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Beginning where the story starts

To celebrate the new year, most of this month’s posts will have a theme of “new beginnings”. 

One bit of advice you’ll often hear from agents and various other bookish folks — such as editors and competition judges — is to make sure your book starts in the right place. People are time-poor and there are a lot of competing entertainments, more than there were when I was a wee lass. Smart phones! Augmented reality! Reality-cooking-soap-TV shows! You need to hook the reader from the outset, draw them into the story. Start where the story actually stars, with the inciting event — not beforehand.

I’m basically giving you that same message, but thought I’d do it with song an example.

The inciting event — the first big, life-changing incident that triggers the plot — in my first novel, Isla’s Inheritance, happens at a Halloween party. That event is in the first chapter of the novel, and always was … but the first draft of that chapter started with Isla and her cousin Sarah receiving the party invitation and sorting out costumes. I’m still fond of that scene, because it sets up the relationship between the two characters, and Sarah is a lot of fun to write. But it wasn’t the best place. Isla thinking about whether she had time to get her homework done before the party wasn’t exactly the sort of thing that hooked the reader.

In my defence, it was my first novel, and I learned by making the mistake. :p

The fact my opening sucked bugged me all through drafting the book, so after I’d finished and taken the time to get a bit of distance from the writing, I went back again. (The distance is crucial. As I said, I was fond of the costume-choosing scene, which meant I needed to take the time to see it for what it was.) I cut the first part, and started the scene instead with the two girls and Sarah’s older brother, Ryan, arriving at the party. Fixed it!

Yeah, nah.

That was the version of the book I started querying. I entered it in PitchWars at the end of 2012, and the feedback I got from mentors really shook me. I was still starting in the wrong place, dammit! Again, I was still taking time to establish the characters. I had Sarah and Isla giggle over an old school crush. Dance. I thought I was setting the scene, but it was still slow.

I went back and amputated even more from the scene. By this point I’d probably removed around 2000 words (sob). Now it starts with Isla, at the party, meeting Dominic — her eventual boyfriend — and getting invited to participate in a séance. Sarah doesn’t even appear until the end of the chapter.

If you’re getting told your book starts too slowly, have a look at what you’re trying to show the reader in your opening scene. For example, say you start with your character jogging, thinking about their life (apparently this is a very common beginning, as is staring into a mirror). You want the reader to see upfront that your main character is a physical creature who has problems that need pondering. Instead, why not start with the manifestation of the problems. You can always have the character jog later, or mention the athletics trophies being knocked to the ground during the zombie attack — that sort of thing.

Obviously there are exceptions to every rule, such as if your character is doing a marathon and they rupture their Achilles tendon on the first page or get hit by a car, because the rest of the story is about their healing journey.

I’d like to think I’ve learned this lesson now. I’ve started (and finished; OMG!) five other novels, and all of them have a much quicker beginning to the plot. But I learned it the hard way. Avoid my mistake, grasshopper!

Cassandra Page is a speculative fiction writer. Her first novel, Isla’s Inheritance, is currently free in ebook format at all good (and some dubious) ebook retailers. You know, if you want to find out what happens next. 😉

Note: the featured image at the top of this post is from Shutterstock.

Cassandra Page

Four ways to see your writing anew

Source: Shutterstock

Source: Shutterstock

Drafting a novel is like hiking through a huge forest. Your approach to the impending journey may vary: some of us come up with a detailed map, set their feet on the path and power on through, while others see the edge of the trees, think “let’s see what’s in there”, and wander in. Most of us have approaches somewhere in the middle: we might know where we want to end up, but not have a specific path in mind. Almost all of us get distracted by things along the way; sometimes the distractions turn out to be just that, while other times they are a valuable addition to your journey.

But there’s an idiom that also applies to a writer who is in the middle of or has just finished drafting a novel.

I can’t see the forest for the trees.

Whether you love your work or hate it, when you type THE END, you are not seeing it clearly. Everything from being able to discern the dead wood — those scenes, characters or chapters that don’t move the story forward — to spotting typos is harder. You don’t have the altitude. You’re still in the trees.

So here are four ways to see your work differently. To get a Google maps perspective on your forest.

