Friday, 29 August 2014

Drawing your characters effectively

With 11 novels now published, I've learned about character development the hard way, through more re-writes than I care to dwell on and lessons learned through teaching and forcing myself to follow the rules. These are a few of the things I've learned along the way, which might help you as you work out your characters. 

Do I need to know everything about a character?
Not always, not right at the start. Sometimes a character fleshes out as you write. They may surprise you as they take charge of the process and ‘write’ their story. The author may find themselves as wrong-footed as the reader when the character reveals a facet of their nature that is of their making and never part of the original plan. My character, Logan Du Rose began as a nice-looking teacher who stopped Hana making the mistake of falling for Gwynne Jeffs, the media studies teacher who was ready to offer her a steady, safe existence. He was always going to be the strong, silent type, but he revealed his history to me over the course of the first three novels. If I had kept him on the path that I had intended, the series wouldn’t have had half the flair that it does. Logan Du Rose has become the draw card. What woman wouldn’t want to throw herself at him, dark brooding Mafia boss turned English teacher, father and doting husband? It is a good idea to keep notes as you go though, because as the character develops, an astute reader will pick up when you make an error, be it a name, a place or a plot trigger. Let your characters frame their own story but keep a very tight hold on the details!

The pros and cons of planning.
Plans should be loose and flexible enough to drop if the need arises. I heard someone say a wise thing recently and I can’t remember where it came from, but it was along the lines of ‘if your story is going wrong in the middle, it’s because it already went wrong at the start.’ Plans shouldn’t be so rigid as to force characters and plot down a set track, when it isn’t working. But a decent outline can prevent needless waffle and threads that seem to go nowhere because the writer forgot about them. A series can be different though. Any one of those loose threads can be picked up in subsequent storylines and will work because the groundwork was already laid. The reader picked up a hint, which was there one minute and gone the next but in three books time they will smile smugly and think, ‘I knew that was coming.’ So beware, series and stand alone novels can proceed very differently.

Buy in.
If your main character has nothing going for them, the reader is going to dump the book before the plot has a chance to move forward. I read something recently where the main character was absolutely odious. I just couldn’t get on with them. It could be argued that the book was wrong for me and maybe it was. But how come I can avidly read a Jack Reacher novel from cover to cover, despite being a delicate woman in my mid-forties who knows nothing about guns, army life, strategically hitting people or how to hide a dead body? It’s because I like Jack Reacher. He grabs my interest and keeps it. I don’t need to know any of that stuff because he does. I’ve bought into the character that Childs has created and am willing to follow him wherever he goes. Buy in is not a guarantee just because you’ve created someone and like them yourself. I’ve created characters that I absolutely adore and respect and others that I just want to slap. I love Hana Du Rose but if I spend too long in Hana-world, I start to lose my grip on reality. She overthinks and second-guesses everything. Her conscience is much bigger than mine and thinking like her can wear me out. Ultimately she’s gorgeous and readers tell me that they love her and that’s great because they don’t have to live with her in their head. I do.

My father says that I have a ‘butterfly mind’ which sounds rather nice until you realise that he’s saying I flit around from subject to subject and he can’t follow me. He also accused me regularly as a child of having ‘verbal diarrhoea’ but that’s another matter. When you’re asking the reader to trust you with their time, their money and their emotions, you can’t afford to be reckless with that trust. There are some authors that I have the greatest respect for, who research to the nth degree before embarking on a project. It has to be right. Demelza Carlton writes her mermaid series, Ocean’s Gift and dives and photographs and travels and researches. Dick Francis was also one of those authors. After years of being a successful jockey, he wrote the most gripping mystery novels, often set in and around racing stables. But he also wrote about male characters who had other specialities. In one of his novels, his lead character is a painter. I’m a painter and I read his novel without flinching once. I check my medical facts with medical people, my technical facts with technical people and so on. My son is ex-army and helps me with fight scenes, a doctor advises me on Logan Du Rose’s haemophilia and in Blaming the Child when Calli runs away and hides in the bush for a week...yes I camped in the bush. I hated every damn second of it, which I’m told comes across loud and clear in the novel! I’m an archivist by trade. Nothing makes me madder than a novel in which someone discovers some artifact that is hundreds of years old and stuffs it into a cardboard tube for safe keeping. I know that when they get to the other end and pull it back out, it will disintegrate into dust. I spend my life guarding elderly photographs and documents and see right through a plot line like that. Keep it real!

