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The Value Of A Critique Partner, by Rebecca Raisin

A year and a half ago I hadn’t even heard of the term critique partner, or CP, as we cool cats say. Typical of me, it just sort of happened without much planning on my part. Lisa, a member of my writing group, and I began emailing each other snippets of our work between our monthly meetings. Soon enough those daily emails evolved into a flurry of queries zipping back and forth.

Before Lisa came along I’d follow my hubby around saying “Hey, honey, would you mind reading this story? It’s only 11,000 words…” He’d say “What’s that behind you!” I’d guilelessly look over my shoulder and, confused, turn back only to hear tyres squealing, my house bereft of said husband, with only the smell of burnt rubber for comfort. Of all the low down… Never mind, I now have a CP extraordinaire.

Lisa and I talk about everything from “What do you think of this as a character’s name?” to “I’m sending over my 60,000 word novel for edits.”

Each critique partner is different. If you find one, you might like to discuss what each person is prepared to commit to the relationship. Reading entire manuscripts with your red pen poised is time spent away from your own writing, after all.

Some CPs offer a certain amount of time, such as two hours every Friday. Others critique only when you’ve both finished manuscripts. However, Lisa and I are in constant communication. We look at each other’s work as soon as we send it and get back to each other ASAP, usually in a few days, depending on the length of the story. We send each other writing tips and tricks, marketing ideas and everything in between.

We have our editing down to a fine art and know certain writing quirks to look out for in each other’s writing. I use too many words such as ‘was’ and ‘all’, and Lisa swiftly banishes them for my manuscript (or MS for short). If any dreaded adverbs try to take over, we slay those suckers quick as we can. While you can spend a lot of time combing through someone else’s work it’s also a great way to see where you’re going wrong in your own. We get too close to our stories to the point that the words blur until we can’t see straight, but when you read through your CP’s MS things will jump out and have you scrambling back to your own with more clarity than before.

I’d be lost without Lisa. We’ve been through the trenches together, sending out queries and facing rejections until we both had our novels accepted, and, coincidentally, our contracts arrived on the same day.

If you do find a critique partner it’s best to set the ground rules, especially if you don’t know them in person. Be careful sending your work to someone you’ve met online unless they’re from an established group. Try and find a CP from your writing group or local writing centre before you look elsewhere.

There are reputable online groups for CPs, so stick to those if that’s the way you choose to find one. For example the Romance Writers of Australia (RWA) try to arrange suitable CPs for their members, and help you sort out how much time you’re both prepared to give, and all the nitty gritty that is conducive to a good CP relationship. It’s a great community of writer’s and they do look out for their members so can you rest assured, your work will be safe.

How About We CP? is a site run by literary agent, Jessica Sinsheimer. You can search for a CP by genre, or submit your own profile, and wait for people to find you.

When you do critique someone else’s work, do so in a professional, helpful manner. Point out what works in their MS before you knock the things that don’t. Even when you do have an issue with something it’s always nice to say it’s just your opinion and let them decide what works for them.

Like any relationship, it takes time to get to know the person. Lisa and I are completely upfront with each other about our work now, but it didn’t happen overnight. It’s not that we were dishonest before, but it took a while to get to know how the other wrote, and how we could best help each other, and what we felt comfortable saying.

If you haven’t got a CP I hope you find one as amazing as mine. Writing can be a solitary journey, but not so when you have a critique partner.

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Rebecca Raisin’s author website: www.rebeccaraisin.wordpress.com

Rebecca Raisin’s bio page

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     Moonshadow - Eye of the Beast by Simon Higgins - coverInheritance by Lisa ForrestBlackwattle Lake by Pamela CookHalf Moon BayHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeod

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

Drafting A Novel: The Fast And Furious Approach, by Pamela Cook

I’ve been writing for more than a decade now, as well as teaching creative writing, and in that time I’ve discovered there are many ways to write a novel but most of them fall into one of two categories: slowly and carefully or fast and furious. Having tried both, I’m planting my feet firmly in the fast and furious camp.

