Character arcs and why they’re important

I was editing a manuscript recently and found myself making the point that the author’s protagonist hadn’t changed much between the first chapter and the last. This protagonist had been through a lot and their circumstances had changed radically, but despite that, their emotions, outlook and behaviour had not evolved or been much affected by what they’d experienced. They’d taken everything on the chin and kept their cool from start to finish.

It took me a long time to realise how significant a character arc is when writing a novel. When I first started writing, I was so focussed on getting the general story arc right that I often overlooked the main character’s journey of development – mistake! One of the most essential ingredients of a novel is the emotional journey that the main character goes on. And that while conflict in any form is also an essential element, a protagonist’s feelings must at times be conflicted, too.

A main character needs to have a goal – something they want/need to have/do. They should also have some kind of flaw that holds them back – ie, fear or naivety, ambition or prejudice. The MC needs to be on a mission to achieve their goal (whether they know it or not). That mission needs to be a bumpy one, with various obstacles sending them on a rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows until they reach their bleakest moment. Reaching this low point forces the MC to have a re-think and an epiphany. The epiphany leads to a change in their thinking and behaviour. By the end of the story, they must be a changed person in some way. They must see things differently to how they did before.

Why? As readers we want to go on a journey with the main character. We want to understand them, feel for them, root for them. If they don’t evolve or learn or grow, will the reader be able to feel as much for them?

I’ve listed a few examples of character arcs below – I found summarising them for this purpose was helpful to me, so I hope you find them helpful, too. PS These examples might contain spoilers so if it’s a book you intend to read, then look away! As for A Christmas Carol, bah humbug 🙂

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini:
As a child, Amir craves his father’s approval. He is jealous of his best friend Hassan who seems to receive more affection from Amir’s father than Amir does. When a horrific event turns Hassan’s life upside down, Amir selfishly distances himself from his friend but carries the guilt into his adulthood. Many years later, he realises he must confront the legacy of his past mistakes and redeem himself.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
Christopher wants to find out who killed his neighbour’s dog and why. His investigation leads him outside his very restricted comfort zone and forces him to deal with situations he’d previously avoided. The challenges he faces help him to become more independent and lead him towards a far more significant truth.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Eleanor wants to find a boyfriend while blotting out her childhood trauma with vodka. But as someone who is socially awkward, she lives a lonely, rigid life. While most people write her off as weird, new colleague Ray tries to befriend her. Eleanor’s determination to bury the past and Ray’s attempts to get her to open up lead her to a lowest point, after which she finds the courage to talk about her painful childhood and start to move beyond it.

The Lives of Others (A 2006 German film)
Set in East Berlin in 1984, cold-hearted Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler is assigned to spy on a playwright and his actress girlfriend whom he suspects are disloyal to the Communist party. As he listens in on their every conversation, waiting to uncover evidence of their disloyalty, he begins to feel compassion for them. As a top government minister creates more anguish for the couple, Wiesler finds his own loyalties divided.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
For a long time, Scrooge’s goal has been to amass wealth. But he’s so obsessed with money that he’s lost all empathy and compassion for others. The ghosts of Marley and of Christmas past, present and future show him how callous and greedy he has become – a truth that shocks Scrooge and shames him into turning over a new leaf.

 

First Draft Blues

Finishing a first draft feels like a momentous achievement – for about five minutes until the angst sets in. Because when you read back through your manuscript, all the half-baked characters, plot holes, repetitions, inconsistencies, unnecessary details, missing details, superfluous scenes and general waffle will taunt you from the page, making you feel inadequate, unskilled, a FAILURE. Scenes and chapters are in the wrong order. Some things don’t make sense. Other things aren’t plausible. The middle sags. On and on it goes. First Draft Blues are harsh and can make you lose perspective, convincing you you’re not a good enough writer. But that’s not the truth. A first draft is a temporary, unavoidable stage that your manuscript must go through before it starts to take shape. And First Draft Blues are temporary, too. But to help shoo them on their way as fast as possible, I’ve written a little ditty to cheer you up and cheer you on. It’s called…

 

GO AND DO ONE, FIRST DRAFT BLUES

 

Your first draft is full of shit

And you feel like an utter tit

It won’t see the light of day

So you might as well chuck it away

 

STOP – in the name of fiction!

