July. Two-thousand and Twenty. The second lockdown in Melbourne had begun. I had no idea how long it would go– the painful months to come of steal rings and five ks. But when our school holidays were interrupted with a call to lockdown, my optimistic and perhaps deluded heart thought that Prep students like my twins would be excluded from any school closures. After all, my boy had already had to restart prep twice. Surely, surely the government wouldn’t insist they do it for a third time?
But they did insist, and I was heartbroken. But more than that, I was scared. Insomnia has never been a particular struggle of mine, but the night I found out I’d be doing home learning again, I lay there for hours in fear and despair. I couldn’t! I just couldn’t.
Why was I so afraid? I done it before and I coped okay. But about an hour into my panic, I realised why I was scared. I didn’t want to let my boys down. I wanted them to have the best education possible and I knew the ‘best education’ wasn’t going to come from me. I didn’t know how to teach kids to read and write. I didn’t know how to be a mum and a teacher together. A few weeks had been ok because it didn’t matter; the teachers would catch them up. But a whole term? That really mattered. I was just okay, and that wasn’t good enough. I was going to fail my darling boys.
And I hate failing.
Fear of failure is the achilles heel of the intellectually competent. I was the academic kid at school, who after a slow start at primary school– breezed through the humanities and the sciences at high school and topped my year level due to my consistency. I’m used to being able to do things really well. And though (like everyone) there is an even bigger list of things I can only do okay, those were the things I avoided. Because if I didn’t do the things that I’m ordinary at, then I’d never fail.
Of course this is a terrible way to live. It robs you of the chance to try things that take time and effort to master, but which have rewards in both the learning of the skill and eventual competency.
But failure is scary. And the longer you go without failing, the more scary it becomes. Until you inevitably hit something that you MUST do, even if you’re not good at.
Like Home Learning.
For isn’t motherhood the ultimate leveller? When competent, capable women (often) take a break from the jobs they’ve trained for and find themselves drifting on the churning sea of nappies, sleep schedules and contrary opinions. Where every day there is a new failure to pick yourself up from. Breast feeding and sleeping through the night and what-did-I-do-all-day.
Motherhood was good preparation for the ‘I’m just okay at this” world of home learning.
But it didn’t make it any less scary.
So Lockdown Two began, and along with it, the most intense block of home learning I hope ever to experience. Google meets and uploading onto Seesaw and trying to balance my own wish to provide a good experience for my boys with my own exhaustion and needs. Just okay- which of course with my high standards felt like failure. Falling off the bike and getting on it again the next day. And the next. And the next.
A week before home learning started, I’d begun a new writing project. A story where the protagonist’s only path out of heart-break was to grow competent in two skills she was terrible at. I didn’t write it to express the feelings I was experiencing in the second Melbourne lockdown. But boy did they come out on the page! Writing was a cathartic break from stress of home learning time. But it was more than a distraction–it actually made it better. You can’t control your own life, the challenges and even failures you face. But as a writer you can control your characters. Force them into situations where they have to fight their demon’s to get what they want. Make them strong while you are weak. And even borrow some of their strength for real life’s own little unavoidable battles.
My character learnt that competency was not the defining marker of her worth. And I learnt that just being okay wasn’t the failure I’d convinced myself it was.
And so, I pushed on. I was just okay at Home learning. But since I was the only possible teacher, that had to be enough.
Lockdown 2 had a happy ending. Not only did the never-ending lockdown end, but my boys had a wonderful term. When they returned back to school the teachers were thrilled with how they had learnt and grown. But I don’t pretend that was because I was a fabulous. I was still just okay. But it turned out, for that season, their just-okay-Mummy was what my boys needed.
Maybe that’s true for every season.
And now, as I I attempt to once again run home learning- this time with a third child in the mix, I’m reminded that school isn’t just about learning to read, write and do mathematics. It’s about perseverance. It’s about making mistakes. It’s about learning that being just okay, is actually okay.
I have always had a strange relationship with story structure. I’m a slightly chaotic individual, with a messy house and my head in the clouds. I’m an ENFJ who loves to think that she’s as logical and reasonable as her science degree would suggest, but who most of the time is driven by her gut and feelings. I am not the kind of person who you would expect to find plotting out a novel and obsessing over structure.
And yet, story structure plays an integral part of every stage of my writing process.
It hasn’t always. I started life as a pantser (just write a see what happens), and there will always be times where I sit down to write a scene where I have no idea what will happen. But based on my current process, it is fair to say I now sit more on the plotter side.
Often, writers start off thinking of story structure as a cookie cutter you force your ideas and characters through that takes something away from them. With this kind of impression– of course story structure and plotting wasn’t going to appeal to me!
The thing that changed for me, was that I stopped thinking of story structure like a formula and began to think of it as a tool to be used.
-Something I could use when I was thinking through what I wanted my story to be.
-Something I could use to diagnose problems when they arose in editing.
-Something I could use to take the things that were already in my story and make them even stronger.
Thinking of structure as a tool rather than a restriction, made it come alive for me.
There are plenty of blog posts that talk about story structure. This Reedsy article is a fabulous place to start if you want to get a sense of the most common structures used in Western storytelling. But the purpose of this post is not to tell you which story structure to use, but rather to show the various ways you can take a story structure that suits you and use it for the benefit of your story.
Use it to Outline your story completely before you start.
This is the classic use of a structure that we are most used to seeing. A writer takes a story structure, decides what is going to happen in their story based on the specific ‘beats’ found in their structure of choice, and plans out their story before they begin. And it’s a classic because it works well for many writers! And because there are so many story structures out there, from the most general of three acts to ones that suggest a specific purpose for every scene, you can choose one which suits your own personality, genre and story concept.
There are definite benefits to this method! You can often see if a story is working at the outlining stage, which can help you work out if it is worth persevering with. Or if there are structural problems within your idea, you can work that out and fix them before you even write the first sentence. Lots of my most prolific writing friends are highly structured- right down to page numbers they want to be at when they hit certain beats.
It won’t suit everyone (and probably doesn’t suit me to be honest!), and that’s okay too. But it might be worth having a go at seeing if using a highly structured outline might be something that suits and enhances your story telling process.
Use it to give a structure to your ideas.
