Mark Terry

Monday, March 08, 2010

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What type of book are you writing?

March 8, 2010
Yesterday on Facebook I wrote:

I started working on the 5th Derek Stillwater novel and felt recently that its pace was too slow. Then I was inspired by Dr. Seuss: "Then he got an idea. An awful idea. The Grinch got a wonderful, *awful* idea!" Oh yes, I did. The writer, he said, to his furry young pup. "When in doubt, my fine friend, blow something up."

That got some fairly interesting comments, most of them funny. The fact is, of course, that I WAS working on the 5th DS novel and I am 40 pages or so in and I felt like, despite a terrific prologue, a great premise, and some very interesting things going on, I had gone from those things to Derek and his State Department contact in Moscow, Erica Kirov, sitting around talking. And I would also have to add, from my point of view, getting along too well. Which usually means it's time for Derek to start rubbing people the wrong way, and in a hurry.

Nonetheless, I felt like I was writing a mystery novel set in Russia. Nothing wrong with that, except that this is a Derek Stillwater novel. Derek Stillwater does, in fact, solve mysteries, but the other very important elements are that he's solving those mysteries on a dead run, he's solving them with some sort of deadline (ticking clock) hanging over his head, and the stakes are really, really high.

I hadn't gotten Derek moving on his dead run yet, there was no real deadline, and I hadn't quite let anyone know what the stakes were yet, partially because I hadn't completed decided. Some very odd things were going on, but nothing had quite gelled.

So I was doing some research on domestic terrorism in Russia and on Russia's history of biological and chemical warfare research, and all sorts of elements suddenly came together and I not only know what I needed to do--blow something up--but what Derek was going to be doing afterwards.

This is a wonderful, wonderful feeling for a writer.

But the point of his little essay is that you as a writer need to know what type of book you're writing. If I wanted to, I could have Derek basically investigating the death of a US weapons inspector in Russia, since that's a component of the book. Or he could be looking into the death/disappearance of a friend, which is also a component of the book. And they would, I think, both be good stories.

But the fact is, I'm writing a Derek Stillwater novel, and by this time, I ought to have some notion of what a Derek Stillwater novel actually is--see my description earlier. As much as possible, I need to have those elements in a Derek Stillwater novel--action, ticking clocks, high stakes. As I commented later on Facebook, when you're writing novels about an expert on terrorism, sooner or later something's going to have to go boom.

That's not to place any judgement call on the value of the type of book I'm writing, to suggest that if the book were a deep, layered study on the differences between American and Russian terrorism and culture, or a slower, in-depth character study, that those are bad things, inferior or superior to what I'm doing. In fact, there are perhaps components of both of those I want to layer into this book. But if that's all I did, then I wouldn't be writing a Derek Stillwater novel and my agent, editors and readers might very well be disappointed that I hadn't delivered what they had come to expect. Another word for that is "branding" and at this stage of the game a Derek Stillwater novel is also a Mark Terry novel, and I'm still in the process of developing that "brand," such as it is.

Can you develop a brand as "every book is different?" Sure. Some writers do that quite well. I just read The Ghost by Robert Harris and I've read a couple of his other books and apparently he also writes big sprawling novels taking place in ancient Rome, and it's fairly safe to say that a first-person political thriller about a ghost writer hired to write the memoirs of a former UK Prime Minister is fairly different from his Roman novels and his alternate history novel, Fatherland. That's his brand.

But most writer's brand is more consistent. Robert B. Parker's was private eyes and short chapters and crystalline dialogue; Harlan Coben's is normal people trapped in bizarre situations, personal secrets, and twists and turns. Each book's different, but it's not.

So, what type of book are you writing?

Friday, March 05, 2010

One Of The Best Things About Being A Published Novelist

March 5, 2010
A while back my friend Stephen Parrish asked me if I would take a look at the opening of his novel and see what I thought. I did. Overall it was good, but there were some things that I thought would make it better. Apparently Stephen agreed and he made the changes. Then he tried the manuscript at my former publisher and who'd have thunk it, but the novel got accepted for publication, Stephen's first, and I hope the first of many, many wildly successful novels.

