Blurb Writing 101

… Otherwise known as ‘banging your head against a wall—repeatedly’.

The title of this post is somewhat misleading since, really, I’m nowhere near qualified enough to write a ‘how to’ guideline for creating effective blurbs. But I can write about my experience, because last week my publishers and I agreed on a working blurb for Akarnae. (YAY!!!!). I can’t release it yet because it might change, but after a number of back-and-forth revisions we’re all happy with how it’s turned out. So that’s super-exciting!

It was interesting writing the blurb—and by ‘interesting’ I really mean ‘somebody-kill-me-now’. I thought query letters, pitches and synopses were challenging (which they are), but blurbs? Condensing 120,000 words down to, like, 150? I actually found myself freaking out! Think about it—a pretty cover might draw the eye of someone perusing in a bookstore, but it’s the blurb that will hopefully captivate them enough for them to want to read the book. That means there’s a lot riding on a good blurb! You don’t want to give too much information away, because that’ll ruin the intrigue, but you also don’t want to give so few details that people won’t find themselves longing to read more. It’s a fine line. (Thus the head-banging comment at the beginning of this post!)

And another thing—there are so many different ways events can be told. We all know the story of The Wizard of Oz, right? Well, imagine if the blurb had actually been more along these lines:

Wizard-of-Oz-blurb

Everything about that description is true—but it gives a much different slant to the happy-go-lucky fairy tale we all love. It actually makes Dorothy sound like a deranged serial killer! How many parents do you think would buy such a book for a child? (Hopefully not many!).

So, long-story-short, blurbs are important. But that said, some of the best books in the world have absolutely horrible blurbs. I’m sure we’ve all been surprised a time or two. Perhaps we’ve been at an airport and grabbed the only book available for our long-haul flight, only to discover halfway across the Atlantic that we’re holding priceless treasure in our hands. That particular scenario has never happened to me, but I can say that one of my favourite books that I re-read on a regular basis has the most dreadful blurb ever. It’s shocking. It was so bad that I thought ‘no way can I read this load of rubbish’. But it was in a discount bin for only a few dollars and I was desperate for something to read, so I bought it—and that book changed my life. Not to mention, it opened up an entire new genre for me to fall in love with!

Anyway, I’ve totally gone off on a tangent. So, back to my blurb-writing experience.

Knowing how powerful certain words and descriptions can be, I eventually managed to get a rough draft down (which was after blankly staring at my computer screen while wishing for the blurb to magically write itself into existence). Once I had something to work with, I ended up writing multiple versions of every sentence so that I could then pick the best ones and string them all together. So, I’m talking stuff like this:

Just one step, and 16-year-old Alexandra Jennings’s world changes—literally 

In just one step, 16-year-old Alexandra Jennings’s world changes—literally 

In a single step, 16-year-old Alexandra Jennings’s world changes—literally 

All it takes is a single step, and 16-year-old Alexandra Jennings’s world changes—literally.

All it takes is a single step for 16-year-old Alexandra Jennings’s world to change—literally.

…etc… 

You can see that the differences are hardly noticeable, and yet, they are. A different word here or there changes the overall feel of a sentence. So it was really cool (albeit time-consuming) to follow this method for each paragraph and then put it all back together again. And, like I said, the team at Pantera Press and myself are happy with the end result, so it was all worth it! Woohoo!

All this blurb pondering has made me wonder… I know there are a number of published writers who follow this blog, and I’m curious about your own blurb-writing experiences. Did you find it challenging? Are you happy with the results? Would you have done anything differently?

And the same questions apply to any aspiring authors who have ever sent query letters/pitches off to agents/publishing houses … Did you love or hate having to summarise the most alluring parts of your manuscripts into so few words? Let me know about your experiences!

Editing Complete – YAY!

