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Month In Review (November 2013)

Writing Novels in Australia has reached the end of its eleventh 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 November 2013

On Choosing A Title For Your Novel by Alison Booth

On Critiques, Contests And Conferences by Jenn J McLeod

Being An Author Book Stores Will Enjoy Working With by Lia Weston

The Importance Of Secondary Characters In Novels by Phillipa Fioretti

Writing A Satisfying Story Ending by Kelly Inglis

What Makes A Good First Chapter? by Ben Marshall

On Editing Fiction by Onil Lad

Writing Deadlines… And When Life Gets In The Way by Helene Young

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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 Deadlines… And When Life Gets In The Way, by Helene Young

This month I had planned to write a blog about the joys of  National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Each of my published novels has commenced life as a 50,000 words in November project. For four of those books, that meant I’d written the first half of the novel and then only needed to complete the second half by the time December came around.  It’s been a proven way for me to kick off a book.

With Safe Harbour, out next year, I only managed to achieve 10,000 words, but they were the crucial opening chapters so I’d at least met my characters and learnt a great deal about the community they lived in. This year I had managed a mere 8,765 words before edits for Safe Harbour arrived in my inbox. As a professional writer, I had no option but to put aside the new story, pick up the previous one and start work on polishing it.

Initially, I struggled with the edits because, in the fickle way of a writer, I’d moved on from those previous characters. I was immersed in my new world with new friends and wanted to stay there, continuing to enjoy and explore. The reality of being a published author is you have deadlines and commitments. NaNoWriMo was relegated to the back burner.

As someone who also works full time in aviation, finding time to write can be extremely difficult, but life aboard the good ship Roo Bin Esque is ordered and my husband does a great deal of the day to day stuff – shopping, cooking, cleaning, etc. - so I was confident I’d make my deadline.

Then… family illness reared its ugly head again, along with a particularly busy week in the day job. I also knew I had a trip at the end of November to be part of a friend’s wedding on Montague Island. The stresses started piling up and I felt as though I was peering down a long tunnel without even a glimmer of the end in sight. That worry meant I was waking up at night ticking off the things I still needed to do, fretting that I wouldn’t make it.

I started to resent being out of bed at 4 am in order to squeeze in a couple of hours editing before I left for work. I had to work hard to keep a smile on my face as I drove from one side of Brisbane to the other to check on my unwell, elderly mother. In five books I’ve never extended a deadline of any sort, so I was determined that I wouldn’t need to do that this time. I was driving myself into the ground trying to achieve the impossible.

A good friend reminded me of something I’d said to her several years ago when she was struggling to finish a book. “Don’t worry, the story will still be there tomorrow.” I have no idea who said that to me in the first place but I’d lost sight of that reality. It was a light bulb moment for me. I asked my editor politely for another couple of days and was granted four, and more if required. The stress blew away over night and I slept the sleep of the dead. The edits even seemed to be easier without the added pressure.

Consequently, I’m sitting on Montague Island listening to the birds chattering out on the cliffs with the sunrise streaming into the lighthouse keeper’s cottage. My friends’ celebrations were beautiful and I have a whole swag of new experiences to colour new stories.

If life gets in the way of your writing, don’t beat yourself up. Life’s too short for that. I promise you the words and the story will still be there tomorrow.

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Helene Young’s author website: www.heleneyoung.com

Helene Young’s bio page

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Wings of FearShattered SkyBurning LiesHalf Moon Bay     Stillwater CreekThe Fragment of Dreams

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

On Editing Fiction, by Onil Lad

I decided to apply to a Manuscript Development Program at the last minute, a couple of days before the deadline.  They required a sample of your work plus a pitch.

I edited as I went along and assumed the chapters were tidy and coherent enough to give the reader a sense of the concept.

My partner has recently started an editing course and I thought that she could practice on my manuscript.

Although it was an incomplete first draft, all that was required was to correct a few grammatical errors such as misplaced commas. Or so I thought.

The deadline was two days away and we only had seventy pages to get through.  It should have been a cinch.

