Thursday, February 22, 2018

Sheritha Singh: How my MBA helped me improve my fiction writing


Today's guest post is from ROSA member Sheritha Singh. Thank you, Sheritha!

The start of my professional writing career coincided with the first year of my Masters studies. Having written fiction for the better part of my life I honestly thought writing a dissertation would be a breeze. I was wrong. I'd just secured my first writing contract with indie publisher Breathless Press and within a few months I had four books lined up for release. Amidst edits for my young adult, new adult, paranormal and contemporary adult romance I asked myself if signing the contract with Breathless Press was a wise decision while struggling to grasp the basic concepts of academic writing. The two styles of writing are worlds apart and sometimes switching between the two was disastrous. Eventually I contemplated giving up either my MBA or writing career. Both, however, were equally precious to me. Amidst my internal struggle, my supervisor informed me that my research proposal was far from ready as my writing was academically poor and that I would not proceed to the next level of my studies. My first reaction was to give up pursuing the MBA. I actually emailed my supervisor informing her that I would not be coming back. She encouraged me to take a two week break from all writing and think about what I really wanted.

Two weeks later I decided that I wanted my MBA and I wanted a writing career. After deep introspection I realized that completing my MBA was exactly what I needed to improve my fiction writing. The writing style may be worlds apart but the technique of describing a research problem bore a striking resemblance to describing a fictional world. I have taken the lessons I've learned from the last five years of writing my dissertation has taught me a few important lessons, a few of which are listed below.

1) Write daily - even when inspiration hasn't struck. It's important to keep the writing rhythm flowing as each dissertation chapter has a deadline. It doesn't matter if I'm not using the stuff that I write. There are times when I delete thousands of words. There are other times when I use every word. Just like research, some aspects of fiction can simply be written better. Writing every day has also helped me to maintain my writing speed and prevent procrastination. In fact it has helped me focus on writing and I'm now able to set tighter deadlines for my fiction writing after having met academic deadlines for the last 3 years.

2) ‎ Research! Research! Research! Factual errors in a paper seriously affects the credibility of the paper. Similarly, a book that isn't well researched in terms of world and character building can easily be picked up by readers. A necessary part of research for writing fiction is reading. Reading helps writers build credible worlds and relatable characters. Readers are incredibly smart. They are also quick to leave a negative review if something does not match up to their expectations. The trick with research is to apply only the knowledge that is needed and to avoid an info dump. The knowledge that is used has to be relevant.

3) Be prepared to sacrifice words all the time. Editing and deleting words reduces the word count but it is a necessary part of rewriting. There are always better words that can be used. The process of active editing also reduces the chances of plagiarizing someone else's work. In most cases I've found that there is always a better method to write something.

4) Researchers are constantly pressurized to take a fresh spin on topics that have already been researched. Similarly writers are constantly pressurized to create fresh new stories for an ever demanding and critical market. Almost every theme, plot or storyline has been used and it is next to impossible to find one that’s waiting to be written into a best-selling book. Avoiding clichés, overused tropes and exhausted stereotypes can be difficult but it is possible to create a plausible fresh story by simply thinking out of the box. Despite being published I must admit that I was somewhat clueless when it came to clichés and tropes. I had to learn fast. Fortunately researching academic articles between a full-time day job and demanding family life has honed my reading skills.

5) I spent so much time studying that I learned to value the time I spent doing other things I really love and I made that time matter. I've learned to value my time and when it comes to writing I always save what I've written and go back and read it. It doesn't have to be perfect. For me it captures a memory of something I've enjoyed doing.

6) Although this may be hard to believe, academic researchers must adopt a specific writing style and also have a special flair with words. Academic articles and dissertations must be written in a flowing rhythm that is both concise and accurate. One aspect that took me forever to master was the style of broadly discussing a topic and then narrowing it down to the aspect under research. In retrospect the art of narrowing down a broad topic helped me create three dimensional worlds with a past, present and future for my characters. It helped me express what my characters felt through using the five senses. The trick though is to show the reader which aspect of the scene is the most important to the character through the characters sensual experience.

