Write That Book

Write That Book – Week 3 - Creating Characters

shoestring trade pbk cover to use
shoestring trade pbk cover to use

My Latest Book (UK, Sept)

 So now we’ve reached week 3. The question is, have you been doing your homework? Good! If you've just joined us, it’s probably best to read weeks one and two before going any further.

In week 1 we dealt with motivation and starting to write, then we covered ideas and settings in week 2. This week we are dealing with characters. If you cannot write vivid, believable characters, then you cannot write good fiction, it’s as simple as that. Characters that linger in the mind long after you’ve read the last page make a book truly memorable. Think of Rachel Walsh in Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes, a highly flawed character, but a character readers identify with; or Bridget Jones in Helen Fielding’s wonderfully funny book (and film). Like her or loathe her, Bridget certainly continues to touch a universal nerve.

Creating believable characters is one of the most exciting and rewarding elements of being a writer. To write great characters you must know them as well as you know yourself. In her excellent book, From Pitch to Publication, agent Carole Blake says ‘To make the reader care for your characters and storyline, you must certainly care for them.’ And she's right.

So by now you have your general idea and your setting – next you need to create authentic and compelling characters. How? Read on.

Your characters must be three dimensional, and you, their creator must understand them and their motives for doing things, their passions, their fears, their dreams. Ponder real people’s motives. Why does your friend excuse her ex husband for regularly forgetting to ring his young daughter? Why does your sister think her husband is having an affair? Question why people do things all the time, make the world your laboratory.

Before you begin writing chapter one, here’s a practical tip that might work for you if you’re starting out. Get your notebook out and write character sketches for each of your main characters. Start off by giving them names. Choose these carefully. Try the phone book or a baby names book for ideas if your mind goes blank, but remember, the name must suit the character. Make the names interesting and memorable. No Mary or Jane Smiths please, unless you are making a point (maybe you want your character to feel anonymous – with apologies to any Marys or Janes out there!).

Here are the names I chose for my latest book, The Shoestring Club. I came up with the central book theme first – two sisters who run a second-hand designer shop, one sister going through some pretty awful things – losing her best friend, breaking up with her boyfriend, losing her job (we will talk about plotting next week); then I fixed on the setting, the second-hand designer clothes shop (Shoestring) in Monkstown, and the girls’ house in Dalkey.

Here are the main characters:

Julia Schuster (Jules, or Boolie) – she’s artistic and can be difficult

Pandora Schuster (never shortened) – she’s loyal and stubborn

Bird Schuster (their 70 year old granny) – strong and a little crazy

Arietty Pilgrim (their zoo keeper friend) – regal, clever, different

Lainey Anderson (Julia’s ex-best friend) – traditional dresser, but would like to be as quirky as Jules

Iris Schuster (Pandora’s 8 year old daughter) – sweet and bright

Remember – pick strong, memorable names that suit the character.

For more on naming characters in children’s books see here

One you have the names pinned down, build up a detailed character sketch or biography for each main character. You need to know everything. For example, their age and birthday (so few books have birthdays in them – I don’t think most writers think of giving their characters an actual birth date!). What type of person are they? Their height, hair colour, eye colour, size. Can they dance, play any instrument, sing? Do they have parents, siblings, friends?

What are their hopes, dreams, passions, disappointments? Do they have a dream job? Did they attend college/university? What did they study? What do they read, watch, listen to?

Here’s another tip: if you are finding it difficult to form a strong picture of what your character looks like, make her/him look like a real person but make modifications to suit. Give her/him the girl in the video shop’s curly hair, the milkman’s nose, the librarian’s smile. I wouldn’t suggest using friends or family for obvious reasons. Magazines are excellent for inspiration. If you see someone in the magazine you like the look of, tear the page out and keep the picture beside your character’s biography.

Continuity is another reason for keeping detailed character sketches (and this is vital if you are thinking of writing a series - this is called your 'Character Bible'). You don’t want your character’s eyes changing colour half way through the book; by keeping detailed physical notes, you can check back and get it right every time. Your editor will love you for it. Don’t have too many main characters. More than six and it gets confusing for the reader and for you.

