Instagram Creative Writing Class: Settings

29 May 2020

If asked to break down writing a novel into 3 areas you’d probably say: plot, character and place. Many writers spend vast amounts of time on the first two, but neglect the third.  Big mistake. Setting isn’t just a backdrop for action.

Detail is everything: the interior of my fictional windmill

Setting creates mood, meaning, resonance. It does a lot of invisible work. It embodies your themes, deepens them, and also CREATES THEM. Think about the moors in Wuthering Heights, or that attic in Jane Eyre.

Settings can be characters in their own right: in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, Manderley is basically the main character.

Place, when done well, makes a book feel REAL to the reader.

Settings aren’t just fixed spaces to be described, they’re malleable entities, and novelists can consciously manipulate them.  The Cobb at Lyme in Persuasion is very different from the Cobb at Lyme in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

How I choose my settings:

I need to feel really strongly about a place because I know I’m going to be living in it for a long time. I think I choose a setting for one of two reasons: Either I feel strongly about it, or I am interested in it in some obscure but powerful way.

Four Questions to ask yourself when thinking about where to set a novel:

1/ Where do I long to be?

2/ What place has deep meaning for me?

3/ What place do I never want to visit again?

4/ What place do I have really mixed feelings about?


Go there. Walk around. Note smells, feel, details (among other things, I went on two Oxford ghost tours while writing Magpie Lane)

Go there virtually if you can’t physically. Use streetview etc

Get info: endless Googling is your friend.

Five things to bear in mind as you write each scene:

Surroundings  – think about what aspects fit your themes in this scene?

Seasons and weather – make conscious choices – eg. Venice in winter.

Specific Visuals – what can your characters see from where they are? This roots them. Make them notice things that reflect the mood of the scene!

Sounds, smells, sensations (ditto)

Significance of the place – cultural, political (you may never reference this directly)

3 Tips for writing about place:

1/ Don’t over-describe – just pick a few key things to focus on. You don’t have to tell us everything about a place. But…

2/ Pick these details carefully because they’re meaningful, not just because you wrote something poetic

3/ Watch out for cliche – if you’re going to have a climactic storm, know you’re doing something that’s been done before and make sure you do it differently in some way

Two exercises to help you get your head around why settings matter:

1. Write a short scene in your chosen setting.

Now re-write it, changing the weather. What else changes because of that?

2. Write a short scene about a trauma – make the setting dark/alarming.

Now re-write the same scene, putting the characters in an idyllic setting.  How does it change?

Instagram Creative Writing Class: Complex Characters

22 May 2020

Your main characters need to do much more than act out the plot. They are the novel’s driving force. The reader doesn’t need to like them, but does need to be curious and deeply engaged.

If your character ends the novel in the same state as she began it, you have work to do. Characters need to CHANGE  – ie. Grow and develop –  as the novel progresses (this is called a ‘character arc’).

A powerful character is rarely simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I’m most interested in odd, complex individuals, usually misfits. Figure out who interests you. Your job is to seek out complexity.

Five questions to ask about your character:

1. What are her deep-seated needs and desires?

2. What are her secrets and flaws? 

3. What are her contradictions? (eg. does your ex-con psychopath watch Loose Women? Does your cruel businessman visit his granny every week?)

4. What is her backstory? (how has her past shaped her emotionally).

5. What are her goals?

Four Places to Start

1 Think about characteristics – obsessions? Tics? Odd habits? Interests?

2 Get to know them physically – you don’t have to describe everything about them but give hints. Embody them.

3 Give them interests that interest YOU

4 Seek out the unexpected – in real life, people are often surprising or contradictory (eg. In Magpie Lane, the nanny is a mathematics genius)

Give your villain a deep backstory

How to Create a Villain

*Don’t think of her as a villain – villains are people too

*Know her as well as you know your main protagonist(s)

*She will have her own morality – what is it? Understand it.

*Know what happened to her to make her this way. Generate some sympathy/understanding (think about the movie The Joker: now that’s a psychological backstory!)

*Make her powerful – reader needs to feel her power, viscerally

Try this:

Choose an event from your character’s distant past and write a page exploring it


Choose one of your character’s main personality traits and write a list of how it shows up in the ways they behave (eg. Anxiety: She fiddles with her rings, she never looks people in the eye etc.)

