February 28, 2007
A collection of random thoughts that may or may not be useful.
1. Writers write. So write. There's no other way to do it.
2. Enjoy the process. There's a hell of a lot to dislike about the business of writing and publishing, ranging from the S.E. tax, the overemphasis on self-marketing, the overcrowded halls of publishing, perceived lack of support from publishers, the competition for shelf space, the resistance of the American public to new readers (and reading in general) and a thousand other things. But if you don't enjoy the actual process of writing, of firing your imagination, of putting words up on the screen, then for God sakes, find something else to do with your time.
3. Persistence is more important than talent for eventual success.
4. It's true: it's better to be lucky than good.
5. In general, writers are pretty cool people. In my experience, the least commercially successful are the biggest jerks and the most commercially successful are the most generous sweethearts, although there are undoubtedly exceptions to that. That isn't to suggest that the least commercially successful are all jerks. It's just that in my experience the very successful are generous and kind and warm. The one's with which I've been kicked in the balls by through cattiness or rudeness tend to be people at my level or below. I don't understand it, but it's been my experience.
6. The more I work in the field, the more sympathy I have for agents and editors. There really is a lot of good writing out there, but they're not only looking for someone who can make them money, but someone who makes their heart skip a beat. And they have to flog through a lot of shit to find that.
7. I've said it before, repeating the old saw that 50 cents of every dollar spent on marketing is probably wasted, but you don't know which 50 cents, so you keep spending the dollar. Deep down, though, I suspect that 90 cents of every dollar spent on marketing is wasted (along with your time, which is significantly harder to replace), but I have to spend the money and time anyway. Go back to part of #2.
8. I had an e-mail yesterday (regarding some bit of business I needed done for one of my clients) from someone I used to work with at Henry Ford Hospital. He updated me on all the numerous changes that had taken place in the last year or so. Two things occurred to me: 1, I really didn't care any more one way or the other, I'd been gone 2-1/2 years. I've moved on, although it was interesting in a kind of abstract way. And 2, I was sure a lot of people there were freaking out because of all the change. If I had still been there, I probably would have had some complaints about all the change. But I've changed since I left and I try to embrace change. If there's one thing I've realized from being a self-employed writer, it's that things change. Sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse and you might as well treat the whole thing as an adventure and take an "I can't wait to see what happens next" approach to it or you're going to go crazy.
John Lennon said, "Life is what happens while you're making plans," and I've decided he's right and you might as well try to enjoy the ride.
9. Writing is not life. It's hard to keep this in mind, for me and everyone else. But try to keep some perspective on it. Have a life. Have friends. Embrace your family. Get some hobbies. Travel. Play an instrument. Exercise. Walk the dog. Whatever.
10. Understand if you're writing fiction that you are trying to enter the entertainment business. Most people who write a short story or novel or even TV script seem to think that they're automatically going to be embraced by the industry and the public. But in this country (and probably the world) as you may have noticed, there is absolutely NO SHORTAGE of entertainment. I've got cable TV with about 70 channels playing 24 hours a day; I've NetFlix that delivers movies to my mailbox; I've got the Internet; I've got 50 or 60 books on my shelves I haven't read yet, not to mention the hundreds already there I might want to re-read, or that big building down the road called a library that has a hundred thousand or so, or the bookstore with a million; there's plenty of music for me to listen to that I haven't heard yet or haven't listened to for years; there's a piano I know how to play but don't; there's the gym and my bicycle and my kayak and my karate; there's all the other things that I, like most everyone else in the world, would like to do IF I ONLY HAD THE TIME AND MONEY:
travel and learn to play the guitar and Jet Ski and study Tai Chi and yoga and...
So I can afford to be picky about what I read. And so can other readers, who if they aren't satisfied by what I give them, are going to have no problem going somewhere else.
So those are just a few of my writing tips for today.
On Your Reading Radar
February 27, 2007
I just want to bring these two authors to your attention. They both have new mystery novels out this month from Midnight Ink.
Candy Calvert's latest novel is AYE DO OR DIE. Click on her name to go to her website.
Sue Ann Jaffarian's latest is THE CURSE OF THE HOLY PAIL. Again, click on her name to visit her website.
Good luck with the new books, ladies!
What To Write About
February 25, 2007
I have no answers here, just some observations.
I had lunch with my friend Ron Estrada on Friday. Ron's written a mystery novel--a good one, so hopefully it'll get published--that involves a Detroit cop retiring to northern Michigan and opening a diner on a river near a tourist town.
During the course of lunch Ron mentioned that not only was he a military brat who grew up all over the place, but he'd served in the Navy as an electronic weapons specialist. I said, "How come you've never written about that?" He just shrugged.
I mentioned I was messing around with an espionage novel (and seemingly getting nowhere) that takes place primarily in China. Ron commented drily, "I got drunk in Hong Kong once."
I thought kind of ironically that I could take that single sentence: "I got drunk in Hong Kong once," and turn it into twenty stories, ranging from short stories, travel articles, novels to screenplays. In fact, I'm going to challenge Ron right now: write a short story or a novel with the first line: I got drunk in Hong Kong. Come on, Ron. I dare you. What happens next? Witness a murder? Get involved in the tongs or the Triads? Human smuggling? Espionage? Murder? What, what, what?
I'm fascinated by what people decide to write about. And probably even more fascinated by what they DON'T write about.
My writer friend Dennis Collins has written a book or two about a retired cop in Michigan. A couple years ago he and I and Mike Ball were hanging out at Magna cum Murder and Dennis was telling us about a time when he lived in Mexico and about this gambling area (I don't remember if it was cock fights or dog fights or whatever) and the bookies had seats in the balconies and the people on the floor would write their bets on sipls of paper and put them in these hollowed out balls, then throw them up to the bookies. I said, "How come you've never written about that?" Dennis just shrugged.
It's not that what they've chosen to write about isn't or can't be interesting. For years I avoided writing about the sciences. I was, after all, trying to escape that life and career. I, too, wrote about a P.I. living "up north" (a disabled cop turned PI, living on Grand Traverse Bay), because I was living out a fantasy on the page. Yet sometimes readers are fascinated by what you think is boring--like your own life.
