On Writing


More to the point, though it may seem presumptuous, they are essays on how to write for publication, meaning that all material written for the eyes of God alone are exempt from my rules and criticisms. The suggestions I make here are things I’ve learned, through trial and error – mostly error – that have helped me to complete and sell thirty novels. Well, okay, four of them were nonfiction. I just like the roundness of the number 30. I’m writing this so that maybe you won’t have to make the same mistakes I did. It’s like inventing the wheel: It helps if you know that the basic structure should be round.
            So now… What, still here? Well, let me ask you, then:
Why are you writing a novel? If it’s because a) you think it’s easy, b) it’s something you can do while watching your kids, 3) it’s a way to make a lot of money fast
            … then please proceed to the nearest exit. Writing is NOT easy, not unless you enjoy sitting in one spot for a year or more, living a life approximately as fascinating as that of a mole. You can’t do it while you’re babysitting, watching TV, jet-skiing, lunching at the Ritz, attending cocktail parties, or solving murders (TV novelists are fictional characters who bear no resemblance to the far less glamorous real thing) (for a bracing bucketful of cold water in the face, see my bio). Yes, sometimes you make a lot of money. Maybe twice in your life, if you’re really lucky. 
            And take this for what it is: Luck usually is the deciding factor. When you get rejected by an editor (notice that I said when, not if), it isn’t necessarily because you’re a bad writer, or that you’ve written a bad book. Of course, you probably won’t get very far if you are indeed a bad writer, but I’m saying it’s altogether possible that you can be a damn good writer who’s written a damn good book that still gets rejected a lot. 
            That’s because editors have weird reasons for rejecting books: If the company has published anything similar in the past year (“similar” being a totally arbitrary word whose meaning can range from “both main characters are orphans” to “the story takes place in a small town”), it will probably be turned down. Likewise if your story is about a subject that the editor either dislikes or has previously tried and failed with (“Nobody wants stories about the Mafia” was included in one of Mario Puzo’s rejection letters when he was shopping The Godfather.).
            Sometimes manuscripts are rejected because the editor has already spent his quota of dollars for the month (or year). Sometimes editors blow their budget on super-expensive books (Wouldn’t you sacrifice a dozen books like yours for a crack at the new Harry Potter?).
            But most of the time, it’s because the book doesn’t grab them immediately. Editors have always been busy, but it’s even worse now that books can be submitted electronically, with the click of a key. So they’re not going to spend a week perusing your novel. I once worked for a New York publishing firm in which the president “helped” with the selection process by opening a manuscript at random, reading one page, and then deciding whether the book would stay or go. To my knowledge, not one book subjected to this “reading” was ever accepted. I often thought at the time about the hapless authors who’d dedicated so much time on these novels that were so summarily dismissed. What did they think when the received the form rejection letter? Probably a lot of things other than the truth, which was that the company president, top dog that he was, didn’t care enough to read even one chapter.
            But those occasions were, I hope, relatively rare. Most of the time your manuscript will be read by editors who are actually looking for good books. But they still aren’t going to give a lot of time to anything that doesn’t stand out right away. I’ve heard young writers say (and sadly, I’ve heard this more than once), “Well, the first chapter isn’t so great, but once you get to Chapter Three, it really gets moving.” Alas, the news flash here is that if Chapter One isn’t great, the editor isn’t ever going to get to Chapter Three.
            So this seems like a good place to start: