Thursday, 9 September 2021

Want Vs. Need in Character Motivation

The most important questions that I ask authors about their characters are … What is driving them? What is their quest? What do they want? 

Hopefully, these questions aren’t too difficult to answer. They want to make a million, climb Everest, fall in love, defeat the monster, escape the zombies, bring down the system, solve the murder, etc. etc. 

They need a goal, and it needs to be specific and measurable so that readers can join them on their journey and dance around the room or cry into their pillow when they succeed or fail.

Perhaps more difficult to answer is … What does your character need? But it is every bit as important, if not more, than their surface motivations, and it is going to give them depth and multiple dimensions.

Often, characters – in common with real people – have no idea what they need, and it is the conscious quest to fulfil their desires (what they think they need) that leads to personal revelations, growth and healing (what they actually need). This could take the form of learning to forgive, trust or love again, processing grief, building confidence, independence, faith … anything connecting to emotional development.

Characters’ needs often appear naturally and are obvious from the novel’s conception, maybe even forming the focus of your book. Sometimes, however, especially if you are a plot-driven writer, they require a bit more thought.

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Save the Cat! (Brody, 2018) explores the distinction between want and need in depth, referring to them as the A and B Story and outlining a specific plan to structure the former while the latter develops under the surface. This is an incredibly useful resource, but we have to look no further than our own lives for inspiration.

For example, I trained for a half marathon a few years ago. It was something that I had always wanted to do and I relished the challenge. The journey from couch potato to finish line is a worthy and interesting one. 

Underneath the surface, however, running was giving me the space to deal with a loss that I had suffered, and I needed to prove to myself that I was still strong, that I wasn’t completely broken. I also needed to learn to run joyfully rather than painfully, to enjoy life again rather than suffer.

In literature, we need look no further than classic characters for further examples: Austen’s Emma’s driving force was to matchmake, oblivious to her own need for love; Verne’s Phileas Fogg was desperate to prove that he could speed his way around the world, but he needed to learn to stop and appreciate the beauty of the moment; Steinbeck’s George and Lennie were chasing the American dream, but their ill-fated brotherhood was the real treasure; Sherlock Holmes wanted to solve the crime but needed the puzzle; Bridget Jones was desperate to change herself to find a man, but she needed to accept herself just the way she was; Harry Potter wanted to become a great wizard, defeat Voldemort and avenge his parents’ murder; what he needed more was simply a place to belong.

Every character has both a want and a need and the two converge at the journey’s end when they solve the crime, having faced their personal demons; escape the prison, finally finding the strength to forgive themselves for the crime; find romantic love, along with the self-care that they never knew they needed, etc. etc. The wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented here because human emotions are universal. As long as there is depth to discover, your readers will be happy.

Hayley Sherman has spent more than a decade supporting authors on their novel-writing journeys. Would you like her to assess your manuscript?


Photo by Laurenz Kleinheider on Unsplash




Saturday, 24 August 2019

Taking Over the World One Photo at a Time: Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski

I am always exciting when I find author rants that reinforce my frustration with our crazy obsession for capturing every meal, every haircut, every sunset, every sneezing cat, new pair of shoes and Tuesday morning on camera. More so, I am thrilled when a great writer gives voice to my fear that if you’re wielding a flat slab of technology at a gig or the Grand Canyon or your Aunt Dorothy’s wedding, and watching it through the little screen instead of connecting with the moment, you might just be missing something.

And I think there are probably enough photos in the world now, don’t you? Scientifically speaking, if photos were still being printed, I’m guessing that the whole world could be papered over more than three times with the pictures snapped in a single day. Even then, rather than freaking out about the world being papered over with photos, people would take yet more photos of this strange new occurrence and send them to each other. And then we’d take even more photos of the people taking photos of the world papered over with photos … and on and on it goes.

But I’m digressing. In Skating to Antarctica, Jenny Diski travels to Antarctica, while her daughter attempts to track down Diski’s estranged mother, a woman who should remain condemned to the past. It is an engrossing human account and one that features Diski’s frustration with the prevalence of travellers at Antarctica who crack off endless rounds of film, already mentally fast-forwarding home to show the snaps to their eager family and friends, rather than savouring the beautiful moment themselves. And this is in the pre-digital nineties. I wonder what she thought about the late 2010s

The description that really got my motor running was that ‘photography is a modern, miniature form of colonization.’ What an amazing idea! ‘It … captures a slice of the world, makes it private territory, deprives others the right of access.’ The beautiful invention that originally enabled us to see the world from our armchairs has backfired, now depriving us if we do ever decide to get up off those armchairs and go out into the world? It has all already been colonised. There is nothing left to see.