This is more of the method that I use. I will brainstorm, write some scenes, think about characters and endings, but before I sit down to properly dive into my first draft, I get a fairly broad structure and have a go at fitting my ideas into it. I actually use this synopsis writing sheet from Susan Dennard’s to do this. Because her synopsis writing plan is based on a general story structure, it is an easy way to map out my story, as well as giving me a head-start on the dreaded synopsis, before the book is even done!
The plus of this method is that it gives you a skeleton onto which to put the flesh of your story. It doesn’t have all the details worked out, and leaves plenty of room for writing on the fly, but it gives you a direction to go when you are lost, and a map where you are headed to follow. Moving to this method has meant that while my first drafts are often quite different from future drafts in terms of details/prose, I usually have a decent structure from the very beginning. It also means that when I get lost, I usually have something I can go back to, to get on track. Which leads to my third way to use a structure.
Use it to find direction when you are lost/blocked
We all have moments when we are lost in the middle of a draft. It might be writing but not feeling it. It might be not knowing which option the character should take. It might be that you just don’t know what should happen next. At this point, taking a step back, and using a story structure to brainstorm what might happen next can be a really useful thing to get past that block.
I find structures that emphasis character growth particularly helpful for this. Knowing where a character might be in their emotional journey, and where you need to get them, can help you determine what actions they might take or what conflict will challenge them at any particular part of the story.
Use it to check your structure at the editing stage
As previously stated, I tend to use a broad structure to plot before I start my novel. But I find story structures the most useful when I apply them after I finish that first draft. This method is known as reverse outlining. It’s where you go back through what you have written in your first draft and see if you can retrofit it into a simple story structure. If you can’t, then that might be because something is missing or because you’ve let the story wander.
The reality is most pantsed stories still have a structure. Because they are readers themselves and most western stories have fairly predictable general beats—even pantsers have some sort of structure that they used subconsciously. But by using a reverse outline, they can see where they might have lost their way, or see things they could add which will enhance what they are already doing.
I use the Save the Cat method at this point. It usually helps me figure out when and how to integrate my subplots (which are often quite bare and simple in my first drafts). I usually combine this with some extra work on character arcs, to come out with a decent outline of what I want my novel to be. Then I can start again for my second draft, using the things I’ve already got, along with anything else that my story might need.
I once sat in a session run by a big-name editor from an Australian publishing company on the topic of structure. She discussed various helpful story structures. But the thing that stuck with me was a very simple suggestion she had. Open up your manuscript and find the middle page. Is that the midpoint of your story? Or is it before it, or after it? If the midpoint beat occurs much later, then your story is too slow to start. If your midpoint is much earlier, then your ending drags. Such a simple thing to check, with so much information to be gained!
But it doesn’t just work with the midpoint. By taking a basic story structure (which here might be genre or age range specific) and comparing the beats with your own novel, you can answer questions like: Is my story starting in the wrong place? Does my resolution drag? Do I have a saggy middle? Things you probably won’t realise yourself, and that your beta-readers will sense but maybe can’t articulate. But by checking how your story fits the structure, you can see what structural changes you need to make in the next draft.
Use it to work out what are the important beats to emphasise
So…you’ve written your story. You’ve used a reverse outline to see how it could be stronger. You’ve made sure your pacing is sound. But there is one other way that I’ve found structure to be a helpful tool for the writing process. That’s using them to know what to emphasise within your story.
The best stories we read have a sense of rising and falling tension and emotion. An all high tension story is exhausting. A story with no tension tends to bore us. One with good tension keeps us both engaged, but also gives us hints of when we need to be paying careful attention. If you know the important beats your story is hitting, you can be really deliberate with building tension, and emphasising the key moments of the story.
I find this particularly crucial with the midpoint. The midpoint is usually the beat in a story where the character undergoes a change. They might become completely committed to their quest. They might learn they can fail. They might realise that something is holding them back. It’s the hinge of the story- where everything changes. But it’s not always high action, and so can sometimes pass by with little fanfare.
By thinking through what the beats of your story are, you can be aware of key moments like the midpoint, and give them the time and the emphasis they need. Knowing what a scene is supposed to be doing, can help you to make it the best it can be.
Tools not formulas
So, there are some of the ways you can use story structure to enhance your manuscript, whatever your plotting style.
What about you? What role, if any, does structure play in your story production? Are there any ways of using structure that you are keen to try? Please let me know in the comments.
Querying– the act of sending your book out to agents or publishers– is a necessary part of the process of being ‘traditionally’ published. But it isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s taking your hard earned work, your beautiful book baby, and putting it out to be accepted or rejected. It takes bravery and hard work to get to that point. And the process itself can be crushing. Months of silence. Rejections that sound like they’re just a form response (because usually they are). Specific feedback that you know is precious gold but you second guess every line thinking…did they mean this?
Last year I had my first go at querying, and later this year I hope to have my second. But there are some things that were absolutely essential to surviving the process. To come through it still excited to write and ready to try again with the next book. I wanted to share a few ‘tools’ that are really helpful to have ready to go when you query.
This post is not a list of things you need for your submissions package, or a discussion of how ready your manuscript needs to be to query. There are plenty of other blog posts on that! But rather, if you have these things in your toolbox, they will act as emotional cushions that soften the blows you can experience in the query trenches.
A Separate Query Email
A friend recommended this, and I’m thankful to her everyday! I have a specific email account which I use whenever contacting agents or entering mentoring contests. Why is this essential? Well, you know what it’s like when you are waiting for an exciting email. When every time you see a new email pop up in gmail, your heart does a little dance. Imagine having that feeling for months and months and months. The hope and disappointment cycle occurring every time that organisation you didn’t remember subscribing too tries to sell you something. That will overwhelm your life, and mean you never get a break from query stress.
Even worse is when you are about to go into an important work meeting. Or pick up your kids from school. Or go to an event you’ve been looking forward to for months. And it always seems to be at that point when your dream agent replies with…thanks, but no thanks.
If you have a separate email– you are the one in control. You can decide when your ready to check and you can decide how often.
Get a new email address. You’ll thank me, I promise!
A Support System
Querying is such a weird beast. People in your life outside of writing are never going to be able to understand it, no matter how much you try to explain. They don’t get the devastation of the no. They don’t get the high of the yes. But writing friends do! Its so worthwhile having a few friends on standby for support, who have been in the query trenches. Those who understand the particulars of what it’s like to ride the highs and lows.
