Mark Terry

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Fundamental Things Apply...

June 25, 2008
I recently completed a draft of my YA novel (or is it not YA, hmmm...) and asked several of my writer friends and some teenagers to read it in the interest of getting it right.

My writer buddy Erica, was apparently so giddy with enthusiasm that she spent a big chunk of her day reading the manuscript instead of doing work that might actually earn her a living. (She claims it was procrastination; I typically use blogs and YouTube for that. Scratch Erica, find a saint).

Erica's insights were trenchant, precise and, unfortunately, fully supportive of every doubt I had about the work--and then some. (She said, "Don't hate me," and I thought, "God, I'd much rather hear this from you than have some NYC editor say, "Not quite right for us.")

There were essentially two major issues, one of which I won't go into today because it involves a possible major reworking of the story and I have to think about it and hear what other readers have to say.

The other major issue was she suggested the story felt flat because the emotions weren't there.


First, a little bit in my defense, let me say that this was not a final draft and my final drafts often involve tweaking emotions as much as smoothing out the writing. I tend to "tell" emotions too much (or not at all) in early drafts and in the final draft have to do things like delete "she got angry" to "her fists balled into knots and her face flushed the color of a ripe plum."

Still, one of the recurring themes, if you will, in my rejection letters is something along the lines of, "Mark Terry is a good writer and the story's good, but I just can't connect with the main character." (And again, in my defense, sometimes one editor says "loved the story, hated the character" while another editor a week later will say "hated the story, loved the character.") Still, this character issue is a major concern of mine.

Let me break things down as broadly as Australia's outback, okay? I think there are two fundamental aspects of writing. One is to transfer information. This can be getting a character from A to B to C all while indicating what the environment is like and the other characters are like. I'm quite successful in nonfiction and I think it's because I'm pretty good at taking complicated information and transferring it to the reader in a clear, organized fashion. Nonfiction thrives on this.

The second is the transfer of emotion. Readers are expecting to feel something from fiction. They're expecting, at the very least, to be entertained and to relate to the characters. They typically do this through a vicarious sharing of emotion. This is, I think, the primary difference between success and failure in fiction--the ability to transfer a character's emotions to the reader. Say what you will about Robert James Waller and "The Bridges of Madison County" but what he and that book did very well was transfer emotions.

(Let me say something potentially sexist here, though: this is a bigger deal in women's books than in men's. That is to say, action-adventure, the key emotion transferred may very well be an adrenaline rush and fear, whereas the so-called chick-lit's emotional demand is significantly more complicated and necessary. Still, for any fiction to be successful, readers need to feel something).

One of the things I've been pondering since reading Erica's comments though is whether this is a fundamental I just plain lack. I'm not drawn to books with a huge emotional churn, if you will. And let me also add that thriller author David Morrell once said the same thing about his earlier novels, commenting that he was more drawn to intellectual novels and action, but it was only when he realized that what readers were looking for was "romance" and by romance he meant high motions and drama and chivalry and heroes, etc.... romance not as in "love and kisses" but in everything related to the "romantic era." Also, after a point in your writing career, you have to wonder if you aren't just better suited for certain types of writing than others.

That isn't to say I'm giving up on this book, just that Erica gave me a great deal to think about, all of it good, all of it rather fundamental, and I'm very grateful.

But I think it's something that all aspiring novelists and perhaps even successful novelists need to ask themselves from time to time--what am I fundamentally good at and what am I not? And is there anything I can do about it?

Mark Terry


Blogger spyscribbler said...

Mark, I'm constantly trying to figure out that question. Problem is, when I ask it, I decide I suck at everything and am only passable on everything else.

I couldn't put it down last night, either. I have to read it again, because it was one of those reading-with-one-eye things since I couldn't stay awake, but I couldn't put it down, either.

I LOVE THE CODED PUZZLES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

7:02 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Well crap. Mark . . . I didn't intend to send you on a existential writing crisis. ;-)

And my sense--and I could be wrong--is sometimes when we fear we can't write something well, or we don't LIKE writing x or y, we use tricks to avoid it (like jumping forward in time so we avoid writing the emotional scene). I have a book of women's fiction in which I haven't yet a 100% firm grasp of my main character's sexuality, as in can she . . . "reveal" herself, so to speak by being fully intimate in the bedroom. There is one sex scene in the entire book . . . and I basically have them kiss . . . and voila . . . he's leaving the next morning. LOL! So then I knew it was a cop-out, and I wrote it AGAIN. More of a sex scene. Actual . . . SEX. BUT, my CP sent me a comment "So he's enjoying himself, but no mention of whether she . . . " (I am trying to keep this PG). So there you go, I avoid it because I don't WANT to "go there" largely because I am on the fence about it and the book is about a woman whose mother was a tyrannical feminist who vilified men and was a few shades left of crazy, and I am not sure its full psychological impact.

