On Writing: Supporting Characters with Phaedra Patrick

While some books can hold their own with a solid, unshakeable protagonist (ahem, Jack Reacher), most books need to have an array of interesting, fully-realised supporting characters. Where would Bridget Jones be without her chain-smoking, straight-talking friends and family? Or where would Frodo be without the Fellowship? Probably wouldn’t have made it past his front garden, if we’re being honest.

Phaedra Patrick is an author who knows the value of an eclectic group of supporting characters. Her outstanding debut novel, The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, wowed critics with its ‘oodles of charm’. Now she’s back with her highly anticipated follow-up, Wishes Under the Willow Tree, which once again is brimming with a number of unforgettable characters. We want to know how she does it.

Wishes Under the Willow Tree cover

Both of your novels have a fantastic array of supporting characters, how do you create supporting characters who are three-dimensional and with distinctive personalities?

Main characters have space and time throughout a novel to grow and develop, whereas supporting ones enjoy a more fleeting appearance. So it’s important that they are memorable for readers.

I always try to think of a couple of distinguishing attributes for each minor character, a little like a caricaturist might select strong features to exaggerate in a drawing. Or it might be something about the way they walk, or talk. I try to make them a little out of the ordinary – a llama keeper who ties up his long hair with a child’s pink bobble, a lonely lady who cares for others by baking cakes and who wears rhinestones on her fingernails, a lord of the manor who dresses only in cobalt blue and who hand-raises tigers.

It also helps to give minor characters a passion, obsession or duty. It doesn’t have to be anything big, just something that allows them to have a journey or goal of their own. They may love trying out different flavours of crisps, or be hunting for a place to live. They might have a secret unrequited love, or be trying to save a floundering relationship. It’s great if it’s something readers can relate to or recognise.

 

What should good supporting characters contribute to the story?

We all have other people in our everyday lives, even though not all of them are helpful! Some have large parts to play, and others have smaller ones. Main characters need people around them too, whether that’s friends, family, neighbours, work colleagues, strangers…or even enemies and rivals.

Supporting characters are there to encourage and help the hero or heroine on their journey. Or to throw hurdles in their way.  They can add variety to the story, offer solutions, or a bit of humorous relief. They should help the main character to shine, rather than try to hog the limelight themselves.

 

Are the supporting characters initially vehicles for the plot or do they come to you first and you figure out a way to fit them in?

In both my novels the supporting characters often showed up unannounced, as I wrote. It’s a little like a casting call for extras and you never know who is going to turn up on the day.

 

Has a supporting character ever found its way into a more prominent role, if so who/why?

In The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, Arthur’s interfering neighbour, Bernadette, initially had a smaller role. She was there to bother and provoke Arthur. However, the more she turned up on his doorstep with her home-made pies, the more it became apparent that they both needed each other, in order to move on with their lives.

 

Which book/film/play has outstanding supporting characters? What do they have that makes them special and what can writers learn from it?

One of my favourite introductions comes from Tony Stark, the main character in the film Iron Man, when he introduces himself as, ‘Genius, playboy, billionaire, philanthropist.’ These four words give us such a clear picture of his character. I actually think it’s brilliant film too, one of my top three. All the characters are distinctive, their interaction is exciting, the main character has an interesting journey full of highs and lows, plus there’s a great bad guy.

Describing your friends and family in four words can be a great writing exercise to try out. Or, why not ask them to describe you? It’s a useful trick to apply to the cast of your book, to give you a strong framework for their characters.

Once you have four words to describe your main character, you can think of contrasting or complimentary ones for your supporting ones, so you have a real mix. If you have a workaholic protagonist, try giving her a lazy assistant and see what happens. Or if you have an unlucky-in-love bachelor, give him a flat mate who’s an expert on Tinder. The combinations are endless.

 

How do you know when to cut a minor character out? Have you ever had a ‘kill your darlings’ moment?

