Some Thoughts About Writing for 2007
December 29, 2006
I'm not sure these are resolutions, exactly, more like my own thoughts and recommendations for myself and writers at all stages of their careers.
1. Read a lot.
You would think this was a given, but it isn't necessarily. I have, for years, read rather broadly in the mystery/thriller/suspense area--cozies and PI novels and police procedurals and flat-out thrillers and espionage, etc. If anything, my reading is less broad than it used to be, and now that I'm no longer actively reviewing books, I'm making a conscious effort to broaden my horizons a bit by reading some nonfiction books, some sci-fi, some fantasy, some YA novels. My nonfiction magazine reading has always tended to be broad--Smithsonian and Time and Writers Digest--and a whole ton of materials on the 'net and things I use for background for articles I write, so that's not an issue. I'm just trying to feed my brain a bit more.
2. Write a lot.
If you're a slow writer, that's okay. Just make sure you're a regular writer. Writing is a muscle and it can get flabby and atrophied if you don't use it a lot.
3. Collect a lot of rejections.
If you're not making a living as a writer and you're not getting very many rejection slips, you're probably not working hard enough. As has been pointed out ad nauseum here, I have had several novels and novel proposals rejected in 2006 despite also signing a 2-book contract extension with Midnight Ink and sending out 200 invoices. I've also received dozens (or more) rejections for nonfiction work, some from clients I work with regularly, some with clients I hoped to work with. That's just the business. But if you've written a novel and you tried two publishers and they turned you down and you gave up, you gave up waaaaayyyyy too early. If you tried to get a dozen or even 50 agents to take you on and you gave up, you gave up waaaaayyyy too early.
My advice is this: don't quit until you've accomplished what you set out to do. Plan on getting an agent? Send queries until you've got one.
4. If you've published a novel, keeping marketing.
This is hard. But I've often thought of my successes in almost all areas of writing as coming about from a kind of "constant push." I've thought of it as like me having my shoulder to a rock that I'm trying to move. If I constantly apply pressure, eventually it'll move some. And once it starts to move, I get some momentum going. Sometimes I try a big shove and sometimes I ease off (but not entirely; I always try to be at least leaning against that rock), but there's always some pressure going on.
5. Reach out.
I'm trying harder to help other writers. I wish I had had more mentors when I was struggling. There are limits to what I can do, but I am trying.
Like reading outside my immediate preferences, I think it's a good thing from time to time to try something different. In 2007 I still think I'm going to try my hand at a screenplay. Despite a lack of faith a while back, I'm still tinkering with the treatment of one of my unpublished novels. I'm also working on a YA fantasy novel--slowly, but still playing with it. (Current chapter: I Duel With A Swordfish). I suggest you do that, too. Maybe just a short story. You write mysteries, try a sci-fi, fantasy or romance story. Doesn't have to be a novel. Try writing a piece of nonfiction. Try a TV script or a screenplay. It'll keep you fresh.
7. Allow yourself to hope.
But realistically. It's okay to hope you'll sell a novel for 7 figures and get a hot movie deal and end up on Larry King Live, but you might also get struck by lightning while taking out your garbage on a sunny day. It happens, but not often. But allow yourself to hope you'll get published, that you'll get an advance, positive reviews, and be able to build a readership.
8. Have a life.
Writing isn't everything. I've said it again and again. Don't let this passion (obsession) ruin your life. If your happiness depends on getting a book contract, on becoming a novelist, on making a living as a novelist, on hitting the bestseller lists, you're letting your life be run by things you have no control over and letting people you've never even met have too much control over your life. Have a life. Makes friends. Pay attention to your spouse and children. Travel. See movies. Go to a museum. Take your dog for a walk. Play an instrument. Sing. Laugh. Go to the gym. Take up yoga or tai chi or macrame or soap carving or building life-size replicas of historical monuments out of beer cans. Live.
May your 2007 be filled with good health, happiness and prosperity. May your dreams come true.
Only A Fool Writes For Money
December 28, 2006
Or so the old expression goes. And I note from yesterday's blog that Joe Campbell had a thing or two to say about writing for the market.
Today was supposed to be part of a day off, you know, what in the real world is called a vacation, but one of my clients felt otherwise and I am left wishing I was on a tropical island with no telephone or Internet connection so I really COULD be on a vacation. You see, they have QUESTIONS.
I guess in TV or film writing this would be "Notes" and this is a project I thought I was done with, but they keep coming back with "notes" and "updates" and I am being constantly reminded that this was a job I maybe should never have taken in the first place except that they waved a huge amount of money in front of my face and I started salivating. And having grabbed this particular tiger by the tail, I feel rather unable to let go... except this tiger apparently has a long tail and is relatively agile, so it appears I'm going to get eaten whether I let go or not.
Let's be clear. I love my job.
But somedays... I hate my job.
Here, let's quote something from Stephen King, from an essay he wrote called: "On Becoming a Brand Name," which appeared in FEAR ITSELF, edited by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller.
"There is no particular danger in writing what I will call, for want of a better term, 'serious fiction.' In writing popular, commercial fiction, there is nothing but danger. The commercial writer is easy to bribe, easy to subvert, and he knows it."
I would add, perhaps even more strongly, that a nonfiction freelancer is even easier to bribe and subvert, that we will often pursue writing jobs in areas we detest just simply so we can make enough money to pay our mortgage payment.
"Rejection. And then what?"
