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.

Why You Should Keep a Record of Rejection

In 2010, with a toddler, a newborn baby in my arms and the knowledge that we would be trying for a third baby in the not-too-distant future, I went to a career counsellor.

Prior to having my children, and I’d spent close to a decade working at various universities in three states. My last job had been as the manager of a clinical trials group, and I had been told that I was always welcome to return to my job – as long as I was prepared to come back full time under the same conditions.

I wasn’t.

At this stage I had three degrees, none of which were particularly practical, and an ad hoc career path that could be broadly defined as ‘researcher’. I’d worked part time for 18 months after my first daughter was born, but, along with the rest of the company, was let go when the GFC sent the small start-up crashing to the wall.

The career counselling process was comprehensive and over three months and multiple sessions, we whittled our way through what I was qualified for versus what I actually enjoyed doing, my values and priorities and a range of psychometric tests that matched me to a range of careers, many of which I’d never even heard of.

The end result: writer or event planner.

I love planning a party and in another life probably would have made a fabulous event planner, but with three small children, working on other people’s events on weekends and in the evenings didn’t sit well with me.

Besides, I had wanted to be a writer since I was in primary school. I just hadn’t considered it to be something you could make a career out of [spoiler alert: I still haven’t made it].

One of the first things I did was sign up for a website which advertised itself as sharing advertising income with its writers. You would be paid every time person a read your articles, and in a sense this was true. I just hadn’t realised it would average around a cent for each reader. Still, not one to be deterred by common sense, over the next nine years I penned around 650 articles earning me a little over $10,000. I’ll save you the effort – that averages $15.38 an article or approximately $1,111 a year.

The other thing I did was start a spreadsheet of all my writing submissions.

In the first heady months of ‘being a writer’ I made a few ill-judged tenders, sending poorly written, totally unedited pieces out into the world.

The first entry in my spreadsheet is Text Publishing. Under ‘Article Details’ it says ‘selection of unedited baby emails [short stories]’. In the ‘Outcome’ column it says ‘Rejected (mail)’.

That, dear reader, is the optimism only complete ignorance and entitlement brings.

I look back at that with a stomach-churning mix of shame and bewilderment, hoping they don’t keep a file of their worst submissions, a black-list of names they pull out every Christmas to add further merriment to their festivities.

I spruiked a subset of those stories a few more times to magazines and even the ASA Mentorship Program (oh the shame) before good sense finally caught up with me and I moved my personal ramblings to a blog called Relentless where they fared a little better.

The next entry in my spreadsheet looks totally different. This is because I actually submitted something that had been asked for: a short story for the West Australian on the theme of summer. In the ‘Outcome’ column, it is highlighted in red, and says ‘First Prize, published 22/1/2011. (Prize: Macbook Air). You can read it here.

Like most of my writing to that point (and since), it was rushed and over-enthusiastic. Self-editing wasn’t a concept I was familiar with, and I emailed it off so quickly I neglected to even give the story a name. But for whatever reason, the writing gods decided to smiled on me, and in January 2011 I saw my name in print for the first time, and won a spiffy new laptop to boot.

Despite the fact they spelled it wrong, seeing my name in black and white was a heady feeling. Addictive. Energising. Encouraging. I knew I had to keep going. I had many more stories I wanted to tell.

As I scroll through the spreadsheet now, almost a decade on, there are far less red ‘published’ entries than there are ‘unsuccessful’ or ‘no response’. My hit rate is around 1 in 6. That’s to be expected. Some of the rejections sting more than others. The silence can be hurtful, especially when something sits on someone’s desk for months on end, languishing in purgatory. I’d rather just know, so I can move forward, look for a new home for that piece of writing.

But the overwhelming feeling I get when I look through the spreadsheet is pride.

I don’t look at the lengthy column of ‘unsuccessful’ outcomes and think I’m a failure. Instead I look at the long list of stories I have written, of articles I have submitted and I feel proud that I have put myself and my writing out there.