It’s 12:52 AM and I’ve just finished ‘officially’ editing my debut YA novel, Akarnae. I mean, sure, I’ve edited it (and re-edited it) heaps before, but I worked with an actual editor this time, one who gave (seriously cool) professional feedback. I’ve never had an editor before, but can I just say here, they’re awesome. Or, mine is, at least. She’s like a word-ninja. I feel like I need to get my hands on one of these and send it her way:

ninja

I’m just amazed by how the simplest of suggestions really helped add depth to my manuscript. Even things like, ‘… It’s more dramatic if you delete this word…’ and ‘… Add a sentence here about [whatever]‘. I feel like my story has just become so much more than what it was before. It’s like a caterpillar that has transformed into a butterfly. And now it’s ready to fly.

I’m also so, so, so happy with the new beginning. I was never a fan of my original beginning (which actually wasn’t even the original-original beginning), and that sucked because beginnings are important—especially in books! But now I absolutely love it. And there are other parts that are so much richer now as well. I’m just so pleased with how it’s turned out!

But you know what? I’m also really nervous. Because while I know that it still has to go through proof-readers and the like before it’s released to the public, now that the actual story editing is complete, it’s pretty much done—and that means people will soon be reading it.

I know, I know. That’s totally my dream come true. But understand this, once it’s published, it’s out there. Bam. Done. No take-backs. That’s pretty scary stuff! Especially when I consider the hordes of authors who can’t stand to read their old books because they only see their mistakes. I never want that to happen to me. I love my characters and absolutely hate the idea of ever resenting how I’ve written them into being. That would be awful! Not to mention, Akarnae is part of a five-book series, so I’ve still got a long way to go with them!

I know I have so much writing growth ahead of me, but I never want to despise my beginnings. I can only hope that my characters and stories will grow with me, and that I’ll always appreciate the journey that has led to me becoming a better writer and, hopefully, a better human being.

Does that make sense? I guess I can also think of it this way: I could edit, edit, edit everyday for the rest of my life, and I’m sure I’d still focus on things to nit-pick over. I found that even when I was re-reading the Harry Potter series recently—there were a number of writing ‘wrongs’ that I noticed. I can’t help but wonder if J.K. Rowling ever opens her books and cringes at the words she’s penned. Words the rest of us love, but words that perhaps she might have altered with a touch more editing. That’s a crazy thought, huh?

crazy-bunny

At the end of the day, we writers will always second-guess ourselves. I think it’s just a part of the package. But I guess I’ve just come to the conclusion that sometimes we have to risk the ‘what ifs’ and hope that our ‘good enough’ is, in fact, good enough. Perfection has no part in writing—there will always be something that could have been done differently. A character’s name, a room’s description, a town’s location—we create all that, so it’s up to us to believe that our version of the story is the write one. (See what I did there? Am I right?… Yikes, I think I need sleep…)

Before I get any weirder, it’s time for bed. My plan is to rest my manuscript for a couple of days and then read it from cover-to-cover in one sitting so I can check to make sure it flows well, etc. (Because, hey, when I’m reading a good book, I often won’t put it down until I’m done, and I tend to notice ‘issues’ more if I read it in one go—so I figure it makes sense to read my own manuscript like that too!)

Okay, seriously… It’s a good thing I touch-type because my eyes are so blurry that I can barely focus on my laptop screen. Sleep is calling me! ‘Night, everyone!

 

10 Practical Writing Tips

writing-tips

I’m alive! Sorry for the long wait since my last post—I’ve been without my laptop for over a week (major withdrawals!). I was away interstate for the Hillsong Conference (which was amazing) and only just got home. It was an incredible week and sooo much super-cool stuff happened (I even saw a pod of whales migrating north during my flight home!) and I’m still processing a lot of it. But while I was at the conference I went to a master class called Creative Writing: For The Love Of Words which was über-awesome, and I wanted to write a quick post with some of the things I learnt in it. I mean, I learnt way more than what I’m about to write, but I’ve had an average of five hours sleep every night for the last week (at best) and want to keep this short and sweet to lessen the amount of mistakes I’ll probably make. I’ll write more in other posts later (including some great things I learnt in a marketing master class called Understanding Your Audience – which was also really informative).

… But, like I said, I’ll address all that later (when I’m actually awake!). Until then, here’s ten practical writing tips from the director (?) of the Hillsong writers’ guild, Karalee Fielding. Most of them are really obvious, but it’s good to have a reminder from time to time!

