Book Club Characters

By Foday Mannah

In my early days as a teacher, we ran a book group for senior pupils. We decided to choose novels that were quite diverse and examined various aspects of life and the world we lived in. We met fortnightly to have loose discussions on aspects of plot, setting, historical context etc. However, it soon became clear that characterisation was the aspect that drove most of our discussions, whilst obviously not being mutually exclusive from the other components of the texts.

One of our decisions was to have a Scottish novel on our list; we therefore chose Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar. Warner’s lucid and riveting presentation of his eponymous character  grabbed the imaginations of us all from the get go especially as her actions were warped and highly unconventional – upon realising that her boyfriend has committed suicide leaving behind the manuscript for a novel that is to be published posthumously, Morvern simply disposes of the body in a macabre manner before affixing her name to the manuscript, thereby claiming the novel as her own. In essence therefore, characterisation drives plot as our young readers were justifiably appalled at Morvern’s actions whilst also being fascinated at how the rest of her life unfolds.

Another of the books we studied was Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart which examines the advent of colonialism and the catastrophic effect it has on Igbo society in Nigeria. The protagonist is Okonkwo, whose personal tragedy aptly mirrors the disintegration of his society. Again, Achebe’s etching of Okonkwo is mesmerising – the man who achieved personal success through sheer determination and hard work, whilst also being consumed by a crippling insecurity that sees him bearing a hand in the harrowing murder of Ikemefuna, the young boy from another village who lived in his household.

And then we also read Atonement by Ian McEwan with Briony Tallis the character who was extensively analysed in our discussions; she received little sympathy from our young group several of whom dismissed her as a devious brat whose actions ruined lives.

In high school and indeed university one of the key components of studying literature often involved analysing characters. A university lecturer from back in the day often spoke about “the growth and development of characters.” Fundamentally, characters change and evolve over the duration of the text and are often presented as being complex and multi-faceted. One of the first assignments we did for said lecturer involved comparing the protagonists from the novels Jane Eyre and Tess of the d’Ubervilles. Both Jane and Tess made for engrossing analysis and one observation was that both characters literally travel through different locations as they “grow and develop.” Indeed even Briony Tallis  the “precocious brat” from our book group discussions evolves into somebody much more mature and repentant.

My colleague Lu Anne Stewart threw brilliant insight on how characters are developed in television programmes thereby engaging audiences whilst providing thrill and drama. My mind immediately went to Walter White from the critically acclaimed Breaking Bad as a perfect example of the riveting transformation of a character across seasons. Another recent favourite with the pupils is Stranger Things which again represents a masterclass in the establishment and development of characters whose lives and circumstances are complex.

I have spoken in the past of plucking memorable individuals from my past as inspiration for characters in fiction. Good and well-etched characters stay with you not exclusively for the things they do but more so for their emotional resonance whilst engaging with the environment they find themselves in. In essence, they could simply tie their shoe laces rather than leap out of a helicopter whilst still remaining memorable and relevant.

And so I continue to stockpile characters from my past: Zagallo, the rogue soldier who parked twelve vehicles he had looted from hapless civilians outside his house during our country’s civil war; Pa Lamina, the landlord who would evict tenants from his properties for not greeting his many wives in the mornings; Bernard, a classmate who memorised every page of every literature text we studied in boarding school to the extent that he was paraded around all the dormitories to narrate excerpts from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar!

Thanks for reading and have a nice day. 😊

 

 

 

 

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Bringing Characters to Life

By Lu Anne Stewart

Thanks to the magic of Netflix, I’ve been watching a number of Turkish television dramas (with English subtitles) over the past year. (Little-known trivia fact: Turkey is now the second largest exporter of TV series around the world.)   These programs run the gamut from romantic comedies and multi-generational family sagas to crime stories and historical tales from Turkey’s Ottoman Empire era.

In addition to first-rate writing, acting and production, these shows have hooked me because of their incredible skill in developing characters. As a writer, it has been fascinating to see how they use plot twists, backstory and other techniques to make me care deeply about the fate of these characters. Each time my emotions take a roller coaster ride because of a character’s ups and downs, I learn something about how to bring fictional characters to life.

