Some of you may have noticed that the economy was pretty screwed up this year. This affected me mostly in an inability to bring on new clients. I talked to a friend of mine who runs a media research company and he was having the same problem (only worse, because many of his clients are connected to the auto industry, like GM and Ford, so you can imagine what kind of a fun year he's been having).
Otherwise, I seemed to be doing okay. I had regular clients, I was staying busy, I was working hard to keep them happy. Then I thought it would be both interesting and possibly profitable to start an e-publishing company. I decided on an e-newsletter aimed at the physician office laboratory market, a market with a great need for advice and information that is largely unmet. So I paid good money to form an LLC, set up a website, round up experts, and published an issue, which I gave away for free. Then I started mailing out brochures and postcards. No subscribers. So I wrote another issue, more brochures and postcards.
One subscriber, but the money didn't go through, and when I followed up with a bill, he didn't pay it.
No subscribers. (This was my worst-case scenario. And my understanding of this market also made me aware this was a possibility, because in general I've never worked with a group of people that are cheaper and less likely to pay money for continuing education than medical laboratory technologists--and my wife IS one. One of my clients, ADVANCE for Medical Laboratory Professionals, has FREE subscriptions, and they're struggling to stay afloat. Go figure. Welcome to the new media).
Now, two issues is not a lot of time to get a publication going. I really should hang in there for another 4 months, at least.
Except, uh, I can't. Because, you know, I mentioned how I wasn't bringing on new clients? Well, work slowed down with most of my regular clients. And I had a big gaping hole in my income stream. Which, unfortunately, coincided with putting a new roof on the house, all the expenses from the publication, etc. In other words, I don't have the money to continue marketing it and I really can't afford the time to spend on a project that doesn't generate income. So, basically, POL Bulletin has ceased publication.
Back in my first year of full-time freelancing we ran into a problem (we forgot to pay quarterly taxes until about a day before a trip to Disney World), and we solved that by putting in place some procedures that would keep constant track of how much money I owed the government every time I got a check. It was easy. But it was also necessary.
This year I had several things happen. A long-planned family trip to Disney World (it was for a school trip, and we spent a year paying for it, so it wasn't a huge financial burden, it was just the confluence of other things), a roof badly in need of replacement, a slowdown in clients, the investment in a new business venture that didn't take off the way I hoped. Timing, I guess, is everything.
Lesson learned? We need to be better capitalized (as a household and a business). We need to have a little more discipline when it comes to maintaining a minimum amount in the bank to cover business slowdowns (because for 5 years I've been lucky and they never lasted very long). So we're cashing out some things and combining some things, and in general, assuring that Terry Household, Inc, and Terry Communications, LLC keeps more money in reserve.
I hope I have no more hard lessons to learn in this business, but I probably do. Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who writes SF and mysteries and God knows what else, has been running a lengthy series of blog posts about running a business, whether it's a freelance business or something else. They're all worth reading. Reading those, I know there will be more hard lessons of one type or another. But her last post was on failure. And she commented essentially that you can look at these things as setbacks or failures. You can learn from them and move on or you can quit.
So, where am I now? Well, my best client has me pretty much booked up for 2010. He's also 99.9% likely to throw me work for the rest of the year (I'm waiting for the contract and the go-ahead). One of the people I contacted for work (actually, they were looking for a writer, contacted an editor friend of mine, asked her if she knew any freelancers who might work for them, gave them my name, and voila!) indicated we'll talk at the end of this week about regular projects. A couple of my other clients gave me assignments after I really went after them. Another query I pitched recently got back with me to discuss how much I charge.
They could all fall apart. And that last one, I'm not holding my breath. But the others, I think we're good to go. I'll make it to the beginning of 2010 when I can expect a good solid stream of work. In the meantime, I'm working on making sure we're better capitalized. We're all facing headwinds these days, but I'm convinced if we just, er, trim our sails and keep moving forward the best we can, things will work out.
I want to thank Stephen Parrish and Jude Hardin for helping me out with this exercise. Anyone who wants to join in, please do.
Yesterday I posted the photograph of this gentleman and wrote a brief description of him. Then I invited y'all to do so as well. Let's see what we have.
His toothless mouth opened in delight, although it reminded Nick of a snapping turtle. Blue-green eyes still looked out at the world with intensity from beneath a snap-brim hat, belying his years. Seventy? Eighty? Ninety!? His skin seemed oddly smooth, though there was no doubt about the age. No wrinkles, but nobody was going to compare his skin to a baby's bottom.
Well, okay. In retrospect, I think "snapping turtle" should have been "sea turtle" because we have kinder, mellower thoughts about sea turtles (say, Crush from "Finding Nemo.")
The other witnesses all described his toothless smile, as though a man were defined by how often he flossed. When they got to me I told them straight away about the eyes. One opening wider than the other. Neither intent upon the concerns of the other. And behind them, no one at the wheel.
Dad's eyes hadn't tracked right since the day a Nazi clouted him with a brick. The blow didn't knock him out. He got up and cut the guy in half with his bayonet. He looked happy to see me now, almost like he recognized me this time. Someone had helped him shave. He wore a wool driving cap and a red sweater and the kind of toothless grin you see in babies and insane asylums.
What surprised me--and pleased me--was that nobody gave what I think of as a photographic description. Nobody wrote:
The eighty-six year old man wore a beige driver's cap, had blue-green eyes, one wider than the other, and a wide, toothless smile. His white and pink skin had the texture of parchment and his ears stuck out. He wore a red sweater.
