On Writing

End of year round-up 2021

This year has been a bit like being at a theme park for me – lots of rides, too many sweets, and a haphazard unfocused approach to my writing. But that’s gonna change! So what happened this year?

  • Released a wonderful anthology with my talented writing buddies Ava January, Clare Griffin and Sarah Fiddelaers.
  • Approached a couple of publishers about my WIP and got some great feedback to take in and help me move my craft forward.
  • Finaled in a couple of comps, the latest of which is the Sapphire where I have 2 entries going into the second round and came third in the Valerie Parv competition (unfortunately the last time it will be run in its current form due to the passing of the wonderful Valerie.)
  • Participated in Writers SA Manuscript incubator with the wonderful Victoria Purman and will continue this mini-mentoring with the same group in 2022.
  • Did a virtual presentation at the RWA conference – on how to boost your aspiring writer profile by participating in an anthology (OMG my first ‘paid’ writing gig!)
  • Entered lots of competitions and feel like perhaps my writing is finally ‘going somewhere’.
  • Read a lot of great books and had a lot of fantastic conversations with many other aspiring writers.
  • Ended the year on a high and pumped for my writing and the stories I am going to work on next year.

This year also saw some increase in my work commitments – I was part of the 2021 organising committee for the Australian Entomological Society annual conference. We switched from being an in-person to online conference and it went incredibly smoothly. Next year will bring some work challenges but I am looking forward to working on some of the upcoming entomology projects in the new year.

Australian native blue-banded bee.

I’m going to take a break over the next 3 weeks – both from writing and from my paid employment but I wish everyone a happy and safe festive season and see you all in the new year!

xxx Nancy

Just do it!

Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com

Putting your work out to editors, publishers and agents takes a bit of courage, but it is so worth it. Not only will you gain valuable feedback but this is your ultimate goal – to sell your work to the reader. And the thing about editors, publishers and agents? They know how the greater reading community will receive your work. They know the marketplace.

You may feel at risk that your hard earned words and work will be torn to shreds – but really what are you risking? Having your work critiqued by professionals at time when you can fix the problems and work on your craft so that the next book you write is even better is far better than putting your work out there – only to find that it tanks or is poorly reviewed.

Recently I had the opportunity to pitch a couple of my manuscripts to editors at Carina Press, Harlequin and to Penguin Random House. The feedback from those editors was both informative, instructive and gave me a better understanding as what I need to work on and where my work could sit in the marketplace.

I was pretty stoked that one of those editors replied that although they thought the manuscript I pitched to them would be a difficult sell for their readership given the content, they were very keen to see another manuscript that I have – one that I agree would be a better fit for that publisher than the one I pitched.

Another editor I pitched the same story to loved my writing style but couldn’t see a fit for her in her current line up – so a no but a ‘good no’.

A completely different MS (of which I only have 6 chapters and an outline written) I pitched in a Twitter Pitch was rejected (yet another ‘good rejection’) because they felt as there were three heroines they didn’t feel that one book could do these fantastic characters justice. Now I just have to write 3 books instead of a hefty 1!!

So close but no cigar. But I was absolutely elated by these rejections because it told me three important things:

  1. My writing isn’t as rubbish as I often think it is.
  2. My stories are unique enough that I may need to give some thought about where they ‘fit’ in the marketplace and perhaps target publishers and editors who feel they have a place for it.
  3. That I need to pull back and focus on one thing at a time (that working on four different MS is not sustainable!)

This year I enrolled in the Writers SA Manuscript Incubator course with the wonderful Victoria Purman (The Land Girls, The Women’s Pages, The Three Miss Allens, Last of the Bonegilla Girls), with the aim of getting a second draft of ‘Among the Brave’ (My WW2 Australian Army Nurse story) done – but truth be told the second draft has been harder than the first! SO after Victoria smacked me over the hand for working on too many MS at once I am focussing on only one, a historical rural romance, with the aim of having it so polished by January that I will see my face in it (hoping that my current diet works wonders too and I look fab).

And as Nanowrimo is upon us – after accumulating some great feedback from many sources ‘The Bridge’ is getting a thorough workout and so far I am falling in love again with Poppy and JB. I love these characters so much that I hope that at some point in the future I can share their story with you all!

Soooo rounding this off – if you have a finished MS – send it out, get feedback, rework, edit, resend – JUST DO IT!

Mid-Year Round-up

I’ve spent a great deal of this year hunkered down in my bunker attending to my writer skill set. Much of it reading craft books, attending classes (online) and participating in discussions with fellow writers. My current employment intitially sapped a lot of my free time, so actual writing took a bit of a back seat. Having said that, now I am sitting down reviewing all the past tasks I have managed to squeeze into the first half of the year and am suprised to find its a reasonable amount. So on the writerly front what have been my personal achievements so far for the first half of 2021?

