Tag Archive | characters

Life is Like A Novel. . . Sometimes

I’ve been doing a fair bit of research into novel structure lately, while trying to get my life on track and back into some kind of routine. However, not much in my life seems to be running according to plan, despite my best intentions. Exasperated, at one point I silently declared that my life was like a bad novel because everything kept going wrong.

And then I realised that this did not denote a bad novel, but an interesting one, full of drama, missed opportunities and plot changes which constantly evolve, thus motivating the characters to do something they might not have intended to do before.

(The only trouble with this plot is that it’s too indistinct and I have no idea where it’s all going to end up before the – I hope! – happy ending. Maybe this is how pantsers work?)

While it can be distressing to have too much drama in one’s actual life, this is the best thing for characters in novels. No one likes to read a novel about a character who has all his ducks in a row and his life perfectly planned, because that’s just too boring to read about. It’s fine to start a novel like this, but within a few pages there needs to be a catalyst that changes everything and throws all his plans into disarray, making him run constantly through the rest of the book, making new plans, troubleshooting, and generally trying to catch his breath before the next onslaught of plot points.

As writers, we have to capture the reader’s interest from the start, and then hold onto it while we fling them along the roller-coaster of the protagonist’s life, making then root and cheer with the highs, commiserate with the lows, and worry about the dangers.

All things considered, my life is not as dramatic and topsy-turvy as the lives I map out for the characters in my novels, but thinking about this did help me to put my own problems in perspective and give me a bit of distance from them.

It also gave me the motivation I needed to start thinking about my current WIP and what I’m going to throw at my characters in the New Year when I finally get time to carry on writing.

What about you? Does your life read like a bad novel? Or like an exciting one?

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 4: Outline


Drawing up the outline of what will be my next novel is one of the most exciting events in my writing process. This is because my outline is a mini version of the novel, the blueprint that keeps that novel on track from day one of writing until the bitter end, and it is the closest reflection of what that finished product will be like.

It also changes constantly throughout the writing process.

My outline is a seething mass of notes, colours and page references, an animated beast living on my computer where it is fed daily with the most up-to-date ideas, notes and questions, and it doesn’t rest until I push the button to publish the completed novel.

I know that many writers hate the idea of an outline because they believe that it stunts creativity and ties the author to a dull plan, rather like a prison sentence. I can understand why they feel that, but I prefer to think of my outline as a road map.

If you plan a road trip between two cities, it makes sense to research all the possible stops along the way, print out some maps and have a rough itinerary with an end date, notes about where to buy petrol, and a few ideas about the places you’d like to visit.

For me, a really good road trip is not a race to see how fast you can get to the next city, but a meandering adventure in which you explore many places along the way, stopping unexpectedly in small towns you might never have heard of but which beg further investigation because they look interesting. Likewise there will be places you thought sounded good on paper, but on reaching them, you decide to move along and see what else the road offers.

Before I became a writer, I used to think that a novel was just a very long short story; an extended version of a single idea, a single goal, a single concept. But a novel gets boring if it’s nothing more than an over-lengthy short story. When you read a book which bores you and you can’t quite put your finger on why, it’s usually because nothing new happens in the emotional development of the characters. They may reach their goals but it takes them so long to do so, that the reader is bored by the end and no longer invested in the story.

The secret is to have the characters’ goals constantly changing along the way. This is not to say that the characters are unable to make up their minds, but rather that circumstances around them keep interfering, blurring their focus, and forcing them to adapt to new problems.

For a good story, the goals of each character have to be buffeted by the machinations of the plot, and the emotional reactions of those characters to the plot make them constantly re-think their original goals. Just as they settle into a new path, the next plot development shifts those goalposts again, and they have to adjust once more.

And so on. The combination of external plot conflicts and characters whose motivations keep changing to form new goals, is what makes the reader want to keep turning those pages until it all comes together in the end with all the characters emerging older, wiser and hopefully better off than when they started.

Yes, it’s that simple. But also very complicated, which is why someone like me needs to have a proper outline before she can start to write the novel.

So how do I do this? My first step is to copy and paste my one-page synopsis into a new blank document, embolden all the major plot points – the places where external plot conflicts have a knock-on effect for one or more characters. Then I write a few lines beneath each plot point about the effect it has on the characters concerned. How do they react emotionally? How do their motivations change? How does this affect the evolution of the previous goal? Are there any new developments to insert into the story, either at this point or later on?

Once I’ve done this, I modify the document into an outline, and I start looking for possible cliff-hangers and high notes on which to end the chapters. Each chapter is given a number, and the name of the character from whose point-of-view the action is to be seen. When it all makes sense and reads like a mini novel, I’m ready to start writing.

