Did you ever want to write a James Bond type bestseller?
By Zac O’Yeah
Did you ever want to write a James Bond type bestseller but didn’t quite know how to? Okay, so to help you get started, here’s how Ian Fleming himself did it.
Since for obvious reasons I can’t get an interview with the thriller writer (R.I.P.), an excellent alternative is to consult the essay How To Write A Thriller published in 1962, two years before his death, in which Fleming put down, in exact detail, what a James Bond novel is made of. It’s both amusing and amazing reading, at the same time.
He begins by telling us that when it comes to books written to earn money, and hook readers who browse in railway station bookstalls and airport bookshops, one must not be ashamed to create stereotypes – the heroes must be heroic, the villains must be epitomes of villainy, and the heroines need to be delicate enough to be worth saving.
The key requirements of the genre are: unmannered prose, unexceptional grammar, and a page-turning quality – which in turn eliminates long descriptive passages (unless they lovingly relate the heroine’s measurements) and details that may confuse or irritate readers. Each word counts and the plot must be kept moving towards the next thrill.
But what is it that thrills readers? Fleming has an interesting answer to this question; he calls it “a certain disciplined exoticism”, meaning that hedonism, for example, such as in the form of a great meal, can thrill because it works as a contrast to the grimness of 007’s adventures. (So now we know why James Bond gobbles up and guzzles down so much caviar and champagne in book after book).
Plots can be fantastic, improbable but not impossible, so don’t forget to include a few down to earth elements. When on thin ice, to keep the readers from questioning the veracity and plausibility of your plot, throw in familiar brand names – universal reference points – to reassure people that you know what you’re up to. That’s why James Bond was surrounded by so many identifiable products, from flashy cars to well-known hotels.
To reassure myself that Fleming knew what he was up to, I double-checked such statements in a biography on him and found that while working out his plots, however fantastic they may seem, he often relied on experts and facts – in those pre-Internet days Fleming sent out questionnaires to various correspondents to check details. Interestingly, when naming good characters, he often picked names of people he knew as a student, while he named crooks after people he disliked. Goldfinger, perhaps one of the most memorable evil masterminds in literary history, was named after an architect whose work Fleming didn’t hold in high esteem.
Keeping these instructions in mind, write 60,000 words over six weeks, and there’s your James Bond novel. But don’t waste too much time on revising and editing! “If you once look back, you are lost,” writes Fleming; you’ll ask yourself: “How could you have written this drivel?” Once he finished with a draft, he spent a mere week correcting the most glaring errors and rewriting certain bad passages.
Does this really work or was Fleming fooling around with us in his brazen essay? Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as the English say. I once got a chance to do a reality check when I met Sebastian Faulks, British author and expert on literary pastiche, who in 2007 was commissioned to pen a continuation to Fleming’s original James Bond series.
Faulks revealed to me that he indeed followed the basic rules laid out by Fleming in How To Write A Thriller: “I thought it could be helpful, so I read it. He describes his typical working day in Jamaica: which was get up, go for a swim, a bit of snorkelling, write a thousand words, two cocktails at lunch, short snooze, go back to the beach for a bit more scuba-diving, come back to the terrace, another dry martini or two… I based my working model very much on Fleming’s, though unfortunately I live in central London so I had to cut back on the scuba-diving.”
The trick is to successfully nail down the characteristics of Fleming’s style without turning the story into a parody. Ambitiously, Faulks started out by rereading all the James Bond stories in chronological order. Fortunately, Fleming’s writing style was typical standard journalese and simple to copy: short sentences, lots of active verbs, few adjectives, no adverbs and even fewer semicolons.
Faulks’s Devil May Care (2008) was set in 1967, the “Summer of Love”, the year after Fleming’s final Bond story Octopussy took place. The conservative James Bond bumps into hippies and other connoisseurs of recreational drugs in the streets of London. The villain’s a megalomaniac chemist planning to destroy Europe with cheap drugs. However, the heroine got upgraded – Bond’s love interest here is a banker and more educated than Bond himself.
Did it do well? By and large the reviewers felt it was on the same page as Ian Fleming’s novels, even though the acerbic Christopher Hitchens complained that Bond was placed in too few romantic situations. On the British bestseller lists Devil May Care made it to the #2 slot, just below Harry Potter.
So, there may have been something of a magical touch in the Fleming style of writing, though it is important to note that all writers tend to have their own theories regarding how to go about the writerly craft. Many of the older crime writers were, for example, wary of diluting fiction with too much suspense-slackening fact (unlike today’s thriller writers who stuff their novels with hi-tech gadgetry à la 007 and procedural descriptions from the world of forensics and law enforcement). In Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories (1928), SS Van Dine laid it out – Rule 16: “A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no ‘atmospheric’ preoccupations”. HRF Keating warns in Writing Crime Fiction that “facts from the real world that you don’t need for your fiction serve only to clog things up” and although he allows for descriptive passages, suggests that they be maximum 150 words long. Likewise, Rule 9 in Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing goes: “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things”.
