Monday, 13 February 2017

Ellen Phethean - ‘Creating Believable Characters’ Workshop and Interview

Workshop summary

On a cold January day at York Library, Ellen Phethean gave an insightful character workshop to a keen set of North East Scoobies (along with a few guests from North West region!). The workshop covered many of the main problems that writers face when trying to create rounded, believable characters. And without characters, as Ellen rightly pointed out, you have no story.
The group was taken through a series of questions and exercises to identify what makes a compelling character, what the most common problems were when creating characters and how to tackle them. Ellen showed us a number of ways to avoid making our characters too flat, passive or predictable and, through the exercises, ensured we understood and reinforced each technique. At the end she asked us to interview each others’ characters so we could identify and discuss any issues we had with our own characters.
All of the exercises were simple yet effective and gave us plenty to think about. Ellen illustrated all of her points with examples and extracts from children’s novels and broke down the character-making process in a clear, concise way. Personally, I found the workshop extremely helpful and I think it gave every attendee at least one useful technique to deepen their characters, both now and in the future.

Interview with Ellen

1. Did you always want to be a writer / poet? (and what made you want to become one – was it a particular book or poem you read?)
I wrote when I was young but I’m not sure where I got it from. At school I enjoyed English and acting and later studied Drama and English at university where I wrote sketches and shows. I felt I was mainly a performer until Julia Darling asked me to join the Poetry Virgins and we published an anthology. Once I was published, I began to see myself as a writer and a poet and later became Writer in Residence for Seven Stories.

2. How do you go about creating your protagonists? – do they just come to you or do they come out of a setting or a situation?
I tend to see a character in a situation or in a place.

3. Do you ever hear your characters’ voices in your head?
Sometimes. I like dialogue and I have a theatrical background. And I like reading in the first person – it gives the reader a more limited viewpoint than the third person. Perhaps one day I shall write something in the first person. Patrick Ness does this very well.

4. Do you ever find your characters take over, making the story take a different turn?
As I write the characters can do something I haven’t anticipated – I write to find out what happens. I have the overall arc but the story has to be character-led.

5. Do you ever ‘become’ your characters? - i.e. the method acting technique.
No. Never. It’s a different way of creating a character. I visualise them like a film and describe what I see.

6. Out of all the characters you’ve created, who is your favourite and why?
They’re all different. ‘The Wall’ was my first attempt at creating a character and so I have a particular affection for Kylie the teenage girl who gets pregnant. Ren is a bit different – she’s more of her own person in her own world.

7. Who is your favourite literary character (created by another writer)?
Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea quartet has a wonderful, rounded female character called Tenar. I also love Todd Hewitt and Viola in the ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy by Patrick Ness – those are fully rounded and interesting characters.

8. Which author do you think paints characters most vividly?
Michelle Paver creates vivid characters in Wolf Brother and so does Margaret Atwood. Surprisingly there’s also good characterisation in ‘Little House on the Prairie’ by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

9. Which writers and poets have inspired you the most and why?
Ursula Le Guin is a huge inspiration – I love how she creates other worlds which give you an alternative way of looking at the world and asking ‘what if?’. She’s a feminist with a political perspective. I also love the landscapes and people of Kathleen Jamie. Carol Ann Duffy is amazing and accessible but not simple. Sean O’Brien has a political perspective, is musical and pulls no punches.

10. Where do you get your ideas and inspiration – are you a hunter or a gatherer?
I’m a bit of both. I collect lots of interesting facts about all kinds of things, from the workings of the moon to ancient names for trees. An idea comes when I’m bothered about something – when I wrote The Wall I had teenage boys and was very concerned for them so the idea behind the story was relevant to me. Someone I know has adopted two Chinese babies and I wonder what they will do when they grow up.

11. Which is harder – poetry or prose?
They come from different places. Prose can be a slog and you’ve got to be determined. Lots of people start something but don’t finish it – you have to finish and work on to the end. But poetry is different – you accumulate poems until you have enough for a book.

12. When writing prose are you a plotter or a pantser?
I’m not really a plotter. I want to get on with it. I do research on a ‘need to’ basis. If I’m writing and don’t know something I’ll leave myself a note and come back later with the research. I know roughly where the story’s going and I have an idea of the ending but not the complete plot. My current story could go one of two ways – it could have either a romantic ending or a non-romantic ending!

