Why Do You Write?
June 30, 2008
I'm feeling sort of tired this morning. This probably has less to do with it being Monday morning and more to do with it being the last day of June and it's 61 degrees and drizzling outside at the moment.
When I was thinking about what to write this morning it occurred to me that all my topics were sort of downers for aspiring writers, so maybe I should just shut up.
So instead, I thought I'd ask you: Why do you write?
Oh, but one caveat.
I'm going to eliminate two of your choices.
One, you don't get to write to get rich and famous. Sorry, but this is just not a good way to do that with odds that make winning the lottery look like a wise investment scheme.
And two, I think I've declared this enough, but let me say it again: "I just gotta" is not a valid reason unless, of course, you have been diagnosed with an obsessive-compulsive disorder and have failed to take your medication.
So, Mark, why do you write?
To make money. Because I enjoy it. Because it's fun. Because I like stories. Because I like to play with words. Because I find the process of writing stories to be satisfying in a way few other things are, even though I find the marketing/publishing process for fiction tends to take all the fun out of it. Because I have ideas for stories and I want to see how how they play out and the only way to do that is to write them down.
How about you?
Hmmm, this means...
June 29, 2008
The other day, this kid--Sean--only not in duplicate, was in my Saturn VUE and asking me questions. How do you turn on the lights? How did you get the turn signal to signal right?
That sort of stuff.
He's 10, by the way.
Then he pointed. What's that?
"CD player," says I.
"Turns up the bass or treble."
"That's the cassette deck," says I, innocently.
Sean looks puzzled. "What's that?"
"It's another type of music format," I said. "It came before CDs."
He shrugged. "I don't know what a cassette looks like."
I had to think about this, but I think I only have 1 or 2 in the house any more. I believe somewhere on my shelf is an audiobook of Michael Chabon's "Wonder Boys." Otherwise, we threw all our cassettes out several years ago.
Sort of makes me feel old, though.
Hell, although 8-Tracks were pretty much dead by the time I came along, a friend's brother still had an 8-Track system when I was Sean's age. And for that matter, I can remember when my brother had a reel-to-reel. How's that for the Stone Age?
How about you? What time warp are you living in?
p.s. Oh, and just for reference, I was born in January 1964--a couple months AFTER John Kennedy was assassinated.
June 27, 2008
First, some interesting statistics from Publishers Weekly:
Authors & Writers by the Numbers
-- Publishers Weekly, 6/23/2008
185,276: Total number of authors and writers, 2005
39: % increase in authors between 1990 and 2005
51.9: % of authors who work full-time writing
$50,800: Median income for full-time authors, 2005
$38,700: Median income for entire civilian labor force, 2005
$38,800: Median income for all authors, 2005
$47,300: Median income for male authors, 2005
$33,300: Median income for female authors, 2005
54.9: % of authors who are female
10.8: % of authors who are minorities
26.8: % of authors under age 35
83.1: % of authors with at least a bachelor's degree
45.9: % of authors who are self-employed
50,000: Estimated number of writers living in California and New York
1: Rank of Santa Fe, N.Mex., among cities, authors per capita
Source: National Endowment for the Arts study Artists in the Workforce: 1990–2005
* * *
Personally, I find the breakdown lacking in specificity. Does "authors" refer to fiction, nonfiction, both, academic textbooks, academics who write textbooks, business report writers, self-published, POD-published, what?
So, in this case, reader beware, just throwing these stats out there do not meet this particular market researcher and writer's usually rigorous standards for documentation. I'd have to read the original report to determine it's veracity, plus, you know, it's already at least 3 years old. Bah!
* * *
If you haven't popped over to Spy Scribbler's new website about spy novels, you really should. Here's a link.
* * *
We drove to Olivet, Michigan to pick up Ian from karate camp yesterday. That was a little over 2 hours. Then there was a 90 minute "show" or presentation where they do karate stuff. My son's group--the Eagle Kumi (Kumi refers to group of fighters, I guess)--used a lot of sanchin-ryu's techniques in hand-to-hand examples. Lots of knocking each other to the stage. The Dragon Camp--the oldest and largest group, made up mostly of black belts and senseis--showed all sorts of different applications for forms and then actually did the first two katas back to back, which you almost never see. Very impressive. Oh, and Ian also received his paperwork to advance to first degree brown, the same rank I have. After that is black. Kudos, Ian!
