Do You Have to Love Your Characters?

The novel I’m writing currently is told from the point of view of a deceitful, self-absorbed, manipulative woman. She is paranoid and delusional and there are very few people she likes. These traits make her a fascinating character, but they also make her difficult to love. I understand her, well, mostly, and I am sympathetic towards her. She’s been through a lot and I know she can’t help her madness. But, oh, she exhausts me.

When I wrote my first novels I sometimes had writing sessions that ran up to 10,000 words in one sitting. Not often, but on occasion. When the plot is engaging and the characters are sympathetic, it’s not too hard to get so caught up in the story that you don’t want to let go.

Not this time.

With this novel I struggle to get to my standard 1000 words per day. There have been many days when it’s taken me hours to write half that number. When you are inside the mind of such a difficult character, it is very hard to sustain focus without going a little potty yourself.

Usually when I sit down to write a blog, I do some research. I make notes on my topic and I have a look at what other people have had to say about the topic. Sometimes I find quote or anecdotes to support whatever my theme may be.

You want to know how many articles pop up when you google, “Writers who hate their characters”?




Oh, there’s plenty of stuff about how to create a credible villain and why nasty bastards are so much fun in fiction, but that’s not really what I’m looking for. It’s a pity Dostoevsky isn’t around because I bet he didn’t love Raskolnikov, who was as unpleasant a creature as has ever appeared in print (Crime and Punishment, 1866). Then again, Raskolnikov isn’t a blacker than black villain. He can love, feel compassion, and can even be heroic. Still, I bet Dostoevsky had writing days when he thought Raskolnikov was a pill.

My own little angel is also capable of goodness. There are people she loves. She has long periods of lucidity in which she is creative and kind and intellectually curious. That she is fractured when we meet her is not her fault. By the time the novel begins she has begun to lose her grip on reality. Much of her unpleasant behaviour is a result of her illness and, as such, deserving of our sympathy.  I remind myself of these things when she’s driving me nuts.

Confession time: You have heard of method actors. People like Daniel Day Lewis who notoriously become Abraham Lincoln or Nathaniel Poe. One is reminded of the advice Laurence Olivier allegedly gave Dustin Hoffman, “My boy, won’t don’t you just act?” Anyway, I’m not going to be living in the woods and building canoes any time soon, but I do tend to become deeply immersed in my characters when I write them. Method writing. It’s a thing.

As a result of such close identification with my unfortunate character, I frequently emerge from a writing session with a headache. This does nothing to endear her to me. But, and here’s the thing, I’m still on the first draft. On home stretch, certainly, but in terms of writing the novel, these are very early days indeed. Once I start rewriting, always my favourite part of the process, I can write more objectively. That is when I’ll be able to approach the character from the outside and work on her shades and shadows and lights. The first draft may take a method actor’s approach, but the rewrite is where the magic really begins.

Already I can see the nuances starting to emerge. I have lengthy notes for scenes that need to be expanded, for ways of making her less repellent. Oh, she’ll still be a mostly nasty piece of work, but I want the reader to be able to identify with her, to appreciate the reasons for her sometimes ghastly behaviour.

Writing a nasty character can be fun. You can indulge — I mean, let them indulge — in all sorts of naughtiness.  It’s entertaining if you have a hero to pit them against. But when you don’t like your own main character it’s a challenge. It means tapping into the seedier side of yourself. If you truly immerse yourself in your writing, it can really wreck your head.

Of course, some of the best characters in fiction range from annoying to downright loathsome.

For instance, who’d want to hang out with Hercules Poirot? He’s vain, arrogant, prissy, and a know-it-all. If you met him in real life you’d hold a hanky to your face to avoid breathing in all that perfume. Once he started waffling about his ‘little grey cells, mon ami,’ you’d run for your life.

Then again, Poirot’s a pussycat compared with the likes of Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye, 1951), or Humbert Humbert (Lolita, 1955), Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights, 1847), the Ewell clan (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960), and so many more. Other than the fairly oddity Poirot, the others are pretty recognisable. We might not know for sure that our next door neighbour is a Humbert Humbert, but we wouldn’t have any difficulty believing it if he were arrested for, well, anything at all really.

Literature is full of disreputable characters and they are the ones who stay with you. The wicked stepmother always has more traction than a dopey Snow White. But writing them… Oy-ai-ai.

Once I start the rewrite I’ll calm down and remember that it’s not necessary for me to like this or any other character. All that matters is that she’s credible, and she is. I’ve had a few people read the opening chapters of the novel to see if my heroine (ha!) is too over the top. The reactions surprised me. The always insightful Jane didn’t care for her and saw a darkness in the character that even I hadn’t suspected.  Friends from the writers’ group saw her as well-rounded and sad. Another friend thought she was flawed but strong, even heroic. This is interesting feedback and I’ll keep it in mind when I begin the rewrite, but ultimately it doesn’t matter.

