Creating Compelling Characters

Plot is key, but not at the expense of character. We’ll go anywhere with a full character but question every move with a thin one.’

Jonny Geller, CEO of literary agency Curtis Brown

Creating unique and memorable characters is a must for every fiction writer. It’s what makes our stories interesting and resonate with the reader.

And for series writers, the strength of our characters is what makes the reader want to come back for more. Plot alone isn’t enough.

So how do you do it?

Come up with a good backstory? Through in a few quirks and a great car?

No.

To create a your readers will fall in love with you need to dig deeper:

1. Really know your character

I’m not just talking about his/her favourite colour or when his/her birthday is. You need to know your character as well as you know yourself.

To quote one of my favourite literary charactersAtticus from To Kill a Mockingbird– you need to:

Climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it

2. Use plot to define your character

Show how your character reacts to a difficult situation. Let your readers see him/her in action.

How someone deals with a problem tells us a lot about them AND it lets you ‘show not tell’ the reader what your character’s made of.

3. Create contradictions

Create interest through contradictions. A vegetarian who wears leather. A Buddhist serial killer. these are extreme examples, but you take the point.

In real life no-one is straight down the middle. Your characters shouldn’t be either.

4. Give your character flaws

It’s tempting to try and create ‘nice’ characters because we want our readers to like them. But actually characters with flaws are much more interesting, especially when those flaws get them into trouble.

Think Thomas Hardy here. His best loved characters were deeply flawed and those flaws ultimately lead to their downfall.

 

Editing Secrets

Three Editing Secrets to Improve Your Manuscript

You’ve done it! After months and months of hard work and sleepless nights, you’ve finally finished your first draft. Time to send it off to agents and publishers? Think again. This is where the hard work really starts.

Now it’s time to go back to your first page and begin all over again. It sounds soul destroying when put like that but actually turning your first draft into a polished manuscript can be the most rewarding part of the writing process.

Here are some tips about how to go about it:

  1. Take a Step Back

To be objective you might want to step away from your novel for a while. This is the time to go on long walks or out for lazy lunches. Not only do you deserve the break, it will also give you the chance to come back to your work with a fresh pair of eyes.

  1. Read Your Manuscript in One Sitting

This may sound daunting but it will enable you to see the bigger picture. Instead of worrying about individual sentences, assess your novel in its entirety. By reading it in one go you’ll spot plot and character inconsistencies as well as passages that need tightening.

  1. Question, Question and Question

Does the novel have a clear beginning, middle and end? Are the characters engaging and three dimensional? Are they driving your plot or vice versa? Is there enough conflict? What does your protagonist want? What are the barriers to them achieving their goal?

By looking at your novel in this way, through the eyes or a reader rather than a writer, you will end up with a manuscript that is nuanced and compelling.

And most importantly by taking the time to edit carefully you’ll end up with a piece of writing you can be truly proud of. Good luck!

3 Traits All Good Writers Share

A recent study identified three key traits all good writers have in common. How many of the boxes can you check?

1. Good Writers Express Themselves Succinctly

As short story author Mary Gaitskill puts it:

‘Writing is … being able to … go through everything you wanted to say, finding the right words, giving shape to the images, and linking them to feelings and thoughts.’

Good writers don’t waffle or get caught up in the detail. Instead they get to the nub of their argument and use the ‘best words, in the best order’ to express it.

2. They read. A lot

Ezra Pound famously said:

‘Literature does not exist in a vacuum.’

Nothing inspires us as much as what we read. Other writer’s ideas and forms of expression give birth to new thoughts in our own heads.

Reading inspires us. It improves our vocabulary. And it gives us an insight into ‘how it’s done’.

When Nobel prize winner Jose Sarama was recently asked about his daily writing routine. He said:

‘I write two pages. And then I read and read and read.’

3. Great Writers are Addicts.

Drugs. Alcohol. Plenty of the best known writers have been hooked on substances but I’m referring to addiction of a different kind here.

Truly great writers are addicted to the art of writing itself. For them the discipline isn’t sitting down at their desk, it’s getting up again afterwards.

