I write young adult novels and have a passion for reading and writing. My blog is a place were young adult writers can get tips to improve their own writing so that they too can share their stories with the world. I'm a wife to a wonderful husband and mum to two beautiful boys.
Recently I entered the first chapter of my WIP into a competition being run by a publisher. Last week they sent me an email with the results and, even before I’d opened it, I knew what it would say. The first few words came up in the teaser in my inbox. “Dear Wendy, thank you for entering…” Then my brain auto-filled the rest. “…unfortunately, your submission was not chosen as one of the winning chapters.” I’ve had enough gentle let-downs now to know the drill. And, it’s all part of being a writer.
But I was wrong! This wasn’t an email letting me know that I hadn’t been selected. This was an email letting me know that I had WON!
I had to read it twice just to make sure. Then I jumped around the house a bit. Then I ran outside to tell my kids. Then we went and bought celebratory sparkling apple juice to have in wine glasses at dinner (I don’t drink). And I printed out the email to show my husband, who read it when he got home from work and his mouth did this:
Yep, we are not shy about embracing our feelings in this family.
The truth is, we can’t always win. But when we do, and especially when it’s as a result of our own hard work, it really is an awesome feeling.
This morning I walked the kids to school and then kept walking up to the cafe at the local supermarket, with the idea that I would get a mocha and drink it as I walked home. Somewhere between the school and the cafe, the $50 note that I had stuffed in my jeans pocket (because, I didn’t want to carry my purse with me) fell out. When I got to the counter, I put my hand in my pocket and ta-da, it have vanished.
Why am I telling you this? Well, firstly because it’s really given me the irrits and I want to share that with you, but mainly (and most importantly) because it’s a great example of how we – and therefore so should our characters – focus on what’s important to us in the moment, not on everything that’s around us.
My walk up to the cafe was lovely. I noticed the grass, and the sky, the clouds rolling over which made me think about how it’s meant to rain this afternoon. I smiled at mums walking home from the school with toddlers and preschoolers. The walk home was different. I noticed every leaf and piece of rubbish that caught the light and could, at a distance, be mistaken for a shiny plastic note. I looked intently at corners and fences where a note, picked up by the wind, might have lodged.
Instead, we take in what’s most important to us at the time. And that’s as true for our characters as it is for us. Let’s say your protagonist’s crush walks into the room with his/her best friend in tow. Chances are, all your character’s focus is going to be on that one person. They’re not going to notice what the best friend is wearing, or if they do it won’t be until they’ve taken every aspect of their crush. Hell, I know the guy I had a crush on in school had freckles on his ear-lobes, like little brown studs. Who else do you think noticed that?
Now, let’s say their crush walks in with an attractive stranger or their girlfriend/boyfriend. Your protagonist will definitely take note of that, won’t they? Maybe even before anything else. This person is a threat. A direct obstacle between them and the person they want to be with. They might never act to get rid of this threat, but they’ll still recognise it.
The point is, while you might want to describe how the clouds are wafting across the sky, or the meticulous detail on the birthday cake that’s being rolled out, you need to consider if that is actually what your character cares about in the moment. Because, if it’s not, your wasting your readers time, and a valuable chance to give insight into your character.
Here in Australia we’ve finally, officially, stepped back into Spring. As far as the calendar is concerned, anyway. As far as my garden is concerned, it’s been spring for a couple of weeks with flowers blooming and buds bursting all over the place.
Whatever the time frame, there’s something about the change of weather that makes everything seem easier. Sometimes I wonder if that’s one of the reasons we struggle to grapple with the enormity that is climate change – essentially we’re being told that it’s going to be warmer from now on and part of us goes, “Yes!” We can’t help it.
And even if it’s not exactly warm right now (after all, it takes time for the thermometer to catch up), Spring always feels hopeful to me. Things are literally waking up for the first time in months and growing again. Every sunny day is scented with fresh cut grass and flowers. Birds are nesting and the first fluffy babies are running after their parents.
True, it does mean that searing heat, destructive bush fires, water-restrictions and magpie-swooping-season are just around the corner (if you’ve never been swooped by a magpie, try to imagine being dive bombed by a small aircraft…with a knife attached to the pointy end). But for now, all there is is the promise of a new, brighter, season.
I wanted this post to be about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and maybe even taking a risk. I was so excited about the work I had done for the dPICTUS unpublished picturebook showcase, that I wanted to share that with you and talk about how taking a risk can be incredibly empowering. And then, I discovered that I’d submitted my book dummy with a typo.
Submitting work, as a writer, with typos or grammatical errors is a bit like turning up for an interview as a hairdresser with a hideously bad haircut. Or going for a job as an accountant and disclosing that you hadn’t filed your tax statement for ten years. Basically, if you want to be ‘hired’ to write, you want to show you can write. And, in a highly competitive industry, where everything else is equal, that typo can be your downfall.
So I did what any other self-respecting adult would do, I berated myself, did some panic googling, berated myself some more and then I cried. And then, I took a deep breath, got perspective and reminded myself that even mistakes are blessings (note, I didn’t start with silver-linings and perspective. I had to implode and become emotional mush first).
If you’re currently beating yourself up over a mistake (and if you’re not right now, let’s face it, you will make a mistake eventually) let me offer you some positivity.
Very Few Mistakes are Fatal
True, we’re starting with a big one but sometimes you really need to latch on to something. All mistakes are where there’s an unwanted consequence of our actions, but for the most part these consequences do not result in death and permanent injury. Thank God.
If you have made a mistake that has resulted in death or something equally significant and final, then that can be very hard to reconcile, precisely because there seems to be no way to come back from them. For most mistakes though, although they might seem horrendous at the time (and have you laying awake and midnight saying, “why? Why?”), chances are there will be other opportunities or at least a way to make amends.
