Tag Archives: Fiction

How to write a best-selling novel

ANDY MARTIN, University of Cambridge
April, 2016

So you want to write a novel? Of course you do. Everyone wants to write a novel at some stage in their lives. While you’re at it, why not make it a popular bestseller? Who wants to write an unpopular worstseller? Therefore, make it a thriller. It worked for Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth …

Every now and then I come across excellent advice for the apprentice writer. There was a fine recent article, for example, in The Big Thrill (the house magazine of International Thriller Writers) on “how to lift the saggy middle” of a story. Like baking a cake. And then there is Eden Sharp’s The Thriller Formula, her step-by-step would-be writer’s self-help manual, drawing on both classic books and movies. I felt after reading it that I really ought to be able to put theory into practice (as she does in The Breaks).

Lee Child and Andy Martin. Photo by Jessica Lehman, Creative Commons

Lee Child and Andy Martin. Photo by Jessica Lehman, Creative Commons

But then I thought: why not go straight to the source? Just ask a “New York Times No. 1 bestseller” writer how it’s done. So, as I have recounted here before, I knocked on Lee Child’s door in Manhattan. For the benefit of the lucky Child-virgins who have yet to read the first sentence of his first novel (“I was arrested in Eno’s Diner”), Child, born in Coventry, is the author of the globally huge Jack Reacher series, featuring an XXL ex-army MP drifter vigilante.

It is a golden rule among members of the Magic Circle that, when asked: “How did you do that?”, magicians must do no more than smile mysteriously. Child helpfully twitched aside the curtain and revealed all. Mainly because he wanted to know himself how he did it. He wasn’t quite sure. He only took up writing because he got sacked from Granada TV. Now he has completed 20 novels with another one on the way. And has a Renoir and an Andy Warhol on the wall. Windows looking out over Central Park. Grammar school boy done well.

Cigarettes and coffee

He swears by large amounts of coffee (up to 30 cups, black, per day) and cigarettes (one pack of Camels, maybe two). Supplemented by an occasional pipe (filled with marijuana). “Your main problem is going to be involuntary inhalation,” he said, as I settled down to watch him write, looking over his shoulder, perched on a psychoanalyst’s couch a couple of yards behind him.

Which was about one yard away from total insanity for both of us.

Especially given that I stuck around for about the next nine months as he wrote Make Me: from the first word (“Moving”) through to the last (“needle”), with occasional breathers. A bizarre experiment, I guess, a “howdunnit”, although Child did say he would like to do it all again, possibly on the 50th book.

Maybe I shouldn’t be giving this away for free, but, beyond all the caffeine and nicotine, I think there actually is a magic formula. For a long while I thought it could be summed up in two words: sublime confidence. “This is not the first draft”, Child said, right at the outset, striking a Reacher-like note. “It’s the only draft!”

Don’t plan, don’t map it all out in advance, be spontaneous, instinctive. Enjoy the vast emptiness of the blank page. It will fill. Child compares starting a new book to falling off a cliff. You just have to have faith that there will be a soft landing. Child calls this methodology his patented “clueless” approach.

Look Ma, I’m a writer

To be fair, not all successful writers work like this. Ian Rankin, for one (in his case I relied on conventional channels of communication rather than breaking into his house and staring at him intently for long periods) goes through three or four drafts before he is happy – and makes several pages of notes too.

And yet, with his Rebus series set in Edinburgh, Rankin has produced as many bestsellers as Child. Rebus also demonstrates that your hero does not necessarily have to be 6’5” with biceps the size of Popeye’s. And can be past retiring age too, as per the most recent Even Dogs in the Wild.

Child has a few key pointers for the would-be author: “Write the fast stuff slow and the slow stuff fast.” And: “Ask a question you can’t answer.” Rankin also advises: “No digressions, no lengthy and flowery descriptions.” He has a style, and recurrent “tropes”, but no “system”. And Child is similarly sceptical about Elmore Leonard’s “10 rules of writing”. “‘Never use an adverb’? Never is an adverb!” And what about Leonard’s scorn for starting with the weather? “What if it really is a dark and stormy night? What am I supposed to do, lie?”

Child never disses other writers. OK, almost never (there is one he wants to challenge to unarmed combat). But he is dismissive of a certain writerly attitude, a self-conscious mentality which he summarises as follows: “Hey, Ma, look – I’m writing!” And here we come close to the secret, the magic potion that if you could bottle it would be worth a fortune in book sales. Do the opposite. If you want to be a writer, the secret is: don’t be a writer. Try and forget you are writing (difficult, I know).

