How to assess the readability of your book

New year, new project – that’s how it goes right?

I finished 2021 on a high, as the end of the year coincided with typing the final words on the first draft of my mid-1800s suspense. This is the fourth novel I have completed* and the fifth book altogether.

I imagine it’s how runners feel when they cross the line at the end of a marathon – exhausted, elated and already thinking of the next race. I’m going to let that book simmer for a while I get stuck into my next project and then in a couple of months when I am at my fellowship at the Katharine Susannah Pritchard Writers Centre, I will get stuck into the next draft**.

They say that people who write down their goals are more likely to achieve them than those who don’t, but that people who share their goals are even more successful.

My 2022 writing goal

I’m attempting something very radical (for me) for my next project. No more historical or contemporary novels for adults. This time I’m writing for kids. But not just any kids, special kids like my youngest daughter who struggle to read.

I’m attempting a Hi-Lo book.

A Hi-Lo book is one with high interest levels (ie. appeals to older kids) but with low readability (ie. lower reading level). By the time a kid is in Year 5 and 6, when all their mates are reading Harry Potter, a struggling reader (or dyslexic like my daughter) doesn’t want to be seen with a skinny little picture book – they want a meaty looking book, with chapters and a cool cover.

But they want to be able to read it by themself.

So my goal is to write a chapter book suitable for kids ages 9 to 12 years old but who have a reading level of between 6 to 8 years. 

When I sat down to start, I was immediately facing a bunch of questions:

What should my word count be?

How long should the chapters be?

How do I know if I am hitting the correct reading age mark?

I began to research readability and it turns out if you’re working in Word, you can get Flesch Reading Ease Scores and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level ratings through the editor, two of the most common ways of determining how easily a piece of text will be understood [instructions below].

Flesch Readability Scores

Flesch Reading Ease was developed back in the 1940s and is now used by everyone from schools to policy writers to journalists. Readability scores are based on the average number of syllables per word and words per sentence. Protracted and verbose morphemes and terminology are onerous and inflate the laboriousness of comprehension.

Long words and sentences are harder to understand.

The Flesch Reading Score gives you a rating out of 100: the higher the score, the easier the document is to understand. A score of 60 or lower is college level and considered more difficult to read. A score of between 70 – 80 is considered equivalent to school grade level 8, reasonably easy to read and therefore suitable for most professional documents. Anything for children should score 80 or above. The first chapter of my new Hi-Lo book has been graded as 100.

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level converts this to an approximate school reading level. Keep in mind, this is a formula based on the US schooling system. Books can also be given a Lexile score (although a quick look online will show there are half a dozen other ways to rate texts).

One of the ways the Lexile score (which ranges from 10L to 2000L) differs from other readability measures is that it uses qualitative measures (ie. it looks at the actual words used) rather than just the quantitative measures of averaging syllables and words. It’s meant to make the score more nuanced, although it is far from a perfect system (a quick look on Wikipedia shows that Twilight gets a score of 720, Ramona Quimby, Age 8*** scores 860, Jurassic Park clocks in at 710 while The Grapes of Wrath only scores 680L.

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Out of curiosity, I ran the manuscript I finished last year through the Flesh-Kincaid assessment. It came up with a reading level score of 6.1 (ie Year 6 reading level) which was a little disturbing until I remembered I used a lot of very short sentences. My Flesch readability score was 74.8, which I’m fine with – I prefer to challenge people with the themes and concepts, not their ability to understand stodgy and overly verbose text. I’d be curious what the book’s Lexile score is, but that’s not something you can easily access.

You can enable the readability feature in Word by following the steps below:

Setting up Readability Stats in Word 2016

Go to File then Options (at the bottom of blue menu).

In the Proofing tab check the box that says ‘show readability statistics’.

If you have already run spellcheck through the document and want it to reassess, check the box that says ‘Recheck document’ but if you’re just setting it up for future documents, you can just click OK and close out of the menu.

Go back to your word document.

In the review tab, click on the Editor button (previously Spelling and Grammar).

The editor will open up on the right-hand side of the screen. Scroll down to find the ‘Insights – Document stats’ option and click on it.

Normally when you do your document stats, you get a brief summary of how many words, characters, paragraphs and sentences. Now your statistics will include:

Averages:

Sentences per paragraph

Words per sentence

Characters per word.

Readability:

Flesch Reading Ease

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level

Passive sentences

This is the opening chapter of my Hi-Lo book. Very readable!

If you’re curious, this article rates a 63 in Flesch Reading Ease and a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 9.1. These scores shouldn’t be used in isolation but they do provide you with some basic information about how accessible your writing is. I’ve been writing decodable stories for my daughter for years, but writing an entire book is a whole other kettle of fish.

Wish me luck!

*technically I haven’t finished one of these novels, but it’s pretty close

** we will see what COVID-19 has to say about that

*** I grew up reading Ramona Quimby and still have all my old books

My favourite books of 2021

I read 57 books in 2021 which isn’t bad for someone who likes to have their lights off by 10pm each night.

