Applying the feedback: Info-dumping

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Ever pick up a book that at first feels like an encyclopedia about a fantasy world and not a story? I’m sure you have. And, if like me, you’re a writer of fantasy or science fiction, then chances are you haven’t just read that book. You’ve probably written it too.

Info-dumping is a term for when writers provide information in a big chunk, in a way that takes away from the story rather than enhancing it. This can be related to world building, backstory, or even what has happened off screen.

As a querying writer and a fairly experienced beta reader of novels–I’ve been writing a series of blog posts on common negative feedback people receive on their novels from agents or readers, and how to fix the issues raised. So far we’ve done Voice and Character. And by popular vote from my querying friends– info dumping is my next topic to tackle.

I’m mostly going to be focusing on info-dumping in relation to world building. But many of the principals covered in this post will be useful (I hope!) in other areas where information needs to be shared.

Bread-crumb the world building/information–especially in the first chapter

So you’ve been told your novel has too much info-dumping. Or you are about to start a project and you want to avoid this common pitfall.

But how do you prevent it when the information is required for your novel? The first secret to this is bread-crumbing.

I first heard this metaphor from Editor Jeni Chapelle, and I come back to it time and time again. Just begin your story, and rather than setting the scene through big paragraphs of information, sprinkle it in. A sentence here and there, a little crumb of information that the reader can add to their growing knowledge of what is going on.

But won’t this leave them confused, if they don’t know everything up front? This can be a danger. But readers are often cleverer than we give them credit for. The sprinkle is enough to help the story make sense, and eventually overtime, readers will pull together all those breadcrumbs of information into a cohesive whole.

Besides, many readers will be skimming a big paragraph of info early on, because they aren’t at the point of caring about the world yet. By using bread-crumbing, your readers are more likely to notice and absorb the information anyway.

Make a Cheat Sheet!

I first heard this tip from author Amie Kaufman and I regularly share it because it feels like a game changer.

Before you start writing a story set in a fantastical or sci-fi world– write a cheat sheet. A one page explanation of the world that covers all the things people will need to know in order to ‘get’ the setting or the situation. Then start the story as if your readers have read the cheat sheet.

When you’re done, then see what you need to add to help it make sense, without the sheet. You’ll find it’s less than you think! This is a great technique because it prevents you from over explaining and it gives you the flexibility of viewing the whole story when your deciding where to put the information you still need to add. Extremely helpful for the next two points!

Let the Character Walk Through the World

When I go for a walk along the bike path by my house, I’m usually not thinking about my childhood. When I walk into a cafe and order a tea, I don’t tend to dwell on the political landscape of my nation. Why? Because those thoughts are out of place from what I am doing in that moment.

However, if I go past my childhood street, or I smell a food I loved as a child– then it is likely, or even expected that childhood things will come to mind.

One of the most organic, natural ways to get world building or other info across without dumping it, is to have a character walk through the world and reflect only on the things that are relevant to them in that moment. Or, to have aspects of the world building shown by what the character experiences rather than by what they think.

If a character says “Machines in Citadela are run off magic that is stored in gems”- that sounds both unnatural and also a little boring. If a character gets stuck in an elevator/lift because it’s magic stone ran ‘flat’, that gives us the same information by both showing the reality and also giving the character a chance to reflect on their world in a way that is natural to their circumstances.

In the end, this too is bread-crumbing. But it’s using the natural moments of the story to decide where to sprinkle those world building crumbs.

There is one more factor that can be helpful in determining where to place your information.

Give the Information When Your Readers are Primed to Hear it.

A writer I was once in a class with made a statement that has stuck with me ever since. It was: when will the reader be most excited to hear this information? Rather than thinking of information as something to drop as soon as possible, it makes you think carefully about the best place for it to go. And even better, that leads on to a second, even more technical question. How can I make the reader want this information?

What bits of info in the story can be turned into a mystery the reader wants to uncover or a puzzle to be solved? How can I tie this info into the story in such a way that the readers are dying to know what I’m already hoping to tell them?

Suddenly, rather than your info being something that slows the story down, it becomes something that has the reader flipping the page.

Info isn’t just something to be dropped into a story. It can also be a craft tool to help make your story work.

Hack: Use a character or situation that helps you explain the world.

