Mark Terry

Monday, October 27, 2008

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


Blogger lucidkim said...

I'm about halfway done with my novel and no one has read it but me...if they read it and hated it would crush the joy I'm feeling while writing it. Even if it's crap, I want to enjoy writing it. :)

I love the Alzheimer's story idea, I mean: I love it!


7:20 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Absolutely. I don't let soul read a word until I know the ending and I'm100% certain the beginning is as it ill be. And then only DH, until it's done. It has to sort of cook up there, and it has to be given a period of grace. I often don't know my story until it's near done. How can I possibly accept or reject criticism if I'm not clear on what I'm writing yet?

But I do worry about wasting time, especially in terms of money that could have been earned.

7:21 AM  
Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

I've already disagreed with your agent once. At some point you have to follow your instincts even if everyone in the world tells you you're on the wrong path. I have never, never, never been disappointed with the result when I've done what my guts tell me to do.

7:38 AM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

I don't let anyone read my WIPs either. Until it's gone through maybe 2 drafts and I'm actually ready for feedback, I don't let anyone else see it.

So it's not just you.

8:02 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

This mirrors my thoughts so closely I can't really add anything. I have found it is death to say too much about a work in progress too soon. And that includes creative efforts outside fiction writing. I guess part of the incentive of art is to be able to spring it on the world.

The biggest incentive for me to write is knowing there's an audience. Even when I'm writing I'm aiming my words at an imagined audience, trying to make myself understood. These days, most books I can think of writing, I can't imagine being published, and thus I can't imagine the audience I need to keep me going. And, no, I can't see wasting huge amounts of time on something no one will read.

I thought the first chapter of that adventure novel was terrific! But what do I know.

8:53 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Sounds like there's a lot of agreement on this topic.

9:56 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Sometimes I'll share something early on to see if I'm on the right track, but I'd probably be better off if I didn't. Really, I need to stop doing that.

6:23 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I think in those cases when i do share early on it's because I have a lot of doubts and I'm hoping everyone will say, "Oh, it's great. Keep going."

4:37 AM  
Blogger Richmond Writer said...

At the moment I'm sharing something that is so Shiny New it's 1,000 words. It's funny but I didn't think much about it but then as I started writing more than 1,000 words I started thinking, I'm going to have to quit my critique group. I need to think of this in my terms first and then work on getting feedback and making it more entertaining for other readers.

Kind of like painting, you start with a lake, someone says the lake is reflective when it needs to be ruffled with waves, but I haven't drawn the mountains yet that will show up in the reflection of the they don't know why it looks flat. Hey even I didn't know it looks flat because falling off that mountain...

6:34 AM  
Blogger Billy said...

I never say anything about what I'm working on (under my own name--as a ghostwriter I'd be sued otherwise!) Or maybe it's supersitious. I once let out a detail or two of what turned out to be a successful book, and it was criticized because it had no context. Mum's the word.

12:09 PM  
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