Mark Terry

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Raw Emotion

April 30, 2008
I think as regular readers of this blog know, I'm a big fan of the guitar music of Don Ross. About a week or so ago this piece, called "No Goodbyes" appeared on YouTube and there was notice on it that it was in memory of his son. I checked out his website and saw that his 26-year-old son recently died of an accidental drug overdose.

I don't think it's entirely this that added depth and emotion to this song. I was struck by it the first time I heard. And it is, I think, probably my worst nightmare as well. My condolences and best wishes for Don and his family.

Mark Terry

50 Open Source Writing Resources

April 30, 2008

There's a lot there, so check it out.

And as with all downloads and open source web-based materials, download with caution or screen for viruses. A lot of these look pretty cool, though.

Mark Terry

Monday, April 28, 2008

I'm In The Wrong Line Of Work...

April 28, 2008
Oh wait... I AM in this line of work.

For all you silly writers who wonder what you'd do with your money if you were as successful as writer as, hey, let's see, Lee Child!, here's an article about how Lee Child spends his money. I'm going to go cry in my pillow.

What is the most lucrative work you have ever done? Did you use the fee for something special?

I did story doctoring for a film that is yet to be made – The Silence of Six. They had a screenplay that wasn’t really working so they asked me to redo it. It was 11 days’ work and it paid a fortune – about $250,000 (£126,000). I used the money to buy a painting by Renoir. It’s a small still-life of roses in a vase.

What property do you own?

My wife and I have two apartments on 22nd street in Manhattan – one where I live and one where I work – and two houses inland from Saint-Tropez, again one to live in and one to work in. I’ve had the properties for around 10 years or so. The apartments cost about $950,000 each; they are in the same building so I have an 18-floor commute on the elevator.

The big house in France was €500,000 (£404,000) and the smaller one was €300,000. They are only a couple of miles apart. Our home is in the countryside just outside a little market town and the office building – originally a 14th-century house – is right in the centre of the town.

Each of the New York apartments is worth about $2m. The big house in France is probably worth €600,000 and the smaller one €350,000.

Because, like, I knew this would just make your day.


Mark Terry

Dis, Dat & De Udder

April 28, 2008
Today I have no theme. Or maybe I have too many themes, so I'm just going to cram them all into one post and say, "To hell wit' it."

I got an e-mail this weekend from a writer friend (Hi, Erica!) asking my opinion on how much I would charge for a certain project. I told her and she came back to tell me she was thinking double that. Well, good for her! It's nice to have somebody confirm for you that you're not charging enough.

As it happened, I had a very unexpected phone call that same day. A couple years ago I was asked if I was interested in ghostwriting/collaborating on a nonfiction book by a couple of people I regularly interviewed for articles I wrote all the time. That project fell through for a number of reasons. Well, this time another guy I regularly interview on the same subject called to tell me he and one of the original people were again interested in this project and this time it was for real. (Debatable, but who knows?) I commented on this to Erica, made mention of what I thought my proposal might be worth and she sort of hollered in my ear (via e-mail, but I saw the exclamation marks) and told me how much she charged. And she didn't even say, "Don't be an ass! Charge more!" She might have been thinking it, but she didn't say it. Okay, she sort of hinted at it.

So when I contacted these guys back I gave them a figure that would make it worth my time. I also thought long and hard about something, which is, although I'm perfectly willing to do this, and I would like to do this (sort of, I'm kind of busy these days), I believe these guys might be able to hook up with a writer with more experience and contacts than me. And I'm probably going to suggest they do. 

Why would I give away the possibility of work and all that? Well, because I'm overly honest, probably. I want to give them the impression--an accurate one, I believe--that although I can do a very good, possibly excellent job for them, that I do, as a matter of fact, have a ton of writing experience on this topic, I do not have experience writing nonfiction books, I do not have a literary agent that handles nonfiction books, and as a result, I have no contacts in the publishing industry that handle these types of books. And they may very well be better off hooking up with an experienced NF book writer who has an agent who handles these types of projects and quite possibly the writer him or herself can say, "I'm sure Jane at XYZ Books would be very interested in this. Let me make a call." (And it should be noted, they'll pay for the privilege, too, undoubtedly making my bid look like a drop in the bucket.)

Anyway, a couple thoughts. I'm not much of a networker, but I was quite delighted to have some back-and-forthing with Erica about the actual business of writing. We work in a vacuum so much that although you may be doing fine, you could be doing better; and you just don't know, because you don't get out among other writers enough. So, note to self: get out and talk to writers more often.

The other thing was, if you do good work, make yourself available and personable and act professionally, job opportunities sometimes come your way without your even having to look for them. This has happened several times to me and you know what? It's great. Even if you don't take the job. It means you're getting a reputation for good work and reliability (and maybe being cheap. Note to self: must do something about this.).

The other thing I want to say is: my wife and I watched Beowulf this weekend and unless you're a 16-year-old male, this movie may sort of leave you unimpressed. And I think it's possible the 16-year-old male will only like it because of Angelina Jolie's nude scenes, which to me were so weirdly animated as to not be erotic at all. Which is how I felt about the whole movie, actually. Just because you can play with computer animation doesn't mean you should. The characters emotions just seemed to not work for me. I thought it worked a little better in "300" although again, I thought it might have been better without the weird/cool look.

Which is another way of saying, if I spent most of the movie going, "Wow, that looks cool!" instead of, "Wow, this IS cool!" then there may be something wrong with the approach to the film. I didn't rent the damn thing to look at the scenery.

Mark Terry

Friday, April 25, 2008

Book Advances

April 25, 2008
Before we get going on this lengthy post about book advances and, perhaps, royalties, I want you to ask yourself a question and I want you to be as honest with yourself as possible. (Yes, I know it's hard).

When you buy a lottery ticket, do you really expect to win?

I know you think you CAN win, but that's not the question. The question is, do you think you WILL win?

Okay, hold that thought for a while, we'll get back to it. And yes, there's a reason why I have a photo of Han Solo up.

A book advance, as I imagine most of you know, is money given to the author upon signing a book contract. It stands for "advance" against royalties, which is to say, if your publisher thinks your book will sell 1000 copies and you will get $1 per copy (these are made up numbers), then they expect they will eventually owe you $1000, so instead of waiting for that to happen, they give you $1000 up front.

So, ultimately, a book advance is supposed to be a reflection of the publisher's "best guess" of the number of copies they expect the book will sell. In reality, they'd be thrilled if it sold many, many more, and they in most cases don't seem to actually expect it to sell more than 65% or 75% of their estimate. (Then why overestimate, you ask? Beats the hell out of me. It's a "best guess." There are many things publishers do that make little or no sense and this is one of them. They seem to set low expectations and then do everything they can to meet them.)

