Monthly Archives: May 2013

what I learnt about writing from judging the VPA

I had the great fortune of winning the Valerie Parv Award in 2010, and this year I was finally able to give a bit back by judging contest entries.

I wasn’t expecting to learn so much about writing in a short period of time, just by reading three very different synopses and excerpts. It’s always easier to see other people’s writing clearly, and I’m grateful for what this has taught me about my own writing. I’m going to share very general insights, which don’t apply specifically to any one entry.

Synopsis

Synopses are notoriously difficult to write. How do you condense a whole story down to a couple of pages, all the while ensuring you don’t leave anything important out?

I read the contest synopses not to critique them, but simply as a reader wanting to understand the story as clearly as possible. I think because of this I picked up on one problem in all of the synopses – and I’m absolutely certain this has been my own problem as well: lack of specific detail.

In trying to condense the story down – or sometimes in an attempt to build suspense – we write about plot points in general terms. E.g. “She makes a plan to find out more about him.”

We feel like it’s saving space to be general and brief, but in fact what it does is muddy the sense of story. Whenever I came across a statement like this I found myself feeling frustrated at being somehow locked out of the story. It can also create confusion later in the synopsis. E.g. if the heroine’s plan to find out more about the hero is to break into his apartment and go through his things, there might be a statement later in the synopsis that’s something like, “After he finds out she broke into his house…”, which will make no sense to me as a reader. Even general statements later on such as “When her plan fails” simply add to the confusion, as I still don’t even know what her plan is.

Instead of “She makes a plan to find out more about him,” I could write, “She decides to find out more about him by breaking into his flat.” It takes up slightly more space on the page, but the reader will remain clearly in the story – and I suspect it will save words later in the synopsis when the writer has something concrete to refer back to.

Observations on writing

In every excerpt I read, the author had created two interesting characters from very different worlds and a premise that set up believable conflict that I wanted to see play out between them. All I wanted was to watch the characters interacting with each other in a scene, while their personal differences and opposing goals played out. For me, that is where chemistry sparks between characters – chemistry that doesn’t immediately have to be lust, but will more believably become lust.

In every excerpt, the author began with their excellent premise and characters and then added conflict. It mostly took that classic romance form of “I hate you, I want to bone you, you annoy me, but look at your biceps”.

There’s a very good reason the authors did this – and I know I relied on this form of conflict in my YA romance more than I should have. It’s easier to keep two characters from falling in love if they spend most of their time telling themselves they can’t stand each other. It also creates emotional chemistry between them that can be transformed into love later on. It gives you something to root for: you want them to overcome their aversion; you want to watch them change their minds.

The problem is that I’m not invested in two characters finding each other attractive but annoying. What I’m invested in is seeing these two very different people collide. What’s the point of creating interesting characters, otherwise?

It became so clear to me that the authors had built these characters and premise as a kind of canvas to write the story on. I wanted the characters and premise to be the story. I wanted to watch interest spark reluctantly inside an awful conversation. Or spark immediately and irrationally – and then run into the wall of reality.

I think it’s scary to put that much belief in our characters and premise, that we’ll simply put them in a scene together, let them be wholly themselves (even in the ways they act out) and let the story unfold. It’s less scary to add emotion and conflict, on top of what’s already there.

Which brings me to the biggest, scariest realisation I had while reading the excerpts. I know this is in large part formed by my own experience writing Untamed, but I’ve seen many writers I admire go through the same process, and witnessed the results.

The excerpts felt like they were at the stage my MS was at when I submitted it to the Award, i.e. a first draft that’s had a lot of work put into it. I was convinced, when I entered the Award, that my MS was almost complete. I just had a bit more work to do – another couple of read-throughs, some more edits. But I felt close.

I wasn’t.

What I had was an excellent place to start. I had the concept of a book, and the beginning of characters. I spent the whole year of my mentorship pulling the first draft apart, turning everything inside out – finding the heart of the story I really wanted to tell. And then at the end of the year I threw it all out and started again.

Everyone’s process is different, so hopefully you’ll never throw out as many words as I did. But I’ve seen meticulous writers go through this same process at 30,000 words, or in the world-building, planning process.

I wanted to say to the authors whose excerpts I read: Be proud of this wonderful story you’ve produced. Now break it apart, turn it inside out, dig around until your characters feel almost unrecognisable to you. Dare to turn this massive plot point completely on its head, simply because when you do it makes you go all zingy.