13. Do you have a strict writing routine – i.e. every morning for two hours? - or do you just write when the mood takes you?
I try to write every day unless I’m teaching. I try not to look at social media when I’m at work. Mornings are best for me but I might continue into the afternoon if the writing’s going well. I schedule my writing time into my diary.

14. Where do you prefer to write – at a desk / shed at home or your local cafe / library?
I write mostly at home but not always in the same room. I start writing longhand but once I’m in the middle of something I switch to a PC. I often start off a scene during a class, while my students are writing.

15. Do you set a target word count each time or just write as much as you feel?
If I have a deadline then I’ll set a word count, otherwise I write as much as I can – maybe 1,000-2,000 words per day, but I don’t beat myself up if I don’t reach it. I use Scrivener – it lets you set an average word target for each chapter which can be useful.

16. Do you prefer pen or keyboard?
I start with a pen and then go onto the keyboard for the second draft, unless I’m in the flow and want to keep going by pen. When I get stuck on the keyboard I switch back to longhand.

17. Do you work to music or prefer silence?
Silence. I can’t think with music on, although being on the train or in a cafe with background noise is okay.

18. Do you have any techniques or triggers to get you into ‘the Zone’?
I just sit down and write – or procrastinate! I might read the last chapter I wrote.

19. In your poems you manage to create a moving, vivid, extraordinary image in so few words. How do you go about doing this, what are your thought processes, your word searching?
A lot of editing goes into it. You explore an image in words with emotion in the back of your mind. For example I wrote a poem about my son leaving home and I had this idea of the house as a beach with all this stuff left behind on it which gave me the image for the poem. The poem itself doesn’t mention my son except in the title.

20. If there’s one key piece of advice, one gem of wisdom about the craft of writing, be it character development, re-writing or plot vs story, what would that be?
Just keep doing it and get to the end. Be ruthless and don’t worry about it being sh*t!

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Getting Away From It All: Why Writers Need Retreats

Five writer friends and I have just returned from a self-organised 'mini retreat' in North Yorkshire. The weekend was something that all of us needed, for different reasons. Mine was to finish the first draft of my teen novel, The Difference Engineer. Also, the frantic Christmas and New Year period had made me desperate to get away and write. I hadn't stopped writing over the Christmas period, but I wanted a chance to really get my head down and write and think, and write some more, away from all the daily distractions.
I'm a member of SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) and I meet up every other month with the North East branch for critiques and workshops. We also have a Facebook page where we share information, pick each other's brains, give moral support etc. When I first suggested the idea of a 'mini retreat' on our group Facebook page I didn't expect much of a response, but lo! there were others like me, desperate to get away and write as soon as a booking could be made!
Within a couple of days I had found somewhere suitable, booked and paid for it - a four-bed cottage in Hutton le Hole on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors.

Before going, I had a few doubts about what I was doing - shouldn't I be at home taking care of my parental duties? Did I really need to go all the way to the North Yorkshire Moors to work on my story? Although I did miss my children, one of the toughest things proved to be driving to and finding the place in pitch darkness with a satnav that had stopped working. It seems that my night vision has deteriorated to nil, something which I was unaware of before the journey and which made for a scary trip! But I managed not to drive into a ditch on the winding country roads, found the place despite having no mobile reception and arrived to a cheery welcome from my fellow writers.
Relaxing by a roaring log fire with a glass of red wine, everything seemed to fall into place.

The next morning we were all hard at work - spread out over the lounge, dining room and bedrooms. All of us had very different goals - some were just in the initial stages of a piece, others, like me, were trying to finish their WIP. Each of us were writing for different ages from picture book to YA. And when we wanted a break there was a lovely village to wander round surrounded by the beautiful windswept Moors (yes I'm a Yorkshirewoman and a Bronte-lover!)
I found it quite a challenge to focus on my writing for such long periods of time, being accustomed to rising early and writing 45 minutes to an hour before anyone else is awake. But I achieved a lot in a very short space of time, finishing my novel, writing some key scenes I was going to add later (I had decided to make a few changes to the plot when it came to the second draft) and writing out the key character profiles and a list of fantastic gadgets belonging to my protagonist.
My lovely writer friends and I went to town with our provisions, bringing all manner of goodies to eat and drink. Tasty chilli, lasagne, lots and lots of cake, and, for the evening, plenty of wine :) But one of the best things was being able to talk freely about our writing without anyone's eyes glazing over or getting "that look" you often get when you tell a non-writer what you're doing.
All of us took something away from the weekend - ideas and research for stories, whopping word counts and a renewed enthusiasm for agent submissions. And, importantly, we were not alone for part of our writing journey.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Getting to Grips with Creative Non-fiction

