Taking Stock of 2008
December 31, 2008
The general consensus seems to be that 2008 sucked dead bears.
I'm not sure I'm in that group, actually. For an awful lot of people, it's been a rough year with failing businesses, unemployment and a lot of misery.
My year seems to have been fairly typical with some real positives in it.
Here are a few highlights, positive and negative.
1. Spent a week in Houston. Meh.
2. Was offered a contract job for big bucks to work out of the house, took it, then quit it two weeks later for a complex bunch of reasons. Had I known the economy was going to tank 4 months later I might have kept it, but I still think the decision was the right one. They're good people and it was probably a great gig, but I wasn't really the right guy for it. For better or worse, I value having multiple clients, maximum flexibility and being able to call myself a freelance writer.
3. Spent a couple weeks in Northern Michigan. Good.
4. Became a Grand Uncle. My nephew Tim and his wife Liz had a baby--on October 31st, no less.
5. I picked up a couple new clients (including the parent company for the contract job I quit).
6. I got hired to write a nonfiction book proposal. We'll start marketing it shortly.
7. I took on the job of Band Booster secretary and have become very involved with the Oxford band program.
8. Added running to my physical fitness mix.
9. My weight started to creep up again. Meh!
10. Read a lot more children's books and nonfiction this year.
11. Was (am) a judge for ITW's Thriller Award.
12. Finished two children's novels, The Fortress of Diamonds, and Monster Seeker. Fortress is being marketed, MS is with my agent, since I just finished it a couple days ago.
13. I bought a new guitar.
14. Made some friends, like Erica, and Natasha and Chris and Roseanne and Gary and Jim.
15. Lost entirely too much of the value of my retirement accounts.
16. Luckily some of my friends who work for Chrysler still have jobs (for now).
17. One of my favorite restaurants in town went out of business this week because of the economy. (That really sucks).
18. Learned to play Jack Johnson's "F-Stop Blues" on the guitar as well as a couple Carcassi etudes, "Landslide" and "Dust in the Wind."
So, overall, it could have been worse. I'm reasonably healthy, my finances and business are more or less in order, my wife and children are happy and healthy...
Best wishes to you in 2009!
Looking at 2008's Goals
December 29, 2008
So here was my, er, goal post last year:
MONDAY, DECEMBER 31, 2007
Just Say NO To New Year's Resolutions!
December 31, 2007
Yes, yes, I know this is the day I'm supposed to commit to writing 493 words a day, losing 21 pounds and being a much sunnier fellow, but screw it. What's the point, anyway?
I've got GOALS, folks, not resolutions.
In my personal life, which is probably none of your business, and in my professional life, which is also probably none of your business, but hell, I'm willing, apparently, to drop my pants, at least a little bit, on a weekly basis here, so I guess I'll mention a few of them.
1. Complete the Laboratory Industry Strategic Outlook 2009 on time with few if any errors. This is the second time I'm updating this book-length business report, the first time being in 2006 and although I won't say I made a hash of it, it could have been better. I intend to make my life a lot easier this time by staying on schedule and proofreading everything multiple times. The real key, which I learned when I wrote the Laboratory Market Leaders Report 2007 this year was to footnote my own sourcing and calculations meticulously in my own version, so when people come back with questions (and they always do) I can say, "Hey, just a mo, I'll check."
2. Bring on some more clients. I dropped a number of clients in 2007 and then came back to a few of them. Much of my work, definitely the bulk of my income, comes from a single client. I want to keep them, but I want to branch out as well.
3. I want to make at least as much money as I did in 2006. Preferably more. 2006 was a stellar year and I made about $10,000 less this year, although most of that $10,000 will probably be coming next week. That's one of the annoying things about being a freelancer--you can do a ton of work in the 4th quarter and not get paid until the next year.
4. And in keeping with that, I want to handle my finances better than I did in 2006, always keeping in mind that the money doesn't always come when you want it to. And if my relationship with Midnight Ink didn't teach me that, nothing did.
5. I want to sign a book contract for one novel or more. Specifically, I want to sign contracts for DANCING IN THE DARK, PETER NAMAKA AND THE BATTLE FOR ATLANTIS, and HOT MONEY.
6. I want to be happy and healthy and continue to love my job.
May You Have A Terrific 2008!
So, today being the 29th, how'd I do?
#1. Finished it early. Had very few changes. It should be published shortly.
#2. A few, yes. Lost a few, too, but I'm doing okay on this.
#3. Yes, about the same. I was hoping for a little better, but I seem to be right about where I was last year.
#4. Yes, we managed our finances better this year, generally speaking.
#5. Uh, no. The one that was largely out of my control was, alas, out of my control. Of course, maybe I'll hear something in the next 3 days.
#6. Yup. Nailed it.
Blog Year In Review
December 28, 2008
So, I decided to skim through the last year’s blog posts in hopes of getting a sense of the year in review.
I started a multi-part series on Freelance Writing For A Living. It’s about the most useful thing I’ve ever written on the blog and as I recall, my hit counts reflected it. Eventually I put them up on my blog links.
I also was angst-y about writing fiction, put up a photo of my dog, and some YouTube clips of great guitarists.