1. DO SOMETHING ELSE

This is the first and most important, which is why I gave it shouty caps. If you can possibly avoid it, don’t jump straight back into editing. Give the manuscript a few weeks to stew. Read a book (or five). Write something else. Go on holiday. Spend some time with the loved ones you’ve been neglecting. You’ve written a novel, which is a thing to be proud of. Celebrate, but not by re-reading it.

This point should be applied in conjunction with one or more of the other suggestions, below. The only exception is if you’re up against a hard deadline that doesn’t give you the luxury of time. I’m not talking about a pitching contest you want to enter — there will always be more pitching contests — but something with legal ramifications, like a contractual requirement.

2. Read it in hard copy

Speaking of trees (sorry about that, forests of the world)… This is my favoured approach. I wish I could get the necessary distance while still reading my words on a screen, but that’s the place where I drafted it, and I just can’t. On paper I can see misspelled or misused words, tracts of exposition — they all leap out at me. Usually I do a dirty word search before I hit print and make those amendments to the soft copy. Then I sit down with a pen and have at it.

This does have the drawback that I have to enter my edits onto the soft copy afterwards. It’s tedious but, for me, worth it.

3. Change the appearance of the words

If you draft in Arial, try looking at your manuscript in Times New Roman. Or Comic Sans MS, if that’s what floats your boat — just remember to change it back before you submit it to any agents or publishing houses. I know some people who actually format their book and read it on their Kindle, to try and put themselves into the role of a reader rather than the author.

As an aside, I do this with all my blog posts. I write them in Word, do one proofread in the WordPress data entry screen, and then do a final check in the blog preview screen.

4. Read it aloud

Obviously this is better for picking up line edit problems — passive sentences, overused words, that sort of thing — rather than structural problems. Although if you get bored reading a scene maybe that’s a sign the scene could go. There are also text-to-speech programs that you could use if you don’t want to read your 150,000-word opus aloud for fear of never being able to speak again. (And, um, if that’s your first novel I also recommend reconsidering the length…)

I’m tempted to add a fifth point here that says “see point one”, but I won’t. You get the idea.

Do you have other tricks that you use to let you see your words afresh?

Cassandra Page is a speculative fiction author and professional editor who has almost finished drafting her sixth novel and is itching to get stuck into the edits. 

Cassandra Page

Pitching Contests: Yes or No?

PitchWars-Logo

This month here on Aussie Owned and Read, we’re talking pitching. Make sure you stay tuned for our best pitch info and advice coming all throughout the month.

There are a lot of different types of competition authors can look at as a way to give their work industry attention, but today I’m talking pitching contests. Two of the biggest pitching contests that come around every year — which you may have heard of if you have a Twitter account and follow any authors at all — are Pitch Madness and Pitch Wars. The latter is on right now.

Both of these are organised by contest queen Brenda Drake. The ultimate goal is to have your pitch and/or manuscript chosen, polished, and put in front of participating agents for consideration. To do this, you need to first be selected by one of a number of mentors, who are generally editors, published or agented authors, or others with publishing experience but who aren’t actually publishers or agents themselves.

My experience: the positives

I am not an expert on the inner workings of either of these particular competitions. For that, you’ll have to ask Sharon, who is an experienced Pitch Wars mentor. But I have participated from the other side.

When I first joined Twitter back in 2012 I didn’t have any experienced critique partners. The only people who’d read my manuscript at that point were friends, who were enthusiastic but either didn’t see problems with the story as it stood or were too kind to tell me.

Pitch Wars was on about a month later, so I decided to give it a shot. I didn’t win, or even get picked for the final three by my mentors, although apparently I made some shortlists. It turned out that my query letter blew chunks. Several kinds, in new and interesting colours. Disheartening, much? But there were some definite positives from the experience.

  • I received some lovely compliments back on my writing. Yay, validation!
  • I got some specific, constructive feedback on the query and opening pages — all of which ultimately led to me improving both and selling that manuscript to a small publishing house.
  • I befriended many other entrants and a few of the mentors. I wouldn’t be an Aussie Owned and Read co-blogger now if it weren’t for that first Pitch Wars, and that’s how I met my critique partners.

