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!

Should I Make My Characters Cry?

Why is crying such a big deal? If a fictional character laughs, chances are the reader will barely notice it. But when it comes to crying, readers have all sorts of opinions. I’ve heard everything from “It’s annoying” to “A protagonist should never cry in the first half of the book” to “It’s good because it normalises expressing emotions.”

So I’ve been thinking about the pros and cons of having characters burst into tears…

Crying baby

Pros

It can generate empathy. The most obvious advantage to having a character cry is that when it’s done well, the reader will feel every ounce of that character’s sadness, grief, frustration or hopelessness.

It can be cathartic. I recently read Stake Sauce by RoAnna Sylver. Don’t be fooled by the pun-tastic title – it’s an emotionally intense book. When the protagonist (who is bereaved and struggling with PTSD) finally had a good cry, it was such a relief. If your character goes through a lot, and negative emotions are allowed to build and build until the dam breaks and leaves them sobbing, the reader can often find this cathartic.

It can be good for character. People cry differently, and this is a great way of exploring character. Some things to think about include:-

  • What makes them cry? Do they have to be extremely sad? Do they cry when moved, e.g. by beautiful music? Is there one particular thing that’s guaranteed to set them off?
  • Who do they cry with? Do they only ever cry when they’re alone, or would they cry in front of friends?
  • How do they cry? Do they try desperately to hold the tears back, or do they just let go? Do they cry like a Hollywood starlet or have a proper ugly-cry? Are they one of those unnerving people who can turn the tears on and off at will?

Cons

It can come across as melodramatic. If a character cries often, or over things that aren’t particularly tragic or moving, the emotion can seemed forced. It’s a clear way of telling the reader “You should feel sad/moved at this point” but nobody likes being told how to feel, especially if they don’t feel that way.

 It can make a character seem weak. I hate this one because there’s nothing weak about crying. A few tears never stopped anyone getting shit done, but unfortunately we’re often brought up to think of crying as a sign of weakness. Readers may have a low tolerance for excessive vulnerability, especially in male characters. Which brings us nicely onto…

Gender-based bollocks. This is a phrase I find myself using often, so I’m going to shorten it to GBB. One of the most common complaints about women writing male characters is that women write men as too sensitive. If they cry often, or without the embarrassment around tears that men are brought up with, it can seem unrealistic.  That’s not to say that a female character can get away with crying over every little thing. She’ll risk readers seeing her as hysterical, or not up to the tasks facing her in the narrative.

So what do you think? Do your characters keep a stiff upper lip, or are you one of those meanies who loves to make your characters cry?

Write Like An Animal: Five Reasons To Write From An Animal’s Perspective

 

I don’t consider myself an animal lover. Sure, some of them are beautiful and all of them are fascinating. But mosquitoes spread malaria, swans are vicious bastards and a donkey once bit me. I’ll never be a person who goes gooey over everything with more than two legs.

But when it comes to books written from an animal’s perspective, I can’t get enough of them. From The Call of the Wild to Fantastic Mr Fox, I find they can do things that books written from a human perspective can’t quite manage. Here are my top five reasons to try writing from an animal’s perspective.

Wolf

  1. Animals are ideal observers

If you’re looking for a narrator who can observe human drama without getting caught up in it, an animal is ideal. Small or domesticated animals can get into the most exclusive of spaces unseen or unnoticed.

It’s no coincidence that many animal narrators are dogs. Their lives are so intertwined with those of their human owners that if they could talk, all sorts of secrets would probably come spilling out.

  1. They can evoke more sympathy than humans

I’m currently working on a novel in which the main character’s pet rabbit meets an untimely end. The same is true of several human characters but I’m most worried about reader reactions to the bunny. People are notoriously sentimental about animals and writers have even received death threats because they’ve treated their animal characters badly.

But a skilful writer can turn this to her advantage. It’s often easier to make someone care about an animal than a human, so put an animal protagonist – especially a small, relatively helpless one – in just the right amount of peril and readers will be hooked.