I’m guilty of committing a few murders when necessary. If a minor character doesn’t contribute to your main character’s journey or quest, then they should leave or change. You can often ‘feel’ when they aren’t quite working. My second book, Wishes Under the Willow Tree (known as Rise and Shine, Benedict Stone in the US), featured a Yorkshire hairdresser who just wasn’t doing her job. It’s only when I turned her into an Italian florist instead, that she came to life.

Wishes Under the Willow Tree is out now on e-book: get it here. Paperback will be published April 2018. Follow Phaedra on Twitter: @phaedrapatrick 

Advertisements
Posted in Advice for Authors, On Writing, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Debut author interview: Phoebe Morgan

She didn’t realise it at the time, but Phoebe Morgan’s journey to becoming a published author started when she was only 6, when her dad made her an impressive doll house. This became the inspiration for her chilling debut, The Doll House, which has already been met with rave reviews by early readers.

In the first instalment of our series of interviews with debut authors, Phoebe Morgan, author of The Doll House, talks about setbacks, support networks, and why an idyllic family home is the perfect setting for a psychological thriller…

 

The Doll House is out today, but first let’s look back to where it all started. Where did the inspiration for the novel come from?

When I was about six or seven, my Dad made me a doll house and I was obsessed with it! It was beautiful, with six rooms, a fully functioning staircase and even a loft. I used to spend ages creating the perfect little family set-up, and so when it came to thinking of ideas for my first book, the doll house sprang to mind. A doll house is like a perfect little microcosm of the ideal home, one in which you’re in charge. As a child, I could create the perfect narrative by playing with my dolls – I had a Mummy doll in the kitchen (horribly sexist) and a Daddy who returned home from work with a briefcase (fairly sure my own father doesn’t have one!)  while the small dolls played by the fire (all a tad unrealistic).

As a writer, I wanted to explore that idea of the idyllic family home not being quite as lovely as it might first seem. I knew I wanted to write a book about the complicated relationship that can exist between sisters too, and the memory gaps that can exist between childhood and adulthood. It fascinates me how we all remember certain scenes differently, and as we become adults we sometimes learn things about our families and our parents that do not quite match up with the idealistic childhood memories we’ve remembered. In the book, this concept of a perfect home begins to slowly disintegrate until the characters’ memories are distorted by the truths that have been uncovered. There have been a lot of lies and the sisters in my book have to deal with the repercussions of that!

As plenty of budding authors know, getting published is rarely a straightforward process. What for you was the most difficult aspect of your journey as a debut author?

Oh, it’s always so hard getting rejections! With The Doll House, we had a couple of near misses, and some straight no’s too, and every time you get an email explaining why it’s not quite right for a list it definitely stings. It can be difficult picking yourself back up and continuing to have hope when things aren’t going your way but honestly, I don’t know a single writer who hasn’t been rejected at some point in their career. When you’re a debut, you’re a total unknown so you do need an editor to take a chance on you and your idea, which can be terrifying. I think near-misses have probably actually been the hardest bit, because that’s when you really get your hopes up and start allowing yourself to imagine getting a deal, and so when that comes to nothing, it can feel pretty tough. But you absolutely never know what is around the corner and you have to be persistent, and remember that you only need one yes, and then it really doesn’t matter any more how many no’s you got along the way!

I also remember having a particularly sticky plot point while writing this book which always stays in my mind. I was working on it in the British Library, which is such a lovely place to write (despite the vastly overpriced snacks!) and I just could not figure out this one thing. I called my mum in tears, and then suddenly had an idea for the solution and ended the call very quickly… I did ring back to apologise though.

We’ve obviously loved working with you, but what’s it been like for you to work with an agent and an editor for the first time?

I’m so lucky to have worked with Camilla Wray here at Darley Anderson and with Charlotte Mursell at HQ, both of whom brought new ideas to the book and helped me make it what it is today. When you write, you get so close to your manuscript that you do start to lose sight of it a little, and having those extra pairs of eyes reading everything over makes all the difference. Camilla is a very hands-on editorial agent so we worked a lot on the book before it went on submission, straightening out plot problems, revising sections of the narrative and even cutting out a whole strand at one point! At the time, rewriting can feel brutal and difficult, but the novel is so much better for it. You have to constantly be aware of the reader, how they’ll feel at each juncture, and how the book will sit in the market. I worked very hard on getting my opening just right along with my chapter endings, with the aim of keeping the reader on their toes and giving them that incentive to keep turning the pages. Agents and editors know the market inside out and having that crucial insight is invaluable.

