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Month In Review (December 2013)

Writing Novels in Australia has reached the end of its final month of articles for 2013 from this year’s line-up of monthly contributors encompassing aspiring novelists, early-career novelists and established novelists.

Writing Novels in Australia contributors Helene Young and Alison Booth are each attached to a novel writing retreat in 2014 with Novel Writing Retreats Australia.

You can connect with Writing Novels in Australia on Facebook, Twitter or Google+.

Articles for December 2013

On Finding Success As A Writer by Jenn J McLeod

Going Public With Your Writing Habit by Phillipa Fioretti

Writing A Chapter Summary For Your Novel, by Kate Belle (guest article)

Setting In Your Novel by Alison Booth

Chase Your Dreams by Helene Young

Collaboration In The Writing Community by Kelly Inglis

Calling Yourself A Writer by Lia Weston

Taking Notes In The Course of Writing A Novel by Onil Lad

Writing Characters Readers Will Care About  by Ben Marshall

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‘Month In Review’ Updates

For more articles on writing novels you can check out Writing Historical Novels and Writing Teen Novels.

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Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

Writing Characters Readers Will Care About, by Ben Marshall

In creating characters readers care about, the reader doesn’t need to like them – at least at first.  In those crucial first pages, the reader is still getting their bearings.  They don’t know or understand the characters yet.  But, if they don’t understand them, how can they empathise with them?  Why would any reader care about a character with whom they can’t empathise, and why would they keep reading?

For a reader to begin a relationship with the person on the page, I suggest they need to see that character caring about someone or something other than themselves.

In the early paragraphs and pages, when we’re still luring our reader in to become hooked on our story, the plot or context is likely to be one of tension – internal, external or both.  Our protagonist will be in the thick of it, or about to be.  At this point, a standard trick in feature film scripts to engender audience empathy for the protagonist is to stage a ‘save the cat’ moment, where the hero or heroine steps out of their comfort zone, perhaps at risk to themselves, to perform an impressive act of kindness.  In novels, however, this could appear too large a moment, unsubtle, and too obvious a technique for winning a reader’s heart.

In the first pages The Hunger Games, author Suzanne Collins has her heroine, Katniss, worried about her younger sister.  Anyone who cares about another person is inherently good and worth caring about in turn.  Readers register this kind of subtext with little or no analysis, but the questions remain – why does the protagonist care?  What is the threat and what is the worst-case scenario?

In that cunning way we writers bind and enchant our readers to our tale, we’ve already indicated ‘here is someone worth caring about’.  If the plot is high stakes, any altruistic thoughts the protagonist has are put into sharp relief – caring becomes an active, risky thing, and therefore admirable.

Even a selfish character or anti-hero has to care about something. Otherwise there would be no dilemma and the reader would struggle to remain interested.

In the first pages of Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, protagonist Charlie, acting against his parents’ strictures and his own fear, exits into the night, summoned to help his dangerous friend, Jasper.  Without knowing anything else, Charlie wins the reader’s sympathy and the author wins their intrigue.  Either way, we’re hooked.

In the opening pages of Haruki Murakami’s IQ84, the female protagonist, Aomame, cares for a piece of music, specifically composer Leos Janacek’s Sinfonietta.  Murakami uses stream of consciousness exposition as a curiously adrift Aomame is stuck in traffic, listening to music, letting her mind wander.  She thinks, is thoughtful and therefore cares what she thinks about.  Even if we don’t care, we’re curious about why she does and see that she is a decent person as she considers the cab and its owner.  In the tension of gridlocked traffic, stuck in the confines of a small taxi on one of the upper level freeways that fly high through Japanese cities, when Aomame decides to strike out and leave the taxi to get to an appointment, it’s an oddly daring risk – a flight to freedom and into possible danger.  She doesn’t care about herself, but she’s likeable and intriguing, and we’re worried what’s going to happen to her.

In Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, three teenagers are walking to an interview.  The two in front are James and Julia, young lovers who walk hand-in-hand.  Behind is the Quentin, desiring Julia but loving James, who, in turn, shows his love for the other two by wit aimed at easing the tension.  Julia loves them both, showing it with silly banter.  None of them are talking about the interview, but it hangs like a deep, held organ note throughout the first pages.  Without knowing any more, we know all three care enough to protect the others from worry, despite their own.

