Tag Archives: writing tips

kill your darlings

some writerly person (Hemingway?) said that about the process of cutting brilliant pieces of writing, for the sake of the whole.

Tonight, I started to see what it means. Me and Catherine drank tea and brainstormed ideas from what Valerie Parv/fairy godmother had to say about my novel. We were only brainstorming the first couple of chapters, but what came out, finally, was a much better, smoother plotline.

That cuts about a third of my book out. Let’s see, we got rid of an affair the hero has with the neighbour’s daughter that blows up in his face on his wedding night; a strained marriage after said wedding night; and a miscarriage by the heroine’s sister, to the hero.

Ah, the plot gymnastics of first novels.

Valerie said to me “If it’s a choice between what the characters are doing and who the characters are, always pick the latter.” This makes a lot of sense to me, and I know these two characters love just hanging out and talking about things like what exactly to call women’s bits and still be delicate.

It’s a pretty confronting process, especially as I loved writing so many of the scenes I’ll be axing, but now that the initial shock has begun to wear off I feel good about it. It’s like lancing a wound, or coming clean about a secret.

As Valerie put it, it’s like writing your thesis without proper documentation of your argument. It doesn’t matter how polished the writing is, you can’t hide that kind of blackhole.

Readers aren’t idiots, in other words.

1 to 20

So I met Valerie Parv the other day, my mentor extraordinaire/fairy godmother for the next year. It’s quite an experience getting your novel critiqued by a pro. Humbling, terrifying and exciting. I glimpsed the novel it could be, which I hadn’t even considered before – to me it just was what it was.

One of the best pieces of practical advice she gave me for finding solutions to problems was: Write the numbers 1 to 20 down a page and come up with 20 possible scenarios.

Possible outcomes from using this technique:

1. I write the best novel in the world.

2. My novel ends up with lists in it.

3. I break the literary mould and win the Man Booker.

4. My hero spends more time climbing in and out of windows than is strictly necessary.

5. Ditto singing inappropriate songs/discovering long-lost half-siblings.

6.  My staring-at-the-screen time will quadruple.

7. I will despair that I have far too little imagination to be a writer by about number 7 when I can’t think of any more scenarios.

8. I will learn to push through my limitations.

9. I will sit at my desk and laugh and say “Limitations? I don’t know the meaning of the word!”

10. My laughter may or may not turn maniacal.

11. Valerie Parv will be called to the asylum to explain herself (with magic wand in hand, one hopes).

12. Ich schreib’ meine Liste ganz auf Deutsch.

13. My hero comes back from war wounded in his soul.

14 My heroine has an uncanny affinity for wounded animals.

15. Oh, wait…isn’t that a Lisa Kleypas novel?

16. By about 16 my doubt turns to despair.

17. I realise that setting my Regency Romance novel in space is the best idea I have ever had.

18. It will be like Steam Punk on steroids/in a spacesuit.

19. I do the exercise and new bits of my brain open up.

20. I close the scary doors and use the rest to my advantage.


I’ve been struggling for months with the structure of my novel, and the main problem is back story. It’s the kind of romance where the hero and heroine were once very much in love then something happened, and now their marriage has been hell for a year or so. Then the story happens.

The only problem is, as soon as I tried to weave the earlier part of their story into the current one I just started writing the whole thing chronologically, from when they meet. Am just running with it at the mo, and figure that I’ll hit about 200,000 words then re-structure the whole thing – and that most of what I’m writing now will someday be a website extra.

Then yesterday I read the first chapter of Jennifer Crusie’s upcoming release, and was gobsmacked by how effortlessly she creates a whole history between her two characters that was over and done with ten years ago. All they’re really doing in this scene is having a pretty banal conversation, but she has managed to evoke a world of unfinished business and electric chemistry.

So, some thoughts on how she managed it:

1. She’s Jennifer Crusie.

2. Most of her character descriptions relate back to the previous relationship the two had, e.g. Andie jerked her head up and a lock of her hair fell out of her chignon. She stuffed it back into the clip on the back of her head as North’s neat, efficient secretary smiled at her, surrounded by the propriety of his Victorian architecture. If that secretary had a chignon, nothing would escape from it. North was probably crazy about her.

