I'm a huge admirer of Stephen King. I love his work, but I'm also in awe of his prolific output. Many of his novels are over 700 pages in length and he's written so damn many of them - fifty-eight, to be exact! He's also penned over two hundred short stories and five non-fiction books. OK, so he embarked on his writing career decades ago, but even so the sheer volume of his output is impressive. In this week's blog post, I'll examine five other prolific authors.
1. Dame Agatha Christie
Dame Agatha Christie was an English crime novelist, short story writer and playwright. She wrote sixty-nine novels and nineteen plays, published over a fifty-six year period, and she also authored romantic fiction under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott. Her murder mystery play, The Mousetrap, holds the record for being the world's longest-running theatre production; in 1971 she was made a Dame of the British Empire for her enormous contribution to literature.
Besides being prolific, Dame Agatha is the most published novelist in history, and her estimated sales are in the region of three billion (!) books. I read all her detective stories during my teens, being swept away by the sleuthing skills of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, as well as Christie's fascinating plots. Her novels have been translated into over one hundred languages. 'And Then There Were None' is her best-selling title, having sold over 100 million copies to date, making it one of the most popular books of all time. Wow!
2. Dame Barbara Cartland
Another Dame of the British Empire! Barbara Cartland wrote 723 novels, which have been translated into thirty-six languages, and she holds the world record for the most novels published in a single year - twenty-three. Twenty-three?! Did she ever sleep? Admittedly her books tend to be short, but even so...
She wrote romantic fiction primarily but also plays and music. Her book sales reportedly top 750 million copies, although some sources have put the figure at over two billion. Two billion?! Even if the first figure is more accurate, that's a lot of book sales - I can only aspire to such numbers!
Barbara Cartland's books are tame by today's standard, featuring virginal heroines and little, if any, sexual imagery. Her later novels were historical romances, which made it easier to cast virgins as the protagonists. During her later years, she became a self-proclaimed expert on romance although her views were considered hopelessly outdated by many. I well remember her many television appearances in which she'd expound her views on various issues, including gentlemanly conduct and how to keep the romance in relationships. She was a very memorable character, usually appearing bedecked in jewels, wearing flouncy pink dresses and clutching a fluffy white dog. They don't make them like that anymore!
3. Nora Roberts
The only one of my chosen novelists still alive, Nora Roberts also writes romance novels and to date has published two hundred and nine. She concentrates on one book at a time, which makes her prolific output even more remarkable. She writes for eight hours a day, every day, without fail, even when on holiday. (I'm starting to doubt whether the authors I've chosen are human!)
In the nineties, her publishers decided they couldn't keep pace with her output and asked her to consider adopting a pseudonym so they could publish more of her work each year. She decided to use her new pen name to switch tack and begin writing romantic suspense fiction, under the name of J D Robb. As J D Robb, Roberts has also published a series of science fiction novels set in the mid-twenty-first century, featuring a New York City detective. Whilst these novels are police procedural ones as well as science fiction, J D Robb has maintained the romantic element by focusing on the relationship between Detective Eve Dallas and her husband. Since 1999, every one of Nora Roberts's books has been a New York Times bestseller, and she was the first novelist to be admitted to the Romance Writers of America's Hall of Fame. An amazing woman!
4. John Creasey
John Creasey was an English crime and science fiction writer with six hundred novels to his credit, using twenty-eight pseudonyms. Six hundred?! I need to up my game, and quickly...
Many of his characters, such as The Honourable Richard Rollison (The Toff) and Commander George Gideon of Scotland Yard, continued through a series. Besides crime and science fiction, he also wrote Western novels and romances, using his various pen names.
In 1962, Creasey won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) for 'Gideon's Fire', written under his pseudonym J. J. Marric. In 1969 he received the MWA's greatest honour, the Grand Master Award. In the UK, Creasey founded The Crime Writers Association (CWA), which awards the New Blood Dagger each year for a first book by an unpublished writer. Another recipient of a UK honour, he was awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for his services during World War Two.