This is why both Child and Rankin speak with such reverence for the narrative “voice”. And why both privilege dialogue. The successful writer is a throwback to a vast, lost, oral tradition, pre-Homer. Another thing, fast-forwarding, they share in common: the default alter ego is rock star. It’s all about the vibe. Everything has to sound good when you read it aloud.

Art is theft

But if you seriously want to be a writer, think like a reader. Child explained this to me the other day in relation to his novel, Gone Tomorrow, set in New York, which is now often used to teach creative writing. “I introduce this beautiful mysterious woman. I started out thinking: I want my hero to go to bed with her. And then I thought: hold on, isn’t the reader going to be asking: ‘What if she is … bad?’” A small but crucial tweak: one letter – from bed to bad.

“So!“ you might well conclude, “isn’t this bloke like one of those con men who offer to show you how to make a fortune (for a modest outlay) and you think: ‘Well, why don’t you do it then?’” Fair comment. Which is why I am starting a novel right now about an upstart fan who tricks his way into a successful writer’s apartment and steals all his best ideas. I don’t know why, it just came to me in a flash of inspiration. Maybe that, in a word, is the core of all great art: theft.

Creative CommonsThe Conversation

Andy Martin is a Lecturer, Department of French, University of Cambridge. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original articleAndy Martin in conversation with Lee Child is part of the Cambridge Literary Festival on April 14.

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Man Booker International 2016 Longlist

DEBORAH JONES
March, 2016

Household, pseudonymous and new names are included on the longlist of 13 books in line for the prestigious Man Booker International Prize, released March 10.

Contenders include Turkey’s household name Orhan Pamuk; the ever-mysterious Italian, Elena Ferrante — who writes under a pseudonym; South Korea’s Han Kang; Indonesia’s Eka Kurniawan; and Finland’s Aki Ollikainen. The 13 were winnowed from an initial stack of 155.

“Our selection highlights the sheer diversity of great fiction today,” said judging panel chair Boyd Tonkin, of the Independent newspaper, in a press release.

“From intense episodes of passion to miniature historical epics; from eerie fables of family strife to character-driven chronicles of urban life, this list showcases fiction that crosses every border. It also pays tribute to the skill and dedication of the first-rate translators who convey it to English-language readers,” said Tonkin’s statement.

The other judges on the panel are novelist Tahmima Anam; Princeton University academic David Bellos; editor and academic Daniel Medin; and British poet and author Ruth Padel.

The international Man Booker, sponsored by the British investment house Man Group, joined this year with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

The short list of six will be released April 14, with each author and translator receiving UK £1,000. The final winner will be announced on May 16. The grand prize of UK £50,000 will be split equally between each book’s author and translater.

The real prize, however, is the priceless name recognition from having won a Man Booker.

Here is the longlist of books in contention, with the author and nationality first, followed by the translator, title, and imprint:

José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola) Daniel Hahn, A General Theory of Oblivion (Harvill Secker)

Elena Ferrante (Italy) Ann Goldstein, The Story of the Lost Child (Europa Editions)

Han Kang (South Korea) Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian (Portobello Books)

Maylis de Kerangal (France) Jessica Moore, Mend the Living (Maclehose Press)

Eka Kurniawan (Indonesia) Labodalih Sembiring, Man Tiger (Verso Books)

Yan Lianke (China) Carlos Rojas, The Four Books (Chatto & Windus)

Fiston Mwanza Mujila (Democratic Republic of Congo/Austria) Roland Glasser, Tram 83 (Jacaranda)

Raduan Nassar (Brazil) Stefan Tobler, A Cup of Rage (Penguin Modern Classics)

Marie NDiaye (France) Jordan Stump, Ladivine (Maclehose Press)

Kenzaburō Ōe (Japan) Deborah Boliner Boem, Death by Water (Atlantic Books)

Aki Ollikainen (Finland) Emily Jeremiah & Fleur Jeremiah, White Hunger (Peirene Press)

Orhan Pamuk (Turkey) Ekin Oklap, A Strangeness in My Mind (Faber & Faber)

Robert Seethaler (Austria) Charlotte Collins, A Whole Life (Picador)

— Deborah Jones

Further reading from F&O’s archives:

The Man Booker is stacked in favour of big publishers, By Stevie Marsden, July, 2015

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction has announced its longlist for the 2015 award. Now in its 46th year, the award is among the most prestigious in the literary world. It is also incredibly generous to the big publishing houses. Five of the six books shortlisted last year came from Penguin Random House, following a longlist where nine out of the 13 books came from the big publishers. This year it is eight out of 13. But whether or not you think this sounds too much, the real problem lies in submission rules that risk locking in this dominance and making it progressively worse in years to come.

Man Booker Prize: Colonization’s Long Shadow , By Preti TanejaOctober, 2014

Richard Flanagan is the winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize with his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Giving his acceptance speech he said, “In Australia the Man Booker is seen as something of a chicken raffle. I just did not expect to end up the chicken.”