My first novel was a labour of love, written over five years, revised in sections, re-drafted, and revised over and over again before I finally felt brave enough to send it out. I loved that novel – and still do. It taught me about word choice, style, sentence construction, description and went a fair way to teaching me about character, plot and structure.

While that novel was in one of its brewing phases I participated in National Novel Writing Month: a challenge to write a 50,000 word manuscript in a month. Having spent over five years writing just under 90,000 words, I found the whole idea of Nano quite absurd but decided it would be an interesting experiment if nothing else. I beavered away at the computer for the thirty days of November in 2009, averaging around 1700 words a day and becoming a “winner” when I hit the 50,000 word mark at the end of the month.

This kind of fast and furious writing is along the same lines as freewriting, which I have been a proponent of for years as a means of unlocking the subconscious, allowing ideas to flow freely and without censorship. Writing guru Natalie Goldberg (who calls it writing practice or automatic writing) describes this type of writing as a “crack through which you can crawl into a bigger world, into your wild mind” (p 40, Wild Mind). Completing a first draft of a novel in this way forces you to keep moving forward, prevents you from indulging your inner critic and allows you to explore all kinds of crazy plot possibilities you might not otherwise consider if you write in a more organized, rational fashion. You have to keep reminding yourself each time you sit down to write that this is a first draft. Nobody else is going to see it in this form and it can (and probably will) be hideously awful. Only then will you give yourself permission to write without censorship. While there will undoubtedly be lines, or entire sections of the novel, that really are hideously awful, you may be surprised to find that by loosening the shackles your words and ideas will flow and your voice will be more authentic.

My first shot at National Novel Writing Month produced what later became my debut novel, Blackwattle Lake. When I returned to the original draft a year or so later I was pleasantly surprised to find that, while there was definitely room for improvement and expansion, there was a solid story to build on. Writing the novel from beginning to end without stopping to revise forced me to focus on plot developments instead of agonising over each word, line and paragraph. The agonising came later, during the revision process and then, after the novel was accepted for publication, the editing and proofing phases. But giving myself permission to just write in that first draft period was hugely liberating.

When it came time to write my next novel I decided to follow the same process, not quite as intensely but I did write around 90,000 words in three months when drafting Essie’s Way. Again I found the time pressure prevented me from nit-picking, resulting in a manuscript which could then be moulded and edited.

Apart from the unleashing of creativity that this process seems to foster, the daily commitment to my writing means that I stay in the dream of your story – you become more immersed in the world you have created than you might be if you adopt a more stop-start process. It also helps develop a stronger discipline, which is important if you’re really serious about writing.

In my time as a writer, and as a writing teacher, I’ve seen many friends and students spend years working on one project, often abandoning it when it hits a dead end or they become bored with it. I have also seen others who have created beautiful stories that have been lovingly nurtured and polished over a longer period of time. Some stories do take time. Not every novel can be written in one or two or three months. But if you’ve never tried writing this way I highly recommend it. At best, it will give you a manuscript to then keep working on. At worst, if it bombs, you’ve only spent a month or two of your life on it.

Happy writing!

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Pamela Cook’s author website: www.pamelacookauthor.wordpress.com

Pamela Cook’s bio page

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Blackwattle Lake by Pamela CookEssie's Way by Pamela Cook     Moonshadow - Eye of the Beast by Simon Higgins - coverInheritance by Lisa ForrestAbsolution Creek

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

Novel Openings: Creating A Fantastic – or Fatal – First Impression, by Simon Higgins

Just as in duelling, when writing a fictional piece, your foundational moves drastically impact on the outcome.

The reader is hooked and stays with you – or not.

That first impression registers as a fatal opening night debacle, or a fantastic, rave-review triumph. Your audience must be engaged from the start.

First suggestion: Exploit human curiosity.  

Most readers move from looking at the cover, to studying the blurb, to then sampling the first words of the book, with that familiar, wary, astute look on their faces. They have busy lives too. ‘To invest the time in this one, or not?’  They scrutinise the tone, language, inferences of the first few lines, getting the feel of the novel’ s world and voice. ‘Am I going to like this?’

