Mark Terry

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Book Brahmins Questions

January 11, 2008
Shelf Awareness, a newsletter I get, generally has a section on Fridays where they interview "Book Brahmins" (and no, I find the reference a bit vague) and ask the same questions. Today, for instance, they interview Douglas Preston (whose book is in the mail, any day now...). Since no one seems to be requesting I become the next Book Brahmin, I thought I'd appoint myself and answer them anyway.

On your nightstand now:
I'm reading The Overlook by Michael Connelly. I also have Time Magazine from the beginning of the year, the one with Vladimir Putin on the cover, a year-old Smithsonian--just finished reading an article about albatrosses--and I finished MacWorld while my youngest son was taking a shower this morning. I've also got A Thousand Bones by PJ Parrish on my desk (my "office" book) to be read during slow computer downloads, potty breaks, etc.
Favorite books when you were a child:
I suppose it depends on what age you consider me a child, but I would say The Young Unicorns by Madeleine L'Engle.
Your top five authors:
Dick Francis, Robert B. Parker, John Sandford... this just got tricky. When Ross Thomas was alive, he'd be up there. Sue Grafton, although as I've mentioned, I'm not compulsive about her books for the last 4 or 5 years. Rick Riordan might be up there. Stephen King has been influential. David Morrell, Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston, Robert Crais, Jonathan Kellerman. Paul Levine...
Book you've faked reading:
Howard's End by EM Forster
Book you are an evangelist for:
Bag of Bones by Stephen King.
Book you've bought for the cover:
I've done this a lot, but the most recent one in my memory is Stealing the Dragon by Tim Maleeny. There were other factors than the cover, but the cover was definitely a big factor.
Book that changed your life:
I don't remember the actual title of the book, but it was a collection of essays by a number of horror writers, all writing about Stephen King. The essay in particular that changed my life was the introductory essay by Stephen King called something like "The Making of a Brand Name." It's what inspired me to become a professional writer and most definitely changed my life.
Favorite line from a book:
This might not be exact, but it's close:

"The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming." From Glitz by Elmore Leonard
Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Bag of Bones by Stephen King
I've re-read and listened to audio versions of this novel, but I was blown away by it the first time I read it.

Now, it's not a meme, but feel free to ask yourself these questions.

Mark Terry


Blogger Aimless Writer said...

Hmmm, how to phrase this question...
We write for years and suddenly some agent likes our work. What pushed your writing over the edge to be published? Technique? Persistance? Something else? Was there a point where you finally had sudden insight as to what your stories needed to make that step into the spotlight?
Does this make sense?

5:49 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Let's narrow this down--fiction or nonfiction?

6:06 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

Fiction? But any comments on non would be good too.

8:57 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Okay, Aimless. Complicated topic.

1. Technique. Yes, I think I've always focused on technique over everything else. That's helped me get published in nonfiction (at least some of the time), but I don't know how much it has with fiction. Yes, editors typically say, "Yes, it's well written, but..." So although I've often thought--and still do to some extent-- believe that good technique will make editors pay attention, it won't necessarily make them buy the manuscript. (More on that in a second).

2. Persistence. Absolutely. I used to write something and show it to a couple editors or agents then give up. Now I'm much more inclined to just keep marketing until it get published. That was my most successful approaches to getting an agent as well. Just hunt until you get one.

3. It seems to me that in terms of fiction, the key to success these days comes down to matching a "hook" with decent (doesn't have to be great) technique with persistence. Editors and agents are programmed to say "no." They EXPECT to say no. They read tons and tons of poorly written materials that can't be published. Then they read tons and tons of okay-written material that isn't well told or doesn't have a hook. Then they read a little bit of material that is written well and has some sort of hook. Then there's a teeny tiny amount of terrific written material that's got a great hook, or even okay-written that has a great hook, and that gets bought. That real rarity is probably the great writing with the terrific hook.

To my mind, the "hook" is the hardest part and I think my own writing has good technique and the stories are well told, but I'm not sure I've got a particularly good hook and frankly, it often eludes me when analyzing books that are out there.

I mean, glancing over at my bookshelf, I can see a book called "The Brotherhood of the HOly Shroud" and think "Da Vinci Code rip-off" and and know that I also have another half-dozen on the shelf that are essentially the same kind of thing. So I understand the hook, but I don't understand why an editor would think it was worth throwing money at it.

And I'm even worse when it comes to cozies. Most of the time the hooks seem like amateur hour to me: a catering sleuth, a librarian sleuth, a theater-owner sleuth, a wedding planner sleuth, a golf pro sleuth.

I've found to have success in nonfiction involves:

1. Decent technique (doesn't have to be great)
2. Analyzing the publications so you know what they want and giving it to them
3. Leveraging your expertise
4. Being willing to do things other people don't (or can't, I suppose)
5. And this is me personally, but I think where a lot of nonfiction writers run into problems is they're afraid of difficult subjects or taking on things they're not comfortable with. I fairly routinely challenge myself to learn new areas or new angles on old areas, like instead of writing about the clinical laboratory from a technical point of view, I write about it from a business or regulatory point of view.

Hope any of this makes sense.

1:31 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Oh, and I forgot what I think is probably the biggest thing for continuing success in writing nonfiction:


Get a reputation in nonfiction for delivering what they want, on-time with no problems--preferable so all they have to do is send it to their layout person with little or no editing--and you'll keep getting work.

1:34 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

LOL, I think the comments of this post were even more interesting than the post itself! Which was interesting too, btw.

Everytime I think I've got an interesting hook, I discover it's been done before. I'm real tired of that.

7:14 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

The whole "hook" thing drives me nuts.

7:42 AM  
Anonymous How Not To Write said...

Mark, you should repost your comments as a new blog post! :)

6:11 PM  
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