In the sporadic series where I ask bestselling authors about their reading habits and inspiration, I again turn to two very different authors.
David Vinjamuri is the author of bestselling military thrillers Binder and Operator, as well as two books of non-fiction.
Their books are very different, but both David and Terry are talented, professional authors who know how to spin a smooth, gripping tale. I asked them about what they look for when they open a book.
Name three characteristics of books that you like. What makes you keep reading a book? What are some books that you weren't able to put down until you finished them?
David Vinjamuri: Three characteristics of books I like:
- a great “hook” in the first sentence that surprises or intrigues me
- deep and realistic characters and relationships that don’t smack of wish fulfillment by the author
- brisk pacing — a sense that every scene in the book is integral to the overall plot.
Terry Tyler: I like back-story that’s another story in itself; Jackie Collins does this particularly well. I love to read lots of different characters’ points of view, and novels that keep moving from one dimension of the story to another, like GRR Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series (Game of Thrones).
What keeps me reading I find impossible to put my finger upon; it just depends if it has a particular spark that appeals to me.
Books I can’t put down: Something In Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard — even on its umpteenth reading! A perfect book. Anything by John Boyne or Phillipa Gregory. Recently, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I remember reading Jeffrey Archer’s A Matter of Honour in six hours all in one go, about 30 years ago, when I was meant to be going out somewhere and didn’t — many people criticize him, but that book’s plot was outstanding.
Do you consciously try to emulate these books? If so, what form does that take: plot, structure, characters, settings, author's voice or word choice?
Terry Tyler: I would never (not even subconsciously, I hope!) try to emulate someone else’s work. However, one thing I did nick from Susan Howatch was telling a story in the first person by several characters, having one pick up where the last one left off. There are five of her books that take this form — Cashelmara is my favourite. What I like about writing a novel this way is that you can show not only two (or more) sides of a story, but also the different aspects of a personality: how people see someone, and how they really are, inside. Not all my books have this structure, but in the ones that have I enjoy working out the best character to tell each part of the story.
David Vinjamuri: My Michael Herne books are partly an homage to the Matt Helm series written by Donald Hamilton from 1960 to 1993. So there’s some intentional similarity in tone and structure. One of the things I loved about the Helm series was the noir-ish realism. The Herne series is reviewed by a U.S. Army Special Warfare trainer at Fort Bragg for technical accuracy.
Do you try to avoid any of the techniques or conventions followed by your favourite writers?
David Vinjamuri: Herne is not betrayed by his love interest in each of my books as Helm tends to be in Donald Hamilton’s series.
Terry Tyler: No, I don’t think so. Most writers I read these days don’t write in my genre — I read mostly historical fiction, or thriller-ish books with a male protagonist, or non-fiction. One thing I do try to avoid, though, which appears in many books, is too much description. I skip-read it, as it doesn’t make me visualise the place or the people any more than if those words weren’t there. This is why I rarely describe rooms, for instance. I think readers conjure up their own pictures.
What rules of writing do you intentionally break?
I don’t break rules, but I do always think of John Steinbeck when I write. I ask myself whether there's a way to write something more concisely, economically, efficiently? Though many well-regarded literary novels spend pages and pages on description, internal dialogue and characterization, I’ve never felt like I have that kind of time in the thriller genre.
Terry Tyler: I haven’t read any “how to write” books, nor indeed an article of that type for ages. Someone told me a while back that “you can’t have a big chunk of backstory”; if that’s a rule, it’s one of which I take no notice; I write as much as is necessary. If it seems right to start a sentence with “And” or “But,” I do it — not too often, though. I use metaphors and similes if they fit, and the odd cliché if it really serves a purpose, too. I don’t think I know any of the other “rules,” but I expect I break loads of them.
With such “how to” articles and books, I know more experienced writers can get a bit sniffy about them, but they’ve served to remind me about many bad habits it would be easy to fall back into: using too many variations on “he said,” for instance, or writing sentences like “bad habits it would be easy to fall back into”! I don’t know the grammatical term, but I think “it” used like that is very sloppy – when the “it” refers not to an item, but something like “it was raining outside.” Can anyone tell me the name for that? I hope I’ll always be open to advice and learning more.
Thank you very much for appearing on my blog, David and Terry.
Terry Tyler has published six contemporary drama novels on Amazon, and a collection of short stories. She has a writers’ blog on the UK Arts Directory, about books and self-publishing, and a personal one on which she writes about everything else. She has just finished a longer family saga (publication date to be announced), and hopes to spend the rest of this year on its sequel, and a Christmas novella. Terry lives in the northeast of England with her husband.
The bestselling author of the thrillers, Operator and Binder, David Vinjamuri also writes the “Brand Truth” column online for Forbes, where he covers brands, advertising and publishing. In addition to the thrillers, he is author of Accidental Branding: How Ordinary People Build Extraordinary Brands and Understanding Self-Publishing: 2013. David has appeared on television as a brand expert on the BBC, Fox Business News, Bloomberg TV and MSNBC and has been quoted in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, BusinessWeek, and Investor’s Business Daily. David is Adjunct Instructor of Marketing at New York University and the founder of ThirdWay Brand Trainers, a leading brand marketing training company.