On the way home, my wife drove, Ian rode shotgun, and Sean and I were in the backseat. Everybody had brought their iPods except me (because I drove on the way there) and I'm sitting there as we're driving through the night, the windows open, hot air flowing in, listening to all three of them sing along with their iPods--different songs! I will say that Ian and Leanne seemed to be singing and listening to the same Dave Matthews album, but were singing different songs.
* * *
Got two more comments in on the WIP. They're great, although now I'm starting to get discrepancies between all the commenters. These commenters had some issues with things, but often different issues than the first two did, particularly the main character's age. Everyone seems to agree there should be more emotion--4 for 4 on that one. Thank you Stephen and Mary.
I hope the teenage readers get back with me soon, that ought to be interesting.
Have a good weekend.
June 26, 2008
As I mentioned yesterday, I've asked a number of people to read my work-in-progress. To-date, two of you generous folks have read it and responded with your comments.
A little confession: I don't usually do this.
I did early on in my writing. My brother, Pete, was often my beta reader. Later on my friend Rick was. They were both very useful in some ways, less so in others.
This is essentially the first time where I decided, hey, I know a bunch of professional writers, let's ask them for a favor. Also, because the narrator is a 16-year-old girl, I decided to ask some teenage girls if they would read it. (Or as I told one of their mothers: "I need a teenage girl. Guess that sounds kind of odd, huh?")
So far, Erica and Natasha's comments have been extremely useful, although both of them seemed to think my post yesterday displayed an awful lot of self-doubt and induced an existential writing crisis (my life is an existential writing crisis, Erica). Well, yuh, but I'm a writer, what do you expect? Natasha sort of chastised me for it and told me to get over it. (She's a teacher and I bet she's a damned good one, too. Some of her personal comments made me sit up and think.)
I just wanted to comment a little bit about critique groups, suggesting that my experience with this has been a little slim, but I have, over the years, had critiques from a variety of people, including my agents and other friends.
Ya gotta be careful about becoming a weather vane.
Really. One reason I'm hesitant to ask for critiques isn't my fear of being savaged, it's my fear of getting ten different comments and I then feel I should act on all of them. Truth is, if I get 10 different comments, then I'm pretty safe and can go on my merry way. If everybody, or even several sombodies indicate the same thing, then I've got trouble and need to deal with it.
The question then becomes how many and to what degree? Natasha offered suggestions on fixes, sort of self-deprecatingly saying, "But I guess I'm not supposed to offer ideas."
Well, yes and no. I understood exactly what she meant. When I couch ideas to writers to fix problems I tend to say, "Have you considered cutting all this backstory?" or something sort of general but specific all at the same time. Too specific a comment can be a problem sometimes. But that's not what she meant. She was actually suggesting possible story changes. It's easy for writers to get sidetracked (blown off course) by that kind of thing and what I'm doing at the moment is just reading their comments and digesting them. I'm playing my personal chess game with the comments: if I make this change, it will change this and this, but fix this, but then I'll have to do this...
Wouldn't it be nice if someone said, "If you do X then this book will sell."
Like, "If you just change the character's age to 12, then it will sell."
It might, as a matter of fact, but like any amateur who's tackled a plumbing problem on his own, you realize your fixes tend to create more problems, sometimes crucial, critical problems. Before I do something like change the main character that much I have to decide how many plot problems and restructuring is required.
I also have to decide if it's worth it.
And I have to decide if they're right.
There is a definite school of thought out there that suggests you should just stick to your vision and say to hell with everybody's opinions. Sometimes that really works. After all, Tony Hillerman was told by his then-agent (or editor, I forget which) that the mystery was fine but he needed to get rid of all that stuff about the Navajo.
If he had, where would Tony be today? Probably an retired journalism professor from the University of New Mexico.
Still, writing is so damned subjective and when you're inside the frame it's damned hard to see the picture.
The key is to accept the criticism graciously, sift the wheat from the chaff, accept that it's just everybody's opinions, no matter how well-educated, and think for yourself. After all, nobody knows your work the way you do.
The Fundamental Things Apply...
June 25, 2008
I recently completed a draft of my YA novel (or is it not YA, hmmm...) and asked several of my writer friends and some teenagers to read it in the interest of getting it right.
My writer buddy Erica
, was apparently so giddy with enthusiasm that she spent a big chunk of her day reading the manuscript instead of doing work that might actually earn her a living. (She claims it was procrastination; I typically use blogs and YouTube for that. Scratch Erica, find a saint).
Erica's insights were trenchant, precise and, unfortunately, fully supportive of every doubt I had about the work--and then some. (She said, "Don't hate me," and I thought, "God, I'd much rather hear this from you than have some NYC editor say, "Not quite right for us.")
There were essentially two major issues, one of which I won't go into today because it involves a possible major reworking of the story and I have to think about it and hear what other readers have to say.
The other major issue was she suggested the story felt flat because the emotions weren't there.
First, a little bit in my defense, let me say that this was not a final draft and my final drafts often involve tweaking emotions as much as smoothing out the writing. I tend to "tell" emotions too much (or not at all) in early drafts and in the final draft have to do things like delete "she got angry" to "her fists balled into knots and her face flushed the color of a ripe plum."
Still, one of the recurring themes, if you will, in my rejection letters is something along the lines of, "Mark Terry is a good writer and the story's good, but I just can't connect with the main character." (And again, in my defense, sometimes one editor says "loved the story, hated the character" while another editor a week later will say "hated the story, loved the character.") Still, this character issue is a major concern of mine.
Let me break things down as broadly as Australia's outback, okay? I think there are two fundamental aspects of writing. One is to transfer information. This can be getting a character from A to B to C all while indicating what the environment is like and the other characters are like. I'm quite successful in nonfiction and I think it's because I'm pretty good at taking complicated information and transferring it to the reader in a clear, organized fashion. Nonfiction thrives on this.
The second is the transfer of emotion. Readers are expecting to feel something from fiction. They're expecting, at the very least, to be entertained and to relate to the characters. They typically do this through a vicarious sharing of emotion. This is, I think, the primary difference between success and failure in fiction--the ability to transfer a character's emotions to the reader. Say what you will about Robert James Waller and "The Bridges of Madison County" but what he and that book did very well was transfer emotions.
(Let me say something potentially sexist here, though: this is a bigger deal in women's books than in men's. That is to say, action-adventure, the key emotion transferred may very well be an adrenaline rush and fear, whereas the so-called chick-lit's emotional demand is significantly more complicated and necessary. Still, for any fiction to be successful, readers need to feel something).
One of the things I've been pondering since reading Erica's comments though is whether this is a fundamental I just plain lack. I'm not drawn to books with a huge emotional churn, if you will. And let me also add that thriller author David Morrell once said the same thing about his earlier novels, commenting that he was more drawn to intellectual novels and action, but it was only when he realized that what readers were looking for was "romance" and by romance he meant high motions and drama and chivalry and heroes, etc.... romance not as in "love and kisses" but in everything related to the "romantic era." Also, after a point in your writing career, you have to wonder if you aren't just better suited for certain types of writing than others.
That isn't to say I'm giving up on this book, just that Erica gave me a great deal to think about, all of it good, all of it rather fundamental, and I'm very grateful.
But I think it's something that all aspiring novelists and perhaps even successful novelists need to ask themselves from time to time--what am I fundamentally good at and what am I not? And is there anything I can do about it?
June 24, 2008
The last couple weeks have been sort of stressful. As I mentioned a while back, I was taking on a contract job.
Yesterday I resigned from the position that had barely started.
For a variety of reasons, I was just not a good fit for this position. The two biggest reasons were that one, it was a full-time staff job that I could work from home, but I have writing commitments through the end of the year, so I was trying to essentially work 14 hours a day. It wasn't working and I had the good sense to understand I was going to kill myself or screw up both the freelancing and the staff job.
The second biggest reason is more esoteric and has to do with self-identity. I'm a freelance writer. The freelance part of it is important to me. More important than I suspected. I mean, this was a great gig. It was paying $70,000 a year to work out of my home as a writer and editor and if I had wanted it, would have included medical benefits. The work itself was definitely in my abilities, but no matter how I tried, I couldn't get past the idea that I was giving up freelancing, something I had spent almost 20 years trying to achieve.
There were a number of other items on my this-isn't-working list, but those were the most prominent and rational.
