Finding The Positives

Getting ready for school!

Getting ready for school!

1. It’s not raining

2. Our house isn’t flooded

3. I have two wonderful, loving children

4. I can still get up and look after everyone

5. My daughter doesn’t have a temperature and can go to school

6. The doctor says my son’s cold hands and feet don’t automatically mean he has septicaemia

7. The kitchen is clean after my “I’m ill so I must do housework” blitz yesterday

8. I remembered to buy milk and found some tea bags in the back of the cupboard

9. I no longer have to worry about planning a party

10. I sold a copy of Dragon Wraiths

Waving From The Trenches

Slightly blurry party pics

Slightly blurry party pics

Having survived my daughter’s birthday party weekend, despite illness and chaos, I thought I could finally breathe a sigh of relief and get a day to do some writing. Unfortunately the universe had other plans. As if to trump the coughs we’ve all had, our son decided to throw out a temperature of 39C last night, throwing up his party sweets and spending the night whimpering. I tried sleeping on his floor but he wanted to come in with us, so after hours spent checking his temperature, trying to keep him from cuddling up and getting too hot, and then a wide-awake daughter coming in at 5am wanting to play with her new gifts, I’m a bit spaced today.

I’m currently trying to figure out how to do the school run and the supermarket shop without spreading his germs around. Meanwhile he and his sister are playing guns with a new toy, happy as you like. Kids are amazing. I have no temperature at all and feel like the living dead and husband looks like willpower alone is keeping him walking. So, this is just a quick note to keep my daily blogging alive. I’d like to say normal service will resume soon but, quite frankly, the light at the end of the tunnel keeps being the London Express.

Author Interview: Pat Elliott – All In The Leaves

All In The Leaves by Pat Elliott

All In The Leaves by Pat Elliott

Today I am thrilled to welcome Pat Elliott, author of All In The Leaves, which tells the story of Anna, nearly thirty, living at home and single. When a chance bout of tears leads to a tea leaf reading she is shown a wonderful future: new career, new home, new husband. All by Christmas. All she has to do is get on and make the necessary changes to ensure it happens. When calamity strikes, the battle for happiness begins.

Pat spent eighteen years of her working life in a magazine company, before becoming self employed as a reflexologist. She has had factual pieces published on reflexology and on adopting a dog. All in the Leaves is her first novel, with a second, Leaves for Chloe, currently being written. She has also written a volume of short stories, called At Sanctuary’s Gate.

Pat was born in the Alexandra Palace area of London and currently resides in the Essex countryside, with her husband and adopted terrier. She has a great love for dogs, and is delighted when a rescue dog gets a second chance in life. She also loves to paint in watercolour. Her blog can be found here.

I asked Pat a few question about life, writing and All In The Leaves. I hope you enjoy learning more about her and her novel.

1. Tell us a little about yourself and how you decided to write fiction, after a life working in magazines?

I left the magazine world to set up my reflexology practice. I took up reflexology initially to help my husband, who had a back injury and suffered with subsequent depression. I feel that people who suffer injuries and depression are given short shrift in this world of ours – and if I can help them, I will. Living with injury and depression is not an easy road – either for the person suffering, or the one who tries to help. I see quite a few people who fall into this category. For the helper, it is paramount to maintain outside interests. With that in mind, I like to learn something new. I enrolled on an adult education course which attracted me – Creative Writing, Short Stories. This was such a fabulous course that I signed up for the follow up – Creative Writing, Novels. I was attracted to the fact that after initial instruction, you were out there on your own, getting on it with it. That fits my working life much better than something rigid.

It also means that I can be at home, yet still have an outside interest. The life of a writer can be one of any life they choose to write about. It’s a wonderful escape.

2. Your novel features dogs a great deal. Tell us about the dog(s) in your life

Pat and Missy

Pat and Missy

Yes, indeed. The love of dogs is a theme that runs in my novel. Anyone who owns a dog knows the unconditional love you get from these creatures. We are none of us so full of love, that we couldn’t do with a little extra.

