How to write a best-selling novel

 

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Picture: nito

By Andy Martin, University of Cambridge

So you want to write a novel? Of course you do. Everyone wants to write a novel at some stage in their lives. While you’re at it, why not make it a popular bestseller? Who wants to write an unpopular worstseller? Therefore, make it a thriller. It worked for Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth … The Conversation

Every now and then I come across excellent advice for the apprentice writer. There was a fine recent article, for example, in The Big Thrill (the house magazine of International Thriller Writers) on “how to lift the saggy middle” of a story. Like baking a cake. And then there is Eden Sharp’s The Thriller Formula, her step-by-step would-be writer’s self-help manual, drawing on both classic books and movies. I felt after reading it that I really ought to be able to put theory into practice (as she does in The Breaks).

But then I thought: why not go straight to the source? Just ask a “New York Times No. 1 bestseller” writer how it’s done. So, as I have recounted here before, I knocked on Lee Child’s door in Manhattan. For the benefit of the lucky Child-virgins who have yet to read the first sentence of his first novel (“I was arrested in Eno’s Diner”), Child, born in Coventry, is the author of the globally huge Jack Reacher series, featuring an XXL ex-army MP drifter vigilante.

It is a golden rule among members of the Magic Circle that, when asked: “How did you do that?”, magicians must do no more than smile mysteriously. Child helpfully twitched aside the curtain and revealed all. Mainly because he wanted to know himself how he did it. He wasn’t quite sure. He only took up writing because he got sacked from Granada TV. Now he has completed 20 novels with another one on the way. And has a Renoir and an Andy Warhol on the wall. Windows looking out over Central Park. Grammar school boy done well.

Cigarettes and coffee

He swears by large amounts of coffee (up to 30 cups, black, per day) and cigarettes (one pack of Camels, maybe two). Supplemented by an occasional pipe (filled with marijuana). “Your main problem is going to be involuntary inhalation,” he said, as I settled down to watch him write, looking over his shoulder, perched on a psychoanalyst’s couch a couple of yards behind him.

Which was about one yard away from total insanity for both of us.

Especially given that I stuck around for about the next nine months as he wrote Make Me: from the first word (“Moving”) through to the last (“needle”), with occasional breathers. A bizarre experiment, I guess, a “howdunnit”, although Child did say he would like to do it all again, possibly on the 50th book.

Maybe I shouldn’t be giving this away for free, but, beyond all the caffeine and nicotine, I think there actually is a magic formula. For a long while I thought it could be summed up in two words: sublime confidence. “This is not the first draft”, Child said, right at the outset, striking a Reacher-like note. “It’s the only draft!”

Don’t plan, don’t map it all out in advance, be spontaneous, instinctive. Enjoy the vast emptiness of the blank page. It will fill. Child compares starting a new book to falling off a cliff. You just have to have faith that there will be a soft landing. Child calls this methodology his patented “clueless” approach.

Look Ma, I’m a writer

To be fair, not all successful writers work like this. Ian Rankin, for one (in his case I relied on conventional channels of communication rather than breaking into his house and staring at him intently for long periods) goes through three or four drafts before he is happy – and makes several pages of notes too.

Ian Rankin, creator of Inspector Rebus.
Mosman Library, CC BY

 

And yet, with his Rebus series set in Edinburgh, Rankin has produced as many bestsellers as Child. Rebus also demonstrates that your hero does not necessarily have to be 6’5″ with biceps the size of Popeye’s. And can be past retiring age too, as per the most recent Even Dogs in the Wild.

Child has a few key pointers for the would-be author: “Write the fast stuff slow and the slow stuff fast.” And: “Ask a question you can’t answer.” Rankin also advises: “No digressions, no lengthy and flowery descriptions.” He has a style, and recurrent “tropes”, but no “system”. And Child is similarly sceptical about Elmore Leonard’s “10 rules of writing”. “‘Never use an adverb’? Never is an adverb!” And what about Leonard’s scorn for starting with the weather? “What if it really is a dark and stormy night? What am I supposed to do, lie?”

