Fictional characters, imperfection and likeability

For many writers, their biggest fear is the blank page. I may be unusual in this regard, because I love the empty whiteness of a new document. The way it appears in front of you, all shining and pure and unspoiled, still full of limitless possibilities.

What absolutely terrifies me is the finished manuscript. Completing a novel should be a cause for celebration, and yet the fact the thing exists at all fills me with dread. Now that it’s in the most polished state I’m capable of achieving without editorial support, the demons of doubt are screaming at full volume.

What if it’s no good? What if people don’t understand or like my characters? And if they don’t, what am I going to do about it?

In any good story, the characters are the driving force of the narrative. So it’s essential that they’re engaging and relatable, or in the case of a villain, sufficiently mesmerising that the reader feels compelled to spend time with them. It’s why so much creative writing advice focuses on character likeability. How to give your protagonist strong and appealing traits, as well as some imperfections to keep them credible. But sympathetic faults, not the serious or repulsive kind that turn people off.

It’s important to learn about character development and to be receptive to editorial feedback on how our characters are coming across. Sometimes there are issues in the manuscript that need fixing: a change of tone in the dialogue or a deeper exploration of a character’s motives to increase empathy for their situation. That said, I do think there’s a danger for writers in attempting to change our protagonists to make them likeable.

I don’t write memoir or autobiographical fiction. My characters are separate beings from me. Nevertheless, their feelings and experiences closely mirror my own, and they tend to be deeply flawed. As a writer, this level of exposure leaves me intensely vulnerable to criticism. If my readers come back and say, ‘I thought your main character was pathetic and needed a slap,’ trust me, I will feel that slap. And yes, it’s happened before, and it will most likely happen again, and there’s absolutely nothing I can do to prevent it.

Well, in theory there is. To avoid that risk, I could watch some popular movies, decide what is broadly considered attractive in our culture, and develop a protagonist around it. I’m already imagining she’s self-reliant, outgoing, feisty, funny and loyal. She gets in trouble for breaking the rules, while inside she’s suffering because of a past relationship hurt. The problem is that I’m not the least bit invested in her, because I’ve just made her up to be likeable, rather than allowing her essence to emerge naturally from my subconscious. If I forced myself to write a novel about her,  my lack of connection to her would be evident. Because her story isn’t what I wanted to write in the first place.

It’s the same in real life. If we mask too much of our identity by constructing a persona to fit the cultural ideal, far from experiencing a greater sense of belonging in the group, we can end up feeling more alone and adrift than ever. When we try to make people like us by adopting the characteristics we assume they value, frequently they sense it and warm to us less as a result.

Real people can be tough and independent and witty and brash and confident and cool. We can also be anxious and introverted and obsessive and insecure and conflicted and crazy-in-love. I happen to be drawn to exploring the second set of traits. I’m not sure I should or even can change this. After all, isn’t one of the delights of reading that we feel less alone and less self-critical, because we see our so-called “weaknesses” as simply part of the wider human condition? Through fiction, we may even learn how someone similar to us came to accept themselves as they are.

Besides, as anyone who reads reviews knows, readers disagree vociferously over character likeability. I loved Anna Karenina for her complexity, but she often features on the most-hated lists on account of her perceived self-obsession and poor choices. The fictional character I loathed most as a child was Pollyanna. I can’t describe how much it grated on my nerves that she was glad about everything. I felt she was unrealistic and that I was being preached to by adults. Yet other people find her relentless optimism inspirational and charming. We all bring our own perspective to the work.

One of my favourite quotes about writing is from Ernest Hemingway’s forthright letter to his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald.  He says, “All you need to do is write truly and not care about what the fate of it is.”

Not caring about the fate of our work is easier said than done when we’re in the grip of obsessions over critique groups and literary agents and sales figures and Amazon reviews. But I also think it’s the way to produce the most vivid, authentic and powerful writing we’re capable of.

