Posted in Tips for Young Writers

Dilemmas

If you believe Alan Watts, author of The 90-Day Novel, dilemma is the driving force of any story. But what does that actually mean?

Dilemma is a rhetorical device (the use of language to create effect or meaning) in which the character has to choose between two options, both equally as feasible, with one positioned as the ‘right’ or ‘positive’ choice and the other as the ‘wrong’ or ‘negative’ choice. It’s often the choice between what the character wants and what the character believes (wrongly) to be true.

An example might be:

I want to be true to myself, but I don’t want to disappoint my family.

The desire here is to be true to one’s self, the false belief is that, by being true to yourself, you’ll disappoint your family or lose their love.

Another example:

I want to travel the world, but I don’t want to miss out on what’s happening at home.

Again, the desire is the ‘I want…” statement and the false belief is the ‘But…’ statement.

Elfo and Luci represent Bean’s dilemma between good and evil

For the two novels I’m currently working on, my protagonists’s dilemmas were (for Maggie) “I want to honour my own needs, but I don’t want to let my family down’ and (for Stuart) “I want to be invulnerable so I can’t be hurt” (the desire is to be invulnerable/strong and the false belief is that being vulnerable leads only to pain).

A key point that Watts makes is that a dilemma can’t be solved (unlike a problem). The dilemma is resolved, it’s brought to a conclusion over the course of the story, but there are multiple ways in which the character can achieve this, and it might not be in the way they initially wanted. Thinking in terms of dilemmas brings depth to your work, because there is no clear right or wrong and what one character decides is right for them, another character might never even have considered (which is pretty true of life).

Let’s look at a recent (ish) movie, Disney’s Moana.

Moana’s problem is clear – her world is being killed by the Darkness and it must be stopped. But her dilemma is more complicated and interesting. She wants to follow her heart and leave her island, but she doesn’t want to disappoint her father and abandon her duties to her people. (Desire – to follow her heart, False Belief – that she must be an obedient daughter in order to serve her people) Ultimately, Moana resolves this dilemma by following her heart and bringing a new age of exploration and prosperity to her people.

The idea of a dilemma in literature isn’t new, but, although I haven’t read his book, I like the way Watt explains it.

I feel that thinking in terms of dilemma is adding a new depth to my work, and a different way of framing my work, outside of a problem that must be solved. What do you think? Have thought about your characters’s dilemma before? Is it useful in your work?

Posted in Tips for Young Writers

No is an Important Word

My brother once lent me a great book, a non-fiction account of a man who decided to stop saying no. After I read it he asked me what I thought and I said it was interesting but, “…my problem isn’t so much saying yes, it’s saying no.”

I’m not good at saying no to people. It’s actually one of the reasons I ended up in teaching. Teaching is a great job and teachers genuinely have the power to change lives, but I NEVER wanted to be a teacher. I loved the kids I taught and I enjoyed working with passionate, knowledgeable people, but I got into teaching because *checks over shoulder and whispers* my mum really pushed it. Don’t tell.

I’m still not good at saying no and in many ways it’s worse now, because now essentially I’m self-employed. Every time I say ‘yes’, I’m saying ‘no’ to writing time. And so are you.

Given that I’m SO bad at saying no, what can I offer you on the topic. Well, I can at least share what I’ve learnt so far and what I’m working on. And hey, maybe you could give me some tips in return? Deal?

Say no to house work (and other chores)

Now, bare with me. We all have chores. You may think that once you’re an adult you’ll have more freedom over your chores but, if you live with someone else, there’s always outside pressure to do things around or for your household. What I’m saying really is, set aside time to write and then say no to chores. If you write between nine and ten thirty, don’t stop to hang out the washing. It will wait. The muse may not.

Say no to fun

Do you want to go to a movie? No. Do you want to grab a coffee? No. Do you want to go fishing? No. Not unless you’ve met your word-count/writing time/deadline. If you struggle with this, think of it as rescheduling, rather than refusing – “Sorry, I’m flat out this week, but how about we grab a drink next Friday night?”

Say no to being a martyr

They say the thing you dislike most in others, is the thing you dislike in yourself. I dislike martyrdom – I’m also a guilty of it. I will take on more than I can handle or jobs I don’t want to take on, then complain and agonise over it. Yeah, it’s a personality flaw. Don’t be like me.

Only you know what you can and cannot do, or what you want or do not want to do. If someone asks you to do something and you agree, you only have yourself to blame. If you didn’t finish your manuscript because you agreed to walk your neighbors’ dog every morning, don’t bitch to them (or about them), it’s on you.

Do as I say, not as I do

God, I wish I could say I was all over this but I’m not (particularly the third point). But saying no, setting boundaries, putting your writing first is important. It allows you to take your writing from a hobby, to a career. If that’s what you want to do, then you (and I) need to get comfortable with no.

