Historical Fiction – How “Modern” Should the Characters Be?

I’ve been living in the past lately. Why wouldn’t I, when there’s so much fabulous historical fiction around? Between The Murder Next Door, HMS Expedient and Nights at the Circus, I’ve not read anything set later than 1912 in quite a while.

Writing characters from another time can be difficult. You don’t want to take readers out of the story by having characters do or say things that are obviously anachronistic. You also don’t want readers to start hating the characters because they’ve said or done things that are completely objectionable to a modern audience (unless they’re the villain, of course).

So how modern should we make them? I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer to this question, but here are some of my thoughts. Feel free to add your own in the comments!

Modern characters in period costume

In some historical fiction, the characters act, think and talk very much like modern people. They might use the occasional old-fashioned word like “strumpet” or “consumption” but it’s just window dressing.

Is there anything wrong with this? Not necessarily. If you’re writing a fun, escapist historical romance, a lot of readers will actually be looking for 21st-century characters enjoying a modern love story, but with corsets and adorably formal language.

If you know that historical accuracy is not a priority for you or your readers, stand your ground against the purists and let your characters be as progressive, sarcastic, outspoken, sex-positive and generally “modern” as you want them to be.

Tread carefully

But what if gritty historical realism is more your style? This is where things get tricky, because you have to look at your characters through two different lenses. The first is their historical context – what were the norms of behaviour in that time and place? The second is the modern context – how will modern readers react to those behaviours?

The number one thing to be careful with is bigotry. We all know that sexist and racist attitudes were more socially accepted in the past, but be wary about how your characters express them. Some useful questions to ask yourself are:

  • Are they being hateful, or just ignorant?
  • Can their views be challenged in some way?
  • Is it necessary? Remember there are other ways of making your characters realistically flawed.

A less obvious thing that 21st-century readers often have a problem with is passivity. In our modern society, we’re brought up to think of ourselves as masters of our own destiny and act accordingly.

This wasn’t always the case, but readers often still expect characters in historical fiction to shape their own stories. Don’t expect them to empathise with a woman who meekly accepts marriage to a man she hates and doesn’t even bother to have an affair!

Character vs personality

One thing to remember when writing characters from other time periods is that different personality traits were valued at different points in history. In her rather excellent non-fiction book Quiet, Susan Cain argues that “personality” is basically a 20th-century invention.

Before most people lived in big cities and worked in sales-based economies, “character” was the order of the day, and traits such as being hard-working, honest and modest were valued.

20th century changes in how people made a living caused a shift in focus from character to personality, and people began to value flashier traits such as confidence, charm and creativity.

Don’t be afraid to write a protagonist “of good character” rather than one with “lots of personality”. Nobody reads Pride and Prejudice and says “If only Mr Darcy were more expressive and a better communicator, I’d like him so much more.”

Context is key

Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that independent female characters, powerful ethnic minority characters or happy LGBT+ characters don’t belong in historical fiction. People have always found ways to overcome societal barriers.

However, it’s important to remember that traits such as strength, power and independence look different in different contexts. Just because a 21st-century feminist is expected to be outspoken and unfiltered, that doesn’t mean an 18th-century feminist would act the same way.  

Perhaps she has to be cunning, or even sneaky, to get ahead in the world. Perhaps she has to be more flexible, or more stubborn and determined. Maybe she has to get angry, or maybe it’s vitally important that she doesn’t lose her temper. Don’t ask yourself “What would I do in that situation?”, but “What would I do if I’d grown up in that situation?”

Thanks very much for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts on character in historical fiction, and I’d also love to get some hist fic recommendations!

What to Expect When Writing an “Own Voices” Story

There’s so much debate, hand-wringing, and general fuss about the phrase “own voices” that it’s easy to forget how simple and vital the central concept is. The phrase was coined by the writer Corinne Duyvis to refer to an author from a marginalised or underrepresented group, writing about their own experiences or from their own perspective.

This is a very natural thing for writers to do. We’re constantly being told to “write what you know”, and writers from a marginalised or underrepresented group have added motivation. We’re often virtually invisible in fiction. And if we’re not invisible, we’re stereotyped and misrepresented by authors who don’t share or understand our identities.