Reading at bedtime has been one of my favourite times of the day since I was a child, and as a mother of three, I savour it even more, because it (usually) means I am off-duty. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way, but I start looking forward to it pretty much as soon as the dinner dishes are done. Look, I never said my life was exciting.

For the first time last year, I decided to keep a record of the books I read along with a few words of description (or reaction) to the book. Partly this is because I am known for buying multiple copies of a book because I forgot I already read it, though I’m realizing more and more that probably says more about the book than me.

When I looked back at the list of books I am struck by one thing – something that makes me very proud – 61% of the books were written by an Australian author and 35% by a West Australian author.

Five of the books I read this year, I was there at the launch and a total of ten have been signed by the author. I love the connection I feel when I know a book has been signed for me. I love attending book launches and in 2021 decided to adopt a fellow writer’s goal to buy two copies at every local book launch – one to keep and one to gift.

Admittedly of my 57 books, there were a handful I DNF (did not finish) but on the whole I loved each and every one of them.

But my favourite titles this year were:

Literary:

Locust Summer – David Allan-Petale (West Aussie)

Skimming Stones – Maria Papas (West Aussie)

Non-fiction:

Stalking Claremont – Bret Christian (West Aussie)

I am. I am. I am – Maggie O’Farrell

The Shape of Sound – Fiona Murphy (Aussie)

Historical Fiction:

A Waltz for Matilda – Jackie French (Aussie)

The Riviera House – Natasha Lester (West Aussie)

Thrillers:

The Chase – Candice Fox (Aussie)

The Last Thing He Told Me – Laura Dave

Luckiest Girl Alive – Jessica Knoll

Have you read any of these titles? Which was your favourite?

2021 – My Successes and Failures

I finished 2020 on a high.

I know this because I wrote a blog post declaring 2020 my ‘best year yet’. Not exactly subtle.

Last year I said I had a hit rate of 14%, meaning of all the short story competitions I entered, the manuscript prizes, the fellowships and residencies I applied for and the articles I submitted, I was successful for 14% of them. I don’t know what other people’s hit rates are, so I can’t tell if that’s woeful or in the ballpark.

In hindsight, my 2020 hit rate was closer to 17% because a manuscript I dropped into the Affirm Press slush-pile at the beginning of November 2020 was picked up in June 2021.

Mother and daughter, both wearing glasses, their arms around each other, smiling and crying into the camera.
Taken within seconds of receiving an email from Affirm Press saying they were going to publish my book. Coincidentally, my daughter was home that day from school and was able to happy-cry with me!

This is me and my daughter happy-crying when we realised the book I had written for her was going to be published (working title: Dyslexic Heroes, an illustrated collection of short stories for children about some of the incredible and inspirational people living with dyslexia. It’s due out September 2022).

In the meantime, I have been working hard this year and putting words out into the world. I subscribe to the idea that you need to put yourself out there no matter how terrifying it feels [I tried the other method, which is waiting for things to fall into your lap, and that wasn’t very successful].

In 2021:

I entered 9 short stories into competitions (I was highly commended in one).

I submitted 7 pieces to journals or magazines (one was accepted for publication).

I applied for 5 writing fellowships, residencies or mentorships (I was awarded one).

I entered 2 flash fiction competitions (and was highly commended in one).

I did a virtual pitch to 1 publisher (we ‘matched’, but ultimately they weren’t interested).

I entered 4 full-length manuscript competitions (two different books, no luck yet).

I submitted two different books to 5 publishers or agents (no joy yet).

So while my success rate may seem relatively low (two published short stories, one published flash fiction and a writing fellowship), I am really proud of the work I have done this year and feel that for some of my stories, at least, it’s a matter of not having found the right home for them yet.

Yet. Such a small word, but it holds such promise.

Outside of these obvious markers of success (the things you can put in your writer CV), I had less reportable successes: I continued critique (and support) sessions with my writing group of like-minded history-lovers (who I adore), worked with my writing mentor (who I worship), completed four writing courses, wrote 10 blog posts, read over fifty books, wrote 74,000 words of a new novel, brainstormed a children’s series I hope to write one day as well as the outline of a new non-fiction book while working part-time, parenting three daughters, a dog, and more recently, three bunnies.

I am grateful for everything except the bunnies.  They’re just annoying.

I’m still waiting to hear the outcome for two things, but so far my hit rate for 2021 is about 13%. Technically, this means my year has been less successful than last, but I don’t see it that way.

Sure, I’d still love to find a home for my 2020 contemporary novel, and there are some smashing short pieces I’d like to see published one day, but I look back at my year and think – at least I gave it a go.

But more than the numbers, because who cares about numbers, is something less tangible. I feel that this year has been about growth for me as a writer this year, not only the words I have put on the page but also the ones I have left off.

So maybe some of the misses of 2021 will become hits for 2022.

In the meantime, I am looking forward to Christmas and time with my family over the school break. Thank you for reading and I hope that 2022 brings you lots of success, plenty of words and lots of joy.

Literary Easter Eggs

For the word nerds among us – of which you’re probably one, or else I think you’ve clicked on the wrong blog – there is nothing more satisfying than discovering an Easter egg in a book or movie we’re enjoying.

An Easter egg is where the author deliberately hides a secret clue or message to sharp-eyed readers, often irrelevant to the book itself, but related to the wider world of the writer.

Disney is famous for placing Easter eggs in almost all of their animated movies, with characters and references from one movie regularly popping up in others. Examples include Aladdin’s lamp appearing in Tamatoa the Crab’s pile of sparkly treasure, Rapunzel and Flynn arriving at Elsa’s coronation in Frozen, and Pumba as a stone gargoyle on the roof of the Hunchback’s cathedral.

Stephen King is probably the most famous of the literary Easter bunnies. Almost all of his books are connected to at least one other, either in characters that reappear or are referenced, reusing settings or lines being repeated from book to book.

One example is the book It, where one of the characters, Eddie Kasbrak lives next door to Paul Sheldon, who of course reappears as the main protagonist in Misery.

Margaret Atwood is also known to include Easter eggs and inside jokes in her works, such as Offred noting an inscription on a desk in The Handmaid’s Tale that reads ‘M loves G, 1972’ which actually references a real relationship Margaret Atwood had with fellow author Graeme Gibson that started in 1972.

The epigraph at the start of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is accredited to poet Thomas Parke D’Invilliers. However, D’Invilliers is not a real poet but a secondary character from an earlier Fitzgerald book, This Side of Paradise.

The list goes on (seriously – Google literary Easter eggs and see your morning disappear).

I also like to include Easter eggs in my books.

I have four novels (in various states of ‘doneness’) which stretch from the early 1800s to 2020 and they are all linked in some way. It amuses me greatly to be able to do this.

The first book I started, The Teacher, is set 1912-14 and the main character is Isabelle Kelly when she is eighteen years of age and attending the Claremont Training College. (In this book I also mention two characters who belong to other Perth writers, Emily Paull and Sasha Wasley, who gave me permission to briefly include their characters in various scenes.)

Isabelle reappears at the age of eighty in my book Behind Closed Doors, which is set between 1965-85,as an elderly aunt to one of my characters. The protagonist in this book is an artist called Cordelia Cartwright, and one of her paintings (and a mention of Cordy herself) appears in 100 Days of March, which is set in 2020.

I’m halfway through my first draft of The Carrington Effect, which is set in the 1800s. I had been wondering how I could reference my other books considering the vast distance of time, but one of my protagonists is a midwife and while writing a birthing scene I realised that the child being born in 1859 could be Isabelle Kelly’s father.

Being able to connect all my books together makes me feel like the work I am doing is part of something larger; a quilt of literary pieces I am embroidering, bound together with stitches made of characters.

I’m fully aware that the chances of all four books being finished and published is slim and therefore no one else will ever realise how clever I am (please detect the joking tone in my words).

But just to know they exist makes me smile.

What is your favourite literary Easter egg?

When words are hard: my journey to writing a book about dyslexia

What do Australian authors Jackie French and Pip Williams have in common?

They’re both best-selling authors.

They both have a love of history and telling the stories of strong women.

They both have dyslexia.

What about Agatha Christie and Dav Pilkey?

Again, both best-selling authors (Agatha’s 66 detective stories and 14 books of short stories have sold over two billion copies, and Dav has sold over 80 million copies of his 48 books).

They are both award-winners.

Also, both dyslexic.

What about Jamie Oliver and Richard Branson?

They’re both hugely successful entrepreneurs and businessmen who have gone on to write books.

They’re both very, very rich.

They’ve both been recognised by the Queen for their service to the country.

They’re both also dyslexic.

In Australia, October is the month of dyslexia awareness. You may see people’s social media pages bordered in red or buildings and monuments across the country lit up red at night. I am lighting up my Instagram page red in October. Why red? Apart from the obvious red/read, it’s part of a campaign by Code Read Dyslexia Network:

By next October, my book sharing some of the most inspirational stories of people with dyslexia will be on the shelves of bookshops and libraries around the country. It’s something that fills me with incredible excitement but also, if I’m honest, also with a sense of trepidation and responsibility. That’s probably the topic for another blog, but today I just wanted to share just some of the incredible writers from around the world who have dyslexia.

Many writers say the same thing – dyslexia slowed them down, especially when they were at school, but it could not stop their love of stories. Moreover, the struggle they had with words, the extra effort they had to give to learn to read and write has just deepened their relationship with language and made the process of writing that much more special.

Awesome dyslexic writers:

  • Jackie French, Australian multi-genre, award-winning author, Diary of a Wombat and my daughter’s favourite, A Waltz for Matilda.
  • Pip Williams, best-selling Australian author, The Dictionary of Lost Words.
  • Catherine Deveny, columnist, speaker and author.

