Is the London Book Fair a worthwhile visit for budding authors?

My morning at Olympia started at 9:45 at Authors HQ, listening to Rebecca Swift from the Literary Consultancy, chairing a discussion with agents, Juliet Mushens, The Agency Group, and Iain Millar, co-found of Canelo Digital Publishing, on how they find new talent.

Some of their advice I have heard before but it’s never a bad thing to be reminded of the high standards expected of manuscripts.

Juliet said: “Succinctly summarise what your novel is about in your covering letter. Tell us why your story is going to be attractive to publishers and readers. It’s amazing how many authors don’t do this.”

Iain said: “A lot of manuscripts are rejected because they start too early and don’t establish character, setting and conflict in the opening chapters skilfully.”

Juliet advised: “Send your first three chapters to 5-10 agents. If they ask for the full manuscript this does not mean they want to represent you and not all agents respond with comments, alas.” Though Juliet said she does send feedback if she reads a full manuscript.

Agents and publisher, Juliet Mushens and Iain Millar answering questions.

Agents and publisher, Juliet Mushens and Iain Millar, answering questions.

I then headed over to the Children’s Hub to listen to Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New children’s writing, and her publisher Samantha Selby-Smith and agent Louise Lamont from LBA. Laura’s novel, Poppy Pym and the Pharaoh’s Curse, is to be released in October. I was lucky enough to be given a free proof copy.

I chuckled when Laura confessed she had only written the first five thousand words required to enter the first stage of the competition. When she was shortlisted, Scholastic asked if she had the full manuscript (which was expected!), she said yes, and then wrote her novel in three weeks. “It was the most stressful three weeks of my life. I wouldn’t recommend lying to your publisher,” she joked.

Laura Wood signing, Poppy Pym and the Pharaohs Curse

Laura Wood signing, Poppy Pym and the Pharaoh’s Curse

I had time to look at all the publisher stands in the Children’s section before heading to the next talk. My objective was to: collect trade catalogues, handy for idea creation (and spotting what has already been done), publisher styles and market trends; and also to discover new or relatively new publishers, who are expanding their lists and accept unsolicited manuscripts. I found a few!

I located the Pen Literary Salon just in time to hear Anthony Browne talk about his long career illustrating and writing picture books. He was my favourite speaker of the day – articulate, wise and creative.

He takes ideas from his childhood, from familiar objects, other artwork, toys and games. He twists and changes them into something else and plays with point of view.

"Picture books are like works of art, they can be poured over, paused over, thought about and revisited." Anthony Browne

“Picture books are like works of art, they can be poured over, paused over, thought about and revisited.” Anthony Browne

“There should be different layers in picture books. The child doesn’t have to know what everything is or what everything means. Conversations between children and adults are generated by the story and illustrations. Parents sometimes move children on to quickly from picture books, thinking they are for young children and therefore babyish.”

Anthony believes the picture book is for any age. “We live in a visual world of moving images, there is only a few seconds to appreciate an image before it is gone. Picture books in contrast are like works of art; they can be poured over, paused over, thought about and revisited.”

After lunch, I did a quick reccy of the larger publishers stands, which sprawl across the grand hall, collecting more trade catalogues. I also checked out the self-publishing stands. There’s a lot of info available and at least one talk a day.

Olympia's Grand Hall.

Olympia’s Grand Hall

Then I headed back to Author HQ to hear some very brave authors pitch their books live to a panel of agents and publishers. They had one minute to introduce themselves and two minutes to pitch their book before being critiqued. The panel had pre-read one chapter.

It was interesting to watch people’s style, hear about their background and watch mistakes. The biggest takeout from the panel was a warning about marketability. “Where does your book fit,” they kept asking, a couple of authors received the more depressing news, “I like the writing but I can’t sell it.”

This it at odds with the advice often given, “right what you love” – the caveat clearly is, as long as it is marketable.

There is definitely a lot more going on for authors this year at LBF. I’ve got a stack of information about the market and a few publishing leads.

