Monday, 26 December 2011

Monday's Food for Thought

So this 2012 apocalypse talk isn't just about the whole Mayan countdown thing. There's scientific projection that we (as a planet) are going to be passing through solar flares next year. What will this do? Well, some speculate that it will interfere with our radio waves and electricity. It's happened before, but perhaps this time the fear is that it will occur on a grand scale.

So of course, that got me thinking. WHAT IF the solar flares wiped out all of Earth's electrical... everything? Technology. Computers. Radios. Internet. There are plenty of dystopian books written about things like this... but really. What if it actually happened?

You wouldn't have any idea that the rest of the country was experiencing such difficulties, let alone the rest of the planet. World politicians wouldn't be able to contact each other to find out what was going on. No one would be able to drive very far before petrol ran out.

How would you react to something on such a grand scale? Would you be afraid? Would you mount a horse and gallop across the country to bring news to other people? How do you think the government would react? Would there ever be order?

And if we were never able to recover technology, do you think the world/humanity/individuals would be better off, or die out? Do you like the idea of this new world, like a modern middle ages?

Just a little something for your Monday mind to munch on...

ETA: A very interesting view on dystopian world-building taking trade, distribution of wealth, and feasibility into account can be found here.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Restarting After a Break

My aim for my summer WiP was to write one thousand words a day, not much less, not much more, either. (It helps keep the flow if you stop before you write yourself dry. That way you always know what you're going to write tomorrow, and the ideas can fester while you're doing other things, like work and all that jazz.)

However something horrific happened on Tuesday, and because of that I didn't get back into Scrivener until today.

Coming back to a first draft after a break can be HARD. It feels like every sentence, every turn of phrase, is a struggle, and you're constantly checking the word count to see if you can stop yet. It happened to me just a few hours ago.

The best thing to do in this instance is to Keep Moving Forward. With capitals. It DOES NOT MATTER how bad the writing is. If you have to type out the worst, most boring dialogue/description/action known to humankind, then do so. It can be fixed later.

I'll preach it again.

It can be fixed later.

The important thing is to keep at it. And you know what? Eventually the words will flow, and they'll come just as easy as Shiny New First Draft words are supposed to. It happened to me. It can happen to you.

Guys, slog through it. Visualise the end product. You can get there, I promise. All you have to do is...

Monday, 5 December 2011

Summer Writing (Yes, it's summer here in Australia)

After days of agonising and stressing over something to write these holidays (too many plot ideas combined with no real passion for anything), I've finally come up with a new project. Scrivener has been downloaded, a few notes have been tacked onto the corkboard, and some thousand words of story have been written.

This time, I'm working on a middle grade boy's fantasy. Here's hoping agents are still asking for it by the time I get around to querying!

Friday, 2 December 2011

A New Project

As the school year draws to a close and students and teachers alike can taste summer holidays in the hot desert air, my brain is juggling several potential new novel ideas.

I didn't participate in NaNo (congrats to those who did!), because my NaNo month seems to be in January, when I can laze about at home with the air conditioner chugging away.

But WHAT TO WRITE? A shiny new idea is what my mind and fingers need. I have a list of plenty of premises, except nothing's calling to me in that way I'm sure you all know well. It has to have a head-turning concept and hook, as I've realised over the past few months. I've entered too many contests and seen too many amazing ideas to be kidding myself about that now.

I'm also going to download a trial version of Scrivener to see what all the fuss is about. Whatever my new project is, it'll be part of my pioneer effort on a confangled new software.

So. What is everyone else working on during December/January? Anyone thinking of starting a new project?

Friday, 25 November 2011

Teaser Trailer!

The concept's there, but the movie-making skills... not so much.

Still! For anyone interested in finding out a teensy bit more about Prince of City Nights (and can overlook bad editing), CLICK HERE to watch.

It was fun. You should try it for your story.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

On Rejection, Giving Up, and the Eternal Writer

Those of you who read my last post will recall how hilarious and awesome my parents are.

Those of you who follow me on twitter will know the consequences to this awesomeness.

You see, my parents never wanted me to be a writer. They warned me that I wouldn't make money, that I should get a "real job", that my writing wasn’t good enough to be published. Tonight, my dad suggested I try self-publishing because it’s been "ages" and I still haven’t found an agent. When I said these things take time, he just gave a cynical "hmm".

The thing is, there have been times when I’ve wanted to quit. Sometimes this crazy idea’s lasted a whole hour. I’d get rejected from something important and I’d sob and tell myself all these horrible things that would have any psychologist put me on some kind of anti-depressant. But I let myself feel down. I tell myself I’m awful and disgraceful and I’ll never be a real writer. I cry until I’m bored of crying. Then I sigh. Then I get up. Then I start all over again.

Because that’s the thing, isn’t it? If you’re like me, if you’re really like me, you can’t stop writing. Even when you want to. You leave a story idea festering for a week, maybe a month, and suddenly your fingers are just itching to get typing again, and it builds and builds and builds until it explodes into a story, and voila! Another manuscript to love and edit and have critiqued and send out to agents.

Some people never get published. The odds of an agent AND a publisher loving your story enough to take it on are astronomical if you think about it too much (don’t, it’ll give you a headache). But I will literally die trying if I have to, because I can’t stop the ideas or the passion or the eternal need to get my story onto paper.