It’s a very common affliction

For what looks like a puddle of puke

Are the foundations that will form your book

 

Now allow yourself some credit

And prepare for a ruthless edit

There’s really no need to panic

You’re not trying to re-float the Titanic

 

When you compare draft one with draft two

That difference will be all down to you

By the time draft five’s in full swing

Your story will be starting to sing!

 

All those rewrites and revisions?

Just necessary steps on the mission

Be kind to yourself and stay bright

First drafts are supposed to be shite

#WriteMentor Summer Programme 2020

I’m really excited to announce that this year I’ll be mentoring for the #WriteMentor Summer Mentoring Programme – whoop, whoop! Here’s a bit of blurb about myself, my experience, and what I’m offering.

Agent: Lauren Gardner at Bell Lomax Moreton Literary Agency

Published books: Middle Grade comedy Clementine Florentine currently on submission.

Genre: upper MG/YA contemporary comedy

Bio: For the last 15 years I’ve worked as a copywriter for the graphic design agency I run with my husband. Before that I worked as a sub-editor on a variety of magazines from Vogue to The Sun TV Guide. I love writing attention-grabbing headlines – whether it’s for a fashion feature or a weekly Corrie update, or for an orchestra’s latest season brochure or a company’s new website. Work aside, I’m married with two mouthy teenagers, a lazy Labrador and an incontinent cat.

Experience: I’ve been writing fiction for nearly 20 years and have gained and lost agents, been on submission a few times and received hundreds of rejections – so I’m very familiar with the heartache of constant knock-backs! In the last few years, since turning from women’s fiction to writing YA and MG, I’ve been shortlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award (2017) and longlisted for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition (2018), and have found representation with Lauren Gardner at BLM. My current novel is out on submission so I’m mainlining Minstrels as I await the verdicts. I found the Curtis Brown Creative Writing YA & Children’s Fiction course and also the Society for Editors and Proofreaders Introduction to Fiction Editing course hugely helpful in honing my fiction writing and editing skills.

Mentoring package offered: I’ll provide a thorough developmental edit of your full manuscript. This means I’ll be looking at the structure of the story, plot development, characterisation, writing, presentation and marketability. I’ll flag up potential problems and brilliant bits alike in the margin, and write you a full report covering all of the above. I’m also happy to advise on your cover letter and synopsis, too.

Mentoring style: I won’t hold back from pointing out issues that may (or may not) need addressing, but I’ll be as tactful and supportive as I can. I’ll be cheering you on every step of the way.

Ideal mentee: I’d love to work with someone who is open to (gentle) constructive criticism. I’m open to all genres (of Middle Grade and YA) except fantasy.

Fave pastimes: Sitting in a cosy café with a cup of coffee and staring into space, or blasting out some favourite tunes and having a boogie (preferably not in front of my teenagers who are too young to appreciate the greatness of their mother’s iconic dancefloor swagger.)

Fave kids’ books: The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson, Noah Can’t Even by Simon James Green, The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr, Grinny by Nicholas Fisk, The Outsiders by SE Hinton, and anything by Lois Duncan (showing my age with these last three).

Fave adult fiction: Are You Experienced? by William Sutcliffe, The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne, All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, Breath by Tim Winton, anything by Liane Moriarty.

Fave TV: The Kominsky Method, Breaking Bad, Narcos, The Bridge, Fleabag, Atypical.

Fave films: JoJo Rabbit, Fighting with my Family, Blade Runner, Terminator, Edward Scissorhands, Jaws.

Please note: There’ll be a few weeks when I’m on holiday and not in touch, but don’t worry, I’ll let you know the dates in advance.

How to survive rejection and uncertainty in Writers’ No-Man’s Land

I haven’t written my blog for a while because I’ve not had much to say – not in the way of exciting announcements anyway. On the contrary, I’m (still) in writers’ no-man’s land – of which there are many varying landscapes, all united by one coveted horizon – a glorious, glowing publishing deal, stretching its rosy tendrils across the sky.

