Even My Fictional Kids Don’t Behave

Seren Kitty books one and two

Seren Kitty books one and two

I finished my fourth Seren Kitty book last week (originally called Cat Girl Sophie). They’re only early drafts. Even though the first three are on Smashwords – that’s mostly for ease of being able to get copies to Beta Readers.

Four is a nice number and I’m ready to let them sit for a few weeks, or more, so I can get the proper distance for editing. Or can afford to hire an editor.

I’m still a bit vague about how to write a compelling children’s book, even though I can definitely tell the great from the meh ones I borrow from the library.

So this morning it was time to sit down and start afresh. I have one manuscript half-started, for an 8-12 yo novel, but I don’t feel like going back to it yet. I also have the outlines of two dozen picture book/early reader stories, but that’s not right either.

Recently I’ve been consuming some fantastic 8+ stories, by authors like Lucy Coats and Holly Web, and that’s where my mind is at.

Cue brainstorm time.

Books three and four

Books three and four

Seren Kitty was found in a brainstorm, and I find it’s a great way to discover characters. (I don’t invent them, as such, more flick through ideas and concepts until someone waves at me).

My stories always start with characters and much of writing is getting to know and understand that character. I’m not a planner, even if I’ve got better at sketching plot outlines before I get too stuck in.

I read once that, if your characters do something unexpected, it’s because you didn’t flesh out their backstory and personality fully. Oh dear. My characters are always misbehaving.

I don’t worry. Writing for me is more like online dating. You know quite a lot about the person you’re about to meet – you’ve read their profile and exchanged messages – but it’s only by spending time with them that you truly understand them. I met my online-dating husband nearly eleven years ago and I’m still discovering new things.

But, as with online dating, it starts with a spark. It starts with wanting to know more about a person. It starts with someone standing out from the crowd.

My latest character has a spark. More a roaring inferno, really, because she’s already causing trouble.

Most of the books I’ve read in recent months, aimed at the 7-10 market, are written in the third person, with varying degrees of internal monologue.

But that’s not good enough for Will (Willow), she wants to tell her own story. When she started chatting in my head, as I walked the dog, she wasn’t talking to another character, she was talking to me.

Now I don’t know what to do. I don’t like writing (or reading) first-person novels. Aside from Dragon Wraiths (written in the first-person present tense, by another bolshy character) I haven’t done it before. And Leah, in Dragon Wraiths, is a stroppy teen. Will is meant to be an adventurous nine-ish year old.

I like my own children being independent, strong-minded, feisty. Just not when I’m raising them. Similarly, I like characters that are alive in my mind, but not when they take over. Sigh. Time to go back to the drawing board.

How Critcal Reviews Are Making Me a Better Writer

Knitted Christmas Baubles

Knitted Christmas Baubles

When I released Class Act back in the summer I think I knew it was rushed. As a self-published author, the only way I see that you can make success (rather than it coming through luck or good fortune) is by writing more books. So I took an old manuscript, gave it a few months’ polish, paid for a light edit, and released it, happy that my Beta Reader loved it.

It bombed.

Okay, one or two people have enjoyed it, but the critics have been harsh and eloquent. And fair. Much as I would have preferred not to have the debate about my book in public, through Goodreads (and thank you to the critics for not writing their reviews on Amazon), it has been like having extra Beta Readers who don’t know me and are therefore not afraid to tell it as they see it.

Some of the criticisms I can answer – they’re a matter of personal taste – but others are completely valid. For example there is a general view that Rebecca is a cow, or at least unlikeable. I have been trying to work out why that is the case, when Helen (Baby Blues) garners sympathy. While walking the dog last night the answer came to me: I didn’t live with Rebecca long enough for her to become fully herself rather than a version of me.

Finished Rainbow Fairy

Finished Rainbow Fairy

All my characters start out from an element of my life and my experience. With Helen it was having postnatal depression, with Claire (Two-Hundred Steps Home) it was disillusionment with the corporate world and finding myself through travelling. Rebecca started out from a few instances in my childhood when I felt belittled by people who acted like they had privilege (someone saying to me at school ‘you’re my grandmother’s secretary’s daughter’ as if that made me scum).

