Tumbling Down a Hill in a House That is On Fire
by Duane Swierczynski
Before I’d published my first novel, I wrote two nonfiction books for an editor named Gary Goldstein. During one e-mail exchange I admitted that I was working on a crime novel. Did Gary have any advice? (He’d edited hundreds of them over the years.) He wrote back:
Make it funny, make it dark, keep the body count in the low double digits, liberally coat with lotsa Philly ambiance, keep the surprises coming (never let the reader get too comfortable, keep ‘em off kilter whenever possible) and you might just have a winner on your hands.
I liked this advice so much that I printed it out and taped it to the back of a wooden ruler that I kept in my desk drawer. Whenever I needed a reminder, I’d take out the ruler and read this sentence again. Sometimes I slap my forehead with the ruler, just so the lesson would sink in.
The best bit of that advice, and one I would take to heart as a novelist, is the idea of keeping your readers off kilter whenever possible. If they know what’s coming, there’s a good chance they’ll put down your book and move on to something else.
So how to keep your readers off kilter?
My own method, it seems, is all about keeping myself off-kilter during the plotting process.
With my first crime novel, The Wheelman, I winged it completely. Opened with a bank robbery gone wrong and just followed the aftermath. I had a vague idea about where it go, but when I sat down to write each section, I allowed the story to be the boss. It was great fun because I was discovering the story as I went along. New characters would pop up and I’d be like, Oh, okay, you want to join in? Sure. So what’s your story? The answer would often surprise me.
With the follow-up, The Blonde, I did the opposite: I plotted out every minute of that sucker. It takes place over a single weekend, and I was juggling multiple viewpoint and plot threads, so I had to know what was happening at every turn. (Another factor: this was the first book I was writing under contract, and I was terrified of screwing it up.)
With the next one, Severance Package, I went back to winging it. I went in knowing the set-up. I had the cast of characters in a list like an Agatha Christie novel. But I really didn’t know what would happen until I started each writing session. In fact, one major plot point completely changed a third of the way through, and it made the rest of the novel a big surprise—especially to me. It was a delirious thrill.
For the next one—you can probably guess where I’m going with this—I went back to a strict outline. Expiration Date was a time travel story, and again, I was worried about keeping all of the details straight, so I outlined it.
And so on. My next three books, an action-thriller trilogy, were largely winged; my new novel, Canary, began life as a 7,000 word outline.
What the hell, right?
The good news is that I have advice for either situation—whether you’re going to be winging your novel or outlining the living hell out of it—and how to keep it fresh, relentless and surprising. Or as another editor once described it: “A story that’s like being in a house that is tumbling down a hill and on fire.”
1. Give yourself a daily word count. I can’t overstate how important this is. It doesn’t matter if you agree to write 500 words a day, a thousand or five thousand. Pick something realistic and stick to it. It’s hard to build momentum and suspense if you’re just futzing around with your novel every other week for five years. You’re going to get bored, and so will your reader.
2. Don’t be afraid to follow unusual narrative threads—because chances are, you’re going to end up rewriting it anyway. The deeper you get into a story, the more your brain will throw out interesting ideas and possibilities. The fun with winging it is that you can explore these side alleys. Just be prepared that you’re most likely have to go back and rewrite a lot to match. But it’s well worth the work, because you’ll probably end up with a more surprising plot. (If this freaks you out, well, maybe you should skip on down to the advice about plotting.)
3. A ticking clock is almost always a good idea. To keep on yourself as well as your characters. Ask yourself: what would happen if your character were to stop and do nothing? If you’re answer is “well, nothing,” then you’re not writing a page-turner. Constant pressure, all of the time. And speaking of that…
4. Action all the time. Marcel Duhamel, editor of Gallimard’s famous Serie Noire in France, once advised Chester Himes:
“Get an idea. Start with action, somebody does something—a man reaches out a hand and opens a door, light shines in his eyes, a body lies on the floor, he turns looks up and down the hall… Always action in detail. Make pictures. Like motion pictures. Always the scenes are visible. No stream of consciousness at all. From one scene to another. Don’t worry about it making sense. That’s for the end. Give me 220 typed pages.”
Now I wouldn’t go that far. A little stream of consciousness and introspection is a good. But check your balance. New writers tend to emphasize the interior stuff at the expense of the action.
5. Consider ultra-short scenes/chapters. Some folks mock James Patterson, but I learned something important from reading a few of his early Alex Cross novels: write very short chapters. Readers love them. When you down nine or ten of those suckers in a go, you feel like you’re on fire. It’s easy to say, “Just one more. Just one more,” like potato chips.
One of my favorite writers, Ken Bruen, once told interviewer Allan Guthrie:
“I like to strip everything down to the bone, see if it stands up by itself. The doorstop books—500 pages and up—Jesus wept, who has that amount of time to piss away. Ninety percent of what I read is padding and road, ‘Get the fuck on with it!’”
6. At the end of each writing session, stop writing when you know exactly what’s coming next. That way, when you pick it up the next day, you’ll be ready to rock. Or, go back and edit a bit of what you wrote yesterday. It helps you pick up the narrative voice in your head.
1. Try a beat sheet format. This is something I picked up from writing comics, and it helps me from feeling like I’ve told the whole story in outline form (leaving me with no desire to actually write the damned thing).
With every comic, I write a 1,000 word “beat sheet”—basically, a short outline telling my editor what happens on every page. I don’t feel like I’ve exhausted the story at this level, because there’s so much more fun to be had when I’m scripting the action and dialogue. But I have a handy road map with the beat sheet, so I don’t have to worry about plot mechanics.
A beat sheet is simply “what happens.” Just walk yourself, step by step, through the mayhem you’re dishing out to your protagonist.
2. Place your bombshell surprises with care. You don’t want to save them all for the end. Think of the two biggest surprises in your story. (You should have many more, but let’s stick with two for now.) You might consider taking the second biggest surprise and throw it at us early in your story—as early as possible. Then, build up to the single biggest surprise towards the end. The example that comes to mind is The Matrix. By the end of the first act, we realize that: Whoah. The entire world is a computer simulation. By the end of the movie, we realize: WHOAH! KEANU REEVES IS GOD IN HERE! Which is one seriously troubling revelation.
3. When mapping out your story beats, make your hero smart and logical—and the world flat-out nuts. Howard Browne, pulp magazine editor and novelist (mostly under the name John Evans), once looked back on his writing process:
“I always started a novel with one thing in mind: present interesting characters facing an interesting situation and then take the next logical step. At the end of the process you’ll have a novel. I never made a false start on a novel, and I never had writer’s block… that I can remember!”
The key word for me is “logic.” Your readers will want your protagonist to behave in a proactive, logical way. Where you have fun is throwing all kinds of mayhem at him, forcing him to rethink his strategy every step of the way. Your readers will be kept on their toes right along with him.
4. Always ask yourself: What is the worst thing that could happen right now? Give your protagonist constant problems. If he/she solves one, have three take its place, like a hydra on the cover of a heavy metal album. You want a sense that your protag’s problems are escalating, now matter how smart he/she has been.
5. Don’t be afraid to deviate from your outline if a tempting idea presents itself. Seriously, this is what keeps me sane when working from an outline: the knowledge that I can always change the outline. Hell, with the novel-in-progress, I’m doing that right now. An outline is just a road map, and sometimes there’s a turn in the road you couldn’t anticipate that makes all the difference.
Duane Swierczynski is the Edgar-nominated and Anthony and Shamus Award- winning author of Expiration Date, Fun & Games and the forthcoming Canary (February 2015). He’s written over 250 comic books for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and IDW, including the New York Times bestselling Birds of Prey.