Yes, indeed, it’s definitely worth the ticket.

(SCBWI members are eligible for a half price flexi ticket)

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Notes from a SCBWI Masterclass with Eric Huang – Picture books for the digital age

I first heard Eric Huang speak at the SCBWI Winchester conference last October. I was inspired by the creativity of the apps, characters and stories Made in Me were developing for Me Books – but what particularly struck a chord, was Eric’s suggestion that authors and illustrators should start thinking about themselves as creators.

In the digital and marketing age, characters and the worlds we create for them, can live beyond the page, in fact they can jump about and talk or even make an appearance as a stuffed toy in Tesco.

Exciting and inspiring?  Yes, I think so. So when I saw a SCBWI masterclass scheduled with Eric, I jumped at the chance to learn more.

Eric Huang

Eric Huang

Made in Me doesn’t think about publishing in the way traditional publishers do.

Most publishers don’t market themselves; they market their books and their authors (and sometimes not even this). Penguin is one of the few publishers that do.

In contrast, games, TV, film and comic book creators (and just about any other consumer facing brand) consider branding very early on in the development process.

They build characters and a world for the characters to live in. They think about the UX (the user experience) and the user interactivity with the brand. This might include: apps, games, stationary, toys, clothing or food. Moshi Monsters is a good example.

Eric pointed out that a lot of entertainment brand profits come from rights, licensing and merchandise, and these big entertainment brands, more often than not, originate from books, e.g. How to Train Your Dragon, Paddington.

So when creating a picture book, think about it’s potential.

These are some of the questions Eric suggests creators ask themselves.

  • Can the characters and world live beyond a single story? If not, how can you make the concept stronger?
  • Do you want your name or the characters/book series to be the brand?
  • How do you want your creation to be treated? Eric suggests writing a brand bible. Creators should always think carefully before signing away creative rights.

Eric pointed out the benefits of writing story apps.

  • It’s a good test market. Concepts can be adjusted until they work.
  • Think big. Start small and brand build.
  • Interactivity doesn’t just mean audio or animation. Handheld devices feature microphones, video and cameras. These can be utilised interactively to enhance the UX and link the digital world with the physical world. The best digital experiences are those that tap into existing behaviours and patterns of play.
  • Creative partnerships (illustrator/writer/animator combos) are welcome to pitch.
  • THERE ARE NO RULES
Pitching a concept to Eric

Pitching a concept to Eric

Eric’s marketing tips.

  • Build a brand website.
  • Achieve search engine optimization.
  • Think when and how people are using digital stories.
  • Concepts that generate an emotion response work best, e.g. on the Moshi Monsters website, children can decorate their own room. Also look at name, a personalised digital book.

For inspiration Eric suggested the following:

Obviously www.madeinme.com where you can visit Stomp! and Trevor the Troll and www.mebooks.co which is the downloadable story app.

Also:

www.caribuapp.com  (Skype for book readers)

www.nosycrow.com/apps (more story apps )

www.teachyourmonstertoread.com (a learning to read interactive game)

Eric is accepting submissions. Email: eric@madeinme.com

Eric Huang is Development Director at Made in Me, an award winning digital publisher in London specialising in children’s entertainment. He looks after IP development and partnerships around creating and launching digital brands

Happy masterclass attendees

Happy masterclass attendees

Look up http://britishisles.scbwi.org to see SCBWI events and scheduled masterclasses and http://www.wordsandpics.org for the fabulous on-line magazine Words and Pictures, with, oh, so much, information for children’s authors.

Being creative with words. The picture book writers tool kit.

A picture book writer’s tool kit is awesome, it’s why I write picture books. Playing with these techniques is great fun.

Remember, picture books are meant to be read out loud. So go to town – bold and wacky is good.

But remember the audience. Keep the concept and structure simple. And short!

