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The Idea That Inspired My Moonshadow Series Of Ninja Novels, by Simon Higgins

I believe that imagination is like a muscle group in the body. With the application of even a casual amount of motivation, regular exercise and persistence against natural resistance, that imagination – or muscle group – will be flexed, nourished and steadily grow both in strength and endurance.

We can work our imagination simply through the way we observe daily life. Watch items of news, events great and trivial, people famous and obscure, and regularly pose an imaginative hypothesis about each person or situation. Try this in any environment you find yourself in. So many exciting thrillers and mass media novels have surely begun with a writer sitting on a hard bench under a flashing ‘Flight Delayed’ sign and musing to themselves, ‘What would I do next if I heard gunfire and the airport suddenly went into lockdown?’ So life, and its chance happenings, is all grist for the imagination’s mill.

When you read history, let your roaming mind look instinctively for the ‘What-ifs’ lurking in the wings. History is full of untold stories and untaught lessons. Whenever you  stumble on an intriguing historical clue, ferret out more, and keep thinking  ‘…so, therefore…’

While training in Japan for the Iaido World Titles in Kyoto in 2007, I broke off from the Australian team to stay with some Japanese friends in Kyoto. They kindly took me to a ninja museum in Iga-Ueno, hometown of Basho, the great Haiku poet, and also of the Iga shinobi clan. There, in an underground gallery of a 470 year old preserved ninja safe house, I read a number of translated scrolls about the early years of the reign of Tokugawa Ieyasu and the role the Iga clan played in his survival.

It seems that the ninja’s own historical records detail an ambush launched against the new Shogun in the mountains of Honshu and thwarted by very young  – teenage, in fact – ninja from Iga village, who were effectively part of the Shogun’s Secret Service – his eyes, ears and protectors, lurking in every glade and shadow. Fascination gripped me. So many of the real ninja of history were children! Among them, teenage spies who actually saved the ruler of the country. And more than once, as it turned out. Their amazing story deserved to be told to a young modern audience… but in a legendary, epic way, blending elements of folklore – such as the ninja’s alleged power to influence animals, and the dreaded Kunoichi (girl ninja) hypnosis weapon – with detailed, accurate spy craft. For the ninja of medieval Japan were arguably the most advanced spies in the world of their time. They used dyed rice grains to leave coded messages for each other in shrines. They reared their own children as the next generation of operatives, teaching them disguises, acting, explosives, poisons, trap-building and martial arts. The secrets of exactly how and just why they did this, I reasoned, would really engage readers, as long as the story was also fast moving and rich in twists and surprises.

In terms of overall plot, I should show a young ninja on his first real mission: his skills, doubts, inner conflicts, mistakes, duels, triumphs, hard lessons and his first major moral dilemma! Perhaps involving a powerful Kunoichi – a girl who is the opposite of himself. A competitor? So the idea grew.

From that short cascade of ideas, Moonshadow: Eye of the Beast was born.

Random House Australia published it in 2008, and it went bestseller and straight into reprint, plus a US print run with Little, Brown in New York (the publishers of the Twilight saga) and foreign language versions in German, Bahasa Indonesian and Turkish. It was short listed for an Aurealis Fantasy Award and has spawned three sequels so far. I was even invited to go on Saturday Disney to talk about the book and demonstrate Iaido sword fighting in full samurai costume.

All this came from one simple but little-known historical fact that really fired my imagination. Is there one waiting just for you?

***

Simon Higgins’s bio page

Simon Higgins’s author website: www.simonhiggins.net

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Moonshadow - Eye of the Beast by Simon Higgins - coverThe Twilight War (Moonshadow), by Simon HigginsMoonshadow - The Wrath of the Wolf by Simon Higgins - cover    Robyn Bavati - Pirouette book cover

Writing Novels in Australia
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On Character In Novels: Part 3, by Robyn Bavati

I’ll begin this month’s post by once again recapping the five principles that are useful in creating characters:

1. There is a difference between character and characterisation; 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.

In this post I’ll address the fourth and fifth principles, beginning with the integration of plot and character, and the idea that character motivation drives the story.

While you don’t need to know everything about your character, there is one thing you must know: your character’s motivation. Knowing what your character wants is the single most important thing you need to know. Without that, you won’t have a story.

When asked for story writing tips, Ray Bradbury said: “First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!”

Is it really that simple? Not quite. Once you know what he wants, you must also ask yourself what is preventing him from getting it and how far he will he go to achieve it. When you are able to answer these questions, you’ll have the backbone for your story.

The obstacles preventing your main character from achieving her greatest desires should be internal as well as external, and the flip side of what she wants is what she fears. It is only through confronting and overcoming her greatest fear that she is able to gain her deepest desire.

Aristotle famously said that character is revealed in the way a person acts when under pressure. In order to put your hero under pressure, thwart her desires (by placing obstacles, both internal and external, in her path) and place her in a situation where she is forced to confront her greatest fears.

