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Writing Tips from Jane Lythell

Creating characters that readers will believe in.

  • I think about what food they would eat, what home they would live in and what single thing they fear most in life. You don’t have to put this in but it will help make them real to you as you write them.

  • Don’t worry if your characters are flawed or have some nasty sides to them. Flawed people are interesting. It doesn’t matter if your readers dislike them or adore them. But it does matter if they don’t believe in them.

The First Draft

  • Your first draft is just that – a first draft. You only get one chance with a publisher so take the time to edit again and again. You need to get your book into as perfect a form as possible before submitting.

  • Show your drafts to people you respect. I asked two close friends and my partner, who is a TV writer, to give me some frank and honest feedback. You can only learn from that and their comments helped me so much.

Where I write

I find it helps me to write standing up! I’ve rigged up my laptop to be the right height and it certainly makes me feel more alert.

Jane loves to hear from readers and is on Twitter: @janelythell and on Facebook: Jane Lythell Author

 

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For Stephanie Lam, it all began with Agatha Christie and a make-believe town...

Beach Hut novelst Stephaine Lam describes how she came to write her first novel: The Mysterious Affair at Castaway House

I had invented a seaside town, Helmstone, and I was searching for a story that I could tell within it. I wanted to get across the same sense of fun that Agatha Christie does in her writing, while trying to evoke atmosphere and place so that the reader can get under the skin of the book. I was in the middle of struggling to find a plot to hang all of this on, when I found myself writing a sentence, The first time I ever saw Castaway House I knew it was meant to be mine. And from there, everything else just flollowed.

reading diet

When writing The Mysterious Affair at Castaway House I became totally obsessed with Helmstone; I went to sleep thinking about it and woke up with it on my mind. I commute to my day job and in the morning I use the journey as planning time. While writing the book I also went on a strict reading diet; according to which part of the novel I was writing. I tried to only read British books written, and set in, the 1920s and the 1960s, in an attempt to absorb myself as fully as possible in the world of the novel.

When I finished Castaway House, I targeted agents who represent authors whose novels I loved and whose work I thought might be similar to mine. First on my list was Judith Murray at Greene & Heaton who represents Sarah Waters, one of my favourite writers. I spent two weeks writing my pitch letter and synopsis to her, trying to get it perfect. Anyway, something must have worked because she loved the book, took it on, and then came another test; she sent it out into the world, to see if any publishers wanted to take it on.

book deal

Two nail-shredding weeks later, my agent called me as I was crossing a busy junction heading home from work. Amidst buses wheezing, car horns honking, and the blare of reggae from the Caribbean takeaway across the road, I jammed a finger in one ear and just about managed to work out what she was saying; I had a book deal. And not just any book deal; it had come from Penguin Books. Since then, I’ve been on an absolute giddy high.

You can follow Stephanie on Twitter @stephanielam1

 

Beach Hut Writer Jane Lythell talks about the flawed characters that inhabit her novels

I’m interested in the dark side of people and what makes them do extreme things. I think we all have a dark side which we hide from the world, and often, from ourselves. My first novel THE LIE OF YOU explores jealousy that deepens into full blown obsession. It has had over 200 reviews and I want to take this opportunity to thank readers for taking the time to write them. Reviews are pure gold for a debut writer and one of the points that emerged was a difference of opinion about whether or not to sympathise with the character Heja by the end of the book. This definitely divided people.

My second novel AFTER THE STORM also has a character in the grip of psychological trauma. My aim is to write character driven stories and to let the plot develop from how each character would react to circumstances given their history and their psychology.

AFTER THE STORM – published this summer – opens in Belize City and then moves to an island in the Caribbean called Roatan. An English couple, Rob and Anna, have just met an American couple Owen and Kim who have a handsome old boat. Owen suggests they charter his boat and he will take them to Roatan, where the diving is sensational. Anna does not want to go at all, but Rob is really keen and he persuades her. Unknown to them Kim is desperate to go home to Florida. It is Owen who is determined to continue their life on the boat. So straightaway we have conflict of wishes between the four characters and a boat can be a very claustrophobic place when tensions start to build.

They set off. With only the four of them on board it should be paradise: afternoons spent snorkelling; nights enjoying the silence and solitude of the sea. But why does Owen never sleep? Why is he so secretive about his past? And why does Kim keep a knife zipped into her money-belt? They arrive in Roatan and not all is what it seems. Anna, who is a speech therapist, can usually get people to talk, but this time does she want to?

I’ve been to Roatan and felt it would make a great setting for a novel. It is beautiful but also has a kind of frontier feeling where the normal rules don’t seem to apply. I drew on a journal I kept when I was there and my many photos to help me create the atmosphere of the island.

 

Beach Hut Writers at Sunshine Café, Hove

Beach Hut writers recently enjoyed a lovely, laid back afternoon of readings interspersed with chatting, tea and delicious cake at a packed-out Sunshine Books, Art and Coffee in Hove as part of the Brighton Fringe Festival. Here is a short film made by the café with excerpts from our readings.

