Jack Kerouac On Writing

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Fasten your seatbelts.

We’ve written about Robert A. Heinlein’s rules and Elmore Leonard’s rules. Are you ready for Jack Kerouac’s?

Like most college liberal arts guys in the 70s, I went through a big Kerouac phase. It started, of course, with On the Road, the slightly fictionalized account of Kerouac’s roamings in post-World War II America.

There’s a myth that Kerouac completed his most famous novel in three weeks, on a rolling scroll of butcher paper, so he wouldn’t have to stop to remove pages from the typewriter. Indeed, much of On the Road was written in first draft that way, but Kerouac re-worked the manuscript several times before it was published.

Kerouac’s reputation (and, some might argue, the beginning of his ruin) was made when the New York Times called On the Road “a major achievement.” Not all critics were so moved. Time magazine characterized it as a “barbaric yawp of a book.” And later, Truman Capote would snarkily remark (did he ever remark un-snarkily?) that On the Road is “not writing. It’s typing.”

In any event, at one point Kerouac was asked to memorialize his writing advice. Let’s ride:

  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
  3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
  4. Be in love with yr life
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
  7. Jack Kerouac. Photo by Tom Palumbo

    Blow as deep as you want to blow

  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
  10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
  11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
  12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
  13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
  14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
  15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
  16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
  17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
  18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
  19. Accept loss forever
  20. Believe in the holy contour of life
  21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
  22. Don’t think of words when you stop but to see picture better
  23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
  24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
  26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
  27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
  28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
  29. You’re a Genius all the time
  30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

This is not exactly the stuff of structure. Indeed, while On the Road is linear in form, Kerouac’s subsequent work became more and more experimental—with the attendant decline in sales. (I will not pause here to once again emphasize the correlation between structure and sales, even though I just did). He died of alcoholism in 1969 at the age of 47, twelve years after publication of On the Road.

What Kerouac and the Beat Generation writers were after was a new kind of prose, a sort of be-bop rhapsody that most truly captured an experience. In that regard, these wild ideas are good for getting out of the way of yourself, to become a “crazy dumbsaint of the mind.” The writing then becomes a kind of “tranced fixation dreaming” and makes writing “for yr own joy” possible.

This is all fine as far as it goes. Kerouac thought that was far enough. But it proved otherwise. For at some point “yr own joy” needs to translate to the readers. On the Road did that. So, too, did his next-most successful novel, The Dharma Bums. After that, things started to get sketchy.

I retain a warm place in my heart for Kerouac. He meant a lot to me in my early formation as a writer. At its best his prose is vibrant, emotional, ecstatic, as in this famous passage from On the Road:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

I am literally going to be on the road today, driving back to L.A. from Las Vegas (no, I didn’t put it all on red. Came for a meeting and research for my next novel). I’ll check in, but please talk amongst yourselves. Have you read Kerouac? What do you find of value in his advice?

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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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Did You Just Use Italics?

James Scott Bell


Controversy? You want controversy? You thought Michelle’s post about F-bombs was controversial? John’s post about offending readers?

Well, step right up, cause I’ve got your controversy, right here: How about the use of italics?

That’s right! I said italics!

I love the way writing “rules” sometimes get floated around the internet, become a meme, then move to “accepted wisdom” or even “non-negotiable truths from on high” – while, all along, it may be wrong for an across the board regulation.

Sometimes there’s a kernel of truth. For example, there’s a “rule” that says, No Prologues! Part of that may be simply because agents see so many bad ones. Maybe we’ll discuss that in a future post.

Today I want to discuss the use of italics for rendering the inner thoughts of a character. You know how that’s often done:

Susan walked into the room and saw Blake. Back in town! I don’t want him to see me like this!

That’s the shortest possible route to showing us the inner thought. Another alternative is to not use italics, but put in an attribution:

Susan walked into the room and saw Blake. Back in town, she thought. I don’t want him to see me like this!

A third way is to use 3d Person, but filtered in such a way that we know it is Susan thinking it.

Susan walked into the room and saw Blake. So he was back in town. She didn’t want him to see her like this.

That last two renderings are probably the preferred type these days. Or at least the fashion cops seem to think so. But does that mean italics should never be used for thoughts?

Never say never, especially when it comes to writing “rules.” I think italics are still perfectly acceptable when used in moderation.

