How to write fiction 5: characters



Characters are the life and soul of fiction. We might have the most splendiferous plot or setting, but it’s an empty dance floor until the characters arrive.

You might think that it’s easy to create characters. We are surrounded by people. How hard can it be to transfer some of them onto the page?

As it turns out, it can be quite hard. I have lost count of the number of books that I haven’t enjoyed because I couldn’t engage with the characters. It’s a common issue with the books I beta read for aspiring authors who are learning the craft. Heck, even highly commercial authors often can “do” plot but not character or vice versa.

The problem, I think, is that novel characters are nearly – but not quite – real people. They’re special, but not so special that they turn into caricatures.

I have been thinking about this for a long time. I’ve read loads of books. Trawled the internet. Spoken to other writers. And after much thought and deliberation I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is … 7.

Or around 7. It might be 6.8 or 7.5. Somewhere in that region. Approximately.

More specifically, I mean 7 out of 10. In pre-decimal money, that’s more than half way but not the full beans.

Okay. I can see you’re puzzled. Let’s have some examples. Let’s say that we want a character who is a macho man of action – a James Bond or a Jason Bourne. We would want him to be more macho than average, but we wouldn’t want his character to be ridiculous. So we would add a bit of tension. Bond drinks too much and has doubts about the profession he is in. Jason Bourne wants to stop killing people and get his memory back.

To write a really effective character we need to turn the volume up high, but not all the way. Every dark character needs a bit of light. Every romantic character needs the occasional bit of steeliness. Every “good” character needs an interesting flaw. Not too much, mind! Around 7 or 7.5. That feels about right.

When we are drawing up a character we ought to look for an interplay of emotions and traits, where one tendency is partially balanced by another. That helps to hook a reader. They get a feeling for how a character would react but they can never be quite sure. That is the sort of hook that draws you in to a story.

But a funny thing happens when you’re writing. You need to hold some of the information back from your reader. It’s our old friend “show don’t tell” again. If you’re hero is brave don’t say that he is brave. Show him doing something brave instead.

This can feel a little weird. You might write a dozen pages of notes about your character. You know their hair colour, their back story, how they speak, their deepest feelings. You’re proud of these notes. Hey this is good stuff! You’ve created a really interesting, complex character that people will be talking about for hundreds of years.

And I’m telling you not to write that directly into your book?

Yes, that is precisely what I am saying. Your reader will enjoy your characters more if they have to work things out for themselves.

Here’s an extract from the beginning of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens:

“As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair.”

This is our first introduction to the main character and first person narrator – Pip. We are starting to get a sense that Pip is a dreamer who is prone to fancifulness. Dickens doesn’t come right out and say it. He doesn’t need to. This introductory scene does it for him.

Later on we meet the convict Magwitch:

“A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.”

“Aha!” I hear you cry. Dickens is describing Magwitch in great detail. Doesn’t that disprove what I’ve been saying about holding back information?

Maybe, but look at what that paragraph tells us about Pip. Without saying it directly, Dickens is adding more layers to our mental image of Pip. This time, he is telling us that Pip is a sympathetic and kind character. Pip describes Magwitch in terms which show that Pip feels sorry for him. He doesn’t need to say “I felt sorry for him.” The writing would have been weaker if he had said it so directly.

The painful secret for writers is that a reader’s imagination is far more powerful than anything we can write. Our job is to give them enough clues to get their imagination going. We do this by leaving holes in our writing which they have to fill with their imagination.

One way to add character is by inventing an establishing scene where the character can do something to reveal their personalities. This establishing scene might have little to do with the main plot. It’s a chance for the readers to get to know the characters without us spoon-feeding them.

There’s another thing about character. Readers need to be able to relate to the main character, at least a little bit, even if the main character is a villain.

I know that sounds unfair. I know that we really want to write about super evil villains. The Evil Characters’ Union will be furious at me for saying it. But it needs to be said.

Every main character needs to have at least something about them that is appealing. That mass murderer needs to have a motive or someone they care for or something. Blofeld has to have his cat. Hannibal Lector helps Clarice Starling … and knows a bit about fine wines.

The flip side is also true. Every good character needs to have at least one negative trait. As one writing teacher once told me, we need to put a little bit of grit inside the oyster.

Pip gets ideas above his station. Sherlock Holmes finds it hard to have relationships, as well as having a drug problem. Bond drinks too much and can be cruel. And on it goes.

Naturally, these character traits shouldn’t dominate. Around 2 or 3 out of ten, to counterbalance the 7 out of 10 that we’ve already talked about.

There’s one other thing that helps, but which you hardly ever read about in writing manuals. It can help if your characters have a sense of randomness about them. Something unusual that they say or do which is never really explained. After all, that is what real people do. They have odd hobbies, sayings or actions.