And remember, your characters must be memorable. Make them BIG, larger than life. Make them feel things deeply. Don’t be afraid of making them too big, you can always tone them down at the editing stage (much more on editing later in the course).

In the Ask Amy Green books (age 10+), I have a character called Clover Wildgust. She’s brave, strong and completely wild; she has long white blonde hair and thinks more in terms of costume than fashion. She has a musician boyfriend, Brains, and she works in a teen magazine as the agony aunt. She’s a HUGE character and she’s also most of my readers’ favourite character. They identify with Amy but they want to be Clover.

Now get working on your own characters, because next week your characters will get the chance to tell their story as we move on to plot. And finally, some tips from another Irish writer, Cecelia Ahern.

If you have any questions or comments, please do post them below.

Happy writing!

Sarah X

 Writing Tips from Cecelia Ahern

(Read the full 10 tips from Amazon here)

1. Write about something you feel passionate about. You must write about something that evokes genuine emotions within yourself and not a piece of work you think other people want to read.

2. Listen to what your characters are telling you. If you're becoming bored with your story and are rushing by one part to get to another, then that means the reader will feel exactly the same. This means you're heading in the wrong direction in the book, you're taking the characters to a place that they don't want to go to. This is when you need to listen to your characters, I find that even though I'm trying to steer a story in one direction, the character is dragging me in another. When you listen to your characters it helps you stay away from going down the predictable route and you want to have your readers hanging on until the very last minute.

3. Always carry a pen and paper with you. You never know when an idea will jump into your head while you're out and about. I find that it's best to write while the idea is fresh in your mind as the words will flow more freely.

4. Keep a notebook of ideas. Even if you begin a story and it doesn't work, keep it for another time and it may work in the future when your mind has had the opportunity to think it over.

5. Give your work to somebody to read while you're writing. It's a good idea to choose someone who is open minded and willing to accept different ideas and not just one style of book. There's no point asking someone who loves only romances to read a book on crime. It's good to have a critical eye view your work, someone who is not attached to the story as you are.

More writing advice from Cecelia in Woman and Home here

Visit Cecelia’s website here

Write That Book - Week 2 - Genre, Ideas and Inspiration

shoestring trade pbk cover to use
shoestring trade pbk cover to use

Welcome to week two of Write That Book.  This week we will talk a little more about ‘genre’ and also ideas and where they come from.

If you missed week one (and I’d recommend reading it before you go any further – you can find it on this blog), we talked about motivation, making the time to write, and ‘genre’, or the kind of book you’d like to write, for example: romance, romantic comedy, family/relationship drama, historical fiction, saga, crime, thriller, science fiction or fantasy. These are pretty broad genres and within each one there can be many sub-genres, like paranormal romance (Twilight). This course is useful for anyone who would like to write a book, but is most especially suited to those who are interested in writing popular fiction. I have published ten popular fiction novels, the latest being The Shoestring Club (out on 1st February in Ireland, UK in September), as well as many children’s books, so it’s a genre I know well.

While you are thinking about book ideas this week (more on that in a second), I would also advise you to get reading the best novels in your chosen genre, the award winners, the ‘word of mouth’ books your friends and family recommend, and the bestsellers. This may sound like a contradiction - but most great writers are also great readers. And where better to discover what works and what doesn’t work than between the covers of your favourite books? Stephen King says in his excellent book On Writing: ‘If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write’.   

While reading, pay attention to the types of characters, the dialogue, the use of descriptive passages (if any), the length of the book, the style of writing. Is it written in the past or present tense? Is it first person (I woke up), or third person (Sarah woke up)? Let the books that you read inspire you but don’t try to imitate them in your own work unless you are writing fan fiction (fiction directly influenced by a particular writer, not for publication and mostly posted online on special fan sites). It is most important to be original and to have an original writing voice. It is your own unique writing voice, like your own speaking voice, that will make your book stand out from the crowd. More about voice later in the course.

Ideas and Inspiration

‘Where do you get your ideas?’ This is the most common question that writers are asked. It’s a difficult one to answer, as ideas come from all sorts of places: from magazines and newspapers; in shops and on buses; from people chatting; from travelling; from trying to imagine what would have happened if you had made a different choice in your life; from books; from plays and films; from dreams and daydreams. Ideas are all around you, just waiting to be soaked up. The core idea for a book could stem from something that has happened to you or to someone that you know. Many of my books are based on personal experiences, changed to fit the plot and suit the characters. I’d suggest that you start to keep a writing notebook right now and to jot down ideas as they pop into your head. Carry it with you at all times, you never know when inspiration might strike!