5. Isaac Asimov
The last of our prolific wordsmiths, Isaac Asimov, was a science fiction writer, although he also wrote scientific non-fiction, being a professor of biochemistry at Boston University. He either wrote or edited over five hundred books as well as an estimated ninety thousand letters. Like the other authors I've mentioned, Asimov's works have been extensively translated into other languages.
Asimov received several awards for his writing, as well as fourteen honorary doctorate degrees. His short story 'Nightfall', written in 1941, was voted by The Science Fiction Writers of America as the best one ever written in its genre and he was made a Grand Master of the SFWA in 1987. His most interesting accolade may well be the fact that in 2009 a crater on Mars was named after him - I love that!
Unusual facts about Asimov? He claimed in the third volume of his autobiography to love small, enclosed spaces, citing his childhood desire to own a subway magazine stand, in which he'd ensconce himself and listen to the rumble of the trains as he read. Each to their own...
Phew! I feel exhausted...
I'm sure you're probably as dumbstruck as I am at the literary output of the authors I've mentioned! I feel tired just thinking about writing six hundred books - although, given my late start as a novelist, it's unlikely I'll achieve one hundred titles, let alone six times that number. Speaking of which, I'd better stop blogging and get back to writing - I'll catch up with you again in my next post. Until then...
The most popular question to ask novelists
Novelists get asked this question more than any other. It's as if people think there are certain, very specific, stimuli that give rise to ideas for novel plots, and others that don't. Not so! Inspiration can be found everywhere, if you know where to look. When I'm asked where I get my ideas, I say 'from the world around me.'
Writers tend to be great at observation, particularly people watching. Like many authors, I always have to hand a way of capturing ideas when they strike, whether it's via my phone or pen and paper. Right now, I have over fifty plot possibilities listed on my computer, and I'm betting that other authors may have double or triple that number.
Novelists are capable of weaving plot ideas from virtually any situation. Take a simple example. I'm in a cafe, staring out of the window, and I spot a woman crossing the road. She's hurrying, her expression clouded; a small girl is clutching her hand. Immediately, this sparks several plot possibilities. Where does she need to get to so fast, and why? Is she running from something or someone? If so, what or whom? Is the child her own, or has she snatched her? What's causing her to look so worried? One very ordinary scenario, but with so much potential!
Posing questions is a useful tactic
I'm not suggesting every idea is worthy of being turned into a full-length book. Many aren't. An idea needs to be capable of sustaining characters and plot, and some might be better suited to a short story or subplot. When the right idea strikes, though, it's an amazing moment, at least for me. I get a strong gut instinct, signalling 'this is IT!' Intense excitement follows; for hours afterwards, my brain won't stop buzzing with ways to develop the idea into a novel.
Television news and the press are useful for gathering ideas. Say, for example, I read about a hit-and-run accident. I immediately focus on the emotions involved, posing questions such as 'what if?' and 'how would that feel?' What mental turmoil must the driver be experiencing? Was he/she concerned about financial problems/their marriage/work issues, leading to careless driving? What will the consequences be? How is the victim's family coping? All rich sources of inspiration for the plot or subplot of a future novel!
Themes as a source of inspiration
Something else I find works well is to consider themes that appeal, ones evoking strong emotions. I turn a subject over in my brain, spinning out from a one-word premise, such as obsession, all the possibilities that arise. A mental mind map, if you like! For my sixth novel, 'Deception Wears Many Faces', I was drawn to the theme of betrayal. Duplicity elicits fierce emotions, from a desire for revenge to suicidal impulses. How did this idea originate? Television again. I watched a BBC documentary on the subject of con artists. As the sad stories unfolded, that familiar gut feeling hit me hard - YES! I knew I'd found the material for a future novel plot.
Other potential sources of inspiration? This doesn't work for me, but many writers report using daydreaming or dreams themselves to spark their creativity. One of my novelist friends told me the plot of her first book came to her as she slept. Others say meditation or creative visualisation helps.
Enter Plot Monkey!