So we parted ways before things got ugly. I might even be able to do some freelance work for them in the future.
It felt like a weight was taken off my shoulders and I've been amazingly productive since. I've also been a lot happier.
It's a pretty nice position to be in, to be able to turn down a job like that. I'm not crazy, I understand that a lot of people would kill for a job like that. But I spent 18 years being miserable in a job I didn't like that I stayed in because I thought it provided security and benefits, yada, yada, yada. Now I tend to think being able to bring in money AND still be happy is important and to balance those.
In other words, I'm a lucky bastard.
June 23, 2008
I was thinking about my oldest son, Ian, (currently at karate camp). At 14, going on 15, he's not sure what he wants to do for a living. Music, maybe, writing, history.
I'm sure he'd be happy doing any of them, but I suspect he'll want to be a writer. Or maybe not. But he writes every day.
When we dropped him off at camp yesterday, although he'd taken his iPod with him in the car, he left it with us. He brought a book--it's mandatory anyway--and what caught me off guard a bit was he had brought a notebook and pen to write with.
Friday afternoon, while I was working away in my office, Ian was in his bedroom next door, sitting at his desk working on a story. We were sort of alternating YouTube tunes, leaning heavily on Jack Johnson.
I was thinking this morning that if he did decide to become a writer, he's already developed the writing habit and the writing muscles. Because writing is about developing your muscles, which are, I think, between your ears in this case. But writing is definitely, like muscles, something you develop through practice and practice and regular use. At 14, he's writing about as much as I was in my early 20s.
There are other things involved in actually making a living as a writer. I know that all too well. Things like discipline to finish things whether you like them or not. Discipline to work on things for money whether you like them or not. Discipline to take editing and criticism and rejection (let's call that being thick-skinned). Having a sense of the market is important. In fiction we tend to refer that as a "hook" and I'm not sure I have it, but in nonfiction it's important, too, and at least in some areas I definitely have it. I know how to look for story ideas and how to analyze a publication and come up with ideas for them specifically.
All excellent writing survival skills.
But at least for now, he's working on his writing muscles.
There's So Much Wrong Here
June 20, 2008
The Wall Street Journal has decided to shill for a new author (not me). If you follow this link, there's a big story about:
There are a couple things I want to point out about this that strike this particular author as being worth noting.
1. He did everything wrong and still got an agent and a publishing deal. His manuscript was almost 200,000 words. Note to aspiring novelists: despite his success, this is still probably not the way to approach things.
2. He wrote a clever, gimmicky query letter to the agent, rather than a business letter. This has such a huge potential to backfire. Note to aspiring novelists: despite his success, this is still probably not the way to approach things.
3. He actually went and printed up a copy of the book when he took care of revisions that the agent suggested. Note to aspiring novelists: despite his success, this is still probably not the way to approach things.
Now, a few other things of note.
4. There was a more than usual bit of good luck in that the first editor to see the manuscript showed up in the agent's office a short time after the agent agreed to market it. Note to aspiring authors: this is wildly unlikely to happen to you.
5. The publisher has printed up 10,000 advanced copies and sent it out to be reviewed and create buzz. Just for comparison, my print runs for The Devil's Pitchfork and The Serpent's Kiss were about 20% of that, and as I noted in yesterday's post, Midnight Ink printed up 4--count them, 4!--advanced copies for The Serpent's Kiss in their dynamic efforts to promote my work. Note to aspiring authors: this is wildly unlikely to happen to you. You'll have been struck by the Lucky Stick Big Time if you even get a 10,000 copy print run.
6. The Wall Street Journal has written a big freakin' article about this guy along with a color author photo, which will become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that he's already received bigger, splashier promotion off the book page to more people than any of my or my publisher's promotion efforts were able to reach. Note to aspiring authors: this is wildly unlikely to happen to you.
7. Really, don't you just see luck in all of this, no matter how brilliant the book may or may not be?
8. Okay, yeah, I'm a little jealous here.
June 19, 2008
I just got an e-mail from a librarian in the U.K. indicating that one of their patrons was trying to locate a copy of ANGELS FALLING, which was to be the third Derek Stillwater novel.
In fact, I reminded myself, there was even a teaser chapter of ANGELS at the end of THE SERPENT'S KISS with a publication date.