7) Researchers use many different techniques and methods to test the research hypothesis. Some methods of testing work better than others. The latter has taught me to experiment with different genres of writing. Although I have always written across the young adult, new adult and adult contemporary genres, I have recently begun experimenting with flash fiction and poetry. My current favourite poetry form is the haiku. Learning about the different forms has been fun. I've also signed up for an annual poetry marathon which sounds like fun (I will write about that after the event).

8) Enter competitions. My research has been funded. The competition for funding amongst applicants is incredibly intense. And just like writing completions I've always given writing contests my best shot. It’s a wonderful way to network, gain new fans and meet other writers. I've challenged myself to enter competitions that require entries in genres I haven't written before. Since writing is a creative journey, I believe that dabbling in other genres strengthens my writing.

I’m happy to conclude that writing my dissertation helped me tighten my writing and perfect my writing consistency.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Narrative Structure: the skeleton that holds your story together

Today I'm blogging over at Savvy Authors, talking about the importance of understanding narrative structure in order to give your stories a solid backbone, and to ensure they deliver on your promise to the reader.

The blog post is an introduction to the course on narrative structure I'll be teaching through Savvy Authors for the next month, starting on Monday 12th February.

The entire month-long course is only $40, and for that you receive personalised feedback as well as lessons. This is huge value, and you only have until Sunday night to sign up, so don't delay!

You can find out more about the course and register here: Savvy Authors' Narrative Structure Course.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

A word or two about ROSA’s 2017 guest speaker, Jane Porter

Thank you to ROSA committee member and Strelitzia 2018 mentor Suzanne Jefferies for today's post on her experience at #ROSACon2017, and what she learned from our keynote speaker, Jane Porter.

***

I’ll fess up – I had no idea who Jane Porter was. I’d never read her romances, watched any movies based on her romances, or dipped into the advice she serves up in her ‘how to’s. I had heard of Tule, but was damned if I knew how to pronounce it (rhymes with Julie, who knew?). Yes, she’s an international bestselling author, and a publisher - that you can get from a quick Google trawl. But, stats tell you nothing about the person, Jane Porter. What I didn’t expect was to find someone who stripped me straight to my emotional bones in her frankness, her willingness to share her story, and her reassuring quiet strength; aye, she may be small but she is mighty.

Laying your guts out to the public is probably why writers are such ‘crazy cats’ (to use Jane’s expression). But it’s not often that a writer stands up and says it – no hiding under the covers - to a room full of strangers. Raw, unadulterated, 100% honesty. Is it easy to hear? No. But, for this writer here, it was a turning point. If I can’t be honest about who I am, where I’m from, and the experiences that have shaped me, my stories are probably going to lack authenticity. They won’t reflect ‘me’. For that alone, I’d pay over the odds a million times, to hear Jane speak again.

In both her talks, and in conversation with her, she offered priceless insights into romance writing as a career. A career option, that, let’s face it, is not offered by guidance counsellors. And why shouldn’t we be thinking of writing as a career? How many other careers let you research hot men on the Internet? Not accounting, that’s for sure.

These were some of the biggies:
  1. Grit. Hanging tough. Getting knocked down and getting back up again. These are the things that make a writer. Not talent. Or fancy degrees. Honest to goodness perseverance. How many books till Jane got a ‘yes’? Fifteen? How many of us would give up after one? Two? The publishing world is dark and full of terrors; houses closing down, editors disappearing mid-revisions, unrenewed contracts, books that don’t sell. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and head out there again – that’s how writing careers are forged. Blood, sweat and tears.
  2. Why write a standalone, if you can write a series? Think in threes, in fives, in sevens. Find a theme, a family, a geography, a ‘something’ that can link your stories together. Publishers love this. Heck, as a reader, I love this. I’m still excited at the prospect of another Black Dagger Brotherhood novel – and she’s on what?, book twelve or something? Ditto Gena Showalter.
  3. A publisher would prefer to get more buck for their bang…so maybe stretch those words counts to the forties and fifties. They (the publisher) can charge more. Happiness and beams all round. It also means you might get a few more dollars too. So, if you can write to 25,000 words, extend extend extend.
  4. Pick a genre. Contemporary, paranormal, historical, whatever floats your boat. Don’t start up in contemporary, then drift over to historical, and then maybe a scifi. Romance readers don’t drift – you shouldn’t either. Maybe two at the maximum. 
Every now and then, I’ll remember something else she said, and I’ll write it down; things like how to engage on Facebook and start conversations with fans, or how to recognise alpha men. And then I’ll think how lucky I was that of all the places Jane exchanged to as teen, it was here, South Africa. Sometimes these things aren’t accidents. Thank you, Jane.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

What can our ROSA community do for you?