What is it and how do you get started?

Put into its simplest terms, creative non-fiction conveys facts in a creative way. In other words “true stories well told”. Most of what we write day to day is non-fiction, but most is far from creative. It could be argued that it is more difficult to make a true story exciting (while sticking to the facts), than to make up an exciting story from scratch.

Non-fiction writing covers news stories, feature articles, reviews, biographies, autobiographies, diaries, memoirs, travel writing, essays, historical accounts, self-help books and a whole lot more. Traditionally, non-fiction writers such as journalists have stuck to the facts – who, what, where, why, how and when. But there is no reason why non-fiction (journalism included) cannot be as interesting and enjoyable as fiction.

In fact, some might argue that all creative writing starts with facts. After all, a writer's ideas have to come from somewhere, so why not 'real life'. As a writer of both fiction and non-fiction I find many of my fictional story ideas are inspired by key historical events, while my characters are based on real people (that said, they are usually 'blended' i.e. each has traits from more than one person).

In recent times non-fiction has become ever more creative by borrowing techniques from fiction writing, such as writing in 'scenes', including dialogue and focusing on an individual's experiences, turning the piece into an emotional experience for the reader. The best non-fiction writers make non-fiction stories read like fiction, so that their readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy.

In fact, creative non-fiction has now become the most popular genre in the literary and publishing communities. This means the biggest publishers are seeking creative non-fiction titles more vigorously than literary fiction and poetry. Even small and academic (university) presses that previously would have published only books of regional interest, along with criticism and poetry, are actively seeking creative non-fiction titles.

So, if you haven't already tried your hand at creative non-fiction, why not give it a go? There are plenty of good books on the subject, or you could attend a workshop / course to get you started.

15 years ago I trained and then worked as a newspaper journalist and have worked in editorial roles ever since. I've spent the last five years practising and studying fiction writing, which has improved my non-fiction writing no end and resulted in one completed novel and several works in progress.

On Friday, 4th July I'll be running a creative non-fiction writing workshop (for ages 16+) at Mirfield Community Centre (West Yorkshire, UK) from 10.30am to 12.30pm. Cost £7 (concessions £5). All abilities are welcome and there is no need to book, just turn up on the day. If you have any questions, please email me at

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Beating Writers' Block

Every writer, no matter how seasoned, will at some point find themselves at the mercy of the dreaded 'writers' block'. Sometimes there's a good reason for it, such as a stressful life event, and sometimes it's unclear what the problem is (other than a total inability to write anything). But one thing's for sure, the longer you spend not writing (and getting stressed about it), the harder it'll be to start again. But (hold onto that towel!) there are several ways and means to kick start your writing and regain that missing mojo.

One way is to enroll on a writing course - even a short one, provided it's well run, can get you writing again. Another is to join a local writers' group - ask at your library to see if there's one in your area. And a third way is to use writing prompts, such as the ones found at sites like Writing Prompts 101.

Below are ten prompts from this site:

1. He hadn’t seen her since the day they left high school.
2. The city burned, lighting up the night sky.
3. They came back every year to lay flowers at the spot.
4. The streets were deserted. Where was everyone?
5. This time her boss had gone too far.
6. She woke, shivering, in the dark of the night.
7. The garden was overgrown now.
8. He’d never noticed a door there before.
9. His feet were already numb. He should have listened.
10. He’d always hated speaking in public.

There are other ways to get your writing re-started, such as walking in inspirational places, meeting interesting people and collecting weird news stories, to name but a few. The main thing is to keep trying different things until something clicks and the words start to flow again. The most important thing, I've found, is not to panic and to keep telling yourself you will write again.

