Mark Terry

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Bad News

May 30, 2007

Well, my Aunt Rosemary died suddenly today. I'm cutting my trip short and will be returning to Michigan on Friday. I'll catch you guys up later.
Mark Terry

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Day In The Life Of A Writer?

May 29, 2007

Not a typical day for a writer at all (thank god!)

6:30:Get up & keep Ian company while he gets off to school

6:50: Shower, etc.

7:30: Check e-mail.

7:45: Wake up Sean & get breakfast around. Leanne's home this week, so she took Frodo for a walk.

9:10: Left for airport.

10:30: Get to long-term parking at Detroit Metro.

10:50: Get boarding pass and shuffle through security.

11:10: Pick up some lunch--pizza. Poke around the bookstore, then settle down to read for a while.

11:55: Board plane

12:35ish: Leave the ground for Denver.

1:30 Mountain Time (3:30 EST): Land.

There is a lightning storm and the airport is shut down. They're not letting any crews get out on the tarmac to bring the planes on. Check voicemail. Call one of my clients and have this conversation about Medicare data. So we sit on the runway for...

3:00 MT: Get off the f***ing plane.

3:20 MT: Finally get the f***ing suitcase.

3:45: Shuttle to hotel. Traffic is a mess due to the storm and tornadoes, etc., in Denver. (Hail, electrical storm, tornadoes, you know, Northwest Airlines is starting to feel like the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse (Oh, never mind... that's Dick Cheney)).

4:45: Get to hotel. Check in. Say hi to my friend Joyce who is running the meeting. I'm invited to dinner at the hotel's expense with Joyce and Stephanie and Kristy, the staff of the management company that runs the association.

5:00: Get in room. Unpack. Plug in computer. Go online. Bunch of e-mail. Another movie producer is interested in THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK. Another publisher had rejected my children's novel. Back-and-forthing with Medicare/Medicaid, etc. E-mail from my sister about my aunt, who had a massive stroke this weekend.

6:05: Head downstairs to meet Joyce and Stephanie and try to find the fitness center. Run into Maryann and Francine, who owe me a drink from when I gave them my complementary bottle of wine from last year's meeting. We chat.

6:15: Go to seafood restaurant. Food's excellent, but the service (or at least the kitchen) was sloooooowwwwww.

8:20: Back to the hotel. Call my wife. Note that it is 10:20 back home. I've been on the go since 9 this morning. Running out of steam. Check e-mail again because it looks like my sister called while I was gone.

8:50: Decide I'd better glance through the agenda for tomorrow's meeting so I know when I'm supposed to give my update on the journal. Decide to blog. Need to either place a wake-up call or try to figure out the alarm clock here in the room.

9:00: Time to crash. Need to get up at 6:30 tomorrow.


Mark Terry

Monday, May 28, 2007

Business Travel

May 28, 2007

I'm leaving tomorrow for Denver, where I'll be until Sunday. It's a business trip. The Association of Genetic Technologists is holding their annual meeting there. I am the editor of The Journal of the Association of Genetic Technologists, and as such, get paid to be there and the price of that is basically to sit through the board meeting on Wednesday, attend various technical meetings, and otherwise get wined and dined and meet up with old friends.

It don't suck.

Still, I'm always of two minds about this sort of thing. Because of the timing, I can't take the kids out of school, so they're not going with me. In the last year I have been on business trips (writing related) to Baltimore, Washington DC, Tampa, and now Denver. I also flew to Austin for my nephew's wedding. I used to hate travel, but now I enjoy it. Probably because someone else is paying the way and also because my kids are older and I don't feel particularly guilty about leaving them at home with my wife, who is taking time off from work for it. I also have a different mindset now than I used to have, and I look at these at adventures rather than chores. I took my family with me to DC and we had a blast.

It's probably a good antidote for a job that keeps you behind a computer screen most of the time. I've started to really enjoy visiting other cities (especially on other people's dime). Nice hotels are, well, nice, and they're typically in areas where there's lot of things to do and plenty of good restaurants to eat at. Baltimore was fun. We were right on the Inner Harbor, and there was an aquarium, a submarine, water taxis, restaurants, shopping, and historical sites and marinas, all within walking distance. The Mall in DC was a short Metro ride from our hotel in Alexandria, and Tampa, well, Tampa was Tampa in February. What can I say? It was 80 degrees in Tampa and 15 degrees in Michigan.

