Getting to know Claire

I want two seemingly opposing characteristics from my protagonist, Claire:

  • I want her to be a likeable everywoman, who people will be able to relate to
  • I want her to be exceptional

How to combine these two characteristics?

The Bestseller Code suggests that a lead character needs to have a talent. e.g. Lisbeth in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a master hacker. Rachel in The Girl on the Train is a keen observer.

So, what talent can my protagonist have? Ideally I’d like it to be a talent that doesn’t interfere with her “everywoman” qualities. She can’t be a perfect mother (who is?), or overly organised or in control. She’s got to struggle with the same things that normal people struggle with – work-life balance, being a good parent, fitting all the chores in…

In this circumstance her talent could be around her work. When we meet her she’ll be on maternity leave and unable to go back to the same job, as she has moved far away for her husband’s job.

I want her work to be something a bit quirky or interesting. I came up with the following:

  • Fashion designer
  • Fiction editor
  • Magazine editor
  • Journalist
  • Clothes buyer for retailer
  • Layout specialist for children’s books
  • Fabric selector for curtain retailer
  • Heir hunter
  • In charge of rehousing tenants at the Council
  • Social Services
  • Helping children in care

Of these, I think journalist, heir hunter, social services or helping children in care would be the most useful, as the skills she has gained in these roles could be used further in the plot.

It’s important she has a specific skill within these roles – one that makes her good at her job and the one people turn to for that skill, and also one that she can use when she comes up against the antagonist in the course of the novel:

In terms of specific skills, perhaps it could be:

  • locating missing people (journalist, heir hunter and potentially social services)
  • spotting when children are being abused (social services, helping children in care)
  • a confidant – encouraging people to confide in her (journalist, social services, helping children in care)

I think the most likely one I’ll use is the first skill (locating missing people) possibly via the third skill (getting people to confide in her). This leaves her employee options as a journalist (a very popular job in novels) or a worker in social services.

Targets for NanoWrimo

I previously mentioned that my overall target this year for NanoWrimo was 100,000 words, split into 100 1,000 words scenes.

There are 30 days in November so this works out at 3,334 words a day. But to allow for off days, ill days and too-busy-to-write days, I’ll target 4,000 words a day or 4 scenes of 1,000 words.

I’m going to be practical about the scenes. As long as I plan properly and have plotted out sensible, engaging scenes, then they will get written. But some might not justify a full 1,000 words and some might need a lot more. So it doesn’t matter if an individual scene isn’t 1,000 words. If it only needs 300 than that’s OK. I’lll just move onto the next scene.

It’s also OK to add extra scenes if and when I have good ideas as I go along. But it’s not ok to follow a whim and write an extensive subplot…as I’ve done that before and it’s easy to start writing two parallel books.

So focus is key. Those are the targets. 4,000 words a day. And broadly follow the plan.

Now to get back to writing a sensible plan and plot skeleton!


Setting – where do people want to read about?

Perhaps surprisingly, the Bestseller Code found the most popular setting for bestselling novels is a pretty ordinary one – towns or cities. It’s a shame in a way, as there’s something fascinating about people’s lives in a close-knit community like a small village. These environments allow characters’ lives to be woven together in multiple, connected relationships. I’ve also been tempted in the past to write a beach book set on a an actual beach – a murder in a holiday resort for example.

But I’ll put aside those ideas for later. Because this year NaNoWrimo is about maximising my chances of writing a popular novel. And so I’ll set my novel in a big city. Specifically London as this is the city I know most well, and therefore it will be easier to write about without too much research.

The novel is about mums, and most families don’t live in central London, so this will be set in the leafy suburbs.

Creating a Hero(ine)

A key ingredient of a bestselling novel is character. The people in the novel and the relationships between them bring the plot to life.

A character needs to have agency, to act and do, rather than think and be. These characters behave differently to the masses. There is something that makes them special. They are unlike us. From childhood we’re taught to be polite, say please and thank you and sometimes to just let things go. We’re taught to apologise if we might be wrong and to qualify our statements with “I think” and “I believe.” But this minimises what we have to say. A heroic character in a novel does none of these things – she doesn’t let things go and she doesn’t apologise. She is active rather than passive.

