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Nurture Your Inner Hack
By Scott Nicholson

Most aspiring writers, and even all those millions who are going to get around to being writers someday, have the idea that the Great American Novel is sleeping in their brains and all they need to do is sit down and type. Or maybe they’ll wait for voice recognition software to advance far enough that they can babble it out while they drive to New York to pick up their checks. Even Europeans and South Americans want to write the Great American Novel, because nobody has a better chance to win the Nobel Prize for Literature than a foreigner who writes a Great American Novel. Hollywood might even buy it, sight unseen, if enough people who haven’t read the book start talking about it.

The only fly in this ointment is all those maggots out there who could care less whether you win big literary prizes. For most readers, your being compared to Faulkner and Gunter Grass are actually turn-offs rather than selling points. As hard as it is to believe, not everybody analyzes the New York Times Book Review for hip clues about what to stick on the shelves. And the highbrow Fifth Avenue secret is not all that many people buy these intelligent books. The secret is now being exposed by BookScan, which reports the actual number of sales with the precision of a computer rather than with the exuberance of an in-house publicist.

What does this mean to you as a writer? Or, for those few of us who still crack a book now and then rather than leave it on the coffee table as a trendy conversation piece, what does it mean to you as a reader?

It means keeping it simple, stupid. Around the campfire, you have the advantage of no electricity, no satellite television, no Internet access, and usually an ice chest full of beer to help keep your audience’s attention, although you may have to roast a cell phone or two. You are also relaxed and spontaneous and can pour out your tale in a straightforward manner. “Here is what happened, and here is what happened next.” You don’t have time for any high-falutin tricks or your audience members will decide they’d rather take their chances with poison ivy in the dark, or go to their tents and play shadow games with flashlights.

It means you’d better learn how to tell a story. And you need to be a hack. I say “hack” with all due reverence, and I believe it is the highest literary ambition possible. The popular image of a hack is someone who grinds out cheap paperbacks every three months, writes in multiple genres, and borrows and steals from every cliched plot possible. To me, a hack is someone who is writing so freely and unself-consciously that the material is flowing from some deep inner fountain, a place where true beliefs and feelings dwell. Such a story will automatically have resonance if you have learned enough of the basic writing skills to communicate your soul.

In journalism, reporters are taught to get to the four W’s right away: who, what, when, where. That’s good advice for fiction as well. As you grow more sophisticated, you can sneak in some “why” here and there, but first you have to hook the reader. They won’t care what happens to your characters if they know nothing about them. Conversely, if your characters aren’t in the middle of doing something when the reader meets them, the reader may not stick around long enough to make an emotional investment. “When” and “where” should be revealed in tiny doses while the characters are engaged in the business of the plot.

Yes, the successful writer must do all of these things at the same time. The good news is, it’s the most natural form of storytelling. If you can avoid the grammatical bog of trying to wow English professors with your sentences, then you’re well on your way to getting the reader to turn one page and then the next. If you’re slamming a thesaurus over the reader’s head with every paragraph, a lot of your books will go in the recycling bin, no matter how heavily the publisher promotes them. Not that you shouldn’t occasionally challenge the reader, but most of us work plenty hard enough at our day jobs and the last thing we want is to sweat blood during our leisure time.

One high-profile literary novel got a lot of attention last year mostly due to the fact that the author was fairly young and fresh out of medical school. The book was of the sort that Robert Redford will probably adapt into a vapid movie. Out of curiosity, I read an excerpt that was posted online. The author used a strange third-person omniscient viewpoint that had little consistency.

n the first couple of paragraphs, the main character meets a secondary character and an entire paragraph is devoted to describing the secondary character’s appearance and dress, presumably through the main character’s eyes. Several paragraphs later, the secondary character is mentally describing the main character’s appearance and dress with hardly a speed bump to note the point-of-view transition. The author made much of the secondary character’s mustache, and for the next two pages, which is as far as I cared to read, the fellow could hardly speak without his mustache twitching or curling. We knew the characters’ sartorial and hirsute habits, but didn’t learn a thing about their feelings.

Okay, I’ll admit I am jealous, because this author is younger, richer, and better looking than I am. He has some talent for stringing words together. But he broke what to me is the most basic rule of all: don’t confuse the reader. I would assume any book receiving a six-figure advance would be carefully edited by an experienced professional. But most editors I know would have rejected this book after that first clumsy transition, which reflects that this celebrated author has not mastered one of the core elements of storytelling. And, as a reader, I rejected it the minute my curiosity was satisfied.

Pick up any popular hack novel, and I need not mention any names, because there are probably several dozen in your immediate vicinity. Open it and read the first page. By the third paragraph, something is happening. Nine times out of ten, it is something important, life and death, love or loss, something that makes you want to know more. Something that makes you—GOTCHA—turn the page.

As writers, we are often tempted to impress other writers with our stylistic genius. Believe me, I’m still enough of an average reader to know that we don’t care about your genius. We want a story, we want it fast, and we want it to teach us something about being human. We don’t care what you mean to New York. All we care about is what your story means to us. The greatest form of genius is that which isn’t noticed. We want a hack, and if you deliver the goods, we’ll keep coming back to gather around your campfire again and again.

And we may even keep the flames roaring with some of those oh-so-smart hardcovers that tried to be the Great American Novel.

(Scott Nicholson is the author of four novels, a story collection, three screenplays, and over 40 short stories. His website at contains news, writing advice, and interviews. Originally published in Writers Journal, Vol. 25, No. 5. Copyright 2004)

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