Writing tips from Jeffrey Archer in Chennai

As I strolled into the Odyssey bookstore I found it bustling with activity and anticipation. I asked one of the stackers and was told that a very famous writer was arriving soon. I had to press him a bit more until he confided that Jeffrey Archer was the man of the hour. Not that I have ever read anything by him, but I thought that it would not hurt to stay and listen.  Now, before anyone goes off about Mr. Archer’s numerous scandals and controversies let me say that I will not venture too much into that as this is not a political blog. Did he knick those suites back in 1977? Did he commit perjury in the Daily Star trial? Did he buy sex from a prostitute? What are his political motives? Feel free to Google and find out for yourself. His three part prison diaries are available also.

Archer arrived punctually at 18.28, two minutes ahead of time, to find everyone in the audience standing up in is his honor. Obviously the crowd had not heard of his discrepancies or then they simply respected him as a writer. The reason for his visit to the city and India is the recent launch of his latest book Only Time Will Tell, the first part of the upcoming Clifton Chronicles. He started off by expressing his delight in coming to India once more and how he would continue to do so having always received a very warm welcome here. On arrival he had learned that Only Time Will Tell had gone to number one on the bestseller list in India after just two days of it’s release. According to Archer the readership of his books is  much higher in India than for example in America, even though sales figures are about the same. According to a survey, in India approximately 25 people read one copy of a book, whereas in the Unites States and Europe only 2.5 people read a copy.

Archer praised the Indian people’s passion for literature and by way of example asked the audience how many among them aspired to write a book? As a response the majority of hands went up. Next he asked how many had actually written a book and about 15 people in the audience of around 200 raised their hand. Archer  then exclaimed, “This is what I mean. Only in India do you get such a response. Well done!” At that point a young girl in the front row raised her hand and introduced herself as being fourteen years old and having also written a book. To this Archer responded, “Amazing, you’re only fourteen and have already written a book! See, this is another example of why I come to India. They won’t believe me back home. Best of luck to you young woman.”

Someone then took the opportunity to ask him whether he needed a special environment or writer’s desk to write. To this Archer replied that as a storyteller he does not need a specific place, that any place would do. Even if he was told that he had to live at the Odyssey bookstore from now on he would sit down at the table there and begin his next novel. “A writer should not wait for a special time or place to write otherwise it might never happen.” Continuing on the subject Archer opined  that even though a writer should not wait for a special time or place he should not attempt do two things at once. He gave an example of a surgeon friend of his who wrote a book and gave it to him for evaluation. He read it and asked the friend if he had written it in between operations, who admitted he had in fact done so and asked why Archer thought as much. Archer told him that because some chapters were good, some average, some bad, and some outstanding. He then gave an example of another friend who had worked as a stationmaster and who wrote with concentration for two hours before going to work with, apparently, excellent results. “Just imagine if I decided to perform operations in between my writing”, he joked.

The next question tied up with the previous when he was asked what kind of a writing routine he had. According to Archer he gets up at 5.30 am, then writes from 6-8 am, takes a two hour break, writes again from 10-12, takes a two hour break, writes from 2-4 pm, takes a two hour break, writes from 6-8 pm, and finally goes to sleep at 9.30 pm. One man took the opportunity at this junction to ask what he did to maintain his health as it seemed to him that Archer was in good shape for a 70 year old. Archer elaborated that during the breaks in his writing he exercises diligently and felt that exercise and good health are essential for his writing. He has a personal trainer to help him with staying fit. A tough lady from New Zealand at that.

A woman in the front asked if he had any plans to write a novel set in India to which Archer replied that if he did so people here would undoubtedly say he had “got it wrong” as he has not enough knowledge about India to make it credible. According to him one should write about what one knows intimately and by way of example mentioned that in his latest novel the protagonist is born 15 miles for where he himself was born, goes to prep-school and finally to Oxford like he did. But he did mention he had written a short story set in Mumbai a few years back which is essentially a love story and that even that small effort made him scared.