Except there are clearly exceptions, particularly at the higher end of the scale, the Stephen Kings and John Grishams and Dan Browns, where they may be given a couple million dollar advance that has little or no correlation to actual copies sold. The publishers just know they're moving books and a lot of them and that in order to get those authors on board, they're going to have to throw some money at them to entice them to come there and stay there.

There may be other issues involved besides number of copies sold. Presence on a bestseller list can have its own sales impetus as well as cachet, and so do awards and movie deals and foreign rights. Authors who don't make the bestseller list regularly but whose books are regularly made into films are going to be thought of differently by a publisher.

Now, I was ambivalent about coming right out and talking about this, but at this point in my so-called fiction writing career, I figure it's time to lay down my cards.

My first book was essentially self-published. That is, CATFISH GURU, put out by iUniverse. It's a long story, but it was through a deal iUniverse briefly had with Mystery Writers of America, so it cost me absolutely nothing to have it done, so I did. Therefore, every sale was profit.

DIRTY DEEDS, which was published by a small press, High Country Publishers (now Ingalls Publishing Group, I believe) paid me an advance of: $0.

THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK, published by Midnight Ink, paid me an advance of $1500. (They originally offered $1000.)

THE SERPENT'S KISS, published by Midnight Ink, also paid me an advance of $1500.

Both of those books have been published, I received a royalty statement yesterday, and although it looks as if Pitchfork's not really selling, Serpent continues to, albeit slowly. Both of these books also sold French, Slovak and German translation rights. If any of those books are available yet, I'm not aware of it, not having received my copies. There has been some interest on the part of movie producers, although that doesn't seem to be active anymore.

Midnight Ink also contracted with me to write two more novels featuring Derek Stillwater. Those were:

ANGELS FALLING, an advance of $3000. ($1000 on signing, $1000 on turning in the first 100 pages, and $1000 upon completion of the manuscript).

THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS, an advance of $3000, same payment schedule.

For a number of reasons, not all of which make sense, but which ultimately comes down to the fact that MI was disappointed in sales on the first two books, Midnight Ink canceled my contracts. I had completed the manuscripts to Angels and Shadows, and they paid off the full advances. They also paid off the foreign rights monies on the first two books. They released the rights to the last two books, but refuse (to-date, and I have very little hope of this happening) to release the rights to the first two. The contract allows for their rights release something like two years after they're declared out of print, but neither of them have been declared OOP yet, and as I mentioned earlier, SERPENT is still selling.

For the record: from what I have been able to ascertain from other writers with Midnight Ink, these advances are typical for this particular imprint of this particular publishing house (Llewellyn Worldwide).

That is to say, they suck.

Or do they?

More honesty: when I was in college, I picked up a collection of essays about Stephen King. There was an intro by King  ("The Making of a Brand Name" or something similar) and in it he mentioned that he had received (in 1972) an advance of $2500 for the hardcopy rights to CARRIE. (Yes, compare that to my paperback advance 30+ years later). He later received an advance for the mass market paperback rights to CARRIE for $400,000. (At that time, part of his hardcover contract required a 50/50 split on paperback rights, so King ended up getting $200,000 from NAL and Doubleday received $200,000. To say that I was inspired by these numbers was an understatement. I tried my hand at writing. It turned out I loved it. I kept expecting to break in and get big freaking advances, $200,000 or $400,000... and then later, $100,000... and then $50,000... and then $20,000... maybe $10,000 ... okay, how about $5,000...

A number of writers have done polls on their blogs to get an idea of what the "average" advance is. Tobias Buckell's was fairly recent. He had about 108 authors participate, mostly in the arena of SF and fantasy. For first novels he found the range of advances was $0 to $40,000 with a median of $5000. Because some of those advances took place as far back as 1970, he adjusted the number for inflation to $6000.

Tobias further asked authors who had been around for a while what their advances were like. In other words, multiply-published novels. Those advances ranged from $0 to $600,000. Here's the thing though, as enticing as that $600,000 number sounds. The median for this group was: $12,500. (I hope you like Alpo, because that's probably what you'll be eating if you hope to make a living on that).

Author Justine Larbalestier also did a similar survey. She's Australian, I believe, but had participants from Australia, the UK and the US. The important thing here is that the average book advance was: $5,920.

Romance author Karen Fox has also done surveys, although hers are broken down by romance publisher and doesn't seem to have averaged them all out. Nonetheless, the range for an advance for a first novel is from $0 to $15,000.

Now, let it be said, I'm currently making a living as a freelance writer. I've received advances of around $10,000 for my nonfiction work. I write market research reports as part of that. This sort of number crunching is what I do, by and large. So although I might have some questions about the validity of the way these studies are self-selected, the size of the group reporting, and a number of other biases, what I find most interesting and perhaps most valid about them, is how they all seem to say the same thing.

The typical advance (or average or median) for a first novel is going to be around $5000 or so.

[And I've done this before, but let's break it down for you. Let's say you're really lucky and you get a $100,000 advance. Whoo-wee, congrats. You're rolling in it. Or are you? Your agent got 15%. So now you get $85,000. Then the government gets their cut. In Michigan I pay 24% for federal tax and 4% in state. Your mileage may vary. Now, keeping in mind that you're taxing the $85,000, not the $100,000, what you have in your pocket after your agent's commission and taxes is $61,200. A nice chunk of change, but you're not rich. And as I mentioned earlier, publishers tend to break this up a bit. It used to be half on signing, half on turning in the completed manuscript (post-edits) plus whatever time your publisher's accounting department hangs onto it and whatever time your agent hangs onto it and hopefully it doesn't get lost in the mail.... Publishers are increasingly breaking it up into three chunks similar to the way mine were, or worse, that last third on publication! The point being, it's not a terribly dependable way to make a living unless your advances are huge. And the assumption is your publisher will publish your book every 12 months on the dot and the money will arrive on a regular schedule, but pub schedules vary all over the place, from 9 months to 12 months to 14 or 15 or 18 months--or never--and probably the less said about publishers' accounting departments' reliability the better.]

So, my advice to aspiring writers concerning book advances: adjust your expectations downward. As I said at the beginning, do you buy a lottery ticket expecting to win? Or knowing you might? Because publishing is a lot like that. 

Which brings me to Han Solo up there. You may have just read everything I wrote and be thinking, "I really didn't want to hear that." Or, perhaps, "Mark's such a loser, look how little money he made. That'll never happen to me." Or, perhaps, any number of variations on that theme.

That's fine. As Han Solo said in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK: "Never tell me the odds."

You MIGHT, as a matter of fact, be the writer that gets the $1,000,000 advance. Could happen. Probably won't. But could. Maybe. If you're good and more than a little lucky. And let me assure you, and maybe you disagree, but a first novel that receives a $1,000,000 has almost nothing to do with talent and almost everything to do with luck. That writer was in the right place at the right time with the right book.

