I say this in all modesty. No one knows more about writing a novel than I do. Except—and it pains me to say this—my editor. That’s my New York editor. Whom I forgive right straight out in front. I speak for my ego here, who at the moment could not come to the pen. Let alone, the lip.
Here’s what I have learned, and I’m talking about the construction of a page-turner—the kind a corporate sales manager might be interested in.
1 – Avoid framework structures. For example, a gripping story found in your grandfather’s effects, say, about a passionate love, terminated by a stray bullet during a revolution in a country whose citizens your potential readers are afraid of.
2 – The story has to start with a shocking event somewhere within the first three lines of the first paragraph. This paragraph should not exceed three lines. For example, your father is murdered, shot in the back while investigating an injustice in a mine. The injustice can’t conflict with the accepted narrative, i.e. the enduring innocence of the country you the writer come from and where your book will sell.
3 – Everyone knows this: show, don’t tell. This is harder than you might think. For example, she is a respected striking London feminist with a thick French-Israeli accent, with a large following, who writes important books. You meet her at a reception, there are not that many people attending, you notice she is isolated, there is a chair next to her, and you go over and say you wonder whether you can ask her a question. You have a short, agreeable conversation about other people’s guilt. An admirer approaches, you cede your place. Then you go visit with other people, laughing and joking. She catches your eye. Her lips are moving. You nod and lean forward to hear what she’s saying across two tables filled with people. She says, “All your irony, come to me after you have cried, then we can have a conversation.” Do not explain, or tell, readers what just happened between you and the famous London feminist. They are intelligent. They can figure it out for themselves, even if you can’t.
4 – Don’t say he said, she said when writing dialogue, if it is obvious who’s speaking. Especially in the case of animals.
5 – Contract verbs in conversation. Say, “When you’ve cried” rather than “When you have cried”—which is less natural.
6 – Do not anticipate something that will happen in the plot by saying it could, might or will happen, no matter how they did it in the medieval epic called the Nibelungenlied—thus robbing the text of suspense. Don’t find an Austrian telescopic sight in someone’s saddlebag and then have him use it to shoot Siegfried two pages later. The reader has already anticipated the shooting, and the suspense is gone.
7 – Also, keep track of the number of elephants, “seven,” in an Indian night-time attack on British colonial forces. The reader will notice if the elephants are suddenly horses, or if all “eight” of the elephants lie dead or dying after the battle. Also, decide whether the moon is out. If it’s not, it’s almost impossible to get a correct count on the elephants.
8 – Pay attention to time. Remember, if a character died on Monday, her body is not still warm on Wednesday.
9 – Logic. If your ex-husband is making a scurrilous remark to his neighbor standing outside the car but has the windows up, the air conditioner on and has driven more than half a block, his neighbor cannot hear him, nor take offense. Only you can.
10 – Beware of sentimentality. Never say a situation is sad. Minimize the appearance of tears. Also beware of showing your imperfect hero saving a child from a fire or a cruel stepfather. Instead, describe a young man rowing across a calm German lake on a beautiful Spring day to a grove of beech trees, where he saws planks from a fallen log, then planes them, whitens them with chalk and, standing amid his bright shavings, shapes a coffin for his sweetheart, who is still alive but dying of tuberculosis. And if this is not adequate, have him place a window over the place where her head will go—with angels engraved on the glass.
11 – Always kill off your hero at the end. Everyone is suspicious of happy endings.
12 – Age: Make sure your hero’s father is older than your hero, so that each generation has at least ten years between it and the one that precedes or follows it. This is especially important in family sagas.
13 – Explicit sex. Do not show the entire penis—only the tip. Have it peeking out like a frog, just above the surface of the bath water. It is well known that this image, mixed with a certain amount of steam in the room, is a turn-on for both sexes.
14 – “Extra words muffle tense dialogue.” That is a direct quote from my New York editor. You might say it’s conversational as well, since that man and I are having a dialog about my writing. Frankly, I find the quote not muffled enough.
15 – Another unhappy quote. “Smart editors muffle mediocrity.”
16 – I near the end by telling you that “that”—the word “that”—carries very little emotional or substantive plot value, and that you should leave it out, when you can, so that it doesn’t dilute the strength of your prose.
17 – Irony: Do not even think the word, let alone use it as a form of communication while writing. Some people do not understand it. See if you can name two.
18 – Again, wit should be divorced from moral comment, and from irony. It taxes me too much to say why.
19 – There is no 19.
20 – 20 is like 19.
21 – If you’re a writer and like metaphors and pithy phrases, make a note of these points and Scotch tape them to your computer, so you will have them when you put pen to paper.
I hope that was helpful.on a beautiful Spring day