How does an author find their characters? Here’s a clue—look around you when out and about, at the cafe or while shopping. Everyone you meet and everyone you see has the potential to be a character in your novel! I have used friends and even people sitting opposite me on a train (well, their shoes got into a novel). You can have fun when writing to invent a character who is a blend of a few people. Take someone’s nickname, another’s hairdo. Add a dress from a shop window, and a handbag from a google search. Next, add some details—a hook nose, bald head, unshaven, tattooed, limping, sunken eyes, etc. In my new novel, one of my characters wears lots of yellow. This may not seem significant, but it does later in the book when Sir Christopher Jenson (based a someone close to me) discovers a woman wearing yellow who is cuddling up to another character who has just lost his wife in a skiing accident. Yellow connects these two women for the reader and…I can’t tell you what happens!
I had to answer this question for myself: “How true is my writing to me?”
What does this mean? Put it another way; am I writing for me, or for others? The artist in me wants to write in my voice, my style. I want my writing to reflect my thinking—the way I see my world and how I connect dissimilar objects and events. Steve Jobs, of Apple fame, had a great ad campaign called, “Think Different“. That sums it up for me. I need to “Write Different” as an author. I must be true to myself and not have to copy another author. Yes, I should learn from others, but develop my own style. I cannot stand the works of Dan Brown, yet I learned from him. Great artists break established ways of doing things—that is how new styles develop in Art. Writing is no different. I am still learning, but getting closer to my own style. How do I define that style? Here’s an example. During a trip to Venice I saw a lady wearing a fur coat, yet I never came across any cats. I saw an immediate connection between cat and coat! Unrelated events can be connected through the imagination and it is through “thinking different” that I am learning to “write different”, with a sense of discovery and, yes, fun. I love writing funny stuff in thrillers! I just hope me readers enjoy this style too!
“Your best work is more like being a secretary than being a creative person—you just take the stuff down.” Stephen King in an interview by BDN Maine. Stephen mentions that he never knows how his novels are going to finish. He waits until he gets there before choosing the end—much like choosing dessert after you have finished the main course. John Grisham disagrees and must have the last chapter figured out before he starts a new novel. Me? I have done both and can see merits in either approach. I love the freedom of seeing where the writing will take me, but also appreciate the discipline of plotting a novel before beginning. My first novel, 3 WISE MEN, was like following a string through the darkness. Even I was surprised how it ended and readers loved the spontaneous events that shocked them on the way through. In my second novel, I knew how and where it would end, but still had to fill in the details. The conclusion to Ideas and Writing? Both approaches work fine. It is up to the author. However, have you ever noticed some authors using a formula for their plot development? It gets boring! I’m one who likes to mess it up and surprise readers, as well as myself! I remember the strange experience of sitting down during a break in my teaching and the words poured out, and included an event that even shocked me. It might have been subconscious, but it was real and many commented that they “never saw it coming.” If your writing never sees an event coming, then your shock is magnified for readers!
Nothing counts like word counts. As a general rule, I am against generalities about word counts. But publishers and, more critically, the readers are not—they have preferences and expectations which we, as writers, would be fools to ignore!
My readers of 3 WISE MEN commented on how much they enjoyed the short chapters—ones that left them hanging and wanting more. Short chapters help a fast—paced thriller or suspense novel. For me, a very short chapter is around 400 words and the longest about 1400 words. That is, between two and five pages.
I have on my desk a copy of ‘The Icarus Agenda‘ by Robert Ludlum. At over 630pp, it weighs about the same as an iPad. You could use this hardback to defend yourself on a dark night! What’s more, the language is very descriptive, and the opening scene takes the reader around the whole compass in describing the Gulf of Oman. OK, Ludlum may have appealed to readers a few years ago, but modern readers have less patience? Publishers, et al, suggest that a book should be as long as the story requires, along with the following guidelines:
- Literary and epic fantasy: 100-120K
- Crime, Romance, Horror, Comedy etc: 70-90K
- YA and Erotica: 50-70K
- Novellas: 20-40K
So, what is the personal sweet spot for my two thrillers? The first draft of 3 WISE MEN was around 68000 words. The revisions upped this to 90000 words. Fierce editing dropped it back to around 75000 words and the final revision, with an added chapter, finished at 83000 words. By this time, I was very happy that the story had been told, and rounded off, in the way I wanted it to be.