“The more you do it, the more you do. The more a pathway in the brain is used the better and faster it gets. Writing is a muscle. The more you work it out, the better it gets.” Catherine Deveny

  • Dav Pilkey, best-selling US author, Captain Underpants.

“Try to remember that being unsuccessful in school doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be unsuccessful in life. Lots of people who didn’t excel in school still went on to have successful lives.” Dav Pilkey

  • Agatha Christie, world’s best-selling author, Murder on the Orient Express.
  • Octavia Spencer, actress and author, Ninja Detective series.
  • Ahmet Zapper, children’s author (and son of legendary musician Frank). Ahmet left school at 12 due to his struggles with dyslexia but he is now the author of over 20 best-selling books.

“When we had to do book reports, I would pick a book that no one read and just make it up and turn that in. I got praised for my imagination.” Ahmet Zappa

  • Henry Winkler, actor (The Fonz) and children’s author, Hank Zipzer, The World’s Greatest Underachiever.
  • Richard Branson, entrepreneur and author. Virgin owner. Space tourist. Everyone knows who Richard is.
  • Jamie Oliver, celebrity chef and cookbook author.
  • Andrew Dornenburg – author of five best-selling culinary books and cookbooks with his wife, Karen Dornenburg.

“As I tell other dyslexics, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to be perfect to be great.” Andrew Dornenburg

  • Sally Gardner, children’s author (and also writes for adults under the pseudonym Wray Delaney). She was considered ‘unteachable’ by her teachers and called ‘Silly Sally’ by her peers because she didn’t learn to read until she was 14. She’s now the best-selling author of over 45 books.

“Keep telling yourself stories and don’t worry if you can’t write them down. Try to find your voice. Don’t be put off by anyone telling you that you can’t do something – believe in your dreams.” Sally Gardner

  • Debbie Macomber couldn’t read until she was 11 but is now the best-selling author of more than 100 romance and contemporary books and she has sold over 200 million copies.

 “Often times when we have a disability in one area we are often compensated in another area by a talent – for me it was storytelling. I wanted to become a writer because I had stories to tell.” Debbie Macomber

  • Jeanne Betancourt, author of over 80 children’s and YA books and scripts, My Name is Brain Brian.

“Since learning to read and write was difficult for me growing up, I paid more attention to the world around me. I took clues to what people were thinking and feeling from their speech and body language. Today, as an author, it is easy for me to imagine what it would be like to be in someone else’s shoes.” Jeanne Betancourt

  • Anne Rice, author of over 30 novels, including one of the best-selling novels of all time, Interview with the Vampire (which was made into a movie with another famous dyslexic, Tom Cruise).

“Go where the pleasure is in your writing. Go where the pain is.” Anne Rice

The list goes on…

  • Avi, author of over 80 books for children and young adults.
  • John Irving, American novelist, The World According to Garp.
  • The late thriller writer Vince Flynn.
  • Paranormal and urban fantasy writer Sherrilyn Kenyon (aka Kinley McGregor).
  • Lynda La Plante, best-selling crime writer.
  • Billy Bob Thornton, actor, scriptwriter and musician
  • and many, many more.

In many of the interviews I read, people said a similar thing: that their success was not despite their dyslexia, but because of it.

I pulled my daughter aside, pointed to the hundreds of names in my spreadsheet, and simply said: nothing is beyond you. Dyslexia can’t stop you.

Who do you want to read about? I would ask. Astronauts? Doctors? Actresses? Writers? The man who digs up dinosaurs? And she would tell me, and I would write their story and we would curl up in bed and I would read it to her.

Then I would find more names and write more stories. From Nobel Prize winners, Oscar winners and Olympians to Prime Ministers and Princesses. But not every child, dyslexia or not, can grow up to win a Nobel Prize, and few of us are born princesses.

I didn’t want to add to the stress she already finds herself under every day, so I found the stories of people whose names we do not know, with achievements no less breath-taking but more attainable for us mere mortals.

Soon I had so many stories she could pretty much name any career in the world, and I would be able to open the book to a page and point to a person whose story had been told. Chefs, artists, dancers, designers, musicians, sportspeople, comedians, inventors, philanthropists, activists, filmmakers and more.

Incredible people with inspiring stories and I can’t wait to share them with you.

When everything seems to be going against you, remember the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.

– Henry Ford

How I write

At one level, the act of writing is the same for all writers. We sit (or stand!) at our computer and press the keys with our fingers. Some may still enjoy the act of picking up a pen and writing in a notebook, but the mechanics are basically the same.

Letter after letter, word after word.

In practice though, the specifics of how we write can be worlds apart. James Clear in his blog, has a great list of the writing habits of twelve of the world’s most famous writers so I’m not going to repeat that (although it’s definitely worth a read).

And while I am certainly not on the same level as Maya Angelou or Ernest Hemingway, I am still a writer, and probably so are you, and by nature writers are curious and chatty – so here is how I write:

Early Bird

I usually wake between 4.30am and 5.30am. I don’t actually like waking this early, but it’s become habit over the years and if the number on my clock starts with a 4 (as opposed to a 3 in which case I roll over and try to go back to sleep) I will start my process.

