In Defence of the Socialising on Social Media

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Did you know it is only four months until MasterChef Australia?  I know, because I have been counting it down.  Is it because I miss George, Gary and Matt? Sort of.  Or because my life is presently bereft of parfaits, journeys and food-dreams?  Maybe a little.  But the real reason that May can’t get here fast enough is because of a Facebook group.

Last year, two friends decided that out of respect for their Facebook friends, they would start a group to discuss Masterchef, so their friend’s feeds wouldn’t be clogged with in-jokes and fennel fronds.  The title of the group would be regularly changed over the season to reflect incidents in the show (at the end of the season we voted “I just Khanhn’t Even” as our favourite name). And so our little group was born.  My husband thought it was hilarious that I spent more time looking at my phone than at the television, but the banter was half the fun.  We fan-girled over Samira’s bread making skills, and joked about Ben’s ocka lines.  We laughed at the pretension, all the while being brought to tears as the contestants left the competition.  We had our own virtual mystery-box competition (turns out Snow-eggs aren’t that difficult, who knew?). In our Grand-final thread we easily surpassed one thousand comments.

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My Strawberry Snow Eggs with tuille shell, strawberry granita, and ginger fool.

May and June of 2018 would not go down as the best two months of my life.  At it’s peak, I calculated I had 7 different appointments for my kids in the one week.  Sickness cycled round our family, finding it’s regular resting place on me.  A good friend had moved interstate, another was in the midst of new studies, while another planned a wedding.  It was a lonely time, but not a time where the loneliness could be fix by just going out and being social.  I didn’t have the health; mental or otherwise, to do much more than survive.  But my little Masterchef Crew and our Facebook group made that time bearable.

Social Media gets a bad rap.  With Instagram influencers, Twitter-trolls, cyber bullies and our information being sold to corporations, it is understandable.  And there is something beautiful about communicating away from a keyboard. One of the highlights of the year was a good interstate friend deciding it was time to resurrect the phone conversation.  We talked for over an hour and I could have talked for two more. And I know I need to get my head out of my phone and into the world more often than I do.

But Social Media connections can get a bad rap for being fake.  And yet I have some very real, very wonderful friendships that have grown over the internet.

Many years ago I met a friend through blogging, who introduced me to an online support group.  A group who all were going through the same struggles, and who needed a safe place to vent, cry, and enjoy our own macabre little jokes (#TeamShrubberyForever).  I wasn’t going to meet those women in person, they all lived half a world away.  But they were there for me, and my friendships with them are not fake or inferior because we are yet to met in person.

Fiction writing is a lonely pursuit for an extrovert.  Yet I have friends on almost every continent who I interact with daily, as we spur each other on through the writing game. I remember loving Uni, because it was moving from the small circles of high school, into a wider sphere where there were people who really got me.  I found my tribe.  And the internet is an even bigger world to find your tribe. If you look in the right places you are sure to find those who share your love of crocheting or anime.

Or who love yelling together at the television set “Just put it in the Blast-Chiller!”

The reality for some friends is that socialising face-to-face is a challenge all the time.  It could be because of chronic illness or social anxiety.  For them, social media is where the real friendship happens.  And it is rude to imply that because those friendships are connected by a keyboard, and not a coffee-table, that they are somehow not real.

2019 should (hopefully) be a very different year for me.  I am looking forward to a year where I can come up to breath.  Where I can go to things, and meet people, and hang out.

But I am also looking forward to May.  Because there is a new world of foodie-fun awaiting me, and I can’t wait to watch it with my friends.

 

 

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New Years Writing Treats

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Resolutions get a bad wrap, for obvious reasons.  January seems like the time to reach for the skies, and when March comes you’ve fallen flat on your face.  But they can work, and I seem to be the kind of person who thrives with specific targets.  In light of that I have a few writing goals that I have set for the year, like finally polishing up my first novel, or entering some writing competitions.

But that is not what this post is about.  As I said, I tend to find resolutions suit me.  But there is one thing that I find a huge struggle.

Doing things for me.

It is probably a female thing, and definitely a mother thing.  I click on an interesting literature festival, or I see a book on writing that would be helpful to buy.  And then I think “I’ll get it another time.” or “It’s tricky to find someone to watch the kids on a Saturday.” or “It’s too much money.”  Constantly saying no to myself because I’m not quite sure I deserve it.

So, I declare 2019 as the year of giving myself some writing treats!

Here are my resolutions:

I will attend three face-to-face writing events.

Unlike 95% of the writing world, I am a big E extravert. I love meeting people, I love seeing people, and I love talking to people.  However, with a few (awesome!) exceptions, most of my writing friends are on-line.  I want to change that.  I want to start going to events and networking and getting to know people.

At the moment I am down to go to KidLit Victoria in May.  I am still not sure of the practicalities of the Writers Victoria YA day with a not yet weaned 14 month old. I am also looking at the AWC Story Doctor course in November in Melbourne. So that is three good possibilities without breaking a sweet.

I will have some sort of writing retreat.