I am creating worlds out of words, and while not all of them have found a permanent place in print, in the words of Wayne Gretzky, ‘you miss 100% of the shots you never take.

So in effect, I’ve decided my spreadsheet is not actually a record of my rejections, but a compilation of my creations.

 

Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”


― Nelson Mandela

 

Should we be writing about the pandemic?

According to the Washington Post, it was four years post 9/11 before the first major novels about the September 11 attacks began to grace our shelves. A quick look on GoodReads provides a list of over 214 books including Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man and Ian McEwan’s Saturday.

Before this of course, there were the non-fiction accounts, the fact-seeking, truth-telling, first-hand accounts of what went wrong, and a handful of sideways mentions, but it was a few years before the novelists had found their story.

Almost two decades later, the world finds itself in the grips again of another singular event, the corona virus pandemic that – at the time of writing – has infected more than ten million people worldwide and killed over half a million. Conversations about whether we should be writing about the pandemic are everywhere.

Interestingly, children’s books about the pandemic have already arrived. Instructional and educational, they include Corona Virus: A Book for Children (illustrated by none other than the Gruffalo’s Axel Scheffler) and The Princess in Black and the Case of the Corona Virus by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale.

There are some novelists who are determined not to write about the pandemic, who see that by not writing about it, might set them apart.

Justine Larbalestier, author of three books and currently living out the pandemic in locked-down New York writes ‘I don’t want to write that book. There will be a million such books. When we come out of this pandemic, will we really want to read books about it?

Debra Purdy Kong also agrees there will be a ‘glut of pandemic stories coming up.

But for others, it’s caution about writing about the pandemic too soon, at least while the pandemic is still in force, while the statistics keep piling on and no one can see an end. As Chris Bohjalian, author of 21 novel writes ‘None of us can really make sense of history as history is occurring.

Oliver Winfree, who writes contemporary stories for children, acknowledges that life as we know it has changed forever, but asks – how much of this we need to include in our writing? ‘Or maybe we just ignore it, and continue to write stories as if life hasn’t changed. Except we’ll be washing our hands more often now…

Anne Tyler, author of 23 novels including The Accidental Tourist and Pulitzer Prize winning Breathing Lessons says ‘I’m very much a believer in letting things get old before we write about them at all.’ She is not exaggerating with her desire to let things sit and develop: she adds that she still doesn’t think there has been a decent book about 9/11, but that perhaps in another twenty years there might be a good one.

So my decision to write a book about the pandemic might be seen as a very unpopular one. Especially since it’s been only six months since the first mention of a novel corona virus and we haven’t yet reached the peak.

It’s extra strange I would write a contemporary novel considering I see myself as a writer of historical fiction. My last two manuscripts are set in the 20th century, one focussing on the years immediately prior to World War 1 and the other spanning the decades between 1960 and 1980.

I have always loved history. Looking back at where we have been and how we got where we are fascinates me. Every book of historical fiction is full of truth and detail and I love nothing more than disappearing down a rabbit hole of research and will spend hours making sure I get the small details correct, from the design of a woman’s underwear in 1913 to what’s on TV late at night in the 1970s.

So why would I choose to write a book set in 2020?

Quite simply, it’s because I see us living through history, and this unique era – at least here in Perth, so isolated and protected from the worst of the devastation – has been so brief. I want to capture it while I can, and what better way to record history than to write about it while it is happening?

My story will not be the pandemic story. There can’t be just one. My experience of COVID-19 here in Perth will be completely foreign to someone living in New York or Italy or even Melbourne. For the children of Spain who were not allowed out of their houses for forty days, my daughters’ time in lockdown, chalking pictures on the footpath and taking the dog on long walks through the suburb, would be unrecognisable. My brief, two-week stint ‘homeschooling’ my kids, would make families in the US, who have had their children home with them for four months (and counting) laugh with the absurdity of it all.