But then I thought that writing about how it feels to be in this writers’ no-man’s land could be cathartic for me, and maybe helpful to others. So here goes.

I’m currently out on submission. What that means – if you’re not on a writing journey or perhaps in the early stages of one – is that I have an agent who is sending out my manuscript (MS) to publishers. It’s an exciting time, and certainly a brighter landscape than the writerly no-man’s lands where I’ve loitered in the past. I acknowledge that I’m extremely lucky to have an agent, especially one who is lovely and supportive, but I also know it’s still crucial to keep my expectations in check.

I wanted to write this post now, while I’m on tenterhooks, kept in a daily state of suspense, hopes rising one day, sinking the next, precisely because I need to make sure that if I get 25 rejections from 25 publishers, I won’t feel like I’ve been sucker-punched in the gut and drained of the strength to start over again. I need to maintain a balanced mind-set. In short, I need to be already immersing myself in the next project right now, regardless of the outcome of my current MS.

‘But JK Rowling got 27 rejections,’ I hear you say. ‘You can’t let this make or break you.’

So true. But actually JK Rowling was pretty lucky to only get 27 rejections. My tally (and I’m not alone) is somewhere in the hundreds, as this is my 8th MS, my 3rd agent and my 3rd entry into the submissions lottery – over a 20 year period. When I first started trying to get published I was 28, working as a magazine sub-editor, engaged and child-free. I’m now pushing 48, working from home as a copywriter, and married with 2 teenagers.

I feel very blessed in my life. I’m surrounded by a loving, supportive family and wonderful friends. I enjoy copywriting, too (well, most of the time). But the dream has always been to write fiction, be published and be widely read. And for some reason, no matter how many times I get rejected or find myself back at the drawing board, I can’t seem to give up trying. I might step out of the ring and take a break occasionally, but give up completely? I haven’t reached that point yet – and not because it hasn’t been painful enough.

I’ve had a few sucker-punch lows over the years: my 2nd agent letting me go; my foray into self-publishing starting off with an unexpected boom, then dwindling to a trickle and now the odd tumbleweed of a sale; and last year my previous MS, YA comedy The Reinvention of Rolo Rawlings, reaching an acquisitions meeting at a major publishing house before eventually being turned down.

But after this last blow, I knew I had to find a better way of coping. Hence tip no1: always have another project on the boil.

I noticed that some of my writing comrades had more than one idea in development at any one time. I was more of a one-idea-at-a-time person, but I could see that if one of their WIPs looked like it was hitting a dead-end, they could focus their hopes on the other one they had simmering away – while using what they’d learned from their rejected MS to strengthen the one in the pipeline. My problem was that I was waiting for the final verdict before beginning work on anything new.

However, when the tank is empty, it’s empty – as it was after submitting my MG comedy Clementine Florentine to my agent a few months ago. I knew I needed to start developing a new idea in order to distract myself from the submissions process, but I had nothing. NADA. The old noggin was well and truly empty. I felt like I’d exhausted every character, every plot and every punchline.

Fortunately, this next tip I learned from my husband, a graphic designer, artist and street photographer – and therefore thankfully someone I can talk creativity with on a daily basis! Tip no2: open yourself up and be receptive. Just switch off trying for a while. Give yourself a goddamn break. Take walks. Read books. Watch movies. Go to exhibitions. Watch paint dry, etc, etc.

Therefore it’s possibly not surprising that it was while on holiday in France that the seed of a new idea came to me. It seeped into my mind a couple of times before I realised this was it – the embryo of my next novel. I didn’t get my notebook out immediately. I just watched it for a few days before eventually scrawling down a few lines to officially earmark it. But what a flipping relief! That exciting feeling was back – I was not washed up, flat out of ideas, finished, as I used to believe. I was onto something new. And now I have to remind myself that I haven’t already done the best work I’m ever likely to produce – that there’s always a new idea waiting in the ether, and THAT is going to be an even stronger piece of work than the last one. Basically, no matter what happens, my best work is yet to come.