I kick off this month with a very angst-ridden post where I contemplate quitting writing fiction. Then I jump around a bit, get back to the quitting writing fiction thing again for a while, my mood goes up, my mood goes down, I add a couple posts about writing for a living, then I have a post about writing and sex, where I comment that “writing is like masturbation. It’s sort of fun but doesn’t pay your bills.”
I discuss “when successful writers fail,” a topic apparently near and dear to my heart. I put up a section of my MG novel as a contest and people actually get involved in it. That book’s still out. I get into politics a bit, as the primaries were still in full swing and Elliot Spitzer got humiliated etc. for getting caught paying a high-priced hooker $4300 an hour for sex. I also post some guitar music videos. Oh yes, I get all angst-y about writing fiction. It might be worth noting that I’m quite close to having finished two middle-grade novels in 2008, despite all my problems writing fiction.
April was an interesting month. I seemed to actually write interesting things about writing, about book advances, and what I see as important attitudes needed to survive as a writer. There’s some angst, but in general I seemed to be on top of life and writing. I note that my family and I spent a couple days at a water park this month, so maybe the vacation did me some good.
I posted about global warming and sex--in the same blog post. I also found a Pakistani coin at the gym, reminded readers about the very large FREE booklet about writing available on my website and complained about the season finale of “Bones.” (Which still sort of sucks). I also have a very, very long interview I did with my niece Kallen, who interviewed me for a class project about careers.
Not surprisingly to me, June is one fucked up month. I went to New York to take on a contract job, which was a pretty bad idea. It paid well, but it made me uneasy, and I quit it 2 weeks later. In the meantime, I went to Houston for a week for another client and had a pretty crappy trip, primarily because I was all stressed out about the contract job. The job itself probably wasn’t the problem overall, but that it was a full-time gig and I already was contract for about 20-30 hours a week of work. There were other issues, but this month’s blog posts reflect me at a time when I was obsessing and stressing big-time. Ugh.
Seemed like a hopeful month. My posts seemed more upbeat and optimistic, going so far as to write a post about optimism. The writing advice seems realistic but mostly positive. I also had a vacation, which is a very good thing.
The most important post this month came on August 1, when I posted a bunch of pay ranges for various writing gigs. I didn’t write about writing much, although what I did seems trenchant enough. Otherwise I seemed to have posted a lot of videos.
A lot of politics, not surprisingly. There were a couple good posts on writing, although they weren’t not generally the upbeat-yes-you-too-can-make-it-big posts, but what I think are realistic analyses of the difficulties--in other words, Mark kicks aspiring writers when they’re down. If you like your writing aspirations reality-free, stay away from my blog.
On October 20th I blogged: The Absolutely Most Important Thing You Need To Know About Writing For A Living
Really, everything else that month is probably a side dish.
A lot of good stuff here, especially my Handy-Dandy Rejection Checklist, but if you’re looking for warm and fuzzy, this ain’t the month.
Hmmm, I threw in the towel and gave you all the pats on the back you’ll ever need. I bought a guitar. There’s a good post about the reality of being a published novelist, and probably best, 10 things I like about freelance writing.
Frodo Hopes You Get All The Presents You Desire
December 14, 2008
In the interest of keeping my sanity, I'm going to sign off for now and get back to y'all sometime after the holidays. Thanks for showing up to read my ramblings this year. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and best wishes for a terrific 2009.
10 Things I Like About Freelance Writing For A Living
December 13, 2008
#1. The Money
If you'd told me 10 years or 15 years ago that I would make more money freelance writing than I did working in a hospital genetics lab, I wouldn't have believed you. Too bad, because maybe I would have quit earlier than I did. I never would have guessed that freelance writers could make 6 figures or even more. Some of those people are exceptions, but truly, if you work at it, there's money to be had as a freelance writer.
#2. The Flexibility
An obvious one, sort of. Yes, I have flexible hours. I get locked into deadlines and scheduled interviews, and if I don't keep regular hours I don't get enough work done, but in truth, I rarely have a problem stopping working at 10:00 or 10:30 in the morning and going to the gym and stopping work around 2:45 to go pick up my son at school. The alternate is, of course, that sometimes I have to work in the evenings or on the weekends to make up time I dithered away during the week, but I like that, actually.
#3. No commute.
Yo Mama! I drove 45 miles to work through heavy traffic and crappy weather for years. It sucked. I had accidents. I morbidly wondered if I was going to die in some horrible accident in my car. It took a minimum of an hour and often closer to 90 minutes, which means 3 hours of your day wasted getting back and forth to work (a place I didn't want to be anyway). Commuting 12 steps is a big, big deal.
#4. No Line-Of-Sight Supervision.
On my jobs, generally speaking, I liked my bosses. Not all of them and not all of the time, but they were okay. But most bosses want to know what you're doing. They want to see you working. They want to keep tabs on you. I hated that. I tended to follow my attention span and body rhythms on the job and I do now. I just read an article that suggested humans can't really concentrate longer than 45 minutes without some sort of break. I believe it. But try telling that to your boss. I'm my own boss and mostly that's a good thing, although I can be more demanding at times than any boss I ever was.
