The detail of minor characters

Happy New Year! Will this be the big one? Is 2022 the year that you finally put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and write your first novel? Or maybe you’re already a novel veteran and this year you’re going to take the quality of your writing to the next level? Regardless, I hope this little discussion on minor characters gives you a little food for thought in your story.

How much detail do you need to give to minor characters? For me, not much. If they are glorified walk-on parts, used to portray some piece of information to keep the story moving, then probably no real detail at all is the best bet. “Your table is ready,” said the waiter. Fine. But if I said “Your table is ready,” said the waiter, a slovenly man with a droopy moustache, you might start to think he’s more important, and you need to pay attention to him.

Here’s the problem: If you do this, and add “colour” to every minor little character, you get audiences confused about who matters and who doesn’t. But of course, you can always have fun and turn these conventions on their head. For example, I have emails from readers who loved the lead character in Succession of Power: Secret Service Agent Mike Stevens.

The picture they paint of him is so vivid, but it’s totally of their own construction. Seriously.

I deliberately don’t offer a single physical description of him throughout the whole book. I say he’s wearing a suit. But he’s a Secret Service Agent, so of course he’s in a suit. I think there’s some reference to him taking a shave if memory serves. But that’s it.

You decide: is he still a young ambitious man? Some readers clearly think so. Is he an old man, long in the tooth, and too old to be doing the job? Some say so. Ethnicity, hair colour, everything is up to you. I love that it’s so open. So try not to go overboard in the descriptions of the bit-players if you can. You don’t need it, and your readers definitely don’t need it.

How “inspirational social media posts” are made

It’s nearly Christmas, so time for another silly video I’ve made. This one was a while back.

If you’re like me, you can’t stand those supposedly “inspirational” posts people put on Facebook and Instagram, etc. Who on earth is behind them all? Who is that sad loser?

Turns out, it’s me:

Happy holidays!

Being aware of time in a story

It’s pretty easy to hear the clock ticking when you’re writing a pacy thriller which takes place over a short defined period of time, like my novel “Succession of Power”. Because everything moves at the pace of a beat, you are fully aware of those beats at all time, as are your readers. However, not every story has that style. This short article is really to say, that just because you don’t have an obvious ticking clock in your story, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t neglect the concept of time.

Some writers get a little muddled with the passage of time in their stories. If that’s you, don’t worry, it’s common. Time in a story can tie you up in knots sometimes.

The thing is, if the passage of time matters to your plot, then it matters that the audience know exactly where and when they are in your story. The beauty of a novel is that you can do it simply and in just a few lines if you want to, for example: John insisted that he knew how to fix it, as he got his tools out of the shed. He tried and tried but the hours went by with no success. Three days later, he was still trying until he gave up on the Saturday afternoon. See? We’ve covered quite a bit of time and got ourselves into the weekend in just three sentences. And we didn’t lose anything, even though that time went by slowly.

But a word of caution: if other things are happening to other characters in different places during those three sentences, you’ll have quite a bit of work to do to explain later what they’ve been up to over those three days.

Often you can transition to a different time at a new chapter or section of a book. Michael Crichton famously wrote lots of short chapters which often began with a location, a day, and a time. You can do the same with sections, or at least start with a vague reference to the time or describe the setting. An overcast moon poured a dull greyish-blue light on the parking lot. Or something!

If the clock is central to the story (the world is ending at midnight, so it’s vital we know it’s 23.45), then exact times work. In other scenarios, a general description of the time or how things look work well. Usually you want to explain the time early on, so you ground your reader and help them paint a picture of the time in their mind quickly.

Don’t lose focus

I’ve started to come to the conclusion that writing is a fight against all your natural instincts. We’re basically apes, not built for writing long novels. Or anything for that matter. We’re built for hunting and gathering on the Savannah, not the intellectual hunting and gathering that comes with writing novels. We have to fight ourselves a little bit to get the work out.

It’s so easy to lose focus while you’re writing that all-too-precious first draft. Your brain will play tricks on you, and give you lots of reasons to stop mid flow, and rework what you’re doing.

