What I like in such books is not just practical advice, but someone who gives me encouragement.
For this, I recommend Walter Mosley’sThis Year You Write Your Novel. It’s a mere 103 pages, readable in a few hours, but it contains reassuring and common sense advice that any writer could benefit from, even though it’s aimed at debut authors.
Incidentally, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style is widely recommended, but bear in mind that it was first published 100 years ago and revised in 1959, making its advice formal and dated. It still holds good advice, especially about concision.
It is available as a free download in several places, but Project Gutenberg offers the widest choice of file types:
Now is the time of year when newspapers and websites are full of lists detailing critics and authors’ best books of the previous twelve months.
I gave my favourite reads of 2017, so I’ll continue the tradition with my baker’s dozen (or so) of favourite reads.
Not all of my choices were published this year, and there are several novels that are part of a long series, including a couple that are sequels or prequels to successful stories.
1)Lamentation by C. J. Sansom. The sixth story in the Matthew Shardlake series.
I can’t praise these books enough. Even if you don’t normally read historical fiction, you’d like them, as they hook the reader in. I prefer Sansom’s handling of the Tudor period to that of Hilary Mantel, as he has more warmth in his writing and conveys the fears of ordinary citizens better. A new story in the series was published in October, called Tombland.
2) Robicheauxby James Lee Burke. I’ve read all of the Dave Robicheaux series, and this is the twenty-first story. Burke is a writing heavyweight whose technique is something to aspire to. He gives a strong sense of place, tying historical events into contemporary attitudes with great characterisation.
A humbling read from a Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology, who literally knows death inside out. Not as macabre as you might think, with unexpected moments of humour, her memoir is gripping and full of wisdom.
An unexpected pleasure. I’d read favourable reviews, but Miller’s unusual approach to crime writing gave me food for thought, as he goes off at tangents, making his stories as much character portrayals as they are entertaining and involving mysteries.
I normally steer clear of alternate histories, but I liked the blurb on the cover of this novel that I picked up in the library. I was soon gripped, as the author’s premise of a continuing form of slavery was believable and there were plenty of ‘what-would-you-do?’ thrills. Good characterisation and an effective condemnation of corporate America. I preferred it to Colson Whitehead’s highly-praised The Underground Railroad.
I read this novel as part of my research into the world of art and forgery, for my latest Cornish Detective novel is set in the art colony of Saint Ives. I was captivated by the masterful writing and how the author wove two time periods into the narrative. Smith has a lightness of touch using arresting imagery that makes you think deeply about creativity and possession of the finished product.
A prequel to Practical Magic Hoffman’s most successful novel, and adapted into a Hollywood movie. The author weaves her spell in an entrancing way, making the reader believe that witchcraft has a place in contemporary society. Deft handling of intimate moments makes you feel a part of the story.
This book appeared on so many listicles, that it almost put me off reading it. I’m glad that I did, for it’s a mind-expanding challenge. The author makes some rather woolly assertions, which made me wonder if he was being deliberately provocative, as surely so and so was more likely….Damn it, he made me think!
After enjoying The Sisters Brothers, which was an offbeat Western, I wondered how the author would handle a modern setting. The plotting is off kilter, making you wonder what’s going to happen next…almost as if deWitt is throwing a dice to decide the action. The mother and son protagonists are not people you’d want to get too close to, as you’d be safer observing them at a distance. Gloriously and madly self-destructive, they stick in the memory. Oh, and there’s also a bonkers cat character called Small Frank who’s the reincarnation of the mother’s dead husband! A fun read.
You know how we’re advised to start our story with a hook, and that it’s wise to have a moment of tension or a question at the end of each chapter, that compels the reader to turn the page? Well, try reading Adam Hamdy’s third novel, which does just this really well. His hero is quite the most resistant to injury character I’ve encountered, but the plot is thrilling and the tension never quits.
Powerful storytelling with a strong sense of place in a claustrophobic coastal community in Maine. Sure to divide sympathies, the main character Olive is a force of nature. Lots of truth about what it means to be human, so not always an easy read.
I was drawn to read this novel, after watching a BBC documentary on Flanagan in which he discussed the writing of it. He’s a personable chap, with his feet firmly on the ground and not one to bullshit about the mysteries of his craft. His novel is also fluff-free and though a harrowing read is life-affirming.