So why not tell our stories? Well, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s easy. My YA novel Other People’s Butterflies is own voices, because the main character is aromantic-asexual, and so am I. The process of writing and publishing it has been strange, emotional, awkward, and liberating.

I’d like to share my experience of writing an own voices story, and help other writers know what to expect if they decide to do the same. I’m aware that experiences can vary wildly, so if you’ve written own voices work and had a completely different experience, please feel free to share in the comments.

Step 1: Feeling very, very naked

Writing about your own experiences puts you in a vulnerable position. You can fictionalise all you like, but it’s still your own thoughts, feelings, and perhaps life events going onto the page. This can leave you feeling very exposed.

Here’s the part where someone tells me to stop being a pussy. Because this is what writers are supposed to do, right? We use our own experiences to create stories. But when writing own voices, you’re writing about experiences that most readers won’t have had. You’re risking judgement, mockery, or the reader saying “Eh, this isn’t relatable to me, so I’ll just read something else.”

You may also be writing about parts of yourself you’ve struggled to come to terms with (a common experience for queer writers) or experiences that made you feel shitty about yourself. It can be emotionally draining.

My advice to anyone struggling with this is to remember the following things:

  • You are in control, and can share as much or as little of yourself as feels right. You owe your reader a good story and nothing else.
  • You don’t have to write in a linear fashion. If you’re struggling with a particularly dark or difficult scene, write something for a happier part of the book and go back to the difficult scene later.
  • Engage with your community. Remember that your experiences aren’t abnormal, and you aren’t alone.

Step 2: Under pressure

Writing an own voices story can be a high-pressure experience. Are you supposed to provide representation for everyone in your community? What if your representation is too simplistic? Or inadvertently promotes stereotypes? Or is just plain crappy?

My advice here is simple (some would say too simple): Reject that pressure. You can’t possibly represent everyone in a diverse community. Everyone wants a different type of representation – some want it to be wholesome and optimistic, others want it to be complex and challenging – and you can’t please them all.

Write your own story in your own style, and ignore the people who tell you it ought to be a different story in a different style. Personally, I’ve written about an aro-ace girl who makes mistakes, does bad things, and still ends up okay. I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I also know that some people are looking for exactly that.

Step 3: Am I “own voices” enough?

Writers have a lot to worry about while crafting a story. Is it engaging enough? Believable enough? Funny enough? But if you’re writing own voices, you may also find yourself worrying if it’s authentic enough.

Other People’s Butterflies is a novel, not a memoir. My protagonist shares my sexual/romantic orientation, but our experiences differ in multiple ways. This is the case for most own voices authors, and it can cause anxiety when there’s so much pressure to write “lived experience”.

Also, identity can be really f*cking complicated. Just ask anyone who is mixed race, has an “invisible” disability, or is in the + part of LGBT+. This can cause confusion and worry about claiming your own identity.

My advice is to be honest with yourself. Do feel you can write authentically about this topic? If there are gaps in your knowledge or experience, can you find out what you need to know in a way that supports others and doesn’t exploit them?

Step 4: Potential bullshit from publishers, agents, etc.

Lots of publishers and agents are looking for own voices work. Some (including my publisher, Art Over Chaos) go about this in a responsible way, by advertising their desire for own voices stories and striving to create an inclusive environment. Others engage in identity policing.

Rather than trusting that a story is own voices if the author says it is, they will ask intrusive questions, pressure queer authors into outing themselves, and generally demand proof of identity.

I understand why publishers do this. There are, unfortunately, some shameless con artists out there, who will do things like pretend to be a different race in an attempt to get their writing published.

Nobody wants to be taken advantage of by unethical people, but identity policing disadvantages writers in difficult or dangerous situations who are unable to be completely open about their identity. You know who it doesn’t disadvantage? Con artists. They will always find a way around it.

If you’re not comfortable with identity policing, just try to avoid publishers who engage in it. Don’t answer questions that violate your privacy or dignity. Trust your instincts and prioritise your own safety, security and wellbeing.

Step 5: Celebrate!

