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Is Novel Writing Character Building?

So we have estabished the novel’s setting and it’s genre. Now to people it with characters.

Your story should be character driven, in which case you will find that the situations which start to form in your mind already come from what those characters are ‘about.’ All novels, whether they be thrillers, romances, Science Fiction, or whatever, should reflect life in that they deal with what happens when person A, with a certain agenda, meets with person B, with his particular motivations.

Some characters will mix well, but what really drives the story forward is conflict.

This doesn’t mean that your major protagonists always have to be a ‘goodie’ and a ‘baddie.’ Conflict can arise between characters who are really well matched- Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy being the classic examples of this.

As I am no Jane Austen (and who is?) I have stuck with clearly defining who wears the black hat and who the white from the outset.

But it is still important, having said that, to remember two things: firstly, unless you’re writing pantomime, characters never believe that they themselves are wrong or evil, because people in real life don’t think that way. Apparently Al Capone saw himself as a great public benefactor, and I’m sure that Robert Mugabe will think that he has been a great president.

Secondly, a character MUST have shades- even a bad guy has endearing features, and a good guy has flaws and even vices.

I once read a suggestion in a ‘how to write’ book that you could keep your characters differentiated by basing each one on the characteristics of a different star sign.

Now I wouldn’t want to knock someone who has taken the trouble to write a book which helps people to create, but personally I would find basing my characters on the supposed characteristics of their star signs about as useful as basing them upon those of the seven dwarves.

The problem with using this sort of formula is that it could lead to you not creating characters, but types.

Yes, you need consistency, and yes, the old cliche is true that there is a point where the characters take on a ‘life of their own.’ BUT… realistic characters, in literature as in life, have contradictions.

I have just been reading an article:

where this very subject is being discussed with reference to film characters. Hannibal Lecter tops the list- a monster, but a cultured gentleman. Similarly, there is the much earlier example of Alex in ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ He takes part in gang warfare, rapes minors, terrorises an elderly intellectual, but doesn’t half love a bit of Beethoven!

And these contradictions not only give depth to the character- they are the hook upon which the whole premise of the book hangs.

In ‘Tasting the Wind,’ Della causes the death of a patient in her care (listen to this in the first video on this blog.) It would probably be classed as manslaughter. Without giving too much away, when we next meet Della she is a born again Christian. She has also developed from being an abuser, to the level of potential murderer. How are these related?

The backstory that emerges is of her seeking absolution, being told at an evangelical rally that her sins are forgiven, and spending a lifetime being tortured by her attempts to balance this against the weight of what she has done.

So if star signs and the Seven Dwarves don’t work for you, where do you get your characters from? You could always do what successful writers have done down the ages, which is to use a combination of experience and imagination.

It is well known that Shakespeare based his Falstaff on a man called Sir John Oldcastle, that Thomas Hardy drew heavily upon his background, D.H. Lawrence based the characters of ‘Sons and Lovers’ and ‘Women in Love’ upon himself, his family and his social set and (this one’s for the kids,) Andy Cope’s ‘Spy Dog,’ Lara, is a family pet.

I never met Della. She is a combinaion of 3-4 people I have known (not all female,) plus a large dose of imagination.

Obviously, if you are developing an unsympathetic character based upon someone you know, no connection should be left which can be used in court! Think what you want to say about the character. If your model is an obese woman, make your character a thin man. You can do that without losing essential elements of the character, and it will open up other avenues which will add complexity.

There are even bits of me in Della: large frame (Euphemism alert!!!,) love of gadgets. but that, hopefully, is as far as it goes.

That’s all for this meandering. I must admit, regardless of what I said, the idea of bestselling novelists basing their characters on the Seven Dwarves has somewhat fired my imagination…


Originalyl published on Tuesday, 29 April 2008. If you want to know where this slightly perverse train of thought led to just google ‘the DaDisney Code.’



Once in a while something happens which renews your faith in human nature and in the belief that we are all really here to help oneanother regardless of our differing viewpoints.

Anyone who has been following my blog over the past week will be aware of the debate in the Blogosphere around YouWriteOn, particularly on Jane Smith’s ‘How Publishing Really Works.’ In my last post I bemoaned the lack of support in the forums from anyone in the publishing industry, and also mentioned the need for advice on marketing for the 5000.