Instagram Creative Writing Class: Tension

18 May 2020

All great novels are powered by tension, whatever their genre.   Tension, intrigue and suspense are important in ANY novel.

‘Every story needs an element of suspense or it’s lousy’ Sidney Pollack

One of the most gripping scenes in the whole of English literature for me is in Jane Austen’s Persuasion when Wentworth slips Anne a passionate, confessional love note after overhearing her talking to a mutual friend. Nothing actually ‘happens’ in this scene. But it’s VERY tense.

The ability to captivate – to keep us reading late into the night – seems effortless in great novels, almost magical.  But what’s behind the magic?  And how do you do it in your own book? Here are six steps to start with.

Step 1: Figure out where the tension lies

Develop an ‘elevator pitch’ – a brief summary of your novel. This helps you figure out what really matters.

Step 2: Raise the Stakes

 You need there to be a lot at stake in your book – in Persuasion, it’s a lifetime of happiness. What’s at stake in yours? Is it enough to make the reader care? You can also gradually up the stakes as your plot unfolds – revealing more and more information as you go, and allowing things to get complicated and unravel so the reader thinks ‘oh, that’s not good.’ Then a bit later – ‘oh, that’s really not good’.

Step 3: Add obstacles

For Anne and Wentworth the obstacles are social, cultural, circumstantial, psychological. Obstacles can also be more basic (think of a character running from a villain, throwing chairs, wardrobes, doors in the way as they run – you want your reader to feel a bit like the chaser). 

Step 4: Add a ticking clock

In James Bond the villain is going to blow up the world but not next month – it’s happening VERY SOON. A ticking clock lends immediacy, fear, urgency.

Here’s a simple example: in my first novel, The Missing One, we have ticking clocks AND high stakes: a mad stranger has the narrator’s toddler on a remote British Columbian island. Will she get to her child before something terrible happens?

Step 5: Withhold information

It is much more compelling and intriguing to drip feed information to your reader as the novel progresses: offer hints and allusions, raise unanswered questions and your reader will be desperate to turn the page to find out more.

Step 6: Add dilemmas

You want the reader to be weighing things up – what’s right, what’s wrong, what would THEY do?

Four things to avoid:

1 Unrealistic events or people – nothing punctures tension like implausibility – the reader thinking: ‘but that would never happen’.

2 Weak characters – the more the reader cares about or believes in your characters, the more tension you can generate

3 Waffle: make every moment/scene/event in your book count. Know why it’s there. Cut it if it isn’t adding anything, no matter how gorgeous the prose happens to be.

4 Too many twists and turns: that just gets exhausting. The reader feels manipulated. You need a variety of paces. And you need to make it plausible (see 1 above).

‘Mystery is an intellectual process… But suspense is essentially an emotional process’ Alfred Hitchcock

Instagram Creative Writing Class: The Crap First Draft

8 May 2020

It took several years to write my first novel, The Missing One. At least nine months of that was spent finessing the opening three chapters. I obsessed over every sentence, word and description. When I sent the book to Judith Murray, who is now my agent, she said: ‘I like it, it needs a bit of work. I have notes’.

 Her main note? ‘Lose the first three chapters, you don’t need them.’

This was my first lesson in ‘kill your darlings’.  I slashed the first three chapters – and the book came alive.

What I’d been doing there was working out who my characters were, their backstories, where they lived, how they spoke. I didn’t realize that those chapters really belonged in the crap first draft (CFD).

Writing them brought the characters and set up alive for me, but the reader didn’t need to be led gently into the story. The reader needed the story to reach out, grab them by the throat and yank them in.

The Missing One by Lucy Atkins

Writing, for me, is a process of (often brutal) editing. It took me more than three years to write Magpie Lane, but most of that was spent cutting, rethinking and reshaping, rewriting.  I can only really do this when I have the CFD. This first clumsy, intense, wild attempt will be something like 70-80,000 words. And it really will be crap.


1. Adopt an attitude of experimentation and recklessness – YOU DON’T NEED TO START AT THE BEGINNING. Try writing random scenes.

