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Plotting My Novel ‘Portraits of Celina’, by Sue Whiting

I am not a plotter. I am more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of writer – particularly in the early stages of the writing process. To me, there is nothing more exciting than creating a cast of characters, plopping them into a situation, then letting them go and watching the mischief they create. I am nearly always surprised!

Of course, this method isn’t an efficient way to write a novel. It usually involves many false starts, frequent wrong turns, impossible corners to try to get out of, and many drafts and much rewriting as you make connections and figure out what the heck your story is really about. But, oh, for me, it is a much more thrilling ride.

When writing Portraits of Celina, my characters absolutely derailed my initial intention for this novel. I didn’t set out to write a creepy story. Suspenseful, yes. Creepy, no. I certainly didn’t plan on writing a ghost story, but Celina O’Malley had other ideas.

When I started writing the novel, the character of Celina O’Malley was just part of the backstory, an element of the tragic history of the house at Tallowood, which Bayley and her grief-stricken family move in to, in a desperate attempt to mend their lives.

Much like the way Celina wheedles her way into Bayley’s life in the novel, Celina wheedled her way into the forefront of my brain and subsequently into the main storyline. She didn’t want to be merely backstory; she wanted a lead role, and what Celina wants, Celina gets.

At first the living teenage Celina appeared to me as a happy, joyful, free spirit, a leftover flower child, who had much love in her heart. Slowly, ever so gradually, the real Celina began to reveal herself. I started to see another side to her – a much darker side – and the cunning control-freak who manipulated those around her to get her own way started to show her true colours. Now, almost forty years after her murder, forty tortuous years for Celina, the ghost of Celina is just as manipulative as her living teenage self, but also much more sinister and determined, and intent on exacting revenge. No matter what.

This enigmatic, demanding character intrigued me enormously, and, I have to say, it was a delight to write her, to give in to her demands and provide her with the prominence she yearned for. The result, of course, added to the suspense of the story – but it also meant that, without really intending to, I had written a creepy ghost story. This also meant lots of rethinking, revising and rewriting as I worked through the numerous subsequent drafts. I am really glad I listened to Celina and glad that I wasn’t so bound by my initial idea. I was able to change tack and follow the mischief this character created. It was without doubt a more thrilling ride because of it.

***

Sue Whiting’s author website: www.suewhiting.com

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Using Story Formulas In Original Ways, by Simon Higgins

People sometimes speak about formulas in storytelling (by which I mean highly recognisable patterns and elements) as if they are a bad thing. Of course, handled poorly, exploitatively or simply B-graded into total madness, they are indeed worse than bad.

Formulas that have been done to death scream at us from the blurbs of advertising posters and trailers. They are obvious, basic and for the most part can’t be taken further than they already have in the hundreds of books and thousands of movies representing their predictable steps.

‘They killed somebody he/she loved. They pushed him/her too far. Now he’s/she’s back, burning for revenge…’

I think more positive tropes, even dark ones, have far more, and more enduring, appeal. I used the very familiar idea of a rich vigilante hero in the Thunderfish series (in a most un-Batman-like way) and, going on the first novel’s Notable Book of the Year listing, the second’s Ned Kelly Award short listing and the trilogy’s many generous reviews, the reboot worked. Kira Beaumont and her crew took the readers of Thunderfish, Under No Flag and In the Jaws of the Sea on a journey of loss, outrage, reinvention and justice. The pattern of a hero passing through an ordeal then rising from it with greater strength and more purpose is an epic formula that can be harnessed in so many ways, in any era, culture or genre.

Some formulas appear to resonate deeply with us humans. Often not along the lines one might expect, either. Take the whole notion of romance, finding that perfect match. You’d think people would go for the musical style ending, kind of ‘life ala Mama Mia’ where everybody gets a happy ending or at least winds up satisfied with their lot. Such a rosy picture, in which even a former James Bond can burst into song to propose, with audience and ensemble cast on his side. Well, no, this is not the most beloved and timeless romantic template for humans. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is: a decidedly unhappy ending, where one or both of the star-crossed lovers, so filled with undying passion for each other, perish tragically and before their time. A perfect match they might be, but powerful forces in their world, stronger than love, more brutal than their desire, are destined to tear them apart or cut them down. We humans never get sick of retelling this tale!

