On a Cold and Rainy Day

What to do on a cold and rainy day? I could finish painting the spare bedroom, but the weather is damp and the paint won’t dry very well. I could take my wife out for a coffee, but she is ill and resting. I could keep editing my new book—or, rather, what I call fine-editing since the major editing is finished. No, I need a new inspiration. So, I decide to work on my first book; produce a new cover, revise the first chapter and update the About the Author page. My goal is to have this done in three days. Meanwhile, my darling publisher Amazon have changed their Kindle format from .mobi to .pub, so that requires more work :-). The next day, I have a head cold and don’t feel like doing much at all. But, the weather is warmer and the painting is almost finished. I’m praying for a better week ahead and a new-look to the bedroom as well as my first book. More news to follow if all goes well. {PS: good progress on both the bedroom renovation and book revisions. The text changes are done and have been uploaded to Amazon. Now I am working with my illustrator with final touches to the cover. All will be revealed soon}

Author or Writer?

“I have a charming relative who is an angry young littérateur of renown. He is maddened by the fact that more people read my books than his. Not long ago we had semi-friendly words on the subject and I tried to cool his boiling ego by saying that his artistic purpose was far, far higher than mine. He was engaged in “The Shakespeare Stakes.” The target of his books was the head and, to some extent at least, the heart. The target of my books, I said, lay somewhere between the solar plexus and, well, the upper thigh. These self-deprecatory remarks did nothing to mollify him and finally, with some impatience and perhaps with something of an ironical glint in my eye, I asked him how he described himself on his passport. “I bet you call yourself an Author,” I said. He agreed, with a shade of reluctance, perhaps because he scented sarcasm on the way. “Just so,” I said. “Well, I describe myself as a Writer. There are authors and artists, and then again there are writers and painters.”

This rather spiteful jibe, which forced him, most unwillingly, into the ranks of the Establishment, whilst stealing for myself the halo of a simple craftsman of the people, made the angry young man angrier than ever and I don’t now see him as often as I used to. But the point I wish to make is that if you decide to become a professional writer, you must, broadly speaking, decide whether you wish to write for fame, for pleasure or for money. I write, unashamedly, for pleasure and money.” by Ian Fleming

5 Key Elements for a Thriller

While hosting workshops in the USA I found that the most popular ones were those with a catchy title, such as “10 Top Tips for Technology Teachers.” Hence the title for this post. Catchy, huh? Well, almost. The danger is that my top 5 tips might not be your ones. The following are from an article in masterclass.com and I will personalise a few to give my perspective. Let’s get into this:

  1. Make your main character compelling. In the thriller genre—just like in real life—a conflict is rarely as simple as “good guy vs. bad guy.” Good thrillers often feature protagonists that are flawed and complex…Readers relate to imperfect heroes, and having a main character with flaws will increase the tension and stakes of your story. Having a deep, three-dimensional main character is an essential ingredient of a successful thriller. [I totally agree. Of most importance is to allow the flaws in your main character to enable them to change/flip 180 degrees/grow into the villas. Mine did this by mistake. He started out as an ageing spy, but…oops, can’t give it away that easily!] Can you find the main character here below? Yes, of course you can, but is he/she compelling enough to stand out among the others?
    More about character flaws can be found here.
  2. The opening scene has plenty of action. Readers MUST be on the edge of their seats from the very first page. The opening scene of a thriller novel should introduce the crime, conflict, or stakes as quickly as possible. The best thrillers hook their readers with instant action, then fill in the necessary character and storyline information later. [Comment: avoid fluff at the start. Action, action, action. Some suggest that a thriller should start at the point of most conflict, then unpack it in the following chapters.]
  3. Create an interesting villain. Even your antagonist is unforgivable, their motivations should be rooted in a relatable desire or emotion. In other words, they should be motivated by their own twisted, internal logic (e.g. The Silence of the Lambs its subsequent sequels, readers learn through flashbacks that Dr. Hannibal Lecter witnessed the murder of his sister when he was young. Therefore, Dr. Lecter is more than just a psychopathic serial killer—he is a person whose evil actions stem from a heartbreaking trauma). Readers are more likely to be engaged in your villain’s story and character development if they can recognize seeds of themselves in your antagonist.
  4. Build obstacles for your protagonist. If there’s one thing that all bestselling authors of thrillers are good at, it’s putting their protagonist in harm’s way. Your main character should experience heartbreak, trauma, and anxiety throughout the book. Sometimes, the most effective obstacle is a ticking clock or strict time limit to complete their task. Obstacles will also increase the narrative satisfaction of the end of the book, when your protagonist finally overcomes the hurdles and triumphs over adversity. [Yes, have a chase that is race against time.]
  5. Add plenty of plot twists and turning points. More so than any other genre, thriller novel writing requires the story to contain an abundance of plot twists, turning points, and cliffhangers. If you’re experiencing writer’s block when writing a scene, ask yourself what a reader might expect to happen next. How can you subvert those expectations? If a scene feels uneventful, think about what plot element or character you can introduce to raise the stakes or create a dilemma for your protagonist. Plot twists will ensure that your thriller is a page-turner and make it impossible for your reader to put it down. [Right on! In my last thriller I was writing a new chapter when it suddenly took a turn that I never expected.]

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.
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