Help has come from a most unexpected source- Jane Smith herself. In her comment on my last post she said that despite her opposition to YouWriteOn she knows that the only way that any of the 5000 will go anywhere with their books is through publicity and marketing through  ‘non-bookshop’ outlets. Jane has marketing experience and will be asking some of her contacts in the field to put posts on her blog. So if you are one of the 5000, or the author of a self-published book, keep your eye on

Also, if you are one of the people waiting for the publication of your book by Legend Press you will probably have been, like me, thinking how you can get your book out to as many people as possible. I will be blogging about the ways in which I intend to do this, and would like to invite as many contributors as possible to add their ideas, so that there will be a repository of marketting tools here for anyone to access. It would be such a shame if, after all of the hard work that so many people have put into their books, they do not get a decent readership through lack of marketing.

Thanks for your encouragement pennyb22, I look forward to hearing from more of you,


Alcohol- the cause and solution of all our problems, as Homer Simpson once said. There is a strange relationship between alcohol and writing, a stereotype which goes something like this: the tortured author, poet, or hack, sitting in his garret over his typewriter (wordprocessor doesn’t quite fit this ‘romantic’ image) churning out volumes of original thoughts, his creativity enhanced by the juice of the barley or grape or whatever comes to hand.

The epitome of this is perhaps the poet, Dylan Thomas. Apparently when asked what he liked about being drunk he said something like ‘because it’s different everytime,’ (Thomas fans please correct me- it usually happens when I mention a writer I know little about!) Funny that- I like a drink but to me the aftereffect is sort of samey most of the time.

Stephen King in ‘On Writing’ does a lot to explode the myth about alcohol and creativity, in a passage which is well worth the read to see how a truly successful author recognised and conquered the demon.

Truth is, if you write something whilst under the influence you will probably feel that you have just written the most original and creative piece in the history of writing. Until the next morning.

Although I have never had an ‘alcohol problem’ I would be lying to say that I don’t enjoy a drink. Recently I went for my ‘middle-aged fat boy test’ (or Glucose tolerance test as they call it) and was found to be prediabetic. This means that I have had to make some lifestyle changes.

Which leads me to some dietary advice for those of you wishing to cut down on your alcohol intake:

Buy Morrisons or Tesco Value Lager- doesn’t matter which. The advantages are:

. It only costs about 92p, so helps you save money in the credit crunch

. It is only about 2% proof

. Each can has only about 0.9% alcohol

. It tastes like shite, so one can will last you all night.

YOU HEARD IT HERE FIRST!              

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Once upon a time in Fairy Dairy land a man wrote a book. It was a special book because it contained a little bit of his heart and a lot of his soul. He tried to get it published, but no one would believe in the book like he did.

One day he found a bottle, and when he rubbed it a genie popped out, who turned out to be an author. The Genie sent the man’s book to her publisher, they published the book, and the man lived happily ever after. 

Of course it doesn’t happen like that in the real world. I had been reunited with my old friend, Lynn Grocott, who had already published. She got me in contact with her publisher, Lean Marketing, who were very helpful and encouraging, but as a small publishing house only specialised in specific titles and subjects. I got an email explaining that at present they were after books about people making their home in Spain. As ‘Tasting the Wind’ is about people with learning disabilities and a psychopathic nurse, I couldn’t find a single link between it and Spain (although Spain must have its fair share of both,) so gave up on that one.

Lynn passed my details on to several of her contacts in the world of publishing and PR. The publishing contacts didn’t handle my sort of material, but I suddenly felt like a serious writer- emailing and phoning publishers and PRs for advice. After the years of writing and rejection slips I was getting quite a buzz from this.

Now for a bit of name dropping.

The networking in which I was suddenly involved was linked to the confidence coaching process (more on this in a later blog.) Lynn told me of a friend of hers who had become a successful author through using the methods she was teaching me.

Soon I was in touch with Andy Cope. Admittedly I had never heard of him at that point, but if you have children you may have done. Andy is the author of the ‘Spy Dog’ series; he is presently working on Spy Dog 5.

Andy wrote to me with some good advice (again, his agent couldn’t help me because he specialised in children’s literature, but hey, I’m communicating with another published author here!) and he asked if he could be my ‘Critical Buddy.’ I sent him a copy of ‘Tasting the Wind,’ which he is wading through at the moment. His reaction has been very positive and encouraging, although he admits to preferring lighter reading. But thanks, Andy, for taking the trouble.

