The author as editor

By Amy Brown

Until an author has the good fortune to land a publishing contract and an editor or, as many advise—the good sense to hire an editor—most of us need to become very good at being our own editors. I have worked as an editor as well as a writer of non-fiction (journalism and business writing) all of my career which has helped me look critically at my own work. Editing fiction, I’ve found, is a more nuanced process. Here is how my inner editor gets to work on strengthening my manuscript.

First drafts: Don’t write and edit at the same time. Write a chapter, then the next day go back and do a quick review of the most recent chapter. Make some general notes, not a line edit, i.e., it would be good to expand here and there. Reviewing the previous day’s work pulls you back into your story so it is easier to move forward.

Hone your opening: You’ve heard it before but the first two and last two chapters are the most important you will write—the first two especially. Get that hook in the first sentence. Revise and edit until you get it right. How do you know if beginning doesn’t work? A writing teacher once told me to have something happen immediately. Start the book 20 pages after you think it should start. It’s tempting to begin with a lot of exposition, “let me set the scene and present the character’s background.” This doesn’t work because life doesn’t work that way.

Ensure a character arc: Your readers need to attach to your characters: undeveloped or flat characters won’t do the trick. Even if the character is an anti-hero, there must be some characteristic that attracts a reader and makes them care enough to follow the journey. A character arc is equally important: ensure a midpoint in their development, an inciting incident, a conflict. Use this arc as an outline or diagnostic tool when you edit. The character must show some kind of growth or change by the end.

Staying in character: Avoid head hopping—that is, being inside more than one person’s head in one chapter (I am currently writing a YA novel with four main protagonists, often in the same scene—avoiding head hopping in such a structure is hard). But if you are inconsistent about this, you’ll confuse and potentially lose your reader.

 Dial up the dialogue: Getting dialogue to sound natural, authentic to each character and serve the purpose of moving your story forward is a challenge. Fake dialogue is a no-no. Read your dialogue out loud. Avoid having dialogue just to provide facts. Make it sound natural. I highly recommend eavesdropping. I do it to pick up the nuances of teen dialogue, even if it means eavesdroppingJ. Even tape it on your phone. Figure out the cadence your characters would have until it becomes natural to you. Keep dialogue tags simple, “he said”, or “she said.” Make sure the identity of the speaker is clear in every piece of dialogue.

Tracking tenses: Another possible quagmire. Choose the tense that comes naturally to your story and stick with it. If you change tenses, make sure you’ve corrected everything before you submit it anywhere. Writers often trial tenses before they find the one that best suits that piece of work. Write 500 words in one tense, then try it in another tense.


Around the world: In my current novel, three of my four main characters are from different European countries; a secondary character is from the Middle East. Writing characters from different cultures who have different languages or accents is a definite challenge and if it is not your own culture, do your research. When you first introduce a character, make sure that accent is evident, and then once in a while, introduce a phrase in dialogue so that reader is reminded of that accent again. If foreign words are used, one way to approach it is, “In French, she said to me…”

Sharpen language: Avoid modifiers like “very”  and eliminate groups of two or more adjectives. Avoid adverbs (which end in “ly” ). Use the active rather than passive tense, i.e., instead of “She commanded the attention of the room,” the better sentence is “I felt her presence before I saw her.”  Keep an eye out for awkward phrasing, ie., “She put the shoes on her feet,” as opposed to where? Use this “as opposed to…” phrase as a test to weed out unnecessary obvious things. Be careful using technology references; use generic terms when possible, i.e., cell phone, car, laptop or computer. Beware two words that mean the same thing: “She grinned happily.” Never use the ‘s’, i.e., “towards,” or “backwards.”

Other common errors: “Farther” is physical distance; “further” is a dimension of time. Affect vs. effect/Beside and besides/Lay or lie/Who and whom/There and Their. Learn how to use commas, ellipsis and an em dash properly. Consult the Chicago Manual of Style or your preferred grammar guide.

Make description count: Make sure you’re not accidentally writing a laundry list, i.e., “She walked into the classroom wearing a white T-shirt, blue jeans and red sneakers” doesn’t give the insight into the character or scene that this alternative would: “In her white T-shirt, blue jeans and red sneakers, she was the only student not wearing a uniform.” Don’t give a driver’s license type of description of your character. Your reader wants to see and inhabit a place. Describe it as you were walking into that situation. Explain without seeming to explain.