But sometimes in a story you do need to get a bunch of information across quickly for the sake of understanding. So how do you do this in a way that fits naturally into the story. Here are too little ‘hacks’ that I’ve used.

One is to make sure you have a ‘fish out of water’ character. Someone in the story who doesn’t know this information and so they can hear it without it feeling unnatural for them to ask, or unnatural for another character to explain it to them.

When Lucy arrives in Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe— she knows nothing about the world. So it makes sense for Mr Tumnus to explain things. Lucy acts as the stand in for us, she also isn’t used to this world of fawns and witches, so everything we need to know, she does too.

Another alternative is to put your character in a place where it makes sense for them to be dwelling on important world building information.

In my current WIP Half Heart, in order to understand my characters actions and motives, I needed to inform the reader of some political realities of her nation and it’s neighbour from the first chapter. But a paragraph of politics is a boring way to start a novel. So I set most of the first scene in a Library that is the only place where it’s legal for people from both countries to mingle. That was important for what my character needed to do, but it also allowed me to bread-crumb in the info that the reader needed, without it appearing as an out of context info-dump.

So there are my tips for what to do if you are told you are doing too much “info dumping”. Next up in the series…What to do when readers or agents say they “don’t buy the romance.”

Other Posts from this series:

Applying the Feedback Series: Voice

Applying the Feedback Series: Character

Applying the Feedback series: Character

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Over the years, I’ve beta-read many manuscripts and chatted with fellow writers in the query trenches. I’ve noticed there are certain standard lines of feedback I’ve either given in my notes or that people have received from agents.  But sometimes these can be difficult to interpret or apply. So I’ve begun a series of posts on how to go about applying some of the common feedback writers receive on their manuscripts.

Last post, I spoke about character voice and how to improve that area of a manuscript. Today I’m going to be discussing probably the most common specific feedback I see friends get on their manuscript rejections. 

I wasn’t invested in the character/s

First of all I have to acknowledge…ouch! We love our characters, and we are most definitely invested in them! To hear that a reader just doesn’t care is never fun!

But after the initial disappointment of the reaction– the question that often arises is: how do I fix this? What changes do I make in my manuscript to get my readers to care about my characters.

Of course sometimes this is a result of taste or fit. We all have people we like and dislike, and that can happen with characters and readers too. But today I’ll be talking about specific problems in a manuscript that might lead a reader or industry professional to not invest in your character.

Internalisation and emotions

This is far and away the biggest character based issue that I see in manuscripts I read. That we see the character doing and speaking through out the story– but we don’t see them thinking and feeling.

This can lead readers to feel detached because they see things happen to a character without getting a window into how they are affected by those events.

Imagine reading this:

John pressed his lips against mine. They were soft and eager, and I melted into the kiss. He tasted of strawberries and summertime. He pulled away. “I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time.” I grinned. “Me too.”

We know what happened and a little of how it felt to kiss John. We can infer that the speaker is happy. But we have no idea what the kiss actually means to them! Are they shocked? Relieved? Ecstatic? It almost feels dishonest, because we know that the kiss should get an emotional/thought reaction from the character, and it doesn’t appear.

But it’s not just the case for kisses. When something happens to you–you process it. We feel and think and then we react. By skipping the think and feel steps we miss out on the characters motivations, intentions and soul. Characters without their interior-life included feel one dimensional. And after all, a window into the inner workings of a characters mind is one of the great benefits of reading over things like movies and TV. So when it’s missing– we mourn the loss–even if we don’t always understand that a lack of interiority is the culprit.

If readers or industry professionals aren’t connecting to your characters, it could be that you need to include more interiority.

Inconsistencies (Or plot before character problems)

Another big issue that can lead people to not connect with your character is inconsistencies. When characters in our books act in ways that don’t fit who they are–readers will disengage from their stories.

Now, I am not encouraging you to create characters that are one dimensional and predictable. We all have easily connected to multi-faceted protagonist like the nerd with a secret love of heavy metal or the tough guy with a beloved kitty. We like characters with depth and nuance! But this is about when characters act in a way that is contrary to what we know of them.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

-When characters are in a dangerous situation but don’t show any fear.

-When a measured and calm character snaps at another with no provocation or reason behind it.

-When a character falls in love with someone else without any emotional build up.

-When a character we know to be intelligent does something that we as readers know is ridiculously foolish.