My first dog was a jack russell, Spotty. She lived originally with my neighbours, but they were cruel to her. They’d split her head open by hitting her with a roofing tile – and then refused to take her to the vet. I took her. We spent our first night together under the duvet, on the sofa – after the vet had told us that her life hung in the balance. The first 24 hours were crucial. She lived, and stayed safe in our love for the next 16 years, until she passed, aged 18.

Once Spotty passed away, we went to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home to adopt another, where we met the wonderful Missy. Still a russell, but long legged and long haired – the opposite of Spotty. That was important to me, so that we’d never compare the two. Missy was in Battersea for almost two years, waiting for a home. I have nothing but admiration for the care that Battersea took over her. She was 8 years old when we adopted her. She’s 16 now and still a cheeky little minx – but I like that in a dog.

3. All in The Leaves is about tea leaf reading and has sections that are very spiritual. Are these drawn from your own experiences?

There are elements of my own experiences in the story. I did indeed have an Irish relative who could read tea leaves and was surprisingly accurate. Being the daughter of a Irishman, there is great Celtic lore and spirituality in my genes – and this shows in my writing. I like to weave some of that into my stories. I feel it adds another dimension.

4. The novel explores the beauty of Scotland, and Edinburgh in particular. As someone who lives in Essex, is there a secret yearning to live over the border? 🙂

I do live in Essex, yes! Originally my family were from Waterford, then Wexford, Eire. When the work situation forced some of the younger members of the family to spread their wings, some moved to London and some to Scotland. So I feel quite attached to both. Would I live there? I’d certainly consider it, should the opportunity present itself.

5. All in the Leaves is the first in a series of novels. Did you always intend to write a series?

No, originally, I didn’t. I started to write All in the Leaves as part of my novel writing course. When I spoke to other book reader friends, they asked would it be a series? I quite like each book to have an ending, so that’s what I did in Leaves, but I also saw the possibility that there could be other tea leaf readings and other books. Each complete to themselves. That’s when I decided to make a series.

6. The next book will be about Chloe. Tell us a little bit about it; is it set after All in the Leaves (and will we see more of horrid Howard and adorable Angus)?

Leaves for Chloe is set after All in the Leaves. It charts what happens to Chloe in the year after the end of the first book. Yes, horrid Howard does appear a fair bit in book two, like a bad penny, he always turns up! The adorable Angus also returns, patient and kind as ever. Some may say pushover, but he does have a core of steel.

7. You self-published your first novel. Was that something you intended from the start? How did you find the experience?

All In The Leaves - about tea leaf reading

All In The Leaves – about tea leaf reading

Originally, I would have been thrilled to have an agent and a publisher. However, the more research I did, that route did not feel fine to me. The absolute decider was when I read about one poor man, who’d spent two years of his life writing his book, only to see it pulped after a few months on the bookshelves. It hadn’t performed as well and as quickly as the distributors wanted, so it was pulled.

I understand that they are a business, and shelf space is at a premium, but my heart went out to the man who’d lost his dream. I decided that if I self published, All in the Leaves could stay on the virtual shelves until it found its own market.

I chose to use ebook partners to convert and distribute my book. I couldn’t be happier with their service. I am not the person to spend hours over the computer, trying to work out how to format a book. Nor spend time dealing with different countries’ tax requirements. I much prefer to pay someone to do all that, so that I can concentrate on what I enjoy. Plus, they only take a fee. No percentage of your sales. That was a big plus to me, because it fit my idea of a professional service

8. You’re an artist and a reflexologist as well as an author; how do you manage your time? Do you find yourself torn between your different creative outlets?

No, I’m never torn. Reflexology is my bread and butter. That time comes first. In any spaces between clients, I balance the other two. As a writer yourself, you know there are times that you could bang your head on a wall, in frustration at not finding the right plot or device. In those times, I paint!

9. You have also published a collection of short stories, At Sanctuary’s Gate; how is writing short stories different to writing novels? Which do you prefer?

