How not to write a novel

August 4, 2017

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How Not To Write a Novel, by Newman and Middlemark, [Book review]

In a last-minute search for a birthday present recently, I was browsing for a book at the Simply Books No 1 emporium. As I did so, my eye was caught by an instruction manual entitled How Not to Write a Novel, (HNTWAN), by Sandra Newman and Howard Middlemark.

I added it to my shopping trolley. This proved to be a sound investment. As they say in many a blurb, I read it long into the evening, as the battles for tennis supremacy at Wimbledon passed me unheeded across the room. The book promises to supply 200 ways your book will fail to get published. In a mischievous and at times snigger-producing way they do just that. Page after page I found examples of why I should stick to self-publishing. I extract some which I underlined for future reference. You may wish the use what follows as check-list.

“What works for me”

The belief that what interests you interests everyone. A passion for an obscure chess club may not sustain interest of itself. The universals of passion, unfulfilled dreams, treachery, a quest may be there, but there is still need of an engaging plot. A central dilemma is needed for connecting the pawn pushing to those wider themes.

“The slow build-up”

Bit like the start to this blog post (oops). This is where the opening pages could be left out with no damage to the story:

‘Reggie boarded the train at Montauk, found a seat… read a newspaper…

(10 pages later) As the train pulled out of Montauk …

(10 pages later) …and that was how I met your Aunt Katherine.’

“The false clue”

A vivid detail which has no further relevance. Aka The gum on the mantlepiece, cleaned up later, leaving readers puzzled unless they learn the gum was quickly cleaned up by a fastidious character in the book

“Plot polygamy”

In which plot line after plot line tumble across the pages in confusing fashion…

“Not avoiding the rule of three”

As a public speaker, I believe utterly in the rule of three. Telling what you intend to say, saying it, summarizing what you said. For novelists, or humble thriller writers, the rule of three is a non no. (Aka:where the set up reveals or weakens the payoff.)

“The second fight in the Laundromat”

Damn. I have an exciting fire which breaks out in chapter ten, and now I would like to write another in the climactic scene in chapter fifty two.

“Santa’s too sexy for his beard”

In which she a protagonist sees through the ‘best friend or nice neighbour’ . The authors give this the thumbs down. ‘[S]he must be attractive on some level, not just safe. We get enough of that.in real life.’

“Confessional from the super-villain”

Compulsive and implausible spilling the beans In the interests of plot closure by the super-villain.

“Vocabulary flauting”

Speaks for itself, often in irritating fashion. (‘Nobody likes a show-off’)

“Cliches”

‘Cliches become cliches for a reason.’

“Lists”

Don’t use lists  A well-respected novelist argued the opposite and I guess ‘use lists with caution and awareness’ might be a refinement to this principle. Lists are for description not as an inventory.

“Time management”

Useful extended treatment. How you can cheat on linear time in writing fiction, but not if it jars in the reader’s mind.

“Relentless accounts of natural functions”

Too common, and obvious (when pointed out). Even crude characters do not belch and fart every time they appear.

“Dialogue”

Advice worth the price of the book. It takes practice or an innate gift to write like you you think your characters people speak, (or even harder to write in the way readers accept as the way the characters ought to speak).

“The dangers of elegant variation”

For example, when the author goes to stupid lengths to avoid using ‘he said’.

“Style and lack of it”

Rich set of thought-provoking suggestions. Virtues and dangers of the narrative voice, reported internal monologue, multiple points of view, and more.

“Sex, jokes and post-modern flourishes”

If you can’t write any of these well, stop fouling up your chances of successful publishing. Your best is not good enough. The crushingly bad examples of how not to write sex scenes are particularly funny, but you will have to read the book to enjoy the humour of the accidently botched lubricious.

“Marketing No Nos”

More deadly humour here on how not write to publishers.

For me this was a five-star read. I found the book seriously funny, and seriously thought-provoking. So did earlier reviewers.

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What I learned from Michael Connelly

January 16, 2017

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I stared at the book in front of me. “Michael Connelly,” I thought. “You may think you have concealed your secret from your readers. It is time to reveal it for all the world to see.”

