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.
This is part of Shorts Series of book reviews (skimping on all aspects except Use for Writers)
By Douglas Adams Pan Books 1992 Adult Fiction
Score: 9.5/10 Genre: Science Fiction comedy
Arthur Dent lies in front of a bulldozer. He’s not happy. His house is about to be demolished to make way for a bypass. But his day is set to get a whole lot worse. Vogon ships gather around the earth to supervise the demolition of the ‘insignificant blue-green planet’ to make way for an hyperspatial express route. Arthur’s Dent’s friend Ford Prefect (from the Beetlguese star system) saves Arthur from obliteration by hitching a ride on a Vogon cruiser.
I could go on, but you really don’t read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for the plot you read it for the wacky characters, such as the boorish, disgusting Vogons or Zaphod Beeblebrox, the reckless, egotistical, multi-armed and three-headed ex-president of the galaxy. You read it for the clever concepts such as the babblefish, which, once inserted in your ear, interpret foreign languages; or the super computer designed to find the answer to ‘Life the Universe and Everything’, and of course the wonderful ‘Guide’ with, DON’T PANIC, emblazoned on its cover and entries that are entertaining and often totally useless.
I frequently chuckled to myself as I lay in bed reading Hitchhiker’s Guide. My husband, who has also read it more than once, finally put down his own book and said, ‘Just read it to me.’ And so I did. In our 28 years of marriage this is the first time he’s ever asked me to read out loud to him. That is the power of Hitchhiker’s Guide you’ll want to share it, to quote it and revel in its escapist wackiness with other fans.
There are very few books that have worked their way into the everyday vernacular and psyche to the extent of Hitchhiker’s Guide. As if to illustrate this, I turned on the radio the morning after reading aloud and the announcer said ‘I’ll be talking about, life the Universe and everything.’ In our family it is one of the only books/movies we can all agree upon as being fabulous. We once even named an anemone in our marine tank, Zaphod (It was also reckless – kept climbing into the filter).
I only reread the first book of the series this time but have the other three – The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life the Universe and Everything and So Long and Thanks for all the Fish. I will save these, like a bottle of happy pills, for when I’m in real need of escapism.
Use to Writers
Humour is (I believe) the hardest thing to write and hardest thing to analyse. Even those who write comedy for a living don’t always know where the laughs are going to come.
I guess I can only say we should give ourselves permission to be wacky, play with words, be observant, notice character quirks (Douglas Adams based many of his characters on real life people), see life’s ironic situations and odd societal trends. Keep a diary (or your phone) close to note situations that tickle your funny bone or make you scratch your head. There aren’t many genres (if any) that don’t benefit from an injection of humour.
The chances of another Douglas Adams arising in the universe is infinitesimally small (unless you happen to have an improbability drive) but maybe your own brand of wackiness will strike a chord with readers. I can’t end this review without sharing one of the many passages that made me giggle. Here, Ford is talking to Arthur:
… you’d better be prepared for the jump into hyperspace. It’s unpleasantly like being drunk.’
By Liane Moriarty Pan Macmillan Australia 2015 Adult Fiction
Score: 10/10 Genre: Australian suburban drama/suspense
This is part of Shorts Series of book reviews (skimping on all aspects except Use for Writers)
There is death and mayhem at the primary school trivia night. Big Little Lies deals with the circumstances leading up to this tragic event. There is school-yard bullying, over-involved parents, dark secrets hidden behind closed doors, fraught relationships and firm friendships.
My first 10/10 book for the blog!
This book deals in part with dark subjects of domestic and sexual violence. But, like real life, these don’t exist in isolation. The farcical ‘mummy wars’ and the cringe-worthy helicopter parents are both humorous and all too familiar. The mystery is suspenseful and teased out in chapters in varying POV’S. But above all the dialogue and characterisations sparkle with authenticity and wit.
Use for writers: Liane Moriarty depresses me. Sometimes when I read a good novel I can convince myself of one of two things:
– I couldn’t write it because I don’t have the life experience or the time/resources to research the subject material.
– I think I can emulate aspects of the novel.
-Moriarty doesn’t write about the unfamiliar – this is suburban coastal Australian. It could’ve been set at my local primary school, in my suburb. So, the first excuse is null.
– And for the second: Moriarty so deftly handles structure and characterisation that it would be easy to try and do what she does, and fail.
The structure of both, Big Little Lies, and her novel, Truly Madly Guilty, follow the pattern of: A terrible event has taken place. What are the things that lead to this event (flashbacks and forwards). The who, how, and exactly what of the event. The fallout from the event.
Moriarty reveals each part of the mystery and each character’s secrets just at the right time. The changes in points of view enhance the pacing and add to the suspense. The dialogue and inner thoughts of the main characters are so witty that I wanted to reread sections just for fun. I particularly loved the use of the humorous snippets (flash forwards) of the police interviews for the minor characters. If you are thinking of writing a Multiple POV novel it would perhaps pay to do a table/map of POV changes and time shifts throughout Big Little Lies to get a sense of its structure.
