Tag Archives: Don Winslow

500-Page Novels

As debut authors, we’re advised to follow the word counts suggested as being acceptable by writing gurus:



In writing my crime novels, I’ve brought the last four in at about 80,000 words, though the first story I wrote ballooned to 179,000 words, entirely due to my ignorance of word counts! I’ve lopped 40,000 words off it, and as I prepare to join KDP Select I’m marketing it as a double-length story for the same price as the others. Good value!

The main reason that word counts are crucial is the cost of printing, storing and transporting books. Publishers will risk signing a book of 80,000 words, which amounts to 300-325 pages, depending on font size and formatting, but any bigger than that could see diminishing returns. Such concerns don’t apply to digital books, but an unknown writer needs to be introduced to readers in a digestible size.

I’ve read several very long novels in recent years, including Neal Stephenson’s Reamde at 1,056 pages and 322,080 words. He’s just published a new novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell which at only 896 pages and 276,660 words has had some book critics calling it a short story!

Once a writer has established good sales figures, they’re allowed to sprawl. In 2019, I’ve read several crime novels of 500 + pages: John Connolly’s A Book Of Bones was 688 pages and 126,125 words, while Don Winslow’s The Border is 736 pages and 253,460 words.

I’m currently enjoying Knife by Jo Nesbø, which features his protagonist cop Harry Hole, a loose cannon with addiction issues. The plot involves his long-term life partner being murdered by a serial killer he captured who‘s been released from prison after completing his sentence. While he was incarcerated, Harry killed the killer’s son, who’d also become a murderer, so bad dad is after revenge.

Image result for jo nesbo knife

Nesbø devotes many pages to exploring Harry Hole’s thinking. After reading an eight-page chapter in which he ruminates on life, love, faithfulness, the rock music he’s listening to and the alcohol he’s drinking, I considered how much space I’d permit my detective protagonist to do something similar. It wouldn’t be more than half-a-page, as I’m so aware of hitting the 80,000word count. My hardback copy of Knife is 530 pages long, some 147,465 words, according to the reading length website:


I’d like to do more of the same. I feel constrained by 80,000 words. In writing a series featuring the same characters, I’ve attempted to bond the reader with them, which could be better done with more space.

Of course, should I decide to go ahead with self-publishing on KDP Select, I can write books of whatever length I like, without the interference of a literary agent and publisher. Such temptation requires restraint.

Do you feel like you need more space to tell your stories?

Storytelling: Education or Entertainment?

I’ve just finished reading Don Winslow’s The ForceIt’s a brilliant portrayal of a corrupt detective’s fall from grace. The book cover has heavyweight endorsements from Stephen King, James Ellroy, Michael Connelly, the Sunday Times, New York Times and Mail on Sunday.

Michael Connelly says:

“There is no higher mark for a storyteller than to both educate and entertain. With Winslow these aspects are entwined like strands of DNA. He’s a master.”

Image result for Don Winslow's The Force.

I can only agree, for Winslow knows his stuff, being a former investigator, anti-terrorist trainer and trial consultant. His previous seventeen novels are all well-researched, gripping and totally believable. Two have been filmed—The Cartel, and Savageswhile The Force has had its film rights bought by Ridley Scott.

It would be impossible for Winslow to write his true-life crime novels without mentioning the facts—reminding the reader of news stories, while they identify with the fictional characters the author has inserted into history. The atmosphere of fear and tension he creates is all the more credible for it.

In my own writing, I do loads of research to get facts correct—a lot of crime fans think they’re experts through watching such television series as the CSI franchise, which is wildly inaccurate a lot of the time. I love passing on knowledge, especially if it’s relevant to the story I’m creating, but there always comes a moment when I pause to think is this too much information? I’m writing a fictional story, not delivering a lecture.

