Archive for category How to write a book

‘I have a flash fiction mind’ – interview with Jayne Martin @jayne_martin

Jayne Martin has an impressive string of accolades for her flash fiction, especially her recent collection Tender Cuts. Before that, she had a distinguished career writing TV drama and movies. We got together to talk the long and short of writing.

Roz Across all those different continents of work, short and long, do you have any recurring themes, any character types you’re most interested in?

Jayne When I wrote for television, it was primarily on assignment, but I always seemed to be offered the heavy drama: stolen babies, sexual assault, murdered children. I was known for being able to deliver the emotional stuff. I think that’s a recurring theme in all my work. Certainly, in Tender Cuts, every character is dealing with some kind of emotional wound.

Roz And you write humour essays. I haven’t yet had a chance to mention that.

Jayne In real life, I’m actually considered quite funny. If Nora Ephron and Howard Stern had had a love child, that would be me. God, I loved Nora. My humour collection, Suitable for Giving: A Collection of Wit with a Side of Wry, was inspired by her brilliant comic voice and timing. In it is a story called “Stalking Nora Ephron”, where I make the case that if only we could meet we would be best of friends.

Roz I love that idea. You’ve got me making a list of authors who I hope I’d click with IRL.

Who are your inspirations?

Jayne One of my greatest influences in drama was Alvin Sargent who wrote the screenplay for Ordinary People. I was hired to give him clerical support during the revisions. I remember walking into his beachfront Santa Monica apartment to find Alvin and Robert Redford, who would direct, sitting on the floor with pages of the script laid out all over the carpet. I helped Alvin get organized and he taught me how to make a killer tuna salad. I also worked for Sydney Pollack and Fay Kanin, so yeah. I cut my drama chops through exposure to the best in the business.

As for flash fiction, probably Meg Pokrass, Pamela Painter and Robert Scotellaro. And I never miss reading a story by Kathy Fish or Nancy Stohlman. But there is just so much flash talent out there now. Gay Degani is on fire. Cathy Ulrich, Jacqueline Doyle, Len Kuntz, brilliant. The genre has exploded since I started back in 2010. I learn from everyone.

Roz With flash fiction, how do you keep a story idea so brief?

Jayne Again, I have to return to my screenplay roots where you enter a scene late, leave early and keep the viewer in a state of suspense. It’s a very visual art form so I’m used to telling a story through use of imagery. I’ve been doing it for so long that I have a flash fiction mind. I think in small bits. The ending, when it arrives, is always a surprise to me, whether it’s the 50th word or word 300. I rarely write fiction over that word limit. I actually find it hard to read stories beyond that limit, too, because the extraneous leaps out at me and I find myself mentally editing, or just growing bored.

Roz I began my writing life with short stories, but they quickly ran away with me. I don’t think I have a short-form mind. What’s the secret of writing microfiction that is satisfying?

Jayne It appeals to my reverence for instant gratification. Patience is not my strong suit. While a movie would often take six months to complete, I can write a flash or micro in a day. I may let it sit for a couple of days, and then go back and polish, but it’s basically done. I like the challenge of every word having a job. No slackers allowed. It’s like the art of bonsai in its precision.

Roz I feel the same about longform. Don’t include a detail unless it matters… Neither form has room for flab, if done properly.  I guess the real difference is what the reader is looking for – a single riff, or a complete symphony.

Let’s talk further about flash techniques. What are the main problems that you see in inexperienced writers of flash fiction?

Jayne Inexperienced flash writers haven’t yet learned to let the reader fill in the gaps with their own interpretation and imagination so they still feel like they have to explain and describe everything and tie everything up at the end. The magic happens in the cracks, the empty spaces.

I guess it’s like taking the training wheels off your bike and trusting yourself to stay upright. It takes a while to get there. The best way to learn to write flash is to read lots of it. Some of the best publishers of the form are literary journals like Bending Genres, Ellipsis, Wigleaf, and New Flash Fiction Review, edited by Meg Pokrass, a master of the form.

Roz What are the definitions…. What’s flash fiction, what’s microfiction, what’s small fiction?

Jayne Technically flash is considered under 1,000 words. For me, at about 600 it stops flashing and starts dragging. Some people call micro at 400 words. I call it at 300. A drabble is 100 words. But all these are very loose.

Roz You’ve had quite a journey, from TV writing to flash fiction. One is very collaborative, the other is highly personal.

