Writers’ Group: A fabulous institution

I was writing an article about convening Writers’ Groups for kids for the Australian Education Times this afternoon, and couldn’t help reminiscing about the Writers’ Group that began my own journey to publication. I was part of a fabulous Writers’ Group for a few years before my teaching and studies began to dominate and I took a break from the group.  I miss it. The following post was about the wonderful women that wrote and critiqued with me during those early writing years. I still call them friends.

books3A writer’s group exists to give feedback during the development process of writing a novel. Members of the group read, or hear the work read, and respond with constructive criticisms designed to enhance the development of the piece. Comments and criticisms relate to aspects of the writing such as character development, voice, point of view, consistency of tense, plot development and structure, among other things.

As anyone who has written (or attempted to write) a full length manuscript knows, it is easy to get lost in your own vision, your own story. I thought the first manuscript I wrote (the one that remains unpublished in the bottom drawer of my desk) was fantastic, a masterpiece! That was until I read it out loud some years later. Now I cringe with embarrassment when I think about it, and wish I’d thought to join a writers’ group way back then.

The manuscript I’m working on now (my third) will probably be my strongest. Why? Because each week in my writers’ group, my fellow Authors tear it apart. Well, maybe not tear it apart, but they do tell me what is wrong with it and why. Sometimes it is hard to hear. Sometimes the scenes I think are awesome, they suggest cutting (yes, every writer has heard about ‘killing your darlings’ but it doesn’t make it any easier). Sometimes the bits that I think are boring, they say are important for plot development. Sometimes I think one or more of them are wrong and I ignore them (at my own peril, I know), but mostly they are right - and I love them for it. Because I trust them. Because I know they have my best interests at heart, as I do theirs.

The inherent value that lies in constructive criticism cannot be underestimated for any author developing a manuscript. Any manuscript, in any genre benefits from this kind of deconstruction. So what happens when someone who struggles with accepting criticism, no matter how constructive, joins such a group?

A writing/critiquing group that provides endless empty positive platitudes is more destructive than it is constructive. It serves no purpose at all and is not fair to the writer sharing the work - it provides no basis for development. But what do you do when a writer receiving constructive suggestions fires back with personal attacks?

Well, you could do nothing, and watch as the group dynamic changes, regular members stop attending, people start feeling intimidated and getting defensive, until the group eventually dissolves. Or you could step out of the firing line and allow your fellow writers to be very clear about what is, and is not, acceptable within the context of a critiquing group. And if you are lucky enough to be part of a positive, productive, functional group of writers that holds high esteem and mutual respect and trust for each others work, this is exactly what will happen - in no uncertain terms!

Writers groups are a wonderful, valuable and I believe, essential means for developing a manuscript. But it is crucial to get the ‘right’ mix of people for it to remain so. I love my writers group.

I’m not crazy, the voice in my head is!

murderI need to learn how to kill someone — without getting caught. I’ve done a lot of research now, and I’m pretty sure I could pull it off. I have to be careful not to raise suspicion though (note to self: remember to clear browsing history regularly). It has to be quick, relatively painless, and non-violent. I hate violence. And it would help if it wasn’t messy.

Poison would do it, and it’s relatively easy to get hold of. But getting my potential victim to ingest said poison is the challenge, particularly as there is no social connection. It’s a dilemma. And it’s been running around in my head for quite some time now. Months, actually.

I’ve considered seeking advice from a professional. Someone in the know who could give me a few pointers. A doctor maybe… or someone with practical experience. But how do I find a murderer who hasn’t been caught? And do I really want to go to that extreme?

Perhaps I should clarify. This morning, after a three-week hiatus, I was back in the pool swimming laps. The 50m outdoor pool sparkled in the Sydney sunshine, totally seducing my senses, lap after lazy lap. Swimming is very good for thinking. It’s quite meditative and I’ve always found it a fabulous way to process stuff. Things have a way of drifting up from the subconscious when you’re swimming.

