Incredible Edibles: 18 ways to use food to illustrate character

In the universe of Show Not Tell, food in all its guises is a magnificent ally.

Exc1In Singled Out my protagonist, Brenda, is a woman who loves her food. The way she indulges shows the reader what kind of a woman she is. To her, food is a sensual as well as a sensory experience. Another character is as dry and stale as the desiccated breakfast he chomps his way through, in the opening pages. Yet later in the story his own personal awakening is reflected in the way he begins to enjoy unfamiliar and exotic meals.

Food is a wonderful medium through which to illustrate aspects of a character’s personality. Food can reflect what kind of a person they are, what mood they’re in, what attitudes they hold, how self-disciplined or spontaneous they are and other facets of their temperament and lifestyle; it can also reveal the ways they change or develop as a story unfolds.

Here are a few ideas on the way food – the shopping for it, cooking of it, eating of it, and attitudes that surround it – can help flesh out your characters:

  1. Where do they shop – Are they upscale or down-market? Is it important to them that they buy from certain shops or outlets? Are they Waitrose or Lidl; down the market or Harrods Food Hall; superstore or independent; farm shop or gas station; deli chic or corner shop?
  2. What do they buy – Is quality important to them? Do they care what they put in their body? Is their body a temple, or a tavern? Do they choose ready meals or organic ingredients, value ranges, own-brand or premium; vegetables or cake, brown rice or oven chips?
  3. How do they buy – Do they buy in bulk and stuff the freezer or shop for fresh food every day? Do they dash a trolley round the supermarket, shop online for home delivery, order vegetable boxes and specialist products or raid the discount bins? Do they pick their own, or grow their own? Or do they neglect nutrition and grab what’s closest when hunger strikes?
  4. What do they drink – Is alcohol important to them? Are they light or heavy drinkers? Does every meeting or event have to have an alcoholic component? Is their style Armagnac or alcopop, cocktail or Cava, prestige or plonk, mass-market cider or micro-brewed beer, spirits or spritzers, juices, smoothies or squash, tap water or bottled, fizzy or flat? Do they have a favourite tipple (shaken, not stirred…)?
  5. Where do they eat out – Michelin starred or McDonald’s, identikit chain or quirky cafeteria? Pizzeria, curry house or Chinese? Gastropub or burger bar? Trendy street food or shrink-wrap sandwich?
  6. What food aromas excite them – beef dripping on barbecue coals, sizzling onions slathered on a burger, or juiced wheatgrass and freshly-peeled citrus fruit? Candyfloss (cotton-candy to my American friends) and toffee apples, or home-made apple pie?
  7. How do they eat at home – Are they sociable diners or secret eaters? Do they pick or binge? Would they be at ease or ashamed if other people knew what or how they ate? Do they prefer dinner parties and conversation or lap trays and the TV, formality or fridge pickings, bone china or bowl food? Does food feature in the bedroom? Do they wake in the night and need to eat?
  8. What do they cook – everything or nothing? Do they follow recipes to the letter or throw in a bit of this, a bit of that? Are they spontaneous when ingredients run out, experienced enough to knock up a meal in a few minutes? Or do they cringe at the thought of warming up a tin of soup? Do they bake? Are they a candidate for Masterchef or a poke-and-ping merchant? Does cooking energise or depress them?
  9. What food principles do they have – Are they fashionable or faddy? Do beliefs (religious or otherwise) define their diet? Are they raw, vegetarian, vegan, fruitarian, kosher, halal or organic? Do they avoid GM, minimise food-miles? Are they cutting out sugar, reducing salt, getting their five-a-day? Are they on a weight-loss diet? At all these things, are they succeeding, or failing? How does that make them feel?
  10. What’s their kitchen like – Is it immaculate and well-equipped, or sparse and chaotic? Are the cupboards crammed with ingredients and choice, or empty? Are things fresh, or past their sell-by dates? What stands out – shine or grime? What’s the most important implement – a food processor, a juicer, a pasta-maker, or a tin-opener?
  11. What food allergies/intolerances/dislikes do they have – Nuts, lactose, dairy, shellfish, wheat, gluten, alliums? Do they have genuine digestive problems or are they faddy or picky, or attention-seeking?
  12. How do they eat – Restrained or indulgent, gastronome or greedy, baby bites, prim and proper or chomps and gulps, knife and fork or finger-lickin’?   Do they have any distasteful food habits – talking with their mouth full, sawing at their food, slurping or guzzling? Are they indifferent to, or repelled by bad eating habits in others?
  13. How do they breakfast – Full English fry-up or Bran Flakes and skim milk, donuts and Danish pastries or a cereal bar and a piece of fruit? Sit-down, desk-bound, or on-the-run? Variety-is-the-spice, or same-old-same-old every day?
  14. How do they regard food – Is it their friend or foe, life-enhancing or destructive, necessary fuel or tantalising taste temptation? Does it make them strong, or weak? Are they excited by mealtimes or inconvenienced by the intrusion? Are they a picky person, a food fanatic or a comfort eater? Do they have to eat, or do they forget to eat?
  15. What tastes/textures do they favour – Sweet or savoury, soft or crunchy, lean or creamy, mild or spicy, healthy or hedonistic, hot or cold, slow-cooked or fast-food?
  16. What do they eat – Are they rare or well-done, low-fat or deep-fried, naked or drenched in sauce? Do they love food that others despise… snails or sweetbreads, blue steak or horsemeat? Do they try anything, or stick to what they know?
  17. What’s their beverage of choice – Tea or coffee, green, fruit infusion or builders, latte, cappuccino or espresso, full-fat or skinny, sweetened, or sweet enough? Is there a ritual or a habit?
  18. And lastly… What might they choose for their very last meal?…