Crusie’s being very efficient here; we get to see the character, but we’re also getting a lot of information about what their relationship used to be like. It also tells us that Andie is still ever-so-slightly obsessed with North.

3. They’re still in love. This might seem kind of obvious, but even though the characters aren’t admitting their love to themselves, the way they observe each other is defined by their feelings. So we, as readers, see them in that heightened love kind of way, and it creates a real longing between them.

e.g. he looked up at her over his glasses, and the years fell away, and she was right back where she’d begun, staring into those blue-gray eyes, her heart pounding.

The other thing this does really well is ask the reader to imagine the scene where they began – what did Andie feel back then, staring into his eyes with her heart pounding, without any of the anger and bitterness of intervening years? Being asked to imagine it ourselves allows a lot of room to build their previous relationship without much input at all from Crusie.

4. Antagonism is the inverse of love. I can’t say why this is true, but when two characters who long to be together are kind of mean to each other it makes for a good read. I guess if they weren’t, you just wouldn’t think they cared. It kind of gives an inverse idea of what they used to feel.

5. Andie and North don’t see each other clearly – they’re listening for what they “know” to be true of each other. These points of view are very telling, as far as figuring out what happened between them.


The place is isolated, but the children seemed fine with their aunt, so we agreed it was best that they’d stay there with her in order to disrupt their lives as little as possible.”

And to disrupt yours as little as possible, Andie thought.

North waited, as if he expected her to say it out loud. When she didn’t, he went on.

Also, after we’ve heard Andie think about how North was a workaholic and didn’t even seem to remember she existed, we go into North’s head and reading between the lines we get that he didn’t think he was exciting/interesting/good enough to hold onto Andie, and that he was just making her miserable. Again, we get this by the way he sees her, how he “knows” she is.

6. They have some telling dialogue with each other, and also North with his brother, but it doesn’t feel contrived. I think the reason is that Crusie has begun the book at the point where they see each other for the first time in ten years, which creates a context for conversations about their marriage.

She also doesn’t go into a whole lot of exposition and just gives details that feel relevant to the characters. (She doesn’t have the brother say, for example: “Who’s Andie again?” giving North a lead in, or: “Oh, Andie, your ex-wife who blah blah blah.” In fact, the very familiar way the characters talk about her, without needing to fill in any gaps, gives a very strong impression of who she was in their family back then.

Which leads on to

7. Crusie gives very specific details. Our writing teacher is always asking for much more specific details (“When you remember high school you don’t just remember this general amorphous thing called ‘high school’, you remember specific details.”) and this is a great example of why.

When Andie remembers leaving, she remembers ten years ago when she’d bumped her suitcase on the door frame on her way out of town— and when North and his brother are talking about her, the brother remembers a very specific time that he met her, which gives us a world of information about her character and how stupidly besotted North was.

So I think the main lesson here is: Only write what the characters are still fixated on themselves. If the past is still very much alive for them in the present – in the what they think, the way they talk, the way they understand/misunderstand each other – then that will convey their whole history in a way that is still alive for the reader.


A while back I wrote a post about the way Susan Elizabeth Phillips is right up front with her characters’ motivations. You meet a character and you learn very quickly what’s happened in their past to make them the way they are.

I was very interested to realise this, because I’d always assumed anything about your character should be below-the-surface, slow-reveal kind of stuff. But SEP makes it work. Big time. I think also in the romance genre you find this method a lot.

So I had decided to take the lesson on board and have my character motivations well-explained. Until my writing teacher pointed out that if my character is unaware of why he’s chosen his particular bride until it’s too late, the tension and drama are much better served.

Luckily I came across Julie Anne Long. Whilst I raved about her book The Perils of Pleasure I left out the most perfect detail from it.

*spoiler alert* ish

Normally when a romance heroine has been married before there are two options: 1. it was an amazing marriage and she struggles with her guilt over finding love again (plus the new love normally gives her slightly better orgasms than the old one did) or 2. it was awful and her new love is a revelation – though possibly she can’t trust it at first.

