2020: My Best Year Yet

This year I had a success rate of 14% and it’s my best year yet.

I realise that sounds embarrassing/pathetic/suspicious (pick one) but bear with me, because those numbers are something I am really proud of.

I have written about my ‘Submissions Database’ before; an otherwise unremarkable Excel spreadsheet where I list every story I send out into the world, every competition I enter, every residency or job I apply for.

Dating back to 2009 there are a total of 115 entries. Some years I only entered one competition or sent a single story off for consideration. Those were the years I was blogging prolifically, spending most of my energy on my blogs such as Relentless, the now abandoned but rather amusing Meat, Three Veg and a Bottle of Wine (an idea I blatantly stole from Julie and Julia where I blog about cooking my way through a recipe book) and of course Fundraising Mums which I sold earlier this year.

In the outcome column, some of the cells have been highlighted in a washed-out shade of red, my colour of success, indicating the story got published, I placed in a competition or some other marker of accomplishment.

There’s not a lot of red in 2020.

But there are 36 entries this year – almost 1/3 of my lifetime’s writing efforts this year alone.

I entered 10 short story competitions (I was highly commended/published in two).

I entered 5 full-length manuscript competitions (two different books, no luck here. Time for a rewrite).

I applied for 4 writing residencies or mentorships (bit bummed to miss out on some of these).

I pitched 5 articles to magazines/websites (no joy. Goal for next year).

I entered 2 flash fiction competitions (fun but no luck).

I did 3 virtual pitches to publishers (2 asked to see the full manuscript. Hugely exciting).

I submitted my books to 6 publishers or agents (the agent wasn’t interested, still waiting to hear back from the publishers. Fingers crossed).

I was asked to write one guest blog post.

I also found an editor for my children’s book, joined a local writing group of like-minded history-lovers, completed three writing courses, found an awesome mentor, wrote 41 42 blog posts, sent my novel to 10 beta readers while book-keeping/admin-ing for my husband’s company and mothering three daughters and a fur-baby.

My goal at the start of the year was simply to put myself and my writing out into the world. This meant in 2020 I was entering or applying for something three times every month.

Luckily for me and my 14%, being successful wasn’t my ultimate goal (something I shall have to reconsider for 2021). Perhaps at times I was a little over-zealous, but I have learned a lot from those rejections, from the near-misses and will go into the new year with a fresh and more finely-tuned approach.

What are your writing goals for 2021?

Virtual Literary Speed Dating – tips from a first-timer

This year I put on my big girl panties and found the nerve to do three virtual literary speed dates, pitching two different manuscripts to three different publishers.

Literary speed dating is an opportunity to bypass the slush piles and get yourself in front of publishers and agents – the very people with the power to turn your manuscript into a book.

In the past, the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) have run face-to-face speed date events in the eastern states. One of the few positives to COVID-19 is that many events – literary speed dating included – have gone online, which has opened it up to writers from the West (and middle) who previously would have been unlikely to fly to Melbourne or Sydney for a 3-minute chat.

I won’t pretend it wasn’t utterly terrifying, but at the same time I felt so privileged to be able to talk about my manuscripts to three individuals who love books as much as I do. I’m not going to spend much time here talking about how to write the perfect pitch (the ASA do a great prep course for that) but instead offer some more practical advice for anyone considering a virtual pitch session in the future.

What is involved in virtual literary speed dating:

The literary speed dating event I attended in December 2020 was held over two days, with 13 publishers and 6 agents. Some of the publishers had two separate sessions, one for children and YA and the other for novels/non-fiction.

Bookings opened a month or so prior to the event, with priority given to people 200km or more from Sydney and Melbourne.

You were limited to a maximum of three sessions, each costing $25. You are asked to prepare a 3-minute pitch with the possibility of questions from the publisher/agent afterwards.

Each publisher or agent had a 90-minute window, so assuming 5 minutes per pitch, that’s only 18 possible spots for each person. Even if they allowed only 4 minutes per person, that’s still only 22 spots, so you can see why most of the appointments booked out well in advance of the event.

About ten days prior I was sent an email with my precise appointment time (ie. 10.58am) and a Zoom link.

You are asked to click on the link and enter the waiting room at least five minutes prior to the session. Someone from the ASA introduces you and the publisher and then you just need to launch into it – no time for small talk. Expect the third person to be ‘in the room’, for at least part of the talk.

If you go over the three minutes a small bell will ring. For each of my pitches, the publisher asked questions afterwards, but all up the sessions were no more than five minutes. Then you click the ‘leave meeting’ link, and that’s it.

After your session the publishers/agents have seven days to give their list of ‘matches’ to the ASA, who then have another week before informing the successful pitches.  I imagine the publishers spend that week wisely, researching the authors and Facebook stalking them, so it’s probably a good idea to make sure your socials are up to date and looking the best they possibly can.

If you haven’t matched to anyone (ie if the publisher is not interested in hearing any more about your manuscript) you will be told, it won’t just be tumbleweeds and crickets. But either way, it’s potentially up to two weeks before you know if your pitch was successful of not.

Do’s and Don’ts of Literary Speed Dating

Do your research – Choosing just three publishers from the amazing line-up can be really difficult but you want to make sure you don’t waste anyone’s time. I printed the lists and immediately got to work crossing out any publisher or agent who explicitly stated they were not interested in my genre, and then I began researching the rest. How you decide which publisher is the best fit for your book is a question for another time, but suffice to say it seemed prudent to pitch to a publisher whose list isn’t currently open for submissions and to one of my dream publishers – whose list might be open but I wanted to make that face-to-face connection.

Don’t leave it to the last minute – Most of us aren’t the type of person who can just ad lib a TEDx talk – it takes time and many practice sessions to nail your pitch. I practiced when walking the dog, in the shower, lying on the trampoline, waiting for the kids to get out of school. I got a number of strange looks from other parents who thought I was going loopy talking to myself, but the more I practiced the more familiar it became, and even though I got nervous on the day and mixed the order up, I knew instinctively what I had and hadn’t said, and didn’t forget anything too important.

