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Why reading helps me write

Stephen King famously said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” I have to admit, I struggle with the busyness of life to do both at the same time! Work takes up a huge chunk of the day, then of course I want to spend time with my family, time to cook meals and eat together, bedtime routine… So all in all, there isn’t much left by the time all that’s done. I know from my Twitter feed that most writers struggle with exactly the same problem. We’re all squishing our writing time in – it’s like precious gold, and you only find small nuggets amongst a lot of dross.

This being said, I’m a great believer in the phrase ‘You make time for what’s important to you.’ As much as life gets busy, there is always some space – however small- for doing what you love. I find I go through cycles of reading and writing, and this is how reading helps me.

Firstly, reading helps me ‘place’ what I’m trying to write. When I finished my first draft of ‘Bell Time’, a contemporary rom-com, I binge-read a couple of other contemporary rom-coms, so that I could see what was working, what was similar, and what was different. Reading Sophie Kinsella’s ‘I Owe You One’, Mhairi McFarlane’s ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ and Beth O’Leary’s ‘The Flatshare’ in quick succession really helped me to piece together the ‘feel’ of this genre at the moment. The kind of language, the ‘voice’, use of POV, and plot point markers – I definitely found rom-coms didn’t quite fit as easily into the structure models I had used before. Reading other people’s work doesn’t make me want to change stuff just to copy, but it does help me see my own work in a different perspective, and how readers will receive it compared to the other books they’ve enjoyed.

Secondly, reading inspires me. Since reading ‘The Hurting’ by Lucy Van Smit, I’ve been a bit obsessed with the idea of Wuthering Heights turned into a YA thriller (‘The Hurting’ was reviewed as a Nordic noir version of Wuthering Heights, which totally captured my imagination). This is my new idea I’m outlining and bashing out at the moment, but writing a thriller is new territory for me. Cue ‘TBR’ list of YA thrillers – any recommendations?

Thirdly, reading is just so therapeutic. I just feel so much better in myself when I can really relax and lose myself in the world of Non Pratt or Rainbow Rowell or (insert YA contemporary writer here). This gives me the ‘head space’ that I need sometimes to refresh, then go back to writing with a sense of renewal and energy.

So I’ll be honest: I don’t read every day, and I don’t write every day. But most days, I manage to do one of them. And I’m happy with that.

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First Draft tools

I’m chuffed that I recently finished my first draft of ‘Bell Time’, a contemporary rom-com set in a school. My main goal was to make sure it was much more tightly structured than my first novel, ‘The Day of the Dice’, where my first draft was 120k words. Waaaaaay too long! So I succeeded in this goal… but maybe a bit too much. My word count on this first draft is 42k words, which basically isn’t long enough really for a novel. And it’s too long for a novella. My husband’s opinion is that I’ve been super economical this time, and I can definitely afford to go back and extend it with more of the other characters and upp the comedy. So I’m hoping the editing process for this will be fun filled!

Anyway, I thought I would share some of the tools I was using to write this first draft. Some of them I picked up when I wrote ‘The Day of the Dice’ (some I really wished I’d had from the start of that process!), and some are new to this WIP (work in progress). I hope you find them helpful too.

  • Save the Cat Writes a Novel This is a great outlining tool which I used AFTER my first draft of ‘The Day of the Dice’ to whip it into a better shape. It helped to show me where some of the ‘beats’ of the story were not quite right. For ‘Bell Time’, I typed out a rough outline using the Save the Cat beat sheet- although I have to admit, the story took on a life of its own (as usual), so my finished first draft doesn’t stick to the original outline. But I did still stick to the principles of what the story beats should be.
  • The Secrets of Story Structure KM Weiland’s website is a Mary Poppins bag of extremely helpful resources in figuring out how the different parts of a story work. I used this series when I hit the 75% mark of my first draft, because I needed to go over what the final section needs to accomplish and how to do that well. Her site also has a database where people have submitted beats for existing films and stories, which I found useful, because this is my first time writing a rom-com and I found that some of the beats differ with this genre (for example, the inciting incident is usually where the couple meet for the first time).
  • StoryClock This is mostly used for film but I found it really helpful for finishing my first draft. The idea is that you plot out around a circle the key events. I found it helpful to then colour code them according to different ‘threads’ of the story. Then you can see how to make your story ‘symmetrical’ – where a story thread is introduced, and where it needs to come back into the story to make it ‘work’. This tool showed me where I had used a new character to function as a minor antagonist to create an obstacle for my couple, when I should have just used the major antagonist and not complicated the story further.

