Mark Terry

Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 Year In Review, Sort Of

December 31, 2009
I'm more inclined to look ahead rather than behind, but I'll see if anything in particular pops into my head in reflecting upon 2009.

--I signed two book contracts. That's a positive thing, I think. For y'all who are struggling to get book contracts, feel free to give me a metaphorical kick in the ass for not being all rosy and ecstatic about it. Reality does not always meet expectations, although sometimes it does exceed them. I'm glad to be back in the novels-being-published game, especially after a number of empty hits in 2008.

--after running out of publication options for a nonfiction book proposal that our agent didn't sell, I dug down, hunted up a handful of publishers, and found my two collaborators and myself a publisher that offered us a contract for a book about medical practice management.

--I'm going to throw this out here because I was delighted about this. As a guy who writes about writing on this blog, I know that the bulk of my readers--which I think of as a community--are aspiring novelists. A couple of you are already novelists and some of you are full-time freelancers and/or both. But I know some of you are struggling to break into the business. So I was particularly pleased--really, really pleased, actually--when one of my readers, Stephen Parrish, got a contract offer for The Tavernier Stones, to be published in May 2010 by Midnight Ink, my former publisher. So congratulations to Stephen. And in 2010 I hope very much to hear of such good news from every other reader here who aspires in that direction. That would make me happy indeed.

--my continued friendship, online and otherwise, with people I've met through this blog and others, and I'm naming just a few because our friendship has gone past our respective blogs to outside e-mails and occasional phone calls: Erica Orloff, John VanZile, Stephen Parrish and Natasha Fondren (who, by weird coincidence, knows my sister-in-law).

--This was a year that an old friend and I decided to try to get together for lunch once a month and we've mostly succeeded. We've known each other literally our whole lives, having grown up across the street from each other and being born 2 weeks apart, but we haven't had much communication in the last 15 years or so except for family funerals. I'm very happy about this, overall.

--the deepening friendship with Gary Ashton, my guitar teacher. He had, I'm sure, a pretty shitty 2009, so I'm hoping he has a great 2010; either way, I value his friendship.

--I'm still making a good living as a freelance writer and editor and novelist and certainly hope I'll continue to do so.

--I've enjoyed my sons, who are growing into interesting, kind, brilliant, creative and talented young men. Kudos to my wife, who gets most of the credit.

--I'm grateful for my regular clients (very).

--I'm grateful for my dog, always.

--I'm oddly grateful for Facebook, which has allowed me to keep in closer touch with my brother, my sister, a couple cousins, and old high school friends, as well as a couple hundred other people I barely know.

--My involvement with the band boosters has not only been enjoyable and enriching, but it's expanded my social life and friends significantly. Since I have long been a traditional homebody with very few close friends and not much of a social life outside my immediate family, I think this is a sign of growth on my part.

--And it's certainly been a pleasurable year of reading, listening to music, taking guitar lessons, exercising, and working, with a little bit of travel thrown in. A fine year indeed, for the most part.

Happy New Year!

Mark Terry

Interview & Happy New Years

December 31, 2009
Well, last day of the year. Happy New Years. I hope that 2010 is an astonishing success for everyone, that you are happy, healthy, and all your dreams come true.

With some trepidation, since I haven't listened to it all, here's the link to about a 40-minute interview I did with Jennie Phipps, the editor and publisher of Freelance Success.

Mark Terry

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Goals & Resolutions

December 30, 2009
I'm looking at the Word file I made about this time last year called 2009 Goals. There are 5 goals on them and really, they're probably none of your business. I can say that I only hit 1 of the 5 goals on this list and I sort of shattered that one. Well, here they are, more or less.

1. Make $80,000+
Uh, no. Financially it was a fairly mediocre year although I think it'll probably come out to be average. There was a 2-month period where I believe I made, oh, about $1500. That really sucked. The end of the year more or less kicked in strong and 2010 looks good to-date (promised work), but I did not make this number. Although I haven't done the final numbers yet, I'd say I didn't even get close, although I made a decent living. Granted, that number was high for me, although not unrealistic, but I didn't come close.

2. Sign a book contract (fiction or nonfiction).
Well, what can I say. I had a great year in this regard. I signed two contracts for novels, both with Oceanview Publishing, one in January for The Fallen, and one later this year (I'd have to check, but it was probably late-summer, early-fall) for the 4th Derek Stillwater novel, The Valley of Shadows. Also, although I haven't actually scribbled my name on the contract yet (it's in the mail), my two physician-collaborators and I got a contract for a nonfiction book that will be out probably early 2011, maybe even late 2010. The two docs have already signed the contract and I'm just waiting for it to show up for me to sign. In the meantime, I'm already re-organizing the proposal and digging in on the manuscript, which is due around May. So, Go, me! Well done. Well done, indeed.

I was thinking about this today and I realized that a couple years ago I had told myself that the direction I wanted my writing career to go was as a writer of books. And it seems to be that I'm on track. I really only regularly write for two magazine/trade journals; otherwise my income primarily comes from writing book-length market research reports, editing a technical journal, and whatever miscellaneous other things show up. That's good, I think--making a living just writing for magazines and trade journals, though satisfying, can be a particularly brutal treadmill to be on--and it seems like it's the direction I'm headed anyway. That's definitely the direction I want to go--mostly books with the occasional small project to fill in the gaps and to keep my hand in. I would also, as I recently mentioned to my wife, like to start having enough book projects out and about that I started getting royalties from them, ie., having a backlist, so I got income from work I did earlier, rather than just recently.

3. Lose 36 pounds.
Well, no. Hell no. Earlier this week I would have had to say I gained weight, but I've been being careful about what enters my mouth and exercising harder this week, and as a result I can say I lost more like 2 pounds, but no, this was clearly a failure. If there's one thing I've learned in 2009 it's that unless you're a marathoner, exercise alone won't help you lose weight if you aren't careful what you eat. And I do exercise. A lot. About 6 days a week. Weight lifting 3 days a week, running 3 days a week, biking 3-6 days a week depending on the time of year, karate at least 1.5 hours a week, more often 3 to 6 hours of formal workouts, the occasional kayaking when in season, and a lot of dog-walking. So it's not exercise. It's eating out too much and eating too much in general. Bummer.

4. Work up to running 5 miles, 3X a week. Well, no. In about February I was up to 3.5 miles, then I'm not quite sure what happened. I think I got sick for a couple weeks and didn't run, then started back around a mile or two, then when I started running outside instead of on the treadmill it wasn't long before I got injured--Achilles tendon pull/strain and/or problems with my calf muscles. So I took a month or two off to rest up. Then I started over more or less from the beginning. I'm currently up to about 2.25 miles on the treadmill about 3 days a week. The plan this time is to get to 3 miles and just hold there for some time to consolidate that level of fitness, such as it is.

5. Run a 10K. Well, as #4 might indicate, uh, no.

So where does that leave me for my goals/resolutions for 2010?

I think I'll keep #1. Why the hell not?

1. Make $80,000+
2. Sign a book contract
3. Ah, well, more realistic. Lose 10 pounds. If I hit that, well, then, I'll adjust.
4. Work up to running 3 miles 3X a week.

I've got another 24 hours to focus on these a bit more.

For the book contracts, I'd like to sign another nonfiction book contract and I'd like to sign at least one more fiction contract. I'm actually more ambitious than that. I want to sign at least one more contract for a Derek Stillwater novel. I want to get a contract for the SF novel I'm writing. I want a contract for another novel, whether it's the one still out there, Hot Money, or another thriller I hope to finish in the first half of this year. That means 3-4 books contracts, not counting the various contracts I'm expecting in the next week or so for market research reports.

