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.
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.
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.
What are your responsibilities as a writer? Should you self-censor in the name of being PC or setting a good example? Is that taking things too far? Writer’s aren’t role-models, are they?
When I was teacher, I was clear on my responsibilities to model certain levels of behaviour. No one is perfect behind closed doors (and that is why the staff-room door of any school is, generally, closed) but when standing at the front of the class, I tried to be the best version of myself, and I encouraged my students to be the same.
Is it any different when writing? This is a question I struggle with all the time, especially writing for young adults. Let me give you a simple example. In one my manuscripts the protagonist’s best-friend refers to some other boys as retards. He’s using the term in a pejorative way, basically saying they’re stupid. I know that this is something a teenage boy might say without even thinking about it, but I also know it’s offensive and harmful. The same can said for using gay (as in homosexual) as a pejorative (this was the major insult of my 90’s teenage years). So, do I keep the phrase in, because it’s accurate, or do I take it out, because it’s offensive?
I took it out and here’s why:
1) There are many alternative words that I can use to convey the same meaning.
2) The character in question is one of the ‘good guys’ which gives everything he says or does a certain measure of authority – if he does it, it must be OK. But using ‘retard’ as a pejorative isn’t OK, and I don’t want to imply that it is.
3) This character hasn’t been written as a ‘flawed hero’. If he had then the reader might think, ‘oh, what a jerk but that’s one of his flaws’. In this case, there’s no evidence of that.
4) The character said it, but I wrote it. For the most part I try to be respectful of the feelings of others when I speak, and so I should be when I write. I’m not perfect, I have said things which were rude, wrong and offensive, in my life because sometimes I speak before I think, but I don’t have that excuse when writing.
As writers, we do have a responsibility to think beyond our stories to the real lives that they may touch. Whether we want them to or not, readers will take a message from your work and you don’t want that message to be one that limits or puts down a group of people. Think hard about the things your fictional characters are modelling for your real-life readers.
When I was teaching, the difference between first-person and third-person stumped more than a few of my students. Even though we do it so naturally in speech, writing in first or third-person and staying consistent can be tricky when you begin. Today we’re going to focus on first-person narrative.
Why First Person?
First-person lends itself well to writing where you want to immerse the reader fully in the narrator’s point-of-view. In this case, everything the narrator knows, the reader knows and everything that the narrator doesn’t know, the reader can’t know. This includes things about the narrator him/herself – the narrator can’t describe the colour of their black eye if they can’t see it, they have to limit themselves to how it feels.
Obviously this creates limitations for you, as the writer. You can’t describe another character’s thoughts and feelings, only what the narrator perceives them to be, and you can’t give information to the reader that the narrator isn’t aware of. But first-person makes up for these limitations by giving the reader a sense of immediacy and urgency. When the protagonist hurts, the reader is experiencing it first- hand.
Consistency is Key
Once you’ve decided to write in first-person, you need to stick with it. If you’re using personal pronouns such as I and my or we and us, then you’re writing in the first person. In these cases, the narrator is referring to themselves or a group that includes them. For example:
I walked to the shops (first-person singular)
We walked to the shops (first-person plural)
If you find that you slip out of first-person into third-person as you’re writing, don’t worry. Once you’ve recognised the mistake, take up writing in the first-person again and go back and fix the error later. That’s what editing is for.
This post is meant to be about organisation. It was also meant to be posted yesterday. But I was too disorganised. That’s irony for you.Of course I could have faked it. You’d never have known if I’d pretended like I have it all together. But my boys woke up sick.
The truth is, organisation has never been my strong suit but, as with any skill, with practice I’ve got better. Organisation can make things progress much more smoothly, so it’s worth taking the time to get on top of it. Here’s five things that help me:
1.Use a diary
I use my diary religiously to keep on top of appointments, deadlines and even what I’m cooking for dinner each night. This year I also added some social media pages to my diary to plan what and when I will post. OK, so it’s not fool proof but it’s still pretty effective.