Ten Top Tips to Instantly Improve Your Writing

pencil-sharpener-390609_1280 - 2A ‘Happy Sunday’ quickie – and a chance to catch some old posts too. A few ideas on sharpening up your writing – great tips and snippets of advice I’ve received over the last four years.

  1. Learn how apostrophes work; and semi-colons.
  2. Well, it’s really rather important that you just do this. Run search and delete on every instance of the following words: really, just, quite, rather, very, oh, so, well and suddenly. Check out my post ‘One Word At A Time’ for this and other editing tips.
  3. Practise Show vs Tell the Anton Chekhov way: Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
  4. Take a chunk of back-story or exposition and rewrite it into a dialogue. Then repeat. Then repeat again. Dialogue is much more engaging than flat-text exposition and a page of conversation is easier to read than a thumping boulder of a paragraph.
  5. Focus on sensory detail. Not just sight, but sound, taste, touch and smell. It will enrich your reader’s experience. I blogged here about using all the senses.
  6. Every time you see two clever, descriptive adjectives side-by-side, delete at least one of them. Yes, every time. Writers can publish with excess of adjectives, but only once they’ve sold a gazillion books and are unassailable. (If you doubt me, check out J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith – but then go and delete half your adjectives, because you won’t so easily get away with it.)
  7. Review your work for any not-so-perfect tenses (past perfect, past continuous and past perfect continuous) and opt for something more immediate. I blogged about how this works here.
  8. Delete the first paragraph of every chapter. There’s no need for foreplay, dive straight to the action. Hmmm, personally, I appreciate literary foreplay, so I’m not sold on this tip – but better writers than me will endorse it.
  9. Delete the last paragraph of every chapter. Don’t hang about after the action. Get out, fast. This, I can vouch for.
  10. Clichés – avoid them like the plague… Yes, you guessed it, I blogged! This one might actually hit the mark (doh!)

Not so Singled Out after all: A lesson learned

How many books share the same title as mine? What, HOW many?

singledout_kindle_656x1000pxWay back, perhaps three years ago, when I began thinking about a title for Singled Out, I did a search on Amazon. At the time, Amazon determined there was just one other book with the same title. It was a non-fiction account of the two million single women left to fend for themselves after the First World War. I figured since this was so different from my own book, I could stand to share the name.

In retrospect (what a wonderful thing is hindsight), I should have checked once or twice more in the intervening months. If I had, I might have reconsidered.

I actually love my title and I believe it works for the book as it references the story in more than one way. I’ve been wedded to it since I first thought of it. Up until that point, Singled Out operated under the working title of SHN (that stood for Singles Holiday Novel – a does-what-it-says-on-the-tin private reference destined only for my MSWord folder and file structure).

But I wasn’t the only author to fall upon this simple, easily remembered moniker in the last three years. For now, as I look around Amazon and Goodreads, I find there are somewhere between six and twelve books in the English language under the same title (plus subtitle or part number in some cases). I haven’t been through them to see what they’re all about, but they seem to be a mix of fiction and non-fiction (mainly relationship and religious advice). Common sense tells me more will follow.

The self-publishing universe has exploded in the last three years – I’ve only fully acknowledged this in recent months myself. I confess, I have not once considered the possibility that my chosen title might have been quite so liberally deployed by other writers in the intervening months.

I’m not kicking myself for choosing this title, as I do feel it’s right for my story. I’m kicking myself for not appreciating in time, the pace at which the landscape has changed.

The fact is, short, snappy titles are unlikely to be original these days. Even the more creative and imaginative titles may eventually be taken up by others. So the challenge for the author – it’s one I’m happy to accept – is to distinguish themselves in other ways; through visual branding (a well-designed cover), their author profile, web site and blogging, wider social media presence and so on – so that no potential reader accidentally buys the ‘wrong’ book.