In “To Kill a Mockingbird”, Scout calls her father by his name and not Pop, Dad or Sir. This has fascinated generations of readers who have tried to work out what this means. The simplest answer is that Harper Lee’s father did exactly the same thing and so she included it in the book as a semi-random detail. It hints at respect and a modern sensibility, but there is no hidden code. It’s a random (or semi random) detail.

My grandfather lost part of his index finger in an accident. He was chopping logs as a boy and … you get the picture. For the rest of his life he would point with his middle finger – a gesture which Americans now consider to be rude. That seemingly random detail doesn’t have explicit meaning, but is the sort of pearl to drop into a character.

I’d better draw this to a close. There’s lots more to talk about character, but that will probably do for now.

Next time we’ll talk about team-work.


How to write fiction 4. More about the voice


farmer plough


Last time we talked about voice and the fundamental decision about whether we are going to write in first person or third.

Next we need to think about what our narrator’s voice sounds like.

This might come as a surprise. Surely we’re ready to start writing now? Writing is writing, innit? The cat sat on the mat and all that.

Well, yes and no. Some writers do dive right in and start writing without thinking about what kind of voice they want. They might argue that they have “a writer’s voice”. They don’t need to think about it. No discussion needed.

What is really happening is that these writers have made subconscious decisions about their writing voice. But they have most certainly made decisions about voice … and not always good decisions.

Let’s take a few first lines. Here’s the opening to The Hobbit:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

The voice here is deliberately kept simple. It is an adult telling a story to a child. There are no polysyllabic words – all the words have one syllable or two. The adjectives are quite basic but they include all of our senses, including touch, smell and taste.

Tolkien plays at least one trick on us. He mentions a hobbit in the first sentence, but then teases us by not telling us what a hobbit is. Instead he goes on to tell us what a hobbit-hole isn’t.

This isn’t Tolkien’s voice. It isn’t even Tolkien’s writer voice. It’s the voice he chose for the Hobbit.

Pick up any work of fiction and you see the same thing. There is a seeming infinite ways of telling a story. We may think that there is only one way to write a particular sentence, but give it to twenty authors and you would probably get thirty or more different sentences.

The choice of words and sentence construction tells us a huge amount about the narrator, the story and the setting. The voice matters.

Voice matters particularly for stories written in the first person. Arthur Conan Doyle’s genius in his Sherlock Holmes stories is that they are (nearly) all written from the first person point of view of Dr Watson. Dr Watson’s voice is carefully judged to be a good foil to Sherlock Holmes’ character. Watson takes down details well, but doesn’t always appreciate what he is saying. He is prone to emotional outbursts as a counterpoint to Holmes’ colder and more logical approach.

Dr Watson stands in for the reader. His job is to ask the questions that we would want to ask. One thing puzzles me Holmes … how did you know that Professor Carruthers was recently returned from a hunting trip to Africa?

I wanted a distinctive narrator voice for Children of Coal. Jack, my main character, is a plain working class man. He can’t read or write. He is a God-fearing devout Christian, but he also has a temper and a passion for life.

The voice I need for my Jack is very different from Dr Watson’s voice. Dr Watson has a medical degree and experience in the Army. He can read and write to a good standard. Jack is a hard worker who is good with horses. Jack’s signature is a scrawled X.

I started to develop some rules for Jack. He doesn’t use long words. He doesn’t understand grammar. He gets annoyed. Forgets things. Swears. He says one thing while meaning another. He gets tongue-tied and deferential when he is in the presence of someone socially senior to him … which means just about everyone. He uses imagery drawn from his rural life.

It took me several attempts to find Jack’s voice. I had to find the right sentence length (short), the right vocabulary (limited), the right level of swearing.

There were some things I wanted to avoid. I didn’t want Jack to be a Shakespearian comedy lower order character. He should have a nobility and a strength despite his lowly station in life.

I also didn’t want to write in a broad dialect, like Mellors in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. That might be authentic but it can be very difficult for readers to understand what is being said.

I decided to take a couple of risks by messing around with grammar. I felt this would give a hint of a working class dialect without all the “thees” and “thous” of a more phonetic dialogue.

The first thing I did was to get rid of almost all of the commas and apostrophes. I reckoned that Jack wouldn’t know what these where, so he wouldn’t use them when telling his story. Instead of “you are” or “you’re”, Jack says “youre.”

This feels weird at first – both to read and to write – but it doesn’t take long until you adjust. I found that I had to be careful not to apply this technique to some combinations of words. “I will” is fairly legible as “I’ll” but it looks awkward as “Ill”. Similarly, “we will” can be shortened to “we’ll” but not “well”.