At least no one thinks she’s dull.

matthew macfadyen

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Holmes in Time for Halloween… Uh, Christmas

OK, the Halloween ship may have sailed, but just in time for  Christmas or Hanukkah comes Eliminate the Impossible: The New MX Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories Vol VII & VIII.

In The Sussex Vampire, Holmes tells Watson: “This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.” In each of the stories presented in this massive two-volume collection, Holmes approaches the varied problems with one of his favorite maxims firmly in place: .” . . . when you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth . . . .” But what, exactly, is the truth?

The true Sherlockians among you will have deduced that this huge collection is the 7th (and 8th) volume in the MX series of anthologies — Nothing gets past Holmes fans. As usual, the contributors are among the best tellers of Holmesian tales around. This volume features contributions by Mark Mower, Jan Edwards, Daniel D. Victor, James Lovegrove, Gayle Lange Puhl, Thomas Fortenberry, Mike Hogan, Thomas A. Turley, Adrian Middleton, James Moffett, Hugh Ashton, S. Subramanian, John Hall, Jayantika Ganguly, S.F. Bennett, Steven Philip Jones, Jim French, John Linwood Grant, Mike Chinn, Robert V. Stapleton, Charles Veley and Anna Elliott, and Shane Simmons, plus yours truly, with a poem by Jacquelynn Bost Morris, and forewords by David Marcum, Lee Child, Rand Lee, Michael Cox, and Melissa Farnham.

In 2015, The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories burst upon the scene, featuring adventures set within the correct time period, and written by many of today’s leading Sherlockian authors from around the world. Those first three volumes were overwhelmingly received, and there were soon calls for additional collections. Since then, their popularity has only continued to grow, with six volumes already released, and now two more, Eliminate the Impossible, featuring tales of Holmes’s encounters with seemingly impossible events – ghosts and hauntings, curses and mythical beasts, and more.

2017 is the 130th anniversary of the publication of A Study in Scarlet, the first recorded adventure of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson. What an amazing journey it’s been! In addition to the pitifully few tales originally presented in The Canon, a mere 60, published between 1887 and 1927, there have been literally thousands of additional Holmes adventures in the form of books, short stories, radio and television episodes, movies, manuscripts, comics, and fan fiction. And yet, for those who are true friends and admirers of the Master Detective of Baker Street, where it is always 1895 (or a few decades on either side of that!) these stories are not enough. Give us more!

The forty-eight stories in these two companion volumes represent some of the finest new Holmesian storytelling to be found, and honor the man described by Watson as “the best and wisest . . . whom I have ever known.”

All royalties from this collection are being donated by the writers for the benefit of the preservation of Undershaw, one of the former homes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Copies are available from all the usual outlets. I deduce I’ll see you in the bookshop!

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When Bad Things Happen to Good Stories

Bad ThingsI know you’ve been there. You make a great start with a story and you’re sure that this, this is the one that will rock the literary world’s socks off. You can see the awards, the prize money, the accolades. You get off to a flying start. The writing has never been so easy or so good. Then a few thousand words later… nothing.

What’s happened? Where did all the snap, crackle, and pop go?

Here are some of the story-sappers I have encountered over the years. I wonder how many of them are familiar to you.

Blah Beginnings

You have a great premise. You can’t wait to get to work and you start off with a wild burst of energy and enthusiasm. Then you run out of story and you can’t figure out why.

Very often, by the time you realise the story is failing it’s too late to fix it. The best thing to do is to prevent it happening in the first place. That means understanding why some stories run out of fizz.

In my case, what usually happens is that I have a great premise and my enthusiasm lies and tells me this is enough. I get off to a great start — enthusiasm and premise are a potent mix — but the story fails because I don’t have anything more than a premise. In other words, I have a situation but nothing more. A situation in and of itself lacks drama and without drama there’s no story.

For instance, imagine you have an idea for a tale about the last man on earth. You could do a lot with that… couldn’t you? Well, maybe. The thing is, you need more than just ‘the last man on earth.’ Who is he? What happened to everyone else? How did he survive? How will he cope? You answers to all these questions, preferably before your begin. You need background. You need character. You need a place for the story to go.

So instead of writing about a generic ‘last man’, you need a specific man. Let’s call him Joe. He’s a butcher, 28 years old, single, and a fan of Manchester United. He’s been dating Sheila for two years, but mostly it’s for convenience rather than any deep bond. She’s routinely unfaithful to him and he can’t work up enough energy to care. His initial reaction when he discovers the end of the world has happened is a sort of relief, coupled with disappointment that he’ll never see United play again. He escaped the apocalypse because he was hiding in the fridge. He’s very lazy, but if he wants to survive he’s going to have to get up and actually do something.

