Creating characters AKA you don’t need to know where the postman lost his virginity

I never set out to write a book. I’ve shared before that I started writing to lift my mood after a change in health left me with a disability and chronic pain which led to clinical depression.

It was easy to fall in love with Grace and Charlie, the characters I thought I would try and write a story about. It was easy to find a hook – Charlie’s last words to Grace “I did something terrible, please forgive me.” It was easy to write page after page. It was when it reached a point where it was no longer a short story, and I thought ‘The Sister’ could possibly be a book, that it suddenly felt very, very hard.

I had no idea how to write a novel.

Anxiety was my default setting and I let it consume me. How could I ever think I could write a book? I had no education beyond a handful of GCSE’s. No training. No degree. No idea what I was doing.

Frantically I turned to Google – how do you write a novel – relaxing when I saw the number of hits that appeared. There were people who knew and they were willing to share. It was all going to be okay once I learned the magic formula – or was it?

I didn’t question who the writers were imparting their knowledge, whether they’d published, sold, whether I’d read and enjoyed their stories. I just took it for granted that everyone knew absolutely more than me. I knew nothing. I would do whatever they told me, and I did.

One of the first blogs I read said you could never write a convincing story unless you knew your characters inside out. That made sense to me. I already felt Grace and Charlie were fully formed, real to me but as I read on I knew that they couldn’t be.

Did I know their shoe size? Umm no.

The first flavour ice cream they ever tried? Can’t say I did.

Their best holiday? No idea.

Lucky for me the writer in question had designed a ten page character sheet questionnaire she was giving away free if I signed up to her newsletter. And I did.

I printed out the sheets and filled them in for Every Single Character because ‘there are no minor players in novels.’

For two weeks I did nothing except get to know my characters.  I even knew where the postman (who is only in one scene delivering a letter) lost his virginity.

When I returned to my manuscript it felt different. What had felt natural before now felt a little like wading through treacle. The direction the plot was naturally taking didn’t fit the personalities I was trying to foist upon my characters. They weren’t acting like the people on my character sheets. I began to question whether I was too inexperienced to write. Whether I needed to do a course.

Later, over a glass of wine with my husband he wondered whether knowing where a fictional postman had fictional sex was really that important to the story.

It wasn’t.

I’ve never filled in a character sheet since. That’s not to say they don’t have a value, all authors ultimately find their own way of working, but I prefer to let them evolve naturally, jotting down things like eye colour etc. as I go to ensure continuity.

That said, before I get too far into a novel I do like to know the character’s internal flaw. The thing that stops he/she getting what she wants. The thing that will have readers rooting for them and cheering during that all important change that happens along the character arc.

For my second book, The Gift, I knew that Jenna my main character didn’t know where her place in the world was anymore after a heart transplant at a relatively young age left her feeling set apart from her friends and boyfriend and that was all I needed to know to begin writing. For a satisfying ending, Jenna needed to find her place whether she reached her external goal of tracking down the donor’s family or not.

Incidentally, Jenna gets several deliveries of mail throughout the story. Her postman probably has sex but I’ve no idea who with, or even of his name.

And what’s more – I don’t care.

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Mental Health – A graduate’s journey through school & uni with chronic anxiety (& why writing helps)

 

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Today, I’m excited to be chatting with Chloe from Chloe Chats. Chloe’s a recent graduate who has had a really tough time with chronic anxiety.  I’m interested learning how she navigated the education system and why writing has helped her therapeutically.

 

Hi Chloe, having first met you the day you were born I’m feeling pretty old right now to see how grown up you are but delighted to welcome you onto my blog.

Hi Louise! The time does seem to just fly by – sometimes I can’t believe I’ve already graduated from university.

Firstly, let’s touch upon your anxiety – did anything specifically trigger it?

I’m someone that has had bad anxiety all my life, I can’t even explain why I feel anxious.

I can relate to that. I felt that way before I discovered mindfulness. Now, I’m a huge advocate of mental health and find it both shocking and saddening that according to the NASUWT teaching union, 96% of teachers state they have come into contact with pupils experiencing mental health issues. Did you find your teachers were understanding?

When I was at school I never told anyone about my anxiety, none of my friends or teachers knew about it. I always kept it to myself.

That must have felt like a huge burden?

