Part 2: Getting started

1.  The Ten Rules of Finishing
[Back to Table of Contents]

Before we really get started, let’s talk about rules.

Lots of people seem to like rules, especially where writing is concerned. One of America’s greatest thriller novelists, Elmore Leonard, has developed a great set of rules, which you can read by clicking here.

The rules I suggest below are meant to help you write your book, but mostly they're intended to help you finish it. Here they are:

By the way, you can click on any rule if you want to read more about it.

1. Write something you would like to read.

This may be the single most important rule. It amazes me how often students come to my class with plans to write a novel they wouldn’t read if it appeared spontaneously on their pillow one morning. For some reason, many aspiring writers think a novel requires a sort of elevation – of prose style, plot, character – everything. It’s a little like people who are wonderful talkers – direct, clear, and entertaining – but who get tied up in knots when they start to write because writing is “different” than talking. Generally speaking, we should try to write with the same directness and clarity we use when we talk, and when we write a novel, we should write the kind of book we most like to read.

There are two ingredients here: the type of book you write, and what it’s about. Do you read mysteries? Write a mystery. Do your shelves sag under the weight of romances? Write a romance. And write it about something that fascinates you. If you love horses, get horses into the story. If you’re a science wonk, get some science into it. Do both things – if you love thrillers but don’t like science, you’re probably not going to like (or be able to finish) a thriller about subatomic particle physics.

Remember, once you choose the idea for your book, you are going to have to live with it for a year or more. It had better be something that entertains you. Ideally, it’s also a subject you want to learn more about, because you’re probably going to have to if you’re going to write 80-100,000 words about it. I write thrillers about Los Angeles and Bangkok because I love thrillers and I love Los Angeles and Bangkok. One more time: You should write the book you would most love to read.

2. Your material needs to be something you care about.

You'll find lots more about this in the material that follows. Novels take a long time to write. They will claim every bit of skill and glibness you possess. They will exhaust your store of funny or heartbreaking stories. They'll ransack your childhood for anecdotes. They'll eat your friends alive and spit them out in (hopefully) fictionalized form. Sooner or later you'll run out of tricks and pure nervous energy, and when you do, you'll learn (possibly the hard way) that the only material that will get you through this marathon is material you truly care about. You will need to care personally about your characters, about the themes of your story, about what's at stake. If you don't, you're going to run out of gas. You're going to quit. Choose your idea in the first place because (a) it would make a book you would like to read, and (b) you care about the issues it raises.

3. The enemy is not the badly written page; it is the empty page.

If there’s one rule you should write on a card and tape over your desk, this is it. A bad page does a lot of good things: it advances the story, it gives you a chance to work with your characters, it demands that you write all or part of a scene, it challenges you to describe your setting – on and on and on. (It even makes the stack of pages look a little thicker, which can give you a psychological lift.) So what if it does some of these things badly? You’ve learned one way not to handle that particular piece of material.

But the great advantage of a badly written page is that it can be rewritten. It can be improved. A blank page is zero. In fact, it’s worse than zero, because it represents territory you’re afraid, unwilling, or too lazy to explore. Avoid exploring this territory long enough, and you’ll abandon your book.

4. Perfection is not, and never has been, possible.

Go back to the paraphrased Samuel Johnson quotation at the beginning of the “For Openers” page: A novel is a long work in prose with something wrong with it. Your book won’t be perfect. Your chapters won’t be perfect. Your pages, paragraphs, and sentences won’t be perfect. And you can’t let that stop you. If you’re dissatisfied with something you’ve written, you always have two choices. First, rewrite it right now. Second, let it stand for the moment and keep writing. You can always fix it later.

One thing I’ve learned to do is to begin every writing session by going back over what I wrote in the last three or four days. That gives me a chance to improve it (or toss it and write it over) and it also gets me back into the state of mind I was in on those earlier days. This makes for more consistency in the manuscript. Another good thing about working this way is that you’re already writing by the time you hit the blank page. Starting your session with a blank page is much more difficult, at least for me.

5. Getting it down is more important than getting it right.

This is a variation on the fourth rule. You need to get from point A to point B. Your character is trapped in a cave, and you need to get him or her out. One character needs to tell another something important. Get it on the page, even if you’re not particularly happy with the way it reads. You need to move the story forward; you need to get these characters interacting. Once you’ve done that, even if you didn’t do it very well, it’s done. You can improve or rewrite it later. Now, at least, you’re in position to write the next bit.

6. Show, don’t tell.

Like a lot of novelists, Raymond Chandler – probably the greatest American writer of detective stories – was hired as a screenwriter. He hated it, but the money was good, so he went on hating it for quite a while. In his letters (I think), he talks about how he learned one important lesson. He needed to demonstrate that a marriage was in trouble, and he wrote scene after scene – lots of dialog – to make the point. The screenwriter he’d been assigned as a partner was an old-timer, and he offered the following scene: The man and wife get into an elevator, the man keeping his hat on. (Obviously, this was when men still wore hats.) The elevator goes up and the doors reopen, and an attractive young woman gets on. The man removes his hat. When the young woman gets off, a few floors later, he puts his hat back on. Zero dialog, point made.

The best way to tell us something about your characters is to show it to us. For some reason, every time I teach my class I get a student whose novel begins with someone who can’t get out of bed. Generally, they lie there for quite a while, as the writer tells us how they’re feeling and so forth, and it’s pretty deadly. I challenged one woman to come up with a way to give us a sense of her character’s frame of mind by showing us something the character does. She came to the next meeting with a scene in which the character forces herself out of bed, plods to the kitchen, and tries to make breakfast. Prying apart two frozen pieces of bread, she snaps one of them in half. Trying to break an egg into a pan, she puts her thumb through the shell. Then she picks up the pan, hot fat and all, throws it against the wall, and sits down and cries. Infinitely better, and much more interesting, too.

7. Specific is better.

Our lives are specific. We don’t just get dressed in the morning, we choose a certain color or style. Our day isn’t just Tuesday or Wednesday; it’s hot or cold, cloudy or sunny, wet or dry. Once I was working with a bunch of 12- and 13-year-olds, kids who lived in a gang area. The idea was to try to give them something else to do, something more productive than getting killed. On the first meeting, I asked them to write two paragraphs about their day. One kid, a bright boy named Eloy, couldn’t get past paragraph one, and paragraph one began and ended with the word “today.” That was it. The word “today,” written once. I asked him whether there hadn’t been something different about today, something specific that made it different it from yesterday or the day before. Eloy thought about it and said that nothing much had happened, “After we found the baby in the Dumpster.”

Now that’s a specific detail. It’s kind of an extreme detail, but it’s a detail. Details bring things to life. And they tell – or show – us things. People don’t just walk, they walk in a certain way that might tell us how they feel, whether they’ve been injured, whether they want to go where they’re going or dread it, whether it’s hot or cold out, whether they’re wearing borrowed shoes because they can’t afford their own, whether the wind’s blowing, and so forth. They bring us into the world you’re creating, into the characters who live in it.

One other good thing about details: Writing them gives you ideas. Once you begin, for example, to tell us what a character looks like, you see that person more clearly. The way he or she combs his or her hair might tell you something about the character’s parents or general neatness and cleanliness, or whether he or she is trying to seem younger or older. There’s no telling where it will take you, but wherever it is, you wouldn’t have gotten there if you hadn’t focused on the details.

(By the way, in your final draft you might want to cut some of the details. Too many can slow the story or bore the reader. But the story will be stronger if you wrote the details in the first place.)