So I wrote around words like these. Jack never says “Ill”. He might say “I shall” instead. There is nearly always another way of writing a sentence.

The other trick that I used was borrowed from my Mum. She has this way of telling a story which switches between past tense and present tense. She will use the past tense when she is describing action that happened in the past. “I went to the doctors”. “It snowed.”

But she switches to the present tense when she is describing dialogue:

So I says …

And he says …

Then she says …

Of course, my Mum doesn’t know she is doing this. It is a beautiful thing to listen to. It almost feels as if the action is told in the past tense because it’s not the important part of the story. The part that she wants to get to … the thing that matters most to her … is the dialogue. That is why it is told in the present tense. She wants us to feel that we are there.

Put it all together and you get something like this:

I was born to the plough.

My Da was a tenant farmer on the Dukes land. Good Surrey soil it was. Thick and black and full of life. The horse would plod and the soil would churn with seabirds flocking after. It was how I pictured the sea would look. A white wave fluttering behind the furrow.

Strange to think that those birds had seen the sea and maybe other lands beyond. But not Jack Archer. My world was the fields and the plod of horse and the plough. Other men might sail in ships to far off kingdoms. As a lad I had never slept in any other bed other than my own. I had never traveled more than a half days walk from that bed.

The farm was our life. Had been our life since Creation days. My Da tilled the soil and fattened pigs. And his Da before him and his stretching all the ways back to Adam and Eve. The first tenants in Paradise were farmers like us on someone elses land.

I was born to the plough but the Good Lord had other plans for Jack Archer. I remember it like it was yesterday. It were a cold spring day with a hard frost to turn the ground to stone. There was a piss weak sun trying to break through the clouds.

I must have been around ten year old. Old enough to be of use to my Da but not yet enough years to be a man.

A rich man came calling on a horse. I could tell he were a rich men long before I sawed his face. A poor man would be walking alongside a horse which was pulling a cart. Only the rich gets the horses back all to himself.

“That be Mester Turner” says my Da. “Go tell your Ma to draw a jug of cider. The good stuff.”


This is a pretty extreme example. I wouldn’t normally recommend tearing up the rules of grammar, especially for a first book. Hopefully it shows how the narrator’s voice can reinforce character and setting.

How to write fiction 3. Voice


Every good novel needs plot, character, voice, setting and theme(s). I’m sure some smart-Alec might come up with an exception – and maybe some smart-Alec author has deliberately written a novel without one or more of these themes. But on the whole these are the building blocks for any novel.

It does not matter in which order you find them. For my Children of Coal novel, I thought up the theme first (the history of coal). That led me to the setting (1800s to the present day, in rural England). Then I dived in more deeply into the plot (a man who is forced to work down the mine).

But that’s my way. It’s not the only way.

Some people might start with setting. You might want to write a novel on board a pirate ship, or a modern day romance, or a fantasy setting, or whatever. Then you need to populate that setting with characters. And plot. And a voice.

You might start first with character. A person or a group of people who you find interesting. Then you need to give those characters something to do … and before long we are talking about plot and setting.

It’s a bit like the Magnificent Seven or any team-collecting novel or movie you have ever seen. Before the action can start you need to gather your team. It doesn’t matter what order you do it, as long as you end up with the demolition expert, the sniper, the one who can throw a knife, the token woman, and so on.

However we start we eventually need to assemble the cast of plot, character, voice, setting, theme. In whatever order.

Today I want to talk about voice. Unusually for me, I needed to decide the voice before the characters. It was what this particular book wanted.

The first decision we need to make is about whether to write in the first person or in the third person.

The first person is when you write the story as if one or more character is talking directly to the reader. The dominant word is “I”. The narrator cannot know things that the first person character wouldn’t know.

Third person is when the narrator isn’t in the action. The narrator is a disembodied spirit hovering over the action. Sometimes the narrator can see inside people’s heads and know what they are thinking. Sometimes he/she can’t. Usually (but not always) the narrator focusses on one character in a scene.

Which to choose? A few years ago that was a fairly easy decision because nearly all fiction was written in the third person. These days, first person is becoming increasingly popular especially with younger readers. It really is up to you.

Some writers develop a personal style which means that they always write in first person or always write in third. That’s perfectly fine, although not much help if you are starting out.

I would say that third person is slightly the safer choice. I have never heard of anyone disliking third person as a reader, although I have heard people say they don’t like to read books written in the first person. Third person might give your book a wider appeal.

But … and this is a big but … you should recognise that there are distinct differences between first and third person. There are rules that you have to learn, even if you later go on to break them.

I normally write in the first person for my comedy novels and the third person for my non-comedies. This time, the book cried out for a first person voice. I wanted it to read like a first-hand account where the poor working class people were getting a chance to tell their story.