Despite all the difficulties of creating an own voices work, rest assured that you are doing something worthwhile. You are creating something that will make people feel seen and understood. Be proud.

Thanks for reading this longer-than-usual post. If you have any experience of writing own voices stories (even if it’s something you’re just beginning to consider) I’d love to hear about it. And if you’re a reader, please share your favourite own voices books!

Four Quick Writing Tips from “The Sense of Style”

I recently read Steven Pinker’s excellent writing guide The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. It’s aimed at non-fiction writers and I read it for my Science Communication MSc, but it also contains a lot of useful stuff for fiction writers. Here are four quick tips from the book that fellow writers might find handy…

“Beautiful” is more beautiful than “very beautiful”

When I was a teenager, I used to cram my writing full of intensifiers like “very”, “extremely” and “exceedingly” (Exceedingly was my favourite – I thought it made me sound fancy). This is an easy trap to fall into, because we can all get a little over-enthusiastic when we’re trying hard to get a point across.

The problem is that intensifiers can actually undermine the point you’re trying to make. As Pinker explains, an adjective on its own tends to be interpreted categorically. Someone is either completely honest, or not. Someone is either entirely beautiful, or not.

If you add an intensifier like “very”, you turn this all-or-nothing thinking into a spectrum. Someone might be quite beautiful, very beautiful, extremely beautiful, etc. It muddies the waters and takes away the impact of the adjective.

Save the heaviest for last

If you’re writing a list, the longest or most important word or phrase should go at the end to maximise its impact. For example, if you’re writing about a burglar who stole a bunch of things, it should be “He stole a TV, a laptop, and 2000 dollars in cash,” rather than “He stole a TV, 2000 dollars in cash, and a laptop.”

Importance should generally be prioritised over length. For example, “He stole a TV, 2000 dollars in cash, and a baby” is better than “He stole a TV, a baby, and 2000 dollars in cash.”

Watch out for zombies!

Before reading this book, I’d never heard of a “zombie noun”, and probably used them without meaning to. It’s a noun that’s derived from a verb, such as “make an appearance” (derived from “appear”) or “put on a performance” (derived from “perform”).

When a verb gets turned into a noun, it becomes lifeless and zombiefied (yes, that’s a word). Too many zombie nouns will make your writing sound stuffy, so it’s best to avoid them.

Learn the rules, then go ahead and break them

One thing I enjoyed about Pinker’s style guide was its impatience with grammar Nazis and language purists. We’ve all been annoyed by seeing “your” and “you’re” used interchangeably for the millionth time, but someone who acts like their world is falling apart every time someone makes a small error really needs to get a life.

The book argues that language is constantly evolving. If a word or phrase is used “incorrectly” by 90% of the population, and has been used by respected writers, there’s not much point in labelling it “incorrect”.

Also, (whisper it) there are more important things than grammar. If a woman prefers the term “chairperson” to “chairman” or a non-binary person uses singular “they”, it’s a dick move to insist that the rules of grammar are more important than equality or identity.

I hope you found these tips helpful. Got any quick tips of your own? Please share them in the comments!

Wonderfully Weird Words

We’ve all known someone with a passion for quirky words, and for me it was my grampy. If a word was obscure, unusual or ridiculously long, he would hoard it like a treasure and drop it into conversation to amuse himself.

So I’m channelling Grampy today, and celebrating five unusual words related to books and writing…

  1. Librocubicularist

Are you a librocubicularist? I certainly am. It just means someone who reads in bed.

2. Hypergraphia

Hypergraphia is an overwhelming desire to write. So it’s basically the opposite of writer’s block.

3. Rhapsodomancy

This is the practise of divining the future by picking a passage of poetry at random. I tried this myself with a book of Dylan Thomas poems and got the following stanza:

Sing and strike his heavy haul

Toppling up the boatside in a snow of light!

His decks are drenched with miracles.

Oh miracle of fishes! The long dead bite!

So now I’m feeling slightly nervous about what the future has in store for me, especially with that last line.

4. Bildungsroman

This is a literary genre that focuses on the protagonist’s formative years. Think The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jane Eyre, or even the Harry Potter series.

