My third post of things I have done IN and OUT of comfort zone. The out is the important one as these are the things that have taken a little courage or effort to push beyond the everyday. It has been a while since I’ve written, Ins and Outs but I will try to be succinct, as this post is meant to fit into my shorts series of posts.
Nature nerding: I’ve been busy bird-watching, spotted many mammals, observed incredible insects, sensational spiders and recently had a flurry of fungus fun.
Visits to the state forests of the Southern Highlands – Wingello, Belanglo and Penrose started me on my fungi fixation. The pine plantations are rich with mushrooms – both poisonous and edible. My husband says I now have fungi on the brain, well I guess that’s better than on my feet (I think). Blame the bored-doodle (previously named distractordog) we only travelled far afield to the state forests because we were catering for her boundless energy. Dogs are allowed off-leash in state forests but not at all in the National Parks or the Illawarra Escarpment State Conservation Areas closer to home.
I’ve always appreciated flora and fauna but a few new book gifts, websites and naturalists on social media have further encouraged me. My next post in Natures Lovers Log will list those resources that have aided and abetted by obsession. My instagram and facebook followers may have wondered whether the mother and writer has been hijacked by the biology nerd.
When I was young I always dreamed of a job as a park ranger, marine scientist, museum curator or biology researcher. But my nature hobby is the next best thing – maybe better, as I can go wherever my photos and feet take me with no expectation or restriction.
Nervous conference attendee: In September last year I attended my first SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference, held in Sydney. To push myself way out of my comfort zone I dived in head first and signed up to be a roving reporter/photographer. I am not a natural networker and, as I suspected, I felt out of by depth in the company of esteemed authors and publishers. However, I didn’t regret signing up for the reporting job. Taking photos gave me something to do and an excuse to mingle. If you’re an introvert like me and have a mortal fear of looking like an impostor it’s helpful to go to conference with an activity in mind – whether to participate in a pitch session, or help the organisers or have plans to meet fellow participants – perhaps those you have only previously known online. My favourite part of the conference was viewing the wonderful portfolios on display at the illustrator showcase. But I was also inspired by the varied panel discussions and always entertained by Susanne Gervay’s (Aust/NZ Regional Advisor) warm and funny MC-ing.
Muddling through a MOOC: I participated in a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) called ‘Storied Women’ (how to write women in fiction) conducted by the International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa, USA. I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for as this was my first adult literary course. The assignments tested me. The parameters set for the assignments were broad enough so that everybody (and there were 1000’s) could write a different story but focused enough to make you think about aspects of plot, character or form discussed in the lectures. Being a free* course there is no real pressure to complete it but I was swept up in the challenge. I eagerly awaited each of the video lectures and readings and completed the five weekly assignments. These assignments are submitted online and are commented on by peers. The usefulness and number of the comments vary but at the end of the course I had five pieces that I wouldn’t have otherwise written. I’m a convert and intend to participate in selected future IWP MOOCS.
*Note: the course is free but to get a certificate sent via email is US$50. You must accumulate enough points via submitting comments and assignments to gain this award. I saw this money as a donation but probably won’t purchase the certificate next time. The work I’d produced by the end of the course was the real reward.
A few months ago I found myself deep in a writing rut. My confidence deflated my motivation stalled, my wheels spinning – going nowhere.
The reasons for this roadblock –
1. Several rejections of short stories. No, not rejections, Declineds – this is the term employed by the widely-used Submittable portal. Declined, somehow manages to sound more polite and more impersonal all at once. Gone are the days where some satisfaction could be gained by spearing rejection letters to a spike on the wall (a’ la Stephen King). I admit some of my manuscripts weren’t a good fit for the markets I was submitting to, but due to point 2. I was fairly desperate to send my children’s short stories anywhere.