Every year my husband and I talk about it.  Me going away for a few days to write.  He is happy for it, and I know I will love every minute. But it never happens.  I don’t plan it, because I feel guilty or unsure, and then we hit the end of the year and it is far too busy to fit it in.  Not this year.

This year I will go away for at least two nights to get some writing done.  I will plan ahead, booking in a couple of days so I can’t back-out due to Mother-Guilt.    I will write, my kids will survive, and I will be a better writer and mother for the time away.

I will Buy and Read more New Books

Okay, so I cheating a bit, because this one started last year.  I knew in theory that I should be reading more new books.  But it takes so much more time and concentration and bother than picking up a Harry Potter again and reading it for the hundredth time.  Time and concentration I could be spending on my family, or even on my writing.

But I realised something last year.  My best writing tended to follow on after I had just finished reading an excellent new book.  The quality of the book, the excitement of the story inspired me on and I was a better writer because of it.  So I started buying books. I am a naturally tight individual who isn’t great at spending money on myself. But a book cost less than a fancy meal out, and was much more satisfying.  And I was supporting other authors in the process.

And when my money-spending guilt was on overdrive, I went to the local library.  There are plenty of great books that I haven’t read, sitting on the shelf waiting for me to reserve them.  And when I reserve them, it barely takes a minute to go into the Library and find all the books I want already there, waiting for me to pick them up.  Win-Win

I will Keep Writing for Fun

My favourite aspect of writing is the first draft.  The heady excitement of new characters popping into being as my fingers tap. Plot twists and turns that I didn’t see coming. The fun of creating a budding relationship, building the tension and sprinkling in the romance as grows.

But the problem with loving first drafts is you end up with too many projects, with none of them ready. And many of my goals for the year involve getting some of those project polished up to be ready for submission.

But writing is allowed to be a hobby as well as a job.  So I will give myself permission to indulge in the occasional new, shinny project.  My five year old has been keen for me to write a space-based story for him, and the plot and characters for this children’s story have been bubbling away for months.  One of my treats for this year will be writing that story, something new and different and as much for my own amusement as for any future publishing merit.

So those are my New Years gifts to myself.

And I’d love to hear other writer’s fun plans for the year ahead.

Belinda

 

 

 

Younger

I don’t remember how old I was when the conversation happened.  Probably still young enough to be eating coco-pops in bed with Nan and Pa when we visited.  But I remember where I was standing, by Nan’s dresser, just below the picture of her when she was a girl.  Those portraits that were closer to a painting than a modern snap.  I think I had made a comment that she looked beautiful or pretty.  I don’t remember my words, but I remember hers, as clearly as if she spoke them just a moment ago.  She pointed to that picture and said “I’m still like that inside.  You might look at me and think I’m an old lady, but inside I’m the same as you.”

I did think she was old, which is funny, because my parents are now older than she was then, but they don’t feel old at all.  Maybe parents never do.  But her words stuck with me because they changed me.  I could never quite look at her, or my parents, or anyone older than me in quite the same way

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I started watching the television show “Younger”. It is about a women in her forties who pretends to be 26, so she could fake her way into an entry-level job.  She couldn’t get into the industry of her youth after so many years out of the workforce.  The show didn’t grab me, but as I watched the first episode, I had to remind myself that I technically should be relating to the Liza character rather than her young peers.  But I didn’t.  Twenty-six seems not that long ago.  And yet as tomorrow we tick-over to 2019, my fortieth seems much closer than it did even a day ago.

Inside I feel so much younger than I am.  Maybe it’s because I spend my days watching Disney-movies, putting together lego, and taking parts in imaginary ballet concerts on my daughters bed.  Or maybe it is the strangeness of the SAHM world, where people start again, and the only age that matters is the age of your offspring.

Or maybe, like my Nan, I am just younger.  Younger than I look, or am.  Maybe that is how we all are.  Like the story of the man walking down the street, noticing the old guy in the shop window, then starting because it is his own reflection.

A few years ago I found this dissonance troubling, as I realised the “young people” in our lives no longer saw me as a peer.  I am slowly making peace with that, accepting the change, realising that it doesn’t matter how others view me.  That I am more than a number, an aching back or a new grey hair.  That I am a product of experience, that I am wiser, more objective, and less materialistic.  But still myself.  That as long as my legs will let me, I will be the first person on the dance floor at a wedding.  I will still be unable to put down an exciting novel no matter the time.  I will still walk the beach at sunset, and cry at the sappiest things.  Because those aren’t young-people things.  They are just me.

And now my parents are young and in their sixties, and my Nan is in a nursing home.  But she keeps a box of toys under her bed for the Great-grandkids, and her face lights up at the sight of a baby, the way it always has.  We are both a great deal older than we were.

But not so different on the inside.

5 Lessons I learnt from ‘Winning’ Nano

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On my forth attempt, I have succeeded in a long held dream of completing Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) for the first time.  (Here is my post about why I would attempt such a thing)

Before this year I didn’t even bother aiming for 50K, I kept my goals modest because 50K just seemed impossible.  But after four years of a mostly daily writing habit,  I was ready for the challenge. And at about 8pm on the 30th of November, I ticked over to the mighty 50K.