Jayne When I was writing movies for television it was kind of like being a bricklayer in Beirut. Steady work, but little job satisfaction. With movies, the writer gets paid whether the movie gets made or not and some of what I thought was my best work never saw the light of day, often for capricious reasons that had nothing to do with the work. While the “suits” left you alone for the first draft, after that everyone down to craft services had an opinion. If you didn’t like their notes they would just fire you and hire someone else. It pitted writer against writer.

Having said that, I made a ton of money and if someone offered to pay my fee I’d write another. But it can’t compare to the pleasure of writing fiction and the supportive, wonderful writing community I’ve found doing so.

Roz I have scriptwriter friends who’ve tried novels and been daunted by the idea of writing on their own, of having no filters between their words and the reader (except for an editor). Personally, I love that direct connection.

Jayne I love the direct connection with readers. Writing a story and seeing eyes on it within a month is a huge reward. So yes! Give me my solitude.

Roz The opening page of your website is enchanting. ‘I live in a tiny house… high on a hilltop…’ Tell me about this place. How did you end up there?

Jayne In 2011, my lucrative movie career behind me, I decided to purge 40 years of belongings and downsize from an 1800 square foot house to a 400 square foot guest house on the 20-acre ranch of a friend. It felt great. I highly recommend it. My desk faces out to overlook a rural valley where my closest neighbours are the cows on the other side of the fence. In the airspace, red tail hawks do sky ballet and teach their fledglings to fly. And best of all, no one can find me.

Roz You studied on the UCLA writers’ programme. What did it do for you?

Jayne This was in the very beginning of my career. I’d been an actress first, but it didn’t suit me. At that time, I made my living as a script typist and thought, “Yes. This is where I belong.” In that work, I read hundreds of scripts and learned what worked and what didn’t as I started writing my own. The classes were taught by working professionals, some of which ended up mentoring me as I sought out an agent and those important first jobs.

Roz We’re both horse riders. How does horse rider Jayne fit with writer Jayne? Levi is stunning, by the way. Has he, or have any of your horse experiences, found their way into your writing?

Jayne Levi is my fifth horse. They’ve all been my sanity maintenance. The only time I feel the quieting of my monkey mind and am completely present in the moment is when I’m with a horse. I have never lost that feeling of awe when I sit on their backs and experience their willingness to carry me. I’ve kept my riding and writing worlds pretty separate, but one day I may tell some tales.

Roz (Until that time, Jayne has put some of her horse sense into this movie, Big Spender, available on Amazon. And if your heart beats for hoofbeats, here’s my own tribute to a grand and unforgettable horse, Lifeform Three.)

Find Jayne’s website here, her books (including Tender Cuts, published by Vine Leaves Press) here, her essays and shortform work here and tweet her as @Jayne_Martin

If you’d like more writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips for long-form stories. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Your first pages – 5 more book openings critiqued by a literary agent, YA author @AJ_Dickenson (and me!) at @Litopia

I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two (this time we had longtime Litopia member and YA author Andy Dickenson @AJ_Dickenson).

The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents and publishers would consider a manuscript that arrived in their inbox.

As always, the submissions had many strengths. Issues we discussed included the importance of voice in contemporary fiction, the age of the protagonist in a YA novel, whether we’ll want to read novels that feature the Covid-19 pandemic, a lyrically written fantasy that seemed too nebulous, how to begin an action thriller with a sci-fi element, and whether a title was too long, too hard to remember or assertively intriguing. You can see it in the picture above and I’d love to know what you think: too long, just right, too weird, exactly weird enough? It’s a military term, in case that helps you decode it. Drop me a line in the comments because, on the show, we genuinely couldn’t agree on it.

Also, Peter asked me to tell everyone about Ever Rest, which I hadn’t prepared a pitch for, so I had to invent one on the spot. Avalanches of panic until I got myself together.

Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, look here (to see a less fumbling pitch of Ever Rest). You can subscribe to future updates here.

 

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How to write captivating characters – interview at @Sacha_Black Rebel Author podcast

I’ve just been a guest on Sacha Black’s Rebel Author podcast where we had a thorough (and sometimes rebellious) discussion about how to write convincing people. Ideas we talked about included how writers teach the reader what’s important to a character, and how readers want a book to take them to places and experiences beyond their own lives.

Drop in here, and wear your best rebel boots.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips like this. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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How to write a memoir about difficult times

I’ve had this question from Julia.

