Notes on books I’ve read this month, with writing tips I gleaned…
Last month I began to keep brief notes about what I’ve been reading, with writing lessons picked up from the pages, and a brief review. It’s mainly for my own benefit, but if you find it interesting or useful too, that’s a bonus!
This month I’ve read a few books by authors I know, so I’ll be upfront and declare any interest.
Yesterday by Felicia Yap
I’ve wanted to read this since Felicia described it to me last summer. The publishing process can be infuriatingly slow, so it wasn’t until the launch last month that I could get my hands on a copy. It’s a high concept psychological thriller — the premise is that the world is divided into two classes: monos who can remember only as far back as yesterday, and duos who can remember only as far back as the day before.
Felicia has a background as a neuroscientist (among many other things) so wanted to explore what memory means to us, and its impact on our lives. In this case, how would you solve a murder that was committed before the reach of memory for most of those involved?
Felicia went through an intensive editing process — 22 drafts, getting her fiancé to read it out to her in full three times, having a team of ‘beta’ readers go through and give feedback, and then her agent is also known for his incisive notes to authors. The result is a novel that is highly polished — clean, lean, direct prose but with deft touches of characterisation and plot development.
Writing insights: Edit, edit and edit again. It’s the hardest part as an author — when you’ve finished writing the first draft you just want to be done with it and move on, but a novel really benefits from rewrites. Also, writers need to live more, doing more in their lives, to get material and insights.
He Said/She Said by Erin Kelly
Erin was the tutor for the cohort of the Curtis Brown six month novel programme that I was part of, and so she’d talked a little about this book as she finished writing it. She’d put in a lot of research to understand the legal processes and other key elements of the story. But, just as she taught us that, while it’s all factually correct, this allows all the details to sit comfortably in the backdrop while the story is free to be the foreground. It’s a great concept for a story and if you step back from being absorbed for a moment of analysis, you can see the professional writing experience in the structure, the pacing and the characterisation — as well as the handling of the different timelines.
Writing insights: Do the research, but then just get on with writing the story with the research in the back of your mind. You can do a final check at the end, but don’t let a stack of facts get in the way of just telling the story. One of the books I read last month failed where this book gets it just right.
Friend Request by Laura Marshall
Laura is also a student of the Curtis Brown novel-writing course, so this is another book I’ve been looking forward to for quite a while. Again, it’s a high-concept psychological thriller — the main character receives a Facebook friend request from a girl she knew at school, but who died. The story is then about finding out who is behind this, and how much they know about the secret the main character has been hiding about the death.
It’s a world we all know well — school, how kids can be so cruel to each other, family life, relationships etc—and so introducing this twist in a familiar world makes it easy to feel the threat.
Writing insights: When characters have done something readers would disapprove of, showing the regrets and a desire to change can win back the support — we all make mistakes. Taking a familiar world and twisting it slightly can bring a lot of tension, as we can imagine ourselves in that situation more easily.
This Must Be The Place by Maggie O’Farrell
This is a stunning novel. It felt like being slowly drawn into the lives of a group of slightly broken but good people as they try to make the best of things, and don’t always get it right. She populates the story with a very full cast of characters, each of which are brilliantly realised, and individual. You care about everyone, which can be quite an emotional investment at difficult times for them all. The author uses an interesting approach of often introducing a completely new character for just one chapter in order to observe one or more of the main characters for an episode of their lives from one step removed — and this works really well. Because of the mastery of the writing I was slightly disappointed that the end felt a little rushed and prone to cliché. I wonder if deadline pressure built up after having spent so much work on beautifully crafting the rest? That aside, this is definitely one of my books of the year. (Maybe I’m being a bit harsh about the end, as my expectations had been built so high by the rest. I’d be interested to hear others’ thoughts.)
Writing insights: Once you know and master the rules, it’s okay to break them. Writing about a key character from another minor character’s perspective can be very revealing, intriguing, and also the distancing can be meaningful. Making sure the full cast is fully realised rather than just the leads. The ending is the second most important part of the story, and needs to be satisfyingly delivered, and fit the rest of the story.
Mad by Chloé Esposito
This is an explosion of powerful, confident writing from the first page — bang, and you’re hooked in the story, clinging on as the character races ahead. It’s absolutely remarkable how distinctive and alive the main character feels. I’ve met Chloe and you can really hear her voice coming off the page, including the swearing and filth! It’s a stream of consciousness narration from inside the head of the main character, and you hardly breathe until the end with the pace of it. The adventures are crazily unbelievable, but totally make sense to us inside that character’s head.
Writing insights: Internal monologue is so engaging when done well. I tend to focus too much on dialogue, but this character really zings because of being so inside her head. The uncensored nature of those thoughts really helps that connection.
To Kill The President by Sam Bourne
A thriller that felt so bang up to date it seemed like the publisher was updating the words on the next few pages each night. Imagine a crazy egotistical maniac is elected as American president who, will do anything to further his own interests. He’ll head towards nuclear war with North Korea to divert from his real activities.
Now imagine that someone inside the administration has a chance to stop all of this, even if their actions would be illegal themselves. Should they? That’s the premise for this book, and it’s a great one.
A weakness in one or two places was the attempt to build threat to the main character. In some cases it appeared to be trying to create a potential threat from technology that sometimes pushed the suspension of disbelief a a bit too far — the main character’s sister happens to have a faulty boiler, and the baddies remotely turn up the internet-connected thermostat (by hacking into an iPad that the main character has that used to be her sister’s and still happens to have the thermostat control software on!) with the intention of flooding the home with carbon monoxide. Hmm, a bit of a stretch — and when the bigger threat is impending global destruction through nuclear war it felt a bit lame.
Also, the ending felt just a little deus ex machina (again, am I being a bit too harsh on an ending? Would be interested to hear other views.)
But in general it was an enjoyable good old thriller, with a great premise and solid writing. It was at its best when building up the planning for the assassination attempt, when it felt very Frederick Forsyth.
Writing insights: Small details can really bring a thriller to life — the screens put up around the perimeter of presidential events to block line of sight from outside the security cordon was one example here. It shows that research, and in this author’s case having seen things first hand, plays a big part. The resolution to a thriller needs to be built up to, or obvious in retrospect by what went before, and the main character needs to really drive it.
That’s all for this month… now to get reading for October! If you want to discuss any of these books, my reviews or the lessons I learned, I’m steveparks on twitter.