As I write my first draft, I have two MS Word documents open on my computer the whole time – the outline to refer to, and the manuscript I am writing. As I follow the basic points listed on the outline for each chapter, I make a note of what page each chapter starts on, and how many pages each chapter is. In the manuscript itself, I always start each chapter on a new page, using the “Page break before” facility.

The outline grows as the novel grows, because on it I make daily notes about the text, such as new ideas or questions that I feel the characters might need to ask themselves. I also keep a general tally of my word count and the dates on which I finish each draft.

The most exciting thing about an outline is that it remains a living, breathing, evolving animal with its own way of telling the story. Despite working this out as far as possible before I start the actual writing of the novel, it will constantly change, so my outline is never printed out. The length of each chapter can adjust daily, so the number of pages in each chapter is adjusted on the outline as I work. This means that, at any time when I need to insert a new idea into the text I can pinpoint almost the exact page I need within a certain chapter, without having to scroll through more than three or four pages.

As the drafts mount up I get adventurous with highlighting on the outline. Bits that need to be researched, expanded or fixed are highlighted in red. I keep track of flashbacks or historical sections in different time frames by highlighting those chapter headings in the outline in either blue or green. If I have more than one point-of-view character, each has their chapter headings on the outline highlighted in a different colour too.

As I write drafts, every second draft consists of a light read-through, in which I make only slight adjustments to small things, and add more notes to the outline (in red) about what needs work in the following draft.

Some writers give each chapter a new document, but that would be too confusing for me. I like to have a sense of the whole thing at all times, and my outline and way of working allow me to do that.

I know every writer is different, but this is what works for me. If you are a writer, what works best for you? If you’re a reader, what is your opinion? I’d be interested to hear.

Anatomy of a Novel: Part 3: Synopsis


In this series on the writing of a novel, I’ve already covered setting here and characters here. Now comes the fun part of putting it all together into an actual story – the synopsis. Despite dealing with setting, characters and synopsis one by one, it’s important to remember that the creation of a novel never moves evenly, one complete step at a time. Rather, it is a mix of various steps taken bit-by-bit, and usually simultaneously.

Due to the wonderfully invigorating interruption of NaNoWriMo last month, it’s been two months since I last wrote a blog-post about this novel-writing process. It’s probably just as well that I waited an extra month before writing this, because the synopsis for my current novel evolved so much during the month of November.

Previously, I explained about the process of creating characters, and how they are invented to enhance and complement the plot. With all of the characters and their setting whirling around in my head, I usually sit down and write a one-page synopsis of the proposed plot action. There will be details to fill in later, more secondary characters and possible changes in setting, but the gist of it will be there.

I can’t create fully-rounded characters until I know what they’re up against in the story. Likewise, I can’t invent the perfect synopsis until I have a good idea of how each character’s own desires, goals, habits, quirks and fears will add to that story. The half-formed synopsis I have in my head can only be finalised once the characters have been fleshed out.

And once I begin writing the novel, it all changes even more!

I write romantic mysteries, so in all my novels there is a mystery which initially draws two unconnected people toward each other, changes all their immediate individual plans and forces them to work together. The solving of this mystery causes them to fall in love, keeps them on the trot and eventually makes them fear for their lives.

Along the way I’ll throw in some deception, betrayal and a bad guy who may or may not be likeable at first, and then I’ll wind it all up in a glorious Big Climax from which no one looks set to escape alive, but hopefully the relevant romantic couple will survive with only a few scars, and live happily ever after.

When I have my one page synopsis, I put it aside and start to create the finer points of the main characters. While I might have had an initial idea or two about them, they each need to have some kind of attribute which will later come to the fore when it is most needed but least expected. A kind of temporary deception between me and the reader, because at the crucial moment I want the reader to think: “Oh, of course this character would do that – I’d forgotten that he/she knows all about this kind of stuff/grew up doing that/spent his/her childhood in that environment, etc.”

I should also mention here that the Big Climax always ends up taking place in a completely different way from how it was first envisaged. This is not for lack of planning, but because so much depends on the characters themselves. Their evolving goals and motivations inevitably change as I write and sometimes they steer the action in a different direction.

In my current novel Oxford Baggage the heroine is left a dubious legacy by her late ex-husband – the guardianship of his daughter from a previous marriage. It’s 1955 and Amy has felt bored and directionless since her secret government work ended at the close of the Second World War. She must now travel back to Oxford – the scene of her unhappy marriage to David – and live in his house as stepmother to his sixteen year old daughter for the next nine years until the girl reaches the age of twenty-five and gets her inheritance. That’s the set-up.

The mystery? Victoria – the stepdaughter – believes that her father was murdered. The love interest? There are two men: Simon, the lawyer dealing with David’s estate; and Richard, the younger brother of David and uncle to Victoria. Both men have secrets from the war, and Amy is attracted to both, but could one of them have caused the accident that killed David, as Victoria suspects? Or is Victoria just being difficult and trying to stir trouble?