Here are a couple incidents from my life that I've never written about:
1. I had a job in college as a lab assistant for a researcher working on diabetes research. He eventually hired a full-time technologist and I had to train her how to handle the lab rats. I wore a thick, suede leather glove and picked up the rat and said, "You can handle them with your bare hands. They will bite, but--" And the rat squirmed around and bit me right through the leather glove, drawing blood. (I was also bitten by a lab mouse, which is worse, because rats bite and let go, but lab mice bite and hang on; you usually freak out like I did and flap your hand and the mouse eventually lets go and goes flying across the lab--goodbye experiment)
2. My first job out of college was in infectious disease research. (It only lasted about 6 months). We were studying spinal meningitis. My job was to inject bacteria into the spinal cords of rabbits so that by a specific time on Thursday nights (this timing was impossible), the rabbits would be severely ill, and we would take them into the basement of Henry Ford Hospital and subject the rabbits to MRI (magnetic resonance imaging, although at the very beginning it was called NMR, for nuclear magnetic resonance imaging). We had to schedule this at night. HFH is a huge complex in Detroit with multiple buildings connected by tunnels and walkways. Late at night these buildings are practically empty and I'm wandering all over them with nearly dead rabbits on carts. It was eerie. The lights are dim, your footsteps echo up and down the hallways...
There are plenty of others. But I've never really written about any of them, although I think I was getting closer with THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK.
I'm not sure there's any answer here. Stephen King has often responded when people ask him why he writes horror, "What makes you think I have a choice?"
Yet I'm often surprised, given how interesting some people's lives have seemed to have been, that they then choose to write about things other than those interesting lives. I suspect we're all just too close to our own lives.
And it's not like you can't take something positively mundane and make it into great fiction. Harlan Coben has made millions writing about everyday suburban family people getting caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
I'm not sure why we're drawn to the things we actually write about. But, like I said, I'm always fascinated when I run into a writer who's done something in their life that I find fascinating and exotic, but who then chooses to write about something else.
A Talentless Schmuck?
February 23, 2007
Well, the Academy Awards are Sunday night and I suppose I'll watch some of them. I don't think I've watched them to the end. I was thinking about them during "Good Morning, America" today, especially where Jennifer Hudson is concerned.
For those of you who aren't aware of this, Jennifer Hudson has been nominated for, I believe, Best Supporting Actress for her roll in "Dream Girls." What makes this apparently notable to the media is that Ms. Hudson got booted off the TV show "American Idol" well before the finals a while back. The media has decided to use this as a hook for many stories about how the "American Idol" judges, especially bad boy Simon, is full of crap.
Except he's not. And if you get past his bluntness and look at the fact he's the guy who created the show, he's a guy who ran a successful business and lost all his money in the stock market crash in the '80s and has come back to have a hit TV show and run a very successful talent and booking agency, etc., the man must know something.
When this story first came out, I commented to my wife that although I hadn't watched much of "American Idol," I had seen most of the finals and without a doubt, every single person in the finals has talent--a lot of it. And from what I've seen, every single person who makes it to the top 24 has a tremendous amount of talent.
And what the winner is going to face is a possible 6 month to 12 month concert tour where you perform 5 or 6 or 7 nights a week in dozens of different types of venues under all sorts of conditions. And the "American Idol" show structure is designed to weed out the people who just aren't ready for that kind of grueling schedule. If you're going to phone in a performance you had a week to prepare, how are you going to act when you've been on a bus or a plane all day and have to do a show at 8:00, then hit the hotel and be back on the road at 7:00 the next morning in order to get to your next show?
Doing a movie where you're allowed take after take to get it right is a very different gig.
Anyway, I was thinking about talent and writers. Aspiring novelists often get the sense that the industry thinks they have no talent. Undoubtedly in some cases they don't. What I've tended to see in bad manuscripts by unpublished authors is a lack of skill and craft; talent is almost impossible for me to determine at that level. If they work harder and persist, persist, persist and are willing to stay open-minded and learn and take feedback, then it's possible they might get published in the future.
Talented writers are a dime a dozen.
Talented writers who have really learned their craft are much rarer.
Talented writers who have learned their craft and persisted until they succeed are even rarer still.
And talented writers who have learned their craft, persisted and then had a little luck? Hey, you figure that out. Rare of the rare.
I also think the Jennifer Hudson story might be an example of something else I believe. Sometimes we're talented, but not necessarily in the areas where we are striving.
Lawrence Block wrote a column once about a friend of his who desperately wanted to be a novelist but kept getting rejected. Somewhere along the way the gent wrote a travel article, which got picked up and turned into a wonderful career as a travel writer, being sent by numerous magazines all over the world to write about all these exotic locales. Block said he was pretty jealous of the man. But the man only wanted to write novels and couldn't be happy with just being a wildly successful travel writer.
I also remember reading an article by a couple of literary agents who told a story about a client of theirs, a woman who was a PhD in biology, who had written a novel. They sold it and it did okay, but they suggested she try writing popular science books, which she was resistant to doing. Eventually they convinced her to give it a try and she was very, very successful at it.
This sometimes hits me where I live. Had I put the energy into nonfiction that I put into fiction when I was in my twenties, I would have been freelancing for a living by the time I was 30. By the standards of almost all freelance writers, I am very successful (if success is defined by money). Yet a part of me will only view myself as successful if I make a living just writing novels. (Is there a medication for this? Sign me up.)
I also think I have found a certain kind of niche with thrillers, which suits my worldview and my writing style better than straight mysteries. And if what my gut is telling me about my nearly completed children's fantasy adventure is correct, I may have found another area I can write well in that I never would have considered writing in even three or four years ago, let alone fifteen or twenty.
The point is, I think, that most of us that write are talented. Some are undoubtedly more talented than others, but we may have talents for different things. That isn't to say that if something really appeals to us we shouldn't try to develop our talents in that area. In fact, I think we should--that's part of the creative journey, which is an important part of life for us creative types. But I think it's safe to say that having a sense of your talent's strengths and weaknesses and working very hard are more important to eventual success.