It was while I was swimming that I remembered, that though the whole plot of next novel revolved around murder, and I had all my characters, plot and subplot lines sorted, I still hadn’t figured out how it happens. It’s kind of a crucial element. I guess I’d just been avoiding it because… well… I spend so much of my time as a writer, with the voices of my characters in my head, that occasionally, the conversations become intertwined with real ones. It’s a worry!

I don’t want to be at my desk in the office, or doing the shopping, and muttering about murder. Or having coffee with a non-writer friend and watching them empty a sachet of artificial sweetener into the cup, and say out loud: “I could put the poison in a sweetener sachet, but I’d have to make sure it was tasteless.” (Sorry about that Karen)  It tends to get awkward.

I probably should get better at compartmentalising my writing and my life. Problem is, my writing IS my life!

Back to researching murder…

On Publishing, promotion and putting yourself on the line

self-promotionThe manuscript (and several more following it) is complete, the contract signed, editing done, book cover sorted, publisher’s launch over. You’d be forgiven for thinking that my work as an author is over, but you’d be wrong. Very wrong.

I was at the Australian Book Expo, at Olympic Park last weekend, to sign books and talk to people about my new release. The expo itself was a bit of a disappointment because numbers were pretty low, but it gave me a fabulous opportunity to chat with people. It was interesting watching my publisher in action, but even more interesting to wander around and chat with other authors either published traditionally or self-published, and in some cases, both.

Most authors who had been around for a little while understood the nature of the changing industry and described their journey to (and from) publication as a roller-coaster. I could certainly relate. But I came across one or two authors, at the Expo to give their titles a boost, who were a tad resentful that they were expected to have a hand in promoting their books. I listened as they described the days where, once they’d signed the contract, they were given an advance and then sat back waiting for the publisher to tell them where to go (to sign books, speak, etc) and what to do, and in the meantime they got on with writing the next manuscript. Ah… if only it were still like that. But it’s not.

It is only when the contract is signed, if you’re lucky enough to be published traditionally, that the real work begins. The in-your-face, rejection-inducing, self-esteem challenging, slap-in-the-face, get-knocked-down-get-up-again task of getting your book ‘out there,’ type of work. Unless you are published by one the ‘five,’ in an industry that is just beginning to settle enough to get a glimpse of what writing and publishing might look like into the future, one thing is clear — the role of the author now includes promoting the book. It’s become a necessary part of getting your work out there. Readers can’t read your books if they don’t know where to get them. But for most writers I know, it is this part of publishing that is the most challenging.

Writers are the kind of people (I am very much generalising here, and happy to be contradicted) that are content working alone, in front of the computer, sometimes for months at a time. I know myself, when I am writing, days, sometimes weeks, pass barely noticed. It’s our work that we want in the public domain, not ourselves. Self-promotion is uncomfortable, awkward, and often off-putting, and I for one, do not enjoy it one little bit. Luckily, in the age of technology, it doesn’t necessarily have to be done face-to-face. But it does have to be done. And that’s what social media is for. Developing an author platform on social media is critical if you want any chance whatsoever of getting your work read. There is no escaping it.

So what would I say to those authors who refuse to change their way of operating? Well, in polite terms I’d suggest that as an author in the 21st century, you need to embrace change as an inevitability and adapt accordingly. Or to put it a little more bluntly—build a bridge! If you don’t have the skills to build a bridge, get someone else to do it for you, or you will sink into publishing oblivion. The halcyon days of book publishing are gone. Deal with it.

Blurred Realities

blurred_realityI called a young colleague Ben today. It's not his name. He wasn't bothered, he laughed it off and asked if Ben was my son's name (cheeky bugger). It's not. Ben is the name of the main character in the novel I'm working on.

I think maybe I'm just a little disoriented. It happens sometimes when I'm writing. I get so totally engrossed in the reality I'm creating that perspectives blur and it takes a bit of time to remember which reality is which. Or who I'm really talking to.