Short stories are for me quick insights. A novel is more of a slow, developmental burn. My short stories are more observational than dialogue filled, my novel is more about dialogue and personal interaction. I like them both. That’s not a cop-out – they both fulfil a different need in the writer me.

10. Finally, what advice would you give to someone just starting out in their writing career?

Firstly, write! If there’s a class available, get some instruction. A good tutor will encourage, instruct and inspire. If there’s no class, find the resources online or in your library. Help is there, if you look for it.

You can find out more about All in the Leaves and purchase a copy here. Thanks for reading.

Money and What Does It Mean to be Normal?

Playing Guess Who with my family

Playing Guess Who with my family

I’m feeling a bit bruised today. I feel as if this month, or more precisely these last few months, have been a real battle, mostly about money. It’s easy for money not to be an issue when you have enough.

Hubbie and I have fought hard to arrange our lives so that money isn’t an issue. We’ve made many choices that have put lifestyle over income and possessions. But some things, like Christmas, or birthdays, bedroom furniture and children’s parties, all fall under lifestyle rather than unnecessary expense.

And that’s fine and as it should be.

But when they all come at once, along with some other sources of income not happening when they should, it all leads to stress. And the biggest stress for me is that I don’t earn anything. For all the rationalisation that hubbie couldn’t do his job if I didn’t look after the house and kids, I still hate spending ‘his’ money.

I knew writing was not the lucrative financial choice. I used to make more in a day contracting than I made all last year selling books. And that’s okay. Right up to the point where I want to spend money on something other food and fuel and don’t feel like I can.

Concentrating hard!

Concentrating hard!

I don’t want to give up writing, but I know hubbie is tired of me crying all time because I’m worried about money, because I feel worthless without an income. And I worry I’m risking friendships because I don’t want to spend money on a day out, night out, weekend away or other expensive thing. One short contract would make it all easier. I could pay for my daughter’s party, new bed and bike, and still have enough left over to proofread my next manuscript.

But I can’t even think where to start. Now my daughter’s at school I’d have to arrange childcare before and after school. Not to mention having to buy a whole new wardrobe of suits in my post-baby body size. And then I’d have to convince one of my old contacts that I still know anything about insurance and/or marketing. After five years out, I probably don’t. It’s a fast moving industry – new regulations, new channels; five years ago social media barely existed.

Even if I did find something, it wouldn’t be on my former salary. I’d probably not actually bring in much extra money, after we’d paid for childcare, not to mention the extra pressure on the family if mummy wasn’t at home cooking, cleaning, washing and ironing. There’s a meme going around facebook that says:

Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you’re still paying for – in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it ~ Ellen Goodman

Craziness. Do I really need to put my children in childcare and put us all under stress just so I can feel I have my own money to spend? Instead of doing what I love – walking the dog, taking care of my family and writing novels? Having time to play board games and cook dinner, with time over to learn how to bake cakes? Put like that it’s all a bit silly. But still, earning a few hundred pounds a month might be nice!

Advice For Writing and Life

This is what I want to do today

This is what I want to do today

Okay, I finally admit it. I’m ill. I went to bed at 8pm last night and slept until hubbie came to bed at midnight. Then I popped a pill to make sure I’d get back to sleep. And didn’t. There’s nothing worse than your body being asleep when your mind is wide awake and all around you the house is coughing like every occupant smokes 40 a day. (We don’t. We’re all ill.)

I would have written a post then, but I was drugged so could only lie awake and worry about life and fume that I’d had a fourth failed delivery from the crap company I had the utter misfortune to choose to deliver my daughter’s new bed.

So this morning I’m taking time to be ill. After the school run I’m heading back to bed. So I am utilising the blog network for today’s post. Here are five great articles to help with writing and life:

1. 10 Foundational Writing Practices – Charlotte Rains Dixon: the importance of getting the basics right. My favourite three are Move your Body; Calm your Mind; Stay Positive

2. The Simple Joy of Slogging Through to the End – Speak Happiness: an old post on the satisfaction of finishing a difficult task. I’m hoping I’ll feel like that when (if) my daughter’s bed finally arrives and I’ve managed not to break anything or anyone in my anger at the company’s sheer incompetence.

