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First Monday Mentoring for September – tracking down Scribblopithecus, the writing breed

Welcome. It’s first Monday again, when I answer questions about any aspect of the writing life.

Recently I attended the national conference of Romance Writers of Australia, one of the largest gatherings of writers in the country. Headliners included New York Times’ best-sellers, publishers, agents and writers of all kinds. I presented a workshop on drawing readers into your fictional world.

In the breaks, talk ranged around contracts, submissions and other professional concerns, but also about lesser-known aspects such as the courage needed to write, and how hard it is to diet in such an unpredictable business. This made me think it was time to look at what this crazy business really means.

If David Attenborough wanted to make one of his celebrated documentaries about writers, where would he start? Would he find us in herds like gazelle, or stalking alone like tigers. Would we be fearful or confronting? Do we use protective coloration or can you spot the breed from a distance?

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Confusingly, the answer to all the above would be yes. Writers – call us Scribblopithecus – do gather in herds such as the RWA conference. But more commonly, they hole up in their writing caves, struggling to deal with the real world.

Protective coloration goes by the name of jammies, short for pyjamas, the species’ unofficial uniform. In writing mode, Scribblopithecus can stay in this camouflage for days.

While Scribblopithecus doesn’t actually hibernate, they frequently enter a torpor, a state where they are unresponsive to family and friends, reluctant to initiate communication, and focused entirely on their internal world.

Locating Scribblopithecus is challenging because their habitats are so varied. You find them in every country of the world, existing like cuckoos in a range of settings known as “day jobs.” In these, you may be hard-pressed to spot the writer, so well do they disguise themselves. They’re wonderful mimics, copying the calls and behavior of their day-job counterparts.

But in their natural surroundings they spend hours mesmerized by computer screens and tablets on which they make their characteristic scratchy markings. They’re fussy, though. The markings must be just so, or they will be removed and Scribblopithecus will start over, sometimes dozens of times.

Despite this preoccupation, Scribblopithecus also collects objects called notebooks, the more stylish the better. They seldom defile notebooks with scratchings, but will treasure and fondle them as their collection grows. An environment such as Office Works or Kikki.K can induce an ecstasy state as the species rushes to acquire every object around them.

Scribblopithecus is an omnivore but has a particular fondness for chocolate, despite its effect on their generally sedentary lifestyle. If anyone raids their stash, they can become aggressive, although few specimens engage in physical confrontation.

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Interpreting their scratchings can be confusing. The amount of mayhem, death and destruction represented can lead one to assume that aggression is a natural trait. In fact, Scribblopithecus tends toward shyness, preferring to communicate via its screens rather than face to face. Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter are their natural homes and #amwriting is one of the latter’s more distinctive calls.

So what is to be concluded about this species? No two are alike, they alternate between herd and solitary behaviour, experience long periods of torpor and express their aggression passively, through their scratchings. They are also an enduring species, their scratchings being found on cave walls throughout the ancient world.

Should you encounter Scribblopithecus, it’s advisable to offer chocolate and back slowly away lest you find yourself represented in their scratchings and killed off in an unpleasant manner. This symbolic violence is characteristic, along with talking to themselves, mock aggression when they wish to be solitary, and a complete lack of time sense.

It’s safest not to try to placate an aroused specimen. Misuse of apostrophes and terminology such as, “there, they’re, their” has been known to induce an attack frenzy which few outsiders have survived.

So there you have it. Have you met Scribblopithecus? Are you one of the species yourself? Please leave a comment here, moderated unless you click Sign Me Up at right. Or better still, leave chocolate to avoid being killed symbolically.

Valerie

http://www.valerieparv.com
AORW cover
on Twitter @ValerieParv and Facebook

Check out Valerie’s online course, Free the Writer in You

at http://valerieparv.com/course.html

Of course my story’s original, it’s about a defrocked nun: the X-factor and your book

When you ask an editor what they want in submissions from writers, the usual answer is they want something “fresh and original”. Publishers of category romances such as Harlequin Mills & Boon say the same. The other perennial answer is “a good book”. Problem is they can never define what they mean by a good book that is fresh and original; only that they’ll know it when they see it.

The deal is a lot like the reality shows such as X-Factor and Wherever’s Got Talent. Being able to get up and sing,  juggle or play an instrument, however skilfully, is not guaranteed to make you a winner. You might hit all the right notes, look fabulous on camera, and have nearly every attribute the judges are seeking. But unless you possess one other magic ingredient – the X-Factor, for want of a better term, you won’t reach the top of the tree. This X-Factor is sometimes called star quality, and the truth is we DO know it when we see it. One performer will come out on stage with a voice less special than the previous contenders, may be less well presented and not all that physically attractive, and yet…and yet…we can’t take our eyes off them.

There's no denying a Lightbulb Moment

IMO this elusive X-Factor can’t be taught, and the lucky few who possess it are born with it.  Most of them would deny they are anything special. They do what they do for love, because they don’t feel complete unless they are practicing their art. Is that you? I don’t know. But if  your work is placed in front of me, I’ll know it in an instant, as would any editor or publisher. The words may be raw and unpolished, the grammar wobbly at best, but if you possess that quality your story will be so compelling that I need to read on and on to find out what happens next. This is not to say that you shouldn’t try to polish your writing and master the principles of grammar and spelling. Publishing is such a competitive industry that you need to do everything you can to make your work stand out. But above all, write a story that grabs YOU and won’t let you alone until you tell it. You’ll know it’s the one because you’ll be smiling as you read it back, which you have to do because you were spilling words out so fast your fingers could hardly keep up.

This is the story editors will see as fresh and original, because it felt that way to you. You couldn’t wait to get to know these characters and share their story. You won’t have to turn handsprings to come up with something no other writer in your genre has done, because the characters will take care of that for you. They may be perfectly ordinary people in a perfectly ordinary setting, but you’ll be so in love with them you’ll take us along for the ride. No need for an invisible heroine or a defrocked nun, though I suppose they too have their stories.

Every year I have the privilege of judging the final entries in the Valerie Parv Award organised by Romance Writers of Australia. And almost every time, there will be one book that jumps out at me because it has that elusive star quality. I almost always know it the moment I start reading, and I suspect most editors would too.  To be fair I’ll read every other entry with the same care but once that X-Factor entry has grabbed me, it rarely lets me go. Doesn’t matter if it’s a genre I personally enjoy reading or not, it’s the one and that’s that.

Can you spot the X-Factor in the work of others? What about in your own? I’d love to hear your experiences.

Valerie

On Twitter @valerieparv

and on Facebook

http://www.valerieparv.com

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