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.

A Christmas Story – Part One

By Nora Vasconcelos

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James leaned his head towards the sliding doors of the subway wagon he was traveling on.

It was only then when he noticed a man wearing a Santa Claus suit. This made him feel worst.

Being fired hadn’t been bad enough. The company had waited until the last minute, on Christmas day, to let him know that he was no longer an employee of Sweets & Snacks.

“Don’t take it personal, Jimmie. With all these people going on a diet, and the new laws and taxes discouraging people from buying products like ours, we have to downsize the company if we want to give enough money to our Research and Development department,  so they can come up with new sweets and snacks that fit into these new trends. Besides, you had mentioned that you wanted to take some time off to spend it with your family. Look at this as an opportunity to make it up to them.”

James knew they were right, but he just couldn’t understand how he was the only one chosen to go. He tought things were going okay, more than okay!

He had put on many extra hours all the year, getting the financial department in working order, after the previous manager had left the company with a self-paid ‘bonus’.

With nobody noticing it, 8,000 dollars had ‘disappeared’ from the petty cash box. It was only until James started working in the company, 12 months ago that, little by little, he put together all the pieces of the puzzle, noticing the frecuent visits the manager made to the cash area, with silly excuses such as a parking fine, when everybody new he walked from his apartment to the office, or those tickets for takeaway orders at late hours, when no pizza nor chinese packages were anywhere to be seen the following morning.

One day, in December last year, James arrived to the office thinking it’d be business as usual, until he saw the manager going out of the director’s office, ushered by two very tall and strong police officers. On his way out, he looked at James and yield at him ‘you’ll pay for this, Jimmie. I swear to it.’

Next thing he knew, he was the new manager. The big boss had offered him a nice pay raise and an office with a magnificent view of the new fashionable tall buildings in the city.

Then, his job became his whole life, and his office, his new home. James worked over Christmas and New Year’s. He also missed all the birthays and school events of his three kids, and his wife got tired of listening to him saying ‘I’ll make it up to you.’

Twelve months later, when the financial deparment was operating under a new set of standards and procedures, and the company had recovered not only the money stolen by the previous manager, but had got a very nice profit, despite the new trends in the market, James thought that he’d finally have time to spend with his family, and with his Christmas bonus he would take his wife on a wonderful trip around Europe, all the main shopping malls included.

It was then when all went wrong. All of a sudden he found himself without a job, leaving the building with his dreams broken and a silly check that hardly covered a month of his salary. ‘This are tough times, Jimmie,’ his ex-boss’ words resounded in his head.

‘Luckily’ he’d been allowed to take his things with him, all awkwardly positioned inside a cardboard box that the day before had contained some of the monthly supplies of paper for the copy machine.

An ordinary letter of recommendetion was part of the stuff he had filled the box with, along with several photos of his wife and kids, and some brochures that a travel agent had given to him a few days before, with all sort of European tours.

Of course, he had to return the company car; so, now, he was riding the subway. And here he was, with his head leaning on the sliding doors, watching the man disguised as Santa Claus.

How was he going to tell his wife and kids that he had been fired?, he wondered.

He took his sight apart from Santa, and looked intensely toward the railway. All inside the tunnel was dark. The only light that he could see came from the train.

Then a strange thought crossed his mind …what if?  He shivered.

He turned his face back and saw Santa playing with a little girl, they both were laughing. Memories of the happy times with his family took over his mind. Then, that somber idea crossed his mind again …what if?

He contemplated the idea for a little longer this time. After all, he’d become a stranger now, his family might as well be better without him. At least they would have the insurance money.

Then, the unexpected happened. The sliding doors opened when the train was traveling at a high speed between two stations.

James was expelled of the wagon with such violence that not even strong and magical Santa could hold onto his legs on his efforts to bring him back into the train.

While flying away towards the immense oscurity of the tunnel, people on the train could listen to James calling out for help, screaming with his voice full of terror: I don’t want to die!

* * *

To be continued next week  🙂 

 

(You can read the second part here)

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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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Cruising the Mediterranean

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By Sunny Lockwood and Al Lockwood

Guest Post

For those of us who love to travel, there’s rarely a question of why?

We know why: we want to see new places, learn about new cultures, try new foods, and simply have fun in a city or countryside where we’ve never been before.

The questions we ask are: Where do we want to go next? How can we get there? When can we leave?

My husband and I have had the travel bug since we were young. Now, well into retirement, our wanderlust is strong as ever. And the rewards are equally great.

Studies show that travel is good for the body, the brain and the spirit. And even though our older bodies lack the endurance they once had, we find that travel enlarges our concept of “home” and enriches our experience of wonder.

Imagine being awakened by the deep, resonant melody of church bells, bells that have rung each morning for centuries. That was our experience in Florence.

Or being enveloped in the fragrance of incense from a fortuneteller’s shop. We experienced that each afternoon in Barcelona. Our Airbnb apartment was right above her shop.

Imagine the flavor of dark chocolate gelato setting your taste buds dancing. That was our daily experience in Venice. That and the scene of shiny black gondolas sliding calmly through narrow canals.

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Our stunning world is immense. But our individual lives are brief. So if there’s something you dream of doing, our advice is do it now. While you can.

Sweetheart Al and I choose ocean cruising as our preferred method of long-range travel. There are many reasons for this, including our modest travel budget and our declining mobility. We can no longer hike like there’s no tomorrow, jump into sleeping bags, or pedal bicycles for miles.

But on a cruise we can see the world at our own pace and in our own way while sleeping in the same comfortable bed each night.

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And we’ve chosen to share our adventures through travel memoirs.

Our newest book, Cruising the Mediterranean, brings readers along on our 12-day cruise to Venice, Athens, Istanbul, Ephesus and three Greek islands.

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Even before we left California, we started our trip by adjusting our internal clock so that we’d be on European time when we arrived in Amsterdam. We added four days in Amsterdam just because Al wanted me to see that historic city, before boarding our cruise ship.

In Amsterdam, we used Airbnb. A first for us, and we loved the experience. We stayed in the heart of historic Amsterdam. Actually, our room was in the Red Light District, so our “window shopping” introduced us to the latest in sex toys, edible underwear and items we couldn’t even identify.

We cruised on Holland America. We’ve cruised on other lines, but this 12-day trip fit our pocketbook and visited places we really wanted to see.

At every stop, we experienced something wonderful, from standing on the Acropolis as the morning sun gilded its marble monuments, to watching a rug weaving demonstration in Istanbul.

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We discovered delectable Turkish Delight during a dinner cruise along the Bosphorous Strait. And enjoyed the largest piece of Baklava we’d ever seen in a family-owned restaurant on the island of Santorini.

We’ve done our best to capture in words (and a few photographs) the wonder of our trip. Our goal in writing travel memoirs? To share our fun and fabulous experience. And to encourage others to make their own travel dreams come true.

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*Sunny Lockwood is a retired newspaper reporter, columnist and editor. Her freelance stories and articles have been published in MS magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and other national and regional publications. Al Lockwood is a retired Silicon Valley engineer. He’s a fine art photographer whose work has been published in magazines and newspapers.

*All the images courtesy of Sunny Lockwood and Al Lockwood

 

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