My writing friends helped me get through the querying process. They cheered when things went well. They helped me when doubts overwhelmed me. And they talked me through every decision I made along the way. They were also there when I wanted to vent about a query response that hurt or a agent who took forever. Eventually I would process the hurt and realise it was nothing personal. But in the moment it was cathartic to be able to just complain without judgement.
The query process messes with your mind. A writing support system helps you to keep everything in perspective.
A Document Full of Positive Feedback
This might sound a little indulgent, but when you are facing rejection, or the wait, you can start to doubt your words. Wonder if what you sent out was garbage. When imposter syndrome started to tell me I couldn’t write, I would go to a document I’d created full of comments from writing friends who had read my manuscript and really loved it. There were quotes about their favourite bit. Comments about what they liked about my writing. Explanations of why they cared about certain characters. Reading through this document made such a difference in the hard times. Because while those comments didn’t mean that my book would definitely find a home, they reminded me that I could actually write. My words already meant something to someone. They showed me the lie of my imposter syndrome. And that boost kept me from falling into despair.
A New Writing Project.
It makes sense, while you are sending out queries, to be working on the next thing. There are no guarantees that your book will sell, and so you might as well start on the next one. Best case, you might have two books or ideas to bring to an agent. Worst case, you aren’t putting all your eggs in one basket, and have another book to try if the first doesn’t find a home.
But for me, it was more than that. Querying was something that was out of my control. I had no way of changing what an agent thought of my book once it was in their in box. But the new book was completely in my control. It was untouched by rejection. It was getting better with every draft. It was a back up plan, as well as a delicious distraction. And I was reminded, with every stroke at my keyboard, that the book waiting in the agents emails wasn’t my only hope. So rejections, while hard, didn’t feel like the death of my dreams. Working on that book was the single most helpful thing I did to make querying bearable.
A caveat. This is a much more effective exercise if the new writing project is not a sequel. There are various different schools of thought about what is the wisdom of writing the sequel to a book you haven’t sold yet. And I really think that is a decision that the individual author needs to make. BUT, be aware that writing a sequel of a book that is getting rejected is not an easy task. You worry that the first book isn’t going to get you anywhere, and that makes book two seem like a waste. By writing something completely different, you save yourself from that double disappointment.
A Knowledge of Your Worth
Querying sometimes feels like an act of desperation. “Choose me, pick me, love me.” The agents or publishers have the control and the power. As time goes on, you can start to feel like a beggar, hoping for crumbs.
But authors are not the beggars in this equation. They are the artists, the money makers, the bosses, the clients. Yes, you are looking for someone to represent you or publish you. But agents and publishers need us. Our words, our story, our efforts are what the person walking into the bookstore is really interested in.
This doesn’t mean that you go in arrogant! It also doesn’t mean that your manuscript is perfect or that you don’t have more to learn. But don’t let the querying process make your feel small.
There are people out there who make a living off authors desperation. Small publishers who put no money into your book, don’t distribute it anywhere, and just hope to make a buck off your family and friends. Agents who will send your email to publishers that didn’t need you to have an agent in the first place, just to make some easy money for little effort. Vanity presses who prey on authors dreams.
Don’t settle because you think you deserve crumbs. Be realistic about the competitive nature of the industry and keep improving. But don’t let the process make you desperate. Remember your worth. It will help you survive the query trenches .
A Sense of What you Want to Achieve through the Publishing Process
This is a particular hobby horse of mine, so please indulge me a little rant! So often, when we are starting the publishing process, we have one goal…our book on a shelf. And the time line? As soon as we can. It’s hard to think beyond that.
And so…when it comes to questions like what kind of agent do I want or publisher or what contract am I willing to sign, we can just take whatever we can get because…well, it’s our dream.
But we need to look beyond the dream to what happens next. Because the steps you take early on in your career will set it on a path.
You might have written a Sci-Fi book, but mostly want to write Fantasy long term. Chances are your publisher will want you to continue writing your first genre as you build and audience. So maybe that sci-fi book is not the best place to start. Or maybe you live in Australia and you’d love to be the kind of author who gets paid to speak to high school students. So you want to make sure that if you go with an overseas publisher, that they are able to distribute to Australia, so students can get your book. Or maybe you want to work full time as a published author long term. So you might be willing to keep trying with new books to get the kind of agent who can help you set up that type of career.
Or, you might have a book of your heart. A book that you’re willing to keep polishing and putting out there until it finds a home. Because it’s the book itself that matters to you, even more than the career.
It feels strange to think like this! To look beyond the first yes. But if you know what really matters to you, then you can make wise choices that can be stepping stones towards that goal. Which is much better than looking back and thinking: why did I waste that time heading in a direction I never meant to go?
Knowing your long term goals helps you make the decisions that will shape your writing life for the better. You won’t just send your manuscript to every publisher with a website. You won’t say yes to an agent who might agree to sign you, but doesn’t have the experience, context or connections to get your book where it needs to be. You might end up deciding to self-publish, because it fits with your goals and suits your entrepreneurial personality, rather than wasting time in the query trenches.
You might even put a manuscript aside, because even though you love it, you know it’s not the right one to start your publishing journey.
That’s what I did at the end last year with my first manuscript, and it is still pretty heartbreaking to think about. But it was the right decision, because I know what I want to achieve and it’s not just to have that one book published. It’s to have a writing career.
And strangely, having that long term goal was a tool that helped me emotionally cope with querying. Because I know what I want to achieve. And I’m in for the long haul. Rejection isn’t the end of my story.
Querying again this year will be scary as well as exciting. But it’s the path I have to tread to reach my writing goals. And at least I know I have the emotional tools I need to survive. And hopefully now, so do you!
(I’m aware that some of these suggestions are things that take time to put together. If you are wanting to build your own support network and don’t know where to start, Kylie Fennel wrote a terrific article on finding your “Write People” if you need some tips.)
I scroll, I click, I search. Social Media is full of stories of toilet paper fights and horrendous racism. I mute and I mute and I mute, but there is always a new name for it, a new hashtag for the latest drama. I can’t escape without shutting it down, but then where do I see my friends? They’re no longer at the park, the coffee shop or ringing my bell.