3. “Days are Lost Lamenting over Lost Days” – another from Speak Happiness: this explores a quote attributed to Goethe. A very interesting read. The full quote is:

Then indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost lamenting over lost days.
Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute;
What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

4. Why Doing a Jigsaw Puzzle is a Bit Like Writing A Book – Debbie Young: looking at the ways assembling a jigsaw puzzle is like writing a book. As I’m in the difficult stage of redrafting Class Act, trying to make sure all the pieces fit together and the whole picture looks right, this struck a chord. Especially these points:

  • No matter how carefully you prepare the component parts – the corners, the edges, all the pieces with blue sky or Persian carpet or Delft tiles or pink flowers – the assembly of the puzzle never goes entirely according to plan.
  • When daunted by what seems like an insurmountably difficult section, you realise that if you only apply yourself, one piece at a time, you really can conquer the challenge.
  • Sometimes it works best if you switch your conscious mind off for a bit and let the subconscious take over.

5. In Defense of Pantsing – Jami Gold: because Pantsers can write novels too, as long as we remember to apply structure and story beats during redrafting. Enough said!

Right. Back to bed.

A Random Post of Random Thoughts

Feels like yesterday...

Feels like yesterday…

I’ve had several post ideas floating round my head today, as I rushed from place to place completing chores. Of course, now I’m curled up with my computer and the children are finally in bed, dinner cooked and eaten, dishes stacked, laundry done, dog walked, birthday tea party over and sick husband cared for, my mind is blank.

I should know, by now, to scribble the ideas down somewhere before they fly away. I seem to remember vaguely that one was about voice in writing, after listening to the fifteenth episode of Octonauts (a Cbeebies programme set under the sea) in the car, and loving all the different accents of the characters. Hmmm, don’t think I have the energy for that right now.

Another one was about the passing of time, as it’s my daughter’s fifth birthday today. This time five years ago, I was having an emergency c-section, after a 30-hour unproductive labour, delivering a baby three weeks before I planned to. Time is like the tardis: big and small at the same time. Every minute of every day of that five years felt looonnng, but whoosh, five years seems to have disappeared in the blink of an eye.

I’ve also spent much of the day fighting terrible broodiness. Maybe that’s also part of having your first born turn five. You face the idea of them growing up and think another baby is a good idea. I skipped a period last month (not unusual when I’m stressed) and I was more hopeful than horrified. When I finally came on today I actually felt sad. Despite the postnatal depression, the exhaustion, the shouting, the lost of self, the wondering how I can cope with two, the terrible labours, the increasingly early arrivals of said babies, the close friendship between my kids I wouldn’t want to break, the increased risk of health issues as I approach 40. Despite all those things, I felt sad. Damn you, hormones.

And whoosh, she's all grown up!

And whoosh, she’s all grown up!

Another topic that sits at the back of my mind is the way I have changed since I got married, with regards to chores round the house. When I lived on my own, I was quite capable of changing light bulbs, in the house and in the car, putting up a shelf, grouting the bath or painting and decorating. I even took the carbouretor off my car once, took it home in a bag for a friend to fix, before putting it back on. Me!

Since I got married, though, the household chores have been divided on gender lines. Hubbie does DIY and car, I do cooking and cleaning. But today, with hubbie sick in bed, I decided to change half a dozen light bulbs that have been annoying me for ages. It was liberating. Definitely a topic to explore, when my head isn’t aching fit to burst.

The final random thought I had today was about music. Listening to “Tracks of our years” on Radio 2 (with Ian Rankin this week – what a lovely guy he is, so inspiring) I was trying to figure out what tracks I would choose. Ten pieces of pop music that really mean something to me. It was tough. I didn’t get very far. It made me realise that your taste in music is pretty much fixed by the time you hit your twenties. And I wondered if that was true for books and reading too.

