Practicing Your Attack
July 30, 2010
I had a chaperone meeting for the upcoming marching band camp last night (oh yay, I say with much enthusiasm) and my wife and a couple friends hit a local Mexican restaurant afterward to, er, have adult beverages. We were later joined by one of the band directors and his wife (and 3-year-old daughter, because she really, really wanted a Margarita).
At one point in the conversation with the band director, we were talking about a student we both know rather well who is a very, very gifted musician but kind of a dick. And since I have musicians in the family, we got to talking about the significant challenges involved in being a professional musician. The band director told me a story he heard from a friend who went to Julliard at the same time as Wynton Marsalis. His friend said he was walking around the rehearsal areas and he heard Marsalis practicing his attack on a certain note. Meaning, for the non-trumpet players among you, that he would repeatedly play the same note. He went off and three hours later came by and heard Marsalis practicing the same damn attack on the same damned note.
Which is probably why he's Wynton Marsalis.
Another story I heard, perhaps true, perhaps not, was that Ernest Hemingway rewrote the ending of For Whom The Bell Tolls over 20 times to get it right.
I don't know that I've rewritten anything 20 times, but I do believe that I try to regularly raise the level of my game and increase the intensity of how I approach things, to really get good and picky about those commas, word choice, etc., to not accept "good enough" or even "good." I think you have to.
The Loaded Question
July 29, 2010
Yesterday Leanne and I drove all the way across the state to drop our son off at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. He'll be gone 12 freakin' days and that's a very long time (there are stories to be told, I'm sure). Anyway, almost 4 hours there and almost 4 hours back. Once we got settled again at him, did a variety of things, we decided to go out to dinner. While we were eating, a young woman who was a waitress at the restaurant stopped by our table and introduced herself. She had been our neighbor for several years and when she was a teenager had babysat both of my sons--far more than I remembered, because she did a tremendous amount of babysitting in the summer while I was at work and Leanne was working midnights, hence sleeping during the day. So Anna came and went while I was gone most of the time. It was neat, she's grown into a fine young lady and seems to be doing well.
I asked her, "So, how's your mother?" innocently enough. And 1 second after I asked it I realized what a loaded question that could be. Her mother had suffered through depression when she lived next door to us, and we even suspected there might have been some alcoholism or other controlled substance issues involved. Anna sort of got the run of the road while Mom disappeared into the house for huge stretches at a time. Anna in many ways seemed to be raising Mom, not the other way around. The degree to which that happened was not obvious and to this day I don't know details. As it turns out, her mother seemed to be doing quite well. She had remarried, then the husband had died, but her mother had apparently gotten her act together and was going back to school (and Anna was in college as well).
When I thought about my question, I was reminded of something from Stephen King's "Bag Of Bones." After first meeting Mattie DeVore, the main character, Michael Noonan says:
There are people in this world who have a knack for asking embarrassing, awkward questions without meaning to--it's like a talent for walking into doors. I am one of that tribe, and as I walked with her toward the passenger side of the Scout, I found a good one. And yet it was hard to blame myself too enthusiastically. I had seen the wedding ring on her hand, after all.
"Will you tell your husband?"
Her smile stayed on, but paled somehow. And tightened. If it were possible to delete a spoken question the way you can delete a line of type when you're writing a story, I would have done it.
"He died last August."
"Mattie, I'm sorry. Open mouth, insert foot."
Ah well. I'm also a member of that tribe, and last night at least, the question seemed innocuous and innocent and nothing adverse happened. Doesn't always work that way for me, God knows.
But I wondered. In fiction, does your character ask the loaded question? Or does someone else ask your main character a seemingly innocuous question that nonetheless carries a tremendous amount of weight? I think mine often do. And I think, if handled carefully, can show tremendous characterization not just by the answer, but by the lack of answer.
Here, for instance, is a little bit from next year's Derek Stillwater novel, THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS (coming to you on June 7, 2011).
Shelly Pimpuntikar met his gaze. Slim and petite in a crisp gray business suit, the FBI agent was of either Indian or Pakistani descent, Derek didn’t know which. Voice soft, she said, “I don’t think they like us.”
He caught the same vibe. Flashing a smile, he said, “Well, I know why O’Reilly doesn’t like me. Why doesn’t she like you?”
Surprise spread across Shelly’s face. “You don’t know?”
“I am originally from Pakistan. I am a U.S. citizen, though.” Her English had a slight accent, almost a lilt, that Derek found very pleasant.
“Ah,” he said.
“And I am a Muslim.”
“’Ah’ again. Yes, well…” He wasn’t sure what to say, actually. He settled for silence, which often worked well for him.
“Why doesn’t O’Reilly like you?” she asked.
He took a deep breath. “We worked together in Iraq. We were weapons inspectors. We didn’t get along very well.” Not quite true. In fact, they had gotten along too well—and too often. Unfortunately, it was only later that she had told Derek she was married, a little factoid she had kept to herself during their time together. There were other issues, but that was one of the big ones.
Shelly Pimpuntikar’s large brown eyes were penetrating. “There is, perhaps, more to this story than you suggest?”
Derek nodded. “Perhaps.”
July 27, 2010
I've written about this before. Sometimes when I get a story idea, I'll write a little bit of it to see if it takes off. I had a story idea recently and although I'm in the middle of the next Derek Stillwater, I wanted to experiment with this story idea a bit. I think it still might make a fine Derek novel. Anyway, I thought I'd put them up here not as a poll, but to give you a glimpse of a process I sometimes go through. In this case, my focus isn't to find out of the stories work for you, but to find out if they work for me, which can be a very different thing.
The first attempt got deleted (probably with good reason), but it went something like this:
Michael Gabriel stood in the background in his three-piece gray suit, wearing even the vest. He put the vest on to honor Jeff, who died entirely too young. The honor guard fired off their salute and a bugler played taps and the crowd in Arlington Cemetery drifted away. Michael intended to do that, too, when a woman began to walk directly toward him. Jeff's sister. Shoulder-length chestnut hair in a dark suit with a knee-length skirt and a champagne-colored blouse.