It wasn't so bad when I was writing the first two novels. Those worlds were a little easier to distinguish between. Maybe because the characters were younger. But it's different now. The manuscript I'm working on at the moment is targeted to older YAs, 16-24-year-olds, and it's at third draft stage. This is the stage where the plot and sub-plots are all consuming. Loose ends get tied up, holes are plugged, and story arcs smoothed. And it dominates the consciousness.

It's always a huge relief to hear other writers talk about the way their characters speak to them; the solitary conversations while they're walking the dog, or driving, or shopping, or lying in bed playing with insomnia. It's comforting to know I'm not the only one who conducts entire conversations with imaginary companions. The concern that I may be teetering on the edge of sanity is often mitigated after such revelations.

I know that these 'voices in my head' would, under any other circumstances probably be cause for alarm. But at the moment, I have to talk with my 20-something main character to find out how he responds to that issue he has to deal with well enough to make the link and fill that plot-hole in chapter 23. I have to be open to hear what he has to say without confusing his reactions with those of the young (well, younger than me anyway) people I know; people like my friend's sone, or my daughter friend, or that grown-up I taught all those years ago.

Our characters are often compilations of people we know, or have known. Elements of many combine to create an authentic representation of the emotions, actions and reactions, that make someone human. And that's where people-watching (not stalking as my daughter sometimes likes to call it) comes in very handy. It helps to fine-tune details of particular mannerisms, and adds breadth to descriptions, all of which contribute to making that human an individual. Fallible. Vulnerable. Real.

The difficulty at the moment with blurred realities is because I'm writing a psychological thriller type narrative. And it's scary. Because I know people like this. Not just as victims, but also as perpetrators; people capable of these horrible things. I've talked to them, worked with them, had coffee with them. I'm not saying those people have actually committed these heinous crimes, but I bet they're capable of it. Sends shivers down my spine.

It's when you start calling the nice people around you  by the names of the characters you're creating that you start getting the raised eyebrow. And feeling a little awkward.

Now, who was I talking to...?

Sensitivity and the Writer

kittyI'm a delicate little flower. People tend to laugh when I say this, but it's true! I am a very sensitive person.

I think people tend to laugh because sensitivity is all-too-often confused with weakness. But I am definitely NOT a weak person. I am someone who feels deeply. Sometimes I might struggle with expressing those feelings in a way that others can understand. Sometimes deep empathy is mistaken for aloofness because I cannot process and express the emotion immediately. Other times I express anger and frustration with tears. A lot of the time I simply don't react externally, rather, I contain the depth of my emotion internally, requiring space and time to do so. But I DO feel it. Very much so.

It seems these days, sensitivity  is not looked upon as a positive. I remember in one job I had (in a particularly toxic workplace environment) a friend said to me "if only you didn't cry," as though ti was my crying, rather than the personality deficit of a dysfunctional bully, that was the reason he targeted me (as well as others who thought, felt, responded, differently to him.

I've been told to "toughen up" and "get a thicker skin" so often in my life, that for a very long time I thought there was something terribly wrong with me. I was compared to a turtle without a shell; an oyster with no protection; and told "the world would chew me up and spit me out" unless I changed. I tried to 'toughen' up, I tried not to take things personally, I tried the 'water-off-a-duck's-back' philosophy. None of it worked for me.

And then, in a moment of great clarity, I realised that I didn't want to do it that way. I didn't want to shut down. I didn't want to switch off from pain - my own or anyone else's. I didn't want to be one of those people who could walk past an old homeless man in the street and recognise the inadequacies of a society who has failed him. I didn't want to look into the face of an impoverished child and not see the hunger. I didn't want to close myself off to the friend locked in an abusive relationship and pretend it's none of my business, or the colleague who cares for an elderly parent and a sick child who sometimes gets grumpy. I didn't want to hear another news report about asylum seekers and not recognise the desperation in their actions. I didn't want to grow a thicker skin if it meant walking around in a narcissistic bubble.

