Posts Tagged 'Kate Forsyth'

Word Clouds

For all the word nerds out there, I thought I’d share with you my new favourite toy. It’s called Wordle. If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s a website that describes itself thus:

Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes.

Sound like fun? Maybe not yet (unless you enjoy typography like me). But here’s where it gets really good: you can copy and paste your entire novel in there and in the blink of an eye you’ll get an analysis of which words appear most frequently. Here’s the word cloud for the junior fantasy novel I developed through the mentorship with Kate Forsyth, called The Black Luck Stone:

Pretty, huh? But it’s not just fun, it’s also useful. You can immediately see which words you use most in your work. The high use words in this novel are the character names (can you guess who my protagonist is?) and many words specific to the world I created (like wight, bloom and prophesy). But there are other words in there I find interesting. Like ‘face’ and ‘eyes’ – clearly character descriptors I rely on. But also ‘like’ and ‘around’. For this word cloud I turned off the appearance of common words such as ‘a’, ‘and’ or ‘it’, but looking at the frequency of those words can also give you a sense of which ones you over rely on. I’ve discovered I overuse ‘but’ and ‘then’ – something I never noticed before, but now that I have I realise it has the potential to drive others bonkers.

For comparison, here’s the word cloud for my junior adventure novel, called Harvey-Potamus Sid: The Not So Adventurous Kid:

Again, the character names are king, but notice any similarities? Eyes and face. Clearly descriptive vices of mine. Even if it doesn’t drastically change the way I edit, it has given me something to consider when I look over my work. And besides, it’s fun, and I don’t need a better excuse to Wordle around than that. Go on then – you know you want to.

Go and have a play


Planning or Pantsing

Rabbit - runI’m updating my website: a slow and laborious process, but I’m getting there. Looking at the ‘writing’ section makes me realise that my writing methods have changed. It’s nice to have those moments in life – a yard stick where you can look back and realise how far you’ve come. I wrote that section 18 months ago, and a few novels on, I’m amazed at just how differently I do things.

I used to be a pantser. I didn’t plot or plan my stories – I used freewriting to muddle my way through a first draft, flying by the seat of my pants. I enjoyed this immensely – the thrill of the chase, the adrenalin at the discovery of a new plot point. I always felt that planning would take this away from me. But in the end it left a mudpit of a manuscript I had to attempt to save in the second draft: characters that were still figuring out who they were, worlds only partly explored, tangled story arcs.

I used to just think this was the way I did things (that it was my ‘style’ of writing), but now I can see that fear was driving it. I was terrified at the thought of planning. What if the ideas didn’t come? What if I sat down to plan and couldn’t think of anything? My inner writing critic (that awful voice that tells you your writing is no good) was strong back then, and could only be silenced when I wrote fast enough to leave it behind. If I stopped to plan, it could paralyse me in an instant. So I was running fast to keep ahead of my fear.

So much has changed. I now trust myself enough that I no longer need to run. After writing so many stories, I know that the ideas will come if I give them time. I trust that I can solve the plot problems that will arise and that the characters will talk to me if I give them space. The biggest epiphany happened about a week ago: I’m now so good at silencing my inner writing critic that he rarely bothers to show up. With my fear now contained to a minimum, I’m free to plan. I love letting the ideas move around my mind for months, asking questions, identifying the plot holes to fill and studying the story arcs. I love prodding the characters to learn their vulnerabilities and determining how the story can best reveal these. I love the intricacies of putting the puzzle together, all before putting pen to paper. I suppose I now understand the demands of ‘story’ more intimately.

Early on in my ASA mentorship, Kate said something that made me think about all this. She commented that you can still experience the thrill of discovery during the first draft when you have planned it. Planning doesn’t take that away, it just makes the process less messy. But I’m still hesitant to describe myself as a planner just yet. I’ve worked out how tricksy this writing process is – just when I think I have myself pinned, I start a fresh project that demands a completely new approach.

