Mark Terry

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

All About Choices

April 8, 2008
I had an opportunity to read the first chapter of a novel by, I believe, an unpublished novelist. (Hello, yes, you know who I'm talking about--you! :))

I read it, enjoyed it, then asked him if he wanted me to be honest in my comments or if a "good job" would suffice.

[Let me digress on that just for a moment. I'm a firm believer that what most aspiring novelists actually want is for you to pat them on the back and tell them how talented they are. In fact, I suspect that's what most published novelists--and probably nearly everybody else on the planet--wants. What they need, however, is often a very different state of affairs. What many aspiring novelists need is someone to say (politely and kindly, with any luck), "Look, there are problems here, and here's what I think they are and how you might be able to fix them and why." Also, it seems to me that although aspiring writers might approach a published writer such as myself with the notion of getting some solid feedback, in truth what they might really want is you to tell them how great they are. So before I offer comments I try to gauge what the writer actually wants.]

He assured me he wanted a critique and ideally there would be no praise.

Well, there was plenty of praise. On a line-by-line basis, he's a fine writer.

[Another digression: In my occasional reviewing of unpublished writer's work, I'm often struck how, on a line-by-line basis, most of them are really pretty damned good. The problems with their work often revolves around how they're organizing material or presenting it or, in some cases, the stories are boring or cliched or their imagery is just plain fuzzy. I suppose it comes down to, they're fine writers but mediocre storytellers.]

Anyway, back to this guy. The concept for his story was excellent. The locale was good. He had a grabber of an idea. I apologized to him, then hacked the living shit out of his first chapter.

I took a section toward the end of the chapter and put it at the beginning. I cut stuff. I pointed to some material that I thought was very, very good, but that belonged somewhere--anywhere--except the first chapter. I suggested he rearrange one section and perhaps use inter-cut flashbacks so he could keep the main character the center of the action and keep the story moving forward, but use brief flashbacks (like a paragraph or so) to demonstrate some of what actually happened. That wouldn't always be necessary, but I thought that his writing was vivid and interesting, but the way he was presenting the information was bogging the whole thing down.

And then I sent it back to him with the caveat I always add when I offer my opinion on other people's writing: I'm just as full of shit as anyone else, so I could be wrong.

His response seemed positive. He told me a number of agents and editors who had liked the work (but not published it) had never pointed out how much overwriting he was doing in the first chapter.

I'm mostly glad he thought it was useful. I have a pretty good idea just how difficult it is to figure out what's not working with your own work. The whole "in the frame" problem.

A lot of the problem just had to do with the choices he was making. He'd kind of thrown the whole kitchen sink into the first chapter and I suggested that he was "frontloading backstory" which just means in my opinion, the first chapter needs to drag the reader into the story, and all that extra stuff can come in later once the reader's involved. The reader doesn't really need (or maybe even want) to know about the main character's divorce right away unless the novel is about the divorce. The reader doesn't really need to know about the main character's relationship with his intern, or the fact the main character had heard rumors about the crime scene before he actually got there.

I suggested he start with the crime scene, which was interesting in and of itself, move from there, and later on fill in the stuff with the intern and the ex-wife and the day-to-day stuff a cop has to deal with.

A few years back I interviewed bestselling author John Sandford for a profile I was writing. To my mind, Sandford is one of the most interesting, most reliable thriller writers out there. He's also, to my mind, one of the sharper knives in the drawer. In case you didn't know this, the majority of Sandford's novels feature Minnesota cop Lucas Davenport. All those books have "Prey" in the title, like Winter Prey, Phantom Prey, etc.

Writer Lawrence Block wrote a series of comic crime novels featuring used bookstore owner and professional burglar, Bernie Rhodenbarr. These books typically featured a lot of jokes about bestselling mystery authors. One was a big riff on Sue Grafton's alphabet mysteries, where Bernie and his friend discussed her books, like, "H" is for Preparation, and "V" is for Garden.

Just before I interviewed Sandford, I had been reading one of Block's books and there was a lengthy joke in it about the latest John Sandford novel, "Lettuce Pray," about a vegan unitarian minister and serial killer. I read the passage to Sandford and he started laughing and said, "Yeah, that was from Block's latest novel." Then, he went on to tell me that Larry Block had given him the single best writing advice he'd ever received. (Note that Block has written several excellent books on writing, including "Telling Lies For Fun & Profit"). The advice?

Flip your first and second chapter.

In other words, if you intend to give a bunch of background in the first chapter to lead into all the action in the second, change it around.

And that's more or less the advice I gave, although I was only looking at the first chapter. 

My point is really that writing is all about choices. After a certain level of craft, it comes down to storytelling and if anything, I fall on the side of not trusting my audience to stick with me, so I try to cut out anything I'm afraid might bore them. You can go too far in this direction and it's quite possible that I do.

It is, however, one of Elmore Leonard's rules for writing: cut out the stuff the readers skip.

Anyway, I hope I was helpful.

