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.

Comments 5 Responses

  1. Erin Satie

    I just finished reading a set of contest entries as well, for the Royal Ascot. I found a lot more good in them than I had expected to — which says more about my expectations than anything else, probably. There are so many good books out there, and so many authors who are capable.

    This entry is probably the next step in thought that I hadn’t gotten to. Why don’t all those good books get published? What is the obstacle?

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I think the Royal Ascot would be an amazing contest to judge – how fun! (And good that it exceeded expectation, otherwise it can be a bit of a slog.)

      None of the entries I read were quite ready for submission yet, so the answer to why they’re not published in this case is fairly straight-forward: they need more work. They’ll certainly be ready for submission once that work’s been put in, however. In Australia the publication rate has gone up recently, because so many of the big publishers have opened digital imprints in the last year. I was just talking with some writer friends about how contest entries are noticeably fewer as more people have the opportunity to get their work looked at by publishers.

      There’s always good old self-doubt to stand in the way, though!

  2. Nina

    At the risk of sounding arrogant: this is what I often find with student essays. By the time they’ve worked through it all and come to the end, they have the material for a really good essay; but they can’t be arsed to revise it. Or they’re too relieved to have written three coherent pages of academic prose at all. So then I tell them to turn the conclusion into the introduction and start again from there. They hate me for it, needless to say. But it’s probably a similar phenomenon to the one you describe. (And definitely true for my own writing.)

    1. anna cowan Post author

      It’s definitely true of my own experience as an undergrad. I never left time for revision and tbh I don’t think the extra work ever seemed worth it, when I was getting good grades anyway. Just another example of how we only cheat ourselves by doing the minimum at uni! I love the whole concept of turning a conclusion into an intro and starting again from there.

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