The main point I want to make here is the value of networking. Writing can be a lonely process, and the struggle to find a publisher can be even more lonely and demoralising. The internet abounds with information from and about writers, and linking up with people who are either travelling your way or who have arrived there can make the difference between carrying on or just lying down in the road.

I was in W.H. Smiths one day. Looking at the childrens’ books I picked out the ‘Spy Dog,’ series. It seemed bizarre that in my pocket was a copy of an email from its author.

I turned around and looked at the adult books. Finding ‘M’ I made a space.

One day my book will be there.

After a chance encounter in the Apocalyptic wastelands of Golganooza, I went to the highly recommended ‘Frontlist.’

Now this is kosher- it even got a mention in the ‘Writers’ and artists’ yearbook.

You upload your synopsis and sample chapters. These are reviewed by others who have sent in their work.

In return, you have to review the contributions of five other writers. This involves commenting on aspects such as idea, characterisation and appeal. You then score them on each of the selected areas, and if you get above a certain mark your work is then passed on to a publisher. You get sent your result, and the only time you have to part with money (£10) is if you want to view your critiques.

The up side is that you get to see the work of other people who are trying to get their novels published, and they get to see and comment on yours.

The down side… is exactly the same as the up side.

I received one piece which I thought might have appeal. The other four were of very poor quality.

Nevertheless, I tried to empathise (after all, we all have the same dream,) and started, as you should, with picking out the positives. For one of them, all I managed was ‘I will never forget the scene where the main character sat, wearing a gas mask, enjoying the mass suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.’

I also gave some advice on which authors I thought might provide good models. Having done that I was disappointed to find that not all of the other reviewers had taken the same amount of trouble. Although I had made some naive mistakes (like submitting too short a synopsis and two chapters which were too far apart in the book to make sense in isolation) I did not think that my submission warranted the comment made by one ‘reviewer’ in the ‘appeal’ column, where he wrote ‘none at all.’ I consoled myself with the thought that he was the author of the dross to which I had given my lowest score.

I am not averse to criticism, but I did wonder if some of the writers hadn’t quite entered into the spirit of things, and just wanted to get their own reviews without contributing much to the Frontlist community.

Otherwise, I must admit, I sort of like the ‘Frontlist’ idea. That is why I rewrote my synopsis, and submitted it with the first two chapters. You don’t have to pay anything if you don’t want to, and I still like the idea of writers helping oneanother out by passing on advice from wherever they are in the learning curve.

But… whereas before I started to receive my pieces to review almost immediately, this time they didn’t arrive. I went back to the site, and found a note which said that due to a backlog of reviews they were not presently accepting any more submissions.

I gathered when I first used Frontlist that often reviews had to be chased up, so can’t help but wonder if the tardiness of contributors has caused the process to grind to a halt.
After my experiences with the Golganooza site I sincerely hope that this is just a blip, and not the beginning of the end of another worthy internet publishing experiment.

Check it out at:

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I remember watching as John Walton Junior struggled to become a published author.

‘I’ve had so many rejection slips,’ he remonstrated, ‘that I could paper my room with them.’

Now considering that Johnboy grew up during the Great Depression, using rejection slips in this way sounds like a great enrepreneurial idea. So, as we face recession, here is how you too can cut down on the cost of decorating.

Firstly- you need the ‘Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook.’ There’s a new one out every year, and its articles do reflect changing trends. I’m still using the 2007 edition. I have a pact with it: when it helps me to sell my book, I will use some of the money to buy another one- and not before.

Writers and Artists has articles not only advising you on how to submit your work to agents and publishers, but also contains information on alternative forms of publishing such as self-publishing and print on demand.

But if we’re honest, I suppose the overriding attraction is the information and addresses of agents and publishers.

It is generally recommended that you get an agent. Avoid anyone who asks for payment before you publish because real agents never do this. They will cream off about 15% of what your book earns, but because they live and breathe the world of publishing they will negotiate for far more than you ever could and save you from the pitfalls.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? The downside is that agents and publishers’ prime concern is not purely to promote quality- it is to promote what will sell.
There is a clear preference these days for the single genre high concept novel, typified by Dan Brown, and a whole range of clones.

But… people get published- why shouldn’t it be you?