For fun a while ago, I tried out a piece of software (no longer available) called Plot Monkey. It's a random idea generator, based on who, what, how, when and where. Using those criteria, or whichever ones you select, it generates plot ideas. The results are hilarious.
Take this gem it produced: two small boys wipe out an outlaw gang using a hammer to win fame during the civil war in Australia. Well, that's expanded my education! I was unaware Australia ever had a civil war...
Or this: A herpetologist tries to destroy an Army base by being unfaithful to hide the truth during the civil war alongside a boat. Looks like our resident monkey has a thing for civil conflict...
Here's my favourite, seeing as my fourth, 'The Second Captive', examines Stockholm syndrome: a person suffering from Stockholm Syndrome plays a deadly game with a hack saw to prove a point in the future in the desert. Nope, no hack saws or deserts in 'The Second Captive'! Sorry, Plot Monkey, I'll carry on getting ideas as and when they arise - you stick to finding your next banana!
How would it feel to discover you'd been abducted as a child?
To illustrate the diverse sources of novel ideas, let's look at how I got the inspiration for four of my own books, starting with 'His Kidnapper's Shoes'. In 2010, I was chatting with fellow travellers in Vietnam, discussing what happens when children disappear. I ventured the opinion that most, sadly, are killed by opportunistic predators.
One woman disagreed. 'I suspect sometimes they're stolen to order,' she said. 'For childless couples, who, for whatever reason, can't adopt.'
That got me thinking. What would it be like to discover you'd been abducted as a child? How would someone react on finding out the woman who raised them is a kidnapper? I love examining strong emotions, and such a situation would spark off intense feelings: anger, betrayal, and the desire to unearth the truth.
When obsessive love leads to murder
Let's examine my second novel, 'Sister, Psychopath'. Several years ago, I attended a writing course, during which the conversation turned to a real-life murder case. Our teacher told us about a woman who became obsessed with a man, believing herself in love. So much so that she decided to kill his wife and child in the hope of marrying him. She carried out her plan, but her daughter suspected what she'd done, leading to her mother's arrest and conviction.
When I heard this, I knew I had the basis for a novel. Lots of questions jumped out at me. How would it feel to be the daughter in this situation? Or the woman herself, obsessed to the point of murder? What about the subject of her infatuation, a man now bereft of his family?
In the end, I centred on the daughter's story by creating the character of Megan Copeland, and changed the events to attempted murder, with no child involved. The novel ended up taking a different route, concentrating instead on the relationship between Megan and her sociopathic half-sister, Chloe. Psychopathy always provides plenty of material for novelists!
Discovering someone you love has a secret past
I don't remember the exact source of inspiration for my third novel, 'Guilty Innocence'. I suspect I heard about some terrible crime via the television news, because I do recall the idea came from the premise: how would it feel to discover someone you love has a secret past?
That sparked a host of other questions. What could be so awful you'd need to keep it hidden? How might the truth be revealed? Serious crime seemed the best reason for such a cover-up, which begged the question: what, exactly?
The answer was child murder; no other crime incites such passions in the public mind. The twist is that Mark Slater is innocent of the killing of two-year-old Abby Morgan. This doesn't mean he's without his demons to slay; his wrongful conviction has always eaten away at him. In addition, he has his nemesis, the twisted and violent Adam Campbell, to confront...
Victims who become emotionally attached to their abusers
Finally, let's look at my fourth novel, 'The Second Captive'. The book examines the fascinating psychological condition known as Stockholm syndrome, in which victims become emotionally attached to their abusers. Fertile ground for novelists!
The inspiration for this book came from hearing about a young woman who returned home after an absence of several years, in a distressed state, but wouldn't say what had happened to her. I was instantly intrigued. Why was she refusing to talk? Where had she been, and with whom?
Stockholm syndrome came to mind as the answer. A vulnerable individual, held captive in an abusive situation, who's too ashamed after her escape to reveal the truth. And so the character of Beth Sutton was born, along with the disturbed and dangerous Dominic Perdue, her captor…
let's hear from you!