There was more, but not much. It wasn't flying for me, even though I knew who she was and what she wanted and who Jeff was and even to some extent who Michael was.
Then I tried it with a character I've written about before, Dr. Austin Davis in a novel titled HOT MONEY that we haven't been able to place and I might consider publishing on Kindle (or maybe not, I haven't decided).
Entering the Rayburn House Office Building to meet with Congresswoman Julia McDowell, I was confronted by the bronze statue of Sam Rayburn, holding a gavel in his right hand. Rayburn held the record for surviving as Speaker of the snakepit known as the House of Representative—seventeen years. He was noted for his integrity and shyness, which are two traits not often noted in modern Speakers of the House, although vindictiveness and score-settling are.
Security passed me through quickly with a “Good morning, Dr. Davis,” and a run through the metal detector. Representative McDowell, from the state of Indiana, had a three-room suite of offices on the third floor with a particularly good view of the Capitol Building.
Her receptionist smiled and said, “Dr. Davis, Representative McDowell will see you shortly,” and pointed over to a chair. My name is Austin Davis and I am a political consultant. I am a very particular kind of political consultant, however, with a very particular set of skills. A politician typically hires a political consultant when they want a problem spun; they hire me when they want a problem to go away.
I did not know exactly what Representative McDowell wanted with me, although I could guess. Meanwhile, I spent the time in her reception area catching up on the day’s headlines on my laptop and eying McDowell’s staff, which leaned toward thirty and forty-something women in suits. There did not appear to be many men on McDowell’s staff.
* * *
Well, there's nothing wrong with it, although it's sort of place-setting. My biggest problem with it is that it's sort of reiterating things I wrote in HOT MONEY.
Then I played with this:
Professor Joe Gabriel stood in front of the classroom at Georgetown University and asked the question, “What motivates a suicide bomber? Why do people commit the most final act of terrorism? Ideas?”
There were thirty-five students in the classroom. Some were graduate students in political science. A few, Gabriel was sure, were spooks—CIA, DIA, State Department, probably some private contractors.
A young man with a crewcut and the squared-off posture of a marine said, “They’re nuts?”
Gabriel smiled. “Probably, some sort of psychopathy. Are you in the service?”
“In the Corps.”
He’d been right. “So someone who is willing to charge a machine gun nest is crazy? Willing to throw themselves on a hand grenade to protect those around them?”
“Probably,” the Marine said, to the amused laughter of the rest of the class.
“Not patriotism?” Gabriel asked.
The Marine cocked his head. “That’s … that might be too … theoretical. In battle, anyway.”
“Have you seen action?”
The Marine nodded. “Afghanistan.”
Gabriel nodded. “In your experience, then, who do soldiers fight for?”
“Each other,” the Marine said without hesitation. “Your squad. Your team.”
“So do terrorists commit suicide for each other? Anyone?”
The general consensus was they did not. Gabriel said, “So far, the consensus is ‘crazy.’” He gave an elaborate shrug. “Widespread psychopathy, even a certain contagious quality to it. Nihilism, perhaps.” He prowled the stage. Gabriel was a smidge over six-foot with broad shoulders. In a gray suit, he limped as he walked, although not badly enough to require a cane. Gabriel had served in the military as well, and had been close enough to an IED—improvised explosive device—in Iraq to cause permanent damage to his right leg and an honorable discharge.
He stopped and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “What does Al-Qaeda want? Anyone besides Jeff?”
A woman said, “A war with non-Muslims.”
“They’ve got it. Officially since 2001, but it was going on a bit before that. Once they have their war, what did they want?”
“To win,” another student said.
“Hmmm,” Gabriel said, leaning against the podium. “How does Al-Qaeda define winning?”
The door at the back of the lecture hall opened and a heavy-set balding man entered, caught Gabriel’s eye and leaned against the wall. The man folded his arms across his ample chest. His remaining hair was gray and he wore thick black plastic-rimmed glasses on a thick nose. Gabriel nodded at him.
Someone said, “The destruction of the U.S.”
“That grand?” Gabriel said. “How would they define destruction of the U.S.? And anyway, Al-Qaeda has spread all over the place. Started with bin Laden. Let’s get specific, then. What did bin Laden want?”
The man at the back of the classroom said, “He wanted the U.S. out of Saudi Arabia. Out of the home of Mecca. He viewed the U.S. as occupiers since the first Gulf War in 1991.”
Gabriel nodded and waved a hand. “Thanks, Steve. Let’s assume for a moment that Steve is correct. Can anyone cite any other precedents?”
Jeff, the Marine, raised a hand and said, “U.S. in Afghanistan.”
Someone else blurted out, “U.S. in Iraq.”
A third student said, “British out of Ireland.”
“Israel out of Palestine!”
It went on like that for a while before Gabriel said, ...
* * *
Gee, we may never find out what Gabriel said. Out of the three, I like this one the best. But as I said, I can see this particular story belonging to Derek, although I find this version of Joe Gabriel, college political science professor and political consultant, to be the most likely to click for me.
What's your process like?
Steering An Aircraft Carrier
July 26, 2010
An aircraft carrier weighs (not quite a nautical term, sorry) about 105,000 tons. Obviously they don't go from zero to sixty very quickly. And they don't turn on a dime. In fact, in order to get something that big up to speed takes a tremendous amount of energy to overcome inertia and a fair amount of time to turn.
Insert writing metaphor here.
Okay, Mark, what's on your mind today.