And I knew how it would feel to hear that feedback, because I knew each of those authors must feel so close to finishing, like I once did.

happy official release day, book!

It’s been a little confusing, because Untamed has actually been buy-able to buy for a couple of days now, but today it is officially a book! (The staggered availability has to do with global online vendors and availability.)

So far the reactions have been somewhere on the extremes of love and hate, with the occasional thoughtful in-between. I hope you have a read, wherever you end up sitting on that scale! You can find links to buy it on my books page.

It’s been a long journey to this day, and it’s made it so much more interesting and worthwhile to share it with you all. Please have a sexy snippet in celebration!

the very problematic, the very romantic Mr Frank Churchill

I’ve been visiting my family in Canberra, which is beautiful this time of year. And what a weak word beautiful seems to describe how the odd, purpose-built, overlooked capital of Australia embodies autumn. How still and quiet it is, except for those screaming cockatoos, and how blue the sky looks against the fire-and-plum-pudding leaves.

Well anyway, I’ve been visiting my family, and my sister and I decided to re-watch the 2009 adaptation of Emma (screenplay by the ever-marvellous Sandy Welch).

It’s a fabulous adaptation in so many ways. Emma’s father is hilarious and heartbreaking, and though her brother-in-law finds him impossible to deal with, it’s subtly suggested that he’s on his way to becoming the same neurotic, grumpy old man. And of course Emma and Knightly’s lifelong relationship is so real, and so much fun to watch. (And oh, that line, “Maybe if I loved you less, I could talk about it more.”)

But watching it this time round, it was Frank Churchill who caught my interest.

He’s awful. If I was Emma I would never have forgiven him so easily – and it grates on me, watching it, how he seems to get away with being an utter shit. But I also realised that he’s the Romance rake. He’s the difficult hero. Knightly, who’s good in every way (except that he likes to give patronising lectures) isn’t a very popular kind of hero in Romance.

And to be honest, I love the way Frank is mean about Jane to hide their relationship. It really tickles my id to have him explain away why he’s watching her by saying, “I was just thinking how poorly she has done her hair this evening.” At that point in the narrative she seems to be onside with it. She’ll be reserved and keep to herself; he’ll perpetuate the idea that he only visits her from obligation. It’s when he gets frustrated and genuinely mean that it stops being enjoyable.

But I think it’s a problem of perspective. We’re watching Frank as an antagonist within a romance that’s based on respect, moral judgement and kindness, so when he acts out it comes across as immature and thoughtless. If, on the other hand, we take his romance as the primary romance, he becomes what most heroes in Romance are: tortured by his feelings.

I think if I were reading that romance, I could enjoy how awful he is. I would revel in his lack of moral sense. He’s a man caught between what he owes to his manipulative family – and the fortune he’ll inherit from them – and love. I wouldn’t want to read about that as a simple moral choice.

It’s also a set-up that doesn’t discount the importance of money, which I like. We never get the sense he’s thinking about giving his fortune up to have Jane. In fact, he petulantly talks about running off to the Continent. He’s aware of the constraints love places on him – how it keeps him in this tiny, anonymous English town. He’s aware of the kind of life he could have – should have – were it not for love.

If Jane Austen were writing Frank and Jane as the primary romance, I can’t help but think that they would only be rewarded with happiness if they kept their feelings properly, achingly to themselves. I love that, as a secondary romance, she rewards them with happiness no matter how awful they’ve been. There’s no moral judgement on their feelings. As Knightly says, their happiness is just dumb luck: Frank’s aunt is in the way of their marriage – Frank’s aunt dies.

What redeems their romance in the adaptation (I can’t remember how it’s portrayed in the book) is the scene where we finally see them freely together. Frank waits in the village square, and Jane runs to him. When they meet they become – for the first time in four hours of TV – wholly, fully themselves (or wholly their best, brightest selves, anyway). All the fun and passion and impetuosity that has made Frank awful at times turns him into an irresistible man – a lover who will never let his love become bored, or feel unadored. All of Jane’s reserve and unhappiness fall away – though you feel what a frightening thing it must be to let them fall away – and she becomes the girl whose heart has been stolen, and is firm in the hands of her beloved.