Note that word: moderation. The overuse of italicized thoughts gets a bit wearying.

But an italicized thought may be the best, most economical way for a character to recall a key point or phrase uttered earlier in the book. And to set it off for the reader, too.

For example, early in the book your Lead character is given a clue about the villain by someone, who says, “Baxter will be wearing cheapie shoes that squeak.”

Near the end of the book, the character hears someone enter the room with squeaky shoes. You could write it the clunky way: She listened to the sound of his shoes on the tile. And she remembered what Clive had told her about Baxter, that he would be wearing inexpensive shoes that squeak.

Or you could do it quickly and easily with italics:

She listened to the sound of his shoes on the tile.

Baxter will be wearing cheapie shoes that squeak . . .

If you have a scene that is mostly interior dialogue, using italics can be a means of variety. In Lisa Scottoline’s Courting Trouble, lawyer Anne Murphy has to process some shattering news. First, Scottoline uses no italics:

Could this be? Could this really be? Was Willa dead? Anne’s heart stalled in her chest. Her eyes welled up suddenly, blurring the busy boardwalk . . . . She struggled against the voice and the conclusion, but she couldn’t help it. Willa, dead? No!

But then, as Anne continues to try to “wrap her mind” around it, there’s this:

Kevin got out, but how? Why didn’t they tell her?

The switch to italics, for one line, adds a certain immediacy to the thought process. I don’t think Scottoline should be arrested for using it. I don’t even think she should get a ticket.

In The Hard Way by Lee Child, a man in a hooded sweatshirt who takes money off drunks is walking down the street, and sees: A big man, but inert. His limbs were relaxed in sleep.

As the hooded man moves closer, Child inserts a series of quick thoughts, between paragraphs of narrative:

His hair was clean. He wasn’t malnourished.

Not a bum with a pair of stolen shoes.

[more narrative]

A prime target.

And so on. It’s just an efficient way to get the point across and get out of the way. Could the same thing be done without italics? Perhaps. Should it? That’s up to you.

Another jab against italics is that they are “hard to read.” I don’t buy that. That’s why I didn’t mind that Robert Crais has whole chapters in italics in L.A. Requiem. He has a reason for it, and I’m not going to call the Style Felony Hotline to report him.

Here’s my pragmatic conclusion: yes, there may be some prejudice against italics. But if they’re used judiciously and for good reason, I see no problem.

Do you?

Do you?

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It’s all an act

By Joe Moore

Over at the Absolute Write forum, someone recently posted a request for advice on where to end the middle act of his novel. It was interesting to read the reactions, many of which expressed no idea that most novels are built on a 3-act structure. Now let me state right from the beginning that there are exceptions to every rule. And when it comes to writing fiction, the only rule is that there are no rules. But in general, most commercial fiction is usually based on a beginning, theater middle and end structure. This comes from traditional stage drama, but unlike the theater, there’s no curtain dropping at the end of Act 1 and going up at the beginning of Act 2. Even though it’s not as obvious as when you attend a play at your local community theater, if you analyze most genre fiction you’ll find (or at least feel) where the three acts begin and end.

So let’s take a look at the basic 3-act structure of a novel. In most cases, the beginning (Act 1), middle (Act 2) and ending (Act 3) are separated, not by points in time, but by major plotting points.

Act 1. The beginning is normally where the author introduces the reader to the setting/environment, the characters, their goals (wants and needs), and the conflict that impacts the protagonist’s life and launches the story. This impact knocks him or her from an ordinary situation into an extraordinary one. The protagonist might start out content with life, perhaps gliding along and comfortable in his or her niche. Then something happens to throw the protagonist out of the groove—an obstacle or roadblock that forces him or her to take some kind of action outside their comfort zone.  It’s often a shock to their routine or a threat to their safety or someone close to them. Perhaps it even requires survival instincts to kick in. A path is created that will eventually bring the protagonist and antagonist into a final climactic scene. In Act 1, the “story lotrquestion” is usually established such as, “Will Frodo Baggins destroy the Ring before the Dark Lord takes over the Shire and all of Middle Earth?” In Lord Of The Rings, by the end of Act 1, Frodo has decided to set out, although reluctantly, and pursue his quest to save his homeland and his people. As he takes his first step on his quest, the curtain descends on Act 1.

