[My below post was originally posted on Linda Hills formidable blog! Do visit it.]
I have been overwhelmed by the initial reaction to my debut novel. Without any publicity or marketing, it has an all-five-star rating on Amazon. True, only nine ratings but as an unknown first-time Indie author I’ve been taken aback by private messages of appreciation.
A reader stopped me in my favoured coffee shop while I was sipping on a latte and asked for writing tips. I’m not sure I qualify to be dishing out advice, but I’ll happily present you a glimpse into my toolbox.
Identify your audience
What makes an enjoyable novel will depend on the genre and target audience. A mass-market beach-read will likely be unenjoyable for someone looking for a sophisticated spy-thriller. Why is this important? Because the words, phrases, similes, metaphors, scenes and characters you bring forth will vary accordingly.
Language is about communication. In our quotidian life we employ different lexicons according to the audience. The language I employ while speaking to my toddler is vastly different to that I use with my wife which is different to that I use with my car mechanic.
Let’s take a real life example. Fifty Shades of Grey was slighted by literary critics yet has sold over 100 million copies. What’s good for the goose isn’t good for the gander.
Less is more
Don’t over tell. A poem should ignite a little light bulb in one’s mind that sends one’s imagination running wild. I once read a short love poem that kept me agitated all evening as my mind grappled with it.
Let the story tell itself by offering up select vignettes that come together to form a coherent story. A master story should be open to interpretation, not a cinematic reel that replays every moment of the protagonist’s life.
This point overlaps with show don’t tell. Many preach it, few feel it. Here’s an example in action from City Affairs:
End of Chapter 14 [narrator: philandering husband holidaying with his mistress in California]:
A flock of brilliant white Snowy Egrets hover above creating a cacophony of chirping as they swoon down on stray fish. I feel the taste of a film of sweet white wine coat my tongue as I lean over and kiss Sarah, basking in the sunshine, revelling in gaiety.
Opening of next chapter [narrated by Lissie – his wife]:
I’m working from my makeshift home in Cathy’s loft today because there are emergency gas repairs going on. Real reason: depression. I look in the mirror and let out a soft sigh. There are more bags under my eyes this morning than in my gym locker.
Now, imagine if instead of the above, I had written something like, “I didn’t go in to work today because I’m desperately depressed. I’ve been gorging on chocolate all morning and crying till my eyes are sore…’
By juxtaposing her husband living the life of Riley, philandering with his mistress in sunny California, with Lissie struggling to get into work, I’ve attempted to engage the reader’s visceral emotions. It’s hard not to feel for her. Yet none of this is stated. Indeed, the entire purpose of Chapter 14 was to generate sympathy for Lissie by showing her husband’s blithe indifference to the state of their marriage. Engage your readers’ emotions; point them in the right direction to the hallowed land, don’t drag them there.
Further, a short descriptive paragraph is sufficient. Don’t overdo it. Let the reader fill in the gaps. The late Ludlum is one author who, despite his pre-eminence in story-telling, fell foul of over-describing. Hemingway lies on the other extreme.
Location, Location, Location
No, I’m not talking about buying a house! We all like going on holiday. The joy of new places, novel cultures, languages, foods and customs is what enriches our lives. If it’s not construed, why not set an otherwise mundane scene in a foreign city? It’s a free lunch. The plot continues apace but the reader’s imagination is stimulated.
Be careful, though. Get it wrong and it will come across forced. If in doubt, leave it out.
Effective description is about evoking the strongest emotions with the least number of words. Mot juste is key, and this comes through reading, writing and practice. Here’s a secret: read poetry. Poetry is all about word choice and sentence construction. Study poetry and your scenes will be more vivid.
Here’s a scene I enjoyed writing: [Lissie narrating their flight]
I peer out of the window as our climb continues unabated. The last remnants of the fiery sun lingers on the horizon, leaving a blaze of warm oranges, pearly pinks and gentle purple. The milky outline of a full moon appears with growing confidence as the pale stars slide into place. Cars thin and merge into a continuous thread as fields separate into distinct blocks of brown and green.
Last but not Least…
You need a story to tell, the provenance of which will be your life experience or your imagination. The corollary is that you must be constantly reading on a wide range of topics and genres in order to feed your imagination. Those who are not widely read struggle to write anything original. Their stories are rehashes of the same themes, replete with trite clichés and stilted dialogue.
I’m constantly reading on topics as disparate as gardening, the weather, quantum mechanics, love, politics, finance, economics and fitness. You want to be that person at the party who has something meaningful to proffer on any given topic.
A reviewer said of City Affairs:
This book incorporates a little something for everyone: cityscapes, money, politics, art, and relationships intertwined with all the feelings that go along with those subjects
I hope I’ve provided food for thought in this brief post. Perhaps my greatest tip of all would be: have confidence. Confidence not to be shackled to stereotypes, tropes or conventions.
City Affairs is out now on Kindle and paperback. I’d love to hear from you; do get in touch and tell me whether you enjoyed it.
My next novel is a contemporary thriller set in London about a sophisticated Islamic terrorist cell with grand designs.
My sincere gratitude to Linda for affording me the opportunity to introduce myself and my novel.
(My pleasure to host you Seb and thank so much for providing some very interesting food for thought for those of us embarking on a writing career.)