So many ideas. And, low and behold, I seem to have captured them all, more or less. I need to write some of them up into proper discussions. If I do, I’ll have my blog posts sorted for a whole week! Anyway, it’s definitely time for bed. Sorry for the random ramble. Hopefully I’ll find some inspiration before tomorrow! 🙂

A Curious Novel

My latest read

My latest read

I finished reading The curious incident of the dog in the night-time by Mark Haddon last night and I really want to capture my thoughts on this interesting novel. I began reading it with no expectations. I’d heard of it, that’s all, when I saw it in the library. I had no notion of what it was about, or the author, or anything (including the fact that the title comes from a Sherlock Holmes quotation.) I merely selected it as part of my aim, this year, to read more and select a wider range of books.

I’m glad I did. It is a strange novel, about a fifteen-year-old boy with Aspergers Syndrome. I feel privileged to have read it. Yes, that’s my overwhelming impression. It wasn’t a rip-roaring read, a heart-warming romance, or an unputdownable thriller, but still it dragged me through to the end with little effort (which is a big ask of a book these days because I’m very quick to give up on something that doesn’t keep me awake!)

It is funny, quirky and endearing, but mostly it’s a clever book. Written in the first person, from inside the mind of an autistic teenager, it presents the world in a new way. It also gave me a new respect and understanding for autistic children and their parents. But not in a way that demanded sympathy or forced ideas on me.

Instead, through an evolving set of anecdotes and an unravelling mystery story, it revealed immense detail about the character, his family, his life and his interpretation of the world. Some of the apparently peripheral discussions, for example about God, or time, or the universe, were both enlightening and profound.

As a writer, the book is a master class in RUE (resist the urge to explain). The reader is left to put the pieces of the jigsaw together in a way that the main character often isn’t able to. And, despite it being written in the first person, an entire world is unveiled surrounding the main character. I can’t begin to explain how so much was revealed with so little being said (certainly not without giving away spoliers.)

I think the enjoyment came from this, though. The reason the novel kept me awake was because I was actively involved in constructing the text, fleshing out the story, connecting the dots. The same was true of The Raven Boys, now I come to think about it. I’m starting to think of it as the art of secrets. Not glaringly obvious secrets, of the kind I might clumsily put in a novel – like Josh’s big secret in Two-Hundred Steps Home, or why Claire broke up with Michael. But more a subtle revelation of the bigger picture, like panning out in a movie and seeing the full context.

It is a goal I intend to aim for in my own novels, although I know I’ve got years of practice ahead of me before I get there. I don’t think it’s something that can be taught, but something that has to be learned through hard effort. I suspect it will also require me to become more a planner than a pantser. My natural writing style is to reveal everything as soon as it occurs to me (I’d make a rotten poker player). Instead I need to play it more like chess. Think fifteen moves ahead, prepared to change my plans if necessary, but keeping the moves secret for the reader to discover at the best moment.

I feel like my daughter; only just learning to read but wanting to be able to read adult books. I’m only just learning to write and I want to be able to write like that. Now! Now! Now! *Pouts*. Time to read a few craft books, consume a stack of fantastic novels, dip into a load more blogs and, more importantly, practice, practice, practice. I can feel (another) rewrite of Class Act coming. Bring it on.

Domestic Madness

Homemade bread and crumble

Homemade bread and crumble

What is it about us humans that we do crazy things under the delusion that they’re a good idea? I woke up yesterday full of cold (again!) and this weekend should have been about survival. Instead I took my son shopping yesterday to buy my daughter’s birthday gift. Two hours of wandering around shops looking for bedding, with a three-year-old in tow, isn’t that clever.

I did at least take a lie-in this morning, after writing my blog post, and didn’t get up until 10am. But then, instead of sitting in a corner quietly reading my book while the kids played (as suggested by hubbie) I started on a baking spree.

I don’t do baking or cooking, unless I want cookies and there aren’t any in the house. I’m the only person I know who isn’t a foodie, doesn’t enjoy cooking and hates making everything from scratch. But, today I made macaroni cheese, fruit crumble and a loaf of bread, all from scratch. What the…?

