Featured

Periods

Why, when, and how to include menstration in your writing

I’ve started sharing some of the feedback I find myself giving regularly to editing clients – this time I’m chatting about PERIODS. Search for #EditingTipsFromAnna on Twitter to find other topics.

Disclaimer number one:

Previous clients – please don’t worry that I’m talking about you. I will NEVER reference specific stories and I only share topics that I find myself returning to on several occasions.

Disclaimer number two:

Apologies to any Americans out there who have gotten overexcited about a thread about the little dot at the end of a sentence. Sorry – but today I’m chatting about MENSTRATION in novels.

This is something I’ve given feedback to clients about numerous times, but always with the caveat at this is an area that is frequently overlooked and ignored in all kinds of published books (and films and TV series).

Who knows why this is? I have a few theories – periods are still the kind of thing we should whisper about, so why would we want to mention them in novels? Periods are a bit icky and dirty, so should be dealt with in silence. Women should be sex-ready machines, so this monthly break many of them take from intercourse is unacceptable.

Just in case it’s not clear – I think all of this is total bullshit. Periods are natural and are a regular part of life for a huge part of the population. Yeah, they can be painful and unpleasant – but that makes it even more important that we include them in our stories and tackle the tough stuff in an authentic way.

However, please don’t beat yourself up if you’re struggling to include periods in your writing. When something is being systematically ignored it can feel unnatural to buck the trend, even when what you want to add into your stories is something undeniably natural that desperately needs to be normalised.

But wasn’t it incredible when a bloody tampon was shown in Michaela Coel’s fantastic ‘I May Destroy You?’ I was so pleased that the ‘period sex’ song was included in ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.’ These moments hold power because they’re breaking down taboos and shedding light on an area that’s still being held in darkness.

I still struggle to think of examples of books that tackle periods in a realistic and honest way. ‘Blood Moon’ by Lucy Cuthew and ‘Diary of a Confused Feminist’ by Kate Weston are both fantastic examples, but we need far more.

Growing up, I didn’t read a single book or watch any TV show or film that even hinted at someone having a period. It meant that when I started menstruating, I was poorly educated about it and felt totally alone. I think we’ve come a long way in the past few years, but there is still work to do. I would hate for any young person or not-so-young person to feel the way I did about my periods for a hell of a long time – that they were weird and a shameful monthly pain that couldn’t be spoken about.

I want to be part of breaking down this stigma. I hope you do to. I’ve compiled a few questions to help you decide whether periods could be included in your story and how to do this in an authentic way…

QUESTION ONE: Could your character be having periods?

Firstly, have a think about the age of your main character. If they are, roughly, over 10 and under 50 years of age, then they could be having periods.

Secondly, have a think about the sex of your character. Remember, it’s not just women who have periods, and not all people who present as female have periods either.

I don’t often think about my character’s genitals but when thinking about properly representing people who have periods, it’s really important to. If your character has a womb and a vagina, then they could be having periods.

QUESTION TWO: Is your novel set over a stretch of time when a period could occur?

On average, periods happen every 28 days. Now, this varies from person to person and from month to month, but you can use it as a general rule. So, if you’ve got a character who could be having periods and your novel is set over a more than 21 days, it would be reasonable to expect menstruation to be mentioned in one way or another.

They might be on the last day of their period on their first day at a new school, so some of their brain is taken up by wondering where the nearest toilets are and whether they’ve remembered tampons. Or they might start crying more than they normally would and realise, as they solve a murder, that they are due on soon.

Even if you decide that your character is on some kind of contraception (remember, there are way more options than the pill), they may still have a monthly (or in some cases more regular) bleed.

QUESTION THREE: How would being on a period/contraception affect your character?

For some people, their period or bleed is just something they need to account for and remember to buy pads or some paracetamol. Bless these people. However, for others, it is an EVENT.

Personally, I have headaches and gut ache for about three days before my period. I’m also incredibly emotional and irritated easily. I have a weird burst of energy the day before my period starts, and then come crashing back down to earth. I have to take three different types of medication to keep my periods to a manageable pain level, and even then I often feel sluggish and can’t stand for too long. This lasts for about three days, but bleeding lasts for up to seven.

This is not an extreme example. Think of anyone with a chronic illness like ME or MS, and all these symptoms (and more) could be exacerbated. If you’ve got a character who can have periods, then you need to think carefully about how this will affect them on a regular basis.

And this problem isn’t magically solved if you decide they’re on contraception (and remember to mention them taking the pill if that’s the route you go down). Some people do report lighter or even no bleeding when on contraception, but this is not always the case.

This is the point when you might have to do some research or find a trusted friend and ask some questions. I honestly believe the work will be worth it. If we can talk truthfully about how periods affect all different kinds of people, then we can lift stigma and misplaced shame.

One other thing to remember is that people think about their period even when they’re not bleeding. They might have it marked on their calendar or have to remember to get in pads on the weekly shop. It’s a regular part of many people’s lives that they think about regularly. And there might be extra things going on in their life that makes their period hold more emotional meaning. Do they feel under pressure to have a child or are they struggling to find a well-paid job? These circumstances (and many others) add a whole other layer to starting a period.

QUESTION FOUR: What genre are you writing in?

Depending on your answer to this question, your approach to describing periods will vary drastically.

