Writing a Strong Character Voice

IMAG4333Character Voice is such a difficult thing to define in writing. It’s made up of so many elements. It’s the way a character talks and thinks, it’s what they believe and how this governs what they do, it’s what makes them unique, its what makes them stay in a reader’s mind long after they have finished the book.

We are a product of our past, our present and our hopes for the future. So too are our characters, and these things are reflected in who they are and in how they express themselves.

Voice is what makes your characters memorable, it’s the way in which they speak to and connect with your readers. It’s expressed through their internal thoughts, their dialogue and their actions and reactions.

Your character’s voice also reflects your voice as a writer because our characters are like our children, they are a reflection of who we are.

Don’t be put off if you don’t find your character’s voice straight away.

IMAG6942Often, it’s not till I finish writing a novel that I realise I have finally found my character’s voice, and I have to go back and rework the start to reflect all the things I have discovered during the writing process about my character,  their internal and external motivations, what makes them unique and who they really are.

That’s why I recommend you don’t spend too long fiddling with the start of your novel, just write it to the end, then go back and rework the start. Fixating on the beginning and ‘trying to get it right’ can prevent you from moving forward with your story.

Below is an example to show you what I mean about being able to strengthen your character’s voice once you know more about them. These excerpts are from the start of my YA suspense novel, The Chat Room.

EARLY VERSION – (About 2 years ago)

When I walk out the front door for good, Dad will have to trust that I’ll be okay. He’ll have to trust that he taught me to be smart about stuff – that I value my life too much to throw it away.

He’s a policeman who’s ‘seen bad things’, but like I keep telling him, “that doesn’t mean they’re going to happen in our family”. If Mum wasn’t on my side, I’d never be allowed to go anywhere. I definitely wouldn’t be having my seventeenth birthday party at our house tonight – with no parental supervision.

I’m still amazed it’s happening. Mind you, it took about twenty “you can trust me” promises before Dad finely caved – and that was only thanks to Peter Chew’s self help book, “Build your teen’s confidence through trust”.

Trust is my promise to keep my little sister alcohol free, drug free and safe at my party. Trust is what stands between me, and being grounded for life. Trust is my friend and my nemesis. If anything goes wrong here, I’m screwed.

I won’t let that happen. I’m not stupid. I haven’t made this party public. Just invited close mates and a couple of online friends. That’s how I want it – laid back – no big deal. Just a bunch of guys and girls, hanging out and having fun.

I’m so determined to keep it casual that I’m still sitting at my computer two hours before people are due to arrive. My bedroom door bursts open and Mum walks in, wearing her “in a hurry frown”.


Five years ago nobody thought I’d live to celebrate my seventeenth birthday. But here I am, eating chocolate cake, enough to overdose on, and unless you know where to look, you can’t even see my scars.

Even more of a miracle, I’ve convinced my over protective policeman dad to let me have a seventeenth birthday party – just a small one – no mess – no loud music – and no morons. My fifty handpicked guests have been chosen for their potential to have fiasco free fun. I had a bit of extra leverage this year. It’s my parents’ twentieth wedding anniversary today, so Mum demanded a celebration of her own and talked Dad into taking her out for dinner.

I shove the last chocolate crumbs into my mouth, and place my empty plate next to the silver tray with the knife that Mum used to cut the giant cake slabs.

Lia’s plate is empty too. “I’ll load them into the dishwasher.” She leans across to take my plate and accidentally bumps the knife and it clatters off the silver tray, straight onto my foot that I left bare to allow the nail polish on my toes to dry.

“Shit!” I look down to see blood seeping out.

Lia’s eyes go wide. “I’m so sorry. I’m such a klutz.”

Dad bends down to look. “It’s okay. It’s just a small cut.”

Mum comes back with disinfectant and a pressure bandage.

Lia crouches down for a closer look. “Oh Mindy, I can’t believe I did that. I’ve ruined your birthday.”

I put my arm around her. “No, you haven’t. You’ll hardly even see the bandage once I put my shoes on.”

“But it must hurt.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve had worse.”

Everyone goes quiet. I guess like me, they’re remembering back to the accident, to the time I almost lost my life.


