Mark Terry

Friday, October 31, 2008

You Can't Catch Fish...

October 31, 2008
...with your line in the boat.

Don't get it? Go to Lee Goldberg's blog right now--I mean RIGHT NOW--and read today's post. It'll be good for you.

Have a Happy Halloween.

Mark Terry

Thursday, October 30, 2008

On Writing

October 30, 2008
I chose these largely for their humor and because they're not as common as Samuel Johnson's "Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good."

So here we go:

"He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know." --Abraham Lincoln

"I write to discover what I think. After all, the bars aren't open that early." --Daniel J. Boorstin, Librarian of Congress, historian (1914-2004) on why he wrote at home from 6:30 to 8:30 A.M.

"The profession of book-writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business." --John Steinbeck

"A burro is an ass. A burrow is a hole in the ground. As a journalist you are expected to know the difference."--United Press International Stylebook, cited by Bill Walsh in "The Elephants of Style."

"The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector." --Ernest Hemingway

"Only presidents, editors and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial we." --Mark Twain

"Bad spellers of the world, untie!"--Graffito

"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." --Groucho Marx

"From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it." --Grouch Marx

"Most writers can write books faster than publishers can write checks." --Richard Curtis

"In the same way that a woman becomes a prostitute. First I did it to please myself, then I did it to please my friends, and finally I did it for money." Ferenc Molnar (1878-1952) when asked how he became a writer.

"There are two things wrong with almost all legal writing. One is its style. The other is its content."--Fred Rodell (1907-1980)

"Coleridge was a drug addict. Poe was an alcoholic. Marlowe was killed by a man whom he was treacherously trying to stab. Pope took money to keep a woman's name out of a satire then wrote a piece so that she could still be recognized anyhow. Chatterton killed himself. Byron was accused of incest. Do you still want to be a writer--and if so, why?"--Bennett Cerf (1898-1971)

Mark Terry

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

I Hope I Passed the Audition

October 29, 2008
I'm not sure which Beatles tune ends with one of them saying, "I hope we passed the audition." Was it "All We Need Is Love?" I think it's the one that starts with a version of "God Save The Queen."

Anyway, sometimes as writers we have to audition for a job. Typically freelance writing gigs, unless you're a newbie, are based on published clips and a resume you send along with your query.

I've done some editing jobs and recently am focused on picking up some steady editing jobs (because I'd like to build some security into my otherwise unpredictable paydays). Not always, but often, these publishers want you to jump through hoops before you even get an interview. Not only do they want your resume, published clips and a pound of flesh, they want you to perform an editing test.

I finished one a couple weeks ago that not only required that I edit a lengthy technical article, but had me fill out a lengthy series of questions about what my vision of the publication was, how I would approach it, what types of topics I would cover, then outline a "dream issue."

As my wife commented, "You might get the job simply because everyone else threw up their hands in disgust and didn't do it."

I wonder.

I'm in the middle of yet another one of these, only this time they gave me three different pieces to edit. One was a "letter to the editor," one was an editorial by the publisher, and the third, which I haven't gotten to yet, is a technical piece that needs to be cut nearly in half, among other things.

All done, I might add, gratis.

One of the creepiest situations I ever ran into was years ago when I was looking for a full-time writing job and they wanted me to come in and they would sit me down at a computer and and I would write something while they waited for me to do it. I thought if that was an example of what working for them was going to be like, with someone breathing down your neck while you worked, I didn't want to work there anyway. I'm told, actually, that Microsoft does something similar with its programmers.

Anyway, anyone who's a musician understands the concept of an audition. But I think we tend to forget that as fiction writers we're auditioning all the time. Hopefully, as you build a track record you do fewer auditions, although you may very well still have to if the editors change or you plan to change publishers.

I remember with some shock when Stephen King left Viking about ten or twelve years ago. He and his agent didn't just send out e-mails to all the other publishers saying, "Stevie's interested in a new publishing house, what's your bid?" He actually wrote "Bag of Bones" and they actually sent it out to the publishing houses.

It boggles the mind that any publisher would have turned him down--but some did, although one suspects primarily because they didn't think he was worth the money. But even then, in a way, King was auditioning. (It says something weird about the industry, actually, but I won't go into it today).

How about you? Ever audition for a job?

Mark Terry

Monday, October 27, 2008

RIP Tony Hillerman

October 27, 2008
The fiction world and the reading world lost a class act and a giant today

Fragile--Handle With Care

October 27, 2008
My friend Erica Orloff recently offered to read chapters of a kids' novel I'm working on. Today I e-mailed her back to thank her but to tell her that, with the exception of my kids, I don't let anybody read my works in progress. They're too fragile.

Or maybe I am. Either way, it doesn't take much to totally derail the book. Someone can say, "I don't like it," and that's it, the project might be done. Too much tinkering in the early stages of a novel screw me up. Once it gains momentum, it can be more impervious to criticism. Maybe it's like a snowball that picks up more and more snow as it moves downhill. Early on it doesn't take much to squish it. Once it's big, it still might get stuck, but it takes a lot more to stop it.

I realize this suggests that I have so little faith in my own work that a little criticism can make me stop working on it. The answer to that is both yes and no.

These days, I'm pretty concerned about wasting my time. The idea would have to be totally awesome for me to work on it for months if I didn't think it might not be publishable. It would really have to be something I felt strongly about, not just a Good Idea or a Shiny New Idea, but one of Mark's Totally Awesome Ideas, and those can be a little rare. My Good Ideas are certainly publishable, although convincing publishers of that can be tricky in a competitive marketplace.