If you’re writing historical, then you’ll need to do some research not only into how people managed bleeding each month, but how society treated people at these times. If you’re writing sci-fi you could have some nanobot that stops periods, but does it have any side-effects? Fantasy could be fun – what ways would other creatures menstruate and how would it be treated culturally? It’s particularly important to speak openly and practically about menstruation in YA, as your main audience will still be forming opinions about what’s happening with their bodies and the bodies of those around them. If you’re writing a rom com, where sometimes the ultimate aim is to get busy, then you’ll need to think carefully about how you write about periods. When will your character have one, and how will it affect their relationship with their partner? How do they feel about having sex whilst menstruating?

I really hope this blog has been helpful! Let’s work together to write beautiful stories that celebrate human beings exactly as we are, not as some strange, sterilised ideal. Let’s acknowledge the secret things that need to be brought into to the light and help readers know they are not alone.

To keep up-to-date with my writerly news, editing slots, and courses, sign up for my monthly newsletter 🙂

Giving Feedback

Giving feedback to other writers on their stories is such a rewarding and beneficial thing to do. It not only gives them a boost and sharpens their skills, but it will also hone your writing practice. Partnering with other writers will give you friends that understand the highs and lows of creating imaginary worlds and trying to make them make sense on paper. Essentially, it’s just a great thing to do!

However, we’ve all had those people read our books who make those kinds of comments. It may have been someone you loved who was totally well-meaning but didn’t understand your vision and kept making distracting suggestions. Or maybe it was a more experienced writer who littered their advice with so many shoulds, musts, and alwayses (totally a word), that it felt like they were proclaiming rules rather than making suggestions. And you may have had some advice that simply didn’t make sense – it was vague and confusing.

This kind of feedback helps no one. It makes the writer feel confused and can create a block for further creativity, and it will alienate them from the feedback-giver. Let’s not be those people!

I love giving feedback to other writers – so much so that I do it for a living – and I try so SO hard to make sure that the critique I give is helpful and practical. I want my editing reports to be a launch pad for writers to dive into their stories and make them shine. And, understandably, I’m equally passionate about other writers honing their skills as feedback-givers so that we are all lifting one another up.

Below are my top tips for giving constructive feedback and avoiding the pitfalls.

BE KIND

Always, always, always.

Someone has trusted you with their book baby. Or maybe they’re not as dramatic as me, but they have at least trusted you with something they’ve worked really darn hard on. That deserves gentle handling.

Even if there are major issues with a story, make sure to point out the great stuff they have done too. Frame any negative feedback with practical advice and reassurance that you can work through the problem together if they’d like to.

Some of this is around wording – which is so important when giving feedback. Telling someone that a scene was boring is mean and unhelpful, telling them it was a bit slow and that they could tighten the dialogue is kind and gives them something to work on.

An aspect of kindness when giving feedback is being thorough. Vagueness is unhelpful and, at worst, can be interpreted as disinterest. Tell the storyteller everything that jolted you out of story, every time a character shone and made you smile, all the odd moments when the plot seemed to fizzle out – but always do it with kindness.

Kindness is the blanket that covers all the feedback I give to editing clients. Yes, I will point out the flaws and issues in a story but I will also help writers to see the way to improve and I will always tell them all the stuff they are really great at. Feedback should give people things to work on, but if it’s delivered with kindness then they will leap into those revisions with renewed energy and a smile on their face.

BE HONEST

Kindness shouldn’t be confused with niceness. A nice person wouldn’t tell you anything that was wrong with your story. They would let you believe it was utterly flawless to avoid having to tell you something you might not want to hear.

Kindness means that issues are raised, but in a non-confrontational, humble way. A problem is spotted and it’s talked through without judgement or blame, but is honestly pointed out and explained.

Niceness means that a story will stay stagnant, but kind and honest feedback will help the story soar and the writer develop their skills.

An important part of being honest is being specific. It’s important to tell another writer they lost you when explaining the layout of their extremely important and very convoluted castle, but unless you can tell them exactly when and how they lost your interest then the comment can feel a little unhelpful.

This is often a point, when I’m reading client’s work, that I might have to set it aside for a bit. Sometimes, when you’re reading a story, it’s hard to figure out exactly what’s becoming jarring or causing it to slip from your grasp. A bit of time away usually helps me to figure out that it was the moment when measurements started being used to tell me about the bricks of the castle (so the writer was perhaps trying to show off too much of their research), or it was that I didn’t understand why I was being told about the castle in such rich detail (so I didn’t feel informed about the character’s aims and how the castle fit into them).

But sometimes, you will simply be unable to tell the writer exactly what doesn’t feel right. You’ll just know that something doesn’t fit. In these cases, I’d suggest giving as much detail as possible and making sure to reiterate that this is how it feels for you – it may feel totally different for other readers.

That’s one important thing to remember as you’re giving feedback – everything you’re saying is informed by who you are. You might find a character totally unrelatable or think a situation is unbelievable, but that may not be the case for other people with different experiences to you. This is one reason that giving feedback needs to be done in gentle way, because you could be totally wrong. Actually, for some readers, that character would feel like a blueprint of their mum or the situation might feel uncomfortably real.

This is why it’s best to honestly acknowledge your limitations as a feedback-giver. We can’t know everything, so some feedback needs to be given with the caveat that you actually don’t know much about this type of person/setting. This is when suggesting a sensitivity/authenticity reader might be best – as they have lived experience that can really enrich a story and make characters real.

REMEMBER IT’S NOT YOUR STORY

I craft what I hope are incredibly thorough and honest reports for my editing clients. I throw everything I’ve got at them, give them the best of my knowledge and understanding of how stories work, and provide workable examples of how to write themselves out of any issues that have cropped up. I talk specifics, and make sure I’m driving in the direction they want to go for this story. Kindly and honestly, I tell them all I think they are great at and point out those things I think might need to change.

