What I learned from writing a novel first draft.

Over the summer break, I managed to complete my first draft of my first ever novel. Now that is saying something. For one, that has been a dream of mine for a long time and I have achieved it. Two, I have never written anything as long as this in my life. At just over 34,000 words, it is still a little shorter than I want it to be but I’m just a bit excited. I have completed the first draft of a novel! I know it’s only a first draft and the hard work has yet to really begin, but it is still a milestone in that I have actually achieved what so many people only wish to achieve and never do.

I think what really surprised me was how much I learnt about myself as well as the writing process as I worked on the first draft. So here goes on what I learnt. Maybe you’ve discovered some of these if you have written a novel.

  1. I learnt I didn’t know how to start my novel.

I had completed my Certificate IV in Professional Writing and Editing in the middle of 2018. Whilst my course touched on narratives and fiction, it didn’t really give me a clue as to how to go about starting a novel. I had listened to podcasts and spent a lot of time on Pinterest but still didn’t know how to start. After a bit of time Googling, I discovered Randy Ingerman’s book ‘How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method’ which I downloaded from Amazon. I found this book incredibly useful for getting started.

2. I learnt that it was helpful to have a ‘character bible.’

A character bible is where all the bitsy (but useful) details about the characters get recorded so that when you want to describe character X’s eyes, they don’t change from brown to blue within a few pages.

It was also useful to have a detailed outline of where my story was heading before I started. I guess I’m not a pantser!

3. I learnt that I needed to cast threads forward and make links backwards.

Yep, I have read books where things come out of the blue and it is like ‘I didn’t see that coming!’ Some people would call it foreshadowing. It’s including details that help to prepare the reader for what is coming. Making links backwards, I think, is also very rewarding for the reader. It provides a sense of ‘That makes sense. Yes, I can see how and why the character would do it like this.’

4. I learnt that being a beta-reader is really helpful when you are a writer. (And it helps out a fellow writer.)

I had the honour of being a beta-reader to someone else over the January holidays. The manuscript was for middle-grade readers, so similar in some ways to the audience that I am currently writing for. I found the advice I was giving the other writer, I was filing away in my brain for when I was working on my draft. I would thoroughly recommend being a beta-reader if you are a writer. I learnt a lot.

5. I learnt that I had to work through a lot of fear.

I discovered t here is a constant fear when writing. Sometimes I manage to overcome it and some days it gets the better of me and I struggle to write anything. The fear comes from ‘What if I am not good enough?’ ‘What if no one wants to publish my book?’ Or even funnier, ‘What if they do want to publish my book?’ Sometimes you just have to get over yourself and just write. You can’t edit what isn’t on the page. You also can’t submit a story for publishing that isn’t written down. So just sit down and write.

6. I learnt that there is still so much to learn.

I enjoy learning. I think I would be bored if I knew everything about writing (or teaching or being a parent) at this point in my life. I look forward to finding out what else I can to make my writing better.

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Happy New Year!

It’s been a while…. can I still say Happy New Year in February?

Two weeks ago I was watching ‘How to Train Your Dragon 3’ with my kids at the movies to celebrate the end of the holidays. And the next day, which was a public holiday, I finished my first draft of my first ever novel and spent the afternoon like this:

It was such a lovely way to spend the last day of holidays and for the record, I actually got wet – which was a first for this summer!

School started back on the Tuesday, and I have felt like I haven’t stopped running since. I am still at the same school, but at a different campus which has a very different cohort of students.

So the year has started, and I plan to become more regular around here again. I hope the start of the year has been kind to you too.

Happy 1st of December!

In Australia, we start summer today.  The cicadas are screeching almost non-stop with the onset of warmer weather Melbourne. In true Melbourne fashion though, tomorrow is supposed to be cold again. I have only 11 more teaching days (15 more work days) until holidays and it is one month until 2019. I am feeling pretty excited (despite the end of year exhaustion).

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions because if I struggle to follow through with them, I can feel like I have failed. But I do celebrations of achievements and I do goals. So rather than wait until the end of December, where I am sure I will forget amongst the events of Christmas and New Year, I will acknowledge my 2018 achievements now.