Asked how he comes up with his characters Archer replied that he observes real life all the time and “steals” stories from it. He said that he wants to write mostly about characters that are not purely good or purely evil, and sometimes about seemingly bad people who do outstanding things. The primary object being that the reader is captivated by and finds the characters credible. A blind boy then queried how Archer comes up with his story-lines. The answer was that he first thinks about the story for about half a year in his head and tries out different things in his mind without actually writing. After the gestation period he finally sits down, prays, starts writing and then the story takes a completely different turn from what he had imagined. This evoked a good laugh out of the audience. The boy also asked whether Archer’s books were available in Braille. Archer happily informed everyone that all of his books are available in Braille free of cost and directed his tour manager to instruct the boy on how to obtain them. This naturally and for good reason invoked loud applause.

Asked if he was influenced by John Grisham he replied that at least he was not aware of being influenced by Grisham, but that it was of course possible subconsciously, as every writer  is influenced by someone. He then added that he wanted to be influenced by Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and that discipline he had learned from Alex Hayley who was a friend of his.

The next question was whether he finds starting a book or ending it more difficult. Archer said that time-wise he spends most on the first and last pages of his books. Possibly around 10 hours on the first and even 15 on the last. He said that it was imperative to capture the readers attention from the first line onwards and as an example read a passage from the first page of his latest book, which I have to say in all honesty did not capture me but he had an (obvious) point of course. Getting the reader gripped by the story and turning the pages I would think is the goal of every writer.

When asked if he would write a genre novel like a romance for example, Archer said that he preferred to write stories which might include love and romance or some other genre elements but not have them as the main theme. According to him it is better to write about what one feels close to, not what is in vogue at the moment. Someone had recently told him that vampires are in these days, just as during the days of Jurassic Park people had told him that Dinosaurs are in, but he said he will stick to what he can write about as should any aspiring writer. A girl then wanted to know if he had ever been inspired to write for children. Archer said that writing for children is actually much more challenging that most people assumed, but that he had given it a try by writing two books for his sons of which only 3000 copies were taken. He then praised J.K. Rowling as an excellent author for children.

Archer finished on a humorous note by taking a swing at piracy in India. According to him the day a book is published it’s already for sale on the streets of India. He related a story about how he was driving to a book promotion function when at the lights a young boy knocked on his window and asked, “Sir, would you like the latest Jeffrey Archer?”, to which he retorted, “But I am the latest Jeffrey Archer!”

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5 Responses to Writing tips from Jeffrey Archer in Chennai

  1. Sandeep says:

    Quite a detailed post, good one indeed, thanks for sharing

  2. Sarada says:

    Started working life as a reporter in Singapore 70’s- tough lessons and learning curve, but useful tools. Also stints in journalism, when in Towcwster for Northampton and Miltom Keynes Weeklies,80’s…Now I write different genres :short stories etc. Just to say, how much your report of Jeffrey Archer in Chennai took me right into Odyssey Bookstore and answered all relevant questions.
    Excellent Report! Thank You!

  3. Zehra says:

    I really enjoyed reading the bove report. I’m a journalist and a born book lover, going to meet jeffrey archer today and was just trying to get to know more about him. Thanks a lot, the report is really well written, and gives so many details that i feel like i’ve already met him. Thnks for sharing this! I’ve added it to my favorites!

  4. Promoth George says:

    Perfect way to describe an evening with one of the most brillant writers of our times. I have read and reread almost all of Archers books. Each page keeps you guessing and Lord Archer can be described as a master story teller without doubt. The tough regime that he follows in writing a novel makes his works, English Fiction bestseller. Archer has still more to give the world of Literature through his deep winding novel. There is one and has been only One Jeffery Archer. Will his latest Clifton series be his masterpiece? Can’t wait to read the final in the five part series which he plans to finish by 2015.

  5. richard says:

    this is an excellent post about one of my favourite authors, and it was very well written…richard, england

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