  1. Animal protagonists can highlight the strangeness of human behaviour

Humans are weird. Who better to point this out than an animal? This can be done for comedic effect – think Angela Carter’s Puss in Boots being amused by human shyness about nudity – or it can be used to make a serious point. Which leads us nicely onto…

  1. Animals are great for social satire

What better way to deliver biting social commentary than in a charming story about animals? It certainly worked for George Orwell’s Animal Farm – an allegory for the Russian revolution and the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union.

It also works for more gentle satire like The Wind in the Willows, which is ostensibly about a mole, a rat, a badger and a toad, but is actually about a bunch of middle class Englishmen trying to curb the excesses of their upper class friend.

  1. You can explore the relationships between animals and humans

We humans have a pretty bizarre relationship with animals. We love them, fear them, eat them, consider them part of the family or pests to be eradicated. We have so many strong emotions about animals, and an animal protagonist is an ideal way of exploring these.

A good portrayal of a loving, mutually beneficial relationship between human and animal can be profoundly moving. But if you want to tell a darker story, there are plenty of exploitative relationships and predator/prey dynamics to explore. Can you imagine what it’s like to be hunted or farmed for meat? That’s some proper horror novel stuff.

So, would you ever write from an animal’s perspective? And what is your favourite book with an animal protagonist?

Five Tips for Writing a “Retelling” of a Classic

Classic novels

Several years ago, I had a brilliant idea. I was going to write a modern-day retelling of my favourite Jane Austen novel, Northanger Abbey. It would be YA of course, since the protagonist, Catherine Morland, is only 17. It would be full of mystery and romance and would probably become a bestseller.

Just after finishing the first draft, I discovered that the famous crime writer Val McDermid had already done exactly that. Damn. But it just goes to show – everyone loves a modern retelling of a classic.

It combines familiarity with novelty, allowing us to experience well-loved characters and plots in a new and intriguing way. If you’re interested in writing your own retelling of a classic, here are my five top tips…

  1. Choose wisely

Learn from my mistake! If you’re planning on publishing, you need to make sure you’re not writing a retelling that’s already been retold a hundred times. Instead of choosing a very well-known novel like Pride and Prejudice, or a familiar fairy tale like Cinderella, why not go for something a little more niche?

You could try a less well-known work by a famous author – perhaps one that has never been adapted for TV or film. Or how about a quirky folk tale instead of something that’s already been tackled by Disney?

If you’re going to retell something well-known, you’ll need to do something extra special to help it stand out. Don’t forget, you’re basically writing fanfiction (I’m not being snobby. Fanfic is great, it’s just that it’s usually written for free!) so to impress a publisher or agent, you’ll need to do something very new and original with the story.

  1. Don’t do too much “fixing”

Sometimes, with modern retellings or adaptations, I get the impression that the writer has said to herself “People who don’t know any better think the original is a timeless masterpiece. But it’s actually got a lot of shitty parts and I’m going to fix them all.”

Don’t get me wrong here – I’m not a purist, and writers should never be a slave to canon. There’s nothing wrong with tweaking timelines, exploring events that happen “off the page”, fleshing out minor characters or pushing others into the background.

But remember that your readers are likely to be people who like, or love, the original. You have to remain true to the spirit of the book, and major changes to the storyline – for example, making the heroine end up with a different love interest because you always thought he was way sexier – is guaranteed to piss off your readers.

  1. Don’t be too smug about being from the 21st century

In some of the old classics, much of the drama and conflict comes from social rules and restrictions that don’t seem to apply to 21st century western society. When a working class lad suffers the consequences of trying to rise above his station, or a young lady is ruined after a seduction, it can be tempting to dismiss this as irrelevant to modern audiences.

But the attitude of “None of that stuff happens now, so I’ll just ignore that part” leads to missed opportunities. Yes, things have improved for a lot of people. But women still get shamed for being sexually active, and kids from council estates still face huge barriers to career success.