Conveniently, this involves lying in the dark thinking about the scene I need to write next, fleshing out the details and dialogue, all the while still tucked up in bed. The mornings I think about my characters, perhaps try and picture them in my head, the setting, how they might have responded to the last thing I wrote, are the mornings when the words flow more freely.

When I blunder out of bed and head straight to the screen, I usually find myself staring at the blank page for ages, which in turn sends me into a panic because I’m wasting precious time. I should point out that I usually have a detailed chapter outline and plot that I am working to, so I already know the bones of what will happen in each chapter. It’s the details I need to imagine in my head while still curled up in my blankets.

Instant Coffee

I keep a kettle in my ensuite and one of the last things I do before bed [coffee purists look away NOW] is make up a little jar of Jarrah coffee, extra instant coffee and sugar. While the kettle is boiling and I am resisting the urge to look at my phone, I just need to tip everything into my B-Max mug and top up with a little cold water. I normally have plenty of milk in my coffee, but the act of walking downstairs, and the chance I might bump into another human, is enough to throw me off my writing game. So it’s instant coffee and I’m fine with that.

My study is just opposite my bedroom, so it’s on with the slippers and dressing gown, rub the dog’s belly when she wakes up, then turn on the fairy lights that are strung around my room. Together with a desk lamp, they are just enough light to work by, and not so bright I burn my eyes out before properly waking.

Time limited

I usually work in Scrivener, and I will read the last few paragraphs of what I have written to get me up to speed and then I will (hopefully) just launch in. I aim to write a minimum of 500 words before I reluctantly finish by 7am when I have to wake the kids and start prodding them to get ready. Thursdays are my least favourite because I have to finish before 6am to get one of my daughters to band practice. Weekends are the best because I can write until 8am, 9am, 10am before I get hungry and need to hunt and gather some food.

No interaction

I’m in the privileged position where the paid work I do can be done from home. This means that I am flexible and if I am on a writing roll and there are words that need to be written, as soon as the kids are at school I can sit back down and write. This rarely happens though, and if I do have time during the day it’s usually spent editing, researching, plotting, blogging, doing coursework or reading. For some reason I tend to do the bulk of my creative work in those dark hours at the start of my day, before the world has intruded, before I remember that I have three kids and a job and a house to clean and a dog to walk (just kidding, I rarely walk the dog).

Record progress

At the end of each session, when I am working on a first draft – like I am at the moment – I tally up the word count and write it on my wall calendar. It’s incredibly motivating seeing that number creep up and the day I scribble a huge circle and write ‘finished’ is always special. Then the work really starts, but finishing a first draft, no matter how shoddy and full of holes it may be, is an achievement worth celebrating.

Don’t aim for perfection

I don’t agonise over every word, but I do consider language carefully. I aim for my first draft to be pretty polished in terms of language, although I know I will certainly have to redraft in terms of story (and pace and consistency and everything else). When it comes down to it, I would rather leave a dodgy sentence in italics, or even a bunch of crosses to indicate further research is needed. As they say, it is easier to edit than write. That being said, I’ve left entire scenes and chapters unwritten if they’re too hard just so I can keep my writing momentum going.

Writing tools

At the end, regardless of whether it’s a short story of 2,000 words or a novel clocking in at 85,000, I then run the piece through Grammarly. Like me, Grammarly is fallible. It doesn’t like my syntax, says I am too verbose and thinks I’m American. At least half of what it picks up is unhelpful for me, but it always detects a handful of major errors I’m grateful to see the back of, usually repeating words words. I seem to do that a lot.

I am a terrible speller and I also find it difficult to see errors (read why my brain is a cheat and liar) so recently I started to use the read-aloud function to read me my story. This is usually when I hear most of my mistakes and to be honest, I find it a much more valuable tool than Grammarly.

More eyes

I am fortunate to have a fabulous writing group who have been critiquing one of my novels. It’s incredibly valuable to have different people look at my work and the conversations we have about small issues (specific word choice, technical details) and big issues (characterisation and plot) are priceless. It’s a relatively slow process though, and I am by nature impatient, so I also work with the fabulous Brooke Dunnell as my mentor. We work in much longer chunks of text (up to 20,000 words or an entire manuscript) and can look at the big picture issues.

My sister is usually the first person to read all of my books. As an engineer, she has a sharp eye for the tiny details and inconsistencies that pepper my story.

Only once have I ever sent my book out to a much larger group of beta readers, a terrifying and rewarding process I wrote about here.

How do I know when it’s done?

If I am honest, I am the sort of writer to send out books underdone rather than overcooked. This is partly because – as I mentioned – I am impatient. I’m also a hopeless optimist and just expect that publishers and judges will ‘get it’ even if it’s not as polished as it should be.

This may end up being my major undoing and one day I will discover that instead of being hopelessly optimistic, I am simply hopeless.

But I also love starting on new projects and have no shortage of ideas of what I want to do next. Since starting writing in earnest in 2017 I have written a book a year, and I often work on two projects at a time.