However, Rule 2 in The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler states that a mystery story “must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection” and the investigator “must at least know enough about police methods not to make an ass of himself. When a policeman is made out to be a fool, as he always was in the Sherlock Holmes stories, this not only deprecates the accomplishment of the detective but it makes the reader doubt the author’s knowledge of his own field.”
So, we are thus to understand that the facts and correct descriptions are important, but should be kept to a minimum. But the modern crime novelist also knows that readers enjoy learning and that facts aren’t necessarily boring – whether it is about getting intimate with alien cultures, or picking up titbits on forensic science and legal procedure. Consider the case of Robin Cook, a physician who turned to writing bestselling medical thrillers; or remember that rare moth in Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs which leads us to the serial killer’s lair… Or consider Peter James, author of police procedurals that have sold millions of copies in over thirty languages, whom I once met when he was visiting Bengaluru to launch yet another novel in the Roy Grace-series. All readers may not enjoy the dreary cop speak featured in his books, but on the other hand that is exactly the strength of his style of writing: we get a rather close approximation of how policemen in Sussex might behave with various analytical specialists rattling off their jargon, with marker pens and cluttered whiteboards and computer database searches – a genuine flavour of the administrative work that police personnel handle much of the time.
This is deliberate: even before the Roy Grace-series (the first book was published in 2005), James had been hanging out with policemen to understand how they think and work. Interestingly, it all began when there was a burglary in his home. The investigators were impressed when they learnt that James was a writer. “Why don’t you come out with us sometime,” a cop suggested.
Exposure to the realities convinced James of the fact that teamwork is the backbone of modern policing. So although this goes against SS Van Dine’s Rule 9 (“To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader”), he decided to make his novels as realistic as possible and populate them with the different categories of professionals involved in investigative work – although, of course, Roy Grace remains the central character in charge of investigations (as a rule crime novels must have a hero whose private life is an integral part of the story).
James told me he usually spends a day a week with the Sussex police, follows them on violent raids, and goes street patrolling. Research can get scary. For the novel Dead Simple – which starts with a stag-party that goes terribly wrong when a drunken bridegroom is sealed into a coffin by his mates who then go on to crash their car – he tested what it was like to be locked into a coffin. When the lid was screwed tight, and the undertaker went away to attend to other work, James suddenly realized how claustrophobic it was. He says, “I knew that the air would last for about four hours unless I panicked and started breathing faster, but what if the undertaker had a traffic accident and didn’t come back?”
For Dead Like You, based on the ‘Rotherham Shoe Man’ case of a fetishist who raped over twenty women in the 1980s, James worked a day in a posh ladies’ shoe shop to study lurking male perverts – to his amazement a corporate-type gentleman in a black suit came in and tried out a pair of golden six-inch heels. He also collaborated closely with Sexual Offences Liaisons Officers, to ensure that the rape scenes weren’t titillating, and to highlight issues around rape prevention.
But at the end of the day a novel isn’t merely the sum of the research that goes into it. Usually around 6pm Peter James mixes a “massive vodka martini” and then sits down to write. At 11pm he wraps up, watches a soap opera and then he revises his text when he wakes up the next day. Although he takes his work seriously, James isn’t one of those secretive authors who don’t like to reveal their modus operandi – anybody who likes to pick up hints on how to write bestsellers, can follow his research and writing on his blog.
So, to finally come to the main question here: Is it possible to learn to write page-turners? Have writing workshops played any role in the recent crime fiction booms in countries like Sweden that resulted in what is now globally known as “Nordic noir”?
To begin with Europe and the US do have a long tradition of writing workshops, and unless they’d shown results, they wouldn’t still be around. Consider this: when Raymond Chandler decided to give writing a shot, he enrolled in a course called Short Story Writing 52AB. He debuted with a story in a pulp magazine in 1933 and became, a decade later, one of the greatest screenwriters in Hollywood. Chandler may have succeeded without those evening classes, but in a competitive market like the American entertainment industry, he cannot be faulted for having done that bit of preparation – think of it like a carpenter taking woodworking classes before building a cupboard in which to hide away skeletons.
In the US today you can choose from a plethora of writing workshops costing anything from hundreds to thousands of dollars. My native Sweden, too, has a small industry built up around writing courses – and in tune with the crime fiction boom there are specialized courses in crime writing as well.