If you think me off-track here, consider the following spectacularly popular movie examples that I often cite during creative writing workshops I teach. Moulin Rouge (Romeo and Juliet at the world’s most famous nightclub) Titanic (R&J on the world’s most famous disaster ship) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Two sets of R&J’s, with kung fu!). The more analytically you think about books you’ve loved and movies you’ve wept over, the more you’ll detect that eternal R&J shadow falling over you.

So why is this formula so enduring? Is it some form of envy that makes us take delight in watching perfect, fresh, intense love get ripped apart? Perhaps a compulsion towards melancholy realism, or a slightly bitter instinct in us that says, “Well that’s too precious, too wonderful, to last! So it shouldn’t!”

Or, weirdly, does seeing poor Jack let go, Satine die of consumption or Li Mu Bai succumb to poison in his great love’s arms actually make us all, somehow, feel better?

These are intriguing questions. Whatever the truth (and it may be all of the above options), it’s certain that at least in one sense, Romeo and Juliet will never die. So where’s that writer who will be next to put a fresh face on their enduring story, to great success and acclaim. Yea, wherefore art thou?

Verily, it could be you.

***

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On Character In Novels: Part 1, by Robyn Bavati

The first book I ever wrote was a fast-paced, plot-based fantasy novel that was rejected primarily because the hero had no personality. Aware of this deficiency, I rationalised that I had deliberately made him an ‘everyboy’. I thought that if he lacked any distinguishing features, then anyone who read the story would be able to relate to him. I clung to this rationalisation because the truth was, I didn’t know how to develop his character.

Now, more than twenty-five years later, what I know about character and character development may be summed up in five basic principles:

1)      There is a difference between character and characterisation, and both are required.

2)      Character is best revealed through action.

3)      You don’t need to know everything about your character, but only those details that provide insight, advance the plot or in some way enhance your story.

4)      Character does not exist in a vacuum but is inextricably linked to plot – character motivation drives the story.

5)      In a novel (as opposed to, say, TV sitcom), characters must be allowed to change over time.

This post will address the first of these principles.

In any novel, there is a need for both character and characterisation, and novice writers sometimes confuse the two, thinking that characterisation alone will suffice.

Characterisation is the character’s outward appearance – physical attributes such as height, build, hair colour or complexion and approximate age, as well as obvious idiosyncrasies such as a lisp or twitch. Character, on the other hand, deals with the inner workings of the heart and mind, and encompasses thoughts and feelings, attitudes and beliefs, sensations and moods, as well as personal attributes – shy or confident, modest or boastful, friendly or distant, mean or kind.

An old, grey-haired man with a limp; a young blonde woman wearing glasses; a skinny boy with a prominent scar on his cheek; a plump girl with curly red hair, pale skin and freckles – all these are examples of characterisation. They paint a picture but provide no real insight.

While distinctive characteristics and idiosyncrasies (characterisation) make characters more relatable and allow the reader to form a mental picture of the character, it’s the character’s deep and recognisable emotions that enable readers to identify and experience their journey.

Common mistakes in characterisation generally include:
1) describing the character in too much detail, or
2) describing the character too late in the novel.

Since readers often like to form a picture of the character in their heads, it’s best to provide just a few salient details. Paradoxically, too lengthy and detailed a description can actually confuse readers and interfere with the process of forming their own vision of the character.

Similarly, characterisation should occur when the character is first introduced – or very soon after. If a character is introduced on page 3, it won’t do to reveal only on page 53 that she’s a blonde – the reader may have imagined her a brunette for the past 50 pages.

