Mark Terry

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A Master's Class In Creative Writing

May 8, 2008
I received a package from Amazon yesterday--the new John Sandford novel, PHANTOM PREY. I started reading it and was quickly struck by just how good a writer Sandford is. That's not something I always say about writers, no matter how successful they are. They may be good storytellers or they may be good writers or both (or neither, but that's a separate issue). I think Sandford is both. Anyway, I'm going to put up a couple passages from his book that made me sit up and take notice, partly because how much they showed about the character, partly because of how entertaining they were.

You might agree or disagree, but I do think when you come across a writer who not only is very successful, but to whom you respond as a reader, you should pay attention and try to figure out what it is you're responding to and try to adapt it to your own work. So here goes:

Lucas looked down at the laptop, where he'd been wrestling with bureaucratic ratshit. He was late with the annual personnel evaluations, and some time-serving wretch, deep in the bowels of the bureaucracy, whose life work involved collecting evaluation forms, was torturing him with e-mails and phone messages.

And what, really, could he say about Del? Or about Virgil? Or about Jenkins and Shrake?

The questionnaire asked if Del presented himself in a manner that conformed to standards of good practice as outlined in Minnesota state regulations. In fact, the last time Lucas had seen Del, he's been unshaven, hungover, three months late for a haircut, and was wearing torn jeans, worn sneaks, and a sweatshirt that said, *underwear not included.

Virgil, Lucas knew, drove around the state pulling a boat and trailer and almost daily went fishing or hunting on state time, the better to focus investigative vibrations--a technique that seemed to work.

Jenkins and Shrake carried leather-wrapped saps. Jenkins called his the Hillary-Whacker, in case, he said, he should ever encounter the junior senator from New York.

Should all of this go into a file?

*  *  *  

That's when the end-of-winter blues got him. March was a tough month in the Cities. Dress warm, and the day got warm and you sweated. Dress cool, and the day turned cold, and you froze. Cars were rolling lumps of dirt, impossible to keep clean. Everybody was fat and slow, and crabby.

*  *  *

Lucas had jet-black hair salted with streaks of gray, and his face was pale with the winter. He had strong shoulders and a hawk's beak nose, blue eyes, and a couple of notable scars on his face and neck. Traces of the job.

His paternal ancestors, somewhere back through the centuries, had paddled wild fur out of the North Woods, mink and beaver and otter and martin and fisher, across Superior and the lesser Great Lakes, down the St. Lawrence. A bunch of mean Frenchmen; and finally one of them said, "Screw this Canadian bullshit," and moved to the States.

When that happened was not exactly clear, but Lucas's father had suggested that when it did, the immigrant might have had a case of blended whiskey on his shoulder....

His mother's side was Irish and Welsh, and a bit of German; but Lucas wasn't a genealogist and mostly didn't care who'd done what back when.

*  *  *

Well? What do you think? Does it work for you? Is it vivid? Does it entertain and provide insight? What's he doing here that works? Or maybe it doesn't. Thoughts?

Mark Terry`


Blogger Aimless Writer said...

Although I'm not sure where the hook is that they tell us is so important in a novel-or was this not the opening?
It reminds me a bit of Stephen King's better novels. Where the words paint mood and picture at the same time. We're almost inside Lucas' head looking out. The words are almost music.

7:50 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

These weren't the opening, just things that struck me in the 2nd or 3rd chapter.

7:54 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

"Cars were rolling lumps of dirt,"

Oh gosh, I could just melt over that phrase. That's a great one! See, I don't know that I come up with great little similes and metaphors like that. I think I should work on that.

Love how he fleshes out Lucas's character by telling the story of his ancestors.

"Bureaucratic ratshit" is awesome, too.

I agree with Aimless. I love how King and (it appears) Sandford can draw a character so instantly, and so vividly. That's awesome.

8:08 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Now, I've read probably 20+ books by Sandford, and I'm also struck, after how many of these about Lucas, that he manages to still occasionally bring us something new and interesting about the character, but stay "in character."