But before all that, I tell them to feel free to totally ignore everything I say.

I say this first because it’s super important. As soon as someone asks for your advice about something, you’re put into a position of trust and power. They trust that you won’t steer them wrong, but you have the power to do so.

I recognise that I am a flawed individual and I will not always give perfect feedback on stories. It’s really important to acknowledge this. I will give feedback that I believe will help improve the story, but the only person who can really figure out if it should be taken on board or not is the writer.

This is their story, and it needs to be told their way.

So it might be frustrating if you keep giving a critique partner the same advice and they’re just not listening, or you might think of the perfect plot twist to end a friend’s novel but when you tell them about it they just shrug – BUT that is their right. They are the writer – they are in total control. All we can give are suggestions, we can’t make demands.

Let’s build up other writers. When giving feedback, let’s be kind and honest, and always remember that it is their story, and they can do whatever they please with it.

This post links to another I’ve written about receiving feedback well. You can read that here.

To keep up-to-date with my writerly news, editing slots, and courses, sign up for my monthly newsletter 🙂

September Reads

Two stonking crime books take the top spots this month – they couldn’t be any more different OR brilliant…

We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker left me reeling. It was days before I could pick up another book because anything else would be an utter disappointment after reading something so beautifully written and completely absorbing. Told from the alternating points-of-view of an unwell small-town police officer and a teenage girl trying to protect her brother from her mum’s neglect (both of whom you can’t help but love), this story will grip you from the first page and won’t let go. I’ll be recommending this to everyone for a long time – go out and read it now!

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman won’t disappoint fans of his debut. It’s rich in his humour and wonderfully unique way of making even an evil diamond thief seem human. Osman’s books are like a hug – if that hug is being given by four elderly crime solvers who really would rather check out a bloody crime scene than play Scrabble. Lines will leap out and make your heart clench with sadness, but overall I recommend Osman’s book for a cosy afternoon by the fire.

As always – read them all and we can be chums 😊

To keep up-to-date with my writerly news, editing slots, and courses, sign up for my monthly newsletter 🙂

Valley

How I parted ways with my agent

This is a long one, and a very personal one. I’ve tried to provide action points and comfort, but sometimes life is just messy and hard. I hope that showing you some of my mess is helpful.

I want to tell the truth about this, because I’ve gotten fed up of not doing so. This lack of authenticity is grating on me. It’s making me feel like what I’m going through is shameful and should be hidden, when in fact I think it’s incredibly common but we feel we shouldn’t talk about it.

In April, I parted ways with my agent.

There. I’ve said it. Saying it doesn’t make me feel good, in fact it still feels massively shit.

Friends, very rightly, advised me not to speak about this openly when it first happened. I was completely devastated, reeling in shock for months. I spent a whole weekend crying, and weeks afterwards unable to write anything new. I clung to my writing friends (who are the most beautiful individuals in the world), who kept gently telling me to take my time, that my writing would come back to me, and sent me gifts that made me cry all over again.

They weren’t ashamed of what had happened to me, they didn’t want me to hide, but they knew that working through this would take time. Sharing what had happened immediately would have been brutal. I couldn’t have coped with people’s kindness, or with their censure. I couldn’t have held hands with anyone else that was experiencing the same.

I needed to huddle into myself, hold myself tight. I had to grasp onto the things that remained – my love of books, my wonderful friends and family, long walks and even longer cries.

And I guess that’s the first thing I want you, if you’re going through a similar experience, to hold onto – it’s okay to not talk about it for a while. It’s okay to comfort yourself however you need to. BUT, that doesn’t mean you need to stay silent forever, and you don’t need to be ashamed.

There is so much secret pain in the realm of submitting books, either to agents or publishers. This secrecy breeds shame. I know I’m not the first person to speak about this, and I really hope that I’m not the last. There is no need to bear these wounds to the world if you’re not ready, and some of us may never be, but telling your story, letting others know that what’s happening is common and normal and no reflection at all on their talent – that’s incredibly powerful and validating.

So I’m going to tell you my story.

A disclaimer first though. At no point am I going to name my agent. I’m rather hopeful that most of you will have forgotten who they were. And this is because I really don’t feel like what’s happened was their fault. They had their part to play, but so did I. There were things I should have spotted along the way, and there were things we both should have been more honest about. They are also a genuinely lovely person and I wouldn’t want my experience to put anyone off submitting to them – they are a champion for their authors (and continue to be for me), and our parting was a painful but necessary eventuality.

I’m not telling their story. I’m telling my story. This is the tale of someone who thought they had got their happy ending, but was having to ignore a whole lot of flashing red lights to keep up the illusion.

I submitted my first book to agents and got over 100 rejections. I submitted my second and got around 40 rejections. Didn’t have quite the same stamina for that one. I didn’t submit my third book at all, didn’t feel like it was query ready, but I did book an agent one-to-one.

That agent fell in love with my book. They asked for the full and offered representation. I met with them in their offices in London and talked through our vision for this project. We signed the papers, and started editing.

And that’s where it started to go wrong, at least on my end. I asked all the right questions before I signed so felt like I was clear about where this book was headed, but I didn’t have a detailed edit report from my agent about the things they felt needed changing. I got that a little while later, after we signed, and it was gutting. There were some concerns raised that were incredibly valid and helpful, but there was also a gap that had formed between my vision for this novel and theirs.

My novel was a VERY quiet YA story about two boys who fell in love against the backdrop of the end of the world. Despite that setting, it was never going to have explosions or moments of intense peril. It was about two boys finding the best in themselves and each other, and delved into the difficulties of loss and trauma.

