Monthly Archives: February 2017

7 prompts for writers #3: characterisation

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Another Place, sculpture by Anthony Gormley

I find the idea for a character in a story can come from anywhere. It might be someone glimpsed on the street or a snatch of conversation overheard or from a piece in the newspaper. Even if the character is inspired by someone I ‘know’, then I will still only be aware of the part of themselves they choose to share, perhaps only the surface.

Characters in stories, especially novels, have to have layers, they have to have conflicts, they have to have textures, and it is the writer’s task to add them. To literally add flesh, bone, blood, soul and mind to a notion of a person.

I live with depression, I have had therapy over a number of years and I trained as a counsellor. I have, therefore, spent some time considering the human condition. I do think this assists in creating characters which live and breathe off the page.

On any creative writing course, we are told ‘show don’t tell’. In other words, if a character is sad, show what this looks like rather than tell the reader, Frank is sad. I would also add, the showing should really be more about inviting the reader to feel the sadness. And to do this, the writer has to get inside the body – their own as well as their character’s.

Our bodies feel our emotions before we can name them. Yet we cannot use this knowledge of the body in our writing unless we allow ourselves to inhabit our own bodies fully. As writers, the danger is we will spend too much time in our heads. As people in contemporary society, we might spend too much time distracted by the whirl of life: phones, adverts, noise, chatter…. In either case, we will miss the vital understandings brought to us by our bodies.

My way into my body is mindful walking (I have written about this: https://mslexia.co.uk/long-distance-writer-3-meandering/). Though yoga comes a close second and I am sure you will findboots your own way towards body awareness. Notice and take notes in your writing journal of how your body reacts to emotions and environments.

However, while you are creating and layering your characters, take this a step further. Imagine yourself into your character’s body. Walk as they would. Ask yourself, how would they feel afraid? Or sad? Or love? Notice and make notes in your writing journal.

Finally, you could also interview others. Ask them how they experience their body? What happens in their body when they feel a particular emotion? You may be surprised, and inspired.

What is your tip for creating layered characters?

Author Interview: Clare O’Dea

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Clare O’Dea

I am thrilled to welcome this week to my blog Clare O’Dea.

She is an Irish author, journalist and translator living and working in Switzerland. Her first book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths (Bergli Books, 2016), is a non-fiction examination of the most prevalent clichés about her adopted country.

Originally from Dublin, Clare has lived in Switzerland for the past thirteen years, ten of which she spent working for the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation. Clare also writes fiction, long and short. She has translated non-fiction books from French and German into English, most recently the biography of a Swiss banker.

What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a children’s novel for the upper middle grade age group (10-12). It is an adventure story featuring a brother and sister who are on the run in a country controlled by a sinister, all-powerful company. I started writing this book three years ago, but had to set it aside several times when other more pressing writing projects took precedence. I have been sharing chapters from the book with my writing critique group here in Switzerland since last summer, and getting very helpful feedback. Next, I’d like to hear from the target audience, so I am preparing to send the manuscript to several children in the right age group along with a questionnaire.  After that I will be ready to submit to agents.

Could you give five tips on how to tackle plotting?
These tips are not meant to be binding. They are just things that worked for me.

Don’t start writing until you are convinced you have an idea that is big and strong enough to carry you and the story to the finish line. The main idea, or concept, should be something that is both unique and universal, something that captures the imagination and emotions.

The plot should also be describable. If you cannot describe the story neatly, there may be something at fault. Time spent distilling the story in advance will pay off.

Subplots are good and necessary but there’s no need to go overboard. If the reader loses sight of the main storyline, it’s time for some trimming.

Always ask yourself why you are including a particular scene. It can’t just be because you like it. What does it contribute to building character or advancing the story?

After your first draft, write down a simple scene-by-scene breakdown of the novel, if you haven’t done so already. You can break it down into columns that are relevant for your story, for example character(s), action, setting. This is a useful exercise to get an overview, and to identify possible lulls or repetition.

How would you describe your writing process?
With novel writing, once I start something, I usually plunge straight into a flow phase. Because of work and family commitments, I have to squeeze writing into small pockets of time, and may have interruptions and delays. After mulling over the story in advance, I sketch out a simple one-page outline of the plot. I write in chronological order starting at the beginning. From then on, the story has a momentum of its own. In the gaps between writing, the ideas build up so that when I sit down, scenes unfold and characters appear almost of their own accord. I usually write one chapter per sitting. The second, third and subsequent drafts take longer to complete. On my first novel (unpublished), I had to discard an awful lot of material in the rewriting phase. The second novel (children’s) has been a much more economical writing experience.

If you are traditionally published, could you say something of your journey and your experience?
The submission and publication process for my first published book, The Naked Swiss, wasnakedswiss_cover surprisingly pain-free. I left my job covering news for the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation in 2015 because I felt I had come as far as I could as a part-time working mother. When I went freelance, one of the things on my to-do list was to submit a non-fiction proposal to a publishing company in Basel that specialised in English-language books about Switzerland. I had ten years of reporting to draw on, as well my personal experience of living in the country. The editor answered within days and asked to meet me to discuss the project. It took a few months of back and forth to rework the concept and write more sample chapters before he was ready to offer me a contract. I wrote the book in six months (part-time) up to May 2016 and it was published in October 2016.

Fiction took a back seat during this time but I have an event coming up this month in Geneva that could be promising – a meet-the-agent/publisher weekend organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group. I will have a one-to-one session with a publisher, and get professional feedback on my first novel.  As you can gather, I still have my sights set on the traditional publishing route, although I don’t rule out self-publishing in the future.

Do you find it difficult to switch between writing fiction and non-fiction?
I find it manageable because I am so used to it at this stage. With my job as a journalist, it has never been a case of one or the other. After many years of false-starts, I finally began writing fiction in earnest five years ago, and it has made my life more interesting, as well as helping me cope with the isolation of being an immigrant. With writing, I am never alone and never bored. I have made wonderful like-minded friends, and the joy that I experience creating my own worlds, in short and long-form fiction, has become an essential part of my life.

How can readers find you and learn more about your writing?
The about page on my writing blog is a good place to start. For a sample of my writing, check out my short story, The Favour, which was shortlisted in the Hennessy New Irish Writing competition last year.

I have an author page on Facebook, concentrating on The Naked Swiss for the moment, and you can follow me on Twitter @clareodeaz or connect on Goodreads.

7 Prompts for Writers #2

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This week we went to Whitley Bay. On a grey, blustery morning we scrambled our way to St Mary’s Lighthouse. The causeway was open, so we walked over. The place appeared deserted. My first thought: what a great setting for a novel, especially a murder mystery.

A place can be a great starting point for writing. I am fan of Julia Cameron The Artist’s Way. In it she suggests taking regular ‘artist’s dates’. These are day trips to places to gain inspiration. I would echo Cameron in saying these should be dates with yourself – don’t take anyone else, unless they are also writers and/or know how to be quiet. Endless chatter will get in the way of imagination.

Places abound in stories. When was a place established? By whom? Who were the designers? Who the builders? Who lived there? Are there any connections with historical events? Who lives thereabouts now? How do present conditions compare with those of the past? What about the future? What wildlife is around? What is the landscape like? How has this all changed over time? And so on, I am sure you can supply other pertinent questions to get you going.

Try making notes in situ and remember to evoke all the senses – smell, sight, sound, touch and taste.

What is your favourite place to visit as a writer? Have you been inspired to write a story by visiting somewhere?