Saturday, 27 August 2011

60 Seconds with David Nicholls

[Originally published in the August 2010 issue of Words with JAM]

David Nicholls trained as an actor before making the switch to writing. His TV credits include the third series of Cold Feet, Rescue Me, and I Saw You. He was co-writer for the film adaptation of Simpatico, which starred Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges and Sharon Stone. David's bestselling first novel, Starter for Ten, was selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club in 2004. David wrote the screenplay for the film version, released in 2006, starring James McAvoy, Rebecca Hall and Dominic Cooper. He also wrote And When Did you Last See Your Father (2007), with Jim Broadbent and Colin Firth and a much-praised modern adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles (2008), with Gemma Arterton for the BBC.

His second novel, The Understudy was published in 2005. His most recent, One Day, is currently being filmed with Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess in the roles of Emma and Dexter. David also wrote the screenplay.

He lives in North London with his partner Hannah and two children, Max and Romy.

Which was your favourite childhood book?
The Silver Sword, Ian Serraillier.

Where do you write?
At home three days a week, the British Library the rest of the time.

Which was the book that changed your life?
Great Expectations.

What objects are on your desk, and why?
A radio, a pot of pens, unanswered letters.

Which book should be on the national curriculum?
Great Expectations.

Do you have a word or phrase that you most overuse?
Terrific, a terrible word.

Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn't?
I think Wuthering Heights is an insanely over-praised piece of nonsense.

What have you learned from writing?
Perseverance pays.

Which book do you wish you'd written?
Tender is the Night.

What will be written on your gravestone?
Just the facts.

Which book/writer deserves to be better known?
A fine American novelist, John Williams. His book Stoner is a masterpiece.

What are you working on at the moment?
The movie of One Day.

Which pizza topping best represents your personality?
A slow, steady Margarita.

Each issue, we persuade, tempt and coerce (or bully, harass and blackmail) two writers into spilling the contents of their shelves. Twelve questions on books and writing. Plus the Joker – a wild thirteenth card which can reveal so much. Be honest, what do you put on YOUR chips?

To ensure your receive a copy of our magazine containing the most up to date, exclusive interviews with your favourite authors, make sure you're subscribed to the magazine -

Your intrepid reporter,

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Promoting your book, promoting yourself

by Jane Wenham-Jones

When it comes to promoting books, nobody could accuse me of not doing my bit on the publicity front. I’ve been shouted at on Kilroy, chopped broccoli on Ready, Steady, Cook; had my hair dyed on The Salon and smashed a large piece of crystal on the set of The Heaven and Earth Show (this was not in the running order). Once I even stood on a box on Speakers’ Corner which, I can tell you, is not for the faint-hearted. My motto has always been, in this harsh world of commercial enterprise that bookselling has become : Say Yes to Everything. Even if that sometimes means travelling all day to appear for three minutes on a little-known satellite channel with six viewers only to find that just as one opens one’s mouth to mention one’s latest book, it is the advert break and the twelve-year old director is thanking one very much and ushering the next sucker in.

My inability to say No goes some way to explaining why I’ve written five books in the time most of my writing friends have produced a dozen. But now, at least, all that time spent listening to the sound of my own voice rather than getting it down on paper has been put to good use. And if you’re reading this, you’ve heard of me now….. J

From Wannabe a Writer We’ve Heard Of?
by Jane Wenham-Jones

I am frequently amazed by the published authors I meet who shake their heads sadly at the mention of sales figures, yet have never appeared on the radio, or been interviewed in a magazine or given a talk.

Why not? I ask myself. Or occasionally, them.

“Nobody’s asked me,” they reply. Or “I’m not very good at that sort of thing.” Or, once: “I don’t have your chutzpah.” But believe me, I didn’t always have it either.

Front can be learned and cultivated like anything else. If it helps, remember it’s a two-way process. Magazines have pages to fill, radio stations many hours of airtime. Editors and producers need interesting people who will write and say fascinating things just as much as we need those vehicles to plug us.

Nobody’s going to buy a book that they don’t know exists. And nobody is going to call you up and offer you a platform to talk about it from, if they don’t know you do!

Getting out there, getting known

In order for a stranger to know who you are, they’ve got to have done one of these things:

Heard someone else mention you, listened to you on the radio, read about you in a newspaper or magazine, seen a picture of you, watched you on TV, come across you on the internet, seen one of your books in a bookshop or bought one of your books and actually read it.

You might think, being a writer, that the last two options were the most obvious routes to fame and fortune but unfortunately, as already mentioned, being piled high in the bookstores is no longer a given.

With more and more publishers scrabbling for shelf space for their titles, having your book selected for sale in the supermarkets or on stations and at airports is a cause for celebration rather than to be expected and even if you are stocked in quantity and displayed prominently, the competition for sales is still tough.

So there are two routes you can take. You can sit back and hope that at least a few people will get hold of a copy of your work and will be so bowled over that they tell all their friends who in turn tell theirs, that the news will spread like a rash, that internet orders will rocket, shops will be forced to order it in or increase their stock, and you will hit the best-seller lists by that holiest of grails – word of mouth. (If this happens to you, then hurrah and gosh and I can’t tell you how jealous I am.)

Or you can hedge your bets and give the whole process a bit of a nudge….

Extracted from Wannabe a Writer We’ve Heard Of?
by Jane Wenham-Jones
Published by Accent Press Ltd in paper back @ £9.99
@copyright Jane Wenham-Jones

Jane’s top tips for self-promotion

Be brave Don’t wait for opportunities to come to you – get out and ask for them. The worst anyone can say is NO. It’s not very nice if they do, but you won’t die from it.

Be imaginative Doing a signing? Don’t limit yourself to bookshops. I once signed novels on a cross-channel ferry; crime writer Peter James signed his from a coffin…

Be nice One bookseller admitted he put all the author’s books back in the stockroom after she was difficult. Be charming at all times and say a huge thank you to anyone who helps you.

The perilous path to publication – getting an agent

by Sheila Bugler

I have an agent. Yep. A proper literary agent who believes in me enough to spend her precious time giving me feedback, inflating my flagging ego, and, most importantly, finding someone willing to publish me.

When I started writing, I learned early on that getting an agent was key. So, I did my research. I attended synopsis-writing workshops, I scoured online writer forums where I learned who the best, and worst, agents were. I read endless advice on how to produce the perfect submission pack.

Then I got confused. So much of the advice was conflicting. Besides, what was the point? Everything I read implied I’d have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting an agent. What’s more, these agents sounded like a ruthless bunch - as likely to send my work back without even reading it while, at the same time, advising me to never, ever give up the day job. And that’s if they bothered to get back to me. Chances were, most of them wouldn’t even do that.

When I finally got around to submitting my novel to agents, I expected the worst. In fact, the process wasn’t nearly as painful as I’d anticipated. Yes, I got my fair share of rejections. I also got some great feedback and encouragement as well.

Here are some of the things I learned along the way.

1. All agents are different

I know this is obvious but it’s worth saying, anyway. Writers tend to speak about agents in generic terms; we forget they’re people, just like us, with their good and bad points, strengths and weaknesses, personal likes and dislikes.

They’re not all looking for the same thing. You may find one agent who loves your work, another who hates it.

Yes, you’ll encounter agents who are too busy/disinterested/stressed/lazy to bother reading your work. You’ll also find others who will read it, and take time to give you feedback even if they decide not to represent you.

2. Make it personal

Everything about your submission pack should be tailored for the specific agent you’re writing to.

· Check the agent’s submission requirements. If they have a website, you’ll find the submission guidelines there. If not, call and ask them. Whatever the guidelines are, follow them. If they want a query letter first, then that’s what you do. They don’t want children’s literature? Don’t send a children’s book. They only want the first chapter? That’s what you send.

· Tailor your query letter. Research the agent’s list of authors and demonstrate how you would be a positive addition to this list. Give your reasons for wanting this agent to represent you. I recently attended a workshop where you spoke about current trends in the crime fiction market is probably better than because I’m desperate and can’t believe anyone else would be mad enough .

3. Don’t sweat the synopsis

Please. Be calm. Be sensible. You’ve just written a novel, probably upwards of 60,000 words. This means you can write a synopsis of between 300 and 1000 words. Seriously.

I was terrified when I started mine. Convinced I couldn’t do it, I decided to avoid it altogether. Instead, I concentrated on important, synopsis-writing research. The more researched, I reasoned, the easier it would be. Wouldn’t it?

Here are some of the tips I picked up:

· It should never be longer than a single page

· It must be at least two pages long

· It has to cover every plot twist and turn

· You should give a flavour of your work but there’s no need to go into too much detail. If you do, the agent won’t read it

· Try to make it similar to the blurb on the back of a book

· It should bear no resemblance to the blurb on the back of a book

· You must include the ending

· Don’t include the ending

Confused? I was. I think I still am. However, I was luckier than most. While writing my first novel, I was accepted onto a one-year mentoring programme. My mentor gave me much-needed guidance on cutting through the crap and getting something that an agent might actually want to read.