Two examples, though. One is an adventure novel that I'd been working on about a couple bioprospectors. These were a couple adventurer-biologists who traveled the world looking for plants or whatever that might become new medicines. One of them was an anthropologist whose expertise was in native medicines and the other was a pharmacologist. The book started with them rappelling down cliffs in Chile to gather vulture guano when their third partner tries to kill them. Eventually the book takes them to a new project, following the footsteps of an expedition into the Congo in the 1800s after one of my heroes recovers missing journals from the expedition's sole survivor that talks about the unusual rituals one of the tribes they encounter has using the venom from a lizard.

I'd written maybe a 100 pages or so of this when I sent it off to my agent. Her sole response was: "I hate it."

That was pretty much a stake through the heart for that manuscript, although I still think it's a great idea.

Another one was a biotech thriller about scientists who thought they had a treatment for Alzheimer's and were testing it illegally in nursing homes on dementia patients, with bizarre and violent results. I sent 70 pages or so to my agent who said, "Your thriller doesn't thrill."

I no longer send my agent unfinished manuscripts.

Stephen Parrish notes on today's blog that if he talks about works in progress he tends not to actually write them. This is fairly common, actually; Lawrence Block wrote a column about it once, suggesting that the energy that should have gone into writing tended to go into talking about writing instead. I'm of that tribe as well, I think, and I'm even hesitant to mention in general what projects I'm working on here on my blog, although I seem to have gotten over that (mostly). Still, I'm actively working on one project and less so on another and I haven't really mentioned them here, although I mentioned them on Erica's blog.

It's not quite up to the level of feeling like I'm jinxing projects to talk about them, but I sometimes think you should be careful about letting your babies out into the wind and weather before they're strong enough to stand on their own.

How about you?

Mark Terry

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Warning... Don't Let Your Pumpkins Near Alcohol!

Friday, October 24, 2008

First Jobs

October 24, 2008
On Good Morning, America the 4 hosts took a comprehensive personality test a few weeks ago to see what careers they might be suited for. Some of them have been a surprise. Then, over the last week or so, they've been trying out one of their picks.

Chris Cuomo's was hairdresser. (I missed that one).

Sam Champion got to be a judge.

Robin Roberts was a lyricist.

Diane Sawyer was a bartender.

What they commented today was to their surprise, they thought they probably would have been happy in those jobs.

For some reason this made me think of first jobs and early jobs. I've been fairly clear that I spent about 18 years working in a genetics lab and was never terribly happy doing it. I was walking Frodo this morning and noticed that one of my neighbors was home--he gets every other Friday off--and I thought, it was pretty easy to take take days off and live for the weekend when I didn't like the job, but now I really like writing for a living and I don't live for the weekends. (I still like them, though).

My first job was as a paper boy. That's not a job you see kids doing too much any more. That's probably a good thing. The world's changed and probably not for the better, at least where letting your kid knock on strange people's doors while carrying a bag full of cash to make change is concerned.

I worked very briefly at Burger King--that sucked--and gave up and started teaching piano and saxophone, which in some ways I think I could have happily continued to do for the rest of my life (maybe). Now that I'm taking guitar lessons, I occasionally think: maybe in 5 or 6 years I'll pick up a handful of students for walking-around-money. Then again, maybe not.

I worked in food service a bit in college--dorm cafeteria, usually washing dishes or pots and pans. Hard work, but honest.

I worked in a mailroom for a while (of the Animal Health Diagnostic Laboratory at Michigan State University), then I worked at a couple different laboratories over the years, some research, some clinical.

In some ways I think the most valuable jobs were the worst jobs--the washing pots-and-pans, for instance. I spent one summer working at the University of Michigan North Campus Commons washing pots and pans 7 hours a day, 5 days a week for about $3.90 an hour. (This would have been about 1983 or 1984). It was hard, hot work, but I've never had a problem washing dishes since. And it convinced me that there were definitely good reasons to stay in college and get a degree. But at the same time, there's something satisfying about taking a dirty pot and making it clean and then, at the end of the day, going home and forgetting all about your job. There's something good about a job where you can actually see progress in a finite way and that you can leave behind.

Leanne and I are big fans of the TV show "Dirty Jobs." Mike Rowe, the host, commented in an interview that he did a show on a guy who cleans septic tanks and sewer systems and found out the guy had a master's degree in psychology and worked for years as a councilor. Mike asked what the hell he was doing cleaning septic tanks. The guy said, "I used to spend all day in people's shit, just like I do now. The difference is that now I just go home and take a shower."

There might be some real wisdom there, I think.

Anyway, how about you? What's your employment history like?

Mark Terry

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Will you do me a favor?

October 21, 2008
I have a small favor to ask, and it's not for me.

I have a couple friends that are musicians--good ones. They have a fairly new website. It is:

The Marvins

Check it out. I wrote some of the copy for the site and they've got some of their tunes up. And the photo on the home page is pretty awesome, too.

Then here's my favor:

Stick their link up on your blog. Just on a post. You don't have to put a dedicated link to it, just throw it up on a blog post and say, Hey, check 'em out.

My great thanks.

Mark Terry

Between Projects

October 22, 2008
For the longest time, when I finished a novel manuscript, I knew what I wanted to work on next and would often start the very next day.

When I had multiple contracts, that helped, too.

Now that I am, as I like to tell people who ask me when the next book's coming out, "between projects" or "between contracts" you would think I'd be working feverishly to throw something awesome together.

Granted, the third Derek Stillwater is being pitched. The Fortress of Diamonds has been sent out to about 8 publishers. My nonfiction book proposal is being considered by at least one agent. I'm working on another nonfiction book proposal as a ghost/collaborator. I've got a white paper due at the end of the year and the technical journal I edit has work to be done. It's not like there's nothing going on.