First person it is then. But then comes the dreaded question – how many points of view? Do I have one narrator or several? My, my, but this is a huge minefield. You might not like what I am about to say.

Third person writers need to pay attention to this bit, because it also applies to you.

Writing from a single point of view can be hard, whether you are writing in first person or third person. You find yourself in a boring bit of the book when nothing much is happening to your main character. You might find that the main action is happening somewhere else. You want to show the thoughts and feelings of a secondary character.

This is when new authors “discover” an amazing trick. They realise that they can switch the point of view (POV) to show something more interesting. We can suddenly jump to the evil villain’s lair and show him mwahahaha-ing about the next stage of his cunning plan. Then we can switch back to our main character, having conveniently got him over or through his boring bit.

One of the pretty firm rules is that we shouldn’t switch point of view within a scene or chapter. If our main POV character is Ted, it should stay as Ted all the way through each chapter. There are exceptions to this – there are always exceptions! – but it’s a fairly good rule to follow for most of the time.

Okay, got that. No switching POV inside a chapter, but switching outside a chapter is okay. No problem – each time we switch POV we start a new chapter, right?

Well, yes and no. The problem with this amazing new trick is that it doesn’t always work as well as you think. New writers tend to love switching POV because it helps them to solve writerly problems such as how to FF over the boring bits. More established writers only switch POV when it suits the novel.

Switching POV works for a big sweeping epic like War and Peace, Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. Sometimes you need to show Frodo and Sam getting into arguments with Gollum. Other times you need to show Aragorn, Gimmli and Legolas doing grown-up stuff. Switching POVs seems entirely natural.

But switching POVs in something a little less epic can dilute the novel. Instead of focusing on one main character we are throwing our affections around several.

Trust me on this. If you hang around writing forums on the internet you are bound to come across the multiple POV question. A new author will ask a question like this one:

“I am writing a novel with eight POVs. Is that too many?”

The more experienced writers on the forum will generally suck their teeth and write something diplomatic like “You could do it, but …”

Having multiple POVs isn’t wrong, but it isn’t always right either. A good novelist can make any technique or structure work, but that doesn’t mean that we should all try it. Messing around with POV might seem like an advanced thing to do, but can also be the hallmark of a “newbie”.

My advice on multiple POV? Do it well or don’t do it at all.

I said you might not like this bit!

Where does this leave the novel I am currently working on? This was where personal preference kicked in. As a general rule I don’t like multiple POVs unless the novel calls for it. In this case, it didn’t. So it was a fairly easy decision for me to choose a single first person POV for each book in the series.

Whew! Sorry if that got a bit complicated. Where does that leave you? If you are new to writing and don’t know where to start, which POV should you use?

I am going to suggest what is arguably the simplest POV of all for your first novel. It goes by the snappy title of “third person limited”:

  • You write exclusively in the third person.
  • Your narrator focuses solely on the main character
  • Your narrator knows what your main character is thinking, but not what anyone else is thinking.
  • Your narrator does not know anything that the main character doesn’t know.
  • Your narrator does not have opinions.
  • Your narrator does not know the future.

When you’ve got the hang of this style, you can then try out more challenging techniques like first person or switching POVs.

Or, to be perfectly honest, this style could be the only writing style you ever need.

How to write fiction 2


Writer at work

Sometimes the Universe throws you a surprising coincidence. The photons were barely dry on my blog about writing fiction, when I met someone who asked me exactly the same question.

I met Steve at a Christmas Eve party. Over a glass of bubbles and little nibbly things on crackers, he told me that he had the beginnings of an idea for a comedy novel set in the world of finance but didn’t know where to go next. He thought he would quit his job, fire up the computer and throw himself into it by typing something like “It was a dark and stormy stock market.”

So I thought I would write a follow-up to my blog on “how to write fiction”.

Then I had another thought. I have just finished one book – “First Contact for Beginners”. While my lovely beta readers are working their way through that book, I need to start a new project. I need to start on a new novel.

Why not write a blog series alongside the new book, so that Steve and others could see how the creative process evolves from an idea into a fully blown novel?

Hmm. Interesting. Each blog could look at a different element of the novel writing process. I could explain all the hidden decisions that a writer has to make – from the first raw idea to the finished product.

As always, this would not be the definitive guide to writing a novel. It’s how I do it. Nothing more, nothing less. Other authors will do it differently. I suppose we all have to find our way in the world and work out whatever works for each of us.

So that is what I am doing. I am writing a novel and a blog about the novel at the same time. The idea is to help people to write their first novel … and if I am being sneakily honest and honestly sneaky, it might also help to sell a few copies of the novel. Let’s call it the X-factor effect.