Weed out repetition: We all have favorite words or image. You can do a search and replace when you notice this, but some of this will go undetected as hard as we try. An editor can help with this.

Simplify, simplify, simplify: It is tempting, especially as new writers, to overwrite. Make sure you take time to streamline your work. For example, one does not “ascend a staircase,” and if your character decides to lie down, don’t have her “recline.”

A satisfying ending:  The end of story is as important as the beginning. You may have loved a movie right until the end, but if you hate the ending, it’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen. This doesn’t have to mean a formula of hero wins the day or the villain dies but some conflict has to be resolved and loose ends tied up. Make sure you have a resolution to the plot and the emotional arc of your main characters.

If there’s one editing rule of thumb that should guide you above all: don’t let your reader fall out of the dream of the story you’re creating. As you revise and revise again, look for moments where your own attention flags. Choose some valued beta readers to read the manuscript, to report back when they “fall out of the dream,” and ask them to be honest with you. Consider their feedback carefully; look for common themes and weigh it against your own gut feelings about what you need to do to make your fictional world soar.

Devote enough passion and dedication to your editing and you’ll reap the reward of satisfied readers—and just maybe that agent or publishing contract.











The Art of Ruthless Revision

By Lu Anne Stewart

I have a new-found appreciation for the importance of revision these days. I spent a good chunk of the first half of this year making edits large and small to my novel, Digging. What I found interesting about the revision process is that it requires us to think about the manuscript on many different levels, from the sublime to the ridiculous.  At the deepest, most challenging level, we’re asking ourselves big-picture questions like: Is my protagonist compelling enough? On the more mundane end of the spectrum, we’re catching typos and using the “Find” function to determine how many times we’ve overused our favorite words.

While going through this exercise, I searched around online for advice and insights from other authors on how they approached revision. Here are a few of the tidbits that I found most helpful:

“Skip the boring parts.” This quote from Elmore Leonard is deceptively brilliant. Of course, we’d all edit out the boring parts if we knew they were boring, right? For me, following this advice meant listening carefully to the input of my readers about the manuscript. If someone says that the story really picks up steam in Chapter 2, that may be a kind way of saying that Chapter 1 had too much backstory or was just plain dull.

Read like a reader. George Saunders explained in an interview that when revising, he tries to put himself into the shoes of a first-time reader. “That is,” he says, “I try not to bring too many ideas about what the story is doing, etc, etc. Just SEE what it’s doing. In other words, read along with a red pen, reacting in real-time as I go along, deleting, adding, etc. When the energy drops, then I know that’s where I have to really start digging in.”

Other authors offered similar strategies. Some say to throw the manuscript in a drawer for a week or longer and then read it with fresh eyes. One suggested critiquing it like the harshest reviewer in a workshop. For me, it helped to read as though I were an extremely busy literary agent just looking for a reason to pass on this manuscript. What weaknesses would she find? Where might she roll her eyes? Or worse, yawn?

Cut, condense, repeat. In his wise book On Writing, Stephen King emphasizes the importance of plain old cutting. Chop out everything unnecessary. He recalls a comment he received from an editor that “changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.’ “

Loosen up. I’ll close with my very favorite bit of advice on the process of revision, which comes from a Joan Didion podcast you can find here. She explains that when she finishes work at the end of the day, she goes over the pages she’s done that day. “And I mark it up and leave it until the morning, and then I make the corrections in the morning, which gives me a way to start the day…I can have a drink at night. And the drink loosens me up enough to actually mark it up, you know. While you’ll just kind of be tense and not sure. Marking up something is just another way of saying editing it. Because you don’t edit very dramatically when you’re—you’re not very hard on yourself, you’re not very loose with yourself most of the day. Really, I have found the drink actually helps.”

Who am I to argue with Joan?  Fellow writers, what are your secrets to good revision? And readers, can you think of a book you stopped reading in midstream because you wished the writer had “skipped the boring parts?”


Character Influences – From James Hadley Chase to Khadi Easton-Street

By Foday Mannah

I attended an all-boys boarding high school in Sierra Leone where a popular pastime was reading novels that stereotypically were designed for boys; think Frederick Forsyth, Jack Higgins, and Robert Ludlum. For some reason though, the author most popular in our high school and indeed the sub-region was James Hadley Chase.