It became clear, in that edit report, that this was not what my agent wanted my book to be. Instead of challenging their ideas, pushing forward my vision and being clear about the limitations of where I felt this story could go, I kept quiet. I thought that perhaps I could keep both of us happy.

The pandemic saved me, in a way. When COVID hit, I felt incredibly uneasy about writing a story based after most of the human population had been wiped out by an infectious disease. So we parked it, and moved onto other projects. Over the next year, I produced two more stories for my agent to read. Both of them were too quiet, too strange, too sad.

So many big red warning lights. So much blackout fabric needed to keep them from interrupting my desperate attempts to please my agent and somehow keep my integrity in my writing.

I came up with a new way to end the world (in my story!), so early this year we returned to the original novel they had signed me for. I reworked it as best I could, added more drama (as much as I was comfortable with, but more than I wanted), and polished up the voice.

I want to pause here to chat about two things before I go on to talk about breaking with my agent, as that is a whole horrible thing all on its own and I don’t want it to distract from a couple of things that I could have done differently and perhaps gotten a different outcome. That outcome might have been that I didn’t sign with my agent in the first place, but I genuinely feel that would have been less painful than losing one.

  1. I asked all the right questions, but I could have been more patient – I had read all the blogs, I knew what I had to ask. What will happen if this book doesn’t sell? Do you want to represent me for all my stories or just this one? How do you see us working together? Where do you see this book going? Who are you thinking of submitting to? And they gave all the right answers. What I didn’t do was wait until I had a comprehensive report on where they felt this novel was going. I wanted to work with this agent because they had extensive editorial experience and I knew they would make my stories as strong as they could be before we went to publishers, but I really should have waited to see what changes they wanted made before I signed with them. This would have gone against the grain, as getting an agent is the main goal so as soon as they put the paper in front of you then SIGN IT, but it would have saved me a lot of pain. I would have, perhaps, attempted a rewrite, but it would have become clear, to both of us, that my writing was never going to get to the place they wanted it to. That would have been hard, but this business is so subjective and I could have gone on to find someone who would love my sad little stories. So I guess my advice here is to make sure that you and your agent are 100% on the same page with where you want your story to get to and what the heart of it is
  2. I was far too in awe of my agent to be honest – I think this is a common problem. We try so desperately hard to get an agent that once we have one, we have to keep them happy and make sure that we continue to be what they want. I didn’t tell my agent that I was shocked by the edit report, I didn’t speak out for my quiet stories, and I didn’t fight for the heart of my writing. So, if you can, be brave. Talk to your agent honestly and openly. Don’t try too hard to please them

These are both lessons that I will carry forwards to when I next have that exciting conversation with an agent. I’ll be way more honest, patient, and exacting. I’ll want to know specifics, and I won’t move forward until I have them.

Now for the painful part.

I rewrote my story, making it as dramatic and exciting as possible. I felt, in some ways, that it was better. I had greater clarity about the characters and I fell back in love with their awkwardness. But I also felt like the story was getting away from me. There were elements I didn’t like. I could see clearly where I could ramp up the drama even more, but I didn’t want to. That wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. But I felt like I had wandered from that as well.

Hoping for the best, I sent it off to my agent. We had agreed a date for feedback, and on that day they sent me an email that crushed me. They were honest and as kind as they could be, but told me that the story simply wasn’t getting to where they felt it needed to be and that they didn’t feel that they were the right person to represent me anymore.

I had to read the email twice before I understood. Then I started sobbing. I couldn’t get the words out, so my husband had to read the email to understand what had happened. He held me as I cried for a very long time.

I felt like an utter failure. I thought this was the end of my writing career. I was heartbroken – someone I thought was with me for life had monumentally let me down. I hated myself, hated my writing. I felt like the biggest reject ever. I thought I was a loser.

It was a horrible weekend. It was a tough week. It was a hard month.

Talking to my agent helped. I aired the things that had really hurt me, we chatted about what had gone wrong right from the start, I began to understand that this decision was prompted by forces outside of our control, and we chatted about next steps. I want to be clear and say that although this experience has completely knocked my confidence and saddened my very deeply, I do not blame my agent or feel badly towards them. They have always acted with kindness and generosity, but this is an incredibly tough business we are working in.

Quiet YA stories were a hard sell before the pandemic, they are an even harder sell now, and it had become apparent to my agent that I simply was not going to be able to write the story they saw mine becoming. I truly believe that I eventually would have come to the same conclusion – that we weren’t quite the right fit for one another. They might love my writing, but my stories couldn’t get to where they wanted to sell them in a difficult market.

I had a really tough few months, things are still pretty tough if I’m honest. I ditched everything I was working at the moment I split with my agent and leapt into editing something new, something I knew they wouldn’t have been interested in. I have to say, that felt very liberating. My confidence is still low and I think it will be for a while yet, but I’ve managed to start writing something new. Two new things, in fact.

I thought I would write this blog post when I was at the heady heights of having a new agent. I believe that will happen, someday, but I don’t think I’m going to be trapped in the valley until then.

I really believe that I was in freefall towards the bottom before I got that gutting email. I may have smashed into the rocks then, things may have seemed very dark, but they’re not anymore. Almost immediately, dragging one leg behind me and one arm hanging uselessly, I started to pull myself up the other side.

I don’t care if I’m labouring this metaphor. I’m climbing up the other side of the valley. I’ve made it a good way up. I can see flowers and light. The air is fresher and my hurts are healing.