There's nothing particularly wrong with that, but there's nothing particularly right about it either. It's static and leans toward the boring. Nonetheless, there are times when a straightforward photographic description is worthwhile. When doing so, I suggest doing it in a organized fashion, start at the top and work down, etc., but really, for fiction, let's try to steer clear of it unless you're trying to place the reader's emphasis somewhere else. Like what, you ask? How about this?
The eighty-six year old man wore a beige driver's cap, had blue-green eyes, one wider than the other, and a wide, toothless smile. His white and pink skin had the texture of parchment and his ears stuck out. He wore a red sweater. He also carried a long butcher knife in his right hand, dripping scarlet blood onto the black and white tile floor.
In this case, the static description tends to lull the reader into drifting. Then you're yanked back by the startling detail. If you're doing that, it's also advisable to use longer sentence structure, etc., in the early part of the paragraph, but that's a topic for another day, I think.
I think there are five elements to good description (there might be more) and Stephen, Jude and I used 4 of them, and maybe used just a tiny bit of the fifth. Ready?
1. Point of view. None of us used a third-person omniscient point of view. Our old friend there is alternately being described by "Nick," a nameless witness to some apparent crime, and our old geezer's son, also nameless. I'm going to applaud all three of us here, because the description then tells us something about our old friend, but also tells us something about our narrator or point of view character. Unless you're writing journalism or 3rd-person omniscient, typically the writing is coming from someone's point of view. Use it.
2. Non-photographic. None of us used a straight photographic technique. We placed the description into a narrative. Go, us! (Particularly Stephen and Jude, who gave us stories in a few sentences. Go, you!)
3. Details. All three of us focused on specific details. Our old chum here is dramatic enough that we tended to choose the same details: age, the hat, the wide open toothless mouth, something about the eyes. Jude added in the red shirt. I focused on the texture of his skin. Stephen and I mentioned the eyes, but different things. I noticed the differences in how open his eyes were, but chose instead to focus on the intensity and color. Stephen interpreted the intensity differently, providing them as being vacant, but mentions the difference in how open they are. This leads me to point #4.
4. Interpretation of details. I also call this "steering." The photographic description I gave earlier does not interpret the details. The eyes are just blue-green. They are not intense or vacant, they don't give the reader a feeling. In effect, you're merely showing the reader something, details, facts, but no interpretation of those details or facts. This can be a rather tricky topic in the arts. Spielberg is a great and effective filmmaker because he manipulates his audiences so effectively in the way he shows the details. You get the swelling music, the close-up of a terrified face. Some critics feel he's too manipulative, that it's better to just show the audience something and not telegraph it. I think you can go either way, but keep in mind that Spielberg's one of the most popular and successful filmmakers of all time, even if he's not always (but often is) the most critically recognized. Spielberg may very well take the reader by the hand (or throat) and drag them off, saying, "Here, idiot, this is what you came for," versus a filmmaker who just points the way and lets viewers interpret.
Anyway, I steered you with the snapping turtle, the "intensity" of gaze, the odd comparison of his skin not resembling a baby's bottom, even though it was very smooth. Stephen has a great line about not flossing (which tells us much about the pov character), but it's the final lines that are the martini shot, so to speak: "One opening wider than the other. Neither intent upon the concerns of the other. And behind them, no one at the wheel." The first sentence is a straightforward description. Then he interprets it. Then he clinches it with a sentence that pulls together the entire description. It's not, after the eyes that have no one at the wheel, it's the man. Very nice.
Jude (my man!) told us a whole story here. Do you realize just how much STORY Jude put into six sentences? Stephen did as well, with some sort of crime scene and the suggestion of other witnesses and that he's describing talking to the police about what happened. But Jude goes back 60 years, gives us a villain, tells us about the narrator's relationship to our old gent, gives us backstory, and tells us something about how our narrator feels about things. And again, he's got a martini shot as well: "...and the kind of toothless grin you see in babies and insane asylums." This doesn't just describe the grin, it describes the old man. And maybe it describes something about the attitude of the narrator, one that either did not have a great relationship with his father, or one of someone who's grown tired of caring for an Alzheimer's patient. Or maybe, in this case, it also tells you something about the reader because readers brings their own experiences and points of view to the mix as well.
5. Passive versus active. None of us really did this. It's a little hard to do when asked to describe a photograph, but it's a very useful tool for a writer. None of us really had the old man doing anything. I suggested some action with the mouth "opened" but it might have been more effective to suggest: The old man opened his toothless mouth in a wide grin and one blue-green eye half-fell in a salacious wink.
In other words, it's better to say, "... he ran a blunt-fingered hand through his red hair" than it is to say, "he had short fingers and red hair."
So, any other thoughts? What am I missing?
The next challenge, and I point this to Jude and Stephen, but anyone can join in. The three of us steered the reader to a specific conclusion. I have our old geezer being friendly and enthusiastic. Stephen has him as befuddled, as does Jude. Can we change our interpretation of the same details to mean something else entirely?
September 28, 2009 Let's see how this goes. Describe in a couple sentences, the image you see here. Then we'll discuss different techniques for description over the rest of the week, using your examples as, well, examples.
His toothless mouth opened in delight, although it reminded Nick of a snapping turtle. Blue-green eyes still looked out at the world with intensity from beneath a snap-brim hat, belying his years. Seventy? Eighty? Ninety!? His skin seemed oddly smooth, though there was no doubt about the age. No wrinkles, but nobody was going to compare his skin to a baby's bottom.
Your turn. (Yes, I changed the one of my son, because I was told it was inhibiting).
September 25, 2009 My Derek Stillwater novels usually happen like this: some horrific event occurs, but it's merely a prelude to another even more horrific event or series of events. Derek has to prevent them from happening. The clock is ticking.
