Writing Diverse Characters – Book Review

 

Writing Diverse Characters for Fiction, TV or Film is the third ‘How to…’ book by Lucy V Hay. Lucy is an editor and script reader with impressive credentials and I couldn’t wait to read this book.

Before I dived in, I looked up the definition of diversity in my Collin’s English dictionary “the quality of being different or varied.” As a disabled writer I was interested to find out what groups Lucy would cover in this book, after all my ‘normal’ is someone else’s ‘different.’ If I were a character in a book I guess I’d be classed as diverse and that initially made me a little uncomfortable but Lucy begins by saying we need diverse stories to actively change society and break down barriers and I couldn’t agree more.

I don’t believe a writer has to necessarily have experienced what they are writing about but creating a diverse character takes time and research. Lucy points out that the characters ‘difference’ does not have to drive the story and shouldn’t be used in a stereotypical way, i.e. a disabled person, depressed, alone and unable to cope. In other words although the character’s difference should have some relevance to the story and the way they live (everything featured in a book should earn its place and have a purpose) characters still need to be fresh and authentic.

Recently, social media has really shone a spotlight on diversity. Readers and movie watchers feeding back to the creators what they like and don’t like regarding plot and characters. With the current popularity of psychological thrillers, particularly female ‘unreliable narrators’ mental health issues are featuring more and more. This bucks the trend of historically main characters being male, white, straight and able bodied. But it’s important these diverse characters emerging don’t become ‘tick box’ created as it were. So does this book help?

Lucy mainly focuses on race, colour, disability and sexuality and it quickly becomes apparent she has done a LOT of research. There are references throughout to both novels and films which make her thoughts really relatable with specific examples frequently given. Lucy has also included quotes from a selection of those in the industry including agents and novelists. Helpfully Lucy also shares the common themes and characters she comes across day to day in scripts and how to think outside the box, suggesting ways to flip those ideas so they become a little less run of the mill.

There are sections in the book covering protagonist goals, character growth and supporting characters and how to research, and Lucy also shares what agents, publishers, producers and filmmakers are looking for – and why.

Lucy doesn’t give you a magic formula for creating diverse characters – there isn’t one – but what she offers is a well researched, thought provoking and concise book which will give you much to ponder on whether you’re a seasoned script writer or a new novelist. This is a valuable addition to my writing library and I’m sure it’s something I’ll be dipping in and out of for years to come.

Lucy V. Hay is a novelist, script editor and script reader. She is one of the founding organizers of the London Screenwriters’ Festival, associate producer of the 2012 film Deviation, and the author of Writing and Selling Drama Screenplays and Writing and Selling Thriller Screenplays. Lucy has read for a variety of production companies, funding initiatives and screen agencies as well as individual directors and producers with her Bang2write script consultancy.

You can buy Lucy’s books on Amazon UK here and Amazon US here.

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Sponge Cake & Self Doubt – The day before publication…

Today I’m distracted, unable to settle. I’ve opened and closed my wip, started and abandoned a short story. The puppy has trailed me as I’ve paced our overgrown garden, the cat rolling his eyes as I’ve stalked the places he thinks of as his own. I’m edgy, excited, easily distracted. It’s a little like waiting for Christmas, except it isn’t. It’s better.

Tomorrow is the paperback publication day of my debut, The Sister and even with a pile of paperbacks sitting on my desk and less than twelve hours to go I still can’t quite believe it’s happening.

This morning I’ve collected the bookmarks for my Waterstones launch tomorrow night, resisted the urge to dive into my cake and bought enough wine to fill the boot of my car. Each time I’ve been out I’ve darted into Asda and stood staring blankly at the books for so long an assistant came to check if I was ok and I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that tomorrow, nestled amongst the other titles, my story will sit. It doesn’t seem real.

It’s been a long road to publication, and after signing with the digital phenomenon that is Bookouture I never dreamed that a year on I’d also have a contract with Sphere (Little, Brown). After all those no’s finally two yes’s.