8. Be true to your idea and your characters, not your story.

The shortest workable description of practically any novel can be started with the words, “This is the story of a person who . . .” The Wizard of Oz is the story of a young girl who finds herself in a magical land and tries to go home again. David Copperfield is the story of a boy who tries to find out who he really is. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is the story of a boy who has to learn to live with the fact that he’s a wizard.

All these descriptions begin with the who. Characters are arguably the most important component of a novel. Generally speaking, people read books to read about people. You can have a great plot, a great setting, a terrific plot twist, and a guest appearance by Hannibal Lecter, but if you haven't worked on your characters, your readers won't stay with you. You need to know who these people are before you begin to write them, and you need to continue learning about them as you continue to write them. And you need to remember one more thing: the reader doesn't know anything you haven't shown or told him or her. It's no good for you to know that Sally, your heroine, has a richly detailed personal story that dictates the way she reacts, if you keep it to yourself. If all you've told us about Sally is that she's short and wears a plaid skirt, that's all we can be expected to know.

Here's a classic case of putting story before character. We've all seen a movie in which a bunch of characters are trapped in a spooky house with a homicidal maniac/vampire/guest appearance by Hannibal Lecter, whatever. At some point they're all gathered in the living room, relatively safe, and some idiot suggest that they each go – ALONE – to their rooms. And everybody says, “Sure, good idea,” and then they all get killed one by one. Why? Because the screenwriter needed them to be alone, that's why. Think about what that movie could have been about: ten people and how they deal with fear and mortal peril. An act of extreme revenge by the killer. Instead, it's about ten idiots who go to their rooms alone instead of banding together against the danger. Why? Because the writer put the story ahead of the characters.

9. Treat your reader honestly.

I think that when you invite a reader to devote hours of his or her time to your book, you've made a deal. The deal on the reader's end is that he or she will give you a decent chance before throwing your book across the room. The deal on your part is that you'll do your best to keep your reader interested and entertained, and that you'll deal with him or her honestly.

What does that mean? It means that you'll play by the rules. If your book takes place in a world where people can't fly, you won't save your central character's life by having him/her sprout wings and take off. You won't bring in a deus ex machina at the last moment (literally a “god in a machine”) with the power to resolve the situation. You won't have characters do things they would never do in order to move the story along. You might spend a lot if energy trying to mislead the reader, but you won't lie to her.

Some eighty years ago, Agatha Christie wrote a detective novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, that kicked up a cloud of dust that still hasn't settled completely. The book is narrated by a Dr. Ferris, an apparently saintly character who (spoiler ahead) is unmasked at the end as the killer. All literary hell broke loose – even a critic as exalted as Edmund Wilson, who normally couldn't be bothered with mysteries, chimed in with an essay called, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”. Did Christie break faith with the reader? I say, yes, although lots of people disagree. I believe she kept too much to herself and that she represented the character of Dr. Ferris dishonestly. I wouldn't have done it. Of course, I haven't sold millions of copies of my books, either, but I don't think she played fair in this book.

Howard Thurston, known professionally as “Thurston the Great,” was one of the most famous magicians of the early 20th century. (And, of course, as a writer, you're a magician, too.) Thurston believed that the key to his success was in his attitude toward his audience. This is what he wrote:

Long experience has taught me that the crux of my fortunes is whether I can radiate good will toward my audience. There is only one way to do it, and that is to feel it. You can fool the eyes and minds of the audience, but you cannot fool their hearts.

Try to maintain that relationship with your reader, and you'll keep his or her trust.

10. It’s only a book.

When you're writing, it's important to remember that your life does not depend on the outcome of the next paragraph or the quality of the next page. There are life-and-death situations, and this isn't one of them. Writing is something you want to take seriously, something you want to do the best you can, but it's not a lung x-ray. You can get up and walk away from it for a while. You can find other ways to put it into perspective, and we'll discuss a bunch of them later on. And – this is important – writing should be fun, at least part of the time.

There's no quicker way to jam yourself hopelessly on a book than to make it the thing your entire life depends on. Don't turn it into a grim, hang-by-the-fingernails activity because if you do, you'll quit. My best advice is always to remember (a) you can always rewrite something and improve it, and (b) it's only a book.


2.  Work Habits
[Back to Table of Contents]

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

-- Pablo Picasso

Life has a way of interfering with writing.

For me, a routine is absolutely essential. I write six days a week (sometimes seven), for a minimum of two hours and a maximum defined by when I totally run out of gas. I also set myself a 1,000-word daily limit, and if I haven't reached that goal by the end of the second hour, I stay there until I do reach it. Often the day is much longer and the word count much higher.

I write in coffee houses, mostly, because I have no competing responsibilities there – my only duty is to write. When I try to write at home, I find myself cleaning things that have never been cleaned and probably shouldn't be cleaned. A few weeks back I poured Drano down a perfectly good drain and waited the recommended hour for nothing to happen. Anything to get away from writing.

(For a look at my writing routine in Asia, go to the blog for January 9, 2007, “Writing, Asian Style.”)

Here's what Raymond Chandler had to say about a daily writing routine: “The important thing is that there should be a space of time, say four hours a day at the least, when a professional writer doesn’t do anything but write. He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try. . . . But he is not to do any other thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines . . . . Two very simple rules, a: you don’t have to write. b: you can’t do anything else. The rest comes of itself.”

So here are my recommendations.

1. Set up a place to write, or find one outside the house, that you don't use for anything else.

2. Stay there until you've reached your minimum.

3. Repeat five, six, or seven times a week.

That means you have to reserve that time. You need to defend it against errands, phone calls (turn off that cell), the demands of friends and family. It's your time.

I begin every session by reviewing the work of the past three or four days. That has two advantages. First, it gives me a chance to rewrite, on the fly, so to speak. Second, it means I'm already writing when I hit the blank page. I find it very difficult to sit down and dive into that expanse of blank paper. It's much easier to get there gradually, by working through the most recent pages.

Why do I think you should write every day?

First, you'll make more progress if you do. The average novel is 80,000-110,000 words long. If you write 1,000 words every day, you're taking a big bite out of that book every time you sit down.

Second, the more time you spend with your story, the more real its world will be to you. If you spend three days away, it will be three times as difficult to get going again. If you spend a month away, you're practically going to have to start over. You want the momentum and the familiarity with the world of your book that only comes when you enter that world regularly.

Third, as the Picasso quotation at the top of this page suggests, inspiration comes most often to those whose imaginations (and fingers) are engaged in the act of creation.

Fourth, the world is full of material for your book, and you'll recognize it more easily if you're deeply engaged in writing your story. The regular commitment to writing activates the reticular activating system, which sits at the base of the brain, filtering out stuff that doesn’t stimulate it, and admitting stuff that does. The reticular activating system is responsible for the fact that you can hear your name spoken in a noisy room. It's why, after you decide to buy a certain car, you're suddenly aware of billboards advertising that car all over the place. When you're really working, you see and hear stuff all the time that's relevant to your book. If you're not writing, most of that material will slide right past you.


Once you start writing, stuff will come to you all the time. You'll see things, hear things, think of things, and read things that strike you as being potentially useful for your book.

You DO NOT want to lose any of this material.

I set up what I call “the bucket” when I start to write a book. Actually, it's two buckets: a cardboard box and a folder on my computer. Anything I can clip out, or anything that came to me while I was driving, let's say, and I made a note of, goes into the box. Anything I think of while I'm working goes into the computer folder. You have no idea whether this material will eventually be useful, but it's much better to have it at hand.