I'd like The Fallen to sell a lot. It comes out in April so I'll be doing a fair amount of promotion. I need to focus my promotional goals. I know my publisher mentioned 65 signings, but that's not going to happen. I'm leaning toward a 2010 goal of 10-15 official events--book signings, book fairs, etc--with some miscellaneous drive-bys, as well as a blog tour, etc. Since The Valley of Shadows doesn't come out until September 2011, I have a good 9 months to continue marketing The Fallen in 2011, too, which is a change of strategy for me. I'm trying to treat it as a marathon and rather than kill myself all at once, do a slow but steady amount of promotion over the course of the book's pub schedule. I don't know if that'll work, but it'll work better for me. I do know that being intense for a couple months then doing nothing results in some sales during the intense period, then almost nothing the rest of the time. And the intense period drives me nuts.

I've been a first-degree brown belt in sanchin-ryu karate for about 2 years. The next level is black belt. The way sanchin-ryu handles promotions is a little different from the more "sports-based" martial arts like Tae Kwon Do. Brown belt and up are pretty much at the discretion of the district master. Masters are 4th-degree black belts and up; the district master oversees the classes within a region. I was promoted by the previous district master just before he left the state for another job, taking his wife, my instructor, with him. So at the time period in which I might have really been progressing toward my black belt all the people who really know who I was and what I knew left and I had to get to know a new sensei and a new district master. That is at least one factor in why it's taken so long (I'm sure there are others, like I wasn't, uh, ready), but I've been making much more of a concerted effort to progress--helping teach junior classes, visiting more classes, including one that's currently being taught by the district master, more workouts in general, as well as keeping sanchin-ryu in the back of my mind the rest of the time. So I hope that in 2010 I'll get promoted. Although as I often say, when I'm ready I'll get promoted. Still...

I'm sure I can come up with some more goals, but I'll give it some thought.

How about you? How'd you do in 2009?

My 2009 Reading List

December 30, 2009
  1. Divine Justice by David Baldacci
  2. The 39 Clues: One False Note by Gordon Korman
  3. Halo: The Cole Protocol by Tobias S. Buckell
  4. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner
  5. The Carnival Master by Craig Russell
  6. Running for Mortals: A commonsense plan for changing your life through running by John Bingham and Jenny Hadfield
  7. Nightmare Academy by Dean Lourey
  8. Collision by Jeff Abbott
  9. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by JK Rowling
  10. The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly
  11. Terminal Freeze by Lincoln Child
  12. Night and Day by Robert B. Parker
  13. The 39 Clues: The Sword Thief by Peter Lerangis
  14. The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston w/Mario Spezi
  15. Six Days of the Condor by James Grady
  16. Illegal by Paul Levine
  17. Goblin Quest by Jim C. Hines
  18. The Second Perimeter by Mike Lawson
  19. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling
  20. The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts On Reclaiming The American Dream by Barack Obama
  21. True Detectives by Jonathan Kellerman
  22. Magickeepers: The Eternal Hourglass by Erica Kirov
  23. Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Last Olympian
  24. Wicked Prey by John Sandford
  25. The Career Novelist: A Literary Agent Offers Strategies for Success by Donald Maass
  26. A Knife Edge by David Rollins
  27. The Human Disguise by James O'Neal
  28. Dead Silence by Randy Wayne White
  29. The Disappeared by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
  30. His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis
  31. The Doomsday Key by James Rollins
  32. The Inside Ring by Mike Lawson
  33. Cemetery Dance by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
  34. Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich
  35. Step By Step: A Pedestrian Memoir by Lawrence Block
  36. Whispers of the Dead by Simon Beckett
  37. Moscow Rules by Daniel Silva
  38. The Chaco Meridian: Centers of Political Power in the Ancient Southwest by Stephen H. Lekson
  39. Even Money by Dick Francis & Felix Francis
  40. Shockball by SL Viehl
  41. Rough Country by John Sandford
  42. The Tavernier Stones by Stephen Parrish *
  43. The Professional by Robert B. Parker
  44. Diving Into The Wreck by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
  45. Evidence by Jonathan Kellerman
  46. Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story Of A Band Of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode To Victory In Afghanistan by Doug Stanton
  47. House Rules by Mike Lawson
  48. U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton
  49. Storm Front by Jim Butcher
  50. In Search of the Old Ones: Exploring the Anasazi World of The Southwest by David Roberts
*Read in manuscript. To be released April 2010.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Does Stephen King Worry About The Market?

December 29, 2009
Like I have an answer to that rhetorical question?

Anyway, as y'all know, The Divine Ms. O and I had some discussions about a variety of topics a while back and one of them was hook. And in it I started babbling about one of the two novels I'm currently working on and she, er, kind of accused my hook of being a mere bobber with no hook and no bait.

Among other things, this back-and-froth (yeah, I mistyped forth as froth, changed it to forth, then thought froth seemed like a worthy description, so shoot me), got me to stop dicking around with two novels simultaneously. I decided to just focus on my SF novel in hopes of actually completing it in Q1 2010.

The other thing I spent some time thinking about was if it's always a good idea for writers to take the market into consideration. I made a comment on Lurker Monkey's blog the other day that sometimes we write things for creative and emotional reasons that have nothing to do with the market. I suspect that's one reason why a lot of good writers often end up with manuscripts they can't sell, too, but at some point we also probably need to balance our artistic life with our commercial one, particularly if there's not a lot of money in what we're doing.

So will I go back to Dressed To Kill, the story whose hook Ms. O didn't like? Maybe. Because I like the character and I like the story and despite the weak hook, I still think it's commercial. Alternately, I may need to turn to another Derek Stillwater novel sooner rather than later. And on the third hand (philosophically, I can be an octopus), I've got 40,000 words of a thriller called China Fire written and since that's anywhere from half to a third finished, there's a big part of me that thinks I should bite the bullet and chew through that sucker. I think that one's got a good hook, a great character, terrific plot--its just a difficult book to write and that's probably why it keeps stalling. Also, I think I can see a way to add 10,000-20,000 words (maybe) to it where it is without padding, which may find where I stopped to be a lot closer to the end that I thought it was. In other words, there's a main character who would probably benefit from a number of point of view scenes. And perhaps even another major character's, now that I think of it...

So, back to the title. Does Stephen King Worry About The Market? Uh... I don't know, but I think yes and I think no (yeah, back to the octopus again). Because, boys and girls, the guy's currently got a 1000+ page novel out and what other writer can do that? Even bestselling authors? Few to none, now that Michener and Clavell have gone to the Great Writing Workshop In The Sky. Ms. Rowling is an exception, but is she a working writer any more? Haven't heard any rumors.

At the same time, I suspect Stevie DOES pay attention to the market in that he always delivers a "Stephen King Book."

[And for you newbies that want to argue that you, too, can write a 1500-page manuscript "because King does it" you don't understand that Stephen King does not write horror novels; he writes Stephen King novels and Stephen King novels, sometimes, run over 1000 pages. Unless you plan on writing a Stephen King novel, chances are you're out of luck and out of a place to market your book, a few exceptions notwithstanding.]


Monday, December 28, 2009

Reading--The Latest 10

December 28, 2009
In that I've just started Dan Brown's thuddingly long The Lost Symbol and am otherwise reading The Audacity to Win on the Kindle app on my iPhone and I don't think I'll be finishing either in 2009, it looks like I've read 50 books this year, quite down from the last 2 years, although I think my nonfiction magazine writing and general activities level has gone way up. Anyway, here are the last 10 I've read.

