Monday, 26 October 2015

When people argue about your characters...

Lately I've been doing a re-write of the main character from a new book, a thriller called Sixty-Six Metres. I did it because I got some professional feedback that her character wasn't complex enough to hold the reader throughout the novel. So I did a lot of thinking and then put fingers to the keyboard, re-wrote the first three chapters and took them to my writers group. I wasn't sure about it.

They all noticed the change - one was for keeping it the way it was, the other two liked the new version. But then they started arguing abut the character, Nadia, about what she would and wouldn't do. When they finished, they asked me what I'd decided, since it would affect the rest of the book. I replied I'd never seen them so passionate about Nadia before, so I was keeping the changes. Now all three of them like the newer version.

This happened to me before, during the Eden Paradox series, especially on book 1, when I was developing certain characters. When people start arguing about what a character will or won't do, it's because they have internalised the character, as if it is someone real, and that character lifts off the page.

It's also a good sign when they argue, because that shows the complexity we want from real characters - if they all agree, the character must be pretty bland and predictable.

So, now I'm going through all the Nadia chapters. I must admit, she's a more interesting companion than before.

I hope to have it all done before Xmas, then I start contacting agents... This book has taken two years of writing, as I started it before I finished Eden's Endgame, but I aim to get it out in 2016, one way or another!

Anyway, here's the current opening of the new book, Sixty-Six Metres:

Nadia recalled what her mother had said to her – screamed, to be precise – the day she’d left home in Uspekh on the banks of the Volga to join her older sister Katya in Moscow. It was Nadia’s eighteenth birthday and long-awaited chance for freedom. Her mother, red-faced and waving an Orthodox crucifix in the chill air between them, said Nadia would either end up a killer like her father, or a whore. She spat on the ground between Nadia and the front step of the dilapidated family cottage. Nadia left home that day determined to prove her mother wrong, even though her father’s prized Beretta lay hidden amongst the clothes in her rucksack. She glanced back once before the turn of the road into the forest, knowing she’d only ever return after her mother had taken to the grave her unquenchable rage against the world and her deceased husband. Nadia wept that night. But in the morning she moved on.

Six months later, the ever-gorgeous Katya invited her plainer, dark-haired little sister to a party in Moscow. Katya dragged Nadia away from her grotty studio flat in Old Arbat, where each night she fell asleep exhausted from working in the local bakery from 4am until 3pm, then at a supermarket until 9pm. Nadia was still a virgin. She liked boys well enough, but hated their games: the unsubtle flirting, the vodka-fuelled race to unconsciousness, the lies. She’d loved her father, but he’d been one of the worst with women, and she’d seen the permanent damage it had done to her mother. So Nadia kept her hair cropped short, dressed for comfort, and was often mistaken at first sight for a boy, which was fine.

But at the party, held at a wealthy businessman’s country dacha, she was amazed at the naked opulence, the women with perfect skin in low-cut dresses, the handsome and not-so-handsome men, their ease in the world. Viktor, a man twice her age, who turned out to be someone in government, seduced her. He wasn’t bad-looking, took his time in bed, and was generous.

            She let things coast along for six months, no demands or promises on either side. It was better than before, that was for sure. She felt not so much loved, but alive. She presumed he was married; she never asked and he never said. She gave up the early morning bakery job, and thought about getting a cat.

Then, one morning at 4am the FSB broke down the door to her apartment, threw a black hood over Viktor’s face, and took him away. He didn’t struggle or cry out, just uttered one muffled word to her – spasiba – before disappearing from her life forever, and probably his, too.

Two days later she was arrested, on the grounds of receiving misappropriated funds. She was never formally charged, never saw a lawyer. After three months in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison, Nadia was informed she’d be inside for twelve years, ten if she behaved. She walked around in a daze. This should be the prime of her life. Instead it would be spent behind locked doors. At night before lights-out she tried not to stare at the lone hook in the ceiling; there had been three suicides since her arrival. She couldn’t see how it could get any worse. Then one day Kadinsky arrived to get her out of jail.

He had a gleaming bald head, and was fat without being flabby, as if his weight was there to throw around, to crush you if necessary. You just knew straightaway not to mess with him. He wore an expensive beige suit, and gold jewellery dripped from his wrists and neck. Her sister Katya stood behind him in a skimpy dress and high heels, her large eyes hopeful and terrified at the same time. Kadinsky got Nadia out with bribes and favours. Of course, she’d have to work it off.

In the back seat of Kadinsky’s chauffeured limo, Nadia held Katya’s hand tight all the way out of Moscow, scared the car would turn around at any moment and take her back to prison. Katya held her, kept telling her it would be alright, but still Nadia squeezed her sister’s hand.

Once back at Kadinsky’s country dacha, she stood in the large lounge with its single bay window overlooking a non-functioning fountain, a chipped statue of Pan in its centre. Inside, oil paintings of Russian battles, including one above the fireplace featuring a victorious Napoleon, hung around the white walls. Kadinsky ordered Katya not to speak, then walked around Nadia. He looked her up and down with an appraising eye, and shook his head with distaste. He sat down in his wide leather armchair. Katya was perched on an antique wooden dining chair on the opposite side of the room. Nadia stood directly between them.

“You have grey eyes,” he said, wagging a finger at her. “Like a fucking tombstone. Who would want to make love staring into such eyes?” He glanced at Katya. “Are you sure she’s your sister?”

Katya stared at the carpet and nodded, her own eyes a deep blue, like her mother’s. Nadia had her father’s eyes; killer’s eyes, he’d once joked when she’d been too young to realise it was a confession.  

Kadinsky swirled the ice in his whiskey tumbler with a pudgy index finger.

“What else can you do, girl?”

Nadia never knew where her answer came from, possibly utter revulsion against a life of prostitution, but she thought of her father, and the words that sealed her fate slid out of her mouth.

