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.

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

The Importance of Voice

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.

Author Voice:

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.

Character Voice:

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.

MaggieDetails0001
An example for my character Maggie. I bubble writer there names…because why not?

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.

Everyone has an opinion

Posted in Tips for Young Writers

What Should You Consider When Writing Characters Who are Have a Different Race, Religion, Gender or Sexual Preference to You?

Book characters are amazing things. They drive the story and they invite the reader to journey with them. As readers they can become friends. As writers, they can be anything we want to be, however they are often, in part at least, a reflection of ourselves. But what if you want to write a character who differs from you in a significant way? What if the character you’re writing doesn’t share your gender, race, religion, sexual preference and/or nationality? In this case, I believe there’s some extra considerations you should make.

 

Character Hierarchy:

Publication1

The image above shows the hierarchy of characters. Because the protagonist is the most significant character and the one you need to know the most about when writing you’re characters, that’s the character I’ll be focussing on here.

 

Authenticity:

When we say something’s authentic we mean it’s the real thing or as close to it as you can get without it being the real thing (my husband once told me that the lamb curry I made was too authentic – is that a compliment?). As writers, we strive to create authentic characters living authentic lives and to do that we need to understand our protagonist and his/her life as well as we understand our own.

This can be trickier when our protagonist is significantly different to us. I’m a white, heterosexual, woman (I know, I know. I’ve got it made.). Understandably, it’s going to be more difficult for me to write an authentic black, homosexual, male character than a white, heterosexual, female character. While there are experiences all people share (love, loss, fear for example) our race, culture and sexuality alters our perceptions of them and how we express those perceptions. That’s not to say you can’t write an authentic character who differs to you, my protagonist for All My Father’s Secrets is a boy, but you may need to do more work to ensure they ring true for your reader.

 

Respect:

I’m a child of the 80’s and 90’s. For a while in the 90’s there was an influx of sitcoms that featured sassy, black, women. They were there to tell the main character “how-it-was” and they said “mmm-hmm” a lot. These women were always strong, no-nonsense and independent – on the face of it, a positive image. Also a stereotypical and two-dimensional image.

Don’t be lead astray by stereotypes or media-images of a group of people. If you don’t know enough about the life and culture of the protagonist you want to write, think twice about writing them. And if you’re writing your protagonist as being a member of a certain race/culture/sexuality etc. so that you can shine a light on the failings of those people, take heed, you are asking to get decked.

 

Rights:

Just because you can write a story, doesn’t mean you should. Some stories are not yours to tell. No writer has the right to appropriate the stories and experiences of another group of people. I would tread very carefully with anything that is culturally or historically sensitive. I, personally and as an Anglo-Australian, wouldn’t write a protagonist who is Aboriginal and experiencing displacement due to the colonisation of their country. Not only would it be insensitive to the reality of Australian and Indigenous history, it’s not my story to tell. There are Indigenous-Australian authors who are far more qualified and capable of telling that story, the story of their people and their ancestors. That’s not to say I couldn’t write the story from the perspective of a white settler in Australia, even one who is sympathetic to the Indigenous people, but I would be appropriating someone else’s story if I did it from another perspective.

 

There is no rule that says you should limit yourself to protagonists that share your gender, colour and culture. But you should be careful that you can do the character, your story and the real people who may see themselves in that character, justice.

Everyone has an opinion

Posted in Tips for Young Writers

Why the World is a Dark and Dreary Place (Sometimes)

As a writer you have the opportunity to make the world, any world, and it can be as filled with rainbows or as dark and depressing as you want – so long as your characters see it that way. Scene setting is a big part of writing. Without it your readers can be lost as to where your story (or even just a scene) is taking place and without this context they may find your story difficult to follow. But setting isn’t just influenced by the time and place in which your story takes place but by the emotions of your POV character. Continue reading “Why the World is a Dark and Dreary Place (Sometimes)”