My new novel is a little way along, so we’re going to have to do some catching up. I would like you to imagine that we are staring at a blank page. Or a blank monitor screen, depending on your preferences.

There is nothing on the page. Like a fresh fall of snow, it’s is nothing but white. It’s up to us to make  a mark in the snow. If we don’t get started it will stay as snow until it melts.

Imagine scooping up a handful of snow. Pat it in your gloved hands until it’s a snowball. Then grab some more snow and stick it onto your snowball. Keep on adding layers until the snowball is too heavy to carry. Then roll it around the garden until you’ve got a goodly sized boulder. That’s the body of your snowman.

Then do the same for his head. Plonk it on top of his body. Stick a hat on his head. A carrot for a nose. Lumps of coal for eyes. A scarf for irony.

Writing is like that. We take our first idea and then we add to it and add to it and add to it. We build up the story layer by layer.

My starting point was when several ideas came together at the same time. I wanted to write a non-comedy for a change. And a novel that wasn’t science fiction, fantasy or thriller. A more serious novel. A bit of that arty stuff.

That was idea number one. To be honest, it’s not much of an idea yet. It’s a vague aspiration. It needs more layers.

Around about this time, there was a broad theme buzzing around my head. As the Brexit debate raged, it was clear that some people who voted Remain were not talking the same language as some people who voted Leave. And vice versa. They didn’t seem to understand each other. I felt that the country needed interpreters. We all needed to stop shouting and start listening to each other.

That was my second idea. I stuck them together – I wanted to write a serious novel about class, community and nationalism in Britain. That was all I had. I didn’t know what I was going to write about, but at least I now had an idea about where I would shelve it in the bookstore.

When we’re not building snowmen authors are like magpies. We like to collect shiny things in the hope that one day they will be useful. I dragged my barely formed novel around with me for ages while I looked for inspiration – aka another shiny thing.

Along the way I picked up little ideas. I had no idea where these ideas might fit in so I filed them under I for Interesting.

One day I was researching my family tree when an odd thought struck me. Most of one branch of my family were coal miners. But if you stretch the line back far enough you can see a beginning and an ending for coal. Before 1800, most workers had rural jobs like farmers or blacksmiths. Then came the industrial revolution and my ancestors were sucked into mining. This lasted for around 200 years until my generation when most of the coal mines have closed down.

This idea appealed to me for all sorts of reasons that I won’t go into now. I could see how some of the different themes and ideas I had been collecting could fit in.

Why not write a multi-generational story where we see how the coal industry has shaped these people over a period of 200 years? A working title popped into my head. Let’s call it “The Children of Coal.” I’m not entirely sure of the title, but it will do for now.

Other ideas came in. I started out thinking that this would be a single book with several different generations. I even started to write it. Then I changed my mind. There was enough material hereto make several books.

So that was decided. I would write a series of books about one family living through the era of coal – from the early 1800s to the modern day.

Now to focus on the first book with the working title “CoC1”. Children of Coal, book one. This had to be about the beginnings of the coal industry. A family or an individual starts to work as a miner where previously they had been farmers. I wanted to show that coal hadn’t been around forever, so it was open to question whether we should be fighting to keep it.

I had an idea and a setting. Now all I needed was a plot and some characters.

It was another magpie moment. As I was researching my family tree, I came across the story of my paternal grandfather. He grew up in the rural south of England. He had a strong love for horses which led him to a job as a stable boy in the big posh manor house. One day, the Lord and Lady of the big manor house went north to Derbyshire to stay with another posh household. My grandfather went along too, presumably to drive the carriages and look after the horses.

While he was there he met a young maid of all work. They fell in love, but were separated by a huge distance when he returned with his family to the south of England. My grandfather then did a very brave thing – he left his secure employment to move to Derbyshire and be with my Grandmother. He could not get employment as either a farmer or a stable-boy so he ended up working down the pit. It was a job he hated, not helped by the bullying from the other miners who ribbed him for his funny southern accent.

I love this story because it talks of an everyday heroism. There is also the whiff of scandal too, which became evident when I compared the date of their wedding with the birth date of their first child.

But the story needs some tweaking to fit as the plot of my novel. I need to turn the clock back so that this happens at the beginning of coal – let’s say around 1800. That’s around one century before my grandfather.

I decided to shift the southern setting from Kent to Surrey, for no other reason than I know Surrey better because I live there.

While I was tweaking I invented a reason why the (now Surrey) posh household would go visiting the Derbyshire posh household. They were talking about investing in a new coal mine which was owned by the Derbyshire family. That would sneak in some of my background story without the need for exposition.

Now I had a broad idea of what I wanted to do, a setting and the beginnings of a plot.

