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Sue Leather



Four tips for writing a really good original reader.

Really good stories have really good characters. Think of Jane Austen, think of Tolstoy, think of any great writer. They tell great stories, but they always start from great characters, characters you care about- and that can mean positively or negatively- characters who feel ‘real.’ It seems to me that if you have a good plot, but with bad characterisation, you’ll get a mediocre story. So, my first tip is ‘character first.’

When people find out that I write, they often ask me: ‘where do your stories come from?’ ‘They come from my characters’ is my usual reply. Perhaps there are some writers who work out the entire plot of their story before they start writing. I’m not one of them. For me, it’s important to do my creative work on character. Once I have the character fairly well drawn and ‘rounded’ then the whole thing is much easier. The characters begin to take on a life of their own; they talk to me at inconvenient times, they insist on telling me their story. Sometimes I get exasperated with them. They are part of me, yet they are fast becoming a separate entity. I find them intensely interesting, and would like to know more about them. I hope my readers will have the same feeling.

Once you have really believable characters coming to life in your head, they’ll start talking fairly naturally. This is what makes dialogue believable. Then I find that their descriptions come quite effortlessly too. One of the mistakes writers sometimes make is trying to describe too much. The hair, the eyes, the clothes, the height, the build… Remember that the reader has an imagination too. So, for example, this is how I introduce Bill Gershon, in ‘Dead Cold.’ Gershon is the chief of the Pine Ridge police, and my heroine, Flick Laine, is sent there to work with him on a murder.

Something told me that Bill Gershon, Chief of Pine Ridge Police, wasn’t happy to see me. ‘So,’ he said, as I walked into his office, ‘Cohn told me he was sending a woman…’
‘Yeah, aren’t you lucky?’ I said, smiling.
I looked at Gershon. He was a round person; round body, round face, round glasses. About fifty, fifty-five maybe, with almost no hair. Then I looked around at his office. Yeah, I thought, parking tickets, not murder.
All we know about Gershon physically is that he’s fat and he’s balding. We don’t know the colour of his eyes, his hair or the kind of clothes he wears. The reader has something to fill in. His character comes through in the way he talks to Flick and we immediately know how she feels about him. The ‘parking tickets, not murder’ line tells us about his limitations.

Choosing a specific feature and focusing on that can both make the reader feel that the character really exists. It can also help the reader to see the world from the narrator’s point of view. So, for example, in my CUP reader, Death in the Dojo, my heroine Kate’s contact at Scotland Yard, Jonty Adams is described like this:

‘Jonty was a slim, nervous guy in his late thirties with a thin moustache and a terrible taste in ties. He was wearing a particularly horrible grey one with little pink pigs all over it. I tried to ignore it. It wasn’t easy.’

Here we learn something about Jonty, but we also learn about Kate. What’s more, Jonty’s awful ties give him a very specific ‘feel’; he’s a real person.

Jonty exists through Kate’s relationship with him; we see him through her eyes. This brings us onto my third tip, show, don’t tell! Showing a person’s character, or the relationship between characters by the use of dialogue or action is almost always more effective than telling the reader. It makes your narrative really come alive.

This way of describing people applies also to describing things and places. Less is often more. Or, as the excellent American crime fiction writer, Elmore Leonard, said: ‘I try to leave out the parts that people skip.’ A reader doesn’t read every single word, so the trick is to make your descriptions compelling. My second tip, then, is make your descriptions sparse but evocative.

If you want to keep your readers reading, remember that beginnings and endings of chapters are very important too. For example:

‘Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.’

Who can resist reading more after that? This is the end of Chapter Six of the classic ‘The Big Sleep’ by Raymond Chandler, the great American thriller writer.

Excellent writers like Chandler use ‘hooks’ to keep their readers reading. This is what gives them ‘page-turnability,’ which is what Somerset Maugham said about Jane Austen. So my fourth technical tip is to use ‘hooks’, particularly at the end of chapters, so that your readers will want to carry on turning the pages.

To sum up, my four tips are: character first, sparse but evocative descriptions, show don’t tell, and use ‘hooks.’ Well, that seems like a lot to think about…. But as Raymond Chandler said, ‘'Technique alone is never enough. You have to have passion." I agree. You have to really want to tell the story that your characters are telling you. The story has to be fighting to get out. For me it’s a process of discovery about my characters and their story; as I write I want to know what will happen at the end. I’m excited by the prospect of ‘discovering’ the story.

But it’s not even just that. It’s also a process of discovery about myself. Writing is not easy, but it’s a wonderful journey of self-discovery. By writing I learn more and more about myself and how to be a better writer. And since, as the great South African novelist Doris Lessing said, "You only learn to be a better writer by actually writing,’ excuse me while I get back to working on my new story.

Sue Leather has written original readers at all levels for Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, Macmillan Heinemann, Mary Glasgow and Cengage/Heinle.

Her intermediate thriller ‘Dead Cold’ was the winner of the 2005 Language Learner Literature Award organised by the Extensive Reading Foundation. ‘Dead Cold’ is published by Cambridge University Press, as are the other readers mentioned in this article.

Sue is currently Development Editor on a new series of original readers for Cengage/Heinle. If you have an idea for an original reader, contact her at sue@sueleatherassociates.com