  • Finished draft three of Love War and Emus (about to stet into draft 4 after some wonderful guidance from Libby Iriks!)
  • Joined Writers SA Manuscript Incubator program for ‘Among the Brave’ and prepping to go into draft number 2 (With the amazing Victoria Purman at the helm of our litte group mentoring program)
  • Read lots and lots and lots of craft books and took lots of notes
  • Attended many classes and courses – the highlight being Mark Treddinicks ‘Little Red Workshop’
  • Wrote a novella length story for our upcoming Historical Anthology – A Season in Paris (more about my story and what inspired it later!)
  • Wrote the first six chapters of a story I had a rough idea sitting in my head – and now it seems like it might be a ‘thing’
  • Thought a lot about my first novel ‘The Bridge’ and how I can go back and really work on it – up the stakes, up the conflict, improve my characters and do a complete restructure complete with tossing out one of the POV and introducing another so that its more aligned with my writing style and where I see the story ending up.
  • I also contiue to read lots and lots of books where I can. My current read is ‘A single swallow’ by Ling Zhang
  • Entered lots of competitions – my ‘throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks’ philosophy for getting my stuff out there!

But the most surprising thing that happened is that once again I am a finalist in the Valerie Parv award. A bittersweet honour with the passing of Valerie earlier this year, means that she will not get to read my story but the RWA previous alumni of the VP award have stepped up and I look forward to receiving their feedback!

A list of the finalists for the Valerie Parv Award for Romance Writers of Australia

Post Isolation, Pre-birthday Roundup!

For the majority of us, I suspect the last 6 months has been spent in upheaval, with worry and strife afflicting our daily lives. For me personally its been up and down but its nothing in comparison to the upturned lives of so many others.

On the writerly front its been an amazing six months – the last few months has been planning and plotting and mulling over strategies for the next six months. However, creativity has been like retrieving the dregs of a slowly drying well. And one of the biggest disappointments for me has been that I’ve been unable to celebrate the launch of our historical anthology ‘Easter Promises’ in the manner befitting our glorious cover girl. Luckily though, its reception has still been very positive! And I love the stories and heroines my anthology co-authors have created– from beautiful and evocative ‘Easter Dawn’ and the sweetest Minnie, to the mystery of a snow bound hotel in ‘Le Malin Renard’ and the hilarious and vivaciously sexy Ariadne, and then onto the little told history of the WASPS, the female pilots of WW2 in ‘EOS’ with the beautiful and glamourous Rosamund. I had such a ball creating this with my fellow authors I was saddened only that I couldn’t celebrate our achievement with everyone else too!

I’ve been eagerly editing my second manuscript and am now being mentored by the wonderful Libby Iriks who has been giving me some great feedback, helping me to set goals and answering my silly questions. My first manuscript has also had a bit of workout after a manuscript assessment has me thinking a complete re-write despite the fact its finaled in several writing competitions (and won one too!) I had shelved it since a rejection I received earlier this year and I’ve not wanted to send it out on submission to anyone else until I can pummel it into better shape—which I believe I can do, but as with everything, it takes time and I don’t have a lot of that!

CYA conference competition 2020

I won the aspiring category for Adult fiction at the recent CYA conference for my novel ‘The Bridge’ – which resulted in an amazing conversation with Clive Hebard – Managing Editor of Penguin Random House in Melbourne, he gave me some great feedback and I was so happy to hear that my writing and the story is very reminiscent of Joy Rhoades work (The Woolgrowers Companion, The Burnt Country) and I was so thrilled (and overwhelmed) to hear that! I also had a consult with Queensland Writer’s Centre and I think I can go into this next draft feeling more confident about the choices I am making with the story.

So what else have I been doing? Like most people – baking bread, making preserves from a mountain of quinces and reading, playing video games and binge watching Netflix!

I have another story coming out in the Romance Writers of Australia Sweet Treats Anthology – so keep an eye out for ‘Miss Minnie’s Courage and Cupcakes’!! I’ll talk about it and my inspiration for the story on the release date which is only a few weeks away!

Let’s hope the last half of the year isn’t fraught with fear and that we can resume our normal lives as best we can!

Oh yeah, next week it’s my birthday – I’ll be… a lady of a certain age…

If you want to help me celebrate – I’m doing Dry July in support of Cancer research and in memory of my wonderful mum, Jessie and my mother-in-law Peggy.

Nancy’s Dry July fundraiser

Currently reading: The Golden Hour: A Novel by Beatriz Williams

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!


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

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.