In my last blog post I wrote about ideas which are the core of any novel. I retired almost a year ago and stopped work in order to write. However, the chaos caused by changing status, home, country, etc plus the rewrites of Flight Into Darkness left little time for real new writing. Now I’m also spending a lot of time on the ebooks thing as well. However, the policy on those is to leave them for a while (the free downloads and hoping for some reviews) and I thought the time was right to get the next book underway. I cheated a bit because I had already started it last year, written four chapters and worked out a draft plot.
OK, first the idea: this is a sequel to Flight Into Darkness. Each story in this genre must start with an unusual aircraft accident. In the case of the next book it is based on one that I first heard about around 1976 when I lived in Scotland and used to fly to the Island of Mull. The landlord of the airfield hotel told me of a case: On Christams Eve 1975, a visiting pilot decided to try to do a night take-off and landing in a Cessna 150 using only hand torches. He was an experienced pilot and quite sober. He took off but never returned. His body was found the following year, 400 ft up a wooded hillside with no broken bones or signs of falling from an aircraft…or anything. Then, in 1986, the wreck of an aircraft was found miles away in the Sound of Mull. This is a true story and the mystery has never been solved. Anyway, I’ve changed it a lot but have used the central idea as the ‘defining event’. My version uses Irish sectarian villains but I will say no more about it except to offer some thoughts to other writers, for what they’re worth:
1. Make sure your plot is credible and watertight. If it is not, your editor (and you do need an editor) will spot it immediately. Make sure that there are no contrived coincidences. It must have a beginning, a middle and an end. End chapters at a natural point where the reader is compelled to find out what happens next. Chapter length is not important. The main characters must be different at the end of the story than at the beginning, because they will have lived through tough times and made it. Just like life….
2. Make the characters three-dimensional, believable and human, with weaknessess and strengths. Make sure that there are some main characters of both sexes. Thrillers tend to be male-based. Why? Women are more complex and more interesting. It goes without saying that they should not be just bed-warmers. Women are cats, men are dogs. Cats are usually smarter. Allow your characters to change the plot direction; it’s not set in concrete. Your characters are actually part of the story; you are just reporting it. As you write, you will get to know your characters and their motivations better, so go back and make them consistent throughout the story. Remember that your readers will identify with the main character; in fact, as they read, they will become the main character so make him/her someone interesting. Follow the point-of-view (POV) rules and then break them where you really have no choice.
3. Create an interesting villain. The baddies are really fun to write and are usually more interesting than the hero/heroine. Then try to make the hero/heroine more interesting as well so they can compete more equally. Be careful when/if in the POV of the villain. He/she should have secrets yet to be discovered. That way lies tension. Save some secrets for the end.
4. Avoid clichés. Try to look at things slant-wise. Read a child’s fairy story (Perrault is a good example) to see how not to do it. It’s kid’s stuff, direct, unimaginative and dull. Avoid that style. Nothing should be quite as it seems.
5. Read each draft chapter again and again even when working on later chapters. Take a break and go back. You’ll surprise yourself by how good/bad they are. Progressively refine them and make the standard consistent from beginning to end. Keep a detailed synopsis of what each chapter contains to avoid having to re-read everything to find out what your characters made you write.
6. Don’t agonise too much over the story that you want to write. It’s your story. Write it. Your editor will soon give you an objective opinion and will usually surprise you with the stuff that works and the bits that just don’t. You won’t see it, but your editor will. Don’t give up half-way through. We all get that feeling we’re only writing garbage. It’s par for the course. Oops…a cliché.
7. Never underestimate the intelligence of the reader. Stay ahead of the reader; let them work things out for themselves. Cut, cut, cut. There are things that, as the writer, you need to know but, often, these can be cut later and replaced with some innuendo, hints or a couple of cryptic sentences. The reader will appreciate the challenge.
8. Don’t worry about too much the word count. Size doesn’t matter that much; it doesn’t have to be a Ken Follett doorstop. I start to lose control of the plot above 90,000 words and usually end up around 80,000, but they are finally just the size that they need to be. Remember that Ian McEwan’s Booker prize-winning Amsterdam had only 50,000 words.
As for work rate, now that I can concentrate, I seem to be happy at around 2000 words a day. After that I’m mentally exhausted and do a blog post. Like now!
Take this all with a heavy pinch of salt….I still don’t have a publisher!