So anyway, I'll try to stay in touch and post on what's going on in Denver.

Now, what to read on the 3-hour plane flight. Hmmm....



Friday, May 25, 2007

If I Only Had A Brain

May 25, 2007

From time to time I look at this novel-writing thing and think: you're nuts.

Okay. Not from time to time.

All the time!

It's not that I don't love it. In fact, I do. It's an addiction, and if you're an aspiring novelist and you don't understand that, there's a good chance you're in the wrong field.

Novel writing, except for a select few, can be creatively satisfying, no doubt about it. Of course, for some people, carving zoo animals out of bars of soap and constructing replicas of the Eiffel Tower out of toothpicks and creating images of the Supreme Court judges out of broken CDs is creatively satisfying as well.

Part of the problem, I think, is that people who carve zoo animals out of soap probably don't expect to make a living at it. They don't, in fact, probably expect much of anything out of it except, ultimately, a bar of soap in the shape of an elephant. Maybe it tickles their children, but more likely it amuses them, kills some time, and provides some satisfaction--intrinsic satisfaction--along the way.

Probably soap carvers et al., don't repeatedly look for people to represent their work, don't send it out to carved soap manufacturers who might sell their soap elephants, or in most cases, even hustle their creations in booths at art fairs. (I say in most cases; seems to me damn near everything gets sold at arts and crafts fairs. Americans' ability and willingness to clutter up their houses with shit is endlessly amazing to me).

Yeah, I'm in the writing business. From a completely rational, thinking point of view, I should just ditch the novel writing and concentrate on the lucrative end of writing for me. That's what most business books would tell you to do, right? Nurture the lucrative part of your business and prune the less lucrative.

But I won't. Instead, I'll do what most novelists do--keep writing, keep nurturing this particularly beautiful part of my writing garden in hopes it will take off and live up to its potential.

In the meantime, good advice would be to try very hard to enjoy the process.

And, you know, get a brain.

Happy Memorial Day!
Mark Terry

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

6 Myths of Publishing

May 23, 2007

1. Once you're published, you won't face rejection.
Wrong! You will. Pretty much no matter how big you get. Note that when Stephen King jumped publishers with "Bag of Bones" there were publishers who didn't think he was worth the investment. I get rejected all the time, fiction and nonfiction. One truth is that once you're regularly accepted, it's easier to deal with rejection (most of the time). But, alas, rejection is an inescapable aspect of writing and getting published.
2. Once you get published, editors and agents will get back with you more quickly.
Well, sort of. Mostly when my agent sends something out, we hear back in 2-4 weeks. Mostly. Remember my post back in January where I had lunch with an editor who asked to read one of my manuscripts? My agent sent him it on the following Monday. Well, here it is in May and he hasn't accepted OR rejected the manuscript. He's started reading--as of a couple weeks ago--and says he likes it so far, but that's where we are. And my agent is marketing my children's novel and it's at about 8 or 9 publishers, and has been for several weeks now, and it's been rejected by a couple, but others we haven't heard back from at all.
3. Once you're published, you'll be rich and famous.
Ah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Okay. How many famous authors are there? Couple dozen, maybe? Hell, I'm not even famous in my neighborhood, let alone in my town, state or anywhere else. As for rich, well, like in any fields, there are a few rich writers, just like there are rich actors, computer programmers and business people. Most aren't.
4. All published writers must be poor and living in a garret.
This one is as common as #3. I'm going to extend this to freelance writing. There are a lot of people who assume that since I'm a freelance writer I must be making very little money and essentially living off my wife. God knows I get that attitude from some of the people my wife works with and for. Well, wrong. I make almost twice what I did in the so-called real world in the supposedly lucrative field of cytogenetics. The fact is, there are a lot of people making very good livings as freelance writers. There are, as a matter of fact, a decent number of people making a living as authors, and even as novelists. Compared to, say, computer programmers, novelists don't do that well. And in terms of rich authors, I would argue there are many, many more rich business people, especially stockbrokers, than authors in the world. There are also probably many, many more rich drug dealers and gun runners, too. So if being a novelist is your career plan, you might consider becoming a Lord of War instead. Much more money in it.
5. Getting published will make you happy.
This is very complicated. Happiness is very complicated. Dennis Leary has a routine about happiness being fleeting, it being a cigarette, a good lay, it's a moment ("So get fucked and smoke your cigarette and shut up," he says.). Getting that call that your manuscript will be sold will make you happy. For a while. Cashing that advance check will make you happy. For a while. Holding that book in your hand or seeing it on the bookshelf will make you happy. For a while. Getting that letter or e-mail from a reader saying how much they liked your book will make you happy. For a while (until somebody e-mails to tell you what a piece of dreck it was and you got your facts all wrong and your book was a waste of trees). It can bring you happiness. It also brings a weird sense of unpredictability, stress and responsibility that can take away from some of the happiness. Find your happiness inside you, with your family and friends, with doing good work you can be proud of--getting published is just a cherry on top, in most cases. You might have issues with serotonin levels in your brain that can better be solved by Zoloft or Prozac than by getting published.
6. Getting published will change your life.
Yes and no. It can. But if you're unhappy with your life, it may be no better after getting published. If your happiness depends on your novel getting published, if you're just desperately unhappy and waiting for being an author to solve all your problems, you're in trouble. It ain't gonna happen. Getting published--not novels, necessarily--did change my life. Eventually. Eventually, after many years and lots and lots of work, I made an amazing shift in my life from doing a job I didn't like much to a job I love. So yes, it can change your life. But there was an internal process that went on there as well that probably didn't have much to do with getting published. It had to do with me taking control of my life and making decisions about what I wanted and paying attention to certain realities (ie., I was making more money writing nonfiction on an irregular basis than I was writing fiction on a regular basis).
And if you go back and look at classical mythology, you know that most happy stories have a dark side. Pay attention to the stories of Medusa and the stories of Tantalus, among others.
Mark Terry