The google search suggestion is always Covid19 Victoria and I click on it every time. Searching for hope. For something that my optimistic heart can cling too. But there is no hope to be found in the news feed. Facts, information, and directions. But no hope.
Where do I find it? What can I cling too when everything else is falling apart?
But hope is there. It is peering around the corner, slipping in through the gaps in the darkness.
Hope is in the Facebook groups that keep springing up. “Love your Neighbour”, and “The Kindness Pandemic”. People offering everything from toilet paper to free psychology sessions. Someone needs nappies and they get dropped at the door that afternoon. I had to reject my invite to the most recent one. I don’t have time for more, the other groups have one thousand posts a day.
Hope is in my six-year-old, ordering his siblings: “Wash your hands, we don’t want to make Grandma sick.” My daughter’s cheerful song as she rubs and scrubs. The way they don’t even blink when almost every answer begins. “Because of the virus, we can’t…” Hope is in their ability to bear so much more than I would have ever imagined. It is early days. But my kids give me hope.
Hope is in my faith. Faith that tells me humanity is capable of great acts of selfishness, but also kindness. Faith that knows that I am not alone, that I am loved, and that this too shall pass.
Hope is in my medical friends who love their patients and risk their lives. Who are trained to put away their anxiety and do their job. Hope is a world of researchers, coming together to work and find solutions.
Hope is in my evening walk, where when I cross the path of someone else, we move to 1.5 metre distance with a smile as if to say ‘nothing personal’.
Hope is in memories.
Memories of the three weeks I spent in hospital, with daily monitoring of my blood pressure and my twins. The confinement, the loneliness, and the uncertainty. But also the knowledge that I was doing everything I could to keep my children safe.
Memories of waking in the morning and looking out at the sun through the hospital window, that no matter my stress and suffering, continued to rise in spectacular colours. Now it is not my my babies I’m protecting but my neighbours. Many of whom are paying a far greater cost than me. I have a tiny part to play. But memories remind me that you never regret keeping people safe.
Hope is in this keyboard. Waking up in the darkness to write. Escaping to the worlds that I’ve created. A little normality amidst so much change. I hate change and uncertainty, and those general phrases like “for some time” or “the foreseeable future.” But here, as I wait for the sky to gradually lighten, as I sip my tea, as I write my words; I am home.
I listen to lots of writing podcasts. It’s the only thing that makes laundry sorting bearable, and it’s also a nice paring to pushing kids on the swing for extended periods. Many of these podcasts ask their writer guest for writing advice they want to give to aspiring authors. And probably like all other listeners, I take great pleasure in imagining being interviewed one day, and wondering what I might answer to that question.
But lately, I’m been thinking about it more seriously. Over the last year I’ve been watching dear writing friends struggling away, and I’ve wondered what I can say to help. Do I have any answers or tips that might make the journey easier? That might help them with direction and focus? I’ve seen struggles that seem to be related but haven’t quite been able to put my finger on the problem. But I think I’ve figured out my big tip.
Publishing is not a race.
I suspect most writers know it. I suspect they’ve heard it. I suspect they would nod their heads and wait for me to move onto tip number 2. But as much as we all know it’s not a race, we sometimes act like it is. There are real, practical dangers when we are feeling a need to get to the top of the mountain as fast as we]] can. We end up burning out or making bad choices on the way up that mean we never get there.
We need to remember. Because here are some of the problems I think can happen, when you think Publishing is a race.
If you think it’s a race, you will feel overwhelmed with stress
Stress and motivation are tricky things when it comes to creative pursuits. We all need motivators to get us cracking, and I’m not above deciding “I will complete this draft by X date.” Self-motivation and dedication are a must if you are planning to get published
My observation is the moment it becomes “I must be published by X or…” then it gets messy. Friends who hate their jobs and think “I have to get this published by X so I can quit my job.” Friends who say: “I have to get this book published by the time I’m thirty because…I just do.” This is almost always followed by a period of procrastination and stress because suddenly this thing they love becomes something they must do.
Now, once you are a published author with contracts, then that thing you love does become something you must do! But in these early stages of writing, when you are still learning and working out your own motivations, it can be crippling.
So don’t give yourself an artificial finish-line that actually makes the run harder for yourself.
If you think it’s a race, you will compromise or not realise what matters
This one is a bit of a tricky one, because it has two aspects.
The first is that if you think of publishing as a race, you’ll be so keen to move forward with things that you might sign with predatory agent, or you might self-publish without doing due diligence. Because speed becomes more important than getting it right.
But I also worry that if people think it’s a race, they won’t take the chance to work out what they really want.
We all have different things we want. Some of us want a paper book we can place in the hands of our relatives. Some of us want to write for a living. Some want world-wide reach, some want the chance to influence people to read. The list goes on. But if we are in a rushed to get published, we can make decisions without asking two very important questions: What do I really want to get out of publishing? And what is the WISEST way to get there?
A big example is what you want published. I have a friend who has a particular book and series that is their passion, and their dream is tied up in that particular book. They don’t just want to be an author, they want to see THAT book published. And that’s great! It’s great to know what you want. They might be willing to rewrite the whole thing multiple times, or wait until the market shifts towards it, or self-publish. Because their goal is THAT book.
Whereas for others, their aim might be to be traditionally published. They might try writing a few different books, or try different styles or stories, because the specific book is not as important as getting there in the end.
There is no right or wrong. But if you are so focused on ticking “be published” off your to do list, you might end up on a trajectory that doesn’t actually lead you to what you want.
If you think it’s a race, you will not get your work to the level it needs to be
I finished the first draft of my book “The Librex” on Dec 31st, 2016. I am now starting my fifth draft. You might be wondering what took me three years to get it to that point.
When I finished it, I realised that I didn’t know enough to know if it was good. I didn’t have other writing friends who could read it and give feedback. And I hadn’t done any craft-related writing courses.
So in 2017 I did a course, wrote another book, and began to get feedback from other writers. And I realised how much work I needed to do.
In 2018 I began a rewrite of The Librex. I started another course, picked up some regular critique partners, and did another project for Nano.
And this year I finished my re-write, and did two extra drafts. Ten different people have read the whole thing, including eight who are writers themselves.
