Power of the Pen

On July 20, 1969, Following their famous moonwalk, Armstrong and Aldrin discovered that a one-inch engine arm circuit breaker switch had broken off an instrument panel. This breaker was needed to send electrical power to the ascent engine that would lift the two off the moon. The broken switch was reported to Mission Control, but its experts had not identified a solution by the next morning. Without a fix, the two men would have been stranded on the moon.

Aldrin thought a felt-tipped pen in the shoulder pocket of his suit might replace the broken switch. He wrote later: “Sure enough, the circuit breaker held. We were going to get off the moon, after all. To this day I still have the broken circuit breaker switch and the felt-tipped pen I used to ignite our engines.” That, dear readers, is the power of the pen. And, as you lift your pen or hit your keyboard today, let it break any circuit-breaker in your writing and inspire the next paragraph, the next chapter, and the next book to take off.

Little Gray Matter in The Gray Man

One review of The Gray Man says, “The Gray Man is a story about assassins who are, we’re told, the very best in the world. And yet over and over again, they are shown to be shitty at their jobs. They incite international incidents. They wage small wars in town squares. And they have a very hard time holding a small girl hostage.” The reviewer, Joshua Rivera, notes that the plot for The Gray Man is tried and trite; of a protagonist who’s boss seeks their demise, as in The Bourne series. It is so easy to fall into a plot like this and (shh, just our secret) I almost did this the other day too. I prefer simple plots with complex endings that surprise the reader, but would never want you to know this. [Postscript: This movie is full of action—so much so, that one popular review says, “Sometimes it seems like everybody in hollywod (sic) has forgotten that things don’t have to happen on a massive scale to be interesting.”]

Fact or Fiction?

“There are two sides to every story”
“You can’t tell fact from fiction these days”
“All news is fake news”
Ah, the wonderful freedom a fiction writer has. With the lines blurred between real news and fake news – between fact and fiction – there is plenty of scope for a writer to flip between the two and build an authentic world for the reader. For example, a thriller may have elements of the real world, such as places, times and cultural events, and weave in among these a believable plot. I love thrillers that have ‘proof of life.’ That is, they lack extreme coincidences. I am not going to point any finger at a specific writer, but do remember reading a book that was full of impossibilities (two scientists are abandoned in a remote location and just happen to be rescued – you get the idea). It was a thriller by a well-known author, but the lack of authenticity prevented me from being immersed in the story. For other readers, it might have been fine (insert smiley face).

Back to the two sides to a story. When a plot juxtaposes truth and lies, it creates tension and ignites the plot. A reader can take one side, then have it destroyed when the lies become fact. You see this in TV dramas when the obvious killer is, in fact, innocent. This formula is all too clear for most of us and how disappointing it is to have someone next to you say, “I know who did it.”

For me, the challenge is to make the twist NOT obvious at all. And, I hope I achieved this in my new book. Oh dear, I don’t want to give too much away!

Revise, Revise, or be Reviled

Maggie Shipstead (left) writes, “John Gardner famously wrote that fiction should be a “vivid, continuous dream,” but some readers’ willingness to dream is more robust than others. Some people will shut a book forever at the first sign of an error, their trust in the writer and their suspension of disbelief irrevocably lost. Others will happily read along through almost anything, swallowing the most preposterous plot points, the most egregious anachronisms, and the most glaring inconsistencies…But I think sloppiness is worth trying to avoid, both out of pure principle (why get something wrong when you could get it right?) and because mistakes can be indicative of an author not pressing hard enough on the world she’s building, not making it sturdy enough, settling for a facade.” In her article, Maggie mentions good, or ill-meaning, folks who delighted in pointing out errors in her published work. I had a textbook that was in its 3rd reprint when along came a young student (aka smarty pants) who wrote to my publisher to point out an error, and it was an obvious one—one that escaped the keen eye of editor, writer, proof-reader, etc. How could this happen? In my first novel, the errors kept creeping out of the pages; proof that I was a lousy writer? No matter how hard I tried, the errors were there and my flame-thrower spell checker never seemed to pick them up. When all seemed well, my American spelling lapsed into English spelling; a tense changed within a paragraph, etc. Why all these mistakes? Because, writers, like other humans, are fallible. We get tired. We get over our draft revisions and we long to be rid of the manuscript. My advice to those who find errors? Tell us, but then hide under the bed-covers before we find you and hit you over the head with our revised edition :-).

Author or Writer?

“I have a charming relative who is an angry young littérateur of renown. He is maddened by the fact that more people read my books than his. Not long ago we had semi-friendly words on the subject and I tried to cool his boiling ego by saying that his artistic purpose was far, far higher than mine. He was engaged in “The Shakespeare Stakes.” The target of his books was the head and, to some extent at least, the heart. The target of my books, I said, lay somewhere between the solar plexus and, well, the upper thigh. These self-deprecatory remarks did nothing to mollify him and finally, with some impatience and perhaps with something of an ironical glint in my eye, I asked him how he described himself on his passport. “I bet you call yourself an Author,” I said. He agreed, with a shade of reluctance, perhaps because he scented sarcasm on the way. “Just so,” I said. “Well, I describe myself as a Writer. There are authors and artists, and then again there are writers and painters.”

This rather spiteful jibe, which forced him, most unwillingly, into the ranks of the Establishment, whilst stealing for myself the halo of a simple craftsman of the people, made the angry young man angrier than ever and I don’t now see him as often as I used to. But the point I wish to make is that if you decide to become a professional writer, you must, broadly speaking, decide whether you wish to write for fame, for pleasure or for money. I write, unashamedly, for pleasure and money.” by Ian Fleming

5 Key Elements for a Thriller

While hosting workshops in the USA I found that the most popular ones were those with a catchy title, such as “10 Top Tips for Technology Teachers.” Hence the title for this post. Catchy, huh? Well, almost. The danger is that my top 5 tips might not be your ones. The following are from an article in masterclass.com and I will personalise a few to give my perspective. Let’s get into this:

  1. Make your main character compelling. In the thriller genre—just like in real life—a conflict is rarely as simple as “good guy vs. bad guy.” Good thrillers often feature protagonists that are flawed and complex…Readers relate to imperfect heroes, and having a main character with flaws will increase the tension and stakes of your story. Having a deep, three-dimensional main character is an essential ingredient of a successful thriller. [I totally agree. Of most importance is to allow the flaws in your main character to enable them to change/flip 180 degrees/grow into the villas. Mine did this by mistake. He started out as an ageing spy, but…oops, can’t give it away that easily!] Can you find the main character here below? Yes, of course you can, but is he/she compelling enough to stand out among the others?
    More about character flaws can be found here.
  2. The opening scene has plenty of action. Readers MUST be on the edge of their seats from the very first page. The opening scene of a thriller novel should introduce the crime, conflict, or stakes as quickly as possible. The best thrillers hook their readers with instant action, then fill in the necessary character and storyline information later. [Comment: avoid fluff at the start. Action, action, action. Some suggest that a thriller should start at the point of most conflict, then unpack it in the following chapters.]
  3. Create an interesting villain. Even your antagonist is unforgivable, their motivations should be rooted in a relatable desire or emotion. In other words, they should be motivated by their own twisted, internal logic (e.g. The Silence of the Lambs its subsequent sequels, readers learn through flashbacks that Dr. Hannibal Lecter witnessed the murder of his sister when he was young. Therefore, Dr. Lecter is more than just a psychopathic serial killer—he is a person whose evil actions stem from a heartbreaking trauma). Readers are more likely to be engaged in your villain’s story and character development if they can recognize seeds of themselves in your antagonist.
  4. Build obstacles for your protagonist. If there’s one thing that all bestselling authors of thrillers are good at, it’s putting their protagonist in harm’s way. Your main character should experience heartbreak, trauma, and anxiety throughout the book. Sometimes, the most effective obstacle is a ticking clock or strict time limit to complete their task. Obstacles will also increase the narrative satisfaction of the end of the book, when your protagonist finally overcomes the hurdles and triumphs over adversity. [Yes, have a chase that is race against time.]
  5. Add plenty of plot twists and turning points. More so than any other genre, thriller novel writing requires the story to contain an abundance of plot twists, turning points, and cliffhangers. If you’re experiencing writer’s block when writing a scene, ask yourself what a reader might expect to happen next. How can you subvert those expectations? If a scene feels uneventful, think about what plot element or character you can introduce to raise the stakes or create a dilemma for your protagonist. Plot twists will ensure that your thriller is a page-turner and make it impossible for your reader to put it down. [Right on! In my last thriller I was writing a new chapter when it suddenly took a turn that I never expected.]

Plans for the day?

It’s a common question – “What are your plans for the day?” A social greeting question, and one that we almost expect. It’s the question I get asked when I sit to have my hair cut, or while talking with my children. And, it’s an ideal question to drop into casual conversation in a thriller; a sure way to put the reader at ease, before winding up the tension with an unexpected reply. Here’s what I mean when I write that innocuous question into my new thriller;

The black BMW limo glides west onto the B44, then loops back to follow the Theodor-Stern-Kai motorway, parallel to the River Main. As they slow for the Friedensbrücke bridge the driver glances in his mirror.

“Sir, if I may ask, what have you got planned for the day?”

Michael is silent, his thoughts caught by dazzling sunlight on the water. Across the bridge, he gazes at the rising commercial landscape north of the round Westhafen Tower and finally speaks as their destination comes into view.

“I plan to change the world.” [new thriller, Ch 2]

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]

 

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.

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