Mark Terry

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

How To Make Money Writing

July 22, 2008
Write something people want.

That's about it. Really, that's pretty much what it comes down to. It probably doesn't come down to being a "good writer" because the typical book buyer doesn't care or can't identify it. That's not being snotty, either. I recognize beautiful writing, a Philip Roth, a John Updike, a Norman Mailer, but for me, too often, beautiful writing of that sort gets in the way of the story. From a technical point of view I can say, "Wow, this guy can really write," but mostly I just wish they'd stop glorifying in their own technique. I sometimes read a successful novel by some bestseller and I really struggle with it yet the typical book buyer says they loved it. If I analyze it enough, I often find there's something strange or clunky about the rhythm and word selection of the book that's getting in my way, a tendency for the writer to add in unnecessary detail that should have been deleted, but he/she still tells a great story. (Lewis Perdue comes to mind). Or maybe they're a really terrific writer, but for some reason I think the main character is acting like a total moron in order to make the story work (oh, don't get me started). Still, people don't seem to care, or at least, a big chunk of them don't, which suggests to me they're getting something out of the book that I am not.

I think this is true for fiction as well as nonfiction, although in the case of nonfiction it's generally easier to figure out what people want. People want to be informed about some topic they're interested in, whether it's how to keep their 2-year-old from having a tantrum in the grocery store, how to choose wines that go with steak, how to lose 15 pounds without dieting, or how to choose long-term care insurance.

With fiction, maybe it's not that hard either.

People want to be entertained. They want to spend time in the company of a main character that they like or hate but that intrigues them. They want to be transported away from whatever the hell is going on in their life. In many ways they want to be informed about something as well, whether it's the behavior of an assassin in Asia (Barry Eisler), the perils of some new technology (Michael Crichton) or how the police operate in Italy (David Hewson). They want to live someone else's life vicariously, whether it's a glamorous or non-glamorous New Yorker trying to find love, a spy in the cold war, a private eye in Boston, a cop in Los Angeles, a Homeland Security troubleshooter in Baltimore, a goofy bounty hunter in New Jersey, a child psychologist in L.A. or a haunted writer in Maine.

They probably also want to feel something, whether it's fear, anger, joy, nervousness, lust, humor or all of the above, sometimes all at the same time.

That's all.

Mark Terry


Blogger Jude Hardin said...

They probably also want to feel something, whether it's fear, anger, joy, nervousness, lust, humor or all of the above, sometimes all at the same time.

Exactly. It's our job to temporarily manipulate emotions, not unlike the engineer who designs theme park rides. We're like the wizard behind the curtain, pushing buttons and pulling levers. If enough people are attracted to the dreams we spin, then we make money. Simple, eh?

6:13 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Simple. Just like brain surgery. Pick up scalpel. Cut.

6:28 AM  
Blogger MissWrite said...

Since I read the last two posts at the same time, I mistakenly added my line for this post to my comment on the last post, but, again.

How to make money writing--print money.

8:18 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

The words are not as important as the ideas they express, which shouldn't be a surprise but critics and academics so love words. Sometimes a terrific style contributes to the story (I think of Joseph Conrad) but usually style just draws attention away from the story and characters and towards the writer who should IMHO remain behind the scenes.

8:19 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

--actually, that probably belongs in the Myths of Publishing post, too. :)

The other joke is: ransom notes.

Well put. And I agree with you, too, there is a kind of writing that critics and academics seem to love that does seem to draw away from the story, it's writing for writing's sake, which is fine, I suppose, but I've often thought of the story as your cargo and the writing as the boat. Sometimes...

You know, I should just write this as a blog post, but here goes.

Sometimes the boat's leaky and not very seaworthy, no matter how great the cargo. And sometimes it's a seaworthy freighter, not terribly pretty, but it gets the cargo where it needs to go. Sometimes it's a cruise ship that's awfully pretty but doesn't necessarily go anywhere (except around in circles, I suppose). And there are definitely writers that are cigarette boats with a load of illegal products outracing everyone.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

8:43 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

I hate writing for writing's sake. So is that all, Mark? Cool. I'll just stick this list beside while I'm writing. Check, check, check, easy-peasy, LOL. ;-)

I admire a beautiful sentence, but it better have a purpose or I'll put the book down. Whether the writing should be invisible or not is something I struggle with. Look at Jeffrey Deaver: definitely not invisible writing, but (as little as I've read him so far) it works. Nora is pushing over the edge, imho. I know many of my friends don't want to read her anymore, and I theorize that's why.

I mean, a red coat is a red coat. When you start to spend a paragraph on it, no matter how beautiful, I get bored.

11:18 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Sometimes a writer can drag you along with his writing style, the characterization and dialogue and, perhaps, good will and it's only later that you sit back and say, "This is the stupidest fucking thing I've ever read."

The book that immediately comes to mind for me is "Spare Change" by Robert B. Parker, which is a Sunny Randall novel, so the writing is crisp, the pacing great, the characters interesting, but even if you can accept the police procedural errors (which I had problems with) when you get to the end you have to sort of say, well, I said it above. And I read someone's synopsis of this book and realized just how idiotic it sounded when you wrote it out that way.

11:49 AM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

It's true, a lot of "bad writing" is phenomenally successful. We forget that most readers are not writers. And if they are, they aren't good writers. And so they don't see all the problems we see.

When I was in high school, I was in the colorguard. Being in it caused me to start critiquing everyone else's performance. If someone dropped a flag, if someone was out of sync, etc.

But the general audience didn't care about any of that crap. They just wanted a good overall show. Snappy music, good costumes, maybe a few interesting flag tosses. That was all.

They wanted energy. A technically perfect but boring show always rates lower than a technically imperfect but entertaining show.

10:32 PM  
Blogger Allie said...

"but for me, too often, beautiful writing of that sort gets in the way of the story"

For me too.

6:47 AM  
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