Thursday, 31 August 2017

Wanderlust - Guest Post by Karen Kao

I like to wander. To travel without any clear sense of a destination. I call myself a wanderer in my new Instagram account. The photos there all come from a recent trip to Germany. Hence the title of this blog post. Originally coined in German during the 19th century, wanderlust means an urge, an impulse, a longing to travel.

Maybe this craze for the new is a Shanghainese trait. As Lynn Pan documents in Shanghai Style, early 20th century Shanghai was crazy about anything new, be it film or fashion, chandeliers or flush toilets.

When I wander, I try to go back in time or place, go deep, understand. Feed my imagination. So here’s an account of our travel through Germany and how it’s about to affect my writing.

Moving Pictures

We went to Germany because of two major art events: documenta 14 in Kassel and the Skulptur Projekt in Münster. The former takes place every 5 years; the latter only once in a decade. So I mapped out a route that would take us to both. And added a little Bauhaus architecture in Dessau and a little nature in the Thuringer Wald for good measure.

For me, the wonder of travel lies in the surprise. To wander into the botanical gardens tucked behind the University of Münster and find a Garden of Eden. Or discover the spectacular art on display at the LWL Museum für Kunst under Kultur. But of all the wonderful stuff we saw, film is the work that still stands out in my mind. For example, The Dust Channel by filmmaker Roee Rosen, which we saw at documenta 14 in Kassel. The film stars a Dyson vacuum cleaner in an operatic commentary on refugee camps in Israel. Hilarious and moving.

Back in the GDR

From Kassel we headed into the former GDR. Crossing the borders these days, of course, is a non-event. Even compared to our last visit to former East Germany just after the wall came down, when our car suddenly vaulted from the smoothly asphalted autobahn onto gravel roads. Then, we found dilapidated villages populated by old women and young children.

Now, there are still signs of a struggling economy. The drunks in the street. The caravans parked along country roads for the ladies of the night. The past intrudes uncomfortably into the present. For example, the Bauhaus Museum in Dessau notes that the city’s two claims to fame are the designs created by the Bauhaus School and an innovation of an entirely different nature: Zyklon-B. Many of the cities we visited in the former GDR seem to strain under the weight of so much history.

Reflecting Memory

Yet you can also find jewels in East Germany. Magdeburg was once the seat of the Ottonian dynasty (900-1000). It has the city walls, medieval cathedral and cobble-stoned streets to prove it. The former convent of Unser Lieben Frauen is now a world-class art museum and the current home to a video installation by Kader Attia called Reflecting Memory.

The film centers on the phenomenon of a phantom limb. That’s what you call pain you feel in a body part you no longer have. Doctors have struggled for years to identify its cause. It could be the nerve endings still reaching out for a missing connection. Or maybe the pain stems from a mental disorder. No one knows.

Attia uses that ambiguity. He launches into a discussion of grief and grievance, de-nazification, totalitarianism and the impact of today’s terrorist attacks on those already traumatized. He interviews surgeons, pyschoanalysts, historians and philosophers. Each of them says, in one way or another, that pain is only amplified when denied. There must be some form of reckoning.

Gedenkstätte

There are memorials throughout Germany to remember and reckon with everything. I hadn’t planned on visiting the memorial at Bergen-Belsen but it was on the way and so we went in.

Three groups passed through this camp. Soviet POWs. The many and varied enemies of the Third Reich. And, finally, the displaced persons left to wander in the aftermath of WWII. The exhibit at Bergen-Belsen captures extraordinary eyewitness accounts. Video interviews extend from how life was before the camp to how one goes on. The implicit question in each of these epilogue interviews is how to reckon with pain.

One woman can talk to an interviewer but not her children. Another calls it her duty to speak. Then there is the woman who periodically returns to Bergen-Belsen. She says being there lightens her soul and gives her the strength to live a little longer.

Attia says: pain is individual. My pain is not your pain. Not even if we’ve lost the same limb or suffered the same trauma. None of the survivors of Bergen-Belsen has come out unscathed yet their scars are all unique.