Actually, there is some logic. Firstly, although the kids were playing nicely by themselves, I knew that would end abruptly if I sat on the sofa with a book. If Mummy’s busy they can mostly be relied on to do things they think I might not approve of. I watch them surreptitiously to make sure it’s nothing dangerous, and everyone is happy.

Ironing done. Check.

Ironing done. Check.

Secondly, it’s ‘that time of the month’ and comfort food was required. A nice broccoli and cheese pasta bake and some fruit crumble and custard was just what the doctor ordered (well, probably not, but you know what I mean!) I managed to make a hash of mixing powdered custard, ending up with a lumpy goo twice, but it tasted okay.

Thirdly, I bought a new loaf tin a few weeks ago and I haven’t really had a chance to try it out. I made banana bread in it, but think I got the recipe wrong because it didn’t rise (although it tasted okay!) I searched and searched online for an easy wholemeal bread recipe, for my basic cupboard of ingredients, and found one on Delia’s site. Delia is one of the UK cooking gurus, so I thought what can go wrong?

The recipe certainly is easy, requiring no kneading and only a few basic ingredients (flour, salt, sugar, yeast, hot water). It rose as she said it would, to fill the tin, and baked to perfection, sounding lovely and hollow. It looked lovely, smelt great. But it feels like a house brick. Tastes like one, too.

It’s just about edible toasted, but it’s sooooo heavy. It’s just as well I managed to buy a loaf at the supermarket this afternoon, because I can’t see the kids eating it in their packed lunches tomorrow (I’ve got to make them all week, because I forgot to order my daughter’s hot dinners. Idiot!)

Says it all!

Says it all!

So my search for the perfect easy bread recipe continues! My sister swears by a no-knead one that cooks for hours (or sits for hours, I can’t remember) but I’m not very patient. And, actually, I’m happy to do a bit of kneading if it means light and fluffy bread!

To top off my day of domesticity, I did ninety minutes of ironing while the kids played outside in the rain and then picked away at their tea. It’s a nice feeling to know it’s all done, but my head is fit to burst now (especially as they’re watching Barney for the tenth time in two days and that singing goes straight through me!).

Thankfully hubbie did bath time, although that seems to have finished him off (he also has a cold!) What a pair we are.

Roll on spring and feeling well again. And thank goodness it’s bedtime (for the kids and probably for me, too!) How was your weekend?

A Pantser Plans

Using Beat Sheets to plan my revisions

Using Beat Sheets to plan my revisions

The unthinkable happened today. I did planning. With beat sheets and notecards and everything. I’m a Pantser to the core: analysing a scene down to the tiny details paralyses me. Especially if I do it before I write, as I have done for the extra third of a novel I’m putting at the front of Class Act. But actually, do you know what, it wasn’t so bad.

I’m still working on some of the terminology, for example pinch points and black moments, although instinctively I have a shrewd idea what they are. I have done it before, actually, for all my seat-of-the-pants writing preference, and I’m always relieved at how much of the necessary detail I already have. Sometimes it just needs writing down to reassure myself I do know something (although a VERY VERY long way from everything) about this novel writing lark.

I had gathered much of the required information during my last craft session (the sporadic times when I read through a load of blogs and books to refresh or learn elements of writing craft.). My favourite resource is Jami Gold: as a Pantser and a romance writer, I feel she understands my pain. In fact her Beat Sheet for Romance Writers formed a large part of my morning’s work. She explains that if, like me, you can’t pkan in detail for fear of frightening off the Muse, you can use beats – points in the story – to make sure things are developing as they should.

I also used her posts based on a Michael Hauge workshop she attended to put more thought into my characters’ development, flaws and ultimate romance. The key ones I used were Are These Characters the Perfect Match and An Antidote to “Love at First Sight”. Both of these look at two elements of characterisation – a character’s Mask (the role they play, based on their longings, fears, wounds and beliefs: their emotional armour) and a character’s Essence (who they are inside, behind the masks, or who they have the potential to be). In a good romance, attraction will be based on Essence rather than Mask.