  1. Rough Country by John Sandford Another winner about Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigator Virgil Flowers, this time revolving around a business woman who was murdered while at an all-women's resort/retreat. Sandford's best-known series is about Lucas Davenport, but the Virgil Flowers series is very strong and satisfying.
  2. The Tavernier Stones by Stephen Parrish *Ah yes, who is this guy. I read Stephen's first novel in manuscript form and enjoyed it a lot, and look forward to shelling out real money for the real book and reading it in April after it gets published. Queu it up on Amazon so you don't forget, folks. You'll enjoy it. It's a treasure hunt, old maps, good guys, bad guys, weird guys... fun.
  3. The Professional by Robert B. Parker A Spenser novel, about, what, his 50th? Parker's novels have been a bit uneven of late, but I thought this was one fairly consistent and enjoyable. I expect some unevenness over the course of 50 or 60 novels, but some of his more recent novels feel like they were phoned in; this one is pretty good, though.
  4. Diving Into The Wreck by Kristine Kathryn Rusch A sci-fi novel about a woman in the very, very distant future who is half treasure hunter, half archaeologist. Her passion and her job is finding abandoned spaceships and either studying them as an archaeologist/historian, taking tourists on tours, or salvaging them for money. When she discovers an ancient spaceship in a part of space it never should have been able to reach, she forms a team to dive it, but there are secrets and technology on the ship that are better left unexplored. The only thing that bugged me about... okay, 2 things... one was the present tense narrative and the other was the ending, which seemed to skim over the legal ramifications (ie., treason) of what the main character and her team were doing. Otherwise, loved it.
  5. Evidence by Jonathan Kellerman. Another good Alex Delaware novel. He seems to have largely jettisoned the concept of Alex as a child psychologist who gets sucked into police investigations by his expertise and is now an essentially unpaid partner to Milo Sturgis. Aside from that odd disconnect, this is one of the more consistent mystery series out there.
  6. Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story Of A Band Of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode To Victory In Afghanistan by Doug Stanton An enthralling, in-depth look at the Special Forces and CIA ops that were the first group into Afghanistan working with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. If you want to really be concerned about Obama's current surge strategy, read this book to understand what we're up against.
  7. House Rules by Mike Lawson Another good twisty-turny story about the Speaker of the House's troubleshooter, Joe DeMarco. Punchy writing, fantastic plot twists, terrific characterization, and a wonderful main character that defies all the cliches.
  8. U is for Undertow by Sue Grafton I have been, over the years, a huge fan of Sue Grafton's novels. That said, I feel like she peaked with "I" is for Innocent. Although each novel does different things, and I never feel like Grafton phones it in, I think it's possible that either the character has overstayed her welcome or I have. It's possible that, after 20 books, I've just outgrown these types of books. That said, although I felt the book was slow going, I thought the conclusion was very satisfying and I appreciated the new techniques (for her) that Grafton brought to the book.
  9. Storm Front by Jim Butcher Under the urging of my oldest son, I finally read a Harry Dresden novel by Jim Butcher, the first in the series. I'm sure I'll read more. Harry is a wizard, and not a Harry Potter-like wizard at all. He gets called in by the cops to investigate cases that have an apparent supernatural twist to them--in this case, two people's hearts exploded from the inside out while having sex. They read like PI novels, and Harry is a very appealing character. I was charmed and impressed.
  10. In Search of the Old Ones: Exploring the Anasazi World of The Southwest by David Roberts Continuing my study of the Anasazi (pueblo dwellers) with this fine overview of the Anasazi, that gives a history of Charles Weatherill, who discovered and documented most of the early Anasazi ruins, to Roberts' own explorations, current thinking (or somewhat current, since the book was published in the 90s), controversies, etc. A fine book to read just because it was enjoyable.

Monday, December 21, 2009

My Lesson For 2009

December 21, 2009
I suppose this post could wait until New Year's Eve, but I was thinking a lot about it today and yesterday, so, strike while the thought is hot and all that.

For the last 5 or 6 months I've been meeting one of my oldest and dearest friends for lunch once a month, when our respective schedules can accommodate us. Our birthdays are 2 weeks apart and we grew up across the street from each other, so LITERALLY we've known each other our entire lives. In all honesty, I can say he's like a brother to me. We grew pretty distant for quite some time, but now we've decided to make sure we're still friends, despite all the changes in our lives.

Sitting around the table with my own family yesterday, I commented that one of the things that annoys me with myself in terms of meeting my friend for lunch is that when I do, I start comparing lives. In particular, he's a fairly successful business. So am I, for that matter, but we go back to economies of scale. I don't know how much money he makes, but my minimum estimate is that he makes double what my wife and I make combined.

And really, that's okay. I wouldn't trade his life for anything. I don't want employees, I don't want his job, I don't want his responsibilities, and I don't want his family or family dynamics, thank you very much. And I keep that all in mind, that the only thing I would want of his is the money. And even then, I'm not sure I'd use it the way he does. Priorities are just different. (Although he and his family are at Disney World this week and yes, that would be a lot of fun).

There's more to what I'm thinking here. Last night I actually sat down with the laptop and watched the pilot episode of MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE. I had planned to watch it on TV when it aired, but it's on at 10 PM, past my bedtime, and although I sometimes make exceptions, I was really tired, had a cold, and was battling to make a deadline, so I skipped it. I, after all, am a MAN OF A CERTAIN AGE--I'm the exact demographic of the characters in this TV show that probably will be canceled eventually. Not that it's a bad show at all. It's probably quite good, occasionally very, very funny (in a seriously black humor way) and it is very, very true. Three lifelong friends played by Scott Bakula, Ray Romano and Andre Brauer. They're all in their late-40s. Bakula plays a fairly unsuccessful actor who's trying to find other ways to make a living than endless cattle calls, realizing that by and large he's over the hill and whatever career he might have had is probably over; Romano plays the owner of a party supplies store, is separated from his wife, has a gambling problem, and to my mind, is suffering from clinical depression more than the other two; Andre Brauer is the sales manager of a Chevy dealership owned by his father, he's married with three kids, the youngest who is a baby, & he has a fair number of health problems, including diabetes. (And his father is a total prick, but the plot gave a very honest, brutal and totally depressing picture of how some people feel trapped in lives and jobs due to outside considerations like family and mortgages).

The show was sort of depressing, though true and honest. One of the things that made me write this post today, was when Scott Bakula was talking to the barista at a Starbucks he goes to regularly, and telling her there was an open audition for a TV show called "Cry Bobby" on Lifetime and how stupid it sounded and he said, "You're a writer, right? Would you want to write for a show called 'Cry Bobby'?" She says, "Yeah, because right now all I'm writing is this." And she holds up a coffee cup with a name on it.

Well, he does go to the audition and as far as I can tell, doesn't get the gig. Anyway, you know where I'm going, right?

Be happy with what you have; be happy with who you are; know there's always somebody worse off and somebody better off than you.

I actually am aware of how lucky I am, that my writing career in many ways is really terrific, and that people who are struggling to get an agent or to get published probably just wish I would shut the hell up when I complain about the publishing business. Well, fair enough, after all.

So today I'm thankful.

I hope everyone has an excellent Christmas and I'll be back sometime after the 25th. I hope Santa brings you a pony.

Mark Terry

Friday, December 18, 2009

Dis, Dat & De Udder

December 18, 2009
I want to thank The Divine Ms. O for the last handful of blog posts. I don't know if they helped y'all, but I got a lot out of them. It helped clarify my thoughts on some things, deepened my thoughts on others, and kicked me in the ass a little bit, especially in regard to the two wips I'm dicking around with.

I may be a little scarce (or not) the next week or two. I really don't know. If I don't get around to it again, Happy Holidays! I hope they turn out the way you want them to.

On the rest-of-my-life front, this week I finished and handed in a 240-page single-spaced market research report. How long does it take you to write your novel? I'm often asked. Well, this wasn't quite a novel, I think it came to about 60,000 words and there are a lot of tables and charts and I was able to draw on some previously written reports. But the question is valid and in this case, I can say that I apparently signed the contract on about October 7th and my deadline was December 15th. And I can honestly say I wish I'd had more time, because the last couple weeks required me working evenings and weekends to finish on time. Also, this is the 12th market research-type report I've done (some are more comprehensive than others) and I turned it into the publisher and he came back with some edits yesterday (ongoing) and yes, I felt myself panicking slightly. I told Leanne last night that even after doing 12 of these things I sometimes feel like I don't know what the hell I'm doing. Today I'm a little cooler.

