NOT necessarily your 10 favorite books, but 10 books that have influenced you and your writing career. In no particular order:
1. Fear Itself: The Horror Fictionof Stephen King edited by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller. Now, I want to point out that it wasn't the book that actually influenced me. It was the Foreword by Stephen King, "The Making of A Brand Name" that inspired me to try writing. I don't always know whether to thank him or kick him in the head, but there you go.
2. The Young Unicorns by Madeleine L'Engle. Intrigue, music, religion, crime, lasers, psychology, family, art, culture, mysterious priests, romance, gangs. This novel has resonated with me for over thirty years.
3. The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman. Not only did it convince me I could make a living as a freelance writer, it convinced me I could make a good living as a freelance writer. Read it for the attitude, if nothing else.
4. The Fifth Profession by David Morrell. Pointed me, in many ways, to the types of novels I would eventually have some success writing.
5. Make Your Words Work by Gary Provost. A master's course in writing that I otherwise didn't get.
6. "I" is for Innocent by Sue Grafton. A great story, but also a prime example of the three-part story structure in action. If you want to see how a book looks if constructed of stone and brick, this is it.
7. Walking Shadow by Robert B. Parker. In an interview recently Harlan Coben commented that 90% of crime writers were influenced by Parker and the other 10% are lying. I agree. It's hard to narrow it down to one book, and I would definitely include Small Vices and Searching For Rachel Wallace in the mix.
8. The Lives of the Cell by Lewis Thomas. An amazing collection of nonfiction essays about science. I'd throw in The Medusa and the Snail is there as well. Proof that nonfiction can be as powerful, as beautiful, as lyrical, and as creative as fiction.
9. The Hardy Boys by Franklin W. Dixon. Say what you want, but my love of series fiction was grown in this particular garden.
10. Bag of Bones by Stephen King. For everything, I think. For great themes, great characterization, a sense of place, a sense of knowing this character, of sometimes being this character.
My stress dreams, or at least the "classic" stress dreams fall into two categories.
1. The college final exam.
In these dreams I'm either trying desperately to find the classroom where my final exam was being held (at Michigan State University when I was there the final exams were often not in the same room where the class was held), or I found out at the last minute that the class I thought I had dropped at the beginning of the term was about to have its final exam and I was still signed up for it, even though I hadn't attended all term.
2. The writing career.
This usually involves me going back to work at Henry Ford Hospital Cytogenetics Laboratory because the writing gig doesn't work out. Sometimes it's a temporary thing and sometimes my writing career just flamed out and I had to grovel my way back to work at HFH. (Frankly, this one wears on me much harder and longer than the college one).
There are some variations. One interesting one is my wife and I move back to East Lansing to go to school and I spend a bunch of time trying to figure out how to talk the MSU cytogenetics department into hiring me until I realize, Hey, I'm a freelance writer, what are you doing looking around for a lab job?
I had the writing career dream this weekend. I was back at Ford Hospital doing weird experiments that seemed totally pointless and everybody was being totally uncooperative and everything was in total disarray (see, some things never change). I don't know if I'm stressed out--probably am about something, God knows.
The first dream is the sort common to almost everyone I've ever met who went to college. You?
The second dream is the sort common to almost everyone I've ever met who is a professional writer, and I've talked about this with some writers, that apparently the idea of going to back to some previous job they had is a nightmare.
How about you? Do you have stress dreams? What are they about?
Today my wife and I have to do a little maintenance with our youngest son, a little scolding, some grounding, etc. In the grand scheme of things it's minor, but it's big enough that if we overlook it, it might become a bigger problem. (Not much fun).
I'm sure that one reason my wife and I are being so pro-active on this particular day is that yesterday Leanne was talking to a friend of hers whose oldest son, about 20, keeps getting into trouble. The latest one was that a girl asked him to get her some pot, so he did. So she kept asking, and he did. Yeah, she's a narc and he's under arrest for distribution of a controlled substance. They're willing to let him off if he'll give them the name of his seller, but apparently he's afraid the guy will come after him. (Dude, I want to say, you're fucked either way, but if you give him up you keep your record clear). This isn't the first time he's gotten in trouble, but his juvenile problem was sealed.
I'm not blaming his parents or anything like that, but it strikes me that life requires some maintenance, that you can sometimes see things going off the rails a little bit and you need to nudge them back in the direction you think they should be going. It's pretty easy to let things slide through inattention or laziness. (And sometimes they slide anyway).
Well, enough about parenting and life. How does this apply to your writing?
Uh, in two ways. First, if you're writing a novel and you start to see things slide, and you think, "Hmmm, that's interesting, but I think that's minor, won't be a problem," it's a good idea to make sure that's so. Or once you realize, "Uh-oh, I really got detoured there," it's a good idea to go back and fix it before writing another 250 pages.
The other way is just writing-career things. Did you get a story rejected and give up on it while there were still markets to query? Did you give up on an agent search after only a few attempts? Have you contacted your agent or editor lately to see what's going on, or to see if there's anything you need to do? How are your writing finances? Are you keeping your books up-to-date? It's almost the end of March, are you ready to pay your quarterly taxes? Are you moving toward your writing goals? Are you drifting along, getting nothing accomplished? Are you taking steps to accomplish your writing goals?
In my experience, golf is a lot of fun, but can be very frustrating. I don't play often, which makes it more frustrating, because my skills are--ha!--not very fine-tuned.
Bicycling for me is almost always fun, even on that long-ride-to-nowhere exercise bike at the gym. Karate, although I'm often reluctant to go, is almost always a pleasure once I'm there. Running, well, I'm working on it. It probably falls into the it's-good-for-me category, although I like the feeling of "being a runner." (There's a blog post there). Playing the guitar? Fun. Lifting weights? Oddly enough, I usually enjoy it. I'm always running into guys at the gym--very regularly--who have finished their workout and say, "Thank God that's over." I don't feel that way. I enjoy going and when I'm done I'm done, but it's rare for me to say, "Oh, I don't want to go to the gym, I'd rather stay home."
If my feelings about running are complicated, they're nothing compared to my feelings about writing.
