Magpie Lane recommended on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book

4 Jan 2021

Listen here https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000qlpy

Talking about writing: Claire Fuller Part II

17 Jun 2022

Claire Fuller is the author of the Women’s Prize shortlisted Unsettled Ground.

Building characters

LA: Here’s a question: I feel I have a very inefficient way of building my central character and ‘finding their voice’ (essentially, endless rewriting of the first few chapters). Can you give me a sense of how you do this?

CF: I’m not sure I’m any more efficient. I don’t do any planning on character before I start writing them on the page. It’s how they react to events and places and interact with places and other characters that makes them grow on the page until I have a clearer picture of them. I’m currently starting something new (telling myself it isn’t a novel so I won’t be scared off), and I’ve just written my main character, Ursula, going into a small office for her three month review. Her boss isn’t expecting her and it’s 1987 and computers have just arrived. I don’t know what Ursula is thinking about her three month review, or the fact that her boss isn’t expecting or the new computer until I write it, but as I write all those things help me to know Ursula more by the end of the scene. It seems to work – except that it often takes me a while to know what my characters are thinking, so often I’ll have to go back in and edit that in. All that interaction also helps me know what the boss is like too, of course. But I do sometimes get completely stuck with what a character is thinking about something or someone else. Then, I’ll open a new document and type, as though I’m talking to my character: ‘We need to talk about xxx’, for example, ‘Ursula, we need to talk about your boss.’ And then Ursula and I will have a written conversation about what she thinks about her boss. This can be very scrappy and free-flowing and all sorts of things are revealed which then go back into the novel. How their voice comes is part of that too. I’m not sure you can plan a character’s voice though? Doesn’t that just come? 

Claire Fuller

I know you teach creative writing. Are there ways that you teach character development and voice, that I should be doing? I’ve tried those lists (where did they go to school etc) but they don’t work for me. And in your endless rewriting, how do you know when you’ve got it right? 

Bored or Interested?

LA This idea of conversation with the character is inspired – I can see that would make them real. Perhaps this could save me all that time re-writing?  The only thing I do that’s similar is to open my notebook, when things are feeling grim or stuck, and start a fresh page and title it: ‘What I’m Interested in’ – I’ll then write a list of the things in the novel that interest me. Then I do a new page: ‘What I’m Bored By’ and same thing. This led to me ditching 30k of work with the novel I’m just finishing now, but it was absolutely the right thing to do because I wasn’t truly interested in that character’s voice.

 I also find that trying to write down what they have for breakfast, and what their favourite TV show is etc, is pointless and does nothing for character development. The only thing I’ve found that works for me, other than re-writing a lot, is pretending that the section I’m writing won’t make it into the book. Somehow, this sometimes liberates the character to do and say things that are more authentic and perhaps more interesting.  

There’s certainly no planning I can think of that would lead to a well-rounded ‘voice’. My teaching is focussed on finding or building an intuitive sense of connection with the character – a feeling that they start to exist off the page – I think when that starts to happen, you’re onto something. But usually that’s just a lot of writing and rewriting, rather than planning or exercises. 

I had an interesting discussion with a well-known writer recently about character names, and how they can inform or dictate a whole character’s backstory/development. How do your character’s names come to you? Where did Ursula come from? Do you feel their names are important? 

Magpie Lane

Character names – do they matter?

CF At the risk of this conversation becoming us just slapping each other on the back, I think your lists of What I’m interested in, and What I’m bored by, are techniques I’m going to immediately adopt. It’s so easy to ignore that little voice which sighs or moans each time you work on a particular element or character of a WIP, and this might help me listen to it harder. 

And yes, I absolutely agree that when characters exist off the page, then they’re working. It’s when I’m having a cup of tea and I think, what would Ursula drink? When I’m reading, what would Ursula read, that I know things are starting to work. (Or alternatively when my kids say I’ve got that glazed look in my eyes and I’m thinking about my novel.)

