How (not) to take feedback

The first half of the year is full of writing competitions and they’re everywhere. I didn’t realise it until I started looking – and finding them scattered throughout the writing community piqued my interest and had me finally putting my words ‘out there’.

I’m not an expert, but I would suggest that before you enter a competition first question what you want to get out of it. Many of these competitions are not free, so not only are you putting your hard-earned words out there for others to critique, but you’re giving them money too! Some offer feedback – many others do not, so think about it before you enter!

I enter competitions mostly for feedback, to gauge whether or not what I have written is palatable for the general public – or whether I am deluding myself about my writing/writing career. Feedback is important on so many levels and if you’re not putting yourself out there then you are doing yourself and your writing a disservice. Be prepared to fail (because as Brené Brown says: ‘If you’re not failing, you’re not showing up’), be prepared not to be everyone’s cup of tea, be prepared to work on getting better and listening to what you need to do to improve.

As far as competitions are concerned, I hope sometimes I might get far enough that I win something – I’m not asking for huge accolades – just a small win to boost my productivity and make me enjoy this journey (which is frequently paved with my own doubts!)

A couple of caveats to what I’m about to say — the first is that this is my personal experience and what I’ve learned from entering many competitions from a variety of places — the second is that the judges in many of the comps are volunteers and many give up their free time to read your work. The majority of judges give excellent feedback and want to encourage you to learn more and more importantly, to keep writing! There are only a small percentage who feel that tearing down your work involves personal attack on you and your writing ability. Don’t listen to them. If ever you encounter a judge who does this, their feedback isn’t worth taking into account. They may be a frustrated writer, they may be going through a tough time, or they may have an agenda you have nothing to do with but they’re taking it out on you. Chin up, or as it goes, bums up, head down and keep writing!!

What I learned about my writing and me

The first writing contest I entered was at the beginning of 2018. I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know how the judging worked and when my scoresheets came in, I didn’t do anywhere near as well as I expected. A good reality check to my own hubris in other words!

The most crushing comment though (and I laugh about it now) was: ‘This story is silly’. The comment, whilst not overly harsh, was rather subjective and enough for me to feel temporarily gutted, but not enough to deter me. I began entering contest after contest after contest. From that I began to see patterns in my writing. Elements of my technique that judges thought needed work (still do) things like:

  • More emotion
  • Too much description
  • Telling not showing
  • Pacing too slow/too fast
  • Synopsis not telling you why a certain thing happened
  • X plot point for story Y feels contrived/cliched

These are all good points and things I can work on and will continue to work on.

If 1 judge out of 10 says you need to work on X – take it with a grain of salt. If 8 out of ten say you need to work on X – listen, because that IS valuable to know.

An example: in a recent short story competition I entered with 5 judges, all 5 judges picked up on my confusing starting point – and the confusing emotions of the protagonist. Several made the comment that they would have liked more development of the main characters (sometimes a little impossible with a short story!) and that they felt like it was really only a vignette of a longer story. All of this was true (and in regard to length yes because this was a vignette of a longer story/full length novel I have planned – but which only exists in my head right now!)

The valuable lesson I learned? I can be a bit precious, but ultimately, I am open to listening to criticism and seek to actively change my writing for the better. I am persistent!

The dreaded third judge

Judge’s hold hammer on wooden table

My recent entry into a competition came back with 2 very high (almost perfect scores) and one at least 25 points lower, virtually tanking any possibility of finalling in that competition. This is not the first time this has happened. Many who enter competitions will talk of that judge. Sometimes I call them the hanging judge!

Yes I was upset, yes I doubted myself (despite finalling in other competitions and even winning one) I stuttered for a moment, I had a cathartic cry, I spoke with other writers about how I felt (combined with isolation and social distancing for my extrovert self, it’s been more draining than I realised) then I picked myself up, brushed myself off, looked around, realised I’d over committed myself on current projects, realised I’d been overly harsh about myself and my writing (come on now Nancy two high scores for a 2nd draft!! That’s a bloody win!) I re read the comments, then I took a break.