It was a great month.  A story that had been stewing in my head for most of 2018 was finally given a chance to be.  There were twists that I didn’t see coming, and characters that I grew to love.

And there were lessons I learnt along the way.

Don’t be competitive

The first day of November I had the almost unheard of opportunity of sitting in cafe for two hours to write.  This was after already waking at 6am and writing for a good hour and a half before the kids woke up.  So I started Nano with a 1K lead, and was excited for the month ahead.

But as I followed people on Social media, I was surprised to find I was the middle of the pack.  There were people aiming for 70K, even people who got to the 50K by the fifteenth of the month.  It was easy to feel like my ‘success’ wasn’t all that impressive after all.

And of course there were also those who struggled to hit the 1667 words per day, who felt like giving up, or who wrote 10, 25 or 35K for the month and felt rubbish because they ‘failed’. Which of course they hadn’t.

If I had been too caught up in what others were doing, I might have been discouraged.  But any words you get down are more than you started with, and we all have very different lives and writing strengths.  It is important to celebrate your own achievement, and not let comparisons take away from your successes.  And I would have never had got to 50K if I had gotten caught up in what others were doing.

Life is very hard to put on hold

I had many intentions of making writing the priority.  And there were things I did to make that happen.  I watched much less TV, I got less sleep, and I didn’t even open the packages that arrived from Booktopia over the month.

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My overly-ambition cake, I had been dying to try a mirror glaze. Chocolate Cake Base with Strawberry curd and White Chocolate Bavarian Cream Mousse, mirror glaze and a ginger-nut sand. #procrastibake

But life is almost impossible to put on hold.  You can plan to wake up early to write, but sometimes there is a baby that decides that 530am is the time to play.  Or that same baby turns 1 and you want to host a party with an over-ambitious cake.  There are forms that can’t fill out themselves, and meetings that can’t be missed. Sometimes the kids are sick, and the husband is sick, and you are sick and that is just life.

I had this blissful image of a beautiful month of writing.  And it was.  I just had to squeeze that beautiful writing time out of the hectic-ness of a normal month.

It turns out you can’t always switch off life to write.  You just have to fit your 50K words in admits the chaos.

The Writing Community is amazing

Three years ago, when I started NanoWriMo-ing.  I didn’t even join the website, I just kept track of my totals and posted them occasionally on Facebook.  But over the last three years I have steadily been building connections with writers, mostly over social media.  It has been such a joy, and that power of community really hit home during Nano.  We shared our totals, celebrated each other’s successes, and reminded ourselves why we do it on the days that were tough.  I am a better writer because of all the people I have writing beside me.

There are limits to what you can do in a month

Writing fast is a wonderful thing.  There is a heady excitement of getting the words down, the emersion that comes from swimming in the new world you have made.  Nano is permission to stop navel gazing and just see what happens.  But there are definite limits to what you can do well when you are writing so fast.  I got to the end and I could name about four characters who were well-rounded enough for my taste.  The rest were on the wooden side and need lots of work.  And though I had plotted, and world built in preparation, as the story unfolded there were questions about my world and how it worked that I just didn’t have time to properly answer if I was going to reach my words goals each day.

There might be experienced writers who can come up with something brilliant in a month. But I am not there yet.

It is only a Beginning.

Thanks to some work I did before Nano, I now have the roughest of rough first draft of my new novel.  And there is definitely a little thrill that comes from that knowledge.  But as I saw that winners certificate come up on my computer, it didn’t feel like an ending.  If it was anything I would say it was the Inciting Incident. Belinda Grant has written a rough draft of a story.  What will she do?  Will the editing get the better of her?  Will she lose focus on her goal and move onto the next shiny thing? Or will we see that triumphant moment of her story on the pages of a real, in-her-hands-book?

November is over.  I have the first draft of a new novel.  And now the real work begins.

The Power of Food in Writing

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My Mum, sister Sandy and I were sitting at a table at the Lake House.  Once a swampy marsh, Alla Woolfe Tasker and her husband decided to buy a block of land in Daylesford to start a Country restaurant using local produce, many years before that was a thing you did.  Now it was one of the top restaurants in all of Australia.

It was in the early days of the Masterchef revolution, and it was like walking into a paradise. The waiters gave a detailed description of every dish and drop, and you didn’t even notice your glass of sparkling water was empty, before it was filled.

Every dish was a production, every sensation on your tongue was carefully orchestrated perfection.

But the most memorable moment was the lamb broth.  It was completely clear and smelt divine.  Mum, Sandy and I slipped our spoon’s into our broth and took a sip.  We all looked at each other, wondering why it was that the taste was so familiar.

“It’s Nan’s soup!”

I don’t know who was the first person to say it, but we all thought it.  The delicate clear broth might have looked world’s apart from Nan’s hearty lamb soup, but they tasted identical.  And in that moment I was transported away from the white table clothe’s and matching wines, and was back at Nan’s dining room table, the fire cracking in the corner, eating soup out of a mustard-coloured bowl, elbow to elbow with my cousins.

