The first thing I told Matthew Quirk was to throw away a novel he’d been working on for three years. Forget about it and start over are the last things a writer wants to hear.
Even though other seriously high-powered literary agents in town thought his novel could be salvaged, Matt knew I was right. He decided to take my advice and write a brand new book on spec.
I told him if I thought I could sell it when he was done, I’d take him on as a client. But no guarantees.
Together we parsed out what it is he knew better than anyone else (that’s key for your setting) and then found a path for him to adapt that knowledge into a thriller. He had nine months to make it work.
Matt was burning through his meager savings after leaving a shadow journalism career. He was engaged and living in a tiny studio apartment with his incredibly patient fiance who also worked from home. And then Matt tore his knee up and had to have surgery.
All the while Matt took some notes about how to actually do what I’d suggested.
I think this habit is emblematic of professional writers. They hear bits and pieces of things that they know can help them when they hit the belly of the beast on a project and then compile docs that are sort of “notes to self” to help them pull out of it.
Steven Pressfield had a Mongo doc of his own that he shared with me way back in 2000 called “A Writer’s Life” that he used to give people who begged him for the secret sauce that made him a writer. That document became The War of Art.
Matt has heard that origin story so many times from me that he sent me what he sends to people now asking him for advice. So for fun, I asked him if I could share it with you and he agreed.
Just some background. I sold Matt’s first novel, The 500 (and a second novel, The Directive) in a very heated auction to Little Brown. LB made it a bestseller and the book sold all over the world. His third novel Cold Barrel Zero is out now and it’s a primo example of the military thriller par excellence.
Matt’s a grinder. He’s working on his next thriller now and as Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh of the Durham Bulls used to say he’s “just happy to be here”…in the major leagues, making a living and doing what he always wanted to do.
So here are Matt’s ponderings about quirky writing quandaries:
Here are a few writing lessons that have helped me over the years. They might not work for everyone, and I’m still learning every day, but it’s what I can offer to those who come to me for help. This is practical, in the trenches, writer-to-writer talk. Please don’t take any bluntness as a lack of reverence for craft and language and literature. I’ve found, however, that romanticism about the writing process can really throw you off when you’re starting out. Writing is work, and here’s how my work gets done.
Figure out your story before you start writing. Genre is the critical consideration here. Genres have certain broad conventions. They’re conventions for a reason—your story probably won’t work without them.
For thrillers, here are the basic elements you need to figure out: There’s a good guy, and a bad guy. Bad guy is doing something horrible. Good guy gets involved and needs to stop bad guy at great personal expense. You should figure out who they are and what they both want, and what sort of conflict they find themselves in, inevitably, because of what they want. Determine an incident at the beginning that puts them, inevitably, on a collision course, and have a good idea of how they will face off at the end.
Alternate successes and setbacks for your hero, raising the stakes of each encounter, and then, as you approach the climax, take the hero all the way down, as hurt, hopeless, and desperate as possible, and then have him somehow overcome. Invert that for tragedies.
It sounds simple but it takes an extraordinary amount time and brain-breaking thought to get down to the heart of your novel. Often a fascinating concept (“what if…”), scene, or character gives the initial notion for a thriller, but a concept isn’t a story until all of the above has been thought through. I constantly remind myself of these points to stay disciplined and build a strong, clean spine for a book. It took years to learn to keep it simple, or try, when it comes to the fundamental through-line.
This is how a good thriller works. It’s also not too far off from Aristotle’s advice in Poetics. Give it a try. Having a solid arc from the beginning to end of your book doesn’t dumb it down or make it formulaic. It makes it an incredibly strong, compelling structure upon which you can build complex characters, or subplots, twists, or beautiful writing. But get that bad guy vs. good guy collision course down first.
This may be awful advice for people whose books are too schematic, but I have the opposite habit of overcomplicating things, so this has been a lifesaver.
The best part of working this all out is bringing in friends and family. If you can’t explain the central arc of your story in a few lines, and describe all these points in ten minutes or so, it’s too complicated and you haven’t worked it enough. There are some ideas that are genius in your head, and preposterous out loud. It’s far better to hear about it now than after you’ve spent two years writing the book. Trust me on that one.
That’s the beauty of it. People love stories. Bring them in. Have coffee. Walk through the mall having an animated discussion about your favorite ways to get rid of a body. It’s so much more fun than staring at a blank page or writing and rewriting without making any real progress.
Get away from your computer. This is important not only for figuring out the plot, but for every step in the writing process, from blocking scenes to coming up with great lines.
Think of the computer simply as a recording device. Your brain is where the magic happens, and it’s portable. Figure out what you’re stuck on, then go take a walk, or a shower, or lie on the lawn, or go to bed. Think it through, then talk it through with a friend or the dog or anyone who’ll listen. Only after you’ve gotten through the muddle and had a few a-has should you sit down to record them at the keyboard.