In no way does anything I’ve said above minimise my fear of people reading my manuscript. In fact, I’m not sure anything can, but it’s a fear I’m going to push on through. And hopefully it will be worth it.

 

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Inspiration, progress and self-imposed deadlines

20526075_10155453733650833_4314066651167167073_nAfter an extended phase of excruciatingly slow progress with the book, I finally decided what I needed was to be on a tighter schedule. I’m now planning to have a finished draft ready to send to my fantastic writing coach, Lauren Sapala, before I go on holiday at the beginning of September.

Setting deadlines works wonders for my motivation, but there has to be a way in which I can hold myself accountable for sticking to them. The reason I lost momentum with the novel was because everything else I needed or wanted to do over the summer was taking priority. Yet failing to work on it was causing me as much, if not more stress than if I’d been under pressure to finish it. Committing to send it off by a certain date was enough to get me back to the keyboard, and I’m writing in cafes again (buying a laptop that actually functions has helped with that too).

We could all say we’re too busy to write if we want to. I admit I have more free time and flexibility than writers with children do, but I still have a full-time job, as well as other commitments, and low energy on most days. I also fall prey to the distractions of social media and keeping up-to-date with the latest political intrigues.

Choosing to devote a solid amount of time to the writing you’ve neglected can have a snowball effect. It lures back into your imaginary world and you become infatuated with your idea all over again. The high you get from creating makes you want to experience it increasingly often, and soon you’re no longer too busy to write, you’re too busy for the other stuff that seemed so important yesterday.

This has been my experience over the last week or two. I never stopped loving the characters, but the drive and enthusiasm I needed to complete their story had faded. Thankfully, just a little attention has rekindled the fire, and I’m more excited about publishing it than ever. Now the narrative structure is in place, the bit I find hardest, it’s a pleasure to be able to start fine-tuning the language and dialogue.

When I’m struggling with my work, it helps me to dedicate time to reading other people’s writing. I can’t stay up all night to finish a book like I used to, but I can let myself become thoroughly absorbed in a quality novel. I try to read as a writer, noting down beautiful phrases and the techniques authors use to allow us to enter their character’s mind. I tell myself that if they can do it, so can I.

It’s not just writers who help me to persevere. I’m drawn to creative people, whether they’re musicians, actors, photographers or artists who achieve excellence and inspire emotion. I can go to a concert or exhibition and leave buzzing with renewed determination to succeed in my chosen art form.

This won’t be the final draft by a long way, but it’ll be the first time I’ve been ready to ask a trusted reader to share their reactions with me. After that, I should have a better sense of whether I’ve managed to convey my vision and given the characters the unique voices I already know they possess.

On politics, fiction and the fear of speaking out

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So the UK faces more political turmoil and the prospect of another general election, on top of an election, on top of a referendum, on top of an election, and for Labour party members, two leadership elections as well. And that’s all in the last two years…

It’s difficult nowadays to avoid politics on social media, and yet some people still get annoyed by political posts. Many of us were brought up to believe it was impolite to disclose our deeply-held views to others who may not agree. Don’t talk politics at the dinner table, dear. And to be fair, that advice has rescued many an awkward family Christmas.

For those of us promoting our creative work or business, we have to decide to what extent we reveal our opinions. Authenticity is important in self-promotion, but we’re often recommended to keep politics well out of it, since it can alienate potential audiences and distract focus from the product we’re trying to sell.

When I started my blog, I took that on board. I didn’t want to waste my time or emotional energy on political arguments. I didn’t want people contacting me to say they wouldn’t buy a novel written by a snowflake Corbynista if it was the last book on the planet. Instead, I would express gentle thoughts on art and the creative process, reserving my controversial opinions for my personal social media accounts.

I still think that strategy makes sense for some businesses. I also fully respect the choice of artists to keep their voting preferences private. But when I read back over the first chapter of my novel, I realise there isn’t a whole lot of point in hiding my beliefs from my readers.

They are there on every page. And that’s exactly how I want it to be.

