Mark Terry

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Writing the "Big" Commercial Novel

February 20, 2007
I recently had the opportunity to interview David Morrell. He's begun promoting his next novel, SCAVENGER. It was for the International Thriller Writers website and when they post the interview I'll link to it. it was a terrific, free-wheeling interview with a lot of interesting things in it concerning research, promotion, and "surviving" being a writer (David's first novel, FIRST BLOOD, was published in 1972!).

One of the things that didn't make it into the final interview, but which I wrote down on a notepad and will shortly have up on my wall over my desk was this:

"Big books aren't made up of more words, they're made up of more incidents."

Now, when David referred to "big" books he didn't mean one of those 1000 pagers by Stephen King or by J.K. Rowling. He meant a book that has a certain "psychological" size to it.

Sometimes we think high-concept, that unsatisfying Hollywood concept that tries to take a novel idea and condense it down to: "Speed: 'Die Hard' on a bus."

Now, I've used this myself, especially when discussing things with movie producers. The third Derek Stillwater novel, Angels Falling, due out February 2008, I have described as "'Die Hard' at the G8 Summit." Which, I suppose, is quite accurate. But these sorts of descriptions are short hand and don't really do any of the stories justice.

So "big" doesn't really mean high concept.

Big in scope, perhaps? If you go with that definition, then all successful novels will be about preventing the end of the world, or multi-generational family sagas. And yet, there are many successful novels that don't fit this category. The first one to come to mind for me is "The Bridges of Madison County," Robert James Waller's wildly successful novel of a midwestern farm wife's wild weekend of sex and romance. (Don't like my high concept definition of that novel? I think what makes that novel work is the woman's decision whether to go off with the handsome stranger or stay with her husband and children; don't even suggest women didn't drive the commercial success of this sappy novel.)

And even David's definition doesn't quite fit Bridges, does it? Waller's slim novel (a novella by word count, as far as I could tell) was not chock full of incidents.

Yet... did "The Bridges of Madison County" in some way have the feel of a "big" book? Were the characters, especially the male lead, larger than life?

Sometimes I think the "big" book issue really has to do with how the book feels, like the definition of obscenity, "I know it when I see it."

Literary agent Russell Galen at one time wrote an occasional column for Writer's Digest, notable mostly for how poorly he fit the tone of WD, I always thought. WD has a tendency to sugarcoat writing and publishing by viewing it through crazily distorted rose-colored glasses always, always, always making things seem positive. And Russell would write columns that always depressed me because they were so damned realistic about how hard it was to get an agent, how hard it was to get published, how hard it was to stay published, how hard it was to actually make a living at it.

And one of the things I've often puzzled about over the years was he said he would always encourage writers to write the "big" book, which did not mean many words or great length, but one in which there was a feeling of "bigness" to it, of scope (and by the way, back to Bridges, the "scope" despite the action taking place in a single weekend, is huge, isn't it? Life changing for both characters, at least potentially).

So how do you do that?

Ah, well, nobody said this was going to be easy, did they?

Mark Terry


Blogger Shannon said...

Maybe scope means how much potential the conflict has to touch a large amount of people? I think if a varied and wide audience can put themselves in the characters shoes via empathy, then it has a wide scope. Just a thought.

7:01 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

And a good thought, too. I like it.

7:17 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I like Shannon's definition. "Big" is something with the potential to appeal to a wide range of people -- something basic. A literary novel which has all sorts of references to past literature (a common sort of thing) isn't "big."

One kind of big is, obviously, that the fate of whole world is at stake. I suspect my endless reading of sf when I was a kid kind of burned me out on that though because the whole fate of the universe was usually at stake!

10:10 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

I like Shannon's definition, too! I skimmed Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing about two years ago, and I keep meaning to buy it. I must have twenty mental post-its in my brain reminding me, but I never remember when I'm buying books, darnit.

If there were an easy answer to 'how,' everyone would've done it. And if everyone did do it, there'd be still be cream rising to the top. We'd still be asking how ...

It's a never-ending quest.

4:24 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

Totally confused. So the "big" book means grand concept? Or appealing to many concept?

On a different note I was over at Rob G. Browns blog and noted what you said regarding talented writers: "Because talent isn’t the entire story (so to speak). There are many talented writers out there and talent will-in the long run-be recognized, but many people quit long before their talent is recognized."
I would like this engraved on the edges of my monitor. How often I've thought of just pitching this idea of persuing publication and stop the writing and rewriting and just sit and play Freecell. I'm sure the stories would still leak out of my head and onto my computer but the pressure for perfection would fade and life would be simpler. I think your words need to be remembered by every struggling writer. Perspective!
Jeannie aka

6:56 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I think the "big" book concept is confusing. I thought David's definition was a good one, but not all inclusive. I like Shannon's, though it's probably not all inclusive (otherwise how do you describe that bestseller, "Smylla's Sense of Snow" which focused on a main character so alien she might as well have been from anotherh planet?

It probably is a sort of "know it when you see it" kind of thing.

And yes, I think talent is the cheapest commodity out there, and persistence is far more important.

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