The Element of Surprise

Surprises come in all shapes and sizes.  We’ve all attended the surprise party that is the worst kept secret this side of Area 51.  Or there is the rude shock – the mother of all unpleasant surprises.  Yet when a surprise is pulled off properly it is a truly marvellous thing.  I should know. I was the recipient of one this weekend.

So before I look at elements of good and bad surprises in our plot reveals, let me tell you what’s been going on with me…

You may not recall a few weeks ago I had a milestone birthday – I turned 40.  It was great. It came and went and I had a perfectly lovely time.  But as far as I was concerned it was over.  However while I was watching my son play hockey on Saturday morning, my mother turned up with three of my best friends from University.  You could have knocked me over with a feather.

Now I haven’t seen any of these girls for years, (although we have kept in contact) and they all live in Christchurch (which has infamously hit by several major earthquakes, and is a plane ride from where I live).  So I was certainly not expecting to see any of them. My husband had tracked them down and convinced them to fly up for a girl’s weekend.  So with babysitting organised, transport put on and a mandate to enjoy ourselves, we were free to catch up and hang out for 24 solid hours.  The girls were awesome. It was the best weekend ever.  My husband is definitely the best husband ever.  And for my part it was clearly the best surprise ever.

I’m still floating around on a happy cloud (I’m sure you hadn’t worked that out), but as I sat down to write this morning it struck me that as authors we are often trying to dish up the same sort of feel good experience for our readers.  However how do you make sure your plot reveal is more a-ha than oh-no?

1. Make Sure it is a Good Surprise.

Fortunately my husband knows how much I love and respect these girls.  He knew us at University and it was a fairly safe bet I would be pleased to see them.  But what if he hadn’t known?  What if he’d arranged a reunion with someone I’d never really been close to, or with an uncomfortable history?  It might have been a whole different experience.

It’s the same with plot twists.  Your reader might not see it coming – but if a beloved character dies or something hideous happens to them there had better be a really good reason for it.  For example when Darth Vader says”  “Luke, I am your father.” It’s a shock.  I didn’t see it coming and I still remember gasping when I realised what he was saying.  But the momentum and the tone of the movie were such that you were fairly sure it would all work out well.  Of course it did, and that is why the original Star Wars trilogy had such a huge impact on me.  So be sure to set your reader up properly so they don’t lose faith in both you and your stories.

2. Be Careful with Clues.

Your reader shouldn’t see the surprise coming, although if they look back the clues may have been there all along.  If this is done well there is a great satisfaction to piecing it all together.  However, there is nothing worse in a novel or in life, when there are so many dropped hints it is obvious what is going to happen.  Why bother reading the book, if it is blatantly clear in chapter two that the butler did it?  If I can figure it out early, there had better be some great unforeseen twist later on.  Or I feel ripped off.

Your novel might not have a big secret reveal, but the same principle holds true for smaller plot points.  The reader gets a great pay-off if they noticed earlier clues.  A recent example for me was in The Name of the Wind where Kvothe, because of his circumstances, was forced to learn to play the lute with an incomplete number of strings.  Much later in the book he finds himself performing and a string breaks.  When that happened I wanted to stand up and declare, “But he can still play with 6 strings…”  It was a good reading moment.  It was such a little plot point, but right then I knew Patrick Rothfuss had safe writing hands.

3. Set Your Reader up Properly.

When my friends arrived I was in a public venue.  It was fairly early in the morning, but I was dressed and as socially presentable as you can be at a child’s sporting event.  Because trust me as much as I was glad to see them, the payoff would have been significantly lower if they’d found me in my PJs eating breakfast in front of the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony coverage.

The same goes for your reader. Don’t get them rooting for a character only to find out they have feet of clay.  If your novel is about people having feet of clay, make sure your readers see the cracks early on so they don’t feel foolish.  No one likes to feel like they’ve been set up, or duped.

4. Have a Strong Follow-Through.

I was able to enjoy my weekend because I didn’t have to worry about logistics.  Food, accommodation and childcare were all sorted.  All I had to do was have a good time.

Make you sure you take the same care with your reader.  Don’t have them scrabbling back to re-read earlier chapters or having to adjust their emotional take on one of your characters; but give a full explanation and make sure your loose ends are tied up.

Whether a surprise is a good one or not comes down to intention, planning and a gentle hand.  Know your reader, know where you’re going and you should do just fine.

How do you feel about plot surprises?  How do you handle them in your writing? Do you have some favourite books or authors who always surprise you in a good way?

Own Goals

When it comes to writing, I know I’m still in the honeymoon phase.  Every time I learn something about the craft I’m certain my writing will improve because of it.  The publishing industry is exciting and full of possibilities, and for the most part the internet is the place I’m meeting many new friends and colleagues.

But like Luke Skywalker desperate to become a Jedi, I’m impatient to get to the good stuff.  I want to be finished so I can try out all the cool editing tips I’ve been collecting off the internet.  Just the idea of having a seek-and-destroy session on overused words gives me little chills.  (I know, I know… somewhere Yoda is shaking his head and thinking, “Work with this, I must?”). 