Elmore Leonard at the Peabody Awards.
Peabody Awards, CC BY

 

Child never disses other writers. OK, almost never (there is one he wants to challenge to unarmed combat). But he is dismissive of a certain writerly attitude, a self-conscious mentality which he summarises as follows: “Hey, Ma, look – I’m writing!” And here we come close to the secret, the magic potion that if you could bottle it would be worth a fortune in book sales. Do the opposite. If you want to be a writer, the secret is: don’t be a writer. Try and forget you are writing (difficult, I know).

This is why both Child and Rankin speak with such reverence for the narrative “voice”. And why both privilege dialogue. The successful writer is a throwback to a vast, lost, oral tradition, pre-Homer. Another thing, fast-forwarding, they share in common: the default alter ego is rock star. It’s all about the vibe. Everything has to sound good when you read it aloud.

Art is theft

But if you seriously want to be a writer, think like a reader. Child explained this to me the other day in relation to his novel, Gone Tomorrow, set in New York, which is now often used to teach creative writing. “I introduce this beautiful mysterious woman. I started out thinking: I want my hero to go to bed with her. And then I thought: hold on, isn’t the reader going to be asking: ‘What if she is … bad?’” A small but crucial tweak: one letter – from bed to bad.

“So!” you might well conclude, “isn’t this bloke like one of those con men who offer to show you how to make a fortune (for a modest outlay) and you think: ‘Well, why don’t you do it then?’” Fair comment. Which is why I am starting a novel right now about an upstart fan who tricks his way into a successful writer’s apartment and steals all his best ideas. I don’t know why, it just came to me in a flash of inspiration. Maybe that, in a word, is the core of all great art: theft.


Andy Martin in conversation with Lee Child is part of the Cambridge Literary Festival on April 14.

Andy Martin, Lecturer, Department of French, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Books beyond seasons

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By Nora Vasconcelos

It’s almost the end of the year and as December approaches, I can’t be happier for all the great books I have had the chance to read in 2016. Some of them were new releases, some others were published some time ago; some were famous, some others, wonderful little gems which I’ve luckily come across.

There’s not really a particular order I’ve chosen to present them, it’s merely as they come to my mind. My biggest wish is that these books will bring to you as many delightful hours as they brought to me:

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George. The magic of this book comes from combining a wonderful location with a very sweet love story and the fantastic presence of books all along the story as the ones that shape the life of all the main characters. If you like France, either because you’ve been there, or because you have the idea of this idyllic country, this is a perfect book for you as wonderful tender descriptions of Paris and the little towns along the main French rivers are presented here. The story will capture your mind from the first chapter when it takes the main characters to an unexpected but charming journey in which not only they will open up to share their deepest fears and dreams but also it will take you along for an introspective trip in which one main question hangs in the air: “what would I do if I found out decades later that I’ve been all wrong about love?”.

The Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier: I’ve got to read this book thanks to the kind recommendation of my good friend Andrew Hill. The story begins with an unexpected event that makes the main character decide to change his complete life at the age of 57. An inexplicable meeting and a unique book make him drop everything and go to the station to catch the night train to Lisbon. From there, his life will become something very different. Apart from falling in love with Lisbon, I found in this book some of the most wonderful quotes ever about life, books and traveling. This is my favorite one: “We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.”

A Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk: Placed in Turkey, this book tells the story of a street vendor who sells a couple of traditional homemade products. The magic of this novel resides in how the story presents at the same time the changes that this country faces for many decades while the vendor grows up, from a little boy to an old man. Pamuk’s masterful way of writing offers the reader a majestic read in the simplest way, developing an easy-to-read novel based on a very complex topic.

The Phantom Ship by Frederick Marryat: Publish in 1839, this book can be read and enjoyed at any time as it takes the reader’s imagination to a fantastic journey in which the main character goes from ship to ship in order to break an old curse that affects him and his family. Even when some words have the feeling of old English, the skill of the author delivers a fast-paced, easy-to-read story that will absorb you from the beginning to the end. For ship lovers and people who love traveling to exotic lands and adventures, this is a perfect read.

The only street in Paris by Elaine Sciolino: This is not a work of fiction. It’s the result of an amazing work of investigative journalism combined with the delightful narrative of a New York Times correspondent who fell in love with the rhythm and lifestyle of a particular street in Paris, and out of her immense curiosity and skill as a journalist presents a series of interviews with the owners of the stores located along this street in the form of a delightful memoir/travelogue that makes the reader wish, chapter after chapter, to take the first plane to France and go straight from the airport to the Rue des Martyrs.