I didn’t want to talk about splitting with my agent only once I had the perceived happy ending again. I wanted to write about it when it was still raw. I didn’t want to feel ashamed anymore. What has happened to me, and countless others, isn’t shameful. It’s okay to feel sad and broken. But I hope you’re able to pick yourself up. I hope you’re able to climb out of the valley.

This is still pretty hard to talk about, and thank you for indulging me in my ramblings. I hope they are helpful. I want to finish by saying another final thank you to my friends, wonderful husband, and all the other kind people who have stood with me in this tough time. You have carried me more than you know.

I always felt we should write for the love of it. I feel that more than ever now. Writing is my solace and my joy, let it be yours too.

To keep up-to-date with my writerly news, editing slots, and courses, sign up for my monthly newsletter 🙂

August Reads

A summary of my August – had two weeks off work, got pinged, read all the books instead of seeing people. Here are my faves…

Any Way The Wind Blows by Rainbow Rowell completes the Simon Snow trilogy, and what an ending it is. I don’t want to say too much because of spoilers, but it was everything I wanted it to be and, in a world that’s been full of grimness for while, it was lovely to read a book that had drama and mystery but also found family, dealing realistically with mental illness, and loads of cuddles. All the characters are in their twenties in this final volume, and it’s been great fun watching them change and grow from angsty teens to perhaps-slightly-less-angsty young adults.

Hail Mary by Andy Weir blew me away. It’s got the classic opening of someone waking up in a room with no idea who or where they are, but with the twist of them being a scientist on an Earth-saving mission alone on a space ship. I’m not science-y but even during the geeky moments explaining how a sun-eating alien works, I was hooked. I actually struggled to put this down – it was so compelling. If you liked The Martian (film or book!), then you’ll love this.

The Comfort Book by Matt Haig is a hug in book form. I read it in one go on a rainy morning, and I will be returning to it any time I need a boost. Matt Haig speaks from a place of experience and compassion about the dark moments we all suffer with. I’d recommend keeping it beside your bed and dipping into it whenever it’s needed.

Below is one of my favourite parts of The Comfort book, but read them all and we can be chums 😊

To keep up-to-date with my writerly news, editing slots, and courses, sign up for my monthly newsletter 🙂

Very Exciting Prologues

I’ve started sharing some of the feedback I find myself giving regularly to editing clients – this time I’m chatting about VERY EXCITING PROLOGUES.

People say that prologues are a little bit like marmite – readers (and agents/publishers) either hate them or love them. I want to add a little caveat to this because, yeah, there are some people who just hate prologues. No matter how well-written they are, no matter how necessary, these readers aren’t going to be pleased. If they find one in a book, they are likely to either skip it or put the book down. However, most people actually quite like a prologue that NEEDS to be in the story. What readers (and agents/publishers) don’t like is a prologue that’s unnecessary.

I see A LOT of unnecessary (but usually very exciting) prologues in my client’s stories. And they are all there for one reason: LACK OF CONFIDENCE. I always ask my clients if there is anything in particular that they want me to look at when I’m reading their words. As soon as they ask whether the prologue works/is needed, 99% of the time I know the answer before I’ve read it. It’s NO, just in case that wasn’t clear.

VERY EXCITING PROLOGUES usually take two forms, and they both have their potential downfalls:

  1. A flash forward
  2. A distracting subplot

I want to state right here before I go on to chat about some of the common issues that I’ve seen with these types of prologues that there are ALWAYS exceptions to the rule. Your prologue might work AMAZINGLY.

BUT, if you’ve included it because you’re scared the start of your story isn’t exciting or grabby enough, then it may not be working in the way you think it is. It would be worth interrogating its place in your story to make sure it’s truly essential.

I’ve seen a few of FLASH FORWARDS recently in my client’s work, and they make an INCREDIBLE start for the story. We are launched into high-stakes action, the characters are fully realised and engaging, the writing is often pacey and fluid…

And then we return to the start of the story. The pace drops. The characters are weird and awkward and don’t know how to do anything. There are no stakes yet, and I don’t care about anything that’s happening. The intention of the flash forward is to capture the reader’s interest, and it does, but it also means that when we wind back to the start of the story we do so with an ugly bump. We already know where the story is going to go, so the journey feels less fun. All those bumbling attempts that the main character makes to find their way that could be endearing and tension filled aren’t because the reader already knows where the character will get to.

Flashes forward can feel like a good idea because you get to showcase the very best of your story/writing, but I would argue that they leech tension and excitement from the rest of the story. If you’ve got a flash forward, pay particular attention to how the pace changes when you switch back to the start of your story. Do you keep the drama and stakes high, or is there a sudden drop? Is there some way you can inject tension into those first chapters to keep reader interest high? And have a think about how much of the story is spent working up to the moment of the flash forward. It will be in the back of readers minds, so if it’s at the very end of your story, that’s a long time to expect them to retain interest in stakes when they already kind of know what’s going to happen.

I’m a little bit brutal and love killing darlings, so I generally advise axing this kind of prologue. If you’ve written a super exciting climax to your story, don’t give the game away by revealing it at the start of your story!

And don’t feel like you can’t make the beginning of your story exciting in some other way. I know everyone talks about how slow starts are of the devil and readers have NO tolerance for them, but you don’t have to rush to the most exciting part right away to even have a chance of anyone reading your book. This is particularly scary in children’s fiction, but let’s give kids a little credit. Yes, they have fast paced lives now but they also have peaceful moments and we can encourage this through our writing. Attention spans may be shorter, but they aren’t non-existent. Something needs to happen early on in your story, but don’t feel like everything needs to.

