November 28, 2008 Killing time, watching "Outbreak" on cable while waiting for Day II of the Thanksgiving Holiday. Did some house cleaning, walked the dog...
Yesterday was spent at a sister-in-law's. To say the least, my wife and one of her sister's do not get along. In order to convince us to actually come, the host sister-in-law has taken to lying to us about whether the other sister and her family will be there. So we walk in, they're there, and you be a grown-up and try to be semi-sociable, although that's not easy. How lovely the holidays can be.
The much more liked relatives today. No turkey, we're doing Italian--lasagna and mostaciolli.
Sci-Fi is doing a Mork & Mindy marathon today. I'm not sure the show has aged that well.
We watched "War" last night (yes, a strange holiday movie), with Jason Stathan and Jet Li. Nice twists at the end, but it's too bad the connective tissue between plot points is, like, well, not really there. So you're watching and say, "Uh, how did they know to go there?" Still, Jason Stathan makes a good badass--and if you haven't seen "The Bank Job" I really recommend it. And Jet Li, well, he's Jet Li.
Uh-oh, my wife's reading over my shoulder. She's probably going to want me to take out the stuff about her sister. Or maybe not.
My niece is supposed to be bringing her dog over today. Frodo gets along pretty well with other dogs, so this ought to be entertaining. Two dogs together, racing around the house at full speed.
Well, not much more to say, I guess. It's not like I've had anything to say anyway.
T'Wouldn't Be Thanksgiving Without A Thankfulness Post, Now Would It, Dear?
November 26, 2008 Yes, I try to have an Attitude of Gratitude.
Every day I wake up, I'm grateful that I do, because the alternative... not so good.
I'm grateful for my kids. They've filled my life with something unexpected and wonderful. They draineth my wallet and my gas tank and shareth all their viruses and bacteria with me, thank thee oh lord!
I'm grateful for my wife. Guess I made a good decision all those years ago. Hopefully she thinks so, too.
I'm grateful for Frodo. I'm always grateful for Dogs, for they shall inherit the table scraps and any extra room in the bed, yeah, verily I say.
I'm grateful I get to write for a living, not just because I like to do it, but because it makes me happy. Also, because it opened up doors to a far better life. Not tied down to a 2-3 hour commute every day and squashing my writing obsessions into the evenings, it freed up time to go to the gym, to ride my bike, to run, to take guitar lessons, to study karate, to be the secretary of the band boosters, to spend time with my kids, to be their chauffeur and occasional chaperone. In many more ways than just writing, this has been the greatest blessing of becoming a freelance writer--it opened up my world and let me fill up my life with things I would never have had time to do otherwise.
I'm continually grateful for my good health. No shit, kemosabe, but the expression, "If you have your health, you have everything" isn't a joke or a cliche. It's a significant, core truth. You can have a full, rich life even with chronic illnesses, but it's a whole lot easier when you're healthier.
I'm grateful for this odd little community in the blogosphere. Really. All my friends I've never met who I wouldn't recognize if I walked past you on the street, but I know your voices, so thank you for sharing your lives with me here.
I'm one of the judges for ITW's Thriller Award. The result of this is that I'm reading a bunch of thriller novels, in many cases by people I've heard of before and have never gotten around to reading their books. In some cases, reading books by people I've never read before.
There's a confidentiality agreement, so I can't really talk about anything specific.
But one of the things that has come to mind from reading a couple of the books that are more military-based thrillers is how I could not have written these books. The authors just have too much familiarity with the military. With the hardware, the organizational structure, the mindset, the culture.
Granted, Tom Clancy never served in the military and made a terrific living writing about this, but he was a military buff and hung out with military people.
I have realized recently that most of my manuscripts deal with professionals of some sort--private eyes and cops and soldiers. Not all. DIRTY DEEDS was about a computer troubleshooter. CATFISH GURU is about a consulting forensic toxicologist. And Derek Stillwater, though military, is really a biochemist and microbiologist with a gun. I'm no expert on the gun and military part, but I have often hobbed and nobbed with biochemists and microbiologists and still do. That's just part of my culture.
What I've never really written about before is an ordinary person who gets caught up in something nasty.
And I confess, I don't really hang out with cops or soldiers, although the number of toxicologists and other lab people is pretty extensive.
I suppose it goes back to write-what-you-know.
I've long argued you should write about what you're interested in, and you can always do the research. That said, reading some of these novels makes me realize just how research-intensive some of these really successful thriller authors are. Sometimes you read one of these books and think, "He HAS to have worked in the military in order to write this." Or at least to really hang out with military people and get immersed in their cultures.
