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On Creating A Distraction-Free Writing Environment, by Bernard Beckett

I read recently that some authors make use of software to restrict or block their access to the internet while they’re writing. While I don’t feel the need myself, probably because I have neither Facebook nor Twitter accounts, it got me thinking about the circumstances under which I best manage to write.

Heavy use of Facebook and similar sites poses two distinct threats. The first is the obvious one. Time spent checking on the marital status of the friend of some guy a person you went to school with once sat next to at a football match is time that can not also be devoted to writing. The other threat, and the one I can more easily identify with, is not the drain of time but of a certain state of mind.

During my working day, I’m a high school teacher. A typical day might involve face to face interactions with a hundred different people. The majority of those interactions are considered by the other party to be, if not urgent, then certainly important. So you move through the day in a certain mindset. You are honed to react. I’ve watched chefs in kitchens, facing down a barrage of orders, and suspect they feel a heightened version of the same state. It’s an instinctive, adrenalin-fuelled state that I rather enjoy. There’s a part of me, I suspect, that is prone to becoming addicted to it. It’s also very similar to the state supported by the superstructure of the internet, with its template of links, updates, and constant change. It’s a state we slip into very naturally, and in my case at least, it’s a reasonably difficult state to slip back out of.

The pertinent point here is that this distracted, restless state of mind is the exact opposite to the state of mind I like to be in when I’m writing. Writing seems to better flow from a place of stillness and quiet. Distraction stands as its greatest enemy. When I say writing, I probably should distinguish between two quite separate activities. One is thinking about my story and the other is the actual task of getting the text down. The first part, which happens somewhere just below the surface of directed, conscious thought, seems for me to be particularly well suited to relaxed contemplation. Back before I had children, the period between waking and getting out of bed was particularly fruitful. Neither the structured thought of activity nor the day’s list of pressing tasks would come crashing in and I had many of my best ideas staring at the ceiling. So it is for me with running and cycling. The world goes by sufficiently slowly to allow my senses to relax and people are not actively pressing for my attention. It’s in that bubble that I find a state very similar to that of coming gently awake (nostalgic sigh).

The other phase, the actual committing of words to paper or hard drive, for me requires slightly less absence from the world. I can function fairly well with conversation in the background, and dipping in and out of the internet to check facts or emails doesn’t get in the way all that much. I’ve written in planes, on beaches, in offices and at home in the lounge. All of that presupposes that the quiet spaces are there and that the chatter of day to day living doesn’t become overwhelming. In this respect, I’ve often noticed that during the first few weeks of a school term, I can still write in the evenings but that this capacity diminishes as the system slowly but surely clogs up with minutiae.

Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows, has proposed the hypothesis that the rise of the internet is seeing us spending more of our waking hours in the distracted state and as a consequence we are losing the ability to access the quiets of the mind, to go deeper. The rather startling proposal is that our capacity for slow contemplation, for reading or writing books, for following long and complex arguments, is not innate but is rather the invention of specific behaviour, and that the internet has the capacity to cut us off from the very skill-set that built the modern world. I don’t know if I buy this completely but, for now, not being on Facebook suits me very well indeed.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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Month In Review (September 2013)

Writing Teen Novels has reached the end of its ninth month of articles for 2013 from this year’s line-up of novelists from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Writing Teen Novels contributor Elizabeth Wein is attached to two novel writing retreats in November, 2014 with Novel Writing Retreats Australia.

Thank you to all the contributors, to everyone who has been reading the articles and those who have connected with Writing Teen Novels on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Tumblr, or via Novel Writing Quotes on Facebook or Google+.

Articles for September 2013

Using Movies And TV As Inspiration For Novels by Beth Revis

First Person Versus Third Person Narration by Bernard Beckett

Language In Teen Novels by Diane Lee Wilson

Writing Dialogue In Novels by Monika Schroder

Writing About Violence And Physical Harm In Novels by April Henry

Using A Notebook To Store Ideas For Novel Writing by Paul Volponi

My Favourite Author Of Teen Novels by Elizabeth Wein

Embracing E-Books by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Writing Believable Teen Characters by Lish McBride

Life As A Published Novelist by Andy Briggs

Plot Structure In Novels by Kate Forsyth

On Getting A Novel Published by Pauline Francis

Working With My Editor by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

On Research For Writing Teen Science Fiction by Sam Hawksmoor

On Prologues And Epilogues In Teen Historical Novels by Carolyn Meyer

On Revising A Novel Manuscript by Kashmira Sheth

A Page-Turning Plot = A Character-In-Action (Secrets Of Narrative Drive) by Sarah Mussi

Writing Dialogue In Teen Novels by Laurie Faria Stolarz

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‘Month In Review’ Updates

For more articles on writing novels you can check out Writing Historical Novels and Writing Novels in Australia.

