Mark Terry

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Are You A Good Writer?, Part V

January 30, 2009
I'm going to wrap up this series with this post, although I'm sure it could go on ad nauseum. Back on Monday Eric Mayer made this comment:

"writing is only "good" insofar as it succeeds at its intended purpose."

Yup. I couldn't agree more. Once you get past the mechanics, the language, the music/rhythm, etc., what I look for in "good writing" is the answer to this question: Is it effective?

In other words, does it do what it's meant to do?

If it's all flowery, beautiful language, great. Unless it's trying to tell a hard-boiled story that moves along like a rocket. Or of it's a technical article about biotechnology or car parts.

I'm a good nonfiction writer. Maybe often a very good nonfiction writer and on particularly good days, maybe even a great nonfiction writer. For a certain type of nonfiction, at least, that depends very much on clarity and efficiency, on explaining complicated subjects in straightforward, easy-to-grasp ways.

I'm a lot less self-laudatory about my fiction writing. My style is functional, fairly plain, very effective for action, but less so for emotion (except possibly for fear or adrenaline, I suppose).

Fiction writers need to be able to create emotions in readers. It's a unique skill, one that's far more difficult than transferring information to a nonfiction reader. I have very little guidance for you on how to do this. Ask Erica Orloff, she's a lot better at it than I am. But I'll tell you what, "good writers" do this well. Ask Erica to write a 5-part post on how to do it, we'll compare notes.

In theory, as fiction writers our readers are our primary concern. It is in nonfiction, after all. The reason I say "in theory" is I sometimes have the disconcerting feeling that in order to break into the business you need to write for agents and editors, not readers. Agents and editors would have us believe that the two are the same, and mostly I think they are, or at least should be, but there is some disturbing evidence that what often appeals to agents and editors is not the same thing as what's being widely read by book buyers. (I base this on polls where editors were asked what they read for pleasure and how surprising it was that these were not usually bestsellers or genre novels--it suggested a real disconnect between what editors like and what they actually publish and that what they like to read is not what book buyers like to buy. Anyway, a different topic for a different day).

So most of all, does your writing do what it's supposed to do? A good writer makes the reader believe. A good writer makes the reader turn the pages. The good writer entertains.

Years back--in fact, it was my last post on DorothyL, a huge listserv for the mystery lovers' community--there was a thread on DL asking about the "rules of good writing." I posted:

The only rule of good writing is: don't be boring.

The reason it was my last post was somebody took the time and effort to personally e-mail me to say that my statement was a waste of good bandwidth. I decided life was too short.

I also stand by that statement.

So, are you a good writer?

Mark Terry

Are You A Good Writer?, Part IV

January 29, 2009
Spyscribbler mentioned it in the comments on the first day. A good writer has rhythm.

Yeah? What does that mean? Is she a good dancer?

It means there's something about your writing that feels rhythmic, that feels right, whether read aloud or silently. It may not be obvious. There's Elmore Leonard--obvious. There's James Lee Burke--obvious. There's John Sandford--not so obvious, but definitely there. And boy, talk about different examples. They all have rhythmic writing, but their rhythms are all unique.

It's hard to explain, but it has to do with variations in long sentences and short sentences, in long words and short words, in long paragraphs and short paragraphs. In full sentences and sentence fragments. It might, in fact, have something to do with style.

I went to my usual source, Gary Provost's "Make Your Words Work" to see what he had to say about it. He has a chapter called "Music" which starts with "Writing Is A Symphony." As he says, "Writing is not a visual art. It is a symphony, not an oil painting. It is the shattering, not the glass. It is the ringing, not the bell."

Reading your work out loud helps. Reading a lot of other people's writing helps. Paying attention to rhythm helps.

Warning: Don't strain at this. I'm not sure it's something you can really do consciously. As Gary suggests, vary the length of your sentences, vary the construction of your sentences, play around with parallel construction, read your work out loud, use complete sentences often and fragments rarely, and don't repeat uncommon words.

You remember the film "The Untouchables?" Remember one of the many great speeches by Sean Connery, "...when he sends one of yours to the hospital you send one of his to the morgue."

It's not just great content, intent and acting. It's great writing that has great rhythm. Rhythm can seduce your reader.

The problem, as I mentioned before, is if you get too conscious of it, it gets self-conscious. Be aware of it, but don't dwell on it too much. Listen for it somewhere in the back of your mind.

But know--good writers' writing has rhythm.

So, are you a good writer?

Mark Terry

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Are You A Good Writer, Part III

January 28, 2009
Okay, class. Everyone raise your hand who has ever had an editor or agent or reader respond to your writing with some variation of: Lacks tension.

Yes, I have my hand raised. I bet all of you or most of you do, too.

There are typically a few reasons why this is so.

1. As yesterday's post alluded, it may be that your word choice, particular your verbs, are a little flaccid. You don't have to be writing a thriller to use tense words. Romance novels are filled with words like "swept away" and "surge" for a reason. Because they work better than "got emotional." Use a good verb instead of an adverb and a verb and your writing gets better and more efficient. Your word choices create tension and readers crave tension. What is sex but tension followed by release? Good writing creates tension, followed by release. Therefore, reading is sex!!!

2. Tease the reader. This means, if your writing lacks tension, you may be providing too much information too early. Don't frontload a scene with what's going to happen. When your mousy secretary with claustrophobia finally falls in love, it's natural that her paramour is going to be into spelunking. But you don't need to tell the reader all that in the first paragraph, first page, or first chapter. But you can provide clues. You can have her avoid elevators by taking the stairs. You can show her being very nervous or weird in the cramped copy room. In other words, make the reader wonder what's going on--all the time.

3. Conflict. A friend of mine had me read his manuscript a year or so ago. On a line-by-line basis he's a good writer, even a very good writer. But the manuscript lacked tension. Why? Everyone got along too well. Everyone was too nice. That doesn't mean he needed to turn his characters into crabby assholes, it meant he needed them to disagree about things, to have misunderstandings. One of the reasons I think Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch novels work so well is because Harry brings conflict with him wherever he goes. He's so smug and arrogant he alienates everybody because he's on a mission and nobody else is as intense and as focused as he is. Has conflict, will travel--that's Harry.