Mark Terry


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This entry should be in your "how to" book. All kinds of good sense here. Years ago I had a bunch of people sniggering at me on a list unrelated to mystery writing when I insisted that in a longer work the structure was more important than the individual sentences and people shouldn't be juding "quality" of "writing" by looking at whether the sentences were pretty.

I don't like to critique work because different people have different opinions and if someone is trying to sell fiction the opinions that count are those of the agents and editors approached, not mine.

I don't like criticism of my stuff actually. The criticism I've learned most from has come from editors who have already bought my fiction and non-fiction. It doesn't sting as much because they've proved they like the work by buying it and alsso I know they are on the same wavelength as me. They really are looking to make what I've done better rather than wanting me to write something different.

The problem of wanting to cram the whole novel into the first chapter seems to be one we all share. A positive aspect of that, is that when you realize this, your job suddenly becomes a lot easier. You realize that that first chapter you were struggling to write will really amount to five or six chapters.

8:30 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Like most professional writers, I suspect that I don't want criticism either, but I do want comments that will help fix the problems. One of the most frustrating things I've dealt with in the nonfiction arena is when you apparently don't hit what the editor wants, but they're not able to actually tell you what they DO want or how to get it.

I guess I sort of have that with my fiction, too. "The main character just didn't grab me" comment doesn't help much and I don't actually have many ideas on how to fix it.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Melanie Avila said...

Mark, that's really interesting advice. My book is with betas right now but of course I'm thinking about how I can change things. I've heard the 'cut the first couple chapters' advice but don't think that holds true in every case. Some people (not implying me here) write in a way that not everything needs to go, just reshuffled.

Thanks for the different perspective.

11:20 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

The order of things and the things that should be slashed are probably the hardest things to see when you're in the muckity-muck of writing something.

"So before I offer comments I try to gauge what the writer actually wants."

That's great! I love that. I need to learn that technique. Frankly, (is this going to make me look bad to speak this out loud?) sometimes I get stuff that ... is pretty well-written. But I just don't know what to do with it. I guess that's why I'm a writer and not an editor. :-)

12:09 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

--I've gotten a couple things that I thought were good enough to be published. I didn't have much to say, although there's often a little bit of polishing that can be done.

Sometimes it's just awful. I feel bad for these writers. Either they're really inexperienced or they just don't know what they're doing. I try to be kind but also to indicate what they might try doing to fix things.

I would also like to point out that I've done this for friends or occasionally people off this blog, but I also am, from time to time, involved with Mystery Writers of America's mentoring program.

It tends to give me a lot of respect for agents and editors because when things are awful, they're really awful, but at least you can make up your mind in about a page or two. When things are good or "almost there" it can be tough to figure out what they might need to improve.

I'm reminded of an interview I heard once with actor James Woods, and he had directed a movie that had Melanie Griffith (or is it Griffin?) in it and they asked him why her. He said she was right for the part, but that she also that that "oomph, whatever it is, that separates an actor from a star."

And I have to admit, I think that editors and agents are looking for that "oomph, whatever it is" that separates the good but not published to the published (and there's probably another "oomph" that propels the published into bestsellerdom). And I'm not completely sure writers can create that "oomph." You can learn to be a good writer, but whatever that "oomph" is, I don't know how to nurture it.

12:27 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

That information dump was my problem too. The urge to explain everything is strong. I think we have to learn to tease instead of tossing everything in the readers face.
I think a good writer takes their lessons where ever they can find them. You have to remember that everything is an opinion, but listen with an open mind. What was that saying if you show it to 10 people and 8 say the same thing; there's your problem?

5:12 PM  
Blogger J. L. Krueger said...

I second adding this to you "how to" book. Great post.

In the fantasy writer's group I've worked with there are only a handful of members whose work I'll comment on. Too many are instantly offended even though they asked for comments.

Admittedly, there are only a handful I like slashing and burning my stuff too.

The info dump really can be a problem when writing a series. It is just so tempting to start out with "in the last book..." to catch up the reader who didn't read the previous book, or to fill the following books with backstory rewrites/retells from the first book.

1:41 PM  
Blogger SmartlikeStreetcar said...

It's only in the last few weeks that I've realized that the third or fourth chapter in the novel (that still resides mostly in my head) needs to be the first chapter.

And I only realized that little fact when I started on the third chapter of my middle reader, and the opening line gobsmacked me in the head for being smart and compelling, while the early chapters were just smart. I'm good at creative nonfiction, but I guess I need more gobsmacking to come up with a decent novel.

A good thing, I guess, that I've learned that I don't so much write as rewrite...

Thanks for a good post.

3:58 PM  
Anonymous Amy Nathan said...

Fabulous post. I rewrote my first chapter and most of it became my third chapter. You got it -- the backstory. Hopefully the reader is already vested in my main character and really wants to know - wants to understand where she's coming from - and now they can. But the first two chapters just delve right into what's happening.

I think that overwriting, for me, goes a long with overthinking and overtalking. I always want to make sure that someone gets me, what I mean - etc. I have to remember that in my book, they have pages and pages to "get it."

Great advice, too, about offering help and advice in place of criticism.

The worst feedback, imo, is "I loved your chapter, can't think of a thing to change."

7:28 PM  
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