It’s one of the oldest pieces of writing advice that to write good characters you must know them well. It seems obvious, doesn’t it? But it can sometimes be a lot harder than it sounds. If we start with the basics of learning about our characters, we can Google whole lists of questions that we should be asking:
When I published Intention, how Gillian (my protagonist) made her tea was one of the hot topics – aside from her being a psychopath, that is. So, these fine details do count for something.
In asking questions of our characters we build them into something authentic. But this doesn’t just mean giving them the good bits or the quirky bits of humanity; sometimes it means giving them the rotten elements, too, which is where developing character comes in.
While you shouldn’t have a whole book of characters who are severely unhinged (I mean, sure, it would be interesting, but where’s your hook?), you also shouldn’t construct a cast of angels either. For me, after I’ve dealt with all the basics I like to move on to the existential:
And, perhaps the most important of them all…
Character motivation is essential to so much in a story: plot arcs, pacing, satellite characters – the list could go on! Working out what your character wants and what that motivation can bring to your work is hugely beneficial, not least because it pads out your protagonist/antagonist. In the bid to develop our characters better we need to know them from the inside out; which is to say, we need to know them as well as we know ourselves (on a good day). You can also yourself:
All of us – humans, not characters – have something that drives us and, likewise, all of us have things or people that bring out the worst in us. While it might take some time to develop your character with all of these things, it will surely be worth it when someone reads a chapter of your someday novel and says, “Wow, I do that too…”
During an editing consultation with someone this morning, we decided between us that editing (as part of the creative writing process) gets a hard time – not to be confused with editing is a hard time. Of course, sometimes it is. But is it any more difficult than staring into the abyss of a blank screen for upwards of an hour waiting for “that great idea” to come out?
The fact of the matter is editing is a process through which we make our work better. So, for many of us, we grin and grit through it because we’re aware of the finish line – and the potential rewards for reaching such a line. However, I wonder whether there’s space to enjoy editing more as a creative practice, which could make the whole editing-mare easier overall.
This summer I’ve edited a fair amount of work by other authors, and I’ve sincerely enjoyed it. At the moment I’m editing accessibility documents written by other authors and, again, there’s a fair bit of enjoyment to be gained from it. I feel a sense of, ‘Ha! That showed that misplaced comma!’ on getting things into a better state than they were in when I found them.
Off the back of that, then, I wonder whether it isn’t editing that’s the problem so much as editing our work that causes issue. So, what about if we break-up with our manuscripts before we edit them? Okay, maybe not a break-up, but at the very least we should say, ‘I think we need a break from us…’
My point being that editing, as a creative practice, has grounds that we can enjoy running through. It might not be as joyous as the initial spark of creativity, I’ll admit. That said, sometimes my initial spark of creativity is a hot mess by the time I’ve finished typing, which makes editing the saving grace.
Either way, a perspective shift on editing might not be the worst thing in the world for us as writers. There’s a way to enjoy it more – insofar as a recrafting of our initial craft – and that enjoyment might make the dreaded “Please see attached edits” email not quite as bad as it used to. If editing is a necessary evil – which, I can assure you, it absolutely is – it makes sense to go easily into the dark side than to always be fighting back to the crisp white light of a fresh document. Everything will need the red pen sooner or later…
Disclaimer: If there are any typographical errors contained here assume that they’re deliberate and merely an editing exercise for you, reader, from me, the writer. If there aren’t any, please ignore.
In November 2018, I started panic-writing Copycat. Little did I know then that the book would be the beginning of a long-term relationship with my central characters: DI Melanie Watton, DS Edd Carter, and DC Chris Burton. These three were the central figures of the story, and they naturally became the central figures of Play, too, which came out earlier this year. Not one to let go of my loves easily, I also went ahead and wrote a third book. Untitled (it definitely hasn’t a title, but I don’t know whether I’m allowed to tell you) was accepted by Bloodhound Books just last week; the contract was signed, and the date was sort of set.
But that will be the last of my DI Melanie Watton novels. For the time being, at least.
My publisher – my kind, open and honest publisher – suggested that I try a psychological thriller next. It would be my first since Intention, which came out in January 2019. That book is a story and a half, given that the novel itself was actually my doctoral thesis, and I can’t tally the days, weeks and months that went into that book because of that. That might also be the reason why I’d steered away from another first-person thriller. Gillian, my protagonist, was a hard woman to love, and I wasn’t sure I was ready for that kind of commitment again.
Flash-forward to now.
I am writing a new first-person psychological thriller. I know, I know! I absolutely caved based on my publisher’s advice, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t good advice. My new novel is a first-person narrative of an unnamed narrator, and I am utterly obsessed with it. In the first week of writing I got down 20,000 words, a writing rate that I’ve never managed before – and, realistically, will likely not manage again. We’re into week two now and the writing has slowed, but the obsession definitely hasn’t.