Sometimes – in fact, most often, character’s names just come to me and they end up sticking because it feels too late to change. But I am sometimes aware that I should probably think about them more deeply, but it’s hard to do that if you’re discovering the character on the page because I have to give them a name from the very beginning. Sometimes the names make me laugh and so they stick. I called a character in Unsettled Ground, Julius Seeder, without realising what I’d done, so I let it stay. Ursula is the perfect name for what seems to be happening in what I’m writing now, but the thing I’m grappling with is that Ursula is my mum’s name – but it’s definitely not her. I haven’t told her yet and I’m not sure what she’ll think. 

Since neither of us do those lists of character histories, I’m interested to know how much more you know about your character that doesn’t make it into the novel.

LA I have the same approach to names as you do, they sort of pop into my head, and stick. Dee in Magpie Lane was going to be a doula not a nanny, and I’d called her D in notes, and then somehow, she was Dee and it felt entirely right. And the 82-year-old ’star’ of the novel I’ve just finished (Windmill Hill) is Astrid and somehow that name was there for her, even before she existed – I have absolutely no idea why. I think much of writing happens in the unconscious mind, don’t you?

To answer your question, most of Astrid has made it onto the page, but I also have her whole childhood in my head even though I’ve never written notes on it. And of course, I cut 30K words of one character’s voice entirely.

Do you ever do radical cuts? Can you describe how you edit yourself? 

Revising

CF Much of my writing definitely happens in my subconscious. I often write something that I have no explanation for, a character says something mysterious or does something odd, and although I have no idea what it means, my subconscious gets to work and often weeks or months later the resolution or the meaning will appear as I’m writing. This is often how the central mysteries in my novels appear. Someone locks a door for example, and it’s not until a year later that I know why.

I’ve only done one radical cut and that was in my second novel, Swimming Lessons which originally had 20,000 words from the point of view of a character called Gil. I didn’t like him and so I cut his voice, but weirdly he remained very central to the novel – he just wouldn’t go away. 

I’m one of those writers who loves editing. I get the impression from my editor that it’s quite rare, but I’m not sure. I edit a little bit as a go along – I think the ‘technical term’ is rolling reviser. But because I love to edit I only allow myself to edit the work from the previous writing session and then I have to write forward.

I will also write notes for other sections or rework an earlier section if the change is massive; I can’t seem to move forward easily unless what I’ve written already is nearly sorted, in terms of plot and character, if not language. That means that by the time I get to the end of what might be called the first draft it’s taken maybe two years and is actually the 100th draft. And then there are several more months of editing.

LA: I love this – I think I’m a rolling reviser on STEROIDS.

Behind Closed Doors: Event with Arifa Akbar at Daunt Books Summertown

11 Apr 2022

Book tickets here

Arifa Akbar, chief theatre critic at the Guardian and author of Consumed, and Lucy Atkins, journalist, book critic & author of several novels including Magpie Lane, will discuss their books, difficult families, and how to write about them. Both books – one memoir, one novel – consider ideas of family, the secrets and mysteries they often keep, and the resulting tensions.

When Arifa Akbar discovered her sister had fallen seriously ill, she expected a short hospital stay and then home. It wasn’t until the day before Fauzia died that the family discovered she was suffering from tuberculosis. Consumed is a beautifully written and moving memoir exploring sisterhood, grief, art and the myths surrounding TB.

Magpie Lane, a chilling Gothic thriller set in Oxford, begins in the aftermath of a young girl going missing. The police have turned to Dee, her nanny, for answers. As Dee recalls her time with this dysfunctional family – Nick, the powerful father, his glamourous, pregnant wife Mariah – and Felicity, daughter of Nick’s previous marriage, who is almost mute and grieving her mother. As time goes on, and there’s no sign of Felicity, suspicion turns to Dee.

Tickets are £5 including a glass of wine and a soft drink.

Event Details

Friday 13th May 2022Event starts at 7:00pm

How Magpie Lane started

10 Apr 2022

I’d never intended to write an Oxford novel. It always seemed to me that to put a hat in the ring with the greats of English literature – Iris Murdoch or Philip Pullman or any of the hundreds of brilliant authors who have written novels set in Oxford – would be foolish. But one day, a few years ago, I was in my old Oxford College when I got chatting to a tall and friendly man, casually dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and trainers.  When he introduced himself as ‘Steve, the new College President’, and said it was his first day in the job, I assumed he was joking. In my mind, college Presidents were dour, hunched, silvery figures – Classicists, probably – and certainly never to be seen in a pair of Nikes.

