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

Clean Out The Crap – how to spring clean your final draft

This month we’re talking about spring cleaning on Aussie Owned & Read. Because I’m sure none of us can spring clean our bookshelves — because there’s no books to clean out, right? Who does that?! — we’re taking a writing approach to the topic by talking about ways you can apply spring cleaning to your manuscript.

For me first drafts are all about getting the story out there. Drafting like tomorrow doesn’t matter and not stopping until I reach those magic words ‘the end’. If I don’t write this way, I get stuck in a perpetual editing loop of perfecting yesterday’s words and never writing any new ones. This means I’m often always left with a hot mess at the end of the first draft.

So how does one clean up that disaster?

By making all the big changes first, of course. Adding, deleting, rearranging scenes. Once that’s all sorted (usually two drafts later) I like to clean up my manuscript by sweeping through and killing all the unnecessary words.

Nasty ‘telling’ words to omit from your manuscript.

See, hear, taste, feel, is/was: these are almost always telling words.

just, only, really: most of the time these are just filler.

that: it can almost always been removed from a sentence without  changing the meaning.

almost, seemed, started, began: Making things absolute makes for a stronger POV.

now: telling word.

stood up / sat down: when used in context it’s not possible to sit any other way than down, thus the word down is rendered unnecessary. The same rule applies to up.

Those are a few of the words I like to spring clean from my final draft. What about you? Are there any words you like to nix?

 

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Stacey NashStacey Nash is the messiest first drafter ever. Lucky she edits and edits and edits some more to make up for it. To find out more about this young adult author or to connect with her on social media (where she tries to be engaging), check out these places: www.stacey-nash.com, instagram, twitter, facebook.

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

Don’t be a hoarder

Moving house is kind of like revising a manuscript.

Stay with me … it’s not that much of a stretch.

My family just moved from the house we’ve lived in for the past fifteen years. So much much can accumulate in that much time. So much STUFF! We culled when we packed things away and culled again when those things went to the storage shed. Now, I’m not a hoarder — neither is the hubby — although I do still own my English texts from high school. Wuthering Heights is a favourite, okay. So is Paradise Lost … and Romeo and Juliet. Chaucer, well he’s … I can’t part with all those old words! It’s just English texts though, I didn’t keep anything else, promise. Forgive me; we’re all book people here, right?

Bye books, see you at the new house!

A post shared by Stacey Nash (@stace_nash) on

Anyway, during the past few weeks as I’ve been unpacking boxes and discovering things I couldn’t possibly part with six months ago on the second cull, I’m realising that the old dinner set really has to go. As does the painting that just doesn’t match the style of my new house.

My perception has changed over time.

And sometimes it’s like that with our writing too. Today, I opened up the file for my third Oxley College book. The first draft has sat on my hard drive just waiting for attention since before we started this big move and it’s uncanny. In many ways drafts are the same as moving house. When we first write a story every single word is precious; a valued member of the word count we worked so hard to achieve. But nothing is perfect. On the first read through we might notice some issues that need tweaking, scenes that need cutting, or even something that’s missing and needs to be added. But like my first cull, sometimes our hoarder blinkers are still on and we might want to hold onto that darling scene because it gave us all the feels when we wrote it, or to that setting which is a master piece of the modern written word, even though neither of them really move the plot forward. And this my friends, is why it’s so important to step away from our work for a while before the final revision.

Sometimes, the longer the break the better.

With time, when we go back to a story, we can often see it more clearly. Notice what really shouldn’t be there, what should, what we’d been hoarding.

Most writers and stories need multiple revisions or edits — and a descent amount of time between each — to allow the story time to breathe.

That’s the point I’m at now. I’ve just returned to this story (in it’s third draft) and I need to perform the final cull to make it as shiny as possible. Wish me luck!

But before you do, I want to know what you’re a sucker for hoarding. For me it’s old books — we had 15 boxes of books!! And that isn’t including the kids’ books.

Stacey NashStacey Nash is a hoarder of books. There I said it. To find out more about the books she has penned find her at www.stacey-nash.com, instagram, twitter or facebook.

Keeping time (and other myths)

Today I’m here to talk to you about keeping time, and other myths that I pretend are real.

Yes, at the moment, I am in denial. Keeping time is hard.

When I first started writing, I thought time was this thing that you could keep aside. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that finding the time to write was easy! But there always seemed to be a solution, be it getting up half an hour earlier (hello, 4:30am, it’s nice to meet you!), writing on my lunch break, or jotting down a few words in front of the television.
 

 

Infinity Time Spiral

Recently, I’ve discovered that time is much harder to keep than that. I’ve become a full-time freelance editor, and discovered I have developed this horrible problem: I can’t say no. Which is great, as I have lots of clients. And not so great, because I have zero time to write.

I’m not exaggerating. With my current workload, to keep on top I need to work seven days a week, ten-hour days minimum. And that’s before I add in time for blog posts and other Internet promotion.

Still, this isn’t a ‘doom and gloom’ style post. Despite all of this, I am squeezing some writing in. It’s just that now, it’s not so easy. I plot while I walk the dogs in the morning. I jot down notes in my phone about key character motives while I’m in line at the supermarket. I’ve even started sketching out story lines during the important wedding planning meetings my sister is making me attend (and I guess, since I’m the bride, she has a point. Although when she takes my sketch pad to see the style of dress I want and discovers a picture of a bottle of Charteuse, she’s rarely impressed).

Keeping time? I’m not doing it at the moment. However, after practising the ‘N’ word I hope to in a few months’ time.

Scraping little scraps of time together? Hell yes I am! And it’ll just have to do for now.

Lauren K. McKellar is an editor and author. For editing enquiries after July 2014, feel free to visit her website, http://www.laurenkmckellar.com

20140422-084137.jpg