WRITING UNLIKEABLE CHARACTERS

 

FREE 19/20 Sept 2018

The first of my Crime Shorts features an unlikeable character: a young boy, ‘innocent’ in some senses but, depending on the reader’s assessment, possibly not in all senses.

I wrote this in the third person but from the main character’s (MC) point of view. (Close 3rd person). The narrator is unreliable, which makes for more effort from the reader. S/he doesn’t have to like the MC.  A sneaky liking for an unlikeable character makes the reader uneasy. (What sort of person must I be if I feel sympathy for him?) The edginess can derive from the reader’s being in the MC’s head.  The reader has to be drawn to him/her in some way – despite even horror or outrage.

Something unnerving, uneasy, something left ambiguous, can make you read on. There’s a question: is this character telling the truth, or will there be a revelation that will make me re-think? Questions precede page-turns. Edginess is by its nature, an unclear signal.

Edginess doesn’t necessarily require extreme sexual or aggressive behaviour. Risk of some form, especially close to home, can cause the uneasiest feelings; an everyday event suddenly appearing to have a different significance.

I hope I’ve achieved this in the first of my Crime Shorts, A Boy with Potential. You can decide for yourself with the FREE kindle ebook today.  One Amazon reviewer stated ‘The darkest, most horrible story I’ve ever read.’ (1 star) That wasn’t my intention: more to provoke unease and reflection. Have I done this?

Do let me know in a review.

 

Writers: why go Kobo?

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi

Here are some reasons why writers might go Kobo.

It’s not only Amazon offering a brilliant service to the e-reading public. Although many successful writers have made a killing on KDP Select, those days may be numbered. Going exclusive meant that readers could sample free via Kindle Unlimited, but now the payment to authors is much reduced, fewer writers speak of substantial income coming from KU.

The alternative to publishing exclusively to Amazon is to go wide. Publishing through a company such as Draft2Digital gets your books into many alternative outlets. However, by not including Kobo in the list, you can submit to them separately and this has distinct advantages. Why Kobo?

Reasons

Firstly, any serious writer considers the reader’s enjoyment as paramount. Kobo Books sets out to keep the reader’s entire reading life in mind. The new Aura has one-touch library e-book access and a recent software update installed this capability in all Kobo devices. This facility, Overdrive, significantly increases the number of library users. How wonderful to bring more readers to libraries where new worlds await them!

This year, Walmart was made the only place to buy the various Kobo e-books. Before this, Americans had to travel to Canada or risk an on-line purchase which, if faulty, couldn’t be returned. Then, on August 21st, Kobo and Walmart launched a joint venture: Kobo e-books would now be sold there. Kobo’s share of the reader market rocketed up accordingly. Consequently, Kobo books have a greatly increased visibility.

Writers, going directly to Kobo with your books means that Kobo promotions are open to you. Kobo has them variously and often. They’re particularly good for romance and sci-fi, but general fiction and non-fiction can also be promoted. For instance, a 10% cut for discounted books aimed at Australia and New Zealand for a week, or a Free for Labour Day targeting the US, another for Romantic Suspense under $2.99 or Spy Thrillers at $0.99. These promotions are cheap for the author, perhaps a £3 charge, or a 10% reduction in royalties.

Moreover, Kobo automatically returns book prices to their proper price after the promo. Authors do not have to remember, as they do with Amazon. What a pain that is!

Much more significantly, your books may sell to 190 different countries: including very many countries that Amazon neglects. How pleasing to know that someone in Bhutan, Morocco, United Arab Emirates, Cambodia, Finland, Seychelles and Zimbabwe is nosing into one of my books!

Canadian Readers

Kobo is Canadian, so this is Kobo’s most prominent outlet and for those writing in English, a very important customer source. Canadian readers are surveyed annually by BookNet Canada. The most recent survey showed an increase in e-book reading, to 52% of the sample. The few copies I’ve sold on Amazon to Canada are dwarfed by what I’ve sold via Kobo.

Sales

Sales reports are great on Kobo. On Amazon you only get to know whether your sales are US, UK, Europe or Australia. Kobo provides a map showing the number and extent of your sales worldwide— very satisfying.