The truth is I’m probably dazzled by the final stage of the process because it is a distraction from the hard work I need to put in right now.  I’m in the writing stage, and not only the writing stage, but the stage where I need to get a grip on the fundamental skills that shape my ability as a writer.  It’s just not very exciting.  To be fair the writing can be – especially when you learn something unexpected about a character (like I did recently), or the stakes suddenly increase in a way you didn’t see coming. However this is the sort of thing you can’t share with others without giving the plot away. So when it comes to blogging, I either share vague references to my personal story-gold, or what I’m learning about the craft.

I had a brilliant idea a few weeks ago to do some learning on the blog.  Learn some grammar and share these little gems with you.  So I started with the comma.  The problem was when I looked at the rules governing the correct usage of the comma – I’m sure I felt my brain start to bleed.  Seriously, either that or I was falling into a deep coma, or being lured over to the dark side.  Needless to say even if I did understand the rules perfectly, there was no way I was capable of turning them into exciting reading material.  (At this point I’m praying osmosis will kick in, or my Jedi instincts will help me master the comma once and for all…).  However I’m starting to get a sinking feeling that editing won’t be all seek and destroy good-times.

I read a great post this week by Alison Strachan, called Writing Goals: Learning How to Learn About Writing.  Alison is at a similar point on her writing journey as I am, and was discussing the way we as writers approach writing in this technology driven age.  In some ways things are much easier for us as writers, but in other ways we need to be more focussed than ever, especially when it comes to be setting goals.  I liked what she had to say:

Part of this is setting long term goals. Setting goals is important when writing. Word count and research goals keep you on track and keep you writing. Weekly timetables  work well and flexibility and commitment are key. I have spent some time thinking about my goals recently and given the current market I am beginning to think I need to tighten my schedule and put in place a solid working goal for completion. At this stage I don’t actually have an end date in mind for my first draft. So should I?

Alison makes a good point; it’s in our own best interest to set long and shorter term goals.  The big goal is easy – publish the book to great acclaim (never hurts to dream big), but the shorter term goals have been harder for me.  They’ve either been too vague (to write more), or unrealistic (I will write every day and finish the book in 3 months).  I’ve tried focussing on a daily or weekly word count, but that often backfires as I’m focussed on words on the page and often lose track of the story.  I also struggle to balance writing and family commitments.  And although I’ve been told a blog is important to build your platform, how do I pitch it when I’m far from being an expert and my work is still far from publication?  These have been vague concerns for a while, but Alison’s blog challenged me to confront them head on.  What are some positive goals I can set?

1. Regular Writing Time.

Because I’m the kind of person who struggles with word-count oriented goals, I figure it would be more helpful to set a minimum writing time during the week.  Even if it’s only 30 minutes 4 days a week.  I’m more likely to achieve that, than 2 hours a day.  Building a regular writing habit is important, and if I go longer than 30 minutes – all the better.  And I must stress (if only for my own benefit) – writing time doesn’t include blogging or trawling twitter.

I’m also hoping by scheduling properly I can protect my family time too.

2. Build a Craft File.

I have a few well used craft books that grace my desk, and I’ve slowly been printing useful writing articles off the internet as I come across them.  My goal is to sort them into a proper file separated into writing techniques and tips, editing, querying, publishing and marketing.  And then try to focus on the writing techniques and tips.  The other areas are interesting, but will be of more practical use in the future.

3. Love my Blog Now.

I’m learning things about writing every day – so there will always be something to share.  I am in the early stages, so as I’m benefiting from everyone else’s knowledge I will share it with you.  And in the spirit of paying it forward, give much credit and kudos to those who are further ahead and are happy to share their experience.  I’ll be working on posts in the future to really highlight those who are generous with their knowledge, skill and encouragement.

This seems a sensible place to start, and I can always re-evaluate.

What do you think?  Are you still working on your first book?  I’d love to know what sort of goals you’re setting for yourself.  If you’re well along the path I’d love to know what your early goals were, and how they’ve changed over time?

A Fresh Perspective

My last blog post was entitled Good Things Take Time, however at one stage it was going to be called Staring Up at Mount Doom… 

Get the feeling I was having a bad day? A glass-half-empty-kind-of-day?  I was struggling to find time to write, I was tired and I hadn’t blogged for a few days.  I should have gone to bed early, caught up on some sleep and started fresh the next morning, but in my infinite wisdom I decided I needed to blog.  In fact, not only did I need to do it, but I would stay up until it was posted…

Two hours later, I’d penned a postcard from the Dead Marshes; bleak, miserable and impossible to end on a positive note.  Even so I almost published it just so I could tick it off my ‘to do’ list.  Fortunately, my over-tired brain still had a finger-hold on commonsense, and I decided to sleep on it.  I’m really glad I did.

