Is Your Focus Skewed?

cat-2151400_1920When we read, we tend to try to anticipate what will happen in a story, or project backwards (for example, in a murder mystery novel). We use details such as objects, time and setting to create a picture of where, when, and what is happening. When an author spends time describing something in a manuscript, it’s a clue to the reader to pay attention. These details also help to immerse us in the story. A problem in some manuscripts is when the focus is on the wrong things or details that don’t matter. The reader doesn’t know what’s important and can feel bored or cheated.

One reason for this skewed focus is the author writing their way into the story. I’ve read plenty of scenes describing a character waking up, making tea or coffee, or commuting to work. I tend to think of these scenes as mental stretches before tackling a heavy writing session and they probably reflect more on the daily life of an author than what’s important to a story. That’s not to say that you should cut all description of a character’s day-to-day doings from the manuscript. These can be a great way to provide characterisation and may be part of the plot. Just be aware of repetition, spending too much time on these scenes, or reverting to cliché in how you describe them.

If a writer is passionate about a topic, this can also skew the focus of description. This isn’t always a bad thing. I love learning something new when I read. One of the great joys of fiction is slipping into another person’s shoes and exploring their world. Now imagine that person is a keen lepidopterist and just when you get to a critical point in their story, they stop to show you their collection of pinned butterflies. The main story is shooting past but you have to stop and listen to them talk about their favourite moth. It’s frustrating and slows the pace unnecessarily. If the topic is crucial to the plot, that’s a different thing entirely; if it isn’t, think about cutting back.

A third reason that a story’s focus can be imbalanced is that the manuscript is in its early development. The first draft is often the writer telling themselves the story, getting the images and ideas in their head down on to the page. It’s in the subsequent revisions that the author can then go back over the manuscript and expand scenes and flesh things out. The first couple of chapters are usually the most heavily revised. Authors know that first chapters are crucial for hooking a reader or a publisher and will spend time polishing the start of a manuscript until it’s shiny and bright.

In the rest of the story, particularly heading into the climax where the pace is breakneck, things can tend to get summarised. While short, sharp sentences and chapters are great for reflecting the rising tension, what you don’t want to do is leave the reader feeling short changed. They’ve followed you for the past two hundred pages. Make sure the climax you’ve promised is satisfying by giving it enough attention and space on the page.

The final reason for a skewed focus is not trusting the reader to do their job. A common problem with many manuscripts is overwriting. The author can feel the urge to explain what is happening because they don’t trust that the reader will ‘get it’. This can lead to repetition, telling and too much description.

To make sure you’re getting the balance of focus right in your manuscript, read great fiction. Examine how the author has guided the reader’s attention. Look at the balance of description and action. Read bad fiction. Take note of when you drop out of a story or feel frustrated with the narrative. What made you stop reading? Were you bored? Did you feel cheated?

Enlist the aid of a couple of trusted beta readers and ask them to make note of if and when they drop out of your story. Check that focus is right and you’ll elevate your writing.

 “In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.”
Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft  

Would you survive?

gasmask-2142459_960_720 (2)There was a guy who worked at my local supermarket who never said a word. I always thought that he would have a really interesting story.

Sadly, both he and the local supermarket have long gone so I can’t ask him. What I did instead was write a story about how I thought his first day at a new job would be in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse.

Not so hard, right? Except that the zombie infection only takes super healthy people: the ones who get up at 4am to cross-train for two hours before refuelling with a kale, quinoa and protein booster smoothie. The ones who get to the gym twice a day and run ultramarathons. Can you imagine zombies with that level of fitness? If you can and you’d like to read about it, my story, ‘The Zoo of All Things’ will feature in the After the Rebirth anthology brought out by TANSTAAFL press in April this year. Would you survive the rebirth?

Thirsty for some dark Christmas fiction?

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Shades of Santa: Tales from the Bloody North Pole is a collection of thirty-seven dark flash fiction tales with all proceeds going to charity:water. 663 million people in the world today live without access to clean water. Charity:water is a non-profit organisation bringing clean, safe water to people in developing countries.

My story, ‘Teatime’ is the tale of the wicked Miss Maisy, her devoted manservant, Mr Poole and Juniper, Winter’s child. It appears in the section of the anthology on Snow People and I hope it stirs a shiver or two up your spine.