This year I have – 

  • Finished my Certificate IV in Professional Writing and Editing.
  • Had an opinion piece published in Education Review.
  • Written more than 20,000 words towards my first ever novel (this is a huge achievement – I have never written this many words before)
  • Managed to stay married (we celebrate 19 years this coming Wednesday)
  • Managed to launch one child into High School and watched him flourish.
  • Managed to love and support all three of our kids who have different interests and needs.
  • Encouraged and supported our youngest, who has been on crutches for 16 weeks with a slow-to-heal stress fracture.
  • Managed to get work done on our house for mould remediation (its still a mess, but we’re on our way).
  • Survived (sometimes only just) the craziness that teaching brings and even more so when dealing with a special needs student.

I couldn’t have done all of this on my own. I am grateful to family, friends and colleagues and to the One who works all things together for good. Without you all, I might have given up a long time ago.

What would you say your celebrations and achievements would be for this year? Let’s share them with each other.

In Survival Mode

I feel like I have fallen off the edge of the blogging world. It’s been such a long time, that I have only just discovered that WordPress has a new way of doing things and it is taking a while to adjust.

It has been a while since I have posted because life has been about surviving, particularly the teaching part. And for any teachers who read this, teaching takes up a lot of head space when things are going well. When things are not going so well, it takes up even more headspace.

The little chappie that I wrote about in my last blog post who started this term and has undiagnosed special needs is still in my room. He has lasted at our school longer than the Student Welfare Co-ordinator thought he would. The reason for this is that his cognitive assessment has come back putting him in the average range for his age. As for his behaviour… That is where my head space is currently focused. 

Our school insists that we are not a special needs school as our speciality is in teaching English to New Arrivals (to Australia). This thinking then means we do not have easy access to the professional development that we need when a student comes along like mine. So I have no strategies for dealing with really demanding behaviour. The thing that keeps me going is realising that beneath all the misbehaviour is a little person who deserves an education and I hope is loved by his parents. Certainly, at home, my husband has endured many rants and ravings over the last few weeks and there have been a few things that I have had to let slide in terms of what I do at school.

Survival mode at school has involved…

  • Planning lessons that are ‘easy’ and less complicated so they have less chance of going ‘wrong’ when my student misbehaves.
  • Allowing myself to take ‘sick’ days to get a break from him.
  • Allowing other teachers and the assistant principal to deal with this child and get a chance to see what I deal with all the time.
  • Not spending so much time analysing student work in preparation for reports or for further teaching.
  • Not beating myself up over cutting and pasting comments in my end of term reports and then tweaking them to suit the next student.

It has been hard to let things slide because as a teacher, I do want to do the best that I can by my students. I was surprised when doing assessment recently to find one student was a lot lower in her ability than I thought and another student was a lot higher in her ability than I thought. I’ve had to let go of that too.

On the home front survival mode has involved…

  • Booking in massages and chiropractic appointments which have certainly helped with the stress.
  • Trying to go to the gym when I can, even if it is just a 30 minute slow paced cardio session (it has to be better than nothing right?)
  • Writing – I have a novel on the go and the aim was to do about 1000 words a day until report writing came along. Writing has provided a great break as I use a different part of my brain.

There’s only four weeks left of the school term and as we head into the crazy season that Christmas brings I’m sure I’ll be adding other things to my survival repertoire. 

What do you do to ‘survive’ when life gets crazy? I’d love to know.

Term 4 is here – Bring on the next holidays!

I didn’t post last weekend. I was revelling in the fact that it was still holidays and I really didn’t want to have to think about anything at all. I was also oblivious to the student who was about to start in my class on the Monday. This student gave me the most challenging start to the term that I have ever had.

Each new term is like starting a new year at our school. We constantly have new students arriving for their six-month program and students leaving to go to their mainstream schools. You know you’re in for a doozy of a student when the Student Welfare Co-ordinator asks to speak to you about a new student before the term has even begun. That was me last Monday.

So this student started. He immediately stuck out like a sore thumb. His demeanour was distracted and slightly nervous. He has probably the worst buck teeth that I have ever seen which makes it hard for him not to dribble. He has autism-like traits with different sensory issues and behaviours. He has been brought up by grandma and grandpa until now. Now he is living with Mum and Dad who are struggling to know how best to parent him. Thankfully, they are on board and are willing to get some assessments done to see what assistance he needs. At least we are not having to convince them that their son needs some sort of help. We are not a school that typically accepts students with special needs because our focus is on teaching English as an Additional Language but unless he gets a formal diagnosis, he might be staying with us.

