Conflicting advice

For most of my life, I’ve considered writing to be a solitary activity. When I began studying creative writing at university, I discovered the joys and frustrations of ‘critique groups’. Then my fellow-student Kathy George and I adopted each other as ‘writing buddies’. In the process of co-writing an article on writing partnerships for WQ, we interviewed fourteen other writers, who all told us they rely on fellow-writers for mutual support. Some people work one-on-one with a single trusted writing friend, others operate in groups of up to eight (though more commonly three to five).

One of the main ways writing buddies support each other is through providing feedback (sometimes called critique or constructive criticism) on work-in-progress. But here’s where it gets tricky. What if you don’t agree with your buddy’s feedback on your story?

Jenny writes a story and is very pleased with the climax, which she considers subtle and powerful. Her writing buddy Ryan, however, just doesn’t ‘get it’. Jenny explains the climax to Ryan, who suggests she provide a few more clues so the reader knows what’s happening. Jenny fears this will give too much away, risks telling rather than showing, and doesn’t demonstrate trust in the reader. She hopes Ryan’s missing of the point is just an aberration: on most of her target readers, she thinks, the climax will have the impact she’s aiming for.

How can she test this optimistic hypothesis? She sends the story to another three writing friends. Emma thinks it’s brilliant, and insists she mustn’t change a word. Viv, like Ryan, doesn’t get it, and Anthony understands what’s happened in the climax but is underwhelmed.Different ideas

Jenny tries to analyse why her buddies’ responses are so different. It doesn’t seem to be a gender thing. It’s not that they read and write different genres: each of these people appreciates and experiments with diverse writing styles. Emma has known her the longest, so perhaps Emma’s knowledge of Jenny as a person has helped her grasp and enjoy the story.

What should Jenny do next?

  1. Send the story to some more people, and keep monitoring reactions. She’s running out of writing friends, but maybe she should just find people who belong to her target market. There are potential problems here. She may end up with even more conflicting advice. Non-writers may feel ill-qualified to ‘judge’ her work, and may tell her it’s great out of politeness. Or tell her it’s not great, but be unable to articulate why not. And what if her sample ends up equally divided between thumbs-up and thumbs-down? How’s she going to feel, and what’s she going to do?
  2. Look for an expert who can tell her definitively whether the story ‘works’ or not. Unfortunately, as William Goldman once famously remarked in relation to Hollywood, ‘Nobody knows anything.’ The most experienced agent or commissioning editor will sometimes completely misjudge what the readership will accept, understand, and embrace. Anyway, opportunities to access genuine expert advice on a specific story are rare and usually expensive.
  3. Send the story to market as is. After all, there must be people out there like herself and Emma, who’ll get the story straight away and love it. On the plus side, this is one way to get expert advice. If Jenny sends the story to a magazine, the editor may either publish it (yay!) or send specific guidance for a rewrite or to inform Jenny’s future efforts. Sadly, the chances of receiving such feedback from an editor nowadays are slim: it’s usually just yea or nay. If it’s nay, Jenny may have spoiled her story’s chances with this editor. And the story could be tied up for a long time waiting on that fairly unhelpful nay, unless Jenny has chosen a publication that allows simultaneous submissions.

I don’t have an answer for this one – do you? What would you do?

 

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Rewriting

Often when we talk about the “rewriting” stage of a manuscript, we’re really talking about editing and polishing. We take the material we’ve written and shuffle it around, cut some bits, expand others, add a scene, correct the punctuation, and so on. This is all very easy to do with a word processor.

But there can be great value in actually “rewriting” the manuscript: turning to a blank page (or opening a new document) and starting again from scratch. Most of us probably wouldn’t do this with a complete nrewritingovel manuscript (though some do, and I have). However, it may be the best approach to a scene, chapter, or short story that just isn’t working. Sometimes, the more you tinker with the draft, the worse it gets. You’re better off starting over.

One approach to rewriting is to change something quite fundamental, and see what happens. Here are a few examples:

The protagonist

Particularly in a short story, it’s easy to make too early and easy a decision about who the main character is. Perhaps, if the story is based on events that happened in your life, you’ve unconsciously selected the “you” character as the protagonist. If the story’s not working, try rewriting it with another character in the leading role – and/or from another character’s point of view.

The point of view

If you’ve written the story in first person, what happens if you change the point of view to limited third person, or omniscient third person? I once rewrote the draft of a novel from limited third person into a first person/quasi second person narrative stance, with the narrator an omniscient being observing and addressing the protagonist (a little like Death in The Book Thief, except that Death commentates on Liesel’s activities rather than speaking directly to her). I ended up changing back to limited third person, but the voice had changed for the better. My limited third person approach had been too limited. Once I allowed a few more insights into the character and her situation to shine through (insights I’d gained courtesy of my first person narrator), the text became much more lively and less opaque.

