Anatomy of A Novel: Part 13: Making the Reader Care

I’ve always enjoyed reading. From as far back as I can remember, reading was my escape. An escape from being an asthmatic child who coughed too much to run with the energetic children in my neighbourhood. An escape from classroom bullies. An escape from a world that sometimes wasn’t as much fun as the world depicted in the books I read.

In high school and university I became a more inquisitive reader, wanting to know more about things like travel and history, but still a lover of fiction. I analysed the set works of literature and the dramatic arts to get my degree. In my early years of being a drama stage manager, I was still fascinated by characters and their motivations as I worked alongside actors and directors in the rehearsal room, watching and listening to them unpicking the complications of the characters and the relationships they portrayed.

However, it’s only in recent years – since I became a writer – that I’ve started to analyse all of the above in terms of what makes a book interesting enough to keep reading it. As always, the answer inevitably comes from the books I love to read.

For example, I have just finished reading an incredibly exciting book by a successful best-selling author. This is her second novel. I really enjoyed her first, which I read about two years ago. However, I almost didn’t make it through this second novel, and I’ve been trying to work out why.

Before I start, I should mention that both are stand-alone novels, not connected to each other in any way – no sequels or prequels; each one is a single story on its own.

Her first novel was written in the first person, voiced by three characters, all of whom intrigued me enough that I felt compelled to follow and see where these three very different women led me. By the time it became evident – not far into the novel – that the main narrator was an unreliable narrator due to her alcohol addiction, I already liked her and wanted to see what she was up to. I cared. Despite her forgetfulness and the fact that she couldn’t be trusted, I still wanted to follow her to the end.

The second novel was written from several points of view – some in first person, some in third. Too many points of view, I felt. At first I couldn’t keep track of who was who, and by the time I’d sorted out and managed to tell the difference between some of the more confusingly similar characters, I was almost halfway through the book and I still didn’t really care about any of them. At the start of most chapters I had to page back through the book to remind myself who this particular person was. Reading a little bit each night before bedtime (which is the way I read most books), didn’t help with continuity.

The main difference between these two books was that, in the first book, I cared about the main character. I was also intrigued by the other two and wanted to know what happened to them.

In the second book, I didn’t care about the characters. I had no emotional investment in any of them. In fact, the only characters I even vaguely liked were an outsider policewoman (whom I had muddled with a second policewoman several times during the first half of the novel) and a young boy. Both of these characters were peripheral to the plot for the first half of the story. I felt sorry for the boy because his family had become dysfunctional after the death of his sister, and I had high hopes that the policewoman would solve the mystery surrounding the various deaths, but apart from that, I didn’t care enough to want to follow all the other unlikeable characters to see how they sorted out the mess the whole village was in.

The only reason I carried on reading the second book was because I had enjoyed the author’s first book so much. I knew that she was a really good writer, and that she was sure to deliver a fabulous denouement like she had done in her previous novel. I persevered only because I was willing to take the gamble that she would come through eventually.

I also knew that if I stopped reading the book halfway through, I was unlikely to ever go back and attempt to re-read it. Worse, I would probably never bother to read one of her novels again, and that would be a pity.

She did, of course, come through before the end. A suspenseful build-up during which I didn’t know who to trust (after all, I didn’t like any of the suspects, did I?), followed by a nail-biting climax, and capped with a nasty twist on the very last page. I’ll definitely be reading her next book!

But…

What if I hadn’t read her first book? What if she wasn’t famous for delivering the goods? What if she was an unknown writer like me?

This all got me thinking about the most important thing an author can do when writing a novel, particularly if that author is relatively unknown. We can all wax lyrical about constructing a good plot, deep characters, exotic settings and amazing mysteries, but if a reader doesn’t care enough, it all goes down the toilet.

Reading is an emotional experience. Readers want to make a connection; they want to reach out and touch something because it resonates with something deep inside them.

It takes a long time to write a novel, so surely some of that time needs to be spent in making the reader care about the characters?

Advertisements

Flowers for ANZAC Day

One hundred and four years ago, at dawn on the 25th of April in 1915, the combined forces of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. There followed one of the bloodiest conflicts of the First World War. The following year, it was decided that the anniversary of that landing date would forever be remembered in both countries.

This day has become known as ANZAC Day. Every year on this day, services are held in both countries, usually at dawn, or slightly later in the morning, and all businesses remain closed until the afternoon, out of respect.