My lead character, Claire, will have the drive to change her situation. She will do everything she can to turn things round, and even when things aren’t going her way she will keep fighting. She’ll be angry when things are unfair and she’s do something about it. She will need things rather than wish for things. She will act rather than consider.

In The Bestseller Code, Archer & Jockers list some of the most commonly used verbs in bestsellers (the list below is specific to female characters – men have a slightly different list!):

needs, wants, misses, loves, tells, likes, sees, hears, smiles, reaches, pulls, pushes, starts, works, knows, arrives, spends, walks, prays, hugs, talks, reads, imagines, decides, believes,  screams, shoves, eats, nods, opens, closes, says, sleeps, types, watches, turns, runs, shoots, kisses, dies

And, for completeness, here are the verbs that don’t work (I’ll end up editing these ones out of my novel):

shouts, flings, whirls, thrusts, murmurs, protests, hesitates, halts, drops, accepts, dislikes, seems, supposes, recovers, grunts, clutches, peers, gulps, flushes, trembles, clings, jerks, shivers, breaks, fumbles

Planning with Scrivener

In a previous post I explained how I was going to approach NaNoWriMo 2016 by sticking to the three act structure and creating a pulse for my novel, by introducing cliff-hangers at the end of each scene.

Now I’m going to think about what the skeleton of the novel looks like in practice.

I used to plan novels using a combination of powerpoint, word and excel. Word provided my synopsis, powerpoint allowed me to draw out the plot chapter by chapter and shift boxes around, and excel helped me get into the detail of each chapter and keep a record of what had been included where. This wasn’t an ideal solution as it involved flicking through lots of documents.

Now I use scrivener, which provides all of that planning functionality for you and also provides a place for you to actually write the novel itself, easily move around the chapters and transform it into a manuscript ready for Kindle publication. You can trial Scrivener here and see what you think.

So, I’ll talk about the actual plot of the book at later, but for now I’ll talk about planning for NaNoWriMo. I’ve done NaNoWriMo a few times before now and I know whatever I do I’ll need to do a lot of editing. I also know it can be disheartening if I hold myself to too high a standard when I’m writing the first draft, as some of it’s likely to be a bit rubbish. The key is to get the words out and get to the end. You can edit later.

With that in mind, for me it’s best to over-produce, rather than underproduce. It’s easier to write 100,000 words and edit out 50,000 of them than to try and write 50,000 good words the first time. Sometimes you have to get all the rubbish writing out of your system to hit the gold.

NaNoWriMo has a target of 50,000 words in a month (which is certainly ambitious) but the average novel is at least 70,000- 80,000 words. For NaNoWriMo 2016, I’m going to write at least 100,000 words, in the hope that 70,000 of them will be good.

How will I split up these 100,000 words? Well, given my last post about the “pulse” of a bestseller novel, I’m going to split this up into very small pieces – 100 scenes of 1,000 words. I’ll edit these later and split them into chapters, but for planning purposes I’ll broadly divide them into the following:

Act 1: 25-33 scenes

Act 2: 33-50 scenes

Act 3: 25-33 scenes

I’ll put as much info on the outlines of these scenes into Scrivener, using the corkboard functionality and then take it from there.

Plotting & Pulse

The Bestseller Code (which I’m treating as my bible for NaNoWriMo 2016) illustrates the importance of pulse in a graph that shows the highs and lows of the novel, Fifty Shades of Grey. Whatever your views on the book itself, when you look at the graph, you can see why it’s a page-turner. The graph shows that as well as the key turning points in the novel, the smaller emotional twists and turns are too frequent to count. The same is true for The Da Vinci Code. These novels have a page-turning heartbeat.

