Where in the world?
May 30, 2008
This Writing Life
Friday, May 30, 2008
Where in the world?
May 30, 2008
I was at the gym today and while I was lifting weights, I noticed a penny on one of the bench legs. I ignored it for a while, then the old saw about, "See a penny, pick it up, all the day you'll have good luck," popped into my head and I figured I could use all the luck I can get, so I picked it up.
Only it wasn't a U.S. penny. In fact, I didn't know what it was. I was guessing India. And although I don't have a picture of the back, the reverse is what looks vaguely like the Taj Mahal.
So when I got home I tried to figure out what this coin was. It actually took longer than expected. It turns out that it is a Pakistani Rupee, which I've since learned, is derived from the Sanskrit word for Silver (rupya), even though the coin appears to be copper.
I wondered who that cranky-looking guy on the coin was and that took a little time. It turns how it's an image of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was the first Governor-General of Pakistan. And on the back is not an image of the Taj Mahal, but rather the Badshahi Mosque, which apparently is the second largest mosque in Pakistan. It's in Lahore, in case you were wondering.
So I guess you just never know what you're going to learn on any given day, do you?
p.s. And yes, occasionally you'll get non-writers asking you, "Where do you get your ideas?" Do you have any idea of how many story ideas picking up this rupee generated?
Thursday, May 29, 2008
May 29, 2008
This is just a reminder to anyone who hasn't explored my website thoroughly. There is here a free 96-page booklet as a PDF, ON WRITING. It's a collection of earlier blog posts that focus on actual writing techniques, and addresses things like character development, description, point of view, etc. Y'know, all that nuts-and-bolts stuff.
Here's a sample:
James Woods directed a film a few years ago and got Melanie Griffith to act in it and in an
interview he was asked why and he said she was good and she fit the part and "she has
whatever that 'ooomph' it is that makes somebody a star."
In writing, we all need that 'ooomph.' There's very little "good enough" in the arts. It's like
being in school and doing "good enough" to get a B+ or even an A-, and saying that's "good
enough." But in the world of getting your writing published and then noticed, you need to
add that something else. You have to not just work on perfection in mechanics--spelling and
grammar--but shine everything to a high gloss.
It's a mistake to think editors and/or agents will "fix" the spelling or grammar or other
mechanical issues if the story is good enough (whatever the hell that is). They're busy and the
industry has shifted toward editors largely acting as "acquisition agents" and their jobs as
"shepherding" the manuscript to publication, more than shaping the work and editing the
content. That isn't to say they don't edit and shape, but it's not their primary job.
Momma didn't teach you that "neatness counts?" It does. Get the spelling and grammar right
and all the other mechanics of writing. Here's something I think editors and agents believe to
be true--spelling and grammar is Writing 101. You're not going to get published until you
graduate from Writing 401. If you're screwing up Writing 101, you're not ready.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Global Warming, Sex, Music and Writing
May 28, 2008
I was thinking about the weather recently--I'm in Michigan and Sunday it was 86 degrees, Monday it was 44, and last night we had frost (so we covered all our plants), but it's supposed to rise to the mid-60s today. Even for Michigan, which has screwy weather in general, this is odd for the end of May.
And there sure have been a lot of tornadoes, haven't there?
I'm not a meteorologist or a climatologist, but I'm a believer in global warming (and have been since the 1980s). Whenever we get cold weather like yesterday, there's some smartass who says, "Ha! No such thing as global warming."
Uh-huh. Here's something I know about the weather. It's a huge, complicated system. And you know what huge complicated systems do? They relieve tension. Heat, in the vocabulary of global weather systems, is tension. A hurricane, for instance, essentially takes heat absorbed in the water during the warmest months and moves it somewhere else--releasing tension.
Rising tension, release.
Know where I'm going here?
Sex is about rising tension and release.
Music is about rising tension and release.
Writing, my friends, is about rising tension and release.
Anybody reading this ever have something rejected by an agent or editor with the phrase: lacks tension?
There are a lot of different types of tension in fiction (and sex, and music, and weather...), from our choice of words, to the plot, to the interactions of the characters.
Frankly, blowing things up and creating tension by showing a stalker, murderer, bomb, man with a gun, etc., is pretty easy.
And yet, the agent, editor--or worse, readers--might still say, "Lacks tension."
So, in most cases, this means there's something about the characters and their interactions (and quite possibly your writing in general--remember, use good verbs, not adverbs and adjectives) that lacks tension. If the reader doesn't get invested in the character, the story can lack tension.
I read a friend's manuscript a year or so ago and I found myself using the phrase, "It lacks tension." Then I told him why I thought so. Everybody got along too well. Even when the main character had problems with people, they were nice about it. That's a pretty nice world (although don't you know people that like to screw with people and get everybody's dander up just because they're bored and they like a little excitement?), but it makes for bland fiction.
Here's my example: any Harry Bosch novel by Michael Connelly. Harry is driven. Harry doesn't get along with his supervisors, his girlfriends, his partners or most people. It's because he's driven. He's on a mission and he knows it. He's obsessed. Anyone who stands between him and his mission--solving murders--is a problem. I mentioned this to Michael once when I interviewed him and he sort of dryly said, "Have baggage, will travel."
Not all characters need to be like Harry (god forbid). But all characters need problems and they need obstacles that they need to overcome... whether it's a cranky boss, a lazy partner, smart-mouthed children, overbearing mother, or the sweet-little old lady who just wants to talk when you're trying to get to your job interview. Everybody wants something--and it usually conflicts with someone else, and that's part of the key to tension.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Indie Presses versus Big Publishing Houses
May 27, 2008
I had several exchanges of e-mails with my agent this weekend, largely concerning the potential of a couple of new small publishers who have made their presence known. She seemed to be asking me my opinion. (This is maddening, actually; I don't mind being asked my opinion, but I don't at all like feeling like I'm more clued in on the publishing market than my agent is). Anyway, I finally had to break things down this way:
I'm ambivalent about small presses. I've been published by two. High Country Publishers (now called something else, I think, like the Ingalls Publishing Group) and by Midnight Ink, which is a small imprint of a medium to large publisher. Neither experience, I explained to my agent, was financially satisfying.
I was being delicate. From an editing standpoint and dealing with the editors and to some extent (in as much as you ever really deal with the publisher him or herself) the publisher, the experiences were fine.
It was from the sales, distribution, marketing, advances, royalties, contracts point-of-view where things started to disintegrate pretty quickly.
So let me break down my thoughts for everyone here, noting that I'm not an expert and am mostly talking from an individual experience.
Is it easier to get published by a small press?
Hmmm, in theory. Easy is probably not the best word. Small presses--hence the name--don't necessarily publish a lot of books, so they can be pretty choosy as well. The flipside of the "easier" notion is that their standards are lower, which is puzzling from a writer's perspective; the reality might be that small presses are more likely to publish things that aren't necessarily marketable, don't have as strong a hook and in many cases aren't as polished as their big publishing house brethren. Many small presses publish things based entirely on the taste of the editor/publisher and that may have nothing to do with commercial sales potential.
Do small presses give large advances?
No. They don't have the money. If there are exceptions, I haven't heard of them.
Do small presses give any advances?
Sometimes. When I was published by High Country, no; when I was published by Midnight Ink, yes, although they were very small (I've gotten paid more for magazine articles).
Are small presses more willing to take a chance on something unique?
The assumption being that the reason you're being turned down by larger publishers is that you're too "unique," but I don't know. That seems to be the rumor, but I reviewed books for ForeWord Magazine, which focuses on independent and self-published titles and "poorly written" and/or "unmarketable" might have been better descriptors of the majority of the books. Not all, by any means, but the majority. I'm skeptical about this.
Are small presses more forgiving of lower sales?