If you’re thirsty for some fabulous frosty fiction, check out the anthology on Amazon by clicking on the link below.

Shades of SantaAvailable now

 

 

New short stories: coming soon

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Keep a look out, I have two new stories coming in 2018!

‘A Pet is For Life’

Asian urban legends give me the heebie-jeebies. There’s no redemption, no reasoning, no rhyme to how these vengeful ghosts operate. ‘A Pet is For Life’ is my take on the Kuchisake-onna tale and will feature in Behind the Mask – Tales from the Id.

The anthology is scheduled for release in early 2018 by Oz Horror Con and will feature works by authors such as Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell.

Keep an eye out for the anthology here.

‘The Fledgling’

My short story, ‘The Fledgling’ has been contracted with Tales to Terrify and will feature in their 2018 schedule of podcasts. The story delves into a mother’s guilt and the alien landscape of religious education.

Keep an eye out for it on their website here.

If you can’t wait until next year, you can read about some of my other stories in the Published Work section.

Mentorship Moment No. 4: How to Write Characters That Are Not You

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There will come a time in your writing expedition where you’ll want to write a character that’s very different from who you are. Maybe it’s someone of a different gender or a different culture. If you like the types of stories I do, you might be writing someone from a different planet or something supernatural.

The main character in my work in progress is a dead fourteen-year-old boy who’s stuck in a grey purgatory and can’t remember how he got there. Being spatially-challenged, I can empathise with the sense of being lost but I’ve never been a boy and last I checked, I’ve never been dead.

A teen protagonist can also be tricky. There’s a lens that’s peculiar to that stretch of time. Things get skewed and magnified, and our personalities distend and distort while we try on all the different shapes we might become. Then the one that seems to fit best sets hard and it can be strange to look back and remember.

One piece of advice that’s been shopped around on how to capture an authentic teen voice, is to eavesdrop: sit next to a group of teenagers and listen to the rhythm and syntax of their speech. I don’t know about you, but that suggestion makes me supremely uncomfortable. A less creepy way is to realise that essentially, you’re the same person as an adult as you were at fourteen.

The key to writing authentic characters that are different from you is to remember that we share many more fundamental similarities than we have differences. We have the same basic brain chemistry, and want and need and fear many of the same things.

Carve up parts of your own personality and think about how you would react in the situations facing your characters. Comb back through your own life – what experience matches this emotion that you’re trying to write? Can you channel your own memories into what is happening for your character?

An example Deb (my writing mentor) shared was a character who had to shoot someone in the face. Now, Deb’s never shot anyone in the face, but she could remember what it was like to know that she had to hurt somebody. She was able to translate that emotion to the scene without having to actually pick up a gun. Neat.

Here’s the mentorship moment: trust that you are legion.

Trust that within you, there are multitudes. Yes, do your due diligence when writing characters outside your experience: research, interview people, read widely, stalk teenagers (please don’t, that was a joke) but don’t discount the resources inside your own head. Remember that you have the capacity to imagine and exist as many characters and your experiences can translate across to your narrative. Write honestly about feelings and it will ring true for your characters.

Who or what is the protagonist in your latest work in progress? Are they someone like you or are they vastly different? What methods have you used to get inside their head?

 

 

 

 

 

Mentorship Moment No. 3: Outcome vs Output

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One of the questions I often get asked as an editor is, “Do you think this will get published?” It’s a question that makes me wince because the only answer I can truthfully give is, “It depends.”. I’m torn between encouraging my client and not falsely raising their expectations.

So much of what ultimately results in publishing success for an author is outside of their control. Even if the stars do align and their manuscript makes it past the slush pile, the time-poor editor, the marketing and budgeting departments, and the author does manage to land a contract, there’s still no guarantee that their book will be a hit. There are reviews to face, an increasingly crowded market to wade through, and the relatively short shelf life of a book to overcome.

If a writer focusses solely on landing a contract, garnering rave reviews and making enough sales to buy a gold toilet, their chances of burnout are pretty high. A writer’s path to success is often paved with rejection. Even celebrated authors like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling famously faced numerous rejections before they hit pay dirt. Despite their success, they have scathing reviews as well as glowing reviews. So much of writing and reading is subjective and trying to pin success down in this environment is an endeavour fraught with disappointment.

