I’m a veteran writer, but a new novelist, and since I’m getting a late start—entering the competitive market of commercial fiction at the ripe old age of 46—I took a pretty deliberate approach to studying the best practices of others. Over the past year I’ve synthesized those lessons with my own experience to customize a writing process I believe will work for me over the long haul. Now, I’m only on the second draft of my second book, so there are insights yet to be learned and tweaks still to make, but I’ve written something like 400,000 words over the course of four separate drafts in fourteen months, so this stuff is pretty well road tested. Plus, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.
I drew lessons primarily from three sources—Stephen King’s On Writing, Elmore Leonard’s famous 10 rules, and Masterclass instruction from Steven Balducci, James Patterson, and Walter Mosley—and applied it to my own experience and habits. What follows are just 9 practical techniques and practices that are a part of the larger method that I use in my own customized system for writing original, commercial fiction (in episodic form).
At some point soon I’m going to put the entire thing together in a short book to offer my fellow Louisiana writers (for free). But for now, here’s some highlights that I hope you’ll find helpful. Some of these you will likely have encountered before, but if you stick around until the end, you’ll find one special technique that—as far as I can tell—does not show up in other books and articles on novel writing. Here goes.
- Write like your characters talk, and customize the narrative based on their point of view. This is right out of the school of Elmore Leonard. I also write in the third person (at least so far). And, like the crime fiction master himself, what I try to do is present the narrative in the language of the main character we’re following. It’s basically like writing in the first person, except . . . you’re not. These opening paragraphs from Episode 3 of Tattoos and Tans, which introduces us to Lenny Prichard, the villain, illustrates the style. A phrase like “he knew it was on”, for example, is specific to Lenny. I chose these words because they reflect the unique perspective of this (pretty assholish) dude. The key waypoint here is don’t ever use a word your character wouldn’t know or use himself.
Lenny Prichard had a lot on his mind, and he hadn’t had breakfast yet, unless you counted the PowerBar he had in the truck on the way to the Eunice Health Club. So he was already on edge and it was barely 7 a.m. He was thinking about Sausage McMuffins, JD Dugas, his cousin Jackie, and especially Sadie Lee. He was maybe the slightest bit hungover, so he couldn’t ignore his hunger, and that got him thinking about the new girl at the drive-through he’d started flirting with.
She always gave him extra cream for his coffee. Last week, she complimented his new Toyota Tundra and he knew right then it was on. But he played it cool—just gave her a look and pulled away. He was thinking it was about time to give her a free pass to Sun-N-Tans. What he’d do, he’d give her the pass and write his number on the back. A lot of times that did the trick.
- Stay out of the way with the writing. Don’t show off. This one’s pretty self explanatory, but it’s definitely one I continue to struggle with. That’s because it’s so easy to do. Everyone tries to write beautiful sentences and tries to be clever. We’re writers. It just comes with the territory. The most important thing to remember on this front is the reader doesn’t actually care about your clever sentences. What she cares about is the story. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but any sentence that calls attention to itself, either because it’s awkward or because it’s just so fucking gloriously composed, takes the reader out of the story. What I try to do is make it so the reader doesn’t remember the sentences. She just remembers the story. (Also, try to reprogram your thinking on this topic. Condition yourself to strive for invisible sentences rather than fancy ones. Realize that this quality—invisible sentences—is the true measure of cleverness.
An editor or trusted beta-reader can help on this front. Explain to that person what you’re trying to do with the writing—how your ultimate goal is to have the sentences and paragraphs recede into the background, illuminating only the story—and ask her to call out any words, phrases, or sentence constructions that violate that aim.
- Establish a short hand for certain physical elements in the story and sprinkle them throughout the narrative. This one is somewhat hard to explain, but I do think it can be very powerful. I suspect there may be a psychological element to this technique that I don’t quite understand. But I got C’s at the state school, so I’ll just have to leave the deep stuff for someone else. All I know is there’s something about the naming of things that helps to create a connection that pulls you further into the story and weds you to the characters.