I think of that first draft lovingly. It’s full of happy memories of a new world bursting to life under my fingertips. But it wasn’t good enough. If I’d thought of writing like a race, I might have sent it out too early and been rejected. I still might be rejected with my newer drafts. But at least I know I’ve given my book and my story the time it needed to get the best I could make it.
Now, if you are a perfectionist, this might seem like an excuse to spend five years crafting the perfect opening paragraph. You won’t ever achieve that. This is where feedback is so good. If you show your work to people, then they can tell you where you are at, and help you get it to the right stage to move it on.
If you think it is a race, you will be disappointed.
Imagine you write and edit a book in a year. Chances are, even if you immediately get a publisher who loves it, you will still be waiting at least a year, probably two, before that book ends up in your hands. Publishing is slow business. If you are impatient, that is something to get out of your system now.
My Own Reminder
This really hit home for me a month or so ago when I’d just received feedback on The Librex. I was trying to work out whether it was ready to be sent out to agents to try and find representation. I received back some very positive feedback, but also suggestions as to how I could make it better. This was after finishing three drafts in very quick succession. Deep down, I’d been hoping everyone would come back to me raving about how perfect it was. Instead I was faced with more work and I felt discouraged. I didn’t want to wait. I wanted it to be ready now.
Feeling miserable and with a long car drive that day, I was scrolling down through podcast episodes when I found an interview with Amie Kaufman and Megan Spooner that I hadn’t heard before. So I put it on. It was a fabulous interview. And several times they both said the same words: “It’s not a race”. They applied it in a few contexts: in regards to finding the right Literary Agent, in writing your book, and in your author career. I nearly started crying in the car. Because in my own impatience to finish, I’d been tempted to send out my book when it still wasn’t ready. But publishing isn’t a race. With more time, and one more edit, I could give this story the best chance. It was the reminder I needed. And I suspect, it might be the reminder other writers need too.
This week, I have started that edit. Yes it will be hard work. Yes, even after this edit it might not be published. I might need to keep trying with other stories.
Today is a fun day in my writing life. Earlier this year, I was hanging out with the always welcoming, often hilarious #6amAusWriters. Someone mentioned they were writing a Christmas story. And the lovely V.E Patton said. “We should put together an anthology of Christmas stories, linked to the different Australian context of Christmas.”
The most random of ideas, that has now come together in a book!
Next month you can purchase “Christmas Australis”: an anthology of Christmas themed stories and novella’s.
The story will feature a sci-fi story by me called Secret Santas.
It has been wonderful getting to know the other writers in this anthology, to learn something about the self-publishing business (believe me, it is so much more than just write and press click!), and to get a chance to publish a story that I haven’t been able to get out of my head since I entered an earlier version in Furious Fiction last year.
So, without further ado, here is the cover of “Christmas Australis”
Fun hey! Got such a kick from seeing my name on the front 🙂 I hope you enjoy reading our stories.
You can Pre-order the book through Amazon here. It is available in E-book form.
Just because you’re a skilled author, doesn’t mean you always understand how you do what you do. And just because you understand what you do, doesn’t mean you’re always good at explaining it. Amie Kaufman, however, is a triple threat in this regard. She is a terrific writer of some of my favourite reads this year, she has a thoughtful understanding of how she does what she does and she is an amazing communicator. So when I was searching through the Melbourne Writer’s Festival program and saw that they were hosting an “Ask Me Anything” session with her, it went straight into my diary.
It was a wonderful hour. Expertly hosted by Adele Walsh, the session was so full of gold that my pen could barely keep up. I thought I should publish some of Amie’s key points so others can share in a few nuggets of Amie-goodness.
How you get that
elusive voice in your novel? I hear this
question all the time at Author Q and A and the answer is usually “It can’t be
taught”. But Amie took a different
tact. She talked about how voice is how
you can pick up books with two very different characters speaking and still
know the same author. She said you can tell lots about a person by how they
tell a story, that two people can come into a room and describe that room in a
completely different way depending on their background, profession, and experience.
Thinking hard about how a character sees the world and how that therefore
affects what they see, what they notice, and how they speak. If you include
those aspects in the POV, then the voice will shine through.
My friend KD Kells tweeted her question beforehand about writing synopsis. After confirming the difference between a query or blurb and a synopsis, Amie talked about how while a Synopsis is supposed to be detailed and factual, that you should choose your verbs carefully. No story sounds interesting when all your told is what happened when. So while sticking to facts, try to still give some flavour to your synopsis so it doesn’t sound too dull. She recommended Susan Dennard’s blog for information how to write it, and based on the cool structure KD found there, I think I might need to take a look for my own #PitchWars Synopsis.
When you are stuck in a reading or a writing
When it comes to a writing slump, Amie says she doesn’t think it’s very understanding and kind to say there is no such things as writers block. Just because you don’t get it, doesn’t mean you need to disparage those who do! She said when she is stuck and discouraged in her work, she finds reading makes her feel more inadequate. But watching art in a different medium, such as a ballet performance or seeing a musical clip on YouTube makes her excited about art in general, and acts as inspiration to hit the keyboard again. This makes so much sense, and I’m glad to hear that I’m perfectly justified watching so many pastry-chef videos on Instagram (though Amie also spends twelve minutes a day of social media, so ahh, maybe not!).
She also recommended
going back in your manuscript to the last time it felt easy. Sometimes the reason you are stuck might be
because the plot has gone off track. If
you go back to where you know it was working, then you can work out what went
In terms of a reading
slump, Amie recommends getting hold of a romance or a thriller. These genre’s are wired to be page turning so
start with them and then you will be out of your slump and ready to read.
Amie was asked about Flashbacks; since they are often looked down on, when should you include them? She explained that flashbacks tend to slow the pace, which is why they often frustrate people. Amie suggested working out when in your manuscript the reader might like to take a breath and include any necessary flash-backs at that point so that it is both a break and helpful information. Brilliant!
Amie is productive. Since she was first published in 2013, she has written and co/written eleven novels and has another eight under contract. As well as the afore mentioned slump techniques and software that won’t allow her on Social Media for long, she treats writing like a job, clocking in at the office at the start of the day and clocking out at the end. Her writing is what provides for her family, so she treats it as such.