Because if it’s a good idea to think before you speak, surely you should think twice as hard before writing it down and offering to the world.  With that in mind, I thought I’d share some questions I ask myself, before I publish (or send out) anything in writing:

1. What do I really want to say?

Sometimes what we say isn’t what we really mean.  Crazy isn’t it.  But looking back over that first draft, it read as though things had become too hard and I was giving up.  Yet what I’d wanted to say was – sometimes things take a long time. It can be frustrating, but if you have the right goal it’s worth it.  Not giving up – but going on, building writing muscles, and persevering.

2. Does what I’ve written reflect what I want to say?

“Of course it does – that’s why I wrote it!” That might be totally true – this is after all just a self-check.  But it never hurts to make sure you haven’t gone off on a tangent (or a rant).

3. How’s the tone?

Tone is super-important.  Get it right and you make a great connection.  Get it wrong and you may find yourself buried beneath a mountain of trolls.

A good friend of mine told me that if she comes across a blog post where the author seems to be whining, she just skips over it.  Sometimes we all need encouragement – that’s a different thing altogether.  But there are some tones that aren’t attractive;  whining, ranting, lecturing, discouraging, negative…  Wouldn’t you much rather read encouraging, uplifting, thought-provoking, challenging, positive or humorous prose?

4. Am I burning bridges?

I was reading a blog the other day where the author was making some really great comments about changes within the publishing industry.  For the most part it was upbeat, positive and lets-head-off-into-the-future-together.  However there was also a real thread of hurt, resentment and a sense of slamming a door against one sector of the industry.

Of course I can understand her hurt – and respect her determination and drive to achieve the level of success she has. This writing industry is hard and half the battle is accepting that and working out a publication strategy to achieve your goals. But something in the post sounded a cautionary warning too.  I don’t want to burn bridges, or take sides in this industry.  Times are changing and at some point someone who isn’t in a position to work with me now, may be in years to come.  I’d like to keep that option open.

5. How am I perceived?

There are some agents I have no desire to query.  I’ve followed them online and I have a perception they might not have the kind of personality I can easily relate to.  They might be great at what they do, but perception is a strong motivator.  On the flip side, I’m subject to the same evaluation process.  If people perceive me as prickly, demanding or hard to work with, it’s more likely they’ll walk away before they do anything on my behalf.  However if I’m the kind of person to pay it forward, build relationships and be respectful, people might give me the benefit of the doubt.

6. Have I given it enough time?

If I know I have to pitch next Wednesday at 2pm, is it a good idea to start writing that pitch on Wednesday morning?  Probably not.  It would be wise to work on that pitch, practice it, get feedback and check the timing well before the day.  This holds true for blogging, sending query letters, responding to emails, tweets, or any other form of communication.  If you haven’t got enough time to consider your words, or run a proper spell-check, you could be shooting yourself in the foot.  I’ve heard of people, through sheer nerves, who have misspelt their key characters names and even the word query when sending out query letters.  It’s easy to do, but take a deep breath and think am I ready to send this out?  Or would it benefit from sitting for a few days?

7. Am I being professional?

Writing is a passion, but I hope at some point in time it will also become a source of income.  I hope to find other people to invest time, skills and money into my writing projects.  I think they will be more likely to do so if I’m professional.  They will know they can rely on me to conduct myself well, meet deadlines and work as hard as I can at my end to produce a high-quality product.  I hope they will find me easy to deal with, personable and reliable.  I want to be that dream client.

Treat people how you want to be treated – and if there is a problem, deal with it gracefully.  A lecturer once told me, “Our reputations are the most valuable things we have.”  I agree.

8. Is this getting worse, not better?

There is a point in time, where continuing to work on something only makes it worse not better.  Learn to recognise that point and walk away.  You’d be better off sleeping, relaxing or going for a walk.  I’ve learned this the hard way.

We all have bad days, I prefer to let them go and move on.  That’s a whole lot easier when they are not floating around the internet for anyone to stumble across.

How about you?  Have you decided to hold off on posting or replying, and were glad you did?  Or have you written something you later regretted? I’d love to hear your thoughts on my list!

Good Things Take Time

It takes a long time to write a book.  Okay, let me rephrase that: It takes me a long time to write a book…

“Here I am!” I declare to the world.  “Writing!”

Time passes.

“Yep still writing,” I say.

More time passes.

“Yes, still the same book…”.

January. February. March…

“You could read some of the start if you like? – First draft disclaimers and all…”

April. May.

“Yes, it’s going well.”


“Does blogging count as writing?”

*Bangs head on desk.*


“Maybe starting the blog was a bit premature?”

I know I’m not the only one who struggles to get the finished book out there.  My new favourite fantasy writer Patrick Rothfuss recently wrote a great blog post, Why I Love My Editor, where he got very honest about needing time and space to write.  It turns out knocking out a bestseller first time comes with its own pressures, and Rothfuss’s editor, Betsy Wollheim, not only recognised he needed time to write a great book, but made sure he got it.  I’m so glad she did, his second book, The Wise Man’s Fear, was every bit as good as his debut novel.