I do not know anyone who has become sick with corona virus, let alone die from it, and for that I am immensely grateful. But it has been a uniquely singular time, with a new soundtrack, and a new language. We wear different clothes and we have different social interactions and expectations. The rules and laws have changed. We are living in a historical era: with a distinct start date, and – one hopes – there will be an end date. By the end of the pandemic, we all will have been changed by it.

But my story is not about the pandemic, just as my story set in 1913-14 is not about the War. It’s a setting, a time and place both unique and instantly recognisable regardless of where you live. I didn’t set out to write a contemporary novel – I had written the plot last year when I was at KSP Writers Centre. But when the virus came for us, I started a diary of some of the small ways the world changed, and saw how the unique circumstances of the pandemic would enhance the story I was tinkering with.

So I say, write about the pandemic if you want. We shouldn’t let others dictate what we write about. Don’t be shamed by the idea there may be a million other books touching on a topic. There will only be one book like yours. It’s not a bandwagon you’re jumping on, but simple adherence to the first rule of writing – the one they slam into your heads the first day you pick up that pen: write what you know.

 

Writing the Time of COVID-19

When I’m immersed in writing a book, I tend to utilise the wee, dark hours when there’s little chance of being disturbed or taken out of the world I am creating. I may change screens to research a quick fact, or display images that evoke a mood or scene I am writing, but I try to avoid anything that may cause a crack in my fictional universe and send real life flooding in.

This is why I do my best work before 6.30am. Children have the tendency to bring reality crashing down, and there’s nothing more damaging to crafting the fine fabric of a delicate sentence than squabbles over whose turn it is to feed the dog.

I write historical fiction and I love nothing more than diving into a period of time and discovering what life might have been like for my protagonists, from their clothing, the transport system, the food they ate to major events happening in the world around them. My books are always based here in Perth, which means it’s never far to go and visit the locations where my stories are set.

Fortunately, many of Perth’s beautiful old buildings still exist, and there is nothing more satisfying for a writer than to go and be physically present in the space where their story is taking place, even if the story and the writing of it are separated by decades or even a century.

My most recent manuscript, Letting Go is probably the most complicated story I have ever written. It consists of six main characters whose lives are interwoven and who are all implicated in a shocking event. It’s also written in the present, which is a first for me, because I love the concrete detail of history.

If I write about heeled housewives, black and white television, the Australian Dream, Korean War and the appearance of new electrical appliances into the home you immediately know I am talking about the 1950s. The lived experience of the time would be different for all, but there are major signposts which identify it as a specific historical period.

But for everyone who is currently living in the time of COVID-19, you will recognise that this will soon become a neatly packaged historical era in its own right, with its own terminology, apparel, social norms and dramatic world events.

The chance to write about history as it is currently taking place is a once in a lifetime opportunity that I am embracing with both hands. Yet unlike working on other books where the ping of a microwave might pull me out of pre-WW1 Perth or the hiss of an electric train rouses me from the 1970s, there are no noises (other than squabbling children) that can disrupt me from writing about the present.

On the contrary, even the sounds that I am hearing (more sirens but less traffic) will one day become a marker for this unique time. So with my windows thrown open wide, I am listening to the world as I write it, and can’t wait to see what happens next.

 

 

 

The First Lines of Australian Novels Rewritten for COVID-19

I admit this isn’t an original idea, but it’s a very good idea. First someone decided to rewrite the first lines of ten classic novels for social distancing. I’m taking the liberty of rewriting the opening lines from 25 of my favourite Australian novels for the Time of COVID-19. Apologies to all concerned.

 

Invisible Boys – Holden Sheppard

There are two ways out of this poxy shithole of a town, but you can’t go either way until the regional travel bans are lifted.

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. I’m really loving social isolation! But then again, I am an introvert.

The French Photographer – Natasha Lester

Jessica May turned on her famous smile and raised her arm aloft. It was all she could do to say hello from 1.5 metres away.