On the same note, perhaps I had a revelation about these edits. When I read the e-mail from my publisher, I went into Panic Mode--oh, hell, I've got to do this TOMORROW and I'm tired and I'm getting over a cold and.... And this morning I thought, hell, it's not like he's going to publish it in the next 2 weeks. He'll get through the whole report in the next day or two and I'll have some time to give it my time and attention. But I realized, just the other day I got a phone call from my editor at Oceanview and we've gone through a round of edits on The Valley of Shadows, the Derek Stillwater novel that will be published in September 2011, and she wanted a few more. Most were minor, but there's one chapter toward the end they don't like much (it's a bit of a Morrie the Explainer and it involves a bunch of new characters talking about a bunch of old characters and it's apparently still confusing, even after my previous edits, but it's an important chapter in terms of wrapping up the politics of the story). I said to her, "Okay, but I won't be able to get to these tomorrow," thinking: God, I'm tired after finishing this market report and I need some time off and it's the holidays and... Pat, my editor, said, "Oh, we don't need it that soon. By mid-February's fine."

The point I'm making is that I just realized that my reaction to edits often is, "I'll get right on it right this instant." And once I get past that panicky moment (I'll fix it! I'll fix it!), I take a breath, realize the project is going to require a cool head and some deliberate thought and, I KNOW THIS, they're usually not that difficult to fix.

On other notes, my youngest son, Sean, swam in his first swim meet yesterday. He's in the 6th grade and he swims (as does our oldest son, Ian, though he's not interested in competing) in the Oxford Swim Club, which is a feeder program for the swim team. Sean's a hotshot (we call him Squidboy) and he finished 1st place in the 50 yard butterfly (I'm an okay swimmer, but I can't do the butterfly for 10 feet, let alone 50 yards); his group finished 1st in the 200 yard medley relay (he did the butterfly again). In fact, they were a full lap ahead of their closest competitors. I'm told he's actually even faster on his freestyle, but he didn't swim in that event. This was a club meet with ages from grade 1 to grade 8, so everybody won and they weren't really comparing 1st graders to 8th graders, but were more lumped in by seed times. Anyway, he swam a 200 yard individual medley (which for that you swim one lap freestyle, one lap backstroke, one lap breast stroke, one lap butterfly). He was swimming against other members of his team on that one and finished 4th out of 4. I asked him what happened, was he tired, and he said that when he hit the water on his dive his goggles came off and he swam the whole thing with the goggles strap choking him around his neck. His coach commented to me that normally he smokes the other three swimmers he swam against. One of the things I've been told is that his 50 yard freestyle time (which he did not compete on) is only 2 seconds slower than the high school girls' swim team record. Clearly the coach has hopes for Sean. So do we, and we're very proud of him. My wife and I want him to keep having fun, though, and not get burned out.

In the past I've been skeptical about reading books on a smart phone. Because I published Dancing In The Dark as a Kindle-only book, I'd downloaded the free Kindle app to my iPhone and skimmed through it, but never bothered trying to read a whole book that way, although I was impressed by the app. The other day I downloaded The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory by David Plouffe and have been reading it on the iPhone Kindle app. You know, this really is not a bad way to read books. I'm not sure I want to curl up on the couch with it, but when I'm waiting in the car to pick up my kids, or I'm waiting for a concert to start (or a swim meet), it's really terrific. Could be a game changer. About the only thing I don't particularly like about it is that I like to be able to look at a book and see where I am, either by having an open page or a bookmark, in comparison to the rest of the book, and the paradigm is different for that with an e-book, but I'm going to concede that this just might be possible way of reading books in the future. I suspect in 2010 I'll either invest in a Kindle or, if Apple actually comes out with a tablet-like product, as all the rumors suggest, I'll go that route.

Well, I've rambled long enough. What's going on with your life?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Writing 201: Tension/Suspense (Conversation)

December 17, 2009

The Divine Ms. O and I continue our Writing 201 conversation with Suspense/Tension.

Mark: I think tension/suspense, and it's possible these are 2 different things, has a lot of different levels to it. On one level, it's all about conflict. It's about whatever obstacles your characters face, whether it's trying to stop the end of the world or trying to keep your job while taking care of a sick kid. But conflict goes further. A friend of mine gave me a manuscript a couple years ago and he was a beautiful writer, but everyone got along too well, they were, no pun intended, all on the same page. Yeah, the main character was a nice guy, easy-going, and he was writing for the Christian market, but to me if people just came into a room together and each one had different things they wanted, the story would have improved significantly. There's also tension in using tense words, tense word order, not giving too much information up front and always creating a certain amount of mystery about what's going to happen next.

Erica: In my current wip, the tension and suspense come from outside forces pressing against my hero and heroine and their lives. But I think that a lot of the tension comes from that "oh, God, now this has gone wrong" element. In each chapter, as this virus spreads, they lose more essential services. So now, the power will only run from eight in the morning until eight at night. Food becomes limited. The people around them are dying. There's a sense of "what next"? And of course, the "what next" will LOGICALLY be the worst possible scenario. And I think that's where novels have to go. Even if you are writing COMEDY . . . let's say two characters are getting married. If there is ONE person the bride PRAYS will not turn up on her doorstep--of COURSE that is who must. Hilarity ensues. But prior to that "worst case"--funny or dark--the book should build the tension by the steps along the way.

Mark: Ah! I'd file this under plotting, and I've written about it on my blog before. I call it the Power of the Thwart. The classic example is The Lord of the Rings. And "thwart" refers to every plan and/or effort gets thwarted. It's really, really important for creating tension and for good plotting. TLOR, for example: The hobbits head out to meet Gandalf, but are chased by the Nazgul Riders. Then they get to the Prancing Pony and Gandalf isn't there. Then they're picked up by Aragorn. But the Nazgul Riders have tracked them down. They flee again. Then they're caught by the Nazgul Riders again and Frodo is wounded. Then they flee again to Rivendell, thinking they have sanctuary there, but no, they have to leave again. They plan to go through the mountains, but turn back (thwarted) by the blizzards and Saruman's efforts, so they go to the Mines of Moria, but they can't get in. Once they do get in, everyone's dead. Then they get lost. Then they get attacked. Then Gandalf dies. Then... I think TLOR is a classic example of great plotting when viewed that way, and it can simply be said, Your Character Needs To Fail His/Her Way To Success. If you create an obstacle, they need to get over it, through it or around it, but NOT in the way you'd expect. And it's good for a story and creates suspense if a lot of the time they fail on their first attempt and have to figure out some other way to do things, or take a detour. Then the reader wonders, Uh-oh, what's next? Again, don't make it too easy on your characters. Let's face it, authors are the Old Testament God that made Job's life miserable, not the forgiving God of the New Testament.

Erica: Being in a writers' group, I was delighted two weeks ago when one member "guessed" at something she thought was going to happen. I paused at the scene and thought . . . hmm, you COULD think this is a hint. But it's not in the slightest. In fact, her guess is 100% the opposite. But I think that turning expectation around creates in its own way suspense and tension. The author toys with you in a way . . . that unexpected.

Mark: Well, in terms of that, I think the trick is "unexpectedly expected." That is to say, it's a surprise to the reader, but 2 seconds after they read it they should say, "Oh, man, I should have seen that coming." That goes back to freshness, I think. Hard to do. Harlan Coben is a master at the twist, but at least one of the books recently a reviewer said something like, "A fantastic 399 page book. Unfortunately, it was 400 pages long." He did this massive twist on the last page. It was a great line for a review, and I have to say I basically agreed with the reviewer. It was a great twist, but it was the sort of thing you thought about later and went, "Huh?" rather than, "Got me."