Finally – it’s publication day! How have you been feeling in the run up to the big day?

The run up to publication has been a strange time! I work in publishing too as a Commissioning Editor at Avon, so I do have an insight into how some of this works and what to expect, which is sometimes a blessing and sometimes a curse! I think it means I can’t kid myself, and am realistic in my expectations, but at the same time it makes it easier to torture myself with nerves when I look at the amount of amazing books that I will be competing against! Mostly, I’ve been really overwhelmed with how kind people have been – telling me they’ve pre-ordered the book, leaving positive reviews on GoodReads, getting in touch on social media – but then the closer we get to publication, the harder I’m finding it to sleep too as it does feel as though it’s becoming very real now, when for so long it was a bit of a pipe dream. It’s also been quite a whirlwind fitting in writing publicity bits and pieces in the run up, and making sure I’m on top of extra stuff such as social media.

Having a book go out into the world is without doubt a very nerve-wracking process, but I’ve found that talking to other writers really helps as they know what you’re going through and can offer words of wisdom in that respect. I think it’s also important to remember – and this is something I’m trying to do – that your book is one part of your life, an important one, but that it’s not your whole life, and so things always need to be kept in perspective. If I keep thinking that way, I’m hoping any negative reviews and set-backs won’t feel quite as bad…!

Posted in Debut author interviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

On Writing: Characters in Love with Jo Platt

Love stories in literature continue to be some of the most enduring. They’re not limited to one particular genre or set up. While some, like a meet-cute, can make you feel warm and fuzzy, others make you weep and ugly-cry with grief and some love stories make you feel sick, worried and rooting for its untimely demise.

So what’s the hardest thing about writing about love? How do you make the readers care about whether the characters’ romance comes together or happens at all? In this On Writing instalment, Jo Platt talks us through how she makes her readers fall in love with her characters’ love stories.

 

You Are Loved

The funny and up-lifting You Are Loved by Jo Platt is out today – 14th August 2017

 

How do you keep the reader rooting for your characters?

Well first and foremost, by rooting for them myself. A happy ending never feels like a foregone conclusion for me as I write, and I like to include at least the possibility of an alternative ending, for example when a character misses a crucial opportunity to reveal their feelings, or when another potential love interest enters the narrative.   So I’m just as eager to see how things work out for my characters as everybody else is, and I hope that my own curiosity and enthusiasm transmits to the reader.

Also, of course, it’s important for my protagonists to be relatable and ultimately likeable.  I say ultimately because I’m not always presenting them at their best.  As the novel opens, they may be at a professional or personal low, and miserable characters aren’t particularly engaging or sympathetic.  I counter that problem by encouraging the reader to judge them, in part at least, by their friends and family.  If a character is surrounded and loved by emotionally intelligent, interesting people, that reflects well on the character themselves, even if when they’re first introduced they’re wallowing in self-pity, or drowning in cynicism.  It gives them collateral, hinting at what they were and what they could be again, and making them attractive by association while we’re waiting for a better them to shine through.  It helps to make them a character for whom, from the off, everybody is keeping their fingers tightly crossed.

 

How do you avoid clichés and keep narratives fresh?

I don’t think I make a conscious effort to avoid clichés.  After all, some clichés are simply tried, tested and rather beautiful truths, aren’t they?  But I do make an effort to keep characters and situations as real and relatable as possible.  Hopefully this avoids things becoming unsubtle or trite.

With keeping things fresh in mind, I am aware that I read comparatively few romantic novels.  Again, I’m not sure that this is a conscious choice on my part, but I do feel that focusing too much on what others are writing, or what is popular, in your chosen genre isn’t always helpful.  Just tell your own story, in your own way.