A DISTRACTING SUBPLOT is another common prologue. It often comes in two forms – a flashback or something totally distinct from the main story. These often use characters who aren’t directly involved in the main story.

They are, again, VERY EXCITING but they are distracting. By using a prologue like this, you’re essentially asking readers to invest in your story twice. First, they have to care enough about the characters in the prologue, and then they have to meet a whole load of new people in the actual story and care for them as well.

This kind if prologue is often used because writers aren’t sure how to tell the readers something without it. It might be the origin of the hero or some worldbuilding that the plot depends on, and this can be hard to wedge into a story naturally. And I want to say again, that these kinds of prologues can work. We just have to keep in mind the additional investment we’re asking of readers and try to mitigate that in any way we can.

I would advise keeping prologues like this short so that you can get on with the story as soon as possible. Introduce as few characters as you can and make them engaging but not too sympathetic – you don’t want readers to feel annoyed when they drop off the radar.

If you’re feeling brave, cut the prologue. Wedge the information in somewhere else (in lots of dribs and drabs if possible!) and get some new reader eyes on it. Ask them if they feel any information is missing or if they were confused by anything, and add in bits of info where you need to.

BUT I want to say again that both of these kinds of prologues can work really well! One great example of the FLASH FORWARD are all the stories in the Frost Files series by Jackson Ford. These all begin with incredible action sequences and then backtrack to how the characters got themselves into these tricky situations. These flash forwards work because they are pretty short, and they don’t move too far into the future. We generally only backtrack to how they came to be falling out of a window or involved in a car chase, so there’s not too much ground to go back over. We quickly get to the moment of the flashforward and can move on with the story. They are fun and chaotic and engage readers in the story, they are quickly explained, and then we move on.

Subplot prologues can be used incredibly effectively. Especially in first person or close third person stories – you might need to show something that the narrator/main character couldn’t have known about/witnessed, and there might be something to establish that’s pivotal to the plot.

It’s your story, you can do whatever you like! But ask yourself – is my prologue ESSENTIAL to the story? If not, axe it!

To keep up-to-date with my writerly news, editing slots, and courses, sign up for my monthly newsletter 🙂

July Reads

My reading has sloooowed down in recent months, but July was full of books that brought me joy no matter how long it took me to read them…

Toby and the Silver Blood Witches by Sally Doherty is a phenomenal debut by a lovely writer who I am privileged to call a friend. It’s got fantastic ME representation, a witch with the best dress ever (she can tear bits off of it and it looks as fabulous as always!), and an exciting story of good verses evil that will leave you wishing for more. Which is handy, as this is the first in a series. Great for children aged 8 to 12, and since this is my buddy’s book I’m going to leave the link to buy right here 😊

You’re The One That I Want is Simon James Green’s best yet. I will always pick up his books when I want a smile on my face and a story about authentic teens, and his latest story doesn’t disappoint. Think Pride and Prejudice with teenage boys and lots of theatrical antics. I recommend for any fans of fun YA – you’ll be grinning until the last page with this one.

As always, read them all and we can we chums, okay?

To keep up-to-date with my writerly news, editing slots, and courses, sign up for my monthly newsletter 🙂

Fat Shaming

What is it? Why is it harmful? How can we spot it in our stories?

I’ve started sharing some of the feedback I find myself giving regularly to editing clients – this time I’m chatting about FAT SHAMING. (Search for #EditingTipsFromAnna on Twitter to find other topics.)

Disclaimer number one:

Previous clients – please don’t worry that I’m talking about you. I will NEVER reference specific stories and I only share topics that I find myself returning to on several occasions.

Disclaimer number two:

This blog has been a slightly long time coming as I wanted to frame it carefully. I don’t think I know everything and I’m not shouting this down from a high horse or some weird moral high ground. I am a flawed individual (we all are!) but fat shaming is something I’ve seen creeping into more stories I work with, and I wanted to chat a bit about it.

As with every kind of representation, we can all do better. I’m not saying I’m perfect or always get this right, and I don’t think you should beat yourself up if you don’t either. What we can do is recognise where we fall short, then try to do better. I really want the world to be full of outrageous and adventurous stories, ones that show a range of people and do as little harm as possible. I guess that’s what this blog, and the feedback I give to clients around this area, is all about. Let’s do less harm. Let’s represent people fairly. Let’s build a kinder world.

Disclaimers over! So, what the heck is fat shaming?!

Simply put, it is an action or depiction that humiliates or judges someone based on their size. This is something I hope we can all agree we would rather see less of in all areas of life, but I’m going to talk specifically about how this works in stories.

Fat shaming in novels falls into two broad categories – overt and covert. Overt shaming would include characters purposefully mocking fat people, unchallenged slurs, and exaggerated descriptions. This doesn’t crop up so much. What is much more prevalent (and I would argue pervasive and harmful) is covert fat shaming. Sadly, I see this a lot in both the novels I edit and those I read from reputable publishers.

Covert fat shaming plays into a lot of harmful stereotypes that are being very slowly debunked, but there is still a long way to go. A lot of us unconsciously absorb harmful beliefs towards fat people and this then comes out in how we represent them in our stories.

Basically, I’ll say again, don’t beat yourself up if you find covert fat shaming in your stories. It is EVERYWHERE and it’s super hard to get this stuff right all the time. Recognise your missteps, correct them, and move on.

Covert fat shaming often falls into four categories…

1. THE FAT CHARACTER IN A NOVEL IS THE LEAST DESIREABLE/INTELLIGENT/SELF-CONTROLLED

Here, fat characters will be described as ugly and will not be sexually attractive or even seen as a viable person to have a romantic relationship with, they will make obviously silly comments and be the butt of jokes, and they will cause problems with their lack of control.