Ernest Hemingway was once quoted as saying never to quit unless know where you're going next. For me, that means not stopping at the end of a scene or a chapter unless I know precisely how the next one opens. It often means quitting in the middle of an exchange of dialog, so I'm actually eager to pick it up again the next day. The goal here is not to crash against the blank page. By the time you've reviewed what you wrote in the past three or four days and finished the piece you're eager to get to, you should be in great shape when you finally find yourself staring at the vast snowy expanse of the empty page.

The writer with the most impressive work ethic was probably Anthony Trollope, a contemporary of Dickens' who is one of my favorite novelists in the world. Trollope wrote by the clock day in and day out, wherever in the world he was. He set up that clock and wrote at home, in hotels, at his club, on the road, in his cabin on ships, and for all I know, while he was visiting America, on a stage coach. When the time was up, he quit. Here's the part that got my attention. If he had, say, eleven minutes left on the clock, and he had just finished a novel, he didn't sit back and enjoy a celebratory cup of tea – he started a new novel. Eleven minutes later, he quit for the day. (By the way, Trollope wrote some 45 novels.)

I don't expect that you'll follow Trollope's routine to that extent, but – to summarize – this is the routine I suggest:

1. Write daily, setting a minimum of time and/or words. Defend that time.

2. Begin each session by reviewing the past three or four days' work, rewriting where necessary.

3. Quit when you know where you're going next time.

4. Set up a bucket and use it.

One more thing: back up your work. If your computer crashes, you need to know the work is safe. Keep the backup somewhere else. Or do as I do, and e-mail it to yourself.

And give yourself credit at the end of every day. You're writing a novel.

3.  Good Days, Bad Days
[Back to Table of Contents]

“If boot-makers waited for inspiration, we would all go barefoot.”

-- Anthony Trollope

So you're doing it. You're writing regularly, setting minimums and meeting them, and the pages and word count are piling up.

And then comes a string of days when inspiration has apparently gone skiing or something, and nothing comes to you, no matter how hard you chew your pencil or your nails. After a couple of hours of writing what feels like uninspired junk, it becomes obvious to you: this book is dead.

Well, cheer up. It happens to everyone.

I have writing days when it seems like the God of Librarians is sitting on my shoulder, dictating to me – days when the words come so quickly I can’t keep up with them, when my characters sing and dance and talk (often endlessly) without my having to lift a finger. These are the days all writers enjoy most.

Then there are days when every word seems to weigh fifty pounds. All the coffee in the world won’t help. Pick up a word, slam it into place, move it somewhere else, find another word, and repeat the process. On those days it usually seems to me like I’ve lost touch with my idea, or the idea stunk in the first place, or whatever talent I may have had has packed up and moved to a nicer ZIP code. Maybe someplace where good writers live.

Those are the days when learning to use a jackhammer seems like a good idea.

But here’s an extremely important secret I learned the hard way. When I read the work six weeks later, I can’t tell the good days from the bad ones. In other words, I usually have no idea whether I’m writing well or badly.

I once wrote almost an entire novel like that. After the first couple of chapters (which are always easy), every day was like breaking rocks. There were virtually no “good days.” I almost quit fifty times. Ironing shirts seemed like a better way to earn a living.

I finished it anyway and sent it off, and it turned out to be one of the best things I ever wrote. That’s not just my opinion – it got the kind of reviews writers dream about when they first think up their title, before they’ve done any real work at all.

Like most writers, I know a lot of writers. (Who else would put up with us?) They all tell me the same thing: if you define a “good day” as a day when you actually write well, they usually have no idea whether they’re having a good day or a terrible one.

What’s the lesson? Keep writing. You don't always recognize inspiration. Sometimes inspiration comes slowly and feels like drudgery. That day’s work may look wonderful a couple of weeks later. And if it doesn’t, what’s the worst that can happen? You’ve just learned one way not to write the scene. You've got something to revise and improve.

On the other hand, if you quit, what have you got? An empty page.

I will say this many times in this section of the site: The enemy is not a bad page. It’s an empty page.

So write through the bad days, even if it feels as though you're just rolling rocks uphill. They may turn out to be the best days of all.


4.  An Idea You Can Live With
[Back to Table of Contents]

“Walk around the piece a few times before writing it”
-- Eric Satie.

About a third of the time, when someone in my class ultimately fails to finish a novel, he or she is writing the wrong book.

What does that mean?

It means one of two things. The idea he/she is trying to write is either:

  1. A bad idea
  2. A bad idea for that writer

Most people wouldn't buy a car without kicking the tires or taking it for a test drive. You'd be crazy to invest thousands of dollars in a car without checking out how it runs.

And yet I encounter writers all the time who invest thousands of words, and sometimes hundreds of pages, in an idea that either (a) won't fly no matter who writes it, or (b) just isn't an idea that specific writer can live with for the year or more it takes to turn a concept into a novel.

And from me to you: it's hard to throw away thousands and thousands of words. And the psychic imprint of that unfinished novel lingers there for a long time afterward, unloved and unlovely, the avocado-green refrigerator of the imagination.

Both of the novels I abandoned were bad ideas, and I was months and months into the writing process before I realized it, so I speak from experience.

So test-drive that idea.

You're essentially going to be married to it. For a year or two (or three), you'll live with that idea. You'll spend hours a day with it.

The way to test-drive an idea is to ask yourself some questions about it, preferably in writing. In other words, before you write the idea, I suggest that you write about the idea. (* * * More about writing about at the end of this piece.)

How do you write about your idea? Ask yourself some questions that are designed to focus you on the strengths of your basic idea and also to evaluate whether it's an idea that will continue to interest you throughout the long process of turning it into a novel.

Here are some really basic questions for you.

Is this a book I'd want to read? What makes it a book I'd like to read?

Why does it interest me?

What makes me the right writer for it?

What about the idea interests me intellectually?

What about it interests me emotionally?

What about it entertains me?

What kinds of readers will love this book? Who are they? What will they like about it? What other kinds of books, or what writers, do they love?

How does the idea relate to what I know – am I equipped with the necessary knowledge or frame of reference? If not, am I willing to do the necessary research?

And – most important – how much do I care about this idea? Does it touch on things that matter deeply to me?

You'll come up with some other questions if you give it a few minutes.

Here's what you want to find:

The book you should be writing, a book that means enough to you to marry it, to live with it intimately for at least a year or maybe two; an idea you care about, that you'll be faithful to, forsaking all others, both in sickness (when things suddenly go sour) and in health, when things are just flying along.

At the end of this exploration – which could take you an hour, a day, or a week – I suggest you commit to writing, possibly for the first time, this idea of yours. A good way to start it is with the formula, this is a story about someone who . . . Two examples: “Hamlet” is the story (okay, okay, on one level) of a prince who comes to suspect that his father, the King, was murdered by his uncle. “Oedipus Rex” is the story of a man who tries to sidestep his destiny.

Do that with your idea and then spin it out to a hundred words or so and see (a) what it looks like, and (b) how much you actually know or don't know about it. And don't worry if you don't know how it's going to come out. It's much more important to understand the central characters and the basic situation than it is to have the whole story plotted out. (Much more about this later.)

A personal note:

For years, I've wanted to write a mystery called Dark Matter set at the Mount Wilson observatory in the 20s and the 30s, when Edwin Hubble and some other extraordinary scientists were literally discovering the modern universe – unimaginably enormous, expanding, possibly unstable, and with vast amounts of missing matter. (Only about 5% of the matter in the universe is visible, and nobody has the faintest idea where – or what – the other 95% is.) It's great material – these men were inventing astronomy as they went along, they lived in a sort of monastery (very few women were allowed on the mountain), and what they were seeing through their telescopes contradicted every common-sense idea about the universe in which we came into being.