Allow your main character to change over time. Change is the essence of character development and is what distinguishes novels from other art forms such as TV sitcoms. In a typical sitcom, the main character never changes. He might appear to change, but the change is short-lived and he invariably reverts to type. In fact, the sitcom depends on this. If the main character truly changed, the series would end. The sitcom relies on a long-standing dilemma that is never resolved. It is the very lack of resolution that allows it to continue episode after episode, year after year.

The novel, however, demands resolution. Unless it is part of a series (in which case the main character wins the battle but not the war), it is complete in itself, not just one in a series of ongoing episodes.

Aspiring novelists often confuse character consistency for character development. In the interests of consistency, they show the same character trait over and over, in different ways, so that the story becomes repetitive and the character is denied a chance to grow. They mistake repetition for development.

Heroes may (indeed should) be flawed but they must be inspiring. They must be allowed to rise to the challenge, to develop the courage they need to defeat the (preferably both internal and external) antagonists.

Of course, your story might demand a minor character who doesn’t change. The unchanging nature of a minor character might even make your hero seem all the more heroic by contrast. Also, you might decide to write about an anti-hero rather than a hero. However, if you make this choice, you might find yourself with a story that not many people want to read. Most readers want uplifting stories about a character who is finally able to overcome his demons. They want to identify with the hero to experience the struggle, the fear and the ultimate triumph.

In a satisfying story, the main character usually gains a deeper understanding of his own psyche. This generally manifests in a deeper understanding of what, exactly, it is that he wants. At the start of the novel, the main character (and sometimes the writer) is aware only of his external goal. He knows what he wants – but only on the surface – and might or might not be aware of his deep-seated fears.

For example, in Dancing in the Dark, the main character, Ditty, knows early on that she wants to dance, while Simone in Pirouette knows that she doesn’t. In both cases, it takes them some time to realise that what they really want is personal freedom. In other words, they begin with a surface goal or desire, and grow to understand something more about themselves and their deeper desire.

Stories that don’t look beyond the surface desire generally won’t get published, and if they do, they’ll fail to satisfy. It’s the deeper desire that will provide your themes and give your story substance and meaning.

Often, it is only when the deeper desire is understood by the character that the surface desire can be realised (though in some cases the surface goal becomes unimportant and is therefore abandoned).

As you write your novel, you’ll need to develop an understanding of the inner workings of your main character’s psyche. Only then will you have a character that readers can relate to.

Here’s an exercise you might like to try: Think of one of your favourite novels and ask yourself: What is the main character’s surface desire? What is the main character’s deeper desire? What must the main character learn or achieve in order to grow? Now think of the novel you are writing and ask yourself the same three questions.

***

There is an opportunity to attend a novel writing retreat in Tasmania with Robyn in October. For details, see https://www.facebook.com/NovelWritingRetreatsAustralia/posts/489199181237686. Applications are due by midnight on Friday, June 12th.

***

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Finding Inspiration To Write A Novel, by Sandi Wallace

Finding inspiration can be daunting to the point of debilitating. This applies to creators of novels, short stories or both. It frequently afflicts aspiring writers but can strike established ones too.

It also fascinates readers, who frequently say things like:
“Where do your stories come from?”
“It must be hard to think up new ideas.”
“I’ve got a story that you need to write.”

So, let’s think about that. Do we need to take ideas from well-meaning friends, family and readers, or do we have access to plenty of our own? Are these story ideas empowering? Do they make us believe we have something worth writing and ultimately worth publishing?

Clearly, there is much riding on inspiration. It’s the crux of creation and dictates result. Should finding inspiration be scary? Or should dreaming up and writing a story only be exciting?

I believe that whenever we create there should be a pinch of fear behind it. If there is no fear we aren’t striving for the best we’re capable of and we’re not putting enough of ourselves into the project. On the flipside, too much anxiety blunts creativity. So, seeking inspiration should be thrilling: exciting, pleasurable and accompanied by a little nervous tremor.

How/where do we find inspiration?

As I am a contemporary crime writer, my suggestions might resonate more strongly with genre writers than literary ones, but these work for me:

Observation

Things seen or overheard can act as a springboard to imagination, especially when combined with “what if?” or “and then…” Writers are often introverts and natural observers, frequently happiest sitting back, blending in, watching and asking questions. Therefore, we are sponges and muses are all around us.

Personal experience

Our personal accumulation of life skills and experiences add fodder for developing characters and stories. Stand out examples may become central storylines. These might include deaths of loved ones, career changes, house moves, renovations, love of all types, relationship up and downs, health problems, travel, wins and losses, assaults or accidents.

