#2. How to write your best selling novel, by a best selling author.
Examine any great book and you will find it has a solid idea fortifying its spine. If you’ve heard this before, it’s probably because I said it in the previous section. So let’s assume you have the idea squared away. Now you need to identify its bones and put a little flesh on them. This speaks to the writing process and maybe I’ll talk a little about that first.
I’ll begin by saying that there’s no correct and accepted way to write a book except, perhaps, as Stephen King says, to write it “one word at a time.” Every writer has his or her own unique process, and there’s nothing wrong with that provided it works. I have a buddy who writes successfully about fictional shenanigans happening on the African continent. The stories are richly populated with robust, well-rounded characters and the plots are always densely intricate and satisfying. And I don’t have a clue how he pulls it off. He rarely if ever has a written outline to start with. Just wings it from beginning to end (at least, that’s what he tells me). I was so impressed with his ability to do this that I gave it a go myself. I had the idea for the story figured out, and one or two “scenes” in my mind’s eye, and that was it. I set off full of enthusiasm to write the book and let the story run where it might and it was a complete disaster that snatched a year out of my life and threw it in the trash. (That was to be my third novel and it was very nearly my last.)
“I do not over intellectualize the production process. I try to keep it simple: Tell the damned story.”
— Tom Clancy
My first two books, ROGUE ELEMENT and SWORD OF ALLAH had begun life, following the penning of the core idea, as fairly extensive essays. But I liked the sound of writing with no plan and, as he put it, “the story surprising the writer at every turn.” Unfortunately, it just didn’t work for me.
Other writers I know swear by the card method, which is basically that they write everything they know about their book yet to be written on individual cards – scenes, character traits and synopses, plot turn points and so forth. They stick ‘em all on a wall, or number them in order for later reference, and off they go to the keyboard and start writing.
Again, I can’t do this. For me this is too random, too messy. It reminds me too much of my son’s “floordrobe” (the wardrobe of soiled and newly washed clothes, underwear, and wet towels spread out on his bedroom floor, from which he chooses what he’ll wear each day).
There are any number of processes individual writers swear by, which, let’s face it, are barely a process in the true sense. But as you’re yet to be an experienced writer, let me give you a sure-fire method that will almost certainly drive your first book from “Once upon a time…” all the way to “the end”. It’s simply this: write out your book first in outline. Knowing the journey your characters will take – the beginning, the middle and the end – is too obviously critical to ignore. And in fact, it’s usually not the beginning of a novel or the conclusion that troubles most authors, even experienced ones. It’s the 40-to-60,000 words between those two bookends that provide the most anxiety. A meandering middle is not where you want to find yourself after 6 months of eschewing nights out at a bar.
So take what you already have – how the story begins, a few scenes that you can picture, perhaps the resolution if you have it – and write it out giving no more than three lines of description to each. Just narrative. No dialogue. Waypoints, if you like, the beacons to navigate by. Now that you have those, describe the territory between the waypoints – again using no more than three lines to describe each.
This brings me to the film, Dude, where’s my car, starring Ashton Kutcher and Sean William Scott. In one particular scene, probably the movie’s most memorable, they pull up to the drive-thru at a Chinese restaurant. Kutcher orders the food and the voice in the speaker says, “And then…?” Kutcher adds to his order and the voice says, “And then…” Oh yeah, Kutcher forgot soup so he adds that to the order. “And then…?” Right. Prompted yet again, Kutcher remembers the fortune cookies. Anyway, the voice keeps asking “And then…?” It’s almost irresistible. The order fills out, gets confirmed and reconfirmed. Kutcher, becoming increasing annoyed and frustrated by the relentless, “And then…?” eventually puts his fist through the speaker and drives off with squealing tires, but the scene is instructive. When you’re writing your narrative outline, simply keep asking yourself, “And then…” I promise, you’ll be surprised how well this works.
Give it a day of tormenting yourself thus and you will end up with an eight-to-ten-page outline for your novel, each of those three-line paragraphs being chapters. (Of course, this doesn’t preclude other chapters and ideas that will undoubtedly occur to you as you write the novel.) And it goes without saying that if your outline works as a description of your story, then your novel should also work, and that’s a worthy reassurance to have at the outset, right?
Of course, the writing of this narrative will also help you identify any sinkholes in your plot, which you can rectify before they become grand canyons.
You might be thinking that this method takes the spontaneity out of the writing. Speaking from experience, it doesn’t. In fact, it gives you the freedom to be spontaneous. The 8-10 page outline is your novel’s spine, your assurance that your book will stand on its own two feet all the way to the denouement and beyond. By all means depart from this spine as the whims of your characters wrest some of the control of the story away from you (believe me, a coup d’état of the writing of your story, led by your characters, will almost certainly happen). But you can always get things on track again simply by shepherding your creations back towards the spine.
#3. Character, and a little more about plot