#5. No Office Politics
No kidding. I listen to my wife rant about work politics every day. Erica Orloff commented on her blog once that an office was a place where people could come to blows over who made the coffee last. All of the people I worked with at the hospital were good people. No psychopaths, no criminals, no evil people. But on any given day I could find myself detesting them for some damned reason, whether they were nosy, moody, opinionated or a million other reasons. The woman I sat next to for several years hated my guts. Why? I don't know. Maybe I talked too much. Those days are over and Thank God for it.
#6. Lifelong Learning.
This last week I've been working on an article about WiMAX. What's WiMAX? It's 4th generation (4G) broadband wireless service and if you haven't heard of it now, you will in the next couple years. You're hearing about 3G in terms of iPhones or Blackberries, etc., well, 4G is better. I've interviewed a guy from IBM and a woman from Intel, among others. We've discussed 4G networks in Pakistan that IBM is putting together at the behest of the US State Department, among other things. I discovered I like learning things. All sorts of things. Even things that, before, I might have said I wasn't interested in. It's a big freakin' world and I've discovered that yes, as a matter of fact, I'm interested in it. And freelance writing helps me do that.
#7. I Get To Do It For A Living.
I've said it here before and most aspiring writers don't like to hear it. It's difficult to make a living as a novelist. The number I've heard is there about 500 people in the US who can make a living solely on the basis of their novels. And even that's tough. (I also suspect the 500 number is too high). If I was still solely focused on only writing fiction, I'd still be working in cytogenetics and I assure you, I would be one miserable sonofabitch. I wonder if I'd still be married. The last couple years there I fought clinical depression--I called them elevator moods--where I would leave for work in a decent mood and the minute I stepped out of the car in the parking lot my mood would sink into a deep black hole. That's no way to live your life. It's easier (not easy, necessarily) to make a living as a freelance writer. I'm thankful daily that I have the opportunity.
I've got a number of projects on my plate. One is the article about WiMAX. Another is a white paper about negotiating contracts in medical labs. I'm doing a piece on laboratory demographics. I'm contracted to put together a directory and write profiles of hospital laboratories. I'm working on a white paper about the integration of imaging and diagnostics in the clinical diagnostic lab. I just completed a book proposal about practice management (that I was hired to write). I'm the editor of a technical journal. I've just completed the rough draft of a middle grades fantasy novel. I've also written about personal finance, business, and very technical aspects of the pharmaceutical and medical industry. I love the variety. It goes back to lifelong learning, but I like how each project is different. On my last job I sat at a microscope 8 hours a day analyzing chromosomes, which is akin to doing the same jigsaw puzzle over and over again, hundreds of times a day. This is better. Much.
#9. Work Equals Reward.
I'm a fairly ambitious person. Not dramatically ambitious, but fairly ambitious. What I discovered in my last job was that if I worked my ass off, the boss patted me on the back (maybe), but there was no additional money, no promotion, no reward other than feeling I had done my best. But when you detest your job, that rewarding feeling doesn't work very well (or if you're depressed), and I found like many people do, that I would work DOWN to my minimum, or at least an average level. In freelance writing, if I work my ass off, I get paid more. I get more work. If I build a reputation as being good, I can charge more. I can get into better paying markets. There's an equilibrium between work and life that I try to find, for sure, but I do find that the harder I work the more successful I am, and that was not always the case on my previous jobs.
I'm responsible for me. I take pride in every single job I do, no matter how odd, whether it's editing a journal, writing a book review, writing a market research report or a novel. I own my career and it makes me feel good about myself and my life. This is a very good thing.
December 12, 2008
Yesterday Jude and Zoe went off on a bit of a tangent in this blog's comments section about self publishing. Zoe, who self-publishes, is a proponent; Jude is not.
Me, being wishy-washy, I suppose, thinks they're both right. This post will probably be long, so be prepared. I will say that I have self-published, basically. "Catfish Guru" was published by iUniverse. The difference was that I didn't pay a dime for the privilege. iUniverse was just getting going and had a 6-month program where if you were an active member of Mystery Writers of America you could get a manuscript published for free. At that point, as it turned out, I had a contract with Write Way Publishing for a novel called "Blood Secrets." As a way of promoting it, I wrote a 12-chapter prequel novella, which I was publishing a chapter at a time, one each month for a year leading up to the novel's publication.
Except WWP went bankrupt and canceled my contract about 6 months in. Then iUniverse announced their program and I thought, "What the hell?" and write another novella, also a prequel called "Catfish Guru" and published the two of them as "Catfish Guru." (They hold up. They're good. I stand by them, despite their quirky history). Would I do it again? Maybe, as a last resort, a way of saying, "Hell, I admit failure in the traditional methods, so here's the books." Or not, who knows?
Here's a bit from one of my favorite novels, "Voodoo, Ltd" by the late Ross Thomas. He's describing a character, Billy Rice the fourth, who inherited a ton of money. Ione Gamble is speaking:
"Billy the fourth hung onto everything for eight years, then sold out in early eighty-six at the top of the market. He walked away with at least a billion, maybe more. Then he moved out here and announced he was an independent motion picture producer and, with a billion or so in the bank, everybody said, 'That's right, you are.'"