Hmmm, the typical small press probably has lower expectations for overall sales numbers than a large NY publisher. That being said, my suspicion is that the question isn't about overall numbers, it's about sell-through. That is to say, if a big NY publisher prints 10,000 copies of your book and sells 8,000 copies, you may or may not be considered a success, depending on the editor and publisher's mood, bottom line, phases of the moon and current philosophy about returns and sell-through. A small press is more likely to try and print 2000 copies or 1000 copies and will probably be pretty happy with an 80% sell-through, which would be 1600 or 800 respectively. Neither of them will be happy with a 50% sell-through.
Do small presses have good distribution?
No. Well, define "good." Compared to, say, Random, Inc? No. Absolutely not. Bookstores know that if Random or Bantam or St. Martin's Press come out with their quarterly catalogue and there are, say, 150 titles in it, and they are pushing the top 15, they can safely order multiple copies of the top 15 books (the frontlist) and then look at their computer system to see how previous titles by the rest sold, and then for new authors, they can look at Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus or a few other trade journals to see what they're saying or, just as likely, if the cover looks good or the title sounds interesting or if their sales person said it sounded great, and order a couple copies. If Big Bill's New Publishing Venture sends their catalogue to the booksellers and they're skeptical of small presses (which they are), they may order a copy or two... or not. And if Big Bill's New Publishing Venture hasn't got an agreement with the two big distributors--Ingram and I'm currently blanking on the one that distributes mostly to libraries, sorry--then they go with a smaller distributor that bookstores may or may not deal with. DISTRIBUTION IS EVERYTHING. POOR DISTRIBUTION IS THE BIGGEST KILLER OF SMALL PRESSES.
Small presses are passionate about books otherwise they wouldn't do it.
In theory. I've given talks to would-be novelists where I ask the question: What is a publisher? The answer? A publisher is a person with money who wants to publish books. Period. There's no school for it, no license, no particular qualifications. So by that definition, any incompetent with a checkbook or line of credit can become a publisher. Some of them are savvier than others. Some of them are doing it for the passion. Some of them think it's a way to churn a buck that requires less work, overhead and upfront costs than, say, buying a Dominos Pizza franchise. Some of them are doing it because they thought it might be fun and they've got some money they're willing to piss away, so why not publishing. They're right about the overhead and upfront costs and probably wrong about the work and the eventual returns, although all you have to do is realize that authors get 8 to 10% of the costs of a book to wonder where the other 90% to 92% of the money goes. (Not all goes to the publisher, in case you were wondering).
Small presses will read unagented materials.
Usually. But typically if you have an agent and he/she sends a manuscript to a big NY publisher, you'll get a response in about 4 weeks, give or take. If you send a manuscript yourself off to a small press, the decision-making may take 3, 4, 8 months or longer. Poison Pen Press twice kept my manuscripts for over a year before turning them down. I've got a manuscript at a small press at the moment where they informed me early in the process that it would probably take 8 months to make a decision. (Their wording. What that means is, the manuscript is going to sit in a pile until somebody gets around to reading it). But yes, by all means, most small presses will look at your manuscript without an agent.
A small press will at least get me published so I can start my career.
This was pretty much the gist of my e-mail response to my agent. It comes down to this: if the goal is just to get published, then small presses are certainly a potential avenue. If you're looking at a fiction writing career, where you actually make real money and might be able to live off it, then small presses are something of a long shot. Also, if you publish a string of novels with small presses that routinely sell 2,000 or 3,000 or even 4,000 copies, by the standards of the small press you're pretty successful, but by the standards of a big New York publisher you're pretty much a failure and they may not view you as any kind of potential author for them. (It's entirely possible they won't care one way or the other. Some of the NY publishers/editors view small presses like minor league baseball teams that are grooming players for the big leagues and others don't view them as anything at all... some seem to pay no attention to small, independent presses at all, some just out of lack of interest and others as if the small presses are some sort of boring and uninteresting microscopic organisms of no inport). There are arguments on both sides of the fence, and I think you might decide--and it's a completely reasonable decision, in my opinion--that you'd rather get published and develop a readership of 1,000 or 2,000 or whatever than not get published at all. It may seem like an odd hobby that occasionally pays for itself, but hey, you're an author and that's good enough for you.
But the crux of the situation is often trying to decide where you fall on that continuum: career or just published. I'm not making value judgements. It depends entirely on what you want and where you are in your aspirations.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Want To Get Lucky?
May 22, 2008
I've been thinking a bit about the role of luck in being a successful writer. I'm not the only writer to suspect that the difference between a published writer and a bestseller is largely due to luck. The first time I met Joe Konrath at Magna cum Murder, his first novel had just come out and he was gaining a reputation for his promotional energies, but also for having received a six-figure contract for his first two novels. I congratulated him and he commented that it was all luck, that the unpublished novel he wrote before WHISKEY SOUR was better.
I think it's possible he even believes that. I'm not sure. I've often wondered--especially lately--if bestsellers look in the mirror and think, "I'm sure lucky. I could be writing the exact same books and be selling 4000 copies on a good day." Or, deep down, do they think, "I'm a bestseller because I'm THAT much better than the rest. I really AM that good."
I don't know.
No, I really don't know. Most of the time I'm inclined to think they really are lucky, that they got hit by a bolt of lightning and, you know, they were the right person with the right book at the right time with the write editor, publisher, editor, etc. Sure, they had talent, but I got news for you, everyone who gets a novel published has talent. Even tons who don't get their novels published have talent.
As you know, I am a full-time freelance writer. I've been full-time for almost four years. In that period my income has almost doubled. My first paid magazine article was in 1993. I was paid a whopping $50. When I charge per hour now, that's about what I charge--on a minimum. Times have changed.
Yesterday I was offered a contract gig, which I accepted, and it's going to change my life. The money's significant and it's possible it will be my exclusive job. I'm very well suited for it and I'm really excited about it.
But was I lucky?
Well, without going into too many details, here's what happened. At the end of last year, I went through a bit of a dry spell, so I got aggressive about looking for work and sent out a bunch of queries and responded to writing ads. On January 2nd I was called by a gentleman who was the former president of a large publisher and he and the president of another large publisher were pulling together a new venture to write business reports. Would I be interested in writing one?
Sure. We haggled for a while, then I got the contract and went to work. I was underpaid for the report I wrote, but I gave them a helluva report for their money. Rather early on in the work, I was contacted by the president of the other publisher to tell me that the guy who had hired me was no longer with their venture and I would be dealing with her. Fine. I knew of her company, it was large and prestigious and very much along the lines of where my expertise lies. So I worked my butt off and I think the report, which will be published shortly, is great.
What seems to have happened is she passed the report around to a number of her staffers--editors, etc--and said, "Find something for him to do." One of them is having me write an article. But another guy contacted me with a contract managing editor position for their publication's website. And that's eventually the position they pitched me yesterday and which I accepted. I'll be flying out to New York in a couple weeks to meet everybody, but in the meantime, I start doing the work on June 2.
So, was it luck?
Yes. Luck was definitely involved.
Was it skill and talent? Absolutely. I hired on to do a project that could have gone south in any number of ways and I worked very, very hard to give them a knock-out project. And then, when the opportunity came my way, I leveraged all my other skills and talents and experience to come across as the top-level pro I think I am and want to be.
But I don't want to diminish the role of luck here. Because this first gig could have gone to someone else. I'm somewhat suspicious that the reason I got it was because I was willing to do the work for the price they offered and more experienced report writers might have--and probably did--balk. But I needed the work at the time more than I needed to negotiate up. (And as originally pitched to me, the price was about right, but the project's complexity itself was undersold. Having said that, I had to force him to focus the project and it would have been impossible to cover the subject in the amount of space the project was originally described as).
