Working one-on-one with first- time memoirists and novelists at various summer writing work- shops over the past many years, I often find myself needing to de- liver the hard news. Perhaps the most difficult lesson I have to pass along is this:
Once you are done writing your book, you aren’t really done writing your book. When I say this, foreheads inevitably furrow. Faces fall.
Being reminded of just how much effort is required even after you’ve put a period on the final sentence of the final chapter of a multi-year project can be deeply discouraging.
Because yes, revision does take effort and time. It needn’t, however, be painful.
The blank page is a frightening void. An early draft, however, filled with words — all pointing in the right direction, but in need of some tender loving care — can be exhilarating. Words are like clay: You can push them around and make all manner of shapes with them. And clay reminds us of childhood. And childhood re- minds us of the time when we were the most playful, most creative, and least haunted by voices telling us we can’t do things well enough.
In other words, you can approach revision with your head low and your shoulders tensed, thinking, “Boy my sentences are so sloppy and wordy, and everything seems slow. All in all, I’m a pathetic failure.”
Or you can approach revision thinking, “Hey, here’s my chance to get it right. Let’s play around.”
Too many areas of life don’t afford you a second chance, but writing does, and you should see that as a good thing. So, here’s my advice:
FIRST: GO BACK TO THE BEGINNING
Once you’ve found an ending to your novel or memoir, look back at your opening impulse. These two moments should be connected, either by a direct line of action and reaction running through the entire book, or through the cur- rent of emotion. Sometimes these two moments may also be linked by setting, by imagery, or through a recurrent metaphor. There is no steadfast rule, except that if the be- ginning and ending don’t feel coupled in any significant way, you need to rethink plot and structure.
Remind yourself that a book begins with a question: “How will she overcome this unforeseen challenge?” or “Will this experience change him in some significant way?” The ending doesn’t always answer the question fully, but it should connect, and though the beginning doesn’t ask the question explicitly, it should plant the seed.
THEN: EVERYTHING IN THE MIDDLE
Locate the emotional undercurrent of your book — what I like to call the Invisible Magnetic River — and review every word, image, metaphor, scene, character, and chapter. Look for scenes, even those you labored over for days that may no longer have any utility to the story, or images and metaphors that — though not poorly shaped — don’t fit the overall flow. Though it is heartbreaking to delete twenty pages of honest effort, this momentary agony is far more desirable than settling for a book that limps or sputters somewhere midway.
FINALLY: THE SENTENCE LEVEL
This part is the most fun for me, honestly, though perhaps I have an odd sense of what is enjoy- able. I love reading the manuscript through from beginning to end, every sentence, one at a time, OUT LOUD.
Listening to each sentence, feeling it inside of my mouth as I speak it, identifying words I use too often, finding phrases that fall flat, is an opportunity I don’t have in every- day life, in spoken conversation. Getting it right just feels good.
Often I improve a sentence by speaking it out loud, then trying another pattern, substituting an- other word, and then speaking the revised sentence out loud. My ear is frequently more helpful than my brain in identifying simple awkwardness and in recognizing the more vexing problem of sentences that sound good but say little.
Of course, there are days that re- writing can be a slog, just as writ- ing can be. There are moments in revision that I think I’ll never find the solution, moments of despair and discouragement.
But overall the process is invigorating, and when working well, invigorating for both my prose and my story.
The difference, in my mind, be- tween writers who are successful in finding an audience and those who struggle, is when and where in the revision process a writer throws in the towel and settles for “good enough.”
Learn to be just a bit tougher on your own work than the toughest editor you can imagine, and you just might find that agents and editors suddenly love your book.
When I teach, I like debunking the mythical dictates carved in the Styrofoam pillars supporting the shrine built to deify the Real Writer. (Picture the Lincoln Memorial, but it’s Ernest Hemingway up on that throne, fountain pen clenched in a fist as big as a Thanksgiving turkey.) There’s a reason, I point out, that novelists do not have to pass exams to practice their trade. Architects and sea captains, sure. Surgeons, you bet. Why not novelists? Simple: Our form of malpractice won’t kill anybody. The worst we can do is bore you silly, fail to suspend your disbelief, make you waste a little money. So we get to do this thing we do by whatever rules and rituals we devise.
Prominent among those dictates (close on the heels of Write every day) is Write what you know. Which holds true, admittedly, to the extent that every journey begins at home. But I like Grace Paley’s retort: “We don’t write about what we know; we write about what we don’t know about what we know.” Write what you want to know, and start out pretending you know a lot more than you do. Surmise, invent, and bluff your way through it as far as you can. Flex your imagination. Why else are you here?