This isn’t much of a character sketch, but it’s heaps better than the ‘man’ we started out with. ‘Joe’ doesn’t have much to offer in terms of a fictional character, but he’s certainly more credible than the brilliant astro-physicist who will rebuild the world from scratch and find — miraculously! — some perky blonde to share the new world with him.

We also need to give Joe something to struggle against, or try to achieve. Maybe the electricity is out and he wants to get it restarted so he can re-watch some old football matches. (He’s lazy so his goals, at least initially, are pretty small.) Or maybe he needs to get the internet to work so he can find out if there really is no one else on the planet. Just give him something to do so he’s not just a blob sitting around waiting for it all to end. And just as you give him something to do, give him some complications so achieving his goals is tough. Maybe he knows nothing about electricity and has to learn about it in the library. Worse, what if he’s semi-illiterate and has to begin by teaching himself to read? Now we don’t simply have a premise, we have the beginnings of a story.

Having Joe all alone for the entire tale is going to get dull. You need to find a way of showing him interacting with other people. You could use flashbacks to show his life before the apocalypse, or you could bring in another character (which undermines the initial premise), or maybe have him create an imaginary friend to talk with. In Cast Away (2000), Tom Hanks forms a ‘relationship’ with Wilson, the volleyball.   Robinson Crusoe (1719) finds Friday.

We now have some idea about how this story will proceed. Sure, there are things we don’t know, but we have the ingredients to make an interesting tale. With all these ideas in mind, you have a good chance of writing this story and actually finishing it.

Muddy Middles

I don’t think I’ve ever written a novel that didn’t send me into paroxysms of anxiety somewhere in the mid-section. I start second-guessing myself. I lose faith in the project and feel everything I’ve done so far is worthless. Sound familiar?

Here are some things that may help you through the muddy middle:

Don’t lose faith. Not in yourself and not in your project. Keep going no matter what. Yes, it may be rubbish. There’s a good chance you’ll have to write it all over again,  possibly completely differently. But here’s a secret: novel-writing isn’t a straight line. It meanders as much as the airport bus to Kells. Sometimes you have to blather until you get to your destination. It’s only then that you’ll be able to look back and see the path you should have taken. Now you can redraw your map and get rid of the false trails.

Add a character. This isn’t something I like as a rule, adding a character when I’m roughly half-way through the novel. Ideally, you want everyone onstage, so to speak, by the time you’re about a third or at least less than half-way through the book. Sometimes, though, you really have to do it. If the story is giving you fits, adding a newcomer, even belatedly, can perk it right up. If this happens, there’s no reason you can’t fix this in rewrites by introducing him in the earlier chapters, or at least giving some hints that he will be making an appearance.

If you’re stuck, trying different things can help get you out of the mire. Remember, this is just an early draft. You can make adjustments to make the newbies fit in more smoothly when you come to your rewrites.

Skip a bit. Skip a lot. Skip to the end and work backwards. Skip the boring bits. Imagine you’re the reader — in a way you are. You’re the first reader of whatever you’re writing. If you’re bored then imagine how the second and seventy-second readers will fill.

I try to leave out the parts that people skip.

~ Elmore Leonard

Put your hero up a tree… and set fire to it. This is a metaphorical way of telling you to up the ante, and place your characters in peril. The peril should match the type of story you’re telling. If it’s a realistic tale set in a modern big city, the ‘tree’ can be a job in peril, or a pending divorce. If it’s a romance novel, perhaps the happy couple start out not liking each other. Or he has a mad wife. Or she’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The point is, if you’re writing a sweet story about a teen who wants to go to the prom, or an aspiring actor who has just failed his audition, you probably want to let the conflict match their desires. Suddenly bringing in some James Bond-esque espionage is going to make for a very messy story.

Setting fire to the tree means just when things seem as bad as they can get, you make them even worse. For instance, in The Princess Bride, the heroine Buttercup is kidnapped by three (apparently) ruthless men. That’s the tree. Then she tries to escape by jumping out of their ship… into a sea of shrieking eels. Eek!

All great stories involve characters who find themselves in difficulties — and then even greater difficulties. Keep torturing them right to the end, then, if you’re feeling benevolent, you can reward them with the guy, the job, the play, the money… Or not.

Endless Endings

Even Tolkien couldn’t escape this crap. Sorry, trap. Just think of all those endings of The Lord of the Rings. There’s Aragorn’s last chapter, and Frodo’s last chapter, and the Shire’s last chapter, and Sam’s last chapter… Well, you get the idea.

You really need to try to end your story in a way that will satisfy the reader. It’s helpful to know right at the start where you think the characters will end up. That doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind, of course, but at least it gives you a certain trajectory so you have an idea where you should land.

Other Badness…

There are a few other things that can destroy your fabulous fiction but can, if you’re clever, be corrected or prevented.