I belong to a lot of author groups on Facebook (probably way more than is healthy!). Some are super helpful, some degenerate into places where authors just advertise their books to other authors, and some are echo chambers. We strive at ROSA to keep our Facebook group in the first category - a place where we can share publishing news, articles on publishing, and writing advice - and occasionally our members post about their successes so we can all share the joy.

You might think my biggest fear is that the group gets hijacked by authors who pop in to post adverts then disappear again, but actually my biggest fear is that the group becomes an echo chamber.
What do I mean by that?

Echo chambers are places where eveyone agrees with everyone else. Where everyone pats each other on the back and says "congratulations - because you did it OUR way."

From the very beginning, when we founded ROSA, we wanted it to be a place where all writers feel welcome. Irrespective of whether you choose to submit to traditional publishers or whether you want to self-publish, irrespective of whether you're a complete newbie or a multi-published author, you're welcome in ROSA. But I am actually going to add one condition to membership (there had to be a catch, right?)

In order to be a member of the ROSA community, you need to be open to learning and to constructive, calm debate. ROSA isn't just about tolerating those whose paths are different from our own, it is about constantly striving to improve our writing and to up our game.

Even our most established writers tell me that they give back to this community because through giving back they learn. As I've discovered through working as a writing coach, mentors learn as much as those they mentor. No matter where we're at in our journeys, we are open to learning.

This is why it horrifies me to discover just how many writers out there have no interest in learning. They just want to be told how talented, how clever and how right they are. They don't want constructive feedback, they want a pat on the back.

Example: recently, in one of those many Facebook groups I belong to, someone posted that they really struggle with writing synopses, so do they really have to do them? The answers flooded in: "No, of course you don't", and "don't do anything you're not comfortable with", and "how can you possibly sum up your novel in one page?", and "don't query - just self-publish."
The original poster them commented saying: "Thank you all. The last group I was in, they told me if I wanted to get my book published I really needed to write a synopsis, so I left that group."
Um, no.

That seems to be the number one answer in many of these groups: if you don't want to do things the established way, then self publish. And if they tell you something you don't want to hear, leave the group.

An editor asked you to revise your baby? "They just don't understand you. Self pubish!"
A critique group said your female characters are too hard and unlovable (a criticism I often get!), then "who needs that kind of negativity? Leave that group!"
An agent didn't love your book? "What do they know anyway? Self publish!"

I have self-published. I love being a self-published author. I love the amount of decision making control it gives me over my own career, but it is not the answer to all problems. The books I self publish are the equal of the books I've had published by HarperCollins. The only difference is that I chose to self publish them. They still follow all the rules of good writing that I learned over many years of working with editors at traditional publishing houses.

If the quality of your writing is not yet equal to that of your favourite authors, then self-publishing will not save you. It will crucify you. Readers don't care if this is your first book or your 90th (unless they're your friends and family, but are they the only audience you want to reach?)

The readers leaving reviews on your books probably also read Tessa Dare, Alisha Rai and Debbie Macomber, and if your books don't match up to their level of quality, the readers will point it out to you in ways that will make you want to curl up in a little ball and cry.

I promise you, it is way, way better to receive advice and criticism from a small and supportive group of authors who want to see you grow and succeed, than to receive that feedback from the feral reviewers on Goodreads.

So the advice I'd like you all to take forward into this new year is this: stay open to advice. Even if you disagree with that advice, or decide not to take it, at least listen and give it some thought without bashing the person giving it.