Taste is a powerful sense.  Your Grandma’s chocolate mousse, your Dad’s stir-fry, that one perfect coffee.  You taste it again and you are transported to another time and place.  You remember.  And for a reader of a novel, it is an instantaneous trick for getting them into the moment.  A character bites an orange, nibbles on some chocolate, or licks the icing off the cake.  Readers will know those sensation, and it will help them to slide into the mind of the character they are reading.  We might not know what it is like to live in a world of dragons, to run a country, or to climb a mountain range.  But we know what it is like to hunger and to feast.

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Why don’t we use it?

Why doesn’t food get used more in writing?  Partly I think it is because we don’t think of it.  There is so much to do when it comes to putting together a narrative, it is easy to let eating and food slide off the list.  But food is such a key part of human life, and it can be a wonderful addition to your writing tool-box.

So how do you go about using food in your writing?

Food helps you build a World

Food is a powerful tool for world building.  One of the great challenges for writers, particularly of fantasy, is to get facts and information across to the reader without ‘dumping’ the information in a great, dull heap.  But food can quickly communicate various aspects of the story: How poor a family is, how a party works in that world, or the economics of a society.

One of the most powerful examples of this is in “The Hunger Games” series, where Katnis has spent her life desperately hunting to feed her family (as well as putting her name into the reaping lotto extra-times in exchange for food for her family).  Then she goes to the capital, where the food is plentiful and excessive.  The nature of the two communities is highlighted by that contrast.  And when Katnis is asked what she loves most in the capital, she says the Lamb Stew, because for someone who has fought every day of her life to put food on her table, a beautiful dish she doesn’t have to hunt is a miracle.

(BTW, here is a recipe for a Lamb and dried plum stew like the one Katnis loves so much, I’ve made it and it is delicious!)

Food has such a huge influence on a society, it is a wonderful way of communicating a different world.

Food can help you develop character

Food can also be used to show what a character is like.  My Mother tells of her Step-Grandmother, who would never use her hands to eat. Mum remembers watching her eat a chicken wings and drum-sticks with a knife and fork.  With just a little piece of information, you can tell something of who she is.  Is the person health conscious?  A sloppy eater?  Does a family all rush to put as much food on their plate as they can, as if it could all disappear in a moment? Watching a character eat can give you a window into their personality and heritage.

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Food can make you want to visit a fictional world

I am sure I am not the only person in the world who is still waiting for my Hogwarts letter.  And I think part of it is just for the food.  Right up to the point where I realised that enslaved house-elves made the food, I was entranced by those big tables in the great hall, and the piles of deliciousness that appeared every night. And again the food is made all the more tempting because Harry has never had enough to eat up to that point.

The same thing happened as I read Crazy Rich Asians.  Everything, from the elaborate culinary production at Tyersall Park, to the Hawker-market Satay, made me want to go to Singapore.  I made Asian food for weeks in response to all that deliciousness.

Good, interesting, exciting food can draw you into a world, and make you want to be part of it.

A note for Fantasy writers Or How I got thinking about this.

I have always used food in my writing, mostly because I love food (I am one of those people who will be in a good mood all day because I know there is a particularly nice meal coming for dinner).  But I got thinking about this again after a writing dilemma.

A character in my novel was making balls of dried fruit and nuts.  Now, I could do one of two things.  I could give those fruits and nuts completely new names from my world.  That would give the reader a sense they were in another place.  But if those balls are made of almonds and dates, when a character takes a bite, most readers can imagine the sensation of what they tasted like, and it will help them get into that world.

It is a difficult line.

In the end, in discussion with some of my fantasy writing buddies, I decided that ‘made-up’ food should be used occasionally and sparingly.  Yes it can give a sense of other worldliness, but because the reader doesn’t know the food you are talking about, it wretches them out of the world and doesn’t give them that ‘sensation on the tongue’ memory that is so immersive.

But one little technique I’ve notices authors use, is to give familiar food an other-worldly feeling.  You might have a in-world animal cooked into a familiar dish.  You might have food eaten with different utensils, or have the simplest meal of the day in the evening.  In Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight books he has ‘men’s food’ (meat cooked in spicy sauce) or ‘women’s food’ (meat cooked in sweet sauce).  You can taste it as he writes, but you are still convinced you aren’t in Kansas anymore.  Or you might explain a dish without using its our-world name.  You can’t use a term like Boston Bun or Black Forrest Cake in a place without a Boston or a Black Forrest!  But you can eat a Fruit bun with icing or Chocolate and cherry cake!  If a character eats sushi, that might seem too specific for a reader, but they will understand what it tastes like to have rice-balls wrapped in dried sea-weed.

So, if you are a writer, why not think hard about how food and taste can be used in your writing.  It is a small aspect of writing that can make a big difference.

I highly recommend if you are a fantasy writer (or even if you aren’t) that you listen to this Writing Excuses Podcast on Fantasy Food with Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch.  It is extremely hilarious as well as informative on this topic.