And do keep your eyes and ears open: fresh narratives are all around you! People meet and fall in love in a thousand different ways and all you need is a starting point.  I had a friend who met her (eventual) husband through a newspaper personal column and then framed his ad and hung it in the hallway, where it has remained for the last twenty years.  Another realised she was in love with her friend of many years only when he said he was thinking of moving to the other end of the country.  And my mother seduced my father by slamming a door in his face.  These are just three of so many beginnings which have caught my interest, and which as an author I can transform and make my own, twisting the histories and shaping the characters. The possibilities and permutations are endless.

 

What is your favourite love story?

My own, of course.  It’s thirty years long and still ongoing.

 

You Are Loved by Jo Platt is published by Canelo today. Be sure to follow Jo on Twitter for consistent laugh-out-loud tweets: @JoPlattTweets

Posted in Advice for Authors, On Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On Writing: The Power of Setting with Erik Storey

A sense of place is pivotal when writing a novel. It’s important to hook your reader but also to keep them, and immerse them in the world you created. From the haunting moors of Wuthering Heights to the expansive Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings, the environment can create atmosphere, drama and even, as many have said before, become a character in its own right.

The latest instalment in the On Writing series looks at the power of setting with Erik Storey, author of the outstanding Clyde Barr series, resident of the Colorado high deserts and former ranch hand, wilderness guide, dogsled musher and hunter. Erik’s unique understanding and experience of his environment shines through in his debut Nothing Short of Dying and now in A Promise to Kill, the rip-roaring follow up which is out this week. The wilderness has never been more beautiful and brutal – make sure to check them out if you haven’t already.

A PROMISE TO KILL - revised cover

A PROMISE TO KILL - UK HB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Your setting is at the core of your writing, how did it affect the shape of your novels in terms of character, plot, tension, etc?

The setting is at the core because I believe it is extremely important, second only to the characters who roam and fight and love in the world that I’m describing. I actually came up with the idea for my first book by thinking of where I wanted it to take place. There aren’t many books that are set Colorado wilderness, so I decided to try and write one. Once I had the location and came up with characters tough enough to live in the area, the rest was relatively easy.

Setting is so important because of how it can be used to affect all that the question mentioned, and more. It can also become a character of its own. In a wilderness setting, storms and extreme temperature shifts can be used as villains, or as ways to raise tension and harass the characters. Same for traffic jams and stuck elevators if you set your novel in a major city. On the other hand, setting can be used as a sidekick for the characters if they are smart and use their environment to their advantage. The same storms and elevators could be used by a wily character as a way to better their odds against an enemy that doesn’t have the same knowledge of the setting.

 

What do you think is the most important thing to get right with your setting? Do you have any techniques that you use in order to ensure this?

I believe the number one thing to get right is the feeling of the place. This sounds obscure, like a grand generalization, but stay with me and I’ll explain. When you look back and think about a place you are fond of, or a place that you loathe with all your heart and soul, what do you remember? You remember how the place made you feel. This feeling is an accumulation of remembered stimuli and details, and these have to be spot on in order for the reader to feel the same way about a setting. If you are writing about a real place, then the small details need to be right because people live there or visit there and they want it to be right. And others want to get a genuine feel of the place, so the details help. Not too many, so that it doesn’t bog down the story, but enough to put the characters in a real world. The black gum marks on the sidewalks next to the streets that smell of urine in a city. Or the burble of the small creek lined by Aspen trees that smell of licorice when wet.

This brings me to another point, and an important and overlooked one in my opinion. Fiction is one of the few mediums that allow us to try and convey the sense of smell and taste. By all means use them. Have your characters go to a popular diner in the city, and describe one of the locals’ favorite dishes. If camping, have the characters eat the memory-evoking s’mores or a can of pork and beans. Describe the smells of the pine trees with a small breeze blowing through them, or the smell of exhaust and ocean that permeates cities by the sea.

 

You have first-hand experience living in the Colorado wilderness, how much research do you think is necessary for setting?

