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Paula Weston asks: Why aren’t YA books as respected as ‘adult’ books?

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on June 2, 2012

Today we have Brisbane based author, Paula Weston, whose debut YA fantasy Shadows has just been released from Text Publishing. Paula is going to talk about her passion, writing for Young Adults.

She raises the question why are YA (and children’s books) less respected than adult novels.

Watch out for the give-away question at the end.

 

‘Young adult is a point of view, not a reading age.’

I don’t know who said it (or in what context) but I love that sentence. Not just because it justifies the amount of time I spend reading (and enjoying) young adult stories of all genres, but because it’s true.

To suggest – as a Times magazine columnist recently did – that adults should only read adult books and leave everything else to teenagers, is remarkably narrow minded. His justification? Because ‘books are one of our few chances to learn’. In other words, there is nothing of value in young adult stories.

In that case, why do we let our teenagers read them?

The idea that a young adult novel is somehow less well written, less intelligent, less engaging and less capable of moving a reader, is insulting to writers and readers alike. Sure, there are varying degrees of quality among young adult books, but that can said of novels in any section of a book store or library.

Yet young adult novels come under stronger criticism. And when you combine the words ‘paranormal’ and ‘young adult’, you’re almost guaranteed to be immediately dismissed as lightweight in many circles. (And yes, I know spec writers – adult and young adult alike – have faced this sort of discrimination for years.)

Like many writers whose books end up in the YA section, I didn’t set out to specifically write a young adult novel.

I’d had an idea bouncing around for a while for a paranormal story but I kept pushing it aside because I was working on a fantasy series. My agent (Lyn Tranter of Australian Literary Management) came very close to scoring a publishing deal on the latter, and when it fell through, I went through my usual round of self doubt, frustration and yes, a teeny bit of self pity. (At that point I’d written five full-length manuscripts, with my first rejection slip dated 1995.)

Once I dusted myself off, I knew I needed a break from the pressure I’d put myself under to land a publishing deal. I just wanted to write something for fun, and that increasingly insistent idea in the back of my mind was the perfect outlet.

So I started on a story just for me, not worrying about anyone would think. I wrote a few scenes, which became a few chapters, and suddenly I had half a novel. Characters had never come so easily and I’d never enjoyed writing so much. I sat down and fleshed out the plot in greater detail and realised I had a story that would take more than one book to tell (four in fact). My agent loved the idea, and those early chapters, and I suddenly had an exciting new project on my hands.

I chose the age of my characters based on what would work best from a narrative perspective and what I needed for plotting (Gaby, my narrative character is 19…or so she thinks.)

When the wonderful folk at Text Publishing offered me that long-awaited contract, they felt the Rephaim series was young adult. The team there really knows what its doing in the YA market, and I was more than happy with that call. My only concern was that my series not be marketed to children or younger teens, given the amount of violence and profanity it features.

I’m an eclectic reader – from literary to paranormal and everything in between – and I’ve consistently found some of my favourite writers on young adult shelves (Aussies Melina Marchetta and Markus Zusak, and US writer Maggie Stiefvater). Some of the best books I’ve read in the last 12 months have been YA (and written by Aussies), including Vikki Wakefield’s All I Ever Wanted, Leanne Hall’s This Is Shyness and Jane Higgins’ The Bridge (okay, Jane’s from New Zealand, but you get the picture).

And if you don’t think YA spec fic stories can’t be complex and rich with analogy and metaphor, check out Marianne de Pierre’s Night Creatures series or Veronica Roth’s Divergent series.

Certainly, some YA stories can have a lighter touch, particularly when it comes to dealing with sexual issues (compare the YA and adult paranormal novels of writers like Richelle Mead, Lilith Saintcrow and Kelly Armstrong), but others push the boundaries more than adult fiction.

I agree there are boundaries that should be respected when the primary target is teens. But more and more, young adult novels are crossing over to wider markets. Harry Potter – still referred to in some quarters as ‘children’s fiction’ – sparked that fire, and it shows no sign of burning out any time soon.

Absolutely, teens should own the YA section of book stores. But the rest of us shouldn’t have to feel like we’ve left our brains at the door when we want to read great stories that just happen to wear the YA label.

Paula has a copy of Shadows for one lucky commenter. Give-away question:  When you were growing up what YA novel (or writer) made a big impression on you?

Shadows: Book 1 of the Rephaim series (Text Publishing) is out 2 July

Posted in Australian Spec Fic Scene, Book Launches, Characterisation, Fantasy Genre, Genre Writing, Publishing Industry, Readers and Genre, Visiting Writer, Writing Craft, Writing for children, Writing for Young Adults | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 20 Comments »

Sean the Blogonaut on Writers, Reviewing and Websites

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on December 11, 2011

Rowena has very kindly invited me to discuss how reviewers find an author via their web presence, what they look for on author web sites and finally, what they look for in a book.

Who is Sean and why should I listen to him?

Good question.  I am a teacher, a book blogger, interviewer and a reviewer.  I have been focussing on speculative fiction for the past year but I have had a life long interest in reading and authors. I review for traditional publishers, small press and conduct audio interviews for Galactic Chat. Now I’m wary of self proclaimed experts so I won’t pretend to be one.  I can only let you know how I get to know of authors and their works.

Getting noticed

Cory Doctorow is fond of quoting Tim O’Reilly, “the big problem [for Authors] isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity”.  I think it’s always been an issue for authors.  It’s just been compounded with the ease of self publishing.

So what follows are some tips for getting someone like me to notice you as a writer and become an honest advocate of your work. I say advocate here because I don’ see myself fitting into that role of an academic, critical reviewer (which isn’t to say I won’t offer constructive criticism).  I like finding good talent and letting likeminded people know about it.

Traditional publishers generally do a good job of getting you reviewed, or setting up interviews etcetera. In my experience though, social media and the use of the blogging/internet community is something they are just starting to come to grips with, often trying to seize it as a marketing opportunity, which runs against the grain of the egalitarian book blogging community.  In my opinion social media outreach and community engagement with your readers is probably best done by the author. So without further ado here are my information conduits:

Podcasts – Book people talking about the books they love.  I owe most of my recent purchases to listening to shows like The Coode Street Podcast, Galactic Suburbia and The Writer and The Critic. If there’s not a podcast that services your genre, consider starting one.  If you can, get a mention or even a guest appearance on podcasts by engaging in some of the activities below.

Twitter – is probably my best source of information on what authors are doing and saying.  A note here though, Twitter is a social media platform – engage with people. Don’t market your book at them (or do so with subtlety).  These are people not customers (yet).

Websites and Blogs – have a web presence, a free blog or a self hosted site with an RSS feed.  Have a place where you can talk about your book, yourself and your interests. If I like hanging out discussing things on your blog, I’ll tell others and I’ll link to your blog when you have news.

Goodreads– Get on Goodreads at least as a reader but preferably as an author as well.  I have other readers who I respect and who I know have similar tastes to me.  I’m informed of what books they are reading and what they think about these books.  Make it easy for us to find you there.

None of these are a guarantee and I have missed out some avenues that I don’t use.  The point though is to generate multiple pathways to your work, for you to grow a network honestly and organically.

Combine this approach with the works and networks of others and you have a web of mutually supportive connections that will nourish you.

