Experience Counts

Many an author is grateful for their world experiences, whether through career or travel. When I was at university I landed a rather unusual job working with a crew who ran the dry dock at Devonport, across the harbour from Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city. My job was to help work the pumps, grease the gears and help shore up the boats as they settled on the floor of the dry dock as the water was pumped out. I was about nineteen years of age at the time and never thought I would be able to use the experience in a novel. One day, while working on a chapter in my latest thriller, I realised how valuable my time in the dry dock was. It helped bring a chapter to life and give it authenticity—a measure of detail that few people would have.

I guess that writing is the sum of experience and observation? I am forever grateful for this part time, and very humble, work in the naval dockyard. The crew I worked with gave me rich memories that came back to life when I was struggling for ideas for my latest novel. All experience, whether a struggle or triumph, does count. It acts like building blocks for your mind, allowing original and creative writing to flow.

 

Closer to the Gates of Hell

We had a friend staying with us recently who told us about his fear of driving through a car wash. He had a bad childhood experience which surfaces when he has to lock the car doors and look out at the swishing of water and rollers. In my new thriller, the crew of a submarine face their greatest fear—the fear of breaking up at depth; a depth that is a secret known only to a few. If you ask a submarine captain how deep they can go, the answer is always “deep enough.” If you ask the engineers who designed it, they will say “a little deeper than the specs.” Can you imagine the horror of being in a steel tube that implodes underwater; the sudden implosion that ends life in an instant. Worse is the gradual squeezing of a hull under pressure; a tightrope of fear that envelops sailors and drags them closer to the gates of hell.

A jolt shot through the hull, pinging like a hammer on steel. The sailors jumped. Some crossed themselves, while others kissed their crosses. Every hand on its controls was a fist of white knuckles, clinging to their fears. Each foot deeper brought them closer to the gates of eternity. The hull had to give. One false move and it would be over, and Hammerhead would join the long list of subs lost at sea with all hands.” [new thriller, pg 99]

 

Keep it Real

Here’s the best advice that helps my writing: I need to review it regularly: “Be myself and be authentic. Don’t try to put on a voice that isn’t my own. Keep my characters genuine and real. Readers will pick up if I’m lying, and they will put my book down. Keep my writing simple and keep it honest.”

I have a trusted reader and, about a week ago, sent her a chapter from my new book to review. Her comment was, “Your (female) character is not real. She would not think or act like that.” When I re-read the chapter, I had to agree. The main problem was that I was being over-descriptive and it ruined the authenticity of the setting. I was over-eager in my writing and, by adding more words, I destroyed it.

Big Brother

My new thriller leans upon a short video presented by Apple when they launched the MacIntosh computer. The concept is far from new, but dramatic in presenting Big Brother in black and white, then shattering the conformity when an athlete hurls a hammer into the screen. Let’s take a minute to view this:

Big Brother is a fictional character and symbol in George Orwell‘s dystopian 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. He is ostensibly the leader of Oceania, a totalitarian state wherein the ruling party, Ingsoc, wields total power “for its own sake” over the inhabitants. In the society that Orwell describes, every citizen is under constant surveillance by the authorities. In modern culture, the term “Big Brother” has entered the lexicon as a synonym for abuse of government power, particularly in respect to civil liberties, often specifically related to mass surveillance. (source: Wikipedia). In my new novel, a group of talented underwater experts plan to turn the tide on a contemporary Big Brother through the most audacious heist ever.

Editing 101

This may, or may not, help budding writers: What is the best way to edit your manuscript? Here’s my take, based on the experience of two novels:

Step 1: Finish your Manuscript, then throw it aside for a few weeks. Return to it and read it through, noting obvious errors. Each time you step away from your manuscript you come back to it from a fresh perspective. Note: your first draft is always (yes, always) inadequate.

Step 2: Use an Online Editor. I like using prowritingaid or, more recently, grammarly. Both of these help identify issues such as repeated phrases, over-use of adverbs, sentence lengths, etc. I don’t recommend paying a subscription service, unless for a short period (e.g. a month) in order to check your entire manuscript. A feature I liked as the one where (in prowritingaid) where you can compare your style to another author. You may not be a Hemingway fan, but I like the simplicity of checking chapters in the Hemingway app. Here’s an example from my new novel (with the Hemingway result alongside);

Nikolai had a glass in hand and a faraway look. The lighting cast deep shadows in the folds of his face. He seemed angry, or drunk, or both.
“Wow, that’s a stunning photo of the old man and the sea; a perfect Hemingway moment.”
“I read a Hemingway book at school.”
“Which one? He wrote many.”
“The one about an old man and the sea.”
“About catching a big fish?”
“You remember. Yes, a poor fisherman in Cuba had caught nothing for eighty-four days.”
“It’s been that long since I had a boyfriend. How do you know this detail from the novel?”
“Because it was the same number of days as the title of another book I read, called Nineteen Eight Four.”
“Oh, I see what you mean. “Did you like the story about the old man and his fishing?”
“I loved it because it was the shortest novel we had in our English course. I had to learn some quotes for the final exam, such as, ‘Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?'”
“I bet the old man we just saw woke up early.”
“And now, he’s fortified for a long day.” They giggled.
“How old do you think he was?”
“Seventy? Eighty? It was difficult to tell.”
“Where did he go?”
“No idea. I looked at my phone for a bit and missed his exit.”
“You’re always on your phone. If you weren’t married to it you might find a boyfriend.”
“Did you ever have the hots for Hemingway?”
“Course not, I just loved his writing; short, intense, and so easy to read.”
“But you must have lusted after his type; a rugged outdoor man with a bushy beard and all that?”
“No, silly. Even if I had fallen for him, it would be short-lived.”
“Why?”
“He had four wives. His longest marriage was to his writing, and even that had a sad ending.”
“Why sad?”
“He wrote the last chapter of his life. Like his relationships, it was brief.”