I wanted to provide one more link. There's a publication called Publishers Lunch that announces all sorts of book deals. They have a rating system where it says "Nice Deal" which is something like $1-$49,999 and "Good Deal" which is something like $50,000-$99,999 and also has "Significant Deal" and "Great Deal" and I think, "Excellent Deal."

Author John Scalzi has a hilarious and I think, true post about this on his blog, as well as comments from a small press publisher taking him to task for suggesting that these low-end deals suck. Very much worth reading.

Mark Terry

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Freelance Writing For A Living: Part 11

April 23, 2008
I'm not sure this qualifies as a full entry in this series, but I was responding to a post on the BookEnds Literary Agency blog about book packaging and work-for-hire and I thought I made a point or two that would be of interest to freelance writers. I wrote:

As a freelance writer, work-for-hire is pretty much what I do for a living, and it's a pretty good living at that. That said, not all magazine writing is work-for-hire and there are contractual negotiations that can be made consider reprints and rights, at least at the higher end of the market.

It's not an unreasonable question either. I wrote a book-length business report and was paid $20,000. The publisher sells that report for something like $1200 (yes, apiece, welcome to the world of business) and as it turned out, this report is their best seller. In those terms, that's something like 100 or 150 copies, but do the math, it's clear the publisher is making significantly more money off this than I am. Should I get royalties?

Maybe. Do I? No. But it does give me some negotiating leverage for future reports and perhaps more importantly to my career, I can go to other publishers and say, "Hey, I wrote this, it made the publisher X number of dollars and sold this many copies, want to hire me?"

What certain work does for your reputation and how it helps deliver future work is a significant consideration if you're self-employed, as a writer or anything else.

Doing a book package deal for fiction may or may not have similar results. Would I be willing to write something like that for a relatively small amount of money and little or no royalties? It depends, but probably, yes. For a couple reasons.

1. Money. I have a mortgage, etc.

2. Wider readership. My own readership is fairly modest. If I were, say, given a chance to write a pre-sold concept (Star Wars, Star Trek, Murder She Wrote, CSI, et al) and still have my name on the cover, those books sell significantly more numbers than my own do. It's a great marketing bonus. It's also possible it will open other doors, bring you to the attention of editors and publishers at big houses, or even to producers and writers and execs in the TV and film industry. (Or video gaming industry, which is worth taking into consideration).

3. For the right book, I am SO there. My agent commented to me once that one of her clients was writing a Nancy Drew novel. She said there wasn't much money in it, but her client was thrilled to have the opportunity to do it. I can understand. I would absolutely love to write a Star Wars novel, among a few other franchises. There are some I wouldn't be interested in and so as a result, the money would have to make it worthwhile. But hey, if I had the opportunity to write about Obi Wan...

*  *  *

What struck me as worthwhile was this statement:

What certain work does for your reputation and how it helps deliver future work is a significant consideration if you're self-employed, as a writer or anything else.

A freelancer's life and work has no guarantees. In fact, I would argue that the total lack of predictability is one of the few guarantees. Things change. You start out working in one area and end up working in another. Publications and publishers change directions, go broke, stop hiring freelancers, your editor quits or gets promoted or decides they don't like you any more (or vice versa).

But when I do a certain type of job, particularly if it's something I'm not necessarily excited about, one of the questions I ask myself is: what will this do for me in the long run?

Example: A little over a week ago, someone I work with at one of my clients' places contacted me to say she had been approached by a company that wanted her to write website content. She felt there was a conflict of interest (or possibly she just wasn't interested) because she was a staffer, whereas I was a freelancer. I told her to go ahead and refer me. Now, except for my own website, I've never written any website content. I am, however, something of an expert on the industry the client is in. The client called me, told me what she wanted. I was clear that although I had no direct experience doing this work, I was sure I could do it and I sent her a copy of my resume and told her how much I would charge.

I got the job. It's not probably going to add up to that much money and it's unlikely to turn into regular work (which can be a significant consideration when taking a job where maybe the money isn't all that great: will it nonetheless give you regular work every week or month?), but it puts a type of writing onto my resume and in my portfolio that will allow me--if I want to--to pursue some medical copywriting and website content work.

So that's something to keep in mind as a freelancer. Not just, do I want to do it, what's it pay, but: what might come of it?

Mark Terry

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Words To Live By

April 22, 2008

Mark Terry

Reality is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there

April 22, 2008
I was reading an article on the Maxim website (yes, usually I just go for the girls, but sometimes I actually read the articles) asking a former CIA agent turned film advisor which movies about the CIA were most accurate. James Bond? Bourne? The Good Shepherd? (I confess, The Good Shepherd, although I recognized it as being well-done and well-acted, bored me. And it came out around the same time The Good German came out, so I keep calling it The Good German Shepherd.)

His answer?

"Meet The Parents."

I suspect the movie "Breach" was probably pretty good, too, in that it was based on true events and Chris Cooper's character was so complicated and weird he made almost no sense at all; the guy was a total mix of contrasts, but creepy as all get out.

I've noted that when it comes to novels and movies about crime and espionage, we want superheroes, not real life. Although I love the Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker, in real-life he'd have his license pulled and after shooting one or two people, he'd be locked up. (I say that with some reluctance, however; there was a relatively recent case in Detroit where somebody finally bothered to investigate a cop who'd been involved in about 14 deadly shootings and decided he probably didn't belong on the force. It took them years to decide this, which brings up many, many questions about the DPD, very few of them good).

I like Barry Eisler's John Rain novels and certainly he brings a lot of "tradecraft" and research to the forefront (as well as more than a little moral ambiguity). Still, it pretty much feels like entertainment to me.

Certainly LeCarre's Smiley was probably more realistic--a boring, overweight clerk-like character.

Whenever I see a news report about some spy or higher-up in intelligence circles, I take a close look, because how often do these ex-spies resemble some middle-aged accountant with thinning hair, thick eye glasses and a paunch. (Valerie Plame strikes me as being an exception--she's pretty hot). It's hard to imagine these guys (or ladies) dangling from helicopters.

Of course, most of what CIA agents do is get people to steal things for them. Early on in Tom Clancy's career, Jack Ryan was more believable--a PhD in Russian military history, a former marine with a bad back and a fear of flying, a family man. As Clancy's Walter Mitty fantasies spun out of control, so did Jack's career (eventually ending up as President of the United States, a career move I thought was bad for both Clancy and Jack Ryan).

I'm inclined to say, "So what?" I very often read not only for entertainment, but escapism. If I wanted to really know what goes on with cops or the CIA, I'd read a nonfiction book or watch a documentary. I want drama. I want heroics. If I want real life, I'll go have one (not bad advice, actually).