In my novel manuscript The Pricking of Thumbs, the protagonist, Rousse, is introduced as he skilfully murders an old man, then pauses on his way out to fill the cat’s bowl.  He returns to the grim circus, a young man whom I hope the reader will care enough about to wonder how kindness and murder can exist in the same mind.

Irrespective of plot, and even with minimal context, observing an act of caring raises questions that are inherently intriguing.  Why is this person behaving selflessly?  Are they wise or foolish to do so?  Is the person or thing they care about worthy?  Would I be as brave and generous in the same situation?

When characters risk something for someone else, perhaps against their own wishes, and even putting themselves in danger, readers perceive bravery, and cannot help but admire that character.  Even a doomed romantic like a Don Quixote wins our affection by dint of his unrelenting love for the appalling Dulcinea.

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Ben Marshall’s author website: www.benmarshall-wordpirate.com

Ben Marshall’s bio page

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Burning LiesThe Book of LoveThe Indigo SkyHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodThe Fortunes of Ruby White

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

Taking Notes In The Course of Writing A Novel, by Onil Lad

Writing advice from established authors usually begins with write, write and write. There’s no substitute for spending hours at the computer.

When asked where her novels come from, romance novelist Barbara Cartland said that every word was dictated to her by God. It’s not like that for me, as the thoughts have a habit of popping into my mind out of the blue. Sometimes they come gushing out.

During the last year I’ve found that my best ideas have come when I’m not trying to beat it out of myself whilst stuck at my desk. It’s not just one-liners that come to me but plot twists and whole paragraphs as well. When this happens I’ve always got my iPhone handy. I’ve become a continual note-taker.

Taking notes on my iPhone isn’t a complete replacement to sitting at the computer and writing, but spread out over the day, it’s worth several hours at least. I’m at the stage where I ‘m constantly thinking about my novel and once I write one thing down, other thoughts follow.

It means that when I formally sit down to write, I don’t feel stuck because there are numerous pages of notes to work through. It’s saved me hours of frustration and lets me do the things I enjoy, like reading and watching movies, while still having part of my mind on the novel.

I take notes all the time. Sometimes I just have to lie down or take a shower and within a few minutes the thoughts flow.

I can still put in the hard hours at the computer, when required, usually when I’m facing a deadline or I’ve got enough notes to make a chapter. When I do this I’m productive for the whole six hours, instead of trying to force out the ideas.

Note-taking becomes a habit. After watching a movie that has similar themes to my novel, I’m up half the night making notes. It happens when I’m out walking, running and even cycling.

Some authors maintain that no idea is worthwhile unless it sticks in your mind, but I need all the help I can get.

Tom Waits, as a struggling songwriter, was stuck in traffic in LA when he was hit by an inspiring thought for a song. He had no pen, paper or way to record this elusive spark, so he spoke to it and said, “Can you not see that I’m driving? If you are serious about wanting to exist, I spend eight hours a day in the studio. You’re welcome to come and visit me when I am sitting at my piano.” Apparently this dialogue with himself worked and the rest is history. I’ve tried telling myself the same thing but it didn’t work. I’ve got a mobile phone that Tom Waits didn’t have all those years ago, so I can’t complain. I’m just grateful for the inspiration.

Eventually you have to turn your notes into scenes, characters and plots, but the grunt work has been done on the go. Writing on the go gets you away from the internet, but I find that when the time comes to flesh out the notes on my laptop I’d rather do it in short bursts at a café or library and not go back to my desk. There are also numerous note-taking software apps on the market.

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Onil Lad’s bio page

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Wings of FearHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodA Distant LandThe Fortunes of Ruby WhiteSavage Tide

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

Calling Yourself A Writer, by Lia Weston

I have a confession. I don’t call myself a writer.

When I spent my school days lampooning teachers in rhyming couplets, I didn’t say I was a writer. When I wrote more poetry at uni (still in rhyming couplets, unfortunately), created fake newspapers for friends and dabbled in X-Files fanfic (don’t ask), I didn’t say I was a writer. I didn’t say I was a writer when I finished my first novel. Or when I sent it to a publisher.  Or when it got published.

At that point, I wondered whether I should start saying it. In the mirror, I practiced my most nonchalant expression. On the few occasions I managed to choke the phrase out, people either took it for granted that it was my full-time job (Ha ha! Mortgage says ‘no’.) or that I had a huge back-catalogue of novels. When I admitted that I only had one book out, plus a day job, I felt like I was claiming membership of a club that I hadn’t earned the right to join. Like the Freemasons. Sort of.