The Missing Limb

This is all food for my soul. Dark and bitter, to be sure, yet nourishing all the same for my imagination. It’s why I wander. Now that I’m home, I’m raring to go.

My novel-in-progress, Peace Court, is set in Shanghai 1954. The long years of war are finally over. Mao promises to bring peace to China and the Chinese want to believe him. Then violence returns to the community of Peace Court. Kang tries to kill his wife but succeeds only in cutting her arm off. The authorities cart Kang to a labor camp. Jin remains in Shanghai to care for their daughter Li. The novel is about what happens then. Reflecting Memory was a wander into epiphany. Suddenly, I could see how this act of violence would affect not only Jin but everyone at Peace Court. Because of course, they would all feel the need to choose a side, especially the child Song Li.

As odd as this may sound, I don’t think about Jin as a victim nor Peace Court as a tragedy. It’s a novel of hope. And here’s where Attia comes in, one last time.

Dub is a genre of electronic music. You create it by remixing and manipulating an existing recording to extract the vocals. What remains is a track heavy on bass and drums. Attia interviews an expert in phantom limbs who finds this kind of music wildly interesting, eerie and powerful.

Think about that: a loss that can make you stronger than ever. 


Karen Kao is a poet, essayist and writer of short and long fiction. Her debut novel, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle was published in April 2017 by Linen Press. This article was first published on her blog. You can follow Karen there and all the other usual places, too.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Debbie Young Writes a Book for All Seasons

When I started planning the cosy mystery series I'm currently writing, I thought I had a bright idea: I'd make the seven books span the course of the year.

What's not to love about writing a book for all seasons, and then some? Whatever the time of year, I'd have a topical book to tout.

Summertime for Sophie Sayers
Given that my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries are set in a small (fictional) English village (no surprises there), its residents are naturally very conscious of the seasonal changes, and their social calendar dictated by the time of year.

That's just how it is in the small (non-fictional) English village in which I've lived for the last 26 years. Here in my real life village, I'm so much more aware of the passage of the seasons than when I lived and worked in and around London.

Working in a city centre, I was more likely to spot the season by what was in shop windows, rather than by the appearance (or disappearance) of lambs and the like.

Bikinis in Marks and Spencers? Ah, then it must be February. 

I much prefer the rural indication of the coming of spring: seeing the lambs appear down my lane.

Seasonal Satisfaction


Yes, I often share my street with sheep, or sometimes cows. Today we passed a few chickens pottering about at the roadside outside the local farm shop. Well, where else would a chicken go to do its shopping?

And if there's a traffic jam down my way, it's more likely to be caused by a farm vehicle than a stream of commuter cars. On nearby Sodbury Common, herds of cows frequently block the road.

For those who don't live in the country, reading the Sophie Sayers books will give them the chance to enjoy the seasons vicariously as they work their way through the series.

Seasonal books = seasonal reading = seasonal sales.  

Good plan. 

Until I try to launch my new autumn read, Trick or Murder?, full of mists and mellow murder, on a searingly hot August Bank Holiday weekend, when we can almost convince ourselves that summer still has weeks to run.

It feels indecent to be talking about October already


Autumnal fun
I find myself not wanting to even think about the autumn, never mind promote my autumn-themed book. 

It seems unkind to remind people that autumn is just around the corner, like the supermarkets that start hyping back-to-school wear the minute the schools break up for their summer holidays.

Standing in scorching sunshine talking about Halloween and Guy Fawkes' Night - key events in Trick or Murder? - seems as tasteless as touting mince pies and Christmas cards in September. Yes, I know Tesco's will be doing that. I rest my case.

Christmas special
I know that commercial traders, including bookshops, will carry on regardless, marketing things at least a season before we really want to think about them.

But I've decided to launch my Christmas special for the series, Murder in the Manger, for the day after Guy Fawkes' Night, and not a minute sooner.

Time passes us by all too fast without me fast-forwarding the seasons.

In the meantime, I plan to make the most of whatever remains of the summer sunshine.

May we all have many sunny days yet to come. 