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

In The Moment

May 22, 2007
10:07 AM
I've got classical guitar playing on iTunes on my computer: Mesut Ozgen on his album Troubadour playing "Fantasie Hongroise Op. 65, No.1."

I'm wearing tennis shoes (my office is still cold), jeans, a yellow T-shirt.

I'm working on Chapter 52 of The Valley of Shadows. Derek Stillwater is in a rented Nissan Pathfinder with Agent Sandra O'Reilly. They're driving around in L.A. They've just received a phone call from an FBI agent inquiring about an illegal wiretap that overheard a phone conversation between an L.A. Imam and a terrorist called Kalakar, that they're going to meet at 8:30. They just don't know where.

There's a red Ace hardware driving mug on my desk filled with ice and Diet Pepsi.

It's time to get back to Derek and O'Reilly.

Mark Terry

Monday, May 21, 2007

Welcome to My Gerbil Ball

May 21, 2007

I find myself in the situation of having nothing to say. So instead of saying it, I'm going to say why (figures, huh?).
I've got this big nonfiction report due on June 1. Due to foot-dragging on the part of several sources (namely 10 state governments and the federal government in general) it will be a miracle if that happens. So I'm working my ass off to get what I've got done into turn-in-able fashion, so I can say to the publisher, "Look, start copyediting and fact checking on Chapters 1,2, and 3. I'm working on the data for Chapter 5 and much of Chapter 4 depends on what I pull up from Chapter 5."
Also, the day after Memorial Day, I'm heading to Denver for a week-long genetics meeting. It's not quite a vacation and not quite a business trip, it's a little of both. I have things I have to do and plenty of time left over for drinking and and eating and touristy things. I will take my laptop and try to get some work done--probably on the novel--but I know from past experience that hardcore writing is very tough to get done in a hotel room, particularly if it involves number crunching or interviews--have you ever used long distance from a hotel phone? The rates aren't worth the hassle and depending on the hotel, the cell phone connections can be iffy.
So, one reason I'm spacy today is because I spent much of the weekend working on the project. I found some statistical inspiration to solve what was seeming to be an unsolvable problem. So I spent a good 8 or 10 hours writing this weekend and this morning I'm feeling a little bit fried.
Such is the life of a freelance writer. I love it, but man, I could use a vacation.
Mark Terry

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Beloved and Inspirational Forward-Thinking and Righteous Leader Amongst the Scribes

May 19, 2007

Author John Scalzi had declared himself The Dictator of Writing (for our own good) and set forth decrees on his May 14th blog entry (and oddly enough, I agree with them). Read on!