It's just that I don't have a novel in progress.

More accurately, I have no novel that's really grabbing me. Except, well... let's get to that in a minute.

I've about 200 pages of an espionage novel done, but I can't work up the interest in finishing it (or any idea how, frankly). I've got 60 or 70 pages of a police procedural in the works that I've been dicking around with for a couple years. I've got a technothriller I've got about 2 chapters written and the same on a horror novel. My guess is those last 2 would require something more along the lines of divine inspiration to get me going on them. I was testing out ideas and they never took off, but there they are, awaiting ... something.

There are a couple components to this. One is that after being dropped by Midnight Ink, some of my enthusiasm for the business faded, possibly permanently. I wish it weren't true, but... I'm afraid it seems to be.

Two is that my reading has undergone a significant change in the last year and that many of the books that delighted me no longer do. So many of the mysteries and thrillers and crime novels I've read so intensely for the last 10 or 15 years don't grip me the way they used to. I don't know if it's that I've changed or if it's like eating the same thing every day for a couple weeks, you can barely stand it any more--sometimes ever. Ever have that happen? I used to love turkey sandwiches. Now I can barely gag sliced turkey down. I like a roast turkey like on Thanksgiving, the leftovers I can barely tolerate. My wife thinks this goes back to the Thanksgiving weekend I had my gall bladder out, a serious attack (the first I'd ever had, more or less) that we thought was originally a serious (and violent) case of food poisoning.

What I do know is that it's harder and harder for me to be blown away by a novel these days, to walk away saying, "Wow, that was awesome."

There's a part of me that suspects the adult fiction writer in me is gone, that I'm more focused on kids books. There's another part, the one that I hope is the right one, who's just waiting for the Really Great Idea to come along. Not the Good Idea or what Erica Orloff calls the Shiny New Idea, but something that really strikes me as being a fantastic story and character, something fresh, something that has a lot of meaning to me that will also be, drumroll please, commercial. There's also the part of me that wonders if I'm just done writing fiction. As my brother and I discussed a couple weeks ago (he's a composer), you do reach a point where when all evidence suggest that nobody wants or needs what you're doing, maybe you should go do something else.

I don't know. I really don't.

There is a middle grade book I'm working on. I've been so busy the last couple weeks that I haven't done much about it. It's an idea I stole from my son (since he stole iWolf from me, I returned the favor). I know I've been enjoying writing it and that my focus group of two (Ian and Sean) seem to like what I'm doing.

So maybe that'll work.

Or maybe it won't.

Mark Terry

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What Do You Read?

October 21, 2008
I was thinking about this question today because, frankly, there's an interesting dichotomy in my reading.

Let's put it this way: the books that I gravitate to most, the ones I absolutely LOVE to read.

In theory, those are the ones you should write.

Now, having said that, when it comes to adult fiction, I'm definitely of the hard-boiled mystery/thriller category. I love PI novels and quasi-detectives like Randy Wayne White's Doc Ford or Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware. I love Sue Grafton and John Sandford, the PI novels of Robert B. Parker and Rick Riordan and Robert Crais, the cop novels of Michael Connelly.

I like but do not necessarily love spy novels (sorry Natasha) and I do, actually, love the somewhat un-categorizable novels of Dick Francis, which are mystery/thrillers that feature different characters, almost all related in odd ways to horse racing. But my favorite of his novels is "To The Hilt" where the main character is a painter (who usually paints pictures of golf courses, oddly enough), but gets involved in, among many things, a missing racehorse.

Anyway, it's clear to me that if I'm going to spend time writing adult fiction I might want to focus on a PI novel or cop novel. In fact, it's been years since I wrote a PI novel and I'm thinking, hmmmm....

But here's the dichotomy. SF aside (I don't love it, but I do read some of it), the other category I've been reading more of it YA or middle school grades books. And in those books, there's almost always a supernatural element or outright fantasy. Of course, Harry Potter, but also Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson novels (he's a demigod), and the Artemis Fowl books (definitely fantasy), and Ridley Pearson's Kingdom Keepers (Fantasy), and Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider novels (hard to categorize precisely, because Alex is a 14-year-old James Bond, essentially, but the stories are so Bondian outrageous they might as well be fantasies).

The point of this is to suggest that if you're puzzled as to what you should be writing, you could do worse than to study what authors you respond to the most, what it is you respond to about them, and then, well, go for it.

Which, now that I think about it, maybe I will. It HAS been a long time since I had a go at a PI novel...

Mark Terry

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Absolutely Most Important Thing You Need To Know About Writing For A Living

October 20, 2008
And yes, that is a long title. But here it is:

The money doesn't come when you want it to.

If your only work experience is working for someone else, there's a very high probability that your paychecks always have arrived on time. ALWAYS. For instance, say you are to receive a paycheck every other Thursday. That's when you get it. Not Friday. Not the following Monday. In fact, I would guess that if you were expecting your check on Thursday and you didn't get it, you'd raise holy hell with your boss.

One of my long-term clients that I am contracted to work with for seemingly the rest of eternity (it was a 5-year contract) is annoying me a bit right now. The work was approved near the beginning of September and I'm supposed to get my check within 30 days--per the same frickin' contract--of that approval. When I hit 30 days, instead of dicking around and waiting like I sometimes do when this happens, I contacted the exec director and she was apologetic and said she'd get right on it, something got mixed up. I still haven't gotten that check, although I'm hopeful it will come in today's mail.

In the case of this particular client, I'm pretty sure I know what happened. They've put in some new procedures for approval, the exec director is leaving the position and training the new person, and typically because of the nature of the organization, once they cut the check they have to mail it to the organization's treasurer to get her to sign it and mail it to me.