With the benefit of experience and hindsight, Chase’s novels have significant flaws whilst being rather predictable and stereotypically offensive: they all featured at least one beautiful woman who is deceptive and would no doubt sleep with the dominant male protagonist; there were often heists and other get-rich-quick schemes that fell flat; people of minority races are employed in menial jobs with their physicality outlined in pejorative details etc. Chase’s novels largely reflect the backward attitudes of his era, although I confess to still reading them today as I still find them fairly entertaining.

Once we hit university, one of our lecturers who taught us a course on the novel, was quick to point out that our high school favourites were not novels in the strict sense, glibly dismissing them as “crime and sex fiction.” In essence, they were flaky and undesirable creations that had no right to share the title of “novel” with the likes of works produced by the Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy, Chinua Achebe, John Steinbeck, Mongo Beti and James Baldwin, all of whom we studied on the afore-mentioned course. This opinion no doubt rankled slightly as we believed that our childhood favourites held merit. We for instance all agreed that we liked Chase because he “described people and places very well.”

In one of his novels, So What Happens To Me?the protagonist Jack Crane who narrates events in the first person, describes his initial meeting with a minor character, Wes Jackson:

Wes Jackson stood in the doorway of my cabin like an undersized King Kong. He was about 6ft 5ins, massively built and around thirty-two or thirty-three years of age. He had a turnip-shaped head that sat on his vast shoulders without suggesting he had any neck. His small nose, his small mouth and his small eyes struggled to survive in a sea of pink-white fat. His jet black hair was close-cropped. He wore heavy black shell glasses that slightly magnified his sea-green eyes. He was immaculately dressed in a blue blazer with some fancy badge on the pocket, white linen slacks and some club tie pinned to a white shirt with a large gold tie pin.

Chase’s lucid attention to detail is impressive whilst he also manages to convey the narrator’s disapproval of Wes Jackson with word choice that suggests ridicule. Indeed later in the novel, the relationship between the two unravels.

Chase also does something very well which is by no means original; the use of imagery to aid description. From the very early years we teach children about similes, metaphors and personifications and how they enhance description. In the example above, the metaphors which compare Wes Jackson to King Kong and his head to a turnip are effective in outlining his physicality whilst also being funny. As an aside, I also like Chase’s simple repetition of the word “small” to describe Jackson’s eyes, nose and mouth.

On the novel course I mentioned above, we studied Chinua Achebe’s ThingsFall Apart, the tragic story of Okonkwo who finds himself unable to cope with the advent of colonial rule in Nigeria. Achebe opens his seminal novel by establishing Okonkwo’s character in engrossing detail:

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen  he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat, the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten …

And later on the same opening page, Achebe focuses on Okonkwo’s physicality:

He was tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a very severe look. He breathed heavily, and it was said when he slept, his wives and children in their out-houses could hear he breathe. When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody…

Again note the effective use of imagery especially to describe Okonkwo’s gait. Furthermore, in a couple of paragraphs, Achebe manages to establish Okonkwo’s physical strength and power, a key thread of the novel which amongst other things examines the concept of true manhood.

An idea I find useful in creating characters is writing random paragraphs on people from real life, at times changing their names for obvious reasons. One thing that stuck with me whilst watching television a while back was hearing John Cleese talk about how he had got the inspiration for Basil Fawlty from a real life obnoxious hotel owner. Cleese then spoke about how they built the rest of the programme around the premise of this single character thereby creating an endearing classic of British television.

One of my random character paragraphs currently on ice focuses on a lady from my childhood named Khadi Easton-Street:

Eventually, the romantic carousel that was Tabara’s life came to a standstill, and one of his lady friends became a constant. Like Tabara’s sister, she was also named Khadi and to avoid confusion, everyone called her Khadi – Easton Street, a nod to her home address. Khadi – Easton Street was light-skinned with obedient hair that flowed down her back, in addition to being a disciple of high-heeled shoes. She was also the custodian of a couple of gold teeth which flashed when she smiled. Khadi -Easton Street added further lustre to Tabara’s visits, and it was agreed by all that she would make a most illustrious wife. It was rumoured that her father was a seaman who travelled to far away locations, lending her even more sophistication.