Posted in Tips for Young Writers

Themes

Theme is the underlying idea behind your story.

When I had my first crack at writing a novel, I had no idea about theme (in fact, I had no idea about a lot of things – both writing related and other). When I started on my second novel, I still had no idea about theme but certain constants were starting to show. My third novel – now I actually knew what theme was but I didn’t know why it was important. Novel number four and I was finally getting a grasp of theme, and for novel number five (which is waiting for me to reread it) I had theme in mind right at the beginning.

Good for you. What is theme?

Theme is the underlying, invisible driving force of a story. It’s what your English and Lit teachers use to construct essay questions. It’s the central, universal, question that you’re hoping to tackle through your story.

Let’s look at the themes of a few well known stories.

Sing – The theme is being true to your authentic self. We see this in how the significant characters, but particularly Buster Moon, change over the course of the movie. In the beginning Buster is focused on getting enough money to save his theater and he is willing to do anything to do this. In the end Buster has rediscovered his love theater, finding the magic in the performance and not the financial gain.

Cinderella – The theme is good things come to good people. Cinderella is good, patient and kind-hearted, despite the treatment of her step-family. Because of this she is helped by her fairy godmother and ultimately marries the prince and lives happily ever after (not a moral for modern times but remember that this story is hundreds of years old).

Harry Potter – The theme is love is more powerful than hate. Harry is the embodiment of love – literally saved by his mother powerful maternal love – and Voldemort is the embodiment of hate – a fascist who uses fear to incite hatred and hatred to incite violence.

So, why is theme important?

Theme is invisible but that doesn’t make it unimportant. The foundations of a building are also invisible, but you wouldn’t want to live in a house without them (unless you’re Steve and live in Minecraft – in which case it seems to be fine). Theme is what makes your story resonate with the reader long after the book has been put down. It’s the ‘so what?’ that makes your story worth reading.

If Harry Potter was just about a boy who finds out he was a wizard, it would still be an interesting read but I’d like to argue it wouldn’t be the worldwide success it has been. It’s that underlying theme of the struggle between love and hate and good and evil that makes it resonate with people, young and old, male and female, world-wide.

What makes a good theme?

A good theme is universal. It should resonate with you but not so specifically that it doesn’t resonate with others.

Bad theme: Why does my boyfriend not want to get married?

Good theme: Is it possible for a relationship to last, if both people want different things?

You should be able to convey the theme of your story in a sentence or two.

Theme: There will always be a struggle between good and evil. (Star Wars)

A theme is not dependent on the characters or plot. The same theme can apply to many different stories, across genres.

Theme: We are stronger together than apart – A Bug’s Life, Cars, Lord of the Rings, Little Women.

How do you know what your theme is?

For me, theme is what drew me to write the story in the first place. The theme of the book I’m currently working on, about Maggie and her sister with anorexia, is is there any limit to how much we can, or should, sacrifice for the people we love. The inspiration for the book came from an article I read about a family in which the youngest child had been diagnosed with anorexia (she was about seven). To find treatment for her, the mother and daughter had to go to Sydney and the mother was away from her teenage son for several weeks. I wondered about what else this boy would be expected sacrifice, and was there a point where a line would have be drawn.

Some other authors say that they don’t know the theme of their story until much later, even several drafts in. Others say it’s the first thing they know. If you don’t think you know the theme of your current work, read through it again. What ideas are coming up again and again? Do they resonate with you? And, would they resonate with others.

At some point you will want to know the theme of your work because everything else, your characters, their goals and motivations, will have to reflect the theme in some way.

What’s your take on theme? Have you thought about it much? When do you feel you’ve got the theme of your story worked out?

Posted in Tips for Young Writers

Feedback is About Quality, Not Quantity

We’ve talked before about, unless you’re writing for your own eyes only, you need to consider your readers when you write. You can find that post here. In order to do that you’re eventually going to need to ask for feedback on your writing. Feedback can come from many places and in many forms, but some is going to be better than others. Let’s take a look at some common places to get feedback, and their pros and cons.

Family

Family is (mostly) awesome. They love you, they think you’re cool and they want you to be happy. Also, they might be happy to read your work for free (cha-ching). But is family the right place to get feedback on your work?

The Pros:

  • They don’t charge
  • They’re easy to approach
  • You trust and value their opinions

The Cons:

  • They may not be totally honest with you (because they love you and don’t want to hurt you
  • They don’t necessarily know how to assess a manuscript
  • They’re biased (again, because they love you)
  • They’re unfamiliar with the technical aspects of writing
  • They can be unreliable

Other Writers

Other writers should have your back, right? Yep. And they’re in the same boat as you, so they’ll know their stuff too.