I'm sure the money will come soon and I hope I don't have to go back and nag them.

But the fact is, when you're a freelancer--whether like me or as a novelist--the checks just do not always come when you expect them to--or need them to.

In fact, for novelists, my impression of royalty checks and statements is that for most book publishers their accounting schedule seems rather loose and wide--which makes me wonder about their accounting practices in general, but that is a slightly different topic. Publishers may pay you quarterly or every six months, but when in that six-month period you can actually expect a check is sometimes a mystery.

And besides, in the case of books, the accountants send the check to your agent who may or may not do his/her banking immediately for a variety of reasons.

Being a freelancer, you've also taken on the role of bill collector and sometimes it's a role that just sucks dead bears. Really. And have I had some clients that I never got the money from?

Yes. And the amount of money you're out can do a lot to tell you how much time you're going to spend going after it. I did some work for a company this summer where we could never quite agree on what the hell they wanted, and she told me the work was only 25% done and I told her that I couldn't go any further without actually having more feedback from the company. And I invoiced for the work I'd done and that was it, and since it was only about $300, I didn't follow up because, honestly, it was a losing cause. They were full of shit and I should never have taken the job to begin with. My suspicion is the person I was working with was a website person, not a copywriter, but she'd been hired to do the copywriting and the website design, and when I started leaning on her for company feedback on the website copy, it backed her into a corner because she'd never told the company she was outsourcing the copy. (And she further annoyed me by never answering my questions about what she actually wanted, which is why I felt I was 95% done and she apparently felt I was 25% done).

I don't know if that's the case, but I'm pretty sure it is. Live and learn, I think. I'll be very cautious about doing that kind of work ever again.

There's only so much you can do to alleviate this kind of problem, but I do have a few suggestions.

1. Be careful with your clients. As you progress, you'll hopefully develop an instinct on which ones aren't trustworthy and won't do work for them. Start-ups, for example, are often a problem. Companies not used to working with freelance writers are usually a problem because they have no clue how things are supposed to operate and you're the one who has to educate them about it. There are some real morons out there that value writers less than the person that waters their office plants. Typically their job postings will say something like, "looking for top-level, experienced, expert writers. Pays $10 per article." Look, if you're desperate, okay. Otherwise, steer clear.

2. Make sure you have multiple sources of income. I often wonder about one-book-a-year authors, particularly if they're not bestsellers. If you're making a nice living of, for instance, $70,000 a year, or even $100,000 a year (minus 15% for your agent and about 28% for taxes), and you're totally dependent on money that only comes a couple times a year, how screwed are you if that big check for $30,000 is 6 weeks late? My guess? Very screwed. So having some fallback income somewhere--short stories, screenplays, magazine articles, a teaching gig, etc., might be a good idea. In the last year or so my income has tended to come in big chunks and in 2009 I'm sort of giving myself the goal of adding some clients that bring in regular income, even if it's not huge, in between the big chunks, because if you go 2 months without a paycheck, it pretty much sucks.

3. Don't quit your day job. I mean, really, if this is something you absolutely can't live with, then you should think about keeping your day job and writing on the side, because this is just the nature of the beast.

4. Find a well-off or well-employed partner or spouse and keep them happy.

Mark Terry

Friday, October 17, 2008


October 17, 2008
Erica Orloff has an excellent post on optimism today. Go read it if you haven't already.

As I mentioned earlier this week, I've been skimming through a book I read five or six years ago by Michael A. Banks called "How to become a fulltime Freelance Writer." In fact, this is the first thing I re-read in it. I will say that I could have been writing it myself, except I never argued I was a pessimist, but more a realist of the "hope for the best but expect the worst" sort, but in fact, I think in recent years I have been thinking that with faith and luck and hard work things tend to work out. Anyway, here's Michael's comments on the subject:

"You have to keep a good attitude to write for a living. How do you regard you writing ability, your marketing acumen, and your prospects for the future?

You have to be an optimist--and radiate that even when you feel pessimistic for a moment or two, as we all do from now and then. You must know and communicate to others that you are good enough to sell your work, that the markets will continue to support you, that you're flexible enough to take on almost any kind of writing project. Yes, the writing business has a lot of ups and downs, for writers and publishers alike. And it's full of pessimists. But the optimists do better; they get more work, deliver it faster, and bounce back faster from occasional setbacks.

Until I started writing for a living, I thought I was a pessimist. But now I know different: Without my deep-seated, ultimately cheery optimism, I'd never have made it for one year--much less 20! Late checks, impossible deadlines, cancelled contracts and columns... all of these and more could have easily run my career right into a dead-end.

But besides being a full-time writer, I'm a full-time optimist. Even when I complain about the second edition of my best-selling book being delayed, and the IRS threatens to grab things in an unpleasant fashion just because of some paperwork gone astray, I'm planning what I'll write next to make up for it all.

You'll have to be an optimist, too. Otherwise, even though you're delighted to be your own boss, you'll start to feel the effects of the lack of guaranteed income, schedule, and the rest. If you are an optimistic freelance writer, however, the world's your oyster. There are many ways to succeed, and you know you can fine one or more paths that will be right for you."

Amen, Michael.

And a point I'd like to make to long-time readers of this blog who say, "Mark's always talking about how tough this business is and how he's always threatening to give up writing fiction. What a hypocrite!"

Hmmmm. Perhaps. I don't view writing, particularly the wonderful and wacky world of fiction writing, as a particularly rosy place to be. It's a damned brutal business and its roadsides are littered with the corpses of the literary careers of far more talented writers than myself.

