active maas

The blog of thriller writer Robert Maas

Adventures in composition

Both my first two published novels, Residuum and Biome, grew out of my decision to explore alternative methods of writing. Why use the word processor as a remedial device when it can do so much more — if you’re brave enough?


After using word processors for years merely to change words and rearrange text, I decided to experiment. I would write a novel as if it were a painting.

The standard method of writing a novel is to sit in front of a blank screen, start typing CHAPTER ONE, and keep typing until you reach THE END. But a painter never does this. That would be like starting in the top left hand corner with your finest brush and slowly working your way along the canvas, row by row, until you’d reached the bottom right hand corner.

You might end up with something that hung together tonally and stylistically. You were more likely to see colors and style change as the painting progressed, leading to a work that was quite different at the bottom than it was at the top.

The standard method of writing felt awkward to me. My characters would struggle to come alive in the first handful of chapters, but once they did, and once I got into the flow of the novel, it would build its own momentum and style.

By the time I’d finished, those early chapters would seem primitive and awkward. Generally I’d rework them or throw them away entirely. It even got to the stage where I would invent a few bogus chapters at the beginning of my novel as a sort of warm-up exercise, knowing I’d discard them later.

There had to be a better way.

A painter works by sketching out the rough idea first, using the broadest possible strokes across the canvas. Then he refines that sketch, moving all over the canvas to add a line here, change a curve there, block in a very rough tonal landscape. Then he goes back and does it again, adding a little more refinement here, a little more detail there, shifting objects, creating balance, all the time thinking about the composition as a whole.

The artist would repeat this process over and over, each time adding more detail, until he’d built up the finished work.

You could do this with a novel, I decided, because you started the same way anyway: with a rough sketch of your work, a central idea or a core set of events. You then slowly built up a framework, mapping out the plan of the novel through several iterations, until maybe you’d got a synopsis down to the chapter level. Then you headed off on that CHAPTER ONE to THE END business.

But what if you just kept going? What if you refined your sketch again, and again, each time adding more detail, each time thinking about the novel as a whole, amending a little here, a little there, each time building up another layer of verbal paint?

It would be easy to keep track of where you were by color-coding all the text.

I wrote my novel Residuum using this method. I kept building it up, moving here and there all over the composition, until I’d mapped it out to the sentence level. I’d written a synopsis, essentially, so detailed that it told me what every single sentence of the novel would say.

The next level of detail would have been to add in those final details: all the adverbs and adjectives that writers use to soften and color their work.

But at this point, I realized I was happy with my canvas just as it was — rough-hewn, brutally stark. It suited the subject matter. Anything more would have been superfluous. So that’s how I published it.

Months later, I was drawn back to Residuum. I decided to take my experiment in a different direction. So I reworked the novel into screenplay format.

I chose to work with screenplay format because it’s extremely quick to make global plot changes. I knew that I could rewrite the whole script in about four hours, which was as long as my concentration would last.

In order to fix my attention on the flow of the plot, I decided to lay out the screenplay in strict three-act Hollywood structure, with the character development arcs and action exactly where you’d expect them if you were hoping to get an A in scriptwriting class. This was invaluable in making sure the script hung together.

Over the course of a long, hot summer, I fell into a routine. At midnight every night I would come back to my computer and rewrite the whole of the previous night’s screenplay, letting the plot reorganize itself however inspiration struck me. I never knew when I started where the plot would go this time.

When I was done, I would crawl off to sleep. The following night I would take that new screenplay and re-imagine it yet again. And so on, night after night, for several months.

Characters came and went. They changed sex. They changed species. Heroes rose and fell. Peripheral events became the new focus of the entire plot. There were iterations that were frightening psychological thrillers, and others that were pure action, start to finish.

Through more than a hundred iterations, a hundred new screenplays, Residuum gradually mutated and evolved. It bore little in common with its original plot. It had turned into a completely different work. I could look back over the archive to see the increments by which it had developed, and trace the themes that threaded and interweaved from first to last, but only because I had been there during its evolution.

Then the summer ended, my lifestyle changed. I was no longer able to write from midnight to dawn each night. I was left with more than a hundred screenplays on my computer, and no clear idea what I intended to do with them or how I was going to handle all this baggage. So I simply abandoned them all and went off to think of other things.

One day I was rummaging through some pieces of junk belonging to my wife in her apartment in Tokyo, and I found a curious glass bottle she owned (see my photo above).

To me, this bottle looked surprisingly like the alien artifact I had invented for one of my Residuum iterations, and which I had christened “Oliveros” after the American composer Pauline Oliveros. I decided to act on the coincidence and turn that particular screenplay into a novel, which I called Biome.

I wrote Biome using the traditional CHAPTER ONE to THE END method, but that was simple because I merely needed to follow my screenplay scene for scene. I had every piece of action, and every dialog already mapped out. I made no structural changes.

Biome sat about three quarters of the way through my hundred-or-so iterations of the Residuum script. I’m now getting excited by one of the later versions. It’s there waiting for me — all the action, all the dialog. All I need is the spark to get writing.


Biome is available to buy at Amazon.


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