Mark Terry

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

My Legs Are Long Enough To Reach The Ground

July 13, 2010
Tom, if you're reading this, my apologies.

The husband of a friend of mine had read a couple of my books and was asking about The Fallen. In that I knew he was unemployed, I gave him an advanced reading copy I had laying around and more or less forgot about it. Then last night he emailed me his thoughts on the book, which overall were positive. But he threw in a few thoughts:

The first is it was not long enough, you could have really built on it with some more detail. I wish it had another 100 pages so it would be about as long as the other books of this type. The second comment is about the chapters. I did not like the huge number of them, and thought you could team up some of them and eliminate some of the extra chapters. I know some authors do all the good guy stuff in one, and divide it with a line, or a star, or something to show where the break in characters is.
I wrote back, "Thanks. Glad you enjoyed the book" and answered a question he had about the the next book. I felt no obligation to respond to his comments, all of which are fairly interesting. And if I had not spent some time thinking about these prior to actually writing the book, I probably wouldn't be much of a writer, but I'm not sure they're worth explaining to a reader and besides, there are probably no correct answers, only a matter of taste. But since, generally speaking, the readers of this blog are either novelists or aspiring novelists, I will share a few thoughts here.

1. The first is it was not long enough, you could have really built on it with some more detail. Perhaps. It's around 76,000 words. A genre novel typically goes between 70,000 and 100,000. The Derek Stillwater books could loosely fall into the category of "espionage" or "political thriller" and some of those books often do run upwards of 120,000 or more. And I'd have to check, but I think The Devil's Pitchfork and The Serpent's Kiss are both closer to 90,000 and although I'm not certain, the 4th one (due out June 2011), The Valley of Shadows, probably runs 95,000 or so. And if things continue the way they seem to be, the 5th book may run a few million words... just joking. Sometimes it feels like the book Grady Tripp in "The Wonder Boys" is writing, the one that's over a thousand pages long because he doesn't know how to end it ... or in my case, I keep thrashing around trying to figure out what the story actually is... don't worry, I'll find it.

Generally speaking, the reviewers and readers have been quite happy with the pace of The Fallen, and part of that pace--"blistering" as James Rollins called it--comes from the leanness of the writing. So it was intentional and it's part of how I write. That said, I think each progressive novel, hopefully, will be more detailed with more depth while still trying to hold onto a rollicking pace. There are a number of aspects of a fast-paced page-turner that relate to keeping the writing lean and efficient, but another important aspect has to do with what I think of as the incident-to-page ratio--that is to say, is there a lot going on, or are two people talking for pages on end while they travel on a bus, or do you spend pages on internal monologue and flashbacks. Although I'm still being cautious about internal monologue and flashbacks, I'm trying to get more depth into Derek's backstory and adding more layers to other characters in future books, hopefully without jettisoning the things that make a "Mark Terry Book."

Also, book length is always a puzzle. There are marketing concerns, and if you go too long, it costs the publisher more to produce it, and they may ask you to cut material out to fit the market, or, if you're not a bestseller, they may just say, "Yeah, Daniel Silva can get away with 150,000 word thriller, but you can't, so keep it under 100,000 words." Ultimately I think the book's as long as it needs to be, i.e., my legs are long enough to reach the ground.

2. The second comment is about the chapters. I did not like the huge number of them, and thought you could team up some of them and eliminate some of the extra chapters. I know some authors do all the good guy stuff in one, and divide it with a line, or a star, or something to show where the break in characters is. Always a trick. Generally speaking, each chapter is a scene in my books. Robert W. Walker argues--vociferously, as he usually does--that a scene is not a chapter, period. Well, whatever. I call it the Potato Chip Theory--short chapters help keep the pace going, they're like potato chips, you can't eat just one. Instead of glancing at the next page and seeing that it's 35 pages long and it's time for bed, you glance at the next chapter, see it's 4 pages long and say, "Okay, just this one..." and so on. It works, but not all readers like it. On the other hand, it's worked exceptionally well for Robert B. Parker and Clive Cussler over dozens of bestselling novels. I rather like it. Tom Clancy drove me nuts with his 80 and 120-page chapters. David Morrell has written eloquently and intelligently about various methods he used to get around this, using subchapters, and sections and chapters, etc. Again, no right answer. Hell, one of Michael Connelly's books has NO chapters, just section breaks.

That said, it doesn't always work for all books all the time and although it worked quite well for The Fallen, I do it a little bit less in The Valley of Shadows and probably less in The Sins of the Father, or whatever the 5th book will end up being called. And in my never-ending thriller that I promise myself (and Natasha) I'm going to finish, China Fire, I do it in some places and not in others, depending on my sense of what I want the pace to do at any specific time.

Overall, it was a nice letter. I'm sure that some novelists get their undies in a bunch when a reader starts questioning their technique (especially if they didn't actually, you know, pay for the book), but I try to take these things in stride and keep my ego out of that end of things. If there's a bigger problem--and although I haven't heard many novelists talk about this--due to the lag time between writing, acceptance, publication and letters such as these, it can be a little bit weird because you wrote the book 2 or 3 or 4 years ago and now they're criticizing it--what am I supposed to do about it? I suppose the same thing goes with praise, which is why I tend to stick with "thanks, glad you liked it," and leave it at that.

Thoughts?