When I wrote the original one-page synopsis for this novel, I had no idea about the character of one of these men. By the time I reached the 50,000 word mark at the end of November, I had a better idea of who he was, but I had also realized by then that the entire character of the other had changed along the way.

One of my major settings for the novel became largely redundant during the writing of the first draft, when I discovered a setting closer to the heart of the novel, which in itself opened up a channel of history that, when explored, became a far better choice for the plot I had in mind.

And if that sounds complicated, wait until we start expanding that one-page synopsis into the outline!

The outline is the most important document apart from the manuscript itself, because it will serve as the blueprint for the novel, from day one of writing, until I push the Publish button to turn the finished manuscript into an eBook months, or even years, later.

However, that outline cannot happen until there is a precise, concise, well worked out synopsis. And in the writing of a synopsis, nothing is sacred, nothing is set in stone and nothing continues as it was started…

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 2: Characters


Creating characters can be such fun! I start with a rough idea of who they are and why they are in the story’s setting at the particular moment when the story starts, but the details can be filled in later, or tweaked as things change. First I need to find out what sort of person each one is – outside of the story – and what makes them tick, what pushes their buttons and what keeps them awake at night.

By the time I have decided on the location, I usually have some idea of what the story is going to be about. Often I will add other locations which enable me to introduce new story sparks and plot twists. Kurt Vonnegut famously said that every character needs something, even if it’s only a glass of water. This doesn’t mean that characters have to be needy, but somewhere inside themselves there has to be a desire.

Important digression here: there is a subtle difference between what a character wants and what he or she actually needs. The characters may think they know what they need, but they are usually mistaken.

I like to put plenty of obstacles in the way of my characters, but often I give them what they want by the three-quarter mark, just so that they can be dissatisfied enough to realise that this is not really what they needed. Their outlook changes during the course of the novel, and very often they go into the third act of the drama with a new goal – usually one with a higher or deeper purpose. Having spent the first two acts evolving their goals and motivations, they are now genuinely in search of what their hearts need, instead of some shallow goal they once believed to be important. I like to mentally whisper to my characters: “Be careful what you wish for because you might get it…”

Sometimes an incident in childhood can have a serious bearing on how they behave in a given situation, and perhaps they will be forced to confront that fear and overcome it during the course of the action.

Because I write primarily in the genre of romance, I usually start with a female protagonist. Preferably one who is out of her depth or away from her usual comfort zone.

I enjoy fish-out-of-water stories where the main character finds herself in a situation she is not familiar with. Either she is on holiday, or working temporarily overseas, or has moved to a new environment and is still trying to find her feet there.

Equally important to the story is a male who first opposes, then sides with, the female protagonist. This man is usually a native of the country or city in which the heroine finds herself. He knows the environment better than she does, so she’s forced to rely on him for certain things. Sometimes he doesn’t particularly want to be with her (leastways not at first) but he needs to stick to her, either because she knows something he doesn’t, or because she has access to something he wants.

In The Epidaurus Inheritance Cassie’s desire is to find out the history of an ancient, ornate knife she has inherited from her Greek father. Travelling to the theatre festival at Epidaurus as the designer for a play gives her the opportunity to research that knife, because she has copied its design for one of her stage props.

Unfortunately she gets more than she bargained for when she meets Zander, an investigator of stolen antiquities, who recognises something in her design and begins to badger her, follow her, help her and generally push his way into her life because he too desires something. He wants to know how she managed to design a theatre prop that resembles a drawing he has in his files – the only known drawing of a stolen antique knife that disappeared long before cameras were invented.

Because of my Greek theme, I wanted to introduce other aspects of Greece and Greek life, such as earthquakes. When I was in high school I had a pen friend in Thessaloniki. We had been writing to each other for two or more years when I heard about an earthquake in her city. After the earthquake, my next letter to her was returned to me, address unknown. I never heard from my friend again, and I’ve never been able to find out what happened to her, so the novel is dedicated to her.

I decided to put my character Zander into that 1978 earthquake as a child. I put him and his older brother into one of the apartment blocks which collapsed, and I gave his brother the rather horrid job of sacrificing himself to save his little brother Zander. Of course, this scarred Zander for life – not only physically, but mentally as well. In addition to living with the guilt of his father’s disappointment that “the wrong son” died, Zander also hates earthquakes, and can’t bear being underground or in any kind of confined area.

Consequently he lives in an airy, light-filled apartment on the top floor of a building which has numerous exit routes. But at a certain point in the novel Zander has to face one of his greatest fears – being trapped underground.

