How many of you check out the first paragraph when browsing a bookstand? When can’t overestimate the power of the first words in a novel and the importance of the first paragraph.
A friend was reviewing the start of my new book. I trust his judgement; he’s an avid reader. “I liked the first chapter,” he said, “but the opening paragraph just doesn’t draw me in—it gives no sense of place or context.” I agreed and went back to revise it. What is important is that I feel much happier about the opening now. It helps the main character as his arc unfolds, and it propels the plot. It starts with a quote that a senior staff member used when I began a new teaching position. So, here goes;
“Your best is never good enough,” were the words Sir Donald Bradford spoke at my orientation for the Foreign Service. Now, with retirement looming, I had to agree. I had given everything, but there was too much unfinished business and post-covid Europe was a diplomatic nightmare. Now, I needed time to myself and time to heal. With my camera as my companion, I explored The Mall, filled with tourists enjoying an ordinary day in picturesque London.
Lovers share a kiss by the steps. “Click.” Queen Victoria’s statue stares at them, stone-faced and not amused; very English. I lift my camera and to frame my next photo. Damn, a woman steps across the viewfinder, whispering as she passes me.
“You are being followed,” she says, “don’t turn around.”
My camera shakes as I try to focus on the bronze statue above me.
“Eighty-two feet high. If you enjoy royalty, try the Household Cavalry Museum at Hyde Park Barracks at 4pm. Ask for Reginald.”
[PS: This is only a drat. In the coming days I will play with this to get it right :-)]
Another dilemma—what to do with unwanted or unnecessary characters. The best idea is to let them go, but do it in such a way that it provides more tension for the main character(s). In my first thriller, the main character – Jack Colins – is chased by a woman who attempts to discover his secret. She sits next to him on a train ride to Milan and hounds her way into his life to the point of being more than annoying. At a crucial moment, Jack discovers her body in an ante-room in a small church and it’s not a pretty scene. But, her demise piles more pressure on Jack and he is forced to flee to safety in an e-type Jaguar, aided by his sister. Unfortunately, she also becomes an ‘unnecessary character’ and …. no more spoilers. But, if you really want to find out what happens to my unwanted characters, why not buy my book? PS: the e-type is yellow; it just had to be yellow.
It played on my mind—the need to change a name in my new book. I had chosen Dan as the name of my captain, but realised that a boyhood friend of mine – Ted Cooper – was a much better fit. Ted and I both worked backstage in a high school play; no doubt it was Shakespeare. On the final night we stayed up late and decided to celebrate with a midnight cruise in a small yacht to a volcanic island, just off the mainland. It was a memorable trip across shipping lanes and we felt the freedom of Huckleberry Finn as we ghosted under sail through the night. Unfortunately, our old wooden boat took on water, forcing us to sleep ashore. I will never forget that night, nor my good friend Ted Cooper. We lost contact with each other but I found out that Ted had passed away. He had become a captain in the merchant navy. How appropriate that I should name the captain in my thriller after my good friend.
Editing is simple in Word – use the find and replace all menu and, bingo, the job’s done? No. Here are some of the replacements I discovered:
With double agents, defecting can be Tedgerous = with double agents, defecting can be dangerous
He was petedtic but damned good at his job = He was pedantic but damned good at his job
tedcer = dancer
Guitedce = Guidance
The moral of this post is to be careful when using “replace all” in Word. If you do, going though 100,000 words to find replacement errors can be danious – oops, I mean, tedious.
“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!
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!
The standard cliché regarding sentence lengths in a novel is to vary them, to keep the reader interested in the action. I agree, but with this caveat–the sentence lengths and variation should also suit the pace of the plot. For example, in my latest novel, sentences are longer when the pace is slower, and shorter when the action or drama increases. The following illustrates this contrast (using ProWritingAid). You can guess which chapter contains fast—paced action and which is slower? This will why I ignored the red dot warning in in chapter 15! Such analysis is a useful guide to writers.
Here are the opening lines from my new book. Please feel free to comment:
“What is The Order of the Bluenose?”
The question hung like a rotting fish, and no sailor dared touch it.
My new novel is now ‘finished’ and what a relief after much travel and months of research. I say ‘finished’ metaphorically since this is only the draft manuscript—a rough version with completed plot. Now I am enjoying the task of reviewing the draft, making corrections and adding/deleting to improve the flow, etc. However, it is quite exciting to be so close to the final copy, and I hope to be finished in about a week. After that, I will have a few people read through and feedback comments. I very much value this part of the process before seeking a publisher, simply because fresh eyes can pick up small errors and suggest improvements that I may have missed. How happy am I with the new book? Hmm, time will tell. However, I can say that I am pleased with the plot. It was quite strange this time to figure out the final chapter when only about one third of the book had been written. Now that the plot has caught up, the last chapter only needed a few added details to make it work well. If you are interested in a peek of this new novel, or would like to add your name to an early release, please drop me a note.
Today, 3 Wise Men was released in Kindle again! This is a completely revised version, with an extra 3000 words and, hopefully, more drama and tension. Most chapters had improvements and, in my humble opinion, it is a better read.
Don’t miss this chance to enjoy a great thriller, set in exotic locations in southern France and Italy. Of course, please give feedback as it is taken seriously and helps the next book too. For example, my wife and I had someone join us for dinner last night and our guest was reading 3 WISE MEN but thought a word was not the ‘right’ one. After giving it some thought – lots of thought – after they had gone, I made the change and it fitted better. The formatting was finished by today and the new book uploaded (with my friend’s suggestion) less than 24 hours later. Oh, the delights of self-publishing!
Speaking of the next book, how is it going? I’m pleased you asked. Over Christmas and the New Year, excellent progress was made and I hope to finish the draft version in just a few weeks.
Take advantage of a new Countdown Deal for SPY CHASE, starting February 6, 2020 PST (Pacific Standard Time) through February 9, 2020 PST. Enjoy!