Rhyme

There is some negativity in the industry about rhyme because of the difficulties of translation. The bigger publishers are more accepting of rhyming stories but the story has to be original and the rhyme perfectly structured and metered.

An appreciation and understanding of the techniques of rhyming poetry is essential if you are going to attempt a whole story in rhyme. If you don’t know what I mean by meter, foot and stressed/unstressed syllables, don’t attempt rhyme. There are so many easier techniques to use that are just as effective.

One option is to write the story predominantly in prose but have a short chorus in rhyme. See, The Ginger Bread Man.

Assonance is a form of rhyme called ‘vowel rhyme.’ It is the repetition of similar vowel sounds in a sentence. E.g. Each Peach Pear Plum (also alliteration here, see below)

Consonance is the repetition of the same consonant two or more times in quick succession. E.g. pitter-patter, Chicken Licken.

Rhythm

Every sentence we speak has syllables that are stressed and unstressed. Rhythm is a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables within a line of verse or prose. Rhythm and rhyme are natural partners but rhythm works fine on its own. The king of rhythm without rhyme is Michael Rosen. Check out, We are going on a Bear Hunt, and Little Rabbit Foo Foo. The Bear Hunt has a chanting feel to it. An ear for music/poetry really helps here.

We're going on a Bear hunt

Repetition

Often used alongside rhyme and rhythm (as a chorus or refrain) but also appears in narrative texts to give structure and emphasis. Breaking a repetitive pattern as the story climaxes, flags to the reader/listener something exciting is about to happen. Children learn through repetition. They find familiarity reassuring and comforting.

Onomatopoeia

Sound effects! Comics and cartoons use them to great effect and so can picture books. Children love to copy sounds. Many picture books and early readers have characters names that are onomatopoeic, e.g. Plop in The Owl Who was Afraid Of The Dark by Jill Tomlinson

For inspiration, check out this website www.writtensound.com

 Alliteration

This can be a lot of fun to write. But don’t over do it when naming characters or thinking up titles. Big Bad Bunny and Horton Hears a Who? are great examples but beware of Sammy Squirrel, Richard Rabbit, they have been done, done, done! Julia Donaldson wears the alliteration crown (as well as the rhyme, rhythm and repetition one!)

 Anthropomorphism or Personification

Is the attributing of human qualities to an animal or object. Okay there are lots of animals in picture books but not so many objects. A recent hit is, The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt. Each crayon writes a letter to Duncan, each has a distinct voice.

thedaythecrayons quit

 Hyperbole

Exaggeration is everywhere in picture books – language, art and character. Roald Dahl’s characters are a perfect example. Also check out Levi Pinfold’s Black Dog. The illustration of the black dog literally spills off the page. He’s big!

theblackdog

I love overblown concepts, for example, The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers. You want to read about him don’t you!

To name or not to name your character

Children love to name their pets and toys, even if that name is very simple. Hands up how many of you own a toy called Bear or Rabbit. It is not necessary to write it in the story The child can see perfectly well it’s a Bear from the picture. So whether you go with Boy, Mr. Tiger or something more imaginative such as The Almost Fearless Hamilton Squidlegger by Timothy Basil Ering (a frog), the most important thing is that your character has character and attitude, after all, most three year olds have plenty.

Remember if the name is unique, it’s memorable and ownable – alas this kind of light bulb moment doesn’t happen everyday.

Catchy titles

Titles encapsulating the story’s main character or the theme are great – but if standout is an issue, think about these alternative approaches.

Instructions: How to Wash a Woolley Mammoth by Michelle Robinson, How to Catch a Star by Oliver Jeffers,

An invitation: You Choose by Pippa Goodhart, Guess How Much I love You by Sam McBratney

A question: Where’s Spot? By Eric Hill, Have you seen my dragon? By Steve Light

Orders: Calm Down, Boris! By Sam Lloyd, Oi! Get off our Train by John Burningham, Eat your Peas by Kes Grey

Opposite to expectations: Goldilocks and the three Dinosaurs by Mo Williams

Provocative statements: Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae and Dogs Don’t do Ballet by Anna Kemp, This is not my Hat by Jon Klassen

Unusual names and concepts: The Tin Forest by Helen Ward, The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson

Ridiculous and funny: This book just ate my dog! by Richard Byrne Shh! We have a Plan by Chris Haughton. Do not let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Williams

thisbookjustatemydog

Tense

There are no rules about tense, go with your instinct. Try them out and see how it changes the story.

