How often in creative writing workshops have you heard that it is important to make your characters come alive? Like most authors I’ve struggled with that over the years but let me tell you, when it happens it’s both exhilarating and problematic.
I’ve plotted every scene of my current novel in sufficient detail for me to work on the first draft, which I’ve been doing now for a couple of months. There are quite a few characters in addition to the protagonist and antagonist, some I’m happy with, some I’m not. The latter need more work but the former feel well-rounded and I can see them. The problem starts when they’re so well drawn that they say things that aren’t in the plot but seem entirely appropriate for them to say at the time and in the place they find themselves. The other characters then need to react to the new situation and the story takes a twist I wasn’t expecting.
I could, of course, just go back and make the character say what I wanted them to say, bully them into submission if you like, but that would then be me talking, not the character. It would be false and, after all, I’ve wanted my characters to jump off the page so shouldn’t complain when they do.
How have I drawn them in this way? I don’t know. I’m a writer not a tutor and there are many good books out there which explain better than I could how to strive for this. All I know is that the two characters in this novel who seem to be speaking out of turn the most are ones where I drafted character sketches in the early planning. They didn’t become the characters I’d sketched, not entirely, but something in the process must have made them more real to me – allowed them (and me) to break free of two dimensions.
It’s exciting when this happens, even if it does mean parts of the plan need to be screwed up and re-written. It’s more than worth it in the end.
One of the speakers at Ennis Book Club Festival last weekend said that he starts a new novel as soon as he completes one, within a day. This started me thinking about how he gets his ideas and I tried to come up with what I might write when I’ve finished my current project. No luck.
Then someone sent me a character profile we’d discussed, something I’d become stuck on and she’d suggested a new pair of eyes might help. This gave me the idea for an exercise.
Firstly write a profile/backstory for a character e.g. Georgina is now in a wheelchair. She’s 27 years of age, black and has just lost her job. She was secretary to the boss of a meat canning factory until she told him she suspected someone was tampering with the health and safety reports. Her boyfriend of the last five years has also dumped her … etc, etc.
Make this as brief or as extensive as you like.
Then do the same for two, or possibly three, more characters. Perhaps think about varying their ages, social position, location, etc.
Then ask the question: What connects these people?
If you’ve also set up questions within the profiles, for example, why is Georgina now in a wheelchair, try answering them.
Hopefully this might lead to the outline for a story. If not, you can always use the characters somewhere else and the exercise won’t be wasted.
Let me know if it works for you.
I’m a procrastinator in my writing. In real life I’m pretty good at making decisions and figuring out the shortest path between two points. My creative self is significantly different.
First of all I plan. Some time ago I discovered the joys of Scrivener after working my way through FreeMind, Writers’ Cafe and half a dozen other programs designed to supposedly increase my output. I can’t help thinking that if I’d dedicated half the time to writing as I did to mastering (huh!) the software I’d have finished my first novel in half the time. Still, you never know if the effort is going to be worthwhile before you put it in. I’ve certainly been impressed with the way Scrivener has helped but it’s a shame it took me so long to get to it.
Secondly, I commit that cardinal sin warned against by writing pundits – I edit as I go along. I’m not sure why it is but I read and rewrite every sentence, every phrase, two or three times before I move on to the next. Not that it stops me making mistakes, nor enables me to write faultless prose, that would elevate it to the status of being time well spent, it’s just something I do.
Finally, I have a need for accuracy and this leads me to endlessly research history and location. My family and friends tell me this is because I prefer the chase to the feast and I’m afraid they might be right. Today, for example, when writing two short scenes, I happily Googled 1930s women’s fashion, the distance on foot between Alexandria and Suez, and the names of British troopships sailing to Cape Town in 1852. I thought, perhaps, I was going too far when I typed ‘how far can a donkey walk in a day’ into my browser. I was going to include the answer in this blog but decided you can waste your own time if you really want to know!
