Sadistic? Maybe! A necessary part of writing? Definitely! This week, I discuss taking your characters to their darkest places and tapping into universal fears to create a compelling story.
This week's vlog involves props! (Don't get too excited!). Four simple things that have made a huge difference to my writing and helped me get it published.
Last week I wrote a guest post on the blog of the fantastic suspense novelist Rachel Sargeant about my long and winding journey to publication. You can read all about the highs and lows, rejections and celebrations, here:
That all important opening sentence. Something every writer has obsessed over. The moment when you can hook or lose your reader; the gateway to the rest of the story. But how do you compose the perfect one for YOUR book?
In this week's vlog, I discuss some of my favourite first lines from some brilliant books, and why I love them so much.
I love a quiz, so let’s start with one...
This is taken from an exercise I came up with when I was teaching a Novel Writing course at Quad Arts Centre in Derby – partly as an ice-breaker for my class, and partly to kick off a discussion about novel hooks.
Can you identify which novels I'm describing here? (Disclaimer: they are not necessarily the blurbs that the writers or publishers themselves have used, or would use!)
What if your teenage son committed an unthinkable crime?
What if your memory was erased every time you went to sleep?
What if you were accused of your wife’s murder, but suspected she was the one framing you?
What if you could watch your family trying to come to terms with your death?
A botanist stranded on Mars must use his skills to survive.
A woman with Alzheimer’s tries to track down her missing friend, and instead unravels a mystery from her past.
A man and his son set out on a perilous trek across post-apocalyptic America.
A naïve young bride tries to find out the truth about her husband’s seemingly perfect first wife.
A professor of genetics who favours routines and efficiency sets out on a systematic mission to find love.
A happy-go-lucky woman is employed to show a man that life is worth living after a terrible accident.
The ‘big’ question, moral dilemma, or life lesson
Should science ever seek to reverse death?
Would you stay with the man you loved even against your most treasured principles?
Sometimes you have to travel a long way to realise there’s no place like home...
The answers are in the comments below this post!
What do you think of the three categories I’ve divided the hooks into? Do all novels have a hook that can be expressed in one of these three formats, or are there others? Could you sum up the central theme of your work-in-progress, either as a ‘What if...?’ question, a quest your character embarks on (physical or emotional), or a dilemma or lesson they will face?
I find that doing this really helps me, both when I’m planning and developing a book idea, and when I’m preparing to pitch it. A strong hook helps publishers to market a book, but it also helps the writer to identify the heart of their story - what it's really about, what's at stake, what the main thing is that the characters are trying to overcome, or achieve.
It’s also useful to me in the later stages of editing, as it reminds me to keep linking things back to my hook. For example, when I was re-drafting The Downstairs Neighbour, I kept returning to my question, ‘What if a threat to your family forced you to doubt the people you were living alongside?’ – and realised there were multiple ways I could connect the story to this idea. This definitely helped my sprawling plot to feel more unified as I re-worked it!
Considering your hook can also help you to come up with a title… something I’m going to have to write a separate blog about because I find them SO HARD! Watch this space ...
This week's blog is in video form. Watch me talking from my writing room about three brilliant books that gave me that 'I want to learn how to work this kind of magic!' feeling.
1: A local writers’ group
I can’t recommend being in a writers’ group highly enough. Mine was made up of people I met on my MA in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent Uni – six of us who lived in the East Midlands continued meeting up fortnightly to eat pizza, drink wine, and give feedback on each other’s works-in-progress. (I inadvertently put the writing in third place there – it was all business, I swear.) It was so valuable to have regular feedback on chapters from my novel, plus the act of giving feedback to others helped my own writing, too. It made me feel as if I was always writing for a reader (or five, actually), and it even got to the point where I would hear their voices in my head while I was writing, telling me I needed to pick up the pace, or I was stretching plausibility, or to stop using so many adverbs!
I honestly don’t think I would’ve developed my book enough to be able to find an agent or secure a book deal if it hadn’t been for that regular feedback over several years – plus all the support and motivation the group gave me. We're on hiatus at the moment, for various reasons, but I'd love to get the group going again in the future. Writing can be a solitary thing without opportunities to chat about what you're working on (and preferably eat pizza, too).