December 27, 2006
Writer Tim Wendel had a wonderful op/ed in yesterday's USA Today titled "Rejection. And then what?" You can find the entire piece here
Here's a little bit of what he had to say:
According to Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, we have three basic reactions to rejection:
The first one is easy to identify with. You say "to hell with them," Campbell writes, and then retreat to protect your ego, perhaps the gift that you've tried to offer to the world.
The second response is to ask, "What do they want?" You believe you have a talent, a skill. You try to figure out the marketplace. Give them what they want in a commercial sense. But there's a real danger here. You have to be careful not to totally renounce your particular insight to the world in trying so hard to develop a public career.
The third response is "to find some aspect of the domain into which you have come that can receive a little portion of what you have to give," Campbell says. Of course, that isn't easy to do.
My first novel, Castro's Curveball, was rejected 33 times. To this day, I don't know whether I should be proud or embarrassed about that. But the experience taught me that failure and rejection don't have to be the same thing. Failure has such finality to it. It's all over. Case closed. Rejection certainly stings, but we decide when the process is over.
Everybody gets rejected. But many of my students really don't believe this. They think that if they align themselves with the right agent or high-powered editor, they'll be impervious to such heartache. This blind optimism is also common in college athletics, where many athletes are convinced they'll make the pros, though only a tiny fraction do
* * *
Check it out. You'll be glad you did.
A 100,000 Year Tradition (At Least)
December 26, 2006
I was over on Lee Child's
website and if you dig around in there on his bio page you see that there are about 30 interviews. And on one of the interviews, with Publishers Weekly, Lee said this:
So in what genre would this aspiring author write? Easy, says Child. "To me there is only one genre: suspense/mystery/crime. It's bit Jesuitical trying to work out exactly which is which. I think there are only two kinds of books. One is the kind you miss your subway stop because of and you stay up too late reading so you're tired the next day at work. Or you don't." Child wanted to be in the former category—"it's where the humanity is. I don't want to be too academic about it, but in human evolution we developed language, we developed storytelling, and that must have been for a serious purpose. I think right from cave man days, we had stories that involved danger and peril, and eventually safety and resolution. To me that is the story. And that's what we're still telling today, 100,000 years later. That's what a page-turner is. Why do we turn the page if we're not in suspense about what's going to happen next?"
Yup. I agree with Lee. It's a blunt instrument way of looking at the written word, and even many so-called "literary" or "mainstream" novels have some sort of mystery of some sort involved, or at least, if they're going to work at all, they have to set up the "what happens next thing" one way or another.
Night At The Museum
December 23, 2006
We all went to see "Night At The Museum" today. We all loved it. Two adults, 2 kids--ages 9 and 13--and we all thought it was light, funny and fun. As my wife said, "Funny and sweet."
Not scary, not gory, not sexual, no swearing, no poop jokes (well, maybe one really mild one regarding animal doo-doo), nothing offensive, no particularly strong message.
For families: highly recommended.
A Poke In The Eye...
December 22, 2006
Well, I got a rejection of DANCING IN THE DARK today, e-mailed me courtesy my agent. Here's what it said:
I liked this novel very much, and for the most part, I agree with your assessment of it. I found the suspense engaging and the movement of the story well-paced. And while I can certainly appreciate the impeccable skill of Joanna Dancing, I didn’t find that there was a truly fresh, distinctive quality here—something that would make me unable to put it down. In the end, I didn’t see how we’d make a splash with this, and therefore, I wasn’t able to connect with it in huge way.
Well, as the expression goes, it beats a poke in the eye. I wrote back to Irene basically saying, well, I guess that's one of the nicer rejection letters. They sure don't want much, do they?
To which she replied, "Just everything."
I can't say I'm happy about this, although these days it's not unusual. My rejections seem to be along the lines of "good writing, excellent story, terrific character, but..."
And the "but" typically seems to have something to do with marketing issues on the part of the publisher. "But... we haven't had much luck with this story."
"But... I don't think it's big enough to break out."
"But...I didn't see how we'd make a splash with this."
So what's my response? Work harder, I think. Clearly, when it comes to the Derek Stillwater novels, I have an editor and publisher who like it and do think I can either make a splash with it or built up an audience. (I also find, not to get too psycholinguistic about this, that the wording of the rejection is interesting, all the compliments followed by the connection that "because I don't think we can make a splash with this, I failed to make a great connection." Not the other way around, which would be, "It failed to make a great connection, so I don't think it would make a big splash." I'm afraid there's something very telling there, but never mind, never mind, never mind...)
Also, I think with other projects, I just have to continue to try my best.
Ah... there we go. I was looking for it, I knew I'd trip across it along the way.
I remember reading something on John Ramsey Miller's website where he commented something along the lines of, "To the critics and reviewers that have disliked my work for one reason or another, I assure you, I'm doing my best."
So I'm going to take a brief hiatus for Christmas and come back sometime before New Year's to talk about Writing Goals for 2007. So I hope you have a very Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays (Kwanzaa, Erin go bragh, Hannukah, Ramadan, et al.) and may your writing dreams come true in 2007.
And The Winner Is...
December 21, 2006
Yes, the panel has adjourned for Mark Terry's First (And Probably Last) Ever Writing Haiku Challenge.
I cut-and-pasted all the entries into a Word doc, printed it out, cut each of them out, crumpled them into a ball, tossed them into the air, and picked one up off the floor.
Please contact me via my e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org) to let me know which book you want, what your address is and what you would like me to write in it.
And in the interest of Holiday Fair Play, I proceeded to do this a second time and the winner is...
Shannon, please contact me, blah, blah, blah.
