Mark Terry

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Next Step

January 5, 2007
I had a pithy and insightful blog entry and it disappeared and I don't feel like re-doing it, so I'm going to talk briefly (okay, now I'm re-reading this and thinking, "Okay, not so briefly.") about something else. I had the change to talk to aspiring novelist Gregory yesterday about his manuscript. I've read about half of it and I had mailed him my comments, but said maybe we should talk about things. Greg's novel is very good and he's a very good writer and I think if he keeps at it (whatever "it" is) he'll eventually get published. Should he keep tweaking this particular work? I don't know. He's spent a lot of time on it and it's pretty strong.

Anyway, aside from the fact that I enjoyed the conversation and reminded myself that I should probably get out and talk with serious writers more often, I was thinking this morning that I had tried to communicate something to Greg that I hoped wasn't insulting and I believe to be true, but I'm not sure how well I articulated it.

What I was trying to say at one point was that this wasn't your college creative writing class or even your critique group. I've never belonged to a critique group, but I took a creative writing class in college and whenever we wrote something, we made copies and passed it around to some or all of the class and they read it and dissected it.

The discussions of people's works had a tendency to revolve around what the characters did or did not do that the readers did or did not like; they had a really way too strong a tendency to get off discussing thematic issues.

Perhaps it's my bias, but those are the purview of literature classes, not writing classes.

What I was trying to get across, and I hope that my critique and comments primarily reflected this, is how to look at the work the way a writer needs to look at the work. Again, it's probably my bias, but over the last 4 or 5 years--probably by no coincidence, the period in which my work started getting published--I've been increasingly focused on STRUCTURAL issues in writing.

Things like:

1. How you enter a scene and get out of a scene (late in, early out)
2. How you handle transitions
3. How you handle backstory (and how much)
4. How to handle multiple points of view--how many, who, when, how often
5. How you structure the story so it starts off in a way the reader gets sucked in, but doesn't lose readers in areas that might require exposition, etc.

And that's not to say that while I'm actually writing a novel that those are my primary concerns, except, in some ways they area. The STORY is my primary concern, but all of those structural things are important in how you pull off telling your story in the best way possible.

And it's not even to say that I'm aware of these things in a conscious sort of way, except when I'm rewriting I'm aware of them, and actually, now that I think about it, when I'm writing things I'm thinking of things along those lines before I write them.

And for damned sure, when I read somebody else's book these days I'm thinking about structure.

I recently read "Without Fail" by Lee Child and I was paying a lot of attention to structure. I was also paying a lot of attention to how Lee manipulates the reader by having Jack Reacher analyze what's happening and say what he thinks is happening (and I find it intriguing just how often Reacher is wrong until toward the end, but the way Lee writes it and Reacher I'm not sure casual readers are aware of this).

Anyway, I do think at some point your writing needs to get a little bit past this-happens-and-then-this-happens and you need to start paying attention to the multiple ways you can do things and which way is best for the story you happen to be telling. I think it's a constant learning situation and every story is different, but hopefully over time we all have this great big box of tools we can open and scrounge around through and hopefully say, "Hey, I haven't seen this in a while (or before), but you know what? It would be just about perfect for solving this problem I've got. Cool."

Mark Terry


Blogger Shannon said...

This is a pretty close to home post for me this morning, as I am about halfway through THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK and realized that I'm not just reading it, but studying it. I'm noticing your great end of chapter hooks, and how you aren't afraid to "kill your darlings" or at least put them in terrible danger. I read a scene and then nod because I would have never thought to...blow up the helicopter, for instance. I notice the way you don't take too much time to dialog what's going in the character's head, but just enough to keep them real. Not just the story, but the structure is impressive. Okay, just had to tell you that, gotta go read while I have a minute!

6:57 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Thanks. Yes, I think you're right. Also, of course, when you're doing this kind of analysis, it's important to look at the kind of book you're reading. Pitchfork is supposed to be a fast-paced thriller, and if I take a lot of time to work on backstory and spend pages in a character's head, then it probably won't be a fast-paced thriller.

Some of what I do (like all writers, I think) has to revolve around what it is that you're trying to accomplish.

[And I'm glad you're enjoying it]

8:23 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Yes. Yes. Yes. I couldn't agree more. Academic analysis is useless to professional writers. (Well, unless maybe you're aiming for literary magazines)

It's all about structure. I got into an acrimonious argument some years ago in an amateur writing venue. People were going on about words...and how this was just the right word...and wasn't this a perfect sentence...and I put my oar in and said, well, style is icing on the cake but the most important thing is the structure. If you have the underlying structure right then most any, reasonably decent words, will do. Which is why some writers write very good and very successful books even though some people might consider their language clunky. And a lot of amateurs will rewrite every paragraph twenty times to no avail but there's no structure to what they're doing.