For more information about my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, visit my author website: www.authordebbieyoung.com


Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Lines of Sight and Out of Shot: N M Browne


One of the elements of writing that often causes the most trouble for students (and for me) is, what everyone now calls: 'point of
Cover: Marina Esmeraldo
view.' I mean, I’ve been doing this a while now so I don’t usually switch between character perspectives accidentally. I do, however, still struggle to enter the mind and milieu of my protagonist as completely as I need to. I find my own characteristic verbal tics turn up whether I’m supposed to be a wolf, a Saxon warrior or a teenage time traveller none of whom should sound like a middle aged white woman.  It takes considerable effort on my part to imagine being ‘other’ and to enter the linguistic and perceptual world of this ‘other’ mind. I have no tips to offer. Sorry. I approach it in my usual bumbling irrational way, working it out by trial and error. Sometimes I never get there and I have at least two unpublished novels on my hard drive which are narrated by entirely the wrong person in completely the wrong way. 
      Often, it helps to think about  the  sight line of my character. I’m an irritating half inch shy of five foot five, but my characters are taller (if they are a person as a kind of form of personal wish fulfilment) or shorter (if they are an animal) so they see things from  a physically different perspective as well as understanding things from an intellectually and emotionally different perspective. I find this most challenging when the characters belong to a different age, and interpret the world through a lens that I have  to research, re-envisage and then realise realistically on the page. It’s no wonder I got it wrong so often: moreover the result cannot just be a theoretical  exercise in empathy and imagination, it absolutely has to engage and entertain the reader too. 
    Knowing how hard it is, it is  a joy to come across a writer who pulls off this most demanding of tricks with apparent ease.  So I am going to recommend the novels of my friend the talented Christina Koning. She is  an award winner writer, journalist and academic who is just publishing the fourth book, ‘Out of Shot’ in her series of detective stories set in the thirties (writing as A C Koning.) 
     I was blown away with the subtlety and skill with which she introduces her  detective Frederick Rowlands in the fist book ‘Line of Sight’. It appeals because, blinded by shrapnel in 1917, he no longer has that all important sight-line, yet he arrives on the page fully formed, credibly endowed with the attitudes of his time, struggling to apprehend his new virtually sight less world, straining every sense. Consequently,  the reader sees and hear his vivid world with unusual clarity. This new volume, set in the Germany in 1933, just as Hitler has become Chancellor, allows Koning to combine a mystery set within the glamorous film industry of the period with a terrifying search for a lost boy. The reader’s knowledge of the historical record only heightens the tension, but Rowlands himself remains firmly rooted in his own time, dealing only with what he perceives and that, in itself, is tense enough. 

   I urge would-be writers to read the series as a lesson in the clever use of a third person limited viewpoint where the protagonist has very clear limitations. I urge everyone else to read it because all the books are cracking stories, well told. 

Monday, 28 August 2017

Tomatoes, Daisies, Movies, and Reading Schemes (ugh!) - Enid Richemont

It's early Autumn, or, if you prefer, late summer, and in my very peaceful part of North London, there's a kind of golden silence which seeps into my head. The very last of my huge crop of tomatoes remains to be picked, and this morning I gathered an unexpectedly large bunch of runner beans - all this richness from a small suburban garden. This time of year feels like a kind of dream time through which I wander almost mindlessly. Soon there will be the first breaths of the winter to come, and I love that - it's thrilling. I am not a summer person.

Recently I found myself picking lawn daisies just before their decapitation by lawn mower - these lovely little things always come back. I haven't picked daisies since making daisy chains with my kids and my grandchildren, and I suddenly wanted to - they are so sweet.

The movie based on one of my books has now progressed to the stage of location and actually filming, and I will be shown the first images in ten days time. It is an extraordinary experience to have characters who until now only existed inside my head becoming 'real'. What will be even more extraordinary will be the 21st century manifestation of the two eleven year old girls who featured in the original story - extraordinary because they were real girls at the time, now adults and with children of their own. There were no phones in the original story, but now there are, among so many other small but significant changes and updates. The contemporary screenplay, which I wrote a couple of years ago, has now been tweaked and expanded. This is a constantly evolving process, with so many new voices, and I love it - it's so alive.