Politics to me is so much more than economics or legislation or leaders screwing up on TV debates. Politics is philosophy, psychology, morality and ethics. The stories of human relationships and human societies. In that sense all fiction is political, whether we consciously intended it to be or not.

A novel about sex and dating may not contain a single political comment, and yet is imbued with the author’s worldview. How are the female characters portrayed? Do they have goals or is their role to help the lead male to learn about himself? When we write about people with unfortunate life circumstances, do we hold them responsible or do we choose to examine the inequality and oppression contributing to their situation?

On the first page of my book, my character Kerry is introduced as dealing with unemployment and a mental health issue. In the scene, she stands outside a charity shop on a high street in Manchester, observing and welcoming the diversity of the people passing by. A man sits in a doorway with a cardboard sign: “Homeless and had my benefits sanctioned. Please help me.”

None of my descriptions are deliberately written to make a political point. They’re just the sort of things I notice myself as I wander round the streets, and yet that inevitably reflects my perspective. We all see the world through our own lens, and certain things jump out at us, or don’t.

What I’ve written will not please everyone, and that’s how it should be. And while I don’t want this to become a party political blog, I feel increasingly less desire to conceal my opinions out of politeness or fear.

I’ve been a Corbyn supporter since he emerged on the scene in 2015, and I’ve been deeply inspired by the way he’s risen above the incredible hostility he faces in order to lead his party to an unexpectedly positive election result.

He strikes me as a kind-hearted man and, I imagine, not insensitive. So how does he cope with the pressure? Partly because he’s a seasoned campaigner with a lifetime of experience standing up for unpopular causes. But I also feel he genuinely cares about people and believes in his vision, which matters more to him than ego.

So many of us are understandably anxious about revealing our true selves. Of what our friends, family or colleagues will think of us if we say what we really mean.  What gives us the courage to do it is passion and purpose, whether it’s for revealing our truth in art, helping others or campaigning to change society.

Whenever I get that awful heart-flutter of anxiety before I say or do something which invites criticism, I try to remember that. That it’s absolutely okay to feel the way I do, but sometimes there are bigger things worth fighting for.

Thoughts on ageing, creativity and regret

It’s Easter Day and a wet gloomy day here in Manchester, and frankly I’m half-wishing I was having fun somewhere less rainy, instead of sitting in my room trying to write a one-page synopsis of my novel, which is not going according to plan. But holidays and weekends are my designated writing time, and so I intend to persevere.

Often I wonder where my compulsion to create art comes from, and why it grows stronger and more obsessive with age. I could argue it’s because I haven’t had children, but that seems simplistic – some of the most talented and driven creative people I know are also parents. I suspect in my case it’s a growing awareness of the passing of time and the desire to make the most of my one precious life.

I’m lucky to be in good physical health and I still feel young most of the time, but there are little indications that I’m not in my twenties or thirties any more: a cracked tooth that can’t be fixed, having to dye my hair more frequently,  struggling to hear over loud music. When I walk past the university, no one hands me the nightclub flyers any more.

Here’s a confession: when I was younger, I used to imagine that if I could just become a successful published author, it would solve my feelings of profound unworthiness and failure. At last I’d be worthy of respect, the equal of everyone else at the college reunion or the competitive dinner party, and I could finally lay down my burden of shame.

I realise now that it doesn’t work like that. Achievement and status don’t necessarily fulfil unmet emotional needs. And as I discovered, writing in order to seek validation leads to creative paralysis. The more we yearn for approval, the more it eludes us, as we stifle our authentic voice or are too afraid of judgement to share our work at all.

One of the top regrets of the dying is that they wished they’d had the courage to be themselves and spend less time worrying what people thought. Our culture encourages us to measure and compare ourselves right up to the day when it’s no longer a tooth but a vital organ that can’t be fixed, and only then we see the truth clearly: that we always were equal and we always were worthy of respect, regardless of how others chose to treat us.

