Friday, June 8, 2012

Jeffery Deaver’s Rules for Writing by Cathy Dilts

If you need how-to-write advice, who better to listen to than a wildly successful author?  Jeffery Deaver is “a master of ticking-bomb suspense,” according to People Magazine. Not merely a New York Times best-selling author, Deaver’s award-winning novels appear on international best-seller lists as well. The Bone Collector, first in his popular Lincoln Rhyme series, was adapted to the movie screen in 1999. When Deaver spoke at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference 2012, I was naturally anxious to learn his Rules for Writing.

Deaver made it clear that his rules apply to commercial genre fiction. He also cautioned the audience that “there’s nothing more subjective than writing. If it works for you, it works.”

Deaver’s Rules for Writing:

1)    It’s a business. You’re not an artist. You meet your deadlines. You produce a product.

I’ll admit that I found this pronouncement shocking. Remember, though, that we are talking about commercial fiction. I am finding the truth in Deaver’s words as I bounce against genre-specific expectations with my own writing. Is one of your writing goals to make money? In that case, you have to treat writing as a business.

2)    We need a business model. We can choose the mint-flavored toothpaste model, or the liver-flavored toothpaste model. Mint is obviously a flavor preferable to liver for most consumers. He compared commercial fiction to mint-flavored toothpaste, and literary fiction to liver-flavored. While the liver-flavored toothpaste may clean the teeth as well as the mint, the simple fact is that more people will buy the mint-flavored. If you want to sell a lot of books, you’ll choose to produce mint.

Deaver explained that his business model is based on writing to please his readers. At a conference dinner, I told him that his novels scare the bejeebers out of his readers. Deaver was quite pleased. That is his goal – giving readers what they want. Mint, not liver.

Even literary authors know their audience, Deaver said. They may be writing to a smaller audience than the commercial writer, but they are aware of the unique tastes of their readers.

3)   Using this business model, what makes a pleasing book? How are we going to make mint-flavored toothpaste for our customers? Here are the ingredients:

According to Deaver, the story has to move like lightening. The first paragraph has to grab the reader with compelling emotional engagement.

The story needs deadlines and plot reversals. Readers do not like coincidence or digression. Deaver called these “give me a break moments.” Never let the word “lame” pop into your reader’s head.

Resolve all subplots. Story lines cannot just fade away. The story ending should not be ambiguous.

Readers like real characters, not superficial or one-dimensional ones. We want good guys with flaws and bad guys with good points. And every character must have resolution.

Deaver recommended that writers pay a lot of attention to dialogue.

Know the mechanics of writing. Know your craft. Deaver recommended Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Conner, and Eats, Shoots, & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss.
4)    “You need an idea, but the idea is not as important as the story.” I found this statement amazing, considering that Deaver spends eight months researching his novels. His work is rich with detailed settings, cutting-edge forensics science, and themes torn from the front pages. When I thought about his novels, I had to agree that he does manage to keep all this information incidental to the story.

5)    I have wondered, when reading Deaver’s amazingly complex stories full of subplots, red herrings, plot reversals, and subtle clues, how he manages to keep track of everything. “Outline,” he said. “Do the work up front.”

Deaver writes 100 – 150 page outlines, including every character and every clue. “If you have an outline, you will not get writer’s block.” You know where you’re going. He outlines based on scenes, and does not break the novel into chapters until the very end. Deaver noted that the convention for chapter length has changed. His earlier novels had longer chapters, but now they tend to be quite short. The novels are the same length – they just have more chapters.  

6)    Editing is the final rule. “First drafts are always too long,” Deaver said, “and they are bad.” Paraphrasing Hemingway, Deaver told the audience that there are no good writers – there are only good re-writers.

When he has completed that first draft, Deaver sometimes does a start-to-finish read through. Other times he searches each subplot for continuity. He suggested letting the book sit for as long as possible before revising.

Now that we’ve reached the end of our story, we return to the beginning. Open the novel with a concrete scene. The tension and conflict must be immediate, but does not have to be violent. The opening can be emotional.

I was encouraged to learn that Jeffery Deaver, a writer enjoying phenomenal success, works diligently on his complex novels. His results didn’t come about from dabbling or luck. He approaches his writing as a business, something we all can do. While most of us may never spend eight months researching our novels, we can certainly adopt Deaver’s Rules for Writing to tighten up our stories.

For more information about Jeffery Deaver and his writing, go to his official website at
About the Writer:  Cathy Dilts is an environmental scientist, and assistant editor for the PPW blog. She recently sold a story to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. In addition to short stories, she also writes cozy murder mystery, environmentally-themed stories, and apocalyptic inspirational fiction. In her spare time, she enjoys raised bed gardening, which her husband claims look the perfect size for burying bodies, while reminding her that you can’t get rid of the bones.

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