Writing courses: A different perspective

Nina MishkinFellow blogger Nina Mishkin had something important to say about my last post.

I love that people comment on my blog posts. I particularly like it when they either disagree with me, or have insights which open up the debate. I’ve received an especially interesting response to my previous post on courses, seminars and other learning opportunities open to novice writers. It’s worth sharing beyond the smaller community that might read comments on posts, so I thought I’d publish it as a post in its own right. It’s from a blogger I greatly admire, Nina Mishkin, who blogs at The Getting Old Blog. Here’s what she said:

In my view, it’s valuable to attend a seminar or two that features agents and publishers describing the process — and hurdles — confronting the would-be published author. It’s also valuable to learn something about self-publishing before setting a foot on that path. But as someone who has taught writing courses — both at the community college and university level — and has written professionally in many commercial genres, I am extremely cynical about the value to the quality of one’s writing of spending time in how-to courses, seminars, workshops and retreats. They may be enjoyable while you’re attending them, but you rarely come away with something you couldn’t find in a how-to book from the library. They consume time and distract you from spending your time actually writing.

The way to write well is to read well… all your life. Read extensively and intensively, with an eye to structure, dialogue, pacing. Note what’s omitted as well as what’s included. If you really enjoy something you’ve read, read it again. More than once. Take it apart in your mind (or in a notebook) to see how it was done. Then try to do it yourself. At first you will be a copy cat. And then you will internalize what you’ve learned; it will become second nature — in the self-editing if not in the first draft. There are many parasitic industries out there, feeding off perceived markets for learning “how.” With writing, the primary “how” is “do.” Sit down every day and do it. And keep reading.

Other people’s blogs are also helpful, principally for the encouragement they offer that you’re not slogging away alone. Blogs by would-be writers who are clearly bad writers are also instructive, in another way. (“That’s awful. Have I been doing something like that? I’d better stop it, right now!”)

Sorry if I’ve stirred up a nest of worms here. I do understand that it may be extremely gratifying to spend, spend, spend on the “products” Julie has so well described. But the spenders should be entirely clear that they are only toeing the sand, not writing.

And, in case you’re interested, here’s my reply:

Nina, this is such an interesting – and well informed – perspective, thank you! I’ve enjoyed the writing courses I’ve participated in – three one-week courses in total. But the value for me has come in many different ways. I have learned, or reinforced, certain technical skills, but that’s perhaps the least of the experience. I’ve also been made to think differently about character and structure. Thence to the wider benefits: I’ve met authors and learned from their insights and experience; I’ve met other people with ambitions to write – and made very special friendships; I’ve built the confidence to try writing in the first place, and keep going when I thought I was losing my way, and I’ve tapped into an imagination I never realised I had. Those are the real benefits. Technique, as you rightly observe, can come from books – both ‘how to’ books, and the simple act of devouring and analysing as much good fiction as you can.

I wasn’t encouraging people to spend, spend, spend on writerly learning – only throwing light on the many available ‘products’. They do help you to think like a writer, but quality is variable and one must tread carefully to obtain good value. It’s easy to take refuge in the excuse that one still has more to learn, rather than to just get on and write, and learn by experience.

I hope you don’t mind, but I think so much of your comment, that I’d like to copy it into a full post – it deserves not to be missed.

Spend, Spend, Spend

As you immerse yourself in the world of writing and writerly matters, you realise how many things there are on which to spend your hard-earned cash. I’m not talking notepads and pencils, or even laptops and software. I’m talking learning, skills and knowledge.

pound-414418_1280You have to navigate a landscape of courses lasting from a few hours to several days and even several months, and tutors with varying degrees of experience and personal success. Do you feel you need to gain an MA in Creative Writing? Will your budget permit you to go away for a few days to learn from tutors or authors you respect? Will you sign up for an on-line programme? Do you want a group or a solo learning experience?

There are hundreds of seminars and workshops, forums and discussion sessions too. There are mentoring services, coaching and writer support services offering teaching, guidance and advice. There’s a multitude of editorial services available. You can buy feedback on every aspect of your work – structuring it, drafting it, editing it, proofreading it – then on how to write synopses and query letters to agents. You can even meet real agents and real publishers.

If you’re considering self-publishing there are yet more courses and seminars instructing on design and layout, print versus e-book, marketing and promotion. And don’t forget the literary activities that must complement every writer’s ‘journey’ – retreats in hideaway places and those literary festivals which seem to be springing up in theatres and marquees in every county town across the land. Oh, and the books, the books about everything! From technique to technology, from genre to grammar, from marketing to making your millions.