4. Another word for conflict might be obstacles. Fiction is about overcoming obstacles, big and small. It can be a group of terrorists trying to destroy the world, it can be Marcy the Mousy Receptionist trying to find love, it can be a gambler trying to win big. But it works so much better if the terrorists have a secret weapon, if Marcy has to overcome her claustrophobia, or the gambler is trying to raise money to pay for his wife's cancer treatment. Don't go easy on your main characters.

So... a good writer creates tension in word choices, how she places information, how she creates conflict, and the story structure and characterizations. Are you a good writer?

Mark Terry

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Are You A Good Writer, Part II

January 27, 2009
I think many of us think of "good writing" as what I think of as line-by-line writing, or perhaps style. That is to say the writing has balance, it's grammatical, free of spelling errors, there are few if any word repetitions, etc.

The next step up for that is word choice. Verbs are a big freakin' deal in good writing. We don't "get the mail," we "fetch the mail" or perhaps skip it altogether and just "read the mail" or "skim through the mail looking for checks." A good writer uses active verbs, rarely uses adverbs, makes judicious use of adjectives.

The writing is, in short, efficient and effective.

What's the borderline between efficient and effective and where we wander into lush prose and poetic language? Is there that huge a gulf between the straightforward functional prose of Dan Brown and the lush, poetic language of James Lee Burke?

Brown takes a lot of hits for being a "bad" writer, although I think from a line-by-line POV he's more "pedestrian" than anything else. His writing style is functional, fairly efficient, and serves well to move a fast-paced story along at, well, a fast pace.

I used to adore James Lee Burke, but his writing style can sure slow down a fast story. His books are about something different than Dan Brown's--Burke's has "place" as a big, big part of his writing and his style suits the humid, swampy characters of the novels he's writing (at least in Louisiana, I'm not quite as convinced of his Texas novels). 

So, on a line-by-line basis, are you a good writer? Is your style and word usage lively, balanced, efficient and effective? Does it serve what you're trying to accomplish?

Mark Terry

Monday, January 26, 2009


January 26, 2009
It's reasonably official in that I've signed the contracts and dropped them in the mail. I'm pleased to announce that the third Derek Stillwater thriller, ANGELS FALLING, will be published by Oceanview Publishing in September 2010 or thereabouts.

Mark Terry

Are You A Good Writer?, Part I

January 26, 2009
Nathan Bransford had a poll the other day where he asked if you thought you were a better writer than the average reader of his blog.

My response was: Yes, in that I'm a published novelist and I make my living as a freelance writer. By all other standards, I'm not the best judge.

In the interest of keeping my blog posts shorter in length, I'm going to spend the week talking about what it means to be a "good writer" and what "good writing is."

So, you tell me? Are you a good writer and why?

Maybe we'll all be able to come up with a mutual definition of "good writing" this way.

Mark Terry

Saturday, January 24, 2009


January 24, 2009
I took the boys to see Inkheart today. 

I loved it. 

Loved it.

You maybe have to be a novelist to love this story, or at least a dyed-in-the-wool reader, but I bet most novelists will be totally enthralled with this movie.

Mark Terry

Do You Live On Butt Hole Road?

January 24, 2009
No, really. Read this from the New York Times.

Mark Terry

Friday, January 23, 2009

Thinking Outside The Box (With Your Writing Career)

January 23, 2009
My oldest son currently wants to be a high school band director and music teacher. And why not? He plays guitar, bassoon and saxophone and it's his favorite subject.

That said, a while back he said writer. And I have no problem seeing him as a writer either. In fact, in some ways, I can see him better as a writer than a musician because just about every day he hits the computer and writes--on his own! He's a bit less self-motivated as a musician.

Yesterday he spent some time with his high school counselor working through a rough schedule of the next three years (he's a freshman). I looked at it and asked him about the class on film editing and writing. He said it sounded interesting and he still had film making and scriptwriting at the back of his mind.

I suggested to him that someone with a writing, music and film and sound editing background might have a very interesting selection of careers available to him, things he might never have thought of before--film editing, film and sound editing, music editing, videogame design, etc. I commented that not everybody interested in film making was going to be Stephen Spielberg and it might be an interesting job to link graphics and sound and music and image at your local TV station or for TV shows or movies or video games or for advertisements for TV of the Internet.

Now, what's my point about writing? Isn't it obvious?

I started out writing and it was all about the novels. COMPLETELY. It was novels or nothing. Once I tried writing a screenplay (it sucked).

It wasn't until later that I did some nonfiction and it was typically because someone would say, "Such and such an organization needs a piece about this, you like to write. Why don't you write it?" So I did and it got published. 

Eventually, because I can be rather slow, I noticed that my nonfiction was actually getting published and I was actually, like, you know, getting checks for it, and like, I could cash them and use the money to buy things.

Still, a writer writes novels, I thought. I didn't like that journalism, what fun was that?

Now, years later, writing for a living, I agree that writing novels is more fun than nonfiction, usually (although the marketing of fiction is not much fun). But the thought processes and the skills involved are nearly (probably not necessarily 100%) identical.

Somewhere a couple years before I left working at the hospital to write full time I read a book, "The Well-Fed Writer" by Peter Bowerman. Bowerman's pretty much a disciple of Robert Bly, who's the guru of "direct marketing" writing, ie., junk mail and copywriting. (And I've read at least one of Bly's books as well).

I don't actually do either of those (although I could, I just haven't pursued much of it). Two things really hit me hard when I read the Bowerman book. One is his attitude. His take on writing is that it has value and you should value it as well and therefore put a price on it that's concurrent with its value. In other words, if you think anybody can write as well as you can, then maybe you deserve to make minimum wage. If you think what you bring to the table is more than that, then you should charge accordingly and look for work that pays accordingly. I'm sorry, it sounds stupid, but that was a revelation to me. Society had convinced me that nobody paid writers well. Bowerman suggested I shouldn't listen to what society had to say on the subject and instead look for those businesses and publications that valued good writers.