My mind instantly turned this idea of colonization into a literal image – of access denied. A teenager takes a snapshot of a sunset and literally leaves a black, rectangular hole with curved corners in the sky where the image has been, then slips the stolen sunset into her pocket.

Access denied.

Hayley Sherman is an editor and ghost writer for hire. Hit her up!!

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Brian Montgomery, Author of the Degsy Hay Trilogy, on Writing for Social Change

The Degsy Hay trilogy is a heartfelt, hard-hitting series following the many rises and falls of a young man let down by the system. But although Degsy Hay, the eponymous hero, is as hard as nails and condemned to a life on the streets or behind bars, he refuses to stay down and devotes himself to helping others find a better life. Oh, and he finds time to bring down the corrupt, fight injustice, battle his rivals and fall in love. These are explosive, emotional, sometimes funny, always human books, and I caught up with author and Whoosh! client Brian Montgomery to find out more.

I know this book is close to your heart, Brian. Can you give us a bit of background on your inspiration for Degsy?

Degsy is based on my teen years growing in a gang environment in South London. Although the book is fictional, real events did occur. Sleeping rough on the streets of London, having to protect myself from prowlers, taking solvents, drugs and alcohol to forget about the freezing cold temperatures and about life for a while, but also having to dip the bins for food. Fortunately, I never went to prison but spent time in a lock-up government children’s home.

So you must relate to Degsy quite closely?

Very close. He’s also my hero. Every good thing he does, he reminds me of me as a teen, wanting to get out of the gang trend and become a different person.

Did the writing flow easily or did your closeness to the subject matter present problems?

There were a lot of problems, some emotional. With every sentence I wrote I was confronted with my past. But it got easier as I went along.

It’s quite hard-hitting in places, covering violence and abuse; was it harrowing to write?

It was, because my past was harrowing. But those same experiences helped me to become a hardnut and I’d win most of my fights as a teen, which went a long away in keeping me safe while roughing the streets.

Did you need to do a lot of research?

No not really. I knew what type of era I was brought up in. Listening to and reading the media daily about youth knife crime and gangs, it was important for me to write about this. And I wanted to try taking would-be gang members into new, positive situations and a new kind of gang where they can help those in the community where they live.

You have worked with young people to take them away from gangs and street life, do you see the book as a continuation of that work?

Very much so, despite the barriers I'm facing from local government and police. I have now promised myself that I'll make a movie out of the books. I feel young people would pay more attention, watching a movie rather than reading books. This, of course, will need sponsoring.

Gangs and knife crime are such serious problems in the UK and globally; what do you see as being the solution?

The ideas in the book mirror those that I would like to implement in real life. The Hay Patrollers is a youth program, getting young people out of gang life, encouraging them to find a place in the community. This not only reduces crime by creating positive activities for those who participate, but also it creates employment and respect. I haven’t heard of many communities with similar ideas, creating employment and housing.

Book three in the series, Degsy Hay: Unit 16-21 (currently being written), not only explores the idea of providing apprenticeships, but also subsidising one-bed housing for each participant. This could become a huge, positive programme, but funding and sponsors will be needed.

What are you hoping to achieve with the book?

As many sales as possible so I can put 50% of the royalties back into the Hay Patrollers programme and realise my dream of making a movie.

What’s the next step for you as a writer?

Complete book three, keep the Degsy franchise open and perhaps write some thrillers or mysteries.

The first two books in the trilogy are available now and receiving positive reviews
Degsy Hay: A Juvenile Redeemed
Degsy Hay: The Hay Patrollers
Want to help? Support Brian's crucial community projects here.

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Thursday, 6 December 2018

Ho! Ho! Ho! Writing Christmas Fiction with Julie Hodgson

Award-winning author and Whoosh client Julie Hodgson has written for adults and children across a range of genres, including everyone’s favourite – the Christmas book! Yes, who doesn’t love a good tale of families coming together and mean-spirited humbugs learning the true meaning of Christmas, both of which are central to her hilarious book The Gift, in which long-suffering Joe is forced to team up with the mother-in-law from hell to pass tests set by Santa himself and save his wife in time for Christmas. I caught up with Julie for a quick chat about the inspiration behind the book, what goes into writing a seasonal novel and how she’ll be spending the holidays.  

What inspired you to tackle a Christmas book?

Christmas is my absolute favourite time of the year. I have already written a few Christmas stories for small children and love the subject.

