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Friday, 31 May 2013

Matariki - a new dawn for writers, from Pam Laird

Most Kiwis are now aware of the rising of the mid-winter constellation Matariki (more properly Mata-ariki) ie Mata: ‘tiny eyes’ and Ariki: ‘eye of God.’ This occurs in our mid-winter, at the end of June. It is interesting to look into the Maori tradition of belief that ‘the brighter the stars, the more productive will be the harvest for the coming season.’

 As writers I think we must look ahead with hope to our own production and harvest. There are so many knock-backs these days and so much turmoil in the publishing world that it helps to stand back and think from time to time. What is the best way for me? Which media of so many should I choose? The present situation reminds me of Don Quixote who ‘jumped on his horse and rode off in all directions at once.’  Laughable I know, but that is indeed the present position.

Where do we start? Do we have enough IT knowledge? Where can we get help? We at Mairangi Writers are fortunate in having guidance and know-how available through various members. (thanks Bev.) But there is always our old friend Google who at the press of a button brings forth advice from all corners.

It seems to me, the trick is to know where to begin and then to decide which avenue to go down! Or even, should we try more than one approach in order to publicise and sell? (There’s nothing like friends and other readers for publicity.) The single frustrating choice of only a few ago, ie the thoroughly intimidating approach to a publisher, is now even less likely. The outlets for selling books can be eBooks, Amazon, Smashwords, book trailers, podcasts, social networks and so on. Apart from novelists, there are countless world-wide competitions available to short story writers and the natural follow-on to that is the personal collection or anthology, which brings us back to the production line again.

Having said all that, we have been given a wide choice with modern media and doesn’t that feel good? At last we are masters of our own prized works and with a bit of push here and a bit of shove there, we can set up our own launches, publicity and selling bases.
Oh! I almost forgot to mention; have you heard of The Writer’s Diet? If you want to check out your ms or story before you send it off, run it through Helen Sword’s fantastic approach to getting your adverbs and verbs lined up. You can find it here

Bye for now and remember to turn your horse in one direction only!                     
Pam Laird         

Friday, 24 May 2013

Erin McKechnie struggles with a synopsis.

I thoroughly enjoyed Bev Robitai’s blog on beta readers; actually I enjoyed Jenny Harrison’s earlier blog on cleaning up writing as well. Unappealing but necessary chores;  all in pursuit of perfect prose.

I am confronted with the next phase of this process of bringing a work of art to print – writing a synopsis for my book. Now I wrote the jolly thing – you’d think I know what it’s about, wouldn’t you? But – compelled to sit and condense my 88,000 odd (hopefully not too odd) worded manuscript into a tightly expressed but fully explanatory summary, my fingers are struck numb.

This synopsis cannot be a titillating brief introduction of the main characters’ problems ending with the question ‘but can she pull it off’ or something similar. That’s what goes on the back of the book. Apparently editors don’t like being left to guess what happens, but if I tell them what happens they’ll know everything and then they won’t want or need to read it.

However, Stewart Ferris says  ‘leave out all unnecessary detail and tantalise the editor with questions and hints that make them want to read the whole book to find out more.’ That’s not what the others said. He also, along with others, advises writers to have a ‘hook’ to attract editors.  Which of the scintillating moments in the book should I choose as the hook? It’s akin to feeding one child and putting the others out in the cold.

Some authorities on this vexing problem of writing a synopsis assert that one paragraph per chapter is adequate, whilst others are equally emphatic that editors will not want anything that long. Apparently keeping a notebook beside the computer and summarising each chapter as you go is really helpful in this regard, but it’s too late – I’d finished the thing before I found that bit out.

I must be concise, succinct, pithy and serious. Save the jokes for the covering letter – another problem.  Light touches of humour are acceptable in the letter, jokes are not. Put the jokes in the book. Who to believe?

In my synopsis I must clarify which genre I’m writing in. I don’t know. There are other books of a similar type already published. Some of them are non-fiction so they end up genre-less, others have been variously catalogued as crime, pastoral, sociological thrillers. In desperation I asked for the opinion of a number of my learned friends who are familiar with the content of the book, but unfortunately we could not reach a consensus.

So this is it. It’s a good book and you should read it.
Erin McKechnie
(Editor's note - Erin's next puzzle will be finding the perfect title!)

Friday, 17 May 2013

Bev Robitai on the importance of beta readers

I’m currently going through the process of having beta readers comment on the first draft of my latest novel and thought I’d share some of the thoughts and feelings about the process. First of all, it’s a leap of faith to allow the book out of my hands. When nobody else has read it, it remains a work of genius that offers scintillating insights to life and will instantly become a best-seller. But I know in my heart that’s not true, and my chosen readers are going to discover that as soon as they read page one. This is where beta readers are so important and it pays to select them carefully.
Some readers will offer you reassurance and praise, saying they liked the story, but they keep their reservations to themselves. This doesn’t help! You need honesty to find out where there are problems so they can be fixed before your book goes out into the big wide world.

A poor beta reader is like a friend who tells you ‘You look fine, really. That dress is a lovely colour.’
A good beta reader might say ‘don’t wear that when you go out – it makes you look a bit chubby. Wear the red dress instead, it hides the fat rolls.’