I think a lot of newbie writers just miss out on tension by their lack of good verbs, but that's a mechanical issue. Your character shouldn't just "go across the street" they should at least "cross" or "run" or "saunter" and it's useful to keep in mind that if you're creating a certain mood, your word choices can be important. Can a silence be jagged? Was the silence broken by a scream or shattered by a scream or ripped by a scream or whatever. You're not just describing things, but you're manipulating the reader's emotions, and your word choices can create a mood and develop tension as well.

Erica: I think another tension element goes back to character. My mom watches NCIS, a show I see sporadically in reruns, and she wants to know whether I think Rocky Carroll's character, Leon Vance, is a good guy or a bad guy. They have managed, for my mom, to keep the show fresh (oh, another one of our Writing 201 topics) by being ambiguous. That adds to the tension, that "is he good or bad" or "will she leave him or work it out"--again, it points to not thinking of tension as solely the territory of the thriller, for example.

Mark: I agree. EVERY genre requires tension of some sort and some writers—and I think it’s true—say that no matter what you’re writing, it’s a mystery because the reader has to be kept guessing about how it’s going to end.

The floor is open!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Writing 201: CHARACTERIZATION (Conversation)

December 16, 2009

The Divine Ms. O and I continue our conversation today, this time looking at characterization.

Mark: Looking back at our previous conversations on voice, hook, and freshness, it seems clear that they're all involved in characterization. I tend to be very organic when it comes to creating characters and I'm very aware of how each one is, in some way, a part of me, although perhaps just an "enhanced" part of me. There's a layering process. I tend to start with a name. Can't deal with the character without figuring out the name and it needs to resonate with me. I knew Derek's first name, but it took me some sifting to come up with Stillwater. I'm not sure exactly why it resonates with me, although I have some ideas. But first the name has to resonate with me. Then I ask myself what they do, how they came to do what they do, and I usually develop some back story that involves parents, siblings, and education. My main characters are almost always problem solvers, they're very analytical. One question I typically ask of my main character that I don't think most writers ask is: "If they weren't doing what they're doing, what would they rather do?" Because I think most people have dreams that are just that, dreams, whether they want to be a major league baseball player or an opera singer or a world traveler, or, (gulp) a novelist. But knowing that weird bit of trivia helps me find a certain core identity for my main character.

Erica: I start with name and some back story element that makes them unique (for example, in The Roofer, Ava was the daughter of a hitman in the Irish mob, the Westies). Or I start with name and unusual career or element of storyline (Billie Quinn worked in a crime lab AND was the daughter of a mob bookie).

Beyond that, I tend to not be analytical. Once the sidekicks come in and their world starts becoming populated, all the other details seem to drift in on their own and I just make note of them as I write. For example, I was working on a scene last week between two lovers in 2018 as the world is on the brink of collapse. In the scene, you learn her dog's name is Crick (after Watson and Crick), that she drinks wine with her lover each night (to preserve something of their old life), and that she and her Russian lover are contemplating using the empty apartment across the hall to care for their friend who has the virus. You see patter between the two lovers over his ukha (cod soup), which she teases him over. You see them make love and that they have both shorn their heads. And NOT ONE of those elements . . . not a single, solitary one, was in my head when I started writing the scene. I basically brought her home and then him home and wrote what came into my head. But the characterization--the fact that they would do this sort of insane thing and hide a sick person across the hall, that they would both shear off their hair because their work with the virus is more important than vanity, that their dog is named after an atheist and the man who brought the world the double-helix . . . that would all fit with them. Somehow, if you KNOW your characters, it becomes a seamless whole, if that makes sense. Every single element fits. It's just that in my case, I know their "whole" before I know all the details. So I just write.

Mark: As I say, organic. I keep adding layers as the story continues, although because of the types of stories I write, I don't have a lot of time for lengthy back story, so I try to show a lot about my main character by how he behaves. He's got quirks and I try to expand on some of the background. Just a minor detail, for instance, Derek carries a .45. I later comment that it was a gift from the Secretary of Homeland Security, which makes his companion at the time say, "Very sentimental." Derek says, "He told me not to shoot myself in the foot with it." Now, if you know Derek a little bit, and James Johnston, the Secretary, this will make a lot more sense, because Derek is a very reluctant troubleshooter for DHS, but he's the Secretary's go-to guy for sticky situations, although the Secretary (and Derek, for that matter) understand that Derek's a major political liability. That exchange is in the 4th book, but there are little details like that that I'm constantly expanding on. It's a little easier in a series, I think, you create certain details--Derek kayaks, he wears ju-ju beads and a 4-leaf clover and a St. Sebastian medical, when stressed he listens to religious-based classical music, he carries a .45. And although I add details as I go on, I also try to expand and layer the details that are already there, bring in the fact the ju-ju beads were given to him by a friend from Special Forces who got them in Somalia, telling Derek that Derek needed the luck more than he did, finding out that Derek's parents were missionary doctors, for instance. I didn't know these things going in; in a lot of ways the details were character tags, signposts of an inner life, but as I progress I try to bring more depth to those details and that inner life. Now granted, if you're writing standalones you need to figure out how to integrate all the details and the back story without bogging the story down.

Here's a question for you, though. How do you make a character likable?

Erica: Well, what I think of likable and what other people think of likable are often two different things. My characters tend to value loyalty above nearly any other value--and as such they are willing to ignore moral failings. Now, there's a line in the sand, obviously. They would not ignore domestic violence or child abuse. But they will ignore the kind of thing that John Cusack's character spoke of in Gross Pointe Blank, "If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to bring me there." I love that sort of nuance of morality.

In general, the likability for me, since I started out writing comedy, comes out in the banter, no matter if the book is dark or comic. I also tend to give my characters sidekicks that pull out their likability. I tend to give my bitchier heroines family members that require real devotion in some way--brothers who are addicts or gamblers . . . fathers who have been to prison. So that you see this aspect that is far and away different from the persona they project to the rest of the world. I tend to think that's important. We all have a public mask/face and a private one. The healthiest people have those two masks match. But healthy people don't make for interesting fiction. So my characters have a public mask that may be difficult or of questionable morality. But their private mask--shown to very few--is going to have a core of some surprise that will make them more likable to the reader.

Mark: I don't worry too much about it. One thing I do think about, however, when I bother to get analytical about it, is an exchange from one of the later-season episodes of West Wing. In it, Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) had to expand his duties as head of communications to actually being the Press Secretary and standing at the podium and fielding questions from the press. He was disastrous at it. Toby was a brilliant, idealistic, cranky (wonderful), short-tempered character. Annabeth Schott (Kristin Chenoweth) was supposed to coach him on it. Finally, while walking down the hallway (everybody on West Wing seemed to talk while race-walking somewhere) said, "How do you get dates?" He says, "What?" She says, "How do you get dates? Whatever it is (I'm paraphrasing here), if it's witty conversation, being charming, flirting, whatever it is, you have to use it here."

And I've always thought that was good advice for writers in terms of getting the audience to like/love your characters. Women can be bitchy and still get dates. Guys can be ugly or slobs and still get dates, etc. How? It's not like we can really use good looks in fiction, so we've got to use something else, charm, humor, wit, dialogue, vulnerability... something.

Erica: That's a perfect example. Even the best-drawn villains bring something other than one-note evilness to the table.

The floor is open!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Writing 201: FRESHNESS (Conversation)

December 14, 2009

We’ll continue our conversation with The Divine Miss O. The topic today is “Freshness.”

Mark: Whenever the topic of freshness comes up, I immediately think of this pretty crappy movie called I LOVE TROUBLE starring Nick Nolte and Julia Roberts. It's about two competing Chicago newspaper reports, but the plot isn't really what we need to know. We need quick character descriptions, and Nolte's character was described as a tough, grizzled whiskey-guzzling, meat-eating old-style reporter and Roberts as a feminine, idealistic, vegetarian. And as soon as I heard the description of the characters, I thought, "Oh come on, the writer and director can't be that lazy, can they?"