These writers carry notebooks about. They don’t look for the perfect writing spot. They’ll write anywhere. On the Tube. Waiting for the bus. Under a tree or in a noisy café. It doesn’t matter. So long as they’re writing, they’re happy.

 

Secret to Writing Great Dialogue

Struggling to make your dialogue authentic? Try eavesdropping. On the bus. In restaurants. Standing in line at the check-out. It doesn’t matter where you do it- just make sure you have a notebook handy.

Look for:

  • The pauses between the conversation, and where the speakers pick up and drop off from each other
  • How one person dominates or leads
  • Unusual expressions or contractions
  • How it flows

Earwigging on random conversations is a time-honoured technique used by countless well known writers.

As Charles Haas (screenwriter- Gremlins 2, Matinee and Over the Edge) said:

“I do pay attention to what people are saying. I think it’s a good writing technique because it builds up one’s ear for dialogue and vernacular.”

The most convincing dialogue comes from real people in real situations. By listening to how people talk to each other you can identify different speech patterns and come up with some great lines. Plus, if you’re a bit nosy like me, you can have a lot of fun too!

My favourite eavesdrop came a few weeks ago at a pub in Shepherd’s Bush.

‘I don’t fancy locust, babe,’ a man said into his cell-phone shaking his head and sleeving beer foam off his top lip.

I’ve no idea what they were talking about but I am glad I wasn’t invited round for supper.

How to Hook Your Readers with a Killer Opening Line

Top tips for writing the perfect first line for your novel

Writing the opening line of your novel can feel daunting and for good reason- if you don’t get it right your reader is unlikely to keep going.

You need to hook your reader. You need to draw them into your story. And you need signpost where you are headed. It’s no easy task but hopefully these tips will help nail your opening and keep your reader turning the pages

  1. Start with a Statement

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” – Pride and Prejudice

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Anna Karenina

Both these novels use statements to open their stories and set a mood and theme for the rest of the narrative. What’s interesting about them is that the authors each make a controversial comment about seemingly uncontroversial facts to make them striking and interesting.

  1. Say Something Surprising

Many of the most famous novels have opening lines that are surprising. For example:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – 1984

What a genius way to show the reader they are entering a world where something is rather wrong.

And how about-

“Marley was dead: to begin with.” – A Christmas Carol
-which creates intrigue and suspense brilliantly.

  1. Encapsulate your whole novel in the opening line

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” – The Metamorphosis

In this one sentence Kafka shows us Samsa’s entire journey.

Writing the perfect opening line isn’t easy. It takes time to craft and you may come up with a line only to discard it for something better along the way. But don’t give up. When you find the right one you’ll know- and so will your reader.

How to Be a Better Writer

In her book, 10 Rules of Writing, Elmore Leonard advised would be authors to – ‘Get an accountant, abstain from sex and similes, cut, rewrite, then cut and rewrite again – if all else fails, pray’. Whilst Ernest Hemmingway famously wrote, ‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is just sit at a typewriter and bleed.’

But surely there’s more to great writing than simply praying and hemorrhaging at your desk… I’ve analysed advice by famous authors in an attempt to discover how to become a better writer.  My favourite tips are listed below; let me know what you think of them.

1. “Find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!” – Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451

How to use it:

At first glance it seems Bradbury is advocating a sort of voodoo magic in the creative writing process whereby protagonists take care of the plot for you. However I think what he’s really saying here is that your characters should be so well developed they could just walk off the page and that their traits not your plot requirements should determine the action they take.

2. “If you have other things in your life – family, friends, good productive day work – these can interact with your writing and the sum will be all the richer.” – David Brin, award winning science fiction author.

How to use it:

What a great reminder there’s a life outside the writing shed! Inspiration doesn’t come from staring inwards, it comes from living in the real world and interacting with real people.