Kissing (and other experiential scenes)
I tweeted my question
at the start of the day, and though I was a little embarrassed to publically
ask questions about kissing scenes, I really wanted to know! I enjoy writing
them, but I never know exactly what to include. Amie’s YA books always have
terrific romance and particularly well-done kissing scenes. I wanted to know
how to write kissing scenes that felt fresh, and individual to the characters
Amie said with kissing
scenes, and actions scenes as well, experiential data is always good. Knowing what it feels like, means being able
to add in specific details that add to the authenticity. She told a hilarious story of a friend who
got her husband to put her in a head-lock for research purposes, just as
someone walked past their front window.
Similar to the
question of voice, she said it is important to think about the character. Is this their first kiss? Or just their first
kiss with this person. What are they
likely to notice, or comment on. If you
can get into the mind of your character, that will help your kissing or action
Finally, think hard
about pacing on a kissing scene. You
want to be able to slow it down for the kiss, but have the pace speed up on
It was a wonderful session. Adele mentioned that Amie is incredibly generous with her time, knowledge, and connections with the YA writing community in Melbourne. Amie replied writing wasn’t a competition, because people aren’t just going to read one book. Getting people reading is good for the whole community and so building others up is good for everyone. Her generous attitude is something else we can learn from her.
What writers have you
found helpful in sharing their craft? Did you attend any sessions of the Melbourne
And if you want more Amie wisdom, I recommend listening to Ep 276 of So You Want to Be A Writer Podcast where Amie gives a fabulous interview with Allison Tait. Or if you are interested in Amie chatting about writing in collaboration with other authors, there are a couple of terrific Eps of the Garrett Podcast where she is interviewed with her Co-author Jay Kristoff.
So, we have hit August, and I thought it might be a good time to update how my writing life has been going. This is for all the lovely people I see IRL who ask me ‘how’s the book going?’ as well as those who are writers themselves and hear me natter away on Twitter about “Christmas story” and “Third Drafts” and “Nano 18 edits”.
In October last year I
was feeling a little stuck. I was in the
process of working on the second draft of my novel The Librex. While I loved it, there were some aspects
that made me wonder if it would be a difficult sell as a debut. I also knew I needed some sort of incentive
to get it done.
My friend KD Kells was
about to do the AWC Write your Novel On-line class. With less than a week until
sign-ups closed I took the plunge and joined her. It seemed the perfect way to get the next
draft of the Librex done, while also up-skilling and having an opportunity to
work out if this novel was worth investing in.
It was wonderful! I learnt
so much about writing from the feedback and the tutor, I met a great group of
critique partners, and everyone seemed to enjoy and believe in my book. I got my second draft finished by the end of
March and as of last week have taken on the class feedback and finished draft
So now what? I’ve sent
this next draft of the Librex out to a few people for some more feedback, to
see if the changes I’ve made between drafts have solved the issues my
class-mates found in the story. Then my
plan is to enter PitchWars. PitchWars is
a mentoring competition where writers enter their completed manuscripts for the
right to be mentored by an industry professional, to get that manuscript up to
scratch. Then Literary agents can read
their submissions and if they like it, offer to represent the author and their
book. (If you want a book published by one of the big publishing houses in
America, you generally need an agent to make that happen)
I am nervous about
this next step, and am tempted to second guess myself and my beloved book. But I know, if my nerves had their way, I
would never submit my novels anywhere! Pitch Wars is a great incentive to get
my book up to scratch, and whatever happens, I will have submitted my manuscript
for the first time and that’s a pretty cool milestone.
AJ is my NanoWriMo
Novel for 2018. It has been mostly on
the backburner with occasional tweaking.
Because I am me, instead of being an easier, more straightforward novel
than The Librex, of course instead it’s a complex secondary world, dual POV, trilogy
monster! I have had two writing friends
look at it, who have given me some great feedback as to what isn’t working
(namely- most of it!) But that hasn’t
dampened my excitement and I’m looking forward to getting the start up to scratch
for critiquing on my upcoming Writing Retreat.
Savey & Mason
My Fantasy Romance isn’t quite shelved, but I’ve put it aside for the moment. I wrote it as part of my Fantasy Novel writing course with CS Pacat, and while the characters are super dear to me, I know it needs a tonne of work, and I’d lost my faith in it. But when I had the immense pleasure of meeting CS Pacat face-to-face this year, she remembered the characters! So that gives me hope that there might be some merit of dusting it off in the future and giving it another try.
Part way through the year, the wonderful Emily Wrayburn suggested we start at #6amAusWriters hashtag on Twitter as a way of gathering early morning Australian writers, and motivating each other to write. A gang emerged and it’s been a wonderful incentive not to hit snooze! One of us was writing a Christmas story, and then V.E. Patton suggested we do a #6amAusWriters Christmas anthology.
Random but fun, hey!
It’s happening and I’m
contributing. This will be a great
chance to dip my toe into the self-publishing world, and I have a Christmas
Sci-Fi story that won’t leave me alone (I’ve entered two versions of it into
Furious Fiction already). So now I can
expand it out and see what happens. The
plan is to get it published in time for Christmas. Can’t wait to finish mine and see everyone
else’s stories come together.
I’ve continued to
enter the AWC Furious Fiction competition each month, making it 19 out of 19 since
it began last year. It has been one of
the highlights of the year, a great chance to get my creative brain pushing out
new stories (which let’s face it, is my favourite part of writing). I haven’t
been short-listed since June last year, but that matters less and less to me
with each month. The enjoyment I get
from the process, and the constant chance to improve is reward enough.
Writer in Motion
I won’t spend any time on WiM as I’ve done a whole blog series about it, but if you are interested in seeing my process of bringing a short story from first draft to edited polish- see here for the first post.
My New Years Writing Treats, an update.
At the start of the year I decided rather than having writing resolutions, I would give myself permission to get writing treats over the year. My aim was to attend three writing events, to buy more new books, and to go on a writing retreat.
So how is that going? Rather
I’m averaging around a writing event a month! As well as some more formal writing events (YA Day, Emerging Writers YA Day, and KidLit Vic), I’ve also been to several book launches and catch ups with writer friends. It has been wonderful to move out of the haze of early babyhood and be once again immersed in the world and people again.