Maybe freshness has to do with battling clichés. I immediately thought, Why not have Nolte be the idealistic reporter who's a vegetarian (for moral reasons, because he's trying to lose weight, because he had a heart attack and survived) and she's the meat- eating cynic. Even that small kind of change, a flip of expectations, would have gone a long ways to making the characters more interesting.

Erica: I agree that freshness is about avoiding cliche. What's tricky, of course, is that cliche carries truth. I have met detectives with drinking problems and psychologists with extensive personal issues. I worked in the UPI newsroom and met a reporter from Tel Aviv who traveled light, loved the ladies and a good cigar, and drank too much.

I think freshness is also about those "wow" moments. Those "why didn't I think of that" ideas. "The Gargoyle" by Andrew Davidson is one that comes to mind.

And before this digresses in the comments into a "there is no new idea under the sun"--yes, it's about archetypes and so on we have all seen before. BUT the freshness is in the details again . . . it spinning it in a way not previously seen.

Mark: I think we're all pretty aware of the conventions in storytelling, especially as it relates to genre. If you haven't been reading voraciously you probably don't have any business trying to write novels, but aside from that, most of us have seen a few thousand TV shows and movies by the time we're 18. You've got to be careful about hookers with a heart of gold, flippant side kicks, hard-drinking cops and PIs, damsels in distress, lone-wolf heroes, etc. And it probably is in the details. In PI fiction John D. MacDonald sort of set a standard with Travis McGee and his sidekick, Meyer; then Spenser with Hawk. Then you have to look at Robert Crais' Elvis Cole and Pike, and Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar and Win. The key to everything after Spenser seems to be that the hero is allowed to be moral, while the sidekick is a sociopathic. It's a weird convention, but each of them has managed to make their characters memorable and fresh at the time, sometimes by flipping the expected--Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar is a sports agent, and his lethal sidekick, Win, is I think a financial manager, very preppy, almost effeminate, but a total sociopath (which doesn't strike me as a reach for a Wall Street banker...)

So do you think--and hey, we've tripped right over characterization-- that you can consciously work on this? Are there questions you have to ask? I tend to build my characters sort of organically.

Erica: I think I am very organic as a writer, but I do consciously toss out anything I feel has been done before. Like I would never do a PI novel unless I somehow already had my (think yesterday!) HOOK. I just wouldn't go there . . . why? The question every genre writer has to ask, especially now, is what freshness do I bring to this genre?

Questions to ask . . . hmm . . . I don't know. For me, I think freshness, now that I am pondering it, probably stems from back story. I mean the up-front on-the-page characteristics are pretty important but . . . let's take Max Mingus from the novel Mr. Clarinet. He can pound the crap out of anyone, he is huge, well-built, tough. He drinks. He is a former cop. He is not above using violence, or even killing someone to get information. Sounds like a lot of PIs. But Max has served time for murder. He committed the murders as a police officer/homicide detective. Intentionally. Over a crime so horrific and perps so unreprentant that he hunted them down and killed them. Then he served time. As a cop. In general population. And even all that doesn't do it justice, since the devil is in the details of the crime and of Max's marriage and what happened while he was in prison to his wife, which is yet another layer to the back story. Add in that the cops he used to associate with think he's righteous, and his former partner is still his friend. And he has all these secondaries that are pretty compelling in the Miami scene, which is pretty edgy.

I think were Max just the PI with a violent streak . . . been there, done that. But the layers and poignancy and violence and horror of his back story (too complicated to fully do justice here) make him a different sort of PI.

Mark: I guess it's tricky and probably requires an awareness of the market. As you know, something as a challenge, I kept joking around on this blog and yours about character tags and writing a story about a dwarf PI who drinks stingers for breakfast, etc. So as a challenge to myself, I wrote a short story, FLATFOOTED, about Biz Leightner, PI, and I included all the character tags I used to joke about. I actually think the story came off pretty well (it's been turned down by one market and is still at another, but considering the market for short stories, who knows?), and I think you're right. It's like you can take all the details of a standard genre (character tags), but it's how you come to those and perhaps how the character responds. Biz was drinking a stinger for breakfast because he had been out on a stakeout all night. But I think, to my mind, anyway, where he became fresh had to do with his attitude, which was sunny, his relationship with his very tall mother, and his own confidence in his abilities despite being about four-feet-tall. So yeah, it's details, but also how you arrive at them.

The other thing I was thinking about was that in a typical story, particularly a crime novel, you're going to have certain turning points or reversals. One of the old standbys is to have the main character's partner get shot. Okay, fine, it can work. But by simply changing things, have the partner get put out of commission by having a heart attack, or having to deal with his wife's cancer, or hell, winning the lottery and quitting mid-case, you can do a lot to freshen up a genre novel. But I think it's got to go beyond: time to bring on the one-armed man.

Erica: I think, too, that some of it is the skill of the writer. And that's just developed over time, with that "voice" we discussed. In one person's hands the Max Mingus character I described is fresh. In another's, it might be heavy handed. I have to say that there were no false notes in his character. It felt very natural. I've read a lot of manuscripts when I never, ever really "believed" the author. It all felt too arranged, too many i's dotted and t's crossed in the secondaries.

And when you mention changing things up in unusual ways, look at Mike Lawson's character's lesbian best friend. Unusual for the genre. Or even Alex Cross's character--lived with his grandmother. Just a nudge here or there can go a long way.

The floor is open for discussion!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Writing 201: HOOK (conversation)

December 10, 2009
As you read through today's conversation with The Divine Miss O, you might discover that I struggle with hooks, which is today's topic. Maybe we all do. Read on, friends, read on.

MARK: When I first think of "hook" I think of high concept, right or wrong. At its most effective high concept is the ability to describe your story in a sentence or two. Say: "Young boy discovers he's a real magician from a long line of magicians." That describes your novel MAGICKEEPERS, but to me it really doesn't quite differentiate it enough. I know in Hollywood they tend to pitch high concept as "Think of it as 'Harry Potter' meets 'Leaving Las Vegas.'" (God, what a concept). But to me, although this is a start, it doesn't quite do it. Hooks are tough and I struggle with them. I think I sort of fell into a good one with the Derek Stillwater novels—“Troubleshooter for Homeland Security whose expertise is biological and chemical terrorism, must stop horrible terror attacks before they begin.”

I think if I want to expand on that, I can add things like "reluctant troubleshooter" or "emotionally damaged troubleshooter" to give a sense of the character and to differentiate Derek from a thousand other action heroes. I'm still not quite sure that pins it down, though. I wrote a manuscript I'm still fairly high on, HOT MONEY, and I described the book like this: "When a politician needs a problem spun, they hire a political consultant; when they want a problem to go away, they hire Austin Davis." I could further describe it as: "Austin Davis is like a private investigator, only his clients are all politicians."

I still think that's a good hook, actually, but how to define "hook"?

ERICA: Okay, so can I tell you I love that "problem to go away" bit. Love it! That's a hook for something I would read.

To me, there is a difference between what's come to be known as the "elevator pitch" (your book in 40 words or less) and a hook. That difference is definitely in the details. You used MAGICKEEPERS . . . I'd add in details of their Vegas show and hiding in plain sight and the Russian element and Rasputin and the hunt for relics.

I think there are levels of hooks. Level one is a pitchy little hook sentence. A single sentence. (The one like you-- and all of us--mock a bit . . . Harry Potter meets Leaving Las Vegas.) Then as you spin the hook a bit into a paragraph, you are weaving a mini story. But the end of which the hook must generally feel new in some way, or if not new, then edgy (serial killer masks his killing life by marrying and having a baby--Dexter), or over the top or . . . something to hang your hat on, something for an agent to sell, something for an editor to pitch to committee.

And two sure ways you know you don't have a hook? One, you have to fumble because there ISN'T a unique element--as you describe it, you realize . . . crap, it sounds JUST like every other detective fiction out there (want to hear about a hook, think of Chabon's Yiddish detective novel--like NOTHING ever published). And two, you fumble because you can't sum it up. The book is too ethereal with nothing to hold onto but all your pretty words.