It’s so hard to fight that, but you really must. You need to concentrate on the STORY, don’t get too hung up on grammar and spelling. That’s not an invitation to be totally sloppy, but don’t get every last sentence totally perfect.

It’s a temptation for some to create their final draft while writing the first. I understand that because you don’t want to create extra work for yourself later on. It’s probably one of the most common faults that a writer has.

But you’ll write yourself into a corner if you do this. If you’re really struggling with powering through the first draft, and find that you’re always stopping at every other word to make a correction, why not try this: set a goal that, say, every 250 words, you’re going to let yourself stop, and look back at what you’ve re-written, and so just a little clean up. A little, not a lot.

Then you have to do at least another 250 words before you can stop and “tidy up” again. If you’re someone who stops mid-flow all the time, this might help you.

Me? I’m guilty of going the other way and being too content with the sloppiness, but we each have our own crosses to bear!

A quick tip for getting back into writing

I’ll be honest, this isn’t something I do: but a writing friend told me that this is what they do, and I thought it might be useful for others to hear.

It’s just a quick tip: Do you struggle getting back into writing, when you start a new writing session on a book you’re currently working on?

If so, are you like me, and do you usually stop writing when you finish a chapter? That’s what I always do. It just feels natural. My readers will stop reading at a chapter, so that’s when I stop writing too. I’d say that puts me in a writing minority though. most writers have much more sophisticated – and probably much more sensible – approaches, and write in scenes, moments, arcs, or some other form, then work at putting it all together.

But just in case you’re like me, writing chapter-to-chapter, and keep finding that you’re struggling to start the next new chapter at the start of a writing session, it might be not the best idea to pick up at that point. There’s a sudden surge of “oh no, where was I going with this?”

If when you get back into your next session, you struggle to get “back to the pace”, here’s the tip: don’t finish on a chapter. Finish the chapter, then start writing a few sentences of the next chapter, while it’s still fresh in your mind. And hey, even better: finish MID-SENTENCE. Yes, that sounds like madness, but it might just help you pick right up when you start your next writing session.

Hey, if you’re struggling, it’s worth a try, right?

Writing rituals

Do you have certain routines when writing? Routines can be a big part of achieving your writing goals. I think it’s really about being as comfortable as possible. Sometimes these rituals form because you performed some sort of action, ahead of smashing a writing goal. And so the correlation gets mixed with causation. But that’s okay. If it works, it works.

I think these things only work on a psychological level when (or if) you have stumbled on them. You happened to be in a coffee shop with some classical music playing, and that afternoon, the words flowed. So from then on, even when you’re at home, you crank up the Beethoven.

But the effectiveness has to come first. I don’t think you can force rituals on yourself. That’s putting the cart before the horse.

And too many people try and do that. They make this whole big deal out of it, by playing the appropriate music, turning down the lights, activating some herbal essence oil, lighting candles… and before you know it, you’ve spent half of your writing time getting ready to write!

But really, it’s about whatever works for you. Writers like Lee Child make sure they don’t eat before writing. And there might be some evolutionary biological science behind that. Humans of the hunter-gatherer age, when they were hungry, were typically (obviously) more desperate for food. Therefore, that’s the time when they would need to get very creative, in order to acquire food. So maybe, just maybe, there is a correlation between being a little hungry and opening some of those creative lobes in the brain. But what do I know?

The novella moment?

It was early 2019 that I first wrote about the real-world viability of short stories, now that we’re living in the age of ebooks. Of course, we’ve seen in recent years a surprising change in people’s spending habits when it comes to books. We were moving away from paper-versions to ebooks at a very fast rate. But things change, and for a variety of complicated reasons, we’re seeing people move back to paper. Personally, I can’t remember the last time I bought a “dead-tree” version of a book. I like the comfort and control that an ebook reader provides. But it seems I’m increasingly in the minority.

So short stories can be viable now many people have e-readers. But can the same also be true of the novella?

Often described as a story that’s roughly between, I don’t know, 30,000 – 60,000 words, novellas have seemed to be a dying art-form. Too long to be a short story, too short to be a full-length novel.