"Certain events of the past few days have convinced me that most of writerdom has trouble finding its own ass without a claque of workshop buddies to comment on the journey ("I like the way you used your hands to search, but did you really need to use the flashlight?"). So in the interest of all writers, who I feel crave strong, confident demogoguery, I have staged a coup, and am now The Beloved and Inspirational Forward-Thinking and Righteous Leader Amongst the Scribes, or, more colloquially, The Dictator of Writing. Having "remaindered" all those who oppose me (or, even worse, sidelined them into SFWA board slots), I am now ready to issue decrees, which all writers must henceforth follow, on penalty of death and/or being eternally blue-pencilled by the sort of officiously tone-deaf copy editor who ate the Chicago Manual of Style when she was 14 and has been barfing it up ever since."


Mark Terry

Friday, May 18, 2007

Contemplating Publishing Numbers & Dollars

May 18, 2007

I was perusing blogs a bit yesterday and swung by the blog of Dystel & Goderich Literary Agency. Agent Lauren Abramo had a piece containing a whole bunch of statistics about the publishing industry. Here's a sample:

"And do they sell well? The standards for success really do change from book to book based on any number of factors—category, author’s platform, size of the advance, size of the marketing budget—but everyone agrees that the majority of books fail to earn out their advances (meaning that the author’s royalties never accrue to the point that they actually earn more than they were paid up front). What percentage? An exact number is probably impossible to pin down, but it’s said that 80-85% of books published don’t earn out."

I'm just thrilled (facetiously) that nobody really knows. I'm trying to pin down these sorts of numbers for the clinical lab industry and it's no easier to find hard data on that either. But when I read that particular paragraph, the question that popped into my head was: "So what?"

Now, before business-savvy writers and my editor get all fired up to tell me that earning back your advance is a big freaking deal, that you don't get royalties until that advance is paid off, that your publisher pays real attention to whether--whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold on to that last thing I was starting to say for a second.

Disclaimer: As a businessman writer I want to earn out my advances. This makes my publisher happy. It makes me happy. It suggests that my editor/publisher made an intelligent and accurate guess (er, calculation) as to how many copies of my book would be ordered and sell (ignoring the fact that it's a self-fulfilling prophecy most of the time; if they give you a $1000 advance and print 800 copies, most of the time you won't sell 80,000 copies because, well, they don't exist and they can't be found even if someone wanted them, and your publisher had very little to lose so they didn't go all hellbent to make sure they sold so they could earn back their investment, and booksellers weren't hearing buzz about how hot this book was and it had a first printing of 80,000 copies, which is stamped all over every Advanced Reading Copy and promotional material crowing: Yes, we're hot on this book, we think it's going to sell tons, we threw a lot of money at it...).

Anyway, my "So what?" question's follow-up was this: The book needs to earn back its advance and all of the publishers investment. In other words, the publisher paid, say, $1500 advance, then they printed up 2000 copies which cost them X dollars, say just for grins, $3 per copy which we'll say includes layout, printing and cover art, which comes to $6000. So they've got an upfront investment of $7500, not including whatever promotion expenses they might do, which in most cases would be a catalogue that includes your book and all the other books in that selling period, which they then mail to bookstores and distributors. Warehousing, UPS, blah, blah, blah, before you start adding in their editors' paychecks, the secretary's paychecks, the publishers mistress's condo in Barbados and the electric bill for the publisher's offices.

So, assume those 2000 books sell for, say, the price of a trade paperback, about $12.95. If you only sold 50%, in other words, 1000 copies, there is, above the line, $12,950 coming in. Of course, some of that is sucked up by the bookstores, some of it by the distributors. How much does the publisher actually get? I honestly don't know. I'm guessing 40% (and if someone actually knows, please let me know). So 40% of $12,950 is $5180.

See, the publisher actually is in the red, if that 40% number is even close. Of course, from the writer's point of view, we could argue that the books actually have earned back their advance, it's the publisher that hasn't earned back their expenses yet.

The point isn't that I'm shirking my responsibility as an author or bemoaning the woeful state of the publishing industry. I'm just trying to be precise in my thinking about the economics. You get some journalist at the New York Times or Publishers Weekly saying, hey, 85% of books don't earn back their advance, and I'm thinking, as a guy who's spent the last year writing intensively about business issues and reading dozens of SEC filings and company annual reports (yes, I love to read fiction), maybe they're asking the wrong question. They're saying that the author who's getting as 12% royalty and was paid an advance of $1500 didn't sell enough copies of his book that earns $1.40 a copy to pay off that $1500 advance (in most cases they're talking about authors who earned advances that run about $150,000 anyway, aren't they, because the average newspaper reader doesn't give a damn about a writer earning a $1500 advance, Christ, why doesn't that fool go work at McDonald's, he'll make more money).