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Using A Notebook To Store Ideas For Novel Writing, by Paul Volponi

I’ve done a lot of work as a sports writer covering thoroughbred horse racing. The great race caller Tom Durkin, who has to paint a picture using the spoken word, often in two minutes or less, keeps a notebook of words and phrases he has either used or is interested in one day using. That inspired me to keep a writer’s notebook as a writer of teen novels. It has been a great help to me. What’s recorded on the pages of my writer’s notebook? Well, almost everything. I have it broken up into sections – potential names for characters, titles for books, phrases or expressions that have made an impact on me, interesting situations I have encountered, plot-lines for books, and of course, miscellaneous trivia to cover a myriad of other things. The notebook helps me to store current thoughts for future use, and stops me from having several hundred scraps of paper floating around my work space. Naturally, this doesn’t have to be a physical book. It could also exist electronically on your computer. But personally, I really do enjoy holding a notebook and thumbing through the pages. Every two weeks or so, I look through it from front to back.

Here’s a glimpse at some of its pages.

Names – Cortez – as a possible first name. The Muscle Hamster – an actual nickname for a short and strong NFL player. Pogo, cool name for someone who shifts positions. Lashley – last name of a pro wrestler, good ring to it, like the imagery. Rosario – good feeling for me, has a feeling of trustworthiness to it, like Kent from King Lear.

Titles – Stop and Frisk – a NYC police procedure. Shadow Tag – an alternative to playing real tag, stepping on a shadow instead of touching. Personal Foul – sports title with some imagery.

Situations – A woman puts her cigarette out on the side of a church and then crosses herself as she passes the church’s front door (actually saw this happen). Boy wearing a Spiderman hat on a city bus has a real fly sitting in the fake web on the hat. Fly sat there for a while. Wanted to swat it to see if it was real or fake (actually saw this as well). A school short of money sells ads at the bottom of its test papers – a pizza ad on a math test (real newspaper article).

I’ll pass on sharing my possible future plot-lines with you. But I think you get the idea about keeping a writer’s notebook and how helpful it can be. I’ve used it to develop the real titles of mine such as Black and White and Rikers High. It gave me character’s names such as Brick (Rikers High) and Noah (Response). And situations like the vending machine break-in used in Hurricane Song. I hope that as a writer you can make good use of a notebook as well.

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Paul Volponi’s author website: www.paulvolponibooks.com

Paul Volponi’s bio page

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The Benefits Of Taking A Break When Writing, by Kashmira Sheth

Writing is more than a task, a job or a chore to finish. As writers we are constantly thinking about our characters, how to get them into trouble and how to get them out of that very same trouble. We don’t simply think about writing when we sit down to write. The thinking goes on while we drive the kids to their classes, have dinner with friends, fold laundry, and plant spring flowers. One part of our brain always seems to be thinking about our stories.

Do we need to calm down these constantly churning ideas in our writerly minds?  For me, the answer is yes, and I suspect it is for others too. Our minds need that break.  Just like a good vacation gets you ready for the upcoming challenges at work, a break from writing prepares you for another creative spurt.

We don’t have to take a long break from writing. We certainly don’t have to go on a long vacation. Every day we can give a few minutes of our time to calm our minds. This can be done with activities such as meditation or long walks. When you are walking, immerse yourself in your surroundings to avoid thinking about your characters and stories. I don’t count watching TV or a movie as a break because they engage and stimulate our minds rather than calm them. The important thing is to rest your brain. Gardening is an activity that works well for me. While I am digging my mind settles down, the cycle of the seasons and the rhythms of the natural world sooth me, and the fresh air calms me. Some may find other exercise such as jogging, skiing, or biking similarly helpful.

If you do take a vacation, you can use that time to step away from your story. When I take a vacation with my family I give myself the chance to be in a new place and enjoy my experience, without worrying about my current story. But I don’t necessarily take a break from my writing. I keep a journal about my trip, including the things we do and see. That way my commitment to write every single day is fulfilled.

How do these breaks help my writing? What I find is that when my mind is still, something new and exciting floats up. It may be a plot solution that I had been trying to find for the past month. The answer suddenly becomes clear when I am not actively trying to figure it out. Sometimes, a new idea about a picture book or a story pops up.

Stepping away from the story I am currently working on gives me a fresh perspective on it. When I return to the story I see it more in its entirety than before. So not only can I solve small problems, but I also feel I can see the entire story in a new light. For all of these reasons, it is important to put away your writing, give your brain a break, and then go back to the story.

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Kashmira Sheth’s author website: www.kashmirasheth.com

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My Writing Process For ‘The Wildkin’s Curse’, by Kate Forsyth

Writing a novel is a big undertaking. It takes about a year or more, usually, and lots of problems, both little and large, present themselves along the way.