A year or two ago I decided that although I was making a good living freelance writing, editing a technical journal, writing trade journal articles, writing market research reports... I wanted to focus more on books. I had picked up a ghostwriting (technically it's a collaborating gig, because my name will go on the cover) gig and it paid okay for a first time, but way below what most ghostwriting gigs pay. But I enjoyed doing it most of the time and there's the added bonus of actually having a product you can put on the shelf at the end (something e-books may or may not do away with, we'll see). Also, I've always enjoyed working in the longer form--novels, book-length market research reports, and now nonfiction books.
So, aside from throwing some wishes out to the ether, once I finished the book (which was just recently), I made a point of trying to steer my career in that direction (in addition to writing novels). I sent out introductory emails to some agents that deal in the types of books I have expertise in; I looked through various writing gig boards and responded to some of the ghostwriting gigs (not all; some of them set off my alarm signals); I introduced myself to several companies that hire ghostwriters; I joined a recently started organization, the Association of Ghostwriters, and I had an interesting phone conversation with an agent who often works with ghostwriters.
No gigs yet, but I've had 2 proposals to look at from one of the companies, and hopefully they'll stick with it and I'll stick with it and something will come up this year.
These things take time. I want to change the direction of my writing career and it can be a slow process. But I take it a step at a time and be patient and persist.
Sound familiar? Thoughts?
Oh, by the way. The aircraft carrier in the photograph is the U.S.S. Shangri-La. Its name was a dramatic break from the tradition of naming naval ships after people, battles or cities. Anyway, my father served on the U.S.S. Shangri-La in World War II.
Shut The Hell Up
July 24, 2010
Okay. I'm reading on a Kindle, I've got an iPad in the house, I've self-published on the Kindle. There's all this hurly-burly going on (yeah, I read the first page of my son's copy of Macbeth, go sue me) about an agent, Wylie, publishing some of his clients' work on the Kindle DTP platform, and the usual suspects have weighed in on it with the same old attitudes, which I'm starting to view as Often Wrong, But Never In Doubt, and the entire thing reminds me more and more of both the talk of the end of publication as we know it that occurred when iUniverse came on the scene and of the late-1990s just before the Internet Bubble burst and companies like Pets.com disappeared.
I also suspect that the only people that give a damn about it at all are writers (most especially unpublished writers who think the whole universe has opened up to them), agents, editors, and other publishing professionals. The average reader or person-on-the-street really doesn't give a damn one way or the other and probably some of them haven't even heard of a Kindle, let alone a Nook, and if they were going to pay $500+ for an iPad their top priority wouldn't be to use it as an e-reader, but as a laptop for surfing, games, video, and email. As my brother once described the Republican Party, "They're like bees buzzing in a glass jar."
So today, despite the following links, I can't but feel that everybody should just shut the hell up.
(all profits from the Kindle sale of To Speak For The Dead--a really excellent book, by the way, by a really excellent writer--go toward The Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Children's Hospital)
That's really just the tip of the iceberg and ... what? I can't hear you, there's a buzzing in my ears...
What Do You Want?
July 23, 2010
Aside, from, say, the airbrushed Cameron Diaz I posted a couple days ago, what do you want from blog posts like mine?
The audience changes. For one, the aspiring authors, whether they realize it or mean to do it, start pushing back. If you start thinking out loud about problems they wish they had, there gets to be a certain tension. I full on encountered this when I had just finished my first novel. At a con a dear friend (and to this day still a dear friend and someone I respect a great deal) had asked what the toughest part writing this novel was. I’d responded that I’d just become noticed enough that halfway through I got asked to write two short stories, and paused the book to do so. My friend responded, ‘wow, I wish I had that kind of problem.’Been there. Many times on this blog. As I posted:
On my own blog I often contemplate the difficulties of staying in the business of novel-writing and the ups-and-downs and moodiness that can come with it (at least for me) and I do realize there are a lot of unpublished, aspiring writers reading it who probably think I’m whining. I try to write about the writing life in as unvarnished a fashion as possible, but it’s clear that a lot of people just want you to be inspiring and tell them that if they just persist they’ll be the next JK Rowling, that you shouldn’t ever be a “Debby Downer” and suggest that, “Hey, dudes, this is a bitchin’ hard industry to make a living in and I don’t know the freakin’ secret handshake either.”
So I wonder, which would you prefer? I can talk nuts-and-bolts. I'm also trying to keep the creeping doubt issues out in general, because that crap's like weeds, they take root and grow if you're not careful. At the same time, I'm not good at the pollyanna "let's all hold hangs and put on a smiley face and we'll all be successful novelists" stuff either. It's a tough business and if there's one thing I've discovered, it's that "shit happens."
Anyway, read Tobias's piece and the piece he links to. Food for thought.
On Your Reading Radar: Running From The Devil by Jamie Freveletti
July 22, 2010
A month or so later Jamie's publicist contacted me asking if I was interested in possibly reviewing a couple books and Jamie's book(s) was one of them. I said sure. Then, I was somewhat surprised to see, a week or so ago, Running From The Devil won the Thriller Award for Best First Novel from International Thriller Writers, Inc., an organization I not only am a member of, and that I regularly write for their newsletter, but I once acted as a judge for the Thriller Award.
So I read the book. It's good. Very, very good. Best new novel of the year? Dunno, haven't read them all, let alone all the books nominated for the award--and having been a judge convinced me more than ever that awards of this sort of capricious at best, but... it's good.
Emma Caldridge is a chemist for a cosmetic company and an ultramarathon runner. She's taking a trip to Colombia when the plane she is on crashes and she and about 60 or 70 other passengers survive. But when she awakens in the jungle, she sees guerillas rounding up the survivors and herding them along a path--their intent is to ransom them off.
And so begins a compelling story of survival as Emma tracks the group and tries to stay alive. Interestingly, that's one story. Another story is about a military contractor affiliated with the Department of Defense that is struggling to make a rescue attempt. Another story is what Emma's doing in Colombia in the first place and why another group appears to be looking specifically for her.