A few months ago I wrote about how, last Remembrance Sunday, I had placed a lone poppy at the cenotaph which serves as a war memorial in my neighbourhood. Last week, on ANZAC Day, several floral tributes were laid at the base of this cenotaph. Beautiful wreaths from the local Fire Brigade and the Girl Guides, a posy of poppies in the name of two soldiers – probably placed there by family members – and one anonymous bunch of red roses, tied with a pink ribbon.

I was also pleased to see that someone had taken the time and trouble to straighten my single poppy into a more upright position. I wonder if it was the same person who rescued it after the January storm? Either way, my poppy is no longer alone…

Secrets of Scrapbooking

I started my first scrapbook in 2008. The previous May, I had spent a fun weekend with the South African Writers Circle (SAWC) on their annual three-day conference. For the first time, I had lost myself in the joy of meeting other writers, listening to guest speakers, entering writing competitions, and even winning two prizes. I was hooked!

After that weekend, I enjoyed monthly meetings and entered more competitions. At the annual awards ceremony the following January, I won the New Writer trophy, and by the time the next three-day conference rolled around in May 2008, I had decided it was time to start keeping a visual record of my writing progress.

My scrapbook advanced slowly but steadily. Each year the SAWC’s annual writing conference was documented in pictures and blurbs from the programme. The pages between celebrated my own success in writing competitions.

In addition, I made a page for each novel I finished – even the unpublished ones like Willowfountain, the story of my family’s settler history.  This was a modest page, with only the gravestones and memorial commemorating the original settlers, but with later pages, I became more adventurous.

I started to enjoy scouring the internet, printing out pictures of the places I wrote about, photos of the actors who I cast as my characters, and images of any interesting artefacts that played a role in the plot. During the writing of a novel, these are arranged across an A1 size whiteboard, but at the end of each novel, what better thing is there to do with these printed images than put them into a scrapbook?

In 2009 I did a university creative writing course and the project on which I worked was based on my own family history. I scanned and printed several photos for my whiteboard. The following year, when that project became a self-published novella, it got a page in the scrapbook as well.

In 2010, three writing friends and I shared messages and emails while we all worked frantically to finish our current novels for entry into a competition run by Penguin SA. None of us made the shortlist, but we won something more precious – we started our own small writing group to share readings and critiques once a month on the novels we were each busy writing. We called our group Writing Buddies.

In 2011, before my sister left the country to live in Australia, she made a scrapbook for her eldest daughter’s 30th birthday, commemorating my niece’s first thirty years. Because time was short, my sister needed assistance so my middle niece and I helped her to compile it. It was fun despite the bittersweet looming of her departure. Those last few days before she flew, we enjoyed several happy bonding sessions, celebrating the milestones in my oldest niece’s life.

My sister’s departure prompted my focus to shift to the wider world. In November 2011, after my third novel had been with Penguin SA for eleven months, I received the most encouraging rejection letter ever, and within two weeks I had self-published that novel on Amazon. Into my scrapbook went another page!

Around the same time I suggested to our Writing Buddies group that we should start a joint blog to get our names “out there” beyond the local confines of both Writing Buddies and the SAWC.

Early in 2012 I took my first holiday to Australia, visiting my sister after she had been in her new country for only six months. A piece I wrote while there had its debut on our new blog, Scribbling Scribes, and in due course the Scribes got a double page in my scrapbook.

A mid-year weekend writing retreat on a friend’s farm got its own page, as did another writing retreat with the same friend early in 2013, during which I completed the first draft of my next novel.

That original scrapbook has now almost doubled in size, but despite not having added a new page for several years, my scrapbooking hands haven’t been idle.

In 2014, while on my second visit to my sister in Australia, I was once again roped in to work on a scrapbook for her middle daughter’s 30th. The older niece had worked on it with her mother during her earlier visit to Australia, and together with my sister and my youngest niece, we completed it. My sister and I took it to New Zealand where my second niece had now moved with her husband, to give to her.

A few months after that, I began the harrowing process of getting myself to Australia, and both my writing and my scrapbooking fell far down my priority list. I still hadn’t done a page for my second novel which had been live on Amazon for almost two years by now, and my final weekend away with the SAWC didn’t get done either. With all my scrapbooking materials pared down and packed in a box, I knew it would be a while before I got around to any of it.