One of the ancillary pleasures in writing fiction, however, is finding out stuff; “real” stuff; stuff you never knew before; stuff you need to know if the story you’re telling is to hold up as true. Curiosity is the apprentice to your imagination. Yet I have found that the longer I can put off my research, the stronger and tighter my stories are. This is personal, of course; maybe you, setting out to write the great modern Western, need to pack up and live as a Wyoming cowhand before you can write a single word. Herman Melville went on an honest-to-God whaling voyage — no luxury cruise — before sitting down to write Moby-Dick. I hasten to add that I am not writing historical fiction, so the broad context of my work is the world we live in now; nevertheless, I delve deeply into my characters’ personal histories, which means I’m facing history with a capital H. I may need to find out about, for instance, the rationing of farm equipment during World War II. (Wars of the last century have influenced the lives of my fictional people as dramatically as they have the lives of actual people.)
I won’t deny that laziness factors into my method. Years ago, I loved nothing more than a good excuse to roam the library stacks. Now, even heading down screen to Safari seems like a chore when all I want to do is hang around with my characters, eavesdrop on their secrets, and get them in trouble just to find out how they’ll endure (or not).
In every story, I challenge myself to create characters outside my know-it-all zone, but never arbitrarily. Though I may not understand why, I will have felt a deep curiosity to inhabit the psyche of a wildlife biologist, a pastry chef, a Guatemalan gardener, an elderly widower, a music critic, the devout Catholic mother of two gay sons, a cancer patient, a cellist, a lonely film star, an insolent young man bent on what he sees as constructive anarchy.
To know their passions, preoccupations, and afflictions, I have researched the infrastructure of wedding cakes, the culture of a 1960s summer camp for teenage musicians, the pathology and treatment of AIDS in the 1980s, the training of Border collies, the politics of water rights in the Southwest, the conservation of grizzly bears — but I began by writing from instinct and hearsay. The problem with doing research too soon is this: If I uncover too much captivating knowledge in advance, I cannot resist including it, nor can I tell when it dilutes or distracts from the story I’m trying to tell. If, on the other hand, I must pack it into the brimming suitcase of an existing story, only the pertinent details will fit. (The vast lore I uncovered on the variously eccentric traditions surrounding wedding confections was hard to leave behind, but because I was working to authenticate an existing scene, the narrative had only so much give.) The story must be the boss of the research, not the other way around.
I like doing my research live, using people as sources whenever I can. And sometimes those people find me. Years ago, while struggling to craft a character living with the after-effects of head trauma, after reading medical journals had left me more confused than informed, I was called for jury duty — where I happened to meet a stranger who In every story, I challenge myself to create characters outside my know-it-all zone, but never arbitrarily. had gone through an experience parallel to that of my character. I conducted some enormously fruitful “research” over lunch breaks from the courthouse.
Inevitably, you miss things. If you’re lucky, people who read your work early on catch those gaffes before it’s too late: the clam sauce with onions, the cello seated behind the flute; an idiom or a gadget or a popular song deployed before its time. Sometimes, however, alternative facts wind up in print. In Three Junes, I began by using memory and guesswork to describe the surroundings of a Scottish country home, an essential setting, knowing I’d fine-tune the details later. Several drafts later, I consulted a guide to British birding, overwriting my placeholder blue jays, robins, and cardinals with yellowhammers, chiffchaffs, and collared doves. Botanically, however, it turns out I wasn’t so thorough.
There I was, out on tour, closing my book after reading to a small audience, when a hand shot up, emphatically. “Excuse me,” said my questioner, “but please see page 117. It isn’t possible, you realize, for the women’s final at Wimbledon to fall within the month of June. And, on page 47, can you tell me what a dogwood tree is doing in Scotland? Dogwoods grow only in North America.” He was holding a copy of my book sprouting a thicket of Post-Its. He was my first of a certain kind of reader. I want to hug and slug these people at the very same time. They are, after all, devoted to the truth.
Okay, so he had me on Wimbledon — a necessary torquing of reality that I had hoped no one would notice. “But as for the dogwood,” I said, keeping my cool, “there were these American houseguests who, wanting to make a memorable impression on their Scottish hosts, and knowing how much they cherished their garden, smuggled a dogwood sapling in their luggage as a house present. The climate proved perfectly hospitable. The guests were invited back. Next time, they brought a pair of blue jays.”
History that downplays individual experience — that focuses exclusively on movements, economic forces, social developments, and the like — can be worthwhile and enlightening, but it’s never going to make very compelling reading for non-specialists. People are interested in people, so they like to see how the larger forces of history shape — and are shaped by — recognizable, specific persons with stories all their own. As a narrative historian, I therefore face a lot of the same challenges that a novelist does. I’ve got to find characters whose life histories will allow me to express what needs expressing, and who are in and of themselves fascinating to read about.