2. Ignore the voice that’s hissing ‘this isn’t a novel’ (it’s right: it isn’t. Yet). 70,000 words may sound like a lot, but if you aren’t crouched on your own shoulder criticizing every sentence you type, it can be surprisingly doable.

3. Forget about elegant prose or your plot hanging together. Ignore clichés, allow hackneyed crap.

4. Try to stop on a high each day or at least not on a total low – stop before you run out of juice completely.

5. Vow never to show it to anyone.

Your CFD will contain moments that quicken your heart, characters that feel alive. These are the bits you’ll develop.

5 ways to get the CFD DONE:

1. Try a daily word count target – I don’t do this, many writes I know do

2. Devote actual time to it: Anthony Trollope wrote 47 novels, mostly whilst holding down a job. He swore by 3 hours a day and called writers ‘literary labourers’.

3. Find your best time of day. Create optimal writing conditions. For me it’s early mornings, with coffee.

4. Switch off the Internet and all social media during your writing time.

5. Spend time – when it’s not your optimal writing time – researching and reading. This gives you inspiration and energy, the fuel you need, for the next day’s work.

The CFD gets you over the massive psychological hurdle of the blank page. For me its the path from buttoned up, hypercritical, conscious mind into the fertile subconscious where the story is hiding.  

Talking about writing: Mick Herron

17 Apr 2020

Planning a novel: A conversation with Mick Herron.

Mick Herron is the award-winning author of the bestselling Slough House series of witty spy novels, which has been made into an Apple TV+ series, Slow Horses, starring Gary Oldman and Kristen Scott-Thomas. Herron is widely considered the John Le Carré of his generation. We talked about how we plan, or don’t plan, our books.

Mick Herron

How much should you plan a novel before you start?

LA: I always thought you had to have an idea that included a beginning, middle and end before you started writing a novel. It took me years to work out that this isn’t the case. All four of my novels have evolved from the vaguest of nuggets – a place, a character, something I’m just weirdly interested in (eg. killer whales or beetles or priest’s holes). The end result has been almost unrecognisable from the first idea. Is this something you find too? I have a feeling you might set out with a bit more of a road map than I do?

MH: More like a sat nav: I ask for a destination, and it takes me on a route of its own devising. I was remembering a line from the movie Sunset Boulevard the other day – it’s a long time since I’ve seen it, but the line’s delivered by the screenwriter character, played by William Holden, and goes something like “The most beautiful script I ever wrote was all about Okies in the Dust Bowl. By the time it reached the screen, it was set in a lifeboat.” He was complaining about the iniquities faced by the writer in Hollywood, but it strikes me that it’s not such a bad image of the creative process, and the way the original idea behind a novel – say – can become transformed or even discarded in the course of the book’s being written. I’m thinking of some of the talks we had when you were first planning Magpie Lane. A lot of those original ideas never made it to the final page, but they remain part of that novel inasmuch as they were necessary to its creation.

LA: Yes, I’m trying to figure out how it all does develop without a plan. I think I tend to get interested in a setting, and then find the character’s voices (with Magpie Lane I spent 5-6 months rewriting the first five chapters till I got Dee’s voice). Then I’ll start researching a few bizarre things that fascinate me – in this case, I remember getting very into wallpaper restoration and Oxford’s secret graveyards. I don’t write chronologically. I think I generally stay one small step ahead of myself, but often something will become really interesting to me, and then I’ll find it turning into a whole section, or even a bigger theme, and the whole novel shifts and goes in a different direction.  This means I expand the book from within. For a long time the opening line of Magpie Lane was: ’That was the day I found her in the priest’s hole eating dead bees.’ Now that’s at the start of Chapter 18. 

MH: And a very striking line it is too – I remember thinking it should be slapped on the front cover to pull readers in . . . I’m with you on character being key to a novel’s development, but I’ve also found, over and above that, that every novel has its own voice, even when it’s being written as part of a series. The mood, the tone, the colouring, has to be distinct from what’s gone before. Writing standalone books, as you do, requires even more of a tonal shift, and these ‘bizarre’ interests you follow help you achieve that, both in Magpie Lane and The Night Visitor. I love it when authors invest their books with unexpected enthusiasms, whether that’s old wallpaper or exotic beetles or whatever, and when such interests are seamlessly integrated into the storytelling, the results can dazzle. I assume that the development of such ideas in itself helps shape the novel, pointing out directions that didn’t seem available at the outset?