He looks like he has the capacity to learn but to throw into the mix, he can be very naughty. He wanted to place paper into the sports bin because it looks like a rubbish bin. He wanted to continue picking flowers in sports time, despite two teachers telling him “No.” He wanted to take his shoes off because they annoyed his feet and he wanted to explore the telephone after I had needed to call the office. He may not have ever had much in the way of boundaries place on him. Certainly, by day four, he had worked out that he needs to speak to me in English. He said something to me in his first language. I just looked at him, even though I knew what he wanted. He looked at me and said, “Toilet, please.”

So in amongst starting a new term (ie. year), adjusting to the start of daylight savings, and having this child who has so many issues, I found last week overwhelming and somewhat traumatizing – to the point of being so exhausted I was numb. I had no ability to sit down and do anything that was relaxing or enjoyable after school because it was like my brain hurt.

When have you ever experienced a crazy week in teaching like this?

Have you ever been exhausted to the point of being numb? I’d love to know that I am not the only one. Let me know.

How do you know when you have ‘finished’?

My students often tell me ‘Finish!’ (Yes, with that grammar and intonation!) when they are writing. Depending on what we are doing (or even my mood) I might look at their work and say “No you haven’t. What about the full-stops and capital letters? What about colouring in your pictures?” (Insert look of horror from them here!) Often though, what my students need to refer back to is the Learning Intentions and Success Criteria of the lesson, or what I expect from them from earlier lessons. They do look surprised when I keep insisting on capital letters and full-stops. Yes, I wanted full-stops and capital letters yesterday and I want them again today! Maybe one day they’ll get it.

As a writer then, how do you know when you have finished? I have found myself wondering this lately as I have discovered that I could tinker with my writing forever and a day.

So I posed this question to some writing friends on Facebook. I had a few quotes without sources given to me:

  • ‘A book is never finished: it’s abandoned.’
  • ‘A book is never finished, it’s just ready.’

 

I also had these ideas given to me:

  • ‘The reader finishes your story, not you.’
  • When beta readers’ feedback is relatively minor or differs with other beta readers only to be a matter of taste.
  • When you can read through your MS without wanting to change much.

One of the responses also mentioned how a published writer confessed to secretly editing her books even after they had been printed!

My colleague, who is an editor, said you can submit your work for publication, but don’t be too precious because an editor will only pull your work apart anyway.

So, how do you know when you are ready to submit your work for publication?

Faber Writing Academy

 

I was going to post this blog post last weekend but then, life happened.

Last Saturday I spent an inspiring day at the East Melbourne Library participating in a Faber Writing Academy workshop run by Jane Godwin.

We learnt about the publishing industry in Australia and different aspects of getting published as a children’s author. Davina Bell, who is a writer and an editor also gave insights into what worked for authors and what editors are looking for. Jane then gave each participant feedback on the manuscripts that we submitted prior to the course.

For the manuscript that I submitted, she recommended that I mock up a little ‘dummy book’ and get a feel for how my pages and text might work together. She also recommended adding more tension to the resolution of my story because she felt it was anti-climactic! And then the next job will be to trial the story on appropriate children and see what their responses will be. She even suggested trying out my story on my EAL students in my classroom and seeing what their responses will be.

Since last Saturday, I have mocked up my story into a picture book (minus the pictures) and I read it to my EAL students on Wednesday. I told them that one day I want it to be a book like the books that they see on our bookshelf. One of my students said: “So you want to be an author?” Yep, I do! Anyway, my students were gorgeous. I asked them to draw or write what they liked best about the story, what they didn’t like and to draw a picture of what they thought the cat (the main character) might look like.

I was surprised by how well they managed to ‘picture’ of what was happening in the story as they are used to being supported by illustrations when it comes to reading. Many of my students had no part that they didn’t like. I can assume that that is good. Either that or they are lazy. 😉

 

 

How do you research whether your writing is ‘hitting’ your target audience?

Let me know.