Rock What You’ve Got

My good friend and fellow thriller author Mark Terry is conducting a virtual book tour to launch his latest page-turner, THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS. Mark and I become friends 5 years ago when we shared a publisher. Over the years we’ve supported each other with advice and the exchange of ideas. We’ve also served as each other’s sounding boards and beta readers. Mark is a frequent visitor and friend of TKZ. Welcome, Mark.

By Mark Terry

Do you wish you could write like Lee Child? Or Stephen King? Or Nora Robert?

Mark Terry 3Not: Do you wish you had a writing career like them? Ha! Sure, we all do, I suppose, at least at some level.

But, do you wish you could write like them?

For a second, take your favorite writers and think about what makes them, well, them.

My favorite writers, if that’s possible to break down, are probably the late Robert B. Parker, John Sandford, Dick Francis, hmmm, probably Jonathan Kellerman. I could go on (and on, and on…), but let’s stop there for a moment.

I just listed, more or less off the top of my head, four very successful novelists (two dead) who have a lot in common and a lot different. Parker and Dick Francis, for the most part, wrote in the first person. Parker was all about sparkling dialogue, stripped down description and efficiency (in my opinion). Dick Francis, uh, horse racing, but aside from that, I think of the decency of his characters, his research, a kind of efficiency of prose. Sandford? Pace, man! A stripped-down prose that’s like a lightning rod to his characters’ hearts, and for me, I love the way he structures his third-person narratives. Kellerman? I think characterization, texture and description.

I ain’t any of them.

That isn’t to say that my own books might overlap somehow – I hope they do. Perhaps analyzing my own strengths is a fool’s game, but I would say pace for certain, efficient prose, dialogue, writing action.

It probably would not be a good idea if I decided to try and write like Jonathan Kellerman. My strengths are not his strengths. That isn’t to say that I don’t try to give the reader a sense of place, or that I don’t focus on characterization. I do. Hopefully all writers do. But the sort of stories I write and want to write – and have had some success with – focus on pace and action.

Where am I going with this?

Years ago, when I was sending novel after novel manuscript to a former agent, I sent him a manuscript for a novel about a consulting forensic toxicologist. He called me up almost immediately upon reading it, gushing, saying he loved it, it was original, it took the things that I was good at and used them. Then he went through some of my previous manuscripts and said something along the lines of, “With this manuscript you were doing Carl Hiaasen, and with this one you were doing Robert B. Parker, and with this one you were doing…”

Valley of the Shadows 8-23-10 1 Cover 3rd passThe point being, that perhaps for the first time I was being just Mark Terry. (Which all makes for an interesting story, except he couldn’t sell it).

But I think there’s something vital to writers in this. It’s a little bit of: What do you bring to the table? What is uniquely you? JUST YOU. Then exploit it. Rock what you got.

How about you? As a writer, what makes your books unique? Are you content with your own voice and style? Or would you like to write like someone else?

Mark Terry is the author of 13 books. The fourth Derek Stillwater thriller, THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS, will be released in hardcover and as an e-book on June 7, 2011. His previous Stillwater novels – as well as other standalones – are available as e-books and other formats. Visit his website at


18 thoughts on “Rock What You’ve Got

  1. Hmm..don’t think I honestly know what makes my books unique. Something I need to think about.

    I WISH I wrote like Zane Grey. He was a master of setting. But unfortunately, I have not learned that keen use of setting yet. And of course 70 some years later, everyone has the attention span of a gnat, so setting and description aren’t used the same anyway. But I have been told once or twice that something I wrote reminded of him.

  2. Now that’s what I call an author photo.

    Mark, good thoughts. I advocate studying authors you admire, even copying out some of their pages word for word, not to reproduce them, but to stretch your own muscles and get different sounds in your head.

    Then YOU have to bring something to the page. I recently put up a video clip on this subject.

    Nice post. Thanks for stopping by. Good luck with the new book.

  3. BK-
    I’ve never read any Zane Grey, though I probably should. I remember my brother saying he was stuck at an airport with a long flight ahead and he couldn’t find anything to read, so he grabbed a Zane Gray out of curiosity and was blown away with how good it was.

  4. James,
    Looks like I’m going to eat children, doesn’t it?

    Elmore Leonard suggested trying to rewrite pages of a favorite author, or WRITE THE NEXT PAGES… read a section and then write the next section on your own.

