“How’s the novel coming along?”

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“How’s the novel coming along?”

I love and loathe that question. I love it because it shows that the person asking is interested in my writing and my writing is my passion. How great is it when someone remembers what you are passionate about?

The problem is the inevitable follow up question: “So, when is it being published?”

Oh if only it were that simple. The road to publication is a long drawn out process but not one that people outside of the industry are always familiar with. Many people have heard the tale of J.K. Rowling being rejected by 12 publishers before landing a deal for Harry Potter. It’s a good way of putting it in perspective for those oblivious to the inner workings of the publishing world. I like to mention Rowling and then admit I’ve only had four rejections, I need to earn a lot more than that before I find a home for my book.

The other issue is that I’ve fallen in love again and am now seeing new characters. When I wrote Life Without Clouds, it was an all consuming process. I was completely caught up in the story and had to make an effort to participate in everyday life. It took me around two and a half months to write it, six months to edit it and then, well, I tried writing other things but the thrill wasn’t there. I fumbled my way through ideas hoping that the love would come. It was like going on blind dates in the hope that someone would be compatible. They weren’t.

It was the week before Christmas past when I saw her. I was in my favourite indie bookshop when this girl walked past me. My breath caught. I may have followed her around the stacks for a bit (poor kid). There was something about her that made my fingertips twitch. She had to be my next main character. I don’t know who she was and I probably wouldn’t recognise her again if I saw her, but those few (kind of weird stalkery) moments were enough. My next story was born.

Now I have a group of characters that excite and ignite my writing passion. I have a plot line with twists and whirls and spins and turns. I have one hell of a cool main character. Her name is Leighton and she is a demon hunter. I am head over heels in love with my new WIP.

So be prepared. If you ask me, ‘How’s the novel coming along?’ expect to have this lovestruck lass talk your ear off about bloodlines and demons and high school. Oh, and about the girl in the black and white striped knee-high socks who walked past me in a book store.


A Sharp Whack on the Knee is the Universe Speaking to Me

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I wanted to write a novel. It’s been on my Life Goals list since I was about 14 and started making Life Goal lists. Last year the time was right to make a proper effort. I had a basic idea for a dystopian story set in a school that is a sinister microcosm of society. I had character names, ideas for plot developments, twists, obstacles etcetera but I knew I was not ready to write it. I mean, I’d never written a novel before. My notebooks were filling with tidbits and treasures but I didn’t want to stuff it all up by writing a piece of diatribe-laced dribble. So what to do?

I would write a practice novel. One that would teach me about the writing process. I knew some basic creative writing fundamentals as outlined annually by The English Teacher (see post) however knowing them did not automatically translate into any said literary skill.

A few random sections of text were written. A few joining bits were added and by about chapter nine, I had discovered the characters’ names. I also learnt that the storyline I had imagined was not as simple as I thought it was going to be.

Before I was aware of what was happening I had completely and utterly fallen in love with writing. Losing myself in the writing process was exhilarating and totally unexpected. Several times I stumbled out from my writing cave to exclaim to the hubby, ‘I can’t believe what just happened in my story!’ Cue blank look from hubby followed by reassurances from me that, yes, I was the one actually writing this tale. The story took on a life of its own – I found myself discovering it as it emerged on the page. This probably breaks numerous rules about writing and planning. Indeed The English Teacher constantly badgers the class with the adage, ‘Failing to plan is planning to fail’. Shhh, *whispers* don’t tell the kiddlets!

During the initial drafting process I didn’t want to share with many people that I was writing a novel or that I was writing a novel for teenagers. I became shy and nervous and when I did talk about it I tended to do it while staring intently at the ground with a slightly manic grin on my face.

Just over four and a bit months later, the first draft was done and the editing began. Six months later I entered Pitcharama 2014 hosted by the wonderful team at Aussie Owned and Read and was privileged to be selected for the first round. The editor round blew my expectations so far out of the water that I walked around in a daze for ten minutes contemplating whether or not I was hallucinating the responses. Once the daze wore off the excitement began. The excitement of a child who has consumed copious amounts of chocolate and red candy. I could not sit still to focus on my computer screen.

The adrenaline buzz was overwhelming. Forget jumping out of a plane, give me some minor interest from a publishing company and I become invincible. Thankfully the universe centred me quickly. A sharp whack to the knee (that may or may not have involved an incident with a skateboard *cough*) was my reminder to settle down, breathe and put all this in perspective. Yes, I’d had interest and some ms requests but that was only one small step on a long journey to publication. I limped back to my desk and calmly set about sending some emails.

So where am I now with this journey? I am waiting. I have a feeling that this is a big part of the process. I’ve learnt about rejection and how I deal with it. I’ve learnt to expect it but also to hope for the best. I will continue to wait as patiently as I can while learning more about writing.

It’s hard to believe it has only been a year since I first sat down to write. Now, I’m writing my second novel, I have a blog and have even joined twitter. Best of all, I learnt something wonderful: writing thrills me. It tells me I am alive and that within the words on my page, anything is possible. In a world that constantly feels out of my grasp, here is somewhere I have control. Somewhere I am completely happy.

