How Many Different Ways Are There to Write About the Same Thing?


As the end of the year approached, I sat down to write another Christmas-themed blog post. I’ve had this blog for nearly four years now and this would be my fifth Christmas-themed blog post (because I did two in 2015 when everything to do with writing this blog was all so new and I had so much to say). I sat down and tried to write… but nothing happened. I decided I just needed to give it a little more thinking time.

I sat down a few weeks later and tried again. Still nothing. Because apart from the fact that I wanted it to be about Christmas and writing, I had no idea what I was going to write about. Continue reading

The Rise and Rise of the Unreliable Narrator


Whenever I meet new people in real life, I always start out with the assumption that they’re perfectly pleasant individuals. Even when I might have heard other people’s opinions about them, I figure it’s only fair to give them the benefit of a clean slate and it’s only right that I should form my own judgement based on my experience with them, not simply perpetuate someone else’s adoration or resentment, which might be completely prejudiced.

I’m the same when I pick up a book and start reading. I don’t read reviews beforehand so that I can avoid being consciously or subconsciously influenced and I begin with the assumption that the person telling the tale is telling it truthfully (not factually, because that’s a different thing, but truthfully, which means honestly to the best of their recollection). After all, why wouldn’t they? The narrators are fictional characters and will never need to worry about any reader’s judgement.

Of course, in both cases, there are plenty of instances of people who don’t always disclose the absolute truth or the complete story. Sometimes they’re frustrating as hell (in the case of real people, especially when you figure out you’ve had the wool pulled over your eyes), sometimes they’re exactly what’s needed (more likely in the case of a fictional character only). In the real world, we would call them liars but in the fictional world, they’re known as unreliable narrators.

Wayne C Booth, an American literary critic, coined the term “unreliable narrator” in his 1961 book, The Rhetoric of Fiction. His obituary in the New York Times explained that he felt “literature was not so much words on paper as it was a complex ethical act” and his “lifelong study of the art of rhetoric illuminated the means by which authors seduce, cajole and more than occasionally lie to their readers in the service of narrative”. A pretty good description of what it is the unreliable narrator does. Continue reading

There Once Was a Girl Who Looked Like a Horse…


During the first year of my first writing course, the Novel teacher set us students an in-class assignment to pick a fellow student, write a description of them the way we would if they were a character in our book and then read it aloud. Then everyone had to try to guess which student was being described.

There were a few rules:

*Before we started, we spent an uncomfortable and lengthy minute looking around the room, deciding who to write about and absorbing as much as possible about their appearance as we could but without staring and giving away our hand before we’d even begun writing.

*After that uncomfortable and lengthy minute, we weren’t allowed to look at the person we were writing about again during the creative process in case it ruined the guessing game we were shortly about to play.

*We couldn’t write a description that was too obvious. If there was only one boy in a blue shirt, then it wasn’t going to be much of a challenge guessing who he was. Continue reading

Practice Novels: Not Just for the Start of a Writer’s Career


In my late teens and early twenties, I wrote three novels that I like to refer to as my practice novels. At the time that I was writing them, I didn’t realise that I was just practising. It was only after they were complete that I knew they weren’t good enough, they weren’t the genre I wanted to pursue and they were unlikely to ever see the light of day.

I published the sex scene from the last of them, Liberty’s Secret, in 2015 in conjunction with a blog post on writing sex scenes, mostly to demonstrate that I’m not very good at writing sex scenes. It was full of euphemisms, the highs and lows of waves and crashing, and an overblown sense of emotion. Certainly, it was completely devoid of accurate names for genitalia. (That’s one of the big no-no’s of the romance genre I was attempting to write in.) And I published the entire book chapter by chapter on this blog earlier in 2017, just because… well, why not? I hate wasting writing.

I thought that was the end of my practice novels. But when I sat down to watch the movie of Fifty Shades of Grey, despite its flaws, I realised these genres and sex scenes more generally aren’t going anywhere. They are popular. And if done well, they can be important components of plot and character development. So I could continue avoiding them in my writing or I could try to get better.

Yes, more than twenty-five years after beginning my writing career and after publishing three books, I decided to write another practice novel. I had no intention of attempting to publish it for profit, just to improve on this writing area. Continue reading

Creation and Evolution: The Two Stages of Character Development


Based on that heading, you might have thought this was going to be about an entirely different topic but fear not! Religion and politics are the two discussion subjects to avoid for an easier life and since I’ve already ventured into politics (in a very small way), I won’t push my luck with religion.

