In a recent class that I delivered online about self-editing, I touched only briefly on the subject of character development. It is, of course, a vast subject, and there is so much to say. In later posts, I'll analyse some characters, but first, I want to share my checklist of what makes a compelling protagonist.
'Compelling' is the best descriptor, I think, since it does not mean the character must always be likable. But however hard the protagonist may be to like, it’s imperative that the reader is rooting for them by the end of the book.
For me, a character is compelling if they are sympathetic, expressing a unique worldview, and doing things that are admirable.
First, what does it mean to be sympathetic? I believe that this simply means that we understand why they are who they are, and the reason they want certain things. We might not agree with the protagonist’s actions or ambitions, but we can see where they’re coming from. This understanding means that we feel sympathy for the protagonist throughout their journey, even when they are getting their just deserts. This is a core quality of the classic antihero, from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Breaking Bad’s Walter White, but I think it should also be a factor for every kind of protagonist.
Sympathy (or, often, empathy) stems from vulnerability. Think about the folk on social media who only present their lives as a Shangri-la of splendiferousness … annoying, right? Vulnerability is what makes people likeable, and most of us root for the underdog because we can identify with his/her/their fears, weaknesses, or disadvantages.
For some, this might be about the character's 'flaw', but I’m not too keen on the word because that is too value-laden. Most vulnerabilities are not the protagonist’s fault, per se; they are simply the outcome of their personality (e.g., fear or rejection), physical affliction (e.g., serious illness), cognitive or educational disadvantage (e.g., illiteracy), or social factor (e.g., homelessness). Whatever their vulnerability, the protagonist’s journey should be focused on overcoming it, turning it to their advantage, or coming to terms with it.
Having an unusual perspective lifts a protagonist from forgettable to compelling, and sometimes into the category of controversial. I’m thinking here of Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Whatever you think of his actions, the way he ‘justifies’ them is incredibly articulate and highly challenging to the normal worldview. You don’t have to create anyone as morally bankrupt as Nabokov’s antihero to present an unusual perspective, but the greatest writers (and ergo their protagonists) are often pseudo philosophers or anthropologists who have something groundbreaking or surprising to say about the human-centred universe (think George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Octavia E. Butler).
Of the four components, this is probably the hardest for writers to incorporate because it requires of them the ability to see the world differently also … or identify people who do. I based a key character in my novel on the late Bill Hicks, my favourite comedian, because I love his acerbic, cynical take on politics and consumerism.
Finally, I believe great protagonists are admirable in how they behave. This might involve a grand act of selfless heroism, a quiet determination in the face of overwhelming odds, or anything in between. In essence, the character must do something that we can see is very difficult for them and which makes us wonder how we would act in similar circumstances. Again, with reference to antiheroes, they often redeem themselves with an act of great self-sacrifice or humility, or they deal with defeat in a way that endears us to them in the end.
There are many other qualities you can throw into the mix, but I feel that these three comprise the base ingredients. I’m curious to know what your core qualities for great protagonists are, too, so share them here, and let's improve the recipe!
What makes a book, film, poem, painting, or song a 'classic'? I'm talking about that intangible something that makes a work of art something that generation after generation goes back to. In my view, the answer lies in the endless interpretability of its theme, which is an aspect of writing craft often overlooked.
'So, what's it about then?'
We lovers of books with spine can't wait to tell someone else about what we're reading. In a nutshell, we have two ways of describing a book: by plot or theme. Let's take a book I read recently, The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler:
The thematic description of The Parable is, of course, MY reading of the book; it may not have been what Butler intended. Each reader (and each generation) brings their own perspective and life experience to a book (or any work of art) because interpretation is not about taking meaning out; it's about putting meaning in.
But if every reader brings their own interpretation to the table, should a writer even bother being intentional about a theme? IMO, yes. A theme adds depth and cohesion to a narrative. Theme is like a spice that infuses the book; you may not be able to identify the spice, but it adds a memorable flavour to the writing that will linger with the reader.
What Makes a Good Theme?
Too often I see a theme described in concepts so huge that they lose all meaning: love, loss, identity, courage, and so on. I believe that a great theme is simultaneously universal and personal.