Image credit: “The center Galaxy of Cat’s Eye” by JPL – JPL NASA. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Five Lessons from Laini


Laini Taylor is my favourite author. Her Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy moves me as though the words on the page have a magic of their own. Her Blackbringer story challenged my perceptions of fantasy and helped shaped my own thoughts, ideas and writing direction. In other words, I think she is awesome. Total fangirl here. *points to self*

So when the Brisbane Writer’s Festival announced that Laini Taylor was a guest presenter, I had to go. Unfortunately life was going to be in the way as it was settlement and moving time for our house during the festival weekend. Oh, and Father’s Day.

So I bought two days’ worth of tickets and decided to just schedule life around the festival events. That’s smart, right?

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Creative Methods was the masterclass run by Laini Taylor and we gained insight into a range of her writing practices. Like many aspiring writers, Laini started off her writing career without any specific idea of what a writing process actually was. She had no specific strategies and instead spent her time making notes on different story ideas and world building. The problem of course was making the pieces fit together. What was her solution to moving past ‘What happens next?’

Many aspiring writers can relate to this, myself included. For my second WIP I have ideas, characters, a world that is complex, and even a rough idea of key events. How do I take these parts and create an entirety?

For Laini, the catalyst came when she attended her first Writer’s Festival with her art portfolio and although she didn’t come away with a picture book deal like she was hoping, she found the festival to be ‘humbling and electrifying’.

The artwork caught the attention of a publisher who requested that the ideas behind the images become a novel. The Dreamdark series was born.

With a deadline from a publisher, Laini reassessed her writing processes. Essentially, it was pressure from that looming deadline that allowed her to focus her ideas and produce Blackbringer.

Lesson One: Know who your characters are before you make them speak or act.

The important lesson Laini learned from this experience was that up until this point, she didn’t know what her characters would say because she didn’t know them yet. How could she write their story until she understood who they were and what they would say?

Lesson Two: Just keep going.

Like many of us, Laini felt lost during the writing of her first novel but she did not give up. After it was finished, she continued writing even if she didn’t have a specific story to work on. When Blackbringer was completed Laini co-founded a writing prompt online group. Every week people would free write and share their work. Here she connected with other writers and even came up with the idea about a blue-haired girl who had the strange job of collecting teeth for her even stranger guardian who had two giant horns on his head.

Lesson Three: Develop a writing practice and then write.

Understand your writing needs and develop a practice to suit. “Process is about knowing your brain and getting it to do what you want it to do.” Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you write better in the morning, afternoon or evening? Do you have a specific set of rituals you use to write? Do you go through a series of writing exercises to ‘warm up’ your brain? Do you need goals? Perhaps extrinsic motivation such as a calendar of stickers for when you meet your word count, would work for you.

Lesson Four: Don’t wait for perfection

“Nothing will be perfect, so don’t wait for perfection.” For many, especially plotters, waiting for everything to be perfect can be a formidable barrier to writing. Writing exercises can help loosen up writing rigidity and push past the obvious and the known. “No one likes a delicate flower.” Writers need to push past our comfort zones, even first ideas may need to be shelved. Keep going until you find, as Laini puts it, “the ‘snick’ – when the idea slots into place like a puzzle.”

Having a story idea and the words to say it doesn’t always add up to writing. The bridge between words and ideas is the magic of storytelling – “the brain function where it all fits together creatively.” “It’s the Fictional Dream – the state when you completely forget you are reading or writing and move into a waking dream.”

Writing exercises allowed Laini to glimpse the Fictional Dream which her perfectionism had previously been holding her back from entering.

Lesson Five: My writing time is up to me

I dream of going to a writer’s retreat, of having naught to do but explore my ideas and words and whatever character wisdom I can come up with. It is unlikely that will happen anytime soon. I have work commitments and a family and just, you know, life stuff that I have to deal with. I’m lucky if I can find three hours a week to write.

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This is probably the most important lesson I took away from Laini. My writing time is up to me. Everyone has life commitments to deal with but authors make time to write. Laini once checked herself into a beach side hotel for a week long solo writer’s retreat where she wrote 20 000 words. Now, I won’t be doing that anytime soon but the message was clear: Laini is successful because she prioritizes time to write. Without that time allocation and dedication to her practice, her amazing stories might still be in the ideas phase instead of sitting on this fangirl’s bookshelves.


Short Story Writing Basics for Students

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Twice during senior year, my students have to write creative writing pieces under test conditions. Here is some of the advice I give out in a way that is easy to remember.


When you have a short time frame to write in it is important to plan your time wisely. For a two hour, 600 word short story exam, my students use the 20/60/40 timing. Twenty minutes for planning, sixty minutes for drafting and forty minutes for writing out the good copy. It’s a good idea to do a practise run first to see how well these time limits suit you.

