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.
I’ve talked about the importance of voice before (you can find that here), and about how finding your unique author’s voice takes time, patience and practise. I want to clarify author voice further in this post.
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.
A while ago a new friend and I discovered that we both wrote, and he asked me what my process was. I was surprised. I’d never been asked that before, but I had to admit that my “process” was getting home from dropping the kids off at school, making a cup of tea, and sitting down and banging out the words. Continue reading “The Writing Process”→