Everybody else, thank you so much for entering--I haven't commmitted an act of poetry in years myself. I am reminded, though, that the first thing I ever published was a lengthy poem. It was called SCIENCE STUDENT (RHYME ABUSE). Here's the best bit:
Music's rockin' in the air,
Just not, just not, it's just not fair.
Science, it squarely shapes my brain,
We looks at poets with sad disdain.
Got no meanin', got no use,
It's just gonna lead to rhyme abuse.
But science just don't please my soul,
No soar, no swoop, no rock-n-roll.
You know, it holds up okay.
Haiku--Day III, & Getting IN & Staying IN
December 20, 2006
Just a reminder, the Writing Haiku Challenge ends around noon tomorrow, so get your haiku in--as many times as you want.
Over on PJ Parrish's
blog, she (they) have been doing what they call Bookie Noise, which is to say, they post novel leads by anybody who sends one in and the rest of us comment on it. The last one was pretty good.
Now PJ comes clean to let us know that this lead was one she (they) wrote, got turned down by their publisher, then turned down by everybody else. In fact, apparently they went ahead and wrote the entire novel and she writes about how sometimes you just have to write something and get it out of your system.
I commented today that I found this both disconcerting and reassuring. Disconcerting because I know we all have the idea that once we're published, editors will be more receptive to your work--no matter what it is--and apparently that's not the case. (And if I haven't figured it out before this, I haven't been paying attention). I also find it reassuring because I've had some things rejected lately and I was hoping that publishers would view my publication track record as indication I was publishable.
And me and PJ aren't the only ones, of course. If you go over to Joe Konrath's blog, he's posted two e-books of novels he wrote or re-wrote recently that didn't get picked up. I'm fairly sure it happens to most writers, but I don't find that information something to celebrate. A bestselling author like Stephen King or John Grisham might very well publish something off-the-wall and get away with it, but...
For how long?
A couple years ago I interviewed John Sandford for a profile/review I was writing. It was the Prey novel that followed the Kidd novel called "The Hanged Man's Song," a novel I liked quite a bit. His publicist, probably in a way she shouldn't have, commented that everybody was disappointed in the sales for Hanged Man's Song. When I interviewed John I asked him about this, assuring him I wasn't putting this in the article I was writing. He sighed and said, Well, I liked it and it sells well, but the Kidd novels don't sell nearly as well as the Lucas Davenport "Prey" novels, so you tend to have the publishers always acting disappointed in the sales of the Kidd novels.
My guess is that John's such a big author that his publisher would be unlikely to say to him, "John, these just don't sell as well, we're not going to publish it," for fear that he'll say, "Then I'll take my business down the road, thanks."
But most of us aren't in that situation and may never be. If our sales our decent but not spectacular, or even good but not great, publishers want you to continue doing what you're doing and not risk alienating your audience. Nobody wants a dip in your sales to hurt you (or them), and from this POV it's entirely a business decision, not a creative decision.
Which is sometimes where writers, agents and editors come apart, I think. Agents and editors/publishers in most cases want you to make money and continue to make money; they're less inclined to be supportive of your saying, "I was a little tired of that, so I wanted to stretch my wings," or "I had this really great idea that I just had to write..."
Yes, I can attest that "great ideas that I just have to write" is a particular siren's song of mine, in many ways. Only I might phrase it differently: "I've got this really great idea I just had to explore."
I think it's healthy, psychologically and creatively. Now from a business sense, I'm not quite so sure.
Anyway, I was staring at this little slip of paper among all the clutter on my desk and realized it was a fortune cookie fortune I hung on to. I don't remember when I got it, but here's what it says:
"Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment."
Huh. Good advice. I see why I kept it.
Lucky Numbers: 3, 14, 26, 27, 29, 20
Haiku Contest, Day II--book survey, too
December 19, 2006
Keep those haiku (haikus?) coming. You're a creative bunch.
I just want to alert everybody that Tobias Buckell has the results of his How Many Books You Wrote Before Publication survey completed, and you can find it here
It's long and interesting, but the gist of it is, only 35% of those who participated sold their first novel. (And I'm one of those in the 65% category).
Have a Happy Haiku Day.
Mark's Writing Haiku Challenge
December 17, 2006
You know haiku, right? 3 lines, 5, 7, 5 syllables. Here's my writing one for today:
Neurotic, that's me.
Pen, ink, paper, computer
Like the air itself.
Here's my writing haiku challenge. Write a haiku about writing, post it here, and I'll select a random winner on December 21st sometime after noon EST to receive a signed copy of either THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK or DIRTY DEEDS.
I'm looking forward to your haiku.
December 15, 2006
I've been going through an unusually creative period. Not only have I been doing all the writing that pays the bills, but I'm working on the 4th Derek Stillwater novel, I wasted time on the first 100 pages of a medical thriller that failed to thrill, and I'm working on another novel. I was, until yesterday, trying to work up a treatment for one of my unpublished novels in order to write a screenplay, but gave up on that as a bad idea. It's possible I'll try writing a screenplay sometime, but about a quarter of the way through working on the treatment I realized that this particular novel had such a complicated structure and so many characters, with all the subplots weaving in and out, that my original idea of streamlining it for a screenplay was going to be too big a headache and besides, my heart wasn't really in it.
I've also had the notion--which was all it was, not a real idea--of trying to write a YA fantasy novel. Yesterday, out of the blue, my notion turned into an idea, and while hanging out in the living room with the TV on last night, just for fun, I pulled out the laptop and started working on the first chapter of this story, whose first chapter is called "I Boogie Board on the Big Bad Wave of Doom." My 13-year-old son was reading over my shoulder and he thought it was both funny and entertaining, so maybe I'll keep playing with it, to entertain myself and my kids, if for no other reason.