LA: Yes, it definitely does. I think it really leads the way. So, what about you? You don’t think of a plot in advance, but you know the destination. How does that actually work when you sit at your computer each day? Do you have a sense of a scene you want to write next?  How do you actually progress? I’m also interested in how different it must be when you’re deeply familiar with characters from the outset.  Do you feel they have a life of their own? 

MH: Not a life of their own, exactly – I find I still have to do all the work – but their paper-bound existences do at least have defined parameters: I know what sort of things they might do, what things they might say. So that helps. As for plotting, I do as much as I can before starting to write, but that falls far short of being an actual detailed outline. It’s more a series of disconnected events, like an overlong trailer for a movie. In doing the writing, I find the connections (I hope). The daily work often feels like looking for the solution to a problem I had no idea existed before then, which is sometimes trivial (where is this character’s car parked?) and sometimes not (how does this character know this other character is lying?) It’s not that I prefer to work this way; it’s more that this is the only way I seem able to (with this series, anyway). Is it like that for you? Or do you feel you have choices?

LA: I generally feel like things are wide open. The strange thing is that as I try to answer these questions, I realise how little of my writing happens in the conscious brain. It’s all a bit hazy. A lot of it is about sitting down, day after day – getting past my self-doubt, and the intimidating fact of this blank page – and playing around, watching scenes take shape. This doesn’t seem to happen in my conscious mind. This is going to sound totally pretentious, but when it’s really working well it’s a bit like what I imagine lucid dreaming would be like  – I’m kind of steering, but not in control. The serious, conscious work happens later in the process when I have to tighten it all up, and think hard about plot, and what information is revealed, and when, and the logistics of it all  – those parked cars. 

MH: And there’s the elephant in the room . . .the degree to which we don’t actually know what we’re doing; or, more accurately, how we’re doing what we’re doing. A lot of the problem-solving, I find, goes on in the back of the brain – if the plot mechanics are seizing up, I don’t sit at my desk and force myself to focus, I go out for a walk. By the time I get back, I’ve generally found how to get things going again. This sounds oddly passive, but I’m sure it’s common to many writers. All the really hard work has long since been done by the time we pick up our pens. We were doing it without knowing it: it started when we picked up our first story books, without a parent or teacher there to put it in our hands.

Or it started when we put those books down, and let the story continue in our heads. . .

Pitching To An Agent – 20 Tips for Success

30 Oct 2018

I’ve put together these tips because at events people often ask me how you get a literary agent (someone who will represent you, nurture your writing, and ultimately sell your book to a publisher). 

Literary agents are busy and small (or big) mistakes can put them off reading your work. There is no ‘type’ of person who gets published, other than a person who can write well so don’t feel intimidated. Literary agents  – the people who will sell your book to a publisher – are just people who love books. A literary agent can offer valuable feedback on your writing, understand how it will fit into a market, know which editors will love it, and which publishing houses might take it. They do things like negotiate contracts, and fight your corner – for instance, my agent recently worked with my editor to rebrand all my books with new covers (see image above). Agents are also almost always looking out for new talent, but make sure your book is the best you can make it before you send it. They get a lot of submissions.

Pitching to a Literary Agent, 20 Tips for Success

1. Good writing grabs an agent’s attention and nothing else – don’t make your own book jacket or marketing material or perform any attention grabbing tricks or gimmicks eg. shiny wrapping, free gift enclosed.

2. Follow the instructions the agent gives on their website for submitting your work. 

3. Target ONE agent per agency (and not at random – select them carefully according to their list, their stated interests, whether they are taking clients). Try five at a time, from the The Writers & Artists Yearbook, which has a comprehensive list of agents. Keep a spreadsheet or up to date list so you don’t infuriate anyone with multiple submissions.

4.   Proof-read – grammatical and spelling mistakes can get you on the ‘no’ pile even if you write well.

5.   Most agents want something like the first three chapters plus a synopsis. Make sure those first three chapters of your book are your absolute best work and that they plunge your reader right into your story.  Double space, justify, sensible font, eg Times New Roman, 12 pt.