They usually take place in a very short period of time. In THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK, about 28 hours. In THE SERPENT'S KISS, about 12. In the upcoming THE FALLEN, about 9 or 10. In THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS, scheduled for September 2011, except for a prologue that takes place two weeks earlier, they novel occurs over a 48-hour period.
That's certainly the nature of the Derek Stillwater novels and I look for story ideas that have tight timeframes and ticking clocks in them for his books. It's a wonderful way to write a thriller because the structure creates its own tension. What it causes problems with are all THOSE OTHER THINGS: characterization, relationships, etc.
When editors turned down the Stillwater books, they invariably said something along the lines of "I loved the story and the pace and the tension, but I really wanted more characterization." Something like that, anyway. The editors that bought them felt differently. And based on reader feedback, they don't have a big problem with Derek's characterization, so who's to say?
The editors that bought them, I think, understood that there can be an inherent contradiction in wanting a fast-reading, edgy novel that takes place in a very short period of time and slowly-developing characterization. In the Derek Stillwater novels, he invariably is working fairly closely with another law enforcement official and my challenge is to make their relationship develop through words and actions over what amounts to a very short period of time. It ain't easy.
I think I pulled it off in THE SERPENT'S KISS based on the number of readers who've asked me if Jill Church would appear in another book, how much chemistry there seemed to be between her and Derek. (The answer: I don't know, maybe.)
It's always a problem in any book, though. What to put in, what to leave out. A flashback or backstory or lengthy internal monologue can knock a reader right out of a story, can grind the forward momentum of a novel to a halt. Of course, the degree to which you do that depends a lot on the type of book you're writing (and will appeal to a certain type of reader. All books do not appeal to all readers all the time, and although I read widely, I don't want my fast-paced thrillers to to get bogged down with pages of Jodi Picoult-like internal monologues).
At the same time, would the Spenser novels be the same if he didn't spend so much time cooking? If he didn't have his sappy relationship with Susan Silverman? (Although there was an online campaign to "Snuff Susan" a while back and I was sort of in favor of it). He wrote one a couple years ago called School Days where he moved Spenser out of Boston and didn't take Susan or Hawk with him, and I found it kind of refreshing, but at the same time, the book seemed to be missing some important elements.
On the other hand, I've grown frustrated with Sue Grafton's apparent refusal to let Kinsey Millhone have a real life with friends, family and boyfriends in it. She'll date somebody in one book, break up in another, family will play a big role in one then disappear for five books. She's said her books are about Kinsey's work life and she doesn't want to get all involved in Kinsey's personal life, but I'll tell you what, I think we need some of it.
I think I'm pretty good titles. But I heard about this author today, and although I haven't read any of his books, I just might pick them up on the basis of his titles alone. What do you think? Can a title sell a book? Know any great titles?
Yes, it's the first galley of the next Derek Stillwater novel, THE FALLEN, to be published by Oceanview publishing in April 2010. Time to do some intense proofreading. By the way, my publisher calls it a "First Pass." God only knows why they don't call it a galley.
For the longest time, I wanted writing to change my life. What I wanted was a novel-writing career, so I could write fiction full-time and maybe even get rich.
I got a writing career and I do get to write full-time. I ain't rich and may never be.
And yet, I still write fiction. Partly because I can. But I was thinking this morning (yes, while walking Frodo) that a big hit could still change my life.
I know we all want to be Stephen King (really, are you sure you want that kind of fame?) or JK Rowling. But I'd be pretty happy with a good solid fiction-writing career that brought in, oh, $100,000 a year, let's say. (I'd gladly take more, don't worry, I'm not crazy, at least not in that way). (And I know 100G sounds like a lot, but your agent takes 15% and the government takes another bigger chunk and...)
And I imagine you would, too.
Fiction writing may be no more a way to riches and regular income than a lottery ticket. I don't know. I know that when I do write a novel, I do wonder if it'll gain an audience, or get a decent-to-big advance, if we'll get a movie deal, audiobook deal, lots of foreign sales, etc.
C'mon. Be honest. Do you really write a novel with ABSOLUTELY NO CONSIDERATION to how much money it might make? Tell the truth. You want to make a fortune, too, right?
I'm working on a novel whose working title is Dressed To Kill. (I'm looking for a better one). It's a new character, but it's for a story idea that I've tried about 5 different ways over the last 5 years. And I think it's working great. In fact, I'm eager to get back to Parker and his investigation in Detroit. (He lives in Austin, TX). I'm curious to see how he's going to come unraveled and then get glued back together again. I'm curious to see if Mandy, the college student he had a one-night stand with in the first chapter back in Texas, is going to show up at his hotel in Detroit (after having moved into his house in Texas after he left--he's having problems dealing with her). I'm surprised that I seem to have a beautiful 3-act structure designed for this novel without benefit of an outline.
Will it work? Will it die on the vine, so to speak? I don't think so this time. Because I'm very engaged with the story and the character. And I think that's the way it should be, even for us workman-like word mechanics. Hopefully, if we fall into our own stories and bring all our skill and passion to it, the readers (and editors and agents) will, too.
This morning I got up early, dropped my youngest off at middle school, then went up to the high school to help out with the intro to guitar classes. I've written about this before.
Now, there are a lot of reasons why I'm thinking this, and lots of blank looks and general "duh" responses on the part of a bunch of teenagers is certainly a factor.
But by far the biggest factor was this: what's your business, Mark?
My business is to write.
Sometimes novels. Sometimes magazine articles. Sometimes business reports. Sometimes web content. Sometimes short stories, directories, reviews, etc. And if I don't, if I can't get people to pay me to do this or I don't spend enough time on it, I'm going to find myself back working for somebody doing work I don't really care about.