Yes, I think writing is fun. But the fact is, it's a job. And having it as a job can take some of the fun away from it. (Sometimes it can take ALL the fun away from it).
It's extremely rare--let me emphasize that, because it's true, EXTREMELY RARE--that I wake up in the morning and think, "I don't want to write today." When I do, and it's only happened a couple times in over five years, it's a pretty good bet that I've been working long hours around the clock trying to finish a project or multiple projects. If anything, I worry about burnout more than other aspects of the writing business.
Here's the thing about writing fiction. Writing fiction is a helluva lotta fun. Sometimes I get stuck in the middle and things seem dead or I'm so frustrated by marketing issues or my agent or the publishing industry as a whole that I wonder what the frack I'm doing working on a story, but otherwise, writing a novel is fun.
The key is to not let all that OTHER stuff ruin the fun.
Does that mean that if I suddenly won the Lotto that I'd keep doing this?
I'm pretty sure I'd continue to write. But probably not quite as hard and certainly not all the things that I currently write. If my numbers came up and I was suddenly worth $200 million or so (or even, you know, $20 million or so), I can think of one or two clients and/or types of writing I probably would not revisit voluntarily.
Last night in karate I was working with Olivia, who is about, oh, 3-1/2 feet tall, and probably in the 4th grade. The exercise was to move the other person across the floor without muscling it. Obviously, she couldn't muscle me if her life depended on it. She promptly kneed me in the crotch. Then did it again. As she told her mother later, "I saw the opportunity and I took it." She's going to go far (and I fear for anybody she might date).
I think I could go two ways here, about taking opportunities when you see them, or, going back to what I was originally going to write about, which, well, hey, I've got a novel coming out, I've published several other novels, I'm writing a nonfiction book I'm contracted for, I'm otherwise making a pretty decent living as a writer.
My wife and I were discussing my book signing schedule and I commented that one reason I had a better attitude about the book promotion stuff is simply that, having been a published novelist, then not being a published novelist, then getting books published again, all in all, I prefer having my novels published to not being published. Many of the business and promotional aspects of being a novelist are a pain in the tush, but...
We talk a lot about "voice." How important it is. To-date, I don't think anyone's given it a good definition, and sure as hell nobody I've ever heard talk or write about it has given a good idea on how to develop it short of "read a lot; write a lot" which covers most of what you need to become a publishable writer.
I've often heard agents and editors say that when they pick up a manuscript and the voice jumps out at them, they know just ... know.
Not helpful for us writers, certainly. But I was reminded of this just last night. I like novelist Robert Crais a lot. I love his Elvis Cole novels, have enjoyed his stand-alones, especially DEMOLITION ANGEL. I picked up his latest a month or so ago, THE FIRST RULE, which is a Joe Pike novel. For whatever reason I put off reading it, partially just to keep some variety in my reading, alternating thrillers with SF with crime novels with...
So last night I picked up THE FIRST RULE and read:
Frank Meyer closed his computer as the early winter darkness fell over his home in Westwood, California, not far from the UCLA campus. Westwood was an affluent area on the Westside of Los Angeles, resting between Beverly Hills and Brentwood in a twine of gracious residential streets and comfortable, well-to-do homes. Frank Meyer--more surprised about it than anyone else, considering his background--lived in such a home.
Okay. Nothing amazing there, I don't think. A couple things did strike me, though. It seemed very assured. There's a rock solid construction aspect to this that jumped out at me, even in three sentences. A sense of place. I like the phrase "in a twine of..." I also think the final sentence, suggesting that there's more to Frank than just an upper middle class suburban resident is very deft.
The second paragraph is interesting as well and perhaps more subtle.
Work finished, Frank settled back in his home office, listening to his sons crash through the far side of the house like baby rhinos. They made him happy, and so did the rich scent of braising beef that promised stew or boeuf bourguignon, which he never pronounced correctly but loved to eat. Voices came from the family room, too far away to make out the program, but almost certainly the sound of a game show on television. Cindy hated the nightly news.
Hmmm. Some fairly sophisticated characterization and scene-setting going on here. We're getting a real sense of Frank and a sense of family (of which something really horrible is soon to happen). A couple things strike me about this. I like the "...sons crash through the far side of the house like baby rhinos." I think his use of the verb "crash" is nice because of all the energy and sound and images it creates, and the "baby rhinos" is a nice touch. The joke about the dinner is interesting. And then, again, there's that last sentence that sends something a little jarring through all the domestic bliss, just a tiny bit.
Is there voice here? I think there is, but it's not necessarily immediately apparent. And it's possible that other readers just won't respond to it. Overall, what hits me most about these opening paragraphs is the careful modulation, the solid sentence structure, just how much information is being provided with very little effort. It seems effortless, but the more I analyze it the more I suspect he spent some time on each and every word. Scene setting, characterization, mood, with just tiny hints that hell will probably break loose soon (and it's a Robert Crais novel, so we know that's going to happen anyway; we're generally pre-sold). Here's the sentence that ends the first section on page 7:
Frank Meyer had no reason to suspect that something unspeakable was about to happen.
Now, the next section, we get a change of voice, a bit, a change of tone, a change of language:
Four men in the vehicle, black cutouts in the shadowed interior, Moon driving, Moon's boy Lil Tai riding shotgun, Jamal in back with the Russian. Moon, eyes flicking between the houses and the white boy, wasn't sure if the foreigner was a Russian or not. What with all the Eastern Bloc assholes runnin' around, boy coulda been Armenian, Lithuanian, or a muthuhfuckin' Transylvanian vampire, and Moon couldn't tell'm apart. All Moon knew, he was makin' more cash since hookin' up with the foreign muthuhfucka chillin' behind him than any time in his life.
Hmmm. There's a lot here. Once you get past the first part of the first sentence, we're inside Moon's head, his POV, more or less, even though it's still in third-person. The language changes, the images change, it moves to a street dialect (muthuhfucka versus motherfucker, to me, is fairly interesting word choices), dropping the g's.
So, to me, the question is: Do you hear the "voice" here?
I know, it's hard to beat yesterday's post and pics. Oh, and if you're still having problems with your RSS feeds, etc., try it with the site now. The URL is different and everything is in place.