The character of Cassie began as a beautiful, slim, dark-haired beauty – also of Greek parentage – but she was too beautiful, too perfect. So I recast her as a buxom, large-boned gal of generous proportions whose only beauty (so her relatives have told her all her life) is her long, dark hair. She doesn’t think she is at all attractive, but Zander falls in love with this statuesque, strong-willed woman who resembles one of the stone Caryatid statues on the Acropolis – the columns carved as women, bearing the weight of the south portico of the Erechtheion. Cassie likewise bears the weight of the legacy of the knife her ancestors left her.

I’m careful about choosing names. One of the best investments I made as a writer was to buy The Oxford Dictionary of First Names. I like to choose a name that sounds right for the character, but it helps to be able to look up the origin of that name and see if it’s a good match historically as well. Cassie is short for Cassandra, who was a Trojan princess whose gift of prophecy was cursed by the fact that no one would believe her.

Zander is short for Alexander, who in this case is modelled not on Alexander the Great, but on the Trojan prince Alexander, who was better known as Paris – the one who fell in love with the wrong woman, Helen, kidnapped her and started the Trojan War. Just to annoy Cassie, I gave Zander an ex-girlfriend called Eleni (which is a Greek version of Helen), and I made her beautiful, of course…

In all my novels, I put my characters through the Myers-Briggs personality tests. I imagine each of them answering the questionnaire that will reveal which personality type they are. I like to match the couples with their ideal opposites so that some sparks will fly during the course of the novel, but ultimately they are assured of a Happily Ever After once they have sailed off into the sunset and the final page has been turned.

Casting Characters: How Do We Picture Them?

Just in case anyone out there is wondering if Harrison Ford is the centre of my existence, let me assure you that I am far more shallow than you imagine me to be. I drool over many film stars. Which one do I like the most? Well, to borrow Ado Annie’s line from Oklahoma: “Whichever one I’m with!”

Or in my case, whichever one I’m currently watching in a movie. Movie-watching is a necessary part of life as a writer, and the ones I watch provide me with a casting selection for the characters in the books I am reading as well as the ones I am writing.

Back in 2009 I was part of a creative writing class in which there were nine students and two tutors. Seven of the students were in their 20s, two of us were… well… a decade or two older, as were our tutors.

When it was my turn to read an excerpt from the WIP that would later become my novella From Daisy with Love, I chose a passage quite far into the work, leaving out the detailed physical description of my main character. The setting was Durban in 1915, wartime, and my listeners discovered that Daisy had just celebrated her 18th birthday, she had dark hair and eyes, and her slim frame was the opposite of her chubby sister’s.

After the reading, the younger members of the class all wanted to know exactly what Daisy looked like, but my three older colleagues replied that they didn’t need a detailed description because they could picture their own version of her from the little I had inferred in the text. The four of us had grown up in the pre-television age of radio and our imaginations were able to concoct a whole from very few parts, but those who had grown up watching television needed to know more exact details in order to picture her.

Alarmingly, the younger members of the group couldn’t get into Daisy’s head and understand her as a character until they knew exactly what she looked like.

The opposite of this extreme is a remark I found on the Internet, that a POV character should never be described in full; we shouldn’t even be told the colour of the character’s hair or skin, so that readers of every ethnicity can relate.

So which one is correct? Well, I’m going for the middle ground here. I always enjoy a good fence to sit on.

Think of a character in a book and let’s cast someone in that role. Just like an actor is cast in a play.

My theatre training puts me in a unique position here, having attended numerous casting sessions over the years. Each character has basic requirements that must be met in terms of gender, age group, ethnic group and general physical characteristics. Casting agents send to the audition only the clients who fit those minimum criteria – as well as the necessary talent, of course, but we’re not dealing with that here.

Any actor who auditions is imagined in the context of the play, and the producers and director work with what is in front of them, bearing in mind who else they are casting in other roles, and who suits this particular role the best. They look for the right fit in other ways too – a romantic hero who is half a head shorter or has a much smaller frame than the leading lady might give a more comic impression than intended.

Unless the script is specific, the only guidelines about the character’s looks are the ones above. I call this The Hamlet Question, as in: What does Hamlet look like? Based on the above, he is male, about 30, fit enough to fence well (ignore that remark of his mother’s that he is “fat and scant of breath” because we also know that his opponent Laertes is an exceptionally good fencer), and his ethnicity does not have to be blond and Scandinavian (just because the original play was set in Denmark), but can be whatever suits the style of that production.

So Hamlet looks like the actor who is chosen to portray him, of course. He can be rough and hairy Mel Gibson, cool and blond Kenneth Branagh or whoever you saw on stage the last time you watched a production of it.

I wish I could remember who said that to picture a character in a book you have to imagine seeing them at a distance through slightly narrowed eyes, so the details are blurry but the gender, body shape, colouring and overall impression are captured – rather like a figure in the background of an Impressionist painting. Specific details such as a scar, dimple or particular coloured eyes can be added to this general image early in the text, but after that it’s up to the reader to fill in further details in their mind’s eye.