All That Is Lost Between Us – Sara Foster

It was only a memory now. Going to the gym and having a coffee afterwards with friends in the café.

The Sound – Sarah Drummond

My name is Wiremu Heke. But my Zoom name is Billhook.

The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

His eyes still shut, a dream dissolving and already impossible to recall, Hector’s hand sluggishly reached across the bed. Working from home was awesome. He could sleep till midday because no one knew when he started work.

You Belong Here – Laurie Steed

Jen sat sketching flowers on the footpath, the chalk worn down to a nub. She took a photo and quickly uploaded it to Facebook, hashtagging it #RainbowTrailAustralia.

The Sisters Song – Louise Allen

My memories of my father are scant and faded, and I only have two photos of him. His aged care home forbids visitors and it’s been too long since I’ve seen him.

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

They said I must die. They said I stole the breath from men and now they must steal mine. They call me COVID-19 and I am but a wee virus.

Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty

‘That doesn’t sound like a school trivia night’ said Mrs Patty Ponder to her cat Marie Antoinette. ‘All non-essential events over 100 people have been cancelled!’

Trip of a Lifetime – Liz Byrski

Later, even when she’d had time to think about it, she still couldn’t remember anything unusual about the evening; UberEats on the couch, a bottle of wine and Netflix. The same thing every night for the past six weeks.

Let Her Go – Dawn Barker

Zoe turned to look out to sea. She was glad they hadn’t closed the beaches in Perth. Take that, Bondi!

The Good Turn – Dervla McTiernan

The waiting room was ugly and neglected. It had been cleaned recently – the overpowering smell of disinfectant was testament to that. ‘Have you been overseas in the past 14 days or had close contact with a confirmed case of corona virus?’ the receptionist demanded. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘I’m just here for a pap smear.’

The Happiest Refugee – Ahn Do

I’m flying down the Hume Highway at 130 kilometres an hour. Since everyone’s been told to stay home and isolate, there’s no one on the roads.

Postcards from Surfers – Helen Garner

We are driving north from Coolangatta airport. Our flights have been cancelled and I’m mad as hell. I’d better get a full refund.

They’re a Weird Mob – Nino Culotta

Who the hell’s Nino Culotta? That’s what you asked yourself when you first picked up this book, wasn’t it? Well he’s the guy who started Bin Isolation Outing.

Dustfall – Michelle Johnston (Ch 2)

Raymond. That was his name and he emerged from the mire with two small suitcases stuffed to the hinges with items hastily chosen; now he had two weeks compulsory quarantine in a city hotel at the expense of the Australian taxpayer.

Jasper Jones – Craig Silvey

Jasper Jones came to my window. Ever since we had to close the restaurant, drive-through has been going off!

Searching for the Secret River – Kate Grenville

In the puritan Australia of my childhood, you could only get a drink on a Sunday if you were a ‘bona fide traveller’. During the lockdown you can’t get a drink any day of the week, and travellers, well – we hate ‘em.

The Shadow Years – Hannah Richell

It is the smallest details that come to her; the damp grass underfoot threaded with buttercups, the air humming with insects, the snap of her nightdress catching in the breeze. She’d spent more time in her backyard during the last month of lockdown than she had in the previous year.

Beautiful, Messy Love – Tess Woods

It’s funny what you remember about the biggest moment in your life. But I think in a year or two, we all will have forgotten the lessons we learned during COVID-19.

Fractured – Dawn Barker

Tony’s footsteps echoed as he hurried across the underground carpark and into the lift. He saw the look of alarm on the old woman’s face. Tony removed his face mask. ‘I’m not sick,’ he said, but she had already stepped out of the lift.

An Indecent Obsession – Colleen McCullough

The young soldier stood looking doubtfully up at the large cruise ship, his kit bag lowered to the ground while he assessed the possibility that this was indeed his ultimate destination. An armed guard for the off-duty crew of a cruise ship? Were they going to sing and dance their way to escape?