Make sure they do. From the outset, infer, provoke and draw them in. Make the first phase as intriguing as possible. People love to play detective. They pull themselves in quite naturally if the storytelling has enough of a hook, noting at intervals,  ‘Hmm… that’s got to be a hint…’ You lead them with mystery and implication deeper into the forest of your plot. Readers also love a well-written scene or chapter closing that leaves them buzzing with some final enigmatic image, question or plot revelation.

Doctor Id was my first young adult thriller with Random House Australia, Asahi Shimbun Japan, and Mondadori of Italy. Set in the 90s during the rise of the internet, it featured a cyber-stalking serial killer cunningly taking advantage of the newness, naivety and unpoliced boundaries of early online culture. Doctor Id also introduced Jade Draper, the computer-obsessed daughter of a homicide investigator, with this opening line:

Jade heard the footsteps and quickly hid the newspaper in her lap.

How many questions are implied by these twelve words? Most readers will naturally hypothesise an answer to each of them.

So be sure you make good on those little mysteries later in the unfolding tale. One must deliver. I did a lot of structural planning with Doctor Id. I was actually working as a homicide investigator in South Australia at the time I wrote it, so Jade’s harrowing adventure, perhaps understandably, came out as a very filmic, edgy crime story.

The Children’s Book Council of Australia made it a Notable Book of the Year in 1999. It was published in Italian and also serialised – with awesome Manga style artwork – in Japan, in English, to a print reading audience of millions around the Asia-Pacific region. Given my long connection with, and great interest in Asia, you can imagine how proud I felt. I went on to write two other crime thrillers, sequels but also stand-alone novels in themselves, Cybercage and The Stalking Zone, both with Random House Australia. Award winning actor and Aussies-into-Hollywood pioneer John Orcsik is the former star of the hit TV crime show Cop Shop and an accomplished director and producer. John wrote a marvellous screenplay conversion for Doctor Id. Random House Australia even brought out a collectible omnibus edition of the crime trilogy under the cover of The DreamWeb Files.

So I guess the book has obviously worked on at least a couple of levels. What writer dares hope for more?

Second suggestion: Don’t be afraid to employ dramatic devices as you open. 

If you’re especially good at action sequences, or perhaps have a knack for instantly setting up a tense, gothic or era-evocative atmosphere, then use that skill to plunge the reader straight in there. Write your first draft boldly and energetically, enjoying the ride just as the reader later will.

Another day, in ‘editing mode’, a very different headspace to ‘creating’, textual imperfections can be hunted down, edges smoothed, language polished, story shape improved, all that. But for now, just get the thing moving forward engagingly…

There’s a lot of dramatic power to be had in the tasteful use of time-shift devices. For instance, you might open with a snippet of the climax, as below, then take us back to the beginning of the main timeline. We then see events unfold that increasingly remind us of being swept towards a life-and-death finale…

The piece below, BTW, is an opening I have never actually used. If you like, try varying it and writing on from it to see if a novel results. It’s all yours.

I looked down at the gun in my hand, realizing what I’d done. Just 16 hours earlier, I could never have imagined such a moment. My day had begun normally enough…

Third and final suggestion for now: Aim for good balance.  

When you draft your opening, whichever path you take with it, make sure you include enough information for the reader to picture the scene, but alos try to keep your narration lean enough to generate a crackling pace. Striking that right balance in style between information and story momentum is an ongoing try-it-and-see learning curve.

How do we develop this skill? Nothing replaces actually attempting it, over and over. Feedback will tell you if you have succeeded and what to correct in order to do better next time.

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Simon Higgins’s author website: www.simonhiggins.net

Simon Higgins’s bio page

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Moonshadow - Eye of the Beast by Simon Higgins - coverMoonshadow - The Wrath of the Wolf by Simon Higgins - coverIsland of the White Spear by Simon Higgins     Blackwattle Lake by Pamela CookInheritance by Lisa Forrest

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

You CAN Learn To Write A Novel, by Robyn Bavati

I’m delighted to be a main contributor to Writing Novels in Australia in 2014, and hope to share what I’ve learnt about the art and craft of writing novels. Some of what I know was gleaned from books or writing courses – much of it through trial and error.

