You or your characters – who’s in charge?

Someone recently asked me why I had made Jim, one of the protagonists in my novel Not the End, a twin. I couldn’t really answer that. I didn’t feel I’d made him anything, he just came to me that way.

It would be nice to think I could produce characters to order, be at the head of an army of compliant puppets. That’s now how it works for me. Characters turn up when they feel like it, often at night, whispering in the dark or shouting outside the window. They trample over my carefully tended plots. They ignore the path I have laid out and forge their own. I run round clearing up after them, changing my story to make sense of their apparently implausible or irrational behaviour, adapting my structure, shifting the narrative arc.

In fact – they’re just like real people. They aren’t predictable and they resist coercion. Doesn’t that make for a better book? If there are to be twists and surprises and thought-provoking developments maybe they need to surprise the writer as much as the reader. Perhaps in their contrariness my characters are saying that what appears reasonable is not actually true.

The downside of character-driven writing is that everything takes so long. They always make me wait. I’m so envious of writers who can write a great plot-driven outline, plug in characters with the correct dimensions and set them marching to their drum. Am I just weak? Should I exercise more authority?

For my next-but-one novel I’ve been experimenting. I’m trying a plot-driven approach, writing a crime novel working from one of those template plots. Rather than waiting for my characters to decide how they want to respond, I’m going to prune them into shape. (Spoiler alert: it’s not working out so far.)

Why shouldn’t it though? If drama is about conflict, about putting your characters in a position where they really don’t want to be and seeing how they react, then why would you ask them nicely first? And I’m not a snob. There are some plot-driven writers who produce complex and interesting characters (and plenty of literary authors who can’t plot to save their lives).

For me the difficulty is that, like real people, characters grow and change. I’ve been writing my main work-in-progress for a couple of years, and had it in the back of my mind for longer than that, but the other day I had a moment of realisation, that a character’s feelings about a key event in his life are quite different from what I thought. And that there’s still much more about him that is enigmatic to me.

Writing a novel isn’t just about narrating a series of events in a particular order, it’s about answering a question that I’ve asked of my characters and myself. That’s why I never get bored with writing. Exhausted and exasperated, yes, but not bored. I’m always learning. And it’s the characters who are telling me something I don’t yet know.

Adverbially Challenged Volume 2 is launched

Adverbially Challenged 2I am very pleased to be included in the latest Adverbially Challenged anthology, which is published on Thursday 30 March.

I don’t normally write flash fiction, although I enjoy reading it, but I couldn’t resist this challenge – to write a story of 100 words containing as many adverbs as possible.

Every writing workshop or ‘how to write’ manual or blog will tell you not to use adverbs, for good reason. Beginner authors invariably (see what I did there?) overuse them. I blame primary school teachers (sorry, Mrs Fry). We are encouraged to use adverbs in sentences as children to develop our language skills and our understanding. For many of us, the habit sticks.

I’m a big fan of breaking the rules as a writing exercise. (One idea I have had in the back of my mind for years is to try and write a story that subverts all of Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing.) Breaking the rules forces you to think creatively. In this case – when are adverbs effective in fiction?

I tried to use them to counter expectations. No one needs to know that someone is smiling ‘happily’, but what if they’re smiling ‘icily’? I haven’t seen an advance copy of the book, so I’m looking forward to seeing how other writers interpreted the challenge and will write about it in a later post.

Profits from sales of the anthology will be donated to First Story. The charity brings talented professional writers into secondary schools serving low-income communities. They work with teachers and students to develop their creativity and communication skills.

It’s great to think that this anthology will help another generation of children learn how (not) to use adverbs!

Adverbially Challenged Volume 2 is edited by Christopher Fielden and was the idea of Mike Scott Thomson, who wrote the introduction to the book. Chris features many more writing challenges on his website, all for charity. I enjoyed writing mine, so why not have a go?

You can buy Adverbially Challenged Volume 2 in Kindle or paperback from Amazon.

Is editing the most creative part of writing a novel?


I sometimes hear writers say they find editing their novel tedious. For me it’s the opposite. I’m currently editing my next novel and remembering why I love writing.

I should define what I mean by editing in this context. I’m talking about the substantive editing you do when you’ve got a roughly novel-shaped, full-length manuscript, one that’s good enough to show to your trusted reader but is definitely not ready to face the world. For me that’s normally around the fourth draft.