Of those books, one will be published next year, one is in the bottom drawer awaiting a full re-structure, one is out on submission, one is ‘mostly’ finished but needs a lot of work and one is my current WIP, having hit 17,000 words this morning.

Mix it up

My genre is a mixed bag: a non-fiction book for children, two historical fiction, one contemporary fiction and one literary fiction. I have the outline for a series of decodable chapter books for kids and have been toying with the idea of memoir. I like trying new things although it does make it difficult to explain what I do in a single sentence.

My grab-bag of genres is reflected in my hodgepodge of writing processes. While I covered the mechanics of how I write above, I have tried everything from 100% pantsing, to detailed plotting. I have written in a linear fashion from start to finish as well as jumping about, writing scenes from all over the book then attempting to fill in the gaps (not recommended). Sometimes I do the bulk of my research before I start, more often I research as I go.

It’s safe to say that my writing process is fairly fluid, and I am still determining what works best for me.

Read every day

Probably the most consistent thing about my process is that every night I must read in bed before I go to sleep. Since I wake so early, I don’t function terribly well by dinner time; you won’t get an intelligent conversation out of me let alone a coherent written sentence. Often I am crawling into bed with a book when some of my writing group are sitting down at their laptops starting their writing.

But I must read, all genres, every night before I go to sleep, even when I am so tired I am peering at the words with one eye closed because the effort to have two eyes open is too much.

Don’t feel guilty

One thing I have been trying to control over the years – especially lately when so much of our lives is uncontrollable – is not to let myself feel too much guilt over the things I am not doing. As writers we often start sentences with ‘I should be…’

I should be entering more short story competitions.

I should be writing more than 500 words a day.

I should be plotting that series of books.

I should be planning world-domination.

I should do that load of washing.

I should pick up the kids from school.

When I hear these words slip from my lips, I ask myself ‘who told you to do this?’

If the only person I have to answer to is myself, then I really need to decide if it’s a pie-in-the-sky bucket list kind of thing, or if it’s something I’m actually able to achieve at this point in time.

Being patient with and kind to myself is something I am working on and I remind myself that these things will happen all in good time (hopelessly optimistic, remember).

Except I really do need to remember to get the kids from school…

Seeing the World Through Her Eyes

My youngest daughter is severely dyslexic.

We first noticed a difference between her and her peers when she was in Kindy, and the older she gets, the more marked it is. Diagnosing her dyslexia was a costly and time-consuming process, and despite intensive intervention at school and at home, progress is painfully slow. 

Having a child with reading and writing difficulties is extra strange considering I spend my life reading and writing. It’s my chosen career, and for the most part find I it blissfully easy. Consequently, it’s been hard for me to take a step back and comprehend how the world appear to her.

Until I was sitting on the toilet recently. 

I know that sounds strange, but bear with me.

We have an Auslan finger spelling poster in the toilet that I often find myself staring at.

I pride myself on being able to rattle through the hand signs for the alphabet pretty quickly, just like my daughter now is finally (almost) able to recite the alphabet. We are both pretty good when asked to go from start to finish.

But if you ask either of us to read (or sign) one of the ‘trickier’ letters – for her it might be H and F, for me it would be signing H or G, we will pause, no longer certain, without the context of the surrounding letters.

If someone proficient in Auslan sign language came up to me and started spelling ‘Hello, my name is Sam’ I would panic. I’d have to ask them to go very slowly, one letter at a time, translating the hand shapes to sounds, and trying to hold them in my head while I concentrate on ‘reading’ the next sign.

In an ideal world, when reading H-E-L-L-O, you’re still meant to remember the ‘H’ by the time you get to ‘O’. 

But if I was watching someone sign the letters to me, I would probably be concentrating so much on recognising the ‘O’, that the ‘H’ would be long gone. The word I had just ‘spelled’ would be an incomplete collection of sounds and make no sense. I then imagined how hard it would be to keep an entire sentence in my head.

My heart sank.

That’s when I realised that’s what it must be like for my daughter every time we ask her to read. 

And while I don’t have to learn the Auslan finger signs, she HAS to learn how to read and write English. There is no avoiding it. For her, it is a mountain that must be scaled. Every day for the rest of her life.

For her, reading is excruciating and labour intense, and without any certainly that sounding the individual letters will actually makes any sense once she’s done.

Despite the difficulties she has, she is determined to persist. She blows the rest of us out of the water when it comes to working hard. We are developing little rules that help her remember each letter shape and sound. What is automatic and easy for most of us, involves a number of laboured steps for her.

Funnily enough, one thing she can write with no issue is the phrase ‘I love you’. She writes it a lot. On cards and pictures, on scraps of paper, on the shopping lists, on post-it notes that she leaves next to my bed. 

Yet the other week, when she had to read ‘YES’ it took about 10 steps.

