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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Structuring the Novel: Conversation with J. Mark Bertrand, Part Two


As promised, here is the second half of the interview I posted yesterday. In this section, J. Mark relays some unique insights into plotting novels, and offers his insights for getting started. He also discusses the special structural challenges presented by his crime novel Back on Murder, due out in July.

I originally came across you and your writing quite by accident, when I was researching how other writers deal with plot structure. I find your suggestion of writing a 50-paged treatment prior to drafting to be daunting, but fascinating. Could you explain why you recommend this as a prewriting strategy, and what it entails? And for those unfamiliar with the term "treatment," could you define it?

My grad school mentor Dan Stern recommended this in his UH novel writing workshop. In the film industry, a treatment is a summary--more detailed than a quick synopsis, but not yet a fully realized, scene-by-scene script--that communicates the rough contours of the story. Some are more detailed than others, but since Dan was convinced the problem with most of us young novelists was that we didn't know our stories well enough, he recommended writing a fairly detailed treatment before starting.

For writers who don't like to stick with an outline, this advice can be liberating. Writing the treatment helps you to discover the story. When you embark on the manuscript itself, you're not following a list of bullet points. Rather, you're retelling a story you know already. I don't go back and consult the treatment. It's served its purpose, which was to get me up to speed on the story, so that, while writing, I can focus on discovering the details of plot and character. The real payoff seems to come during revision, since I can focus more on the sentence level than the story level, which was pre-revised, so to speak.

The 50-page dictum is a separate issue. For Dan, who was an accomplished cellist, the novel was like a complex piece of music. All the themes should be introduced in the first fifty pages, with the rest of the book spent developing and ultimately resolving them. Beethoven gives you the theme of the 5th up front, and Dan saw the novel in a similar way. If the opening sentence somehow introduced the novel's theme, so much the better, but anything you planned to riff about later had to be there in the first fifty pages. Once you got those right, the rest was practically a given.

If you think that sounds daunting, how about this? Writing detective fiction, I have the added challenge of balancing the story of the investigation (which is the one I'm telling) with the story of the crime (which my protagonist Roland March is reconstructing). The latter has to be convincing, but it's the quality of the former that determines whether the book will be re-readable. The way I've approached this is by creating a character in March's world named Brad Templeton, a true crime writer who's chronicled the cases. So I write about the crimes through Templeton's journalistic perspective (something readers won't see in Back on Murder except in hints, but will get more of as the series progresses), and then let March give his own first-person narrative--i.e., the story itself, which is told through his eyes. So my process involves discovering the plot through Templeton, then telling the story through March. Clearly collaboration isn't the only way to double your workload!

5 comments:

Phil W said...

Good interview. Thank you for putting this together.

Mylène said...

Great advice here. Writer, know thy story. You can write to discover the story, or you can discover the story and then write it. I've done it both ways, and vastly prefer the second/the treatment/the J.Mark approach (sometimes the treatment exists only in my head), though can't always pull it off. Sometimes, for this writer at least, there is no other way than the long way. It's difficult to say why. Some stories fall into place before they begin. Others can be found by no other method than rude digging.

Kathryn Paterson said...

I thought I was doing the second approach when I wrote a fairly lengthy synopsis, but what I realized later was that it was still too sketchy. Also, though, many of the problems inherent in the first draft were evident in the synopsis, and it would have been helpful if someone had pointed those out BEFORE I wrote 359 pages. I was told simply "write a synopsis and turn it in," but then the only feedback was basically "good, keep going," when there were big, evident problems in the original plan. Sometimes I think it would do a writer well to workshop the actual TREATMENT. What do you think about that? I know I've had students come to me with novel outlines and I've been able to say things like "but why does this need to happen over a two year period" or "can't you just cut from here to here?" and it saves the student so much TIME in the drafting stages. I just wish I could do that with my own work!

That said, I wasn't happy with any of my outlined or synopsized versions of the end of my novel, and then was driving down the road one day and the ending just hit me. With such force,in fact, that I had to pull off to the side of the road and sob and let it pass through me. The part that hit me that way is the part everyone loves, and the part I slaved over outlining and drafting little by little is the part I'm still struggling with. So I don't know. Some of us write with our left brains and some with our right.

Mylène said...

Kat, I think anything that potentially helps us save time is worth doing, including subjecting treatments to critique. TIME is something I don't think we talk about enough as writers. Life is only so long, and there are so many stories to tell, and if each one takes three, five, ten years . . . I feel this more as I get older. I use treatments (written or in the head) more than I used to. I check more than I used to for soundness of plot BEFORE I begin. I wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. ;-)

Kathryn Paterson said...

I just wish that would work for me. I always seem to have to write scenes first and really get to know the characters before I can hear their story. And sometimes they withhold their stories. But like you, I'm hoping to streamline this process, and I'm definitely going to go in with more detailed prewriting next time. What took so long this time was the research--and I think I overestimated how much that would really tell me about these people. It did help tremendously in establishing the situation and in knowing how to be true to the characters, but it didn't bring me plot.

I do have to say, though, that I would rather have a few very well written books that are true to me and mean something beyond me than 50 or 60 (or even 15 or 20) mediocre ones.

Sigh. Maybe I AM literary.