2. Get into a routine
This will be different for everyone. For me, as a mum and the person who’s at home most, I have to fit my job (writing) around my obligations (cleaning and nagging) and my fun (spending time with my kids and husband). It’s easiest for me if I allocate a chore to each day. For you it might be school, homework and sport. Try to get into a routine where you know what you’ll be doing on each day.
When my boys are at school (and not lolling all over the couch with dry toast and buckets) I write. I don’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to strike and I have to prioritise my writing over other things, like vacuuming. But when my kids are home, they’re my priority, every time.
I’m not very good at asking for help. Luckily, my husband is excellent at giving help whether I ask for it or not. When you’re under the pump, there’s nothing wrong with asking for help.
Organisation doesn’t come easily to me and nor does tidiness. When I first moved in with my hubby, it was a bit of an issue for my super neat man. We’ve been together for 14 years now, so we’ve obviously got through it but I have improved, a lot. Keeping your work space tidy makes life much easier. You’re not wasting time searching for you pen or USB and you’re not going to lose your hard done work.
6. Go Easy
Bonus tip: Go easy on yourself. Sometimes things pop, like illness or a not-to-be-missed event and even the best organised person has to accept that some things need to slide. No worries, get back on track when you can.
Sometimes you’ll hear people say that, when you write, you need to ‘paint a word picture’. But this doesn’t go far enough because a picture only includes what you can see and when you write you need to give your reader every sense. Even a ‘word movie’ doesn’t cut it so let me give you a reminder of the senses you should be drawing on when you write.
Perhaps sight is our dominate sense. We use it to understand so much of our world and for many of us the idea of being visually impaired is difficult to understand. Of course, we don’t just see indiscriminately. We can choose to focus our sight on certain objects. Children can be so focussed on something – a ball or pet for example – that they may genuinely not see the car coming towards them. You may physically see things about a person you’re attracted to, that other people would miss – the flecks in their eyes or the highlights in their hair. When you describe what a character is seeing, it tells the reader a lot about them, what’s important to them and their state of mind.
Can you hear the tweeting of a bird or is it swallowed up by the roar of traffic on the freeway? Is your character speaking in a soft voice or a growl? The soundscape around us is just as rich as the landscape and tells us just as much about the character’s environment. It also helps us to communicate emotion. An angry person might yell, or hiss, their voice might be rough or sharp. Don’t neglect what your characters can hear.
We see with our eyes and we hear with our ears but we can feel with every part of our body. Touch/feel can tell us a lot about the character’s environment – the gritty sand or soft carpet under foot – as well as their physical state – burning muscles or stinging eyes. The way you describe how something feels may also change depending on the character or situation. For example, a kiss from someone you care about will be described differently from a kiss from someone you despise.
Smell is strongly associated with memory. The smell of pine-trees takes me straight back to Christmas, the smell of coconut reminds me of my older sister laying out in the sun, trying to get golden brown. Smell is a wonderful sense. And it’s not just pleasant things that we should describe the smell of. Foul smells tell us about decay and disease. They warn us not to eat certain things or go to certain places. If something is green and oozing, chances are it smells putrid too. Let your reader know that.
Babies and toddlers put everything in their mouths. It’s not enough for them to feel, smell and see the block, they want to know how it tastes too. After a certain age though it’s socially unacceptable to stick everything in your mouth. That said, we taste a lot of things beside food and drink. We taste the sweat above our lip, we taste the coffee on our lover’s breath (I mean, I don’t personally, but my character might), we taste the bitter bile rising in our throats. Taste and smell are so closely related that something can smell like something else tastes or vice versa. Don’t under estimate the power of taste, it can add a whole other level to your writing.
When you’re writing you should bring all your senses to play. It creates a richer world for your character and therefore your reader. And it’s more fun for you, too.
I write for young adults. Or you could say I write YA fiction. YA is not a genre, even though some people will talk like it is. The genre I write in is contemporary realism. Which means, it’s set in the present and it deals with realistic situations and characters.