Teaching master classes and mentoring new writers is a great way to shine a spotlight on your own writing process.
Focusing on how you construct a story reveals what works and – crucially – what doesn’t. The alternative, sadly, is learning by trial and error and many wasted words.
It’s sci-fi, not a field she normally reads. Her feedback was invaluable for precisely that reason. She took nothing for granted, asking the “why” questions that someone more into science fiction might not think to ask.
During our talk I had one of Oprah Winfrey’s “light bulb moments” when a metaphorical light goes on over your head.
I knew why the bad guy was acting as he was. The key characters had to find out the hard way, as is proper. You should never make things easy for your characters. Far better to “get your characters up a tree and then throw rocks at them.” The rocks being the difficulties you put in their way so they have to fight for every bit of progress.
I’d done all that. In my story things go from bad to worse, and then to catastrophic. But I’d overlooked one thing I’d learned from teaching –
What the writer tells the reader does not have to be the same as what the characters tell each other.
Sure, you want to stay inside their viewpoint as much as you can, so readers feel as if they’re living the story rather than being told about it.
But an element called “reader superiority” lets readers in on information your characters don’t have yet. By sharing secrets, you heighten your readers’ enjoyment of the story as they wait for the characters to catch up.
A good example comes from Where Are the Children by Mary Higgins Clark. Her heroine may have murdered her children and gotten away with it. The woman has started afresh under a new identity, when the children from her new relationship mysteriously disappear.
If we thought that she’d actually killed her children, we’d have little sympathy for her. So Ms Clark sets up an opening scene where someone sinister is watching the heroine. At first, we don’t learn what he’s about, but we know the heroine is not the villain. However, the other characters only know her kids have disappeared twice under suspicious circumstances. They believe she’s a killer who got lucky the first time, and they want her to be caught.
Had we, as readers, not known she was being stalked, we might feel the same.
You don’t have to step outside the book and tell the reader. As Ms Clark did, you can show us what’s really going on, so we empathize with the character. Knowing she’s innocent, we want the truth to come out while fearing it will come too late to save her. The result is a real page-turner.
My lightbulb moment:
Rather than springing the truth on characters and readers at the same time, I need to reveal my bad guy to my readers before the characters work it all out. This can be done with a scene where we meet the bad guy when the leads aren’t present. It’s a multiple-viewpoint book so it’s perfectly legitimate.
I just have to remember to take my own advice.
The 3 things I’ve learned from mentoring and teaching –
1. Giving advice is easier than taking it
2. Knowing why something works means you can do it again…and again.
3. Say yes to every teaching opportunity; you never know what you might learn.
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Sydney Oct 17, join Valerie at the Australian Society of Authors’ special event:
When Worlds Collide
adding romance to your speculative (and other) fiction.
Discounts available for participants attending from out of Sydney.
Click on car icon with $ sign on it.
To book phone: (02) 9211 1004 or go to