The important thing at this stage is not to get disheartened. There is a long way to go. It might sound very thin at the moment. But if we stick at it, I’m sure it will come together in the end. Promise.

More next time, when we need to look at character and voice.

In the meantime, a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year. May this last year be the worst you’ve ever had.



How to write fiction


shakespeare writing


By a strange coincidence, two people asked the same question at more or less than same time. One asked me the question directly, the other posted it on an internet forum. Their question was:

“I write non-fiction. How do I learn to write fiction?”

It’s a great question. My immediate thought was “it’s obvious, innit?”. Then I stopped, paused, thought. No, it isn’t obvious.

You see, I’ve been writing fiction since I was ten. One day, the teacher asked the class to write a story for their homework. Most of the class wrote a couple of pages about unicorns or football or something similar. I wrote a 26 page novella.

It was like pulling at a loose thread on a woolly jumper. The thread kept on coming and coming and coming, until I had a tangle of wool in one hand and a lot of nothingness in the other where the jumper had been.

Ten years old was a long time ago. I am now no longer “pushing fifty” – I am dragging it behind me. Writing has become an essential part of my life. I have written four awful “first” novels which will never see the light of day. A further four self-published novels with another about to be published.

This meant that I had to stop and think how to write fiction. I have been doing it for so long that I have forgotten how to do it.

What follows isn’t the only way to write fiction. It’s my way. As they say on the internet, your mileage might vary.

First, I want to put an image into your head. Do you know those party games where you have to act out a phrase or movie title, but you can’t say it? Everyone else in the room has to guess the word from your actions?

There are several different versions of this. If you act it out, it’s called charades. If you draw it, it’s called Pictionary. You wave your arms around, point to your bottom, make rude hand signals. Then eventually someone calls out “Terminator 3; Rise of the machines.” Everyone cheers.

If charades works well, everyone in the room gets that forehead slapping moment. Of course! It’s obvs when you think about it.

You know the sort of thing? Hold onto that thought. You will need it in a second.

For me, every piece of fiction starts with an idea. Something that I want to say. A common theme for me is that we all have good and bad in us. A “bad guy” can sometimes be good. A good guy can sometimes be bad.

Some people think that they write fiction without having an over-arching theme. I’m not so sure about that. I think every writer has themes in their head. They just don’t always realise what they are.

Next comes the charades/ Pictionary part. The art of writing is to pass that theme on to your readers without saying it out loud. You have to act out your theme.

Except you aren’t the one doing the acting out. You have to invent characters to act out your theme for you.

These characters need to be believable. They ought to have three dimensional characteristics, traits and beliefs. The reader needs to believe that your characters are real.

How do we create believable characters? We need to play charades again. If we decide that our main character is brave, we are not allowed to say that he is brave. We have to get him to do brave things.

We need a setting – a stage where our characters can do their stuff. This time we are allowed to say where the action happens, but we also have to act it out. Our readers need to be reminded that we are in medieval England, or Middle Earth, or on board a pirate ship, or whatever. We don’t need to describe everything about the world. Just enough so they know where they are.

Have your characters go into a roadside inn with a thatched roof and ale that comes frothing in pewter tankards. Your readers will know you’re in Middle Earth or Westeros.

Then we need a plot. Stuff has to happen. This might sound complicated but it’s actually quite simple. The only plot that you need to get started in fiction is that your characters need to solve a problem. They need to kill a dragon, find a husband, destroy a death star, survive an apocalypse, become world heavyweight boxing champion. Whatever.

You don’t need to keep this one secret from your readers, but like the setting it helps if you keep reminding them what the problem is. In Star Wars, the Empire have to use the death star to destroy Alderaan. We need to show the readers that the death star is a nasty thing. Just like playing charades, we aren’t allowed to say “the death star is a nasty thing”. We have to act it out. The audience needs that forehead-slapping moment where they get it for themselves.

The ideal plot leaves the reader wondering what is going to happen next. It pulls them through the story like a golden thread tied to a fish-hook stuck in their cheek.

Then we need words. Lots of words.

This might seem like the easy part. We all know lots of words, don’t we? “The cat sat on the mat.” Simple, right?

Well, no. It turns out that there are a million ways of saying something. The Siamese reclined on the Persian rug. Each different variation of phrase or word tells us something about character, setting and plot.

When we choose one set of words over another we are playing charades again. We are hinting at things that we should not say out loud.

Let’s take one of the most famous sentences of dialogue. Luke Skywalker is flying his X-wing through the death star canyon when the ghostly voice of Obiwan Kenobi says:

“Use the Force, Luke”

It’s a simple little four word sentence. And yet it doesn’t take much tweaking to make it sound very different. What if we take out the last word?

“Use the Force.”