I spent weeks working on what I thought was a pretty good synopsis. It was one-page long, included the main plot elements, and revealed the ending (something I apparently had to do or no agent would ever read my work and I might as well give up writing there and then). When I was happy with it, I sent it to my mentor.

His feedback? Too long, overly complex and boring as hell (he put it more kindly, of course, but that was the general gist).

His advice was:

· Think of the blurb on the back of the book – use that as your starting point

· Sit down with a glass of wine and a blank sheet of paper

· Write whatever comes into your head, focussing on the ‘flavour’ of the novel, rather than specific plot twists and turns

· Do this for no more than twenty minutes

· At the end, you should have the bare bones of your synopsis

Now, I’m not saying this advice works for everyone but I followed it. I ended up with a one-page synopsis that was short and snappy and didn’t reveal the ending. And I got an agent.

Remember, if your synopsis is well-written and engaging, most agents will want to read the book, regardless of whether or not you’ve followed all the ‘rules’.

4. Don’t believe everything you hear

Two agents I contacted never replied, despite follow-on correspondence. They were the exception. Every other agent got back to me with an answer. They weren’t always quick to reply – one took five months to respond. Several asked to read the complete novel. Of these, most were generous with their feedback, even if they didn’t want to represent me. One even took the time to meet me and discuss the novel, and my writing, in detail.

I know other writers who’ve received support, encouragement and advice from agents they’ll probably never work with. All this for nothing.

5. Don’t take it personally

The whole submissions process can be disheartening. You may be lucky –the very first agent you submit to might love your work and want to sign you up on the spot. Just in case that doesn’t happen, though, you should prepare yourself for rejection.

Agents receive a lot of submissions – up to 300 a week in some cases. Only a tiny percentage of these will spark the agent’s interest. Your writing may be good, brilliant even, but if it’s not what that agent is looking for at that particular time, then they won’t be interested.

6. Don’t give up

Writing is a tough business. Getting an agent is probably harder than it’s ever been. Even when you’ve achieved that, you still have to find a publisher. But if writing is what you want to do, then keep with it. You’ll get there eventually. We all will.

2010 Short Story Competition Winners

It's that time of the year again (a little later perhaps than last year) and our Annual Short Story Competition is once more open for submissions So, to give you an idea of the fantastic quality of last year's entries, the winners of our 2010 competition are below ...

FIRST PLACE: George Was Dead by Janet Edwards

When George died, he was prepared for life to change a bit, but a lot of things still took him by surprise. The legal complications to start with. He was taken aback by the letter telling him that Lizzie wasn’t his wife any longer. They had gone through that marriage ceremony eighteen years ago, tied themselves together until death did them part, and now it had. The first successful resurrection process had been carried out a bare fourteen months ago, and legally speaking the issue was a complete mess, with a dozen test cases bouncing through the courts. Untangling it would take years, so as an interim measure the legal system was treating zombies as automatically divorced, and allocated marital assets accordingly.

“Well, it’s just a technical detail. We don’t have to let it change anything,” said Lizzie, tearing the letter in half and throwing it away.

Lizzie had been a tower of strength through the whole terrible business, and George was deeply grateful to her. She kept repeating that same phrase, that they didn’t have to let it change anything, but of course a lot of things about their relationship were different now. They didn’t sleep together any longer, since zombies didn’t sleep. They didn’t eat together any longer, since zombies didn’t eat. They didn’t have sex any longer, because zombies didn’t do that either.

In honesty, George didn’t miss a sex life very much. He didn’t admit it to Lizzie of course, but he had something far better now. Twice each day, he locked himself into his study, used the special lead to plug himself into the electrical socket, and the power surged through his body in the most intense and fulfilling of orgasms. He’d quickly given way to temptation, disobeyed the hospital instructions, and tried plugging himself in more often, but found it didn’t have the same effect unless the electricity in his body was at a low level. He was limited to experiencing that matchless thrill twice a day.

Despite Lizzie’s brave words, things had definitely changed, but George felt he could hardly complain. It was, after all, a lot better than staying dead. He had been extremely lucky that his body escaped the car crash without taking enough damage to prevent the resurrection. There were even a few advantages over being alive. Without the need for sleep, he had so much more time. He never got tired either. He finished the multitude of little repair jobs that had been waiting for years, spent hours leafing through his collection of books on steam railways, weeded the garden to perfection point, and put his name down on the waiting list for an allotment. Life, or in his case death, was generally pretty good.

It was precisely a month after his return to work, that George was called into Mr Hampden’s office.

“George,” said Mr Hampden, leaning back into the cushioned splendour of his executive chair. “I wanted to have a little chat with you. I wondered if you’d had any thoughts about the future. In the circumstances, the firm would be very sympathetic if you wanted to consider early retirement through ill health.”

“Early retirement,” said George, in shock. “I’m not even fifty yet. I’m not suffering ill health either.”

“You are however, not exactly...” Mr Hampden broke off tactfully.

“Alive.” George concluded the sentence bluntly. “You mean, you want to get rid of me.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” said Mr Hampden. “It’s true that some of your colleagues are a little uncomfortable around a... However, I’m sure they would adjust given time. When I suggest early retirement, I’m really thinking of you, George. After all, this whole resurrection process is so new. No-one knows how long the effects will last. I’m sure you want to make the most of the time left to you.”

George glared at the two faced hypocrite.

“Now, no-one is pushing you into anything, George, but it’s really in your best interests to be fully informed. Our pension advisor happens to have a gap in his schedule and will give you a little chat.”

George was firmly shuffled off into a meeting room, and a bald man in large glasses talked earnestly at him for an hour. It was, he was told, a golden opportunity. At the moment, resurrected individuals were able to take up their pensions, but at any moment pension companies might change their code of practice to prevent it.

“But I’ve paid into the pension fund for twenty six years,” said George indignantly. “I’m entitled to my pension. They can’t take that away.”

“It pains me to say it,” said the pension advisor cheerfully, “but you did die. Of course, if the pension companies do act to prevent zomb...., I mean resurrected individuals, taking up their pensions, then they would have to pay your nominated beneficiary the lump sum death in service payment and a widow’s pension. In your case that would be...”

“My wife,” said George.

“Your ex wife,” the pension advisor corrected him. “You are treated as divorced, remember.

That was the last straw. George glared at him. “My fiancé then,” he said, belligerently. “We intend to remarry immediately!”

“And the pension? The company has offered to allow you to retire on full pension. It’s a very generous offer, even without the issue of resurrected individuals being prevented from...”

“I’ll take it,” snarled George. “If I don’t retire, then I suppose they’ll find another way to get rid of me.”

The advisor pushed several papers across the desk towards him. “Please, sign here, here, and here.”

George signed, threw the ballpoint pen at the man, and stormed through the door into the main office. He looked around at the suited figures, sitting at regimented lines of desks. “You’ll all be happy to know that I’m leaving!”

They looked at him with startled faces, and then hastily turned back to their computer screens and pretended to work.

“Just remember though,” added George. “It may happen to you too. Just wait until you’re a zombie, and people don’t treat you as a human being any longer. See how you like it then!”

He left the building, remembered he hadn’t cleared his desk of personal items, and decided he would survive without the diary, box of tissues, and twenty five year service award.

Lizzie was startled to hear the news. “But... What will you do now that you’re retired?”

“We’re getting married again,” said George, “and going on an extended honeymoon. We’ll go out right now and make the arrangements.”

“Now?... I’ve got an appointment at the hairdresser at one thirty.”

“You will have your hair done in Paris,” said George, magnificently, and they set off for the registry office.

“You want to get married?” The woman with bouffant hair looked at them from behind the desk.

“No, I came here to buy a television licence.” George shook his head in exasperation. “What a stupid question. Of course we want to get married!”

“Well, you can’t,” said the woman, bluntly. “Our latest guidelines say that we can only perform marriage ceremonies for couples who are both alive or both dead.”

“That’s rampant discrimination.” George was incensed.

“I’m very sorry, but there’s nothing I can do. Rules are rules.” The woman stood up. “I’m now on my lunch break.”

George was prepared to make a scene, but Lizzie towed him firmly out into the street. “There’s no point in making a fuss, George. We can go to Paris anyway, whether we get married or not.”

They couldn’t. The travel agent was deeply apologetic. “Since you’re dead, your passport will no longer be valid, and until they sort out some sort of process for reapplying then...”

“We’ll go to Edinburgh then,” said Lizzie.

“But...” George was speechless at the injustice of it all.

“Now, George,” said Lizzie. “There’s no point in getting angry. It doesn’t matter where we go. We should be grateful that we can still do things together. If the accident had been a year ago, or done more damage to your body, then all I’d have left of you would be an urn of ashes.”

“I suppose you’re right.” George sighed.

So they went to Edinburgh for a week, and it rained solidly. They sat in the hotel room for seven long days, watching Scottish raindrops trickle down the window. By the time they returned home to Wolverhampton, George had made plans to fill the days and nights ahead. He would do an Open University degree. He would write his own book on steam railways. He would take up water colour painting and pottery. He would get his allotment and grow prize winning dahlias. Perhaps Lizzie would like to join him in these new plans, he thought.