In fact, if one of my other clients hadn't been so damned slow to pay an advance that I had contracted for at the end of October, and if the same client had gotten their act together about another project I'd been working on, I wouldn't have been looking for work at all at the end of the year. I would have received the advanced at the beginning of January instead of April; I would have finished the other project in September when I expected it to be completed and gotten paid for it in October instead of finishing it in late November and getting paid for it in January.
The expression is: it's better to be lucky than good.
Well, I don't know if it's better to be lucky than good, but I guarantee you it's good to be lucky at least some of the time.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Writing Novels For A Living
May 21, 2008
I recently interviewed a couple physicians who also write novels. It was a pleasant enough interview and their recent novel sounds interesting. What threw me a tiny bit--but probably shouldn't have--about the interview was their acknowledgement that writing novels for them was essentially a hobby with relatively small financial gain.
That's partly because they're docs, of course, who typically have better incomes than the rest of us. And I've run into other physicians who are novelists along the line, as well as successful lawyers and business people and even TV personalities, who have written novels. In most cases, their novels net them nowhere near what their "day jobs" do. So why do it?
Well, maybe it is just a hobby. That's okay, actually. In fact, I'm increasingly starting to believe that since most novelists are lucky to make more than $5000-$10,000 per book (if that), then most would probably be a lot happier if they went in accepting that fact instead of expecting to make a fortune. What is often dismaying--and certainly it applies to myself--is how we continue on thinking the BIG HIT is just around the corner... all evidence to the contrary.
Some writers, at least publicly, are pretty cool about this. They're happy to be published, they're happy to have readers and they're happy to call themselves novelists. I struggle with this, frankly; partly because I make a living as a writer and would like fiction to play a larger part in that. I want it to pull its own weight, because I can generally spend the same time on something else that would be significantly more profitable, and nobody expects me to go out and market the final product on my own dime. (Of course, knowing this logically and accepting it emotionally are two wildly separate things).
It seems to me that there are essentially two camps out there in terms of writers and non-writers. They think either authors are all rich or they think authors are all poor, living in garrets and wearing berets.
Sometimes people think this simultaneously. When I first started out I was in the first camp. Now, all these years later, I see it not as a bell-shaped curve with the ends representing the poor, garret-living writers and the bestsellers with a large bulk of novelists making a decent living, but as a wildly steep incline-curve that almost resembles a ski jump. The vast majority of novelists make almost no money, there's a little plateau of writers who make a living, and there's a tiny proportion that make it big (and cling fiercely to the slope in constant danger of getting knocked off).
Which camp are you?
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Griping about "Bones" season finale
May 20, 2008
Anybody see the season finale of "Bones" last night? Sucked didn't it? Unfaithful to previous scripts, illogical, weirdly and unsatisfyingly complicated, with a B.I.G. T.W.I.S.T. that is likely to just piss off regular viewers (like everyone in my family who regularly watches the show). In fact, last week's cliffhanger was so well done, I was all ready to download it and the season finale to my iPod until I watched last night's episode and decided, "Oh, to hell with it."
Way to go, guys. Cheat the viewers. And I hear the network has plans to move the timeslot not once but twice in the fall, first to Wednesday, then to Friday. This is a FOX show with good ratings, what USA Today has described as a good show with a potential to be a great show, but last night's episode was like watching a drunk shoot themselves in the foot with shotgun they think is empty. (And thanks guys. I only watch 2 TV shows regularly--Bones and House. Way to go.)
Okay, if you haven't watched the show, here's the set-up. It's a team of forensic experts working out of the Jeffersonian in Washington, DC. There's "Bones" who is Dr. Temperance Brennan, a forensic anthropologist. Booth, an FBI agent. Cam, who is the boss of the department, a forensic pathologist. Jack, who is a double PhD, an expert in bugs and dirt; Angela, computer imaging and forensic artist; Zack, who is a forensic anthropologist. There is also a forensic psychiatrist, Sweets, who spends most of his time analyzing Booth and Bones.
Earlier in the season they were hunting down a serial killer dubbed Gormagon, who was killing people and building a skeleton out of various part, replacing silver parts from a silver skeleton (or vice versa, it was confusing the first time around and not much clearer after last night's mess). Gormagon had been around a while and in fact, somewhere along the line they found him in a nursing home with Alzheimer's. Because Gormagon, sort of like Sith Lords, had an apprentice. So they were trying to track down the apprentice, but now that they had caught Gormagon, the apprentice had become Gormagon and presumably was looking for an apprentice. (You know, maybe this story line was a bad idea from the very beginning. Hmmm.)
Now, if you haven't watched the show, the tone tends to be very light. The characters make up a family and one of the show's strengths has been the ensemble's interactions, built around very good mysteries, typically. Lots of humor, well-acted cast.
A recurring theme of the show has been Zack and Jack's "experiments" to see if they can duplicate some bit of forensic evidence. The first and most memorable was when they ran a frozen dead pig through a wood chipper. Last night they were trying to duplicate some ceramics and the upshot was it exploded with Zack in it, burning and damaging his hands and probably ending his career. The show can be a bit gory and the shot of his bloody, mangled hands was harder to take than your typical rotting corpse.
Then, by the end, we find that Zack, three months earlier, was recruited by Gormagon to be the apprentice.
I noticed in an interview I found today that the producer, Curtis Hanson, said he expected and hoped for a violent reaction from fans. Why he would want that is a mystery to me, given that the show's overall tone tends to be light. But then again, I'm often confused by the way TV people seem to sabotage their own shows. From a writer's perspective, I just don't get the changes. If it's some gimmick that went awry, it's still going to seriously affect the tone of the show, and if it's a "dream" which they've played around with a bit anyway, or a set-up, like the beginning of the show where Booth was shot at the finale of last week's episode, and this episode began with his funeral, which was faked (something they've done a couple times on this show, so the writer's really need to stop going back to that particular well) in order to draw in an unexplained killer with "national security implications", then the writers are pushing our credulity (of course, it's TV, so that's probably to be expected). I've just got to say, though, that I thought they were adding a tonal note, a very, very dark tonal note, to a show that has always managed to keep things light, even when it's at its most serious. Weird.
Monday, May 19, 2008
Drawing A Blank
May 19, 2008
Over on the BookEnds blog there's a post talking about the positive aspects of the publishing business. Jessica Faust has noted that there's plenty of negativity to go around, much of it justified, so she wanted to put a smiley face on things. She cited some of the things she liked about the business and asked readers to list theirs. When I checked, there weren't any.
And I thought about posting something and honestly, I drew a blank.
My mind turned to my nonfiction writing, where there are many positive things, but I just couldn't think of anything positive to say this morning about fiction publishing. I just stared at the computer screen, my mind blank. It wasn't filled with negative things, it was just... blank.
So help me out, people. What are some positive things about fiction publishing? There must be some.
Okay, okay. It's 5 hours or so later. Maybe I just needed some caffeine, a workout and food.
Occasionally I get "fan" mail. That's pretty cool.
Generally speaking, the people I've met in the business have been great. I feel like sometimes we all deal with each other as if we're potentially explosive materials, but the people in publishing, various self-centered agendas aside, are pretty cool people.
I like the work itself. (I.e. Writing). I even like editing and rewriting.
I like holding a book in my hand.
I like seeing my book on a bookstore or library shelf.
I like being invited to do talks. (Far more than I actually like doing them, but it's nice to be invited).
I like advance checks and royalty checks.
I like feeling like a writer, talking to agents, editors, movie producers.
I like seeing the cover art for the first time (usually).
I like holding the books in my hands.
I like that movie people seem to like my work more than publishing people, though neither party is in any particular hurry to put their money where their mouths are.