Find your perfect reader and write for them.
Canadian author, Amber Dalcourt taught me this. She had me profile the reader who The Hana Du Rose Mysteries were written for. I thought it would be impossible but once I got going, it was surprisingly easy. She is female, has children and reads in snatches whilst waiting in the car or riding the bus. She is looking for an escape and madly in love with Logan, whilst at the same time relates powerfully to Hana. She feels that she is Hana sometimes, prone to bouts of depression, always putting herself last and yet has a spark of some hidden passion that will rise out of her when her loved ones are threatened. She laughs at the daft moments that Hana finds herself in because she’s been in them too and when Hana is sad, so is she. Find your perfect reader and write for your audience of one. Know how they think, what they like, what makes them angry or upset and push their buttons.

Enjoy your characters.
If you hate them, then how do you expect a reader to greet them. If they are meant to be universally loathed then that’s fine, but throw the odd twist in just to keep us on our toes. As a reader, I love to be thrown a curve ball sometimes. Soap operas thrive on such character twists. We’ve all seen them arrive on the street, that family. We hate them right from the first moment we clap eyes on them, but that’s the skill of the writers - we’re meant to! After a while, they grow on us. We find that they’re not so bad and as we share in their storylines and become involved in their lives, we discover that they have hidden talents. They can invoke compassion, humour or irritation. As a writer, we are the puppet masters who direct the moment of our creations - and the gaze of our audience. Direct like a Director. If you love your characters, make your readers love them too. Show their inner workings and take time giving the reader a chance to see what makes them tick. If you hate them, then make us hate them too. But don’t be fooled by your own creation. I’ve had many a conversation with an author about their lead character and discovered that often the ones I’ve hated most, I was actually supposed to like. It’s a missed opportunity. Look from the outside periodically and check that what you’re projecting is actually what the reader is seeing. And above all, enjoy yourself and it will come through your characters.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Walking on broken glass - depression

Depression is an interesting phenomenon, but obviously not if you’re a sufferer. I journeyed through some terribly painful times from my teens until my late thirties, not knowing how to explain what was wrong and so unable to get solutions. I had a lovely husband, four bouncing children, a nice home, access to transport and good friends. On the face of it, there was no reason for me to walk around underneath this black cloud of misery. I managed to hide it fairly well, especially at work, but I must have been a nightmare to live with. I could be feeling perfectly fine one minute and then it was as though a cloud would descend upon my head and fog up my brain. I would have no control over it and no way of making it leave.

I look back and I feel very sad about the days I wasted trying to work through its mysterious mists. I would actively avoid people out of necessity because they might say, ‘What’s the matter?’ I needed to dodge those kinds of questions because I would have to admit that I didn’t know. They might see me as a whinger. I just remember that the cloud would appear and I would be powerless to resist it. Nothing seemed to work.

I haven’t suffered from a serious bout of depression for over a decade and the good news is: we don’t have to put up with it. We can be in control of it and not it in control of us.

1.  I enrolled on a counselling course.

I was 35, struggling and had this stupid idea that I would be able to help other people. I studied for two years extramurally and yet never practiced. Why? Because I spent two years sorting myself out. It gave me tools and strategies for coping with life and somewhere in the midst of turning out all my personal dirty stuff, I found the key to my own soul.

Now you might not be able to fit in a counselling course in your evenings and it was really hard. But there are enough self-help books out there to get you started. Try personal recommendations though and read reviews carefully. Not everything takes you down a good path and shouting positive endorsements to yourself in the supermarket is going to get you locked up!

You can look at this picture of my daughter riding.
Ain't nobody seeing me run!