I think research is essential. First hand is best, if possible. If you can, walk the streets of the place you want to write about. Walk the trails. Talk to the people that live or visit there. Take notes on the weather, sunsets, smells, strange sights, and the small things that make the place different. These are the details that matter and make the setting real in the reader’s mind. Nowadays you can use Google Earth, YouTube and other internet tools to research, but you only get the audio and video of the place. Which are important, but not near as important as the things you can’t get from a movie or clip. Books allow us to tap into the other senses and bring in memories and feelings. Because of this, it is imperative that writers try and get the small things right. There is a reason so many writers place their books in the area that they live in and love.

 

If you were to write about any other place where would it be?

Because of an immense closeness with my area, I would say that I’d be leery to write about anywhere else. But if I did, I would want it to be similar in climate and peoples and vegetation. Semi-arid deserts or tall mountain ranges anywhere in the world would be acceptable, if I were to switch locales. Australia, the Himalayas, South Africa (or other smaller parts of Africa) would all be fun to write about, and my lead character Clyde would thrive in any of those spots. It would also be fun, considering how anti-technology and backwoods Clyde is, to put him into a city and see how he fares. The only problem there would be the research involved. I’m very similar to Mr. Barr, and would have almost as hard of a time researching the area as he would navigating it.

Which authors do you consider to be masters of setting and why?

There are so many that I admire and respect for their prowess in setting that it’s hard to narrow it down. I’ll try by naming a few of my favorites. There is a common theme running though the list, however, and it’s the fact that all of them are writing about a place they know and love.

  1. Louis L’Amour—He walked the land, sailed the seas, and fought the fights that he wrote about. His knowledge of place was amazing, as was his life. In fact, his autobiography is as fun to read as any of his Westerns.
  2. Wilbur Smith—I love his descriptions of Africa almost as much as he loves his continent.
  3. James Lee Burke—whether he is describing his beloved Louisiana, or his newer Montana environ, his setting descriptions are pure poetry. Almost no one describes things more eloquently.
  4. CJ Box—The writer describes his wonderful state of Wyoming better than anyone, and that’s because he truly loves where he lives.
  5. John D. MacDonald—His Travis McGee series was a major inspiration behind my Clyde Barr character, and I try to reread the series every year. With each reread, I notice more and more how well MacDonald described the Florida that he was worried was being destroyed by tourists and Industry. He was also a master of describing something brilliantly in one line or less. An important skill if you want to write fast-paced thrillers.
  6. Edward Abbey—One of my favorite writers, and it was his Desert Solitaire that showed me how to write about the desert that I know and love. I’ll never write with the same skill, but I believe we have the same devotion to the land we love.
  7. Jim Harrison—Another of my all-time favorite writers. The only one who can beat Burke when it comes to a poetic description, and the only one who can beat MacDonald with brevity. This is probably because Jim was a poet first, and a novelist second. I think we can all learn from this, and remember to include poetry in our reading.

A Promise to Kill is published by Simon & Schuster in UK on 10th August and by Scribner in the US on 14th August. Follow Erik on Twitter: @ErikStorey

Posted in Advice for Authors, On Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Agency Newsletter: July

NewsletterJuly17.jpg

Martina Cole’s unstoppable success

It has been 25 years since Martina Cole’s debut novel

Dangerous Lady was published and in a career which has seen her break almost every publishing record there is – she holds more No.1 original bestsellers than any other author with each novel outselling the last – she’s still topping the charts.

The paperback edition of Betrayal, her twenty-third novel, has gone straight to No.1 not only in the paperback charts but in overall bestsellers chart, holding the spot for two weeks.

Martina’s next novel, Damaged, hails the return of DCI Kate Burrows who is featured in Hard Girls, Broken and The Ladykiller. It will be published in hardback in September this year.

Unmatched in talent and unstoppable in success – she is truly iconic and a true ‘one off’.

Amazon’s Bestsellers 2017

Three of our authors have made the Top 10 of Amazon’s most sold e-books of 2017 so far!

TM Logan’s Lies, Kerry Fisher’s The Silent Wife and BA Paris’ The Breakdown have been fixtures in the Kindle Top 20 since their release and this accolade reflects that fantastic success.