Apart from everything else, I didn’t realise just how long it would take to edit and redo the work. In the end we had to work constantly for those two days until we were both sick of the sight of my words. I must have read through those seventy pages dozens of times.

The process highlighted grammatical areas that I needed to brush up on. We disagreed a lot about commas. In the end I gave in when she showed me the exact line in the editing manual that proved she was right.

There were grammatical rules that I wasn’t aware of regarding hyphens and dashes.  Heck, I didn’t know hyphens and dashes were different and now I find that there are “em” dashes and “en” dashes. I’d never heard of them.

As a speculative fiction writer, I try a lot of things and not all of them work. Sometimes when concepts hit the page, they sound ridiculous and you throw them out. It was embarrassing for me when I realized that some of the “miss” chapters got through. The comments hurt and it was depressing for me that my inferior chapters had been analysed. You want people to only read the final polished product.

We went through everything, even changing those character names that didn’t fit, and every line of dialogue, some of which, according to my editor, didn’t make sense. We agreed that we still have a lot of work to do to get the dialogue right.

We found some structural problems as well. It was clear that I was overcomplicating the plot. It was something else to fix at a later date.

If you need feedback, I think it’s better to show your work to an editor rather than a writing group. You’re more likely to get an honest critique.

Looking at the editor’s manual, I noticed that it was a doorstopper of a book. There’s so much to get to grips with. I think I need to do the editing course myself.

Anyway, we’ve got The Elements of Style now, which I can use as I go along.

The bottom line is that the collaboration, although painful at times, worked for me.

Next time, editing will be easier, and I’ll make sure that I leave enough time to go through my manuscript with a fine tooth comb.

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Onil Lad’s bio page

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House for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodA Distant LandThe Book of LoveShattered SkyThe Fortunes of Ruby White

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

What Makes A Good First Chapter? by Ben Marshall

The question seems to have an obvious set of answers – a good first chapter should reveal interesting characters the reader empathises with, a plausible and intriguing plot, and prose that enhances both and gets in the way of neither.

The novel has evolved through time, each era taking different approaches to narrative.  Earlier times invested in exposition, delaying the introduction of character, plot and action to an extent our era can find stilted and unpalatable; there’s too much author, too little plot and character.  We want to cut to the chase.

How our narrative styles have changed is partly in response to new cultural norms, technology and the advent of radio plays, films, pulp fiction, television and video games.

The content of what we write has also changed with the events of the time.  In the 20th century, everything changed when humanity found it easy to slaughter millions of its own species in world wars.  Hope of a grand future died, and death itself loomed with a bleak immediacy that didn’t necessarily offer the comfort of an afterlife.

Let’s grab some books off the shelves to see what a few authors do in their first chapters, and whether a pattern emerges as to what works and what doesn’t.

In The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters is a contemporary homage to Gothic novels. The first chapter is longish at forty pages, and uses the tropes, phrasing and style of an earlier age to dip the reader’s toe in the slow moving waters of its plot.  While meticulously written, one can find this faithfully retro approach richly rewarding, or impressive but ultimately less engaging than the modern styles.

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller still reads as fresh and blackly funny as when it was published in the sixties.  The first chapter uses dead-pan prose and dialogue to establish the curiously amoral protagonist malingering in a hospital ward.  Few details of the wider context are revealed, and the only plot point is a minor note played at the very end of the chapter.  This approach effectively creates characters by uncritical observation of their behaviours.  One portrait stands in contrast to the rest – an ill patient is painted with a delicacy and humanity that gives gravitas to the rest.  It also signals that the reader may not make assumptions about what comes next.

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan is an ethereal story that uses fantasy, fairy tale and literary fiction tropes.  A short prologue uses a mix of ‘medievalised’ prose to paint a moment during haymaking when a young couple have just made love, followed by an event that imbues a faint supernatural element to the narrative.  The first chapter makes no reference to the prologue and takes the reader to a more brutal place using an omniscient narrator who almost slips into first-person when relating feelings or memories.  It’s a grim tale of rape, incest, abortion and murder – and that’s just the first chapter.  The disconnect between prologue and first chapter reflects the novel as a whole, and can be regarded as intriguing, frustrating or both.

