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I once visited a wonderful friend who was a successful writer (DF – it was you!).
At the time, I was struggling to complete my first novel.
When she suggested we go for brunch at her local cafe to read the New York Times and the Washington Post, I was delighted. As I waited to go out, I glanced at her writing desk, filled with admiration for her hard work and achievement.
On the desk was a book about writing technique. Intrigued that she, a well-known author, should need such advice, I leafed through it. A sentence leapt out at me.
You can see the results of all this in my Berlin thriller Blood Summit
“Don’t keep writing and re-writing the same chapter or the opening to your book,” the guide said. “Doing that risks preventing you from completing the task. You must keep moving forward.”
At that point my friend was ready and we went out for a terrific brunch in Alexandria.
But I never forgot that sentence. I have found it invaluable in helping me to complete many novels.
“Wait!” I hear you cry. “Surely I shouldn’t write (more…)
An experienced commissioning editor told me recently that one of two main reasons she rejected manuscripts was “no story”. The other was “overwritten” – I’ll write about that another day.
How can you make sure your fiction has a strong story, that people will want to read?
To put it another way, how can you make sure your fiction has bite?
‘How the hell do I apply these techniques to my writing?’
Swain said that to have a cracking good story you should start with a scene in which someone is trying to achieve a goal. The sub-elements are:
(i) goal: the character is trying to achieve something;
(ii) conflict: something prevents the character achieving that goal;
(iii) disaster: the quest to achieve the goal ends in catastrophe. (more…)
I crave good thrillers. But they are vanishingly rare.
So when I find a book with a compelling plot, rich characters, horrifying jeopardy and seat-edge cliff-hangers, I fall on it like a starving man on a feast.
I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes is such a thriller – an epic, breathtaking romp from New York to Afghanistan to Bahrain to Gaza to Bodrum to Bulgaria and back. I really enjoyed it.
Here (no spoilers) are some reasons it works well:
- characterisation: the outstanding feature of the novel. Both the bad guy (“The Saracen”) and the protagonist, the US-trained superspy codenamed “Pilgrim” (both Saracen and Pilgrim can also mean “Nomad”), are richly drawn, with enough back story to fill several novels. This can be irritating: the book is so long that some threads of detail disappear (Pilgrim’s drug habit) or reappear without having been described in the first place (the Saracen’s dead wife). But on the whole the characters, including a host of minor players, gleam like diamonds. This makes you care about them;
- action: the action scenes are thrilling. A firefight in an Afghan village, the ghastly deaths of three hostages, the theft of some medical supplies from a heavily-guarded facility – all will have you on the edge of your seat;
- evil: the consequences with which the world – and specifically the US – will threatened if Pilgrim does not succeed in his mission are both credible and horrific. The potential horror is illustrated early on in the book in microcosm, leaving you praying it will not come about on a bigger scale;
- good: Pilgrim has an unerring moral compass which draws sympathy – a bit like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher (links in bold italics are to other posts on this blog). Other characters also have clear moral values. Even “The Saracen” plans his act of evil for reasons which he believes are pure and noble;
- richness: Hayes reaches deep into characters to create insights which enrich and illuminate the book. For example, he creates a Jewish character who has survived the Holocaust and hangs around the Bebelplatz – a memorial to the 1933 book-burning by Nazis in Berlin – to highlight a point: when millions of people, a whole political system, countless numbers of citizens who believed in God, said they were going to kill you – just listen to them. Later, Pilgrim inspires a cynical musician who has lost his mojo to resume his musical career – just in passing. The book is full of warm, fascinating detail;
- I am Pilgrim contains some fine epigrams. I liked Evidence is the name we give to what we have, but what about the things we haven’t found? and If you want to be free, all you have to do is let go;
- The structure of the book is outstanding. Hints from opening chapters flower into relevance hundreds of pages later. For example Pilgrim’s early hatred of the practice of torture by “waterboarding” sets the scene for it to be used later. The early love of an anonymous Geneva banker for his family becomes a key to the resolution;
- The book is rich in cliff-hangers, especially from the mid-way on. You really, really want to know what will happen next.