So, what is it about editing?

A worthy opponent

I need something to work against. I’d like to say it’s because I see every side of an argument. Maybe I’m just contrary. Give me a draft and I’ll tell you all the things that are wrong with it and all the ways I could do it better (even if it was an earlier incarnation of ‘I’ who wrote that draft). You can’t do that with a blank page.

It’s not writing, it’s typing

…as Truman Capote almost said of the Beat Generation. The truth is, all draft writing is typing. It might take you an hour or a day to write 500 words. It will take around a minute to read them. A scene that seems to drag on forever in the drafting will turn out to be too abrupt when you read it back.

Whereas you can edit almost in real time. You can read your draft in the same way a reader will, and see what you’ve missed. You will often be surprised. The character you thought was weak turns out to be intriguing. The scene you thought was hilarious falls flat. It doesn’t matter. You can put it right.

Wrestling an octopus

For me, structure is the biggest challenge – telling a story with an entertaining plot that also has emotional truth and complexity. You have problems coming at you from all angles. Maybe I can only hold so many things in my head at once, but I tend to focus on getting the shape of the story right first. Refining the rhythm and the texture of the language comes later.

This for me is the reward. Like writing haiku, I can weigh up every word, capture the curve of an eyebrow, the significance of a pause, the particular scent of the breeze on a summer’s day. (Though it’s easy to become obsessed at this stage, and, like Oscar Wilde, spend all morning taking out a comma, and in the afternoon put it back.)

A productive member of society

Creating something from nothing is capricious. You can sit yourself at your desk, you can use various techniques (and waste a fortune on apps and productivity guides) but you can’t make yourself be creative, in the way that you can make yourself do the washing up or fill out your tax return.

When I’m at the early stage of a project, I find it really hard to make progress. This is not uncommon, I know. This is the point at which writers beat themselves up, despising themselves as lazy and undisciplined.

I’ve been writing seriously for over 20 years and I’ve come to the conclusion that this is just the way it is for me. But when I’m editing the work flows easily. If I’m at home, I can do it all day and into the evening. That sense of shame and failure, when you’ve spent all day with nothing to show for it, is gone.

Inspiration and revelation

editing-squareFor me editing is the point at which ideas fly. That odd little scene that seemed to add nothing needs only a tweak to reveal its significance. The chapters that resolutely refused to line up can do a little shuffle and suddenly give an elegant new shape to the narrative. Ruthless cuts can be liberating, new scenes flow easily because they know exactly the space they need to fill. The underlying themes and connections become much clearer. You will even discover that your unconscious has planted some without telling you (but you should still take credit for them).

Marginal gains

You hear about this all the time from sportspeople. Small, incremental changes can have striking effects on overall performance. It is the same with editing. Add a line of dialogue to seed the mystery, change a few words to make a description zing, tighten up a quiet middle chapter to give it energy – small changes can have a bit impact.

So those are some of the reasons why I love editing. I suppose how you feel about editing also depends on your writing process, but I’ll save that for another day.

Reading the EU – some recommendations for the #EU27Project

Last week I wrote about the #EU27Project and some books by EU authors which I am looking forward to reading. This week I thought I’d recommend some books I’ve enjoyed by EU authors. A link in italics takes you to my review, in plain text to the book’s Goodreads page.

the-green-roadIrish fiction is strongly represented in my recent reading, including three different takes on the aftermath of the economic crisis. The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney is about a young man growing up in Cork’s gang culture, Anne Enright’s The Green Road is a contemporary take on the matriarchal family saga and The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan has an intriguing narrative structure – each chapter is narrated by a different character.

Portuguese author Jose Saramago’s Blindness is an allegory that defies easy answers. In a world afflicted by an epidemic of blindness, will good or evil prevail? Some people have found this hard going because of the lack of punctuation, particularly of dialogue. I listened to the audiobook which meant someone had done the hard work for me.

I’ve recently enjoyed a couple of books from countries where I know very little about the literature. In Craving by Dutch author Esther Gerritsen a woman with autism casually tells her adult daughter she is dying, with darkly comic consequences. The Devil’s Workshop by Jáchym Topol is a dark satire from the Czech Republic/Czechia about a former Nazi prison transformed into a tourist attraction. It asks difficult questions about what we should remember and how.