MARK: Hmmmm. Yes, I like that. The devil's in the details. I know we're going to talk later about freshness, but there's something to that here (folks, I'm pretty sure when we're talking Writing 201 they overlap a lot in most cases). I just latched onto something you said here, so I'm going to emphasize it:

"You have to fumble because there ISN'T a unique element--as you describe it, you realize . . . crap, it sounds JUST like every other detective fiction out there."

This is tough, really, really tough. One of the things I want to emphasize to people visiting today is that in today's marketplace writing "just another genre novel" even if you write it really, really, really well, isn't necessarily enough to get published. I think it's why cozy mysteries have been strong in recent years, the hook is so easy: interior decorator solves crimes; wedding planner solves crimes; professional beekeeper solves crimes; FILL- IN-THE-BLANK solves crimes. Sometimes they drive me crazy, but the fact of the marketplace does seem to be that if you can find some career/activity people might be interested in reading about that hasn't been done, then there's probably a market for it.

And I suppose I can see how that might work in romance novels as well: beautiful archaeologist falls in love with handsome treasure hunter while searching for Anasazi ruins in remote Utah desert; geeky computer hacker is romanced by computer security expert.

The trick might be outside those two genres, particularly if you're interested in stories that involve cops, soldiers, private eyes, etc. How do you keep them fresh, what's the hook?

Don't you think at least part of Dan Brown's phenomenal success was nobody had written about a "symbologist" before? I found The Da Vinci Code introduction of the movie a revelation, when Tom Hanks is putting up slides of swastikas, pitchforks, etc., and asking what people thought, then showing how the symbols got distorted over time. That was the hook, even more than the Sacred Feminine aspects.

ERICA: Exactly. Because I wrote chick lit for a while, I was often asked to read for this friend of a friend of a friend or the other. What struck me is that these writers would feel the "hook" was single young girl with witty gay best friend from England has to have a fake boyfriend for ex-boyfriend's wedding. And that might have been fine as you rode the wave at first, but sooner or later every genre turns and writers just aren't bringing a hook anymore--until the next audacious idea or next hook comes along and people have these "ah ha" moments and start flocking that way. I also think you are very right in the bar being raised ever higher.

MARK: Which brings me to my own problem, I think. I'm working on a novel that could be described as: True crime writer tracks serial killer. The first victim was his brother.

That's a good start for the hook, I think. But in order to make it more, er, novel, I need to go past it, and I'm not sure I'm really doing it well. So, the character, Parker Marks, is what I would describe as a Texas good ol' boy who drinks too much and is a womanizer; he likes to sit in with bar bands. But I'm still not sure I'm differentiating him enough. One quirk that came up, though, is he's in his late 30s and he's hooked up with a 21-year-old goth chick. Their relationship started out as a one-night stand, but she sort of stalked him and inserted herself into his life and he likes it, although there's a lot of friction there. So if anything, the hook may be their relationship more than anything else. The only other quirk I'm seeing at the moment to help with the freshness has to do with the drinking, which in some ways is almost reflexive with him, but he and Mandy were fighting about it and she argued that he seemed to be actively going out to get drunk and he raised his glass and, putting on the Texas drawl really hard, said, "'cause that's when the ghosts come out, darlin'." And I wondered if that was also another part of the hook. He commented once that his brother was the victim of the serial killer, but how his death pretty much killed his parents, and everywhere we turn, the more we learn about Parker, the more we see the wreckage of his own life--and maybe the success of his own life, which could cause some guilt--comes out of not only his brother's murder but the fact that his parents died from the grief and stress of it. Survivor's guilt, maybe.

Does this make sense? Is this a hook? How do we get to that point? (And we've wandered into characterization). One of the things that makes me most leery of hooks is the tendency to say, "Well, we need a hook, so I'm going to make a female, black, lesbian, paraplegic attorney." And it all starts to feel like those Sunday Night Mysteries TV shows in the 1970s: the married rich detectives (Hart to Hart), the senior citizen detective (Barnaby Jones), the Texas cowboy in New York City detective (McCloud). TV does this pretty well, but sometimes they don't feel organic, they feel like a bunch of character tags.

ERICA: Ok . . . is this "offline"? Because here's the thing . . . I don't think a relationship is a hook. I think the hook has to lie in his character much more so, and I definitely hear you. Maybe . . . maybe it's that you are not thinking "big" enough. By that I mean when everyone was doing chick lit to death . . . here were two of mine:
--an editor who must coax a sequel out of a recluse (think J.D. Salinger) whose novel changed the face of literature
--a chef, the only granddaughter of 17 grandsons of the last of the old-time reputed mobsters, who, through circumstance, ends up being tailed by the FBI who think her restauraurant is a money-laundering front

In both those case, I didn't restrict the novel's character to any ordinary life. So maybe Parker Marks is bigger than who you think of him. Maybe he wrote the seminal book on serial killers, and when someone copycatted it--and killed his brother to boot--he retreated into the bottle and an OBSESSIVE need to research crime. I mean maybe that's NOT it, but maybe his mythology needs to be bigger.

What say you?

MARK: Shit.

Given that I find this difficult, let's see if we can characterize questions you should ask yourself, or a step-by-step process to creating a hook or evaluating your hook.

1. To start, can you describe your plot in one or two sentences?
2. What about your character is unique? Ie., if it's a cop, is it a sunny, happy cop with a PhD in sociology? Is the cop an obsessive- compulsive (Monk)?
3. Is there a bigness to the concept?

What would you add?

ERICA: I would add what is the quest of the hero/main character--what is their obsession? Even chick lit can be boiled down to obsession (get married, land a boyfriend). Thrillers tend to be (catch the terrorist wreaking havoc with my life) also. I think in real life, people have passions, but in books they have to go large and be far more consuming.

MARK: Just to wrap this up, I was thinking about this this morning (yeah, in the shower, go figure), and I’m probably like a lot of writers, I find an idea, I think it’ll support a book, keep my interest, I like it a lot, so I start writing. I don’t necessarily think: hmmm, is there a hook? Is this really different? How does this differentiate itself from the 100,000 books published each year? And I’m here to tell you, I’ve paid the price for my lack of thinking about the hook.

And further, I was thinking about author David Morrell. When you look at many of his books, you can really see the hook. Two orphans raised as brothers, were adopted by a spymaster who raised them to be spies and assassins. When the adoptive father sacrifices one of the brothers, the remaining brother vows revenge (Brotherhood of the Rose); A top-level assassin, sick of what he’s become, joins a monastery and takes a vow of silence. When mysterious assassins wipe out everyone in the monastery and he alone survives, he goes out on a mission of vengeance (Fraternity of the Stone). It's fairly easy to get a sense of what the hook is, what makes these stories just a little bit different than what's been done before.

So I was thinking, as an exercise, people might pick successful books by their favorite authors and write a couple sentences describing those books’ hooks. It might be a revelation.

The floor is open to comments!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Silent Monks, Allelujah Chorus

December 9, 2009

Be back talking about "hook" in the morning.

Writing 201: VOICE

December 9, 2009
A while back, I posted about a sort of Writing 201, that the nuts-and-bolts of writing was fairly straightforward and teachable, but the more advanced things like voice and hooks and pace were more difficult. I decided to string together a series of posts on these topics (yes, always thinking of you), and decided I needed someone smarter, more talented, more experienced, more successful, and you know, better looking and nicer, to help me out. So I called upon my good friend Erica Orloff, better known here as The Divine Miss O. We’ll be having a series of conversations on these topics over the next week or so.

Today’s topic is “voice.” How many times have you heard an editor or agent say, “I was immediately attracted to the voice of the book?” Never? You don’t get out much, do you? A lot. But for all that talk, it’s sort of tricky to figure out what exactly what “voice” is and how to develop it.