The old rules and prejudices are still there, under the surface – they’re just expressed in a more subtle form. And social scandal is very much present in the digital age! With a little tweaking, even seemingly dated parts of a story can become relevant.

  1. Character is timeless

Characters are so often the reason that readers fall in love with a book, and it’s important that the main characters in your story are recognisable descendants of their original counterparts. You can change the time and place they’re living in, change their job, appearance, race or gender. But you should never lose sight of their core personality traits.

If you have a soft spot for a particular character, it might be tempting to iron out their flaws or change their more questionable decisions. There may even be legitimate reasons for this (If Jane Eyre were written for a modern audience, people might not be so keen on Mr Rochester keeping his mentally ill first wife hidden in an attic).

But once again, it’s important not to do too much fixing. Genuinely flawed characters are enduring because readers have related to them and learnt from them for centuries. And let’s face it, perfectly-behaved characters are often dull as dishwater.

  1. Include plenty of treats for hardcore fans

Some readers of a retelling will only have a vague awareness of the original work. But other readers will be superfans who know it inside out, and are likely to demand a little more bang for their buck.

Rather than just writing your own story that vaguely sticks to the plot of the original, try to include references to less well-known parts of the story, such as minor characters and subplots. This means there are plenty of in-jokes to entertain readers who are well-acquainted with the original.

However, it’s important to strike a balance and not go too far in the other direction. If every single sentence is a nod to something in the original work, it’s likely to be incomprehensible to those who haven’t read it.

 

Those are my five top tips for writing a retelling of a classic – feel free to add your own tips in the comments.

 

To F*ck, Or Not To F*ck: That Is The Question

Sex scenes. Is there any other type of scene that causes writers so much stress? Sure, some of us struggle with dialogue and others can’t get the hang of action scenes, but the idea of putting our characters in bed together leaves many of us sweaty and shaky. And not in a good way.

Then again, maybe I’m biased. I’m asexual (I don’t experience sexual attraction) so writing a sex scene tends to make me feel like I’m faking it. The mechanics are easy enough to grasp, but the emotions behind it – especially when they’re mixed up with love – are a bit of a mystery.

Disclaimer: Not all asexual people feel this way. Some aces are both confident and talented at writing sex scenes. There are even some openly asexual erotica authors.

So, what are the benefits of including sex scenes in fiction? Is it actually worth the trouble, or should we be keeping our characters’ bedroom doors firmly closed? Without further ado, let’s pro/con this shit.

Pros

Some readers expect sex scenes

Some readers will inevitably feel cheated if the characters they’ve been shipping from page one don’t have sex, or if they only have sex “off the page”. Sometimes this is justified. For example, if the book is marketed as a “high heat” romance, the reader is entitled to expect more than a peck on the cheek.

Sometimes it’s less clear-cut. Regardless of what genre you’re writing, you need to consider how you’re portraying a couple or potential couple. If their connection is mainly emotional, intellectual or spiritual, it’s fine to avoid sex scenes.

But if you endlessly emphasise their physical attraction to each other and describe every lingering glance or touch in great detail, but fade to black after they finally kiss, this may feel like an anti-climax (no pun intended) to the reader.

They can make readers take a relationship seriously

Does a relationship magically become more serious, intense or committed after sex? No. Are readers likely to take the relationship more seriously if the people involved have some really good sex? Yes.

Show two characters who are clearly “sexually compatible” and many readers will instantly think they are soulmates. I dunno, it’s a weird quirk of non-asexual people, but there’s no getting around it.

Sex scenes can break taboos

Sex in the mainstream media is often pretty samey in terms of who’s doing it and how they’re doing it. You could be forgiven for thinking the only people who have sex are young, conventionally attractive straight people, and the only kind of sex they have is missionary-position PIV stuff.

If you’re feeling brave, you can write sex scenes that break taboos. Whether it’s writing sex scenes between LGBT+ characters or people with underrepresented body types, or confronting society’s hang-ups (there are a million of them, from kink to female body hair) a good sex scene can tackle stigmas in a really powerful way.