8:23 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

It's a little tricky pulling passages out of context sometimes. What you have here is all telling and no showing, which we would ordinarily teach our creative writing students to avoid. Also, the first two excerpts seem to be third-person limited POV; in the last excerpt, we're jarred into third-person omniscient.

I've never read John Sanford. The language is quite clever in places, but I would hope the bulk of a thriller would use more active sentences and more powerful verbs.

5:31 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

If writing is to entertain, I think this does it well.

As for whether it's showing or telling . . . it's all in the execution. And the fact that this is the 20th novel or whatever of the Lucas books. New readers are brought up to instant speed on who the secondaries are. Long-time fans don't mind the humorous look at them . . . they love Lucas. So it just works, I think. Nearly all series authors use similar techniques. Vachss does it in the Burke books . . . Robert K. Tannenbaum does it in explaining the politics of Karp's office. It's efficient and works.

We should all be so lucky to have the devoted fans Sandford does.

7:02 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...


I'm not saying Sanford isn't a good writer. I could pull similar mediocre efforts from James Lee Burke or from my own stuff or from any writer. I'm just wondering why Mark thought these passages were so special. I'm guessing it has more to do with being a fan of the series than with the unremarkable prose presented here.

Of course it's ridiculous for me to criticize a superstar like John Sanford; but, hey, Mark asked, so I assumed he really did want a variety of opinions.

7:31 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I am not sure why you're responding in such a testy manner. Mark posted it, obviously, because he is a fan and he liked the passages. I'm simply saying that series authors use the kind of humorous summation shown here--and in all sincereity we should all be so lucky to have a series do well. I think it "works"--you can think it doesn't--I wasn't implying anything.

7:57 AM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Didn't mean to sound testy. Sorry.

8:04 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Wow, I'm under the weather a bit and I check in and look what happens.

Jude, I fully expected it not to work for everybody.

I like it because:

1. It's funny and entertaining
2. It's like a lightning bolt to illuminating the characters.

Yes, he's telling more than showing... here. But he shows plenty and it's almost impossible to show all the time.

And something worth noting about Sandford--he won the Pulitzer as a journalist before he turned to fiction, so he's no slouch. And two, the very first Prey novel (Rules of Prey) was a bestseller.

Interestingly (to me, anyway), it was the same year that Patricia Cornwall got started. I think Sandford's been very consistent in his quality. There are novels I like better than others, but none are duds as far as I can tell, and there are few long-running bestsellers you can say that about.

11:35 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Aw, shit. Man. I read the first page and got tears in my eyes, his writing is so good.

Man, that's depressing. I feel like someone smacked me around. I truly am teary-eyed in the Borders Cafe.

Give me a few minutes. Pretty soon I'll be thrilled, in complete delight that writing this good exists, and I get to read it.

Am I crazy for having this reaction?

1:52 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Well, Mark, at least we agree Stephen King's Bag of Bones is a beautifully written book. :) That's one we could all learn some lessons from, IMHO.

Hope you feel better soon.

2:19 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...


I went to Sanford's website and read the first chapter. Good stuff, man.

1:51 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I think every thriller writer would benefit from reading Sandford, actually. The guy's just got it down. I interviewed him one and he's a really good guy. And if you read through the comments on his books--Eyes of Prey and Night Watch, I think are the 2 with the best comments on his website, you realize this is a guy who's written entire novels, turned them in to his editors who would have gone on with his novels if he'd insisted, but Sandford didn't like their weak responses, so he went back and rewrote them. I think he's a guy who knows what works, but is constantly trying to follow his own interests, which he recognizes doesn't always work for a commercial thriller.

6:00 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Oh yeah, and my favorite King novel--one of my favorite novels in general, is "Bag of Bones."

6:01 AM  
Anonymous Jim said...

I'm a big Sandford fan. The funny thing is, when I read his books I am aware that he often bends or breaks various "rules" about how to write successful novels, but he is so good that it all works. His Prey novels are my favorites (although I do read his other books), books where I can't stop turning the pages (except when I just have to read a passage out loud to my wife, just the way you couldn't help quoting him in your blog).

10:54 AM  
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6:10 PM  

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