This might partially be why my interests have shifted toward YA and middle-grade fantasy. I do research for these, too, but I don't have to go far to find the age group and my research on monsters can come off the Internet or out of my own imagination. Just like FORTRESS OF DIAMONDS, there aren't really any Anasazi around to interview (unless you believe, like I do, that the Hopi are direct descendants of the Anasazi, as probably are Aztecs and some of the other Native American tribes, but it's not like they're going to tell you much about what happened 1200 years ago).
Harlan Coben comes to mind on this topic, simply because he writes about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. I've noticed that some of my more ambitious thrillers, ones that wander into foreign countries or require particular research into certain areas of expertise, often get stalled at the point where my grip on the facts gets weak. It may be time to write a story about people I know--writers and musicians and scientists and engineers--just to see if I can.
Are bestselling authors ambitious? Or did they just get lucky, write a great book, it took off and the rest, as they say, is history?
For a couple years I wrote profiles of authors for the book section of The Oakland Press. I interviewed a number of bestselling authors--John Sandford, Sue Grafton, Randy Wayne White, Barry Eisler, to name-drop a few of the more prominent.
In recent years I've been writing profiles for the ITW Report, interviewing authors like Gayle Lynds, David Morrell, Steve Coonts, etc, as well as many others of lesser fame.
Fairly early on, while interviewing John Sandford and Sue Grafton, it occurred to me that I had always assumed novelists weren't terribly competitive, that they did their thing, and that was that. But interviewing those two, in particular, made me realize that they believed that staying at the top of their field took more than just writing a good book. Grafton, in particularly, as pleasant an interview as it was, seemed pretty willing to do whatever was needed to get her book to the top of the list. One senses she'd be pretty willing to gut anyone in her way, probably with an apologetic smile on her face as she did it.
Sandford, to me, didn't come off as competitive, so much, as calculating. We talked about story ideas and he was telling me about one for a standalone about bioterrorism he had (or more specifically agricultural bioterrorism), but he couldn't think of a way to write it so it would be commercial. And if you've read some of his notes on his website regarding a few of his books, you'll see that sometimes he writes a novel in a way that interests him, turns it into his editor, who then says something along the lines of, "Well, I didn't love it as much as I hoped to." And Sandford will go back to the drawing board and rewrite the whole damned thing to make sure it works in the marketplace.
I'm probably going to come off as pretentious and even boring here, but I think it's a mistake to think that you'll write a great novel and it'll be picked up for bushels of bucks and you can keep on being the laid-back, mellow, non-ambitious person you've always been. My sense of the publishing industry isn't that it's a bell-shaped curve with literary novels on the left that don't sell any copies, a huge number in the middle that sells a decent amount, and bestsellers on the far right.
My sense of the publishing industry is that it resembles a long, low plateau that curves to the nearly vertical. On the nearly vertical cliff face are bestsellers, and frankly, each week, there are really only 10 or 15 spots on the most important bestseller lists and bestselling authors are clawing and kicking to stay there.
That isn't to say that bestselling authors aren't friendly and generous to their peers and to less successful writers. In my experience, they are. But I think it's a mistake to think they don't view each other as competitors.
There's a wonderful sequence in Stephen King's "Bag of Bones" where bestselling author Mike Noonan is having a phone conversation with his agent, who is telling him the bookselling buzz about various authors.
"Looks crowded," he said, meaning the fall lists, meaning specifically the fiction half of the fall lists. "And there are some surprise additions. Dean Koontz--"
"I thought he usually published in January," I said.
"He does, but Debra hears this one may be delayed. He wants to add a section, or something. Also there's a Harold Robbins, The Predators--"
"Robbins still has his fans, Mike, still has his fans. As you yourself have pointed out on more than one occasion, fiction writers have a long arc."
...."There may be as many as five other writers that we didn't expect publishing next fall: Ken Follett...it's supposed to be his best since Eye of the Needle...Belva Plain...John Jakes..."
"None of those guys play tennis on my court," I said, although I knew that was not exactly Harold's point; Harold's point was that there are only fifteen slots on the Times list.
"How about Jean Auel, finally publishing the next of her sex-among-the-cave-people epics?"
I sat up. "Jean Auel? Really?"
"Well...not a hundred per cent, but it looks good. Last but not least is a new Mary Higgins Clark. I know what tennis court she plays on, and so do you."
If I'd gotten that sort of news six or seven years earlier, when I'd felt I had a great deal more to protect, I would have been frothing; Mary Higgins Clark did play on the same court, shared exactly the same audience, and so far our publishing schedules had been arranged to keep us out of each other's way...which was to my benefit rather than hers, let me assure you. Going nose to nose, she would cream me...."