Sex scenes in YA can explore important issues

Some people feel that sex has no place in YA books. Personally, I disagree. Books are an ideal way of exploring the emotional side of sex, including crucial issues like consent. Sex in YA books is likely to be more realistic than porn, and more engaging than a sex education class. Also, it’s low pressure. If a teen feels uncomfortable, they can just put the book down.

Cons

Sex scenes get too much attention

Okay, let’s move on to the negatives. Firstly, sex scenes tend to draw a reader’s focus. So much so that they can often distract attention from other, more important parts of the book.

When I wrote my first novel, it contained one sex scene. It was one and a half paragraphs long, and non-graphic. It wasn’t particularly good, particularly bad, or particularly crucial to the plot. When I showed the first draft to a friend, can you guess what the first scene he remarked on was? Yep.

This is a pretty universal experience for writers, with sex scenes receiving way more scrutiny than other scenes. There’s even a “Bad Sex Award” dedicated to mocking clumsy writing about sex. There’s no “Crappy Dialogue Award” or “Unrealistic Fight Scene Award”.

It’s easy to lose sight of character

Because of the physicality of sex, and because certain things are supposed to happen in a certain order, it can be all too easy for a writer to lose sight of character. Some writers manage to avoid this, but there are many sex scenes that could be literally any two characters having sex.

There’s no nice word for “pubes”

Finding the right words for body parts when writing a sex scene is a nightmare. You’ve basically got three choices:-

  • Use dirty words (you know the ones) and risk sounding crude or pornographic.
  • Use anatomical terms like “penis” and “vagina” and risk sounding like a Biology textbook.
  • Use coy euphemisms like “length” and “entrance” and risk sounding like a giggly Edwardian chambermaid.

People have A LOT of opinions about sex

This is hardly a newsflash, but people have very strong opinions about sex. And yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but let’s be honest – some of those opinions are f*cking stupid.

You could write the most beautiful, heartfelt sex scene imaginable. But if it’s between two men, two women, two fat people or any number of people other than two, some reader somewhere is going to kick off.

Readers also disagree strongly about sex in fiction. Some think sex scenes don’t belong in any genre except erotica, while others think a romance without sex is prudish and pointless. It’s a bit of a no-win situation.

 

Okay, we’ve got equal pros and cons so far, so I’m leaving it up to you to break the tie. What’s the verdict on writing sex scenes? Do you? Would you ever?  What is a sexy word for “pubes”? Help a girl out here!

Four Ways of Cannibalising Your Own Work

Hannibal

It’s a harsh fact of the writing life that many perfectly good pieces won’t get published. No amount of editing, tweaking and polishing will make an agent or publisher want to pounce. What should you do with these pieces? Let them gather dust and weep bitter tears of frustration over them every so often? Totally valid choice.

But you could always cannibalise them. This means taking the material that works, and using it to create something new. Here are four ideas for how to do this…

Pick an old piece and do the cringe test

Feeling brave? Find a really old piece. Maybe even something you wrote while you were still at school. Now read it, and discard all the parts that make you cringe. Consider what’s left over. Even inexperienced writers can have great ideas, and there could be something here that you can use as a promising starting point for a new piece.

Choose a different perspective

Sometimes it’s good to look at a narrative through the eyes of a character other than your protagonist. What do things look like from the antagonist’s perspective? How about a relatively minor character? Are any of these viewpoints worth exploring?

You might even come to realise that a different character was the “secret protagonist” all along. This happens when you feel under pressure to write a protagonist who is like you (e.g. the same gender, age, etc.) or a protagonist who fits the mould of a traditional hero. But you may find there is a “background” character who you relate to more strongly.

Blend two pieces together

When combining two or more pieces, I recommend just going absolutely nuts and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Here are some ideas to try:

  • Blend two poems together to create an unholy super-poem.
  • Write crossover fanfiction of your own work, and let characters from vastly different worlds interact.
  • Combine the setting of one fictional piece with the storyline of another.
  • Take a subplot from one story and see if it works in a different one.