In a show I’m watching now, called “What Happens to My Family,” a widowed father lives in the family’s run-down homestead in Istanbul with his three grown children, each of whom has not yet been able to successfully leave the nest.  In the early episodes, the character traits of each of the children are lightly sketched in.  The daughter is a cold, self-centered and highly ambitious business woman. The oldest son is completing his training as a doctor and, seeing a wealthy future just ahead, looks down on his family’s humble circumstances. The youngest son still acts like a wayward teenager: he has trouble getting out of bed in the morning, can’t keep a job, and makes dumb mistakes that often land him in jail.

While those traits give us a quick fix on each character, the scriptwriters add layer upon layer of nuances as each episode unfolds.  Gradually, over time, we learn key details that increase our understanding of why each of the siblings acts the way they do. The daughter was devastated a decade earlier when her fiancé went off to study in France and promptly forgot her, falling in love with a French girl. The elder son, it turns out, is so driven to become a wealthy doctor and so hateful to his family because his first love broke off their relationship, saying he was “too poor.” And we learn that the youngest son lost his way after being unjustly expelled from school for a year, a setback from which he never fully recovered.

Each of these revelations made me sympathize with these characters and even overlook some of their worst traits. As a viewer, it was so much more satisfying and emotionally engaging to learn this backstory well into the midst of the series rather than having these details provided in a neatly wrapped package right at the beginning. It is more akin to the way we learn about people in real life; as we get closer and hear more about their past and their challenges, we become more understanding, and even fond of, their quirks.

I hope to use these insights in developing characters in the new novel I’m just beginning to shape now. We know it’s important to start the novel planning process with a well-developed profile of each major character, with everything from eye color to favorite foods and odd habits. But thanks to Turkish TV, I now have a heightened appreciation for the power of withholding some details for a key moment, allowing the reader to make a discovery that deepens their emotional connection to the character on the page.

In the coming weeks on Author Lab, our writers will be delving into the subject of character development. Watch this space for more, and please share your comments on what brings a fictional character alive for you.

Cover reveal for The Land Girl

I’m very happy to share the lovely cover of the Land Girl. This will be my second novel with HQ Digital, and it focuses on the dramatic changes the first world war brought to women’s lives. Here is the blurb…

War changes everything…

Emily has always lived a life of privilege. That is until the drums of World War One came beating. Her family may be dramatically affected but it also offers her the freedom that she craves. Away from the tight control of her mother she grabs every opportunity that the war is giving to women like her, including love.

Working as a land girl Emily finds a new lease of life but when the war is over, and life returns to normal, she has to learn what to give up and what she must fight for.

Will life ever be the same again?

The ebook is available from the 8th July, and the paperback through Amazon on 8th September 2018.

And here it is…

 

In the Company of Friends

By Janet Moore

The esteemed sportswriter Red Smith once said that, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not far off the mark.

What stirs our imagination is as individual as we are. It can be, as in the case of Proust, “remembrances of things past.” For others, it might be an event, a person (family members are always fair game), an aroma, an observation, or a random encounter with a stranger. From there, we dive deep inside ourselves to find what we need to push a story forward.

Every now and then, however, we all need something more to spark our imagination. I learned this valuable lesson during a short story class at Wildacres Writing Workshop (http://www.wildacreswriters.com/) several years ago. Turn to old friends the teacher advised. By that he meant learn from the writers you like and use them to ignite your own writing. It is easy enough to do. Go to a favorite short story or novel. Find a paragraph you like. Read it once, paying attention to the sentence structure, the words the author uses, the point of view; in short, all the elements that make this writing so appealing. Then use that structure to build your story.

In class we worked with the opening paragraph of a short story by Reynolds Price. I was doubtful. The great Reynolds Price and I had nothing in common, and yet it worked. The beginning I’d been struggling with came into sharper focus. It was literally like putting jumper cables on a dead battery. Within two paragraphs I was up and running and could wave good-bye to Reynolds Price.

