Developing Your Characters: What Has It Got In Its Pocketses?

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Developing characters in your writingA writing teacher (and multi-published novelist) once told me that to really understand a character you’re writing, you should make a list of the items they carry in their pockets.

While I hate to disagree with such an august mentor, I’m afraid that I simply have to.

You see, if you take a peek in my pockets at this very moment – an undertaking from which I heartily dissuade you – you will find a handkerchief, some small change and a couple of buttons which popped off my coat. A character who uses money, occasionally blows his nose and shivers a lot does not a compelling story make.

This may be different for the fairer sex. I have never plucked up the courage to venture into the deepest recesses of a lady’s handbag, so am not intimately acquainted with the traditional contents of such. However, I suspect them to be of an equally utilitarian nature; I would hazard a guess at purse, travelcard, keys, phone and a little spare make-up.

Show me the woman who carries a blunderbuss, a taxidermied stoat and an assortment of kazoos in her bag and I’ll show you a story!

A Room With Views
In short, the whole pocket exercise doesn’t really work for me. No. Far more telling and illustrative are the items which characters have dotted around their living room. In a supposedly private space, we reveal far more of our true natures and past lives than we could ever fit in a pocket.

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Work in Progress Blog Challenge: Dark Energies

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Dark Energies

It’s sharing time again!

I’ve been invited by fellow writer/blogger Zenobia Southcombe (you HAVE to love that name!!) to take part in the Work In Progress Blog Challenge…

This is probably the most fun blog hop I’ve come across. The idea is that I post the first line of the first three chapters of my current work-in-progress, then nominate four other bloggers to do the same. And not a bucket of ice-cubes in sight.

I’ve bent the rules ever-so slightly to also include the first line of the prologue/introduction, so there are actually four lines here. In my defence, the first line of Chapter 1 couldn’t really get much shorter.

These lines come from my first full-length novel Dark Energies; a contemporary urban mystery spiced with a healthy dose of romance and quantum physics. The story unfolds from the POV of Dan Carter, who is desperately in search of something to fill the void in his life. When he’s contacted out-of-the-blue by a mysterious young woman via a social networking site, it looks like he may just have found it. But you should be careful what you wish for…

Introduction:

Edward Stretton somehow knew that neither he, nor anyone else, would ever see his wife again.

Chapter 1:

Why am I writing this?

Chapter 2:

The hallucinations didn’t begin immediately, nor were they all that strong to begin with.

Chapter 3:

Sam’s flat could only be described as cluttered.

I hope you enjoyed that micro-peek into the dark and disturbing world into which Dan finds himself inexorably drawn. If nothing else, this challenge has shown me that the first line of Chapter 3 seriously needs some work!

And now to nominate the next 4 bloggers:

Jeni Frontera

Andrew Toynbee

Dyane Forde

Lauren Sapala

Over to you comrades, enjoy!

Testing, testing…

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Been busy writing

Hello? Is this thing on…?

It’s been a while hasn’t it? Quite a long while in fact. I have been hiding away and have neglected you all, for which I offer my most sincere apologies.

I’ve been busy. Yes, OK, I know how often I use that phrase and I know you’re all frantically busy too and still find time to blog. I really have no excuse. Oh hang on… yes I do…

I have been beavering away at the novel, cracking on with the final (I do so hope) round of edits and using the gruelling opportunity of Camp NaNo to really push toward the finish line. So there, that’s kind of a good excuse no? I dropped the blog about the writing to focus on the writing. Am I forgiven?

Anyway… thought I’d just pop by to assure you all that I haven’t succumbed to a surfeit of lampreys and I’m still extraordinarily fond of each and every one of you. I shall endeavour, in my best boy scout manner, to become a better blogger again.

And – big fanfare please (ta-da-da-da-da-da-DAAAAAAA!!) – in response to some absolutely delightful comments on my previous post (a snippet of the infamous first novel, Dark Energies) I might even pop up a few more excerpts to whet your collective whistles!

Now there’s a promise for a sunny Friday morning eh?

Must dash, the peacocks are nibbling at the peonies again, but watch this space my friends…

Killing Your Darlings

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The Rules of Writing

It seems there’s barely a day goes past without someone somewhere posting about the “rules” of writing. Now, I’m not entirely sure that I agree with this; I feel there are far too many so-called rules imposed upon one of the most creative pursuits imaginable.