Ask “What happens next?”

This can work particularly well with short stories. Sometimes the ending of a short story is actually just the ending of chapter 1 of a novel. Ask yourself whether the protagonist has unfinished business, or whether certain events in the story would have set other things in motion.

A word of caution, though – be wary of creating stories with too many climaxes (yes, such a thing exists, believe it or not) or twists. This can lessen the impact for the reader, causing them to lose interest.

Have fun!

There’s really no point in being precious about work that hasn’t sold. There’s also no point in being embarrassed about it – a lack of publication doesn’t mean a lack of merit. Make sure you have a back-up copy, and then do whatever the hell you like with it. You have nothing to lose, and could end up creating something fantastic.

Have you ever tried any of these techniques? Do you have any others you’d recommend?

When is it Okay to Write Passive Characters?

As writers, we are constantly being told to write characters who are active, not passive. Our protagonists should be men and women of action, who make decisions and drive the plot forward. Is there any room for more passive characters? I’m going to argue that there is, in certain situations.

When your character’s main role is to observe

There are plenty of great books out there with remarkably passive protagonists. Often, these books are loved because the role of the main character isn’t to drive the plot forward, but to observe and reflect on their surroundings in a way that is fascinating, entertaining or terrifying.

A prime example would be the character Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. She doesn’t really do much, but that isn’t the point of her. She is our eyes and ears in a dystopian world. If she were busily making plans about how to escape the repressive regime, she would be less likely to notice and record its myriad horrors.

When it’s done for comedic effect

Sometimes, a helpless, passive character can be really funny. When your protagonist is placed in a completely crazy situation and can’t do anything about it, this can be a rich source of comedy.

The key here is to make it relatable. We all have times in our lives when we feel helpless in the face of someone or something more powerful, and your character’s situation should reflect this. A good example is the unfortunate Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, having to deal with alien beaurocracy.

This technique works well with characters who you might expect to be powerful in everyday life. If your helpless character is a tall, posh, white guy full of impotent rage, that’s a lot more funny than an oppressed minority in the same situation. (If you’re a tall, posh, white guy who’s offended by this, go watch Fawlty Towers and tell me you’re honestly not laughing at Basil).

When your character is getting used to a new world

This is something to bear in mind when writing Fantasy, but also when writing any kind of “fish out of water” story where your protagonist is placed into a new and unexpected situation.

When Harry Potter first enters the Wizarding world, he doesn’t start raising an army against Voldemort straight away. Partly because he’s eleven, but partly because he’s been thrust into a strange new world and needs some time to get used to it. So does the reader.

It’s also unrealistic if a character enters a new world and becomes a master or mistress of it straight away. And if they refuse to watch and learn from other characters who know the terrain, they’ll come across as arrogant.

When their passivity is its own kind of strength

N.B. SPOILERS for Little Women.

Sometimes life sucks and there’s nothing you can do about it. Someone who chooses to accept this with grace and dignity can actually be a profoundly strong character.

Take the terminally ill Beth in Little Women, who spends her final days knitting and sewing and making beautiful things, resolutely unafraid of death. She’s a far cry from her active, headstrong sister Jo. But in her own, quiet way, she is the strongest of all the March sisters.

Times to avoid passive characters

Though passive characters definitely have their place in fiction, there are pitfalls to avoid. One is when a protagonist is passive at the climax of the story. Generally speaking, a character should become more active as the story progresses. If the climax happens without them having to do anything, this will feel like a cop-out.

Another thing to avoid is using gender to justify passivity. You might be tempted to write passive female characters for historical fiction in the name of “historical accuracy” but that won’t fly with publishers, or readers. Also, have you read Jane Austen? Women in ye olden days may not have been CEOs, but they had a million different ways of taking control of their lives.