So I sometimes think we're dragged kicking and screaming to write the things we need to in order to stretch us as writers.

7:03 AM  
Blogger MissWrite said...

I'm wondering too if possibly you're just attacking the wrong genre if you aren't connecting with the characters. Or...

I've seen your 'personality' shine through in your posts, you have an ability to conjur images and emotions... are you holding it back when you write feeling that in order to create a different character you can't be your own?

For me, I know that every character is somehow an extension of myself. Yes, outside cues, outside observation on other people's reactions play a huge part, and I'm less a 'villian' than any of my villian characters... but, somewhere deep inside me is a touch of that character.

Perhaps you're sitting too far back from your characters in an attempt to make them 'individual' and at the same time, making them flat.

7:19 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Oh boy. Great comments here.

--glad you like it so far.

--hell, I get an existential writing crisis when the wind blows. As for that cutting away, hmmm.... I was doing it to keep the pace sharp, ala John Sandford's books, but you may be right that I was taking the reader up to emotional moments then jumping away from them.

--well, yeah, there's always the very, very real possibility that writing from the point of view of a 16-year-old girl is just too big of a reach for a 44-year-old man who has no daughters. I've written successfully (so I'm told) from the POV of a woman, but someone pointed out that Meg Malloy in Dirty Deeds has an awful lot in common with my wife. And I would argue that Derek Stillwater is, in many ways, an extension of myself, although a fairly heroic extension, but the neuroses and many of the attitudes are the same, although magnified.

8:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Afraid I can't be very helpful. I write intellectually. I read books almost entirely for the intellectual content. (Hence probably my early preference for golden age sf) Yes, I am a cold fish. Probably Mary gets enough emotion in our books to make them palatable to readers. My "plan" is to figure there must be a few other readers like me. (As with you my work writing consists of organizing information)

8:42 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

As I was pondering this whole concept, I was considering novels like yours--John is not an emotional character--and like Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels and RJ Hillhouses "Outsourced."

You and Hillhouse, for instance, provide so much rich information and milieu that the characters are almost secondary, or perhaps, in your case, Constantinople IS the main character, even more than John is.

8:46 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I think therein is some of the issue (as Eric and you discussed it) . . . I am just as content to read a more intellectual character. Or an assassin character who suppresses emotion. But if you create a YA where a child learned Dad is dead or at the very least is in real danger, I don't feel there's a reality to someone saying, "Let's go on an adventure" without a sense of real urgency and panic. Even Indiana Jones, when his father was shot, his entire demeanor changed in the third movie. He was "stricken" in a way that was unlike him. I thought it was very effective, without losing that it was an adventure movie at heart.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

--one of the things I was concerned about prior to your reading--and was on my to-do list of fixes--was to strengthen (somehow) the notion that it's not just an adventure, but that her Dad has given her clues to his disappearance. I suspect I need to strengthen Ash's reluctance as the "parent" in the pair versus Jeri's more headstrong approach, as well. I've always felt that Ash goes along with this a little too easily, although I had started bringing up the fact that she had other motivations--career ambitions and her own feelings for Doc--but those need to be brought more to the fore, and Ash being even more ambivalent might be helpful.

And, now that my brain is moving, this could be a kind of, Jeri's going whether Ash wants her to or not situation, so like we discussed, I've got some pondering to do.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I think then, at the moment she realizes that the clues lead to the conclusion this disappeared plane and all of it could be a coded chase . . . she had to feel elation, hope, a headstrong recklessness . . . balanced by Ash. There's definitely ways to handle it . . .

11:47 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Spy gave me her comments today (similar to yours, as a matter of fact) and she suggested--and this might be brilliant--that the message she receives at school might actually be from her Dad and it might be coded and might say something like, "No matter what anybody tells you, I'm not dead."

Depending on the eventual age, I'm thinking text message, frankly.

12:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mark; I'm a plot-driven writer, myself, and much prefer plot or idea driven fiction (I'll read SF before almost anything else), but for reasons that even I'm not sure I can explain, I write romantic suspense. I've been accused of writing "too much story", but I'm in a genre that is expected to be almost 100% emotional experience.

To cut to the chase: For the first few books I wrote, I plotted out the character's emotional arc with as much deliberation as I plotted the story events, and sweated over making sure the arc was solid, realistic, and emotional.

It feels very artificial at first, but it certainly made a different to the emotional impact of my books.

2:10 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

That's an interesting idea. Never thought of that.

3:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


8:46 PM  

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