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’.

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

Good copywriting is important – here’s why.

Today I want to talk about copywriting, which is what I do for a living. It’s a different kind of challenge to writing fiction – I have to bear in mind clients’ requirements, but creatively it can be just as rewarding.

I work with my husband, a graphic designer, and over the years I’ve often noticed how people see the importance of good design, but sometimes text plays second fiddle. People often think that so long as there aren’t any typos, their copy is probably fine as it is.

Tut, tut! To this I say: never underestimate the power of words, in particular the tone of voice they’re written in, and the effect they can have on the reader.

The right words are key. The right amount. The right tone. The right message.

Good design with poor copy is like eating artisan bread with Happy Shopper marge.

So here are a few things I’ve learned about copywriting over the years, some of which can equally be applied to writing fiction.

1 • Don’t say what you think people want to hear.

Businesses want to sound professional, so they strive to use professional language. But language that sounds too professional and businessy, can often sound soulless and dull.

Thanks to this tendency, there are certain words and phrases today that have become a tad vacuous: ‘world-class’, ‘cutting-edge’, ‘highly regarded’ and ‘leaders in our field’ to name but a few.

Would you say to your friend/partner/kids, “Let’s go and visit that world-class museum with the cutting-edge displays that really add value to the unbeatable admission price!”?

Of course not.

Just speak normally. It’s allowed.

2 • Go easy on the war paint.

Vacuous words aside, messages drenched in adjectives don’t sound confident. You just sound like you’re trying to compensate for having a below-average product or service.

For example, ‘So-and-so stars in this side-splitting, laugh-out-loud, smash-hit comedy.’

Is this film going to make us wet ourselves with laughter? Probably not. The copy is trying too hard and we suspect it’s probably a mildly amusing film at best.

You might think your message looks a little bare or weak without a good dressing of adjectives, but don’t be fooled by the fear. Too much make-up never makes anyone look better.

Keep your message simple and honest.

3 • Frankie says relax.

Don’t go spewing all your key selling points into one piece of marketing.

If you’re trying to shoehorn a long list of benefits, accolades, praise and statistics into a paragraph, then take Frankie’s advice and for goodness sake, relax.

Less is more. Hold something back for later. Have a little mystique. Keep ‘em dangling.

After all – those three words ended up going viral for Frankie, decades before ‘viral’ was a thing.

4 • Forget your ‘target audience’.

You may well have worked out exactly who your target audience is, down to the most detailed demographics. But the person you’re really talking to, if the truth be known, is the one who gets it.

The more you try to widen your tone of voice to reach every potential customer, the weaker your message will be.

You’re talking to one person. The person who gets it.

This requires trust.

5 • Be true to yourself.

If you’re true to yourself, you’re much more likely to reach those who’ll get it.

Every time you get lost in a book or film, or laugh at a comedy or advert; every time you’re swallowed whole by a piece of music, or stop to stare at a piece of art – the creator, whoever they might be, was being true to themselves.

They didn’t create it with nothing but sales figures in mind. They wrote it/painted it/produced it for themselves. That’s why it touched you. It was fresh, honest and real – not contrived.

Find your true voice and don’t be afraid to use it.

6 • Show, don’t tell.

If you’ve ever gone to a creative writing class, you’ll no doubt have heard the expression ‘Show, don’t tell’. It’s one of the golden rules of storytelling.

But it’s just as relevant to copywriting as it is to writing fiction. To tell is to state the facts. To show is to paint a picture in the reader’s mind – to help them visualise what it is you’re talking about.

To tell: “That’s a very big shark.”

To show: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Don’t just state the facts. Paint the picture.

7 • Don’t undervalue the power of humour.

We all notice language that makes us laugh or smile. It brightens our day for a moment.

When companies take themselves a little less seriously, they start to sound less corporate and more human. The more human you sound, the more you’re likely to connect.

Inject some humour into your copy and it will start to sound more friendly and warm. If you think this doesn’t apply to you because you’re a firm of lawyers/accountants/other type of professional service, then I would challenge that perception. Too much serious-toned sales bluster on your About Us page can actually come across as intimidating and, in some cases, gives off a condescending air. Remind people you’re a bunch of humans, too.

ShitcoffeeAmazingcoffee

(I asked a group of friends which sign they preferred. ‘Shit coffee’ won hands down.)

8 • Don’t brag.

Saying you’re the market leader or the best in your field is all very well, but who cares? No one likes a big mouth.

By all means get the message across that you’re number one gun, but do it with some subtlety. It’s less off-putting and more believable. All companies have their flaws and weaknesses, so why claim to be perfect? Everyone knows it’s not the entire truth.

Be honest about who you are. And again, don’t just state the facts. Paint the picture.

9 • Don’t stack stats.

