Category Archives: Other People’s Books

To Thine Own Writing Be True

It’s been an interesting experience getting The Mushroom Shift ready for publication.

I mean, here is a novel I wrote almost 25 years ago, and as I’m reading it, and as I’m having my Kindle read it to me as part of the proofreading process, I’m discovering something about it that I hadn’t expected.

It’s a really good book.

Yeah, authors are supposed to say that sort of thing. But I don’t say that about many of my others – not A Death of Honor or The Company Man, or the three books of the Angel’s Luck trilogy. While I can chat them up to interested readers, I don’t think they’re particularly good, largely because I hadn’t yet hit that mystical One Million Words mark.1 Of my published novels, Ferman’s Devils/Boddekker’s Demons is the first one I can page through without cringing, largely because (I believe) by that point I’d actually Gotten Good.

Yet here is a novel that was my third (written after Desperate Measures and Honor2), before I had Gotten Good – but I can mostly read/listen to it without wincing. Plus there are moments in the book that make me marvel at how good it really is.

Granted, there’s one scene in The Mushroom Shift that I have long considered one of my best pieces of writing ever – but one scene does not a great book make. Mushroom I think is a great book, in spite of the fact that my writing style hadn’t completely evolved. Why?

Well, I’ve been thinking it over, and I believe I might have the answer.

The Mushroom Shift was written for love. It was written for the sheer joy if sitting down and telling a story. It was written because the story was coming out of me, and not for any sort of commercial consideration.

The others from that period were, well, written to try and make money.

Ditto the story about Ferman and Boddekker, which was something I wanted to write for a long time, and had a great time doing so when I finally did it.

Ditto again for Drawing Down the Moon, in which I defied my then-agent’s advice and sat down and wrote it because it was a story I wanted to tell. Well, DDtM is also a great book because I think I have officially Gotten Good now, but you see the pattern forming.

There’s something to be said for tossing commercial considerations out the window and writing for the love of the process.

Need more proof?

Open up your web browser, point it at Amazon dot com, and look up the Stephanie Plum series of novels by Janet Evanovich. Check out the reviews of the early series; One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly

People love ’em.

Now check out the reviews of books Fourteen, Fifteen, Sixteen, Seventeen. Evanovich’s readers are turning on her, accusing the writer of making her books dull, boring and repetitive – basically phoning it in for the score.3 One reviewer even accuses her of milking the series after allegedly reading an interview in which Evanovich advocated doing exactly that.

I’m guessing that the one thing on the minds of all of Evanovich’s disgruntled readers right now is, “Where is the love?”

Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing bad about writing for money. But there seems to be a strange phenomenon that occurs when you do that. You start keeping commercial considerations in mind, and perhaps you start getting a little shy about letting loose for fear of offputting your readers. And pretty soon you’re doing that thing of stamping the novels out using a cookie cutter formula.

I suppose it’s nice work if you can get it.

But so much more satisfying… and a much richer legacy you will leave… if you be truthful with yourself as a writer, if you push yourself out of the box, and simply write for the sheer joy of creating, of telling a story you want to tell rather than shooting for the lowest common denominator.

Who knows? Your fans might even like it, too.

  1. Or that new iteration of skill honing, the Ten Thousand Hour mark.
  2. That’s right – those early novels weren’t published in the order in which they were written.
  3. And actually, in the interest of full self-disclosure, I found her books dull, boring and repetitive after just two. Along with highly irritating. But she makes more money writing than I do, so you can’t argue with success.

How-To Books and You: A Concise Guide to Whether or Not You Should Read a Book on How to Write

Okay, it’s pushing past 4am. The Benadryl I took to settle my allergy has long since kicked in, but the email I decided to write to pass a few minutes turned into a monster, and so I’m going to recycle it here.

A friend writes:

I wanted to see if you thought that a prospective writer should read a book on writing a novel if he were going to take-on such a project?

And here’s my typically verbose answer:

It certainly wouldn’t hurt to read books about writing novels. Notice I said plural: books, not book. I’m fascinated by the creative process, so I enjoy reading them… to a point. But here are some problems that I see with the whole how-to book thing:

1) It inhibits the reader because a lot of times, the authors of these books are so in love with their own process, that they pass it off as THE WAY to write a novel. It ain’t. THE WAY to write a novel is what works for you. That’s why they call it the writing process.

