales vary a lot--White is a bestseller, for instance--but who I think are either underappreciated or relatively unknown and should be a lot better known because they're great.

I'd love to hear your opinions.

Mark Terry

Thursday, January 25, 2007

I'm So Tense

January 25, 2007
I've been thinking about tension lately. Not my own, although if my dream last night that I had gone back to work at the hospital is any indication, I may be feeling a little stressed (I know I was when I woke up from that nightmare).

No, I'm thinking about tension in your writing. If you've had enough pieces rejected and actually gotten comments back from agents or editors, somewhere along the lines you're likely to have received the comment, "Lacks tension."

This doesn't mean action on every page. You can have an exciting, action-based piece of fiction that lacks tension. Haven't you ever read a thriller where it just seems ... by the numbers? Haven't you ever read something with no action at all that was very compelling?

One of the reasons I'm thinking about this is I'm reading a manuscript by a friend and the writing is quite good, but I keep thinking, "It lacks tension."

I thought I'd quote from the best book I've ever read on writing, "Make Your Words Work" by Gary Provost. Here's from his chapter on Tension:

"Tension is not just something that you put into your dramatic last scene when the ax murderer is hiding in the closet. It is a cord, or a series of cords, that stretch across every paragraph that you write. And tension is not always a matter of life or death. 'Will he kiss her?' is tension. 'Will she slap his face or melt in his arms?' That is tension. Tension is a vital element in everything that you write. It is the thing that makes your reader turn pages.

"Get your reader into that state of 'uneasy suspense' and keep him there. That means the reader should always be uncertain about what's coming up and should always be asking questions. Tension can come from what's happening in a story, from the words and sentences you use to tell the story, and even from the fact that you're telling the story. 'Why is he telling me this?' is a reader question which creates tension."

Some writers, typically unpublished, don't choose their verbs appropriately. Their characters get out of bed instead of jumping, leaping, crawling, falling, stumbling or dragging themselves out of bed. Some writers choose, for whatever reason, to eschew (hey, I finally got a chance to use that word) drama.

One of the problems I often see in writers who are published and aren't as good as they should be, or in good writers who aren't yet published, is that their main characters get along too well with everybody. In fiction, you can really keep the tension by giving everybody your main character interacts with an agenda (kind of like in real life). Even if you're writing a cozy mystery about a little old lady, that doesn't mean that her neighbor likes her, her daughter doesn't want her in a nursing home or is annoyed every time she shows up, but pretends to be polite, that the woman who colors her hair doesn't accidentally insult her or grate on her nerves. I don't know about you, but I've finally gotten to a point in my life where I get along with most people and enjoy the eccentrics, but that doesn't mean that long exposure to them wouldn't drive me insane. I'm quite forgiving of people's quirks these days because I can smile and go back home to my office.

I also like to have characters talk at cross-purposes. There's nothing quite like having your main character ask a seemingly straightforward question only to have it answered obliquely, evasively, or in such a way that the reader--and possibly your character--believes that they're lying or holding information back. That creates tension.

So... feeling tense yet?

Mark Terry

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Serpent's Kiss--the cover

January 24, 2007
Here's the official cover for the second Derek Stillwater novel, THE SERPENT'S KISS--scheduled for July 1, 2007. Pretty cool!

Kiss Her Goodbye by Robert Gregory Browne--a review

January 23, 2007

Kiss Her Goodbye
By Robert Gregory Browne
St. Martin’s Press
Hardcover. $23.95. 304 Pages
ISBN: 0-312-35839-3
Publication: February 6, 2007

ATF Agent Jack Donovan has been hunting cult leader Alex Gunderson for years, but never been able to gain traction enough to put him behind bars. When Gunderson and his inner circle—including his pregnant wife—knock off a bank, which turns into a hostage situation, Donovan’s sure he’s got Gunderson for good. But Gunderson’s plan is more intricate than a simple bank job—he’s made plans for escape.

The escape, however, doesn’t go quite as well as Gunderson hoped, and his wife Sara is wounded and ends up near death in a coma. Most of his team is captured, while he slips free. And Gunderson knows who’s behind this fall from grace—ATF Agent Jack Donovan.

Gunderson hatches a plot to hurt Donovan where he lives—he kidnaps Jessie, Donovan's teenage daughter. In retaliation for Sara, Gunderson then buried Jessie in a vault with only 48 hours worth of air. While Donovan and his team is attempting to capture Gunderson, the cult leader is killed--Gunderson was the only one who knew where Jessie was buried.

Donovan is a compelling character, a tough cop who is attempting, after years of distance, to reconcile with his teenage daughter, Jessie. There might be times during the book where the reader will want to dope-slap him--focus, idiot! But that's how Browne realistically handles the situation: Donovan is under stress, exhausted, and sometimes his judgment goes awry. It's an all-too-human portrait of a father's worst nightmare.

Browne has created a wildly tense premise here and all on its own would have pretty much guaranteed a riveting read. But Browne has other things in mind, and Kiss Her Goodbye takes on an unexpected supernatural slant—after all, what would a father do to rescue his daughter? Would he die for her? I have to admit that the supernatural elements (woo-woo, as it’s sometimes called) threw me for a while. Browne handles it very well, but it was my least favorite aspect of the book.

All the elements of a terrific novel are here—a compelling, three-dimensional hero, a brilliant and evil villain, high stakes, a ticking clock, real emotion and Browne’s visceral writing style. Browne also does some fancy footwork in incorporating his twists—they twist about where you would expect them to in a thriller, but they twist in decidedly unexpected ways. It all comes together well to make for a strong, striking debut thriller.