Structure isn’t Just for Big-Breasted Women

Your story needs a structure. To Kill a Mockingbird is not just about Scout Finch growing up and learning from her father Atticus how to be a decent human being. It’s about Boo Radley and Tom Robinson and the other characters in Maycomb Alabama. All these subplots create an edifice that support Scout’s world and, by extension, the novel. They add depth and breadth to the story, and give it dimension.

If your story seems to have all the structure and support of an amoeba, maybe you need to look at the subplots. Of course, strong openings, compelling middles, and resonant endings help, too.

Surprises aren’t Just for Children

Ideally, your story should surprise you, the writer, as much as the reader. If you have written out a plot and follow it in a logical sequence from beginning to end, you run the risk of writing a flat story. Let yourself go off-piste once in a while. Have conversations with your characters and ask them to tell you their secrets. Think about the last time you were surprised by something or someone. See if you can incorporate it into your story. Maybe  your hero is a bit of a creep. Or your villain was once homeless. Or the prissy schoolteacher just got arrested for doing nasty things to students. Give your characters secrets — and then expose them.


When all else fails…

Take risks. Break the rules. Run amok. Kill a character. Be very, very bad. It’s a story, not nuclear fission. Ah, go on. I promise not to tell.

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Writing in the Eye of the Storm — or Hurricane

One of the things great actors have in common is an ability to focus.  They are able to hold their character even when they have people adjusting their makeup or chatting about other things. While he was filming Death in Venice, Dirk Bogarde dined with director Visconti every day and had exactly the same fussy meal. The director understood. He wasn’t dining with the actor but with the character von Aschenbach. Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson reported having lunch with Viggo Mortensen at the commissary one afternoon and calling him Aragorn, his character’s name, the whole time. Mortensen was so in character he didn’t notice.

Focus has been on my mind because this week Ireland was clobbered by Tropical Storm Ophelia. Not content with drowning herself, I suppose she thought she’d take some others with her. In hindsight, we got off fairly lightly, at least in comparison with places like Puerto Rico. Yes, there was a lot of damage, especially to the south and the west of the country, but in my little town we experienced nothing worse than you’d get at a Fianna Fail conference: power failures and a lot of wind.

For days we’d been warned of the approach of the Hurricane, later downgraded to a Tropical Storm, and I found myself repeatedly distracted. Not only did we get the doom-laden warnings from the Met office, but there were those wags on twitter who couldn’t be ignored. Like the lad who tweeted, “This is my first hurricane so I’m a bit of a novice. When do we start the looting?” Or the remark overheard at Dublin airport when a group of Americans arrived, “We’re expecting a hurricane, lads. Did you bring your guns?” Then there were the irksome tweets from the US (and more than a few UK sites) showing the approach of the storm with Ireland getting the brunt of the the damage. The caption? “UK faces onslaught by Hurricane Ophelia.”

In case you’re wondering, the small island to the west of the UK is Ireland. We are not England or the UK (other than the bit up north). Please try to remember this. Failure to do so could find you wearing a pint or ten of Guinness.

Ireland expecting Ophelia’s worst, as depicted in the purple bit. Ireland is NOT the UK.

But there I am getting distracted again. See how easy it is?

So in the middle of the madness, there’s me trying to write. With the trees in the garden swaying like possessed hula dancers and the gale howling down the road taking the neighbours’ bins with it, trying to keep my eyes on the task at hand was no easy feat.

Focus means a few different things in writing. It can mean mindfulness or keeping your theme on point. For the purpose of today’s blog, though, when I’m talking about avoiding distractions, I’m referring to concentration. It’s an essential tool for the writer. If you’re a flibbertigibbet you may find it difficult to knuckle down even without a downgraded hurricane demanding your attention. You may lose interest half-way through the project. You may end up with a stack of unfinished stories. All of these come down to lack of focus.

So how do you stay focused?

Select one project and finish it before you go on to the next one. This can be hard to do but you need to make it a habit. It will eventually get easier.

Set goals. Use daily goals to make sure you get work done, and long term goals to ensure you complete your projects.

Set a schedule and keep to it. Hurricanes notwithstanding, if you’re a writer, write.

As much as possible, avoid distractions. That means turning off the TV or radio, stop surfing the net. Save them as a reward for when the job is done. You might also want to put the cat in the other room or, horrors, outdoors, and get someone to mind any little people. (Children, you twit. Not leprechauns. Jeesh!)

When you’re on a roll, keep going, even if you’ve already met your quota. Golden days of writing don’t happen often, so make the most of them when they come along.

At the end of each writing session leave yourself some breadcrumbs for your next writing session.  By that I mean leave a few notes about what you want to accomplish next time you sit down with your project. This is particularly important if you are unable to return to the project for a few days. If you have to take a break for a short while, you’ll be glad you can pick the story back up without losing too much time trying to remember where you were and where you were going.

OK, there’s that job done at last. Play time!

I have a writer’s concentration: Intense but flickering.

