Tag Archives: writing


This is the sixth of six observations on writing craft

This thought is a new one, but I’m finding it a powerful tool in my writing, and in critiquing. I’ve been noticing what creates a moment of emotional shift.

We all know that in romance the characters should start in one place emotionally and through the journey of falling in love, they should grow and change and end up in a new emotional place. But where do those moments of change happen? Something new or different has to occur – otherwise the character would simply continue on as they have been.

So what creates the environment for an emotional shift to happen?

My feeling is that nine times out of ten it’s vulnerability. Vulnerability opens up this tiny space, this suspension of all the usual crap, and in that space anything could happen next.

That one moment allows something new to begin.

This is what allowed the nuanced conversation between Lauren and Hannah in The Split which I discussed in the previous post. Hannah realised Lauren was looking around for her ex, and being caught in the act made Lauren feel vulnerable, like Hannah had seen something she maybe didn’t want her to see. Instead of pressing her advantage, Hannah used the shift between them to be kind.

When I’m not moved, emotionally, by a kissing scene or a sex scene, it’s often because there’s no vulnerability. I see a lot of sex positivity and characters responding with enthusiasm and arousal, but that doesn’t give me a sense of what it means to them, to be touching this person and be touched by them. I don’t feel like anything has changed because of the kiss.

This goes back to my notion that complex characters feel multiple things at once. Kissing someone you want for the first time is arousing, but it’s also strange and terrifying – because of what you’re admitting by kissing, because of how much you want it, because it’s a sudden shift in intimacy.

The stimulus doesn’t have to be as obvious as a kiss, though. Maybe the characters are talking about something really ordinary, and suddenly one of them realises how much this person means to them – this specific person – and it’s terrifying, and they probably respond in the last way you’d expect (or at least the fifth, or eighth). As soon as you want something, you have something to lose.

The romance lives in those emotional responses.


This is the fourth in a series of six observations on writing craft

Another note I find myself writing on almost every contest entry I judge is some variation on: Take the time to think more deeply about your characters.

More time. Always more time. Ugh.

Everyone drafts books differently, but for most people I would imagine that characters are less distinct in the first few drafts than they will eventually be. I find out a lot about my characters by writing them, and then looking at what I have and drawing them out of the clues I find there. It’s one of the great joys of working on a book – feeling these characters become deeper, more complex people.

But I’m always aware, when I write that feedback, that it’s a simple note for a difficult process. Easy to say ‘think deeply about your characters’, but what on earth does that look like? And once you’ve figured out how to do it, how do you bring what you’ve found back to the page?

The answers to those questions will be different for everyone, and I think it’s worth thinking about it – maybe even trying to make a process for it.

Something that occurs to me when I’m reading contest entries is that the writer might feel more free to explore the character if they took them out of the plot. The plot – especially if it’s a tight, romance-trope plot – often feels like it’s dictating the character, rather than the other way around.

So one way to approach it could be to have your character perform a simple task and write their stream of consciousness as they do it. Follow every little thought, no matter how trivial. Let them bitch and concentrate and worry. Toni Jordan used to ask us to write our characters peeling an orange. Then you have to figure out how your character peels an orange. With a knife, or fingers? Messy, fussy, annoyed? How do they experience the sensations? Are they even aware of them, or are they thinking about something else? How do their body and their mind relate to each other?

My feeling is that once you’ve done this work, you’re writing from a place of greater understanding and it will be quite natural to bring the more complex elements of your character into the scene.

However, I have one excellent shortcut to suggest: The simplest way to make a character feel complex is to have them feel multiple, even contradictory things at once.

I notice this when it’s done well, and I notice when it’s absent. If a character feels only one thing, they feel simple – especially if that one feeling is the obvious response to what’s happening in the scene. If they feel multiple things they begin to feel realistic. Intimacy is wonderful and scary. When new opportunities enter your life they often take you outside your comfort zone. Or going back to the last post about family: You can love someone and be frustrated by them at the same time, or want them to succeed and feel jealous. It doesn’t make you a bad person, it just makes you human.

Another effect it has is that it forces the character to have an inner dialogue about themselves. To feel multiple things at once you need a level of self-awareness that allows you to feel something and understand why you feel it, but not give weight to it or act on it. Or to watch yourself having the worst possible reaction to something even while you understand that you’re behaving badly and making things worse. We don’t always act in our best interests, and we don’t always enact our worst impulses.