Mark Terry

Monday, January 22, 2007

7 Questions With Robert Gregory Browne

January 22, 2007
Robert Gregory Browne's debut novel, KISS HER GOODBYE, will be debuting shortly. I was lucky enough to win an advanced reading copy and had a chance to read it a month or so ago.

In 1990 Rob won an American Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science Nicholl Fellowship for Screenwriting for the script "Low Tide," which launched his career as a scriptwriter. Fifteen years or so later he decided to follow his original dream of being a novelist. The father of two grown children, Rob lives with his wife in California.

1. Are you still writing scripts?

No, I haven't written a screenplay in quite some time. As much as I enjoy writing movies, my head is in novels right now and I'm having a blast.

2. You were a fulltime scriptwriter before this novel sale. What did
you write?

Mostly feature scripts and, toward the end, a lot of animation scripts for Fox Kids. I wrote on staff for a show called Diabolik -- which was a big hit in Europe -- and, later, for Spider-Man Unlimited, which I believe fans have ranked as the worst Spider-Man cartoon series ever. Although I know we had our fans.

3. Did you ever have a "dayjob" before you broke into writing?

I spent many years working in law firms. And during the dips on the roller coaster ride -- which are more often than I'd like -- I'll usually seek out a day job. But I don't often talk about that much because a) it's not very interesting; and b) it has little to do with my writing life other than financially. Everyone always assumes professional writers are rich, but I think you'd readily agree that that's not always true.

4. I heard you write lying in bed with a laptop. How do you stay awake?

Sometimes I don't. But when you have a deadline looming, you tend to keep your eyes open. The last few days before my second book was due, I was writing until well into the morning.

5. Anything else you want to say about your writing process? Outlines,
treatments, winging it?

I generally wing it. I've written outlines and treatments in my time, but never did much with them. For me it's a waste of energy.

6. Most of my blog readers seem to be aspiring novelists. What's the
one thing you could tell them about getting "there"?

Persevere. Keep trying and you just might make it. I've had this dream since I was twelve. I'm considerably older than that now.

7. Now, having answered #6, what's the one thing you could tell them
that they haven't heard a million times before?

Always trust your gut. Always. It will never lie to you.

Thanks, Rob. I'll have a review of KISS HER GOODBYE up in a day or so.

Mark Terry

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Bring What Ya Got

January 21, 2007
I got sucked into the edge of a conversation last week about art versus craft. This is a subject I try to avoid, generally speaking, because I don't know exactly what art is. A friend of mine always used to claim that if the perpetrator called it art, then it was art.

I'm not wild about his definition. I'm also not wild about another definition that society seems to believe: that if critics call it art it is art.

What I was thinking today was this: I don't know if my writing is art, but I bring as much to it as I can.

By that I mean skill (craft) and talent and emotion and, you know, whatever I might have in terms of emotions and life experience and writing skill. And I suspect that when we really get into "art" and no, I can't really define it, that it really becomes art when the creator (perpetrator) of it brings as much of all that STUFF to it as possible.

That isn't to say I can't bring more. I'm trying to accomplish certain things and a fast-paced, entertaining read can be compromised if I spend an inordinate amount of time on certain elements like setting and character development, etc. Writing is about choices, after all.

But I do think that as writers we need to bring as much STUFF as we possibly can to our work. The STUFF we bring may very well be art and how we distribute it may very well be craft.

Or, I could be wrong.

Mark Terry

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Opening Doors

January 20, 2007
Yesterday I got an e-mail from Tobias Buckell--see link over there to the right--saying he was going to be in my area for a conference, maybe we could get together for a drink or lunch.

So we did. We met in the lobby of the Troy Marriott and took a seat in the bar and chatted for a few minutes, wondering if the barista was going to approach us and try to ply us with legally controlled beverages. She didn't seem all that interested.

After a few minutes a gent stopped by who seemed to know Toby and asked who I was. I commented I was a groupie, and he commented that I wasn't good looking enough to be a groupie, to which I replied, "That's for damned sure." We shook and I introduced myself and he introduced himself as a senior editor for Tor/Forge, and he asked us to lunch.

So in we went and I found myself having my very first editor lunch, although the editor in question was not an editor for Toby or me. Yet, perhaps. We chatted and Jim, the editor, was quite the chatter, and we ate and at the end of the conversation Jim asked me to send him my best thriller for him to read and handed me his business card. I suggested I had something in mind and I'd have my agent send it to him and gave him my own card. We shook, I thanked him for lunch, and we all pretty much parted ways.

And when I got home I whipped off an e-mail to my agent.

You know, nothing may come of this. But it was the first time I've ever experienced something like this--we hear about them all the time, don't we?--and it's certainly energizing, I can tell you that much.

Mark Terry

Friday, January 19, 2007

Dirty Deeds (Done Dirty Cheap--no kidding)

January 19, 2007
Spyscribber (Natasha) wrote a glowing review of my novel DIRTY DEEDS on her blog. Thanks Natasha.

For those of you who might be interested in what apparently is Meg Malloy's single publishing foray, although you can find it via Amazon or by requesting it from your local bookstore, I also have copies that I would love to sell you at a discount. (I had an odd deal going with this publisher where I would try to handsell a specific number of books, alas, I'm not great at handselling).