No, it’s not as easy as it looks, to write the first words of a best-selling novel. With that end in mind, I choose to study The Gods of Guilt. But I could have chosen any from a wide range of Connelly’s mega-successful Courtroom and Detective dramas.

Connelly’s formula

Connelly writes brilliantly to a successful formula. Broadly, his yarns set up a battle by the (mostly) ‘good’ against the (mostly) ‘bad’ folk. In the Gods of Guilt, his main character and mostly good guy is Mickey Haller, ACA The Lincoln Lawyer.

The formula for the courtroom drama is, of course a subset of the greatest human morality drama, the battle of right over wrong (Star wars, Paradise Lost, The Seven Samurai, King Lear, back to granddaddy Homer’s ripping yarns) The story was turned into a film, and has been reviewed extensively. The New York Times offers an excellent one, saving me from a lot of effort.

 

I want to comment on a few points which I have added to my folder on ideas for improving my writing. The formula is easier to identify than the imitate, as my puny effort above shows. That doesn’t stop would-be students and teachers of creative writers try.

The study notes of mine already drew on several step-by-step cookbooks offered on the Internet some of which I offer below following the advice of police procedural author Caroline Mitchell police procedural author Caroline Mitchell.

 

Tips for Writing Page Turners

 

The Gods of Guilt reminded me of the tips for writing page turners. Forget the damage caused to you by the invisible teacher watching over your shoulder.

Make the first sentence memorable, the first paragraph attention-grabbing, the first page getting somewhere in promising what’s to come.

Here’s how Connelly starts The Gods of Guilt.

“I approached the witness with a warm and welcoming smile. This of course belied my true intent …”

Then he continues setting up plot tensions.  The simple main line has Haller relating the roller-coaster plot from the first-page. Progress is met with setbacks. Assorted sub-plots occur but in a way that suggests all will come together for the better.

The key drama is played out in the Courtroom. He also has a running background theme. In this book it is his struggle with his estranged daughter. This is a hook to offer comforting continuity. Look out for them in TV dramas.

An antidote to the superhero

He remains the hero who hasn’t sold out. An antidote to the superhero. His victories have been interspersed with  setbacks depriving him of material wherewithal. This has resulted in the brilliant memorable idea of operating his legal business from the back of an automobile, the famous black Lincoln)

On conspiracy theories

One last thought. Connelly and maybe much of fiction reinforcing conspiracy theories. Behind the injustices of the world there are evil forces at work. For detective thrillers these are corrupt cops, judges, politicians, business tycoons, lawyers. The system is out to get you. One a few people, the special ones, have the courage and capabilities to lead the revolution against the system.


How the Queen’s speech helped me start and finish a book

February 12, 2016

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Most writers find starting and finishing a book difficult, although the bit in the middle can be quite difficult as well. I recently had some advice from HRH Queen Elizabeth II

When Mourinho Matters was published in February 2016 I acknowledged the help I received from the Queen. This post explains how the Monarch helped one of her loyal subjects in Woodford, in middle England.

Me and Mourinho

Some years ago, I reached the conclusion that Jose Mourinho was a fascinating example of a charismatic leader. I began collecting information, and posting stories about him in LWD. His multiple triumphs were recorded from the time he burst on to the scene as a young manager winning the European Champions Cup with unfashionable Porto.

A career changing event

Last November [2015] I could see that Jose’s second period at Chelsea manager was drawing to a humiliating close.

Writer’s blocked

I re-opened my files on The Special One, as materials for a book. The title was easy enough, Mourinho Matters, suggested by an earlier title, Tennis Matters. No, I can’t remember where that idea came from either.

The material for the new book came in thick and fast. But I needed a nice way of starting and ending it. Nothing quite worked. I was well and truly blocked. I just had to wait for an idea to arrive.

Then I  heard the 2015 Christmas message from the Queen. Her calm measured delivery concealed a powerful emotional content of hope. Never one to miss content, I added a note on the speech to the Mourinho file.