As a former fiction writer (or, as Walter Isaacson teasingly called me in the New York Times a few years ago, a “lapsed novelist”), I’ve seen the task from both perspectives, and I can tell you that the narrative historian has, in some ways, the harder job. Yes, we don’t face the yawning terror of the totally blank page every morning (that daily existential crisis), but we also don’t have the luxury of creating elements from whole cloth to add dimension to a dullish character or enliven a lagging plot. We can only draw on the raw material offered up by the historical record. Of course, many popular historians of the past had no qualms about inventing freely — details, dialogue, scenes — whenever the historical record was lacking, but the new school of narrative history insists on higher standards of scholarship. In other words, we can’t just make it up.
So when deciding on what characters to focus on in my books, I look for people who (A), were at the center of the important issues of the day, (B), were complex and interesting in their own right, and (C), were also well documented in the historical record. That last criterion is important. Memoirs, letters, newspaper interviews, diaries — any kind of account in which a participant in the drama tells what happened in human, on-the-ground terms — are critical for me, since they give me the concrete details I need to bring people and events to life. (Incidentally, since a lot of my main characters are colorful types who frequently wound up in court, transcripts of trial testimony have been particularly useful.)
Naturally, all of these documents can be as unreliable as any other sources in the record. Accounts are only as trustworthy as the people who give them, after all, so I find myself constantly having to judge how much to believe in any given source. Often I’ll talk about this decision-making process in the end-notes to my books, which I see as a kind of running commentary on how I used the historical record to create the book, for those who are interested in seeing how the sausage is made.
The three criteria I mentioned were important considerations when I chose the main characters around whom to base The Mirage Factory. William Mulholland, D.W. Griffith, and Aimee Semple McPherson were all central to the story I wanted to tell, representing the three forces — which you might shorthand as Water, Celluloid, and Spirituality — that allowed Los Angeles to grow up in a place where no big city has any right to be. They’re also intriguing, multidimensional people with character flaws as big as their talents. And they were all extremely well documented in the historical record. All three wrote autobiographies of a sort (although Mulholland’s was very short). Each left behind a fairly comprehensive archive. And as highly visible public figures, they were covered extensively (in McPherson’s case, one might say “obsessively”) by the local press in their lifetimes.
So narrative historians have definite limits on what they can do, particularly when telling stories that involve people for whom the historical record is skimpy or incomplete. That’s why I sometimes have to take a pass on a book idea that might seem irresistible at first glance. If the material isn’t there to give the characters and events the kind of texture and dimension required, the idea won’t work, no matter how interesting the story may be in outline. Fortunately, though — thanks to the hard work of archivists who keep developing more sophisticated ways of cataloguing and searching their collections — the amount of raw material available just keeps growing. It’s up to the narrative historian to choose wisely.
I love it when readers say to me, “After I finished your novel, I went straight to Google to figure out what was true and what was made up!” That’s exactly why historical fiction is my favorite genre: In a good story, I become immersed in a different time period with people I’d never meet otherwise, who are living through situations that are unimaginable today. After I’ve turned the last page, I’m eager to discover the nuggets of truth buried within the work of fiction.
My fictional characters are built around the framework of historical fact. Once I have an idea for a setting for my book — The Doll- house is set in the Barbizon Hotel for Women and The Address takes place in the Dakota apartment house — I do a deep dive into the research of the time period (1950s for The Dollhouse and 1880s for The Address, although they both feature contemporary plotlines as well). I read everything I can from that era, including newspapers, magazines, fiction, and nonfiction. I also interview experts, like architectural historians who specialize in the Gilded Age, or women who lived in the Barbizon Hotel for Women in the ’50s and ’60s.
That’s when the ideas start to pop. While researching The Dollhouse, I learned that when the Barbizon Hotel for Women was turned into luxury condos, a dozen or so long- time residents were moved into rent-controlled apartments on the same floor. Great set-up for a book, I thought.
I read a harrowing newspaper article from the 1950s about the rising heroin epidemic, which was often blamed on bebop jazz musicians. What a great contrast to the rarified world of the hotel, with its guests in pearls and white gloves, right? So in my plot, I sent one of my characters downtown, where she got mixed up with some seedy characters.
I used the same approach while working on The Address. I discovered that in the 1930s, a “lady managerette” ran the Dakota. That gave me the idea for one of my characters: a housekeeper named Sara Smythe who gets an unexpected promotion early in the novel.