Labels: Academy Awards, Jennifer Hudson, talent, writing
What I've Been Reading This Year
February 22, 2007
I decided to keep track of the books I read this year, rather than to try an assemble a list at the end of the year. Here's what I've read to-date along with a few comments.The Faithful Spy by Alex Berenson
This is a first novel and an amazing one. The faithful spy in question is the CIA's only man to infiltrate al-Qaeda. When he is sent by the AQ higher-ups to return to the U.S. after 4 years in deep cover, the CIA doesn't trust him because he's converted to Islam, and it's unclear to him whether al-Qaeda trusts him. He also finds that he has changed, as has America, in the years he's been gone. This was nominated for this year's Edgar Award, and although I might have a quibble about so clearly an espionage novel being nominated for a mystery award (not much of a quibble), it's quite a remarkable novel.Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman
I've long been a fan of Tony Hillerman, but I found this very disappointing.Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen
I really enjoyed this. I loved Hiaasen's early books, but thought he floundered a bit recently. This one I found refreshing; although it has the usual impulse-control-problem characters, none of them had a particular environmental ax to grind, so rather than get hit over the head repeatedly with Hiaasen's environmental cudgel, you can just enjoy a wacky story about crazy people.Jack In The Box by John Weisman
Hardcare espionage novel, complete with footnotes explaining some of the terminology. This is sort of an "insider's insider" espionage novel. I thought it got off to a slow start, but in the end delivered.Lisey’s Story by Stephen King
After giving up after the first 50 pages, I went back and read this and enjoyed it, although it felt padded. There are some wonderful concepts in here, but it felt to me like a cross between "Rose Madder" which I didn't like and "Bag of Bones" which I loved. I doubt I'd ever re-read it.The Kingdom Keepers by Ridley Pearson
Partly because I'm writing a kids' book, I've started reading some and this one is a real treat. I loved it. Disney World has selected 5 kids to be the models for interactive holograms that will wander the Magic Kingdom. But something happened with the technology and the kids find that when they go to sleep, they become the holograms. And there are evil forces lurking in the Magic Kingdom--characters from various rides come to life--and they intend to branch out and take over the world. Only the Kingdom Keepers can stop them. Maybe it's just my general love of Disney World, but this novel was so much fun I can't wait for the next one.Scavenger by David Morrell
Already reviewed it here on the blog.Chokepoint by Jay MacLarty
Already reviewed it here on the blog.Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins
Another kids' book. I thought it had a slow start, but once it got going it was terrific. Gregor, a 12-year-old, and his baby sister (Boots) get sucked into a laundry chute in their New York City apartment and find themselves deep, deep beneath ground in the Underland, where a war is ongoing between the Underlanders (humans of a sort) and the rats (which are giant, six-foot-tall rats). Gregor is the key player in a prophecy and in order to get back home he has to go on a quest, teaming up with giant bats, cockroaches, spiders and Underlanders. This is the first in a series and I'll be reading the second one soon, The Prophecy of Bane. And I'm looking forward to it.High Profile by Robert B. Parker
A Jesse Stone novel. Same old Parker. A so-so mystery and in the case of Jesse, I've grown tired of his issues with his ex-wife. By the end of the novel I thought, "Tell the stupid bitch to get out of your life and not come back. You'll both be better off for it." I guess that's why I'm not a shrink.
There's a 11th I need to mention. Murder On The Side by Ron Estrada
. This is a manuscript by a friend of mine, as-yet unpublished, though I think it might be eventually. Ron's a good writer and although I thought it needed a little more juice between the various characters, I can see a market for this sort of mystery. I enjoyed it and if Ron gets a contract, I'm sure I'll write more about it here.
How about you? What have you been reading?
Bit On The Scrotum
February 21, 2007
Warning: Some Readers May Be Offended By This Post (That's why I wrote it!)
There's been a little bit of controversy over a children's book titled THE HIGH POWER OF LUCKY
by Susan Patron. I've read about it in a number of locations, though primarily on Shelf Awareness, an e-newsletter I receive. A number of bookstores and/or parents have objected to the fact that early on in the book--the first page, from what I understand--a dog is bit on the scrotum by a rattlesnake.
The objection apparently is to the word "scrotum." I don't actually know if anybody objects to the rattlesnake biting the dog or not. The author has claimed that it is based on a true event and I don't doubt it. Dog scrotums do sort of just dangle there for the world to see (unless, like with my dog Frodo, the apparently objectionable organ has been surgically removed), after all, and a wandering (slithering) rattlesnake, if being aggravated by a dog, may very well find that to be the most opportune target.
I was trying to think of another word Ms. Patron might have used instead of "scrotum" and frankly, I'm drawing a blank. Balls?
If she had said that the poor aggrieved animal had been bit on the balls by a rattlesnake, would bookstores and/or parents objected to the word "balls"? The mind reels.
But from a particularly specific anatomical point of view, the dog wasn't bit on the testicles, it was bit on the sac that holds the testicles, which, by most would be called the scrotum, or perhaps, balls.
So what these bookstores and/or parents are really suggesting is that Ms. Patron change the story.
Perhaps they wish for the dog to have been bitten by the rattlesnake on the penis (dick, wiener, tallywhacker, cock, one-eyed trouser snake, etc.). Or perhaps genitalia is the issue--surely no parents, children or booksellers have genitalia of their own?--and Ms. Patron could have had the animal bit on the ass (butt, rear, rump, hind end, hind quarters, etc.). Of course, Ms. Patron was being quite specific. She didn't say the dog was bit on the genitalia or in the crotch (which I don't believe would be accurate in dogs, and neither would groin). She was quite specific, as most writing instructors suggest we must be. The tree is not pretty, after all; the oak was splendid, its leaves having turned for the fall, orange and red and yellow.
So if the dog had been bit on the ass, perhaps it would then have been bit on the anus (rectum, asshole, poop chute, etc.). Or would they have preferred nose (snout?). Well, different story, right?