As for the other two
aims, I am already at twenty-two new books read this year. And a group of
Sci-Fi Fantasy friends and I are all set to go away on a writing retreat at the
end of September. We’ll give each other
time to write, but also do some critiquing and world building chats and I can’t
It’s so affirming to
prioritise things that are good for my writing career, and I’m grateful for a
husband and Grandparents/Aunts/Uncles who are committed to making that
Thanks folks for
listening to my ramble-ly post. It has
been a fun writing year, and while the steps ahead are huge and a little scary,
I’m excited to have so many people in my life cheering me on. So thank you!
To end off this project, we’ve been asked by our fearless leaders KJ Harrowick and Jeni Chappelle to write a reflection post over the experience. So here it is, the things I have learnt or gained from doing the Writer In Motion project.
The importance of ‘demystifying the editing process
This project grew out of a discussion of how different a first draft is from a polished, edited one, and wouldn’t it be good if more writers showed their process. That was something that really excited me. I spent far too many years putting manuscripts away for months on end, because they weren’t good enough. I compared my work to the words found in publish books and of course I came up wanting. I’d no idea the work which was involved in between draft 1 and the book on the shelf. And though in time I came to understand how much of writing is polishing and re-writing, I now have a deeper understanding of that reality, thanks to this unique opportunity to stop and reflect at every step. I really believe in Writer In Motion. If the writing process is demystified, then hopefully less writers will grow discouraged and quit.
That I can write short stories
I love writing Short Stories. Every month I enter the Australian Writers Centre Furious Fiction competition. I love crafting fun reveals, or creating worlds that are contained in a tiny story. But after entering 18 stories and only being short-listed for one, it was easy to grow discouraged. Almost without realising it, I’d begun to assume short stories weren’t my thing. One unexpected bonus of this process is getting positive feedback on my story. It’s made me realise it’s worth the effort of continuing to improve, and maybe taking my own short story writing a little more seriously.
That I should never skip the ‘critiquing’ stage
You often hear about writers who send in their manuscripts to agents or editors without anyone else having a look. I have had the helpful (and sometimes painful) oportunity to have my novel critiqued, and I know how crucial it can be. They pick up mistakes that should be obvious, but that I am blind too because I made them. And with my particular style of weird fantasy and Sci-Fi, it is so important to make sure that everything makes sense to a reader.
So why is it I don’t do the same with my short-stories? I previously haven’t shared my short stories with others before sending them into Furious Fiction. Sometimes that has been because I am working to a tight deadline, but often it is just because I am too scared. It’s strange how I am more embarrassed to show my story to my writing friends than I am putting a shonky draft into a competition.
No longer. Writer in Motion has reminded me how important it is for other people to look over my work. And this month of Furious Fiction, I made sure I finished in time, so my friends could do a quick read through before I sent it in. And it was better story for it.
That Editors are worth their weight in gold!
I’ve known in theory the difference an editor can make to your work. I’ve even had a little taste of it, having Cathie Tasker of the Australian Writers Centre give feedback on my novel in their Write Your Novel Course. But having Maria Tureaud work through my story showed me the value of a professional editor. After my CP feedback I was pretty pleased with my story. But Maria had the ability to look under the skin of my story and see what was going on underneath. It was so useful. I hope I will get a chance to work with an editor in the future.
When Writer in Motion started, Jeni set up a Twitter chat so we could all communicate about our stories. But of course we ended up talking about much more than that. We shared pictures of our kids and pets. We shared our struggles and worries. And we learnt from each other. I got to quiz more experienced writing people on how to fix my wonky novel ending and how to go about querying agents. They are an amazing, talented group of writers (go here and read their stories and gush along with me). But they’re also lovely, generous people. I learnt so much from this experience. But the biggest thing I got out of it was a new group of wonderful writing friends.
So what’s next?
So what is next for the Writer In Motion crew? There are lots of whispers going on about what we might do with our stories or this project. Many of the critiquing groups are continuing to help each other with other writing. Several people are now saving up for professional edits on their novels, having seen what an impact an editor can have.
And as for me? Even my editor thought there was room for more of Hannah’s story. So while I am on tight deadlines with other things, I do think there might be room in my plans in the next little while for a novella about poor Hannah and her gloves.
But my more immediate challenge? What will I blog about next?
This last month I have taken part in an event called Writer in Motion, where a group of writers show the steps of writing a short story from first draft to finished product. You can read about it in my first post.
Today is the day. This week after having feedback from a professional editor, my story is complete. Or at least I hope it is.
I find it difficult to judge. It might benefit from more read-throughs, or a second go with an editor. But you can tinker with things forever. And I am so excited how far this story has come. I loved this story, and my poor Hannah from the first draft of my story, rough though it was. But it has been so exciting to see it improve, step by step, week by week. I’m thrilled with how it has turned out. I will discuss the editorial stage at the end of the story, but without further ado, here is the final draft of my story: Gloves.
by Belinda Grant
Another box of fifty gloves arrive.
I walk to Doveton and pick them up under the Post-worker’s suspicious gaze.
“What do you do with all these gloves?” It’s the same question he asks every week.
What am I supposed to say? I give a bland smile and flee, holding the box to my chest. As if I could hide behind such a flimsy thing.
I should’ve avoided town after last night. The stares are worse today than normal, and that’s saying something. No pretext of politeness, people stop mid-sentence as I cross Main street. I know what they’re saying. About the MacIntosh’s boat going from new to decayed in twenty-four hours, and how weird things didn’t used to happen in their precious town. I feel their eyes on my Lizzie Bennett dress, my curly-hair piled up high. Mum’s idea to make the gloves appear part of an eccentric fashion statement, and not a precaution against disaster.
The sun beats down as I lift my skirt to run between the shade pooled at the base of the ghost-gums. Doveton is beautiful if I only look with my eyes. Dad says there is no point in moving on, that everywhere will be hard at first. Make more of an effort, Hannah. He doesn’t feel the stares. I want to move to the hippy hills, where people think crystals help a cold and a taro-deck warns of your impending death. Where strange is a draw-card.
I arrive home and go straight to the glove room. I drop my new box on top of last weeks haul, identical but for the FOUR HOURS scrawled on the side. That’s about how long they last. The scent of rosemary lamb and bubbling gravy wafts through the door. It’s time to face the most painful stares of all. My family’s.
