Mark Terry

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Writing It All

March 20, 2008
Over on Erica Orloff's blog yesterday, which was about writers getting paid what they're worth (at least in their fantasies), I got into a discussion with Jude about writing-for-hire, and he mentioned that Joe Konrath had apparently recently responded to someone's complaint that they couldn't write short stories by saying that a writer can write anything.

Is that true?

I'll tell you this. Years ago, when all I wanted to be was a novelist, I used to say, "I can't write magazine articles" although some of that rationale might have been "I'm a novelist, why would I write nonfiction," and it was mixed in there with "I don't like reading nonfiction, so..." There was most certainly an attitude of, "I don't need to write magazine articles, I'm going to be a big, fat success as a novelist."

Obviously, since I now make my living writing nonfiction and have published hundreds of magazine articles as well as business reports and other things, that this is not true. But can I write anything?

Years ago I wrote a rough draft of a really horrible screenplay. I'm sure I could do a better job now. I've never tried my hand at a TV script although I've considered it.

Here are some things I never thought I could write, but which I finally did write and sold:

Magazine articles
Technical articles
White papers
Business reports.

And at least one of those paid me $20,000.

But is it true, if you're a writer you can write anything?

Well, no, I don't think so. I take the attitude now that I might surprise myself by what I CAN write, but there are a lot of things that get written that require the writer to be more than a writer--a lot of technical materials, for instance. There's a ton of money in the pharmaceutical technical writing area, with people charging $100 an hour and up, but although I have a degree in microbiology and experience writing about biotech and pharma, this type of writing is pretty much beyond me. It's not the writing per se, but the subject matter.

Although I could probably write ad copy, I'm notoriously advertising-resistant and more than a little bit stupid about it. My friend Karl Schmidt used to work for ad agency Leo Burnett in Chicago and he brought Leanne (my wife) and I into his office years ago and showed us a mock-up of an ad campaign they were working on for Kellogg's Frosted Flakes. Then he asked us questions about the ad he'd just shown us as if we were a focus group. When we were done he gave me one of his "looks" and said, "Good, Mark, you're right in line with the 8-year-olds in terms of understanding and remembering what you saw." The fact is, writing ad copy would probably not be a good fit for me. But could I do it?

If motivated, sure. I'd educate myself. I'd pay much closer attention to ad copy. I'm sure I could do it. But it might take a while to get up to speed.

One of the problems with me writing scripts of any sort is that I haven't really read many (or any, all the way through, I don't think), let alone studied them. That's my problem with short stories. I've published two, but I don't like reading short stories. I don't know why, but I rarely finish them and I rarely enjoy them. I got Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine for two years with the intention of reading them cover-to-cover in order to improve my short story writing. By the end of my 2-year subscription I had 14 months of unread EQs.

So from a technical point of view, yes, I can probably sling words together and make them work--particularly if I did my homework.

From the point of view of mindset, psychology, education and temperament, there are probably some types of writing I'm not well-suited for and although I might attempt them and complete them, whether or not they would be successful might have more variables than just my abilities as a word mechanic. (I would note, being crass and money-fixated, that if the paycheck were guaranteed and high enough, I'd attempt pretty much anything, with a few exceptions).

Which reminds me of a story I heard from a linguist. He was in grad school and a world famous linguist was visiting to give a lecture. The world famous linguist came into the lecture hall, was introduced, said hello, then began his lecture in Italian. Several people in the hall raised their hands and told him in English, since he spoke about a dozen languages, that they didn't speak Italian. The world famous linguist gazed out over the crowd of graduate student linguists and said in English, "Is everybody here a linguist?" Nods all around. The world famous linguist then shrugged and continued in Italian.

So, what do you think?

Mark Terry


Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Hi Mark:
Thanks for the shout-out.

I think, if you can write, you COULD write almost anything, but it's absolutely matching your temperament and talents to the right gig. I wrote commercials and loved it. I loved "timing" it and seeing if I could say all there was to say in a 30-second spot. But I could understand how that kind of word cutting and insanity would drive someone else nuts. I like word puzzles and crosswords, so I tend to think that's why I don't mind that kind of restriction.

But . . . a corporate annual report? Would drive me nuts. Too many people butting in and tweaking and complexities of corporate culture. ARGH! Would I do it for $20,000? In a heartbeat.

But I know what I'm best at. I've figured it out, which is a good position to be in.

6:03 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Yeah, Erica, five minutes ago I got several pages of comments from some people on a rough draft of the business report I'm writing. If they were in the room right now I'd probably have a hard time controlling my impulse to kick their collective asses. But the money's good, so like most jobs, you suck it up and do it.

And the fact is, I'm pretty good at these things.

6:16 AM  
Blogger Melanie Avila said...

I thought about writing short stories when I finished my last wip. Something different for my brain and all. Then I realized I really don't like short stories. They tend to be the only part of a magazine I skip even though I loved them when I was younger.

I started a new novel instead. :)

8:28 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Sure you can write anything. If you are a writer, you have the basic tools of grammar and syntax and all that good stuff. But the question is, will it be actually worth anything? Will it end up being a hollow thing because it doesn't come from some fundamental place in your makeup?

I don't agree with Joe at all on this one.

Short stories, for instance, are a very specialized type of writing and not all novelists can work on the smaller canvas. Well, maybe they can to do it well enough to get published in non-paying venues but to get in EQ or anthologies?