Although the first version gives the reader an idea of who Mindy is now, it doesn’t really give you any idea of her deeper motivations, of what she might have gone through to get to this point, of what has made her the way she is today.

There’s also a lot of ‘telling’ in the first version which is more about me discovering who the character is for myself rather than revealing her to the reader.

In the second version, the reader learns about Mindy’s accident which has a huge influence on who Mindy is now and on what she will do. It adds another layer to her character and gives the reader more reason to connect with her – to care about what will happen to her in this story.

Seeing Mindy’s interaction with her family also gives us a stronger sense of who she is.


Don’t be afraid to try new things with your characters to find out who they really are.

  1. Interview your character and don’t be afraid to ask them curly questions
  2. Get them to write letters to you
  3. Get them to write letters to other characters in the story
  4. Explore their past
  5. Explore their relationships with other characters
  6. Ask them to tell you the most memorable thing about their character
  7. Make a character collage
  8. Put your character in difficult situations and ask them what they would do

If you have any other tips on how you find your character’s voice, please feel free to share them in the comments section of this post.

Happy writing:)


Tuesday Writing Tips – I’ve finished writing my book, what do I do now?

I’ve finished writing my book, what do I do now?

I’m often asked this question, particularly by new writers who have finished writing their first manuscript and are unsure about what to do next.

I’ve recently completed the next draft of my YA thriller, The Chat Room, so I thought that now might be a good time to address this ‘what next’ issue on my blog.

Before you even consider sending your manuscript to a publisher or an agent, it will need to be edited so it sparkles. Don’t be impatient. Don’t waste your chance to impress – make your book the best it can be before you send it out.

Have you edited your manuscript to make it tantalising?

Have you edited your manuscript to make it tantalising?

Here’s how.


Revisit the start. I find that I write myself into my books, that I don’t quite have the character’s voice right when I start a manuscript, but by the end of it I know exactly who he or she is. So I always go back and check to make sure that the start is consistent with the rest of the manuscript – that my character’s voice is unique and strong right from the first page.


People edit in so many different ways. I’ve blogged about this before so rather than go over old ground, here are some previous posts that you might find helpful.

Some articles on editing:

  1. Editing the shape of your novel
  2. Editing language and dialogue
  3. Editing bit by bit

Online editing resources

There are also some online resources to help you with the editing process.

1. Self Editing Tips and Techniques Webinar – July 15 (US time) – July 16 (Melbourne time) THIS IS TOMORROW

In fact, tomorrow at 3.00am Australian time, I’ll be attending this course through Writer’s Digest, How to Be Your Own Editor: Self-Editing Tips and Techniques from Editor and Revision Maven Harold Underdown.

If you’re interested in booking in, you’ll find out more here.

If you miss this course, don’t worry, I’m sure Harold will be offering other courses down the track.

2. Revise Your Novel in a Month

Literary agent, Jill Corcoran and Plot Whisperer, Martha Alderson have joined forces to create A Path to Publishing which aims to increase writer’s understanding of concept, plotting, character development, scene development, action and emotional arc development, as well has how to pitch your work to agents, editors, and readers.

They have developed a Revise Your Novel in a Month video series to assist writers with the editing process.

You can also follow Jill and Martha’s Facebook page.


Critique Partners

When I’m happy with my manuscript I get someone else to read it. Even if you’re an experienced writer, it is difficult to distance yourself from your work enough to be objective – to identify things that need fixing.

I’m lucky to have an amazing critique partner, the talented and perceptive Alison Reynolds who I regularly exchange manuscripts with.

The right critique partner will be someone you can trust to be completely honest with you about your work. They will be someone who wants your success as much as they want their own.

You can find a critique partner by attending writer’s conferences, joining writer’s groups and organisations and networking online.

I’ve set up a page on this blog where you can find a critique partner. You just register your details and wait for someone to contact you, or you can contact someone whose details you see on the Find A Crit Buddy page. A number of successful writing partnerships have been formed here.

A manuscript assessor must be someone who 'gets' your book.

A manuscript assessor must be someone who ‘gets’ your book.

