Life can be surprising, with both welcome and unwelcome surprises.  And it can be predictable, featuring both desirable and unfortunate outcomes.  It seems to me that when we are reading fiction, we expect to encounter both the predictable and the surprising.  In fact, we rather enjoy reading about surprises in other people’s lives – even unwelcome ones – because it makes the reading more interesting, and because the unfortunate event(s) aren’t happening to us.  As a writer, I try to minimise predictability to keep the reader interested.  But if events become too unpredictable, the narrative loses its credibility and the reader’s interest.  So, I believe that, as in life, the narrative should have a mixture of predictable and surprising events, where the predictable isn’t just routine, and the surprising isn’t unbelievable.

Here are some examples from Fishing in Foreign Seas regarding the relationship between John (the main male character, Jamie’s younger brother) and Michele, John’s girlfriend.  John is a fancier of the  ladies, and he is somewhat mesmerised by Caterina, Jamie’s fiance.  But, at the same time, he is a bit shy about his first contact with a lady.  During a dinner dance on New Year’ Eve, there is this exchange between Caterina and John:

<“John, there’s a girl over there who’s got her eyes on you.”


“The girl with brown hair in the yellow dress at that table there to my left.”

“I think she’s watching you.”

“No she isn’t, John.”

“Well, maybe you’re right.”

“Why don’t you ask her to dance?  She is quite pretty.”

“No, I don’t think so – I don’t know her.”

“It doesn’t matter!  Go on, John, ask her to dance!”

Reluctantly, he took her back to their table, and disappeared across the dance floor.  A few minutes later, she saw that John was dancing with the girl in the yellow dress and they seemed to be having an animated conversation.>

That’s all reasonably predictable.  But later in the evening (in Philadelphia), this is what happens:

On the way home, after continued prodding from his mother, John confessed: “Her name is Michele, she’s French, her father works at the French consulate, and she’s a nurse at Pennsylvania Hospital.”

That’s a bit of s surprise!

Some months later, Caterina and Michele are sharing a room in Jamie and John’s family house.  Look at the differences in the attitudes of the two women (one Sicilian, the other Parisian) to their bodies:

Michele proceeded to strip herself naked, tossing the clothes on her bed, picked up a towel and disappeared into the bathroom.  When she returned, she toweled herself at the foot of Caterina’s bed and began to make conversation.

Caterina was unnerved.  ‘I’ve got to keep my eyes on her face,’ she thought, ‘why doesn’t she get dressed?  Hasn’t she any modesty?

Michele was oblivious; she continued to talk about her work in the hospital, while carefully drying her under arms and her bottom.  Finally, she went to her suitcase, took out some underwear and proceeded to put it on, by now explaining to Caterina why none of the nurses liked a particular orthopedic surgeon.

Caterina had seen pictures in fashion magazines of underwear like Michele put on, but it had never occurred to her to buy anything like it for herself.  ‘It’s too provocative!’ she thought.  A yellow thong and push-up bra, both decorated with white lacy panels.

“You going to take a shower?” Michele inquired.

“Yes, I think I will.”  She got up, and took off her blue blazer, matching trousers, silk blouse, and her tights.  She put the trousers, blazer and blouse on hangers in the closet.  Picking out a fresh set of white underwear, she went to take a shower, her towel under her arm.

Michele eyed Caterina as she returned from the bathroom in her clean white underwear.

This is fairly predictable.

Several years later, John, who is still together with Michele, but unmarried, is suddenly diagnosed with bone cancer, and part of his left leg is removed.  This is the conversation between John and Caterina in John’s hospital room:

“What is it, John?” Caterina asked.


“John!  What is it?”

“Have you seen Michele?”

“No.  When did you last see her?”

“It was a couple days ago.  I called to tell her I was having the operation.”  He looked at Caterina with sad intensity.  “I haven’t seen her since.”

“Doesn’t she work in this hospital?”

“Yeah, she works in the operating theater.”

“You didn’t see her when you went in . . . ?”

“No, I was out like a light.”

“And she hasn’t called . . . or . . . ?”

“No.”  They looked at each other – dismay on both faces.

“Strange, very strange,” she said.