Lizzie didn’t. She explained that she already had enough to fill her days. She was a volunteer driver for Help the Aged, she had two exercise classes, and she manned the till in the local Oxfam shop on Wednesdays and Fridays.

George accepted that, and life settled into a new routine. During the day, he dug, painted, and potted. During the night, he collected credits towards his degree and worked on his book. Each evening, he spent three hours watching television with Lizzie, except on Thursdays when she went to her music society meeting.

Digging the allotment was George’s favourite activity. He was untroubled by rain, cold, or fatigue, and found the repetitive labour soothing. He spent two hours every afternoon digging, and when his own patch of land had been dug to perfection, he offered to help the other allotment holders. They had regarded him with suspicion, but as one plot of neglected ground after another was methodically dug into neatness, George found himself not just tolerated but almost welcome. The thanks of the other allotment holders, and the occasional gift of spare plants, were a little embarrassing. He had a secret he could not share with them. The true reason he liked the digging was that the work drained his stored power and made the evening power recharge into a moment of ecstasy.

George was quietly content with his new life, until the day he came home two hours early from the allotment. He had been offered a small second hand greenhouse, and needed some tools to dismantle and move it from the far end of the allotments to his own plot. George went in through the back gate, took off his muddy boots to leave them on the back doorstep, and saw Lizzie kissing a strange man in the kitchen.

Stunned, George picked up his boots, fled back out of the garden, and trudged back to his allotment. He couldn’t believe this. He and Lizzie had always been so... so dependable. It wasn’t Lizzie’s fault, he thought. The problem was that they weren’t allowed to marry. Naturally that left her feeling...

The answer to that, and to all of the other frustrations, was suddenly clear to him. If Lizzie was a zombie too, then they would be able to marry. She wouldn’t get tired or need sleep, and she could join him in his night time studies. They could even share the erotic moments of recharging their power together. After Lizzie had experienced the thrill of plugging herself in to the electrical socket, she would no longer want to kiss strange men in the kitchen.

He left dealing with the greenhouse to another day, and spent hours digging as he considered ways to kill Lizzie. It had to be something that wouldn’t damage the body too much, and he needed to be able to get her to the hospital within three hours for the resurrection process to work. Drowning seemed relatively painless and could be arranged to look like an accident. Lizzie, of course, would be grateful to join him in death, but he didn’t want to have any silly problems with the police to spoil their happiness.

When his plans were complete, he carefully cleaned his spade and went home.

“Hello, George,” said Lizzie. “You’re back late today.” She was sitting at the kitchen table, eating dinner.

“Hello, Lizzie. I thought I’d spend a few extra hours digging today, because I have some plans for tomorrow.” He smiled at her, confident that she wouldn’t notice anything odd about his manner. Whenever zombies spoke or smiled, it was always a little wooden and stilted.

“What sort of plans?”

“The weather forecast says it should be nice tomorrow,” he said. “I thought perhaps you could skip your exercise class for once, and we could go for a walk somewhere. By the reservoir perhaps.”

“That sounds nice.” She took her empty plate over to put it in the dishwasher.

They sat and watched television for the next three hours, and then Lizzie started getting ready for bed, while George went into his study. He locked the door, and felt a thrill of anticipation as he approached the electrical socket. He had spent extra time digging today, and his power was very low. This recharge would be something very special. He opened his desk drawer, to take out the lead and plug himself in, and then frowned. The drawer was empty.

He looked round the room in confusion, checked the desk top, the floor by the electrical socket, and the shelves. The lead was nowhere to be seen. He searched further, remembering the time his watch had fallen down the back of the settee, but found nothing except a ten pence coin and a three year old shopping list.

His movements were slowing now, and he could not afford to delay any longer. He would have to face the embarrassment of phoning the hospital, confessing his carelessness, and asking for help. He reached into his jacket pocket for his phone, but his searching fingers found nothing.

He didn’t understand how he could have lost that too, but there was no time to worry about it. His power was dangerously low now, and he had to call Lizzie before he went into automatic shut down. He lurched over to unlock the door, but the key was missing. He shook his head in confusion, and turned the door handle, but it wouldn’t open.

“Lizzie!” he yelled. “Lizzie! I need you.”

“Yes, George.” Her voice was unexpectedly close. She must be just the other side of the door.

“Lizzie, call the hospital for help. I can’t find my power lead.”

“I’m sorry, George. I’m not planning to do that until the morning.”

“What? You have to get help now. More than three hours without power and I’ll really be dead.”

“That’s the idea,” said Lizzie. “Since we no longer sleep together, I naturally won’t discover you ran out of power until tomorrow. Everyone will understand.”

George swayed in shock. That almost sounded as if... No, he told himself, that couldn’t be right. “Lizzie, you aren’t really... You wouldn’t...”

“Yes, George, I would,” she replied calmly. “I’m murdering you. Again!”

SECOND PLACE: My Final Blog by Karen O’Connor 

1st April 2036

I should be typing this on my iPad. My fingers tapping the keypad, before sending out my latest gem of wisdom into the internet ether.

Instead, I’m scribbling this on a thin piece of paper, with a pencil stub, praying the page won’t get wet and my final blog vanish.

I should be making shrewd comments about the date, hoping the joke won’t be on me. Sad thing is, the joke’s on all of us these days.

15th April 2036

Max thinks we should head into the countryside, more space, less disease. We could start that smallholding we always talked about.

I tried to seem enthusiastic, but my daily diet of fizzy drink and tiny portions of tinned food makes my thoughts fuzzy.

He talked about planting potatoes, having some chickens, making our own bread. My stomach growled in response. I doubted the chickens survived, and I’m not eating anything that’s been grown in the toxic ground. Doesn’t he remember the warnings from the Government, when we had one. Fallout for six months, soil and water toxicity for ten months. Only eat what’s canned or bottled, they said – that’s if you’re lucky enough to find anything.

The legions inside my mouth make me think that even that option isn’t safe.

23rd April 2036

It was sunny today. The light had a painful intensity, nipping and reddening any part of my exposed flesh, but it was bright and made me happier.

We moved this morning, packed up and off to find our rural idyll. Dorothy and Toto on the yellow brick road to who the hell knows. Max certainly doesn’t.

26th April 2036

I’m like a fashion model. Whip thin, all jutting hip and cheek bones. If I still had my digital scales I’m sure I’d weigh less than seven stone, and there’s not an inch of fat on me. I’ve even lost my boobs, they’re more like shrivelled flesh pocket flaps. If fashion houses still existed, I’d be front and centre, top of their list to hang luxuriant fabrics on, making the rest of the female population jealous as they reach for their diet shakes and fat rejection tablets. Fashion these days gets exciting if I can get a pair of my rancid pants clean.

10th May 2036

All this walking is becoming harder, and every day it takes us longer to reach our goal. Even Max is looking thin, and so old – I thought dating an older guy would be glamorous, but those furrows on his forehead just make me think of my dad.

I’d stupidly suggested it would be good to have a car.

“I think we’ve seen the last of the car.” He didn’t even try and hide his sarcasm.

I wanted to scream at him. I know it’s all our fault, we didn’t listen, we kept buying and polluting and fighting with each other, until it was too late.

Instead of screaming, I sat down, and opened one of the few remaining tins of fruit.

18th May 2036

A scary day, our food has gone. We have nothing to eat. I just want to give up. Max made soothing noises at me, but right now, I hate him. He’s supposed to be my provider. Where’s all his big talk about being the breadwinner? This isn’t the most frightening thing. This evening, I felt it move.

19th May 2036

It should never have happened. I’m too thin, no periods, no chance of a baby, right? Wrong. I’m sure it’s in there, fighting for life, taking my energy to keep itself going. I should love it, encourage my child, but instead I fear it and hate it for taking from me. What kind of monster will it be when it arrives, having sucked in nine months of polluted air and rancid food?

Today, I do love Max. He killed a rat and made a fire and we ate meat. It was tough and coarse, but it was food and I adored him for it.

22nd May 2036

I’m losing it, I’m so hungry and angry and today I properly hate Max. Why did he think the countryside would be a good place to go? I’m starving, miserable and all I see is mud, stupid, stunted, dead trees, and fields full of rotting crops. I miss my ready meals, my gym membership, my hybrid car, my vitamin supplements, my isotonic drinks and the internet – that would have solved all our problems, just hit the search button and it did the thinking for you.

And, if Max tells me one more time what the crop was and what we could have done if we’d just had some butter and a few herbs I think I’m going to kill him. It moved again tonight.

1st June 2036

We made a friend today. Judy, a pleasant middle aged woman, with beady eyes. We love her, she has food. She asked lots of questions, where we’re heading, who we know, where we sleep. We answered them all, as we filled our tiny stomachs with the best tasting stew ever. I ate until I felt sick, and then ate some more, just in case.

“I have a shed you can stay in.” These words were like magic to me. I love Judy even more than Max.

The shed is dry, with only a few biting insects, and I know I’m going to sleep all night. No nightmares, no strange noises. I think we’ve found our idyll.

15th June 2036

“What does she want?” This is Max’s favourite saying at the moment. He always worries about what people want from you, he reckons they’re just out for themselves. Well, they used to be. Now it’s different, it has to be. Besides, I love Judy, she can’t be after something. We’ve nothing to give.