The second revelation, more having to do with today's post, is that when most people think of writing, they think of novels, nonfiction books, magazine articles and newspapers. Right? Don't you?

Unfortunately, in most cases novels, magazine articles and newspapers are some of the worst forms of paid writing. There are exceptions, of course. There are novels that make a ton of money, magazine publishers that pay $1 a word or more (I've even known some to pay closer to $3 or $4 per word). Newspapers, well, even the best newspapers don't pay all that well, and most of them are ridiculously low.

No, if you want to make decent money as a writer you need to find the work that pays well, things like advertising copywriting, technical writing, direct writing, market research, corporate writing--press releases and annual reports, etc--and others.

For a society that's surrounded by writing--really, have you looked around you? How many brochures and ads do you get in the mail? How many newsletters from organizations? How many advertisements in the mail or online?--we sometimes forget that there's a writer somewhere cranking out all that verbiage. And in a lot of cases, getting paid pretty damn well for it.

For me, that was the real thinking outside the box. I still have to force myself to think that way sometimes too. Sometimes my best paying writing gigs are less writing and more research. Sometimes they resemble busy work.

My son--same one--got a gig from his old man recently. I'm the editor of a technical journal and I was asked by the last executive director if I would index the last 8 or 9 years of journals for their website. The answer was yes, but the problem was, I'm not actually paid to index the journals. I'm paid to get the issues out. I do extra things for this client--it's called value-added--when I can, but indexing was a boring chore and time-consuming and it kept getting shifted to the bottom of my to-do list.

So I finally told Oldest Son that I would pay him $100 to index the things up to 10 hours. In other words, $10 an hour. For a 15-year-old with no work history, this is a great paying gig. He's not done yet and there's no hurry, but he made a comment once about how boring it was. To which I commented that attitude was important, a lot of things in his work life would be boring, and that $10 an hour was pretty damned good money for his age, so stop complaining (I'm sure I sounded exactly like a Dad was supposed to sound).

I understand that the majority of readers of this blog are aspiring novelists. But I wonder if you're aware that you're inside a box and suggest you might think about what's outside that box. Or perhaps, just make the box a little bigger. No one says you have to stop writing fiction just because you're writing other things as well.

Mark Terry

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dare To Dream

January 22, 2009
Yes, yes, everyone who regularly reads this blog is going to scoff--scoff, I tell you!--and say, "I see Mark's medications finally kicked in."

I got an e-mail last night from my agent detailing the, er, details about her negotiations with my new publisher (The Player To Be Named Later). As with most contract negotiations there were good things, some interesting peculiarities and some things where you think, "What? Oh, okay, I guess I can live with that." 

Anyway, I gave her the e-mail version of a thumb's up and I imagine I'll be seeing contracts fairly soon.

So I allowed myself some thinking along the lines of:

--Maybe it'll build a readership and we'll sell several thousand copies.

--Maybe it'll catch fire and sell several hundred thousand copies!!! Or a million!

--Maybe we'll get lots of lucrative foreign sales (or even some meh foreign sales, because if you get enough of them, those Euros, pesos, yuan, rubles and pounds add up).

--Maybe we'll get a film option!!!

--Maybe it'll get made into a TV series or a successful movie!


Uh-huh. Well, as long-time readers of this blog know, I'm a skeptic. All you can really expect from a book sale is your advance. In that I've had some book contracts that didn't involve advances, had a publisher go under before publication (two, actually) and been dropped by a publisher mid-multi-book contracts, I think it's safe to say that you can't necessarily even count on that.

Still, it's better to be published than not and if it gives you the realistic option of wondering if the lottery ticket in your hand might be the big winner, at least for a couple minutes, I suppose it'll perk up your day a bit, which is a good thing.

So yes folks, dare to dream.

Mark Terry

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Who Are Your Characters?

January 21, 2009
I know that the #1 question asked authors is supposed to be "Where do you get your ideas?" but almost as often I'm asked, "Is your main character based on you?"

Hmmm. I've heard tons of authors answer this as, "Yes and no, all my characters are me in a way" to believe that's the truth.

But am I my main characters? Are you?

Well, my most successful main character to-date is Derek Stillwater. Raised in the Congo and other places by missionary physicians, he has a PhD in biochemistry, retired as a Colonel from Army Special Forces and works as a reluctant troubleshooter for the Department of Homeland Security.

On the surface, Derek and I don't have a lot in common. But... 

I have a degree in microbiology and public health. My parents, though not physicians, were quite conservative from a religious point of view. I never served in the military. However, a key word here might be "reluctant" and I understand Derek very well from that point of view. Both Derek and I are believers that sometimes you do things just because they have to be done and you can do them. (In the 4th Die Hard movie this is referred to as "being THAT guy" and it's very well-handled there, I thought).

Let's look at Derek a little more closely. He lives on a boat. He likes to kayak. He's a neurotic hypochondriac in that as a specialist in biological and chemical warfare he's convinced he's going to die from exposure to some toxin or rare disease. He's constantly threatening to quit his job, but he's completely reliable. He has little regard for chain of command and even less patience with protocol and SOP.

I think we're getting a little closer here to what Derek and I have in common, although it might just be to a degree. I don't live on a boat though there's a romance to it that appeals to me a lot. I love to kayak. I am something of a neurotic hypochondriac, although I'm better about it than I used to be. This constantly threatening to quit my job thing but being reliable anyways is spot-on (as a freelancer I do this less, but I still have the occasional client where I rant and rave and swear I'll never work for them again and then go ahead and work for them). As for that last sentence, yeah, that's me, but that's also most people at least in their heads. And it's also sort of standard American "hero" things.

Meg Malloy, in my novel DIRTY DEEDS, has the obvious difference of being a woman. I don't think I have much in common with Meg, who was a gifted computer geek who opened her own company and sold it for millions of bucks at the height of the dot-com bubble. But... I was asked if Meg was based on my wife. I had to pause and think about that and decided that, no... and  yes.