The Queen’s speech

An ‘aha’ moment came as I recalled another speech made, and the Queen’s reference in it to a time of personal grief, which ended in a great fire at Windsor Castle. In a very elegant way, she mentioned her own very painful annus horribilis. The time of dread.

That was an allusion to the poem written four centuries earlier by the poet John Dryden. He was writing about a great fire that had gutted London in devastating fashion. Dryden did not refer to the annus horribilis, but to the time of recovery, the annus mirabilis. the year of miracles. Maybe he figured that folk had had enough suffering without him adding fuel to the fire of memories, so to speak.

I had found my starting and finishing points. Jose’s professional career in my book starts with a section called his annus mirabilis. And give or take a few appended materials, it draws to an end with one called his annus horribilis, as a helicopter hovers over Chelsea’s training premises, hoping for a sighting of the newly-fired Mourino.

Down but not out

The quotes also helped me to realize that Jose was down but not out. As that other superhero played by Arnie Swartzenenger in The Terminator put it:

‘I’ll be back’.

 


Wittgenstein Jnr by Lars Iyer isn’t Sophie’s World 2. Or is it?

October 22, 2014

Wittgenstein jnrBook Review

It is quite appropriate that I obtained a copy of Wittgenstein Jnr under the mistaken impression that the book is a follow-up to Jostein Gaarder’s classic Sophie’s World. It isn’t. Written by that Norwegian philosopher. But by the English one with a Norwegian name. Who writes campus philosophy books among which Dogma is my favourite.

My false premise

My false premise was at least in keeping with one of the themes both of Sophie’s World and Wittgenstein Jnr: the nature of reality (of course). Gaardner charms us into an overview of Western philosophy through a story of young Sophie and her journey of discovery through a world of the imagination. Iyer draws us into the world of undergraduate Peters, and his journey of discovery through a world of the imagination, set in the context of the simulacrum Cambridge (about as real as the Oxford in the Morse stories, which come to think of it is very real for a generation of admirers of the TV versions of the stories of Colin Dexter).

Wittgenstein Mark 2?

The central character of Wittgenstein Jnr is a philosophy lecturer who is referred to by his students as a latter-day Wittgenstein. This Wittgenstein Mark 2 indeed resembles the character portrayed by Monk in his biography of Ludwig the first.

The obsessive search for philosophic closure through symbolic logic or its destruction is here. The larger than life student characters of earlier work are here, but reworked away from hapless but cheerful inhabitants of a philosophic underworld to an equally hapless and cheerful bunch of privileged inhabitants of Camalot / Cambridge.

Ludwig is here, although Ludwig the second is even more clinically depressed and doomed than Ludwig the first

Highly readable in a creative slippery literary way

There is much to enjoy about the book. It is highly readable, and stylistically creative in a subtle slippery literary way. Lyer has honed his prose into a tight personal style. It works, like many works of art, by concealing the labour that goes into final text. when I tried extracting an example, it became clear to me just how crafty the writing is.

Crafty writing

Here’s an example chosen selected almost at randomm, a scene in which EDE, one of students announces his split with his girlfriend Phaedra. Lyer sets the scene in two one-line paragraphs. It might have been four or five lines of poetry.

Saturday Night. Ede texts. You up? I split with Fee.

Ede, in the communal kitchen, emptying a tub of mushrooms onto the counter.

Readable?

A cautious endorsement. I enjoyed it. When I tried explaining it to a friend, my description left him unconvinced. Which suggests the test might follow a visit to one of those old fashioned pre-Amazon  book vendors,  and a quick scan of the book’s contents.


Do Ye Ken John Keane?

March 26, 2013

John PeelLeaders we deserve announce the forthcoming post on leadership from author and leadership researcher, John Keane. John believes that social media such as blog sites are offering opportunities for experimenting with new formats for communicating ideas

John’s post, which takes the form of a piece of creative writing, will appear in LWD within the next few days.

The image

The image of John Peel [not John Keane] is from the nostalgic site Pipe dreams from the Shire . Blame your editor for thinking John Keane shared his name with John Peel before correcting the original title of this announcement. I thought subscribers might still enjoy the image of the celebrated Cumbrian huntsman.