Bruce Pascoe won the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for young adult fiction with Fog, A Dox, a bush story of the love between humans and other animals.  The first short chapter is written in a deceptively simple style to suit the character of the older protagonist.  Narration is omniscient while describing action, and dips into first-person stream of consciousness to take up the protagonist and his dog’s thoughts.  Pascoe uses a mix of broad strokes and small touches that quickly and colourfully paint his novel’s world.  He lightly references an indigenous past, and effortlessly manages to reveal the natures of a dozen or so wild creatures in just a few pages.  The end of the chapter presents the protagonist with a dilemma in a wry, understated way.  Pascoe’s observational skills, born of time in the bush, give a rewarding emotional truth to every element in this.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness was an unwritten story by Siobhan Dowd.  Dying, she gave it to Ness, who chose not to emulate her voice, but write in a style he hoped she’d like.  The first chapter, using an omniscient narrator, quickly establishes the presence of an undefined monster, the teen male protagonist, and his difficulty both with a recurring nightmare and not telling anyone about it.  Images of death slip in via references to the neighbouring graveyard, the dark of the night, and an ancient tree.  The monster emerges, confronts the boy, and leaves an enigmatic threat.  An elegiac tension is established.  Supernatural intrigue effectively mitigates the theme of death.

While authors take different approaches to their first chapters that may or may not reflect the whole novel, most offer an effective mix of broad strokes and smaller deft touches to imply a great deal in a short space.  The transition from first to subsequent chapters can be seamless or disjointed, and this can be problematic for readers.  Ultimately, the level of empathy and intrigue the author generates in those first pages is the key to writing that enchants and compels the reader to turn the page.

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

Ben Marshall’s bio page

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Burning LiesThe Indigo SkyHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodThe Fortunes of Ruby WhiteThe Book of Love

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

Writing A Satisfying Story Ending, by Kelly Inglis

Like many other readers, I won’t waste my time reading a story that I’m still trying to get interested in after 75 pages. Sometimes the lack of interest stems from the plot developing at a snail’s pace, sometimes it’s because the characters are two-dimensional and unlikeable, and sometimes it’s because the plot is so ridiculously far-fetched that I spend the whole time thinking about how this would never happen in real life. Whatever, the reason, if I’m still not absorbed in the plot after 75 pages, I pick up a different book and never finish the boring one. As Joy Daniels says, “life’s too short to read bad books (or drink bad wine)”.

However, when I get really upset with a book is when the characters have been engaging, the plot intriguing and well-paced, with several story arcs that are perfectly interwoven… and then the ending sucks. After I’ve invested hours and hours of my life becoming absorbed into the lives of the characters and their struggles, nothing makes me crankier then a bad ending.

Now, I don’t mean a good ending is one that is ‘happily ever after’. Many great stories have left me feeling melancholy, despairing or even angry. What mean by a ‘bad ending’ is a one that leaves the reader feeling cheated, and having a hundred unanswered questions about what happened. A good ending, even if it’s a sad ending, ties up the loose threads of a story into a neat bow. A good ending answers many of the reader’s questions about the plot, or at least hints at the answers, so that the reader themselves can use their imaginations to fill in the blanks.

In other words, a good ending should resolve the conflict. However, the resolution should be related to the actions of the characters themselves, and not be a result of some random external force solving the problem for them. For example, think of a story where a woman has found out that her husband has been cheating on her with his young, sexy secretary, and decides to hire a hit man to teach him a lesson. Throughout the plot we would experience her conflicts – hating him, and yet recalling the love they once shared, her cold-hearted dealings with the hired gun interspersed with the moral dilemma of planning the husband’s murder. If, at the end of the story the husband gets hit by a bus and dies, sure, it solves the main character’s problems, but it feels contrived. Random chance rarely solves a serious problem in real life, and the reader, after having invested so much of their time in the story, wants to see how the conflict is resolved by the characters. Does she go through with the hit? Or does her guilty conscience lead her to throw herself in front of the bullet and save her husband’s life at the expense of her own? The reader wants to see the conflict resolved, but they want the characters to be involved in that resolution.