Kindle readers seem fixated on free copies, so many books will be excess to need, remaining unread. Kobo readers are more discerning, so willing to pay more than a few cents for a good read.

If the massive distribution of Walmart makes it easy to discover books and authors this has to be good for both readers and writers. Go Kobo!

 

A writing plan: are you a planner or pantser?

Do you have a writing plan?

It seems there are two kinds of writers: those who have a writing plan, and those who write on the seat of their pants.

I would love to write a synopsis, the theme, the backgrounds of each character, the main events of each chapter before I ever begin, but that just won’t work for me.

 When I start a novel I only have a germ: a snatch of dialogue, an incident, never a theme. I don’t even know what kind of characters will pop up or which will prove to be major or even where the setting of dramatic scenes will be. But despite the discipline of degrees and diplomas and a Ph.D. I’m an irrevocably, irredemiable pantser.

Pantser Process

Working on the small germ, as I write something happens to the character speaking or experiencing the incident. That turns into a chapter. At the end of one chapter, I know what has to happen in the next but not further. By about the fourth chapter something emerges that enriches or expands the plot, becomes a sub-plot or develops one of the characters.

The novel outline falls into place when I know the ending. Usually that’s before I get halfway. Then it’s a matter of laying out the remaining ground, including character backgrounds, needed for reaching that end.

All my fiction has one thing in common (as well as their manner of creation) — they are character-led. I can’t write any other way. There’s no great plan but interesting things gradually emerge.

Example

Here’s an example of my writing process. A Relative Invasion (a trilogy set in the Home Front of WWII) began with one tiny thread.  An elderly man told me his school had been evacuated to a village where after milk and biscuits, the children were walked around the village in a crocodile seeking billets.  A tall seven-year-old, (‘He’ll cost a bit to feed and clothe’) this man was the last to be chosen.   
I thought, children must have been so resilient at that time. And so Billy was born, a sturdy well-meaning child. He was only aged five in 1937, and so I found myself writing historical fiction (with all the research that entails). The key figure at that time was, of course, Hitler, and his rise to power came as result of German resentment, humiliation and envy after the end of WWI.

Consequently, a cousin for Billy surfaced. He would experience these negative emotions and be a psychological bully to make Billy’s life a misery. I made him artistic and physically frail. However, this Kenneth would need to be a charmer for the adults to be blind to the bullying.

Now I had a theme for my novel: the feelings and tensions in Europe (macro scale) would be mirrored in micro by the two cousins in their developing rivalry.  Billy then needed a secret symbol of power to support him. I hit upon a Cossack sabre, that then needed a background story of its own. This led me to research the Russian/Germanic conflict at the start of WWI. I realised that the sabre icon would need to filter right through the story.

I am not recommending this approach to writing, just showing how a novel can unfold as the narrative continues, and in this case, it was a trilogy that emerged.

Remedies

Ideally, have a writing plan. There are loads of HowTos on Amazon. Don’t risk half-baked advice from ebooks. Some may be good, but play safe.  A good book is Diana Doubtfire’s classic writers’ guide a paperback you may get cheap as it’s been around some years.   

Are you are you an inveterate pantser? Then buy Scrivener and let it organise you. See my last post.

(I first wrote on this subject for the ALLi blog)