I’m not saying every character should perfectly understand themselves, because so few of us do. But even when we wilfully misunderstand ourselves, it’s in the context of an inner dialogue that has developed over a lifetime of being in our own head.

Seeing this inner life makes characters feel multi-dimensional, and it makes them feel like grown-ups.


This is the third of six observations on writing craft

One of my reader catnips is family. Found family, real family, doesn’t matter. Give me those deep relationships that matter more and can cut deeper than any other relationship. Give me unconditional loyalty and conflicted love.

Something I notice in most of the contest entries I read is that the dialogue between family members or old friends doesn’t have a depth of shared history to it. They don’t sound like people who have known each other forever – they sound like they’ve just met.

Honestly, I understand how this happens, and I feel like it’s even appropriate for a first draft. In a first draft they literally have just met. There were points in late drafts of Untamed when I would suddenly realise whole sections of the siblings’ history with each other was a giant blank to me. They existed only in the bits of their shared past that were recounted or referenced in the story.

It strikes me as a really good place to focus attention, thought and work as a story is developed beyond the first draft.

I think we all know that feeling of being an adult until you go home, and then you’re straight back into a family dynamic that was cemented when you were eight years old and you honestly can’t believe some of the ways you’re behaving. You have a professional job! Where people look up to you! And you’re smart! And mature! Until you’re with your family.

Showing this dynamic is a powerful way to give a sense of history (these people shaped each other) – but it’s also a powerful way to draw your character and make them feel complex. We see them behave differently in different contexts.

When our heroine’s talking to her little brother does she immediately start mothering him and organising things he’s probably entirely capable of doing by himself? Does he enrage her more quickly and effectively than anyone else? Does she not expect him to have a complex inner life? How does she deal with it when she sees signs that he, in fact, does? Do they always joke with each other – a habit that becomes painful when they have something devastating to deal with together?

Dialogue is, I think, the primary place to do this work. The ways family talk to each other – the things they say and don’t say – are going to tell us almost everything we want to know. This goes back to my previous posts on writing for an investigative reader: The inconsistencies between what they say, feel, and don’t say will give the reader room to begin drawing the shape of these relationships.

It’s also a good chance to make the dialogue work harder. It’s a framework for asking: How would this specific character say this thing? What would they say in this circumstance, to this person? If the characters are all in relationship with each other, then they need to speak as their particular self for the dynamics to work.

Another simple but effective tool is thinking about the shorthand they would have developed over years and years. If someone brings up something that happened years ago is it a story they bring up all the time, God, Jenny, we know! Do they all have different positions on what really happened that need to be relitigated every time it comes up? Is it a shared story they can reference with one word in order to illustrate a point? Do they use the name of one particular sister to reference certain behaviour (Don’t Donna me over this!)?

There’s almost no new information you can tell your family – only continuing, evolving conversations, decades long.


This is the second of six observations on writing craft

In the previous post I focused on dialogue, because that’s where the power of leaving space for the reader is most immediately apparent to me as a reader. However, another place I’ll notice whether I’m invited to participate in the story or not is in the opening scene – the opening lines, even.

We all want to nail the beginning of our story, because we want the reader to stick with us. I think writing for an investigative reader is a useful tool for doing this.

The beginning of a story is when we have to introduce a lot of brand new information to the reader. With every solid piece of information we tell the reader – the markers that give them a sense of where they are – we have a choice about whether we give them room to start putting the shape of the world together themselves, or whether we draw it for them.

There’s a fine balance between statement and question in writing, which I don’t fully understand, but which I’m aware of navigating while I write. When is it more powerful to make a statement – to ‘just say the thing’ – and when is it more powerful to ask the reader to figure it out? But for this post I’ll say, simplistically: Each question arises from and is anchored to a solid fact.

An example:

Stating the fact and the answer together (and thus leaving nothing for the reader to do) might look like: She needed to feel bold today, so she wore her brightest lipstick.

Stating the fact that gives rise to a question might look like: She’d chosen her boldest lipstick.

Readers will immediately start to think about why she’s wearing her boldest lipstick. The most obvious reason – that she wants to feel confident – will occur to the reader, almost unconsciously. Even just working on that level, it’s a detail that will invite readers in, rather than shut them out.