Also K.M. Allan has an excellent post on writing with the five senses here. Well worth a look!

 

Why Nano?

 

The month of October has arrived.  That means more sunshine, Cherry blossoms, and days in the backyard (at least for me here in Melbourne).  But it also means that Nanowrimo is on its way.

Nanowrimo is a yearly writing challenge that runs every year in the month of November.  Working on the basis that a novel is around 50K, the challenge is to write an entire novel in a month, along-side other writers.  You can find out about it here.

Writing-twitter and my writing related Facebook pages, are filled with people talking about and planning for Nano.  There are also others who are wondering, is this the year to try it?

And while it isn’t for everyone (and some years just don’t work), this is my plea for you to consider it.  Because it is an experience that has changed my life.

You realise just how much time you have.

The first time I did Nano, I had two year old twins and a 5 month old.  An editor friend asked on Facebook who was doing Nano and I said “I would love to do it one day but…” and brought up the afore mentioned off-spring.  She replied that I could always set a modest goal and see how I go.  So at the time in my life where I had less time for writing than I ever had, I set myself the goal of writing 1000 words a day.

I managed 25K words that month.  I cut out night-time television and day time naps and I  wrote more in that month than I had written in years.

Nano is great because when you are forcing yourself to stick to a word goal each day, you realise how many little pockets of time you have in your day.  You realise that television and social media aren’t half as satisfying as writing.  Nano taught me how much time I had, and how much I could get done if I spent it writing.  And those lessons have carried on into some excellent writing habits.

It is a finite time

New Years resolutions rarely work.  Promising yourself that for a whole year you will X, Y, or Z might seem a great idea in January, but come March that enthusiasm starts to wane.

But one month of working hard at a goal, is much more manageable and realistic.

One month of your kids watching slightly more television than normal is okay.  One month of a messy house is okay, or one month of easy, simple meals.  One month is measurable, finite.

And I can plan for it.  I can spend October getting the house in order, and preparing for activities that couldn’t be moved.  Because it is only a small block of time, I can work hard the rest of the year to make it possible.

It is accountability

This is the first year I am trying for the 50K, and also the first time I have actually signed up on the ‘official’ website.  But even before I did that, I have always been public with my Nano-goals.  I have Facebooked my Nano-journey, celebrating the milestone’s and despaired during the difficult days.  Not everyone who read my status’ would have cared or understood, but for me it was a powerful incentive.  I had told the world I was going to write, and so write I did.

And while I had set myself the goal of finishing the first draft of a Novel every year for most of my life, with the accountability of Nano, it became a reality.

 

These are all really good reasons to do Nano.  But there is one big reason why every year since that first faithful 25K, I have made myself do Nano.  And it is not about good habits (I write most days now), or accountability (I have writing friends who help me with that), or the finite nature of the month (though it is related to that).

For One Month, I let myself prioritise writing

My life is very full of good things and I have lots of wonderful responsibilities.  I have four beautiful children, with various important needs and wants, and as a Stay at Home Mum I have day-time duty for them.  I have friends, I have responsibilities.  I have a house that is never tidy and people I care about and volunteer work I do and family and friends I love and…the list goes on.

And I find it very hard to put any of that aside for my writing.  It feels selfish to say- “No, that is my writing time”.  Sure, I am happy to spend my leisure time (Ha!) on writing, but to treat it like a job and not a hobby makes me feel like an imposter.

But I want writing to be my job one day.  And it never will be unless I treat it as such.

So Nano is my permission to do that.  It is the month where I let myself say ‘Yes’ to writing, and ‘No’ to the other good things in my life.  And every year I do it, every year I reach my goals,  I get a little bit better at believing in myself.

October might have Cherry-Blossoms and my favourite mild weather.  But November is my favourite month of the year.  Because November is the month where I get to write my heart-out.

And what could be better than that!

Questions to Ask when Editing your Second Draft

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A year and a half ago I finished the first draft of The Librex.  But when I came back to it after a break, I knew it needed more than a check for punctuation errors.  The entire structure needed a re-haul.

But it was hard to know where to start.  I wasted time, knowing a scene didn’t work, but not knowing how to fix it.

But last year I also had the privilege of doing a Fantasy writing course with writer CS Pacat.  One of the most helpful things she covered was what keeps readers engaged, or as she calls it ‘Narrative traction’.  She argued readers keep reading because of the promise that what will be on the next page will be even better than what you are reading now.  Narrative traction can be tension or suspence, but it is more than that.  What’s the reader waiting for?  It might be crucial information about the world and how it works.  It might be a romantic moment between characters.  And drawing on her lessons, I came up with some helpful questions to ask as I worked on my second draft.

What will the readers want to know? AND What will readers want to see?

Is there any information that the reader will want to know?  Information about a particular magic system?  A character’s past?  Something that the reader will be curious to find out about your story, characters or world.

And what will readers want to see?  What aspects of the story are fun or novel?  What characters are entertaining?  They might be things that are already in your story.  Or there might be things that you decide to add because you know the readers will be wishing it was there.

