Posted in Tips for Young Writers

Critique Group Dos and Don’ts

I waited way to long to dip my toes into the world of critique groups. When I did, I joined an online crit group but it’s format just didn’t suit me and it was quite a few years before I tried again, this time joining a Facebook group where members would ask each other for critiques. This worked better, it was great for getting a range of feedback, but you couldn’t guarantee getting the same crit partner every time. I was really beginning to wonder, is it worth the hassle?

Then, at a conference last year, I met an author who’s YA novel had been published and she said that without her crit group she doubted she ever would have got published. That was the push I needed to have another go crit groups and I joined two through SCBWI. I couldn’t recommend being a member of a critique group enough, strongly encourage you to join one, and I have some suggestions to make your foray into crit groups a success.

Crit group dos and don’ts
  1. Do give honest feedback

If you don’t give your honest opinion how can the other people in your group improve? Writers join crit groups to improve their craft, not get a pat on the back and be told how awesome they are (that’s what blogs are for 😉 ). Of course, this is easier when your honest opinion is positive, when it’s not it can be hard to speak your mind. A good tip is to keep your criticism constructive – stuff they can actually work on – and try to find three positives for every negative.

2. Don’t be mean

Being honest is not code for being a nasty-pastie. It’s never OK to use insulting language or put downs and it’s never OK to disparage someone’s race, gender, sex or sexuality. There are plenty of ways to let someone know they need to work on something without being a dick. It’s the difference between,’you’ve got quite a few typos – you might want to fix them up in a later draft’ and ‘did you go to primary school? Your spelling sucks’.

3. Do be open to criticism

Letting other people read and comment on your work can be really difficult. You’re putting a little bit of your soul on show and it can be hard not to take things personally. But, if you really want to improve in your craft, you need to be open to constructive criticism. If a comment really stings, take a breather, go for a walk, give it a few days or even weeks to process. You’ll probably find that you end up agreeing with what your crit partner has said, and then your work can only get better.

4. Don’t shoot the messenger

No one likes being asked for advice, only to have it thrown back in their face. They like it even less when the person they’re advising is rude or defensive. Remember, your crit partners are trying to help you. Everyone leads busy lives, no one has time to give you criticism just to make your feel bad. If you don’t agree with something someone has said about your work just thank them for their opinion, and move on.

5. Do commit to the group

Everyone’s life is busy. Barring exceptional circumstances (illness, death in the family, holiday, etc), if you’re part of a crit group then you need to show up and do the work every time. They’ve gone to the trouble of reading and critiquing your work, you should treat them with the same respect. It’s like any other team you’re a part of – it doesn’t work unless everyone is pulling their weight. If an exceptional circumstance does crop up, let the group know and step back for a bit. If you just can give it the time and effort it needs, then do everyone a favour and step out of the group. Basically, know when to quit.

6. Don’t write a thesis on their work

There’s a balance between too little feedback and too much. Too much feedback is overwhelming. It’s useful for everyone to agree right from the start what level of feedback is expected, whether feedback will be limited to the story itself or include things like spelling and punctuation, and how much feedback is necessary. Track changes is obviously a great tool and allows you to be really specific with your feedback, but in many case a few paragraphs at the end of the work can be all you need to give.

I hope these tips help you enjoy your crit group and get a lot out of it.

Are you part of a critique group? Do you have any tips you’d like to share? Do you think it’s been worthwhile?

Posted in Tips for Young Writers

Mentor Texts

You’ve probably heard the advice that if you want to be a writer, you should also be a reader and I couldn’t agree more, partly because it gives me an excuse to read and call it ‘work’ and partly because reading, and reading widely both in and out of the genre you write, makes you a better writer. Mentor texts are a step beyond reading though.

A mentor text is a book you read (or film you watch) in order to see working examples of the craft of writing. This is when you get out your highlighters and pens and actively search for the hidden techniques and structures that make a story work, and that you don’t notice (hopefully) when you’re caught up in the thrill of reading for enjoyment.

So, how do you use a mentor text?

First of all decide what aspect of craft you want to focus on. Let’s say you want to improve how you sprinkle backstory into your work, that’s what you’re going to focus on when you read through your mentor text. Now get out your pencils and highlighters.

