So, I signed with an agent…

A month ago, something amazing happened. I sent a query to Julie Crisp, former editorial director at Pan Macmillan, where she published authors including bestsellers; Ann Cleeves, China Mieville and Peter F. Hamilton – turned literary agent. A day later, she replied, asking to see the full manuscript. Three days after that (the speed was just as well, since I was holding my breath the entire time…) Julie asked to speak to me and later that week, I was holding a signed agreement in my hand.

Here’s how it happened.

I was just starting out with the querying process and found Julie’s name via the Writer’s Workshop – she was speaking at the York Festival of Writing in September. I was also trialling the Agent Hunter website for the Writer’s Workshop at the time, so was able to find out more about Julie’s ethos, interests and the sort of writing she was looking for.

Julie has worked as an editor in publishing houses all over the globe for over fifteen years, and headed up the Tor imprint in the UK before setting up her agency two years ago. She was actively looking to build her list and – having secured publishing deals for clients in a variety of genres – was on the lookout for upmarket women’s fiction in particular.

I was really nervous about the call, but Julie put me at my ease straightaway, with her overwhelming enthusiasm for the book and compliments about my writing – those are words I’ll never forget. In fact, I was pretty sure I was dreaming at one point… We talked about my background, then the logistics of preparing the novel for pitching to publishers and Julie helped me understand what to expect at each stage.

We discussed editing and it was amazing to hear her feedback on each of the three main characters in Unsteady Souls. Julie had a knack for seizing on the weak points in the story – places where I’d been scratching my head, but not able to see a way forward. I knew at that point that if Julie wanted to represent me, it was going to be an incredible journey.

The possibility of others reading and enjoying your story is what sustains many a writer through the solitary and difficult business of writing and editing a novel. It’s such an exciting prospect to be working with someone so passionate about the book to make the story the strongest it can be, and send it out into the world.

Julie says:

“I loved the voice, the characters, the emotion and felt a genuine resonance with the novel which is very hard to achieve. I couldn’t believe it was a debut, so accomplished was the writing.  I was totally thrilled when Victoria Bird agreed to join the list.”

You can find Julie’s full post about signing me up here, and watch this space for news about Unsteady Souls.

Me, myself and I… 5 tips for writing in first person multiple POV (points of view)

first person multiple pov

When telling a story from multiple points of view (i.e. from the perspective of different characters), you’ve got a number of options, including first and third person. In first person multiple, you have a number of viewpoints, each beginning “I…”. In third multiple, you might be following just as many character threads, but the story is told “he…” or “she…” instead.

Writing in first person multi is… an interesting choice. It tends to raises eyebrows, at least among fellow authors. (I’m rather of the view that readers in general don’t care as much, unless the chosen style works well with the read.) Third multi is certainly more common, and probably throws out fewer challenges, especially for a writer starting out.

So why choose first? And if you’ve decided to embark on a project in first multiple, what should you look out for?

1. Where are you going with this – think about what you’re trying to do with your story and see what fits.

Some argue that first person can take you closer inside the character’s head. I’m not sure that’s true (see Emma Darwin’s great post on psychic distance). My choice to use first person for my novel, Unsteady Souls, was more about the relationship between the character and the reader. I wanted to tell a story from three viewpoints that would gain empathy for all three main characters. Given the (often questionable and morally reprehensible) things the characters say and do, I wanted to create the idea of a conversation with a confidante. I couldn’t help but feel that an account written in first person would read more sympathetically.

If you’re unsure what fits your project, try writing your first chapter (or few chapters) each way and see what feels comfortable. What are the limitations of each? When the words are flowing, do you find yourself defaulting to one or the other? Why do you think that is? It may seem time-consuming to write both ways, but it’s a considerably smaller investment than having to rewrite a whole project if you choose the wrong one for your needs…

2. Building blocks – consider the structure of your story in terms of viewpoints

Using first person precludes an omniscient viewpoint – in other words, you can’t have a viewpoint character who knows the whole story, how everyone else is thinking, feeling etc. So you need to decide who takes which scene. Generally, I kept to the rule that the character with the highest stakes in a chapter or scene would get the viewpoint. For the most part, that was apparent, but sometimes it meant trial and error, and changing things around to see what worked.

Once you’ve got an idea of who has which scenes, think about how this fits with scene and sequel (see K.M. Weiland’s How to structure your novel for great help on this much overlooked topic). If one character has a dramatic event, and another takes the aftermath, that can give you the opportunity to let us into another character’s view of the same event, without having to repeat on the timeline.

3. Voice, voice, voice – be prepared to put in the work

Voice is perhaps the biggest challenge for first person multiple POV. Your character’s voice is his or her lens on the world. To be believable, and interesting, each character needs a distinct – and relatively consistent – voice.

As well as the larger, more obvious factors which can differentiate individuals (such as gender, age, cultural heritage, dialect, class and level of education), there are more subtle markers, such as attitudes, values and interests, which can shape the way they think, speak and behave.

What do they do for a living? How does their experience affect how they see the world? What are their interests – what do they read, what kind of films they do watch? Do they have a primarily optimistic or pessimistic outlook? Are they introverted or extroverted? A worrier or fairly relaxed? Funny or morose?

If one character is artistic and ephemeral, perhaps they might describe a dress as “floating chiffon, ruby red and bejewelled with sequins”. If another is more practical and down-to-earth, perhaps it’s just “a glittery red dress – the kind that sparkles under a spotlight”.