I. Can’t. Stop.

Can you?

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Family Matters

This post is especially for MG books, but could be used in other categories too.

Three-dimensional characters are a must. I've had other posts on how to do this, but you know what? It isn't enough to just have 3-d characters - they have to be involved in 3-d relationships, too. And the best way to develop a relationship is to add quirks. This time, let's look at a family dynamic.

Recently my sister posted a note on facebook about why we love our mum and dad. Here are a few examples:

1. They wear matching outfits. Accidently. And often.

2. Dad has to stand on phonebooks in family portraits so he can be taller than mum.

3. We often find Australia drawn on oranges in the fruit bowl, immediately understanding that dad has been trying to explain to mum how a solar eclipse works.

4. Mum never checking spell check on her phone and her children receive messages such as “Are you home tonight? We’re having a smart dinner.” (Meant to say ROAST dinner).

5. Mum calling us ‘fruit’ as we are the fruit of her loins.

6. The hilarity of the constant and continuous arguments at Christmas over silver tinsel getting all over the floor, what colours of the do-it-yourself plastic tree go in what order, and how to ‘nicely drape’ the lights. Then dad just ends up doing it all.

7. That mum has always been more excited at birthdays and Christmases than all of us. Combined.

8. Mum’s drawing in Pictionary (has to be seen to be believed).

9. Everyone fighting to not be on mum’s team in Pictionary.

10. Dad being able to remember exactly what he and everyone around him ate 20 years ago.

11. Mother’s Day walks which ended with ice cream as a reward.

12. Mum's comforting, wise sayings, and the fact she always gets them wrong - "Don't let the turkeys get you down" is one of her favourites. We still don't know what it means.

Now how much can you already tell about my family from that? And the best thing is, I can use all of these for my stories. Why bother making up my own family quirks when there's a goldmine of them right here?

Try making a list of your family's/friend's quirks and see if you can come up with a goldmine on your own.

Saturday, 29 October 2011


Some really great things happening on November 1st!

Literary agent Suzie Townsend has moved to Nancy Coffey Literary and is offering a fantastic deal to celebrate. Send her a query between 9-10 am EST (USA) on Tuesday with the title "QUERY CONTEST - Yes I can handle the truth", and she'll send you completely honest feedback on your query. What doesn't interest her, where she was turned off, etc. It's confidential and nothing gets posted on her blog, so it's just like a regular query process with actual feedback! Check here for details.

And for the big news: Baker's Dozen is back again!

This is the biggest thing since Write on Con. Perfect your loglines, have your first 250 words ready, and make sure your manuscript is polished, because you could have not only LOTS of agents reading your work, but bidding on pages too! Go to the site, check out the work of previous winners, and read about the success stories.

Seeing I'm half a world away, I'll be waiting up late to enter these contests. I hope to see you there, even while I'm in my drowsy state! Make sure you read all the rules carefully, and good luck!

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Creating a Fully-Developed City

My current WiP is set in a Gotham-esque city, where a few days ago I had a rough idea of four districts – shopping, business, industrial, and suburban. I scribbled out a map. I made notes of descriptions, what the bustling shopping district would be like against the ghostly industrial district. I was pretty proud of myself. The city was dark and eerie and a whole character in itself.


I got notes back from a beta, who commented on the less-than-adequate world-building. What? But – but – the districts! And the flashing lights! And the darkened alleys! How could anyone not love that?

Apparently, plenty of people.

A few more hours of research, I figured out what I was doing wrong, and it was a lot. (I’ll take this moment to bow down multiple times to my beta reader.)

I’m going to take you through the steps I used to design a city from scratch. Hopefully you’ll come out of the world-building process looking much better than I did the first time around!

Step One: Google images

Yep, I’ve mentioned it before in other posts, but I’m going to do it again. Designing a city in your head is all very well and good, but it’s those little details you won't come up with on your own that makes your setting real to the reader. This time, I’m going to give you a search phrase:

big city district map

You can change big to small, or city to village or town, or district to districts or get rid of the word altogether, whatever. Vary your searches and see if you can come up with a map that looks roughly how you pictured the city in your head.

Step Two: Alteration time!

Use Gimp, Photoshop, hell, even Paint, and make any changes you want, adding in coastlines or parks or mountains etc. It might not look great, but trust me, the visual makes a difference. Next, mark out the different districts you want in black or red. Use a key, because this part will be coupled with –

Step Three: Create your city districts

After much internet browsing (which wasn’t procrastination, I swear!), I discovered a few important elements to consider when creating districts.

Residents – includes wealth and ideologies, and will have an impact on infrastructure
History of the city
History of the district
Geography (whether it’s near ocean or river or mountains, etc)
Materials of buildings
Nature – parks/hedges/lakes/fountains
Relationship with other districts
Best-known places, run by people with history and personalities of their own
Religious buildings
Law buildings

Okay, that was more than a few.

But you don’t have to use all of these for every district. It’s just good to keep them in mind.

Let’s go with an example:

The Docks district is on the shoreline between the Vista and Noda districts. Colloquially known as the ‘Salt-Licker’ district, it’s packed with traders, fishermen, and travellers. There are plenty of storefronts and pubs, honeycombed with erosion and exotic enough to be suited to the many sea-faring visitors. The most popular tavern is Maychips, owned by Hardy, a retired fisherman who has hung plasters of his many spectacular catches over the years on the paint-peeled walls.

