How to Heist Your Novel: A Writer’s Guide

Writing is a terrible job and that no one should do it. Like crime, it’s a job that doesn’t pay. But also like crime it’s a delight, so let’s think of your unfinished novel like a heist you want to pull off, and different genres as the members of your crew with specific talents (or craft strengths) to help you complete the job.

The loot? Your finished fucking novel.

Tell the truth: you’ve been opening and closing that goddamned document for years, rewriting the beginning over and over and over and over again, and doing “research” that quickly devolves into text threads with your most degenerate friends about how the nobles of Louis the XIV’s era just pooped all over Versailles, and servants had to clean it up like it was Hogwarts before plumbing, and no wonder they brought out the guillotines.

The result of all this work? Thirty thousand words of nothingness with an extremely well polished beginning that stands like a stairway to nowhere on your desktop.

This novel is smug in its unfinished-ness, taunting your lowly word count. It’s time to make it pay. And you’re going to need the help of all the myriad genres you’ve been reading to pull off this heist. The role of mastermind is already filled by you. So who else do you need on this team?


The Plot Guy

First you need Picture Books. Sure, they seem basic, but you know better than to discount the incredible feats of plot they pull off in the 32 page, 500-2000 word industry standard length. That’s an extremely limited amount of space to tell an entire story— beginning, middle, and end within. You start by reading I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. It’s a perfect story. A bear has lost their hat. They would like it back. They search for their hat by asking a series of woodland creatures if they’ve seen the hat. A rabbit is wearing the hat, but claims not to have seen it. The bear believes the rabbit. But then, upon reflection, the bear realizes the rabbit was lying. And the bear eats the rabbit. When asked if the bear has seen the rabbit, the bear lies. A perfect story. A character wants a thing, there is conflict in their attempt to get that thing they want, and then the character gets the thing, but in so doing becomes the antagonist they resented. Arguably, this is the plot of almost any story, and here it is, laid bare for you to study in all its perfection.

Plot is the getaway driver of your story. It may seem like a simple job, but you’ve seen Baby Driver, and you know an excellent driver is essential for your heist. So goddamnit, you son of a bitch, Picture Books are in.

So, cool, your heist has a driver and your novel has a plot now, but don’t get smug just yet. If plot was all you needed for a good story, we’d talk about Michael Bay a lot differently. You’ve got to distract the guards, first. And in order for that to happen you need character development. And for that, you know who you’ve gotta pull out of retirement.


The Character Whisperer

Young Adult is one of those genres everyone has opinions about, but you’re cool enough to know that it’s a dope genre everyone should respect. Because all young adult books are somehow a coming of age story, we are guaranteed that our main characters will change, will grow. And this is very satisfying to a reader of any age. And a hero’s portion of illustrating that change can be achieved through voice. Maturation is a hard thing to represent, and so subtle changes in tone, or tilt of the narration is an indispensable tool in achieving this .

And in this way, Young Adult is like the diversion creator of your heist. Young Adult will use their big booming voice or their undeniable charm, to point the reader where the mastermind wants them to look. Sometimes right at the problem. Sometimes askance. You read 13 Doors Wolves Behind Them All, and marvel at the way Laura Ruby uses the voice of her ghostly narrator to both illuminate the horrible truths of war, while at times eliding the truth of her own story. This is a masterwork of voice, and you need her on board. She lulls the guards (or the readers) into an incomplete sense of intimacy, then upends their understanding.

Character development makes your story feel inevitable, and voice is the tool you use to make that inevitability feel surprising, still. You can’t do this without her. So goddamnit, you son of a bitch, Young Adult is in.

The guards are distracted now, and you’ve reached the safe. But you need someone to pick the lock. And for that, you need Graphic Novels. The most frequently spouted bit of writing advice has got to be “show don’t tell.” And this axiom shines in Graphic Novels most clearly, because you have the opportunity to most literally show, and not tell. The juxtaposition of text and image allows for limitless depth— in harmony, or near misses, or in straight up contradiction.


The Showman

A helpful master text for this is Three Shadows by Cyril Pedrosa. It’s out of print for some reason, but it’s worth catching up with from the library or used. In it, a father tries to protect his sickly child from the three shadows that seem to follow them everywhere. At its core, it’s a simple story about the inevitability of death. But Pedrosa uses the images of the three shadows to show the way it lurks, forever haunting us at the peril of those we love. This allows him to apply extreme economy with his language. The word count for Three Shadows is likely very low. And so not only do Graphic Novels help you think about imagery, but they also help you focus, focus you’ll need to pick that lock.

Obviously, this kind of job can’t be pulled off using just pictures. But forcing yourself to think in pictures could serve to help punctuate meaningful moments and larger themes without beating them into the ground. This is delicate work— because if your character quirks one fucking eyebrow, or a flock of birds take flight just as your character is freed, well. You’ve overdone it, haven’t you, the lock won’t open and the alarms will sound. The alarms are sounding; klaxons ringing CLICHE CLICHE CLICHE will ring in your ears and the readers will getcha. So this is the delicate work, like picking a lock. Not so esoteric as to be inscrutable; not so on the nose as to be predictable. This is where you have to be the mastermind, and you’re on your own. Your team got you here, but the final piece all comes down to you.

The safe is open. Your heart races. Inside is a briefcase that contains your completed novel. But oh my god, you’re just so fucking tired, and have you read the news lately, this sucks, and probably your novel sucks even more than social distancing, so why bother finishing it, when you could just do some hardcore depression gaming instead. Will this crime ever pay? Will you go down in history as the one who got away with it all?

After the rush, what are you left with? You plop down on the floor next to the open safe and start scrolling through your phone. Someone on Twitter claims Karen is a slur. You close Twitter. You open Twitter. Someone else says something stupid about the Holocaust.

Your phone buzzes. “Finish your fucking novel,” it says. A text from your friend, Meg Elison. The notification blocks most of your Twitter feed. Fine, you think, FINE. You drag the briefcase out of the safe. But you don’t stand up. “It’s too stupid to finish,” you text back. “No one will read it and everyone hates me and I’m pretty sure my 7th grade English teacher only told me I was a good writer because he felt bad for me after I farted in class.”


The Hype Man

Three dots, and then: “Don’t be an idiot. Go do crime.” She’s right of course. Crime is cool. Thank goodness you had the last, and most important member of your heist crew: the one who reminds you why you got into this business in the first place. The loyal friend. The person who’ll kick you in the ass when you need it. The one who’s idea it was to write this whole essay as a heist, and to fucking finish it already. Because the real difference between professional writers and amateurs is just that professionals finish.

So you pick up the briefcase. And you run.


Maggie Tokuda-Hall is the author of the Parent’s Choice Gold Medal-winning picture book, Also an Octopus, illustrated by Benji Davies, and the young adult novel The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea (Candlewick Press, May 5, 2020). She lives in Oakland, California with her husband, son, and objectively perfect dog.


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