Stand up and be Heard

Erinna reading at the Small Wonder festival

If you are serious about being an author there will come a point when you will need to read your work out to an audience. Authors are by nature generally solitary beasts, they spend most of their time sitting at a desk with only Twitter for company, possible a cat or two but when their book comes out they are expected to come over all thespian and perform for their keep. This idea may well fill you with terror, bad enough that you bare your soul in print let alone actually stand in front of people and ask them to love what you have written.

As the co-founder of a spoken word event (Rattle Tales) I have met many authors but I have yet to meet one who hasn’t suffered from some form of stage fright. Many of us shudder at the thought of reading out. This isn’t necessarily to do with being on stage, I have always been able to read other people’s work well with no sweaty palms or shaking legs but the first time I had to read my own work I was a wreck. My first public reading was almost exactly two years ago; I read a short story at Brighton’s Grit Lit event. I was absolutely terrified, the couple of glasses of wine I had didn’t even take the edge off, my heart beat fast, my throat went dry and the first few sentences felt like agony but then something weird happened, I looked up at the rapt audience and I began to enjoy myself, they were hanging on every word, they were laughing (when they were supposed to) and at the end they applauded. My leg still shook (in fact my leg shakes so much I’ve had therapy to try and cure it) but no-one seemed to notice, and at the end people came up and complimented me on my reading.

Shaking leg syndrome is very common. I’ve spoken to loads of authors who suffer from this particularly nasty affliction, often to people who I’ve just watched read and I must say I have never noticed. I think that the audience isn’t interested in how you stand or what you look like or even if your paper is flapping like a boat sail, all they really want is your words.

Katy Darby (who runs Liars League London and wrote the gloriously gothic novel The Unpierced Heart) gives her creative writing students a set of guidelines for reading their work to audiences. I have added a few bits I have learned from my time at Rattle Tales.

Practice

Practice before you are in the position of have a novel to promote, send your work into short story events and poetry nights, start off with a bit of flash fiction if that’s all you can manage. Look for events near you and contact the organisers.  Many events get actors to read your story for you so you can hear your own words read professionally. Practice again, anything you are going to read, preferably in the mirror, until you are comfortable with every word. This will also mean you can take it off the page, look up occasionally and engage with the audience. They like that.

Don’t fret about it

There are things you can do to minimise the effect of your nerves. If your hands shake don’t read from a piece of paper use a clipboard or a lever file. If you are promoting your novel read from that no one will see it shake, and make sure people can see the cover. You would be surprised how much this will stick in their mind next time they are in a bookshop. People are there to be entertained and will listen so try to relax.

Speak slowly

Read slower than you think is too slow, it won’t be. Speaking slowly and evenly allows listeners to absorb the words and understand the story: listen to Radio 4 if you don’t believe me.

Speak up

Unless you have a microphone people at the back won’t be able to hear you. Don’t shout; just raise your voice a little. If you do have a microphone remember to get close enough and don’t keep moving back and forth so your voice drifts.

Introduce yourself, and the writing

Say who you are and what you are reading, make a little joke, smile, NEVER apologise for your writing ‘it’s a bit silly, you probably won’t like it’ that’s not what people want to hear.

The joy of hindsight - and republication

The newly edited edition of The Other Half, available as an ebook now

When asked what an editor does for an author, Iain Banks apparently replied, ‘an editor does what an author could do, were they able to put their novel away in a drawer and not look at it for ten years’.

Most writers don’t have that luxury – our publishers demand a book a year, we have bills to pay, or maybe our drawers simply don’t have enough storage space.

But recently I was afforded that opportunity.

Back in 2001, my first novel, The Other Half, was published by Orion. A year later came its follow-up, Getting Even. They went through the usual editorial processes – I revised them to reflect my editor’s feedback – which was fulsome, trust me – then they were line edited, proof-read, the works. By the time they were published, I honestly thought they were the best that they could be.

Ah, the arrogance of youth!

Both novels sold respectably, were translated around Europe, and I was pleased with their performance. However neither did well enough for me to give up the day job, so I continued with that, and it wasn’t until several years later I was moved to set my hand to a third novel, which, because I was older and slightly more battered, was somewhat different in tone. That novel was One Moment, One Morning, and was published by Picador in 2010, and soon – to my astonishment – became a bestseller. Inevitably, people started to ask where they could get hold of my first two novels, but sadly much time had elapsed, and they’d fallen out of print. Eventually demand grew great enough for Picador to offer to reissue them, and once we’d firmed up a contract, I set to work updating them.

‘Oh, I’ll just change a few bits – tweak the technology so they’re Instant Messaging one another not phoning, that sort of thing,’ I said to my agent. I planned this would take me a week per book.

