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