The Three Rules for Writing a Novel


My Rule: Don’t trust a brilliant idea unless it survives the hangover. – Jimmy Breslin
All due respect to Somerset Maugham, there are three rules for writing a novel and I know what they are.
Now, it is quite common to hear, at conferences and in classrooms across our favored land, in tones pugnacious and pejorative, that when it comes to the art of the novel, quite simply and unequivocally, There are no rules!
I would like to test that enthusiastic effusion and establish the contrary position.
To begin the argument we must, as with all fruitful discussions, establish our assumptions. I am going to assume that I am addressing writers who actually want to SELL, be that to a traditional publisher or directly to readers via self-publishing.
I am also going to assume that a novel has a certain form. That form is a story. While we may differ on what constitutes a story per se, can we at least agree that what Jack Nicholson wrote in The Shining (1000 pages of All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy) is certainly not a novel? (If you wish to call such a thing an “experimental novel,” I will have to take issue. That would be like calling Kim Kardashian an “experimental actress.” It just doesn’t make sense in any rational world.)
With all this in mind, here we go:
RULE # 1 – DON’T BORE THE READER
Can anyone disagree with that?  Doesn’t it make sense that this should be emblazoned across the writer’s creative consciousness as the most foundational of all rules?
If you bore the reader, you don’t sell the book. Or, at least, if the reader does manage to make it to the end, you don’t sell your next book.
It’s a rule. In fact, it’s a law, just like gravity.
Which leads to:
RULE #2 – PUT CHARACTERS IN CRISIS
Novels that sell are about people in some kind of trouble. Conflict is the engine of story. You can create “interesting” or “quirky” characters all day long, but unless they are tested by trial they wear out quickly (here I will issue a confession: I’ve never been able to get past the first 50 or 60 pages of A Confederacy of Dunces, and I’ve tried. Believe me, I’ve tried).
Now, trouble can be generated in many ways. The narrator of Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine is simply trying to get from the lobby of his office building to the next level via an escalator. That’s the whole story, and the trouble is inside his head.
At the other end of the spectrum are the commandos in The Guns of Navarone.
The point is, every novel must have some fire, not just a layout of kindling and logs. That’s a rule.
RULE #3 – WRITE WITH HEART
I admit this rule is somewhat difficult to define. It’s a bit like what a Supreme Court justice once said about obscenity: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”
The novels that not only sell, but endure, have something of the author’s beating heart in them. We could run off a list of such novels, from To Kill A Mockingbirdby Harper Lee to the Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly.
In my seminars, when we work on voice and style, I mention two novels that were publishing in 1957. They were as different from each other as Arbuckle and Keaton, and challenges for the publishers. Yet they both became bestsellers and, more to the point, continue to sell thousands and thousands of copies today.
They are Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and On the Roadby Jack Kerouac. No matter how you ultimately come out on the merits of either book, what can’t be denied is that every page pulsates with the author’s voice and vision.
So put your heart in every scene of your novel. It’s a good rule.
Now, when a writer says, “There are no rules,” I suspect what he’s really saying is there is no one way to do the things we’ve been talking about here. And that is mostly correct. 
I say mostly because, over time, it has been demonstrated that there are fiction techniques that generally work better than others. A good teacher (or editor) is able to help students learn the things that tend to work and avoid the things that tend not to.
And then it’s up to the writer to make choices. If a writer decides not to follow a tried and true method, at least she should know why.
For example, we talk a lot about starting a novel off with a hook (or, as I like to put it, a “disturbance.”) But what if you want to start your historical with ten pages of setting and description? Well, you’re certainly allowed to. And maybe you’ll manage to make those ten pages so interesting that readers will wish they’d go on and on.
But the odds are you’ll bore them, as they keep on asking Who is this story supposed to be about? Why should I care about any of this?
You might then decide it’s better to use the technique of starting with a disturbance and dropping in details within the action. A technique you can learn and practice.
But there may be another, more insidious meaning to the “no rules” proclamation. The espouser may really be saying There is nothing to learn! Anytime you teach technique you’re limiting the writer, hemming him in, stifling all that is good and original!
To which I kindly yet firmly say, Bunk. Can you imagine George Gershwin believing that? Do you think we’d have Rhapsody in Blue if he hadn’t learned the scales as boy, then the classics under the tutelage of his mentor, Charles Hambitzer? Technique didn’t stifle Gershwin, it freed him.  
Quod erat demonstrandum.
These, then, are the three rules for writing a novel.  You can break them if you like, but do so and they will break your chances of success.