I would like to write a nonfictional account of my experience as a caregiver of my 80-year-old mum during lockdown. I’ve never done any creative writing. Where do I start? A diary, a memoir? I’ve been through a lot of struggle and want to put that on paper. Maybe someday I will publish it to share my experience with people facing the same difficulties.

First, Julia, capture the raw material. Start with a diary. Write it as often as possible, before you make any decisions about what to do with it.

How to write the diary

You might be self-conscious to begin with. You might worry about who will read it and what they’ll get from it. Forget that for now.

You won’t publish this diary. It’s notes that you will eventually use to create a book. So for now, it’s you and your thoughts, talking privately to a page or a recording app – whatever is comfortable.

Keep it simple. Just write what you did today. Then write whether that was usual or unusual, and how. If it’s usual, for how long has it been usual? Write how that made you feel, what was difficult and what was a pleasure, and why. Write what you think tomorrow will be like. Or next week. Write your hopes and pleasures and fears.

Do this every day, or as often as you can.

Don’t edit

Don’t worry about repeating yourself. Don’t try to edit as you go. You’re not trying to write the proper book yet. That’s a separate job for later. Just capture vivid moments, hours, days, weeks, in all their honesty. But you probably won’t repeat yourself as much as you think. Even if the events are largely the same, your thoughts and insight will evolve. You will also become better at sharing deeply.

Add context

When you’re comfortable with this, start to include other material that will be meaningful for a reader. Context that lets us know who you are, where you’re coming from, how this is changing your life and changing you. At some point, write what you were doing five years ago, 10 years ago, one year ago. Anything that feels significant.

Don’t delete

This will be an emotional document. You might regret things you wrote in earlier pages. If so, do not delete them.

This is an essential part of your growth. It is the truth of the situation you seek to share. You’re not trying to be a perfect person; you’re aiming to be an honest human who is sometimes angry or self-indulgent or wrong or foolish. So if you find yourself disappointed about earlier writings, examine that disappointment, and what you would now do or think differently. Recognise also that you are likely to change your mind again.

Start planning the book

After a while, you’ll notice patterns and themes. Continue to write your daily accounts, but start a separate textfile or notebook. You’re now ready to think about the big picture. How you’ll use your diaries to create a book that can connect with others.

Certain material in the diary won’t be relevant. Also, you’ll need to add. But remember, a memoir isn’t your whole life; it’s usually the story of a specific struggle. You might have many memoirs in you. What is the focus of this one?

We are made of many memoirs

At the same time, this focus might be more complex and far-reaching than you initially thought – this situation might force you to grapple with other problems and issues. Or you might want to include material about other significant people – perhaps your mother herself. Write notes to experiment with these ideas. See what seems a natural fit.

Also, look for what makes your story unique. Although you are writing about a situation that others also find themselves in, yours will have a unique impact on you, and you will have a unique way of handling it.

From my interview with Peter Selgin, author of The Inventors

Other aspects to consider

You need to be objective, honest and fair, which is hard – see this interview with Peter Selgin.

Two more links on gathering material and shaping it for others to read. My radio show with Peter Snell. Also this post about the writing of Not Quite Lost (a much happier subject, but it started with private diaries).

More on choosing what to focus on, the idea that our lives contain many stories – how fiction writers adapt to memoir.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips like this. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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Stuck at the beginning of your novel? How to get going

‘Please help,’ wrote the author to me. ‘I’ve been writing a novel, I have a mass of text but no idea how to pull a plot out of it.’

We’re now doing well with the plot. But one big thing is holding her back.

‘Should this be the opening? Or this?’

We don’t know yet, I say. Don’t worry. Write a placeholder scene, and make the decision later.

We talk. We make much progress about themes, events and character arcs. Then my author returns to the question. Should this be part of the beginning? Or this? We haven’t even got to the first plot point. (What’s that? Here are posts about story structure.)

My author is finding it extraordinarily hard, very counter-intuitive, to postpone the decision about the beginning.

Why now is not the time to decide the beginning

Although you have to start somewhere, you cannot decide the proper opening until you know the rest of the book very well. Here’s what an ideal opening has to do.

1 It holds a lot of information back.

(You didn’t expect me to say that.)

2 It tells the reader just enough.

(Just enough for what?)

It tells the reader enough to make promises. About the tone, style, themes. About how the narrative will scrutinise the characters and events. About the issues and experiences the story will explore. Those are deep promises, and you must live up to them. (How do you know which promises to make?)

