A visceral reaction is the physical feeling that often accompanies an emotional response to an experience or event. Think about the last time you were excited about something – the way your fingers and toes tingled and you felt a little bit light headed. That is a visceral response.
Visceral responses are great tools in the ‘show, don’t tell’ toolbox. You show your character being afraid (She looked over the edge of the cliff and her stomach clenched) rather than telling the reader she’s frightened (She looked over the edge of the cliff and felt afraid). There also a great way of showing the reader, hey this is real. This character feels things just as you’d expect them to if they were real.
If you’ve stuck with me for any time you know my views on the importance of education. Here I talk about the importance of picking the right course for you, here I discuss how education is not a luxury but a necessity and here I talk about the importance of finding someone who pushes you.
But, what if you are doing a course or making the most of you English class, but there’s something that your teacher/instructor has said that you don’t agree with? It’s easy to resolve a disagreement about cold, hard, facts – once a student pulled me up on the hierarchy of courts in Australia, so we Googled it – but what about method and the craft of writing?
I’ve talked before about how important education is, regardless of where you are as a writer. I’ve also discussed how I struggle to see myself as ‘worthy’ of that education. But late last year I gave myself a mental slap and enrolled in a few online courses and workshops.
Maybe you’ve seen it before, maybe this is the first time. Maybe you’re apathetic about it, maybe it brings out strong emotions in you. Maybe you think it’s offensive, maybe you think it’s fine. You don’t have to share these thoughts and feelings. I have my own thoughts on the cartoon which I’m happy to share in the comments, but they aren’t the point this post.
I want you to look at this cartoon because when something is controversial, as this was last week, we’re often told not to look. By looking, discussing, researching, people warn us that we’re ‘giving air’ to unsavoury thoughts and ideas. But as writers we must look. Especially when something is controversial. Especially when something engenders strong emotion. Because we are in the business of human emotion and action and thought. We are in the business of distilling real life and its components into something that readers can take meaning and understanding from.
A while ago I read a blog discussing Veronica Roth’s books. I wish I could find the blog post now, but I can’t. If I do find it, I will provide a link because it was an interesting discussion and also because it would be hypocritical of me not to. The crux of the discussion was that Carve the Mark was racist. Having not read the book, I don’t have an opinion on whether it is racist or not however, I took issue with a line in the blog post which said (I’m paraphrasing), “…if you haven’t read the book, don’t go out and buy it. Take the word of those offended by it that it is racist…”
We must not do this. Not as people, not as citizens, and not as writers. It is true, just because you don’t find something offensive doesn’t mean it’s not but it’s equally true that just because you find something offensive, doesn’t mean it is. It’s a circular argument.
The ‘take our word for it’ approach to the truth is dangerous. It champions dominant voices and it fosters inequality and lack of mutual understanding. In short, it closes minds and no writer, regardless of your experience or ambition, should have a closed mind. You can’t understand life and people, and represent those understandings, if you refuse to look things in the face and form your own opinions.
There’s a danger in our technologically-connected world of becoming part of a hive-mind. Of only having access to ideas that are deemed acceptable and of only sharing thoughts that are within the dominant ideology. But as writers, we ought to resist this. We have a privileged position of being able to represent the essence of the world for our readers, of being able to discuss and raise questions about important ideas. And to do our jobs properly, we need to think for ourselves. After you’ve looked into something, you may form the same opinion as everyone else – but it will be an opinion formed you’ve formed yourself and therein lies the difference.
A while ago a new friend and I discovered that we both wrote, and he asked me what my process was. I was surprised. I’d never been asked that before, but I had to admit that my “process” was getting home from dropping the kids off at school, making a cup of tea, and sitting down and banging out the words. Continue reading “The Writing Process”→
I’m quite an emotional person. And I tend to empathise strongly with others. Which means that watching the news, viewing certain movies and reading certain books can be a draining experience. I’ve always struggled with war-movies and, since having children, anything in which a child gets hurt sends me over the edge. And yet, my husband often asks me, why can’t you write something happy?