Friday, May 16, 2008
Reading and Writing...and Reading... and, well, Writing...
May 16, 2008
I have been consciously trying to change my reading habits. I've been a lifelong reader--voracious, compulsive, obsessive--of fiction. I've never been very good at reading book length nonfiction, although I regularly read magazines like Smithsonian and Time. And recently MacWorld, and for years I got Writers Digest, for a while Publisher's Weekly. And USA Today. And now that I'm online all day I tend to read five or six general news articles each day that appear on my browser homepage, which is MSN.com.
As I got more obsessed with getting my fiction published--which was typically mysteries or thrillers--my reading became narrower. And eventually, with a few exceptions like Stephen King, I found myself reading mysteries and thrillers almost exclusively.
I've been trying to branch out a bit. Partly because I think it's healthy. Partly because I'm getting stale on mystery and thriller fiction. Even writers that I love, like John Sandford and Jonathan Kellerman and Robert B. Parker, aren't satisfying me like they used to. Maybe it's just too much "been there done that," or perhaps it's just me growing, or maybe it's me being aware of the authors' tricks and tics and themes and obsessions.
So I've been reading more science fiction, more young adult and middle school books, and more nonfiction. The book I'm holding in the photo I just finished the other day, HOUSE OF RAIN by Craig Childs. Partly about the Anasazi, it's also about Craig Childs wandering around the southwest, visiting Anasazi sites and trying to track the Anasazi as they migrated, essentially from the Colorado plateau to northern Mexico, over about a three hundred year period. It's beautifully written, fascinating, and rather dense and long. It took me a while to read it, taking breaks from time to time to read other things, which actually may be the beauty of reading nonfiction books. Novels tend to require a certain active participation on the part of the reader, but nonfiction books can often be ingested in sections over time.
I'm aware, though, that my conscious change in reading material is also not entirely conscious. It's also emotional and professional, a reflection of a growing frustration with the publishing industry and my place in it. I may be, in some ways, looking for a new home for my book writing passions, testing out different genres and types of books to see which ones might work better for me.
Or not, because this is a psychological subject as deep as the Marianas Trench. My reading influences my writing. My writing, also, influences my reading. I have often gone in search of books similar to the novels I'm currently working on--first person PIs if I'm writing first person novels; kids books if I'm writing one of those; multiple POV thrillers if that's what I'm working on; comic capers if I'm trying my hand at one of those. I've also interviewed a number of bestselling authors and occasionally asked, "What are you reading these days?" and the number of times they have said, "I don't read too much fiction. I mostly read nonfiction," or in some cases, they're very up-to-date on who's doing what in their genre but they keep nonfiction of some sort going at the same time, suggests there's something else going on there. Perhaps the nonfiction feeds their own fiction more than other fiction does.
Which makes me wonder, if after all these years of avoiding book length nonfiction, I'm thinking more about writing book length nonfiction, or, if in fact, I'm just trying to find the right book length nonfiction for me, topics and writers that can hold me the way a good novel can. Not all nonfiction books work well for me. But I do like reading about politics, the gossip-ier the better. HOUSE OF RAIN has opened me up to the possibility that travel narratives, especially if they're infused with a historical or cultural tension, can be wonderful reading.
So my questions are these?
Does your reading change over time?
Does it reflect your writing life?
Does it reflect your life?
Does your life reflect what you're reading?
Do you have emotional phases in your reading, where you want to just throw every book aside and say, "To hell with this crap."?
What are you reading now?
Thursday, May 15, 2008
Stick Me In A Clothes Dryer And Spin Me, Baby
May 15, 2008
Sounds sort of like a country song.
I'll confess my first thought for a blog post this morning was to write about wanting to give up writing fiction completely, how I was one too many rejections over my limit, that I was busy and frustrated and really, shouldn't I just show some common sense?
Then I sat down and worked on my wip for an hour.
Then I got ONE MORE REJECTION from my agent, to which I responded: "I don't think I can stand any more good news this week."
Really, hold onto them until next week, okay? I'm annoyed.
I had a conference call about some NF work that went really well and I'm very excited about it. Things are just going great in the writing business area (knock wood), although from the fiction/novel/film option end of things I might as well shoot myself in the head. It increasingly starts to feel like a total freakin' waste of time and energy!
Which goes a long ways toward saying, If you're unpublished and you get totally fed up ("I am just sick and tired...") with doing body-slams on the steel doors of publishing's castle, well, friends, you ain't alone. If you wonder if you shouldn't just throw in the towel and take up macrame, you ain't alone.
So do what I do, not what I say.
Sit your ass down and write anyway.
Because, Really, It Does Have To Get Better In A Little While, Doesn't It?
May 15, 2008
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Directions Not Included
May 14, 2008
Pondering many things today, but what I was thinking about most is how our writing careers don't come with directions or a road map. Some people just seem to have it figured out and some never figure it out. Most of us, I suspect, who have any success at all, are like Frodo and Sam in the Lord of the Rings, who are pretty much given directions--meet me at The Prancing Pony and we'll go from there--without really any real directions involved. We take that first step out the door with no real idea of the challenges awaiting us.
Go write and send it out, we'll go from there.
Never mind the hundreds, maybe thousands of rejections. The loss of self-esteem. The frustration. The broken dreams. The anger. The denial. The depression.
Hell, none of that was advertised in the brochure. Why didn't someone tell me?
In a lot of ways, the very act of writing is the same way. You can pretty much read all the writing books in the world, pretty much read all the books in the world, even have a mentor who guides you, but really, the only way to get there is to sit your ass down and write and figure out what works and what doesn't and when. It's like we're given this real cool, complicated toy, but we have no idea what it does or how it works. The only way to figure it out is to use it.
And try not to break it or get bored with it in the process.
Because that happens, doesn't it?
My kids are video gamers and one of the things I've noticed is that if the game is too easy they whip through it and are bored with it. If it's too hard (doesn't happen as often now) they'll get so frustrated with it they'll give it up. But if it's challenging, if it's fun, and if they can find themselves making progress and discovering new aspects of the game, they'll play it for days and days and it'll become a pretty standard part of their gaming repertoire.
I don't imagine I have to club you over with the head with the point here.
So to that extent, I think it's worthwhile, no matter where you are in your writing career, to occasionally look backward and see how far you've come. Got an agent? Get something--anything--published? Got a kind word from an agent or editor? Went around a corner and realized you're a better writer? Got a contract? Making money? Making a living?
Is the cool toy still cool? Or is it a constant and un-ending source of frustration, anger and depression?
My wife, Leanne, has had a sort-of promotion with a sort-of new job. In other words, more responsibility, a new title (General Manager), but no increase in pay to go along with it. She works in a laboratory of a very large international clinical laboratory provider that will remain nameless. Her new lab job really only sorta has a name, so I provided one.
GO-ASK-LEANNE SHE-HAS-IT-THOUGHT-OUT LAB.
In other words:
Leanne Terry, General Manager
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Q&A With Mark Terry
May 13, 2008
Q: Shouldn't you be working?
A: Yes, but I'm self-employed, so the boss is temporarily out of the room.
Q: How's your work-in-progress going?
A: My two characters are about to get into even bigger trouble than before, so it's going fine.
Q: Any novel coming out soon?
A: Not that I know of. If you hear differently, let me know.
Q: How's the marketing of other novels going?
A: Fine, if you define "fine" as being regularly rejected by major publishing houses and having a manuscript fall into a black hole at a smaller house for five or six months.
Q: How's the writing biz going?
A: Booming. I'm swamped. I should be working on something but instead I'm having an imaginary interview with myself. I just finished interviewing a woman in Utah for an article I'm writing.
Q: When are you going to New York?
A: Rumor has it first week of June, though I was hoping next week. We'll see.
Q: When are you going to Houston?