To give you an example of a practical way of finding inspiration I picked up Saturday’s Irish Times Magazine and here are some ideas I gleaned from its pages – these are settings/ideas/characters that might suit a romantic comedy: 1/ A girl who runs a vintage clothes store and what happens on her buying trips – inspired by an article on a shop in Kilkenny called Shutterbug (brilliant name!). In fact, my latest book, The Shoestring Club is set in a similar shop. 2/ The life of a young Irish fashion designer and fashion illustrator – great piece on rising stars of the Irish fashion world in the magazine. Some fascinating people with most interesting jobs. And we’ll be dealing with creating big, interesting characters next week. 3/ There is also a piece about two young Irish women who are working for a gourmet food store in New York – now a story using that bakcground would be brilliant, what a setting!

I also love finding unusual names in magazines and newspapers – in the same magazine there is a model called Danielle Winckworth – what a fantastic surname to borrow for a character. More on naming next week too – naming characters is so important. 

It’s vital that you chose something that you are passionate about and find fascinating to write about. Your subject must consume you. If it doesn’t, if it’s something that you decided to write about because it sounded like the kind of thing readers/agents/publishers might like, stop right there, the reader will quickly sense this and move on.

It is a bit of a cliché, but it’s often best - when starting out - to write about what you know - that way you’ll be more confident about your subject. Or to focus on something you’ve always wanted to find out more about. For example I know a little about ballet and I wanted to include a young Irish ballerina in my next teen book (Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze, out in September), so I interviewed two ex-dancers, read lots of books on ballet and ballerinas, watched Romeo and Juliet several times on DVD (the ballet my character was starring in), and travelled to Budapest to attend the ballet there, as the book is partly set in Budapest – ie I did my homework!

Even if you think you know a subject well, research is vital to make your book realistic and authentic. Read all you can about your chosen subject eg ballet. Take out library books and study them and make notes. Scour newspapers and magazines for interesting articles and keep them in a research folder. Use the internet. Research is particularly important for historical novels and your local library will prove invaluable. I’ve always found talking to someone who does the job I want to write about is the most useful research tool of all, and all kinds of people have happily given me their time – zoo keepers, female politicians, Olympic sailors. Most people love talking about their job (especially if it’s a particularly interesting one). They can provide the tiny details that will make your book authentic and ‘real’.

You will probably find that you use a small fraction of your research in the actual book, but it will give you the confidence to create your book’s world and its characters. Think of it as an iceberg - only the tip shows but without the mass beneath it would sink. Hemingway once said: If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.

So you’ve chosen your genre and you have an idea, what next? Now select your setting. This could be somewhere familiar to you, Dublin, London or Cork for example. Or it could be a fictional town or village - you decide. People do love reading about unusual and slightly different places. I love travel and I often put my trip locations in books – Budapest, Paris, Miami. Writers such as Marian Keyes and Claudia Carroll have chosen to set some of their books in glamorous worlds: LA and a movie set in Ireland respectively. In my books I have used lots of different settings that interest me - a kite maker’s loft, an art gallery, a wildlife park, and a children’s bookshop to name a few. If you can’t visit the place where you want to set your book, interview someone who has, read travel books and watch travel videos or programmes.

So your homework this week is this: select your genre, find an idea for your book (making sure it’s something that you are passionate about and fascinated by – and starting your research on the subject if needs be), and fix on a setting. Plus throughout the course, continue to read as many of the best books in your chosen genre as you can.

Next week we will talk about the most important (and fun) element of all, the characters.

Yours in writing,

Sarah XXX

Write That Book - Week 1 of a Free Eight Week Course

shoestring trade pbk cover to use
shoestring trade pbk cover to use

Want to finally write that book you've been talking about for years? Then read on. For the next eight weeks I’ll be telling you how and, best of all, it's absolutely free. From getting started, to creating characters, inventing plots, and how to catch an agent or publisher's eye, I’ll try to cover everything you need to know about the book world. My tenth adult novel, The Shoestring Club has recently been published in Ireland (Sept in UK) and after over a decade of writing and publishing books I'd like to share some of that knowledge with you. And maybe once you're published you'll pass on what you know to other new writers. Just think of me as your own personal Writing Coach! So without further ado . . .