I have given talks on getting published and one of the things I usually say is that a publisher is a person with money who wants to publish something. There's no particular school for it, no credentials, no test you have to pass. You just pony up the money, pay to have something published, jump through the various hoops to get your books distributed, and voila, you're a publisher.
This supports Zoe's point of view.
Once upon a time, publishers weren't nearly as organized as they are now. Many novels were published by friends of the writer, who often tended to be a wealthy person who wrote under a pseudonym so he or she wasn't embarrassed by what was perceived as a low calling. There's also a significant history of self-publishing. I may be wrong, but I think Mark Twain did a fair amount of it. If not him, it was someone else famous from the same era.
Today, when everyone has access to computers and publishing is relatively easy and the only thing you need to get onto Amazon.com is an ISBN, it's pretty easy to get published. A way to weed out any hack with a computer and someone with talent and skill (presumably) is the convoluted process of getting an agent, then getting somebody with a bunch of money (Bertelsman, et al) to publish your book.
This pretty much supports Jude's point of view. In other words, the industry sets the bar and by being published that way, you've proven you have a certain level of proficiency. You've passed the entrance exam, so to speak.
I've wondered over the years and more and more so recently as the publishing industry appears to be eating itself and focusing more and more (and more) on blockbuster novels and pre-sold concepts (tie-ins based on movies, TV shows, or sticking names of famous authors on books written by someone else ala James Patterson, Janet Evanovich, Robert Ludlum, VC Andrews, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, etc), whether by necessity we're going to see a shift in the publishing paradigm.
We might be already. As Borders goes bankrupt and publishing houses all over the US lay off staff and freeze lines, independent and small publishers are flourishing, as is e-publishing, which apparently has grown about 500% this year.
A couple years ago I interviewed bestselling author David Morrell, who had shifted to Vanguard Publishing (I think it was Vanguard, correct me if I'm wrong), which was a new model. They offered no advances to the authors, but gave them higher royalties, but more importantly, contracted in what they would do to promote the novels. As David said to me, and I'll paraphrase, "The trend in publishers is to not promote books, but authors increasingly have to ask themselves, with how easy it is to self-publish and get your books available on Amazon.com or even sell on your own website, if publishers aren't going to do promotion, what do writers need publishers for?"
The answer to that, still, I think, is "distribution." It's tough for small presses and self-published folks to get their books into brick-and-mortar bookstores unless they're published by the big houses. That may be changing, and if Borders actually goes bankrupt and out of business, we might see more and more changes in distribution.
I would--and do--also often point out that for certain types of nonfiction, self-publishing is the way to go. If you've written a book with a niche audience--a guidebook to the wildflowers of the northeast, for instance--then you might be better off self-publishing. It's just not going to be that interesting to publishers who are looking for national distribution. If you teach classes or give tours or have a relationship with the park system in the northeast, even better. You've got distribution.
Have I thought of becoming a publisher? Yes. For fiction? No f***ing way. I'm too much of a hard-nosed business person for that. I'm still a believer in finding an unmet need and filling it. I have, as a matter of fact, two solid ideas for potential newsletter or book markets. I even went so far as to discuss in a general way, the nature of newsletter publishing these days with one of my largest client, who is the VP and group publisher of a publisher that publishes a lot of newsletters. His comment was that it was a horrible time to be a publisher, of newsletters or anything else. He noted that newsletters went through a big boom in the 1990s, but it was contracting now, which was why they had added a lot of specialty reports and events--conferences and web seminars, etc--to what they offered.
I also think newsletter distribution is in a shakeout period right now (as are newspapers, etc) and the costs of printing things on paper and mailing newsletters is putting all the emphasis on e-newsletters and websites and PDF distribution via the Internet. That's all well and good, but it's a different revenue model than print publications (as well as distribution). As a friend of mine who's retired from the newspaper business (as a publisher and editor) told me just this week, "When newspapers started online editions, they got Internet advertising, but it was 5 cents on the dollar compared to what they were getting from their print editions."
Jeremy's latest novel, "Antarktos Rising" is terrific. One of the better novels I read in 2008. A tech thriller that's well written, thought provoking and a lot of fun. Perfect? No.
Jeremy ran a small press for a while, publishing his own books and those of other people. Then a company came along and bought his small press. They continue to publish his books. Successfully, from the looks of things.
He notes another writer, I think the name is James Alten, who is a bestselling author ("Meg" and "The Trench" as well as others), who made a boodle of bucks being traditionally published, then decided (for whatever reasons) to open his own publishing house to publish his own books.
I've been waiting for this to happen, actually. For about ten years. Alten's not really a brand name. What I'm curious to see is if Stephen King or Dan Brown or Mary Higgins Clark or some other rock star writer one day says, "You know, I'm tired of getting 15% of the profit off these books when I can self-publish it myself and get 40%. Instead of $5 million for this book I can get $15 million and I don't have to deal with all those morons at the publishing house."
I fully expect it to happen.
Nope, don't really have any. When I give my talk on publishing and getting published, what I usually say is this:
It depends on what you want. If you want a book published and to have it on the shelf and be able to give or sell it to friends and relatives, then self-publishing is a great way to go. If you want to start a career as a writer, then most of the time self-publishing doesn't do anything for you. Agents and editors won't pay much attention to it unless you sell 25,000 copies or more. If you sell 100,000 copies self-published, don't worry, the editors will find you. But if you self-publish and sell 500 copies or even 1000, well, you're doing good, but no one in traditional publishing is going to notice.