With my new novel, I considered reader feedback and did the tough editing, etc. This process dropped the word count from around 76000–>74000, which I was happy with. Did I regret the loss of these 2000 words? Not at all. In fact I believe it is a better read now, with very few ‘fill’ words. My final edit included some additional material and finished at 78000 words. The extra material added interest to the plot and I felt happier with this final draft. Now I await a literary agent (puts smiley face here).
Will an editor want further changes? Of course, and that is the beauty and rigor of traditional publishing. More about self vs trad publishing in another post. Meawhile, I use the above word counts as a guide only. When a reader holds a 300pp book they do feel that it is a good length and will provide a read that is worth the investment. When I picked up Ludlum’s book, I got a workout!
Here are the opening lines from my new book. Please feel free to comment:
“What is The Order of the Bluenose?”
The question hung like a rotting fish, and no sailor dared touch it.
From my own experience, I have enjoyed using online grammatical aids, to a point! Here’s my humble take on them:
+ve: picks up repeated phrases, checks sentence length, and overuse of adverbs, etc. Psst, here’s where it would have helped John Grisham in “The Guardians”—on page 157, he writes, “He takes a drink and studies the ocean.” Then, on page 159, John writes, “He takes a drink and studies the ocean.” Well, software would pick that up.
-ve: does not help you develop your own writing style, nor flow or ‘voice’. There is often a cost.
Ask yourself this question: would Hemingway, et al, use an online writing tool? They might in their early days of writing, but I am convinced they would go up the wall after a while and stay their own course through the rough editing waters. Good writing and editing software are destined to call off their romance after just a few dates!
Looking for inspiration for my next novel. Hmm, something’s in the pipeline already!
My new novel is now ‘finished’ and what a relief after much travel and months of research. I say ‘finished’ metaphorically since this is only the draft manuscript—a rough version with completed plot. Now I am enjoying the task of reviewing the draft, making corrections and adding/deleting to improve the flow, etc. However, it is quite exciting to be so close to the final copy, and I hope to be finished in about a week. After that, I will have a few people read through and feedback comments. I very much value this part of the process before seeking a publisher, simply because fresh eyes can pick up small errors and suggest improvements that I may have missed. How happy am I with the new book? Hmm, time will tell. However, I can say that I am pleased with the plot. It was quite strange this time to figure out the final chapter when only about one third of the book had been written. Now that the plot has caught up, the last chapter only needed a few added details to make it work well. If you are interested in a peek of this new novel, or would like to add your name to an early release, please drop me a note.
Today, 3 Wise Men was released in Kindle again! This is a completely revised version, with an extra 3000 words and, hopefully, more drama and tension. Most chapters had improvements and, in my humble opinion, it is a better read.
Don’t miss this chance to enjoy a great thriller, set in exotic locations in southern France and Italy. Of course, please give feedback as it is taken seriously and helps the next book too. For example, my wife and I had someone join us for dinner last night and our guest was reading 3 WISE MEN but thought a word was not the ‘right’ one. After giving it some thought – lots of thought – after they had gone, I made the change and it fitted better. The formatting was finished by today and the new book uploaded (with my friend’s suggestion) less than 24 hours later. Oh, the delights of self-publishing!
Speaking of the next book, how is it going? I’m pleased you asked. Over Christmas and the New Year, excellent progress was made and I hope to finish the draft version in just a few weeks.
Just in from Jerry D. in Florida:
“I just finished your novel! Thanks for sending it along! What’s not to like? Tech, spy craft, maths, sex, guns, exotic locales, adventure, dark and ancient secrets, weapons of war, plot twists and turns, and more!”
Thanks for your comments Jerry, and even more for your support and enthusiasm over the years. [Jerry has been such a great friend and showed me and my family wonderful hospitality when we stayed in the USA.]
And, on a side note, the following was added to the 5-star review on Amazon – “You won’t believe it until you read it – and I wouldn’t read it alone!”