“Successful authors are those who know just how difficult it is to write a book.” Stephen Fry
“A man who is not born with the novel-writing gift has a troublesome time of it when he tries to build a novel. He has no clear idea of his story. In fact, he has no story.” Mark Twain
It starts with the fear of writing your first essay in English and submitting papers at college. When I look back on my time as a student, not one teacher was able or willing to give lessons on writing a novel or novella. At college, I was taught by professors who had published works, but they were mainly collections of poetry or scientific works. However, most of my teachers were willing to correct mistakes in my writing. If only they had taken the time to inspire writing? Our heroes were sporting stars and famous politicians or engineers, etc. Except for one, and he was significant—so much so, that I just have to tell you about him in the next post!
I enjoyed this short video on writing tips (both good and bad) from Jericho Writers. This one stood out for me:
Why did this tip seem such a good one? It’s simple. Your writing should include YOU—your experiences, your heart and soul; the beat of your own drum. When I was editing my second novel, this became so important that it caused me to rewrite my characters to include the leadership conflict I had experienced in my own career. And, as a result, the book gained more power and a sense of poignancy that made it real. At least, I hope it did! So, take Franz Kafka’s words of wisdom to heart and write from your heart.
It was great to have this feedback from a John, an overseas reader: “Have just finished your book Spy Chase. Was a great read and had me on the edge of my seat. Rosie read it before me. She loved it too.Great suspense and story line. In 2019 Rosie and I did a cruise from Barcelona to Rome so we could picture the setting of your book. Great places to visit on the Meditteranean.”
A good question. When is the best time to introduce your main characters in your novel? I made a big mistake on this in my second novel—the draft did not feature the main character (the protagonist) and antagonist until later in Chapter 2 and Chapter 3. When I reworked the script to have these characters appear in Chapter 1, along with a strong hint of the conflict between them, it produced better tension and moved the plot along with more pace.
Definitions (from here):
The definition of a protagonist is basically “the main character”. Here is the Wikipedia definition:
“A protagonist (from Ancient Greek πρωταγωνιστής (protagonistes), meaning “player of the first part, chief actor”) is the main character in any story, such as a literary work or drama. The protagonist is at the center of the story, makes the key decisions, and experiences the consequences of those decisions.”
The Wikipedia definition of antagonist is the following:
An antagonist is a character whose motivations, goals, desires or opinions are opposed to those of the protagonist.
The important aspect in this alternative definition is the lack of hostility. Remember, I am in favor of tension to drive a story, but not in favor of (instant) trouble. Hope this helps your writing; it sure helped mine!
Your Query lands on the Literary Agent’s desk and you hope for representation? No, that’s wrong. Your Query lands somewhere in a pile of Queries like this…
So, what are your chances of having your <great, edited, beta-checked, fabulous) novel accepted? From my research, I would guess about one chance in a pile of Queries this tall. Some calculate that the chance of making it through the Slush Pile is 1 in 100; then 1 in another 100 to have it accepted by a publisher. Others put the chance at 1 in 6000. It all depends upon which literary gatekeeper you refer to.
I had a non-fiction book accepted my Macmillan Publishers and it did very well (with four reprints). Then I self-published my first thriller and it received great reviews, yet these did not translate into spectacular sales. I wonder if the title—3 WISE MEN—put off the non-religious readers, even though it is hardly religious at all?
My latest novel awaits representation from a literary agent and I believe in the book enough to pursue this route until I find the right one. Plus, I want a wide audience to enjoy a contemporary novel that addresses global imbalances in wealth in a post-COVID world, along with Cold War drama and high-tech espionage. My new novel aims to be current and intriguing, with enough tension to keep you awake, and enough humour to enjoy the literary journey. In the next few posts, I will use extracts from the book to wet your appetites. And, if you are keen, I am looking for a few more Beta Readers to give me feedback.
Here’s a question I have to ask myself often—how well do I know my characters? Yes, I can describe them (features like hair, makeup, dress, etc.) but do I really know them? A few years ago I met a long-lost half-brother. We talked and he was quiet, reflecting on a father he hardly knew. But, I never understood him until he told me about a letter he had written to his father. The response he got, and the way he reacted, gave me clues about the depth of his feelings. When I saw my half-brother walk away, he had the same gait as my father and my eyes were opened fully to his character. In writing, there is that elusive search to reveal a character by his or her actions, rather than through description. They give away their true identity with a gesture, body position, speech and response. In my latest novel, many of my characters are build upon people I know quite well, but others have to be fabricated from observations, etc. My goal is to have none of my characters appear flat (as in this cartoon). And, here’s a secret, one of the key characters in my book is a little like me—Oh, very well, a lot like me!
I watched one of those self-promoting videos in which there was a discussion on whether it is easier to trim words from a novel or add them. At first, I agreed with the notion that trimming was easier—after all, there is something immediate to work with. In my first novel, I found trimming easy to do as part of the editing process. This happened for me with my latest novel too. However, and this is where I differ, once I have done a heavy edit and trim, I find it easier to add to the plot and, therefore, the text. Like the tide creeping in, my additions give more depth. I guess others prefer to work the other way (and reduce their lengthy manuscript). To summarise:
- My draft manuscript finished at 76,000 words
- Trim/Edits dropped the word count to 74,000 words
- Adding more plot detail and two more chapters for improved depth of plot, etc. lifted the word count to 84,500. The key lesson is to let your manuscript be open to the changing tide of thought, refinement and additions. The words may go out and drain the book length; or come back in—often with crashing waves of inspiration—to enhance your writing and complete it. Only you will know for sure when the landscape of your novel looks best. For some, it is when the tide has gone out; for others (like me), it is when the tide is in and covering the early draft.
In an earlier post, I discussed book lengths. An interesting aside—when researching this topic on the internet, pay close attention to the date of the article or discussion. Here’s why:
You will notice that this research, based on the New York Bestseller list (see full article here) shows a very clear trend down from 467pp (in 2011) to 273 (in 2017)! In my new thriller, my draft manuscript hovered around 74,000 words. Now, following severe editing and adding critical plot and character details, it is sitting at 82,000 words. At this count, the book feels ‘right’. What do I mean by feel? I mean exactly that. Pick up a 74,000 word book and it feels a bit on the thin side. Now, try the 82,000 word novel and it has a good heft; a sense of substance, and I know I will be reading a story with a well—developed plot and depth of detail. Of course, this assumes that the story is well—written, and the plot exciting, with many twists and turns.
You may be wondering what stage my new thriller is at? It has been sent out to a few selected Literary Agents and I am still waiting for it to be picked up for representation. Meanwhile, I have not been idle in my writing! I continue to make minor edits, based mostly on beta reader feedback. This process has been most helpful. For example, over this past weekend, a good friend of mine (who is an avid thriller reader) sent me his annotated suggestions to my draft. I took a few hours to review these and make a few changes to the manuscript. During this process, it forced me to review a few paragraphs, add some character text, change a section from first to third person, etc. Feedback is like sparks that light up new ideas and I find the process so helpful as a writer. It improves the book. “Beta Readers are…a rare species that writers needed to treasure and conserve once found.” (see more here)