I know that there are people out there who won’t so much as dog-ear a page of a book, for you sticky notes are your friends. For everyone else, you’re going to write in the margins and underline those areas of interest. Every time the author incorporates backstory into the story, you’re going to mark it up and use a post-it note to mark the page (or, you know, turn the corner if it doesn’t horrify you to do so).

By the end of the book you will have a series of examples of how to effectively (or not so effectively) incorporate backstory into a story.

You can use this strategy for any writing technique you’re struggling with (I particularly find it useful studying chapter transitions), across any length of text and in any genre. And you can use the same mentor text over and over again. Don’t limit yourself to work you love either. Studying texts that don’t work can be just as enlightening as studying texts that do.

Had you heard of mentor texts before? Do you use them and how? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Posted in Tips for Young Writers

Creative Catatonia

Struggling to find your creative mojo? You and me, both. There’s something about a daily diet of infection rates and global death tolls (not to mention the kids being home and constantly hungry) that makes it hard to sit down and make up problems for your characters.

So what do you do?

Here’s three things I’m trying right now to reboot my creativity and get back on track.

Try something new

Or, go back to a hobby you’ve let go. I know, I know, you’ve got to get the words on the page, fight the blinking cursor and push through to get the story on the page. Why? Are you working to a deadline? Do you have an agent or publisher demanding to see the finished product? If you do then good on you, but if you don’t then taking some time to do something creative just for the pleasure of it may help you relax, destress and get back in touch with your creative self. So go knit that scarf, decorate that cake or paint that picture. If you need some inspiration Bluprint is offering free lessons until the 9th of April.

Start a new writing project, try a different genre, or form

Do you always write in prose? Try verse. Give in to your angst or your appreciation of the natural world or today’s current events and immortalise it in poetry. Or put your novel on the back burner and give short fiction a try (I’m always open to receiving two-sentence stories to publish here for Two Sentence Tuesday). Or step away from romance for a while and give sci-fi or contemporary or some other genre a try. Rhiza Edge – the young adult imprint of Wombat Books – have just opened their short story competition. Trying something new might land you in an anthology!

Let it go

Do an Elsa and let it go. Not forever. Not even for the next six months. But we are living through an unsettling period of time, so let yourself breathe and let yourself adjust. When things settle down again and the world returns to normal, and sooner or later (probably later, to be fair) it will, your writing will still be there.

How are you keeping your creative juices flowing at the moment? What strategies could we use?

Posted in Tips for Young Writers

Time Management

I’ve written about time management before. There’s no end of ideas out there about how to get more out of your time. So many in fact that I know in writing this I’m adding to the din, but I’ve been trying something new and it’s been working for me. Really, honestly, working for me.

A month ago, I decided that I needed to up my game. Not just in my writing career but in my personal life. In classic Wendy style I headed to the library and picked up a few books. I read them all and settled on the one that really stood out for me, The Five Choices of Extraordinary Productivity from Franklin Covey. I mean the name says it all. Five choices. I make a load of choices every day, I can add another five.

The five choices are:

  1. Act on the important, don’t react to the urgent
  2. Go for the extraordinary, don’t settle for the ordinary
  3. Schedule the big rocks, don’t sort the gravel
  4. Rule your technology, don’t let it rule you
  5. Fuel your fire, don’t burn out

I’m not going to summarise the entire book because there’s so much in it. I do encourage you to check it out, because time management can make a huge difference to finding time to write.

For me, acting on the important (writing, spending time with my kids, calling a friend) rather than being distracted by the urgent (what Jennifer Aniston looks like now, reorganising the spice-rack) has being really helpful. I’m very much a ‘oh, shiny’ sort of person and while that means I notice things that others don’t, it also means that I’m pulled away from meaningful tasks more than I like.

Scheduling those things that are important and getting them done, rather than drowning in the mess of things that “need” doing has also really helped me. In the book they say the first step is to identify if something is important or meaningful, and then to put it into one of four categories – either it’s a task (and goes on a list), an appointment (and goes in your diary), a contact (and is added to your contacts) or a note (and is filed with other notes for easy access).

I’m still working on getting a handle on my technology, but I have to say that I’ve managed to organise my inbox which is really the modern-day equivalent of climbing Everest (I bet all those mountain climbers have overflowing inboxes).