When it comes to speech, do they speak quickly or slowly? In long rambling sentences or short, choppy soundbites? Are they fairly considered in their speech or do they tend to blurt the first thing that comes to mind? Do they use slang or swear a lot? Even if dialect is the same, choice of words and turn of phrase can (and should) differ. One character might say “kept schtum” whilst another says “remained silent”. Remember this applies to dialogue between your characters too, regardless of which viewpoint the chapter is in.

The acid test? You should be able to look at a chapter at random and determine, without too much difficulty, whose viewpoint you’re in.

If you can’t, it might be that the voices aren’t distinct enough, and usually that means that you don’t yet know your characters well enough, or you’re allowing your authorial voice to intrude and cramp your characters’ style – well, styles.

That said, whilst a viewpoint is unlikely to change beyond recognition, the voice can develop as the characters go through their character arc. For example, your heroine might sound less confident when disaster strikes, and more definite when she comes through her trials. But in order to sound like parts of the same whole, hints of that character need to be present – and consistent – throughout.

It comes down to knowing your characters well – fleshing out who they are, what their backstory is and where they’re headed. Depending on how you write, sometimes it may take the first draft to find this out.

4. Acting out – think about how your characters’ actions support characterisation and viewpoint.

The same rule applies to a character’s actions. What are their foibles or mannerisms? Do they click their fingers idly when they’re bored or play with their hair when they’re thinking? In the character’s own viewpoint, this might not be mentioned much, apart from the odd action beat. Perhaps it’s an unconscious habit and, for the most part, he doesn’t realise he’s doing it. From the viewpoint of his love interest, it might be a gesture that she observes in minute detail. For his arch-rival – the antagonist – perhaps it’s a tell.

5. Telling lies how reliable are your narrators?

In first person multiple POV, narrators are always unreliable – think of eyewitness testimony, for example. If there’s no omniscient voice, there’s no possibility of an unbiased version of events. And that lets you play havoc with the reader. That’s not to say you can’t do in close third person, of course, but I think the effect is more immediate in first. There’s no one to contradict or filter their story, perhaps until you hear the same event from another viewpoint later on. In the bestselling novel, The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins uses unreliable narrators to great effect, disorientating the reader and keeping back the truth until the final pages.

How are you finding it?

Have you embarked on writing in first person multiple? Do you have any experiences, challenges or tips to share? Feel free to let me know in the comments.

Understanding infidelity

The recent breach of security at Ashley Madison has thrown infidelity into the media spotlight once again. But what can we learn about the way we understand affairs?

couple-in-car

I began researching infidelity about four years ago. My novel, Unsteady Souls, is the result. I believe that infidelity, and the emotions and behaviours behind it, are not well understood in our society. The result is often either the glamourising of affairs, or utter condemnation without reprieve. This lack of understanding is one good reason for the prevalence of extra-marital affairs. The past shows us that whenever we fail to comprehend human behaviour, we expose ourselves to the same vulnerability. In other words, when we don’t learn from our mistakes – and the mistakes of others – history has a tendency to repeat itself.

I have never been in the position of any of my characters, but I have read hundreds of real stories from all sides, as well as numerous articles and books by professionals.

It was interesting to read how many people’s views changed when infidelity became a reality about the person they loved and had built a life with, rather than an abstract. Or when people realised what they had done and were at a loss to understand how they could have done it or how to address the changes needed in themselves.

Some of the behaviours in infidelity are counter-intuitive and incredibly difficult to understand, but I wanted to write an infidelity story as realistically as possible, with a journey of understanding for each of the characters, whilst showing the devastation those behaviours can cause.

There are many people rebuilding their lives after infidelity, whether alone or together, and whichever side of it someone is on, I’ve seen that it takes immense courage to work towards reconciliation or to end the marriage, because it often means either accepting a terrible betrayal, or working every day on the darkest parts of oneself and living with the guilt of the pain caused.

Unsteady Souls is a creative, not a didactic, work, but my hope is that the treatment of infidelity in the novel will broaden understanding of affairs, and encourage us to avoid a simplistic view of a very complicated subject.

Annie, I’m sorry

As Ian McEwan recognises in Atonement, authors often do terrible things to their characters, in the name of good writing. Rarely do they apologise. So here is my apology to one of my main characters, Annie.

desolate

Annie, I’m sorry.

I’ve betrayed you just as much as he has. More, because you told me your innermost thoughts and I didn’t let you in on what was happening with him until it was too late. I put you on what the natives call the roller coaster from hell, just to explore how it feels, just to watch it burn, just to try to sculpt the prose to do justice to this whole sorry mess.

I wanted to see what it felt like. Does that put me on a par with the gossip-ridden bitches I sent you out for coffee with? Maybe. But think about what we’re up against. The Notebook-esque idea that you jump in and tear apart a marriage if you feel like you have a prior claim; the supposed “glamour” of infidelity. We’ve got an ugly truth to tell. We’ve got a war to wage, Annie, and you’re my soldier.

You may not feel strong now, because I’ve put you in the dirt. Quite literally. You’ve got to spend at least part of a chapter face down in a flower bed.

But know this.

I want to grow you up again, make you strong, watch you fight back.

You know it’s worth fighting for.

Keep going. Please.

I’m sorry.