What was your inspiration when writing The Gift?

Again, my love for the Christmas spirit and season. It always brings out the very best in most people. I like that.

Christmas books are often about families coming together. Tell us about the relationship between Joe and his awful, flame-haired monster-in-law.

Joe tries his best but always feels he is never good enough for Madge. She picks fault all the time without rhyme or reason. But Madge does have her ways and Joe tries to please her, just to keep the peace for Beth. Of course, when two people are thrown together it can go either way. With Joe and Madge, the results are both funny and heart warming.

Who/what inspired the terrible mother-in-law character?

We can all guess pretty well about who the mother-in-law character was based on. I think many wives or husbands have this issue with not being liked by the spouse’s mother! A son’s mother never really accepts the new woman in their son’s life … at least not every one of them! There are exceptions.

What is the most important ingredient of a Christmas book?

It’s great to have comedy, heart-warming situations and, of course, the family involved.

What advice would you give to other writers tackling Christmas books?

It’s important to have some strong characters in the book, a main one who the reader can follow. It’s essential to have lots going on, excitement, even sad situations. This will keep the reader following the story.

How important is a happy ending in seasonal writing?

To me at least, it’s very important … Although I do know it is not always the case. But Christmas is for having dreams and happy endings, especially in books.

How has creating a book with a limited window for sales affected your marketing strategy?

I never think of any one particular marketing strategy for the Christmas books, as people love them anyway … I use postcards, which are easy to give to people or leave in libraries and shops. Xmas fayres are a great way to spread the news about your Christmas saga. The cover is important, I feel, too. I always look for a wonderful cover when I’m buying a book. And now I own a book shop, but I don’t tell customers I’m an author; it’s a buzz when they pick up one of my books.

What is your favourite Christmas book?

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens!

How will you be spending Christmas this year?

As I am in Portugal this year, I am flying to Sweden to be with my grown-up children and to have a crazy family Christmas, with board games, good food and plenty of laughter. Whereas Madge has issues with Joe, I adore my son- and daughter-in-law.

Buy The Gift by Julie Hodgson on Amazon
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Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Three Incredibly Easy Ways to Make Your Character Descriptions Pop

                                                            She had blue eyes, brown hair, a blue jumper and a look of boredom that had been there since she read this description of herself.

We've all been guilty of lazy writing like this before. So, what follows are three tips to avoid listing your characters' attributes and elevate your description to make it pop.


Select Meaningful Points of Focus

Think about what you are telling your readers with your physical description. Yes, you are telling us what your characters look like, but you could be showing us so much more. What would you like us to see about your characters that’s unique to them and builds on character development?

Think about that blue jumper. She wore a blue jumper. Anyone can wear a blue jumper, but ask yourself how your character is wearing it and what it says about them. Is it new or old? Tightfitting or loose and worn? Are the sleeves rolled up? This will give you a starting point, but take it further so this jumper could only belong to your character. Does it have stains down the front? Does she fiddle with the loose threads? Perhaps it’s not a jumper at all but a t-shirt with a slogan that shows your character’s unique perspective; a shirt that he sweats through within minutes of putting it on; a painters’ shirt with more paint on it than the canvas.

And those blue eyes? She had blue eyes. What are they telling us about the character? Seventeen percent of the world’s population has blue eyes (thank you, Google). What sets your character apart from the others? What are they expressing or looking at? Do they blink particularly slowly or quickly or linger, thirsty to drink in the world around him? Or maybe there is another focal point that will tell us more about this character? His/her hands, feet, necklace, tattoo, hat, teeth?

Carefully selecting focus points is a great approach to take when describing all other aspects of your book. Think beyond literal description and about what you would like to show readers. Think about the perspective of the character viewing the room or the dog or the sky; does it affect the way you describe it? Think about who the garden or car or phone belong to; what does your description tell us about them? Use description to your advantage to reveal and develop character and plot.


Show Your Description in Action

I have touched on this in the first tip, when the character fiddles with the loose strand on the blue jumper or his blue eyes linger on the world around him. Adding movement/interaction will paint a stronger picture of your characters beyond 2D descriptions, and you are killing two birds with one stone: avoiding directly telling readers how a character feels (the greatest writing sin!) and creating more dynamic description. So, 'The nervous woman in the blue jumper' becomes 'The fidgety woman fiddling with the loose strands on her worn jumper'. 'The miserable-looking man at the bar with the blue eyes' becomes 'The man at the bar who hasn’t looked up from the glass of warm beer in his hand for the last hour nor taken a sip of it'.