Because I love watching movies, my mind’s eye contains a database of actors that I can imagine playing the various characters in any book that I read, and I don’t have to worry about who is short and who is tall, because in my mind I can picture Tom Cruise as tall as Peter O’Toole if that’s what my imagination shows me. Actors can also be any age – I can just as easily picture a young Richard Burton as an older version, because I’ve seen both in the movies.

I like the idea of a blurred impression through narrowed eyelids. To take the earlier example I used in my writing class, I imagined very old photographs of my grandmother when she was young (the character of Daisy was loosely based on her), but from the few impressions I gave my readers, they could have imagined anyone from Anne Hathaway to Juliette Binoche and it wouldn’t have mattered to anyone else. As long as you could see a person within that age group, tall and slim, and dressed in old-fashioned clothing in a hot country during the First World War, that image would carry you through the book. At least that’s how I see it.

The problem is that sometimes the writer might wait until page 150 before mentioning the character’s blue eyes and then the reader who has imagined Anne Hathaway now has to scrabble about, rejecting images and trying to picture Alexis Bledel or Angelina Jolie in the role instead, so I prefer these basics to be mentioned early on when the reader is still trying to concoct a picture.

As a writer, I am guided by voice as much as looks here. In my first novel, The Epidaurus Inheritance, I pictured Penelope Cruz as my leading character through the first two drafts of the novel, but something in me couldn’t imagine her saying the dialogue I had written, and certainly not with a South African accent. Penelope Cruz is a beautiful woman and she has the most endearing Spanish accent, but seeing her as my main character just didn’t work. She was simply too perfect.

When I changed the casting and pictured Kate Winslet instead – with long hair like she had in Titanic, dark like it was in Quills – the character fell into place. Her body shape changed, as did her impression of herself. I rewrote her as big-boned and statuesque rather than small and slim, and this added a whole new dimension to her persona. It also fitted in with the hero’s character, because to him the perfect woman is like the Greek Caryatid statues on the Acropolis. He is an archaeologist and has probably been fantasising about them his whole life.

Kate Winslet has played so many different characters on screen that it wasn’t a huge stretch of the imagination to see her as a living Caryatid. Or to give her a slight South African accent. (No more than my own, which is not that pronounced and English in derivation, like many English-speaking South Africans.) I am not saying that everyone who reads that book will picture Kate Winslet, but it was important for me to picture her so that I could keep the character looking and sounding consistent throughout the writing. If you’re happier picturing Penelope Cruz, that’s fine too.

In my next novel, Benicio’s Bequest, while trying to think of a beautiful actress for the hero’s Italian ex-girlfriend, I pictured Penelope Cruz. Having a near perfect damsel as the heroine’s love rival added weight to her feelings of inadequacy. Since I speak no European languages, the Spanish accent was not an issue for me, but if you want to picture Monica Bellucci in the role instead, she’s perfect too.

As for my male characters, they can be played by British, American, South African or Australian actors, as long as they can do a variety of accents well. I find that many Brits and Aussies are particularly good at accents, which is probably why they’ve crossed that international divide, but don’t discount the remarkable accent abilities of American Robert Downey Jnr, who pops up in my books in various guises because he is so versatile, and I can hear his voice in many different accents in my head.

I also try to use actors who look different, so that all my leading men don’t turn out the same. Well okay, they do all tend to be tall, dark and handsome chaps, but there are plenty of excellent actors to choose from. Once again, just because I picture Hugh Jackman doesn’t mean that you have to. If you think the character looks more like Robert Downey Jnr, then please go with that. As long as my hero’s eyes don’t change colour on page 150, then we’ll all be happy in our respective little book worlds!


Setting, Resonance and Backstory

I’ve written before about setting and how it influences both the characters and the plot. But it also has a lot to do with resonance and helps to give roots to a character’s history, or backstory. In a conversation with fellow writers last weekend, I realised that the books which have resonated most with me all have settings to which I long to return, even if only in my mind. Wonderful places to dream of include the land of Narnia, the wild and windy cliffs of Du Maurier’s Cornwall and the magical castle of Hogwarts.

In a previous blog-post I wrote about why Romeo and Juliet works for me in its romantic, historical Italian setting, but not when set on the West Side of New York City in its rewritten version, West Side Story.

If I ever fly to New York, my first place of call will not be the area where West Side Story takes place, but rather Hobie’s antiques shop in The Goldfinch, or even the art gallery where that now famous painting was supposed to have been hanging when the bomb went off. Of course, that’s also because I have a thing for both antiques shops and art galleries, which is probably what drew me to that novel in the first place.