The Pros:

  • They understand the technical aspects of writing and how to express them. They can point out problems with plot, structure, dialogue and character arcs etc.
  • They don’t charge
  • They’re honest because they know honesty is what you need to improve, and their feedback is constructive
  • They may ask you to read their work in turn and that in itself can be useful

The Cons:

  • You may need to join a critique or writers group to have access to other writers and you may not feel comfortable about this (it’s something I’m still struggling with)
  • They may not be at the same level of writing as you – a less experienced writer may not be able to give you the level of advice you need
  • They’re busy and may not be able to work to your time-frame
  • They may ask you to read their work in turn, and you might not feel like it

A Mentor or Manuscript Assessment Service

A mentor is an experienced, usually published, writer who knows what publishers and agents are looking for and can give you excellent feedback. A manuscript service is just that, a service offered by an organisation (such as a writer’s association) to assess your manuscript.

The Pros:

  • They are extremely professional
  • They are efficient
  • They are constructive
  • They have insight into the publishing industry
  • They understand the technicalities of writing

The Cons:

  • They charge and they can be expensive. Assessing a manuscript takes many, many hours of work and both mentors and services charge accordingly
  • They will be honest and, while they will be professional and constructive, that honesty can sometimes be painful and confronting

In my opinion, finding a mentor or using an assessment service gives you the best return on your time and money. But, they can be pricey.

For example, the assessment service offered by Writers Victoria (of which I am a member) starts at AU$540 for a long manuscript up to 10,000, with an additional cost of AU$40 for every 10,000 words over that you go. The standard for a YA novel is 50,000 words. Yikes!

The mentor I have worked with in the past charged AU$25/half hour and she often did upwards of ten hours of work on my manuscripts. For me, it was well worth the cost. But, while both options can result in a better manuscript, they don’t guarantee that your work will end up published.

Asking other writers to look at your work is the next best option, and this is where cultivating your writing tribe is useful. If you’re not in a position to pay for assessments (and, lets face it, we don’t always have extra cash floating around) then other writers can be a God-send.

Family, in my opinion, are the worst people to ask to assess your work, unless you’re looking for a confidence boost (or your family may be the brutally honest kind. In that case, just don’t go there. Why do that to yourself?). They may be avid readers, but a reader does not necessarily make a writer. And they’re less likely to be able to give you subjective feedback (whether negative or positive).

In short, do get feedback on your work, don’t get it from friends and family and, if you can, shell out money for a professional, knowledgeable, service.

Posted in Tips for Young Writers

Planning on Paper, or on the Computer

When it comes to planning your writing there’s many different ways to go about it but all of them require you to make some sort of visual record and, unless I’m missing something, there’s only two ways to do that – you either go old school and write it down on paper or you get techy and use some sort of app (when I was young we called them programs. Why the change?).

Obviously, there are pros and cons to both methods.

Pen and Paper

Pro:

  • It’s immediate
  • You don’t need to subscribe to anything or buy any extra apps
  • Paper and writing tools are affordable
  • It’s portable
  • You get to buy pretty looking notebooks and nice pens

Con:

  • Paper comes from trees
  • Written notes are difficult to organise and take up room
  • Written notes are easy to misplace
  • You can just delete something and start again
  • You can’t just copy and paste

Digital

Pro:

  • Everything is in one place
  • Easy to organise, hard to lose
  • Fairly intuitive – most people are tech literate now
  • Easy to share information with others
  • Time saving

Cons:

  • Extra apps can be expensive
  • Laptops can be heavy and awkward to cart around
  • You’re at the mercy of your WiFi connection
  • No pretty notebooks or nice pens needed

For me there’s something about putting pen to paper that helps things flow. It feels more intuitive. Perhaps that has a lot to do with my age – I didn’t have my first mobile until I was 18 because no body really had mobiles – or perhaps it’s just to do with how I think. I like that physical connection. That said, I’m a slob and I’m always losing my notes. And every time I want to switch things up, I need to rewrite everything.

How you plan your work (even whether or not you plan your work) is very personal and can change depending on the project your working on. I will say though, if you know what works for your, there’s no point trying to force yourself to work differently. That means that while I love trees, I still have to be one of their biggest enemies. And for that, I’m sorry.

Posted in Tips for Young Writers

Making Contacts Helps

I’m gearing up for KidLitVic 2019. This will be the fourth year this amazing Victorian conference for children’s writers is being held and the fourth year I will be attending and having assessments of my work by publishers. That means I’m busy refining, refining, refining. Writing reminds me of tumbling stones – you need to keep going to get something beautiful.

Continue reading “Making Contacts Helps”