Agents requirements vary. They will ask for about two chapters, a synopsis, and a covering letter- I won’t go into any more detail here because the Year Book covers that. Just make sure that you give exactly what each agent asks for- not a page more or a page less.

Don’t be fooled like I was into sending your submissions out one at a time. It can take weeks to return. I always send them in threes now. And you’re better assuming that ‘it’ (that is your A4 stamped, self- addressed envelope) will return. It stops your heart from sinking too far when you hear it land on your mat- your returned extract, and more wallpaper.

The annoying thing about agents’ letters is that they are standard. You don’t know if your work just isn’t what they are looking for, if it’s almost good enough- or if it’s irredeamable slush.
One agent’s letter said that they received 300 submissions per week and only took on three writers… PER YEAR.

But they do take them on. So why shoudn’t it be you?

One of the key characteristics at this point is tenacity. Believe in your work. Never give up. And remember-

a book is not just for bedtime: it’s for life.

And if it takes you years to get published, just think of all that free wallpaper.
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So you are sure of who you are, and what you want to do. You know there’s nothing wrong with it- you’ve been doing it for years for God’s sake. All you have to do now is to tell someone.

You go over the scene so many times. You are in that familiar living room but the walls seem to press in and each breath feels like you are aspirating in a pool of warm sweat.

You practice the words, imagining the gasps, the incredulity… the laughter.

‘Mum… Dad… Sweetheart… I’ve something to tell you: I’m… I’m… AN AUTHOR!

It’s time to unleash your creation upon your first readership- your friends and family, which is not an easy thing to. You have laboured long and hard on this, it is your baby, you’ve grown attached, and will be upset if anyone tells you it’s ugly. But be brave- better a friend tells you than a publisher.

So ask them to be honest, and to make any marks on the manuscript in a different colour to what has been used by previous readers. Ask them to comment on the plot, characters, anything they liked or didn’t like. Ask them if they feel that it reads like something they would buy from a book shop, and if it doesn’t, why not.

You will be surprised, regardless of how thoroughly you have revised and proof read your work, just how many typos and spelling mistakes will still be found. A spell checker will pass ‘there’ or ‘their’ as correct, regardless of its context.

I even say to people that if they get so far in and think that it’s drivel to stop and give it back. LIFE IS TOO SHORT.

Fortunately, so far, no one has done that. Remarks have tended to be very encouraging. As I sat watching a football match at the city of Manchester Stadium I got a series of texts from someone who just had to know that her favourite character would survive. As it turned out, Manchester City lost and the texts turned out to be the most enjoyable part of the afternoon.

(Here’s an old football joke for you:
Football fan 1: City lost today.
Football fan 2: How do you know?
Football fan 1: It’s Saturday…)

Don’t feel obliged to make every change suggested by your readers. They, like you, bring their own presuppositions to the piece. But if several people make the same point this probably is a big indication that you need to rethink.

So go through it, making the alterations you agree with, remembering that each one may be keeping you that little bit further away from a publisher’s rejection pile. If you think this sounds tedious, how must it have been before the invenion of the word processor?

When you eventually get published (oh yes, positive thinking is essential,) you might want to give the people who helped you a credit.

My book is a thriller, of sorts, so I made a point at first of only asking people who I knew read that genre. After all, they were doing me a service, so I wanted them to at least get some enjoyment out of it.I asked my Wife, my Father and Brother to read it, but not my Mother, as she wouldn’t have got past the (necessary and appropriate) strong language. Which brings me onto another difficulty which you might find in sharing your work with people who know you…

What you consider to be your well-written and objective exploration of a neglected corner of the human condition may to someone who knows you come as an appalling revelation that you are a disgusting pervert with a mind like Satan’s sewer.Don’t laugh- it came as a great shock to Iris Murdoch’s nearest and dearest that some of her subject matter was in her head, so it does happen, even to the best of them. I once told a colleague who had read my novel that a great deal of it was based upon real events. She laughed and asked me if I was referring to the scene in the factory toilet (at the beginning of Chapter 3, which you can hear on YouTube.)

So think carefully- is your work a processing of reality through your imagination, or is it a confession of your warped psyche and a series of clues about where the bodies are buried?

Depending on your answer, your next step will be to send a sample of your work to an agent (in the first case literary, in the second, government.)

And you though it had been hard getting to this point…

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