Act 2. The middle of the story often deals with a series of conflicts and obstacles that the protagonist must overcome in order to gain enough confidence to meet the final scene head-on. Arguably, the middle or “muddle” is the most challenging act to write, for the reader’s interest must be sustained while propelling the protagonist toward a goal that he or she and the reader desire. The element that fuels Act 2 is conflict, and each obstacle or test should build in severity from the previous one thus constantly raising the stakes and proceeding at a steady pace toward the end. The object here is to keep the reader reading. Remember too, that conflict does not always mean physical. It can be just as taxing and demanding when it’s emotional or spiritual. Act 2 also contains the lowest point in the story, emotionally or physically, for the protagonist. It usually occurs just before the end of Act 2 and the final Climax. It is the “darkest moment” in which all hope seems lost and the protagonist must summon up the final ounce of courage against all odds to resolve the story question. The resolution of the story question should happen at the Climax, and the curtain descends at the end of Act 2.

Act 3. The end is what some writers refer to as the “roundup”. This is where all loose ends, subplots, and lingering questions are answered. The reader should never finish the last page with any questions unanswered. The roundup is usually the final chapter, and because it’s hard to keep the reader’s attention after the climax, Act 3 should be short and to the point. Answer all the questions and proceed to the exits. There’s nothing left to see.

As readers, are you aware of the 3-Act structure in genre fiction? And as writers, do you think of it as you write, or is it more instinctive and subconscious? Have you ever written or read a book that was not based on the 3-Act form?

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In the beginning . . .

By Joe Moore

They say that the most important part of any novel is the beginning. Arguably, it’s the most re-worked portion. I know it seems like I rewrite the first chapter a hundred times before I’m done. But no matter what the story is about, I believe there are a few critical elements that should be present to create a strong beginning. Here they are.

You should always start by showing your hero as a central focal point. Don’t worry too much about detailed descriptions on the surroundings, the weather, and the setting. That can come a page or so later. Just zero in on the protagonist’s state of being.

Firmly establish the situation the protagonist is in. Is she relaxed, nervous, happy, or angry? Consider making the first scene a mirror of what’s to come so that the reader knows right from the get-go what type of person the protagonist is. For instance, if the hero will have to deal with killing someone later in the story, have her see a report of a murder on the news or in the paper and react to it. Is she repulsed by the taking of another’s life or does she think the person on the news got what he had coming? It should be like watching a preview of a coming attraction at the movies. You know what to expect from the character when you get to the meat of the story. So let the opening scene in some way reflect the overall conflict in the book and perhaps specifically predict or foreshadow events to come. Allow the first scene to set the tone for the rest of the story.

Next, give the protagonist something to do that is a primary “tag” to identifying their make-up, their inner core beliefs. You only need one, but it should be a mark of their character that will play a role later. As an example, if the protagonist is able to step in and calm an argument between two co-workers, and do it in a logical manner, it’s a tag that they can solve bigger conflicts later and that their mind works well at problem-solving.

Now comes a vital element in the beginning sequence of any story. You must establish that the protagonist has something important to lose. Conflict must be established from the very first scene. It doesn’t matter what kind of conflict or what’s at stake, but it must be something important to the protagonist. Something the hero cares about has to be threatened. Although some books start with a big scene, perhaps with violence or personal danger, the thing that’s at stake for the protagonist can be as small and personal as forgetting to send a birthday card or neglecting to tell her daughter that she loves her. This shows she has feelings and emotions that are on a basic human level and can be related to by the reader. Even if the big opening scene is a threat on the protagonist’s life, the real thing that’s at stake must be a loss from within her heart, her soul.

Starting with something as big as a threat on her life usually doesn’t work as well because the reader hasn’t had time to get to know the hero and there’s no reason at this early stage to care. Action by itself does nothing to increase the concern the reader has for the protagonist. But regretting that last, missed goodbye sure does. It sets up a relationship between the hero and the reader—a connection of human understanding and emotion that helps the reader care about the character later.

If your book is science fiction or fantasy, it’s a good idea to establish the rules of the road as soon as possible. If the rules say that people can become invisible, go ahead and establish that real quick. The reader must know the rules. Don’t wait until halfway through the book to decide the antagonist can read minds. We need to know about the mind reading thing right away.