Creativity doesn’t follow rules – creativity bends, warps and downright breaks rules. Look at James Joyce, Flann O’Brien, Dalí, Picasso, Man Ray, John Lydon… you can add plenty of your own favourites to that list.

Or, as Thomas Edison so beautifully put it:

There are no rules here, we are trying to accomplish something

Of course, some rules should be followed, but only because they work. I prefer to consider these principles, not rules. A couple of examples which will be familiar to all writers:

  • Active voice is more dynamic than passive and drives a more immersive story;
  • Showing will deliver a more lasting impression than telling every time;
  • Adverbs will slow down your plot and bog down your readers;

However, there are others which simply beg to be broken in the name of trying something new. One of these, for me, is the advice to “kill your darlings” – that is, no matter how much you love a particular phrase, situation or scene, if it doesn’t fit the story, you have to get rid of it.

Really? Says who?

Unless it’s a major glaring departure from the rest of the book, I reckon you can work it in. OK, so I have a hard time imagining blue-skinned beings from the planet Morgos landing on the deck of the Pequod with laser harpoons – although it would, admittedly improve the tale no end (you can read my thoughts on Moby Dick elsewhere in this blog.)

Otherwise, if you create something of which you are justifiably proud, should you really allow perceived wisdom to stifle that creative impulse and shut it away in a box labelled Conformity?

One of the key purposes of any art form is to bring innovation to light. By adhering too strictly to what should actually be flexible guidelines, writers – particularly new writers – run the risk of inhibiting themselves and diminishing their work. When we start out on the writing journey, we find ourselves suddenly (Elmore Leonard says never to use “suddenly”, but sorry Elmore, been and gone and done it) in the midst of a wilderness with no signposts. So we turn to age-old wisdom and advice. This has to be framed somehow, so is given the label “Rules of Writing.” Before you know it, off we go down the path previously trodden by everyone else and end up creating something which… well… has been done before.

I have one particular phrase in my novel which I love. I’m very proud of it and I believe it encapsulates a feeling we’ve all had at one time or another in our lives. I have never seen it expressed in the way I’ve put it (apologies if that sounds arrogant by the way.)

But…

It didn’t fit within any of the versions of the scene I had written. I knew it was the right place, the right time and the right phrase. But it stuck out like a sore thumb nonetheless. “Kill your darlings,” my inner editor yelled over and over again, “get rid of it!”

So I did. And I missed it. And the scene missed it, And the book missed it.

That’s the point at which I tore up the rule book and decided that rules are indeed there to be broken. It would have been far easier just to lose the phrase and move on. Instead, I stuck to my guns, re-worked a whole chunk of the scene and lowered the prominence of that phrase, so it blended seamlessly.

And do you know what? It works. The scene is stronger, more natural and imbued with greater significance.

So before you succumb to the safer option of following the rules regardless, I say try throwing them out of the window, but make sure they land within easy reach just in case you need them again in future.

Am I wrong? Have you fallen foul of rule-breaking in your own work? Or do you find a little occasional bending a liberating experience?

Now We Are One

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Happy Birthday Jumping From Cliffs

It’s just over a week since a landmark passed me by unnoticed.

Jumping From Cliffs turned one year old this month! I published my first ever post on the 23rd of May last year.

It’s quite extraordinary where the time goes isn’t it??

It set me to thinking about what, if anything, I’ve achieved in my writerly ambitions in that time. And you know what? Actually quite a flippin’ lot thank you very much!

*grin*

  • I have finished the first draft of Dark Energies
  • I have made my first pitch to a real-life baby-eating literary agent
  • I have courageously shared a sample of my writing with the unsuspecting public at large (yep, that’s you lovely people)
  • I have won awards (thank you all again!) – some of which I have taken up, others of which I simply had to put on a back-burner due to lack of time and a dearth of captivating facts to impart about myself

And the list continues…

Well poke me with a fish-fork if that isn’t really quite a lot for 365 days. Who would have thought it when that first tentative post staggered and stumbled its newly-born way into the spotlight glare of the internet?

However, two things in particular stand out as the finest and proudest moments of my journey so far…

1) I have learned a truly STAGGERING amount about the art and craft of writing which drives all of us through every waking – and many a somnolent – moment. It has been said far more eloquently by far greater writers than I, but immersing yourself in creativity and surrounding yourself with talented people really does teach you far more than you ever thought possible.