Excellent examples of this approach are the ROR blog, and the various web incarnations of Marianne de Pierres. Watch how authors like Rowena, Marianne and publishers like Alisa Krasnostein contribute to a “rising tide that floats all boats”.

It’s not all work either.  I promote my writing on twitter (it’s my biggest source of site visits) but I also spend time just conversing with people socially.  All of the above activities require some effort but they also provide something in return.

But, “protect the work”.  No good having a web presence without work to promote.

What you can do to help?

Everyone is busy.  I know you have just spent the better part of two years getting a book to print, not to mention the carcases of other works abandoned on the journey, but here some things you can do to make it easy for people to sing your praises.

  1. Have a Press Kit, a page including a bio and jpegs of you and your works that bloggers can use in their posts.
  1. Collect links to interviews written and audio on your blog/website in one central location. When I research an author for an interview I listen and read all the other interviews they have done so that I don’t end up going over old ground.  I want to ask the author engaging questions that make the experience a new one for them as well as the listener.
  1. Social media buttons, Twitter, Facebook, and Google + make it easy for people to keep track of your pronouncements.  I don’t use browser bookmarks any more, I ‘m hooked up to RSS feeds & social media updates.
  1. Use commenting systems that allow users to be notified of new comments – anything that contributes to a community building up around your blog (my recommendation is Intense Debate).

So now that I have noticed you?  What do I look for in a book?

Book reviewers, whether we are semi professional bloggers or newspaper columnists are grizzled veterans.  We have seen it all before and we can be a hard crowd to please.  The craft side of the equation is up to you, it’s something you develop only by doing, but here are some things that I look out for when reading.

Characters: You get me interested and caring about the characters and the premise of you novel/story almost doesn’t matter.  Stephen King did this for me in 11.22.63. I couldn’t have cared less about the plan to save President Kennedy, I wanted the guy and the girl to get together and live happily ever after.  As a reviewer I’m looking for “real” characters, whether they are orbiting Titan or defending Helms Deep. I want drama and tension and a little romance.

Originality or a new angle: reading lots of work within a genre really opens your eyes to how crowded with ideas it is. So to get yourself noticed, you have to come up with a fresh angle or something original. Trent Jamieson’s Death Works series is a good example of a fresh take on a number of horror/fantasy staples.  You have a world that blends mythology, both Classical and Christian, an Australian location, demon possessed zombies, the Grim Reaper and a garnish of self deprecating Aussie humour.

Pacing: for genre fiction you need the novel to be well paced.  This can be a steady rhythm or a white knuckle ride. You don’t want to give the reader a chance to put it down because, let’s face it, you are competing against visual mediums and other less taxing forms of entertainment.

An example of excellent pacing in a fantasy setting is Rowena’s King Rolen’s Kin; I’ve mentioned a couple of times that she should try her hand at a techno-thriller.  A well paced novel helps the words disappear, immerses us in the story, page count ceases to matter. If you can make me as a reviewer forget that there’s another 300 pages to go I will be eternally thankful.

Emotional engagement:  I have a rule that I generally only give five stars to books that get under my skin to the point where I have an emotional experience.  To some extent this last point arises out of a combination of those above.  Without well developed, believable characters you can’t form an emotional tie, and a book that languishes in the minutiae of a relationship never moving forward will bore the reader.

I read and reviewed Quentin Jardine’s The Loner early this year, presented as a faux biography – the pacing was steady, and the characters interesting and real.  It was outside my reading preferences, a tale of a sportsman turned journalist.  In the last 30 pages though, it gutted me emotionally, I felt physically ill due to empathy with the main character.  Jardine had made those characters so believable and real that I experienced physical symptoms.

It’s rare to get all of these, or all of them in equal measure.  And there’s some I am probably missing.  But that’s not necessary for entertainment.  And truth be told, reviewers aren’t all cut from the same cloth so even a couple of these will get your work talked about.

If you can make a book blogger or a reviewer a fan, then you have a genuine and honest promoter of your work.  You may have noticed that I have mentioned writers associated with ROR, it’s not some cosy little in group referencing.  I sing their praises when I blog and when I teach because they stick in my head.

It’s fairly easy to tell when someone is promoting for the sake of getting a reward.  You want honest advocates of your work and if you can manage to do that you have an honest and organic support team at your disposal that you don’t have to pay.

I have given you some insight into my approach to reviewing and book blogging. Hopefully you can take something away from it.   Perhaps, in the spirit of community you’d like to discus your own experiences and opinions in the comments.

For instance what has been your experience with reviewers? Do you have some you trust to recommend books? Has your book been reviewed in such a way that left you gnashing your teeth?

Follow Sean on Twitter: @SeandBlogonaut

See the Austral-Asian Spec Fic. Daily

(Look out for the article next week on this site and how useful it is for writers).

Posted in Australian Spec Fic Scene, Characterisation, Creativity, Editing and Revision, Genre Writing, Plotting, Promoting your Book, Reviews, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , | 12 Comments »

Part Two of Ian Irvine’s 41 ways to Keep Readers Reading

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on December 3, 2011

41 WAYS TO CREATE AND HEIGHTEN SUSPENSE IN FICTION

PART TWO – PLOT AND STRUCTURE

The first part of this article dealt with suspense from the viewpoint of characters and their problems. This part looks at ways to create suspense using plot and structural elements.

C. PLOT

Plot is made up of the hero’s successive actions get what he wants (i.e. to solve the story problem) and the opponent’s corresponding actions to stop him. To build suspense to an explosive pitch at the climax of the story, each new action by the hero needs to be blocked by his opponent, and either fails or leads to an even bigger problem – until the climactic scene where the story problem is finally resolved one way or another.

19.  Make the story problem clear. A surprising number of manuscripts fail to set out either:

  • What the hero’s real problem or goal is;
  • Or the nature of the obstacle or antagonist that’s trying to stop him achieving this goal;
  • Or only do so many pages into the story.

The real story doesn’t begin until the hero formulates a goal and takes action to get it (see Cleaver, Immediate Fiction). Until this happens there can be little suspense or story interest, so make the hero’s goal clear as early as possible.

20.  Put the hero at a disadvantage. Examples:

  • At the beginning, the hero may not know how to solve her problem; or may not understand what the real problem is (e.g., she’s mistaken about her real enemy);
  • She lacks the skills to solve her problem (e.g. needs magic but doesn’t have any; has a gift for magic but doesn’t know how to use it);
  • She has critical personality flaws, e.g. her obsession with gaining justice for her murdered mother blinds her to vital friendships; his violent past leaves him paralysed with guilt; his racism leads him to refuse the aid of the one person who can help him;
  • She’s handicapped physically, mentally, emotionally or socially.