So the final draft of my Inspector Given sequel is finished and with my publisher for consideration, it’s also been submitted to a couple of agents and I’m sitting here with fingers crossed – making the typing much more difficult than it needs to be. I’ve had some excellent help from my daughters and their spouses with the final edit. Two spotted the villain quite early so that’s been changed!
I’ve started a new project, significantly different to the detective novels and I’m finding it both challenging and thrilling. It’s certainly something I couldn’t have written a few years ago because I simply wouldn’t have had the skills nor the confidence to make it work. I’m not sure that I have now but I’m enjoying trying to write it. It only has a simple working title for now, so I can file it, and I’m finding that the time spent learning to use Scrivener was worth it because it is a complex structure, switching time, point-of-view and voice frequently.
Basically it tells the story of three generations of a family through the medium of a mother sitting at the bedside of her daughter who is in a coma. The timeline begins at the height of the Irish famine and ends in the last days of the Second World War – so not much danger of historical accuracy errors there then.
If you’d like to see a draft of the opening scenes, or maybe ask a question about my use of Scrivener use the form below.
A few days ago I was chatting to a writer friend who was saying she’d submitted to around 30 publishers and agents without success before self-publishing. Her book has sold a couple of hundred copies to date and has been widely praised, so why no traditional publisher?
If I knew the definite reason for that then I could probably retire on the proceeds but it occurs to me there are at least three elements:
The first is obvious – write a good piece of work and edit it until you’re happy it’s finished. It won’t actually be finished because the publisher will have their own views on the need for changes, but it needs to be as good as you can get it before you submit.
The second is also obvious if you think about it – you need luck. There are a limited number of publishers out there and they’re all trying to be a commercial success. Nothing wrong with that, they need to pay the bills same as anyone else. As I result, they will be cautious about what they take on and more likely to go with known names, famous/infamous writers of autobiography, or the current fashion. So the luck comes in at least three ways: either be famous, somehow hit the current trend (but don’t forget that the current trend was probably commissioned a couple of years ago and publishers have moved on to the next one), or hit on a publisher who currently has a space in their list.
Thirdly, research and focus – There’s very little point sending material to publishers who don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts or who only accept submissions through an agent. Equally, there’s even less point sending your noir-crime novel, regardless of how good it is, to a publisher who specialises in literary fiction or science fiction. The internet enables us to both identify publishers with an interest in our particular genre and then research them in detail. When I started to submit A Shadowed Livery I looked through the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and highlighted all of the publishers who published crime fiction. Then I stumbled upon a list of these on the ‘net so added a few from the Yearbook which had been missed. There were, I believe, 63 on the final list. I then went through the websites of every one and weeded out those who were not taking submissions or who only took them via an agent. This left me about 13. Further research took out the ‘vanity’ publishers and those where their preferred sub-genre or target group didn’t match my novel. This left me with eight publishers I felt confident I could approach. The final bit of research was to be clear about the submission requirements and to then follow them to the letter. Virtually all of them were different. I was lucky enough to find three who expressed further interest and then went with one who definitely wanted to proceed. So, even with all the initial research, there was interest from less than five percent of the initial list – but if I had simply used a scatter-gun approach, firing off submissions just anywhere, I might not even have hit that figure.
On the other hand, I might have. What did I say about luck?
Only two weeks to go to the publication of A Shadowed Livery and I’m excited to think it will soon be out there.
It’s an odd feeling when something you’ve worked on for so long eventually grows wings and flies the nest. There’s nothing else can be done with it, the darling either flies or it doesn’t. I keep thinking of parts I could have phrased better, twists in the plot which might have improved the story, traits of my main characters I could have emphasised, but none of these are now possible because it’s in print and ready to go.
Do other authors have this problem?
Having watched the final of the amateur painting reality show ‘The Big Painting Challenge’ and being a fan of ‘The Great British Bake-off’, I wondered if it was time to have one on writing. Half an hour to compose a poem? 50 word flash fiction piece based on a trigger. A novel by the end of the series? A complete story in six words? Convinced it would be a winner, I started thinking of possible titles. How about ‘It’ll be all write on the night’ or ‘Do it like the prose’.
Any others out there?