A: Second or third week in June. Should be hot.
Q: What did you have for lunch?
A: Greek pita, chips and grapes. And diet Coke.
Q: How do you take coffee?
A: Without the coffee. I don't drink coffee. Can't stand the taste and I rarely drink warm/hot beverages.
Q: Seen any good movies lately?
A: Iron Man. Robert Downey, Jr. rocks no matter what he's in, but this movie was a lot of fun (He was brilliant in "Zodiac." Check it out). And I have no desire to be Peter Parker, but Tony Stark? You bet. Seriously cool. If I want to be a super hero, it'll be either Iron Man or Wolverine. Wolverine's got even better health benefits than CEO Tony Stark.
Q: What's on your Netflix queue?
A: "Gone, Baby Gone" and "Letters from Iwo Jima" and "Lions to Lambs." It's our depressing movie trifecta.
Q: What would you like as a last meal?
A: A drink from the Fountain of Youth. Failing that, pizza, breadsticks and an antipasto salad.
Q: If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one album with you, what would it be?
A: Welcome to Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffett. I figure with that, it's only a matter of time before a cruise ship shows up to drop off tourists and I'd be rescued.
Q: If you could be anything besides a writer, what would you be?
A: Besides an independently wealthy philanthropist? Maybe a hotshot guitar guy like Andy McKee.
Q: If you had to pick one novel to call your favorite, what would it be?
A: Either "To the Hilt" by Dick Francis or "Bag of Bones" by Stephen King. Don't make me decide.
Q: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
A: Four if it's the macarena, five if it's the chicken dance, but only two if it's a tango.
I'm Tap-Dancing As Fast As I Can
May 13, 2008
It's only Tuesday, right?
Well, I've been battling a cold, which is no big deal (to you, it's fairly annoying to me). On Sunday I got to spend the afternoon in the company of much of my wife's family, the less said the better, but I got to hear a 17-year-old who's probably joining the Army in a year say, "I want to go over there and shoot some sand niggers."
I also got to hear the term "tree hugger" spoken as a pejorative and some comments about the African-American man and white woman who are running for president, as well as at least one anti-gay sentiment.
It's not a good place for a knee-jerk, bleeding-heart liberal such as myself to hang out, but I guess family is family, although it makes me quake a bit when I realize just how much of America sees the world the same way. I actually like some of them, despite this--what can you say?
Then yesterday I more or less took the day off. My brother and I met at my sister's house, who had picked up my mother (who has Alzheimer's, but she was having a good day; not a great day, because I'm not sure she knew who I was, but she knew we were someone she knew). My niece and her husband were there from Boston with their puppy Kaia and we hung out for a couple hours and I enjoyed myself a lot. We talked politics in a rational, intelligent way and my brother told us some stories of academic infighting that weren't dramatically different than what I encountered at my in-laws, except without the the overt racism, misogyny and bigotry (is that redundant? On, never mind). It's amazing how intense people can get defending their own turf, even if their turf is small and largely in their imagination, isn't it?
Then I drove back home to do a couple hours of work.
I did a report for a big new client this year and they're throwing all sorts of work and potential work at me, including a possible newsletter editor and managing editor jobs, for which I will be conference calling later in the week. I'm pretty excited about the opportunities, so keep your fingers crossed for me.
Meanwhile, I think I should probably try to get some work done today.
Monday, May 12, 2008
A Devil's Deal
May 12, 2008
I expect to be a little scarce this week, so let me give you this to think about.
The devil shows up at your door and makes you a couple of offers.
1. He'll give you $1,000,000 a year, no strings attached, if you give up writing entirely.
2. You can make $125,000 a year writing anything BUT fiction.
Do you take either of these deals?
Thursday, May 08, 2008
A Master's Class In Creative Writing
May 8, 2008
I received a package from Amazon yesterday--the new John Sandford novel, PHANTOM PREY. I started reading it and was quickly struck by just how good a writer Sandford is. That's not something I always say about writers, no matter how successful they are. They may be good storytellers or they may be good writers or both (or neither, but that's a separate issue). I think Sandford is both. Anyway, I'm going to put up a couple passages from his book that made me sit up and take notice, partly because how much they showed about the character, partly because of how entertaining they were.
You might agree or disagree, but I do think when you come across a writer who not only is very successful, but to whom you respond as a reader, you should pay attention and try to figure out what it is you're responding to and try to adapt it to your own work. So here goes:
Lucas looked down at the laptop, where he'd been wrestling with bureaucratic ratshit. He was late with the annual personnel evaluations, and some time-serving wretch, deep in the bowels of the bureaucracy, whose life work involved collecting evaluation forms, was torturing him with e-mails and phone messages.
And what, really, could he say about Del? Or about Virgil? Or about Jenkins and Shrake?
The questionnaire asked if Del presented himself in a manner that conformed to standards of good practice as outlined in Minnesota state regulations. In fact, the last time Lucas had seen Del, he's been unshaven, hungover, three months late for a haircut, and was wearing torn jeans, worn sneaks, and a sweatshirt that said, *underwear not included.
Virgil, Lucas knew, drove around the state pulling a boat and trailer and almost daily went fishing or hunting on state time, the better to focus investigative vibrations--a technique that seemed to work.
Jenkins and Shrake carried leather-wrapped saps. Jenkins called his the Hillary-Whacker, in case, he said, he should ever encounter the junior senator from New York.
Should all of this go into a file?
* * *
That's when the end-of-winter blues got him. March was a tough month in the Cities. Dress warm, and the day got warm and you sweated. Dress cool, and the day turned cold, and you froze. Cars were rolling lumps of dirt, impossible to keep clean. Everybody was fat and slow, and crabby.
* * *
Lucas had jet-black hair salted with streaks of gray, and his face was pale with the winter. He had strong shoulders and a hawk's beak nose, blue eyes, and a couple of notable scars on his face and neck. Traces of the job.
His paternal ancestors, somewhere back through the centuries, had paddled wild fur out of the North Woods, mink and beaver and otter and martin and fisher, across Superior and the lesser Great Lakes, down the St. Lawrence. A bunch of mean Frenchmen; and finally one of them said, "Screw this Canadian bullshit," and moved to the States.
When that happened was not exactly clear, but Lucas's father had suggested that when it did, the immigrant might have had a case of blended whiskey on his shoulder....
His mother's side was Irish and Welsh, and a bit of German; but Lucas wasn't a genealogist and mostly didn't care who'd done what back when.
* * *
Well? What do you think? Does it work for you? Is it vivid? Does it entertain and provide insight? What's he doing here that works? Or maybe it doesn't. Thoughts?
Wednesday, May 07, 2008
What I've Been Readin'
May 7, 2008
These are #11-20 of this year to-date. With comments...
Dark of the Moon by John Sandford
A re-read, actually. Sandford kind of inspired my latest novel-being-marketed with this novel in that they're both about political consultants, and I wanted to re-read it.
Tunnels by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams
Sort of dubbed the next "Harry Potter" which is total B.S. My son liked this novel about a kid who discovers an entire world beneath the earth. He'll probably go ahead and read the sequels. I wasn't real wild about it, primarily because I thought every character in the book was so strange that I couldn't relate to any of them.
Black Widow by Randy Wayne White
A "Doc Ford" novel. In this case, his goddaughter is being blackmailed after she and some friends went to a Caribbean island for a bachelorette party that got out of hand. When it really spins out of control, Doc leaps into action. It was good, strange, fun, typical RWW.
Compulsion by Jonathan Kellerman
Another good outing with Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis, although Kellerman seems to completely jettison any real rationale for Alex to be so involved in a homicide investigation.