I don’t want to be faced with those regrets. I want to be a successful author, but in order to express myself honestly and to create work for others to enjoy.  I’m also determined to travel on the road towards self-acceptance, however hard it gets, and even if I never fully arrive at my destination.

And if anyone knows how to write a one-page novel synopsis without wanting to tear your hair out in despair, do let me know.

Happy Easter to you all x

Writing and Responsibility

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As writers, we know that if we’re to produce anything worth reading, we have to let go of the people-pleasing tendencies that keep us stuck in fear. If we write from the heart, someone will disapprove of us, and they’ll most likely tell us so.

Courage is essential to good art. It’s an issue I struggle with and have written about before. But lately I’ve found myself preoccupied with the other side of the coin: the responsibility of being a writer, or indeed anyone who writes anything that others can read.

We live in an age of clickbait, trolling and fake news. Every day we see children bullied online, self-serving media commentators demonising vulnerable people, or  fame-hungry fiction writers perpetuating damaging stereotypes. Internet attention-seekers toss out their verbal grenades, and upon witnessing the fall-out, they shrug and walk away. “Well, it doesn’t matter so much. They’re only words.”

Let’s be absolutely clear: words matter. Words can be sophisticated tools that heal wounds and promote tolerance, or blunt-edged weapons that maim and destroy. When we choose to write deceitfully or carelessly to serve our own interests, we betray not only those we hurt, but ourselves and the readers who place their trust in us.

This isn’t about censoring our writing to placate the easily offended. Our collective cultural health relies on our artistic freedom to be controversial and challenge the status quo. But in order to be responsible for our art, I believe we need to write with honesty, humility and purpose, and this applies as much to fiction as to any other form.

Writing with honesty is more than just fact-checking or avoiding lies (although they’re good places to start). Achieving authenticity in our writing requires many long hours of observation, self-reflection and practice. It’s discovering who we are and how we perceive others: a process also known as finding our voice.

Writing with humility is accepting we don’t know everything. Despite our gifts of empathy and imagination, we can still fall prey to assumptions and prejudice. When a critic points this out, it’s important that we’re open to learning, even if it hurts our pride.

Writing with purpose (or intent) is being clear about what and why we write, who will love it and who it might shock, and that the value of our story or message is worth the price of a few ruffled feathers. Having a strong sense of purpose can help us to deal with any haters we attract.

In short, being a responsible writer is not about silencing ourselves, but owning the power of our words. It’s knowing when to revise, when to apologise, and when to stand up and defend our beliefs at all costs.

In the end is the beginning

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So I have just now typed THE END for the second time, and soon I’ll be returning to the first page to start all over again on Draft 3. And I have to say, despite the slow progress, I’m pleased and thoroughly relieved to be so much further along than I was.

What I had on my hands last spring was a 120k-word sprawling mess of half-written scenes, sketches and notes, which when patched together, vaguely constituted a story. After nearly a year of work, it can now be classed as a 105k-word complete manuscript. It follows a linear narrative structure, it is organised into 32 chapters, the characters are fully realised, and the various plot threads are resolved by the end.

Is it finished? Am I happy with it yet? Absolutely not. There are sentences and paragraphs in this draft that are so monstrous, I have actual nightmares about someone reading and knowing I wrote them. It needs another four or five redrafts at least before it’s fit to be seen by human eyes.

Yet I love aspects of it too. The characters, for example. I’ve been getting to know my main characters, Kerry and Alex, ever since I first “met” them in the autumn of 2015. I have such a clear sense of them now that sometimes I have to remind myself they’re not real. Despite their flaws and problems, they’re a pleasure to spend time with. I hope they’ll be a pleasure for readers to get to know too.

After a short break from the manuscript,  I’m going to look at the overall structure and see if any significant changes still need to be made (they will). Then I’ll go through each chapter alone and rewrite it. After that, I’ll focus on specifics: characters, dialogue, setting, pacing, accuracy, the weather, etc.