Speaking from experience – I always got discouraged when I read a writing book when it said thou shalt outline before writing thine novel. Earlier on I had made the discovery that I never ended up writing any project I outlined first, be it short story or novel. That’s because, for me, part of the writing process is one of discovery, and if I start with an outline, that takes the fun out of it. When I start a novel, I usually have an opening scene, an ending scene, and an idea of what takes place in the middle. Then I outline as I go.1

So it’s okay to read “how-to-writes” by others, but keep in mind most of those methods are not being freshly carried by Moses off of the mountain top. That’s how it works… for one person. I remember starting Desperate Measures (the first novel I actually finished): I sat down and said, “I don’t care if I’m not a professional writer – I’m going to write a book without outlining.” The book just had to come out, see, and I was willing to throw conventional wisdom out the window to get it done.

The best book on writing a novel I’ve ever read is Lawrence Block’s Writing The Novel: From Plot to Print. It was a liberating read for me because he was the first to say “the way to write a novel is what works for you.” I wish I’d found the book earlier. It would have saved me a lot of psychic grief.

And you should know that I’m one of the heretics who doesn’t think much of Stephen King’s On Writing. There’s some good stuff in there, but it’s strictly Writing 101. In typical King fashion, the book is way too long2 and, I feel, overrated for what it says. Maybe the reason people rave about it is because they’ve never been told this stuff. Shame on their high school and college English and writing instructors. Or maybe they never listened to their teachers and ate this book up because it came from Stephen King. Shame on them, then.

2) Some people get addicted to the processes they read about and make such a big deal out of trying out new things that they never finish anything. There reaches a point where you’ve just got to apply pants to chair and beat the book out of yourself, discovering the process of how you write a book as you do.

3) I believe the creative process is an organic thing that evolves. If I had written a how-to-write book in, say, 1990, it would no longer be true to what I do today. And I think that’s the way it should be. Some people might write books in the same old way they always have, and that’s fine. But we should have the chance to evolve, too. And the way I work certainly has. And I kind of hope it never stops. I don’t know of any writing books that reflect this.

As of now, anyway. I’m too busy trying to write to read anymore how-tos.

4) There should come a point in every writer’s career when they walk away from how-tos and start putting words on a page. It doesn’t matter how the words get there. The writer has to find the process for him/er self.

I believe (or should I say, I agree with Lawrence Block) that every novel is a first novel since you haven’t written it yet.3 But those early novels can be tougher, I think, because you’re in the process of learning how you work. Once you do, the sitting down part gets easier.

When I become world dictator, one of the laws I will pass is a disclaimer that every how-to author must put on his/er method book:

Caution: The principles in this book are those that work for its respective author. Your results may vary.”

  1. On a panel once with the great Lois McMaster Bujold, she looked horrified when I said that. That’s because working that way would absolutely not work for her. Viva la difference!
  2. Yeah, I know, it’s probably his slimmest tome ever – but it’s still full of unnecessary stuff.
  3. Janet Evanovich and John Irving being the exceptions to this.

Disenfranchised

Coming off of a trilogy about Ghostwriting, it’s only appropriate that I address the issue of franchises. After all writing for a franchise is a lot like ghosting – there’s more money involved than the average writer bags for his/er own work, and while your name is on the cover, it’s somebody else’s sandbox you’re playing in and you have to follow their rules.

And as it happens, I’ve had a couple of chances to do franchise work.

The first time was after Desperate Measures was published. My agent at the time was Kurt Busiek, who was on hiatus from the Comic Book industry. As my agent, Kurt worked at an agency that also happened to represent the estate of James H. Schmitz, author of the cult favorite The Witches of Karres.

Kurt saw a resemblance between the witty, rollicking space opera I had written and Schmitz’s witty, rollicking space opera. He said that the agency was always looking for ways to further monetize their clients’ properties1. They’d been talking at the agency about what they could do to get The Witches of Karress back into print, and one of their ideas was to have somebody write a sequel to it. Thing was, they hadn’t found the right person yet, but in yours truly Kurt was confident he’d found a match.

