Joy and Insomnia, or How to Bring a Novel to Life, Kicking and Screaming

Meg Gardiner

TKZ is thrilled to welcome Edgar Award-winning author Meg Gardiner, whose latest thriller The Nightmare Thief was just released today!


Some writers love first drafts. To them, starting a novel feels like hitting the highway for a summer road trip. They toss the map out the window, crank up the tunes, let their characters take the wheel, and sit back to see where the story goes. To them a first draft means freedom: blue skies, unlimited potential.


I’m not one of those writers.


I love the part before the first draft. Brainstorming is terrific. Brainstorming means flinging ideas at the wall like spaghetti, to see what sticks. And when an idea gets under my skin—stings like a hornet, itches, keeps me up nights—I know I’m on track. I have the fuel that will drive a thriller.


That’s how I felt with The Nightmare Thief. An “urban reality game” goes wrong and traps a group of college
kids in the Sierra Nevada wilderness, fighting for survival along with series heroine Jo Beckett. That idea did it. Yep, brainstorming, and then sketching a synopsis—Jo and the kids are trapped, bad people are closing in on them, and my other series heroine, Evan Delaney, has only hours to find them—that’s fun.


But then I have to actually write the thing. And for me, writing a first draft is like pulling my own teeth with pliers: slow, painful, and messy.


The plot takes form, and it’s fat. The characters sit around a lot, thinking. When they do speak, the dialogue needs spice. Worse, everybody on the page sounds exactly the same and, worst of all, exactly like me. And all those plot twists that were so exciting to sketch (“Evan discovers a deadly betrayal”) stare back at me from the synopsis, going: Well, how?


I cringe. I couldn’t show this stinking mess to my dog, much less my editor, and oh, sweet Lord, I still have three hundred pages to write.


And I need to write them at a rate of 2,000 words a day, because I have a deadline.



That’s when I remind myself:

  1. My critique group has a rule for reading out loud: We all think our rough drafts are crap. It’s stipulated. So don’t waste time quailing that your piece sucks. Just read. Well, the same goes for actually drafting the crap. Just write.
  2. My job does not involve cleaning a deep fryer. I should stop being an ungrateful moaner. Just write.
  3. If I spew all these wondrously awful first-draft words onto the page, they will at least exist. And words that exist can be fixed. Words in my head cannot. Just write.


So I keep going, for months, until I reach the end. Then I run through the house with my fists overhead like Rocky, while the stereo blasts the Foo Fighters’ DOA. “I’m finished, I’m getting you off my chest…”

In the five-stage writing cycle (excitement, delusions of grandeur, panic, compulsive eating, delivery) this is known as the False Ending. Because now it’s time to rewrite.


Joy.


I can hear some of you shouting, Rewrite? Don’t make me. Stab me with a fondue fork instead. Repeatedly. Please. B
ut I mean it: Joy. As I recently heard Ken Follett explain, revising means making a book better—and who wouldn’t want the chance to make something better?


And, to be serious, I have a method. Tackle the big issues first.


This is a technique I picked up from Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing, and it has turned my editing inside out. It’s saved me months of wasted work. Stein calls it triage: Fix the life-and-death issues in a manuscript first.
  • Is the conflict stark enough?

  • Is the protagonist strong enough?

  • Does he or she face a worthy antagonist?


In other words, when rewriting, don’t simply start at page one and go through the manuscript fixing every problem as you spot it. It’s counterproductive to spend a morning fussing over sentence structure if the entire scene needs to be cut.


So I identify all the triage issues and outline a plan to address them. Then I return to my miserable first draft. I attack those fat, introspective scenes. I build in unexpected twists. I obstruct the protagonist’s path. Throw down impediments that are by turns physical and psychological, accidental and deliberate. Breakdowns. A monkeywrench. A landslide—literal or emotional. I cut endless swaths of verbiage, like so much kudzu. It’s gratifying.


Admittedly, revision isn’t all fun. I’ll wake up worrying that I’ve done insufficient research. Maybe some howlers have slipped through. (Anybody seen Lord of War? An Interpol agent strafes Nicolas Cage from a fighter jet. That kind of howler.) So I hit the reference books, and contact some experts, and revise again. And I have a fail-safe plan: write a rip-roaring story, so that if all else fails readers will miss any mistakes. Put the pedal down and nobody can see the errors as they blast through the novel.


