Writing Tips from Chris Pavone, author of The Travelers

We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing!  How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters? As intimately as possible. For me, that’s by writing character sketches. Not just a paragraph or two, but deep intricate stories complete with grade-school triumphs and middle-school humiliations, grandparents immigrating and parents divorcing, detailed visions of houses and part-time jobs, dead pets and young-adult heartbreak, irrelevant vignettes coming out of the woodwork. I don’t expect for this character-sketch material to make it into the book—90 percent of it doesn’t come close, and I end up deleting most of the 10 percent that I do shoehorn into early drafts. But this backstage exercise helps me define these imaginary people, so I know how their voices sound, what they look like and even how they dress, what they’re worried about and hopeful for, what they want. So when it’s time for these characters to walk onstage, they’re ready. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? When I was in my mid-twenties, I was a copy editor at Doubleday, and for a brief period it was my job to help shepherd Pat Conroy’s Beach Music into the world. I ended up spending a good amount of time with Pat, who’d temporarily relocated to New York City to finish working on the manuscript. One day we walked from a meeting at his editor’s house to his hotel, the unnecessarily long way through a cold damp Central Park, while Pat peppered me with questions about my unconventional childhood in New York City in the 1970s. I eventually asked why he was so curious. And he told me that this is the most important thing for writers to do: to listen—really listen—to other people’s stories. After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? I spend a huge amount of time writing about the book, instead of writing the actual text. This includes the above-mentioned character sketches, but also scenes that I don’t know will fit anywhere, and plot notes and alternate possibilities, and a detailed outline. Sometimes I have a half-dozen documents open, and none of them is the book. For my most recent, The Travelers, I even wrote a TV treatment and a pilot script, neither of which I attempted to sell. I think it’s useful for me to try to tell a story in different formats, especially very short ones: the one-sentence elevator pitch and the one-page flap copy. A writer can spend a decade working obsessively on a novel, but in the commerce of publishing many of the most important decisions about any book will be made based on very short pitches—from literary agent to editor to sales rep to bookstore buyer to a potential reader standing in the bookstore, asking, “What’s it about?” Every single one of those interactions is an opportunity for the book’s life to be cut short or to survive, for someone to decline or to agree, “Okay, I’ll take a look.” But I won’t be there for any of those interactions—you never get a chance to defend your book!—so instead I want to try to make sure that the book is pitchable. Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? I did, yes. But for a long time I equated being a working novelist with being third baseman for the Yankees: an unrealistic dream, an impractical self-indulgence. After college I was burdened with student loans to repay, no financial cushion, so I wasn’t in a position to bet everything on a creative-writing career—neither the writing-workshop academia life nor the freelance-writer version, trying to scrape by on short stories and house-painting gigs. I wanted to pursue a separate freestanding career, one that would definitely put me in the path of becoming a writer, but also one that would also be tenable and satisfying if I never ended up writing a published book. So I worked in publishing. My career got off to an extremely slow start as a direct-marketing assistant at a professional-magazine publisher (our titles included the likes of Journal of Accounting and Middle Market Lending Letter, and I was tracking the efficacy of junk-mail campaigns), but one thing led to another, and I quickly moved into the book end of things, and seven jobs later I was an associate publisher. That turned out to be the last position I quit, nearly a decade ago. I was thirty-eight years old. Learn more about Chris Pavone’s new book below!