 2.  I started running.

I was overweight and didn’t feel good about myself. It was hard at first and I went off at 6am in an icy English morning in the pitch dark because it wasn’t pretty and I didn’t want my neighbours to see me lumping down the street. I lost three stone in weight and still run ten years later; 5kms most weekday mornings unless there’s a very good excuse why not. I didn’t know it at the time but running releases happy endorphins. It’s not that the cloud can’t stick to me because I’m so fast - although that could be a possibility - it’s because I have time to be by myself and process the things in my own head. By the time I run back onto our property, I have solutions for problems and have discarded other trivia, without letting it settle on me and begin drowning who I am.

Now I don’t care what you look like or what body parts you have missing, there is no excuse for not exercising. Invest in your body and it will invest in you. All I needed was a pair of second-hand trainers and a bit of pavement. And don’t make excuses about the kids because I was the maniac running in the rain with a pram and three children under 7 all on wobbling bicycles! It’s also the reason I get up every weekday at 5am - to fit in my run above all other activities. You can walk, cycle or lift tins of baked beans in your chair to strengthen your arms. Everyone can do something.

I write my novels in the office we've made.

 3.  I started writing.

There’s nothing more cathartic that putting your own words and frustrations into the mouth of someone else. It’s amazing. I’m sure that there are lots of technical psychological terms for it - it’s probably a massive dose of transference or something, but either way it works for me. My character, Hana Du Rose suffers from bouts of depression to the point where anything extra becomes a drama. Her way of dealing with it is to run away from circumstance, her husband, the problem, anything to dull the pain for a few hours. Nothing works long term for her though. The irony is that she was my long term fix, pouring out my depressive moments into her and leaving them there.

Not everyone can write, paint, draw or vent themselves in a creative activity. But we all have something that floats our boat. Dig the garden, plant veggies, take up pottery, wood-turning. When your garden looks nice, go dig a neighbour's at the weekend to give them a hand. It's about investment - in you. When you find your gift, you will find yourself.

I paint furniture, much to my husband's
horror. I make sure he's out first.

 4. You won’t like this one.

I meet regularly with a group of Christian ladies and once, someone told how they were hanging out the washing and felt this cloud descend over her head, so heavy that it made her shoulders droop. I sat up in my seat and listened avidly because it had a ring of familiarity to it. What did she do, this woman who always had the most beatific smile?

She said, “No! I am a child of Jesus. Get off me!”

I looked around the room and nobody was laughing and she seemed deadly serious. This thing was spiritual? Why had no-one told me that?

The next time it came for me, I was wandering round town like Billy No-Mates, wanting human contact but not knowing what to do with it when I got it. I seem to remember that my hands were full of carrier bags of crap that I had bought to avoid the oncoming pain as it hovered over my head. I couldn’t remember the lovely lady’s whole sentence, but I did remember the ‘Jesus’ bit. The sentiment was the same and that cloud skudded away like a gale force wind was after it. To the non-believers I am aware that I will sound like a lunatic. That’s ok. I’m not depressed so the results speak for themselves and I will do it again and again, everytime it comes. It does come for me and I have my own words for it now. But one will suffice - Jesus. You don’t have to shout - he’s not deaf - and he’s never not come to my aid, not in over ten years. He doesn't want that miserable hairdo on my head any more than I do.

If you suffer from depression, I hope that at least one of these fixes works for you. 

Life is a journey and some of us walk it on broken glass.

People re-post kind words and posters on all forms of social media professing support and understanding for depression sufferers. But when you’ve got your game face on and are just about to descend into the Pit of Despair, they aren’t always there are they? Why would they be? We’re ugly and unpleasant to be around.
I painted this house for The Du Rose Prophecy.
Hana and Logan end up living in the old
school house.

Take control. You can do it. It’s about keeping busy. Time to process is good but time to ponder, mull and complicate things is bad.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Giving Criticism a Bed for the Night

When I first started publishing, it was a bit like standing naked in the fruit section of the supermarket and listening to shoppers talking about your wobbly bits and the stretch marks on your butt. I dreaded hearing, “Well, that’s a bit crap,” coming out of anyone’s mouth and I steeled myself for it. I only wanted to hear the nice stuff.