When I finished high school in the seventies and enrolled in university, there wasn’t a single creative writing course available at tertiary level in Australia. The prevailing opinion at the time was that novel-writing wasn’t a teachable skill; rather, it was an innate talent – either you ‘had it’ or you didn’t.

Early attempts at teaching the craft often failed due to popular maxims such as ‘There are no rules’ and ‘It works or it doesn’t’. Such statements, while undoubtedly true, just aren’t helpful – especially when used to end the discussion.

Fortunately, the discussion needn’t end there. Instead, we can ask: ‘If there are no rules, what is there instead?’, ‘Why does this story work while that one doesn’t?’ and ‘If it’s not working now, how can we fix it?’ Indeed, these are the types of questions that are asked in the many truly helpful writing courses that now abound, for the truth is, with the right set of tools, you can learn to write a novel.

Aspiring writers often ask how and where they should begin, meaning: Should I start with an idea, a character, an image, a plot? Should I start with a particular world in mind, or perhaps a conflict? The answer is: It doesn’t matter where you start. Far more important is what you’ve achieved by the time you finish.

Successful novel-writing depends on the integration of six basic elements – character, plot, setting, structure, voice and theme. It’s that simple – and that complex. Most writers are strong on some of these elements but struggle with others. This was certainly the case with me.

I wrote my first novel back in the eighties, when I was still in my twenties. A fantasy novel for children, it was called The Search For Lost Property City. It was about a boy called Peter and a ‘gump’ (an imaginary creature who lived in a ‘gump balloon’ rather like a large purple helium balloon) who set off together to find a new gump balloon to replace the one Peter had inadvertently popped at a birthday party, not knowing it was someone’s home.

Roughly modelled on The Magic Faraway Tree, the story had a lot to recommend it. It was imaginative and fast-paced, and a couple of schoolteachers read it to their second-grade classes, who greatly enjoyed it.

I sent it to Penguin (among others), and received a letter in return – a whole two pages long. In it, the commissioning editor told me how much she had enjoyed the manuscript. She also explained at length just why they’d rejected it: the main character, Peter, lacked personality.

The truth is, I already knew this. I’d told myself that by not giving Peter a distinct personality, I was making him an ‘everyboy’ – if he lacked any distinguishing features, then anyone who read the story would be able to relate to him.

The editor understood my rationale but she wasn’t buying it. She said that distinctive characteristics and idiosyncrasies actually make characters more, not less, relatable, and that the protagonist must display deep and recognisable emotions to enable readers to identify.

Now, I had read books on craft and knew that character was one of the six basic elements of story writing. And deep down, I think I realized that the idea of Peter as an ‘everyboy’ was really just a rationalization for what was in part sheer laziness, in part an unwillingness to admit that I didn’t know how to develop his character. Rather than acquire the skills I needed, I’d hoped to avoid having to develop the hero’s character by explaining why I didn’t have to.

The experience taught me a valuable lesson: that if you overlook one of the six basic elements of novel-writing, you can’t expect your book to be published.

Of course, I could continue to rationalise. I could say that the main characters in The Magic Faraway Tree were not well developed (and that would be true: Enid Blyton hooks the reader with her fabulous plots – and gets away with it). Enid Blyton’s books are classics. Kids love them. (I loved them!) But she was writing at a different time. Publishers’ expectations are greater now than they have ever been. If those books of Enid Blyton were written today, it’s highly doubtful they’d be published.

Spotting the flaw in someone else’s published work isn’t a justification for incorporating that flaw in your own. Just because another writer managed to get away with it doesn’t mean you will. If you can spot the flaw in your own work, you can be sure your readers will spot it too.

While the best story ideas may bubble up from the sub-conscious, novel-writing is not a mystical and inexplicable process. It’s a process that depends on understanding the six basic elements or ‘building blocks’ of storytelling and honing your skills.

To begin the process, you might like to take a moment to think about the six basic elements and ask yourself: What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses? What is it I still need to learn?