Take the film of the Wizard of Oz as an example. A classic, I think we can all agree. As a classic film, it can be viewed through many critical lenses (Feminist, Marxist, Queer, etc.), each bringing its own interpretation of theme. But there is also a clear, intentional theme: There's no place like home. This theme is both general (everyone would agree) but also specific (we agree based on our own experience of 'home').
'There's no place like home' is what I call a 'thesis' theme because it wants you, the viewer, to agree that 'home' is the best place for you. The plot of the film is formulated to prove the thesis, adopting a definite stance. One sees this kind of theme often in kids' films that attempt to impart a moral lesson, as well as the many early Hollywood movies that border on propaganda.
The more interesting theme is what I call a 'conundrum' theme. At the centre of the narrative is a moral dilemma that the protagonist is dealing with, a dilemma that the reader is also invited to explore. If Wizard had been less didactic, the theme might have been: 'What if you had to choose between leading a small, black-and-white life in the bosom of your family, OR live a large, adventurous, technicolourful life with your dearest friends?'
If you are a writer struggling to identify your theme, start with your protagonist. Identify what their 'journey' is and think about all the conundrums that arise from that. Pick just one that interests you most and develop it through the narrative as you revise your manuscript. You don't have to be heavy handed! But with a little intentionality, you can create a story that both entertains your readers AND challenges them to think about themselves and/or the world ... now that's a book with spine!
Like millions of Britons during lockdown, I’ve been doing all sorts to my house. This means that the person I have spent more time with than even my own family this past year is my handyman (“indispensable” is more accurate than “handy”). During one of his visits, it occurred to me that my job as editor is not so different from his: we are both fixers. We look at what’s broken and mend it; we find the holes and fill them; we create neatness from mess; we take something “meh” and make it “wow”. We are, in short, both in the business of making something better.
One difference is how some clients respond. My handyman’s clients are always happy to see him (they called him in, after all) and always pleased with results: the door is no longer hanging off its hinges, the flowerbeds are neat and tidy, the gutters are no longer leaking. Nobody ever says to him, “How dare you show up here and fix my busted toilet? I like the puddle on the floor!”
Sadly, on occasion, my interventions are not so welcome. The clients most prone to defensiveness are those who have been assigned to me by their publisher. They often think their property is perfect and are insulted when they see the number of edits needed. In my case, though, clients are free to reject fixes as they see fit. I’m never offended by this, of course. It’s the house they built, and if they want it to be shoddy and unsaleable, that’s their prerogative … I just ensure my name isn’t on it.
I really ought to be better at DIY. I rely too heavily on my handyman for home improvements when I’m sure there are some things I could do myself, if I could be bothered to read a few manuals or watch a few YouTube tutorials. The same is true of writers when it comes to DIY editing. Too many do very little manuscript revision, or cut corners, because self-editing requires an eye for detail, the right tools and stamina: all things that make the process less appealing than the initial act of creative writing.
And make no mistake: DIY editing is a laborious process. Ideally, it comprises the following stages:
Each of these steps needs at least one blog post, and I’ll get around to it! But if you cannot wait that long, I’ll be explaining the entire editing process from soup to nuts (focusing on DIY editing) in a workshop hosted by writing coach Beverley Ward in mid-May. Information will soon be posted on her website; I hope you’ll join us.
My old bathroom was an eyesore: the colour was cold, the suite was ugly, and whoever grouted the tiles clearly did so drunk or blindfolded, maybe both. I kept the old toilet, the sink faucet and the layout because you shouldn’t throw out the baby with the old bath. But after a thorough revision, the bathroom is more spacious, more functional, and more pleasing with its rich green paint, clean lines and shiny chrome fittings: a space that’s now pleasurable to be in.
The fact that this renovation required the skills of a professional doesn’t devalue the outcome: our DIY skills will only take us so far. I don’t need to spell out the editing analogy here, really, but let me be clear: even after all your self-editing, your manuscripts will always need a final professional touch. However, whomever you hire will not be overwhelmed by the scale of the job; rather, they’ll only have to tighten a few screws, sand a few rough edges and patch a few holes to make your manuscript something you’re proud to show off.
