My New Year Resolution: The Elusive “Big Book.”

As January comes around again and, for the fourth year running, I’ve made the same resolution to finish writing my “big book.”

My agent always talks about “when you write the big book Hannah” – but it’s a struggle to get to it. I juggle a full-time job on the West Coast (working remotely from the UK), an elderly mother (not juggling her physically I must add), plus exercise two high-spirited Hungarian Vizslas at least a couple of hours a day.

Trying a different genre is always a challenge. For those who don’t know me (yet), I write three mystery series – cozies. I love writing puzzles and of course, the joy of writing a “traditional” mystery is that justice is always served, good conquers evil and if you can make people smile along the way, that’s even better.

Readers expect to solve the mystery. They get caught up in the whodunnit and the page-turning climax but with a different genre and a different kind of reader, it’s a new experience for me.

Rather than rely on my friends to read the current draft of my “big book” (who would be kind), I hired a respected book/script doctor, Lisa Cron.

Well, to say I was utterly crushed is putting it mildly. “I’m sorry but it just doesn’t resonate. I don’t feel anything.” What? How can it not resonate? The story was solid and, although I say it myself, it was quite clever, especially with the final twist. But Lisa was not interested in the nuts and bolts of story. Of course, character development, setting, dialogue etc. are critical since they’re the foundation and cornerstones of the ‘story house,’ but it’s the essence, the soul of the story that is the key to drawing a reader in.

It’s not enough to tell your reader that your character is happy, sad, or angry. That’s too general. As Lisa says, “these descriptions are the what – we need to dig to the why.” If you pluck a scene out of any novel, are you able to immediately tell what your protagonist is going through emotionally?

Just like us, whatever we are worried about or mentally going through, is always at the back of our minds. My mother has been deemed end-of-life at least three times this past year and her health dominates my every waking moment. We don’t live in a vacuum so nor should our characters. And just like us, how would your character’s state of mind impact everything he/she says and does?

Another thing to ponder – who really remembers the twists, turns and intricacies of a good plot be it a thriller or a love story? Yes, we’re caught up in the story especially if it’s a good one, but don’t we just remember how a scene makes us feel? I think back to my childhood and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis) – I wasn’t that bothered about the lion and the White Witch, I just wanted to find a wardrobe and wade through some fur coats to meet the Faun under the lamppost.

When I began to develop feelings for the opposite sex, I devoured sweeping romantic sagas like Penmarric and The Rich Are Different (Susan Howatch) and The Forsyte Saga (John Galsworthy). I don’t remember the plot in the Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough) but I do remember that scene on the beach where the priest and Meggie consummate their illicit love. Toe tingling stuff.

In a “Survey of Lifetime Reading Habits” conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1991, researchers found that To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) ranked second only to the Bible as “making a difference in people’s lives.” Oprah Winfrey called To Kill a Mockingbird “our national novel,” and former first lady Laura Bush said, “it changed how people think.” But maybe it changed how people felt as they lived vicariously through Scout, Jem, and Atticus Finch? The story resonated with readers and, as Lisa believes, “the only way to change how someone thinks about something is to first change how they felt.”

As for my “big book” I’m busily rewriting it. I’m digging into the why of my protagonist and it feels so different to the what. I’ve learned that it takes a lot of courage to excavate emotions of my own that I would prefer to keep buried but I’m doing it anyway.

What books still resonate with you years later and why? Don’t think too hard. I’ve already added a dozen or so books to my original list of favorites! I’d also love to hear tips and suggestions on how you make your writing resonate with readers.

Author: Hannah

British born, Hannah originally moved to Los Angeles to pursue screenwriting. She has been an obituary reporter, antique dealer, private jet flight attendant and Hollywood story analyst. After twenty-five years living on the West Coast, Hannah returned to the UK where she shares her life with two high-spirited Hungarian Vizslas. She enjoys all country pursuits, movies, and theatre, reading and seriously good chocolate. Hannah writes the Honeychurch Hall Mysteries (Constable) the Island Sisters Mysteries (Minotaur) and the Vicky Hill Mysteries (Constable)

19 thoughts on “My New Year Resolution: The Elusive “Big Book.””

  1. Hannah, your brilliant post is one of the most resonant I’ve read – ever. It set off several lines of thought, not the least of which was feeling (!) your initial disappointment and probable horror at Lisa Cron’s verdict of your ‘big book.’ Happily, it appears you have plunged into your rewrite. For my part, ghostwriting several biographies during which I must step into another’s shoes has helped me experience emotions in the characters in my mysteries. Occupying a fictional murderer’s mindset is a fascinating effort, while on the other hand giving my amateur sleuth a sense of humor lightens the load. Thanks for your thoughts.
    jill

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for this! I felt a little vulnerable sharing my thoughts. I’ve never ghost written anything but I have been intrigued by the process and what impact it leaves on the ghost writer. As you say, to step into another person’s shoes and live through them vicariously. What an asset to writing your own fiction too.

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  2. Welcome and thank you, Hannah for this great new post. Wow! I’ve been reading in all three of your cozy mystery series, how do you have time (brain energy) to write a Big Book? And what IS a Big Book? Is it the next “Great American (British) Novel?” An Oprah Winfry Select “Woman’s Fiction” novel? An expose Memoir?
    I think if I’d gotten that critique from the book doctor, I’d have given up and deleted the whole thing. Wow. Good for you! Here’s wishing you success and perseverance.
    I only write articles, so I can’t give you tips for this. I sometimes like emotional reads, but for me, actually, setting is tops, then story, then characters — but obviously I’m not the one to ask for suggestions. Hahaha.