When he called me with his proposal, I had two thoughts. First, wow, I can’t wait to tell my wife. She was a huge fan of Karres, and was the one responsible for my reading it. Second was, how do I explain this to Jerry Oltion? I’d met Jerry a year or two earlier at a science fiction convention. His first novel was a rollicking space opera of sorts, and in our writer’s bull sessions he mentioned that he was working on a proposal for a sequel to… guess what? I didn’t want him thinking that I had stolen his idea, although in retrospect, it was apparent that a lot of people were thinking about sequelizing the book.

I decided not to do anything about Jerry. He was going to the agency with his idea, and the agency was coming to me for my idea, so I figured I could avoid any potential conflict. And who knows? Maybe Jerry’s proposal was what made the agency think about doing a sequel. I don’t know.

So over the next couple of weeks I reread the book and then slowly put together my proposal for the novel. Because I wanted to make sure it advanced the Karres universe while staying true to the original book, I kept running it past my wife and bouncing ideas off of her. Once I had something that met with her approval, I sent it to Kurt and company. Then the verdict came back. They loved it. They thought it advanced the Karres universe while staying true to the original book.2 It was all looking like blue skies and green lights as they sent it off to the publisher.

And the publisher said “No.” Their reasoning? It was too much of a cult novel to justify republishing it, let alone a sequel. I moved on to other things.

A decade or so later, this cult novel was picked up by Baen, and in 2004 they issued a sequel, The Wizard of Karres, by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint, and Dave Freer.3 Then in January of this year, Flint and Freer’s name appeared on The Sorceress of Karres. What is curious is that the original and the first sequel are seemingly out of print. New hardcovers of the Schmitz book are going between $50 and $80, while paperbacks run about $30. Of more interest to me is the fact that the first sequel is going for $60 for a new hardcover. Hmmm, I guess somebody wants to read them.

My second brush with a franchise was much briefer. Kurt had returned to comicdom and I had another agent, who called me up out of the blue one day, again not with news of an update on one of my own manuscripts. Instead, he asked me if I’d be interested in writing a Star Wars novel.

Because I once promised my wife that I would listen to any offer with an open mind instead of laughing and hanging up the phone, I asked my agent, “Why me?”

Here’s how he explained it. The Star Wars franchise had started with Del Rey books many moons ago. Over the years, it left Del Rey for, I think, Bantam. Even more years passed, and, as is the manner of all things, Star Wars returned to Del Rey, under the editorship of Shelly Shapiro. Shelly, it turns out, was the editor of my five Del Rey novels, so my agent knew that she knew that I was capable of turning a good phrase and getting a clean manuscript in on deadline.

Impressive. My agent had done his homework.

I asked, “Would my name have to be on the cover?” Meaning, I might do it for money, but let me salvage my personal pride, since I loathe Star Wars.

He said, “Well, I think the whole idea is to have a name author on the cover.” Nice gambit there, appealing to my writer’s ego.

But I ultimately said no, and for the most part was glad. I found out later that the Star Wars franchise paid the author a Big Advance up front for writing the book, and then paid no royalties after that. That’s not something I would have liked.

Do I have any regrets about saying no?

Only one. A year or two later, there was a lot of hoo-hah in the press that Vector Prime, the new Del Rey Star Wars novel by R.A. Salvatore was about to be released, and Chewbacca was killed off in the book. Yeah. you’re thinking what I thought when I heard that. If I had known that I would’ve had the chance to kill off Chewbacca, I would have been all over it, lack of royalties notwithstanding.

Oh, well. Maybe someday the wheel will turn full circle and I will be offered the chance to kill off Captain Pausert of Nikkeldepain in something called The Last Sequel of Karres.

But I really doubt it.

  1. Okay, but not in those words. Monetize seems to be more a modern term, used a lot with the way people make money off of their blogs. Me excepted.
  2. Or words to that effect.
  3. Hmmm, let me figure out who wrote the outline, who tweaked it, and who did the actual writing on that one.

Ghostwriters in Disguise, Part I

So in a stray moment today, Tom Clancy came to mind. It has been years since his last novel, and in the light of Jean Auel emerging with the lastest in her Earth’s Children series, I wondered if Clancy might be up to something.

Turns out, he is. A couple minutes of Googling came up with a title, Dead or Alive, coming to us on (oh, the irony) December 7th of this year.