~ Donald McCaig

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Truth and Fiction

anigif_enhanced-22012-1449348168-2.gifThere’s a woman who attends my local writers’ group from time to time. Let’s call her Alice. For several years she’s been trying to write her memoirs. Now and then she’ll finish a chapter and she’ll bring it to us, looking for feedback.

When Alice first started showing up, I offered her suggestions. “Why don’t you reverse the order of events so you have a stronger climax?” Or “If you eliminated Ted from that scene it would be tighter,” and so forth.

Her answer was always the same, “But this is the way it happened.”

I don’t write memoirs. If I ever get around to writing my life story it will probably be categorized as science fiction. But it seems to me if you want to write anything, whether it’s based on real events or not, you must make the narrative interesting to the reader.

Writing is two-way communication. Without a reader it’s no more than one hand clapping. The writer has to keep the reader in mind. It’s all right to be self-indulgent during the early stages of writing; in fact, you should just get it out of your system, but at some point you’re going to have to make that prose palatable for other people. You can be as ‘la-la-la, I’m the writer and it’s my story’ as you want, but you’ll discover readers don’t care for self-indulgent writing. If you want people to actually read what you’ve written, you need to learn the lesson that every two year old gets eventually: It’s not all about you.

As you’re telling your tale, you need to think about the impact it’s having on the reader.

Image result for joe friday

Joe Friday

While I applaud Alice’s determination to stick to the facts as she relates her story, as a fiction writer I feel she needs to imbue her scenes with some colour in order to bring them to life. The Joe Friday approach is too black and white.

For instance, if you are writing about an argument you had with your sister, then you need all the usual ingredients of a scene — the build up, the climax, and the aftermath — even if the argument really happened.

Who cares if the argument happened on Monday or Wednesday? Was your brother Michael home from university, or was it before he moved out? Or perhaps he wasn’t there at all… Does any of that really matter? It seems to me that getting bogged down in the details is one of the reasons Alice has spent a couple of decades writing this tale and is no closer to the end. What counts more than the picayune details is the emotional truth. Two characters  have an argument. What was the build up? What factors led to this argument? How did the argument make them feel? What impact did it have on the relationship afterwards?

By the way, if you and your sister argue all the time, you really don’t want to describe every single event. Give us one example and move on, otherwise you’re going to come across as having a grudge, being a lousy writer, and, oh yes, being a lousy writer. The rest of the quarrels can be summed up with a, “That led to the usual argument, tears, and recriminations…”

Now, you can argue — if you’re constantly getting into it with your sister, I assume you are good at it — that a fact is the truth and vice verse, but that’s not the case.

A fact is something indisputable. The sun rises in the east. London is the capital of England. Snow is cold.

Truth is a much trickier concept. It is subjective. You can say, “John Lennon was a good man,” and many people will agree with you. However, a lot of other people will dispute it. Still more will challenge what you mean by ‘good’. Truth is subjective. (This is a subject that has been extensively covered by philosophers. If you are interested in learning more, you might enjoy this article on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

For the purpose of writing, truth can be described as the essence of the story. Again, it’s subjective, so you’ll find different writers have their own interpretation of what it means. I think we can agree that it’s more than the avoidance of lies. And for the record, my suggestions to Alice were not intended to encourage her to be dishonest, but rather to help her get to the core of the scene, to be true to that, rather than fussing over irrelevancies.

Even if you’re writing genre fiction, you owe it to yourself and to your reader to produce the most truthful work you can.

In Dorothy L Sayers’ novel Gaudy Night, Lord Peter Wimsey discusses the matter of intellectual integrity with a group of Oxford dons. He poses the question, “How about the artist of genius who has to choose between letting his family starve and painting pot-boilers to keep them?”

On of the dons replies, “He could stop painting. That, if he really is a genius, would be a loss to the world. But he mustn’t paint bad pictures — that would be really immoral.”

Another don, Miss Shaw, agrees and adds, “A bad picture by a good painter is a betrayal of truth — his own truth.” (p. 411-412)

I’m with Miss Shaw. In terms of writing, a bad book by a good writer is a betrayal of truth. Assuming, that is, the writer is actually capable of doing better but chooses not to because he believes a bad book will sell better.

Surely the first rule of truth in writing is to produce the best work of which the author is capable.

“Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” ~ 

Stephen King in On Writing

The second rule of truth is to own your beliefs and values. If you and your argumentative sister write about the exact same event, do you think your accounts will be identical? Isn’t it more likely that she’ll make herself the injured party and you the villain, while you’ll probably do the reverse?