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Books on the Installment Plan

Books published by installment are not new. Charles Dickens is generally credited with beginning, or at least popularizing the practice. Genre novels appeared in serial form in magazines such as Colliersand in science fiction and mystery magazines regularly in the 1940s, sometimes in abridged form, sometimes completely.  More recently, THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES by Tom Wolfe was published in twenty-odd installments — in Rolling Stone, of all places — before it appeared in book form. Michael Connelly and Colin Harrison,  among others, have published short novels in Sunday newspaper magazines. The attraction for the reader is easy to see: be the first on your block to read the forthcoming novel, by your favorite author, before it’s actually published in book form, even if it is in installments.
So it was that a couple of mornings ago I flicked on my Kindle and learned from My Precious that Amazon has revived the serial novel for the electronic age. We are now in the era of serial e-books. Make a selection from list of e-books published under one of Amazon’s imprints, lay down (or should that be transmit?) a couple of bucks and you immediately receive the first installment which consists of about forty pages. That price also includes the rest of the book, released in six monthly installments. Late to the party? Not to worry. Plunk down your two dollars at any point along the way and you get all of the installments published to date and the future ones as they are released.
I tried to talk myself out of it. I failed. First argument:  Why bother? I would forget what happened from month to month.  I quit reading comic books twelve years ago, after a half-century of four-color fandom, because I could no longer remember from month to month what had happened in the previous month’s issue.  X-Men, to name but one example, had with all of its alternative time-lines and such had become incomprehensible. Rebuttal: that isn’t a problem with the Amazon serials. The next installment will be solidly fused with the presently published ones on Your Precious and if I can’t remember who did what to who, as the limerick goes, I can just do a search on the character’s name and bring my poor addled memory right up to snuff. Second argument:  I already have a couple of hundred books on my Kindle that I will probably never read. Why throw another one (or two. Or three.) on there?  Rebuttal: righto. But, I told myself, I can read forty pages or so while in the drive-through line at Sonic. I might be intimated from starting a six-hundred page book, but forty pages? No problem. Third argument…well, I didn’t have a third argument. I saw that Andrew Peterson, an extremely talented author, all-around good guy, and member of the F.O.S.J. (Friends of Sweet Joseph) has a novel titled OPTION TO KILL among the serial e-books. I bought that one. There is also a brand-new traditional western,  THE CIRCUIT RIDER, by Dani Amore, which looked so good that I could not resist.  Actually each and all of the books which comprise this inaugural launch seem to have something to recommend them. And, of course, Amazon’s sample feature is in place, in case you’re unfamiliar with the author or otherwise on the fence about purchasing a particular book.

Is this a gimmick that is going to fail? Or does it have a place in the market? I feel that anything different — if not necessarily new — which gets people buying and reading books, and gets money in the author’s pocket, is worth a shot.  How do you readers think about it? And while we’re on the topic, think about this: what if Amazon opened this up to other publishers and offered an either/or deal for the reader? Let’s say that one of your favorite authors has a novel dropping next Tuesday. Suppose you had the choice between buying and receiving the entire e-book at its full price, or paying a fraction of that full price (fifty percent or less) and receiving the book on the installment plan, at several dozen pages a month over the course of six months? Would you go for it, delaying gratification to save a few bucks? And authors…what do you have to say about any of this? DO you have a problem with your novel being divided up? Or does it sound good to you as well, as a way of drumming up interest? 
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THE VENGEANCE ANTHOLOGY

by Michelle Gagnon

I hope you’ll excuse a little BSP today. I have a short story out in the new Mystery Writers of America Anthology, VENGEANCE, edited by the wonderful Lee Child. Plus I think there’s a lesson to be learned from the long, occasionally tortuous journey this story has had over the past twelve years…

Some background first. This was the first real piece of crime fiction I ever wrote. I composed it while working with the San Francisco Writers’ Workshop back in 2000. I’ve never been much of a short story writer, but at the time I was just diving back into fiction, and figured that playing around with briefer pieces might help me find my voice. So this was one of the first (and only) stories I ever wrote. Shortly afterward, I started working on my first book (the one that never sold), and then, eventually, moved on to writing THE TUNNELS.

I always had a soft spot for this story, but had no idea what to do with it. Filled with hope, I submitted it to a few literary magazines. After it was roundly rejected by them, I shrugged and put it away in a drawer.

Fast forward to 2004. Lee Child was headlining the Book Passage Mystery Writers’ Conference, and at the last minute I scraped together enough money to attend. On the last night of the conference, all the participants were invited to read a short piece of fiction, kind of an informal critique exercise. I wasn’t happy with the opening of my novel yet, and was considering skipping the event entirely until I remembered this story. So I pulled it out of the drawer, dusted it off, and read it that night. All in all, it was well received; Lee attended the reading, and spoke with me afterward about how much he’d liked it. Which was terribly flattering, but again, I had no idea what to do with it. So back in the drawer it went.