True crime and other actual events, reported via newspapers, magazines, television, specialist journals, police media and/or discussed by the public

These can trigger a series of brain jumps to the point where the actual story written bears little or no resemblance to the initial event. For fiction writers, that’s probably a lot safer than taking true crime and aiming to fictionalise it, which could lead to a lawsuit or stalker situation.

Headlines, titles of stories, pictures

A fun exercise is to gather newspapers, books with evocative covers, or perhaps a series of photos or other pictures, and scroll through them until something grabs you. Every innocuous thing has the potential for greatness. Even obituaries and classifieds can be goldmines.

Imagine a photo of a bloke in overalls with the headline “Pig Farm Crisis”. What does it say to you? If that man and his farm were your protagonist and setting, what would his crisis be? For crime writers, what offence and scenario might fit and is he as innocent as he first appears? For rural romance writers, who is his heroine, what is their personal conflict, as well as the farm crisis?

What themes do you want to explore in your story?

What do you want to say about the world, solve or resolve? What do you want to write that will clutch readers by the throat and keep them hooked?

Try listing five to ten things that make you angry, five to ten things that make you sad and five to ten things that make you happy. What stands out?

You have an established protagonist

What is their worst fear? Do it to them!

Writer’s journal

Fill a notebook or electronic journal with all your random thoughts, ideas, photographs, postcards, whatever could trigger a great story, character or setting. Use it to practise first lines, dialogue and other narrative devices too.

Ideas for my next book (or short story) come to me while I’m writing or editing the current one, maybe because at that time there is no pressure on me to think of a new storyline and I’m in a highly creative place. I recommend jotting down those ideas under something like “Book five plot/theme”, to avoid interference with the current project or forgetting the new concepts.

An amalgam of ideas

Try combining things from all (or some) of the above categories.

If you’ve just discovered your new plot idea, congratulations. Now the real fun begins!

***

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

Sandi Wallace on Facebook

     Robyn Bavati - Pirouette book coverHelene Young, Northern HeatThe Delta

Writing Novels in Australia
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On Character In Novels: Part 2, by Robyn Bavati

As outlined in last month’s post, when developing your characters there are five principles worth bearing in mind:

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.

In my last post I wrote primarily about the first of these principles, and explained that characterisation deals with outward characteristics and physical attributes, while character expresses personality and the inner workings of the heart and mind.

Once you have established who your character is (eg. a mischievous eight-year old girl, a blind ten year-old boy, a middle aged woman with a limp), you’ll probably want to convey a few significant details about your character’s personality. It’s at this point you’ll want to make use of the second principle – that character is best revealed through action. But what does this mean? Here are some examples:

1. Gerald is an extremely frugal old man, but instead of “Gerald was frugal”, try “Gerald searched the attic for his box of used matches – there was no point throwing them out when he could use them again”, or “Gerald folded the piece of toilet paper over again and again; it would be a waste to flush it away after just one wipe.”

2. Ten-year-old Beth has a big heart, but instead of “Beth was kind”, try “Ignoring the rumble in her stomach, Beth gave her only sandwich to the beggar. He did look hungry.”

By describing Gerald as frugal or Beth as generous, you’re telling your readers what to think about these characters. By showing them in action and allowing the reader insight into the inner workings of their minds, you’re allowing readers to reach their own conclusions, which is much more satisfying.

Of course, if your characters are ruminating on their own frugality or kindness, that too can be a way of allowing the reader into their minds, and is not the same as the author telling the reader what to think. Likewise, other characters in the story may share their opinions about the main character, which is also acceptable, as it will then be up to readers to form their own opinions based on the way a character acts.

How much information do readers actually need in order to form their own opinions? And how much do you, the writer, need to know?

Writers are often told they must know everything about their characters. In some writing courses, students are encouraged to write extensive character profiles, several pages long. Such lengthy profiles are not only time-consuming, they are often unhelpful. Do you really need to know what school your character went to, what childhood diseases he had, whether he prefers chocolate or vanilla ice cream, how many first cousins he has and whether he broke his leg at the age of three?

This brings us to the third principle: 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.

You probably don’t need to know what your character ate for breakfast, unless she is suffering from an eating disorder, in which case it might be highly relevant. Likewise, you may not need to know that she has researched the properties of the plants in her garden, unless one of them is toxic and she uses it to poison someone later in the story.

You do need to know what she is doing in a particular scene, and it can be helpful to know what she was doing just before the scene began and what she is planning to do next.

Always remember that you are telling a story. The information you reveal about your character is relevant only insofar as it serves the story. It is this idea of serving the story that is the backbone of character development, to be continued in next month’s post…

In the meantime, here are a couple of exercises you might like to try:

  1. Choose a couple of character descriptors from the following list (or come up with your own): mean, shy, extroverted, happy, miserable, frustrated, guilty, grumpy, ecstatic, loving, rude. Now write a sentence or two for each that reveals that attribute through action (as in the Gerald and Beth examples, above).
  2. Write a list of 5-10 things you need to know about your main character, and another list of 5-10 things that are irrelevant to the story you want to tell.