In general, the characters in my stories are all fictional. That gives me room to play around with them, get them into and out of trouble, and not feel constrained by a true historical figure. Exceptions do occur, though. Nelly Bly, a fabulous reporter from the 1880s, makes a quick appearance in The Address. As a former journalist, I couldn’t resist. And both buildings were touched by famous, tragic figures. Sylvia Plath stayed at the Barbizon Hotel in 1953 and wrote about it in The Bell Jar, and John Lennon was murdered outside the Dakota in 1980.
In both those cases, I felt it was important to mention the association, but not linger there. For example, I set the modern-day timeline of The Address in 1985, when Strawberry Fields first opened, as a way to respectfully touch upon the tragedy without making it a major part of the story.
A couple of times I’ve had to slightly fudge dates of real events in order to make the story work. When that happens, I mention it in the author’s note at the end, where I also list many of the resources I relied upon. My hope is that readers will continue on in their journey to learn more about the past, and enjoy it as much as I did.
The novelist William Dean Howells once famously remarked that his friend Mark Twain was not a writer who performed so much as a performer who wrote. Perhaps surprisingly, this astute observation also holds true in Twain’s nonfiction, a form that would seem to put less of a premium on both invention and performance. To read the passages from The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, A Tramp Abroad, and Life on the Mississippi collected in this volume is to understand that Twain didn’t lose much sleep over the idiosyncratic demands of fiction versus nonfiction. Both offered numerous and varied opportunities to an inspired, indeed unparalleled, bullshitter. To be sure, many of the set pieces that are included in the Everyman’s Library volume of The Complete Short Stories — “Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral,” “The Story of the Old Ram”—turn up in this volume as well. Classifying Twain’s work into fiction or nonfiction is something we do for our own convenience; his convenience was to ignore ours.
So, are the events chronicled in Roughing It — which details Twain’s journey by stagecoach to the Nevada territory, his stint there as a silver miner, and his apprenticeship to the newspaper trade — true? Once asked that same question about one of his own stories, David Sedaris replied, “They’re true enough,” and it’s easy to imagine Twain saying the same thing about his youthful adventures in the American West. We know he traveled to Europe and the Holy Land as a correspondent, so it’s not unreasonable to suppose that at least some of what he reports in The Innocents Abroad actually happened. I suspect, however, that the literally true parts are those he wasn’t able to improve on through embellishment or outright invention. For Twain, “truth” was not just elastic but indeed designed to be stretched. He learned this lesson early on, writing for western newspapers. He explains the job to great comic effect in Roughing It, where, as a cub reporter, he wrote a story about a wagon full of immigrants attacked by Indians. At first, fearing that other reporters might recount the same story, he sticks pretty close to the facts, despite his conviction that the story could be improved upon by straying from them. Later, though, when he learns that the owner of the wagon meant to continue his journey the following morning (leaving no one to contradict Twain’s account), all bets are off . His next draft describes an Indian fight that “to this day has no parallel in history.” This is Twain we’re talking about, so it’s likely that he also exaggerated the extent of his exaggerations, but still. Buoyed by praise from the paper’s editor, he expresses a willingness to murder every immigrant on the plains with his pen if “the interests of the paper demanded it.” Thus the low bar of truth is established: true enough. For him. For his editor. For the paper’s readership.
ONCE ASKED THAT SAME QUESTION ABOUT ONE OF HIS OWN STORIES, DAVID SEDARIS REPLIED, “THEY’RE TRUE ENOUGH.”
His approach to fiction was basically the same. At the beginning of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck says that readers may have heard of him if they’ve read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which “was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There were things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.” That first assertion, it’s worth remembering, was both the truth and a lie. The book was actually “made” by Samuel Clemens, and the parts Mr. Clemens “stretched” were the parts that needed stretching, beginning with his own identity as Mark Twain. Again, Twain is not so much a writer, at least as the term is used today, as a storyteller whose primary duties are to the narrative and its audience. No story is likely to be instructive if it isn’t entertaining, and the best way to gauge whether it’s working or not is to watch it land with an actual audience, a lesson Twain learned long before he gave his first public lecture.
In A Tramp Abroad he recounts his first ride on a Mississippi steamboat as a ten-year-old boy. Falling asleep, he has a terrifying dream that the boat is ablaze, and he rushes into the ladies’ salon, still under the nightmare’s influence, screaming “Fire!” The ladies there knew better, of course, and they advised him to return to his cabin and dress, lest he catch cold. It’s a revealing memory. The humiliation of his story playing so badly, his audience rejecting both the tale and the teller, is still fresh in Twain’s mind twenty-five years later as he’s writing Tramp. Just as telling is the reason he recalls the episode in the first place. He’s in Germany watching a production of King Lear, where the actor playing the title role “raged and wept and howled” across the stage. Twain admires the performance but feels sorry for the actor, who has to wait until the end of the act for his applause.
