Chip MacGregor

September 10, 2008

Advice for Novelists


Since many of us are heading off to the great ACFW conference in order to rub shoulders with novelists, I should probably take on a "novel writing" question. Somebody wrote to me and asked, "As a first-time novelist, what advice can you give me to create a great, page-turning novel?"

My reply: Dialogue and action. That won't necessarily make for the deepest, or most thoughtful, or the most life-changing sort of book, but it will make your book a page-turner.  A high sense of drama is necessary, of course. So is telling an interesting story at a brisk pace. (Whoever read a slow, rambling thriller?) Unresolved conflicts help. So do plot twists, and fascinating characters, or characters I like who are placed in tense situations. But if you stick to dialogue and action, you'll make your book more of a page-turner.

This leads to the age-old writing question about plot vs character, I suppose. When it comes to page-turners, I think the plot takes precedence. The action and situations dominate the nuances of character in a thriller or suspense novel. People in publishing have a saying: "Editors love characters. Readers love plots." That's a nice way for highbrows to basically tell you "deep thinkers love interesting characters in their novels, so if you focus on plot you're probably shallow." I've never really agreed with that assessment — in my view, everybody loves an interesting character…but it's the action that gets me turning pages in order to find out what happens next. 

Years ago, in an interview in Saturday Review, novelist Elmore Leonard was asked what made his novels so successful. Here is a guy who has written at least a dozen bestsellers, and has kept up his success for a couple decades, so I was really focused on his answer. It was brilliant in its simplicity: "I tend to leave out the parts people skip."

That's great writing advice. Mr. Leonard's novels are filled with dialoge and action — and when did you ever skip dialogue in a novel in order to move to the descriptive portions? In the interview, he went on to talk about what he called "the fancy hopnoodle" of description, and that, while it was nice in a historical novel, it tends to slow down a thriller. In my work, I've found that most first novels are overblown, filled with adjectives and descriptions, with lots of telling.  Take your novel and cut it to the bone. Give the reader tight dialogue and action — that will make the reader turn the pages.

I think most first-time novelists don't really understand what it takes to create a novel. Perhaps they've written a short story, or some magazine pieces, or even a nonfiction book, and they have a tendency to think, "A novel is just like one long short story." But it's not — the pacing, structure, and texture of a novel make it very different from a short story. There is a story arc that doesn't exist in any other form of writing. Learning the unique struggles of crafting a novel is essential — and that's why so many successful novelists went through the process of creating several complete books before they landed a publishing contract.

I compare it to baseball. (Really.) You can read about the physics of the game, and study the various parts of the batter's stance, but until you actually take a bat in your hands and stand at the plate, watch the pitcher move toward you and hurl that little white sphere in your general direction, you won't know what it's like to play the game. Nor do you understand everything there is to know about hitting having done it once. It takes considerable practice and coaching to get to the point where you can actually get some hits. The same is true of writing a novel — you go through the entire process, get a feel for the basics, then complete it and move on. Nothing is more frustrating to me than seeing somebody at a writing conference bring to me the same novel  they pitched to me the previous year. I want to take them by the lapels and explain, "Look…you tried this and it didn't sell. TRY SOMETHING ELSE."

I know of several successful novelists who didn't sell their first work — but they kept writing, went through the entire process again, and eventually developed the tools to craft a good novel. T. Davis Bunn didn't get published until he had written a half-dozen novels. My writing coach in college, the Nebula Award-winning Ursula Leguin, wrote five complete novels before she got a publishing deal. Think of that as your training ground, your rehearsal, your apprenticeship.  You learn the basics, begin to apply them, and eventually you get to the point where you're creating actual novels.

Or maybe you don't. Though it doesn't get talked about all that much, there is a certain "talent" factor at work here, too. It takes actual talent to write a good book, and that means some folks, no matter how hard they try or how many novels they do, are probably never going to get published. That's a hard fact, I suppose…sort of like the fact that I'm never going to dunk a basketball, no matter how many times I practice or how hard I work on my jumping skills. (I'm 5'6" on a good day, and never really had the gift of hops to begin with.) So, yeah, it takes talent. But one thing I've learned is that you probably won't ever get published based solely on talent. Learning the craft is still essential.

By the way, that also leads me to consider a question that rarely gets discussed: the problem with second novels. Because people in publishing have long recognized that many successful first novelists simply don't have a story for their second book. They used up all their ideas on the first, and they start tap-dancing, trying to get by on cool characters and fancy style. Too many second-timers fall in love with their own voice. It's one of the reasons a publisher wants a good description of the second book on a multi-book contract — a way of protecting themselves from an author who is going to be a one-book wonder. (If you're interested in this topic, by all means read Donald Maas wonderful book, Writing the Breakout Novel, which was designed to help people with their second novel.)

Again, going through the process helps. Creating whole books, rather than just some vague ideas, and working all the way through to completion. If you're trying to write a page-turner, that means cutting out the parts people skip and sticking to the parts they read — dialogue and action. That should get you further down the road.

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