5. Omnilegent

I hope to be omnilegent someday. An omnilegent person is someone who has read ALL THE BOOKS, or at least has an impressive familiarity with literature.

Got any quirky, book-related words to add to the list?

Does Fanfiction Encourage Bad Writing – The Case for “Yes”

Writing this post was more of a challenge than the previous one because I love fanfiction. I enjoy reading it, I’ve dabbled in writing it, and I’m strongly in favour of anything that turns fandom into something creative rather than just consuming a product.

But that doesn’t mean that fanfiction teaches good writing. I feel like there are genuine issues with developing your craft through fanfiction, and I hope you’ll bear with me while I explore those issues. Starting with…

Those characters aren’t yours

If you write stories about characters and worlds that have been created by someone else, then half the work has been done for you. This can be great if you’re just starting out, or if you want to focus on something specific, like maintaining a consistent character voice. But it won’t teach crucial skills like character development or world-building.

It also means that your writing is more likely to reflect the existing media landscape rather than changing it. Your favourite Hollywood blockbuster franchise might be a great starting point for a fanfic, but the voice of Hollywood executives is not your voice.

Tropes, tropes tropes

Avoiding clichés – anything that is overused or unoriginal – is one of the first and most obvious lessons for a writer to learn. But in fanfiction, these clichés are called “tropes” and positively celebrated.

The thing is, a lot of people read fanfic for comfort. If you’re looking for something to read that’s challenging and subverts your expectations, fanfiction.net probably won’t be your first port of call. But if you want something fun, soothing or heart-warming at the end of a hard day’s work, it might well be.

This means that familiar situations where the outcome is obvious are popular in fanfiction. But they aren’t so popular with publishers, and they may not be popular with someone who’s just spent £7.99 on a novel.

Bad romance

Being dismissive of fanfiction is often seen as being dismissive of genre fiction. Fanfiction snobs are all literary writers who don’t understand the joy of a good sci-fi or thriller, right? Well, if you look broadly at fanfiction – both at the quantity of fics and the most popular ones – there’s really only one genre that dominates, and that is romance.

Because “shipping” (pairing characters up with each other in a romantic/sexytimes way) is such a big part of fandom, every fantasy series and mystery drama seems to get turned into a smooch-fest.

Of course, if you want to learn how to write romance, this is ideal. But if you’re more interested in other genres, there are limits to what you can learn. I won’t blame fanfic for the way so many writers shoehorn lacklustre romantic subplots into stories, or use overly flowery language when describing appearance (“obsidian eyes”, etc.) but, honestly, I think it plays its part.

Queer stuff, hooray?

People often talk about fanfiction as a beacon of LGBT+ inclusivity, and it’s true that the most popular fanfics tend to be novel-length M/M romances. What better way to learn how to write complex and thoughtful queer stories, right? Well…

Unfortunately, LGBT+ content in fanfiction has a clear hierarchy. Stories about M/M pairings tend to receive more attention and feedback than F/F, and stories about trans or intersex issues are often undervalued. Asexual and aromantic stories aren’t popular either, because who wants to read about characters not hooking up?

Also, a lot of the M/M romance is written by women, many of whom are straight. And while this is a contentious issue (lots of women write M/M romance to help them work through queer feelings of their own) there are potential pitfalls to this.

For example, there’s a tendency to take two canonically straight male characters and make them fall in love with each other with zero exploration of queer identity. Nothing about coming out, dealing with prejudice or being part of a queer community. Regardless of how cute the love story is, this doesn’t reflect the reality of LGBT+ people.

Fanfic bad?

There are definite disadvantages to learning to write through fanfiction, but personally I’ve never met a writer who expected to go from fanfic to a bestselling novel in one swift leap. It’s just one tool for developing writing skills, and I still think it’s a valuable one.

Also, we need to stop pigeonholing fanfiction as writing practice. Many fanfic writers are already published authors of original work. Others have no intention of getting published – they just write for fun, or to be an active part of the fandom community, or because they think Bridgerton would be better if it was mashed up with Doctor Who.

So, what’s your thinking on learning to write through fanfiction? Do you think it develops vital skills? Encourages bad habits? Both? Neither? I’d love to hear your opinions and experiences in the comments.

