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What Makes a Page Turner

An interview with Maeve Binchy

This wonderful author was a favourite of mine as a young teenager. Maeve Binchy had a way of making me feel the characters emotions and kept me turning the pages until the very last one. I was almost surprised when I finished her book ‘Circle of Friends‘ as it was the first of her books that I had read and I couldn’t believe it had finished so soon. The experience was like a few hours with a great friend. You know when you cease to look at the clock, stop running though all the things you still need to do, and get so immersed in conversation that you have no idea where the time went? Well, that was what her books were like to me. There was a warmth in her writing and an understanding of people, and of life, which made me pick up and finish one book after the next. Every writer wants to emulate this in their books and every reader seeks this kind of book – a page turner. She shares her experiences.

So, what does she have to say about make a book a page turner?

Use your experiences – 

She emphasises the need for characters to do ordinary things, and draws on her experience of staying a hotel and not knowing whether or not to make the bed, as she had never stayed in a hotel before. Amazingly, many readers sent her letters to say that they had the same question. It seems basic, but finding every day situations that will help the reader to connect with a character and will add to the emotional connection is important.

People need to get to know the characters quite well –

Readers often feel the same way as a character in a given situation, and characters make mistakes. We all make mistakes and part of the reading experience, I think, is to have that ‘me too’ moment when you feel for the character because you have been in that situation or you are rooting for them and want things to work out. That is the mark of a good book.

Good doesn’t always triumph –

Good does not always win over evil in a book but it is important for the characters to make life as good as it can be. Maeve says that all her heroes always make life as good as possible in her books. You might have an antagonist who obviously choses a different route but it is important for the protagonist get to a point where they find the best of life.

Not every book needs to have an epic story line to be successful – 

Plot is important but a book does not need to be Lord of the Rings to succeed. Take a look at Fifty Shades of Grey! The key element of a book for readers and writers alike should be the characters and what they are striving for, or avoiding, or delaying. Whatever the purpose of their actions, their thoughts and actions need to be compelling.


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Interview 1 – with Booker Prize Short List Author of Narcopolis – Jeet Thayil

I’ve been watching some interesting author interviews recently, so I decide to start a series of blog posts on interviews with different authors. There should be nuggets of wisdom for both readers and writers. Today, Stuart Evers interviews the Booker Prize Shortlist author of Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil, at the Faber offices. I love Faber books and when I discovered Faber Finds (launched in 2008, it has brought 1,000 out-of-print titles back into print) I stocked up on some fantastic books. One of my favourite books is Love and Freedom by Rosemary Kavan. The wife of a Communist in post-war Prague, she pens an emotionally charged memoir of her life through the Prague Spring and the trials of the 50s. I bought this for book research for my novel. Honestly, though, I would have read it and kept it regardless. There was a certain amount of serendipity in the fact that the first edition, bought second hand before finding the Faber edition, arrived in the post with a letter from a young girl to her sister. The letter was a deeply personal one and dated February 1993 – the exact date of the start of my novel.

So, if you have just under ten minutes to watch the interview – I’ll grab a coffee while you watch it – I’m sure you’ll find Jeet’s conversation about the writing process really interesting. What strikes most readers is the sheer length of the first page – 7 pages – a structural idea, which came to him much later on. It caused him to go back and re-write, having found the essence of the story. I have read a great deal about plotting and structure and the need for pre-planning, but I’m a writer who likes to let the story unfold as I lay the words down. Having finished my novel and some recent short stoies, I honestly can’t imagine planning it all out in advance. For me it crushes the creativity. Other authors would disagree, I know.

‘I’m not one of those guys who knows before commencing work exactly how the story is going to go – beginning, middle and end. I discovered it as I was writing,’ says Jeet Thayil.

What are your thoughts on plotting versus letting the plot unfold? How do you write? What works and what doesn’t?

I’ve started Narcopolis today and the descriptions are lyrical and sharp. It is an intriguing read.


