A Letter to Myself for When I Receive Feedback

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Dear Belinda,

First of all- hugs. Good on you for putting yourself out there, for taking your hard work and risking it out there in the world. It’s a big deal and I’m proud of you. But those hugs aren’t just congratulatory ones. I know you’re hurting. And I’m sorry. Know that the tears and the disappointment will happen, and will keep happening. But also know it will pass.

I think one of the hardest things is the shock. You should be prepared for it, you’ve been receiving feedback for years now, and you know what it’s like. You know how much you have improved, and how helpful it is to find out what’s wrong and how to fix it. That a second set of eyes is crucial for making your work the best it can be. Maybe that is why it feels so strange every time. Because you know all these things, but for a day or two, you turn back into that Year Seven girl, crying because your English Teacher wrote “good grief!” on your melodramatic prose.

It isn’t that you thought it was perfect.  It isn’t even that you now think you’re no good. You’ve been doing this long enough to know that the writers who succeed aren’t the ones who have the most talent, they are the ones who keep improving and never give up.

Really it is about the time. You’ve worked hard and you’ve climbed the mountain and got so far. And then you realise that you have only reached a small peak on the side, and the rest of the mountain towers before you, just as high and difficult as before. You’ve given up sleep and TV and all kinds of things to get this as good as you could, and now there is more sacrifice, more climbing to go.

And all you want to do is throw the story in the bin and pick up another one. As if the problem is the mountain you chose and not the reality that getting better requires patience.

So I’m hear to remind you it’s okay. This is a marathon and not a sprint. And you aren’t in this for fame or money or because you are being forced. You made this choice. You decided that the story, that this sacrifice was worth it. That the view from the heights is worth the pain of the climb. And deep down you know it is, despite your tears.

So Belinda, I will allow you to wallow for a day or two, but no more. Work on other things. Why don’t you write a blog post? Expressing your feelings always makes you feel better.

And then in two days pick that feedback up again. It’ll be like reading something new. All those positive comments will shine out, instead of fading to the background. The things that didn’t work will become possibilities. And you’ll see it.  That new peak to climb. It isn’t that much further to go. And how much better will the view be?

Think what this story you love could become. You owe it to yourself to find out. You’ve got this.

Love Belinda

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!

 

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?