Do practice online (preferably with a friend who is also pitching) – it’s very different speaking to someone via Zoom than it is in real life. If you don’t have someone to practice with, video yourself on your computer. Listen to the quality of the sound and figure out where your computer’s microphone is so you know where you’re speaking to. Also check what you’re wearing and how it translates onscreen. During a practice session my friend pointed out my top matched the floral pelmet over my window… good advice: don’t match the furniture.

Do check your background – have you got a clear, pleasant background? No chance of someone walking past naked on the way to the shower? Do you really want your collection of vintage Virginia Andrews on the shelves behind you? Is there too much glare from the window? Hopefully your pitch will be so incredible they won’t be able to drag their eyes off you, but it helps if you don’t have weird things in the background.

Do check your settings – make sure the name that shows up in the corner of the Zoom screen is actually yours and not some funny pun you forgot to change [TIP: make it as easy as possible for them to remember who you are]. When you click on the zoom link and it gives you the option of ‘join with audio’ and ‘join with video’ make sure you do this upfront, otherwise the session will start and they will be waiting while you poke around looking for the ‘join audio’ button. (I’m speaking from experience).

Do turn your phone off – turn anything with notifications off. Lock the dog away. Bribe the kids to stay quiet. Put a note on the door forbidding people from knocking. If your chair squeaks, sit still!

Do remember the time difference – your session times will be sent to you in Eastern Standard Time. Living in Perth, it meant my first session was 7.48am which was fine for me because I’m up with the sparrows anyway, but it would be devastating to miss your session because you forgot the time difference.

Don’t rush (but do time yourself) – you only have three minutes so there is no point trying to fit five minutes worth of talking in. They won’t understand a word you say. The ASA in their Pitch Perfect Course say 390 words is 3 minutes of talking. My pitches were between 500-550 words which took around 2 minutes 40-50 seconds when I practiced. On the day though, I ran over in one session and they had to ring the bell and with the other I finished long before my 3 minutes were up. Perhaps I forgot something or spoke to fast… I will never know.

Do have notes nearby – I wrote about 5 versions of each pitch before I was happy, and then after days of practicing, knew which bits I was likely to forget. I typed my pitch with the first few words of each section BOLDED and the bits I always forgot highlighted. Then I stuck this on the wall just above my camera’s line-of-sight (so if I glanced at it, I didn’t have to look wildly off in another direction). I also kept a copy of one of my comparison books on hand, so when the publisher asked how I imagined by book would look, I held it up and she knew instantly what I was getting at. As one of my books was non-fiction, I had a list of chapter headings on hand in case they asked.

Do remember your goal – it’s important to remember that this is just a single step in a very long journey. They very best you can hope for is a ‘match’ which means they want to hear more [note: you will be told precisely what ‘more’ involves by the ASA. It might be a 300 word synopsis and a brief bio or it might be the whole manuscript.] You won’t get any feedback during the session, and unlikely (but not impossible) you will get an instant response.

Do be realistic about what a yes means – matching with an agent or publisher is just a chance to show them more, it’s not a guaranteed publishing contract.

Don’t forget your comparative texts – help contextualise your manuscript by mentioning a couple of comparative texts or authors. Be realistic though. My friend Rachael Keene, shortlisted for the 2020 Banjo Prize (name drop name drop) also reminded me of the importance of talking about universal themes. As someone who doesn’t usually think about themes when writing, this was a challenge for me, but now it’s the ONLY way I describe my books (my plots can be a bit complicated).

Do have a glass of water – pitching is nervy work, have a glass of water on hand.

Don’t expect your session to start exactly on time – none of my sessions started on time, but it was only a few minutes wait. Be ready – when the little motif starts spiralling on the screen you have only a second or two to compose yourself.

Do listen for any feedback or comments – if agents/publishers ask questions or make comments, try and remember what they say. Chances are, you should work this info into your next pitch.

Do be prepared for a yes – if you get a match you don’t want to make the publisher or agent wait a week while you perfect your synopsis. Polish your manuscript and have a 200 and 300 word synopsis and short bio ready to go. Look at the submission criteria of the publisher you are pitching to, so you can get an idea of what they might ask for.

*

All in all, my three pitches went as well as I could have hoped, despite an electrician asking if he could turn off the power literally one minute before one session started and the dog running into the room barking like the possessed during another session.

I was lucky enough to have one publisher ask to see my manuscript before my three minutes were up, but I am still waiting to hear if I matched with either of the other two.

My one take-home message for writers is that you cannot underestimate the value in pitching face-to-face to your dream publisher (even if their submissions are open). And even if that means missing out on pitching to someone whose list might be closed or who might have the ‘bigger name’ then it is probably well worth that cost.

*

Publishers and agents present at December 2020 ASA Literary Speed Dating:

Fremantle Press

Harlequin

UNSW Press

Pantera Press

Penguin Random House

Thames and Husdon

Affirm Press

Hardie Grant

Pan Macmillan

Booktopia

Simon and Schuster

UQP

Allen and Unwin

Shaw Literacy

Melanie Ostell Literacy

Curtis Brown

Left Bank Literacy

Sarah McKenzie

Alex Adsett

How to Make a Book Tree

Every year, usually late November the pictures start making the rounds of social media. Gorgeous Christmas trees, some colourful, some monochrome, all covered in lights and utterly adorable because they’re made from books.

This year I decided I wanted to make my own.

I’m one of those annoying people who sort their books by colour. It looks glorious but makes it very difficult to find specific books – but for once my classification system worked for me.

My Book Tree stands about a metre tall and took 100+ books in total. You can obviously go as big as you want, but the bigger the tree the more prudent you need to be with sorting and placing books. Books are notoriously slippery suckers (after all they suck you in to their worlds and make you forget you’re meant to be cooking dinner) and if you have inquisitive small children or pets, you don’t want to ruin Christmas with a book-related emergency.

