Tag Archives: aspiring authors

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

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

On Writing: The Magic in Storytelling with Polly Ho-Yen

Do you remember those stories that used to make you feel like you could do anything? The magic that was sprinkled in your world from the chapters of books like Matilda, A Little Princess, Tom’s Midnight Garden or the Chronicles of Narnia?

Today’s instalment in our On Writing series is from Polly Ho-Yen and examines the art of magic in storytelling.

Polly is a critically-acclaimed and Carnegie nominated author who writes especially wonderful middle grade fiction. Her books, whilst real world set, are peppered with magic and the extraordinary.

As her latest novel, Fly Me Home, has just been published, we wanted to share Polly’s tips for creating those extra-special magic moments in children’s fiction…

FLY ME HOME

Your novels always include an element of wonder – why do you think it is important to have this in books for children?

Children are full of wonder. They are curious, amazed and fascinated by the world. I’m always reminded by this when I spend any time with my young nephew (who is captivated at the moment by switching a lamp on and off.) Writing an element of wonder into my books for children is something that has happened quite naturally for me and not exactly by design. It is though perhaps heavily influenced by being part of many wondrous children’s lives as a primary school teacher and now, as an auntie, and I see its importance in its reflection of its audience.

I like to throw around the idea of stories happening in a world that is just like our own, but with one thing that’s different. I then explore how that one thing has a knock-on effect on everything and everyone around it. Having this is in mind has also led me to delving deeper into wonder – and so perhaps it’s particularly important as a way of investigating difference.

 

Does the magical element of storytelling need to represent something more significant or can it be there purely to entertain?

 I’m often surprised when I’m reading over what I’ve written how themes and issues are interwoven throughout the story that I made no conscious decision to put there. I might think that a magical aspect of a story I’m writing is merely entertaining. I might believe that it is designed to engage the reader (and I hope it is!) but when I look back on it, with the benefit of perspective, I realise what my unconscious was really trying to do. I then see the representation, and its significance – the message that lay hidden, even to me!

 

Are there any books/authors in particular that inspire or influence your work? What do they do well?

 Too many to list! I’m always grateful to the authors who wrote the books that I’ve reread and reread and never tire of – To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diddakoi, Northern Lights are just a few. Reading the current (and brilliant) work of authors writing currently – Patrick Ness, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, Meg Rosoff – made me itch to pick up a pen and get going myself. I think what they all do fantastically well is creating a world and characters that feel incredibly real to me.

 

Is magic just for kids?

Magic is for anyone who has an imagination and likes to use it.

 Fly Me Home was published by Random House Children’s Books on 6th July. Make sure to follow Polly on Twitter: @bookhorse

 

On Writing: Pace and Tension with Tom Bale

The latest instalment in the On Writing series, which features our authors who are no longer debuts, examines the art of pace and tension. Tom Bale is well on his way to becoming a classic thriller writer. In his signature style, he takes ordinary people, often families, and throws them into extraordinary and terrifying situations -the bestselling All Fall Down is a particularly scary but brilliant one!

On the publication day of his latest nail-biting thriller, Each Little Lie, we wanted to ask the seasoned author just how he keeps the reader on the edge of their seat…

Each little Lie FINAL.jpg

Are you consciously structuring the pace and tension in the first draft of the novel or is this something that you consider more in your editing?

My first drafts tend to be quite messy and unwieldy, but fortunately I love the process of getting stuck into a really intensive rewrite! For me, the twin priorities of the first draft are to get the story down in a coherent way and bring the characters to life. Having said that, I do pay attention to pace and tension from the start, because these components are so fundamental to the success of a thriller. One of the clearest indications that I’m falling short is if I find myself losing interest in a particular scene or a storyline – that means it’s time to back up and change something.

During the editing stage, a lot of work can be done to speed up the pace and increase tension, and this is where some of the famous screenwriting tips come in handy: start each scene as late as possible, cut away anything that doesn’t move the story forward, etc.

 

Are there particular techniques you use to heighten the tension, or pace? If so, what are they?

If you’re writing thrillers, the essential thing is to create both empathy and suspense. The reader has to fear that something bad is going to happen to someone they care about. To that end, there are various techniques that can be employed. The key is to withhold information, introducing a series of little mysteries or questions and then gradually revealing the answers. It’s a delicate balancing act: release too much information and the tension is lost, but not enough and the reader may become frustrated or bored.

Even if you’re aiming for a breakneck pace, it’s important to have some variety. The slower moments give the reader time to breathe, and these scenes are a great opportunity to build character. Interest can be maintained by introducing new questions, or perhaps a little foreshadowing of what is to come. One of my favourite ways of raising tension is to allow the reader to know something the protagonist doesn’t about the dangers that lie ahead.

 

What is your signature masterstroke in creating real tension that shocks and grips the reader?

I’m not sure if I have any masterstrokes as such, but I do always try to introduce a few twists or setbacks that come out of nowhere. Even if a novel has been plotted in detail, new ideas tend to pop up during the writing and I’ve learned to trust my instinct and go with them, even if I have no idea how they’ll tie in with the main storyline. It could be an entirely new character, or perhaps an element of someone’s backstory – and it’s a wonderful feeling when I approach the final quarter of the book and suddenly see how the random idea I introduced two hundred pages earlier can dovetail neatly with the climax of the novel. Of course, it doesn’t always happen that way, but any extraneous additions can be removed during the rewrites.

 

What storytellers do you consider to be the greatest at creating and controlling pace and tension?

There are many writers that I admire in this respect, but I’d say Lee Child is an absolute master. Even during the quieter sections there’s an absolute compulsion to turn the page, and I think a lot of that comes from his prose. The sentences are so perfectly formed, and build on each other with such a compelling rhythm, that it’s almost impossible not to get drawn in: “Just one more line, one more paragraph, one more chapter…” and then you realise you’ve stayed up half the night to finish it.

Each Little Lie is published by Bookouture today. Be sure to follow Tom Bale on Twitter: @t0mbale