Even when you are not particularly saying much of anything about a character with your description and you really do just want a character to have blonde hair and blue eyes, it will be more powerfully shown dynamically rather than in list form. So, ‘She had blonde hair’ becomes ‘I hadn’t noticed just how blonde her hair was until we were out in the light’. ‘He had blue eyes’ becomes ‘Those blue eyes got me every time. How could I say no?’.
Again, use dynamic description throughout the book, beyond character description, to elevate your writing.


Use all the Senses

So far, we have only looked at visual description, but there are five senses to play with, and the other four are quite often forgotten. What sounds does a person make and what do they tell us about the character? Perhaps they are so softly spoken that it’s almost as if they don’t want to be heard. Perhaps they crack their knuckles so loudly that it makes her jump every time. Perhaps the suit was so cheap that it squeaked. What about smell? Everyone has a unique smell and every smell tells a story. There are obvious smells, like BO and perfume, but it’s the unusual smells that get the cogs turning: ‘It was an odd combination of cinnamon and WD40; don’t ask me what she had spent the day doing.’

The more intimate senses are useful when characters are up close and personal, but touch also has a place in general character descriptions. Think of a simple handshake and what this could tell us about a character. Is it firm or soft? Hot or cold? Rough or soft?

If this was helpful, feel free to share it with others.

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Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Why are Agents and Publishers Rejecting Your Novel?

There are many reasons that agents and publishers reject manuscripts. These reasons fall into two categories: variables controlled by them and variables controlled by you. Anything from budgets and a full list could fall into the first category, to something as trivial as an agent looking at your sample after an argument with his/her husband/wife and barely reading it. That’s publishing for you – it was never meant to be easy!

Thick skin and persistence are obviously key here. Even the spotty, awkward, greasy teenager gets a date if he asks every single girl in the whole school. Every ‘no’ brings him closer to a ‘yes’, and it’s the same principle with finding a home for your book. Knock on enough doors and you eventually find an agent or publisher. Right? Well, partly, but, sticking with the metaphor, wouldn’t it be better to have a wash, reach for the Clearasil and get some dating advice?

This is where the second set of variables become important. What can you do to attract attention and impress potential backers? More importantly, what might you be doing to ruin your chances of finding representation?

Not researching the agent or publisher thoroughly

It’s tempting to send samples out in all directions to see what sticks, but wouldn’t it be better to take the time to find the best match for your work? No poetry, children’s book, sci-fi, etc. means just that. No publisher ever is going to be so dazzled by your work that they will change their ethos to work around you. Don’t waste their time. Instead, show them respect and tell them why you have chosen them specifically in your cover letter. If you can’t think of a reason, they might not be the agent or publisher for you.

Not presenting your work to their specifications

Agents and publishers each have their own specifications governing submissions. Read them! Some things are generally similar – 12pt font, Times New Roman, double-spaced, one side of A4 – however, there are variables in their content requirements – email/snail mail, long/short synopsis, one/three chapters/whole manuscript. They may ask for a reading fee, a reference, a CV. The only way to find out is to check their website or The Artists’ and Writers’ Yearbook.

Not Presenting your work professionally

Are your sample chapters, cover letter and synopsis printed on good quality paper, well-aligned, free from thumbprints? Have you put them in an A4 envelope and neither stapled nor folded them? Are you proud to send this first impression to the people that hold your future in their hands? If not, bypass the postbox and head straight to the bin.

Not checking for errors

When you have solved cosmetic problems, the next step is confronting the text. Is your manuscript full of errors? This is an interesting and difficult question; if your manuscript is full of error, you have made them and might not be aware of them. A better question would be to ask if you are the best person to judge if there are errors in your sample. I suggest getting as many eyes on deck as possible. A professional proofread is never a waste of money.         

Not reworking your manuscript sufficiently

I’m sure there is no need for me to say this, but you shouldn’t be sending anyone your first draft. The first draft is merely the clay that you can then rework into your masterpiece. It is a springboard to greater work. There are no hard and fast rules about how many times you need to edit a book, but the more work you put in, the better the result, so allow yourself to be driven by your own high standards. Again, get as many people to read it as possible. A professional manuscript assessment is a great way of looking at the novel with fresh eyes and discovering strengths and weaknesses in both the project and your writing skills.

Underestimating the role of a writer

It takes hard work, determination, practise, sacrifice and devotion to be a writer. Many authors fail to find representation until they have written a number of books, developing skills with each project. Others find success later in life, again building and honing their skills over time. If you have chosen writing because of £million book deals and overnight success stories, you may be approaching this from the wrong angle. There are no shortcuts and no replacement for a lifetime of development. Take a course, join a writing group, get as many people to read you as possible so you can gain a sense of where you are in terms of your abilities. Seeking publication is applying for the Olympics. Are you ready for that?