And not every author (however successful) can cross genres with grace and veracity. Even so-called literary types do pratfalls when they try to "slum."

And I can't tell you how many manuscripts I have read for friends who I worked with in the newspaper business. They were talented reporters and editors who won major awards (one a Pulitzer finalist) but they could not master the craft needed for novels or, maybe more important, let go of their deeply ingrained objectivity long enough to tell an emotionally compelling story.

I have been trying to write a lighter humorous novel for two years and it stinks. Likewise, I have friends who are great successes in chick lit/cozies who have failed trying their hands at hardboiled or darker fare. Laura Lippman has written about this on her blog saying she's like Jessica Rabbit: "I'm just not drawn that way."

There are those rare writers who can work within any framework, but the rest of us tend to have one or maybe two things we do really well.

It's like dancers or musicians. A classically trained ballet dancer weaned on Balanchine and Swan Lake MIGHT be able to fake it when she tries to dance Martha Graham or Mark Morris. But the strain always shows. Likewise, when the strain shows in writing, everyone -- especially readers -- can see it for what it is.

I'm more and more of the mind that to become success in our business, you have to find that one thing you do well -- maybe better than anyone else -- and run with it.

8:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We have to write ad copy to find an agent, query editors and promote books don't we?

I don't think all writers can necessarily write everything and certainly can't write everything equally well, but I also think that the ability to write a wide variety of material is one of the things that separates professionals from amateurs. A person might develop a very high degree of skill at one type of writing as a hobbyist but to work professionally you need to be more generally skilled with words and able to turn them to different uses. Someone might be a terrific gourmet cook at home but that doesn't mean they could function as a professional chef.

I've been paid, among other things, for encyclopedia articles, newspaper articles and consumer pieces, magazine feature articles, profiles, interviews, science articles for kids, articles about writing for high school students, personal essays both humorous and otherwise, as well as short stories and novels. All of those things have very different requirements and most I learned on the fly.

My problem with short stories is that, like you, I generally don't like reading them. About the only ones I've enjoyed are Sherlock Holmes and the old Golden Age sf I read when I was a kid.

8:43 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

I agree. I'm not yet convinced I could write nonfiction, that's for sure. The research makes me balk.

About short stories: I don't think the short story, as an art form, is done particularly well these days. In the last few anthologies released, I probably read less than a third of them, although I tried to read them all. And I LOVE short stories.

The books of shorts some authors release, like Neil Gaiman or Heinlein, fare better. The older science fiction authors are the masters of the art, I think. But it's a difficult form that's far too easy to do adequately, especially since they're not enormously popular and there isn't a great deal of competition or profit, nowadays.

Probably of the 46 (I counted finally, lol) short stories I've written, only a couple are really worthy of the genre. I don't know.

9:49 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

And, btw, I read both of yours and decided I wanted to read your books, so you must be pretty good at it. :-)

9:53 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Wow, went off to my guitar lesson for a couple hours and see what happens?

I'm just like that. I've got a short story I've been working on and I haven't actually been working on it. I think it might want to be a novel.

Now why did I think you might disagree with Joe? :) I think so. And I think your comment about journalistic objectivity versus a novelist's passion is worthy of some thought. I've noted that I've been more successful (if that's the word for it) with my third-person novels than my first-person novels. And more successful with my journalism/writing. And I wonder if part of that is I'm very good (yes, I'll pat myself on the back here) at explaining and describing and in generally transferring information to the page, but transferring emotion is significantly more difficult for me. And I do think many, many novelists are only good at certain types of books.

I agree with you that a professional writer that's only good at one type of writing is going to have problems. I'm a word mechanic, in many ways, and although there are things I can't seem to do well (or haven't tried), ultimately I can handle a lot of it, and probably more of it than I think I can.

That was kind of brave of you to suggest short stories aren't being written very well. I've thought that, too, but never wanted to put it into words. I'm not going to pick on anyone, but in the first Thriller anthology, I was stunned how good some of them (in particular, James Rollins' "Kowalski's In Love") were, and how others seemed to fall flat or seem almost incoherent. Overall they were pretty good, but I thought the collection was a little uneven, but compared to what I see all over the place in other areas, I'm often surprised how weirdly incoherent a lot of published short stories seem to be from a storytelling point of view-at least, in my opinion.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Josephine Damian said...

Stuart Kaminsky talked to our group about the importance of being versatile as a writer - being able to write screenplays, short stories, nonfic - in addition to novels.

I think it's a big plus in the biz the more you can do, and it's good advice re: not putting all your eggs in one writing basket - but not every writer is capable of doing many forms of writing well, if at all.

I've gotten a nonfiction article published, and now two short stories. I never thought I'd succeed at either until I tried.

1:24 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Stuart's a workhorse. He's got something like 4 mystery series running more or less simultaneously, has written nonfiction books and screenplays, as well as short stories and edited anthologies (he edited Show Business Is Murder, in which my short story, "Murder at the Heartbreak Hotel" appears). If anybody would know, it would be Stuart.

2:14 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Foolish, more like. I wonder, though, if certain genres are more suited to the short story than others? In the Thriller book, even two of my favorites were just beginnings of novels.

Or maybe some genres have more of a history, more of a tradition, more competition that's driven the short story to a better place.

9:15 PM  

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