So, here goes!

1. Know why you write. What’s your motivation? Why do you do it?

2. Find the time to write. If it’s important to you, then you need to prioritise it.

3. Read more than you write. And keep in mind that what you read affects the way you write, so step out of your comfort zone from time to time and read books that will better your own writing.

4. Don’t just write when you feel like it. One wise woman said, “There are times when writing feels like sprinting, but most of the time it feels like inching.” Just knuckle down and do it even if you lack motivation. The more you get into it, the easier it will come.

5. Stick to a deadline. Give yourself writing goals (realistic ones!) and meet them.

6. Do your research. Another wise person said, “If writing feels like laying in a field of wildflowers, then that’s lovely, but to me it’s hard; it’s good, hard, worthwhile work.”

7. Have the tools. Make sure you use everything you can to better your writing. Use a thesaurus, use a dictionary. Use whatever tools you can to help grow your craft.

8. Learn. Go to a writers’ conference. Take some classes. Get around other writers and glean off their knowledge. Immerse yourself in the writing world.

9. Write. Re-write. Re-write again. In a nutshell, this simply means EDIT!! Edit like crazy. Then edit your editing. Make your writing as clean as possible.

10. Believe in yourself. Writing can be a lonely passion, so stay positive and maintain hope that it will all be worth the effort.

How cool are those tips? They’re so practical and easy to follow. I love them – they’re very encouraging! And one more thing I loved was this simple statement: Don’t Waste Words. I could write an entire blog post on those three words, and I just might at another stage. (Yay!)

Okay, I think I’ll let you ponder on all this and I’ll write more on everything else I learnt later. Until then, I want to leave you with one last statement that I think is fabulous. It was in response to how some people feel uncomfortable admitting that they’re writers. Because, really, what is a writer? Is a writer only someone who is published? Does a blogger count as a writer? Or only novelists? What about journalists? Or poets? Who, exactly, can claim the title of ‘writer’?

Well, here’s the beautiful answer that was given in the master class:

“You’re a writer if you write. You’re a writer if you dream and live in words.”

Be encouraged, writers! And embrace your love of words with pride!

Publishing News!

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Here’s some exciting news—I’ve been published! No, no, don’t get too excited. My novel isn’t released just yet. (Though, I’m hoping I’ll be able to give you an update on the release date soon! My publishers have a specific month in mind already, but I don’t want to say anything until they’ve heard confirmation from Simon and Schuster to make sure there are no other competing YA fantasy novels coming out in the same month. Still… potentially very exciting!)

So, no, my novel isn’t yet available—but I wasn’t lying about being published, since a magazine article I wrote has been printed and released nation-wide (and internationally, via online subscription).

I can understand if you’re confused. I’m not a journalist, nor am I scholarly writer. I dabble in the world of fiction and that’s where I’m happy to stay. But a few months ago I was approached by a friend of a friend who had been getting ready to launch her new magazine, Positioned 4 Purpose. She contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in writing a feature article for the first edition. (Yikes!) I was honoured by the offer, but also a little hesitant since it had been a looooong time since I’d written anything other than fiction.

Anyway, after some umm-ing and ahh-ing, I agreed to meet and interview the source for the article—Pat Langfield, an inspiring teenager born with cystic fibrosis who doctors claimed should have died years ago.

To be completely honest, I was blown away by this young man’s testimony. He’s only eighteen, yet the trials and challenges he’s faced over the course of his life are simply… Well, there are no words. I was amazed by his strength of character, his easy smiles, and his outrageous courage. In fact, I was actually terrified after meeting him, because I was certain that I couldn’t do his story justice. I had no idea how I would find the words to share his testimony—because surely someone so inspiring deserved to have their story penned by a writer much more gifted (not to mention, experienced) than myself.