What do you need?

You will need two solid boxes, one bigger than the other. I was fortunate to have a large round hat box which I used for the bottom layer, but a square box would work as well. Don’t use an empty box – the weight of the books on top might collapse it.

Lights and a star really help from turning your tree from ‘pile of books’ to ‘Christmas delight’. Avoid candles though, as festive as they are, you want your books to survive the holiday season.

Lots of lovely books.

Something to consider

I have seen Book Trees which have the spines facing in, which not only hides your embarrassing vintage collection of Virginia Andrews, but makes it look more uniformly white. This is a good option if you don’t want people scrutinising your taste in books or you have a preference for minimalism.

The most solid trees are those with the largest, hard-cover books at the base of the tree, working your way up to the small, thin novellas. This requires some serious book taxonomy as you need to sort all your books before you start into size, thickness and shape to ensure each layer is perfectly matched. It makes colour sorting virtually impossible but is essential for the larger Book Trees.

I wanted a rainbow Book Tree, so I played a little hard and fast with the sorting. It gives it a lovely lop-sided shape.

How to make a Book Tree

Place your box and start with a layer of your largest books. They don’t need to be flush against the box, I actually kept pulling my bottom layer out as I went, a kind of book jenga. Add your next layers, overlapping books as though you were building a brick wall.

The most important thing to consider is that you use books of similar thickness for each layer. It doesn’t matter if they are different sizes, but don’t be putting Cloud Atlas alongside Breakfast at Tiffany’s and expect your tree to stay up.

If you’re doing a rainbow tree, stop and admire the authors who have bold and bright spines. I find it curious that a lot of my favourite Australian authors have blue and green books. In fact, if I needed a sticker, my tree would be:

Each layer requires less books, but if you are like me, you had plenty of books to include, so go back and carefully pull out the bottom layer if you need to (this is where you will be grateful for those enormous novels that make your arms tired when you read them in bed at night).

Add your second box, and keep working around it, fitting the books in layers around it, and getting smaller as you go. I used a kettle box (with kettle in it) for my second box – you want it to be taller and thinner than your first box.

The last few layers should just be single books – I found my lovely bright Penguin Classics worked a treat here. This is where you add the star and some strings of lights.

The last step is to stand back with a glass of wine (or cup of tea) and admire your handiwork. Get the books from your To Be Read pile, wrap them in Christmas paper and place under your Book Tree.

If you have been admiring the gorgeous screenprints on the shelves in the background, they are from my friend Emily who has an Etsy shop EmilyRedStudioArt by EmilyRedStudioArt on Etsy

Merry Christmas!

Finding Story Talismans and Motifs

The decision to completely rewrite a book from scratch brings with it an opportunity I missed the first time around – having clarity about how I want it to look and feel.

When I started Behind Closed Doors in early 2019, I had a story I wanted to tell, and I charged into the telling of it with all the grace of a hippo trying on shapewear. It wasn’t a completely terrible story – it won me a place on the KSP/Four Centres Emerging Writers Program – but I wasn’t 100% convinced that the story I wrote was the one I had wanted to tell.

One thing I will be doing differently this time is introducing story talismans for my characters.

A talisman – or motif – is a literary device that is associated with a particular character or location and which is repeated throughout the story. It has both meaning and significance like a symbol, but unlike symbolism which is often just used once (such as a raincloud descending just as the protagonist realises they have made a terrible mistake or the character getting stuck in a traffic jam to symbolise his inability to move forward), a motif is repeated purposefully throughout the book.

Motifs and talismans can be objects, colours, emotions, settings, phrases or words. They are deliberate and considered, and add layers to your story’s theme.

As explained by NY Book Editors: ‘It’s the difference between a towel and a tapestry. A story without motifs is an ordinary kitchen towel. It’ll do its job, but it’s not spectacular in any way. On the other hand, a story with motifs is like a handwoven tapestry. It takes time, skill, and careful deliberation to hand weave a pleasing picture or meaningful design into a piece of fabric.’

As I begin to develop my characters and plot the new story, I am experimenting with finding talismans for each of my characters. They must feel organic and symbolise both the character’s story and journey.

For example, I have a character affected by dementia, and her talisman will be clocks and calendars to symbolise the passage of time. If I have a scene with a clock that has stopped, or she discovers a calendar from years past, it will symbolise a lack of progress and being stuck in the past. Even her name, April, is related to the idea of time.

Her husband, Roger will have an elephant as a talisman, perhaps it will be embroidered onto a shirt, a painting on his study wall or a brass ornament on his desk. Elephants are symbolic of patience and stamina, longevity, family love, long memories as well as fortune and success. He will need all of these things as he cares for his wife over the years.

The motifs are not necessarily part of the story and often do not carry any extra meaning for the characters themselves. It is something between the author and audience – Reedsy talks about leaving the motifs like a ‘trail of breadcrumbs’ for the reader to find. They must be both subtle yet significant.

The nice thing about motifs is that you don’t actually need to have them figured out for your first draft. They can easily be introduced into a later draft – and sometimes they might not be immediately apparent, and only after spending time with your characters do they become obvious. This is the blog from Reedsy about the different ways you can introduce motifs to your book as well as some examples from literature.

I wrote about all of my ten characters for the first version of Behind Closed Doors, but six of them were secondary, and they’re now getting a promotion to primary characters. But I already know them, which is why deciding on their talisman has been relatively straightforward.

It’s been fun thinking about each character and these special, meaningful images that I will pepper throughout their stories. I imagine that by the time I finish the first draft of the new book, the motifs will have changed or broadened somewhat, but I hope they add a richness to the story, that perhaps was missing from the first version.

If you’re interested in adding motifs to your story, here are a couple of websites that talk about symbols and animal totems: something might suddenly leap out as being relevant to your story.

Starting from Scratch (again)

I was brushing my teeth this morning, a mundane activity that doesn’t usually involve much thought, when I had the sudden realisation the book I spent half a year writing and had already redrafted twice was – in fact – the wrong book, and I needed to rewrite it entirely.