Emma's a very interesting character. Complex. Tough. Angry. Smart. The pacing is dead on and there's plenty of tension. Perhaps Emma operates at a rather higher level (something Derek Stillwater has been accused of) than she should, or perhaps she's just rising to the occasion, unusually well equipped for the disaster she finds herself in. In that Emma's particular expertise as a chemist is medicinal plants and medicines, there's some fairly inventive arcana that she uses to survive that I enjoyed a lot. I have far too many questions about the reasons she was in Colombia, and some of that comes from my own scientific background and interests, including those of my own novels.
Nonetheless, a very impressive debut and I highly recommend this book.
Is Plot A Rental Car?
July 21, 2010
Over on Murderati
today there's a conversation going on about whether or not bad writing gets in the way of a good story. That's not what this post is about, but rather something Louise Ure
wrote that made me think.
Remember Lee Child's famous Bouchercon panel called "Plot is Just a Rental Car?" His premise was that if he told you he had spent the weekend in Phoenix with Cameron Diaz, you wouldn't care what kind of car he rented at the airport there. It was just the vehicle to get you to the character.
Hmmmm. Although I essentially agree that if someone told me they spent the weekend in Phoenix with Cameron Diaz, the first question to come to mind probably wouldn't be what car he (or she) rented, I do think one of the first questions that came to mind would be, "Doing what?"
So although I agree somewhat with what Lee Child is saying, I sort of fall back on the description of good fiction as "interesting people doing interesting things." And I'm not sure you can have "good fiction" (which can create a debate all its own) without having both elements, "interesting people" or said interesting people "doing interesting things."
What say you?
July 20, 2010
"A woman's preaching is like a dog dancing on its hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find that it is done at all."--Samuel Johnson
Three days a week I strap on my running shoes and lumber around the neighborhood for forty minutes or so. I exercise a lot--running 3 days a week, biking 3 days a week, lifting weights 3 days a week, going to karate classes probably 3 hours a week and often practicing more on my own. In terms of ability, I'm a pretty good biker, nothing to complain about in the weight lifting arena, and I'm a candidate for black belt in karate, so I guess I'm pretty decent. Running ... well, "waddle" describes it fairly well. And sometimes I feel like apologizing for my relative lack of abilities at it.
And yet, when I was out walking the dog this morning, I saw a regular "runner" in our neighborhood, an elderly man who puts on his shoes and sweat pants and shuffles around the neighborhood and I thought something that I think very often: it's not how well you do it, it's that you do it at all. (So no, I won't apologize for the sexist attitudes in Johnson's quote).
Whenever my wife or I have a bad workout--and people who work out regularly recognize, I think, that some are better than others--we tend to say, "Well, at least I did it."
So that's my message for all writers, especially the unpublished who get down on themselves. You are where you are in your writing career, probably for a reason. But you're writing. You're doing it. Today, pat yourself on the back for just getting out there and doing it--for writing today's blog post, for writing a page or two or five in your work-in-progress, for completing a manuscript, for submitting a manuscript, for sending out queries, for getting rejection letters, for getting an agent, for getting a book contract, for having your book published, for the good review or the bad, for sales, for royalty statements, for royalty checks, for fan letters...
It doesn't matter what it is. It only matter that it is.
INCEPTION and INDEPENDENCE DAY
July 19, 2010
Ian and I went to see the movie INCEPTION yesterday. I loved it. I'm not going to describe it except to say that "mind-bending" is a good description. Later in the evening, I was channel surfing and came across the movie INDEPENDENCE DAY and watched that for a while.
Now, if you're not familiar with either of these movies, uh, really, where have you been?
Today's topic is "thinking" stories versus "non-thinking" stories.
INCEPTION is a thinking story. The plot is deeply, wildly complicated and it's one of those Rube Goldberg contraptions where if you don't pay attention you may never figure out what's going on. I had to go use the restroom and I picked exactly the right moment because if I'd left 5 minutes earlier or 5 minutes later, I'm not sure if I would have been able to figure out what was going on (just before they hopped on the jet to L.A., in case you were wondering). This is a film that not only requires you think and follow closely, it's a movie you'll think about long afterwards. Some of it has to do with the complexity of the plot, but some of it has to do with the many thematic levels to it, which, ultimately, I think, boil down to "what is reality" and "what is subconscious." [Also, as a Trekkie aside, if you ever watched the season premier of Star Trek: DS9, you might remember Captain Cisco finding himself in the wormhole and the time travel beings that controlled it forcing him to relive the death of his wife over and over again and when he asks them why they say, "You live here." That might resonate with INCEPTION]. What I'm saying about INCEPTION is that it's a movie that makes you think, and I suspect, long after you've viewed it. (Or re-viewed it, because I suspect a lot of people are going to go back and watch it again and again to catch the little things they missed the first time around).
Which brings me to INDEPENDENCE DAY, a movie I like quite a bit. The premise, for you who somehow have missed it, is that aliens come to Earth, blow up most major cities, and humans fight back. Unlike INCEPTION, INDEPENDENCE DAY does not bear up well to thinking about it. It doesn't take very long before you start saying, "But why were they so slow to react?" and "He knocked him out with one punch?" and "Don't you think after the ships hovered over the White House someone would have told the President what they knew?" and "those aliens have all that technology, but what they really needed was a firewall and Norton Antivirus?" And please, let's not get started on the First Lady's injuries, the World's Most Belabored Film Conversation ("I'm a dancer." "Ballet?" "Exotic."), [perhaps only beaten out by every single line of dialogue in THE ATTACK OF THE CLONES between Anakin and Padme, which really demands a category all its own]. And the coincidences and...
Okay, you get the point.
I wonder how this applies to books. I think it does. And I like both kinds of books just like I like both kinds of movies (most of the time).