Congratulations to all!

BA Paris – a double NY Times bestseller

BA Paris has conquered the US, again – and with two books.

The Breakdown went straight to No.10 on the New York Times hardback charts and Behind Closed Doors, a hardback bestseller in 2016, shot to No.5 on the paperback charts.

BA Paris has enjoyed worldwide success with her debut novel Behind Closed Doors which, so far, has sold in 36 territories.

The Breakdown has also enjoyed great success, USA Today said ‘A story with a ratcheting sense of unease — a tale of friendship and love, sanity and the terrible unravelling of it.’. BA Paris’ next novel Bring Me Back will be out in February 2018 – we can’t wait.

Tana French wins

The No.2 New York Times bestselling author Tana French was awarded the 2017 Strand Magazine Critics Award for Best Novel for her book The Trespasser.

This marks Tana’s fifth best-novel nomination and her first win.

This year she was up against heavyweight authors such as Michael Connelly and Val McDermid.

Congratulations, Tana!

CWA Daggers 2017

We are thrilled that James Carol has been shortlisted for the CWA Dagger Steel Dagger 2017 for his heart-stopping thriller The Killing Game, published under his pseudonym J.S. Carol.

In The Killing Game, a masked man with a score to settle takes the Hollywood elite hostage – what does he want and why?

Winners will be announced at the Daggers Awards on 26th October.

Congratulations, James!

DA Children’s Agency

Kim Slater’s third outstanding novel has been longlisted for the Ealing Teen Read 2017. The award is voted for by schools in the area by pupils in years 8 and 9.

Congratulations Kim!

The annual Young Adults Literature Conference  saw three DA Children’s authors appear at events. Deirdre Sullivan, Dave Rudden and Olivia Levez took part in panels and workshops across the weekend.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Newsletter | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On Writing: Villains with Chris Carter

We all need someone to hate. It’s good for the soul, we reckon. And while it’s not that useful to hate a real person, literature gives us a plethora of scumbags to choose from: Hannibal Lecter, Cruella de Vil, Voldemort, Iago – all so absolutely awful that you wish them dead.

But how do you tap into that part of people’s brain? And how do you stop the villain from veering into the pantomime and ending up with a moustache-twirling man tying a blonde woman to the railway line ?

Chris Carter, master of monsters and author of the #1 Sunday Times bestseller The Caller, tells us how to get the most out of your villainous characters.

TheCaller-PB-BE-CAREFUL

The Caller is out in paperback  – get it here

Do you get inspiration from true crime?

Yes, I do.  I think that every crime fiction writer draws from true crime. In my case, I do draw a lot from past cases that I either worked in or read about during my time as a criminal behaviour psychologist.

When writing a villain how do you ensure that they are realistic? Is realism the most effective tool to scare your reader?

I do believe that realism is the most effective tool that not only myself, but any crime fiction author can use if his/her intention is to scare his/her readers.  The reason for that is simple psychology – when it comes to stories, being those in books, films, soap operas, whatever, we as humans tend to become more emotional when we can relate to the plot, scene, passage, character and so on. If an author creates a villain who seems to be too over the top, too unbelievable, most readers will fail to fear the character for that exact same reason.  For example – no matter how much you like the story, or how much you want to believe it; subconsciously your brain knows that no real person can shoot fire through their eyes.  That subconscious knowledge will stop the reader from becoming truly scared.  But if the villain is a character who the reader could truly visualize, someone who the reader could picture hiding inside is/her own house, or approaching him/her at a bar or something, they would undoubtedly fear the character a lot more.

All I do to try to ensure that my villains are as realistic as possible is – I try to imagine him/her as my neighbour, or the shop assistant down the road, or the pub lord around the corner. Someone believable. Someone who any reader wouldn’t have to stretch his/her imagination any further than the person sitting next to him/her on a bus to visualize the villain in their heads.  Don’t write your villain too quirky, too exceptional, too crazy, too fantastic, too anything.

If it helps, think of someone you know and base your villain on him/her.