2. The demise of the children’s short fiction market. In Australia I know of at least four competitions/markets that have closed in the last few years in an already tiny market. I never expect to make money or even wide recognition for short story writing but a little validation and goals to work toward are important. The competitions that do exist for children’s writing often have comparatively hefty entry fees ($12.00 or more) and for the winners there are small returns in terms of both money and publicity. Also children’s short fiction markets stipulate restrictive word limits. Most are under 700 words for the under 11 age group and no more than 1500 for older middle-grade. YA short fiction markets are almost non-existent. Micro-fiction (adult markets often regard anything up to 1000 words as flash or micro-fiction) can be engrossing and clever but also restrictive in terms of language, character arcs and settings. This can be stifling for a writer (especially verbose ones like me) and it is easy to look longingly over the fence at the adult literary magazines where the word limit of individual stories jumps dramatically to sometimes 10,000 words and often 6,000 words.
It is a volatile landscape for magazine publishers and small print presses. The Mslexia indie press guide says this ‘they start up and close down at the drop of a hat compiling an (indie press) guide is a bit like playing whack-a-mole‘ Unfortunately when it comes to children’s magazines disappearing into the mole hole is more common than a new mole poking their head up.
You might think that e-mags would have filled the void but they haven’t. Emags that except children’s writing from adults are hard to find. I did stumble on a mega-short story site recently called East of the Web and found it has a children’s section but am hard pressed to name any other.
Competition within this limited children’s market is fierce the only remaining Australian children’s print magazine – The School Magazine, only publishes a handful of the hundreds of unsolicited entries it receives per year.
Caterpillar magazine, a high quality Irish publication for 7 to 11-year-olds accepts international children’s stories and poems. It has a waiting period of up to 4 months from submission to news of acceptance/rejection.
Cricket media group in the USA produces a series of fiction and non-fiction magazines for children and young adults. While it is hard to find information on the number of entries they receive across 11 magazines even US blog posts I’ve read say this is a tough market to crack for US writers. You can bet it is even harder for Australians. Turnaround time on news of submissions can run up to 6 months. That equates to a big slush pile. Highlights magazine group are the other big print magazine publishes in the USA with a stated four-month submission waiting time.
While American markets do seem to be a bit healthier and varied than ours (or UK’s) I find it hard to adjust my stories to fit the US market. It’s not just the terminology but the organisational and cultural practices as well. I recently wrote a story about scouts. My story relied on having girls in the troop but in the USA scouts is still only for boys. And what about school? Do you change the way you name the grade levels? Although UK is more closely aligned I doubted a story I wrote about children walking home from the surf would resonate with British children. But I hear you say – Aren’t US magazines, in particular, crying out for diversity? Yes, but the not the diversity of an Australian suburbanite. I am stuck in a world which is diverse enough to be confusing but not diverse enough to be enlightening.
There is also a problem of accessing overseas magazines to research their preferred style and voice. So many blogs/podcast/editors I’ve heard say this research is a must If you live in the country of origin it is likely that the library will stock popular children’s magazines but if you have to subscribe from Australia to say, two of the Cricket media magazines, a Highlights magazine and The Caterpillar this can get pricey (over 150 annually) and impossible to justify on a purely cost-benefit analysis. Even if you’re lucky enough to climb the slush pile and win the grand prize of publication the rewards are likely to be less than $200 per story.
As far as competitions for children’s writers I wonder if many organisers have thrown in the towel because there were simply too many entries. It does seem ironic that high demand leads to cancellation. I’m only speculating. Maybe somebody more in-the-know can shed light on the demise of children’s writing competitions. I keep a submissions book which lists the manuscripts I’ve entered going back to 2012. It reads like a column of death notices for fallen competitions. My most disheartening discovery was that the Mary Grant Bruce award was no longer listed in the Fellowship of Australian Writers Awards in 2015. This was a rare opportunity that accepted children’s short stories up to 5000 words. Last year the Fellowship of Australian Writers offered 19 different annual awards across many genres and forms. There was not one award for children’s writing. The 2016 awards list will be released on Sept 1st.
I am powerless to influence the trends in the children’s short story market. So I can only file away my unsubmittable stories and hope a market opens up in the future.