Of course, the creation and evolution I’m talking about here relate to character development: who your characters are at the beginning of your story and who they become as the story unfolds and concludes. The two stages have a lot in common but there are important differences in getting each of them right. Continue reading

Does It Matter What Your Characters Look Like?


There are three types of authors when it comes to character description and, just like Goldilocks and her porridge, only one of them gets it just right. Of course, this means the other two provide way too much information or not nearly enough. It’s a fine line. It’s also difficult to please all readers in this area because some prefer a lot of description in order to have a comprehensive image of the character in their mind and some prefer the bare minimum so that they can do some of the imagining for themselves.

So does it matter what they look like? I’m going to use a few Shakespearean examples to answer the question. (Shakespeare’s plays are usually a great example of everything to do with writing.) Sometimes it doesn’t. In Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves play the brothers Don Pedro and Don John. While Don John is described as a “bastard”, an illegitimate son, there is no mention of any specific cultural characteristics so Branagh decided to give his version of the story one black brother and one white brother. However, it’s the illegitimacy of the second son that is relevant, not his different skin colour. Continue reading

Trine: Part Two, Chapter Three


On Tuesday, I wrote about how you can get to know your characters better by, among other things, imagining them in session with a therapist. I’ve done this myself before and the imaginings ended up being the basis for the third chapter of part two of my unfinished novel, Trine.

So here it is. A little background – the narrator is Jock Copeland, the police chief of a three officer town who has organised for a therapist to visit twice a year and assess his staff, including himself, to make sure they aren’t succumbing to post-traumatic stress, suicide or the variety of other issues being a police officer can lead to. You can read the first chapter of part two here if you want to read Jock’s introduction first.


When Dr Chamberlain arrives, I am already sitting at my desk typing up the report of my dealings with Martina the night before. I look up as she opens the office door without knocking and notice the way her mouth tightens momentarily before she gains control of her expression once more.

“Good morning,” I say, pretending not to notice.

“Good morning,” she responds, taking off her jacket and positioning herself in the armchair opposite the couch, her pen and notepad poised and ready for our session. When I don’t rush to join her, she looks over at me in a way that some would misinterpret as patience but that I know from long experience is meant to drive me nuts until I can’t stand her inspection any longer and postpone whatever it is that I’m doing.

“I’ll be with you in a moment,” I tell her, even though the report is pretty much done. It’s for her own good, I tell myself. She’s too used to telling everybody else what to do.

“Take your time,” she says amiably. But I know that if I take too long, she will simply spend the time analysing my body language. Which bothers me even more than when she analyses my words.

I save the file and take my cup of coffee – the store bought instant stuff we keep in the kitchenette here – and head to the couch. I sit down on it facing her. Dr Chamberlain has offered me the option of lying down at the start of every session we’ve had but accepting that offer would feel like giving her the advantage from the start. I always decline. But I’m still expecting her to offer this time as well. She’s a woman of habit.

“Are you comfortable?” she asks instead. She’s also a master of mixing it up when she knows it will put me off balance.

“Yes, thank you.” I drink the last of my coffee, then put the mug on the table next to the couch. The psychiatrist looks at the cup disapprovingly. She may think she knows how to push my buttons but I’m just as knowledgeable on pushing hers. She likes order. She likes cleanliness. She likes solving puzzles. She doesn’t like not being in charge. She doesn’t like mugs on coffee tables without a coaster underneath them. And she doesn’t like patients who refuse to cooperate.

“So what would you like to talk about today?” Dr Chamberlain looks at me evenly. She’s also a professional and very good at what she does. The one upmanship part of our session is done.

“How are Sarah and Matt?” They’ve both had their sessions now.

“How do they seem to you?” Like all psychiatrists, she loves answering a question with another question.


“I concur.”


“So let’s talk about you.” She continues looking at me, somehow having perfected the ability to maintain eye contact without becoming uncomfortable like regular people become.

The eye contact certainly makes me uncomfortable and I can’t come up with anything.

“Would you like to revisit anything we’ve talked about previously?” she asks, reaching into her bag and pulling out a folder. She keeps meticulous notes, although I’m sure it’s only because it’s protocol. She seems to be able to recall every word I say during these sessions from memory even though we only do it twice a year.