* * *
Well, who knows? Maybe it's easy and there's no pressure? I mean, if someone hands you a check for a million bucks or so and says, if your book doesn't sell 500,000 copies in hardcover--in the first 6 weeks--we might not publish you again, would that make you feel a little stressed?
So what do you think? Are successful novelists ambitious?
I'm a subscriber to Freelance Success, and one of their forum threads was on whether it was possible to make $200,000 a year as a freelance writer. I read this with some interest, naturally. I don't think it's merely inflation that has made the usual goal of $100,000 jump to $200,000.
Apparently it is possible, primarily through either ghostwriting for famous people or for a lot of corporate work--writing annual reports and marketing materials, etc. I don't do much corporate work, although I've done some. I've never quite gotten a handle on breaking in, or perhaps I can more accurately say, I've never focused on breaking into corporate work.
More to the point, there were a number of posters on the forum who had at one time or another closed in on $200,000 and others who routinely made more than $100,000 annually, and the gist of it broke down to:
1. Get high-paying work.
2. Do a lot of it.
3. Work your ass off.
4. Market yourself like crazy.
I also find that some of the people making money in that range are doing things like giving speeches or they're earning back royalties on books.
Any number of people said something along the lines of: "There's more to life than money and in order to make that kind of money you almost have to give up what makes the freelance life so lovely--loose hours, casual dress, flexibility, etc."
I confess to an interest in the $100,000 a year number, although I haven't hit it yet. I got in range for two years, and I was aware of just how hard I was working and how busy I was.
Having to double that has no appeal.
I can do it through higher-paying clients or good-paying book projects.
Anyway, I thought I'd throw the topic out there because there's an assumption among many people, writers and non-writers alike, that a freelancer doesn't make much money. I make a very nice living, earn about $20,000 to $30,000 a year more than I was making working in clinical cytogenetics (although I don't have paid vacation, sick days, healthcare benefits or retirement). More the point, I love what I'm doing and the lifestyle suits me.
It's something to think about when you consider freelancing.
I'm a little under the weather with a head cold today and I just wrapped up a tedious research project--not a writing job, but updating a database. I think it's a good day to go to Office Max and buy some paper and folders. Although I see I've still got a ream of paper left, I whip through a ream of paper in a hurry. Plus, once we get into the month of December, the idea of a quick jaunt to Shopping Hell doesn't hold a lot of appeal.
And then, one of my clients e-mailed me to suggest I pitch her some ideas, always a good thing. (Even better when they pitch ideas to me and say, "Why don't you pick one. Deadline is...")
And I'm rocking on my WIP and I want to get back to that magical world I've created where Danny is discovering some of his strengths, weaknesses, and the limitations of his powers. And boy, do I have a fun chapter to write, his first private lesson in hand-to-hand combat, only the opponent he's going to face--and he doesn't know it--is a shapeshifter.
And a friend of mine sent me a partial manuscript to take a look at and it's pretty great, although I'm going to suggest they juice the first chapter, but otherwise so far it's very compelling.
And I'm behind on reading my newsletters.
And behind on sending out queries.
And I've been thinking about touching base with my agent.
Well, I think it's time to go and do something, don't you?
November 18, 2008 I was considering this question because of a recent rejection letter apparently accusing me of being plot-driven rather than character-driven. It's said with an accusing tone, I think, and dogma in publishing circles seems to be that character-driven is desirable, whereas plot-driven is not.
I don't actually think those two things can be so neatly separated. In fact, my guess is that the editor's comment meant "I didn't really like the character" more than anything else. Or perhaps, "I really wanted them to stop chasing all over the southwest solving clues and sit down over a latte and discuss their feelings." Or maybe I'm just biased in that regard.
Anyway, the reason I think the two can't be separated is my own extremely broad definition of a good read:
Interesting people doing interesting things.
The "character" aspect is the "interesting people."
The "plot" aspect is the "doing interesting things" with particular emphasis on "doing."
It's entirely possible that this is a gender issue, that men are more interested in characters that actually do things, while women are more interested in characters who feel thing. That's such a gross stereotype I'm not comfortable with it, but there may be some truth to it.
So what is plot?
Let's take two books.
Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. My memory of the book is a little vague, but basically a professor of religious symbology, Robert Langdon, is called in by the police because a friend of his was murdered in a bizarre fashion in the Louvre. Robert then goes off on a wild chase all over Europe, deciphering religious symbols and clues that were being hidden by the Templars, trying to solve a mystery that will turn the world upside down. (Actually, my biggest problem with the book is that idea that anything like facts or logic would in any way harm religion, but that may just be me).