There’s also a 3:

3 The beginning should intrigue, beguile, ignite the reader’s curiosity. And in a way that’s faithful to 2.

Some beginnings are simpler than others

Beginnings are simpler for genre writers, as the reader’s expectations are relatively well established. But if you’re writing a novel that’s more complex or unconventional, you have to direct the reader to your unique flavour – your themes and angles and interests. You might not yet be aware of them all.

Certainly you won’t know them as you’re assembling the book for the first time, from all your swirling ideas. Perhaps not until you’ve made several revisions. (That’s one of the meanings of revision. Not just rewriting. Re-vision. )

The beginning is somewhere in the end

Here’s a nice cryptic idea. The story’s resolution, the what-it’s-all-about moment, will also be, in some way, signalled in the beginning. Probably obscured, of course.

Why is your ending your ending? Usually because a question is solved or a situation concluded. In some novels, particularly non-genre, you may not be sure at first what you’re solving or concluding. The biggest questions will stir up as you live with your themes, plot and characters, the angles that most attract you as you write and revise. Go with that, let the book become what it becomes. If it’s taking you a surprisingly long time, you might be cheered by this: the slow-burn writer.

Your ending will probably work best if it’s somehow signalled in the beginning, so once you know where the bulk of the book is taking you, you can shade the beginning appropriately. But if you fix the beginning from the start, you may limit your explorations. (There’s more about this in my plot book.)

Start here… for now

Write a placeholder opening, something that gets you going. Don’t worry at all about whether it works for the reader. Make sure it works for you, gets you in the flow. This draft, and probably others that will follow, is for you, your playground, your lab, your quarry, your rehearsal.

The beginning, the official proper beginning, is for the final performance, when you’ve done all the other work and are ready to invite readers in.

(Thanks for the bike picture Paul Harrop.)

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here (where you could win many beautiful books) and subscribe to future updates here.

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Your first pages – 5 more book openings critiqued by a literary agent (and me!) at @Litopia

I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two (this time we had longtime Litopia member Jon Duffy.

Here’s a glimpse of the green room before we went on air, with thoughtful shuffling of notes.

The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents would consider a manuscript that arrived in their inbox.

As always, the submissions had many strengths. Issues we discussed included atmospheric writing that doesn’t go anywhere, a character who seemed in the wrong age group, a voice that might be confusing the reader, a curious choice of second person for the narrator, obvious and unnecessary dumping of information, what voice is, what resonance is, and how to navigate the huge range of writing advice that’s now available.

Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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What movies get wrong – and right – about authors. And Elizabeth Taylor: Ep47 FREE podcast for writers

Here’s someone you might never have heard of. Elizabeth Taylor. No, not that one. There’s a novelist Elizabeth Taylor.

I discovered her through this book, Angel, which is about a monstrous, astoundingly successful romantic novelist. There’s a movie, too, which misses many of the nuances, but both versions are full of truths about the publishing industry and the world of writers – details that movie makers usually get completely wrong.  See how many you agree with.

That’s what we’re talking about today. My co-host is independent bookseller Peter Snell.

Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips like this. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

 

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The panic document – when you fear your book has a major flaw, how to diagnose what’s really wrong

I love systems. And here’s one I developed to help with a knotty aspect of revising a novel – the moment when you suddenly fear you’ve missed something big.

This happened to me with Ever Rest, which I recently finished. I was well advanced in revisions when I read an essay that brought me to a screeching halt.

One of the characters dies tragically young, and the story follows the fall-out of this. So when I saw an essay about young grief on Literary Hub I gave it a read.

It was spellbinding, raw. So unexpected. I finished with sickening anxiety. This was what I wanted for my characters, but I feared I hadn’t done it. My confidence was in tatters.

What now?

This is what might have happened: open the manuscript, flail about in a panic, rewriting stuff. Over-reacting etc etc. Making ill-considered changes. Getting in a big heap of mess.

However, I’ve been here before. I know not to revise in a panic.

Don’t panic

In crises like this, we tend to think everything’s wrong. And it might not be.

Sure, you might be right, you might have missed something big.

Or – it’s probably not as dire as it seems, but something needs to be adjusted.

How do you discover the right thing to do? And how do you remain sober and sensible, and not make edits that mess up everything you’ve already got working well?