“Trust her,” I told him. This feels like home, I want it to be perfect.

Max blathered on about her eyes and the way she stares at him. I ignored him. If he’s trying to make me jealous he’s failing. If I had to choose, I’d pick Judy over him any day.

26th June 2036

I’ve decided to tell. I trust Judy, she’s like the mother I always wanted, so different from the bulimic, perma-tanned version I vaguely remember.

I felt like a child with a dirty secret. I sat at her feet, by hands in my lap. I blurted it out, the word baby stuck in my throat like serrated glass.

“A new life, out of the ashes, life always rises,” she said. She’d stroked my hair and told me it would be ok. And that’s all I wanted to hear. Judy’s even had some medical training, which will come in handy, whatever I decide to do.

1st July 2036

I’m in shock, Max knows about the baby. He was furious, throwing things, shouting. I sat there, seething silently. I didn’t want this, he was just as much to blame as me, yet I’m the one who’s the problem.

“Get rid of it.” That was his advice, no debating, he wants it gone.

It’s an option I think about every day, but now it’s out in the open the thought chills me.

I’d tried to highlight that it was his responsibility too.

“We’re leaving,” was his response.

Did I ever love this pathetic impersonation of a man?

15th July 2036

Max decided this was his last day with me. I’m glad, thrilled to be free from his whining, pleading, pathetic arguments, and his juvenile fear of our protector. Now I’m free from him, I can see what Judy meant, he’s just jealous, resentful that a woman makes a better provider than him. Good to see sexism is alive and well on this rotten excuse for a planet. An hour after he’s gone, we celebrated girl power by having a blow out feast.

30th July 2036

I look pregnant! This is getting exciting and terrifying. Judy reckons I must be at least eight months gone. It’s so hard to tell, but she’s giving me extra food to help me and the baby grow. My baby, I hope it’s a girl.

13th August 2036

It’s the dead of night, and I’m prepared to admit that I sometimes miss Max. For all his metro sexual ways and his lack of any useful skills – what exactly was a High End Product Placement Advisor anyway - he could be fun and sweet, and would cuddle me when I woke up afraid.

I hope he’s safe and happy. I hope he doesn’t miss me, too much.

20th August 2036

I found Judy’s supplies today. She has a stack of salted meat in the back of the cottage she lives in. All chopped up and bagged. No wonder she’s still so plump and so happy to share, there’s enough to feed an army.

She caught me looking and told me to choose a joint for tonight.

22nd August 2036

It happened, in the early hours of the morning, I had my baby – it’s a girl. Judy was amazing. It felt like my insides were being pushed out, but it was so worth it. Best of all she seems healthy. Judy weighed her in her kitchen scales and she’s almost six pounds. I’ve decided to be hugely corny and name her Eve – you never know she could be the first woman to solve this horrible mess we’ve created.

25th August 2036

Today I found the shed door locked. And I’m on the inside. I called for Judy and I’m sure I heard her moving away but she didn’t come. I hope she’s not hurt.

26th August 2036

Still trapped inside, and getting hungry now. I tried to pull the door from its hinges, but the wood held. Where’s Judy? I really miss Max. Eve is getting restless, and I’m worried my milk will dry up without regular meals.

27th August 2036

Judy’s back! At least I think she is, food was pushed under the door. I spent ages banging on the door, but she didn’t come out and unlock it.

28th August 2036

I’m so tired, I slept for hours, all through the night and most of today, only managing to feed Eve twice. Maybe I’m getting sick. I got another meal.

29th August 2036

More exhaustion, can barely write a word.

30th August 2036

Judy came in today – she measured me and Eve up – but what for? I’m so tired, I almost don’t care.

1st September 2036

She’s dead, I killed her. She came in and tried to cut me up, like a butcher. I suddenly got the beady eyed bit that Max was always going on about. I think Max might be a bit of that salted meat I saw the other day.

I’ve got a cut on my arm from the cleaver, but I’m alive. Judy lost her footing and fell down, I saw my chance and grabbed the cleaver. It went through her skull so easily. I’m too scared to move right now – but I can’t leave Judy on the ground for long, it will bring the foxes and rats, and they love nothing more than a bit of human flesh. It seems they’re not the only one.

3rd September 2036

I’ve done it. Today, I finished cutting Judy up, and covered her in salt. She’s bagged and tagged like the rest of the meat. I felt sick as I began, but it’s not so bad once you don’t think about what you’re slicing into. I actually feel quite proud of myself, I’ve got my baby, my supplies, got rid of my pointless boyfriend and secured my own idyll. Now, if I can just work out how to encourage fresh supplies through the door I’ll be completely self sufficient.

THIRD PLACE: Omelette by Annalisa Crawford 

The café is quiet today. Just a little further along the road is a sign saying Roadworks starting 11/01/11 and lasting two weeks, so Josie thinks this must be why. Tucked away, down one of the main roads off this one, the hospital rises high over the other buildings. Josie, as she pushes open the door, glances over her shoulder at the grey imposition and shudders.

“Hello,” says the waitress behind the counter. “The usual?”

Josie has never had a usual before; never had a local pub where the bar staff poured her drink as soon as she walked through the door, never even had a regular newspaper, or a favourite Starbucks coffee. It makes her feel content, but at the same time it means she has been eating here too long as she bides her time between hospital visits.

“Yes. Please.”

“Just plain?”

Josie glances at the menu hanging on the wall. “Yes. Just plain. Thank you.” She walks to the table in the corner, opposite the large window. Her table. She slips her bag from her shoulder and sweeps her eyes across the paintings on the wall, noting the tiny price tags next to them; noticing them for the first time, which means she mustn’t be so distracted today.

“These are good. Whose are they?” she asks when the waitress brings the omelette, plain, salad garnish to the side, no chips.

“Mine,” the waitress mumbles turning pink.

“Do you sell many?”

She shakes her head. “No. But I don’t mind. I’d miss them if they weren’t here.”

“Hello,” says the waitress. “The usual?”

“Yes, please.” She hesitates, wondering whether she should make conversation. She did yesterday. So, is it expected today? Once there’s a connection, are you compelled to continue it? To be truthful, she doesn’t feel like talking; she wants to sink down into her own concerns. There’s an awkward moment, both women unsure what to do next, then they both drift in their separate directions: Josie to her table, the waitress to the kitchen.

Josie sits on her hands, feeling the warmth of her thighs bring a tingle to her frozen skin; she’s forgotten her gloves again, perhaps she should have them sewn inside her coat. That was Meg’s suggestion when she gave them to her for Christmas; Meg knows her too well. Josie sets her mobile on the table, so she can answer immediately if it rings. She sits on her hands and waits. The mobile doesn’t ring or beep. Which is good; she doesn’t want it to ring or beep; that would only bring bad news.

“Here you are.” The plate is presented – omelette, plain, salad garnish to the side, no chips – an exact copy of yesterday’s lunch, and the one before that, and the several before that.

“Thank you.” She stares at the plate.

“Are you all right?”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Perhaps you’ve just had enough plain omelette?”

Josie looks surprised at the idea of another kind of omelette on her plate. She shakes her head. “I’ve been to visit a friend in hospital. She’s getting worse, not better. She was supposed to be coming home today. But she’s not well enough. I was supposed to bring her home today.” She stares down at the mobile, frowns, reaches out for it, then changes her mind. “I don’t want to go home without her.”

“How long have you known your friend?”

“Forty-three years and four months. We were at primary school together. We were supposed to grow old together.”

“You still might?”

Josie wipes a tear from her eye and smiles. “We still will,” she says defiantly. She picks up the fork and half-heartedly breaks off the first mouthful of omelette.

There’s a space on the wall. Yesterday there was a seascape on the wall opposite her; a beautiful red sunset, a yacht pushing off into the distance. A perfect scene, a perfect sea. Yesterday, Josie stared into the painting and imagined floating. Peacefully floating away.

“The painting’s gone,” says Josie, indicating the space, the wall faintly scarred with grime marking out where the frame was.

The waitress blushes. “I sold it.”

“Congratulations. I liked it. I’ll miss it.”

“Thank you. It was the first one I’ve sold.”

“Then you should do something special with the money.”

“I’ll probably just pay the rent.”

Josie looks across the room at the wall. The empty space feels ominous.

“How’s your friend?”

Josie shakes her head. “Not good.”

“Are you hungry today? Would you like your omelette?”

Josie pauses. She thinks of her plain omelette; she thinks of Meg not getting better. “You know… maybe… could I have a mushroom one today, please?”

“Of course. I’ll bring it over when it’s ready.”

“Cheese omelette, please.”

“Good choice. That’s my favourite. I’ll throw in some chives, then it’ll be perfect. You seem happier today… your friend?”

“Meg’s doing well. Rallying, the doctor said.”

“That’s good news. She’s lucky to have you visiting so much. It must be helping her.”

Josie shrugs. “She’d do the same for me.”

It takes a few moments, sitting down, the smell of omelette wafting from the small kitchen, to realise there’s a new paining on the wall. Two old ladies sitting on a bench, laughing like school-girls.