But since I can’t afford to go to New York, let’s return for the moment to the setting of Romeo and Juliet. If I hadn’t once upon a time journeyed to Verona in Italy to see the supposed house and balcony of Juliet, I would in all likelihood not have stopped for lunch on the road between Verona and Venice. This means that I would never have discovered the enchanting castle of Soave where I spent an afternoon marvelling at medieval weapons and chainmail shirts, a fresco of Dante on an obscure wall, and the panoramic view from the fire-step just below its high battlements. In short, if I had not harboured those romantic notions about Juliet’s house, I would have deprived myself of three of the most pivotal settings later used in my novel, Benicio’s Bequest.

Before I ever travelled to Australia, I had heard about Melbourne’s famous Lygon Street with its cafes and restaurants spilling across the pavements.


I had already decided that I wanted part of my next novel to be set in such a place, but first I had to see it for myself. Early notions of a cellar-like basement bar for my novel’s opening faded when I saw Lygon Street for the first time, and instead I set my fictional bar down a lane that led to a courtyard with a clock tower, beyond which was a hidden maze of alleys, private houses, and backyards of more double-storey buildings facing onto other streets behind and alongside.

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My new world was born. From those images I built my character’s nest in an apartment above the bar that he inherited from his father, up a little lane behind an Italian restaurant run by his friend Gino.

The house that my sister and brother-in-law were renting during that first visit to Melbourne also became the model for another setting, as did the ugly grey house shared by my niece and two housemates. By the time I returned to Melbourne for my second visit, both of these dwellings had other occupants and the members of my family had moved on to more permanent accommodation, but those houses are still firmly embedded in that novel.

What is it that draws us to a place and makes us want to recreate it in a fictional space in our minds? I don’t know, but the pull to those places is strong or we wouldn’t be tempted to use them. I often see myself as what I call a potential-holic. I am drawn to the potential I see in people or in places, just as I am drawn to the potential stories that I could create around situations that I imagine in numerous “What if” scenarios. I think it’s a leftover trait from childhood. Just as I once imagined a bogeyman under the bed or some scary creature of the night lurking in a semi-visible dressing-gown hanging on the back of my bedroom door, I see the world as alive with endless possibilities of hitherto untold stories.

My theatre technician friends laugh at me when I imagine the backstories behind certain things in the plays or musicals that I watch night after night as I operate lights or stage manage them. An entire history was imagined about the childhood of the dreadful Hannigan siblings in the musical Annie last year, and I can’t even remember now what it was based on. Likewise, the previous year saw me dreaming up stories about the odd assortment of criminals who arrive in the boarding house of a seemingly frail old lady who manages to outwit and outlive them all in The Ladykillers.

These are not stories that anybody in the audience would know or even think about. In fact, they may bear no resemblance to the original author’s own ideas, but for me – just as the actors do their own research and come up with their characters’ motivations – I like to find my own justification for everything that they do. It’s not only good practice for my writing, but it can be enormous fun too. When you’re lucky enough to work in a creative environment, something rubs off on you and it would be foolish not to take advantage of it. And I suppose you could say that that’s my backstory.

Dredging Up the Dreaded Trunk Novels of the Past

We all have them, it seems. All writers have Trunk Novels – those first few novels that were lovingly, earnestly written in the hope of landing an agent, a publisher and eventually, book-world domination. Only they never quite made it. They might have been toted around various agents and publishers, were probably read by the writer’s nearest and dearest (usually under duress) and finally relegated to the old tin trunk beneath the bed or in the attic, never to be read again.

In the olden days of typewriters these would have been actual paper manuscripts. Over-long, heavy volumes either bound with brads, rubber bands or slipped between the covers of a thick lever-arch file. When excavated by the writer some years later (or his next-of-kin some decades later) these yellowed pages covered with brown spots and blurred typewritten sentences would conjure up romantic fantasies of undiscovered brilliance and success anew.

In the modern age these trunk novels are more likely to be old files on the computer’s drive. In some case they will have been deleted or lost when the writer bought a new computer, but the sentimental writers among us transfer them along with the newer writing for old times’ sake. An unread reminder of what once fired us up.

The sad truth is that all trunk novels – old style and new – are usually mundane, excessively detailed, badly-written, boring stories that are laden with backstory that is of no interest to anyone apart from the author, and are likely to send the reader nowhere but to sleep. I’m not saying this is a bad thing – all writers need them.

Trunk novels belong in the trunk for a reason. They are the practice runs, never to be witnessed by the public.

Think of a world-renowned concert pianist practising scales: people are not going to pay to listen to a concert pianist practise those scales, but if he doesn’t practise them, the audience won’t come to listen to the work that he plays really well. And he plays his concert work well because of those hours he’s spent practising his scales. But this doesn’t mean that we need to hear them.