This is only a simple description, loosely based on one of my own districts. The reason it’s so simple is because it’ll never even show up in my story. But for my sake, I’m glad to have such a solid idea in mind. I have twelve districts now, each distinct, each adding their own flavour to the imagery of my city as a whole.

Isn’t that better than just “shopping, business, suburban, and industry districts”?

I can’t stress enough how important it is to research district descriptions if you’re creating your own city. Try generating some ideas from role-playing games, where world-building is essential.

Do you have any world-building tricks? Can you suggest anything I might have missed?

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Write on Con

Thanks to the lovely Jo Hart, I was lucky enough to discover Write on Con, and I'm here to pay it forward.

Ever wanted to attend a writing conference, but didn't have the time/money/availability?


It's a FREE conference for kidlit writers, and it happens ONLINE between August 16th and August 18th. I haven't been this excited about something since NaNoWriMo.

Things to do:

Post queries/first 250 words/synopsis for critique
See others' works, as well as what other people have to say about it
Chat to other writers
Participate in forum discussions
Enter contests
And more, which I'm still discovering....

And, because I know the real reason you'd want to "attend" this conference, a taste of some of the amazing agents (and assistants) involved:

Jenny Bent
Michael Bourret
Ginger Clark
Sarah Crowe
Catherine Drayton
Natalie M. Fischer
Weronika Janczuk
Jennifer Laughran
Jim McCarthy
Sara Megibow
Kathleen Ortiz
Kelly Sonnack
Jennifer Rofe
Joanna Stampfel-Volpe
Kate Schafer Testerman
Suzie Townsend

Even just typing out their names had me gushing. Who needs celebrities when you have agents like THESE?

Best of all, this year Write on Con has a new program: NINJA AGENTS! Several agents will be sneaking around the forums looking at query letters and offering critiques... and maybe representation.


(And if you want to friend me, I'm just under "Tamara".)

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Interview with Marissa Meyer

Marissa Meyer, author of the highly-anticipated CINDER, was kind enough to drop by and answer some questions on her past stint as a popular fanfiction writer, overcoming writing obstacles, and fictional love interests.

1. You started out as a fanfiction writer under the name Alicia Blade. Tell us about the first fanfic you ever made public.
I think I was 13 when I posted my first fanfic. It was called “Remembering Love,” it was about 5 pages long, and it consisted of major angst. It was pretty awful.

2. You’re still one of the most popular Sailor Moon fanfiction writers online, which certainly helps with spreading the word on CINDER. How did you go about building that following?
I’ve made a ton of friends and met so many amazing people through the online community! I’m very lucky to have so many people supporting CINDER right off the bat. I don’t know that it was a conscious effort to build “a following”—I enjoyed writing fanfics, so I wrote a bunch of them (more than 40). I also tended to stick with one genre (we’ll call it romantic comedy) within the Sailor Moon storyline, so readers knew what to expect when they read one of my fics. If it was the type of story that pleased them, they kept coming back, and I kept writing them!

3. CINDER is due out in January and we’re all so excited for it – I’ll bet you are too. What are you going to do on the release date?
Ooh, that’s an excellent question! I haven’t the faintest idea! There will be a release party a week or two after the book comes out, which I’m really excited for. But I’ll have to start planning my day-of celebration soon. I’m sure it will involve champagne and a trip to my local bookstore. And probably squealing.

4. What was the hardest writing obstacle you had to overcome with CINDER?
This might be on my brain because you and I were just talking about it, but it was really difficult to be patient with CINDER and not settle for the “it’s good enough” mentality. This was the first novel I’d ever queried and I knew I would only have one chance at that first impression with agents, so I forced myself to take my time and make the book as strong as I could, through two rewrites and numerous revisions. It wasn’t until one of my beta readers emailed me and said, “This is done, send it out now,” did I let myself think it could be ready.

5. You’re brilliant at creating sexy, desirable men. Tell us more about Prince Kai, the love interest in CINDER. What are his best and worst traits? What makes him different from the normal fairy tale princes?
Why thank you! I’m glad that I’m not the only one who thinks they’re sexy! Prince Kai is probably the closest thing to “Prince Charming” you’ll find in the series. He’s smart and gentlemanly and even chivalrous at moments, but he also has a bit of rebelliousness in him that comes out more and more as he’s forced into a position of political power. Sometimes I think poor Kai has the hardest role in the books, being constantly forced to choose between what he wants or what’s best for his country.

6. Finally, CINDER is the first of a series of four, with the following books also based on fairy tales – Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Snow White. What made you choose these particular fairy tales?
When I first started brainstorming the series, I made a list of some of my favorite tales, then started thinking up ways they could be futurized. Something about the four tales I chose just started falling into place. The glass coffin became a suspended animation tank, the tower became a satellite orbiting Earth, the wolf became a genetically engineered mutant. Initially I’d thought they would each be a stand-alone story, but the more I thought about them, the more one overarching story started to fall into place. Writing this series has been kind of like putting together a huge puzzle, which has been both fun and challenging.

Thank you so much for the interview, Tamara!

And thank you for answering my questions, Marissa!

CINDER is due out January 3rd, 2012. You can preorder it here. Make sure you check it out!