Judging the Man Booker Prize, By Dinah Birch, July, 2014

This year’s run-up to the naming of the Man Booker Prize winner has just begun, with the announcement of the 13 novels that make up the longlist. They will soon be dissected and analysed by readers and critics all over the world. For the first time, the prize has been open to writers of any nationality, as long as their work was originally in English and was published in the United Kingdom.

Elsewhere on the web:

Successfully absent: Elena Ferrante’s Italian books, by Giorgia Alu, The Conversation

Italian novelist Elena Ferrante is a cult author. She is defined as “one of the great novelists of our time” in The New York Times Book Review, “the best contemporary novelist you have never heard of” in The Economist, and “one of Italy’s finest novelists” in the Times Literary Supplement, and so on and so forth. She is also known for fiercely protecting her true identity.

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There’s something mysterious about reviving Harper Lee’s Mockingbird

By Richard Gray, University of Essex 
February 6, 2015

Every now and then, the writer Josephine Humphreys has suggested, our lives veer from their day-to-day course and become for a short while “the kind of life that can be told as a story – that is, one in which events appear to have meaning”. As the astounding news breaks that she is to publish a second novel, Harper Lee must be feeling like her life has become a story – a story which the meaning of remains just a little hidden and mysterious.

Harper Lee being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, November 5, 2007. White House photo by Eric Draper

Harper Lee being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, November 5, 2007. White House photo by Eric Draper

The background to this story seems simple and straightforward enough. Harper Lee was born Nelle Lee in the small town of Monroe, Alabama in 1926. Her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was a lawyer who, among other things, defended two African Americans accused of murdering a white storekeeper. Given the racist attitudes prevalent in the South at that time, it must have come as no surprise to anyone when the two men were found guilty, despite serious doubts over the evidence, and hanged.

Lee was a tomboy as a child. (Yes, To Kill a Mockingbird is deeply autobiographical). She then developed an interest in English literature as a school and college student. Moving to New York in 1949, she worked in various jobs and spent her spare time writing several long short stories, none of which were published.

The turning point in her early life came when Lee developed what had begun as a string of short stories into a novel that was eventually published in 1960 as To Kill a Mockingbird. It was an immediate success, winning several awards including a Pulitzer Prize and went on to sell more than 30 million copies worldwide. In 1999 it was voted “Best Novel of the Century” in a poll by the Library Journal.

And the popular acclaim hardly stops there. In 1991, a survey of 5,000 Americans conducted by the Library of Congress to find out which book had made the greatest difference in readers’ lives listed To Kill a Mockingbird second only to the Bible. Bill Clinton claimed that reading the novel inspired him to become a lawyer. And, ironically, during President Clinton’s impeachment proceedings, the special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, tried to co-opt the novel’s hero, Atticus Finch, for the prosecution. The response of Clinton’s attorney, David E Kendall, was to write a piece for the New York Times titled: “To Distort a Mockingbird”, interpreting the moral values of the novel in defence of the president.

So far, so straightforward: but this is where the story begins slowly to turn strange. The central consciousness in To Kill a Mockingbird, a tomboyish young girl called Scout is clearly based on the author herself. Autobiographical it may be, but Lee was and remains a deeply private person; a symptom of this is that she identified herself as “Harper” not “Nelle” when the book was published. After publication, Lee seemed almost mortified by its success: “I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird,” she said in 1964.

“I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.”

Perhaps it was this, being frightened by her own success and the subsequent invasion of her privacy, that persuaded Lee to become a virtual recluse. She has granted almost no requests for interviews or public appearances. At one of the few public ceremonies she agreed to attend, in 2007, she reacted to an invitation to address the audience by declaring: “Well, it’s better to be silent than a fool.” And, apart from a few short essays, she has published nothing more. Until recently, she appeared likely to join the ranks of those many American authors whose first completed and published novel is also their last.

Now comes the strangest part of the story. Lee is now very frail. According to her late sister Alice, writing in 2011, she “can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence”. Presumably, she has confidence in her lawyer who, according to Lee, discovered the manuscript of this second novel, Go Set a Watchman.

The novel describes an adult Scout returning to Maycomb County, visiting her father and recalling her childhood. A sequel, in a way, to Mockingbird, it was evidently written prior to it; after reading the story, Lee’s editor asked her to rewrite it from the viewpoint of Scout as a child. “I was a first-time writer”, Lee has said, “so I did what I was told” – and the rest is literary history.

