“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!
Looking for inspiration for my next novel. Hmm, something’s in the pipeline already!
Thriller #2 is underway! Following visits to Seattle, Croatia and Gibraltar, and a few lesser-known locations, I am pleased to announce that I have started work on my second thriller. Some readers have asked if it is a sequel to Spy Chase. No.
All I can give away at this point is that it does involve international espionage, but the use of very modern technology to thwart global systems. Actually, the plot has been in gestation for some time and the site visits were critical to unwrapping the details. Oh, and the new thriller does have a name. More on this second novel soon!
I was speaking with my accountant about my book – in the hope that he would be as excited as me about the $$$ signs that would follow. “Oh, it seems that everyone is writing a book these days!” was his response. My hopes were dashed. “Yes,” he continued, “I have lots of clients who are claiming expenses for their books.” Then he rattled off a list of names, including some that I knew. My lawyer was just publishing his second novel and a teaching colleague was editing his. And here I was, battling to get the plot sorted for my own new novel. Alas, I put my despondency down to “writers’ envy” – a condition where an author is overwhelmed by writers more prolific and successful than themselves. “Stop it!” I told myself, “There is no point in comparing yourself with others. Just stick to the task and enjoy the pleasure of writing in the way, and with the pace, that you want to.” It was good advice for myself!
The following graph is a summary of recent visitors to this blog.
I could not help thinking that the rises and falls are similar to the intentional (or unintentional) rising and falling of tension in a thriller like 3 WISE MEN. For some, a sudden rise in tension – for example, the unexpected death of a character – is too much, and they prefer a more gentle building of tension. The steeper the graph, the more rapid the rise in the number of viewers on this blog. Peaks often correspond with holiday periods – a time when readers have more time to indulge in blogging. The mathematical significance of this graph would not be lost on our protagonist – Jak Colins! As a writer of thrillers, I am acutely aware of the need for the peaks and troughs in the plot. After all, I do want readers to be glued to the text and not easily able to put the book down. On the other hand, I know it is important to establish characters and event – something that might look like the trough in the graph above. For me, I need to work hard to do this characterization in a style that still engages, and a technique I have found useful is the use of humor. Let’s have a brief look at this in my next post.
In a previous post, I discussed the ideal number of words for a thriller. Publishers recommend anywhere between 80,000 and 100,000 words. As an author, should I agree with this? Well, from my experience with 3 WISE MEN, I am mostly in agreement, and here are my reasons for this. First, at just over 80,000 words, using Times Roman in 12 point and a 6 x 9 inch format, the approx. 80,000 word novel feels ‘right’ in paperback. The only reason that it might not actually be ‘right’ is when poor writing pads out the story. At 80,000 words, the novel will be sitting close to 300 pages and that is a good read for devotees. Much less – at say 280 pages – and the novel will be short of room for a sub-plot, or lacking dramatic tension. In 3 WISE MEN, my early word count was only 70,000 words and I pumped that out to about 86,000 before falling back to 78,000. On critical review, I needed to add about 3000 words in order to give the story more substance in a few places, and help build the necessary tension at a pace that engaged my readers – rather than over-shock them. I hope you agree?
Aha – the plot thickens! Well, so it should. I was once asked whether the plot for 3 WISE MEN was clear before I started writing, or did it grow as the word count increased? It is best to answer this in two ways:
- The two basic ideas were floating around in my mind for about 2 years.
- My wife and I visited locations in the south of France, but I did not start writing the book until we were taking the train from Nice to Paris a few days later. It may have been the sunshine, or the lovely swims in the Mediterranean that set the writing wheels in motion – or, it could have been the train wheels engaging with the writing cogs? Originally, I hoped to have the book largely written before embarking on the trip. This approach simply didn’t work for me. There are so many details that are needed for an authentic thriller, that I needed to see the main places firsthand. Here is one brief example of a cafe that we came across one day, but it was a Sunday and it was closed. So, we made a point of visiting it the next day, and it proved to be a great meeting place for Jak to catch up with an old teaching colleague of his. They both taught together at the University of Milan, which if the pinkish-red building on the left in this photo.
[novel extract: “His favorite café – the Bar Arcibaldo – was just across the street from the university entrance, and Jak was delighted to enter and finally shake off the cold air. Not only was this a good place to relax, but it was also an opportunity to enjoy the company of fellow university students and lecturers who frequently gathered here between classes and at the end of their academic day.] Note: “Nun Te Pago” means “Not paid.”
- When faced with a “what do I write next?” scenario, I tended to wait a few days until the basic ideas flowed. This was usually in the morning. Once I had the next step in the plot worked out I would type furiously to get it all down. Sometimes, things happened that I had not expected in the plot. Hopefully, neither will the reader be expecting them!