In my other life, I edit magazines for doctors. (Very useful when writing characters who are medics.) With my book howling in pain, I decided I’d think like a doctor. If a patient comes to the surgery saying they feel dreadful and they hurt all over, what do you do? Take a history. Ask: where does it hurt? And what causes it to hurt?

Stage 1 – start a panic (document)

I copied the LitHub piece into a textfile. We will call this the panic document.

I read the article again. Every time I came to a sentence that bothered me, I highlighted it. (Find the source of pain.)

Already this was more manageable. Large parts of the article didn’t hurt at all. It was toes and fingers, not the whole arm or leg, not the whole body.

This surprised me. See what I mean about panic?

Some parts were very sore, though.

Stage 2 – where does it hurt?

Find where the pain is coming from. These sentences twinged because they suggested issues I hadn’t paid attention to.

Were they major (arm and leg), or were they just a finger or toe?

When I’m unsure about something in a manuscript, I don’t change the manuscript. I use Word’s comments feature. I did this with the panic document. On each highlighted section, I opened a comment box and discussed the issues it raised. This included:

  • Which of my scenes made me wince with this new insight
  • Which of my characters it affected
  • Which of the characters’ actions it might influence
  • What I might add or adjust.

Soon, a few issues emerged. (In medical parlance, targets for treatment.)

I went through the panic document several times, discussing, re-discussing, reminding myself what I intended for the book, considering how significant these issues were in the overall balance.

Stage 3 – venturing into the manuscript

I opened the manuscript. I went to the scenes I’d earmarked as problems. But I did not change a word!

I now knew the scenes where I might tackle the problem, but I still didn’t know if I should.

Once again, I reread my discussions in the panic document. It was now clear that my notes were all the same solution, in several versions. I probably didn’t need them all.  The revision task was not nearly as large as I first thought.

I used comments again, this time in the manuscript. I began by copying the most useful notes from my panic document. Many of them already seemed unnecessary now I’d calmed down and had a grip of the true problem.

Yes, there was indeed a problem. It was just one scene, actually, where the ending was weak. The character needed to go to a deeper level. To fix it, I needed a few other adjustments in earlier scenes too. But the situation now felt good. (Especially after the aforementioned panic.)

Stage 4 – something else

I went out running. Best to edit with a clear eye.

 

Stage 5 – do what must be done

I opened the manuscript again, looked at the notes. Did I still agree with them? Was this the solution? (Often, a good skip in the outdoors will suggest a different angle.)

It was.

Tis done.

From Stage 1 – panic and disaster – to stage 5 – a detail I was glad to rethink. Phew.

And that, my friends, is the panic document.  I used it to tackle my response to an essay, but it will work for any situation that trashes your confidence in your book. Just write down the problem in detail, cover all the points that triggered your worries, and discuss with yourself what to do about them.

Thanks for the panic and freak out pic, RSNY on Flickr;

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips like this. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org.

Ever Rest is now complete and is seeking its fortune with literary agents. Here’s a preview. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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Nanowrimo prep – plan your characters, improvise your plot

Are you planning to take part in National Novel-Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)? Briefly, it’s a worldwide online event where thousands of writers buckle down and steam through a novel. The nominal goal is 50,000 words in November – which might be a whole novel or a good chunk of one. Whichever, it’s a great way to sprint into a first draft because you’ve got a support team of other writers cheering you on, sharing their goals and buddying up to drag you over the finish line. If you’re a first-timer, NaNoWriMo is a great way to have a go and surprise yourself. And many seasoned writers use it as a way to get their first drafts motoring.
November? I’ll wait until then

No, start now. One of the keys to success is preparation. Although you’re not allowed to start the draft until NaNoWriMo month, you can plan beforehand. Research, plot notes and story summaries are all permitted – and serious contenders will be limbering up right now.

Or perhaps planning is the last thing you want to do. Maybe you want to sit down on day 1, summon the muse and channel the voices. Let the novel gush into your head and onto the keys.

Whichever way you work, there’s one kind of planning that will help you steer a steady course – AND write with your gut instincts.

Plan your characters

Indeed, if I had to choose whether to outline plot or characters in detail, I’d spend the time on creating the characters.

Why?

Once I know who my fictional people are, they start acting, talking and steering the show – merely by being themselves. This streamlines the writing process enormously, helps you write in a natural flow. It’s especially useful for project like NaNoWriMo, where you want to get your wordcount done – but still have fun.

Here’s what you need.