I hope you have enjoyed this blog post, and that it's given you some insight into the creative process for fiction writers. Are there any questions you'd like to ask on the topic? If you're a writer, do you get your ideas from specific sources, such as meditation or visualisation? Leave a comment and let me know!
A novel of violence and suffering...
'The White Room' by Martyn Waites is one of the best, as well as one of the grittiest, novels I've read in a long time. In it, Waites fuses a fictional account of life in Newcastle with the real-life case of child-killer Mary Bell. Be warned – this novel is not for the fainthearted. From its first chapter, set in a slaughterhouse, the narrative examines child abuse, prostitution, brutal anal sex, gang violence and murder, with a few psychopaths thrown in for good measure. Throughout the bulk of the novel, the characters endure a relentless cycle of damage, often perpetuated from generation to generation, as in the case of Monica and Mae Blacklock. Furthermore, Martyn Waites avoids the fairy tale scenario of only making his bad characters – and there are plenty of those - suffer. In 'The White Room', nobody is exempt from the torment that Waites inflicts on them; the characters who are essentially decent people – Sharon, Jack, Bert, Joanne – also endure more than their fair share of death and sorrow.
But also one of redemption
The ending, therefore, impacts like a bolt out of the slaughterhouse stun gun from the first chapter. Initially, it seems a little unreal – the soft-focus emphasis on what the future holds for Mae Blacklock, the character based on Mary Bell. After so much suffering and violence, one way to end the novel would have been to abandon all idea of hope, as George Orwell did in ‘1984’. However, Martyn Waites doesn't take this approach. Instead, he offers us a more optimistic alternative. Hence the title of the novel - 'The White Room'. An echo from Mae Blacklock’s childhood, a white room complete with an image of Jesus on the cross, simultaneously portraying hope and suffering. One that offers the reader more optimistic possibilities after the raw brutality of the rest of the novel. After all, if a character as fundamentally damaged as Mae Blacklock can aspire to a better future, so can we all. Martyn Waites himself says ‘It's a dark book but, I think, not without a redemptive ending. Because there has to be redemption. Otherwise, what's the point?’
The White Room may shock you. It may horrify you. Or its implicit message may inspire you. Whatever your reaction, I'd be interested to hear your views. Post a comment for me!
More about the author
Martyn is also the author of 'The Woman in Black: Angel of Death' as well as the Joe Donovan and Stephen Larkin series of novels. You can find out more at www.martynwaites.com.
Anyone who knows me will testify how passionate I am about foreign travel. I've been fortunate enough to have done lots of globe-trotting in my life, with more trips planned; it makes sense, therefore, that a keen reader like me should enjoy novels based around travel. In this week's post, I examine as part of my 'Five' series some well-known books classed as travel fiction or memoirs. Commencing take-off....
1. The Beach - Alex Garland
Written in 1996 by British author Alex Garland, 'The Beach' tells the story of Richard, who, when the novel opens, is staying in the notorious Khao San Road area of Bangkok (I've spent many a happy hour exploring Khao San's peculiarities - I love the place!)
Richard becomes fascinated by what he hears about a remote beach situated in the Gulf of Thailand, described as stunningly beautiful and inaccessible to tourists. Daffy Duck, the Scotsman who tells him about this tropical Garden of Eden, leaves him a map disclosing its location before committing suicide. Intrigued, Richard hooks up with a French couple, Etienne and Francois, and the trio set off to find the beach. Once there, they discover a secretive community living alongside Thai cannabis growers. Events, of course, soon take a sinister turn - I won't say more as I don't wish to give plot spoilers, but at times 'The Beach' has distinct overtones of William Golding's 'Lord of the Flies'. The body count grows amid the backdrop of the annual Tet Festival. Will Richard survive the experience?
