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


Blogger Shannon said...

This is a great question, Mark. I've always wondered if most writers are born that way or if it's more nurture than nature. I'm guessing it's about 50/50. Personally, I've always wanted to be a writer. I spend my childhood writing poetry and books that had actual cover art and everything. But, like your parents, mine brainwashed me into finding something else to do with my life because you can't make a living as a writer. I had to become a closet writer, and I still have a bunch of guilt associated with choosing to persue writing seriously now. Isn't it amazing how parents screw us up with their best intentions. :-)

7:17 AM  
Anonymous Keith said...

I always wrote stories. Then I thought I'd see if I could write a novel, and my wife thought I could. So...

8:24 AM  
Blogger Ron Estrada said...

I wrote my extra-credit story in the 7th grade. It was about a werewolf. Must be a boy thing, huh? Or the King influence. Like you, I guess I never figured writing was a real profession. Although the idea of writing was always nestled somewhere in my mind, it never occurred to me to go for it until about 10 years ago. Thus Soul Searcher was written. Great story. Horrible writing. Somewhere in that time I became a Christian and discovered American Christian Fiction Writers. Really? People like me! It was a great way to find support. Of course, had I known you lived 6 houses away, I might have saved the $39 a year. So now I'm bit, but good.

By the way, you missed the 5th grade camp meeting last night. I took the liberty of signing you up for both nights. I'll be there. Takin' names.

9:32 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I always liked books. I never thought much about how liking books might translate into earning a living. As a kid I always wrote but I drew as much or more than I wrote and read even more.

I never gave much though to what I would do when I grew up because I just kind of assumed I was doomed. Gradually I began to figure that since I liked reading and writing I'd need to do for a newspaper or something...

Let me point out for the benefit of any young folks who might be reading...."or something" is not a viable careeer plan.

But then, as I said, I figured I was doomed. Lo and behold, at the end of my college years, I was still breathing and had an English degree. OK, so I guess I was doomed. When I couldn't get a job, like many people in a similar situation, I went to law school. Law school is the last refuge for plenty of English Lit majors.

Of course I found what I learned of legal practice to be repugnent so I went into legal editing and writing.

All the while though I kept writing in my spare time. But never had serious thoughts of making a living at it (and still don't from the fiction) I wrote for fanzines, and did minicomics, and then started selling nonfiction to magazines. Never sold any of my lousy sf stories and had ditched writing fiction at all when Mary convinced me we ough to collaborate on mysteries. So we did that. I still have never sold a bit of fiction on my own and have no idea whether I could. I really have written almost no fiction on my own since the collaborations have taken up all my time for years. I wouldn't bet on it though. If I honestly thought I could sell solo stuff I'd have found the time for it.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Hey Ron,
I've got another year before I have to deal with that--again. And I'm told there's some version of 8th grade camp, so I may get the double-whammy that year. I don't want to think about it.

11:03 AM  
Anonymous gregory huffstutter said...

When I was a kid, a good family friend wrote a techno-thriller called "The Adolescence of P-1" and named the main character 'Gregory' after me (pretty heady for a snot-nosed 8-year-old).

So I grew up knowing that being an author was possible. But even though I loved books and my mother was an English teach, I thought my calling was in Sports Medicine.

Until struggling through my first college Chemistry class. My brain didn't seem to work on the sub-atomic level.

Thrashing about for a new direction, I took an eclectic mix of classes, including one on Sci Fi Literature. One day we had a guest lecture from Raymond Feist -- who was funny, charming, and genuinely seemed to love his job.

"I could do that," I thought, "and I'd never have to take another Chem class again."

After graduation, I realized a Lit/Writing degree and a quarter bought me cup 'o' joe at 7-11... little else. So I fell into advertising to pay my bills.

But I always kept writing, harboring the hope I could make this my full-time career. Once bitten by the bug, hard to imagine doing anything else, right?

12:35 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I honestly have met very few people able to give it up once bitten. And those people may just be the sane ones, I don't know.

I'm not sure what you call someone who persists in doing something when all evidence suggests they aren't going to be successful at it.

In this area I've had to agree with Joe Konrath. What do you call a writer who doesn't give up?


It's brutal sometimes, but I see many, many aspiring writers who CAN get published with persistence, hard work and a little bit of luck.

But telling the ones who WILL get published is almost impossible.

1:25 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Cool story, Mark! Wow, we have a lot in common. Same type of depression-era parents (who still want me to get a nice job as a secretary--or a doctor). I did go to conservatory for piano performance, but I was the worst one there the first year. :-)

I wasn't a born writer, either. I wrote my first story because of a contest on a site that I read avidly. I had SUCH a blast. Then they offered to pay me, so I kept writing. I didn't decide I wanted to make this a career until after about my seventh or eighth novella. While the piano thing made me miserable the more I sacrificed what was best for people for what was best for the wallet, I'm never miserable twisting the writing thing. I don't know if that means I love it more or less, LOL.

I just want to look in the mirror at the end of the day and be happy.

2:13 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

"I just want to look in the mirror at the end of the day and be happy"

As reasonable a definition of success as I can think of.

3:02 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I can't remember not writing. When I was a kid if someone asked what I wanted for Christmas I'd say a fresh notebook and a pen. My parents thought I was strange. I was always writing stories, poems, whatever. Teachers said I was day dreaming but I was really working on the next story. However I was told very early on by my depression-baby parents that writers didn't make any money and that was off the table. Artist? No, artists are poor. You need a skill.
First I was a dental assistant and got through my days by writing stories about an evil dentist who implanted things in their patient's brains so he could control them. I started nursing school, did great and hated every minute of it. So, adrift in a world where there was nothing I wanted to do, I moved up to bartending (which left more time for writing). Jobs came and went, marriage, kids...kept writing. I never thought to send any of it anywhere. (affects of the depression-baby parents?) One day I met a woman who became a great friend, she saw my stuff and asked why I didn't send it in. I wondered...could I really do that? And I've been trying to polish my stories in ever since.
My favorite gift is still a new notebook and pen. Unless, of course someone wants to buy me a new laptop! ;)

5:56 PM  
Blogger Rob Gregory Browne said...

It's funny, although I've wanted to be a writer since I was twelve, I was sidetracked for many years because I also wanted to be a musician -- or should I say I AM a musician.

I've been playing the guitar since I was nine years old, keyboards almost as long and have been composing since I was thirteen.

When I realized I was too old to pursue my dream of being a rock star, I fell back into a more focused and serious attempt at writing.

But even after I broke into screenwriting, I continued to compose -- even wrote the score for a failed reality series pilot. Even as I write this comment, my keyboard is balanced atop a bigger, midi keyboard that sits in front of my desk.

I'm kind of a multiple personality, I guess, often feeling torn between the two pursuits.

9:51 PM  
Blogger Shannon said...

"In this area I've had to agree with Joe Konrath. What do you call a writer who doesn't give up?"

I heard a really good definition of insanity once that fits here:

Insanity is when you keep doing the same thing over and over...and expecting different results.

6:41 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Shannon, unfortunately, that's a pretty good definition of both insanity and aspiring writers. (It's not really all that far off from writers who have modest sales and keep expecting THE NEXT ONE to be the big hit, as if having won $2 in the Lottery that means that you're going to win a million in the next.)

9:12 AM  
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10:44 PM  

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