So you never know. In a few years time I may be back here saying: “Move over planning, I’m back in the pants”.

ADD in Writing

Rabbit - runI’m not talking about Attention Deficit Disorder (wouldn’t that be a curse for writers, who have to spend many hours at their computers writing and editing?). No, I’m referring to the three narrative parts of any tale: Action, Dialogue and Description. During my mentorship, Kate highlighted the importance of being aware of these three forms of narration, and the way writer’s can use them to create a careful balance.

Often when editing, I’ll come across a long passage that isn’t quite working. When I can’t initially pinpoint why, I usually end up discovering it’s because my ADD balance is out:

  1. Action: when something is happening in the story. This could mean pirates are attacking a school bus, or simply a character is taking their dog for a walk. It can be high action or quiet action. Either way, the characters are DOING something
  2. Dialogue: when the characters are speaking (duh). Dialogue is a wonderful way of using each characters’ unique voice to show their personalities and reactions to others and events. Another reason dialogue is so valuable is because it introduces white space onto the page, breaking up the text and giving readers’ eyes a breather. I don’t tend to include internal dialogue in here because that gets absorbed into other paragraphs. I’d tend to include it in :-
  3. Description: any passage describing the scenery, characters’ appearance, internal thoughts or memories, characters’ reflections on things etc

When analysing a slow passage of my story, I might find I’ve used two pages of straight action and haven’t given the reader any description (ie. a chance to orient themselves). Or maybe the dialogue has gone on for too long and it’s become a bit confusing what is actually happening in the book (ie. the pace has slowed). Too much dense text without any dialogue can be a problem too – have you ever found, when reading, that a book can slow down with too many heavy paragraphs? I find myself flipping pages, scanning for any dialogue, and if it’s too far off I’ll put the book down for the night (there’s nothing worse than losing a reader). I also find it takes me longer to pick the book up again.

When you become conscious of these three narrative techniques, you can actively choose which to use at different points. You can pick the perfect one to heighten the drama or peak the emotional tension. You can create a balance that allows the reader to stay within the story, reeling them in at points and letting them breathe at others in order to absorb all the information.

I’ve certainly come across other ways of breaking down the different narrative structures – anyone got others to add?

Character Profiles

Rabbit - playI used to be one of those writers who groaned at such things.  Looking back, I’m not really sure why.  Maybe because at the beginning of my journey I was just enjoying free writing.  Maybe because back then I’d only just written my first novel, so I hadn’t really realised their value.  Maybe because the mentorship has made me more focussed on the intricacies of plot and characterisation and the craft of writing.  Whatever the reason, now I can’t live without them.

Once I’ve sat with my characters through an entire first draft, it’s time to develop their character profile.  This way, in the second draft I know exactly what’s important to them and their story.  Some people would do this before the first draft, and maybe one day I will too (my techniques keep changing as I become more experienced) but for now that would terrify me.  I’d freeze, because I wouldn’t know what to write.  But after the first draft, I do, because I’ve had the freedom of playing with the characters and learning about them through their experiences and decisions.

Kate gave me a wonderful resource sheet I’ve been using, which includes a set of questions you must be able to answer about each character.  Some of the questions are more physical and descriptive in nature, but my favourites are:

  1. Their best qualities / strengths
  2. Their worst qualities / weaknesses
  3. What do they desire most?
  4. What is their greatest fear?
  5. What kind of childhood did they have?  How does that change their character now?
  6. How will they change through your story?  What lessons do they need to learn?

These questions sound simple enough, but when you have these things clear, your characters will suddenly become 3D.  Back story will naturally thread within their current tale, and they’ll begin to interact with each other in new and fascinating ways.  It also makes it much easier to tighten each scene, making every event in the book reveal things about each character; scenes that test their strengths and play on their weaknesses, or a plot where their greatest fear gets in the way of their strongest desire.  These thing can be used to create a character arc across the story where the reader witnesses your characters change and grow.