I am particularly interested in Spain and books in Spanish. I’ve read quite a few books by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. If I had to choose one, it would probably be The Club Dumas, because it’s a book about books – a mystery about a rare book dealer chasing a manuscript of The Three Musketeers, who becomes caught up in a Dumas-like adventure. I don’t read much poetry these days, but I love the Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca from Bloodaxe which has the originals and Merryn Williams’ English translations side by side. This is ideal if, like me, your Spanish is good but not fluent. You can tease out the layers of meaning from the English and enjoy the rhythm and sound of Lorca’s own words. (The Bloodaxe book is out of print but other translations are available.)

Before I thought about this post, I would have said I’ve read a lot about European countries, in fiction and non-fiction. But I’ve realised that much of it is by British or American authors, in particular in the Mediterranean countries. They give an outsider’s perspective (endless rhapsodising about cafés etc). This seems to be against the spirit of the #EU27Project which is an opportunity to see the world through European eyes (though I may write a separate post some time on books set in or about Spain).

south-from-granadaBut I’m going to include Gerald Brenan’s South from Granada, a fascinating account of life in a remote mountain village in the Alpujarra in the period between the end of World War One and the Spanish Civil War.

Brenan was a British writer who served in the army and was a friend of the Bloomsbury group. But he was born in Malta, to Anglo-Irish parents, lived much of his life in Spain, and died there. This gives him connections to at least three EU27 countries.

His biography sums up the complexity of defining identity through nationality. Many people in the EU live on one side of a border and work on the other, or have connections to another country through migration or family, or just travel between countries at the weekend to socialise or shop. Let’s hope that openness and freedom isn’t lost.

On my shelf – reading the EU #EU27Project

I’m intrigued by Marina Sofia’s #EU27Project on her Finding Time to Write blog. I don’t know if I’ll be able to read a book from all 27 EU countries but I thought I’d see what I have on my book mountain that fits the bill.

hells-gateHell’s Gate by Laurent Gaudé is out in April. It’s a story of love, loss, redemption and a mysterious priest, set in Naples, written by a French author.

Her Secret Rose by Irish author Orna Ross is the the first novel in a trilogy about WB Yeats, Maud Gonne and the struggle for Irish independence.

World Editions publishes beautifully produced books in translation. A couple by Belgian authors have caught my eye. Thirty Days by Annelies Verbeke is about a musician and his partner who leave Brussels for the country and struggle to fit in. His Name is David by Jan Vantoortelboom is the story of a man about to be shot for desertion in World War One and the events that led to that moment.

The Inspector and Silence by Hakan Nesser is a Swedish police procedural which I picked up in a charity shop. It was a good day because on the same trip I got The Redbreast by Norwegian author Jo Nesbo but of course it doesn’t qualify because, as we can all say off by heart by now, Norway has access to the single market but is not in the EU.

I also picked up My Brilliant Friend by Italian author Elena Ferrante. It’s not a book I would have chosen for myself, but everyone else loves it so I thought I would give it a chance.

Quinteto de Buenos Aires is a Pepe Carvalho mystery by Spanish author Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. They are usually set in Barcelona but this one takes Carvalho to Argentina so I may look for another book by him for this challenge. Some of Montalbán’s books are available in English. This may also be the year I finally finish Don Quixote (in translation!).

I’ve also posted about some books by EU authors which I’ve read and enjoyed.

Having, being and a nice cup of tea

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve always been bemused by the idea of leaving consumer product reviews. Grateful as I am to the 37 people who rated and reviewed my eventual choice of washing-line pole on Argos (and yes, it is easy to adjust and will stay up in all but the strongest of gales) I couldn’t imagine what moved them to do it. I only review products where I feel an emotional pull – books, TV and podcasts, the occasional holiday destination.

Implicit in this is the idea that what I’m reviewing is my experience of the thing, rather than the thing itself. It’s increasingly become pop-culture wisdom that experiences, not the acquisition of things, make us happy, something which chimes with my instinctive presumption against consumerism.

Then I got my tea infuser.