I believe it's a wonderful idea, and I'd love to write it. But it's not for me. I don't know very much about physics or cosmology, for one thing. I don't know how scientists think. I don't know what life was like in the 20s and 30s, and I'm too lazy to find out. So I'll probably never write Dark Matter. But it sure is a cool title. (And one that's been used recently by a fine writer named Greg Iles.)

So it's not my book. Maybe it's yours.

( * * * We're going to come back to the idea of writing about several times before we're done. Writing about is a lower-pressure way of exploring your book. You're not writing your book, you're writing about your book. Don't worry about how it reads. No one but you will ever read it. You don't need to worry about the prose style or the organization, or dialog, or much of anything. All you want to do is get your thoughts on the page to explore and clarify them. It's a good thing to do extensively when you're getting started, and it can be a life-saver when you get blocked.)

5.  Who Tells Your Story?
[Back to Table of Contents]

“Call me Ishmael.”

-- Herman Melville
Opening line of Moby-Dick

Let's say your idea seems to fly. Every time you think about it, ideas bombard you from all directions. The situation entertains the hell out of you. It deals with things you care about deeply. You're pretty sure you understand the main characters. You know you're the right person to write it. In short, it seems fertile, fascinating, and pretty much perfect.

When you sit down to put it on paper, a really basic question will (or should) immediately present itself:

Who's telling your story?

You have an idea – a situation, some characters, a sequence of events, maybe even an ending. (Lucky you – I never have one.) You have to figure out how to tell your tale, and one of the most basic decisions is who's telling it.

In other words, you have to choose a point of view.

There are only so people who can tell any given story. Choosing the right point of view to tell yours will improve the way the story reads and increase your chance of finishing. Telling even a good idea in the wrong point of view can make it harder to write and less enjoyable to read.

Here are the most commonly used approaches.

1. You (the writer) tell your story, the same way you would if you were entertaining people around a campfire. This means that the narrator (or the novelist – in other words, you) isn't a character in the story and doesn't even have a name. The narrator is simply an anonymous storyteller, trying to keep the reader interested.. This approach is going to be in the third person, meaning “him or her” and “them” rather than “I” and “we.”

The series I'm now writing is in the third person. My point of view is that I am essentially the voice at the campfire, the one who sees the whole story and is trying to tell it in the right order and in the right tone (more about tone later) to keep the reader turning the pages. Most of my earlier novels were in the first person point of view (see below), so writing in the third person is a change for me, and I'm enjoying it for several reasons. I can take the reader anywhere in the story's world, for example. In first person, generally the writer can only take the reader where the character who is narrating the story goes. A third-person narrative sets the writer to take the reader anywhere.

In my Bangkok books I'm using a somewhat limited third-person point of view. That means that most of the time, I'm following my central character, Poke Rafferty, but still writing occasional scenes in which he's not involved. These tend to be scenes that set up new aspects of the story, things Poke doesn't know about. The goal is usually to make the reader aware that something potentially important is happening, usually without explaining it completely. (That's one way to keep them reading.)

Certainly the most successful books written from this anonymous-narrator, third-person perspective are J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Rowling focuses primarily on her main characters, but also writes scenes in which they don't appear. If you want to write in the third person, you might take a look at one or two of Rowling's books and ask yourself this question: When she stops showing us Harry and his friends and takes us somewhere else, why does she do it?

The biggest problem with third-person is also one of its advantages: you can take the reader anywhere. Many, many books fall apart because the writer takes us too many places, introduces us to too many characters, creates too many settings. Why? Because writing in the third person means that he or she can. But what happens is that the book loses focus, and the reader loses interest.

2. One of your characters tells the story. This is the other most common approach. The story is told by someone who participates in it. The narrator is often the main character, but it doesn't need to be. (Remember, the Sherlock Holmes stories aren't told by Holmes but by Watson. And Ishmael, quoted at the top of this page, is hardly the main character in Moby-Dick.)

Books told from a character's perspective are usually in the first person: “I” and “we,” in other words. “I was just beginning to like her when she got killed” is a first sentence from books of mine.) Lots of detective fiction is written in first person, for at least one obvious reason – readers see the clues at the same time the detective does so they can compete with him or her to solve the puzzle.

Another great advantage of telling your story through the point of view of one of your characters is that you're showing the reader the world of the novel, and the people in it, through that character's personality. This character's perspective helps your reader to know how to feel about things. Watson is in awe of Holmes, and so are we. Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe is cynical on the outside and principled on the inside, and we share the anger he feels toward the corruption of the world

The biggest challenge of first-person writingis that we can only go where the narrator goes. We can only see and hear what the narrator sees and hears. The writer has to tell the entire story from the perspective of only one of the people who is in it. If he/she wants to tell us more, then somebody usually has to tell the narrator what happened (and these are often deadly scenes) or we get awkward passages like, “It wasn't until two weeks later that I learned the real reason she didn't show up.”

Another challenge of writing in the first person is that the writer has to remain true to the character in the way he/she tells the story. If your first-person narrator is a New Yorker who hates the countryside, this is not the book in which you will finally use that heartbreakingly beautiful description of a sunset that you thought up a couple of years ago. Your narrator wouldn't even notice the sunset, except maybe to worry about mosquitoes. If your narrator is emotionally reserved, you're not going to be able to put your own sensitivity on display – at least, not in the narrative. You could, of course, have another character describe the sunset or display some sort of exquisite sensitivity, but even then we're going to see it filtered through the point of view of your sunset-hating, emotionally constipated narrator.

3. Multiple characters tell the story. This can be a little tricky, but it can also be very effective. The primary challenge here is focus: we need to be certain who we're supposed to care most about and whose story it actually is. But some interesting books have been written with multiple narrators.

4. An uninvolved character's perspective: This is relatively rare. Some of Joseph Conrad's novels about the South Seas and Malaysia are told by a character named Marlowe, who's talking to another character who's just sitting there listening (and extremely patiently, too). So the story begins with an unnamed first-person narrator who sets up Marlowe and gets him talking, and then it moves into Marlowe's story, a story in which Marlowe is much more an observer than a participant. It works for Conrad, but Conrad is a great writer. I wouldn't try it, myself.

The point of view you select may be the most basic decision you have to make, but you also need to think about how the story will be told. What's the tone? What tense is it in? (Don't laugh.) More on both of those issues coming up.

All these decisions should be made with care. There are two goals here: first, to give you a way to tell your story that will keep you writing, and second, to give you a way to tell your story that will keep a reader turning the pages.


6.  Tone-deaf
[Back to Table of Contents]

“I like to write for a reader I would enjoy talking to.”

-- James Salter

The written story, whether it's a novel, a short story, or a two-paragraph word snapshot, is descended from the spoken story. Stories were told long before they were written. Even such complex epics as Homer's Odyssey and Iliad were told (or sung) around fires for centuries before anyone wrote them down. I think it's important – for new writers, especially – to remember that they are telling a story, and that writing is just the way they've chosen to tell it.

I hope that's less confusing to you than it is to me. What I'm trying to get at here, is that 99 percent of the time, the best way to write a story is to tell it as simply as possible.