My experience: the negatives

Of course, there are also a couple of big downsides to these sorts of contests.

They are yet another way to experience rejection, and some people will be disheartened to the point where they give up altogether. (Julie Hutchings, an author I adore, posted a rant last week that touched on exactly that; it’s worth a read if you want the other perspective.) I remember how gutted I was, receiving those “no thanks” emails after my first Pitch Wars. I’d never received a real, non-form rejection letter before, and it hurt — though I believe it’s better to have received that email from a fellow author than from an agent.

The other downside to these contests is that the mentors, as wonderful and giving as they are, are third parties. I can see that some authors, even those who don’t necessarily need the feedback anymore, might use pitching contests as yet another procrastination tool. If you have a query-ready manuscript that has been beta read and critiqued and edited, and you have a polished query letter all ready to go, do you really need to take a month or two out before querying in order to enter a contest? Why not hit up MSWL (Manuscript Wish List, my favourite agent-finding site) and put that baby out there all by yourself?

Are pitching contests right for you?

I’ve haven’t entered a pitching contest in a couple of years now. (I do love an enthusiastic Twitter pitch party, though!) There are a few reasons for that, but primarily it boils down to the fact that I have those awesome, experienced critique partners now, and I’m comfortable with the idea of querying directly to agents and publishing houses rather than going through what is essentially another set of gatekeepers. (I mean that in the nicest possible way!)

I’ve also been a mentor-equivalent in other, smaller contests — NestPitch and Pitcharama — so I’ve seen the slush pile from the other side. I’m not so arrogant as to suggest that I wouldn’t benefit from the insight of the current contest mentors, but I also know I don’t need that help as badly as I did in 2012. Back then I didn’t even know where to find a list of agents to query!

Ultimately, my advice is this: see what the contest is offering you. Not just the ultimate reward of an offer from an agent or publishing house, but all the other benefits, which are potentially available regardless of whether you’re selected. Pitching contests can be an excellent way to receive another perspective on your work from someone other than your bestie or your mother. They can teach you how to research a mentor’s preferences (a skill that will be invaluable when querying agents). And they can introduce you to a new circle of writers, who — if you’re as lucky as I was — might become an invaluable support network.

Whatever you decide to do, may the odds be ever in your favour.

Cassandra Page is an urban fantasy writer whose first book, the manuscript she entered back in that 2012 Pitch Wars, is now available as a free ebook!

Cassandra Page

 

Finding Time in a Busy Life

Source: Shutterstock

Source: Shutterstock

I forgot today was my day to post here. Usually we try to have our posts up in the morning, and it was dinnertime when I had an OHNOES moment and realised I hadn’t done anything. Then my son and I had a karate class to go to, so here I am: it’s after 9pm, my legs are tired from kicking invisible bad guys, and I’m drinking tea from a Lady Rainicorn mug and eating crackers and olive dip.

It’s not my finest moment.

I know I should go easy on myself — I have a load of excuses I could give you for why I forgot (single mother working full time, yadda yadda yadda) — but the thing is that, despite everything going on in my life, I am usually pretty good with stuff like this.

How do I do it? I’m glad you asked. 😉

I set reasonable goals. My standard word count goal per week when I’m drafting is only 2000 words. This count excludes writing-related things that aren’t actually writing. I accumulate my word count over two or maybe three writing sessions of up to an hour each, either in between washing and other chores on a weekend or on a week night once the boy is in bed but before I pass out. I don’t watch TV pretty much ever, which helps.

If I want to slack off and do something for fun, I bribe myself. Last month I blogged about rewarding yourself for good behaviour. Sometimes, for me, it’s more like extortion. “Want to play Minecraft? You need to write at least 500 words. GO!” (Yes, I play Minecraft. My friends moved interstate and we have a server; it’s actually a relaxing way to spend an evening, building ridiculous things made of one-metre-square blocks.)

If I can’t write when I should, I do another productive thing. This ties into the previous point. There are always other things I could be doing: blog posts, reviews, synopses, queries, advertising, researching, plotting, scheming… you get the idea.

