1. Write the story you’d most want to read. Don’t write a story just because you think it might be a bestseller or that it would make Great Aunt Edna proud. Think about the books you love, the ones you really lose yourself in. If those are mysteries, then don’t try to write a historical romance or a quiet literary novel. It might not be anything genre-specific that you love, but a certain voice, or type of story, or kinds of characters. Write what you love. Do me a favor—right now, today, start a list of all your crazy obsessions, the things that get your heart pumping, that wake you up in the middle of the night. Put it above your desk and use it to guide you, to jumpstart your writing each and every day.
2. Begin with character. Make her flawed and believable. Let her live and breathe and give her the freedom to surprise you and take the story in unexpected directions. If she’s not surprising you, you can bet she’ll seem flat to your readers. One exercise I always do when I’m getting to know a character is ask her to tell me her secrets. Sit down with a pen and paper and start with, “I never told anybody…” and go from there, writing in the voice of your character.
3. Give that character a compelling problem. Your character has to have something that’s going to challenge her, torment her and propel her forward. At the heart of every story is conflict—whether external or internal, make it a good one, and remember that this problem is going to shape your character, leaving her forever changed.
4. Make things happen! You can have the greatest characters in the world, and write beautifully, but if nothing’s happening, the story falls on its face pretty quickly. In my books, I make sure something important to the plot is happening in each scene. And if there’s a scene in there that isn’t helping to move the story along in some vital way, I cut it, no matter how great it is. When I’m editing, I’ll go scene by scene and write a single word sentence describing the action on an index card. Then I lay the cards out and I’ve got the bare bones of my story. I can see if things are moving forward, if I’m throwing in enough twists and turns, and if there are scenes that just aren’t pulling their weight.
5. Make it believable. Ah, you say, but you sometimes write stories with ghosts and fairies—how believable is that? It works if you make it believable in the universe of the book. In Promise Not to Tell, I came up with rules for the ghost—things she could and couldn’t do. I gave her a history and compelling reason to return. Readers hate cheap tricks. Don’t pull the evil twin routine in the final hour. Don’t bring in a new character at the end to solve the protagonist’s problem for her. She’s got to resolve things herself, for better or worse.
6. Stick with it the project. You’ll be tempted to give up a thousand and one times. Don’t. Finish the story. Then work twice as hard to revise it. Do your best to get it out in the world. When it’s rejected by agents and publishers (which it will be) keep sending it out. In the meantime, write another. Then another. Trust me, you get better every time. You’re not in this writing business because it’s easy. It took me four books, two agents, and seven years to get my first novel published. It was a long tough road, but so, so worth it in the end!
7. And lastly: Ignore the rules. (Including mine.) Everyone’s got advice and theories; people want to pigeonhole you, put you in a genre with its own rules and conventions. I think the work comes out better when we leave all that behind; when the only thing to be true to is the writing.