Part 2: Getting started

1.  The Ten Rules of Finishing
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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.