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I feel so emotional today. So thankful that even when it seemed utterly impossible anyone would take me on I never gave up writing and submitting. Tomorrow in-between two radio interviews, I’m planning to visit WH Smiths, Waterstones and the supermarkets to reassure myself it’s really there. I can’t imagine how I’ll feel when I see Grace and Charlie’s story on a shelf although there’s still a part of me, a larger part than I’d like, that is half-expecting a last minute ‘sorry we’ve read the book again and changed our minds’ email. I’m not sure when this self-doubt will go, if it ever will, but in the meantime I’m watching the clock and waiting. Endlessly waiting. And for now, still resisting the cake.

 

 

 

 

Reading these books taught me valuable lessons – #BookLoversDay

It’s Book Lovers Day! I’m always reading and there have been many, many books I’ve enjoyed but sometimes I’m lucky enough to take something from them that stays with me. These books have all taught me a valuable lesson and I’m grateful to have read them.

 

The Famous Five by Enid Blyton

At primary school I devoured books at such an alarming rate, I was given permission to take more than the allocated one book per child home each week. Long after I should have been asleep I was reading Enid Blyton books by torchlight under my covers, and The Famous Five was my favourite series. It was these books that ignited my interest in mysteries. Who was the baddie? Why did they do it? Would the gang figure it out in time? Always, one of them would be in peril towards the end and my heart would pound and I couldn’t rest until good triumphed over evil. These books taught me that I wanted to be a writer although at that young age I didn’t just want to be a writer. I wanted to be Enid Blyton.

A Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart

This was my favourite read of 2016. The story of Alex and Jody who have lost the ability to communicate with each other is beautifully written. Alex’s attempts to forge a relationship with his autistic son, Sam are genuinely moving. Alex finds Sam playing Minecraft and realises the structure and format of the game bring a confidence to Sam he hasn’t seen before,  Alex too becomes engrossed in the game and his confidence as a father blossoms. I loved this story so much I felt lost when I’d finished it. As well as educating me that games such as Minecraft have a purpose in todays’ society (I’m a mum of three boys) it also made me question the sort of writer I want to be and the genre I want to write in. I’ve written three psychological thrillers now and although I’ve plans for a few more yet, it’s commercial family dramas I am always drawn to as a reader and this book inspired me to want to experiment with different styles and structures of novels.

 

Charlie Brown by Charles M. Shulz

I adore all things Snoopy but Charlie Brown is a bit of a hero of mine and the Peanuts books are still something I dip into today. Charlie Brown never gave up. Despite the gazillion times Lucy pulled the football away when he went to kick it, he never lost the hope that this time it might be different. This time he might be successful. If I have a down day and am not feeling as positive as usual I flick through a Peanuts book and take heart from Charlie Brown’s determination to never stop trying.

 

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

Absolutely my favourite read of 2015. A gorgeously written book of Maud, who finds a note in her pocket – Elizabeth is missing – and her endeavours to track down her best friend. Sadly dementia has touched my family and the glimpse Elizabeth gives into the mind of a dementia sufferer through Maud, and the impact on her family and carers is insightful and sensitively handled. I found this book more educational than a lot of the nonfiction material I had read. Story wise, love and thought is poured into every beautifully constructed sentence. I was lucky enough to hear the author, Emma talk at Foyles and to learn she spent five years crafting this exceptional debut really brought home to me that there is no standard time it should take to write a novel. It’s hard sometimes not to compare yourself to other writers who seem to effortlessly produce a new book every few months (although rationally I know books are NEVER effortlessly produced). This taught me that some books just can’t be rushed and need to be rewritten many times throughout the editing process and boy was it worth the wait.

 

every dayEvery Day is Wonderful by Fredric Fewings

This beautiful children’s pocketbook was bought for me by my grandparents when I was at primary school, and it is one of my most treasured possessions. I was always a very thoughtful child and this book, stuffed full of inspirational snippets and gorgeously illustrated, invited me to actively seek the good and positive in each and every day.

‘So look for Beauty everywhere,

And practice Goodness, too,

For wonders have their origins,

In the heart of you!’

 

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Still at primary school, still reading Enid Blyton over and over I found a worn copy of Little Women in our garage and although I thought it looked a little boring, I had nothing else to read on that day and decided to give it a go. Jo March became my heroine. I rooted for all the sisters, cried buckets when Beth died and felt emotionally drained when I’d finished it. Books up until that point had been full of excitement and adventure. All boarding schools, mysteries and magic trees.