Partly yes because if you're a man and you write about a woman (and from the POV of a woman, in this case) you're going to have to rely on your imagination and all of your experiences with women. I know Leanne better than any woman on the planet (and she continues to mystify and surprise me, go figure), so consciously or unconsciously I probably asked myself how she would have reacted or what she would have felt in various situations Meg found herself in. Meg also has little regard for protocol, formality or chain of command. She's a problem solver. She has a fierce, strong personality. She doesn't quit. She's outspoken. Impulsive, in some ways. Very, very smart.

Still me? Well, maybe the not quitting part, the lack of regard for formality, and even the problem solver thing. Outspoken? Sometimes.

And as point of fact, Meg had been getting offers for her company for a while and kept turning them down. Then, one day while listening to her staff have a full-blown argument over redecorating the company's headquarters, she got up from the staff meeting and called the guy offering to buy her company and said, "Make me an offer." Now THAT, I'm afraid, DOES sound like me.

Which brings me finally to Dr. Theo MacGreggor, the main character in my collection of novellas, CATFISH GURU. He's a PhD in toxicology, divorced, father of a young son. He worked in a biotech company and ended up consulting with the medical examiner's office as a forensic toxicologist. Mac is basically me with a better education, a failed marriage and one son instead of two. Give me the experiences of Mac, drop me down in his life and I'm him. We even lived in the same house, although since there was no wife the furnishings were a little different. Mac was me, not in a Walter Mitty fantasy--living on a boat, having millions of dollars, being a badass tough guy, etc.--but me if I were someone else. When Mac wasn't involved in murder cases he was involved in teaching college classes, his own lab's research, daycare, shopping for kids' clothes, changing diapers, etc.

So the answer, not surprisingly, is yes ... and no.

How about you? Are your characters you? Are you characters you as you wished you were?

Mark Terry

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

I Couldn't Resist

January 20, 2009
As some of you may have heard, there's a new boss in town. Hopefully The Who were wrong ("hello to the new boss, same as the old boss."). When I went looking for a photo of Obama I came across this one and it appealed to my sillier side.

I'm not of the Barack-Can-Walk-On-Water persuasion. He's bound to screw up, it's the nature of the job. I find him reassuring, though. I think it's his calmness, his ability to articulate a point--he actually appears to think about his responses for a second before making them--and, again, his thoughtfulness. 

As for George W., well, I've often felt he was a guy I could talk to, have a beer with, share a dinner of burritos and tacos with. Maybe even hop on our mountain bikes and go out for a ride. That doesn't mean I thought he was a good president. I thought he was abysmal and I'm glad to see him out of the White House, and take your flying monkey Dick Cheney with you. George actually appears a little relieved to be leaving. Enjoy your retirement. It wasn't all bad. You handled the immediate aftermath of 9/11 fairly well, even if you screwed it up later. HIV funding in Africa, good job. Ultimately, Medicare Part D, also good, I think. Everything else? Well, not so great.

So, Barack. Congratulations. Don't fuck up. I think the presidency will transcend race. At the moment you're getting a little bit of a pass because of the African-American, skin-color thing, but that won't last. It's all about results. At the moment, I think you have more to worry about from your own party than you do the Republicans. I say that as a knee-jerk, bleeding-heart liberal who's always voted Democrat (except once, because I couldn't bear to vote for Geoffrey Fieger for Governor of Michigan). The Democrats are totally capable of shooting themselves in the foot, jumping around in pain, tripping and falling down a flight of stairs onto the tracks of an oncoming subway car. It's a gift. But I'm sure you know what I mean. No sooner had you suggested--prior to being sworn in--a stimulus package for the economy than your own party starting tearing it to pieces and screwing around with it. So I actually think one of the biggest challenges to your presidency won't be the Republicans, but the Democrats. All the Republicans will have to do is sit back and wait for it to happen.

Which brings me to my last thought on this. You've got a lot of plans. Good for you. But the presidency almost always gets derailed by events. God knows George W. came into office wanting to focus on the economy and domestic issues, then 9/11 changed everything. This is typical.

You're coming in with a lot of hope and support. It won't last. But you seem like a smart guy, which can sometimes be a liability in Washington. Leadership requires more than being smart. But I think if you can continue to give people hope for a better world without wallowing around in the muck, things should work out okay. I'm rooting for you to be one of our greatest presidents. The U.S. needs it and I suspect, so does the world.

Oh yeah, my vote is for the Labradoodle, although I'm partial to Labradors in general.

Mark Terry

Monday, January 19, 2009

On Your Reading Radar: "HALO: The Cole Protocol" by Tobias S. Buckell

January 19, 2009
My friend Toby Buckell, who writes SF of his own flavor, picked up the enviable gig of writing a tie-in novel for the HALO video game series. The book jumped up onto the New York Times Bestseller Lists. I haven't asked Toby--it's probably none of my business--if he gets royalties for that. The reason I would ask is because in many cases involving tie-ins, the writer gets a flat fee and no royalties, which would sort of suck if you got $10,000 to write the book and it sold a million copies.

Anyway, my son bought me the book for my birthday (I had expressed an interest). Had Toby not written it I doubt if I would have had any interest in the book. I was aware of HALO 3 (though not the earlier game versions), but the game systems in our house are Playstation 2 and Wii, not XBox. My sons had a chance to play the game with my nephew so they were fairly familiar with the HALO world.

Just a note about tie-ins and my own biases. I'm slowly accepting that TV, film and videogame (as well as other) tie-ins are improving significantly as very good writers are getting chosen to write them and the publishers seem to be giving the writer's the option of deepening the stories. In the past, so many tie-ins seemed anemic because the writers had to stick to the script so closely. Also, as those of us with children have noted, many of the books for children based on TV shows or movies (Disney is awful about this) just plain suck. They seem like they were written by a high school intern in the marketing department over the weekend. That said, I think that's changed a lot.

So, did I like the book? Yes. It's hard military sci-fi. The Cole Protocol refers to a military order that requires all ships that are under attack by the bad guys (The Covenant) to destroy all navigation data that might lead The Covenant back to Earth. The UNSC (space command, essentially) has also sent out a Spartan Gray Team and a bunch of marines to track down any errant navigation data and destroy it.