But what if she’s meeting her mum and as soon as her mum sees the lipstick she becomes disapproving? The reader connects those two pieces of information and comes up with a world of detail.

Yes, she needed to feel confident, but she was also intentionally rubbing her mum up the wrong way. It shows us how she feels about that relationship (like she’ll never get her mum’s approval, like she desperately wants her mum to see her). It raises questions about their relationship (what went wrong between them?). It shows that what she tells us and what’s true aren’t necessarily the same thing. It leaves room for some really tender emotion to enter the narrative.

This thought process can be applied to every new detail that is given or purposely omitted at the beginning of the story. Some of those details are character details, like the example above. Some will be plot details, where we have to think about how much solid information the reader needs to feel situated in the story and how much we want to leave for them to guess at – which questions we want them to be asking.


This is the first of six observations on writing craft

Here’s a sentence I find myself writing over and over when I’m marking up contest manuscripts: Writers love to investigate – it’s what makes them engaged readers!

(And now you know if your work was judged by me, because I am in love with this concept.)

I started thinking about readers as investigators during the past year or so, and I love how clearly it draws the relationship between writing and the act of reading. It gives me a way to look at my writing on a sentence level and consciously make it more dynamic.

I began noticing it when my attention would wander during dialogue that didn’t ask me to participate in any way.

This is dialogue where two people are responding exactly to what each other is saying. One asks for information, the other gives it. One makes a remark that merits a certain emotional response, that emotional response is given. All the relevant information for the interaction, scene and narrative are given in the text of the dialogue without activating the subtext.

This leaves me, the reader, with nothing to do but passively receive what I’m given.

What I really want as a reader is to be an active participant. I want to be given crumbs to collect, and follow. I want to be required to carry one piece of information with me, and arrive at some new understanding by connecting it to another piece of information. I want, basically, to play connect the dots. The story gives me enough solid points to travel through, but I draw the line.

We’re puzzle machines. If we see two disparate pieces of information we will immediately begin to find the connection between them. This is where we engage readers – by leaving the answer blank and asking them to find it.

(That’s a bit reductive. A satisfying narrative will likely eventually state the answer – it’s just way more satisfying if I, the reader, have already solved for the same.)

There’s an example I always think of that does this so beautifully, from Peter Temple’s Truth. (I’ve written about it before).

The detective, Villani, is out with his dad preparing his property for approaching bushfires. His dad mentions that one of Villani’s brothers is scared of him, to which Villani replies, ‘Bullshit.’ That appears to be the end of it. For half a day they clear the property, and Villani’s internal thoughts are on his dad and their history. That evening they’re sharing a beer and talking about other things when Villani says, ‘Why’s Gordon scared of me?’

There’s so much meaning we can read into the space between these two things. Villani’s initial response, ‘Bullshit’, seemed to be a full-stop. He disagrees, end of story. When he brings it up again out of nowhere, we realise that he’s been thinking about it this whole time. That gives us a new sense of him as a character: That he’s sensitive and defensive. That he acts first and thinks later. That he cares about what his family thinks of him. That it bothers him to think his brother’s scared of him.

Even more, the phrasing of his question, ‘Why’s Gordon scared of me?’ tells us something. If he’d said, ‘Is Gordon really scared of me?’ it would still have the flavour of dialogue that responds directly to what’s been said. However, his phrasing shows us that he’s not only been thinking about it but he’s drawn a conclusion from it: He agrees with his father.

This sense of internal thought and self-knowledge makes him feel complex and real. Like an adult. And none of that happens on the page, it all happens in my puzzle-solving brain, in the conclusions I’m drawing from the evidence presented to me.

The more I’m asked to participate in the story, the more thrilling it is.

observations on writing craft

I have the absolute privilege of judging a number of romance writing contests throughout the year, and every time I feel like I gain insights into writing that help me with my own craft. (And hopefully help the entrants with their next draft. That would obviously be awesome, too.)

I’m going to put up a series of posts over the next couple of weeks that examine the common areas I see again and again where I feel some hard work and consideration will make the biggest difference to the next draft of a story. I won’t in any way reference specific competition entries, just elements of craft.