Little Women made me feel something different. Really feel. And that was the moment I started to work my way through the classics wondering who wrote these stories? How did they become writers? It seemed so far out of reach but the spark was there for me, which smoldered away for the next thirty-five years, and I vowed that if I ever wrote a book it would be an emotionally moving one but still retain the mystery element I’d first fallen in love with. My debut, The Sister, was that book.

 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Time by Mark Haddon

I used to read anything and everything I could get my hands on but a few years ago, without knowing, I became stuck in a genre rut. Always heading to the same section of the library and the bookshop.  A friend recommended this story to me and told me it was a young adult novel and I told her I would read it but I secretly didn’t think I would. Frustrated she lent me her copy and said I had to read it straight away and so I sat down, and didn’t move again until I’d finished and I’ve read it many times since. A big lesson for me on book snobbery and I’ll never fall into the genre trap again.

 

I know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I’d become familiar with Maya Angelou and her background as a civil rights activist and was interested to read more about this woman who had empowered so many. At that point to me there was a clear divide between fiction and non-fiction styles of writing, so although I expected to be educated I didn’t expect to be enthralled by her style of writing. Early on there’s a sentence which reads: ‘If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.’ I remember stopping and rereading that sentence over and over, thinking about the power of language and that was the first time I ever realised what was meant by ‘voice.’

 

The Stand by Stephen King

As a teenager I was a real horror fan. The scarier the better. I’d read a fair few Stephen King books before stumbling across the massive publication that is The Stand and I curled up in my chair and waited to feel the creeping sense of unease I usually felt with his novels. What I didn’t expected was to be so moved I cried many times during this story and to this day it is still one of my favourites. This book taught me you can’t always pigeon hole a story. When I started writing psychological thrillers I wanted that emotional punch. I wanted to make readers cry. All three of my books feature an emotional thread alongside the tension and fear and I love picking bits out of different genres and blending them together.

 

Laughing on the Outside, Crying on the Inside by Judy Carne

Judy Carne was the star of the 60’s American TV show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in and the wife of Burt Reynolds. She was also my mum’s cousin. When Judy returned to our home town in Northamptonshire from Hollywood regaling us with tales of the rich and famous I was enthralled by the glitz and glamour of her life.

Reading her biography however, painted a very different picture. She had a real struggle and a phenomenal journey  to achieve what she achieved through real hardship. I’d always thought my town was ordinary and by default I was never destined to be anything other than the secretary I was when I left school. Judy inspired me to never lose sight of my dreams or give up and made me realise that ordinary people can live extraordinary lives if they only believe they can.

 

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff by Richard Carlson

At one time I had bookshelves full of self-help titles. Newly disabled, and at a real low, I was constantly searching for the one thing that could make a difference. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff was that book. Broken down into ultra short chapters, it’s easy to dip in and out of and to implicate into everyday life. Formerly a teacher of Mindfulness, this book was one I would often recommend to my coaching clients.

 

Mrs. Sinclair’s Suitcase by Louise Walters

When I began writing The Sister I heard about the WoMentoring Project, founded by Kerry Hudson, offering mentors to upcoming female talent. On the list of mentors was Louise Walters and I’d just finished her debut Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase and was captivated by her voice and beautiful story. It took ages, and a fair few glasses of wine before I felt brave enough to apply to the project and I was thrilled when Louise became my mentor.

I wrote the first ten thousand words of my novel and Louise replied, in a very gentle way, that although my style of writing was lovely the story didn’t flow like a novel at all.  I deleted the words but before starting again I wanted to reread a book I’d loved, but with a critical eye. A writer’s eye. To try to learn where I went wrong. Louise’s book was the obvious choice and I reread making careful notes. How did characters develop? How does her story arc work? It was a pleasure to reread her gorgeous story, her writing is exceptional, and I learned such a lot about how to structure a novel.