So, if you're interested in a $10 signed copy (no postage or shipping) of DIRTY DEEDS, contact me via e-mail at:

Oy vey, vhat a deal!

Mark Terry

Thursday, January 18, 2007

So The Drama!

January 18, 2007
The title above is from the title of one of the "Kim Possible" movies, unless I've got it wrong. And in case you've never hard of Kim Possible, I feel sorry for you, because Kim and her sidekick Ron Stoppable (and his pet, a naked mole rat) are one of the best cartoons on. Kim is a superhero, when she's not being a great student and cheerleader.

Anyway, I was thinking about this because in the novel I'm working on there are a number of explosions and I just wrote two suicide attacks, one quite dramatic, and the main characters weren't there to witness either of them and I wrote them that way, of them hearing about it afterwards.

This is dumb. I'm writing a novel with multiple points of view, so I really need to go back and write these explosions from the pov of the incidents. Why? Because they're dramatic.

And although there are some fine writers who sometimes cut away from the action for whatever reason (and I can think of a few and they all have to do with what it is you're trying to accomplish), especially in "literary and/or mainstream fiction," I, on the other hand, am writing thrillers.

I've whined about this before, but there's a novel by Jim Harrison that is about a dissipated novelist who goes to the U.P. to write the memoir of a famous engineer who traveled the world building huge projects like dams. The character is now paralyzed from the waist down because he was an epileptic who decided not to take his medicine and use native remedies while working in the Amazon jungle while building a dam. He would rappel down the side of the damn to inspect it, and the last time he did, he had a seizure and fell down the curving side of the dam. But Harrison, for whatever reason, isn't really all that interested in such an exciting, frightening and dramatic event. He's interested in the novelist's growth being exposed to a man like this. Honest to god, I would have preferred the novel about the dam builder.

David Morrell said in an interview once that rather early on he realized that what readers wanted was romance, and by romance he didn't mean kiss-kiss, but romance like knights and quests and adventure and honor and glory. He also notes that this was a little different from the literature he was used to reading as a professor, which was quite intellectual.

Tess Gerritsen recently wrote a couple posts on her wonder blog about writing what you know, and how she teaches a class to doctors who want to be novelists. And one of the things she said really struck home:

I find that aspiring novelists who are highly educated or intensely cerebral have trouble understanding what makes popular culture tick. They’re good at writing elegant phrases that have no emotional content. They think that anything else smacks of melodrama, and good heavens, that’s like watching that horrid Jerry Springer!

Well, imagine this. You’re sitting in Starbucks, and the couple at the table to your left is having a deep discussion about the merits of Proust. And the couple on your right is arguing about the affair that one of them is having. Which couple would you listen to?

There’s a reason Jerry Springer was so popular.

No matter how unusual your occupation, no matter how much you know about quarks and ion propulsion and string theory, if your novel isn’t at heart about people and their conflicts with each other, then it’s not going to hold our attention. Yeah, string theory may be interesting — but how does it affect the lives of John and Jane Doe?

So I think it's not unreasonable as a writer, particularly if you're trying to be a writer of commercial fiction, which is, after all, the entertainment business, that one of the questions you need to ask yourself when you choose your heroes and your points of view and many other questions is quite simple:

Where's the drama?

Find it and you're on your way.

Mark Terry

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Just Write, for God Sakes!

January 17, 2007
I popped on, a couple days slow, to Jeff Cohen's blog and he talks a bit about some writer who's going to write in public while people watch. That's fairly amusing, but what really attracted me was this:

I don't believe writing is a mystical process. I don't believe in muses. I don't think I write fiction by communing with unseen beings, sacrificing a goat to the proper deity or buring the proper incense, although you're free to try any of these things, as long as you don't blame the goat thing on me when the cops show up at your apartment door. I think writing is an intellectual process that takes place between the ears and shows up on the page. It's a creative job, but a job, nonetheless.

But it's a very personal process to me, one that I couldn't ever do if I thought someone were looking over my shoulder.

I think you can definitely mystify the process, but mostly it's describing the images in your head. And they're not quite images, I don't think, any more than when I hear people describe reading as like watching images. It's a much more complicated neurological process than strictly watching a movie in your head, just like dreams are.

It's something we learn. It's something we do. It's, gulp, something we are.

But I don't need to be more superstitious about it than necessary. Try to show up in the same place pretty much at the same time and write. Just do it, as the Nike commercials say. Treat it like a habit and it becomes a habit.

Mark Terry

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Which Story To Tell

January 16, 2007
Thanks to some jackass car commercial, I've got that "Auf Widersehen" song from "The Sound of Music" in my head. My brain went off on a tangent and it occurred to me that it might make a good post here. I haven't seen TSOM in years, but even at a much younger age, I realized that choices had been made when this story was told.

To give a real quick summary: a young nun falls in love with a German widower with a bunch of kids, leaves the convent, then the entire family has to sneak out of Nazi Germany and hike over the mountains to freedom.

Ahem. All while smiling, singing, whistling and being just as sweet as pure cane sugar.

Underneath all this somewhat true story, it seems to me, is sex, religion, violence, danger, and rigorous physical adventure.

But that wasn't the story chosen to be told.

Had I been telling this story in this day and age, it would have been a lot edgier and a lot more realistic. I've often thought of how horrible it must have been for that family to escape into the mountains. The movie gives you the notion that fleeing into the mountains with a couple adults and about 8 children, some very young, was like a picnic with flowers and hampers of food and Bambi cavorting alongside.

