Categories
Advice for Authors On Writing

On Writing: Family Dynamics with Annie Murray

The dynamics of a family always make for a good story. You probably think your own family is not very interesting and that you’re just like any other. But it’s the small idiosyncrasies of each family member and the relationships between them that never cease to pique people’s interest – and makes for excellent reading.

In this On Writing post, the Sunday Times bestselling author Annie Murray talks about writing family dynamics. As a prolific and successful author of over 20 sagas, she knows how to write a great drama and tells us why it’s always interesting to keep it in the family.

Sisters of Gold.jpg

How do you do justice to the complexities of family dynamics in fiction?

 That’s quite a question. While it’s true that very often people feel typecast in their family – she’s the clever one, or the one who’s always in a mess and so on – this is fatal in fiction if that’s as far as it goes. It’s important to be able to identify characters and not get them muddle because they are too similar, so of course they need defining characteristics. But I think the main thing is to introduce characters in a way so that you can recognize them readily, but to add layers, contradictions, cross-currents – above all in the main characters. If a character is always an ‘angel’ and sickly sweet, never thinks or does anything anyone could disapprove of or dislike, they are unbelievable and in the end, how can anyone else identify with someone like that?

I often write books in which there are large families. If the book covers a long period, there may be a child born near the beginning who, until they have grown up a bit, I have no idea what their personality is or their role in the novel, but a role for them arrives later – like watching a ‘real’ person develop. And in being born into that particular family, they have found a place in something that is like a constellation. Family members occupy a space that makes a unique pattern for that particular family. That pattern is held in place by the ebb and flow of the way personalities interact and how people forge their identity differently from each other. All this gives energy to the family as a distinct shape, which may shift over time – people leave or take on a different role – but the characters need to be held distinct in it. I’m not sure if that makes sense!

 

 Novels often depict families – how do you take a fresh angle?

I think any family is a fresh angle of itself because the dynamics of each are unique. When I’m planning a novel I don’t look for ‘issues’– I like to write books about life in the round which necessarily includes quite a variety of events and moods and often covers quite a long period of time. What makes any family interesting is its very particular character, which, as Tolstoy pointed out, makes it ‘unhappy in its own way.’

 

 Do you have a clear idea in your head who each character will be and what their role in the family/novel will be?

No – hardly ever. I find it’s a matter of focus and time. Once you start thinking about a novel, characters seem to present themselves as the figures you are going to spend time with. Something comes through, a kind of energy that says, I’m the one this time. They are not in any way fully formed – that has to be worked on, and thought out consciously as well as intuited. Sometimes I have to do a Q & A with a character, often asking them really basic questions. It always helps to know where they have come from and something of their birth family’s dynamics – even if that is not in the story itself.

I have tried many times to plot and plan everything because it seems like a way of alleviating anxiety in writing the novel, but it only ever works up to a certain point. I find that the only way to know characters is to write them. It’s very like getting to know a person you have newly met. As the number of encounters you have grows, as you talk more and see that person forced up against challenges, you get a feeling of what motivates them. You work out what it is they want, what their underlying emotional complexities are. The more major the character is in the novel, the more time you spend with them. Once I’ve reached the end of the first draft I usually feel, aha, I’m really beginning to see who you are now. But it takes re-writes to get that better in place. A bit like turning the colour up in a black and white photograph.

 

 Do you use story circles or any other kind of story-boarding device to help you fine tune your ideas?

 I really don’t. Obviously I make notes but it’s more about doing the writing and thinking in between, asking yourself, ‘who is this person?’ What are the things that have marked them, what drives them, what do they fear and long for?

 

 Why do you think that stories about ‘the family’ continue to be popular and interesting?

 ‘Home is where we start from’ as Donald Winnicott said. That’s one of the things that make orphans so fascinating and touching – because home in that way is missing for them. But in general, it’s an experience everyone has in common – in an endless variety of ways. And the more we learn about the impact of early years experiences on infants, the more true it becomes that family is absolutely the cauldron of who we become. I sometimes think the ‘saga’ genre should be called the ‘Family Album’ genre as there’s going to be something in these stories that nearly everyone can relate to.

 

What other authors, in your opinion, have nailed family drama and why?

There are so many. One that springs to mind in terms of what I’ve been saying, is in a book most people have read; the way Jane Austen differentiates the characters of the Bennett daughters in Pride and Prejudice and shows the family dynamics at work through them. It’s even harder when all siblings are the same gender (Barbara Kingsolver does something amazing with this in The Poisonwood Bible with all the main voices being female.) Writers of regional/family sagas also have to do a lot of it as we often write about large families!