We all want to be honest in our writing. Any story, be it truth or fiction, needs to touch the reader, needs to resonate with an air of authenticity. From that point of view, obviously you want to be as honest as possible in what you write. BUT… If you allow an OCD obsession with getting every single detail right, you may not ever finish your manuscript. This insistence on recreating every detail is another form of procrastination. The heart of the narrative, the emotional core, is what really counts. It’s irrelevant whether you and your sister were fighting over a red dress or a blue one. How did you feel? And, really, you must know by now you weren’t ever really fighting over a dress. It’s never the dress. Or the boy. Or whose turn it is to do the dishes. It’s about your relationship and how you feel about one another.

If the devil is in the details, then maybe the details need to get over themselves.

Which brings us to imagination.

Just because CS Lewis created Narnia doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It may not be real any more than Hobbiton or Earthsea, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Lewis — and Tolkien and Le Guin — brought these fictional places to life and filled them with believable beings.

Imagination brings the colours. It takes a flat recitation of the facts and splashes reds, and yellows, and blues all over them, not to disguise those facts, but to make them resonate.

Consider the difference here. First my flat reworking of the scene in Jane Austen’s Emma in which Mr Knightley chastises the heroine for her behaviour on Box Hill:

Mr Knightley scolded Emma and she felt humbled by him. She resolved to do better in the future.

Now see Jane Austen adding the colour and shade:

(Mr Knightley): This is not pleasant to you, Emma-and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will — I tell you the truths while I can…

She continued to look back, but in vain…She was vexed beyond what could have been expressed-almost beyond what she could conceal. Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was forcibly struck. The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it in her heart… And how suffer him to leave her without saying one word of gratitude, of concurrence, of common kindness!

Jane Austen Emma

Even if you aren’t a fan of Jane Austen’s, (gasp!) you have to see the way the layers of Emma’s reactions reveal the character, suggest her relationship with Mr Knightley, and bring a sense of truth to the scene.

Imagination can mean making things up. JRR Tolkien and Ray Bradbury and Neil Gaiman have invented worlds and good for them. But imagination isn’t limited to creating the bizarre or the vivid, it also means creating scenes that hum, that vibrate, that resonate in the mind of the reader.

How do you do that? Well, the scene has to resonate with the writer before it can resonate with the reader. You need the scene to become as completely alive for you as possible, and that means using your imagination. Not sure how to do that? Well, here are some exercises that may help:

Start with the Facts

If you are a writer who has to start with facts, then explore what happens when you change a few of them. If the scene in real life takes place in the morning in a city, try to set it at night in the country. If possible, find a very specific place and time to  make the changes. Turn the boy into a girl. Turn the car into a boat. Once you’ve made one change, others should follow logically.

What If…?

Again, starting with the facts, ask yourself what the story would look like if the events had turned out differently. The argument with your sister ended with a big fight and you going your separate ways for a year, but what if someone had intervened? What if your sister had suffered a heart attack in the middle of the quarrel? What if the love of your life had suddenly shown up and seen you fighting? What if one of you had picked up a weapon?

Start an Idea File

If you get stuck with ideas, then keep a journal. As you hear news items that resonate, make a note of them. Listen to conversations and write them down. Having an idea file can give you options for changing a scene when you’re feeling stuck. Snatches of stories force you to fill in the gaps on your own. That’s a good thing if you have a tendency to insist on fact-only prose.


If you find it difficult to let your imagination soar, take time to  meditate, even if it’s just for 10-15 minutes a day. Clearing out your thoughts, calming them down, will give your mind space to create. Meditate and then write for a few minutes. It may take some time, but you should eventually see  your work loosen up.


Read widely. Read everything. Newspapers, novels, science, manga, history, graphic novels, science… Read genres you’ve never read before. Read books you think may be too difficult for you. Read rubbish. Read, and learn from what you’ve read. See how the various writers tackle themes and scenes and, yes, truth. Take your favourite stories and imagine how you would change them. Would Gatsby run away with Daisy and end up in Vegas? Would Frodo decide to hide the One Ring under the mattress and hope for the best? Imagination needs lots of exercise.

“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Lewis Carroll — Alice in Wonderland.

Be like the queen and try to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Or at least supper.


Make each scene as real to you as possible. See each detail. Smell the environment. Taste it. Touch it. Hear how people talk, watch how they move. The more real a character is to you, the more real they will be to your reader.

If you are stimulated by the visual, use pictures to inspire you. Make a folder of images you like and find intriguing. Thumb through them when you need an imagination nudge.

Design your own book jacket and put it over your writing desk. Cut pictures of people out of magazines or find them on the internet so you have a real face to go with your fictional character. Draw maps of the towns where your characters live; draw floor plans of their homes.

Embrace the Surreal and the Absurd

You’ll find it everywhere. In the art of Magritte or Dali or Frida Kahlo, for instance; in the writings of Samuel Beckett, Jack Kerouac, Italo Calvino, or Spike Milligan. In the comedy of Steven Wright, the Monty Python gang. The surreal and the absurd can trigger all sorts of ideas and images. Start with a surreal picture or joke and write a story based on it.