What about ending a story with a twist? It’s entirely possible to end a story with a twist and still have the ending be completely satisfying and plausible. Again, the trick is to not have the twist be a random surprise and leave the reader completely befuddled. A twist ending for the above story could be that the hit man turns at the penultimate moment and shoots the wife, rather than the husband. However, you need to plant little hints throughout the story so that the reader has an, “Oh, of course!” moment, rather than a, “Huh?” one. There should be indications throughout the plot that hint at an alternative story arc. Perhaps the wife has a fling with the hit man to get back at her straying husband that she cuts off when she gets a better offer. That might make the hit man angry enough to murder her instead of the husband. Or perhaps part of the way through the story, she argues with her husband when she notices a large sum of money missing from their joint bank account, which he brushes off with a lame excuse. As the life leaves her body on the final page, she realises that she and her husband hired the same hit man, but her husband obviously paid the higher price for his services. Whichever twist that you end with, it’s important to leave clues throughout the story so that the reader can pull them all together at the end and be satisfied that it all makes sense.

While there are many ways to write a great ending, it should make your reader satisfied that the conflict has been resolved and their questions answered, but still wishing there were just a few more pages of the story that they could immerse themselves in.

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Kelly Inglis’s bio page

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     Burning LiesStillwater CreekHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodThe Fragment of DreamsAll This Could End

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

The Importance Of Secondary Characters In Novels, by Phillipa Fioretti

Secondary characters in a novel are as important as the primary characters. Like the vegetables accompanying a piece of grilled steak, they provide colour, fibre, nutrition, variety, contrast, visual interest and complete the meal. Without them it would just be a lump of steak on your plate. So unless you’re writing something like Waiting for Godot, it’s imperative your other cast members get the full treatment.

By full treatment I mean they must be developed, in your mind and in your background notes primarily, and portrayed in the story in a more subtle way. In other words, not as much back story as the main players. The reader doesn’t need to know but, as their creator, you most certainly do. This gives them a wholeness and sense of authenticity in all their actions and words. Otherwise they can be seen as simple plot devices which help drive the main action. Which they are, you just don’t want them to appear as if they are.

As with the main cast, you need a sense of their physical appearance and their driving motivations but they must never overshadow the main characters and not descend into caricature. Caricature is an easy trap to fall into. Wikipedia says, ‘In literature, a caricature is a description of a person using exaggeration of some characteristics and oversimplification of others.’ A character like this tends to be unbelievable and sounds a false note in the overall story. They can be enormous fun to write, think of Mr Collins and Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, but getting the essence of their humanity beneath the quirkiness is vital.

Once you know who they are you can set them to work. There are the secondary characters who support the main character’s storyline, then there are extras. Have a bit of comic fun with the extras but pare it back the more central the characters are to the story. They may be central to a subplot which echoes the themes of the central plot or they may provide an opportunity for conflict which helps strengthen a major character. Whatever their function, they must be as believable and human as the main cast. To return to Mr Collins, the snobbish clergyman set to inherit the Bennett’s home thus depriving the four Bennett girls of their only fortune. He is insufferable in his snobbery, his obsequious attitude to Lady de Bourgh is nauseating, yet he sincerely wishes to help the Bennett girls. His impulse is generous, although comical and repellant to others. It’s that subtle quality which leavens his pompousness and quietly rounds him out to full humanity. I mean, if Charlotte Lucas is prepared to marry him he can’t be the complete fool he sometimes presents as.

Every character is vital to the ultimate fabric of the story. You can’t skimp on development because they aren’t the stars of the show. Give them a subtle depth and they’ll reward you by carrying story, plot and theme to the last page.

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Phillipa Fioretti’s author website: www.phillipafioretti.com.au

Phillipa Fioretti’s bio page

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The Book of LoveThe Fragment of Dreams     Half Moon BayStillwater CreekThe Fortunes of Ruby WhiteGirl Saves Boy

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

Being An Author Book Stores Will Enjoy Working With, by Lia Weston

Booksellers love authors. Booksellers particularly love local authors, because it’s an excellent selling point and a great way to introduce new writers to their customers.