Beginner Writers’ Tools. Into serious writing

Once you’ve made the decision that you are now into serious writing, it is no longer a hobby. Now it’s an activity leading to a publishable short story or novel, so it’s time to spend out on a few essentials that will make your life easier. I promise you that the following are not luxuries, but tools that will make your writing tasks smoother, more manageable and more pleasurable.
  • WRITING PLAN  Scrivener  software organizes your writing activities. Your material is sorted, your research is reliably and quickly on hand, Scrivener helps you create plots and outlines.
  • Current costs around $45 and there isn’t space to describe all the features and functions of this fantastic software.
  • Forget writing from A-Z on one document. Scrivener encourages you to write in scenes, sections, chapters, ideas, dialogues, time frames, or whatever takes your fancy.
  • Everything is updated and saved automatically. You can set yourself targets and see your progress. Slip easily between looking at your notes, the outline, research, all beautifully laid out.
  • Quickly learn how with the tutorials, or buy this book : Scrivener Essentials. Author Karen Prince explains things clearly and succinctly: a big contrast to Scrivener for Dummies.
  • When you’ve finished the last chapter and have compiled the various sections into one book, Scrivener formats it for you: paperback, ebook or mobi. This in itself is a huge help. 
  • EDIT AND REVIEW Pro-writing aid  This comprehensive editor surveys your grammar, writing style, over-use of words, and lots more. Paying attention to its advice will make you a better writer as you progress with your book. If you buy Premium, you can submit large documents for analysis.
  • NOTIFY OTHERS Canva You may want an illustration in your book, or want to blog about it or post on Facebook. Canva allows you to painlessly compose visual images from its bank and add text It’s quick, and free too. (Paid version has extra images)
  • FORMAT AND PRODUCE Vellum  Above all, when you’re sure your book is ready, avoid hours and days trying to format your book for the different platforms. Buy a lifetime licence for Vellum and have beautifully laid out books with no stress. There are a number of options for appearance of text.  It’s really easy to use. I’ve written straight onto it on occasion, where I knew I wouldn’t be planning or reorganising much. Editing is quick: your preview is on the right, your input on the left. See an error, fix it right away.
  • SEEK PROFESSIONAL ADVICE  on all aspects of self publishing: Alliance of Independent Authors. £75 p.a. and continuous access to a range of successful authors, editors, self-publishers and their articles, webinars, facebook group and books. 
  • SO NOW YOU’RE READY TO WRITE SERIOUSLY. Get going, good luck!
     

Writing: in his shoes

Could you put yourself in his shoes?

I wrote about this short story in a previous post Unlikeable character – makes you read on. I’ve just updated the e-book and reminded myself (slight shock) that I’d written horror rather than just crime.

Which writer was it who said we only know what our novel is about once it’s finished? A long time, and many thousands of words later, I remembered this because I had just had that flash of recognition. Potential…how it can work both ways.

I’ve written non-fiction, historical fiction and short stories, often humorous, but I never expected to write horror. Sometimes your story runs away with you and you find it is in a different place from the one you expected. To do this means writing in his shoes, the boy you come to fear.

Writing process

It was seeing each news flash of school shootings and the consequent analysis of the boy responsible that started me on this path. I’d been painfully aware of the several times in my work as a psychologist I’d been asked to assess strangely difficult kids and/or school refusers and witnessed the same anomie and alienation that these perpetrators showed.

I created a character of a different age, imagining a potential perpetrator younger, more accessible, adding something positive – a potential event for saving the boy from causing disaster. But it worked the other way.

In attempting to walk in Jake’s shoes, I’d almost unwittingly written a story of horror. Although I’ve had very positive reviews, including a long-listing from Fish and a winner’s accolade from Bloomsbury, I had every sympathy with a 1-star reviewer on Amazon who said it was the nastiest thing he’d ever read.

It seems likely that many writers find they’ve ended up with a story they hadn’t predicted.

Here’s the beginning of mine: ‘I think I once killed a man and I don’t know why. The bloke lay at my feet, dead. I don’t think I knew him but I couldn’t look at his dead face and they didn’t make me. I’d never seen a dead person and I didn’t want to.’ The word ‘dead’ obsesses Jake when he’s ten.

If you’d like to read more about Jake and walk in his shoes, there are some free copies for the next readers who join my Readers List.

 

A trilogy in one volume.

A Relative Invasion – a fateful rivalry.

Join my readers list and receive Book One FREE.

Set in 1937-1950, a fateful rivalry between two South London boys mirrors the emotions which led to the second world war: envy, desire for new territory, lust for power.

A Relative Invasion is probably the only trilogy I’ll write. 

Historical fiction – trilogy

Written for adults but suitable for teens. Teachers, parents can use Books 1 and 2 to enrich Year 6 and Year 9+ curriculum work on WWII and evacuation. Teachers might also use them for PSE because of the issues in the narrative: bullying, honesty, resilience and for older teens, Book 3 highlights long-term outcomes

The first draft of this work was runner up in the Yeovil Prize (novels) 2011. It also reached the editor’s desk of Harper Collins’ writers’ site, Authonomy and therefore won a full review. Extract:  “…a powerful and compelling narrative with strong and relatable characters, and offers an evocative portrayal of England’s war-time home front. Billy is immediately sympathetic and Minett perfectly captures a child’s viewpoint, adding a gentle and honest humour to the story. The mounting  tensions between Billy and Kenneth parallel the rising agitation in Europe …”

Book One INTRUSION.  War threatens at the very shores of home . . .  with ruthless Hitler in Europe and devious Cousin Kenneth at the doorstep.   

Intrusion has been awarded a B.R.A.G medallion (Book Readers’ Appreciation Group USA)

 In 1937 five-year-old Billy meets  his cousin, the idolised, frail and manipulative Kenneth. As the adults worry about war emerging in Europe, the slow burn of  a fateful rivalry develops between the boys. With emotionally distant parents, bullying uncle and manipulative cousin, Billy starts to stutter. The one thing that upholds Billy’s spirits is the Cossack sabre, owned by his father’s work colleague. Once seen, never forgotten, the sabre becomes an icon of power – but possibly, destruction.

Historical Novel Society Review. “…the author very skilfully portrays the misery of being bullied…. “thoroughly enjoyed the book. The reserch is meticulously done with convincing historical detail.” 

“Very strong writing this; a book pleading to become a film.” Grady Harp, HALL OF FAME, TOP 100 REVIEWER, VINE VOICE

Receive Book One FREE when you join my Readers List.

Book Two INFILTRATION

Two boys, one family, a world at war – the invasion continues           

Now it’s autumn 1940. Relentless bombing in London means evacuation once again.  Billy is billeted with an elderly couple. Though happy in their care, sinister cousin Kenneth – who is billeted beside Billy’s mother and sister – haunts his life. Billy’s imaginary power from the precious Cossack sabre, now comes only from its photograph.

A catastrophe causes a new invasive threat from Kenneth. This one will affect both their futures permanently and increase the fateful rivalry. What’s more, the precious photograph goes missing. Can Billy become a hero when his parents are not?

Infiltration tells of childhood resilience in the face of war, rivalry and parenting ignorance. It follows a boy’s growth into personal responsibility.

Historical Novel Society review: “A delightful read.”  

 

Book Three, IMPACT   

Post-war, adolescence, austerity – the fall-out

Book Three was awarded a Discovering Diamonds

1945. The VE party is over and so is evacuation. Bill must tear himself away from his firm attachments in the village and face a new life in post-war Wandsworth. Uncle Ted had returned from service, but in what state? And how have Bill’s grandparents fared through the blitz and just recently, the dreaded VIs and VII rockets.

So much is in ruins, not least the life Bill had known as a child. One area remains wonderfully stable: supportive Mr Durban and the exciting icon of his Cossack sabre. Kenneth, however, is even more present. Now adolescent, the cousins are developing their separate skills and identities but the home context is claustrophobic. Their fateful rivalry increases in intensity, culminating in a dramatic crisis. All the family’s lives change forever. It’s a terrible fall-out. Is it Bill who must take responsibility and find a fair way forward?

“Well executed emotional drama.” Historical Novel Society

“utterly compelling … the climax is utterly unpredictable yet shockingly apt.” Amazon reader.

There’s a 1930s prequel, and a kindle trilogy with all three books in one. Receive Book One FREE when you join my Readers List.

Writing psychologically

Mind – svgsilh.com

 How popular the psychological thriller is currently! Writing psychologically involves one character messing with another’s mind, or suggesting the mind of another is seriously in question. The pull for the reader is trying to work out the real from the imagined or the subtly misrepresented. Three high-selling books became prominent and myriads of attempted read-alikes followed. The three were Gone Girl, then more psychologically successful, The Girl on a Train;  and best of all, Before I Go to Sleep.  All three had tremendous success and films were soon made of them. Many authors have attempted to emulate this kind of novel, choosing  titles very near to these three biggies.

The ‘psychological’ comes in because mind furnishes the plot. In some novels this use is more convincing than in others. Why? Simply that the actions of the characters stay true to their nature to the end. S.J. Watson fully understood the task of making his characters remain coherently believable. The first two books drop off in credibility around three-quarters of the way through.