“I put it there for you, for your friend.”

“You painted it for me?”

The waitress looks sheepish. “Well, no. I had it at home. But when you were talking about your friend the other day, I remembered it. I thought it would cheer you up.”

“Thank you.” Josie smiles, but it’s a thin, thoughtful smile. “That was such a lovely thing to do.” Her eyes are drawn back to the picture, lost in this world that might never happen. “It’s breast cancer, you see, what Meg has. She was in remission. But she’s…” Her voice shakes a little.

The waitress is unsure how to react. Hesitantly she reaches out and touches Josie’s arm. She moves away, clearing a table close by, not wanting to leave this poor woman, glancing back at her every so often

The café isn’t busy, not since the roadworks started – a few people are dotted here and there, either talking in couples or reading books or newspapers alone. Only Josie looks around, aware of her environment, opening herself up. She looks out of the window and notes the start of another downpour; she glances at the headline of the newspaper left behind by someone else. But her gaze returns to the picture on the wall again and again. There are tears bubbling, but she is smiling as well; a soft smile, a slow sad smile. She leaves the omelette half-eaten. She leaves the café.

The waitress watches the clock. At one o’clock she tells herself Josie is running late. At two o’clock she fears Josie’s friend has had a turn for the worse. And at three o’clock she convinces herself that she upset Josie too much by hanging the painting of the two old ladies. The waitress finds herself standing in front of it, imagining being sat on that bench with an old friend, oblivious to the world passing behind them.

When she painted it, she had no one in mind. The two friends had just appeared as if by magic, fully formed on the canvass. Now it seems intrinsically linked to Josie and her friend. And yet she wishes she’d never brought it in. She remains in front of her painting, trying to view it subjectively; almost amazed that something which could affect another person so much had come from her hand.

At five o’clock, as the waitress turn the OPEN sign to CLOSED, heavy rain is falling, car headlamps glisten off the road and people scurry past under hoods and umbrellas.

Today is Saturday. Saturdays are different; routines are different, the vibe is different. Fathers in their weekend disguise with their excited kids; friends meeting before a day’s shopping; lovers recovering from their romantic Friday night dinner. Everyone is light and happy, lingering over an extra coffee and sharing a slice of Death by Chocolate.

Josie doesn’t come in on Saturdays, so the waitress knows not to glance hopefully out of the window. A busy day. A non-stop day. The waitress coasts through, oblivious to the different people queuing behind each other, oddly oblivious to their stories. Nothing matters; she has been drained of curiosity.

The painting – untitled, but in her head now called Josie and Meg’s Happy Days – still hangs on the wall. She thought about taking it down, but it remains there for now. Why does it matter? Why does this woman, Josie, matter where so many other people who come in daily – and there are many – do not even register? She places two cups of coffee in front of two women with several shopping bags wedged on the chairs next to them, and can’t remember the last time she went shopping – or even had coffee – with a friend. She can’t remember the last time she saw a friend, other than at work, or passing in the street and dashing onwards with hurried promises to call. She never does. Never has time. Time doesn’t last forever, though, does it? Josie doesn’t have time.

She imagines herself lying in a hospital bed, linked up to wires and monitors, and wonders who would visit her.

* * *

Monday again. Another week. Another grey and miserable morning.

Josie stands in front of the painting, walking straight across to it rather than standing at the counter and ordering. She senses the waitress move across the café and stand next to her. She feels the warmth, the companionship.

“Can I buy it?”

“Um, Yes. Of course.”

“Isn’t it for sale? I thought you said they were all for sale.”

“It is… they are. I just… I thought…”

Josie turns, curious, concerned.

The waitress blushes. “I thought I upset you, putting the picture up.”

Josie softens. “No. I love it. Meg’s dying. They’ve only given her a couple of weeks. I wanted to buy the painting for her. I wanted to show her how it will be, in my head.”

“I’m so sorry.” The waitress looks away. “It’s a present. Take it.”

“I couldn’t. Don’t you have rent to pay?” She gasps a small laugh, then notices the waitress’s earnest gaze. “Thank you.”

Josie stares at the board, although none of the options match how she’s feeling today. She wants colour; she wants to be uplifted. Peppers and spinach and tomato: colours of the rainbow filling her plate. She makes her request timidly, unsure whether she is required to adhere to the menu.

The waitress smiles. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Meg loved the painting, by the way.” Josie raises her voice slightly, so the waitress can hear her from the kitchen. She glances behind her to make sure the other diners aren’t disturbed by the noise. “We cried a lot.”

A head appears around the door. “Oh, I’m sorry.”

“No, it was good. We said everything we needed to say. I think she’s ready now… prepared, you know.” Josie’s voice drifts away, her gaze softens. “She never had kids, she got divorced a few years ago and never met anyone else. Just existed alongside everyone else. Makes you wonder why she was here at all, doesn’t it?” Her face drops, horrified that such a thought could have entered her head.

“No,” says the waitress quickly. “She was here for you, and for all her other friends. And even for her ex-husband. As soon as you meet someone, you’ve affected them. You and me. We’ve made a difference to each other, even if we don’t realise it yet.”

Josie takes a long breath. “Well, I eat different types of omelette now.”

The waitress pauses, then smiles. “It’ll be ready in a moment. Take a seat.”

Josie plays with her mobile, pressing buttons to watch the screen light up. She waits for the call, hoping it won’t come. She checks to make sure the ringtone is audible. She stares at her reflection in the dark screen.

“Do you really believe what you said before, that we make a difference?” she asks when the omelette arrives.


“How have you made a difference?”

“That’s not for me to say.”

“But you think you have?”

“I know I have. I must have.” The waitress pauses, then sits down opposite Josie and rests her hands flat on the table. “When I was little – eight or nine – I used to scare myself by looking up at the stars. You could see hundreds, thousands. The more you looked, the more you could see. On really clear nights you could see the Milky Way. And the world seemed so small. And if the world was that small, I must be just a speck, smaller than a speck, totally insignificant in a universe I couldn’t even begin to understand. So I chose to believe that I do matter, that everyone matters.” The waitress shakes her head and laughs at herself. “And I do realise it makes absolutely no sense at all, before you say anything.” She stands and smoothes her apron. “Enjoy your meal.”

The waitress steps away awkwardly, pausing as though she’s going to say something else. She is rescued by a new customer entering the café. Josie watches her, smiling and laughing easily with this new person is a way she’s never done with Josie. Perhaps Josie encourages melancholy. Not always; she laughs with Meg. Meg forces her to laugh; even now, in agony in a hospital bed, she jokes with the nurses, reminisces with visitors, cheers others up when they are overcome by her imminent departure.

That’s the difference Meg has made to Josie. It’s a good difference. Without her humour, without her lightness, Josie fears she would have sunk low and never risen, fears her encompassing gift for worry and fear would have driven her into a deep depression. She fears she will sink low and never rise back up.

“Which one today?” asks the waitress, tempering her mood to match Josie’s.

“Just plain?” No, not plain; Meg asks her to describe her meals, now that she cannot eat – how could she make a plain omelette sound exciting? “No. Tuna. Please.”

“How’s Meg?”

Josie looks grim. She smiles weakly, but shakes her head. She cannot talk. She turns away and sits at her table, glancing out of the window briefly. She puts her head in her hands. The air feels heavy around her, pushing her down. She feels sick now; the smell of food cooking is churning her stomach. When the plate is set down in front of her, she simply looks at it.

And then, faintly at first, her mobile rings. She stares at the waitress, and the waitress stares back.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Synopsis Doctor with Sheila Bugler

Working with Brenda Darling on the synopsis for her novel, Hard Knocks.

Brenda is an English writer living and working in Spain. She moved to Spain in 2007 to retire and concentrate on her passion – writing. Her first novel, Hard Knocks, is set in London’s East End, where she was brought up.

Brenda contacted the Synopsis Doctor for help. Here, Brenda and Sheila share their experiences of working together.

Sheila’s comments

Brenda contacted WWJ for help writing the synopsis for her first novel, Hard Knocks, which follows three generations of women growing up in London’s East End. Brenda sent me her first draft of the synopsis which, in her own words, needed a little ‘TLC’.

For many writers, the major problem a synopsis presents is how to condense a novel of 80,000+ lovingly crafted words into a one-page summary. In my experience, most writers start out by producing a synopsis that is overly long and complex.

This wasn’t Brenda’s problem, however, and I was pleasantly surprised when I read her first draft. It was concise (355 words) but with just enough information to give me a flavour of what the novel was about. In fact, by the end of the synopsis I knew the genre (commercial women’s fiction), the plot outline (three generations of women battling adversity to find their place in the world), and basic information about the main characters – Belle, Elizabeth and Minerva.

There were some areas that needed clarification and I pointed these out to Brenda in my feedback. However, the main problem with Brenda’s first draft was presentation. I really struggled with this. I know this was only a first draft but, even at this stage, I felt Brenda needed to pay more attention to grammar, spelling and punctuation.

So, I attacked the synopsis with my red pen and sent it back to Brenda with lots of comments. I asked her to write another draft, which she did.