Because Happy is Boring
Go on. Name a story that’s happy all the time? Even with Disneyfication I bet you can’t. Cinderella – reduced to slavery by her step-family. The Little Mermaid – misunderstood by her father and forced to do a deal with (essentially) the devil. Toy Story – overcome by jealousy, Woody attempts to murder Buzz.
Without conflict there is no story and conflict is not a happy thing. Don’t get me wrong, there are levels of conflict. Not all stories begin with rape, murder and theft. But for the characters in a story, all conflict is difficult and emotional.
Because We are not Always Happy
Depressed is an overused word. I have a depression and anxiety disorder and there is a clear difference between when I am depressed (an unshakable sense of unhappiness that persists regardless of what’s happening in my life) and when I’m sad (a feeling which is quite often a response to what’s happening around me ie. a death in the family). Often when people say they’re depressed they mean they’re sad – and that is normal and natural and perfectly fine.
We want to be happy all the time and we want the people we love to be happy all the time, but constant happiness is unattainable. For us and our characters. Sometimes the characters I write are unhappy, sometimes they’re hurt and sometimes they hurt others. For fiction to work, whether it’s contemporary realism, Sci-Fi or Fantasy, there has to be a reflection of real life and, in real life, sometimes we cry. And sometimes we ugly-cry.
Because There Will be a Happy Ending
Let’s go back to war-movies. I think the last one I watched was Saving Private Ryan and I wept. If I remember correctly, it was the most graphically real depiction of war to be found in a movie at that time. Of course, now, war-movies are incredibly graphic and incredibly violent every time and I can’t watch them. Because war is real. I know that what I’m watching on the screen is actually happening somewhere and I’m old enough to know that war has no easy fix. There is, often, no happy ending.
But for the most part, in a novel, there is a happy ending. The whole point of reading a book is to see the protagonist try and fail and try and succeed. Unless you read and write tragedies, you’re guaranteed a good outcome. There may be losses along the way (have you read Little Women? It’s a classic for a reason. Have a box of tissues handy) but ultimately, the protagonist will succeed. And, not only will they succeed, they will be strong for having gone through the conflict.
So, my darling husband, if you should read this, know – this is why I can’t write a happy story. And, why I don’t read happy stories. Because the joy is in the conflict, in relating to the character’s world and in experiencing success with them at the end.
When I decided that I was really going to make writing a career I realised that I needed to do some study. I was a SAHM with a baby and I’d already tried my hand at writing a couple of novels, one which was never finished and one which never made it past a first draft. Up until this point I honestly believed that ‘real’ authors were able to write a book, fully formed and perfect, in one go. That being an author meant that you were just able to create a story.
With this in mind, I did a deal with myself. If I won a writing competition, I would use the prize money to do a writing course. This makes as much sense as saying, if I pass my drivers test I’ll take some lessons. But I felt that I had to prove that I deserved to do the course, that I had to show that I was going to be good enough to be a writer, before I could learn how to be a writer. I didn’t want to waste time and money on myself.
Which is CRAZY!
I believe in the power of education with almost evangelical zeal and to have convinced myself that I didn’t deserve to study the craft I hoped to make a career in is both bizarre and a sad reflection of my view of my self-worth. I cannot encourage you enough to embrace opportunities for study.
Here’s my tips:
1)Look for blogs and websites which are aimed at helping writers improve their skills. Not only are these free resources, but you can comment and therefore ask for clarification and further explanation. There’s many great sites out there, my favourites being Writer’s Digest, Helping Writers Become Authors, and Writers in the Storm (which is my all time favourite writing blog).
2)Read books about writing. If you’re not ready to part with your money then head to the library. There seems to be no end to the books you can get to make you a better writer, everything from story structure and plotting to character development to how to sell your book. Take note of books mentioned on the blogs and websites you use and search for them, they can be invaluable.
3)Enroll in a writing course. Yes, you will have to pay for this. Yes, they will help you to become a better writer. Take it from me, your high school literary teacher is not necessarily equipped to help you become an author. While writers must also be readers, readers are not necessarily writers.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that if you were a good enough writer, you wouldn’t need to learn. While a tiny number of people are born with a gift for something that needs little or no honing, the rest of us will always need to learn from the skills and experiences of others.