So it depends on what you want.
What Makes You So Sure You Know What You Want?
December 11, 2008
My buddy Erica Orloff
has a post today about The Accidental Writer. I posted a somewhat lengthy response and alluded to what I'm going to say today.
Erica talked about being a movie writer. That is to say, NOT writing for movies, but having the sort of life novelists seem to have in TV and movies. She cites "Cheaper by the Dozen" which I agree, is a total fantasy. She turns in the manuscript, they've got her doing a book tour a month later, etc.
"Finding Forrester" is another one, with a reclusive novelist having written one well-received book and never done another, and apparently over that 30 year period money is no object and even more so, anybody gives a shit. I suppose the scriptwriters were envisioning JD Salinger.
My wife detests the movie "Wonder Boys" and I always accuse her of being concerned that she's married Professor Tripp, the college writing instructor who's written one great, well-received novel and can't seem to write (or finish) the next, who's having repeated affairs and smokes way too much weed and is considering having a fling with the undergrad (played by Katie Holmes) who rents a room in his house. Although I question whether any editors (in this case a bi-sexual, drug-addled loser played by Robert Downey, Jr) would be pursuing Tripp's next novel when they've got agents dumping manuscripts on their desk every day, I do find that at least Professor Tripp's life and lifestyle to be vaguely recognizable as one more typical of a writer's.
And so, now that I've gone off on movie tangents for a moment, what's my point?
I like writing novels. I like getting them published. I understand that my experiences aren't necessarily across-the-board, but here's what I THOUGHT it would be like, and here's what REALLY happened. Your mileage may vary.
Fantasy: I would make a good chunk of money and be able to quit my day job.
Reality: My first published novel had $0 for an advance. The next two had advances of $1500. These were probably lower than average, but average is apparently reported to be $5000, so whoo-hooo, I hope your dayjob really sucks, otherwise, writing novels isn't going to replace it. I spent more money on promotion that I made on the books, and I had foreign sales thrown in.
Fantasy: I would be recognized as a novelist, a sort of quasi-celebrity, at least in my hometown.
Reality: Mark who? Even when I was covered in the local newspapers, nobody noticed. One person said, "Hey, I saw your write-up in the Leader?" I rather cruelly asked him if it motivated him to buy the book. He looked disconcerted. "Uh, no." "Well, I'm sure you'd enjoy it," I said.
Reality #2: My wife was recently told by someone that she was looking around to see if anyone had copies of my books they could loan her to read.
Fantasy: You will do book signings with eager fans lined up out the door.
Reality #1. Most bookstores aren't interested in doing signings UNLESS you can bring in fans that will be lined up out the door. Like John Grisham. Or Steven King. Or JK Rowling. Otherwise, you practically have to beg to do them. If there's any promotion for it, you probably did it yourself, which puts you in the hole financially. And then, people don't buy your book.
Reality #2. I did a booksigning at a mall Little Professor on the day before Valentine's Day (or VD, I don't quite remember). I started out at the desk, then started lurking in the entryway hitting up anyone who walked through the door and even talking to people hurrying past to find the florists shop, jewelry store, chocolate store, or Hallmark store. I think I sold one book.
Reality #3. A publicist lined me up to do a booksigning at a university bookstore in Detroit on a Friday afternoon in July. This was the worst possible venue at the worst possible time. Sold: zero books.
Fantasy: You'll do TV and radio interviews.
Reality: I've done some of both. They're fun. Do they sell books? Don't know. The TV interviews invariably involve you driving 2 hours to the studio, talking for 5 or 10 minutes, then driving 2 hours back home. I LOVED doing the one with Jim Hall. I did a radio/TV thing in Lansing that I felt like might have been a total waste of time. I did one last January or so that I'm not sure ever ran. Radio interviews at least can be done from your home, although they can be a little strange. Sometimes you're a 5-minutes interview on a Morning Drive program crammed in between Britney Spears tunes and ads for Jiffy Lube.
Fantasy: You'll go to writers conferences and be lauded and adored.
Reality: Your booksigning is scheduled at the same time as some international bestseller's like Mary Higgins Clark and you won't sell any books. You're there with 350 people and 100 of them are novelists all trying to sell their books. You'll sell one and be happy about it. Other writers will range from generous and friendly to paranoid, secretive and hostile. It will be exhausting. You'd be glad to spend time in the bar with other writers, but it's at a fancy hotel where smoking is allowed and a beer goes for $7, so you're broke after your second drink and there's some drunk transvestite prostitute at the bar trying to pick up a trick for the night (yeah, you think I'm joking).
Fantasy: You get to spend all day writing.
Reality: More like all day staring at your bank balance, updating your Facebook page, reading blogs, asking your agent when the royalty check will come, trying desperately to put together something that will make more money.
The point is, I guess, that what you think you want might not be, actually, what you get.