The second draft was much better although – again – there were some basic problems that needed attention. These were mainly around punctuation. Again, I got my red pen out, sent it back to Brenda and asked her to take another look.

She did some more work, sent a third version to me and, with a bit of tweaking, we now had a synopsis we were both happy with.

 Here, you can see the first and final versions for yourself. Hopefully it’s obvious why the second version is better. Here are my reasons for preferring the final version:

Presentation – the final version looks good on the page. There is a heading which gives important information about the novel (including author, wordcount and genre). The paragraphs are neatly laid out and each character is introduced in BLOCK CAPITALS, making it easy to scan the text and see who the characters are.

Grammar, spelling and punctuation – the earlier problems have been cleared up and the final version is now easy to read and I am not distracted by careless errors.

(If you’re reading this and are considering submitting your work to an agent, please do one thing for me – it is more important than anything else. GET SOMEONE ELSE TO PROOFREAD YOUR SUBMISSION PACK BEFORE YOU SEND IT. This is your one and only chance to create a good impression. You cannot afford to mess it up.)

Length  - the new, improved synopsis still fits on one page. Although there are no hard and fast rules, you should try to stick to a one-page synopsis. Why? There are two reasons. The first is that agents have limited time. They expect you to be able to summarise your plot concisely. If you can’t, they’ll wonder what else you can’t do. Secondly, your synopsis should be interesting. That’s very hard to achieve if you go for a blow-by-blow account of your novel that covers several pages. Make every word count and don’t write more than you need to. If you do, there’s a chance no one will read it.

Brenda’s comments

Dear Sheila
I wholeheartedly agree with your comments. As a novice, I found writing a synopsis a real challenge. But I thrive on challenges.
Your direction and guidance enabled me to see my faults. The synopsis is now more balanced. Short, but telling.
I thank you! I know I couldn’t have done it without your help.


Three generations of women, struggles to overcome their belief that as females they are not worth tuppence in the pecking order of the family

Seven year old Belle is confused and unhappy when she becomes an unpaid skivvy. Unloved and ignored by her mother, she finds life hard to bear. Reaching puberty, she turns to men looking for self worth but instead of the love and support she craves she is abused and raped whilst striving for a normal life. She turns to her older brother for support but he has his own problems and can’t help her.

Eventually she marries and has four children; but her husband – like all the other men – treats her badly – but by now Belle accepts this as part of life, not more then she deserves.

After the death of her cold hearted uncaring mother she discovers two diaries.

The discovery sheds light on Bells own unhappy past. She reads the stories of Elizabeth and Minerva – who, she learns are her mother and grandmother.

Elizabeth a middle class Victorian woman has more then her fair share of disasters in her life. At sixteen, she takes a job as a nurse, in an Asylum for the poor and insane in the East End of London. Forced to marry and give birth to a son, and then suffers painful child abduction. A chance meeting with William Davis a working class cockney ends in heartbreak.

Minerva tells of her life being dragged through the bombed out East End after the second world into the modern era of change. Rebuffed by a lover, abortion and loss, she marries Bill and leads him a dog’s life. Bitterness and distain leave a scar.

Both women have two things in common, secrets, and the desperate need for forgiveness, they both believed that a son was more important then a daughter and their unjust behaviour and actions led to heartbreak for all concerned.

Bell finds comfort amongst the pages. They give her answers she has been looking for all her life. She can now forgive, and learn to love and respect the strong woman she has become.


Name:   Brenda Darling
Title:    Hard Knocks
Word count:       110,000 words
Genre: Commercial women’s fiction

Three generations of women struggle to overcome their belief that, as females, they are not worth tuppence in the pecking order of the family.

Seven year-old BELLE is confused and unhappy when she becomes an unpaid skivvy in the family home. Unloved and ignored by her mother, she finds life hard to bear. Reaching puberty, she turns to men for self-worth. However, instead of the love and support she craves, she is abused and raped. She seeks support from her older brother but he has his own problems – battling drug addiction – and can’t help her.

Eventually she marries and has four children. Her husband - like all the other men in her life - treats her badly. By now, Belle accepts this as part of life, nothing more than she deserves.

After the death of her uncaring mother, she discovers two diaries.

They shed light on Belle’s own unhappy past. She reads the stories of ELIZABETH and MINERVA - her grandmother and mother.

Elizabeth, her grandmother, was a middle class Victorian woman, who had more than her share of disasters in her life. At sixteen, she takes a job as a nurse in an asylum for the poor in the East End of London. Forced to marry, she gives birth to a son. She then suffers a painful child abduction. A chance meeting with WILLIAM DAVIS, a working-class cockney, ends in heartbreak.

Minerva, Belle’s mother, tells of her life being dragged through the bombed-out East End after the Second World War into the modern era of change. Rebuffed by a lover, she marries BILL FRANCES and makes his life hell. Bitterness and disdain leave a scar.

Both women have two things in common - secrets and the desperate need for forgiveness. They both believed that a son was more important than a daughter and their unjust behaviour and actions led to unhappiness for all concerned.

Belle finds comfort amongst the pages. They give her answers she has been looking for all her life. She can now forgive, and learn to love and respect the strong woman she has become.

Characters in Novels: People Like Us?

by Sue Carver

What distinguishes novel writing from other artistic endeavours is the necessary and unavoidable affinity that novelists have with their subject-matter: people. According to E. M. Forster, characters in novels are “word-masses” made up by the novelist “…conditioned by what he guesses about other people, and himself”. 1

Characters in novels differ from people in life in one important respect: to a greater or lesser extent, their inner lives are revealed. That we can fully understand characters in novels when, in life, people – including ourselves – are essentially unknowable seems to be a large part of the novel’s appeal. Great novels evoke a real sense of the unique consciousnesses of the characters portrayed and it is on that aspect of character creation that I will focus here.

Surface and Depth

Writers can choose to stay on the surface, portraying character via speech and behaviour, as in this extract from Hemingway 2:

The doctor went out on the porch. The door slammed behind him. He heard his wife catch her breath when the door slammed.
“Sorry,” he said, outside her window with the blinds drawn.
“It’s all right, dear,” she said.
He walked in the
heat out the gate and along the path into the hemlock woods.
 or to dive deep, giving thoughts and emotions in addition, like McEwan:
Willing himself not to, he raised the book to his nostrils and inhaled. Dust, old paper, the scent of soap on his hands, but nothing of her. How had it crept up on him, this advanced stage of fetishizing the love object? ... He had spent three years drily studying the symptoms, which had seemed no more than literary conventions, and now, in solitude, like some ruffed and plumed courtier come to the edge of the forest to contemplate a discarded token, he was worshiping her traces - not a handkerchief, but fingerprints! - while he languished in his lady’s scorn.” 3

Regardless of which approach is chosen – surface or deep – every utterance, gesture, thought and feeling needs to be consistent with the writer’s empathic understanding of his or her fictional characters.

Empathy in therapy and fiction 

Carl Rogers, humanistic psychologist and creator of the person-centred approach to therapy, described empathy as the “… understanding of the client’s world as seen from the inside. To sense the client’s private world as if it were your own, but without losing the ‘as if’ quality – this is empathy.” 4

Drawing a distinction between empathy and the related concepts of sympathy and identification is vital for my day job, clinical psychology. I also find it valuable to have in mind when creating fictional characters.
Flaubert is often quoted as having said: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi, d’après moi ...” (Madame Bovary is me, based on me). By his own account, Flaubert appears to sail perilously close to identification: a psychological process by which an individual assimilates an aspect, property, or attribute of another. In my view, he does himself an injustice: empathy is in evidence in Madame Bovary, not identification. 

Too close identification of novelists with their characters can produce results in fiction that are as messy as they are in therapy, the most extreme example of this being the creation of ‘Mary-Sue’  characters, which are little more than wish-fulfilments of the author, projected onto the page.  Ensuring the necessary degree of objectivity required by empathy, I suggest, poses the greatest challenge for the author when writing characters that are autobiographical or semi-autobiographical.

Can Empathy Be Enhanced?

The role of the novel in shaping empathy in readers has been debated for centuries. Recent research offers support for George Eliot’s bold declaration: “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, then it does nothing.” 5

Does empathy felt while reading fiction cultivate a sense of connection, which leads to altruistic actions on behalf of real others?  In “Empathy and the Novel” (2007) 6, Suzanne Keen – drawing on psychology, neuroscience, literary history and philosophy – concludes that while certain novels can provoke empathy in readers, this does not necessarily translate into altruistic behaviour. She observes that the greater the degree of ‘fictiveness’ a given novel has – according to the readers’ perceptions – the more likely they are to empathise with its characters.

As with many complex human qualities with profound implications for social functioning, the foundations for empathy are laid down in early childhood, with both nature and nurture coming into play. The ability to empathise is likely to be on a continuum and there will be individual differences with regard to how well-developed this capacity is.

What if empathising with one’s fellow human beings isn’t a particular strength? Can one learn to increase empathic understanding? Research into the enhancement of empathy in adulthood is thin on the ground, but what there is suggests that there is greater plasticity than was previously thought. For example, a very recent study indicated that ‘imagining and enacting oneself as an imaginary other’ can enhance empathy in adolescents (Goldstein and Winner, in press) 7.