If that's how the Van Trapp family actually made their escape, there must have been a hell of a lot of hardship, complaining, whining, and fear.

Sneaking out under the noses of Nazis at the end of a performance would have been terrifying. What if one of the children was stopped? Would they all get out?

Well, it's hard to argue with the success of "The Sound of Music," but it strikes me as being demonstrative of how the choices the writer makes affects how the story is told.

Deciding why you make those choices, however, is called ART.

Mark Terry

Monday, January 15, 2007

Getting Inside an Agent or Editor's Head

January 15, 2007
Over the last year or so I've had the opportunity to read a number of manuscripts or partial manuscripts by unpublished novelists. Except for one memorable manuscript, they've all been pretty good. The one memorable one might have been had the writer had more craft and it's possible with hard work and feedback that he will.

I've also read an unpublished manuscript by a novelist who makes a decent living off his published novels alone.

Why aren't they publishable?

Frankly, I don't really know. There's a definite crapshoot quality to this. It's possible that some of them will be published, possibly to great acclaim and tons of money.

I'm reading one now and I commented to my wife yesterday, "On a line by line, word for word basis, he's a pretty good writer. I'm starting to appreciate the problem an editor or agent has."

Imagine for a moment that you're an agent and you receive approximately 100 manuscripts or partial manuscripts per week. I would guess that 95 of those are unpublishable. The remaining 5--wait, let's do a little math first. If they get 100 a week (probably a lowball number), they get 400 a month or 4800 a year. Now, I read 50 or 60 novels a year, so for a moment consider taking a look at almost 5000 manuscripts. Unless you've come totally unhinged from reality, that number has to seem a bit daunting. But then again, most are crap and you can eliminate them within the first couple pages.

Okay, optimistically 5 a week are worth reading all the way through, that's 20 a month, approximately 250 a year. Still a lot and probably wildly optimistic.

Now, a single agent (and no editor) is going to take on 250 new clients a year.

So what are they looking for?

Ask yourself this question: Have you ever read a novel that was published with or without fanfare and acclaim that you said, "What the hell was the editor thinking?"

If you haven't, you need to read more books.

Another question: Ever walked into a Borders or Barnes & Noble or similar bookstore and taken a moment to just look around and think, "An awful lot of books have to be published in order to fill up all these shelves."?

Now, one final question that you need to ask yourself: Have you ever paid bills? Do you have a mortgage or rent payment, a car payment, orthondontist for your kids, a vacation you want to take, grocery bills, cable bill, phone bill?

NO? Get a life and come back later.

Well here's a fact of life. Agents and editors have bills to pay, too.

So what is an agent or editor thinking when they get a manuscript?

My guess? They're thinking: I hope this is the one that makes me rich. Or, my kid wants to go to Yale next year, how the hell am I going to afford that? Or, I really want to go to Maui for 10 days this year but I just can't swing it.

But what are they thinking about what they're reading?

My guess is: Huh, it's okay, but it's not blowing me away.

She's a good writer but I find it too easy to put it down.

Oh, this is just like the last 8 books I read.

Oh God, not another Da Vinci Clone. That boat has sailed.

This is a pretty good book, but the most I can sell it for is $5000 which will only come to $750 for me and my daughter's got her heart set on Yale.

I'm sifting for diamonds or gold and keep getting industrial grade or copper.

I've got room on my list for 8 more books and I've already got 3 thrillers about terrorism, 1 about a conspiracy involving the Catholic Church and a secret society from the Dark Ages, 5 cozies including one about a cat that solves crimes, 2 P.I. novels involving smart-mouthed tough guys or gals, 1 police procedural about serial killers and 2 plucky-single-female-meets-mysterious-stranger-and-finds-her-life-in-jeopardy novels, so I really need to find something different.

My boss (editor, publisher, accountant, loan shark) shot down the last six manuscripts I brought, so the next one I bring had better blow them away or I'm going to be flipping burgers at McDonald's next week. (and my daughter wants to go to Yale next year and I really need to get out of the city someplace warm for a week or 10 days and my son's orthodontist bill's due...)

See? Nobody said this would be easy. "Good enough" can actually be "good enough" if you're in the right place at the right time with the right editor and the right agent, but otherwise, a "good writer" has got a problem. A good writer needs the "right" project. (Or to be a "better" writer).

I find this frustrating still and I can assure you that when I was unpublished I felt it all the time. As I recently commented to my agent when an editor turned down a manuscript saying he liked the character and the story and the writing, but didn't think it was quite strong enough to "break out" I commented, "Doesn't want much, does he?"

To which my agent replied: "Just everything."

Mark Terry

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Dear Nancy Pelosi

January 14, 2007
Dear Nancy,
Congratulations on becoming the first woman speaker of the house. That's quite an achievement. In the spirit of bipartisanship, George and I would like to invite you out to his ranch for a weekend of discussions and quail hunting. I'm looking forward to it.


Dick Cheney

Friday, January 12, 2007

Writing And Your Hook

January 12, 2007
I was reading the Publishing Contrarian blog today and she had some interesting things to say about hooks.

The Catch-22 in Publishing: A book by an unknown author has to become successful on its own before the publishing company will do anything significant on its part to add to the success. Even worse, the truth is that most publishing companies are much too content with a book selling well on its own to ante up any extra marketing money in an effort to boost sales over the top. “Next book, please!” So if your book-in-progress can’t already boast a hook, you’d better add one. And if you already have one or better, two, (good for you!), you’d better hit the people whose attention you’re trying to attract over the head with it.