But from a business point of view, the publisher may not necessarily be looking at things that way. They may be looking at the overall picture, including the money they pull in off foreign sales if their contracts run that way, or the money they get on a split for movie deals, or audio sales, etc. Just looking at: "authors don't earn back their advance" may quite well be the story of blind men and the elephant. Describe an elephant: the blind man holding the trunk concludes the elephant is like a snake; the blind man holding the leg assumes it's like a tree; the blind man holding the ear assumes it's like a bat; the blind man holding the tail assumes it's like a vine, etc.

And for god sakes, if you've got real data here, share it with me. I'd love to know.


Mark Terry

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Random Thoughts On A Random Day

May 17, 2007

I thought that image was way cool for a mystery or thriller writer. What do you think?

No theme today and besides, it's not my regular day to blog. I'm just avoiding starting work, so I thought I'd throw out some random thoughts as they filtered through my brain.

--a big storm knocked down one of our trees Tuesday night. I got a tree service out early Wednesday to take a look at it. It's gotta go. They filled out an invoice, told me they'd be back later, and haven't been seen since. I'm still irritated by this, since I rearranged my routine so I'd be home yesterday. Today, I'm doing more of the same, although when it's time to go out, I'll probably go out and leave a note.

--It's 50 degrees with drizzle today. Ah, a lovely spring day in Michigan.

--I'm stressing, trying to complete a major report before I head to Denver for the annual meeting of the Association of Genetic Technologists. This report has put me at the mercy of the federal government (Medicare and Medicaid, who lived up to their reputation by selling my publisher and myself $3000 of useless data) and state bureaucrats, who can sometimes fill in the holes, although getting them to is an astonishingly annoying experience. I'm reminded repeatedly that it is a rare individual that does more than they are forced to do. That is to say, many of these people apparently interpret the request in a way that requires them to do the absolute minimum (or nothing) rather than what is actually requested. (All together now, boys and girls: "Public service is good.")

--Sometimes my brain just burbles with ideas for novels. That's the issue right now. I'm sure this is because I'm still struggling with the 4th Derek Stillwater novel so my brain keeps saying, "Hey, here's something that would be more fun to work on!" Some of these ideas are pretty cool, though. So many ideas, so little time...

--promotion money is on my mind a lot lately. I've already spent my advance for The Serpent's Kiss on promotion for it and it hasn't even come out yet and I haven't even paid for the postage for the next 1400 postcards (and postage rates just went up on Monday, yippee). Nor have I gotten my web maven's bill for e-newsletters and I haven't gotten the bill for the case of books I'm going to send out to various people, and... So I'm sitting here thinking about going to Magna cum Murder in October, noting that I'll probably be in Washington DC for a business trip most of the week just before, and thinking, "Hmmmm, already in the red..."

--Guess it's time to get back to work. That report's not getting written while I'm musing away the morning.


Mark Terry

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Patience, Grasshopper

May 16, 2007
My blog for today--Patience, Grasshopper--is over at the Inkspot blog. Pop on over and tell me what book you discovered your favorite authors on.

Mark Terry

Sunday, May 13, 2007

On Your Reading Radar: Critical Space by Greg Rucka

May 14, 2007

Critical Space
by Greg Rucka
Paperback: $6.99
ISBN: 0-553-58179-1

I've commented here how much I like the two "Queen & Country" novels by Greg Rucka. Those would be "Private Wars" and "A Gentleman's Game." If anything, Rucka's novels featuring high-level bodyguard Atticus Kodiak are even better, although to be fair, they're quite different books with very different characters.

In "Critical Space," Atticus and his partners in his security firm are pretty much going about their booming business. In the past, they encountered a female assassin of the highest calibre, code-named Drama, and she scared the hell out of all of them. Drama, it seems, is one of what is dubbed The Ten, although The Ten aren't necessarily connected, they are several world-class assassins, the highest level professionals in a very cold game indeed. Because Atticus is one of the few people to have encountered Drama and lived--through no particular skill on his part--various government agencies constantly grill Atticus on what he knows about Drama (almost nothing) and keep him loosely informed (very loosely) as to her whereabouts.