Among many things that I think about this story is one I often think about: people care about the damndest things.
Writing the "Big" Commercial Novel
February 20, 2007
I recently had the opportunity to interview David Morrell
. He's begun promoting his next novel, SCAVENGER
. It was for the International Thriller Writers website and when they post the interview I'll link to it. it was a terrific, free-wheeling interview with a lot of interesting things in it concerning research, promotion, and "surviving" being a writer (David's first novel, FIRST BLOOD, was published in 1972!).
One of the things that didn't make it into the final interview, but which I wrote down on a notepad and will shortly have up on my wall over my desk was this:"Big books aren't made up of more words, they're made up of more incidents."
Now, when David referred to "big" books he didn't mean one of those 1000 pagers by Stephen King or by J.K. Rowling. He meant a book that has a certain "psychological" size to it.
Sometimes we think high-concept, that unsatisfying Hollywood concept that tries to take a novel idea and condense it down to: "Speed: 'Die Hard' on a bus."
Now, I've used this myself, especially when discussing things with movie producers. The third Derek Stillwater novel, Angels Falling, due out February 2008, I have described as "'Die Hard' at the G8 Summit." Which, I suppose, is quite accurate. But these sorts of descriptions are short hand and don't really do any of the stories justice.
So "big" doesn't really mean high concept.
Big in scope, perhaps? If you go with that definition, then all successful novels will be about preventing the end of the world, or multi-generational family sagas. And yet, there are many successful novels that don't fit this category. The first one to come to mind for me is "The Bridges of Madison County," Robert James Waller's wildly successful novel of a midwestern farm wife's wild weekend of sex and romance. (Don't like my high concept definition of that novel? I think what makes that novel work is the woman's decision whether to go off with the handsome stranger or stay with her husband and children; don't even suggest women didn't drive the commercial success of this sappy novel.)
And even David's definition doesn't quite fit Bridges, does it? Waller's slim novel (a novella by word count, as far as I could tell) was not chock full of incidents.
Yet... did "The Bridges of Madison County" in some way have the feel of a "big" book? Were the characters, especially the male lead, larger than life?
Sometimes I think the "big" book issue really has to do with how the book feels, like the definition of obscenity, "I know it when I see it."
Literary agent Russell Galen at one time wrote an occasional column for Writer's Digest, notable mostly for how poorly he fit the tone of WD, I always thought. WD has a tendency to sugarcoat writing and publishing by viewing it through crazily distorted rose-colored glasses always, always, always making things seem positive. And Russell would write columns that always depressed me because they were so damned realistic about how hard it was to get an agent, how hard it was to get published, how hard it was to stay published, how hard it was to actually make a living at it.
And one of the things I've often puzzled about over the years was he said he would always encourage writers to write the "big" book, which did not mean many words or great length, but one in which there was a feeling of "bigness" to it, of scope (and by the way, back to Bridges, the "scope" despite the action taking place in a single weekend, is huge, isn't it? Life changing for both characters, at least potentially).
So how do you do that?
Ah, well, nobody said this was going to be easy, did they?
CHOKEPOINT by Jay MacLarty--a review
February 19, 2007
by Jay MacLarty
In this fourth novel featuring international courier Simon Leonidovich (pronounced Leon-o-vich), casino owner Big Jake Rynerson is building a huge resort casino in Macau (China) called The Pacific Pearl. The build isn't going well--a series of unsettling accidents has slowed the project, and there is an immutable deadline set by a Feng Shui expert. There is also significantly more going on--Rynerson, on behalf of the President of the United States, is helping to broker an international trade agreement called the Pacific Rim Alliance, between China, Taiwan, and the United States.
Rynerson takes a phone call from Mei-li Chiang, a Chinese power broker and perhaps gangster, who claims to have a solution to his problems. Rynerson's pretty sure the woman just wants to shake him down in exchange for ending the "accidents." Normally this is something he would never agree to, but with an Asian-U.S. alliance at stake, he agrees to meet the woman. And is shot and ends up in a coma.
Shortly afterward, Simon Leonidovich is called by Jake's daughter, the lovely and beautiful Kyra Rynerson. Simon and Kyra have an interesting history (from BAGMAN) and their relationship is both heated and humorous. Simon is asked to do two things by Kyra's mother, Billie. While Jake is in the hospital battling for his life, Simon and Kyra are to oversee the completion of the resort-casino. And Simon is also hired to deliver the priceless Crest of Ch'in from the Smithsonian to the Chinese government as a goodwill gesture for the Pacific Rim Alliance.
Eventually, through a series of mishaps and adventures, Kyra, Simon and James Atherton, a consultant in all things Asian, find themselves stranded on a deserted island in the China Sea, being hunted by a band of mercenaries working for the mysterious "Trader," who wants the alliance to fall apart and also wants to take possession of the Crest. The bulk of the novel takes place on the island, a game of cat-and-mouse in which the mouse or mice--predominantly Simon and Kyra--seem to have an IQ point or two advantage over their better armed adversaries, who have a number of conflicting agendas, although killing Simon and Kyra is at the top of their lists.
CHOKEPOINT is a lot of fun. It doesn't quite have the focus of the three previous Simon Leonidovich novels (THE COURIER, BAGMAN, and LIVE WIRE), but if anything it's more amusing than the first three. Simon is a wonderful hero--not terribly physical, but very, very clever, and his intelligence and magician's sense of misdirection are what makes him so engaging. As in the three previous novels, MacLarty has a surprise awaiting the readers in the end, but it's the ride with Simon and Kyra that make the trip worthwhile. Very enjoyable.
Take 7 With Jay MacLarty
February 16, 2007
Bestselling author Jay MacLarty's
fourth Simon Leonidovich (pronounced Leon-o-vich) novel has just hit the shelves. Simon is an international courier. For a high price, he will deliver whatever the client wants wherever the client wants, guaranteed. This allows Simon to get into an awful lot of trouble, whether he's delivering confidential pharmaceutical records, top secret government files, or ransom money. In MacLarty's fourth novel, CHOKEPOINT
, Simon is hired by his friend Big Jake Rynerson, who is building a casino in Macau (China), to deliver a priceless artifact--the Crest of Chi-in--from the Smithsonian to the Chinese government to help seal an alliance between China, Taiwan and the United States. And it's a given that all hell breaks loose.