21.  Increase the pressure in unpredictable ways (for details, see the references, especially Lyon):

  • Test the hero’s abilities to breaking point. Take away her friends and supporters, undermine her assets and any options she’s relying on, block her escape routes, cut the deadline in half, devalue her strongest beliefs or the things she most cares about. Anything that can go wrong, should go wrong – not just for her, but for everyone;
  • Give her more simultaneous problems than anyone can handle, so she makes damaging mistakes. Distract her with an unexpected sexual attraction. Have disagreements escalate out of control. Give her an impossible dilemma that will trouble her for ages.;
  • Thwart her at every turn. If she’s relying on aid, information or some object or talisman, have it fail to appear, or be stolen, lost or destroyed when it’s almost within her grasp. If she has a vital talent or skill, rob her of the ability to use it when she needs it most;
  • Arouse suspicion about some of her friends or allies, or use dramatic irony (see (23), below) to make readers suspect them even if the hero does not. Have a trusted ally betray her, desert her or go over to the enemy;
  • Foreshadow her fate or peril, to the audience and other characters even if not to herself. Use mysterious documents or eerie settings or symbols to create uneasiness, or show that things are not as they seem;
  • Have the hero lose contact with her mentor; injure the hero; use forces of nature (weather, fire, flood, difficult terrain) to block her;
  • Plant red herrings. Have the hero jump to false conclusions that lead her in the wrong direction or to make disastrous mistakes, or to fall into a trap. Have failures caused by misunderstandings or poor communication;
  • Set the action within some greater conflict (cultural renaissance, political drama, social upheaval, war, religious persecution) or tailor social institutions to make everything more difficult (paranoid government, martial law, police state, secret society);
  • Create an emotional time bomb (something vitally important to the hero) then, at some critical time, have it destroyed or lost;
  • Lull the hero (and readers) into a false sense of security by having things go too well for a scene or two, then create a disaster;
  • Show the hero thinking over past events and seeing something she missed that’s worrying or ominous. Or, when it’s too late, coming to a dreadful realisation.

22Create conflict with everyone and everything.

  • With the opponent – see (4) above;
  • With family, friends and allies – see (10) above;
  • With people the hero meets on the way – they may be hostile, unreliable, treacherous, incompetent or give false or incorrect information;
  • With the setting (see 25) below, including landscape, weather, culture, politics, bureaucracy, religion;
  • Inner conflict – see (22) below.

23.  Create inner conflicts and dilemmas.

  • Give the hero impossible challenges or agonising choices that test his courage, skill & moral fibre;
  • Force a good man to make invidious choices, e.g. between informing on his corrupt mother or betraying his country;
  • A girl sees two friends in danger and can only save one. How does she decide whom to save and whom to let die?
  • Make the hero choose between strongly held ideals (duty/honour, family/justice). Force a pacifist to fight. Require a reformed drunk to drink.

24.  Use dramatic irony (i.e., your readers know something vital that the characters aren’t aware of):

  • The heroine is enjoying a glass of wine by the fire, unaware that the killer is looking in through the window. She’s not anxious, but readers are on the edge of their seats;
  • The hero doesn’t realise that he’s got things disastrously wrong, but it’s obvious to the reader (and perhaps to other characters, too);
  • Write some scenes from the villain’s viewpoint so readers can worry about the trap closing on the unsuspecting hero;
  • A character bears vital or troubling news but events conspire to delay (or prevent) its delivery to those who need to know.

25.  Use the unknown to create anxiety.

  • Set a scene where some terrible disaster or tragedy once occurred. The place need not necessarily be dangerous, but fear of the unknown or the past will make it seem so;
  • Arouse fear of some danger the character has to face – this could be a real-life danger (fighting a monster, swimming a flooded river) or an uncanny one (spending the night in a ghost-ridden graveyard);
  • Or an everyday ordeal (a daunting interview; meeting the girlfriend’s parents; sitting a difficult exam).

26Put your hero in a perilous place. Analyse your scene settings and work out how you can change them to heighten tension:

  • Move the scene to a dangerous or unpredictable place. Instead of a park, use a derelict factory, a minefield or a sinking ship;
  • Make an everyday place seem dangerous, e.g. the hero must race across a rugged landscape in a fog;
  • Change the scene from day to night, good weather to bad, peace to riot or war, or put the hero in the middle of a plague epidemic.

27.  Create mysteries. As noted above, mysteries and puzzles create suspense both because the hero has to work them out and because the reader wants to know the answer.

  • How did the disaster occur?
  • How did a good man (or company, or nation) take this fatal step into crime, addiction, insanity or war?
  • Is this document true, or a despicable lie?
  • What do these clues mean?
  • Why is this device or talisman here and how is it used?

28.  Design puzzles. These can either be intellectual or physical:

  • Intellectual – riddles, conundrums, paradoxes, illusions etc;
  • Physical – how do I get in or out? Locked room mysteries. Puzzles requiring dexterity.

29.  Leave issues and crises unresolved (especially at chapter or scene endings) and tension will rise because readers long for the resolution. Uncertainty and anticipation are interlinked and create suspense:

  • Uncertainty can be heightened with unexpected twists, sudden reversals and shocking disasters;
  • Foster anticipation by having the characters set out their goals, then by using omens, portents and foreshadowing to arouse unease about the goals being met;
  • Within scenes, heighten reader anticipation by using distractions and interruptions to delay longed-for meetings, confrontations, resolution of an important event, delivery of vital news etc.

30Use reversals. Reversals of the expected are used to break expectations, clichés and repetition.

  • Lead your readers in a particular direction in order to create expectations about the outcome, then throw in a reversal that breaks the expectation. This heightens readers’ anticipation, and thus suspense, because they have no idea what’s going to happen now.
  • Scour your story for clichéd character types, plot elements, emotions, dialogue, action and reactions, then use reversals where appropriate to break the cliché.
  • Do the same where you find repetition of character types, plot elements, emotions, dialogue, action and reactions.

31.  Secrets. The existence of a secret creates suspense because readers want to know the answer:

  • Rarely, a big secret can form the suspense backbone for a whole novel, such as: Who was the traitor? What happened to the money? The secret has to be developed throughout the story by drip-feeding clues that heighten the secret rather than revealing it;
  • Smaller secrets can be used to heighten suspense within scenes, e.g. the Hogwarts letter withheld from Harry Potter in the first book of the series, and the mysterious event (the Triwizard Tournament) which people keep alluding to early in the fourth book.

32Use subtext (see Lyon for details). Subtext is ‘everything hidden from the awareness or observation of non-viewpoint characters’. Subtext based on rising tension will create suspense. Some sources are:

  • The hero’s physical state, feelings and emotions: e.g., tears forming, sexual attraction or lust, concealed hatred, a need to throw up;
  • Hidden agendas, i.e. the character’s private thoughts, intentions and plans;
  • In the natural environment: a red glow over the forest, the ground shaking, the call of a wild beast;
  • In the built environment: a patch of oil on the stair, a pram on the edge of the railway platform;
  • Other characters’ behaviour or body language: man sharpening a dagger, child playing near a cliff edge.

33.  Turn a dramatic event into a question. Beware of having the event completely answer a question or resolve a problem, as this undercuts suspense. Instead, have the event raise more questions, which draws out the suspense:

  • For small events, draw out the answer over a few sentences or paragraphs. E.g., policeman knocks on the door late at night. Instead of revealing upfront that the man’s wife is dead, draw out the mystery about how the crash occurred and what’s happened to her;
  • For major events, the resolution can be drawn out over pages or even chapters;
  • Scour the story for questions that deflate suspense because they’re answered too soon, and draw out the answer.

34.  Make it worse.

  • There’s no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse, and you should take every opportunity to do so. But why would you want to?
  • Because character is revealed not in good times but in adversity. The worse you can make it for the hero, the more his true character will be revealed by what he does, the more the reader will worry about him and the greater the suspense.