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
Joe Hill is Stephen King's son and it's his first novel. Genes do tell. I was somewhat skeptical, although I liked the premise--an older death metal star (think of a coherent Ozzy Osbourne) who collects odd things like letters from serial killers, buys a "ghost" over an eBay knockoff... only it really does have a ghost and it's really going after him. THIS. NOVEL. ROCKS. I was floored--and envious--just how good and creepy and scary and everything this novel is.
Stardoc by SL Viehl
Sci-Fi. I like her blog and I liked the idea of a doctor in outer space, so I checked it out. It's a little episodic, but there's a lot of humor, a little bit of space romance and sex, a little bit of adventure and I enjoyed it and will probably look for other books by her.
Nerve Damage by Peter Abrahams
Wonderful thriller. A famous sculptor is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Egged on by a friend, he gets a hacker to break into the computer files of the New York Times to see what his obituary will look like. But there's a misprint in it about his late-wife who died in a helicopter crash in Venezuela. He brings it to the attention of the NYT writer, who is shortly after killed in a break-in, and the main character finds himself trying to figure out what's going on while people are trying to kill him... even as he goes through experimental chemo therapy. This is the second book I've read by Abrahams, the first being Oblivion, and they're similar, but wonderful.
Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
As recommended by my son, Ian. Probably middle-grades rather than YA, it's definitely an interesting spin on things. Artemis Fowl is a 12-year-old genius and master criminal who, through machinations too complicated to describe here, is blackmailing leprechauns and fairies into turning over gold. Colfer's voice is very funny (the narrative is omniscient and strange, but you get used to it) and the way he spins this bizarro story of kidnapping, hostage rescue, etc is ingenious. My favorite character was Munch, a dwarf criminal who, like all the dwarves in the novel, creates tunnels by eating the dirt and, er, pooping it out the other end at high velocity (with occasionally comic results). Yeah, yeah, boys LOVE this stuff. Hilarious and compelling.
Enemy Combatant by Ed Gaffney
Legal thriller. Really enjoyed it.
Seven for a Secret by Mary Reed & Eric Mayer
Historical mystery taking place in 6th century Constantinople. John is Emperor Justinian's Grand Chancellor and when he is approached by the model for the mosaic of a girl in his study who later ends up murdered, he begins to investigate, eventually turning up a plot to overthrow the emperor. I enjoy this series a lot and enjoyed this book. I happen to agree with their editor and publisher (Eric has shared this with me, by the way) that they should write a big, sprawling Rome-based epic. I thought this novel had all the elements of one--palace intrigue, religious conspiracies, murder, sex, family secrets--but on a smaller, more modest scale. Highly recommended.
May 7, 2008
In the immortal words of Crash Davis in "Bull Durham"...
"Don't think, you'll just hurt the ballclub."
So I've spoken here before about not paying too much attention to what editors (or agents) say in their rejections unless they're actually saying something useful. I mean, like a lot of writers, I've received--on the same day!--rejections where one says, "Loved the character, hated the plot," and the other said, "Hated the character, loved the plot." Almost no matter what is said, you really have to take it to mean: no thanks, not for us.
So yesterday I got a rejection, passed on to me by my agent that said:
I appreciated his energy, but in the end it felt a bit too commercial for us to position on our small list.
Now, class, let us discuss the meaning of "too commercial."
(Because one way of interpreting it is: meant to sell. And we wouldn't want a publishing house to buy books that might sell, now, would we?)
Anyway, like I said above: don't think.
Tuesday, May 06, 2008
My Son's New Shirt
May 6, 2008
The image of my son's new shirt that he and his Mom picked out I guess is reversed here, so let me translate:
NATIONAL BANK OF DAD
In Dad's Wallet We Trust
and at the top it reads:
No credit check No Late fees
I gotta tell ya: that Unlimited Withdrawals thing is nonsense.
Sunday, May 04, 2008
Freelance Writing For A Living--An Interview
May 4, 2008
My niece, Kallen, who I think is 14, called me today to ask if she could interview me for a career-day project for school. She e-mailed me the questions and I answered them and asked her if it would be okay to post them on my blog here. She said yes, so here's the interview.
In my particular case, I'm a full-time freelance writer and editor. I have a couple of regular clients--I'm the editor of a technical journal that comes out four times a year, for instance. I write for one or two magazines regularly--Podiatry Management and Bankrate.com--but the bulk of my work at the moment involves market research reports, which are often almost book-length. I'm contracted to write one this year called the Laboratory Industry Strategic Outlook 2009 and it will be over 200 pages when I'm done. So part of what I do for that is read a lot about the clinical laboratory industry, read company annual reports, research government databases and write about them. They also conduct surveys of people in the industry and I organize those responses and incorporate it into the report. For magazine work I typically will pitch an editor a story idea--sometimes they pitch me ideas--and then I interview experts on the subject and write the story. So a writer's life comes down to: think up ideas, pitch ideas, interview people, write the story. There's a business aspect to it as well--sending out invoices, keeping track of records, taking checks to the bank, paying taxes, looking for new clients, that sort of thing. I'm also a novelist, at least from time to time, so I spend part of my writing day working on a novel. When I have one published, there's some involvement in marketing--book signings, sending out mailings, etc.
It's both, although for me freelance writing is also a career because I love doing it. It's a job, because some days you'd rather just go to the beach, no matter how much you love it. I worked in a genetics lab for a long time and I never thought of it as a career--it was just a job. So my definition of a career is more than something you do for money, but something you also enjoy and find rewarding.
Uh, so I make money and pay bills. I think there's value in work, though, in doing something because it needs to be done and you can do it. I like to think that if I suddenly received millions of dollars, I'd continue to write and work simply because I enjoyed doing it and got something besides money out of it. Part of that is how you define yourself. Are you a musician, a writer, an artist, a doctor, a lawyer? That may be how you define yourself, who you are, versus just something you do to make money.
My situation is different. When I went to college I earned a B.Sc. degree in microbiology & public health. I spent 18 years working in a genetics lab. But in my senior year in college I discovered I wanted to be a writer--specifically a novelist. So I started writing, found out I enjoyed it. Had I started writing nonfiction, magazine articles and the like, earlier, I probably would have gone into writing earlier. The skills needed for writing novels and writing magazine articles and such are similar, but there's a bigger market for nonfiction writing and in most cases, it pays better.
Here's the funny thing. The answer to this is: none and all of them. I didn't do any writing on my jobs. But most of the writing I do now revolves around the business of the clinical laboratory industry. Not all of it. I've written about doggy daycare and genetics and government regulation and plumbing and electricians and all sorts of other odd topics. One of the things that's true about freelance writing for a living is it's helpful to have something to write about--some kind of expertise, like business or computers or healthcare. You don't have to, but it gives you a little bit of an edge.
That's kind of hard to say. If you go and write for a newspaper, the pay's not all that great and it would depend on the size and type of newspaper. A small daily newspaper like you probably have in Bluffton might pay their reporters (who probably acts as editor, graphic artist and salesperson and is probably on-call 24/7) to start off in the high $20,000 range to mid-$30,000 range. A bigger newspaper, something like The New York Times, might double that (maybe). Freelancers like myself, it varies a lot. I know freelancers who make about $40,000 a year and I know freelancers that make $120,000 a year. I'm in between. A lot of that depends on your experience, the types of writing you do because some types of writing and some publications pay a lot better than others, and how hard you are willing to work. I would also emphasize that there are a lot of different ways to make a living as a writer--writing for newspapers, magazines, websites, professional blogging, public relations companies, advertising agencies... even that thing we call junk mail is written by somebody (and they call it "direct marketing"), and even for freelancers like myself there are areas like technical writing and trade magazines and travel writing and business writing. Just think of every place you see some writing--some professional writer probably wrote it.