But I keep writing. I keep submitting. Ultimately, I'm optimistic that my talent, my skill, my hard work are going to coincide with the right time and the right place--as good a definition of luck as any. And if not, well, hopefully I had a lot of fun on the journey.

Mark Terry

Thursday, October 16, 2008


October 16, 2008
One of my column editors for the technical journal I edit is Argentinian. Great guy, terrific scientist and he's very reliable. His English is certainly better than my Spanish, so enough said about that, but he sometimes makes grammar or word errors in a way that I find either interesting, endearing, or downright funny.

He was trying to send me a large file that my email wasn't accepting, so he e-mailed to say he could send it as floopies or DVDs.

Now, frankly, although we managed to get the files through my e-mail, I'd kind of like them sent on floopies. :)

Besides, I think floopies are a lot more fun than Jessica Faust's bog post today. That post will make aspiring and published writers alike want to slit their wrists. Better stay away from sharp objects while you're reading it.

So, on the lighter side, what's your definition of a "floopy?"

Mark Terry

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Keeping Score

October 15, 2008
In the spirit of a day that's getting nowhere fast, I'm going to excerpt something from a book by Michael A. Banks titled "How to Become a Fulltime Freelance Writer." I read it 5 or 6 years ago, before I became a fulltime freelance writer. I recently plucked it off my shelf on a whim (bathroom book, ya know?), and was reminded quickly of how valuable a book it is. Here's a particularly useful thing to think about:

"Keeping Score?
How do you define and measure success?

Success is often defined as meeting goals. If you write full-time, will you measure your success by your income? Or will you strive to write a certain number of books or articles each year?

Measuring your success by goals like these is okay--to a point. They are motivators, and allow you to gauge progress. But do they truly tell you how well you are doing? The danger is that the first time you fail to achieve a goal, you may feel a sense of failure. You may believe you are a 'poor' writer--not just in financial terms, but in writing ability.

But in the writing field, we all experience some failure. And writing ability, or lack thereof, is frequently not the cause of it. In fact, occasional failure may be needed in order to grow to be a successful writer....

Your career needs to be rooted in solid, well-planned goals. Think about how you will measure your success. Then develop a plan that will take you steadily there, step by step.

And don't confuse measuring your self-worth with measuring your writing success."

I think that last line's a kicker, frankly.

Mark Terry

Monday, October 13, 2008

Carcassi Etude in A Minor

October 13, 2008
Yes, I'm working on this piece. I just can't play it this fast.

Or this well.


Unhealthy Fantasies?

October 13, 2009
Since my agent is aggressively marketing The Fortress of Diamonds, my mind turns toward fantasies of large, multi-book contracts and book advances, along with foreign rights deals and movie options.

I've had fantasies about winning the Lotto--who hasn't? But I never expect to win. (My odds would improve if I actually bought tickets, but in general I don't).

That "never expect to win" thing isn't really an aspect of the Big Book Advance Fantasy. The fantasies are significantly more charged, the expectations are much greater.

And, I suppose, the odds are a little better (maybe).

Still, although I've talked to enough aspiring authors and published authors to understand the ubiquity of this fantasy, I'm not entirely sure it's a healthy one. It undermines the reality and difficulty of the business. It creates false expectations and hopes that influence how you go about your business. (A writer and I discussed the fact that there are a ton of authors out there that receive $5000 advances or such and then spend $10,000 or $15,000 on promotion, doing mailings, going to a half-dozen conferences, funding their own book tours, convinced that their books will catch on and earn that money back. We're both extremely skeptical). It colors your life because you're not living it now, you're always hoping to turn things around when your book hits the bigtime.

I suspect rock-and-roll bands have the same fantasies, as do aspiring actors who go to Hollywood or New York.

I don't want to judge it. I've had my fair share of it. But now, they leave me with a creepy feeling I can't quite explain.

Anyway, that's my thoughts for today. Cheery, ey?

Mark Terry

Friday, October 10, 2008

Kay Archtop, 1950s?

October 10, 2008
This is my guitar. It's a Kay archtop, probably from the 1950's, possibly 1960's.

It was given to my wife when she was about 10 or so by her uncle, who bought it in Korea when he was in the service, which was either in the early 1960s or late 1950s.

It rattled around our house for years without strings (a bad thing for guitars) until I decided I wanted to take lessons, so I spent about $50 getting it set up.

The action is a bit uneven, but it has a decent sound, at least in the middle registers. Once, upon seeing the Antiques Roadshow (the only time I've seen it), somebody had an old guitar laying around the house and it turned out to be a rare collectible valued at $10,000. I doubt that's the case with this guitar.

Nonetheless, I have a new teacher and I let him play it, commenting that it was worth about $50, and he disagreed, saying it was in excellent condition, the archtop design was a little rare. (Probably not RARE rare, but archtops aren't as popular as flattops and are apparently a little harder to make). My previous teacher had also said it was a beautiful guitar and when I mentioned I was saving for a new guitar (a Taylor acoustic...someday), he seemed slightly alarmed at the idea I might get rid of this Kay. That won't happen (unless, of course, it turns out to be worth $10,000, then we'll see), but I wouldn't mind knowing a bit more about this guitar.

The only marking I can find on it that might tell me something about it is a P-2 stamped on the inside. I don't even know what kind of wood it's made out of, although I suspect spruce.

So, if you're a guitar afficionado, or know someone who's into vintage guitars, have them take a peek at the photo. Maybe they have some thoughts on it.

