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

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.

Update on my Writing Year

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So, we have hit August, and I thought it might be a good time to update how my writing life has been going.  This is for all the lovely people I see IRL who ask me ‘how’s the book going?’ as well as those who are writers themselves and hear me natter away on Twitter about “Christmas story” and “Third Drafts” and “Nano 18 edits”. 

The Librex

In October last year I was feeling a little stuck.  I was in the process of working on the second draft of my novel The Librex.  While I loved it, there were some aspects that made me wonder if it would be a difficult sell as a debut.  I also knew I needed some sort of incentive to get it done.

My friend KD Kells was about to do the AWC Write your Novel On-line class. With less than a week until sign-ups closed I took the plunge and joined her.  It seemed the perfect way to get the next draft of the Librex done, while also up-skilling and having an opportunity to work out if this novel was worth investing in.

It was wonderful! I learnt so much about writing from the feedback and the tutor, I met a great group of critique partners, and everyone seemed to enjoy and believe in my book.  I got my second draft finished by the end of March and as of last week have taken on the class feedback and finished draft three!

So now what? I’ve sent this next draft of the Librex out to a few people for some more feedback, to see if the changes I’ve made between drafts have solved the issues my class-mates found in the story.  Then my plan is to enter PitchWars.  PitchWars is a mentoring competition where writers enter their completed manuscripts for the right to be mentored by an industry professional, to get that manuscript up to scratch.  Then Literary agents can read their submissions and if they like it, offer to represent the author and their book. (If you want a book published by one of the big publishing houses in America, you generally need an agent to make that happen)

I am nervous about this next step, and am tempted to second guess myself and my beloved book.  But I know, if my nerves had their way, I would never submit my novels anywhere! Pitch Wars is a great incentive to get my book up to scratch, and whatever happens, I will have submitted my manuscript for the first time and that’s a pretty cool milestone.

AJ

AJ is my NanoWriMo Novel for 2018.  It has been mostly on the backburner with occasional tweaking.  Because I am me, instead of being an easier, more straightforward novel than The Librex, of course instead it’s a complex secondary world, dual POV, trilogy monster!  I have had two writing friends look at it, who have given me some great feedback as to what isn’t working (namely- most of it!)  But that hasn’t dampened my excitement and I’m looking forward to getting the start up to scratch for critiquing on my upcoming Writing Retreat.

Savey & Mason

My Fantasy Romance isn’t quite shelved, but I’ve put it aside for the moment.  I wrote it as part of my Fantasy Novel writing course with CS Pacat, and while the characters are super dear to me, I know it needs a tonne of work, and I’d lost my faith in it.  But when I had the immense pleasure of meeting CS Pacat face-to-face this year, she remembered the characters! So that gives me hope that there might be some merit of dusting it off in the future and giving it another try.

Christmas Anthology

Part way through the year, the wonderful Emily Wrayburn suggested we start at #6amAusWriters hashtag on Twitter as a way of gathering early morning Australian writers, and motivating each other to write.  A gang emerged and it’s been a wonderful incentive not to hit snooze! One of us was writing a Christmas story, and then V.E. Patton suggested we do a #6amAusWriters Christmas anthology. 

Random but fun, hey!

It’s happening and I’m contributing.  This will be a great chance to dip my toe into the self-publishing world, and I have a Christmas Sci-Fi story that won’t leave me alone (I’ve entered two versions of it into Furious Fiction already).  So now I can expand it out and see what happens.  The plan is to get it published in time for Christmas.  Can’t wait to finish mine and see everyone else’s stories come together.

Furious Fiction

I’ve continued to enter the AWC Furious Fiction competition each month, making it 19 out of 19 since it began last year.  It has been one of the highlights of the year, a great chance to get my creative brain pushing out new stories (which let’s face it, is my favourite part of writing). I haven’t been short-listed since June last year, but that matters less and less to me with each month.  The enjoyment I get from the process, and the constant chance to improve is reward enough.

