Insta Live 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

Or

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.)

Conversation with Mick Herron

17 Apr 2020

Planning a novel: A conversation with Mick Herron.

Mick is the author of the bestselling Slough House series of spy novels. Val McDermid has called him ‘the John Le Carré of his generation’.  He is also my dear friend. We meet regularly in Blackwell’s café in Oxford and talk about writing – our own and other people’s. Before lockdown, we were due to run a creative writing masterclass together at a literary festival. We decided to have the conversation on email instead, and to publish it here.

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

From the ‘How to Get Your Book Published’ masterclass, by Lucy Atkins and Fanny Blake.

I’ve put together these tips because 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. Do not feel intimidated. Literary agents  – the people who will sell your book to a publisher – are just people, generally really nice people, who love books.

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. ONLY do this. Nothing else.

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 EVERYTHING – 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, 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. No silly fonts, coloured paper, visual aids, emojis or ANYTHING in your submission (unless it’s part of your experimental novel).

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

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

14. Mention any 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 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 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.

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!

 

For more tips, see my other ‘How to Get Published’ blog posts here (some will repeat some of the info above though). 

Wantage Literary Festival – Saturday 27 October 2018

25 Oct 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Fiction Masterclass – How to get your Book Published

Lucy Atkins and Fanny Blake

Saturday 27th October 12.30pm @ The Beacon

Join this expert master class on how to get your novel published. Everything from editing, agents, publishing, will be discussed. Lucy and Fanny are two award-winning bestselling authors, one a Costa judge, the other an ex-Penguin editor. Come armed with your questions! £10

Buy tickets here 

 

Fiction Panel with Nicola Cornick, Lucy Atkins and Fanny Blake.

Saturday 27th October 2.15pm @ The Beacon

Too good an opportunity to miss! Thriller writer Lucy Atkins and romantic novelist Fanny Blake are joined by international historical bestselling author Nicola Cornick. They will be discussing their personal experiences and love of writing. This event will be compered by Vivien McCoubrey.

 

Buy tickets here

June Events: Kibworth Bookfest Killer Women

4 Jun 2018

Tuesday 12th June, Kibworth: Amanda Jennings & Lucy Atkins give tips for writing mysteries.  Tickets here

How to get a literary agent

18 Dec 2013

film cameraIt’s almost exactly a year since my literary agent, Judith Murray of Greene & Heaton, called to say she’d got me a two book deal with Quercus. Judith has been an incredible source of support, information and skill (both practical and editorial). I’m very lucky I found her. Finding a good agent is really vital for any writer.  So, this week, we filmed an interview together, aiming to demystify the process – and with luck, save people some time and anguish.

When you’re starting out, with no contacts, getting an agent can seem like a hopeless quest.  People often ask whether they really need one anyway. Well, yes, you do.  Without an agent it’s extremely hard to get your book published (basically, you’d have to self-publish it first, then somehow sell a ton of copies to get a mainstream publisher interested). A good agent like Judith has strong relationships with editors at publishing houses. They trust her judgement. If she sends them a novel, they will definitely read it. Your agent, then, is your hotline to the editor who will offer you a publishing deal. Editors don’t have time to read unsolicited manuscripts – but they do have time for good agents.

There’s the small matter of writing a really good novel, of course, but even good novels can get overlooked by agents. So, how do you make sure yours isn’t? Do you carpet-bomb fifty agents with your unfinished manuscript? Do you send them the whole book or just a ‘teaser’? Do you find out where they live and stalk them? Here are short versions of Judith’s answers to some key questions.

Q: How do I choose which agents to approach?

A: Look in the acknowledgements pages of the novels you love or admire, especially ones that appeal to the kind of readers you would like for your own book. If authors think their agents have done a good job for them, they often thank those agents in the acknowledgements pages – and from this you can draw up a shortlist of agents you want to approach.

Q: What sort of novels do you want?

A: I want a combination of powerful writing and story-telling that grabs my attention and holds it. I want a book that makes me miss my tube stop (The Missing One did that, and that’s how I knew it was for me).

Q: How do I get you to read mine though? Should I phone to tell you about it first, or do something else to make you read it?

A: Phoning doesn’t help. Nor do gimmicks like coloured paper or funny fonts. It’s all about the writing. I get up to 30 submissions every week, but I look at every one of them.  If you are a journalist or someone else who writes or tells stories in other media (eg documentary or film maker) and/or if you have done a creative writing course, do mention that in the first paragraph of the covering email you send with your submission – that will make your submission stand out for me.

Q: So do I just stick my novel in the post then?

A: No, don’t send the whole thing and do send the submission via email if possible (most agents have websites on which you can find our submissions guidelines). Lucy sent me a short email introducing herself, attaching the first three chapters of The Missing One, and a one page synopsis. This is exactly the right approach. If I am interested, I ask to see the rest of the book.

You’ll able to watch the full video interview online here in January.  Judith and I are also doing some talks in the New Year (see Events) where we’ll expand on these questions, and talk more about the process of editing and revising your novel for publication.  You may think that as an artist you should be above this sort of thing but the truth is that there are a lot of unpublished books out there. Knowing the basics can make all the difference.

‘How to Get Published’ Talk & Wine at Blackwell’s, Oxford

3 Dec 2013

judith murraypicWednesday 19 March 2014, 7-9pm.

Have you got a book in you? Then get it out there! Lucy and literary agent Judith Murray (pictured) of London-based literary agents Greene and Heaton will be discussing the process of getting your book published: what do agents and editors actually do? How do you find and approach an agent? (What are agents for? What do agents love and hate?). How does your book evolve from first idea to published novel? (Why rewrites are not a sign of failure). Can self-publishing really work? Are creative writing courses actually useful?  Lucy and Judith will also discuss the evolution of The Missing One from first submission to publication.

 

Talk, then a glass of wine, then lively discussion –  £3.

Tickets from Blackwell’s Bookshop, 51 Broad St, Oxford, OX1 3BQ (or on the door). Tel: 01865 333623