My very little book featuring a little boy called Ahmed and his relationship with an alien, is out at last, the original story tweaked and diminished in order to fit into current (and unwelcome) reading schemes. The illustrations are fun, though, and I've always loved the idea that teachers are unfazed by differences - even boys who are green and have tentacles.

At present I'm reading Peter Ackroyd's THE CLERKENWELL TALES, based on Chaucer's THE CANTERBURY TALES. The local historical details are fascinating, and obviously, being Ackroyd, well-researched. The characters in the story weren't aware that what they thought of as the present would one day be re-constructed as the long-distant past - to them, it was here and now and immediate. When I first wrote the novel that's turning into a film, I, too, was living in the here and now, and everything was fresh and new, as it always is in the present, but one day, even 2017 will, in its turn, become history, along with the wimples and fetishes of the 13th century, as everything eventually does. Quite a chastening thought.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

A Child's View of Genocide - Andrew Crofts


A few weeks ago I went down to the beautiful hills on the Rwanda/Congo border, fancying that I was following in the great literary footsteps of the likes of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, but in reality probably more closely resembling William Boot from Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop.



I was travelling with my client, Hyppolite, a young man who was just seven years old when he survived genocide. In 100 days he lost eighty members of his extended family and witnessed his beloved father being hacked to death by machetes and eaten by dogs.

Born in a mud hut without shoes, water or power, and often hungry, he struggled after the genocide to gain an education and to learn to forgive the killers. By the age of thirty he had a Masters Degree in Sociology from Bristol University, had started a Foundation for Peace and had delivered a lecture at Harvard.

I am hoping that in this book we will be able to give a child’s view of genocide, in the style of The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. It is also the story of an inspiring young leader, who endured the worst nightmare imaginable, as in I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb.

In his village, on the “other side of the forest”, nothing much has changed since Hyppo was a child, or indeed since his great, great grandfather was a child. The huts still have mud floors and the villagers have to walk forty five minutes to get to their water supply, many of them still barefooted. There is still no electricity. The roads are so potholed it is impossible for any vehicles to get across them during the rainy season and only the bravest of 4x4 drivers can make it in the dry season.

Most of the killers are now back from prison, living side by side once more with the genocide survivors, sharing locally brewed banana beer during the long, dark evenings and living off what they can grow around their huts.

Once again I have been reminded that of all the advantages that ghostwriting offers, one of the greatest must be the opportunities that you get to meet people of interest.  


Saturday, 26 August 2017

An off-grid writing residency in Spain? Dipika Mukherjee has an inspiring adventure

Sunsets behind the El Gabar 
I didn’t quite know what to expect from a Joya residency; the description sounded so different from the usual residencies that I applied for an adventure. Joya: AiR is an artist run not-for-profit arts organisation and--most importantly--an off-grid residency in rural Andalucía, Spain.

“Off-grid, eh?” said my son, the only member of the family who had been to Andalusia. “If it's all solar panels and water harvesting, they’ll hand you a lota and tell you to go about your business in the fields. Water harvesting sounds like unwashed people to me, and we didn’t shower for days when we camped in Malaga.”

I quickly checked that the email said individual rooms had attached bathrooms, and reassured myself that young men camping at seventeen were not the best ambassadors for personal hygiene, whether in Malaga or elsewhere.

Almonds within easy reach
Getting to off-grid Cortijada Los Gázquez looked challenging through the dirt roads lined with prickly shrubbery, but there were pretty villages and a stunning Moorish castle along the way. Low almond orchards beckoned, with trees bursting with ripe fruit within reach. I started to relax. When we reached, the rooms were beautifully spacious with modern bathrooms attached, all lime-washed in pristine white.

And indeed, the landscape and walking paths surrounding Cortijada Los Gázquez are truly magical...the very second day I wrote out a poem which had been marinating in my head for a month. The day after that -- after watching a resident present a very different kind of performance photography -- I wrote an entire short story in a single sitting in a fit of inspiration.