The difference is I lived with Claire and Helen for a long time. Baby Blues took two or three years from start to finish, Claire racked up 280,000 words. They became people in their own right. Rebecca, not so much. I wasn’t even happy with the name Rebecca, changing it several times before deciding it was as good as any. Alex I loved, Alex was real, but Rebecca remained a character.

So I have learned not to rush Finding Lucy. It isn’t just the characters who need to find her – I do too. I think that’s why I find the male protagonists easier to relate to (and therefore probably they’re more likeable to the readers) – they might start out with a trait or two from people I know, but they quickly become three-dimensional in my mind. Despite it being six years since I started drafting Finding Lucy, I still don’t have her clear as a real person in my head.

The other, more specific, piece of feedback I’m following is the review that complained about Class Act opening with Rebecca’s father dying.

“I found that when our heroine, Rebecca, is introduced, the scene is not the best way to warm up to a character. Yes, her father had just died, so she is entitled to be upset. But perhaps this is not the best way to introduce a main character, one who is completely vulnerable and who is constantly sobbing in the scene, it unfortunately had me rolling my eyes and wanting to skip ahead. Not a great start for the character. Sorry. “

Don’t apologise! This is great feedback. Finding Lucy also opens with a death. It’s where the story starts. But I see now that it’s hard to feel sympathy for a character you don’t know. So I’ve had a shuffle and now it comes a few chapters in. I’m also working hard on making Lucy more likeable. It’s hard. I’ve decided to think about Pixie Lott. Watching her on Strictly Come Dancing this year I realised she is one of the few people I can look at and say they’re genuinely adorable.

Christmas Cookies for teachers

Christmas Cookies for teachers

The problem with writing for me is balancing the character’s flaws which make for conflict with the traits that make people love them. It’s not hard to see why – I’ve never managed it with myself. I’ll always feel like a bad mother, a bad person, no matter the evidence to the contrary. To quote Pretty Woman, “The bad stuff is easier to believe”.

I haven’t managed much writing this month – Farmville, knitting and Christmas have derailed me completely. But I have invited the characters from Finding Lucy to live in my head. Edan and Andrew are there, making themselves at home and squabbling over the remote. Lucy is still dithering at the door. “Are you sure you want me?” she says. Yes, come in! Let me get to know you. This novel could be my best yet, if only I take the time for it to mature.

In the meantime, have a great Christmas/Hanukah/Festive Season and here’s to a creative 2015.

How to Get Out of Writer’s Block

Designing plot: like trying to assemble a marble run

Designing plot: like trying to assemble a marble run

For me the most effective way through writer’s block is to become like my three-year-old and son ask questions. “Mummy, why?” is something he repeats ten times a minutes and, as infuriating as it is, it’s how he learns about the world around him. Most of my answers start with “I don’t know, maybe because…”, or, “Let’s google it”.

Working out what’s going on in a new novel is no different. The more questions you ask, the better the story gets. The harder you search for answers the further you get away from clichés and predictable plot lines. But when asking what happens next and why comes up with nothing, you can start questioning the characters instead. What are their motivations? What are they yearning for, even if they don’t know themselves? What are their greatest fears? What might happen to chuck them out their comfort zone.

Like many younger siblings, my protagonist George is looking for his own identity. He knows he isn’t smart like his sister or sporty and musical like his brother. He thinks his mum doesn’t love him, that he’s always useless. Only his dad understood him, and he vanished a year ago. The thing he likes to do most is kill aliens in his computer games. But he also likes to cook.

As the story progresses, George is discovering he’s fitter and smarter than he thinks he is, and his cooking ability is earning him respect. But, now that I’m at a dead end in the plot, I’ve been questioning him to see if he can help me work out what happens next. And he’s reminded me he loves computer games, which means he is observant and tactical. If the games he plays are like the Tomb Raider games I loved as a teenager, he has to work out puzzles and keep trying until something works. He must be tenacious and brave and good at lateral thinking.