Multiple POVs and fragmented timelines have the potential to make for a confusing read but not here because:
-We are kept orientated with statements about the length of time till the trivia night eg FIVE MONTHS BEFORE TRIVIA NIGHT.
– The voices and the houses/circumstances of the main characters are so different that you never lose track of where you are and whose head you’re in.
Madeline, the sassy older mum with fierce loyalty to her friends is a wonderful character. In this excerpt she is with her new friend, Jane and older friend, Celeste – on her birthday, feeling sorry for herself due to an injured ankle. The last passage shows how Moriarty cleverly segues into the future police interviews.
‘Let’s have some now!’ Madeline lifted the bottle by the neck suddenly inspired.
‘No, no,’ said Celeste. ‘Are you crazy? It’s too early for drinking. We have to pick the kids up in two hours. And it’s not chilled.’
‘Champagne breakfast’ said Madeline. ‘It’s all in the way you package it. We’ll have champagne and orange juice. Half a glass each! Over two hours. Jane? Are you in?’
‘I guess I could have a sip,’ said Jane. ‘I’m a cheap drunk.’
‘I bet you are, because you weigh about ten kilos,’ said Madeline ‘We’ll get on well. I love cheap drunks. More for me.’
‘Madeline,’ said Celeste. ‘Keep it for another time.’
‘But it’s the Festival of Madeline,’ said Madeline sadly. ‘And I’m injured.’
Celeste rolled her eyes. ‘Pass me a glass.’
Thea: Jane was tipsy when she picked up Ziggy from orientation… Young single mother drinking first up in the morning. Chewing gum too. Not a good first impression. That’s all I’m saying.
Footnote: After this I read Liane Moriarty’s Truly Madly Guilty – also brilliantly structured. I give it 9/10. I favour Big Little Lies because the overwhelming feeling when reading Truly Madly Guilty was one of dread (it involved the possible drowning of a young child). This dread keeps you turning pages but perhaps not as entertaining as the mystery and humour which infuses Big Little Lies.
I am currently reading the, The Hypnotist’s Love Story, also by Liane Moriarty.
By Jane Harper Pan Macmillan Australia 2016 Adult Fiction
Score: 9/10 Genre: Australian Crime Thriller
This is part of Shorts Series of book reviews (skimping on all aspects except Use for Writers)
Aaron Falk, a federal police investigator, returns to his drought-stricken home town, Kiewarra to attend the funeral of an old friend, Luke Hadler. Luke is the apparent perpetrator of murder-suicide in which his wife and baby were killed.
Falk reluctantly stays to assist the local police sergeant in an attempt to find answers for Luke’s bereaved parents. The town holds bitter memories for Aaron including the suspicious death of childhood friend – Ellie. Falk’s investigation reopens old wounds and sets him against old enemies. What is the secret Falk keeps and is there a connection between the recent deaths of the Hadler family and the death of Ellie, 20 years ago?
This is the most gripping book of any genre I’ve read in many years. I am generally a slow reader but I read this in less than 3 days (a long train journey helped too).
Use for writers:
If you want the ingredients of riveting, crime page-turner – study this book. Some of the reasons why ‘The Dry’ is so gripping:
-The investigator is not a dispassionate outsider with no stake in the community or the crime. Aaron Falk has murky history and the suspense arises not just from the whodunnit aspect of the Hadler murders but the slow reveals of event’s in Aaron’s past.
-Jane Harper engenders empathy for Aaron Falk. She gives a him a tough motherless childhood, awkward teenage years and a haunted but thoughtful adult persona. As much as the reader wants to know who is responsible for the Hadler murders they also want to see Falk redeemed.
-There are, of course, the classic crime novel strengths of multiple suspects and motives. Who do you trust? However, unlike many crime novels I’ve read none of the secrets or motives seem strange or too convulted. The final solution is satisfying and plausible.
-The setting of a drought-stricken town where tempers and livelihoods are fragile adds to the tension and the constant underlying threat of violence.
Extra note about the writing: ‘The Dry’ stays in third person, past tense but when relating witness accounts rather than stay in Falk’s POV it switches to the POV of the interviewee (who has perfect recollection of minute details). It is a strange technique that threw me at first. It didn’t allow for lying and the reader appeared to be getting more information than Falk. I came to the conclusion it was cheating a little but allowed for more evocative, descriptions of past events and, therefore, was more entertaining than a question-answer interview. I have shown a short example below. Falk is talking to Luke’s father, Gerry. The switch to Gerry’s POV is in italics, as it is in the book. No spoilers here.