I've dealt with being dropped by Midnight Ink reasonably well, I thought, but this hurts a bit.
To the unknown patron from the U.K., I'm very sorry.
June 18, 2008
I had a Eureka Moment!!!!! (please note the numerous exclamation points, which are mandatory for Eureka Moments!!!!!!) this morning while showering. I don't know why I get so many Eureka Moments!!!!!! in the shower. That's where I ruminate, I guess.
(Cows, by the way, are ruminants. What does this mean?)
A Eureka Moment!!!!!! as you probably know, is when you have a REALLY GOOD IDEA.
Today, I was showering and ruminating (no cud involved) on how busy I am in my writing at the moment and where, more or less, I thought I would prefer to be in the long-term. And part of that where-I'd-rather-be was writing books and not for the first time I considered nonfiction books, of which I have been reading more of lately.
And, after all, I earned a degree in microbiology and public health, worked in healthcare and genetics for 18 years, and to this day still write a LOT about medicine, genetics, biotechnology and healthcare trends. And I had this EUREKA MOMENT!!!!!! about a potential nonfiction book proposal that would be broad enough to be interesting, leverage "my platform" and...
I've started making notes.
Will I eventually act on this? Will I write my three chapters, proposal, etc., and go looking for an agent who handles nonfiction (mine does not)? Well, I don't know. I'm very busy. But at the moment, it seems like a hell of an idea, so I may want to try and set aside a couple hours a week to developing this and see where it goes.
God, I love Eureka Moments!!!!!!
Do you have them too? And how many exclamation points do your Eureka Moments!!!!!! have? And where do you have them? For me, the shower is #1, followed by #2, while walking Frodo.
Sometimes Thinking About Writing Is Like...
June 17, 2008
Occasionally I have moments when I'm trying to come up with something to say in this blog about writing and it'll be a day when I'm filled with ambivalence. Like, say, today. I'm not ambivalent about writing--no, I love writing. But I may be ambivalent about where my writing career is going, (or not going, as the case may be) in terms of fiction or even in terms of my nonfiction career, which at the moment is going in about three different directions at approximately the speed of light. It's a sort of figurative drawing-and-quartering, I guess.
So I suppose that:
Sometimes thinking about writing is like being drawn and quartered. Gidyap.
But really, the image that pops into my mind--and really, I have NO IDEA why it would--is free falling as if from an airplane or off a cliff before the parachute opens up. (Well, I'm assuming there's a parachute there...) Now that I think of it, knowing whether or not I'm actually wearing a parachute in these little flashes of imagery and emotion might tell me a lot about why I'm having them.
But maybe I don't want to know.
I think I associate freedom with writing. So maybe that's the free falling image.
Or maybe I just have to let go... of... whatever... in order to write, and symbolically...
Oh brother, am I paying you by the hour for this psychotherapy? I didn't think so.
Sometimes, thinking about writing is like...
You tell me.
An Election Year Suggestion?
June 16, 2008
It's not often that I'll be referring the readers of this blog to one of my new clients, Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News, but there's an article in the latest issue that amused me no end, suggesting that all members of congress should be subjected to regular mental health and intelligence tests. Read it here.
Here's a sample:
It’s no coincidence that the intelligence level of members of Congress has so often been spoofed. “Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself,” quipped Mark Twain. Milton Berle observed, “You can lead a man to Congress but you can’t make him think.” Will Rogers addressed the consequences of these deficiencies: “When Congress makes a joke it’s a law, and when they make a law, it’s a joke.”
There are numerous examples of the joke being on us. Not too long ago, a friend of mine was seated at a banquet table with the family of a former midwestern Representative. The relatives expressed relief at his having entered politics because none of them thought he was smart enough to enter the family scrap-metal business.
June 15, 2008
Up at 4:45 this morning, caught the Super Shuttle to the airport, flew from Houston to Detroit--uneventful--drove home. Been unpacking, napping, puttering around, and hanging with the family, which seems appropriate on Father's Day, doesn't it?
So Here I Am
June 14, 2008
Yes, I've spent most of this week in Houston, Texas. Here's a photograph I took with my new digital camera. That's the view out my window on the fifth floor of the JW Marriott across from the Galleria, which is a big chi-chi mall.
