Welcome to a new year of writing adventures. On the first Monday of every month, I answer your questions, invite you to share war stories, and help you along your writing journey.
If you’re a regular here, you’ll know one of my favourite tasks each year is mentoring the winner of the Valerie Parv Award, established in my honour by Romance Writers of Australia. For details of the 2016 award click on http://www.romanceaustralia.com/p/110/Valerie-Parv-Award.html
Previous winners are nearly all multi-published now, taking out dozens of Australian and international writing competitions in all genres along the way.
This year’s VPA holder is CARLY MAIN with her Roman-set novel, Memento Mori. With Carly’s permission, I’m sharing some questions she asked as we worked on her current chapters.
Your contributions are always so helpful. I’ve tried a few critique partners before, but nobody has ever suggested new plot points or new ways of telling the story. Is it largely a matter of experience? Do published authors tend to view manuscripts in a different way?
I’m also starting to think about my next book. I have two complete drafts which I now realise – as a result of [the VPA mentoring] process – I need to flesh out in terms of character development, motivations, conflict etc. and I’m worried I won’t be able to repeat the process.
Carly, 2016 is a milestone year for me. My 90th book will be published by Momentum (Pan Macmillan), meaning I’ve had books published every year for the last four decades. I was, of course, a child prodigy.
So experience is obviously a factor. Plus I’ve studied the writing process – my own and others’ – to discover not only what works, but why. Cultivating this awareness solves your concern about repeating the process.
I also try to give my minions (the name the VPA alumni gave themselves long before the movies) tools they can apply to any writing project. They’re tools I use in my own books, and they work.
SO HERE ARE MY TOP 4 STORYCRAFTING TOOLS –
1. Ask yourself what work the writing has to do
Whether it’s a sentence, a scene or a chapter, every piece of writing MUST have a job to do. It can be revealing character, moving the plot forward, deepening the conflict, filling in needed background or planting clues and red herrings (in a mystery). Even better if the scene has more than one job.
When you’re editing, if you identify the purpose of the scene, you open up dozens of ways to achieve your purpose, rather than simply rewriting the scene in different words.
If the scene is only “pretty” or titillating, consider deleting it or combining with another scene. In Carly’s case, she had a crucial character to introduce and chose to combine the introduction with a scene that, until then, was doing no identifiable work.
2. Explore as many story options as you can
Say you have a love scene to write and plan to set it in the hero’s (or heroine’s) bedroom. Fine as far as it goes, but can you do better? I suggest listing at least 20 ways you could handle this scene to make it more original. Is there a mountaintop, a cabin, a creepy basement, or other setting you can use? Depending on the story, could you play out the scene on a private jet, in an office, under a circus tent, in an opal mine? I’ve used all of these and had a ton of fun with them. Readers enjoy the freshness, too.
My lists sometimes run to 100 or more options, including the outlandish and plain silly, before I hit on something that excites me. The trick is to avoid self-censoring, just let your imagination run wild. Only when you’re written out, should you evaluate your list, combine or develop the most promising options.
3. Ensure your characters’ actions DO speak for them
It’s all very well telling readers that a character is kind, honest to a fault, and loves small children. But do you show us these qualities? For example, a single mother is desperate for money for her child’s medical treatment. She finds a bag of money by a roadside. Having her use this money, even fully intending to pay it back, creates a different image of her than the one you intend. Equally, if she lies to gain a job to earn the money she needs, what does this say about her? It’s okay to show her being tempted, but she shouldn’t give in. It may nearly kill her to turn the money in, but you can use this to show her honesty is hard-won. You could show her attraction to the detective who takes her statement, or have him protect her from criminals who stole the money and think she has it. Or he thinks she’s in league with the bad guys. Showing the character’s struggles is a great way to reveal their true character and can lead to some wonderful, character-driven stories.
4. Use fewer words to better effect
This definitely comes with practice. Sadly, the words generally have to be written before we can edit out the repetitions, the information dumps (when we tell readers everything we’ve researched), and the slow passages. Give yourself permission to write as much as you feel you need. Let the finished work lie for as long as you can, a few weeks is good. Then read with a fresh eye and a sharp red pen.
Every writer is different and not all tips work for everyone. But it’s the old story about giving a woman a fish and feeding her for a day, or teaching her how to fish and feeding her for a lifetime.
You never stop learning. I still read how-to books on writing, seeking to gain even one new insight. Last week, it was Not Just a Piece of Cake: BEING AN AUTHOR by Hazel Edwards, author of the Australian childrens’ classic, There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake
Writing is a never-ending learning curve.
Feel free to comment or share your experiences below. The blog is moderated to avoid spam. If you’d like your comments to appear right away, click on “sign me up” at right. I don’t share your details with anyone. What are your best storycrafting tips?