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Robyn Bavati’s author website: www.robynbavati.com

Robyn Bavati’s bio page

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     Blackwattle Lake by Pamela CookInheritance by Lisa Forrest

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

Month In Review (December 2013)

Writing Novels in Australia has reached the end of its final month of articles for 2013 from this year’s line-up of monthly contributors encompassing aspiring novelists, early-career novelists and established novelists.

Writing Novels in Australia contributors Helene Young and Alison Booth are each attached to a novel writing retreat in 2014 with Novel Writing Retreats Australia.

You can connect with Writing Novels in Australia on Facebook, Twitter or Google+.

Articles for December 2013

On Finding Success As A Writer by Jenn J McLeod

Going Public With Your Writing Habit by Phillipa Fioretti

Writing A Chapter Summary For Your Novel, by Kate Belle (guest article)

Setting In Your Novel by Alison Booth

Chase Your Dreams by Helene Young

Collaboration In The Writing Community by Kelly Inglis

Calling Yourself A Writer by Lia Weston

Taking Notes In The Course of Writing A Novel by Onil Lad

Writing Characters Readers Will Care About  by Ben Marshall

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‘Month In Review’ Updates

For more articles on writing novels you can check out Writing Historical Novels and Writing Teen Novels.

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Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

Writing Characters Readers Will Care About, by Ben Marshall

In creating characters readers care about, the reader doesn’t need to like them – at least at first.  In those crucial first pages, the reader is still getting their bearings.  They don’t know or understand the characters yet.  But, if they don’t understand them, how can they empathise with them?  Why would any reader care about a character with whom they can’t empathise, and why would they keep reading?

For a reader to begin a relationship with the person on the page, I suggest they need to see that character caring about someone or something other than themselves.

In the early paragraphs and pages, when we’re still luring our reader in to become hooked on our story, the plot or context is likely to be one of tension – internal, external or both.  Our protagonist will be in the thick of it, or about to be.  At this point, a standard trick in feature film scripts to engender audience empathy for the protagonist is to stage a ‘save the cat’ moment, where the hero or heroine steps out of their comfort zone, perhaps at risk to themselves, to perform an impressive act of kindness.  In novels, however, this could appear too large a moment, unsubtle, and too obvious a technique for winning a reader’s heart.

In the first pages The Hunger Games, author Suzanne Collins has her heroine, Katniss, worried about her younger sister.  Anyone who cares about another person is inherently good and worth caring about in turn.  Readers register this kind of subtext with little or no analysis, but the questions remain – why does the protagonist care?  What is the threat and what is the worst-case scenario?

In that cunning way we writers bind and enchant our readers to our tale, we’ve already indicated ‘here is someone worth caring about’.  If the plot is high stakes, any altruistic thoughts the protagonist has are put into sharp relief – caring becomes an active, risky thing, and therefore admirable.

Even a selfish character or anti-hero has to care about something. Otherwise there would be no dilemma and the reader would struggle to remain interested.

In the first pages of Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, protagonist Charlie, acting against his parents’ strictures and his own fear, exits into the night, summoned to help his dangerous friend, Jasper.  Without knowing anything else, Charlie wins the reader’s sympathy and the author wins their intrigue.  Either way, we’re hooked.

In the opening pages of Haruki Murakami’s IQ84, the female protagonist, Aomame, cares for a piece of music, specifically composer Leos Janacek’s Sinfonietta.  Murakami uses stream of consciousness exposition as a curiously adrift Aomame is stuck in traffic, listening to music, letting her mind wander.  She thinks, is thoughtful and therefore cares what she thinks about.  Even if we don’t care, we’re curious about why she does and see that she is a decent person as she considers the cab and its owner.  In the tension of gridlocked traffic, stuck in the confines of a small taxi on one of the upper level freeways that fly high through Japanese cities, when Aomame decides to strike out and leave the taxi to get to an appointment, it’s an oddly daring risk – a flight to freedom and into possible danger.  She doesn’t care about herself, but she’s likeable and intriguing, and we’re worried what’s going to happen to her.

In Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, three teenagers are walking to an interview.  The two in front are James and Julia, young lovers who walk hand-in-hand.  Behind is the Quentin, desiring Julia but loving James, who, in turn, shows his love for the other two by wit aimed at easing the tension.  Julia loves them both, showing it with silly banter.  None of them are talking about the interview, but it hangs like a deep, held organ note throughout the first pages.  Without knowing any more, we know all three care enough to protect the others from worry, despite their own.

In my novel manuscript The Pricking of Thumbs, the protagonist, Rousse, is introduced as he skilfully murders an old man, then pauses on his way out to fill the cat’s bowl.  He returns to the grim circus, a young man whom I hope the reader will care enough about to wonder how kindness and murder can exist in the same mind.

Irrespective of plot, and even with minimal context, observing an act of caring raises questions that are inherently intriguing.  Why is this person behaving selflessly?  Are they wise or foolish to do so?  Is the person or thing they care about worthy?  Would I be as brave and generous in the same situation?

When characters risk something for someone else, perhaps against their own wishes, and even putting themselves in danger, readers perceive bravery, and cannot help but admire that character.  Even a doomed romantic like a Don Quixote wins our affection by dint of his unrelenting love for the appalling Dulcinea.

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Ben Marshall’s author website: www.benmarshall-wordpirate.com

Ben Marshall’s bio page

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Burning LiesThe Book of LoveThe Indigo SkyHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodThe Fortunes of Ruby White

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

Taking Notes In The Course of Writing A Novel, by Onil Lad

Writing advice from established authors usually begins with write, write and write. There’s no substitute for spending hours at the computer.

When asked where her novels come from, romance novelist Barbara Cartland said that every word was dictated to her by God. It’s not like that for me, as the thoughts have a habit of popping into my mind out of the blue. Sometimes they come gushing out.

During the last year I’ve found that my best ideas have come when I’m not trying to beat it out of myself whilst stuck at my desk. It’s not just one-liners that come to me but plot twists and whole paragraphs as well. When this happens I’ve always got my iPhone handy. I’ve become a continual note-taker.

Taking notes on my iPhone isn’t a complete replacement to sitting at the computer and writing, but spread out over the day, it’s worth several hours at least. I’m at the stage where I ‘m constantly thinking about my novel and once I write one thing down, other thoughts follow.

It means that when I formally sit down to write, I don’t feel stuck because there are numerous pages of notes to work through. It’s saved me hours of frustration and lets me do the things I enjoy, like reading and watching movies, while still having part of my mind on the novel.

I take notes all the time. Sometimes I just have to lie down or take a shower and within a few minutes the thoughts flow.

I can still put in the hard hours at the computer, when required, usually when I’m facing a deadline or I’ve got enough notes to make a chapter. When I do this I’m productive for the whole six hours, instead of trying to force out the ideas.

Note-taking becomes a habit. After watching a movie that has similar themes to my novel, I’m up half the night making notes. It happens when I’m out walking, running and even cycling.

Some authors maintain that no idea is worthwhile unless it sticks in your mind, but I need all the help I can get.

Tom Waits, as a struggling songwriter, was stuck in traffic in LA when he was hit by an inspiring thought for a song. He had no pen, paper or way to record this elusive spark, so he spoke to it and said, “Can you not see that I’m driving? If you are serious about wanting to exist, I spend eight hours a day in the studio. You’re welcome to come and visit me when I am sitting at my piano.” Apparently this dialogue with himself worked and the rest is history. I’ve tried telling myself the same thing but it didn’t work. I’ve got a mobile phone that Tom Waits didn’t have all those years ago, so I can’t complain. I’m just grateful for the inspiration.

Eventually you have to turn your notes into scenes, characters and plots, but the grunt work has been done on the go. Writing on the go gets you away from the internet, but I find that when the time comes to flesh out the notes on my laptop I’d rather do it in short bursts at a café or library and not go back to my desk. There are also numerous note-taking software apps on the market.

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Onil Lad’s bio page

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Wings of FearHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodA Distant LandThe Fortunes of Ruby WhiteSavage Tide

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

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