Here are two paragraphs from Tattoos and Tans, just to illustrate the point. The shorthand here is the “EverReady”, what Curtis calls his backpack. It is just a backpack, but it becomes familiar and important (just like it is to Curtis) over the course of the story, and in that way helps to deepen the connection. The paragraph’s below are not connected.
A year ago when he got the pack he now thought of as his EverReady, he’d brought it to his local dry cleaners and asked the Vietnamese lady there to sew on a handful of decidedly non-military patches, hoping to give the bag a friendly look. National Geographic, Telluride, Acadia National Park, the Louisiana Black Pot Festival and Cook-off. The patched-up EverReady suggested its owner was a harmless hippie traveler. Curtis liked to believe that wasn’t too far from the truth.
He pulled on a pair of jockeys and spent a few minutes familiarizing himself with the new tools he’d acquired from Jacque and at the gun show. He disassembled the pistol, checked the firing mechanism, the slide, and the safety, and then logged the serial number into his encrypted notes file. Just in case. For tonight, the loaded pistol would stay tucked deep in the EverReady in the trunk of the Mazda. [The “Mazda”, the hoopty Curtis buys from a junk man for seven hundred dollars, is another shorthand that occurs throughout the book.]
- Dialogue should sound cool and serve multiple purposes. For me, I want my characters to basically say the perfect thing for the situation, every time they open their mouth (unless I want them to say exactly the wrong thing, in which case it’s still going to be perfectly wrong). I’m not trying to replicate real, everyday speech. My thought is, we all get enough of that in real life, and we don’t read fiction to hear the same kinds of shit we encounter in everyday life. I want my characters to be the coolest version of themselves possible. I’m sure there are other schools of thought, but this is mine. I don’t want my characters stumbling on their words or saying lame stuff. I want them to be vibrant and colorful, witty, charming—the very best versions of themselves. The easiest shorthand I can think of to convey this idea is a Quentin Tarantino movie. Think of Pulp Fiction.
Also, the dialogue has to serve a purpose. Maybe it reflects the agenda of a character, or a particular word choice says something about the character, or maybe one character’s dialogue helps describe a different character in the story. One thing I did in Tattoos and Tans that I thought worked pretty good was I had Curtis tell his friend Jacque a little bit about how he came to know JD, the tattoo artist from Eunice, who the whole story centers around. This allowed me to weave some backstory into the narrative in a natural way. Curtis was talking to Jacque, but he was also talking to the reader. I won’t specifically cite that here, but you can find it in Episode 1.
- Integrate details (description, thoughts, and emotion) into the narrative in small chunks. What I mean here is, basically, just be judicious in how you weave the details into the narrative. Don’t spend three paragraphs describing the physical characteristics of a character, for instance, the very first time he’s introduced. Just sprinkle it in, a little bit at a time, while you keep the story moving along. The key words here are integrate, weave, sprinkle . . . don’t just plop down big blocks of text that serve one single purpose. Instead, weave in those details here and there.
- There has to be at least one point to every scene you write. Once you make it, move on. This is a James Patterson thing, and one of the reasons why you’ll sometimes find super-short chapters in his books (like, two pages short). His philosophy is hit it and quit it.
There’s a scene in my second book, All Saints Day of the Dead, where one of the characters and his dad are making cracklins. It’s not a long scene, and it doesn’t, frankly, do too much to advance the plot, but I wanted to show how cracklins are made. That’s the purpose of the scene—to illustrate one of the more interesting aspects of Cajun culture. In this case, making the Louisiana delicacy people call cracklins.
I’m including this specific example precisely because it’s a little thin. The process of cooking pork belly in its own fat in a big black pot is just barely interesting enough, in the context of the overall story I’m telling in the novel, to justify a whole (but short) scene. If I couldn’t justify its inclusion on the basis of local color, the right choice would have been to cut the scene entirely. All this to say, every scene has to do something, and if you can’t figure out what purpose it’s serving, it needs to go (somebody, I can’t remember who, referred to this as the requirement to sometimes “kill your darlings.”)