Mid-2015 found me in Australia, living in my sister’s house. A year later I finished and published my third novel, but the scrapbook remained in a box in her garage with all my other treasures for another two years.

A year ago I finally got a permanent job, moved into a cottage and unpacked all my stuff. My youngest niece, now married, was building a house with her husband. Because their house was in the area where my sister lives, and far away from the rental in which my niece and her husband lived at the time, they couldn’t track the progress of their build as often as we could. My sister decided that we should take photographs of every stage of the build and put together a scrapbook for them.

With all my boxes unpacked and loads of photographs finally at hand, I spread all my scrapbooking stuff out on my dining table, where it remained for several months.

What my sister didn’t know was that since June last year, I had already begun compiling a secret scrapbook for her 60th birthday in February this year. As far as she knew, I had started doing a scrapbook of my cats. Yes, my cats. That was the decoy album so that if my sister popped in unexpectedly, hers went into the ottoman. And if my niece dropped by to visit, the pages I was doing for hers likewise went into the ottoman. My sister and I managed to complete the house album for my niece and her husband in time for Christmas last year.

It was exciting putting together my sister’s 60th album. My three nieces and I sourced photos, images from childhood, pictures of family and friends and, mixed with a healthy dollop of love, we crammed it all into a scrapbook.

What my youngest niece didn’t know was that while we were doing her mother’s scrapbook, her mother was doing one for her. My youngest niece’s 30th birthday was coming up in March, and I was helping my sister, together with my other two nieces overseas – one in New Zealand and one in South Africa – to compile a scrapbook for her.

Last month, we presented my sister with her album, and a week later we gave my niece hers. At last we could be open and chat freely after all the months of subterfuge. No more secret scrapbooks!

My dining table is still covered with scrapbooking stuff. I love scrapbooking, and I think it’s time for me to catch up on those last few pages that still need to be done. And then I need to dust off the whiteboard and create some fresh images for the novel I’m currently writing…

The Red Poppy in My Neighbourhood

At the bottom of the hill below my cottage is a quiet shady road called Memorial Drive, named for the cenotaph and a small garden of remembrance to honour those local lads who fought in the First World War. Subsequent plaques have been added over the decades for other wars of the last century: the Second World War, Vietnam and Afghanistan.

Every day on my way to work I drive past this cenotaph, and somehow the knowledge of what it stands for provides me with a link to the soldiers in my own family history. It makes me think of my grandfather and all the other young men he mentioned in his diaries. Those diaries inspired my historical romance novella From Daisy with Love.

My grandmother Daisy was a letter writer for soldiers during the Great War, helping both injured and illiterate young men to stay in touch with their families and loved ones far away. I am far away now from where both of them were during that war, but the sentiments and memories have not changed with time or distance.

On Remembrance Sunday last November I had been hoping to attend a commemorative wreath-laying ceremony at this cenotaph, but our municipality chose to hold these ceremonies at four larger cenotaphs in more built-up areas instead, perhaps because ours is such a quiet, rural area.

So I attended a wreath-laying ceremony near my church that day, only about ten minutes’ drive away. It was understated but moving, and well-presented by a local scout troop. It was good to see that not only older people attended, but several youngsters as well. In this country, they don’t forget or cast aside their war dead.

Later that afternoon I drove past the little cenotaph in Memorial Drive, but it was bare. Not a wreath in sight, not even a single flower. I went home, fetched some green plant-tie wire, and attached it to the pin at the back of the red poppy from my lapel. I drove back down to the cenotaph. I was the only person there, and I don’t think anyone saw me quietly pushing the green wire stem of the poppy into a crevice between the stones of the cenotaph.

For weeks afterwards, every time I drove past it, that small dot of red near the base of the cenotaph reminded me that my reminder was still there. Early in January it disappeared after a heavy, violent storm. I knew it wouldn’t be there forever, but the two month stretch that it had lasted was longer than I had anticipated.

However, about two weeks later on my daily drive past, I saw a small dot of red on the cenotaph once more, slightly higher than where my poppy had been. I was elated that someone else had done the same thing. And then I began to wonder if it was the same poppy.

On the very next Sunday, I took a stroll around my neighbourhood with my camera. It was a beautiful hot summer’s day, and for some weeks I had wanted to capture the views across the valley, as well as the beautiful trees in the side road leading to my cottage – see the picture to the left. I began my walk with no particular destination in mind, and took several photographs along the way, but as I neared the bottom of the hill I knew exactly where my path would eventually lead me.