3. Novel woes. I was told a by few sources working in children’s editing/publishing that no Australian publishers would take the risk on a middle-grade novel from an unknown author that was as long as mine – 85,000 words. I received a manuscript assessment that suggested I need to expand certain parts but at same time somehow simplify my story (among other criticisms.) It seemed an impossible depressing task to cut words and yet expand chapters so I put it away – for a while.
My comfortable middle grade wagon was going nowhere. The most sensible option (the least masochistic) would probably have been to give up on my writing journey and call for a taxi to take me to a new destination (Painting? Photography? Gardening?) This was harder than I thought. I tried for a week – maybe two. But I realised writing wasn’t just a pastime it had become a compulsion. I couldn’t stop thinking about my novel (could I fix it?). I got it out and rewrote a few of the early chapters with the aim to strengthened my main character’s motivations. Against my better judgement I even wrote another middle grade short story that came to me unbidden. This had to stop.
Strange, how the social media universe sometimes seems to nag you. As I pondered my stagnation I clicked over to twitter and somebody had tweeted this timely post quoting Coco Chanel
“Don’t spend time beating on a wall, hoping to transform it into a door. ”
I had to come up with a way to satisfy my writing habit and still have some achievable goals. Hence I hopped out of my comfortable pot-holed middle-grade car and decided to try out some new vehicles.
I wrote poetry as part of a 10 day WordPress Challenge. This is a great exercise which not only offers a daily prompt to get you going but also provides notes on different devices and forms of poetry. It is the best free course I’ve ever done. And while your poetry is not ‘marked’ the feedback you give and receive is fun and encouraging. The greatest lesson I learnt from this challenge was that I produce my best work when I have to and I have guidelines. For me deadlines and prompts are the best writing coaches. Admittedly I was exhausted after the 10 days but also chuffed that I had managed to write that many poems. I had never even attempted a single adult poem before.
While I know I will never become a great poet, I’m sure the language and the economy of words used in poetry can improve my fiction writing. Picture book writing and nano-fiction, in particular, require a beauty and sparseness of language that is closely related to poetry.
Adult short stories
Unlike children’s writing there seems to be a plethora of opportunities for adult short form writing with a wide range of word counts, genres and forms.
There are many literary magazines and international competitions accepting submissions throughout the year. Two good sites that list these opportunities are:
I also recently purchased, Mslexia Indie Presses 2016/17. This is a wonderful resource for British markets (many of which accept international submissions)
In past years I have started many adult short stories and finished a few. I decided to make a conscious decision to write more in the next 12 months and finish at least two of those languishing in my files.
It is not easy to change gears between adult and children’s short story writing and the effort sent me scuttling for dusty short story collections on my shelf and listening to short story podcasts – Selected Shorts and The New Yorker. I prefer the Selected Shorts selections (less high-brow) but I enjoy The New Yorker discussions (sometimes more than the story itself).
In children’s stories all story threads should be tied up neatly – the plot is all important. In adult fiction there is usually some shift in the character, but the language and the mood created are often as important as the plot. A good short story often leaves the reader pondering. I like the description I read somewhere – ‘An adult short story should, end but never close.’ Good short stories often reveal something profound about the human condition. On comparing the novel to the short story, V.S Pritchett’s is quoted, ‘The novel tells us everything whereas the short story tells us only one thing, and that, intensely.’ (From On Writing Short Stories edited by Tom Bailey)
I have managed to complete one adult short story recently but I feel it’s not quite right – almost a fusion between adult and children’ s writing. I am keeping my eye out for a course that will force me to do assignments and take my short story writing to the next level. If there is one thing I learnt from the poetry challenge is that I need prodding.
I wrote a nature essay that has been swirling around in my head for many years. I sat down to write it with great trepidation. Whereas poetry is an embellished representation of your heart and fiction is your imagination, a personal essay is your mind and personality laid bare. This is the one piece of writing I actually felt embarrassed about showing to my very non-judgmental (except re bad writing – as it should be) writing group.
Having said this – I really enjoyed writing this essay about mine and my children’s carefree childhoods in close contact with the coastal bush. Words flowed more freely than in any other form of writing I’ve attempted. Writing blog posts has definitely helped me find my voice for this kind of writing.
