Mark Terry

Friday, September 25, 2009


September 25, 2009
My Derek Stillwater novels usually happen like this: some horrific event occurs, but it's merely a prelude to another even more horrific event or series of events. Derek has to prevent them from happening. The clock is ticking.

They usually take place in a very short period of time. In THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK, about 28 hours. In THE SERPENT'S KISS, about 12. In the upcoming THE FALLEN, about 9 or 10. In THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS, scheduled for September 2011, except for a prologue that takes place two weeks earlier, they novel occurs over a 48-hour period.

That's certainly the nature of the Derek Stillwater novels and I look for story ideas that have tight timeframes and ticking clocks in them for his books. It's a wonderful way to write a thriller because the structure creates its own tension. What it causes problems with are all THOSE OTHER THINGS: characterization, relationships, etc.

When editors turned down the Stillwater books, they invariably said something along the lines of "I loved the story and the pace and the tension, but I really wanted more characterization." Something like that, anyway. The editors that bought them felt differently. And based on reader feedback, they don't have a big problem with Derek's characterization, so who's to say?

The editors that bought them, I think, understood that there can be an inherent contradiction in wanting a fast-reading, edgy novel that takes place in a very short period of time and slowly-developing characterization. In the Derek Stillwater novels, he invariably is working fairly closely with another law enforcement official and my challenge is to make their relationship develop through words and actions over what amounts to a very short period of time. It ain't easy.

I think I pulled it off in THE SERPENT'S KISS based on the number of readers who've asked me if Jill Church would appear in another book, how much chemistry there seemed to be between her and Derek. (The answer: I don't know, maybe.)

It's always a problem in any book, though. What to put in, what to leave out. A flashback or backstory or lengthy internal monologue can knock a reader right out of a story, can grind the forward momentum of a novel to a halt. Of course, the degree to which you do that depends a lot on the type of book you're writing (and will appeal to a certain type of reader. All books do not appeal to all readers all the time, and although I read widely, I don't want my fast-paced thrillers to to get bogged down with pages of Jodi Picoult-like internal monologues).

At the same time, would the Spenser novels be the same if he didn't spend so much time cooking? If he didn't have his sappy relationship with Susan Silverman? (Although there was an online campaign to "Snuff Susan" a while back and I was sort of in favor of it). He wrote one a couple years ago called School Days where he moved Spenser out of Boston and didn't take Susan or Hawk with him, and I found it kind of refreshing, but at the same time, the book seemed to be missing some important elements.

On the other hand, I've grown frustrated with Sue Grafton's apparent refusal to let Kinsey Millhone have a real life with friends, family and boyfriends in it. She'll date somebody in one book, break up in another, family will play a big role in one then disappear for five books. She's said her books are about Kinsey's work life and she doesn't want to get all involved in Kinsey's personal life, but I'll tell you what, I think we need some of it.

So how much? How do you decide?


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Generally I would prefer that books not try to cram in every conceivable element. Let a fast paced suspense novel concentrate on that and don't worry if a novel devoted to character study moves slowly. Would an artist be expected to use every color in every painting? "Sorry Pablo, these Blue Period paintings aren't bad but viewers expect red, you know. And yellow. They need some brightness too."

Having said that, a series is more problematical. If you are reading about the same character in one book after another you eventually want to know more about the character I thin, moreso than you do about a character you find in a single book which concentrates on plot and pace and suspense.

People always talk about character development in novels but that's tough if your books take place over a span of hours. You can hardly have the hero experience an epiphany every book!

8:26 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Dangling from a cliff, alligators waiting below near the jagged rocks, young Oedipus thought, "Oh dear God, I've been screwing my mother!"

Now what am I going to do? Aaarrrggggh. Once I get up off this cliff, fight off the bad guys, and save the world....

8:44 AM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

I'm fighting this in SCAR right now. I think I've found a solution with multiple POVs and assigning each POV certain duties. As a friend recently said, "Your MC is your doer, your actor, so get all that description and relationship crap out of his way and let him DO."

It's making some sense, so far.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I prefer all the characterization. Just my personal taste. The quirkier the better.


11:24 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I like both kinds of books. I like a nice propulsive thriller--those are the Derek Stillwater books for sure--and Derek's quirky for sure, but just by the nature of the books it's hard to develop relationships, etc. So there are books along these lines that I like a lot, some of David Morrell's, Vince Flynn, & others. Then I like the ones that have lots of quirks and character development--John Sandford, Jonathan Kellerman, David Hewson. There's room for both in the world, but I admit that the non-Derek Stillwater books I write tend to be much more character-oriented.

11:29 AM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

For me, characterization is the suspense. All mysteries and thrillers are pretty close to being the same, after awhile, and the emotional bits and conflict/tension (good or bad, LOL) is what keeps me reading, particularly in series.

1:50 PM  

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