Despite what you might expect, this didn’t fill me with dread (not entirely). Instead I was excited because along with the understanding that the book I had written was not the story I wanted to tell, came the simultaneous insight that I knew what the story was meant to be.

Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park once said that ‘Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten’ and I now understand that until I wrote my 2020 book Letting Go, I would never understand why my 2019 book Behind Closed Doors wasn’t working. More on that later.

Behind Closed Doors was inspired by the true story of an American couple who stayed together after the wife discovered her husband’s secret. In real life, the secret was known very early on in the marriage, in my fictionalised version, it was discovered after many years. I also took the liberty of jumping continents and moving the story 50 years into past, because why else become a writer if not to manipulate the world into how you want it to be?

I wrote the book in a mad dash to the finish line, without ever asking myself what I was trying to write. This is one disadvantage of being a pantser, and just blundering ahead through the dense forest of story, without so much as a literary map or even a torch so you can see what’s ahead of you.

I have since learned my lesson.

After doing the Cut, Shape, Polish self-editing course through the AWC I kept butting against the queries: ‘what is the story question?’ and ‘what is your theme?’. Turns out I had confused both of these with my title. Rookie mistake.

And while I want to explore the notion ‘that you never really know what goes on behind closed doors…’ it wasn’t quite the question I wanted to answer. As a result, the book has always sat uncomfortably with me, a bit like the awkward cousin that sits silently at Christmas lunch then makes inappropriate jokes.

But the book I wrote this year seemed to avoid those problems. Letting Go flowed from the first moment I picked up the pen. For a start, I knew my themes, I knew what I wanted to put on the page, and I had six characters I loved and stories I wanted to tell. They grew together like a vine; and while they all have their own voices, they wrap around each other, a balance of support and inter-dependence.

Behind Closed Doors on the other hand, focussed entirely on one couple over thirty years of marriage, while only touching on the people around them. When I realised that my question was actually: ‘are there different ways of being married and loving each other?’ I understood that the book I really needed to write was not just about one couple, but all five couples.

I need to completely rewrite my book from the ground up.

Bernard Malamud, author of The Fixer said: ‘I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times – once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say.’

I’m hoping that the first version of Behind Closed Doors (which clocked in at 99,900 words) and the second version (a slimmed down 82,000 words) covers at least some of that process, but I am also realistic enough to know that I will probably only use 30-40% for this new book.

But I love the idea of compelling a book to say what it must say, and this time, I will be planning and plotting to make sure the words on the page match the vision in my mind.

Finding Beta Readers (Making yourself vulnerable)

My youngest daughter is addicted to unboxing videos – short movies about people taking toys out of boxes and seeing them for the first time, especially ‘blind bag’ toys, where you don’t know which toy you’re going to get. In the scheme of random internet weirdness, it’s at the harmless end, but after recently filming my very own book unboxing – I’m beginning to understand her obsession.

Let’s take a step back.

This year I wrote Letting Go*, a contemporary novel that explores some of the themes of life (and death) in the era of COVID-19. It’s not actually about coronavirus, but it’s set during this unique period, which is how – as a historical fiction writer – I justified it to myself.

I have been working with a brilliant mentor, Brooke Dunnell as well as a range of experts who have guided me in my writing about certain professions. 

It was the author and paramedic Tammie Bullard who gave me the best advice about finding Beta Readers. Firstly, I needed some, and secondly how I should present my book to them.

What is a Beta Reader?

A Beta Reader is someone who reads the second draft of your book – it should be relatively polished and already had at least one edit, but it’s not yet ready to be sent to a professional. Their job is to provide constructive feedback as an informed casual reader – they’re looking at big picture issues such as story, characters, timing and basic structure: does the story work?

I’ve never used Beta Readers before. I’ve taken advantage of my sister’s good nature and asked her to read early drafts of manuscripts, and I’ve swapped manuscripts with other writers for a detailed critique, but until this year, I’d never finished a book to the point where I felt confident sending it out into the world to readers.

What do you give them?

Tammie’s second piece of good advice was to present my manuscript as an actual book by getting it printed by IngramSpark. There is a world of difference between being presented with a ream of paper held together by a bulldog clip (which is how I presented The Teacher to my sister to read) and a spiral-bound copy printed at Officeworks (which is how I gave her Behind Closed Doors) and an actual, beautiful book with a colour cover, perfectly sized to read while lying down in bed. Automatically it’s going to change your attitude towards the story, not to mention the logistics of how you can read it.

As a side note, it also ended up being considerably cheaper getting the book printed through IngramSpark (approx $14 a copy including postage) than spiral-bound at Officeworks (approx $20).

Admittedly it wasn’t the most straightforward process in the world and there was some cursing and appeals for help, but once I got through my tantrum, barely 30 hours after I hit ‘print’ I received a box of books at my front door, and I think you can agree they look much more palatable than the alternative.

book versus spiral bound

This is when I grabbed my phone and wishing my daughter was at home to witness, I filmed my very own book unboxing [see below].

And yes – I did smell the book (it smelled like awesomeness).

Alternatively, you can send your manuscript to readers electronically as a PDF file. Almost every phone, laptop and tablet has eBook software already loaded, so it’s easy for readers to upload your book to their virtual bookshelf and take it with them wherever they go. Some may prefer a Word file so they can make comments in track changes. Give them what they need, and I’m rather certain that what they don’t need is a stack of papers held together with a bulldog clip (sorry Kellie).

How many Beta readers do you need?

The general consensus is between three to five readers, but it also depends if you already know people who are willing to read for you or are you looking for strangers**?

You might be part of a writing group who are happy to read your book, but keep in mind that if they have already poured over your story in a piecemeal fashion, critiquing your work as you write it, they might not be the fresh pair of eyes you need. And that’s what you need from Beta Readers – someone new to look at your story from start to finish and think ‘does this work?’