If I Should Lose You – Natasha Lester

Patient care: stethoscope whispers, the lubdub or footsteps, but no huddles of family. Corona victims must die alone.

Sister Madly Deeply [Well Behaved Women] – Emily Paull

As I bring the clippers toward the soft dome of my head, all I can think about is how much I do not want to do this. But I am so bored in isolation and everyone else on Tik Tok is making videos of cutting themselves a fringe, so I’m going to do one too.

 

What other Aussie novels can you re-write the first line for?

Weasel Words and Tips for Writers

‘I could see her looking at me, as she readied herself to tell me about my overuse of weasel words in the nicest possible way. I felt my face tighten as I braced myself for the impact of her words.’

Or

‘She looked at me, ready to tell me about my overuse of weasel words. I braced myself for the impact of her words.’

 

Recently I had the good fortune of meeting with Perth writer Louise Allen. I had won a manuscript appraisal as part of the Twitter #authorsforfiries auction, which saw me handing over the first 10,000 words of my novel.

It’s a luxury at the best of times to be able to sit with a fellow writer and talk about nothing but your own writing, but to be handed a mirror to hold up to your work, to identify the flaws, is equally valuable.

 

weasle words

 

Louise made the following comment about the paragraph above:

“you could do away with ‘Isabelle watched’ and go straight to ‘Isabelle’s mother studied the image.’ The reader knows Isabelle’s watching, because it’s in her POV. It removes a step between the reader and the action, and brings the reader into the story more.”

Weasel words are the fodder of the new writer, adding extra words thinking it deepens our writing (it doesn’t) or adding layers that end up removing the readers from the story.

Taking Louise’s sage advice I turned my gaze on another recently finished manuscript, determined to make sure I hadn’t repeated my sins.

Turns out I’m prolific with my use of weasel words. Hundreds of them peppered my novel like a 1980s Pepper Steak. Unfortunately for me, your use of weasel words is a bit like a golf score, you want it to be as low as possible.

I did a search and find on the following phrases and was shocked by the numbers I saw:

51 instances of ‘I looked…’

23 times I wrote ‘I could hear’

93 cases of ‘I could see’ and ‘I saw’

127 instances of ‘I felt’

And a whopping 274 times I used ‘just’.

 

It took a couple of days and some seriously strong coffee but I managed to remove about 80% of all my weasel words. The effect of course is to cut the parachute strings and drop the reader directly into the story.

You can’t remove all instances of these phrases. Sometimes the word is fulfilling an actual function and not just bad writing.

For example:

I felt my face turn pink  = bad

I felt frumpy in comparison = fine

 

I just stared up at him in adoration = bad

Perhaps he’s only now just discovering who he really is = fine

 

I could see that she was uncomfortable = bad

I tried to sit up so I could see him better = fine

 

I saw Adam purse his lips = bad

My face went red as I saw huge boxes of condoms on the table = fine

 

I could hear the smile in his voice = really bad

I could hear the rush of air as the paramedic pushed the needle into her chest = fine

 

I plan to continue writing the same way I always have, letting the words flow through my fingers without censorship. But now I have a weapon in my editing arsenal, and before I even consider hitting send or publish – I will be doing a search and destroy on my weasel words.

How to Pitch Your Book (and Yourself)

Winning a place on the Four Centres Emerging Writers Program as part of the 2020 cohort, gave me a sneak peak over the weekend into some of the more hidden aspects of being a published author.

Granted entry to the Fremantle Press Breakfast, we were flies on the wall as recently published authors gave their pitch to an assembled room of event planners, booksellers, school reps and librarians.

Given that the ASA recommends a rate of $325 for a 60 minute school visit and $350+ for a public appearance, this fee might be the equivalent of selling 100 or more books. It’s clear why authors are keenly interested in pitching their books – and themselves.

These are some of the lessons I took away:

 

Be funny.

There is no better way to get people on your side than to make them laugh. Not only does it tell people you’re comfortable in front of a crowd, it also tells potential bookings that you won’t bore them silly.