I'm a writer, for God sakes. There are people who think I lead an exciting, glamorous life. They don't realize I got up early to take my son to school because my wife had to go in to work early, I've walked the dog, and I've got an early-season mosquito bite on the top of my right foot, so I'm sitting at my computer in my basement office (where it's sort of cold) with one shoe on and one shoe off because of that itch, and there's piles of unread newsletters on my desk, over a 1000 pages of printouts for a report I'm trying to wrap up, and in the middle of my office is a pile of books I'm organizing to donate to charity, as well as a quilt, a picnic basket and a big box of the kids' K'Nex that we're waiting to get rid of (I'm not sure how these ended up in my office; when I asked Leanne, she said it was just temporary. Apparently my office is an occasional purgatory for refuse that hasn't quite found a home yet).

So, real life.

Spies tend to be bureaucrats. Cops are tired, overworked and underpaid, and the majority of murders are solved through confessions or snitches, not extensive forensic investigation. Jungle adventurers tend to be underpaid college professors fascinated by some bug in the canopy who's afraid of heights and pissed off because the nearest Starbucks is 8000 miles away. In real-life romance, the hot bad-boy is a total jerk...

So I guess the question is, how much reality is enough?

Mark Terry 

Monday, April 21, 2008

Some Of The Things I Ponder

April 21, 2008
No answers today, only questions. I'm afraid most of them will have the nature of a Zen Koan with no answers at all. Perhaps, as with Koans, it is the pondering that is important, not the answers.

1. It seems like a lot of TV and film writers have recently decided to give up their lucrative gigs in Hollywood to write novels. I understand their rationale--control, pride--but they seem to found access to a paying market that has completely confounded me. I wonder how and why.

2. Really, we're grown-ups, right? So although we teach our children that persistence and fair play and hard work are what's needed to succeed in life, in the arts we do know that sometimes that's not enough. Right? Or am I just being pessimistic?

3. Ah, pessimism. I'm not a fan, although I'm a fan of realism. I think it's okay to be optimistic, but I think if you start writing a novel, quit your job and say, "I'm a novelist now, it'll all work out," then you're probably nuts. Get the job back, quick! So I'm much more of a "expect the worst, hope for the best" kind of guy. Or am I? Certainly you don't hammer out as many unpublished manuscripts as I have over the years and had so many setbacks and keep coming back without being either optimistic or seriously mentally ill. Hmmm... okay, maybe I don't want your responses to this one.

4. When a manuscript from a multiply-published author doesn't sell, is it the fault of the manuscript, the agent, the writer, or just the wildly illogical and unpredictable nature of publishing?

5. Is there a time to call it quits? Joe Konrath has a post on his blog today indicating the answer is "no," but in public at least Joe is relentlessly upbeat about the "persist and you shall succeed" thing. I wonder, though, if you don't one day discover you're throwing good time after bad and you're not getting any of that time back and maybe it's time to fill your days with some other activity.

6. Which brings me to another question. Is relentless optimism necessary for successful authors' public faces? Must they come on blogs and tell everyone their novel's doing great, the process is fantastic, if only you stick with it YOU TOO SHALL SUCCEED? Should they do the same thing at conferences and book talks? Or should a little reality be allowed to seep in?

7. Which brings me to yet another question. The "day job" question. That is, if you're a novelist, should you essentially lie at book talks and conferences, etc., and give everyone the impression you're a full-time novelist (even if your last advance was $2431.99)? This has been suggested on at least one author blog, the rationale being, "Part of the mystique is that you're wildly successful, which will convince people to buy your book. If people think you got a million bucks for the book and  you're wildly successful, they'll buy your book, whereas if they think you got almost no money and you spend your days washing pots and pans for an all-you-can-eat buffet, then they at least subconsciously think you're a failure and they won't buy your book."

Huh. No answers here.

Mark Terry

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Driving Lesson

April 20, 2008
It being a nice day, and Eldest Son being 14.5 years old, I decided it was time to take him and my vehicle up to the local high school parking lot and get him behind the wheel. I figure I've got about a year to get him acclimated to controlling a 2000-pound lethal weapon before he gets official training and I get to start paying higher insurance rates.

He did fine except... well, there was that one point where we were stopped about 10 feet in front of the curb and I told him to pull right, and he slammed on the gas and we went blasting up onto the curb.

It's not like I wasn't expecting him, at some point, to forget the difference between gas and brake. In fact, that's what I was looking for, and why I kept my hand on the emergency brake. (And told him to stay completely away from the numerous light posts).

I decided, however, that for The Dad this whole thing just isn't a lot of fun. I'm sure I'll do it again, many times, because I remember when I first got behind the wheel how foreign it felt and what a steep learning curve there was to just get used to handling turns and stepping on the gas, let alone looking out for other cars, head-checks and all the various traffic laws.

I also remember my father's teaching me how to drive a stick-shift in the high school parking lot. Now, my father, though he had a fairly pleasant disposition, was a shouter. And he shouted a lot. I'm not a shouter (although, as the VUE crashed up onto the curb and the grass divider I was saying rather excitedly, "Stop, stop, stop, stop, stop!"), but there is some stress involved in this endeavor.

Wish me well.

Mark Terry

Friday, April 18, 2008

Why Your Writing Matters So Much To You

April 18, 2008
I've noted a couple times fairly recently that when a lot of writers are asked why they write, there are a lot of responses along the lines of, "I just have to" or "It's who I am" or other similar responses that make me wonder about obsessive-compulsive disorders.

A couple scientists, Charles Limb, MD and Allen Braun, MD, with Johns Hopkins and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, recently published an interesting study. Braun, a former musician, wrote a piece of jazz, had several musicians memorize it, then had them play it or other similar things while having their brains scanned.

"When they improvised, the brain's dorsolateral prefrontal and lateral orbital regions were far less active—and another brain area, the medial prefrontal cortex, was more active.

The brain regions that were quiet during improvisation are involved in consciously monitoring, evaluating, and correcting behaviors, write the researchers.

In contrast, the medial prefrontal cortex allows self-expression, in this case in the form of jazz improvisation, according to the study."

I partly take that to mean that the parts of the brain that are involved in self-expression--the ones that say, "YES, THIS IS ME, ME, ME!!!!" are directly involved in creative expression.

When you think about it, that's not exactly a huge revelation. When we're writing, even if we're writing fiction about aliens on a far-off planet, or expressing something that's ultimately pretty personal. Lawrence Block once noted that his characters weren't exactly HIM, but were, rather, HIM IF HE WERE THEM.

Which is interesting, I think. My character in CATFISH GURU is Theo MacGreggor and he's very much a reflection of me, only divorced, raising a child alone, and better educated. Otherwise, same house, same problems mostly, with a PhD in toxicology. In DIRTY DEEDS, Meg Malloy is probably not me, although it's been pointed out she's a lot like my wife. Yet, if I were a dot-com refugee with $10 million in the bank, I might be a LOT like Meg. And as for Derek Stillwater, my character in THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK and THE SERPENT'S KISS, although I've never served in the military, don't have a PhD and know no terrorists (that I'm aware of), there is a kind of hypochondriac, neurotic, impatient quality to Derek that I share, at least some of the time.