Another element that should be present in or near the beginning of your book is the story question. You might think that the story question deals with the protagonist defeating the antagonist. That’s really a plot issue. The story question is much deeper than that and usually deals with an inner want and need of the main character. For instance, in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS Agent Clarice Starling has to find the killer known as Buffalo Bill. But what’s the story question? Can Clarice overcome the childhood trauma she experienced when her policeman father was murdered, then having to deal with living on her uncle’s farm and listening to the terrible screams of the sheep being slaughtered. The story question is answered at the end of the book when Dr. Lecter writes Starling a letter asking her if the lambs have stopped screaming. In the final scene Starling is sleeping quietly and peacefully at a friend’s vacation house at the Maryland seashore. The story question has been resolved.

You should also establish during the beginning of the book your character’s wants and needs. Asking the story question can reflect on what the protagonist wants and what she needs. Clarice wants to catch the killer but she needs to find internal peace from her childhood demons.

Lastly, you should begin your book by establishing your voice and setting the tone and pace of the story. The mood must be nailed down from page one. Your opening scene sets up all of these elements and lets the reader know what to expect from there on out. At this point, you are establishing a contract with your reader to deliver a story that maintains a tone, fulfills their preliminary expectations, and resolves all questions amicably.

What other elements do you think must be present in the beginning to keep your reader turning the pages? Do you always know the story question before you write the beginning of your book? Have you ever bought a book only to find that the author didn’t live up to the contract established in the beginning?

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Every word counts

By Joe Moore

One topic that seems to show up often with beginning writers is word count. Questions like: Are there rules for counting words? Is my fantasy too long at 600k? How long should a novella be? A short story? How do you get an accurate word count?

Word count can vary depending on genre. And in some cases, genre dictates word count. Readers tend to expect a certain word count in the genre they enjoy and will shy away from books that are longer or even shorter than what they’re used to.

Before we had computers and word processing programs with built-in word count features, the general rule used to be 250 words to a double-spaced manuscript page. Obviously, this was always going to result in an estimate, but a fairly good one. Today, it’s easy to determine your word count. For example, MS Word 2007 displays a running total at the bottom of the screen. So getting an accurate word count is no longer an issue.

How about what’s expected of a contemporary novel? I think the magic number to always aim for is 80k words. Eighty thousand is a good, safe number, especially if you’re a first-time author.

The thing that new writers sometimes forget is that more words mean more pages. More pages mean more printing costs. Does the publisher want to invest additional money into a new author just because he or she won’t give up a single word?

So if you’re writing a mystery or thriller or romance, you’ll be safe if your book is at least 80k words.

What about short stories? The answer is that in almost all cases, the word count on short stories is specified by the publisher. Check the submission requirements of the magazine or anthology to make sure you’re within the guidelines.

I think it’s important to remember that there’s always going to be some wiggle room with word count. No agent or publisher is going to reject your book if you missed the count by 1k or 5k or even 10k, especially if the story blows them away. But try to be accurate. There’s no excuse not to.

As a general rule of thumb, here’s a basic guideline to work count:

  • Epic: A work of 200,000 words or more.
  • Novel: A work of 60,000 words or more.
  • Novella: A work of at least 17,500 words but under 60,000 words.
  • Short story: A work of at least 2,000 words but under 7,500 words.
  • Flash fiction: A work of less than 2,000 words.

Does your contract specify word count? Have you ever had to trim because the publisher felt the book was too long for your genre? Or add because it was coming in too short? Do you think about word count as you write?

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Show and Tell

by Michelle Gagnonpot stove

Last week Joe had a great post about figuring out where your story actually begins. I’m in a group that posts online excerpts, mainly of first chapters, and today I thought I’d discuss something that seems to crop up again and again in those posts.

The old nugget, “Show, don’t tell” relates to exposition; ideally, you want to limit spoon-feeding your reader, watching out for adverbs that drive home what a character is thinking and feeling. But what should also be taken into account is that you don’t need to “show” your reader everything either.

Here’s an example:

“I went into the kitchen and grabbed a pan. I put water into the pan and placed it on the stove. Then I added the seasoning to the water. After the water boiled I placed the noodles into the water.”