During the planning you might want to follow these steps:

  1. List everything you can to do with the topic.
  2. Select your focus. Try to avoid selecting the most obvious choice.
  3. Determine the character and setting.
  4. Write out a detailed plan that sets out the structure of your story.

Remember the old saying, ‘Failing to plan is planning to fail.’


In most cases, school-based short story exams require structure. Here are some suggestions for how to structure your short story:

  1. Action, Orientation, Action, Climax, Resolution
  2. Exposition, Action, Climax, Resolution

Write What You Know, Yo!

Write what you know is good advice but if this was always the case then how are stories about aliens, vampires and giant transforming machines ever written? WWYKY is great advice about emotions and experiences. You may not have personally experienced an alien invasion (or you might have – who am I to judge?) but perhaps you can recall a time when you were scared, excited, overwhelmed etc. Think about how you want your characters to react and then recall a situation where you had similar emotions.

PPP       Paragraphs, Psychological and Physical.

Remember to write in paragraphs and to address the psychological (emotions, motivations, beliefs etc.) as well as the physical (setting, the five senses etc.).

High Five

Use your five senses. Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste and Touch. Think about this:

I unwrapped the ice cream packet and took a bite.

Snore! Are you still awake? Before the re-write, try recalling what eating the ice cream felt like physically. How did it taste? What did it smell like? Were there any sounds involved?

The foil was icy and smooth beneath my fingers as I trailed one finger across the beads of condensation that had formed across the wrapper. With a crinkle I tore open the seal and immediately the delicate aroma of caramel wafted gently towards me.  My mouth began to water and for a moment I admired the smooth golden shell of chocolate before I sank my teeth in with a gentle crack. A hit of creamy caramel with a hint of salt sent my taste buds into overdrive.



This acronym is a handy reminder for some basic literary techniques:

Alliteration: A low resonating rumbling rolled across the ground.

Metaphor: His nerves were a snake that slithered around his belly.

Onomatopoeia: There was a whoosh of air followed by a loud thud.        

Simile: Her words sounded like honey laced with fire.

Speech – Only use when necessary. Dialogue is best used only as a tool to drive the story. Okay, this one isn’t so much a literary technique as it is a reminder for good writing practice.

TTT        Title, Tense and Time-frame.

Title: If the type of writing you have to do requires a title then remember to put one in. It doesn’t have to be complicated but avoid being obvious.

Time-frame: Think about how long the piece of writing needs to be and how this will affect your planning. A 2000 word short story allows for a greater span of time to explore the story, themes, etc. than say, a 600 word story. If you are set a limit of around 600 – 800 words it is usually better to stick with one setting and one timeframe. In this shorter length style of writing, flashbacks can be utilised to help convey important information for context and character development.

Tense: This is a really easy one for students to overlook. Choose one tense to write in and be consistent. Far too often I read student work where the tense goes back and forth between past and present. Generally speaking it seems to be easier for students to write in past tense.

KISS       Keep it Simple Sweetheart

Depending on your required word length you may not have enough time for any extravagant story lines. I read a 600 word story once where the following events happened:

  1. Students were sitting around enjoying an average day at school.
  2. One student was being picked on.
  3. Said student decided to go off by himself to avoid the mean kids.
  4. The mean kids sat around the cafeteria laughing about the student.
  5. An alien space craft hovered about the school and released smaller crafts.
  6. The smaller crafts started firing lasers at the school.
  7. Students and teachers were running around panicking.
  8. The headmaster and the teachers all met to decide what they should do.
  9. Students were being attacked and captured by the aliens.
  10. The student who went off by himself decided to come up with a plan.
  11. The local police force and nearby army arrived to fight back.
  12. The student came up with the ultimate weapon and brought the alien forces down.
  13. The student was hailed a hero.

This story did not follow KISS. It was an overly complicated storyline with no description, character development or any depth to the writing.


So when faced with a creative writing task remember to High Five, KISS, PPP and Write What You Know, Yo! A little AMOSS and TTT can help improve your written piece significantly.


Pitcharama: Life Without Clouds

Title: Life Without Clouds
Author: Fiona Miller-Stevens
Genre: NA, Contemporary
Word count: 52 000

Have you ever had someone pass through your life and leave you changed forever?

Life Without Clouds is the story of 18 year old Rose – a cinema-working, retro-loving, boy-fearing, history geek.  Rose has a plan. Study like mad in order to qualify for the overseas student exchange programme – a year abroad would be the perfect escape from her awful recent past. There is no room in this plan for romance. In fact, Rose has resolutely sworn off all boys until she’s 22. Maybe then, dating won’t be so traumatic.

Sticking to this plan was easy, that is, until the gorgeous, funny and fellow history buff, Quinn, walked into her life. Meeting him was definitely not part of the plan.  But Quinn has his own past, and it’s not necessarily one that Rose is going to like.

Life Without Clouds is a funny, yet poignant, coming of age story about facing up to fears and learning to love, even when the universe has other ideas.



Visit Aussie Owned and Read for more information about Pitcharama 2014.