Main characters

Work out their central problem The story will come from this. What do they want to achieve or prevent? What makes this problem desperate and ultimately unavoidable? How much of it comes from their personality or life situation? Is it something they have been suppressing or muddling along with? Perhaps they don’t admit to it, because that would open a box they don’t want to look in. The problem might be obviously significant, such as losing a job or discovering a murder. Or it might be apparently trivial – such as buying a puppy that turns nasty or forces the character to face up to responsibility. Whichever it is – whether solving a murder or wrangling with puppy ownership – it will be a big deal for them; and thus will be a landmark episode in their life.

How this generates the plot Devise two scenes. Your climax – the horrible moment near the end where the character confronts the thing they want to avoid. And a scene you can put in early that shows the reader they dread this.

The climax confrontation might be much deeper than the early scene suggests and therefore address a more fundamental problem. These fundamental problems come from a character’s deep needs. So, if your MC is trying to solve a murder, they might ultimately discover that the murderer was their own husband. This might prove that she never really knew him – something she’d always been denying or laughing off. You can still have the plot need – to catch a killer. But the deeper arc that makes it such a landmark will have come from the character’s innermost life.

If you want, you can stop planning there. But if you prefer to build a skeleton story, work out the steps between those points. Especially, concentrate on the ways the characters try to avoid or evade this worst-case scenario. Make those escapades create complications and ensnare them further, taking them down twisted alleyways, so that it seems the universe is conspiring, in sidelong ways, to throw them to that final confrontation.

Add other character details Once you have this core, fill in other details. Early life, job history, interests, relationship status. These will almost write themselves because you’ll have an instinct for what fits.

Add complicating factors These might be a wish to protect someone, a job that drains their energy or makes life difficult. If you’re writing historical fiction, look at constraints from social position or the characters’ way of life.

Respite You might also want to give your main characters some respite – a hobby they retreat to, a way they regroup to feel more like themselves and demonstrate a lighter side. Or maybe they need a dark release, an obliterating escape – an addiction, an illicit love affair, a dangerous sport.

Antagonist or antagonists

Their central problem. For the protagonist we asked ‘what’s wrong’ and ‘who are they’. For the antagonist we begin with ‘why’.

Why do they cause trouble? Is it their personality, a need to cause mischief or take revenge? Are they the protagonist’s opponents in a competition? Do they have a duty to uphold a law of the land or some other obligation that pits them against the protagonist?

Here’s another why: why are they a serious threat rather than something the protagonist can shrug off?

If the antagonist is an entity (such as society or an organisation), considering creating a character who embodies its role. Or perhaps this could be several characters. Faceless organisations are not as interesting to read about as characters who act for them. And characters are more interesting to write about because of their humanity. They will act unpredictably – get tired, bad tempered, unreasonable. They will perhaps feel the voice of conscience, or be in conflict themselves. They might make us laugh.

How this generates the story. Once you know these essentials, you will find it easier to decide how they’ll intrude on and threaten the protagonist.

Lastly, if you need to, develop some background details as for your main characters.

Other characters

You need a few significant others – your supporting and secondary characters. Add the people who will regularly interact with your protagonist and antagonist (although they don’t necessarily have to belong to both).

You might want to start with just a handful – perhaps a colleague, romantic partner, close friend, henchman – and add others as new roles become necessary. Or you might sketch out a complete network of people who your leads will regularly see.

Focus on relationships As these characters are secondary, focus on their relationships with the principals. Are they willing participants, wise observers, moral support, meddling do-gooders? Do they have needs of their own that could help or hinder the main characters?

Some salt and sugar in everyone

Protagonists will be tedious if they’re thoroughly good. Antagonists will be pantomimish (and wearisome) if thoroughly evil. Give each of your nice people a dash of vinegar, and each antagonist something good (even if it’s only the conviction that they’re right).

Relationships – again

Now you have a rough cast list, take another look at how they feel about each other. If you do this, you’ll never be at a loss when you wriggle inside a scene with them. You’ll know how to make them distinct in their dialogue because you’ll understand their hidden agendas and individual voices. If one of them needs a favour from the other, you know how easy (or otherwise) it will be to get it. If one of them tells the other off, you know whether they gloated about it or found it extremely uncomfortable; whether it drew them closer or drove them apart.

If you know your characters, you’ll want to tell their stories.

There’s a lot more advice on developing characters – and detailed questionnaires to help you create distinctive people – in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, including my own (much drafted) third novel, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

 

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