Tag Archives: characters

Keeping focused

For once, this isn’t actually a blog post about the struggle to focus on the novel in the midst of everything else that’s going on in my world. That is still (and will ever be) a challenge, though the early mornings are definitely keeping things ticking over.

My latest issue, though, is keeping my focus where it should be within the novel writing process itself. Since I’ve jumped almost twenty years into the future, picking up with my teenage protagonist as she navigates her way through adult life, I’m finding my mind increasingly drifting towards structure.

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I think it’s partly because, 75,000 words in, I can begin to taste what the novel might be like in its finished form. It is still a long way off that – far more than either of my first two novels I have really let myself be liberated by the first draft, and I know what I’ve ended up with is much rougher around the edges. Still, though, I’m finding it hard not to project a response onto future readers, trying to imagine how satisfied they will be with how I’ve told the story, how much they will empathise with my protagonist both now and in her past.

And actually, ultimately, what is seeping in at the corners of my mind are those questions about how exactly am I going to tell this story.

I’ve written it chronologically, starting when my main character was ten and peeking into every summer until she was sixteen, and everything began to come tumbling down. There’s loads I’ve left out – some I’ve alluded to in dialogue, some that is there in an exchange of letters. And then of course there’s a whole seventeen years that’s missing between the two different phases of life the novel covers. The bulk of the story happens – and is told – in the past, but the ‘present’ is vital to understanding its significance.

I always imagined that I would structure the final narrative in a way which travelled between those two phases, and that is still my goal. I told myself just to get the story down first, and to worry about that particular (albeit major) detail later. And that is ultimately still what I’m trying to do. But it’s so odd writing something when you’re not entirely sure what your reader already knows at that point – or what they don’t. So hard to think about building suspense when you know that you might already – intentionally – have given the game away.

I’m not expecting any answers here. It’s an interesting process, and one which I think I just need to hold my course on if I’m going to be able to find out whether it will work. There are a handful of key scenes that remain to be written, and once I’ve done that the solutions may well emerge all by themselves. Even if they don’t, I’m quite looking forward to the jigsaw puzzle challenge that the next phase of this novel looks likely to present.

I just need to make sure that I have all of the pieces on the table first before I try to see the bigger picture.

 

Writing Bubble

A new voice

So despite all of the crazy busyness of the last couple of weeks, the novel has managed somehow to hold its own. In fact last week I was flying – on Thursday and Friday alone I managed five thousand words, which helped me get my head well and truly back above the water.

It wasn’t just about the words, either: plot points fell into place, my characters led me through some tricky resolutions, and my head was bursting with ideas about where I wanted to take things next. Out of nowhere I had found some much-needed momentum, and just for a while it felt as if the story was writing itself.

But of course that didn’t last; I knew it wouldn’t.

The downhill cartwheels that were powering me through were gathering speed as I grew closer to an ending: the end of my protagonist’s childhood, and also the end of the section of the novel that is set in the (not so distant) past. But it is not the end of the novel. My task now is to get to know the adult she has grown into, and that is a whole new challenge.

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Yesterday, I mainly scribbled notes – adding to the initial ideas I’d had about those almost-present-day chapters and hovering my pen over emotions and actions that suddenly didn’t feel right. I thought I knew her, adult Catherine, but it turns out that maybe I didn’t.

I suppose it is only right that having spent several months (and sixty seven thousand words) travelling through her teenage years the woman who I am faced with now at thirty three is different to how I had imagined. She’s much more rounded, which is good. Initially when I was planning I only had the outline of the tumultuous events that had shaped her, I didn’t know exactly how she would respond. So I am almost starting again, in some respects, mapping out those future echoes with a preciseness that was previously beyond my reach.

Much of the details will come out in the writing itself. I began a scene today which, when I let it, filled in the gaps for me. It’s slower work though: finding a character who is changed and yet consistent, a tone which is complementary and yet not just more of the same.

I’m trying hard not to get frustrated.

I can see that 24th May deadline that I set myself looming up fast over the horizon, and I suspect I might not meet it. I don’t even know right now whether ninety thousand words are going to be enough to tell the story I want to. There’s definitely going to be some serious editing when it comes to the next draft, but I suspect the raw material may spill over once I’ve found my flow again.

And ultimately, I have to remind myself what’s important. The deadline was only ever a cursory one, the word counts plucked out of the air to give me something to aim for. Part of me is impatient for the next stage. I want to see how all of these parts are going to fit together, how the story will weave its way between past and future. But I know I need to get the whole of the story down before I can do that.