“I can shoot. I never miss.” 

            Kadinsky’s two henchmen laughed. He didn’t.

            “I detest exaggeration,” he said. “So American.” His mouth moved like he was going to spit.

“Let’s see if you can really shoot. Give her your pistol,” he said to one of the henchmen, the one with a pock-marked face – Pox, Nadia named him – who immediately lost his sense of humour.

            Nadia took the weapon from his outstretched hand, weighed it in her palm. An old-style Magnum, the classic six-shot. God knows why the guy had it, most Russians preferred semi-autos. She checked it was loaded, all six bullets nestling in their chambers, then looked to Kadinsky, and thought about killing him. But the other henchman, the one with slicked black hair – hence, Slick – had his Glock trained on her, a lopsided leer on his face, daring her.

            Kadinsky waved a hand towards Katya, five metres away. He tilted his head left and right, then settled back against the soft leather, took a gulp of whiskey, and smacked his lips.

            “The red rose in the bowl of flowers behind her left ear. Shoot it from where you stand.”

            Slick’s eyes flicked towards Katya, gauging the angles. His leer faded.

            Nadia stared at Katya and the rose. It was just to the side of her head. Most of it was behind her head. Nadia swallowed, then lifted the Magnum, and took up a shooting stance like her father had taught her, right arm firm, elbow not locked, left hand reinforcing the wrist, prepared for the recoil. Nadia knew she had to do it before anger could build up and dislodge her concentration. She lined up the shot, then spoke to Katya’s serene, trusting face: “Love you,” she said. Then she breathed out slowly as if through a straw, and squeezed the trigger.

            Masonry exploded behind Katya, the crack of the shot so loud that several other men burst into the room, weapons drawn. Kadinsky waved them back as Pox peeled the Magnum from Nadia’s stiff fingers. Petals fluttered to the floor amidst a plume of white powder from the impact crater in the wall. Katya still sat there, the hair on the left side of her head ruffled as if by a gust of wind. A small trickle of blood oozed from her left temple where the bullet had grazed her, and ran down her cheek.

Katya, lips trembling, beamed at Nadia. “Still alive,” she said, her voice hoarse. She touched the graze with an unsteady forefinger.

Nadia’s gun hand began to shake. She folded her arms, refusing to give Kadinsky the satisfaction.



Later that night, while she slept in Katya’s bed, holding close the sister she’d almost killed, Slick and Pox came into the room. Katya woke up, leapt out of bed and told them to fuck off, for which she received the butt of the Magnum across her mouth.

            “It’s okay,” Nadia heard herself say. She half-planned to try to grab one of the guys’ guns at a crucial moment, but they knew what they were doing, one held her down while the other…

            Eventually they left, and Katya, her chin smeared with blood, an ugly bruise rising on her left cheek, returned to the bed and held Nadia tight. Nadia felt nothing, her body strangely still, like it belonged to someone else. While Nadia’s eyes stayed dry, Katya cried and whispered apologies, repeating how it would all be all right, the worst was over, the important thing was that they were together. Nadia replied in conciliatory tones; the first time their relationship had inverted, Nadia becoming the bigger sister.

            At dawn Nadia awoke to find her sister gone, presumably to Kadinsky’s bed. She considered their predicament. Katya was locked into Kadinsky’s world, and now Nadia owed him too, and he wasn’t about to simply let her off. Added to that she felt bound to Katya, they’d been through too much at home. Nadia was trapped. Her mother’s prediction came back to her: a killer or a whore. Maybe both.

She dressed, crept downstairs and stole outside, timing it to get past the guard outside the main door when he went to take a piss. Snow crunched softly under her footsteps. She got a couple of miles from the dacha before she collapsed from the biting cold, and lay down in the crisp silence. “It’s okay,” she heard her mother say inside her head, with a kindness she’d not heard from her in many years. “Better this way.” Nadia closed her eyes and went to sleep, hoping never to wake up, unless to join her father.

            But she did awaken, and found herself back in the dacha on a sofa, buried in blankets. She shook violently, and heard shouting in the room next door: Katya, Slick and Pox, and then a low growl that must have been Kadinsky. Katya entered, wiped away tear streaks on her bruised face, and closed the door behind her. She braved a smile and walked towards Nadia.

            “They won’t touch you again,” she said, her voice shaky. “Nobody will.” She sat next to Nadia.

Kadinsky entered, a gold-rimmed coffee cup in his hand, a sad-looking golden retriever trailing him.

“Here’s the deal, girl.” He spoke to the bay window rather than her face, and took a swig before continuing. “I need a female operative who doesn’t piss herself under pressure. You’ll work for me for five years. Your training will take three, including eighteen months in Britain. I want your English to be impeccable – not like a newsreader, like a local.” He stared at her, his eyes flat, hard. He stooped to pat the dog ineffectually, like he didn’t really know how, then stood again, downing the last of the coffee. He spoke to the window again.

“Katya stays here. You’ll do ten ops for me, Nadia, then I’ll let you both go.” He nodded to himself as if concluding the contract. “Ten ops, five years.”

He left not waiting for an answer. The dog followed, its head bowed.

Kadinsky’s words echoed in Nadia’s mind. Five years. Half the time she would have been kept in prison. Thinking of her cell back in Lubyanka helped. Katya had got Nadia out of her own personal hell. But would Kadinsky really let them both go afterwards?

Katya hugged Nadia, and Nadia succumbed to the embrace, because she loved Katya more than anyone else in this brutal world.

“It’s going to be alright,” Katya said, her voice unsure.

Nadia felt something inside herself harden, as if the tears that should have come earlier had turned to glass.

“It will be,” she said. “Whatever it takes, Katya, I promise, one day I’ll make it right.” 

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