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” ―Muriel Rukeyser


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What to Leave Out

a pen 3I thought I’d pulled a fast one at the writers’ group last week. For their assignment I challenged the gang to write a story no longer than 100 words. The people who sometimes claim they didn’t have time to finish their stories were particularly pleased.

“Oh, that’s easy!” Ana-Marie said. Then she counted how those words looked on a page.

“Hang about,” she said, “That’s only a couple of paragraphs.”


We spent the next twenty minutes discussing flash fiction. What it is, how it works. The gang are going to try my bonkers exercise and see how they get on. I’m curious to see the results.

The reason I wanted them to try this is because writers need to understand the importance of selecting the right details. With only 100 words at their disposal, the gang will have to weigh each one carefully. I suspect most of them will start with a story much longer than 100 words, and then start to whittle it down. All of those “He saids,” will be the first to go, followed by adjectives and adverbs.

Of course, the point isn’t simply what you leave out; what you decide to keep is what makes the story. The writer must be careful not to strip all the colour from the prose. The reader must still be able to enter the world of the story.

I remember reading an exercise for writers many years ago that suggested the writer imagine they have to pay for every single word they spend. Uh, use. Imagine it’s a telegram, was the suggestion. It obviously resonated with me since I remember it all these years later. Of course, I eventually learned that even a novel of 500 pages should still contain only essential words. Here are some suggestions for trimming the dross:

Be specific

Instead of writing generalities, keep to specific examples. For instance, don’t write ‘small car,’ try ‘Fiat’, or some other exact model. Write ‘cobra’ instead of deadly snake, or cottage instead of small country house. Not only are you saving your word count, but you’re planting a more exact picture in your reader’s mind.

Waffle No More

These are the passages that go on at length about the hero waking in the morning, showering in his cold, white bathroom, shaving his chiseled chin — he’s a hero; of course he has a chiseled chin — and selecting one of three crisp white shirts, the one with the mother-of-pearl buttons, and the blue tie that perfectly matched his eyes… Seriously?

Every word needs to add to the story. It should reveal the character in specific, vivid detail. Generic scenes such as your man shaving really add nothing of value. Well, maybe if he were a haemophiliac and accidentally cut himself, but even in that case, it’s the detail, the disease, that sets your hero apart from all the other fine-boned heroes.

Dead-Weight Descriptions

This brings us to those long passages of descriptions. I swear, there is a circle of literary hell for those people who have a heroine gaze at her reflection in the mirror and tell us what she sees. The raven tresses, snub nose, stubborn chin, etc. There are so many things wrong with this. For instance:

  1. No one cares.
  2. Perfection is boring.
  3. These details tell you zero, zip, zilch about the character.
  4. Real people don’t gaze at themselves in the mirror and see raven tresses, etc. They see the weak chin, the grey roots, the bloodshot eyes.
  5. The gazing in the mirror thing is SO cliched.

If you really must describe a character, pick those details that sums him up. The way he walks, the way he behaves, the impact he has on the people around him. Here’s Dickens, the master of description (if a bit windy at times) describing Mr Bounderby in Hard Times:

He was a rich man: banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not. A big, loud man, with a stare, and a metallic laugh. A man made out of coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him… A man who was always proclaiming, through that brassy speaking-trumpet of a voice of his, his old ignorance and his old poverty. A man who was the Bully of humility.

As you can see, there’s nothing here about the character’s features or his hair, and yet we can see him clearly.  Dickens often waffles, but every word in this description tells us who Mr Bounderby is.

The Cecil B de Mille Approach

Cecil B de Mille was a film director in the early days of Hollywood. He was famous  for making pictures that had hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the cast. I have to be honest, this is something I struggle with. I love creating characters and I often have a lot in my novels. However, a story really shouldn’t have any more characters than are absolutely essential. If the character has no more than one scene, either replace them with a more weighty character, or give them something more to do. This is particularly true of short stories or flash fiction. In fact, if you try to squeeze more than two characters into a story that runs less than a thousand words, you’re probably not going to do justice to any of them. Less really is more.

You Won’t Get There All At Once

Precision in language takes time, repeated editing, and a lot of work. You’ll have to keep whittling it down to make it work. It’s worth it, though. Give it a try and see.

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Writing Down the Rabbit Hole

Like most writers, I love learning new things and I’m not picky about either the subject matter or the source of information. If something is new to me, I’ll read everything I can about it, delighting in the way new information fills some planet-sized holes in my education. What I love about discovering something new is that it will inevitably lead to something else. Jump down a rabbit hole and who knows where you may end up. Starting to read a book about William Blake and the Industrial Revolution can lead to discovering how carbon paper was invented, which in turn can help you discover why the roads in Victorian London were covered with a variety of different materials and the impact that had on horses.