Which leads me, in customarily long-winded manner, to the other Most Important Thing:

2) I have met the most incredibly supportive, encouraging, talented, enthusiastic, creative and utterly unspeakably wonderful (and, of course, terribly beautiful) bunch of fellow blogging writers that any man could wish to have yomping along by his side.

Yep, that’s you lot again.

Your blogs, along with your comments on mine, have taught me, encouraged me, motivated and inspired me beyond measure.

So grab yourself a piece of cake and a fancy party hat (mine’s the pith-helmet) and join me in celebrating! And, unless I get eaten by a Tyrannosaurus, I’m thoroughly looking forward to continuing this amazing adventure over the next 365 days.

A Piece of String

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Cat measuring string

Image courtesy of Stefan Tell

I have stalled.

A couple of weeks ago I fired off the first 50 pages of my first novel to the first agent I have met. A week of firsts.

With the sense of a job well done and 4 years well spent in writing the novel, I then settled back and waited for my ship to come steaming into the harbour amid a riot of confetti and bunting.

And I waited…

And I waited…

I waited some more…

Then I did a bit of pacing about…

Then I went back to waiting…

I really am rather concerned about this agent. Clearly he has been taken gravely ill. Or has lost his job. Or is embroiled in a protracted and painful relationship meltdown. Or is stuck in a shed. Or has been eaten by badgers. Or his eyes have fallen out.

Surely he can’t just not like the book and isn’t telling me? Impossible! Inconceivable!

Maybe my email got caught by his spam filter and any day now he will spot it sitting there.

I shall go back to waiting.

The question is… how long does one wait before chasing up an agent? Is two weeks inappropriately needy of me? Or does it imply that I set too little stock by the quality of my work? Should I have called last week? Should I email tomorrow?

Meantime, while all of this is going on, I have, as I stated at the very outset, stalled. I have written not one word in those past two weeks, nor have I pursued the myriad marketing opportunities for my book and my personal author brand (OK, I hate the phrase “personal brand” because I reject entirely the notion of people as brands, but it fits here so I’ll cheapen myself and use it). I have, in short, assumed that just one phone call away was everything I have ever dreamed of.

The most nonsensical part of this whole farago is that I know for absolute fact that there is an immense chance of getting rejected by every agent on the planet, yet still I thought: “Ha. Jolly good. Made it first time. Now to relax with a piping hot crumpet and become a world-renowned author overnight.”

I haven’t even submitted the self-same 50 pages to any other agencies yet. I did get as far as underlining a few in the Artists’ & Writers’ Yearbook with an orange pen, as if by some alchemical happenstance this would cosmically alert them to my presence and have them clamouring at my door in a frothing maelstrom of acquisitional lust.

Still waiting…

So, rather like a little field-mouse poking his head out of a stuffy burrow as the first tendrils of spring waft their freshening way to his nostrils, I shall endeavour to shake off the langorous turpitude in which I have been cloaked of late and re-double my efforts.

I shall write. I shall research. I shall pitch and query and synopsificate. I shall do all of this and much much more!!

As soon as I’ve checked to see if my agent has replied…

Guest Post Wednesday!

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Jumping From Cliffs is delighted today to bring you a guest post from the marvellous, magical and magnificent Mr. Andrew Toynbee. You may already be aware of Andrew’s insightful and humorous blog – if not, you most definitely should get acquainted. Soon. On a topic which is insanely relevant to anyone writing in 2013, I asked Mr. T why he decided to self-publish his first novel and here’s what he said…

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asifthebes skys the limit

Why I Chose to Self-Publish rather than doing it the Hard Way.

I appreciate that there is a flavour of irony in the above title – as anyone who has self-published will affirm.

*Pauses for flurry of nods*

The fact is, like many other writers, I once considered self-publishing to be the lowly sibling; the Frank Stallone, the Adam Baldwin, the Brian Murray…well, you get the idea. For nigh on a year, I dismissed the idea of being an indie and religiously (and with growing desperation) submitted query letters to every genre-relevant agency in the country, receiving enough reject notes with which to wallpaper my bathroom.

That’s not something I’m planning to do, by the way.

But, one dark and stormy evening in mid-June (I did say that I lived in England, didn’t I?) as I stared at rejection number 48 of 102 (I only ever received replies from half of the agencies I contacted), it occurred to me that even if the note I was holding had said ‘YES – send us your MS now!!’, it would most likely be a year to eighteen months before my work wriggled out of its chrysalis to flutter its still-damp pages for the first time.