I printed ten copies of my book, because it seemed like a nice round number, and have given nine copies away. But of those nine, I’m only expecting five or six people to offer feedback.

What should you expect from them?

With each copy of my book, I gave them a brief list of questions. I do not expect a full manuscript appraisal, I just want to know whether the story is working and if there are any major plot holes and character issues I need to sort out.

Tammie phrased the major question in a way that really resonated with me: simply asking Beta Readers what made them stop reading?

It’s a clever way of identifying when something isn’t working, because when you are in the story, and everything is working perfectly, you disappear into the world of the story, like Alice down her rabbit hole. But when something causes you to stop reading, and you’re dragged back into the real world, the illusion is shattered. Beta readers can help you find those places in your story that made them stop reading.

These are the questions I asked my Beta readers – they will be different for everyone.

Quality of the writing

  • At what point did you start to feel you were ‘in’ the story? (I wanted to determine if I started the story too early, or if the start was too slow)
  • Did you stop reading or get dragged out of the story at any point – it might be over-writing, typos, confusion, boredom, cliches, timeline glitch, too much description etc (Ask them to mark the section with a pencil or fold the corner down if they’re not sure exactly why they stopped reading)

Plot and structure

  • Was the story believable?
  • Were the 6 storylines and characters balanced and easy to follow? (Normally you wouldn’t ask this, but I have six primary characters with at least three chapters each – I needed to make sure readers could follow the jumps between chapters)
  • How did you feel about the ending?

Future changes

  • If you could change one thing about the story, what would it be? (This is a pretty open question and not everyone will be able to give you a useful answer, but if you’ve ever read a book and been left with a sour taste because of one annoying thing that you wish the author had done differently, you will understand why I included it)
  • Were there any obvious typos or mistakes?

Characters and setting

  • Did you care about the characters?
  • Which character did you like the most and why?
  • Which character did you like the least and why?
  • How did you feel about the setting being COVID-era?

Do you have any other comments, questions or thoughts about the book?

What should you do with their feedback?

While we’re all secretly hoping readers love every word and hand the book back saying ‘it was utterly perfect apart from the typo on page 67’ we also know that’s never going to happen.

Firstly, take a deep breath before you start reading their comments – remember that your Beta Readers (should) want to help you make your book the best it can possibly be. They’re not out to destroy you.

Secondly, remember that a lot of feedback will be very subjective and you can choose to ignore if you think they are completely off-track. 

I am sorting the feedback as it comes back into different categories:

  • Small changes and typos: these are the easiest to change and might be as simple as correcting spelling or adding in a sentence or word to clarify something.
  • Questions by readers: this is where they have been confused by an element of the story or they have picked up an inconsistency or plot hole. They require a bit of thought to fix and will require some rewriting.
  • Big picture issue: this is where you might find comments like ‘this character is not believable’ or ‘your timeline is messed up’ or ‘your dialogue throughout doesn’t work’ or ‘perhaps you should restructure your entire book and write it backwards.’ This feedback (should you choose to accept it) probably requires extensive rewrites. And a large glass of wine.
  • I am also taking the time to pause when I see a comment like: ‘I love this!’ or ‘Yes’, not only because it makes me feel good, but because it’s good to see what has caused readers to react like this. Is it a particularly snappy piece of dialogue, a beautifully written description or where a character does something heroic? If you can understand what makes your readers respond like this, you can try and do more of it.

Until all the feedback comes back in, I’m not dwelling too much on the individual responses. There’s little point getting hung up on the first response and planning changes if all the subsequent feedback contradicts it.

If all your readers pick up on the same issue, then clearly that is something you must address. If only one out of five say something is a problem, and the others love it, then they might be an outlier and you can choose to ignore it.

But consider all comments carefully – if you find yourself wanting to argue a point, perhaps the feedback might be misguided, but there still might be an underlying issue you need to address.

Making yourself vulnerable

While it’s tempting to assume that most feedback will be devastating, that it will hurt your feelings and crush your spirit – depending on who you choose as Beta Readers, you might find you get less criticism than you actually want.

You should assume there are problems with your book, and you need your Beta Readers to help to find out what they are. But if all they are saying is that they enjoyed your book, this may be code for:

– ‘I didn’t like it but I don’t want to hurt your feelings’

– ‘Meh’

– ‘I don’t feel qualified to make criticisms’

Or perhaps your questions are too broad to capture the nuances of their reading. This is where a chat over a cup of coffee and piece of cake might prove fruitful – they might be willing to say things in the context of a friendly chat, that they weren’t willing to put down in black and white. Make sure you have a pen and paper because this is where the gold will probably be discovered.

It’s been with mixed feelings that I have been handing my book out. I am so proud of myself for having finished it, and while I know it is far from perfect, it’s probably the best thing I have ever written (so far!). While I have been blogging and writing publicly for a decade, you put so much more of yourself into a novel – it feels more personal. Also, while there is always the option for people to comment on a blog or online article, handing a piece of your heart in the form of a book to another person and asking them ‘tell me if you like it’ exposes that raw underbelly we usually tend to protect.

I am excited to get the feedback though because no matter what it is, I know that it is well-intentioned and designed to help me make the book as good as it possibly can be. And with any luck, the next time I do an unboxing, it will be coming from a publishing house.  

*I printed Letting Go under a different title 100 Days of March so there would never be any concern that my book had already been ‘published’ but now I think I prefer the alternative title! And yes, my name is missing off the cover. That’s a long story and one of the reasons there was much swearing involved.

**There are several companies which offer beta reader services at a price as well as Facebook groups you can join to exchange manuscripts

Can you make money from blogging?

Five years ago I sat in the front row of a Pro-Blogger event listening to a range of speakers – all professional bloggers – describe the copious amount of money they earned from their blogs.

I was incredulous.

I had been under the distinct impression that writing, in any form, was a humbling and poverty-inducing career choice; that one chose it from a place of deep desire, like a religious calling, and not because you could actually make a buck from it.