First I wrote the phrase ‘I love you’ next to her word list. Then I circled the ‘Y’ in Yes and the ‘Y’ in You and joined them together, and then I waited. I watched her eyes dart from one phrase to the next, as she mouthed the sounds to herself.

‘I love you’ she whispered under her breath, ‘You’ and then she got to ‘Y’.

‘Yuh’, she said.

Then she looked back at the word YES. ‘Yuh – Eh – Ess’. She turned to be with a big grin ‘YES’ she shouted.

To which there was only one appropriate response: ‘I love YOU’ I replied.

This story originally appeared on Relentless, November 2018.

Journalling the Pandemic

It was around March last year that here, in Perth, we really noticed our world beginning to tip sideways from the COVId-19 pandemic. Those early days of the pandemic were memorable for heightened anxiety, fear, uncertainty, disbelief and hesitation. No one knew what lay ahead, we were treading a new path.

It affected so many aspects of our lives – how we dressed, how we spoke with new words being introduced to our vocab on a daily basis. It affected how we interacted with each other; social distancing, elbow bumps replaced handshakes, we stood on circles on the floor. Our first lockdown and closure of the schools was a terrifying and novel time.

I began keep an online journal around this time, recording not only my personal experiences and observations but links and excerpts from online news articles and screen shots of statistics and images. I bought an archive box and dropped in pages from the newspaper.

By April 2020 I had decided I wanted to write a novel which would capture this new historical era with its new social norms and dress code and speech patterns (I am a historical fiction writer after all). I wrote a bit more about the book here: Writing the Time of COVID-19 – shannonmeyerkort.com The book was initially called Letting Go, but after I completed it in June 2020, I changed the title to 100 Days of March. I think it’s a lot more evocative.

The novel is finished and I am seeking a home for it, but the journal is still growing. As of today, it is over 51,500 words and 175+ pages long. I wonder sometimes, how big it will be before the pandemic becomes an endemic and we stop referring to it as something that can be stopped or fixed.

Some excerpts from the journal…

2020

2021

to be continued…

Researching the Past (in Perth)

I recently had the honour of being asked to present to a sub-group of Family History WA. I was in my element, having an open floor (and captive audience) while I discussed my journey researching and writing my historical fiction book The Teacher.

It didn’t start out as a book. It started out as a university assignment in 2014. That grew into a submission for the local History Awards. Then, after researching the people and places for a year or two, consolidating them so firmly in my brain that I now considered them family, in 2017 I decided to write a book.

I’d never written a book before, unless you count the cringeworthy novella I penned in high school. (Note: never count the books you write in high school unless you’re someone like Dav Pilkey or S.E Hinton.)

So I started enrolling in writing courses, and since then have done no less than nine – some short, some long. I am constantly learning and pushing myself. I have a long way to go.

But this short post today is not about writing, but researching.

I created a handout for the FHWA Writers Group that listed some of the websites I have discovered (or have been shared with me) over the years. Most of these are relevant only to West Australian researchers, but I feel confident there would be similar sites for other states that wouldn’t take much to discover.

West Australian Legislation: this site details the historical acts and amendments passed by Parliament all the way back 1832. You can search by portfolio (ie Minister for Mental Health, Minister for Small Business etc) or ‘As passed’ which is the year they were passed ie Lunacy Act, Elementary Education Act etc. It makes for some fascinating reading.

https://www.legislation.wa.gov.au/legislation/statutes.nsf/home.html

State Library of WA: It seems pretty obvious but this site has a wealth of resources, including the Wise post office directories, police gazettes, music, film, images, private collections and more. I also recommend following the SLWA on Facebook because they often release collections of historical photographs, which makes a nice change from cat videos and pictures of people’s breakfast.

https://www.slwa.wa.gov.au/explore-discover/wa-heritage

Post Office Directories: the specific link to the Post Office Directories which is a great way to find people in the past from 1893 to 1949. The directories provide name, address, locality and trade/professions. These have actually been one of the greatest sources of information for my research – finding people, seeing how stable or transient they are, determining their ages and relationship status, following their careers and families. It’s amazing what you can deduce from the directories.

https://slwa.wa.gov.au/explore-discover/wa-heritage/post-office-directories

World War 1 Service Records: if you’re researching anyone who did service in WW1, the National Archives have detailed records for each soldier, which can include ‘bonus’ extras such as health records (did they contract VD during service?), commendations and wrong-doings, letters to/from home and more.

https://www.naa.gov.au/explore-collection/defence-and-war-service-records/army-world-war-i-1914-18

11th Battalion AIF website: If you’re specifically interested in the West Australian 11th Battalion, this website has personal histories and diaries, images as well as enlistment and embarkation details of Western Australia’s soldiers.

http://www.11btn.wags.org.au/    

Landgate: If you’re researching the previous owners of your home then you can apply to Landgate for the historical title deeds. It will include information such as name, address, occupation and sometimes information about bank loans and mortgages.