Never forget that you have to sell your book to the literary agent; the literary agent has to sell your book to the editor; the editor has to sell your book to the publisher; and the publisher might have to sell your book to the president of the company. Not to mention that once it is published, your book has to be “sold” to the marketing department as something other than the usual fare worthy of no more than the usual ho-hum effort. (Get those 300 ARCs ready to blast into oblivion!) Even if you self-publish, a good hook will get you in the door of independent bookstores where you live and where your story takes place, Starbuck’s where you live and where your story takes place, libraries where you live and where your story takes place–wherever the hook fits well.

Now, I have to confess, I'm not really sure I "get" hooks and how to write them. Rather inadvertently I may have come up with several good ones with the Derek Stillwater novels--that is to say, 1) biological and chemical terrorism, 2) extremely tight timeframes, 3) Derek's panic attacks and general ambivalence about a job he does rather well (more Spiderman than Superman, I guess).

And I think sometimes writers just write the story they want and happen to be lucky that the story has a hook. I kind of doubt that the author of The Memory Keeper's Daughter thought, "There are 350,000 people with Down syndrome in the U.S., and most of their families will read my book and talk about it." No, I suspect the author thought, "I want to write a story about someone with Down syndrome that treats the disorder as something besides a cliche."

Still, given the current state of the publishing industry, it's probably a good idea to think about your hook. A genius detective with an obsessive-compulsive disorder, anyone? Oh yeah, "Monk."

Mark Terry

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Writing Contest News

January 11, 2007
I pulled this off a newsletter I get called Shelf Awareness:

Days after the Sobol Award program collapsed, Simon & Schuster's Touchstone imprint and, which just e-inked an agreement with Borders for a book chat room, are setting up First Chapters, a prize for unpublished writers, today's New York Times reported. Under the program, aspiring authors post chapters of their works on, and its members vote in several rounds for their favorites. (Unlike the Sobol Award, there are no entry fees, and winners aren't forced to sign a contract with an agent.) Finalists are judged by a panel that includes S&S's Carolyn Reidy and George Jones, CEO of Borders. The brass ring is the same as the Sobol Award: a publishing contract with Touchstone. The winner also receives $5,000 from

So, if you're interested, good luck.

In the Life Isn't Stranger Than Fiction, It's Just Plain Strange cagetory, there was an article on today about how some US intelligence contractors have discovered Canadian coins that are actually hollowed out and contain miniature transmitters in them.

Intelligence and technology experts said such transmitters, if they exist, could be used to surreptitiously track the movements of people carrying the spy coins.

The U.S. report doesn’t suggest who might be tracking American defense contractors or why. It also doesn’t describe how the Pentagon discovered the ruse, how the transmitters might function or even which Canadian currency contained them.

Although there's a part of me that says, "Wow, that is so cool!" there is a part of me thinking that this is primarily useful if you intend your surveillance to take place in the inside of a Coke machine. Of course, they were Canadian coins, and although I'm in Michigan relatively close to the Canadian border, not all that many vending machines except right in Detroit or perhaps Saulte Ste. Marie or Port Huron actually accept Canadian coins.

So this sort of wins the Maxwell Smart Shoe Phone Award. Cones of Silence, anyone?

Mark Terry

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Speed of Light

January 10, 2007
Okay, today is Wednesday. No wonder I'm feeling so damned breathless. Here's what's happened since Friday:

1. I got an e-mail on Friday from my agent updating this writing stuff. She more or less asked what I was doing. I told her, and one of the things I told her was that I was playing around with a novel for kids. She commented that I should put together a proposal--2 chapters and a brief synopsis--on this concept for a YA series involving a very famous adventure story that she and an editor friend had discussed, only make the characters younger. She also asked to read what I had going on the kids' novel, which was about 25 pages. So I sent it off to her. She got back to me in a couple hours saying she loved it and I really should put together a proposal for her on this concept she had going with an editor friend of hers.

2. I start thinking about this proposal and and conducting a little research and finally, on Sunday, started working on it. It's slow going.

3. On Monday I get a phone call from one of my biggest clients, who wants to pin me down for some long reports in 2007. We discuss it and come up with deadlines and figures and he says he will e-mail me the contract ASAP. It is, by the way, for about half of last year's total income. I work some more on the proposal, frantically now, because I've got a bit too much on my plate with this new nonfiction contract and I can't dither on these projects. One is due at the end of February, but it's the shortest and I can't start it until the surveys are completed, one's due on June 1 and it's big and another is due in September and it's big, but I can't start it either until the surveys are complete, so I can already tell I'll be juggling projects.

4. I receive the contract, sign it, fax it off. I will receive 1/2 upfront, so January's looking pretty damned good. I decide that since I'm still working on the 4th Derek Stillwater novel (due October 1) that I need to get this other proposal out of the way, so I spend the rest of the day finishing it, then send it off to my agent (thank God for e-mail). About an hour later I get a response saying she loved it and she's sending it to her editor friend.

5. Wednesday morning. I get an e-mail probably sent last night from my agent saying the editor read it, liked it and wants to see a copy of The Devil's Pitchfork so she can have proof that I can actually finish a manuscript. So that's where I am now. And this whole thing started on FRIDAY!

Over the weekend Dory sent me an e-birthday card with a frog fairy on it saying it came around with a stick to grant happiness and she hoped it would come around and beat the shit out of me.