    I certainly went through a period of emulating my favorites. And another thing I have done, and with good success, was to actually outline some successful novelists by favorite authors to get a sense of their story structure. Very good thing to try out once or twice.

  5. Great post, Mark & welcome to TKZ. I suppose your reasoning is why agents are always saying to read a lot within your own genre & I most certainly do, not so much to emulate them, but rather to get a sense of what works well.

    And Mr. JSB, I love the message in your clip. I originally wrote my novel to exorcise the demons from my head (which, I suppose, is why the book seemed to write itself) & I know it worked because I no longer suffer from related bad nightmares. But the best part is that I am all over my book. Good or bad, it IS me.

  6. Nancy,
    At least partly. I think certain elements of writing that we may or may not be really strong at work best in certain types of books. That is to say, someone who writes fast-paced books with a lot of incidents and action, may not be choosing their best type of fiction to be moody, introspective fiction.

    That isn’t in any way to say you can’t develop those things or to try and improve in other areas – I think that’s imperative – but that some of our talents work best for certain types of books.

  7. Good post Mark. We must write our own stuff, in our voice. Unless of course you’ve been hired to be Clancy Clone or a Patterson Pattern, then you must emulate.

    The way we do it is our signature and people will recognize it for what it is.

    As for me, whether it is acting, writing, narrating, or playing with my kids I have to do it the way it comes naturally to me. Copying someone else’s style feels like adultery to me.

  8. Basil,
    I’m a fairly good mimic, and my “voice” for fiction is different than my nonfiction, I think, but I agree with you. Whatever is US makes our work unique.

  9. Mark–Do you think it’s a natural progression for a writer to emulate (either consciously or subconsciously) other writers as a means to finding his or her own voice? I know that’s what I did, although I didn’t know it at the time.

  10. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a mark, Mark.

    My friend Alex Chilton never listened to music when he was writing his own music. I don’t know if that helped him stay true to his vision, but he thought it did. I read a wide variety of books in several genres, but not as much as I used to. I’ve never tried to write like anybody else, but maybe I should.

  11. Mike-
    I suspect it is, if for no other reason than we probably get inspired to write a book like something we really liked. Although sometimes I hear of writers who read something they thought was a piece of crap, decided they could do better and wrote a novel. I started out trying SF short stories, but shifted over to mysteries and thrillers pretty quickly.

  12. John Ramsey Miller
    For a long time I read really widely, then I started focusing more and more on mysteries and thrillers. In the last couple years everything, as they say, started to taste like beans. So I’ve started reading a lot more broadly – not just mysteries and thrillers, but SF and fantasy and some “chick-lit” and books aimed at middle grades and YA, and lots and lots of nonfiction books. I don’t know if it helps me be a better writer or not, but it probably makes me a more well-rounded person.

  13. John H
    – maybe. Do you write fiction without reading a lot of fiction? I don’t get how that works, although I’ve heard of some writers doing it.

  14. I have favorite authors, but I wouldn’t want to emulate them. I want to write in my own style, so why study one person and try and emulate them? I probably would lose my own desire to write if I tried to mold myself into someone else’s style or preferences.

    There is a challenge that I put to myself two months ago with which I’m still involved. I am reading one book per genre. I just finished my first, a romance. I wanted to die after the 2nd chapter. But I had to press on because I need to know what is being published today for each genre.

    Now I’m on my chosen Suspense/Thriller and I like it okay after the 5th chapter (there’s promise!).

    That’s unusual for me, but I’ve been pushing myself and so maybe it has to do with the fact that I feel forced to read it because of the challenge. I picked the paperback up at my local flea market because it had “Best Selling” something or other on the front cover and it cost a dollar.

    Half way through…

    This is the first time I never picked up a book looking for a specific author, but THE first title I picked in that genre and because I pushed myself to read it, it’s looking promising.

    Let’s see what I uncover! 🙂

  15. Mark,

    I have read possibly fifteen fiction books, all thrillers. And Sherlock Holmse. Most of the rest were technical stuff or car related.

    I took up writing as means of expressing some creativity I have and ended up writing a novel. I’m working on number two now because I found I love doing it.

Comments are closed.