Friday, February 22, 2019

Take a Negative and Turn it into a Positive

What book did you not enjoy, but motivated you in your own writing?

by Paul D. Marks

I can’t think of a book that I didn’t enjoy that motivated me in my own writing. There’s been plenty of books that I haven’t enjoyed over the years and until recently I would plow my way through them to the bitter end. But I’m getting better about not doing that. I recently started a book by a Big-Name Author. Got a few chapters in and put it down. Slow. Way too much backstory. Etc. But did it motivate me? No. If anything it pisses me off that my books don’t get the Big-Name Author Treatment. But that’s another issue.

What has motivated me, more in the past than now, but still somewhat, is rejection. When I was starting out I was never happy when I got a rejection. (Yeah, let’s celebrate that rejection with a pizza and a beer!) But it lit a fire in my gut and made me want to do better – to show “them”! Because of that, I would work and re-work stories. I would read books on writing. Take classes. Figure out what to do and not to do – but maybe still break some rules along the way.

These days rejection doesn’t motivate me as much, though it still does make me want to do better. But what does motivate me is competing with myself to make each story (hopefully) better than the last. Each time I set out on the writing road I learn new things, new ways of doing things, and try to put them to use to make an arc in which my stories continue to improve.

For example, in my novel White Heat , P.I. Duke Rogers finds an old “friend” for a client. The client’s “friend,” an up and coming African-American actress, ends up dead – murdered. Duke knows his client did it. Feeling guilty and wanting to atone for his inadvertent part in her death, he is compelled to find the client/killer. He starts his mission by going to the dead actress’ family in South Central L.A. – and while there finds himself in the middle of the exploding “Rodney King” riots. But there’s also a B story threaded throughout White Heat that deals with a woman being stalked. I intended it to show that Duke had other things going on besides the main case he was working. And it was loosely tied into the main story near the end of the book when, because of learning about stalkers on that case, Duke applies what he learned to help catch the badguy in the main case.

Broken Windows, the sequel to White Heat, takes place a couple years later when the infamous, anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187 was on the ballot in California. Duke is investigating the murder of an undocumented worker pro-bono for the maid who works for his neighbors and gets embroiled in a political web of intrigue, weaving in and out of the immigration issue. Broken Windows also has a B story – hopefully New and Improved over White Heat’s. This one about a disbarred and broke lawyer who places an ad in the paper saying he’ll do anything for money. And this story winds in and out of the main story until they come together at the end. I think the two stories in Broken Windows integrate better than in White Heat. So I learned something from the first one and was motivated to do better the next time out. And, at the moment I’m working on the third book in the series and you can believe that I’ll put what I’ve learned on the first two to work there.

I’m mostly open to criticism – even rejection – if it’s constructive criticism and makes sense to me. But sometimes I find it captious and ridiculous and that gets my back up. I had a screenplay that I was trying to get an agent for. I got a meeting with an agent at one of the Big Three agencies at that time. He read the script and had problems with it. For example, a character takes the train from Union Station in downtown L.A. Well, that was a turnoff to him “because no one takes trains anymore.” The whole point of the train was to contrast the old with the new, which was a theme of the story. He had other issues with it that were just as picky. That kind of stuff does make me crazy. But I went out and tried harder. And I did eventually get an agent at that agency, though not him, and that’s another crazy story in itself.

Rejection’s still not pleasant, but it’s something we all (or most of us) still deal with on occasion. The best I can do is take a negative and turn it into a positive.

So, no, can’t think of a book I didn’t enjoy that motivated me. But rejections, which I also didn’t and don’t enjoy, do. What about you?

And now for the usual BSP:

The third story in my Ghosts of Bunker Hill series, Fade Out on Bunker Hill, appears in the March/April 2019 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. If you like the movie Sunset Boulevard, I think you'll enjoy this story. In bookstores and on newstands now:

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Dietrich Kalteis said...

I agree, Paul. I can't think of a book I didn't like that motivated me either. And I like what you said about turning negatives around.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Paul,

I've read several bestsellers lately that I didn't care for either. But I wanted to analyze how they got agents and big five publishers. Two of them use the unreliable narrator. This seems to be currently very popular. The first person narrator is seriously flawed and we only see things from that single viewpoint. Therefore, surprising, unexpected twists occur. This can be effective but not always. The writer isn't playing fair with the reader.