Daayummm. Be careful what you wish for. Despite myself, I'm pretty excited about this proposal although I'm trying to keep my expectations realistic (that is to say, low-key). But man, this is all happening fast.

Mark Terry

The Speed of Light

January 10, 2007
Okay, today is Wednesday. No wonder I'm feeling so damned breathless. Here's what's happened since Friday:

1. I got an e-mail on Friday from my agent updating this writing stuff. She more or less asked what I was doing. I told her, and one of the things I told her was that I was playing around with a novel for kids. She commented that I should put together a proposal--2 chapters and a brief synopsis--on this concept for a YA series involving a very famous adventure story that she and an editor friend had discussed, only make the characters younger. She also asked to read what I had going on the kids' novel, which was about 25 pages. So I sent it off to her. She got back to me in a couple hours saying she loved it and I really should put together a proposal for her on this concept she had going with an editor friend of hers.

2. I start thinking about this proposal and and conducting a little research and finally, on Sunday, started working on it. It's slow going.

3. On Monday I get a phone call from one of my biggest clients, who wants to pin me down for some long reports in 2007. We discuss it and come up with deadlines and figures and he says he will e-mail me the contract ASAP. It is, by the way, for about half of last year's total income. I work some more on the proposal, frantically now, because I've got a bit too much on my plate with this new nonfiction contract and I can't dither on these projects. One is due at the end of February, but it's the shortest and I can't start it until the surveys are completed, one's due on June 1 and it's big and another is due in September and it's big, but I can't start it either until the surveys are complete, so I can already tell I'll be juggling projects.

4. I receive the contract, sign it, fax it off. I will receive 1/2 upfront, so January's looking pretty damned good. I decide that since I'm still working on the 4th Derek Stillwater novel (due October 1) that I need to get this other proposal out of the way, so I spend the rest of the day finishing it, then send it off to my agent (thank God for e-mail). About an hour later I get a response saying she loved it and she's sending it to her editor friend.

5. Wednesday morning. I get an e-mail probably sent last night from my agent saying the editor read it, liked it and wants to see a copy of The Devil's Pitchfork so she can have proof that I can actually finish a manuscript. So that's where I am now. And this whole thing started on FRIDAY!

Over the weekend Dory sent me an e-birthday card with a frog fairy on it saying it came around with a stick to grant happiness and she hoped it would come around and beat the shit out of me.

Daayummm. Be careful what you wish for. Despite myself, I'm pretty excited about this proposal although I'm trying to keep my expectations realistic (that is to say, low-key). But man, this is all happening fast.

Mark Terry

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Who Do You Write For?

January 9, 2007
I started reading one of my birthday gifts, a very long novel by a famous bestselling author and screenwriter who everybody's heard of. I'm having a very, very hard time getting into this book. And I'm wondering: is he writing this for critics?

There's been some talk on blogs lately about thinking about "your ideal reader." I'm sort of clueless in this respect. Some people's spouses are their ideal readers, but my wife, as far as I know, hasn't read any of my books. In fact, mysteries and thrillers are generally not her cup of tea, although she likes Tony Hillerman. She's much more likely to read a presidential biography or something historical if she's not reading Time or Smithsonian cover to cover.

I tend to write for my agent, because if she doesn't like it she won't try to sell it.

Now, this writer, who everybody knows, has had a long and not always happy relationship with critics. He's enormously popular, practically has a cult following, and the critics, in general, have been raving about the book in question, which deals with the death of a famous author from the point of view of his wife. Maybe it's the topic, but I'm having a hard time getting past the idea that this author isn't writing for his typical fans, but as an attempt to appease the critics who have often dealt terribly unfairly with him.

I think it's a bad idea, actually.

The more you get published, the more it seems you want to please agents and editors, perhaps even more than readers. After all, they hold the keys to the kingdom.

I think you need to please yourself, actually. I'm far more likely to have success with a book that I wrote to entertain myself rather than to meet anybody else's expectations. If I write the kind of book I might pick up in the airport to kill time, I'm usually doing pretty well.

Anyway, just a few thoughts.

Mark Terry

Monday, January 08, 2007

Free Thriller Newsletter & Contest

January 8, 2007
Well, Happy Birthday Elvis.

Below is a post I've been asked to include regarding the International Thriller Writers, Inc. Newsletter and a contest that could win you 150 Thrillers! (That's about 3 years worth of reading if you're me). I regularly contribute to the newsletter with reviews or interviews and you can't knock the price. Check it out.

150 Thrillers!

It's a thriller lover's dream - the chance to win 150 novels by some of the biggest and best thriller authors in the business. That's right, 150.

Imagine receiving books written by Joseph Finder, Tess Gerritsen, John Lescroart, Gayle Lynds, and David Baldacci for free. Then multiply that by thirty, because they represent only five of the 150 books you will receive if you're the winner in the International Thriller Writer's "150 Thrillers" contest.

The best part? Just by entering you'll begin receiving the free ITW newsletter, a monthly email newsletter that contains loads of information about upcoming thriller novels, thriller authors and thriller news.

All you have to do is go to, or email before February 15th and sign up to get the free ITW newsletter. That's it.

Once you've subscribed, you're entered. The winner will be picked randomly from all entrants, and will receive 150 thriller novels from some of the top novelists writing today. Three runner-up entrants will each receive a copy of the 2006 Thriller Anthology, edited by James Patterson. But really, everyone who signs up to receive the ITW newsletter is a winner.

