Interviews Now Novel Writing coaching

Writing coach Nerine Dorman on YA, sci-fi and fantasy

We chat to fantasy, sci-fi and YA author, editor and writing coach Nerine Dorman about worldbuilding, common writing mistakes, and curating story anthologies for HorrorFest.

Nerine Dorman is an award-winning author who has been active in the publishing industry since 2007. She’s proudly hybrid, with books published by traditional publishers, small presses and self-published. As an editor she works with authors from concept to the moment they press ‘send’, whether they choose to self-publish or work with a publisher.

Watch the video or read the full transcript of this writing coach chat below:

Now Novel Writing Coaches: Author Nerine Dorman
Who is Now Novel? In this series, meet the writing coaches and team at the heart of Now Novel, a writing community where authors meet, connect, and finish writing, together.

Nerine on editing and coaching writers

Brendan McNulty: 00:20
So hi Nerine, thank you very much for taking the time to chat to us today. I have a couple of questions to help people get to know you a little bit better. I’m going to start with the first and maybe the easiest one, which is, ‘What do you do at Now Novel?’

Nerine Dorman: 00:37
I will look at your manuscript, obviously in the sections that we get I will look at the structure. I will also look at the nuts and bolts of the technical stuff. Get to know you a little bit and if you get stuck during the week or the month and you go, ‘Nerine, I don’t know what I’m going to do with this’, then I’ll say, ‘Well, what’s the problem?’ and then we’ll talk about it.

What does a writing coach do?

So it’s basically like I’m a combination of pep-talk-cheerleader and your personal pet editor, if that makes sense.

Then of course the other part of what I do is sometimes I’ll get a special [editing] job in. Brendan or Jordan will say ‘Nerine, we’ve got this guy. He’s got this whole novel, please can you do an assessment. Please can you do a copy-edit,’ and then we’ll do that. Obviously it will take as long as it takes.

Running live Q&A sessions on writing

And then the other thing that I do that I’m actually really enjoying is the panels on Saturdays where we do Q&As. I think there are Wednesday sessions as well. Look, I’ve only been her since Feb so I’m still quite new and shiny.

I enjoy those sessions because I get to talk my mouth off and people get to ask me questions. I think, because my mom was a teacher, a little part of that sort of rubbed off on me. So I kind of like doing this – it’s weird? [laughs]

Brendan: 01:49
No, it’s not weird at all. We find and writers find those kinds of sessions great. Everybody has a different perspective and writing is an art.

Everybody’s perspective is valid because it helps people shape what their story should be or how they should change it.

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Worldbuilding tips for speculative fiction

So you’re a sci-fi and a fantasy writer, and as part of sci-fi and fantasy there’s a whole worldbuilding component. Do you have a specific worldbuilding tip, an important one that you’d like to share?

Nerine: 02:34
Um, don’t pull a Star Wars. So you don’t have worlds that are all just one climate, like the desert planet of Tatooine or the one mega city that’s Coruscant.

So get to know your world, spend some time thinking about how many continents you have. What sort of cultures you’ve got, where your people are. Try and sort of give it a ring of authenticity.

Writing coach Nerine Dorman worldbuilding tip - create diverse biomes

Geography, biology and nature in worldbuilding

So it helps if you’re an author to have a passing interest in geography and biology and nature, so that you can create a world that feels lived in. You know, that you don’t have implausible things.

I think if you look at the maps that Tolkien drew, any geographer or geologist will look at that and go, ‘Oh my gosh, this man didn’t know what he was doing’ [laughs].

Worldbuilding and staying consistent

If you are going to make a world, make sure you’ve got an idea of time period. Basically just think of how it all works. It’s not something that just sort of … it grows as the novel grows, let’s put it that way.

Make it internally consistent. Like if you’re going to have flying cars, thinking about what powers them. Are you using magic to power the cars, or is it actually some sort of fuel. Is it anti-gravity, how does that work? You know, give it limitations.