I'll review CHOKEPOINT early next week, but for today, Jay has stopped by for an interview. Oh, and I just want everybody to know that I just love Jay's novels--they're paperback originals so you should run out today and pick them up. They're a lot of fun.
1. Based on photos from your website, you’ve been to China. Did you do any special China research for Choke Point?
No, not really. I rarely travel with a specific story in mind, but prefer to soak up the culture; and then, whenever possible, use my experiences as background for my stories.
2. Last time I talked to you, you had plans to move abroad? How are those plans going?
Though slightly delayed (until I finish the book I’m currently working on), everything is still a go. Right now, I’m thinking of Amsterdam for the summer, then moving on to Spain or Italy for the next year . . . or so.
3. Where’d you get the idea for Simon?
I developed the idea with a writing colleague, Louise Crawford. We were simply brainstorming ideas, trying to come up with an interesting profession that would thrust our protagonist into unexpected problems and perils. We intended to work on the story together, but found that to be an impossible task, and I ended up moving forward on my own.
4. I know you have a fairly colorful employment history. Can you give me a brief rundown of your pre-writing careers?
I started in the hospitality business, putting together a nation-wide chain of restaurants and nightclubs. Burned out by the age of thirty, I created a computerized handicapping program, then “ran away to play the ponies.” That was too much fun, so I decided to do something more serious, and ended up working for a year on a presidential campaign. What can I say, the guy lost, and I had to find real work; so, turned my attention to the organizational business, and a chain of retail stores. Along the way I managed to start a small software company, and write The Courier. The rest, as they say, is history.
5. Looks like your next novel is non-Simon. Any more Simons in the future?
I don’t think so. The fact is, I like women, and I’ve lived with that man for four years – ate, drank, and slept with the guy – and I’m ready to move on!
6. What’s your writing schedule like? Last time we talked you were starting in the middle of the night.
That was part of the pain of writing a series, and having to turn out a book every twelve months – there weren’t enough hours in the day – not at the pace I write. So that’s another thing I hope to have put behind me. I now get up between five and six, am at the keyboard by seven, and work until two or three in the afternoon. And when I’m working on a book, I always work seven days a week.
7. Living in Vegas, when you see news reports that New York state got 8 or 9 feet of snow, what do you think?
I think about growing up in Minnesota – been there, done that – and am very happy not to be going through it. Now days, I like my snow in the proper place: on the slopes.
Thanks Jay. Good luck with CHOKEPOINT and thanks for stopping by.
Mark Terry Talks To Derek Stillwater
February 15, 2007
I'm happy to have as my guest today, Dr. Derek Stillwater, PhD. Derek is a troubleshooter for the Department of Homeland Security and an expert on biological and chemical terrorism. Derek, welcome.
Derek: That's my boat.
Mark: Yes. Nice boat. Did you buy it new?
Derek: Used. Got a deal on it. It needed a lot of work, but I had the time. I was between jobs at the time.
Mark: Which jobs?
Derek: I left the army in '92, about a year after the first Gulf War ended. Then I rattled around the Middle East for a while, consulting for a few government agencies for a while until I joined UNSCOM, the United Nations inspection teams. When I was good and done with UNSCOM, I decided to settle down and get out of the terrorism and war business for a while. That's when I bought the boat.
Mark: Which government agencies?
Derek: I can't really talk about that in a public forum.
Mark: Does one of them have its headquarters in Langley, Virginia?
Derek: Don't make me kill you.
Mark: Do you have family?
Derek: I have an ex-wife. Two parents and a brother.
Mark: Maybe it's just me, but I think it's interesting that you mention the ex-wife first. A lot of people wouldn't consider an ex-wife family at all.
Derek: This couch isn't really all that comfortable, doctor. Don't psychoanalyze me.
Mark: Sorry. What did your parents do?
Derek: Seems to me we discuss this more in L.A.
Mark: Yes, in The Valley of Shadows. But let's give readers a hint.
Derek: They were missionary physicians.
Mark: So you grew up...
Mark: You don't seem particularly religious to me.
Derek: I noticed there's no question mark at the end of that question. Was there a question there?
Mark: What about your brother?
Derek: He's not religious. Not exactly.
Mark: He's 'not exactly' religious?
Derek: I see the question mark this time, but I'm not sure there's a question there.
Mark: You can be kind of a pain in the ass.
Derek: Thank you. It's a gift.
Mark: What is your brother's religion?
Mark: And your religion is...?
Derek: (Sigh). You like open-ended questions, don't you?
Mark: Yes. People who aren't such pains in the ass tend to fill in the silence. You, on the other hand, prefer to give me a hard time.
Derek: I give everybody a hard time. It's part of my charm.
Mark: Your religion?
Derek: It has been observed that my religion is counterterrorism.
Mark: And why is that?
Derek: I think I can fall back on my 'your couch isn't all that comfortable, Doctor' response from above.
Mark: How's your love life?
Derek: I'm in the market. How's yours?
Mark: I've been married 20 years.
Derek: Never mind then.
Mark: So what's next, Derek?
Derek: For readers, it's my really bad day in Detroit titled THE SERPENT'S KISS, being released on July 1, 2007. Seems to me the galley is being shipped to potential blurbers as we speak. For you, you seem to have abandoned me in Los Angeles.
Mark: I've got some tweaking on your adventures in Colorado to do first. I got busy. Besides, I may have to backtrack a bit. I think I may have killed off an important character too soon.
Derek: You mean--
Mark: Ssshhhh. Anyway, thanks for stopping by.
Derek: Like I had a choice. Next time, let me sleep in, okay?
Mark: No promises.
Random Writing Musings
February 14, 2007
Happy Valentine's Day.