Some of these things will help you become a better writer. Some will help you develop your creative process, your imagination, your appreciation of character, ear for dialogue, structure or plot. Some could give you a leg-up or a head start in the agenting and publishing stakes (but don’t bank on it). Some will give you vital insight into the business of books and publishing. Some will gain you exposure to successful people within the literary sphere – authors, agents and publishers. Some will simply give you the chance to shake the hand or collect the signature of an author you admire.

I believe this is not in general a cynical industry; but it is one which naturally seeks to capitalise on the novice writer’s desire to become part of it. That’s not surprising, given that the community of would-be authors grows daily and returns from the traditional sources of profit continue to diminish.

Most of the products, activities and services you can purchase will have a value – whether that equates with their cost to you, only you can say. I believe most of the investments I’ve made in developing myself as a writer have been worthwhile, insofar as they’ve helped me learn the skills I needed to write the fiction I’ve always wanted to write. They’ve also, almost universally, been enjoyable experiences – and that’s a not insignificant consideration.

But what of the ultimate commercial payoff? Will these investments have helped me become a successful published author?

I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Going Down

You thought it was finished? So did I. But the word-cull continues

scissors-editLast autumn, when I drew a line under my 6th or 7th redraft of Singled Out, I honestly thought it was finished; finished as far my neophyte novelist’s abilities would allow at least. But armed with some insightful observations and having taken a few months away from the words, things look different.

I’m around two-thirds of the way through yet another edit – the one I didn’t realise I needed. And here I am deleting not just words, but whole sentences, whole paragraphs too. Here I am turning a paragraph into a sentence and still… still… deleting adjectives and adverbs. Yes, the more you look, the more you find. It’s wordy Whack-a-Mole.

When I began submitting Singled Out to agents it stood at 97,600 words. This summer in response to feedback, I’ve added three new sections, perhaps a total of around 1,500 words. But the word-count is down to 94,000.

How did that happen?

I think, at last, I’ve begun to relinquish my grip on those favourite sections – those darlings – which have thus far had a free-pass from the editor’s pen; those (not so) clever turns of phrase that looked so… so… writerly when they went in; those extravagant why-use-one-word-when-twenty-will-do descriptive sections; and those parts of the story where I’ve failed to trust the reader to get what’s going on.

This is what you need distance for; to develop the ability – and willingness – to be dispassionate. At last I’m editing as if it wasn’t me but someone else who has written Singled Out. I can cull great chunks I couldn’t bear to part with before because, somehow, they don’t feel like mine any more.

Frustrating though it is to have not seen immediate success with submitting my manuscript, I can see why I’ve not made the cut (no pun intended). I don’t know if I’ll have done enough to see a positive outcome when I go back to agent submissions in a few weeks time – the odds are against me, after all. But I continue – in a perverse and yes, almost sadistic way – to draw satisfaction and even joy from the learning process.

At this point, I want to get Singled Out out there in one form or another – because I want to see the job finished. More than that, I’m now straining to get started on my next novel, the one where I think I can bring all my learnings into play and create something better and sharper – hopefully in somewhat less than four years.

“Thought Verbs” – Another side of “Show not Tell”

Thought Verbs Show Not TellAuthor and Journalist Chuck Palahniuk wrote this essay on “Thought Verbs” just over a year ago. It has been reposted many times, but, like me, you may have missed it. I recently came across it via a link which led to another link and another – you know how the internet works. It is excellent advice, for every writer seeking to master the “Show not Tell” challenge.

The link to what I believe is the original article is here, and the full piece is reproduced below, with every credit to the original essayist, Chuck Palahniuk.

In six seconds, you’ll hate me.

But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.

From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs.  These include:  Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

The list should also include:  Loves and Hates.

And it should include:  Is and Has, but we’ll get to those, later.

Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write:  Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”

Thinking is abstract.  Knowing and believing are intangible.  Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.  And loving and hating.

Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like:  “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave.  Never his.”

Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them.  Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.

Instead of saying:  “Adam knew Gwen liked him.”

You’ll have to say:  “Between classes, Gwen was always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it.  She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume.  The combination lock would still be warm from her ass.  And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”

In short, no more short-cuts.  Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.

Typically, writers use these “thought” verbs at the beginning of a paragraph  (In this form, you can call them “Thesis Statements” and I’ll rail against those, later)  In a way, they state the intention of the paragraph.  And what follows, illustrates them.

For example:

“Brenda knew she’d never make the deadline.  Traffic was backed up from the bridge, past the first eight or nine exits.  Her cell phone battery was dead.  At home, the dogs would need to go out, or there would be a mess to clean up.  Plus, she’d promised to water the plants for her neighbor…”

Do you see how the opening “thesis statement” steals the thunder of what follows?  Don’t do it.