Anyway, the book's chock full of plot. Robert Langdon is probably not a fascinating character. He has a fascinating job (one that apparently no one in the world actually has) and he's very quick and very clever and and very smart and near-perfectly designed to solve the mystery he's involved in. It would have been a very different book indeed if the main character had been Jill Jones, a 2nd grade teacher from Des Moines on vacation in France who gets sucked up in the same story.
Clearly, despite editors desire to have a character-driven story, one of the most successful books of all time was plot-driven.
Let us compare this to:
Uh, wait. I'm looking over the hundreds of books on my shelf trying to find one that doesn't have a plot. Well, there's some nonfiction. But are there any on my shelf that have such weak plots that I would call them "character-driven?" Hmmm...
Let's take an imaginary novel, one about, say, Mary Smith, who works in the accounting department of a large retail store like, say, Macy's. She's divorced, no children, sort of plain, and nothing happens in her life. She wakes up in the morning, eats yogurt and drinks coffee, takes the subway into work, spends 4 hours on spreadsheets, eats a falafel for lunch at the nearest falafel shack, goes back to her spreadsheets, takes the subway home, does Tae-Bo to a video for an hour, vacuums her flat, has a salad for dinner, then reads for an hour, watches Comedy Central, then goes to bed. And the next day she does it all over again.
Mary may have a perfectly ordinary (though relentlessly uneventful) life and for all we know she's perfectly happy with her humdrum life. During this we can learn a hell of a lot about her, we can dissect her character. We can discover that she's a vegetarian because her father worked at a butchery where they slaughtered sheep and pigs and cows and she never got over it. We can find out that her ex-husband had an affair with her sister, so she has no contact with her family. We can find out that she likes the orderly, predictable nature of accounting because her mother was bipolar and their home life was crazy.
We can, in fact, learn all we want to known about Mary and go on for pages and pages and pages about her character.
But no one will read the damned book unless something happens. Preferably something interesting, as my earlier definition indicates.
Now, just for the sake of argument, let's say that Mary's sister and ex-husband are killed in a car accident and she is given custody of their two children, ages 7 and 9. Now, Mary's life is totally upside down, her routine is shredded. She has to adjust, they have to adjust, and while we're at it, let's throw in some guy that she's suddenly attracted to. A babysitter? Someone at work? Or, hey, maybe her ex-husband's lawyer who is overseeing the transition of the will? Or the sensitive social worker who's checking to make sure the children are adjusting.
Now, we have a plot. Interesting things are happening.
Is Mary interesting?
Well, to someone.
Are these interesting things?
Not all books are for the same people, but if readers can identify with Mary, and you throw in enough conflict and, hopefully, enough incident, then you have both a character-driven and plot-driven story.
Would I like to read it?
Probably not, unless she was being stalked or someone had murdered the ex-husband, etc. That's the way I lean in my stories. I might be surprised though, if I can identify enough with Mary.
It's also important to note that people read for different reasons. I read for entertainment and escape. God help me, some people read to be "enlightened," whatever the hell that is. There are people who read "literature" because they want to... you know, I'm not entirely sure what their argument is. They want to be uplifted or depressed or perhaps to feel smugly self-righteous that what they're reading is "good for them" in some way. And I was just starting off on a tangent about this, but let's stop and recognize that all books have value to the readers and we shouldn't be arrogant about any of our reading material being better than anyone else's.
I don't think you can separate plot from character. Plot evolves out of character, out of how they would react in a particular situation. In my own novel, The Devil's Pitchfork, the main character is a troubleshooter for Homeland Security. He's a doer. His reactions to events are from training in microbiology and biochemistry and in Special Forces. So when he reacts to things, it comes about from his training, from his experiences, his job ... and his character. He's witnesses biological and chemical and traditional warfare first hand. He slipped into Iraq under cover after Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds. He's seen many things he wishes he hadn't and it's affected him.
If I were to write the same story with a main character who was an innocent bystander caught up in horrific events, the story would be different because of how that character responded, based on that character's traits and personality. Different characters, different stories.
November 16, 2008 Okay, I AM a total geek. Anyway, in case you weren't aware of it, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was re-scheduled from November to July 2009. However, one trailer was released. Recently, two additional were released. Here's one of them. Looks great and I can't wait to see the film.
Completely by accident I tripped across a recent column by Stephen King on the online version of Entertainment magazine (which I didn't know even had an online version. Go figure. I was looking for the trailer to the upcoming Star Trek movie, which I happened to just see prior to watching "Quantum of Solace," the new James Bond flick, which, by the way boys and girls, really rocked, no matter what the critics are saying).
I'll let you read it for yourself, but King talks about the supposed demise of male readers and the difference between what he calls chicklit and manfiction.