Simon and Donna and the twins, along with Max the dog, Fufu the goat, and all seven cats, provide the sweet chaos of a happy home where artists of all nationalities can forge symbiotic friendships which seem to last the residency. During my time here, I met a group of dynamic and phenomenally talented people –the evening presentations are truly amazing!—and as the fabulous dinners were served Spanish style at 9.30 at night or later, the conversation would spill over into the next day. Wine in hand, we would stroll over to sit under brilliantly lit skies, where the only movement above us were falling stars. One night, I watched fascinated as a thin crescent moon rapidly disappeared behind the Andalusian range.
A dog and a goat and all the creative people!

Morning view
The residency extends over 20 hectares of land in the heart of a natural park; there is time for long contemplative walks and writing followed by a siesta. I felt my mindspace unravel from the distressing breaking news circuit and reacted to the soothing sounds of winds whistling through tall poplars. It felt like freedom to not have phone coverage and a limited internet connection. I woke up to stunning views every morning and as my breath slowed down, I continued to create new work.

Joya uses solar panels for energy and rain water harvesting, so the don't’s on the first day seemed a daunting: don't leave the water running while brushing teeth; switch lights off or use torches; dishes should not be washed under running water; bathe when you are really hot so you don’t need hot water; don’t flush the toilet after every use. 

But very soon, in this amazing place where Simon and Donna are trying to reverse the damages of land abandonment while resurrecting sustainable water supplies and irrigation, these ecologically sound habits became second nature. In New Delhi, in summer, we have no choice but to conserve water and electricity in similar ways, and it would be a really smart idea for the world to adopt more sustainable personal habits before we ruin the only planet in which we make our homes.

An evening presentation
Tomorrow morning I leave. I will miss the conversations. The curators Donna and Simon are global nomads who have a treasure trove of fascinating travel tales, but there was also the artistes: Andree whose lens spoke of edgy stories and power differentials; Alicia who wove beauty through unlikely objects; Gwenda whose graphic designs are changing how modern theatre posters are presented; Simon (the younger!) with his witty stories of the London art world and his creative use of different media in his work; Mark (a true young ecological warrior) who is an artist first but has travelled to an Indian village to build 24 toilets where there were none; Nellie whose stunning pencil drawings will take her far in her current art school and later in the world. The range of international English around the dinner table sounded like music to my ears and I will miss the easy companionship of these committed artistes.

To find information about applying to Joya click here

For the facebook page, click here.



Dipika Mukherjee's second novel, Shambala Junction, won the UK Virginia Prize for Fiction (Aurora Metro, 2016). Her debut novel was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and republished as Ode to Broken Things (Repeater, 2016). She is a Juror on the the Neustadt International Prize for Literature 2018 and founded the D.K Dutt Award for Literary Excellence in Malaysia. More here



Friday, 25 August 2017

How To Tell A Story by Susan Price

I was sent this email recently:



Dear Susan,

I am a 17 year old student and I have just started my Extended Project Qualification (EPQ). I found your contact details through the website "contactanauthor.com" and would really appreciate if you could  spend a small amount of your time to offer me some advice.

...I want to learn the appropriate techniques to effectively tell a story, to make a meaningful piece of writing... I understand that you may be very busy but it would mean a great deal to me if you would be able to give me some response about how to tackle writing a short story... I really feel that communicating with a professional writer will allow me to improve the way that I go about tackling this project.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this email, I hope to hear back from you.

'J'
 I wrote 'J' this answer:



Please don’t think I’m brushing you off when I simply say: Get some collections of short stories and read them. It’s the best advice I can give.

All writers learn to write by reading. There is no recipe for a short story. I can’t say, do this, do that and add some of this and you’ll have a good short story.

Read some stories critically. That is, think hard about them as you read. Have a notebook and make some notes.
As you read, bear in mind that nothing in a story ‘just happens.’

In real life, almost everything ‘just happens.’ There’s no plan behind it. I once volunteered at an Adult Literacy Class. The first day I turned up, I went along to the classroom and found the whole class of about ten people standing outside. I joined them and we all stood there for an hour, chatting as we waited for the tutor to arrive. She never did. The class were surprised. It wasn’t like her. After an hour, we gave up and went home.
The next week we learned that the tutor hadn’t simply decided to stay in bed. She’d been on her way to us and she’d been hit by a car. While we were outside the classroom, wondering where she was, she was being put into an ambulance and taken to hospital.
There was no writer pulling the strings behind this. No point was being made, there was no comment on the way we live hidden in the events. No turn of the plot was being set up. No character was being shown in action. No meeting of two characters was being engineered. All of it simply happened, by chance, without purpose. No significant conclusion could be drawn from any of it, nothing is being said, in this chance incident, about Life, the Universe and Everything.