If nothing else, cut the opening sentence and place it after all the others.  Better yet, transplant it and change it to:  Brenda would never make the deadline.

Thinking is abstract.  Knowing and believing are intangible.  Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.  And loving and hating.

Don’t tell your reader:  “Lisa hated Tom.”

Instead, make your case like a lawyer in court, detail by detail.  Present each piece of evidence.  For example:

“During role call, in the breath after the teacher said Tom’s name, in that moment before he could answer, right then, Lisa would whisper-shout: ‘Butt Wipe,” just as Tom was saying, ‘Here’.”

One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone.  Writing, you may be alone.  Reading, your audience may be alone.  But your character should spend very, very little time alone.  Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.

For example:  Waiting for the bus, Mark started to worry about how long the trip would take..”

A better break-down might be:  “The schedule said the bus would come by at noon, but Mark’s watch said it was already 11:57.  You could see all the way down the road, as far as the Mall, and not see a bus.  No doubt, the driver was parked at the turn-around, the far end of the line, taking a nap.  The driver was kicked back, asleep, and Mark was going to be late.  Or worse, the driver was drinking, and he’d pull up drunk and charge Mark seventy-five cents for death in a fiery traffic accident…”

A character alone must lapse into fantasy or memory, but even then you can’t use “thought” verbs or any of their abstract relatives.

Oh, and you can just forget about using the verbs forget and remember.

No more transitions such as:  “Wanda remember how Nelson used to brush her hair.”

Instead:  “Back in their sophomore year, Nelson used to brush her hair with smooth, long strokes of his hand.”

Again, Un-pack.  Don’t take short-cuts.

Better yet, get your character with another character, fast.  Get them together and get the action started.  Let their actions and words show their thoughts.  You — stay out of  their heads.

And while you’re avoiding “thought” verbs, be very wary about using the bland verbs “is” and “have.”

One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone.

For example:

“Ann’s eyes are blue.”

“Ann has blue eyes.”

Versus:

“Ann coughed and waved one hand past her face, clearing the cigarette smoke from her eyes, blue eyes, before she smiled…”

Instead of bland “is” and “has” statements, try burying your details of what a character has or is, in actions or gestures.  At its most basic, this is showing your story instead of telling it.

And forever after, once you’ve learned to Un-pack your characters, you’ll hate the lazy writer who settles for:  “Jim sat beside the telephone, wondering why Amanda didn’t call.”

Please.  For now, hate me all you want, but don’t use “thought” verbs.  After Christmas, go crazy, but I’d bet money you won’t.

Author: Chuck Palahniuk (Aug 13)

Precision detail in a novel – not just any place, but this place

I’ve been asked to share how I capture a sense of place in my novel. For example, what research do I do, how do I take notes, are photographs involved, and so on. So here goes…

SINGLED OUT is set on a singles holiday on Turkey’s beautiful Lycian Coast. I’ve visited this area many times over the last 20 years and I love its striking landscape and laid-back, exotic atmosphere. Whilst my story is essentially a dark psychological one, I wanted the sense of place to be very strong; my intention is for the reader to feel as if they’re on the holiday with my characters.

This writer's notepad - illegible scrawl from Turkey, May 2013
This writer’s notepad: illegible scrawl, Turkey, May 2013

Last year after a gap of 6 years I returned to Turkey specifically to gather that sensory detail for my novel. Memories fade over the years, especially the minuscule details of sight, sound and smell which are essential to anchoring the setting or a scene in a novel precisely and bringing it to life for readers. I wanted to fill a notepad with images and sensory detail to inject into my story. I got more than I could possibly have expected from the experience, as I first wrote about in my post It Makes Sense:

I realised as I filled its pages, how inert ones memories of a place can become. It’s easy enough to pick up an old photograph and see what a raggedy coastline looks like, or a market, or an ancient ruin. But when you’re there, you smell the pine and the citrus, the sweat and cigarettes; you see the gnarly knuckles and the stained aprons; you hear the wail of the muezzin’s prayer and watch the sun radiate from the golden dome of a mosque; you feel the sting of perspiration as it trickles into your eye and savour sweet green peppers and succulent tomatoes under a canopy of twisted vines. Oh, I could go on… and on…

I don’t want you imagining my story is awash with descriptive detail at the expense of plot and character. But there are one or two places where I’ve gone to town a bit on the setting, using my photographs and notes to develop a strong sense of place. Of course these may all go, if and when a real editor gets to work on the draft. But for the time being, I’m getting away with it.

Ephesus

My characters take a trip to Ephesus, so I did too. I’d last been there 20 years ago and I imagined that whilst two thousand year old ruins are two thousand year old ruins, the tourist business of Ephesus and its surroundings must have changed over the years – and I was right.