Writers, by contrast, are used to silence. Their applause, if they’re lucky enough to get any, comes long after their “performance” has concluded, in the form of reviews. True, authors who publish serially may to some degree interact with their audience. When readers loved Sam Weller in an early installment of The Pickwick Papers, Dickens was happy to expand his role as the novel progressed, but that’s hardly akin to telling the same stories on stage night after night, as Twain did on his public speaking tours. Each audience provided him with valuable insight into what worked and why, allowing him to revise the material accordingly. His first public lecture triumph near the end of Roughing It is described almost completely in terms of the crowd’s appreciation. The audience is with him from the start, he tells us, even the jokes he’d judged to be inferior faring “royally.” Near the end, though, the material grows more somber and serious, and Twain tells us that the “absorbed hush” that fell over the audience “gratified me more than any applause.” Indeed, he’s so pleased by the reaction that he can’t help but smile, which the crowd took as a cue to laugh, thus ruining the moment.
Later in life, Twain’s relationship with his audience would grow more complex. In Life on the Mississippi, he admits that being a river pilot was the best job he ever had, because the steamboat pilot has no master, whereas writers were “manacled servants of the public.” That said, no writer ever courted his audience more assiduously nor drew more confidence and pleasure from public adulation (Twain courted honorary degrees, too, and shamelessly.) Indeed, one suspects that it was from his audience, as much as the work itself, that Twain derived his sense of accomplishment and well-being.
WRITERS, BY CONTRAST, ARE USED TO SILENCE. THEIR APPLAUSE, IF THEY’RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO GET ANY, COMES LONG AFTER THEIR “PERFORMANCE” HAS CONCLUDED, IN THE FORM OF REVIEWS.
It’s worth pointing out that the world has changed since Twain left it, and our attitudes towards “truth” and “fiction” have become more rigorous and stern. Mislabel your novel as a memoir (or allow your publisher to do so) and you’ll likely find yourself in a world of hurt. Twain was no great fan of fraud and deception, but like Melville he understood that the world was steeped in both, and moreover he harbored more than a little admiration and affection for its charlatans. Reading Huckleberry Finn I often wonder if I judge the King and the Duke more harshly than their creator intended. At the very least Twain would’ve understood that people who get conned are often complicit in their own deception. Just as important, he would have recognized the paradox inherent in labeling some stories “made up” ( fiction) and others “true” (nonfiction). Interestingly, audience often plays a role here, too. When you claim that a story is invented — especially one as elaborate as Twain’s were — people will naturally suspect you of telling the truth (Come on! You couldn’t have made that up!). Conversely, when you claim to be telling the truth, those same folks shift gears and suspect you of lying (Surely you embellished this!). Storytelling thrives in this fundamental para- dox and often resists any attempts at clarification.
“Mark Twain’s Nonfiction” first appeared as the introduction to Mark Twain’s Collected Nonfiction: Volume 2 (Everyman’s Library, 2016)
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I’m an author. And an editor. But never at the same time.
I’ve traveled a lot — all over North America and to Europe as well — to talk to writers about the craft of writing. I’ve given talks about plot, about character, about voice, about emotion, and have had wonderful conversations about stories with tons of booklovers. But inevitably, at some point in the conversation, someone asks me how my editorial brain coexists with my writer brain — whether I’m always editing what I write. And the answer, of course, is yes, I do edit what I write, but I don’t edit it — I couldn’t possibly edit it — in the same way I edit someone else’s work. And I never edit it until I’ve finished a complete first draft.
In the first book I wrote, The Nina, The Pinta, and the Vanishing Treasure, which is a mystery for elementary schoolers, I edited and edited the first chapter until I felt like it was as close to perfect as I could make it before I moved on. And then I did the same with the second chapter. And the third. The book — which is only about 20,000 words — took me nearly a year to draft, and then when I got to the end, I realized that I’d constructed the plot all wrong, and all of that painstaking editing was, while perhaps not a waste of time, extraordinarily inefficient, because now I had to rewrite half of those chapters and revise the rest so that they made sense with the new plot structure. So over the next couple of years, I devised a plan, a way to turn off my internal editor and write more efficiently. These are my writing commandments.
1. THOU SHALT OUTLINE:
Before I start writing, I go through the entire story, chapter by chapter, and decide what important plot and emotional events will happen in each one. That way, I always know where the story’s going and will feel compelled to move forward instead of working on the same chapter for months.