I schedule things. I don’t mean appointments and whatnot, though I do that too; I mean on social media. WordPress lets you schedule blog posts (and I expect Blogger does too). Tweetdeck lets you schedule tweets. Facebook lets you schedule posts to pages (though not to personal accounts — not yet). Hootsuite lets you schedule posts to a bunch of social media pages (currently Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, WordPress, Instagram and YouTube). This functionality is great if I have a blogging afternoon, where I write two or three posts and want to space them out rather than spamming my readers.

It is also how I manage to post my blog posts on schedule … today notwithstanding.

Are you a writer, a parent, or both? How do you manage to keep everything straight? Do you make lists? Plan obsessively? Wing it and hope for the best? I’d love to know I’m not alone!

Cassandra Page is an urban fantasy author who just forgot, okay?! :p

Cassandra Page

Four Awesome Writery Rewards for Good Behaviour

When people imagine what writers do — even what I imagine I do, when I’m between manuscripts — is sit at the keyboard, fingers flying and words magically pouring out like rainbows from a unicorn. We may occasionally steeple our fingers like Mr Burns as we contemplate some fresh torture, or gloat after we execute a particularly tricky or torturous scene.

Richard Castle booyah

But that hasn’t generally been my experience. In fact, sometimes writing can be downright painful. (Certainly Richard Castle must have felt that way, or he wouldn’t have procrastinated about writing to the point where he started pretending to be a detective. In fact, the animated gif above was the only one I could find where he was even in the same shot as a computer! Procrastination level = master.) Even when it’s not actively painful, writing can still be tedious.

Johnny Depp slinky

Beck mentioned back in January that rewards are one of her strategies to get herself to write, and I use them to get my butt in the chair too. So here are some ideas you might consider as ways to reward yourself for good behaviour — whether that be writing 500 words, finishing a chapter, or finishing an entire novel.

Get a massage. Whether you’re a pen-and-paper drafter or a master of keyboard-fu, writing inevitably involves a lot of sitting, hunching and the occasional fist-to-forehead moment. All of that can wreak havoc on the old back and shoulders. A professional therapeutic massage can work wonders but, if you can’t afford that, why not beg, guilt or entice your significant other or a friend into giving you a shoulder rub?

Do that thing you like to do. Watch your favourite TV show. Go out to see a movie. Play that new computer game. (Or an old favourite — I’ve been playing a bit of Minecraft with my son.) The important thing here is that the reward isn’t too over the top relative to the achievement, because there can be a fine line between reward and procrastination. Don’t spend four weeks binge-watching TV after writing 100 words, or run off and join the police force for “inspiration”. Unless you want to, of course.

Look at the Sims writer go!

Look at the Sims writer go!

Buy yourself a present. What better way to celebrate writing the thing than by reading a thing? Buy a book (or five)! If you’re worried about reading fiction in your genre while you’re drafting, why not read something else? Even non-fiction? Or you could buy yourself some other treat: an awesome new t-shirt, comfy slippers, a charm for a bracelet, or a new DVD. (See my previous point for an awesome one-two combination: buy the DVD and then watch it. Now that’s booyah!)

Eat cake! Or chocolate. Ice cream. Bacon. Pizza. Nutella straight from the jar. Whatever floats your boat. The point is that it should be something you wouldn’t normally do. Or I suppose you could be healthy and go for a run, but I can’t really provide advice on that. 😉

My message here is basically this: do what you gotta do! Because the hard times are temporary and the end is totally worth it.

Benedict smiling

Cassandra Page is an urban fantasy writer who has managed to trick and cajole herself into writing four novels. You can find out more here.
Cassandra Page

Writing What You Know: Setting Your Books at Home

Write What You Know. It’s one of the biggest — if not the biggest — piece of advice given to new writers. It has its flaws, of course. Unless you’re writing an autobiography, you can’t write something that is 100% based on what you know. Even if your main character has the same job as you, and lives in the same place, presumably there are some differences between your life and theirs? (I hope?)