Present tense feels immediate, faster paced, the story is happening now. I use this for action-packed or wacky stories.

Past tense is more traditional, we are being told a tale so it feels slower paced and cosy. Perfect for reassuring bedtime stories and traditional narratives.

Future tense. Huh? I hear you say. Actually it’s rather fun. Haven’t you ever said, what if…

Who’s telling the story anyway?

The 3rd person

The narrative voice is the traditional form of story telling. Most picture books are told this way and the narrator tends to stay in the main characters head.

To refresh an old fairytale considering changing the POV character e.g. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs! By A Wolf. By John Scieszka

Omniscient 3rd Person

Head jumping can be confusing, especially for little ones. But if executed carefully with a simple concept, it could work. Knowing what someone else is thinking can be amusing, reassuring or surprising e.g. Big Pumpkin by Erica Silverman

The 1st person

I or we can be told in rhyme, narrative, letter or diary form. There’s lots of scope for originality in the first person and it’s all about voice. The Day the Crayons Quit is composed of seven letters written by the seven crayons. Each Peach Bear Plum, I spy Tom Thumb, is a rhyme in first person. The storyteller invites the listener to spy with them. We’re going on a Bear Hunt is an adventure told by a family.

A young child’s perspective on the world can be charming for adults and an instant hit with children. Hoorah. they think, a book that talks my language! E.g. Good morning toes, Good morning feet, tangled up between my sheets (Hello Toes, Hello Feet by Ann Whitford Paul.)

2nd Person

Using the You POV is a lot less common but why not consider it as an option, it involves the reader directly in the story and children love to participate. Lots of authors use this technique for titles e.g. How to Train Your Dragon, but the main story is written in 3rd person. I can only think of You Choose, as an example of a current second person rhyme. The simple rhyme repeats the invitation ‘you choose’ on every spread. I also remember the “Choose Your Own Adventure,” books from my childhood. In these books, the reader made decisions throughout the book about how the story should progress, so it was written with the reader as the viewpoint character.

91dNESLgqJL._SL1500_

Time and place

Don’t just think about the here and now. There’s a whole world (or universe) out there to set your story in. Real or imagined. Past, present or future. Mix it up a little.

Phew. Have I missed anything out?

Oh, yes! Lots of sticky notes, coloured pens and pencils, a decent eraser, a plain sheet artist’s notebook and a dictaphone or someone else to read it back to you, even a child if you have one handy.

Ann Whitford Paul has written a very helpful book entitled, Writing Picture Books. Her explanation of meter and poetry techniques is particularly useful for the rhythmically challenged.

Next post: Evoking emotion in characters and readers (adult and children)

It’s darn tricky I can tell you.

How to develop a picture book idea – structure and layout

Part 1 – Structure and Layout

Before we get creative let’s talk about structure and layout.

Picture books are fairly formulaic.

Most picture books have 32 pages of which around 24 pages make up the story. In theory up to 30 of the pages could be used for the story.

There are also 24 page picture books with 16 pages for the story. These books have a simple premise and tend to be for 1-3 year-olds.

So as a starting point aim to create a 24-page story or to use the industry lingo, 12 double page spreads.

A standard structure

  • The main character should be introduced on the first spread. (If not, let it be for a very good reason!)
  • The problem should appear on the first or second spread.
  • The character’s problem escalates until…
  • Spread 8 or 9, when there should be a twist or pace change
  • The story climaxes on spread 10
  • Resolution follows on spread 11
  • End note or final twist on spread 12

When you get used to drafting a story to this outline, it does highlight plot holes or over complicated plots.