Overall, this process of writing a first draft has felt tidier to me because of these tools for structuring my story. There’s still loads I have to do in terms of editing, but I think if you have the right plot points in place, it makes everything so much easier. As much as you don’t want to be overly formulaic, there’s a reason why these structures work! The tricky thing is to give readers what they want, what feels ‘right’ for the story, without being predictable. Answers on a postcard please!

https://plotdevices.co/pages/how-to-use-the-storyclock-notebook
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#PitMad

On Thursday I took part in #PitMad, my second foray into Twitter pitching! Unlike #KissPitch, #PitMad is a broader pitching event, open to a wide range of genres. Quite a few of my Twitter friends were participating, and it was great to share our pitches, comment on them to help them gain traction, and retweet them.

As one of my NZ friends pointed out, it’s really tricky participating in Twitter pitches that are in a different timezone. #PitMad uses EDT and while you can schedule Tweets using Tweetdeck, it’s still frustrating when you feel like you miss out on some of the live action. It’s really exciting to join in when the pitching is live because you can see new tweets popping up everywhere. I’ve found this really helpful to find other writers to follow and connect with, because as we all know, the Twitter algorithms often mean that many of us tweet but are ‘invisible’.

The best thing for me about #PitMad was that it demonstrated the #WritingCommunity at its most supportive. It’s tempting to view Twitter pitches as a competition, and I know my own tendency is to be unhelpfully competitive. I found KM Weiland’s blog post about ‘Writer’s Envy’ really helpful. Here’s what she says:

I believe it is an absolute truth that when one artist succeeds, the rewards belong to all of us. When a good story (or song or picture) is given to the world, and then given a platform from which it can be shared with the greatest number of people, that is one of the most perfect things in life.

In short, on a purely artistic level, there is no competition. There is only cooperation. Your art makes my art better. My art makes your art better. And we all benefit.

https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/writers-envy/

If you think about it, reading a fantastic book doesn’t make you think: ‘Great, I’ve read a brilliant book. Now I never need to read again.’ No! It makes you want MORE! I finished the Hunger Games, then I was recommended Divergent, and the rabbit hole of YA dystopia continues on and on! Reading well written stories gives you an appetite for more great stories, and of course helps you as a writer to continually hone your own craft. Writers have to be readers first.

So if you build healthy, co-operative friendships with other writers on Twitter and other platforms, you are actually also building a future readership for that day when you are published… But even if that never happens, you’ve found a community. Creating stories is often a lonely and frustrating process, and I’m not sure you CAN push through without encouragement, support and the help of others’ critique.

I really enjoyed #PitMad; if nothing else, I get to tell more people about my story, and I get to see all the other great ideas my writing friends are working on. I look forward to reading them!

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#KissPitch 2020

On 14th February, I took part in a Twitter pitch aimed at Romance writers. This is where you post up to four tweets over a set time period (9am – 9pm EST), using the hashtag #KissPitch, and literary agents who are interested in finding new romance writers will ‘like’ your tweet if they would like you to query them with a first chapter and some more details about your story. This was the first time I’d taken part in a Twitter pitch, and it was such a great experience, because it forced me to come up with four different ‘elevator pitches’ for my story, to condense the complexities of plot, theme, character and setting into 240 character Tweets. It’s not easy! But it does really help you to focus on the core elements of your story, and what your story is really about.

This was my most retweeted Tweet, and it was really exciting to see people reacting to my story. I tried to convey something of the tone, genre, world, the goal of my protagonist, and the conflict she faces. I wanted to emphasise what makes my story unique and different; most dystopia I’ve read is set in a futuristic setting with advanced technology. My story is based around a community of 100 people who are post-apocalyptic survivors, so they don’t have factories, mass production, much available technology or electricity or all the infrastructure that’s needed for those things to be possible. That’s why it ‘feels like the past’ – the characters ride horses, make their own clothes, grow their food, and sort of live an Amish kind of self-sufficient existence.

The key problem my protagonist faces is that, because they are ‘survivors’, they have an enforced child-bearing policy where young people are paired up for fifteen years when they come of age. Elise’s mother died in childbirth, and so did her grandmother. She dreads having to take part in something which potentially will kill her.

Elise discovers that there may be a way out, a way of escape… But she doesn’t expect to fall in love. Leaving is not going to be as easy as she thought.

There are various Twitter pitches throughout the year, such as #PitMad and #DVPit.

If you’re a writer, why not take part? If you’re querying anyway, it helps you find agents who are actively looking for new submissions, and it can help you get to the top of the slush pile.