Five months later, I submitted the manuscripts. Because when I revisited them, that’s how much work I could see they needed. Yes, there were elements that clearly dated the books – the Twin Towers were still in New York, for instance – but that wasn’t what took such ages. What I’d thought would be a quick trim of several dozen sentences, turned out to be a full root and branch pruning. I could see such hideous examples of overwriting that I made myself blush. I said everything twice, sometimes three times. I moved my characters around like puppets, not going inside their heads nearly enough. Next I put both books through the Autocrit editing software and found even more glitches – repetition, hackneyed phrases, the lot. I didn’t change the plot of either story (in fact, I was rather impressed by my younger self’s ability on that score), nor did I change the essence of any of the characters. Both books still remain very different from my two recent novels, One Moment, One Morning and its follow up, The Two Week Wait. They’re lighter, sexier, and (without wishing to blow my own trumpet) funnier. By the same logic, neither is likely to make you cry, so readers expecting similar tearjerkers might be surprised.

To give you an idea, I’ve just done a word count. The original of Getting Even was 100,000 words, and the new version is 79,000. The Other Half likewise. A fifth of each novel – that is a LOT to lose. And my editor, Francesca Main at Picador, cut and tweaked and helped me hone them further. Nonetheless, because I no longer had such attachment to either story, I could be objective, and with objectivity came ruthlessness.

I was proud of those earlier novels. But I’m prouder still of the revised versions.

Should anyone feel inclined to read them, I’d love to hear what you think. Both, as of today, can be found on Amazon, Waterstones etc., and downloaded as ebooks right away. They’ve got beautiful new e-covers, and they’re not too expensive either.

Available for download as an ebook now

Get the ebook now

Beach Hut Writers in sellout event!

Last supper or police conference called for a missing child? Beach Hut writers, (l to r) Emlyn Rees, Julia Crouch, Sarah Rayner, Lizzie Enfield, Mark Barrowcliffe (MD Lachlan), Kate Harrison, Simon Toyne. Photos by Susannah Quinn

On Thursday 29 November, we launched Beach Hut Writers with our Writer’s Journey to Publication event, hosted by Brighton Waterstones. Six of us shared our stories of the publication process – writing well, writing to sell, finding an agent, pitching your work, working with your editor, and coping with criticism – to a standing-room only audience.

It wouldn’t be boasting to say the event went very well indeed. We allowed ourselves seven minutes each on our individual subjects and the evening was expertly chaired by Lizzie Enfield. The talks were followed by a lively question time and not a little mingling and book signing as we polished off the wine.

Many people attending asked us if we were planning anything for the future, and we are. So watch this space for details of events coming up in the new year.

Thanks to all at Waterstones for working so hard to make the evening such a success.

It Is Not Enough to Succeed; Others Must Fail…

This quote has been variously attributed to François Duc de la Rochefoucauld, Somerset Maugham and Gore Vidal (pictured) – all writers, which just goes to show what a green-eyed, ungiving, paranoid lot we are!

Writing’s a strange beast. There are no set benchmarks. We operate in different areas but it’s all too easy to find your own happy “success” suddenly eclipsed by another’s.  Yes, all you wanted was to see your book in print, but when your writing partner gets a several book deal with a bigger better publisher, there’s an element of gut wrenching.  And even the ones with the deals and matching sales figures admit to feeling piqued by others’ literary accolades.

If we are totally honest, we all feel the odd pang of envy when others succeed but few would go as far as saying we want others to fail.

And, I’m not just saying this because I’m a nice person. I’m not – ask anyone who knows me! But others successes are encouraging.

One of the nicest emails I received when I got my first book deal was from another writer who, at the time, was trying to find an agent and publisher and suffering a series of setbacks and rejections.

“My shameful reaction to news of others succeeding is normally a twisted grimace,” he wrote. “I’m not proud of it. But I didn’t feel any of this when I got your email. I was genuinely hugely delighted. It feels like a victory for all of us scuffling along trying to tell some stories, trying to make a creative life amid all the distractions and noise and mess…”

He’s right. It’s all a bit of a lottery. Success is often dependent upon it being spotted and there being a market or taste for your particular type of writing.

So others successes bring with them a sense of the possible.

My first novel was published at the same time as fellow Beach Hutter, Araminta Hall. We met on a strange writer’s blind date (another story), hit it off (Araminta’s exceedingly nice. I realise that makes her sound like a cake – that’s the kind of writer I am) our books were similar, both out but not making the news, then Araminta was nominated for and became a Richard and Judy Read. Suddenly I could not pick up a paper, without seeing her book being splashed down the side of the page, or pass a branch of WH Smith’s without risking toppling a stack of Everything and Nothing.

Was I jealous? Strangely not. It was a success to be shared and celebrated – a great personal achievement but also a sign that good books are still valued and lauded.

This Beach Hut is a collection of writers whose achievements are wide-ranging and varied.  Some have sold in their thousands and made it onto bestseller lists, while others have received quieter accolades. But each book that makes it into print is a victory for the strange, often lonely and bumpy, obsessive business that is writing.

On which note, the writer of the aforementioned “nicest email” has just been short listed for the Costa Novel Award.  Stephen May’s Life, Death, Prizes! is a brilliant book and, even though he’s being slightly unbearably (understandably) delighted about getting this far, if he wins, I think I can genuinely say, I will feel a vicarious sense of triumph!