Yes. I used to feel more anxious because I was worried that people didn’t understand why I wouldn’t talk so much, or why I wouldn’t join in with all the activities. The only reason I didn’t tell anyone was because at the time I didn’t understand it myself, I thought I was ‘weird’ and everyone else was normal. I used to hate myself for not being able to be like everyone else, I would be so annoyed that I couldn’t just join in with a conversation just because I was too anxious.

So at that time you didn’t have any coping techniques in place?

No. I just tried to get through the day. Even though it was only a few years ago there was hardly any information on it, no one really spoke about it like they do now.

Did you have any support?

I was lucky that in secondary school I had a good group of friends that I felt comfortable with, although things went downhill for me when I reached sixth form. I pretty much lost my main group of friends, we all split up and ended up in different form classes and from there I slowly stopped talking to them and if I did meet them at lunch I would just sit there in silence – I can’t even tell you what happened, my anxiety got the better of me.

That must have felt really lonely. The added pressure of GCSE’s and A ’Levels can’t have helped. How did you find that period?

I ended up doing a lot of the exams by myself in a room instead of the main hall with everyone else. I managed to speak to my tutor at the time and I told her how I just couldn’t cope with sitting in the big hall with everyone and so they organised me to take my exams elsewhere. This was super helpful.

Getting through your exams must have been a relief but also brought the pressure of what next?

Yes. When school was coming to an end I panicked a little because I didn’t really know what to do! I ended up going to university where I decided to do a Media and Creative Writing course. Seeing as I enjoyed my Media AS Level so much and I loved to write I thought that was a great option.

That sounds like a positive step?

I thought so but after a week of being at uni I packed up and left – my anxiety was uncontrollable. I struggled to leave my uni room and go into the kitchen to make food because I couldn’t bring myself to bump into my flat mates. I spoke to my mum and she said to do what is best for me, she did try and get me to stay longer because a week is definitely not long enough to get a feel for it. I went home but I didn’t want to feel so defeated. I called up the uni 3 weeks later and asked if I could come back, and thankfully they said yes!! So off I went back to university again – back to my same room and this time around I stuck it out and I’m so glad I did, my flatmates were lovely, I made some great friends and met my boyfriend!

That was such a courageous decision.  Did you feel more in control when you returned?

I did. The friends I made was the biggest thing that helped me. My anxiety seemed to get better but after I left uni it escalated again –and for the first time I had to put my life on hold. My panic attacks grew worse – I had them more often, my heart palpitations were non-stop, I cried a lot, I made myself physically ill because of how run-down I felt. It was at this point that I got stuck in this never-ending loop, I couldn’t see an end to it. I spent loads of time in bed and would barely eat anything, the thought of eating made me feel sick. I went to the doctors, my family looked after me, but I still couldn’t get out of this cycle. I ended up crying in the middle of a restaurant and it was so embarrassing and at that point I just said to myself this has got to stop – I need help. I reached out to my friend who I met at uni – it was handy as she is in the mental health industry. With her help I got to the stage that I felt a little better and I decided that I wanted to help others.

Which brings us to your blog. Why do you find it so beneficial?

Writing is a great coping method for me, it gives me a purpose, it keeps me busy and what I write about has helped others – I get messages from people, comments on my blog posts, and so many tweets from people saying how reading the blog posts has made them feel positive or inspired. I found it also helps to know that you’re not alone.

I honestly don’t know whether I’d have completed my first novel without the support of the WordPress community, let alone published four. Has blogging about something specific given you a sense of connection?

Definitely. I have connected with so many bloggers and it’s been fantastic to make new ‘online’ friends and to be able to talk about these issues with others.

I read your post on ‘How to boost happiness.’

That’s a great example. As I started to write what helps me feel happy it made me realise how much there actually is!

I do a similar exercise in my mindfulness classes. It’s a brave thing sharing personal posts. When I started blogging about my novel writing journey I can remember feeling absolutely terrified and so vulnerable that I was putting myself out there. How did it feel for you and has it got easier?