Sadly, I read a published novel recently in which the only bigger character was annoying to all the slender characters, and they were socially unaware. They were a chore for the other characters to deal with and, in a novel of great character depth, the fat character was a flat caricature.

I’m not saying that fat characters cannot be annoying or lack self-awareness BUT if your only large character is displaying one or more of these character faults then this is falling into harmful stereotyping.

One way to spot this is to isolate each character in your novel. Make a table with their name and size at the top, and then write down their contributions to the story, and how other characters interact with them. If your fat character is always causing mishaps, is a sexless being, or is confused and being laughed at, then you may have a problem that needs to be addressed.

2. DESCRIPTIONS OF FAT CHARACTERS ARE UNFLATTERING

This is most often seen in descriptions of fat characters eating and walking.

Eating is an obvious problem area. As a society, we equate weight gain with a lack of self-control. We are told that to be fat is unhealthy and undesirable. And so, we demonise the act of eating itself. To watch a fat person eating is to witness something unpleasant happening.

What nonsense. I’m not going to go into the multitude of issues with this kind of thinking here, but please be very careful when describing a fat character’s eating habits.

Ask yourself – why am I describing this? Is it important? Am I paying the same close attention to the eating habits of all my characters? Am I using language designed to repel or neutral, pleasant words?

Walking actually covers a wide variety of physical activity, and it’s another area to be particularly careful when describing. There are two main issues here – the words used to describe the activity and the fat character’s reaction to physical movement. I’m not going to list the words that should be avoided when describing the bodies of fat characters or the way these bodies move. I think, if we all interrogate our writing, that we know when we have used words that are harmful and unhelpful.

Be careful when describing how larger characters react to physical exertion. If they are sweating or panting, why aren’t the rest of the characters doing this too? Or why is it particularly remarked upon that the fat character is going these things?

3. THIN CHARACTERS USING ‘FAT’ AS A DEROGATORY TERM 

Fat is not a bad word. It’s not a harbinger of doom. It’s not an insult.

Fat is a descriptive term.

As a society, we need to move away from asking, do I look fat in this? Why would looking fat be so terrible? And why would it matter if we showed our bodies as the sizes they are? Sometimes, literature needs to lead the charge. I would love to read more books populated by people of all different sizes who love themselves exactly as they are.

This isn’t to say that characters cannot have self-esteem issues that display as concern about their weight. What I am more talking about here are the throwaway comments that quietly reinforce a view that being fat is not good.

This is a hard one to spot in our own stories. It’s so ingrained in us that it can so easily slip through the net. The best way I can suggest of weeding this out is by reflecting on and challenging our own views on fatness. If we think there is nothing wrong with being bigger, we’ll spot the moments when our characters do.

4. TOTAL EXCLUSION

This is the most prevalent type of covert fat shaming I come across in stories, both those I edit and those I read from published authors. In novels, a world is created that in almost all ways reflects the real one, except there are no fat characters.

This is alienating. I think some people are scared about writing in fat characters, as they don’t want to get it wrong. I hope it’s been clear in this thread but I’ll say it again – it’s okay to get things wrong. I know Twitter (and much of social media) thrives on rage and hate, and would like to make you believe that mistakes are unacceptable, but that’s not true. I personally believe it is much better to try, fail, and then do better next time.

Instead of writing novels where fat people are absent, give writing a larger character a go. Share sections with a trusted friend and interrogate how you’ve written them. Spot the mistakes and rewrite. My dream is that fat representation soars, and a character’s size becomes less of a plot point and simply one part of the wonderful person they are.

I recognise that with any type of representation, I don’t hold all the answers, that I can (and probably will!) get thing wrong, and that this is an ongoing, morphing discussion. But let’s write kinder stories. Let’s write novels that allow fat people to see characters like themselves fight dragons and overcome trauma and have wild romances. Let’s populate our novels with all kinds of people, all muddling through life together in a beautiful mess.

To keep up-to-date with my writerly news, editing slots, and courses, sign up for my monthly newsletter 🙂

June Reads

I might not have read many books in June, but I may have read my favourite book of the year…

The Kingdoms by Natasha Pulley is a flipping masterpiece. Her novels always a dive into gentle, surreal worlds populated with deeply flawed but undeniably loveable characters on wild adventures, and The Kingdoms didn’t disappoint. Pulley plays masterfully with a time bending plot, all woven together by two of the most brilliantly compelling main characters that I’ve read in such a long time. I tore through this a few weeks ago and I’m still thinking about it now. It’s thrilling, wonderfully written, and immersive. I don’t care what kind of novels you usually enjoy – read The Kingdoms and you’ll have a whole new author to rave about.

Eye of the Sh*t storm by Jackson Ford is also rather good. Apologies to Ford – it’s hard to follow a review like the one above, but I feel like if any book can do it, it’s this one. It’s witty, action packed, and so well crafted. The food descriptions are some of the best I’ve come across and the world that’s being woven in the third of this series is consistently both gritty and inherently human (even when some of the characters aren’t quite human…) This is a great novel for fans of inverted superhero tropes and fried chicken.

Read them all, and we can be chums 😊

One tiny disclaimer – if you struggle with reading about suicide, then I would avoid Dog Days by Ericka Waller. This is a great book, full of DOGS and damaged humans, but there is also a scene later in the book that I found incredibly difficult to read. Look after yourselves!