What has surprised me the most is question number five.  Strangely enough, this isn’t always something people naturally think about.  Yet whenever I do, suddenly my characters make so much sense to me.  Suddenly it’s clear why they’re anxious and constantly finding things to worry about, or why they’re an extrovert always vying for others’ attention, or why they’re a bully.  This is where the character’s back story suddenly comes to life in my mind, which then naturally weaves into the second draft.

Anyone else use character profiles?  Or have interesting questions to add to my list?

Editing Blues

Rabbit - sitThere’s no point in dancing around it – editing is hard work.  And if right now you’re wondering what I’m talking about – if you’re thinking I’m mad and are telling me through your computer screen that editing can be fun – then either you’re in an earlier stage of ‘fun-fiddly’ editing than I’m talking about, you have selective amnesia or you’re a robot.  Take your pick.

The editing I’m talking about is gritty, finger skinning, brain twisting, eye gouging, painfully hard work.  The editing I’m talking about is the part of the writing journey that will test your commitment to the process.  It will make you question why on earth you want to be a writer (and conveniently forget the joy of new ideas and characters that consume you and and all those lovely butterfly things).  This editing will make you question whether you have it in you.  It will push your brain out your ears.  BUT: I guarantee you that every writer, be they new or experienced, has felt this way.  And probably has experienced all these doubts at some point during each and every book they’ve written.

Based on the above rant, you may well have guessed that I’m going through a tough round of edits.  A few weeks ago I received Kate’s assessment on the latest draft of my mentorship novel, and she bravely, patiently and honestly guided me through how to take my novel into its third draft.  My reaction has nothing to do with Kate or the way she approached it – she has been an absolute dream to work with.  She even invited me to bang my head against a wall, saying this is how she often feels at this point in the editing process.  It’s always nice to know you’re not alone.

Luckily I’m sitting on the cusp of the ‘hard work’ mountain.  After some serious time spent world building, pushing all my major and minor characters further, significant reorganising of the plot points, and detailed (scene by scene) analysis of pacing, I’m almost ready to start the rewrite.  For me, this means I’ve just reached the editing summit and am about to start gloriously frolicking down the other side.  The lure of the writing has been the light at the end of my ‘plotting’ tunnel, and it will be so much easier due to the tooth pulling work I’ve just done.

There’s a great guest post over on Rachelle Gardner’s blog talking about this exact process.  It’s called ‘The Hell Formerly Known as Editing’, and Terry Brennan discusses the editorial process he went through after selling his first book.  He’s refreshingly open about just how tough it’s been.  It’s certainly not for the faint hearted, but we all need a little brutal honesty every now and then.

I know most of the time I need to believe that writing is wonderful and exhilarating and a constant source of joy, but if you’re serious about this (and are aiming for publication), this also needs to be balanced by the knowledge that some bits of writing are just plain hard work.  So, protective gloves on, helmet buckled tightly, safety goggles in place, and back into the fray!

Like Trying to Wash a Cat

I read a great quote today about editing a novel, which said it can be like trying to wash a cat.  I relate to this, which says a lot considering my cat had an irrational fear of water.  Trying to wash her involved thick rubber gloves, a raincoat and plenty of Betadine for treating scratches – which gives you a clear image of how I sometimes find editing.  Luckily I’ve learnt much through the mentorship, which has made this process more pleasant.  The next stage will be the third draft, which Kate has described as working on structure and ‘making the writing sing’.  Parts of it sing a little already, but more of a bad idol audition rather than the polished rock-star performance I’m hoping for.  Anyway, this got me thinking about how the second draft unfolded.