Before I was trapped in an eternal cycle. I’d decide that I was bored of teabags. The tea is basically floor sweepings, it tastes of nothing, the plasticised bags will live on in the soil forever blah blah blah. I’d go out and buy leaf tea and take my latest incarnation of teapot from the back of the cupboard. After about three days of tea-stains on the worktop, a drink that’s cold by the time it hits the cup and stray leaves clinging to the sink and sticking in my throat, I’d revert to teabags. Only to forget the whole experience and go through it all again a few months later.

Then the ipow infuser* came into my life and everything changed. It fits straight into your cup so the heat doesn’t stay in the pot. It even has a little lid. It has a really fine mesh which lets water through but not the leaves. When the tea has brewed, the lid doubles as a stand for the infuser. It is neat, easy to use and attractive. I can now drink good tea while I’m working without the hassle.

So that’s me getting emotional about a thing. (I also find watching washing drying on the line oddly meditative, so I guess the washing-line pole has a place in my heart too.) And what about those much vaunted ‘experiences’? Hasn’t experience become commoditised as much as any physical product? There are even companies that will sell you vouchers with a ready-made package of swimming with dolphins or jumping from a plane or even a pint and pedicure (complete with a ‘cold British beer’ when it clearly can’t authentically be both).

pedicure-336677_640Of course your experience won’t really count as an experience unless you’ve got pictures (I really don’t want to see the live-stream of your pedicure) and shared the images and told everyone about the great deal you got with a quirky #hashtag and a @mention for the company to retweet.

It’s not only the experience that is packaged, you also have to ensure you’re ‘making memories’ (a Coca-Cola advertising slogan which has seeped into the wider culture). It suggests that we can conjure significance at will, if we just plan enough and spend enough and marshal the key players into place, whereas the best memories, and the most magical times, often come unbidden and can’t be bought.

Which brings me back to my infuser. It’s a small thing which brings a little joy into each day. It’s more a walk on the beach than swimming with dolphins. But I know which I’d rather have. The walk isn’t freighted with expectations and huge expense. I can have another one tomorrow, and the next day. No one walk will be transformative, but each will have its own subtle pleasure.

Shall I put the kettle on?

* This is not an affiliate link. I just want to share my good fortune.

On my shelf – non-fiction

At certain points in the writing process I find I struggle to read novels, as if that part of the brain is already full, so I turn to non-fiction. These are some of the titles that have caught my eye. Most of them are not recent publications. It’s easy to be seduced by shiny new things but I’m trying instead to focus on what interests me.

Library find

in-the-shadow-of-the-sword-tom-hollandMy local library is small so most of the books I get from there are reserved, but I was lucky enough to find In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland sitting on the shelf. I discovered Tom Holland through listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcasts. In the Shadow of the Sword is about the decline of the Roman and Persian empires and the rise of the empire of the Arabs. I know very little about the Near East in the sixth century (!) but am looking forward to learning.


Cairo is Ahdaf Soueif’s memoir of the Arab Spring written in 2012. I’ve enjoyed her novels and her journalism about Egypt so this should be interesting.

The Day the Music Died by Tony Garnett combines his personal story with insights into his career producing some of our most popular television, including Cathy Come Home and This Life.

Something old

thinking-fast-and-slowSome time ago I bought a copy of Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman in a Kindle promotion and forgot about it. But I’m inspired to read it now, having just read and loved The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. Thinking Fast and Slow is about the strengths and weaknesses of intuitive (fast) thinking and how we can avoid cognitive biases by using deliberate (slow) thinking in situations where intuition lets us down.

Something new

Nothing but a Circus by Daniel Levin is an account of the author’s experience working with people in power in business and government. It looks askance the absurdity of the global elites and those who surround them.

The wildcard

the-pikeEven though I’ve since learnt that this won the 2013 Samuel Johnson Prize, I knew nothing about The Pike by Lucy Hughes-Hallett when it caught my eye in a charity shop, perhaps because I’d just got back from Rome. It tells the story of  D’Annunzio’s journey from romantic idealist to right-wing revolutionary against the backdrop of early twentieth-century Italy. Both the flamboyant cover and my glance at the first page suggest it will be an entertaining trip.

The one that got away

Unfortunately my request for a review copy of The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel was declined. His thesis is that throughout history, inequality has only been reduced at times of upheaval – mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues. It sounds like a fascinating, if depressing read. Hopefully I’ll get hold of a copy at some point.


Read my review of In the Shadow of the Sword