Step 3: Join a Writing Circle. This is, I’m my humble opinion, the MOST important step. Get a writing-circle to review your work. This circle should consist of other writers or readers in your genre who will give constructive advice and not hold back on any criticism. For example, one of my fellow writers gave such good feedback that I rearranged my chapter order, changed the ending, and built a more authentic and powerful plot. And I was able to reciprocate and also offer him advice on his new book.

Step 4: Find a Professional Editor. There are many people who have experience in the publishing trade who are happy to review your work. I used one to check my submission trio – the Query Letter, Synopsis, and first three chapters. Their fixes and recommendations were so good that I asked them to check over other key chapters in my novel. What I especially liked was an experienced editor’s positive encouragement with, “I have a good feeling about this book.” Now, I just need a literary agent to agree.

Final Note: Don’t let any of the above steps change your own writing style. Stay true to who you are as a writer and use the steps to improve your style, rather than force it into someone else’s.

The Hardest Part of Being a Writer

Kristan Hoffman writes: “Some days the font is all wrong. Some days your wrists hurt. Or your back hurts. Or both. Some days your dog won’t stop barking, and there are three loads of laundry to fold. Some days you can’t fall asleep because you’ve got a million ideas for your story. Some days you can’t remember a single one.

Some days the words just flow. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them in a rush. Some days you feel so high. Some days you laugh at your own funny parts, and cry at the sad ones. Some days you know that this book is The One.

Then some days you read about that 7-figure, 3-book deal and you just want to scream. Some days you think it’s never going to be you. Some days you wonder why you even bother.

And some days you read a great book, and you think, This is why. I can do this. I will do this. I am doing this.”

I love this advice and it reiterates what many great writers have said. For example, George Orwell notes that, “Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” Even the Everest of a writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, admitted, “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.”

As I struggle to re-write portions of my next thriller, it is helpful to have these thoughts to ponder and ease the burden. Sometimes, putting the computer down and losing myself in my plot or character gives me the space to find new ideas and better ways to write about them. I wonder if giving my thoughts more space allows new ones the room to come in?

“She was Delicious”

How should a writer describe their characters? Well, for inspiration, listen to Orson Welles as he describes Cornelia Lunt (“She was delicious”) and others. For me, there is a magical quality to Orson’s rhetoric. It rises and falls in clipped phrases, filled with pauses, that captivate the listener and reel them closer with each story.

Show, don’t tell; right? Not always!

Great writers are capable of breaking common literary conventions. For example, John le Carré delights to tell a story, rather than show it, and this is contrary to good literary advice (a search of ‘show, don’t tell’ yields over 400,000 results on youtube). ‘Telling’ works for le Carré because he is so good at it and because he uses omniscient characters to lay enough information to pull the reader into the plot (emphasis is mine).

“Both The Honourable Schoolboy and A Delicate Truth deploy omniscient narrators. Interestingly, omniscience is virtually Le Carré’s default form of narrative method…Without doubt, the subliminal effect of hearing the authorial voice in a Le Carré novel is perhaps the most signal feature of his style. For example, this is how A Delicate Truth begins:

On the second floor of a characterless hotel in the British crown Colony of Gibraltar, a lithe, agile man in his late fifties restlessly paced his bedroom…Certainly it would not have occurred to many people, even in their most fanciful dreams, that he was a middle-ranking British civil servant… dispatched on a top-secret mission of acute sensitivity.”

Here, the omniscient narrator informs the reader of the key fact on page one: the “top-secret mission of acute sensitivity”. It is a confident, almost brazen, rupturing of the modern literary injunction to “show, not tell”.  John le Carré is telling us this story, not showing it, and he has all the information.” [source: The New Statesman]

Genre Research

You can’t escape the need to research your book genre and do it well. Research involves reading classic and current novels in your chosen genre. For my latest book, I read every book I could find on the main topic, plus movies and online interviews, etc. Why? Each source gave me insight and information that I sifted to authenticate my plot. For thrillers in real locations, visiting in person is hands-down the best approach. If you can’t visit, then at least search photos of the area(s). I even use Google Street to get ideas and, with so many travel docs available, these help too. With handfuls of information you can add authentic details that help readers immerse themselves in the writing, especially if they have visited the place too. I have made great use of small details—the color of tablecloths at a restaurant, the plants that grow along a boulevard, etc. Here is one such detail from my new book;

She smoothed her floral dress and settled behind a table on the waterfront, her back warmed by sun-saoked stonework along the old city wall and her front sheltered behind potted color in raised flower beds. Touts trolled Split’s swanky Riva Boulevard, and beggars fossicked through the Spanish broom, plucking its yellow flowers to sell to restaurant clientele in the evening. They left Claudine to herself.” [pg28]

If you have contacts living or working in the area you are writing about, ask them if they would be happy to check pages from your manuscript that refer to their location. I did this for my first novel, using contacts living in Milan, southern France, and Israel. I also added them to my Acknowledgements page.

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