Apparently, I was wrong, and there were many ways of making money from blogging, the type of money that involved five or six zeros. Before the decimal point!

At that stage, my sole output was a parenting blog called Relentless [find it here]. I refused to monetise it because I told myself it would be disrespectful to my children. It was lonely up there on the moral high-ground, and later I decided my scruples were irrelevant considering the personal and often embarrassing stories I shared about aforementioned children.

I sat there wracking my brain for blog ideas I was qualified to write about and which I could monetise.  Reaching into my bag for a pen and paper, my fingers closed around a flyer for an upcoming mini-fete at my daughters’ school. Parents were being asked to organise stalls or activities to raise funds for the Kindy. The prospect was terrifying. I’d never seen a room empty so fast. We were brand new school-parents. What did we know about fundraising and organising fetes?

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what they refer to as a ‘lightbulb moment’. An epiphany. Usually accompanied in movies by the sound of a cash register.

Ka-ching!

I did all the right things. I got a professional to help me build the site. I designed a Media Kit. I spent three months writing content before the site even went live. I signed up for analytics. I brainstormed hundreds of ideas for articles. I jumped onto social media. I began to build a brand. Fundraising Mums was born.

I was motivated by the fact there were over 10,000 schools in Australia and 6,500 community sporting clubs. Even if only a handful of people from each were involved in fundraising, that was thousands of potential readers who would be actively searching for information and who wouldn’t mind if I had paid advertising or sponsored articles. In fact, they would LOVE the fact I was promoting fundraising businesses.

Ka-ching!

While I started my site with an eye on building a business that would be financially independent, it quickly became clear I was a writer, not a business-person. I wasn’t very good at selling myself. I didn’t always want to wait for businesses to approach me for sponsored ads, so if I thought they had a good product I wanted to share immediately, I did it for free. When start-ups approached me to share their new businesses, I often didn’t charge them. I repaid my early supporters with ongoing heavy discounts.

While my girls were at school, I spent two or three days a week researching and writing articles, designing graphics, running social media accounts, writing newsletters, responding to reader queries, making videos and approaching businesses. 15 to 20 hours a week for five years.

Ka-plonk.

I stand by my early assessment that anyone choosing a life of writing is probably going to wind up starving in a box somewhere*. At least this was my own experience of trying to build a business from what was effectively a labour of love. Fundraising Mums became a way for me to pay it forward, to help other parents in the same bewildered state I had once been. I spent years volunteering on the P&C at my daughters’ school and it was symbiotic with the work I was doing at Fundraising Mums. But now, as I have finally stepped away from the school role to focus on my books, I have found I need to step back from my blog/business as well. I want to be underpaid in a whole different genre of writing**.

So, I have made the decision to sell Fundraising Mums to the only other Australian site dedicated to fundraising. For five years she has been my competitor, from now she will be carrying the torch alone. It is a compliment that she wants my content – my writing was always better than my business sense – and I feel relieved that in a way I will continue helping parents across Australia through her.

And so, from the dilemma of selling my soul to advertising I move to the dilemma of selling what is essentially a book-baby, something I grew and nurtured over the years. Something that I now must release into the care of someone else.

Not a single person I have talked to thinks I am doing the wrong thing. It’s the right time to move on. My daughters have drawn me a sign that says ‘no regrets’. It sits on the wall just above my screen, so it’s always in the corner of my eye.

Selling Fundraising Mums will free up my time for other writing projects that need my full attention – I have four book-length projects that I’m currently working on. I only have one problem – perhaps an extra 15-20 hours a week might not be enough!

.

.

*I want to acknowledge that my husband actively ensures we don’t end up starving or in a box. Without his support I would not be able to dedicate as much of my time to writing.

** This is a joke! I really want to be a best-selling author making loads of cash.

*** So the answer to the questions posed by the title is yes, you can make money from blogging, but no, personally I didn’t.

Writing Character Arcs (or Falling in Love with your Characters)

‘But does Winnie actually want a husband and children, or is she happily single?’ my mentor Brooke asked as we discussed my book, Letting Go. ‘What does she want from life?’

‘Ahhhhh,’ was my rather inarticulate response.

I didn’t know. It suited my purposes for this particular character to be childless, but I hadn’t considered why she was childless. I hadn’t considered lots of things about her. Winnie didn’t even have a last name.

‘I think you need to write character arcs for your six main protagonists,’ Brooke told me.

I duly wrote down ‘character arcs’ in my notebook, and underlined it twice for good measure.

Later on when I started searching ‘how to write a character arc’ I learned it was a way of mapping the journey or growth of a character throughout the story.

“A character arc maps the evolution of a personality through a story. It’s a term that writers use to describe their protagonist’s journey from a place of comfort to rapid change and back again: hence, an arc. Characters will find their strengths and weaknesses tested over the course of the story — so that by the time they arrive at the story’s end, they are a changed person.” https://blog.reedsy.com/character-arc/

In this particular book, I have six primary characters. I knew some of them intimately, but others I realised, I was using as little more than plot devices. If I was treating them so appallingly, why would readers care about them? I needed to show all six of my main characters some love by spending some time with them and getting to know them better.

So even before you attempt a character arc, you should complete a character profile. This is where you describe your character’s physical, social and emotional details – pretty much as if you were filling out an online dating profile.

“Hi! My name is Winnie. I’m 35 and work as a paralegal. I could have gone to law school to become a lawyer but have a chip on my shoulder about my family so I decided to go travelling for a decade instead. I wear my clothes like a uniform so I don’t have to make decisions about what to wear each day and carry an empty Keep Cup around and pretend to drink coffee so I don’t have to have conversations with people. I don’t actually like coffee. I don’t think I like people either. I am single and don’t have kids. But my author hasn’t told me yet whether I am happy or sad about this, so… yeah. She’s a bit disappointing really.”