July 16, 2010
I think it's clear that publishing, book-buying and book-reading is undergoing some sort of revolution. A couple things made me frown a little bit. I think if you've been around a while you realize that when things change, there's not necessarily anything you can do about it but adapt and ride the wave. Sometimes changes are so big that trying to fight them is pointless--my wife works with some people who do nothing but complain about the fact that they have to use computers on the job and that their checks are direct-deposited and that they have to do all of their work-related business-y things online.
I feel like that with e-books a bit. As I wrote earlier, I have a Kindle, although to-date I've only read one book on it. I've got dozens of paper books to read so I'm planning on alternating. There are things to criticize about the Kindle (the page numbering thing drives me nuts) and the iPad (glare and smudge prints and a so-so search function on the iBookstore), but I don't have many complaints about paper books. None, really, and I don't have to charge the damn things.
Yesterday I interviewed author Tim Hallinan
for a piece I'm doing on him for the ITW Report and it was a fun interview in that we ranged all over the place and got talking about e-books and Kindle self-publishing. One of the things Tim said gave me pause, when discussing e-books, though. He commented that there were just some writers who he wouldn't buy in e-book (James Lee Burke, for instance) because, he said ruefully, "They're too good for e-books, they deserve paper."
I know how he feels, and he said it with humor, understanding it might be misinterpreted. And maybe a little sadness, too. We're not fools, we can read the handwriting on the wall.
I commented that I'd had an oddly emotional experience the other day. We have a large walk-in closet off Ian's bedroom that we call "the library" because it's where a lot of our books are stored (there and in bookshelves all over the house). Ian's friend is going up to Isle Royale camping this weekend and I was looking for A Superior Death by Nevada Barr, an excellent mystery that takes place there, to give to her. I have hundreds of books in there in no particular order and as I was pawing through them each book, many that I'd forgotten I'd read, sort of set off a memory--of a great story, of a character, of where and when I was reading it, whatever. And I wondered if that sort of experience was going to be totally lost with e-books (as was the option of loaning a book to someone to take in an 8-hour car ride and possibly 4-hour boat ride).
Then today I read a bit of a column by Nancy Ettenheim in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, where she wrote:
"I remember when Amazon.com first burst onto the book scene. I am a book junkie, and there is no fix like a huge bookstore for someone like me. Amazon is the mother of them all. Meanwhile, back in Milwaukee, it very soon became apparent that every dollar I spent at Amazon was a dollar that Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops would never get. After one or two purchases at Amazon, I quit, went cold turkey. But we all know the results of everyone's collective love affair with Amazon: Schwartz is now out of business, one of the truly great losses to our community.
"It is clear that online buying does not just pose a hypothetical threat to our local businesses--the casualties are already out there. We owe it to ourselves, our community and our local business owners who bust their butts to stay in business to carefully consider the ramifications of our online buying. If each of us changes his or her purchasing habits even part of the time, we will have assisted in the reinvestment in our own community."
Well, it does make you wonder, doesn't it? We lose things and we gain things and there's very little doubt the genie's out of this particular bottle. But sometimes I wonder if we lose more than we gain.
Why Do You Write?
July 14, 2010
Okay, it's time for my annual WHY DO YOU WRITE? post. Once again, as usual, I have banned all responses along the lines of "I have to, I just have to" or "It's what God put me on Earth to do." First, if that's your answer, seek psychiatric help, there are medications for obsessive-compulsive disorders; two, I don't presume to have a clue what God wants out of the world and neither do you, and I find it a little hard to believe God's top priority for people is the writing of entertainment that gets read by a few thousand people, so get a grip, we're not running a cult here.
So, my answers are:
1. For money, it's how I pay my bills.
2. Because I can and it beats working for a living.
3. It's fun and gee, I get paid to do it, too.
4. I think most of us want to express ourselves creatively in some way and if I were a better musician maybe I'd do it that way, but writing works for me.
5. I'm well-suited personality-wise to spending hours by myself with imaginary friends; in fact, society probably wants me and my imaginary friends locked away in a room by ourselves where we can't hurt anybody.
6. It's just the form my obsessive-compulsive disorder takes and it's a lot easier on the water supply than compulsive hand washing.
My Legs Are Long Enough To Reach The Ground
July 13, 2010
Tom, if you're reading this, my apologies.
The husband of a friend of mine had read a couple of my books and was asking about The Fallen. In that I knew he was unemployed, I gave him an advanced reading copy I had laying around and more or less forgot about it. Then last night he emailed me his thoughts on the book, which overall were positive. But he threw in a few thoughts:
The first is it was not long enough, you could have really built on it with some more detail. I wish it had another 100 pages so it would be about as long as the other books of this type. The second comment is about the chapters. I did not like the huge number of them, and thought you could team up some of them and eliminate some of the extra chapters. I know some authors do all the good guy stuff in one, and divide it with a line, or a star, or something to show where the break in characters is. I wrote back, "Thanks. Glad you enjoyed the book" and answered a question he had about the the next book. I felt no obligation to respond to his comments, all of which are fairly interesting. And if I had not spent some time thinking about these prior to actually writing the book, I probably wouldn't be much of a writer, but I'm not sure they're worth explaining to a reader and besides, there are probably no correct answers, only a matter of taste. But since, generally speaking, the readers of this blog are either novelists or aspiring novelists, I will share a few thoughts here.
1. The first is it was not long enough, you could have really built on it with some more detail. Perhaps. It's around 76,000 words. A genre novel typically goes between 70,000 and 100,000. The Derek Stillwater books could loosely fall into the category of "espionage" or "political thriller" and some of those books often do run upwards of 120,000 or more. And I'd have to check, but I think The Devil's Pitchfork and The Serpent's Kiss are both closer to 90,000 and although I'm not certain, the 4th one (due out June 2011), The Valley of Shadows, probably runs 95,000 or so. And if things continue the way they seem to be, the 5th book may run a few million words... just joking. Sometimes it feels like the book Grady Tripp in "The Wonder Boys" is writing, the one that's over a thousand pages long because he doesn't know how to end it ... or in my case, I keep thrashing around trying to figure out what the story actually is... don't worry, I'll find it.