I have learned to trust the process and to know I’ll receive help when I need it. Sometimes the way the answer comes to me is very mysterious and magical.

The best example is what happened to me one morning early in the writing of my teen fantasy novel, The Wildkin’s Curse.

I’ve described in an earlier post how the idea came to me with the image of a boy falling from an impossibly tall crystal tower and the fragment of a prophecy, ‘Next shall be the king-breaker, the king-maker, though broken himself he shall be.’

It’s not much to work with.

I began, as always, by asking myself questions. Who was the boy? Why did he fall from the crystal tower? Had he been climbing it? Trying to get inside? To rescue someone? Who? A girl? Why was she locked away?

Slowly I built up my cast of characters – Zed and his best friend Merry, children of the heroes of The Starthorn Tree; Rozalina, the wildkin princess kept imprisoned because she has the power to make wishes (and curses) comes true; and her cousin, Liliana, determined to rescue her and calling upon Zed and Merry to help.

Then I was stuck. I had absolutely no idea how my three heroes were to rescue the wildkin girl from that crystal tower.

I also had no thematic structure for the book.

I have never really liked fantasy books where the heroes just wander about having typical fantasy-style adventures (i.e. attack by monster in lake, misadventure while eating stew in roadside inn) until, at last, they battle for whatever it is they are trying to get. I have always believed a story is like a sword – it must have a point.

So I always build my story very carefully, with each adventure or encounter having some kind of importance in the over-arching themes and symbolism of the story.

In The Gypsy Crown, Emilia and Luka must search for, and find, a talisman in each book in order to try and fix a broken charm bracelet. Each charm has some kind of meaning, linked thematically to the lesson the children must learn, and the cost that must be paid, before they can win the charm. For example, in ‘The Silver Horse’, Emilia must give up her beloved mare Alida to another Gypsy clan in return for them giving her their lucky horse charm.

Similarly, in The Wildkin’s Curse, I wanted each obstacle my characters overcame to have some kind of symbolic significance as well as a practical function in propelling along the plot. I had been puzzling over this particular problem for some time, but had not yet worked out a solution.

I could not sleep one night for worrying about this problem. I got up in the early hush of the dawn and went walking, something I do often when I am puzzling over a problem. It was a pale, misty dawn, and the harbour shone silver where the sun was rising. I strode along, thinking, ‘how can they rescue Rozalina? How?’

Suddenly a raven took to the air, right in front of me, its wings so close I felt them brush past my face.

A black feather dropped at my feet.

I bent and picked up the feather.

A feather, I thought. Perhaps they have a cloak of feathers… perhaps it is damaged… it’s missing seven feathers… each one from a different bird… a raven, symbol of death and wisdom… they could find that feather at the end of a tragic battle scene… an eagle, symbol of power and royalty… perhaps they must climb a dangerous cliff to find it… a nightingale, symbol of true love… a tender romantic scene late in the book… when my hero and heroine kiss for the first time… I walked faster and faster and faster, my mind leaping from one idea to another. By the time I got home I had my entire novel fully plotted out. I sat down and worked feverishly, writing it all down in my notebook.

I had my method of rescue, I had my thematic structure. All because a raven dropped a feather at my feet.

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Kate Forsyth’s author website: www.kateforsyth.com.au

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Pacing A Novel, by Lish McBride

Pacing is often the bane of my existence. My beginnings are never fast enough, my middles are squishy and my ends need to be slowed down. I’m three novels in and this has become a comforting pattern. The great thing about pacing is that it can be fixed. The bad thing about pacing is you have to fix it, which means editing, which always makes me incredibly whiny.

So now that I’ve proved to you that I have issues with pacing, thus invalidating anything I say after this, I’m now going to give you a quick and dirty run down on how your novel should be paced. Just because I can’t seem to follow the rules it doesn’t mean I don’t know what they are.

Beginnings are important, so your first page has to be shiny and wonderful. When I pick up a book in a bookstore, that first page makes it or breaks it for me. You could have the best synopsis in the world, but if that first page is boring or sloppy I lose all hope for the rest of the book. Great books have snappy openings – I know how both Moby Dick by Herman Melville and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens begin and I haven’t even read those books. Yet. I used to have the opening to The Thief of Always by Clive barker memorized. Openings are important.

So how does one make their opening a winner? Well, I can give you a few pointers. First, you should immediately ground the reader. They need to know exactly what kind of world they are stepping into. What tone do you want to strike? Which senses do you wish to invoke? Which character do you want to start with?

The best way to get things going is to start in medias res, which is a fancy Latin way of saying “into the midst of things.” Basically, you want to jump right into the narrative or plot. Don’t bog the story down with twenty pages of immediate back-story. Don’t dilly-dally, friends. Jump right into that sucker. Look at the opening you’re working on. Do you start in the right place? Does the reader leap right into your story? If not, cut some things.