While characterisation remains constant (the sixty-year-old man with a limp doesn’t change into a ten-year-old girl), characters change over time – the cowardly boy becomes courageous, the miserly old man learns to be generous, the shy but lonely widow overcomes her inhibitions and makes some friends. But more about that in later posts…

In the meantime, to fully internalise the difference between character and characterisation, here’s an exercise you might like to try: Divide a page into two columns. In one, list all the physical attributes and characteristics you could include under the heading Characterisation. In the other, list all the qualities, sensations, moods and emotions you could list under Character.

***

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Becoming A Published Novelist, by Sandi Wallace

You want to write a novel. Perhaps you want to write many novels. Fantastic! Now, settle in for a ride that will probably be long, interesting, challenging, daunting and fun.

The first thing to realise about writing a novel is that nothing happens quickly. So enjoy every step and take the positives out of setbacks – your baby just isn’t ready yet but if you keep persevering, learning and growing, you have every chance of achieving your writing dream and the delay means your book will be the best it’s capable of being when it’s finally released.

You only get one shot at a great first impression, so don’t be in too much of a hurry.

You’ll have moments of doubting yourself. I questioned if I should adopt a saner hobby – like retail therapy or doing coffee – but it was tongue-in-cheek while I kept pounding the keyboard. Fortunately, when I first submitted my manuscript to a publisher, although she said it “isn’t ready yet”, her feedback was very positive. Instead of recommending I try a new pastime, she invited me to resubmit, which I did and she subsequently offered me a publishing deal.

Because fears and frustrations are normal humps, write despite them, or spurred on by them. Write because you can’t imagine not writing. Write first for your own satisfaction and sense of accomplishment. Then imagine the thrill if you’re able to take that to another level, to be published and share your work with others.

You will be working on your book for a lengthy time, so make it a good time. Maybe you’ll be a writer who attempts different manuscripts before one is published. Some of those may be destined to remain in your bottom drawer forever. Maybe you’ll be like me and decide that you still believe in that first full-length novel and can bring it up to publishable standard. Either way, the process will involve redrafts, critiques from others, more editing and eventually submissions to literary agents or publishers, unless you’ve chosen the self-publishing route. Response times on submissions vary greatly but twelve to twenty-four months isn’t unusual.

Because you’ll be with your book for a long time, write what you want to write, what you’re good at and what you’d like to read, because your foremost audience is you. Write some of what you know and research the gaps. You can draw upon every significant experience in your life – love affair, marriage breakdown, car accident, failed exam, trip abroad, house move, new job and more – adding texture to your writing.

Read widely, especially across the type of novel you want to write (if you know what that is). Keep a journal rating each book you read, recording what you liked or disliked about the work, and useful data such as publisher details, and, where the author mentions it, his or her agent. The former will help you cherry-pick the facets of writing that will develop into your unique style and the latter will help you target your submissions appropriately. There is no point sending your gritty crime novel to a publisher or agent that specialises in cookbooks.

Some authors don’t know what type of novel they want to write. They make this decision once they’ve planned a theme, characters, setting and so on. If you’re in this category, you’ll find your story and fit it to a genre or literary fiction.

Many of us know what type of book we want to write and plan a story around that.

At a very early age – as a shy, imaginative, bookworm dreamer – I became hooked on writing and addicted to crime fiction in film and print, and the likes of Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, and series such as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys cemented it. Ever since, I dreamed of being a crime writer and scribing my own series.

I took a winding path towards that dream, with stints as banker, paralegal, cabinetmaker, office manager, executive assistant, personal trainer and journalist, and came close to joining the police force along the way. Although I might’ve made a good police detective, I’ve found a safer way to investigate and solve crimes as an author. My ‘writer’s apprenticeship’ wasn’t time wasted. It made me more determined to achieve my dream. It continues to provide inspiration and fodder for my stories. It gives me maturity as a writer.

As I wrote my first crime novel Tell Me Why, I kept in mind some essential advice passed on to me by writing tutors, authors and publishers:

  • Aspire to be as good as you’re capable of being at that time.
  • Continue to work to be a better writer.
  • Learn from the authors you admire but don’t try to imitate them.
  • Be true to yourself.
  • Writing is often solitary, so network with other writers – from aspiring to established – to learn from and support each other.
  • Enjoy writing and the associated experiences.
  • Luck and good timing can factor into success.
  • Boost your writer’s biography with achievements in short story competitions and publication in a range of forms.