Meanwhile, there are plots and subplots. There are bad guys, the Sangheili (or Elites) which are sort of like the aliens from Alien if they were Klingons (boy, is that confusing, huh?). That is to say, they're sort of lizard/insect-like, but they have this warrior culture. There are Kig-yar, which are also part of The Covenant...

Frankly, I'm not even going to try to explain the plot if you're not familiar with HALO. Let's just say it's politically and culturally complex, filled with action and fairly thought-provoking ideas. I thought there was a decent amount of characterization and the politics was very complicated. Even the Spartans, the genetically-enhanced super special forces were given backstory that was interesting, each with differing personalities. The main character is Lieutenant Jacob Keyes, who is a Naval commander back from teaching at the academy, who is given command of a stealth frigate to go out to find out what's going on at an colony that was destroyed by The Covenant. They discover that the survivors have turned an asteroid field into a series of connected habitats dubbed The Rubble and...

My only real complaint comes from my lack of familiarity with the HALO universe. There were a lot of characters and to confuse the issue, we know them by their own species' names like Sangheilli, Kig-Yar, etc., but also what the good guys call them--Jackals, Elites, etc. Sometimes I felt I needed a scorecard to keep everybody straight.

Anyway, I enjoyed it.

Mark Terry

Friday, January 16, 2009

How Much Am I Reading?

January 16, 2009
First, let me share the fact that my kids don't have school today because it's cold. Yes, it was -26 degrees this morning (currently about -6) when they make that decision, so school is closed. This is rare, even for Michigan.

Now, onto today's odd subject. I was curious to find out how much I read every day. Because I thought I read tons. Not just the two books I read concurrently, one fiction, one nonfiction, but newsletters, magazines, newspaper articles, blogs, online articles, etc. So today I'm going to experiment by tracking everything I read. When it comes to blogs I'm not going to count going back and reading comments or even count really short blog entries like today's BookEnds LLC blog entry. I'll update as we go. At the moment, it is 8:19 AM Eastern Time.

8:19 AM EST
--a short chapter of HALO: The Cole Protocol by Tobias S. Buckell while I ate breakfast.
--Dark Daily: Are Corporations Poised to Dramatically Reform U.S. Healthcare? (online newsletter)
--Murderati: Cliff Jumping by JT Ellison (blog post)
--SpyScribbler: There Went The Nesting Instinct (blog post) Health Blog: Feds Delay ICD-10 for 2 Years (blog/news post & my response to the title was "Yay!" for anyone who cares) Health Blog: Pfizer May Cut Sales Force By Nearly A Third (blog/news post)

9:46 AM EST
--TIME Magazine: Can Israel Survive (first page, haven't finished article yet)
--Erica Orloff: Writing to Sell Vs. Selling What You Write (blog)
--Newsweek Online: The Best & Worst of Bush (article & slideshow)

Plus I'm proofing a chapter of the Laboratory Industry Strategic Outlook 2009, chapter 3, which unfortunately requires that I verify data from chapter 5, plus I need to go online or somewhere (?!) to find recent stock analysi on a couple companies and the whole thing feels like a hairball.

2:06 PM EST American painter Andrew Wyeth dies at 91 (news article & bummer, I liked his stuff) Health Blog: Feds Seek to Raise Testing Bar for Pap Smear Interpreters (blog article. Interestingly, though not surprising to me, when tested, cytotechnologists did a better job of analyzing Pap smears than pathologists, who have MDs, did. As someone who worked in a lab for 18 years, this doesn't surprise me much at all.  Most docs couldn't find their own laboratories with a roadmap).

4:30 PM EST
--Paperback Writer: Building and Growing (blog entry) Healthcare Blog: Roche Cutting Hundreds of Manufacturing Jobs Healthcare Blog: Medtronic Pays Surgeon '$20,000 or More'--Much, Much More (yeah, because for the university he works for he has to declare additional income from companies up to $20,000. Once it's over $20,000, he can just say $20,000 or more. Except in this case, it turned out to be $20 million. Why can't I ever get in on consulting deals like that?)

--Nathan Bransford-Literary Agent: This Week in Publishing (blog entry) Cindy McCain Approached to go 'Dancing.' (online article)
--USA Today: I get it and I'm not entirely sure I read anything all the way through, but I skimmed or read some of maybe a dozen articles
--read the rest of the Time Magazine article about Israel
--read maybe 15 pages of Legacy of Ashes, a NF book I'm reading on the history of the CIA
--read a couple chapters of the Halo novel

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Writer And His Money...

January 15, 2009
Because I was thinking about my taxes and because I was thinking about my 2009 income t0-date (yes, I know, it's only 15 days so far, and already I'm obsessing, shut up, I'm a writer for God sakes!), I thought it was time for a brief blog about a writer and his/her money.

1. Once you start making money as a writer, you need to pay taxes on it. This sucks. I'm sorry, but it does. I don't mind paying taxes from a theoretical point of view. After all, those tax dollars pay for services like roads and the military and the cleaning of the Washington Monument. Unfortunately, it also pays for things like the war in Iraq and Dick Cheney's health insurance, both of which I would prefer not to pay for.

The reason paying taxes sucks for a writer besides the fact you're sometimes buying things you don't want to buy is because you pay taxes quarterly, ie., every three months. My federal tax rate is 24% and my state, which seems to change every year, is currently 4%. So for every dollar I earn, I need to put aside 28 cents to give to the government every three months. When taxes are taken out of a regular paycheck, it tends to be somewhat invisible. When in the first week of the new year you have to write two checks totaling about $8000+ (yes, I had a very good fourth quarter, unlike the third quarter, which sucked dead bears), you suddenly realize that, My God!, the government sure takes a lot of my money!