I've been up since 5:30, an hour early, because we wanted to figure out if the kids had school today. As it turns out, they do. We were hit by a "winter storm," and probably had they not had 2 days off last week because of cold temperatures, they wouldn't have school today. For those of you on the east coast, my apologies--what for us is a lot of wind and a decent amount of snow is, for you, becoming a nor'easter with freezing rain and winds up to 50 mph. We have winds in the 20s, cold temps and here in Oxford got maybe 5 inches, although the southern Detroit suburbs got significantly more.
I got an e-mail yesterday from one of my editors at Midnight Ink, letting me know what the galley schedule is for The Serpent's Kiss, the 2nd Derek Stillwater novel. I'm also in the middle of dealing with editorial suggestions for the third one, Angels Falling; if there's anything besides receiving a check to make you feel more like a writer, it's got to be overlapping editorial deadlines. Busy is good, right?
They wanted to know if I wanted an author photo. I sent them the one on the website and left it up to them. Maybe I should have used the one here.
I've been working on a novel for kids. My oldest son has been reading along and he claims it's great. I'm weirdly pleased by that; more pleased by that than by positive professional reviews and even, maybe, more pleased by it than checks in the mail. I'm not sure Ian's all that discriminating a reader, but if he didn't like it I'm sure he wouldn't continue reading along after me, and he certainly wouldn't ask me what was going to happen next.
I suspect this is why we write. For the reader who falls in love with the characters and the story and wants MORE.
The opening paragraph:
They say that when you die, your life passes before your eyes. I don’t know about that. The only thing I thought of as I fell off my boogie board and got caught in the undertow of the big bad wave of doom was that I shouldn’t have eaten that second hotdog for lunch.
Well, what can I say. I'm having fun.
The Mercenary Writer
February 13, 2007
I find today's post to be a lovely little reality-like bookend to my previous whining about being cranky with my one client and annoyed with the publishing industry. I appreciate everybody riding along while I whined, even though what I probably needed was a good dope-slap.
has an excellent post about how she was cleaning out her files and ran across a pitch she used to carry with her and how it and quite a number of others got turned down and what she did about it.
Stuff happens. You adapt, you compromise, you keep working. Or you don't.
Those are the choices we sometimes have to make between creating art and making a living.
This hit me where I live. Sometimes you set aside "art" and say, "Hey, I've got bills to pay, so I'm going to do X." I need to remind myself--and I do, often--that I'm doing something that I love, it's going great, and the lifestyle is terrific. Yesterday, while editing the journal that is one of my clients, I went through a chromosome spread and karyotyped it as a double-check. It's the first time I've done this systematically in 2-1/2 years since I left the hospital. I did this hundreds of times a day for years.
I am SO glad I'm not doing this any more.
So an "attitude of gratitude" is probably a good thing. That doesn't mean I won't keep striving. I still have goals, creative and financial, but it's helpful to remember that at pretty much all stages of the fiction game, some variation of rejection is still part of the job.
Are We Having Fun Yet?
February 11, 2007
I have quite a few blogs by writers that I visit rather obsessively, and the majority of them are over there on the links page to the right, although there are quite a few others I regularly visit, but am too lazy and/or busy to add to my links section.
As a rule, the majority of these blogs are devoted to the business of writing, or maybe the business of marketing your writing.
And today I'm feeling just so exhausted and annoyed by this.
I'm sure that some of this is my reaction to Robert Gregory Browne's recent post about the amazing success he had at his first book signing, selling 58 copies of his book. I've done a few dozen signings and another dozen or so talks at libraries or Rotary Clubs or book conferences and the most I've ever sold at one was 15 copies and the worst signing was a big fat zero. (Even worse, in some ways, was I paid a publicist to set that one up; talk about rubbing salt in a wound).
So, aside from crushing envy (really, I'm happy for you Rob, you bastard), there's a part of me that wants very much to step aside from the marketing and promotion aspect of novels and say, "We're all pretty much wrong, you know. Nobody knows what makes books sell. N-O-B-O-D-Y." The more rational side of me suspects that this kind of success isn't planned, it just happens.
Let's face it, if I knew, I'd be making a lot more money from novel writing than I am. Hell, Joe Konrath, who has successfully convinced the blogging world that he is an expert on book marketing (and much of his advice is excellent) is not a bestseller.
So mostly what I'm doing today is taking a deep breath and saying, "Clear your head."
The rumor is that there are about 180,000 books published in the U.S. every year. I don't know if those numbers include self-publishing or not, and it really doesn't matter. Even if there were only 20,0o0--hell, even if there were only 2000 books published a year in the U.S., I wouldn't be buying all of them. Probably even if there were only 200 books published a year in the U.S. I wouldn't be buying all of them.
So if you're a writer, published or aspiring, and this gig has turned into a chore because of the marketing aspects, or the promotional aspects or the business aspects or the rejection aspects...
I hope you're having fun.
Because God knows that it's tough to make a living in the fiction business, so you'd better AT LEAST be getting something else out of the experience. I hope the actual act of writing is something you enjoy. I hope that these wildly personal stories that we tell and hope will appeal to others, entertain you, enlighten you, or at the very least kill the time in a reasonable fashion.
I know that often my writing made me unhappy. Not the actual writing. No, I always seemed to enjoy that. But the struggle to get published, to get an agent, etc., often made me very unhappy. And it wasn't even the rejections that made me unhappy, but the sense of defeat that came with it. The feeling that the publishing world was behind a castle wall and I was beating on the door and nobody was willing to open it.
Now that my fiction is being regularly published, I still very much enjoy the writing process. I enjoy getting published and receiving the books. But there are aspects of marketing and promotion that annoy the living shit out of me, not because I find the activities in and of themselves annoying, but because there is little or no sense that your time, money and energy isn't being wasted. I'm not getting any younger and there's very little I despise more than the feeling that I might be wasting time or energy.
So really, if you're a writer, I hope you're having fun.
Odd Little Writer Moments In Tampa
February 9, 2007
Sometimes you feel like a writer. I didn't come to Tampa to do some book promotion--no time, actually and that's not why I'm here--but I did have a few moments.