Meandering Dialogue

How to make sure conversations in your stories flow

I’ve started sharing some of the feedback I find myself giving to lots of my editing clients. This time it’s all about MEANDERING DIALOGUE.

A disclaimer for my editing clients – I will NEVER use specific examples or talk about your stories! These threads are based on feedback I have given to MANY clients, so I am not secretly talking about your work.

Now, there are three main reasons dialogue can feel like it’s meandering all over the shop:

  1. It goes on for too long
  2. The point of the conversation isn’t clear
  3. Switches in subject feel random

I’m going to use a short section from Goldilocks by Laura Lam to explore all of these areas. If you haven’t read this book yet, why the heck not? But don’t worry – there will be no spoilers!

This is a discussion between the main character, Naomi, and her mentor, Valerie:

This is a great section. Short, sharp, to the point. This is a whole, separate piece of dialogue that moves the story along, tells us about the dynamic between the characters, and, most importantly, will help us unpick some meandering dialogue issues…

1. DIALOGUE THAT GOES ON FOR TOO LONG

This is usually because there is too much said before or after the real crux of the conversation. Too much information is being included, and this can make the conversation feel overly long.

Consider the section from Goldilocks again. This conversation is taking place on a journey after the two women haven’t seen each other for a while. Valerie has travelled for a long time to visit Naomi. Do they talk about putting their seatbelts on? Does Naomi ask if Valerie wants a shower to wash away the travelling? These could both have been used to pad out the start of the conversation but they aren’t, because they aren’t things the reader needs to know. Do you think these two women spent the rest of the car ride in silence? Probably not. But their chats for the remainder of the drive are not important enough to be included. The reader can assume they’ve happened, without actually witnessing them all.

Those things wouldn’t make for bad dialogue, they could be well written and carefully integrated, but they aren’t needed. And that’s a hard thing to face when looking at our own stories – is every line of dialogue absolutely essential?

The first two places to look if you feel like your dialogue is meandering is at the start and end of conversations. This is when the advice ‘start late, finish early’ is worth its weight in gold. One way to really interrogate whether every part of your dialogue is needed is to print off each section and grab a highlighter. Be ruthless, and only highlight those sections that are really, totally essential. Then get even meaner – explain to yourself why each part is needed. Is it furthering the plot? Developing character? Filling in backstory? Hinting at something to come? You can leave in some sections where the reason for keeping it is I LIKE IT but if you’re finding your speech is full of these bits, then it might be time to cut them out.

Now, only you know your story and where it sits in the genre/age group you’re writing within. It might be that including more filler moments gives your book a cosy, conversational feel – and that’s fine if it fits the type of book you’re writing. But be honest with yourself and shave off those starts and ends where you can.

2. THE POINT OF THE CONVERSATION ISN’T CLEAR

Let’s go back to Naomi and Valerie. What is the point of this conversation? This is slightly easier because it’s a short section, but this should be evident in all dialogue. The point here is that Valerie has some reason for her visit that Naomi wants to know, and it also shows off some of their relationship dynamic.

Imagine if they’d had this conversation instead:

‘How was your flight?’ Naomi asked.

‘It was good,’ Valerie said.

‘Let’s get you settled then.’

Firstly, it’s bland and boring. But secondly, what is the point of this exchange? It might be to show some of the care Naomi feels for Valerie, but what else is there to it? This care can be showcased in so many (more creative) ways than with this section of dialogue.

Again, it’s time to be brutal. Is there dialogue in your novel that’s nice and maybe serves a purpose but has no real, driving point to it? Find each section of dialogue, even weeny ones like this, and question them – WHY ARE YOU HERE? If the answer is evident, that’s great. If not, maybe it can be cut. Even if the meaning is clear – ask yourself, is this showcased somewhere else and I don’t need the dialogue to say it as well?

As I said, the point can be harder to find in longer conversations, and you may need to split these into sections that serve different purposes. If there are parts that don’t serve a purpose, maybe they can be reworked or cut out.

3. SWITCHES IN SUBJECT FEEL RANDOM

Imagine if Naomi said directly after this:

I’ve really gotten into sudoku recently.’

This would be… strange. Why is she telling Valerie about this new hobby? And why now?

Now, I’m not saying that random switches in the conversation can’t happen. However, they need to be clearly explained to the reader, especially if it’s the main character making this abrupt change.

If it was changed to:

Naomi hated awkward silences. ‘I’ve really gotten into sudoku recently.’

Then the reader understands why she’s said this random thing.

During these conversational shifts, it’s really important to let the reader know what your main character is thinking and feeling. This smooths the way for these changes in direction, and makes sure that your dialogue flows from one topic to another.

So, pick a longer section of your dialogue. In the margin, pop a star each time your conversation changes direction – a new subject is aired, a question is asked, an action is suggested. And then make sure that this has been clearly explained or set up by your main character’s inner world. If they suggest getting dinner, have you shown them feeling hungry? If they accuse someone of murder, have they put the clues together in their mind?

In the Goldilocks example, there is no inner monologue from Naomi BUT what she’s thinking/feeling is clear. Valerie states it, and then Naomi’s speech backs this up. Use those other characters, especially when working in third person.

Just one last thing to say – dialogue that is sharp, clear, and smooth is actually incredibly unrealistic. Real conversations are full of interruptions, totally random shifts in topic, people not listening and getting distracted… We are terrible at talking to one another, really!

BUT that wouldn’t make for very compelling reading. So, forget about realism and think carefully about what you want to get across with dialogue. Say it, then then stop talking.

To keep up-to-date with my writerly news, editing slots, and courses, sign up for my monthly newsletter 🙂