Along Memorial Drive the cenotaph was deserted once more, apart from the poppy. My poppy. I recognised it immediately. It was in surprisingly good shape, with its green plant-tie still attached to the pin at the back. Some kind soul had picked it up from where the wind and rain had deposited it, perhaps realised where it had come from, and had wedged it back between the stones.

It gives me a warm feeling to know that someone in my rural neighbourhood thinks along the same lines that I do.

Getting Back on the Treadmill – Figuratively Speaking

The last few years haven’t been easy, but my life has recently started settling into a vaguely normal pattern again. For a few years when I first arrived in Australia I felt like I was treading water, trying to stay afloat and hoping that something more permanent would come along.

2018 was a great year of changes for me.

Those of you who have been following my blog for some time will be familiar with this, but for those who haven’t been in the loop, here’s the quick version: the door of the veggie shop where I was doing casual work closed, but the door of the hardware store where I was also a casual opened even wider. Within a few weeks I was on a permanent contract in the hardware store, working part-time for 30 hours a week.

Moving into a cute little cottage, unpacking all my treasured bits and pieces and buying a car followed in quick succession. Soon I was up and running my own life again, but feeling rather exhausted by it all. Towards the end of last year I began to spend time looking back on my life, trying to take stock of where I was and how far I had come in the last four years. A close friend who lives far away told me to slow down and stop trying to do everything at once.

She’s right. The start of a new year is always a good time to look forwards, rather than backwards. The view from here is good. I’m happy and getting my life back on track, slowing down to a sedate pace and managing to do most of the things I set out to do.

There is, however, one area of my life that I’ve been neglecting. I’ve never been a fast food junkie, but I have come to rely too much on convenience foods. It’s easier to open a bag or box and microwave the contents rather than get out the cooking pots and make a mess that I’m too tired to clean up afterwards. Apart from fresh fruit in my breakfast smoothie, all the vegetables I eat have been prepared by someone else in a factory somewhere. Unfortunately this has had an adverse effect on my energy levels – and that’s a mistake that is entirely my own doing.

My excuse up till now is that I’m getting older, but in reality that’s no excuse. I have on my computer a 20-page file I began making more than twenty years ago. It has the very dry title of “Measurement and Weight Statistics” and I originally started it because I was trying to get in shape for my twenty-year high school reunion. I managed that in about four weeks. Over the years since then, every time I’ve fallen off the fitness wagon I’ve started a new page with a new number, listed my weight statistics and measurements, and outlined my fitness and eating programme to get me back in shape. For the next few weeks or months, there have been updates and comparisons with what’s been gained or lost. As the years have gone by, I have clocked up an impressive fourteen fitness or eating successes. Each time it’s been a little harder to get back into shape, of course.

Yesterday I added number fifteen to that file. I measured and weighed, and was surprised at how little my current shape differs from the last time I did this – nine years ago.

I know that my weight fluctuated more in 2015 than ever before. When I was packing to leave South Africa four years ago I dropped about eight kilograms in five months. I was too scared to weigh myself then, and it took another eight months and a road trip through New South Wales with my best friend Jackie to put six or seven of those kilograms back on.

I’ve added another few since then, but now it’s time to get rid of them. I’ve already started growing (and harvesting) my own tomatoes, strawberries and beetroot. It will take more effort to prepare a salad than a sandwich for my work lunches, but I anticipate that it will be well worth it in the end. This time the main objective is not to lose weight, but to gain more energy so that I can manage my time, my job and my writing from a healthier place.

I’ll let you know how it goes…

My Endless Quest to Recapture the Magic of Christmas

Last week a work colleague and I discussed how we had spent our respective Christmases this year. She has three sons and she said that they had really enjoyed it, which was the main thing.

It got me thinking about how magical Christmas had been when I was a child, and how we try every year to recapture that feeling, whether for our children or for ourselves. We frantically decorate trees and cakes, bake mince pies, play appropriate music, shop till we drop, overspending and pushing our credit cards beyond their normal elasticity. Working in retail, I’ve witnessed at first hand the frenzy of spending in the days leading to Christmas, but no matter how much effort we put into it, Christmas for adults never quite matches up to the magic it held for us as children.

