Mark Terry

Friday, April 13, 2007

Writing As Chess

April 13, 2007
So, I'm working on book #4 of the Derek Stillwater series, and I write this:

Derek spun, sprinted around the side of the Malibu house and suddenly found himself in mid-air. Popovitch’s beach house rested on the top of a high, steep bluff above the Pacific Ocean.


He dropped into the scrub and sand on the side of the bluff, tried to stop his fall, and tumbled. Derek dug into the hillside with his heels and hands, trying to stop from rolling all the way to the bottom of the bluff. Each time he hit the ground, a cloud of dirt and dust churned upward, surrounding him. It got in his eyes and his nose and mouth. He couldn’t see.

Heart hammering, scrabbling at the rocks and brush, Derek was able to stop from somersaulting to the bottom, but down he went. In a barely controlled fall, he lunged from brush to brush and rock to rock, gaining speed. Thirty feet from the sandy beach he lost his balance and fell, spinning the remaining distance to the sand, where he thudded to a halt.

I am so fucking stupid, he thought.

Here's the problem. It's not going to work. You see, I wrote this chapter, and I thought, "You know, I love this, but it doesn't take me where I want to go." So I decided to rewrite it. Only I didn't, I told myself, "Leave it in, maybe it'll lead you to something interesting." So I did. Now, this morning, I'm realizing that it probably needs to go. (Although I like it, so I need to think about this a bit).

I'm maybe halfway through the story. This has happened to me before and when it does, this is typically where it does. I think I've reached that point where the whole novel becomes a chess game. I know where I want to go. There are a pile of leads for the characters to follow, complications are set up, the plot is in motion, and I just have to figure out how to follow the path I've laid to the end.

To me this is like a chess game. I'm thinking a good four or five moves ahead. If Derek does this (if I write this), then this will happen and this will happen, which will lead me to this. If Derek does this, then this will happen and that will happen, but that might night take me where I want to go.

I'm sure that novelists who outline don't have this problem. I've tried working with an outline and it just plain doesn't work for me. I wish it did, but it doesn't, so I don't. I recently read Tess Gerritsen's blog about her method and ours is similar, although even by my follow-where-it-goes style she seems crazy. She might change a character's name or gender halfway through, and she just leaves it, figuring she'll fix it during rewrite. If I do that I'll miss something. When things go awry like that I need to go back and fix it. Usually they don't, but sometimes.

Am I worried? No. I don't even think it's like a car stuck in the snow, back-and-forthing to get out, although sometimes it seems like that. I'm auditioning scenes, actually, trying to do something dramatic and fun and hopefully unexpected--if it's unexpected to me, hopefully it will be for the readers--that will nonetheless advance my plot. Now, in the scene above, Derek and his partner are confronted by an LA cop who has every reason to be pissed off at Derek and intends to lock him up for an extended period of time for questioning, meanwhile there's a terrorist with a... well, never mind. But the fact is, although I want the LA cops nipping at Derek's heels, I don't want him locked up, which would sort of kill the point of the book, wouldn't it?

Hmmm, maybe this works after all.

Mark Terry


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Mary and I outline. I think it'd be pretty hard to collaborate without an outline. Also, since our mysteries have been very puzzle oriented it'd be hard to plant and account for clues, although not impossible. However, I would quite like to try writing something without an outline someday. I imagine it would be fun and rather exciting. When I used to go orienteering a lot one of the great features was that, unlike a road race, the courses weren't predictable. You didn't know where you'd be going or what challenges you'd face.

8:49 AM  
Blogger Ron Estrada said...

I do an outline, then hate being stuck with it. I don't think there's such a thing as a true outliner or a true SOP (seat of the pants). You always have something in mind for the plot, and an outliner will probably deviate greatly from his outline. I like the "24" premise. Write one hour at a time, though I've caught them getting themselves in trouble a couple of times and having Jack do something completely stupid just to keep the tension. I may try the SOP method next time and see where it goes.

9:14 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

The one time I tried a real outline, I ended up with a novel manuscript that ran 100 pages.

10:35 AM  
Anonymous Robert Kuntz said...

I outline only in the broadest sense: "Monahan travels to Jamaica. Monahan meets Benny at his garage" to cover maybe 30 manuscript pages.

I have the beginning and the end in mind. I know what changes I want the characters to undergo. I have a few set-pieces or scenes that I know I want to include.

But that's it. The characters create certain imperatives; the themes impose certain others; I play God with the rest.

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