I was lucky enough to have Kate’s experienced and objective eye to assess my first draft, and together we discussed where to take it from there.  The first thing was to identify the target audience – I was on the cusp of two, so we made decisions about whether to slightly simplify the language / world for a junior audience, or increase the stakes to appeal to a mid-grade audience.  After this we looked at what needed working on.  First up was world building: being a fantasy story, the world presented in my first draft was not detailed enough and I needed to get to know my races better.  For this I did lots of daydreaming, brainstorming and mind mapping, one of which appears below:


The next thing I tackled was character consistency: I tend to learn about my characters as I write the first draft, which means they change a lot as I go.  BUT by the end of it I know them quite well.  So I created character profiles for each main character (about 6 all up) which included a number of points about their personality / background, their core strengths and weaknesses, physical traits, and (because I also illustrate) sketches of their face and clothes (which helps with consistent descriptions).  My protagonist’s profile is below:


Lastly I did a detailed plot / chapter plan.  One of the most valuable things Kate taught me was a rule for weeding out chapters that aren’t working hard enough.  Every chapter needs to: 1. Propel the plot forward, 2. Develop character, and 3. Reveal more about the world.  I used these rules to write my plan.  Firstly I scrapped any chapters than were ambling along (more than I’d like to admit).  Then I looked at the skeleton I had: what each leftover chapter achieved and what plot points / character traits were not yet explored fully enough.  After this I made headings of every major event in the book in the order it happened and jotted down a summary under each of how the scenes would fulfil the above rules.  I put it all together along a timeline on a pin board (see below), with coloured paper highlighting major plot events.  Yes, I am a very visual person.  And maybe a little anal, but let’s not be judgmental.


THEN came the re-write.  I used sections of the first draft, but a lot of it was brand new writing.  The detailed plan made it much less scary and the board made it easy to track my progress, which spurred me on.  This whole process took me just under three months and the manuscript increased by ten thousand words.  Not sure what the third draft will look like, but I’m looking forward to finding out…


What Kind of Writer are You?

Rabbit - exclamationSomething that often comes up among writers is the question: ‘What kind of writer are you?’  I used to think the answer was easy – that I had it all figured out.

I was certain I was a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants writer.  All this talk of character profiles, careful plotting and chapter plans kind of freaked me out.  The idea of it all felt stifling.  Where’s the freedom?  The sense of the story unfolding before your eyes?  No, I was certain that when it came to first drafts, I was a free writer.  When writing my first few longer stories, all I had was a main character, an idea of what was important to them, a place to start and a vague place to end.  And it was through the writing that the true story evolved – the twists and turns, secondary characters, all the various plot points, and often even I was surprised by what transpired.  It was exhilarating.

But.  Through the mentorship I’ve been doing with Kate, I have learnt something new about myself.  Where my first drafts are free written, it would appear my second drafts are much more planned.  Suddenly I understood the desire for character profiles and chapter mapping.  And instead of restricting me, it was liberating.  Now that I knew the story, I could pin down what needed to happen in each chapter, who needed to be involved, and how to build the tension and develop a strong emotional and action arc.  It made it so much easier to weed out those chapters that weren’t working hard enough and to do a full rewrite (which had previously terrified me).  So, now I had it down.  I’m a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants first drafter, and a planned-anal-organised second drafter.  Yes?  No.

As it so happens, I just finished the first draft of a new novel … and I was a planned first drafter.  This story required a LOT of research, and involved the character solving puzzles along the way, which were vital to the plot.  So I HAD to know what was going to happen at each point.  While there were still some surprising moments during the writing, I mostly knew exactly what was happening and where the story was leading.

So … I have a new theory on this whole ‘what kind of writer are you?’ business.  At least for me, it would seem that where I once thought my personality directed how I approach a story, it is actually each individual story that demands how it is written.  Who knows how I’ll write the next story.  I’m not even game to guess.

So dare I ask: what kind of writer are you?


About this Blog…

A blog of ramblings about the world of writing and illustrating for children, by an author / illustrator who might just have a thing for rabbits.

Katherine's picture books, 'Squish Rabbit' and 'Brave Squish Rabbit', are out with Viking (Penguin, US) and UQP (Australia). Please e-mail if you would like her to blog about something in particular.

All text & images  Katherine Battersby

Released Sept 2012:


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