There are quite a few competitions and occasional markets that accept personal essays. Sometimes they have an open topic and other times they ask for specialised subjects such as travel stories or nature essays.
I am sure there will be more ruts in my writing journey (and hopefully a few downhill sections). But, hey, there is still screen-writing, play-writing, novellas, flash-fiction, non-fiction articles, picture books, romance…
Recently I attended the NSW Kids and YA Writers Festival which was an inspiring, informative and entertaining day.
One of the sessions I attended was pitch session for middle-grade and YA authors. Writers could sign up upon registration, then during the session six were drawn to present a 3- minute pitch. I’ve never attended a pitch session before so I was eager to see how they worked. You see, in my braver moments I imagine putting myself forward for my middle grade fantasy. This is what I learnt from the judging panel (agents and publishers) and those courageous souls whose name was drawn out of the box to present their work.
State the title, genre (see this post – Lara Willard) and specific age suitability of your book. eg 7-9 yrs, 9-12 yrs. (just middle-grade can be considered too vague) Young adult, New Adult, Adult.
Don’t try to recite a whole synopsis. Concentrate on the human emotion, the central conflict, the theme. It is very hard to listen to a convoluted plot. Things have to be much simpler in the spoken word than in the written. It’s hard to digest names, places and events in a monologue. The pitch is more like a blurb than a synopsis.
Always read a sample of your work. Probably the first page is best, as then there is no need to set the scene. This seemed to be the most important part to the judges and I came to realise why. A good premise is not much in itself. A captivating voice and engaging style is what really made the audience sit up and take notice.
Introduce yourself. Be brief. The work is more important. Help the listener understand your motivations, experience, staying power and enthusiasm. Things you might mention are, occupation (if it relates to your writing), your driving force and relevant writing successes (eg competition/publications).
State where your book fits in the current marketplace (not mandatory) eg My book will appeal to readers of…and … OR I was inspired by the world-building of…., the quirky characters of… and the off-the-wall humour of ….These options are preferable to comparing with just one book as agents/publishers don’t simply want a version of an existing novel.
Is there something that makes your book different? eg an unusual structure, an alternating POV, unreliable narrator.
Above all PRACTICE. Make sure the pitch fits into the time limit. Have prompt cards or small notes but don’t be trying to sort them out as you take the stage. Experiment with the order of the above. One pitcher opened with a dramatic reading from a passage of her text. This worked well for her. Don’t underestimate how flustered you (and definitely me) may be when there is a panel of agents staring coldly (it seems) over the rim of their glasses at you. Practice gives you confidence.
Before you decide to throw your hat in the ring for a pitch session, I’d suggest attending at least one previous session. I learnt a lot from the judge’s comments and I’m sure there is more to learn. In fact, I want to know what I’ve left out for future reference (one day I might just build up the courage).
I wouldn’t still be writing without my critique group. Writing simply would have been too lonely and frustrating. My abilities would’ve stagnated. There is only so much theory you can get from books and courses. You need to write and you need feedback. Sometimes you need to be told the same thing a dozen times before it truly sinks in (and maybe twenty when it comes to the difference between being and been – Sorry guys). Manuscript assessors or competitions with feedback can’t consistently deliver that. They also can’t provide friendship and support the way a writers group can.
I’m sure there have been many writers who’ve been successful without peer critiques but there would be few of those that didn’t have the help of a family member or close friend or agent who read and commented on their text before they sent it to publishers. Lucky you, if you have a loved one who has the patience to wade through several drafts and give you honest feedback. Most of us don’t.
I don’t want to sound like it’s easy to find a writing group that you feel comfortable with. It’s hard. This is not a book club get-together. You are baring your unfiltered mind to fellow members. You are sharing unpolished work and crazy ideas. If you were to equate mind to appearance it would be the equivalent of other’s seeing you stagger out of bed in your underwear first thing in the morning.