So what keeps drawing us back to the page, to write, rewrite and write again?  It’s certainly not for immediate gratification – the finished product is such long time in the making.

For me it’s about passion and purpose, perseverance, self discipline and a realisation that anything worth having is worth the effort.

A friend of mine recently took up running in a big way.  She set her mind on completing a half marathon, and trained at least six days a week for months on end.   A small girl to start off with, she quickly transformed into a lean, mean running machine.  The half marathon goal was quickly accomplished, and her love of running cemented.  She made it look easy.

I have to admit I was really impressed and toyed with the idea of running a half marathon myself.  That was until she talked to me about ice baths.  I’ve got to be honest, I think I stopped listening when she said ice bath.  I couldn’t think of any reason in the world I would put my body through anything that required an ice bath afterwards.

Please hear my heart here – I have the hugest respect for my friend (and I’m sure you can run a marathon without needing a bath with ice in it), but I just do not enjoy running enough to do what it takes to run a big race.

However there is something I love enough to (metaphorically) take an ice bath for.  Herein lies the key: Having a goal is a great thing, but you have to love what you do if you want to stay the distance.

So I’m still writing.  Tweaking the plot, working the prose and moulding the story into something I will be proud to share with the world.  It’s going to take time, and on the way I’m going to enjoy the company of fellow writers who understand what it means to chase to a story.

Yes it’s still the same story.  Yes I’m still writing. And yes it is taking a long time.  But to me the early starts and late nights, the rewriting and the critiques are worth it.  Because whether my book is finished or not, I’m a writer.  And if I can tell my story well, this time will have been well spent.

How about you? What keeps you going for the long haul?  How do you keep yourself motivated when it seems to be taking forever?  Or do you have any tips for developing self-discipline?

The Joy Thief

Before I had the desire to write anything, I loved a good book. There are so many good memories: Curling up under the covers with a torch until the battery ran flat; reading in the family room on a rainy day – tears streaming down my face because Aslan let the white witch kill him in Edmund’s place – and everyone staring at me like I was a nutter; or my teenage-self reading Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery at a sleepover and scaring myself silly.

Stories have also marked seasons in my life.  I found One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the reading resource room at school when I was supposed to be doing debate practice.  When I was at University one of our friends got hold of Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule.  We passed that one copy around, and all of us (fantasy and non-fantasy readers alike) devoured it in one sitting.  More recently (before all the hype) I remember my friend telling me about this book Twilight that she’d really enjoyed.  I read the entire thing that night and was around at her house the next day for New Moon and the rest of the series.  She told me later she didn’t really believe I’d read the first book at all…

Memories aren’t even limited to the stories.  I can still remember the thrill of being able to choose any book I wanted from the library.  My young self read almost everything in the junior section.  I love the smell of new print, unbroken spines and pristine covers.  Even the musty, dusty, old hardcovers filled with archaic language have their own siren song.

Some of the books were better than others.  I couldn’t tell you the names of half of the books I’ve read, or even the storylines a few years down the track.  But there are very few books I’ve ever put down without finishing.  Even if they’re a bit slow, or a bit weird.  Because once I’ve tumbled down the rabbit hole, I want to see how things pan out – for better or worse.

But like some nasty dark shadow (or “the nothing” in the Neverending Story), there has been a change in my reading habits.  Something insidious and subtle has crept in, and has been slowly but surely eroding my life-long joy of reading:  Learning the craft of writing.

Before I got serious about writing I cannot ever remember scowling at a clumsy sentence, or being overly bothered by clunky dialogue.  I certainly wasn’t acutely aware of passive voice, or the fact the author didn’t show what was going on – but horror of horrors – told the story.  If the book was a bit long winded (my first few readings of The Lord of the Rings) – I just skipped over the boring bits.  But the more I learned techniques to make my writing tighter, smoother and ‘better’, the more I caught myself editing instead of reading.

I even became a bit book-snobbish.  It was hard to admit I enjoyed Twilight on this blog because once the movies were made it became something else entirely.  Teenagey, and a bit gauche.  People who hadn’t read it – or certainly hadn’t read it in the spirit it was written had an opinion or ten… Poor old Stephenie Meyer was bashed for her perceived literary short-comings.  And yet her story has become a phenomenon, capturing the hearts of millions around the world.  And do you know what – I really liked it.  I like a lot of books that might not be perfect in form, but still enchant and entertain, or at worst help me fill time in an airport.

There’s nothing wrong with not liking a book.  In our small writing group of three, we have never agreed on a book yet.  The few times we have all liked a book, at least one of us will have a different opinion about the plot, or outcome or one of the main characters.  That’s just human nature.  But this trend of pulling down work we don’t like isn’t very becoming.  In this digital age we are going to see many more books published that don’t meet the exacting criteria of the craft.  We can either become elitist and pour scorn on their efforts, or we can open ourselves up to stories that capture our imaginations.  Stories we might never otherwise come across .