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Short stories, complete new worlds packed into tiny containers

Recently EbookFriendly published this wonderful infographic as a reminder that “short stories may turn out to be the most effective tool of a revival of reading.” And gave six reasons to start reading a short story right now:

Benefits of reading short stories (infographic) | Ebook Friendly

Via Ebook Friendly

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Look at the Past to predict the Future

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By Nora Vasconcelos

If you live in London, or if you’re visiting the city, and don’t have any plans for this weekend, the 2016 London Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre is a fabulous option.

This year’s topic Living in Future Times celebrates the world’s most visionary writers and artists including H.G. Wells, Margaret Atwood, Richard Dawkins and David Bowie.

“In its tenth year, the festival rediscovers farsighted classics and examines how we are already living in an era predicted by Science Fiction,” says the Southbank Centre in a press release.

Some of the highlights of the Festival for this weekend are:

15 October: A day featuring the best international writers of sciencefiction including Hassan Blasim, Lauren Beukes, Xiaolu Guo and Cixin Liu.
15 & 16 October: Young Adult Literature Weekender offers more opportunities than ever before to the next generation of writers. Featuring the most exciting YA novelists, bloggers, vloggers, poets and spoken word artists from rising stars to legends of YA, such as Sara Barnard, Malorie Blackman, Holly Bourne, Juno Dawson, Sally Green, Sungju Lee, Hollie McNish and Harriet Reuter Hapgood.

16 October: In an exclusive preview event before publication, Naomi Alderman reads from her new novel The Power , telling the story of four girls and women who struggle against daily oppressions and sexism until one day they find their lives radically altered by the power to inflict lightning bolts of pain, and even death, at the flick of their fingers.

16 October: Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford and Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science, Marcus Du Sautoy offers insights into the boundaries of scientific understanding in a keynote address and asks if we are at the limits of knowledge.

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To close the 2016 London Literature Festival, the Literary Death Match, on 16 October, offers a comedyrich futuristic evening featuring four authors reading their most electric writing for seven minutes or less before a panel of three allstar judges. Two finalists compete in the Literary Death Match finale to decide the ultimate winner.

View of Southbank Centre credit Belinda Lawley
View of Southbank Centre credit Belinda Lawley

The Southbank Centre is the UK’s largest arts centre, occupying a 21 acre site that sits in the midst of London’s most vibrant cultural quarter on the South Bank of the Thames. The site has an extraordinary creative and architectural history stretching back to the 1951 Festival of Britain. Southbank Centre is home to the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery as well as The Saison Poetry Library and the Arts Council Collection. For further information please visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk

The world as a science fiction novel

“We are living in a time where the world looks more and more like a science fiction novel, and this year’s festival aims to explore that connection between the current day and the world predicted by far-sighted writers. The festival will explore how imagination and writing can give us a clearer insight into the world as it is now by exploring alternative worlds and alternative realities,” writes the Mayflower Collection on its blog.

London Literature Festival Image Courtesy Mayflower Colletion
Image Courtesy Mayflower Colletion

“From Shakespeare to Austen, Dickens to Rowling, Britain’s literary history is second to none … But rather than looking back into London’s literary history, this year’s theme (of the London Literature Festival) is all about looking forward, about Living in Future Times,” adds the blog.

The Mayflower Collection is a group of three boutique hotels in Central London. Founded in 1999, the Mayflower Collection offers stylish, design-led, 4-Star hotels in Earls Court and in the historic and trendy area of Notting Hill, a short walk from Hyde Park.

 

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Where the oceans meet

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By Nora Vasconcelos

Puerto Rico lays where the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea intersect. This archipelago contains some of the most amazing landscapes any traveller can see, as well as rich architecture; centuries of history; Spanish, French and Caribbean culinary influences, and beautiful beaches.

All of this makes of Puerto Rico a really good destination for turists who want to relax and wander around historical sites.

Curious about it? This week, my good friend and mystery author, Jane Isaac, kindly published a guest post I wrote about lovely Puerto Rico.

You can read it here: (Puerto Rico: Where the oceans meet)

Jane is also launching soon her fourth book: Beneath the Ashes, which is ready for pre-order now. Don’t miss the chance to discover what new mysteryes DI Will Jackman will be called to investigate!

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