On the plane here I was reading an ARC of David Morrell's next novel, "SCAVENGER" and after visiting the restroom on the plane, I noticed that the couple behind me were just finishing watching a movie on their little portable DVD player. I asked them what they had watched and they said, "Little Miss Sunshine." I asked them how it was and they liked it, said it was cute, but were surprised it was nominated for Best Picture.
Then the gentleman saw my ARC and said, "David Morrell has a new book out?"
I explained this was an advanced reading copy and the book was coming out in March and it was a sequel to "CREEPERS." She asked me how I get an ARC, so I explained that I was doing some sort of piece--probably an interview--for the International Thriller Writers, Inc., and since he had written such a great review of my last novel, I was returning the favor by doing some sort of piece on him. That got them going on my book--they're big readers, apparently--and as it turns out, the bookmark I was using was one from my first book "CATFISH GURU" and it had my website on it, so I gave them the book mark.
I ran into another person--I mentioned this in yesterday's post--and she asked me what else I wrote and I told her the novels and she wrote the info down, too.
So, I thought I'd throw out a quote from Morrell's latest novel and see what you think."He tried literature next but felt that most literature teachers believe they're adjuncts of the philosophy or political science departments. Nowhere did he hear anything about the hypnotic way in which stories transported him to a reality more vivid than the supposedly solid world around him."
3:51 Tampa Time
February 8, 2007
Well, it's the same time in Tampa as it is in Michigan where I live, but I'm currently in Tampa and it sure as hell seems different.
Tried to leave the house at 4:30 to head to the airport, but the Schwan's reps came to sell us food stuffs and blocked the driveway.
So I got going around 4:45. Traffic sucked. My flight was at 7:35 (Northwest). I hit the airport parking at 6:10. Took the shuttle over to the airport, stood in line forever to get my boarding pass etc., printed out, then stood in line even longer doing what I think of as the TSA Shuffle, trying to figure out how to juggle a laptop, a leather jacket, shoes, wallet, cell phone, flash drive, car keys...
I haven't eaten dinner and it's 20 to 7. Do I have time to stop at one of the restaurants? My flight won't get into Tampa until 10:30. I decide I need to get to my gate first, and finally get to my gate at 6:50. The plane loads at 7:05, so I grab some pizza at the Hungry Howie's. They start loading right on time, even if they've overbooked the flight (somebody explain why airlines do this?).
The plane, which was supposed to leave at 7:35, sits at the gate until 8:00. We hit Tampa at 10:30. I wait around for my suitcase to arrive, catch a cab to the hotel. Time of check-in: 11:10. Call my wife and wake her up, unpack, then try to get to sleep. Yeah, right. I sleep like crap.
Wake-up call is 6:30. I make it out of the shower in enough time to eat breakfast that I had delivered to the room while I watch the local news and Good Morning, America. I haven't been to Tampa in about 14 years, but I see it still qualifies as Weird News Central. Nice story about a dead guy shot to death in his car at the parking lot of the zoo.
Hit the meeting at 8:00 until 12-ish. Have lunch with the guy who hires me, chat, take a walk outside. Find out it's 70+ degrees and sunny. I'm never leaving.
Go back and run into a woman I have corresponded with from time to time. Introduce her to the guy who hires me (she's a consultant in his field and writes--if he hires her to do some work I should get a percentage :)). I finally decide I've had enough and flee back to my room, figure out how to go online and pretty soon I'm heading out to enjoy the sun and think about a little shopping and dinner.
Sunny and warm in February. This is something I could get used to.
Da Lyphe Uv Uh Righter
February 7, 2007
Well, no whining, I'm heading off to Tampa tonight for a 2-day conference about integrating molecular diagnostics into your clinical laboratory. I'll be flying back Friday night. If I felt I could have taken my kids out of school for a couple days, we all would have gone and stayed longer, but we pulled the kids out for a few days in September/October for a conference in Washington DC and my nephew is "gettin' hitched" in Austin, TX at the end of March, so it's just me, an in-and-out bombing run to Tampa.
Travel days are a little screwy and I can't seem to get it in gear to do any work, although I've done assorted packing, lunch, gym, go to the drugstore to buy travel toothpaste and some chewing gum, etc.
But the life of a writer? You should check out my friend Tobias Buckell's
video blog post about writing. It's so dead-on. I enjoyed it.
Anyway, I'll try to post tomorrow from hopefully sunny Florida and tell you about my adventures getting there.
Writers & Criticism
February 6, 2007
I've been in a funk the last few days. In theory it's all connected to one of my clients, although upon reflection, it's probably more to do with February and the fact that the temperatures have been below zero. Yes, Seasonal Affective Disorder. There ought to be a support group--in the Caribbean.
Anyway, one reason I was thinking about this was I took some criticism from this client and managed to brood over it and freak out and in general make my life and everybody's life miserable around me.
Then yesterday I received about 3 pages of "suggestions" to the third Derek Stillwater novel, ANGELS FALLING, scheduled for publication in February 2008, and I read through them and whipped back a reply that I'd get right on it. No angst, no anger, just, "I think they're right" or "I think they're good, so let's get on it."
Um... why the different reaction?
I very much have in my mind the idea that for fiction I take notes and make changes. (I try not to need it, but fiction is subjective, so it happens).
Why I don't have that in mind for nonfiction--at least with this one specific client--is a mystery.
It may have to do with my ambivalence about this client, who pays very well and gives me a ton of work, but often treats me as a staff writer. The money and work is so big it would be rather hard to walk away, which for a freelancer is part of what we delude ourselves into thinking we can do. (It's a perk; run with it!)
It may be that I love the novels and want them to be the best they can be and I really haven't run across any dopey comments yet that won't help the work.
And my attitude about the freelancing work tends to be a little more ambivalent in general, that I want to do my best work and move on to the next and the next and the next... that's how you make a living doing it, after all, not by dwelling on the last piece of nonfiction.
There's a quasi-permanence about the books, too. Yes, I know they can go out of print, etc., but people might re-read them, or they may be in libraries and read over and over and somebody may pick one up years down the line and read and enjoy it.