Business has been a bit slow lately, so it seemed like an OK time to take 3+ hours out of my workweek to volunteer to help some kids who probably don't want it. And I think the teacher needs it and appreciates it, but I'm still back to, "Uh, this really isn't my job, is it?"
It's easy to get distracted. God knows once a book gets published writers are getting eaten alive by commitments to marketing and publicity. My friend Joe Moore is reading Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol and commented on a blog that no wonder it took 6 years to write, based on the amount of research in the book.
Well, I haven't read it, but, "Bullshit."
It took Dan Brown six years to write it because he was overwhelmed with publicity nonsense for The Da Vinci Code and because, financially, he could take 6 years off between books. I'm sure he'd have gotten it out in the usual one-year time period if TDVC had sold the same as his 3 previous books.
A writer's job is to write and sometimes you need to close the door to the office, turn off the frickin' Internet, shut down your phone, e-mail, text messages and the rest of the universe and just write.
I was referred over to Kristin Luna's blog yesterday, read a great post about people that want to get into travel writing, made a comment, then we had a brief off-blog correspondence. She seems like a terrific person and her blog is great. So, for any of you who think, Wow, what a great gig, being a travel writer, check out Kristin's blog. Enjoy.
I don't watch much TV. I've got a few favorites. "Bones." "Burn Notice." And there are some things I'll watch sort of with one eye if it happens to be on, but my life doesn't much revolve around any particular TV shows. I tried "Royal Pains" but decided I didn't like it enough to stay up past my bedtime and watch it, although I might catch the episodes I miss on Hulu.com. And now that I'm getting up earlier this school year, it's even less likely to happen.
So a couple months ago, intrigued by a new show on ABC (and for the record, let me assert my position that the major networks do not do a good job of bringing us interesting TV shows and then supporting them... anyway...) called DEFYING GRAVITY. I believe it might have been pitched as "Grey's Anatomy" in Space or Grey's Anatomy Meets Lost. Since I've never seen Grey's or Lost, I decided to watch DG. (I know what they're about, I've seen a few minutes here or there, but I've never watched those shows).
I'm hooked. Which is typical, because I believe its ratings are roughly equivalent to the National Furniture Refinishing Championships. They made 13 episodes and it'll probably be canceled after the 8th. Which would piss me off, but I'll get over it.
Premise? It takes place 40 years or so in the future. The International Space Organization (ISO) is planning a very ambitious space mission with an international team of 6 astronauts. They will go on a 6-year tour of the Solar System in their ship, The Antares. But there's some mysterious force, called Beta, which appears to be causing problems. Aside from the Beta stuff, and the soap opera stuff, they've tried to keep the science based on, well, science.
Which may be the least interesting thing about the show, to my mind. The show is filled with flashbacks to the training missions and how the relationships of the 6 crew have developed. Two of the crew are married, but their partners are back at Mission Control. That wasn't planned, but Beta messed around with the health of two of the members and they got pulled off the ship at the last minute and replaced. The two replacements are experienced astronauts who were on a Mars mission years before that had to abandon two of their fellow astronauts on the planet in a storm. One astronaut got pregnant during training and took a morning-after pill, which she had a negative reaction to resulting in a hysterectomy. (And the father of the child was one of the Mars astronauts, to make matters a bit more complicated). The astrophysicist is a geeky dork who should never have been allowed on the trip, but Beta wanted him there (and sometimes he's very useful). A conservative Hispanic Christian. An Israeli doctor who's a recovering alcoholic. An aggressively sexual German mission specialist, and so on.
Anyway, I like the show and go out of my way to either stay up late and watch it, or catch it on Hulu.com afterwards.
So, the question of the day is: any TV shows you really liked that got cancelled before they could even take off? And does the fact that shows that appeal to me most seem to have the lowest ratings suggest something about my taste?
I recently finished reading "The Chaco Meridian: Centers of Political Power in the Ancient Southwest" by Stephen H. Lekson. Lekson is an archaeologist and the book is all about a fairly controversial theory he has about three Anasazi sites, Chaco, Aztec, and Paquime.
It was not the easiest book I've ever read, but thankfully it was fairly short. It was essentially written for archaeologists (who could then fight over his conclusions), not for people like me who've never had an archaeology class. About a third of the book was over my head (and some of it, even I have to question his theories).
But I've become fascinated by the Anasazi (which, by the way, is a Navajo word that translates roughly as "the ancient ones" or "the ancient enemies." Even using "Anasazi" among archaeologists tends to be a bit controversial, so they tend to use "ancient pueblo dwellers."). I'm not entirely sure where this interest in the Anasazi comes from. I know that when I trip across an article in Archaeology magazine that also concerns tribes in the Mississippi and Florida regions from the same time period (about 800 AD to 1300 AD) I'm fascinated. What became of these people? Are the Anasazi now Zuni, Hopi, and Mesquite? (Probably). Why leave? How can you have an organized culture for 500 freakin' years and then disappear, abandoning your buildings?
Between my graduation in college and the 18 years before I became a full-time writer, my primary obsession was writing and reading. Primarily thrillers and mysteries, crime novels of one sort or another. I read Smithsonian and Time and Writers Digest. It's mostly been in the last 5 years, since I became a full-time writer, that I've had the time to pursue other interests: guitar, biking, kayaking, martial arts... and reading nonfiction about history and the Anasazi and other things.