After Erica and I finished this conversation, I was thinking (in the shower this morning) that it reminds me of the movie “The Legend of Bagger Vance” with Matt Damon and Will Smith. That part of what Matt Damon’s character needed to find (or re-find, as the case may be) his “authentic golf swing.” I think this applies to writing and especially to “voice.” So think about it. Here we go.

Mark: Let's start with voice. I'm not completely sure how to define it. Or more accurately, how do you separate "voice" from "style"? In my head I think there are separations, but they clearly overlap. It comes down to word choice and a lot of subtleties related to mechanics--sentence length and complexity, do you use short declarative sentences or more complex sentence structure, sentence fragments. I think that can be defined as style, but style needs--in my opinion, anyway--to be appropriate for each type of story, while I think voice tends to be more individual to the writer.

Erica: VOICE to me is where style meets character.

One VERY SIMPLE sentence, but to me it speaks volumes. As writers develop, they eventually grow into a natural style. Read my blogs for a while, and you notice I am tangential. I use ellipses a lot . . . as I move and wend my way through my own thought processes. I used all caps and italics to emphasize FEELING because that's who I am in real life. I'll start sentences with "and." I will start like a stand up comic, in essence beginning a post with something like, "So I walked into a bar and . . ." You get the idea. So when I write fiction, my natural voice comes out, often in dialogue. My characters will have the same sort of emotionally pithy, punchy "feel" to them.

But the other half is the style of the AUTHOR has to meet the character. Not all my characters are me. In fact, there are usually just twinges of me here and there. So it's taking my natural style and the way I OBSERVE the world and communicate it, and pouring that into the soul of my character to see how they then will observe their circumstances, be in their circumstances, and then communicate it.

Simple, right?

Mark: I think so, too. I'm a fan of ellipses because I think it's better than "um" and I think that it reflects either that the character is thinking or, perhaps, debating what and how to say something, which can suggest prevarication (okay, lying). I like that, though, where style meets character. But you're also suggesting it's where style meets characters meets the author's personality, too, right?

I was thinking about this, because we both like Mike Lawson, and I just finished reading HOUSE RULES by him. Mike and I pretty much play on the same tennis court: political thrillers with an element of espionage and terrorism and politics. But he's much lighter than I am and his voice is very different, which also has to do with what we're each trying to do. For example:


"If Mahoney called later in the day to see if he was back in D.C., DeMarco planned to lie to the inconsiderate shit. He'd tell him he'd been on his way but a massive accident on the bridge from Key West to the mainland had caused him to miss his plane, or that all the flights out of Miami had been delayed because security was so tight, or that...

"Aw, screw it. He'd make up something when the time came."


"He sat in the Explorer in the 7-Eleven parking lot, watching what looked like three gang members shoulder through the front door. Baggy jeans hanging off their asses, Baltimore Ravens jerseys, red doo-rags on their heads. He hoped they weren't knocking the place off. He didn't have time for crap like that. He made his next call on his cell phone."

What we're doing, we're both writing in the 3rd person from the point of view of the main character, and I think we use some similar techniques. But, to me, anyway, the voices are different. The attitude is similar, the approach is similar... but I think the voice is different. At least I think so.

If you buy that, how do you develop "voice?" I think it's tough to do consciously. I think you have to read and read and read and write and write and write. And it eventually develops. Like you say, where the style meets the character (and the author).

Erica: What I get from your two selections is Mike's character's sardonic wit, and your character's instant assessment style . . . and weariness, perhaps, though they are both essentially analyzing situations and using language to give the same sort of "can handle any situation" feel. I would expect BOTH characters to be able to think on their feet. I would trust both to save the day.

I don't know if an author's personality necessarily fits in (though sometimes, definitely). Look at books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. The narrator is autistic. Mark Haddon is not. He had to sustain the mask of this narrator for the length of the novel--tricky no doubt. But I think most authors end up finding their groove of a voice where they hit their sweet spot.

How to develop it? I think you see its development over time. I think you write that first book that feels like you hit your sweet spot--and then when it's time to write the second, third, fourth (manuscript or published novel) and you have to come up with a new character. You know it can't be the same character over and over . . . and yet you have to find that sweet spot again. So I think you start to find it. I have a comedic voice--Freudian Slip could not be any more different from Spanish Disco--but I know when I slip into the patter between characters that I find my rhythm. I'm not overly descriptive. I rely on the characters to tell the tale. I have a darker voice that has a a deep, almost depressive quality to it, and the darker books (Invisible Girl, The Roofer) have narrators who see nothing but destruction around them and continue to push on, accepting that "it is what it is"--and very much are observers. They can walk into a room, hear what someone has to say, and intuit (perhaps in a decidedly female sense) the underlying lies or, more accurately, the untruths we tell ourselves.

Both those voices developed over time, but I can say my darker voice was there at 16 and 17 in my short stories. The truth detector is part of who I am--or like to think I am anyway.

Mark: The only thing I think I would add for now is that I have a couple different voices and it's related to character. My nonfiction voice is very straightforward, journalistic, but authoritative. It has to be (and confidence may be an element to voice that all editors and agents and readers respond to, whether consciously or not). But I wrote a novel called HOT MONEY and the character is not just confident, he's self-consciously arrogant, funny, charming, wry. Sometimes I think the most accurate way to describe voice is the voice used in a book is the voice of the author if the author was that character. So if I were Derek Stillwater, there's his voice; if I were Austin Davis, that's his voice; if I were Megan Malloy, that's the voice. But there's an element of acting and make-believe to it, too. But it's tricky to write about a character that has nothing in common with you at all. Not impossible, just harder.

Thanks, Erica. The floor is now open for discussion!

P.S. I have shut off comment moderation temporarily. If I get a lot of spam it'll go back on.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Mr. Terry's Neighborhood

December 6, 2009
Blogger Michele Emrath recently cited my blog as an interesting one to visit, noting "It's not a child's playground."

No, I suppose it's not. There are, I'm sure, writing blogs that stick to the positive. People who know me well would probably assure me that I'm not that guy.

The Divine Ms O comes a lot closer, although I find in her blog many of the same themes I cover, just with a less brutal point of view. She's ahead of me on this journey and I hope I can come to her level of acceptance and positivity and kindness in time. The word "sensei" is often interpreted as "teacher" among martial artists, but the translation is closer to "one who has gone before," and in negotiating This Writing Life, The Divine Ms. O is definitely one of my senseis.

Michele's comment made me think, and it's not a criticism. I think she was correct in her assessment that my blog THIS WRITING LIFE has its up-days and down-days. It's a sort of chronicle of my own writer's journey and my writer's journey has been long and hard, in many ways. I've had a lot of failures, a lot of perceived failures (ie., I think they're failures, but other people on the outside might not think so), some terrific successes and a lot in between.

I recognize, for all my observations and yes, even bitchin', about the publishing industry, that I'm probably my own worst enemy. I think I used to sabotage myself more than I do now, but I'm sure I'm still capable of creating my own worst traps, then walking head-first into them. I know that I view my successes with wild skepticism, tending to view them as luck (or not as successes at all, Ye Olde Half-Full Cup), while viewing my failures as confirmation of my worst fears and/or failings. (Find a successful person, and I realize I probably am, and you'll probably find someone who thinks they're fooling everybody, at least part of the time).

Although I'm not always positive, I do try to be honest, with you and myself. The diamonds aren't always cut and sparkly, the woodwork hasn't always been sanded smooth and varnished. It's just what it is, and hopefully it has value to you. Ultimately the blog may be my way of figuring out what I really think and feel about things in my writing life.

So if you're new to Mr. Terry's Neighborhood, welcome. Just know, it's not always a safe neighborhood and there's some real thugs and bad elements here. But that, I think, is life, and that, I think, is also part of what being a writer is all about. The creative life can be a lot like picking your way through a mine field and it's possible, hopefully at least a little bit, that my journey will show you a path through the mines.