In other words, if I were a person like Derek, that's probably how I would be.

Which is to say, one of the reasons we fiction writers get so wrapped up in getting published and getting readers and why we appear to be obsessive-compulsive maniacs with poor social skills is that the same parts of our brain that are involved in who we are are the same parts used to write our fiction. Reject my fiction, reject me. Love my fiction, love me.

Thank God I'm not an actor, though. Nobody's telling me my books are too fat, too bald, too old, too hairy, too young, too short, too tall, too American, too ethnic, too...  Of course, sometimes we're told, "You're just not right for the part," aren't we?



Mark Terry

Thursday, April 17, 2008

What Would Indiana Jones Do?

April 17, 2008
Actually, the title should probably be: What Would Harrison Ford Do? but I thought putting Indiana Jones in the title might drive my hit-count up.


There is an article/interview with Harrison Ford in today's USA Today and although he doesn't really push the new Indiana Jones movie (out May 22, can't wait), it's a good article.

And I latched onto something, something that I guess hadn't quite seeped in, although I must have heard it before.

Harrison Ford had been acting for fifteen years prior to getting the role in "American Graffiti."

Graffiti was directed by George Lucas, and that got him the "in" to be Han Solo in Star Wars, which led to the Indiana Jones films, which Ford thinks have more to do with his success as an actor than the Star Wars films (debatable, in my opinion).

Fifteen years before what you might call his "big break" although I think from sheer box office numbers, it was longer than that. He doesn't talk about "Blade Runner" in there, and although I don't think "Blade Runner" was a huge financial success immediately, it sort of cemented Harrison Ford as a compelling actor who could carry a movie, or, if cemented is the wrong word, at least indicated it. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" undoubtedly "cemented" it.

The writer of the article asked Harrison if things hadn't worked out the way they did if he'd still be acting today. He said yes, and probably doing something else on the side to support himself--in the early days that was carpentry. Then he went on...

(tell me if this sounds vaguely familiar) say that his success pretty much had to do with a little skill, a lot of luck and a tremendous amount of persistence.

There it is again, isn't it?


Well, I don't need to sum this up for you, do I?

Mark Terry

p.s. And I'm in a positive mood today, so I won't dwell on the obvious need for "luck."

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Typically Atypical

April 16, 2008
It's been a while since I broke down a "day in the life," and since yesterday was typically atypical in that it started a little earlier than usual, ran a little later than usual, but otherwise resembled my writing life, I thought I'd share it.

5:30ish--Got up early, showered.

6:15--In office checking e-mail, reading blogs.

6:30--worked on WIP (Fortress of Diamonds)

7:15--worked on journal edits (I edit a technical journal)

7:45--get Sean out of bed, make my own bed, eat breakfast, walk Sean to school along with Frodo

8:15--Worked some more on WIP

9:00--more journal edits & field phone conversation with one of my clients

10:45--gym to do 30 minutes of cardio, a light day

11:45--lunch & errands

12:30ish--walk Frodo

1:00--back at desk, dithering, reading blogs, trying to get back into the right frame of mind; wasting time, in other words, but at least I'm at my desk--location, location, location.

1:30--work on journal edits some more

2:50--leave to pick up Ian after school because he has jazz band after school.

3:40--home again, check e-mail, work on research project

4:00--Leanne and Sean come home more or less at the same time; chat with them a bit

4:15--back to work on research project

5:15--shut down, go upstairs, practice guitar for 10 or 15 minutes

5:30--eat dinner, do dishes

6:10--Leanne and I decide which one of us is going to Band Boosters meeting and which one of us is going to karate tonight.

6:20--flip through newspaper

6:40--leave for Band Booster meeting.

7:00-8:00--Band Booster meeting

8:15--home again, take out garbage

8:30--sit and watch TV with Sean, which appears to be "Ben Ten" and some other cartoons, a little bit of "Deadliest Catch" and 9:00 we watch a couple minutes of that adventurous food guy on the Discovery Channel (he was in Beijing eating bugs and other gross-outs).

9:00--Sean off to bed, Leanne and Ian back from karate. General chaos for next 25 minutes or so.

9:30--crash on couch and read (I'm reading "Spacedoc" by SL Veihl). Lose track of time.

10:30--go to bed

Mark Terry

Monday, April 14, 2008

On Your Reading Radar: "SEVEN FOR A SECRET"

April 14, 2008
My friends Eric Mayer and Mary Reed’s seventh historical mystery novel—SEVEN FOR A SECRET--featuring John the Eunuch, Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian in sixth-century Constantinople arrives on bookshelves on the 15th. I have commented on this blog in the past that I’m not a fan of historical mysteries. There is only one consistent exception to that—Eric and Mary’s books.

I have this one on my shelf, ready to read soon, and I strongly, strongly, strongly encourage readers here to check out their books. So here’s a link to the Amazon page and a link to their website. Check ‘em out.


Who killed the mosaic girl? As Lord Chamberlain, John spends his days counseling Emperor Justinian while passing the small hours of night in conversation with the solemn-eyed little girl depicted in a mosaic on his study wall. He never expected to meet her in a public square or afterwards find her red-dyed corpse in a subterranean cistern. Had the mysterious woman truly been the model for the mosaic years before as she claimed? Who was she? Why had she sought John out? Who wanted her dead --  and why? The answers seem to lie among the denizens of the smoky streets of that quarter of Constantinople known as the Copper Market, where artisans, beggars, prostitutes, pillar saints, and exiled aristocrats struggle to survive within sight of the Great Palace and yet worlds distant. John encounters a faded actress, a patriotic sausage maker, a sundial maker who fears the sun, a religious visionary, a man who lives in a treasure trove, and a beggar who owes his life to a cartload of melons. Before long he suspects he is attempting to unravel not just a murder but a plot against the empire. Or is John really on a personal quest, to find the reality behind the confidante he thought existed only in his own imagination? Is there such a thing as truth in a place where people live on memories, dreams, and illusions? Even if there is, can John push aside the shadows and find the truth in time?  

 And, as you can see below, they're getting rave reviews. I think it's high time they broke out and took the world by storm. I'm must sayin'...


"The authors get everything right in their latest historical. The story is fast paced, the tensions between characters well portrayed; the ending leaves the reader clamoring for more."--Library Journal, 2/2/2008

Read the whole review.


"...from brothels to copper markets to public baths and poetry readings, each rife with all the gossip, rumor, deceit and lewdness you'd expect from one of the Lord Chamberlain's cases." -- Kirkus Reviews (4/1/2008)


"Once again convincing historical detail and strong characterization help drive a riveting plot."--Publishers Weekly, 1/7/2008.
Read the whole review.