Mistakes are Learning Opportunities
Don’t shoot the messenger. It might seem trite, but it’s true. It’s true of even our biggest mistakes. In my case I learnt to read my work out loud a final time before hitting the send button. Did I need time to pass before I could be open to this lesson. Hell yeah! But once I settled down, I could take the lesson on. Now, if you keep making the same mistake and not paying attention to the lesson, that’s just being stupid.
It is Your Fault – Let that Empower You
Why did I send my work off with a typo? I was tired – I’d been working solidly on it for for two weeks. I was complacent – I thought I’d read through it enough. I was impatient – it wasn’t due in until the next day but I couldn’t wait. These may be reasons, but they’re not excuses. What I should have done is waited until the next day and looked at it with fresh eyes before sending it off. It was within my power to do that, but I didn’t.
That might not sound very positive but it is, because I can do things differently next time. It’s no one else’s fault but mine, and I alone have full control over my actions and behaviours. I don’t need to repeat my mistakes, because I recognise what I did wrong and I can change that in the future. I might sound like Dr. Phil Lite but that doesn’t make it less true.
All human beings make mistakes. Me, you, our parents, teachers, politicians and religious leaders. None of us are immune. Once you’ve stopped beating yourself up or crying (both of which are fine and natural) try and remember that there is a positive spin to making mistakes. That you aren’t alone. And that you can do better next time.
Sorry, I’ve been AWOL, but I have a good excuse. I’ve been putting together a dummy for my picture book, Salty, about a salt-water crocodile who escapes from his cage and gobbles up the children he finds in the zoo – only to discover they taste disgusting.
I do have an interest in art but have been nervous about illustrating my work, mainly because the general advice is for authors not to illustrate their work if they want a publisher to take it on. But I heard about the dPictus unpublished picturebook show-case and the opportunity to submit my work was too good to miss.
A dummy picture book is mostly made up of sketches, with the final text, but includes two to three final artworks.
Here are mine:
The images are linocut prints and coloured with water-colour pencils. I’m so happy with how they turned out, but what do you think?
Yesterday evening, I had to do something scary. Or, be brave – which is the same but makes me sound better. So, I was being brave. I went to a writing group meeting at my local library and everyone in attendance read out a five minute piece of work. In front of everyone else. I didn’t know anyone.
See how brave I am?
The thing is, even though I read too fast and half-way through was distracted by the thought that I hadn’t washed my teeth after dinner (I didn’t remember until the end that I hadn’t had dinner yet), it was great. I met nice people, with similar interests, who gave me some feedback on my work (and my reading speed). No one booed me off the stage or made me cry, no stood up and shouted, “you’re a fake!” and I managed to not spontaneously combust.
And if I can do it, you can too.
What’s more, chances are your library or neighbourhood house does something similar. And, if not, you my find that there’s a writers’ group in your community. From attending this one event, I’ve learnt about a group in a town ten minutes from mine and I’m going to visit next week. Maybe we’ll be a good fit for each other, maybe we won’t but I won’t lose anything by going and there really is so much to gain from having your work critiqued (fancy word for constructive feedback) by others.
Don’t be put off by your age, either. The librarian running last night’s even told me that she’s headed up a youth writing group in the main library for the past three years, so seek out something similar at your library or suggest it to your librarian. Or maybe you could encourage your English teacher to start one at school. It is definitely daunting sharing your work with others, but in a safe and respectful environment, it can also be really exhilarating
Do you already share your work with others? Or, do you have a writing group you go to? I’d love to hear about it.
Eaves dropping is rude. That’s what my mum taught me. But I do it all the time and, if you’re a writer, so should you.
I’m not saying this just to justify my own behaviour. Whenever you have more than one character in a story, you’re most likely going to have dialogue, and you want that dialogue to sound as natural as possible. In order to do that, you need to know how people speak.
Most of us speak with other people regularly. Our friends, family members, people we meet in the street or at the shops, but when we’re doing this, we’re thinking about the topic of conversation, not the way in which we’re speaking. That’s why listening to others speak is important for improving your dialogue writing.
What Should You Be Listening For?
Language choices: I guarantee that your mum speaks to her friends differently to how she speaks to you. And, that you speak differently to your friends to how you speak to your mum. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we make different language choices depending on who we’re speaking to, the situation we’re in, whether we’re drunk or sober (and thus our inhibitions are different) and what our emotional state is. Listen for these language choices next time you’re ‘listening in’.
Slang and Colloquialisms: Slang refers to language used by certain groups of people – teenagers, soldiers, nurses, people within the LGBTQI community. Colloquialisms refers to informal language, which may include slang, that most (if not all) native speakers from a particular country or area know. For example, ‘lit’ is teenage slang, ‘duffer’ is an Australian colloquialism for a someone who’s a bit of an idiot. By listening to the slang and/or colloquialisms someone uses, you can find out a lot about their age, profession and where they’re from. If they sound awkward when saying it (like I would saying something is ‘lit’) this might give you another clue about their personality.
Space fillers: We pepper our speech with lots of ‘um’, ‘ah’, ‘like’, ‘so’. It gives us time to think. In this case you’re listening for things not to include in written dialogue. Written speech should sound natural, not be an exact replica of real-life speech, because adding in all those space fillers would just slow the pace and make reading the dialogue a grind. Used strategically, these space fillers can work well but don’t feel you should include them in every place a person might actually say them.
These are just some of the basics of speech to keep in mind. Start here, and see how you go. When you’ve got a moment to yourself, make a point of listening to how people speak. Just, don’t get caught.