You know what? I write manfiction. I read manfiction. I buy tons of books that qualify as manfiction. Robert Crais. Lee Child. Michael Connelly. Robert B. Parker. Jonathan Kellerman.
I've noted that my novel "The Serpent's Kiss" is the book that people--almost always men--come to me and say, "Oh man, I loved that book. That was just awesome."
Flatters the hell out of me, but I also sometimes know why. Derek takes on everybody in that book. He takes on the bad guy, he takes on the FBI, he takes on the local cops, he takes on his own team with the FBI. He gets to save thousands of lives. He's heroic and action-y and as King suggests, if women want to get their escapism and entertainment by reading about women who meet handsome and potentially dangerous strangers, men want their escapism and entertainment by reading about guys who take on a battalion of bad guys with a gun, a bayonet and, as King suggests, hand grenades dangling from their belt.
A very long time ago I read the first volume of pianist Artur Rubinstein's autobiography. He was a fairly typical example of the child prodigy, one who was giving concerts when he was in his teens.
There were two things I remember most about the autobiography and I was thinking about them this morning while walking Frodo. First was, he noted that things came very easily to him and he didn't work very hard when he was younger--because he didn't have to. At one point, he was living in a boarding house somewhere, and he was supposed to be practicing, so he would sit down at his grand piano, put a box of chocolates on one side of the piano, a book he was reading on the music stand, and then do finger exercises with his free hand while reading his book and eating his chocolates. Although that sounds sort of difficult, the point was that he was only doing the practicing half-heartedly and without much concentration.
Rubinstein was a great pianist, a genius, no doubt, and he could have continued successfully as he was, probably. But he didn't. Somewhere, when he was a little older--I believe it was after he had children--he realized that he wasn't working up to his potential. That his repertoire wasn't as broad or as large as it should be and he didn't play them as well as he should, certainly not if he wanted to be taken seriously.
So, he said in one of his autobiographies, he rented a house for several months, brought in a concert grand, and spent an intensive several months concentrating solely on becoming what he was capable of becoming, practicing for all his waking moments and really re-learning his art.
I am by no means suggesting you lock yourself away for several months to concentrate on your writing (unless you actually can).
What I'm saying is that most of us drift along, growing incrementally if at all, assuming that what we're doing is pretty good.
But the fact of the matter is that, unless we're really being successful, our "pretty good" probably isn't good enough in the marketplace. And what we--and I am by no means excluding myself from this--need to do is really take a hard look at our writing and how it's being received (or not received) and ask ourselves: Is this as good as we can do?
I know that when I answer that question "Yes" then I'm likely to have a commercially viable project.
Also, I grow. Or try to. When I finished the manuscript for "The Devil's Pitchfork," the answer to that was "Yes, this is good as I can do at this time." I think I did better with "The Serpent's Kiss." I'm not quite sure that anything I've written since was better, or for that matter, much different. It may, in fact, be time for me to take a deep breath and slip my current fiction work under the microscope to see what I really think about it.
I'm reminded of a talk I heard this summer by a psychologist. He was talking about dealing with stress and how are reaction is to get angry or defensive or to lash out when things don't go well at work or our life. And he said that when people come to him and talk about this, the question he asks is: "So, how's that working for you?"
In the context of my fiction, I've thought a lot about this, frankly. There is a tendency for us to do the same thing over and over. And get rejected, over and over.
And I think, for me anyway, it's time to take a hard look at my approach to fiction and the types of fiction I've been writing and ask: So, how's this working for you, Mark?
And it doesn't necessarily mean, "You've been writing action-adventure thrillers, so let's change to deep and meaningful literary fiction." But I think it might be time to look at the way I approach the types of stories I like to write and ask myself, "What is it about my approach that isn't working in the marketplace? And what can I do about it?"
There are numerous reasons why we rejected your manuscript, and knowing that you won't believe us anyway, we have elected to provide a checklist of potential reasons for your work's rejection. Feel free to select the ones YOU feel are most appropriate.
