Mark Terry

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Picking Through A Minefield

September 7, 2006
I've begun working on a new work-in-progress, something a little different than my previous books. It's something I hope to have a good 100 pages or so and an outline done by the end of the year (maybe) and then I'll consider seeing if my agent can sell it to somebody. It's a medical thriller. But we'll see. I've got other things going on. Irene is marketing a manuscript of mine under an alias (er, pseudonym) and I'm wrapping up ANGELS FALLING and will need to begin book 4 in my contract. So it's possible this WIP won't actually get finished because I won't have time or I'll lose interest or Irene will sell the Dancing novel and I'll be busy, busy, busy. (Let's hope).

And I was thinking that the first 50 to 100 pages of a novel feel like picking your way through a minefield. It's slow-going. I'm auditioning characters, setting up things, trying to see a different world in a different way. Plus, I might step on a mine and blow up the damned book. It's happened before. And what's worse, some of these are "delayed" mines, the kind you step on and don't realize you've set a timer that's going to explode later on in your book, somewhere around, say, page 237, that will bring everything to a smoking halt.

A lovely writer who's name I forget over on Robert Gregory Browne's blog responded to me suggesting that books had a beginning, muddle, and ending. Not middle, but muddle, and that straightening it out was part of the job. Yeah, I understand. But if you don't get the beginning right, the entire book gets derailed.

I popped onto and noted that Tobie (Tobey? To?--Yo, To!?) had a link to who has an amusing and insightful blog post today about "How To Write A Novel."

One of the things that Tobie mentions is he uses a spreadsheet to track his plots. So does Justine. Tobie is a bit of a tech guru, but you know, I've never considered doing that.

The similarity, though, between our techniques is that halfway through a book I typically have to sit down with a yellow legal pad or on Word and write out the remaining plot points, to make sure I can actually finish the damned thing and tie up all the loose ends. It also helps me figure out if I've got enough story to actually, well, write something of commercial length. There's nothing quite so disappointing as having 150 pages done on a novel to realize you only have 25 more pages of story left. Hey, you've written a novella! Unfortunately, book publishers rarely if ever publish novellas and neither do short story markets, so you've got... squat. Or a treatment for a screenplay.

"How to Write a Novel" is not something I typically write about. I'm willing to write about conflict and characterization and point of view and voice and style, but I'm less inclined to tell people "How to write a novel." One reason is because everybody approaches it differently. (Also because, honestly, aren't there enough books published already? Who needs the competition? Why don't you take up crochet or something? The world needs more afghans. Join Habitat for Humanity. Why do you want to write a fucking book, anyway?) When pressed, I have said:

One word at a time.

The questioner tends to act a bit disgusted at that answer, but hey, I'm sorry. It's true.

I start with a title, a premise, hopefully a character or two. I write. One word at a time, one sentence at a time, one paragraph at a time, one page at a time, one scene, chapter, section, etc.
They built the Great Wall of China one brick at a time and you can see it from the International Space Station.

So that's how it's done.

Oh, and my former agent, Ben Camardi, of the Harold Matson Company, once gave me good advice, which was: Think more, write less.

I might modify that to: Think more, re-write less. But then again, re-writing is part of the gig, too. So although I do tend to start off without a real outline or even a plan, things go better when I think about where I'm going and try to figure out how to get there. Of course, if I'm surprised, hopefully the reader will be, too.

Mark Terry


Anonymous Ron Estrada said...

I'm trying something different this time. I'm just slamming my way through the first draft of my WIP. I'm enjoying this because it keeps it interesting. My crit partners keep asking me for the next chapter, and I've told them that I can't stop writing to check my previous chapters for crit submission. They seem confused, but that's fine. I'm smack in the middle of the book now and haven't lost any enthusiasm nor have I grown bored. I've also tried the spreadsheet thing. Ugh. At some point, you have to stop plotting and start writing or you'll bore yourself to tears and have no desire to continue.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

I've tried different things over the years. Sometimes you just have to get the sucker down on paper.

9:46 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I think it's almost impossible to say anything useful about the most important aspect of writing a novel -- coming up with ideas. Where do ideas come from anyhow? We might start with a mystery puzzle, or a situation, some characters, a setting. You can start almost any place and every idea potentially leads in unexpected directions. People will say, for example, that a book is "character driven" but even a book driven by what characters might do is still influenced by many other factors.

You can probably talk more sensibly about how you organize the ideas so as to preserve and keep them in order, as by using a spreadsheet. I just make notes and lists. I've tried different computerized organizers but none of them have felt right for novel writing.

10:34 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Ideas, it's easy to suggest, are a dime a dozen. Good ideas are pretty damned rare. And it's what you do with it, anyway, that matters.

10:54 AM  
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