Nonfiction seems particularly disposable. There's so much of it, for one reason. Plus, would I re-read it? Unlikely. And since these are often business reports, some of them are practically outdated by the time they see print.
Much of it reminds me that there is a lot about a writer's life that is a head game. We have to convince ourselves we're good enough (as well as agents, editors, publishers, readers), and then we have to CONTINUE convincing ourselves.
I'm pretty tough-skinned about criticism, but when it bothers me, I sometimes think it's because I might actually believe the criticism, that the criticism goes beyond the specific work itself to include, well... me. It's not just that this particular piece didn't quite hit the mark for whatever reason, it's that YOU didn't hit the mark, that you're not good enough, that you're a talentless schmuck not worth the toner you're wasting and the bandwidth you're utilizing...
God, I can't wait for spring.
Tracking Your Book Sales
February 5, 2007
The Number One question I am asked isn't "Where do you get your ideas?" I wish it was. That's an easy one compared to The Number One Question. The Number One Question is also NOT "How do I get an agent?" which is even easier than the ideas question.
Nope, the Number One Question is, "How's your book doing?"
I believe the real question here is, "How much money have you made on your book?" This one I actually do have an answer to: my advance minus 15% for my agent and about 30% for taxes and if you subtract money I've spent on promotion to-date, I'm in the red by a couple thousand bucks, thank you very much.
But that's not the real question. The real question is "How many books have you sold and as a result, how much money have you made on your book?"
And the answer to that one is: "Beats me."
I thought about asking my editor recently, but I had read a lengthy interview with her in the Mystery Writers of America newsletter and she commented that she hated that question from her authors and she had a hard time answering it, so I've decided to wait for my royalty statement which will arrive sometime in April, with any luck. In my experience with royalty statements, there's no guarantee I'll be able to figure out how many books I've sold there, either. Welcome to publishing.
There's an interesting article over on Slate
that talks about this phenomenon.
Still, there's at least one sector for which we lack reliable and transparent market data: books. Sure, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today publish best-seller lists. But these lists don't tell us precisely how many copies of each book have sold or the difference in sales between No. 1 and No. 101 or between the leading fiction title and the leading nonfiction book.
Some of this enigma has to do with the nature of the publishing business. Book advances and returns and holds against returns and foreign language sales that in some cases the author's split on those numbers may be used to pay off the advances, as well as all the other possible income streams.
I suspect another issue is that each author's contract is different (from each other, as well as from each book). And let's not forget that some publishers and authors may have basketed or joint accounting--they won't get royalties on the first book until the advance for the 2nd, 3rd or whatever book are paid for.
This in some ways is why book advances are important. (To the writer). It's a "take the money and run" sort of thing.
Anyway, how is my book doing?
Great. It's really doing great.
Reminders For Writers
February 2, 2007
I received a couple of poster-sized copies of the cover art for The Devil's Pitchfork and The Serpent's Kiss this week and they're gorgeous. I also felt ever so slightly foolish, but then I reminded myself, "Hey, this is something to be really proud of. Not everybody gets to this point."
And it occurred to me that there was a much bigger thing going on here.
You see, once you get published, in most cases you want MORE or WHAT'S NEXT, or you perhaps even take for granted certain things--like getting published. I mean, it's very easy for me to look at my own books and say, "Yeah, that's good, but I wanted..." You pick. Bigger advance; more foreign sales; hardcover/mass market deal; movie deal; more and better reviews; more money; more sales; more, more, more, more...
I had to take a second to remind myself that it wasn't that long ago when I would have been happy just getting published. And voila, I am. It wasn't that long ago that I would have been happy making my living as a writer, and voila, I do. It wasn't that long ago... okay, actually, it was longer than 14 years ago, that I wanted to get ANYTHING published, and now it happens on a pretty much weekly basis.
So, a few reminders:
--if you've just started writing novels and you have your doubts, congratulate yourself. You have walked down to the pool that all of humanity drinks from--that of stories. EVERY culture has some kind of storytelling tradition and you've decided not just to drink from that pool but to add to that pool. This is a tradition that goes back to Gilgameseh and Homer and the Bible and the Koran and cave drawings. This is a PROFOUND thing, no matter how trivial it sometimes seems. (Don't let it go to your head. :))
--if you've completed a novel or story and you're hunting for an agent or publisher, even if you're getting rejections (it's a part of the process and never ends), congratulate yourself. This is an achievement--finishing the story--that many aspiring novelists never accomplish. It IS an accomplishment, and if you don't think so, imagine what it would look like if all the INCOMPLETED manuscripts were in one pile!
--if you've been published but you're not happy with the sales or the advance or any number of business-y related things, congratulate yourself anyway. You dreamed of this, you worked hard for it, it's an amazing accomplishment that few actually get to experience.
--if you make your living as a writer, whether by novels or something else, congratulate yourself. You have discovered that there are people who value you in an area that people often think has no value. It's like people making fun of TV shows, right? It must be bad and worthless (that's why so few people watch TV, right?). The fact is, being able to do this for money and to live off it is an unusual, often exhilarating thing. Congratulate yourself. [go read Allison Brennan's post on this at MurderSheWriters
And now that you're done congratulating yourself, get back to work. There's writing to be done!
Marketing For Writers--A New Column
February 1, 2007
My friend Gregory Huffstutter
has begun a new column on marketing for writers over on MJ Rose's blog, Buzz, Balls & Hype
. Check it out.
Roadblocking is obtrusive. You risk annoying potential customers who were trying to avoid your commercial in the first place. But in advertising, sometimes it’s better to get noticed than be nice.
Furthermore, Roadblocking can help legitimize your message. Consumers get inundated with a daily flood of commercials, banners, logos, sponsorships… seeing the same message BAM-BAM-BAM shocks your brain into saying, “Huh, that’s popular. Maybe I ought to pay attention.”
And I just wanted to add my reaction to the announcement that the 7th and final book in J.K. Rowling's series, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" has been announced for publication July 21, 2007. I'm really looking forward to it and saddened that it will end. And I'm also a little aghast--they're predicting that the hardcover will retail for $34.95.