I realised that I am okay about being a sensitive person. I refuse to allow our government, or mass media, or colleagues, or 'friends', or society try to desensitise me. I am okay about being a sensitive person. While others may not cope with, or understand, or approve, my sensitivity, it lends itself very well to my writing. After all, how can a writer write with authenticity unless they have some degree of insight into their character's emotions?

The short answer is: they can't. It's why writers tend to be such a sensitive bunch.

The writer who writes without an understanding of, or empathy for, the human psyche, can only skim the surface of the human experience. Human connection and interaction is what drives story. Regardless of genre, a reader must be able to connect with a character. They must be able to relate to a character, either positively or negatively, whether the character is human or not. A reader needs to see some of themselves in the characters they read, consciously or subconsciously, in fantasy or reality. Strong narrative should elicit some kind of reaction or response from a reader. And reaction comes from emotion. And emotion comes from empathy. And empathy comes from sensitivity.

To really get inside a character and create that relate-ability, a writer needs to be aware of and sensitive to, the full gamut of human emotion.

I'm a very sensitive person. And I'm okay with that. Because I'm a writer.


NEW book cover revealed!

Released by Satalyte Publishing 30 August at Gleebooks, Sydney


Satalyte Publishing has revealed the new cover for my novel, FAKE PROFILE. And I love it! The novel will be released on Saturday 30 August at Gleebooks in Sydney.

It's going to be a very busy weekend that weekend because as well as the launch event, the novel will also feature at the Australian Book Expo at Sydney Olympic Park, 30-31 August. The book expo is a pretty big event. Organisers expect about 10 000 through the doors across the weekend. The first hour of both Saturday and Sunday are exclusively for teachers. This gives them a chance to browse the stalls and various publisher tables for school library and/or classroom resources before the general public are let in at 10am. You'll be able to meet your favourite authors, get books signed, and find plenty of fabulous reading material, both as eBooks and pBooks.

I am also going to be speaking on a panel about the inspiration for my book . There was a particular event I witnessed first-hand that got me thinking about its premise. But you'll have to come along to hear all about it!

The launch is at Gleebooks, 3:30pm Saturday 30 August. Come along and say hi.

Creating anomalous characters

charactersEmpathy is a valuable skill as a writer. Being able to put yourself in someone else's position to get an idea of how and why they might think or feel about something is important when you are creating characters that might be different to yourself. But what about when it comes to understanding what motivates a person to do something that you yourself would or could never do? How do you go about writing such a scenario with any kind of authenticity when you can't possibly conceive of it? Should you even try?

Every writer has heard the oft-used saying ‘write what you know’, and probably for good reason. Believability, even in fantasy, is what makes a strong story. Characters have to be genuine. And by genuine, I mean true to form, consistent, real. 

 If you've never had any experience of hatred, how can you write hate? If you've never been in love, how can you write a romance? If you've never been betrayed, how do you write about betrayal? If your natural state of being is one of optimism, how do you write a character that is depressed with any kind of authenticity?

I'm not suggesting that as an author, you shouldn't create characters that experience these things, but you do need to at least understand what motivates people who experience emotions strong enough to drive them to actions that are outside of your personal experience.

Observing people, listening to people, talking to people who are polar opposites to yourself is one way to do this. And that is not necessarily an easy thing to do. Recently, I went to a workshop on Ethics and Integrity as part of a PhD conference I attended. As a PhD candidate it was help, but as a writer it was incredibly insightful.

 One of the scenarios we were presented with related to the ethics of animal testing and experimentation. Now as a long-time vegetarian and animal lover myself, I found it very challenging to hear some of the perspectives put forward by researchers who were involved in this type of activity; so much so that I found myself feeling quite distressed. Particularly as one of those outlining the necessity of such (abhorrent) activities, made his position seems so rational and (almost) understandable.