So I will carry on, listening hard to the voice of this damaged and disillusioned woman at the dawn of the new millennium. After all there is nobody else that can tell me the rest of her story as well as Catherine herself.

 

The power of the narcissist

I’ve been grappling with a bit of a dilemma in the last few weeks. A figure from my past, who I worked hard to forget, has reappeared in a very public forum. He has been tasked by the government with a position of great responsibility, and that rankles with me. Because the person I knew ten years ago was far from deserving of such acclaim.

On several occasions I have come close to outing him – to sharing the details of his betrayal and asking, publicly, whether such a man should be trusted in this role. My decision not to was not an easy one to make: it does not come from a desire to protect him, or the feeling that he should be given the benefit of the doubt. It comes instead out of fear.

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Even as I type this I can feel my pulse quicken and a sour taste rise in my mouth. I am furious that, after all this time, he can have this hold over me: but such is the power of the narcissist.

This man did not abuse me, physically. What he did was way more insidious: undermined my self-esteem and worldview to the extent that I did not know which way was up any more, then pulled the rug from underneath me to reveal depths of deception that I had not even begun to imagine. He was an expert manipulator – to paraphrase his brother he was ‘a pathological liar who I would not trust with my own children’. And this is why, after much deliberation, I cannot bring myself to take him on. He has too much to lose, and I am sure he would have no qualms about destroying me in his quest to protect it.

Even at the time, it was hard to communicate to an outsider (or even to myself) what it was that was so toxic about our relationship. On the surface, I was holding it all together – a burgeoning teaching career, an active social life, the ability to turn on a smile whenever it was needed. But underneath it all I was slowly crumbling away. It took me many years to recover fully, and it’s just not a place I want to go back to.

It has got me thinking, though, about how strong women get taken down by manipulative men. I have met several women in the time that has passed who have escaped from similar situations, and each time my response has been similar: “But you’re so clever/pretty/funny/brilliant. How on earth could you let yourself get taken in by such a loser?”

And that’s from someone who’s been there. So how anyone who has not been subject to such skilled manipulation is expected to understand it is anyone’s guess.

This is in the forefront of my mind now as I begin to work on the latest draft of my second novel. Whilst it is not autobiographical, the dynamic of the central relationship definitely plays out along these lines. And the conversation I had with my agent about it last week mirrors my fears about trying to resurrect the injustices of the past. To her, it’s just not believable. The predicament my protagonist wanders haplessly into makes her look impossibly naive. It is the behaviour, she suggested, of a teenage girl rather than a confident woman in her twenties.

I wish I could go back and tell myself the same.

Of course, in the context of my novel, my agent is entirely right. Often events that are pulled directly from real life are incredibly difficult to translate into fiction. Without the anchor of incontrovertible fact the challenge of making someone buy into a story is all the harder. So I know I need to go back to the manuscript and work out how to do that, how to tweak and tease the details of my protagonist’s life and the way I tell her story to convince the reader that she really could be so vulnerable.

And against the backdrop of this ghost from my past being put on such a pedestal, my motivation to get it right is all the stronger.

I may not be brave (or stupid) enough to take this man to task on a public stage, but I can do my damnedest to expose the complex dance of mental disorder that unfolds in a narcissistic relationship. And maybe even, by holding a mirror sharpened by fiction up to the nightmare suffered by its victims, I can open up a dialogue which will enable others to be a little less afraid of confronting the demons in their past.

 

Muddled Manuscript

 

Listening to the world

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I’ve written before about how taking a leaf out of Arthur’s book really helps me as a writer – seeing things around me through fresh eyes, finding new perspectives and stories in the everyday. This is especially true about the stage I’m at with my third novel at the moment. It’s just beginning, there are ideas and possibilities floating around all over the place, and it’s my job to be open to them, to gather them together so I can begin to weave them into a plot.

A huge swathe of inspiration is already inside my head. My main characters set up camp in there a while ago and, it seems, have been getting to know themselves and each other whilst I’ve been busy doing other things. The girl – I don’t know her name yet – spoke to me the other night. It was about two in the morning, and she said:

I knew it was wrong, even then. Of course when I say ‘wrong’ I mean ‘considered inappropriate’. But it all is when you’re a teenager, isn’t it? Everything you breathe or think or do. So that really didn’t help me calibrate my moral compass.