Eighteen months? Sheesh. When I began my novel in early 2010, there was only one other angel romance novel listed on Amazon. One.

I felt the cold chill of time upon my bones. By the time eighteen months had passed, my supernatural romance novel could be as out of date as Homer’s Illiad – or at least find itself swamped by a plethora of similar titles.

I had to act.

That was when I began to pay attention to what other bloggers were saying about self-publishing. Naturally, there were arguments both for and against. One site branded self-publishing ‘the lazy option’; others said it was the new way to go.

In addition to the arguments, a growing set of statistics begged for consideration;

In 2008, 1 million eReaders were sold; in 2009, over 3.6 million shifted. In 2010 that number was expected to triple (it topped between 10 and 12 million, although figures vary). 2011 saw over 27 million sold.* It seemed that we were living in a new age. To continue to embrace the traditional publishing methods, at least at this stage of the game, began to feel like folly.

I know the link below is now out of date (although it was relevant to me at the time), but seeing it again recently helped to remind me exactly why I went down the self-publishing route.

Harper Voyager Announces Global Digital Publishing Opportunity

At the time, the whole process suddenly struck me as archaic; a throwback idea from Dickensian times that was now struggling to compete with the new kid on the block – the eBook.

Now, I mean no disrespect to other bloggers and authors who are still having their work published in this way. I accept the fact that if the opportunity had arisen, I would have done the same – and I would have been happy with it. However, once I’d switched tracks and seriously considered going it alone (Alone? That’s another story!), I was totally committed to the idea of creating an eBook. Although I have pretty much given up on the idea of traditional publishing, it’s still in the back of my mind that one day I may;

  1. pick up where I left off and begin querying all over again or
  2. receive a call from some eager employee of an agency or publisher who has spotted my eBook.

But to be honest, the idea of meeting agents, publishers, booksellers and touring the country to promote my work holds little appeal. I’ve seen what Jenna Burtenshaw has had to do, visiting bookshops on a whistle-stop tour of the UK to promote her books – and as a self-confessed introvert, the idea still fills me with mild dread. I remain happy to churn out words and answer queries from the comparative safety of the WorldWideWeb. Not to mention the fact that I am rarely in my home county, never mind my home town because of my day job.

That said, the thrill of holding an actual bona-fide paper book in one’s hands brings with it a magic that no eBook can match. For those of us who grew up with real books (and it’s sad to think that picture books and bedtime stories may one day be purely electronic), who hasn’t dreamed of seeing their own words slumbering beneath a paper cover, ready to delight, amuse or terrify? But that’s an indulgence for another day. In the late summer of 2012, I was committed to self-publishing. The critic who branded self-publishing as the ‘lazy option’ had obviously never tried it for himself. Considering that traditional publishing comes as a package that includes proofreaders, several editors, a cover artist and a bank of publicists, the self-publisher must rely on their own collection of hats in order to perform all of these duties.

There is also the small stumbling block that the format of the eBook has to be considered and that when one is chosen, it must be converted. True, Smashwords will perform part of that task, but their requirements that the MS must meet certain formatting conditions has dismayed many would-be authors. I won’t go into the virtual nuts and bolts about what is involved with this as many a post has been written already and can be covered again at another time. Suffice to say that the challenge is not insurmountable – but then neither is Everest. That doesn’t mean it isn’t an uphill struggle (gonna wring everything I can out of this metaphor!), but with the right kind of help, summit can be achieved (alright… who groaned?)

As if there weren’t already enough obstacles in the way of producing a good book!

That said, if it was a simple matter for everyone who said, ‘I always thought about writing a book’ to publish, the market would be flooded with half-thought-out drivel that was badly formatted and not worth the ePaper it was electrophoretically printed on. No, only the determined and the dedicated can navigate the ‘lazy option.’ For the moment, that’s a good thing.

If, after reading this, you are still keen on the idea of self-publishing, there are clouds of bloggers (is that a good collective term?) who have been there, done that. All of us have received assistance in some form or another, even if it’s just a pointer (no, not the dog) or inspiration.

It’s a bright new age – embrace it.

My heartfelt thanks to all who have helped me to become part of the ePublishing world.

keep calm

*source; ElectronicsWeekly.com, Geek.com and FT.com