Mark Terry

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Book Hook Cook Book

October 9, 2008
I love watching my agent kick into gear. I may have issues with her sometimes--as I do with seemingly everything on the planet, at least from time to time--but when she decides to be aggressive in her marketing, it pleases me no end. So having given her the ending she was apparently looking for on The Fortress of Diamonds, and supplying her with a short blurb/synopsis to sell it with, and then also giving her a possible title and story idea for a potential follow-up, she said, "I'll get it out later this week."

Well, actually, later in the day, and to a lot of publishers who apparently expressed an interest in it.

Nothing may happen, of course, that's the nature of the biz, but it does fill me with something akin to optimism.

Anyway, later in the day I had a thought: "I don't know if it's a great book, but it's got a great hook."

Pretty new thinking for me. I struggle with hooks.

But last week, on one of the few nights when I wasn't doing something, I happened to watch a large chunk of "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" on FX. If you haven't seen it, it's a movie with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, who are the pair in the title. A suburban married couple who just happen to be high-level assassins, although they aren't aware that each other is an assassin. Their marriage is on the rocks, they're both bored with the suburban man/woman they believe they've married, then they're sent out on separate missions to assassinate the same man, then they're pretty much assigned to kill each other. Mayhem ensues, the sexual chemistry absolutely sizzles and the movie takes off.

As I was watching this--I've seen it front-to-back once and probably half a dozen times in pieces on cable--I thought: If you take the married part out of this, it's a pretty standard shoot-'em-up.

Which was something of a revelation. Because I suddenly understood the hook. It wasn't: High-level assassins are hired to kill each other.

It was: High-level assassins are hired to kill each other... but it turns out they're married to each other and don't know it.

That, my friends, is a hook.

Part of the problem, I think, is the glut of entertainment options we have. Maybe Shakespeare had it easy. What the hell was he competing with? It wasn't a terribly literate population. There was no TV, no movie theaters, radio, CDs. Just a city full of people starved for entertainment with maybe a handful of theaters in the city they could afford to go to. And even then, many of them were probably familiar with his stories--certainly Romeo & Juliet had been around in one form or another for some time.

Can you imagine an age where people only saw a couple plays a year?

Wait, you don't think you see plays? Yes, of course you do. Why, just last night I watched three plays. One was an hour-long drama called "Star Trek: Enterprise" and I saw two more half-hour dramas (bits and pieces, I had to run up to the fruit market) called "Clone Wars." Thanks to TV, by the time your kid graduates from high school they've seen more 30-minute and 60-minute plays than people in Shakespeare's time saw in their entire lives.

Which might be besides the point.

* * *

I sent my editor a really great book,
She said to me, "Sir, I don't see the hook."

"I'm not fishing," said I, "it's got a great plot.
The characters sizzle, the action is hot."

"That may be so," she said with a blink,
"But story and character aren't enough, I don't think.
We have marketing and sales, Jesus, he wept,
The story must be what we call high-concept."

"High-concept," I say, with a wink and a nod,
"You mean a cover with Pamela Anderson's hot bod?"

"Sure," she says, "that will do in a pinch,
"Or a long-haired stud and a maid in a clinch,
But mostly we want something to sell
So you can earn back your advance... does that ring a bell?"

"Vaguely," say I, "but I guess I mistook
the secret of writing a best-selling book.
It's not about words or the writer's good looks,
It's all about dropping a well-baited hook."

Mark Terry

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Fortress Update

October 8, 2008
As regular readers of this blog know, I was having some problems with a middle readers manuscript, The Fortress of Diamonds. It basically is an adventure story with the main character, Jericho Miles, following clues and puzzles across the southwest in search of her missing archaeologist father. Along with her is one of her father's grad students, Ash.

I sort of envisioned it as a cross between Indiana Jones and National Treasure. I had fun writing it, mostly, and that may be the most important point, ultimately.

My agent liked it a lot except the ending, which she wanted me to change. The ending dealt with the what actually was at The Fortress of Diamonds, which I envisioned as a sort of portal into time. 

The whole story borrows from or is inspired by Anasazi anthropology and Hopi mythology--the blue star kachina prophecy, Coronado, cities of Gold, conquistadors, migrations, journeys between the various worlds, all wrapped up in maternal memories, etc.

Except my agent didn't like the ending and thought it was derivative and boring. I don't agree on the derivative point, no more than anything else written these days by me or anyone else--we all build on the shoulders of giants. Boring, however, is a problem. Although my beta readers didn't agree, I needed to fix that so my agent would market the manuscript.

I blanked on it, which is not typical for me. When an agent or an editor suggests to me a problem, I almost always can supply half a dozen fixes off the top of my head. Not so this time and I struggled.

Finally, after blogging about it before, I went back to source material--Hopi mythology. And quickly tripped over things I had considered the first time around--the central figure of Spider Woman or Spider Grandmother (see figure above), Skeleton Man or Masauwu, who is the Spirit of Death and the Keeper of Fire, and unexpectedly, considering that Jeri's father, Roger Miles, had disappeared into the Fortress, the prophecy of the Pahana, the "Lost White Brother," which is a second coming myth not unlike that of Jesus or any other number of religious messiahs. Hopi mythology says that the Pahana will return again, the wicked will be destroyed and a new age of peace will come into the world. (It has some interesting parallels to Aztec mythology and Quetzalcoatl).

Also, Hopi mythology tells stories of Spider Grandmother leading the people from one world to the next through a portal, or a straw, (which in kivas is represented by a sipapu, or fire pit in the center of the circular kiva) and how the people transformed as they passed into the new world--there are 9 worlds in that mythology and the current world is apparently the 4th.

So, after some masticating and digesting, I made the changes, which were not all that easy to make, but in the end turned out to be shorter and more to the point than I expected. I sent it off to my agent, she liked it, requesting only that I add something at the end that would suggest a sequel, which I was happy to do. She liked that, too, and now she's ready to start marketing the manuscript.