I’m going to try and replicate this in my book. I think the simplest way to do this will be to have multiple scenes and each scene to end in some form of emotional high or low. It may be a cliffhanger, it may be a reconciliation, but whatever it is, it will beg the question “What happens next?”

Won’t such a furious pace be almost farcical? I don’t know – I’ll have to wait and see how this turns out… But in the meantime, to give the reader some breathing space I’ll integrate snapshots of everyday life into the scenes, to slow down the pace between cliffhangers. And if there is too much pace when I read it through at the end of November, I can easily add some everyday stuff in and remove a couple of cliffhangers.

Between the frenetic heartbeat of highs and lows, there are major turning points in bestselling novels. These are particularly high highs or particularly low lows. These are key elements of the darling of every creative writing class – the three act structure. It is somewhat of a relief to see this referenced in The Bestseller Code, as it validates a commonly held belief – the three act structure works.

The three act structure divides a book into three parts. The first (approx 25% -33% of the novel) sets up the scene and the characters and introduces the burning platform, or the reason the character needs to fight to survive. It gives the character drive throughout the book. The second act (approx 33%- 50%) escalates the conflict and puts yet more hurdles in the protagonist’s way. There is a turning point after the first act and a turning point after the second act. The third and final act is the climax of the novel and resolves the conflict.

I will plan my novel around this structure, with two major turning points, the first 25-33% of the way through and the second 66-75% of the way through.


Character Naming Ceremony

Now I have an idea of my concept, I need to start naming my characters.

There are three key characters in the novel as it stands:

  • The protagonist: late 20s, early 30s, female, mother
  • The antagonist: same age, female
  • The protagonists husband: same age, male, father

This is going to be a story about when bad things happen to an ordinary family. So I want to choose ordinary names – names that were popular around the times my characters were born.

A quick google of popular names in the UK in the 1980s has given me the following list:

Girls: Sarah, Laura, Gemma, Emma, Rebecca, Claire, Victoria, Samantha, Rachel, Amy

Boys: Christopher, James, David, Daniel, Michael, Matthew, Andrew, Richard, Paul, Mark

I don’t like to choose names when I know a person with that name particularly well, so that rules out a few. And I don’t want to use names like Amy and Rachel, as these were the protagonists in Gone Girl, and The Girl on the Train.

So I think I’m going to name my ordinary couple Claire and Matt

My antagonist isn’t who she seems…she has chosen her name herself, to blend in with a crowd. She’s going to choose “Emma” for precisely the same reasons as I’ve chosen my characters’ names. “Everyone knows an Emma.” So if someone asks if they’ve met her, they might say yes, even if they haven’t. An Emma who’s a mother. The kind of person everyone knows.


Which topics sell books?

So far in my plan for NaNoWriMo 2016, I have a long, long list of possible titles. Now I need to start thinking about topic, character and plot before I can pick one that fits with my novel.

“The Bestseller Code” reveals that the top topic featured in bestsellers is “human closeness.” Human relationships are crucial to making fiction work. This should come as no surprise. We read fiction to escape, to wonder what would happen if… and what keeps us reading is often how human relationships evolve – from the will they/won’t they of a romance to the relationship between the predator and the prey in a psychological thriller.

But this doesn’t help much in defining what my book will be about. Human relationships come in so many shapes and guises. All this tells me is that including in my novel, there must be interesting and evolving relationships between people. But I don’t know if this will take the form of a romantic relationship, a friendship, a family relationship…or anything!

It might be useful at this point to look at other topics that The Bestseller Code lists as particularly successful and pick second and third topics from these.

Here’s the list:

“marriage, death, taxes, modern technologies, funerals, guns, doctors, work, schools, presidents, newspapers, kids, mums, the media.”

I’m going to pick a couple of topics here, to group with my theme of “human closeness.” They say write what you know, so I’m going to go with “mums” as my second topic.

For my third topic I need something that will create conflict and drive the story forward. I’m going to choose technology.

So broadly a new technology will threaten a mother. Throughout the book, “human closeness” will be woven in. This will be in the form of friendships between mums, and also a romantic relationship for the mother, most likely with her husband, but that’s still tbc. Both these relationships will have a pulse – and will have highs and lows throughout the novel.

