Around this time last year I wrote this post, little knowing what 2020 would bring. While many of us may have gone into 2020 full of hope, maintaining that hope throughout the year was a mammoth task. And yet, we’ve made it. You may be bruised and battered. You may have experienced loss and grief. Even if you personally escaped the worst that 2020 had to bring, none of us could avoid been touched by the effects of Covid-19, of civil and political unrest, of economic crisis.
But, here we are.
So, how are you? What are you hoping to get from this new year? What would you like see happen or change in the world?
My writing goal this year is to find my writing-joy. Somewhere over the last few years writing became a race I couldn’t win, and I want to get back to the pleasure that escaping into new worlds and building new characters used to bring me. I want to write for the sake of writing. Because I have ideas swirling around inside my head that have to be released.
My first step? To write for just half-an-hour every morning, and to focus for a while on short stories so I can get some (relatively) instant gratification.
I encourage us all to find some healing in the power of writing. You may never share what your write with others, but I don’t think there’s anything quite like getting your thoughts and feelings down on paper in whatever way they want to come.
So, here’s to 2021. No one can know what the future will bring, but whatever it is we can meet it and survive it. We might even learn to thrive in it.
As modern writers we are incredibly lucky to have a wide
range of programs and gadgets designed to help us get our stories from our
brains and onto the page. No hand cramp for us. Or messy type-writer ribbon. If
writing a 90,000-word novel by hand doesn’t make you shiver, imagine editing it
by hand. Yikes.
The downside of having all these writing gadgets is know
which one to choose, if you choose any at all. There are still plenty of
authors who go the pen and paper route all the time.
While I haven’t used all the available writing tools out there, I use WriteWay and Word myself, I do have some tips on things to keep in mind when considering a new writing tool.
1.Ease of Use
Is it user-friendly? Can you get the basic idea of how to use it without having to go through long tutorials? Is it intuitive? Does it use those basic short-cut keys that you’ve grown used to in other apps (ctrl+c, ctrl+v for example)? Is it easy to move text, scenes or even whole chapters, around?
Does it allow you to easily back your work up either in the cloud or to external storage, or both, quickly and easily? There’s nothing quite like the feeling of realising you’ve just lost half your novel and there’s no way to retrieve it.
Can you export
your work to other apps quickly and easily? For example, from Word to Google
Docs, or from your particular app to Word.
5. Is it Affordable
Personally, I much prefer to pay a one-off price than a monthly or yearly subscription, but that’s just me. What’s important is that you choose a program or tool that sits comfortably within your budget – writing is one of those fields where the expense of a tool doesn’t directly affect the quality of the work.
6.Does it Address a Problem You Have?
There’s no point
getting an app that promises you a distraction free environment, when you don’t
have a problem with distractions. Or allows you to divide your work into Acts,
when you exclusively write poetry. Apps and gadgets need to make your life
easier, otherwise what’s the point?
As I mentioned,
I use WriteWay (which my husband bought me right at the beginning of my writing
journey) and Word. I’m not endorsing them over any other program, they’re just
the apps that work for me and make it easier for me to create. And that’s the most
important thing. There’s no point having a whizz-bang app if you’re not sitting
down and creating with it.
I think I’ve mentioned that I’m a morning person. I have
always been a morning person, even when I was a moody teenager. In fact, when I
was completing my last year at school I got up at 5am, six days a week, to study.
My mum on the other hand refers to herself as a night owl.
For years she had to drag herself out of bed early to get us ready for the day
and off to school but, once we grew up, she was able to slip into her natural
rhythm. She may get up later than me, but she is still good to go when I’m
dying to curl up and go to sleep.
What’s this got to do with you?
Working out where you fit on the ‘early-bird-nigh-owl’
continuum can make a huge difference to getting the most out of your writing.
Especially if you’re trying to balance writing with other aspects of your life
like school, university or work. If you have no issues with bouncing out of bed
at 5am, you might as well use that to your advantage. Equally, if you get your
second wind around 7pm, why wouldn’t you put some hours into your passion?
Don’t get sucked into the idea that one way of working is
inherently better than the other. While we might have built ‘morning people’ up
(the early bird gets the worm or early to rise make a man healthy, wealthy and
wise), there’s nothing ‘better’ about being able to function well in the
morning as opposed to the evening. What’s important is that we play to our
strengths, not force ourselves into someone else’s idea of ‘good’.