Does Fanfiction Encourage Bad Writing – The Case for “No”

I’ll never forget the time when, in a meeting of my old writers’ group, we had to explain fanfiction to a writer in her seventies. We told her that sometimes people take the characters from their favourite films, books and TV programmes, and write their own stories about them. She seemed both baffled and charmed by the idea.

If you’re younger or nerdier than her, you probably have a passing familiarity with fanfiction and might even be aware of the small twitterstorm it provoked recently. Basically, someone said she was appalled that so many new writers were cutting their teeth on fanfiction, because it actively promotes bad writing.

An army of fanfic writers vehemently disagreed. And though I personally developed my writing the old-fashioned way (by writing stories about dragons in old exercise books) I was on their side. People who trash fanfic always seem to be writing snobs who think you need an MFA for your work to be worthy of attention.

But then I chewed it over for a while and realised her points weren’t all that easy to dismiss. I decided to explore this question – Does fanfiction encourage bad writing? – from both sides. I’m starting with “No” because, frankly, I’m a massive fangirl and this is my knee-jerk response. Here are some reasons why…

Instant audience = Quick feedback

The writing world is full of gatekeeping, much of it financial. Writing workshops can be expensive. A degree in creative writing is hella expensive, especially since it prepares you for a job that doesn’t have a salary. Writing groups are cheaper but can still be inaccessible for other reasons, e.g. if there aren’t any in your area.

Because of all this, it can be difficult to get any kind of meaningful feedback on your work. But if your story features Iron Man or Captain Kirk, you already have an audience for your work that is global, diverse and enthusiastic.

Granted, most of the feedback you get is likely to be along the lines of “OMG great story I love it!” but if you’re looking for more detailed constructive criticism, just ask and ye shall receive. Many fanfiction readers genuinely appreciate the free content and are happy to provide free critique in return.

Also, every “like” or positive comment is a little bit of encouragement, which is often what newbie writers need the most. Let’s face it, writing is hard, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting a little validation to keep you going on the long journey of developing your craft.

Learn the art of reader satisfaction

Many young or inexperienced writers think writing is all about self-expression. And sure, if you don’t plan on publishing, it absolutely is. But if you want readers, you need to give them something they’ll actually enjoy.

It sounds obvious, but so many writers talk about writing as if the whole point of it is to be very original and impressive and win fancy awards. If that’s your goal then fine, you do you. But traditional publishers want to turn a decent profit. Consequently, they’re unlikely to publish books that no-one will fall in love with, regardless of how elegant the prose is.

Fanfiction readers know what they want, and are well-placed to convey this to writers. If you write enough fanfic, it can help you learn important things like how to craft an interesting narrative, convey a relationship that’s intense yet realistic, and bring a story to a satisfying conclusion. These are all things that please readers and publishers alike.

The perks of anonymity

Most fanfiction is published anonymously, with writers keeping their fan identity pretty separate from their real-life identity. This anonymity gives writers freedom to take risks and write more courageously.

It’s a myth that all fanfic is light and fluffy. Many fanfic writers explore challenging topics like mental illness and childhood abuse, in an environment that’s much more welcoming than your typical online forum. And we can’t talk about the perks of anonymity without discussing…

Queer stuff, hooray!

So you’re a young (or not so young) LGBT+ person who wants to write queer characters and relationships. The idea of sharing your work in a “real life” situation is pretty intimidating, and I speak from experience here. What if you have to come out? What if your audience is hostile, or just doesn’t understand?

If you’re anonymously writing fanfiction, much of that pressure is removed. Fanfic websites are full of queer content, and frequented by people seeking that content. While you still risk the odd nasty comment, bigoted voices are likely to be drowned out by supportive ones.

The fact that you’re writing about familiar characters rather than ones of your own creation can also be useful. It allows writers some distance, which can make us braver in exploring feelings and experiences that we might not be ready to accept. It’s surprising and heart-warming how many people have figured out stuff about their own identity through fanfic.

Fanfic good?