If a more experienced writer tells you "you need to learn to write a synopsis", or "romances need happy endings", or "books should have a beginning, middle and end", or if an editor says "you need to make your heroine softer and less aggressive" or "your characters need to be more pro-active; things shouldn't just happen to them," they are not telling you this to be negative. They are not trying to box in your creativity with rules or make your writing formulaic. There might just be a reason they are giving you this advice. If you're not sure what that reason is, ask!

If you are at the beginning of your writing journey and open to learning, and if you are looking for a safe space in which to discuss writing and publishing, please consider joining ROSA. We have a lot of established writers who are willing and eager to pass on what they know - because they're looking to learn from you too!


In our next post, we'll be sharng tips on how to write an effective synopsis, so watch this space!

Monday, January 8, 2018

Feedback from the 2017 Strelitzia Contest: Part Three

In this first post of 2018, we continue our series offering feedback from the 2017 Strelitzia (and Imbali) contests. To read the prevous posts in the series, click here.

The main feedback we had for entrants was to read the instructions!

In this final part of the series of feedback posts from the Strelitzia contest, I'd like to look at something that was more of an issue in the 2016 Imbali Awards than in the 2017 Strelitzias, however since we are changing the length requirements in 2018, I am including this advice here: manuscript length.

In 2018, Strelitzia entries will be limited to the first three chapters, not to exceed 15,000 words.

It is essential that you check the word counts / number of pages / number of chapters requested for the submission. The reason is simple: our judges (for both the Strelitzia and Imbali awards) are all volunteers. They are giving their own (often very limited) time to read the entries. It is very difficult for us to attract a sufficient number of judges if we have to say to them up front “you may have to read five 120,000 word epic novels.” And if we do not have enough judges signed up to ensure that each entry gets at least three separate reads, then we have to limit the number of entries we can accept.

Why do we want every entry to receive at least three reads? Ideally, we'd like each entry read by at least 4-5 judges! Reading preferences are so incredibly subjective. If one reader hates your hero, for example, but another has no problem with him, your score will be pulled right down. But if one reader hates your hero and two others like him, the negative score has less impact. Of course, if three readers all hate your hero, you may need to take the judges’ advice on board and do some further editing!

My final piece of advice has nothing to do with reading instructions or following the rules, but should just be basic, common sense: ensure that the work you submit is the highest quality possible.
  • Study the craft of writing and ensure you understand the basic requirements of a romance novel.
  • Read your submission through thoroughly before you submit.
  • Edit it to the best of your ability - and then edit it again.
  • Get a beta reader to read through it to catch any typos, grammatical errors, misspelt or misused words, before you submit.

This is an award for excellence. In the event that the entries do not achieve excellence, the trophy will not be awarded. ROSA’s own reputation is on the line, and if we were to award the trophy to entries that are riddled with errors, contain plot holes, under-developed characters and conflicts, and are not yet ready to submit to an agent or editor, the entire organisation's credibility will suffer.

We know you can do it. We know you can follow the guidelines, write a synopsis and submit great work. We know you have excellence within you. We just need a little help from you to ensure that the judges see it and reward it

And as we move into 2018, we'll be giving you a little help to get there too!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Feedback from the 2017 Strelitzia Contest: Part Two

Following our highly successful first Strelitzia contest, the organisers and judges have some valuable tips to share with those considering entering in 2018. In my previous post, I shared the most important feedback we received: read the instructions!

In Part One of this series, I discussed our file formatting requirements, and why we have those specific guidelines for the Strelitzia contest. In this post, I'd like to look at the other requirement a lot of our contest entrants struggled with: the dreaded synopsis.

In 2017 a synopsis was only required for those only submitting the first few chapters rather than a completed novel. Believe it or not, that was us letting you off easy! Since many entrants would not have had time between the announcement of our contest and the closing date for entries to complete an entire manuscript, we figured we'd open up the contest to more entrants if they only had to write a 2 page synopsis, rather than another 200+ pages of book.

However, several entrants queried this, asking if they could submit their first few chapters only, but not submit a synopsis. One even opted not to enter at all because of the synopsis requirement!

The synopsis was a non-negotiable requirement of entry, and from next year will be mandatory for all entries.