Meanwhile the deadline continues to loom. Eventually I reach the stage known as Revise! Or! Die! It comes down to a cage fight between me and my story. With major revisions on The Nightmare Thief, I’m happy to say I won—which is to say, the story won. The lumpen first draft was flick-knifed into a sharp revision. Or sledgehammered, where necessary.


When I finished, I sent it to my editor and pitched face down on my desk. Then I sprang back up like a jack-in-the-box, thinking of all the changes I still wanted to make. Then I pitched forward on my desk again.


Eventually I sat up, picked off all the paperclips that had stuck to my face, and staggered to bed, where visions of Jo Beckett and Evan Delaney danced in my head. Well, they didn’t dance—they opened a couple of beers, clinked bottles, and put their feet up, waiting to see what I would do to them next.


I love this job.

Meg Gardiner was born in Oklahoma and raised in Santa Barbara, California. She graduated from Stanford University and Stanford law school. She practiced law in Los Angeles and taught writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She lives with her family near London. The Nightmare Thief is her ninth novel.

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Type Hard, Type Fast

First, I want to thank everyone for the launch of my new book last week. I spent most of Sunday chatting up the book in social media. A “virtual book tour” so to speak. Then I sort of watched to see what would happen. It’s only been one week and one book, but the results have exceeded my expectations. 
And I have more of this material in my pipeline. A lot more. Because as I mentioned last week, I love the old pulp days when writers really wrote, fast, because they had to.
Fast does not mean hack work (it can, of course, but not necessarily). I’m not discussing the editing process, either. Concentrated effort is what I’m talking about. I contend that many young writers would actually improve their craft –– and chances of getting published –– if they would write faster, especially at the beginning of their learning curve.
First, a few facts. Some of the best novels of the past century were produced at a rapid clip by authors who found writing time each day, and went at their task with singular resolution:
— William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks, writing from midnight to 4 a.m., then sending it off to the publisher without changing a word.
— Ernest Hemingway wrote what some consider his best novel, The Sun Also Rises, also in six weeks, part of it in Madrid, and the last of it in Paris, in 1925.
— John D. MacDonald is now hailed as one of the best writers of the 50s and 60s. Within one stunning stretch (1953-1954) he brought out seven novels, at least two of them – The Neon Jungle and Cancel All Our Vows – brilliant (the others were merely splendid). Over the course of the decade he wrote many more excellent and bestselling novels, including the classic The End of the Night, which some mention in the same breath as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Also Cry Hard, Cry Fast, which is the basis for the title of this blog entry.
So prolific was MacDonald that he was needled by a fellow writer who, over martinis, sniffed that John should slow down, ignore “paperback drivel” and get to “a real novel.” John sniffed back that in 30 days he could write a novel that would be published in hardback, serialized in the magazines, selected by a book club and turned into a movie. The other writer laughed and bet him $50 that he couldn’t.
John went home and, in a month, wrote The Executioners. It was published in hardback by Simon & Schuster, serialized in a magazine, selected by a book club, and turned into the movie Cape Fear. Twice.
–Ray Bradbury famously wrote his classic Fahrenheit 451 in nine days, on a rented typewriter. “I had a newborn child at home,” he recalls, “and the house was loud with her cries of exaltation at being alive. I had no money for an office, and while wandering around UCLA I heard typing from the basement of Powell Library. I went to investigate and found a room with 12 typewriters that could be rented for 10 cents a half hour. So, exhilarated, I got a bag of dimes and settled into the room, and in nine days I spent $9.80 and wrote my story; in other words, it was a dime novel.”
I’ve counseled many writers at conferences who have come with a single manuscript yet haven’t got another project going. I tell them, “That’s wonderful. You’ve written a novel. That’s a great accomplishment. Now, get to work on the next one. And as you’re writing that next one, be developing an idea for the project after that.”
You see, publishers and agents are not looking for a book. They are looking for solid, dependable writers. They invest in careers. They want to know you can do this over and over again.
The best advice I ever got as a young writer was to write a quota of words on a regular basis. I break my commitment into week-long segments (anticipating those days when I ride a bike into a tree or some such). I believe this discipline has made all the difference in my career. The testimony of so many other professional writers attests to its value.
One such testimonial comes from Isaac Asimov, author/editor of 500+ books. He was once asked what he would do if were told he had only six months to live.
“Type faster,” he said.