The Devil's In The Details
December 10, 2008
Writing, we're to believe, is all about choices. I've been reading more SF this year, and although I like it, sometimes, by necessity, the SF writer goes crazy with their world-building. I mean, you've got a soldier attacking a planet of aliens, and in order to understand what's going to happen next, not only do they have to describe the alien, but the planet, its culture, its religions, and pretty soon, you're buried in three pages of exposition and you forgot that the main character is falling through the atmosphere with a blaster on his back ready to kick some alien ass.
I tend to like my fiction a little spare anyway. No reason to spend pages describing the texture of a kangaroo's pelt, after all. I know what they look like and if you say it's "coarse and brown" I got it. I've read some military thrillers recently for my judging for the Thriller Award, and I'm not really sure I give a damn when two characters go on and on about the strengths and weaknesses of various firearms under various conditions, but I suspect that the fans of this particular subgenre do. So that's a factor, for sure. What are the demands of the genre? No romantic love scene would be complete if it wasn't over-described. I remember reading a Heather Graham novel which I liked reasonably well, but I almost fell off the couch laughing during the love scene because the writing got so sort of cliched and, er, lush. But that's just me, I suppose.
I thought I'd grab a couple books off the shelf and give examples and see what you think. Too much detail? Not enough? Just right?
From: Bag of Bones by Stephen King (Horror)
"I ran my palm over one of the insulated squares. Smooth. I pushed a finger at it, and although I didn't push with any real force, my finger left a dimple in the silvery surface. Easy as pie. If someone had been thumping a fist down here, this stuff should be pitted, the thin silver skin perhaps even broken to reveal the pink fill underneath. But all the squares were smooth."
From: The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi (SF)
"At roughly the size of St. Peter's Basilica, the Hierarch's Palace was no small edifice, and outside the main hall where the hierarch held formal court and the now-shattered administrative wing, no non-Eneshans were allowed to enter. There were no architectural plans of the palace in the public record, and the palace itself, constructed in the fluid and chaotically natural Eneshan architectural style that resembled nothing so much as a series of termite mounds, did not lend itself to easy discovery of significant areas or rooms. Before the plan to kidnap the Eneshan heir could be put into action, it had to be discovered where the heir's private chambers lay. Military Research considered it a pretty puzzle, but one without a lot of time to be solved."
From: The Seventh Sacrament by David Hewson (Suspense)
"Pietro had stayed the night at the villa. He looked a little the worse for wear. So did Raffaella; Emily had retired to a corner with a coffee and a newspaper after a brief conversation with them, an exchange of pleasantries, a question about Emily's health, a mutual sharing of observations about the predictable nature of men. In spite of the commotion in the Questura, Falcone had never phoned. Nor had he returned Raffaella's call when, in desperation, she had attempted to reach him around two. Emily had tried to tell her he'd be busy. It hadn't cut much ice. It hadn't deserved to."
Granted, context may be everything. Hewson's all exposition, and it's a transitional paragraph anyway. No dialogue, it's all described. He's moving on to other things, but apparently the material is relevant, perhaps to identify what all the characters are doing prior to them doing something significant. I picked this paragraph at random and haven't read the book, but Hewson's writing tends to be filled with detail and description, partly because he's writing about Rome or Florence.
Scalzi's characters are about to embark on a huge battle and there are political elements as well, so he's trying to give a sense of what they're facing without providing overwhelming detail. That paragraph works reasonably well, I think, but it goes on for quite a bit longer as he describes the culture of the Eneshans, which is necessary to understand what's going on, but drove me a little crazy when I read it, because it was all background and new background at that. But in that the main characters encounter dozens of alien species and cultures during the course of the book, it would be rather hard to weave the details of the Eneshans into earlier parts of the novel without hopelessly confusing the reader. Welcome to SF.
King's character thinks there's a ghost down in the cellar and it's knocking once for yes and twice for no on the insulation, and when he turns on the light he's studying the insulation to see if it shows a mark. I actually think, as King's writing goes, that this is remarkably restrained.
I also note the use of cliches, which surprised me: "easy as pie" in King's cases, and "cuts no ice" in Hewson's. I don't see any notable cliches in Scalzi's paragraph, but I'm struck by the relative awkwardness of "it had to be discovered" in terms of sentence structure and glaring passive tense. Oh well.
What do you think?
A Writer's Short Course On Opening Paragraphs
December 9, 2008
Agent Nathan Bransford
opened up his blog for a mini-contest, in which people posted the first paragraph of their work in progress. As of this morning, there were over 500 entries.
My friends, this is a short seminar on what to do and not do in your writing. Rush over there and read some of these things.
Better yet, read some of them out loud. That's what I did to the amusement of my 15-year-old son, who would say, "That's boring," or "What?" or start laughing insanely, not because they were funny (at least intentionally), but because they were so, uh, well...
My heart-felt condolences for Nathan and any agent who spends their day reading stuff like this. It's not necessarily that they're bad, at least not on a word for word sense. (Some are). But they definitely have problems--in the first paragraph!
Here are four things I noticed.
1. Run-on sentences. If your first sentence is going to run 45 words or 100, you'd better be a genius. Otherwise, using an f***ing period.
2. Mangled similes and/or metaphors. Really, in the first sentence or paragraph? Her heart melted like a snowman in the hot sun on a July day in Nebraska? (I'm kidding, sort of).
