Mark Terry

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Get Lost

May 11, 2007

I've become somewhat legendary in my family for my ability to get lost. I don't even stress about it any more. In March, when we went to Austin, Texas for my nephew's wedding, we rented the car, headed toward downtown Austin and pretty quickly found ourselves heading for Mexico, skirting, hmmm, west of the city, I think.
Disney World? Same thing, only it's practically impossible to miss DW from the airport (all roads seem to lead to Disney in Florida), but getting back to the airport? Oh yeah, I'm pretty sure to get lost. Getting lost getting to an airport is one of the few times I get stressed about it any more. (My wife just chimed in with: "East St. Louis, Ann Arbor, Sandusky...")
When my kids were younger they would ask from the backseat, "Are we lost?" My response then tended to be, "No, we just don't know where we are. We know where we're going. We'll get there." They're surprisingly patient now.
I'm afraid I'm not a planner and outliner for my novels. I start with a title, a character, a premise, hopefully with how I intend to end and presumably some scenes I wish to create and then I just go. It works for me, most of the time.
I've been working on the fourth Derek Stillwater novel, tentatively titled The Valley of Shadows, and it's a pretty complicated book. I was telling my writer friend Joe Moore that it was taking me a while to figure out what the book was about. By that I mean, I knew what the plot was, but I wasn't exactly sure what the book was ABOUT. That is to say, subtext, theme, or whatever the hell literature professors like to quiz their students about. I am about 240 pages in and it's that time in the novel when I need to make sure everything's tying together. And this morning, while walking Frodo, it did. Derek and the woman he's working with had broken into a lawyer's office in LA and...
Well, let's just say that I managed to pull everything together and now it's pretty much what I think of as a race against time within a race against time (read it when it comes out, you'll know what I mean).
But is that what the book was ABOUT?
As I mentioned to Joe (whose next book sounded pretty cool, too), it's about Derek's childhood in some ways and how it ties into religious terrorists, and even more it's about alliances, or perhaps Derek's inability to work with the people he's teamed up with. There's a structural aspect to the novel that I couldn't quite put my finger on (and this is a little complicated), but I put Derek in a situation in which he does not work well--in a small team of experts in which he is not the leader. And Derek's inability to work and play well with the team and how he allies himself with various members and a crucial outside individual and how this creates friction drives much of the inner tension of the book.
It wasn't something I planned. As a matter of fact, when I first started it, I planned for him to work directly with one of the two women or both and play their very different personalities off Derek and each other. It just didn't really work. Not to sound too mystical about this, but Derek wasn't cooperating with me. Derek prefers to work alone or with one person and he wasn't shy about reminding me of this.
I think most writers would understand that. It sounds goofy. Another explanation, perhaps, is that I wasn't finding the way they were playing off each other satisfing, so I kept changing alliances until I found one that worked. Only the problem was, I never did, so the alliances kept changing. And that's when I figured out the book was largely about changing alliances. They worked until they didn't, and then they changed, and so on. In re-reading the manuscript, I thought it was fun. It was unpredictable and that was a plus.
It's these sorts of things I find while lost that are the creative sparks for my books. It's what creativity and discovery are all about and I'm pretty much an addict. Hopefully it'll translate into something readers really enjoy.
Mark Terry


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Love the picture.

As far as being lost goes, orienteers are never "lost" -- only "disoriented." (Feels a lot like being lost though!)

Mary and I usually find a subtext. I think it's aesthetically pleasing to have something that binds the story together subtly. Starting with a subtext. however, doesn't work for me. It needs to show up on it's own. Our new book is "about" -- as it turns out -- how people interpret the world according to their beliefs rather than the reality.

8:15 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

The story always flies once I find that driving kernal/arc/subtext/theme/whatever in the story.

Changing alliances ... sounds fascinating! Twisty! I like twisty.

10:03 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I agree (about the disoriented thing, too). It's subtle and readers don't necessarily have to pick up on it. But somewhere along the line--sometimes after I write it, unfortunately--I figure out what the subtext was.

Of course, I wonder if readers think I'm wrong and will find something else in the books.

4:30 AM  
Blogger Shannon said...

Sounds like you really know Derek. That must be one of the perks of being able to write a series based on one character. He becomes very real to the reader because you stay true to him.
As far as him "not cooperating with you" I know exactly what you mean. I've been struggling with one of my characters and suddenly last night it hit me that he wasn't cooperating because I had his motivation all wrong. He wants something opposite of the MC but for the same reasons. The great thing is now I have the tension I lacked. Yes, moments like that are addicting!

6:59 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I'm always learning new things about Derek. For instance, I knew he had a brother who was a physician for Doctors Without Borders working Congo, and I knew his parents were both alive, but I didn't really know what they did.

Then I realized they were missionary physicians and Derek grew up at missions in various 3rd world countries around the world and it gave me another doorway into his life.

7:13 AM  
Blogger Joe Moore said...

"Sounds like you really know Derek. That must be one of the perks of being able to write a series based on one character."

Shannon, series characters can be a blessing and a curse. It's easier to get going with the next book in a series because you don't have to get to know your main character from scratch. But it can be a curse as you face dishing out just the right amount of backstory without rewriting your previous novels. What if someone picks up your new book without ever having read the ones that came before? Even though each should be able to stand alone, it's a treacherous balancing act.

As Lynn Sholes and I start BLACK NEEDLES, our fourth Cotten Stone thriller, we've found a technique that helps us continue in the ongoing development of the protag. We ask the question, "What does Cotten Stone still have to learn?" If you answer that question about your man character(s), you can almost visualize the entire book from a motivational POV.

BTW, Mark, I think Derek's new adventure sound great!

10:37 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Thanks Joe and that sounds like good advice.

Also, one of the potential problems of writing a series characters just plain boredom. After a while you have to work a little harder and dig a little deeper to keep the character fresh without giving him a new life. I also think it's a problem with thrillers, because we're not focusing over much on characterization as much as velocity, so you have to get more bang for your buck, ie., reveal more in broad strokes without slowing down the pace.

10:55 AM  

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