But you know what? The moment I sat in front of my laptop, his story just began to write itself:

“From the outside, eighteen-year-old Pat Langfield seems just like any other teenager. He plays guitar, he is a devoted Paramore fan, and he can’t wait to clock up enough driving hours so he can get his licence. But what many people don’t know about Pat is that every moment of his life is a battle to survive. Every day, every hour, every minute presents a struggle—literally—for him to breathe…”

Sentence after sentence, the article took form until I had nearly two thousand words detailing this remarkable young man’s journey. I lost whole chunks of time in front of my laptop; an entire weekend passed by without me even realising it! I was simply lost in my writing bubble. (It happens quite often, come to think of it…)

In the end, they printed the whole article—which, with photos, took up eight pages of the magazine! Eeek! I only hope Pat and his family are happy with how it turned out. I gave it to a work colleague to read through before I sent it off for approval, and she came back to me straight afterwards with tears in her eyes. No joke! I was speechless, especially since she’s not the kind of person to show her feelings. It was, yet again, a reminder that words can be powerful, emotional, beautiful weapons.

I maintain that Pat’s story wrote itself—I was merely along for the ride—but nevertheless, it was still scary to send it off to the magazine editor. I wasn’t so much worried about what she’d think, but more about what Pat and his family would think. Like I mentioned earlier, I wanted to do his story justice. He deserved that—and much more.

Anyway, that’s my news. I’d love to share the article here because I think it’s impossible not to be inspired by Pat’s story, but I’m not going to do the magazine a disservice by posting it for free when I know the money they make is going to a good cause. So, if you’re interested in reading the full article—and the many other encouraging stories in the first edition of the magazine—head over to their website to find out more about the subscription process by clicking here.

Pat

Harry Potter (*Happy Sigh*)

harry-potter-books

Over the past fortnight—when I haven’t been editing my novel or making sure to stay employed—I’ve re-read the entire Harry Potter series (I’m a fast reader, thankfully). It’s been amazing. It’s also been extremely eye-opening. And that’s because I read them all as an actual writer this time (rather than just for entertainment value), so I paid more attention to elements I would normally absorb without thinking.

So, why did I do it, you ask?

Well, I guess I wanted to re-read the series because, let’s face it, JK Rowling is one of those authors who helped revolutionise the world of fiction. No matter how many other books come and go, Harry Potter remains the industry ‘stock standard’ by which many other novels are compared. That’s just the way it is. I mean, sure, I’m generalising here. I guess I should be more genre-specific (for all those nit-pickers out there), so how about we agree that most children’s and young adult fantasy fiction are compared to Harry Potter, in one way or another. And since I write predominantly young adult fantasy, I thought it prudent to read her work again with the focus being on why her stories are still talked about fervently over seven years after the release of the final book in the series.

Do you want to know what I’ve come up with? Well, no blog post in the world could cover it all, I’m afraid. She’s simply a literary genius. But the funny thing is, if I’d only just stumbled upon her books for the first time today, I’m not one hundred percent confident that I would have actually continued reading past the first few pages. I know, I know, cue the gasp of shock, horror and outrage. I’m ashamed to admit it, believe me. But my reading tastes have changed a lot since I was thirteen (which was when I read the first book), and I actually found myself skimming over the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone until I could get into the groove of her writing style – which I’m not entirely sure I actually like. (Cue another gasp!) Of course, I soon became so immersed in the story again that my writing style preferences didn’t matter at all. I was simply too lost in the world she created.

As a writer, I had many ‘light bulb moments’ while re-reading the series, too many to write about here (as previously said). So I want to focus on one element that really spoke to me. And it’s this: her characters are real.

Let me break it down further.

It’s impossible not to fall in love with the protagonist himself, Harry Potter, but it’s equally impossible not to become attached to everyone else around him – humans, animals, and magical creatures alike. (If you didn’t cry when Hedwig the owl or Dobby the house-elf died, then you need to go back and read it again! And don’t even get me started on the humans – Sirius (sob!), Dumbledore, Moody, Tonks, Remus… and, omigosh, Fred! Devastating!).

I think a major reason for our attachment is because JK Rowling’s characters aren’t necessarily always… likable.

Wait—bear with me here while I explain. Don’t throw anything at me yet!