Anyway, here's my train of thought this morning. I saw a headline about Kate Gosselin being on Dancing With The Stars (can't you just hear brain cells committing suicide?). Since, as far as I can tell, Kate Gosselin is only really famous for having had 8 kids (and both her and her ex-husband appear, to me, to be miserable, narcissistic, self-involved, vain... oh never mind), I started contemplating reality TV, which I don't watch. But it got me to thinking about the original starter of the execrable (always wanted to use that word) trend in so-called entertainment, Survivor.
As has been pointed out on Survivor, the people who win are not necessarily the people with the greatest survivor skills. They are people who understand the rules of the game and play the game to win.
Well, now, I just brought that back to writing.
Publishing has rules, whether we like them or not. And for this post, let's just skip over self-publishing, POD publishing, e-publishing, and stick to traditional dead-tree-stuff publishing and bookstores.
The rules, I think.
1. Write competently, ie., your story makes sense, there are few if any spelling or grammatical errors, the story is compelling, the main character is interesting, the plot involving. Graceful, lyrical writing not necessary, but appreciated if it works for the story. It at all possible, story must grab readers emotionally. Needs to be of a salable length, which typically means 70,000 to 120,000 words, depending on genre. (And Jessica Faust just made a comment that if you query her with a 500,000 word novel, the answer is "no.")
2. Must be marketable, ie., publisher has some idea of what genre it falls into, which allows them and bookstores to identify what type of book to call it. A short hook is nice so the acquiring editor can sell the book to their boss and to the sales department in one or two sentences.
3. Writer than has two options. Find an agent or find a publisher that's willing to read it directly from the writer. Dean Wesley Smith's advice notwithstanding, I have not had luck approaching major publishers without an agent (or with one, for that matter). I would take his advice with a grain of salt on that issue, although I think it's worth thinking about.
4. If you need to find an agent or if you are approaching an independent publisher that will read unagented materials, either way, you need to learn to write a compelling query letter, a skill rather different from writing a novel. You need to learn to boil your plot down compellingly with specificity into one or two paragraphs, then an additional paragraph about who the hell you are, if it's at all relevant to the query.
See. It's simple, when you break it down that way. :)
Now I need to think about the rules of book promotion post-publication. I'm still learning...
As you know, yesterday I went to Aunt Agatha's in Ann Arbor to do my book launch party/signing/event thing. Here's an account of it.
7:45--got up, shaved, showered, etc. Hopped online for a bit, then had breakfast. Took dog out for a walk.
9:00--woke up Sean, told him we'd be leaving around 10:00 and I needed to run errands.
9:05--went to Meijers and bought a bottle of wine to give to the bookstore owners (a new approach--bribe the bookstore people; I think it works :)). Filled up the gas tank. Got home, got a text from my wife saying she thought she'd be home earlier from work than expected. So I gave Sean the option of staying home versus traveling all day with me. Shocking, I know, but he elected to spend 3 hours playing video games by himself than sitting in a car all day with me.
10:00--hit the road toward Ann Arbor.
11:20 or so--found surface parking lot about 2 blocks from the store. Walked down to find the store and popped in and gave Jamie bottle of wine and ask him if he thought they'd need/want some of my backlist. He said he'd check with Robin. Then I asked him how to find the restaurant I was meeting my family at, the Grizzly Peak Brewing Company, which was around the corner and down a couple blocks. We were meeting there around 11:45. I got there around 11:35 and sat in the waiting area flipping through a local magazine and read a review of Thomas Lynch's latest collection of fiction. I've never read anything by him, but he gave a talk at the last Magna cum Murder I attended and he was both moving and hysterical. My brother Pete, and my nieces and nephews--Dylan, Elyse, and Kallen, & Elyse's boyfriend, Drew--showed up about 10 minutes later. My sister Beth, my brother-in-law Matt, and my mom showed up around noon. We commended to ordering food and beverages and chatting.
1:00--I left everyone at the restaurant and swung by Aunt Agatha's. They told me they did want my backlist. Craig McDonald and his wife and kids were there. I chatted briefly with them, then headed back to my car to get my box o' books and my dress jacket, then came back and commenced to mingling. I took a picture of the cake and before we got going, Jamie took a photo of Craig and I cutting the cake that's going to make us look an awful lot like we just got married (or as Craig said, people are going to talk).
My family showed up, and a friend of mine, Gary, and his family, showed up, and there were probably another dozen or so there.
Right around 1:30 or so we started our thing. I talked about myself and the books for 10 minutes or so and fielded some questions, and then Craig did the same thing. I tried something I hadn't before, which I intend to do at all my signings now, which was I bought a $25 gift certificate for the store and had everyone in attendance put their names on a card and had Robin draw the name. As it turns out, my niece Kallen won, so she bought a stack of books. I'm not quite sure how I'll handle that at longer signings at chain stores, but I think I'm going to continue doing it. It creates a lot of goodwill with everyone concerned and I would guess it makes it memorable for at least one attendee.
Cake was eaten. Then we signed books and, God bless my family, they bought a bunch of them. So did everyone else.
I've decided to totally change my attitude about these events (or try to). If you view them as a per-hour type of thing and count how many books you actually sell, you're only going to get frustrated. View it as a way to get your name out to the public, as a way to get to know booksellers, as a way for booksellers--particularly chain stores--to put your book on the front or local tables without your publisher shelling out thousands of dollars in coop, as a way to support bookstores and booksellers, and as a way to connect with people who like to read books, then you'll come away a far happier human being than if you sell 6 books for a profit of $12 and you spent 8 hours on the event. Also, sign stock and maybe your books won't end up pulped or on eBay (good luck with that last).
I chatted with Robin and Jamie for a few minutes, went back to my car, struggled with the automated parking attendant (technology's great, but too bad it doesn't work better; the damned thing absolutely refused to recognize either of my credit cards and didn't want to take my cash, although eventually it did), then, in true Mark Terry fashion, took a right instead of a left somewhere along the line, realized I was heading the wrong way, headed back downtown, got turned around, headed out of town, stopped to ask someone for directions, headed back in the opposite direction, in what turned out to be a totally round-about way of getting where I wanted to go, then was cut off on the expressway and missed my exit, so had to go down a couple miles and turn around... but eventually got home.