The cynic in me knows now that the original Christian meaning of Christmas has been warped beyond all recognition, but as a child the juxtaposition of the fables and traditions surrounding this yearly event fell happily into place alongside each other. The birth of Jesus Christ, the story of generous Saint Nicholas, the pagan tree and Yuletide log – all of them snuggled up together, were added to by our parents, and are now coated in the rosy afterglow of our own fondly-remembered nostalgia. I’ve written elsewhere about my own family’s Christmas traditions.

Somehow, the long ago story of the Christ child born in a stable sat comfortably with the notion of a man in a red suit arriving on the roof in a sleigh drawn by eight reindeer. This strange man from the North Pole who dropped down our chimney with a sack full of toys was perfectly logical at the time, despite the fact that our chimney wasn’t very wide. It was magic, of course.

Once we realised who was masquerading as Father Christmas, things were still great, because we were children, we still got presents, and Christmas was fun. Even through high school, and during my three years at university when I still lived at home, we all loved the season and had a good time each Christmas.

In my early years of working, I enjoyed my first few Christmases, especially a spectacular one in the northern hemisphere, skiing in the Swiss alps with my boyfriend and his family. A magical Christmas-card Christmas that one was, surrounded by snow and log fires in our cosy wood-lined cabin, joined by various family and friends from around the world.

The following year that same boyfriend and I hosted the big family Christmas at our newly-bought house in Johannesburg. It was enormous fun and I knew that this was the pattern for the rest of my life: we would continue to host big family Christmas meals, enjoying lots of company and laughter, creating magical Christmases for the children we would one day have too…

Not so the next year. My wonderful boyfriend dumped me in August and by December I was barely back on my emotional feet. I think that was when Christmas started to become a little tarnished.

The next year was even worse. My father died in July and my sister got divorced in November. It was a sad, straggly family of survivors who got together on the 25th of December at my mother’s house and tried to pretend that all was merry and bright. It just wasn’t. My mother kept disappearing into the kitchen to “check the chicken” but once there she dissolved into tears, unable to cope with the first Christmas in twenty-eight years without her husband. My sister had reluctantly invited her ex-husband along for the day so that their children could have as normal a Christmas as possible. It was anything but normal and we were all relieved when the 26th dawned and it was finally over.

During the years when I lived in Cape Town, there followed three Christmases of utter loneliness that I still can’t bear to think about. I became a bit of a nomad after that, wandering around South Africa, wherever I could find work – mainly on touring big musicals. Career-wise it was a good move. Christmas-wise it was quite awful.

Things improved vastly when I settled in Durban, able to spend time with my mother and sister again. After my mother died, my sister filled the empty space and we had wonderful Christmases together until she and her second husband and their youngest child left for Australia. The following Christmas I spent with the remaining three of their grown up children, but by the next Christmas two more of them had moved overseas as well.

We still had a good Christmas, my oldest niece and I. For the first time in years we substituted the traditional Christmas pudding with a chocolate fondue instead. We still talk about it to this day. She’s been here on holiday for a few weeks now with her two sons, and we’ve had another big family Christmas in Australia.

So how was my Christmas this year? In the last few years I have come close to actually recapturing the magic of my childhood Christmases. Since I arrived in Australia, my Christmases have been fun-filled and family-filled. This year I moved into a cottage on my own and in December I unpacked my aged, beloved Christmas tree once more, and filled my new home with old memories, new decorations and magical hopes for the future.

I wish all my readers a happy, peaceful and prosperous 2019. May all your wishes magically come true!

Things I Have Discovered About My Mother

Today marks the tenth anniversary of my Mother’s death. Here’s a post I wrote about her back in January 2015, when I started packing to move to Australia. I still miss her…

The Scribbling Scribes

By Susan Roberts

s1I suppose I always took it for granted that I would one day become a mother, but somehow it never happened. This has something to do with the hours that I work, or maybe it’s because I grew up old-fashioned enough to believe that I needed a husband first. Over the years, the right candidate never appeared so I just got on with my life instead.

Not that I’m sorry I didn’t become a mother. My family will tell you that I was never particularly enamoured of kids. When I was grossed out by someone’s wailing brat or a dirty diaper, there was always a well-meaning relative to assure me that “it’ll be different when you have your own one day,” but they couldn’t see that there was a wary part of me that couldn’t imagine going through that with a permanent infant which I couldn’t hand…

View original post 1,236 more words