D.    STRUCTURE

Readers read to identify with the characters and live their stories, suffering the ordeals the characters go through, worrying about them and dreading that they’ll fail to achieve their goals, yet hoping and praying that they’ll succeed. At the end, readers want to see the characters resolve their problems, and long for that tidal wave of relief when all the dramatic tension and suspense built up through the story is finally released. To build suspense, the novel needs careful structuring to:

a)      Clearly present the hero and his goal to the reader in the beginning;

b)      Portray the hero’s increasingly difficult struggle to defeat the adversary and achieve the goal;

c)      End scenes and chapters in ways that create reader uncertainty and anticipation (see (28) above; and

d)      Show how the hero achieves his goal (or not) at the climax, then satisfyingly release all the built-up tension.

35.  Structure the beginning to create suspense (see Brown for details):

  • Create a hero who is both sympathetic and interesting (see (1) and (2) above);
  • Set out the story problem (i.e. the hero’s goal) clearly, and why he must pursue this goal;
  • Reveal the obstacle (the adversary or force that’s trying to prevent the hero from achieving his goal);
  • Twist both the characters and the goal to break stereotypes, freshen the story and surprise the reader.

36Tailor the hero’s actions to heighten suspense: In each scene, the hero faces some problem related to her goal. The actions she takes to solve the problem should either:

  • Partially succeed, though worryingly (she finds a clue to the murder, but following it will lead her into greater danger);
  • Succeed but lead to a bigger problem (he kills the giant spider but now another hundred are hunting him); or
  • Fail and make the problem worse (she breaks into the enemy’s fortress to steal the documents, but they’re not there and now she’s trapped).

37.  Vary the hero’s fortunes to maintain and heighten suspense throughout the story.

  • If every scene runs at fever pitch and ends disastrously, the law of diminishing returns sets in – the reader becomes desensitised to the drama, and suspense dies;
  • Instead, alternate tense action or drama scenes with calmer ones, and end a few scenes with the hero succeeding, and with moments of peace, happiness or hope. Variety in endings maintains suspense because the reader knows the success is only temporary; the opponent will never give up trying to defeat the hero;
  • To heighten suspense, make the hero’s failures progressively worse, and his dark moments bleaker, towards the climax.

38.  Sequence the antagonist’s reactions to progressively heighten the hero’s troubles.

  • Look at each scene from the antagonist’s point of view and ask how he can make things worse for the hero. What action will cause the hero the most trouble, and what’s the worst time it can occur?
  • To heighten suspense, make these troubles progressively worse towards the climax, until it seems impossible that the hero can win.

39.  Heighten critical scenes. Identify the key events in the story (those moments of intense drama that are also turning points) because they need to be carefully set up and treated differently (see Lyon). Key events can be positive (love scenes, celebrations at war’s end, the award of prizes or honours) or crises (murders, defeat in battle, guilty verdicts, terrible realisations). Build suspense by:

  • Foreshadowing the coming event to raise worrying questions and create reader anticipation. This can be done via characters thinking about or debating the possibility (e.g. of war), and making plans and preparations for the worst, as well as by omens, foretellings, signs and symbols;
  • Writing a small scene or moment which hints at the coming critical scene (a burning house hints at the violence and ruin of war); a shouting match foreshadows the murder to come;
  • Then a reversal – a moment that’s the opposite of the coming critical scene. E.g., in a trial, the overconfident defence lawyer has a lavish lunch with friends before returning to hear a shattering guilty verdict; immediately before the joyous wedding, the couple have a furious argument; the soldier relaxes with his family before going to bloody war. This contrast makes the critical scene far more powerful;
  • In the critical scene, use all the dramatic techniques at your disposal to raise the scene to a higher peak of suspense than anything that has gone before;
  • Afterwards, make sure the hero emotes about all that has happened, reviews how the event has made his problems worse, and reformulates his plans.

40.  Climax, Resolution and Endings.

  • Vary your scene endings to maximise suspense. Some scenes should end at moments of high drama, many with unanswered questions, several with shocking twists, a few with emotional completion, and some with no more than a wry observation or pithy phrase.
  • The climax of the story, where the greatest obstacle is overcome and the hero’s story problem is finally resolved one way or another, is the biggest of all the critical scenes and must coincide with the highest point of tension and suspense.
  • If the greatest tension occurs in a scene before the climax, the ending of the story will be anticlimactic and the reader will feel let down.
  • If the story’s resolution is weak, contrived, over too quickly or in any other way fails to match the build-up of suspense to the climax, readers will be bitterly disappointed;
  • In most novels, all the key questions will be answered by the end, and the resolution provides a sense of completion plus the blissful release from suspense that readers are waiting for. Some stories may end with a dilemma, however – the main story has been resolved but there’s still a question raised in the reader’s mind about what choice the hero will make.
  • Stories which are part of a series should resolve most of the story questions at the end, but the overarching series question (e.g. will Harry Potter defeat Lord Voldemort) remains and creates ongoing suspense until the series ends.

41.  In editing.

  • Review the story scene by scene, rate each scene out of 10 for its level of suspense, then plot the sequence of suspense ratings. Ideally the graph should be a zigzagging line rising progressively to the climax of the story, then falling away in the resolution.
  • Does the story have flat periods with little suspense? Insufficient breaks from high suspense? The highest suspense occurring before the climax? Suspenseful moments that are too quickly resolved? Critical scenes where the suspense is too low, too brief or too similar to other scenes? A powerful climax ruined by a weak resolution? Work out how to fix these problems.
  • Common scene problems that lower suspense include: lack of a clear goal for the scene; stakes too low; lack of an obstacle or weak obstacle; too little conflict; too much thought or talk and not enough action; too much action and not enough thought, emotion or reflection; no twist or disaster at the end (see Lyon for a detailed analysis).
  • Analyse your characters (see (2) above). Can you modify or change certain character traits to vary the kinds of suspense in the story, and to heighten it in key scenes?

 

REFERENCES

Bell, James Scott (2004). Plot and Structure. Writer’s Digest. Probably the best book on the topic of plot and structure.

Bell, James Scott (2008). Revision and Self-Editing. Writer’s Digest. Also a great book; a wealth of practical info and examples.

John D Brown (2011). Key Conditions for Reader Suspense (27-part article).  An excellent series of articles.

Cleaver, Jerry (2002). Immediate Fiction. St Martin’s Griffin. No one has ever explained the craft of storytelling more clearly or simply.

Kress, Nancy (2005). Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint. Writer’s Digest. Excellent book on these topics.

Lukeman, Noah (2002). The Plot Thickens. St Martin’s Griffin, New York. Terrific chapters on characterisation, suspense and conflict, a lot of stuff I’ve never thought of before.

Lyon, Elizabeth (2008). Manuscript Makeover, Revision Techniques no Fiction Writer can Afford to Ignore. Perigee Trade. In my view, the best book on revision and self-editing.

Maass, Donald (2009). The Fire in Fiction. Writer’s Digest. He identifies the problems his agency sees over and over again in manuscripts and tells you how to fix them. A fantastic book.

Truby, John (2007). The Anatomy of Story – 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. Faber and Faber. A fascinating and insightful book.

Vorhaus, John (1994). The Comic Toolbox. Silman James Press. Not just the best book on comic writing, but better than all the others put together.

About me: I’m an Australian marine scientist. I’ve written 27 novels, including the internationally bestselling Three Worlds fantasy sequence, an eco-thriller trilogy about catastrophic climate change, Human Rites, and 12 books for children, most recently the Grim and Grimmer humorous adventure fantasy series.