Okay, I know I sound like an unabashed fan of fanfiction, but next week I’ll be exploring the flipside of the argument and the problems with learning to write through fanfic. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the pros of fanfic. Do you write it yourself? Has it taught you any important writing skills or lessons? Feel free to share in the comments.

How to Make “Bad” Characters Likeable

Badness isn’t fashionable these days. When I was growing up (way back in the 00s), being rebellious and cynical was all the rage and giving a f*ck about other people’s feelings was not. But now we’re expected to be respectful of everyone, channel our anger into political action instead of kicking dustbins, and buy exactly the right brand of fairtrade, organic quinoa.  

The trend for antiheroes also seems to have come to an end and I can’t help but feel it ended too soon. Maybe that’s because of a personal preference for flawed characters, or maybe it’s because the majority of those antiheroes were straight, white men. If you ask me, characters who are female, POC or LGBT+ haven’t had a fair shake at being bad.

Since “unproblematic” has become the ultimate compliment, I was a little worried about the protagonist of my upcoming novel, Other People’s Butterflies. She does stuff that’s not just morally questionable, but unquestionably bad. But so far, the feedback I’ve had about her has been positive. So here are my tips for writing a character who’s kind of shitty but also likeable.

Consider writing in first person

If you don’t see the thoughts and feelings behind bad behaviour, people will interpret it in their own way. And that interpretation is likely to be something like “She did an awful thing because she’s awful.”

If you write in first person, the reader becomes almost complicit when the protagonist does bad things and has a better understanding of why they are behaving that way. If you don’t want to write in first person, you could always try “deep third” – where you write in third person but still get right inside the character’s head.

Some sins are more forgivable than others

Forget everything you learnt at Sunday school, because when it comes to fiction, we’re pretty f*cked up. If you ask readers about the characters they hate and why they hate them, you’re unlikely to hear “I hate this murderer because he murdered loads of people.” You’re more likely to hear complaints about arrogance, constant whining or being a spoilt brat.

That’s because, for most of us, shocking crimes aren’t a part of our daily reality. Violence is something we see on telly and we’re mostly desensitised to it. But we often have to deal with entitled arseholes, closet misogynists and two-faced liars.

Because we have real world experience of how it feels to deal with this kind of behaviour, we’re often unforgiving of it. So basically, it’s easier to make a violent criminal likeable than a douchey dudebro or gossipy bitch.

Persuade the reader

A way of making a bad character more engaging is to make them difficult to argue with. Give them a reason for bad behaviour that, logically speaking, makes sense. Or, even if it doesn’t make sense, you could still have them express themselves so eloquently that it seems to make sense.

The latter is particularly powerful when crafting interesting villains. There’s nothing like knowing in your gut that a character is wrong, but being unable to explain why.

Seduce the reader

I’m not saying you should make bad characters gorgeous (though it’s surprising how many awful male characters get a “hot guy pass”). I’m saying you should recognise that we all have urges that are selfish, greedy or spiteful, and seeing a fictional character give in to those urges can be cathartic. So much so, that it often makes us feel like we’re on their side.

This is pretty much the opposite of the previous technique. Rather than having a character tell the reader, “My behaviour might seem bad, but here’s why it’s actually good from my perspective”, you’re having them say “Yeah, I know I’m doing something bad, but admit it … you want to do the same thing.”

Relatability is key with this technique, and this is a reason to show bad behaviour that kicks up instead of down. A character getting revenge on their awful boss? Pretty relatable. A character firing an annoying employee on a whim? Less relatable because, well, lots of us don’t have employees.

“Pet the dog”

This is a term coined by screenwriters that means showing a supposedly nasty character doing something kind. It softens their edges and shows that, hey, they’re not a total arsehole after all! Simple but effective.

A crappy childhood doesn’t make a supervillain

If your “bad” character grew up in an abusive home, or was badly bullied, or suffered a huge loss, this can act as motivation for bad behaviour. But don’t rely too much on sympathy. Plenty of people get bullied, abused or bereaved without becoming horrible people.

Go for empathy rather than sympathy. Show how your character goes from feeling bad to doing bad things, rather than just emphasising how bad he feels. That way, you’re explaining his behaviour rather than excusing it. You’re helping the reader understand, rather than just telling her “You should feel sorry for this character, not hate him.”