But imagine that this was a story you read. Nothing in a story is there by chance. Especially in a short story, where the writer might only have a thousand words— or 300. Every single word has been chosen rather than another word that could have been used instead. Why write ‘chuckle’ when the word could have been ‘giggled’ or ‘laughed?’ Why write ‘concerned’ when it could have been ‘worried?’
If in a story, a character turned up to a class where the tutor never appeared and was later found to have been knocked down, every single detail would be in the story for a reason. Because, if it had no reason to be there, it would have been cut in the rewriting.

Is the story third-person or first-person narration? Why? The writer made that decision for a reason.

Is the new volunteer the main character and if so, why? What point is being made by the volunteering— something about his/her character?

Who are the pupils waiting outside? What do they talk about? Why are they made to talk about that and not something else? Do they realise the newcomer is a volunteer tutor or do they think s/he is another student? What difference does their impression make to the story?

Is the whole conversation there just to introduce something that’s going to happen next? Or to give an account of another character before that character appears? If there is no such purpose to the conversation, is it worth including it?

Does the story include an account of the tutor trying to get to her class on time and being hit— or is that left as something that the characters only talk about? Either way, how does it change the story?

As you read, think about how the writer is doing things. How does the writer show you what their
characters are like? How do they tell you about the places where the story is happening? How do they write dialogue?
When you like a story, why do you like it? When you dislike a story, why? Put it another way— what kind of writing do you want to copy and what kind do you want to avoid? (All writers are influenced by other writers, positively or negatively.)

In film-writing, they say: ‘Cut to the chase.’ They’re talking about editing— cutting out a piece of film. They mean, ‘Cut out the slow stuff, the long meaningful talks between characters, the philisophising. Cut all that short so we get straight to the stuff people pay to see: the car-chase.’
It doesn’t have to be, literally, a car-chase. It could be the scene in the gladitorial arena, the romantic scene, or the scene where your favourite character is in danger of their life.
In short, cut out the long descriptive pieces and the account of every tiny feeling your characters have and get on with the interesting stuff.

Yet another way of saying it is, ‘Start every scene as far into it as you can and get out of every scene before the end.’ This is good advice, I think, for any kind of writing. (Which doesn't mean you should follow it to the letter, every time.)


You probably have to write your scene or your story at full length first, so you know all about it. But don't consider every word you write to be untouchable. Be prepared to cut any passage. Put every paragraph on trial. What is it doing for the story that it deserves to stay? Is it establishing character or place? Is it showing character? Is it preparing for a turn in the plot? Ideally, it should be doing more than one of these things at once. If it isn't, cut it.

Rewrite is the most important tip I can give you. You don’t write anything once. You rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until you don’t think you can improve it any more. Rewriting includes cutting stuff out. Whole paragraphs, whole chapters, whole characters.

Read through your finished story and ask: What can I cut from the beginning? How far into it can I start?
Take the little story of the woman tutor hit by the car. Don’t start with the main character, months before, trying to decide between volunteer opportunities. Don't waste pages telling us how they made up their minds while going about their usual days.
Don’t even start with the main character catching the bus to the class.
How far in can you go without making things too confusing to your reader? Begin with the main character meeting the others outside the classroom door?
Begin at the point where they decide not to wait any longer but to go home?
How about starting the following week, when they first meet their new tutor and learn why they were stood up by the old one?
Or, if you tell it from the tutor’s point of view, do you start with her getting up that morning? Or with the moment she’s hit by the car? Do you start in the ambulance? Or when she wakes up in hospital?
Every starting point has its plusses and its minuses. Start too far in and you have to explain a lot of 'back-story' before the reader can understand what's going on. Or you miss a scene that would have allowed you to establish your world and characters.
 You have to decide what points you need to establish for your story and which starting point helps you make that point best.