As much as it pains me to admit it, her characters are flawed. Every single one of them. As a writer myself, I often fall into the trap of writing likable characters. I want my protagonists to be people readers like and I want their friends to be likable, too – because why would anyone read a story about characters they don’t actually like? But as ‘nice’ as it is to create those characters, they’re boring to readers because they don’t add any tension or flavour to the story (as my editor recently pointed out to me – thank you, Deonie!).

Characters without flaws are like hot chips without salt: they don’t live up to the potential of what they could be. And that’s why JK Rowling is a character-creating-genius; because she’s managed to make her characters likable—lovable, actually—despite their flaws. And oftentimes, their flaws are extreme. She didn’t pull any punches, that’s for sure. I mean, let’s take a look at the three main characters:

Harry can be moody, wears his heart on his sleeve, and often acts impulsively.

Ron can be attention-seeking, has a hot temper, and is prone to extreme jealousy.

Hermione can be whiny, self-righteous, and is annoyingly bossy at times.

These flaws create tension too many times to count over the course of the series. There are whole weeks where the friends might not speak to each other for various reasons – usually as a result of one or more of these character traits. If that’s not story ‘flavour’, then I don’t know what is!

We’ve all heard of the phrase, “Kill your darlings” (which JK Rowling certainly did—I’m still sobbing as I write this!), but I’d like to offer a new phrase here as well: “Flaw your favourites”. I think it’s self-explanatory. And it definitely made me love Rowling’s characters even more because—as previously said—it made them real. And that made them transcend through the pages and into my heart.

It’s been over seven years since I closed the pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with a contented sigh, feeling a beautiful sense of closure. Before the seventh book was released, I read and re-read all six of the other books too many times to count, always waiting and wondering just how Harry would end up finishing his story. After reading Deathly Hallows in 2007, I had no further need to venture back into the wizarding world, since Rowling did such a wonderful job of ending the series. So I can’t begin to describe the journey I’ve been on over the past fortnight; it was almost like I rediscovered Harry and his friends all over again. It was beautiful. And it was definitely worth the late nights and blurred eyes. I feel like I’ve learned a lot – about writing a captivating story and, especially, about writing flawed (but still lovable) characters. But do you want to know what I learned most over the past two weeks? It can be summed up in this picture: 

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Storytelling: A Disney/Pixar Perspective

My amazing publishers, Pantera Press, uploaded a post the other day titled: Pixar’s 22 Rules for Great Storytelling. Some of the ‘rules’ are so inspirational that I just have to share them with you all. (And, hey, you know how much I love anything even remotely Disney-related!).

You can click on the link above to read the entire post (and see where all the info comes from). Otherwise, enjoy these true storytelling gems! My favourites are numbers 6, 13 and (especially) 19. Have a read and let me know which ones you like best! (more…)

Advocating The YA Genre

young-adult-books

There’s been a bit of a social media uproar recently regarding the young adult genre. Since I’m such a huge advocate for YA (and indeed, that’s the genre in which I predominantly write!), I thought it would be prudent to add my opinion, just for kicks.

As far as I’m aware, the recent arguments have originated after an article was published in The Slate Book Review, titled, ‘Against YA. The lead line goes on to summarise: “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.”

Okay… Ouch!

The article is an interesting—if eyebrow-raising—read. But I certainly don’t agree with it. A few things in particular stood out to me, and I’ve addressed them below:

Adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.”

Umm… Why, exactly? The article itself states that the largest demographic to purchase and read ‘young adult’ books is in the 30-44 years age bracket. There must be a reason for this!

Let’s set aside the transparently trashy stuff like Divergent and Twilight, which no one defends as serious literature…”

Ouch, again. ‘Serious literature’ or not, there’s no denying that they’ve had phenomenal worldwide ‘success’ and—more importantly—they’ve brought a whole heap of non-readers back into the reading fold. As a writer, I’m extremely thankful that they’ve paved the way for others such as myself. Without their success, future YA authors would have a much smaller audience ready and raring to be captivated!