So how do you even begin to look for a writers group? Most of the groups I’ve been involved in have come about as a result of meeting people at local writing courses. I will be forever in the debt of well- known children’s author and generous networker – Di Bates. I participated in a course she ran on children’s writing and through her I was introduced to Danika. That was over five years ago and we are still meeting regularly having gained and lost some members along the way. Local writer’s centres and societies often run writing groups – even if you don’t like their format it is important to get yourself into situations where you can meet other writers and find those that you click with. Social media tags eg (#amwriting #amediting), attending writing conferences and participating in NaNoWriMo regional groups may lead to finding your perfect writing partner/s. I have no experience of online critique groups but I know they work well for some and maybe the only option for those in remote areas or with limited time.
I certainly didn’t land in my current fabulous writing group on my first attempt. In many former forays into writing get-togethers I worked out what works and what doesn’t for me. I stress for me because it very much depends on what you want to get out of a group. I’ve written down a few things that I found problematic:
– Writing groups that just do exercises/games. This is fun when you are starting out and can be good for idea generation but it often means you are not writing what you want to write and not getting meaningful critiques either. Particularly if the exercises involve writing things on the spot. I am hopeless at on-the-spot writing and never feel entirely comfortable sharing it with anybody. I believe writing impromptu is a different skill than writing and re-writing in a considered and careful manner. Also if you are all writing about the same thing for a particular exercise it can become unnecessarily competitive.
– Writing groups that are just about coaching/accountablity rather than critique. If you are an established writer with editors and publishers or you are held back more by your time management than the quality of your work this type of group or networking is great. If I could only have one, though, I would opt for the critique variety as they can still act as a motivating force but the accountability-type group can’t improve your writing.
-Writing groups that become more about something other than the writing. Do you find yourself baking and preparing lunch for 2 hours before a meeting? Or do you meet in noisy cafés where it is more about chasing down the best latte than getting down to the nitty gritty of your character’s development. Or does the group spend hours talking about the non-writing stuff?
– Members of the group find it difficult to take criticism of their work. That doesn’t mean everybody should accept criticism without comment. I often ask fellow members for clarification or explain why something is difficult to change. But even in that process I’m learning. Honestly, 90% of the time I come around to their viewpoint anyway. It is when members get emotional or overly precious about aspects of their work that it can become very awkward and unproductive.
– Conversely members who are rude or demeaning in giving critiques. Yes, writers do have to have thick skins. But if you find yourself crying or ripping up your work after each session then don’t torture yourself. Leave. No writing group at all is better than one that make you feel worthless.
– Groups with fluctuating membership. It’s important to build a relationship with fellow critiquers to get to know them and their work. It is difficult for someone to critique the middle chapter of your novel if they have no idea how it started. It is not critical if members miss a meeting or two but having new people every second meeting can be disruptive. Also it takes a certain familiarity to feel at ease with somebody both criticizing your work and allowing you to criticize theirs. Our group is lucky enough to have had the same five members for over 2 years now.
Now I’ve talked about how to meet writing partners and possible problems with writing groups. I’ll move on to what works for our group. I would love to hear the variations of how other successful critique groups operate. Our procedures aren’t set in stone – any group should be willing to evolve to better meet the needs of their members.
– We meet fortnightly. We used to meet monthly. This was too long to sustain the motivation between sessions. We all lead busy lives and more often than not one or two members can’t make it on the day. This meant that it was often two months between sessions if somebody missed one. By then they were practically strangers (not really but you know what I mean).
– We have five members. Any more that this and it gets too onerous to edit everyone else’s words. Much less and there may not be enough eyes or viewpoints to make well-rounded criticism. I like five because if one or two are away then three can still have a meaningful meeting. You often find that different members have different strengths (thank goodness the others know more about punctuation and grammar than me).
– We take it in turns to meet at each other’s houses. Five people can easily fit around a dining table and we don’t go to any huge effort for food. A morning tea with nibbles. We joke that an essential requirement of our group is a tolerance for pets. At last count we had eight dogs and four cats between us (Pat has over half those). They invariably provide us with some distraction (my dog is the worst attention-seeker).
– Every meeting we critique up to 1500 words of each other’s work. This can be part of a novel, a picture book text, a poem, or series of poems , or a short story or even pitch letters and synopses.