I’ve finally downloaded Evernote on to my phone so her words are safely stashed away on there. Along with a photo of a bench, and a growing collection of images which capture  Brixham forty years ago.

The girl popped into my head again as I was thinking about Sara’s prompt of Smoke. She led me to a longer piece of writing then, one which taught me a surprising amount about her (and him).

I think this might be a key part of my method this time round: just writing the scenes that come into my head, before I even work the ideas into a coherent plan. These scenes might make it into the finished story, or they might not – but I love the idea of listening a little bit more closely to what my characters have to offer before trying to pigeonhole them.

The other place I’m looking for inspiration is in the past. Much of the story unfolds in the late 1970s/early 1980s. I was born in 1978, but it’s not a period I know an awful lot about and I’m finding it fascinating discovering more. My primary reference point at the moment is Crisis? What Crisis?: Britain in the 1970s by Alwyn W. Turner, and even in the opening chapters I’ve already found some historical gems which sit perfectly alongside the story that’s beginning to emerge.

And then there’s my town. It’s actually really lovely to be mulling over a tale which belongs here after the first two novels which are very firmly rooted in London. It means that every stroll or errand or minute spent gazing out of the window becomes an integral part of my research. I’m planning to formalise that soon, reaching out to local people who might be able to add to what I know of Brixham – particularly its past.

But for now I’m very happy listening to the world, both inside and outside my head, and I can’t wait to see where else it takes me.

 

Muddled Manuscript

Smoke

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Now that novel number two is temporarily out of my hands once again, my thoughts have been drifting to the next one. Seeds were planted months ago by an inscription on a memorial bench overlooking the sea in Brixham, and in the recesses of my mind a plot has been beginning to form. This week, the voice of my main character has become hard to ignore. And that’s where this scene has come from: a moment in her life that may or may not prove to be significant.

***

I was fourteen when we first kissed.

We’d gone up to the fort. For a walk, he said, which kept Nan happy. And we did sort of walk, hands in pockets as our feet scuffed the grass. He kept going too close to the edge, sending shingle ricocheting down the cliff as I pleaded with him to move back just a bit.

He laughed at me of course. He never took me seriously, not for a second. It drove me mad! I took everything seriously back then, though I tried my best to pretend I didn’t when I was with him.

It was still warm even though it was after six. A haze hovered on the horizon, blurring the line that separated the air from the sea. The ground beneath our feet was dusty, thick orange dust which coated my toes. Nan kept trying to get me to wear plimsolls but I was happy in my flip flops. I’d have worn nothing at all if I’d thought I could get away with it.

As we walked back towards the car park he broke away, running up the hill and disappearing over the ridge. I ran after him despite my better judgement, ignoring the flailing of my legs. They felt like they’d doubled in length that year. I knew I ought to be pleased, but I didn’t like it. I wanted my old body back, the one I knew.

I stopped when I reached the top, opening the gate and looking out over the field. He was nowhere to be seen. Such a child, hiding from me like that.

Then I heard a whistle. It could’ve belonged to one of the many people that walked their dogs up on the headland but they’d all gone home for their tea leaving us alone in our playground. Besides, I knew it was him.

He was in the ruin, nestled into the corner with his feet flat on the dry mud and his brown knees pointing to the sky. He was rolling a tube of paper between his fingers and grinned at me as I stumbled in.

“You found me then.”

“I’m not a dog, you know.”

I’d spoken to him about the whistling before. It was degrading, I knew that. And it was because I liked it that he had to stop.

“D’you fancy a smoke?”

He put the joint between his lips and pulled a box of matches out of the pocket of his shirt. He squinted as he leaned towards the flame, his nose wrinkling with concentration. I’d never noticed he had so many freckles before. They spilled onto his cheeks, competing for attention against his deepening tan.

“No, thanks. I don’t.”

“Suit yourself.”

He inhaled deeply and rested his head back against the stone before blowing the smoke up towards the gap where the roof used to be. His lips were full and red, and as I watched him I found myself licking mine before looking down and shuffling awkwardly from one foot to another.

“Come here.”

He cocked his head to one side and patted the ground next to him with his free hand whilst he inhaled from the joint again. I did as I was told.

Out of the sun the air had a faint chill to it, and I was glad of his body next to mine. I leant back against the wall and drew my knees up towards my chest, my bare leg brushing against his. He didn’t move away.

“You know that stuff’s really bad for you,” I couldn’t help myself. I had no idea what I was talking about, not really. I’d never had as much as a toke on a cigarette, let alone anything stronger. I just didn’t have those sorts of friends.