If you could give 3 tips of things to avoid when writing villains what would they be?

Well, please refer back to question two, but in any case:

1 – Don’t make your villain too unrealistic.

2 – Don’t make your villains crimes too unbelievable, unless you’re writing a 007-style story, or anything on those lines.

3 – Don’t take anyone’s advice. It’s YOUR villain

When writing do you imagine the villain or the crime first?

I have no set way of doing it.  I have created villains where I first thought of the crimes that would be committed and I have also created villains where their image came to me first.

Which villain/s in literature, film or theatre do you consider to be the greatest and why?

I’m afraid that I will sound quite cliché on this one, because I will have to go with Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Doe in Seven and Kaiser Soze in The Usual Suspects.  The reason I chose them is quite simple.  They are all very believable, and so are their crimes.

The Caller was published in paperback on 27th July by Simon & Schuster. Follow Chris on Facebook here 

Posted in Advice for Authors, On Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

On Writing: Plotting Advice from Tim Weaver

For a reader, there’s nothing better than a book that twists, turns and surprises you – all tied up nicely with a satisfying end. It’s fair to say that while books like that are easy to read, they’re certainly not easy to write. So in this instalment of our On Writing series, we talk to Tim Weaver, whose ingenious plots never let a reader down, and ask him how he keeps the reader guessing to the very end.

I Am Missing

I Am Missing by Tim Weaver is out on 27th July – get it here

What’s your starting point when coming up with a plot?

All of my books are about weird, unexplained disappearances, so because they’re part of a series, I suppose I have a slight advantage, in as much as I know they’re going to begin with someone going missing. But, even if you’re not writing a series, the theory’s pretty much the same: you come up with a hook, something that’s going to jump-start the novel and immediately get readers interested. Once you have the hook – a man gets onto a Tube train but never gets off again; a family vanish midway through dinner, leaving the table set and the food cooking on the stove; a man with no memory searches for himself – you have the foundation on which to build a novel.

But the hook is only a foundation. I think a mistake that’s often made is to believe that one cool idea is enough. Sometimes, in very rare circumstances, it is; very occasionally, you can hold an entire novel together with one amazing concept. However, most of the time, you need to work harder than that. So many thrillers run out of gas in the last third because they’ve been built on just a single, neat idea that has already run its course by the midway point.

Your plots are very intricate, with real surprises. How do you make sure you’re always one step ahead of the reader?

Meticulous planners will definitely disagree with this – I’m thinking of people like Jeffrey Deaver here, who writes plans almost as long as the finished novel – but, for me, a lot of staying ahead of the reader comes from consciously not planning. Of course, ultimately, you have to approach a novel in the way you find most comfortable: planning gives you a terrific overview of the book from the very start of the writing process; not planning is a terrifying leap into the unknown. But where a lack of a plan starts to make an impact, I believe, is when it comes to delivering effective twists, avoiding over-used thriller tropes and – most importantly – constantly surprising and exciting the reader.

At a basic level, if you’re writing a twist that you never thought about until you got there – in essence, if you’ve surprised yourself, because something you’ve written was never part of any plan – there’s a very good chance you’ll surprise the reader too. And these moments can only come from that organic approach. If you know a twist is coming a mile off because it’s been in your plan from day one, the novel will be bent and shaped in preparation for that twist, giving readers a hint – consciously or not – of what’s coming down the line  (Remember, crime and thriller readers are smart. They read more thrillers than you do, so they know all the tricks. Outwitting them is very hard, which is another reason why there are benefits to a less formulaic approach.)

Sometimes, of course, none of that matters because your twist’s so mind-blowingly good no amount of set up can ruin it, but a great twist has to make sense, and it has to remain true to the story you’ve told, so you have to lay the groundwork for it, and in that groundwork, there will be some foreshadowing. There will be, because there has to be. So there’s definitely a lot of value from being more free and easy with your approach to plotting – in theory, because it’s more spontaneous, it helps disguise some of that groundwork.