2. What #1 would suggest then, is that you need to learn to manage your money. In other words, you can't SPEND all of it because you need to give slightly more than a quarter of it to the government on a regular basis. There are two solutions here, I think. One, open up a separate bank account and promptly put 28% of every check in there, which will go toward taxes. Two, marry someone smart like I did who handles that and handles it well. I have an Excel spreadsheet called Accounting Running Totals. It has 4 columns. The first is the date. The second is the amount of the check I received. The third is a calculation of 24% of the amount of the check I received for Federal taxes. The fourth is a calculation of 4% of the amount of the check I received for State taxes. Every week or so or when I get a check, I total them, print them out and give them to Leanne so she knows at any given day how much money we need to keep in the savings account for taxes.

3. What perhaps needs to be emphasized here is not only do you need to make sure you have money around for taxes, you need to make sure you have money around .... period. Yes, if you do all your math, you will see that I made a very large sum of money between September and December. That was almost 50% of my yearly income, as a matter of fact. Although the first and second quarter were okay, in the three-month period of the third quarter, I probably made, oh, I don't know off the top of my head, something less than $10,000 total. In other words, probably less than $1000 a week on average, and if I remember correctly, $10 grand is pretty wildly optimistic. I knew big money was coming, I just didn't know when, so we were fairly careful with the money.

Lesson: if ya wanna make a living as a writer, freelance or novelist, ya gotta learn to manage the money, because it don't always come when you need it.

4. Keep tabs on expenses. I use Excel spreadsheets and save all my receipts. I need it for tax season. Also, your expenses get taken out of overall revenue to determine your actual tax rate. If you drive to the airport for a business trip, you can deduct the mileage. If you're a novelist and you drive to the airport to go to a conference, or you drive to a bookstore or library to give a talk related to writing you can can deduct the mileage. You can deduct books you buy if you're a novelist!!!!! (Yeah, a perk, who'd a thunk it?) Do it! This boils down to: treat it like a business.

5. Pay attention. Ties into #4, but I'm going to elaborate, because I'm facing this for the first time this year. Last year I got some money from foreign sales. That means this tax season I have to file some extra forms having to do with foreign income. Last year, I spent some time on the payroll of a company in New  York and they took taxes out for the state of NY. This means that not only do I have to deal with Michigan tax forms, but I have to deal with New York tax forms at tax season. Yippee. But if you're a writer, these things happen so you either figure them out yourself or alert your accountant (I have people) to the specifics of what's going on.

May you make lots of $$$$$ from your writing in 2009.

Mark Terry 

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

May I Recommend...

January 14, 2009
I'm looking at my reading list for 2008. I read 57 books last year. I thought I'd pick some books off that list to recommend and lean toward ones that I thought were good, but you may not have heard of. (After all, I re-read the first 5 Harry Potter novels, which need no recommendation here, I don't think). My recommendations, then, will be books that I thought were a little different (for me). So, without further ado...

1. The Last Colony by John Scalzi. This is SF and frankly, don't read it unless you've read the two earlier books, Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades. But since those two books rock, you should go ahead and read them, too.

2. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. This won best first novel by International Thriller Awards. Hill is Stephen King's son, so I felt slightly snarky picking it up, figuring his success had something to do with name recognition. And then I devoured it. Seriously creepy, very well done, and although I haven't heard anyone else say it, he's a better writer than his old man, but they seem to have a lot of interests and thematic materials in common.

3. Nerve Damage by Peter Abrahams. When a famous sculptor is diagnosed with an incurable cancer, he hires a hacker to sneek a peek at his New York Times obit. There's a mistake in there about his late wife and when he starts to poke into fixing it and where the wrong information came from he discovers that much of what he knew about his wife was a lie. On every level, a terrific novel.

4. Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer. Middle grades and pretty damned hilarious. Where the main character (evil genius Artemis, who is only about 12 years old) is both hero and bad guy.

5. House of Rain: Tracking A Vanished Civilization Across The American Southwest by Craig Childs. He basically spent 4 or 5 years visiting--often walking to--Anasazi ruins in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and into Mexico, trying to find out what happened to them. Beautifully written if rather slow, but man, did I learn a lot about anthropology and archaeology. It opened up my world.

6. The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan. The 4th book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. Percy is a demigod, the son of Poseidon and he spends his summers at Camp Half-Blood with other demigods, but has to go out on a quest. Great fun.

7. Homo Politicus: The Strange and Scary Tribes That Run Our Government by Dana Milbanks. A wonderful, disturbing and hilarious look at recent political scandals here in the U.S.

8. In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson. A travel narrative about Australia. Bryson's a genius and hilarious as well.

9. Antarktos Rising by Jeremy Robinson. A tech thriller/horror novel/post-apocalyptic/huh? novel. What a pleasant surprise. Earth undergoes a devastating shift in its mantle. Most of North America is now where the north pole used to be, billions are dead. Antarctica is suddenly a tropical paradise (of sorts) and the remaining countries and alliances agree to stage a contest to split the continent into 3. Each group sends a team to the center of the continent, which has grown into a rain forest in a matter of months. Unfortunately, deep beneath the ice there were also dinosaurs and, uh, well, let's just say there were some surprises in store in this book that blends science, fantasy, religion, mythology, adventure and damned near everything else into a fast-paced adventure. A lot of fun.

10. The Ghost Agent by Alex Berenson. Actually, I think that's the UK title. In the US I think it was called The Ghost War. Either way, it was pretty much everything I thought an espionage novel should be--engaging, intriguing characters, lots of action, inside information, intelligent geo-political thoughtfulness, etc.

Mark Terry

Monday, January 12, 2009

Mark, Shut The F&*$ Up!

January 12, 2009
If ever there was a career that induced--yes, INDUCED--bipolar disorder, it's fiction writing.

I just got off the phone with my agent. We've had an offer for the third and forth Derek Stillwater novels, at this point in time titled ANGELS FALLING and THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS.

I will have more details after the contracts are signed.

So, except for the furry happy monsters, you need to realize that I am, above all else, full o' shinola.

Mark Terry

Dashing Ice Water On Your Dreams...

January 12, 2009
Agent Nathan Branford has a compelling post about query letters and how uphill it is to get published today. In the comments he responds to someone with:

A lawyer going to law school has approximately a 95% chance of becoming a lawyer. A novelist, even a good one, has approximately a 1 in 10,000 chance of being published, and an even smaller chance of selling well, and an even smaller chance of making a living at it. There are better ways of making money. Confidence is one thing and obviously if a writer is immensely talented their odds improve dramatically. But I think it must be accompanied with some sobriety about the odds.