That doesn’t sound quite right, does it? It sounds more like a command. The addition of “Luke” reminds us that Obiwan was Luke’s friend. It has a warmth to it.

“Please use the Force.”

Ugh. That doesn’t work at all. Jedi Knights shouldn’t say “please” and especially not in moments of high tension.

“Trust in the midichloriens to guide you. Turn off your targeting computer. Allow them to direct your movement.”

Too much information. Too many words.

“Increase power to the forward shields.”

Too Star Trekkie.

And on it goes. Have one of your characters say “yea, verily, my liege” and we can sense that we’re in a sword and sorcery novel or a historical story. Have that same character say “yo, dude, what’s happening?” and we’ve got a very different setting in mind.

Like playing charades, we need to think what our readers will take from our words. What sort of hints are we dropping?

That might seem like a lot to take in, and it probably is. Writing a good story isn’t easy. But this, for me, is at the heart of writing fiction. We are telling stories by dropping hints and giving clues, so that your readers can reassemble those clues and work out what we are saying.

Let me give you an example. I wanted to write a novel on theme of “there is good and bad in all of us.” I wanted to make an anti-hero who was surprising, reluctant, unlikely, uncertain.

What would make the most surprising and unlikely hero? A zombie. Okay, I’ll make my main character a zombie. A walking, talking, friendly zombie.

How can I make him seem loveable? I’ll give him a girlfriend. She is cleverer than him and more grounded.

How can I make him seem ordinary? I’ll make him a trainee estate agent/ realtor.

How can I make him heroic? I’ll give him a quest to go on, and an evil Prime Minister who wants to kill him.

How can I make him believable as a sentient zombie? Why not write it in the first person with him as the only narrator?

And on it goes. Each decision we make about our writing is like playing charades. We know what we want to say, but we’re not allowed to say it out loud. We have to drop very big hints.

Then practise, practise, practise. Write until your fingers bleed and your head spins. The first few things you write will be rubbish. Trust me on this – they will be rubbish. But you won’t know it yet. Write a lot, read a lot, write a lot more.

And keep on playing charades. Your job as an author is to drop clues so that your readers find the answers for themselves. Their imagination is far better than anything that any author has ever written.

It’s a book. And a movie. Three words. Second word is “and”. First word rhymes with …

Can I have your autograph?



Something really unusual has just happened. Mind altering. Astonishing. Gob-smacking.

Someone has asked for my autograph.

Let’s put that into context. I’ve been writing for my own pleasure for all of my adult life. I have been publishing books on Amazon since 2013. And no-one has ever … ever … asked me for an autograph before.

That’s the sort of thing that is supposed to happen to other people. I am a modest bloke. I am happy enough if people are reading my writing. I never expected that I’d need to get my pen out for autographs.

Okay, okay, I am not getting over-excited here. After all, it is my only autograph request. J.K. Rowling must get dozens every single day. And it might take me years to get my second. But still … it’s a 100% improvement in the autograph department, which has to be worth something. It’s a tick in the bucket list.

Then there are the practicalities. Writing these days is mostly electronic. How can you send someone an electronic signature?

I suppose I could scribble an autograph on a photograph of me and send that in the post. But that means asking for an address. And as I am officially the ugliest bloke in the world, I didn’t really fancy sending someone a photo. No-one deserves that.

So how can I reply to my very first autograph request?

And that’s when I had a brainwave. Instead of a pen and paper autograph, I would give my new friend a digital autograph. I would write him into my next novel – First Contact for Beginners, the sequel to Global Domination for Beginners.

Here’s the first draft. To set the scene, the first person narrator is our anti-hero Robert. He is a megalomaniac in the style of Blofeld or Dr Evil. In this book he has been appointed to meet and great the aliens who have been making first contact with Earth. Of course, it doesn’t go well. Near the end of the book, we have a scene where Robert is given a mysterious parcel which helps to move the plot along.

And this is where Paul comes in:

The white van pulled up next to us and a delivery hench-partner got out. He had a kindly face – the kind of kind face that you expect to find on a male nurse. I pictured him as a family man playing darts with his kids. There was a name badge on his lapel telling me that his name was Paul (Burgy) Burgess.

And then he said something which blew my mind.

I have had my mind blown before of course – sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally. There was that assassination attempt with the exploding headache tablet. The sight of Lump blowing up a volcano. The underwater sports car that did not turn into a submarine. But no-one had ever blown my mind simply by saying something.

“Can I have your autograph please?”

In all my years, no-one has ever asked for my autograph. Sure, I have been asked to sign for things. Tax demands. Death warrants. Approval to buy a mega yacht. But no-one has ever asked for the humble autograph.

My eyes started to well up with unmanly liquidity. After all the hard times and the pain, it was a boost to know that someone cared.