Speaking of which, I'll end here with the before and after shots! Happy editing, folks.
As an editor, I get deep joy from weeding out errors and helping writers elevate their prose. What I enjoy less is the techy bit, which isn't about what's on the page but how it's presented. I know most of you understand that, judging by the state of some manuscripts I get! But, if you present a chaotic manuscript, your editor will not only curse you, they will likely charge you for time spent reformatting, especially if they charge by the hour.
So, if you intend to share your work with an editor, agent, or publisher, use this bare-minimum checklist.
1. Use black, size 12 Times New Roman font throughout. I know it's dull, but if you're worried that the font will make your book boring, you might have bigger problems than you realize! Select the entire text and then click on the TNR font; this will ensure any rogue fonts are banished. Don't forget the footnotes!
2. Do NOT indent the first paragraph of each chapter, after a subhead, or after a list.
3. Indent all other paragraphs to 1cm. NEVER use tabs or the spacebar for indentation!!!! (The overuse of exclamation points is justified here). To properly indent, highlight all of your text and then find the paragraph spacing menu on the HOME menu of Word (indicated with red arrow). In the drop-down menu, click "line spacing options", which will bring up this box below. Choose the "first line" option and set the size to 1cm (or go with the default of 1.27cm).
5. Use double or 1.5 line spacing (see above box) so it's easier to read.
6. NEVER use more than one paragraph break to separate paragraphs. If you want a slight gap between paragraphs, set the paragraph spacing to 6 or 8 pt (see box above). N.B. Gaps between paragraphs are not common in fiction or creative nonfiction.
7. Use single spaces after each sentence. Many people were taught to double space, but that's no longer necessary (in fact, it's actively frowned upon). To easily fix every double space, go to "Replace" on the HOME menu of Word (see pic). Click to bring up the box below.
In the top long box, press the spacebar twice, and in the bottom box, press it once. Then click "Replace All".
8. Run the basic Word Editor programme for spelling and grammar errors. Of course!
9. Use heading styles if your chapters have several subheads (common in nonfiction). If you know how to use heading styles in Word, hurrah! If not, at the very least, use your font to indicate a style for each level. For example, font 20 for chapter titles and font 16 for main headings. Your editor will then apply the heading styles and use them to create a table of contents.
10. One document only! Don't expect your reader/editor to piece it together themselves!
Books with Spine is all about books that change the world for the better, so it’s sad that the biggest bookseller on Earth is, frankly, not good for our planet.
Here’s a fun fact for anyone who’s suffered financially during the global pandemic: As reported by the BBC recently, the net worth of Amazon boss Jeff Bezos climbed to such an extent from March to September 2020 that he could have given all 876,000 employees a bonus of $105,000 and still been as wealthy as he was before the pandemic. Of course, none of his financial success will find its way to the workers upon whom that success depends. YUCK.
Bezos stepped down as Amazon CEO last week, and if he were planning to join the likes of philanthropists Warren Buffet and Bill Gates in spending his fortune solving the world’s problems, that would be lovely. But no. Like another obscenely wealthy man, Elon Musk, Bezos is going to blow his load on space exploration (read exploitation) because humankind needs other planets to mess up. So, I’m done with Amazon. Even with Bezos gone, I cannot bear how omnipresent the Amazon corporation is … and how it reputedly treats its warehouse workers. DONE, I tell you.
I’m not suggesting you ditch Amazon altogether if you don’t want to. But I do hope to persuade you to at least consider more ethical and environmentally friendly book buying options that also support authors and indie bookstores, all from the comfort of your own home. Here are three Amazon alternatives I discovered recently.
This is an affordable subscription service and subscribers get a box of 4 surprise books in a genre of their choice at intervals of their choosing. Great for yourself or as a gift.
Here’s what they say:
"77,000,000 books get destroyed every year in the UK alone. Why? Just 17% of books are lucky enough to receive a decent marketing budget and make it to the ‘Bestsellers’ list created via the media and in bookstores. As a result, some of the BEST books published don't make the shelves and go unread. Every box you buy saves 4 brand new books from getting destroyed.