But I'm occasionally feeling like Bilbo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings, who complains to Gandalf that he's old and feeling spread like not enough butter on too much toast.
I worry that I'm losing my focus on the fourth novel, the one I'm contracted for. It doesn't appear to be a problem. I sent off those first 100 pages yesterday, and I had read and re-written them the day before and I think they're good. It's just that I keep turning to other ideas and want to work on them, too.
I'm also fairly attuned to my own neuroses and psychological habits and understand that when I get like this there may be a reason for it, some unhappiness or problem that is happening in one area of my life that is affecting another area of my life. It's possible I'm using all this creativity to avoid working on my "day job" writing, which is not nearly as much fun, but at the moment pays significantly better. Or it could be the feeling that I've got my toe in the publishing door with the Derek Stillwater novels, now's the time to work harder and slam my shoulder against it and make sure it's wide open.
Or, always possible: I'm a neurotic pain in the ass who is his own worst enemy.
Yeah. I can see that.
Marketing Books & Lindsey Lohan's Nipples
December 14, 2006
Well, this column really has nothing to do with marketing books or Lindsey Lohan's nipples (I don't think). It's just that I typically get higher hit counts when it says something like How To Get An Agent or How To Sell Your Book than it does when I say something esoteric and artsy. And I've noted how much attention Lee Goldberg's blog gets when he puts "Lindsey Lohan's Nipples" in the title, or has some post with a link to a sex counselor's blog or something like that.
Actually, I primarily want to direct all published novelists to Tobias Buckell's
blog. He's doing an informal survey on number of unpublished novel manuscripts you wrote before getting published. The link is:
Today has seemed sort of a worthless writing day so far. I finished the first 100 pages of the 4th Derek Stillwater novel last night, so this morning after walking Frodo I headed out to Meijers to pick up a prescription, buy a padded mailing envelope, get it ready then go stand in line at the post office (gotta love the holidays), then I went over to the gym to watch CNN and the cute chick on the stairmaster while I did my cardio, then over to Calloways to eat too much for lunch, then back home to walk the dog again. Now I'm dicking around on blogs and answering e-mail and trying to work up the motivation to actually work (gotta love the holidays).
Oh, the 100 pages. That's because in my contracts I get a third of the advance upon signing, a third upon turning in the first 100 pages and the remaining third when I turn in the completed manuscript.
So that's about where I am today, contemplating Lindsey Lohan's nipples, my manuscripts and why I ate too much for lunch.
Reading--The Year In Review
December 13, 2006
I'm not sure if this is complete, but here are the books I read in 2006.
"S" is for Silence by Sue Grafton
Six for Gold by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer
The Next Ex by Linda L. Richards
The Mind Box by A.J. Diehl
The Deep Blue Alibi by Paul Levine
Alone by Lisa Gardner
White Tiger by Michael Allen Dymmoch
The Templar Legacy by Steve Berry
The Two Minute Rule by Robert Crais
Speak of the Devil by Richard Hawke
Rain Dogs by Sean Doolittle
An Unquiet Grave by PJ Parrish
Prior Bad Acts by Tami Hoag
Dark Light by Randy Wayne White
Gone by Jonathan Kellerman
Live Wire by Jay MacLarty
Promise Me by Harlan Coben
Nicotine Kiss by Loren Estleman
High Priestess by David Skibbins
Oblivion by Peter Abrahams
Bad Guys by Linwood Barclay
The Hard Way by Lee Child
Dead Watch by John Sandford
The Last Assassin by Barry Eisler
The Last Spymaster by Gayle Lynds
Rusty Nail by J.A. Konrath
Break No Bones by Kathy Reichs
Blown by Francine Mathews
Sleeping With Fear by Kay Hooper
Spy by Ted Bell
Black Order by James Rollins
Death Match by Lincoln Child
Dead Run by PJ Tracy
Side By Side by John Ramsey Miller
The Last Family by John Ramsey Miller
The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan
Atlantis by ???? (Can't remember & can't find it on the shelves)
Consent to Kill by Vince Flynn
Blue Screen by Robert B. Parker
Kiss Her Goodbye by Robert Gregory Browne
Under Orders by Dick Francis
Sea Change by Robert B. Parker
Creepers by David Morrell
Straight by Dick Francis
A Garden of Vipers by Jack Kerley
Hundred Dollar Baby by Robert B. Parker
The Book of the Dead by Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston
Too Far Gone by John Ramsey Miller
Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen
The Death Collectors by Jack Kerley
Lone Wolf by Lindood Barclay
Kill All The Lawyers by Paul Levine
What Terrorists Want by Louise Richardson
Biological Weapons by Jeanne Guillemin
Echo Park by Michael Connelly
The One Percent Doctrine by Ruskin
Tyrannosaur Canyon by Douglas Preston
Mission Road by Rick Riordan
I'm also currently reading:
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling
The Patriots Club by Christopher Reich
It's possible I missed a couple. Now that I'm not reviewing books I don't really keep track, but that looks like a pretty good year of reading, if you ask me.
Does Stephen King Get Author Envy?
December 12, 2006
I got a case of Author Envy yesterday. I was having a conversation of sorts with an author friend and we got to obliquely discussing book advances and it seemed that his book advance for his first novel was somewhere in the range of 10 times to--who knows?--50 times larger than mine.
Now, I've read his book and it's a fine book, but is it 10 to 50 times better than mine?
I doubt it.
This might be natural but it's not healthy and it's not helpful. If ever there is a reminder that the publishing business is capricious (at best) it's this sort of thing.