Why not have a think about when you function best and put it to work for you, and your writing.
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.
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.
Yesterday evening, I had to do something scary. Or, be brave – which is the same but makes me sound better. So, I was being brave. I went to a writing group meeting at my local library and everyone in attendance read out a five minute piece of work. In front of everyone else. I didn’t know anyone.
See how brave I am?
The thing is, even though I read too fast and half-way through was distracted by the thought that I hadn’t washed my teeth after dinner (I didn’t remember until the end that I hadn’t had dinner yet), it was great. I met nice people, with similar interests, who gave me some feedback on my work (and my reading speed). No one booed me off the stage or made me cry, no stood up and shouted, “you’re a fake!” and I managed to not spontaneously combust.
And if I can do it, you can too.
What’s more, chances are your library or neighbourhood house does something similar. And, if not, you my find that there’s a writers’ group in your community. From attending this one event, I’ve learnt about a group in a town ten minutes from mine and I’m going to visit next week. Maybe we’ll be a good fit for each other, maybe we won’t but I won’t lose anything by going and there really is so much to gain from having your work critiqued (fancy word for constructive feedback) by others.
Don’t be put off by your age, either. The librarian running last night’s even told me that she’s headed up a youth writing group in the main library for the past three years, so seek out something similar at your library or suggest it to your librarian. Or maybe you could encourage your English teacher to start one at school. It is definitely daunting sharing your work with others, but in a safe and respectful environment, it can also be really exhilarating
Do you already share your work with others? Or, do you have a writing group you go to? I’d love to hear about it.
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.
I have been all over the place for the last couple of weeks, doing chores, finding out why our cat is pooing in inappropriate places and getting ready for KidLitVic2019. Luckily for you, this post is about that conference and not about the cat’s new toilet habits.
This is the fourth year that I’ve been to KidLitVic and it never fails to leave me energised, enthusiastic and wiser. This year, as with last year, it was held in the beautiful Melbourne Town Hall. There’s something so inspiring about a building that is both old and beautiful. There were a number of different panels, manuscript assessments from publishers, master classes run by publishers and, for the first time, up close and personal groups (which I didn’t do this year, but might if they’re available next year).
The best part of the conference, for me, is meeting other writers and for this reason alone I would encourage you to attend a writing conference. Meeting other people who are on the same journey as you, each at various stages of that journey, is exhilarating. Meeting people who know what you are talking about when you mention your manuscript, your hook, your saggy middle or anti-climax-of-a-climax is a relief.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the writing community is one of the most open, friendly and welcoming communities I have ever come across. I have yet to meet a writer (or publisher for that matter) who wasn’t warm, enthusiastic and generous with their time and knowledge. What’s more, being surrounded by that makes it easy to be generous with your own time and knowledge.
Conferences can be expensive but they’re worth saving for. If you really don’t have the money to put towards something like a conference (and let’s face it, it’s not just the conference but travel, food and sometimes accommodation you have to factor in), then consider being a volunteer. While you will be working, you will still be able to listen in on panel discussions and mingle with other writers and publishers through out the day.
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 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?
They don’t charge
They’re easy to approach
You trust and value their opinions
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 should have your back, right? Yep. And they’re in the same boat as you, so they’ll know their stuff too.
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
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.
They are extremely professional
They are efficient
They are constructive
They have insight into the publishing industry
They understand the technicalities of writing
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).
My husband loves the wrestling. As in, incredibly athletic men and women inside a ring pretending to fight in the most spectacular way. Wrestling may be fake (please, don’t look so shocked) but I have no doubt the talent and endurance (and injuries) of the performers is completely real.
I don’t mind the wrestling either, but the thing I love most is the stories. The writers are masters of conflict and tension (for a great article on conflict, check out this post on Writers in the Storm). The stakes are always epic, the rivalries are always intense, and the characters walk through ever shifting shades of grey. These characters don’t just want to win (we all want to win), they’re willing to do anything to win. Coz, let’s face it, the writers need to create characters that people don’t just like, they need to write characters who’s t-shirt people want to wear.
I assume that’s why my husband has those shirts, anyway.