Fast forward another seven years, to 2011. Lee emailed me out of the blue and asked if I’d ever done anything with that story from the Book Passage reading. He explained that he was putting together an anthology for the MWA centered around the theme of vigilante justice, and thought my piece might fit in perfectly. He asked if it would be all right to include it. Once I finished turning cartwheels across the room, I said yes.

So this week my little story, the first piece of crime fiction I ever wrote, was published alongside the work of some of my idols, including Lee, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, and Zoe Sharp. To say that I was honored to be part of this anthology would be a tremendous understatement. It really is a dream come true.

And from it, I’ve learned a few things:

a) It’s impossible to judge the true value of a writing conference. Sometimes they might seem like a waste of time and money, but you never know what may come of the contacts you make there.

b) Never empty that drawer. The story that can’t find a home today might bear fruit years down the road (or even decades!)

c) Never give up. I have to confess, when those literary magazines first snubbed my work, I was disheartened and almost tossed in the towel. I really thought the story was pretty great, and discovering that not everyone agreed was crushing. It was hard to go on when it felt like what I was writing might never be appreciated, or even read, by anyone outside my critique group. Eight published or soon-to-be-published novels (and one short story) later, I’m really happy that I decided to forge ahead.

What follows is an excerpt from my story, IT AIN’T RIGHT. The VENGEANCE Anthology is currently on sale at bookstores and online.

IT AIN’T RIGHT


“It ain’t right, is all I’m saying.”

Joe just kept walking the way he always did, shovel over his shoulder, cigarette clinging to his bottom lip.

“You hear me?”

He stopped and turned, lifting his head inch by inch until his eyes found my hips then my breasts then my eyes. A dustdevil whirred away behind him, making the bottom branches of the tree dance like girls on Mayday, up and down. He stared at me long and hard, and I felt the last heat of the day seeping into my skin and down through my bones, reaching inside to meet the cold that burrowed in my stomach early that morning.

“She’s dead, ain’t she?” With his free hand he scratched his belly where the bottom of his ‘Joe’s Diner’ shirt had pulled away.

“Yeah, but just cause she’s dead don’t mean she should be put down like this.”

He looked past me, towards where the road met the hill and dove behind it, wheat tips glowing pink in the twilight. “What else we gonna do with her?”

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Writers of the Lost Arc

The annual Anthony Boucher Memorial World Mystery Convention, or Bouchercon for short, is coming up this week in San Francisco. It’s a good time for writers to gather with readers and colleagues, yak on panels, talk about writing, the business, sign books.
And hear things.
I always enjoy listening to Lee Child. He’s got this great English accent and droll delivery, and says things that are usually contrarian and funny.
At last year’s conference, Child was on a panel when the subject of character change came up. A constant drum beat in fiction classes and books on writing is that your character must change in some way. There must be a “character arc.”
“Why?” Child asked rhetorically. “There doesn’t have to be character change. We don’t need no stinkin’ arcs.”
Everybody in the room cracked up. Child went on to explain that he loves Dom Perignon champagne, and he wants it to taste the same each time. And so, too, he wants his Jack Reacher books to offer the same pleasurable experience every time out. Reacher doesn’t change. Reacher does his thing. It’s how he does it that provides the pleasure.
And I do love a good Reacher.
Then another of my favorite authors spoke. Michael Connelly was interviewed in a packed convention. The Harry Bosch books are the best series maybe  . . . ever. Connelly spoke about his decision twenty years ago to have Bosch age chronologically. So in each book Bosch is about a year older.
And that means he changes. He has varying degrees of inner development. Talk about your arcs! It’s still going on and it’s a wonder to behold.
So there you have it, a tale of two writers and two approaches, both of which work. They provide different experiences and readers can choose which they like best—or go with both, for variety.
When I teach about character work, I do say that a Lead character does not have to change in a fundamental way.  For example, in the film The Fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimble does not become a new man. He does not have to discover his “true self.” What he has to do is grow stronger as he meets extraordinary challenges.
Similarly, Marge Gunderson in Fargo does not change, but shows her inner strength by solving a horrific crime, far beyond what she’s had to deal with before.
So in this kind of thriller, the character is already who he or she needs to be, but gets tested and strengthened.
A nice wrinkle to this type of story is when the Lead’s strength inspires another character to change. That’s what happens in The Fugitive. Kimble’s relentless search for the killer of his wife turns Sam Gerard from a lawman who “doesn’t care” about the facts of a case, to caring very much indeed.
In Casablanca, you have both kinds of change. Not only does Rick Blaine change radically, from a man who wants to be left alone to one who joins the war effort, but so does the little French captain, Louis.  Rick’s act of self sacrifice at the end inspires Louis to leave Casablanca with Rick, also fight the Nazis. It is, of course, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
So let’s talk about what you like in a series character. Do you want to see development over the life of the series? Or would you rather be able to pick any title at random and have it be pretty much the same—only enjoyably different?
What are the hallmarks of your favorite series?
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