I am currently writing the fourth manuscript in my series and, so far, none has been as challenging as my first. Even at this stage, I keep these tips in mind, along with my personal motto: If it means that much to you, do it.

So, hang on to your hat, good luck and I wish you every success with writing your novel.

***

Sandi Wallace’s author website: www.sandiwallace.com

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The Undying Appeal Of Immortality In Fiction, by Simon Higgins

Immortality is one of humanity’s oldest storytelling traditions and therefore one of written art’s great themes. Why is it so persistent? To help us really nail its place in writing, let’s consider it in the light of human nature. Mortal nature.

I think universal angst over mortality can confront a young adult just as easily as a retiree. It underpins the appeal of fantasy immortals like vampires and angels in folklore and modern fiction. Perhaps also those quirky Benjamin Button type characters whose lives are fated to be odd and remarkable, yet universally accessible at the same time.

Travelling in China in late 2012, researching for new books, I was repeatedly confronted with reminders of this human fixation. Not only the Land of the Dragon but the world in general is littered with relics and monuments that echo the lives of rulers yearning to live forever. If not in this world, then in the next. History is so lush with amazing, idea-provoking backstories.

Obsessed with staying alive, the first emperor of China drank immortality potions, including ingredients like mercury, which modern science has proven is toxic to humans. But when the experimental medicine of the time and the assurances of his astrologers began to ring hollow, the master of the Middle Kingdom turned his attention to securing his afterlife. In it, he reasoned, there would still be enemies to face. If he was to remain proud and invincible, he would need to take both the jewels of his court – his wives and concubines – and his mighty army, into the afterlife with him, at least symbolically. Was fear of a post-death battle a huge factor in his thinking? By this stage, those mercury brews had most likely addled his mind.

It was an amazing experience to go to Xian, where part of the Silk Road started, to see the results of his dream face to face – literally. It has been called the Eighth Wonder of the World. What a thrill to explore all three (so far) excavated pits containing the infantry, archers and horses of China’s Terracotta Army. In Pit 1, the largest of the digs, I was able to get quite close to individually modelled warriors. Each one, many experts believe, reflects a particular soldier who lived and served in an elite fighting unit. Jaw-dropping as the Terracotta Warriors are, they are also surely a potential warning to us about the nature of real immortality.

A thousand years from now, China’s first Emperor will doubtless be remembered, most likely for the sheer scale of his vision, his ambition and for forcefully uniting the warring kingdoms. But I think writers like George Orwell and Harper Lee will also be remembered… for significantly challenging the Western world’s thinking with powerful stories that have already been read, honoured and retold across generations, sparking useful debate.

So isn’t real immortality about leaving a positive, creative legacy? That, we can all partake of. Perhaps storytelling messages themselves best explain this enduring human obsession with living forever. In fiction, writers give us both villains and heroes, fated to live impossibly long or resilient lives, regenerate like Wolverine, renew themselves like Doctor Who (or James Bond, for that matter). One example is the character called The Deathless in the first of my Moonshadow ninja novels, Eye of the Beast. Most writers working with immortal or empowered characters try to show how lonely that wanderer’s life really is, and how deeply flawed their character and consequent decisions.

In other words, supermen, amazons and immortals are every bit as fallible and tortured as the rest of us. This is actually very comforting. Maybe it’s something people keep coming back to reflect on, through the tool of fiction, because it’s SO comforting. Millennia of oral tradition, then writing, now pop-culture, repeats the eternal message behind the immortality myth:

Don’t sweat it. Even the divine suffer. Heroes ultimately let themselves down, choose badly, or fall while striving on their quest.

Even the feisty Norse Gods cop Ragnarok in the end. So really, we’re all in the same longship.

