Listen kid, I’ve been in this business since 1927. You don’t publish 400 Hardy Boys books and not learn a little something about the writing game. The only person who’s been at this thing as long as I have is Carolynn Keene and if you’ve ever read one of her Nancy Drew mysteries you know what a no-talent hack she is. But I digress. You wanna learn how to be a writer. And what with all these overpriced liberal arts schools crapping out second-rate writers left and right these days, you’re not alone. You’re gonna need a leg up.
1. Start With the Title.
Come up with a good enough title and the book will practically write itself. Look at The Hardy Boys #14: The Hidden Harbor Mystery. Where does it take place? Hidden Harbor. What kind of story is it? A mystery. What about The Mystery of Cabin Island? Setting: Cabin Island. Genre: Mystery. The Shore Road Mystery? Another mystery. Setting: A shore road–maybe not the most inspired setting, but you get the point. Pick the first place that comes to mind, insert the word mystery and you’re halfway there.
2. Who’s Who?
Readers are fickle, impatient bastards with low IQs and short attention spans, and you got to explain things to them in the simplest terms possible. How old are your characters? Who has blond hair, who has dark hair? Is one taller than the other? Is one shorter? Take a look at the opening of The Hardy Boys #105: The Smoke Screen Mystery:
“That was definitely the worst pizza in Bayport,” said Joe Hardy. The muscular seventeen-year-old shook his blond head disdainfully as he climbed into the back of the black police van he and his brother owned. “Whose idea was it to try this new pizza place, anyway?” he asked. [. . .]
“Yours, remember?” replied Frank. At six foot one, eighteen-year-old Frank was an inch taller and slightly thinner than his younger brother and had dark hair and brown eyes.
Readers will gobble this sort of thing up faster than one of my ex-wives can spend her alimony. And for the ones who make it past the first chapter, repeat your characters’ hair color, age and height every couple pages so the idiots don’t forget.
Ungrateful wretches that they are, readers want the meaningless details to extend beyond character description into plot and setting. Look at this passage from The Hardy Boys Case Files #46: Foul Play:
Joe and Frank arrived at the All Sports Stadium bright and early Tuesday morning. A light drizzle had fallen the night before, covering the roads with a glassy coat of ice, but Frank had negotiated the slippery roads without trouble. Just before nine he eased the van through the stadium’s entrance, parking in the same spot they had used the day before.
It’s not enough to explain where your characters are driving the van, the readers wanna know what time of day it is, too. “It’s just before nine, okay?” you say. But no, it‘s not enough. “What are the road conditions like?” they plead in their slow-witted drawl. “It’s slippery, alright?” Their jaws hang slackly as they silently mouth the next few words, spittle clinging to their fat lips. “But, but,” they splutter. “Where’d they park the van?” “How the hell should I know?” you cry. “What do I look like, a traffic cop? I’m a writer, for Christsake.” But if you wanna finish the chapter and get the whole thing over with, you gotta pamper them, hold their hands, point out every little detail. “Fine, fine” you say, “they parked in the same spot they used yesterday. Happy now?”
4. Tell. Don’t Show.
Yeah, yeah, I know what all the pasty, goateed, part-time Creative Writing teachers out there say: “Show, don’t tell,” one of them is probably lisping even now. But who are you gonna believe? Me or some unpublished short-story writer with a Hemingway knock-off moldering in a desk drawer? Take it from me. No one wants you to show them anything. Just tell the reader what your characters are feeling and then move on. Look at The Hardy Boys #84: Revenge of the Desert Phantom:
For the first time since the fighting began, [Frank] had a moment to think about it. While his own life had been in jeopardy many times already in his short career as a sleuth, until now he’d never actually fired a gun, much less a machine gun, on another human being. True, it was in self-defense and therefore justifiable, but it nonetheless was a jarring and troubling experience.
You could waste your time trying to figure out how to convey the jarring and troubling quality of an experience, or you could just say it was a jarring and troubling experience like any normal human being would. Character arcs are for sissies, pseudo-intellectuals and Carolynn Keene. Metaphors are for poets and homosexuals. And emotional depth would just confuse and upset your imbecilic readership.
5. Sex Sells.
While you’re busy pandering to the philistines you might as well have a little fun. Trust me: If I’ve learned anything over ninety years of writing it’s that all readers really want is some good old fashioned titillation. Just read this steamy passage from The Hardy Boys #44: The Haunted Fort:
When the brothers pulled into the gravel driveway of the rambling, brown-and-white farmhouse, pretty Iola Morton, Chet’s sister, danced off the porch to greet them.
“Frank and Joe! What a surprise! You’re just in time for our homemade hootenanny!”
“And I can play two chords!” Callie Shaw waved from the front doorway, a large guitar hanging from her neck. Callie, a slim blonde, was Frank’s special friend, while vivacious Iola often dated Joe.
Back in ‘65 this was considered pretty risqué. Still flips the carriage release lever of the ol’ typewriter, if you know what I mean. As for the rest of my oeuvre, as some metaphor-spouting sodomite would call it, it don’t amount to a hill of beans. You want some real advice, kid? Hide that manuscript in your desk drawer, quit this ridiculous charade and get your life together. Think of all I could’ve accomplished if I hadn’t had Joe and Frank Hardy to consume my every waking hour. Think of all the brain cells I’ve used trying to slap together yet another hackneyed mystery for the boys to solve. Think of all the time I wasted trying to come up with lame excuses for Fenton Hardy to ask his kids to help him on a case, when I could’ve been with my own children, Franklin Jr., blonde and one year older than his sister Josephine, who was dark-haired and an inch shorter. At least that’s how I remember them. Haven’t actually seen them in years, but I figure if I can recall all the details I won‘t forget.
Stephen Langlois alternates between fiction, humor, pop culture essays and travel writing. His work has appeared on Johnny America, Ear Hustler, Popmatters, Bootsnall and Travelmag. He also toils in the dark, dank world of the blogosphere, where he analyzes 80s VHS cover art at great length on his blog The Naysayer. His greatest literary endeavor is a series of stories about uncles—the good, the bad and the weird—on which he is currently at work.