The Core of a Successful Novel: The Ring of Truth

Jane Austen's Persuasion, which gave Tom Di Giovanni the idea for his novel
Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which gave Tom Di Giovanni the idea for his novel

Q – What is the core of a successful novel?

A – You can in some way identify with it; you recognise it as relating to your own life experience.

And this doesn’t mean you need to have experienced exactly the same events that the novel describes: simply that you recognise the truth in the story from your own life.

And that goes for all genres, even fantasy or escapist fiction. Somewhere in the structure of that story you recognise Truth.

Such is Tom Di Giovanni’s debut novel “Home”.

I first met Tom at our Church (St Mark’s in Leamington Spa) where he plays guitar and occasionally leads the music group. His love of music and in particular the guitar is demonstrated in this novel.

Tom wrote “Home” during National Novel  Writing Month 2007, then worked on it in between the demands of a full time job.

Edited by Tom’s father (editor, translator and author Norman Thomas Di Giovanni), the novel has now been issued in a limited edition of 35 for  the author’s family and friends. I was privileged to receive a copy, and I’ve now read it.

In simple, graceful, lucid prose, Tom tells a touching story with which many would identify, a story that shows how life offers second chances, with an essentially optimistic message, that affirms we can make the right choice when life gives us a second chance.

Tom took the novel “Persuasion” and based his story on Jane Austen’s – taking it from the male point of view.

The Dell , a small, hidden valley in Leamington Spa where author Tom Di Giovanni saw a girl sitting alone playing the guitar, which gave him inspiration for his novel
The Dell , a small, hidden valley in Leamington Spa where author Tom Di Giovanni saw a girl sitting alone playing the guitar, which gave him inspiration for his novel

28-year-old Martin, an architect, returns to his home town (in England’s West Country) and meets again the girl who broke off their relationship 10 years before. Daisy was persuaded by friends to reject him for being younger than her. But Martin then meets 17-year-old Claire, a talented young singer-songwriter, who has a job in the local guitar shop. Tom’s description of their unfolding relationship is drawn with subtlety and a sure and delicate touch.

Though Tom set the novel in a West Country town he used elements of our own local town Leamington Spa. In particular one scene is set in “The Dell”, a local park, where he saw a girl sitting alone playing the guitar, which inspired him for his novel.

When I read the novel I felt I was reading something that was:

1.  Well crafted;

2)  Had a water-tight structure;

3)  Had integrity in and of itself;

4)  Pointed me to a universal truth I could verify from my own experience.

They say a book must have “wow!” factor to succeed. The “wow” factor of this novel lay in its power to move, its scrupulous attention to detail, and its truthfulness.

The message of the novel is:

That which you believed lost, you can later return to and find again: but only if you meet the challenges the new situation sets; and only if you apply the new insights and discernment you have gained in the intervening years. You will be tested again, and past issues may arise once more in a new disguise.

Tom hopes to find a publisher soon to take on the novel.  So watch out for him!

SC Skillman

The Next Big Thing: A Passionate Spirit

I was invited to take part in “The Next Big Thing” – a blog hop for authors –  by Fay Sampson who has written many wonderful books for children and adults arising from Celtic history, and also includes mystery, suspense and crime fiction in her output.

In her capacity as a manuscript editor for The Writer’s Workshop, Fay also read my novel “Mystical Circles” in draft form, appraised it and gave me guidelines for revision.  I reworked it according to her suggestions, and she then read the novel again. It was Fay’s encouragement that led me forward to publication, and she kindly allowed me to print her testimonial on the cover. So thank you Fay!

And now for ten questions on my Next Big Thing:
 
1.  What is the working title of your book?

A PASSIONATE SPIRIT

2.  Where did the idea come from for the book?

As this novel is set in an English retreat centre I’ve drawn upon my knowledge of these centres (several of which I’ve visited and stayed in over the years), & also any environment in which disparate people are drawn together for a period of time in an enclosed setting. I’ve drawn too upon my  insights into human motivation and behaviour; chief among which is that “nothing should be taken at face value: people are often not what they seem”.