Thanks for reading my tips on how to make “bad” characters more likeable. Do you have any of your own to add? And who are your favourite fictional baddies?

More Exciting Writing News

Okay, I have an announcement to make. Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have already seen me flipping out about it but for those of you who don’t,

Drumroll please…

I’m getting a novel published hooray hooray hooray!

My YA Contemporary novel Other People’s Butterflies is going to be published by Art Over Chaos publishing in 2021, and will be available as both an ebook and an actual book, made of paper!

So, what is Other People’s Butterflies all about?

Seventeen-year-old Gwen Foster’s first kiss is a mistake for many reasons. Mostly because it costs her the friendship of her two best mates, Martine and Angie. Feeling lonely and bored without them, she becomes obsessed with an old spy novel and develops a very unethical hobby.

Spying on her classmates and collecting the gossip she unearths on her phone is fun at first, and might even help her understand all the romantic drama that’s mystified her since she was eleven. But things go south when her phone disappears and a mysterious social media presence called “MimiKnowsStuff” starts spilling everyone’s secrets.

Now Gwen must make the transition from amateur spy to amateur detective, figure out how to get her phone back and put a stop to Mimi’s mischief. As if that weren’t enough to deal with, her childhood friend Ethan has reappeared, and decided he wants to be “more than friends”.

In a nutshell, it’s Harriet the Spy meets Gossip Girl, with an aro-ace protagonist. I’ll post more info when I’m closer to publication, but any questions are welcome!

The Ups and Downs of Beta Readers

So, the emotional rollercoaster of writing your first draft is finally over. And so is the emotional rollercoaster of rewriting it to flesh out those thinly-drawn characters and fill in that glaring plot hole. Time to submit it to agents/publishers and relax?

Unfortunately not. No amount of careful editing is a substitute for a fresh pair of eyes on your work. So if you want to publish, you’ll probably need to hand over your baby to someone else and listen to their opinions. And this is quite the emotional rollercoaster itself.

Low point – The anxiety of waiting

Argh! I sent the manuscript over three weeks ago and haven’t heard anything. What if they found it so boring they couldn’t finish it? What if they finished it, but absolutely hated it and don’t know how to tell me? Should I ask them how far they’ve got, or will I seem like a nag? The suspense is killing me!

High point – Finding a good beta reader

If you’re lucky, you’ll find an experienced reader with a rich understanding of what makes a book great. Someone who offers valuable insight into the strengths and weaknesses of your work, and is always honest but never discouraging. A good beta reader truly is worth their weight in gold.

Low point – Bad beta readers

Unfortunately, not every beta reader is like this. Some beta readers’ feedback will simply be a list of spelling and grammar mistakes. Some get off on “tough love” and will make sure you know your manuscript needs A LOT of work before you should even consider publishing. Some will insist you ought to tell an entirely different story.

As frustrating as this is, we writers need to take some responsibility here. Make sure your beta reader understands what you want from them, and be careful who you pick. If you’ve written a horror novel, someone who reads nothing but romance is probably not well-suited to the task.

High point – “I really enjoyed it”

Hooray! When your beta reader says they enjoyed your story, or it moved them, or they read it all in one sitting, the sense of relief is enormous. Your beta reader is one of the first people to sneak a peek at the manuscript you’ve been slaving away over for ages, so their general impressions are crucial.

If they actually enjoyed the damn thing, it takes the sting out of any criticisms they have. You feel like you’re working to make a good thing better and ready for publication, rather than desperately trying to save something crappy.

Low point – That thing you couldn’t be arsed to fix needs fixing

Sometimes, you get the feeling that something’s wrong with your manuscript. Not just a little flaw that can be easily fixed, but something big and unwieldy that would require a lot of re-writing. Maybe your protagonist is fundamentally unlikeable, or the whole thing would work better in first person than third person.

Because sorting this out seems like a lot of work (and you’ve already put so much work into the first draft) your policy is to deny, deny, deny. Readers won’t notice a problem. Everything will be fine. Then a beta reader says the exact thing you were afraid to hear, and it becomes clear you’ve got to fix the damn thing.