The genius of a novel can begin almost anywhere- a childhood memory, dramatic scenery, an eavesdropped conversation never quite understood. Toni Morrison’s novel, Sula starts in this way whilst Tony Hillerman’s novels were inspired by the southwestern landscape and William Faulkner’s masterpiece The Sound and The Fury was born out of a childhood memory of a ‘little girl’s muddy drawers.’

3. “Write drunk, edit sober” – Peter deVries

How to use it:

Writers like Raymond Chandler and Dylan Thomas rarely put a sentence together without a whiskey in easy reach. However, I don’t think deVries is advocating alcoholism in the writing process. Instead he’s making the point that writing and editing require two completely different mindsets and shouldn’t take place at the same time.

When you write you should be free and open minded. To produce your best work you need to follow your instincts and let the words flow unchecked.

Conversely when editing you need to be brutal. You need to ask if a character would really say or do such and such. You need to check the words you’ve used are ‘the best words in the best order’. And most importantly, as Virginia Woolfe said, you need to be prepared to ‘kill your darlings’.

4. “The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself” – Oscar Wilde

This is my favourite piece of advice and it needs no analysis or explanation. If you agree with Wilde please share of your top writing tips (famous or homegrown) in the comment section below.In her book, 10 Rules of Writing, Elmore Leonard advised would be authors to- ‘Get an accountant, abstain from sex and similes, cut, rewrite, then cut and rewrite again – if all else fails, pray’. Whilst Ernest Hemmingway famously wrote, ‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is just sit at a typewriter and bleed.’

But surely there’s more to great writing than simply praying and hemorrhaging at your desk… I’ve analysed advice by famous authors in an attempt to discover how to become a better writer.  My favourite tips are listed below; let me know what you think of them.

7 Things Successful Writers Do

In his bestselling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey presents what he sees as the key principles to achieving success in the workplace. I’m more of a Bridget Jones than a Stephen Covey when it comes to self-help manuals but I thought it might be fun to share the seven things I’ve learned along my writing journey and see if they resonate with anyone else.

  1. Write Even When You Don’t Want To

There are days when the muse just doesn’t sing- when she won’t even mutter under her breath. But you can’t give in to her silence. You still have to sit at your desk and fill the page. It isn’t only about ‘being professional’ and meeting deadlines. It’s also about pushing through the mental block and making something happen. It’s about telling yourself you can do it and not giving up.

  1. Make Friends with Other Writers

Writing is a lonely business and there are some things only other writers can understand. Your writer friends keep you afloat when the seas are rocky and chill on the deck with you when they are smooth.

  1. Look at Your Work with Fresh Eyes

When you’re too close to something it can be difficult to see what’s in front of you- glaring plot gaps, character inconsistencies…One of the most useful things I ever did was to get feedback from a literary consultancy. It set me up with a fantastic editor who propelled my manuscript in a new direction by showing me what I was doing right and (more importantly) what I was doing wrong.

  1. Realise Everyone is Different

Some people plot to the nth degree before opening a new document and typing Chapter One. Others are what the NaNoWriMo organisers would call ‘pantsers.’ They fly (or rather write) by the seat of their pants without knowing where their story is going to end up. Neither method is better than the other. It’s just a matter of working out which one does it for you.

  1. Don’t Stop

I think this is my most important lesson so far. No matter what stage you’re at (querying/on submission/waiting for edits) channel your energies into the next project. The excitement that comes from writing something new will stop you checking your inbox every two minutes and the passion will keep you going- especially when rejections start to come in.

  1. Rejection is Part of the Process

Everyone says you have to have a thick skin to be a writer. When I started out I thought they were talking about the pre-published stage. But it turns out they weren’t. It turns out the rejection never ends and even the most celebrated authors get bad reviews. The trick is not to get bogged down by it (easier said than done). The truth is sitting on the sofa in our pyjamas watching Netflix with a tub of Ben and Jerrys isn’t going to get any of us on the bestseller lists. But telling ourselves rejection happens to everyone and getting off the sofa just might.

  1. Celebrate Your Successes

Given the amount of rejection we all face in this game, I think it’s crucial to celebrate our successes whenever they come along. No matter how big or how small the achievements we must relish them!