1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
In one draft of Henry on Fire I decided to really bring out Henry’s anger issue. I think I was angry about the fact that the rest of the world did not realize that I had written the next great American novel and in doing so redefined the American literary landscape forever. My angry Henry was mean to his friends. He thought about wacking the old man, Papo, with his walking stick. At a critique group, having only read fifteen pages, a guy said he hated Henry, my main character.
Wow! That was a wakeup call. He not only wasn’t rooting for Henry he hated him. I think we all want to know that someone is rooting for us. It saddens me when I discover parents who aren’t rooting for their children. Yes it is good to be honest about our children’s abilities and inabilities in the world but that doesn’t mean we stop rooting for them. No matter what, parents need to want their children to rise to the fullness of their potential and even beyond, if we won’t root for our own children who will.
I am also bothered by employers who don’t root for their employees. I want to see the people around me excel. I have more than once had interns tell me that their efforts were at least as good as mine. I tell them my goal is to make them better than me. If I knew starting out what I know now, the good lord only knows what might have happened. I in no way want neither my abilities nor inabilities to be a defining limit on those I get to mentor.
We love the star quarterback and we stand up and cheer for the come from behind person who overcomes tremendous obstacles, but there are a whole lot of people in the middle who we need to root for also. That is where most of us live. I’m going to start rooting for the guy who holds up the line while trying to get the exact change out of his pocket. Or the one who meticulous sorts and packs his groceries in the self-check line. Or the person who just can’t quite figure out how to merge onto or off the interstate. Maybe they’ll root for me also.
In my story of Henry I hope you cheer for the girls when they put an end to the boy’s jalapeno eating contest at the school dance. And I hope you cheer for Henry when he puts his all into climbing that rope that I never made my way up. I hope you will root for Anree who so envies Henry’s life in suburbia. And I hope you will root for all kinds of people who are currently part of your life.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.