It was also pushed along by the death of my father, I'm sure, an awareness that life is, as a matter of fact, short, and if there's something you're interested in doing or learning about, you'd better try to do it now rather than later. I'm also a proponent of lifelong learning and I try to cultivate my own intellectual curiosity. There's a big ol' universe out there and I don't want to shrug and say, "Who cares?" and turn on the TV instead of enjoying some of it.
I've also become fairly passionate about guitar, although I was passionate about music before I got out into the working world and primarily had time to work, commute, spend an hour or two with the family before everyone went to bed, then write for an hour before collapsing between the sheets to do it all over again the next day, ad nauseum. (There are good reasons to find something to do for a living that you're passionate about. You spend a lot of time doing it).
Anyway, what are your passions besides writing? What makes you you?
Sean, seen here at a Detroit Tigers game prior to his recent haircut, is our hyperactive, hyperdrive child. He's also probably a genius, but aside from watching TV or playing video games (of which he is an addict), he's the athletic one in the family.
Anyway, on Sunday, he was over at a friend's house and they were playing in their pool and he took a fall on the diving board (falling into the water as a result) and scraped the hell out of his right knee, calf, ankle and foot. But he seemed OK.
Yesterday, still complaining, but fairly mobile, I bandaged him up and sent him off to school. Then off to swim club afterwards. By the time he was done he was limping pretty bad, but still seemed OK.
This morning, he's barely able to walk on the foot. So we decide it's time to take him to the doctor. Finding one is a trick. I go to the (Not So) Urgent Care Center in Oxford, which doesn't open until 10:00 AM. So then I go to nearby Lake Orion to the Beaumont (Not So) Urgent Care Center, which also does not open until 10:00 AM.
So I then go next door to the Bald Mountain Care Facility which is open around the clock. They're part of the St. Joseph's healthcare system. So he's fine. Scraped up. Bruised. There's some swelling, which is making it seem worse than it is, so they put some antibiotic ointment on it, wrapped it, gave us a 'scrip for an antibiotic, gave him some Motrin and sent us on his way.
So, why not take him to a hospital, Mark?
Because I used to work at one. And a hospital ER should focus on serious injuries. And I didn't want to wait 6 hours in an ER while they triaged heart attacks, car accidents, suicide attempts, drug overdoses, etc. When I first started working at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, I was doing research and attempting to tranquilize a rabbit and it jumped and instead of tranquilizing the rabbit, tore a hole through my rubber glove and my finger (which promptly went numb, having injecting myself with tranquilizer). Needle-stick accidents at that time required paperwork and going to the ER (since changed to paperwork and going to Employee Health unless they've changed it since I worked there, but I'm fairly confident the paperwork aspect of it hasn't changed a bit).
So, Election Day, I'm in an inner city emergency room with a boo-boo on my finger. Five hours later, after the stroke victim, the broken bones, the guy whose car battery blew up in his face, the heart attacks, drug overdoses, about-to-have-a-baby-but-I-don't-have-a-doctor, and numerous other mostly real emergencies were taken care of, me and my boo-boo were seen by a doctor who asked me if I'd washed it. "No," I said. "I was sent right here where I've been sitting for five hours."
So we washed my finger, put a bandage on it, made sure my tetanus shot was up-to-date, filled out a bunch of paperwork, and went back to work where the bunny was given a reprieve for another day.
I went and helped out (I guess) with the two intro to guitar classes today. Each class has about 25 students (too many) and the majority don't know anything about music at all. But there's a couple kids who've been at least playing around with guitars for a year or two or four.
We weren't really sure what I was going to do when I came in, but after listening to him working with the class, primarily teaching them about time signatures, how to read music, what a staff is--basic, basic, basic music education--I suggested I take the kids who have some experience one at a time and figure out what they did and did not know.
So that's what I did. And although there were some variations, for kids who could grab a guitar and play some Stevie Ray Vaughn licks, they didn't always know what note each open string represented, didn't know that there's technically no sharp or flat between B and C and between E and F, didn't necessarily know that G# and A-flat are the same note, and did or did not know how to read tabs. (That's an alternate way of reading guitar music, for those of you who don't know).
In other words, I was trying to figure out what holes they had and tried to fill them, and encouraged each of them to pay attention to the pretty boring stuff the primary instructor was teaching because it would help connect the dots for them.
When I talked to the instructor (Joe) after the class, I noted that before these kids can move on they need these holes filled so they can connect the information. There were some pretty basic holes (in terms of guitar) that were needed before they could move on.
This isn't a huge surprise to me, actually. I have holes in my musical education. I have holes in my writing/literature education; massive gaping holes in my scientific education; and undoubtedly in just about every other area of life. Some I'm aware of, some I'm not.
Have you ever run into somebody who thinks they don't have any holes in their knowledge of something? What jackasses.
Today is the official start of "Anything Week" where instead of writing about the writing life, I write here about whatever the hell comes to mind. Why? I don't know. Just for variety.
Starting Monday morning I'm going to go over to the high school and help out the guitar teacher with his two beginning guitar classes. This is a rather convoluted story, but the former guitar teacher was one of the band directors (and a friend of mine) and also my guitar teacher. He quit suddenly for personal reasons. The school quickly (very quickly) hired a new director because they needed somebody to teach jazz band, two guitar classes, music appreciation and assist with the marching band.
The new director, Joe, seems like a nice guy. He's very young, probably early 20s, and his primary experience, certainly the reason I suspect he was hired, is because he's got an amazing amount of marching band experience, really world-class marching band experience. But he doesn't really play guitar.
So, thinking that 1. it might be fun., and 2. I might be useful, I volunteered to help him out once or twice a week. He accepted and I'll go in Monday with "Larry" (the name of my acoustic guitar; the Epiphone Dot Studio's name is Ares) and see if I can help.
I'm not sure it's a good use of my time, but it ought to be interesting.
Do you ever do things that make no sense just because it seemed like a good idea at the time you opened your mouth?
p.s. That's a photo of me and Larry playing to Frodo.
Yesterday I posted a link to a piece written by scriptwriter Josh Olson. He was pretty testy about saying he won't read your "fucking script" and gives some very good, nicely reasoned examples of why he won't. Despite them, he still kind of comes off as an asshole.
Okay. Fair enough. I'm not sure I have problems with the overall reasons behind his refusal to read other people's work, but the tone bothers me a bit.
Now, I've read some people's work. Some people have read mine. I'm grateful. When people ask me, if I have some clue who they are, I generally try to help out. I was involved in the Mystery Writers of America mentoring program, where people pay a small fee and one of the published members agrees to read 50 pages or so of someone's manuscript (the money goes to the organization, not the mentor) and comment on it. The guidelines are fairly straightforward, there's a quasi-legal document keeping both parties from suing each other, etc.
What surprised me both times about this was that I tried to go a bit beyond what these writers were paying for and give more detailed and thoughtful analysis, and included contact info and an invitation to contact me if they wanted to discuss it further. Neither writer did. In fact, neither writer even went so far as to e-mail me to say, "Thank you." Which I suppose is one of several reasons why when I received an e-mail from MWA asking for volunteers to do this again I just deleted it and went about my business.
In the comments yesterday, Natasha notes that she had some guy pursuing her, asking her to read his stuff even though he didn't know the name of her pseudonym (alas, neither do I) and hadn't actually read her work. Weird on a couple levels. First, what if she sucked? Second, what if what she wrote didn't appeal to him? Third, what if what she wrote had nothing to do with the type of writing he did? And fourth, which is the point here, how obnoxious can you get?
As Joe Konrath once said on his blog about people blindsiding him about reading their work or even asking for blurbs, if you want something like that, get to know him a little bit. E-mail him about his work. Participate on his blog. Come up and say hello at a conference. As Joe said, "Wine me, dine me, sixty-nine me." (Well, it's Joe, after all).
To which I'm going to clarify: will I read your fucking manuscript? Maybe. If you come out of nowhere and ask me to? Uh, no.
I've read a couple manuscripts of people who are regulars on my blog. They were regulars and we'd interacted. It seems to me we'd even exchanged e-mails before. (Is that right, Stephen?). I'd gotten to know them a little bit and they were friends of the e-mail sort (odd that we can have friends we wouldn't recognize on the street. Welcome to the 21st century. Weirdsville). I have a professional writer friend who regularly asks me to take a look at he and his writing partner's works-in-progress and provide feedback. I gladly do. And I've asked him to take a look at things of mine. The Amazing Erica O has read some of my stuff and vice versa. Natasha has read some of my stuff and I've tried to help her out when I can with some of her stuff.
So yeah. But that's different than someone coming out of nowhere and asking you to read something.
Also on yesterday's post, Stephen made the point that what most readers seem to want is validation rather than advice. Oh, Dude, you are so right. And frankly, I'm a professional writer and have had several novels published, and when I ask Erica or Natasha or Stephen or my friends Eric or Joe to read something, yeah, I'm hoping that they'll come back and say, "It's awesome, don't change a word." That's what I WANT. It's not what I NEED. I won't take up their time and energy for validation. What I NEED is for them to cast a critical and expert eye on a manuscript that apparently I'm not confident about. I'm a pro, hopefully, so I listen to their advice and give it some real thought and decide what to do about it.
This is running long, but I want to say a few things about having your work read by a professional. I pretty much agree with Josh Olson's assessment that he's got work he needs to read for his profession and work he needs to read for his friends (and then probably work he wants to read just for the hell of it), and when you come out of nowhere asking him to read your stuff, it's hard to figure out how to fit you in, even if you wanted to. I have this problem big-time. Here's what I've got going on: I'm re-writing a novel under contract. I'm working hard on two novels, one that's driving me crazy, but I feel I need to finish because not finishing it is a very bad habit, and the other is really, really capturing my attention and seems to be working very well. I'm working on a sci-fi novel that I'm very captivated by. I don't know if it'll fly, but I'm enjoying writing it and like Mikey, it's good for me.
Those are my "they're-not-really-paying-bills-much-but-I'm-passionate-about" projects. Then I've got my freelance writing business. I send out queries looking for work every day. I've started a publishing company so I've got an e-newsletter I publish every month, plus I put a short article up on the website 5 days a week. There's a lot of marketing involved with that, too. I'm the editor of a technical journal that comes out 4 times a year. I have regular clients I work very hard to keep happy. On any given day, with luck, I have 9 or 10 or 11 hours of paying work, in which I actually do about 7 or 8 hours of it. You do the math.
Then I've got my reading for pleasure. 4 or 5 magazines. Several newsletters I read for professional reasons. USA Today. And I play guitar. Study karate. Run. Bike. Lift weights. I'm the secretary of band boosters. I'm going to start volunteering 1 or 2 hours a week to help out the new guitar teacher at the high school. I've got 2 kids and a wife and a dog and all the various other things that requires, like house cleaning, etc. This litany isn't to brag about how busy I am, we all are; it's just that in my priority list, you've got to understand where reading your manuscript might fall. If you're my friend, I'll do my best to read it. If I don't know you, hey, I'm busy, you're not even on my to-do list.
Another point I might make, is that whenever I'm asked to read something BY ANYBODY, there's always a moment's hesitation. Because it's a litigious world and I always wonder if I'm blindly walking into a potential legal trap, that I'm going to get sued or otherwise accused of stealing an idea or plagiarizing or whatever. I fully understand writers who just say no on this basis alone. And it wouldn't surprise me if I got to a point one day where I just say no based on that as well.