Next stop was the Amazon page for the book. And in casually scrolling down the page, my eye caught this interesting line, just below Clancy’s author bio:

Grant Blackwood is the author of the Briggs Tanner books and the co-author along with Clive Cussler of Spartan Gold. Blackwood is a U.S. Navy veteran who lives in Colorado.

Grant Blackwood? Who is Grant Blackwood?

I scrolled to the top of the page to look at the cover of the book again. Then I clicked into the bigger version. And sure enough, there below the title, in a microscopic grey font, all but invisible against the white billboard of Clancy’s name were the words

with GRANT BLACKWOOD

More Googling led me to this Wikipedia page. From there it was a short hop to this interesting article on NPR, all about the lives of ghostwriters.

So what’s the deal? Why is Clancy using a ghostwriter? This may actually posit the question Has Tom Clancy ever NOT used a ghostwriter?. After all, his friend and fellow wargamer (yeah, apparently at one time Clancy was a wargame geek like me) Larry Bond collaborated with him on Red Storm Rising, and he seems to have some connection to The Hunt For Red October.

Then there are those franchise novels (i.e., Clancy does the outline, ghost does the rest): Op-Center, NetForce, EndWar – but what’s this? Both the EndWar and H.A.W.K. franchises were written by David Michaels, which is a pen name for… Grant Blackwood. The last time I peeled away something with this many layers, I had tears in my eyes.

At this point, the question is no longer Has Tom Clancy ever NOT used a ghostwriter?, but rather Why aren’t more authors using ghostwriters – or for that matter, how many are?

First we have Clancy here, obvious busy with his part-ownership of the Baltimore Orioles. He had an early history of having a writing partner, and as the military-techo thriller (a genre he pretty much invented) exploded, there was a need for product on the shelves, and it might as well have his name on them. So the franchises were born. And hey, if it turned out that that Grant guy was a great person to work with, and well, the last novel came out in 2003… why not get a little help?

In recent years this has been happening more and more, especially with late-career authors: Arthur C. Clarke, Anne McCafferey, and Clive Cussler all brought in ghosts to do the workhorse writing, and even gave them credit on the cover (although, like the Clancy, that credit size was diminuative in appearance). Dick Francis has recruited his son to help write his mysteries, although since they’re blood that may be considered “co-author” status (but to me that’s only when both author names are the same size on the cover). William Shatner even put his ego aside and gave credit to some of his literary “helpers.”

In some areas, ghosting has gone a little out of control. Robert Ludlum must have left lots of outlines laying around when he died, because he continues to publish – only these novels appear as “Robert Ludlum’s The (proper name as adjective) (noun)“.

While ghostwriting has probably been around since quills were dipped in dye, the recenty ghosty madness may have started with gothic horrorist V.C. Andrews, who published eight titles before joining the choir invisible in 1986. Death seemed to be a great career move for Ms. Andrews, because in the years since her death, 71 more novels have come out under her name, not counting omnibus editions and e-book only releases. All these were done by the skilled hands of ghost Andrew Neiderman (whose Wikipedia Page claims he’s penned 91 novels, so my count (and way of counting) may have been off.

But why would a writer put themselves through something like that – taking someone else’s outline and doing the work of turning it into a novel, probably without the prospect of getting mentioned on the cover while setting aside your own work at the same time?

Well, if you read the NPR article above, you’ll get a good idea. But if you don’t want to do that, stay tuned. In our next exciting episode, you’ll get the inside story from someone who ghosted 1 1/2 novels… namely me.

UPDATE 5/10/2011: It looks like after 7 years of inactivity, Tom Clancy is turning back into a lean, mean book writing machine. Or at least his ghostwriter is. I just saw news of Clancy’s new novel, Against All Enemies, scheduled for release on June 14th of this year. And featured in a thin, microscopic font on the cover is an almost familiar legend: With Peter Telep.

UPDATE 10/28/2011: Okay, now it’s getting crazy. Amazon announces preorders for another new Clancy book this year, Locked On, this one written with a gent named Mark Greaney. With a release date of December 13th of this year, it means that Clancy will have released three new novels in 12 months, each by a different ghostwriter. He is either trying to save the economy by putting writers to work or else his alimony payments have gone up.