I'm reminded of the first time I met Joe Konrath, at Magna cum Murder, a couple years ago. He and I and I think Libby Fisher Hellmann were chatting and we congratulated him on his six-figure 3-book deal and Joe modestly shrugged and said, "It's all luck. I think the book before 'Whiskey Sour' is a better book."
Some of this is undoubtedly false modestly on Joe's part. And yet, he's right. As much as I have enjoyed his three books to-date and I can see the hook, etc., do the books really stand out in the marketplace so much more than so many other books published regularly? Well, somebody at Hyperion thought so.
A few years back I read an interview with Stephen King and the reporter made some comment to him about sharing the bestseller lists with Tom Clancy and Patricia Cornwall. King rather hurriedly pointed out that they both sold more books than he did. (Neglecting, perhaps, that he was selling 3 or 4 books a year, but I don't think that was the point).
When I interviewed Harlan Coben a few years back he commented to me that his books sold better in Europe than they did in the U.S., but that he had received a sort of chagrined phone call from his agent, saying his last book was selling better than the book before, but it had only hit #5 on the French bestseller list. "Who's above it?" asked Harlan, and was told the top four spots were taken by all four of Dan Brown's books ("The Da Vinci Code," "Digital Fortress," "Angels & Demons," and whatever the hell the other book is). Harlan jokingly said he called up Dan (they both went to Amherst) and gave him a hard time ("... now you've gone too far, Dan..."). Harlan's a really, really nice guy and he said this lightly and with good humor, but still... did even for a moment Harlan think, "Dammit, why not me?"
I read a blog post of Tess Gerritsen's lately where she commented that she was one of those authors getting seven figure advances.
In this case, I'm not sure I feel Author Envy. I just feel envy, and my thought when I read that was, "That would be pretty cool, wouldn't it?" But that's so far outside my realistic expectations at the moment that it's hard for me to get too wound up about it.
When I was unpublished I was always reading about one author or another getting big advances or movie deals and thinking, "Why not me? That can happen. Yeah, it'll happen."
Hell, one of the things that first motivated my trying to write a novel was an essay by Stephen King where he mentions he got a $2500 hardcover advance for "Carrie" back in 1972, but they sold the paperback rights to New American Library for $400,000. [And sadly enough, 34 years later, a hell of a lot of authors are happy to get $2500 advances].
Like I said, I think this kind of thinking is normal, but even worse than being unhealthy, I think it's unhelpful. Earlier I commented wondering if the size of my friend's advance was an indicator of the "worth" of his book versus my advance's indicator of the "worth" of my book. But the truth is, there is no correlation between advance size and book quality.
The advance size is a combination of things, but one of those things is a prediction of how many copies your publisher believes they can sell. Also, advance size can be influenced by a number of things--if a publisher says to themself, "Let's really push this book, put it at the front of our catalogue, feature it in our newsletter, tell our sales people it's our top pick and they really need to push it, let's pay co-op money to get front table and end cap placement and let's make sure we take out a small ad in USA Today," then by god, that advance is probably going to be a little bit bigger.
Well, presumably if they thought all that stuff, they liked the book and felt it had a chance of doing well in the marketplace. That is probably because they felt it stands out in some way (if it's a first novel) or the writer has some sort of track record. Let's face it, there are a lot of PI novels, cozies and police procedurals, and it can be a little hard for a publisher to find one that's going to break out of the pack. So if you've written something they think will stand above the crowd, it'll get a little push.
I also think it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a publisher gives a bigger advance, they're pretty much obligated to push the book, because if they don't, it almost guarantees it won't take off. (In my opinion). Publishers have certainly had the experience of a book being published that they pushed and threw money at that didn't take off and earn back the advance. They've also certainly had books that they just published without fanfare, a sales push or any particular attention, that took off for one reason or another. But a significantly larger number of books do well because the publisher wants them to than those "just books" that are ignored by the publisher (the literary equivalent of cannon fodder) do.
All of which is a long and winding way of saying that you need to do your best work, concentrate on the work, do what you can for sales, and not get too caught up in what's going on in your fellow scribbler's financial backyard.
How To Sell Your Book
December 11, 2006
Author John Connolly
has a terrific post on how to judge your book's success and what goes into selling it. Here's a sample:
"But the hardest part, for me, has been coming to terms with the fact that, while I can write the book, I can't make it sell. Even publishers and booksellers can't quite manage to make a book sell, not alone. Each book needs a little bit of luck. Some books don't have any luck at all, and some seem to be gifted with luck out of all proportion to the quality of the work, but that element of luck is out of everybody's control. A writer can lay the groundwork for it by writing the best book that he can."
Check it out!
And Ron Estrada
has a great review of THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK. Thanks Ron!
December 10, 2006
If you've ever watched James Lipton and "The Actors Studio," you know he ends his interviews with ten questions. I figured, what the hell, I'll answer them myself. Feel free to view this as a meme and ask them yourselves.
1. What's your favorite word?
Well, I don't know, but the one that popped in my head was: onomatopoeia
2. What's your least favorite word?
3. What turns you on?
Good stories well told.
4. What turns you off?
Pretentious people who think they're experts on every subject.
5. What sound or noise do you love?
The sound of my dog deflating. Yeah, weird. Just before he goes to sleep or relaxes, he'll kind of "ssiiiiiggghhhh," and my wife and I'll say, "Oh, the dog just deflated."
6. What sound or noise do you hate?
The telephone ringing in the middle of the night. It's always, ALWAYS bad news.