I’m certainly not saying this is the only or best system out there, but it’s a system that I’ve found easy to implement. As with all time-management systems, there is an element of discipline at play. While I’ schedule a walk at 11:30, it’s still up to me to make sure I take it. That said, if you’re finding it difficult to find time to write, it might be worth looking into. And it’s a fairly easy read, so you could probably read it and watch TV at the same time.

Don’t be fooled. There’s always time for TV.

Posted in Tips for Young Writers

The Doubt Demon

Doubt. Everyone, in every job, experiences it. In some jobs doubt can be fatal – ideally your brain surgeon won’t be in the clutches of the Doubt Demon when she looks down on your grey-matter – but in writing it’s only fatal to your confidence.

That’s fine, you know doubt isn’t going to kill you, but it still keeps you up at night and makes your stomach roll over when you approach your keyboard. So, what do you do?

The first thing I do is google such heart-warming phrases as, ‘when should you pull the plug on your dream’ and ‘how long does it take to become a dental nurse’. This is a waste of time but at least I feel like I have options. I can walk away from writing; the world won’t end. There are options out there for me, I’m a capable and multi-skilled person.

Then, I do the useful stuff. I reach out to my critique partners, writers on FB groups I’m a part of and chat with my husband (who gives the best advice). I step away from what I’m working on (which is usually what’s raising the doubts) and look at my other work. Writing both young adult and picture books helps because they’re so different. Young adult tends to be very issue based, where as picture books are across the spectrum from deep issues to light and fun. Swapping from one to the other can help to break the conflict going on in my brain.

You won’t be the first person to doubt their ability, drive or ideas. Doubt is a part of life. God knows I don’t just have doubts about my writing career. I have doubts about everything from parenting to adulting to driving. But it is possible to work through our doubts and, when we do, we’re one step closer to success.

Posted in Tips for Young Writers

Gadget-Man (or Woman)

As modern writers we are incredibly lucky to have a wide range of programs and gadgets designed to help us get our stories from our brains and onto the page. No hand cramp for us. Or messy type-writer ribbon. If writing a 90,000-word novel by hand doesn’t make you shiver, imagine editing it by hand. Yikes.

The downside of having all these writing gadgets is know which one to choose, if you choose any at all. There are still plenty of authors who go the pen and paper route all the time.

While I haven’t used all the available writing tools out there, I use WriteWay and Word myself, I do have some tips on things to keep in mind when considering a new writing tool.

1.Ease of Use

Is it user-friendly? Can you get the basic idea of how to use it without having to go through long tutorials? Is it intuitive? Does it use those basic short-cut keys that you’ve grown used to in other apps (ctrl+c, ctrl+v for example)? Is it easy to move text, scenes or even whole chapters, around?

2. Back-up

Does it allow you to easily back your work up either in the cloud or to external storage, or both, quickly and easily? There’s nothing quite like the feeling of realising you’ve just lost half your novel and there’s no way to retrieve it.

3. Cross-Compatibility

Can you export your work to other apps quickly and easily? For example, from Word to Google Docs, or from your particular app to Word.

5. Is it Affordable

Personally, I much prefer to pay a one-off price than a monthly or yearly subscription, but that’s just me. What’s important is that you choose a program or tool that sits comfortably within your budget – writing is one of those fields where the expense of a tool doesn’t directly affect the quality of the work.

6.Does it Address a Problem You Have?

There’s no point getting an app that promises you a distraction free environment, when you don’t have a problem with distractions. Or allows you to divide your work into Acts, when you exclusively write poetry. Apps and gadgets need to make your life easier, otherwise what’s the point?

As I mentioned, I use WriteWay (which my husband bought me right at the beginning of my writing journey) and Word. I’m not endorsing them over any other program, they’re just the apps that work for me and make it easier for me to create. And that’s the most important thing. There’s no point having a whizz-bang app if you’re not sitting down and creating with it.

Posted in Tips for Young Writers

Early Bird or Night Owl – Use it to Your Advantage

I think I’ve mentioned that I’m a morning person. I have always been a morning person, even when I was a moody teenager. In fact, when I was completing my last year at school I got up at 5am, six days a week, to study.

My mum on the other hand refers to herself as a night owl. For years she had to drag herself out of bed early to get us ready for the day and off to school but, once we grew up, she was able to slip into her natural rhythm. She may get up later than me, but she is still good to go when I’m dying to curl up and go to sleep.

What’s this got to do with you?