When I decided to publish my journey of anxiety on my blog I was terrified. I wrote it up in March, but I didn’t publish it till April because the thought of everyone knowing was a scary thought. My parents and boyfriend knew about it and one close friend but that was it. I remember I published it on a Sunday and my boyfriend was there with me and the support was overwhelming – I received so many messages from loved ones, I ended up crying a little. I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders and it was a positive step for me. The next thing that I was anxious about was going to work the next day because I knew a lot of colleagues had read it from Facebook likes and messages. I thought I’d walk through the door and everyone would just stare at me. However, I walked in and nothing was different, everyone spoke to me like they normally would. One of my colleagues actually came and sat by me and said ‘I just wanted to say, you’re blog post was amazing and well done for sharing it.’ I had a few others message me on our chat system we had who started to tell me that they have experienced similar things – it was great that it got people talking!  

It is! Finally, Chloe, as someone who has also suffered from anxiety I know how beneficial I have found writing, both journaling and blogging, but I also know how completely overwhelming it can feel to begin. What are your top 5 tips.

  • You don’t have to share what you write on a blog or even with anyone else. It could be that you write it up for yourself – it’s such a relief when you get out all your thoughts onto paper (or a computer) that’s been taking up all that space in your mind.
  • If you find that you’re going to bed with worries on your mind I find a great thing to do is to have a notebook by the side of your bed and write down everything that is troubling you. Sometimes writing them out can just lift that weight off your shoulders. I like to write down what is worrying me and then write some solutions next to them. This can help you have a better night’s sleep.
  • If you have a blog yourself, you can always leave posts as drafts until it feels like the right time share it. Sometimes I will have something on my mind that is worrying me and so I will write a blog post on it because it helps to ease my mind but also think that it’ll be a great post for others who might have the same worry. The reason why I would leave them as drafts for a while is because sometimes I just need to get things out of my mind and so I will just type up everything that is running through my mind – sometimes I just go on and on and it doesn’t make much sense!
  • What I have learnt from being a part the blogging community is that there is no pressure when it comes to publishing blog posts. The important thing I’ve learnt about is that you don’t need to look at your stats every day, you might have days where you don’t get as much engagement as you would like but that’s normal. There’s only so much promoting you can do, don’t burn yourself out. I have come across other bloggers where they’ve had weeks off because they’re not in the right headspace and if you find that you’re just writing posts after post just to get views then you should probably stop and think about why you started your blog to begin with.
  • The good thing about blog posts is that you can write about whatever you like, you don’t have to worry so much if readers are going to like it, of course you want your readers to enjoy it but don’t just write about something because you think that it’s popular and will get you a load of views. They’ll be people out there that won’t like your posts so much and they’ll be others that love it and relate to it. You can’t please everyone, but I feel the most important thing is that you enjoy writing it.

Chloe, It’s been such a pleasure chatting to you and thank you for being so open an honest. I’m sure many people will resonate with this post. I look forward to following your blogging journey on Chloe Chats. Good luck.

Thank you!

You can find Chloe’s blog here. Her Facebook page here. And Twitter here.

‘The Wait’ – Flash Fiction – 100 words

 

Photo courtesy of Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

It was there, lurking in the gloom. Vague and amorphous and impossible to capture.

But that didn’t stop me trying.

I skulked and stalked and waited. Endlessly waited.

It was 3am on a cold winter’s night when I finally grasped it with both hands. The freezing air bit the tips of my nose, my cheeks but I didn’t care.

Triumph warmed me.

It was mine.

Slowly it began to uncover itself to me and I fell in love. Polishing it until it shone.

My idea.

I’d pinned it down. At last my scattered thoughts a solid something.

A book.

This week I’m celebrating a new 3-book deal with Harper Collin’s imprint, HQ. You can read my blog about that here and The Bookseller announcement here, along with the blurb for my 5thpsychological thriller, The Family.

‘The Wait’ was written for Friday Fictioneers, a weekly 100 word photo prompt challenge hosted by the fabulous Rochelle. Hop over to Rochelle’s blog here and read the other entries or join in!

Rest, relaxation & 3 great reads

Last month I coped with my son leaving home by sending him off to uni with 3 important things (you can read that post here). I spent the first few days of his absence drifting sadly around the house. It was when I lit a candle in his bedroom I knew I had to get out and do something productive so I dashed to Asda to stock up on chocolate. When I arrived I reminded myself how well I was doing on my sugar free diet, how much better I felt and so instead of a bar of dairy milk I headed into the in-store travel agent and bought a holiday to Lanzarote instead (and it was fun explaining that impromptu purchase to my husband).