Atticus and his team are preparing to do a job for one of their favorite clients when he is informed the Drama may be in the U.S. In addition, he is told, they think another assassin, this one dubbed Oxford, may also be in the U.S.

Well, as you can imagine, everything goes to hell.

How much more should I tell you? Would it ruin the surprise? Probably not, because the back cover crap pretty much gives it away. So if you want to be totally surprised, skip down a bit.

*********************** SKIP THIS HERE*******************************************
Drama kidnaps their client and exchanges her for Atticus. She then kidnaps Atticus and convinces him to bodyguard her--from Oxford. Is he now the poster child for Stockholm Syndrome, when he agrees? Things, naturally, don't go as well as Drama and Atticus plan, and when they narrowly escape with their lives, Atticus manages to dig up one of Oxford's bankers and steals his money in an attempt to have leverage on the assassin--but Oxford's response is to start killing everybody close to Atticus. The plot unwinds in many unexpected ways with a tense standoff and not completely unexpected climax.

*********************SPOILER OVER*************************************************
I was fairly blown away by this book, as I was by the other two I've read by him. There's something about Rucka's writing and plotting and characterization that really works for me. His pacing is a bit slow compared to some thrillers, but no less engrossing. There's a degree of detail that really suggests this guy does his research, but it doesn't bog things down. If you're into this type of thriller, Rucka's your man. I for one am thrilled there are 4 other Atticus Kodiak books with a fifth coming out this summer. He's also got a couple stand-alones I haven't read. They're definitely on my buy-soon list.

Mark Terry

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Get Lost

May 11, 2007

I've become somewhat legendary in my family for my ability to get lost. I don't even stress about it any more. In March, when we went to Austin, Texas for my nephew's wedding, we rented the car, headed toward downtown Austin and pretty quickly found ourselves heading for Mexico, skirting, hmmm, west of the city, I think.
Disney World? Same thing, only it's practically impossible to miss DW from the airport (all roads seem to lead to Disney in Florida), but getting back to the airport? Oh yeah, I'm pretty sure to get lost. Getting lost getting to an airport is one of the few times I get stressed about it any more. (My wife just chimed in with: "East St. Louis, Ann Arbor, Sandusky...")
When my kids were younger they would ask from the backseat, "Are we lost?" My response then tended to be, "No, we just don't know where we are. We know where we're going. We'll get there." They're surprisingly patient now.
I'm afraid I'm not a planner and outliner for my novels. I start with a title, a character, a premise, hopefully with how I intend to end and presumably some scenes I wish to create and then I just go. It works for me, most of the time.
I've been working on the fourth Derek Stillwater novel, tentatively titled The Valley of Shadows, and it's a pretty complicated book. I was telling my writer friend Joe Moore that it was taking me a while to figure out what the book was about. By that I mean, I knew what the plot was, but I wasn't exactly sure what the book was ABOUT. That is to say, subtext, theme, or whatever the hell literature professors like to quiz their students about. I am about 240 pages in and it's that time in the novel when I need to make sure everything's tying together. And this morning, while walking Frodo, it did. Derek and the woman he's working with had broken into a lawyer's office in LA and...
Well, let's just say that I managed to pull everything together and now it's pretty much what I think of as a race against time within a race against time (read it when it comes out, you'll know what I mean).
But is that what the book was ABOUT?
As I mentioned to Joe (whose next book sounded pretty cool, too), it's about Derek's childhood in some ways and how it ties into religious terrorists, and even more it's about alliances, or perhaps Derek's inability to work with the people he's teamed up with. There's a structural aspect to the novel that I couldn't quite put my finger on (and this is a little complicated), but I put Derek in a situation in which he does not work well--in a small team of experts in which he is not the leader. And Derek's inability to work and play well with the team and how he allies himself with various members and a crucial outside individual and how this creates friction drives much of the inner tension of the book.
It wasn't something I planned. As a matter of fact, when I first started it, I planned for him to work directly with one of the two women or both and play their very different personalities off Derek and each other. It just didn't really work. Not to sound too mystical about this, but Derek wasn't cooperating with me. Derek prefers to work alone or with one person and he wasn't shy about reminding me of this.
I think most writers would understand that. It sounds goofy. Another explanation, perhaps, is that I wasn't finding the way they were playing off each other satisfing, so I kept changing alliances until I found one that worked. Only the problem was, I never did, so the alliances kept changing. And that's when I figured out the book was largely about changing alliances. They worked until they didn't, and then they changed, and so on. In re-reading the manuscript, I thought it was fun. It was unpredictable and that was a plus.
It's these sorts of things I find while lost that are the creative sparks for my books. It's what creativity and discovery are all about and I'm pretty much an addict. Hopefully it'll translate into something readers really enjoy.
Mark Terry