All in all, a fantastic experience. And if you're interested in buying an autographed copy of The Fallen, Aunt Agatha's has them available and you can buy them via their website.
Isn't that cake awesome? I didn't want to cut into it, it was too great.
p.s. I've added a photo of Craig and I cutting the cake. It's either a book signing or the inauguration of legal gay weddings in Michigan. I wonder if Craig and I are going to regret this picture somewhere along the line (or open up a whole new audience).
In the karate style I study, sanchin-ryu, there is a combination you learn early on called san-go. It involves three kicks, one after the other without putting your foot down in between (unless you have to). A forward snap kick, a rear heel thrust, followed by a side forward heel thrust. Kids usually love this when they start. Since I started when I was about 40, san-go has never been my favorite technique. In fact, it's pretty much stayed my least favorite, for a variety of reasons, for my entire period of study. There's also a form called geri that pretty much begins with 4 kicks--two to the front and two to the rear, all performed, ideally, without stopping to put your foot down and regain your balanced. Also, not a favorite. (An interesting form, though; there are other aspects of it that I like a lot).
I was working with a black belt a year or so ago, a young guy who was at that time a high school senior. I commented that I was not a fan of san-go and he grinned and said, "You know what the masters would say, right? Work on it until your worst is your best."
I think that's probably good advice for writers in general. There's always going to be aspects of your writing that you don't like or that you don't like doing.
Ah, which brings me to why I was thinking about this. Tomorrow is the first book event for the promotion of The Fallen. I'm having a "book launch party/signing/event" at Aunt Agatha's in Ann Arbor tomorrow starting at 1:30. Hey, if you're in the area, come on by. There'll be cake.
I probably shouldn't say this in print, because my publisher and publicist reads it, but what the hell. Some level of honestly is required, right? When my publicist contacted me about signings, she told me how important they thought a launch party was. I couldn't envision one, partly because there are no local indie bookstores near me (Aunt Agatha's is 63.32 miles, according to Mapquest, and takes an hour and 17 minutes, not counting getting lost in Ann Arbor or circling looking for parking, to get there). Even the closest chain store is 10 or 15 miles away. Also, I had some doubts about what friends or family I might be able to drag away from their own lives to come to a launch party, so I said "no thanks." Then they brought it up again and I said, "No thanks." They said, "Okay," then came back with, "Robin Agnew (the owner of Aunt Agatha's) would like you to do a signing with author Craig McDonald at her store." I said, "Cool," because Robin has been kind to me in the past, and because it's a great store, and because, well, I'm trying to be cooperative and upbeat about promotion for The Fallen.
Then my publicist, after getting my OK, said, "Oh, by the way, it's a launch party."
Well, it does look like I'm going to be able to get a dozen or more people to come. Granted, most of them are related to me, but that's fine.
I've been excited about all the reviews--almost all raves--I've been getting for The Fallen. There's some word of mouth going on there that's pretty cool and feels distinctly different from the previous novels. I think it has primarily to do with my publisher's efforts. They're really getting behind the book and pushing. So I'm doing my best to help and I'm going to put my happy face on and do the promotion end of things with enthusiasm and energy.
Because, you see, rather like san-go, I'm not too wild about this aspect of things. But I wonder if these two things aren't sort of related. I'm not really a social butterfly that is comfortable working a room. My sister commented to me once that it's just outside my comfort zone, and she's probably right. And so is san-go.
And I know that the way to deal with things I don't care for because I don't think I'm that good at them is to work at it, to embrace them (and maybe to cut myself some slack, I'm not THAT bad at either san-go or the social thing). And, perhaps, as Sensei Ben said, "...make your worst your best."
[There may be control issues, as well, if you want to get all shrinky about it. You just never know what's going to happen at a book event. Good weather, bad, publicity or none, cool people or whacky people, your books show up or not. But then again, it was quite recently, at a black belt class, that Master Ben Wolbert (not the sensei from before) commented that the idea of controlling other people in a fight is an illusion. What you can control is your actions.]
So, I'm going to try and have some fun. I'm planning on buying Craig McDonald's new book, which sounds interesting, and I'm getting together with family for lunch beforehand. Ought to be fun.
Persist, persist, persist, etc. What do you call a writer that doesn't quit? Published. Ass in chair, fingers on keyboard, repeat.
God, has any aspiring writer NOT heard all this?
For some time, back before I broke through (something I occasionally still feel like I'm waiting to do), it occurred to me that the worst thing about quitting would be knowing that success (whatever that is) could have been right around the corner. WHAT IF...
...your next book was the one that became the next Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Tuesdays With Morrie, etc., ad nauseum?
Most writers don't have that kind of success. Really.
Yet a lot of writers apparently make a living writing, anything from novels, nonfiction books, magazine articles, technical manuals, website copy, ad copy, and ransom notes.
I've mentioned before that I've had two publishers go under prior to publication, and I was dropped by my last publisher mid-contract. That seems sort of like an outlier when you're inside the frame, but...
...a couple weeks ago the Divine Ms. O wrote a post on her blog about some things that had happened in her writing career, editors that left houses (voluntarily or otherwise), books that got lost in the shuffle, contracts and deals that fell apart...
... recently John Scalzi made a comment about a business book getting published right around 9/11 and all the promotion, etc., getting shut down and the book basically dying before it hit the shelves...
I think we need to expect that. As The Fallen is gearing up for official release on April 5th, I'm not oblivious to the fact that after the series got dropped by Midnight Ink, I was fairly sure The Fallen and its follow-up, The Valley of Shadows, were going to remain unpublished forever. We shopped it around for a while, but very few publishers are interested in picking up a book mid-series, and I put it aside and worked on other things for a while, trying my hand at some middle grade and young adult fantasy (which I enjoyed writing a lot and may go after again sometime). Then I interviewed a couple authors with Oceanview Publishing for a The Big Thrill profile and contacted some writer friends to see if they'd heard anything about them, then asked my agent to send off The Fallen. And we're back in business.