You should never be afraid to cut away the fat (just save and back up EVERYTHING). Things can always be added back in later if you change your mind, or that necessary snippet can be moved elsewhere. You have a whole novel. Stretch out a little bit and enjoy the space. My middles always need to be trimmed down. They wander and slow down, and it’s just no fun. I have to edit them to death. Part of that is because I always have a firm sense of where the story starts and ends but my middles are always a little hazy. That’s okay. I don’t mind cutting. The trick is to figure out what to cut. This is where beta readers or editors come in. They are great at pointing out which spots were slow and clunky. If you don’t have access to such people, read through it yourself and think, “Is this part really necessary here?” or “This page goes on too long – what can I cut? What can I condense?” Sometimes mapping/outlining the chapters help. As always, read it out loud to yourself. That’s the best way to catch mistakes.

Stories generally follow an arc. You know, the whole ‘beginning, middle, boiling point, resolution’ thing? Yes, that. Well, characters should have their own arcs, and if you’re doing a series, it usually has it’s own arc too. Keep that in mind.

Your endings need to live up to the promise you made at the beginning of the book. This means it needs to be just as strong. Your characters should be at the end of their arc and should be changed (if they aren’t, you need to make sure the reader is clear on why they haven’t changed). Conflict should be resolved – or if you’re leading up to another book, resolved enough to satisfy. It needs to be memorable. Like the beginning, you have to re-establish tone, senses and imagery. You need some sort of emotional bang. You might not get it on the first try but, again, that’s what editing is for.

Homework: What part of novel writing is tricky for you? Beginnings? Middles? Ends? Think back on your favorite novels and think about what worked in their beginnings, middles or ends. How can you apply those things to your own work?

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Lish McBride’s author website: www.lishmcbride.com

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The Good Thing About Bad Writing, by Lish McBride

As much as we hate to admit it, not every word we write is gold. Some of them wouldn’t even qualify as a precious metal. We all have off days and no matter where you are on the publishing spectrum, you’re still learning. One day you’ll write twenty pages of what you’re sure is the Best Thing Anyone Has Written, Ever, only to read it the next day and realize it’s total drivel.

Sometimes the “total drivel” response is just that little critic voice in your head. Ignore that voice. There are plenty of people on the planet ready to line up and tear apart what you’re doing. I see no reason why you should actively help them. Other times, though, it’s not the voice. Some pages just don’t live up to their potential and they have to be cut.

Don’t cry over this. Editing, cutting, slashing and burning are natural parts of the process. As a writer you are like a sculptor, cutting away at the blank marble until something wonderful emerges. But I want you to listen, my writer friends. The next thing I’m going to say is very important. Don’t throw everything away. Even bad writing has its purpose.

This is especially true for you young writers out there. You might never do anything with that heart-felt poem about your feelings. You might never do anything with that ‘zine you made with your friends, or the Harry Potter fan-fiction you just wrote. That’s okay. Keep them anyway, because you’re going to grow up and get old and maybe grow a moustache and learn how to play bridge. It’s a natural part of the cycle.

You’re going to forget some things about being young. Not everything. The big things stand out. Some of you, like me, will actively try to forget some of them. This is why keeping your writing is so important – it’s a snapshot of the teenage you. (I can’t take credit for this idea. I read it in Gail Cason Levine’s writing book and honestly it’s some of the best advice ever.)

There are other good reasons to keep snippets around. Sometimes you can salvage things. It’s like a mechanic having a yard of junker cars. Sure, the engine is shot, and it won’t move, but the carburetor is almost brand new. So you pull that sucker out and put it in something else. You can salvage your stories, too. Maybe you have a good line in there or a great character. Yank them and put them in something better. I have a history of stealing characters out of short stories and putting them into other works. My character Ashley is an example of this at work.

There are times, too, when you look back on a dud story and realize that you suddenly know how to make it work. One good overhaul and that sucker will shine like gold. I have a few duds in my pile that I have hopes for.

Lastly, they’re good benchmarks for you. I don’t like competing with other authors. I think it can create a toxic environment and honestly, it’s just not a good thing to do to yourself. I could go crazy trying to battle some of my writer heroes with words. Especially since some of them have had whole lifetimes to become awesome and I’m just getting going. I do, however, compete against myself. I don’t need to write a short story better than Mark Twain. I just need to write a short story better than the last one I wrote. There are days when I look at old stories that I’ve written and I think, “Okay, so I’m not great, but I’m better than that. My writing is so much clearer than it used to be. If I work hard, it will be even better tomorrow.”

It’s fun to watch yourself grow as a writer.

Homework: Dig something out of your pile. What element sticks out as a keeper? What can you do with it? If you don’t have a pile, start one.

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Lish McBride’s author website: www.lishmcbride.com

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