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Writing A Publishable Book

May 9, 2007
Jessica Faust (of the faustian bargain, one wonders?) of BookEnds Literary Agency had this to say yesterday on her blog:

Publishing is not about selling a good book. Publishing is about selling a book that will sell, and rarely does that have to do entirely with how good the book is. Usually it has a lot more to do with how marketable it is. Sure that has a lot to do with how the book is written, but it also has a lot to do with plotting, characterization, and hook.

This was pretty much the final thing she had to say in the post, which was in response to a letter she received by an aspiring author who had 100 rejections and a seemingly endless number of rewrites, and couldn't decide whether to keep tweaking or bail out on the project. Jessica told him he should bail. Then she pretty much wrapped it up with the above post, which I thought was an interesting comment that all aspiring novelists should think about.

I've always concentrated on "good writing" which by my definition means "effective, efficient, vivid and economical" writing. I suppose if I wanted to teach a course I'd just shorten it to the Three Es. I could add elegant, but I don't think my writing is terribly elegant, poetic or even beautiful. It's serviceable, it's immediate (that's important to me and my editor told me it was what she liked about my books, so I'm doing something right) and, what I feel is most important: it's effective. In other words, it does what I want it to do.

All of which is apparently important to getting published, but probably not as important as writing a marketable manuscript that tells an effective story. (There's that word again).

I admit to a long failure at figuring out the "hook." Only now am I getting the hang of that (sort of), but I can see how that must make the whole book easier for your agent to sell to an editor and the editor to then sell to the marketing staff and publisher. Here we go: female private eye works northern California; loaner ex-military cop wanders the country getting involved in adventures and helping people; female Chicago cop chases serial killers and her name is Jacquelyn "Jack" Daniels and each book is named after a cocktail; 5th century Byzantium mysteries featuring the Emperor's chief councelor as detective; female forensic pathologist; female forensic anthropologist; Homeland Security expert on biological and chemical terrorism; well, you get the idea.

Once you get that "hook" and that's not necessarily as easy at it sounds, you have to execute the story in a reasonably effective manner. Then you have to have a character that is reasonably memorable.

Then you have to get lucky.

But yeah, I would agree with Jessica that the success of a book doesn't necessarily depend on how great a writer (or stylist) you are. There are other factors and those can be harder to learn than learning to write well. But I do believe that learning to write well (or good, if you'll excuse the tiny joke) can solve a lot of problems and move you on your way.

Mark Terry

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Ebb & Flow

May 6 & 7, 2007
I'm blogging over at Michigan Murder & Mayhem today. Pop on over and enjoy!