However, your relationship with your local bookshop (or bookshops, if you’re lucky) is one to be treated carefully and with respect. Normally I wouldn’t think that this would be something that needs to be pointed out. A few conversations with a friend who works in the industry (henceforth known as Bookseller Friend), however, revealed that not everyone thinks this way. Often it’s just a question of simple ignorance, rather than people trying to be a pain in the butt. Nevertheless, it’s an illuminating area, so here goes.

Get your timing right 

When The Fortunes of Ruby White was due to come out, I had no idea what to do. I was encouraged to visit local bookshops and introduce myself, which I duly did. In hindsight, two things would have made this process better:

1) having something to hand out (always awkward when said book is not actually in print yet – for those in the same situation, consider getting promotional bookmarks made up); and

 2) making a time to meet with the appropriate person, as I seemed to have a knack for turning up just when people had gone to lunch/the dentist/on holidays.

Bookseller Friend confirms that an appointment is paramount. (Oh, hello, hindsight!) Making an appointment is especially important if you’re self-published and are hoping that the bookshop will stock your work. (Yes, some bookshops are happy to take self-published work on consignment.) If this is you, it’s also important to be prepared when you see the buyer. How much do you want to sell your book for? How much will cover your costs but also allow the store to make money? (They’ve got rent and bills to pay, just like everyone else.)

Be clear on what you expect from the shop.

Don’t expect to be displayed in the New Release wall bays: these are prime real estate and tend to be reserved for established names and authors with a publisher’s weight behind them.

An important note here from Bookshop Friend’s co-worker (who is also a self-published novelist): be grateful! A bookshop is under no obligation (and sometimes no gain) to stock self-published works. Whether it sells or not is not solely their responsibility; you still need to be prepared to do your own advertising and marketing. Which neatly brings me to…

Booksellers love an event 

Want to hold a shindig to promote your latest novel? Awesome! Events not only give you more exposure, they also bring your bookshop potential new customers. Enthusiastic and organised authors are even better, especially ones with book-loving friends who like a drink. (I always buy more stuff when I’ve had a nip or two. Why aren’t there more bookshop-slash-bars? Actually, that’s probably a good thing. I’m fairly sure I’d bankrupt us within a month. Not to mention the whole waking-up-next-to-a-pile-of-books-I-don’t-remember-buying thing. Think of the hangovers.)

Again, you’ll need to be clear on what you want. Do you want a signing when the shop is open? Would you prefer an after-hours shindig? Who will be responsible for the invites? Are you just wanting to invite your friends, or wanting the bookshop to target their customers? Are you willing to come to the table, so to speak, and contribute financially? As Bookseller Friend so aptly puts it, “Expecting a store to supply food and wine for a bunch of your friends who may or may not purchase the book is a big expectation.” If you have a publisher, can they help you out? Perhaps they can arrange to have posters printed, or covers, or include information about the event in their press releases or social media.

In addition, please make sure that your local bookshop has approved your event before you start inviting people. (True story: my Bookseller Friend received an email advertising a book function in her shop… that she had not actually agreed to.) Confirm everything with the event coordinator, even if you feel like a dill asking so many questions. A questioning, motivated author is much more of a help to a bookshop than someone sitting on their hands and expecting the bookshop to do everything.

Finally, please do not re-arrange the shelves 

Print this bit and show it to your well-meaning family and friends as well. Although it’s very tempting to pull your book out and display it in a more advantageous way (especially if you’re like me and your surname starts with a letter so late in the alphabet that you usually end up in a bottom row or hidden behind a column), this is one of the fastest ways to tick off staff.  They will remember you – and not in a good way.

So there you go: Lia’s Guide To Being An Author That Your Bookshop Will Always Be Happy To See Instead Of Hiding In The Stacks And Hoping You Go Away.

Many thanks to the lovely Louise from Dymocks Adelaide (who sell self-published material on consignment and love polite helpful authors) for her invaluable tips. Support your local bookshop, people.

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Lia Weston’s author website: www.liaweston.com

Lia Weston’s bio page

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The Fortunes of Ruby WhiteThe Fortunes of Ruby White     Half Moon BayHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodThe Book of Love

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

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