Honest to God, the hot weather doesn't bother me. What bothers me is that every building in Houston apparently sets their air conditioning temperature at "meat locker." Really, people, I'm not sure you'd find the hot weather as annoying if every time you stepped in or outside you didn't undergo a 45 degree temperature change.
This other picture, with the fountain, is some building down the street. I shot it because I wanted a photograph of a palm tree. I'm from Michigan. We don't do palm trees in Michigan. Therefore, places where palm trees grow can--at some level--seem like tropical and exotic places, although in flavor and size Houston seems more like New York City than any other major city I've ever visited, ie., it's big and urban.
Was it a successful trip? I suppose. I'm pretty sick of it. I flew in Tuesday afternoon and fly home tomorrow morning--shuttle will be picking me up at the airport at 5:40 a.m. (oh joy).
I know I've eaten too much and drank too many alcoholic beverages. That's not much, for sure, a drink or two a day more or less, but this from a guy who might have a beer a year.
This is an annual trip for one of my clients and I like the people quite a bit, generally, especially the people who run the management company, but the success for me often depends on two factors.
1. If the location has a lot to do within walking distance. I don't rent a car on these trips so the city either needs good mass transit or to have a lot of cool stuff by the hotel. This one doesn't. I don't see anyone accusing Houston of having good mass transit (or any) and although I don't doubt there are people who's hearts go pitter-pat at the thought of an Ann Taylor, Versace and two Macy's stores RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET, it didn't do much for me, though I'm thankful for Borders and the Cheesecake Factory.
2. If I treat it like a working vacation for this client. In other words, I come to the meeting to do what the client needs more or less (basically for me to sit through their board meeting and be occasionally present at meetings and other events) and otherwise goof off. The problem comes when I try to actually do work in the hotel, which is what I tried to do this week. It takes me twice as long to get anything done, I don't feel like I'm getting anything done, and these expensive hotels generally rape you for Internet access--$11.95 per day, in this case. So I've been bouncing off the walls this week and now I just want to go home and get on with things.
I was thinking through the cities I've visited for this client or a couple other clients over the last 8 years or that I've done book events in:
New Rochelle (NY)
Yeah, Muncie was for a mystery writers conference. I've always lived large as an author.
My favorites have been:
And I wouldn't rule out Kansas City, which has a seriously cool World War I monument and museum and many, many fountains.
Baltimore's meeting was way cool, right on the inner harbor. Well, Ahaheim was Anaheim. The hotel was a mile from the entrance to Disney Land. Atlanta I got the "presidential suite" through someone else's misfortune and I thought the downtown area and Bicentennial Park and the CNN tour was cool.
And Washington DC is a great place to be if you like to walk around or take mass transit and see free things.
Still, Texas is all right and I bought a T-shirt that has a Davy Crockett quote on the back:
You can all go to hell
I'm going to Texas.
Do We Need Publishers?
June 9, 2008
Over on Murderati
, there's a post asking if publishers are important. I made a rather long-winded response, which is this:
The key issue here is this:
Who's the customer?
If you define the customer as the bookstore and the library, then yes, they care a great deal.
If you define the customers as the enduser, ie., reader, then I would say it probably depends.
For the typical reader who picks up a book at the local Kmart or Sam's Club--no, probably doesn't matter at all. In fact, they only seem to care whether it has James Patterson's name on the cover, and don't care one iota if he actually wrote the book or not. And you can now apply that to Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy and a number of other authors. When you look at that, it seems that the enduser JUST DOESN'T CARE.
There's certainly a percentage, albeit small, of readers who are very attuned to publishing brand names, but I can't think of anyone who might go to a Borders to buy the latest Bantam. Still, in academic circles a certain type of nonfiction is going to have credibility based on its publisher.
With larger publishers doing very little marketing, (and in many cases seemingly very little editing) it becomes harder and harder to tell exactly what it is a publisher does. It seems to boil down to packaging--typesetting, cover art--and distribution. Typesetting is getting easier and easier and cover art is done successfully by small presses and places like iUniverse, so the key component must be distribution. And with the advent of Amazon et al., it gets harder and harder to discern exactly what it is that big publishers do.
What do you think?