2. THOU SHALT NOT RE-READ EARLIER SECTIONS
With my first book, I would start every writing session by rereading everything I’d already written, revising all of that, and only then start on new material. That meant that the longer the book got, the more time I needed to set aside each day to write. I realized afterward that this made no sense, so now I don’t read over what I’ve written until I have a whole draft done.
3. THOU SHALT HAVE GOALS
I break down my writing goals into manageable tasks that I must complete. When I’m drafting, my goals are all quantity based: 1,000 words today, 1,500 words this weekend, etc. And then once I have a draft done, I give myself chapter goals: Revise four chapters this weekend, one chapter after dinner. When I have that target in my mind, I push through to get things done.
4. THOU SHALT NOT SHARE YOUR WORK UNTIL IT’S COMPLETE
I have an amazingly generous, perceptive writing group, but I try not to share pages with them while I’m mid-draft. I want their thoughts on the whole book at once, otherwise it’s quite likely I’d begin inputting their edits into early pages and work so hard on those that it would take me forever to get through a complete draft.
5. THOU SHALT ACCEPT THAT SOME THINGS CAN BE FILLED IN LATER
Sometimes I’ll be going along and a thought will strike me about a section I’ve already written. Instead of going back and revising that scene right then, I scroll back to that scene and make myself a note that says something like [REMEMBER TO ADD IN THE THING ABOUT THE PASTA POT]. And then when I’m up to the revising stage, I add that part in.
6. THOU SHALT REMEMBER THAT THIS MANUSCRIPT IS NOT WRITTEN IN STONE
I think the true key to turning off any internal editing is to remember that every book goes through multiple revisions in its lifetime. The words and phrases and sentences don’t have to be perfect right away — I spent four years writing and revising The Light We Lost. Some lines are the same as they were in the first draft, but many are not. In the end, understanding that I’d eventually be letting go of so much that I’d written is what made it easiest for me to turn off that internal editor and enjoy the act of creation inherent in writing.
Long before I became a doctor, I was a writer. At the age of seven I wrote my first suspense novel, about a blue zebra named Mickey who was warned never to go into the jungle. Naturally, Mickey went into the jungle. I bound the pages together with needle and thread and proudly announced to my father that I had found my future career. I was going to write books!
My father said that was no way to make a living. And that’s how I ended up in medical school in- stead.
Although it delayed my childhood dream of becoming a novelist, I never once regretted studying medicine. I’m fascinated by science. I enjoyed meeting people from all walks of life — doctors treat every- one, from bankers to the homeless. But my passion to write never left me, and when I went on maternity leave and finally had a chance to complete my first novel, I realized that writing was what I was really meant to do. Even though I’d made an occupational detour, those eleven years of medical training turned out to be the best education a writer could hope for.
I finally used my medical knowledge in my tenth novel, the medical thriller Harvest. To my surprise, Harvest hit the New York Times bestseller list. Up till then, I had assumed that readers didn’t care if medical scenes were realistic, but Harvest taught me that, yes, readers are interested in what doctors do and think. My literary agent told me: “Readers want to know secrets.” They want to peek behind the O.R. and autopsy room doors. They want to know what doctors won’t tell them. All the years I’d spent learning to be a doctor meant I could write with the level of authenticity readers are searching for.
Since then, I’ve tried to provide just those details. Have you ever wanted to know the physics be- hind why a plane or car crash kills you? I revealed that secret in Gravity. Ever wondered if you could buy your way to a higher spot on the organ transplant list? In Harvest, I revealed how it’s possible. In The Bone Garden I described how to amputate a limb without anesthesia; in Ice Cold, I described death by nerve gas; and in Playing With Fire, I explored the baffling behavior of patients with partial complex seizures.
Over the years, as I’ve described autopsies, E.R.s, crime scenes, and even resuscitation in space, I’ve exhibited the doctor’s point of view. I know how panicked a doctor feels as a life drains away beneath his hands, and the thrill of hearing a silent monitor suddenly start to beep with a renewed heart- beat. I also understand the logical manner in which doctors approach problems, how they must sift the subjective from the objective, and try to tease out the facts from the emotions.
In my Rizzoli and Isles crime series, medical examiner Dr. Maura Isles gives us the doctor’s point of view. When she and Jane investigate a murder, no matter how disturbing the crime scene may be, Maura thinks like a doctor. Like a surgeon faced with an exsanguinating patient, Maura must suppress her horror and get to work. Others may think she’s cold- blooded or robotic, but that’s how Maura stays in control: by staying focused and doing her job.