For some reason, many people who are entertaining talkers get hopelessly tied up when they try to write. The simplicity and force that makes their talk so lively deserts them when they write. Or, more likely, they think that writing is somehow more “elevated” than talking – maybe because the reader, unlike the listener, can go back and check it out again.

The first thing that usually goes out the window is simplicity. Instead of “The sun set into the Pacific,” we get something like “The glowing golden coin of the sun slowly deposited itself into the vast blue piggy-bank of the sea.”

Okay, well, maybe not that awful. But you get the idea. At its simplest level, many new writers just work too hard when they write. They go tone-deaf.

You see it in all sorts of ways. Characters don't “use” something, they “utilize” it. They don't “walk,” they “perambulate.” They don't “say” something, they declare, affirm, confirm, deny, snap, snarl, or purr it. There's no excuse for having written a sentence as obvious as, “'Yes,' he confirmed,” but I've read it in the work of two writers in my class – and they were good writers, too. If they'd been talking instead of writing, they never would have put it that way.

So my first piece of advice to new writers is usually, “Try to write the way you talk.”

The best way I know to do that is to picture your ideal reader – a person who will love your book – and then imagine that person is sitting across the table from you and listening as you write. You want to tell that person the story as directly and effectively as you can. Look at the line by James Salter at the top of this page, and notice that Salter's ideal reader is someone he would enjoy talking to. (I know, I know – that sentence ends with a preposition. Salter did it on purpose, and so did I.) I'd suggest that your ideal reader should fill the same job description.

Amy Tan, who's a writer I admire enormously, says she always reads her work aloud. This is another way to keep your writing simpler. I'd go further and suggest you read it aloud to someone you like and trust – someone like your ideal reader. It's amazing how the better pieces of writing zip right by when you're reading your work to someone, and how the less-good patches seem to take longer to get through. You can actually feel the energy – both yours and your listener's – flag when the over-written material makes its appearance. Circle or underline those passages and keep reading. You'll come back to them during your next writing session.

By the way, this is one of the most important functions of writers' groups as far as I'm concerned. They give you an audience to read to. (They also keep you writing, so you'll have something to read.)

There are some forms of fiction – historical novels, for example – where a more formal or more elevated style seems necessary. Or – another example – you may choose to write from the first-person point of view of a character whose style of speech is very different from your own. I would still suggest that you establish the tone and vocabulary you want and then keep it as simple as you can.

Remember, the writing is not the story. The writing is simply the way you present the story. Any time the writing draws attention to itself, it's getting in the way of the story. Most of the time, the writing should be invisible – it's the story and the characters that I want the reader to be looking at. When I write a book, I want the reader to enjoy the story, not to sit around thinking how clever I am.

I want two things, and only two things, from the reader: I want (a) him or her to finish the book and (b) to have a good time doing it. And then, possibly, go look for another one. If I succeed at that, I've been clever enough.

7.  Yesterday or today?
[Back to Table of Contents]

The classic beginning for a certain kind of story is, “Once upon a time . . . .”

That tells you something immediately. It tells you that the story is set in the past. The events are over, the girl and the boy either did or didn't get each other, good either triumphed or got trampled, and some characters survived (if it's the kind of story where that's in doubt), while others didn't.

Past tense is the classic way to tell a story, whether it's set in the past or in the present. (Or, even, in the case of speculative fiction, in the future.) The teller of the story is separate in time from the events of the story. The great epics of Greek and Roman times, the enormous novels of the eighteenth century, the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, the stories Scheherezade tells in the Thousand and One Nights, the vast majority of novels written today – all of them are told in the past tense.

Essentially, the writer sits you down, figuratively speaking, and says, “This is what happened.”

There's something magic in this. It invites you into a world that's separate from yours, in a time that's separate from yours. It says, Look – here's an opportunity to get out of your own life and into a place where anything can happen. Watch kids sometime when someone begins to tell a story with “Once upon a time.” Their imaginations are engaged instantly. They enter that story as though there were an open doorway leading into it. For all intents and purposes, they're no longer in the room.

If it seems most natural to you to set your novel in the past tense, more power to you. You're in great company

But I want to put in a word for the present tense.

I've written six novels in the past tense, all in first person. One thing always troubled me a little about the approach. It was obvious from the beginning that my narrator survived the story, or he wouldn't be around to tell it. I also felt that the past tense distanced readers just a little, an imaginary millimeter, from the action or suspense sequences, which are relatively frequent in my books.

When I sat down to write the Bangkok series, I did my usual warm-up (we'll talk about warm-up later), and a lot of it was first-person material from the perspective of four or five of the main characters in the series. About 30 or 35 pages in, I realized I was writing all that material in the present tense and that I liked it.

It had an immediacy I enjoyed. It was less like writing and more (do I dare to say this?) like a movie or a play. Plays and movies exist in a permanent present tense, a period of time that begins the moment the curtain lifts or the image hits the screen. The viewers enter this period of time with the characters, and live through it right beside them. (This is an interesting illusion because it holds even when we see a film for the third or fourth time.)

I write in part for fun, and I thought it would be fun to try to preserve this sense that things were happening at the moment the reader reads about them. And it was fun, although old habits die hard and I had to go back literally hundreds of times and correct verbs I'd accidentally written in the past tense. And, as the pages began to pile up, it seemed to me that it was working. It seemed especially effective in the action scenes, which began to feel less like hearing a description of a fight and more like actually being in one. So I stuck with it, and for better or worse, I'm now committed to writing a series that's set in the present tense.

In the past few years, more and more writers have chosen to tell their stories in the present tense. It's become something of a trend, although some editors (and, for some reason, agents) don't like it. Hell, there are times I don't like it, either. But for my present purposes, I think it engages the readers more closely in the story and the lives of the characters (which are, or course, the same thing). I'm not sure it would be effective for all stories, and I don't think the past tense is in any danger of extinction, but you might just consider the alternative.

If you have any interest in it at all, give it a few pages and see whether it works.

8.  Populating Your Book
[Back to Table of Contents]

“Surely the best test of a novel’s characters is that you feel a strong interest in them and their affairs — the good to be successful, the bad to suffer failure.”

-- Mark Twain

A novel is a story about someone who . . .

Characters are everything. Your reader doesn't particularly need to enjoy your prose style or the period in which your story takes place, or the setting. You can usually keep him or her reading if your characters are strong enough.

There are many genres of fiction: thrillers, science fiction, romances, historical novels, humor. Each kind of story has its own set of fans. Generally, people who read romances don't have much use for thrillers, people who read historical novels don't often read science fiction, and lots of people who read science fiction don't read anything else at all. (Sorry, guys.)

But even though these groups may want different kinds of books, there's one thing they all want: solid, believable characters. People want to read books about people. And if they don't get solid, convincing people, they vote with their hands and close the book.

One of the reasons movie stars make so much money is that they have the ability to put a whole character on the screen, even in a movie in which most of the writing energy seems to have gone into finding new ways to blow stuff up. It's been said that someone like Tom Cruise makes it possible for the screenwriter to skip all the exposition that usually goes into constructing a character. Hell, he's Tom Cruise. He's brave, energetic, resourceful, kind to small animals, and he's got all those teeth. We're on his side. What else do we need to know?

Unfortunately, no one has yet figured out how to put a movie star into a book. That means it's up to you.

So you may have a great idea for a book. How's this? Kidnappers target a rich businessman but accidentally take the son of his chauffeur instead of the millionaire's kid. They demand a ransom that will ruin the businessman. What does the businessman do? Does he pay the ransom, or not? And what does the kidnapper do when he realizes he's got the wrong child? This is a great setup. It was great when Ed McBain invented it in his novel King's Ransom, and great all over again when the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa used McBain's book as the basis for his film “High and Low.”