Almost all of them, because you never know what you're going to end up writing about. The easy answer is Advanced Composition and Creative Writing, but I'm not really sure that's the true story. The best thing to prepare you for a writing job is to write and to read. My music education taught me a lot about grinding away at things until they're ready, at how important it is to work on things every day, how setting goals is important. Learning the importance of deadlines--in any subject--is important to success as a writer. Being dependable is important. Curiosity about a broad range of subjects (at least while you're writing about them) is important.
I've been a full-time freelance writer for 3-1/2 years. My first paid-to-be-published piece was in 1993. I wrote part-time for a long time before deciding to go full-time, so in that respect I worked my way up. When I broke into some higher-paying markets and spent more and more time on the nonfiction instead of the fiction, that's when it all seemed do-able.
Now you're asking about philosophy. I'm not sure my 18 years in genetics were wasted. I'm not ready to go back and change things, but I definitely would have benefited back in my 20's or so had I met a full-time freelance writer, just so I knew it was possible. And don't forget, I started out writing about genetics and still do. For a writer, everything goes into the "experience bin" that you draw on in writing, no matter if it's fiction or nonfiction.
I decided when I was 21 or 22 that I wanted to be a writer. It was the summer between my junior and senior years in college. I read an essay written by Stephen King called something like, "The Making Of A Brand Name" and the big take-away message in it was that a writer wasn't necessarily created in a writing program or a school somewhere. A writer writes. There's no real school for novelists (there are creative writing programs, but there's no guarantee you'll become a novelist by taking part in one), just people who write their stories and submit them to publishers. And so I tried it and decided I loved it. It's been an odd, convoluted journey for me, but that's okay, it gives me a lot of different things to write about.
Leaving the hospital I worked at to write full-time. October 20, 2004. I'm pretty sure your Dad and Aunt Beth thought I was crazy and having a mid-life crisis. I've had lots of high points since then, but that was pretty special.
I get to do what I love to do and I get paid pretty well to do it and I don't have a boss standing behind me looking over my shoulder telling me how I should do it.
One of the "joys" of being a freelance writer is not all clients pay you in a timely fashion, so you sometimes have to nag and nag to get them to pay you. It's annoying, but it's part of the business.
Pretty much the same thing. I'd like more (or all) of my income to come from writing fiction or nonfiction books, but I'll be happy doing what I'm doing.
First, if you don't like to write, don't consider it. You don't have to be a "great" writer (whatever that is) in order to make a living as a writer, but it should be something that comes fairly easy to you. You should be comfortable with grammar and spelling and putting words down. Write a lot. Read a lot. Read a lot of different things. Read novels and magazine articles and newspapers and everything in between. Occasionally read magazine articles or blog articles about subjects you've never heard of before or think you're not interested in, because you might learn something and you might find you like it more than you thought you did. I think one of the more important things a freelance writer needs is a kind of general curiosity. I'm not particularly interested in plumbing or electricians or, for that matter, government regulation of the healthcare industry. But while I'm working on those articles, I'm VERY interested in those subjects. It really helps if you can get away from the attitude that "oh, this is boring I don't want to write about it" to "everything is interesting to someone at some level, so I need to be interested in it so I can share it with the people interested in it."
Think of the bills I need to pay or the new toy--kayak, iPhone, MacBook, trip somewhere--that I want. That's helpful. In a lot of ways I don't believe in writer's block. Like the Nike commercials, I think you need to "Just Do It." When I have so-called writer's block, it usually means I'm too worried about something else, like whether a piece of fiction will sell or I haven't done enough research or I'm intimidated by the subject. But writing isn't necessarily any different from say, a plumber or a teacher or a football player--just because you don't feel like working doesn't mean you don't. In that respect, it's a job and I just do it.
Well, I did something else for a long time and wasn't really happy doing it. So I'm happy to be doing what I'm doing. That said, there are days when the work doesn't go smoothly or the check didn't come when I wanted it to that I might think, "Oh, I wish I were a guitar teacher" or "I wish I was a professional surfer" or "It would be nice to own a little surf shop on a beach somewhere." But no, mostly I'm just happy doing what I'm doing. And I think I would have a lot of problems going back to working in an office with a boss watching me.
Saturday, May 03, 2008
Nuts & Bolts
May 3, 2008
My youngest son, 10-years-old, was nominated by his teacher to attend a "young writers" conference, which was from 8:30 to noon today. I went with him, or rather, I chauffeured him there.
I think he enjoyed it. Mostly I sat in the waiting area with my iPod, listened to music and made it through an issue of Time Magazine.
But in the middle of all this they had a little talk aimed at parents, "Teaching Your Child To Read Like A Writer."
I kept wanting to interrupt her. She was fine, an academic, clearly, probably with at least an MA or PhD in literacy education. I kept wanting to add things to what she said. At the end, she asked for questions, and I raised my hand and said, "Just so you know where I'm coming from, I'm a writer, editor and novelist. It's what I do for a living. I would recommend two things: First, you mentioned how the this author used a long sentence followed by sentence fragments. (And then she babbled on about 'implied prepositions' or some nonsense that annoyed me no end). I would suggest that when your child is reading something and you see the author does certain things like that, ask your kid why they think the author did that. Because the author is trying to achieve certain effects and simply by asking why they think the writer did that, they'll learn something."
The other thing, I added, "Was if there's one thing you can do to help your kid's writing, is to suggest they start killing adverbs, that instead of saying, 'he ran fast' or 'he ran quickly,' that your kid think of good verbs to use, like, 'he raced' or 'he sprinted' or 'he rushed.' And if they can get into that habit, their writing will improve a lot."
Then I shut up, because it wasn't my lecture to give.
But afterwards a couple women stopped me and said, "Thanks for that. We got more out of what you said than in the whole talk. She was talking at 50,000 feet in the sky and you just gave two things to actually do."
I thanked them, chatted for a minute, but I also suggested that if their kids were already writing, my philosophy is to pretty much praise them and stay out of their way. If your kids are actually reading and writing on their own, don't turn it into another aspect of school and start criticizing it.
Anyway, I reflected that there were a couple things going on here for me. One is that I'm not much of a theoretician. I wasn't in science and I wasn't in music and I sure as hell aren't one in writing. When I worked in cytogenetics, I didn't really want to know all the theories behind chromosome spreading, I just wanted to know how to do it. (And ironically, the journal I edit has an article in the upcoming issue where a lab spent a couple years in talks with the company that manufactures the glass microscope slides chromosomes are spread on and why in the late-90s so many labs had problems getting their chromosomes to spread...)
I'm pretty much like that as a writer. I want to know what works, not so much why. I do understand that if you have a long, run-on sentence followed by a fragment, for instance:
The moon was high in the inky sky, the wolf moon I guess they call it, though why I don't know, perhaps because it connects to werewolves, which was not a happy thought for me, having gotten lost in the woods and now sitting and shivering under the spreading branches of an oak tree.
I understand, really, what's going on there. I do. But it's easier to show someone a passage like that and ask, "What does this do here?"
That's kind of my problem with upper-level educators. Academics in general, and believe me, I can be pretty damned academic myself, but all too often academics get all tangled up in theory, having the belief that if you know the theory, putting things into practice is no problem. (They just don't actually seem to do so very often, and often ineffectively, in my opinion. Probably because, in my opinion, there is a big difference between theory and practice).
I'm reminded of a friend of mine who runs his own media research company. He used to work for Leo Burnett, the Chicago ad agency that handles accounts for little-known companies like Coca Cola and McDonalds and Kellogg's, and then he went to a private firm, then he went to General Motors, and now he runs his own company. While at GM, he went back to school to get his MBA and took grad level courses in media research.
"How was it?" I asked.