I’m happy to admit that one of my writing weaknesses is describing physical actions. I can imagine scenes, colours, textures and scents, and I can hear the tone of the dialogue as the characters talk. However, I find it hard to visualise changes in posture and facial expression. I don’t know why. (Do any other writers struggle with this?)

My task for the next few weeks is to really observe how people communicate emotions through action. Not just the obvious signs like frowning, nodding or clenching fists, but the little gestures and micro-expressions which betray what they’re feeling. I’ll then use these to help convey my characters’ moods more subtly.

I’ll also be polishing the first 5,000 words (which are already at a better standard than the rest) to enter into a competition, the Bath Novel Award. It’s an extremely competitive international award, so my hopes aren’t high, but I think it’s good for discipline to enter contests now and then, and it will help me to focus on making the opening strong and engaging.

Finally, I’m re-evaluating my schedule for publishing this novel. I was determined at the start of the year to see it in print by December, but I’m increasingly realising a) how much work the book needs, and b) how much I still need to learn about publishing, marketing, and social media strategy.

My aim in 2017 will be to get the text professionally edited and finalised, and perhaps the front cover designed too. Next year I can focus on how to sell it. Of course this may change depending on circumstances, but I don’t want to feel pressured to rush towards an artificially imposed deadline.

It’s going to be a summer of editing then, and thanks to everyone for being so supportive and interested in this process.

Constructive criticism: where honesty meets kindness

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All writers and artists who share their work will face criticism. It’s not only inevitable, but essential for helping us learn our craft. But there’s a world of difference between constructive criticism that builds on the foundations of the early draft, and destructive criticism that tears the thing apart.

As a published author, you have no control over spiteful or negative reviews (though you can choose not to read them). When you’re a new writer or in the first stages of a new book, you get to decide who sees your draft. So unless you’re exceptionally thick-skinned, the best thing you can do for your writing career is to find someone supportive and truthful to help you, and avoid those who leave you feeling dejected and hopeless.

In my experience, some writing groups have a macho approach to critiquing, and members may pride themselves on their ‘brutal’ honesty. Well, I’ll be honest with them: it doesn’t impress me at all that they’re able to say what they think without regard for people’s feelings. What takes real skill, in my opinion, is to tell a writer their work needs improvement while leaving them feeling supported and hopeful they can make it better.

Kindness and honesty don’t have to be polar opposites. Kindness without honesty is not true kindness to an artist, because it denies them the opportunity for growth.  And while honesty without kindness may contain some useful truths, it can also cost the artist their confidence and motivation to carry on.

It may sound obvious that a critique should include positive comments, but it’s amazing how many people forget this. They assume if an aspect of the writing is already working, it doesn’t need to be pointed out.  But positive feedback isn’t just about ego. It’s extremely useful to know when your words are having their desired impact, and what your overall writing strengths are.

The difference between a constructive and a destructive critique is as much about word choice as content. When I receive a page of criticism, initially I skim through it, and certain words and phrases leap out at me. These are the words that contain a strongly positive or negative emotional charge.

Imagine if a critique of your first ever story contained the following:

Plot clichéd and predictable, pacing slow and boring, couldn’t care less what happens next, characters whiny and unlikeable, descriptions generic, bland and repetitive, spelling and grammar is very poor.

You’d need a hide like a rhinoceros not to feel a bit crushed by that. But what if the critiquer had chosen to turn those phrases into positive suggestions for improvement?

Needs new plot twist or angle, faster pace, more emotional intensity to hook the reader, use more concise and specific description, increase our empathy for the characters, sentences need a thorough edit.

You still might not like it. It probably wasn’t what you were hoping to hear. But there’s a different energy about it. It makes you feel like those changes are possible and within your power to achieve.

As writers, we do have to learn to deal with criticism, but we don’t have to subject ourselves unnecessarily to cruelty or insensitivity that is hurtful and damaging to us and our art. Because ultimately we’re responsible for the influences we allow into our lives.