Everyone receives feedback differently. Some writers are hungry for it, some can’t bear it. I fall somewhere in the middle. For the first few days that a new work is out being read by others, I am unbearably sensitive. The slightest query or suggestion is excruciating. Then I get used to the sense of exposure; I start to be able to separate myself from the project.

And then, the truly magical part of the process: I start applying some of the feedback to my work and see the story immediately improve. Like, in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Then all I want is to make it even better.

So aside from the techniques I’ll be discussing in the coming posts, here’s probably the most important thing I take away from judging competitions:

Every single story, no matter how good, will be made better by having more thought and work put into it.

That can be hard to hear, especially when you feel like you’ve reworked it as much as you possibly can. (Seriously. I was certain there wasn’t a single thing I could do to Untamed without taking it into the next stage with an editor, and then a couple of months later I threw the whole thing out and started again. And again.)

We’re lucky as writers that the barrier to entry is low. We all have access to a computer, or a pen and paper. But where we don’t have to buy a suite of expensive equipment to practice our art, we sure do have to pay up with our time. Writing takes time. SO. MUCH. TIME. Even more time than we think. It really sucks.

(Yes, my last book was published six years ago. Why do you ask?)

We can certainly work on ways to make our processes more efficient, but I think it’s a false efficiency to avoid putting the time in. The posts in this series will outline some tools that I feel are useful when developing a first (second, third, fourth) draft into a more interesting, complex story.

selling a convoluted plot

I didn’t intend to blog today, but the book I’m reading is irritating the hell out of me for a couple of reasons, so here I am to vent my spleen.

(Lucky you!)

The book is I Kissed an Earl, the fourth in Julie Anne Long‘s Pennyroyal Green series. I loved the first and really enjoyed the second. Her writing has inspired me a lot, and I see her talent as something to aspire to. She uses language in a vivid, overabundant, surprising way. One of my favourite passages from Like No Other Lover:

…from that moment on he saw every woman anew, sought evidence in their eyes of the tick of their minds, danced with them as if holding little grenades.


He smiled very slightly all the way through that silk and muslin jungle as though his smile was a passport, a lantern, an apology for the fact that his elegant English manners were only now returning to him along with his English complexion, by degrees.

I cannot say why, but the charm of her writing is somehow missing from this book, leaving only the overabundance. One problem is that she’s given her alpha female – whose intellect and propensity to act out have been built over a few books – an uber-alpha male. She built the question, “What man would Violet Redmond ever fall for?” and I don’t think her hero answers it. They’re simply trying to out-alpha each other all the time, which leaves so little room for tenderness, or vulnerability, or even a sense of liking.

But the much worse offense, I’ve just realised, is that her central plot-device has no legs. Violet has stowed herself on board Captain Flint’s ship, because she believes the pirate Flint is hunting is actually her AWOL brother.

Of itself, it doesn’t have to be problematic, though I’m not a huge fan of “we’re going on an adventure” plotlines.

But the way she’s written it, I’m not in any way cheering for Violet – I’m just cringing at the nuisance she’s making of herself. This is a huge peeve of mine in romance novels, when whatever actions the heroine takes result in chaos and undermine the hero’s well-planned strategies. I like to see a heroine go for something and have the power and autonomy and, good God, intelligence to make it work.

Violet’s desire to find her brother would work as a goal and motivation – I could get on board for a woman who decides she’s going to do something about his absence – but aside from being told “she loved more deeply than other people” we’re not shown any part of their relationship. We have no investment in her brother, or any sense of what she would risk for him.

With no emotional basis, her decision becomes a farce – and it breaks my suspended disbelief.

The hero’s reaction to her breaks his character, which is just as bad. When he finds her aboard his ship, he allows himself to get pulled into playing games with her for her right to his bed, to her place on his ship, to her portion of food. Even though he feels no particular preference for her. And even though he’s dragged himself from bastardy to an Earldom by his own hard work and bloody-mindedness.

A man like that wouldn’t think twice about locking her in a room and dumping her at the nearest port. And I’m given nothing in the narrative to suggest otherwise.

My plot involves a cross-dressing Duke, so you can imagine how I take this lesson in convoluted plot to heart.

End rant.

never, never, never, never give up

I misquote Churchill, because “never give up” galvanises me more right now than “never give in”. Though maybe the latter is more constructive. Maybe this is war.