You might remember me talking about the KidLitVic conference that I attended in May. You can check out my previous post here. While there I had the opportunity to attend a free (YES!) workshop run by YA author and editor Melissa Keil on submitting to publishers (which is the way it’s usually done in Australia).
Melissa had loads of great advice, including that editors need to go on and be able to sell your book to a whole team of people. Even if the editor loves it they need to be able to say that the books is salable, how it compares with other books in the genre/age bracket and where it will sit in the market.
She also shared an in-depth example of a cover letter and made the following points:
Give context for where you have met the editor – particularly if they’ve given you their direct email – in the subject line or opening line of your letter (ie. if you met the editor at a conference, workshop, etc. remind them of that.)
Make the effort of finding out the editor’s name. These are easily found on publisher websites and social media. If you can’t, ‘Dear Submissions Editor’ or ‘Dear Children’s Editor’ is fine too.
Say why you’ve chosen to submit to that particular agent/publisher. Do you like the books they’ve published? Did you see on social media that they particularly liked a book that similar than yours? Do your research on what that publisher is looking for and what sort of books they publisher. I definitely recommend reading a few books in your genre that are published by the publisher you’re interested in.
Say what the story is about concisely. This is your ‘elevator’ pitch. Two sentences that share with the publisher who your protagonist is, what they want and what the conflict and stakes are.
Indicate books that yours are similar to, but also how it differs from books that are already in the market. (It’s fine to mention books that aren’t published by the publisher you’re submitting too. They have a thorough appreciation of what’s on the market).
You may not be published but you are a writer. You’ve written a book, after all. Not only should you claim this title but demonstrate how you’re a professional by indicating that you’ve attended conferences, workshops and/or contributed your writing to publications. Publishers want to work with authors who are professional and committed, even if they’re just beginning their career.
Include a short biography with information that is relevant to the manuscript that you’re submitting. For example, I write YA and I always mention that I was a secondary school teacher for a number of years. I don’t say that I love needle felting and drawing – it’s part of who I am but has no baring on my manuscript (unless it was about needle-felting…hmm).
Include your word count and age range.
Alway, always, always, check out the submission guidelines of the particular publisher you’re submitting to. Submission guidelines not only vary between publishers, they can vary between departments in the same publisher (between the adult and young adult departments for example).
That’s a lot of stuff to fit into a cover letter. One to one and a half pages, at the most. But it might also be your first contact with an editor, so it’s worth getting right.
To this I would also add, don’t let your age deter you. At the conference I went to there was a range of ages from people in their early twenties to people in their sixties and beyond. Publishers are looking for great books that people will buy. If you show that you are knowledgeable and professional, even at thirteen, sixteen, or nineteen, there’s no reason why that book shouldn’t be yours.
Part of the reason I’ve been so inconsistent in talking to you all in the last several weeks is because I’ve been having manuscript problems. One still isn’t quite working for the people who could give it a home, one needed to be completely rewritten and one I just can’t write. It’s that one I’m going to talk about here.
The idea for the story I’m working on now has been sitting in the back of my mind just waiting for me to have the time to give to it. I’ve written up the character profiles, character arc and the main plot points. You’d think that all there’s left to do is write the damn thing. But it won’t come. It’s not just writer’s block, which I think you just need to write through, it’s a lack of passion for the story.
It’s a shame because I think the premise is a good one. Grace wakes up after a party to find a dead boy beside her. Although the police have put her in the clear, the boy’s girlfriend convinces everyone who will listen that Grace did it. Grace is determined to salvage her reputation. As a subplot, Grace has a strained relationship with her identical twin sister. She feels family holds you back but is going to learn that it can also lift you up.
Too bad I can’t get the words on the page.
So what do you do when the story won’t write?
Just Keep Going
According to Stephen King:
And I have taken that advice on more than one occasion in the past (and no doubt will do again). But It’s getting me no where this time.