This year, I read his Rose Gold, Known To Evil, When The Thrill Is Gone, Down TheRiver Unto The Sea, And Sometimes I Wonder About You and And All I Did Was Shoot My Man.
Not only does he come up with brilliant titles, but his plotting is serpentine and engrossing. Mosley is great at thumbnail sketches of incidental characters, and inserting his MC’s internal dialogue into the action. Even if you don’t like crime novels, his are worth a look to see how he makes everything look so easy.
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?
It’s a short book of fewer than 25,000 words, aimed at newbie authors, but any writer would benefit from his common sense advice. It has the welcome qualities of not only offering useful tips but being encouraging in an arm-around-the-shoulder way, as well as gently cajoling you to just get on with writing the words.
One section of the second chapter, The Elements of Fiction, startled me when I first read it until I realised how astute Mosley’s advice is:
the pedestrian in fiction
Maybe your character gets up out of bed and walks across the room to the mirror. You need her to see the bags under her eyes and lines on her aging face. That’s good. But in order to have us feel what it is to get up out of that bed, we might want to add a little more: the sound of the sheets falling to the floor; the urge to urinate, which the protagonist resists to see what time and life have wrought upon her visage; the grit beneath her bare feet on the floor; the pain in her left knee that has been with her since a time, years ago, when she twisted her ankle on a stone stairway while attending her mother’s funeral—the mother whom she now very much resembles. Every one of these details tells and also shows us something about our protagonist and/ or her world.
Most of these details are pedestrian. Why, you might ask, would we want to make the experiences of our characters ordinary? Because everyday experiences help the reader relate to the character, which sets up the reader’s acceptance of more extraordinary events that may unfold.
If your audience believes in the daily humdrum physical and emotional experiences of your characters, then your readers will believe in those character’s reality and thus can be taken further.
Even a rugged hero facing a confrontation with an evil mastermind will have everyday needs and preoccupations, which when mentioned make them three-dimensional, rather than a cardboard cutout representing the forces of justice.
As writers, we’re constantly advised to polish our sentences, paragraphs and chapters—and it’s always recommended that less is more—but, terse brilliance may mean eliminating, (or not even thinking of), the obvious. Even famous authors do this, so focused on the plot, that they forget to mention their protagonist needs to eat or sleep, and that he should have a few bruises after being beaten senseless in an alleyway in the previous chapter.
Sometimes, not a lot happensaction-wise, but your characters still have thoughts and interact with people. These situations allow for pedestrian writing that adds valuable elements to the story. In my Cornish Detective series, I always have a chapter where the protagonist detective meets with his best friend, a forensic pathologist, at an Indian restaurant. This device allows me to explore my hero’s private life, for his older friend has long offered him wise counsel and he opens up to her.
By letting readers into the mind of a multi-faceted copper, showing his strengths and weaknesses, I hope to engender loyalty. His doubts and dreams are similar to the readers; he’s an ordinary man doing an extraordinary job, and showing how he navigates through everyday tasks adds realism as well as offering opportunities for plot developments.
In one of my novels, the detective protagonist visited the supermarket, on his way back from searching for the corpse of a murder victim whose head had been placed atop a road sign. As he parked, he spotted a heavily-scarred thug he fancied for the killing, who was peacefully sat on a park bench watching a song thrush sing against the backdrop of purple storm clouds. He went across to chat with him—getting useful insights into how a violent man thinks.
My detective remembered to go and buy his chamomile tea, thus returning to a pedestrian activity after a frisson of excitement.
However, too much detail of the mundane can be a bad thing. I’ve just given up on reading a novel set in the world of art theft, as perpetrated by the Mafia, who use valuable paintings as currency and collateral. Located in Florence, which was described in painstaking detail as the private investigator trudged around when he wasn’t eating restaurant meals or consuming the contents of the mini-bar in his hotel room. All that happened in 200 pages was pedestrian writing and I lost interest. I started to despise the protagonist, who appeared to be lost in a tourist guide. While slogging through it, I was reminded of Mark Twain’s observation:
The test of any good fiction is that you should care something for the characters; the good to succeed, the bad to fail. The trouble with most fiction is that you want them all to land in hell, together, as quickly as possible.
There should be a name for the sense of satisfaction that comes when a jaded reader gives up on a tiresome book.
Do you incorporate ordinary everyday events into your stories?
Are your characters fallible in little ways? Frailties are a good way of generating empathy from the reader.