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

Let’s Get Visceral

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.

Continue reading “Let’s Get Visceral”
Posted in Tips for Young Writers

Don’t Look Away

I want you to look at this picture:

serena

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…”

No.

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.

Everyone has an opinion

Posted in Tips for Young Writers

Preparing to Submit

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
  6. 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.
  7. 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).
  8. Include your word count and age range.
  9. 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.

Everyone has an opinion

Posted in Tips for Young Writers

How Do You Write, When the Words won’t Flow?

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:

stephanking

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!).

Everyone has an opinion

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

Do Writers Have a Responsibility to be Good Role-Models?

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.

200w_d
I was not this sort of teacher – although some days it would have been nice.

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.

Everyone has an opinion