3. Get to the point. Please.
4. This is harder, but, uh... don't be boring. I came to appreciate the agent's job in a different way. I routinely say that an agent or editor doesn't have to read your entire manuscript to know whether it's salable or not. They can read a page or two. I often generously say 20 or 50 pages just to make aspiring writers feel better, but I'm lying. You don't need to read that long. And after spending some time on Nathan's blog, it's easy for me to say, "If you're boring in the first two sentences, I'm not going to read to 20 pages. Sorry, but, uh, life is short."
So, spend some time over there educating yourself.
Story Hook Jeopardy
December 7, 2008
I'm reading a novel right now that I think has a great hook. It's only so-so as a novel, primarily because the main character doesn't actually seem to be doing anything, the events are sort of happening to him, and there seems some bad coincidences. Still, I like the hook a lot, which is: semi-famous rock-and-roll journalist solves mysteries, usually on Caribbean islands.
I struggle with hooks, but reading this novel made me think about them.
So, here are some hooks, from books or TV shows and maybe movies. You tell me the titles, but remember, answer it as a question.
1. Romeo and Juliet, only Romeo is a vampire.
2. Sherlock Holmes, only Sherlock is a modern-day medical doctor.
3. Sherlock Holmes, only Sherlock is a forensic expert on the police force in Las Vegas (Miami, or New York, or in the Navy... ahem... four for the price of one).
4. A young boy struggles to deal with the world and the loss of his parents, when he discovers he is actually a famous wizard.
5. Sports agent solves mysteries. (series)
6. Detective solves crimes through extraordinary ability to interrogate suspects.
7. Half-Japanese assassin who makes all his kills look like death by natural causes.
8. Detective who is the Grand Chancellor for Emperor Justinian. (series)
9. Dyslexic boy discovers he is a demi-god, the son of Poseidon. (series)
10. Child psychologist who solves crimes by consulting with gay homicide detective.
Okay, give your your answers (ie., questions) and shoot me some more.
Oh, and here are two from the children's novel my agent is marketing and the children's novel I'm working on now.
1. What if Indiana Jones had a 16-year-old daughter?
2. Young orphan sees monsters and is recruited to a school where he is trained to kill them or recruit them.
Fine, I Give...
December 5, 2008
Okay, since Erica Orloff has dubbed me the King of Optimism...
1. 2009 is your year. Each and every one of you will receive a 7-figure book advance. Even if you haven't written one.
2. Movie options? Why be happy with a 7-figure book advance when Steven Spielberg can personally fly to your house, land his chopper in your front yard, and hand over suitcases filled with cash to option your latest novel... even if you haven't written one. And he's going to direct it himself. Starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tom Hanks, and Jim Carrey. And Lassie. And the dog from Frazier.
3. Foreign sales. Your agent... what, you don't have an agent yet? Hell, they're all going to be fighting to represent you. Even if you haven't written a novel. Anyway, where was I? Oh, foreign sales. Every country that has a language, even if it's not, you know, read by anyone, will publish a translation of your book, which will soar onto that country's bestseller lists. And some people in the ocean somewhere will form their own country, develop their own language, just so they can publish your book in it. Even if you haven't written it yet.
4. Audio rights, e-rights, and all other secondary rights, up to and including carving your novel's text--even if you haven't written it yet--into the side of the Cliffs of Dover for all passing ships to read.
5. Dan Brown, Stephen King and Janet Evanovich will call and beg you to blurb their next books and beg you to plug them on Oprah. Even if you haven't written your book yet.
6. Oprah? Did I say Oprah? Oprah will change the name of her magazine to your first initial. She'll change her show to your name and be YOUR co-host. She'll form an institute named after you. She'll start schools in third-world countries and name them after you. Even if you haven't written your novel yet.
7. God will rearrange the stars to the constellations to spell out the title of your book for all the universe to see. Even if you haven't written it yet.
See, 2009 is your year. So you'd better make sure your manuscript is ready on time.
King of Optimism
Little Mr. Sunshine
December 4, 2008
I know that I don't often look on the bright side of the publishing industry or writing for a living. Although I'm aware you need to stay optimistic and realistic at the same time, it's a tough biz and I can't see any reason to ignore that fact when writing about it.
Anyway, I'm sure most of you have heard some of the gloom and doom coming out of the publishing industry. If not, let me summarize:
--Houghton Mifflin Harcourt froze their lists, saying they won't pick up any additional books for a while. VP/Publisher Becky Saletan resigns as a result, and a number of people are fired.
--Nelson: laid off 54 people
--Simon & Schuster: S&S Children's President Rick Richter resigns, plus there are 35 job cuts
--Penguin: freezes salaries
--HarperCollins: delays raises
--Random House: hell, they're totally restructuring, so expect layoffs
--MacMillin: layoffs are rumored
Anyway, there's more and not much of it is good.
First, let me express my condolences to the people who WORK for these companies and are now out of a job. It sucks to be you. Good luck.
Second, we're just writers, we're the LUCKY ones, we can't get laid off. Our contracts can get cancelled, etc., but nobody's really firing us. I said, today, we look on the bright side.