***

*There is an opportunity to attend a novel writing retreat in Tasmania with Robyn in October. For details, see https://www.facebook.com/NovelWritingRetreatsAustralia/posts/489199181237686.

***

Robyn Bavati’s bio page

Robyn Bavati’s author website: www.robynbavati.com

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Chosen One (or Hero’s Journey) Stories, by Simon Higgins

A massive chunk of the combined fictional writings of the human race, as well as the founding stories of many world religions, revolve around what has come to be called The Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell, a brilliant academic from a Christian tradition, immersed himself in the East and its culture, travelling and analysing beliefs, legends and customs. The conclusions he recorded in his books and lectures really nailed The Hero’s Journey for writers. The gist of it is this:

Someone, somewhere, is inevitably the Chosen One but they don’t know it, or if they do, they can’t accept it. 

A mentor (who recently, in cinema, seems to have taken the form of Liam Neeson way too many times) appears to help the hero confront their identity and therefore, the mission they must accept, conflict they must face, destiny they must fulfil. Of course, there is usually also a powerful nemesis who is ruthless, full of self-certainty, waiting for that final show down. In gaming terms, the dreaded Boss of the Level.

Destiny has chosen them. Evil will hunt them. We had better pray they survive, for only they can save us.

When I speak and teach creative writing in schools and at literary festivals, I love to get students and readers discussing both Romeo and Juliet (which I’ve blogged about separately) and this blog’s focus, The Chosen One (or Hero’s Journey) formula.

Both ‘legends’ are so central to the human psyche and so beloved by centuries of readers that I think our understanding of them is crucial to keeping these compelling traditions alive and vibrant. Perhaps we need to consider why they appear to spark such a response in all who share the human condition.

My theory about The Chosen One is that the idea of discovering one day that it’s you – and that along with that burden will also come special powers, training and amazing new friends – is surely the ultimate fantasy for many of us. Who wouldn’t like to be shown in the end to be unique AND get to save the world along the way, thereby securing future immortality in the media, folklore and legend?  

Notice how, in the paragraph above, while just roundly outlining the fantasy, the things I unconsciously focused on were the various personal benefits, and the saving the world stuff was almost a rider on the end. This, I think, is the reality of that fragile, needy, human ego our species shares, works at so hard and at times is forced to resist with all remaining sanity. We all dream of being shown to be special. It’s all about us.

I find it interesting that the richest hero stories always show the hero’s real magnificence, which is not their powers or gadgets. It’s how they bounce back after failure, which is often self-generated through pride, impulsiveness or arrogance. The humbling of Thor. We seem to gravitate towards these ‘challenge to the ego’ type of tales. 

Maybe the power of a hero fantasy does also derive from a genuine wish in us to save others, which, let’s face it, special abilities would make more possible. So maybe the dream of being unveiled as a hero or demigod reflects an ancient human need to secure order in the cosmos to obtain some heavenly property or energy and with it hold back negative forces. That would better enable us to protect or rescue all we love. 

Sometimes The Chosen One is a blatantly messianic figure, fated to save mankind or a world in direct conflict with evil, often an evil that that world has fashioned themselves in the classic Frankenstein pattern. Think cinema like The Fifth Element, I am Legend and The Matrix, and literature like Harry Potter.

I find great amusement in something I observed in the Terminator franchise, which takes in books, movies, games and a TV series or several. As originally conceived by James Cameron, it’s the story of John Connor but in part, it can also be described as a sci-fi echo of the story of Jesus Christ.

There’s a prophecy in the sense of foreknowledge of John’s value and future role as a saviour, and an attempt on his mother’s life before he is even born. Very biblical. But there are also wildcards. One of the tale’s modern elements is a time-travelling mentor who also doubles as a love interest for John’s mother Sarah. It’s all classic Hero’s Journey.  

Now, getting back to those powers, it should have been me. The suit, the hammer, that super soldier formula, whatever, should have found its way to me and my needy little human ego. I hope Stark Industries, Odin, Shield, whoever has the resources, are reading this.

If so privileged, I really would be totally selfless and focus entirely on that saving the world stuff, all Man-of-Steel-like.

Of course, I’d happily settle for just having my own submarine and crew, like my character Kira Beaumont.

***

Simon Higgins’s bio page

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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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Freaky by Sue Whiting     Helene Young, Safe Harbour

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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.

***

Simon Higgins’s bio page

Simon Higgins’s author website: www.simonhiggins.net

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Moonshadow - Eye of the Beast by Simon Higgins - coverThe Twilight War (Moonshadow), by Simon HigginsMoonshadow - The Wrath of the Wolf by Simon Higgins - cover    Robyn Bavati - Pirouette book cover

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