 Annie’s new novel Sister’s of Gold, the first of a trilogy set in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, is out now, get it here. Follow Annie on Twitter: @AMurrayWriter

Categories
Advice for Authors Darley Anderson Authors On Writing

On Writing: The Difficult Second Novel with Gillian McAllister

 

On the publication day of her outstanding new novel Anything You Do Say, Gillian McAllister tells us about the pressures of writing a second book after your debut novel was a Sunday Times bestseller…

Anything you do say - amazon.jpg

I remember the exact moment I had the idea for my second novel, Anything You Do Say. I had wanted to write a Sliding Doors novel for years, and had been brainstorming ideas with my boyfriend. And then – out of nowhere – two ideas came together: what if a novel followed a woman committing a crime on her way home from a night out, and then split, following a strand where she hands herself in and goes to trial for attempted murder, and a strand where she leaves the scene and goes on the run? I thought it was an interesting concept: that a single second could change your life forever, but showing both outcomes.

I emailed my agent, Clare, and she replied immediately, saying I LOVE THIS IDEA.

Two months later, she sold my first novel, Everything But The Truth, to Penguin. Suddenly, I was under contract with a two-book deal, and the big idea I’d been wrestling with would have to be delivered at the end of the year. I was still working full-time as a lawyer, and I had a moment, standing in my kitchen late one night, thinking of the scale of my novel, where I thought: what have I done? I wasn’t sure I was a good enough – or experienced enough – write to pull it off.

I made sure I had a first draft down by the April, but the strand where my protagonist, Joanna, goes on the run needed more work. In the spring, I pasted all of those scenes into a new document, and tried to forget about the rest of the book. I wanted each parallel narrative to stand on its own. It was  hot spring/summer, and I spent it re-writing that strand of Anything You Do Say in the the garden, my cat for company.

The characters needed work, too. One of the biggest issues with writing a parallel narrative plot is that there is twice as much character development: in one strand, my heroine is a fugitive, on the run, hiding things from her husband, Reuben. In the other, she’s a defendant, in the justice system. Her husband develops differently in each strand as he faces different problems. Likewise, her best friend makes a different life choice in each version, because what she sees Joanna go through has an impact on her. It took several months to get the characters down. But something still wasn’t working. I remember sitting in my garden one evening, the summer air warm against my legs, and wondering if I was ever going to face up to the fact that there was something wrong with my novel. It seemed too big, somehow, on that July evening. The stakes were too high. I went to bed and hoped it would resolve itself.

In the meantime, while also working full time, I was editing my debut, Everything But The Truth, and beginning to promote it. I could see how distracting that would be, and so I was determined to finish and deliver Anything You Do Say before Everything But The Truth came out.

In the very early autumn, I was talking to my father in my kitchen while we waited for a pot of tea to brew, and he said, ‘really, split narrative novels are about a whole life changing, aren’t they?’ and it was as though everything slotted into place. Of course: the novel shouldn’t end with my heroine’s trial, and with the result of her attempts to cover up the trial: time should move on, and show how her entire life life is affected by the moment, the split-second decision, in the first chapter. Of course.

That night, the weather crisp and cool and the air drifting in through my open spare room window, I wrote a plan for what would become the final third of Anything You Do Say. As I wrote it, I got a very specific feeling: it’s working. It was going to work.

I wrote fast, the nights blurring into one. I wrote in train stations with gloves on, in Halfords while my car had its MOT, and before work in coffee shops. Finally, in the late autumn, it was done.

I had often worried about the tricky second novel, but – as is often the way – it wasn’t tricky for the reasons I expected it might have been. It wasn’t to do with contracts or the pressure of being published, and being read. It was just that particular book; my tricky, sprawling, extra-special second novel. It’s published this week, and I hope you enjoy it if you read it.

Anything You Do Say is published by Michael Joseph today, find it here. You can follow Gillian on Twitter: 

Categories
Advice for Authors On Writing Uncategorized

On Writing: Scaring Kids with Helen Grant

Halloween may be behind us, but that’s not to say that the scary fun is over.

I (Kristina) was one of those children who just loved being scared. It started with a book called The Finger Eater by Dick King-Smith. A book that had such an impact on my brother that he shoved blankets and clothes down the side of his bed so the Finger Eater wouldn’t gobble up his pinkies in the night. Then I moved on to some Robin Jarvis, Goosebumps, and later Cliff McNish’s Doomspell series and the classic (and fantastic!) Point Horror series – highlights include Twins and The Babysitter, thanks R.L. Stine.

Now, for a good spooking, I read Stephen King and Shirley Jackson, but it’s the childhood scares that stay with me the longest. They’re the stories I can recall most vividly. We’ve had a number of conversations about Point Horror in the office and EVERYONE interrupts each other with, “Do you remember the one…” It’s something special.