I no longer practice medicine, but when I sit down to write a novel I sometimes imagine I’m once again donning a doctor’s gloves and white coat, this time as Maura Isles, my alter ego. Over the course of eleven books, I’ve grafted much of my own personality onto Maura. She and I are fascinated by science, we graduated from the same universities, and shared the same major. We both play the piano, drive the same car, even favor the same wine. In a world that’s far too chaotic and unpredictable, we both search for logical explanations.
In fiction, at least, Maura can find them.
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Food is one of my top five favorite things in the world. Maybe even the top three. But if I have to be honest, it’s probably in the top two. That says a lot about me. Likewise, food can be used to say a lot about your characters.
What’s for Dinner?
Do you know what your characters eat? Does the reader know?
Food can be more than sustenance. It can be used as a tool, a prop, something to show instead of tell. The main characters in my first novel, My Lovely Wife, live in a gated community, eat organic food, and use almond milk instead of the real thing. When one of them chooses to eat something like a hot dog, there’s a reason for it. Food can be used not only to show a person’s character, but also their state of mind.
Do they eat when they’re stressed, or not eat at all? Or do they eat different foods? All of this can say a lot about a character.
Something to Do
Funny thing about characters … they have to do things. Eating can be a big part of that, but it doesn’t have to be fluff.
Imagine two characters meet at a coffee shop to discuss a topic integral to your story. Maybe one lost a job, or their spouse is having an affair, or maybe they’re having an all-out war with a neighbor. The dialogue may be the most important part of this scene, but it doesn’t have to be the only important part.
For example, if both characters order the same thing — say, medium lattes — that’s hardly notable. Or if what they order isn’t mentioned at all, it becomes irrelevant.
But what if one character orders a plain black coffee, and the other orders a jumbo cinnamon roll with an extra-large salted caramel mocha? And which ordered which? Does the one with the problem order the food, or is it the one who has to listen? Either way, the scene just became a lot more interesting.
Cook or Burn
The preparation of food is as important as the consumption of it … or so my friends tell me. I do not cook, not ever, and anyone who knows me is grateful for that.
If I said the same thing about character, it would tell you something. The same applies to characters who cook all their food from scratch, using only ingredients from the farmer’s market. Or maybe your character’s idea of cooking involves pre-made sauces and pre-cooked meat, because they don’t have the time to make homemade marinara sauce.
Kitchens are places where people gather in life and in books, so use the location to your advantage.
To Drink or Not to Drink
Alcohol has at least as many uses as food, if not more. Going out for a drink is another thing for your characters to do. Bars are also where people meet, flirt, and — as often happens in fiction — decide and plan to commit crimes. How much or how little a character drinks, and what they drink, can tell the reader a lot.
But that’s not all alcohol can do. Characters can change when they’re drunk. The shy become bold, the calm become angry, and the happy start to cry. Some drink to the point of blacking out, only to find themselves in a mess the next morning.
Or picture this scenario: A group of colleagues go out drinking after work. As the night wears on, and the group becomes more intoxicated, people start to flirt. They start to say things they shouldn’t. Maybe they gossip about their boss and other co-workers. Secrets are revealed, embellished, repeated.
One of the characters — let’s say a man — goes to the bar to get another drink. He orders a club soda with lime. Unlike his colleagues, he hasn’t been drinking at all. He’s just pretending to be as intoxicated as they are.
Now it’s not just a night out, it’s something deceitful — maybe even sinister. Alcohol can do all of that, if used properly.
Enough is Enough
This is not to say food can be used to show everything, nor should it. While I’d like to spend the majority of my time eating bonbons and bacon cheeseburgers, I don’t. Neither should your characters.
Food is one example of how everyday activities and needs can be effectively used in fiction. It’s not the only thing. It may not even be the most interesting thing. It’s just one of the many tools available to tell your story.
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“It’s so fine, yet so terrible, to stare in front of a blank canvas.” — Paul Cezanne
Every morning, an empty white page appears on my computer screen, waiting to be filled in with sentences that will eventually become a novel. This blankness can be both intimidating and exciting, a paradox I wrestle with each time I sit down to write.
I always enjoy speaking with other writers about their own processes of creation. It differs so widely amongst novelists. Some writers work on an outline first, and then write out scene by scene, scratching off each chapter that they’ve already loosely plotted in their head. Others speak of writing from a stream of consciousness, where they work until they’ve reached the end of their story and then circle back to edit and revise the rough draft into something that will become their finished manuscript.