One curious by-product of this quest for knowledge is it can leave peculiar gaps. This is what happens when an amateur tackles a broad intellectual concept. Several years ago I read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time in which her detective becomes fascinated by the story of Richard the Third, and is convinced that the last Plantagenet was treated shabbily by history. Then, after he’s completed his research and reached his conclusion, he discovers that this ‘Richard was Innocent!’ notion was already well-established and fairly popular. Oh well, at least he had fun. I had fun reading the book and became equally fascinated with Richard.

Because I loved the TV series, and because I’m likely to learn something new about film-making, grammar, or politics, I’m addict to The West Wing Weekly podcast. Last week on it I heard my hero Aaron Sorkin confess that he, too, has planet-sized gaps in his knowledge. He talks about telling his daughter about a great new singer he’d just discovered. Daughter replies, “That’s Beyonce, dad.” He went on to describe ‘discovering’ Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and being astounded to learn the song was already hugely famous.

I can relate. I trip over information in the oddest ways. Very often it’s not obscure stuff, it’s just that I haven’t happened upon it yet. Like Sorkin (ha! That’s probably the only time I’ll be able to claim any sort of similarity with him), I find ‘gems’ and tell my daughter, giddy with my discoveries. She rolls her eyes and says, “Yes, mother, that’s Adele. How can you not know Adele?”

I don’t know, but I manage it somehow.

A few months ago I discovered Malcolm Gladwell. I’d read some articles about him and then, because of a link someone posted on The West Wing Weekly podcast site, I found Gladwell’s own podcast, which I’m now working my way through. Understand, we’re not talking about some obscure historian or economist. We’re talking Malcolm Gladwell, author of five New York Times bestsellers — The Tipping Point, Blink,Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and David and Goliath.  The same Malcolm Gladwell who was named one of the 100 most influential people by TIME magazine and one of the Foreign Policy’s Top Global Thinkers.

When I said planet-sized holes in my knowledge, I wasn’t kidding.

Anyway, I’ve just started listening to his podcasts and in the one that waxes lyrical about Hallelujah, he mentions David Galenson and his unified theory of creativity. Galenson, an economist, has discovered that there are two broad types of creative genius. There are the child wonders like Picasso and Andy Warhol who burst on the world early and whose most esteemed pieces are those produced at the beginning of their careers. Then there are the Mark Twains and the Cézannes whose genius took time to ferment and who didn’t start to achieve excellence until they were well into middle age.

Now I have new books to read, new rabbit holes to explore, new ideas to formulate. I expect / hope Galenson will make reference to some other great mind and I will find another rabbit hole to explore. As you can see, diving down one rabbit hole often leads to many others.

As rabbit  holes go, these ones are particularly exciting because they explore the nature of ideas and creativity. Things I am fascinated by.

I love chasing down various bits of information. It doesn’t matter too much what the topic is, art, literature, psychology, physics, history or anything at all really, bring it on.

Some people approach learning in a much more organised manner. They focus on one topic and can discuss it with huge understanding and insight. I love talking to such people, I enjoy learning from them, but I could never be like them. My range of interests is wide, but once I’ve grasped the basics I’m on to the next thing.

What does all this have to do with writing?

Well, it’s not a coincidence that great minds all link together. As one great mind suggests a theory, that theory connects with another great mind who takes the theory in another direction. In the middle of all of this is the writer, taking what she needs from each and forming her own ideas. If she is lucky, one or more of those ideas will culminate in a story.

While burrowing in one of my rabbit holes one day I happened upon the story of the Necropolis Railway. This was a dedicated line that was built to transport the dead on special trains from London to the city’s outskirts for burial. What writer could fail to be fascinated by the possibilities. I got a story out of that called, not surprisingly, The Necropolis Railway (which appears in Before Baker Street). Reading an article about a musician who was disowned by his family for following his dreams led to a new story (not yet published) called And Righteousness Shall Look Down.

Sometimes the discoveries you make in your reading connect with events in your life. A documentary about Ireland’s fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Uprising led to memories of being bullied in school. Those two topics merged and became a story, too.

Writers need to keep their minds and their eyes open. Stories are everywhere but you have to watch out for them. If you aren’t paying enough mind they’ll slink away and wait for someone else to write them. Or worse, they may never be written at all.

I love that there is so much for me to learn. It ensures I’ll never be bored — even if it does mean I’ll always have some planet-sized holes in my knowledge. That’s OK, though. The act of discovery is worth as much as the information. I have so many more rabbit holes to explore. Who knows, maybe one of them will explain what a Kardashian is.


The West Wing Weekly podcast: The West Wing Weekly (episode 3:22 Posse Comitatus includes Sorkin discussing Beyonce, Hallelujah, and much more.)

Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast: Revisionist History

David Galenson on the unified theory of creativity is summed up in this Wired article: What Kind of Genius are You? but you should consider checking out Galenson’s books, too, if the subject interests you.

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