This first novel, The Tavernier Stones, will be out in May 2010. Have you pre-ordered your copy yet?

Now, the title of this post is "One Of The Best Things About Being A Published Novelist." And I can honestly, honestly tell you, it's watching a friend get a little piece of their dreams come true. Even if I hadn't had a pinkie or toe in the waters to help, I would have been quite pleased for Stephen. Know why? It's not because I'm such a wonderful altruistic guy.

No, it's because I know how damned hard it is to get there. And Stephen's probably going to find out how damned hard it is to stay there, but like me and a lot of other writers, I suspect, as they say at NASA, "failure is not an option." Publishing doesn't need to be a zero-sum game. Someone else's success doesn't lead to my failure. In fact, as the expression goes, rising tides lift all boats. I WANT Stephen's book to become an astonishingly successful bestseller that outsells The Da Vinci Code, not just because I'm being generous (I'd like a piece of that success myself), but because I want the publishing industry to be enormously successful and healthy. That's good for me and all writers.

We're writers, so we write, come obstacles and failures and disappointments.

So, for all you readers, here's my wish: May it happen to you, too.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Big Mo

March 4, 2010
It's about a month before the publication of THE FALLEN, the third Derek Stillwater novel. I'm having a launch party on March 20th (man, is that only 2 weeks away?!!!) at Aunt Agatha's in Ann Arbor (if you're in the area at 1:30 PM, stop by, there'll be cake!).

My publisher's publicist has been busy arranging book signings, with a total of 3 scheduled so far, but many more to come. A local bookstore isn't doing anything formal, but they want me to contact them before I swing by to sign stock so they can let people in the store know.

I'm arranging a blog tour.

The reviews are starting to come in, and except for a slightly snarky Publishers Weekly review, they've all been raves so far.

I know ITW Report (or The Big Thrill) will be running a piece on me for the April issue. Jeff Ayers is running a podcast interview and online piece in Author Magazine.

Yesterday, John Scalzi, whose Whatever blog gets 40,000 unique hits a day, topped his mailbag feature with a mention and cover art of THE FALLEN. (Really, that made my day).

As an author, sometimes you get a sense of momentum. Sometimes you don't. Quite honestly, my publisher, Oceanview, it seems to me, is working their ass off to make this book a success and I hope I and the book hold up our end. I suspect most writers who've been publishing novels for a while, have had a real mix of experiences with publishers.

Although I thought my last publisher was quite supportive for The Devil's Pitchfork, they seemed to lose interest before The Serpent's Kiss came out. Not much support, few if any advanced reading copies sent out to reviewers, no advertising, only a mention in their catalogue.

I have a friend who, years back, got great early reviews, lots of pre-orders, and her publisher got all excited and responded by shifting the publishing date around, screwing up the pre-orders and putting a paperback deal in jeopardy, essentially killing the book's momentum.

Weird shit just happens. There has been a tendency for publishers to really push certain books and treat the rest like pasta--they fling it at the wall to see if it's ready, but otherwise don't bother to promote them. Stephen King, in an essay he wrote about his early Bachman books, described them as being like cannon fodder. There have been some big publishing ventures lately where they publishers have decided to limit the number of books they publish and spend much more time trying to turn each book's publication into an event, backing them with promotion efforts and generally trying to shepherd them into the marketplace.

At the moment, THE FALLEN is getting that kind of treatment, and the whole experience just feels different. And it feels good.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Great Quote

March 2, 2010
I'm reading THE GHOST by Robert Harris, the book the recent film The Ghostwriter is based on. (Great book so far, by the way).

"A book unwritten is a delightful universe of infinite possibilities. Set down one word, however, and immediately it becomes earthbound. Set down one sentence and it's halfway to being just like every other bloody book that's ever been written. But the best must never be allowed to drive out the good. In the absence of genius there is always craftsmanship. One can at least try to write something that will arrest the readers' attention, that will encourage them, after reading the first paragraph, to take a look at the second, and then the third."