The DuplicatesAnatomy of a Novel – Installment 3

The Idea

The Second Filter


The second filter I use is something I started using almost from day one. I use it early in the writing process, and I keep using it throughout the editing process.

They are the Four Cardinal Rules.

They are my touch-points, my evaluation criteria, my salvation all rolled into one.

They came out of a casual conversation I had with a buddy over drinks one night a long time ago. We were talking about books and movies and he asked what I used to determine is something was good. I thought about the question, then said I wanted a good story with interesting characters that made me feel something and hopefully touched on a larger theme that resonated with me.

He said, “You might want to write that down.”

So I did.

And the Four Cardinal Rules were born.

The Four Cardinal Rules comprise the Second Filter.

And I take them very seriously.

They are Advance Story; Reveal Character; Generate Emotion; Develop Theme.

Advance Story

If you’re a novelist, you’re in the storytelling business. You’re responsible for moving the story forward. And to keep it moving forward until it comes to an end.

Obviously, this is the most basic element in idea selection.

No story; no book.

You may love spending the afternoon reminiscing about your favorite childhood pet or the special pair of skates you got for Christmas one year. That’s great, and that sort of family conversation is to be encouraged. But nobody wants to spend twenty pages reading about it unless there’s a good reason.

And the reason is it’s moving the story forward.

Before I write a word of my first draft, this element has to be complete. I try to find the latest point where the book can start, then identify the earliest point when it can end. That narrows and focuses the timeframe I’ll be writing inside. No three chapters of leisurely lead-in to get the reader accustomed to your voice.

Get going on page 1.

For me, the rule applies to all genres and is not relegated to crime novels or thrillers.

During idea selection, I start by plotting out my main storyline. It’s very straightforward. Start at Point A; end at Point B. Sometimes I use a simple list of plot points, other times I’ll use short chapter descriptions. For Divorce Hotel, I did a whiteboard story diagram.

When you know exactly how the main storyline is going to start and end, and, yes, I always know how the book is going to end before I start writing, add in all your subplots.

When finished, take a step back and ask yourself the hard question.

From a storyline perspective only, is it captivating enough for readers to work their way through three hundred pages? More importantly, is it captivating enough for you to devote months of your life?

If it isn’t, fix it.

Or find another idea.

If it’s captivating your pants off, congratulations. You’re ready to move to the next element of the Second Filter, also known as the Second Cardinal Rule; Reveal Character.

Reveal Character

I could spend pages on how I handle characters. And some day I may just do that. But for this installment on Idea Selection, I’ll only make a few points I consider relevant to the topic.

But given all the different things I have to say about the importance of revealing character, not telling it, I may wander a bit during this section.

First and foremost, no matter how minor the role; never waste a character.

Let’s call it a rule.

Undoubtedly you already have some characters in mind. And ideas about what they’re like and some of the things they’ll be doing in the book.

But I’m going to ask you to do something the next time you’re getting ready to start a new book some of you will either laugh at or think I’m an idiot for suggesting. When you’re finished with the first element, Advance Story, go back and list all your characters, no matter how minor. If possible, try to identify how many appearances each character will make in the book. If it’s your main character(s), don’t worry about them too much at this point. You’ll have plenty of time in the book to build their arc.

After you’ve identified all your characters, and have some general idea about how many times they’ll be showing up, put them in, what I call, their shell. These are all the physical characteristics, occupation, quirks, whatever, you’ve given them. Some prefer to use elaborate character descriptions; others use them sparingly to let the readers decide for themselves.

I come from the minimalist school.

Now that you have all your characters in their shells, you need to define a basic arc for each of them. Where do they start in the story? And where do they end up? Some of your minor characters won’t have much of an arc given their small role. But they can definitely be used to help shape the arc of other characters playing a bigger part in your story. But that’s a whole other discussion unto itself.

I ask you to do these things right up front when you’re still deciding if your idea is book-worthy. Get to know your characters. The better you know them, the more they’ll have to say to each other later on when they meet.

Will your characters move, grow, change, or react in a manner that is consistent with your storyline and help propel it forward?

If they won’t, fix it.

Or find another idea.

A few words about the name of this Cardinal Rule; Reveal Character.

Earlier, I mentioned that I prefer to use minimal character descriptions in my writing. But please don’t get the impression I don’t have a long list of personality traits and quirks for each of my characters.

I do.

It’s just that I prefer to have my characters reveal themselves to the reader, instead of me describing them.