No wonder we find that creating such people in high stakes conflict situations absorbs us endlessly. We see ourselves and our struggles micro-mirrored in the turbulent stories of people who are like us, yet endowed with far greater powers and facing more ultimate threats. But, in the end, are they really more powerful, or just both blessed and blighted, like everyone else, simply in a more grand and tragic way?

Stories with a point to them live forever. You can kill people but not ideas. So my advice is take up your quill rather than sword and share tales worth repeating until the stars turn to dust.

As Shakespeare’s endurance proves, readers and viewers love layered characters, timeless ideas, plots with intriguing levels and at least one observation or insight of substance to relish or reflect on later, when the joyous tumult of the heroic plot is done.

If we writers can recognise the great undying themes, make sense of their engine rooms, then creatively deliver, yet again, their high calibre essence to our readers, a kind of immortality is up for grabs.

***

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Animal Characters In Novels, by Jennifer Scoullar

‘So your stories have animal characters. I didn’t know you wrote children’s books?’

I get this a lot, and it’s a puzzle. The assumption is that, as adults, we’re somehow supposed to have outgrown our emotional connection to the animal world. That hasn’t happened to me. I’m as alive now to the voices and possibilities of animals as I ever was, and fortunately my readers are too.

There is a proud tradition of animal characters in adult fiction. Early examples are the Houyhnhnms, a race of civilised horses in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the birds, ants and fish in TH White’s The Once And Future King and perhaps the greatest animal character of all time, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. However in the twentieth century it became unfashionable to portray fictional animals, except in children’s literature. It became even more unfashionable to attribute any form of emotion to them. (Interestingly, recent research on dolphins and elephants suggests that they may well experience a wider range of emotions than humans.) Nevertheless, anthropomorphism became a pejorative term.

Thankfully there are always authors who defy convention. So we have the tortured rabbits of Richard Adams’ Watership Down. We have the marvellous dogs of David Wroblewski’s The Tale Of Edgar Sawtelle and Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy. Cormac McCarthy writes from the point of view of a wolf in The Crossing. This powerful excerpt fills us with dread and admiration, without ever becoming sentimental:

“She carried a scabbed-over wound on her hip where her mate had bitten her two weeks before somewhere in the mountains of Sonora. He’d bitten her because she would not leave him. Standing with one forefoot in the jaws of a steel trap and snarling at her to drive her off where she lay just beyond the reach of the chain. She’d flattened her ears and whined and she would not leave. In the morning they came on horses. She watched from a slope a hundred yards away as he stood up to meet them.”

Then, of course, there’s Only The Animals by Ceridwen Dovey, which has been long-listed for this year’s Stella Prize. In this astonishing anthology, the souls of ten animals who died in human conflicts over the last century tell their own stories. The old taboo against anthropomorphism is lifting, and it’s a fine thing.

When building an animal character, I first learn as much as I can about its life. As an amateur naturalist from way back, this is a great joy for me. I love nothing more than immersing myself in the world of a brumby, or dolphin, or even an octopus. (I have an octopus character in my March 25th release Turtle Reef.) I then build my animal character. I invent a back-story, motivation and personality based on what I’ve learned of the species. As with any other character, not all of this invention will find its way onto the page but I keep it in mind as I write.

This kind of thoughtful, balanced anthropomorphism helps us recognise the kinship shared by humans and animals. An example is the recent documentary film Blackfish, telling the story of Tilikum, a troubled, captive Orca who killed several of his trainers. It’s a heart-wrenching tale that has us sympathising with the whale. This couldn’t happen if we weren’t given some insight into Tilikum’s emotional plight.

There are two important things to keep in mind when writing animals for adults. Firstly, you need a strong reason for having a non-human character. It must further the plot or reinforce your theme in a way no person can. Secondly, you must balance animal and human traits in a sensitive and respectful way that suits your particular story. Readers should be able to empathise with the animal character, while still recognising its unique differences.