Will it sell?

Hell if I know.

Am I happy with the new ending?

Reasonably. It works. It satisfies my agent and it might be more appropriate for the reading level, and will probably please boy readers as well as girl readers, which is always a dicey proposition when writing about a female main character. That said, I wasn't unhappy or dissatisfied with what I had written the first time around.

So, ultimately, it's out of my hands now and we'll see.

Mark Terry

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

A Long & Winding Road

October 7, 2008
Anyone who knows me probably realizes that the journey I took to becoming a full-time writer, editor and occasional novelist has been long and indirect. I was almost finished with my degree in microbiology in college when I was bitten by the writing bug. It was about a year before I got something published--a poem--and then another 7 years before I got paid for something I wrote.

Primarily I focused on fiction. Over the years a couple people suggested I try my hand at nonfiction and I was stubborn about not doing it, but when I did I started getting published pretty regularly. 

I remember reading a column about nonfiction in Writer's Digest and the author of the column was writing about someone who had spent ten years unsuccessfully writing fiction and his response was, "For God sakes, why? If you spent the same amount of time writing nonfiction you would have gotten published years earlier."

Despite what I now see as the truth of that statement, I didn't follow his advice for a long time either.

You probably won't either, so I'm not going to recommend it.

You'll do what you want anyway.

If there's one truth I've discovered about writing careers, is that they are unique. There's a fair amount of people who get journalism degrees, work at newspapers, then go into freelancing. There are even some people who get master's degrees in creative writing and get their novel published shortly afterwards.

But mostly, in my experience, there are people who discover they want to be writers and they write. And they get rejected. And they get rejected. And even more, rejected again.

And some quit and some never succeed but keep writing and some break through and continue to publish, either as a hobby, as extra income, or for a living.

Michael Crichton once commented on his old website that he no longer gave advice on how to break in because it was a different story for each person. 

The other thing I've noticed, and it's certainly been true for me, is that once you are "in," whatever that means, it's not usually like getting hired at an office somewhere and all you really have to do is show up and be reasonably competent. There's a lot of hustle involved in writing for a living and a fair amount of luck and, as I've discovered, constant change.

I've been the editor of a technical journal for about 7 years now. I just found out that the executive director of the organization--my boss, essentially--will be leaving the position. She's the second one in my tenure. Both of these women, Stephanie and Cathy, have been good friends and I'm very sorry to see them go. But things change in publishing and you've just got to deal with it. When I spoke to Stephanie yesterday I commented that I'm working with very few of the same clients I did four years ago (her publication being an exception). In fact, even when I seem to have a good relationship with a publisher or client, we don't seem to make it much past 2 or 3 years, often because of changes of direction. Some of that may be that at the beginning of writing full-time I just needed clients, but the longer I did it I needed better-paying clients, so I wasn't all that sorry to lose some of them. Now that some of these are paying better, I don't want to lose them. And I have, for better or worse, lost some pretty good-paying clients that I wished I could have kept, but for one reason or another--often a change of editors--didn't work out.

But I probably will. And you need to get used to that and view it as an opportunity. An opportunity to do something different, to find a client that pays better, that provides more work.

And in the case of fiction, if you're dropped by a publisher or whatever, if you want to stay reasonably sane, you need to view it as a possible chance at a better publisher or a change of direction, a chance to write something new and different.

Mark Terry

Monday, October 06, 2008

Well & Truly F#@*ed!

October 6, 2008
Your bailout language is here.

I haven't read it. I doubt your senators and HOR did either. It's 451 pages long. So in a matter of what, a week, we went from a law that was a page and a half, to one that was about 100 pages, to two days later one that was 451 pages long.

I've skimmed through it. There are tax breaks and language for NASCAR, for TV and movie production companies, Indian tribes, I even ran across language related to washers and dryers.

This damned thing, which I was basically for, in terms of the credit markets, looks like every spare piece of legislature on every senate staffer's desk was thrown in and sewn together by a blind seamstress on LSD.

Legislate in haste, repeal and amend in leisure.

Hope you have a fiscally fine day.

Mark Terry

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Money in Writing Fiction?

October 4, 2008
Some of you have probably read this article in Forbes about the top 10 writers of fiction. I went on a bit of a rant about it on Erica Orloff's blog, but here, as a guy who writes about business and writes market research reports, are some thoughts I have about this.

1. JK Rowling made more money in 2007 than #2-#9 combined.
This is a fairly important point. I've commented before that fiction writing income does not resemble a bell-shaped curve with a few on the left making no money, a few on the right making a ton, and a huge amount in the middle making the bulk of the money. In fact, the damned thing looks like a swooping curve that's almost flat at the bottom them goes almost vertical on one end. A relatively few writers make a fortune and the rest make almost nothing.

2. If the article were a market research report, there would be a lot more "granularity" as we say. That is, things would be broken down in a way so there was more meaning to it. For instance, JK Rowling made $300 million. (It's not 100% clear to me that these income levels actual refer to one year's work, and where did the article's author get the data, anyway?) How much of that was from a book advance? (Did she get a book advance in 2007? For what book?) Was it for royalties? Was it for foreign sales? Video games? The movie rights or residuals? Were there royalties from the previous books in there? Residuals for every time a Harry Potter novels appears on ABC Family (about every weekend)? Merchandising? My son had a Harry Pottery Lego-set at one time, complete with Hogwarts Express. Bernie Botts Every Flavor Beans? Does she get a penny per box or what?