John’s cancer and the sudden disappearance of Michele are certainly surprises.  Caterina tracks Michele down in the hospital.  This is the conversation between them:

“Michele, I need to talk to you for a minute.”  Michele put down her magazine and stared at Caterina defensively.

“I’m on duty.”
“Come with me for a minute.”  Caterina took her arm and pulled her to her feet.  At seven pm, the corridor was deserted.

“What do you want?” Michele asked in a surly tone.

“It’s not what I want.  It’s what John wants.  He wants to see you!”

Michele’s mouth opened as if to say something; then she looked away, her lips trembling.  She tried to turn away, but Caterina took her arm again, restraining her.

“Tell me!“ Caterina demanded softly.

“He’s a cripple!  . . . I can’t. . . .  No, he’s a cripple,” Michele began to sob.

“He’s not a cripple!  He’s lost a leg.  In a month or so he’ll be walking again.  He needs you, Michele.”

Michele shuddered.  “A cripple,” she said softly.  The tears were coming profusely now.

Caterina retained her grip on Michele, looking into her face but saying nothing.

“My uncle . . .” Michele faltered

“Yes, what about your uncle?”

“He lost a leg in a bombing when he was fighting in Algeria.  . . . He used to come up behind me when I was studying. . . . I could hear his wooden leg on the floor.”  Her eyes were squeezed shut and she held her trembling hands out in front of herself in a defensive gesture.  “He touched my hair . . . and he reached around and . . . he touched me!”  She covered her face with her hands and sobbed.  Caterina put her arms around Michele and hugged her until she was quiet.  They stood motionless for a time.

“Michele, John loves you.  He is not your uncle.”

As Michele looked at Caterina, apparently without seeing her; her pager sounded.  She disengaged herself and looked at it.  “I have to go,” she said.

Then, there is one more surprise when John has just won an election as a US Congressman from Pennsylvania.  He and Michele have not seen each other for about a month. While John, his campaign staff, family and friends are celcbrating his victory in a hotel ballroom early in the morning.  Here is what happens:

Jamie saw her first, and he nudged Caterina.  From across the room, a solitary figure in a blue and white striped uniform and wearing white pointed cap was slowly approaching John.  Her demeanor was reserved yet determined.  It was Michele.  She stood slightly behind him and to his left, waiting patiently for him to notice her.  The two men to whom John was talking kept glancing at her until John turned to see who they were looking at.

“Oh, Michele . . . “ he said.  The two men moved away.

“Congratulations, John,” she said, nervously clasping and unclasping her hands.  “You did very well!”

He said eagerly: “It’s great to see you, Michele.”

At that, she dissolved and the tears started.  “Oh, John, I’ve been so stupid. . . . So very stupid.  . . . . Will you forgive me?”  She stood looking at him, her cap slightly awry, dark streaks of mascara on her cheeks, her hands at her sides and an expression of pure sorrow on her face.  John leaned forward on his crutches and embraced her.

“I’m so sorry, John, I’m so sorry!” she said softly.

“I love you, Michele!”

She began to weep in earnest: “I don’t know why. . . . I don’t deserve it.”

(For more information about my novels, see



While there is no means of finding an exact count, it has been estimated that there are at least a quarter of a million words in the  English language.  The largest dictionary has over 400,000 entries, but should all of these entries be classified as words?  Many words are considered obsolete or archaic.  There are words like ‘hotdog’ that are combinations of two words, where the combined words have a different meaning than either of the elemental  words.  It is thought that about half the words in the English language are nouns and about 15% are verbs.  This leaves plenty of space for adjectives and adverbs.  But how many words does the average person know?  It has been estimated that the vocabulary of the average English-speaking college graduate is 20,000 to 25,000 words.  Professor David Crystal (linguist, author, academic) has estimated that a more accurate estimate is 60,000 active words and 75,000 passive words.  Estimates of Shakespeare’s vocabulary range from 18,000 to 25,000, depending on what one considers a word.

No matter what word count one adopts, it is fair to say that the writer has plenty of ammunition from which to choose.  Why is it then that we encounter so many cliches in writing?  How about:

  • He swept her off her feet
  • It was love at first sight
  • She quickly recovered herself
  • The dinner was well served and very tasty
  • There was a silver moon in the sky
  • He played a good game of tennis
  • etc.