Here’s the Mentorship Moment: What an author can control and what will keep them writing in the face of such tough odds is to focus not on the outcome, but on their output.

The key to protecting a writer’s confidence (see this post for the importance of confidence in writing) is to focus on what is within their control. Instead of viewing writing as an art, the writer can reframe it as a craft. Instead of waiting for the muse to turn up and provide divine inspiration, the author can turn up at their desk and clock in. They can develop their writing toolbox and seek out feedback. They can accept that apart from making their writing as polished as possible, there is little they can do to control how it will be received.

This shift in thought can be incredibly freeing. It will make it easier to shrug off that latest rejection or that one-star review and keep writing. It will make it easier for the writer to answer the question, “Do you think this will get published?” on their own terms.

How do you keep your confidence up? If you have any tips you’d like to share, I’d love to hear them.

Mentorship Moment No.2 – The Secret to Pacing

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A perfectly paced story is a delight: much like the ebb and flow of a river, a story usually starts with a swift little trickle, gathering momentum as it streams along. In some places there will be rapids, in others, the waters will slow and swirl but sooner or later, there comes the great coursing rush, drawing the reader towards the inescapable climax.

There are plenty of devices in the writer’s toolbox to control pacing. Some are at the line level and some are at the structural level.

At the line level, sentence construction and word choice are subtle ways to control pacing. Short, tight sentences and fragments give a sense of urgency. Long, descriptive sentences convey a more languid tempo and give the reader time to breathe. Punchy, active words quicken the pace, while longer words and more expressive language help to slow things down.

At the structural level, an outline is useful to delineate moments of high tension and moments of quiet. Too much intensity and the reader is left exhausted; too long a lull and the reader loses interest. To control pacing at this level, understand the purpose of each section of your story.

The first section of a story usually introduces the characters and the main conflicts. Things need to move along at a good pace to hook the reader in. The middle section of a story is where complications arise and tension builds. Pacing can ebb and flow here. There will be moments of intensity and moments of respite.  In the final section, the main conflicts come to a head. Pacing is breakneck, urging the reader to keep turning the page.

To control pacing at the structural level, there are many techniques available, such as cliff hangers, short chapter lengths, cut scenes, and multiple lines of tension.

Here’s the Mentorship Moment: they essentially boil down to one basic question – how often is the reader given information?

For a slower pace, reveal only one or two vital pieces of information per scene or chapter. This gives the reader time to absorb and ponder these developments. As you move through high intensity moments in the narrative, speed things up by revealing several new pieces of information. As you build towards the climax, swiftly unveil one mystery after another. Readers love and hate unanswered questions. Each revelation draws them on, making them read faster and faster. In this way, you can plan exactly how the reader is going to react to each section of the story.

It feels a little nefarious, but knowing how and when to deliver information will ensure that the balance of pacing is correct. Whatever you’re working on, whether it’s a fast-moving thriller, or a leisurely romance, get your pacing right and you’ll engage your reader from beginning to end.

How do you orchestrate pacing? If you have any suggestions, feel free to share in the comments below – I’d love to read them.

Mentorship Moment No. 1 – map your way out of writer’s block.

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Last week, I wrote about what to expect from a mentorship and I promised I would share what I had learnt so far. In this first Mentorship Moment post, I’ll cover how outlining can get you out of, and into trouble.

Spatial awareness is not a forte of mine. I once got lost coming out of a toilet block and I never get somewhere the same way twice. Travelling with me is always an adventure.

In this case, my GPS is my best friend. With it, I can go wherever I want. Without it, I wonder if I’ll starve to death while endlessly circling one-way streets. My confidence evaporates.

The same can happen if you venture out onto a blank page without an outline to show you the way. Deb, my mentor, likens it to driving from Melbourne to Perth without a map. We often know how a story starts and ends. It’s the vast middle that’s the problem.

It’s the endless possibilities. Much like driving across Australia, you can take any direction you fancy. You can write whatever story you want, make any number of choices regarding character, and build whatever world pops into mind. That probably sounds pretty good, until you realise that you’re going around in circles, or that you’ve written yourself into yet another dead end.