UPDATE 4/20/2012: Okay, the pattern is set. Clancy is now releasing a new novel every six months. The forthcoming Search and Destroy will be his fourth new novel in two years. They’re dropping every June and December. Peter Telep returns to do the co-writing, ghostwriting, or whatever you want to call it writing honors on this one. Those alimony payments must be incredible.

Harry Potter to Enter 21st Century?

I don’t know how long she’s been saying “No”, but J.K. Rowling has gotten a reputation for being something of a luddite when it comes to her novels about a certain boy with a scar on his forehead. Words like “never” were batted about when it came to asking when her Harry Potter series would be released in an eBook format. I’m not sure of her reasoning, unless it was that “the book as a tactile experience you can’t get on an eReader” thing.

Well, that was her decision.

But now, according to this article on thebookseller.com, all of that may be changing.

I’m not sure of the reason for this. The cynic in me tends to think that perhaps the publishers pointed out how much money Ms. Rowling was missing out on (read: how much money they were missing out on – since Rowling is poised to or has already become the first billionaire author, I’m sure money has lost some of its lure).

But another part of me thinks that she looked at the fact that, in light of the Harry Potter theme park to be opening in Florida next month, holding out on eBooks suddenly looked rather silly.

Anyway, if this is true, congrats to J.K. on her change of heart.

Breaking the Rules

Okay, I’ve been writing about Writer’s Rules on and off since firing up this blog in 2002. What about when the time comes to break the rules?

Depends on what rules you break. For example, I’m planning a novel in which nobody gets killed. For me that’s a definite leap forward. I’ve got one friend who always razzes me about the body count in my books – but I never try to make it gratuitous. However, the novel will still have a bar scene and a love triangle, both of which can also be found in most of my works.

But I don’t know if that’s so much breaking the rules as a personal pattern. Sort of like if Spielberg made a movie without some sort of running undercurrent of conflict with a father figure.1

I’m talking about breaking the rules of fiction as we know them – showing instead of telling. Breaking the momentum for lectures about one thing or another that the author finds relevant within his or her own little corner of the universe – you know, the kind of thing that Heinlein used to do all of the time. Well, by that time, Heinlein was Heinlein and could get away with that sort of thing.

What about a new author who does that sort of thing. Career death, right? Or at least a hard mash on the pause button while his/er writing style cleans itself up?

Yeah, pretty much. But occasionally you get a first-time author who breaks the rules but manages to pick up four dice and roll boxcars all the way across. Kind of like what happened with a book I just finished reading, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson.

So what did Larsson do that broke the rules?

First of all, he did a lot of telling instead of showing. That’s rule number one in fiction, you show something happening instead of telling. However, I think Larsson had his reasons for telling. There was an enormous amount of information that had to be conveyed in order for the rest of the story to function, and most of it was in the opening chapters. So much so that it made me wonder if he had been in touch with an editor at Baen books.2 It was so prevalent that, as I read the sample of the book on my Kindle, I seriously thought about not picking the book up. Still, there was something about the characters that had me curious – and I figured that at $5.50 for the Kindle edition, I could afford to not finish it if I really hated it.

I think part of this was because of Larsson’s background as a journalist. Telling was his natural storytelling medium, because showing was what his sources, the ones who appeared in the footnotes did. Eventually the telling faded out and the showing began, although it popped up again from time to time in annoying fashion. But by then the characters had their hooks in me.

Second, Larsson also had a few moments where he lapsed totally into journalismese and lectured us on certain aspects of Swedish society. Yeah, it fit what was going on, but it broke the flow of the story. At least when Heinlein lectured, he had one of his characters do it, in character, for the benefit of another character. It’s still annoying, but at least it was shoehorned into the flow of the story.

Note here that some of these complaints could also be attributed to the fact that the novel was written in Swedish, then translated into British English. I have no problem with British English, having lived for a time in Canada and watching a lot of British stuff on PBS and BBC America. So I knew what the word g-a-o-l spelled and some of the other British idioms that no doubt sat in for Swedish idioms. I was actually kind of surprised that there wasn’t an American English version – although maybe this was the case for the domestic hardcover and paperback. I don’t know.