I caught myself in the middle of this conflicted emotion, took a step back, and just observed the group participants on both sides of the debate. Speakers for and against were getting equally as passionate, each trying to get their point across as vehemently as the other. I watched those arguing for the testing and really listened to what they were saying to try and get an isight into their motivations. I'd never before considered how anyone could really believe that using animals for research into humans could be a good thing. And I still don't believe it. But listening to the discussion without emotion gave me a look inside a person who thought and felt very differently to me, in a way that I'd never really experienced before.

Though I found this observation incredibly challenging, as a writer it was fabulously insightful. I've always been a people watcher, it's a valuable tool when creating characters. But if you get the opportunity to engage in people-watching in a situation that is completely outside your comfort zone, and remain detached and objective (well, as objective as you can possibly be), it can be an amazing experience and hugely beneficial to your writing.











The trouble with grammar


'Intelligence supersedes grammar... Grammar is secondary to content... Language is changing anyway so grammar doesn't really matter...'

These are some of the statements I (over)heard during the week at a conference I attended for PhD researchers. These candidates were were having informal discussions about their work and their personal processes in writing up their research.

As a writer, I was astounded. But as someone who recognises the need for content to be accessible, I was horrified. These people were completely missing the point. Grammar provides a structure for writing to ensure that it is able to be read. As I tell my writers' group participants, grammar is the road rules of writing. It is a set of rules that, if followed, ensures everyone is able to read your writing. Grammar provides a framework for communication.

In the context of the conference, I had to wonder, what is the point of spending 60+ hours a week for four years reading, researching, analysing, synthesising, then writing up your work if you can't communicate it?

There are many issues relating to grammar, not the least of which is credibility. Credibility is vitally important in effective communication.The mechanics of writing can't be underestimated if a writer wants to present a credible, trustworthy message. There seems to be a common (mis)perception that if the material to be read contains information that is intelligent and important, then people will read it regardless. This is not necessarily the case.

Reading any type of communication, whether it be a novel, an email, a blackboard menu (and haven't we all fought the urge to edit one of these?), or a thesis, is is done so with a common understanding of what it is to read. And thought the definition of 'reading' is changing (the subject of my PhD and a discussion for another time),  this should not undermine or reduce the importance of the common understanding by which we currently read and understand material. Each language has its own syntax, and to communicate effectively in whichever language you use, you must understand and be able to replicate it in order to communicate with others, especially in the written format.

Generally speaking, people will not be able to see through a grammatically incompetent piece of writing to recognise the value of the content. If a person wants to establish themselves in a field with any kind of authority, they must be credible; not just in their specific field, but in the broader context. And that means being able to engage people.

I'm not just talking about PhDs here. If you are an aspiring writer and you send a query to an agent or publisher, do you really think they'll read past the first grammatical error they see? Probably not.

I used to get a lot of requests to review books and/or manuscripts. Some authors made the job of rejecting a manuscript easy. I'd delete any emails that were not grammatically sound, without even reading the abstract. Often, one paragraph in an email would tell me more about a writer, than the entire content of their manuscript. Sound harsh? It probably is, but it is also indicative of being time poor. And aren't we all time poor these days?

Another example of how important grammar is to credibility came to mind recently when I received an email newgrammar2sletter from a local politician. There was an error in the very first line. I moved to delete the email but then noticed the picture of the person and recognised him. It was a young politician that I'd met and spoken to at length a few months prior. He was earnest and idealistic (as many pollies are when they first start out) and he genuinely wanted to make a difference. Instead of deleting his attempt to reach out to his community, I edited his email and sent it back with an offer to edit future communications. He accepted, gratefully.

People don't generally notice correct grammar, they're too busy reading the content of the message. But people DO notice bad grammar and are quick to dismiss it BEFORE getting to the content, hence message lost. Don't let this happen to you.