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The Benefits of Harry Potter

I've done a guest post for The Book Lantern on the benefits of the Harry Potter series. I've steered past the usual discussion topics for the books and tried for something a little different.

You can find the post here.

Please have a read and add to the discussion!

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Marissa Meyer Cover Reveal!

Marissa Meyer is lucky enough to have written one of the most highly anticipated books of 2012.

CINDER is the retelling of Cinderella... as a cyborg. It's an amazing concept, and if you want to jump ahead of the line and get to know this wonderful author before she becomes swamped with fans, here are some links to her social networking sites:


Macmillan Kids Books had a big countdown on Twitter for CINDER's cover, and at last it's been revealed:

Doesn't it look fantastic? Go to the website and find out all about it now!

Monday, 18 July 2011

The Kiss

You’ve reached that long-awaited kiss scene. There’s been suspense, yearning, and unbelievable tension. Now it's finally happening.

But how do you write a kiss scene that lives up to the expectations of the reader? What do you need to ensure both the readers and your characters are satisfied after what was an almost painful build up?

Like all scenes, you need to include the senses. However, when it comes to THE kiss, there are a few changes to the balance.


Unlike most other scenes, this is the most important sense, as it is heightened during passion. Touch will be the focus of a kiss scene. Hot breath, caressing lips, roaming hands – bring it all in, but don’t go overboard with tongue descriptions. Sure, there might be a tongue flickering in somewhere. Just don’t spend too much time on it. I don’t know about you, but that was the kind of stuff I wrote about in high school. And when I read it now, it makes me squirmy.

Phrases to think about:

Hot breath against skin/mouth
Fingers trailing against skin
Fingers threading through hair
Lips against lips/jaw/cheek/neck
Hands around waist
Arms around neck


Unless it’s important to the story, I wouldn’t suggest putting in tastes that aren’t universally enjoyed. Beans, seafood, morning breath, cigarettes (yes, I know, but not all your readers will be smokers) can probably be left out unless you want the kiss scene etched in your readers’ minds for all the wrong reasons. And if you’re going to mention a less common taste, it’s a good idea to have your other character know how it got there, either by seeing them eat it beforehand, or ask about it afterwards.

Some suggestions for pleasant tastes:

Beer (as a masculine choice)

Any to add?


Like taste, your characters’ scents should be universally pleasant. If you want some ideas for different flavours, do a google search on perfumes and colognes and see how creators describe their products. For something a little more unusual, try candle scents. There are dozens of smells to choose from. Just make sure that the smell matches the character – don’t go giving them an ocean spray perfume if they hate the sea.

Examples of candle scents (extensive list found here):

Apple blossom
Bay breeze
Cherry vanilla
French vanilla


Stick with soft moans, sighs, murmurs, and groans from the characters involved, and that’s it. This is one of the few times in the story where background detail and grounding won’t be needed. A character in the middle of a passionate kiss isn’t going to notice a stove bubbling away in the kitchen, or a pigeon cooing on the terrace, or even people around them in a marketplace. Not if they’ve been waiting for this kiss for a long time.


This is probably the least important sense to a kiss scene. Hopefully your characters aren't going to see much for the majority of the moment - it'd be a bit awkward if they’re standing there with their eyes open. Describing the love interest’s dishevelled look between kisses is a treat for the reader. Loose collars, messy hair, flushed cheeks, and unfocussed eyes make for saucy reading.

Any other sensory details you could add?

Once the senses are done, character thoughts can be added. But remember, not a lot of thinking goes on during a kiss scene, and readers don’t want to be bombarded with too much internal monologuing. Select a subtle combination from the list above, add your own twists and preferences, slip in a few stray I can’t believe this is finally happening thoughts, and you have yourself that long-awaited kiss scene.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Keeping up with Technology

You’ve written a book set in the modern day. You get an agent. You get a contract.

But by the time your book comes out, the technology you’ve used is outdated.

It’s happening too fast. Mobiles turn into Blackberrys, which turn into iPhones, which turn into… well… who knows? Give it a few months, and I’ll have an answer.

Ever laughed at a book or a movie that uses a floppy disk, or a VHS, or a discman? Someone’s going to be laughing at the technology in your book in ten years time, I promise you.

So how do you keep up with it? How do you have your characters acting contemporary, without losing your target audience within a few short years?

Unfortunately, we can’t tell the future. We can’t know what’s going to happen next. Here are a few techniques I use to avoid this potential migraine:

Set your story in the near-future
Just near enough to have a few technological extras (fully-automated supermarket checkouts, identification tags, DNA scans, etc), but not so far that it’s unrecognisable.

Use minor technological details
The more you throw in, the easier the book will become outdated. Keep mobiles and music usage to a minimum. Even mentioning CDs and DVDs is risky, because it won’t be long until they'll be commonly available online.

Replace technology with something else
Harry Potter, anyone? Muggle devices couldn’t be used at Hogwarts, but there was certainly enough magic to make up for it.

Ban technology in your setting
Schools don’t allow mobiles in class. If you want, take it a step further. Have your particular institution ban all IT devices (as long as they have a good reason for it!), and save yourself the think-work.

It’s all in the detail
If you’re writing for young adults especially, you can’t take technology out altogether. Did you know most teenagers don’t wear wristwatches? They use their mobiles for the time. (As a teacher, I can tell you, it’s maddening). Mobiles have also replaced alarm clocks. And about a dozen other things.