And on another note, I have friends who, before Twilight, hadn’t read an entire book from cover-to-cover in their life. But, regardless of it’s lacking ‘serious literature’ description, they devoured the simplistic nature of the writing, characters and storyline. How is that result a negative in any possible way? Most of them now love reading again! That’s a total win, in my opinion!

But even the myriad defenders of YA fiction admit that the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia.”

What’s so wrong about that? Isn’t all fiction enjoyed for these purposes? By definition, fiction is: ‘…imaginary events or people; something that is invented or untrue.’ So, escapism? Check. Instant gratification? Check – after a few pages, at least. Nostalgia? Well, maybe, depending on the story specifics. I doubt one can find nostalgia in The Hunger Games, for example. (Or, I hope not, at least!). We read fiction because we want to jump into another world, another time, another place, sometimes even another personality. We want to tune out of our own lives and enjoy the time away from the pressures of real life. Escapism, gratification, nostalgia – of course these are elements that contribute to why we enjoy reading! But, again, what’s so wrong with that?

“…these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future. But wanting endings like this is no more ambitious than only wanting to read books with “likable” protagonists.”

Two things:

Firstly, I’m a Disney fan, so I love the happily-ever-after endings. If I’m reading for pleasure, why-oh-why would I want to read a good three-hundred-plus pages of a book only to come out of it completely miserable at the end? Yes, I definitely want the ‘satisfying’ ending. That’s why I love YA – because generally speaking, I know I can look forward to how it will end, despite whatever challenges may be faced along the way. Admittedly, it can be annoying if the ending is too simplistic—like when everything is wrapped together in a neat, pretty, unrealistic bow—but I’m not advocating all YA books here, since there are definitely some less-than-well-executed ones out there. But I’m talking about the vast majority of YA books I’ve enjoyed – and I’m arguing on their behalf with my opinions here.

Secondly, umm, am I the only one who finds the last sentence in the above quote eyebrow-raising? Why would I read an entire book if I didn’t like the protagonist? Sure, I’ve done it before (hey, we’ve all had compulsory reading lists for school and stuff, the one’s we had little choice in reading), but it’s never enjoyable – the whole time I found myself shaking my head mentally and wishing for the end. These days I read because I want to read, and that therefore means I’d much prefer to read about characters I actually like – especially the protagonist!

“I know, I know: Live and let read. Far be it from me to disrupt the “everyone should just read/watch/listen to whatever they like” ethos of our era. There’s room for pleasure, escapism, juicy plots, and satisfying endings on the shelves of the serious reader.”

This is an interesting line. ‘The serious reader,’ huh? *Wrinkles nose*. That even sounds stuffy and boring. I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ll mention it again: I read because I want to read. There’s nothing serious about it, not for me, at least. It’s simply fun. I read for pleasure – and to (hopefully) enhance my writing skills. And I read a lot – but rarely is anything I read what I would classify as ‘serious’. Don’t get me wrong – I completely respect those who do read literature that expands one’s mind… But I’m the first to admit YA books are not categorised as such because they’re a genre focused on the flippant things in life – and that’s why they have their own genre. *Rolls eyes*…

“… if they are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something.”

This is a remarkably short-sighted opinion. We could justifiably argue that those who don’t read YA are missing out on learning the value of the simple pleasures in life, those addressed in most coming-of-age stories. Common themes include dreams coming true (regardless of how realistic), adventure, magic and mayhem, love, and life in its most purest, innocent (or not!) forms. These are integral—and beautiful—elements that we can discover just by opening the pages of a young adult novel. And those who turn their noses up at YA books are denied the wonder of such discoveries.

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That’s pretty much an overview of my opinion on the article. The author makes some valid points at times, but I don’t agree with her on the whole. And that’s okay, because we’re all entitled to our own opinions – just as we’re all entitled to read what we want, when we want, and for whatever reasons we want! I for one will always be a staunch advocate for the YA genre, and will likely still be reading it when I’m 102 years old and eating all my meals from a straw. (It will definitely be for escapism purposes then! And probably nostalgia as well!)

So, tell me: what’s your opinion? Do you think adults who read YA fiction should be embarrassed?