JAL’s heroine has been married before, as we find out in snippets. But she never, in the entire book, does a big reveal about that marriage. We get this detail, though: the heroine still carries around her dead husband’s pistol, which has mermaids on the handle. The hero thinks “She’s just the kind of woman who would marry a man with mermaids on his pistol.”

And isn’t there just a whole world in there, that you would pop by trying to describe it more closely?

I think both methods are effective, but I feel like there’s the next level of craft to be learnt by JAL’s very clever reveal. As my writing teacher’s always trying to drum into us: Reading is only enjoyable when the reader is productive.

what I’ve learnt about writing (and life, probably) from reading Susan Elizabeth Phillips: Part lll

Love insinuates its way into your life, and you only recognise it for what it is when it’s suddenly not there anymore.

SEP has a particular kind of hero/heroine relationship that goes as follows:

hero is super attractive, has more money/fame/women – all the outward signs of a successful life – than he knows what to do with. He has issues with his family/hometown and is struggling with his internal measure of success against the external signs of it.

Enter our oddball heroine. She might be a tomboy, a social disaster or just pretty unlucky in life. Certainly, by all external markers, not at all in our hero’s league. Some circumstance throws them together so that she starts tagging along in his life, despite a huge lack of willingness on both parts.

Then something starts to happen. She takes him by surprise. Makes him laugh more than all the women he’s surrounded himself with have ever been able to. And because she’s tagging along and he isn’t trying to impress her, she’s also witness to the more vulnerable aspects of his life: relationships he’s struggling with, his true relationship to his success etc. She becomes the one person who truly understands him, and can truly give him comfort/support.

Likewise, being with someone like him makes her reach for things she didn’t think were possible, and she regains a sense of her true worth, and a taste for happiness.

Then there’s the inevitable bust-up and she’s not there anymore. But the problem is, he’s gotten so used to relying on her that her absence now leaves a massive hole where he didn’t think there was one before. Realisation of true love not too far behind.

Now the whole geeky girl gets rockstar hero thing is a pretty standard fantasy (works both ways, too) – standard but still highly effective. But the aspect I want to talk about is this gradual build-up of love, to the point where it is still unacknowledged but essential.

It’s such a very seductive idea. I remember in high school having some loose grasp on the concept, and spending a negligible few hours trying to make myself present in the eyes of some boy, so that I could then turn around and be horrible. The theory was that he would then so miss my previous presence in his life that he would come to his senses about me.

Not the most successful tactic.

My point is, like most romantic fantasies, I’m not sure this one really works in real life. Or you can’t make it work, in any case.

The steady build-up of real love is a really difficult thing to do in fiction. Attraction is relatively easy (though also not always successful) – really feeling like those characters know and need and are irrationally committed to each other, not so easy.

I think as writers we can learn a lot from SEP’s method. By being witness to each other’s lives the characters gain great insight into each other – seeing the vulnerable, the bad and underneath. Or the true and good nature under a bad boy exterior, as the case may be. The fact that love is gradual and unlooked-for also works really well here; the characters aren’t on their best behaviour – they’re not acting for each other, so they get to truly see each other.

She uses the bond of shared experience to build a truthful sense of love. So the question is: What does your hero/heroine think they want in a relationship? Who do they think they have to be in the perfect relationship? What part of their lives would they never want their perfect partner to see? What kind of person would react with passion and compassion when they saw beyond the act? And what kind of person would your hero/ine never consider being with?

I think this formula is useful for any kind of relationship within writing, not just the romantic ones. The most interesting part of a relationship is the tension between who we are and who we think we should be, and how we react when fissures appear.

So: 4. Show relationship development through characters’ exposure to each other’s lives and through an abrupt change in the building dynamic.

Go to Part I, Part II

For anyone who’s interested, the three novels I’ve had most in mind writing this are Heaven, Texas (one of my holiday reads!), Natural Born Charmer, and Match Me If You Can (my favourite Chicago Stars book, though it’s a very close call).