Then you get out of the story or scene before it ends. To do that, you have to decide how it ends. What is the point of the story? What’s the feeling you want to leave us with? You may not know in great detail exactly how you want the story to end, but it's a good idea to start thinking about it.

The point of the story about the woman being knocked down could be that she thought she was all on her own but finds out, when she’s laid up in hospital, that she has more friends than she thought. Aaaah.
Or it could be that, when she tries phoning round to get someone to feed her cat and water her garden, that she finds she doesn’t have any real friends at all. — Get out of the story before you hammer that point to death. Drop a hint and let the readers figure it out for themselves.

Characters. Some people will tell you to start with the characters and follow them wherever they go.

Personally, I think that leads to disaster. Because you can always think up some 'quirky', 'fascinating' character and then think of dozens of scrapes they can get themselves into -- and then another pickle -- and then another one -- If you tag along behind your characters like this, your story unspools and unspools and goes on and on and on until readers give up in despair of the story ever getting anywhere. Of it ever having any point.

My advice would be: Start with the story you want to tell, and then build the characters who will best allow you to tell that story. What age do they need to be? What personality works best for the tale you have to tell?
         The story must always seem as if it’s being pushed along by the characters. Never have something happen, or turn up, just because it solves a problem for a character. Their struggle to solve the very hard problems you invent for them is the story.
         But as the character pushes the plot, the plot should push back. If you want to write a well-shaped story that will seem to have a point, then your plot and characters go forward in lock-step. Your character is part of your plot, was invented as part of your plot, to help you to tell the story you want to tell.
         So, in my Sterkarm Handshake, I made the hero a 16th Century riever who's been trained
The Sterkarm Handshake
since childhood to ride, fight, steal and kill. I don't particuarly admire his attitudes but, in the story, he has to lead a riever band on raids, so I had to give him the ability to do that.
           It might have been 'quirky' to make him a scholarly type who hates violence and only wants to curl up with a good book -- but such a character would have been useless for telling the story I wanted to tell.
         The heroine is scholarly -- she's a historian so keen that she's agreed to travel into the past and endure all the discomfort of life in a reiver tower, to experience it for herself. She's from the 21st Century and a gentle, peace-loving soul who, as the hero remarks, 'thinks that it's possible to get by without anyone ever being hurt.' (He knows it's impossible.) She spends a lot of the book trying, without success, to prevent people getting hurt.
          But her character is as much dictated by the plot as the hero's. I needed a 21st-Century character who could explain the 16th Century to my readers, and I needed to explain why she's 'living in the past.' I also needed a contrast to the reiver's harsh beliefs.
          I could have given her a leather breast-plate and thigh-boots and sent her out to fight battles at the hero's side, but that wouldn't have fitted the story I wanted to tell. (Although I might have sold more.)

But when you’ve decided what characters your story needs, work on making them as real as you can.

One final thing— your ending has to be worth the effort the reader has put into getting there.
          The writer William Goldberg said, “Endings are a bitch.” He meant, they’re the hardest part of any story, book or script to write. Too true. They have to be an ending you couldn’t completely see coming, and yet to be the perfectly right way to end. And they have to be ‘big enough.’ Not big in the sense of loud explosions or the stage being knee-deep in bodies, but emotionally big enough.

A story that tails off into some timid little predictable ending is going to disappoint your reader.

But it’s should be said that it's hard, really hard, to write an ending like that. There are a great many good books that have slightly disappointing endings. So don’t be too angry with yourself if you can’t come up with the perfect ending. Endings really are bitches.


 All this is why I can't give you a set of instructions on how to write your story. The choices depend too much on your style as a writer, and what kind of story you're writing in this instance. Whatever your plans for it, you have a lot of difficult, thoughtful choices to make.
Writing fiction well is a craft and an art. It never gets easier because as you master one part of it, you become aware of several other skills you need to learn or improve. I wish you luck and courage.
Susan Price.

And now over to you, you Authors Electric. What advice would you give 'J'? Do you agree with me or emphatically disagree?
Answers below, please.