7. What's your favorite curse word?
8. What profession, other than yours, would you like to try?
9. What profession would you not like to try?
10. If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Your Dad's waiting for you at the golf course ready to shoot the front nine.
Where Are You?
December 8, 2006
For better or worse, I've been a reader of Writers Digest for a very long time. For several years, the script columnist was J. Michael Straczinski, who went on to be the creator and producer of "Babylon Five."
Two specific thing Straczinski said in his columns have stuck in the forefront of my brain. I thought I'd share them with you today.
1. Wherever you are in your writing career, that's where you belong.
I'm not entirely sure I agree 100% with this comment, and if I remember correctly Straczinski got this notion from a writing instructor. Alternately, I do agree with this. Yes, there are undoubtedly some fine writers who for whatever reason haven't gotten published yet or haven't reached as wide an audience as their writing deserves, etc. At the same time, there may be holistic reasons for why their writing hasn't reached a wider audience or been published yet. Do they market their work enough? Do they persist in trying to find an agent or a publisher? Do they target the wrong audience?
This strikes me as being a very true statement, though, for unpublished writers, by and large. If your novel hasn't been published yet despite the efforts of your agent, or you can't get an agent, it's possible the work just isn't as good as you think it is. Now, "not good enough" can also be defined as "non-commercial," which can cause problems for any agent or publisher, no matter how beautiful the writing. I'm a believer that quality writing will win out--in the long run.
I've been outlining an older unpublished novel of mine with the intention of writing a screenplay based on it. It's a lively story and at the time my agent was real hot on it, but couldn't sell it. Several years later I rewrote it, surprised at how sloppily it had been put together in terms of typos, etc., and shopped it around a bit on my own with no luck. As I'm going through it now I'm seeing a lot of issues with it that I didn't see as recently as three or four years ago. I think the story is good, the line-by-line writing is good, but there's nothing like outlining something with the intention of turning a scene in a book into a scene in a movie script and discovering that pages go by with nothing happening, with page after page of backstory and flashback that couldn't possibly be filmed, to give you an idea of what went wrong with this particular story. So I think it's quite possible that if you're unpublished or your career's not taking off the way you hoped, one of the big reasons for it is that your skill and craft just aren't ready yet.
2. No writing is wasted.
I believe this 100%. Ray Bradbury estimated that before your novels would become publishable you needed to write about a million words, and if that's the case--and it probably is--then are those million words wasted? Of course not. They're part of the process.
And I find that over the years I've written some chunks of novels that for one reason or another didn't work out and rather than think that I've wasted my time, I prefer to think I was just trying out techniques and storylines and auditioning characters--what is sometimes referred to as "boring drills," where you test to see if it's boring or not--to see what works or to see if they catch on fire with you. In some ways I do more of this now than I used to do, but I try to do it more in my head (saves time, which, unfortunately, can
be wasted). That said, as regular readers of this blog know, I recently wrote 100 pages of a medical thriller that failed to thrill my agent, so apparently I'm still doing this. Was that time wasted?
In the long run, probably not. It FEELS like I wasted my time, but I did make the acquaintance of an interesting character or two and tried something different. And maybe this was just a process I had to work my way through in order to get to a better story. Time will tell.
I'm going to add an addendum here, actually. I write mysteries and thrillers. Early in my writing ambition I wrote some sci-fi and some horror. I spent years working on PI novels and mysteries and finally seem to have found some success in thrillers. I also write a lot of nonfiction of various types--book reviews, business reports, feature articles, etc. I think all of this has made me a much better writer. From time to time I read a book by someone and it's a fine book, but I can sort of tell that they've spent all their time writing a certain kind of writing.
I think if you're a writer of mysteries and thrillers, it can be a very good thing to go out and read a romance novel or a sci fi novel or a mainstream novel or whatever, and maybe try your hand at it. Not necessarily of novel length or even with the intention of selling it, but to exercise different muscles. It'll help your overall writing.
And I think that should probably be out goal--to be good writers.
Consider the Possibility
December 7, 2006
Ever hear this?
WRITERS DON'T MAKE ANY MONEY.
IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO MAKE A LIVING AS A NOVELIST.
ONLY BESTSELLERS MAKE ENOUGH MONEY TO LIVE ON.
Ever hear this one?
IF YOU'VE GOT A NOVEL PUBLISHED, YOU MUST BE RICH.
I worked at Henry Ford Hospital in the cytogenetics laboratory for 18 years. I am also the editor of The Journal of the Association of Genetic Technologists and I've edited the AGT's salary survey twice and also written about pay rates for medical technologists and genetic technologists and I can say with utmost confidence that if you want to make a lot of money or get rich, get the hell out of this field. NOW! (That said, the income is decent. I wouldn't want to support a family entirely on that income, which is typically in the $40,000 to $50,000 range, but it's do-able, and quite solidly middle class if you have a spouse making similar money).
The fact for me has been that I made the same amount of money my first year freelancing as I did my 18th year as a cytogenetic technologist, and in my second year freelancing I nearly doubled it (I had a good year).
I was interviewing a guy recently who just came out with his first nonfiction book and he makes a living as a librarian and freelances on the side. And he said, "As you know, there's not much money in freelancing."
And I thought but didn't say, "There can be."
My oldest son wants to be a writer. (He also wants to be a band director/music teacher and movie director, but I see him as a writer because he actually does that on his own and doesn't require me nagging him). My wife and I were talking about this a bit and I commented that if that's what he wants to be, he probably can be. It's not like her or my parents (in the case of mine, children of the Great Depression), who believed the only route to income was by working a stable 9 to 5 job for some company.