I have a few novels in my bottom drawer that were rejected because of animal points of view. Yet the wild popularity of rural fiction is largely due to the prominent role animals and nature play in the genre. Maybe I should dust off those manuscripts? Readers, particularly ones living in the concrete jungles of our cities, are hungry to re-engage with the natural world. They love animal characters. It seems the publishing world is finally catching up with them.

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Jennifer Scoullar’s author website: www.jenniferscoullar.com

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On Setting In Novels, by Robyn Bavati

A friend of mine had a small role as a middle-aged Jewish woman in the first season of a popular TV series, and was asked back for a second season. When she discovered that a scene written for her in the next season was almost an exact replica of one of the scenes she did in the first, she rang me to ask for ideas about how to make the new scene different. I suggested they show her baking challah – to which she replied, “But there’s no kitchen on the set.”

Fortunately, as novelists we have no such constraints, and can set our scenes wherever we like to add variety and richness to our story.

Setting refers to time and place, and is essential for conveying the world of the story. Most writers understand that a story set in eighteenth century France will have a different feel from one set in ancient Egypt, just as they understand the difference between a story set in an urban environment as opposed to a rural one. Your story may be set in the past, the present or the future, in a real world or an imagined one. You may wish to write contemporary fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, sci fi or dystopian fiction. When it comes to setting – your choices are huge – in fact, unlimited.

Unlike backstory (a requisite element of any novel but not one that must necessarily permeate the entire story), setting is one of the six basic elements of novel-writing. This means that, along with the other five basic elements (plot, character, structure, voice and theme), it must be integrated into every scene.

The three most common mistakes writers make when it comes to setting are:

1. Overlooking it altogether (eg. the scene might be a conversation between two people, but the reader never finds out where and when the scene takes place).

2. Describing the scene in far more detail than the story requires.

3. Moving a character from one scene to the next in an unwieldy manner as a result of not knowing how to simply set the scene.

Luckily, all these errors are easily fixed. If you think you might have overlooked setting in one of your scenes, read through each scene and check whether you have written a sentence or two early on in the scene that enables the reader to imagine where and when the scene takes place. If not, be sure to add these descriptors. Even if you think that what’s important is what is said, not where and when it is said, the where and when is still information the reader will need.

Perhaps you have already set the scene. Have you kept the description of time and place clear and concise? Or is the description overly detailed and hard to follow? Remember that every scene should in some way provide insight into character and advance the plot. Try not to let setting hog too much of the limelight. If you’ve gone overboard when describing your setting, pare it back.

Finally, let’s take a look at how easy it is to move characters from one scene to another just by setting the scene. The key lies in understanding that you don’t have to move your characters – just put them where you want them to be. For example, if you’re moving Tom from the living room to the bedroom, instead of a filler sentence such as, “Tom got up from his chair in the living room and went into the bedroom”, simply begin a new sentence with “Later, in his bedroom…” or leave a white space and begin a new scene with “In his bedroom that evening…”

A white space generally indicates a new scene – a change in time and/or place. If you want to begin a scene hours, days or months after the preceding scene, you don’t need to fill the reader in all that has happened in the interim. If anything of significance has happened, it will most likely have a scene of its own. There is nothing wrong with beginning a scene with a brief time descriptor such as “The following day”, “The next week” or “One month later”. Of course, it would be a mistake to begin all your scenes this way. You might like to begin with a description of place, or with action or dialogue. Eg.:

Tom approached the lane with his eyes firmly on the centre skittle. Though the bowling alley was crowded that evening, he managed to block out the noise of the other bowlers. He had to focus.

Or:

“How much did you bet?” asked Jane, as they entered the bowling alley that evening.
Tom winced, not wanting to admit they’d be out on the street if he didn’t win.

In both instances, the setting is taken care of early on, cueing the reader in on time and place.

You can also use setting to add richness to your story by taking your characters somewhere new and exciting, or by depicting the banal in an interesting way. As Samuel Johnson said, “The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar, and familiar things new.”

Remember, you’re writing a novel, not a film script – no budget restrictions limit your imagination. So have fun. Let your imagination roam. Dare to explore.

***

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