Picture books are simple. There tends to be one very clear theme. If you have more than one theme and many characters, the story naturally lengthens and the number of pages and words increase.

About word count…

I keep hearing from agents and publishers: “under 500 words.”

Why is this?

– Parents don’t want to read very long bedtime stories (sadly!)

– Books with fewer words are easier and cheaper to export and translate and publishers rely on co-editions to make a profit.

– Most importantly, picture books with minimal words empower children to interpret the story for themselves, use their imaginations and ask questions. Thus the story is more involving than if it were told to a child and the child is more likely to pick the story up and ‘read it’ again because they feel empowered to do so.

Picture book writers need to view themselves as story creator’s not just writers. It’s hard as writers to have the confidence to put zero words on some pages and let the pictures do the telling. But you know the saying… a picture speaks a thousand words… absolutely, it does.

Take a look at the spreads of a picture book best seller where a story climaxes or resolves. Often this is where there are the least words. The story creators know this gives the maximum impact. A spread with no words shouts, ‘STOP AND TAKE THIS IN, SOMETHING BIG IS HAPPENING.’

Dummy Book & Illustrations

The best way to structure a picture book is to create a dummy with 24 blank pages. You will probably have a few key scenes in your head, hopefully the problem and the climax of the story. Using the outline above as a guide, scribble where these should go in the dummy and build the story around them. Don’t worry about the exact words at this point. Worry about getting a good scene-by-scene flow to the story. Either, write illustration notes as you go or sketch how you imagine the illustrations might work with the text. Everyone can draw stick figures. This exercise will reveal where you need to adjust the plot and how the pictures could tell the story. Think about creating anticipation and revelation with a page turn.

Illustration notes should be brief and only include what is not obvious from the text. E.g. setting, basic character information, action and most importantly irony (where the picture tells a different story to the words.)

An illustrator determines the illustration style, creates the setting and develops the idiosyncrasies and detailed actions of the character. The writer is often not consulted and your illustration notes may be ignored. The publishing editor and layout designer have the final say.

It is really important to understand how illustrators think and work. YouTube has some great video clips posted by picture book illustrators. I recommend Lynne Chapman.

Next post:

Developing Picture Book Ideas Part Two

Getting creative – the picture book writer’s tool kit.

How to evaluate a picture book idea.

As you can see from previous posts I have been stalking picture book authors and publishers trying to find out how to break into this tricky market. The most important thing I have learned is: the idea is king.

So what makes a good idea?

Hmm.

There is no simple answer to this.

A combination of things.

And I have lots of ideas. So which are the best ones? Which should I spend time developing?

Hmm.

So here are a list of questions – a sort of check list I’ve developed – to help evaluate picture book ideas.

Hope this helps. It’s helped me.

1) Are the characters original and appealing?

How could you build in: idiosyncrasies, a distinct voice, actions, and memorable appearance. Turn norms/cliches on their head e.g. a misunderstood (friendly) crocodile. Make them stand out from the crowd.

2) Is there a clear theme?

Often this is a childhood emotion or experience, something that universally resonates with children and their parents.

3) How will the characters/concept appeal to young children?

What are they going to take away from the story at the end? Why will they read it again?

4) THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT: Search on Amazon and see if someone else has come up with the idea already!

5a) What is the problem/hook? This should be in the first or second spread.

5b) What is the climax of the problem? (point of change)

5c) What is the resolution? The main character must resolve the problem themselves.

THIS IS THE STRUCTURE OF YOUR STORY

6) How will the reader/listener participate in the story?

E.g. page turns, flaps, pullouts, touch, suspense, anticipation, irony, rhyme, singing, repetition, actions, spot what’s missing, find something, counting, humour.

7) Series potential or stand-alone?

THINK ABOUT ALL THE PEOPLE THIS CONCEPT IS GOING TO HAVE TO APPEAL TO: 

8) How will the story appeal to and inspire an illustrator

9) Why will it appeal to parents?

10) Will it appeal to teachers?

11) Will it appeal to digital publishers?

12) What are the unique selling points (USPs) for the:

Publisher’s Commissioning Team, Marketing Team, Sales Team

Retailers

Now write a ten-word elevator pitch

13) Sit in the children’s department of a big book store and imagine your book concept on the shelf. Does it stand up to the competition?

14) Are there any publishers that are a good style/tonal fit for your story. Study their books!

NEXT POST: DEVELOPING A PICTURE BOOK IDEA

Children’s Picture Book Market Segmentation

Last week I went to a Children’s Picture Book talk arranged by SCBWI.

Bloomsbury’s picture book commissioning editor and designer were the professionals who gamely answered all our questions.

I won’t summarise all that was said because it’s well worth joining SCBWI and going along to their various talks and workshops. (Actually you don’t have to be a member to attend the talks but you get a discount if you are. )

One part of the evening was a real eyeopener. The question was – how do they chose each years list? The editor and designer had bought a selection of Bloomsbury’s new titles. They were asked to group the books and describe what those groupings were. What surprised me was the simplicity of the answer. There was the usual age split: 0-2 babies board books (mostly written in house), 2-3 picture books (up to 400words) and 4-6 picture books (up to 700 words (Bloomsbury like them short)) and then they divided the pile of books into two piles, quirky/humorous and loving/warm. Illustration style was segmented into commercial (loud and colourful for the supermarkets), posh (hand drawn illustrations) or quirky (stylised). That’s it.

Then someone at the back asked whether any of the stories were ever shown to children before they were published. No never, was the answer. Or parents. No.

Hmmm….

When I write a picture book story, I think about the big events in an average preschool child’s life: starting nursery; making friends; a new baby brother or sister arriving; being scared of the dark/spiders/getting lost; fascination with gross things and where they come from; how come people are different (the neighbours or kids in China) and so on. Then I break it down into the emotional issues the child might face. So for example with starting preschool, the story could be about overcoming shyness. Only then do I get creative with how to tell that story.

Children are on a steep emotional learning curve between the ages of two and six. They find it very difficult to decipher and talk about emotions and problems. They need stories to help them understand the world and their feelings (just like older children do and adults too.)

The delivery can be quirky, fun and humorous or warm and reassuring, but that’s the wrapping, not the content.

Looking at the new releases across the big publishers, the illustrations are beautiful, there are some cracking rhymes, and a lot of fun on the page, but many are instantly forgettable because they have no message, moral or meaning. And there is also a lot of repetition as competitor publishers have the same themes on their list – cosy warm night night stories with cute bears, bunnies or mice and jolly jaunts with aliens, pirates or dinosaurs.

If that is what publishers want, then I should write my own version of these themes to get published, and I will. But I won’t stop sending the stories that are more helpful and relevant for young children and their parents. Such stories are needed and important. I hope they make it through the noise.

Beat the winter writing blues

Okay it’s January. New Year. New writing resolutions. The weather is so bad you might as well be sat behind your desk trying to hit that work count. But after only a few days of diligence, your mind wanders, your enthusiasm wanes and your stomach wants sweet comforting.

You are not alone. Eight out of ten Brits suffer to some degree from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Those of us stuck working indoors are particularly susceptible. Lack of daylight can seriously affect our circadian rhythm (our body clock). These rhythms regulate many important bodily functions such as: appetite, energy levels, sleep and mood. Melatonin is the main culprit. “Light stops the production of this sleep hormone, this is why we wake up naturally in the morning. But if melatonin levels in the body remain high due to lack of light, lethargy and symptoms of depression can occur.”