So, back the to the title of this post, grammar doesn't really matter... WRONG!  GRAMMAR DOES MATTER. Use it properly. Or if you can't use it yourself, get someone who can to help you out.

Fellow grammarphiles might appreciate Weird Al Yankovich's take on the matter. Watch the video above.


Are Australian Authors Being Priced Out of the Market?

I had an interesting conversation with a school librarian the other day.  She'd just received a shipment for her school library and was chatting about the titles she'd ordered. I asked what criteria she used when deciding what books she wanted. She said value for money was important, and though she tried to include a few books from Australian authors 'if she could', it wasn't always possible to do so.

The response surprised me. I -perhaps naively- thought it should've been the other way around. After all, this is an Australian primary school. I assumed the majority of titles would've been from Australian authors with maybe a few foreign titles. The librarian raised one eyebrow and said, "That would mean maybe five new books for the library, instead of 25."

It got me thinking. And worrying.

I'm getting ready for the release of my novel at the end of August. And the price the publisher has set is ten dollars more expensive than any of the books the librarian purchased for the school library. I understand why the book is priced the way it is. My publisher is a small Australian publishing house, and he wants to use Australian printers and distributors. And I am totally with him on this. We need to support and promote the local industry.

This country is not without great writers. We have some fantastic authors of children and young-adult fiction and non-fiction. Iconic even, for generations of kids. But as the writing and publishing context changes, and ebooks, PODS, and cheap overseas printers become the norm, how will this impact on the local industry?

 If a school librarian won't pay more than $15 for any title, where does that leave the Australian publisher who can't get a book printed and marketed locally for much less than that? And if the publisher is forced to look elsewhere for printing and distribution, where does that leave local printers? If booksellers can't  sell Australia titles for the price of the cheaper imports, will they continue to buy local authors' products?

And if kids aren't exposed to Australian writers at a time in their lives when they're most likely to read --at school, will they continue to look elsewhere (online, overseas) for new reading material as they grow and their reading interests mature?

What does all this mean for Australian authors? Particularly those who are aspiring and emerging authors? Thoughts...?



How important is reading to you?


“Not every reader writes, but every writer reads.”  Attribution: Every writer I know (worth their salt).

It’s an important statement for a lot of reasons. A writer needs to be very familiar with the genre in which they write, as well as have a comprehensive understanding of the demographic for whom they write. How else can they do this, except by reading?

I know a lot of writers — published and unpublished, and I have direct contact with many more aspiring writers. I write a lot about writing, I talk a lot about writing, and I study writing. You could say (and I often do) that I live and breathe writing, and you’d be right. Writing, and everything related to it, is in the forefront of my consciousness, ALL THE TIME. What can I say? It’s my bliss.

But there would be no point to writing without someone to read. A real writer knows this. So when I hear someone who aspires to be a writer say: “Oh, I don’t read. I just don’t have the time,” I get a bit bristly. Now, I know that not everyone reads (as an avid reader and prolific writer my whole life, I was somewhat of an anomaly in my family-of-origin), but a writer choosing not read is like a swimmer wanting to finish the race without getting in the water. It just doesn’t make sense.

People read for all sorts of reasons, not the least being for pleasure. It’s a pastime unsurpassed by any other. Reading for pleasure takes you to another place in a way nothing else can.  It’s both journey and destination.

A writer needs to understand that. And what better way to understand it than to experience it first-hand? A successful writer hones their craft. They read, read, read. Then they write. And read some more.

To reject that process is to deny yourself the opportunity to grow and develop as a writer. Even entertaining the thought of not having a book (or two or three) on hand for those moments between, gives me chills. It’s the easiest, and most effective, way of engaging with my craft. To suggest I wouldn’t need to read seems… well, arrogant. Given that I’m a writer.

If you’re a writer, or you aspire to be a writer, reading is not an option. Not if you want to do anything with your writing.