After a couple of weeks of productive writing (which coincided, without coincidence, with me doing all my dishes every single night) I have hit a general, across the board wall. No surprises, then, that the wall applies equally to my blog, and that I found a large-ish cockroach in my kitchen the other day.

I have noticed a feeling of quiet confidence in me. Actually, quiet is the wrong adjective, because it’s more stubborn and immutable than quiet. It’s not trumpeting from the rooftops or anything (who used to trumpet from the rooftops, anyway?), it just is.

The confidence says: If you keep writing, keep progressing, keep learning and breaking it down and polishing it up, you will be published.

We’re always being told this. The main reason people don’t get published is that they give up. It seems like a pretty straight-forward equation: just keep writing. So it’s amazing to me how even with this sense that I’m on my way towards what I want, it quite frequently feels impossible.

For right now, then, writing is an endurance sport.

the perfect mum vs the mum you love

I’ve been tackling an interesting aspect of character recently.

The mother of my protagonist (Abigail) is in a coma throughout the whole of my YA novel. I’ve been conscious of needing to create their relationship pre-coma, so that the reader cares about her waking up.

The street kid who stows away on board Abigail’s spaceship had a bad relationship with his neglectful adoptive mother. When he hints at this to Abigail, I have her remembering a moment with her own mother that shows how much she was loved and cared for, and then looking at him and saying, “I’m sorry.”

I went down the most obvious “my mother loves me” route: A 6-year-old Abigail can’t sleep one night and comes down to the room where her mum and step-dad are playing Scrabble. The light is soft, and her mother comes immediately to her with concerned eyes, and says, “What’s wrong, darling?” Abigail goes and sits on her lap and listens to them cheat each other at Scrabble until she falls asleep.

The funny thing about this passage is that for me, it didn’t actually evoke what I wanted it to, at all. I don’t think relationship is a direct equation between love/overt displays of love.

My instinct here is that Abigail needs to remember a time when her mother told her off, or teased her, or was exasperated with her. I need to show them actually in relationship with each other, and what that allows between them.

These oddities of fiction don’t really fit into any set of rules, but I guess my first try didn’t work in the same way that “I’m hot, you’re hot” does not a romance make.

One of my most distinct memories of my mum, with a sense of love and care attached to it, is the time she and I were doing the dishes together and she drew the entire female reproductive system on the steamed-up window above the sink. Not the first thing it would occur to you to write…

What’s a memory that sticks out for you about a parent or guardian, that shows love and care?

the brilliance of Terry Pratchett

when I was young and my older brother was reading Terry Pratchett, and my younger brother was about to start reading Terry Pratchett, his books still had those dizzying, vulgar (I’m not sure whether I mean that in a positive or negative sense, but I’m sure that’s the right word) covers. I thought for years that his books must be a surreal and adult romp through some incomprehensible world.

Not all of that impression was wrong, but having now read almost every Discworld book, I know that not much of it was right.

I’m reading his second-to-latest book at the mo, Unseen Academicals, and it’s coming home to me all over again, just how well he writes characters. Specifically, characters who are pretending to be something they’re not – or pretending not to be what they are.

(I realise those last two pretty much say the same thing, but there is a huge difference. It reminds me of an anecdote Michael Caine tells about his early days of acting. He was on the stage doing his very best “drunk man walking”, when the director stopped him. “I see a sober man walking in a squiggly line,” the director said (though he may not have used the word “squiggly”). “I want to see a drunk man walking in a straight line.”

Both amount to the same thing, but are completely different. The difference between a character putting their energy into pretending to be something they’re not, and putting their energy into pretending not to be what they are is what makes Terry Pratchett great.)

His characters are complex. They are unreliable narrators, because they’re not always honest with themselves about who (or what) they really are. Their motivations are not what they appear to be. Or else they have two opposing motivations, and you never know which one will out. It’s nature v nurture battling it out inside one consciousness.

It creates narrative traction like nobody’s business, because whilst you’re following the bigger-picture narrative and trying to figure that out, you’re also working away in the back of your mind on what this character is hiding from you. It never feels coy, because they’re almost always hiding it from themselves, too.

Very often, when the conflicting parts of a character come to a head, there’s a moment where free will determines the outcome of this one struggle, which most likely determines the outcome of a larger struggle. A character’s own nature sets the stage and writes the drama for their own moment of epiphany.

The next thing is figuring out how the hell he does it.