Kill your Darlings


Kelly kicked things off last time with her blog, ‘Give your Characters a Birthday’. (You can read it here). For my first blog on Retreat West’s 8 Month Novel Course I would like to share some of my experiences to date and talk about my attempts to rediscover a passion for my novel.

I don’t have time to write every day. I need to edit what I’ve already written before I start on the next bit. I write science fiction, writing about what I know doesn’t apply to me. You name a widely accepted piece of advice; the chances are I’ve ignored it. Working on a series of short stories, I’ve SLOWLY begun to mend my ways. And from time to time I think about returning to that novel I started a while back and a piece of advice I haven’t been able to follow, yet.

‘The Negatives’ is about a ragtag collection of government-employed operatives using their dubious super-abilities to carry out secret tasks; tasks so secret no one understands their purpose. The protagonist, Carl, struggles to escape the secretive programme he was pressured into joining, while simultaneously getting pulled into a disturbing series of events. There are twists and turns, and I think it’s pretty funny, but I’ve struggled with plotting some of the later stages.

Before starting the course, I had a good idea of where the problems lay (too many subplots and overcomplicated character arcs) but didn’t have the discipline to ‘kill my darlings’. What if, in giving up parts of my story, I lose what’s good about it? And if I take something out, what do I replace it with?

My antagonist is an oddball named Richard Sellner who has a bizarre secret plan. Richard’s arc involves falling in love with a shop assistant named Rita. Rita is a secondary character, used to give the reader a better understanding of Richard’s motivations (and his strange plan).

Initially, Rita finds Richard’s quirks endearing, even exciting, but the more she learns about him the more she is surprised to fall into agreement with his outlandish views. Perhaps, you can guess where I ran into problems with these two characters? After, the pair’s initial meeting, their scenes ran out of steam: there was no conflict. To overcome this, I had introduced needless subplots and got lost in them.

Through various exercises undertaken during the course, all designed to make you really get to know your characters, I re-examined Richard and Rita and how they fit into the overall story. I didn’t want to lose the nature of their relationship (as this is their appeal) but their lack of conflict had made scenes between them a chore to write, and laborious to read. In fleshing out these two characters I’ve come to realise that, while there is minimal outward conflict, they have internal struggles… Prior to meeting Richard, Rita has a controlling mother and financial concerns. Richard brings change (often calamitous) into Rita’s life and forces her to face her problems for the first time. Richard in turn, must decide whether to go through with a long-held deranged plan or pursue his new relationship with Rita. The changes are subtle; both characters will end up at the same place I’d originally anticipated, however their journey is now more interesting, and their motivations more clearly defined. More importantly, I’m energised to write their next scenes.

This is what I’ve enjoyed most about the course so far: being able to think about my characters as real people. I’ve dabbled in writing exercises in the past but examining my characters in a range of ways over several weeks has revealed details about them that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own. I feel more confident about sitting down to write new scenes. More than that, I’m eager to get back into it, and to spend some time with these misfits.

In addition to the 8 Month Novel Writing Course, Retreat West runs a range of writing retreats. If you’re looking to deepen your writing skills it’s worth looking around the website to get a full picture of everything Retreat West has to offer. Author membership gets you discounts to courses and retreats, copies of the books we’re publishing, and includes entries to the themed flash fiction and other competitions.

8 Month Novel Course BLOG – Give your Character a Birthday


If you’re reading this the chances are you have a couple of characters, elusive and half-formed or irritatingly real, chasing around your mind all day. You may be able to picture them, you may know how they sound and what their most annoying traits are, but how well do you actually know your characters? Have you given them a birthday? It seems simple, but I know I hadn’t.

I’m Kelly, one of Retreat West’s social media marketing interns. As part of our internship, Phil and I are embarking on Retreat’s West’s ‘8 Month Novel Course’. This remote course is a mix of creative writing course with 1-1 mentoring and editorial reviews. It’s a month in and we are loving it! Phil and I plan to share our writing journey with you, giving you a blog article every three weeks which shares what we have learnt and gives you a sneak peek into the course.

Before starting the course I had a very basic draft of my WIP ‘Lily Trap,’ based on my own experiences with a neuro-functional disorder. I like to think of it as a coming of age, fantasy thriller. I’m pretty sure this is not a genre so, as you can tell, I still have a long way to go. Anyway, back to the birthday thing. ‘Give your character a birthday’ was part of an activity provided during the second week of the course. When you sign up to the course (which you can do on our website) you are sent weekly course material with complementary activities that really get you thinking. I’m no writing expert but I have been to numerous workshops and read plenty of articles, and yet no-one had ever encouraged me to think about birthdays.

During my drafting I had given my main character Lily a birthday, 9th February 1999, a date which I had plucked out of the air when I needed it. To be honest, I was thinking of skipping this part of the exercise; suspecting it to just be a matter of plot-device. I’m very glad I didn’t. Now, I’m not a horoscope kind of person and I’m not saying you should confine you character’s traits to them. However, exploring the different characteristics associated with each star and zodiac sign made me realise that I didn’t know my main character well-enough at all.

I knew Lily was sweet, altruistic and un-emotional. What I’d never considered was her level of independence, what factors most affected her decision making, and what enriched her life.  As I read on I found myself thinking about how she would react in an argument, an aspect  that will add so much depth and flavour to my dialogue. I also found myself wondering how she would react in circumstances which my narrative didn’t see her encounter, like her reaction when she found out her Mother had died. Even though I purposefully don’t write about it, it’s still an important part of her life story and thus gives an insight into her character. I even ended up wondering about silly things. For example, would she leave the rest of her apple if she found a hole in it or just eat around it? Now I’d really started to get to know her I wanted to know everything.

Browsing the descriptions for each sign made me more aware of the true complexity of our personalities. In the end I did change Lily’s birthday too, just because it felt right. It is important, as writers, that the personality’s we create on paper are no less complex than those which exist in real life. Readers need to relate to our characters, and to do this we need to know everything about them, including their birthday.

This blog article has given you a tiny insight into Retreat West’s wonderful ‘8 Month Novel Writing Course.’ Find out more here. If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea then check out the short and sweet six week ‘Start your Novel Course’ on the same page. Also, don’t forget you can receive 5% – 20% off with the ‘Retreat West Author Membership’ packages. More details about membership are here.