Today we have an author who knows a thing or two about scaring kids, Helen Grant. Her outstanding YA novel The Vanishing of Katharina Linden left me utterly chilled – read it if you haven’t yet. We asked Helen all about how she gets her inspiration and what she thinks makes a great scary novel.

vanishing-act-of-katharina-linden US

What are the three key building blocks when writing a scary novel?

One of the most important things is to remember that a scary novel is meant to be SCARY, not so gory that it’s horrifying. For me, the pleasure of reading a scary book is that spine tingling feeling.

Secondly, I think creating relatable characters is really important. If the reader doesn’t empathise with the hero or heroine, they won’t feel the same sense of tension about what happens to them.

It’s also key to have a really strong plot with lots of thrilling scenes. In a short ghost story, you can build up to one single terrifying event. In a full length novel, you have to maintain that tension for a lot longer, so you have to include lots of scary moments as you go along.

 

Where do you draw inspiration from?

I love to visit scary and atmospheric places, and many of them end up featuring in my books and short stories. Places I have visited in the past include ruined castles and churches, catacombs, a deserted railway tunnel and the Brussels sewers!

I also love folklore and legends, and some of these have definitely inspired my work. My first book, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, includes local German folktales retold in my own words.

Glenfarg railway tunnels

How do you avoid clichés and write with real menace and tension?

That’s one of the biggest challenges, I think. If you are reworking folk tales or creating a plot about some horrible secret buried in the past, obviously you are going to be covering old ground to some extent. There are also certain expectations of a creepy story. My teenage daughter says she reads ghost stories especially for the clichés!!

I think there are several things the writer can do. It’s useful to read the same kind of thing you are trying to write. I love thrillers and ghost stories so I read loads of them. This means that you become familiar with what has already been done many times. A ghost haunting a deserted house is pretty old; if you can think of a really unusual reason for the haunting, it becomes a lot more intriguing.

I think the other thing is that the details of the story should really bring the characters and setting to life. If you can share the character’s terror and absorb all the striking details of a scene, it makes it so much more vivid.

 

What is the scariest book/story you have read?

Hmmm, that’s a very tough question. When I was a child, I think the book that scared me more than any other was – oddly – a Victorian anthology called The Silver Fairy Book. It always astonishes me, the things people thought were suitable for kids in the past! There are various grotesque stories in it, but the one that stands out is The Palace of Vanity, translated from the French. It’s about a place where everyone’s wishes come true, but in horrible ways. For example there is a woman who wishes for a “wasp waist” and becomes so thin that she cannot stand up any more for fear of snapping. It’s horrible! Brrrr.

As an adult, I found Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road, about a father trying to protect his son in a post-apocalyptic landscape, so unbearably tense that I have only ever read it once. It’s still on my bookshelf, but I can’t bear to open it again.

If I want a pleasurable scare, though, I read the ghost stories of M.R.James. Some of those give me the creeps so badly that my eyes water!

 

Is there a big difference between writing to scare children and adults? Obviously less gory but what else?

I think there are lines I wouldn’t cross when writing for young people.

As well as my young adult novels, I write short ghost stories for adults, and in some of those, the ending can be quite grim. Well, okay, in practically all of them, the ending is very grim…

In my young adult novels, people do die, and horrible things do happen, but I can’t imagine writing one in which every good character died at the end and the villain got away scot free. I like a sense of justice to prevail at the end. I also like to show my hero or heroine actively battling to bring about that justice – taking control. In some of my adult stories, there is a sense that the protagonist is being carried along by events, or that their own failings (greed, naivety, selfishness) lead to their downfall. My young adult protagonists are more sympathetic characters than that, and they also try to take control of the situation. Lin, the heroine of The Glass Demon, is pretty much the only proper adult in her family, even though she’s only seventeen.

Follow Helen Grant on Twitter: @helengrantsays

Categories
Advice for Authors On Writing

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

Categories
Advice for Authors On Writing

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

Categories
Advice for Authors On Writing

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

 

Categories
Advice for Authors On Writing

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

Categories
On Writing

On Writing: Olivia Levez and The Second Book

For a debut author, the publication of your first novel feels like a dream come true. An exciting and very rewarding end to, possibly, years of blood, sweat and tears.

But now you must write your second novel which comes with a stricter deadline and the added pressure of living up to the hype and enthusiasm of your first. It’s known to some authors as Second Book Syndrome. So what are the some of the problems you come up against? And how do you deal with them without pulling all your hair out and eating every single thing in the fridge (including the mystery condiments)?

In the second part of our On Writing series, Olivia Levez talks about her experiences writing The Circus, the follow-up novel to the critically acclaimed The Island.

P.S. Olivia really had nothing to worry about as The Circus is an exceptional YA novel with a truly distinctive voice – check it out!
Olivia Levez The Circus launch
Olivia at the launch for The Circus

Writing a second book is hard. Really hard. The first one is written for yourself, with the freedom to explore, to be creative, to find your own style, to dip in and out of different writing methods, to lose yourself in words. That feeling of being in the zone, utterly at one with your writing and your passion. No one’s looking over your shoulder, not really.