So far his co-protagonist Merula has been leading them both and making the decisions. They are in her world and she has the answers. But he’s been challenging her thinking, questioning things she’s always believed in, and now they’re at an impasse. I think it’s time for George to come into his own and develop a clever strategy to take the action forward, using his game-playing skills.

Now if only I knew what games ten-year-old boys are playing these days I would feel on more solid ground. Any ideas?

Random Reasearch and Character Naming

Photo inspiration

Photo inspiration

I started work on my Middle Grade novel this morning. Well, I wrote 300 words this time last year, but never got further with it than that. I only added 2,000 words today, but as I’m a Pantser, the beginning of a story is always slow. Once it gains momentum, and I have a clue what the story is about, it should hopefully pick up speed. The start of a new novel is always time consuming as well because there is an element of necessary research. I try not to jar the flow too much when I’m writing, as it’s easy to lose hours to internet research, but I do like to check facts as I go. I always have the iPad next to me for quick searches like “When do skylarks nest?” and “When are potatoes harvested?” (Both from this morning.)

I also like to have some photographs of my story setting to help me make it more three-dimensional. The 300 words I wrote last year were all dialogue, with no setting at all. If I don’t have something to prompt me, I do tend to only write dialogue and feelings. This story is set on a traditional small farm, starting in the kitchen, so I looked for a few images to help me. Once upon a time I would have searched until I found the perfect property, so I could steal all the photos, layout, floor maps, street view images, the works. But I’ve lost valuable hours and chunks of sanity to that task in the past, so now I look for general images and piece them all together into one page that I can have beside me when I’m working.

Character names made easy

Character names made easy

As this book will be fantasy, I wanted to come up with an easy way to generate names: I really struggle with character names and often find the same ones cropping up time and again (I have two Daniels as main roles in different manuscripts, for example, even though – or possibly because – I don’t know anyone called Daniel.)

I wanted quirky names for my ‘other world’ people, but ones still more or less easy to pronounce. I find, reading fantasy, that I get irritated if the names are too complicated.

Anyway I came up with the idea of using latin bird names, using a little pocket book that used to belong to my dad (that I think I’ve rescued from hubbie’s charity shop pile more than once!)

So far I have my female protagonist Merula, from Turdus Merula – Blackbird. Naevia, her friend, from Locustella Naevia – Grasshopper Warbler. Otus, from Asio Otus – Long-eared owl, and Alba, from Tyto Alba – Barn Owl. How easy is that? 🙂

I’m quite nervous starting something completely new, and in a new genre (middle grade fiction). It’s been two years since I wrote Dragon Wraiths, and I had such a strong sense of the story when I started it. This time I’m driven more by a desire to try my hand at the genre and hopefully write something my children might like to read before they’re twenty! It’s daunting and exciting at the same time. I know so much more than I did two years ago, and I write more self-consciously, having done a LOT of editing in that time. I don’t know if I can lose myself in a story and just write. Time will tell, I guess! In the meantime, I’m just keeping my fingers crossed and tapping out the words.

Eking Out The Words

Sometimes you have to get down to graft

Sometimes you have to get down to graft

I finally got back to work on Class Act this week but, my goodness, it’s like pulling teeth. I’m unfortunately at a juncture in the novel where the protagonist is tackling something from her past as her relationship with the male lead hots up.

I didn’t write these scenes the first time through – not deliberately, it just didn’t come out in the first draft. I don’t do sex and I don’t do conflict, and these scenes have both. Only, writing them in my current frame of mind, I feel like I’m trying to make a porcelain tea set using a hammer and chisel.

It’s tempting to delete everything I’ve painfully written this morning – all three hundred measly words – but sometimes you just need something on the page to edit, and move on.

Occasionally you look back and it isn’t as awful as you remember. Mostly, you look back and get out a big fat red pen and fix it. All I know is I’ll never have a manuscript to get to Beta Readers if I don’t push on through. As lovely as it is that I sold 30 copies of Baby Blues and got a new five star review (and it is lovely!) it’s only going to work if I keep writing.