It’s worth investigating if there are any existing writers’ groups in your area. Often they have websites, or meet at local arts or community venues. It can be daunting to join them at first, but I guarantee they will be welcoming, and worth it!
2: Local writing events
Confession time: I’m obsessed with writing classes, writing events, writing magazines, books about writing. That’s why the organisation Writing East Midlands has been brilliant for me. They run events and offer resources and support to writers in the East Midlands region.
One event in particular was a turning point: their yearly Writers’ Conference. I went to their very first one, and loved it so much I actually felt quite emotional afterwards! Matt Haig was the keynote speaker, and as he was talking I got such a happy sense of sitting in a room full of people who love words and stories, listening to an author talk about what writing means to him. That was wonderful in itself, but a personal highlight of the day was my meeting with the agent Carole Blake, which I managed to get by booking early for the conference and applying for an agent one-to-one. I was able to send a section of my novel and a synopsis in advance, and my legs honestly shook as I walked into the room ready to hear her thoughts. I needn’t have worried: she was beyond lovely. Friendly, reassuring, helpful … but most of all, to my amazement, she loved my extract and encouraged me to send it to her agency once I’d finished the book. That encouragement, plus the advice she gave me on making it better, spurred me on to finish my novel and start submitting it.
3: Local writing competitions
Another confession: I have a thing for entering competitions. I love getting my entry ready, perfecting it as best I can, making sure I’ve met the formatting guidelines, sending it off, anticipating the longlist, the shortlist, the winners’ announcement. (Even better if I happen to be on the long- or shortlist.)
I love local competitions because they tend to be really supportive, well-run by teams of people who are passionate about regional writers, and often have nice awards events to celebrate the winners. Plus, although they are still very competitive and standards are high, the odds of being placed are more in your favour than for huge, high-profile international competitions. There’s a better chance of your entry standing out, yet it’s still a great accolade if you win.
One lovely experience for me was being placed third in the Leicester Writes Short Story Prize, run by independent press Dahlia Publishing. My story was published in their anthology (see picture), I got to read from it at a prize-giving event as part of their writing festival, and I also met some other local writers and kept in touch via social media.
Perhaps I’m lucky in that the East Midlands is a lively and nurturing place for writers, but I suspect that’s true of many regions across the country. Don’t be afraid to get involved – you never know what opportunities might come your way.
This is a bonus post - not on a Tuesday! - in the form of a link to a piece I wrote for the magazine Crime Reads. I re-read Thomas Hardy's wonderful book, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, while I was writing my debut The Downstairs Neighbour, and noticed all the cunning ways in which he builds tension and suspense to almost unbearable levels. Read the piece to find out what I learned from a writer who isn't primarily associated with supense fiction ... but who is undoubtedly a master in disguise.
1. “What is your reader waiting to find out?”
This came from my dissertation supervisor, the novelist David Belbin, during my Master’s in Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent. I remember him advising me to ask this question of every chapter, and I’ve done so ever since. Sometimes readers may be waiting for answers, information or clues; sometimes waiting with bated breath to see what will happen in the scene, or how the character will react to whatever conflict you’ve set up. But they should always be waiting for something, big or small, and invested enough in the story and the characters to be happy to do so. The writer's next crucial task is to not disappoint them once the waiting is over!
2. “Unsettle your reader”
This was a nugget of advice I got from a masterclass in writing suspense fiction, run by the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and taught by the thriller writer Lucie Whitehouse. I’ve been to lots of workshops on writing, and I always take something away, which might spark an idea or encourage me to up my game. This was one of those: “Unsettle your reader at every opportunity.” I started thinking about each scene in my novel, each description or piece of imagery, and how I could make it more unsettling. This really helped build tension and atmosphere in The Downstairs Neighbour. I also considered it in a wider sense – how you can unsettle your readers by wrongfooting them, i.e. by overturning their assumptions or beliefs about your story or characters.
3. “Raise the stakes”
This one came from my agent, the super-wise Hellie Ogden. She always encourages me to raise the stakes in terms of what my characters have got to lose. I’ve learned how important this is, but also how easy to lose sight of when you’re plotting and layering. Now, when I’m writing about characters with secrets, or maybe suspicions about others, I keep in mind another important question: “How bad will it be for them if their secret is discovered/ if they find out this thing about someone else/ if such-and-such happens?” And the answer, ideally, should be very, very bad!