Story of the Zen Master
June 8, 2008
If you've seen the movie "Charlie Wilson's War," then you already know this story. And if you haven't seen CWW (it's good), it's the based-on-a-true-story of Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson's efforts with the CIA to fund Mujahadeen rebels in Afghanistan to battle the Russian Army's invasion. It was successful, sort of, because the Afghanis did, in fact, chase the Russian Army out of Afghanistan. Of course, once that happened, the U.S. gave up all support of Afghanistan and forgot about it, leaving a country with a bunch of orphans, no schools, roads or infrastructure. Then the Taliban took over and the rest is pretty much history, and an ugly and unpleasant history it is. As Charlie Wilson said recently, "We won the battle but screwed up the endgame."
Anyway, toward the end of the movie, after the Russian Army has fled Afghanistan and Charlie Wilson and his staff are throwing a victory party, Charlie's CIA contact played absolutely perfectly by Philip Seymour Hoffman, hauls Charlie out onto the balcony and says, "I've been wanting to tell you the story of the zen master."
Which is this:
In this village, a little boy is given a gift of a horse. The villagers all say, "Isn't that fabulous? Isn't that wonderful? What a wonderful gift."
The Zen master says, "We'll see."
A couple years later the boy falls off the horse and breaks his leg. The villagers all say, "Isn't that terrible? The horse is cursed! That's horrible!"
The Zen master says, "We'll see."
A few years later the country goes to war and the government conscripts all the males into the army, but the boy's leg is so screwed up, he doesn't have to go. The villagers all say, "Isn't that fabulous? Isn't that wonderful?"
The Zen master says, "We'll see."
So right at the moment, with all my angst about clients and writing, etc., I'm going to take the Zen master's philosophy to heart: "We'll see."
Who Are You?
June 7, 2008
I'm having something of an identity problem and I bet some of you do, too.
I'm a writer.
Yep, that fits.
I'm a freelance writer. Definitely.
I'm a novelist. Well, I'm clinging to it; some days it's tough, but it's probably important that "novelist" remain part of my core identity.
Let's go back to freelance writer for a moment. I didn't realize quite how much this was part of my core identity until I took a contract job recently that at least on one level appears to be a full-time job working in a chain of command for a corporation.
And I'll tell you, I'm having some serious, serious issues with this. Possibly terminal issues, I'll say, without going into details about that. A lot of that has to do with what I perceive to be the things about being a freelancer that have value to me--independence, ownership, flexibility. And when those core values start being compromised, I start (am starting) to have some issues.
I think for a writer this can be a pretty big deal. Maybe it is for everyone. Maybe the key to being a successful novelist is knowing that, at the core, you're a "novelist." Maybe it's true if you're a musician, a dishwasher or a CEO. Maybe it's the difference between a "job" and a "career."
I don't know. But I know that, despite my current emotional turmoil, "freelance writer" is as important a core value as "writer" is for me.
How about you? I'm sure there are core identities like wife, husband, father, mother, etc., that are important, but I'm thinking in the world of writing.
Business Trip Thoughts
June 6, 2008
As you know, I flew to New York for a business trip. (La Guardia, then to New Rochelle). Here are some thoughts:
1. If air travel was ever glamorous, those days are dead and gone. The whole experience reminds me of traveling by bus but without ventilation.
2. More people seem to be doing carry-on and the carry-on luggage appears to have grown to the size of elephants. Two guys on my trip back had guitars and huge stuffed backpacks as carry-on. I wanted to say, "Dudes, get real." As a result, I ended up with my regulation-sized carry-on overnighter between my legs because there wasn't any freakin' room in the overhead bins.
3. I've got to get an iPhone or Blackberry. I mean, really, I'm feeling left out.
4. The hotel's fire alarm went off repeatedly from 11:45 to 12:15 and the fire department showed up to assure us the alarm was screwed up. Then it went off again at 6:30. That really sucks.
5. I got chicken parm at the hotel restaurant for dinner and I needed to have my entire family there to eat it. I mean, I asked for a side Caesar salad and got a whole head of lettuce, then the meal itself was 2 full chicken breasts on about a pound of linguini. This is very generous, but shit, this is a lot of food.
6. My wife sometimes complains that she needs to spend more time around intelligent, well-informed people. I think I found where they all were--at my new client's office.