Sometimes the 300 words, eked out one cup of tea at a time, are as important and precious as the three thousand rattled off in good order. They’re all steps up the mountain.

Essential Empathy

Sherlock Series 1 Finale

Sherlock Series 1 Finale

Sat with hubbie watching Sherlock this evening, for only the second time (the finale to series 1 it seems and yes, I know; we’re always behind the times!), and I’m not enjoying it as much as the first episode I watched (which I think was series 3).

In this episode, Sherlock is tracking down someone who has set him puzzles to solve in a set time or he will blow up random strangers strapped to explosives. (Sorry, loglines have never been my forte!)

Sherlock has no empathy for the lives of the strangers, barely even registering them as people. It is difficult to watch. He explains to Watson that sympathising with the suffering of the victims wouldn’t help him solve the cases. I find his lack of emotion disturbing and, for me, it makes his character hard to relate to. The clever language and problem solving still make it compelling viewing, but empathy is essential to me. It’s interesting that, under ‘strengths’ in my character crib sheets, my female protagonists generally list empathy first.

Sherlock reminds me of Psych, another problem-solving drama, where the lead has exceptional powers of observation (which he explains away as being due to psychic powers). Psych, however, is much more lighthearted and the lead character, for all his occasional idiocy, has a big heart.

My latest read

My latest read

Maybe I am noticing it more because I have started reading The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. The story is written from the perspective of a fifteen year old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome. It offers a unique insight into the mind of someone who understands “very little about human beings.”

Thinking about the characters in books and films that I love the most, they are all people with huge hearts (often despite hard exteriors): Gibbs in NCIS, for example, or Daniel in SG-1. People who understand people and not just so they can manipulate them.

Maybe Sherlock has a journey to go on. Perhaps I liked the series 3 episode better because he showed some heart. Certainly the hardest thing in fiction is portraying growth in a character and still being able to make them sympathetic characters before they start on their journey. Many a chick lit book has started with a protagonist I wanted to slap.

It’s a great excuse to keep watching Sherlock: to see if he grows, to see if he finds some empathy. To learn to write better fiction. And of course because you can’t beat clever TV.

Research and The Raven Boys

What Alex's London flat might look like

What Alex’s London flat might look like

I miss Claire. There, I’ve said it. I miss writing an installment of her journey each day, with a reasonable idea of where she was in the world, at least, and where her story was going. I miss guaranteed word count.

I’m in redrafting hell at present, trying to rescue two characters I love from a badly plotted and planned novel awash with backstory. The problem with loading a first draft with backstory is that changing one thing has a rippling effect across the entire manuscript, especially if you’re trying to rewrite two lines of throwaway history into a whole chapter or even two.

My lead man Alex has a friend called Philip who is essential to the story. Starting In Media Res I didn’t have to worry too much about their relationship before; where they first met, how they met, considering they’re so different. Now, though, we first see them catching up down the pub, setting up the rest of the story’s action, and I have to understand all these things. How do people from different backgrounds meet? How do their different careers and incomes affect their friendship? What’s the age difference? I managed 700 words of stilted dialogue today and gave up in disgust.

I’m also trying not to be overly influenced by the book I’m reading – The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater – as her novel contains a character that could be, or at least have known, Alex as a public school boy. Maggie Stiefvater’s character is so convincing I’m finding parts of him creeping into my prose: except Raven Boys is set in America, whereas Alex would have gone to an English boarding school (which I know very little about, another fact that wasn’t especially important before.)

As each of these random strands of research crop up, I keep losing the flow of writing because I need to research the role of a stage hand or investigate pubs in North London or apartments in Chelsea. I might even have to watch an episode of Made in Chelsea – *shudder* – to try and understand Alex’s present girlfriend Paige more, as again she has moved from a paragraph of explanation to a speaking part.

I swear this is the last time I rescue an old manuscript by moving the timeline back a few months. Next time it starts where it starts and that’s that!