Mum’s fork shakes as she stabs her potato. Sadie looks up from her plate to glare at me at regular intervals. Her friends always pull back from her after an ‘incident’ like the boat. One day of my life, one tea-spoon of my torment, and she looks ready to go at me with the carving knife. Cow.
Father stirs his remaining peas around his plate, trailing gravy across the china.
“I’ve ordered two more replica vases.”
Mum puts down her wine. “I told you, I don’t want us doing that anymore.”
“We need the money. What happens if this boat thing blows up? We’ll need savings until we find our feet somewhere new. Precautions.” No one looks at me.
Father strikes the table with his fist and the peas jump.
“I don’t mind.” While the vases turn ancient under my bare-hands, I get to press my head against them and see the life they could have lived. Peonies, gerberas, tulips and roses. Views of lounge rooms from the mantel, watching families growing up and growing old as they fade and age themselves.
And forged antiques make good money.
“I didn’t ask you, Hannah,” snaps Mum. Sadie chews on a carrot and smirks at me.
Maybe I should run away. Quit school and find a job in the city. Save precious Sadie from all her suffering–and myself from Davison’s gaze.
I can’t sleep that night, so I put on a four-hour pair of gloves. They’re yellowed and worn–they could be my Great-Grandmothers’. I press a gloved finger to my forehead and I watch, as if on screen, what could have been. Debutante balls and costume parties. A life, rather than a few small hours protecting everything around me. I pull on my boots and head to the river.
The boat leans against the bank like it’s been there for years. So different from the day before. Why didn’t I leave it alone? There’d been something about that varnished wood glowing in the late afternoon sun. A stupid compulsion to stroke the bow, and it was twenty-years older in an instant.
But tonight it’s deliberate destruction. I take-off both gloves and press my hands against the side. The wood is worn, and splinters dig into my skin.
“You should keep going. Just to be safe.”
Davison. How the heck does he always know where I’ll be, when he’s so clueless about everything else? I rest my forehead against the hull to try to block out his presence and watch the life the boat should have had. Adventures down the river, beers on the deck.
Davison’s like a spinning magnet, cycling round from repellent to attractive and back again. Gloves back on, I sit beside him, and we wait. The boat lives out hundreds of years in minutes, crumpling to dust and settling into the river under the stars. They’ll still be talk. But at least the evidence is gone.
“It’s just a boat, Hannah, don’t feel bad. Your hands are amazing.” He reaches for one, and I let him take it, almost feeling his skin through the faded fabric.
“We could leave Doveton together.”
Mysterious, naïve Davison. He gets stared at too. Would it be so wrong? To have a friend who sees me as the heroine, not the witch.
A friend who knows what it’s like to be a miracle and a curse.
Memories of a baby’s face flash over the handsome grown one. Choking and gasping for breath, his preemie lungs struggle against a simple cold. An older baby could survive, but he was too small and weak to fight it off. What else could I do? I’d whipped off a glove and placed my hand on his tiny chest. But I wasn’t quick enough.’
“Hannah.” He reaches for my face and I let him take it, resting my forehead against his. I see the years my hands took from him. Baby Davison learning to walk. A giggling boy, jumping the waves. Ten-years-old, shooting hoops with his Dad. All of it sacrificed under my touch.
I stand up and run.
I don’t listen, I just run and run.
And the gloves on my hands crumble to dust.
What changed in the Professional Editing Process
I have to admit, one of the main selling points for me in getting involved in the #WriterInMovement project was the chance to receive some professional editing. I had the pleasure of sending my manuscript to the amazing Maria Tureaud.
I know there are many people reading this who aren’t writers, so I want to explain a bit about editing. My picture when I was young of an editor was someone who would go through your document and correct all your spelling and grammar mistakes. But there are several other steps in the editing process.
Before proof reading there are two stages. In Australia we call the first stage a ‘structural edit’, in America it is known as a developmental edit. The developmental edit looks at big picture things like plot, story structure, character arcs and the like. Then the ‘line edit’ or ‘copy edit’ works on improving the language and flow.
So rather than just going through and fixing the wrong tenses (though she had to do that too!), Maria had both development and line editing suggestions for my manuscript. One of the things I appreciated most about Maria’s edit, is she wasn’t afraid to make big changes to the story. She suggested that my mention of Davison be removed from early in the story. It was helpful, because though I had liked the idea of setting up Davison for the ending early on, there was already SO MUCH going on at the start, so many questions and uncertainty, that it was much cleaner to keep him at the end.
The other big thing that Maria was helpful with is transitions. She pointed out when I hadn’t made a clear enough link between paragraphs and scenes. She suggested Hannah should smell dinner which would be a better lead in to the dinner table scene. And thinking about how to transition lead to a few new sentences which I really love.
Maria also put her foot-down and made me reveal more about the boat early on. She was right. I was trying to be too clever, too cagey, but she pointed out, there were truths in the story that she didn’t get until the forth reading! She also pushed me to be more specific about Davison. Most of my changes near the end where small tweaks to sentences, but I think they made a huge difference to the clarity of the story.
Maria was keen for me to get rid of the word repellent, because it made it seem like Hannah found Davison gross. I decided to leave it in (I think the magnet image works well as a picture for their relationships), but I took out the second use of the word when she ran away, so to use it more as a metaphor than a straight emotional reaction.
And Maria wanted paragraphs 5 and 6 swapped, but I chose to keep them in their original order, with a little bit of tweaking. I remember hearing a writer say at a workshop that you might not agree with an editors solution to a problem they’ve found in the manuscript, but then your job is to come up with a better solution to that problem. I don’t know if I’ve done that, those two paragraphs have been the trickiest ones to deal with in this round of edits. But I did a little tweaking so I hope they flow on from each other a little better.
Bellow is a screen shot of Maria’s edits. As you can see, she had lots of detailed comments all through my manuscript, causing me to think hard about why I was doing what I was doing.
And while I was a little shell shocked when I first opened up her email (😜), I quicky came to see the value of comments, and how right she was. I can really see the value of a professional editor. I hope I have the opportunity to work with one again in the future 🙂
Next week will be the final week in the project, as I write a post about my overall experience of #WriterInMotion
You can find links to all the other amazing writers and their stories here