It’s the first book I’ve written in a series of parts. While writing part one, I was busy planning part two – using a spreadsheet no less, but we’ll talk about that another time. While rolling through my chapters – all of which were planned with the above spreadsheet – I was also quietly thinking about chapters for the next section. Then, quite out of nowhere on Sunday morning, I decided the final parts of the book, including the ending. Now, if you’re a writer, you’ll know what a freakin’ hallelujah moment that is. If you’re a reader, let me tell you, you’re in for a treat if this book gets to print because I’ve done pretty well with this (that sentence is the literary equivalent of “felt cute, might delete later” if ever there was one).
What I love most about this new book is my enthusiasm for it. I am constantly thinking about it; how I can make this more obscure or that more tense. Of course, I’ve loved every second spent working on the Watton novels (and I still love the characters completely), but a change of pace in terms of character and (sub)genre has encouraged just that – a change of pace. In my thinking and my writing alike, I’m moving a little differently because my character calls for it.
It wasn’t until I thought, “Wow, this has never happened before,” that I realised, actually, it has – when I started writing Copycat! It’s no coincidence, then, that Copycat was the first detective novel I’d ever written, making it a huge change of pace from everything I’d worked on up to that point. Both then and now, there has been a shift in my writing that has – I don’t know – loosened something in my brain, my inhibitions, maybe even both.
The whole experience of working on this new book, if nothing else, has been a welcome kick to try something new – or rather, something old, considering that psychological thrillers were where I started. Either way, it turns out that sometimes a change really is as good as a rest – at least when it comes to writing.
Before I launch into this discussion as something that applies exclusively to writers, I’d like to add an opening disclaimer that I heartily expect this is something that all artistic types might suffer from. I give you this scenario byway of testing the theory: you have recently announced a new publication/an art showing/a gig for yourself or your band. It’s a huge accomplishment and people are delighted for you. It’s one of a few good things that have happened to you in your career this year, and you’re delighted to share the news. People congratulate you and tell you that you deserve this, on account of the hard work you put in.
You respond by saying:
Earlier this week, my fourth book of the year was announced. I am incredibly lucky. I’m also incredibly self-conscious about what a good year it’s been, on the off chance that people think I’m somehow undeserving of it. However, the real truth of the matter is that those books came out of a lot of writing hours and an awful lot of editing ones (and then some more editing hours on that). I approached publishers – too many to even remember, for my first novel – and I collected rejections like rare stamps for a scrapbook. All of that aside, I still count myself as being lucky, or getting lucky, to get those books past the finish line and into print – as though there weren’t literally hundreds of hours of work put into those books beforehand.
On the day that book four was announced, I said, ‘I’m just so lucky,’ to three different people – and they all had the good grace of correcting me. One of them – a fellow writer – told me that every time I felt like telling people I was lucky, I should instead tell them that I’m proud. That’s something else that I am, of course, incredibly proud, but somehow it feels inappropriate to say so.
I don’t remember anyone ever sitting me down and telling me that I shouldn’t feel proud. My mum – my number one fan – has always been hugely supportive of my work and she’s always been quick to tell me, and anyone in the English-speaking language who would listen, how proud she is of everything that I’ve done, and everything I do. So why now, nine years into adulthood and eight years into writing, have I decided that luck somehow trumps pride? There’s nothing wrong with modesty, but there’s a fine line between being modest and down playing your achievements as something that happen outside of your control. When the reality is in fact much closer to the opposite when it comes to trying to establish a career in the arts. Everything has to be at least a little in your control, because you have to go out there and make these things happen for yourself, and for your work.
At one time or another, we’ve all heard the idea that you make your own luck. Or even, the more luck you have the more luck you’ll get, as though it’s something that advances with the right rub of the right pot of gold – and maybe that’s a little bit true. That said, it seems more likely to me that the Jefferson quote that opened this essay is closer to the truth. The harder you work, the “luckier” you are. It’s that mentality entirely that I’m going to try to adopt a little more often – and I’m writing it down, and sharing it, in the interest of voicing these ideas and these hopes in a public forum.
The friend who told me to be proud is right – I won’t name and shame her, in case she’d rather I didn’t, but she’s absolutely right. It is okay to be proud of your accomplishments without passing them off as something entirely independent from you – i.e. something that exists elsewhere in a field of leprechauns and unicorns (oh, what a place to live). On the contrary, our accomplishments and achievements are actually inextricably bound up with us; they’re the fruits of hours of labour, the products of a hundred missed family occasions, and a hundred more missed nights out with friends. And I think it’s okay – more than okay, entirely acceptable and justified, in fact – to be proud of the results of that work.
Or at least, I think it’s entirely acceptable and justified when others are proud of it. I’m not there yet. But I’m going to work on it.