I mention this example because as we labor away alone at our keyboards, crafting plot, creating characters, searching for just the right word, there are times when we need to be in the company of others, and I don’t mean characters in a book. This is where workshops come in.

I fall into the category of an emerging writer. My first short story will be published in the 2018 Fish Anthology later this year. And while I love working in my office, with only the cats to keep me company, it is the companionship of other writers that rejuvenates me. Such was the case in 2017 when I had the privilege of studying for a weekend with Jane Smiley at the Looking Glass Rock Writers Conference (http://library.transylvaniacounty.org/lgrwc/) at nearby Brevard College.

The prospect of having my work critiqued by a Pulitzer Prize winning author was frightening enough. Add to that the fact that she holds three degrees from the fabled and sometimes feared University of Iowa Writing Program where, legend has it, writers are reduced to tears during critiques, and I was terrified. But I persisted, and it was well worth the effort. As it turned out, Jane Smiley was another funny smart teacher with so much knowledge to impart that I could scarcely take notes fast enough.

I left that weekend with more questions than answers, and that was a good thing. What are you emphasizing in your work, she asked each of us. Is it plot, character, setting, theme? Analyze what you are doing in the first draft and ask yourself this. What is the pay-off for the reader? By the second draft, you need to know what form you are pursuing, she said. (To learn more about what she means by form, I recommend her 2005 work, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.”)

I don’t write novels. I’m a devotee of short stories. But Jane Smiley’s admonition has stayed with me —  write in such a way that readers happily engage in the “willing suspension of disbelief.” To do that requires imagination, and on occasion, the company of others.

 

Successful Writers Build a Relationship… With an Editor

By Alexa Padgett

(No, not that editor—your editor)

About ten years ago, I was on the phone with an editor for one of the Big Five publishers. We were discussing an author who’s gone on to have a fantastic indie career. The editor said, “You can’t give us any reason to say no.”

Those are words I live by today.

What did the editor mean? Well, I don’t know exactly. I can only share my experience and hope it aids you on your writing journey.

Sadly, in my time as an agent, I discovered what I consider an ugly truth of the traditional publishing world: Editors had become buying agents. I know, I know, their title states they will edit your novel, help build your career into the next Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, or J.K. Rowling.

Here’s the deal: I think editors want to do that. I really do. But, like most businesses hit hard by the digital landscape, editors no longer have the option of holding your hand through the first few books that lose the house money while you struggle to find THE BOOK.

Either a book sells or it doesn’t. As the author, you have thirty days to prove your marketing, public relations and writing prowess. Then…well, your book just kind of fades back into the ether.

You don’t want to fade. You want to take the book world by storm!

Which brings me to one of my most important tenets now that I write full-time: develop a strong relationship with your editor.

What editor?

The one you pay before you ever submit to an agent or a publishing house or upload to Amazon.

Pay for an editor myself, you ask.

Yes. For every book.

But it’s expensive!

Indeed. It can be. It can also be the difference between getting the traditional deal or not. It can be the difference between getting that agent you really want or not. It can be the difference between selling ten copies of your current indie release…or ten thousand.

Ask around—on Facebook author groups and in your local writing chapters. Find a good editor. Key word: Good. Not cheap. Not one that tells you what you want to hear. You want an editor that will red-ink the heck out of your manuscript. Because that editor cares about the story.

Build a rapport. Develop the relationship. Take the editor’s advice and ask questions. Listen with your own internal editor. Learn. Evolve. Become a better writer.

That, my friends, is how you go from a “no” to a “yes.”

Alexa Padgett is currently working with her team of kick-ass editors (yes, she has more than one!) on her upcoming supernatural mystery titled A Pilgrimage to Death.

Writing conferences summon the muse

By Amy Brown

Where we find inspiration as authors is the theme this month at The Author Lab. In the past six months I’ve found a huge source of inspiration in attending three writing conferences with a fourth coming up in Stockholm in April. There is strength in numbers, meeting other writers and getting the advice of agents, editors and other industry experts to get better at craft and to navigate the challenges of getting published.