7. The CEO of the company's name is Mary and there's a big M on the wall in her office, which her assistant told me stood for "Mine." Hmmmm.
8. I actually did have a series of small miracles and made it to the last 2/3 of my son's band concert. They've improved a lot and it was great. One of their last tunes was "Vortex" by Robert Longfield, who was my band director in high school before he moved to Florida.
9. It's good to be back home.
10. Long Island Sound is pretty.
11. I had two drivers transporting me to and from the airport. Thomas and Carlos. Carlos was originally from Santo Domingo. Had nice chats with both of them. Thomas tells me the best food in New York City is in the Bronx (although he admits it's probably in Manhattan, but it costs three times as much) and Carlos is a Mets fan, but he seemed to know the lineup of the Detroit Tigers better than I did. He wants to move to San Francisco.
12. LaGuardia is a zoo.
June 3, 2008
I'm flying out to New York this evening so I can spend tomorrow in meetings with a new client, then flying back tomorrow night. I was stressing a bit. As usual, my biggest issues have to do with actually getting to the airport, getting into the terminal, getting my ticket, getting through security. Once I'm there, I'm generally fine.
In this case, the client bought the tickets (we spoke with the travel agent together on the phone), booked the hotel, and has arranged for a driver to pick me up at the airport and deliver me to the hotel. All very nice, but it's the first time I've done things this way and I was freaking out a little bit. I'm much happier when I'm taking care of the details myself. Yes, maybe I'm a control freak. Why do you think I became a freelance writer?
As usual, I'm my own worst enemy.
I solved most of this problem by deciding to give myself an extra half an hour to get to the airport and by bailing out completely on the idea that I can land at Detroit Metro Thursday night at 6:04, get to my car and drive home to Oxford (about 60 miles) through late rush hour traffic in time to catch my oldest son's band concert at 7:00. I kept holding onto the possibility I could even though, like, I'd need a series of miracles or a Jet Pack to make this happen. And I relaxed a lot when I abandoned that idea. (Sorry, Ian).
In other words, I took control of what I could and tried to forget about the rest.
Ahem. Is there a writing lesson here?
Okay, yes, let me give everybody some advice. (With the oft-repeated caveat, advice is pretty much worth the fortune cookie it comes in). Maybe I'll even try following it myself.
Focus on what you can control--the writing--and stop stressing about everything else. Stop freaking out about getting an agent, about getting published, about marketing your novel, about making a good impression on your favorite agent's blog, about how much money marketing your novel costs, about the shitty state of the publishing industry, about layoffs at Borders and the continued crash of independent booksellers, about how fewer people are reading today, whether you should write thrillers instead of mysteries or paranormal romance versus supernatural romance because the market's better/worse/nobody knows.
Jettison that crap. And hurry!
Focus on the thing that's most important.
Make your writing the best it can be. And let everything else take care of itself.
Kutting Through The Krap
June 3, 2008
If you visit one of Josephine Damian's sites
, you see she has two lengthy posts about interviewing agent Donald Maas. I recommend you go read them, because Donald doesn't sugarcoat ANYTHING. Whether you agree with him or not is an open question, but I found him to be a breath of fresh air.
The first of my questions on the topic was lengthy and detailed: “Donald,” I asked, “when you receive a manuscript or query that impresses you, when you’re seriously considering taking someone on as client, do you google them? If you do, and they have a blog, a myspace, a website, if they already demonstrate the ability and willingness to self-promote, if they already have that publicity machinery in place by the time they query, does that make a potential client more appealing? Does any of that factor into your decision making process?”
Donald sat patiently listening, taking it all in, and when I was done, he said, “I don’t give a rat’s ASS about ANY of that!”
Be Careful What You Wish For
June 2, 2008
Yes, I'm a busy little bee today. I unofficially started with a new big client, which is going to be pretty close to a full-time gig along with all the other projects I've got my sticky little fingers in.
And so I wrapped up an article today and dealt with some fine-tuning busywork, like invoicing and sending the publisher contact info, then the publisher of my latest business report sent me a galley proof to proof by Wednesday and...
Yeah, I'm happy about this. Just... wow. Leanne and I often say, "Busy is good," regarding being involved and keeping the work flowing, but sometimes you realize: oh yeah, I just went from doodling along to racing along.
At least until I get a handle on things.