Days later myself, my youngest son and my husband were on a beach. It was an odd sensation, trying to relax. It was the first time, in a long time, I hadn’t had a looming deadline from my publisher. I deliberately hadn’t packed my laptop, instead I’d taken a stack of books and I intended to read *whispers* for pleasure.

Historically I used to read a couple of novels a week but in the last few years I’ve been so busy writing my own books there’s been little time for reading. On the occasions I’ve managed to snatch precious minutes from my day, I’ve ended up reading one of the huge pile of proofs in my study awaiting quotes which all tend to be psychological thrillers as that’s the genre I write in. On my break, I was determined to read something different, and I did.

The One With Hidden Depths – First on my list was Graham Norton’s cozy crime debut ‘Holding.’ I’ve long been a huge Graham Norton fan. I pre-ordered this the second it was announced but I’ve been putting off reading it because… if I’m honest, because I thought it might not be very good. Sorry Graham. 

I dove into the pages expecting them to be peppered with brash humour, outrageous jokes, which I wasn’t sure how would translate into a novel, but what I found was a gentle story set in rural Ireland, sensitively written by someone who knew his characters inside out. The gradual unfurling is slow but I like that in a story. There’s a depth to the characterisation you rarely find in debuts. So much so I googled whether Graham had a ghost writer, apparently he didn’t. There’s a vulnerability surrounding the small community featured in this story, that doesn’t come from the characters alone. I’ve since bought Graham’s second novel ‘A Keeper’ and I won’t leave it too long before I read it.

The Chilling One – Next up was ‘The Taking of Annie Thorne’ by C.J. Tudor. As a teenager I was a real horror buff and a big fan of Stephen King but as I’ve got older I’ve… I’ve grown into a bit of a wuss  I suppose and so I tend to shy away from the genre. That said when Steven King recommends a writer you sit up and listen and that, along with the fabulous cover, swayed me into putting on my big girl pants and diving in. Goodness. This book is creepy. Right from the start a sense of unease settled over me, despite my brilliant backdrop of blue skies and golden sands. This story is so atmospheric with a refreshingly unique voice. I do love it when I start off loathing a character but the writer gradually draws me in until I’m rooting for them. I’m glad I didn’t read this alone at night, but I’m so very glad I read it. 

The Weepy One – A writer friend of mine recommended ‘Bitter’ by Francesca Jakobi to me and told me I’d love it, and she was right. I find it utterly fascinating when a story is based on some semblance of truth and this one, based on Francesca’s grandmother, drew me in completely. It could have been hard to picture a time when divorce was scandalous and single parent families an oddity but thanks to the evocative writing I was right there with the beautifully crafted characters, living out their obsessions with them. This book is thoughtful, heartbreaking and utterly compelling. I am desperate to know what happened after the final pages. 

Aside from reading, it was a fabulous holiday which kicked off to a thrilling start when we popped into WH Smith’s at the airport and found ‘The Surrogate‘ on the shelves. Once we’d arrived, we hired a car but didn’t explore this gorgeous island nearly enough which is a good reason to return (although we did stumble across a fabulous bookshop who stocked ‘The Sister‘ – hurrah!) What we did do in-between reading was wade into the sea to feed the flurry of fish with cooked vegetables we saved from lunch.

We also went sea trekking for the first time. Walking around the ocean bed while hooked up to air was an odd but amazing experience and a privilege to be up close to so many sea creatures in their natural habitat. 

Evenings found us at a beach bar, sipping cocktails and watching the sun set.

It was while gazing out to sea I had an idea for a romantic novel I felt ridiculously excited about but within 48 hours of being back in the UK I’d (fictionally) killed someone. I feel relaxed, refreshed and ready to put the finishing touches to my fifth psychological thriller, and as for writing romance? Maybe one day…

 

When book events are about SO much more than books

A few months ago I was asked by Ian Loveland if I’d like to participate in an event to both raise money for, and awareness of my local library. It’s been heartbreaking to hear of the planned closure of so many libraries in our county and I was thrilled to be able to do something, however small, to help. Three other authors Sue Moorcroft, Darren O’Sullivan and Mark West also agreed to give up their time.