I was fortunate to have a guide all to myself for the day and I explained to her the main purpose of my visit. I was able to wander at will, ask endless questions and take dozens of photographs. Knowing why I was there, she didn’t question that I photographed odd things; the stalls outside the entrance, the entrance barriers, other groups of tourists, odd rocks and stones, cats and trees, pavements and signposts, as well as those breathtaking ancient ruins.

Stalls at the entrance to Ephesus
Stalls at the entrance to Ephesus
The only shade there is at Ephesus
The only shade at Ephesus
Warm bodies and a cloudless sky at Ephesus
Warm bodies and a cloudless sky at Ephesus

I couldn’t easily take notes as we walked around the site, but I caught up as soon as we stopped for lunch; a combination of my guide’s historical knowledge, my sense of the place and how I’d felt as I walked its streets.  You think you’ll remember these things, but let me tell you, you won’t.  Notepads are a vital tool – however illegible (as mine often are), their pages will take you right back to a precise place or moment, months or even years later.

But I had to keep reminding myself, SINGLED OUT is a novel not a travel book. An earlier draft contained far too much historical detail from that Ephesus trip and much of it has since come out. It’s enough to have done the research and deployed elements of detail where they’re needed to enrich; but there’s no need to show off how much you know.

So you can see how it worked for me, here’s a paragraph from that fictional trip to Ephesus:

Around them tour guides spoke in English, French, German, Swedish and Japanese to visitors unbalanced by loaded backpacks, while others brandished sticks to aid their movement or umbrellas to shield them from the sun. They stopped randomly and without warning for photographs. At every point where Fatima drew the group close, James and Veronica listened with rapt attention – and Brenda rummaged in her bag for water, a fan, a facial spritz or a wad of tissues. All the while, the heat came at them not only from above, but from beneath their feet and all around. It rose in waves from the flagstone avenues and radiated off the columns and walls. Brenda was slow-roasting in the Ephesus noonday oven.

Market Day

Two of my characters browse a local market together one day. I’d gone to markets in Turkey before and had some lovely old photographs (from the days before digital). Then I went to the market in Fethiye on my trip last year, armed with my trusty notepad – and my eyes and nose. Here’s an excerpt which uses my recollections and notes from all those Turkish markets combined.

The area where the weekly market took place lay behind the shopping street and away from the beach. It would be generous to call it a marketplace, since for six days a week this area of gravel and clay lay fallow; carved here and there by tyre tracks from the few trucks that needed somewhere to turn around before speeding away.

On the seventh day, it teemed with life from before dawn until late afternoon. Farmers came from the villages and hamlets in the hills, their pick-ups laden with fresh produce of all shapes and mis-shapes, a riot of colour and a testament to the industry and enterprise out of sight of the tourist coastline. Traders moved from town to town, market day to market day, bringing truckloads of goods to sell; t-shirts and trousers, bags and belts, pashminas and pendants, sandals and sunhats all manufactured in anonymous factories far away from the coast or most likely in China. Packets of candy, nuts and aromatic spices sat alongside jars of glistening local honey and blocks of cheese; everything was available to buy from dusty trestle tables and rails, all under cover of flapping white awnings – giving the impression the whole market was a trading ship about to set sail.

The two women passed an enjoyable couple of hours wandering the length and breadth of the market. They flirted with the crusty, moustachioed farmers behind their piles of wooden boxes laden with curly runner beans, torpedo aubergines, red and white onions, peppers and courgettes, oranges, lemons, strawberries and giant watermelons; they breathed in the aromas of citronella and cinnamon, fruit teas and fresh herbs, beaten leather, crushed straw, workaday sweat and cigarettes; they bartered with stall-holders over beaded necklaces, embroidered purses and gaudily embellished flip-flops; they cooed over a pile of crates crammed with baby chicks, their fluffy down every shade from creamy gold-top through honey roast to dark chocolate brown, and they sympathised with a brace of rabbits whose fate was obvious and more immediate. Brenda stocked up on candied fruits and sugared almonds and Siobhan found a fake henna kit she couldn’t live without. Then, with carrier bags brimming with tourist trinkets, they made for the line of beachfront bars and the yellow awning, for lunch.