While I can’t say that I am immune to the disease of cliches, I try hard to work around the traps that they represent.  Why traps?  They are traps because they are easy to fall into, and they add no value for the reader: they are vague, uninformative, and any emotive element they may have had at one time is long since washed out.

On my writing table beside me is my Oxford Thesaurus of English, and it rescues me whenever a cliche threatens, or I feel: that’s not the right word; it’s close, but it’s not right.  To avoid cliche, one has to be more specific.  Rather than say, “He swept her off her feet”, it would be more informative to say something like: “She was captivated by his languorous, baritone voice.”  ‘Beautiful’  is a word that I try not to use: it is so overused that it is hopelessly vague.  Depending on the situation in which ‘beautiful’ would otherwise be used, I might use ‘glamourous’ or ‘stunning’ or ‘beguiling’.

My thesaurus has a useful wordfinder, I can find onomatopoetic words like ‘judder’ (a rapid, forceful vibration) and ‘whoosh’ (the rushing sound of fast movement).  One can find foreign words and phrases like ‘al dente’ when one is writing about pasta, or ‘faux pas’ (socially embarrassing blunder), for which the equivalent English phrase is awkward.  And then, there’s the main section of the wordfinder where one can find a particular colour, or bird, or name for a district of a city, or card game, or . . .

One should try to choose words that convey specific meaning, are evocative, without being contrived, and without (hopefully) leaving the reader to think “I wonder what that word means”.


Some of us like happy endings in the novels we read.  Others prefer an inconclusive ending, where the reader can invent his/her own ending.  Sometimes we are stimulated by a message the author has given us: about life, or about being human.  I have to confess that, when I’m writing, I prefer to write happy endings – probably because I’m an optimist about life.  Fishing in Foreign Seas has a happy ending.  There’s plenty of trouble stored up before the ending.  Jamie, the principal character, loses a huge order.  His wife, Caterina, hates where they are living, is furious at her husband for being tempted by his PA, and her sex life isn’t working well.  Moreover, they have a Down’s Syndrome child.

With Sin & Contrition, it wasn’t really possible to write a happy ending.  Instead, I gave each of the six characters a chance to have a final say.  Some of them come off rather well; others less so.  The message is that all of us are actually sinners.  The extent to which we are forgiven (and forgive ourselves) depends on the extent to which we admit our mistakes and try, conscientiously, not to repeat them.

Recently, I’ve taken the view that the ending of a chapter is important, too.  In the post about Beginnings, I made the point that the writer must try to intrigue the reader with the first few sentences.  If one assumes that most readers pause their reading at the end of a chapter, I think it’s a good idea to leave the reader uncertain about what will happen next.  S/he therefore has an incentive to pick the book up sooner – rather than later – to find out what happened.  I’m not a fan of any particular soap opera, but it seems to be a universal technique that the viewer is presented with a twist in the plot at the end of  an episode, and the viewer hears, “Tune in next Tuesday to find out how Sally copes with . . . ”  Of course, if the author presented the reader with this kind of a teaser at the end of every chapter, the reader would begin to feel that the story is too contrived.  So, I’m only suggesting that the writer give a thought about how to bring a chapter to conclusion in a way that keeps the reader’s interest.

For example, here is the conclusion of Chapter 9 of Fishing in Foreign Seas.  Valerie is a sales engineer who works for Jamie.  She has just turned in the big bid, and she invites him for a drink.


Valerie was interesting company.  She talked about her family, what she did during the summers as a teenager, and she had some funny stories about her friends.  On her second drink, she told him about her ex-boyfriend.  Apparently, he had been very ‘fit’ (read ‘sexy’), but he had tried to manage her life, and she had dumped him.

“I prefer a more mature man who’ll give me some space, and rather likes having a woman with a strong libido around.”  She looked at him meaningfully.

“Yes, I see,” he said, vaguely, and asked the waiter for the check.

“How about I buy you dinner?  After all, this was supposed to be my drink,” she suggested.