Mark Terry

Friday, May 04, 2007

Blazingly Original

May 4, 2007

I've been thinking about originality. How much do you need to be a successful novelist? Do you have to be, as the cliche goes, blazingly original?
No, I don't think so. In fact, too much originality is probably detrimental to your commercial success. Even assuming a publisher will go out on a limb on some story that's so fresh, so new it doesn't have a shelf for it at the bookstore, chances are the reading public won't come near it.
Granted, I write and predominantly read genre fiction. Genre fiction has tended to get a bad rap by the literati. After all, "Romeo and Juliet" is a romance; "Hamlet" is a political thriller; "Crime and Punishment" is a mystery; "The Metamorphosis" is SF/Fantasy, as is "The Tempest," etc, etc.
In his book, "How To Write A Mystery" Larry Beinhart writes, "Certain things have been done in the past. If they work, they're imitated. It's easy to say they're tired old cliches. But it's not that simple. A good chess opening lives on and on. So does a good mystery opening. The practices, techniques, formations, and tactics of soccer, football, baseball, tennis, have multigenerational life spans--if they work. They usually evolve slowly. When they die a sudden death, someone usually brings them back in a new form a few years later.
"A writer can stick with the good old moves, the tried and true. Let's call this formula."
Larry goes on to say: "In books, too, formula, and virtually nothing but the formula, may indeed be where it's at. Several of the top-selling crime writers do exactly that: formula--with nothing else.
"This is not to say that writing formula so well that you can get rich from it is easy. It's not. It's hard. And the people who can do it reliably, over and over again, are rare indeed. There are one or two of them whose books I want to go off and read it with a sensual anticipation similar to settling down alone with a whole container of Haagen-Dazs.
"Far more often, formula books don't reach this standard. Then, as an audience member, I find them to be, at best, unsatisfying, frequently irritating, and, at worst, unreadable. As a writer, I don't want to write that way."
Me neither, but I can't wander too far off the reservation. There's only one guy writing books about dinosaur private eyes for adults and there's a good reason for it. So keep that in mind before you start penning your novel about a werewolf crime scene investigator written in iambic pentameter.
Well, when in doubt, quote from somebody else, I guess. This time from Gary Provost's "Make Your Words Work," which to my mind is a must-read for every writer.
"As a writer you are a technician, but you are also a creative artist, and if you forget that word 'creative' you will be wasting paper every time you sit down to write. In your writing, all of the parts should be good and many of them should be original. Your reader doesn't expect everything you write to be a news flash, but he does expect to find in your writing something he has never heard before.
"For everything you write you should be able to answer the question, 'How is this different from similar pieces of writing?'....
"Being original means you find new slants, creative leads, fresh information, unique formats, different ways of looking at old information, surprising conclusions, and imaginative solutions. Being original is an attitude that you bring to your work."
I like that. Of course, I also like Samuel Johnson's criticism of another writer's work:
"Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good."
Mark Terry

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

On Your Reading Radar: The Last Secret by Lynn Sholes & Joe Moore

May 2, 2007

The Last Secret

by Lynn Sholes & Joe Moore

Midnight Ink

Trade Paperback. $14.95

ISBN: 0-7387-0931-X

I asked Joe Moore once how he would describe his and Lynn's books. They aren't exactly science fiction or fantasy, and although there were elements of the technothriller, that didn't quite cover it. Although my own books can be cleanly described as "action thrillers," that's not quite right for their Cotten Stone novels. Joe said, "apocalyptic thrillers," and that seems to me to be right on target.

Their two books to-date, "The Grail Conspiracy" and "The Last Secret", feature Satellite News Network (SNN, and I wish I'd thought of it) reporter Cotten Stone. Cotten, as it turns out, is the daughter of a nephilim, or fallen angel. Her father repented, but God made a deal with him. Of his twin daughters, one would return to heaven with HIM; the other--Cotten--would remain on earth, HE had plans for her.

In "The Last Secret", Cotten has found her reputation as a hotshot SNN reporter on the rocks due to a spectacular fraud that she bought into and reported on. Scrambling for work, she takes on an assignment in Peru to report on an archaeological dig. While near Macchu Picu, the dig team uncovers a fabulous crystal tablet marked with unusual etchings, some of which appears to be dots and lines, as if a version of kippu, a version of ancient Peruvian record keeping (usually done on strings and linens with knots) that some archaeologists believe is also a complicated written language. The top half of the writing suggests there will be a great flood, and gives directions on how to survive it. The second half remains incomprehensible except for a line suggesting the "cleansing would be led by the daughter of an angel."

Before they can get going on that much further, a swarm of strange fireflies attacks the encampment, and destroys the tablet. Everyone is driven crazy and commits bizarre acts of suicide, except Cotten who barely escapes into the jungle.

The suicides in Peru are only the beginning of a worldwide phenomenon of strange mass suicides, often of spectacular vintage--the British Royal family, the crew of the International Space Station...

It turns out that there is at least one more tablet, and Cotten tries to rally her strength, along with the help of the Catholic Church, to locate the tablet before Satan's minions, in this case the remaining nephilim, can find it first and destroy it. The inscriptions involve mathematical formulas related to "string theory" and "quantum mechanics," and I for one am glad that Lynn and Joe didn't belabor either. I've read quite a bit about both, both in fiction and nonfiction, and it's one topic in physics that doesn't necessarily get clearer the more you study it.

Overall "The Last Secret" is an entertaining novel, full of exotic locations, esoteric archaeology, physics and theology, and an engaging main character. There's a more mystical element to it than, say, Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" or the novels of Steve Berry ("The Alexandria Link" and "The Templar Legacy."), but equally entertaining with a dollop of thought-provoking material.


Mark Terry