Anyway, the discovery of this new idea was over two months ago. I’m still mulling it around and jotting down notes, but overall a shape is emerging from the clay and I’m gearing up to write a first draft of the synopsis soon.

Meanwhile, Clementine Florentine is entering its 4th week of being on submission. I’ve had no responses yet (good or bad) and it’s Frankfurt Book Fair this week, so no doubt that will delay news even longer. I am, of course, getting my hopes up a little. But I know the odds are slim. I learned last week that only 10% of agents’ submissions to publishers make it to acquisitions meetings, so that was an eye-opener. Looks like Rolo did pretty well to get that far, hence there’s every reason to be hopeful with Clementine. But there’s also every reason to forget about it, move on and get busy with the next one.

That’s why I wanted to write this blogpost now, while I don’t know whether I’m about to achieve my life-long goal, or whether it’s back to the drawing board yet again. One other coping mechanism I’m relieved to have discovered: the Buddhist philosophy that all suffering comes from craving or aversion, and all feelings and experiences are impermanent (or something like that, I’m still learning…). So tip no3: acknowledge the craving, then look at it from a different perspective. For example, it could be a case of: get a publishing deal and it’s champagne and cartwheels for a few days and then it’s shit your pants trying to whip the book into the exact shape an editor wants, OR don’t get a publishing deal, slap your pillow about, have a hearty cry, shovel a few cakes down your pie-hole, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move on to the next project.

Either way, whatever happens next on my writing journey, I’ll be sure to share my impermanent feelings of joy or misery about my impermanent situation of success or failure. In the meantime, best of luck to you, my fellow writers. As ever, keep on truckin’.

Book Chat Back-chat #4

Welcome to the latest instalment of Book Chat Back-chat, where myself, my partner and my kids attempt to discuss books while eating a meal, complaining about the meal, and trying to prevent the dog from stealing the meal. (Or, in the case of the 13yo, sneaking the meal to the dog under the table morsel by morsel and thinking I won’t notice.)

B (aged 13): Mum, before we start, can I just say we’ve had Spaghetti Lentil Bolognese three weeks in a row and I’m really bored of it.

Mrs H: Noted. Please stay on topic.

B: So I just finished reading That’s Not What Happened by Kody Keplinger. It’s about a high school shooting in America. Actually it’s about what happened afterwards, about how this girl died in the shooting and everyone thinks she died declaring her faith in Jesus, but the main character was with her when she died and she knows that’s not what happened. And now she needs to set everyone straight before the victim’s parents publish a book about it.

Mrs H: Sounds like a good read. Did you enjoy it?

B: It was really slow to start with, but then it would suddenly get good and then go slow again. It was a bit all over the place. I’d give it 8 out of 10.

Mr H: 8 out of 10 is quite generous.

Mrs H: And did you read Stranger With My Face by Lois Duncan?

B: Gave up. Too slow.

Mrs H: SERIOUSLY?? I LOVED that book when I was your age.

Mr H: 50 million years ago.

Mrs H: Why don’t we read it together?

B: No. It’s boring.

Mrs H: But it’s a super-creepy page-turner! AND it’s right up your alley.

B: Mum, stop. I’m not going to read it.

Mr H: Drop it, Mildred. You always say we shouldn’t force our choice of books on the kids.

Mrs H: [sigh] YASMO.

Everyone: YASMO?

Mrs H: You Are Sooooo Missing Out.

R (aged 15): Anyway, MY TURN. I just finished reading The Story of My Life by Helen Keller who learned to read, write, talk and lip-read despite being deaf and blind.

Mr H: How could she lip-read if she was blind?

R: She would hold her fingers against someone’s mouth and lip-read by touch. And then she learned to read books not by reading Braille, but by reading books in raised print. She couldn’t communicate until she was seven years old.

Mrs H: It’s quite an old book, isn’t it? Was it hard to read?

R: Yeah, but because Grannie gave it to me I kind of forced myself to read it, but I’m glad I did because it was really interesting. Like afterwards parts of it really stayed in my mind – like she learned to speak, read and write French, Greek and German while she was a teenager.

Mr H: Wow, that’s incredible.