I think back on the topics we’ve already covered. My choice of career, why I left Hope Springs, why I came back, my parents, my siblings, the expectations of the locals, the expectations of my staff, finding the balance between leading them and empowering them, the concerns I initially had that they might not fit in or that they might suffer the same fate as the former police chief, an outsider who was basically run out of town. I wasn’t here when it happened but my parents filled me in after I’d been offered the job to replace him. I didn’t probe too deeply but I suspect they were leading the cause to free up the position so I could come home. It’s not something I’m proud of. But it didn’t stop me from taking the job. That’s not something I’m proud of either.

“Do you believe in fate?” I ask, thinking maybe the notion that I never really had a choice would help shake loose some of that guilt.

“No.” Dr Chamberlain’s answer is emphatic.

“Why not?”

“Because if our lives are pre-determined, then nothing we do to try to better ourselves, our world, makes even a scrap of difference. If I thought that was the case, then I’d be in entirely the wrong profession.” She makes a short note on the first line of a fresh page in her notebook. “What made you ask that?”

“I suppose because it would be easier not to have to be accountable, especially when I think of all the silly things I’ve done.”

“Are any of these silly things recent occurrences?”

“Less and less.” I wish I could say I never do silly things anymore but I’m only human.

“That’s good. That shows you’re learning from your previous experiences.”

“Maybe it just shows I’m boring. That I don’t take risks anymore.”

“Did taking risks in the past make you feel happy?”

“It made me feel… something.”

“Are there times when you feel nothing?”

“There are times when I feel like I’m waiting. For what, I don’t know.”

“Wouldn’t it be more concerning if you didn’t feel that way? If this – right here, right now – was all there was and nothing ever surprised you ever again, wouldn’t it be worse?”

“I don’t know. I’m talking nonsense.” These sessions are the one place I can get it out of my system without damaging my reputation as a no-nonsense, respected figure of authority in the Hope Springs community.

“Not at all,” Dr Chamberlain contradicts me, which I understand. What I call nonsense, she is able to interpret to see into the deepest, most secret parts of me, more than I would prefer she did.

“Well, maybe it’s not nonsense but they definitely seem like questions without conclusive answers. My least favourite kind. It’s an occupational hazard,” I add when I can see she is gearing up to ask why I don’t like uncertainties.

“But did it become a dislike as a result of doing the job or were you drawn to the job because you had the dislike to begin with?”

I don’t remember ever giving it the level of thought Dr Chamberlain has. My uncle was the police chief, he was respected and he seemed to enjoy it. And he let me tag along for work experience while I was in high school, which transitioned into a part-time after-school job.

The types of job available in Hope Springs during work experience week were fairly limited back then – a variety of roles with an agricultural bent, a few within the council chambers, a number of retail positions in the local stores and one trailing my uncle around as he went about the business of keeping the community safe. Those with grander ambitions went slightly further afield to Glenville half an hour away.

Come to think of it, the types of job available in Hope Springs during work experience week are still fairly limited now. I take on one student each year but part-time jobs for untrained, underage civilians have been abolished. It’s just as well. Some of the things I was exposed to during my time working with my uncle may not have been the best formative experiences for a teenager. Like the time we retrieved the body of Eric Weatherby from the lake.

Eric was only five years older than me at the time of his death. He’d graduated from high school a few years earlier and headed off to the city to begin his studies at university. He would visit every three months or so and in between we’d receive updates on his progress from his parents. But on one of his visits, instead of just staying the weekend, he stayed the week. And that week turned into a month, then the month turned into a year.

There were rumours; Hope Springs is a small town and there are always rumours. Some suggested he’d failed his second year subjects and been asked to leave the university. Others suggested a girl had broken his heart. There was also the occasional cruel insinuation that he’d gotten himself involved in something illegal – drugs, prostitution, gambling, maybe even a murder – but none of it was true. Instead, he’d found himself in the grip of something so common now but rarely spoken of back then. An all-consuming darkness from which he could not escape.

His parents reported him missing on a Friday morning and tourists reported seeing a body weighed down on the bottom of the lake the next day. Police divers from the city were at another call-out and wouldn’t be able to make it to Hope Springs until Monday. We never actually agreed out loud to do it but my uncle and I went to the lake, hired one of the tourist row boats, stripped down to our underwear and took turns diving to the bottom of the lake to remove stones from the pockets of Eric Weatherby’s heavy wool overcoat, then the overcoat itself. Slowly, his body floated to the surface. We dragged him aboard and rowed back to shore.