I’ve certainly learned lots from fiction, including, as a boy, how to go poaching for wildlife. I’m a Nature lover, but all the same, was fascinated by how the labouring class defied their lords and masters to take gamekeeper-protected game birds and salmon. I wondered if such stories as ‘tickling fish’ were true. This is where the poacher lays on the bank dangling his hands in the water, waiting for a fish to rest above his palms, gently stroking its belly before scooping it up and out of the river. Years later, as a young man, I worked with a poacher, who took me poaching with him and I found that the tales were true.

Image result for trout tickling

As Margaret Culkin Banning observed

‘Fiction is not a dream. Nor is it guess work. It is imagining based on facts, and the facts must be accurate or the work of imagining will not stand up.’

Do facts ever cause you to dither as they become obstacles to your narrative?

Have you ever learned anything useful from a novel?

My Favourite Reads of 2017

Now is the time of year when the media publish ‘Best Of’ lists for a variety of categories, including books, television series, music albums and films, so I thought that I’d join in with a baker’s dozen of favourite reads from 2017. Some were published this year, and all came out recently, so should be readily available.

1) A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman:

It made me laugh and it made me cry. A brilliant portrayal of a grumpy old man, a stickler for petty rules and regulations, who’d be a nightmare to know on brief acquaintance. But, he has a heart of gold concealed within his leaden exterior and is blessed with the love of a good woman.

Image result for man called ove by fredrik backman

2) Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders:

Worthy of all the attention it’s received, as much for the unusual way the story is laid out, with scattered thoughts from the spirits of the dead who haven’t quite passed over, but who exist in a state of limbo or ‘bardo’. Some are more aware of their condition than others, and the most confused is Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie who’s just died of typhoid fever in the second year of the Civil War. He’s further unsettled by his father visiting the crypt to hold his corpse, as part of his mourning.

Not an easy read, and if you try, I recommend doing so in at least 20-30 page chunks, to get a sense of who all of the dead spirits are; it’s a very moving experience—horrific, contemplative and loving.

Image result for Lincoln in the Bardo

3) The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, by Lars Mytting:

The best novel that I read this year or for many a year. A stunning achievement and just what a novel should be, for it involves the reader in a deep-seated mystery as the naive protagonist tries to unravel a tight knot that hides family identity, wealth, betrayal and who he really is and who he wants to be. Travelling between Norway, the Shetland Isles and the battlefields of northern France, it’s sure to be turned into a film.

Image result for paper

4) Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery, by Henry Marsh:

If you want to know what it feels like to be a brain surgeon, this is the book to read. I was immediately in awe of Henry Marsh, and it’s one of the most humbling memoirs I’ve read. Truly terrifying too, it will make you count your blessings. I’m on the waiting list at my local library for the sequel, Admissions: Life as a Brain Surgeon.

Image result for henry marsh book do no harm

5) The Dry, by Jane Harper:

A highly-praised debut crime novel by a British author, who does a fine job of making the reader feel the heat, claustrophobia and paranoia of an isolated community in the Australian Outback where the murder of a family makes everyone a suspect.

Image result for The Dry (Aaron Falk #1)

6) The Force, by Don Winslow:

Winslow is without equal when it comes to writing tense crime novels involving the drug trade and the inevitable violent betrayals, paranoia, self-loathing and multiple murders. His The Power of the Dog and The Cartel, about the Mexican drug wars must have the highest body counts of any novels. In The Force, a corrupt detective who’s been taking dirty money and operating as part of an unofficial police unit within the NYPD finally gets his comeuppance. He’s a totally believable flawed hero, compromised by many ‘well-what-would-you-do’ situations.

Image result for poster

7) H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald:

Grieving the unexpected death of her father, the author returns to an early love of falconry, by raising a goshawk. Her road to recovery is involving, tearing at your heart as you will her on. Macdonald writes brilliantly about wildlife, the weather and the landscape. I found it captivating.

8) Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane:

One of the best thrillers that Dennis Lehane has ever written, and that’s saying something when you remember Mystic River and Shutter Island. The plot has more twists and turns than an epileptic snake, carrying the reader along in a state of excited confusion.