I blogged the other day that I became disillusioned with a favourite author a while ago.  I didn’t write a scathing Goodreads Review, or send him a disappointed letter, or turn into that woman from Misery.  I just didn’t buy the rest of his series.  Maybe he’ll write something different later that will appeal to me.  I hope so.

I’m still trying to learn the craft of writing, but I’m also trying to recapture my joy of reading.  Turn off that pesky internal editor and enjoy the tale someone has taken the time to weave for me.

How about you?  Has writing changed you as a reader – for better or worse?  Would you read a story with a great premise, if it meant forgiving loose prose?  I’m almost too scared to ask if you have a strong opinion about self-publishing verses the traditional route…  

Variations on a Theme

Have you heard the old adage – everybody has a book in them – and then worried you might only have the one in you?  I must admit I’ve had a few self-doubt wobbles around this area in the past.   But when I had a good look at the writers I most enjoy and admire, I realised there is a big difference between telling the same old story over and over and being able to find new and exciting ways to explore a theme or character.

Artists and musicians, since time began, have mined lucrative veins of creativity until every last variation has been wrung out.  Think Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Monet’s Water Lilies.  The world would be a poorer place if they hadn’t worked out all aspects of their vision.  Some pictures might be more compelling than others, but their bodies of work highlight subtleties and techniques that leave the art world and audience all the richer.

One of my favourite writers is Carol Goodman.  Her stand-alone novels tend to deal with single women either making a new start in life, or returning to a place where something significant happened to them.  Her protagonists all have a literary or artistic bent; all deal with a life-altering event from the past that has never been resolved; and often the story is tied to a parallel myth or legend.  There may be an identifiable pattern to her books, but I have loved all of them for the key reason that I know she will not deliver the whole picture until the end.  Her stories are familiar, but not the same.

Stories about the same characters can be a readers greatest pleasure when the author gets it right.  Who doesn’t like catching up with an old friend?  J.K. Rowling did a great job of growing her characters up at the same rate as her target audience (and many others who’d already been through that phase enjoyed it too).   But Lucy Maud Montgomery went one step further and brought us the life of Anne of Green Gables from childhood right through to middle age.  I was a huge fan and enjoyed following Anne, but if I’m honest the later books never quite achieved the magical heights of the first few. In Montgomery’s case, I’m glad she wrote the whole series – but there have been times when even I have given up on a once beloved character.

I was once a big fan of an unnamed fantasy series.  I won’t name the series because I have the hugest respect for the author, and count some of his books among the best I ever read.  But there came a time when I’d just had enough.  There were too many black spots, the main characters were apart too long, and I started to wonder if it was ever going to reach a resolution.  I later read an article where the author said his readers expected this world and these characters from him.  If that’s where his writing heart is – I wish him all the best.  But as I reader I’d lost faith in characters I’d once loved.

In my opinion it comes down to character arc.  If the character is growing (or regressing) in some way shape or form, the series can last as long as the author has good ideas.  Nora Roberts (writing as J.D. Robb) has written over 30 books in the ‘in Death’ series.  Yet I still enjoy getting stuck into the world of Eve Dallas because of the ever-strengthening relationships between the core characters.  It helps that each novel is focused on a different homicide so the character development is the secondary focus and occurs slowly. But even after all these books I still care about the characters because they are very much alive and moving forward with their lives.

It’s a wonderful thing to explore a favourite theme, but it’s good to push your boundaries too.  Another of my favourite books is one of C.S. Lewis’s lesser known works, Till We Have Faces, which was for adult readers and based on the Cupid and Psyche legend.  It’s a gritty read and very different from the Narnia series, and yet it’s still very much a recognisable piece of Lewis’s work.  He certainly didn’t feel the need to stick to one genre, and we shouldn’t either.

I read a wide range of books, and although I’d describe myself as a writer of fantasy, I also have a literary novel and a light romance loosely outlined for another day.  Whether they ever get written, the process of exploring new premises, or looking at the world through the eyes of a new character helps me to understand my core themes better.  So perhaps the key isn’t just the character arc, but the ability of the author to keep growing too. They say there is nothing new under the sun, but there are endless variations on a theme. So I’m keeping my eyes and mind open, and hope I can always look at the world with a healthy dose of curiousity.

How about you?  Do you have a favourite theme or world you like to write around?  What is it about your favourite author that keeps drawing you back to their novels?

A Word about Waymarkers

Knowing where you’re going is the most important part of any journey.  In the real world it will be a tangible destination.  Depending on how far you’re going you might rely on word of mouth, map, GPS or navigation by the stars to get you there.  But whether you’re headed around the corner (trust me I’ve missed our road more than once when I’ve been daydreaming), or to the outer edges of the earth – it’s a good idea to check your bearings regularly.

Which brings me to the waymarker, and why I think it is such a great concept in real life and in writing.  A waymarker is exactly what its name implies; something that marks the way.  It might be an elaborate information board, a signpost, a stone, a wooden post, or a mark on a tree.  Whatever form it takes, the waymarker has been placed by people who’ve passed that way before to ensure the path can be easily identified.  They are especially useful when the path is hard to see.