In this, and other studies in this area, role-play was used, but I see no reason why the sustained cognitive and emotional effort required to create fictional characters, and to follow their journey through the course of writing a novel, should not enhance empathy. The good news for fiction writers is that this aspect of writing fiction, along with others, may well improve with time and effort, but we won’t necessarily become more altruistic in the process.

1.    E. M Forster, Aspects of the Novel
2.    Ernest Hemingway, The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife
3.    Ian McEwan, Atonement
4.    Carl. R. Rogers, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy           
5.    George Eliot, letter to Charles Bray
6.    Suzanne Keen, Empathy and the Novel
7.    Goldstein, T.R. and Winner, E. Enhancing Empathy and Theory of Mind, Journal of Cognition and Development (2011 in press)

Sue Carver, consultant clinical psychologist and writer of fiction and poetry, has a keen interest in the psychological aspects of the creative writing process. She doesn’t entirely agree with Erica Jong that “all writing problems are psychological problems...”, but she would be happy to consider, from a psychologist’s perspective, any writing-related questions that you may like to pose. 

Her Q and A column, Carver’s Couch, will appear in the October issue of WWJ. Please send your questions to: with the subject heading Carver’s Couch. 

Scripts: American Character

by Ola Zaltin

As a newcomer to the craft of writing literary prose, I was somewhat surprised to hear of the term ”Show, don’t Tell”. As in, when writing Novels, have your characters show their character through their actions. Tell the story with images and actions.

Which totally threw me. I come from screenwriting, and the first thing you’re learnt in American screenwriting 101 is this: Film is Action and Images, and Action describes Character. Tell your story in images and actions, and at all costs avoid dialogue, voice-over and similar cheap tricks attempted by Europeans, auteurs and other such riff-raff.

Which is why about every screenwriter I know is a closet novelist. People like us have x-rated fantasies about telling, telling, telling and showing fuck all. Interior monologues by the chapter, exposition running for pages and dialogue by the yard. This be the stuff our dreams are made of.

Because in screenwriting, space is premium, and action is king.

I once had the good fortune to participate in a screenwriting master-class held by the novelist and screenwriter Richard Price. He recounted his journey from successfull young author (The Wanderers, Bloodbrothers, etc), to budding screenwriter. A big-time producer contacted him with the idea of transforming Price’s first novel into a film. He received a sum ten-fold what he had earnt so far on his first two novels together, and got a deadline of six months for a first draft. When the six months were up, he turned in a 490 page screenplay, correctly formatted, on time.

This is when the kindly Hollywood producer called Mr Price up and informed him that the screenplay was exactly 400 pages too long, had no forward momentum, and zero plot.

Richard summed it up in his laconic Bronx patois: “What I learnt that day was this: a screenplay is maximum 90 pages long, every scene has to carry the story forward and the plot has to be tighter than a crab’s ass.”
With infidelity, the three golden rules may be Deny, Deny, Deny. But let me tell you, with Hollywood, it’s: 
Momentum, Momentum, Momentum.

Going back to character.

Character Presentation

Film is images and action, character serves these two and plot is the natural born child of the three aforementioned. Amen.

Anyone casting a glance at a screenplay page will immediately realize that very few words actually get to go on it. The font has to be Courier 12 pt, and the line-spacing 1.5, and that’s before you get to the narrow middle space you have to write dialogue in. Screenplay formatting is structured in such a way that one page is roughly one minute of screentime. This way, producers can directly flip to The End on page 96 of your labour of love and declare without reading a word of it: "Aw, I can’t make this shit!” And they will.
For short, you need to be smart about setting up your character and do it in the most economic and visual way you can think of. Screenplay space is scarce.

In the opening of Red Rock West (1993), Nicolas Cage is a lone drifter in some American desert, out of gas, out of cash and out of luck. He finds a seemingly abandoned petrol-station way back of beyond, walks into the store and flips open the cash-register: it’s full of cash. He has none. There’s no one around. He closes the cash-register without taking a bill out of it.

Voilá: he’s a good guy. No dialogue, just action, not five minutes into the movie, we know who to root for, no matter what may come.

During the opening sequence of SE7EN we are visually told the morning routines of detectives Mills and Somerset. Mills (Brad Pitt) is the young pup, who pulls on his shirt with buttons buttoned and selects his tie at random amongst a variety of pre-tied ties and runs out through the door. Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is the older gentleman who has everything laid out neatly ironed, chooses every item carefully and with deliberation.

Mills will turn out to be the impulsive, daring, intuitive character, battling throughout the story with Somerset’s analytical, cool, considering character. Again: characters presented through action and images.

The Character Arc

Having thus introduced your main character, you’ve got to present us with his or her inner-conflict.

This is something that’s bugging them at the core of their very being. What is stopping them from expressing their true potential as human beings (if this sounds eerily like a recruitment folder for Scientology or the US Army, fear not; we’re still in the la-la land of movie suspension of disbelief. That being said ... yes, there are similarities).

At the outset, you have to present the public with the antithesis of what is to come:
•      Jerry Maguire can’t stand what his job is and what he has become. (Jerry Maguire)
•      Dewey Finn is an irresponsible kid in a man’s body. (School of Rock)
•      Frankie Dunn believes women have nothing to do in the ring. (Million Dollar Baby)

They need to change, right? No? Well, according to American storytelling 101, they do.

Basically, what happens in all three films is that these three white American males (imagine that ...) round about 20 pages into the screenplay do something life changing; write that memo about the failed business of sports-agenting, take a teaching job, accept a female boxer as his charge.

From then on and for the next 60 or so pages, the protagonists go through every kind of hell and obstacle on his (or her) journey of adversity, understanding and finally change (cue the Burbank Philharmonics).

Classic example: From the starting point of hating kids and loving his house and solitude above all else, grumpy old Carl Fredricksen at the climax of UP has to let go of his house (literally!) to save the kid. His inner conflict is illustrated in action by him hanging onto the house, floating in the air, and having to let it go to save the boy. (Okay, you have to see this film to get the just mentioned). Brilliant piece of inner-conflict resolved through image and action.

The Character Transformed

The transformed character is the opposite of what he was in the opening of the film. He - or she - but most often he, alas and alack, has Learnt something and Changed.

Now, if this happened as much in real life as in the movies, for one thing, there wouldn’t be a 3 billion dollar a year diet-book industry in the USA. Because if people in real life really did read the book, followed the advice, got slim and stayed slim, well, then ... why buy another book?

For short: people don’t change very much in real life, so we seek hope, faith, and the possibility of Change for an hour and a half with a bucket of popcorn, a barrel of Pepsi and five hankies. Then we walk out into the light and enjoy a triple bacon-whopper-heart-stopper-mega-everything meal with none of that green stuff and extra cheese, please.

Now, back to the world of tinseltown make-believe:
•      Jerry Maguire mans up and takes care of both business and his lady love and has her at hello.
•      Dewey Finn keeps on rockin’ but now as a responsible adult teaching kids to roll with the rocks.
•      Frankie Dunn takes Maggie Fitzgerald into his heart in lieu of the daughter he never knew.

(NB: In American films, if the character fails to conform and to change in a cute way, they’re killed off at the ending. Forrest Gump’s girlfriend - AIDS gets her for leading a hippie lifestyle, Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty has to die because he steps out of the bourgeois norm, Thelma and Louise rebel against patriarchial American society and drive off a cliff smiling. Etc. Same could be argued in Maggie Fitzgerald’s case: she tries to take the fight to the male-dominated boxing society, and - surprise - dies. Etc)

In the end, I have but one piece of advice tacked to my wall. At the end of that master-class we asked Richard Price’s advice to us (then) young and hopeful screenwriters. What had his dismal start taught him and how had he become so good. He paused, then looked at us and growled: “Go to the movies. Pay attention!”

Is Self-editing a doddle or is editor-speak gobbledegook to you?

by Helen Corner

Helen Corner at Cornerstones tells us why it’s always good to know what you’re talking about before you meet the agent.

You’ve finished your dazzling, high-concept and well-written novel, you’ve sent it out, and an agent calls you and requests a meeting. This is exciting - a chance for you to chat about your book and see if there’s a mutual rapport. You arrive at her office, where manuscripts are heaped on the desk, and sit down with a coffee while she balances your MS on her lap. There are lots of red tags on the pages, but she’s smiling so you relax.

 She’s just how you imagined her: professional (she requested the meeting within a few weeks of you sending the MS), approachable (but not in a cosy way; after all you want her to be ruthless at the negotiating table) and you can tell you’re in good hands. Then again, you researched and profiled the five agents you submitted to, so you  know that her reputation is outstanding. In your mind, you’ve already signed on the dotted line and written courtesy emails to the other four agents thanking them for their time and informing them that you have representation.

 Then she starts thumbing through the red tags and talking about the book needing more work; one more redraft and a further read before she signs you up officially. She mentions strengthening your main character and introducing more tension peaks in the mid-section; and how about tightening up scene structure in general to increase pace? Oh and by the way, there’s no rush. She’d much rather see a polished MS that’s ready to go out to the six editors she’s earmarked.