Underestimating the additional role of a writer

Agents and publishers are primarily looking for great, well-written books. They are also concerned with who is writing them. In the 21st century ‘who you are’ in this context means ‘who you are online’. Do you have a blog? Have you been published online or in magazines? Have you self-published? What do your Facebook and Twitter accounts look like? Are you presenting yourself as someone who is capable of building hype and publicising your own book? Do you have any significant contacts that you can share in your cover letter?      

Finally, sadly, flogging a dead horse

Your book just might not be good enough. It’s blunt, I know, but this is a reality that we all have to face at some point in our careers. We have devoted six months or a year or fifteen years to a book, we have put our souls into it, and we’ve accidentally produced a stinker. You can try to mend it, seek advice, edit hard, but some books were never meant to be. I have seen writers crushed beneath the weight of their magnum opuses for decades, unwilling to let them go because they have devoted themselves to them for so long. This is no way to live. Sometimes, it’s okay to simply let go, take what you have learned to your next project and keep moving forwards.

Hayley Sherman has been helping writers move towards publication for ten years.
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Friday, 24 November 2017

Show Don’t Tell - The Writer’s Mantra! But When is it Okay to Tell?

‘Show don’t tell’ is the single most valuable piece of advice a writer can receive. Don’t tell the reader what’s going on, get out your box of paints and create a world that readers can disappear into. Don’t explain what’s happening, stay in the moment and allow the events to unravel, detail by detail. The closer you get to the action or drama, the more immersed your readers will become in your fantasy.

We all know the Chekhov quote now – ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’­ – and it’s a great illustration of the point.

Every time I assess or edit a fresh manuscript for a client, the words ‘show don’t tell’ will always pop up at least once in my notes, whether it’s simply a need to show the heat and tension on a character’s face rather than simply writing, ‘She was angry’, or a greater sin of completely lapsing into distant overview and summarising whole scenes when what we really need is to stay in the moment.

However, there is definitely a time and a place for telling. You just need to make sure you know when and where that is.

I am rereading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler and rediscovering what a masterclass it is on the subject. It’s hard to talk about the book without spoilers, so I will simply say that Rosemary’s story is unravelled throughout the early decades of her life, which Fowler achieves through a balance of scene-building and overview, showing and telling, both of which are necessary because of the scope of the story. The genius of this narrative is Fowler’s instinct for when to zoom in for a closeup of the moments of Rosemary’s life and when to pull away to show readers the bigger picture. She does so with a deft hand that allows her to skip from the past to the present, and uses the distinct first-person voice to colour her ‘telling’ with the opinions and character of her narrator that make the book so unique. I highly recommend taking a look.

Zooming in and out is a great way of addressing the showing and telling issue. For the most part, we obviously need to be zoomed in. This is where readers are flies on walls that you are creating, eavesdropping on the dialogue, absorbing interactions moment by moment, interpreting nuanced behaviour into character and plot (with no ‘telling’ from you). The telling comes in when you need to convey something that cannot be shown … and I mean really cannot be shown; this does not include explanations of what a character is feeling, unnecessary chapter introduction and summaries of what’s generally going on (which often show a lack of confidence in your ability and underestimate the intelligence of your readers).

So, when can you tell?

‘Telling’ often becomes necessary when there are gaps that need to be filled; either the past needs to be explained or time has moved on and your readers need to know what’s happened in their absence. This is where I encourage you to get creative and ask questions of your project. Do you need to tell as much as you think in the exposition? Would you be creating a more challenging read if background was implied rather than directly revealed? And when used, what can you do to create ‘telling’ that is as absorbing and compelling as the ‘showing’? Fowler and others zoom in and out even within exposition, often throwing in fragments of scenes and dialogue alongside summary to illustrate their ‘telling’; what can you do in this way to dissolve the distance that ‘telling’ creates?

This is especially challenging with first-person narratives, where you are firmly positioned inside your main character’s head and it is tempting to explain what they are thinking and experiencing rather than showing it, which is why it is so important to consider how you are going to approach this kind of commentary before beginning. Even if you have created a character whose thought processes, worldview and personal voice are so dynamic and captivating that we are hanging off every thought they have, we will still get closer to them if we are allowed to see out of their eyes and experience the world the way they see it, rather than simply being told about it.

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