3.  What genre does your book fall under?

Romantic Suspense

4.  Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Zoe Blake, main protagonist, age 23:   Amanda Seyfried

Theo, Zoe’s husband of 15 months, and Warden of the Centre:   Bradley James

James Willoughby, unexpected guest:   *Hugh Grant

Natasha, his sinister girlfriend:   Talulah Riley

Llewellyn, Poet-in-Residence:   Matt Baynton

Bernie, the House Manager:   Mark Williams

Alice, Retreat Centre Secretary:   Georgia Moffett

Jessica Leroy, Chair of Trustees:   Sarah Lancashire

* As a postscript to this particular casting, may I say I’d love to see Hugh Grant play my character James Willoughby, because this is a role that would require Hugh to be sexy, villainous, very handsome, manipulative, double-dealing, charming and treacherous. Also, I ‘d love to see Working Title Productions do this film.

A Passionate Spirit has the potential to be a great British movie.
5.  What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Inexperienced young woman finds herself running an English retreat centre in the teeth of intense opposition from two malevolent guests.

6.  Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’ll be seeking representation from a literary agent to win a contract of publication with a traditional publishing house.

7.  How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

One month – I wrote it during November 2011’s National Novel Writing Month.

8.  What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

My story has elements you may find in books by Susan Howatch, Barbara Erskine and Phil Rickman.
9.  Who or What inspired you to write this book?

Various people I’ve met over the years have inspired me for the characters of Zoe, Theo and James. I’ve also been inspired by characters and themes in my favourite films and TV dramas. Additionally, I interviewed a retired Anglican parish priest who told me several stories from his own experience around the subject of the deliverance ministry; one of his stories in particular not only forms the basis of a scene in my novel, but also inspired my character Natasha.

 10.  What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The exploration of the psyche of a dysfunctional person holds a fascination for today’s novel reader, and therefore a strong place in the fiction market. Alongside this runs a deep interest in mental health issues and in spirituality, the supernatural and paranormal. These are in high demand, and extremely popular subcategories within today’s market. A Passionate Spirit contains elements of all these.

This is my vision:

to offer readers everywhere stories that delight and entertain, capturing their imaginations and touching their hearts with powerful universal themes that affect us all.

The themes that most engage me are these: love, loyalty and bravery; intrigue, longing and desire; redemption, reconciliation and forgiveness.


I am tagging Meg Harper

Lindsay Rumbold

Wendy Jones

Their posts about their new projects will be live on or around 19 December.

Historical Novels versus History Books, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall: The Power To Make You Feel You’re An Insider in the World of Henry VIII

Hilary Mantel’s  success in winning the Man Booker Prize for her novel “Bring Up the Bodies” has provoked many varying opinions of her work. For my part, I look forward to reading this second book in her Tudor Trilogy.

Hilary Mantel has opened up the life of Thomas Cromwell (photo credit: guardian.co.uk)
Hilary Mantel has opened up the life of Thomas Cromwell (photo credit: guardian.co.uk)
The other day I had a conversation with a keen reader who said, “I don’t like historical novels. I’d far sooner read a history book. If I read a historical novel, I think: But how can they possibly know?”

Of course, how can Hilary Mantel possibly know? But when I’d finished “Wolf Hall”, I felt as if I’d been an insider in the world of Henry VIII. I bought the book following a friend’s recommendation. She said she found it so powerful that she couldn’t read anything else for a considerable amount of time after she’d finished it.

And certainly, reading this book changed the view I previously held of Thomas Cromwell, whose mind we are in throughout the novel. Upon reading Hilary Mantel’s account of this man, I admire him and can understand his role in relation to Henry, and his extraordinary gifts as he navigated Henry’s changing whims.

