Posted in Tips for Young Writers, Writing

An Opportunity for Teen Writers

Just popping in to share an amazing writing opportunity for teenage writers that’s happening in 2021.

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Writers Victoria and Melbourne Young Writers Studio are collaborating to bring writers between the ages of 14 and 18 a two-day writing workshop. It sounds like an amazing opportunity to meet other young writers and hone your writing skills – definitely something I would have loved to do when I was a teenager.

Fine all the details here and be sure to share with all the young writers you know.

I’m hoping to be back on board soon, but in the meantime continue to take care of yourself and your families, be patient and kind and keep safe.

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

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

Improve Your Dialogue Writing

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.