Image result for dennis lehane since we fell

9) Golden Hill, by Francis Spufford:

A rollicking good read, that deserves all of the praise and awards it’s received. Spufford knows his stuff historically, and he pens a believable world in 18th-century New York, where things turn frighteningly violent very quickly. I’m eager to read the sequel.

Image result for golden hill francis spufford

10) The Heavenly Table, by Donald Ray Pollock:

This absorbing novel will probably get lost by being shelved among Westerns in bookshops and libraries, and though it’s set on horseback, the three gormless heroes have adventures that say much about human foibles. It’s lewd and crude in places, but very entertaining.

11) The Ploughmen, by Kim Zupan:

An unusual crime novel, which was unjustly overlooked, and, I fear, will remain a neglected treasure. I only noticed it, as it was the last book shelved in the novel section of my local library! A debut novel by a mature writer, it tells of a strange friendship between an implacable, imprisoned serial killer, a complete psychopath, and a gullible young deputy, who finds missing people in the Montana snow—usually dead. Zupan rivals Helen Macdonald for his descriptions of landscape, and you’ll soon be feeling cold. It’s one of the most memorable stories I’ve read.

Image result for snow

12) All Involved, by Ryan Gattis:

I wasn’t sure that I’d enjoy this tale set in the days of the riots in Los Angeles in 1992, mainly as the author had previously written quirky titles for young readers. However, I was swiftly gripped by the dilemmas faced by a dozen different characters, including coppers, drug dealers, store owners, nurses and the homeless. Some scenes were real edge-of-the-seat stuff—and I mean real—much scarier than any imagined dystopian worlds.

Image result for all involved ryan gattis

13) The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman:

The reader is transported to New York in the early 20th-century, where the protagonist works as a mermaid in her father’s museum of freaks, among such as the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl and a century-old turtle. She meets a handsome Russian immigrant photographer, who has left the confines of his Jewish community to concentrate on his career. When he photographs a tragic factory fire, he gets embroiled in the case of a missing girl and dark forces hunt the two youngsters. Hoffman is superb at summoning up the atmosphere of the streets, river and surrounding countryside of a young city. Best-known for Practical Magic, which was turned into a film, and to which she’s recently published a prequel called The Rules of Magic, Hoffman’s Museum of Extraordinary Things is sure to be filmed too as it’s equally spellbinding.

Image result for museum of extraordinary things

What books have you enjoyed reading this year? They don’t have to be recent—old favourites that you’ve revisited will do.

Image result for happy reader snoopy

Nobody Does It Better

Which writer’s work do you eagerly anticipate reading, impatient for their new novel to be published?

It could be someone who writes a series of novels featuring the same characters, or an author who takes years to pen their new story, which finds itself shortlisted for major literary awards. You might be working your way through a writer’s back catalogue, enthralled by their skills, while still taking glee from the occasional stinker of a title, that simply didn’t work.

We’ve all got our favourite authors, and some of them aren’t highly regarded by the critics, but who cares? If books are like food, why not have the occasional naughty treat?

My own list of got-to-read authors includes Walter Mosley, James Lee Burke, John Connolly, Michael Connelly, Barbara Kingsolver, Andrea Camilleri, Annie Dillard, Alice Hoffman, Dennis Lehane, Henning Mankell, Elizabeth Strout, Jo Nesbø, Justin Cartwright, Haruki Murakami, C. J. Sansom, Ann Patchett, Joe R. Lansdale, Don Winslow, Donald Ray Pollock and Jane Harper.

I read two hugely impressive debut novels in 2017, which whet my appetite for the second titles by Lars Mytting and by Kim Zupan.

My list of authors I seek out is based on those that I like. There are plenty of novelists whose books I admire, but don’t particularly like. As an example of this, I recently re-read Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, which was written in a complex way, with long sections devoted to streams of consciousness. Woolf was experimenting with ways of writing a novel, as part of the Modernist movement, but it doesn’t make for easy reading.

Who floats your boat?

Which author makes you forget what you’re doing, to read their story?