While it is of course your prerogative not to enter due to the synopsis requirement, the only person you are harming is yourself. Yes, writing synopses is hard. But it is also an essential part of being an author. If you ever plan to become a professional author, you will need to learn to write synopses. Agents and editors require them, and you can’t query them and say “oh, but I don’t like writing synopses, so I haven’t sent you one.” (Well, of course you could do that, but you would be ending your career right there!) Even bestselling, multi-published authors still write synopses - this is how they sell their as-yet-unwritten books to publishers.

Agents and editors require synopses for exactly the same reason we do: to see if the author has a grasp on character development, to see if the characters’ conflicts are sustainable, to see whether the story will be satisfactorily resolved.

No matter how brilliant the prose of your opening chapters, if you do not have a handle on plot or character arcs, you may not yet be publishable, and you certainly should not yet be winning awards. Harsh, but true.

But the converse also applies. If you have a gripping plot, the characters have growth arcs, and the ending is sufficiently satisfying, many editors and agents will overlook a few mistakes and writing that still needs polishing, because they can work with you on polishing the writing to publishable standard.

So do yourself a favour, and write a synopsis. I can promise you, our judges at ROSA are a lot less critical and much easier to please than most agents and editors!

For those who struggle with writing synopses, bookmark this blog, as we'll be posting some helpful tips on how to construct a short 1-2 page synopsis in January 2018.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Feedback from the 2017 Strelitzia Contest: Part One

Following our highly successful first Strelitzia contest, the organisers and judges have some valuable tips to share with those considering entering in 2018.

The first bit of feedback might arguably be the most important: read the instructions! 

The contest rules are not arbitrary. They are there for specific reasons, either to help you, to protect you, or to ensure that the contest is manageable and sustainable.

The requirement of this year's contest which was most frequently broken was the file format requirement. We asked that entries be submitted in Word format. At least half submitted in PDF format, which is a locked and uneditable format. We let it go in 2017, but going forward any entry not received in the requested format will be automatically disqualified, and the entry fee will NOT be refunded.

There are very two very valid reasons why we asked entrants to submit their entries in Word format. It is so that we can cut and paste the entries in order to:
  1. Protect the entrants’ anonymity. We are a small organisation. It is entirely possible that the judges and the entrants may know each other. Therefore, in order to ensure the judging is completely fair and impartial, we cut and paste the entry into a new document, stripping out the author’s name, before sending it to the judges.
  2. Correct the formatting. As your work has not yet been professionally formatted, as the Imbali entries have been, when transferred to another device (eg. to a Kindle or other eReader) some of your formatting may either be irreversibly stuck in place, or become strangely formatted (for example, words cut in half, lines of odd lengths, lines too tightly spaced for comfortable reading). We had two entries this year that suffered this fate. Do you really want your entry to receive a low score from a judge because the formatting affected their reading or understanding of your entry? No? Then trust us to format your work correctly so that your work can be judged on its merits, not on its layout on the page.

I can only imagine that the entrants who submitted in PDF either (a) did not read the submission guidelines, (b) were afraid that ROSA and its judges would otherwise steal the entrants’ work. I'd like to address both concerns.

(a) Not reading submission guidelines is a serious career faux pas. Through your career you will no doubt be submitting your manuscripts many times over to agents, editors and contests. If you do not read and exactly follow their guidelines, you are putting yourself at a serious disadvantage. Most agents will not even consider a submission that hasn’t followed their guidelines.

(b) On the second point, we are a professional organisation, and our judges are career professionals who are already successfully writing their own books. They do not need to steal your work. Furthermore, all our judges sign a contract before they are sent any entries, which clearly states that the copyright belongs to the original author (there is a similar clause in the Ts & Cs for entrants). We have a record of every entry we receive, and we keep track of who is sent what, so in the unlikely event that any judge is unprofessional enough to steal your words, you (and ROSA) would be able to prove plagiarism very easily, which would end that published author’s career. However, if you are still of the belief that the published authors within ROSA are potential plagiarists, then I suggest you do not submit your entry to our contest. In fact, to be truly safe, don’t submit your work anywhere, ever! (Since it's way more likely that you'll be plagiarised after you're published!)

In my next post, I'll look at another contest requirement that appeared to be a stumbling block for many of our entrants: the dreaded synopsis.