Tentatively we hoped if we all spent lots of time promoting the event we could sell enough tickets to bring in a decent crowd of people, more than the library could comfortably seat. The Core Theatre, who shares a building with the library, offered us a room. Corby Radio said they would market the event for free and helped us record an advert they played regularly leading up to the evening.

Last night, us authors arrived with boxes of books and mountains of hope that we’d have more of an audience than just my mum who was the first to arrive. We needn’t have worried. The event was sold out. The atmosphere electric.

Joe Flavin, Director of The Core chaired our panel and asked his first question about writing. As I scanned the room I was overwhelmed with gratitude. With emotion. A lump rose in my throat and I felt tears prick the back of my eyes. I knew this evening wasn’t solely about our stories or how we construct them. It was about people. Our community.

The seed of an idea from the library had sprouted thanks to the support of the theatre, both organisations supporting local writing. In turn, writers supporting the theatre and the library. Corby Radio supporting us all. Many of the theatre staff had volunteered their time. The people of our county buying tickets, nurturing both local talent and the wonderful resources our town has to offer.

As a community we share more than a geographical location. As human beings we all crave contact, a sense of belonging. Forming connections is essential to mental health and well being. It is through our communities we can seek comfort through difficult times. Find a light in the midst of the dark places.

The theatre, the library, hearing that familiar voice come through your radio saves us from alienation and isolation. Helps us to find each other.

Last night there was a real sense of coming together in a world that is pulling apart.

It wasn’t just about books.

It was about love and friendship.

It was about home.

The BIG editing lesson I learned writing The Surrogate #WritingTips

Today is the UK paperback publication of my third psychological thriller, The Surrogate (US paperback publication will follow later this year).  Although I’ve learned from every book, it was this one in particular where my editor gave me a piece of advice that has always stayed with me.

When I shared with my sister that I’d be writing a book about surrogacy she told me that she though the subject was too limiting. That the story would be predictable. I was determined to prove her wrong.

The Surrogate features Kat and Lisa, childhood friends, and Kat’s husband, Nick. They are all keeping dark and damaging secrets. I never plan when I write. I had a vague idea of who might be bad and who might be good but as I got deeper into the story the characters pulled me in unexpected directions. The plot became more complex than anything I thought I was capable of constructing.

As the ending gathered pace I layered twist upon twist, they tumbled onto the page as they tumbled out of my head, until finally the story reached its dramatic conclusion.

Nervously, I sent it over to my editor.

‘This is a phenomenal story’ her feedback began, ‘but…’ my heart sank ‘you’re not giving your twists time to breathe.’

I wasn’t entirely sure what she meant until I reread my manuscript. There wasn’t time to process each revelation before another one hit. It had been exhausting writing it. It was equally exhausting reading it. Rather than the pacy, hard hitting ending I thought I’d written it was confusing, lurching from one reveal to another.

She suggested taking out several twists which I was reluctant to do, so I set about rewriting the end.

For the twist she’d classed as ‘the big one’ I ensured I had no other reveals in this chapter. For other twists I moved a couple so they were away from the end. For most I lengthened the chapters so they weren’t so crammed together, particularly the epilogue which contains several.

Rereading it, I could see the difference. There was time to rest back, to process the turns of the story before it once more turned on its head.

There’s nothing I like more than pulling the rug from under the readers feet. To lead them to think they’ve got it all figured out when they haven’t. My stories always contain multiple twists. Now I’ll always give them time to breath.

You can read the opening of The Surrogate here and buy it on your local Amazon here. It is also now available in Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s & all good book shops.

Flash Fiction – Forbidden

Photo courtesy of J Hardy Carroll

 

There’s a crack in the curtains just wide enough to watch you standing in the shadow of time at the bus stop; rucksack on shoulder, school tie skewwhiff.  You’re cradling your heart in both hands, waiting for it to start beating.

Usually he doesn’t notice you.

But today there’s the gaze that lingers too long, the smile that’s too bright.

Run.

Take your heart and run away before it gets broken.

Instead you take his hand.

Why him?

Now I’ll have to tell you the story of his dad and I.

The real story of you.

Be the one who destroys you.

Why me?

 

‘Forbidden ‘was written for Friday Fictioneers. A weekly flash fiction challenge inspired by a photo prompt. Please do check out the other entries over on host Rochelle’s blog and join in!