My mother, an artist, taught me to see the world as though it were a painting, and I draw upon the same techniques she used to create her finished canvases when I’m writing my novels. The views outside the windows of our childhood home were miniature paintings to my mother, ones which had their own color and texture that changed with every season. She encouraged me to consider both the light and shadow in an artist’s charcoal drawings as well as the backstory of the artist’s personal history. When we went to museums, she taught me first to look at each painting up close and then from a few steps away, thus training me to gaze at the canvas from all directions to see how certain things were revealed when one looked at it from a different angle. She was quick to point out that the artist never over-saturated the canvas, and that leaving part of the canvas bare was sometimes just as important as the areas that had pigment. Years later, when I sit down to write, I hear my mother’s words in my head and they continue to guide me.
For me, each chapter is a blank canvas. I begin to craft each scene sentence by sentence, as if they are brushstrokes moving my reader through the story. I write from a visual perspective, so each scene is an artistic composition that I see inside my head and strive to then share with my readers. Painters have their own language, often drawn from nature’s rich palette. A sky can be cornflower blue or the deep hue of hyacinth. Characters should never be black and white, but rather filled with varying shades of gray. Contrast is what makes a painting interesting, my mother would tell me. So, I channel these painterly ideals whenever I think about placing one character against the other; I reflect on what emerges when strength is contrasted against weakness, joy against sadness, or life against tragedy.
In the end, my advice to writers is really about encouraging more than one way to approach storytelling. Books are like any other art form, and can be created in just as many ways. For me, it is about closing my eyes and writing what I see. Once that armature is put down on paper, I build layer upon layer onto it until the world and the people who populate the story are just as I imagined them. I mentally construct the architecture of the rooms my characters inhabit, then set out to recreate them for my reader. I feel the texture of the clothes they wear just as much as I feel the weight of their emotions. Then, sentence by sentence, the novel becomes its own universe, hopefully filled with everything my mother used to tell me made a painting interesting. Rich in emotion and filled with contrast. A work that, in the end, conveys a new and original portrait from the artist’s own eye.
Written by Alyson Richman
Check out Alyson Richman’s latest novel below:
Here’s the thing about writing, or more specifically, about being paid to write: it’s a job.
Of course, you could describe it in more romantic terms: it could be calling, or a vocation. Or perhaps your mind has a more prosaic bent; perhaps for you it’s an itch that needs to be scratched. There are reams and reams of twitter conversations on the topic of why writers choose to write; if you go looking for those I’m certain you’ll find one that matches how you feel. But if you’re actually getting paid to put your stories down on paper, then whatever else you might call it, one thing is certain: it’s a job. I admit that I may have a more businesslike approach to writing than most given that I also work part-time in fund management, but I truly don’t see why the principles that are relevant within a mainstream workplace wouldn’t apply also to writing. So on the principal that you have to fake it before you make it, here are my top three pieces of somewhat businesslike advice for the writer who wants their writing to be more than just a hobby.
- You have to go to work.
This is the most important one. Even if you aren’t (yet) being paid, you must believe that you deserve to be paid and act accordingly. If you have only certain hours in the week when you can write, ringfence those hours. Sit down and write in those hours, regardless of whether you feel like it or not — if I always waited until I felt like writing, I would still be writing The French Girl — and make sure the environment you do that in lacks other distractions. (For my part, I’m extraordinarily unproductive at home because sometimes even doing the laundry can seem more appealing than opening the laptop, so I usually write in cafés.) Don’t allow anything else to steal your writing time — after all, you wouldn’t accept an invitation to coffee at a time when you had to be in the office, or your boss might very well fire you. You are your boss now. You have to be tough, and you have to make yourself go to work.
- Create a polished product
For the content of your work to earn proper consideration, it has to look the part. Your manuscript might be the Koh-i-Noor diamond in the rough, but agents and publishers get thousands of submissions — why would they spend time on one that isn’t correctly formatted or lacks proper punctuation and grammar? All those things scream amateur, and nobody wants to waste their time with that. Find out what the submission guidelines are for the individual or organization to which you are submitting (which will almost certainly be on their website) and make absolutely sure you meet those requirements. Oh, and proofread your work. Very carefully.
- Know your market
You may have the most wonderful crossover chick-lit/gothic/cyberpunk novel ever written, and there might be a publisher out there willing to take a chance on it … but I wouldn’t stake my career on it, and you shouldn’t either. If a publisher isn’t sure how to market your book, or whether there’s even an audience for it at all, they won’t take a leap of faith on it. Have a clear idea of the genre you are writing within and what the readers of that genre expect. As my wonderful agent once told me: save the interesting genre-bending for book five, when you have a devoted readership who will follow you anywhere. (Clearly there are books, and writers, which have defied this last piece of advice and done astronomically well, but those are the exception rather than the rule.)
And that’s it, except to add that writing is one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had, but it’s also the most rewarding. I wish you the very best of luck. Now go to work!
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