__ Your story sucks
__ Your writing sucks
__ Your main character sucks
__ You suck
__ I've already read books with identical plots 439 times today
__ I saw this character on America's Most Wanted last week
__ I saw you on America's Most Wanted last week
__ I saw your agent on America's Most Wanted last week
__ I acquired a book just like it last year and it tanked big-time
__ I acquired a book just like it last year for big bucks, it tanked big-time and that's why I'm working at this crappy publisher this year
__ I acquired a book just like it last year, it did okay, but my boss told me if I ever wasted his money on schlock like it ever again I could kiss my ass goodbye
__ I was sleeping with an author who wrote a book just like it and it ended badly
__ My dog threw up on the manuscript
__ I have room on my list for one book and it's got to be a paranormal romance about vampires
__ I've got PMS really bad and your manuscript pissed me off
__ I've got PMS really bad and your agent really pissed me off
__ I've got PMS really bad and you really pissed me off
__ I've got PMS really bad and everything really pissed me off, but you were a handy scapegoat
__ It's a total lottery, I just pick a manuscript out of the pile at random and decide to publish it and what can I say, today's not your lucky day
__ Go away, you bore me
__ You typed your manuscript in Helvetica and I hate Helvetica
__ You typed your manuscript in Times New Roman and I hate TNR
__ You typed your manuscript in Courier and I hate Courier
__ I didn't like the paper it was printed on
__ I hate authors. Go away.
__ I burned my tongue on my coffee so I rejected your manuscript
__ I had a hangover today and yours was the first manuscript I picked up
__ I had a hangover today and your was the last manuscript I picked up
__ I had a hangover today and I hate you. Go away.
__ I'd really like this job if it weren't for all you authors bugging me with your crap
__ I had sex with someone in the marketing department and I broke it off because I was afraid my wife would find out and now whenever I bring a manuscript to her, she torpedoes it
__ I wanted to have sex with someone in the marketing department, but they told me if I ever brought one of your manuscripts to them again, they'd never have sex with me
__ I wanted to have sex, but instead, I rejected your manuscript
__ I hate you. Go away.
__ I only accept manuscripts on days with an R in them
__ Too many words
__ Not enough words
__ Wrong words
__ I hate you. Go away.
__ You write like shit.
__ You are shit.
__ I feel like shit.
__ I should have gotten a degree in computer science instead of 15th Century Spanish Poetry
__ I don't make enough money to put up with your crap
__ Do you know how much a one-room flat in Manhattan costs?
Here's the first rejection of The Fortress of Diamonds:
I thought that FORTRESS OF DIAMONDS was a well-written romp, but in the end, it’s not quite right for me. It was more plot-driven than character-driven, and I never found myself getting caught up in the fantastical plot enough to be the right editor for it.
I am reminded, oddly enough, of the lovely young woman who came to the door yesterday and handed me a religious tract. Frodo had been going berzerk at the door and she said, "What a nice dog you have." I thought that was interesting because he initially sounds like he's going to rip your guts out and jumps up and down in a frenzy. Maybe it's that his tail is wagging the entire time.
Anyway, she gave a mini-spiel, which I didn't pay any attention to, took her leaflet, closed the door, didn't bother to even look at it, and tossed it in the recycle bin. Now that the political canvassers are done pounding my door, the religious canvassers are back. I mostly wish people would stop interrupting my work day. I'm perfectly capable of interrupting my own work with a million-and-one distractions, thank you very much. I don't need any more.
Anyway, the point is, I'm not entirely sure why "plot-driven" is supposed to be better than "character-driven" although I think what she means--assuming there's any reason to parse what she means at all--is she didn't really like the main character.
But, like the woman at my door might have realized (although I doubt it), I was looking for any reason to ignore her. And it occurs to me--not for the first time--that editors are looking for any reason to turn down your manuscript. ANY REASON WILL DO.
In my oldest son's band, there's a joke that goes around concerning the drummers (the prima donnas of the band). Partly this comes from the fact that one of the band directors is a drummer.
He tells them they have to earn their R.
In other words, in case you haven't figured it out, they're "dummers" until they earn their R and become "drummers." Their Rs can apparently be taken away until they re-earn them.
I'm going to stretch and belabor the analogy a bit to apply to writers, so bare (bear?) with me.
Writing does not necessary make you a writer.
I know, I know, I've actually come into conflict with that from time to time myself, saying "writers write."
What I'm getting at here is that writing your thoughts down (and in many cases pushing PUBLISH on Blogger) does not necessarily make you a writer, at least not in the sense that you've got the skills to become a professional writer. To go from write to writer, I would argue, you have to earn your R.
You have to become aware of your audience and their needs.
You have to pay attention to your word choice and be aware that "sees" and "observes" and "studies" and "focuses on" all mean different things to the reader.
You have to learn that "she got the mail" isn't as effective as "she retrieved the mail" or "she plucked the mail from the box."
You have to learn that "the sun rose like a big red ball" isn't so great, but "the sun rose like a newborn baby's head" under specific circumstances, can be a lot better. And you need to figure out what those circumstances are, because sometimes the best thing to write is "the sun rose" or "the sun came up."
You need to learn that: "Get down!" he shouted excitedly, is not as good as "Get down!" he shouted, or even "Get down!"