Now I’ve been lost before.  Numerous times in fact. (Those who know me will have their hands in their heads right now – I’m not good with maps).  But the most distressing occasions have been when I’ve been unable to find a recognisable landmark.  So here are my tips regarding waymarkers, learned from the school of do-it-the-hard-way.  May they spare you unnecessary grief.

1. Know what your waymarker looks like.

Sounds obvious?  You’d think so.  But when I was at school a group of us got lost because what we thought were waymarkers back to our campsite, were actually – well I never actually learned what those white painted marks led to.  By the time we realised we were on the wrong track we were miles away from where we should be.

In writing terms – you know what the big goal is.  To make things easier on yourself, work out smaller identifiable goals you can check against on the way.  They might be key plot points you need to hit, an editing checklist, specific timeframes or a submission plan. The more identifiable the marker the easier it will be to achieve your goal.

2. Is your waymarker reliable?

My husband and I once went rambling in Wales.  It was a gorgeous location and we excited to get out into it.  We picked up a walking map from our camping ground and were dispatched with warm assurances we would enjoy ourselves.  We did.  It was everything it promised to be, until we got a few hours out of town and reached the edge of the map.  We could see the other side of the loop leading back to town (further down the map) but weren’t sure how to get there.  To make matters worse the markers we came across (after we left the map) didn’t point to anywhere we could reference.  In the end, we took a risk and went off-track in what we hoped was the right general direction.  It was a rough, heart-in-mouth, journey home, but we eventually got there.

The moral of the story – if you’re relying on other people make sure their advice is sound.  Check reputation, proven experience and trust your gut if you have doubts.

3. Effective waymarkers are close together.

This one is simple.  The more often you check you’re on the right track, the less likely you are to wander off it. I can vouch for this one.

4. If you find yourself lost go back.

This is great advice, yet when you’re out in the thick of things (as I’ve already demonstrated) it’s easy to set out into uncharted territory in the hopes you can make up ground.  As a rule this is a bad idea.  In the case of my school camping expedition – we struck out on our own and got horribly lost.  What might have been only an hour to backtrack, ended up being 6 hours lost in the bush.  It was only the fact that we were on an island and were able to find a small village that it didn’t end badly.

In writing terms we can literally lose the plot and write ourselves into the ditch.  If we can recognise this early we can go back to our last solid story marker and get back on track with minimal hair loss.

5. Reassurance in the darkness.

Sometimes the path doesn’t look like the path.  It looks like some overgrown animal track that leads to nowhere.  But if a solid marker has been laid it doesn’t matter how dark, rocky, or narrow it becomes – you still know you’re on the right track.  Our NZ bush is very dense, and it never ceases to amaze me that you can be really close to your destination, but you might not know it until suddenly there is a break in the trees – and you’re there.

I’m having a milestone birthday this week, so I’ve found myself reassessing my life, my goals and my priorities.  It’s been good to look back and see where I’ve been, and how far I’ve come.  But also good to look forward and know the waymarkers have been laid ahead of me too.

So how about you?  What sort of waymarkers do you use in your writing, or your life?  Do you think they’re useful?

Plays Well with Others

This weekend it appears I’ve been tagged for all sorts of blog awards and challenges.  For a new blogger just reaching out into the big wide world – it’s great to feel the world reaching back.  Thanks to you all.  So just this once, (because I know I’m the kind of soul that could just keep doing this to the detriment of the writing) I’m going to play!


I’ve actually been nominated for this twice now.  Thanks to Melanie Rose Meadors and E. M. Castellan.

Like Chinese Whispers, the rules seemed to be slightly different with each nomination, so I’ll run with my version.

1.  Give gracious thanks to those who nominated me: In the spirit of your nomination, thank you!  I appreciate you visiting my blog and being so kind about it.

2. Share seven things about myself (that aren’t well known):

  • My great-grandfather, Harold Marsh, was a pioneering farmer and photographer.
  • I know how to milk a cow.
  • My first ever story (in its entirety) read:  “This is Raewyn’s pie.”  Note my masterful use of the apostrophe at the age of 5…
  • The hospital I was born in was once a prisoner of war camp, and the doctor who delivered me was Dr Kildaire.  (True story – woman of my mother’s generation were very taken with Richard Chamberlain’s tv persona of the same name).
  • I have an unnatural fixation with American Idol, The X-factor and The Voice (Australia).
  • I have been asked if I am German, Welsh, Greek and Asian.  I am in fact part NZ Maori, and the rest a mixture of my pioneering ancestors who came primarily from the UK.
  • I have a scar on my finger that reminds me to think before I act.  When I was a child I was watching my father saw a piece of timber.  I thought I wonder what would happen if I put my finger under there…