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Why do you write?

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

This is a question many people ask authors, and sometimes authors ask themselves the very same question. It is hard to put the answer into words and there are different reasons for each person. What it comes down to for a majority of writers is an incredibly vivid imagination and a passion for words.

Having spent years teaching English to children, I am a grammar and punctuation freak. I often want to take a black felt-tip pen to shop signs and flyers advertising items using really bad grammar. You can probably imagine that I own a copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Well, you’re right – it’s sitting next to Lost in Translation. I also enjoy reading Port Out, Starboard Home: And Other Language Myths. It’s a perfect gift for anyone who loves to know about the idiosyncrasies and origins of words. The author, Michael Quinion, has contributed extensively to the Oxford English Dictionary. He is an English Etymologist who explains the origins of words and phrases. Why are meals square? He published a U.S. version Ballyhoo, Buckaroo and Spuds: Ingenious Tales of Words and Their Origins.

So, back to writing. I often think that writing came out of the blue for me five years ago when I began my first novel, but when I think back to my childhood I remember journals and poetry. I kept diaries and travel journals. I wrote reams of poems and tucked them all way. Then when I studied English A Level I was captivated by the words of an English Professor who taught us about Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost.’ The words jumped off the page and danced – images flittered through my mind and I think it was at that point that I fell in love with language, and with the way that words can be used to create scenes in your imagination.

I think many writers write both because they want to, and because they have to. When you have a story that needs to be written down, it won’t go away. Despite the discipline and determination required to finish, and then to edit your work, and the numerous other factors which draw you away, there is something intangible which keeps you there, writing the story. It’s hard to explain, but for me it is something like the process of colours being applied to a canvas – the artist can see the image before it appears but the colours need to be applied and layered to form texture and an image. It is the same with words, I can see the scene in my mind but the words – dialogue and narrative – have to be applied in layers to form an image that will be imprinted in the mind of another person, the reader.


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Editing and the overuse of words – make each word count

Edit Ruthlessly

I don’t know about you but I find book editing so much more difficult than the actual writing process. It feels as though you are dissecting the life out of your creativity and destroying your story. If you are a good writer, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will also make a good editor, entrepreneur or (add any other hat).

If you self-publish then the amount of head-spinning changes that you will have to make throughout the writing, editing, publishing and marketing process are phenomenal and at each stage you are wearing a different hat. It is a cycle that many writers resist until they can get to the stage of writing again and beginning the next book.

At the editing stage there is one issue that has played on my mind recently, the overuse of words. After having put my book through beta readers, two professional edits and many, many of my own edits – I’ve lost count – there are still issues popping up, mainly the overuse of words. I obviously have a penchant for certain words, which I’ve used on multiple occasions, we all do. For example, I found ‘somehow’ more than ten times. What purpose does the word serve? Not much, exactly! So I either slashed or replaced it. You can use the ‘find’ function on word, as it speeds up the process, but don’t automatically replace one word with another. Think about the flow of the sentence, the context and the grammar.

Have a look at these words, all on the top of the lists of overused words:

Awesome

Unique

Interesting

Basically

Literally

Really

What do they tell you? Not a lot. The point is that every word needs to drive the plot forward or give the reader a better understanding of a character, which in turn drives the plot forward. Many writers use ineffective words as padding and it derails the pace. If you want to keep the pace going you need to keep your writing tight.

If I wrote ‘The scene of the crime was literally a swarm of reporters, all really hoping for a snap’ would you keep reading? Would you still be awake?

How about ‘The body lay inside a ringed fence, flash-bulbs lit up the scene.’  Better? These are basic but give you the idea. I would also advise against using words like ‘little’. I found that I’d used the word ‘perched’ twice  for a character who would never ‘perch’. It’s not even an appealing word. What about ‘very’ and ‘get’? It’s easy for these words to go unnoticed but it is important to make each word count.

Which words do you use too frequently?