Don’t even get me started on social networking sites. Look at what happened to MySpace. Be careful what you use, because it won’t be around forever.

What about you? Any other ideas for how to keep up with technology?

Thursday, 19 May 2011


The lovely Marissa Meyer, author of CINDER (to be released January 2012) is hosting a giveaway!

Win one of four books:

ASH by Malinda Lo (inspired by Cinderella)
SISTERS RED by Jackson Pearce (inspired by Little Red Riding Hood)
ZEL by Donna Jo Nipoli (inspired by Rapunzel)
FAIREST by Gail Carson Levine (inspired by Snow White)

Go to her livejournal for more details.

Good luck!

Friday, 8 April 2011

Ode to fantasy writers

Something I came up with while waiting around for a friend to pick me up.

Sung to The Little Mermaid's "Part of Your World".

Look at this stuff
Isn't it neat?
Wouldn't you think my Word doc is complete?
Wouldn't you think I'm the girl
The girl who writes everything?
Look at this trove
Stories untold
How many wonders can one folder hold?
Looking around here you think
Sure, she dreams everything
I've got fairies and princes a-plenty
I've got gremlins and villains galore
You want cool demi-gods?
I've got twenty!
But who cares?
No big deal
I want more

I wanna be where the characters are
I wanna see, wanna see ‘em dancin'
Walking around in those - what do you call 'em?
Oh - sheets!

Flippin' your pages, you see so far
Magic’s required for flying, chanting
Fightin’ a bunch of those - what's that word again?

Down where they walk, down where they run
Down where they slay all day, everyone
Wanderin' free - wish I could be
Part of that world

What would I give if I could live with the goddesses?
What would I pay to spend a day in a fantasy land?
Trident in hands, Olympians
They could be, so much fun to slaughter
Poison apples, marriage chapels
Fairy tale lands

And give me a quest with a trapped princess
Raise the stakes and build the climax
Add an apprentice and let him - what's the word?

When's it my turn?
Wouldn't I love, love to explore that world I dreamed of?
Pure fantasy
Wish I could be
Part of that world

ETA: I've made a youtube video of this song, with lyrics (oh god!) really bad images and transitions (my eyes!), and MY ACTUAL SINGING, which has never been heard in any capacity except road trips (PLEASE GOD MAKE IT STOP!). If you would like to would like to endure this kind of suffering, skip on over to the site

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Learning writing from reading

With the twenty-four hour read-a-thon happening again this weekend, I’ve been thinking about the one piece of advice that authors, agents, publishers, editors – everyone in the writing business, really – are constantly giving new writers.


You learn the craft of writing by seeing what others have done; by reflecting on what works and what doesn’t. You can study plot, characterisation, setting, and structure – not by reading how-to books, but by reading widely.

Some important things that I’ve learnt so far about writing, and the books I’ve learnt them from:

1. Smaller chapters make for easy reading - UGLIES by Scott Westerfeld

2. Protagonists don’t always have to be reliable - LIAR by Justine Larbalestier

3. If done right, having multiple protagonists can give a story many rich layers - TO THE GENTLEMAN IN THE BACK by Alicia Blade (aka Marissa Meyer). You can find the story here.

4. Middle grade does not limit your audience to just children - The HARRY POTTER series by J.K. Rowling

5. Epilogues to give ultra-happy endings don’t necessarily equate to ultra-happy readers - HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS by J.K. Rowling

6. Stories don’t need romance to be fun - CHRONICLES OF NARNIA by C.S. Lewis; RONDO series by Emily Rodda

7. Having a witty, cheeky protagonist means you can get away with writing epistolaries - DADDY LONG LEGS by Jean Webster

8. A well-placed twist can make the whole story - AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS by Jules Verne

I could go on for pages. Reading is the best way to improve your writing.

Now it’s your turn. What have you learnt about writing from reading?

Monday, 28 March 2011

Fearless first drafts

I’m an advocate for fast first drafts. Plot all you like, but when you get started on the writing part, build momentum and don’t stop until you’re done. I know people who keep going back to revise what they’ve already written and never actually finish the manuscript.

If you’re one of those people who can’t bear the thought of writing a first draft without stopping, but you've yet to finished a manuscript, maybe it’s time to write fearlessly.


You can change anything in later drafts.

I’m serious. I’ve proved over the years that every single aspect of a novel can be changed. Setting all wrong? Antagonist too corny? Plot looking wonky? Not a problem. But fix it later.

If you think something needs changing, make a note of it in a separate document then plough ahead. There are writing articles and books out there that will tell you that it’s impossible to change POV once you’ve written it.

This is a lie.

I can say this to you confidently, because I’ve changed the POV in a story before. Hell, I’ve even changed the protagonist before. And I’m not talking about changing my main gal from one character to another pre-existing character. I mean I’ve changed her personality to fit a completely different person. It took work, yes, but it’s definitely possible.

If you never get it done, you’ll never get it published.

Obvious, isn't it?

Even if your goal isn’t to get published, if you’re forever writing and never finishing anything, you’ll never feel that moment of satisfaction when you complete your first draft. Trust me, it’s a phenomenal feeling. Yes, the manuscript won’t be perfect. But at least you’ll have the foundation to build on.