‘Is it connected with what happened to Ellie?’ (Gerry)
‘I honestly don’t know, Gerry. ‘(Falk)
A silence. ‘Christ. Listen, there’s something I should have told you from the start.’ (Gerry )
Gerry Hadler was hot but not unhappy about it. He tapped a light rhythm on the steering wheel whistling to himself. The evening sun warmed…
Gerry glanced at the bottle of sparkling wine lying on the passenger seat. He’d popped into town to pick up supplies and spontaneously nipped into the bottle shop.
By Phillip Pullman RHCP Digital 2015 (Book 1st published 1995)
Children’s Fiction (*see warning)
Score: 8/10 Genre: Fantasy
Northern Lights is the first in the, His Dark Materials trilogy, followed by, The Subtle Knife and The Amber spyglass. It is set in an alternate reality where every human has an inseparable animal daemon with whom they communicate and share feelings.
Lyra has an undisciplined childhood growing up in Jordan college with old, preoccupied scholars as her guardians. When her Uncle, the formidable Lord Asriel, visits Jordan college Lyra overhears him request funds for a mysterious ‘dust’ research project that he is conducting in the cold North.
Lyra seems set to continue her carefree life until children start to disappear, including her good friend Roger. The charismatic Mrs Coulter arrives and whisks Lyra away to London, to a life of comfort and order. After hearing frightening talk about Mrs Coulter’s activities, Lyra flees her London flat and is taken in by the noble, boat -faring gyptians. She travels North with them intent on finding Lord Asriel and the missing children.
In the North Lyra encounters great dangers – crippling cold, institutions of child and daemon cruelty and warrior bears. Ultimately she exposes shocking truths about ‘dust’ and her parents.
Lyra is assisted in her adventures by the truth-telling alethiometer – a compass-like instrument given to her in secret by the Master at Jordan college.
This is a beautifully written book. The descriptions of landscapes and characters are evocative without being too lengthy or pretentious.
Pale green and rose-pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric, and at the bottom edge a profound and fiery crimson like the fires of Hell, they swung and shimmered loosely with more grace than the most skilful dancer (description of the Northern Lights).
The settings in this fantasy are the earthly landscapes of Britain and the polar regions, making it easy to visualise Lyra’s surrounds. This leaves the reader more mind space to digest the vivid character and daemon descriptions.
Crouching like the Sphinx beside him was his daemon, her beautiful spotted coat glossy with power, her tail moving lazily in the snow.
The presence of daemons adds another layer to each character, as each person’s personality is reflected in, both the type of animal, and the actions of that animal. The alethiometer as a device is less effective. There are points in the plot where it would be logical for Lyra to use the all-knowing alethiometer but it is obvious the author has chosen not to in order to heighten the suspense. The movie based on this book was named after the alethiometer and called The Golden Compass (I haven’t seen ).
*The POV character, Lyra, is eleven years old so this is classified as a children’s book, but be warned the story involves horrible cruelty to children and a brutal bear fight. Pullman is prepared to push his characters to the limit which makes for a tense read.
A writing colleague of mine found Lyra’s character to be too much of a brat in the opening chapters and consequently put the book down. I think it pays to stick with Lyra for a while as her feistiness and stubbornness prove to be necessary character traits for survival. Her early waywardness also allows room for her to grow and mature.
The other characters in, Northern Lights, are cleverly nuanced and not always what they seem. We find that the evil can be charismatic the wise, unassuming and the ferocious, loyal.
I was prepared to give this book a nine based on the beautiful writing and interesting concepts but I found the end a little convenient and rushed. I’m not a fan of sudden realisations with no lead-up. This book is not entirely stand-alone as Lyra’s quest is obviously not finished at the end. However Northern Lights can be enjoyed by itself as it does bring to a close a significant chapter in the quest.
Recommended for: 11 to 15-year-olds who are not upset by violent or sad scenes in a fantasy book or adults who enjoy reading fantasy (the language and the concepts are sophisticated enough to keep your interest).
Use for writers :
No info-dumping: Exposition is deftly sprinkled throughout the story especially in relation to the daemon concept. It would have been tempting for the author to immediately give us all the practices and limitations relating to daemons in the opening chapter, instead he only gave out information when it became pertinent to the action. Because the daemon-human relations are so fascinating and offered in easily digestible bites each revelation is eagerly anticipated. To offer concrete examples of the spacing of some of these bites of exposition :
Chp 3 – We learn children’s daemons change form but the daemons of adults do not. (although hinted at before)
Chp 5 – We learn that a humans and their daemons share each other’s pain.
Chp 9 – We learn that it is taboo to touch another person’s daemon.
Vivid descriptions: (as written above) Pullman uses all the senses in his descriptions of landscapes and people. The descriptions of the historic building and spacious grounds of Jordan college, the claustrophobic comfort of Mrs Coulter’s flat and the cold bleakness of The North transport the reader to those locations. Here, the journey north in the gyptian boat is described:
But the rush of water below, the movement in the air, the ship’s lights glowing bravely in the dark, the rumble of the engine, the smells of the salt and fish and coal-spirit, were exciting enough by themselves.
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).