Since this post is going on forever, I want to wrap up with 2 connected stories. A while back my blogger friend Stephen Parrish asked me to read a couple chapters of his manuscript. I did and made some comments. He rewrote along those lines, sent in his manuscript to Midnight Ink, my former publisher, and they acquired the novel. Although Stephen gives me some credit for this, I truly believe that Stephen knew what was wrong with the piece and just needed it pointed out to him. If you're close to being published or you've been writing and reading to the extent that you need to be to get published, you probably have all the tools in your toolbox you need. Sometimes you just need somebody to hold the flashlight so you can see better. (But if you're not to that point, then it's possible you're clueless and just not ready to learn).
Which brings me to a somewhat related story told by Stephen King in a piece I believe he wrote for Writer's Digest. When he was in high school he wrote a piece for the local newspaper about a high school basketball. He gave an example of what he wrote, then he showed how his editor changed it. He said it was a revelation. He said, "I got it." The editor told him if that was true, then he could do that and never have to work for a living. King did. But I firmly believe that essentially, King knew what was needed, but all he needed was someone to point out what he already knew.
Is this long-winded blog useful? Is it telling you anything you don't already know?
I think it's safe to say that if you stay in the novel-publishing biz long enough (or try to get in long enough), you're going to get your ass handed to you on a platter from time to time. It's just the nature of the business (there's no business like show business...). And I think that the Internet, which allows any moron with fingers and an Internet connection to review and comment or in general try to trash people's careers, has only added a weird volatility to a business that often resembles a gas leak in a Greek restaurant. Opa!
So I was thinking today that one of the toughest things about writing novels is just staying invested in each project. I know we're constantly told to follow our passion, that it's passion that will lead the way, but does anybody reading this, unpublished or published, long career, short career or "what career?" deny that if you've had 7 unpublished manuscripts, or been dropped by a publisher, or the last 4 proposals you wrote got turned down or your editor left and abandoned you, or Kirkus compared you to Josef Mengele, or some asshole called you a no-talent hack on Amazon.com, or 119 agents turned you down, that somewhere in working on a manuscript or proposal there's a voice in your head that says, "You need to back off from this a bit or you're gonna get hurt. Don't invest so much of yourself in this because you don't want to go through that rejection thing yet again."
It probably comes back to passion, which can be a bigger problem for professional writers than it is for the unpublished, simply because a long novel-writing career can be rather like a long marriage. Hey, folks, the honeymoon's over. You might get laid from time to time (or regularly or never, TMI, TMI, TMI) or have a romantic dinner, etc., but this is, for better or worse, a different kind of thing than when you were dating.
It's just plain hard work to approach a manuscript every day that might not get published; that might get published and not go anywhere; that might get slammed by critics, fail to sell-through, or fail to gain an audience.
But that's what you've got to do. Somehow you've got to put all the self-doubt in a box and lock it up while you're working on your manuscript. While you're working on it you've got to believe it's the next super bestseller, that your name is going to be used in a sentence with JK Rowling, Dan Brown, and Mitch Albom (and not: "Unlike JK Rowling, Dan Brown, and Mitch Albom, Mark Terry can't even give his books away."), that readers are going to line up for your book, etc.
So it's all about faith, hope, and passion, I guess.
Anyway, last week or so, one of my cousins on Facebook took a test that I declined to take, called something like "How much of a Flintite are you?" The Flintite referred to the city of Flint, Michigan. I grew up in a suburb of Flint. My cousin grew up in another suburb of Flint.
I commented on my cousin's post that the photo sure brought back a lot of memories. My brother commented that he and I were probably the only non-bank employees to spend more time in the vault than the lobby.
I was thinking about that because it's true. I doubt if employees of the vault today would ever be allowed to have their kids or family members in the vault, but from time to time I visited Dad at work (I was also told where there was an envelope in the house with instructions about contacting the FBI should my father or a family member be kidnapped, which is odd, but something people with that kind of money proximity were advised to do, apparently). I only remember being in the lobby once, but I remember being in the vault a few times.
In the context of writing, I was thinking about how you need your characters to have some unique thing in their past or in their life. We tend to gravitate toward traumas, I suppose, but I'm not sure that's completely necessary. All of us as writers undoubtedly have some unique thing in our lives that has influenced us in some way. I'm not sure visiting the vault influenced me (although I don't know, I do work in a basement). I imagine a bigger influence was a mother who always had a book in her hand (even when the TV was on, which is something I do often as well).
Derek Stillwater, my recurring character, was raised by missionary physicians in various parts of Africa. One of his earliest and most influential memories is he and his family being escorted out of Sri Lanka by U.S. troops during a war. This memory is mentioned in the upcoming novel, The Fallen, but not in the two previous books, although I was aware of it. It partly came about because I wondered what kind of person raised by missionary physicians would join the military and why. And also, what about his background inspired him to focus on biological and chemical warfare and terrorism. I knew his parents were physicians. I knew his brother was still a physician in Congo for Doctors Without Borders. So what got him interested? Was it being 8 or 9 and being escorted to helicopters by these big, tough, impressive soldiers? Was it a rebellion against parents?
What sort of unique tidbit do you know about your characters?
I have some bad news, boys and girls. This is not quite a revelation to me, but I articulated it to myself during my morning walk.
The bad news is: selling and marketing your books is a completely different skill set than writing them.
I know, I know, that seems rather obvious. Most of us who get published and stay published struggled for a while at it, learning our craft (and hopefully continue to hone and improve our craft).