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The Home Stretch


So I’m entering the last month on my WIP. First drafting, deadline wire up ahead. I find this horserace to be a time of great exhilaration, desperation, excitement, consternation and frequent trips to Starbucks.
Even though I’ve done this dozens of times, it never feels like, “Hey, I’ve got this so nailed. No problem!”
I’m looking at all the story threads, balls in the air, knowing the ending I’m heading for but wondering how I’ll get there. In my head, I know I will, because I always do, somehow.
But in the heat of battle, writing each day, I feel like a Spartan trying to hold off Xerxes at Thermopylae.  And I suppose I wouldn’t have it any other way (especially if I was ripped like Gerard Butler).
Here’s why I wouldn’t: to be in this battle is to be alive. As Jack London once said, “I’d rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. 
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom 
of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. 
The function of man is to live, not to exist.”
Writing well is about being alive, about being out on the wire over Niagara Falls, about jumping on the back of Bucephalus and grabbing some mane. Ray Bradbury once described his writing day as getting up each morning and exploding, then spending the rest of the day putting the pieces together.
It’s about running a race ahead of a mob of angry, torch bearing townsfolk. It’s about skiing down a mountain ahead of an avalanche.
It’s about being open to all the fantastic things you can’t control, then finding ways to form a pleasing shape out of them.
Being alive, truly alive, means a degree of uncertainty. It means risk. If there’s no risk, there’s not going to be any lasting reward. If your reach does not exceed your grasp, you’ll just keep grabbing the same old leaves.
This is nowhere more pronounced than when I’m heading home on a novel. Now is that time. I’m shouting like Slim Pickens riding the atomic bomb at the end of Dr. Strangelove.
When I am at the keys and moving the fingers, I am kicking all doubts into the pit. “This is Sparta!”
What about you? How do you usually feel on the home stretch of a novel?

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Just Go

James Scott Bell


I love writing about the craft of fiction. I love it because I had to teach myself how to write back when I was being told writing could not be learned. I had come to believe that (about 90% of me, anyway) because I’d taken a workshop in college with Raymond Carver, and I couldn’t do what he did. I didn’t really know that what he was doing (literary short stories) was clearly different from the kind of thing I wanted to do (e.g., Raymond Chandler). I just thought I didn’t have what it takes to be a writer.

Anyway, you wake up one day knowing you have to figure out how to write or something inside you will wither up and die. So I set about to see if writing fiction could be learned, and I discovered it could. Along with good writing books and studying bestsellers, I started to get it. And after I got published, I started to teach it.

For me there are few things as enjoyable as learning a new technique, or getting a different perspective on an old one.

It’s kind of like golf. Golfers are always tinkering with their game, trying things out, seeing what works. It can begin, if you don’t watch it, to drive you a little bit mad. As you’re getting ready to tee off, you might find yourself thinking of the 22 most important things at point of impact– and immediately freeze up.

Which brings me to the point of this post. When you write, you have to write freely. You can’t let a lot of craft knowledge freeze you up.

Sometimes, those who are writing their next novel put too much stress on all the things they think they should be doing, and end up not doing much of anything.

When you write, write. And try to get a first draft done as quickly as possible. It’s best to concentrate on only a few basics and just go.

1. Make sure the stakes are high enough for the Lead. I advocate “death overhanging” as being the key to this. There are three kinds of death: physical, professional and psychological. If you look at the most popular novels out there, one or all of these are at work in the plot.

2. Make sure the opposition to the Lead is stronger than the Lead. Only then will readers truly be “worried” enough to read on.

3. Make sure your individual scenes are packed with tension or conflict. That means you never have a scene where everything is hunky-dory. At all times, in some way or other, there is worry, fear or outright confrontation.

And that’s about it. There will be more work to be done, of course. Especially upon revision. But as you go through your first draft, let these fundamentals guide you. Don’t freeze up thinking about myriad things.

Just go.

It’s between writing stints that you study and learn and adjust. A good golf teacher will tell you never to work on your swing in the middle of a round. Finish the round, and then go over to the practice tee and work on things. Review your fundamentals and if need be consult a teaching professional.

Keep learning, keep practicing, but when you write, write like it’s play. Get caught up in what you’re doing.