The theory with writing is that you cannot call yourself a writer until you have written a million words. And then some. But this doesn’t mean that that the world has to read them. It does, however, mean that we need to write those million words in earnest, believing in them and hoping for them, expecting success and acknowledgement from our peers. When it doesn’t happen, we retreat into our caves, throw our magnum opus into a bottomless pit (or trunk) and resolve never to let the world see us bleed again.

Or not. Those who are cowed and take up something different may find their happiness in another direction, but those of us who are meant to write will keep at it, despite the odds. We all benefit from a little encouragement. And trunk novels are no different.

A trunk novel is the first step taken by the baby, the early banging of notes on the family piano, and the finger-painted daubs that we stick on our fridges long before our children show any no signs of developing into a modern Van Gogh or Picasso. The trunk novel represents the test papers from old school exams written in our teens – back when we tried hard but perhaps failed to impress. They are the school essays and projects that a kind teacher marked with the words “Shows promise” or the report card that gave us marks for effort, with the words “Continues to improve but must work harder.”

Where would we be if all those parents, teachers and mentors had smacked the child for its unsteady steps, shouted down his first discordant notes on the piano, or torn up her daubs instead of attaching them to the fridge? We’d be lost, and probably useless at everything else too by now, because we would no longer believe in ourselves.

A writer I know who does pottery once said that she was not afraid to display her slightly uneven ceramic bowls and vases in her house, so why shouldn’t we self-publish our written art and give it to family and friends as gifts? A valid point indeed about self-publishing.

The problem with worldwide e-book self-publishing is that it may be akin to putting our uneven ceramics or our children’s fridge art in a national gallery alongside the Picassos and Van Goghs. This would naturally invite ridicule, since the first attempts will always be poorer than the later work which is done when the writer has honed his craft. If you want your work out there, you must be ready to swim against the strong currents of life and be able to dodge the sharks.

People have asked me why I don’t put my early works – my trunk novels – on Amazon too. My answer is because those works are not ready. They never were. They were the practice runs, the early daubs not to be exhibited in the gallery. Not meant for ridicule and certainly not ready to be seen until they have been totally rewritten.

I have tried rewriting them before. Every now and then I get all fired up over doing this because I take a quick look at the first few chapters and decide that they’re not so bad.

Usually I get about seven chapters in and then give up because I get bored. And I know that if I get bored, my readers will be bored too. The task, it seems, is always insurmountable.

I started my first novel back in 2004 and dabbled with it over the next three years, then sent it out into the world to look for a publisher. While waiting for success and book-world domination on the basis of that novel I began the second. When the first was repeatedly rejected, I sent out the second and began rewriting the first. When the second was rejected I sent the newly rewritten first one out again and threw myself into rewriting the second…

You can see where this is going, right?

I must have clocked up close to a million words by the time I eventually, in 2009, enrolled in a creative writing course, determined to learn how to fix my unwanted novels. I started a new project for that writing course, and yes – I did learn a lot. I also learnt that some sow’s ears will never turn into silk purses no matter how much re-writing you do. At the end of 2009 I began a totally new novel in an exotic Greek setting with a plot that actually went somewhere and a handful of quirky characters who bit and scratched at each other and were not perfect.

Bingo! A million words done and I had found the secret. The first two novels were relegated to the trunk and my new Greek novel went out into the world to look for an agent and publisher while I began writing the fourth, set this time in another exotic location – Italy – and with an exciting plot about art forgery and kidnapping, with another bunch of quirky, obstinate and imperfect characters.

After eighteen months and a very encouraging rejection letter from Penguin (who took eleven of those months to read and reject it), I knew that my Greek novel was ready for the rest of the world so I uploaded it onto Amazon. It’s in the world wide gallery now, up against the Van Goghs and Picassos of the writing world, and most people don’t even know it’s there, but I’m proud of it and glad that I gave my first million words to my other unsung children first, so that this one could go to places that my first two would never see.

The following year my Italian novel went onto Amazon as well. It’s also there in the world wide gallery trying to keep its head above the water in a sea of Correggios and Titians (not to mention a few sharks as well) and it’s doing okay too. The novella I wrote for my creative writing course slipped silently into place between its two bigger siblings, and in a few months’ time I hope to have their Australian sibling swimming in the same ocean, fighting for its survival too.

I’m past the point where my books are only for friends and relatives to be nice about. I’m willing to take the risk, and so far the response has been good. I’m not ready to give up my day job yet, but I do love my interesting hobby and I feel confident that my books are bringing a measure of entertainment and fun into the lives of readers around the world, even if there are not many of them.

As far as my two trunk children are concerned, I would like to give them a chance as well, but not until they’ve both been totally rewritten. Back in April this year I started with the first one again – you can read my blog-post about it here.

