Instagram Creative Writing Class: Character – basics

29 May 2020

Good characters matter more than you might care to know. 

Think about your favourite novels –ones you read years ago. Can you remember the details of the plot? Maybe. But it’s likely to be the characters you really think of. Often writers focus on getting the plot right: we obsess on making it all hang together, on coming up with something surprising and ‘new’, perfecting the twists and timings. But no amount of clever plotting or elegant sentence structures can compensate for weak, dull or clichéd characters. 

– Usually you’ll have 1-2 main characters, some secondary ones, maybe a background cast
– You can find lots of advice online about creating character ‘templates’/ fleshing out what colour your character’s favourite knickers are, or what they have for breakfast. Many people find this useful. I don’t.

I can’t think in the abstract about my characters, certainly not before I’ve created them. Sometimes I just have to write and rewrite and redraft, questioning and exploring a character until I begin to get under their skin and find their voice – think like they think. It took me 5 months of frustration, re-writing endlessly the first 4 chapters of Magpie Lane until I had Dee’s voice. Then one day I got her – I knew who she was, and we were off.

You know it’s working when: they do and think stuff of their own, and lead you in directions you might not have thought of.

Do they have to be likable?

Publishers do sometimes say they want your character to be likeable but I think there are WAY more interesting things for a character to be. And what people want is interesting characters they feel are real, and in whose psyches they feel invested.

Characters need to change – they need AN ARC: they start in one place, go through things, and come out changed.


-Work on dialogue, how they speak

-Find the details: Edna O’Brien once said that the telling details, like the way someone opens a handbag, can tell a reader more than pages of writing.

-Work on what they think of OTHER CHARACTERS – how they react to them, how they feel about what others do.

Four Things to Avoid:

1/ Stereotypes and cliches

2/ Blandness – watch out for the tyranny of ‘likable’ characters

3/ Inconsistency (unless it’s deliberate on your part)

4/ Stasis (they need to change…)


1/ Research. What do they do for a living? Where do they live? What do they know? Find out everything you can about their world so you can inhabit it. In Magpie Lane, Mariah is a wallpaper restorer so I spent hours looking at wallpaper, talking to experts, engaging in the detail. Only a tiny amount made it into the book, but it helped me to know Mariah’s daily life and her inner world.

2/ Find the voice – write, write, write – try things in different ways until they start to take form, until you can hear them in your head and they aren’t you any more.

3/ Stick them in an odd setting – see how they react.

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.