Anyway, if you don’t feel comfortable calling yourself a writer when you have an actual book in your actual hand at an actual bookshop, then when are you comfortable with it? When you get the t-shirt? When they start naming literary prizes after you? “And now, the 2045 Winner of the Weston Prize for Judicious Application of Capital Letters and An Unhealthy Reliance On Brackets goes to….”

So I threw the net out to some of my favourite authors. Did they call themselves writers? When did they start? If they didn’t or hadn’t, when the hell would they?

Rebecca James: “At first I was thinking you could call yourself a writer when you have something published,  but I don’t think that’s right really. It’s more about attitude, I suppose. About taking writing really seriously or something. But that sounds a bit wanky, and doesn’t really work because you could write Mills and Boon and be having a total laugh and enjoying it but not take it seriously at all but you’d definitely still be a writer. So…. ah…. yeah….I’m not sure.”

Vikki Wakefield: “I wrote for many years and didn’t consider myself a writer. It’s not just about getting the words down – it’s about seeing the world as a writer and being hopelessly, utterly addicted to translating thoughts into words on a page.”

Anita Hess: “I take photos almost every day but I don’t call myself a photographer. I swim laps, that doesn’t make me a swimmer, but somehow every second person is a writer. How? Why? Because they think it’s that simple. That it doesn’t require practice or skill. I was publishing comic scripts back in 1992 and poetry. I didn’t call myself a writer then. I always had a full-time job while writing so I think I probably waited till I released my first book in 1996. And to be honest, I don’t think I called myself a writer; I was more likely to say ‘I write’.”

Kylie Ladd: “As I am a neuropsychologist as well, I just keep saying that when asked what I do, though depending on asker I sometimes say I am a writer too… but I have NEVER been able to say I am a novelist or author, as it feels way too wanky. Which is stupid when I have three novels out and a fourth with my publisher, and I’ve worked darn hard. But I agree it’s a hard leap to make—at least for women. I will be interested to see if you find men have the same issue.”

Patrick Allington (a.k.a. the lone male voice): “For years, I cringed at the idea of saying, “I’m a writer” out loud… and instead usually said, “I’m a bookseller”, which I was (and a very honourable profession it is, too). The problem for me, I think, was that the follow-up question (“What have you written?”)  I found pretty confronting.  (“Don’t rush me, I’m getting there,”  isn’t the grandest of replies.) It’s the difference between saying, “I play football” and “I am a footballer”.”

These are published authors, with multiple books. These are people who have won awards. If authors with many actual books and actual awards have trouble with calling themselves writers, then no wonder the rest of us suffer from Writer Imposter Syndrome. (I’m delighted to not be the only person who worries about the wankiness factor in declaring one’s writership.)

The good news is there’s a cure. We must reclaim the word. For, really, who else is a writer but a person who writes? There is one rule, however: you have to actually do it. Sitting around and discussing your latest opus is not writing. Reading writing blogs is not writing. (But it’s very valuable, don’t change that channel.) Thinking about writing… well, this one is squirrelly because I’ve solved quite a few plot problems when I’ve let them ferment in the back of my mind, but you get the general picture. Do you write? Congratulations. You’re in the club.

Allayne Webster: “I think you’re a writer when writing is as important to you as breathing; you can’t NOT do it. You’re compelled. And even when you’ve had soul-destroying rejection upon soul-destroying rejection, you still can’t stop yourself from sitting down at the keyboard… It is a passion, a drug as addictive as heroin. It’s in your veins, driving all you do. There is no known cure – other than to write.”

Who’s ready? I’ll go first.

Hello, my name is Lia, and I’m a writer.

Many thanks to Rebecca, Vikki, Anita, Kylie, Patrick and Allayne for letting me pick their brains.

This is my final blog post for Writing Novels in Australia—thanks to Steve for having me! You can find me on Twitter (@LiaWeston) or on my website. Keep in touch, y’all. :-)

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Lia Weston’s author website: www.liaweston.com

Lia Weston’s bio page

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The Fortunes of Ruby WhiteThe Fortunes of Ruby White     The Fragment of DreamsBurning LiesHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeod

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

Collaboration In The Writing Community, by Kelly Inglis

When thinking of a novelist, the image that springs to mind for many people is one of the lonely author slaving over their manuscript until the wee hours, surrounded by a dozen empty coffee mugs and countless balled up pieces of paper. That is accurate to a large degree. Writing a novel takes endless hours of solo writing, tweaking your characters, plot and dialogue until the story is complete. Then what?