Posting daily word counts is a great way to force yourself onwards. Be a cheerleader for others, so you have plenty of people cheering you in return. Wow them with your ability to stick with it, and your pure grit. It’s all about the act. Tell everyone you can do a certain amount of words a day, and you’ll have no choice but to prove it. The act becomes reality.

If you’re still revising your first draft without no real end in sight, make a vow to yourself now. How many NEW (not revised) words a day will you write until you’re finished? (A thousand is a good way to go – not as tricky as NaNoWriMo, but enough to make solid progress.) Need a cheerleader? I'm happy to help!

If you’ve completed a first draft already, what did you do to celebrate?

PS Please note I'm not telling you to change your writing habits. If editing as you go works for you, great! I'm merely suggesting an alternative if it's not working.

Monday, 21 March 2011

The darkest hour

When the hero has lost everything. When the villain has temporarily triumphed, with nothing left to stop him. When the apocalypse has arrived. Most stories have that moment. That darkest hour.

Does yours?

The importance of losing everything

Think of any action television show – as the season comes to a close, the hero is often close to losing everything. The end of the second season of Buffy is a great example – she’s been kicked out of home, kicked out of school, and the love of her life, Angel, is evil and has begun to unleash hell on earth.

When the climax of your story draws nearer, it’s time for your hero to fail. He needs to lose, at least for part of the story. He needs to know the depths of his darkest hour.


1. The hero’s darkest hour allows time for reflection, for both the hero, and the reader

If you watch the audio commentary for How to Train Your Dragon, the creators admit that they had skipped that darkest hour, where Hiccup mourns Toothless after he's captured and taken away. Instead, they had Hiccup immediately jumping up, ready to get back into fight. The creators realised this was a mistake – that moment of reflection was needed. They let Hiccup experience the impact of his loss, let him feel hopeless. It’s a time all of us go through in life, and it’s an important progression in the story.

When the hero endures the worst of the worst, readers learn from his strength. They follow him to his darkest hour, and celebrate his glory when he finds his way back. If you’re looking for a reader who will truly love rereading your book, give them inspiration by slamming your hero to rock bottom and let him climb back up again.

2. The harder you fall, the higher you climb

You only need to watch J.K. Rowling’s speech on failure to understand that. When you strip a character down to the barest essentials, you’re left with his true nature. When your hero has nothing left, it’s this moment that defines him. It gives readers an insight into his spirit, his strength, and his endurance. Kill his family, turn his friends against him, let his arch nemesis triumph, and see what he does. Give him the greatest obstacles of all to overcome, and show your readers why he is the hero.

Rising from the ashes

Getting your hero out of his darkest hour is not easy. Usually he’s caught in a moment of self-doubt, and it’s not believable for him to just flick a mental switch and come at the problem again with newfound determination.

Sometimes a secondary character needs to come in and slap some sense into him. Choose that secondary character wisely. Who would be the most surprising character to help your hero in a time of need? Could it be someone who’s been a pain for the protagonist in the past? Could it be someone who used to be a threat, but has decided to work together with the protagonist against a common enemy? Could it be someone the hero had previously written off as useless?

Sometimes, however, the hero is alone in this moment of need. He must find an inner strength, but it takes a motivating factor to get him to move. Perhaps he solves a riddle or figures out a weak point that will help take down the villain. Perhaps he realises what more he might lose if he lets the villain win. Perhaps he needs that moment when he can choose to give up and die, but instead hauls himself to his feet.

Let’s go back to the scenario in Buffy. She’s lost almost everything. Angel is about to kill her, and asks (more or less) what she has left. He tries to impale her with his sword, and at the last second, she slams her hands together to stop the blade, and answers, “Me.” Who wouldn’t root for a character like that?

What are some of your favourite stories with a darkest hour? Did you find yourself rooting for the protagonist more because they struggled up from rock bottom?

How would your story differ if the villain took control, and the protagonist experienced that darkest hour?

Monday, 14 March 2011

The Twitter Query

There are plenty of great articles out there on writing a pitch, but in this article I’m talking about pitching Twitter-style.

The set-up

Agent Jennifer Laughran (@literatictat on Twitter) hosted a challenge asking followers to tweet their query. It turned out to be ridiculously difficult. And with my alarm clock still buzzing in my ears, my groggy brain came up with slop instead of a real pitch. First lesson: have your 140-character queries written and ready, in case you need to tweet it!

Laughran retweeted queries she liked, for example this one by Jo Hart (@gracefuldoe): Geek girl moves school, changes image & becomes popular. Only problem: at this school popular kids are turning up dead. YA.

Breaking it down

What works about this? Let’s look at each part.

We have the character: Geek girl.

We have the setting: New school

We have her initial goal: To be popular. (And I know it’s her goal, rather than something that just happened to her, because she changed her image. It was a deliberate action. This tells us popularity was something she aimed for.)

So far, the story’s looking pretty cliché – a riches to rags kind of tale that’s been retold a thousand times.

But here comes the catch: At this school popular kids are turning up dead. The stakes are implied – the protagonist’s life is at risk. Following on from this, the protagonist’s new goal is also implied – she will have to find out why the popular kids are turning up dead. Implied motivation? So she doesn’t die herself.

Try it out

With tweeted queries, it’s impossible to give a good idea of your character or plot, and you’ll have to use short, descriptive words. Pare the story down to its core. What is the main objective of your protagonist? What are the stakes? (And whatever you do, don’t use words like “to protect” or “to survive”, because they’re not solid goals).