Change It Up
In an attempt to get the creative juices flowing I’ve tried sitting in different places, writing at different times, listening to music, not listening to music, writing around people, writing on my own, re-reading my old favorites, throwing my old favorites across the room because-how-come-they’re-so-friggin’-awesome-and-I’m-so-crap-ohmyGodnowI’mrantingand….BREATH!
In all serious, changing things up can help me when I’m getting stuck or my brain is actually working against me. Just not this time.
Let It Go
This is my least favorite option. I feel bad for my characters, stuck in limbo with no sign of resolution. But sometimes you just need a break from what you’re working on. Read a book, get into one of your hobbies, go back to another story that needs tweaking. You’d be surprised what comes to you when you’re thinking of other things. (Vacuum. I get great ideas when I’m vacuuming AND I look like a hero because there’s no cat fur on the floors).
Drop Like A Toxic Friend
Me and my latest WIP aren’t quite here yet but we might get here. Some stories are meant to be told, but not by you. My experience has been that all manuscripts look like unworkable piles sludge every now and then, but if your manuscript always looks like that and the thought of working on it sucks the joy and colour out of your life, it might be time to break it off for good.
Have you every had an idea for a story but you can’t get it on the page? What did you do about it (please help me out here! I need to know!).
Last Saturday I attended a writer’s conference in Melbourne, KidLitVic. It was sensational! I got to meet other writers, rub shoulders with well known writers (Leigh Hobbs and I stood next to each other in the lift) and talk to kind and enthusiastic publishers and agents. I also attended three workshops.
On of the workshops I went to was called Finding Your Voice, and was run by Jane Pearson from Text publishing. She emphasised that all publishers are looking for manuscripts with authentic, resonating, voices.
So what does that mean for you and me?
There are two types of voice – the author’s voice which boils down to writing style and the character’s voice which is how the characters (especially the point-of-view character) speaks.
Just as art experts can tell who painted a painting by the brush strokes (or marks), you can often tell who wrote a book by the style of writing. Your voice takes time to develop. When I go back and read my first crack at a novel from nine years ago, it doesn’t sound like me. I was still finding my voice, the style that suits me and represents me best.
The best way to develop your voice is to keep writing and keep reading. Don’t fall into the trap of emulating the another writer’s voice. It may be great. You may love it. But it won’t be authentic and it will make it harder to be consistent.
The message that Jane gave us was, it’s hard to add voice later. By that she meant, you can’t write the whole story, get it perfect and then tweak it here and there to reflect the character’s voice. You need to know your character inside and out from the beginning, and write in their voice.
Don’t think though that your character’s voice has to be perfect from sentence one, draft one. For me, character voice develops with each draft I do. It’s definitely in the first draft, but the first draft is also where I’ve just bashed out the story. The second draft, where I’m reworking everything, is where the voice really starts to strengthen. I’ve spent a lot of time with my character by then. I know them not just as dot points in a notebook but as people who moves and acts and thinks and feels. It just gets better with draft 3, 6 and 10.
The key, I think and Jane mentioned, to getting a good, authentic, consistent, voice is to know you character. Before I even start writing my story, I sit down and write my character’s details in a notebook.
I didn’t always do this. In fact for my first three novels I didn’t (two of which I completed and one I am still trying to find a home for) and it made it harder, not just to find the right voice but to know what my character would do in any given circumstance.
Voice is Important:
Voice can make or break your work. I sat down with the super lovely Kristina Schulz from University of Queensland Press on Saturday and voice is one of the things we discussed. Maggie’s voice was reading too young for her. Maggie is sixteen but Kristina (who has to work up an assessment from around 2000 words or ten pages) thought she was much younger. And Maggie’s sister, Isi, was reading too old. Isi is six but her voice is definitely off.
Now, luckily for me, I had sent Kristina an (very) early draft. Not something I would usually do and I won’t go into my reasons now. But, I still have room to find Maggie and Isi’s voices. I know I will flesh them out and make them sing in later drafts.
The Take Away:
I’ve written a lot here but I want to stress that voice, both yours and your character’s, is vitally important. Don’t leave it until the final edit. Know your characters. Know what they’d say and how they’d say it. And let their voice shine through.