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.

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]

Characters make your book, but only if the readers are invested in them!

What makes for a good thriller?

Author Brad Taylor says, “Without a doubt, characters. Characters, characters, characters. One could write a scene where a car bomb is placed in an empty parking lot, set to go off in two minutes. The buildup is intense, with a “Day of the Jackal” feel of finding components and creating the device, but at the end of the day, do readers care about the empty parking lot? No. They only care if that bomb is going to harm someone they’ve invested emotional energy in — and that is the character of the story. Setting, pace and trajectory are important, but they’re irrelevant without the reader’s emotional investment, and that is driven by characters.” Read more on thrillers from the NY times, here.

Great Feedback from Overseas Readers

It was great to have this feedback from a John, an overseas reader: “Have just finished your book Spy Chase. Was a great read and had me on the edge of my seat. Rosie read it before me. She loved it too.Great suspense and story line. In 2019 Rosie and I did a cruise from Barcelona to Rome so we could picture the setting of your book. Great places to visit on the Meditteranean.”

Getting to Know Your Characters

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!

Easier to Trim or Add?

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:

  1. My draft manuscript finished at 76,000 words
  2. Trim/Edits dropped the word count to 74,000 words
  3. 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.

Average Book Length is Hardly Average

In an earlier post, I discussed book lengths. An interesting aside—when researching this topic on the internet, pay close attention to the date of the article or discussion. Here’s why:

You will notice that this research, based on the New York Bestseller list (see full article here) shows a very clear trend down from 467pp (in 2011) to 273 (in 2017)! In my new thriller, my draft manuscript hovered around 74,000 words. Now, following severe editing and adding critical plot and character details, it is sitting at 82,000 words. At this count, the book feels ‘right’. What do I mean by feel? I mean exactly that. Pick up a 74,000 word book and it feels a bit on the thin side. Now, try the 82,000 word novel and it has a good heft; a sense of substance, and I know I will be reading a story with a well—developed plot and depth of detail. Of course, this assumes that the story is well—written, and the plot exciting, with many twists and turns.

The Search for a Literary Agent

Searching for a Literary Agent is a bit like looking for your home in a snow storm. Why ‘home’? Because I am looking for an agent who fits me—who enjoys my writing and connects with me and wants to promote my work; the kind of agent who would feel comfortable at my place, and enjoy my company and conversation. For the textbook I wrote, the agent (and publisher) was professional, yet warm, and had a sense of purpose with humour. I liked that and it helped me stay on track and meet deadlines. Do I have an agent for my new book? Not yet, but I am hopeful for one soon. You, dear follower, will be the first to know! Meanwhile, I keep looking, which involves researching potential agents—looking up their profiles and youtube videos and twitter accounts, etc. to find the right fit. More on agent searching soon!

The Hook and the Divine Moment

Hello again! Publishers look for the ‘hook’ in a thriller, etc. As writers, we look for the ‘divine moment’ that gives us the hook, or at least an important plot. My second thriller (shh, no name yet) was inspired by a small newspaper clipping that mentioned submarines—which  explains the picture below :-). The article fascinated me and led to a world-wide hunt (including visits to the USA, Croatia, Gibraltar, etc.) for more information. I am grateful for contacts who expanded my ‘Aha!’ moment, and provide fresh insights to help put the book together. Yes, divine moments are key to my writing!

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