Then you get a novel published and suddenly you're supposed to figure out how to appeal to the 10 or 11 people out there who like your type of books. You're told to make bookmarks (have you EVER bought a book because of a bookmark?), send out postcards, go to conferences, do book signings, go to book fairs, give interviews, and generally stand on the street corner naked screaming at passing cars that your book is available. And hell, why you're at it, throw in YouTube video trailers, websites, blogs, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and whatever social media is coming around the corner, because, for GOD SAKES, IF THERE'S ONE THING PEOPLE IN THE WORLD NEED MORE OF IT'S SOMEONE TRYING TO SELL THEM SOMETHING!!!!!
Some people come by this rather naturally. They're not usually writers, but sales people. Writers seem more comfortable by themselves in a room with a book or computer screen. Yes, book marketing may very well be God's way of punishing you for your writing dreams.
That said, maybe you're a gregarious type that loves nothing more than being in a crowd of people talking about yourself.
I think what sparked this particular thought was me wondering what the hell works. A few months back I had a teleconference with my publishing group and someone said, "Have you given much thought to marketing yet?" To which I then ran through a litany of things I'd done in the past with my somewhat cautious disclaimer that I had absolutely no clue what worked, but I had a pretty good idea what didn't. They more or less agreed with me on the "what didn't" notion, although there was a seemingly concerned silence on the line when I said, "I've done about everything in the past and can't tell what works and what doesn't." Of course, they weren't tripping over themselves to assure me that X, Y, and Z always sold bunches of books. The only thing in my experience that definitely sold books was a good review in Library Journal. It was a direct correlation, which, my friends, is astonishingly rare in publishing. My novel DIRTY DEEDS got a good review in LJ. Within a week or two there were a couple hundred orders from libraries. Astonishing. Do A, B happens.
Because when it comes to selling, it's more like Do A (book signing), maybe sell a book or books or even a lot of books, it's totally unpredictable, then, B, what happens? I've been told that this inspires the bookstores to handsell the rest of your books (uh-huh). I've been told that a book signing is all about selling your next book. I've been told that book signings are all about developing relationships with booksellers. So, by all those things, this comes to Do A, then maybe B, or C, or D, will happen, if something doesn't happen to distract along the way. Because, after all, it's not as if there's turnover at bookstores, right?
When it comes to book signings, it's useful to keep in mind as a writer that what the bookseller wants is to generate traffic in the store and to sell your books. If you're unknown, you probably don't do much of either, so although they may or may not be supportive of new authors, they may be doing you a favor when, instead, they're hoping you'll do them one. (I've also been told by some small bookstore owners that because it's so time-consuming and expensive to promote a book signing they don't like to do authors who are unknown; I find this curious, because I can't figure out what they're spending their time and money doing to promote an author. Mentioning it on their e-newsletter? Putting a poster up in the window? Do they actually run ads in the local newspapers? If they do, I've never seen them. But I'm assured it's time-consuming and expensive).
So, I was wondering. What if the Harry Potter novels hadn't taken off and sold more copies than the Bible? What if, perhaps, the first book had been moderately successful?
Would the editors have said: Jo, Jo, Jo, I'm sorry, but these books, they're just too long. You have to cut them back. Costs too much to print these long books, besides, nobody will buy them.
Would the editors have said: Really, Jo, it's too dark. Lighten them up.
Would the editors have said: This whole section with the Dursleys, I mean, really, they're abusive, don't you think?
Would the editors have said: Killing a teacher? Absolutely not!
Would the editors have said: You've got a teacher here who's torturing students. Writing lines that use their own blood and carves scars into the back of their hands? Absolutely not. Just make her mean, not a sadist.
Would they have said: Hagrid's mother was a giant and his father was a normal-sized man. What kind of sexual image are you trying to impart here, anyway? I mean, physically, can you...? Oh, never mind. Just cut that out.
Would they have said: He's always breaking the rules. And Fred and George, stealing things from the caretaker's office?
Would they have said: Quidditch? How come nobody gets killed in those games? They need safety belts. And nets. And...
I had the opportunity to watch "Galaxy Quest" on TV again this weekend. If you haven't seen it, it's a hilarious spoof on Star Trek with a great cast. Alan Rickman (ah, you'll always be Professor Snape to me, Alan) plays Alexander Dane, an actor who played an alien doctor on a Star Trek-like TV show ("Galaxy Quest"). His character apparently has this sort of mantra that ends with, "Never give up; never surrender."
Which are actually my words of advice today.
I can't say I'm having a particularly good day, but it's good in a non-writerly way. I had to get up and take my oldest son up to the high school this morning so he and a few other band members could play the school fight song for a bunch of teachers. So I took the dog and we walked around and I let him run loose on the football practice field. Then when Ian was done we drove to pick up my youngest son, who was staying at a friend's house. Then home, where we were all having guitar lessons.
And eventually I got to the computer to do some work.
That's all rather lovely, but nonetheless, it was 10:30 or later before I actually got to work today. It's a nice perk of being a freelance writer, but I felt like I should have been managing my time better.
Anyway, somewhere in all the running around, I thought, "Thank God you never quit writing."
As most of you long-time readers of this blog know, I periodically threaten to quit writing novels. My brother, a composer, sort of smirks at me whenever I say this. My wife just rolls her eyes.
Writing novels was my first writing passion. It was--and this is rather bizarre--my training ground for writing nonfiction.
And it all led to a career/job and way-of-life that I value a great deal.
If you keep writing, you'll probably get published. If you keep writing, it will invariably change your life. If you keep writing, it may even change your lifestyle. If you keep writing, it might become a career.