The Chicago Tribune says, “Bookshop.org hopes to play Rebel Alliance to Amazon’s Empire.” Happily, this online bookstore that started trading in the US in 2018 is now trading in the UK, and it has ambitions to expand throughout Europe. What’s great about it? Book buyers can nominate a local bookshop to receive the profit of the sale.
"By design, we give away over 75% of our profit margin to stores, publications, authors and others who make up the thriving, inspirational culture around books! We hope that Bookshop.org can help strengthen the fragile ecosystem and margins around bookselling and keep local bookshops an integral part of our culture and communities.
Also, if you’re an author or booklover, it has a great affiliate programme, so you can earn money by promoting your love of books.
Like Bookshop.org, Hive is designed to support independent bookstores, and buyers can nominate a bookstore to receive the support.
Here’s what they say:
"We’re really proud to support an independent bookshop with every single sale we make. We give independent bookshops a chance to be seen online. We hope it will help them to reach new and different customers. We help them benefit from the sale of all kinds of stuff.
"We don't want any more independent bookshops to close, that's why we give them a cut from every single order on Hive. Whether you order books, films, music, games, or anything else, your chosen bookshop will receive commission. They will receive a minimum of 10% on the net value of all book orders, rising to 25% when you select store collection. We pay 8% on eBooks and 3% on entertainment products. Bookshops receive their commission monthly.
Side note: Annoyingly, I tried to avoid Amazon by buying from abebooks.com before I discovered it is a subsidiary of Amazon, Inc. Don’t make the same mistake!
These first few weeks of the year are a time when everyone gets down to goal-setting. Being a long way from perfection, my list of New Year Resolutions is usually lengthy, and I always set myself up for failure. So, this year I’m keeping it simple when it comes to creative resolutions, and between January and June, my creative goals are simply twofold:
Any additional creative output will be a bonus. Come June, I’ll set more goals for the second half of the year.
If you are reading this as a writer, I expect you’ve completed a similar goal-setting exercise. But do you have any resolutions that will help you become better at self-editing? If you’re not sure where to start, here are a few practical resolutions you could adopt.
1. Keep on writing. Never review anything you’ve written until you have finished an entire first draft, be it a short story or a novel/memoir. Do not succumb to the temptation to redraft anything before you’ve arrived at what you believe to be the end point. Draft one is for your eyes only, so never be embarrassed about what you’ve written. It’ll be rough ‘n unready, but it will be complete. You cannot begin to sculpt your masterpiece until all the clay is on the wheel.
2. Practise abstinence. Put your first draft away for a minimum of ONE MONTH and try not to even think about it. In the meantime, try focusing your creative energy on something else (start writing another story, learn the ukulele, paint by numbers) until it’s time to review the project again. Without some distance from the work, self-editing will be severely hampered.
3. Think big. Don’t sweat the small stuff as you work on improving your first draft. It’s not worth tinkering with the finer points of punctuation/grammar and word choice if you need to rewrite or reorganise an entire chunk of your story. Focus instead on the big picture of narrative structure, character arc, theme, tone, setting and so on. Only when you’ve got to your final draft can the finessing begin.
While you’re practising resolutions 1 to 3, you could also expand your editing knowledge and skills by:
4. Reading Sin & Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose by Constance Hale. The book not only covers grammatical ground rules, it will also help you (among many other things) to:
5. Listening to The Editing Podcast, from fiction editor/proofreader Louise Harnby and nonfiction editor Denise Crowle. Though aimed primarily at editors, writers stand to gain key insights into how the editing process works and how writers can avoid certain editorial pitfalls. Well worth a listen. Find the podcast at www.louiseharnbyproofreader.com.
Good luck, writer! You got this.
Recently, I invited some new writers to submit 2000 words of their writing for a sample copy edit so that they could see what’s involved.
For each piece, I focused on the 5 C’s of Copyediting, but I also offered some general feedback on the opening of the writers’ stories, as I would for any sample. In return, I asked them to tell me how they found the experience.
(For info: While some editors request an excerpt from the middle of the manuscript, I prefer the opening 2000 words because it reveals a lot about a writer’s skills and the project. A weak opening will strongly imply that more self-editing is needed before the manuscript is ready for a copy edit.)