Let in the light
It would be lovely to escape to the beach on an extended winter sun holiday and write lying on a deck chair, but for those of us who can’t afford it a SAD light box is the answer. Normal room lighting emits around 500 lux. Light boxes emit an intensity of 10,000 lux. Treatment takes 30-60 minutes a day, repeated daily. See http://www.sada.org.uk. Also make the most of bright days and get out and about, particularly in the morning.

Stop stuffing yourself on carbs
I have sympathy. I swear chocolate is injected with happiness. When we’re feeling blue and lacking in energy we crave carbs because they are a great quick fix pick me up. But resist! Or the pressure canister on your operator chair with give out and you’ll sink even lower down in the dumps.
A lack of iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin C, D and B (the energy) vitamins, can all affect mood. St Johns Wort, Ginkgo Biloba and 5-HTP are all herbal supplements reputed to treat depression. Ask a specialist health food retailer or GP for advice.

Keep moving
Dr Andrew McCulloch from the Mental Health Foundation, says: “There’s convincing evidence that thirty minutes of vigorous exercise three times a week is effective against depression. Outdoor exercise will have a double benefit, because you’ll gain some daylight.” Activity is believed to change the level of the mood-regulating chemical serotonin in the brain. Sorry typing, swiveling on your chair or trotting to the snack cupboard doesn’t count as ‘vigorous.’

Keep socialising
Writer friends unite. Depression can result in irritability and not wanting to see people, but becoming cut off from people only exacerbates low mood. Writing is a solo profession for the most part. If you are a stay at home writer, make sure you have a social outing planned weekly. Time away from your writing gives you perspective and recharges your creative batteries.

So if you’re down in the dumps and stuck in a writerly rut, don’t hibernate, get up, get out, take care of your self, and most of all keep writing.

How to handle contradiction in fiction

How familiar is the action hero who fights to the end without showing a glimpse of doubt, shock or fear? Or the antagonist who sets in motion horrifying events but never shows a flicker of pain, guilt or remorse? We’ve all read those books and seen those films, and it’s understandable why it’s tempting to remove contradiction from fiction. If we present a character in one emotional state and a few paragraphs later show them feeling the opposite, haven’t we invalidated our own writing? Aren’t we running the risk of confusing the reader?

This is where we need to give the reader a lot more credit. In real life contradiction is everywhere. Take a look at the newspapers and find it on a grand scale. Is there a story about a parent who killed his or her own child? Creation and destruction. A high-profile bitter divorce? Love and hate. A whistle blower? Loyalty and betrayal. War? Oppression vs. freedom. These themes appear time and again in stories because we recognise contradictory behaviours in ourselves and in the world around us and we wish to better understand them.

Take a look at the minutiae of your own behaviour. For one day, note all the emotional reactions you have to the people you meet. For example, you might feel affection towards a family member and hostility towards a work colleague. Note how you talk and behave in each situation. It will be quite different.

Now observe all the emotions you feel over a few days towards your nearest and dearest. The people closest to us often evoke the strongest and most conflicting emotions. In the space of an hour we might feel affection and irritation towards a partner, and as a parent, love may compete daily with impatience, entrapment and guilt. All are real and valid and human.

 So how do we handle contradiction when writing fictional characters?

Amy Hempel, an American short story writer and teacher, puts it neatly: “A story happens, when two equally appealing forces, or characters, or ideas try to occupy the same place at the same time, and they’re both right.”

Conflict is an essential element in all stories, opposing forces should not be easily reconciled; in fact, it’s better if they cannot be reconciled at all.

Characters must show internal conflict. Characters with flaws, who adopt different personas to suit different situations, are believable.

The author shouldn’t try to solve the conflict neatly, thus eliminating contradiction. Authors need only present the characters, theme, argument or dilemma, giving the reader the great pleasure of drawing their own conclusions on the story’s message.

Note: Even some words in the English language have dual contradictory meanings. E.g. Cleave – to split and to adhere. Sanction – to allow and to boycott. Bolt – to secure and to flee.

Go to http://www.dailywritingtips.com/75-contronyms-words-with-contradictory-meanings/ for 75 examples!