And you know what? Both the book and the movie would have stunk if the characters hadn't been so strong. The story has the structure and pace of a thriller, but it's really about moral responsibility and courage. The setup is great, but the story is about the characters, and both McBain and Kurosawa understood everything about their characters.

If you'd had that basic idea, you might have gotten it started and even chased it across a hundred or so pages, but unless you knew the characters well enough to make the setup into a compelling human story, with compelling humans at the center of it, you probably wouldn't finish the book. The idea would stop developing. The scenes would go flat. You'd force characters to do things they wouldn't do in a million years in order to keep things moving. You'd lose interest.

You'd quit.

If you're going to finish, and if you want to write a book readers will also finish, you need to understand everything about your characters.

It's inevitable that you'll learn more about your characters as you write about them. If they're real enough in your mind, they will surprise you continuously. They will say things you don't expect. They won't want to do some of the things you want them to do. You'll make discoveries about their backgrounds and their beliefs as you write about them. Halfway through A Nail Through the Heart, I suddenly discovered that I had my main character's family story all wrong. He's gone to Asia, in large part, because of deep unresolved issues between him and his father. That discovery threw an entirely new light on his attempts to build a family in Bangkok, and it also provided one of the central plot threads for the next book, The Million Dollar Minute.

I had constructed a family history for this character long before I began to write, but what I discovered in writing about him was much stronger and much more interesting. So I tossed the old story and went back and did a bunch of rewriting, and everything suddenly looked a lot tighter.

A couple of paragraphs back, I used the phrase “discovered that I had my main character's family story all wrong” because that's what it felt like. It didn't feel like I had to make up a new backstory for him. The new story came to me as instantly and as effortlessly as though someone had told it to me, or I realized that I had known it once, but had forgotten it.

This would not have happened if I hadn't already known that character better than I know most of the real human beings in my world.

You have to know your characters pretty well to begin to write about them, but you have to know them very well to learn that you've been wrong about them. You have to know them well enough to let them surprise you, and you have to be open enough to listen when they do.

My advice is to do a lot of work on your characters before you begin to write your book.

Here are some of the questions I suggest you answer, preferably in writing, before you leap into Chapter One.

Big Questions:

Who are your main characters? Where did they come from? What kinds of families did they have? Who were they in high school? What events or people helped to shape the way they are?

What do they believe in? What do they love? What do they hate?

What are their secrets? What are they ashamed of? What are they proud of?

What's their sexuality? Does it cause them problems, or are they comfortable with it?

What do they live for? What would they die for?

What are their greatest weaknesses? What are their greatest strengths?

Where are they when they're not on the page? (This is an important question. We readers don't want to get the impression that your characters are off somewhere gathering dust, like crash-test dummies, until it's their turn to pop up on the page. The writer has to remember that all his or her characters have lives that extend beyond the scenes in which they appear. You don't need to put all that material into your book, but you'll be better off if you have it at hand – and a lot of times it will give you the insight you need to get a scene moving.)

And maybe the most crucial big questions of all: What do they want? What are they afraid of?

Smaller Questions:

Remember that one of my suggested rules of writing is to be specific. (It's not just mine, by the way – if you've read much about writing, you know it's something pretty much everyone recommends.) You want to develop broad knowledge about your characters, and you want to use details to put that knowledge on the page.

Details help to bring characters to life.

There are hundreds of things you might ask yourself. How do the characters dress, and why do they dress that way? How do they walk? What do their voices sound like? How do they use their hands? Do they wear a watch? What's in their pockets? Which of their facial features do they like best, or worst? Left-handed or right? Ticklish or not? Do they look at their reflections in shop windows, or hurry past? Do they sing in the shower? If so, what kind of music? Are they shy? How do they demonstrate that – do they speak softly or rarely, hide their smiles behind a hand, stand just outside a circle of people at a party, sit in corners, always let others go first through a doorway, wait for an empty elevator, wear drab clothes, walk close to walls, hang their heads slightly, avoid the eyes of others, keep their own eyes hidden behind sunglasses? (And on, and on, and on.)

Because the point is not just to give your character personal attitudes and behaviors, but to show them to us. Remember, we only know what you tell us, or suggest to us, through action.

And remember, life is short. A reader only has so much time for your book. So if you're going to choose and then present details about your characters, make sure they tell us something about the deeper truths of those characters' lives. If you're going to go out of your way to demonstrate that someone is shy, then that shyness should be anchored in some fundamental aspect of his or her being. If you write someone who wisecracks compulsively, that attitude should be consistent with some aspect of his or her inner life. Maybe the character is a cynic, or someone who's covering up shyness, or someone who craves attention, or someone who learned in school that people didn't beat up kids who made them laugh.

A Little Trollope

If I were chained in front of a large-screen television playing endless reruns of David Hasselhoff doing Shakespeare, and told I'd have to remain there until I named my favorite novel in the English language, I'd probably choose Anthony Trollope's Pallisers series. These six 19th-century whoppers cover an enormous amount of English social and political history, but at their center is one of the great love stories (to me) in all of literature. In the first book, Can You Forgive Her?, a marriage is arranged between an impetuous, somewhat frivolous, very high-spirited noblewoman, Lady Glencora, and the cold, bloodless, extremely ambitious, and almost infinitely rich Plantagenet Palliser. There's no love involved: he wants her social standing, and her family needs his money. Over the course of the five remaining novels, this mismatched pair slowly fall deeply, even hopelessly in love with each other. They change each other in many ways, but he remains chilly and preoccupied with duty; she remains emotional and interested primarily in the moment. But they come to understand and cherish each other, and, when she ultimately dies, Palliser is devastated.

It works on a grand scale because Trollope understands his characters all the way to their bone marrow, all the way to the spot of light at the center of their souls, and because he uses all his skill to make sure we do, too.

That's what we want to try to do with our characters.

Losing Face

Lots of writers, Elmore Leonard and Ernest Hemingway among them, don't spend a lot of words on physical descriptions. They let the characters' voices and actions tell us who they are, and allow us to imagine what their people look like, or they measure out physical details when they help the action – we learn that a woman is beautiful because of the way a man looks at her, for example.

And there's a lot to be said for that. Lots of readers skip descriptions anyway.

But if you want to describe your characters, avoid the “she was a pretty girl” trap. That doesn't tell me anything. I want to see her as the writer sees her. How is she pretty? It's an amazing thing that the same four features – two eyes, a nose, and a mouth – can be arranged in so many billion ways. Is it asking too much that you describe one of them for us?

I believe this applies to physical description across the board. I want the characters to be described, although not at such length that the story stops dead, and I want details. I don't want a face that looks like the IdentiKit blank before a witness fills in the details.

It's not easy for some people (me, for example) to describe faces. Either I come up with a cliché or it's something so generic it should have a blue stripe running down it. It takes a lot of work for me to come up with a face I can believe in.

Here are a few exercises that might help you build up your facial-description muscles.

  • Give yourself ten minutes. Imagine and describe five faces. Do it again with five more.
  • Go someplace public – a coffee house or somewhere – and take a notebook. Describe the faces of the people you see. Be as specific as you can. Ask yourself what kinds of characters these descriptions fit.
  • Create new faces by transposing the features on some of those you've already described. Do the new faces suggest different characters? Which features seem to dominate the faces you've described? Which seem to suggest the most about that person's internal life?
  • Do animal faces: get photos of half a dozen animals and create human faces that suggest them. Many animals have characteristics commonly associated with them: foxes are sly, cows are placid, sheep are silly, owls are wise. Do those characteristics emerge in the human faces you created from these animals? If so, turn it around – try to do a stupid fox, a silly owl, a wise sheep. Which features change when you do this?

