Notes from the Paula Hawkins masterclass

The marvellous Fiona Melrose has put together a series of courses and workshops that draw on her own wealth of knowledge, as well as those of special guest authors and members of the publishing industry. I signed up for the Craft Masterclass with Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl On The Train, Into the Water and A Slow Fire Burning. 

I needed a bit of a motivational boost and this class seemed just the thing to do it, and it was.

Paula was exceptionally generous with her advice and as an accomplished author herself, Fiona asked just the right questions. In the space of an hour they covered getting started, location, character, narrative persona and pace.

Location

Paula always begins with a character in mind and a location. She then asks herself a series of questions:

  • Why are they there?
  • How did they come to be there?
  • What sort of people are there?

She explained that location can shape a novel and lends specificity. It’s the character’s distinctive world and can often shape how you plot the story. For example, in some countries, the police are corrupt, so a journalist could easily take on the role of detective.

The aim is to make the reader feel at home in that world, and show them you know what you’re doing. 

Character

Characters are driven by wants and needs. Paula admits her characters tend to not be doing very well in their lives, and often have other characters there to support them – this opens up room for expansion. 

She believes characters need agency. As an author you shouldn’t be writing about characters just reacting to things. They’re driven by something, and this moves the story forward.

Characters are also real and different from one another. A neurodiverse person, for example, is not just a collection of symptoms. Damage affects people differently, and their trauma and experiences frame who they become and how they react. 

Narrative Voice

Voice dictates how you want the reader to experience your story. 

  • First person puts the reader in the character’s head and lends immediacy to the story. 
  • Third person adds a cool distance between the characters and the reader, making it easier for the author to reveal certain facts slowly.
  • Polyphonic novels have lots of different perspectives. In this case the characters need to be diverse. Paula’s advice is to immerse yourself in one character at a time and remember that just like real people, characters change their tone depending on where they are and who they’re talking to. 

Lastly, use slang sparingly or steer clear entirely, otherwise it looks like a poor imitation.

Plot

For Paula, the joy of writing is in the spontaneity, and while she doesn’t overly plan or plot in advance, it helps to have an endpoint in mind. Know where you’re going and let the rest fall into place naturally.

Tension should come in waves, while suspense keeps the reader turning the page. So don’t give away too much too soon.

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