Make it so that everything that is magical has some sort of cost attached to it. There’s nothing I hate worse than people just click their fingers and boom – it happens. It’s sort of like that. So yeah, I like the things that have a cost, that feel real.

You can do anything, you can get away with flying elephants even if you find the rules [laughs].

Brendan: 04:12
Yeah, and that makes sense. So the ecosystem … everything doesn’t exist by itself. It’s within the ecosystem.

Worldbuilding and using local settings

Nerine: 04:21
Yeah, no for sure. So yeah, I often say to people, ‘Look, if you’re not sure, write what you know.

The other thing with worldbuilding, I think for South African writers, a lot of us sort of struggle with writing books that are set in South Africa, because people are so accustomed to reading books that are set in the States or set in the UK. Obviously we’re talking English medium here. So I’ve often found that foreign readers struggle with South African settings.

The global book trade and writing local

I’ve had books rejected because it wasn’t ‘recognizably African’. And I’m saying, ‘Dude, you don’t know South Africa. We don’t live in mud huts here.’ And if we, as Africans, can get to know America through Hollywood productions or the media that comes from the States or from anywhere else, you know, people have to actually sort of have a quid pro quo, so to speak.

I think that’s also a reason why many South African writers when they get to a certain stage, in my experience, they tend to start writing books set in the States or set in the UK which I think is actually quite tragic, because a lot of us don’t even get to set foot there.

Brendan: 05:40
I think the exception to that rule is Damon Galgut won the Booker Prize last year for a very evocatively South African book.

Nerine: 05:53
Yeah which I still haven’t read [laughs].

Brendan: 05:56
I got it for Christmas. I was actually surprised at how much the ‘twang’ comes through, but yes.

Writing YA fiction vs writing for adult readers

So Nerine, you’ve written for both YA and for adult audiences. Do you know when you start a project where you’ll be directing it, or how does that process work?

Nerine: 06:19
That’s a very good question.

It all depends on how the book is marketed and who the publisher is. Whether I’m self-publishing or someone else is taking it over.

My book Sing down the Stars – that one, I wrote it primarily for a Middle Grade market. So we’re talking readers of about 12 to 14. But it was written specifically when the Sanlam Prize, when the call for submissions came up. I sat down and I said, ‘Well, I am writing this novel for the Sanlam Prize, what am I going to write?’

I thought, well I’ve got a young protagonist. She’s twelve years old. These are all the things that are going to happen to her, and go.

What to consider when writing for young readers

Obviously you take into consideration that you’re not going to have any explicit sex scenes. You’re not going to be very, very visceral when it comes to violence, although I don’t shy away from uncomfortable situations. Because I do think that kids of about 12 or even 8 are a lot more adult than we give them credit for. Your really hardcore kids who are reading are already reading out of the adults section at about eight or nine.

I know I was one of them, a lot of my friends were already borrowing their moms’ library cards. So I find it incredibly patronizing when adults assume that children need to be talked down to or they need to be coddled.

I know that there are people who are going to be disagreeing with me, but that’s just my opinion. I think that’s probably why my book did so well [winning the 2019 Sanlam Gold Prize], was the fact that I didn’t coddle my readers.

On knowing who you write for

Brendan: 07:59
Do you patronize or do anything in terms of the vocabulary that you use? Or do you try use a lower vocabulary or less long words?

Nerine: 08:12
No [laughs]. I don’t coddle my readers. Look obviously I’m not going to use big words like ‘coruscate’ or ‘susurrus’. Or yeah, you know, fancy schmancy [words] that your average Joe public won’t understand. Because I can tell you now there are a lot of adults who look at me like, ‘What did you just say?’

So if I look at the writers that captivated me at that age, it would be people like Anne McCaffrey who wrote Dragonriders of Pern.

Gosh, I was already hitting books like Kate Elliott and CJ Cherryh. The problem with reading those books is that they’re quite severely beyond a teenager’s reading grade. But the funny thing is, teenagers that do read above their reading grade come back to the books often (as I’m finding now, because I’m revisiting a lot of the books that I read when I was younger and I’m going, ‘I did not get that on that read through.’).