[At this point, the list moves from techniques to procedure.]
- You can’t write with loud music playing. In On Writing, Stephen King says he writes while listening to loud rock and roll. He’s a better man than me, because I tried it for several months, and for me, any music with words is an impediment to thinking.
I love listening to music. In fact, the desk in my office is strategically placed between two badass stereo speakers, and my favorite thing to do is crank my favorite rock records while I’m working. Or, sort of working, anyway. See, I’ve experimented with different forms of music and with absolute quiet, and for me, I’m at my best when I’m working with “concentration music”. If you’re not aware, there’s a whole genre of music specifically designed to improve your ability to concentrate and/or study. You can find it on all the streaming services, keywords “concentration” or “study.” It’s basically new age kind of stuff.
But there is a cooler option, I’ve found. Any one of the movie soundtracks that Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch have done, for instance. My favorite is the soundtrack to “Before the Flood”. Along these lines, instrumental stuff by Brian Eno works good too. And then there’s Philip Glass. I especially like his Music in Twelve Parts for concentration. Check it out and you’ll see what I mean.
- Use a timer. I have a bunch of different timers on my laptop I use for various things (meditating, journaling, breaks). I also have one for a main “writing chunk”, which for me is a 50 minute period during which my fingers are on the keyboard and I’m writing new stuff. Not re-reading what I wrote yesterday, not editing, not thinking . . . but actually producing new sentences.
I’ve found the timer to be super helpful. What I do is I start the timer when I’m ready to start writing (usually having read through what I wrote the previous day—just like Walter Mosley says in his brilliant Masterclass), and I keep going for the full time. If I have to take a bio-break, I stop the timer. But, other than calls from nature, once I start, I keep going. When the writing is flowing, the timer tends to ring without warning. For those sessions, it’s not that useful because I’m already in the flo.
It’s when I’m not feeling it that I’m thankful for the timer. When I want to quit because every word is a chore, I check the timer to see how many minutes I have left. And then I’ll think, okay, I can do another twenty minutes. The timer keeps you on task when it gets hard. It keeps you consistent.
All of the writers I’ve mentioned so far say they write in blocks of several hours. While that makes sense to me, I’ve found that I can’t go for an uninterrupted block of more than two hours at a time. Instead, I use my “writing chunks” as a way to achieve the same thing. On a normal day, I’ll require myself to do three chunks before noon. I think of them like sets in weight lifting. Three sets, with rests in between. The 50 minute block works well for me in this way. I think of it like an hour block with a ten minute rest period built in. I focus for 50 minutes, and when it’s up I take a little break. And when I’m ready, I sit down for another chunk.
- Meditate on the character before you start writing from their point of view. This is the one I have not come across anywhere else. And I can tell you from experience that it works well for me. In my books, I’m aiming to show the story sort of from the shoulder of a small handful of main characters. Again, like first person, except not. I think of it like method acting. My job as the writer is to get in the head (or, on the shoulder—not quite in the head) of that character and see, feel, hear, and experience the things they experience.
The way I try to do that is, just before I’m ready to start my timer, I close my eyes and I imagine myself as the character. I meditate on the character, using prompts to get myself into their head. Questions work good for that. What am I worried about? What do I want to have happen? Why am I here? What’s on my mind right now? This kind of stuff. I’ve found that if I can do this right, within just two or three minutes with my eyes closed, imagining myself as the character, I can write a pretty good scene.
I’m not all the way there yet, trust me. But I’ve experienced enough of this technique to know it works. And my thinking is, over time, the more I practice with this sort of “method writing”, the deeper I’ll be able to go into the heads and onto the shoulders of my characters. Now, I’m an inherently shallow guy, so exactly how deep I’ll be able to go is an open question . . . but maybe you can really run with this technique. Give it a try.
Okay. There you go. There’s a few highlights of how I do it. If you found this useful, please offer a comment or, better yet, join the mailing list!