"This isn’t one of those superficial mysteries that use historical trappings to cover up a weak story; it’s a compelling crime novel that happens to be set in another time and place." — David Pitt, Booklist, January 2008 
Read the whole review


"...makes history come alive with its complex characterization, fast-paced action, and vivid sensory details." -- Karm Holladay 
Read the whole review at BellaOnline.


" many twists and turns as the mean streets of Byzantium." -- Rachel A Hyde 
Read the whole review at


"John's investigation is clever and fun to follow, but like the previous six numbered tales, it is the insightful look at ancient history that makes SEVEN FOR A SECRET (and its predecessors) a great reading experience.....Ancient historical mystery readers know the John the Eunuch tales are one of the best series on the market..." --Harriet Klausner.
Read the whole review.


"Reed-Mayer have done their homework well, bringing sixth-century Constantinople to multi-hued life..." -- Barry Baldwin
Read the whole review


Mark Terry

We're All Liars

April 13, 2008
I received an e-mail this morning from a young woman I had run into at a book talk last summer. She had a first novel, a tech-thriller, coming out in the fall, from Berkley, I believe.

She e-mailed me to ask my opinion on whether it was worthwhile to participate in a couple of book events I had participated in.

It seems her publisher is putting her at the #2 spot in their catalogue and going to promote her book.

What I most wanted to say was: You're asking ME? Hell, you're already further ahead in this game than I've ever been. You're being published by a major publisher. You're getting a mass market publication (no hardcover, but PBO), and your publisher is getting behind your book. Jesus Christ, go ask somebody who has a clue.

Okay, maybe I was a tad envious.

Instead I gave her my opinion on the two events and wished her well.

Here's the thing about all this advice I and so many writers give on our blogs. We're all liars, all frauds, all full of shit.

Nobody knows what works.

Because nothing works and everything works. Sometimes you can do everything--book signings, book tours, mailings, newsletters, website, MySpace, CrimeSpace, write an article for the Mystery Writers of America newsletter, be profiled in the International Thriller Writers Report, AuthorBuzz, conferences--and your book still won't sell. How do I know? Because I have and they didn't. Simple as that.

Or you can do nothing and it will.

Or it won't.

I recently interviewed a bestselling author of true crime books who has turned to writing fiction and asked him about promotion, and he paused and said, "Well, I've finally decided that the only thing that really works is co-op."

Co-op, in case you didn't know, is your publisher spending money to get your book onto the front tables at Borders and Barnes & Nobles, or on endcaps, to be featured prominently in the bookstore.

If you're in mass market paperback and your publisher pays for it, you'll be on that little table near the front of the store that features 20 or 30 newly released paperbacks; same in hardcover. Usually it's reserved for bestsellers or, just as likely, for books your publisher thinks shows promise. Or, they pay money to get your book on the shelves or next to the cash registers at Wal-Mart and KMart and Meijers and Sam's Clubs, because publishing's dirty little secret is that more books are sold through those outlets than through bookstores (especially Amazon, which sells a lot of books, but very few of any single author).

But there ain't nothin' you can do to convince them to do that. It's up to them.

[and a note about a potential backlash with co-op, also learned through first-hand experience: if your publisher pays co-op and the book doesn't do what they hoped, they won't pay co-op for the next book... with the expected results of even fewer sales; the publishing gods giveth (sometimes) and the publishing gods sure as hell taketh away].

So, did I leave you feeling all perky on this Monday morning? Let me repeat something I said above:

Here's the thing about all this advice I and so many writers give on our blogs. We're all liars, all frauds, all full of shit.

Nobody knows what works.

Mark Terry

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Eighty-Seven Tootsie Rolls

April 12, 2008
As I mentioned, we spent a couple days at the Kalahari Waterpark and Resort in Sandusky, Ohio last week. In general, we had a pretty good time. We noted that although most people we encountered working there were pleasant, the lifeguards and staff at the waterpark itself appeared to be just about as bored as it is humanly possible to be.

The exception was the surfboard areas, which I did not try, but my two sons did. In case you've never seen this, it's a slanting tank with water rushing upward at a gazillion miles per hour and they use boogie boards to surf on. It looked like a blast, but it also, to this 44-year-old contact-lens wearing guy, looked like public humiliation (could've lived with that), lost contacts (almost lost on on the Zip Coaster, a water roller coaster), and some bruises, because almost everybody falls off the board and gets rolled to the top of the hill. It's fun to watch, but I was iffy about actually doing it under those conditions. Anyway, the two guys manning that station appeared to be the only people at the park enjoying themselves.

Anyway, Kalahari also has, of course, a big arcade. It's modeled after the Dave & Busters model or whatever, where you play various arcade or video games, which then cough up tickets, which you cash in for crap. It's sort of Training Wheels for Adult Gambling Addicts, in my opinion (and there were adults acting pretty damned excited about winning tickets that were probably going to get them a pair of fuzzy dice if they were lucky). We killed an hour or so there on our last night, having spent most of the day in the water. My oldest son played some games, but he wasn't too interested, so of the $10 worth of tokens we bought, most of them were used by Sean, (Dad used 2 tokens to play Galaga, one of my older favorites, which probably dates me). He won 175 tickets, which wouldn't even accommodate a pair of fuzzy dice (and you need something like 5,900 tickets to get the portable CD player--you do the math). Tootsie Rolls were 2 tickets, or you could get a roll of some other candy for 100, or some junkie plastic toys that would occupy him for about 10 minutes.

The woman at the counter, probably college-aged, looked tired and I told her so. It is, after all, a really noisy place to work. She nodded. I said, "Pretty noisy work environment." She nodded again, said, "I have a headache every night when I get home." To which I commented, "You're definitely not getting paid enough for that." She muttered, "Minimum," then tried to help Sean pick out his "prize."

What he chose was to use the entire 175 tickets on Tootsie Rolls--87 of them. (Must take after his Dad, given that he wants his winnings in chocolate). The woman at the desk seemed mildly shell-shocked, then wandered over to a drawer, found a paper lunch sack and started tossing handfuls of Tootsie Rolls into the bag. I saw her saying something to her co-worker, which was probably, "This kid wants 87 Tootsie Rolls for his 175 tickets. No way am I counting these things."

So that seemed to make Sean happy (and everyone else in the family, for that matter). And I hope the woman gets a better job in the near future. A quieter one, at least.

Mark Terry

Friday, April 11, 2008


April 11, 2008
Well, we just got back from a couple days out of town. We went to the Kalahari Indoor Water Park in Sandusky, Ohio. It was wet. We had a very good time and I'm glad to be home.

On the way back, we stopped at the Apple store and bought one of these. We hadn't actually planned on it, but my old computer, which had died, then I'd re-installed Windows XP, then it didn't work, so I got some work done on it by a local computer company, then it died again, so we gave up.

We were a little hesitant to spend the money, but George Bush is conveniently and generously loaning me some of my own money, and although I have some skepticism about the tax rebate's effectiveness, I did note that we'd probably find a way to spend it--and we did.