I’ll use my current WiP as an example:

My protagonist: Teenage girl

The setting: Heart of Shadowglen city

Her initial goal: Find her runaway sister

Catch: Cursed by princess who wants her to kill a beast, and says doing so will lead her to her sister

New goal: Kill a beast

So: A teenage girl is cursed by a mysterious princess, who claims she must use the curse to kill a beast and find her runaway sister.

Right length, but the set up looks awkward, and it probably still has too many elements. It’s no good trying to explain how the curse can help the protagonist kill a beast (or how killing the beast will lead her to her sister) in 140 characters. I could expand more on the mood, go into less description about her sister, and get rid of the princess altogether.

To save her runaway sister, a teenage girl must kill the beast that lurks in the dark streets of Shadowglen city.

Checklist: Character, setting (not always necessary), stakes, goals.

Much, much harder than it sounds! Have a go in the comments, and make sure it can fit into a tweet!

Jo Hart doesn’t just write a great Twitter-Pitch, she also has a fabulous website, which can be found here. Make sure you drop by!

The follow up article on the Tweet-a-Query challenge by Jennifer Laughran can be found here.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

On discovering your characters

While working on a WiP, most authors wait for that “it” moment. That eureka. That exact point in time when finally, finally, she discovers her protagonist.

Some authors discover their characters as soon as they see them in their heads. For me, it took many drafts, character bio pages, and daydreams to discover my protagonist for my earlier work, BLAZE. And when I say “discover”, I mean knowing her so intimately and precisely that she finally became a real person in my head; someone I knew as well as I know myself.

For anyone working with original characters, this normally doesn’t happen in the first draft. The first draft is more about plot and events and just figuring out what the darn story’s supposed to be about. It’s only during later drafts that you’re really trying to feel out your characters, and it’s very important to reach that stage, because determining your protagonist determines your story’s voice.

The things you should know in order to discover your characters:


Put your characters in all kinds of crazy scenarios and see how they react. What kind of people push their buttons? Who are they infatuated with? What are their favourite pastimes?

If you’re writing literary fiction, fantasise about your story in terms of your original plot then throw a dragon in and see what happens. If you’re writing a high fantasy, imagine your characters in our world and watch how they react to everyday things.

Throw them in the past. Pitch them forward into the future. Have your protagonist fatally ill and see what the other characters do. Give another one of your characters time in the spotlight and see how they fare as the protagonist. How does your protagonist react when she isn’t in the main role?


Get the details right. I mean exactly right. About a decade ago, I used to find images in magazines, but obviously the web offers so much more. If you have an image in your head but can’t find one online that matches it, try a character generator.

Don’t just tell the reader your character’s hair and eye colour. Give us those subtle details – a crooked front tooth, a dimpled chin, high eyebrows. Do something special. Unique. In GONE WITH THE WIND, Mitchell introduces Rhett Butler with this charming description: There was a cool recklessness in his face and a cynical humour in his mouth as he smiled at her… It’s different, it’s imaginative, and it tells us as much about him as it does about Scarlett, whose eyes we see him through.

Sometimes finding images gives you ideas for quirks you’d never imagined for your character before. And once you have that character image in your head, moving on to personality profiles will be a lot easier…


Your protagonist can’t be a coward if the plot calls for someone to march forth and slay a monster. Or, better yet, they can be, but they need a secondary character to push/encourage/trick them into it. This is always a good tactic when you want to show character growth over the story.

Think about your plot. What kind of character does your protagonist have to be to make it through to the climax? What kind of characters does she need to bounce off in order to move the story forward? Can a well-developed secondary character help you with a certain trait in your protagonist? What message do you want to send to your readers?

For example, if the love interest in your story is a strong, capable male, do you want your protagonist to match him in strength and capabilities? It could lend to some decent conflict in the story. On the other hand, if you decide to make your protagonist timid, it gives her the chance to grow throughout the story and find her own self-worth before getting together with the love interest. Maybe it takes her until the end of the book to see what the love interest has seen all along. Again, it depends on what the plot needs at the beginning to move the story forward.

So where can you get personality types from? Well…


No, you don’t need to start following the stars or visiting Tarot readers. Marissa Meyer mentioned in a blog post that “choosing astrological signs for my characters helps to pinpoint their general personality archetype”, and that’s always a great start. But if you need some extra help, why not keep going?

If you’re having trouble giving your character real depth and precision, work out their numerology and check the personality description for that number. There are plenty of websites out there to give you ideas, but I found a book a while back that had ultra-detailed descriptions for every single birthday in the year. It could have been a great character profile resource if it had occurred to me at the time.

Birth trees, the Chinese zodiac, and online personality tests are also good tools for getting personality descriptions and temperaments, but basic personality profiles are just the beginning…


Don’t just jot down the likes, dislikes, and family status of your character. Write up a proper bio – parents, childhood, most influential moments, most painful memories – be as thorough as a psychiatrist. You can work backwards, too. If your character needs to be scared of water for some reason, delve into their past and find out why that fear is there. It adds an extra dimension that, while may not be explicitly written into your story, will still help you as the author understand your character on a deeper level.

