Re-learning Old Lessons

Conduct in Question, the first in The Osgoode Trilogy


Some issues never really disappear. At least not for me. Just yesterday, I was writing about the Fate of Pryde [the novel I’m working on now] and how it wasn’t “hanging together”.

And so, I came across this article which I had written some years ago about my first novel not “hanging together”, in which I said:

“After I had written probably the sixth or seventh draft of Conduct in Question, my very first novel and the first in The Osgoode Trilogy, I submitted the book to a publisher. Instead of receiving the usual “not for our list” letter, this publisher actually took the trouble of writing me a letter filled with [as it turned out] excellent advice.

Although the characters were intriguing and the story exciting, the plot lines [of which there were three] did not hang together. Elated that this publisher had actually read the book, I embarked on an analysis of my novel from that perspective. And guess what? He was right. The plots did not hang together. It was then that I began to develop the third eye.

Writing is an extremely long journey filled with numerous pot holes, to say nothing of ditches and sewers. When we begin, we take great satisfaction in having written a first sentence, which hopefully catches the reader’s eye and leads up to the HOOK. Yes, I’ve read most of the books on how to write a best seller and even gone to some writers’ classes and conferences. The paragraphs follow one by one and soon the first brilliant chapter is complete. Now, surely, one is a writer.

You are proud of your dialogue and admire your descriptions of character and setting. [I did puzzle over how setting could really be a character in my novel, but I persevered.] You study how to tighten up the “soggy, drooping” centre of the novel and how to build an effective climax. Surely, by now, you’ve written a best seller!

But, as I learned, from this kindly publisher, something structural was missing. Somehow, in this analytical process, it occurred to me that I was not considering the effect I was producing upon the reader. This is akin to the painter who cannot seem to lift his nose from the canvas. But a painter can put down his brush and step back. He can view his painting from every imaginable angle and at any distance he likes. Not so easy for the novelist, who has lost herself in the thickets of sentences and paragraphs so delightfully constructed. In fact, she may have painted herself into many corners without knowing it.

And so, how could I get my nose off the page and see the whole thing? For me, such a task was tantamount to climbing Mt. Olympus, but that was exactly where I needed to be—above the work and looking down on all the intricacies of plot and character interaction. Did all the various parts add up to a convincing cohesive whole for a reader other than me? Again, I think a painter or sculptor would have an easier job of this, simply because he can physically get a better view. But the writer has to get his distance through mental gymnastics. Some find that if they put the manuscript in a drawer, for a month or two, they can achieve that perspective.

No one can tell anyone else how to do this. I am simply pointing out that all writers have to learn how. As for me, I did not realize the necessity of this step until I received that publisher’s letter.

One of the most helpful resources was a book by Robert McKee, entitled Story, Substance, Structure, Style, and the principles of Screenwriting. My copy is heavily marked with red and blue pen and yellow marker. He examines the structure of story-telling from every conceivable angle, taking you through the elements of stories and the principles of their design—all with reference to innumerable Hollywood films. Is this useful to a novelist? You bet it is! With the principles of story design set out, you are well equipped to start your climb up Mt. Olympus.”

And so, you see that, for me writing is a continuous process of re-learning old lessons.


About Mary E. Martin

Mary E. Martin grew up in Toronto, Canada. After earning an Honors Degree in History at the University of Toronto, she graduated with her law degree from Queens University, Kingston, Ontario. In 1973, she was called to the Bar of Ontario and began the general practice of law in Toronto, with emphasis on real estate, wills and estates and elder-care law. This law practice of more than 30 years was a great inspiration for The Osgoode Trilogy ("Conduct in Question," "Final Paradox" and "A Trial of One.") Her fourth novel, “The Drawing Lesson,” will be the first in the next trilogy, provisionally entitled “The Trilogy of Rmembrance.” She is also a photographer particularly with respect to her travels. She has had two commercial photography shows. Married in 1973, she and her husband live in Toronto. They have three adult children.
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2 Responses to Re-learning Old Lessons

  1. writer says:

    Plotting is really hard to do sometimes. Do you try to map it all out first?

    • Yes I do. I seem to be spend a lot of time working out “scrolls” which are long rolls of paper the length of the dining room table. But nothing’s set in stone and I often change them. Seems like I have to visualize the path.

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