I realised that I went a bit overboard with the metaphors, hence one of the reasons why this is still in storage. I however realised that Khadi Easton-Street deserved her own story, something to work on in the future. I also realised that describing characters is largely instinctive and flows naturally whilst being influenced by several factors. In describing the character above, I had no fixed formula in my mind, but on the contrary just wrote her as I remembered her. Whilst realising that the description is by no means perfect, there are several aspects worth preserving which can be fine-tuned with editing.

Characters resonate and appeal due to a myriad of factors: background, physicality, circumstances, actions, conflicts etc. We have encountered these characters all our lives from bedtime stories to adult life. And all of them are memorable for specific reasons: from Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne, a highly-skilled secret assassin who suffers amnesia to Margaret Atwood’s Offred who endures a harrowing existence under an oppressive dystopian regime. And whether we encounter them in “true novels” or in “crime and sex fiction”, they all strike chords whilst remaining memorable and endearing.

How to create likeable characters

I recently heard Sarah Perry, author of the Essex Serpent, being told by a reader that they didn’t much like the novel’s protagonist, Cora. They went on to add that they certainly didn’t see why the other characters in the novel were so attracted to her. I held my breath. I was poised to hear how poor Perry would deal with such a comment, feeling the excruciation on her behalf as if a reader had just told me that they didn’t think much of my character. But Perry’s reply surprised me, ‘Well, you know,’ she said to the reader (in words to this effect), ‘Cora isn’t real, it’s all just a story I’ve made up, and Cora, like all characters, is just a plot device.’ I was holding my breath again, but for a different reason this time, exhilaration, my mind raced at what she’d just said. It was so refreshing and yet so at odds with how I feel about the imaginary person I carry about in my head and miss terribly when I’ve finished writing the story. The interviewer too sounded astounded, as if the author was pulling back the curtain Dorothy-style to reveal that characters aren’t magical beings at all.

As I let this idea settle I decided the truth lies somewhere in between, characters are indeed plot devices, but the characters we fall in love with appeal to our emotions as well as our heads. There is something about memorable characters that inspire us, they possess traits we admire, and make us wish that we were them. Strong characters are often game changers, but the question I grapple with is; do they actually have to be likeable? Some of the best characters, the ones that really stay with me, aren’t especially likeable but they are compelling. Take Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Ketteridge, and just about all of Lionel Shriver’s protagonists. These individuals are different, interesting and intriguing but I wouldn’t want to be them, or friends with them.

And what does likeable mean, anyway? I recently took The Land Girl on a blog tour and I was interested to see the reactions to Emily, my protagonist. Reader/reviewers really liked how she transformed significantly during the course of the novel, they liked that she stood up to authority, learnt from her mistakes and fought for what she believed in. Emily’s passionate too about the thing she cherishes the most, and this was also an admirable quality. These things combined seemed to be what made her likeable.   Whether or not she should be likeable, whether heroic would be a more appropriate word, and whether it’s a necessity of particular genres are all questions I continue to mull over. I often wonder if male characters are held up to the same scrutiny and expectation of being likeable. It isn’t the case in real life, and I suspect fiction reflects that exactly.

What Perry says is true, characters are constructs, but we also create a life that our reader inhabits. If we as writers breathe life into characters, let them make mistakes but ultimately become heroes of their own lives, then surely we create a being who is so much more than just likeable.



On Becoming a Trouble Maker

By Janet Moore

Creating compelling characters is a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. As the first draft takes shape, characters appear, some boldly, others more timidly, each with a distinct voice and perspective. It’s only in later drafts that the full picture becomes clear, complete with these new and interesting beings who invite readers to suspend belief and join them on their journeys. Homer knew this; so did Charles Dickens, Mary Shelley, Flannery O’Conner and Mark Twain. It is what made J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series so successful, and it’s why Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes are still perennial favorites. What all these authors have in common is the ability to create trouble and lots of it.

I was reminded of why we writers must create crises, detail disturbances and disrupt the status quo during a recent week-long workshop in the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains outside of Asheville, North Carolina. Our teacher was Marjorie Hudson, a generous instructor and gifted writer (Searching for Virginia Dare and Accidental Birds of the Carolinas). With each manuscript we critiqued, she showed us ways to intensify the plight our characters’ dilemmas, often through the Point-of-View narrator. When done well, readers turn the page, read the next chapter and ask, What’s next?”