Even worse, that blank page stays blank.

In writing, confidence is key. Anything that saps your confidence is the kiss of death. And nothing feeds doubt better than hours of panicked frustration, staring at a blank page, facing infinite choices and not being able to see how you’re going to get from beginning to end.

So, how do we find our way across that vast middle? Create way-points for yourself: little stations that you can write towards. In short, create an outline that covers the important moments in your narrative.

When the entire narrative has been broken down into smaller, manageable chunks, the writing gets easier. If you’re a short story writer like me, you can even treat each chunk as a mini short story, with a beginning, middle and end. Now, instead of staring at a blank page, wondering ‘what next’, you have a target to write to. A target that’s much closer and more achievable than that distant climax. Each time you hit one of those targets, your confidence gets a boost.

A word of caution: check the level of detail. If, like me, you’ve tried plotting and found yourself no closer to busting through writer’s block, it could be because you’ve written yourself a straitjacket. Keep it simple. An exhaustive outline that details every minute point in the narrative can be just as bad for writer’s block as no outline at all.

The problem? There’s no wriggle room. There’s no allowance for those awesome moments when characters shove past you and start to write their own stories.

Writing an outline that gives only a basic map of the narrative allows space for you to find your way through the story as you write, while keeping your ending in sight. It leaves room for creativity and can be the perfect balance between ‘pantsing’ (writing by the seat of your pants) and plotting. You’ll get from Melbourne to Perth and you’ll write ‘the end’. Which, by the way, is one of the best things for a writer’s confidence.

What sort of writer are you? Are you a pantser or a plotter, or something in between? Have you tried plotting and tangled yourself up in too much detail? Give a simpler outline a try. I hope this first Mentorship Moment has helped you along.

Next week in Mentorship Moment No. 2, I’ll share one of the most important aspects of pacing.

 

 

Why You Need A Mentor

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One thing I love about this whole writing gig is that if you’re willing, you need never stop learning. There’s no map and no single path to get where you want to go. There are any number of ways to learn and endless topics to explore. It’s both a thrilling and daunting thought, but if you see an opportunity to accelerate that learning, seize it with both hands. It will raise your writing to the next level and expand your writing toolbox exponentially.

In July, I was lucky enough to be awarded one of only six writing mentorships through the Australian Horror Writers Association’s mentorship program. Mentors include the following award-winning authors: Lee Murray, Alan Baxter, Kaaron Warren, Shane Jiraiya Cummings, Deborah Sheldon, Greg Chapman and Charles Lovecraft.

My mentor is the talented and generous Deborah Sheldon, whose writing is as seductive and sublime as it is horrifying. Pop over to her website and check out her work. You won’t be sorry, I promise.

Every week, Deb and I catch up for a one-hour phone call, where she breaks down my writing and my writing practice. We examine the pieces to see what works and what needs work. I then email her questions to give her time to prepare for the next session. We cover everything from writer’s block, pacing, plotting, setting, short fiction, long fiction, characterisation, and how cows kill more people than sharks every year. The mentorship will run for a total of twelve weeks.

As an editor, it seems counter-intuitive that I would need someone to pull apart my writing and show me where I’m falling down. But that’s one of the unavoidable truths about being a writer: it’s often difficult to see the flaws in your own work. As you revise your own writing, you’ll naturally replay the story in your head, filling in the gaps, skipping over missing words and incorrect spelling. Your imagination will leap over the gaping plot holes and paint in the blank scenery, because you know the story you meant to write.

The value of a skilled mentor or editor is that they come to your work fresh. They bring years of writing experience and craft, and can suggest new ways to tackle the obstacles in your path.

So, what can you expect from a mentorship?

1)      To work hard. As a mentee, it’s up to you to figure out what you want to gain from the mentorship and make the most of it.

2)      To be challenged. Be prepared to examine your own processes and have your writing pulled apart. Be open to suggestions and critique: it will strengthen you as a writer.

3)      To be surprised. At times tapping away on your keyboard all by your lonesome means that your writing process can turn insular. You might have found a groove that works or be stuck in a rut that doesn’t, but not have any idea how to jump tracks. A mentor who approaches writing from a different angle could help you to switch gears and venture down new paths.