3. Seven great writing blogs that have inspired me, and are truly worthy of being nominated for a truckload of awards:

  • Janice Hardy’s: The Other Side of the Story.  Great, great practical writing tips from an author who really gives back to the writing community.  (I have a bit of a blog-crush).
  • Rachelle Gardner’s blog.  Rachelle is an agent who always has something helpful  and thought-provoking to say.
  • Kristin Nelson’s: Pub Rants. Another awesome agent blog with great insights into the publishing industry.
  • Aimee Salter’s: Seeking the Write Life.  Helpful writing tips and a  friendly forum to share the writing journey.
  • E.M. Castellan’s blog.  I’m probably not supposed to nominate someone who has already nominated me – but a fellow fantasy blogger I really enjoy!
  • Jim Denney’s blog.  An intelligent, interesting blog (and a fellow LOTR fan).
  • Wordserve Water Cooler.  Compiled by a range of published authors who always seem to have something helpful / inspiring to say.

I’m not much of a tagger – but kudos to all on this list.  They all deserve the title of Beautiful Blogger!


Thanks again for the tag E. M. Castellan.

Rules: Share 7 lines from page 7 or 77 of your work in progress.   Then tag 7 others to do the same.

Well I’ve already shared from page 7 of my WIP  on this blog, and I’m only up to page 73 in the draft, so will give you a taste of 7 lines from page 70:

I pushed myself up on my elbows, a cold fear gripping my gut.


He turned and handed me a robe, dropping my slippers onto the floor.  In the candlelight his white hair stood up in fluffy tufts, and his dressing gown gaped slightly to reveal a crumpled nightshirt.  It was more shocking than if he’d walked in stark naked.  Simon the unflappable; Simon the stickler for protocol.

Lord, what’s going on?

Like I said, I’m not much for tagging, but it is fun to share!


Thanks Jennifer Wagner for the tag!

In this one I need to answer the following questions and tag 5 people…

1. What is the title of your book/WIP?

The Fall of the Kings

2. Where did the idea for the book come from?

It was a fireside story told by one of the characters in an earlier NaNoWriMo effort.  It was an eight page info dump that enchanted me.  A girlfriend suggested it was a novel in and of itself.  I resisted the idea for a long time, but eventually realised she was right.

3. What genre would your book fall under?

Epic Fantasy

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

A hard one, because I see the characters so clearly in my mind.  The only person who comes to mind is Matt Damon for Josiah.  I’m not sure that he’s old enough, but his performance in We Bought a Zoo, reminded me of Josiah’s grief.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Can Josiah overcome his grief and do the right thing by the Kingdom of Gaelladorn? More of a story question than synopsis.  Will keep working on it.

6. Is your book published or represented?

Not yet.  Still working on the first draft.

7. How long did it take you to write?

So far, off and on, about a year.

8. What other books within your genre would you compare it to?

I’d like to think it resonates with:

J.R.R. Tolkien – Lord of the Rings

Terry Goodkind – Wizards First Rule

Kristin Brittain – Green Rider

Patrick Rothfuss – The Name of the Wind

9. Which authors inspired you to write this book?

J.R.R Tolkien, C.S. Lewis.

10. Tell us anything else that might pique our interest in your book.

Marcus will find what he’s looking for, but is totally unprepared for what he will unleash on Gaelladorn and in his own life.

Thanks again to all taggers!  But I’m going to call quits on any more challenges.  Have a great weekend!

Chasing Words

What motivates me to write? And in this fast paced, information overloaded world we live in – why do so many of us want to get published?

I was asked these questions this week and to my surprise I didn’t have a quick answer.   I am a writer.  It’s what I do.  Although these statements are inherently true, I was at a loss to explain why I am constantly driven back to the page.  To be honest my inability to answer bothered me, and I’ve spent the past few days mulling it over.

Why do I feel compelled to write?

At an elemental level I think I want to be heard.

A few weeks ago someone asked me if any of the characters in my novel were based on me.  I was quick to say no (not much call for someone who would curl up like a hedgehog at the first sign of danger) – and yet the whole novel at some level is about me.  How I see the world, and how I’m trying to understand it.  My characters may live in a fantasy realm, but at the heart of it, the things they wrestle with are common to us all.

My WIP, The Fall of the Kings, is essentially about how people cling to their version of the truth – often to the detriment of themselves and others.  What drives people has always intrigued me – and in this story I get to play it out on a grand scale with some pretty impressive consequences.  At one level it’s an entertaining story – on another I’m asking the reader to take a deeper look at something close to my heart.

The other reason is that I love words.  Like some people love chocolate.  There’s just something about a well crafted sentence, or a story…

How do I know I’ve got it right?

Honestly I don’t, but there are ways of checking.  Do the words resonate on the page?  Do they nail my purpose and draw me in?  If I can make myself laugh or cry, I’m fairly sure it’s going well.

And then of course there’s reader feedback. Do they understand what I’m trying to say?  Am I making myself clear?  I can’t speak for anyone else, but I want everyone to love what I write.  An impossible task, I know.   What might touch one person might leave another cold.  But as a writer I’m so invested in the work, it’s not always easy to keep that in persepective.