6. Write a snappy but sensible introductory email. Avoid adverbs, gushing, exclamation marks, emojis, showing off or modesty, false or otherwise. Simply state who you are, any relevant credentials, what your book is, and that you hope they will enjoy it.

7. A  synopsis is a summary of your book. It needs to be short and to the point – just a glimpse of your plot and characters – NOT a blurb (ie. lots of excitable language ‘selling’ the story). Usually 1-2 pages of double spaced 12 point type, max.

8. Don’t use coloured paper, visual aids, emojis or anything in your submission that you think will make it stand out. The only thing that will do that is great writing. 

9. Target an agent according to who their authors are (authors who are writing similar books to you – their agent will be name-checked in their acknowledgements).

10. Show you are familiar with the agent’s existing list of authors (spell their authors’ names correctly!).

11.  Look on Twitter/other social media/agent websites for agents who are actively requesting submissions. These may be young agents building a list. They tend to say what kind of books they want.

12. The covering email shouldn’t be any longer than a paragraph or two. Make sure it highlights why your book is distinctive and interesting but don’t brag.

13.  Don’t pitch yourself as ‘the new…’ or ‘x meets x’- that will probably irritate them.

14. Mention writing credentials but only if they are solid and relevant. eg. if you’ve won a serious short story prize (the high school English prize isn’t going to swing it).

15. Mention any contact who has referred you – but don’t worry if you have no contacts. Agents genuinely don’t care. Plenty of writers with no contacts at all in the literary world get publishing deals.

16. Mention if you’ve previously submitted writing to them or being in touch with one of their other agents (ie with a previous book).

17. If your work is rejected don’t write back telling them why they’ve made the mistake of their lives. Keep your fuure options open.

18. If they want to see more, don’t gush or do ‘OMGs’,  just send them the book in the format they ask for, with a dignified ‘thank you for your interest’.

19. Accept that you will almost certainly get LOTS of rejections and that this does not mean you will never be published/have no talent/are wasting your time.

20. Keep trying. Don’t give up. It can take a long time and involve a lot of rejections or silences until you find the right person.

Judging the Costa Book Awards

8 Nov 2017

costa book awards logo

Judging the Costa prize – the Novel category – was an eye-opening experience. One thing that struck me was the large number of historical novels (and a few futuristic ones too, it has to be said).  It’s not something you tend to notice unless you have a stack of fifty books to read on your office floor. The better historical novels are less about escaping into the past, and more about reframing the uncertainties and horrors of what’s happening in the world today – let’s just say I read more than one reworking of a Greek tragedy.

The most exciting bit was the final meeting – we each read the other judges’ selections (my two fellow judges chose three books each and then sat in a room to discuss, until we reached an agreement. It was quite a long meeting. We weren’t always united. But in the end, the best book definitely won. 

Inspiration for the Victorian Gothic manor in The Night Visitor

11 Aug 2017

Spooks, memories and visitors

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare

 When I was a teenager, growing up in a village near Lewes in East Sussex, I had a friend whose house was very different from everyone else’s. For a start, it had about five times as many bedrooms. It also had tall iron gates, a long, tree lined driveway and a haunted Minstrel’s Gallery. This place – which I now know to be a Victorian Gothic Manor – looked very grand on the outside. It had tall grey flint walls and grand, mullioned windows, but the inside told a different story. The house was in coming undone.

My friend’s family was not landed gentry, far from it. Her father, a drinker, keen on the races, had won the house some time in the 1970s in a bet. It was crumbling and damp, with rattling casement windows and no central heating. There was no money to fix anything. I got the sense that nobody really cared because the family was breaking down. The house was not just physically gloomy, but unhappy and troubled in a more profound, less tangible way. And I felt, instinctively, that it was not just the container of the family’s sorrows, but – somehow, inexplicably – feeding them.