You can think of more of these. They may or may not help you. But, who knows, you may come up with a face you can steal from yourself and drop into your book.

And no matter what, they won't be a waste of time, because you'll be writing. During my time in television, I had the great privilege of knowing Chuck Jones, the creator of the Roadrunner, Wile E. Coyote, and Bugs Bunny. Chuck described to me the first drawing class he ever took in college. The teacher was late for the first meeting, and the kids sat around and waited, and then, gradually, they got up and milled around chatting with each other and doing whatever else college-age kids do when they've got time on their hands. About ten minutes into the class period, the door banged open and the teacher came in. He waited at the desk until the room was silent, and then he said, “What in the world are you doing? You should be drawing. Every one of you has a hundred thousand bad pictures in you, and you've got to get them out.”

From then on, Chuck drew all the time.

9.  And Then He Said...
[Back to Table of Contents]

“One line of dialogue that rings true reveals character in a way that pages of description doesn’t.”

-- Anne Lamott
Bird by Bird

Characters talk.

When you get down to basics, there are really only two kinds of writing in a novel: narrative and dialog. Good dialog does many things: it moves the story along, it tells us something about the character who is speaking, it entertains us.

(It also breaks up the page – I personally am less attracted to a page of dense type that's all margin-to-margin, with no dialog to open it up. If I flip through a book in a bookstore and see acres of uninterrupted narrative, especially in very long paragraphs, I'm probably not going to buy the book.)

Sooner or later, probably sooner, your characters are going to start to talk to each other or, on occasion, to themselves. When you start to write their dialog (or when it starts to write itself – some characters just won't shut up), there are some things you want to keep in mind.

Dialog should reflect character. If you've got a Mafia tough guy who talks like an Oxford historian or a sweet little girl with a mouth like Susan Silverman's, you should really have a reason for it. Dialog should reflect character in many ways: tone, word choice, rhythm, complexity (or the lack of it), perspective, and, most important, what's actually said. There are thousands of possible responses to any question or statement, thousands of possible reactions to any event. What your character says, and does, should be consistent with who he or she is. (Of course, it could also be consistent with who he or she is pretending to be.)

Dialog should be like real talk, only better. I'm fortunate enough to know a lot of interesting people, and most of them are boring some of the time. I also know a lot of uninteresting people, who are boring almost all the time. (If you're reading this, and I know you, you're in the interesting group.) Most real-life conversation wanders around the point, if there is one, to an extent that readers won't accept. They have better things to do. They endure enough boring conversations in real life not to have to put up with more of them in books. The trick here is to preserve just enough of the elliptical nature of real conversation to make it sound like talk instead of writing, but to cut most of it and get to the point. And when you're finished with the dialog in a scene, go back later and see what else you can cut. Generally speaking, shorter is better.

Writing an intentionally boring character can be tricky. Boring talk can be used effectively – for example, it can make us laugh, or it can make us crazy with suspense when it delays an important payoff or slows action that the reader knows has to move faster, or something terrible might happen. But, as I say, it's tricky. As a general rule, I'd suggest you not have too many intentionally boring characters.

Dialog should advance the story. This is so obvious that I thought twice about including it. But then I remembered all the times I had to face the necessity of cutting some dialog I thought was wonderful because it slowed . . . things . . . down. I rarely feel more clever than I do when my characters are talking really well. It's very easy for me to follow the flow of the conversation with the same kind of enjoyment I'd get from the dialog in a really good movie (at these times, it usually feels like I'm hearing the words and trying desperately to get them down, rather than making them up myself). It's all I can do to type fast enough to get the words on the page.

Dialog should be identifiable. Your characters should not talk alike. If you know them well enough, and if you listen for their voices, they'll take on different tones, different approaches to the way they use language. In a scene with three or more characters, it shouldn't always be necessary to identify which one is talking – the dialog should do that for us. Your characters will think differently. They'll react differently. They'll have different perspectives, different obsessions, different backgrounds, different levels of education. Those things need to be reflected in their speech.

And by the way, writing dialog is one of the best ways to learn about your characters.

I Love You,” Jack Rasped Urgently

The sentence above, besides being profoundly tone-deaf, breaks two of my personal rules. First, the word to use after dialog, 99 percent of the time, is “said.” Secondly, “said” should almost never be modified by an adverb.

“Why?” you might ask, if you're paying attention.

First, any word but “said” calls attention to itself. It reminds people that they're reading writing. Readers skip “said.” They don't see it. But they see words like “proclaimed,” “insisted,” “asserted,” “demanded,” “whimpered,” “panted,” “ejaculated,” “interjected,” “interrupted,” “whooped,” “shouted” -- well, you get the idea. “Said” is invisible. Other words put the writer in the picture.

They can also become really, really irritating, especially when it's obvious that the writer is ransacking his or her mind for yet another synonym for “said.” Don't worry about the repetition. One more time: Readers skip “said.”

Another one to avoid at all costs is “questioned.” “'Why?' she questioned,” is absurd on first reading. But not, apparently, on first writing. I've seen it repeatedly.

And the adverbs? Well, they just shouldn't be necessary. The words and the tone of voice should tell us what we need to know about how the line is being spoken. “Stop or I'll shoot” is unlikely to be said caressingly. “You make me want to be a better man” is probably not being bellowed.

A decision to stick with “said” and avoid the adverbs will force you to write better dialog. And, sure, there will be times that a character has to shout to be heard over some sort of noise, and it's okay to tell us that he or she is shouting. There will be scenes in which it's important for us to know that the way a character says something is at odds with the words he or she is saying. “'I love you,” Jack shouted,” or “I love you,” Jack sneered tells us something we can't get from Jack's line. But it's also possible to show us something Jack's doing as he says the line – something that contradicts the words he's saying – and that's an option worth exploring.

Whose Line Is It, Anyway?

Even if you manage to make your characters all sound different, there are times you're going to help the reader out by telling him or her who's speaking. This is especially true in scenes with more than two people in them.

But you still don't want “she said” and “he said” to be littered all over the page. What do you do?

First, don't use it if you think it's obvious who's talking. Let other people tell you whether you need it.

Second, move the “Jack said” from the end of the line of dialog to the beginning. It's amazing how this changes the rhythm. Jack said, “I'm beginning to understand,” reads completely differently from, “'I'm beginning to understand,” Jack said.

Third, show us the character doing something as she or he talks. Something as simple as, Jack nodded. “I'm beginning to understand.” Or a little more elaborate. Jack picked up the telescope and polished the tube with his sleeve. “I'm beginning to understand.” This has a couple of advantages. First, it tells us who's talking and eliminates a “said.” Second, it gives us something to look at; it puts us back into the scene.

By the way, I'm tired of Jack.

10.  Setting as a Character
[Back to Table of Contents]

Everything happens somewhere”

-- Pieter Haag

Where does your book take place?

Of course, on one level, it takes place in the hearts, minds, and imaginations of your characters. On another level, it might take place in Omaha. Or Venus.

Nicolson Baker once set an entire novel (I think) on an office-building escalator. All the action in one of Don DeLillo's novels takes place in the back seat of a limousine going cross-town in New York, a journey that (as I know from personal experience) can seem to take a lifetime.. A writer like Robert Ludlum might take you to twenty locations in eighteen pages.