These conferences are golden networking opportunities to find not only a community of writers who understand the same struggle, but also to find those valuable industry contacts. Each conference has not only provided me with essential information on publishing, both self-publishing and traditional but also insight into becoming a better writer. No matter how long you’ve been writing and working at your craft, there is more to be learned. I found myself at many sessions scribbling ideas in my notebook for the current manuscript I was working on. There is nothing like being surrounded by dozens, hundreds, even thousands of creative souls to get your own juices flowing. Here are some highlights of the conferences that have helped summon my muse:

SWF Ellie
Novelist Elinor Lipman is one of the main reasons I’m excited to attend the Stockholm Writers Festival next month.

 

October 2017: Through the annual Florida Writers Association conference in Orlando, FL, I’ve been able to form a community of writers where I live in Florida. This conference brings together published authors sharing craft tips, agents offering pitch opportunities and insights into the publishing world, and the camaraderie of a diverse community of writers. The FWA sponsors two annual competitions: a contest to write a 1,200-word themed piece for their annual collection (where my work has been published in the past two years) and the Royal Palm Literary Competition (where my unpublished middle grade novel won First Place in 2016). I’ve also served as judge for the RPLA. The organization’s motto is “writers helping writers” and I’ve enjoyed giving back for all I’ve received in recognition and publishing and pitch opportunities.

January 2018: The annual conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Regional chapter in Florida, /held in Miami in January was a smaller conference but attracted some top agents and editors (what New York agent isn’t enticed by the prospect of Miami in January?) I liked its small size for the opportunity to easily fall into conversation with other writers and I literally on the spot made an elevator pitch at an elevator, to an agent, when she asked what I was working on. “Send me the full manuscript,” she said, handing me her card. These are the kinds of magic moments that can happen at a conference. (I’d like to report she snapped me up as a client and the book has been sold, but alas, it’s not that fairytale ending). The inspiration came in the form of talks by brilliant children’s authors like Sara Pennypacker whose latest book Pax is a National Book Award Longlist recipient. She generously shared with us the “Top Ten Things I Learned From Being a Children’s Writer,” including “Creation is a river. We create the river; the river will take us and we will take others with us.”

March 2018: The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP),  is the biggest writer’s conference in North America. The 2018 event, attended by 7,000 people, was being held in nearby Tampa, FL so I grabbed the opportunity to find out what this event was all about. AWP is a huge convention with dozens of events led by prominent authors, editors and academics. There are panels, readings, workshops and networking opportunities.  It was amazing how accessible famous authors were and how generous they were with their time. Some authors sat on panels and would answer questions both during and after the event. Others writers could be approached after their readings and most were happy to chat as well as sign their books. Man Book Prize winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo, keynote speaker, George Saunders, deserves a special mention for his wonderful talk and for his kindness in making everyone feel welcome and included.

AWP is all about networking, so if a friend of a friend knows someone who knows an agent, AWP is a great place to be introduced. There are also many informal and accidental opportunities to speak with agents. This is the place to literally try your elevator pitch in the elevator or while waiting in line at the concession stand.

As for finding a publisher, editors from some of the big New York publishing houses were in attendance, but they almost never speak with a writer directly. However, many small independent publishers, generally all looking for adult fiction, had tables at the book fair and were quite open to queries and submissions. My writer friend walked away with a number of good names in her pocket to contact if that New York agent doesn’t call.

AWP is a whirlwind. There were approximately twenty different events scheduled at one hour and fifteen-minute intervals from nine in the morning until ten o’clock at night. Thousands of writers scrambled between the Tampa Convention Center and the Marriott Waterfront Hotel to find the rooms they wanted. If they weren’t fast enough, they’d find themselves sitting on the floor or standing at the back of popular panels and events. There wasn’t even a break for meals. There were so many choices that whatever you did, you missed two other things you wanted to attend. Writers with enough stamina went on to the evening reception where they enjoyed a live band and free wine or read at the late night open mic.

