I want to talk about the debut novel that was released in January, 2015, called THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, by British author Paula Hawkins, because I think it highlights a few key points that I have been trying to make for ages.
For those of you who live on the moon or simply, for whatever reason, haven’t read the novel: go buy it. It’s not so much that it’s the best written book ever released (it’s very much not), but the plot will blow your mind. I’m not going to go over the plot but the basic gist is that a woman (the aforementioned “girl” referred to in the title) who takes the train into London every day watches a couple sitting on their terrace during her morning commute. One day she sees the woman with “another man,” and then soon after the woman goes missing and eventually ends up dead (partial spoiler alert; sorry). The woman riding the train—the protagonist—decides to tell the man about the woman having had an affair, and thus the suspense begins: she has become involved. The plot as they say “thickens” from there, big time.
Many of you who’re reading this blog post I am assuming have read the book. Here’s what I’d like to talk about. This, mind you, is a DEBUT novel, as in the author’s FIRST published book. Keep that in mind as I move on from here.
There are many things, many so-called “rules” that agents, editors, publishers, and [snobby] creative writing instructors will claim are “musts” in writing a “good” or “successful” novel. I put those words in quotes because, what the hell, really, do those words even mean in today’s market? But anyway: moving on.
Show don’t tell, especially with emotion. How many times have we been told by professionals in the field that it is imperative to “show” and not “tell,” especially when it comes to describing emotions from a character? Countless times. And I mentioned the fact that this novel is a debut because often the rebuff to this claim is that after the author has published they are then, to some degree, selling their “brand,” not their book. But this is a first novel so clearly no such thing applies. Hawkins tells us directly, with emotion especially, very directly, all throughout the novel. Here’s a quote from page 13: “I close my eyes and let the darkness grow and spread until it morphs from a FEELING OF SADNESS into something worse; a memory, a flashback.” There are literally dozens and dozens of such lines in the book, directly stating emotion. And you know what? For me it works. Obviously it works for others: it’s a #1 NYT bestseller! Direct words like ANGER, SHAME, SADNESS, ANGUISH, FEAR, etc, are plastered all over these pages. And yet pros will tell you never to directly name emotion; instead, SHOW us. The direct labeling of emotion happens not only in Hawkins’ book but in The Hunger Games, Anne Perry’s books, The Fault in our Stars, Ian McEwan books, and many others. It is not an aberration, an outlier. Don’t believe these lines exist throughout the book? Read it. See for yourself.
Back story (BS) that is told and not shown: Here’s another one we’re commonly told: When describing BS, always show a scene, never simply tell us what happened. Again, in many books—contemporary and older—including THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, the author TELLS us the back story, instead of using a scene. And again: this works. I won’t use an example here because they’re too long, but page 2, page 8, page 56 (just to name a few of dozens) do this. I encourage you to check them out.
Never use the passive voice: Another common one, right? Never be passive; always be active. Say, “Tom runs to the store,” not “Tom WAS running to the store.” But this book is absolutely RIDDLED with passive voice. It’s virtually everywhere, splashed across the pages like the thrilling plot. (Also another common one I’ve heard is agents saying they hate the word “just.” This word, “just,” is used practically on every other page, often multiple times.)
Point of View: Many professionals will say be careful with POV, and try to stick with one POV if possible, especially for first-person, and especially ESPECIALLY for debut authors. Hawkins uses multiple POV and all from the first-person “I” perspective. This is well done and very hard to do.
What she does by the book that really works:
This book—again, while not the most well-written necessarily; the literary book snobs would likely agree—does fantastically well mainly in the plot and structure arena. Using multiple POV, from first-person, and using dates to place characters close or far from each other (it also helps the reader keep track of it all), is incredibly well done. The plot is insanely layered and complex, which of course is what you want. We turn the page because of this and also—and this is key as well—Hawkins makes us care about the characters. These are not the best, most ethical human beings. But then again: neither are most of us. We are all filled with dread and fear and lust and love and joy and compassion, often simultaneously. Hawkins nails this gritty reality to its core in a one-two punch that is irresistible and explicit. We can’t help but empathize and want to know that elusive READER QUESTION: what’s going to happen next?
She follows David Corbett’s (THE ART OF CHARACTER; www.davidcorbett.com) example: secrets, lies, contradictions, desire and yearning. Her characters are deep, three-dimensional, authentic-feeling, human in all the ways they can be. Too real, perhaps. And they lie and manipulate and cheat and use self-loathing and denial to not have to face their own pain: Hey: just like us! Every character in her novel is a liar to some degree; every character has secrets; and every character is basically pitted against another character. They all yearn for self-love and happiness and freedom in some manner, and none can fully achieve it without sacrificing some large part of their own soul. This, my friends, is “good” writing, or at least good storytelling, if you want to make the [oft made] distinction.
Another thing she does, and this makes the creative writing MFA instructors wet their little pretentious pants, is use good ole tried-and-true concrete details. Yup; the old formula of using little specific details to place the reader in the author’s (or narrator’s if you prefer) world, still works. Most often she rolls with smell, but she uses all the five senses without regret. “I can smell the aftershave under cigarette smoke and I know that I’ve smelled that scent before.” (Page 174.) “I can hear it guttering, smell the wax, feel the chill of the air around my neck and shoulders.” (Page 169.) Again, these are virtually everywhere in her book.
So, let’s recap. My point here wasn’t to degrade or condemn Paula Hawkins’ novel, or conversely to slam industry experts like agents, editors (I am a book editor myself), publishers or MFA teachers. I respect these professionals and I myself am currently trying to land an agent for my own suspense novel. (So far I have had six or seven published authors read part of it, including two NYT bestselling authors; all except one has referred me to their agent; I have not heard back yet but I’ll keep you updated!) And I really enjoyed THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. I think it’s a fabulous thriller, a must-read. You can learn loads about plot, creating conflict and tension, authentic-sounding dialogue, concrete detail, solid structure, deep, well-developed characters you care about, how to devise a thrilling, mysterious, page-turning journey for the reader, and much, much more.
But my point, rather, is that, like human behavior, there is, in my opinion, much less to be said of the craft of writing other than some very basic notions and practice, practice, practice. You can sit there for 1,000 years not trying to submit your novel because you hear industry professionals say you need to do A, B or C in order to succeed. Never have your character look in a mirror. Never start your novel in a dream. Never tell back story or emotion directly; instead show it in a scene. And hundreds more like this. We’ve been told—or perhaps more aptly, brainwashed into believing—that there is only one way to “write a novel,” when in fact there are probably infinite ways. My take is this: No one, really, knows what the hell is going sell. At the end of the day, an agent can only recognize clear talent and a good story. The rest is up to readers and marketing. And really readers, more than anything else.
My overall message? Forget the long ago accepted “rules” of book writing. Get in there and find your regular writing routine. Write the best book you can, then hand it out to trusted friends who read your genre. Get feedback, rewrite, self-edit, revise, etc. Then hire an editor like me or Ellen Brock or Chuck Sambuchino, etc. Countless editors out there. Take their feedback, rewrite, edit, etc. When you feel like it’s ready, HALT. Have more people read it. Edit again. Etc. Repeat until it’s the best you got. Then carefully do your agent homework, submit, and pray. If you’ve written the best book you can, and you believe in it, and you’ve done the rewriting and editing work: don’t freaking worry about what other “pros” in the industry think.
Just write it. Like Paula Hawkins.
Good work, Paula!
“You said it. Let’s edit.”
I do developmental book editing. Right now I am—happily—booked solid until August. If you want a free test edit now I can do that, but I’ll have to throw you in line for Aug. Cool with that? Have an adult novel (no sci-fi please) or memoir? Email me: email@example.com.