If you can’t be funny, be memorable

Sometimes the subject matter of your book means it’s not appropriate to tell gags, but you can still grab people in other ways. Tell highly emotive or personal stories about yourself and how your book came into being. Make them remember you, even if they can’t remember your specific book.

Pitch yourself as well as your book

The most successful pitches were those where I learned more about the author than the book. It’s possible you will have another book next year, but you as the author are still the same. It doesn’t matter how amazing your book is, if you haven’t sold yourself as an interesting speaker.

Talk in themes

If you only have two minutes to grab someone’s attention, you don’t have time to explain the plot in detail. A number of authors took the approach of talking about the book’s themes rather than its plot – ‘it’s a story of love, it’s a story of societal expectation, it’s a story of challenging authority…’.

Go beyond the book

Some of the more established authors took the approach of mentioning the bigger topics they liked to discuss, not tied specifically to their latest book, but perhaps topics they had been researching and involved with over their writing career. The pitch then became a verbal CV of talents and skills, and was particularly aimed at festivals directors who might engage authors to moderate or be involved in panel discussions.

Make your book relevant

Some of the best pitches did not just focus on the book as a finite product, but placed it into the larger context of current affairs such gender diversity, environmental concerns and humanitarian matters. Broadening your book’s appeal by placing it into a larger context would automatically increase the range of events you might be asked to speak at.

Weddings, Parties, Anything

As obvious as it sounds, some of the authors made very clear the range of events they were available to speak at. It certainly highlighted to me that there is more than just school and library talks. Some mentioned business and motivational events, book clubs, running writing or illustrator workshops and more.

Tell a story about your story

Personally, my favourite pitches were those that started with the story behind the story, where the author launched into a personal account of how the idea came about, how the book came to be. I was immediately captured. It’s one thing to say what your book is about, an entirely different thing to explain why it is the way it is.

Locate your book’s audience

One small thing I notice lacking from some pitches, was explaining exactly who the book’s audience was. I could see from the cover it was a children/YA book, but could not tell exactly what age group the book was for. For someone interested in booking a school talk, I imagine this piece of information would be very relevant.

Appeal to writers

Some of the authors specifically pitched to writerly audiences, barely mentioning their books but instead talking about some of the topics they would be happy to discuss at workshops and writing events. Some of these might be researching specific topics, writing for particular audiences or writing in a distinctive style.

Practice practice practice

Two minutes is not a long time, but you can squeeze a lot of information in. Even if you don’t want to be seen reading from notes, it’s wise to compose your spiel and then practice until it sounds unrehearsed.

 

Many thanks to Fremantle Press and the Copyright Agency for including us in this event.

When Good Comes From Bad

The last few months have seen some of the worst bushfires in Australian history, probably world history. Almost 16 million hectares burnt across 7 states and territories. Over 3,500 homes lost. More than 1 billion animals perished.

And 33 lives lost.

In early January, two Aussie authors Emily Gale and Nova Weetman decided to do something about it. They put the call out on Twitter to other writers to donate something for auction, with the money raised going to fundraisers supporting the bushfire effort.

Enter #authorsforfireys

The original goal was modest: to raise $13,000 to support our beloved fireys, but before long it was clear that the twitter auction was going to be much more.

By the close of the auction, more than 1,200 items had been donated included signed books, the chance to named as a character in a book, manuscript appraisals, introductions, author visits to bookclubs, personalised poems, original illustrations, even a handmade rug.

I bid on a number of items, including Tess Wood’s incredible Italian feast for eight people. For much of the week I was the leading bidder. I had already chosen my guests, a mix of new and established Perth-based writers and I could already taste the tiramisu. Sadly, it was not to be, although I could hardly begrudge the winner, especially when they more than doubled my final bid.

There were a few other things I bid on with more success.