Today the first 500 words of The Fall of the Kings is being critiqued on Aimee Salter’s blog Seeking the Write Life.  I am both thrilled and terrified.  But I am hoping the comments will help me see how it comes across to someone who doesn’t live and breathe the story.

Why this need for Publication?

If we are truly storytellers – we need a forum to tell our stories.  Publication in any form is a vehicle for doing that.  Maybe there is an element of affirmation too, and possibly a wild hope that there might be some financial reward for all our labour of love.

I have no bent either way when it comes to the traditional or self-publishing route.   I just want to write the best book I can, and to give it the best chance of reaching a receptive audience.

How about you?  What drives your creative process? 

Sustenance for the Road

Sometimes even the best of us get a little weary and start wondering why we bothered to set out on the great writing adventure in the first place.  Especially when we could be curled up on the couch reading someone else’s book.

The truth is – it’s hard to scrape out writing time when you have a whole lot of real life to attend to.  For me it’s either late nights, gritty-eyed in front of my laptop, or early starts that never seem to be early enough.  The disheartening thing is, if I have a great writing night I’m more often than not exhausted the next day.

So why do it?

Well it’s what I’ve got right now, so I just have to make the best of it.  And that means finding a way to keep myself motivated when it feels too hard.  It’s about digging deep and pulling out the things that keep me going when I’d rather just chuck it all in.  So in the spirit of sharing – these are some of the things that get me through:

1. Magical Elvish Elixir.

Okay, so I don’t really have any, but I love the sentiment.  In the Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship get hit by a snowstorm that threatens to destroy them.  They are cold, disheartened and at risk of failing fairly early in their quest.  But Gandalf has some miruvor – a cordial with magical properties:

As soon as Frodo had swallowed a little of the warm and fragrant liquor he felt a new strength of heart, and the heavy drowsiness left his limbs.  The others also revived and found fresh hope and vigour.”

Sounds good doesn’t it!  Now I’m not suggesting you look for this in a bottle either, but we can all seek out those things that lift our spirits and rouse us to keep going.

2. A Reliable Travelling Companion.

Preferably someone walking the same path as you.  The single biggest blessing in my writing life, is my writing group.  Those girls get it and they get me.  Warts and all.  Where would Frodo be without Samwise?  Or the rest of the Fellowship for that matter?  And don’t tell me Luke Skywalker would have been anywhere near as endearing without Han or Leia.  As the good book says: “As iron sharpens iron…”

3. The Inn at the Crossroads.

You can tell I am a fantasy writer huh?   Metaphorically speaking this is the place where people on the road come together and catch up on what’s going on out there.  It’s a pit stop, and a chance to have a hearty meal and share a story, before everyone heads off to wherever it is their journey takes them.  That’s how I think of the online writing community anyway.  We make connections with people we don’t really know, but those encounters can be encouraging, and uplifting, and a reminder that we aren’t alone.

4. A Decent Map.

You need to know where you’re going.  I once drew the worst map in the world for my WIP.  I wish I could find it, because I would put it on this blog and let you have a laugh.  It was essentially an oval with a few place names scribbled on it, squiggles for mountains and a river I’d redrawn about 3 times so it looked like the Kingdom was flooded.  My friend who was warned it was bad, was literally lost for words. She stood there looking at that piece of paper with wide, disbelieving eyes (note to self: when book is finished pay someone else to do the map).  But my point is, if you know where you want to go, you are more likely to remember why the pain is worth it.  Write down clear directions, keep it somewhere safe, and get it out when you need to stay on course.

5. A good belly laugh.

Some days you just need the LOL cats.  Or the Big Bang Theory.  Or some weird link you saw on twitter that you followed down the rabbit hole.  Today I read The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam – by David Parker on E. M. Castellan’s blog, which really tickled my fancy.  It has 75 questions for the fantasy writer, to see if your story has crossed over into genre-cliche-land.  Who knew there were so many stereotypes, or that I could relate?  For example:

55. Do you think horses can gallop all day long without rest?

61. Does your hero fall in love with an unattainable woman, whom he later attains?

65. Do you not realize it takes hours to make a good stew, making it a poor choice for an “on the road” meal?

There are plenty of others which are a bit too close for comfort… If you can still laugh at yourself, (and at your genre if needs must), then hopefully you can keep the rest in perspective too.

6. A Dragon’s Hoard of Treasure.

Well if you’re going to store up treasure you may as well think big!  When times get tough we all need something to fall back on.  So squirrel away things that encourage you.  Your first positive critique.  A favourite tweet.  A book that changed your life.  A song.  A scripture.  A poem.  Whatever you need to remind you why you write.  And when your tank is empty, take them out and find fuel to keep going.

I am writing a story that will require my characters to come to grips with a world being turned on its head.  And they will all, one way or another, face something life-changing and bigger than they could imagine.  If they can keep going in the face of that, then the least I can do is write another day.

What encourages you to keep going?  What do you have packed in your bag of survival tricks?