It seems to me that unless you're really been whacked by the lucky stick, you're going to hit some major potholes in your writing career. And you can respond by quitting and taking up computer programming or commercial real estate, or you can keep writing and keep batting.
And God knows, there are undoubtedly some really good reasons to take up programming or getting a real estate license. Maybe these kinds of, er, speed bumps just aren't worth the hassle. (Hey, I have my days). Some people seem to have a good handle on a writing career, get dropped, and say, "Enough of that shit, I'm out of here," and if they have major regrets about that decision, well, they seem to keep it to themselves. Others grow bitter. Others come back stronger than ever a couple years later.
We like those comeback stories, I know, but I also think that life is short and if you throw your dice a few times and come up empty or, hell, the dice explode into a million pieces, it's not necessarily a bad thing to say, "Well, there's an infinity of other things for me to spend my time on, so why don't I explore them." In fact, I often think that's a good thing if it makes them happy or contented. If they spend the rest of their lives saying, "If only I had stuck with it..." or "if only I'd gotten a lucky break..." and it taints the rest of their life, then I don't think that's a good thing.
But as I've said before, there are millions of people struggling to get food on the table, living in war zones, fighting horrible diseases, etc. If the worst thing in your life is your novel-writing dreams didn't come to fruition, well, count yourself blessed.
That said, if you fall down, get back up again and keep going.
Derek Stillwater, the hero of my current thriller series, is a PhD in microbiology and biochemistry, a former Special Forces soldier (with a final rank of Colonel, before he "retired"). He's worked for the CIA, the military, the UN, with the FBI, and currently for the Department of Homeland Security. He's into kayaking and martial arts. He grew up around the world because his parents were missionary doctors. He has a brother who lives in Congo and works for Doctors Without Borders. He's an action hero.
I'm not. (Although I have a degree in microbiology, am into kayaking and martial arts, among other things).
When one of my first books came out, Catfish Guru, a woman asked me what the main character looked like, apparently fishing to see if he was good looking enough to have a fling with (I kid you not). I suspect people do this sort of thing all the time. It may be the book-to-film-to-imagination thing going on. Does Spenser look like Robert Urich, Joe Montegna, or the movie star of your imagination?
When you read a first-person narrative, do you become the narrator?
Even in a third-person narrative? Is that part of your transference? Do you become Alex Cross, Kinsey Millhone, VI Warshawski, Tres Navarre, Harry Potter, Lucas Davenport, Steve Carella, a member of Sigma Force, or whatever? (Or whomever?)
I know that sometimes people expect the author to be a little bit like the characters they write about. (Barry Eisler, anyone?) That can feel a little bit disconcerting to the author, certainly, although is it disappointing to the reader that the author is a middle-aged bald guy who battles his weight instead of a, er, slightly younger, more physically fit action hero whose physical description is intentionally kept to a minimum in the books? (Hey, I AM physically fit).
The reviews keep coming in for The Fallen and they're all raves, pretty much. Here's one I rather like by freelancer Vicki Landes:
Veteran author Mark Terry releases his newest novel next month. A super-fast and wildly entertaining read, “The Fallen” combines the currently-popular homegrown terrorism subject with a “Die Hard”-esque plot and vivid characters you won’t soon forget. Topped with a brilliant beginning, Terry starts things off with an unforeseeable shock and doesn’t let up from there.
Department of Homeland Security troubleshooter Derek Stillwater has spent a quiet several months undercover at a Colorado resort the G8 Summit is set to utilize for upcoming meetings. The tranquil mountain setting shatters into chaos however, when the international leaders arrive and a once-thoughy-dead enemy resurrects to bring his own agenda to the forefront. Cut off from the politicians and any communication with Washington DC, Derek must try to save lives – and the world for that matter – with only a tool belt, his smarts, and his beautiful resort coworker, Maria. “The Fallen” is John McClain meets Jack Ryan… with a little Macgyver in the mix!
“The Fallen” is an international, political thriller with easily likable characters whose emotions jump off the page at the reader. Derek Stillwater is the strong, silent type, resourceful, with good instincts, and stays one step ahead of the bad guys. You can almost feel his drive to stop his old friend and his sense of responsibility pushing him on instead of giving up. I would have liked to see more background on the two main characters, such as their friendship, the process of the falling out, and The Fallen’s path to the ‘other side’. I wasn’t happy with who Derek ended up with! While trying to avoid spoiling the ending, what happened to the promise he made to Maria about the boat?? She seemed to get written off at the end yet she was a major supporting character throughout the story. Perhaps these are purposely open points to allow prequel or sequel novels to develop? Whatever the case, the plot is gripping and stays with you long after the last page.
“The Fallen” earns high notches! Thriller fans will love its consistently high level of suspense, international/political fans will enjoy its pull from various currently popular subjects, and action fans won’t find a single disappointing page in the entire book. If you liked the “Die Hard” movies, you won’t want to miss “The Fallen.”
Here's the last 10 books I've read, with comments.
The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
I thought this got off to a slow start, but once it got going was pretty compelling. One of the reviewers, I think for Newsweek, commented that one of the problems with Dan Brown was that he does so much research, then has his characters describe it, that they all sound like docents. I agree completely with that statement. I think if you read it as a sort of history of Washington DC with an emphasis on Mason symbolism, it's a fascinating book. If you read it as a page-turning thriller, it's ok.
9 Dragons by Michael Connelly.
This Harry Bosch novel eventually takes Harry to Hong Kong to rescue his daughter who has been kidnapped. I liked this novel quite a bit and has some nice twists. I also thought Connelly was pretty brave for killing off a significant recurring character.
The Audacity to Win by David Plouffe.
The first book I've read all the way through on the Kindle app on the iPhone. It's nonfiction written by President Obama's campaign manager and it's a very compelling read and, for the most part, seems very honest. There's probably not quite enough gossip to make it a really fun read, although Plouffe regularly expresses his shock at the mistakes the Hilary Clinton campaign and then the McCain campaign made. He readily admits to their own mistakes, some of which were pretty stupid, but it's also clear that Obama et al took a somewhat, er, "maverick" approach and it worked well for them, although my thoughts on it are that they don't stand a chance of using the same approach in the next election.