Writer in Motion

I won’t spend any time on WiM as I’ve done a whole blog series about it, but if you are interested in seeing my process of bringing a short story from first draft to edited polish- see here for the first post.

My New Years Writing Treats, an update.

At the start of the year I decided rather than having writing resolutions, I would give myself permission to get writing treats over the year.  My aim was to attend three writing events, to buy more new books, and to go on a writing retreat.

So how is that going? Rather spectacularly!

I’m averaging around a writing event a month! As well as some more formal writing events (YA Day, Emerging Writers YA Day, and KidLit Vic), I’ve also been to several book launches and catch ups with writer friends.  It has been wonderful to move out of the haze of early babyhood and be once again immersed in the world and people again. 

As for the other two aims, I am already at twenty-two new books read this year. And a group of Sci-Fi Fantasy friends and I are all set to go away on a writing retreat at the end of September.  We’ll give each other time to write, but also do some critiquing and world building chats and I can’t wait!

It’s so affirming to prioritise things that are good for my writing career, and I’m grateful for a husband and Grandparents/Aunts/Uncles who are committed to making that possible.

Thanks folks for listening to my ramble-ly post.  It has been a fun writing year, and while the steps ahead are huge and a little scary, I’m excited to have so many people in my life cheering me on.  So thank you!

Writer in Motion- Professional Edit

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This last month I have taken part in an event called Writer in Motion, where a group of writers show the steps of writing a short story from first draft to finished product.  You can read about it in my first post.

Today is the day. This week after having feedback from a professional editor, my story is complete. Or at least I hope it is.

I find it difficult to judge.  It might benefit from more read-throughs, or a second go with an editor.  But you can tinker with things forever. And I am so excited how far this story has come.  I loved this story, and my poor Hannah from the first draft of my story, rough though it was.  But it has been so exciting to see it improve, step by step, week by week.  I’m thrilled with how it has turned out.  I will discuss the editorial stage at the end of the story, but without further ado, here is the final draft of my story: Gloves.

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Gloves

by Belinda Grant

Another box of fifty gloves arrive.

I walk to Doveton and pick them up under the Post-worker’s suspicious gaze.

“What do you do with all these gloves?” It’s the same question he asks every week.

What am I supposed to say? I give a bland smile and flee, holding the box to my chest. As if I could hide behind such a flimsy thing.

I should’ve avoided town after last night. The stares are worse today than normal, and that’s saying something. No pretext of politeness, people stop mid-sentence as I cross Main street. I know what they’re saying. About the MacIntosh’s boat going from new to decayed in twenty-four hours, and how weird things didn’t used to happen in their precious town. I feel their eyes on my Lizzie Bennett dress, my curly-hair piled up high. Mum’s idea to make the gloves appear part of an eccentric fashion statement, and not a precaution against disaster.

The sun beats down as I lift my skirt to run between the shade pooled at the base of the ghost-gums. Doveton is beautiful if I only look with my eyes.  Dad says there is no point in moving on, that everywhere will be hard at first. Make more of an effort, Hannah. He doesn’t feel the stares. I want to move to the hippy hills, where people think crystals help a cold and a taro-deck warns of your impending death. Where strange is a draw-card.

I arrive home and go straight to the glove room. I drop my new box on top of last weeks haul, identical but for the FOUR HOURS scrawled on the side.  That’s about how long they last. The scent of rosemary lamb and bubbling gravy wafts through the door. It’s time to face the most painful stares of all. My family’s.

Mum’s fork shakes as she stabs her potato. Sadie looks up from her plate to glare at me at regular intervals. Her friends always pull back from her after an ‘incident’ like the boat. One day of my life, one tea-spoon of my torment, and she looks ready to go at me with the carving knife. Cow.

Father stirs his remaining peas around his plate, trailing gravy across the china.

“I’ve ordered two more replica vases.”

Mum puts down her wine. “I told you, I don’t want us doing that anymore.”