Writing for specific age groups

So when I’m writing, I write for two people. Actually, I lie. I write for three people.

Firstly, I write for myself because I love stories with young people who go out and discover things. And they find… they have their life-changing moment to establish themselves. That’s for one.

Secondly, yeah I’m writing for the age group. I will obviously keep certain things in mind. If it’s younger people, no sex. Not too much swearing. Then I write for adults because, to be quite honest, there are going to be adults who enjoy younger stories.

A lot of big people I know read YA because it’s not going to tax them the same way a reading a heavy bestseller is. So you’ve really got to see who is reading and you write the kind of story that will appeal.

Book editor Nerine Dorman on writing for yourself - quote

Unexpected reader responses

Interestingly enough, my mom – she’s 87 this year – and she’s a bit odd like I am. And she is a big fan of hermeneutica [interpretation and analysis]. So she will read a newspaper article or she hears something on the radio. Someone will say something profound and she’ll grab a notebook and she’ll just write down what the person said and where she heard it and she’s basically onto five notebooks.

She says, ‘When I die, you’re going to get all my notebooks and I’ve got five of them now.’

I’m like, ‘OK.’ But then I realized I do exactly the same thing and my mom who does not read sci-fi and she doesn’t read fantasy, she doesn’t get it, she doesn’t know all the tropes, she read my book and she says, ‘I just wanted to tell you that you write really well. And I got so much out of your book. I wrote down so many things. And your book was really, really, really deep.’ And I’m going, ‘OK.’

Brendan: 10:42
Well you’ve arrived, that’s the best publishing feedback I think you can get.

Nerine: 10:49

Yeah. So really you’ve got to be able to write a story that will appeal to different people for different reasons and you will always get readers who’ll get something completely different from the book that you thought you were putting in.

Like for me, my mom got a lot of life wisdom from the book, and I didn’t actually set out to do that to be quite honest. But I think a lot of the stuff is sort of subliminal, that goes on behind… I’m not even conscious of doing it. But I like putting in little pithy realizations. And to have people recognize it and gain something from the writing in that degree is incredibly validating.

Common errors sci-fi and fantasy writers make

Brendan: 11:32
Yeah I’m sure. So in terms of sci-fi and fantasy, you’ve read a lot, you’ve written a lot, and you’ve coached people and helped people to write it. What are the most frequent mistakes people make and how can they even before they make those mistakes, how can they course correct?

Nerine: 11:57
Everyone’s going to make different mistakes. I think the most common mistake that I come across with really new writers. And I’m talking about people who are like … they’ve read Twilight and now suddenly think they’re South Africa’s version of Stephenie Meyer. Or their first introduction to reading is a book that suddenly became incredibly popular.

Like I can imagine now reading a lot more sci-fi because of Dune set on desert planets. It’s obviously not helped by Star Wars with Kenobi.

Jumping on bandwagons before understanding the genre or publishing landscape

I’ve also seen something will become popular and then I will get a book and I’m thinking, ‘You know, there’s a little The Mandalorian in here, and there’s a little bit of Guardians of the Galaxy … I know what you’ve been watching.’ And then I’ll go to the writer and I’ll say to him, ‘Ja, so how’s The Mandalorian?’ And he’ll say, ‘Oh I loved it! I wrote the book after I watched it.’ I’m like ah, gotcha.

So the problem with that is people get very very excited about something. Then they’ve got no actual experience with reading. They might have read books in high school, but now they’re playing with it for the first time and they really make all the newbie errors.

So you’ve got head-hopping, and you’ve got head-hopping, you … So we’ll look at head-hopping, head-hopping’s a big one, point of view. We often get characters that are writing very shallow, sort of like this happens, that happens. But there’s no idea of the internal monologue happening. So things happen but we don’t understand why they happen.