Third, although this will probably make getting a book published harder in 2009 (or acquired, to be more accurate), I don't think this will be terminal. It may last a year or two, but bookstores big and small need product, and I think there's still a thirst and need for books. Maybe that's an unexpected optimistic streak for me.
Fourth, I think authors like myself are screwed, because in troubled times most publishers aren't going to gamble on people whose sales never took off. But I think authors whose sales have shown increases, authors who sell a decent number of books, even if their sales are a little flat, and authors who sell a lot of books, are going to be more important to publishers than ever before. As for yet unpublished authors, I'm not sure this makes a bit of difference to you one way or the other. The odds sucked before and they suck now and I don't believe "the odds suck" is ranked on a scale of 1 to 10.
Fifth, for unagented authors, now's the time, folks. I could be wrong about this, but frankly, if I were an agent facing a publishing industry that's contracting, I wouldn't cut back on the number of authors I took on--I would increase them. I would market novels and nonfiction books until I couldn't think of any more markets to go to. It's a numbers game, but sometimes agent will stop marketing early if they sense the way the wind is blowing. If I were an agent, in times like this, I would just say, "I've got to make some sales or I might as well go work for the NYC Transit Authority, so I'm going to market the hell out of my clients." I would be reading a LOT of manuscripts, more than usual.
Sixth, and this is kind of important: don't freak out about things you have no control over. The only thing you can do about this is write the best book you have in you to write, market aggressively, sacrifice a couple virgins to the publishing gods (if you can find any), and wait.
Oh yeah, and buy books. Lots of them.
Which makes me think: this is so typical of industry. When the going gets tough, cut back. Because it's easier to do that than to try and sell more books.
So publishers, should you actually be reading this blog, here's my MODEST PROPOSAL TO SALVAGE THE SEASON.
Go to your top selling authors: Your Stephen King, Patricia Cornwall, Janet Evanovich, John Grisham, Dan Brown, et al, and tell them, "We're sending you out on a multi-city tour. You're not only going to promote your books, but we're going to hand you copies of ten authors by our publishing houses--that you pick--and wherever you go, you're to plug the hell out of them as well. The industry depends on you, it's been good to you, so please, help us out. It's a win-win situation."
I'm just sayin'.
Life In Six Words
December 3, 2008
I was originally going to write about "details" in writing, but then picked up my USA Today and read Craig Wilson's column. Apparently Smith Magazine did a piece a while back asking famous and not-so-famous people to sum up their life in six words. Now there's a book out from Harper called "Not Quite What I Was Planning," that expands on the concept (with a 6-word title no less, which aptly describes most of our lives, I suspect).
"Well, I thought it was funny." --Stephen Colbert
"Followed yellow brick road. Disappointment ensued." --Kelsey Ochs
"I wrote it all down somewhere." --Ben Greenman
"Never really finished anything, except cake." --Carletta Perkins
"Secret of life: Marry an Italian." --Nora Ephron
So, what about me? Well, given that it will change from day to day, the one that I came up with was:
Tried hard not to have regrets.
How about you?
Yeah, yeah, I know...
December 2, 2008
Yes, Jude, I'm now back to square one, saving for a Taylor acoustic. :)
December 1, 2008
We took my oldest son to a local guitar store to get a "school guitar." That is to say, he has a very nice PRS SE that we bought him, but it's too good (and expensive) a guitar to take to school and leave in a locker and let other teenagers manhandle. He was taking his first guitar, dubbed The Abomination (by his jazz band instructor, but the name stuck), a very, very cheap Behringer, that we bought with an amplifier for about $99. It was a piece of shit and had a warped neck. We'd done a lot to make it as playable as possible, but Ian was playing guitar in jazz band and taking guitar lessons and it was clear The Abomination needed to retire. So we went to Limelight Music in Rochester, MI and shopped for something in the $200 to $250 range that we would feel comfortable being knocked around a band room. He ended up buying a Ibanez G10 (I think that's the designation). Decent guitar, felt good, sounds good, price was right.
While there, I checked out the guitar above (in a brighter red, rather than the tomato red), which is an Epiphone DOT Studio. It was priced at about $280.
I've been saving my pennies for a really good Taylor acoustic that's in the $800 price range, and to-date I've got, about, well, $250...
Man, I was almost ready to buy that Epiphone. It just felt right. Clearly I like the hollow bodies in the electrics because of their cleaner sound, and this one felt great. I even liked it better than my other son's PRS SE semi-hollow body, which is a rockin' guitar for twice the price.
So I sort of planned on going back and buying the Epiphone today. Except I've talked myself out of it. At least... for a little while. I did read a review of the Epiphone that complained that it had tuning problems, although I've read reviews that say the same thing about the PRS SEs, and my notion is that a lot of guitarists think once you tune a guitar it's going to stay tuned forever, and I'm afraid it ain't so, Joe. Guitars, by their very nature, wander out of tune easily.
And it occurred to me that I have been bitten by this guitar collecting bug big-time.
And it reminded me of getting bit by the writing bug back in the 1980s. I've told the story so many times, but I was in college and read an essay by Stephen King about "The Making of a Brand Name," and was inspired to write a short story and the rest is pretty much history. It's easy for me to pinpoint exactly when I got bit by the writing bug.
How about you?