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.

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.

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.

Is Your First Book Your Worst?

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”?

  1. I used it as a platform to get better
  2. 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 🙂
  3. After an ‘aha’ moment, I added another chapter to my first novel
  4. 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 Free Copy of 3 Wise Men – one day only!

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).

You Need More Layers in Cold Weather

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]

The Writing Bug. Does it Exist?

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.

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