Friday, May 27, 2011

7 Essential Elements in the First Page

As we all know, as writers we need to hook our readers into the story as fast as possible – from the first page, the first paragraph, the first sentence. In a Sydney Writers’ Festival workshop Belinda Jeffrey, an Australian author of YA fiction, broke down the important elements of the first page.

Keeping in mind it’s difficult to give absolute rules because story will often determine style, first pages should include:

1. A distinctive voice. A unique voice is essential to capture the imaginations of the readers and pull them into the story. Voice will make your novel stand out above the rest.

2. A strong character. Readers will engage with strong and interesting characters.

3. A sense of time and place. This grounds the reader into the story. They should be able to recognise the story’s genre in the first page. These should be markers only. Avoid wads of descriptions.

4. Questions. Don’t answer all the reader’s questions at once. Don’t give them everything they need to know about the characters, the history, the setting. They don’t need paragraphs of backstory. They don’t need -- or want -- everything explained too soon.

5. Intrigue. Similar to the previous point, it’s important to build intrigue to tease the reader into wanting to know more.

6. The point of change. The story should start at the point of change. This change should reflect conflict. Note: the conflict doesn’t have to be explosive.

7. No wasted words or throw-away lines. Keep it tight. Every word should have a reason for being. Try to avoid redundancies.

Can you think of other essential elements in the first page? How many times have you rewritten your first page?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How to Get a Foot in the Publishing Door

One of the big struggles with traditional publishing is getting noticed by agents and publishers and staying off the dreaded slush pile. During the Sydney Writers’ Festival I attended a workshop run by Hazel Flynn. She is a successful freelance writer, editor and broadcaster. She offered many suggestions on how to get the proverbial foot in the door. Below are just a few:

1. Personal connections. It does sometimes come down to who you know in the industry. It’s not a guarantee of publication, but it will help your manuscript get read.

2. Get a literary agent. In Australia writers can go directly to publishers, however, manuscripts coming from agents will be read. Often unsolicited manuscripts will end up in slush piles if accepted at all.

3. Attend festivals and conferences. You never know who you will meet and there’s so much to learn at these events.

4. Do writing courses. This is a great way to get a sense of whether your writing is working. It’s a great way of honing your craft.

5. Check the acknowledgements in books similar to your own. This will give you an idea of who helped the author get published.

6. Self publish. Many popular authors started with self publishing.

7. Show flexibility. Be willing to accept advice. If an editor suggests changes, then it’s in your best interest to listen.

What other ways can you suggest to get a foot in the publishing door? What are you currently doing to get published?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Confidence: A Key Element of Writing

I am back from the Sydney Writers’ Festival. It was a truly fantastic experience and I met so many wonderful people. I attended workshops, listened to discussion panels, volunteered as a helper and soaked in the amazing atmosphere.

The one piece of advice that stood out above the rest during the festival was that as writers we must have confidence.

How can we sell our work if we don’t believe in it?
How can we negotiate contracts if we don’t think we are worth it?
How can we find our unique voice, if we aren’t brave enough to write from that hidden place within us?
How will we ever succeed in publication if we think it’s not possible?
How can we brave the criticisms of editors, book reviewers and the general public if we listen to our doubts?
How can we even finish a book if we think it will go nowhere?

This is why we need confidence -- so that nothing can hold us back.

After you've been shaken, what are the things that make you feel confident again as a writer? 

I’ll write in more detail about the festival in posts to come. Right now, I'm still recovering (lol) plus I haven't written for a week and I'm eager to get back to my manuscript. I'm inspired!

Also forgot to mention this blog turned one year old during the festival! YAY!

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Power of Our Words

We live in a world that is ultimately understood only through language. It is the writer who has the power to name, create and shape our world – to give us the words we live by.
Chip Rolley, artistic director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

The Sydney Writers’ Festival is coming up (16th-22nd May). I’m super excited. The theme this year is power. The writer has the power to create, shape and change the world. When we write a story it’s not just a story. It can shape the way people think. While writing is often a mere reflection of society, it can also shape society.

We can touch people’s soul with our words. We can make people think about issues they wouldn’t normally think about. And it’s subtle. Have you ever read a scene or watched a show that moved you to tears? You know it’s fiction and yet the story or characters have left a mark on you. Our words can influence readers without them even realising. I don’t mean to freak you, but think about that the next time you put pen to paper.

I’ll be busy at the Sydney Writers’ Festival next week. I plan to attend a few workshops, check out the many events and I’ll even be doing some volunteer work for the festival as well. I’ll be back here on Monday 23rd May.

Have a great week.


Pic: a shot of the Opera House from under the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

How to Generate Passion for Your Writing

Passion is the fuel for our stories. It helps us to keep going and keep writing and keep striving. It’s the airbag that protects us from insanity when we think we’re headed for disaster. It’s the compass to a safe haven when we think we’re lost. Passion not only makes writing worth the angst, it also makes our work shine.

Can we learn passion? Many might argue we either have it or we don’t, however, I believe we can learn passion. I believe we can grow it and nurture it.

Focus on the positives: While it’s important to think of writing as a job if we wish to pursue it as a career, it’s equally important to remember why we originally took on this mammoth task.

To find passion for anything, we have to focus on what we like about it. The more we focus on those aspects, the more ‘like’ will become ‘love’. People fall in love with each other when they focus on the positives. They fall out of love when they focus only on the negatives. The same goes for our manuscripts — especially in the editing phase when it’s our job to find the faults.

Have ownership: Passion has a way of growing when we invest ourselves into a project—our unique selves. Because of that uniqueness, we will each find something different to get passionate about. Trying to write someone else’s story won’t generate any excitement for the story. This is why writing to trends doesn’t always work. Passion starts from that unique place deep inside.