“You want my autograph?” I said. I did not know whether to hug him or burst into emotional floods of emotion.

“If you don’t mind.” He gave me a pad and a pen.

“What would you like me to say? Shall I say ‘To Paul’ or to ‘Burgy?’ Which would you prefer?”

He looked at me as if I had recently been released from a mental establishment. “There’s no need for anything like that. All I need is a signature for the records and then I can give you this.” He handed over a small parcel wrapped in brown paper.

The. Penny. Dropped.

“You do not want my autograph?”

Paul (Burgy) Burgess gave me a sardonic smile. “It’s a figure of speech, innit?”

I signed the piece of paper and took the parcel.


How does that look, Paul?

Sizzling spam fritters




It was an innocent question from one writer to a group of writers on the internet.

In a draft of his novel he had written:

“and a mess tin of spam fritters were sizzling on the stove.”

And she had questioned the word “were”. Surely it should be “was”? The mess tin of spam fritters was a singular mess tin. It should be “the mess tin … was” and not “…. the spam fritters … were”.

Hm. I’m not so sure. What do you think?

If I put my grammar Nazi hat on, I’d want to say “was”. The subject of the sentence is the mess tin with its meaty contents. A container of things is a container. The things are secondary to the unique one-ness that is the container.

But there’s a problem. It might be grammatically correct but it doesn’t sound right. Mess tins don’t sizzle. Oh, I suppose if you super-heated a mess tin in an industrial furnace you might get the metal to melt and do all sorts of fancy things in the vicinity of sizzling. But by then the spam fritters would have long since vapourised. Anyway, the reference to “the stove” tends to throw cold water on the industrial furnace theory.

No, it was pretty obvious that the spam fritters should have been doing the sizzling within the confines of said mess tin and atop the heat-giving appliance that was the stove. That sounds like a vote for “were”.

On our internet forum we had one vote for “was” and one vote for “were”, echoing the 50-50 split in the household of the author who posed the original question.

I have a different theory. As Hamlet may or may not have said, the question is not “to was or not to was”. It’s the other parts of the sentence that are the problem. “Was” and “were” are the innocent bystanders. The true culprits are the sizzle and the mess tin. They are both fighting over the spam fritters.

Two guys fighting over the same dame – ain’t that a universal truth?

You might think it doesn’t matter. Readers won’t notice or care. It’s close enough.

Well, yes, some readers won’t notice or mind either way. They would happily shoot straight through this sentence because they are so interested in who was going to eat the spam fritters and whether the murderer was the cook, in the kitchen, with the rat poison in the fritters.

Some readers will notice. A mistake in spelling or grammar can yank you out of the willing suspension of disbelief. All of a sudden we are no longer in an Edwardian mansion or a World War One trench. We are all too aware that this is a book and it was written by a writer who didn’t know his “was” from his “were”.

In situations like this, I have a sneaky authorly trick. It has saved me from many an awkward point of grammar. It is simply this:

You can nearly always rewrite your way out of any grammatical conundrum.

Let’s try re-ordering the sentence:

“Spam fritters were sizzling in a mess tin on the stove.”

All is safely gathered in. We have spam fritters (plural) inside a mess tin (singular) atop a stove (also singular). The verb is plural in honour of the stars of the show – the spam fritters.

I think we can go at least one better. We don’t always have to be literal or correct. I did quite like the original sentence fragment:

“and a mess tin of spam fritters were sizzling on the stove.”

There is something comfortingly familiar and cozy about “a mess tin of spam fritters”. It has a good ring about it – probably better than my prosaic “spam fritters were sizzling in a mess tin”. All things considered, I like the sound of “a mess tin of spam fritters”.

So how about this? We delete the “was” or “were” to give us:

“and a mess tin of spam fritters sizzling on the stove.”

I like this. It isn’t immediately clear whether the mess tin or the spam fritters which were sizzling. That gives the reader something to do. It leaves some blank space for their imagination.

Can we improve? I quite like:

“and a sizzling mess tin of spam fritters on the stove.”

I think my favourite (so far) would be the slightly tricksy:

“and a sizzle of spam fritters in a mess tin on the stove.”

It won’t be to everyone’s taste (no pun intended!) to turn “sizzle” from a verb into a collective noun for spam fritters. But in the right kind of book it could work. It shows a little invention.

We could add more detail, say to describe the mess tin, the stove or the colour of the spam fritters. The smell of the highly processed meat oozing in fat. But that might be overdoing it.

This, for me, is the essence of editing. We take a simple sentence and we create several different versions of it – each giving a slightly different feel or meaning. If we come across a grammatical oddity we draft around it.

Was or were?

Neither. Let’s sizzle instead.