In your writing, do everything you can to Show, Don’t Tell.

Let’s call it a rule.

The Show, Don’t Tell rule applies to all aspects of your writing, but one of my weaknesses I worked hard to fix was the interplay of characters during dialogue exchanges. Early on, I was missing the mark by constantly inserting myself into character interactions. In short, I was telling, not showing.

I would do this primarily through the use of, what I call, silly-strings. These are the add-ons, modifiers, and elaborate dialogue tags I used to agonize over.

What a waste of time.

Here’s an early example I still cringe at every time I read it.

“Yes, I can certainly handle that situation,” James exclaimed, almost falling out of his chair as he pounded the desk, knowing full well that his ideas were finally coming to fruition.

Yeah, I know.

Pretty frigging bad, huh?

Talk about writing yourself into a scene.

Dialogue tags are primarily for helping readers know who’s talking. And it’s okay to add some reactions and movement to the end of lines of dialogue, but don’t go crazy.

And don’t insert yourself into the scene.

These days, I mostly use said and asked. I also like to use snapped from time to time when a character is angry or getting testy.

One of my personal goals is for readers to know my characters so well I can go pages of dialogue without even having to add the dreaded, he said.

Don’t get me wrong. My characters still move, react, and do the things you expect people to do. But when you stop inserting yourself into the story, it gets a lot easier for your characters to reveal themselves.

So my characters no longer speak, then shrug their shoulders in a manner that suggested complete indifference and a sense of boredom. Nor do they even shrug their shoulders. If you shrug, your shoulders are already involved.

Now I expect my characters to say something like: “Who gives a shit?” he said, shrugging.

Here’s a short scene from The Duplicates that demonstrates my point about dialogue tags and revealing character. Early in the second act, Doc and Gene are in a small Italian village that has been seeing End of Days images in the night sky. They enter the church, find it empty, then hear a cough coming from the confessional. Doc decides to check it out.


Doc stepped inside the confessional and sat down. Unsure what to do next, he sat quietly and waited.
“Vorresti fare una confessione, figlio mio?”
“I’m sorry, Father. But do you speak English?”
“Enough to get by, my son. Are you here for confession?”
“Actually, Father, no, I’m not.”
“I see.”
“Not that I don’t need it, Father. God knows, I could certainly use a good confession.”
“Yes, I’m sure he does.”
Doc laughed, then caught himself.
“Sorry, Father.”
“That’s quite all right, my son. At times like these, a sense of humor is essential. How can I help you?”
“I’d like to speak with you about the visions your village has been experiencing.”
“I see. Are you a believer in the Revelation prophecies?”
“No, Father.”
“I see. Are you a member of the media?”
“Then you must be from the government.”
Doc paused before replying.
“Technically, no, Father. But probably close enough where you wouldn’t find much of a distinction.”
“But not the Italian government.”
“No. And I’m sure you know which one we’re talking about.”
“Yes, I’m sure I do. And now you’ve traveled halfway around the world to discuss these visions that have my entire congregation making preparations for the end of the world.”
“Yes, I have.”
“And would I be correct in assuming that this technically-not-a-government entity doesn’t believe these visions are real?”
“No, you wouldn’t, Father. We believe they’re very real. They’re just not a sign from God.”
“Then, if I may be so bold to ask, where are they coming from?”
“That’s what I’m here to find out, Father.”
“I see. And how do you plan on doing that?”
“I have to confess, Father. I don’t have a clue.”
“There you go. It’s not much, but it’s a start.”
Doc paused, replayed the priest’s comment, then laughed again.
“Good one, Father. You’re a funny guy. I do have one question. Where is everybody?”
“You mean the villagers? They’re waiting.”
“They’re all waiting at the same place?”
“Good guess. When you leave the church, turn right, and you will see a long stone wall that separates the street from the houses on the other side. Keep the fence on your left and walk past all the houses until the path ends. You can’t miss it.”
“Would you like to walk with us? You can lead the way, and we could talk some more.”
“While that is a generous offer, and while I will certainly be attending, I think I’d be more comfortable only knowing the sound of your voice.”
“I understand, Father.”
“Peace be with you, my son.”
“One can hope, right, Father?”
“It’s called faith.”
“Yeah, I guess there might be a difference.”
“For your sake, my son, I hope you soon figure out what a huge difference there is.”
“I’ll try to keep that in mind, Father. I have to ask. Where did you learn to speak such perfect English?”
“I once spent two years with the Archdiocese of Baltimore as part of an exchange program.”
“Interesting. How was that?”
“I spent all my time trying to rebuild a congregation while fighting all the usual suspects. Inner-city decay, corruption, violence, drugs, racial tensions. After two years, I was glad to come home. Here, life is simpler. My congregation may be considered by others to be overly devout, but I prefer being with people who believe in something bigger than themselves.”
“I can hear it in your voice, Father.”
“But I do miss the crab cakes.”
Doc left the confessional, and he and Gene headed for the door. Outside, Doc turned right and walked briskly up the street.
“How did it go?”
“Good and bad. The good news is that we know where to find everybody.”
“Cool,” Gene said, doing his best to keep up with Doc’s pace. “And the bad?”
“I hope I’m wrong, but I think I might have scared the shit out of a priest.”