Well, folks, isn't it nice to know that I'm not the only downer realist out there? Have a smiley face day.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Furry Happy Monsters

January 11, 2009

Saturday, January 10, 2009

So my agent says...

January 10, 2009
"this is just too familiar of a plot. Sorry."

And I think, "Oh fuck it."

Mark Terry

Friday, January 09, 2009

What Motivates You?

January 9, 2009
Yes, along with the video, I've got something to say.

I find this video motivating. I'm not likely (never say never) to ever try to enter an Iron Man Triathlon. Nonetheless, I find the idea of it motivating. Very few people do it, only a minuscule handful of people are "professionals" at it or even remotely competitive about it. It's all about finishing, not winning. What inspires me even more than the elite athletes are the older--the woman at the end of the video is now 72 years old and has completed the Kona (Hawaii) Iron Man Triathlon 7 or 8 times! (Yeah, what's your excuse again?) or so-called handicapped. As the video suggests, there are people in wheelchairs and amputees who complete the Iron Man. What? Somebody with a prosthesis swims 2.4 miles, bikes 112 miles and runs 26.2 miles in one day? What's your excuse for why you can't sit down and write five pages of finished copy today?

For me, this video and the notion of an Iron Man is about limitations.

That is to say, I think our limitations are in our head, mostly. 

I wonder what motivates me as a writer. Is it fame? No. One, most writers don't get famous, and two, what little of the "oh you're an author!" nonsense I've experienced just makes me seriously uncomfortable.

Money? Money definitely motivates me, but oddly enough (although I think this is true for most people) it doesn't inspire me. I write for money, yes, and I'm motivated to write to make money so I can continue to live and work the way I do. Sure. 

Communication? Yes, in an ephemeral way, I think so. It's not like I get that much feedback from my writing (except, possibly, checks).

Some of it is clearly something biochemical. I get pleasure from writing in a way that resembles some low-level drug buzzes, I think. It's not quite physical and it's not euphoric, but there's something that goes on in my brain when I write that involves pleasure. In that respect writing is my drug of choice.

But why the hell keep slamming away at fiction if it doesn't pay the bills and the marketing/rejection process is so unpleasant?

Maybe a part of it has to do with limitations. As the video says, the world is broken into people who say they can and people who say they can't. In terms of writing novels, I can.

So I do.

How about you?

Mark Terry

Thursday, January 08, 2009

I Thought They Were Joking or... The World Really Is Going To Hell In A Handcart

January 8, 2009
This is from the Christian Science Monitor, which I linked through from a journalism jobs website.

Joe The Plumber To Become A War Correspondent
Hey, remember that old saying, “I’d rather get my international news from an unlicensed plumber than an experienced journalist?”
We don’t either. But if that’s your motto, we’ve got good news for you: Joe the Plumber is back!
Joe the war correspondent
A conservative web site long known for its international news prowess (Pajamas TV - who else?) has hired the former kind-of plumber/McCain prop/kind-of author to be its war correspondent over in Israel.
By the way, we’re not making this up.

Really, I mean... oh shit, I'm just sort of speechless here.


This Pen For Hire

January 8, 2009
Okay, maybe not THIS PEN. Maybe this computer keyboard.

Anyway, despite Erica Orloff having dubbed me "the genius that is..." I'm afraid today I'm going to confess to being crass and money-fixated. Yes, and as Stephen King said when he wrote those words, some of you are also calling me bad names.

I write for a living. I draw the line at child pornography and ransom notes (and Republican Party communications--Puff the Magic Negro will never be written by me), but aside from that, I'm pretty willing to write whatever people pay me to. Not much art about that. I'm working on an couple white papers, will have an issue of a technical journal to organize in the next couple weeks, and I'm putting together a large directory--sort of a phone book--for one of my clients. I've also written physician bios, book reviews, newspaper feature articles, short stories, press releases, novels, market research and market survey reports, technical materials, and done database work. Even a poem or two. I would be glad to write technical manuals and if I had the expertise and opportunity, I'd jump into working on INDs and the like for pharmaceutical companies.

Because, unless you're very lucky, that's what you do to write for a living. I like writing some of it better than others. Generally speaking, how much I like cashing the checks varies only by the size of the check. (Need I clarify? The bigger the check, the more I like cashing it. But you knew that, right?)

I plan to continue writing for a living for the next 25 years or so, maybe longer. That means, unless I get quite lucky with a book or film option, that I'm going to have to continue to write a lot of different things in order to pay the bills and put food on the table.

In fact, it's the price I'm going to probably have to pay to have a commute that is a dozen steps to my office, that allows me to go to the gym in the morning for an hour or so, to pick up my son at school in the middle of the afternoon, and to generally wear jeans and sweatshirts and slippers in the winter and shorts and t-shirts and bare feet in the summer.

And trust me, it's not too high a price.

Mark Terry

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Another Trip Around The Sun

January 7, 2009
Yep, another trip around the sun. Let's see, if I were a dog, I'd be 315 years old. (Or is that 6.42857143?)


Tuesday, January 06, 2009

A New Year's Gift For Women

January 6, 2009
I just read this sentence in an article, and I'll take it at face value. Happy New Years, ladies!

British scientists have discovered that women release four times more endorphins after eating chocolate than they do after making out.

Mark Terry

Sunday, January 04, 2009

What's Your Process?

January 4, 2009
I'm considering what--or if, I suppose--novel to work on next. I've been playing around with an SF novel. This is just on my laptop and I work on it in the evenings and weekends. If it takes off, it might get moved to my office desktop.

Granted, if either Fortress of Diamonds or Monster Seeker gets picked up, I'll be working on follow-ups.

Part of what I've been considering lately is my own process. It's a creative process, and one that takes into consideration--unfortunately--market issues. It was a lot easier when I focused entirely on the story I most wanted to write and didn't think about whether it would sell. I used to just focus on being a better writer. Now I worry more about the market. After being published, dropped, and trying to break back in, just pursing my bliss, so to speak, no longer works for me. Creatively, if nothing else.