Never add up lots of statistics to make one big, fat, meaningless statistic, such as: ‘We have over 175 years’ experience between us.’

TV documentaries are particularly guilty of this insult to the nation’s intelligence. Ie: ‘These 40 dieters lost a whopping 150 stone between them.’ So what? It means nothing to anybody. How one dieter lost a few stone is what’s relevant and interesting.

Keep stats to a minimum and put them in context to make them meaningful.

10 • Ignore what everyone else is doing.

Don’t spend too much time looking at other people’s websites/brochures/adverts. You will definitely find someone whose work looks better than yours. And another person is likely to think your work looks better than theirs. And so on and so on…

So don’t waste time drooling over their awards/portfolio/market position.

Avert your eyes and ears from all the noise out there, find your true voice, write yourself a quick, uncensored pep talk and frame it. That voice in the pep talk – that’s the one.

You’re writing for the person who gets you. And as you’re the first person to get you, you’re basically writing for yourself.

Writing Process Blog Tour

I’ve been invited by This Thirty Something Life author Jon Rance to answer some questions about my writing as part of a writing process blog tour. You can read his answers to the questions below on his blog. Here are my responses:

What are you currently working on?

I’m actually taking a break from writing for a few months. I wrote two books last year – Blown-Away Man, a comedy drama about a successful ad man who returns to his village for a school reunion only to have a bombshell dropped on him, and The Adventures of Fartella Gasratilova, a collection of humorous short stories for children. While I thoroughly enjoyed writing both books, writing two books at the same time left me feeling a bit burnt out afterwards! For the first time in years, I have no idea what I’m going to write next – and I see that as a positive thing. Saying that, inspiration usually strikes whenever I travel, and I’m off to France soon…

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

All my books are comedy dramas – but they’re all different. Package Deal and Hot Property are set on Greek islands and are written from multi-viewpoints, so you get male as well as female perspectives. Hence those books seem to appeal to men as much as they do women. Pearls, however, is definitely more of a women’s read, and has slightly more depth with its underlying theme of self-love. Then, veering off in a completely different direction, Blown-Away Man is set in London and Lincolnshire and is written from a man’s perspective with a much more humorous tone of voice. To be honest, I don’t know if my books differ greatly from others of their genre. I don’t put pressure on myself to be unique. I can only write the stories that are in me.

Why do you write what you do?

Comedy comes naturally to me. I’ve kept a diary since I was 10. When I was 17 I wrote all about my aunt’s wedding in Dorset. My parents had just split up so it was an emotional time, which wasn’t helped by my mum being given a lot of responsibilities at her sister’s wedding. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong – from traffic jams to forgotten bouquets to arsey friends of the bride. When we finally got back home, the washing machine had flooded the kitchen, creating a sea of soapy water surrounding a sort of St. Michael’s Mount-shaped object – a ‘welcome home’ turd generously left by our senile cat. By this point, my mother was a nervous wreck. After helping her clear up the mess, I scuttled off to my room to write up all the horrors of the weekend in my diary. As I wrote, the funny side emerged, and I wondered if it’d make her feel better to read what I’d written. To my delight and relief, it made her howl with laughter. It was a wonderful reaction and must have had a profound effect on me, because from that moment on I’ve been unable to write anything without injecting some humour into it.

How does your writing process work?

My novels begin life as an embryo, a single scene, for example. I let the embryo germinate in the back of my mind for a few months, visiting it every so often to find that it’s sprouted a few more scenes or characters, or even an ending. When it’s grown to a size that can no longer be ignored, I start to sketch it out very roughly. There are still lots of gaps at this point. You can’t necessarily wait for inspiration to fill all the gaps, so I start actively shaping it, plotting out where it’s going. When I start writing, however, things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes the story guides me, sometimes I guide the story. Ultimately – and I know this sounds wacky – I believe the story wants to come out. It wants to be told.

While I’m writing the first draft, I try not to edit. I make notes of issues that need addressing and then deal with them in the second draft. When I’ve done three or four drafts, I send it to my editor. She then makes a list of suggested changes and I then decide which ones I agree with and which I don’t. Then it’s a few more drafts of editing and polishing before reaching the proofreading stage, which I get someone else to do, as I can’t see the wood for the trees by then. As I self-publish, I have the ultimate say on everything, which is as daunting as it is liberating. I’ve had literary agents in the past so I know the book editing process, and I’m a sub-editor by trade, so I’ve got the necessary skills to edit a book myself. But that said, having an editor and proofreader are essential. A writer can’t produce a professional book on their own without some help from people with the right skills.

Many thanks to Jon Rance. I’m now passing these questions on to Starlings author Erinna Mettler who blogs at http://www.erinnamettler.com/ so look out for her answers soon.