Sit down with purpose. Don’t start writing your book until you know more or less what will happen. And don’t start writing a scene until you’ve already pictured it in your head. John August’s advice on how to write a scene is excellent, especially the part about imagining the action in your mind until it all flows. This is my favorite lesson, because it means a writer’s life isn’t stuck in the office. My work tends to be broken up like this: an hour or two figuring out what I’m going to write, often while out on a walk, then a couple hours writing it down.
Write a shitty first draft. Mistakes in writing are only truly dangerous—by that I mean they cost months or years of precious writing time—if you take a wrong turn all the way to its conclusion, by not running an idea past anyone, then drafting it and polishing it to a high gloss before you find out it’s terrible. So after you figure out your story, and it checks out with the people you’re talking to, write an incredibly rough first draft. No pressure, just slap it up on the page. This is all about getting over the nerves and stage fright and nasty this sucks, I suck feedback loops. We’ve already conceded it’s a mess. The first draft always is. (See Hemingway’s advice on this subject, and Anne Lamott’s). So there’s nothing to be afraid of, and anything that isn’t shitty is pure profit. We’re ahead of the game.
Even with the best outline in the world, there is no way of knowing if certain elements of your story will work until you write them out and re-read them. A quick sketch of a chapter will give you a sense of how it will work, and whether it’s workable.
Writing is rewriting. It’s a cliché, but true. A very rough draft saves you time coming and going. Polishing not only takes an extraordinary amount of time and effort, it makes you fall in love with chapters, characters, sequences, and twists, all of which might not work and will need to be cut later. That will lead you to needless pain and contortions as you try to hang on to them. But if you were just sketching out the text, it’s easier to cut mistakes and “kill your darlings” down the line. I often end up carving out the elements I thought I would most love about a book, sometimes even the intriguing initial idea that brought me to it.
I think about writing in terms of how you put together a house, in steps that build on each other—plans, framing, sheathing, drywall, finish. Writing polished text from beginning to end would be like figuring out what kind of house you want while building it from left to right, painting and putting in trim as you go. Keeping an unfurling plot straight in your head at the same time you write perfect prose and snappy dialogue is too much to handle at once. For story-driven genres like thrillers you need to lay in the big structural pieces and makes sure everything works and fits. After you have won a huge psychological victory by finishing a draft, you can relax a little and zero in on character, place, and description.
If you’ve actually figured out the important elements above, it’ll only take four months or so to write the draft. Then resist the irresistible urge to start revising it from line one. Take it and print it out or put it on your e-reader and read it as a reader. The action should be pretty clear in your mind, even if it’s ugly on the page, so you’ll be surprised how readable even the roughest draft is. Reading a static, uneditable manuscript brings a completely different perspective from writing, and you’ll find countless problems and solutions that were hidden while you were drafting. Instead of endlessly tinkering line-by-line, you’ll spot the deep structural issues.
Use TK. This is the essential lubricant of the rough first draft. It’s a habit I learned from working as a reporter, but didn’t realize the novel-writing magic of it until I read this advice from Cory Doctorow. TK is an editing mark that means “to come” and is equivalent to leaving a blank or brackets in the text (It’s TK, not TC, because editorial marks are often misspelled intentionally so as not to confuse them with final copy: editors write graf and hed for paragraph and headline).
Can’t figure out a character’s name? “EvilPoliticianTK.” Need to describe the forest? “He looked out over the SpookyForestDescriptionTK.” Need that perfect emotional-physical beat to break up dialogue? “BeatTK.” Just keep writing. TK a whole chapter if you want. Those blanks are not going to make or break anything big picture. Come back for them once you’ve won a few rounds against the existential terror of “Is this whole book going to work or not?” There’s no sense filling in the details on scenes that you’re going to cut.
Turn off the Internet. This is the beauty of using TKs. It lets you avoid looking up details on the Internet, which paralyzes writers. Use two computers like Lee Child, or a program like Freedom like Nick Hornby, or physically unplug the ethernet cable (my move), but do not allow the internet on your writing computer while you’re writing. We are all fat kids in Wonka’s factory on the Internet and we don’t stand a chance. You take a minute to Google what might be a good pistol for a Chechen bad guy and six hours later you’re looking at vacation photos of your ex. Just TK it and keep writing. Then you can Google how to pick locks to your heart’s content after you’ve determined that the overarching structure works.
Done (Sort of). This gets us a first draft full of TKs that you can re-read. It looks a lot like a book. Some stuff is actually great. Some stuff you thought would be amazing is awful. Throw that away. It’s fine. You didn’t spend a lot of time on it. Talk through it with your friends again. Draft some more. Re-read it. Fill in the TKs and show it to some readers. They worst they can say is “this is shitty.” And you already knew that, so you’re completely unfazed. They’ll point out what works and talk you down from the terrible stuff that you can’t let go. Now you’re revising. The terrifying “something from nothing” phase is over and you’re tweaking. Nothing scary about that. You’re on easy street.
Matthew Quirk is the New York Times bestselling author of The 500, which was an Edgar nominee and won the Strand Critics and ITW Thriller awards for best first novel. His most recent book is Cold Barrel Zero. You can learn more about his work at matthewquirk.com.