Four years ago, we at Suspense discovered a new author. He was a debut, not well known, but something about his work, well, we thought big things were to come. For lack of a better description, he had the “It” factor.
The author was Anthony Franze.
We asked Franze to consider writing a new series for us, interviewing bestselling suspense authors to get their advice about writing. After he wrote the first article, we knew we were on to something, and “America’s Favorite Suspense Authors on the Rules of Fiction” was born. Since then, Franze has interviewed more than seventy writers—including many of the bestselling authors in the world—and his articles are required reading for budding suspense writers.
We also were right about Franze. He went on to sign a multi-book deal with St. Martin’s Press, and as Lee Child recently said in an interview, “as a person and a writer Franze seems to have that little bit extra—whatever it is that makes the difference.” Franze’s new novel, “The Advocate’s Daughter,” has received widespread praise from critics and readers alike, who have hailed it as “the best legal thriller in years.” In honor of Franze’s success, we decided to turn the tables and ask him for his rules of writing. Here are Franze’s five rules, in his own words.
- Ode to Elmore Leonard
I should start by saying that I’m a thief—I stole most of my rules from the authors I’ve interviewed over the years. That may sound like an exaggeration, but when I was writing “The Advocate’s Daughter,” I literally could hear Steve Berry in my ear talking about his Eleven Rules, Michael Connelly advising to keep the momentum going, and Lisa Gardner instructing to write lean. And when I’d get stuck, I’d re-read Sandra Brown’s Seven Rules, or John Lescroart’s Matrix. I could go on. This series was an accidental MFA in writing.
One thing in particular that stuck with me was how often bestselling authors would invoke Elmore Leonard’s famous rule of writing: “Leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” It’s now one of my guiding principles. The rule captures so many things that bog down a story, like overlong descriptions of places or people, too much backstory, excessive inner monologue, and unnecessary flashbacks. So, my Rule #1: Less is more.
- The Iceberg Rule
Related to Rule #1, I also subscribe to what someone (I can’t remember who) called the “Iceberg Rule”—writers should do a ton of research for their novels, but readers should only see the tip. Writers often refer to it as avoiding the “information dump.” For me, nothing’s worse than when you’re reading a book and a character goes off on a tangent—an excruciatingly boring description of, say, a legal procedure or how a gun works or an irrelevant historical aside. I know firsthand how much hard work goes into research, and also how much a writer wants to show off that work. But most of it should land on the cutting room floor. I try to sprinkle the essential research throughout the story—like breadcrumbs in the forest—giving readers just enough so they can fill in the gaps with their imaginations as they journey through the book.
- No Head Hopping
I’m in the “one scene, one point of view” school of thought. I know, I know, some authors have pulled off multiple points of view in the same scene, including some of my favorite writers. But for me, I think it should be clear who is telling the story in every scene. Lee Child, who’s a genius, doesn’t like the conventional rules of writing since he thinks they can take the heart out of a writer’s work. But even he’s strict on point of view. That’s good enough for me.
- Don’t Write Your Way Into a Scene
Robert Dugoni isn’t just a great writer, he’s a great teacher. One of his rules is that writers should avoid spelling out each step that happened on the way to the action; authors shouldn’t “write their way into a scene.” For instance, my first novel, “The Last Justice,” opened with an assassin killing nearly all the justices on the Supreme Court as they presided on the bench, my main character caught in the crossfire. I could have started the scene with the protagonist waking up in the morning, eating breakfast, driving to court, walking into the building, checking his coat, saying hello to the other lawyers, going to counsel’s table, and then have the gunman attack. But the scene was more dramatic starting with the protagonist falling to the ground from a gunshot wound as the attack occurs. As Dugoni advises, “anything that can be presumed . . . can be cut.”
- Writing is Rewriting
Virtually every writer I’ve interviewed has stressed the importance of editing. The old adage, “There’s no such thing as good writing, only rewriting,” is true. If you haven’t read and re-read your manuscript so many times that you can barely stand to look at it anymore, you’re not done. It’s a universal rule of writing, not just suspense writing. I learned it from my years of writing appellate briefs as a practicing lawyer.
Part of the process is to stay open-minded about suggestions from others. For “The Advocate’s Daughter,” I had notes from my wife, my beta readers, my literary agent, other thriller writers, and, of course, my editors. When I’d get defensive or stubborn, I’d remember a call I had with Preston & Child who advised writers to avoid “thinking that every word that trips off our pen is a precious pearl to be coddled and preserved.” I never lost sight that it was my story, but it became a much better story by staying receptive to comments, editing and re-editing until the book went to the printer, and remembering the advice I learned from the best writers in the world. ■
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Want to learn more? All of Franze’s past articles from this series are available on his website. This summer, Franze and award-winning writer Barry Lancet will be teaching writing at CraftFest, during the International Thriller Writers organization’s annual conference. Until then, check out Franze’s latest novel, “The Advocate’s Daughter.”