I've finally made the acquaintance of a number of people who make a living as freelance writers of some sort. To name a few:
Eric Mayer--attended law school, got laid off, now writes full time and is also a novelist with his wife, Mary Reed, also a freelance writer. (I have no idea how you guys handle health insurance!)
Doug Stanton--freelance journalist, author of the bestseller "In Harms Way."
Jeff Cohen--been freelancing 22 years, novelist and aspiring TV and scriptwriter (had options apparently).
John Ramsey Miller--fulltime novelist
Joe Konrath--fulltime novelist
Lee Goldberg--TV writer, novelist, former journalist and freelance writer
The list goes on, and I think one of the things I would have benefitted from 15 years ago was having real contact with writers who were making a living at it, just so I could get it through my head that yes, you CAN do this, people do, and they make a decent living at it. In some cases, a very, very good living at it.
Although I'm a rather long ways from being a fulltime optimist, I don't think you can accomplish much by not believing that whatever you're trying to accomplish is possible. I had a friend who was a photographer and he worked in the genetics lab with me doing digital imaging and photography, absolutely hated it (and had a meltdown and wrote "I QUIT" on his badge, dropped it on his desk and walked out, never to be heard from again) but couldn't seem to imagine himself making a living as a photographer. I could never quite figure that out, because a photographer willing to do weddings and portraits can make a decent living. They have to hustle, but that's bread and butter work while you work to build up your art or commercial photography on the side. But he looked down at that with disdain and could only see all the things that could go wrong, not all the things that could go right, and so when he had his meltdown he went and worked at a camera store.
Anyway, enough about him. Here's the point, so crack open today's Fortune Cookie:
Before your dreams WILL come true, you have to believe they CAN come true.
So I Re-Wrote It Like This
December 6, 2006
I don't know that this is where we'll end up, by I re-write it along the lines of those suggestions you made:
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
The traitor ran and Monaco Grace went after him. He let go of the little girl and sprinted down Jalan Petaling, dodging around shoppers in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. He hit a table, flipping it and its multi-colored umbrella with a crash. A couple shoppers screamed. The nearby vendor yelled at him.
Monaco stopped by the little girl just long enough to say, “Don’t go away. Stay right here.” The little girl looked blankly at her. Dammit, thought Monaco. She only speaks Malay. She tried again in Cantonese, but still got no response.
She turned to chase the traitor, whose name was Christopher Augustine. Augustine glanced over his shoulder, eyes wide. He crashed into a table containing hundreds of watches. The watch seller screamed at him as Augustine untangled himself from the collapsed table, scrambled to his feet and ran.
Monaco was only a dozen feet behind him. She could take him out now if she wanted to, but the crowd was watching.
It was the little girl, dammit. Why did he have the little girl with him?
Abruptly Monaco melted into a booth selling DVDs. She suspected they were pirated copies of American films, probably dubbed with Malaysian actors speaking in Malay or Chinese. The proprietor, a fat woman with cheeks like greasy donut holes, jabbered at her in Malay. Monaco answered in Cantonese, saying, “Did you see that idiot? I thought he was insane.”
She turned, pulled up the hood of the sweatshirt she wore beneath her jacket, and strolled away into a market selling vegetables and fruit. Keeping an eye peeled for Augustine, she thumped a melon, sniffed a pineapple, picked up a lime, all the while studying the crowd.
She had been hunting him for a week, watching him as he moved from his apartment to the government offices of the Jabatan Riskan Persekutuan, the Malaysian Federal Intelligence Department.
Monaco didn’t think the JRP trusted Christopher Augustine. It had taken her two full days to figure out their surveillance routines, mostly because they were so damned sloppy she couldn’t believe it. Somebody kept an eye on him at all times, but most of the time it was a single person in a vehicle outside whatever building he was in. Either they didn’t think he was in much danger or they didn’t much care.
The truth was, he was in grave danger. From her.
The United States government had made a formal appeal to the Malaysian government for Christopher Augustine’s return to the states for trial, along with the prototype computer chip he had stolen from a National Security Agency facility where he had been employed as a computer engineer.
The Malaysian government had responded by indicating they knew nothing about Christopher Augustine.
When it became clear that the Malaysian government was protecting Augustine and had every intention of utilizing the chip for their own uses, Alex Bright, Monaco’s boss in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s Special Operations Division, had slapped a TOP SECRET folder on her desk and said, “You’re going to KL and you’re teaching the fucking Malaysians a thing or two about screwing with us.”
Like I said, I may change it, but for now I'm going to live with this and move on.
Tell Me What You Think
December 5, 2006
Over on PJ Parrish's Cabbages & Kings blog she's been doing BookyNoise for a while, letting us folks toss out our openers for readers to comment upon. As I mentioned earlier, I'm working on the 4th Derek Stillwater novel and I'm playing with another novel, THE-NOVEL-TO-BE-NAMED-LATER. It's taking on a life of its own and I'm getting kind of geeked about it, so I thought I'd do my own BookyNoise and toss out the opener and you guys can tell me what you think. Would you want to read on?
* * *Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
The traitor ran and Monaco Grace went after him. She had been hunting him for a week, watching him as he moved from his apartment to the government offices of the Jabatan Riskan Persekutuan, the Federal Intelligence Department of the Malaysian government.
Monaco didn’t think the JRP trusted Christopher Augustine. It had taken her two full days to figure out their surveillance routines, mostly because they were so damned sloppy she couldn’t believe it. Somebody kept an eye on him at all times, but most
of the time it was a single person in a vehicle outside whatever building he was in. Either they didn’t think he was in much danger or they didn’t much care.