Of course, as I’ve already hinted, this is also a scary and frequently very stressful way of working, because you’re never ‘ahead’ of the story – you’re discovering what the characters are like, up to, the decisions they’re making and the consequences of those decisions at the same time as they are. And, again, it’s important to underline that my method might not be for everyone. Some authors may argue that it’s actually detrimental to the writing process because it adds an extra layer of stress and anxiety to the mix. But I’m already a very anxious writer, constantly trapped in a whirlpool of doubt and self-inflicted stress, so what’s a little more?

Do you have any methods  for keeping track of all the aspects of the plot and how they fit together?

It’s possible that I’m the worst person in the world to ask this too, because I do so little planning. I may write a couple of pages of set-up at the start – covering, say, the first 10-20,000 words – and I’ll always have a relatively clear idea of where it’s going to finish, but everything in between is up for grabs. At about 70,000 words, as the book slowly begins to make a turn towards the finale, I may start to write out important things to remember on Post-It notes and stick them up, but at no stage will I commit anything to a proper plan. Those last 30, 40, 50,000 words are huge: this is when you deliver on everything you’ve set up, so those great, umprompted moments are even more important now, because they will be what readers remember.

Normally, if you’ve grown your book organically like this, it means – when you’re done – you’ve got things that don’t quite tie up or fit together, and that’s fine. I normally do a second run-through, fixing loose ends and tightening those twists (sometimes changing them completely!). It isn’t a rewrite, not even a second edit, just a really focused attempt at ensuring the book keeps readers on their toes. (This lack of drafting, or rewrites, or whatever you want to call it, is a consequence of another weird habit of mine: I can’t move on to the next chapter until I’ve got the current one as perfect as possible. If you’re a speed writer, who prefers to get a first draft done quickly and then go back and edit, edit, edit, this will obviously be different.)

Of course, at the end of the writing process (it takes me 10 months to write a book), it’s very hard to judge how effective anything in the book is – I’m lucky that I have an agent and an editor to help me – so once you think you’ve done as much as you can, it’s definitely worth giving it to someone you trust to read. Ask them to be honest. Honesty, as much as it can sometimes hurt, really is the best policy. However good you think you are, you can always be better.

Have you ever painted yourself into a corner, plot-wise? If so, what steps did you take to tackle the issue?

This, unfortunately, is one of the worst parts about not planning. Very often, you will write yourself into corners, and won’t be able to see a way out. When this happens, I normally take a day or two off to clear my head. I go walking, which is often where I do my best thinking, or I’ll do really boring things like admin, or VAT returns, or really great things like answering reader emails. Basically, anything but the book itself. The worst thing you can do, I think, is chain yourself to the desk and keep writing. Often, in a ten-month project, I’ll have moments where I don’t have a clue where I’m supposed to go next, but I always, always find a solution. It might not come straight away, but it will come. So don’t panic – this is a perfectly normal part of being a non-planner.

There will also end up being lots of times when you’re really trying to make a character arc or a storyline work, but in your heart of hearts, you just know it’s not happening. The reason a lot of people don’t turn back from there is because they look at all the words they’ve wasted – sometimes thousands of them – and feel frightened/guilty/dismayed about all the hours they’ve ploughed in and see the culling of those efforts as dispiriting and reductive.

Cull them. If you don’t think it works, it’s because it probably doesn’t. If you’re going to avoid rigid plans, you have to accept this will happen and factor it into your writing time. However, even if you don’t end up using what you’ve just spent a couple of weeks writing, never throw it away. I’ve re-used tons of stuff I cut from one novel in the next, or the one after that. Sometimes what I cut at the time I absolutely loved (though most of the time I didn’t!), but even if you’ve written something gorgeous, ultimately it has to adhere to the world you’ve built in this novel. That’s one of the most important things: not trying to shoehorn in something you like because you can’t face dumping it. Nothing is ever wasted, even if you decide never to use it again, because writing itself is a constant learning process.

 

I Am Missing is published on 27th July by Michael Joseph PRH. Follow Tim on Twitter: TimWeaverBooks

Posted in Advice for Authors, On Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment