My younger daughter has been wrapping Christmas presents with me. Just turned four, her enthusiasm for ‘helping’ knows no bounds. So she kneels on the floor beside me, eyes wide as she talks about the gifts we’ve bought, and the unparalleled delight that awaits their intended recipients.
I soon realise there’s a lot about wrapping presents that she hasn’t learned yet. She doesn’t know that it’s usually best to cut the paper in straight lines. Or that you need to hold the Sellotape by the ends so it doesn’t fold over and stick to itself. She hasn’t registered that the tape has to go over the joins, and not just anywhere on the paper, or on top of Santa because it makes him shiny.
If I try to intervene, she pulls away, shrieking, ‘I want to do it MYSELF!!’ It’s been a long day, during which I must have heard that phrase a hundred times. After half an hour wrapping one small rectangular box of Lego, I feel like crying with frustration.
So I try, instead, to imagine the neurons in her brain, deep inside that mysterious little head. I picture them growing, reaching towards each other through the dark to make new connections.
And that makes me think about writing, and the learning involved in that equally mysterious process. Writing your first novel is hard. There’s quite a lot to it, most of which you don’t realise until you’re mired in the middle of it. It’s not just the stringing-a-sentence-together part. It’s the storytelling – how to make characters come to life, how to plot, or how to wing it if you want to. How to plant hooks, ratchet up suspense, and weave story threads. How to build up emotions under the surface, and then let them sing. All this has to be learnt, and that’s ok. You wouldn’t expect to be able to play the bassoon first time, or sail a yacht.
Then there’s the second book. You should have got the hang of it by now, right? But no – if anything it’s harder. It’s kind of like becoming a parent the second time. You’ve a feeling it should be easier, but it isn’t. You have to learn all those things again, but for THIS child, this story. And there are new challenges too, like writing new characters while your first ones refuse to let you go. Or learning how to focus on your new book while the first is out on submission, and you’re checking your emails every five minutes.
And all the time that you’re struggling with this, there are constant reminders, everywhere, of how bleak the prospects are for new writers. We read that it’s impossible to get an agent, to find a publisher, to sell books, to keep selling enough books…..
The single most important thing, in all this, is to keep writing regardless. You have to tolerate the uncertainty about your writing prospects, and most importantly you have to tolerate the problems in your own writing during the drafting process - the amateurishness, the lumpen turns of phrase, the wooden characters. You have to be able to shrug at the passages that look like the ramblings of a love-struck teenager, or Enid Blyton on speed. You have to be able to open the document every day and LOOK at that mess without flinching, crying, or deleting the whole lot.
You do this, I think, by learning to switch between reader and writer mode. Using the present wrapping analogy, the ‘reader’ is like a parent, who knows what it should look like, and the ‘writer’ is the child, the one actually engaged in the process. So, you have to let the writer write. Then switch to reader mode, and notice what doesn’t look or feel right. Go back into writer mode, change things at sentence level, or reimagine whole scenes, characters, storylines, if necessary. Then go back to the reader… and so on. Eventually the writer will nail it - IF you give her the chance. Because the writer needs, and deserves, just as much space and patience as the four-year-old who doesn’t know about Sellotape yet.
The good thing is that, by simply doing, you can’t help but learn. My daughter and I persevered with the wrapping. A few days later, we do have a pile of finished presents. They’re a bit lumpy, a bit wrinkly. Some are like flies, bound up in webs of deadly Sellotape. But they’re interesting-looking, prepared with love, in a spirit of endeavour, and all the better for that.
When I began writing my second novel, I encountered a problem. One of my main characters seemed reticent, even though I knew she was full of a story. She wouldn’t engage - I’d put her in a room with other characters, and they’d just stand around. There was a lot of fidgeting and sighing. There was a lot of staring at walls, and looking at the floor. One evening, when I realised I’d spent an hour trying to describe the exact weave and colour of her living room carpet, I knew it was time for a different approach.
I needed Janey to let me in. So, rather as one might do with a troubled child, who seems to be keeping something back, I decided to abandon my schedule and spend some quality time with her. Here, based on what I tried, are my tips for getting your characters talking.
1. Take her on an outing
While drafting out my first novel, Tiny Acts of Love - I took a group of uptight characters for a spa day at a country house hotel, to see how they'd behave in bathrobes. Some of them behaved appallingly, but emotions gathered momentum, surfaced, and the scene turned out to be a pivotal one. With Janey, I took her back to her old school, to hear a visiting speaker on the subject of toddler taming. She’d probably have preferred a spa day, come to think of it, but it got her talking (well, shouting).
2. Listen to music together
Part of the story, in my novel-in-progress, takes place in the 1980s. I made a playlist of the songs Janey used to listen to back then, and played it on repeat for a few days. When I realised she had something to say about a particular drunken teenage party, I Googled the top ten for that week and played some of the tracks. They weren’t her favourites, but as in real life, sometimes it’s the ones you haven’t listened to for years that take you back. The story came out – the auditory memory unwinding all the sensory and emotional details.
3. Invite some new (ahem) friends round
Take all the characters – however minor - that appear in your book, and write their names in a circle. Draw lines between those who meet, at any point in the story, and have a look at the spidery web in front of you. Are there any who don’t meet? What might happen if they did? Would they make each other laugh? Would they make each other want to scream, cry or vomit (even better)? If so, put them on a blank page together, and let the scene unfold.
This can also work with characters from different novels. Just for fun, see what happens if a character from a previous book wanders into one of your scenes (or an army of Babycraft mums, in poor Janey’s case, marching – they would never merely wander – into her son’s Jungly Fun music class).
4. Write her a letter
If your character still isn’t communicating, write her a note, stick it in an envelope with her name on it, and leave it overnight. I tried this, in desperation, with Cassie from my first book, because I couldn’t understand why she was trying to keep her mother out of the action (out of the country, in fact - with missed planes, crises with elderly relatives, and numerous bouts of flu). By morning, I knew – possibly more than I wanted to! That particular swathe of backstory didn’t get written into the novel, but it’s there, underlying Cassie’s actions throughout.
5. Trust her
If she’s telling you something that doesn’t fit into the story - or your plan for the story - then you know you're getting somewhere. Write it down, whether it’s a scene, a feeling, a snatch of dialogue, or a visual image, and then work backwards. Recently, I had to write a new scene for Tiny Acts of Love, because my editor wanted me to smooth the transition between two parts of the story. At first I was stumped. All I could see, when I tried to picture it, was a Babycraft mum pouring a red toy watering can over Cassie’s husband’s head. I had no idea why. But I felt my way into the scene from there. In the end, it not only made sense, but pulled the last third of the book together.
As for Janey, she inconveniently (very inconveniently) fell in love with one of the other characters. The whole story flipped over like a deck of cards, but we had to go with it, she and I.
We writers are like parents, in some ways, for the characters we create. We don’t always understand them, and when we think we do, they change again. They can be baffling, and frustrating, and endlessly surprising. Sometimes, they’re so close they feel like part of you. Sometimes, they’re unreachable. But here’s what I’ve learned: just as you would with a child, you need to proceed intuitively. Don’t rush in. Don’t impose yourself on the situation. Never panic. Just take your character’s hand, and let her lead the way.
I’ve been immersed in a wonderful book for the last few days – The Ghost Hunters by Neil Spring. Based partly on real life accounts, it’s a psychological drama centred around Borley Rectory - reputedly the most haunted house in England - and a series of paranormal investigations conducted there in the 1920s and 30s. The writing is evocative, charged with a sense of place. And it’s a part of the world I’m familiar with - my grandparents used to live just a few miles away, near Sudbury, Suffolk. I found myself taken back there, to one summer’s day in 1986.
Having run out of things to do, near the end of our stay, we'd decided to take an afternoon walk along the banks of the River Stour near Borley. I was eight years old, hurrying ahead of my parents, grandparents and big sister, scanning the countryside to try and catch a glimpse of the haunted churchyard (the Rectory itself had burned down decades before). I’d learned all about it from a library audio tape dramatising the hauntings, complete with screams and ghostly moaning sound effects. It was a stifling August day, the heat pressing down hard, the river flowing brown and sluggish. I was disappointed when we didn’t get as far as the church, or sense anything remotely spooky. Just stillness. Quietness. Boring.
I haven’t been back to Suffolk since my grandparents died. Today I looked up their old house on Google street view. The house looks the same, but the tree in the front garden is bigger, and the door’s been painted green. You can almost – almost – see over the roof of the garage into the back garden where we used to watch for bats in the summer twilight. Using the arrows, you can follow the road along to the post office where my sister and I used to buy sherbet dips. The streets are eerily empty, just one or two cars appearing and then vanishing, lost in the time lapse between the photographs. That part of the world is empty, for me, in a wider sense too – there are no relatives left there, no family friends. I feel a strong pull to go back, but at the same time, the thought leaves me with a heavy, homesick feeling. There’s an uneasiness about it that drags at me and won’t leave me alone.
And then I start writing a scene for the novel I’m working on. The character, Hattie, is on her way to visit the boarding school where she stayed as a girl in the 1980s. She needs to see her brother, who’s now a music teacher there, staying in the empty dormitory block over the holidays.
Hattie gets off the train, and although this imagined school is in another part of the country altogether, in my mind she’s at the station where we used to stop on the way to Granny and Grandpa’s. It’s changed, since her school days. But in her mind she sees the old buffet room, selling plastic ham sandwiches and cheeseburgers with neon-bright cheese. She remembers the blue and yellow livery of the InterCity trains, and how she used to hate the scorching, metallic smell of the brakes. She remembers the way the steps up to the bridge sparkled, ever so slightly, underfoot.
Hattie’s story is not mine. She’s not thinking of her grandparents, or happy childhood holidays. She’s taken back to her boarding school days, at a time when her family was beginning a slow and complicated process of self-destruction. But there on the station platform, she’s overcome by something that feels like homesickness. By the disorientating suck and pull of a world that exists only in the past. Its comforts – barely noticed at the time – are unreachable. She feels this for me, and in that moment, she is me and I am her.
Writing can’t bring people back. It can’t recreate the security of childhood, or chase away old demons for that matter. It can’t – quite – transport you back to the places you loved. But it does do…. something. Something real, that stands in some small way against loss, and lostness. I’ve encountered it often, as I’ve written my way through the lives of my characters.
It might be to do with capturing tiny details, hiding them like jewels within the sweep of a story. It might be to do with the power of words; finding the exact shape of a certain kind of sadness, or fear, or the way it feels when things are made better. Or the dragging almostness of missed opportunities, connections that were never made, love that never quite worked. It might be about sharing those complex emotions - the very ones that make us human - with another person, even if it’s just a character I made up. Or maybe, if I’m very lucky, with a reader out there somewhere, one day.
So thank you, Neil Spring, for your Borley Rectory book, for sparking something off in me, even though you couldn’t possibly have known it (but that’s what the best books do – they take on a life of their own). It turns out I was looking for the wrong sort of ghosts, on that hazy, shimmering summer’s day when I was eight. It wasn’t until today that I found them, walking along that river path with me in my own memory.
I put this question to my daughters the other day. My eight year old wants to be an astrophysicist. Or an alchemist (because obviously, they are so similar). My three year old’s answer? A princess. Their friend, rather intriguingly, wants to be a retired dentist.
I spent years thinking I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I started a psychology degree, only to switch to English literature after having an Emily Dickinson moment walking home from a lecture. After I’d finished, homesickness drew me back to Edinburgh, where I went back to university to study law, and then entered the world of work as a commercial lawyer.
Several years later, I was on maternity leave when I discovered a Primary Two homework jotter in which I’d written: ‘I want to be an AUTHOR when I grow up.’ The word ‘author’ had been rubbed out and written in again, in wobbly, smudged letters. Aged six, I’d been quite clear about what I wanted to do, even if I couldn’t spell it myself. But I hadn’t admitted it again for nearly thirty years.
Even after I started my novel, people were only told on a need-to-know basis. And if I did tell anyone, I downplayed my writing, saying it was just something to keep my brain ticking over while looking after young children. Meanwhile, my six-year-old self was looking on, rolling her eyes.
So why the big secret? If you ask a room full of young children if any of them are good at writing – or painting, or singing, or dancing - nearly all of them will raise their hands. If you ask a room full of adults, the majority of arms will remain firmly glued to sides. I wasted so much time worrying about whether I was good at writing, when I should have simply been doing it. It took me ages to realise that writing is about jumping right in, getting messy, making mistakes, doing it for the fun of seeing what will happen next. Being a mother to two wild, wonderful girls gave me back the freedom I’d lost somewhere along the way.
It doesn’t end there, though. If you’re aiming to get published, you must learn to step outside of your work and take feedback on board, to edit, refine and polish. You need to accept that some ideas are marketable and some aren’t. Your work will be rejected, repeatedly. All of this hurts. There are many, many reality checks along the way. But every time, you need to find your way back to the imaginary world you’ve created, and learn how to play there again. There’ll be a spark there, which is the reason you became a writer, and everything you do needs to come from that.
Now I’m lucky enough to have a publishing deal and my first novel is about to make its way into the world. It is an amazing feeling to be sure, finally, of what I want to do, and to be in a position to give it everything I’ve got.
And if it doesn’t work out, well maybe it’s not too late to retrain as a retired dentist.
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