Now, I think what the writer was attempting to do was build suspense; the problem with this passage is that unless you’re writing a cookbook entry on how to prepare pasta, this is way too much information. By the time I got to the third sentence, my eyes glazed over. It’s a common error. Where it tends to crop up most frequently, I’ve found, is with entering and leaving a room: “I turned the knob, opened the door, and stepped inside,” rather than just, “I went inside,” for example.

There are other ways to build suspense with a passage like this. For example, “She put water on the stove to boil. The doorbell rang. When she answered it, she found the UPS man standing there with a package. Could this be what she was waiting for?”

So…the water is still on the stove, set to boil. The heroine has apparently forgotten about it- but the reader hasn’t. If you consider how you go about your day, many of your actions are automatic. You don’t think through every step of putting on a pair of pants, walking across a room, or turning on your car; neither should you walk a reader through those steps (unless it’s critical to illustrate a character struggling to accomplish those tasks).

I prefer to start a story by dropping the reader into the middle of an action or conversation, forcing them to do a little work to catch up. After all, when it comes to eavesdropping (not that I ever do that, of course), the point when your ears perk up is not at the initial hello, but when something really juicy comes out. That’s what you want to begin with. Assume that the reader will figure out the parts you’re not telling them outright- engaging with a book should require a little effort, after all. You want them to wonder what the character is thinking, and what they’re going to do next. I want to know what’s going to happen with that boiling water- but assume that the rest of it, whatever isn’t critical, is a given and not something I need to know. For that, I’ll buy a cookbook.

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, and more.

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Start at the end

By Joe Moore

A topic I’ve mentioned here in the past is Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules of writing fiction. They’re worth reviewing and taking to heart. But his rule number 5 is the one that made the biggest impression on me. Rule number 5 is: Start your story as close to the end as possible. This is relevant for both the entire book or a single chapter. We often hear that the most common mistake of a new writer is starting the story in the wrong place.

Well, it happens to published writers, too. Lynn Sholes and I are guilty of writing whole chapters that either occurred in the wrong place, or worse, weren’t even needed. Usually they turn out to be backstory information for us, not the reader. We go to the trouble of writing a chapter only to find it’s to confirm what we need to know, not what the reader needs to know.

So if we apply Vonnegut’s rule number 5, how do we know if we’ve started close enough to the end? Easy: we must know the destination before we begin the journey. We must know the ending first. To me, this is critical. How can we get there if we don’t know where we’re going? And once we know how our story will end, we can then apply what I call my top of the mountain technique. In my former career in the television postproduction industry, it’s called backtiming—starting at the place where something ends and working your way to the place where you want it to begin.

7691695But before I explain top of the mountain, let’s look at the bottom of the mountain approach—the way most stories are written. You stand at the foot of an imposing mountain (the task of writing your next 100K-word novel), look up at the huge mass of what you are going to be faced with over the next 12 or so months, and wonder what it will take to get to the top (or end).

You start climbing, get tired, fall back, take a side trip, climb some more, hope inspiration strikes, get distracted, curse, fight fatigue, take the wrong route, fall again, paint yourself into a corner—and if you’re lucky, finally make it to the top. This method will work, but it’s a tough, painful way to go.

Now, let’s discuss the top of the mountain technique. As you begin to plan your book, even before you start your first draft, Imagine that you’re standing on 9944522the mountain peak looking out over a grand, breathtaking view feeling invigorated, strong, and fulfilled. Imagine that the journey is over, your book is done. Look down the side of the mountain at the massive task you have just accomplished and ask yourself what series of events took place to get you to the top? Start with the last event, make a general note as to how you envision it. Then imagine what the second to the last event was that led up to the end, then the third from the last . . . you get the idea. It’s sort of like outlining in reverse.

This takes it a step further than Vonnegut’s rule number 5 by starting at the end and working your way to the beginning while you’re still in the planning stage. Guess what happens? By the time you are actually at the beginning, you will have started as close to the end as possible. And you will see the logic and benefit of rule number 5.

Naturally, your plan can and probably will change. Your ending will get tweaked and reshaped as you approach it for real. But wouldn’t it be great to have a general destination in mind even from the first word on page one of your first draft?

Do you know your ending before you start writing? Or do you have a general idea for the story and just wing it? Remember that there’s no right or wrong answer here. But what works for you?

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Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Alexandra Sokoloff, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, and more.