“I have to get home, and get my beauty sleep, ready for Arizona Electric at seven tomorrow.”

“OK.”  She paused.  “Do you like Margaritas?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Well, I make a great Margarita!  Next time at my place.” 


Does Valerie get Jamie to her place?  You’ll have to read more to find out.


I think it’s very important to catch the reader’s interest at the very outset of a novel, so, in my opinion, the first page of the first chapter should not be an ‘introduction’ to the novel.  I believe it should plunge the reader right into the action, so that by the end of the first page, s/he is emotionally and intellectually involved.

For example, here are the first three sentences of chapter one which appear on the screen of a Kindle reader on the Amazon website.  (I have no idea what the book is.):

“The churchyard was peaceful in the summer afternoon.  Twigs and branches lay strewn across the gravel path, torn from the trees by the gales which had swept the country in that stormy June of 1545.  In London, we had escaped lightly, only a few chimney-pots gone, but the winds had wreaked havoc in the north.”

There is a similar beginning on the screens of Kindles on advertising posters in the London underground.  The first sentences are about a river and how the river is the beginning.

Do these beginnings engage your interest?  Mildly, perhaps.  By way of contrast, here is the beginning of the first chapter of Fishing in Foreign Seas:

“The phone on Mary Beth’s desk rang.  She picked it up, and cocking her head to one side, put the instrument between her blonde hair and her ear.  “Sales and marketing, Mary Beth speaking. . . .  Oh, hi, Eddie what are you up to?” with a sassy smile.  “I’m sure it must be more exciting than that in St Louis! . . .  Who, me?  I’m just a good little girl!” feigning a priggish face for Jamie’s benefit.  Jamie started to grin.

There’s a lot of information in this brief paragraph.  There are three characters: Mary Beth, Eddie and Jamie.  We know that Mary Beth is blonde, she alternates between being sassy and priggish, and claims to be a ‘good little girl’.  We know that Eddie is in St. Louis, and that he has apparently told Mary Beth it’s not particularly exciting there.  Then there’s Jamie, who grins when Mary Beth pretends to be priggish.  Hmm.  Wouldn’t the reader like to know more about these characters?

Then there’s this opening paragraph of Sin & Contrition:

“‘It’s hard to tell’,LaMarr thought, ‘what angle I should fire the shot.  Can’t see the road.  Not really sure how far it is.  Maybe about like this.’  He drew back the small leather patch which was attached to the arms of the slingshot by strong rubber bands, and extending his left arm upwards at an angle, he released the shot.  He could not see it, but he heard the marble pass through the leaves of the trees overhead.  He waited, listening for the marble to strike.”

Something strange is going on here.  LaMarr is using a slingshot to shoot marbles up through the trees, apparently trying to hit a road which he can’t see.  Why is he doing that?  Wouldn’t the reader like to know?

But, I think that a new chapter should similarly engage the reader’s interest.  If the reader sets the book aside at the end of a chapter, and picks it up at the beginning of a new chapter, s/he will want to be drawn into the situation right away.  Consider this opening paragraph of chapter two of Fishing in Foreign Seas:

He saw her across the bar-lounge of the Teatro Massimo in Palermo.  She was the most incredibly beautiful woman he had ever seen.  She was tall – about 5 feet 9, he guessed, with jet black hair down to her waist, but gathered by a blue ribbon at the nape of her neck.  She was wearing a white pleated linen dress, belted at the waist to emphasize her slim figure.  She was sipping champagne and surveying the crowd around her.  He had to meet her, even if he made an idiot of himself because he didn’t speak a word of Italian.”

This passage prompts the questions in the reader’s mind: will he meet her?  will he make an idiot of himself?

Or this from the beginning of chapter two of Sin & Contrition:

Ellen Weybridge was lounging against the headboard of her queen-sized bed, a pillow behind her.  Her friend, Josie, was sprawled, carelessly, on the bed to her left, while Bettina, the third girl in this close-knit trio, sat cross-legged at the foot of the bed.  All three thirteen-year-olds, classmates at Dorseyville Middle School, were similarly dressed in jeans and sports T-shirts.”

Why are they there?  What are they up to?