In a publishing economy that’s impatient with reaping its rewards, publishers obviously can’t play the same talent-nurturing role they may have done in the old days, when an editor packed the writer and a week’s supply of tinned food into his car and drove to some isolated cottage to hammer out a book. In those days, an author might publish thirty non-bestsellers before striking gold with the thirty-first. These days if a first novel fails, the debutant has to look for another publisher.
It’s logical then that the system of writing workshops has taken over much of the job that used to rest with the publisher. A good workshop is a greenhouse in which a budding writer is subjected to powerful fertilizers in the form of stimulating ideas about the craft by mentors (senior writers). An amount of pesticide is applied too, to weed out misconceptions and clichéd ideas. Workshops tweak the mind and teach you to think like a pro; edit stuff before submitting; hunt down darlings to kill; detect weaknesses and – most importantly – improve your strong points.
There is, naturally, criticism against these workshops. Some senior Swedish male writers I’ve asked say things like “I’d never in my life enlist in a writing course”. But interestingly, several bestselling female writers have acknowledged how workshops got them started: Åsa Larsson, whose crime novels are available in Indian bookshops, the pulp star Camilla Läckberg ditto, or the queen of horror crime, Carina Rydberg, they all began their careers by attending writing programs.
The most common criticism, that workshops streamline writers into producing over-sanitized, boring prose by taking out their rough edges, is really not a valid objection. If the writer is good enough, he or she will withstand the cookie-cutter. Only writers with a weak self-awareness run the risk of losing their originality.
For most budding writers, it can be extremely very useful to interact with experienced writers and learn about the various methods they use, their daily routines including what software they employ, and so on. For example, from the bestselling novelist Vikram Chandra, I once learnt how he built his great novel Sacred Games – which of course now is a big Netflix hit series. “Build” is the word. To keep track of the complex material over an eight-year research and writing period, Chandra adapted a highly specialized project management software. “One of the things writers want when they’re constructing a narrative is an architectural overview of the whole thing – characters, times, places, and also how all this is shaped into chapters, sections, and so on. That is, you want to keep track of both story and discourse,” Chandra told me. “People in the past have done this with index cards and scene breakdowns and squiggles on walls. But since I’m such a nerd, I of course wanted to do this with computers, and I was certain that somebody must have built software that would do this.”
He was wrong. But he then met an Israeli thriller writer in Jerusalem, who told him about Microsoft Project. “It’s a planning tool to manage projects, including schedules, materials, people, locations; people in industries from construction to advertising use it. The interface isn’t friendly, and it’s absolutely not built for analysis of fiction, but it worked. And it did really help me a lot, especially for keeping track of chronology, which in Sacred Games is quite broken up by the narrative structure.”
When I chatted with bestselling writer Ashwin Sanghi, he emphasized the importance of craft over art: the need to plot well, write an outline and finish research before starting writing. It turned out that he uses Excel sheets to organize this material and plot the book chapter by chapter, a method that I have started to try out myself. He is now a seasoned writer, but he revealed that his first novel was rejected by almost 50 publishers. Maybe they are regretting it now.
And how does one create lifelike characters? Mukul Deva told me an astonishing fact regarding his research process. Known for his gung-ho macho protagonists, he has lately been introducing credible female characters in his thrillers. When I asked how he pulled it off, he said that to understand how they would react differently from men he interviewed 50 women. Can you beat that?
Surender Mohan Pathak, the undisputed king of the Hindi crime novel, once told me about how he doesn’t know any language perfectly—he is a Hindiwallah, an Englishwallah, knows Urdu, and is Punjabi by birth. So, his innovative approach is to write in a mixture of all these languages. He is sensitive to feedback as well: Whenever his fans tell him they’re bored of a character, he creates a new hero. Despite his success he never chucked his day job, instead writing most of his nearly 300 novels on Sundays, his only day off: He’d wake up early, be at his desk 5 minutes later and spend the day there.
But perhaps the most valuable advice I got was from Håkan Nesser, one of the kings of Swedish crime fiction. His top tip for writers: “Simple, never ever trust another writer.”
So, ultimately, even if there’s a lot of useful stuff to learn from established writers with whom one can interact at writing workshops and literary events – about the craft, their techniques and methods, routines and rituals, how to find inspiration and how to avoid writer’s block – all writers ultimately have to sit down at their own desks and face the blank screen or page in the notebook, alone, to write that great award-winning mega-bestseller that will become a milestone in publishing history!
Zac O’Yeah is a Swedish detective novelist and author of the Majestic Trilogy, which is set in his Indian hometown Bengaluru. He is also one of the program directors of the Bangalore’s World Famous Semi-Deluxe Writing Program.