So now oldest son is hidden away with the new toy, I'm trying to catch up on the 81 e-mails that accumulated over the 48 hours or so I was gone and I feel like I could use a nap.

Mark Terry

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

All About Choices

April 8, 2008
I had an opportunity to read the first chapter of a novel by, I believe, an unpublished novelist. (Hello, yes, you know who I'm talking about--you! :))

I read it, enjoyed it, then asked him if he wanted me to be honest in my comments or if a "good job" would suffice.

[Let me digress on that just for a moment. I'm a firm believer that what most aspiring novelists actually want is for you to pat them on the back and tell them how talented they are. In fact, I suspect that's what most published novelists--and probably nearly everybody else on the planet--wants. What they need, however, is often a very different state of affairs. What many aspiring novelists need is someone to say (politely and kindly, with any luck), "Look, there are problems here, and here's what I think they are and how you might be able to fix them and why." Also, it seems to me that although aspiring writers might approach a published writer such as myself with the notion of getting some solid feedback, in truth what they might really want is you to tell them how great they are. So before I offer comments I try to gauge what the writer actually wants.]

He assured me he wanted a critique and ideally there would be no praise.

Well, there was plenty of praise. On a line-by-line basis, he's a fine writer.

[Another digression: In my occasional reviewing of unpublished writer's work, I'm often struck how, on a line-by-line basis, most of them are really pretty damned good. The problems with their work often revolves around how they're organizing material or presenting it or, in some cases, the stories are boring or cliched or their imagery is just plain fuzzy. I suppose it comes down to, they're fine writers but mediocre storytellers.]

Anyway, back to this guy. The concept for his story was excellent. The locale was good. He had a grabber of an idea. I apologized to him, then hacked the living shit out of his first chapter.

I took a section toward the end of the chapter and put it at the beginning. I cut stuff. I pointed to some material that I thought was very, very good, but that belonged somewhere--anywhere--except the first chapter. I suggested he rearrange one section and perhaps use inter-cut flashbacks so he could keep the main character the center of the action and keep the story moving forward, but use brief flashbacks (like a paragraph or so) to demonstrate some of what actually happened. That wouldn't always be necessary, but I thought that his writing was vivid and interesting, but the way he was presenting the information was bogging the whole thing down.

And then I sent it back to him with the caveat I always add when I offer my opinion on other people's writing: I'm just as full of shit as anyone else, so I could be wrong.

His response seemed positive. He told me a number of agents and editors who had liked the work (but not published it) had never pointed out how much overwriting he was doing in the first chapter.

I'm mostly glad he thought it was useful. I have a pretty good idea just how difficult it is to figure out what's not working with your own work. The whole "in the frame" problem.

A lot of the problem just had to do with the choices he was making. He'd kind of thrown the whole kitchen sink into the first chapter and I suggested that he was "frontloading backstory" which just means in my opinion, the first chapter needs to drag the reader into the story, and all that extra stuff can come in later once the reader's involved. The reader doesn't really need (or maybe even want) to know about the main character's divorce right away unless the novel is about the divorce. The reader doesn't really need to know about the main character's relationship with his intern, or the fact the main character had heard rumors about the crime scene before he actually got there.

I suggested he start with the crime scene, which was interesting in and of itself, move from there, and later on fill in the stuff with the intern and the ex-wife and the day-to-day stuff a cop has to deal with.

A few years back I interviewed bestselling author John Sandford for a profile I was writing. To my mind, Sandford is one of the most interesting, most reliable thriller writers out there. He's also, to my mind, one of the sharper knives in the drawer. In case you didn't know this, the majority of Sandford's novels feature Minnesota cop Lucas Davenport. All those books have "Prey" in the title, like Winter Prey, Phantom Prey, etc.

Writer Lawrence Block wrote a series of comic crime novels featuring used bookstore owner and professional burglar, Bernie Rhodenbarr. These books typically featured a lot of jokes about bestselling mystery authors. One was a big riff on Sue Grafton's alphabet mysteries, where Bernie and his friend discussed her books, like, "H" is for Preparation, and "V" is for Garden.

Just before I interviewed Sandford, I had been reading one of Block's books and there was a lengthy joke in it about the latest John Sandford novel, "Lettuce Pray," about a vegan unitarian minister and serial killer. I read the passage to Sandford and he started laughing and said, "Yeah, that was from Block's latest novel." Then, he went on to tell me that Larry Block had given him the single best writing advice he'd ever received. (Note that Block has written several excellent books on writing, including "Telling Lies For Fun & Profit"). The advice?

Flip your first and second chapter.

In other words, if you intend to give a bunch of background in the first chapter to lead into all the action in the second, change it around.

And that's more or less the advice I gave, although I was only looking at the first chapter. 

My point is really that writing is all about choices. After a certain level of craft, it comes down to storytelling and if anything, I fall on the side of not trusting my audience to stick with me, so I try to cut out anything I'm afraid might bore them. You can go too far in this direction and it's quite possible that I do.

It is, however, one of Elmore Leonard's rules for writing: cut out the stuff the readers skip.

Anyway, I hope I was helpful.

Mark Terry

Monday, April 07, 2008

Your Frightening Trivia Thought For The Day

April 7, 2008
So, I'm listening to Eric Schmidt, who's some uppity-muckety-muck with Google, it's a YouTube presentation I won't bother linking to, because, well, it's almost an hour long and it's about healthcare and I was watching it (sort of) for a writing gig, but Schmidt made a comment that I thought I would throw out for you to contemplate. Feel free to file it under, oh, say:

--Useless Trivia
--Oh, That's Interesting
--The End of the World As We Know It
--WTF et al.

Schmidt said that EVERY MINUTE, yes, EVERY MINUTE, 10 hours (yes, 10 HOURS!!!) of video is uploaded to YouTube.

He also noted that where the technology is these days, you could have a device the size of an iPod which could hold 84 YEARS of video. (Which he referred to as the ultimate frustration device, since you would only have time to watch it all after you were dead).

Depending on my mood, I'm going to file that one under either "Useless Trivia" or, more days than not, "The End of the World As We Know It." Because, after all, I'm like, really happy to know that we're using bandwidth and electronic resources to keep multiple copies of Starsky & Hutch re-run online right along with video of people's Stupid Pet Tricks.

Mark Terry

Friday, April 04, 2008

What Do You Want?

April 4, 2008
Hello. If any of you came over here because of my mini-rant on the BookEnds blog this morning, welcome. I'll try to be a little less caustic here. (I'll try; no promises).

For those of you who just dropped in as usual or for the hell of it, BookEnds essentially wrote about some writer who asked them when they should give up, and she asked the responders what their opinions were.

There was a lot of the typical: "I write because I have to" responses, which set me off today. Agent Nathan Bransford asked the same question a month ago or so and got over a hundred responses along those lines. To both of these I have commented:

There appears to be a free-floating obsessive-compulsive disorder out there in the writing community.