You writers out there, what do you concentrate on when getting that first draft down?

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Cool Papa Writing

by James Scott Bell

I find it wonderfully ironic that I share the name of the man who many say was the fastest to ever play baseball.

Ironic, because speed afoot was never my gift, as it was for James “Cool Papa” Bell.

Another legend from the old Negro Leagues, Satchel Paige, was once asked just how fast Cool Papa was. Satch replied, “He can turn the light out and be in bed before the room gets dark.”

Paige also asserted that Bell once hit a line drive off him, and the ball whistled past Paige’s head and hit Bell in the buttocks as he slid into second base.

Now that’s fast.

Bell was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974.

So what does raw speed have to do with writing? Just this. When you write your first drafts, write as fast as you comfortably can. Even force yourself past the comfort zone on occasion. Whether you’re an outliner, a seat-of-the-pantser, or anything in between, when you’re getting those first pages down, burn rubber.

Why? Because there is so much good stuff in your writer’s brain that needs to climb out of the basement and sniff the fresh air. You have to put your head down and butt the inner editor who stands at the basement door, telling you to be careful, slow down, don’t make a fool of yourself.

It’s also a way to just plain old get started when the “mountain” of the full novel looms ahead.

Write fast.

Since next month is NaNoWriMo, writing fast is on the agenda. And lest someone sniff about how that only produces junk, consider:

— William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks, writing from midnight to 4 a.m., then sending it off to the publisher without changing a word.

— Ernest Hemingway wrote what some consider his best novel, The Sun Also Rises, also in six weeks, part of it in Madrid, and the last of it in Paris, in 1925.

— John D. MacDonald is now hailed as one of the best writers of the 1950’s. Within one stunning stretch (1953-1954) he brought out seven novels, at least two of them – The Neon Jungle and Cancel All Our Vows –masterpieces. The others were merely splendid. Over the course of the decade he wrote many more superb novels, including the classic The End of the Night, which some mention in the same breath as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

So prolific was MacDonald that he was needled by a fellow writer who, over martinis, sniffed that John should slow down, ignore “paperback drivel,” and get to “a real novel.” John sniffed back that in 30 days he could write a novel that would be published in hardback, serialized in the magazines, selected by a book club and turned into a movie. The other writer laughed and bet him $50 that he couldn’t.

John went home and, in a month, wrote The Executioners. It was published in hardback by Simon & Schuster, serialized in a magazine, selected by a book club, and turned into the movie Cape Fear. Twice.

–Ray Bradbury famously wrote his classic Fahrenheit 451 in nine days, on a rented typewriter. “I had a newborn child at home,” he recalls, “and the house was loud with her cries of exaltation at being alive. I had no money for an office, and while wandering around UCLA I heard typing from the basement of Powell Library. I went to investigate and found a room with 12 typewriters that could be rented for 10 cents a half hour. So, exhilarated, I got a bag of dimes and settled into the room, and in nine days I spent $9.80 and wrote my story; in other words, it was a dime novel.”

–Jack London was anything but promising as a young writer. He could hardly string sentences together in a rudimentary fashion. About all he had was desire. A burning desire. So he shut himself up in a room and wrote. Daily. Sometimes 18 hours a day. He sent stories off that got returned. He filled up a trunk with rejections. But all the time he was learning, learning. When he died at the age of 40 he was one of the most prolific and successful writers of all time.

It is in re-writing and editing that you slow down, cool off and shape what you’ve written. First drafts invariably need a lot of work. In re-write you deepen the prose and establish your style, sharpen your scenes and flesh out your characters. You can take your time here (with deadlines in mind, of course).

My own approach is to do my day’s quota fast then spend time the next morning editing the pages before moving on. And once I do those edits, that’s it till the end of the draft. As Satchel Paige said, “Don’t look back, something may be gaining on you.”

So when you first commit words to page, write fast. It helps you discover hidden “story stuff.” This is especially important for newer writers. You learn most about writing a full length novel by actually writing a full length novel, and the sooner the better.

Write your first drafts like James “Cool Papa” Bell stealing second, then edit them like Satchel Paige, who took things slow and easy.

So how do you approach your first drafts? Do you like to type fast? Or do you agonize over sentences and paragraphs before moving on? Is Cool Papa writing something you’d like to try?

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