I was pleased but also a bit daunted when author and blogger Leslie Tate asked me to write about how I found my voice as an author.  I had to think quite hard about what voice is, where it comes from and how it changes, and I’m grateful to Leslie for setting me the challenge!

Here is my guest post on Leslie’s blog:

I asked novelist Kate Vane about how she discovered her voice as an author. Kate’s latest novel is The Former Chief Executive. She has written for the BBC drama Doctors and has had short stories and articles in various publications and anthologies, including Mslexia and Scotland on Sunday. You can read her blog here. Kate writes: ‘My first novel was a crime novel.…


You or your characters – who’s in charge?

Someone recently asked me why I had made Jim, one of the protagonists in my novel Not the End, a twin. I couldn’t really answer that. I didn’t feel I’d made him anything, he just came to me that way.

It would be nice to think I could produce characters to order, be at the head of an army of compliant puppets. That’s now how it works for me. Characters turn up when they feel like it, often at night, whispering in the dark or shouting outside the window. They trample over my carefully tended plots. They ignore the path I have laid out and forge their own. I run round clearing up after them, changing my story to make sense of their apparently implausible or irrational behaviour, adapting my structure, shifting the narrative arc.

In fact – they’re just like real people. They aren’t predictable and they resist coercion. Doesn’t that make for a better book? If there are to be twists and surprises and thought-provoking developments maybe they need to surprise the writer as much as the reader. Perhaps in their contrariness my characters are saying that what appears reasonable is not actually true.

The downside of character-driven writing is that everything takes so long. They always make me wait. I’m so envious of writers who can write a great plot-driven outline, plug in characters with the correct dimensions and set them marching to their drum. Am I just weak? Should I exercise more authority?

For my next-but-one novel I’ve been experimenting. I’m trying a plot-driven approach, writing a crime novel working from one of those template plots. Rather than waiting for my characters to decide how they want to respond, I’m going to prune them into shape. (Spoiler alert: it’s not working out so far.)

Why shouldn’t it though? If drama is about conflict, about putting your characters in a position where they really don’t want to be and seeing how they react, then why would you ask them nicely first? And I’m not a snob. There are some plot-driven writers who produce complex and interesting characters (and plenty of literary authors who can’t plot to save their lives).

For me the difficulty is that, like real people, characters grow and change. I’ve been writing my main work-in-progress for a couple of years, and had it in the back of my mind for longer than that, but the other day I had a moment of realisation, that a character’s feelings about a key event in his life are quite different from what I thought. And that there’s still much more about him that is enigmatic to me.

Writing a novel isn’t just about narrating a series of events in a particular order, it’s about answering a question that I’ve asked of my characters and myself. That’s why I never get bored with writing. Exhausted and exasperated, yes, but not bored. I’m always learning. And it’s the characters who are telling me something I don’t yet know.

Adverbially Challenged Volume 2 is launched

Adverbially Challenged 2I am very pleased to be included in the latest Adverbially Challenged anthology, which is published on Thursday 30 March.

I don’t normally write flash fiction, although I enjoy reading it, but I couldn’t resist this challenge – to write a story of 100 words containing as many adverbs as possible.

Every writing workshop or ‘how to write’ manual or blog will tell you not to use adverbs, for good reason. Beginner authors invariably (see what I did there?) overuse them. I blame primary school teachers (sorry, Mrs Fry). We are encouraged to use adverbs in sentences as children to develop our language skills and our understanding. For many of us, the habit sticks.

I’m a big fan of breaking the rules as a writing exercise. (One idea I have had in the back of my mind for years is to try and write a story that subverts all of Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing.) Breaking the rules forces you to think creatively. In this case – when are adverbs effective in fiction?

I tried to use them to counter expectations. No one needs to know that someone is smiling ‘happily’, but what if they’re smiling ‘icily’? I haven’t seen an advance copy of the book, so I’m looking forward to seeing how other writers interpreted the challenge and will write about it in a later post.

Profits from sales of the anthology will be donated to First Story. The charity brings talented professional writers into secondary schools serving low-income communities. They work with teachers and students to develop their creativity and communication skills.

It’s great to think that this anthology will help another generation of children learn how (not) to use adverbs!

Adverbially Challenged Volume 2 is edited by Christopher Fielden and was the idea of Mike Scott Thomson, who wrote the introduction to the book. Chris features many more writing challenges on his website, all for charity. I enjoyed writing mine, so why not have a go?

You can buy Adverbially Challenged Volume 2 in Kindle or paperback from Amazon.

Is editing the most creative part of writing a novel?


I sometimes hear writers say they find editing their novel tedious. For me it’s the opposite. I’m currently editing my next novel and remembering why I love writing.

I should define what I mean by editing in this context. I’m talking about the substantive editing you do when you’ve got a roughly novel-shaped, full-length manuscript, one that’s good enough to show to your trusted reader but is definitely not ready to face the world. For me that’s normally around the fourth draft.

So, what is it about editing?

A worthy opponent

I need something to work against. I’d like to say it’s because I see every side of an argument. Maybe I’m just contrary. Give me a draft and I’ll tell you all the things that are wrong with it and all the ways I could do it better (even if it was an earlier incarnation of ‘I’ who wrote that draft). You can’t do that with a blank page.

It’s not writing, it’s typing

…as Truman Capote almost said of the Beat Generation. The truth is, all draft writing is typing. It might take you an hour or a day to write 500 words. It will take around a minute to read them. A scene that seems to drag on forever in the drafting will turn out to be too abrupt when you read it back.

Whereas you can edit almost in real time. You can read your draft in the same way a reader will, and see what you’ve missed. You will often be surprised. The character you thought was weak turns out to be intriguing. The scene you thought was hilarious falls flat. It doesn’t matter. You can put it right.

Wrestling an octopus

For me, structure is the biggest challenge – telling a story with an entertaining plot that also has emotional truth and complexity. You have problems coming at you from all angles. Maybe I can only hold so many things in my head at once, but I tend to focus on getting the shape of the story right first. Refining the rhythm and the texture of the language comes later.

This for me is the reward. Like writing haiku, I can weigh up every word, capture the curve of an eyebrow, the significance of a pause, the particular scent of the breeze on a summer’s day. (Though it’s easy to become obsessed at this stage, and, like Oscar Wilde, spend all morning taking out a comma, and in the afternoon put it back.)

A productive member of society

Creating something from nothing is capricious. You can sit yourself at your desk, you can use various techniques (and waste a fortune on apps and productivity guides) but you can’t make yourself be creative, in the way that you can make yourself do the washing up or fill out your tax return.

When I’m at the early stage of a project, I find it really hard to make progress. This is not uncommon, I know. This is the point at which writers beat themselves up, despising themselves as lazy and undisciplined.

I’ve been writing seriously for over 20 years and I’ve come to the conclusion that this is just the way it is for me. But when I’m editing the work flows easily. If I’m at home, I can do it all day and into the evening. That sense of shame and failure, when you’ve spent all day with nothing to show for it, is gone.

Inspiration and revelation

editing-squareFor me editing is the point at which ideas fly. That odd little scene that seemed to add nothing needs only a tweak to reveal its significance. The chapters that resolutely refused to line up can do a little shuffle and suddenly give an elegant new shape to the narrative. Ruthless cuts can be liberating, new scenes flow easily because they know exactly the space they need to fill. The underlying themes and connections become much clearer. You will even discover that your unconscious has planted some without telling you (but you should still take credit for them).

Marginal gains

You hear about this all the time from sportspeople. Small, incremental changes can have striking effects on overall performance. It is the same with editing. Add a line of dialogue to seed the mystery, change a few words to make a description zing, tighten up a quiet middle chapter to give it energy – small changes can have a bit impact.

So those are some of the reasons why I love editing. I suppose how you feel about editing also depends on your writing process, but I’ll save that for another day.