Finally, if your protagonist is going to be passive, make sure they aren’t whiny. Someone who is constantly complaining about their lot but not taking steps to change it will quickly drive the reader mad.

What do you think of passive protagonists? Do you find them annoying, interesting, or a bit of both? Would you ever write a passive protagonist? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Ten Top Tips for Writing Dialogue

Writing dialogue is like Marmite – you either love it or hate it. Personally, I love it. I’m not a chatty person, but I would rather write two characters talking than pretty much anything else. Here is my list of top tips for writing effective dialogue.

1. Eavesdrop

You can’t expect to write good dialogue unless you listen carefully to how people talk to each other. This is difficult to do when you’re in the middle of a conversation, so your best bet is to eavesdrop. On buses, in cafes, anywhere people can reasonably expect to be overheard is fair game. Just don’t be too obvious!

2. Remember – people don’t always speak perfectly

A common mistake when writing dialogue – especially among less experienced writers – is to forget that people don’t speak perfectly. Writing dialogue gives us license to break the rules of grammar because people do this all the time when talking. Forgetting this often results in dialogue that sounds stuffy and overly formal. Fine for a stuffy and overly formal character, but not ideal for most characters.

3. Always use contractions

Another schoolboy error is to forget to use contractions (e.g. don’t instead of do not, shouldn’t instead of should not). This instantly makes dialogue sound stilted and unrealistic.

4. Don’t be afraid of “said”

A lot of writers have a habit of trying to make dialogue tags as interesting as possible. So instead of “… he said” or “… said Charlotte” you get “… he pronounced” or “… Charlotte opined”.

Too many fancy dialogue tags are distracting rather than interesting. If someone is saying something particularly important, it might be appropriate for them to “declare” or “exclaim” it. But most of the time, there’s nothing wrong with “said”.

5. Dialogue should be driven by character, not plot

If your dialogue feels flat and lifeless, the problem may be that it is driven by the demands of the plot, i.e. what needs to happen next, rather than the character, i.e. what they would actually say in that situation.

6. Share out exposition between your characters

If you’re writing a heavily plot-based story, it’s inevitable that some of your dialogue will be exposition. Share it out between your characters rather than assigning one of them the role of “boring guy who explains things”.

7. A character’s personality comes from what they say, not how they say it

Here are some things that don’t count as personality traits:-

  • Having an accent
  • Swearing a lot
  • Having a catchphrase
  • Speaking in riddles because they’re a wizard

It’s fine for characters to have unusual speech patterns, but there needs to be more to their voice than this. Think about how they would respond to different situations. If someone suggested a hare-brained scheme, would they agree to it enthusiastically or be more hesitant? Would they start a conversation with a stranger at a bus stop? Are they a joker? A flirt? Voice comes from the words they say, not just how they are arranged.

8. When writing accents, less is more

Some writers can make it work (e.g. Irvine Welsh, with Trainspotting) but writing a character’s accent or dialect can go badly wrong, especially if it’s one you don’t have yourself. I say this as a Brit who has witnessed roughly a bazillion inaccurate portrayals of English accents, slang and speech patterns on American TV.

If in doubt, just mention early on that a character has a particular accent, and maybe emphasise it with one or two careful, non-stereotypical phrases. Readers will fill in the blanks.

9. Find the right beta readers

If you’re writing characters who speak differently to you, it can be difficult to make the dialogue sound authentic. The best thing to do is get advice from appropriate beta readers.

If you’re a middle-aged adult writing teenage characters, find teenage beta readers to check that your slang isn’t hopelessly out of date. If one of your characters is Jamaican and uses frequent Patois phrases, ask an actual Jamaican to make sure you’re not screwing it up.

10. Tighten the dialogue to pick up the pace

Want to speed up the pace of your novel during an action-packed scene? Use quick-fire dialogue, where characters speak in sentences of only a few words. Remember to keep the exchanges brief, as well as the sentences.

So there are my top tips – do you have any of your own to add? Which authors do you think write particularly good (or particularly bad) dialogue?