So I do what David Morrell and I gather he got this from a mentor of his, dubbed "test borings." That is to say, he started working on a variety of projects and saw which one bored him.

I do this a lot. So at the moment I've got a couple chapters written of a techno thriller taking place in Antarctica; a couple chapters of a horror novel; a police/forensic procedural I've been noodling with forever; half a manuscript of an espionage novel; a chapter or so of a dark thriller called Dead Memories.

I've also got ideas for follow-ups to the two kids' books and I was pondering the potential of a different one. Which one will I work on? 

I don't know. What I'd most like to work on is the follow-up to Monster Seeker, but I'm not willing to unless there's a deal for MS.

I do wonder, though, if I've shifted away from writing mysteries and thrillers to fantasy novels for kids. I loved those books as a kid and I've found that I enjoy reading them as an adult--I'm currently reading the 2nd book in The 39 Clues, written by Gordon Korman, titled "One False Note." I don't know why the shift, but I'm enjoying it.

So I'll sift around until something catches fire. And then I'll try to write 5 pages a day, tweak it the next day and write another 5 pages or so. And do that until I'm done. Then print it out, give it some rest, then read it out loud while marking up the manuscript, then make the changes, tweaking as I go, and then, hopefully, I'll be done. Although it looks like 2 drafts, it more accurately resembles half a dozen or so, depending on all the tweaking in between actual drafts.

So that's my process. What's yours?

Mark Terry

Friday, January 02, 2009

What I Learned As A Thriller Judge

January 2, 2009
I volunteered to be a judge for the International Thriller Writers, Inc., Thriller Award last year. I'm just about finished. And although there is a confidentiality agreement in place, so I can't talk about specific titles or judging, I thought I would talk about some--not all--of the things I learned from doing this. I ended up reading 33 books, some by people I'd never heard of, some by people I have read occasionally, some were books I had already read because I'm a fan and some of them were books by people I had heard of, always meant to read, and never got around to reading.

1. There are a lot of good books out there, but great is a lot harder to come by. Because the particular category I'm involved with is Best Thriller, I keep looking to be blown away. To not be able to put the book down. To have it linger in memory. To set it down and say, "Wow!" It never really happened. Think about that. 33 books and you never say, "Wow!" Yet some of these books are bestsellers. Sure, I'm probably jaded. On the other hand, none of the books were bad. Many were not "my cup of tea," but they were fine. Some I liked a lot but didn't, you know, say, "OOooooohhhhh, aaaaawwwwww, wow!"

2. If you win one of these awards, congratulations. Don't let it go to your head. There's a lot of dumb luck involved in these things. I didn't think this before. My last 2 novels were submitted for this award and I confess to feeling mildly stung (particularly in the case of The Serpent's Kiss) that my books didn't even make it into the semi-finals (ie., top 5). Now, having judged these things myself, I've decided that winning the award is an even bigger crapshoot than getting published is. I don't know who will win, and because of how ITW is judging, it's possible I won't have even read the book that will eventually win. I know in past years I've found some of the winners almost unreadable, although last year's winner for Best First Novel (Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill) was quite deserving, in my opinion, despite some sour grapes that, after all, the guy is Stephen King's son! It just feels like the deck is stacked, you know? Still, that's a great novel, first time or not.

3. The corollary to #2 is, of course, if you don't win, don't take it personally. Out of the hundreds of books, yours needs to rise somehow to the top and appeal to people who largely judge the books subjectively. I have moments when I think we could kill all the judging entirely, glue all the books up on a wall and throw 5 darts blindfolded to see which ones win. There's no predicting.

4. Oh yes, subjectivity. For this judging I have a partner who reads the same books. We haven't really discussed the books, but we did discuss how we went about judging them. And I can tell you this, we judge them differently. She's very systematic, creates a point system for different things like character and pace and plot. I, on the other hand, am a "winger" who took the first book I read, gave it a score and every other book was compared to that score. How our two approaches will be handled--probably averaging our top books, or something like that, before it gets handed off to another panel of judges--is a little vague to me. (I don't know and I don't want to know. I just want my involvement in this to be over).

5. Does "politics" count? I don't know. I don't know any of these writers of the 33 books personally. I've interviewed one or two of them over the years and I met one of them a few years back at a writing conference. Otherwise, I don't know them. I don't know if that's the case with all the judges. If you attend a lot of cons (I don't) and you hang out in the bar with these writers, if you call them friend, would it bias you? Possibly. I know a writer friend of mine does have a book up for this award and I'm glad I didn't have to read it for the award. (It's on my shelf, waiting to be read, Joe M). Would I have pushed him to the top? Dunno. Probably not. I would have tried to be as honest as possible. But, well, he might have gotten some extra bonus points for being a good guy, consciously or unconsciously. So you never know.

6. Different strokes for different folks. Some of these books were heavily plot-driven. Some were character-driven. Some of them were both or in between. Some were historicals. Some took place in the present. Some were vaguely SF-ish with heavy fantasy elements. There's so much variety you wonder how they can even be compared. How exactly does a military thriller taking place in modern day Beirut compare to a futuristic fantasy thriller taking place in New York City compare to a novel taking place in the 1300s compare to a forensic thriller taking place on the east coast compare to an espionage novel that bounces all over the globe that seems "ripped from the headlines?" Dunno.

I will say that I read a military thriller with a great pace, interesting backstory and paper-thin characters that was still a very compelling novel. Go figure.

7. I will try not to volunteer for this sort of thing ever again.

Mark Terry

Thursday, January 01, 2009

RIP Donald Westlake

January 1, 2009
I just heard that author Don Westlake died at the age of 75. I don't know how many of his 100+ books I've read--a dozen or so?--and I did see The Grifters, for which he wrote the script. A terrific talent. At one point in my early Internet days he and I passed some e-mails back and forth in response to some question I had. He seemed very charming and he was certainly accessible. He'll be missed.

Mark Terry