Generally speaking, the reviewers and readers have been quite happy with the pace of The Fallen, and part of that pace--"blistering" as James Rollins called it--comes from the leanness of the writing. So it was intentional and it's part of how I write. That said, I think each progressive novel, hopefully, will be more detailed with more depth while still trying to hold onto a rollicking pace. There are a number of aspects of a fast-paced page-turner that relate to keeping the writing lean and efficient, but another important aspect has to do with what I think of as the incident-to-page ratio--that is to say, is there a lot going on, or are two people talking for pages on end while they travel on a bus, or do you spend pages on internal monologue and flashbacks. Although I'm still being cautious about internal monologue and flashbacks, I'm trying to get more depth into Derek's backstory and adding more layers to other characters in future books, hopefully without jettisoning the things that make a "Mark Terry Book."
Also, book length is always a puzzle. There are marketing concerns, and if you go too long, it costs the publisher more to produce it, and they may ask you to cut material out to fit the market, or, if you're not a bestseller, they may just say, "Yeah, Daniel Silva can get away with 150,000 word thriller, but you can't, so keep it under 100,000 words." Ultimately I think the book's as long as it needs to be, i.e., my legs are long enough to reach the ground.
2. The second comment is about the chapters. I did not like the huge number of them, and thought you could team up some of them and eliminate some of the extra chapters. I know some authors do all the good guy stuff in one, and divide it with a line, or a star, or something to show where the break in characters is. Always a trick. Generally speaking, each chapter is a scene in my books. Robert W. Walker argues--vociferously, as he usually does--that a scene is not a chapter, period. Well, whatever. I call it the Potato Chip Theory--short chapters help keep the pace going, they're like potato chips, you can't eat just one. Instead of glancing at the next page and seeing that it's 35 pages long and it's time for bed, you glance at the next chapter, see it's 4 pages long and say, "Okay, just this one..." and so on. It works, but not all readers like it. On the other hand, it's worked exceptionally well for Robert B. Parker and Clive Cussler over dozens of bestselling novels. I rather like it. Tom Clancy drove me nuts with his 80 and 120-page chapters. David Morrell has written eloquently and intelligently about various methods he used to get around this, using subchapters, and sections and chapters, etc. Again, no right answer. Hell, one of Michael Connelly's books has NO chapters, just section breaks.
That said, it doesn't always work for all books all the time and although it worked quite well for The Fallen, I do it a little bit less in The Valley of Shadows and probably less in The Sins of the Father, or whatever the 5th book will end up being called. And in my never-ending thriller that I promise myself (and Natasha) I'm going to finish, China Fire, I do it in some places and not in others, depending on my sense of what I want the pace to do at any specific time.
Overall, it was a nice letter. I'm sure that some novelists get their undies in a bunch when a reader starts questioning their technique (especially if they didn't actually, you know, pay for the book), but I try to take these things in stride and keep my ego out of that end of things. If there's a bigger problem--and although I haven't heard many novelists talk about this--due to the lag time between writing, acceptance, publication and letters such as these, it can be a little bit weird because you wrote the book 2 or 3 or 4 years ago and now they're criticizing it--what am I supposed to do about it? I suppose the same thing goes with praise, which is why I tend to stick with "thanks, glad you liked it," and leave it at that.
What is original?
July 12, 2010
I confess, I thought I should post something, but didn't really have a clue what to post. I thought about posting something related to finding out what you're weak at and working hard on it, but didn't really feel like writing about that. So the very second I got to the Title: I typed, thinking of a book I'm struggling to read now: What is original?
And here's the reason I ask. I'm reading a thriller by a bestselling author and I'm struggling with it for a number of reasons. But one reason I'm struggling with it is it's the type of thriller I think of as the rich-people-form-a-cabal-to-undermine-the-world-and-manipulate-politics-to-their-own-ends type of conspiracy thriller. I'm not a fan of the sub-sub-sub-genre, if indeed it is one, partially because I think most conspiracies fall apart when more than 2 people are involved (although I'll give credit to the people who disappeared Jimmy Hoffa, that's a fairly impressive accomplishment), and the very notion that a bunch of international businessmen could get past their own self-interests long enough to cooperate on some organization makes me laugh. Particularly since this conspiracy has been in existence for a couple thousand years.
(I once worked with a woman who was always spouting conspiracy theories, one of which was that the Masons were taking over the world governments and were already in charge of the highest levels of the Catholic church. To which one of my other co-workers commented, "This has got to be the slowest takeover in the history of humanity.")
But I guess, except for a couple of plot points, there's a lot of--for me--been-there-done-that. And yet, I'm fairly certain this book is selling hundreds of thousands of copies in hardcover, and maybe even more.
So what's original? How do you get to originality? Any thoughts?
Orders Versus Sales & Hold On Returns
July 9, 2010
I'm reasonably certain that all published novelists know this already, but because it came up in my own life recently, I thought I would reiterate some basics about how book publishing works.
Orders: This means that when your book comes out officially, bookstores order your book and presumably stick it on a shelf somewhere.
Sales: Sales are not orders. Sales are when a person actually comes into a bookstore and lays down some money for the book and walks out of the store with it. Go you!
The reason I mention this is, I, like most authors, get asked a day or a week or a month or two after the publication of my novel, "Hey, how's your book doing?" Being older and presumably wiser, I now typically say, "Good, it's doing well." But because I tend to provide honest answers--I'll blame it on my upbringing, perhaps that time when my Dad yelled at me for lying to him about whether or not I had taken a banana (I had, I was holding it behind my back)--my most common response is, "I don't know."
I recently pressed my publisher to give me some numbers about The Fallen, and I assured them--and my agent--that I understood that early numbers don't reflect sales, they reflect orders, and as a result, are somewhat meaningless. On the other hand, as I told my agent when explaining why I was asking, "500 orders is one thing, 5,000 orders is another."