In all these scenarios we are pulled from the immersion of the story by our disbelief. And if this continues to happen, we decide we don’t know the character at all.

Part of the reason this happens is because we put the plot or scene needs before who the character is. We think ‘wouldn’t it be shocking if they did this’ or ‘I need them to do X and Y so it’s ready for a future scene’.

But no matter the plot, for characters to feel authentic, they have to act in a way that is true for the personality we’ve built around them. So if people are struggling to connect with your characters, read through their scenes and see if they are being consistent.

But what about surprising our readers with our characters actions? This is still possible! But readers have to understand their motivation, to see why they are acting in ways that are so unusual for them. With proper set up, these kind of moments can be the highlights of the book! When the character who is scared of heights climbs out a window to save the one they love, we see how far they’re come. Or when the patient mother finally snaps at her children, if we’ve layered hints that she is approaching that breaking point, we believe it, and are waiting with bated breath to see the consequences of such an outburst.

If your characters aren’t resonating with readers, it could be internalisation or consistency. But if it’s your MC that is the issue, you might have a specific problem I like to call “The every-person MC”

The ‘Every-person’ Main Character

Have you ever had a situation where readers have raved about your side characters but seem uninvested in your MC? It could be that you are suffering from making your MC too ordinary. Too “every-man” or “every-person” as the case may be.

Often when we start a story we have a premise of what might happen to the MC. And so we build the story around that premise. Then we put together a cast of colourful characters around them.

But we miss a step. We forget that at the heart of a good story is an MC who is engaging and compelling in their own right. They can’t just be interesting because of what happens to them.

This is a classic problem for those starting out in SFF (Science Fiction and Fantasy). After-all, the classic ‘chosen one’ or ‘heros journey’ story starts with someone ordinary and unexpected. And lots of the most popular stories in have a character who fits that mould. But pry down into your favourites and you’ll find that they aren’t as ordinary as they seem. Luke Skywalker has wants and needs and a complicated backstory. Frodo is brave and dreams of a life outside the shire, but is going to be tested and changed by every step.

So if readers are saying they don’t connect to your main character, and agents are rejecting based on them, it may be that you have more work to do on the characterisation of your MC. And once you have a compelling protagonist to go with your kick arse premise, there will be no stopping you.

Agency

Linked in with the previous problem is the topic of agency. Agency is where characters are agents in their own lives. They make decisions that affect the direction of the story. Agency is really important for engaging readers in your character.

This doesn’t mean that your character has to be Jason Bourne! It’s not about shoot-outs or actions, or even being a confident character who makes decisions. Sometimes agency can be choosing to survive through hard things. Or choosing not to act and this becomes the catalyst for what happens in the story.

But as readers we need to see the characters decisions playing out in the plot.

A classic example is Katnis Everdeen. In the Hunger Games, it appears at first that Katnis is completely powerless. She is poor, and involved in a fight to the death, with her environment designed to manipulate her. Everything is three steps forward, four steps back. But she makes choices and does things! She puts herself in that position to save her sister. She doesn’t give up when everything is against her.

Compare that to a protagonist who gets dragged along by the plot. Things happen to them but they are reactive, not proactive. It doesn’t actually matter what they learn or how they grow because they aren’t influencing anything. Like a doll being dragged along the ground by the story. It’s hard to be satisfied by books like that.

So if people aren’t responding to your characters, look at your characters agency, to see if that might be part of the cause.

I hope this post has been helpful for you as you think hard about how to make your characters engaging for readers. And if you’ve gotten feedback from agents that they’re not connecting to your character, I hope some or all of these tips might give you direction for your edits.

And for next time…we’ll be looking at …info-dumping!

Series Posts

Applying the feedback: Character Voice

Applying the Feedback Series: Voice

Feedback is a crucial part of a writer’s efforts to grow their craft. I’m sure we’ve all had that moment when someone said something about our writing that pushed it to the next level. Hard to hear but exactly what we needed at that time. Maybe they introduced us to the concept of filter words or deep POV. Maybe they told us that our dialogue sounded like writing and not people talking.  Or maybe they pointed out we were dumping in our world building instead of sprinkling it in. 

But one of the trickiest things when it comes to feedback, is knowing how to apply it. Sometimes you are told something isn’t working– but aren’t sure what you need to do to change that.