– We don’t always write in same genre or for the same age group. I have read elsewhere that groups should only be formed who write in the same genre eg all middle-grade or all YA. This maybe be ideal, but having people who you get on with and are good at offering criticism is much more important than sticking to a group that writes your exact genre. Also I would argue that the variety is refreshing and as a writer you don’t feel restricted to presenting the same genre every week. We’ve had adult flash fiction, picture books, children’s and adult poetry, middle grade and YA Novels presented at our meetings. I even got valuable feedback on a nature essay I wrote.
– We send out our work via email attachment 2-5 days before the meeting. I like this method because, as I’ve said before on this blog, I am a slow thinker and writer and I like to give a considered critique rather than a hurried on-the-spot one. Some of you may be excellent at the off-the-cuff critique so this may not be necessary. Or if your group is large (over 6) the emails and pre-work may be too overwhelming. We each choose the method we prefer for editing. Some of us prefer to use Word review in-document comments others just prefer to use a pen on the printed-out text. Either way we bring a print-out of our own work and critiqued work of others to each meeting.
– Each meeting we take it in turns to have our work read out. Mostly, we get someone else to read our piece. This can be enlightening as other readers don’t make the same assumptions about your work. This can be particularly useful with poetry and picture book texts where language and rhythm are all important.
– At the end of the reading we discuss the piece and explain our critique comments. The discussion is often as productive (and definitely more fun) as the comments themselves. At the end of the discussion we pass over the commented piece to the writer to take home.
– We are not all business. We DO chat. We chat about our inspirations, our rejections, our successes, writing opportunities and festivals, our experiences of publishers, self-publishing, manuscript assessments, courses, social media – every topic related to writing and… some not – families – human and furred. This is important. I have learnt so much and reached wider writer’s networks by listening and learning from the others in my group. The support to keep going and being around people who understand your passion and struggle is invaluable.
If you are curious these are the websites of the others in my writing group:
Wacky doo! I’ve made it. A whole ten days of writing poetry. I started as a total newbie to adult poetry and I finish humbled. Now I have no doubts that a poet’s lot is wearying and soul-wrenching. I’m spent. But I’ve learnt so much about form and technique. I’ve written verse that I never would have considered without the prompts and the guidance. Thanks to wordpress and my fellow participants for sharing the journey.
The last challenge, the sonnet, was well left to last because, for me, this was the toughest. It seemed wrong for an amateur like me to tackle such an esteemed form. After hours I gave up on iambic pentameter but chose the Shakespearean rhyming scheme. I stayed up till after midnight writing my first effort ‘Finding My Voice,’ but all night it needled at me. Was my one and only contribution to the world of sonnets going to be so ego-centric? So this morning I wrote another ‘Beautiful Hurting Earth’ which eased my mind a little.
Prompt: The future
Form: The sonnet
Beautiful Hurting Earth
Oh, beautiful, blue hurting sphere,
Spinning around a brilliant, burning sun.
Will our tenure be short? Our end near?
In your eons is our race close to run.
Can we overcome the hatred and the greed?
Can your welfare come before the politic?
Can we work as one in our dire hour of need?
Or are we doomed to obstinance and rhetoric.
Alternatives to belching, dirty fossil fuel.
Alternatives to wrenching, ugly, useless war.
And yet we choose the deadly and the cruel.
For who? Not you and I. We want no more.
Don’t we all want an earth where those we hold dear,
Can live and breathe without ignorance and fear.
Finding My Voice
William the bard says life is but a play.
Actors all, we join the mighty rolling cast.
But taking the stage has not been my way –
For, without the clapping crowd the show won’t last,
And understudy, dresser, stagehand,
As well, I’ve done those parts, without regret.
Time turns and now it’s right for me to stand,
To find my voice, a role for this old girl yet.
I’ll sing a ballad, pen a poem, paint a green sea,
Stroll beaches, walk hills and in the valley camp
Write till late, write a play, write a book or three
I’ll play the artist, the writer, and the tramp.
My future’s mine to shape. If I may be so bold,
But shaping is not knowing what the years will hold.