The numbers I did get were reassuring and about what I expected, if not quite what I hoped (because, you know, I hoped for millions of orders, dudes and dudettes, millions!)
And there was a nice low number they threw in as well, which reflected returns.
Returns: What bookstores do if the books they order don't sell and they want to free up shelf space for books that might sell. If you're a brand name and there are 100 copies of UNDER THE DOME sitting around in your store, the bookstore may very well keep most of them around for a while because, well, you're Stephen King and you'll probably sell most of them eventually, or at least until his next book comes out. If you're Mark Terry or FILL IN NAME OF RELATIVELY UNKNOWN AUTHOR HERE, the book either sells, you think it'll sell, or you give it maybe 6 weeks and send it back to the publisher for a credit/discount/refund.
Hold On Returns: When you get your royalty check, aside from subtracting the amount of money you owe for your advance (advance, for the uninitiated, is short for Advance Against Royalties, which means if they gave you $10,000--I wish--you have to make that much back in royalties before royalty payments start coming to you.) Anyway, as I was saying, on your royalty statement, your publisher may make a statement that goes something like this:
Units Sold ........ 100
Hold On Returns (10%)........ $20
And the check you actually get will be $180. (Or, if you have an agent, the check will probably be $153, or 15%. (And then, if you live in Michigan and pay your taxes quarterly like I do, you'll set aside $36.72 (24%) for federal taxes and $6.12 (4%) for state taxes, which leaves you with a grand total of $110.16. So think about that for one depressing moment. Assuming you've already earned back your advance, you may end up paying up to 53% of your royalties to other people!)
Now, in theory, you eventually get that 10% Hold on Returns back. Or not, because most authors have returns and bookstores typically have plenty of time to actually make those returns. And publishers may or may not take their own sweet time, depending on the individual publisher's accounting practices. After all, the money they got for the orders can sit in their accounts gathering interest at your expense under the guise of Hold on Returns. Also, 10% Hold On Returns is just one figure. It varies all over the place. One friend of mine claimed that on his first royalty statement there was a 90% Hold on Returns!!!!! (My agent thought he was mistaken, but he's a pretty sharp guy, so I'm not so sure).
Which is at least one reason why some writers think e-books are kind of cool. Via the Kindle self-publishing program, there are no returns or Hold on Returns, and you get your royalties deposited directly into your bank account on a monthly or quarterly basis immediately after publication, not sometime next year on the publisher's bi-yearly accounting schedule.
Anyway, I hope that information is useful.
July 7, 2010
I was recently asked if I thought the blog tour was worthwhile. It was a specific question, so I looked at the website metrics.
The tour began a little early, in mid-to-late March and ran through April. As you can see, my page loads jumped from 6,041 in February to 18,896 and 18,135 in March and April, when I was on active blog tour. Even in May, when the blog tour was basically over, my numbers were high, with page loads slightly over 10,000 for the month. It's dropped down again even though overall numbers are increased over pre-blog tour dates.
Unique visitors also jumped significantly, particularly in March. First-time visitors jumped through the roof in March and stayed pretty high in April. Returning visitors were consistent with the overall increases, too. (I wish they were higher overall, but hey, I cherish each and every one of you. Would I be even happier if I had hits like John Scalzi's Whatever blog, with something like 40,000 unique visitors daily? Uh, yeah.)
So was the blog tour worthwhile? Yes, definitely.
Titles & Book Jacket Info
July 8, 2010
About a year ago I took one of my unpublished manuscripts, for a thriller called DANCING IN THE DARK, and self-published it via the Kindle program. Although it briefly popped onto 2 of Amazon's bestseller lists after a post about it on Joe Konrath's blog, sales have been pretty tepid.
So, under some advice from some people who I guess are knowledgeable on this subject, I tried a new title and new cover art. The novel is now called EDGE.
I also jiggered with the price, although I may change that in the near future. We'll see.
Book jacket copy for EDGE is now:
When your back's to the wall... you need an edge.
When your enemies are all around you ... you need an edge.
Physicist Daniel Webber has invented a technology everyone wants--the U.S. government, the Chinese government, everyone... and they're willing to kill him to get it.
Daniel Webber needs an edge.
Security expert Jo Dancing is that edge.
From the author of THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK and THE SERPENT'S KISS, Mark Terry brings you another novel of non-stop action and unrelenting suspense.
"Terry writes like Lee Child on steroids."--Ray Walsh for the Lansing State Journal
"Mark Terry delivers lethal entertainment."--Gayle Lynds, New York Times bestselling author of The Book of Spies
*This book was originally titled Dancing In The Dark
Book Jacket Copy for DANCING IN THE DARK was:
igh-level security expert, Joanna Dancing, is hired to provide casual security for Dr. Daniel Webber. But within days of keeping the scientist under surveillance, foreign nationals attempt to kidnap the scientist. Dancing steps in, rescuing Webber. But what has she stepped into? What's in Webber's head that foreign countries want? What's in his head that others will do anything to prevent that information from getting into other countries' hands? Soon Dancing and Webber are on the run from foreign agents, mercenaries, the Department of Defense and Homeland Security. Who to trust? As Joanna Dancing battles to find the truth and keep Webber alive, she quickly discovers there's very little light in the darkness surrounding Dr. Daniel Webber.
From the author of THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK and THE SERPENT'S KISS, Mark Terry brings you another novel of non-stop action and unrelenting suspense.
"Mark Terry delivers lethal entertainment."
—Gayle Lynds, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Spymaster
"Mark Terry writes with the bold authority of a storyteller who knows his subject."