The framing device

Is this story being told by one character to another, late one night in a pub? Is it a dramatic monologue? Is it being narrated as a first-person reminiscence? Whatever the frame, if the story’s not working, a “reframe” might provide a useful starting point for a “rewrite”.

Mood and tone

Is this a serious piece, that might work better as a comic one? Or vice versa? Is the overall mood sombre or cheery? See what happens if you try for a mood or tone that contrasts with the one you’ve established in the first version. Can you, by taking a radically different approach, achieve more light and shade?

Voice

What about the language – is it generally formal, with longish and well-constructed sentences, or is it colloquial and chatty? What about the pace? Voice will of course depend heavily on the choices you’ve made above – protagonist, point of point, frame, mood and tone. But even if these remain the same as in the first version, can you rewrite using a very different voice? Try not to reuse phrases from the original.

The idea of rewriting from scratch is to free your creativity to give you something fresh and new, rather than feeling constrained by what’s already on the page. At the end of the day you’ll probably meld the two versions into something that’s stronger than either. And then it’s time for editing and polishing!

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The Lane of Unusual Traders

The Lane Link Check out this amazing world-building project by Brisbane publishers Tiny Owl Workshop. Writers and artists have provided a provided a map of the Lane, a prologue that explains something of the geopolitical reality of the city in which the Lane is located, and some images and ideas to spark your creativity. You are invited to bid for a shop in the Lane, by writing a flash fiction piece (by 31st July) or a short story (by 31st August) that brings your shop and its denizens to life. The publishers will select the best stories for a book, and may also produce them in charming and startling alternative formats.

I love good fantasy, and the Lane has really fired my imagination. Hope it fires yours too.

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Some treasures require digging

pirate treasure mapI’m tutoring Short Story at uni this semester, and encountering some interesting issues in the classroom. As my students read published short stories and one another’s work, I often hear the complaint that part of a story is “confusing”, that something “jars” or a particular sentence seems “random”. Closer inspection will reveal the seemingly random sentence as a vital clue to the meaning of the whole piece, so-called confusion as a question you must read on to answer, and allegedly jarring notes as moments of modulation. In other words the students protest against complexity, mystery, paradox, contradiction and multiplicity of meaning – everything that, from my point of view, makes a story compelling.

These young readers seem to expect instant understanding of a text: they want to glean everything that’s there from a quick skim. They don’t want to stop and think, or (heaven forbid) re-read anything. One student told me yesterday he likes stories to unfold like films – smoothly, consistently, with events happening one after another. I was reminded of an interview with Lee Childs, in which he said his readers don’t have to do anything but strap themselves in for the ride.

On the other hand, the same student said he also enjoys stories which force him to the dictionary to look up words he doesn’t know. So while these folks may not be exactly open to literary challenges, I’ll lever at the chinks. Hopefully they’ll have gained a new perspective by the end of semester: all the short stories for class study are complex works that reward close reading, re-reading, and contemplation.

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The Next Big Thing – I answer 10 questions

The Next Big Thing is a blog chain where writers answer ten questions about their writing, then tag other writers to do the same. I was tagged by Kathy George, prize-winning short story writer, and author of the wonderfully atmospheric Gothic novel Sargasso. You can read her post here. My answers follow.

Ocean channel between rocks 1. What is the title of your current book?

Still Water

2. Where did the idea come from?

I’m a clinical psychologist by background, and my specialist field is adolescent mental health. Over my clinical career I’ve worked with many brave, funny, ingenious, dignified, dauntless people aged 13-18, battling severe and complex mental health problems in often horrific life circumstances. My protagonist, Storm, is inspired in a general way by the privilege of working with these amazing young people.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

It’s young adult fiction. The genre is realism, which I know is unfashionable (not a vampire lover or zombie apocalypse in sight), but I believe young people are still interested in reading about the kinds of problems and situations they encounter day to day. Love, friendship, families, sex, bullying, teachers, trying to work out where you’re headed and what you really want out of life – little details like that.

4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Showing my age, the only people I can think of to play Storm are Ally Sheedy from The Breakfast Club or Lizzy Caplan from Mean Girls. Maybe Ellen Page from Juno. Except Storm’s Australian. I’m sure there are wonderful young Australian actors out there, who’ll be ready to play Storm brilliantly when the time comes.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Sixteen year-old Storm wants to become a world-class documentary maker – but life has bigger ideas.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m working on finding an agent (do you know one?)

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft?

The first draft took a month to actually write – it was, quite by accident, a NaNoWriMo effort – but I’d been working on the story for a year by then because I’m writing two versions of the same events: one from Storm’s perspective (Still Water) and one from the perspective of an adult character called Susan (The Child Pose). It’s taken another three months of feedback and polishing to turn Still Water into a finished manuscript. The Child Pose is slowly getting there.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I read quite a bit of YA fiction but I haven’t come across a book that’s similar to Still Water in plot. I guess it’s a coming-of-age novel. It has some similarities with Kate Constable’s Crow Country – a city girl unwillingly transplanted to a small town forms a close relationship with a boy, meets some wildlife, and comes to appreciate what lies below the surface of the place.

But no time travel. Sorry.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’m fascinated by questions of how people interact with places – with the natural environment, and with other people in that environment. I’m from a country town that still doesn’t possess a traffic light (let alone traffic). I think small towns in fiction are manageable microcosms, providing insights into big questions about environmental, family and community responsibilities.

I started out focusing on the adult character, Susan. But in the course of writing The Child Pose, Storm really got under my skin. From the start I found her funnier, more complex, and yet easier to relate to, than any of the adult characters. Maybe I just like teenagers better than adults. As soon as I started writing Storm’s diary, in first person, the story flowed out. It reminded me of interviewing: all I was doing was writing down Storm’s words. I still feel a sense of responsibility to do justice to her story, as if she were a real person.

10. What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

The town of Stillwater, where the novel is set, is a mix of places from up and down the Queensland and New South Wales coasts, with an occasional touch of Tasmania, South Australia, and Papua New Guinea thrown in. So you might recognise a beloved spot from real life, slipped into the fiction.

And Storm’s bloke Nathan is – in the words of my test readers – “a spunk and a sweetie”. If he were real, and I were several decades younger, I’d almost want to sail away with him myself.

I would now like to introduce you to two lovely Brisbane writers, who will be posting their answers to the 10 questions in a week’s time.

Kate Zahnleiter holds a Masters degree in creative writing. In 2011 she was the recipient of the QUT Postgraduate Writing Prize, and her short fiction has been published in One Book, Many Brisbanes; Rex and Review of Australian Fiction. She is currently working on her first novel, Fitting in with Normal People, which was recently accepted into the QWC/Hachette Manuscript Development Program.

Kim Douglas has completed a Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing at QUT, and plans to articulate to Masters. She is working on her first novel, The Black Dog in Greek, and has just started blogging as a strategy to manage writer’s block.

If you have a blog and are working on a book (or have recently completed/published one), you may like to participate in The Next Big Thing yourself. Contact me, Kate or Kim!

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Dear Diary

diary

For my current YA novel, Still Water, I’m using a “diary” structure. This has its pros and cons. Some pros:

  • The diary form provides a good justification for first person narration, very popular in YA fiction. The reader is placed in the position of the diary – the recipient of the protagonist’s confidences. This creates a very personal connection between protagonist and reader, since the protagonist is sharing her most private and powerful thoughts and feelings, including internal conflicts. Being placed in the role of sympathetic “listener” predisposes the reader to identify with and care about the protagonist.
  • The form emphasises the passage of time, while allowing flexibility in the way events are narrated. My protagonist, Storm usually brings her diary up to date a couple of times a day. However, sometimes she’s writing in the middle of an unfolding drama, while other times days go past before she updates her diary.  I like the variety this brings to the narrative.
  • We get a sense of immediacy in our relationship with the protagonist. We get to “see” where Storm is, who she’s with and what she’s feeling at the moment of writing (like a FB update!) and also to hear about what’s happened in the past few hours or days to bring her to this point. Sometimes she’ll say at lunchtime, “This afternoon I’m going to try this“, then at dinnertime “That didn’t work! Let me tell you what happened…”  The mix of past-tense and present-tense narration keeps things interesting.
  • The diary is a tool for showing changes in the protagonist’s mental state, not just through the content of what she writes, but through the form. Longer or shorter diary entries, frequency of entries, length and completeness of sentences, punctuation or lack of it, repetitiveness, misspellings, and so on can show that the protagonist is upset, angry, confused, semi-conscious, borderline psychotic – whether she tells us or not.
  • The diary form lends itself to a sense of continuity – that the protagonist has a life beyond this particular novel. I’m planning a prequel and a sequel to Still Water, which I don’t think I’d have had the urge to do if the novel wasn’t in diary form. Storm explains at the start that she’s been diarizing for the past year, while hospitalised for depression and self-harm. This “new” diary begins when she leaves hospital. Now, as her author, I’m curious to read her hospital diary – and I’m also interested in what happens next, after this one ends. I’m hoping her readers will be equally inquisitive!

However, the diary form also raises some challenges. So far I’ve identified these:

  • Some readers consider the diary form to be overused, particularly since the 1990s, so a novel in this form now seems “old hat”. (Personally I can’t say I feel that, but some people do).
  • If your protagonist is keeping a diary quite conscientiously, it’s reasonable for the reader to ask why? Does she expect someone else to read it someday? Does she feel she’s participating in historically important events that someone should chronicle? Is she collecting raw material for her memoir? Is it a school project? Or just a way of coping with the stresses of life? Especially today when many people blog or micro-blog rather than keep a diary, it may be important that your protagonist has a reason for journalling – and this reason can also add another dimension to the character/story.
  • Switching between past-tense and present-tense narration can feel “clunky” or jarring, unless carefully managed.
  • The diary form privileges the protagonist’s view of things so completely it can be a challenge to show the reader anything else. The protagonist is more interesting if she doesn’t fully understand herself and her own actions. Other characters are more interesting if the reader can see things about them that the protagonist is blind to. As the author, sometimes you want to share a secret with the reader without letting the protagonist in on it. This can be tricky in diary form – but it’s fun!
  • Because your protagonist is placed explicitly in the role of narrator, mediating or translating events for the diary/reader, it can be easy to slip into using the protagonist as a mouthpiece for your own views. Readers are quick to detect preachiness. It’s especially important in a diary to maintain the voice of the protagonist consistently, and this can be challenging if he/she is very different from you the author in age, sex, socio-economic status, cultural-linguistic background, etc.

How about you – have you written in diary form? Or read novels that use a diary structure? What inspires you about this form? What challenges you? What solutions have you found to these challenges?

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Playful collaboration

I was intrigued by a tweet from Margaret Attwood: “Margaret Atwood and Naomi Alderman: It might seem rather unexpected, but there’s a Deeper Meaning to the zombie craze”. I went here to read more.

The most interesting aspect of the article for me was not the suggestion that zombies have a deeper meaning in our society (like all monsters), or the argument that fantasy should not be hived off from “serious fiction” (which I consider self-evident). It’s the idea of two writers, in this case mentor and mentee, writing a serial novel turn-and-turn about. I love Naomi’s description of “Waiting to get Margaret’s chapter, reading it gleefully, trying to come up with something that might take the story in an unexpected direction or give her a problem to solve. Then waiting again to see what she’s come up with for me.”

What fun that sounds! Trudy Cooper and I did a similar thing many years ago, writing and illustrating a children’s book. The book unfortunately never reached publication stage, but creating it was a delightful process. That was in the days before email. One of us would write a chapter, we’d meet at a cafe to read and discuss it (and to eat lots of nice things and talk the world down), then we’d go apart while the other person wrote the next chapter and Trudy got on with the illustrations, then we’d meet again. As Naomi says, “writing is storytelling, and storytelling… is play.”

Of course, the fact that Attwood and Alderman are using Wattpad to get their book out to readers is interesting in itself, in the context of current debates about e-publishing and the changing nature of “the book”. I wonder if Trudy and I would have finished our children’s book, if we’d had at our disposal the various digital tools that are available today – for communicating with each other, let alone with audiences.

I’m thoroughly enjoying the way my writing buddy and I are working at present. We’re both writing novels at the same time, so we spend almost as much time reading and commenting on each other’s chapters as writing our own. It’s a joyous, productive, supportive process, and it feels like we’re really achieving quality work – separately, yet together.

I’d be interested to hear stories of other people’s “playful collaborations” in the creation of fiction. Do you write alone, or with a friend?

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Willow Pattern

Had a pretty bizarre experience in the wee early hours this morning – helping to edit Willow Pattern, if:book Australia’s 24 hour book. Authors wrote from noon yesterday until various times in the night, then the editors took over, then at 7am it was down tools and let the production team get on with uploading. The result – a whole book in 24 hours, which you can print out in minutes or read on the screen of your choice. While some will find an apocalypse without zombies somewhat disconcerting, there are cooler things than zombies. And they’re in this book.

Read about the authors and the process, and download Willow Pattern for free for a short time longer, at  http://24hb.pressbooks.com/

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Short fiction published in Islet online

Hey folks, I’ve had a short piece published in Islet – check it out here.

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Kathy Stewart on building suspense

Great post on tension and building suspense, from Kathy Stewarthere. Loads of information delivered very succinctly.

Writing Novels in Australia is an engaging, informative blog, well worth a visit. It’s a group blog on which a range of Australian authors write a monthly post on ther novel writing. 2012 is dedicated to first-time novelists.

I’m enjoying hearing from these novelists about their process – their frustrations, inspirations, challenges, strategies and triumphs. At present I’m too busy writing to blog regularly, but in lieu of hearing from me, feel free to pop over and hear from them! 🙂

 

 

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