Then the collaborative part of novel writing comes into play.

Once your manuscript is complete, it will need to go through many different hands, cutting and polishing until the brilliance of your story shines through from that first draft. If your manuscript is selected for publication with a major publisher, there will be a huge number of professionals – agents, structural editors, copy editors, etc. – who will be reading and refining your story. How do you get your manuscript as good as it can be so that it is chosen from the slush pile of thousands of others before those professionals even look at working their magic on your story?

As writers, we need other writers. I have found other authors to be a necessary and invaluable resource. The simplest reason for which we need other writers is for general writing advice, such as how and when to approach agents, or tips on the craft of writing itself.

We need other writers as critique partners. Your spouse, sibling, parent or best friend is not likely to give you entirely honest feedback about your beloved manuscript, but a fellow writer and critique partner will. They’ll tell you what works in your story and what doesn’t. They’ll tell you if your dialogue is stilted or if your characters are boring. They can tell you why something doesn’t work, so that you can take their advice and improve your story.

We also need other writers to beta-read our manuscripts. Who could be better to make suggestions to improve the pacing and tension in your story, and to provide feedback on grammar and sentence construction but another writer?

Most of all, we need other writers for encouragement and moral support. Although writing is a passion, it takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to achieve your goals. Other writers know the highs and the lows, and of the dedication it takes to complete a manuscript. They will commiserate with you when you get a rejection letter, then pick you up and gently push you back to your writing desk. They will motivate you and encourage you keep writing and to continually improve your work.

A local writer’s group is a wonderful resource where you can meet other like-minded people to bounce your ideas off, to find a critique partner or to learn and improve your writing skills. If your home town doesn’t have a writer’s group, the online writing community is an amazing resource. Through my online experiences, especially ones such as being a Writing Novels In Australia contributor, I have met dozens of talented and inspiring writers who think nothing of helping out other authors, taking time out of their busy schedules to advise and guide aspiring authors like myself. These authors know how hard the journey is because they’ve taken it themselves, and are more than happy to advise on how to make the road a little less bumpy for those who are still finding their way. Thank you to those writers who have guided me and continue to encourage me on my journey. You know who are, and I will be forever grateful for all your guidance. I only hope that one day soon I can pay the help forward by doing my part to help other authors in their journeys in the way that my fellow writers have assisted me in mine.

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Kelly Inglis’s bio page

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     Half Moon BayHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodThe Indigo SkyThe Fortunes of Ruby WhiteAbsolution Creek

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

Chase Your Dreams, by Helene Young

Christmas always makes me a little melancholy and a touch introspective as I look back at the things I have (or haven’t) done during the last twelve months. As the summer sun beats down, the afternoon storms deliver hail and lightning, and the mosquitoes descend in squadrons, I remember the year that’s gone.

2013 goes down as a surprising year for me. A change in my health closed one career door but, in the way of the universe, another one opened up that was the size of a barn. (If I’d know what was hiding behind it I may have slammed that door shut again…) During the year, Capt G and I sailed from Brisbane to Cairns and then back again, an unplanned adventure that taught us much about ourselves and the good ship Roo Bin Esque. (It’s lucky that Zeus the Salty Sea Dog was at hand to keep an eye on things.)

With all that action filling every waking hour I handed my publisher a manuscript that was almost too raw to be called a first draft and I’ve spent the last six months furiously polishing to get it into shape. I hope I never have to do that again, but seeing it release at the end of March, two months earlier than originally planned, will be a reward for the hard yards.

Looking ahead, I realise that 2014 will be my twenty-fifth year in the aviation industry. It will also mark fifteen years since I sat down and typed out my very first completed manuscript (that’s the one hiding in the dusty filing cabinet, marked never to be released…). I’m reminded again that all good things require hard work.

Writers seldom take the easy road to success. Measure success how you will, as it will be different for every one of us. It can be a lonely journey of writing in isolation, or it can be filled with like-minded people who come together to support, encourage and, most importantly, validate what we do. Without exception, it will involve long hours staring at a page, watching words build characters, a world and a story for others to share.

Writing Novels in Australia has done a magnificent job of drawing a group of writers together. We’ve shared our experiences, bared our souls and celebrated writing, warts and all.