“Yeah, it’s good though.”

With his next exhale, he sent little fluffy rings drifting up to meet the clouds. I refused to look impressed.

“You sure I can’t tempt you?”

His eyes were only a few inches away from mine, that spark I’d been trying to ignore all summer cancelling out my good intentions.

“I don’t know. I…”

“Stay there. Open your mouth, just a little.”

I wasn’t sure what he was going to do as he shifted round in front of me, lifting the joint to his mouth again then steadying himself on the wall behind me as he leaned in and pushed his lips against mine.

My lungs constricted as I breathed in sharply and he fell back laughing while coughs shook my core. I couldn’t speak, but I was sure my anger showed in my face. His giggles did begin to subside eventually, and oxygen returned to my blood. With it came a new feeling, a not entirely unpleasant one. My head was lighter, and I began to smile.

Like a mercurial mirror he became serious then, a look I didn’t recognise softening his features. He leant in again and kissed me full on the mouth. I kissed him back.

And then he pulled away and leapt to his feet. I wanted him to do it again but I didn’t know how to ask. So instead I followed him down the hill and we said nothing until we were back at the house where tea was already on the table, getting cold.

He didn’t kiss me for a long time after that. Looking back I almost wish he never had.

***

Thank you to Sara at Mum Turned Mom for inspiring this post with her prompt: smoke.

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Another voice

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As I’ve been working through my draft, chopping and changing and adding and tweaking, there’s something I haven’t quite been able to reconcile.

On one level, this novel is a thriller. Something bad is happening – right from the beginning. Except my protagonist doesn’t know about it, and we’re seeing things from her point of view. I need to create a growing sense of dread, a sense that all is not right in the world – but from Grace’s perspective, for the majority of the time at least, everything is unfolding as it should. There are moments where her intuition tells her to be careful, but it’s hard to really work these without things seeming ham-fisted. And besides, she’s not stupid: if she was really uneasy then she wouldn’t take the steps she needs to for everything to pan out as it does.

When I was in the planning stages I thought perhaps I could tell the story through multiple voices, weave the different versions of reality through. I soon concluded that this wouldn’t work, that it would give too much away where I wanted to leave the reader guessing.

Except now I’m not so sure…

I wrote a character exercise last week to explore things as my antagonist sees them, and it turns out his voice is so strong that I don’t think I can silence it. He can’t have equal airtime in the novel – it is not really him that this story is about – but I think there can be flashes, moments of insight into the dark mind at work behind the scenes that will colour the reader’s interpretation of the rest.

That’s where I’m at right now anyway. I’m going to see what happens if I let him have his say at a few key points, whether I can manage to craft his interludes so they create that sense of dread without giving too much away. If I can pull it off it should add an element of dramatic irony as things unfold, give the reader a smidgen more knowledge than Grace has herself to filter their reactions to her through.

And if nothing else then just the process will give me more of an insight into what’s driving him, and that can be no bad thing.

 

Muddled Manuscript

A writer’s apology

I’m pleased to be able to report that the novel is going pretty well. After three weeks of writing I’m six chapters and nearly 20,000 words in, and my loosely sketched out ideas are beginning to pad out rather nicely.

There is however one thing that’s been bothering me a little, playing on my mind as the plot unfolds. And that’s the impact it’s all going to have on my main character. I’ve spent the first few chapters getting to know her a bit better. She’s a bit annoying (more than I’d anticipated actually, but then I’ve probably got my own foibles to blame for that), but she definitely means well, and she’s not unkind.  She’s in a good place right now – better than she’s been for years. But that’s all about to change now she’s met him.

It’s still early days, but I can sense her anticipation building. She’s totally seduced by him already even if she hasn’t quite admitted it to herself yet. He has her just where he wants her – and his manipulation of her every emotion has only just begun.

I know where this all ends of course. The general gist of it if not quite all the detail. And she totally doesn’t deserve what’s coming. She has no idea, and won’t have until she’s been sucked in way too deep. I mean, I could warn her – but like the director having a sneaky aside with the blonde girl as she heads off alone into the horror movie forest it really wouldn’t do much for the story.

So I’m just going to have to hold my nerve and suppress my protective instincts, continuing to weave the web of words that will trap her in the end. Things are going to get better for a while anyway, so I can comfort myself with the romance of it all. But I know what’s coming, where his true intentions lie. And for that, Grace, I am sorry.