Last year I finished a manuscript called Behind Closed Doors that won me a place on the Four Centres Emerging Writers Program and KSP First Edition Retreat. Wise advice from facilitator Laurie Steed suggested I get a sensitivity check on a scene involving one of my characters. I needed to find out if something I wrote would be realistic for a closeted gay man in the 1970s.

The problem being of course, I didn’t know any closeted gay men who were around in the 1970s.

‘Talk to Holden Sheppard,’ he suggested. Not that Holden is closeted or anywhere near old enough to be alive in the 1970s, but he is generous and open and a very good writer.

I had read and loved Holden’s incredible book Invisible Boys, but I didn’t know him, and I’m not the sort to send an unsolicited email asking for help.

Then the #AuthorsForFiries auction happened, and Holden was offering a one hour chat about anything writing related over a cup of coffee. It was like the universe heard what I was saying and delivered it in a neat, hashtagged parcel.

At the very last minute I was outbid by a measly $1. I was devasted.

But then, about an hour after the auction closed, I received a message from Holden. If I was happy to donate my bid to another good cause, he would give me the one hour consult. See what I mean about being generous?

Shannon and Holden Sheppard

With Holden Sheppard, author of Invisible Boys

There was no way I was missing out on being the winning bidder for a manuscript appraisal by Louise Allen, author of the very beautiful The Sisters Song. I even upped my own bid at one point, because it was such a good cause. I had been following Louise’s blog for a number of years and there is no one else I would have wanted to read the first few chapters of my novel set here in Perth just before the start of World War 1 [click here to find out how it all started].

This week we met and sat for two hours, just talking about my book and characters, the real life people whose stories form the basis of the book, and my own journey as I researched.

Anyone who spends much of their lives closeted away writing will know how indulgent it is just to talk about your precious project with another writer. It was instructive and enlightening and has given me much needed motivation to pick the story back up and keep working on it.

Shannon and Louise Allen

With Louise Allen, author of The Sisters Song

The #AuthorsForFireys auction raised more than half a million dollars in less than a week. One nice aspect was that each author or illustrator who offered something for the auction was able to choose the specific cause they wanted their winner to donate to. This meant funds were spread around the country, benefiting local fire volunteers and animal rescue, local charities and greening groups.

The twitter auction also forged connections and relationships between writers across the country, bringing a tightknit community closer, and showing the real power of words.

And I made a couple of friends.

 

Hearing the Voice of the Writer

A million years ago (back at the turn of the century) when I was working as a research assistant at the University of New South Wales, one of my jobs was to write up the project findings into reports.

I was sent with a tape recorder and notebook up the road to the Sydney Children’s Hospital, where I would sit in meetings and observe the way the multi-disciplinary teams worked together. Then I would walk back down the road, spend countless hours transcribing tapes and attempt to make some sense of them.

After I had been there a year or so, my boss pulled me aside.

‘I can hear your voice, Shannon,’ he told me.

As I had been sitting there silently, terrified that I had been pulled into his office, I thought that a strange comment.

‘In your writing,’ he continued clearly seeing the dumb look on my face. ‘I can hear your voice as I read.’

He motioned to the weighty tomes around the office. ‘In academic writing,’ he continued, ‘the writer must not be present in the text. Your voice, however, is strong and comes through in your report. It’s as though you’re sitting next to me, talking.’

Chastened, I went back to my office where I spent the next few years trying to remove myself from my writing.

Some years later, in the throes of new motherhood I decided to take up blogging as a way of capturing the fleeting yet precious moments of parenthood.

After the first few clunky efforts, I quickly found that blogging suited my writing style. I had a clear voice and I was finally allowed to use it.

Meg Rosoff writes:

‘Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.”

A writer’s voice is their literary fingerprint. You should be able to distinguish between Hemingway and Rowling, between Austen and King, not just by the words the chose, but the voice the write with.

My writing goal, is that when you read my words, you hear my voice. When you are hearing words through your ears rather than seeing them with your eyes, you know that the voice is authentic.