There are a lot of free character profiling tools online that you can download. One I found was thirteen pages long and had over 120 individual questions you needed to answer for your character. Topics include the character’s bucket list items at different ages throughout their life and what they do in the middle of the night if they can’t sleep. It’s comprehensive and you can find it here but with six characters it was a tad more thorough than I required.

So I made my own.

As I went through my first draft, I began pulling out small details and quotes to add to each character’s profile/arc. Sometimes it was an observation by another character, sometimes it was backstory – but eventually, I began building up a detailed summary of each character and I could see how deeply I understood some of them – and where others were a complete mystery.

Unlike my other novels which have been inspired by the true stories of real people, the characters that populate Letting Go are wholly figments of my imagination. If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that I have a world of people living inside me, people who are unlike anyone I know in real life, but who are begging to have their story told. If I was anything other than a writer, that could be a significant problem.

Naturally, Brooke was correct and once I completed my profile/arcs for my six characters, I could see the gaps in my story. I was then able to go back and stitch up the holes – sometimes it required a whole scene, sometimes it was just a matter of adding a small detail.

I don’t believe you need to know everything about a character you are writing before you start, or even after you finish. No one is ever fully known to another – sometimes we don’t fully know ourselves. But if you’re going to spend months or years writing about a character, you should be a bit informed about them. This isn’t a blind date.

 

You’re very welcome to use my Character Arc and Profiling Tool – if you think I have forgotten anything important, drop me a line.

Addicted to flashbacks

It has become apparent that I have (amongst other terrible habits) an over-dependence on the use of flashbacks. It’s so pronounced in fact that a chapter I have just rewritten was about 75% flashback. Ouch.

I went searching for confirmation that I was not alone, that other, better writers had terrible habits too, and it hadn’t ruined their lives. I found this fabulous paragraph on Medium, in an article by Clare Barry called ‘Everyone’s a copyrighter, right?

“Virginia Woolf had a beautiful habit of swapping the narrative perspective mid paragraph. Jane Austen used double negatives. Charles Dickens was the king of run-on sentences — and E.E. Cummings didn’t give a flying cockatoo what you thought about capitalisation. That man capitalised whatever word he damned-well pleased. Or didn’t. Don’t get me started on Hemingway, whose grammar was a mix of playful creativity and 46% malt whisky.”

I’m not so much a whisky girl, as someone who boils the kettle in the ensuite so I don’t have to venture into the kitchen and risk running into family members who might want to engage with me. It means my book is relying on instant coffee but it’s a small price to pay for uninterrupted writing time first thing in the morning.

My dependence on flashback is because I am writing a highly structured book that follows six characters throughout a month. As you move through the book, each character has a day, but as in real life, sometimes interesting things happened yesterday, or three days ago.

My beloved mentor, Brooke Dunnell, recently pointed out that a chapter I had written started with a single sentence in the present day (a Sunday) then promptly jumped back to Wednesday, then Thursday then Friday before returning briefly to Sunday a few lines before the chapter ended.

When I colour-coded the chapter to see how bad the damage was, it looked like a United Colours of Benetton advert from the 1990s.

Letting Go over-reliance on flashbacks Ch 9

There are some generally accepted rules when writing flashbacks, the first being ‘don’t use too many’, but I’ve already established I’m a rule breaker (sometimes I even have UHT milk in my early morning bathroom instant coffee!).

But another important rule is that you need a trigger to start the flashback, as well as to bring your reader back to the present time. In real life when you suddenly stop to think about something that has happened in the past, it has usually been triggered by one of the senses – you see something or smell something that takes you back. The same should happen to your characters. Simply starting the sentence:

On Wednesday, when Winnie shared the waitress’ suspicions, Katharine had laughed…

is lazy. This admittedly is one of my current sentences, but it’s still early days of my flashback recovery, so I need to take things slowly.

Another rule is the flashback needs to advance the story – you can’t just drift backwards to discuss the weather or show off your beautiful literary turn of phrase; if you’re going to use a flashback, it needs to progress the plot. A good comparison is when someone starts describing their dream to you – they’re often wildly disconnected and boring as hell to the listener – you do NOT want your flashback to read like this. It must have a point that you couldn’t have made in the present time.

That being said, I realised that if I could re-write my flashback sections into the present time, I probably should. I couldn’t change the timing on all my flashbacks, but there were certain things – like a phone conversation – that could be moved.

The other good advice I received from Brooke, was to delay the first flashback for as long as possible. This means the reader can be established in the present day, before whisking them back to the past.

This is the colour-coding of the chapter after some work. I still have flashbacks, but they start much later in the chapter and there is significantly less of them.

Flashback chapter after some work

Working through this one chapter has made me much more cognisant of my addiction to this literary technique, and I suspect I have a fair bit of work ahead of me to reduce my overall reliance on them. But I have no doubt that one day my book will be much more than a mix of flashbacks and instant coffee.

How Dyslexia Affects My Daughter

A version of this post originally appeared on my other blog Relentless. I have updated it before re-publishing here.

My youngest daughter was diagnosed with severe dyslexia a few years ago when she was just about to complete Year One. The diagnosis wasn’t a big shock; we had suspected she had a learning disability from the time she was at Kindy, and we had seen her daily struggle.

Having a diagnosis has helped in many ways. It allows her to label some of her challenges, to put them in a box and say to herself – and others – ‘that’s my dyslexia, that’s not me’.

From the very start she has owned her dyslexia. We haven’t tried to hide it, and I have encouraged her to talk about it with her classmates and friends. She stands up and talks about it as a news topic in class, she tells people about her dyslexia when she introduces herself, and I strongly believe this has helped stem some (though not all) teasing and bullying at school.

From a parent’s perspective, I have found her openness to be beneficial for me as well. Her willingness to share her difficulties – and for me to share them – has resulted in thoughtful conversations with other parents, many of which start with: ‘I had no idea what dyslexia even was…’ People have been so willing to learn about dyslexia, and I have found her school and the people to be very supportive.