As to Henry himself… what was his prayer? That he might have a healthy, long-lived, legitimate male heir to take over the English Throne for the Tudors, and hold it strongly into the future.

I can imagine now how he must have felt each time Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn miscarried a child. He felt professionally devastated and personally anguished; frightened that he had incurred the displeasure of God; afraid that after having been in his hands the throne would go where he did not want it to go; afraid his hopes and dreams would never be fulfilled; afraid that this was God’s punishment. After all, the English Throne was his professional business, his livelihood, his calling.

Now, of course, with historical hindsight, we can see how wrong he was:  wrong to have Anne Boleyn beheaded; and wrong to have various people brutally slaughtered for not agreeing with his divorce, and for not thinking the right things at the right time about religion, and for thinking he, Henry, was wrong.

But what should he have done instead, according to us with our historical hindsight? We may think he should have stuck with Anne Boleyn, forgiven her, and patiently and with forbearance lived out his life married to her.

What actually happened? Ultimately the English Throne became strong and proud under a very long reign by the child Anne Boleyn bore him – notwithstanding the fact that this monarch was a female – a monarch who became in the eyes of many then and since, Britain’s best and most famous monarch: Elizabeth I.

So we may well say that God answered Henry’s prayer – but not in the way he expected.

This philosophical rumination has been inspired by “Wolf Hall” simply because so many of us are familiar with the Tudor story – but in fact the narrative of this, the first novel in the trilogy, only goes as far as the execution of Sir Thomas More leaving the downfall of Anne Boleyn still in the future.

Perhaps the thing that most fascinated me about “Wolf Hall” is the way the reader follows through delicate, graceful, civilised conversations – gentle, balanced, measured… and then out of them comes a decision to burn someone alive, or have them hanged, drawn and quartered.

One sentence in the book stands out for me: “all that youth, beauty, grace and learning, turned to mud, grease, and charred flesh.”

Emotionally stirring, moving, shocking and instructive, what this book shows you about human nature  will stay with you.

Currents, Backwaters and Muddy Tributaries in Fiction: and the Fascination of the One Star Review

Reading a novel is like going on a voyage down a river.

Whitewater rapids (credit: rafting.co.uk)
Whitewater rapids (credit: rafting.co.uk)

Sometimes the water’s smooth and calm, sometimes rough; occasionally you may find yourself in whitewater rapids; and ultimately it flows into the sea.

If your boat gets ambushed by a rogue current and becomes snarled up among tree roots and rushes in a muddy backwater, that spoils your journey.

But does it make you give up on the book?

That happened to me recently with JK Rowling’s novel The Casual Vacancy.

She’d gripped me, early on, with a vivid description of a social worker visiting the dysfunctional family of an abused child. But then, as I saw the way her narrative was tending, I decided I wasn’t in the mood to read an unrelenting account of numerous people behaving in a particularly unpleasant way.

But as I loved all the Harry Potter books, and admire JK Rowling herself, I decided to put the book aside and return to it at another time, when I may feel differently about her choice of subject.

I believe that the way we respond to novels is a complex mixture of mood, temperament, expectation, and our own experience of  the world.

And when our expectations have been defeated, we might love it – or we might immediately get onto Amazon and bestow a one-star review.

Various factors determine whether we do  the latter – or wait, and perhaps come back to it another time, as I plan to with The Casual Vacancy.

I enjoy reading different responses to my own novel Mystical Circles. Of course, like all authors, I feel happy if I see that the majority have given it 5-star reviews (especially on Goodreads, Amazon & Barnes & Noble).

But the reviews that intrigue me – for any novel – are the one-star reviews. I quite often go to them first, specially to find out what is the worst that can be said of this novel.

But does that put me off the novel? No way! It can even enhance my interest in the novel, by giving it an extra dimension.

I believe the most interesting lessons are to be found in extreme divergence of opinion.

What do you think?