To drive home this point, Marjorie had us examine excerpts from works by skilled storytellers, who early on had us asking that question. Take, for example, the opening sentences of Pam Durban’s short story “Rowing to Darien.”

March 1839, just after midnight on the Altamaha River. The air smells of silt and fish and wood smoke. The hoot of a horned own carries across the water, the creak of oarlocks and the splash of oars. The moon is up, one night past full; it throws a bright track on the water, and across the track Frances Butler rows a boat with a lantern set on the thwart. Out under the big moon that lights the whole sky, the lantern flame looks a fragment of the larger brightness. That’s how she thinks of it as she rows – a mission, not a flight – to dignify the journey and keep the fear at bay.

In these few sentences we already know that all is not well with Frances Butler. Durban has baited and set the hook, and with each successive sentence, she reels us in.

Creating trouble is not the exclusive purview of fiction writers, as Joy Castro so efficiently shows us in the opening sentence of her essay, “Grip.” Over the crib in the tiny apartment, there hung a bullet-holed paper target, the size and dark shape of a man, its heart zone and head zone, perforated where my aim had torn through:  thirty-six little rips, not strays, centered on spots that would make a man die. Packed into her opening are unsettling details – a baby’s crib, a target peppered with perfectly placed bullets. Our narrator is quite literally a “pistol packing mama.” Her words scream trouble, and we want to know more.

For those of us who aspire to publication someday, somewhere, anywhere, it is helpful to remember that evocative phrasing and rich dialogue are only made better when the fate of our characters is at considerable risk. Trouble builds character, in literature and in life. Michael Ondaatje knew that when he wrote The English Patient, recently named the Golden Man Book Prize winner in this the fiftieth year of the international prize.

Every major character in this memorable novel faces daunting dilemmas, some the result of war, others the result of love, rejection, fear, jealousy and anger. These men and women carry us beyond the Egyptian desert to war-torn Italy and eventually to tranquil Canada. But when it comes to Ondaatje’s characters and their stories, tranquility is in short supply. Their failings and victories reveal the best and worst of humanity, and it is in that poignant dichotomy that we fall in love with them over and over, again.

If, as Francine Prose recommends, we read like a writer, then our path to creating powerful characters is clear. Read the works of skilled writers whose work we admire and look for the trouble. It won’t take long to find.

Words. Words. Words.

by Alexa Padgett

Words. Words. Words.

 Hamlet informs another that’s what he’s reading. And we’re still reading them—those little or enormous or hard to pronounce words that help us shape our concepts and constructs of reality. Of personhood. Of self.

And that’s what I want to focus on today: words and how we use them unconsciously.

I heard an ad for next week’s Hidden Brain podcast that crystallized a thought I’d been trying to glean: when we give any word a gender, we change the words we use to describe said word. The example used in the advert was “bridge.” When a bridge is female in a language, then it is described as beautiful, elegant, etc., but if a bridge is masculine, we tend to describe it as strong, sturdy, etc.

 A side note: if you listen to the podcast, you might find I paraphrased the word-choice above. In my defense, I had a chatty seven-year-old in the car talking about Wonder Woman’s inability to fly while the ad was on. So…yeah, this is what my brain must plow through to have a thought.

What does it mean to be a man today? That’s the premise of the Death, Sex, and Money podcast titled Manhood, Now.

 Seems a relevant topic for us all in light of the Me, Too movement. That podcast—and the survey created in conjunction with 538 peaked my interest, which, in turn, lead me back to one of my favorite books of my youth, The Catcher in the Rye. Published in 1951, Holden Caulfield talks about masculinity and manhood thus:

“Every time you mention some guy that’s strictly a bastard— very mean, or very conceited and all— and when you mention it to the girl, she’ll tell you he has an inferiority complex. Maybe he has, but that still doesn’t keep him from being a bastard, in my opinion.”

 Succinct and still spot-on, in my opinion.