He offered to show me his new home, the President’s Lodging. It was 27 years since I’d last set foot in that ancient pink house and I had a vague, traumatised memory of ticking clocks and squeaking shoes, fusty rooms crammed with polished furniture and grim oil paintings of men in ermine. But the house I toured that day had been transformed: the walls were soft white, the Jacobean floors polished, a beautiful abstract dominated the fireplace and the light streamed in, as if the windows had somehow been enlarged. When he showed me a tiny cupboard, and explained that it was a priest’s hole, where priests from the ruthless Elizabethan priest hunters, I was hooked. I didn’t see Steve again but I was to spend the next three years in his house.

The Master’s Lodging…

Whilst there, I made some alterations of my own: I added a clever nanny, a mute child, a pregnant Danish wife, an eccentric house historian and some odd noises in the night; I moved the priest’s hole up to fictional attic, then moved the whole house to an imaginary alley, and created an entire fictional College for it. And then – perhaps biting the hand that had fed me – I turned the friendly, welcoming Steve into a Machiavellian monster, and Magpie Lane was born.

The real Magpie Lane

Writing Masterclass with Lucy Atkins & Mick Herron at Chipping Norton Literary Festival 2022

10 Apr 2022

Friday 22 April 10:30 – 15:30

Ticket price includes lunch and refreshments

Tickets now on sale

ST MARY’S PARISH ROOMS

WORKSHOP

£50.00 each BUY TICKETS

A comprehensive, invaluable creative writing masterclass. Explore the value of planning and plotting basics. Understand why settings matter and how to choose one that suits you. Create believable characters and develop dialogue to build that characterisation. And learn techniques to keep your readers reading.

Mick Herron

10:30 – 12:30
1. To plan or not to plan? (& how to do both). Beginnings and endings. Plotting basics.
2. Settings: why they matter, how to choose one, the difference a setting makes.

12:30 – 13:30
Lunch

13:30 – 15:30
3. Creating believable characters: how to develop both main characters and extras. Using detail, interactions, backstory & dialogue to build characterisation.
4. Page turning techniques: how to keep the reader reading. How to create intrigue, and raise the stakes.

Lucy Atkins 2021

Talking about writing: Claire Fuller

10 Apr 2022

Claire Fuller is the author Unsettled Ground (winner of the Costa Novel Award 2021, shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction), and three other acclaimed novels Bitter Orange, Swimming Lessons and Our Endless Numbered Days. Claire and I had a conversation about how our novels begin to take shape:

Lucy:  You and I both seem to start our novels with an idea of a place we find interesting or fertile –  and possibly also a hazy idea of a person too – but no plan or plot. I find it hard to pinpoint how, exactly, it goes from that to a novel (though I do know it can be painful and slow). Do you have a sense of how your novels unfold from that starting point – can you try to explain how it works for you? 

Claire:  It is really hard to pinpoint when that hazy idea starts to become a novel. I find that if I look at any of it too directly, it stops or becomes even harder. I have to come at it from an angle, maybe telling myself that I’m only messing around with a few words, seeing what might work or what might not. If I tell myself, ‘I’m starting my new novel now’, then it shies away from me. But I think there comes a point, probably only two or three thousand words in, when I begin to daydream about the story and all the things that could happen further down the line. These tiny ideas often come not when I’m writing but when I’m doing something else – usually reading someone else’s book, and they’re gone so quickly that it’s easy for me to lose them or forget them, so I’ve got into the habit of speaking into my phone and sending myself an email. This morning I sent one which just was, ‘the skin remembers’. My email inbox is full of these little snippets, and they come back to me when I next sit down to write, and some of them help me move forward and so the thing begins to coalesce into a novel. Actually coalesce is a good for what happens – a kind of slow spinning which ideas and thoughts start to stick to. 

I’m really curious how a novel starts to appear for you too. Can you identify with any of what I’m trying to explain? 