This is particularly true when the feedback comes from industry professionals like agents or editors. They often don’t have time to explain why something isn’t working– just that it isn’t.

So to kick off 2022, I’m going to write a series of blog posts on how to apply some of the most common critiques of fiction writing. And this first post relates to the topic of voice.

Voice. That elusive gem of a skill that makes all writers quake. We all know it when it find it– when we read a story and feel like a real flesh and blood person is talking to us and not a character. But how do we manufacture it? What do you do when someone says, “It lacked voice.” Or the dreaded “The voice didn’t grab me.”

Know your character well and make sure your narrative reflects who they are

Who is your character? What do they care about and notice? What lies do they believe and where did they come from? Are they bubbly? Reserved? A smart arse?

So often we can answer all those questions. But if someone was to read a paragraph from that characters POV– none of this would come through. Because we are writing the story as if we personally are riding along with the protagonist describing events, rather than letting the characters voice do it for us.

Let who they are dictate how the story is told. Are they an artist? Then they will likely use highly specific colour names. Are they are builder? Then they might comment on a buildings structure or what materials it’s made of. Are they a kid? Then (unless they are unusually precocious) they won’t use grown up words like…well, precocious.

The first thing to do to work on voice is to get to know your character. Strengthening them will only help your story– and writing as them and not you will start to give them voice. 

Write like your character is speaking to a close friend

Imagine I visited a friend’s new house for the first time. How might I describe it? I might say how many rooms there are, bring up that it’s a corner block and the backyard is small. I might say that it’s brick with cream trimmings.

But how would I talk to my sister about it?

For one thing- I’d draw on our shared experience. Id talk about how it had the homely old-fashion feel of Nan’s place. I’d talk less about the cosmetic details and more about what mattered to me- like how it had a gorgeous fireplace and how much I was looking forward to hanging out with my friend there on cold winter nights.   But I’d also talk about how it made me feel. About how the meticulous condition made me feel like a house-keeping failure or how I nearly cried seeing my friend finally find a home after a rough couple of years.

This isn’t a question of using slang or casual language. It’s a question of intimacy. Part of the beauty of voicey prose is really getting a window into a characters soul. So next time you are struggling with voice- imagine the character speaking to a friend.

It also helps with distance– an issue that will come in another post.

Get Out of your Own Way

Part of the issue I suspect with voice is confidence. We are trained from an early age to write in a formal way. We want our words to sound pretty. We have a narrative style that probably got us A’s through highschool and we don’t want to mess with that.

Writing with our characters voice can be an intimidating change, and can feel awkward when we first try it.

If you suspect you have more voicey prose in you, but are nervous that it will sound weird or wrong, I recommend writing something outside of your story. Maybe a backstory scene. Something that will never makes its way into the story itself, so the pressure is off to make it perfect.

Then, once the voice is settled in your mind and you are comfortable with it, you can go back to your novel and incorporate your new voicey style.

If you can write compelling, voicey dialogue then you can write compelling, voicey narrative. So give yourself permission! Get out of your own way and give it a try!

But sometimes…

But sometimes, sadly, it’s just not a good fit.

Sometimes it’s not that the character lacks voice and that’s why it didn’t grab the agents interest. Sometimes there is voice for days! But just like we all have different taste in books, sometimes we have different taste in voice too.

So if you are confident in your voice and if betas love it, then don’t despair! It might be that the next agent is the one that can’t resist your work.

I hope this post is helpful. And if there is some mysterious feedback that you would like me to cover, please let me know in the comments.

Home Learning and Being Okay with Just Okay

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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.

Or Motherhood.

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.

And who better to teach them that than me.

Story Structure: A tool, not a formula

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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.

Editor Jeni Chappelle has a blog post on reverse outlining that I recommend checking out.

Use it to clarify your pacing

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.

Emotional Toolbox for Querying Writers

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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.)

SoSoMy

Hope

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.

There is fear and anxiety and pain and judgement.

But every day, I will look for the hope.

It’s Not a Race

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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

But…

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.

But that is okay.

It’s not a race.

I have time.

Cover Reveal- Christmas Australis

Hi Friends,

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.

Amie Kaufman at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival

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.

Voice

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.

Synopsis

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 slump

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 wrong.

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.

Flashbacks

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!

Productivity

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 involved.

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 scene.

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 either side.

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 Writers Festival?

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.