My next epic fantasy novel is Vengeance, Book 1 of The Tainted Realm, to be published by Orbit Books in Australia in November 2011, and in the US and UK in April 2012.

For more on my books, including covers, blurbs, reviews and the first chapters of all of my novels and my 2 novellas, see my site.

To say Hi or get a quick answer to your questions, please pop over to my Facebook page.

For more on writing and publishing, see my blog

Posted in Characterisation, Creativity, Editing and Revision, Genre Writing, Nourish the Writer, Plotting, Point of View, Research, Story Structure, World Buildng, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Inner Life of a Successful Writer

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on October 29, 2011

Chocolate and Coffee - also must haves for the writer!

Back in the late nineties after I had my first children’s book published I wrote up a Beginning Writer’s Checklist (here’s the updated version).

Recently, I came across this post The Common Traits of the Successful Writer by Bob Mayer, Part One and Part Two. He starts with:

‘It’s not normal to sit alone and write 100,000 words.  So let’s get that out of the way.  You aren’t normal.  You aren’t in the bell curve and you aren’t necessarily on the good side of the curve. ‘

I had to smile.

He says the publishing industry is changing faster than ever and he’s absolutely right. Once there was one way to get published – Write. Write short stories and books, develop your craft, attend workshops, develop your craft, make short story sales, enter competitions. Do all this while writing every day. Win or place in competitions. Develop your craft. Approach publishers with a CV of published short stories  and placings in competitions, get rejections.  Attend more workshops. Develop your craft. Keep writing. After about 10 years get that first publishing contract from a major publisher. And then you really start to learn, because as a writer you never stop learning.

Was it perfect? No. Good books were overlooked. (Some people lucked onto a book sale with their first book. Then they had to do all their development as a writer meeting deadlines in the public eye).

Now … People can self publish, release their books as e-books and Print on Demand. They don’t have to wait on recognition from major publishers. Of course this means a lot of books that are not ready for publication see the light of day. How do readers sift through these to find the gems? That’s a post topic for another day.

Back to the traits of a successful writer. This is an interesting quote from Bob Mayer:

‘Remember something about the art of writing: It is the only art form that is not sensual. You can see the colors and strokes that make a painting, feel a sculpture, and hear music.  The manner in which each individual piece in those fields impacts on the senses is different.  But every writer uses the same letters on a piece of paper.  You have twenty-six letters that combine to form words, which are the building blocks of your sentences and paragraphs.  Everyone has the same words, and when I write that word and you write it, that word goes into the senses of the reader in the same way.  It’s how we weave them together that impact the conscious and subconscious mind of the reader that makes all the difference in the world.

A book comes alive in the reader’s mind.  You use the sole medium of the printed word to get the story from your mind to the reader’s.  It is the wonder of writing to create something out of nothing.  Every book started with just an idea in someone’s head.  Isn’t that a fantastic concept?’

He’s right about writers all using the same 26 letters and the book going from the writer’s mind to the reader’s mind. But to me writing is deeply sensual. I create a Resonance file (See here and here). The file is packed with images, snatches of research, true stories and, while I don’t collect music, I know what music the characters would listen to. This file is a pale outer representation of the inner world of the story. In my mind the world of the story, it’s characters and society is richly sensual and packed with detail.

Mayer doesn’t actually list the common traits of successful writers because he’s plugging books on the topic. (The Writers Toolkit and the Warrior Writer – Both links were down).

Here’s my list of a successful writer’s traits:

1. A Passion to Write. This is the kind of passion that keeps you awake at night thinking about plots and characters. The kind of passion that drives you to sneak away from the family on Christmas Day to write because you just can’t keep away from the story. Which leads to …

2. Perseverance. The craft of writing is something you can read about in books, but often you have to ‘discover’ it as you write. The recognition of something only comes as you are doing it and you internalise the understanding. All of this springs from …

3. A Love of Reading. (This really means a love of story in all its forms). If you were the sort of kid who got lost in a book, if you are the sort of person who goes to see a movie and spends the next three days thinking about alternate endings, then you are a writer. The more you read, the more you internalise the craft of writing. And writing consists of …

4. A Love of Words for their own sake. I’ve always been fascinated by words, by the history that words contain and by the power of a single word, how it can change the meaning of a whole sentence. But words are just the building blocks for …

5. A Love of Story. Story is not plot. Story is a combination of plot (events that happen) and character (the people who react to these events or trigger them by their actions). Combine these two and you have something that comes to life in the reader’s head. Story. But just having a story is not enough. You need to hone that story with …

6. Persistence and Patience. (Writing is Rewriting) A successful writer needs the persistence to keep writing, but the patience to give your book time to sit while you mature as a writer. When you first finish a book you are too close to it to see the flaws. Time and distance is needed. Working on another project will help you hone your writing craft. Then, when you come back to the original draft of the first book, you’ll see ways to improve it. Published writers have editors who help them do this while meeting deadlines.

Do self published writers need all these traits? Of course they do. They need them more because they don’t have  a professional editor helping polish the story they love. Whether you self publish or are published by a major publisher you want your book to be the best it possibly can be. This means polishing the book and developing traits (strategies) to make you the best writer you can possibly be.

I haven’t mentioned writing groups here. I’ve done several posts on the importance of writing groups. ROR is an example of how a group supports the individual and furthers their craft. Here’s list of posts I’ve done on the topic:

Writing Groups where would we be Without Them?

ROR 101 (How we set up the group)

Critiquing 101

 

Do you belong to a writing group? Do you write every day? How do you motivate yourself?

Posted in Characterisation, Creativity, Editing and Revision, Editors, Nourish the Writer, Plotting, Publishing Industry, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Paul Mannering: How did I get here?

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on June 11, 2011

For the first time ever, Angry Robot opened its doors to independent submissions. New Zealand based Paul Mannering – along with thousands of other hopeful writers – submitted the first five chapters of his SF/Zombie-horror manuscript Tankbread.

A long-time member of Vision, Paul has since been asked to submit the whole MS.

Today he talks about the journey up to this point.

 

As a writer I always thought that the worst thing in the world was a rejection letter from an editor. Now I realise that the rejections are nothing. It’s the responses that give you a reason to hope that will kill you inside.

In the first weekend of June I got a response from Angry Robot Books requesting the full manuscript for my novel Tankbread because they liked what they had read of my submitted sample. Less than 48 hours later I won a SFFANZ Sir Julius Vogel Award for Brokensea’s third season of Doctor Who audio dramas.

My immediate reaction to this second Cool Things That Sometimes Happen To Writers was to find perspective in the wisdom of Douglas Adams: “No one likes a smart arse”.

These days it feels like the chances of being published by a real international publishing house are on par with dying in a plane crash. And then being eaten by a Uruguayan rugby team. So I’m not planning any book-tour destinations yet.

As David Byrne and Talking Heads once asked, “How did I get here?”

Tankbread came to me in as a complete concept one day while walking home from work. I saw the opening scene, and heard the opening lines in my head. The post-apocalyptic diner. The cooked dog on a plate. The Asian across the table tearing chunks out of the girl’s neck.

From there I fleshed out the first act. The story progressed slowly as I took breaks to write other things, short stories and audio dramas.

The Sir Julius Vogel award winning 3rd season of BrokenSea’s Doctor Who was written in a frenzy of creativity and stress after the main script writer for our previous two seasons quit after delaying us for months. We had very little time to put something together and I work best under pressure.