It’s not the length that causes problems, it’s the viability in the age pre-ebook readers.

Again, just like with a short story, a novella can’t be economically justified as a traditional mass-market physical paperback book (or hardback for the matter). But, when it’s all bits and bytes, a digital copy for ⅓ or ½ or even ⅔ the price of a regular full-length novel can work.

And you know what? It’s a great thing to take a creative stab at as a writer yourself. Learn how to tell a compelling story with real structure, but hone your skills writing in a tight, lean and impactful way. Then maybe work up to a full-blown novel? The world is your oyster!

Thoughts on DRM in ebooks

I have written a couple of times before about issues around DRM, that is to say, Digital Rights Management on ebooks. This is the clever stuff that works out whether or not the person reading the book actually bought it, and is therefore “authorised” to read it. This is still a hotly contested issue, with both authors and publishers mostly on the pro-DRM side of things.

There is of course the ethical question: Should a novelist/publisher be able to dictate what the purchaser of a book can or can’t do with it? If they download it from Amazon to read it on their Kindle, what if they decide to get, say, a Nook or a Sony eReader and want to now read it from there? Without disabling the DRM, (then changing it into a readable format like .epub or pdf), that might be quite a challenge. And disabling the DRM is a violation of the terms you agreed to when you made the purchase.

Some argue that unless you can do what you like with the book, you don’t really own it. Others say you don’t really “own” that content anyway, and if what you’re doing is buying the rights to read the work in a specific and limited way.

Some say that ebook DRM is terrible because you can’t loan the book to a friend like a “dead-tree” copy. Others counter and say that without DRM the danger is not someone lending it to a friend, but someone making a copy that they email and send to their friend to keep forever, when they really should have paid for it. Worse, it’s a way of putting that copy up on the web so that millions of people can download it, depriving the artist of all that revenue.

I don’t want to go over these grounds too much, expect to restate what I have said before. If there is to be DRM (and we don’t see much chance of it going away in the mainstream ebook world any time soon), when it must be seamless to the user. If they can pick up pretty much any device they like to use, and read the book, then later, pick up another device, and carry on right where they left off on device one, then DRM can work. If they have to jump through hoops, then the DRM is a massive failure. And sadly, a pirated version of a book might be a better option. When that happens, everyone involved in the creative process loses.

Why reading fiction is good for you

This is a great summary from YouTuber and former doctor, Ali Abdaal:

Is your fiction just fiction, or is it based in truth?


It’s fun reading some of the questions that come in from this site, usually from writers starting off: maybe they have a rough idea of the novel or screenplay they want to write. Maybe they’re halfway through and for whatever reason something is not quite sticking. I’m really sorry I don’t reply to them all individually, but I’m grateful for these messages. Not least of all because it’s useful to see where people are struggling, and what universal problems people have.

On more than one occasion now I’ve been asked about the overall importance of the story. That is to say, whether a story should always be speaking some higher truth. And with that, a few times now, I’ve been asked if the fictional stories I write talk about things I really believe in. Whether or not there is a higher, ethical message contained in the story. Or some simple propaganda that I’d like to release into the world.

Am I using my trashy thrillers to convey some “higher truths”? Well, you know, I think it’s important not to overthink this kind of thing. To say your story either has to be a didactic sermon in disguise or that it has to run a mile from that, is a false dichotomy.

Yes, many of the things I write are things I believe in and would stand by. They have to be based in some part around the way I feel humans think and act – rightly or wrongly – because I’m trying to create a world for the reader. It’s hard to do that if you don’t believe in some of the premise in the first place.

But if every character was a mere mouthpiece for my views, biases and perspectives, that would not be an interesting story. Everyone in the story would be a cardboard cutout, with no “life” or independent action. When I’m fleshing my story out, the choices and words that they come up with should be a delight and surprise for me too. That’s how I know it’s working.

A book where I’m in total conscious control, and I’m trying to dictate every specific detail, where it all has to confirm to my narrow view of the world? Well, I wouldn’t want to read that book. And if I wouldn’t want to read it, why would anybody else?