My first novel, About Hana, was written out of loneliness, desperation and a desire to create a character who was further on in her journey than I and had survived. Hana was my imaginary older self, my successful alter ego who had been where I was and come through. The novel was mystery fiction, but Hana was real and I had fully bought into her.

To criticise Hana, was to criticise me personally and I was never going to react well.

I remember likening it to giving birth to a child who in your eyes is faultless. 30 hours of labour following hot on the heels of 9 months of difficulty in everyway possible and then, ‘Voila’ there is the sleeping product. In walks a total stranger and declares in a loud voice for everyone to hear,
“That is one ugly baby!”

It’s been a fair while since those early, sensitive days. They aren’t my babies and I am not their mother. They are my creation and I will stand by them and own them, but I won’t sob and cry when somebody else doesn’t find them to their taste. I’ve got through the 3-star agony and have yet to face the inevitable 1-star, but it will come. I’ve grown up and it’s a good feeling. I am no longer re-enacting an embarrassing episode of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes,’ prancing down the street naked with my novel in my hand thinking that it’s wonderful, but afraid that actually, it isn’t.

We do have to listen to criticism. Filter it, chop out the ‘I hate this book or that cover’ and find a reason, if there is one. If there isn’t, biff it as we say in New Zealand. File it in the bin drawer and don’t look back. But if someone has given you a clue about an element of your writing that doesn’t work for them, take it and shine a light on your work. I learnt that from watching other authors on the Book Review Depot doing exactly that - taking their precious work down to re-edit or to dress it properly.

I look at my early cover and feel embarrassed now. It was a posed photo of my daughter in our paddock. She didn’t want to be there and certainly didn’t want her face splashed all over Amazon. Just before I pressed the button on the camera, she said,
“Why me? Why not one of my sisters?”
I replied,
“Shut up and smile, you’re my only redhead!”

My husband helped to put the resulting photo into something relatively decent on Publisher and up it went. I’m amazed it sold. But it did. The cover of The New Du Rose Matriarch was her again, standing in our flooded paddock holding a furry toy wrapped in a blanket and she had to hold it like a baby. She decided after that, that it was tantamount to child abuse and wouldn’t do anymore. I don’t blame her. It was pretty naff. Someone on a forum told me that my covers were crap and I was horrified. They were the best I could do!

Yeah, but they were still crap. One of them was so bad that I don’t even want to think about it a few years on. I’ve even deleted it off my hard drive and probably should hunt down anymore errant copies of it in the ether. Perhaps I should get Amazon to send out an email and have an amnesty on them.

I knew it though, deep down. That’s probably part of my sensitivity about it all. The perfectionist in me knew that it wasn’t quite all there and I just didn’t want to hear anyone else say it. I was deluding myself, but not happily.

It’s like anything else. We have to cut through the rubbish in our own heads and listen to the really constructive things that other people might have to say. Discard what amounts to little more than ranting and embrace the rest with both hands. Someone pointed out an adverb problem, not massive, but enough to be jarring. So I fixed it. The covers needed work so I got help, took suggestions and stopped trying to make the proverbial silk purse out of a sow’s ear. I bought stock photos, learned PhotoShop and always take a second, third, fourth and fifth opinion. One day, I will afford to pay someone to do all of it.

Everything in the world of publishing can range from cheap and cheerful to gut-wrenchingly expensive and you get what you pay for. But the one thing that is absolutely free in this ruthless and confusing world is constructive criticism from decent people who know that you can do better - and want to see you do it.

The best thing I’ve learned is that I need to listen. Not to every pet peeve or grumble, but to stuff that can help me. I need to keep the integrity of my work and not change the essence of it, but I can tidy it up and give it a decent launch pad from which to fly.