The first three chapters of Tankbread were written in two drafts. I hate re-writing anything. My best ideas come to me in the first rush of discovery. The rest is editing.

I finished the story in February 2011, during the dark weeks following the Christchurch earthquake when we were off work and felt like we were living in our own localised apocalypse.

From initial concept to completion took four years.

Early on I posted the first chapter, pre-edits and re-writes to a couple of writing lists for critique. It got plenty of feedback and it was all good advice. Vision Writers members suggested it fell a little flat after the opening scene. So I kept working on it, adding a new scene that helped expand the universe of the story. The story took me on its own journey. What I ended up with was a character driven post-zombie-apocalypse story with lots of pulp-horror adventure. Of all the critique groups I’ve worked with over the years, Vision and Writing and Publishing (both Yahoo groups) have provided the most consistent critiques.

Once I finished the first draft I started seriously editing it. I got other people to read it and I put it down for a month and then came back to it and edited again. This process fixed all kinds of errors. Then near the end of March the sample went off to Angry Robot. I edited it again while they were considering the first 15,000 words.

Stories reach a point where they are good enough. From here I’ll re-write and make changes only based on editorial feedback.

As David Byrne and Talking Heads once asked, ‘How did I get here?’

  1. Write every day write a shopping list, a to-do list, a poem, an email, a blog, a short story a chapter a character bio. Write on a PC or Mac, a tablet, a napkin, in the sand. Write in ink, pencil, crayon, blood, condensation. Write in tongues, write non-fiction, write porn, write revenge, lust, passion, action, descriptive passages, dialogue. Write screenplays, radio-scripts, first person, third person, second person, write under a pseudonym. Write at a desk, in your car, upside down, in bed. Write in your head if you have to.

 

  1. There is no such thing as writers block. If you have no idea where your current project is going – go back to the point where you knew where it was going and start writing from there. If that doesn’t work for you – see point 1.

 

  1. Love Rejection but Don’t Luuurve Rejection. Rejection is part of writing. Every writer get’s rejected. Usually by incompetent morons who couldn’t edit a tombstone inscription! At least that’s our immediate and emotional reaction. We hate rejection. If you learn to accept rejection, you lose a lot of the fear that comes with not writing and submitting to markets. When rejection comes with good advice – treasure it. Remember the editor is rejecting the work – not you as a person. The flip side to that is that your mum, partner or writing group are probably praising you, not your writing. Blanket praise should be regarded with suspicion.

 

  1. Read critically. Read everything. Read it for the usual reasons you read things (to be entertained, informed, aroused, incensed, or just because there’s nothing on the telly). When you come to a bit in a book you really enjoy – read it critically. Why does that passage or line or dialogue strike you? On the flip-side of that – when you read something that sucks – think about how it could have been written better. A lot of crap does get published, and it sells. It’s not about writing Shakespeare or Theroux. It is about writing something good enough to achieve the purpose it is intended before. Mostly (and no writer will ever admit this) the purpose is to make the writer very rich and smug at cocktail parties.

 

These simple approaches to writing are what got me to where I am today. Always learning, always practising and always having fun with exploring new ideas and enjoying other people’s great stories.

 

Catch up with Paul here.

 

 

Posted in Australian Spec Fic Scene, Awards, Characterisation, Collaborating, Editing and Revision, Fantasy Genre, Genre TV Shows, Movie/TV Adaptations, Nourish the Writer, Publishers, Publishing Industry, Visiting Writer, Writing Craft, Writing Groups | Tagged: , , , , | 6 Comments »

Writing Process

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on April 15, 2011

This one is for the Gorgeous Goth Girl, who dropped by the writers’ table at Brisbane Supanova and asked if I could do a post about the Writing Process.

Writing Process is such a huge topic, I thought I’d review some of the posts we’ve done in the last couple of years.

Starting with the Aspiring Writer’s Check list.

Here is one on the Writing Process.

First of all, are a plotter or a pantser? And what can you do about plotting?

So how do you grab the reader in the first 10 minutes?

One of my favourites that I like to use, Deep Point of View.

And here’s a really nerdy one, Characterization through View Point, revealed by Action.

How do you integrate back story?

And here’s one we all need to beware of The Sagging Middle!

What if you were going really well with your book, then life got in the way and you had to go off and do something else for a couple of months and now you want to get back into the book? See here for tips on getting back into your manuscript.

When it is all done, then there’s the Revision and Editing.

But don’t just listen to me. One of the writers I keep going back to is Holly Lisle. This is her page of extensive writing tips. Here is her page on courage for writers.  Frankly, we all need the courage to believe in ourselves. And this is Holly’s page on How to Finish your novel. And while we are talking about really useful site with lots of writing tips, there’s our very own Richard Harland’s 145 page guide to Writing. He breaks it into Good Writing Habits, The Elements, Characters, Story, Language and Getting Published.

There you are, Gorgeous Goth Girl, no excuse not to get stuck into your manuscript!

Out of curiosity, are there an requests from our readers?

Posted in Characterisation, Editing and Revision, Plotting, Point of View, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

Sally’s insight into the Allen&Unwin/QWC Children’s Manuscript Development Program

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on December 4, 2010

When I heard that Vision member Sally had been offered a place in the Allen and Unwin/QWC Children’s Manuscript Development Program I thought ‘You lucky thing!’ So I invited her along to ROR, now Sally is going to share her insights with us.

Oh, I like A A Bell’s opening so I’m gonna steal it  – Greetings fellow speculators!

 

 

Rowena has asked me to tell a bit about the amazing experience that was the inaugural Allen & Unwin / Queensland Writers Centre children’s literature manuscript development program. So – the basics first off: I was fortunate enough to be one of the 10 selected participants (from I think about 230 applicants nationwide) in this 5 day program that ran out of the QWC in Brisbane’s lovely new State Library. The submission process was this: you sent off your first 50 pages of a (supposedly!) complete first draft, after which you might’ve made it onto the longlist of 40, which then got whittled down to 10 successful applicants. Three of these spaces were reserved for residents of QLD.

After we had been notified of our success, we then had 72 hours to get our whole manuscript to the QWC. Gulp. I had a whole first draft, yes, but I was in the early stages of the rewrite and radical changes were afoot. I really had had no expectation of being selected, so I was hopelessly disorganised when I got the call. I had to scramble to patchwork together something vaguely cohesive and sent it off with a shrug, thinking, oh well, maybe now they’ll be sorry they picked me!

I’ve gone fuzzy on time now, but I think it was then a couple of months before the actual program, which ran from the 15-20 October, with all accomodation and most meals catered for (the food was great, by the way! Thanks Chef Stick!). In that meantime I barely looked at the manuscript, figuring my rewrite plan might’ve needed to be thrown out the window after the consultation with the editors from Allen & Unwin. So it all seemed a bit distant and dreamlike.

And then I was there, having drinkies and nibblies in the Red Box in the State Library overlooking the glittering lights on the Brisbane River and hobnobbing with Anna McFarlane and Eva Mills (the children’s lit editors from A&U) and the nine other participants, and the lovely staff of QWC. Needless to say, this shy little country girl from Nth NSW ended up gravitating towards chatting with the chef and drinking far too much wine that first night!