I think this is a good example of what I mean when I say Show, Don’t Tell. There’s barely a dialogue tag in sight and not a single silly-string, but I’m sure you easily kept track of who was talking when.

More importantly, I was nowhere to be seen.

And if you believe your idea is able to Advance Story and Reveal Character, you’re ready to move the third Cardinal Rule; Generate Emotion.

Generate Emotion

For me, this is the hardest Cardinal Rule to deal with during Idea Selection. It’s difficult to know if you’re hitting the emotional points you need to before you have a decent first draft. But there are some things you can do early on that will help you decide whether you have an idea that’s book-worthy.

I do a couple of things.

First, I look at the major emotions I’m trying to hit that should evolve from the overall story and theme(s) I’m working with. They’re like overarching mega-emotions. Total despair at the family level, global uncertainty, etc…. Again, they’re more like targets at this point. But if you have them in mind, they are useful touchpoints to refer to as you move through the Outline process and writing your first draft.

At the plot point or chapter level, you can develop a pretty good sense of the emotions you’ll need to create to make your book pop. But your ability to do this is highly dependent on how well you’ve handled the Advance Story and Reveal Character elements.

Again, after you decide that someone is going to develop an overwhelming sense of sadness; don’t tell me about it, let the character reveal it.

Develop Theme

The fourth Cardinal Rule, the final element of the Second Filter in Idea Selection, is tricky. And some very successful authors spend a lot of time developing a book’s theme. Other successful authors openly state they don’t know what their book(s) are about. I always have one or two I’m trying to bring to the surface and highlight. But that’s just me.

Here’s a short story to explain how I see the difference between story and theme.

A few years ago, I was watching a documentary about globalization and thought it had potential as an idea. But the show was bleak, and I was in the mood to write a comedy. I started wondering if I could write a funny satire that would make a lot of the same points as the documentary and highlight the same themes.

Then I what-iffed myself into a frenzy until I came up with the idea.

And Sneaker World was born.

Here’s the Snapshot:

Sir Bentley Carruthers, sneaker magnate and exploiter of the poor on four continents, has decided to expand his empire into the lucrative field of biopiracy. He’s purchased a small group of islands from the Indian government, ostensibly to assist with recovery efforts after a devastating tsunami. So he’s built a sneaker factory on one of the islands along with a high-end resort that caters exclusively to the uber-rich. Unfortunately, Doc and the rest of the Damaged Po$$e are aware of what his real motives are. And the fact that Sir Bentley has been selling off weapons technology to the highest bidders hasn’t gone unnoticed. After the Po$$e arrives on the island, they embark on their strangest adventure yet that is filled with dense jungles, a lost tribe, cantankerous girlfriends, shoulder-fired missiles, and a safari suit wearing antagonist you’ll love to hate.

But thematically, the book is about the impact that globalization and unfettered capitalism can have on indigenous populations.

It’s one of my favorite books.

But it’s consistently my lowest performing book from a sales perspective.

Earlier, I said all you can do is put your best work out there, then do everything you can to help it find the people who will enjoy your creation.

So far, Sneaker World is my living testament to that adage.

But don’t let that scare you off. It’s a really funny book.

And it certainly made its way through the Idea Selection filters and the Four Cardinal Rules.

So, that’s how I handle Idea Selection, and I hope the last two installments help you understand the process I use to decide if an idea is book-worthy.

As well as the amount of time I take making the decision.

Again, all I can say at this point is:

Choose Wisely.

Next installment I’ll be dealing with the Outline.

And The Duplicates.

Be well, my friends.