Mark Terry

Thursday, April 12, 2007


April 12, 2007
My oldest son, Ian, is a writer. Not wants to be a writer--is a writer. He sits down either with the laptop or with a notebook (one of many scattered around the house) and writes stories. I don't know how many he's got going at once. Too many, probably, and both my wife and I suggest he needs to finish them. Some of them he does finish and that's good.

He has some notion of being a writer when he's an adult. He's 13, so it's possible he'll decide he wants to do something else. He's also a musician and he's expressed an interest in being a band director or music teacher, as well. In addition to playing guitar and bassoon, he composes little songs and they're pretty damned good for a 13-year-old. Also he talks about writing screenplays and directing.

The point is, Ian has a million-and-one ideas. He's always throwing out some title or concept and saying, "How does that sound?"

Most of the time I say, "Sounds cool," or something like that. I try to be the supportive parent. He's got one story idea he calls Shadow Fish. I'm not sure what it is, but whenever he mentions it, his younger brother, Sean, starts laughing. Sean doesn't think Shadow Fish sounds cool, he thinks it sounds silly and doesn't hesitate to tell his older brother so. (One son a writer, the other a studio head or editor?)

As a result, Ian keeps coming back to me with, "What do you think of Shadow Fish?" Finally, after the fifth or sixth time I got frustrated and said, "Ian, it doesn't matter what I think of a title or even an idea. It's what you do with it that matters."

No truer words have been spoken about creativity, I don't think. Here's some examples:

A cop chases a serial killer.
Well, as an idea, it's fine. But it covers "Red Dragon" and "The Silence of the Lambs" and all of John Sandford's novels, Joe Konrath's novels and a few billion others. It's what they've done with those ideas that makes them work. It's the impact of their characters--from Hannibal Lechter to Lucas Davenport to Jack Daniels--and the way the story is structured that matters.

A fisherman chases a whale.
"Moby Dick" of course, but that hardly covers the story, any more than "a fisherman battles with a big fish" covers "The Old Man and the Sea."

My own books tend to plow pretty well-tilled soil. The Derek Stillwater novels are classic thrillers in that he's trying to stop some awful event from happening and there are a lot of obstacles in his way and there's a ticking clock to help give suspense.

Most mysteries of one sort or another are: somebody dies and somebody tries to find out who and why.

In fact, that description of a mystery is so fundamental to the form, that it describes Agatha Christie and Ed McBain and Sue Grafton and just about everybody else, including my own books. The twist to a thriller tends to be that "somebody dies and somebody tries to find out who and why before they kill somebody else."

It's what you do with these ideas that matter. It's what you do with these ideas that involve creativity and craft and, dare I say it, art.

Mark Terry


Blogger Ron Estrada said...

The fun thing is, we can take the "old" story and just toss something into it. That's the "what if" factor. What if the serial killer is really a Venutian vampire? What if the whale sprouts legs, crawls onshore at Coney Island, and continues his carnage (and wins all the rigged carnival games)? We can't make new plots anymore than we can invent the s'more, but we can use Reeces cups instead of Hershey chocolate. Done it, it's to die for!

9:17 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Exactly, even without going to that kind of extreme. Many of Ian's ideas seem worth stealing (he steals mine, too). I was really amused recently. We like the TV show "Bones" about a forensic anthropologist, and Ian was saying, "I'm working on a book about a crime scene investigator and forensic anthropologist... except he's a Centaur."

And I thought, "Hmmmmmm."

10:39 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Shadow Fish; that's the cutest! I think that Eragon kid started writing his masterpiece at about your son's age. :-)

12:24 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

Tell Ian (I love that name) that I think Shadow Fish is a great title and opens the mind to wonder about all sorts of possiblities.
I've heard there are no new story ideas ...just different characters and twists.

4:15 PM  
Anonymous Robert Kuntz said...

Fyodor Dostoevsky is credited with having said that there are only two stories: a man goes on a journey, a stranger comes to town. (At least the quote is widely ascribed to him; I've never seen a direct source.)

Whoever said it, it's true even if it's not precisely accurate. The stories and themes had probably all been covered in tales told at fireside before humans even learned to write them down. Certainly all the ground was ploughed by the time the Greek, Norse and and Asian myth writers had their turn.

Still we write on and who among us tires of reading? Love, lust, cowardice, courage, loss, redemption -- those stories never fade.

10:59 AM  

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