It’s even harder when you’re writing speculative fiction (a broad church that includes everything from sci-fi to high fantasy to dystopian time travelling steampunk). But that’s where copious research and a vivid imagination come in handy. My most recently completed manuscript is the first one I’ve finished that isn’t an urban fantasy, and I set it in a fantasy equivalent of Ancient Greece. Despite my name, I don’t have a drop of Greek blood (Mum just liked the sound of Cassandra, to her Greek obstetrician’s horror). 

My search engine knows my research predilections so well that if I just type in an “A” it suggests “Ancient Greek” as the first two words of the search. Stalker.

However. I’ve released four urban fantasies, and “write what you know” is the reason that they are largely set in my home city of Canberra. In my mind, Melaina (from Lucid Dreaming) and Isla (from the Isla’s Inheritance trilogy) live in the same Canberra, too, not alternate versions of the same city. I love the idea of them running into each other at the mall and each not recognising the other for what they are.

Yes, I said Canberra. I’ll wait a second while you reel in shock. Go on — I won’t judge.

Canberra: the nation’s capital. Reviled across Australia as (allegedly) the soulless, out-of-touch political heart of the country. As Canberrans love to point out, though, almost all the politicians that live here for part of the year are FIFO workers from other parts of the country — so if they bring a deficit of soul and a tendency to replace their leaders every other Tuesday with them, whose fault is that? We didn’t vote for them! 😉

Canberra is, in some ways, an overgrown country town. The city sprawls over 812 square kilometers, but has a population density almost a fifth of Sydney’s, and just over a third of Melbourne’s. What that means is we have a lot more green spaces than either of them do: reserves running through suburbs; low mountains covered in walking trails and with lookouts perched on top; parks for the kids to play. It’s a great place to raise a family.

And the perfect place to set a story when your supernatural population likes green spaces.

The National Museum, from Mount Ainslie. How's the serenity? (Photo credit: Cassandra Page)

The National Museum, from Mount Ainslie. How’s the serenity? (Photo credit: Cassandra Page)

Werewolves and fairies would love it here. There are places with hardly any iron or steel, and green corridors a wolf or other shifter could sneak through. Vampires would have to be careful how they hunted given the lower numbers of humans to snack on, but depending on their appetites they’d do alright too. They could eat the politicians.

I admit that I wondered at first whether setting a supernatural tale here would somehow lack credibility, and whether I should instead pick Sydney or Melbourne, even though I’m less familiar with them. But then I thought, if Sookie Stackhouse can run into vampires in a tiny town like Bon Temps, why can’t Canberra have its own supernatural stories, that element of magic?

When I see the sunlight sparkling off the surface of Lake Burley Griffin on a crisp autumn afternoon, or the glittering lights of the city from Mount Ainslie at dusk, I think that magic is already there. All I’m doing is telling people about it.

So, here’s my advice, in no particular order:

  • Write what you know
  • Research what you don’t
  • Make up the fantastical bits
  • Set your books where the story demands they be set, even — or especially — if that’s not the trendy location
  • Just write

Cassandra Page is a speculative fiction writer whose young adult urban fantasy Isla’s Inheritance — the first book in the trilogy of the same name — is currently FREE. Get you some! #ShamelessPromotion

Cassandra Page

Reading Slump

Ever have a pile of books to read and they all feel a little… meh?

I’m at that stage right now. It’s odd in that some of the books I have waiting are going to be good. I know it. They are by fave authors or recommended by friends who I trust.

But still, I look at the pile… and don’t read.

This isn’t like me. Usually I start my next book right after my last, loving the dive into worlds and people unexplored (or back to faves in the case of sequels). It might be the weather. It’s all lovely and rainy – which should make for good reading – but it’s also really hot. Down here in South Australia we do dry heat and cold rain – thanks.

Am I feeling contrary to match the turn of leaves and darkening of skies as the days get a little shorter?

Have I just not yet found the right book?

Have you gone through this? Any recommendations?

Maybe I should read something way out of left field. But what?

 

=)

Beck

beck nicholas_ bec sampson

Bio:

I always wanted to write. I’ve worked as a lab assistant, a pizza delivery driver and a high school teacher but I always pursued my first dream of creating stories. Now, I live with my family near Adelaide, halfway between the city and the sea, and am lucky to spend my days (and nights) writing young adult fiction.