High point – Your beta reader helps you with something major

Sometimes, a beta reader will suggest a tweak that makes your story so much better. Adding a little backstory, cutting a section that slows the pacing, whatever. You read it through, realise your manuscript is vastly improved, and feel simultaneously embarrassed that you didn’t think of the change yourself, and extremely grateful.

Hooray for beta readers

Despite all the ups and downs of having your work beta read, there’s no doubt that beta readers provide an incredibly valuable service. So make sure you show your appreciation! If you can’t afford to pay them, offer your own beta reading services (or something similar like editing or sensitivity reading) in exchange.

Have you ever done any beta reading? How did you find the experience?

When to Get Inside a Character’s Head (and When to Avoid It)

One of the best things about writing is that it gives you an opportunity to explore the world from different perspectives. Getting inside the minds of your characters can lead to a richer understanding of what it’s like to be someone else, living in a different place or time or body.

And sometimes, a character’s mind is just a fun place to be. Many writers have that one character who’s a particular joy to write (for me, it’s Mitch from The Misfortunes of Oscar Goldberg. Basically, the inside of his mind looks like The Lego Movie) so why not escape into someone else’s brain for a while?

But sometimes, even when writing in first person, it’s more effective to take a step back and focus on a character’s actions or surroundings rather than their thoughts and feelings. So when should you get inside a character’s head? Here are some thoughts on when to do it and when to avoid it.

Do it

To generate empathy. Characters don’t always have to be likeable, but readers should be able to empathise with them to some extent, and get a sense of why they do the things they do. 

If your protagonist makes some pretty questionable decisions, it’s important to show the thought processes, feelings and backstory behind those decisions. In the case of an antagonist, getting inside her head can make her more of a complex adversary and less of a pantomime villain who does bad things because she’s bad.

When most of the action is inside your character’s head. There are plenty of brilliant novels where not much happens at all. Classics like Pride and Prejudice (about a man changing his manners and a woman changing her mind) prove that you don’t need car chases or sword fights to create a thrilling story.

But if it’s light on action, there needs to be a lot going on behind your characters’ eyes and your readers need to know about it. The emotional drama needn’t be overwrought and soap opera-ish, but it should be complex and sincerely felt.

When someone is in an unusual situation. Sometimes, a character gets into a situation that isn’t easy for a reader to relate to. This is particularly common in Fantasy and Sci-Fi. When weird shit hits the fan, a reader might not know how to react. Is this a dangerous situation? A whimsical detour?

You can give the reader cues through tone and pacing, but one of the most effective ways of helping a reader relate to a weird situation is by getting inside the character’s head and showing what they think and feel about it.

To show that a character’s mind works differently. If your character has an IQ of 152 or 45, his thought patterns may differ significantly from the average reader’s. The same is true of characters with other kinds of neurodivergence like autism, ADHD, or mental illness.

If a reader only sees the character’s behaviour, they may find it difficult to relate to. But give them a chance to see inside the character’s mind and they are much more likely to understand. If you’re writing about someone different to you, remember to do your research!

Avoid it

When a character needs to keep a secret from the reader. Sometimes, to avoid spoiling plot twists, your character needs to keep things hidden. In a murder mystery, for example, your character might figure out whodunnit some time before it’s revealed to the reader.

In this type of situation, it’s important not to spend too much time inside a character’s head. It’s just not realistic to have a character with a huge secret who never thinks about it.

During action-heavy scenes. If there’s a lot of action going on, cutting away from it to explore a character’s mental or emotional reactions can be distracting and slow the pace.

 This doesn’t mean action scenes can’t be emotional – many of the best ones are intensely emotional. But it’s best to keep the emotions of an action scene simple and primal, e.g. shock, fear or rage. Hold off on exploring a character’s more complex reactions until the aftermath.

When you want a character to remain ambiguous. Mysterious characters are great for keeping readers on their toes. If you want an aspect of a character – their morals, their loyalties, their past – to remain shadowy, it’s best not to spend too much time inside their head.

I hope these tips were useful. As always, feel free to add your own!