And once you know the answers to these questions, you can structure the novel accordingly.

If there is something the reader will want to know, you might decide to hold off telling it to keep the reader hooked.

Similarly, if there is something you readers want to see you might hint that it will happen eventually to keep them turning the page.

Or alternatively, it might involve giving the people want they want.  I knew, from my own feelings and from the few people who read my book, that one minor character was compelling.  So I used that.  I included more scene’s with him.  I used him to get across information that the reader needed to know.  And I gave him a history with a character who comes up later in the book, so that when we met said character, we are already pre-disposed to care about him by association.

The secret is, you always want the reader wanting more.  If you give a tasty piece of info, or if you give the readers what they want, make sure there there is a question left hanging, or a new scene they are dying to see, to keep them hooked.

What scenes will excite your readers (and what about them make them work)?

The question “What scenes will excite your readers?” is helpful in two ways.  First it tells you where you have nailed it!  These are the scene’s that are worth keeping.  But secondly, it will help you work out how to make your other scenes better, or what scenes to add.  There is a type of magic in my novel that my husband loves, and every time we talk about my novel he demands I add more.  Knowing which scene’s work and why, can help you to give the readers more of what they want.

But then you have to look at what is not working.

What will the reader skim through?

My husband ‘read’ my first draft by listening to me read it aloud as he offered special comments along the way.  This was fun, occasionally painful, and a great learning experience.  If my husband insisted we kept going, I knew the scene was working.  But if he ended a scene by saying, “that’s enough for now, let’s read some more tomorrow”, it was almost guaranteed that the scene was dull.

And even without a guinea pig, if we are honest with ourselves, we can usually work out which scene don’t work.

So what happens when you realise that a scene is the kind of scene a reader will skim through?  You then are faced with two options:

Scrap it

OR

Add drama and tension to the scene to make it engaging.

Some scene’s just need to be scrapped and that is okay.  A big part of structural editing is getting rid of dead-weight.  If a scene isn’t engaging, or doesn’t move the story forward, then it doesn’t belong in the novel.  If there is something important that the reader needs to know, but it is otherwise a boring scene, either change up the scene so it engages, or add the info to another scene.

ACT II of the Librex started with a skim forward in time, and a navel gazing internal monologue from the protagonist about how much she had changed, and how she hadn’t.  It was (embarrassingly) terrible and I scrapped it.

But I was able to add in a scene where two characters (in the protagonist’s hearing), argued about whether she was ready for a particular promotion.  It was two characters we had never seen alone together, who had a complicated history and huge stakes in the protagonists path. It got across the same information as the navel gaze, but was now full of drama and tension.

Exposition Questions

Exposition is one of the banes of Fantasy writing.  You have created your own world, and so there is copious tomes of information to pass on to the reader, so they can understand the world and the story.  But no one picks up a fantasy book because they are dying to read an essay about imaginary fauna.  They pick it up for the story.

One struggle at the moment in my other novel is that that I have lots of information to get across about a particular crop (which is unique to my world and quite crucial to the story).  But not everyone (okay, almost no one) is interested in fabricated, fantasy agriculture by itself.

I was grappling with this when a member of my writing group gave me two helpful questions to ask when struggling with how to do exposition:

When will the reader be most excited to get this info?

And

How can I make the reader want to know this info?

I realised that the start of a novel was NOT the time for dumping info about my beloved grain.  Much better to give little information early (on a needs to know basis) and then to get more information across when it was relevant to the story, and the reader cares.

Or in The Librex, I had a character explain, before we meet a someone, that they did a terrible thing. But in my second draft, I took that scene out.  Now we met the character with a fresh slate.  We grew to like them.  So BANG, when I dropped the news of what they had done, we cared.  This news now had a significant emotional impact on the protagonists, and hopefully the reader.

So those are the questions that are helping me through my second draft.

What about other writers out there?  What questions help you edit your second draft?

 

Why do I write?

Why do I write?

As a little girl of five, I decided I wanted to be a famous Author.  I wasn’t sure I had the talent to be a famous singer, actor, or ballerina.  And I loved books.  So being an author seemed like the only avenue I had to fame and fortune (Ha!).  But though the reasoning changed, the dream never did.

Why do I write?

Because I love to imagine.  I still remember the time (I won’t tell you how old I was!) when one of the boys next door caught me pretending I was riding a horse through the ‘Secret Garden’ by our house. It was embarrassing, but it was a profound moment.  Because maybe I was too old to be prancing around playing imaginary games.  But I realised then that I wasn’t going to stop dreaming up stories, no matter how old I got.  Writing lets me hold onto the best bits of childhood.

Why do I write?

I write because that is how I process this world.  By expressing.  Some of that is done verbally, as I figure out what I think by percolating over it during a phone D&M, a cup of Earl Grey, or even as I pray.  But some thinking can only be done by words on a page. I write to think clearly.

Why do I write?

I write because this world is so beautiful and interesting and so are it’s people and when I write there is this extra shimmer to everything because my eyes open up and I see the beauty that is right there.