But a really good beta reader is like a plastic surgeon. She will point out faults and make suggestions about how to fix them. She will tell you that your breasts could look firmer while drawing pen lines to show where tucks and lifts will improve the profile. She will know where liposuction will give the most benefit, and how much collagen to inject to add shape. Yes, she tells you things are wrong, but she offers ways to fix them. In the end, you are empowered to present your best face / book to the world once the faults have been rectified.

I’m learning that it takes quite a few people to make a book better. Now I understand how some authors have an acknowledgement list two pages long of people who helped with their novel.

Big thanks to my current readers - your advice is invaluable!


Thursday, 9 May 2013

Springclean your work - says Jenny Harrison

“Clearing out the Clutter” is the title of an article in the May/June 2013 issue of the American Writer’s Digest.

The article has a number of good ideas on how to tame those messy first/second/third drafts that we writers sometimes think are perfect. No, always think are perfect. The author, David Corbett, starts with the oft-remembered but seldom followed piece of good advice.

Murder your darlings. Oh dear, how often have we sat with our group of writers and listened to the blah-blah of paragraphs out of context or simply way-out. Beautiful phrases, lovely description, or simply plain waffle that fills up the space, but never anything that remotely sends the story forward.

He slurped his coffee and said, “Yum-yum, that’s good”.  The body lay between the book cases....

One piece of Corbett’s advice that rang true was about the cutting out of excess clutter. Annie Dillard has a good phrase for it; she calls it ‘the old one-two”. We say something rather well; we follow that with a re-phrasing, just in case the reader didn’t get it. We describe an emotion, or a reaction and then go on and on and on, layering reaction after reaction.

Lisa felt his strong arms around her. She shivered. The hair on her arms stood up on end. The blood in her veins curdled. Her toes curled. The ventricle in her heart convulsed.

And so on, ad nauseam! (Okay, pretty far out, but you know what I mean!)

Enough, already! Respect your readers. They will use their imaginations and will probably paint a better picture of the scene than you can.

Perhaps this should also apply to sex scenes that are notoriously hard to write without going on about the boring old anatomical details of the act. Time past when a couple kissed, then the door closed. We readers were left to imagine the forthcoming events. And boy! Did our imaginations run riot! Repeated and explicit sex scenes, like pornography, become boring after a while. It’s the same-old, same-old.

Say it once, say it well and move on. That’s sound advice from David Corbett

And to that I say – Oh, yes!

Jenny Harrison

Friday, 3 May 2013

Shauna Bickley on writing to capture emotion.

Much of my 'day' work is in the area of learning and development. I've always been interested in how we learn, and what we can do to retain more of what we learn. That knowledge would have been useful when I took exams at school.

Here are a couple of learning tips I like because I also relate them to writing. Some of the links are tenuous, but that's how my brain works!

One thing that teachers have always known, and anyone sitting through a long PowerPoint presentation, is that we don't pay attention to boring things. Apparently research shows we check out after ten minutes. Believe me I've sat through some presentations and not even reached the ten-minute mark before my mind was somewhere else.  On the positive side emotion helps the brain to learn. There are talks I heard 5+ years ago that I remember clearly, because the presenter used stories or created a talk rich in emotion.

How does this apply to writing. Boring is not going to cut it, especially in fiction. If you absolutely have to read a non-fiction book for a test or exam then you'll do it, but how much better if you can enjoy what you're reading. Non-fiction doesn't have to mean dry and boring, we can use stories and anecdotes to make information relevant and easier to remember.

In fiction if the story doesn't grab me I'll put the book down. What does hook us is emotion. What type of emotion? That depends on your genre. The emotion used for a horror book will be different to writing a romance - at least I'd hope so, though I enjoy a touch of humour added to most things.

We have short and long-term memory. Moving something from short-term to long-term memory works better if we can link it to relevant existing knowledge or memories. Retrieving a piece of information, such as a name or a memory,  is much like searching for a book in a library - the better the storage system, the easier it is to retrieve what we want.

As you probably already knew, smell is very good at triggering memory.

How to use these things in writing. I watched the start of a mystery/thriller a few nights ago. A lone police officer turned up at an isolated house in a desert area. He walked around the house knocking on doors and windows, but couldn't get any answer. Up to that point it had been silent, but then came the sound of a single fly. Aha - there has to be a dead body. The viewer or reader links new information to current knowledge. 

There is an informal agreement between the writer and the viewer/reader. This is basically that if we put emphasis on something, the reader will assume it is important. If the police officer had merely swatted the fly and driven off, I would be unhappy, as I expected more. If we name and describe a character the reader puts effort into remembering this person. Futile and annoying if the character is just delivering pizza and doesn't play any further role. As the quote goes, 'If you put a gun in the first act, then it should be fired in the second act.'  In the case of the thriller, as the police officer approached the shed so the buzzing increased, as did the number of flies once he turned the corner.

Don't forget to use smell in your descriptions. I'm sure that became pertinent to the police officer as he got closer to the body. Smell is very evocative, and too often we spend a lot of time on visual descriptions and forget this very important sense. Likewise sound, the buzz of that single fly was a strong signal for what was to come

Now I just need to remember to apply all this. Simple!

Read more from Shauna on her blog here