During this time, I:

  • Read something completely unrelated to my current writing projects
  • Drank some delicious wine
  • Ate a whole packet of Tim Tams (I might have done that more than once)
  • Made Jam
  • Baked bread
  • Binged watched TV shows and movies (Billions is great btw)

Then when I was ready, I sat back at the computer, took what I could from the feedback, discarded the rest and focussed on what really mattered in all of this, why I’d entered the competitions in the first place – because I FRIGGING LOVE WRITING.

Unhelpful feedback

Often you get a low score and it seems ridiculous because the judge never really explained anything to you as to WHY.

An example:

On one short story I submitted to a competition at the beginning of 2019

  • The entry didn’t draw the judge in 1/5
  • Didn’t have a romantic theme 1/5
  • Dialogue was unconvincing 1/5
  • Story wasn’t fresh or interesting 1/5
  • The ending wasn’t satisfying 1/5

However, there was nothing in the comments that explained in any detail why they came to those conclusions and why they gave me such a low score. In fact, what they said was completely opposite:

‘A little polish with more emotion and its promise would bloom. The setting and time in history are terrific. Likewise, the heroine’s stoicism. Great storytelling needing a little more emotional punch.’

Everything they said is undermined by the score they awarded me for the technique I used.

So, what do you do with feedback like this? I took the teeny bit of feedback I could glean from it, ‘more emotion’ and ran with that. But If you can’t use it, if it doesn’t work for you, simple – bin it, consign it to history, burn it in a ritualistic and cleansing fire, do what you need to do and then get back to writing. Focus on feedback that does give you direction, that you feel has a point and you can work on actively changing and improving.

A word on voice

In some recent line edits for a short story, most of the line edit suggestions were perfectly sound, but they’d stripped something important from my story—ME. Although I’m not a seasoned author I am seasoned enough to recognise when my voice is being erased. I still don’t know exactly what my voice IS but I know what it isn’t – and if that isn’t confusing then oh boy wait till you start researching show not tell!

What is voice? It isn’t writing style or technique it’s something more. It’s your quirks, foilbles – it’s your strengths and personality. It’s YOU!

A hundred people can write the same story, but only you can write it your way with your voice. A bit like a fingerprint!

FEEDBACK OVERLOAD

There is also something called ‘too much feedback’ where you can get lost in the (often well meaning) opinion of others. But be careful about taking too much feedback on board – because that too can erase your voice.

In conclusion

Writing…
Is hard
Is frustrating
There are days where you can write barely 50 words
Then there are days where:
It flows like a great river
Story/words/characterisation come easy
Your word count is off the charts

And what, you ask, are you going to do with the feedback of ‘This story is silly’?

I’ll consign it to history, better yet, I’ll use it as a motivator, cross-stitch it and put it above my writing place!

Rachel Johns – award winning writer and all round brilliant nice person once said: ‘If you can walk away from writing, do it, walk away.’

I won’t be walking away any time soon.

Release Day is here!

Hi Everyone! Release day for Easter Promises is here!

I’d like to thank my fabulous co-authors Sarah Fiddelaers, Ava January and Clare Griffin for being great collaborators. I’d also like to thank Kerry Wagoner and Lou Greene for editing/beta’ing and to the amazing Jayne Kingsley who helped out with questions and guided us newbies through the formatting process.

I recieved this marvelloous art of Ivy and Maurice from ‘An Easter Lily on the Somme’ by my friend Anna – currently on lockdown in Italy. Anna and I met online fawning over our mutual adoration of fictional characters. Anna is a talented artist who also loves drawing fanart!

Ivy and Maurice from ‘An Easter Lily on the Somme’
Art by Anna Usai

Easter Lily on the Somme is in the historical anthology ‘Easter Promises’ available now from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo or direct from authors!

Please everyone have a safe and happy Easter xxx

Writing Historical Fiction

One of my favourite things about writing is the research needed to write a factually correct story. This is especially the case when writing historical fiction. When I read historical fiction, I am often thrown out of a story if the fact presented doesn’t feel quite right. Same goes for anachronistic language (language out of place/time).