So go on, sign up. You know you want to.

Please note: one entry per person, and, as usual, ITW will not share your email information with anyone.

For further information, contact M.J. Rose at

Mark Terry

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Happy Birthday...

January 7, 2007
Well, yes, happy birthday to me. I'm 43 today. And let me just note that Elvis Presley was born on January 8th--but he's dead and I'm not. So I've got that going for me.

Mark Terry

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Next Step

January 5, 2007
I had a pithy and insightful blog entry and it disappeared and I don't feel like re-doing it, so I'm going to talk briefly (okay, now I'm re-reading this and thinking, "Okay, not so briefly.") about something else. I had the change to talk to aspiring novelist Gregory yesterday about his manuscript. I've read about half of it and I had mailed him my comments, but said maybe we should talk about things. Greg's novel is very good and he's a very good writer and I think if he keeps at it (whatever "it" is) he'll eventually get published. Should he keep tweaking this particular work? I don't know. He's spent a lot of time on it and it's pretty strong.

Anyway, aside from the fact that I enjoyed the conversation and reminded myself that I should probably get out and talk with serious writers more often, I was thinking this morning that I had tried to communicate something to Greg that I hoped wasn't insulting and I believe to be true, but I'm not sure how well I articulated it.

What I was trying to say at one point was that this wasn't your college creative writing class or even your critique group. I've never belonged to a critique group, but I took a creative writing class in college and whenever we wrote something, we made copies and passed it around to some or all of the class and they read it and dissected it.

The discussions of people's works had a tendency to revolve around what the characters did or did not do that the readers did or did not like; they had a really way too strong a tendency to get off discussing thematic issues.

Perhaps it's my bias, but those are the purview of literature classes, not writing classes.

What I was trying to get across, and I hope that my critique and comments primarily reflected this, is how to look at the work the way a writer needs to look at the work. Again, it's probably my bias, but over the last 4 or 5 years--probably by no coincidence, the period in which my work started getting published--I've been increasingly focused on STRUCTURAL issues in writing.

Things like:

1. How you enter a scene and get out of a scene (late in, early out)
2. How you handle transitions
3. How you handle backstory (and how much)
4. How to handle multiple points of view--how many, who, when, how often
5. How you structure the story so it starts off in a way the reader gets sucked in, but doesn't lose readers in areas that might require exposition, etc.

And that's not to say that while I'm actually writing a novel that those are my primary concerns, except, in some ways they area. The STORY is my primary concern, but all of those structural things are important in how you pull off telling your story in the best way possible.

And it's not even to say that I'm aware of these things in a conscious sort of way, except when I'm rewriting I'm aware of them, and actually, now that I think about it, when I'm writing things I'm thinking of things along those lines before I write them.

And for damned sure, when I read somebody else's book these days I'm thinking about structure.

I recently read "Without Fail" by Lee Child and I was paying a lot of attention to structure. I was also paying a lot of attention to how Lee manipulates the reader by having Jack Reacher analyze what's happening and say what he thinks is happening (and I find it intriguing just how often Reacher is wrong until toward the end, but the way Lee writes it and Reacher I'm not sure casual readers are aware of this).

Anyway, I do think at some point your writing needs to get a little bit past this-happens-and-then-this-happens and you need to start paying attention to the multiple ways you can do things and which way is best for the story you happen to be telling. I think it's a constant learning situation and every story is different, but hopefully over time we all have this great big box of tools we can open and scrounge around through and hopefully say, "Hey, I haven't seen this in a while (or before), but you know what? It would be just about perfect for solving this problem I've got. Cool."

Mark Terry

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Devil's Publishing Dictionary

January 4, 2007
Author Lynn Viehl has a hilarious dictionary posted on her blog today she's dubbed The Devil's Publishing Dictionary.

Advance - a sum paid to the author's agent after contract signing, as soon as the editor puts in a payment request to accounting, which is misplaced for three weeks to three months, re-requested, routed to senior editor for approval, misplaced again or completely forgotten until agent's fourth inquiry. The author may or may not see 30% of the agreed-upon advance, less that 15% owed to the agent, within a year of signing, upon publication of the contracted work, or when the author starves to death while living under a bridge, whichever comes first.

Blurbs - ringing but patently false endorsements of a book by buddies of the author, the author herself coyly pretending to be another author by using a pseudonym, or carefully-edited segments of bad reviews. Also known as cover quotes.

Check it out.

Mark Terry

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


January 3, 2007
Lee Goldberg has an interview here that also has a link to on his blog. Among other things, he says:

I decided long ago that I was going to be a writer first and a TV writer second. There's no question that I make most of my living in television...but I believe it's important to me professionally, financially, psychologically and creatively not to concentrate on just one field of writing (It probably helps that I started my career as a freelance journalist, then became a novelist, then a non-fiction author, and finally, a TV writer/producer). So I write books, both fiction and non-fiction, I teach TV writing, and occasionally I write articles and short stories... most of the time while I'm simultaneously writing & producing TV shows (though the TV work always takes priority over everything else, except, of course, my family).

Generally speaking, I feel that way, too. Of course, I wouldn't mind being one of those superstars he mentions elsewhere in the interview who can essentially do one thing and make a lot of money doing it and pick and choose their work.

I would like to see a bigger percentage of my income come via novels (and please, no Monkey's Paw thing here--I don't want to suddenly find that my entire income, all $5000 a year of it, comes from fiction!) and quite possibly in my wildest dreams all of it come from fiction with some screenwriting as well. But until that happens, I'm pretty happy writing a big mix of things and making a living doing so.