Working out where you fit on the ‘early-bird-nigh-owl’ continuum can make a huge difference to getting the most out of your writing. Especially if you’re trying to balance writing with other aspects of your life like school, university or work. If you have no issues with bouncing out of bed at 5am, you might as well use that to your advantage. Equally, if you get your second wind around 7pm, why wouldn’t you put some hours into your passion?

Don’t get sucked into the idea that one way of working is inherently better than the other. While we might have built ‘morning people’ up (the early bird gets the worm or early to rise make a man healthy, wealthy and wise), there’s nothing ‘better’ about being able to function well in the morning as opposed to the evening. What’s important is that we play to our strengths, not force ourselves into someone else’s idea of ‘good’.

Why not have a think about when you function best and put it to work for you, and your writing.

Posted in Tips for Young Writers

Grammar Woes

On Monday I revealed that I sprinkle commas through my work like Peter Pan sprinkled around pixie dust. Today I’m going to talk about that a little more. I am not, however, going to give you a grammar lesson. Why? Because I am BAD at grammar and punctuation.

Despite being an Indonesian language teacher.

Despite having taught English in the past.

Despite being a professional writer.

We all need to know our strengths and weaknesses. Grammar and punctuation is not one of my strengths. But, I still have four tips to share when it comes to this confusing and aggravating, but essential, element of writing.

  • Study up

I struggle with grammar and punctuation, but some people live for it. I’m not talking about your friend who corrects you while your speaking to her. I’m talking about people who run blogs full of helpful, thoughtful and clear explanations of not only when to use certain punctuation but why you would use it then. For example, did you know that you need a ‘comma’ when you use a conjunction to join to complete sentences? I didn’t, but heaps of other lovely people did so now I do.

  • Treat the spelling and grammar check in your word processor with suspicion

It’s no surprise to anyone that technology is fallible. That’s why we back everything up to the cloud now-a-days (and a floppy disk when I was young. About a thousand years ago). Don’t just accept Word (or your writing tool of choice’s) suggestions. Read them, consider if you think they’re correct and, if in doubt, google that grammar or punctuation rule. A computer cannot tell the difference between ‘right’ and ‘write’ or between ‘grammar is fun.’ and ‘grammar is fun?’.

  • Grammar and punctuation only count when someone else is going to read your work

If you’re not handing your work into a teacher, passing it along to a beta-reader, or sending it to a publisher then don’t get bogged down in the details. Write your story, round out your characters, create a climax to die for THEN worry about where your full-stops and commas go.

  • Voice is more important than correct grammar.

Others might disagree with me, but I believe it’s more important for your character to have an authentic voice then be grammatically correct. For example, I find it hard to believe that many adults, let alone a teenage boy or girl, would say, “Whom are you going to believe?” rather than, “Who are you going to believe?”. How we speak is often a clue to our upbringing, social-economic status and level of education. The truth is, we don’t all speak proper and we don’t all speak proper all of the time.

I hate grammar and punctuation, but it’s something I just have to put up with. If you’re like me, I hope my few tips of how I survive it helps ease your journey a little. And if you’re a grammar pedant, keep your corrections to yourself.

Posted in Tips for Young Writers

Going On

Someone I care about passed away very recently. I don’t want to say too much about it because it’s not really my place to, and it’s pretty raw still. What I do want to say is, there will be times in your life when things happen. Things that hurt. Things that shock. Things that make you reconsider how you live your life, or the priorities you have. When these things happen it will be tempting to stop writing, because to write we necessarily have to have our emotions at the surface, and when we’re hurting this can be very hard.

Unfortunately, if we’re going to go forward as writers we need to keep writing. Just as if we wanted to be dentists or carpenters, we would need to keep showing up and doing our jobs. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t treat ourselves with care and compassion. We definitely should. But the flip side the creativity required to be a writer is the business of being a writer.

When things happen that make us pause with pain, life does go on. It goes on with hurt and grief, with sadness and regret, with loss keenly felt, but it goes on none the less. That is the nature of life. That is the nature of having a job and responsibilities and growing into an adult that others can look to for support and love. You may need to take a breath, but you must keep going.

Posted in Tips for Young Writers

Seeing What’s Important, Not What’s There

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.

None of us can take in all the visual information around us. If we did, how would there be room to think about, or do, anything else?

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.

Just so you know, I’m still $50 down.