"Lorna gave me a huge amount to think about. Over the years I’ve asked various writer friends to critique the book and they’ve all provided me with excellent feedback. However, Lorna gave me a completely new insight into the work and what I need to do to strengthen it. One of the most surprising and useful observations she made was that my protagonist comes across as the most ordinary character in the excerpt. This was difficult feedback to hear but Lorna was absolutely right, and I’m hugely grateful to her for highlighting it.
Lorna’s attention to detail was impressive. She gave my writing some very tough love and now I have my work cut out, tightening my dialogue, strengthening my opening chapters, giving my protagonist greater heft and generally tinkering with the tone of the book. I’m very glad to have had her help, she gave me what my friends probably never dared: a truly detailed, honest appraisal."
"Your edit made a huge improvement to a text I thought I’d polished. All your suggestions were kindly and thoughtfully made. After going through your changes, the sentences sparkled. But most important of all, you opened my eyes to a problem with my main character.
I'd been feeling that something in the manuscript wasn’t working for a long time. Re-drafting it felt like a chore. And the more changes I made, the less I felt happy with it. I’d put it to one side when your offer to copy edit came through, so I jumped at the chance. I thought you'd be looking more at sentence structure than wider problems, but you pointed out that my main character didn't jump off the page. And although I'd worked and worked on her, your comments made me have a complete re-think, but I've regained the love I had for the story and can't wait to start revising."
"I can definitely say that it was helpful for me, very helpful indeed. It was the first time getting professional editor feedback (the experiences I had made before with a semi-professional looking at a text of mine were not the best). Your feedback helped me to trust an editor with my texts and trusting that the feedback will be helpful and in honour of what I want to write. Also, you stating that I write well is something I take as a great compliment, as you would have seen lots of texts and stories.
One point you noted is that I am jumping POVs. In general, I admit that I had some issues with the POV, and I am constantly working on focusing on only one character when writing a scene. Hence, this is still an ongoing learning process, where I oftentimes think, Yes, now I got it right, only to later see that there still is some visible or subtle mixture of POVs. The three points in your comments were helpful for me as I started to put more focus on exactly those questions.
Your feedback was mostly helpful for me. For most of your comments, you wrote why you made that comment, and where that wasn't explicitly included, I could find good reasons on my own. For some suggestions you made, I did not find the reason, but I took them as what you said them to be: suggestions. For me, your feedback was a kind and detailed one at the same time, especially with your final comment underneath my text."
There are many ways to find a copy editor, such as online searching, professional associations, recommendations from other writers, and crowd-sourcing websites. But how do you know if a particular editor is going to be a worthy recipient of your editing budget?
I recommend that writers find two or three potential editors and carry out a three-stage vetting process for each:
1. Online Research
If you’ve found an editor online, or someone has recommended one, the editor’s website is the first port of call. (I think it’s a bad sign if the editor does not have an online shopfront.) The website should tell you if the editor has experience/interest in your kind of writing and appears to have the kind of personality you might gel with.
Don’t just look at the editor’s testimonials, though, which are obviously going to be glowing. Rather, assess for yourself how well the site is presented and how clearly the content is written. A single typo, however, is no reason to blacklist them, because even the most professional publications are rarely error-free!
2. Initial Consultation
Once you’ve decided an editor looks promising, arrange a phone or video call. On this first call, you’re simply sharing information and giving the editor a chance to ask pertinent questions about the project and the kind of editing you need. If they show little curiosity or interest in your project, they're unlikely to be a good fit.
Go into the consultation with a list of questions of your own to find out (at minimum) about the editor’s availability, what their process is, what they charge/how they’re paid … and if they’re willing to do a sample edit (see next step).
3. Editing Sample
I believe the best way for a writer to evaluate an editor is via an editing sample. Some editors will do this for free. If the editor is a highly sought-after professional, they may charge a fee for an amount that is later subtracted from the overall cost of the edit if you decide to hire them. In addition to seeing how many errors they spot, you’re looking for how astute and tactful their queries are, and how well their editing respects your material and authorial voice. Essentially, you’re assessing whether the editing enhances your writing.
