Thursday, 21 September 2017

What Makes a Page-Turner?

Comments and reviews about my romance novels quite often contain phrases like:’ Couldn’t put it down’ (or ‘unputdownable’ as one person said!) or ‘I was glued to it’ or ‘Once I started, I had to carry on until I finished it.’ In fact, one of my readers once ‘complained’ that I had kept her up late because she had to read ‘just a bit more’ until she got to the end of the book!

Obviously, these are very satisfying remarks for an author, but they made me think about what aspects of a novel make it a page turner.

The first requisite, of course, is that readers want to know what happens next. This means that the plot must be intriguing enough for them not to be able to guess the rest of the story by the time they get to Chapter 2. Of course, with a romance novel, they know the hero and heroine will get their happy ending, but the author must introduce enough unexpected twists and turns to keep readers in suspense and wondering how that is ever going to happen.

Another important aspect is to keep the story moving forward. Long descriptions of people and places might be suitable for literary fiction, but romance readers don’t want to read a whole page describing the scenery, or the layout of a house or exactly what the characters are wearing down to the last detail. A short paragraph with well-chosen words is enough to allow readers to use their own imaginations. Anything more can slow down the action – which brings me to another big turn-off i.e. irrelevant scenes where nothing actually happens.

There’s no need to describe the heroine’s shopping trip, or her day at work, or her cooking or gardening efforts, unless something happens during these events that advances the story. This may seem obvious, but I’ve read some stories with scenes that add nothing to the story. It’s worth remembering that every scene, indeed every page, should contain some kind of action or development. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something dramatic, but there should be a significant ‘something’ that relates to the plot or to the characters. This could be anything from a major turning point in the story or the introduction of a new character to a subtle change of attitude or a character learning something about themselves or the other person or the situation they are in. This applies to conversations, too. Skip all the ‘Hello, how are you?’ pleasantries and any other dialogue that rambles on with no real relevance to the rest of the story.

Cliff-hangers are a well-known device to keep readers turning the pages, especially at the end of a chapter. It’s been said that you should never end a chapter with a character turning off the light and going to sleep – because if your readers are reading in bed (which, of course, many people do) they will probably do the same. You should aim to ‘End each chapter with a bang, not a whimper’! Ask a question, foreshadow something that is going to happen (without giving it away), end with a critical moment for one or more of the characters – anything that will make your readers want to carry on reading to find out what happens next – even though it might be midnight.

An author can also drop hints during a chapter which make readers start asking questions e.g. Character A seems to have a hidden agenda – what is it? I used this in my novel, Irish Inheritance, which brought this comment from one reader when she was part-way through the book, “I’m dying to know what …. (no spoilers!) is up to.” There are also times when readers can be one step ahead of your characters. In Irish Secrets, for example, the hero is not what he is pretending to be and in Irish Deceptions something is revealed by the hero which the heroine doesn’t suspect. Hopefully, this makes people want to continue reading to discover what will happen when the heroine discovers the truth.

My final point is the characters themselves. Romance readers want to empathise with the heroine and fall in love with the hero, and the author needs to ensure that readers get to know the characters well enough to care about them. This means that they’ll be interested enough to turn the pages to find out what happens to them, and how they will eventually reach their happy ending.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Make Me Cry

It’s happy endings that make me cry, especially in films.

I can remember one of the very first films I cried at – an old film about the San Francisco earthquake (with Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Jeannette Macdonald). At the end, when they’re all camped out above the burning city, a boy runs up the hill shouting ‘The fires are out!’ and they march to the top of the hill, look out over the ruined, smouldering city and sing San Francisco, open your Golden Gate … well, I’m in floods of tears!

Another film which ALWAYS makes me cry, even though I’ve seen it many times, is Apollo 13. The astronauts, after an agonising wait, finally break the radio silence. Years ago, I watched it actually happening on TV and fisted the air when we knew the astronauts were safe. In the film, it’s the reactions of all the families and the Houston crew that make me fill up, every single time! 

I cried at the end of The Incredible Journey when Shadow, the golden retriever, eventually appeared. I cried when Hugh Jackman found Nicole Kidman after Darwin had been bombed in Australia. For heaven's sake, I even cried at the end of Toy Story 3 when the toys found a happy new home!

I cry at the end of Carousel when Billy makes his peace with Julie, I cry when the family escape to safety over the mountains in The Sound of Music, I cry when Emile re-appears at the end of South Pacific – in fact, a lot of musicals make me cry, because the endings are happy.
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If a reader tells me that the happy ending of any of my books has made them cry, then I know I've got it right.


What movie or book has made you cry?

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Setting Goals

‘They’ say writers should set targets/goals for themselves but I’ll start by saying that I don’t usually set any for myself.

Several years ago I took part in NaNoWriMo and completed the ‘goal’ of 50,000 words in a month i.e. averaging 1,666 a day. However, I was very aware of how the quality of my writing deteriorated. That novel (or rather that very inadequate first draft) needed over 6 months of re-writing and editing before it was ready for submission and I have to admit it still remains my least favourite novel.

Another year I took part in a 100K Challenge i.e. 100K words in 100 days, which included any kind of writing e.g. blogs as well as stories or novels. In my case, probably over half of my daily total each day came from writing a series of blogs (in advance) for the A-Z Blog Challenge. I didn’t really increase my output as far as my novel was concerned.

When I am writing a first draft, I’m well aware that I am my own worst enemy, because, however much I try, I can’t turn off my inner editor. Even though I know I’ll spend hours re-writing, adding, deleting, and tweaking once the first draft is done, I still do the same while I’m writing that first draft! Occasionally I might say, ‘That’ll do for now, I’ll sort it out later,’ but that doesn't often happen.

I’m constantly searching for the right words or phrases, and I know when something isn’t working as I want it to work, whether it's an emotional experience, a build-up of suspense/tension, or simply a word picture of a scene. Therefore I can spend a long time working on a particular scene until I’m satisfied with it. Sometimes I can write 1,000 words in a day; sometimes I’ll agonise over just 50 words.

However, this month I have set myself a target. It’s a fairly modest one of 500 words a day, which I think is achievable for me. After a week’s work, I’ve actually managed to average 678 per day. A couple of evening ago, I was ready to finish for the day (it was after midnight!) but I’d only written 366 words. I forced myself to go on for another 15 minutes and add enough words to get to the magic 500. I’m happy to say I didn’t delete those words the next day!

500 a day for 30 days = 3,500 a week (which is the average length of my chapters) and a whopping 15K for the month. IF I can continue at this rate, the first draft (which currently stands at 38,000 words) will be nearing completion by the end of October. I’ll let you know if that happens!


Meanwhile, what goals do you set yourself? And do you achieve them?