Applying the Feedback series: Character

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

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

I wasn’t invested in the character/s

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

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

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

Internalisation and emotions

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

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

Imagine reading this:

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

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

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

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

Inconsistencies (Or plot before character problems)

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

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

Here are some examples of what I mean:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘Every-person’ Main Character

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

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

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

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

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

Agency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Series Posts

Applying the feedback: Character Voice

Applying the Feedback Series: Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write like your character is speaking to a close friend

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

But how would I talk to my sister about it?

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

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

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

Get Out of your Own Way

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

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

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

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

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

But sometimes…

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

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

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

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

Home Learning and Being Okay with Just Okay

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July. Two-thousand and Twenty. The second lockdown in Melbourne had begun. I had no idea how long it would go– the painful months to come of steal rings and five ks. But when our school holidays were interrupted with a call to lockdown, my optimistic and perhaps deluded heart thought that Prep students like my twins would be excluded from any school closures. After all, my boy had already had to restart prep twice. Surely, surely the government wouldn’t insist they do it for a third time?

But they did insist, and I was heartbroken. But more than that, I was scared. Insomnia has never been a particular struggle of mine, but the night I found out I’d be doing home learning again, I lay there for hours in fear and despair. I couldn’t! I just couldn’t.


Why was I so afraid? I done it before and I coped okay. But about an hour into my panic, I realised why I was scared. I didn’t want to let my boys down. I wanted them to have the best education possible and I knew the ‘best education’ wasn’t going to come from me. I didn’t know how to teach kids to read and write. I didn’t know how to be a mum and a teacher together. A few weeks had been ok because it didn’t matter; the teachers would catch them up. But a whole term? That really mattered. I was just okay, and that wasn’t good enough. I was going to fail my darling boys.

And I hate failing.


Fear of failure is the achilles heel of the intellectually competent. I was the academic kid at school, who after a slow start at primary school– breezed through the humanities and the sciences at high school and topped my year level due to my consistency. I’m used to being able to do things really well. And though (like everyone) there is an even bigger list of things I can only do okay, those were the things I avoided. Because if I didn’t do the things that I’m ordinary at, then I’d never fail. 

Of course this is a terrible way to live. It robs you of the chance to try things that take time and effort to master, but which have rewards in both the learning of the skill and eventual competency.

But failure is scary. And the longer you go without failing, the more scary it becomes. Until you inevitably hit something that you MUST do, even if you’re not good at.

Like Home Learning.

Or Motherhood.

For isn’t motherhood the ultimate leveller? When competent, capable women (often) take a break from the jobs they’ve trained for and find themselves drifting on the churning sea of nappies, sleep schedules and contrary opinions. Where every day there is a new failure to pick yourself up from. Breast feeding and sleeping through the night and what-did-I-do-all-day.

Motherhood was good preparation for the ‘I’m just okay at this” world of home learning.

But it didn’t make it any less scary.

So Lockdown Two began, and along with it, the most intense block of home learning I hope ever to experience. Google meets and uploading onto Seesaw and trying to balance my own wish to provide a good experience for my boys with my own exhaustion and needs. Just okay- which of course with my high standards felt like failure. Falling off the bike and getting on it again the next day. And the next. And the next.

A week before home learning started, I’d begun a new writing project. A story where the protagonist’s only path out of heart-break was to grow competent in two skills she was terrible at. I didn’t write it to express the feelings I was experiencing in the second Melbourne lockdown. But boy did they come out on the page! Writing was a cathartic break from stress of home learning time. But it was more than a distraction–it actually made it better. You can’t control your own life, the challenges and even failures you face. But as a writer you can control your characters. Force them into situations where they have to fight their demon’s to get what they want. Make them strong while you are weak. And even borrow some of their strength for real life’s own little unavoidable battles.

My character learnt that competency was not the defining marker of her worth. And I learnt that just being okay wasn’t the failure I’d convinced myself it was.

And so, I pushed on. I was just okay at Home learning. But since I was the only possible teacher, that had to be enough.

Lockdown 2 had a happy ending. Not only did the never-ending lockdown end, but my boys had a wonderful term. When they returned back to school the teachers were thrilled with how they had learnt and grown. But I don’t pretend that was because I was a fabulous. I was still just okay. But it turned out, for that season, their just-okay-Mummy was what my boys needed.

Maybe that’s true for every season.

And now, as I I attempt to once again run home learning- this time with a third child in the mix, I’m reminded that school isn’t just about learning to read, write and do mathematics. It’s about perseverance. It’s about making mistakes. It’s about learning that being just okay, is actually okay.

And who better to teach them that than me.

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.

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 

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

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 squad.  And the internet is an even bigger world to find your squad. 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.

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!