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3 things to think about when using indirect characterisation

Characterisation is an important part of bringing the reader into the world of your story. It helps to make the characters real and will keep the pages turning. When the reader knows your character they try to predict how he or she will respond in any situation you place them in. With good characterisation the reader will want to know exactly how your character behaves and feels and why. This can be done using direct or indirect characterisation.

Authors often give us direct characterisation and state attributes of a character – ‘Megan was stubborn and independent, never accepting help from anyone.’ This tells us instantly what she is like.

Indirect characterisation can be more subtle, leaving the reader to figure out what the character is like. This can be done in several ways so we’re going to take a look at dialogue, body language and the responses of other characters:

Dialogue 

Characters reveal their thoughts or feelings through dialogue. Their words can show their age, gender, attitude, mood, background and their relationship to the other person/people in the conversation. The dialogue can also show a stark contrast to the character’s body language. You might have a character who is shuffling or restless but their words sound calm and controlled. In this case the dialogue doesn’t work in isolation. The reader will be wondering why there is a contrast and what the character is really thinking. If Frank says to Dora, ‘It’s been a quiet day, nothing to report. Can I get you anything?’ while pacing across the driveway, you’re left wondering – what their relationship is like, what he should be reporting and why he seems restless if there is nothing to share.

Dialogue can be used to show a range of emotions:

‘I need to call him before it’s too late.’

‘She didn’t tell me the car wouldn’t be there. Wait till I get hold of her.’

‘Marty, I need to check the switches, I don’t want to leave anything on. Do you think the house will be alright?’

‘The city is alive and buzzing, especially for a new kid in town.’

‘The officer looked half dead, I doubt we’ll make it out of here tonight.’

‘This is the best job in the world. I feel alive. I’m alive.’

These quote show characters with different emotions, issues, characteristics and with just one line of dialogue the reader gains a better understanding of who the character is and what makes them tick.

the shadow

Body language

Body language experts tell us that only 10% of our communication is through words themselves (although the figures tend to vary). Most of our communication is non-verbal: eye movements, posture, gestures, facial expressions. If this is the case then it we need to pay close attention what we write about the non-verbal communication of our characters. How can you get your character to appear nervous, angry, distracted or elated without words?

Have a look at these:

He spun the pencil, avoiding the man’s gaze.

Carry leaped up from her seat and hugged the doctor, this was the news she had hoped for.

Miles pressed his fist into the wall, his heart pounding as he heard the verdict.

She raised her eyebrows, her head tiled as the next one arrived.

These aren’t all subtle but see what I mean about body language? These characters haven’t said a word but I would guess you have at least one scene in your mind from any one of these sentences. You can create a character very quickly with just a few gestures or expressions. Have a look at these for some ideas.

A few tips:

Proximity to other characters show how close the person is to the other character.

People who are uncomfortable in themselves or in certain situations won’t make eye contact. A person who is lying may not make good eye contact (although there are exceptions to the rules).

Can you make characters mirror one another in a conversation? It can show closeness and acceptance.

Other Characters

Aside from a one man stage show, most narratives have a range of characters. This can be a useful way of characterising either a main character or other characters in your writing. We all interact in different ways depending on – how well we know the person, possibly their gender or age, what they have done to us or how they respond to us, how much we trust them…and the list goes on, but you see what I’m getting at. The responses to your star play will tell us a lot about A) your star player and B) the other characters.

Nobody came near him, the bench was a form of solitary confinement.

The neighbours always appreciated a call from Betty, they liked to hear her voice.

All the staff stood up when Bob walked into the room.

Even the dog cowered when Dad came downstairs.

Rachel tried to get people to help her pack her bags at the counter but noone would even look at her.

Brent couldn’t understand why people phased out of the conversation when he spoke.

These are just a few of the many ways we can characterise in our writing. Of all of these I think I have found body language to be the most interesting and complicated in my writing because it can convey so much but it needs to be done carefully. When done well, it leads to powerful images etched into the mind of the reader.