He said, "There's good stuff there, but it's unrealistic. The professor didn't have a clue what the timeframes and problems are in the real world. He was talking about projects that ran on for months and I had to raise my hand and say, 'Usually you have 2 weeks, if that.'"
I'm not always sure all practical people such as myself are always good teachers, though. Sometimes they can be. There are certainly high-level professional musicians that don't make for great teachers and I imagine it's the same with writers. "Those who can't do, teach," is something of a joke and an insult, but sometimes it's true. And vice versa, I would add.
I don't know much about teaching writing to kids. But I know a lot about writing. So sometimes you look at what people are saying when they're teaching kids and think, "What are you, a moron?" She also had reading lists and I wanted to choke her. That subject came up quick: Any book lists for boys? I got to throw out a couple names on that one.
Oh well, what're ya gonna do?
Friday, May 02, 2008
How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?
May 2, 2008
It's the old joke, right? Somebody stops a pedestrian in Manhattan and says, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"
The pedestrian says, "Practice, practice, practice."
My youngest son, Sean, had a 4th grade concert on Tuesday. When we got to the auditorium at the high school, we seemed to have an opening act--2 or 3 adult musicians were off to one side playing violin and viola and cello.
As it turned out, one was a professor of violin at the University of Michigan and the two ladies were string education majors. Oxford Schools has a strong music program, but they don't have an orchestra program... until now. So they were there to announce that Oxford was starting a strings program in the 5th grade next year and the professor gave a little talk and then the two ladies played a couple tunes. They were great.
The professor commented that when you first get a violin it sounds like this: and then he played a creaky, squeaky bit. And commented that typically after 7 or 8 weeks you wanted to throw the damned thing away. But that it took a lot of hard work and time to get as good as the ladies who were about to play.
I've been a musician of sorts for most of my life. I started playing piano at the age of 8, began saxophone when I was in 5th grade. And now I'm taking guitar lessons after a nearly 20-year hiatus from actually making music. At one time I taught both saxophone and piano.
I really do understand that there's a learning curve and I really do take my understanding of this to my study of guitar. I do understand that a little bit of work over a long period of time will have significant benefits. I know the value of repetition and rarely get bored with it. I understand that when I have a problem with a particular section of music, the thing to do is to isolate that section and repeat it slowly over and over and over and over again. I do understand that, yes, it takes time, but you do improve. I understand that improvement is usually incremental, but sometimes you do take leaps. I understand that listening carefully to music and other guitarists is part of the educational process.
I have noted, however, that aspiring writers don't seem to get this. I think it has something to do with being taught to read and write in first grade. So by the time everyone's an adult, they figure they know all they need to know about writing. That the only difference between their writing and a professional writer is the professionals are getting paid. (A not insignificant difference).
Sometimes they're right.
Most of the time they're wrong.
There is a big difference. And most professionals writers have put in their time. They have written a million unpublished and probably unpublishable words. They have figured out how to rewrite. They have figured out that when there's something wrong, they need to work on it to fix it. They have figured out that there are different techniques involved in good writing and they don't always work in the same situation. They have written a lot over a long period of time. They have read a lot. They have read critically, reading why Dickens works, why Stephen King works, why Lee Child works, why some other writers get published, but maybe don't work. (I'm often surprised, though, when, for instance, I hear all the criticism of someone like King or, more recently, all the criticism about Dan Brown and "The Da Vinci Code." Particularly from already published writers who are having a seriously case of green envy. "He's a hack," "his characters are wooden" etc, etc. But they're missing the point. Read Dan Brown and don't look at his failings as a writer--okay, go ahead, but try to make sure you don't do the same things--but look at Dan Brown's books and figure out what he does right and why his books are so successful. Maybe it has to do with pace, with texture, with the scope of the story. I, for one, find the concept of a treasure hunt where the clues are hidden in great historical paintings to be a great one; that it also ties into one of the most potent religious controversies based around one of the world's major religious doesn't hurt either).
Anyway, that's how it's done.
Oh, and that guitar? It's a Taylor. I play a very old Hart. It's a nice guitar, but not a great guitar or probably, even a good guitar. It's an adequate guitar. (Which is perhaps appropriate, being merely an adequate guitar player on a good day). Yesterday, on the way back from my guitar lesson, I stopped at a local music store just to check it out, bought a capo, and test-drove a couple decent Taylors. (Decent meaning they were in the $700 to $1000 price range). Awesome. I came right home, got out a glass canning jar, put it on my desk, stuck a piece of tape on it and printed: NEW GUITAR FUND and threw $5 in it. It's good to have a goal.
Thursday, May 01, 2008
Thoughts On "Enemy Combatant" by Ed Gaffney
May 1, 2008
The other day I was in one of my "book" moods, didn't know what to read--I knew what I planned to read, but I just wasn't in the mood for it, and I cast around on my bookshelves to see if anything caught my interest. I've got, as it turned out, 40 or 50 novels on my shelves I haven't read that looked promising (and another 70 or so that I'm donating to a local assisted-living facility that, although I'm sure fine books, just didn't appeal to me). I had slotted one aside called "Enemy Combatant" by Ed Gaffney, and I had never heard of Ed, although this was his 4th novel (yes, I feel some irony there, but anyway...) It had a capitol dome on the cover and a presidential seal and it sounded promisingly thriller-ish, so I started reading it.
And cranked through it in about 4 days.
by Ed Gaffney
Here's a basic plot synopsis: There has been a terrible terrorist attack in Denver. The government has put Juan Abdullah Gomez on trial for conspiracy in the attack. The main character and narrator is Tom Carpenter, who typically is an appeals attorney. His father is a former prosecutor who has had a stroke and is partially paralyzed; his brother died in Afghanistan, his mother is dead, and he's almost-secretly in love with his sister-in-law and his niece.
Tom has a tradition, one begun by his father. On June 5th, he attends a trial. Why? That's the date of the Tiananmen Square (1989, in case you were wondering), which his father had brought to the attention of his 12-year-old son as being a case of astonishing bravery and a demonstration that things like that don't happen in the U.S. because of the courts and the Constitution.
But it's obvious to Tom that this trial is already getting off to a bad start. The Hispanic/Muslim man on trial has just gotten a totally white jury, his defense attorney is notoriously bad and the judge is even worse. In a bit of almost farcical drama, Tom jumps up and protests, and through a series of humorous events, finds himself appointed to be the Gomez's attorney.
Bad enough, but pretty soon he's getting two types of pressure: somebody's feeding him information and threatening him and his family; and another party is just threatening him and his family. And from there, everything goes to hell, there's a big conspiracy, lots of chases, etc.
I thought it was very entertaining, highly improbable, occasionally thought-provoking and in general, a whole lot of fun.
Now, a few writerly comments.
Gaffney starts most (not all) chapters with a reminiscence or flashback. I was a little startled by this, because I'm deathly afraid of flashbacks. Whenever I've put any flashbacks of length in my manuscripts, my agents and/or editors have cut them. Rule of thumb for thrillers is keep the motion moving forward. Yet Gaffney handles this well, using these as a way to interrupt escalating tension--he just does it at the right moment--and to illuminate the character. And he's very careful to circle back to many of these flashbacks later in the story, making complete sense as to why he gave you those flashbacks.
The second point is what you might call thematic material. It's not subtle, but it's what gives the book a certain kind of power. The Tianamnen Square flashback is very early in the novel. And it becomes clear by the end of the book that Tom is facing his own tanks on his own Square and some of them (though not actual tanks) are literally as dangerous as tanks, but metaphorically, the events may have the same resonance to the U.S. and the Constitution as the events of Tianamnen Square.
In short, he layers a lot into what is essentially a potboiler of of a novel. You can easily step back and say, "Yeah, but it's not just a page turner. It's about something."
So, with those thoughts, I'm going to highly recommend this novel.