3. In fact, several of the authors probably make more money off their subsidiary rights than their books. Tom Clancy doesn't even seem to write books any more. He sold video game rights for $100 million though. Paperback novels come out with his name on them, but he's not writing them and it's questionable whether he's involved at all.

4. It's pretty open knowledge now that James Patterson doesn't really write his books any more, at least not all of them. He claims he's the "big idea guy" and the other writer does the writing. Which is to say, uh... never mind. And I suppose every time "Kiss The Girls" or "Along Came A Spider" is shown on TNT he gets some money, too. And didn't he have a TV show going briefly? I don't think I'm being offensive--and I doubt Patterson would give a shit one way or the other--when I say Patterson's no longer a writer, he's a brand name.

5. Janet Evanovich as well, has at least one "series" that has her name on it, but doesn't seem to write. In one interview she says she's the "editor" although what that means I have no idea. Does she read them and make suggestions? Act as copy editor? As an acquisitions editor? Shepherd the book through the publishing process? Or cash the check for having her name on the cover? Hmmm...

6. An interesting mix of authors, heavy on mystery and thrillers. I'm just sayin'...

7. I find Stephen King's name here interesting. He's not making $40 million per book, but his books seem to regularly be optioned and made into films. As far as I know he's not involved in video gaming (was there a Mist video game? I don't remember) or "brand publishing" which is my newly coined phrase for name brand authors who claim to have some involvement in books with their names on the cover that they don't write. My guess is, with his enormous backlist and movies, there's always money coming in. "Shawshank Redemption" hasn't been on the rotation for a while, but it's only a matter of time before it pops up.

8. I've noticed before, when you get a chance to look at actual numbers sold of bestselling books, how hard the drop is from the #1 and the # 2 and #5 and #10 books. Doesn't anyone find it interesting that Ken Follett's on there with $20 million when JK Rowling's #1 with $300 million? Don't you see an odd discrepancy when there's that much disparity between the top and bottom of the top 10? Just imagine how far we drop when you hit #11! Or #1000!

Anyway, food for thought.

Mark Terry

Friday, October 03, 2008

Joe Six Pack

October 3, 2008
Okay, language mavens. Let's hear your comments.

Part A.
Is Joe Six Pack:

1. A compliment.
2. An insult.

Part B.
Please define Joe Six Pack and identify which part of the country you hail from?

Rarely a compliment, often used as an insult. As in, he's no genius, he's just Joe Six Pack, the image being that he's some schlub who spends all his free time in jeans and a grubby T-shirt working on his 1957 Buick in his garage while drinking Pabst. He's probably unemployed. Alternately, I suppose it could mean an ordinary kind of guy, the kind that, you know, races snowmobiles and works on fishing boats, not, say, some elitist graduate of Harvard Law School.

So the real question is, guys, if someone called you Joe Six Pack, would you be offended by it? Frankly, yes. But then again, who wants to be thought of as ordinary? And also, I might add, I have a lot more in common with the Washington "elite" than I do with a blue collar guy who works on his cars as a hobby. I'm not denigrating them at all, just, my idea of a good time is reading, I can barely figure out how to open the hood of my car and on the rare occasions I do drink beer, I can't stand drinking it out of a can. Nor am I a particular wine and arugala kind of guy, although wine can be good and hell, even McDonald's has arugala in their salads.

And I'm from Oakland County, Michigan, which is one of the wealthiest counties in the country. So maybe I'm part of that Beltway Elite Palin kept slamming last night.

Mark Terry

p.s. And do politicians really think the "heartland" and "main street" are so different from them? The rhetoric these days just pisses me off.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Are You Mark Terry?

October 2, 2008
I went down to Chelsea to meet my brother & sister and take my mom, who has Alzheimer's, out to lunch. Never the happiest of days.

Anyway, after driving 1-1/2 hours down, visiting, driving 1-1/2 hour back, I made it in time to pick up my son at high school. I was talking to one of the band directors while waiting for Ian and a girl looked at me and said, "Are you Mark Terry?"

"Yes," I said.

She said, "I read your book. It was awesome!"

"Oh. Thanks. Which one did you read?"

"The red one!"

I burst out laughing. I couldn't help it. She absolutely made my day. (And for the record, the red one is "The Devil's Pitchfork." The blue one is "Dirty Deeds" and the green one is "The Serpent's Kiss.")

Mark Terry

Although I appreciate the sentiment...

October 2, 2008
... my combined income isn't anywhere near $300,000 and not many--if any--in my neighborhood are. And what kind of writer thinks that's poor? (Except by comparison to the Presidential contenders).

Mark Terry

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Plays With Words

October 1, 2008
MWM, mid-40s. Athletic, confident. Plays with words. Must love dogs...

Okay, maybe not.

Do you play with words? I confess, I don't, usually. I go through periods in which I do crossword puzzles--yes, I'm a part-time cruciverbalist--but mostly I don't play with words. Somewhere in my mind I don't view them as toys, but as tools and I respect my tools. (Alternately, it's possible that my bibliophilia has become a full-blown bibliomania).

Still, from time to time, like yesterday, for some reason, I was thinking...

You can cuddle together, but you can't cuddle alone. You can huddle together, but you can huddle alone. And you know, I just sort of muddle along. I avoid puddles, alone or together. And if I can be befuddled, why can't I becuddled? Because I certainly am often bemuddled. And God knows, on a rainy day walking the dog, I'm often bepuddled.

I'm not sure you can be paddled alone, although for some being paddled is something they enjoy in pairs or more. You can be saddled with responsibilities, but are you besaddled upon a horse or besaddled with woes? And although you use a ladle, do you ladle? Are you beladled?

Your turn.

Mark Terry