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.
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]
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.
A Candid Interview with Literary Agent Paula Munier for aspiring authors. One of the best and not to be missed.
Don’t you love this book title? I remember reading somewhere that an author’s first book is ‘always their worst’. I loathed that thought and was determined to disprove it. Yet, the final draft of my first book was so rough that I had to completely re-edit and improve it.
After a period of time I discovered that my first book, although well received, could have been much better. I had moved on and so had my writing. As someone posted, “Ten years ago you thought you were doing alright. Now, today, you may look back and cringe at your hairstyle or the clothes you wore or the way you acted and thought. I was terrible! you might say, but at the time you didn’t realize it…First books can be similar…Two books or a few years later you can see how much you’ve grown and cringe at the first attempt. If it’s bad let it be bad and grow from it. Don’t let its potential to be bad keep you from moving forward.”
A great post and one I can connect with. What did I learn from my ”first book experience”?
- I used it as a platform to get better
- I revisited it months later (after being self-published) and did an entire re-write (and re-publish). Note: if I had taken the traditional publishing route I would have avoided this drama 🙂
- After an ‘aha’ moment, I added another chapter to my first novel
- I took my first thriller, with all its shortcomings, and worked harder to make my second thriller a vast improvement – more nuanced and complex, with clear connections from start to finish.
Grab a copy of 3 Wise Men for Kindle here – one day only starting tomorrow. If you do, please leave feedback for other readers (and me). 3 Wise Men has proved very popular and this is an excellent chance to escape to the south of France and Italy. A special feature is that this thriller is based on fact.
“This is a classic thriller with fairly short chapters, which is always good, punchy, gritty realism, gloriously exotic locations and chapter endings that leave you hanging – another tried and tested formula that began with Edgar Rice Burroughs back at the turn of the last century. Thrillers don’t come much better than this – huge fun and very entertaining!” (review from: booksmonthlyreviews.wordpress.com).
When we lived in the fickle weather of Portland in the North-West of the USA we learned to layer our clothing and adapt to the changing conditions (which is why the Columbia clothing seconds store was so popular). We needed more layers as the weather headed south. The same is true for a thriller; it needs layers to gather complexity—layers that unwrap as the plot thickens. I like this analogy as gives weight to the fact that thrillers can’t be too short. If they are, the layers are thin and the reader chills too quickly. But, a multi-layered story holds their interest. Thrillers with several layers provide complexity. In my first draft of my second thriller, feedback from Beta Readers pointed out that the ending was too simple. I agreed with them and, with a tough edit and re-write, finished the book on a more powerful note. My new ending prompted some other changes, even as far back as Chapter One. So, layer up friends and look forward to a thriller that, hopefully, keeps you warm throughout.
Now that seasons have been mentioned, these play an important descriptive part of my new thriller. Here is an example taken toward the end. It also gives a strong impetus for the protagonist to want to leave dreary London and settle somewhere warmer;
Sir Donald stands, holds a match to his pipe and looks across to Hans Place Garden. I follow his gaze. The trees have shed their coats, leaving a wet carpet of brown and yellow leaves along the street and over parked cars. Another dull and soggy day in London ushers in an early night. I hate winters here and yearn to be back in the Mediterranean. [pg 339]
Motive is the glue that holds a thriller together, and keeps the plot racing to its conclusion.
In my new novel, I required a glue strong enough to sustain an outrageous heist; a glue that provided background for the characters, and helped them ‘stick’. Here is a sneak peak from page 15;
“In his 1949 novel, Nineteen Eighty Four, George Orwell feared a controlling Big Brother would conceal the truth from us. In his Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley suggests our Orwellian dystopia is created by too many distractions.”
“In short, we’re overrun by messages; bombarded by endless data coming to us via the internet, mobile devices, and television. We’re lost in a sea of virtual, fake news. It becomes impossible to see what’s important, or even what’s real. We’re drowning in a rising tide of irrelevance and, since COVD-19, accelerated social regulation, telling us when to stay home, when to shop, how to socialize, when to be inoculated, and when and how we can travel. The loss of civil liberties is the first sign of a totalitarian regime.”
I would say that a global race to an Orwellian dystopia, with increasing social control, is high motive for action against it?
My father was always writing. He was the type who loved to type; running off after dinner to type, typing into the night, and typing through the day. He had a lot to type about and he typed on an old golf-ball typewriter; tap, tap, tapping with two fingers. It annoyed my mother.
Dad loved writing and taught creative-writing classes at a local high school. He was super-proud when one of his students had a book published; and he was also proud of his own short stories which ended up in a major newspaper. Some suggest that writing is hereditary. I don’t know, but I do know that I also love writing. I love using words to convey a story, and spend countless hours revising and editing in order to make my writing better. It was my love for writing that prompted me to enter a writing contest when I was 12 years old. The story was about my cat. Blackie was a cheeky cat who loved to play soccer with me; and delighted in tripping up anyone playing against me. You don’t find cats like Blackie; they find you and keep you for the duration of their life, using spare hours to snuggle up and dream of … playing soccer?
I won the writing contest and enjoyed my reward, a year’s pass to our local movie theatre. Every Saturday I would trundle off to the movies and have my imagination expanded. When I turned 12 my parents gave me a new, red bicycle. I loved it and used it to earn money delivering newspapers – the same one that my father wrote for. In conclusion, I am sure that my father passed on the writing bug to me and I hope to pass it on to my children too.
The famous thriller writer, John le Carre wrote, “I think bankers will always get away with whatever they can get away with.” In my new novel, the theme of corrupt (oops, perhaps devious) banks and bankers is one that propels the plot along. It gives motive as well as substance for the unfolding events that cause a group of cunning heisters to plan on diverting huge sums of money away from the banks.
How do they carry out this heist of all heists? You will need to read my novel to find out. Suffice to tell you that, for my story at least, le Carre is right! [note: this pic of David John Moore Cornwell, aka le Carre, was taken at his home in remote Cornwall, England, far away from the establishment and banks that he despised.]