Tag Archives: sunday times bestseller

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.

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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

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…

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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: 

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.

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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 

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