So then we got into a battle of ridiculous analogies, such as, how can you say words aren't most important, they are the building materials you use? Yes but no matter how good your bricks you need a blueprint or else you've just got a pile of bricks.

The one prof I had who really taught me something useful in college was the fellow who did early English Literature. We read stuff from Fielding to Meredith and Austen and Thackery. These were very long books and right at the beginning of the course he told us he wasn't going to be delving a lot into symbolism or characterization. We were studying the beginnings of a form of writing -- the novel -- and theefore he intended to focus on the structure, the things that make novels what they are.

8:29 AM  
Blogger Ron Estrada said...

Yes yes yes. I do belong to a crit group and I find myself getting more and more frustrated because they are very good at telling me when I've used the same word three times in the same chapter, but little about structure. Stephen King says a good story will overcome bad writing every time. Obviously, there are limits, but I can never seriously expect to whip out the same beautiful prose as Jodi Picoult, but I can certainly come up with a great story, full of irony, great characters, and a plot that grabs. My wife complains that, after I'm through "fixing" my story, it's worse than it was before. Focusing on literary devices, for the genre writer, can kill our voice. You'll find that, with well known writers, they really begin to shine when they start breaking more rules and focusing on the story. Of course, a newbie must learn the rules before he can break them. It's all part of the learning process.

9:11 AM  
Anonymous spyscribbler said...

Ohmigosh, I SO agree with you. Structure and form are everything.

I don't have much to say about your post, except ... structure, form and pacing are everything. Rhythm makes the world go around, rhythm keeps us alive, and rhythm controls every living thing. We better have rhythm in our novels (from the big structure down to the chapters, down to the paragraphs, and finally, down to the sentence), or else our novel is doomed.

Even if a reader is not aware of rhythm analytically, he will be aware of it subconsciously and instinctively.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Wow! So I wasn't full of shit? (Good to learn) :)

10:37 AM  
Anonymous gregory huffstutter said...

I found our conversation very helpful... but now that I'm going back through and re-checking my structure, it's going take another week before I can crack my copy of DEVIL'S PITCHFORK.

See, if you'd just told me my manuscript was perfectly perfect in every way and sure-to-be-NY-Times-Bestseller, I could be free reading in a deck chair right now! (Actually, if I did that, I'd probably get fired from my day job).

Thanks again... and if the revisions help land an agent, I'll be sure to name a character Terry in the sequel.

11:03 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Ah well, Greg, who knew the price of your writing ambitions would could at such a high price .:)

12:02 PM  
Blogger Ron Estrada said...

You're still full of shit. But just not on this topic.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

So they tell me.

3:25 PM  
Blogger Joe Moore said...


I think what you’re describing here is craftsmanship. I’ve always believed that great ideas are a dime a dozen. The crafting of an idea into an “I couldn’t put it down” novel is what we all strive to do.


3:56 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I'm also in the middle of Devil's Pitchfork. Although, I bought it awhile ago my husband snatched it up first (he loved it!), then came the college kid (more applause!)and it only came back to me a week or so ago. I'm also reading four books right now so I don't move too fast on any one book.
I love the "rat panic" phrase. I feel something gnawing at my stomach everytime I read it.
I think the structure is like the skeleton that holds everything up. What about layering of other stories within yours? In screen writing there are three stories going on at the same time. Kinda layered over each other. Do you think thats important in novel writing?

7:12 PM  
Blogger Rob Gregory Browne said...

I come from a screenwriting background and that's ALL about structure, so I find myself falling back on that when I write novels. And, like you say, it's not just about the overall structure, but the structure of each chapter and even each scene, finding ways in and out that compel the reader to keep reading.

As for Gregory's work, I've read the excerpt he has on his website and think he's a wonderful writer. I have no doubt that he'll be getting his break sometime soon.

1:05 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Probably, yeah. I heard a writer refer to himself and us as "word mechanics," and I always kind of liked that.

Thanks for the kind words. Well, I'm all for subplots, but the Derek Stillwater novels, because they have such tight timeframes, don't emphasize subplots much. As the books go on, there are unresolved issues that keep cropping up. The other thing that I think is important, and I guess it might be called subplots, is, although, for instance, in my books, Derek is the main character and has a very clear-cut job to do, there are other characters who have concerns and issues. In Pitchfork, for instance, Johnston has political issues to deal with along with crisis management; Aaron Pilcher is constantly thinking about his family; and Richard Coffee, well, you could say he's thinking about his wife, among other things.

Yeah, I think that's exactly what I was thinking. Screenplays always talk about the 3-part structure, which I suppose could just as easily be called beginning,middle and end, and of course if you actually spend the first 25% of a manuscript in set-up the story might develop rather slowly. I think there have been some wonderful novels written whose structure can seem rather odd, but I do feel like stories have been ongoing for thousands of years and if you agree with Joseph Campbell, have similar elements and structures that we respond to.

9:56 AM  

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