His parents handed over a note they’d found in his bedroom – “I can’t think of a reason not to do this” – and the coroner declared it a suicide, commenting that it was a shame no one had recognised his depression earlier and gotten him the counselling he needed.

If I had to try to pinpoint when my dislike of unanswered and unanswerable questions began, Eric Weatherby’s death would be a reasonable guess.

“You’ve been quiet for a while now.” Dr Chamberlain interrupts my introspection.

“Sorry. Just thinking,” I say in a small voice I barely recognise as my own. I haven’t thought about Eric for a long time.

“About anything you’d like to share?”

Sometimes I wish Janet wasn’t quite so good at her job. “A guy I knew when I was a teenager.”

“What made you think of him?” Her pen is moving hurriedly over her notepad even as she probes me further.

“He’s one of those questions without a conclusive answer. He died when I was sixteen.”

“Were you close?”

“No. He was a few years older.” And much smarter than me, as well as a little bit of a loner. Although Hope Springs isn’t a large town, it was just large enough back then to have a few key groups of teenagers with which to align yourself. I played football and most of my close friends, including the current mayor, were also jocks. Another group was comprised of the creative types – actors, writers, artists, photographers – and a third group consisted mainly of the academically inclined. Eric fell into this last group almost by default but he seemed to exist on the fringes of it.

Perhaps if Hope Springs had been a larger city, his lack of engagement with the broader community would have been more obvious. But in our small town, where everybody knows everybody else, he could be amongst us without actually being involved.

It’s easy to see in retrospect. I beat myself up for a long time for not seeing it before when the knowledge could have been useful.

“How did he die?”

“He drowned himself.” It doesn’t seem to convey the right amount of anguish I felt back then, so I clarify with the one word that does. “Suicide.”

“Of course,” she says, my reference to a question without a conclusive answer now making sense.

“Have you ever considered suicide yourself?” I suppose the question isn’t completely irrelevant considering the topic of our discussion but I try hard not to resent it.

“Never.” It’s my turn to be emphatic now.

“It’s not an unreasonable question,” Dr Chamberlain says in response to my absoluteness. “There are a lot of members of your profession who have to deal with terrible things on an almost daily basis and don’t get the counselling that would help them cope. Suicide amongst police officers occurs at a higher rate than it does in the general public.”

“Suicide amongst men occurs at a higher rate than it does in the general public. That doesn’t make me in particular any more likely to kill myself.”

“True,” she concedes but she doesn’t say anything else. She’s consumed with filling the page of her notepad with lines and lines of blue handwriting. Then she flips the page and continues at the top of the next one. Clearly we’ve landed on a topic to her liking. I don’t feel the same way. I wish I hadn’t brought it up.

Her silence continues, forcing me to fill it. “I’d rather not talk about suicide anymore.”

“It can be a difficult topic.”

Tell me about it, I think to myself, but hold back on actually saying the words. She wouldn’t take it as a throwaway phrase. Instead, she would tell me about it and I really don’t want to hear detached, intellectual comments about something that is never unemotional when you’re involved personally or professionally.

Eventually, I manage to distract her by talking about strategies for dealing with the aftermath of suicide and other unnatural deaths in a professional capacity and we fill the remaining hour. When we finish, she takes over my desk and spends another half hour completing her notes on our session.

She emerges to find Matt, Sarah and I behind the front desk all waiting to farewell her. I know she is here at my invitation and I know the importance of what she does but I don’t think I’m the only one who considers the goodbye the most satisfying moment of her visits.

All Things in Moderation and Some Things Hardly Ever


When it comes to character development, there are certain things that have so much more impact when a character does them sparingly instead of frequently. Here are a few things that I think pack more punch when they aren’t happening all the time.

Smoking has to be the number one activity that has more impact when it’s used infrequently. A cigarette to settle the nerves. A cigarette to show how the smoker’s hands are shaking uncontrollably. One last cigarette before the execution. Apart from anything else, if a character has enough time to be a pack a day smoker, then I doubt there is enough going on in the story. And it’s such a clichéd affectation for the bad guy, we might as well just put him in a black hat. Continue reading

Character Development Strategies


Once upon a time, there was only one way I developed characters. I started with an aspect of my own personality – thereby starting from a base of something I could understand through my own personal experience.

Of course, those characters didn’t remain these one-dimensional people for long. I began to build, adding traits and mannerisms and experiences completely removed from my own. In no time those characters would be completely unrecognisable from me except for that one, often deeply hidden, aspect that we shared. Continue reading