“We need the money. What happens if this boat thing blows up? We’ll need savings until we find our feet somewhere new. Precautions.” No one looks at me.

“It’s dishonest.”

Father strikes the table with his fist and the peas jump.

“I don’t mind.” While the vases turn ancient under my bare-hands, I get to press my head against them and see the life they could have lived. Peonies, gerberas, tulips and roses. Views of lounge rooms from the mantel, watching families growing up and growing old as they fade and age themselves.

And forged antiques make good money.

“I didn’t ask you, Hannah,” snaps Mum. Sadie chews on a carrot and smirks at me.

Maybe I should run away. Quit school and find a job in the city. Save precious Sadie from all her suffering–and myself from Davison’s gaze.

I can’t sleep that night, so I put on a four-hour pair of gloves. They’re yellowed and worn–they could be my Great-Grandmothers’. I press a gloved finger to my forehead and I watch, as if on screen, what could have been. Debutante balls and costume parties. A life, rather than a few small hours protecting everything around me. I pull on my boots and head to the river.

The boat leans against the bank like it’s been there for years. So different from the day before. Why didn’t I leave it alone? There’d been something about that varnished wood glowing in the late afternoon sun. A stupid compulsion to stroke the bow, and it was twenty-years older in an instant.

But tonight it’s deliberate destruction. I take-off both gloves and press my hands against the side. The wood is worn, and splinters dig into my skin.

“You should keep going. Just to be safe.”

Davison. How the heck does he always know where I’ll be, when he’s so clueless about everything else? I rest my forehead against the hull to try to block out his presence and watch the life the boat should have had. Adventures down the river, beers on the deck.

Davison’s like a spinning magnet, cycling round from repellent to attractive and back again. Gloves back on, I sit beside him, and we wait. The boat lives out hundreds of years in minutes, crumpling to dust and settling into the river under the stars. They’ll still be talk.  But at least the evidence is gone.

“It’s just a boat, Hannah, don’t feel bad. Your hands are amazing.” He reaches for one, and I let him take it, almost feeling his skin through the faded fabric.

“We could leave Doveton together.”

Mysterious, naïve Davison. He gets stared at too. Would it be so wrong? To have a friend who sees me as the heroine, not the witch.

A friend who knows what it’s like to be a miracle and a curse.

Memories of a baby’s face flash over the handsome grown one. Choking and gasping for breath, his preemie lungs struggle against a simple cold. An older baby could survive, but he was too small and weak to fight it off. What else could I do? I’d whipped off a glove and placed my hand on his tiny chest. But I wasn’t quick enough.’

“Hannah.” He reaches for my face and I let him take it, resting my forehead against his. I see the years my hands took from him. Baby Davison learning to walk. A giggling boy, jumping the waves. Ten-years-old, shooting hoops with his Dad. All of it sacrificed under my touch.

I stand up and run.

“Hannah, wait!”

I don’t listen, I just run and run.

And the gloves on my hands crumble to dust.

What changed in the Professional Editing Process

I have to admit, one of the main selling points for me in getting involved in the #WriterInMovement project was the chance to receive some professional editing.  I had the pleasure of sending my manuscript to the amazing Maria Tureaud.

I know there are many people reading this who aren’t writers, so I want to explain a bit about editing. My picture when I was young of an editor was someone who would go through your document and correct all your spelling and grammar mistakes.  But there are several other steps in the editing process.

Before proof reading there are two stages.  In Australia we call the first stage a ‘structural edit’, in America it is known as a developmental edit.  The developmental edit looks at big picture things like plot, story structure, character arcs and the like.  Then the ‘line edit’ or ‘copy edit’ works on improving the language and flow.

So rather than just going through and fixing the wrong tenses (though she had to do that too!), Maria had both development and line editing suggestions for my manuscript. One of the things I appreciated most about Maria’s edit, is she wasn’t afraid to make big changes to the story.  She suggested that my mention of Davison be removed from early in the story. It was helpful, because though I had liked the idea of setting up Davison for the ending early on, there was already SO MUCH going on at the start, so many questions and uncertainty, that it was much cleaner to keep him at the end.