This time I took a different approach. I ignored the 110 000 word text and went straight for the jugular in the chapter outline. It’s a lot easier to hack around at an 8-page outline than a 284-page manuscript! I also put each of my characters through a rigorous Myers-Briggs Personality Test to see exactly what characteristics they might be drawn to in others, and why the members of the historical family fight each other so much. I also discovered what the modern characters were likely to do under certain circumstances. Sometimes their choices surprised me, but I went with what they chose and it all added to the plot.

Exotic settings? Yes: London and Africa. Engaging, action-filled plot? Yes, I’ve shortened the timeline, increased the stakes and thrown in some nasty complications. Quirky characters riddled with flaws? Yes, and this time they are active, pissed off and bubbling with hidden agendas.

These guys are determined to leave their own mark on the world wide gallery, and can’t wait to romp with their siblings in the shark-infested ocean. But first I have to rewrite the whole thing, starting at page one…


Tantrums and the Best Way to Throw Them

Several years ago, my then-boyfriend and I were discussing people who lose their tempers. Since he had been a work colleague before we got together, he knew that I was capable of losing my temper. He had seen me do it several times in a work context.

So I was surprised when he said: “You don’t lose your temper. My ex-wife loses her temper. That’s why we could never have a gun in the house – or any weapon – because if there was a weapon around during one of her rages, me and the kids would be toast.”

I had met his ex-wife and had found her to be a calm, placid woman with a lively sense of humour. I overlaid this impression of her with the mental image of a female Viking in a Beserker rage, foaming at the mouth and mad-eyed as she lopped off heads to the right and left of her. It was pretty scary to think of my mild-mannered boyfriend ever facing such a creature.

“Well,” I reassured him, “I wouldn’t do that, but I do have a temper. You’ve seen me lose it.”

“No,” he said. “You don’t lose your temper. You just throw tantrums. You’re in danger of throwing one now because you don’t like what I’m saying…”

“I do NOT throw tantrums,” I said, gearing up for a mini-Beserker rage of my own. “I lose my temper.”

“No,” he insisted. “You throw tantrums. You do it for the effect it causes. It makes people think that you are losing your temper, so they give in to you. But it’s really a tantrum, because you know exactly what effect it will have and that’s why you do it. You can stop it anytime you want to. My ex-wife can’t – that’s the difference between you.”

I thought about this as I stopped my potential outburst. He was right, of course. He smiled knowingly.

“Don’t get smug about it,” I warned him. “There’s a first time for everything.”

His smile broadened. “Not you. You’d never allow yourself to completely lose control, would you? That’s why I love you.”

Good answer. Damn, it’s annoying when someone knows you better than you do yourself!

I’ve been thinking a lot about characters lately, and the limits they reach before they lose it completely. So this remembered conversation brings up just another question to ask myself when creating a character: what pushes this character’s buttons to the point where he loses his temper? Or does he actually lose it? Is he always in control below the surface and just doing it for the effect? Channelling a pent-up release of energy in the most cost-effective direction?

Looking back in my novels, I have tried to find that trigger point. In my first ever novel, based on my family’s history, the father in the family is pushed to those limits and a chance remark from his eldest son pushes him over the edge to the point where the father aims his gun at his son. The first-born is not about to take this calmly either, so they grapple for the gun and both fall to the ground where the gun goes off. The mother, hearing it from inside the house, rushes outside and grabs the gun from the two shocked combatants. Both men disappear in different directions, shamefaced at their behaviour.

Obviously this was a tantrum, because no one was foaming at the mouth and the shock of the shot going off stopped them both from actually killing…

In case you think this is a bad melodrama that never saw the light of day (well, actually it was badly written and consequently never got published), let me hasten to assure you that this actually happened in my family. Yes, it does beg some questions about volatile rednecks who take up arms against their own offspring, doesn’t it? When I first read that bit in a local historical archive, I was terribly embarrassed by it.

But I have to admit that this single event got me thinking more than anything else had about my great-great-grandfather’s character. In my search for what might have pissed him off, the only thing I came across was that his farm was not doing terribly well. Some years before – in 1880 – he had brought his family all the way from Manchester to South Africa as part of the Willowfountain settler scheme; a scheme that failed spectacularly and ended in misery for most of the settler farmers. Those who couldn’t make the payments on their stony little plots of land packed up and relocated to the nearest town because they couldn’t afford the fare back “home” to England.

Why did he snap at his eldest son? Perhaps the youth had been against the move from England all along and a snide remark from him was the final straw to the father who knew that his son had been right. And in that moment I had the two most important things that characters need in a novel: Something that they desire above all else, and conflict when they are denied what they want.

It remains to be seen whether or not I will ever rewrite this novel into something halfway decent, but in the meantime it’s good to know that my intentions were on track when I found that first spark which initiated it.