Manuscript Assessments

In the past I’ve paid hundreds of dollars in manuscript assessments or appraisals and to be honest, I don’t think it was money well spent. None of these assessments have led to books being published, and I haven’t come away from them feeling like I learnt a lot to apply to my next manuscript.

Having said that, I think that manuscript assessments can be good if you have something specific you want the assessor to look at – if you are having a particular issue with a manuscript.

But if you do decide to get an assessment done, here’s what I recommend:

1. Insist that the assessor be well published or have extensive editing experience in the genre and readership you are writing for.

2. Get a partial manuscript to start with so that you can see whether the assessor is doing what you need them to do – this means you don’t waste hundreds of dollars on an assessment from someone who just doesn’t ‘get’ your manuscript or isn’t providing the depth of analysis you need.

My Mentorship through SCBWI Nevada was amazing

My mentorship with Ellen Hopkins through SCBWI Nevada was amazing


Mentorships are where you get an advisor who not only analyses your manuscript but they also guide you through the publishing process.

Mentorships are far more flexible than manuscript assessments, and a good mentor will not just help your manuscript, they will help you develop as a writer.

A mentor can also give you advice about where to send your manuscript and how to approach publishers.

In Australia, mentorships are available through the ASA (Australian Society of Authors), and you can also apply for professional development funding through CAL. I could not have done my SCBWI Nevada mentorship without their assistance. SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) is a global organisation and they offer mentorships and other professional development opportunities.

Once you are satisfied your manuscript is complete and perfect and you’ve had it read by people who concur, it’s time to send it off into the literary world.   Good luck:)

If you have any other tips on what to do with your manuscript after it’s finished, please feel free to include them in the comments section of this post.

Happy writing and editing,




Tuesday Tip – A Writer’s Guide to Seemingly Insurmountable Obstacles

It’s weird how  life can provide metaphors for our writing.

Last weekend, I was driving to pick up my son and came across this very large obstacle across the road.  It seemed insurmountable. I couldn’t drive through it, I couldn’t jump over it – at least not in my car.


Ever felt like that about your writing? I have. I tend to get to this point at the end of a manuscript when I’m not sure how to end it – when all the ideas I come up with seem cliched or inappropriate – when it seems like I’ll never get past this road/manuscript block.

So as a writer, how do you overcome something like this?

For me, the way the emergency services guys got this tree off the road was a perfect example of how to deal with a difficult manuscript problem – you have to cut it down into manageable pieces.



And then handle those pieces one at a time.

I find that removing the ‘problem scene’ and treating it as an entity in its own right definitely helps. Look at that scene as a story.

  1. Does it have a beginning and and end?
  2. Does it have conflict?
  3. Does it reveal character?
  4. Does it have a resolution?
  5. Is the resolution satisfying to the reader?

It’s easy to envy others who seem to navigate the writing journey with apparent ease, who speed along straight to their destination – but think of all the visual wonders and experiences that they miss in their haste:)


Enjoy the journey:)




TKatApelSmoday I’m pleased to welcome a very special writer friend, Kathryn Apel. We’ve been friends for many years since we first shared a podium at the CYA writer’s awards. Today we’re celebrating the release of Kathryn’s new book, Bully on the Bus, published by UQP.

Kathryn has a wonderful sense of rhythm, and is one of the few writers I know who can create perfect rhyme. She is  an outstanding poet so it’s no surprise that her latest book, Bully on the Bus is written in verse.

Kathryn has drawn on personal and family experiences and a natural affinity with children to create the sensitive and empowering Bully on the Bus.

Today she is generously sharing her creative journey for this important book.  Welcome, Kathryn:)

Thank-you so much for inviting me to post on your blog today, Dee. You’re such a support and encouragement to other writers, and I’ve appreciated your friendship and your wisdom many times. xx

images-1Dee’s Q: Why did you choose to write this story in verse?

Some questions feel like they require convoluted answers. This is one of them – but I’ll try and unravel the knots so I don’t tangle you up.

Bully on the Bus started as a (v.short) chapter book in 2007. It went round a couple of crit groups as a chapter book and it started great conversations … touched some sore spots amongst readers … but didn’t sing. It was a book – but Leroy wasn’t telling his story – and the magic was on mute. Part of the problem was my brevity, a result of writing so many picture book manuscripts! I started writing more into it …

Late 2009 I shared the story with my son.

Son: I marked one bit where you’ll have to change it. You’ve got something three times in a row. There are too many things of Ruby saying it – like why can’t Leroy say something?

Ch 3/4/6 It’s being about Ruby – she’s always saying things, but Leroy has to say some things, otherwise he’ll seem like a wuss.

Me: (hoping son will see my reasoning): Why might he not say things?

Son: Because he’s upset and didn’t want to talk. But if he wanted to solve the problem he would have to say something.

Youch! He was right. And I’m so glad I trained him well! :P And yes, I really did type a transcript of our editorial conference, because this kid knows stuff.

So began another rigorous rewrite, developing my main character, Leroy and strengthening his young voice, so that it really was his story.

I felt the manuscript was showing great potential when I took it to a Google Wave critique session with Susan Stephenson and Karen Collum a month later.

… And so did they – but never-the-less, I was back to the drawing board all over again. NOT because they thought Leroy needed to have more say. (I’d fixed that! :P ) but because they could see potential for the story to grow and change.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 7.25.00 AM

And suddenly that’s how we all saw it; as a novel in verse. Initially I played with writing it as a hybrid – combining prose and poetry throughout. But once I started to pare it back, the rest of the manuscript was clunky and laboring, so it all had to shape-up.

The crazy thing was, I’d been wanting to try a verse novel – had even made a faltering attempt earlier that year on a different idea … But I’d not seen the potential for Bully on the Bus as a novel in verse until that Google Wave moment.

Ready to go to print

Ready to go to print

So, why write – and read – verse novels?

There is beauty in the brevity, not just visually, but in the cadence of the story. Line breaks and alignment really do shape the words that trip off your tongue, and there is weight in each perfectly placed word.

Since most verse novels are written in first person, they are personal and real, establishing a strong emotional connection with readers. I’ve found verse novels particularly engaging for reluctant readers, because the story is not lost in a sea of print. The sparse text-on-page of a verse novel cuts straight to the issue, making the story both accessible and familiar – and very engaging.

Verse novels stir the senses and the heart.


Any kid who has every ridden a school bus will recognise the story of Bully on the Bus.

She’s big.
           She’s smart.
                     She’s mean.

She picks on me and
I don’t know how to make her stop.

images-1Even if kids haven’t been bullied, they will recognise the bully, DJ and her unfortunate 7 year-old victim Leroy who finds every bus ride pure torture.

There are so many things I love about this book.

The language is lyrical and beautiful and this topic is dealt with in a sensitive way that also offers real solutions to bullying that kids will relate to.

Most of all, the bully hurts me with her words

They spew out
of her mouth like
lava from a volcano.
Red-hot, dangerous words,
burning right down, deep inside

Although the story is told from Leroy’s point of view and he is the kid being bullied, Bully on the Bus also gives the reader insight into what’s going on in the life of the bully.

For a little kid like Leroy, a bus ride is scary enough,  but when his lunch is stolen and he is physically and mentally harassed, it becomes torture.

Leroy’s older sister Ruby tries to protect him but the bully is way bigger and stronger than her.

In spite of the difficult nature of the subject matter, author Katherine Apel brings this book to a satisfying conclusion for the reader.

When Leroy seeks help, he discovers a secret weapon that not only protects him but also reveals the bully for who she really is and encourages her to change her ways.

With hidden treasures for kids, parents and teachers alike, Bully on the Bus gives courage to anyone who might feel small.

Written in verse, Bully on the Bus is a beautifully crafted story for kids aged 6+ and I can see this important book making its way into many homes and classrooms.

Bully on the Bus is a verse novel for 6 – 8 year olds that explores the themes of bullying, courage and relationships. It is an easily accessible text for young, independent readers but is also appropriate for older readers.

Teachers notes are available here.




How Do You Keep Writing When You’re Not Being Published?

100_1423Sometimes we hit a brick wall with our writing and it has nothing to do with writer’s block. We’re not lost for words. We know what we want to write, but we’re paralysed by fear. What if nobody ever gets the chance/wants to read what we have written?

This is the bain of writers and other creators and it’s called self-doubt.

When you’re being paid a regular wage it’s easier to justify what you do – you’re getting paid – you’re buying food or paying for your kid’s education with your earnings.  You can hold your head high knowing that your hard work is receiving a tangible reward.

But what if you’re not getting paid? What if you’re not getting published? What if those words you’ve crafted with your heart and soul are not being read by anyone but you – are not being heard by anyone except maybe your cat or your pet rabbit when you’re reading your manuscript out loud?

How do you justify being a writer?

The only way I know to respond to this is something that I firmly believe.  You don’t have to justify being a writer.  You don’t have to justify being you.  Being a writer is not just a profession – it’s  part of who you are - it’s an extra layer of skin that sits alongside your epidermis, dermis and hypodermis.

Of course we want to be published and we dream of making our mark in the world of literature – but what’s really important is being true to who we are and appreciating that our unique take on the world is just as valid and important as anyone else’s.

In spite of the hardships of being a writer, there are many benefits – and these are the things I hang onto when my self doubt is blooming and my optimism is at a low ebb – and I’m fairly sure that these conditions afflict even the most successful writers.


  1. You can get away with being an adult and still having imaginary friends
  2. You can stay in your pyjamas all day and work
  3. You can travel to places without leaving home
  4. You never get bored – there are always people to watch, things to be inspired by
  5. You can do your job anywhere – your writing device and your imagination can go with you
  6. It gives you the opportunity to escape to another world if you don’t like the one you’re in
  7. You learn to live like a squirrel – learn to survive on winter scraps
  8. You can control the weather – even if it’s only inside your story world
  9. You have the potential to make a difference to the way people think.
  10. You can use fiction to rewrite history in your favour

What you write is important whether you are well published or not. Stick with it and remember there are so many wonderful things about being who you are – a writer.

If you know any other good things about being a writer (published or not) or have any positive experiences to share, please feel free to post them in the comments section below.

Happy writing:)


The Stories and Ideas You Can’t Let Go

I don’t usually tell people this fact, particularly agents and editors because it tends to scare them off, but I have 80 completed manuscripts in my filing cabinets.

Some are short, some are long, they range across many genres from picture books to adult non-fiction. Some are early drafts, and some are submission ready. Out of the 80, there are probably only about 20 that will ever be submitted for publication.  These 20 are the manuscripts that might not be finished, might not be polished, but they are the ideas and characters I can’t let go.

The other 60 are what I call my practice manuscripts, the journey ones, the ones I wrote to develop my storytelling and writing skills. These are the manuscripts that helped shape my writing, but realistically the stories themselves are underdeveloped in terms of plot or character or their concepts might not be strong enough to carry them.

So how do you know that your story is worth hanging onto – that it’s worth pursuing? Do you just keep submitting until a publisher takes it up? Do you abandon it after the first rejection?

I have top five criteria by which I judge if a story is really worth hanging onto.

  1. Is the storyline memorable? Is it so clear in my head that when someone asks me what my story is about I can sum it up in a short paragraph?
  2. Has the character stuck in my head long after the manuscript draft is finished?
  3. Two years on am I still ‘in love’ with the characters and the concept?
  4. Have I received positive rejections for it like “I encourage you to send it out to other publishers as it has much to recommend it and other publishers may have more room on their list”?
  5. Am I so close to my main character that they feel like a loved family member so abandoning them would be too painful?

Letters to Leonardo Book CoverSometimes, with books like Letters to Leonardo (which took more than ten years from initial idea to publication),  writing and rewriting the manuscript feels like you’ve been wrestling a crocodile, but you simply can’t stop. Sometimes, a story sits so deep in your heart that you just feel it needs to be told.

Having said that, I don’t keep submitting a manuscript in the same form after it has had five or ten rejections. I look at the feedback I’ve had from editors or agents and based on their suggestions and what feels right for me, I decide on a new course of rewrites.

Sometimes I put the idea/story aside for a while and over time and from reading other books, I realise what’s missing from my own manuscript and why it hasn’t been taken up by a publisher yet.

Sometimes, even with published books it can be hard to let them go. You feel the need to go the extra mile to reach a new body of readers.

Sherryl Clark

Sherryl Clark

For example, Sherryl Clark’s YA novel Dying to Tell Me received excellent reviews after being published in US, but she was unable to find a publisher for it in Australia.

Sherryl decided to organise her own publication and distribution here. She bought the artwork for the US edition, translated the book from US to Australian English, had it edited and organised her own printing and distribution.

Dying to Tell Me is a story that Sherryl felt so passionate about that she decided to take the Australian publishing of it into her own hands. Dying to Tell Me is an extraordinary young adult novel, and I’ve reviewed it below:


Once I started reading Dying to Tell Me, I couldn’t put it down.

The main character Sasha hooked me in, made me care about her right from the start.

“I didn’t want to sit in the front seat of our car – that’s where Mum always sat – but Dad was pleading. 

“Please Sasha,” he said. His voice caught and he cleared his throat.  “We promised a new start.”

His face was so creased with sadness that I couldn’t say no.

UnknownSasha’s policeman dad has taken up a posting in the country and it’s a chance for all of them to make a new start.

But the supposedly quiet country town they have been sent to is far from quiet.  Art thefts, arson, murder and ghosts are compelling plot ingredients of this fast paced novel.

When Sasha moves to the country, the gift of second sight that she has been denying for so long resurfaces along with a whole new telepathic power.

Sherryl Clark is the author of more than fifty-five books and Dying to Tell Me is written with polish and the lyrical language that her readers have come to expect.

“Jacket, jeans, sweatshirts, undies – peeled off like I was a skinny orange.”

Sherryl uses imagery and internal dialogue to give us clear insight into her main character, Sasha.

An irritation grew in me like an itch I wanted to scrape raw with my fingernails.

The action in Dying to Tell me carries the reader along at a cracking pace, and Sasha’s little brother Nicky and Dad are also endearing characters.

There are so many twists and turns in this story to keep you guessing. Once you start this book you won’t want to put it down.

A town that doesn’t want her

A ghost that won’t leave her alone

Dreams that mean life or death

With issues of family, sibling relationships, resilience, survival and trust, Dying to Tell Me fits well into the Year 7 Australian curriculum and teacher’s notes are available here.

You can order Dying to Tell Me at your local bookshop or purchase here.

Do you have a manuscript you can’t abandon?  I’d love you to share your experiences and suggestions in the comments section of this post.

Happy writing:)


Writing Tip – Sticking to Your Plot (Or not)!

Neridah had another writing question for me this week.

Sometimes when I have written a structured Plot Diagram and Chapter Outline for longer books, when I sit down to actually write it, some of my characters start to do things outside of these carefully made plans. This sounds crazy and I spend a fair bit of time trying to reign them back in or I go back to the Chapter Outline and modify it. In your opinion is this normal for writers?

Taupo BayNeridah, I have to assure you that you are not crazy and you are definitely not alone. Characters often start to develop a mind of their own and create dilemmas for us.

I find that when characters take me in a completely new direction it’s usually because I’ve got to know them better and they are telling me, “This is what I would really do if I were a real person. This is how I would really act.”

So in my opinion, this scenario is quite normal for writers – especially those who know their characters well or are getting to know them better.

I’m not sure what other people think about this, but my advice would be to embrace the actions of contrary characters – let them take you in the direction they want to go. Allow their world to be turned on its axis.

If you think that the direction your character is heading will add tension or conflict or enhance your story in some other way then go with it. If that means you have to adjust your plot outline then that’s what I would do.

Unknown-6I had an extreme case of this with my YA thriller series that I was awarded my May Gibbs Fellowship for.  One of my minor characters got so active and rebellious that she has ended up with a book of her own.

Writing a novel is constant process of evolution. As you progress, characters change, plots change and even you as a writer can change.

In some respects, a character is like an adventurous child – you have to give them the freedom to explore.

But unlike a child, your character should be encouraged to venture into danger. The more danger, the more at risk they are, the better.

Neridah, I hope this answers your question.

Have fun with your characters – let them loose, I say:)

If anyone would like to share their opinion or experience, feel free to comment at the end of this post. If you have a writing question of your own to ask, you can also use the comments section.

Thanks for your great questions Neridah.

Happy writing:)