You need to learn when to use commas, not because the Grammar Gods tell you to, but because commas affect the rhythm of your writing, which affects how your readers perceive your writing: "She ran around the corner, hit the door, dived through, gunfire exploding overhead" has more urgency than "She ran around the corner to the door and dived through as gunfire exploded overhead." If you don't perceive it as having more urgency, you need to at least perceive it as being different and having a different effect.
There are many, many more things, but those are important ones. So, go earn your R.
I suddenly had an image from the movie "Bull Durham" where Kevin Costner grabs Tim Robbins' arm and says he has a million-dollar arm, but all his parts put together aren't worth 99 cents (or something like that).
The reason I'm thinking about it is a client was offering to pay me less and throw in stock options yesterday. After I thought about this for a while I contacted my writer friend Erica Orloff to see if she's ever experienced something like this. She had.
Which, unfortunately, brings me to something that writers seem to face an awful lot--clients that don't value what you do. For those writers who do copywriting for small businesses (and perhaps even larger businesses) you're likely to encounter this:
"I'd do it myself, but I'm just too busy. How's $10 an hour sound?"
Some I've encountered: "We're just getting started, so we can only pay 10 cents a word, but we expect to take off and you'll be in on the ground floor so when we start making money you'll make more, too."
So, the stock options was new, but thematically, shall we say, it wasn't.
I'm waiting for: "We can't pay you, but how about I give you a frozen turkey or a canned ham?"
In fact, now that I think about it, I did have a: "We can't pay you, but we can offer you advertising space in our publication at a discount rate." [translation: we can't pay you, but if you pay us, we'll give you a 1 inch by 3 inch ad somewhere in the back].
And look, fiction publishers in a lot of ways are the worst. It's a puzzle to me, although I'm sure someone would be willing to crunch the numbers, exactly why on a hardcover that sells for $25, the author's lucky to get 10% (ie., $2.50).
And there are a lot of small presses who do not offer advances. Part of the rationale, which I find interesting, is: we're taking a risk on you, so we want to minimize our risk by only paying for our production costs.
What I find so interesting about it is this: hey, I'm the writer, I've ALREADY done the work, I'm taking a risk on YOU, that you, in fact, want to BUY my manuscript on some sort of half-assed payment plan that's so risky only an appliance store would consider offering it to someone (and they sure as hell wouldn't offer it to the manufacturers, would they?). I mean, I spent months writing the manuscript, now you tell me you want to purchase it, but you're not going to pay me anything for another year or two until the book starts making YOU money.
It's a little bit like going into a furniture store and telling them you'll buy the bed, but only after you've had it at home for a while and made sure it's really comfy and broken in a bit.
This is a little backward, actually.
Anyway, this is why as you progress through the business of writing you have to start getting a little stiff-backed and steely-eyed about the business end of things (or jaded, cynical and disgusted). Which reminds me, I have to nag one of my clients about a large check that's overdue.
I'm editing an interview with geneticist Stephanie Sherman and reading about something called the "Sherman Paradox," which is named after her. So I was thinking, wouldn't it be cool to have something like a syndrome or effect or paradox named after you?
The Terry Effect: an unexplained phenomenon wherein publishers that contract with the author go out of business prior to the contracted manuscript's publication.
The Terry Corollary: in which publishers drop authors mid-contract for no particular reason.
Anyway, if you had one named after you, what would it be?
Congratulations. Don't waste it. Don't get complacent. Use common sense. Work with the Republicans. In short, don't fuck up.
Dear Vice President-Elect Biden,
Congratulations. Advise well. Try to keep the brakes on your mouth. Stay in the moment and don't spend all your time making plans for 2016. Say hello to your wife for me. She rocks.
Dear Senator McCain,
Sorry, didn't work out. Either go back to being a useful senator, put your money where your mouth is and work with the new president, or retire and enjoy your wife's money. You've served your country well. Now take a vacation. And for God sakes, man, get that left cheek checked out by a doctor. That just doesn't look right.
Dear Governor Palin,
Go back to where you came from and don't come back. Really.
So is life. Last night we went to my son's high school band concert. All three high school bands, the Varsity, Concert, and Symphonic bands played and they were all good (actually, the top band, the Symphonic, was a lot better than good).
When I was in high school, I was a big music guy. I played saxophone in the symphonic band and jazz band and in the orchestra, where I also played bells when the percussionists needed an extra set of hands. I played piano and I taught both piano and saxophone. Most people assumed I'd be a music major and when I went and majored first in medical technology and then microbiology, most people were surprised.