It’s definitely a way to get a writer’s adrenalin fired up! I packed a lunch and pushed myself all day and night to pack in as much as I could, even those evening readings. I popped into the dance party with the open bar one night. As thousands of MFA students let off steam dancing (and imbibing) wildly, I made mental notes of a party scene in a future novel and took myself to bed to dream up new stories.

April 2018: From April 13-15 I will be attending the more intimate kind of conference I like best, the Stockholm Writers Festival,  the Swedish capital’s first-ever writers’ conference in English. It was the brainchild of my friend Catherine Petterson, as she shares in this recent article, and the Stockholm Writers Group that I helped found many years ago. Realizing that there were many writers working in English in Sweden and Scandinavia, and elsewhere in Europe, Catherine thought the time was ripe to have a festival in Sweden, where there is a high degree of English fluency. Through persistence, luck and charm, Catherine and team have put together a fantastic three days of immersion in craft and opportunities to pitch to top agents, under the theme of “find your path to published.” I understand it’s not too late to book a ticket, although there are only a handful left. Haven’t you always wanted to visit Stockholm? And if that wasn’t enough allure, the keynote speaker is the exceptional New York Times acclaimed novelist Elinor Lipman. I’m looking forward to a stimulating few days in Stockholm next month.

 

 

 

 

 

Inspiration’s Long Fuse

By Lu Anne Stewart

These past few weeks, The Author Lab has been taking a look at the subject of inspiration: where do writers get their ideas?  As my colleagues Allie Burns and Foday Mannah have related in their posts, inspiration can happen gradually as we collect life experiences and quirky bits of knowledge that trigger the idea for a story or novel. I’d like to pick up on that thread and say that in my own experience, inspiration can have a very long fuse, burning quietly over decades until it bursts into a fully formed idea.

My inspiration for Digging, the novel I’ve just finished writing, traces back to the late 1970s when I began my career as a reporter for a small daily newspaper in New England.  It was an exhilarating job, covering everything from the daily police blotter to a toxic waste dump discovered on a rural pig farm. I worked with a team of tenacious young reporters, all of us committed to getting the facts right, uncovering wrongdoing and holding the powers-that-be accountable.

I hadn’t started writing fiction at that point, but I began thinking that a small-town newsroom would make a great setting for a novel someday. The trouble was, I couldn’t come up with a strong idea for what this novel would be about. What kind of story could my reporter-protagonist uncover that would keep a reader interested over 300-plus pages?

Over the next couple of decades I started to write some short stories and a first (still unpublished!) novel about a mother-daughter relationship. The idea of a journalism novel remained stubbornly embedded in some remote corner of my mind. Its overall theme and plot still eluded me, but the fuse continued to burn.

Finally, around the 2013-14 timeframe, a variety of trends and developments related to journalism began to coalesce in my mind.  Polls showed the news media sinking to lower and lower levels of public esteem. Reporters and news outlets were derided by some as the “drive-by media.” The emergence of social media was taking its toll on “old-fashioned” print journalism, which experienced significant reporter layoffs and often, reduced resources for investigative reporting.

I found these trends disheartening. This was not the journalism I knew. I came of age at a time when journalists were heroes. The Pentagon Papers. Watergate. In my journalism training in college and throughout seven years as a working journalist, I never met a colleague who was biased or motivated by anything other than uncovering important facts that the public had a right to know.

And suddenly, there was my inspiration. My slow-burning novel would, at its core, be about idealism. It would be about the essence of journalism as a noble calling. About the importance of a free press in a democracy. And I would tell that story through the very narrow lens of one idealistic reporter in the late 1970s who sets out for a small town to begin her career as a newspaper reporter. She would discover a web of corruption in that town that tests her commitment to stay true to those high ideals.

Over the next three years spent writing this book, the news was a constant source of inspiration to keep me going. We witnessed the rise of Trump and relentless attacks on the freedom of the press. Solid, well-sourced reporting was routinely dismissed as “fake news.” The troubling notion emerged that there can be “alternative facts.”

Now, as I finish up some final edits and focus on getting this book out into the world, I hope it will give readers a glimpse into the inner motivations of a working journalist and, perhaps, if my wildest dreams come true, change some hearts and minds about the importance of a free press.