 You might be one of the few first-time authors who thinks this is a breeze. You can manage all of this and more, and deliver within the week. If you’re confident that you can make thorough rather than cosmetic revisions, then you’re lucky. At Cornerstones we’re often nervous when authors make swift revisions as they’re rarely effective.

 But what if, like most debut authors, all this technique speak is meaningless? Your mind’s gone fuzzy, your hearing wobbles, your tongue sticks to the roof of your mouth and your pencil keeps slipping out of your hand. Words like ‘character empathy’ and ‘arcs’ appear on your notepad and you’re transported back to school during that awful failed French exam.

 At this juncture, there are two things you can do and neither is ideal:

 One is to put up your hand and admit that you’re not sure what she’s talking about. What’s an emotional arc, exactly? This would be just about acceptable, as she smiles and takes a deep breath, but she may privately lose a bit of confidence in you - while she could teach you about self-editing, does she really have time?

 Or you could keep quiet and decide you’ll deal with it alone. You’ll put yourself on a crash course in self-editing techniques, revise your MS and hope for the best. This means lots of pressure to get it right, and anxiety about whether you’ll be able to deliver.

 Ideally, you should already be acquainted with these techniques. You’ll be confident and calm during this meeting, bold enough to take these editorial suggestions away to process later, think about the revisions that have been requested and then write a confirmation email with a proposed plan.

 You’ll be able to write that you’ve thought seriously about increasing the tension peaks in the mid-section, but you’d rather combine the six she suggested into three impactful ones, which are listed, and which would fit into the 3-act graph. You plan to interweave the heroine’s internal conflict more closely with the action plot in a cause and effect way right from the beginning, which should boost empathy and understanding. As for scene structure, you intend to do a ruthless prune and cut down on overwriting to foreground the climax of each scene. This should aid pace and tension overall.

 (If I’m not making sense don’t worry: this can all be taught and is what we specialise in.)

 This course of action doesn’t challenge the agent’s suggestions, which are brainstorming ideas and open to the author’s interpretation. It shows a mutual working towards a solution that feels right for your story, where you ‘own’ the revisions. This is very important because unless you feel comfortable with your edits they’re unlikely to be effective. A combined effort from you and the agent will hopefully deliver the best for the book and demonstrate that you can work together. The agent will also feel confident about sending you off to your first meeting with your editor who will almost certainly have further suggestions.

 Your job is to know how to write fully. Not just to write creatively (which is mainly talent and application) but to know how to hone your work into a book strong enough to launch you into a full and prosperous writing career. It’s a rare author who can do this alone. Learning how to self-edit is not ‘writing by numbers’ as some authors fear; rather it’s knowing what components make a great story and then how, when and why you can bend the rules.

Self-editing can turn a goodish book into a dazzling one. It’s a process that shouldn’t be rushed, and should be nurtured like any other part of the craft of writing. And, at the very least, who wouldn’t want a second opinion on their writing? I’m about to get Kathryn Price, Cornerstones’ managing editor, to see if this article makes sense; if it can be tightened up and repetition cut; if the beginning, middle and end is in place.

 Good luck in your first agent meeting, and with preparation you’ll be one of those dream authors that agents tell us about.

Cornerstones is a leading UK literary consultancy. They have over 60 professional editors who specialise in guiding authors through self-editing. They scout for agents and have launched many first time writers. See for author journeys.

Write a Blockbuster and Get it Published, Hodder, by Lee Weatherly and Helen Corner outlines their self-editing and submission teaching techniques. They’re very approachable so please email or call 020 7792 5551 if you’d like feedback on your sample material with no obligation to use their services.

Populating the Fictional World

by Sarah Bower

The fiction writer is a strange, parthenogenetic species whose offspring arrive in the world in all sorts of guises. They may be fully-formed or mere outline sketches, male, female, child or ancient, human, robot, or anything in between. Some are sweet-natured, some seething with evil intent, most shift up and down this spectrum in devious and unpredictable ways. All are, or should be, in some way memorable. They bristle with barbed hooks that, once they have entered the reader’s heart, cannot be easily removed.

Having looked last time at tips for how to find inspiration and begin writing, we now come to the nuts and bolts of creating a story, the set of technical components – plot, character, setting, point of view, voice, pace – which make up a piece of narrative fiction. The greatest of these is character. What do we really remember about our favourite books? What is it that makes them our favourites in the first place? Imagine you are among a group of people who all loved Little Women as children. The first thing you do is play the categorisation game. Who are you? Glamorous Amy, worthy Meg, the ‘little mother’, gawky Jo with her ink-stained fingers? Long after we have half-forgotten what happens to these girls in the course of Alcott’s novel, we remember them, the essence of who they are and what they say to us as – usually – women.

There’s another of these games. In your choice of partner are you a Darcy girl, or do you prefer the maimed Mr. Rochester? Or Heathcliff, with all that that entails. You may only half-recall the finer details of the stories of Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennett and Cathy Earnshaw, but you never forget the women themselves or the men they fell in love with.

So, when thinking about how to construct a story, even if the characters are not the element which comes to you first, they are the key to involving readers. It is the characters who will ventriloquise what you want to say.

The most obvious – and most hotly denied – source of characters is your own friends and family. This is not to say that you will want to lovingly recreate every detail of Auntie Gladys, or your annoying little brother, or your best friend from school. While all fiction is, by definition, autobiographical because it is generated by the author’s own imagination, there’s autobiographical and autobiographical. A mistake many beginning authors make, when enjoined to ‘write what you know’ is to write what is, in effect, memoir, not fiction.

The way to use the people in your life as characters in your fiction is to cannibalise them. As Graham Greene famously remarked, every writer must have a sliver of ice in his heart. So, much as if you were playing Tops and Tails, you can take Auntie Gladys’ honky tonk piano playing skills and blend them with your best friend’s taste for Malibu to create the basis for a character who is completely fictional yet composed of ‘real’ parts which will help you to achieve the authenticity and true-to-life feel that strong and memorable fictional characters always have.

People watching is a great source of material for characters. I have a chronic inability to be late for anything, which means I frequently find myself hanging around in bars and cafes, waiting for people who have a more wholesome attitude to punctuality than myself. On these occasions, I shamelessly watch people and eavesdrop on their conversations. I make up scenarios about groups and couples based on their demeanour with one another and snatched words and phrases overheard, and busily noting these down in my notebook or on my phone makes me look less like a billy-no-mates as I wait for my companions to arrive.

You can be more pro-active in this process if you actually choose someone in the street and follow them for a while. This is an exercise often set for student actors, to follow a stranger for, say, half an hour and then be able to reproduce their walk, their attitude when sitting or standing, getting on a bus, ordering a coffee etc. This approach is, of course, particularly useful for the budding author of crime fiction!

Once you have amassed the raw material you need to construct a character, how do you adopt the mantle of Dr. Frankenstein and breathe life into them? Fiction, even when it is at the outer realms of fantasy, is an imitation of life. It cannot be anything else because life is all we know. Consequently, the best way to approach the business of making your characters live is to think about how we learn to know our fellow human beings in the real world. We do this from the outside in; it is not, usually, until we know people well that they reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings to us. Even then, they may be selective with the truth, and will give their lies away to the attentive observers by a whole series of ‘pantomimes’. Our knowledge of other people is built up through our senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, possibly, in certain circumstances) and our intuitions. So, when you set about revealing a character to your readers, this is how you should do it.

Try to avoid ‘telling’ readers about characters. When you introduce your heroine, do not give us a paragraph detailing the colour of her hair, the number of brothers and sisters she has, her preference for jasmine tea and pinot grigio over espresso and margueritas. This not only stops the forward momentum of your story because it is merely descriptive, it also tends to be off-putting to readers because it leaves them no opportunity to put their own imaginations to work in conjunction with yours. Focus on showing what she is like through her actions, so she is revealed to readers in just the same way as she is revealed to other characters in the story. 
Let us learn she likes jasmine tea through seeing her order it, or overhearing her telling someone else it’s her favourite. Let us know she has red hair because she wishes it was blonde, or decides she can’t wear purple because it will clash with it. This way we learn not just that she is a red head but that she lacks confidence in her appearance, likes the colour purple, is a little vain and possibly fancies a man who always goes out with blondes. You tell us one thing, but you show us many more.

Finally, remember Stephen King’s dictum that, however minor a character, when that person is centre stage, the spotlight is on them and no-one else. All your characters, even the walk-on parts, must be multi-dimensional and nuanced just as real people are. The milkman isn’t just the milkman, he’s a forty-two year-old father of three whose wife suffers from depression and who dreams of bungee jumping in New Zealand. The hero isn’t just tall, dark, handsome, square-jawed and ripped, he’s terrified of spiders, gets eczema on the backs of his knees and likes seventies soul music.

The power of fiction lies in its ability to turn a mirror on the world we live in and tell us, truthfully, who is the fairest of them all. The driving force behind this process is the characters, the representations of humanity who act out their lives on the page and thereby offer us catharsis. Our relationships with our favourite fictional characters may outlast friendships, marriages or the bonds between parents and children. Wouldn’t you love to think that the characters you create might have this power?