Another fast-moving thriller – described by Edmund de Waal as “utterly gripping” (more…)
One key to writing better is to read critically. I attempt to do so, often noting down excerpts from books as I read. Here are three examples.
Read, enjoy, and – if you are a writer – learn from the great authors below.
See my February 2017 blog for a full review of this frightening book
Comedy: P G Wodehouse
‘Oh, I’m not complaining,’ said Chuffy, looking rather like Saint Sebastian on receipt of about the fifteenth arrow. ‘You have a perfect right to love who you like.’
Thank you, Jeeves – PG Wodehouse
Thriller: Lee Child
You’re going to Mississippi. They’ll think you’re queer. They’ll beat you to death.’
‘I doubt it,’ I said.
Lee Child – The Affair. Unusually, “The Affair” is narrated in the first person by Jack Reacher, Child’s indestructible yet – on a good day – ironic hero. My review of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels is positive.
Diary: Alan Clark
“This morning I bathed, before breakfast, in the loch just opposite the targets. I don’t know what the temperature is, a tiny trace of Gulf Stream perhaps, but not much. One feels incredible afterwards – like an instant double whisky, but clear-headed. Perhaps a ‘line’ of coke does this also. Lithe, vigorous, energetic. Anything seems possible.”
Alan Clark, The Diaries
For earlier posts of “selected quotations from master writers”, see Carols, the perfect Martini and love: three quotations; Short story technique from the master: 3 quotations; or Two-and-a-half literary quotes.
P.S. If you enjoy fresh, original writing, feel free to like or follow my Facebook page or sign up for e-mail updates (top right – see blue “click here” button). You can explore the range of writing on this site via my five pleasure paths.
I sit down at my desk in Vienna to continue writing my current novel, code-named The Boyfriend. Outside, birds sing in the trees; all is well in the world.
When I start to write, do I reach for my computer? Or for my pen and paper?
Many authors write first drafts direct on their computers, or always write on paper, without thinking too much about which works best. Here are a few things you might want think about.
In 1986 my then-employer acquired its first computer. I was thrilled by the idea that I could move words around on a screen, and only print them out when I was happy with them. It seemed to make the creative process less daunting. I started to write my first novel, Biotime, on that computer the same year – after work, of course.
In this pic I am writing the first draft of a blog direct on an iPad in Austria
In 1987 I bought my first home computer, an Amstrad PCW. Later I bought PCs; then Macs. But over the years, I stopped writing fiction on the screen. I write all my short stories and novels in long-hand.
How do I do that? And why?
How: I like to use a ring-bound A4 pad, (more…)
You are an author. You are about to sit down and begin to write a story.
How do you get started? What will it be about? Where do you get your ideas from?
As the author of eight novels and eight short stories*, I work hard to find ideas. Here are my four sources of inspiration, and one non-source:
(i) my best source of inspiration is random ideas which pop into my head – when I am reading, walking down the street, in the shower, whatever. These ideas have one thing in common. I write them down. Everyone has great ideas, all the time. What makes a difference is keeping a note of them. Maybe you are a genius and can remember good ideas indefinitely. I can’t. As soon as my mind wanders off – as it will – I forget my good idea. Action point for writers: make a note when an idea strikes you and ensure you can find that note later. Keep a notebook or web page where you store your ideas;
Some things are obviously inspirational. This deserted children’s bumper car ride near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is crying out for a story
(ii) my second big source of ideas is external inputs. If you read the piece about my hotel stories at the link above, (more…)
Every writer wants to write better.
Some of my most popular blogs set out tips on how to do this. That is why I have a “Writing about writing” category (see top left), including such gems as:
- #howtowrite: Where to write
- Two great sources of writing inspiration
- 2 sets of brilliant tips on “how to write”
- How to work better: 10 rules? Or not?
- How I write;
- #howtowrite: ViennaWritingInspiration; and
- The 4 elements of the perfect article: Nut-grafs and Cosmic Kickers
The last piece, with the Cosmic Kickers, is my most-read blog this year.
To find out more about these two, see The Russians: Vladivostok
I mention this because this week’s blog consists of three literary quotations of very different styles. One is by W Somerset Maugham, (more…)