Planning Elements of a Scene

Planning Elements of a Scene

So, in Baby Blues, Helen was attracted to Daniel because his businessman forceful character Mask played to her career orientated Mask. But Marcio was her right love interest, because they both had the same essence underneath: a love of creativity and interpreting the world through their art, and a desire for home and family.

The concept really helps when a character moves from one relationship to another (as mine often do.) You don’t want the protagonist to look like an idiot because the previous relationship was flawed, and also you don’t want the previous partner to be a stereotype or a villain (although Daniel, in Baby Blues, is a bit of both!)

The other thing I’ve been trying to use is an Elements of a Good Scene checklist, which I also found on Jami’s Blog, the idea for which came from Janice Hardy’s blog. I feel exposed, using something like this, as I feel I don’t know the difference between “Plot point” and “action to advance the plot” or “how the stakes are raised” versus “reinforcement of the stakes”. I suspect that might be why I find it hard to write tense page turners! In my head, though, I’ve summarised it as “plot development”, “character development”, “conflict” and “backstory/theme/tone/foreshadowing”. As long as the scene has some of those that’s good. Well, it’s a start!

Of course, I was right – at the beginning when I said planning paralyses me. I need to start writing, before I spend so long on planning I’m fed up with the story or too scared to start. But it was a useful day’s work and hopefully, when I sit at my desk on Monday, I’ll be able to write some of the additional 45,000 words the story needs to get to a full length novel!

Anyway, hopefully now I have a plan this will be the last of the ‘I’ve forgotten how to do manuscript revision’ posts and I’ll get on to writing something more interesting for the non-writers who follow my blog! Thank you for your patience.

The Tricky Question of Backstory

Challenging my views of writing!

Challenging my views of writing!

Following on from yesterday’s request for advice and opinion, I need to ask about back-story. It’s the bane of my life, and Class Act is littered with it. Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes was, too, in the early drafts, and I solved the problem by starting the novel six months earlier.

That will work to some extent for Class Act, (lovely – another massive re-write! 🙂 ) but there are two incidents in the female protagonist Rebecca’s early life that impact on her current personality, and I don’t know how to integrate them. At present they’re written as flashbacks. Shudder. Unfortunately I actually like how they’re written so it’s easy to become attached to the scenes rather than put them in the bin where they should be.

The problem is I get defensive of my characters and want to explain why they have the flaws they do. But how much detail is necessary or desirable, and when should it be revealed? In The Radleys, by Matt Haig, the back story is cleverly integrated and is also overlaid with the character’s perception, so you start out with a half truth that colours your view of a character’s actions, and that view evolves and changes towards the climax of the novel. Masterful stuff. I’m pretty certain I’m not skilled enough just yet to pull it off without getting in a muddle.

The other problem is defining the novel’s inciting incident. Really, both bits of backstory are. Or the moment where the lead protagonists meet, which is where the novel currently opens. Baby Blues originally started with when the love interests meet, too, and after the rewrite that scene ended up a third of the way through the book. I like it, because you get to know the characters first, but then it blows wide open what the first turning point should be. We make decisions every day which, with hindsight, turn out to be inciting incidents. The job we take,   or the bus we catch that breaks down or gets blown up.

Incidentally, Jami Gold has a great post on the importance of getting these elements or ‘beats’ right in a novel and how defining them isn’t always straightforward! See Why Story Structure Matters. Unfortunately, even with her helpful Beat Sheets, getting the right elements into a story at the right time is (for me) the hardest part of writing.

So, right now my options are revelation through phone conversations with a friend (tricky), adding a prologue (generally advised against), or vague hints that might be missed or misunderstood. It was much easier with Claire in Two-Hundred Steps Home, as she didn’t really have a back story that mattered!

What are your views? Any great examples of how inciting incidents in childhood or early adulthood have been successfully integrated into a story? How much do you need/like to relive past experiences that have influenced a character? When do you need to know the details? Do you need to already care about a character, or do they help you care? Sometimes it feels like I’ve forgotten how to write a novel!