Time Travelers Never Die by Jack McDevitt
A fun, but somewhat anticlimactic time travel SF novel. When a physicist disappears and his son discovers a time machine, he and his friend travel through time visiting historical events looking for him. I'm sort of a sucker for time travel stories, so I enjoyed it.
The Reclamation Artist by Kristin Katherine Rusch.
This is actually a novella and again, I read it on the iPhone. It's part of her Disappeared series. In the future there are aliens all over the place and everyone pretty much agrees, by treaty, to abide by the laws of the particular culture where crimes are committed. And some of those crimes, by human standards, are nothing, but the punishments are awful. As a result, an industry has grown up that helps people disappear and start up a new life somewhere else. And by more or less the same token, another industry has sprung up that tries to find the Disappeared. Deeply disturbing books, generally, but absorbing.
Altar of Eden by James Rollins
A standalone tech thriller about genetically engineered animals. Good fun.
Capitol Offense by William Bernhardt
Bernhardt's been writing a whole long series of books about an Oklahoma criminal attorney. I got hooked into the books a couple years ago when the character, Ben Kincaid, got appointed to the Senate by the state's Governor. I loved the Washington, DC location and all the government gossip & stuff, so I was hoping this book was more of the same. Instead it was a courtroom thriller. When a man's wife goes missing he keeps trying to get the cops to open a case, but they won't. When he finally convinces them to, they find her within 3 hours, but she dies from exposure and injuries shortly after they find her. The husband then goes and confronts the cop, apparently murdering him in the process (maybe). Kincaid reluctantly agrees to defend him, using a temporary insanity defense. If you like courtroom dramas, it's very good. It has some nice twists and turns, too.
Impact by Douglas Preston
A tech thriller involving strange radioactive gems found in Cambodia, a search for a meteor that landed somewhere off the coast of Maine, and odd gamma radiation signals from Mars. If the ending is somewhat anticlimactic (maybe one twist too many, in my opinion, somewhat undercutting the resolution), the rest of the book is a whole lot of fun.
The Ghost by Robert Harris
Ah, my favorite read this year. The book the Pierce Brosnan/Ewan MacGreggor movie, The Ghost Writer, is based on. A ghostwriter (who is nameless in the entire book, rather a metaphorical point, I think) who usually specializes in celebrity "autobiographies" is hired to complete the autobio of the last UK Prime Minister. The previous ghostwriter apparently either committed suicide by throwing himself off the ferry to Martha's Vineyard or fell off because he was drunk. The ghost moves onto the Vineyard and starts interviewing the PM, when The Hague takes action to try the former PM for war crimes. The ghostwriter starts feeling that maybe the last ghostwriter's death wasn't an accident and might have been onto some sort of conspiracy. A couple things about this book. First, Harris is a fantastic writer. The "voice" for this novel is an almost instant gotcha. There are tons of undercurrents and it really does take a while to figure out what's really going on. There are also some nice twists, in particular, a fairly disturbing one that really resonates at the very end of the novel. Highly recommended. (And no, I haven't seen the movie yet).
Split Image by Robert B. Parker
The first novel of Parker's to be published posthumously, it's a Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall novel, with multiple plots and multiple points of view. I actually thought this one was very good, even if it spent a little too much time on Jesse and Sunny's sessions with their shrinks. As Parker plots go, it was fairly complex.
Yesterday agent Nathan Bransford asked his readers what author's career they wanted to emulate. It was the type of question that brings every would-be novelist out of the woodwork, and last time I checked he had over 230 comments. One of them was mine. A surprising number of people said Neil Gaiman, which I suspect says more about Nathan's readership than aspiring writers in general. I can't say, never having read anything by Gaiman and not knowing much about his writing career except that he's been favored by a number of filmmakers.
Anyway, I commented that I liked John Sandford for the high quality of his work over the last 20+ years and his ability to successfully develop a second series and to write compelling standalones, as well as short nonfiction and nonfiction books, as well as some scripts.
I said Stephen King for his longevity and his versatility, although I don't want his level of fame. I'd prefer to walk around the community and the world without people knowing who I am. Very few novelists get that famous.
Then I commented that I've always been impressed by Lee Goldberg's ability to write novels, short fiction, short nonfiction, nonfiction books, TV scripts and feature scripts. Uh oh, a theme.
I knew this in the back of my head, but I really do want a long career with a variety of types of writing to it. Yeah, I'd be glad if one of my novels suddenly became the next Da Vinci Code (minus the lawsuits) or Harry Potter (minus the stalkers and rabid fans and lawsuits). And who knows, maybe I'll change my mind on this if my novels really bring in a lot of money, but I value being a "writer" more than I value being a "novelist." And I don't necessarily want to be tied down to a single form, genre, or type of project, partially for the financial security of being versatile, and partially because I like the variety from a creative point of view.
I do understand--I'm slowly becoming aware of this--that there are a number of novelists out there whose novels make much more money than mine do (yet) but who don't make enough money to write full time. And that my ability to write many different things does allow me to make enough money to write full time, which is really a blessing. I would much rather be a full-time writer than a part-time novelist with a day job I didn't like. But not everybody feels that way, and that's fine.
So anyway, what writer's career would you like to emulate?
Remember that just a couple days ago I wrote that one of the best parts of being a writer is when your friends break through?
Here's a little bit of trivia.
On Monday I was on the phone with my publisher. As part of their marketing efforts they wanted me to send them as many emails as I had with names and regions. Well, I had quite a few, as it turned out (and probably could have sent even more, but I was careful not to abuse certain business relationships), but I mostly just put down the state the person was in. So we were going over my list (about 178 names) one by one and when we hit Jude Hardin, my publisher said, "Oh, small world. We just offered him a book contract."
I emailed Jude to verify that it was, indeed, him, whose first novel would be published by Oceanview, and he said it was.