I can trade favours with other authors who are particularly skilled in one or more areas. And I can take heart instead of pain from reviews in which someone has tried to communicate my failings in coherent English and constructive suggestion.

In short, I have had a change of heart. And guess what?

It’s made me a better writer.

Oh, and don’t go peeping at my books because I haven’t finished changing all the covers yet!

Monday, 4 August 2014

It Ain't Rocket Science!

I read a blog this morning about the benefit of tags and it offered some useful tips and hashtag suggestions. 

"Oh yeah," I thought to myself, "that's a bit like that one I read last week. That had some good ones in too - now what the heck were they?"

Now ain't that the problem?

I read heaps of stuff online and off it. If someone says, "I found this helpful..." then I'm there like a bee round a donut, desperate to learn anything that will get me ahead of the game. I mean, obviously it's not always like that, sometimes I have to go to work, do other stuff like maybe sleep.

In my other life, I write everything down. At work, I have a diary and literally everything goes into it, appointments, jobs in hand, notes to self. Basically, anything that I'm likely to forget. I could do it on my computer, but we aren’t flash enough to have hand-held devices and I can’t see my boss being amused when I wheel in my base unit on a trolley, dragging my monitor under my arm and asking where the power socket is. Nobody likes that person. I do just fine with a diary/notebook.

So why, in my author life do I think that I’m going to mentally absorb 400 different hashtags, which categories I put whichever novel into and web addresses that could be hazardous to forget?

I did have a sheet saved as a Word document on my laptop. I thought I was clever putting all my different passwords to Facebook and Goodreads and Amazon and lots more. My ever patient technical specialist raised his eyebrows and suggested that perhaps I passworded it, seeing as everything to do with the laptop was being stored in a file on the laptop. He's clever like that. Now, I'm blowed if I can remember the damn password that I used to protect my passwords. Not funny.

Anyhow, in a light bulb moment this morning, I did it.

I solved my problem.

I got myself a bloomin' notebook for all that stuff about hashtags and categories and things like that. I might not be able to remember a password but in 45 years of life, I have never lost a single notebook!

So much as it might sound like traversing the great ether back to the Dark Ages of Ye Olde Worlde, I'm happy. I've already filled 3 pages with great hashtags that I’m going to use on my posts and lists of the categories that my novels are already in. That way, when someone says to me, "Have you tried putting your book in this category?" I don't have to scratch my head and go to and scroll down to the bottom to see where they're ranking, just because I don't want to go through the hassle of logging onto KDP and getting distracted and fiddling with something else, like a blurb or a cover.

So there you go.


It ain’t rocket science but then I, somewhat disappointingly am not Wonder Woman either.

Carry a notebook. Lose the frown.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Edible Spam

When I was growing up in 1980’s England (yes, I’m showing my age now) Spam was a kind of compressed ham that came out of a tin. It was incredibly cheap and a British staple in our diets. Other kids loved it, my sister included but I didn't. You knew your mum was struggling that week when you peeled open your sandwiches at school and it smiled up at you, complete with jellified goop poorly disguised by a slice or two of cucumber.  My heart sank and it was the one week I didn’t eat my lunch at morning tea.

Just to get this straight, I had
friends who loved this stuff
and still do. 

Internet spam has the same effect on me. I post on social media sites, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and am a member of online writing and reviewing forums. There is very little more sick-making than the BUY MY BOOK brigade and in the same way that I slapped the bread down over the sandwich so that I couldn’t see it, I exercise my right to press the ‘Delete’ button. I just don’t read them.

Now I’ve had discussions with several authors and sales people, who truly believe that it works and that their sales are generated through the 


posts and good on them. If it’s working for you, go for it. But you won’t have quality relationships with readers or other authors and will remain little more than a decorative, automated billboard for your product.

Where I was raised in Lincoln, England we had a street market every Saturday. Mum would go down for her fruit and veg because it was cheaper there and it had a good atmosphere. Traders wearing fingerless gloves against the cold would bag up their produce and stow the hard-earned cash in pouches around their waist. The area was a hustle and bustle of noise and chatter and over the top of that would come the sound of shouting.

