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Virago Writing Tips: A Q&A with Susie Steiner

Readers and reviewers have fallen in love with your detective, Manon Bradshaw. What’s your top tip for creating a compelling central character?

I think for a character to be real, you mustn’t sugar-coat them. Give them flaws, and I don’t mean adorable romcom flaws, like wearing wacky tights or shopping in flea markets. I mean proper embarrassing/unpleasant aspects to their personalities, because we all have them. Are they riven with envy? Mean-spirited? Tight-fisted with money? Try not to make their flaws ‘likeable’. Go the whole hog.

You’ve now written three novels. How do you motivate yourself to start a new novel?

Argh, I almost can’t. The beginning is the hardest, because you’re staring at a blank sheet and building from nothing. When I’m in the middle of a novel, I’m really quite motivated, but at the beginning, oh my goodness, I really struggle!

I think the only way to think about it, is that something is better than nothing. So write badly: produce some really bad scenes. These can be improved in revision. Blank pages can’t.

How do you create great twists – do you plan these from the start or do they occur naturally as you write?

I can’t produce ‘twists’ out of thin air. They arise from the complexity of a novel in progress. Also, I think the pressure for a great twist can be too intimidating. Once you start building your edifice, a volt face might present itself, but if it doesn’t, there are brilliant novels out there without the ‘big twist’.

What’s one thing you wish you’d known when you were first starting to write?

I think it comes down to the character thing – that for a person to be real, they must be ambivalent and chequered. That’s not to say you must write loveless, ghastly people. But I think what freed me up was realising idealised characters are more boring than difficult characters.

Is there a writer you think everyone should read?

I think if you want to learn about truly nuanced characterisation, take a look at Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. I love this novel because Olive is such an impossible person – horrendous in many ways – and yet she is honest and true and you root for her absolutely.

About the author:

Susie Steiner was born in London, studied English at university and trained as a journalist. She worked in newspapers for 20 years, 11 of them on staff at The Guardian. Her first novel, Homecoming, was published by Faber & Faber to critical acclaim in 2013. Her second, Missing, Presumed was a Sunday Times bestseller which introduced detective Manon Bradshaw. It was a Richard & Judy book club pick and was selected as one of the Guardian’s and Wall Street Journal’s books of 2016. Persons Unknown, the sequel to Missing, Presumed, is her third novel. It is published in June and can be pre-ordered here.

She lives in London with her husband and two children.

Virago and The Pool’s competition to find a New Crime Writer is open to submissions until 21st May. For full details, and to enter, click here.