Anyway, check out the interview. It's pretty interesting.

Mark Terry

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Money For Writing

January 2, 2006
The Paperback Writer blog has an interesting post today about how the FTC is cracking down on "word of mouth" marketing. That's not terribly relevant to me here, but she said something that made me pause for a moment. She said:

Many of you do go out and buy my novels because of what you read here, and I do receive royalties from the sales of those novels. This is the only form of profit I make that can be connected to my weblog. After the publisher, agent and Uncle Sam take their cuts, my share of the profits for my novels works out to about twenty cents per paperback and seventy-eight cents per hardcover. I appreciate anyone who invests in my novels, but I don't expect or demand it, and I have no control over those purchases.

I bet you can guess what caught my attention. 20 cents per paperback? 78 cents per hardcover?

Well, yes, actually. Once I thought about it. Lynn's saying this is after her agent's 15% cut and the government's approximately 30% cut. God only knows if she's going to include things like health insurance and retirement accounts in there. And don't laugh, those of you with day jobs that include health insurance and 401Ks, because for you those are separate from your paycheck, but for those of us who are self-empoyed, it comes out of our paychecks.

So just a little math.

A typical hardcover costs about $25.

A typical hardcover royalty (it varies depending on your publisher, your track record, your agent and the number of copies you sell) is about 12%, which comes to $3.00 per copy. Your agent gets 15% of that $3, which is 45 cents, so you get $2.55. The government, if I'm being charitable here and count both federal and state, gets approximately 30% (maybe less), and that comes out of what you get after your agent takes her cut, which is about 77 cents, leaving you with $1.78. So I'm not entirely sure where Lynn gets her 78 cents, but her hardcovers may sell for $20 or it's even possible, depending on her publisher, that her hardcover royalties are calculated based on something besides cover price.

A typical mass market paperback sells for about $7.

A typical royalty on mass market paperback ranges from 6-8% so let's call it 7% here, so the royalty is 49 cents per copy. So for every copy sold, her agent takes 15% of every 49 cents, so the agent gets about 7 cents per mass market paperback sold and the author gets about 42 cents. Then take 30% out of that for taxes (about 13 cents per paperback)and you've got the author receiving, when all is said and done, about 29 cents per mass market paperback.

My math doesn't quite add up with Lynn's, but there are a lot of variables here.

When I first got published and Catfish Guru was selling for $17.95, an awful lot of people seemed to think that I was getting about $15 per copy of that book, when in fact I was getting about $1.80, which I was paying taxes on (and shipping, since this was an iUniverse deal).

I'm reminded, not for the first time, something that an expert on gambling once said, which was, if you want to make money in gambling, own a casino.

I'm not sure there's even a similar analogy for writing and publishing, actually. I once caught the late William Kienzle give a talk about writing and publishing and his comment on how to get published was, "Get to be famous and then get published."

Anyway, some sobering numbers to start out the year.

Mark Terry

Monday, January 01, 2007

Just Warming Up

January 1, 2007
Ah, well, I spent a couple hours on the last day of 2006 cleaning my office, throwing out a ton of paperwork that was no longer necessary to keep around and filing paperwork that is necessary to keep around. The day before that I spent a little too much money on some end-of-year write-offable stuff like a new desk chair (definitely needed) and a backup hard drive (probably long overdue, since I'm still floppy reliant and they're getting harder and harder to find).

I also added up my income for the 4th quarter so we can send a check to George Bush and to Jennifer Granholm (oh joy).

Today I'm doing more of the same, getting rid of some busy work like cleaning my whiteboard and adding various dates for the journal I edit to it and my Outlook calendar, getting a notebook ready for the publications, filing last year's invoices.

Looks like I'm back to work.

I fully expect 2007 to be an exciting, interesting and profitable year. And you should, too, because there's nothing like a lack of expectations to make you live down to them. I'm all too aware that shit happens, but I'm starting this year with the idea that I'm going to make at least as much money as I did in 2006, that The Serpent's Kiss will be published July 1st to great acclaim and take off, that I will complete the 4th Derek Stillwater novel with plenty of time and that I will be signing additional book contracts this year for more Derek Stillwaters as well as a few other projects I'm working on.

Optimism is good, I think. I'm not all that optimistic a personality, but I used to be quite glum and down, and trust me on this, more gets accomplished when you think it can be accomplished. I always am reminded of one of my favorite episodes of "West Wing," in which President Bartlett was having a dinner party with a bunch of his wife's friends, who were all physicians, and somebody commented that they should be able to cure cancer. Bartlett got it into his head to do a kind of Manhattan Project or Apollo Program to cure cancer and told his staff to get going on it. They were all against it except Sam (played by Rob Lowe) and when they finally got to the end of the episode, the plan was scrapped. Everybody agreed that it would look like a political distraction, that they were overreaching, that they needed to get all sorts of parties and committees and departments behind them before they went ahead. Bartlett looked at Sam and asked him what he thought. He said something like this:

"I think government should be optimistic. I think it should overreach and try the impossible. I think it's what the American people want and need."

Well, that's a paraphrase and I'm not talking about government right now, which has overreached in a catastrophic fashion lately. What I'm saying is if you want to get published in 2007, you need to be optimistic and ambitious and far-reaching. 2007 could really be your year.

Mark Terry