In 2014, I started my PhD studies at the University of Birmingham where, as part of those studies, I had to write a full-length novel. On January 30th, that novel was published by Bloodhound Books, and on February 8th (last night) I launched the book officially at my local library, surrounded by friends and family who I simply wouldn’t be without. I was terrified – as I often am before an event – but the entire evening was a beautiful experience and I’m grateful to the people who made it so.
As part of the evening, there was a question and answer session scheduled. I didn’t know how this would go – very few people who were there had actually read the book, on account of the event being its launch and all, so I was relying on people having questions from the extracts that I’d read, but it felt touch and go with a book like Intention whether people would really want to ask anything at all. That said, to my surprise and utter delight, people not only asked questions, but they asked perceptive and thought-provoking questions that led to a Q&A beyond my wildest hopes.
In the restless sleep that followed the launch – who can sleep when they’re so excited? – I wondered whether these questions were worth re-creating somewhere. I can’t remember them all, so I’m looking for some reader-participation (if you will) and I’m sorry for the eye roll that I imagine that caused. But I’d like to do a question and answer blog series – starting with a question that I’ll borrow from last night – and following this first post I’ll be opening the floor for people to send me any writerly questions that they care for my answer on (even if the question is “What the bloody hell do you know about writing?” which is also a fair point to raise). I’ll be sharing this post across social media channels so if you do have a question you can contact me there, or you can pop a comment at the end of the post.
So, to get the ball rolling…
Question (from friend and fellow author, Kieran Davis):
Do you have any kind of writing routine?
I wish I could tell people that I had a routine. I would love for something dramatic, like: Yes, I stand on my head for the first five hundred words and they have to be written before sunrise. Truthfully, I am better at setting routines than I am at sticking to them.
When I wrote Intention it was a compulsive process insofar as I would write literally whenever I had a second to. If I was having tea with my mum, I would write while she was ordering; if the taxi was five minutes late, then that was long enough to get down a chapter idea. I think that compulsive style is how I approach writing, perhaps in a bid to get the whole thing done before I lose interest / steam, it’s hard to say. Intention’s gestation period was longer than expected, not because of the writing itself but because of the editing – but that’s another question altogether – so it’s hard to pin down exactly how long that book took to write (although from PhD to published it has been a long five years).
The book that I’m currently working on – which is another novel – followed the same compulsive lines. It took me seven weeks to write the first draft – which, from memory, came in at around 64,000 words. It will lose some and gain some over the course of the editing. But again, the writing itself was something I crammed in whenever I could, rather than portioning off certain times of day to get it done. Whenever there was a spare moment – including that half an hour before bed that’s usually reserved for reading and tea-drinking – it was filled with writing.
It could be an urgency thing, or an excitement thing, I’m not sure. I suppose the real writerly lesson that I’d promote through this is two-fold though. Firstly, be fiercely protective about writing time – even if it involves sitting on the loo ‘with a stomach ache’ for five minutes longer than necessary, just to key in a quick idea on your phone. Secondly, if you have an idea that fills you with urgency, persist with it. Part of the reason that Intention exists is because I whole-heartedly believed that I had a story to tell through Gillian (my main character). You have to feel like that, I think, and you have to hold on to that feeling. It might not lead to a writing routine – but sometimes sheer persistence outweighs set working hours.
So there we have it, my first question and answer! I hope it proves useful / entertaining / maybe both, if I’m lucky, and I hope it encourages more questions because writing about writing is always a good way to avoid whatever I’m meant to be editing (so please send me your questions). But seriously, if you have a question or query or even just a comment that you’d like a response or opinion on, get in touch. I’ll be checking the comments section on here and Facebook, and you’re welcome to Tweet if that’s your preferred social media hang-out.
Happy writing, all. Let’s talk soon.
Bloodhound Books - a crime and thriller publisher based in Cambridge, United Kingdom - announced this morning that they have recently signed a new author: C.S. Barnes (that's me).
I've been excitedly sitting on this information for a couple of weeks while details of contracts - across different publishers - were ironed out, and now the news is finally out there. My debut novel, which will arrive in early 2019, is a psychological thriller with splashes of domestic noir, titled Never Forget Your First - and let me tell you, as first novels go, I certainly won't be forgetting this one.
This news comes after a few months of sending out sample chapters and pages, carefully crafted cover letters, and polite rejections. More importantly though, this also comes after three years of working on this book as part of my Doctoral thesis. Gillian - the protagonist of the book - is not an easy woman to love, I must admit, and working with her for the last three years has been a wild and unpredictable ride to say the least, but I cannot express my sheer delight at having placed her, and myself, with a publisher who understands the point of Gillian's story (unconventional at it may sometimes seem).
There are no spoilers here and I'm not about to dish the dirt in a synopsis either. I just wanted to write a little something to mark the occasion, and let readers/website-visitors/friends know that something is coming next year - and it's worth keeping an eye out for (well, I like to think so at least)!