In an effort to appeal to modern readers, I’ve seen writers use anachronistic language for the sake of ease of explanation. Certain words, although anachronistic have been around long enough that the use of them in a historical setting wouldn’t feel out of place–for example, ‘silhouette’ has its origins in the 18th century–yet using it as a descriptive word for something set in say, Tudor England, would likely go over most readers’ heads. (You noticed I said ‘most’ there!)

Anachronistic language I’ve seen in particular with regard to romance and sex. Is it easier for a reader to understand my character when they say ‘I took a turn amongst the cabbages’ or to say ‘I had sex’?  But I guess write what feels right to you or your character–go with your gut, I say!

So how do I go about research? Even though they are only short stories, when I was writing ‘An Easter Lily on the Somme’ coming out this week, and ‘Miss Minnie’s Courage and Cupcakes’ (coming out in the RWA short story anthology in July/August) I felt an obligation to know more about women’s work in WW1؅–the setting for both stories. For Ivy’s story in An Easter Lily on the Somme, I needed to find out how a British Army casualty clearing station (a military medical facility behind the front lines, but not quite a hospital) operated near the front. I needed to know how an army nurse differed to a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD and more commonly depicted) nurse. I needed to know about the Irish Easter Rebellion and I needed to know about the flora of the region. For Minnie’s story I needed to know about the suffragette movement during WW1, and how their tactics changed in order to evoke sympathy for their cause.

Army Nurse (left) and Voluntary Nurse (Right)
Source: Anon (2019)

It was so joyous to do this research and find out more about how women fared during the war years, how the war affected women’s work during this time. But not only that, I was able to find out what plants grew on the landscape of Belgium and France (Wearn et al, 2017), how the landscape reflected the trauma of people and how it could recover. A great methaphor for people’s own recovery from trauma.

Keep an eye open for Easter Promises, coming out April 9! And for the Cupcake anthology from RWA in July/August!

References

Anonymous (2019). Women in War: Voluntary Aid Detachments or nurse?https://anzac100.initiatives.qld.gov.au/remember/women-in-war/index.aspx. Queensland Government Website.

Wearn, J. A., Budden, A. P., Veniard, S. C., & Richardson, D. (2017). The flora of the Somme battlefield: A botanical perspective on a post-conflict landscape. First World War Studies8(1), 63-77.

Some exciting writerly news for 2020!

I hope everyone has had a restful (and fun!) festive season! Welcome to 2020! It’s been a sad start to the year with all the people affected by fire around the country. My thoughts are with everyone struggling both with the reality and the news of it. It’s hard not to feel helpless but seeing the writing community active with support #authorsforfireys has gladdened my heart. Several work colleagues are still fighting to keep their properties safe, and I have friends who’ve had to try and keep their families out of harms way, hopefully no more than an inconvienience for them. I just hope the skies open up enough to bring us rain and clear the smoke.

For myself, I’ve been a busy girl, writing, writing, writing (between spending time enjoying a break with my family) and feeling very creative. Although going back to work has meant some reorganising my time to fit everything in I’ve had some success in trying to be more ‘structured’ in my everyday tasks. I’ve been busy working on editing my novels and another thing has kept me very busy too…

What is that other thing? Keep a lookout for some exciting news later this week!

2019 wrap up!

Perseverance – secret of all triumphs. ~ Victor Hugo

It’s been quite an amazing writerly year. One I should be proud of, but as all writers are wont to do, I have downplayed my achievements. But here is a short list of things that happened of which I am most proud!

  • A finalist in the RWA Valerie Parv awards (highly commended)
  • Second Placing in the RWA Selling Submission contest
  • Asks for full manuscript submissions from publishers for my second novel.
  • Made it to the third round of the international NYCMidnight Flash Fiction comp (when I have time I’ll publish my winning shorts here!)
  • A finalist in the 2020 West Houston RWA – The Emily awards (Winner tba 6th January)

On a personal note, the retirement of my mentor and boss of twenty plus years, Peter is a sad loss, but joyous in that he will finally get to enjoy life to its fullest. I hope I don’t flounder in my job without him! Also my daughter excelling herself both at school, in the swimming pool and in her new found excitement as a member of the Australian Girls Choir are also 2019 highlights!

So what’s happening in 2020 then?