I started working on the 5th Derek Stillwater novel and felt recently that its pace was too slow. Then I was inspired by Dr. Seuss: "Then he got an idea. An awful idea. The Grinch got a wonderful, *awful* idea!" Oh yes, I did. The writer, he said, to his furry young pup. "When in doubt, my fine friend, blow something up."
That got some fairly interesting comments, most of them funny. The fact is, of course, that I WAS working on the 5th DS novel and I am 40 pages or so in and I felt like, despite a terrific prologue, a great premise, and some very interesting things going on, I had gone from those things to Derek and his State Department contact in Moscow, Erica Kirov, sitting around talking. And I would also have to add, from my point of view, getting along too well. Which usually means it's time for Derek to start rubbing people the wrong way, and in a hurry.
Nonetheless, I felt like I was writing a mystery novel set in Russia. Nothing wrong with that, except that this is a Derek Stillwater novel. Derek Stillwater does, in fact, solve mysteries, but the other very important elements are that he's solving those mysteries on a dead run, he's solving them with some sort of deadline (ticking clock) hanging over his head, and the stakes are really, really high.
I hadn't gotten Derek moving on his dead run yet, there was no real deadline, and I hadn't quite let anyone know what the stakes were yet, partially because I hadn't completed decided. Some very odd things were going on, but nothing had quite gelled.
So I was doing some research on domestic terrorism in Russia and on Russia's history of biological and chemical warfare research, and all sorts of elements suddenly came together and I not only know what I needed to do--blow something up--but what Derek was going to be doing afterwards.
This is a wonderful, wonderful feeling for a writer.
But the point of his little essay is that you as a writer need to know what type of book you're writing. If I wanted to, I could have Derek basically investigating the death of a US weapons inspector in Russia, since that's a component of the book. Or he could be looking into the death/disappearance of a friend, which is also a component of the book. And they would, I think, both be good stories.
But the fact is, I'm writing a Derek Stillwater novel, and by this time, I ought to have some notion of what a Derek Stillwater novel actually is--see my description earlier. As much as possible, I need to have those elements in a Derek Stillwater novel--action, ticking clocks, high stakes. As I commented later on Facebook, when you're writing novels about an expert on terrorism, sooner or later something's going to have to go boom.
That's not to place any judgement call on the value of the type of book I'm writing, to suggest that if the book were a deep, layered study on the differences between American and Russian terrorism and culture, or a slower, in-depth character study, that those are bad things, inferior or superior to what I'm doing. In fact, there are perhaps components of both of those I want to layer into this book. But if that's all I did, then I wouldn't be writing a Derek Stillwater novel and my agent, editors and readers might very well be disappointed that I hadn't delivered what they had come to expect. Another word for that is "branding" and at this stage of the game a Derek Stillwater novel is also a Mark Terry novel, and I'm still in the process of developing that "brand," such as it is.
Can you develop a brand as "every book is different?" Sure. Some writers do that quite well. I just read The Ghost by Robert Harris and I've read a couple of his other books and apparently he also writes big sprawling novels taking place in ancient Rome, and it's fairly safe to say that a first-person political thriller about a ghost writer hired to write the memoirs of a former UK Prime Minister is fairly different from his Roman novels and his alternate history novel, Fatherland. That's his brand.
But most writer's brand is more consistent. Robert B. Parker's was private eyes and short chapters and crystalline dialogue; Harlan Coben's is normal people trapped in bizarre situations, personal secrets, and twists and turns. Each book's different, but it's not.
One Of The Best Things About Being A Published Novelist
March 5, 2010
A while back my friend Stephen Parrish asked me if I would take a look at the opening of his novel and see what I thought. I did. Overall it was good, but there were some things that I thought would make it better. Apparently Stephen agreed and he made the changes. Then he tried the manuscript at my former publisher and who'd have thunk it, but the novel got accepted for publication, Stephen's first, and I hope the first of many, many wildly successful novels.
Now, the title of this post is "One Of The Best Things About Being A Published Novelist." And I can honestly, honestly tell you, it's watching a friend get a little piece of their dreams come true. Even if I hadn't had a pinkie or toe in the waters to help, I would have been quite pleased for Stephen. Know why? It's not because I'm such a wonderful altruistic guy.
No, it's because I know how damned hard it is to get there. And Stephen's probably going to find out how damned hard it is to stay there, but like me and a lot of other writers, I suspect, as they say at NASA, "failure is not an option." Publishing doesn't need to be a zero-sum game. Someone else's success doesn't lead to my failure. In fact, as the expression goes, rising tides lift all boats. I WANT Stephen's book to become an astonishingly successful bestseller that outsells The Da Vinci Code, not just because I'm being generous (I'd like a piece of that success myself), but because I want the publishing industry to be enormously successful and healthy. That's good for me and all writers.
We're writers, so we write, come obstacles and failures and disappointments.
So, for all you readers, here's my wish: May it happen to you, too.
It's about a month before the publication of THE FALLEN, the third Derek Stillwater novel. I'm having a launch party on March 20th (man, is that only 2 weeks away?!!!) at Aunt Agatha's in Ann Arbor (if you're in the area at 1:30 PM, stop by, there'll be cake!).
My publisher's publicist has been busy arranging book signings, with a total of 3 scheduled so far, but many more to come. A local bookstore isn't doing anything formal, but they want me to contact them before I swing by to sign stock so they can let people in the store know.
I'm arranging a blog tour.
The reviews are starting to come in, and except for a slightly snarky Publishers Weekly review, they've all been raves so far.
I know ITW Report (or The Big Thrill) will be running a piece on me for the April issue. Jeff Ayers is running a podcast interview and online piece in Author Magazine.
Yesterday, John Scalzi, whose Whatever blog gets 40,000 unique hits a day, topped his mailbag feature with a mention and cover art of THE FALLEN. (Really, that made my day).
As an author, sometimes you get a sense of momentum. Sometimes you don't. Quite honestly, my publisher, Oceanview, it seems to me, is working their ass off to make this book a success and I hope I and the book hold up our end. I suspect most writers who've been publishing novels for a while, have had a real mix of experiences with publishers.
Although I thought my last publisher was quite supportive for The Devil's Pitchfork, they seemed to lose interest before The Serpent's Kiss came out. Not much support, few if any advanced reading copies sent out to reviewers, no advertising, only a mention in their catalogue.