The first full day of the program was set aside for our one-on-one hour-long consultations with the A&U editors. Eva Mills had read my MS and of course she had amazingly astute feedback to give me. What thrilled me most was how easy it was to talk with her, how open to and encouraging she was of my pretty intuitive style of working. It felt so natural to discuss the story with her, we slipped into an organic, fluid sort of workshopping of various issues, which was just the kind of discussion I had been so hungry for. I wanted to take her home with me! Also, my story engages with some Indigenous Australian themes and she had some great experience and advice to share with me on what has been my biggest issue with this MS.

All in all I was left with a feeling of great encouragement after this session. Eva told me my rewrite was working just fine thus far and to just keep doing what I’d been doing. And to send it to her when I was done. Wow! I think this was the strangest, most wonderful feeling of all throughout the program – the sense that the door is open, and that it’s now just up to me to give it my absolute best when it comes to walking through.

The following four days were also incredibly rich. Each morning until lunch we had a group session with various industry professionals. On one day we had a round-table discussion with Eva and Anna, accompanied by Tara Wynne of Curtis Brown literary agency and the very lovely and generous Michael Gerard Bauer, who was our writer mentor for the entire program. The following day we had a session about children’s writing networks, with Helen Bain from the Brisbane-based Speakers Ink booking agency, Beth Green from the QLD branch of Children’s Book Council and Kelly Dunham from the Voices on the Coast children’s literature festival.

The day after that we learnt all about the industry from a bookseller’s perspective via Emily from Riverbend Bookstore. We were so inspired by her telling us that the children’s and young adult sections take up the bulk of the floorspace of the store that a bunch of us hopped on the ferry down to Bulimba that afternoon! And yes – the kids’ section is brilliant!

The final session was run by Angela Slatter of QWC who did a great job of pulling all the threads together. As a fairly newly established author herself, it was really helpful getting that perspective on the industry, as well. She had lots of good tips. One of the things she said that stuck most was that this is an industry made of relationships (so be polite to everyone, because everyone knows everyone!).

As a kind of shy person, I’ve always felt a bit scared of this aspect of the industry, this ‘networky’ thing we’re all supposed to do. But I think one of the key things I took from the program as a whole was that it doesn’t have to be scary at all, in fact, it can be rather wonderful making relationships and yes, friendships with people who at the heart of it all, are all people who love books and writing and stories – ie. MY KIND OF PEOPLE! The feeling I got, too, was that, like the speculative fiction community, children’s literature people are a kind of tribe too, there is a sense of camaraderie and support and just general nice-ness. So I have chosen very well, I’ve decided, in my genre/market division leanings!

Overall, the program was simply a brilliant experience. I feel incredibly grateful for the opportunity this has given me, with the open, encouraging door at Allen & Unwin awaiting my rewritten MS. And I feel incredibly proud of the QWC for being such a shit-hot, professional body that has publishers like A&U approaching them to run such programs!

Lastly I want to acknowledge my fellow participants Ann, Jill, Fiona, Sean, Helena, Sam, Jenny, David and Maude. Meeting these lovely people was as much of a blessing as the open door to the publisher.

Sally Newham

Sally Newham lives in a shack by a creek in Nth NSW where she is working on her first fantasy/steampunk novel (when she is not procrastinating, or baking organic sourdough bread, which is what pays the bills at present).

Feel free to ask Sally questions.

 

Posted in Australian Spec Fic Scene, Characterisation, Creativity, Editors, Genre Writing, Mentorships, Nourish the Writer, Pitching, Plotting, Point of View, Publishing Industry, Visiting Writer, Writing Craft, Writing for children, Writing for Young Adults, Writing Opportunities | Tagged: , , , , | 7 Comments »

Grab that reader in the first 10 minutes

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on November 27, 2010

There’s a saying in movies that you have to grab the viewer in the first ten minutes.

Next time you’re watching your favourite movies take a look at what has happened by the ten minute mark.

By the time those precious ten minutes are up, the viewer should know who the hero is, what he/she wants and what the main thrust of the plot will be.

And they should CARE about the hero/heroine  otherwise they are not going to keep watching and you’ve lost them. The same goes for books.

How far can a reader get in ten minutes? Ten pages, one chapter? How long do you have to capture the reader?

Rather than worry about how long you have, concentrate on making your opening so gripping, the reader has to keep turning the pages.

I love genre. I am unashamedly a genre writer so, for me, Story is King (or Queen if you are worried about sexism). And for me,  Story = Plot driven by Character. Now that I’ve warned you about my (not so) hidden agenda, here are my tips.

When I run workshops I tell aspiring writers make me care. To do this:

Give your hero/heroine a BIG problem.

Make your readerlike them. (They don’t have to be all sweetness and light. In fact I like a character better if they have failings. Abercrombie’s Glokta is one of my favourite characters!).

Put your hero/heroine in danger.

Reveal something to the reader, that the character doesn’t know. Make it something they need to know.

Make the bad guys really bad, but with a motivation that would be logical. And if you really want to turn the screws, make your baddie a little bit likable, too.

Set a time limit.

Make your character determined to do something (even if it turns out to be the wrong thing). There is nothing so irritating as a character who vacillates.

Keep back-story to a minimum. (I know this is hard in fantasy and SF because we build these amazing worlds and societies, which impact on our characters’ motivations and life choices. But it is the PEOPLE the reader cares about, not the history). You can fill the reader in later. As a reader, I’ll take a lot on faith if I am captured by the characters and their dilemma. I can catch up with back story later.

Logic – make sure your world building is logical. Nothing breaks the reader’s suspension of disbelief faster than a logic flaw. And if there’s one in the first chapter, the book is likely to be riddled with them.

There’s lots of good advice for writers on how to make their opening chapter/s riveting. Here are Mike Gagon’s tips for writing a great opening for your books. And here at Fiction Notes they cover the basics.

See here for some analysis of openings from Sarah Hoyt over at the Mad Genius Club. And here’s some first paragraphs.

See Leanne C Taylor’s article on how the 10 minute movie rule applies to games. 

For fun see here for great opening sentences from science fiction books, a post by Charles Jane Anders. And here are 100 great opening lines from all sorts of books. Andhere at About.com is a list of opening chapters (an excerpts) from novels, if you want to do some reading to compare how other authors handle this.

Those first 10 minutes, when the reader steps into your world and into your character’s shoes are critical. Do you have a favourite opening page or two, that gripped you from the start? Is there an author you know you can rely on to sweep you away?

Posted in Characterisation, Creativity, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Finding your Character’s Voice

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on October 26, 2010

This is a Sunday Craft post that’s turning up on a Wednesday. The VISION list has been discussing how writers find their character’s voice, so I thought I’d ask the RORees for their insights.

Richard Harland:

How do I find a character’s voice? Well, basically, by not looking for it. I’d never try to envisage a character’s voice as something that could exist all by itself – I mean, turns of phrase, speech patterns in a vacuum?  I only start to discover how a character speaks when I try them out interacting with someone else. Then it becomes a question of how they try to influence others, bounce off others, show a particular face to the world … and that’s what produces their individual voice. Character determines interaction with others determines way of speaking to others determines typical turns of phrase and speech patterns. That’s the sequence that works for me.

I’m talking about a voice within a third person narrative, of course. It’s different in a first person narrative when the character is the narrator. I’ve just had huge struggles over a story called “Bad Thoughts and the Mechanism” for an international anthology called Ghosts by Gaslight, and my struggles were 90% over getting the right voice for the narrator. It had to be a 19th century voice, therefore formal and proper, but at the same time intense and emotional. A difficult balancing act – and I began the story the story five times over before getting it right. Maybe that’s my only advice for a first person narrator’s voice – keep on experimenting, however long it takes, because if you haven’t got the voice, you haven’t got anything.