The other big thing that Maria was helpful with is transitions.  She pointed out when I hadn’t made a clear enough link between paragraphs and scenes.  She suggested Hannah should smell dinner which would be a better lead in to the dinner table scene.  And thinking about how to transition lead to a few new sentences which I really love.

Maria also put her foot-down and made me reveal more about the boat early on.  She was right.  I was trying to be too clever, too cagey, but she pointed out, there were truths in the story that she didn’t get until the forth reading!  She also pushed me to be more specific about Davison.  Most of my changes near the end where small tweaks to sentences, but I think they made a huge difference to the clarity of the story.

Maria was keen for me to get rid of the word repellent, because it made it seem like Hannah found Davison gross.  I decided to leave it in (I think the magnet image works well as a picture for their relationships), but I took out the second use of the word when she ran away, so to use it more as a metaphor than a straight emotional reaction.

And Maria wanted paragraphs 5 and 6 swapped, but I chose to keep them in their original order, with a little bit of tweaking.  I remember hearing a writer say at a workshop that you might not agree with an editors solution to a problem they’ve found in the manuscript, but then your job is to come up with a better solution to that problem.  I don’t know if I’ve done that, those two paragraphs have been the trickiest ones to deal with in this round of edits. But I did a little tweaking so I hope they flow on from each other a little better.

Bellow is a screen shot of Maria’s edits. As you can see, she had lots of detailed comments all through my manuscript, causing me to think hard about why I was doing what I was doing. 

And while I was a little shell shocked when I first opened up her email (😜), I quicky came to see the value of comments, and how right she was. I can really see the value of a professional editor. I hope I have the opportunity to work with one again in the future 🙂

Next week will be the final week in the project, as I write a post about my overall experience of #WriterInMotion

You can find links to all the other amazing writers and their stories here 

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.

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?

 

My Year in Writing and the Lessons I am Learning

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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?

2017 Writing Lessons- The Power of Distance

It says something about the start of 2018 that I am only just getting around to this post.  Blogging has once again dropped down my list of priorities, as I navigate life with 4 kids and settle my boys into a new kinder year.  But I am keen to blog, and I thought the best way to start the year was to give you a picture of how my writing life has been tracking.

2016 ended with the excitement of knowing that I had actually finished something.  A full first draft of “The Librex”; my first novel.  There were no such exciting milestone’s last year. Yet 2017 was probably one of the most significant years in my writing life.  I decided to take a little break from my work-in-progress (WIP) to work on other projects.  I though it would be prudent to do some more formal learning, so I enrolled in an on-line Fantasy writing course.

The lessons that I learnt last year will be crucial tools in the years to come.

One of those lessons was the power of distance.

One of the most repeated suggestions for editing a first draft is that you need to have a break from it to get some perspective.  That distance can help you to see it in a realistic light.  But having just finished my first ever novel draft I was itching to work on it, to make it better, to bring it closer to the stage where I might actually be able to get it published.  But I made myself promise to leave it alone for three months, while my sister and husband read through it and gave me their feedback.

That three months became six months because my husband was still finishing off his feedback.

Then six months became almost a year because editing is soul-crushing and writing from scratch is much more fun.

But as 2018 begins, I am beginning to edit.  And I am amazed at how helpful a bit of distance has been in how I edit my novel.  I am willing to scrap. I am willing to change. I have the gained the ability to read my work almost as if it wasn’t me who wrote it.

A year ago, changing the name of a character seemed impossible because I-love-that-name-I-picked-it-because-of-XYZ-He-Just-Couldn’t-Be-Called-Anything-Else.  Now I am willing to cut characters, scenes and events, because I am more committed to what the book can be, than to what I originally wrote.

Though changing the name of that character is still heart-breaking!

I may not always have the time or opportunity to get a years break from a writing project.  But I’ve found a little distance is a great gift to the editing process.