“Get your lovely fruit and veg here. Carrots a pound for a pound!”

Now that was disconcerting if you happened to be standing right next to them when they yelled it. I am hugely noise intolerant as my four quiet, non-shouty adult children can vouch for. Shouting gets you nowhere with me and the minute the volume goes up, I will either be nowhere to be seen or reacting completely out of character. We did calm talking in our family and if they raised the volume and the stakes, what they got was not worth the effort. I used to think I was weird. I am, but I have encountered many other weirdos like me in my 45 years on earth.

In the markets, it was bearable. Mum did the trading and I carried the bags laden with the week’s supplies. It was outside, it was loud but my mother used the voices as a beacon to lead her to the stalls she wanted.

When authors screech ***BUY MY BOOK*** online, they are competing in a vast and cacophonous marketplace .

But they are yelling into my face, out of my laptop and in the peace and quiet of my home

I hate it.

I hate it like the telephone sales people that ring up to sell you a vacuum cleaner just as you’re dishing tea up for children who are gnawing on the table edge.

I hate it like the people in malls, who approach you with outstretched arms, wanting to slap some innocuous cream onto your face without permission in the hope that you’ll buy their vastly overpriced product so that you can finish the rest of your face.

And I hate it like the salesmen who lie about their wonderful electrical product to my face, when they actually don’t know what they’re talking about and it doesn’t do what they say.

I got chatting to an author on Twitter once. He asked me what he had to do to get me to buy his book. He seemed successful, spouting figures and stats like a pro and I was just starting out. I bought his book for 99c and told him in a private message. I never heard from him again. He didn’t want a friendship, he wanted the sale and review. It was very short-sighted of him because the book is sitting on my Kindle unread and he never got a review. I frequently consider deleting it even though I paid for it and would never review it even if I did read it.

What that tells me about myself is that I read the books by people I like. I make a purchase and pay money because the product is good and I like the look of it, but also because I like you, the author. 

So, author is important.

I’ve read all of Demelza Carlton’s books because they are quality products and I like her as a person. She has never yelled at me in capital letters and always responds to my fangirl gushing with good grace and appreciation.

I’ve read some awesome novels by authors who don’t shout at me, Terry Maggert, Tom Tinney, Jada Ryker and so many others. They tell me that their books are free or on a deal in a calm, informative way as part of a conversation in an ongoing relationship setting. 

All in lower case.

I don’t think I’m unusual anymore. I am beginning to think that I am more like the usual kind of reader, who wants to fangirl a bit, name drop a bit and read lots.

When I first started publishing and my book plummeted to the bottom of the 900,000 others on the Amazon database once my mum had bought it and a few loyal friends, I too was consumed with the same panic about marketing my work in order to get sales. It became all about the sales. I quickly worked out on Goodreads, Book Review Depot and other forums that nobody likes a spammer and I watched many authors come and go, shown the door after an automated ***BUY THIS*** appeared momentarily in my news feed. Many sites ban spam in a big way, preferring instead to have meaningful discussions about relevant issues without the popping up of book covers and capital letters on pre-set autobots. The other thing I’ve become more relaxed about is reviews. That doesn’t happen from shouting either, at least not effectively.

***REVIEWS NEEDED*** doesn’t work, not with me anyway. I have had some lovely messages in social media from people who will never review anything. That has to be ok. I know they enjoyed my work because they said so. The review is just where they tell everyone else. It’s great when they do but it’s not life threatening when they don’t. If something is around long enough, it will get reviews but it’s not the end of the world. It doesn’t have to happen in the first week or even year.

In short, if you want to garner a sale or a review from me, talk to me, don’t shout. And in the same way that I balked at the edible spam in my sandwich all those years ago, I will react in the same way today to the internet stuff. Only now I’m an adult and have the option of not starving to death.

     I will not eat it and I will not read it.

Just so you know, this blog was inspired by the 82 Spam posts on my Twitter feed when I woke up this morning. If that was you, you might find yourself