The truth was, he was in grave danger. From her.
The United States government had made a formal appeal to the Malaysian government for Christopher Augustine’s return to the states for trial, along with the prototype computer chip he had stolen from a National Security Agency facility where he had been employed as a computer engineer.
The Malaysian government had responded by indicating they knew nothing about Christopher Augustine.
When it became clear that the Malaysian government was protecting Augustine and had every intention of utilizing the chip for their own uses, Alex Bright, Monaco’s boss in the CIA's Special Operations Division, had slapped a TOP SECRET folder on her desk and said, “You’re going to KL and you’re teaching the fucking Malaysians a thing or two about screwing with us.”
Finding the Excitement
December 4, 2006
Yesterday I commented that once a certain technical level of writing is acquired, then the predominant thing editors and agents are looking for is a piece of work (novel) that they can be excited about.
I'd love to write about how you do that, but I don't really know, so I'm going to write about something else. (And if you figure out that other thing, let me know).
I imagine that most writers, published or aspiring, were like me when I first started out. I was incredibly excited to be writing. There were all those silly little fantasies about writing the novel and making beaucoup bucks (still have 'em; haven't gone away, they're just tempered by reality), but really I was excited to hit the keyboard and slip between the pages of my own story.
I'm really pleased to say that hasn't gone away. I hope it never does.
Sure, sometimes it's harder than others. And if there's one thing that weighs heavily on me now it's the possibility that a piece won't get published. I started out back when dinosaurs roamed the earth convinced that every novel was going to be a sure-fire sale. Now that I'm being regularly published, I'm significantly less sure of that. So I spend rather too much time stressing whether what I'm writing is commercial enough, marketable enough, etc.
But the excitement I'm thinking about really is something different. It's the excitement of discovery. I've been working on the 4th Derek Stillwater novel and I'm about 65 pages in or so, still picking my way through the initial plot and character thickets, and things aren't developing quite the way I had originally planned (which is usually a good thing), and I was worried that the story wasn't tense enough, it was getting off to too slow a start, and I was walking Frodo and WHAM! I had an idea. A wonderful, beautiful, awful idea (to quote The Grinch). And it did exactly what I wanted it to do. It ratcheted up the tension, it took a story that was more closely resembling a murder mystery than a thriller and turned it into a thriller, and it changed the dynamic of the story AND of the relationship between two of the main characters, Derek and an operative for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
And I found myself getting really excited about the story. I was excited before, but as I progressed, it was settling into work--but I was looking for things to excite me, because I hope that will excite the reader.
I've mentioned that I've been tinkering with another novel. I was excited about the character and excited about the concept, but I didn't feel I had thought enough about the concept. And I asked myself a pivotal question, essentially: What does China want? and the answer that came to me got me fired up about the story and told me that the thing I had envisioned wouldn't work--exactly--but if I did THIS instead, oh man, baby, THAT was an exciting thing.
I tend to call these EUREKA MOMENTS and I live for them. I like the day to day writing, the pounding at the keyboard, the rewriting (yes, actually, I enjoy rewriting)--maybe even LOVE all this, but those EUREKA MOMENTS, man, there's nothing like them.
So I hope you have lots of EUREKA MOMENTS.
Why Editors & Agents Take You On
December 3, 2006
Lee Goldberg has a blog about the synergy between books and movies and tie-ins, which is all very interesting, but of interest to me was a particular line, which I responded to with this post:
What I find most interesting here is this:
"...the business still remains driven by agents, writers, and studio execs who have to read the material and get excited by it."
For every aspiring novelist and scriptwriter who says, "Why isn't my work being picked up?" the answer is right there.
Of course, the other answer is: your writing sucks.
But after you acquire a certain degree of craft, then the answer is above.
* * *
And I really do think, after a certain level of technical ability is hit, the issue really comes down to: does it excite them? Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. And the best you can do is the best you can do.
A Day In The Life...
December 1, 2006
6:30 Get up and stagger to the couch to keep my oldest son company while he gets ready for school.
6:55 Shower, etc.
7:20 Hit the office, check e-mail, look at blogs.
7:45 Wake youngest son, get breakfast around. No walk today for Frodo, it's pouring down rain.
8:40 Back in office. Work on chapter of SHADOWS. Then re-write first chapter of a second novel you're fiddling with.
10:30 Head to gym for an hour of cardio.
12:45 Home again. Check blogs. Answer e-mail. Rewrite/edit chapter of SHADOWS.
1:30 Rewrite article about CMS competitive bidding demonstration project.
2:15. Spend some time researching possible markets and article pitches.
2:30 Interview incoming CEO of LabCorp for an article I'm writing.
3:00 Oldest son gets home. Talk to him for a few minutes.
3:10 Call literary agent and talk about current projects, strategies (such as they are) and try to get a grip on where career might actually be. (No luck with that).
3:30 Transcribe LabCorp CEO interview.
4:00 Youngest son gets home. Talk to him for a few minutes. It's more or less stopped raining, so I take Frodo for a much-needed walk.
4:30 Contemplate the meaning of life, the status of my writing career and my current malaise. Stew a bit.
4:40 Start sending off e-mails to venture capital firms to let them know that I'm now regularly covering the clinical lab industry business news for Laboratory Industry Report.
5:30 Call it a day. Read newspaper. Nag kids into doing homework and practicing their instruments.
6:00 Go out and pick up pizza.
7:00 channel surf.
7:30 Go online and do some research for novels I'm working on, look at blogs. Very restless.
8:30 Settle down to read.
10:00 Go to bed.