It wasn't a good decision and the reasoning behind the choices were complicated, but let's just say that my brother had been a music major (and, in fact, was getting his PhD--or more precisely, DMA, which is Doctorate of Musical Arts--in music theory and composition at the University of Texas at the same time I was getting my BS in microbiology and public health at Michigan State University) and my mother in particular was wildly opposed to this and I got exposed to that for 6 years prior to going off to college.
As you know, I discovered I really wanted to be a writer about 4 years later and we know how that story ended.
Anyway, when my oldest son started marching band in high school this year (he's also in jazz band and in concert band and he plays guitar, in fact, he plays bassoon, guitar and saxophone), my wife and I got involved in the band boosters and we both chaperoned a night at the marching band camp. Leanne asked me why I didn't major in music and become a high school band director. Part of it was Mom, certainly; part of it was that in high school I was much more interested in piano than sax and didn't really think I wanted to spend the rest of my career teaching kids piano from 4:00 in the afternoon to 10:00 at night with all day Saturday and probably do church organ or something similar on the weekends. There's some irony in this because, after all, I do spend most of my day in a small room, only by myself.
Last night, we picked up our youngest son at the pool where he's in swim club and walked through the high school to the auditorium for the concert and I suddenly had another thought. I told Leanne: "Actually, another reason I didn't major in music was I was so eager to get away from high school that I couldn't imagine spending my whole career working in a high school."
That's definitely true. However, I would point out that I probably would have really enjoyed being a high school band director.
So we make a lot of choices, for better or worse, and sometimes things work out and sometimes they don't, and sometimes the ship manages to steer itself back toward its true direction. That's how I feel about being a writer, actually. That I majored in science and took science jobs because someone else was steering the ship, but the ship kept wanting to go back on a different heading. And I finally yanked the controls away and let the ship get back to the direction it needed to go.
Anyway, here's the first movement of a symphony the Symphonic Band played last night (different band, same piece), called "The Divine Comedy."
I remember watching an interview with Elmore Leonard a number of years ago and the interviewer asked him at which book did he feel like he was a success? His fifth? His sixth? When his 18th or 19th finally broke through?
Leonard said, "I've always felt like a success."
It was a nice answer and Leonard, I've often felt, never allows himself to be manipulated by interviewers. I don't know if he actually felt that way or not and it doesn't matter, really, because it's a good thing to remind yourself.
I have a sign up in my office that says:
Sometimes I even remember to believe it.
As you know, I'm currently "between contracts" in my fiction life. We do have some things out in the marketplace and hopefully something positive will happen with them.
Then I was thinking of the top shelf in my book case. The one that has all the copies of my books--the hardcover of SHOW BUSINESS IS MURDER, an anthology that has my short story, "Murder at the Heartbreak Hotel" in it. The two Derek Stillwater novels plus the French, German and Slovak translation versions. The copies of CATFISH GURU, the novella collection I published through iUniverse via a Mystery Writers of America introductory program (so it cost me nothing), and DIRTY DEEDS, my first novel. Also, a spiral bound galley of BLOOD SECRETS, the one that got away, the novel that was supposed to be published by Write Way Publishing only they went bankrupt 6 months prior to publication.
And I thought: If I never published another novel in my entire life, this would still be significant. You could easily look back at your life and say, "Hey, I published three novels and a collection of novellas and has a short story appear in a major anthology, that don't suck."
I realize also that I make a good living as a freelance writer and plan to continue doing so for the next, oh, 30 or 35 years or so (I'm 44). I'm sure there will be some ups and downs. I'm sure I'll publish some big things, market reports, probably ghostwrite some nonfiction books or write nonfiction books, and if I keep at it, I should get some more novels published (assuming that in that time the publishing paradigm doesn't shift so dramatically that everyone just publishes their own books electronically and people read them on their Kindles).
Still, what's success?
The publishing business can make otherwise successful people feel like the most miserable failures.
So I'm here to suggest that only you can define success. Maybe that is: I wrote today.
Maybe it's: I wrote a novel and completed it.
Maybe it's: I wrote a story and got it published. Or I wrote it and someone read it and said they liked it. Or maybe it's getting published. Foreign sales. A movie deal. Making a living as a writer.
Maybe it's: I wrote today and enjoyed it.
Maybe it's: I'm a happy person with a good marriage and great kids and everything else is merely window dressing or the cherry on top or ice cream with your cake.
I don't know. I do know that it's easy to start thinking you're a failure if your book doesn't get published, if it doesn't get a big advance, if you don't get a paperback sale, or a movie sale, or foreign sales, or a multi-book contract, or good reviews, or...
But those are all defined by someone else.
You have to decide what's successful for you.
Me? I started writing fiction regularly without getting all angst-y about it. I picked up a new client today.