Lucy: I know what you mean about it all somehow coalescing and also about not looking directly at it for fear it will evaporate.  Magpie Lane started with the idea that a sinister doula (childbirth companion) would be interesting. I started reading about doulas, and somehow this morphed into a clever, mathematical nanny. The early part of a novel, for me seems to emerge out of this research phase where I do a lot of apparently pointless googling and reading. I have learned to go with anything that I either find myself unreasonably fascinated by, or that sparks a kind of excitement. My worst habit is that I seem to spend a year or more re-writing the first 5 chapters until I can really find the character. It’s horrible. Do you try to set yourself a target of how many words to write a day or anything like that to get yourself to move forwards? How do you cope with the empty page? 

Claire:  Something that sparks a kind of excitement is a really useful tool for me too. At the start of a novel or story I sometimes write a long list of things I’m interested in and often they make it into whatever I’m writing. I remember with Swimming Lessons, writing a list and ‘raining fish’ was on it, and a fish rainstorm made it into the book. I used to set myself a word target each day of a thousand words, but I found that I was writing rubbish in order to achieve it, and then deleting most of it the next day. So now I have a rule that I can edit what I did in the previous writing session, but that I must write some new words. It could be ten new words or a thousand, but I must write forward. If I didn’t set this rule I would just edit and edit and edit what I’ve already got. And I keep a writing diary where for each writing session I record the word count and just one or two sentences about how it went (usually badly!). It’s helpful though to see the word count going up. And I don’t really have a problem with the empty page. Editing the previous session will usually give me enough momentum to keep writing forward. Like going downhill on a bike fast enough to take me up the next rise. 

Talking about writing: Sarah Hilary about writing

23 Jun 2021

Sarah Hilary

Award winning crime author Sarah Hilary has been compared to Ruth Rendell and P.D. James. Her most recent novel Fragile, a psychological thriller with a gothic twist, is beautifully written. Sarah shares her writing tips here.

Lucy: How do you begin a new book – do you start with an idea/ a plan and how does that turn into a novel? 

SH: Nothing so concrete as a plan. Often something as flimsy as a feeling, or an image. Usually, I’ll avoid looking at it too closely, let it play at the corner of my eye, see how it takes shape. When it becomes a character’s voice, that’s when I’ll start writing. I write fast for the first draft to get a backbone (plot) in place. The editing comes later, and is nearly always torturous.

Lucy: So, what do you find the most challenging thing about writing fiction, and how do you overcome it?

SH: Telling the deepest possible story in the shortest number of pages. I love words but have always aspired to brevity, with mixed success. I’m getting better at it. I think each book we write helps us to make fewer of the same mistakes. 

Lucy: What tips would you give to a writer struggling with self-confidence? 

SH: Embrace your mistakes. Be patient with yourself. If you’re really struggling, seek out the support of a writing group

Instagram Creative Writing Class: Get Published

3 Jul 2020

You can catch up with this class and others on Instagram

What is a Literary Agent?

> They help prepare your work for submission, help you find the right publisher and negotiate a deal.
> Represent your book abroad and submit to film companies
> Represent your book abroad and submit to film companies
> Support you through the ups and downs
> If self-publishing – you don’t need one.

How do you find an agent?

1. First, get your book into shape. Some people find it helpful to hire an editor to help (but you don’t have to do this! Lots don’t). I can recommend: https://www.francisliteraryconsultants.co.uk/
2. Make a hit list: Look at Writers and Artists Yearbook  
3. Submit to about 5 agents at once. Expect rejections. Be systematic. DO YOUR RESEARCH 

TIPS FOR FINDING The One

> Look at novels that are similar to yours and turn to the acknowledgments page – the writer’s agent will be there.
> Find agents who might have a personal connection to your subject matter.
> Personal recommendations: use any contacts you have
> Target newer agents who are building their lists
> Follow literary agents on Twitter or Facebook – they often ask for submissions. The big agencies like Curtis Brown also have Twitter pitch days
> Can you do a writing course? (expensive, but some have bursaries, some online). 3 good ones: Faber Academy, Curtis Brown,Arvon Foundation
> Enter writing competitions
> Try Jericho Writers who have conferences and ‘meet an agent’ days