—John Ramsey Miller, bestselling author of The Last Day
The price also increased by a dollar, from $1.99 to $2.99, primarily to try and catch the 70% royalty increase Amazon's now offering (although it's not clear if that's actually happening from looking at my records). At one point Dancing In The Dark was going for $1.49, although I'd set the price higher, but Amazon discounted it. Some people say I should make it 99 cents for a while. Some people thought the $1.49 was an odd price. Some people, I think, can find fault in anything and probably don't really know what makes a book sell, but that's a slightly different topic...
As I've said before, it's all an experiment. I'll let you know how it goes.
iPad Versus Amazon Kindle: Initial Impressions
July 4, 2010
In my house we now have an iPad and a Kindle. The iPad was initially bought with the idea that we'd all use it, but primarily Leanne would use it. It has become about 99% Leanne with the remaining 0.9% split between the kids with me about 0.1% of the time. Leanne uses it for everything--email, watching movies, playing solitaire (yeah, I know, a very expensive deck of cards), an e-reader, for NPR, USA Today, CNN, USA Today. I thought she would probably be the ideal user and she probably is. She doesn't create content, she uses content.
Most of the surfing things and video watching I can do on my 15-inch MacBook Pro, plus I can actually work on it.
So with that in mind, although I had been saving up for an iPad of my own (and probably still am), when the prices dropped significantly for the Kindle, pretty much at the same time that I signed a contract for a $15,000 gig and finished up another one for the same price, I thought, "Well, let's get a Kindle and see for yourself what the future of the e-book revolution is going to be."
So, with both on hand, both having been used, here are initial impressions.
The iPad is a Ferrari. The Kindle is a Yugo.
When you first get your hands on them, you realize the iPad is a typical Apple product--beautifully designed with human beings in mind. It has an astonishing feel, the processor is blazingly fast, the color screen pops, and the touch-screen is both cool, fun, and responsive.
Initially the Kindle feels like a piece of junk. I'm sorry, Amazon, but it's true. Pull it out of the box and think: "I just paid almost $200 for something that seems junkier than an Etch-A-Sketch." It seems slapped together. The buttons are ugly and small and the design, at least at first, seems stupid. Definitely not intuitive, whereas the iPad is all about intuitive.
Now, I have not read a book all the way through on the iPad yet, although I have read significant chunks, both on the Kindle app on the iPad and on the iBookstore. Impressions here, and these are not first impressions, but a little lengthier--the iBookstore has a long way to go. I don't like the way its search function works or looks and it doesn't have the depth of Amazon. On the other hand, the reading interface for the iBookstore is awesome. You turn the pages, just like you would with a paper book. Yes, there's glare on the screen if you're sitting in the sun.
And just for the record, I'm particularly pleased by 9 Scorpions. I'm a huge fan of Paul Levine's books, but I missed 9 Scorpions and it went out of print, but he brought it back for the low, low price of $2.99, as well as his earlier Jake Lassiter novels, which are tres excellente!
Anyway, I read Erica's book this weekend on the Kindle and found that the Kindle reading experience is terrific. Once you figure out which buttons to push (except for once leaning on them accidentally and having to figure out where I was in the book), it's a terrific reading experience. It's lightweight, the e-Ink technology is very easy on the eyes, and the damned thing makes it way too freakin' easy to buy books. I'm going to have to be careful I don't go broke buying every book that comes to mind.
Well, let me say that I expect to have slightly more nuanced impressions over time. And let me say that I'm still saving up for an iPad. It's a luxury item for sure (so is a Kindle, as far as I can tell), but a great one that has a coolness factor that the Kindle can't come close to matching. However, the low-end iPad goes for over $500 and I'm going to want one that has 3G capabilities so I can use it when I'm not near a wi-fi hotspot when I'm traveling. The Kindle currently runs $189.
That said, all the Kindle does is be an e-reader. Which, for my "needs," if that's the right word, is wildly sufficient.
The iPad, however, allows me to do a million things, most of which I can already do on my laptop, which I take with me whenever I travel anyway, except for quick weekend trips (and even sometimes then, too). Work rarely gets very far away from me and so the iPad probably doesn't give me anything I don't already have, particularly now that I own a Kindle. But for people like Leanne for whom a laptop is overkill, the iPad is pretty much a revolution.
Which brings up perhaps the most annoying thing I find about using the iPad as an e-reader--there are too many distractions. Start reading a book on the iPad and it's not long before you think, "hmm, what's going on on Facebook..." and you pop on the Safari browser; or check the weather report; or the time; or YouTube; or whatever games you have on the thing; or whatever movies you've downloaded, or what movies are instantly available to stream on the NetFlix app.... Using the iPad as an e-reader, for me (and my son Ian first mentioned this) is a little bit like trying to read while sitting in an amusement park--there are a hell of a lot of shiny and exciting distractions right there at your fingertips. I don't need to read, I've got the whole freakin' universe right here in my lap!
One thing I don't much like about the Kindle is the black-and-white. Shopping on the Kindle, all that cover art--black and white and you can barely see it. What a waste. I'm not going to bother with magazines on it--the iPad is totally awesome for magazines and comic books and graphic novels. My kids both use the Marvel comics app and there's a magazine app I've used, too. I do, however, receive 5 or 6 newsletters every month that I can also get as PDFs and I plan to load those onto the Kindle in hopes I'll actually keep up on reading them.
For just an e-reader the iPad is total overkill (and overpriced). But as I said, the iPad isn't really an e-reader, it's a slate computer that functions quite well as an e-reader. (By the way, last time I was in the Apple store swapping out my dead iPhone, I tried an iPad that has iWork, the Apple version of Microsoft Office. I used Pages, which is roughly equivalent to Word. I've written novels on Pages and it's very, very similar to Office. On the iPad, I couldn't type a complete sentence using the virtual keyboard that didn't come out as gibberish. You can use a wireless bluetooth keyboard with the iPad, but if you're going to go to all that fuss, why not travel with a laptop?).
I warmed up significantly to the Kindle. It's light, the e-ink is great and the price is getting competitive.
So what am I reading next?