The Gulet Trip

Turkish Gulet - a fine sight, even without its sails
Turkish Gulet

My characters take an overnight trip on one of Turkey’s ubiquitous gulets. I’ve spent weeks at a time on gulets before – it’s a blissful experience, to bob about on the ocean for a few days with no shoes on and nothing to do but sunbathe and read books. This time I took a day trip to refresh my memories of the sights, sounds and odours. I took photographs of the coastline and odd corners of the boat. I noted the way the motion affected my balance, the sounds of the boat and the water, the smells coming up from the sea – and the kitchen; I registered what the sunlight did to the chrome, the woodwork and the sails. Here’s a snapshot of my impressions which made it into the story:

The deck-hands unrolled the jib over the bow and the sail on the second mast and high above them squally gusts took hold. The trio of sails ballooned with the strengthening wind of open water; they fought and whipped about, tugging at their fastenings, lifting and plunging the boat forward, cutting into the water and venting fine salty spray into the air and across the deck. The restaurant on the beach became a speck against a panorama of grey-green scrub and rocky slopes, the bay zoomed away into the distance. The industrial grinding of the diesel engine was replaced by a sublime, organic symphony; a blustery flapping of sails, the steady swish-swash of waves, the metallic pounding of the rigging and the cawing of a seabird. Breathless and eyes wide, Henry lay on his back staring up towards the tip of the mast and beyond into the cloudless sky. Surely life couldn’t get better than this.

Most of the detail from my scruffy notepads made it into the story one way or another – a few words here, a sentence there – which is mostly all you need. It’s only when you want to anchor the reader more specifically in a given place or moment, that it’s perhaps permissible to layer the detail a little more. But that’s just my feeling, and, as a novice and yet-to-be-published writer, I may find my layers of sights, sounds and smells are pared down in the final edit. So please don’t take my word for it that this is the right approach. It’s just the thing I did – whether it adds substance to my story, or gets in the way of the plot, someone with more experience than I may yet be the judge of this.

How can this be?

Synopsis crisis 1Submissions to agents require that you send a sample of your novel.  Typically this is described as sample chapters (usually three) or 10,000 words.  Often you’re told to conclude your sample at a sensible end point, rather than get too hung up on precise word-count.

My novel, Singled Out, is divided into eight days (a one week holiday, see?).  Each day is divided into between 8 and 12 individual segments, each segment written from the point of view (POV) of one of three main characters.  I realise a day in this construction is too long to count as a chapter, but the individual segments are also too short.  Day One is around 12,000 words and to my mind marks a sensible end point – so that’s what I’ve been sending as my sample.  I figure if I’ve failed to excite an agent, it will be well before that 12,000 word mark and they’ll simply not read to the end.  If I’ve excited them, a few extra words are unlikely to put them off.  Hopefully.

However… one of the agents I’m currently keen to tempt with Singled Out specifies three chapters as the sample length, but then goes on to make the point that this limit should be strictly adhered to.  So yesterday, I was reviewing my sample document, to create a shorter version for this particular submission.

And on the first page – the very first page – I found a typo.

I know why this is.  This particular section has been in the past tense, then in the present tense, then in the past tense again (and perhaps even back and forth another couple of times – I forget). Somewhere in the transition from ‘He chose’ through ‘He chooses’ and back to ‘He chose’ again, I left a verb in the wrong tense.

I could have wept.

It seemed prudent, after approximately 20 minutes of swearing, cursing, throwing stuff around, stomping, stamping and kicking the cat (I lie – I don’t have one), to use the opportunity to review the whole sample segment, just in case anything else had slipped through in those first 10,000 words.  So I read it very, very slowly.  I found a few dozen more words I could do without, which was a plus.

But then I found another typo.

The error was not in a word, but in its absence – it was a missing word.  I’d probably read right through that invisible word two or three dozen times, failing and failing again, to notice its nonexistence.

Just in case you’re wondering how I’m dealing with this catastrophe of care and diligence, here it is. Yesterday evening I prowled my kitchen for comfort food. There wasn’t much, because I’m being very good lately; vegetables don’t even nearly qualify.  I managed to find three Rich Tea biscuits (stale), which I covered in butter and the dregs from a bottle of salted caramel sauce (Christmas leftover).  Thence to a restive night – I gave in to the TV and a repeat of The Jeremy Kyle Show at 5:15am. Today finds me curled up on the armchair in the corner of my office, rocking from side to side, cuddling a cushion and snivelling into a Kleenex.  It’s too early for alcohol, but I fear this may feature as the day advances.

By the way – there’s a lesson.  Now I understand what people mean when they say the final level of edit should actually be to read your novel backwards, word, by word, by word.

What’s my genre?

Notebook 03

One of the things I struggled with when preparing the framework text for query letters/emails, was genre.  I’m a marketer in my current day job, so I understand perfectly well why it’s helpful for agents and publishers to be able to classify a book according to what category or categories it falls within.  Amongst other things, genre (and, by the way, sub-genre and sub-sub-genre) will point to a likely audience, set expectations as to the content and style, and drive decisions on cover design, marketing and promotion.