R: I also read Body And Soul by Anita Roddick that Dad got me. It’s about how she started The Body Shop. She was quite inspiring cos she wasn’t just about making money. She wanted to give back to the world. She made The Body Shop stand out as an honest business.

Mr H: Until it got bought out by a multinational.

R: Oh. When did that happen?

Mr H: Ages ago. Anyway, you found it inspiring?

R: Yeah, she was ahead of her time.

Mr H: OK, does anyone want to know what I’ve been reading?

R & B: No.

Mr H: So I’ve just finished The Story of Art by EM Gombrich, an art critic who recounts the history of art from cave paintings to abstract expressionism.

B: [Yawning] Can I have some ice cream?

R: Can we watch Love Island later?

Mrs H: Why has the dog got spaghetti hanging out of his mouth? Who’s been feeding him?

B: Not me.

R: It IS her. There’s spaghetti on her shoe.

Mrs H: It’s like Escape From flipping Alcatraz via the dog’s intestines. STOP FEEDING THE DOG.

Mr H: [Coughs loudly] AND, I’VE ALSO READ a very interesting book called The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, which is about how the body and mind work together to keep a record of trauma.

B: I’m getting some ice cream.

Mr H: So, for example, if you have some kind of traumatic experience in your childhood – or whenever in life – your body records it as well as your brain.

Mrs H: Sounds good, I’ll read it after you. OK, my turn: I’ve read The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne, which was SO brilliant I didn’t want it to end. It’s the story of a man’s life growing up in Ireland in the Fifties and Sixties and having to hide his sexuality from everyone. It was very touching – it made me laugh and cry.

B: Can I have some more ice cream?

Mrs H: AND I also read Stranger With My Face by Lois Duncan for the first time in nearly 35 years. And it was STILL great!

B: And I’m STILL not going to read it. So stop going on about it and GOI.

Mrs H: What’s GOI?

B: Get Over It.

 

Book Chat Back-chat #3: Best books of 2018*

It’s been a long while since the last instalment of Book Chat Back-Chat, and that’s mainly because my foolish decision to relax the kids’ phone restrictions on holiday last summer led to a severe reduction in reading. Quelle surprise.

However, they’ve managed to get back into their reading groove over the last few months so, without further ado, here’s the latest round of book recommendations from my daughters (aged 12 & 14), my husband and myself, over a breakfast of pancakes and syrup.

B (age 12): My favourite book last year was Splash by Charli Howard. It’s about a 10-year-old girl called Molly who lives with her grandparents because her mum left when she was younger. Molly loves swimming, but her best friend says swimming isn’t cool so she keeps her swimming club a secret. Then her mum comes back into her life but she’s not a good mum.

Mrs H: So what happens to Molly? Does she fall out with her best friend?

B: I don’t want to give anything away but basically it’s about how Molly needs to learn to stand up for herself. I loved this book so much – I read it in four days. [Squirts kingsized dollop of golden syrup onto her pancake.]

Mrs H: WHOA – that’s an obscene amount of goo! You should aim for a puddle, not a lake.

B: That is a puddle.

Mrs H: An enormous puddle. Anyway, what are you reading now?

B: The one you gave me – After The Fire by Will Hill. I’ve only read a few chapters but I’m already hooked. I want to know what happens next.

Mrs H: Well I read After The Fire and I couldn’t put it down! I’d say it’s a great book for anyone aged 12 or over, male or female. It’s about a girl who grows up within a religious sect in America. They live in a walled compound where she has always felt safe, but when a devious new leader takes over and forces her mum to leave, she starts to question the world she’s grown up in and all the people around her – and realises she must escape before it’s too late.

R (age 14): My turn! So the book I most enjoyed reading this year was Girl Boss by Sophia Amoruso.

Mrs H: Is that fiction or non-fiction? [Removes golden syrup from table before 12yo can squirt a second dollop on her pancake.]

R: Non-fiction – although it’s also a TV drama series. It’s about how Sophia Amoruso started up a company by selling vintage clothes on ebay. She went from dropping out of school and never being very good at any jobs to being really successful. Her company Nasty Gal is mega-famous now. It really inspired me.

Mrs H: What are your other favourites from this year then?