Why do I write?

I write because this world can be brutal and hard and sometimes it is nice to go somewhere else for a change.

Why do I write?

During University I was writing a novel about four friends.  And one day I picked up an orange, and I found myself wondering how my book-girls would eat it.  And I realised that Mae would peel it and spend a few minutes removing all the pith before she ate each segment, and Kaye would just chop it with a knife, and Annie would peel it and bite off the tip of a segments and slowly slurp out the juice, and Ella didn’t like oranges, but was too polite to say no when someone handed her a slice (and only Annie and the boy-next-door Matty knew the truth).

Those characters became real people to me.  They lived.  That is why I write.

Why do I write?

Because it is the most glorious hobby I have ever experienced.  It feeds my soul.  It makes me a better person.  There are moments of difficult and struggle, and I know I have only touched the surface of the very scary world of writing rejection.

But the highs?  Those moments when a plot idea sails into your head like a gift.  When the characters you love have a moment of insight or triumph.  When a phrase just sings. When an idea becomes a scene, and a plot becomes a story.  When I go to bed early, just so I can lie under the covers and go to my new world for an adventure.

When I tell people I am a writer I often say that reading a book is like watching a video of someone visiting an amazing place.  Writing is going there yourself.

And that is why I write.

 

My Year in Writing and the Lessons I am Learning

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Photo by IMAMA LAVI on Pexels.com

August seems as good a time as any to take stock of the year so far and to think about what is ahead.  It has been a year of writing, editing, procrastinating, and life getting in the way.

But I have been learning many things through the process.

THE TRAP OF SOCIAL MEDIA

I love social media.  It feeds my extroverted heart in a stage of life where I am at home most of the day.  It connects me to many precious friends, and it is my main avenue for conversing with other writers.

But it is a great time drain.  What I noticed this year is the way I rely on it when I am struggling.  If I am feeling discouraged about my writing, or getting bored with editing, then I fall to social media for comfort and a break.  But it doesn’t help the problems, and so I go back to it over and over again.  I have taken to putting my phone on it’s charger and turning off the wifi on my computer.  It doesn’t mean I don’t still check SM regularly, but the act of having to get up, or turn wifi back on, makes me more conscious of how I am using it.

THE RIGHT QUESTIONS TO ASK WHILE RESTRUCTURING

Restructuring is a new skill that has not come easily to me. I made lots of mistakes as I edited my novels first Act, because I was too focused on fixing individual scenes and not enough on the big picture of what needed to happen when and why.  But working out the right questions to ask has made a big difference.

I will be writing a blog post about specific questions I ask when I edit, but the general questions of “What things would the reader care about at this point?” and “Which scene’s would the reader skim over or find dull?” helped me to work out what things needed to go and what scene’s could be added or re-tweaked to make it hum.

THE NEED FOR (ARTIFICIAL) DEADLINES

One of the hardest things about writing a novel when unpublished is there are no immediate dead-lines.  Unless there is a competition you are entering or an assignment you need to hand-in, you are the only person who cares when you get your novel done.  This means it is very easy to go slow, or to be side-tracked by other writing projects.

So I create artificial deadlines.

I have a on-line writing group where we have the option of submitting a scene for feedback once a month.  But even though it is optional, I make myself submit every month.  Not only do I find the feedback invaluable, but the deadline acts as wonderful motivation.  And once I have submitted my scene, I am in the habit of working hard, which sets the tone for the rest of the month.

Also, this year I watched lots of writing friends enter pitching competitions and attend Editor/Agent meet-ups with their completed manuscripts.  So, if that is my aim, then I work backwards to think about what I would need to do to get my novel complete by the same time next year.

These deadlines need to be short enough to motivate.  “Get my novel edited this year” didn’t motivate me in Feb to edit.  Deciding in April to get Act I edited by the end of May worked much better as a dead-line.

So, where am I up to with my writing?

The Librex

This is my baby, my first novel, everything that I love to read in other books condensed into a book of my own.  A friend said to me yesterday “You’ve finished your first novel, does that mean you are editing?”  The answer was yes and no.  I had no idea how to write a novel when I wrote the first draft of The Librex, and so it is not so much editing as a complete restructure/re-write.  I have finished the restructure of Act I and have just finished plotting out Act II.  My goals are to have Act II finished by the end of September, Act III finished by the End of December, and to clean it up and make it sparkle over January, ready to give to some beta readers for feedback.

Savey & Mason

Savey & Mason is my Fantasy/Romance.  It is based on a dream I had many years ago, a vivid scene filled with intense emotion and interesting magic.  The next day I had to sit down and work out a world and story in which that dream ‘scene’ could fit.  I put it away while I finished The Librex first draft, but began to turn it into a novel during the Fantasy writing course I did last year.  I am getting closer to finishing the first draft, and am giving scenes to my writing group for their feedback.  Hoping to get the first draft done by the end of December, so I can edit it up while The Librex is off in feedback-land.