Setting is, of course, the physical universe in which your story is set. But I'd suggest that it's much more than that. It's a reflection of the characters. It acts on the characters. It provides an almost inexhaustible source of details that can help you tell your story more vividly or give you an entirely new set of ideas. In a sense, it's a character in itself. And, generally speaking, books in which the setting is skilfully presented are better books because of it.

Some writers are indelibly associated with certain settings. Larry McMurtry's west is an enormous and open land to which some characters bring small, closed minds. Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles is sunny and hospitable on the surface and corrupt underneath. These dark depths are the natural habitats of his characters.

You've probably read novels in which the settings are nothing but brand names: Riding uptown in the Lincoln town car, Dolores passed Tiffany and Prada and the magical toy emporium of FAO Schwartz. Modestly interesting, I suppose, but it would be a lot more interesting if it had something to do with Dolores.

Now suppose we read instead, Riding uptown in the Lincoln town car, Dolores allowed the smooth leather of the seat to calm her. She checked her fingernails as they passed the glittering art deco spire of the Chrysler building but sat forward as Tiffany, Prada, and FAO Schwartz slid by.

Okay, now we've done three things at once: we've seen a little of New York, we've learned a little about Dolores, and we still got all those brand names. In the first example, the setting was passive; it was just scenery. In the second, it was active; it wasn't just New York, it was Dolores's New York.

If you want to finish your book, you need to know your setting as well as you know your characters. Believe me, the setting can bail you out when you're stuck. It can present a new course of action. It can give you the word picture you need for a fresh approach to open a scene or a chapter. It can capture the reader's imagination.

So I'd suggest exploring your setting in the same way you explore your basic idea and your characters.

I would hope that your setting has the following characteristics.

  • It's a place that interests you. You're going to be spending a lot of time there.
  • It's a place you know a good deal about, or can discover a good deal about.
  • It's a place that's interesting to readers, or one that you can make interesting to readers.
  • If it's an imaginary setting – Venus, for example, or Tolkien's Middle Earth, it's a place you have done a lot of thinking about. You know its geography, its inhabitants, and its rules (moral and, if necessary, physical).

I love and am fascinated with both Los Angeles and Bangkok. I've spent substantial amount of time exploring them both. I could probably write a pretty bad city guide to both or either of them. That makes it fun for me to write about them, and there are times during the writing of any novel when having fun can be the only satisfaction available.

You may feel equally at home, creatively speaking, with Winesburg, Ohio, or 18th-century Paris, or a twentieth-century high-rise, or the inside of a maximum-security prison. Whatever your setting may be, I'd hope you'll work to make it active rather than passive. It will be presented from your characters' perspectives, whenever that's appropriate. It will play a role in the story. It will affect your characters. In some ways it will reflect them.

It may help to think about the theater when considering setting. Theater directors take setting extremely seriously. It might be a bare stage that takes us directly into the minds of the characters or an extravaganza of elaborate sets that provides a social, intellectual, and emotional context for the story. What it never is, at least not in a good production, is a series of pretty pictures in front of which the actors pose and declaim.

You need to use your setting for all it's worth. Otherwise, it's dead weight.

11.  Giving a Damn
[Back to Table of Contents]

“To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal, you have to care.”

-- Anne Lamott
Bird by Bird

Back at the beginning of this section, I said that your idea had to be something that interested you deeply. When I was talking about the stakes, I said you'd write them better if they actually reflected your own values.

Now I'll take it a step further. If you want to finish your book, you should care passionately about the issues and the characters that it explores.

I don't think you can write a novel that doesn't eventually tap something deep inside you. First, I think you'll quit. If you don't quit – if you persist over a hundred, or even two hundred, pages – I think you'll find you've lost your way. Then you'll quit.

And – if you manage to prevail against the odds and shoulder aside your own indifference to the stakes in your book for long enough that you eventually finish – the book will stink.

It's like running. You can run a hundred-yard dash and wear out nothing but your legs. Running a mile will work your legs and your lungs and burn some of your body fat. Running a marathon will deplete everything except your heart, and if you can't continue to find the desire in your heart, you'll quit.

As I said before, writing a novel is the creative equivalent to running a marathon. You can't write a novel on fat. Sooner or later, tapping into your skills won't be enough. Exercising a Puritan work ethic won't be enough. Coming up with ingenious plot twists won't be enough. Spouting snappy dialog won't be enough. Sooner or later, you're going to have to open a direct line to your heart.

And, by the way, that's when the best writing begins.

In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says:

“The line of words fingers your own heart. It invades arteries . . . feeling for something, it knows not what . . . . some song forgotten, a scene in a dark bedroom, a corner of the wood lot, a terrible dining room . . . . the line of words peels them back, dissects them out. . . Do you want to expose these scenes to the light? You may locate them and leave them, or poke the spot hard until the sore bleeds on your finger, and write with that blood.”

This may sound melodramatic to you. It might even frighten you. (It scared the hell out of me when I first read it.) It might be enough to make you quit before you even begin. But it shouldn't. In fact, it's the key to writing a book you'll care about, a book that will continue to engage and even fascinate you for months, a book that teaches you something about yourself. A book you'll finish.

There's something enormously liberating about following that “line of words” to something that's buried deep inside of you – some sadness, some joy, some love, some anger, some fear – and getting it on the page in a way that brings your heart into your story. Remember, this is a novel, not a journal or a memoir – you don't have to lay bare your most secret shame. You're writing fiction. And you're using the truth – your own truth – as the fuel that moves the story along. That makes the readers care. That gives them something, in this amazingly abstract construction of words and punctuation marks and paragraphs, that they recognize as true,

Of course, none of this is meant to suggest that we should all write books that dramatize our most closely-held anguish, or that moment when we were nine that still make us writhe in self-loathing. Any kind of book, whether it's a thriller, a romance, humor – hell, a novel about pirates – is going to be richer and truer if the writer's heart is on the page.

You can find the things that mean the most to you, and make them the things your characters care about. You can take situations that have haunted you for life, and build a new story around them. You can tend the flame of something that's made you furious for years, and use that heat and light to propel your story forward. You can take the wrong that most dismays you in the world, and right it.

You can grab hold of love, hate, exhilaration, pride, shame, religious ecstasy, political dudgeon, financial reversal, childhood wrongs and adult disasters, utter defeat and total triumph, and you can use them. You should use them.

They're all material.

One of the reasons it's dangerous to hang around with writers is that, sooner or later, everything is material. The most private conversation, the most trembling confession, the most dastardly betrayal, the most uplifting intervention. It's material. Sooner or later, there will come a point in a story where the writer sits bolt upright and says, “Here. This is where that belongs.” And, if they're being true to their story, they'll use it. All that matters – all that should matter – is the story.

And please don't challenge this by asking me about all those (eeeeewwww) best-selling writers whose work is regularly ripped to bleeding sentence fragments by the critics. I'm convinced that those people not only write the best they can, but write from their hearts. I may or may not like what all of them
write, just as you may or may not like what I write, but their hearts are on those pages. That's why hundreds of thousands of people (unlike critics, who get their copies free) dip into their pockets to buy those books, and – more important – take time out from their lives to read them.

(By the way, to any critic who might be reading this, I don't mean you. You're my favorite critic.)

So, in short, my best advice is write from the heart, no matter how long it takes to get there. You're a lot more likely to finish if you do, and to write a better book.

After all, if you don't give a damn, why should the reader?