R: I loved The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas. I think I talked about that last time. And I also loved re-reading The Letter For The King by Tonke Dragt. It’s a medieval fantasy story and one of my all-time favourite books – I re-read it because I wanted to remind myself of the story before I read the sequel, The Secrets of the Wild Wood – which was also really good, though not as good as the first book.

Mr H: So my favourite book this year was The Choice by Edith Egur, who is a Holocaust survivor. She tells the story of her life from her time in Auschwitz to how she became a psychologist and public speaker.

B: So is she very, very old then? [Retrieves golden syrup and puts it back on the table.]

Mr H: Yes, in her 90s.

R: How old was she when she was in Auschwitz?

Mr H: She was a teenager. She wanted to be a professional dancer.

Mrs H: Why is it called The Choice?

Mr H: Well she says that we all have choices and that being a survivor requires acceptance of what was and what is. She also says that one person’s suffering is no less significant or important than anyone else’s. I found it very thought-provoking.

Mrs H: Any other faves from 2018?

Mr H: Yes, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert was a really helpful book about the spiritual side of the creative journey. She’s really good at explaining things in a matter-of-fact, non-cheesy way. And I also read a biography of Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson which was fascinating.

Mrs H: Um, kids – where do you think you’re going?

B & R: To watch That 70s Show.

Mrs H: Don’t you want to know what my favourite books are?

B & R: No.

Mrs H: Oh. That’s nice. [To husband]: Looks like it’s just you and me then. OK, so the books I enjoyed most over the last year are: The Power by Naomi Alderman – a story that flips the power-balance between men and women on its head – very thought-provoking; Breath by Tim Winton, which is about a thrill-seeking teenager in 1970s Australia, whose passion for surfing keeps him in a constant dance with death. LOVED that book!; The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah which is about two sisters fighting in the resistance in World War Two. The story really makes you feel the fear and pain of everyday life in Nazi-occupied France. But my absolute favourite book of the year has to be A Ladder To The Sky by John Boyne, (lent to me by my good friend Jen who has a hound-like nose for a meaty page-turner).

Mr H: I just don’t see what was so great about A Ladder To The Sky. I nearly gave up on it several times.

Mrs H: What?! Are you mad? It was brilliant. An ambitious and emotionally bankrupt author who steals other people’s stories in order to ruthlessly further his own career? How is that NOT gripping?

Mr H: It was just all a bit meh.

Mrs H: Meh? MEH?

Mr H: Is that your impression of a disgruntled sheep? OK, to be fair, I liked the bit where his wife was narrating – that bit was good.

Mrs H: It was UNPUTDOWNABLE.

Mr H: It was VERY putdownable. Don’t look at me like that, Mildred. I’m entitled to my views.

And that, book-lovers, is where we’ll leave this episode of Book Chat Back-Chat. Suffice to say the husband and I are still married, but I am banned from recommending him any more novels for the whole of 2019. (But we’ll see about that…)

* (Some of the books mentioned were published in 2018, but some have been around much longer.)

Rejection Sucks (a poem)

Sometimes I write poems and chicken out of sharing them online, but I’m pretty sure most of my writing comrades can relate to this one: Rejection Sucks. (Perhaps I’d better call it Rejection Sucks Part 1, as I have a LOT more to say on the subject that I couldn’t possibly squeeze into one poem…)

Rejection Sucks

 

You’ve written a novel and it’s taken you forever

It’s like you just climbed Everest – a momentous endeavour

You’ve researched agents and you’re ready to press send

Now here comes the bit that’ll drive you round the bend

“I just don’t love it enough” is what you’ll often hear

“There isn’t a market for this” – a legitimate fear

“It’s not the right fit for us” – bang – head – wall

No response, just SILENCE – the most torturous of all

The rejections sting, your confidence is sapped

Was your novel really such an utter load of crap?

Should you scrap that idea, start on something new?

Is repeating this experience what you really want to do?

OF COURSE IT IS! Because you bloody love writing

The rejections feel harsh, but they make you keep fighting

With every manuscript, your skills will grow stronger

So buckle up for the ride – cos it could take a bit longer