AJ

One of my biggest challenges in editing is sticking to task and not getting side-tracked by new, shiny stories.  AJ is my new, shiny story that I am doing my best not to write. I am consoling myself by knowing I will devote November’s Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) to working on it.  I am hoping this will be the year where I finally succeed in writing 50,000 words in a month.

So that is my year so far. Fellow writers out there, how has your year been tracking?  What new things have you learnt?

Writing Tips for the sleep deprived

When I tell people that I am writing a novel with four young kids at home, the first thing people ask is where I find the time.  And while that can be a challenge, I don’t find it the biggest barrier to my writing.

The biggest barrier I find is the sleep deprivation.

It makes sense.  When you are sleep deprived your brain works at a slower pace.  Your memory is impaired.  So when it is time to come up with a creative solution to a plot hole, or find the perfect metaphor, you come up short.

And even as I write this, with only five hours granted to me by a sick infant, every word that isn’t four letters long takes an extra few seconds to recall.

And yet, despite sleeping through the night 4 times in the last three years, I have finished the first draft of a novel, and written over 100,000 words on several more.

How you ask?  How do you keep writing and growing as a writer when your mind is a sieve?  Well, here are a few tricks I have developed as I have continued to write through the fog.

PLACE-SETTERS

There are things that come easily for me in writing and things that don’t.  I find dialogue and action flow even when I am tired.  But description, and showing emotions through actions do not.  I also find my vocabulary is reduced when I am over-tired, as it takes a great deal of time to come up with the perfect word.

So rather than wasting precious hours racking my sub-par brain, I use place-setters.  I put a note to myself to add things in later.

In my early years of writing, my place-settings was fjfjfjf.  If I didn’t know what to write at a point, and I wanted to come back to it later, I would just tap my index fingers on the keyboard: fjfjfjf.  That way during edits, it was easy to see where I got stuck.

Overtime my place-setters have become more specific. There is a rthym to a scene; a pacing and structure that is engrained in me from the thousand odd books I have read.  On a day of exhaustion, even though I don’t always have the energy to write out a whole scene, I usually have a sense of what belongs where.

So as I write, I leave notes to Future-Belinda about what needs to be added to the scene.  I write them in capital letters, and come back to them later.  Some might be general like ‘ACTION’ or ‘MORE DESCRIPTION’.  It might be my own critiques of what I already know needs to change like ‘SHOW DON’T TELL’ or ‘NEEDS MORE FEELS’.  Or it might be  more specific like ‘GOOD PLACE FOR A METAPHOR/SIMILIE’ or ‘THINK MORE ABOUT HOW HE IS FEELING HERE’

I don’t write like this every day.  Some days I will write a full scene, with very few place-setters. Some days all I will do is go through a scene and replace the place-setters with better words.  But it is a great way to keep plugging away at the story when I don’t have the mind space to write pretty.

NOTES

It is probably a good tip, regardless of sleep levels, for writers to make notes as they think of things.  I often recall Roald Dahl’s story about writing “ELEVATOR” in the mud on his car when he first came up with the idea for ‘Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator’.  But this is even more the case when you are sleep deprived.

I have a great memory for my stories, and back in the days of eight-hours sleep, I wouldn’t always take notes on the go, because most of the time I could recall my ideas when I was finally back at my computer.  No longer!  It is hard enough to remember what I am doing the next day, much less intricate details of plot.  I sometimes even find myself searching for a scene in my manuscript, only to discover I haven’t written it yet.

So keep notes.  Your weary-brain will thank you.

READING

It is the classic advice that almost every writer will give you when you ask the question: ‘What is the most important thing you can do to improve your writing?’ Read.  But when life gets busy I can forget the importance of this, as I find it hard to justify reading when there is so much writing to do.

But my writing is so much better when it is feed from a steady diet of wonderful books.  Reading isn’t an optional extra for writers.  It is a key aspect of the process.

And reading is so much easier than writing when you are sleep-deprived!  So take advantage of that.  If you have had a rough night, then turn away from your computer/notebook and pick up a book.  Your manuscript will be better for it.

OR DON’T WRITE

This might seem an odd point in a post about writing through sleep deprivation.  But I think it needs to be said.

My observation of myself and my writing friends is there is often a huge sense of urgency to writing.  It takes a great deal of time to write a novel.  And so many of us look back on our early years of dreaming of writing a novel and yet not taking the steps to do it and think ‘what a waste’

And so, at times like this, when kids are little or work is overwhelming or other commitments get in the way, we are determined to press through regardless.

But sometimes you have to be kind to yourself.

If you are too tired to write, that is okay too.

Or it might mean what you write needs to change.  I have always found writing to be a cathartic experience; writing is how I think, process and make sense of this world.  But in the haze of sleeplessness, adding in the pressure of deadlines or negative critiques or writers-despair isn’t a great for your mental health.  Much better to take a break from the most challenging parts and to write in a journal, blog about fun things, or even work on a new story just for the fun of it.

It may be that this is not the right time to write your novel.  And that is okay.

 

So, those are my tips for writing through sleep-deprivation.  Yes it has its challenges.  But it can be done.