What’s in a name?

First impressions count. Even before someone meets you face to face. Whether or not it’s fair, people are judged by their names. An Emily is more likely to get a job interview than a Chardonnay. A book title is similarly important – along with the cover it’s one of the first indicators of the story that might be waiting between the pages.

In my last post, I declared my intention to complete National Novel Writing Month using the book “The Bestseller Code” as my guide. Before November, I’m going to meticulously plan out my novel to meet the criteria set out in The Bestseller Code.

And I want to start at the beginning. In fact, I want to start before the beginning – with the title.

The Bestseller Code makes three key observations on which types of titles work well:

  • Titles that start with “the”  – e.g. The Goldfinch, The Firm, The Notebook
  • Nouns with qualifying words e.g. The Da Vinci Codes 
  • Titles that state the character’s role – The Alchemist, The Martian and/or direct us to character’s that act/ do things – e.g. Gone Girl, The Girl who Played with Fire 

With these points in mind, I brainstormed titles for my new book. The list below is just a brain- dump. Many of the titles will have been used before for books/movies/albums.

The Girl Who Loved too Much

The Dancer

The Dancer’s Dog

The Girl Behind the Noise

The Negotiator

The Interpreter

The President’s Interpreter

The Blessed and the Dammed

The Half Moon

The Craftsman

The Elders

The Lion Tamer

The Keeper of Secrets

The Holder of Wishes

The Engagement

The Commitment

The Ambassador’s Dinner

The Ambassador’s Mistress

The Girl Who Wrote the Bible

The Oldest Person in Wales

The Nanny

The Childminder

The Paedophile’s Daughter

The Ligh-tkeeper

The Beekeeper

The Woodcutter

The Contract

The Unsightly Princess

The Secret Camera

The Price of Peace

The Murderer’s Mother

The Unhappy Millionaire

The Unkind Philanthropist

The Cruel Philanthropist

The Basket

The Distant Friend

The Girl Who Believed in Angels

The Last Dance

The Final

The Mistake

The Trick of Fate

The Car Crash

The Last Leaf on the Tree

The Last Girl in the Carriage

The Last Girl through the Underpass

The Girl Who Missed the Train

The Last Man on Earth

The Green Casserole Dish

The Unwanted

The Discarded

The Discarded lover/child

The Discarded Photo

The Dreamer

The Last Hot Air Balloon in the Sky

The Last Plane in the Sky

The Aggressive Nurse

The Demon’s Nurse

The Charge

The Innocent Liar

The Hard Lace

The Only Barber in Syria

The Syrian Laundrette

The Camp

The Last Child in the Camp

The Angry Boy

The Speechwriter

It’s a long list! Next I need to think about the themes for my book. This should help me to narrow down the title choice.

My NanoWrimo 2016 Challenge

In my last post, I laid out my plan to use “The Bestseller Code” to write my NanoWrimo 2016 novel.
I’ve completed NanoWrimo twice – once in 2010, when I produced the first draft of “27: Six Friends, One Year.” And once in 2014 when I wrote a first draft of “Kasia and Karl,” a book about a Polish girl who gets sucked into webcamming while working in the UK.
After a lot of editing, I published “27” through my own publishing house, Dancing Parrot Press. “Kasia and Karl” has undergone a bit of editing, but spends most of its days chilling out on my hard drive, undisturbed by the sharp pencil of the editor.
I’ve attempted NanoWrimo on several other occasions, but each time life has got in the way and I haven’t completed it.
This time I will complete it and use “The Bestseller Code” as a blueprint my writing.
The rules of NanoWrimo state you need to write 50,000 words in a month. When I wrote “Kasia and Karl” I exceeded that at about 70-80,000. 50,000 words is slightly short for a full length novel, so I plan to hit 70-80,000 again.
So that’s my target – I’ll get to work on setting out a more detailed plan of action in my next post!