4)      To be inspired. A mentorship will give your writing a boost unlike any other learning experience. You’ll come away from each session with your mind buzzing, eager to get back to that manuscript that’s been languishing in the bottom drawer for months.

What Deb brings and what I value most, are lessons on the craft of writing. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share what I’ve learnt from each session. I hope they enrich your writing as much as they have mine.

Do you have an experience as a mentee or a mentor? Please share in the comments below. I’d love to hear about it.

 

The promise of a killer opening line.

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A killer opening line almost always sells it for me. A striking cover, a favourite author’s name, a tight, sharp blurb are all vital enticements, but the one thing that seals a book sale is a great opening line or paragraph. It’s a hard-working little collection of words but because its job is so important, it can be tricky to pin down.

So let’s examine some of the things that make up a killer opening line:

  • Voice: a compelling authorial voice creates an intimate connection with the reader. The reader knows what the style, tone and theme of the story is going to be and they willingly go along because the voice has authority.
    • For example:

‘No living organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.’ – Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House.

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Why this works: Jackson’s voice is instantly recognisable. The Gothic tone and themes are delivered in a style that has a rhythm and precision that is hers alone.

  • Invitation: a great opening line invites the reader in. As Stephen King says, a killer opening line should say, ‘Listen. Come in here. You want to hear this.’
    • For example:

You’ve been here before. Sure you have. Sure. I never forget a face.’ – Stephen King, Needful Things.

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Why this works: the conversational tone creates an intimacy with the reader and the language hints that this story is about small town life. The sentence, ‘You’ve been here before.’ tells the reader that the narrative is both familiar and cyclical. For many of King’s ‘constant readers’, it’s a shout out that they’re once again entering the story-rich town of Castle Rock. Not bad for thirteen short words.

  • Hints at the central story engine: a good opening line should hint at what the main theme of the story is going to be.
    • For example:

On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.’ – Richard Matheson, I Am Legend.

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Why this works: the novella is essentially about Robert Neville’s struggle to survive as the last man standing after a vampire plague. The opening line reveals that he doesn’t yet fully understand his dangerous situation, and that the threat is something that only comes out at night. The use of the word ‘they’ hints at his loneliness. All in all, the opening line creates a sense of foreboding and isolation.

  • Poses a question: an unanswered question or mystery is a terrific hook that can make a reader want to keep turning the pages.
    • For example:

‘What should have happened was this:

We got a taxi home.’ – Kaaron Warren, Slights.

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Why this works: the reader immediately wonders what did happen instead. The question is posed in the main character’s matter-of-fact, off-kilter point of view, letting the reader know that the answer may not be something that will sit comfortably.

  • Starts where the story begins: the first few chapters in a draft are usually the writer finding their way into the story. Think about cutting to the moment where the trouble really starts for a strong opening scene.
    • For example:

‘Will Graham sat Crawford down at a picnic table between the house and the ocean and gave him a glass of iced tea.

Jack Crawford looked at the pleasant old house, saltsilvered wood in the clear light. “I should have caught you in Marathon when you got off work,” he said. “You don’t want to talk about it here.”

“I don’t want to talk about it anywhere, Jack. You’ve got to talk about it, so let’s have it. Just don’t get out any pictures. If you brought pictures, leave them in the briefcase – Molly and Willy will be back soon.”‘ – Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs.

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Why this works: Thomas Harris juxtaposes the idyllic family setting with the jarring horrors of a serial killer on the loose. This is the point in Will Graham’s life where he can no longer pretend he isn’t good at what he does – criminal profiling- and has to descend once again into the profession that almost killed him. This is essentially where all the trouble starts for him.

 

These are just some of the elements you can use to strengthen your opening line. Don’t worry if you don’t nail it straight away, there’s a good reason why writers spend time working and reworking the first few chapters of a novel. An opening line is a way in to the story for both the reader and the writer. The opening line captures the spirit of the story, its voice and intent and can help remind the writer just what they’re trying to say.

Above all, the most important thing an opening line can do, is make a promise to the reader. It’s a promise made by the author that they know where they’re going and what their story – their real story – is about.

Have a look at the opening line of your current WIP. Does it have any of the elements listed above? Post it up as a comment if you’re feeling brave. I’d love to read it.