Then there was research. As a journalist, I’m sure Larsson did his homework, but he overlooked one thing that was the most jarring mistake for me – he had a character threaten another with a Glock pistol. Then the character set the safety on the Glock before putting it down. There is no active safety switch on a Glock, unlike probably every other pistol made. And yet I see safeties being set on Glock pistols all over the place in thrillers.

People, go to the local gun shop and ask the friendly helping salesperson about the difference.3

Finally, there was the fact that he was running two mysteries at once, and for me the most interesting one resolved first, leaving a quarter of the book devoted to tying up the other one, which was much more obvious than the first. That and the remaining mystery proved to be a cakewalk, which I think hurt the book’s pacing in the closing section. I’m not sure how I would have handled something like that. I may have to write a book with two parallel mysteries in it just to see how I would.

So what did Larsson do that kept me reading until the end?

There were lots of little things. I liked the way Larsson took the concept of a locked room mystery and twisted it up. There were interesting references to literary characters, and I like the way he paralleled what was happening to two characters in two different places – the same thing happening to each, but with two totally different attitudes and results.

Most of all, the characters were fascinating. Larsson managed to build up a world populated by tragic and broken people, all with their own fascinating strengths and appalling weaknesses. The most fascinating was watching these characters collide and ricochet off of one another and the chain reactions they created. Great stuff.

And how did Larsson get away with this?

I suspect he knew the rules. There are references to mystery authors throughout the book as one of the characters reads thrillers to pass the time. If Larsson knew titles and authors, he no doubt knew the books, too. Which means he knew the genre. Which is the day’s lesson.

If you want to break the rules, you still have to know them. But you also have to have writing power behind you to offset those broken rules. Which means you still have to hone your chops and skills.

Finally, I suspect that as a journalist, Larsson had already written his first million words before he started work on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

How far along in your first million are you?

  1. Although he may have by now – I just don’t follow him that closely.
  2. Baen was the house that wanted me to rewrite A Death of Honor so the entire world was explained in Chapter One. I had a polite conversation via letter with the editor about why I thought this was a bad idea, and in the end we agreed to disagree – and I would later place the book with Del Rey.
  3. Okay, maybe Larsson didn’t have this option open to him because I don’t know what the gun laws are in Sweden. But there is such a thing as the Internet, which is put to good use in Larsson’s novel.

Michael Crichton, 1942 – 2008

In 1969, this kid who wanted to be a writer walked into his local library and was browsing in the adult section when he happened upon a book on the New shelf. The cover intrigued him. He picked it up, read the inside flap, read the opening sentence – and was hooked. He checked the novel out, took it home, plopped down, and read it.

Well, not only did he like the book. It also changed the way he looked at writing. He loved the way the writer added to the atmosphere of the book by including an appendix and a list of references to an assortment of documents and scientific papers. And the story, about science gone wrong and a handful of people in a desperate struggle to find a solution, he found riveting.

And when he finished it, he closed the book and said, “Wow. THAT is the kind of book that I want to write!” Then he picked it back up and started to read it again.

By now you’ve no doubt guessed that the kid was me, the library was in Gillette, Wyoming, and the book was Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain – and that intriguing 1969 cover is what you see over there on the right.

Those two reads wouldn’t be the last time I read the book. I eventually bought a copy when it came out in paperback and continued to revisit it as the years went by. It was a book that influenced me as a writer more than any other novel I read, and it’s an influence that stayed with me.1 It was so influential to me that when my first novel was published, I described A Death of Honor as “Casablanca meets The Andromeda Strain.” And I always hoped that someday I might cross paths with Dr. C so I could shake his hand and thank him for what he did for me.

Unfortunately, I never got the chance. My career as a novelist ran aground, and now Michael Crichton has passed away at age 66, after a private battle with cancer. He will no doubt be eulogized by better sources than me, so I’m not going to try. I just wanted to put these words out there in belated thanks to someone whose work appeared to a boy with a narrow view of a genre and then expanded it in a way he hadn’t imagined – and was the standard he was chasing with every word he wrote.

  1. 1. Kurt Vonnegut was also an influence for a time – I loved the way all of his novels seemed to be interconnected as part of some grand mega-story. I ended up outgrowing him early in college (I hit my Vonnegut period early, during high school). A good thing, because it wasn’t long after that that he devolved into sad self-parody, allowing his writing schticks to take the place of his imagination.