 If the action does not stay possible within the character arc, the novel is unsatisfying. Too many twists of intent and the reader’s credulity is stretched to breaking point. A heartless murderer is not likely to sit down and freely give his whole history to other characters, explaining how he came to kill. All this does is provide an explanation to the reader so that the plot can be said to end.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

If you have no knowledge of guns, don’t embarrass yourself by describing one.

If your knowledge of serial killers is restricted to reading novels about serial killers, your character is unlikely to be convincing.

Novels that try to follow the pattern of unreliable narrator often fail because the voice does not convince. If you can’t hear your character’s voice in your head, don’t write his dialogue. Solution? There’s direct contact and there’s serious research. If neither are available to you, best to write about a character who is more accessible to you. You can always stretch his or her natural behaviour a step or two further to make it sinister.

Four years before this genre blossomed, Sebastian Faulks in Engleby took a character whose experiences Faulks himself shared or witnessed at close quarters. He used a setting he knew well: Eton, for describing gross bullying, just touching upon the earlier adversity enough to spark the reader’s imagination. By the time Engleby reaches Cambridge, the reader fears the damage the lack of love and relentless bullying has caused.  When awful things are gradually revealed, then, they are wholly convincing within the arc of what the reader has taken in, bit by bit, as the plot progresses. Further, the character does not stay in one murderous state of mind, but develops over time. Events, situations, do have an effect, as does age. Perhaps predictably, Faulks being one of their own, journalist mainstream reviewers were caustic about this thought-provoking, well-written book but wrote glowingly of newcomers with more sensational but less psychologically accurate novels.

As a psychologist, I sometimes interviewed/assessed youngsters who had been referred for school avoidance. I can’t write about them, of course, but the experiences helped me imagine a new character in another geographical and social setting. That led to my story A Boy with Potential.  In my next post, I’ll write more about this and offer a sample.

In Writing: hidden undercurrent

 

hidden undercurrent
What lies beneath
Writers’ undercurrents: in the novel you’ve just read — or in your own writing?

Sometimes it’s only after finishing a novel that you become aware of its undercurrent.  For instance, in Dead Water (Simon Ings) the fast paced plot involves the protagonist in a deadly international chase after an evil target; but the undercurrent is the dangerous potential of shipping containers which cruise the globe; an understandable preoccupation.

You may be more unaware of hidden undercurrents in your own novels.  After a while without reading your work again, consider what you’ve actually ‘said’. It may be a romance or a crime story, but what you have allowed to happen in the plot, or between the characters – such as unexpected capitulation –  or within the protagonist him/herself, can suggest unspoken drives or attitudes in your writing.

Even when there’s a distinct variety in the subject matter, authors may unconsciously repeat themes that have marked their lives.

Take two important writers Kasuo Ishiguro and Elif Safak. In 2015 they happened both to be speaking at the Bath Literary Festival, but on separate days, and were probably unlikely to have conferred. However, both authors had a ‘burying’ undercurrent in their novels.

buried
Fons Heijnsbroek

Ishiguro’s first novel for ten years, The Buried Giant, is a fantasy. Its fantastic beings form the plot but the ‘buried’ in his title refers obliquely to the human tendency for suppressing memories about painful matters. Ishiguro suggested all his novels had an underflow of this unspoken, part-forgotten material.

Talking of The Architect’s Apprentice, Shafak referred to the ‘collective amnesia’ of Turkey, saying so much has been suppressed. Sadly, historic artefacts are not being preserved perhaps because, then, uncomfortable events in history are more easily ignored; the role of the woman, the existence of minorities.

Shafak said that there is little urban memory:  residents do not know the origin of their street names, for instance, and are not encouraged to ask questions or to care about the past. She mourns the loss of cosmopolitanism in Turkey. The variety of cultures, nations, sub-groups is precious and stimulates creativity.

This strong feeling about burying discomforting events and feelings, drives these authors’ writing; the undercurrent enriches the work. What undercurrent can be detected from your writing?