2. On The Road - Jack Kerouac
Written in 1951 but not published until 1957, 'On The Road' is a novel by Jack Kerouac, based on his travels across America. The story epitomises the post-war Beat and counter-culture movements, being heavily based around spiritual quests and the rejection of materialism, and laced with copious amounts of jazz music, sex and psychedelic drugs. Kerouac emerges in the book as the narrator, Sal Paradise, who embarks on a road trip with his friend Dean Moriarty (based on Neal Cassady, another major figure of the Beat movement.) Saddened by his recent divorce, Sal is eager to accompany the free-spirited Dean and discover what life on the road can offer him. They criss-cross the country from coast to coast, hitting San Francisco, New York, New Orleans, Denver and Detroit. As someone who has long held an ambition to drive across the USA, this fascinates me!
A weird fact about 'On The Road' - the first draft was typed on a continuous 120-feet long scroll of tracing paper sheets, cut to size and taped together. The novel was transcribed from Kerouac's notebooks and typed without margins or paragraph breaks, taking him just three weeks (wow, that's fast!) to complete. I can only assume he couldn't afford proper paper on which to type! The scroll still exists and was bought by the owner of the Indianapolis Colts for $2.43 million in 2001.
3. Eat, Pray, Love - Elizabeth Gilbert
'Eat, Pray, Love' was written in 2006 by American author Elizabeth Gilbert and tells the story of her travels following her divorce and unsuccessful rebound relationship. The book is split into three sections, each corresponding with a different location in Gilbert's travels. First she spent four months in Italy, eating and enjoying life, which is the 'eat' section of the narrative. As a foodie and Italophile, I love this part! Next came three months in India, where Gilbert explores her spirituality ('pray'). Finally she travelled to Bali, where she fell in love with a Brazilian businessman ('love'), whom she subsequently married.
The book has attracted mixed reviews, with many being critical of Gilbert's alleged self-absorption. Others, like Oprah Winfrey, have loved the memoir (Oprah devoted two episodes of her show to it) and the 2010 film version has also proved very popular. Gilbert has also written another memoir ('Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage') as a sequel to 'Eat, Pray, Love', as well as short stories, essays and novels.
4. Around The World in Eighty Days - Jules Verne
Ah, the classic Jules Verne novel, beloved since its publication in 1873! The book tells the story of Phileas Fogg and his valet Passepartout as they attempt to win a £20,000 bet as to whether the pair can circumnavigate the globe in eighty days. The traveller in me thrills at the challenge - perhaps I should give it a go sometime!
Fogg and Passepartout travel by rail and steamer, journeying first to Egypt, then to India, Hong Kong, Japan and the USA before crossing the Atlantic back to London. Despite what you see on the book cover, they never set foot in a balloon - the idea is brought up in one of the chapters but dismissed as being too risky. The image of a balloon has become synonymous with the book, however, thanks to the 1956 film adaptation.
Many people have since circumnavigated the world in eighty days or less, including British actor and fellow travel-holic Michael Palin, who made the trip in seventy-nine days as part of a very entertaining 1989 TV travel documentary.
5. Backpack - Emily Barr
This novel brings back memories! I came across it in a hostel in the beach resort of Mui Ne in southern Vietnam, and read it in one go whilst stretched out on a lounger next to the sea. Happy days! Here's the back blurb:
It's New Year's Day and the year isn't kicking off well for Tansy: her mother's dead, she's a cocaine addict and her boyfriend has just left her. A trip around the world seems like the only option except that she's not interested in seeing the world, just escaping from it, and the last people she wants to hang out with are backpackers. Like a lot of travellers on the Lonely-Planet-led Asian Grand Tour, Tansy is intensely irritating at first. Always on the look out for the "real" Vietnam--the one in which she can walk around "like a model, fanning myself gently, strolling into ancient temples and learning about inner peace"--she is opinionated, narrow-minded and remarkably naive (for a supposed media luvvy). Once she has shrugged off her addiction to lines of coke, skinny lattes and Nicole Fahri jumpers, she becomes more appealing. So by the time she's fallen for Max, a fellow traveller, she'll have won you over and you'll be just as worried as she is about the serial killer who appears to be on her trail...
Let's hear from you!
Wow, this post has made me want to pack my rucksack! Have you read any of the books I've mentioned? Any other travel-based books that you love? Leave a comment and let me know!