For Richard’s Writing Tips see here.

 

 

 

 

Tansy Rayner Roberts

I’m just coming to the end of a trilogy that’s more complex than anything else I’ve ever written, largely because of voice.  I have several POV characters, most third person and a few first person, and it’s hard work to keep them all feeling like they have a distinct voice.

My personal ideal is that you should be able to tell whose eyes the scene is being shown through even if they’re not named (though of course I do always name them, I’m not that mean!).  My main trick for capturing voice is vocabulary – I like to have a few key words that are specific to a particular character, something they use more that others don’t.  I also like to use phrasing that links back to their past or their interests – so my dressmaker sees the world in craft metaphors, the performer from a small fishing town uses theatrical comparison and sea shanty style insults, my aristocrat has a higher sense of entitlement and impatience and a complete tomcat sensibility which means he wants to have sex with everyone he meets…

There is no perfect way, but I do like to have a few things to cling to with each character that makes me feel as if I am in their head, and telling this part of the story through their voice.  Swearing is a great key to each character – some characters swear more than others, some more creatively, some prissily, some boldly, and some not at all.  Though as with anything you can overdo that kind of difference – you don’t want to end up as a parody of your own techniques!  I hope I get the balance right.

Having said all that I am REALLY looking forward to my next book which will only have one POV character, first person, and one single voice to capture.  Oh, the luxury!

Maxine McArthur:

Sometimes a character’s voice is there from the beginning. Halley was like that. I did a little tweaking in the middle of writing Time Future because the plot changed greatly, but basically from the moment I wrote the prologue—which stayed pretty much the same without rewriting—she was ‘there’. In my head. Which was a bit scary.

Tacs (a character in my present project) is like that, too. I’ve never had to struggle to wonder what he’s going to say or do. With these characters, the right words tend to come out easily.

Sometimes a character’s voice develops as I write—the more I get to know them, the easier it is to express their thoughts. You have to court them. Murdoch was like this, and also Ishihara in Less Than Human. It’s an enjoyable process, this getting to know a character. It may involve quite a bit of rewriting, but that’s part of the fun. The words don’t come out as easily with these characters—yesterday I spent a good 15 minutes (I was also boiling an egg at the time, that’s how I know) finding the right two lines of description from a certain character’s point of view.

I think that ‘finding’ a character’s voice is a cumulative process, not a point of ‘aha!’ discovery. The more time you spend getting it right in the beginning (like my 15 minutes), the easier the words come as the story progresses. It’s as though the character’s voice wears a path in your subconscious, and when you step onto that path, like a record needle placed in the groove, you can’t go wrong. This is another reason I spend a bit of time each writing session re-reading previous passages—it helps set the needle in the right groove.

Trent Jamieson: (Warning, Trent was overcome by an attack of Whimsy!)

The Tournée Method

For this method you need at least six or seven jars, with their lids as well. Make sure you remove their labels, and wash the jars and their lids thoroughly, and I mean thoroughly they must be as clean as possible.

You will also need a very sharp knife, and I mean Very sharp, the sort of blade that will cut you if you if you look at it from the wrong angle. Yes, that sharp. A tournée or a bird’s beak knife as they are commonly known is best, though you may need it professionally sharpened. Most supermarkets sell them, but if you cannot find one there, try a shop that supplies kitchen items to chefs.

With your tournée knife, and your jars, (careful, don’t break them, the jars must be whole, the lid making a perfect seal) walk to the nearest bus stop or train station.

As you probably know, the four winds of the world gather there, there’s nothing they delight in more than blowing open people’s umbrellas, or mixing rubbish, dirt and air in whirling bursts to scatter over commuters’ finest work outfits. More importantly the four winds contain all the voices of the world.

Sit at the stop (or station), switch off your Ipod and listen. Listen in the most profound way you can, above the sound of approaching buses (or trains). Strain your ears. Listen to the voices of the world. You’ll find if they’re fast or slow or angry. You’ll know if they hate or they love. If they speak in long slow sentences or rush as rapid as racehorse, a real thoroughbred. You’ll know if they are educated or not, if they like to swear or sweeten their words.

Listen. Concentrate.

Now, when you have found what you are looking for, be quick, and be subtle. Open a jar, slip out your knife, and (careful not cut yourself of or others) slice the voice from the wind. You don’t need it all, just a sliver.

Fill each jar with a different voice, some will be heavy some will be light, when you have enough take them home and set the jars on your desk, or wherever it is that you work. Do not shake the jars! That would be cruel.

Each voice should last you at least six months, possibly twelve, enough time to get a novel written, enough time to know what that voice is saying, what it’s thinking. By the end you should be able to close your eyes and hear that voice even when it isn’t there.

At that stage you should be able to empty the jars, rinse, clean, then repeat as required.

Don’t you just love, Trent?

But what’s he’s saying is true. All the voices in the world are out there. You just need to listen. I catch a lot of trains. Commuter trains tend to be serious business, but trains at off peak times are real microcosm of the world. I listen and sometimes people talk to me. I must have a friendly face because people tell me the most amazing things.

So there you are, some insights on how writers find their characters’ voices.

Posted in Characterisation, Creativity, Nourish the Writer, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , | 14 Comments »

In the beginning …

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on October 16, 2010

We writers spend so much time over openings. This post over at the Mad Genius Club made me think about openings.

There is the first paragraph,which has to sparkle so much it grabs the jaded editor and then it has to grab the fussy reader, browsing through the bookstore. (How important is the first paragraph when a reader can download the whole novel instantly, often for free?).

But the real challenge is  the opening chapters.

These opening chapters have to set up the world which is harder for speculative fiction writers because even a Dark Urban Fantasy writer’s world has different rules from the one we live in.  Holly Lisle has some tips on getting to know your world here.

I tend to let the world grow as I write. I trust myself to do this because I’ve done a lot of reading on sociology and anthropology. In fact the real art is not to introduce too much world building. The writer reveals only what the reader needs to know, as they need to know it.

These opening chapters  have to introduce the characters and make the reader CARE about them. This is terribly important. If your reader doesn’t care why would they keep reading? This is where Holly Lisle talks about bringing characters to life.

There’s a saying, have your character save the cat – meaning have them do something likable. I’d say, even if the character is doing terrible things, the reader will like them if they are doing these things for a good reason. So make your character’s motives powerful, make these motives something the reader can identify with.

Rather than constructing characters, I tend to throw them into conflict and see what they do. This way I get to know the character as the reader gets to know them. This has the added bonus of putting the character is danger which  raises the Worry Factor as I call it. The more your reader is worrying about the character, the more they are going to want to keep turning the pages.

These opening chapters have to introduce the conflict. If you throw your characters straight into trouble, then you’ve already introduced the conflict. By the end of the first two chapters (depending on the complexity of the plot) the reader should have a good idea what the driving force of the conflict is. Holly Lisle covers conflict here, both internal and external conflict.

So this is why opening chapters are so important. I often find that I’ve started too late and have to go back to write more before the original opening. Do you struggle with beginnings?


Posted in Characterisation, Genre Writing, World Buildng, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , | 11 Comments »