Writing at the speed of light

carbonaceous chrondite
meteorite

 

SPEED OF LIGHT was the theme for September’s Story Friday evening, held at the cave-like theatre at Burdell’s Yard – in conjunction with A Word in Your Ear

Story Fridays are held every second month in Bath, UK. Six or seven writer-performers read freshly-minted stories inspired by a theme, this time Speed of Light. The packed audience heard stories intriguing, exciting, sad, straight and downright hilarious.

I was very happy that another of my short stories was one of these: The Find.  It was not written at the speed of light, however. If you write about meteorites you have to find out about them. This certainly took time, especially as I have no geology in my background. This tale was about the finder who became a – wait for it – meteoriticist, (takes practise to say!) It’s the story of how a young man turns tragedy into obsession and how that obsession separated him from “a peopled life”.

It was read by talented actor, Kirsty Cox. You can judge here how brilliantly Kirsty performed my tale.

Mine was only one of the stories read, the packed audience enjoying a wide range of content that evening from talented writers using sci-fi, romance, humour  to interpret SPEED OF LIGHT in their own ways.

(Story Fridays, A Word in your Ear in conjunction with Kilter Theatre, are the creation of the talented playwright and short story writer, Clare Reddaway.)

I didn’t ask the other authors how long they took to write their stories, but this is relevant because there’s currently a great deal of interest in writing a great many books in a short time to ensure (attempt) a very good income (Anderle). That has sparked a great writers’ debate around quality versus quantity and, in effect, whether everyone can write at the speed of light, or what may seem like it to those who need a couple of years or more to complete one novel.

Writing a huge number of books in a short space of time? Well, it’s been done, it’s being done. Usually there are characters who appear in different adventures/situations in each book, with the genre being closely defined – e.g. urban fantasy. There may be a close similarity of structure, characterization and plot within the books in the series. It fits with a life-style that demands instantaneous gratification.

This writing is at the opposite end of the scale to writing Flash Fiction which may be read in a flash but can take many attempts to whittle away the word count. This means heavy investment in word choice and serious consideration of meaning.

Short stories – that is stories of 1,000 words upwards – are different in many ways and different to write. There’s more to discuss as shown on sites such as Shortstops, Tania Herschmann’s website. How long does it take to write a satisfying story, beginning, middle, end? Something credible, because it has been properly researched. Something memorable? It’s worth asking different short story authors for the answer, which in itself depends on how the germ of the idea came to the author’s mind. More of this in another blog post.

 

 

 

Image

Civil war 1644 – recreating history

 

Great Chalfield Manor

Near Melksham there is a lovely manor house

built in the 1460s by Thomas Tropnell. The Arts and Crafts gardens are worth visiting in their own right, as is the manor itself but on Saturday 5th & Sunday 6thAUGUST 2017 from 10am there is an

ENGLISH CIVIL WAR RE-ENACTMENT EVENT

   Admission £5 for Adults, 16 years and under go free.

Writers re-imagine historic events but here – where the garrison was billeted for the two years of the Civil War – the events will be re-created.

Re-enactment  The Marquess of Winchester’s Regiment of the English Civil War Society will re-enact the two-day Royalist occupation of the manor house in 1644.  The Regiment and accompanying civilians will march in at the start of each day and guards will be posted to keep watch.  The regiment will drill and fire muskets and cannon during the day.

In tents in the garden civilians will show and tell you how people lived in the seventeenth century (Living History).

A clerk will be set up in the Great Hall to replicate the writing of the accounts of September 1644.  The Chaplain and officers will also recreate various activities in the adjoining parish church and around the manor.

During the afternoon a small Parliamentarian patrol will be driven off in a sharp skirmish in the Orchard to the rear of the manor.  Any prisoners taken will be tried and then marched off under escort.

“It’s actually bringing history to life; you can really smell gun powder, hear the noise, and for children it gives them a sense of actually being there and makes history more interesting” (visitor comment 2016)

Admission charges for adults including National Trust members at this event contribute to maintenance and development of the Arts & Crafts gardens at Great Chalfield.     Evensong will be in All Saints’ Parish Church at 6:00 pm on 6 August.

   GREAT CHALFIELD MANOR SN12 8NH

For further details see:  www.marquisofwinchesters.co.uk and www.greatchalfield.co.uk