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Politics is all about timing

by Michelle Gagnon

gitmo Copyeditor’s note: Guantanamo Bay prison has been ordered closed under Obama. Should this reference on p. 279 be changed?

Ah yes, Gitmo. The copyeditor is referring to a passage in The Gatekeeper where one of my characters wonders if they’re incarcerating Americans there now too. When I wrote it eight months ago, this was a timely reference. But if the copyeditor hadn’t been on her game, my book would have looked dated when it came out in November.

Which brings me to today’s topic: how do you keep a political thriller timely? The Gatekeeper was my first real foray into politics, at least literarily speaking. And now I’m sitting here gnawing my nails to the nub, watching immigration issues rise and fall in the nation’s consciousness, and wondering if by November something dramatic will have happened that will either make my book appear incredibly timely, or terribly passé.

Therein lies the pitfall of writing something politically based. I was on a panel at Left Coast Crime a few weeks ago where this question came up. The pat answer is to stick to something tried and true, a conflict or issue that is ongoing and seemingly intractable. One of the other authors joked that if peace arrived in the Middle East before his next release, he was screwed (he added quickly that of course, it would be great to have peace in the Middle East. Just not by October if possible). A significant portion of the television show 24’s success can be attributed to the fact that it hit the airwaves shortly after 9/11, jack bauer feeding upon the sudden collective consciousness of fear and paranoia. Which is why now, the show feels a little tired–in the aftermath of the last election, the Jack Bauer model just doesn’t seem as relevant as before. Not that we don’t still have enemies outside our borders, but we’re all a bit fatigued of having that fact shoved down our throats.

Of course, every book faces this hazard if it’s written with any sort of current “markers.” Simply by including a fax machine, CD player, or website in your text, you run the risk of sounding outdated when it hits the shelves months later. When I wrote for magazines, we aimed for “evergreen” stories, articles that would be timely if they came out next week or next year (that way a piece could be resold ad-infinitum once the rights reverted). That’s a bit trickier with fiction, when you’re dealing with 100,000 words instead of 1,000.

Getting back to my Gitmo reference…I changed the text slightly. The character in question is above all else distrustful of the American government, so I inserted a line saying, “The feds claimed to have closed it, but that was probably a lie like everything else they said.” Problem solved. I got to keep the reference I had grown attached to (I know, I know- kill your darlings. But that line served to illuminate this character and his mindset). And The Gatekeeper will still feel timely and relevant when it comes out. Hopefully. Fingers crossed. Barring any unforeseen circumstances.

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The Rules for Writing Fiction

By Joe Moore

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that the only rule we should apply to writing fiction is: There are no rules; do whatever you want as long as it works. Okay, if you pressed me to the wall, I would have to add two others: don’t bore the reader, and don’t confuse them.

When I speak of fiction writing “rules”, I don’t mean the basics of spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, split infinitives, daggling participles, and the other stuff we learned in school. As artists, let’s move beyond the assumed knowledge and manipulation of the English language to the aesthetics of writing. The rules that apply to the art of storytelling.

vonnegut When dealing with the art of storytelling, the great Kurt Vonnegut declared 8 rules to write by. If it makes you feel better, let’s call them suggestions. But we should all take them to heart because they go directly to the heart of telling a compelling story.

Here they are:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

The reader’s time is not only valuable, it’s sacred. There are a million other things demanding his or her attention. We should repeat that every time we sit down to write.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

The worst reaction that a reader can have is that they don’t care if the protagonist makes it or not. Let the hero or heroine see the goal line, then put a big wall in their way and hope the reader cheers for them to climb over it.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

This goes for all characters from the main stars right down to the single-scene walk-on.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

If it doesn’t, delete.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

This is my all time favorite rule to write by. Whether it’s a scene, chapter, or the entire book, get to the point. Anything that happens before that, delete.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

Our characters are judged by their actions and reactions. Have them work for it.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

Picture the typical fan that comes to your book signings. That’s who you’re writing to.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

This one sounds contradictory at first. But it’s not. It’s just another way of saying, cut the fat and get to the meat.

No one wants to slap a set of rules on creativity. And I don’t think Mr. Vonnegut meant to do so. But he called them rules because he wanted writers to pay attention. He wanted all of us to become better artisans. Read them each time you start to write. And when you finish for the day, read them again.

How about you? Do you follow his rules? Do you have others that help you in advancing your craft?

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