Week 1: Getting Started It’s terrifying, isn’t it, staring at a blank sheet of paper or a blank computer screen? The writer Gene Fowler once said ‘Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.’ That’s where I come in. Over the next few weeks I’ll try to demystify the writing process and help you find your writing wings. I’ll also ask some experienced authors to give you some of their own writing tips.

Before we start, there are three general pieces of advice that I always give to would-be writers: 1/ Be optimistic, plan for a miracle - new writers get published every day, so why not you? 2/ Work hard, but never let writing become a chore. If you’re not enjoying writing, your reader is not going to enjoy reading. Try to write with joy every day. It’s not always possible, to finish a book you must write even if you don’t feel like it, but it’s something to aspire to. 3/ Develop a thick skin and never take no for an answer. Get used to rejection, it comes with the territory. Think of it as book matchmaking, you just need to find the right person for your book, someone who truly loves it. More on that later.

The first thing you need to be a published writer is motivation. You have to really, really want to write. It may sound obvious but many people have a vague idea that they’d like to write some day, but few people actually sit down and get on with it. So first, motivate yourself. Tell yourself that it’s not going to be easy, but if you work hard and put your heart and soul into it that you will succeed, you will finish that book. Then make the time to actually write. This may sound obvious but being a writer means making sacrifices. ‘I’d write a book if only I had the time.’ ‘I have this amazing idea for a book but I’m too busy to write it.’ Does this sound familiar? How many hours a week do you spend watching television, on Facebook or Twitter, surfing the internet? Be honest. Switching off the television in the evenings is a very good place to start. Try inventing your own soap opera in your head instead and translating it to paper - soon you’ll keep yourself entertained and you’ll also have the makings of a book to show for it. The best way to actually finish a novel is by writing a little every day or as often as you can every week - there’s no real secret, you just have to stick at it. You must write on a regular basis, you must keep the story and the characters ticking over in your head, otherwise you will lose your connection with the book. And when you’re not physically writing, you need to be thinking about your book whenever you can.

Now that you’re mentally prepared and have made the time to write (and to think about your book), what do you need to get physically started? The good news is you don’t need the latest laptop; you don’t actually need a computer at all to begin with. All you need is a notebook and a pen. It’s that simple.

But before you put finger to keyboard or pen to paper, it helps to start thinking about a genre. What’s genre? It simply means the type of fiction you want to write. For example are you interested in writing popular fiction with bite like Marian Keyes, a warm, family/friendship based novel like Maeve Binchy, crime like John Connolly, thrillers like Dan Brown? (Children’s books are a whole different ball game and I’ll talk about these at a later stage.) I would suggest the type of book you like to read is a good place to start. More about genre next week, but in the meantime have a think about what genre might suit you and your writing. It makes things much easier when it comes to finding an agent and getting published. And it will make getting started a lot easier. Each genre has its own conventions/’rules’ and this isn’t such a bad thing for writers who are just starting out – it gives you something to work with. For example popular fiction tends to have a happy or hopeful ending; in crime the murder/crime tends to be solved by the end of the book.

So for your homework: make a positive start by getting motivated, making the time to write, firing up your computer or finding a pen and paper and, most importantly, thinking about what type of book you’d like to write, the 'genre'. Next week I’ll talk about inspiration and coming up with ideas.

Yours in writing, Sarah XXX

Tips on Getting Started from Martina Devlin:

1) Don’t give up hope, our greatest enemy is lack of self-belief. 2) If you feel you really, really want to write, then just keep plodding away. 3) Try writing something every day - even if it’s only a few hundred words. 4) Writing, and the imagination which fuels it, are like muscles - they benefit from being flexed on a daily basis. Keep them working regularly. 5) And remember to congratulate yourself when you do a good job. Martina Devlin is an award winning journalist and a novelist. Her latest books are ‘Ship of Dreams’ and ‘Banksters’