Without a doubt.

Here's the thing, and what I more or less said on the BookEnds blog.

What do you want?

This is not a frivolous question, you know. It really isn't.

Do you write just because you love to write? Great, then why screw around with the publishing process? Publishing is a business and there's precious little room for hobbyists out there (except in fiction, where most novelists ARE hobbyists, at least as far as the IRS is concerned). Stop trying to find an agent, stop trying to get your novel published. Save some trees and don't print the damned manuscript out, keep the story in your head and die with a smile on your face. If that's all you want, then don't try to get published. Really. I'm not kidding.

Do you want to write for a living? Then honestly, I'm not sure that novels are the way to go. Even if, for a moment, you say, "But I love stories, I love fiction," from a strict dollars and sense point of view, try to write for TV or the movies. At least there, they're unionized, you get healthcare insurance, retirement and the money is excellent. Of course, as a result, it's wildly competitive, there's a relatively finite number of writers, but unlike with novels where you might get no advance, a $1000 advance, a $5000 advance or the sky's the limit, the minimum for TV and feature scripts can at least pay your mortgage.

But taking that step a little further, I think you should diversify. Try some magazine writing. Try some technical writing, copywriting, trade journals, etc. Even for novelists able to make a living at it--and there probably aren't that many--if they're not bestsellers they may very well find themselves without a publisher, locked out of the industry. It happens ALL the time. Writers dropped not just because their sales decreased, but because their sales were flat or, even because their sales didn't grow fast enough. 

You've probably heard all those stories about editors that nurtured a writer along until their big "breakout." "Yes," they say over a martini, or in the pages of Publishers Weekly, "the first four books were a loss, but I knew she had a breakout book in her."

Bah! This a fairy tale. Sure, it might have happened. It even might, from time to time, happen today. After all, what editor wants to be quoted as saying, "Writers get one, maybe two shots, and if they don't catch on, they're gone, and those of us on the buying end don't give a shit, there's more where they came from. I get a couple hundred publishable manuscripts a week that cross my desk. If I'm desperate, any of them will do to fill a slot on the list. What I'm looking for is the bolt of lightning."

It's not like if they go to conferences and say that publicly that would-be writers are going to keep buying them drinks for long, is it?

Does this mean you should give up your dreams of writing fiction for a living?

I haven't. But as that great sage and philosopher John Lennon said, "Life is what happens while you're making plans."

If you want to make a living as a writer and you've put all your eggs in the fiction basket, you're gambling on long odds. And yes, it might happen. People win the Lotto. First-time manuscripts get picked up for 6-figures and become huge successes. Little indie films shot for $100,000 go on to the huge successes. Little-known actors toiling away as extras or in ads or in dinner theater get a break, get noticed, and are tomorrow's movie stars.

But mostly, you know, they don't.

And, just from a working writer's perspective, I don't know that I've ever heard an aspiring novelist or screenwriter compare themselves to a would-be actress or rock musician.

It's sort of like this. You're a novelist, you think, "My story is wonderful, it's going to get picked up for six figures, it's going to be made into a movie and I'm going to be able to make my living as a bestselling novelist. Here I come."

But if you asked those same people if their 17-year-old son who plays guitar in a garage band is going to go to Nashville and get picked up and become the next Bruce Springsteen, do they get the same support?

If their daughter plans to move to L.A. to become a movie star, does that aspiring novelist say, "Well, I'm just like you. I've gone for it, so should you."

Or do they?

And one last, sort of esoteric thought. Have you ever heard of "cognitive dissonance?" It's a psychological term, and my understanding of it is, this is what you get when the difference between reality and your perception of reality grows too wide, when your perception of reality (YOUR reality) differs so much from what actually is reality that your mind can't continue to support the delusion.

Makes you think, huh?

Well, a little tough love on Friday. Have a good weekend.

Mark Terry

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Why Write What You Write

April 2, 2008
There was a post recently on the Midwest Chapter of Mystery Writers of America listserv by someone who wants to write a mystery in Ohio, but has never been there, and was asking if there was anyone he could talk to. I contacted him and told him I had a number of relatives and friends in Ohio and could hook him up, if he was interested. He contacted me this morning to thank me and to tell me about his story idea and why he was thinking of setting it in Ohio, instead of Minnesota where he lives, or, for that matter, any where else on the planet.

My gut feeling was his story could take place anyplace there was football (American football) and Ohio would be no better than Minnesota. I more or less told him that, but I also told him that if he felt compelled to write about Ohio, then maybe he should. And at the very least, to try and enjoy the process and not get to thinking too much about the selling/marketing/publishing end of things.

Stephen King, somewhat famously, when asked why he writes horror, has said, "What makes you think I have a choice?"

The classic wannabe writer advice is: Write what you know.

I've tended to question that, suggesting that writing about what you're interested in or passionate about is what you should write about, because, after all, you can always go research what you don't know. Also, writing a novel is a long, grueling process with precious little guarantee you'll get anything except the process out of it, so you might as well enjoy the journey. Also, some writers don't want to write about what they know because they're trying to escape from what they know.

That said, the books that I've written that have received the most interest from readers and publishers have seriously touched on things I know quite well; not terrorism, but biology and microbiology and genetics and chemistry. That said, I'm not a computer geek, but DIRTY DEEDS is all about a computer geek and that character, Meg Malloy, has been better received than any of my other published characters. Go figure. I'm not a woman, either, nor have I made $10 million in the tech industry so I can go do what I want to do with my life. (Bummer).

And I'm thinking of the novel I'm reading right now, "Compulsion" by Jonathan Kellerman, whose main character is a child psychologist, and Kellerman is/was a child psychologist. Dick Francis was a jockey and all of his books revolved around horse racing in some fashion.

So clearly there are some people that utilize their expertise to write about what they know. Christopher Reich is another one.

What do I make of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer, who write a series about John the Eunuch, Grand Chancellor to Emperor Justinian in 5th or 6th Century Byzantium? Neither of them, as far as I know, are historians. But obviously there's something about that era that attracts them and interests them.

Although Randy Wayne White's character Doc Ford is an ex-assassin (sort of), he's also a marine biologist. Randy's not a marine biologist, but he was a fishing guide for years and he lives on the ocean next to a bunch of marine biologists and clearly it's a subject he's interested in.

I sometimes wonder if I should move away from cops and spies and focus on forensic experts or scientists. After 18 years working in a genetics lab and hanging out with med techs and geneticists and research scientists, this is a group of people I understand very well. My more successful books feature Derek Stillwater, who is both spy of sorts and a scientist. Maybe it's time to focus on a biologist or geneticist that gets in trouble. Or a freelance writer that gets in trouble. Should I write what I know? 

I can't tell. What do you guys think? Should you write what you know?

Mark Terry