“I hadn’t realised it had survived”, Lee has said of the discovery of Go Set a Watchman: “So I was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”

Exactly what part, if any, Lee has played in the preparation of the manuscript for press is unclear. What is clear is that the initial print run is for two million copies. Also unclear, to me at least, is the precise relationship of Go Set a Watchman to Mockingbird: do the two stories, for instance, overlap at all, given that the 1960 novel evolved out of this earlier manuscript? Precisely what the status is of Go Set a Watchman as a story – and a story worth reading – also remains open to debate.

Less open to debate is the strange, compelling character of the story of its origins. An ageing author, with just one novel to her credit, the surprise discovery of a manuscript that she thought had been lost, the mystery surrounding the condition of the author… all this is the stuff of fiction.

A belief of Emily Dickinson comes particularly to mind:

Publication – is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man

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The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Related viewing:

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Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Help sustain us by telling others about us, and purchasing a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page.

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Harper Lee’s gamble could undermine her Mockingbird

By Paul Giles, University of Sydney
February 6, 2015

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, has sold tens of millions of copies worldwide, and was voted The Greatest Novel of All Time in a London Daily Telegraph poll of 2008. To say there was a little pressure on its follow-up – some 55 years later – would be an understatement.

Lee, 88, has announced she will in July publish her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, involving some of the same characters as To Kill a Mockingbird. It is certain to be a commercial success, and indeed Lee’s publishers, Harper Collins, are planning an initial print run of 2 million copies.

In truth, though, Go Set a Watchman will be less a “new” novel than a variorum edition, or “director’s cut,” of To Kill a Mockingbird itself. In that work’s original manuscript, which turned up by chance last year, the focus is not so much on the six-year-old Scout Finch, from whose perspective Mockingbird is related, but on Scout Finch as a New York lawyer who returns to her fictional southern town of Maycomb to visit her father, lawyer Atticus Finch, who defended Tom Robinson against charges of rape.

Lee’s original editor persuaded her to relinquish this adult centre of gravity, to abandon her ambitious modernist time-shifts, and to tell Scout’s story not through flashback but through the eyes of a child within a more traditional linear sequence. As things turned out, one of the reasons for Mockingbird’s immense popularity was the way the book reconciled edgy and difficult racial issues through a child’s apparently innocent consciousness.

In that sense, Mockingbird spoke perfectly to its time, manifesting itself in classrooms throughout the world as a less rebarbative version of Huckleberry Finn, with Lee’s book speaking to the complexities of American racial conflict from within the safe confines of family life.

Although the novel does address issues of rape, sexual violence and embryonic sexuality, it simultaneously keeps them at a safe distance through the way it mediates them all through the eyes of a young child. But since its publication, the treatment of race in American fiction has moved on apace, in works by Toni Morrison and many others. It will be interesting to see whether Lee’s “new” novel stands the scrutiny of readers in a different century.


Harper Lee, circa 1962. Wikimedia Commons

Like her exact contemporary JD Salinger, who died in 2010, Lee has made a profitable career out of various forms of silence, both artistic and personal. Not only did she never publish another book after Mockingbird, she also refused consistently to speak or grant interviews about her famous novel.

With typical reticence, when declining to address one Alabama audience after being inducted into an Academy of Honor she remarked on how “it’s better to be silent than to be a fool”.

Go Set a Watchman will thus represent a significant risk for this least productive of writers. It will be interesting to see whether this first version of the novel does actually succeed in addressing racial and family issues in all of their multifarious adult complexity. Lee’s recent remarks on how she was “a first-time writer, so I did what I was told” would seem to imply a belief on her part that the original editor did her a disservice, artistically if not commercially, by editing out the story’s flashbacks and turning the book into a more conventional narrative.

On the other hand, if Go Set a Watchman disappoints, readers may conclude that the original editors knew what they were doing and that the book’s mass-market appeal derives not from its artistic subtlety or complexity but from its sentimental pungency, its capacity to hit all the right notes.

George W. Bush presented Lee with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007, and Barack Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts in 2010, precisely because Mockingbird ticks so many of America’s conventional boxes. The novel textually valorises racial empathy, legal justice, family feeling and innate childhood wisdom, and as a cultural object it embodies the classic American virtue of overwhelming popularity in a commercial marketplace.

It would not have been so surprising if Go Set a Watchman had been published as a scholarly curiosity after Lee’s death, just as unfinished manuscripts of Salinger and Ralph Ellison have been produced recently by academic publishers. But by sanctioning the publication during her lifetime, Lee would seem to be taking the bold gamble late in life of staking a claim for artistic originality and legitimacy.

Concurrently, she runs the risk of undermining, or at least placing in a different light, the market niche of an indeterminate patriotic sentiment on which all of her fame and fortune have been based.

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The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Help sustain us by telling others about us, and purchasing a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page.

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