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3 things to remember when editing your book

Leave it to rest

Once you have finished your manuscript it’s really important to put it down and have a break from your ‘world’ of characters and plot. If it’s a work of non-ficiton this rule still applies. You have spent years, or at the very least months, working on this book and it needs time to settle – much like a good red wine: open the bottle, let it breathe, and drink. Mmm…I can smell it but let’s not get distracted by wine. If it’s on paper, which is unusual these days, tuck it into a drawer, preferably where a dog or small child can’t reach! If it is electronic then back up, back up, back up. Did I say back up? I can’t over state the need for this. You don’t want to spend precious hours re-editing your work. It’s a tough enough job as it is. Use external hard drives, USB sticks, email, cloud, dropbox– anything you feel comfortable with. Don’t assume that because it is on your computer that it’s safe. Trust me, my mac has crashed completely during the writing of my book and it is almost ready for publication. It has needed two new screens and a new chip and it’s not that old. I love it but they are not foolproof and things do go wrong.

A glass of red wine. Photo taken in Montreal C...

Read it aloud

Reading your work out loud helps you to pick up on any awkward words or uneven and over packed sentences. Try it with just a page of your writing – honestly, it helps. Sometimes when you read the words in your head you miss things which won’t sound right to a new reader. Your writing needs to flow and to do this it is important to hear how it sounds. You have read these sentences over and over but hearing them will give you a fresh perspective. If you can find a kind soul who will read at least a part of it to you this will help.

Edit in stages

It’s up to you how you do this  and everybody edits work in different ways. There are different levels of editing which need looking at:

1. The fine detail of spelling – check for consistent spelling. Are you writing for a UK or American market? Pick the spelling your target readers are used to and stick to it.

2. Grammar – I can’t recommend highly enough the book  The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This little gem should be in the pockets of every  writer, and anyone who uses words for their job. It contains the best of every critical grammar rule and the authors’ writing on style is timeless.

3. Style – this brings me back to the book above. Strunk and White stress the need to avoid over writing with this quote: ‘If the sickly-sweet word, or the overblown phrase are your natural form of expression, as is sometimes the case, you will have to compensate for it by a show of vigour, and by writing something as meritorious as the Song of Songs,which is Solomon’s.’  The issue of style is important. Your style needs to be consistent. For new writers it takes time to find your voice. Holly Lisle writes a great article about this here.

4. Structure – are you plot and characters believable? Does your story hang together tightly? Is your story arc smooth? Here is a graph to show story arcs for TV and graphic fiction. Does your main character or characters move through different stages and conflicts? Is there tension in the plot? Do they face opposition to their desires? These questions are endless but it is important to check that the structure of the book works. If you are writing non-fiction have a look at this for structural pointers.

Happy editing and enjoy a glass of red (or whatever you fancy) when you’ve finished for the day. I wouldn’t recommend doing both together, although some people manage it.


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W. H. Auden

‘Stop all the clocks’ is one of many favourite poems, and I went to visit Auden’s rented summer-house at Kirchstetten, in Austria, recently.
It is where he penned many of his poems and the upstairs room where he wrote has been preserved as a museum, with his book shelves, kettles, empty vodka bottles, typewriter and slippers still in place. I really enjoy both photography and writing, so I wanted to begin this blog by sharing some of the photographs of the upper room of the summer-house, in the hope that it might inspire your writing as much as it did mine. His typewriter sits neatly on his desk, where you can look out over views of the quiet street and lush green trees, made me wonder what it must have been like for him during his writing day, working in a secluded location in the middle the most beautiful countryside. It reminded me of George Orwell’s hideaway, which he also rented on the Isle of Jura, where he penned ‘1984’. There is something about isolation for writers that seems to trigger bursts of creativity. I sometimes find that I need a cafe with noise, and people milling about and chatting, but it is in the quiet places that an idea often forms in a chrysalis, and where the words appear on the page, inviting me on a journey with characters and events.