Susan C Shea said...

Most of us this week have had the same core response - books we don't enjoy aren't motivators. But they may contain lessons, right, as in do not spend pages and pages telling me what people ate for dinner and which fork they used unless the details are the clues to a murder. I agree about the rejections. My first agent was smart enough to send me the email rejections for my first book, along with cheer up notes. Reading why an editor chose not to bite was helpful in understanding the choices editors make at different houses.

GBPool said...

Books can motivate me in certain ways. Often I read a book and say, "Good grief. I write better than that." Or "How in hell did that stuff get published?" But there are also the ones that entertain and please me and I think "Hey! That was really good. I'll read more of his stuff." Over the last few years I have read few newly published books but lots of books by writers from nearly a hundred years ago like E. Phillips Oppenheim, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Anna Katharine Green. They write mysteries and spy novels. I have to say they inspire me because their works are still very readable. I want my stories to span a hundred years, not just the moment. So I guess I have learned from what others write and try to learn from mistakes and hold onto what works.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Dieter. I think we can learn from books we didn’t like, but at least for me I can’t get motivated or inspired by them.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Jacqueline. Yeah, I guess all we need to do these days is have an unreliable narrator. Seems the Big Five go with the current trend. The problem is by the time we would write something like that the current trend is passe.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Susan. Yeah, it’s hard for a bad book to motivate, but there are definitely lessons to be learned. And I think if the editors in your rejection notes gave good backup as to why they rejected it that’s terrific. But sometimes I think their responses are just BS to cover their saying no.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Gayle. And I think we can definitely learn from others’ mistakes, even as we grind our teeth and wonder how they got published. But learning from and being inspired by or motivated by are, to me, different things. And I also like reading older books, particularly hardboiled from the mid-ish 20th century, like Chandler, Macdonald (Ross) and Jim Thompson, David Goodis, etc.

Kaye George said...

When I first turned to mystery writing I WAS motivated negatively by books.Lots of them. I read quite a few mysteries that were boring, insipid. I knew I could do at least that well. I still think I was right. But I can't remember a single one of those any more.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Kate. I guess in that sense, thinking "I can do better" is motivating on a macro level. I remember some bad books I've read, but like you many just sort of fade from memory, which is probably a good thing.

Kaye George said...

Geez, that comment sounds snotty, doesn't it? I didn't mean it quite like that, but...sort of.

Paul D. Marks said...

I think we all think like that, Kate :-) .

Cheri Vause said...

I think I agree with everyone on many different levels, and yet feel there might be a bit of truth in learning something from a bad book. I think we change through the years, and we become better writers, more thoughtful, and less in a hurry.

It is also disconcerting the number of unreliable narrators that are so popular these days, although I've written a few short stories with an unreliable narrator, just not an entire book. I don't think I could keep up the subterfuge of loving my unreliable narrator for more than 20 pages.

I'm always inspired by great books, by those that teach me something. I just finished a book by Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep). He taught me so many things I can't begin to enumerate them. And I reread Christie's, And Then There Were None. I'd forgotten how good it was. A great book you can reread and enjoy even more the second and third and ...

I've read so many bad books throughout my life that the older I get the more I feel my time is too valuable to waste it. Still, I've read a few bestsellers I've absolutely hated, but I can see the reason why they sold, like The Da Vinci Code. So I guess I do learn something from books that were poorly written, but sold like hotcakes. The bad ones that didn't sell, not at all. I guess the answer is: It depends on the book.

Love your column and I just picked up three names of authors I want to read from GB Pool.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Cheri. And I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

And I agree with you, there might be something to be learned from a bad book. I think there’s probably something to be learned from almost anything. But re: good books, I’m with you re: Chandler. I’ve learned a lot from him and he’s my favorite crime writer. As for unreliable narrators, I haven’t tried one yet that I recall. But I’ve read several books with them and on the one hand I like them on the other it seems like a cheat to do that to the reader.

The Da Vinci Code is a book I talk about a lot. I think it’s poorly written, but a great story that carries you along. So I can see why people like it.

I see we’re in Day of the Dark together: cool. Thanks again for your comments.