Regular grammar and spelling errors

Another one that I’ve seen – I don’t get it often, because you know Google Docs and also Microsoft Word have got such wonderful AIs that help with spelling and grammar. If you’re not sure of your grammar or your spelling, it’s a very good idea to write with those functions going. Because they’re often your early warning system, like ‘that is not how that is spelt’.

I got one manuscript in recently, it was so riddled with typos that even the main characters’ names were spelt differently on the same page. And I looked at this and I thought, ‘I don’t know what you did here, but let’s fix it, that’s why I’m here’.

So yeah, I will see a whole gamut of errors. I think the big thing that I said to a lot of my writers and I think this is what I like, is when I read a manuscript I get an idea of where they are. Because I have read so widely – I mean, I read up to 100 books a year, if not more. And this includes books I edit as well as books that I read for fun. The books that I read because I do book reviews. I know my stuff.

I can generally … if someone’s writing a paranormal romance, for instance, I can make a couple of recommendations that include a couple of classics. Like for instance, I love recommending Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. People tell me, ‘That’s got too many big words,’ and I’ll say ‘Oh no, read it, please read it.’ And I might also recommend a couple of contemporary ones.

On not reinventing the wheel

The whole reason why I say to people, ‘If you are writing a particular genre and you are writing a particular kind of story, try to find the books that are similar to what you’re writing and read them so’ is so that you don’t accidentally reinvent the wheel.

Or if you are going to have themes that have happened, that you can subvert them and change them slightly.

Like I had one case quite a few years ago where the gentleman was adamant that he was not writing sci-fi. But he was writing a book about Mars colonization and he spent five pages talking about how a hypothetical dark matter hyperdrive worked and I was like, ‘No, please don’t do this, people don’t want to read five whole pages and that’s called exposition.

Clunky exposition and starting in the wrong place

Exposition is a big one. Like for instance, a prologue. People – younger, newer authors – love their prologues. They’ll give you a whole [Tolkien’s] Silmarillion before the novel starts.

I say to them, ‘It’s really not necessary to do that. People are going to just scan through that. They’re not even going to read it. They want to get to the start of the story and also just stories not starting in the right places.

People want to start with the Once Upon a Time or the farm boy waking up in the morning and looking in the mirror. There’s a lot of those conventions that people start with. They’re not ‘wrong’, per se, but the thing is I’ve seen it all so many times and there are better ways to start novels than that.

Curating the Bloody Parchment anthologies for HorrorFest

Brendan: 16:28
Agreed. So Nerine, to to ask a little bit about yourself, can you tell us a little about either the Bloody Parchment or the Egyptian Society, whichever … I know they’re both interests of yours, so yes.

Nerine: 16:46
Bloody Parchment is the literary arm of SA HorrorFest. Though I’ve been trying to play catchup because I went freelance in 2015 so I have just not had as much time available for it, it’s very much a passion project.

I don’t get paid for it, I don’t make enough book sales to justify what I end up paying people out of my own pocket to write stories for it, because I fund it all myself from my ill-gotten gains from editing, so know that if you pay me for editing chances are that a percentage of that money goes to other authors to pay them for their writing [laughs].

So we’ve got the anthologies that I do. I’m actually busy finishing the one from 2018 (I’m that far behind).

Because of COVID we didn’t have any live events but what we’ve done now is we’ve shifted our live events to YouTube so every year, just before HorrorFest, I will approach a bunch of authors. I’ll get them to do readings, record themselves, and then we’ll send the videos through and do title slides and send that through to HorrorFest and they’ll put it up.

So it’s a nice little bit of, you know, just promoting authors. So that’s pretty much what HorrorFest and Bloody Parchment is up to these days.

With Bloody Parchment I’ve decided to refocus it to just African writers and African writers of speculative fiction, just because it’s so difficult for African writers and I’m so well-connected now through the work I’ve done through Terra Incognito with Short Story Day Africa.

Working with writing and special interest societies

I’m also involved with the African Speculative Fiction Society. I’m on the steering committee. So my whole reason now with Bloody Parchment is when I open submissions for the next one it’s just going to be African writers and African diasporas so if you’re African in the UK or African in the US that’s fine. It’s just because there are just so few opportunities and it’s very difficult for them – for us – to get out there.

Obviously we don’t have any of the big [book] cons here. There is also a lot of resistance from local publishers for speculative fiction. So yeah, it’s that.

Ancient Egypt and researching places for fiction

And the Egyptian Society. Yeah, I know I’m a bit of an Egypt nut. I’ve realized now that I’ve been doing the Egyptian Society newsletter for about twenty years which is quite insane [laughs] but that’s fine. I just hadn’t realized it had been that long and it’s been quite useful for me because I finally this year figured out that if I’m every going to start writing my ancient Egyptian historical novels I might as well start this year and start researching.

It’s very much a case now of getting an idea. I found other books that are written, other fiction that was written more or less set in the same time, so now I’m at that stage of preparing where I’m reading the other source material and reading the other books that are set during that time period so that I don’t accidentally reinvent the wheel if you know what I mean. So yeah, that’s very exciting and it’s a lot of fun but the problem with Egypt is the more you learn the less you know.

Brendan: 19:49
I’m sure. There are a lot of interesting things that keep on getting uncovered and yes.

Historical adaptations and accuracy

Nerine: 19:59
Yeah it’s um one thing that as a big Egypt … sort of amateur Egyptologist which I suppose I am, the big thing that frustrates me no end is when I’m reading books or I’m watching a film or watching a TV series that’s set in ancient Egypt or they’re using ancient Egyptian styling and my background in graphic design and arts means that I’ve got a very good eye for when people are getting it wrong.

I was like, ‘that was Ptolemeic, what’s it doing in the Old Kingdom?’ You know, I’m like that, I’m that person. So it’s the reason why I’ve absolutely refused to watch the new Mummy movie which has got um Tom Cruise (not just the fact that I despise Tom Cruise) but I had one look at the mummy case and I absolutely refused to watch it.

I recently tried to watch a three-part miniseries that was brought out by the BBC about the life of King Tut. And not even little inconsistencies, the fact that they cast all the Matani as African people when the Matani were actually Middle Eastern, proto-Persian, and then the styling was just wrong and in reality King Tut had a club foot and he had to walk with a cane.

And they had this beautiful Indian gentleman and I’m thinking ‘You’re not even Middle Eastern and your wife is also this beautiful Indian lady. She’s wonderful, she’s lovely, she can act but she does not look Egyptian.’

So I get all worked up about that. And then of course they had Ben Kingsley as the vizier and you know, there’s a whole lot of complications there with whitewashing and I know he did a really good Gandhi back in the day, but times have changed. There are Egyptian and Middle Eastern actors who would have been more appropriate. So I’m watching all of this and I can feel the steam boiling out of my ears and then I just did not finish it because it was just too much for me.

Brendan: 22:00
That’s probably safer. So Nerine, thank you very much for giving us some insights into your practice into you and your background, we look forward to seeing more of you on our channels, on our Q&As, helping coach people. Thank you.

About Nerine Dorman

Nerine Dorman is a South African author and editor of science fiction and fantasy currently living in Cape Town, with short fiction published in numerous anthologies. She is the author of YA fantasy novel Dragon Forged which was a finalist in the 2017 Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature, and she is the curator of the South African Horrorfest Bloody Parchment event and short story competition. Her short story “On the Other Side of the Sea” (Omenana, 2017) was shortlisted for a 2018 Nommo award. Her novella The Firebird won a Nommo for “Best Novella” during 2019, and her novel Sing down the Stars won Gold for the Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature in 2019. Nerine writes about the omission of women SFF authors on ‘best of’ lists in this post.

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By Brendan McNulty

Brendan McNulty is one of the founders of Now Novel. He helps to improve the website, and loves getting writers' feedback to make Now Novel better.

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