I would go there from time to time during the secondary school years. I’d marvel at the grandeur of those iron gates and that long driveway; we’d climb the sweeping staircase to what is, in my memory, an endless procession of dark and musty rooms with plasterwork damp to the touch, old quilts, a pervading chill and flitting shadows. It was thrilling for a teenager. I remember one party – twenty drunk fourteen year olds screaming across the unkempt lawns, only to end up crammed into the (surprisingly tiny) kitchen, too spooked to venture further into the house.

My friend, a tall, loyal, bright girl with a hint of wildness behind the eyes, confided to me once that she sometimes had a ‘visitor’ in the middle of the night. She would wake in the small hours to find a shrouded and malevolent old lady sitting on her, pinning her to the mattress. She was paralyzed when this happened, she said, unable to even cry out for help. This terrifying apparition, she was convinced, meant to choke her.

The friend and I lost touch when I went off to university. Her life, I heard, did not unfold as happily as mine, she has had troubles. Her family broke up and the Manor was sold. But thirty years on, I found it again, in my imagination, a huge, neglected flinty beast set in an idyllic spot beneath the South Downs, a stone’s throw from the spot where Virginia Woolf drowned herself. The Manor – which I called Ileford –  became a key setting in my novel, the symbol of how the most grand and imposing façade can conceal rotten secrets. My friend’s ‘night visitor’ came to life again too. But that’s another story.

I still long for the Sussex countryside – the chalk paths up to the South Downs, pheasants panicking across country lanes in the early morning mist, and my hometown, Lewes, slotted in the cleft of the hills. I live in Oxford, now, and people tell me I’m lucky to be here but I still long to move ‘home’. I did go back to the Manor while researching my novel. I went up to the iron gates, held them and peeked through but I could see very little. I thought about going up the drive, knocking on the door and introducing myself, trying to explain who I was, what I was doing. In the end, I didn’t dare.


The Book that Changed My Life

2 Apr 2014

Last week I was asked to write a piece about The Book That Changed My Life. I wracked my brains for ages – thinking of things like Jane Eyre or Rebel Pony  – yes really – a book I read repeatedly as a child – the book that got me hooked on reading.

But then I realised that there is only one book that I can honestly say changed my life. It’s the book that made me believe I could be a writer. It’s the first place I saw my name in print. It’s been sitting on the shelves of every home I’ve ever lived in – so much part of the furniture that I don’t even notice it any more. I wouldn’t dream of reading it for pleasure. But I treasure it.

It’s The Collins Robert bilingual dictionary – written, painstakingly, over years and years, by my mum.  The first edition was published 1978 (see her proud pic, left).  I used to have to fight my way through index cards, stacks of paper, shelves and shelves of dictionaries to say hello to her when I got back from school each day. The family joke is that when The Dictionary was finally published, I was dim enough to be genuinely confused, since I thought ‘The Dictionary’ was a place in our house (‘mum’s at The Dictionary again’ or …’where’s mum?’ ‘The Dictonary’).

She went on to do other editions, other dictionaries, other lexicographical projects – her work changed the face of lexicography forever in fact – but this book that started it all will always be the most special.

Where did The Missing One come from?

4 Nov 2013

The Missing One began when I was staying at a friend’s cabin on Whidbey Island in Washington State (

We lived in Seattle for four years, my second child was born there, and we used to take regular trips north, to the islands, and also up to Canada – the landscape of the Pacific Northwest was (and still is) mysterious and intriguing to me. At my friend’s cabin one rainy day I picked up a magazine and read about a pioneering marine biologist called Alexandra Morton.

Morton was one of the first scientists to study the language of killer whales. She was also a young mother, who would take her baby out with her on the ocean, following killer whales, getting to know them, listening to their interactions. She lived in a tiny floating house on a remote British Columbian Island so that she could immerse herself in her research. It was from this magazine article that the Missing One was born.

First, I wrote a short story about a whale researcher, Elena. This then expanded into a novel draft written from Elena’s perspective. It didn’t work. I abandoned it in despair. Then, nine months later, I went back to it, and rewrote it, this time from the perspective of a daughter, Kal, looking into her mother’s past. It was a long process – about four years in all – but it eventually became The Missing One.

My Elena, of course, is nothing like the real Alexandra Morton. But what’s interesting is that a character, or a set up, or a setting, can cling inside the mind and not let go, for years and years, until it finally takes shape as a novel.

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