Knowing your genre means you can pinpoint authors whose books bear similarities to your own – although whether you indicate same to agents in your submission material is a matter of fierce debate here and there on the interweb.  Either (i) do it because it helps the agent figure out where you might sit in their talent stable or (ii) don’t do it because it makes you seem cocky and pretentious and you should let them be the judge. No help there then.

Inevitably for every mainstream genre, there are gazillions of sub-genres, and sub-sub genres, and it’s up to you how far you navigate the tributaries, to arrive at a label which adequately categorises the novel you’re writing.

What follows here is not some great rambling on the whys and wherefores of genre – if you’re looking for guidance in categorising your own writing, Google is your friend.  There is already more help out there than you can possibly need in an entire literary lifetime.  This is about me and my genre, and how I got there.

The first issue was the question of literary vs commercial.  Commercial books – apparently – sell in large volumes to an audience which may not be sufficiently discerning – apparently – to mind that books in this category may – apparently – not be all that well written.  In commercial fiction – apparently – the plot is the only thing that matters. Everything else (characterisation, setting, sensory detail, realistic dialogue, linguistic style, grammar…) is inconsequential relative to the plot.  It may therefore have been thrown together and served up as a literary and linguistic dog’s dinner – and – apparently – nobody minds.

Literary fiction, on the other hand, is all about the quality of the writing, and how poetic, evocative or mesmerising it is.  And the plot?  Who needs plotting when the writing, line by line, word by beautiful, witty, well-chosen word, is such a sublime joy to read.  Apparently.

For those of us who fall somewhere between the sublime and the ridiculous (no, I’m not getting drawn on which is which, thank you very much) there is a wealth of options for that first level categorisation, amongst which Quality Commercial, Mainstream Literary, Literary-Commercial Crossover, Book Club, or even more specifically, ‘Richard & Judy’, and my personal bête noir, LitLite.

I vacillate between Quality Commercial and Book Club for Singled Out.  Books which end up on book club reading lists tend to offer plenty of scope for discussion around moral dilemmas, character qualities or shortcomings and so on – and I like that.  And Quality Commercial?  I don’t see what’s wrong with cherishing the vision that I’ve written something which might be simultaneously popular/saleable and well-written.  An agent or publisher will probably put me straight one of these days.

Next, there’s the subject and content of the story.  At the high level, is it a romance or a thriller?  Is it science fiction or magic realism, chic-lit or crime?  Is it humorous or historical, fantasy or satire, politics or parody? Is it erotic, domestic or dynastic?  And… breathe.  Yes, if you’ve looked into this, you’ll realise as I did, there are myriad ways to slice-and-dice for genre.  There’s a crime in my story, but it’s not, technically speaking, a crime novel – there’s no mystery (well, not much mystery) and no police (ah, almost no police).  There is a little romance and an erotic moment or two (no sniggering at the back please), but not enough to make it a romance and certainly not enough to position it on the same shelf as Fifty Shades of Naughty.

Having read several (too many?) blog posts and articles, I think I’ve got there.  The genre I’ve concluded best fits Singled Out is Psychological Suspense. Theoretically this is a crime fiction sub-genre – but that’s as close as it’s going to get to crime.

The elements which characterise psychological suspense include the following:

  • Psychological suspense may use crime as a pretext for investigating psyche and personality, but the story is about the context of the crime, rather than the crime itself.
  • There’s often no mystery as to who committed the crime – what psychological suspense is interested in is not whodunnit, but whydunnit.
  • Psychological suspense is about the mind of a criminal – and the other people involved.  There will be insights, observations and reflection, from all sides of the house.
  • Psychological suspense stories are often told from multiple points of view – from inside the minds of protagonist and antagonist alike.
  • The overarching mood is one of dread or malignity – a sustained suspense embedded with moments of heightened tension, rather than a build-up to one massive peak.
  • Psychological suspense stories often feature psychologically damaged central characters such as sociopaths, or people with weaknesses, phobias, a tragic past, the weight of guilt or shame bearing down.
  • The reader can see what’s happening before it happens – they watch, seemingly helpless.  I liken it to the reader banging soundlessly on a window, trying to attract the attention of a character, who walks innocently towards some terrible scenario or event, content in the company of the person the reader knows to be dangerous.
  • Interestingly, psychological suspense is often ambivalent when it comes to ethics and justice.  There are moral ambiguities, few happy endings or easy solutions; and the baddies don’t always get what they deserve.

I’m fascinated by stories like this – they’re the ones I go to when I’m looking for a good read, and so it felt good to be writing one, even though it’s not what I set out to write.  I started out to pen a wry dissection of the comings and goings on a singles holiday. But when I realised this amounted to not very much and would bore a readership to tears, the landscape shifted.  And that’s when I begun to learn how much I loved writing about bad stuff happening and dark, damaged psyches.

Hey ho, happy days.