Now, to bring this back around to writing today…I write in a variety of genres. Urban fantasy, mystery, and romance are my main three. Each is its own type of story—its own fantasy I’m weaving for a specific reader. Those words, on paper, create something someone else can enjoy, get lost in, maybe learn a bit about themselves or their culture. So…I wondered what a modern writer had to say about men and masculinity—about the words that surround the idea of personhood? A lot apparently.

 A recent quote that stuck out as I listened to the Manhood, Now podcast is from John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down: “I is the hardest word to define.”

Then, now, always will “I” be challenging to define. Because I is me and I am not you. Stephen King wrote, “The mind can calculate, but the spirit yearns, and the heart knows what the heart knows.”

I think this is the crux of the matter. We assign gender and connotations to words based on previous generations’ culture. I’ve read my kids the Magnus Chase series by Rick Riordan, which has a gender fluid character, Alex Fierro. I like Alex, especially this exchange:

“So can I ask…?” I waved my hands vaguely. I didn’t have the words.

“How it does work?” She smirked. “As long as you don’t ask me to represent every gender-fluid person for you, okay? I’m not an ambassador. I’m not a teacher or a poster child. I’m just”—she mimicked my hand-waving—“me. Trying to be me as best I can.” 

Aren’t we all? As writers, as people. This world is confusing and often painful, maybe even profoundly depressing.

Here’s the conclusion I came to after dropping off the chatty seven-year-old at soccer camp (“Mom, how come girls don’t get the same recognition on the Olympics as boys? Is it because women look weaker?”): We are never free from previous generations use of words or from those generations’ strictures. We can spin 180 degrees, we can negate former ideals, but those histories, those years and decades and centuries of meaning assigned to words, assigned to gender, remain.

 But it’s what we, the storytellers, of today do with those words, with their past connotations and their potential futures, that matter—that have intrinsic and sometimes remarkable value.

Finding a character’s voice

When fictional characters jump off the page and seem to be sitting right beside you in conversation, you’re under the spell of a distinctive voice. It’s the magic that happens when a character’s voice lingers in your head long after you’ve put down the book.

Dialogue is an essential part of that voice. It conveys what a character is like; it can also embed conflict. A character speaking reveals a whole world of information: gender, race, nationality or other background information, socio-economic status, geographical location, humor, emotion, body language, beliefs, interests, passions, attitudes and that character’s own idiosyncratic way of speaking. There is a rhythm and cadence to language, a musicality, that can make your character sound like no one else.

Skilled writers create subtext in dialogue: that is, they show us what the character wants versus what the character says they want. The author is looking to craft (and the reader is turning the pages to discover this very thing) a moment of epiphany for that character: an internal realization that leads to an external resolution.

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates believes that good fiction is all about voice. He writes: “Pride and Prejudice, for me, is all about voice. I don’t find Mr. Darcy gripping at all, except when the Austen’s narrator is describing him. It is as though she is letting me on a secret. Ditto for Edith Wharton in The Age of Innocence. The voice belongs to society insider, one who believes in all of its trappings but also loves to gossip about its hypocrisies. It is as if the voice is saying to you—’If you don’t have anything good to say, come sit by me.’ Same with Moby Dick and the vagabond intellectual Ishmael. Same with The Great Gatsby and its everyman, Nick Carraway.

“In fiction, if you like the person telling you the story—which is to say the voice, not the author—you generally will let them tell you a story,” says Coates.

The novel I am currently reading, A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, is a dazzling tour de force,  full of rich voices, each distinct from one another and unique onto themselves. The book covers almost a century, tracks four generations, and is rich in scenes and characters and incidents.

The novel jumps constantly from past to present, alternating different characters’ perspectives on the same event. Only the most skilled author can take the reader on that kind of journey, and weave together so many voices seamlessly.

In this NPR interview, Atkinson talks about how she crafts characters at all stages of life. She says, “I think as human beings we don’t just live in this moment, but the whole of our lives we’re dragging with us — aren’t we — and we’re constantly thinking about the past and what it was like and what we were like as children and what our parents were like. So I think in a novel it’s more pointed, you kind of go, ‘Oh, now they’re talking about 80 years in the future or something,’ but I think that is how we think.”

As a writer, I’m constantly listening for my characters’ unique and authentic voices. And when I hear it, I know I’ve unlocked the key to my character’s story. I let them tell it—and try my best to get out of the way.