Although Derek has written more than 100 books of non-fiction, about art, travel and gardens (two of his favorites are The Magic of Monet’s Garden and Van Gogh’s Women), he is currently working on a novel in the genre of historical biography, similar to Loving Frank and The Paris Wife. Here is his formula for a successful novel, in order of importance:
1- WRITE A COMPELLING STORY. A good story usually contains suspense, drama, humor and surprise, and features a main character with a strong goal (eg: winning a girl; escaping prison; overcoming a disability; climbing an impossible mountain.) Identify your genre (eg: historical romance, science fiction, murder mystery); and read blockbuster titles in the same genre to discover why those books were successful.
2- CRAFT A GOOD BEGINNING, one that immediately hooks the reader. Try to hook the reader with your first paragraph and no later than the first page. One of Ken Follett’s best beginnings hooked the reader in his first sentence: “On the third day the camels died.”
3- CREATE MEMORABLE CHARACTERS, especially flawed or eccentric characters the reader can care about. Also characters that come into conflict with each other. Think Scarlett O’Hara, James Bond, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and the Godfather. Readers especially like to see a main character change during the course of the story; for example Michael Corleone in the Godfather where he changes from being an honest person to becoming a crime boss.
4- WRITE CONFRONTATIONAL DIALOG. Make it sound like dialog and not like a series of lectures. Also include interior monologue as distinct from dialog. When writing dialect to identify an ethnic character (for example an Irishman, Scotsman, Jamaican or Italian), don’t make the dialog too difficult for a reader to understand.
5- CHOOSE AN ENGAGING VOICE to tell your story (read Catcher in the Rye as a good example.) When in doubt choose the first person as it is the most intimate way to tell a story. Make your characters speak differently and have them display different mannerisms. For a good example of this read the beginning to Elizabeth George’s “What Happened Before I Shot Her” about a family of poor immigrants in London and how she has every character speak in such a distinctive voice you can tell who is talking without being told.
6- MOVE YOUR STORY ALONG. Keep your chapters to 10 pages or less. Build suspense and create tension. Express lots of emotion. Try to make the end of each chapter a cliff hanger. Limit flashbacks. Don’t overwrite scenes. The habit of James Michener to write 32 pages about a volcano eruption in his book titled Hawaii or 7 pages about making a ladder-back chair in Chesapeake doesn’t impress most modern readers. Avoid telling people WHAT happens and write it so they SEE it happen. For example telling people about the Clearances in Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries when peasants were evicted from their homes to create sheep pasture, is not as interesting as having a character describe an actual Clearance taking place.
7- AVOID WORDS ENDING IN ‘ING’. Don’t say “he was swimming”; rather say “He swam” as it is more immediate. Self-edit ruthlessly to avoid redundant words and keep your text taunt.
8- IDENTIFY YOUR CORE AUDIENCE. Male? Female? Young Adult? Children of a particular age group? This is especially important when writing love scenes or violent passages as men generally prefer to read more explicit sex scenes, for example, than women; and more violence.
9- INJECT LOCAL COLOR. A big appeal of the James Bond series is exotic locations like Hong Kong and the Bahamas. Paint word pictures about places, especially travel destinations, local customs, food and drinks. Describe sights, sounds, touch and smells.
10- FINISH STRONG. Write a satisfying ending. Don’t disappoint your reader. They have invested too much valuable time to feel let down at the end. Dickens wrote two endings to Great Expectations – one where the lead character gets his girl and the other where they separate. The publisher insisted on the ending where he gets the girl because he felt the reader would feel cheated. When Arthur Conan Doyle got tired of writing about Sherlock Holmes he killed him off; but readers were so indignant he had to bring him back.
There are many other nuances, but these are the main requirements to impress an agent or publisher in my experience.
I was born and educated in the north of England. My first job was as a trainee reporter for the Shrewsbury Chronicle group of newspapers, covering news and features. After two years I moved to London to work as an account executive for a London public relations firm; and after seven years I immigrated to the US to become catalog manager for Burpee Seeds, one of
the company’s clients.
I became a US citizen in 1970 and left Burpee to write a series of garden books for a Chicago book publisher; and I continued writing non-fiction about art, travel and gardens as a free-lancer. I illustrated my books with my own photography which became a major source of income, selling stock images to publishers worldwide.
Most recently I have taken an interest in writing novels and have four projects in various stages of completion: a historical romance set in the 1820’s, a historical biography set 1898, a modern murder mystery and a modern political drama. My main residence and office is historic Cedaridge Farm, Bucks County, but I have a winter residence on Sanibel Island, Florida with an acre of coconut palms and banana trees.