 

The Maid’s Room by Fiona Mitchell (To be released November 2017)

My list wouldn’t be complete with what has been my favourite read of 2017 so far. This beautifully constructed debut tells the story of two sisters, Filipino maids Dolly and Tala. It’s set in Singapore and is based, in part, on Fiona’s experience of living there. I was horrified at the treatment maids receive often at the hands of British ex-pats and I couldn’t believe this was set in modern day. This story could have been depressing but Fiona has sensitively weaved through humour and some really heartwarming moments. As a teacher of mindfulness for years I would make sure I regularly carried out random acts of kindness. Since I’ve been so busy writing this had lapsed a little. Reading how such small things made an enormous difference to the life of these maids inspired me to restart paying it forward wherever I can. Be kind where possible. It’s always possible.

Flash Fiction – Wonky Boots & Crumpled Sheets

Image courtesy of Kent Bonham

 

‘Because I straighten your boots when you sling them on the mat?’ She was crying.

‘It’s not just that. You’re endlessly plumping cushions. Making the bed as soon as I get up to make tea. You live your life by hospital corners and I can’t live like that.’

I didn’t look back once as I left.

Now, I throw open the door of my cold bedsit which doesn’t feel like home and kick off my boots. I hesitate. Bend down and place them neatly together. I sink down on the sofa. I don’t have any cushions. But I don’t have her.

 

Hurrah – this week I finished my structural edits. I was stunned & delighted The Surrogate reached the top 40 in the UK Amazon chart on preorders  3 months prior to publication. Thank you! You can read my ’15 stages you go through with a structural edit’ post here. I’ve also had an emotional week with a big change you can read about here

‘Wonky Boots & Crumpled Sheets’ was written for Friday Fictioneers. A 100 word weekly story challenge inspired by a photo prompt. Join in over at host Rochelle’s blog here. (For all my US friends who might not understand the connection the first thing I noticed was the car boot which I think you call a trunk over there?)

15 stages you go through with structural edits

  1. My structural edits have arrived. I don’t think I’m strong enough to cope. Pour a glass of wine.
  2. Open the email, skim through the notes. Feel lightheaded and slightly sick. Close email. Drink more wine.
  3. Take a deep breath and read editor’s notes properly. The changes are enormous. Hyperventilate. I can’t do this.
  4. Pull myself together. Remind myself I am LUCKY to be in this position. Open the document. WHY IS THERE SO MUCH RED? There are track changes EVERYWHERE.
  5. Outrage – this will RUIN my book. RUIN it.
  6. Google self-publishing.
  7. Cry.
  8. Go shopping – can’t possibly edit until I have more highlighters/post-its/notebooks/chocolate.
  9. Make a list. Lists are good. Lists make everything manageable.
  10. Pull the book apart and piece it back together.
  11. Read manuscript – realise editor was actually right all along and the changes ARE an improvement.
  12. Relief.
  13. Email manuscript back to editor. Collapse on the sofa. Hurrah. It is DONE!
  14. Remember there’s still the copy edits to go. Despair.
  15. Open more wine…

If you’ve enjoyed this you might want to hop over to ’15 stages you go through writing a first draft.’

Flash Fiction – The Lucky One

Image courtesy of Janet Webb

 

If I could make a wish it would be for one thing but how can I when I know she’d wish for the same thing too? I thread my fingers through hers. It’s ridiculous but I’m almost hoping for bad news for myself. There’s a one in four chance of making it and my rational self tells me if I am the lucky one it doesn’t necessarily make her the unlucky one but still. How could I live with myself?

The door begins to open and I squeeze her hand. This is it. Good or bad. Life will never be the same again.

 

This Sunday 17th,  I’ll be talking live over on Facebook at 8pm GMT about writing, editing and getting published. I’d love it if you could come and join me or pop over and post a question and I’ll make sure I answer it. Join The Fiction Cafe here to post questions & view the live stream or watch on catch up.

‘The Lucky One’ was written for Friday Fictioneers. A weekly 100 word story challenge inspired by a photo prompt. Check out the other entries at host Rochelle’s blog here.

LIVE author chat this weekend – do join me!

 

This Sunday 17th July I shall be over at The Fiction Cafe on Facebook at 8pm GMT chatting live about books, writing and getting published. Do come pop along and take part – it should be a lot of fun.

If you’re not around Sunday you can post questions before the event and I’ll make sure they are answered.

You can join the group here.

Look forward to seeing you!