Do your best: When we strive to do our best we can’t help but build a passion for it. How can we love a half-hearted effort? To put our all into our work, we have to care about it and we have to know it matters. That caring is the seed which will lead to passion.

Can you think of other ways to generate passion? What helps you get through a huge project?

Monday, May 9, 2011

How to Know if Your Story is Worth Pursuing

Writing a story takes time, dedication, and a huge amount of angst, sweat, and passion. It would be a shame to put that much effort into a novel’s creation only to discover at the end no one is interested. So, I’ve listed some ways we can discern which story ideas are worth pursuing:

Research the Market. Agents and publishers will always be more interested in a story that easily fits into a market. The stories that have no clear place or genre will more often be the ones that wallow in the slush piles. Research the market so you have an understanding of what sells and where it sells. This doesn’t mean we have to stick to the current trends. Usually a trend will die by the time we’ve finished writing our novel—which brings me to my next point:

Seek Originality. If the story idea is just another rehash of novels already in the market, then it’s probably best to either walk away or come up with an original spin on the story. Karen Gowen said it well in her post about themes: there are no new themes, only new stories. Find the twist that will make your story stand out from the rest.

Create Engaging Characters and Conflict. Before we pursue a story idea, it’s important to remember a great concept won’t necessarily be enough to generate a fabulous story. Readers want relatable, interesting characters to engage them. They want drama and conflict. They want to loose themselves in the story. A question worth asking is: will there be enough page-turning elements?

Think about it. This might sound obvious, but we don’t always turn on our brains. At least, I know I don’t. I learnt it’s worth finding out personal likes and dislikes in a story. To do that, we have to read a lot and think about our reactions to the stories. We can then ask ourselves whether or not our potential novel will have similar elements.

Find the Passion. If you can’t summon a deep excitement for a story, then perhaps it’s not worth pursuing. Stories shine when the authors care. It’s not always about getting published. It’s about the joy of creating the story. Without the passion, the project may never get finished.

What is it about the stories you like to read most?

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Benefits of Scheduling Daily Writing Time

When I first started writing I avoided scheduling in time to write because it felt too much like school work. I believed it stifled my creativity and I didn’t like the rigidity of having to write on queue. I wanted to write when I felt inspired. The problem with this is I became reliant on that often elusive writing vibe. Other important priorities in life took precedence. I wrote less and, when I did eventually write, any talent I might have enjoyed had grown rusty.

It wasn’t until I started working with a daily writing schedule that my work improved. I discovered the joys of scheduling and the thrill of achieving goals. The possibility of completing a novel suddenly became attainable. Distractions didn’t sneak in as often, writing leapt up in my list of priorities, and I realised I didn’t need to hear the whisperings of my muse before I could write anything halfway decent.

The first draft of my first book took nine years to complete. The first draft of my first scheduled book took three months.

In summary, scheduling daily writing time:
Raises productivity;
Increases our writing priorities;
Reduces distractions;
Improves our writing;
Helps to make goals and deadlines achievable;
And pushes back those niggling doubts.

Why do you--or don’t you--schedule in writing time? How much time do you spend writing per day?

Pic: Big Ben, London, England

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

How to Keep the Doubts at Bay

Because of the amount of work involved in a writing career, because of all the rejections we have to face, because of the difficulty of breaking into the publishing world, writers are often bombarded by doubts. We doubt this is the right choice we’ve made for our lives, we doubt we are good enough, we doubt it’s all worth it. We have so many doubts I couldn’t possibly list them all here.

Doubts can cripple us if we let them. Doubts can cause us to give up. Below I’ve listed some ways to keep the doubts under control:

Positive Thinking. Every self-help book stresses the importance of positive thinking. Negative thinking will only drag us down. Rather than focussing on the fears and doubts, the what ifs, and the if onlys, we should focus instead on the reasons we love our writing. That passion for the written word, the love of the story, the fun of exploring ideas, concepts and characters, will fuel our drive and keep us going.

Attainable Goals. Sometimes we give ourselves goals that are too difficult to reach, or impossible to achieve in the time frame we’ve set. As I mentioned in my last post, the publishing world not only turns slowly, it can also overwhelm us. It’s important to take each step one at a time and to learn patience. Strive for possible goals, goals you have control over, ones you can guarantee through hard work, while keeping in mind your lifestyle.

Join Writers’ Groups. I can’t say it enough: The writing community is a powerful support system. We can learn so much from each other and gain strength from each other. Only other writers understand what it’s like to take on this insane career. Knowing we aren’t alone in our doubts, knowing we can still succeed despite the doubts, is invaluable.

How do you keep the doubts at bay?

Pic: Leeds Castle, England

Monday, May 2, 2011

Understanding the Publishing World

To understand the publishing world we need to also have an understanding of patience: It takes time to learn and practise writing, to write a novel, to polish it, edit it, and rewrite it. It takes time to query, time for agents to wade through the submissions, to read your novel, to find a market. It takes time for a publisher to consider your novel. It takes time to develop a marketing strategy, to print it, and to promote it.

To understand the publishing world we need to also have an understanding of professionalism: It’s a business. If we want to be a part of this business then we need to remember this and show professionalism at all times. Because this is a business, agents and publishers want our best work. It’s in our best interest to show flexibility and consider any suggested changes. They are experienced professionals. They know what they are doing. Although our novels are our babies, we have to let them go so they’ll blossom.

To understand the publishing world we need to also have an understanding of hard work. This is not an easy profession. Nothing is guaranteed. We can’t guarantee success, we can’t guarantee a sustainable income. We do, however, increase our chances if we work hard and continue to work hard. The pressures only increase when we are accepted for publication.

What surprised you most when you started learning about the publishing world?