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    1. Well … to answer your question, I was SO discouraged by Lisa’s comments that I put the m/s in my bottom drawer for a couple of weeks but then it kept calling to me yet again (like chocolate that I know I’ve hidden in my fridge). I guess a big book is subjective really. I think for me it’s going back to the feelings I had when I read those books so long ago and wondering if I could write something like that too. As the saying goes, the jury is still out!

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  3. Hannah, what a thought provoking topic. I learned one very good thing to do when I was taking acting lessons in Hollywood. I didn’t want to act. I wanted to write for the movies and this gave me the opportunity to see what actors needed in their dialogue to express who they were. The best advice I got was from my acting teacher, Rudy Solari, who had us write a short biography of the character we were playing. That let me understand the background of my character and why I was in the scene. In writing, it lets me know why my main characters do what they do. I have done that in every book I have ever written. It works.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gayle – what a great idea to take acting classes. That’s an excellent way to get into character. I too write character bibles etc. but I think I do it in a perfunctory way rather than digging into the deeper emotional stuff – which, an actor would definitely do to prepare for a role … even if it was a walk-on part. You’ve got me thinking …

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hannah, your thought-provoking post woke up my brain cells this morning faster than a double shot espresso. I learned firsthand about the importance of the motivational why in stories when, fingers crossed, I submitted a story to Sisters in Crime about a grisly murder perpetrated by a madman. My beta readers all questioned why the crimes took place decades after the incident that incited the murders, but although that explained the “when” it didn’t explain “why” he did it. Showing the genesis of the bizarre crime earned me a spot in the anthology.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Congratulations on your story acceptance in the anthology. That’s terrific. Yes, sometimes the “motivational why” has an obvious explanation until you start to dig and, as you say, show the genesis of the crime. I like that phrase.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Excellent post, Hannah, and got me thinking. I’ve never had “the Big Book” thoughts/drive, but have struggled with character and realism issues similar to what you’ve mentioned. You’ve even spurred me off to my computer… Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hannah, very good post! For me, it is the characters who draw me into a book or story. If I don’t like them or find a reason to care about them, I don’t want to read the book. I’ve started several books that the premise to me was new and different. I was excited to read the book. But the characters were dull and boring. I stopped reading. How do you make your characters interesting? Either make them larger than life or make them someone a reader can care about.

    My theme in anything I write is justice. Every book or story has an injustice brought up or an injustice solved. I like to bring things, some cases that are not easy to talk about to the surface. My characters need to be well thought out and researched to make sure they are portraying their side of the injustice. If that makes sense.

    But never, ever, give up. Take some workshops on character development or whatever it was the editor thought wasn’t working. Writing is nothing if not growth in the writer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How interesting that you choose the theme of justice in all your books. Mine is reinvention – starting over. I think it’s because I’ve had to start over myself so many times! I am always learning – and really value the advice and suggestions from my writing friends – so thank you!

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  7. Hannah – welcome! And thank you for what the other bloggers have said was such a ‘thought-provoking’ post. Sharing your reactions to those ‘harsh’ comments about feelings and intentions was brave! Thank you! I identified with so much there! And, as for that Big Book goal – that, too! You’ve given us a great start to this new year and writing ‘promises to keep’! Cheers!

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  8. Wow, Hannah, I really admire you–not only for preparing to write your “big book” but also really digging in and hiring an advisor to help you with it. Now, I’m sure it’s a challenge to figure out how much to listen to that advisor! And you certainly got me thinking about when and if to write my own “big book.” I do ponder it now and then. Hope all goes well with your mother, and definitely enjoy your Vizslas! If I ever write my “big book,” it will definitely include dogs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I reply to you one of my dogs has just eaten 1/4 pound of butter – I swear I turned away for a second and even though it was on the counter pushed far to the back, he got it. I’d be lost without them both. I always think of your beautiful King Charles Cavaliers. I admit I have dogs in the big book – cameos of course but how could I not write them in? You made a good point about the advisor and what makes sense and what doesn’t and those that don’t, I really look at before dismissing them.

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  9. In my latest mystery novel, my main character is a romance writer who gets dropped by her publisher. I strived to show how devastating this news was, and how she decided to deal with it. Did it resonate with readers? I hope so, but no one told me it did or did not. Seems like a good question to put to beta readers.

    Many books have left an impact on me, and most of them were written pre-1980 (I can’t explain that, but maybe will try in one of my own posts). The Prize, Marjorie Morningstar, Of Human Bondage are a few that come to mind. I read Ann Beattie’s first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, twice. The feelings of desolation coupled with hopefulness absolutely “resonated” with me.

    Hannah, best wishes as you care for your mother and attend to your many responsibilities.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Maggie – How interesting about your pre-1980 comments. That’s exactly when books began to make an impact on me too. I wonder if it’s where we are in our awareness of storytelling? Thank you for sharing the titles! I’m intrigued by what your beta readers think about your romance writer being dropped. All I know is that when my first series was dropped by Berkley (and happily picked up by Constable a few years later) – I can remember feeling sick to my stomach, an emptiness and a sense of panic and failure. It had taken me so long to get published and then it was all gone. And then we just pick ourselves up and on we go!!

      Liked by 1 person

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