https://www0.landgate.wa.gov.au/titles-and-surveys/historical-records

Local museums: Did you know there are more than 150 museums in WA. I didn’t! This Wikipedia lists a huge range of museums from the Aviation Heritage Museum to the Colonial Hospital Museum and the WACA Museum. Most of them have websites which means you’re only one step away from learning about the history of cricket in WA.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_museums_in_Western_Australia

Lost Perth: This fabulous site and its respective Facebook page are full of brilliant old photos from Perth – but it’s the accompanying comments from hundreds of readers that add a level of personal detail that is priceless when you’re writing a book. A great place to get a feel for the history of Perth.

https://lostperth.com.au

Old Maps of Perth: This site provides links to vintage online maps from 1800s (across the globe).

https://www.oldmapsonline.org

Old Perth: historical photographs of old buildings and streets predominantly from the Perth CBD.

http://oldperth.org.au/

Collections WA: historical WA images and stories organised by theme – such as environment, immigration, people, popular culture, social history, war etc.

https://collectionswa.net.au

The Royal Western Australian Historical Society: Go to their book sales which are held twice a year – the local history books are inside and there are tables dedicated to WA as well as Australian history. Take a big bag!

https://www.histwest.org.au

Local councils: Your local council often will have a heritage department and dedicated staff who can assist with historical questions relating to their suburbs.

And last but not least Family History WA is a brilliant place for anything associated with historical research. Not only do they have multiple sub-groups focussing on special interest topics, they have a well-stocked library and research room that is accessible for members (or a small fee for the public).

https://membership.wags.org.au

What sites have you found most helpful when researching the past?

Your brain is a cheat and a liar

Every writer knows you should read your work out loud, and traditionally this is what I have done. Hours upon hours of my droning voice reading short stories and articles, correspondence and novels, trying to hear how it sounds and find mistakes along the way.

However, it turns out your brain is both a cheat and liar – it sees what it wants to see – so it will happily skip over typos and omissions in your work, telling your mouth to read it anyway because that’s what you want to hear.

Your brain is that friend who flatters you insincerely: no your adverbs don’t look big in that sentence. It autocorrects your clangers so you aren’t embarrassed by your own stupidity.

It’s only recently I have discovered the wonder of the Read Aloud function in MS Word, but it’s pretty much changed my (writing) life.

When you choose ReadAloud, you’re choosing an ally who reads only what is there  ̶  the typos, the bad grammar, the repeated words and the over-dependence on certain phrases. It doesn’t seek to flatter or reassure. It is a true friend – the one who tells you there is a huge piece of spinach in your teeth, which has probably been there since breakfast.

My book 100 Days of March has gone through multiple drafts. I have stared at its pages for over a year. I felt confident enough to send it to a publisher, but when I recently opened it back up and turned on Read Aloud, I was mortified by the sheer number of errors peppering my novel. Errors I could not see, but I could hear when someone else read them to me.

For example:

To my mind this paragraph looked fine, but when it was read out loud, it became clear just how many times I had used ‘her’ and ‘she’ in the same sentence. Not to mention the missing word. I needed to completely rewrite it.

It seems obvious now, but until this was read out loud, my brain didn’t register the double use of ‘care.’ 

I must have read this paragraph a dozen or more times over the past year, but it was only when I used readaloud that I realised I had used the wrong name halfway through.

Sometimes your brain doesn’t see an error because in a different context it wouldn’t actually be an error. In this example I use the wrong tense, it should be made instead of make.

I couldn’t see this tiny typo until it was read to me

Even when writing this blog I still couldn’t see what the error in this section was and had to go back to my full manuscript to find the difference. I could not see the absence of the word ‘to’ but when it was read to me, I could hear it clear as can be.

Another example of the brain seeing what it wants to see. Two words are inverted but I didn’t realise until it was read aloud.

It’s possible readers of this blog saw all the errors immediately, they probably jumped out of the page and body slammed you. But to me, these and many more like them had become invisible. It took about a week to have the computer read my entire book to me, but in that time it alerted me to a range of errors:

  • Typos (I had written modestly, but it should have been modesty)
  • Repeating the same word, phrase or concept in adjoining sentences/paragraphs
  • Where a word is omitted or in the wrong order
  • Lack of commas or too many commas (the voice pauses at a comma)
  • An over-dependency on certain mannerisms. For example my characters kept shrugging and rolling their eyes. Once the voice had alerted me to the repetition, I did a search to count how many times I used them throughout the text, and replaced them with alternate mannerisms where appropriate.

You can find Read Aloud in the ‘Review’ tab of MS Word. You can choose between voices (my old Word version has posh Catherine or even posher James, but I think newer versions have more options). You also need to be prepared for the occasional massacre of words and names. For example, Posh Catherine would pronounce Saoirse (which should be see-sha) as ‘sour-arse’. Go on – try it!

You can vary the speech at which the voice talks, but apart from a sweet spot in the middle, the two extremes are both utterly ridiculous and were probably just included as a horrible joke.

I doubt I will ever send a piece of work out again without first having Posh Catherine (not her real name) read my work to me.

Luckily I practice what I preach, or else I would have hit ‘publish on this.