However, this sample assessment is not a one-way street. The principle reason I provide free samples is that doing so is as much for my benefit as the writers’. In providing a sample edit, I’m asking the following questions:
When you have samples from two or three potential editors (samples of the same excerpt!) to compare, you might find that the editor whom you favoured after steps one and two did not hit all the right notes in the sample stage. In this case, you can either talk to them about how they can adjust their approach, or you can go with the editor who did the best sample, but may not have had the best website or the best phone manner. Or, of course, you can continue your search!
Once you’re satisfied with the editor, you can move ahead with project. In a future post, I’ll outline how a writer and editor can proceed professionally and productively through the project so that it goes without a glitch. And in the next post, I’ll share what three writers said about being on the receiving end of a professional edit for the first time.
On November 25, I was honoured by feminist theatre company Scary Little Girls with a reading of one of my stories as part of the online launch event for greenhamwomen.digital (read more about this amazing project in my previous post).
"Liberty Dock" is a piece of short fiction about a woman at a turning point in her life and wondering what to do with her newfound freedom. When I write fiction, I try to say something about the human condition and encourage readers to reflect on their own situation and attitudes. I'm sure the themes of loneliness and grief will resonate with many readers/listeners, and I hope the ending is uplifting to anyone dealing with these emotions.
I encourage you to watch the whole show, but if you're short on time, my story starts at around the 13-minute mark. Enjoy!
While Books with Spine usually focuses on the printed word, I’m not oblivious to the power of digital storytelling. Interactive environments offer us the opportunity to take control of a nonlinear narrative and experience stories in a completely different way, with music and visuals complementing the written and spoken word. When the content shares the lived experience of pioneering activists and feminists during the early era of British environmentalism – BOOM – we’ve got something that totally fits the brief of Books with Spine by the name of Greenham Women Digital. My understanding is that there is also a book to be published sometime in 2021, so watch this space.
GreenhamWomen.Digital is an online interactive exhibition which launched on November 25th to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The original plan was to create a touring exhibition until 2020 threw its corona-shaped spanner in the works. But for once, the virus did culture a favour because now we have something that will be available for environmental and peace activists and feminists the world over, in perpetuity. Cheers, Rona!
What’s the Story?
The project is a ground-breaking, interactive online exhibition marking the 40th anniversary of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, which sprung up at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire in September 1981. The first occupiers were a Welsh group called Women for Life on Earth, and their mission was to protest the storage of cruise missiles at the base. The camp grew over the years, augmented by many other women’s groups and individuals campaigning against nuclear weapons. Amazingly, the camp was not disbanded until the year 2000!
“Our aim is to give people a flavour and feel of what life was really like at the peace camp,” explains Rebecca Mordan of Scary Little Girls, the production hub responsible for coordinating this ambitious project.
The website was developed by mixed-reality specialist Animorph. Explaining the cooperative’s involvement, Producer Geoffrey Morgan explains: “Together we set out to push what an archival website can be and do. We wanted to create a multi-modal experience.”
The resulting site contains a huge amount of music, artwork, interviews, and dramatisations, reflecting the diversity of those who were part of Greenham.
Rebecca Mordan explains: “Like any organic movement, there were different ideologies, interests and personalities. As a result, like-minded women gravitated towards each other and shared spaces in different camps at gates situated all around the site.
“Visitors to the exhibition will be able to explore the different vibes and activities at each of the gates (violet, indigo, turquoise, emerald, green, blue and yellow), finding interactive multimedia at each.”
Designed almost like a treasure hunt, visitors are encouraged to explore widely while collecting songs, stories, and first-hand accounts hidden in the 2D and 3D landscapes. By clicking on an object or scene, visitors can share everyday camp life: the protests, actions, love and loss during this pivotal period in British history.
But don’t expect a sanitised or singular view of events. Part of the joy of this experience lies in the fact that it is based on interviews with more than 100 women whose lives were deeply affected by their time at Greenham. Like witnesses to almost all dramatic events, their accounts vary. It is their unique and sometimes conflicting memories and perspectives that create such a rich tapestry.
Explore the Greenham Peace Camp today!
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith