Embed drama in your story

Drama drama drama…

As I research and plot my next novel, while I’ve landed on a broad theme, I still need to find the drama or conflict to bring it to life, move it along and give it power. Are the stakes high enough yet for my main characters? Not yet. These second novels can be challenging…

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Is the cost of a writing mentor, editor or manuscript assessment worthwhile?

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There can be great value in paying a professional to help you develop your manuscript and writing skills. But it’s not cheap and there can be pitfalls resulting in wasted money and blows to your confidence.

Here are some tips to help you work out whether hiring one or more of these experts might be worthwhile, and if so, how to choose the right person for you and your work. Remember, if you going pay someone to help improve your work, they will find things wrong with it. So finding the right person at the right stage of drafting is crucial.

I’ve used two editors for my manuscript (which recently attracted a publisher) along with a mentor. I’ve also had a manuscript assessment done. Two of these processes were great learning experiences, one was a disaster and the other was poor value for money.

What do mentors, editors and manuscript assessors do?

Mentors

Engaging a mentor is a medium-priced avenue of paid support that sounds great—hiring an experienced author you respect who understands the ups and downs of the writing process to provide you with detailed one-on-one coaching.

But being a published author doesn’t automatically qualify someone as a good mentor. A good mentor sees this work as part of their profession, not just as easy money.

I went through a writer’s centre and engaged a mentor under agreed written terms, which included assessing 3-4 chapters at a time because I wanted guidance as I redrafted so as not to repeat mistakes. The mentor quickly reneged on those, saying they preferred to look at whole manuscripts only. Also, their comments revealed that they didn’t understand my genre and had made many incorrect assumptions. When I questioned them about their feedback in a genuinely inquisitive way, they became defensive. Nothing positive came from this expensive experience for me.

Editors

A full copy edit includes an experienced editor looking at your entire manuscript and considering structure, voice, point of view, character and style. They present their findings in a report, but also do a line edit, checking each word through track changes. This is the most expensive of the three processes and theoretically the most thorough, although I’ve found that editors’ attention wanes the further they progress into your manuscript.

It’s most important when choosing this option to be certain that your manuscript is at the right stage. Too early and you won’t get value for money because your draft is underdeveloped and not yet ready. This is what happened to me and I feel the editor should have warned me. Too advanced and all the editor will be left with is nit-picking, which can be bad for confidence.

During my second-to-last draft, I engaged a different editor to look at the first third of my novel line by line because by this stage I was most interested in improving my style as opposed to dealing with structural or other big picture issues. I then applied what I learned to the rest of my manuscript, which lifted my writing considerably.

Manuscript Assessments

This is a 10-12 page report that looks at the same issues as an editor but without the additional line edit. Often, the assessor will also ask you to submit a synopsis, publisher letter, author bio and pitch for comment, which can be very useful. This is by far the cheapest, and I think the best value option.

I went through an agency to get my manuscript assessment done. I was thrilled that they matched me with an assessor who was obviously across my genre, thorough, professional and concise. Quality, not quantity, was what this assessment was about.

Guidelines for choosing writing support:

  • Do your research to find the right person for you and your manuscript. What’s their experience, do they understand your genre, are they interested in your manuscript, are they over committed, are you a good personality fit, will they talk through their thoughts with you or write them down? Ask other writers for recommendations and interview each candidate. You can even test them out with a chapter of your work (many will agree to this)
  • Set agreed terms in writing so there’s no confusion. This might include stating the aims of your partnership, how much of your work they’ll review and within what timeframe, the price and what level of comment they’ll provide (high level overview and/or detailed word for word)
  • Any feedback must be constructive, aimed at supporting and bettering your work, not pulling it (or you) down. You want to come out more empowered and your work stronger
  • The person you engage must allow you to retain control of your work rather than forcing their personal preferences on you. A good teacher will help you find what it is you really mean to say
  • They also need to be confident in themselves, welcoming questions without feeling threatened
  • Whoever you hire, they must be professionally interested in your work and not just your money.

‘I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.’ Confucius

 

 

Stoke your creative fires

While all fiction and creative non-fiction requires strong characters with something to say, my next novel, a strained family saga, is especially character driven. I’m reading The Art of Character by David Corbett to extend and deepen my abilities, and (in theory), liberate my creativity. What are you doing to improve your work?

‘Life is like riding a bicycle.
To keep your balance you must keep moving.’
Albert Einstein

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Should you write characters based on people you know?

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Real life as inspiration

I’ve begun writing a novel sparked by events surrounding a real-life family funeral. Not mine, but my  partner’s. In writing the opening scene, I asked him a series of questions about his family, which he happily answered. Then he went quiet before blurting out, ‘Hang on. That’s my family you’re talking about.’

Yet I can’t help myself. The funeral story is so profound – so guttural – that it gets to the core of family at its best and most bewildering. Good fiction is real life condensed and heightened.

Writers are magpies

The truth is that in fiction, every character written and every plot point created is based on people we know and have observed, and the things that have happened to them or others. It is also about us and our own experiences. Tim Winton once said that every character in his stories is based on himself. With our unique perceptions and beliefs, writers are our fictional worlds’ filters and interpreters.

As writers, it’s out job to pick the eyes out of our own and other people’s experiences, pay careful attention to the news, listen like a hawk to conversations both direct and overheard, and pool these things, adding further drama with our imagination along a thematic line. Then hey presto, we hopefully have a novel people will want to read, with characters and a story line readers can relate to and be moved or horrified by.

Writing about family members

That said, the number one rule is do not write about your family. Yet these are the stories that perhaps get us most riled, that we can relate to best and that go deepest of all.

Is this exploitation?

Yes it is. But what else do writers do if not exploit? Characters need to behave in realistic and believable ways or they risk being a shallow cliche. They must be authentic with genuine human quirk, faults and loveable traits.

Hiding your characters’ origins

What I plan to do is to change my characters – merging them, exaggerating them, or reimagining them depending on what my plot requires and how my characters guide me. As for the story, I plan to combine fact with fiction, disguising actual events and adding drama.

I will be that literary magpie writers so often refer to. I’m not writing memoir. Rather I’m creating something new while being informed by everything I know.

A price to pay?

I understand there may be a price to pay for what I’m doing.

Is it worth it? You’ll need to ask yourself before going down this track. Truman Capote famously stopped writing after he published a scathing book based on the rich and famous people he hung around with only, to his surprise, to be shunned by them.

Yet writers must. Perhaps I won’t publish my current novel, but right now it needs to get out. The characters are almost dragging me along by the hair, which means it’s something I have to do. Until I’ve completed it, nothing else will come.

An aside: On not being written about

In closing, I recall a 1960s American movie about an author who moved to a town to write about suburbia and its occupants. Townsfolk were outraged by their characterisation in his novel. Yet the greatest insult by far was not to have been written about at all.

How do I choose a point of view?

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So you’re beginning a new novel. A flurry of ideas fills your head. It’s exciting. You consider them all, dismiss most, others you put in the maybe category, but some stick. You build on them, but you worry if anything is going to result. Is your idea gripping enough to fill an entire novel, will the story peter out, do you care enough to finish it, are you capable? You’re compelled to go on.

Now that you have an embryo of an idea, and perhaps one or two characters who reach out to you, there’s a decision to be made over point of view (POV).

1st person: ‘I’

Traditionally one point of view allowing intimacy – the reader seeing the entire story world through one character. But there are more options – multiple first person point of views, sequential multiple viewpoints (e.g. alternate chapters with told from more than on ‘I’), separate multiple viewpoints that are seemingly disparate but come together in the end. So many possibilities!

2nd person: ‘You’

This POV be powerful and immediate, but not easy to pull off. Usually these stories are also told in the present tense. One memorable Australian novel, The Bride Stripped Bare by Anonymous (Nikki Gemmell), is told from this point of view. I still remember that voice.

3rd person:  ‘S/he’

Limited – Told from one character’s point of view at a time. But you can have more than one main character in separate sections, eventually bringing them together. It’s similar to 1stperson but can feel more distant. This is the most commonly used POV in modern fiction.

Omniscient – Told from multiple characters’ points of view, dipping in and out of their heads as though taking a birds eye view. A more limited omniscient POV exists where the reader is in one character’s head at a time rather than skipping around or taking an overall perspective. Generally, omniscient is so popular these days. But it can be done well.

Some things to ponder, bearing in mind that point of view is the narrator, who is the reader’s eyes and ears:

  • Who’s story is this?
    Is it one person’s story? Is it two people’s? Or is it multiple characters’ story?
  • Whose head, and how many heads, do I want the reader to be in?
    One character’s and close (1stperson). One character’s, close and immediate (2ndperson). Two character’s (1stor 3rdperson limited) or everyone’s (3rdperson omniscient).
  • What am I trying to achieve?
    If you want to manipulate the reader say with an unreliable narrator, then 1stperson is for you. If you want to sound like a fairy tale, use 3rdperson omniscient. If you want something in between, consider 3rdperson limited.
  • How immediate do I want the story to feel?
    In order of immediacy: 2nd person, 1st person then 3rd (limited, limited omniscient and omniscient).
  • How much do I want the reader to know?
    If you want the reader to know only what one character sees consider the 1stperson POV, but 3rd person limited can also be used though with less range. If you want them to see the entire picture, then use 3rd person omniscient (but perhaps limited).
  • How close, or distant, do I want the reader to be to the main character/s?
    1st person creates greater intimacy i.e. the reader is the 1stperson narrator. 3rd person limited can be more distant but offers considerable closeness too. 2nd  perron is in your face close. Dropping in and out of different character’s heads in 3rdperson omniscient gives you immense freedom but requires technical competency.
  • How much versatility do I want?
    1st person lets you only have one point of view i.e. one voice. They’d wanna be someone your reader can relate to and wants to spend an entire novel with. I know I’ve got sick of main characters and stopped reading well into a story.
  • How important is backstory and world building?
    This can be easier to convey in 3rdperson omniscient. That said, these should always be written as the story requires in small sections (never more than two paragraphs is my general rule).

What next?

Ask yourself the above questions and experiment. Write a page or two from two or three POVs and see what feels/reads best. You’ll soon know what suits your story, even if by realising out what DOESN’T work.

How to know when your book is cooked

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Is your book cooked when:

  • You’ve put it aside for a while, and when you return to it you’re satisfied
  • The story works well, including the ending
  • You’ve found an agent or publisher
  • You know you’ve done your absolute best
  • You don’t care anymore, you just want to get it out there
  • You’ve rewritten it 12 times and that’s enough
  • Your beta readers, editor or writing group tell you so
  • You’ve reached the standard required for your genre
  • You’ve simply got nothing left
  • Another book beckons
  • You just know this is it
  • The world can’t wait to hear your story any longer
  • Never?

I’m coming to the end of my final edit for my MS, unless a publisher tells me otherwise. The problem is, every time I look back I see new ways to improve my book. I believe this is because with every edit, my skills improve. But if I begin yet again, there’s a real risk of getting caught in an endless rewriting loop.

Set your work aside if you can, or seek an outside (objective) opinion to help you determine if your work is sufficiently cooked. If you’re a perfectionist, remember there’s no such thing as perfect because EVERYTHING is subjective.

With my manuscript, it’s definitely near ready to eat, which my writing group has confirmed. I hear the call of another story.

Should you join a writing group?

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I’ve been a member of my current writing group for 4 1/2 years now. I say current because I tried another couple of groups that didn’t work out. I’ve almost pulled out of this group too, but now I believe that sticking with it is one of the best things I’ve done for my writing.

Which group is right for you?

There are many kinds of writing groups and you’ll need to consider which one suits you best. Are you looking for a group:

  • that critiques, providing constructive feedback for existing work
  • that takes you through writing exercises aimed at improving your craft
  • that cheers you on, offering mutual encouragement
  • is in-person, online or offers both options
  • where you share a space with other writers and work on your own pieces simultaneously
  • that’s casual or requires consistent attendance?

I’ve joined the first kind of group through my local writers’ centre because I wanted to improve my manuscript. Members are serious about getting published—and some of us have been. We meet weekly with each person reading out 2k words for which we receive feedback. Many of us find the act of reading out loud a good starting point because we often hear our own mistakes first. People seem to have their strengths and together we make a formidable team even though our genres are diverse, including historical fiction, chick lit, crime and science fiction. One person tends to comment on structure, another grammar and voice, another character development or story line and so on.

What are the benefits of joining a writing group?

  1. Critique and/or support – When you find a good group you get free critiquing or support that would otherwise cost 3 cents per word and upwards. It’s not quite like having your own editor, but it’s the next best thing. In some ways it’s better because of the diversity of opinion you receive.
  2. Motivation – Some members in my group find the weekly commitment of 2k words a strong motivator, saying they might otherwise struggle to commit writing time.
  3. Support – A couple of times I’ve reached out to members when I’ve hit lows. They’ve reminded me that my story is strong, important and worth the effort. Recently they told me enough finessing, it’s time to finish my manuscript and put it out there. In short, they’ve bolstered me and given me perspective when I’ve most needed it.
  4. Being with fellow writers – As much as your friends or family might think it’s great (or not) that you write, no one can understand your writing glories and struggles like fellow writers. Writing is an otherwise solitary act so it’s great to share.
  5. Brainstorming – Sometimes members get stuck and we brainstorm ideas. The ending of my book wasn’t quite right, but now it’s formidable thanks to one member’s suggestion. Others have changed point of view or added in magical realism elements to overcome challenges. More heads can be better than one.

What are any negatives of joining a writing group?

  1. Lack of safety – In one group I joined, a member turned vicious if she didn’t like your work. Unfortunately, others copied her negative tone. I was once lampooned an entire season for having a prologue. This kind of experience is destructive. Avoid. Writing is exposition of your deepest self. The critiquing environment must be safe and encourage constructive, dissuading destructive participation. There are always positives.
  2. Poor organisation and leadership – There must be agreed and enforced rules for writing groups to be effective and rewarding. For example, for long prose groups, a quorum who attend regularly is critical. Other questions to ask are does your organiser take into account others’ views on potential new members? Are they a good time manager keeping members within their allotment? And are they willing to reign people in if they step out of bounds or remove members who don’t fit in?
  3. Wrong genre – Are you a short story writer but you’re in a long story group? Do you need a group of fellow biographers but you’re in a fiction group? Do you write science fiction but you’re in a romance group and they don’t get concepts such as world building? Make sure you know what you need and search for the appropriate group or you’ll risk feeling alienated and disheartened.
  4. Group mentality – Even in the best of groups, people can get carried away. I recall my group telling me they didn’t care about my main character. Whoa! I got the point, which was valid and important, but I didn’t need to have it repeated for half an hour. You may need to firmly but gently steer your fellow writers back towards their more diplomatic, positive selves.

How to find the right group for you

There are many options, including:

  • Online groups where you trade feedback. These can be genre specific
  • Writer’s centres in your area or state that offer many kinds of groups
  • MeetUp
  • Start your own group, perhaps finding members through your local library, your existing network, at writers’ festivals or even Gumtree.

Trust your judgement. If a group doesn’t feel right, then it’s not for you.

Above all, be open, but also listen to yourself.