Then comes the second, and the deadline looms just as you’re in mid publication frenzy for your first ever published book. This time it’s different: as well as writing the thing, you have your daily life to maintain, complete with job, (in my case lesson planning, teaching, exam marking), and family commitments and all of the tiny things that make up your daily existence. Eating. Food. That sort of thing. But this time, there’s another set of pressures, because now you have to learn how to be a self promotion guru, a whizz at keeping up with the white noise and nuances of social media; an organiser of events, school visits, trips to London, split train tickets, best Premier Inn offers; an arranger of school assemblies, book tours, book sales.

And somehow, in the midst of all of this, you have to try to find the time and head space to write another book. You have to keep your head clear as reviews come in, news of others’ successes, triumphs, fellow authors who all seem to be doing bigger and better things than you. You have to not cringe as you post yet another promo author post on Facebook, wondering whether your friends are truly sick of the sight of you and your damned book yet.

It’s hard. And scary.

I hit the wall three times at 30,000 words with The Circus and each time had to start from scratch. It got so that I started to sweat as my word-count crept up to the 27,000 mark, wondering when that truly awful blankness and book hatred would strike. And it did. Every time. By far my best circus act with this one was Hitting The Wall: a death defying feat of pure unperformance and inaction.

Slam. Three times.

What should I do? My deadline was scarily close, and all I really had to show for it was a girl named Willow and a few nicely described circus scenes. What did she want? I wasn’t sure. Why was she running away? I didn’t really know. Where was she actually running to? Nope. Didn’t know that one either.

I did have her voice though. I knew she had a story to tell, if I could only access it and stop panicking. In the end I took a deep breath and sent my agent, Clare Wallace, an email with the header: HELP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

She phoned me straight away and listened calmly as I hiccupped my way through all of my worries and frets. Within the hour she had got my deadline extended, offered practical help with my upcoming launch and reassured me that she got this a lot from debut authors and I wasn’t alone. Immediately the huge burden had lifted and I was able to focus on enjoying the publication of The Island.

Clare gave me permission not to write anything at all for a few weeks. And paradoxically, because I wasn’t supposed to be writing, the ideas came flooding in. I grabbed the dog, took myself off to my caravan and sat outside the pub with a pint of SA, staring over unspeakably beautiful Cardigan Bay, daydreaming.

And that’s when it came to me. Willow needed a friend. Of course she did. She needed someone to complement her spoilt selfishness and lighten up the darker moments of her experience of being on the streets. I thought about my favourite film, The Midnight Cowboy, the poignant tale of a naïve country boy seeking his fortune in New York City, starring Jon Voight as Joe Buck and Dustin Hoffman as his trickster friend, Ratso. That was it:

Willow Stephens needed her Ratso.

So Suz was born, Willow’s companion through all of her adventures. She was already present in my story, although I hadn’t realised it. In an early scene I had a brief description of a homeless girl feeding ham to the pigeons in Charing Cross, and this girl grew to become Suz, Willow’s friend and circus manager.

Next, how to fix the setting? Originally, The Circus was set in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, an evocative town which manages to be seedy, magical, squalid and glamorous all at the same time. I’d visited Plovdiv the previous autumn as part of my research and watched children throwing each other up into the air on trampolines outside its Cirque Balkanski. Miniature ponies pulled at trampled grass in the circus grounds – a carpark outside Lidl. I sat in our hire car, scribbling notes and watching. I loved the juxtaposition between the tawdry and the surreal. Those descriptions made their way straight into my circus adventure, but I kept drawing to a halt every time I tried to get Willow there. How to get a runaway to Bulgaria? I didn’t have enough technical information, hadn’t had time to travel by train to follow her possible journey.

I tried setting it in Paris, made her a stowaway in a coach (that was the second draft that grinded to a half at 30,000 words). No good. Panic.

Then I visited my brother in Hastings. Immediately I stepped off the train I knew I had found my setting. Hastings has it all: edge, street performers, a creative vibe, down-at-heel bits, upmarket bits, tattiness, an ineffably lovely seafront and plenty of weird and wonderful places for Willow to stay as she attempted to find the circus and herself.

Suz. Hastings: the missing ingredients. The rest was a whizz to write, a breeze after all of the juggling acts, the tightrope walk, the knife edge.

Ultimately, there was the final performance: an amazing book launch at my school, complete with talented student and staff performers!

What have I learnt about writing book two? What I’ve always known, what all writers know in their hearts. You’ll get there. Just keep doing what you’re doing, one wobbling step at a time.

The show must go on.

The Circus was published by Oneworld on 4 May 2017. Follow Olivia on Twitter: @livilev