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.
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.
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.
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?
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.]
Here’s a couple of openers from well-known thriller writers;
“Sam Harrison swung his agile body out of the silver blue Ford Aerostar, which he had parked ono Q Street in the Georgetown section of Washington.” [Jack and Jill by James Patterson]
“Duke Russell is not guilty of the unspeakable crimes for which he was convicted; nonetheless, he is scheduled to be executed for them in one hour and forty-four minutes.” [The Guardians by John Grisham]
Only two examples, but both start with the name of the main character/protagonist and both give a sense of place – Washington for Patterson and a prison(?) for Grisham. I prefer the urgency and mystery given in John Grisham’s opener, for two reasons; first, there are ‘unspeakable crimes’ which ups my interest; second, time is running out. A third reason could be that we owned a Ford wagon a while back and we were not that thrilled with it (LOL).
In my new novel I hope the opening line grabs the reader’s interest by suggesting tension, introducing a female character and creating a need to find out who is being followed and why. It reads;
“You are being followed,” she whispers.
I love this comment by Dawn Schaefer on the opening lines of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré; “There is the sense of having been dropped into the middle of a conversation, and a gossipy one at that...” And what, you will no doubt ask, are these lines?
“The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton races Jim would never have come to Thursgood’s at all.”
Now that we are on about Carré, here is my favorite opener (from Call for the Dead);
“When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary.”
Feedback just in from someone in Italy who read Chapter 1 of my new book: “Oh my goodness-I can’t wait to read more! You’ve left me hanging…”
This reaction is what I hoped for, since my first chapter does three important things;
- It puts the protagonist in context. In my new book, this is an ageing MI6 agent.
- The setting. In this case, the opening lines are in London and based on an experience I had there on my first, and only, visit.
- Conflict. Chapter 1 must create urgency. Something important is happening, threatening, or unresolved. The agent in question is given an assignment, but we are led to believe that he is being followed, discover that he isn’t, and then find out that he is. I hope my readers are led to feel the same doubt and confusion that he does. There you have it – context, setting and conflict, just like any front page news. All I need is a Literary Agent who agrees with this reader and helps me launch this thriller (inserts appropriate emoji and returns to finish his morning cup of English tea).
“Just read the first chapter of your book it has got me hooked, looking forward to it being published ASAP.” This email came in from a friend living in Australia; a little note of encouragement as I continue to search for the right literary agent for my new thriller. If you are also interested in reading chapter one (of 85) and giving some feedback, please message me at email@example.com .
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.