I have a friend who, years back, got great early reviews, lots of pre-orders, and her publisher got all excited and responded by shifting the publishing date around, screwing up the pre-orders and putting a paperback deal in jeopardy, essentially killing the book's momentum.
Weird shit just happens. There has been a tendency for publishers to really push certain books and treat the rest like pasta--they fling it at the wall to see if it's ready, but otherwise don't bother to promote them. Stephen King, in an essay he wrote about his early Bachman books, described them as being like cannon fodder. There have been some big publishing ventures lately where they publishers have decided to limit the number of books they publish and spend much more time trying to turn each book's publication into an event, backing them with promotion efforts and generally trying to shepherd them into the marketplace.
At the moment, THE FALLEN is getting that kind of treatment, and the whole experience just feels different. And it feels good.
I'm reading THE GHOST by Robert Harris, the book the recent film The Ghostwriter is based on. (Great book so far, by the way).
"A book unwritten is a delightful universe of infinite possibilities. Set down one word, however, and immediately it becomes earthbound. Set down one sentence and it's halfway to being just like every other bloody book that's ever been written. But the best must never be allowed to drive out the good. In the absence of genius there is always craftsmanship. One can at least try to write something that will arrest the readers' attention, that will encourage them, after reading the first paragraph, to take a look at the second, and then the third."
Last Friday I found out that my largest client, the one that accounts for about 80 to 90% of my annual income, was going through a restructuring. Well, let's put it this way. The sales guy I've been working with on an ancillary project for the client left a message on my answering machine that went something like, "I was just hoping to talk to you about today's conference call, especially in light of XXXXX leaving the company and all the things that have been going on that you know about."
Um, what? (I didn't know shit).
A tiny bit of background. The client is a publisher that is owned by a group publisher which is owned by a larger corporation which is... you get the idea. My contact with the client, it turns out, was probably leaving the company (well, he is, but I didn't know that at the time). Basically early last week everyone who worked at my client's company was called together, told that there would be restructuring. Two days later 35 people were on their way out and my contact person was one of them.
Now, here's the thing. This client isn't going out of business, at least not this year. They're shifting under a different part of the parent corporation. Generally speaking, it looks like all their writers are staying, but a lot of the publishing/production people are leaving.
Where did that leave me? I was assured I was "probably okay." I was fairly confident I was, too, but since I'm a freelancer and my point of contact was leaving and I didn't have contracts for all the work I was scheduled to do in 2010 (we generally lay out what I'm going to do over the course of the year, how much we'll pay, then as each comes up with contract for it), things weren't so clear cut. I wasn't worried, exactly, but I was concerned.
[And a footnote. If you're the type of person who goes into a raging fit of panic whenever things change like this--don't become a freelance writer. Or even a novelist. These sorts of things just happen all the frickin' time. If you can't deal with it, keep your day job. Really.]
Anyway, yesterday I finally got hold of my contact and discussed matters with him and I did point out that I didn't have a contract for any of the remaining work, did he think we were going to continue doing it? He said he was pretty sure they were because there were an awful lot of important revenue streams involved. And I rather bluntly suggested he should talk to whoever was taking over about getting a contract to me sooner rather than later, then, because I was otherwise going to be out looking for replacement work (sooner, rather than later).
And voila, by the end of the day yesterday I had a contract for 3 projects over the next 3 months totaling about $32,000. Apparently those revenue streams were important to the management.
Hell, they're important to me.
Another funny thing happened to me yesterday. I got a royalty check from iUniverse for my novella collection, CATFISH GURU. Granted, the check was for $5.41.
But I've been thinking a lot about revenue streams lately. And not just from the freelance writing business perspective, but from the novelist perspective. I'm also working on a nonfiction book. I won't see any money from it until sometime late in 2011. My next novel, THE FALLEN, will be officially published on April 5th of this year and although I received a small advance last year, I expect to see royalties from it... sometime in 2011.
And for that matter, I hope my agent will sell some foreign rights to it. More revenue streams.
If you're really lucky as a novelist, you can write one book a year and make a living at it. If you do, there's a good possibility that each book is providing multiple revenue streams--your advance, your paperback sales, your e-book sales, foreign rights sales, maybe audiobooks, even possibly TV or film options, videogame options, merchandising (well, it COULD happen), etc.
Also, part of the goal really is to grow your audience. So that each time you come out with a new book, say your fifth book, and you garner an additional set of readers to go along with your old readers, those new readers will be so delighted with your fifth book that they'll go back and buy your first four--and you'll get royalties, ie., revenue streams, from those books as well.
If you have any notion of making a living as a writer of any sort, do not discount the importance of multiple revenue streams. I've been aware of it in the context of having multiple clients, but I'm increasingly aware of the value of what you might call passive revenue streams.
As it is, I'm primarily a work-for-hire kind of writer. I write an article, I get paid for it. I get hired to write a report, I get 50% up front and the remaining 50% when I'm done. I have a long-term contract to edit a technical journal, and I get a check after I complete the edits on each issue. I write a regular column for an e-newsletter now and I invoice for all of them (2X a week) at the end of each month.
That's fine. But the longer I stay in this business the more it sometimes feels like being on a gerbil wheel. You've got to run pretty hard to keep up. That's fine. That's just like everybody else's job, pretty much, except there's no coasting allowed. But it would be nice if some of the earlier books started generating royalties, ie., revenue streams. If my books were being published regularly enough and successfully enough and with enough subsidiary revenue streams that I was getting unexpected, but welcome, revenue in the forthcoming years.
So that approach is becoming more of a priority, an actual goal, as part of my writing business. And I might be a slow learner in terms of this, but I'm really starting to think that if you want to survive happily as a writer, you're well-advised to start thinking about multiple revenue streams.
As part of my promotional efforts in support of The Fallen, I plan to organize a blog tour. I will be contacting some of you directly, but if there's any readers of this blog who would like me to visit their blog as a "guest blogger" in the month April, let me know. And should the shoes be on the other feet, so to speak, I would be glad to host you in return.