2020 here we come!
  • I will be hitting a birthday milestone in August and plan to have a glorious holiday with my partner Tony and my daughter to go along with it
  • Refine my completed novel ‘The Bridge’ and submit.
  • Complete editing of ‘Love, War and Emu’s’ and submit to several competitions and publishers.
  • Partake in a super exciting project for Easter with some fabulous ladies all with an historical fiction bent like me! I’ll be announcing news on this blog in the near future!

And in addition, I will keep on keeping on. Happy New Year Everyone!

And another November is over!

National Novel Writing Month is over for another year. This year I became a ‘Nano rebel’ – choosing to review and edit a previous novel. I think I made some significant improvement to the story and managed to edit 58k words – with around 40k of that being complete rewrites of scenes! Another 30k will see this edit done and hoping to complete it by Christmas.

Having said that – I’ve enrolled in an online course in Characterisation through Narration by Michelle Somers, whose work I often get to read before it goes up on the RWA blog (I’m the blog co-ordinator). Michelle has some great advice for aspiring writers and her blogs for RWA have been very useful to me in the past.

In other news I am planning a stort story for an anthology with some fellow Historical Fiction writers, and very excited to get that underway in the next month too!

The Regency Buck

I’ve gone a complete Regency binge of late, and having only read Georgette Heyer when I was a teenager I can’t remember a hell of a lot about the stories. I do remember there were rakes and dandies and lovely fiesty heroines.

In the last 6 weeks I’ve read: The Talisman Ring, The Grand Sophy, Frederica, Sylvester the wicked uncle, and Arabella. I can’t remember any of them, except maybe The Grand Sophy because I remember the dog. Maybe my priorities in retaining details of novels were different back then.

Time reading them has been lovely, and with BBC1 Sanditon now playing on tv it feels like I have been transported once again to nineteenth century England.

I’m currently reading the ‘Nonesuch’ and it has to have what I consider (and many others consider) one of the most annoying female characters Georgette Heyer ever wrote. Miss Tiffany Wield is a an annoying brat of 17 year old whose temper tantrums and general unlikeability contrast greatly with the books heroine and Tiffany’s governess – Miss Ancilla Trent. A woman from a genteel background only bought to seek an independent living by the circumstances of her family’s impoverishment. In contrast to her, the hero is Sir Waldo Hawkridge, called ‘The Nonesuch’ for his superior sporting ability, talents and of course extreme wealth. He doesn’t have a title but it doesn’t matter because he’s rich! Not a lot happens in the novel, but watching Ancilla resisting the urge to fall in love and Waldo’s general good natured amusement is utterly delightful.

I’m almost finished reading the story, and I can’t wait for them to kiss, but I know when they do I’ll also want to go back a few pages and read it all over again.

Stolen butterflies, charismatic ski-jumpers and NaNoWriMo 2019

It’s that time of the year again lovelies! I’m going to be editing my novel from last year as I’ve had several requests for full manuscript submissions and it needs work! It’s had a title change – but not much else.

I had intended on writing a new manuscript – based on this chappie:

Colin Wyatt, was an Englishman, who came to Australia in 1939, left to complete service during the war but came back soon after. He was best known for his prowess as a champion ski jumper. He spoke over half dozen languages and was an accomplished painter and landscape artist who held several exhibitions here. He was also a very charismatic individual by all accounts!

What sets Wyatt apart – aside from his champion ski-jumping and overall charm, he was also a learned entomologist, and collected many rare specimens.

He was also a thief.

In fact he stole over 1500 butterfly specimens from the Australian museum in 1947 and as it turns out many others from museums around Australia during his time here. When the theft was traced back to England, over 3000 Australian species were found in his vast private collection.

The species he stole were from the Ogyris genus of butterflies, many of which are a pretty mettalic blue. I can definitely see the attraction! I’m sure we have several species from this family at the Waite Insect and Nematode Collection (where I work) I should takes some images. In fact South Australia has several species – SA Butterflies.

It’s a fascinating story, one that bears retelling. After I did Hannah Kent’s workshop recently on historical fiction I’ve been much enthused about the project. For now its on hold until early next year and until Nano is over and done for another year!