HOW TO APPROACH AN AGENT

Follow the guidelines on their website!!! Most want:
1. A short query email (or covering letter; they mean the same.) I’d do 4-5 sentences about yourself, plus brief elevator pitch about the novel (just a couple of sentences!)
2. 3 chapters, 10,000 words, or 50 pages
3. A synopsis

Three Tips for Success

1. Keep it Brief in the covering email – mention any writing credentials (journalism, advertising etc) you have, or well known courses you’ve done, or prizes you’ve won
2. Present your work professionally: double spaced, justified, in a sensible font, page numbered, your name and title on each page. No typos/spelling errors or grammatical mistakes. No funny colours or gimmicks.
3. Write a Good Synopsis: this is a brief statement of plot and main characters. It’s not a blurb. Don’t use excitable language to ‘sell’ the story. Make it however long they want it (Usually 1-2 pages double-spaced, 12 pt)

Things that might put off agents before they’ve even read your submission:

Email tone: gushing, exclamation marks, emojis, showing off or false modesty. Simply state who you are, any relevant credentials, what your book is.
Gimmicks: Making own book jacket or marketing material or attention grabbing tricks eg. shiny wrapping, free gift
Errors: Getting their name wrong/agency/authors they represent or spelling anything wrong.
If they turn you down don’t write back telling them why they’ve made a mistake. LOTS of authors are rejected by agents but submit again, another book, and are taken on.

GOOD LUCK!

Instagram Creative Writing Classes to watch now

6 Jun 2020

Here are the most recent instalments of Lucy’s creative writing classes, which happen on Instagram every Friday at 1pm (UK time) on Psychologies magazine’s Instagram account here. They’re free, anyone welcome.

Tension, Intrigue and Suspense

Tension, Intrigue and Suspense

Where To Set Your Novel and Why

Where To Set Your Novel

Complex Characters

Complex Characters

Beginnings and Endings

Beginnings and Endings

Instagram Creative Writing Class: Beginnings & Endings

5 Jun 2020

To watch past creative writing classes on Instagram go to @psychologiesmagazine’s account (Click on ‘IGTV’). These creative writing classes are free and happen Live on Fridays at 1.30pm (UK time)

How to Begin

People will tell you the opening line of a novel must be amazing, startling, completely original, but trying to do this can lead to you sound desperate or overwritten. BUT opening lines do need to make the reader perk up.

GOOD Openings: Give us the sense that we are on a journey. We don’t need to know exactly where we are yet, but we need to feel we’re going somewhere, and want to go somewhere with the author.

KEY INGREDIENT for all openings: INTRIGUE . To do this, your opening needs to raise a question (maybe more than one).

Other ingredients

-A strong, distinctive voice
-Detail – anchor us, make it feel real and immediate
-Strong sense of place or character

Do you need to know where to begin before you start writing?

NO! Beginnings might change as you deepen the novel. Flexibility can be key, especially if you aren’t a planner.

Endings

-If the beginning poses a question, the ending answers it.

-If an ending fails to answer it in some way, the book can fail

-In really good novels you get the feeling that the ending grew organically out of the opening.

-Endings bring a sense of completion BUT can leave some room for the reader’s thought process – for the story to continue afterwards.

-If you tie up the loose ends too soon then just continue to waffle, the ending falls flat.

Tip: You don’t need to know your ending from the start

If I’d felt I needed to know the ending before I wrote, I’d never have written a novel. My endings evolve as the book gets written.

4 ways to open a novel:

1 With a feeling/setting/theme (Jane Eyre ‘There was no possibility of a walk that day’)

2 With a question.

3 With a crisis.

4 With dialogue (Muriel Spark’s Ballad of Peckham Rye: ‘‘Get away from here, you dirty swine’ she said.’)

With a statement   (‘It is a truth universally acknowledged…’)

5 Ways to End a Novel:

1 Circularity – you’re back at the opening, seeing things in a different way.

2 Echoing: you bring back an idea or theme that appeared in the opening

3 Surprise: you end on a twist or shock

4 Reflection: you survey what’s happened, and feel sense of completion and of having learned something about life

5 Open (ish): when you don’t tie everything up neatly and the reader is left to fill in the blanks.

Try this: Take your 5 favourite novels, read beginning few pages and end few pages. What’s the writer done? Why does it work?

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