The detail is where you discover the motives behind your character’s actions and attitudes during the story. I can’t stress this part enough. The detail is where I had my “ah ha” moment with my protagonist from BLAZE, and it was such a relief when she finally revealed her true nature to me. I knew she had parental issues that were the root of her main motivations, but it was her attitude towards school that I’d forgotten to take into account. The story starts with her adjusting to a big school, when originally she’d come from a little country town school with a graduating class of seven students. I was so busy with her parent-saga, I hadn’t factored in her feelings of being overwhelmed and crowded and claustrophobic after the move. Once this sunk in for me, I discovered my character.

Don’t panic if your characters don’t reveal themselves to you straight away. It’s a slow, ongoing process. Let them come to you gradually, and before you know it, you’ll be experiencing that “ah ha” moment for yourself.

What experiences have you had with original characters? Can you "discover" your protagonist immediately, or does it take work? How do your characters become living, breathing people on the page?

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Character quirks

Yes, it's great to give your characters quirks, but don't go too far. Sometimes the quirks are so obvious and strange that it's clear the author's putting the quirk in for the sake of giving a character a quirk, and it's painful to read. Really.

I read this book once where the protagonist's shoes always squeaked. Always. It didn't matter what shoes he was wearing, or what floor he was walking across. They squeaked. Okay, hands up, who can make sense of that? Yes, it's mildly amusing. But it annoyed me, because it was ridiculous! It wasn't quirky. It was against the laws of physics, and I got annoyed, because the author had tried too hard to follow some good advice and it was obvious that's what he was doing.
Quirks can be great. Just don't defy the laws of physics for them.

On killing your characters (and scaring your readers)

I've just finished reading the Rondo series by Emily Rodda, and while I loved the books, I finally picked up on something that I never realised before.

I was never scared for the characters' lives.

Yes, obviously, it's a middle grade series, but there's always the chance an author's going to do something extreme. In the last book, there were plenty of omens in the way Rodda was writing that made me think maybe...

And then one of the characters was put in mortal peril. It was only a secondary character, and I thought, good god, she's actually going to do it, but after a few pages the character was okay again, and that was that.

So I stopped worrying. A character gets abducted? Fine. A character looks weak and sickly? No problem.

I wasn't worried, because Rodda didn't follow through with that initial threat, and I knew after that that there would be no deaths. That's fine, of course, for the story in question, but when it comes to my own stories, I need to do more.

In one of my stories there will be a major death, as well as a moment where the reader will think all is lost for every good character in the story, and I want the reader to feel scared. I'd already planned a secondary character death earlier, and it's only now I realise why.

Subconsciously, I think I knew that I had to lead up to the major death by killing off this secondary character. To take that secondary character's life is to make the reader truly fear for the main characters. To make them believe that there is a real, honest-to-god possibility that the characters they love will die as well. After all, if the author can kill of one of her characters, who's to say she won't do it agan?

It will certainly have readers gripping the pages and reading to the end.

Plot and Character

So I've read statements saying that character *is* plot. The people who make these statements often go on to say that the characters "tell them" what to do in the story.

And then I've read some statements who claim that this is complete and utter drivel. They add that you have to think about plot structure, and how your story needs to follow certain guidelines, not go on some subconscious whim that writers claim are characters "speaking" to them.

Okay, so that's a valid point, but I'm still going to argue the case that character is plot. I fall under the category of the first lot of writers, rather than the second.


Because, well, character IS plot. We no longer read stories where stuff happens to the character and they just react instead of act (did we ever?). Stuff will happen to the character at first, sure, but what the character then chooses to do is based purely on who the character is. Say a plague hits your fictional town. Depending on your protagonist, your book could go any way. For example, the story could start off with the protagonist's reaction to the plague, where he or she could -

1. Run for the hills and try to hide
2. Set out on an adventure to discover what caused the plague
3. Do scientific research to discover what caused the plague.
4. Tend to the sick

So right there, your plot is decided for you by who your character is.

Now. I am definitely, definitely an advocate of knowing plot structure. You can't just meander around the pages with nothing happening for the majority of the book while your character chooses their own adventure. A writer needs to know the bones of the plot. But the meaty part, the ups and downs of the story, are up to the characters.

How I figure out the beginnings of my stories, step-by-step, looks like this:

1. Create main characters and antagonists - this means giving them histories, desires, motivations, etc.
2. Figure out the story goal and ending (1 and 2 are interchangable, but I usually do them in this order).
3. Start the story off with an inciting incident, and while I'm doing that...
4. Work out the first doorway (see James Scott Bell's proper explanation for this phrase in Plot and Structure). I need to know what's going to force my protagonist into the story and give them no way to turn back.
5. Lead my character to the first doorway, so they can begin the story goal.

Now, from here on in is the tricky part, and this is where character really becomes the plot. What happens next is a choice depending on who the character is. Your character(s) will decide how to overcome this no-turning-back thing (usually it's with resistance at first), and take certain steps to try and get where they want to be (usually the status quo - back to how they were at the beginning of the story, although they never get there).

Do they try to eliminate the threat on their own? Do they enlist help? Does the antagonist have a certain style while trying to keep the protagonist from reaching his/her goal? Because, yes, the antagonist is also the plot. And all these plot choices rely on character.

Of course, while planning all this, I know that I need to lead my characters through doorway two and reach the climax, so I know the basic direction, but how the story gets there is up to the characters.

And that's what we authors mean when we say our characters "tell us" what to do.