So, when you hit that wall, keep going until you bash through it. I promise there's always a way through, if you want to find it badly enough.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

JaNoWriMo - Crossing the Finish Line!

It felt good to cross the finish line on Friday with the last writing session of our JaNoWriMo challenge. It means I now have a rough first draft to work with over the coming months. And, although L was already there with her first draft, she continued to check/edit her work until the last day and has already emailed her opening chapters 'round our writers' group. Well done L! N had some bad news which threw him off course in the final week, but he said that JaNo fired him up and got him writing the start of a trilogy he had had in mind for over six months. So, we're all glad we did it and we're thinking about doing a similar writing challenge again soon - MarNoWriMo anyone? ;)

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

JaNoWriMo - Day 28

We're so close to the finish line that I can almost touch/smell/feel it - only two days to go to the end of our JaNo challenge. And the time's gone so fast! L has faced a heavy workload in the past few days, but seeing as she's already completed her first draft I don't think she needs to worry! Meanwhile N has had a few days off but said he was getting back into the saddle as of yesterday. I'm still averaging an hour a day and guess what? I've almost finished my first draft! Just a couple more scenes to write and I reckon I'm there. I can hardly believe how fast I've managed to do it, especially considering how bloomin' long it took me to write my first novel. So, there you have it, the JaNoWriMo challenge does work - L and I are living proof :)

Saturday, 25 January 2014

JaNoWriMo - Day 24

There are only six days left until the end of our JaNoWriMo challenge so not far to go. L is busy re-reading her first draft and making notes / changes. Meanwhile, N is still on short story two but is hoping to complete that and story three by the end of the month. As for me, I've been writing an hour plus every day and am now really getting to the heart of my story / characters. Because I'm a 'pantser' I didn't truly understand my character's needs and wants until now. But now their innermost selves and motivations have been revealed, it's given me an even stronger urge to complete the story.

So, the question is, will N complete his third story and will I get my first draft done by the end of January? You'll have to wait until the next exciting installment to find out ;)

Monday, 20 January 2014

JaNoWriMo - Day 19

This image says it all. In fact I'm half tempted to have it framed and hung on my wall!
So, you may (or may not) have been wondering how our merry trio has been getting on with our JaNo challenge? Well, the really good news is that L has finished her first draft! I'm soooo pleased for her as it's the very first time she's done this - what a brilliant achievement! :) As for me, I'm still chugging away, averaging an hour's writing a day (not including all the historical research!) and feel my main characters are starting to become real. It's quite weird when that happens, especially for my husband. I'll suddenly mention a character and what's just happened to him/her and he thinks I'm talking about a real person - you'd think he might have got used to it by now! Thankfully he's a very tolerant man :) As for our third JaNo member, due to family commitments N hasn't made any further progress on his second short story, but he has promised he will finish it AND a third story by the end of January, so watch this space!

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

JaNoWriMo - Day 14

And so we've reached the two-week mark! The good news is, despite a few setbacks, we're all still making progress on our respective projects. So far I've managed to write every day - even on the worst days I managed 30 minutes and on the best days I wrote for 1 hour 20 minutes straight. L has almost finished her first draft which stands at almost 69K (wow!) and N is tackling the second short story in his trilogy. In fact, we're feeling so positive that L and I have pledged to continue into February.

TIP: I've found that keeping each other updated on a daily basis has really helped to keep us motivated and I'd recommend this kind of challenge to anyone who might otherwise find it difficult to write every day.

Friday, 10 January 2014

JaNoWriMo - Day 9

I'm feeling pretty shattered today but I still managed to write for half an hour on my story. B is ill and R kept us awake half the night and I spent a good part of the day in a meeting re. a different writing-related project which I plan to launch in about 5-6 weeks time. Yesterday I was minding R all day and visiting friends and family, so, although I enjoyed the day, I had no time to myself until the evening by which time I was sooo tired. Also B was back from three days in London and feeling poorly. By the time I knuckled down to write I could only do half an hour. But at least I've written every day for nine days - and working on the same thing too! N had a break yesterday and L had a break today, so I don't feel half as bad as if they had been scribbling/typing away furiously the whole time. And tomorrow's another day! :)