To those of you who’ve joined us this year and have discovered that writing is your passion, I have this advice: Rules are for fools and the guidance of wise men – be wise, be guided. Each and every one of us will approach our writing in a different way, with a different motivation and a vastly different wealth of experience. What works for me may not work for you. By all means listen to advice, read ‘How To’ books and go to workshops to develop your skills. Join in conversations on the web and learn from other people’s mistakes, especially when it comes to the business side of the industry. Most importantly, never lose sight of the joy that writing brings, both to our readers and to us.

Rejection will hurt and so will editing on a bad day, but the delight when you read something you’ve written and feel that curl of excitement through your body will stay with you long after the moment. You’ve embarked on a long journey and it’s all too easy to worry about it as you write.

A line from the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel always comes to mind when I’m struggling to edit: “It will be alright in the end and if it is not alright then it is not the end.” The light at the end of the tunnel is a brand new day, or a brand new year. Set your goals and make them happen.

This is your dream: it can come true.

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Helene Young’s author website: www.heleneyoung.com

Helene Young’s bio page

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Wings of FearShattered SkyBurning LiesHalf Moon Bay     The Fragment of DreamsHouse for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeod

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

Setting In Your Novel, by Alison Booth

How does the landscape contribute to your novel? Is it there as background? Is it like a character? Or is it a bit of both?

Some writers use the landscape as a means of reflecting a character’s feelings. Like the weather, the landscape can mirror mood. It can be stormy or threatening when the protagonist faces danger. It can be sunny when the character is happy.

Of course this sort of treatment has to be done lightly to avoid slipping into cliché, as you will know from your own reading, or to avoid those purple patches that I was warned about years ago when I was a schoolgirl.

The landscape can be a lot more than a reflection of emotions. It can like a character in its own right and form a vital part of the plot. Do you need a drought, storm, cyclone or bushfire? Maybe not, but in fiction these can provide great challenges to overcome. For example, think of that terrible Oklahoma dust bowl in the United States in the depression years. This inspired great literature, including John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Most Australians have probably witnessed a few bushfires. I have in my time, including one that was too close for comfort. I’ve also been fascinated by the story a friend told me of his experiences a few years ago, when an entire village had to be evacuated onto the beach before a fire roared through the community. As I began writing my first novel, Stillwater Creek, I had in my head an image of a bushfire and I knew that this was going to play a part in the novel’s plotting before I’d met all of the characters. While I was writing the initial draft, the landscape evolved in my mind to such an extent that various aspects of it (the dust storm and especially the bushfire) became like characters. As such, they were vital to the plot.

Landscapes can also inspire transcendental experiences. They can transform the individual, be it through providing an intimation of the sublime, a connection to the universe that brings the character peace or by emphasising human frailty against the harshness of the environment. The novels of Patrick White provide many instances of characters who undergo mystical experiences through their connection to the physical world.

In your writing you can use the landscape in a variety of ways: as a catalyst for change, as a backdrop or as an anchor for the action, as a reflection of characters’ moods or as a contrast with their feelings, as a means of providing connection to something bigger than the human being…

You may find that you’ve been doing some of this unconsciously. Have you heard of ‘gifts and surprises’ in relation to university assignments? This was a phrase used by some of our tutors when I was an undergraduate. I like to apply this term to fiction.

I plotted my first novel, Stillwater Creek, in an analytical fashion (I felt I had to with the six different viewpoints representing six different stories). But along the way all sorts of surprises emerged. The same thing happened with my two subsequent novels, The Indigo Sky and A Distant Land, and I’ve heard other novelists say the same.

While I have no idea where many of these surprises came from, I know the origin of the landscapes in the three books – both as background and as being like characters. My parents’ and grandparents’ stories, our travels up and down the east coast of Australia, and my own observations of the harsh realities of our environment and climate, provided much material to draw upon.

You too will have your unique store of landscape observations and will draw on it in your own distinctive way.

In this, my last post for Writing Novels in Australia, I’d like to take the opportunity to wish you the best with your writing. May the New Year bring you many ‘gifts and surprises’  – of the nicest possible kind.

***Write with novelist Alison Booth near Hobart, Tasmania with Novel Writing Retreats Australia in April 2014

Alison Booth’s author website: www.alisonbooth.net

Alison Booth’s bio page

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Stillwater CreekThe Indigo SkyA Distant Land     Half Moon BayThe Book of LoveRotten Gods by Greg Barron - Australian novelistThe Fortunes of Ruby White

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

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