My daughter is now halfway through Year Three. Yet her ability to read, write and spell is probably that of a child at least two years her junior. She could hold her head up high in Pre-Primary. She’s a smart kid though. Dyslexia is not related to intelligence, and most dyslexic kids test to be above average intelligence.

MiaRose teacher card

All dyslexics experience different strengths and challenges, and like many things, it operates on a continuum. This is how dyslexia affects my daughter:

Poor sense of word recall – she often struggles to find the word she wants to describe or explain something. As a result, she will use an incorrect word or simply make one up, which can be kind of cute. At eight she still can’t recall the word ‘pear’ so she calls them ‘squishy apples’.

Difficulty hearing sounds – she has difficultly hearing or distinguishing between certain sounds. This has a knock-on effect for both speech and spelling.

Poor concept of time – she has difficulty understanding the abstract notion of time and cannot grasp the difference between waiting for an hour and waiting for a year. The language of time, is therefore lost on her and she will talk about things happening yesterday when in fact she means tomorrow.

Poor speech – as she unable to hear certain sounds, she cannot replicate them, leading to difficulties with her speech.

Poor spelling – if you cannot hear or say sounds, then it makes sense that you won’t be able to use them when you are writing. For example, if you can’t hear the <t> in stretch, then you’re more likely to spell it as ‘strech’. When writing she often leaves out vowels and misses adjacent consonants. My daughter would most likely write ‘srch’.

Poor letter recognition and formation – she struggles to distinguish between visually similar letters such as b and d, n and h or similar sounding letters such as g and j. When she was younger she had difficulty visualising diagonals and so letters such as K, M, W and V were either written incorrectly or she would write them in a curly text.

(Don’t even get me started on the wide variety of fonts that appear in children’s books: it has taken her a while to realise there are multiple ways of typing a and g, and the presence or absence of a serif (a tick at the end of a letter in certain fonts such as Times New Roman) can cause great confusion. She’s not just learning A is one letter – she’s having to realise that A can be multiple letters.)

Confusion with left and right – if left unguided, she will often start reading a word from the right-hand side, for example she will read ‘got’ as ‘tog’.

Poor short-term working memory – if she correctly sounds out a new word on one page, she won’t necessarily remember it when she reads it on the next page. It will look like a new word and she will need to sound it out again. She may read the same word, three different ways over the course of a few minutes, for example ‘got’ as tog, get and got.

Slow processing – related to the working memory is the fact she processes information more slowly. It takes her longer to work through instructions, so if you give her a four-step process, by the time you have told her the last step, she’s only just processed the second, and probably forgotten the first. She can do everything you ask, but not if you dump all the information on her at once. This is usually when people accuse her of ‘not listening’, but she is listening… she’s probably listening very carefully – but she’s just trying to recall the information that is rapidly slipping away.

Poor number recognition – while she is able to visually understand numbers and put them in the correct order, she cannot name them. Often, she cannot tell you what a number is (for example ‘twelve’) without counting from 1 (ie 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-twelve).

MiaRose alien story

There are many compensations though.

From early on, before we realised she was struggling to comprehend the world around her, she had already begun to discover methods of coping. She would use her body in a way to describe words she couldn’t find the language for, and as a result, she has always been physical and animated. When she couldn’t find the word for banana, she would curve her hands into the shape of the fruit, or pretend to peel and eat it. Automatically we would provide the word ‘banana’ which she would repeat, and all the while we had no clue that she was having difficulty recalling it to begin with.

She is able to spot differences and see patterns that ordinary brains cannot. She has walked into a room where one small thing has changed and notice it immediately. She completed a nine square sudoku style puzzle in seconds, where instead of numbers, images of different types of weather had been used.

She always kicks my butt at Memory and Go Fish, and I don’t even try to let her win. I don’t need to. I wish she’d let me win every now and then.

She has uncanny long term memory often dredging up a comment I made once, five years ago, or tearing up at the memory of something that happened when she was three. She will remember the faces of people she met once, or the precise location of her great-grandmother’s grave, but she has no idea what her uncles’ names are.

She has an eye for fine detail. Once with her speech therapist, we were playing a game where three of us had a different game board in front of us. Each board had 100 different images all jumbled up. A card was presented which contained six images – but only one of those six images was present on each of the boards, so you had to look at a board with 100 items, while searching for six different images, only one of which was actually there (a bit like Where’s Wally). It meant you could spend most of your time looking for an image that wasn’t even there. Almost every time she would win, and then find the correct image on our boards as well just to prove a point.

She is a wonderful artist, and will sit and draw for hours, often highly detailed and completely from memory.

She also has plenty of big ideas and makes connections between topics that would normally be beyond a seven year old. Truth be told, sometimes her statements are wildly left field and beyond the mortal brain of her mother (me), but I love her enthusiasm regardless.

I believe she also has a level of insight towards others that comes directly from her own personal anxiety and sadness. She recognises these feelings in others, because she has experienced it herself, and as a result she can be very empathetic.

I have been telling her stories about the many inspiring and successful people who have dyslexia and have achieved incredible things in their lives. She loves finding out that an actor she loves on TV or an author who wrote a book she enjoys also has dyslexia. She knows that although she will be challenged by her learning disorder, she won’t be limited by it – and tells me constantly that she can’t wait to see what amazing things she will do in her life.

I freely admit that before my own daughter was diagnosed, I hardly knew a thing about dyslexia. But chances are there will be one, two or even three children in every classroom in the country with dyslexia, diagnosed or not, so I think it’s important for all parents and teachers to know what it is.

Without a diagnosis, you might just think they are slow to learn, perhaps they are seen as the ‘naughty kids’ because they don’t concentrate in class or they’re disruptive. My daughter certainly was. You might see them as masters of procrastination, as they will do almost anything to avoid certain situations, like testing or book work.

As she gets older, some aspects of her dyslexia will get better as she learns how to manage it, and others will get harder. I have no doubt that this is a lifetime journey that she’s on, and for the next decade at least, I will be right there alongside her.