Mark Terry

Monday, March 08, 2010

What type of book are you writing?

March 8, 2010
Yesterday on Facebook I wrote:

I started working on the 5th Derek Stillwater novel and felt recently that its pace was too slow. Then I was inspired by Dr. Seuss: "Then he got an idea. An awful idea. The Grinch got a wonderful, *awful* idea!" Oh yes, I did. The writer, he said, to his furry young pup. "When in doubt, my fine friend, blow something up."


That got some fairly interesting comments, most of them funny. The fact is, of course, that I WAS working on the 5th DS novel and I am 40 pages or so in and I felt like, despite a terrific prologue, a great premise, and some very interesting things going on, I had gone from those things to Derek and his State Department contact in Moscow, Erica Kirov, sitting around talking. And I would also have to add, from my point of view, getting along too well. Which usually means it's time for Derek to start rubbing people the wrong way, and in a hurry.

Nonetheless, I felt like I was writing a mystery novel set in Russia. Nothing wrong with that, except that this is a Derek Stillwater novel. Derek Stillwater does, in fact, solve mysteries, but the other very important elements are that he's solving those mysteries on a dead run, he's solving them with some sort of deadline (ticking clock) hanging over his head, and the stakes are really, really high.

I hadn't gotten Derek moving on his dead run yet, there was no real deadline, and I hadn't quite let anyone know what the stakes were yet, partially because I hadn't completed decided. Some very odd things were going on, but nothing had quite gelled.

So I was doing some research on domestic terrorism in Russia and on Russia's history of biological and chemical warfare research, and all sorts of elements suddenly came together and I not only know what I needed to do--blow something up--but what Derek was going to be doing afterwards.

This is a wonderful, wonderful feeling for a writer.

But the point of his little essay is that you as a writer need to know what type of book you're writing. If I wanted to, I could have Derek basically investigating the death of a US weapons inspector in Russia, since that's a component of the book. Or he could be looking into the death/disappearance of a friend, which is also a component of the book. And they would, I think, both be good stories.

But the fact is, I'm writing a Derek Stillwater novel, and by this time, I ought to have some notion of what a Derek Stillwater novel actually is--see my description earlier. As much as possible, I need to have those elements in a Derek Stillwater novel--action, ticking clocks, high stakes. As I commented later on Facebook, when you're writing novels about an expert on terrorism, sooner or later something's going to have to go boom.

That's not to place any judgement call on the value of the type of book I'm writing, to suggest that if the book were a deep, layered study on the differences between American and Russian terrorism and culture, or a slower, in-depth character study, that those are bad things, inferior or superior to what I'm doing. In fact, there are perhaps components of both of those I want to layer into this book. But if that's all I did, then I wouldn't be writing a Derek Stillwater novel and my agent, editors and readers might very well be disappointed that I hadn't delivered what they had come to expect. Another word for that is "branding" and at this stage of the game a Derek Stillwater novel is also a Mark Terry novel, and I'm still in the process of developing that "brand," such as it is.

Can you develop a brand as "every book is different?" Sure. Some writers do that quite well. I just read The Ghost by Robert Harris and I've read a couple of his other books and apparently he also writes big sprawling novels taking place in ancient Rome, and it's fairly safe to say that a first-person political thriller about a ghost writer hired to write the memoirs of a former UK Prime Minister is fairly different from his Roman novels and his alternate history novel, Fatherland. That's his brand.

But most writer's brand is more consistent. Robert B. Parker's was private eyes and short chapters and crystalline dialogue; Harlan Coben's is normal people trapped in bizarre situations, personal secrets, and twists and turns. Each book's different, but it's not.

So, what type of book are you writing?

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