13 Comments:

Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I would be really annoyed. So, I give you credit. I don't offer (except to critique folks) my books to personal acquaintances to invite them to respond to me. It's a work, stands on its own . . . and I don't know . . . I just can't imagine the motivation for someone to write to you that way, but you're a bigger guy than I am. AND, it brings out that for the picky things or things people don't care for, there is most often a well-thought-out reason for it . . . so the criticism becomes personal taste and in a sense rather moot.

8:18 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Erica,
Oh, we could talk... :)

8:23 AM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

I have a couple readers who offer "helpful" critiques. I enjoy them. I really like to know how my readers react to everything. If I could, I'd sit and watch them read, hook them up to a machine to record their feelings at every paragraph. :-)

I have to laugh at the chapter thing. :D I'll admit, when I was formatting one of your books for Kindle, I thought, "Did he have to use over a hundred chapters?!" But that was just my laziness talking, LOL. Chapter length is a fascinating topic. Due to guidelines, I've never written anything other than chapters between 3500-4200 words. But I feel acutely where I'd prefer the breaks to be.

9:55 AM  
Anonymous Jim said...

Some books have large chapters, some books have short chapters, others are somewhere in between. I did notice that you used very short chapters in The Fallen and I remember thinking that it would be interesting if you were to discuss your reasoning behind that choice in your blog sometime -- but that's because I find your discussions of the writing process to be interesting, not because I questioned your choice. Yeah, I understood that it was probably to create a feeling of rapid movement, but I like your discussions of the writing process.

I really enjoyed the opening of The Fallen -- I like technical nuts & bolts details in thrillers: technical details of weapons, tactics, strategy. I am really annoyed by book reviews that are not so much discussions of the book under review as they are discussions of the book that the reviewer would have written. As a reader, I would have been interested in greater development of the Washington command scenes or in Stillwater's science background having more of a connection to the plot, but that wasn't the book you were writing. I also thought that perhaps the pace got to be too rapid, but it was also obvious that you wanted a breakneck pace because you have the writing skills and experience to make the book be what you want. (If I ever hit one of those mega million lottery jackpots I'll be sure to contact you for a custom-written novel.)

You made The Fallen a page turner and I turned the pages. Mission accomplished. Will I buy your next Stillwater book. Yes, absolutely.

(I also enjoyed Dirty Deeds and I'd certainly like there to be another Meg Melloy novel)

10:04 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Jim,
Interesting. You're quite right. I've been a book reviewer off and on for years (mostly off these days) and I was always cautious to review the book the author wrote--to try and figure out what the author was trying to accomplish, THEN evaluate whether they accomplished it and how.

I don't think most reviewers do that and too many of them get caught up in comparing, say, a thriller to a book written for a different purpose, whether to compare a spy novel to House of the Seven Gables or a horror novel to Macbeth. Does the thriller thrill? Does the horror novel scare? Does the romance novel make you feel emotional?

And yes, no single book can be everything. If I want to write an enormously fast-paced novel that takes place in a span of 8 hours, there are going to be things I don't do. And over the course of, I hope, many, many books, I will try different things so each book has a somewhat different feel and pace. I think the next book, The Valley of Shadows, is still fast-paced, but probably less frenetic than The Fallen, if for no other reason than it takes place over 2 days instead of 8 hours.

And the 5th one I'm working on, I'm trying to accomplish different things than I did in the first 4 Derek Stillwater novels. Hopefully I'll be successful in accomplishing what I'm setting out to accomplish, but only readers will be able to tell me.

As for a follow-up to Dirty Deeds, there is one, called Bad Intentions, but I wrote it in WordPerfect, which I no longer have. I got it translated via a website that does those sorts of things, but a chunk of it is corrupted. If I get the time and motivation, I'll sort it out and publish it as an e-book--maybe--but I'm not sure if too much time has gone by.

10:28 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

As you probably know I prefer books to be short and to the point. I think too many books are bloated. As for chapters...Mary and I are tending more and more to divide books by the scene. If that's against Rob Walker's advice I guess we're on the right track. I guess in our books we call each division a chapter but I've seen plenty of books that just number the divisions and who cares whether the numbers stand for chapters, or what a chapter really is? As a reader I prefer to see a book presented in easily digestible pieces.

I'm not sure how I feel about the sort of criticism your friend offered. It's skirting close to giving you writing tips. Readers are qualified to say they loved the book or hated it, that's for sure, but very few readers are qualified to give technical writing tips. Readers can tell you whether you've accomplished what you wanted but probably they can't tell you how to accomplish it, although some seem to think they can.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Eric,
Yeah, what IS a chapter, anyway?????

And a discussion of his comments is probably best left for writers to discuss among writers, rather than somewhere readers can hear.

I have reflected, however, on the sheer number of times people have written moronic and insulting and just plain weird letters to Lee Goldberg and he then posts them on his blog and makes fun of them--you'd think they'd learn, but who knows, maybe they like it.

11:38 AM  
Blogger Alan Orloff said...

Before the book's published, I'll take a moment to digest a reader's comments. After the book's out, I simply try to smile and say thanks. (Sometimes easier said than done.)

2:44 PM  
Blogger Mary said...

Maybe the guy wanted to offer you something so e wouldn't feel th book was a "hand out." Being unemployed and all.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Susan said...

Speaking strictly as a reader. I happen to like your chapters for two reasons: 1. If I only have a short amount of time, they give me an automatic stopping point and 2. The potato chip analogy...which has wreaked havoc on reason #1 at times!

4:43 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Thanks, Susan. That's the intention.

6:17 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Alan,
I know what you mean.

6:17 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Mary,
Maybe.

6:18 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home