Thursday, September 30, 2010

Taking it too far

I'm still pondering raising the stakes as September draws to a close, particularly after reading a three-novel series which is like a masterclass on the topic- The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. I hear Cheesemonkey is enjoying it as much as I did- I couldn't put it down, and read the lot in under a week.

From the first page to the last page, the characters in The Hunger Games have extremely clear stakes. From the very start, the first thing we know about the main character, Katniss Everdeen, is that she'll do anything she has to in order to take care of her little sister and her mother in the tough post-apocalyptic world they call home.

The first step to creating a perfect conflict is obvious: introduce a threat to her sister.

I won't tell you what happens, but I will say that every time the book was reaching a peak of tension, it was never obvious what would happen. That's because the stakes were established so effectively that there were always two or three equally terrible things that could happen, and it wasn't just a case of wondering *if* she'd end up in peril, but wondering what form the certain danger would take.

When we started discussing raising the stakes a few weeks ago, a couple of people argued that the technique of upping the tension/ drama constantly wasn't suited to all kinds of stories. I and others argued that it simply depends on what type of story you're writing- even if it's a slower, gentler one, the stakes can still be upped- they might just be smaller, quieter stakes.

Nonetheless, I do take the point- sometimes you read a novel where "what next?" becomes "no, really?". Occasionally authors do take it a little far in their quest to build and build the tension.

I'm laughing about this today (well, all right- I'm half-smiling in a pained kind of way) because my entire week has been like a how-not-to book about stake raising.

Outside writing, I have too many interests and activities going on. Always have had. I find it hard to sit still, and I seem to find a way to turn every conceivable hobby into something bigger. At the moment, my big venture is baking and decorating cakes and cookies. It's been a hobby for years, and something I'm decently good at. But in the last few months, I decided to spin it into something a little bit bigger to make a tiny but of money on the side, and I've been making orders for other people.

Well, good work spreads the word, and this week I came to an order for 60 wedding bomboniere cookies to be sent interstate. I've been so excited about these- I've been working on them with the bride for weeks, to the point where I even made my own cookie cutter to get the perfect shape.

That right there? That's investment. Time, money, and most of all emotion. That's stakes.

So, we kick off the story in the logical place. I spent the whole long weekend baking this big order of cookies, and they turned out beautifully. I thought I'd estimated the right amount of ingredients, and I had- almost. I fell exactly one short.

This is a relatively minor hiccup, but you could call it... foreshadowing.

So, I whipped up a whole new batch of cookie dough (just a small one) and baked myself some spares- good thing, because four of the other cookies got left in the oven a little long while I was toddler-chasing and were unusable. By the time I was done, I had six more cookies- and since I'd burned four and was already one short, this gave me exactly 61.

Here's where you see me, your main character, pausing for a moment to think, isn't that cutting it a little fine? But no, never mind. I've done probably a dozen cookie orders in recent months, including four sent by mail, and not a single cookie has ever broken. Not one.

So, I spent the better part of two days decorating these cookies, painstakingly, exactly. They were stunning. Gorgeous. Just what the bride had wanted. A real triumph. Perfection.

Here comes the inciting incident. I went to pack these cookies up, and uh oh. I tried to pack in one too many in my first box, and it broke.

Okay, no drama- it was the one spare. Right?

I packed the rest very carefully. But halfway through it, I picked up a cookie to put it in the box- and noticed that it, too, was broken. No pressure, no damage, and it had just spontaneously broken- and now I was actually down on my order.

Cue sinking feeling. A third cookie was also found to be broken, leaving me with 58 of the expected 60, and only two days to get these two cookies baked and decorated before the cut off for posting them.

Like something out of The Mighty Ducks, my two best friends swung into action, undertaking what one of them called Team Extreme: Operation Cookie Rescue. This basically consisted of coming over to my place, making me dinner, and looking after the rest of the family while I baked and decorated like a madwoman. Thirty-odd people were following the outcome of the rescue on Facebook. It was well dramatic. Everything seemed to be going very well, and I was left with eight brand new cookies, all ready to be sent at the last minute if needed.

The bride was very sensible, it turned out- she'd ordered an extra ten just in case anything happened. Phew! So, I actually already had a buffer of eight cookies before I needed to send emergencies. Plenty, right? Eight broken cookies out of a shipment of 58 would be just unheard of.

I had a day of waiting for them to get to their destination. I had the child home sick from daycare, who threw up all over me four times in one day, and all I could do was thank my lucky stars that I'd had to do the cookies the previous day (when *I* was home sick from work with the flu).

Then this morning, I got the email telling me the cookies had arrived and they were gorgeous. Only problem was, as we'd feared, a few got broken. How many? Not eight.


Thirty of the 58 cookies got smashed en route.

[Please cover your ears for a second while I repeat the many obscenities I uttered].

This is where the stakes got a little bit ridiculous. All of a sudden, I was still home sick myself. I had the sick toddler. I had no available Team Extreme to help. I had a measly eight replacement cookies, and I had until the close of mail at 4pm to send thirty across the country. I had no cookie dough or icing leftover.

And I was starting to significantly hate my life.

Now, I'm not sure I'd be reading a book about an over-committed cookie-baking novelist in the first place, but if I was, this is the point where I'd be putting up my hand and saying, slow down there, buster. This just went from interesting conflict to over-the-top. No one individual can survive that kind of crazy stress, surely! And even if she does, it's just not going to be believable!

It did get me thinking, in between the many hours of the day where my brain was just letting out a constant internal high-pitched scream, about making sure that my story doesn't up the stakes *too* much. Not so much that they're unbelievable, or to the point where people get so depressed that they stop reading. I think it's a potential tightrope for some of us- me in particular, when I'm writing about war. Sometimes simple stakes are the best kind.

As to my cookie story, I can't tell you how it ends until tomorrow, when the new lot of emergency cookies gets where it's going. I did in fact manage to pull off a fairly astounding day of baking, decorating and packaging, and I got them all done. The toddler was miraculously helpful- entertaining herself for most of the day, and only hanging off me like a limpet for an hour or so. The new lot of cookies looked just as good as the last lot, and I used up one and a half rolls of bubble wrap in packaging them.

I'm still feeling pretty sure that they'll all be smashed in the post, too, and I'm hovering between devastated and just sick about that. But the bride has been beyond lovely, and I'm hoping she has some contingencies in place. It's not every day you do something to potentially ruin someone else's wedding. From now on, I'm going to stick to wrecking the lives of fictional people.

But, as with everything in life, I'll chalk this one up as experience, and I'm sure some of the feelings about it will reappear in fiction one day.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Sometimes, you have to be a reader, not a writer.

And sometimes you need to hear old wisdom in a new way …

You may remember my son, Child # 1, aka Cheesemonkey, from his guest post earlier this year. He’s a voracious reader and this week, while he’s been home on school holidays, we’ve had some very interesting discussions about books and writing - in particular, about what works for him as a reader. And some of his thoughts and insights have blown me away, especially what he thinks about some of the writing “no-nos” we writers all strive to avoid (or should do!)

So I thought I’d share with you some of his twelve-year-old wisdom, from his perspective as a hardcore reader, in his own words …

I hate it when a book goes on and on telling me what a character looks like. I just want the basics - black hair, shorter than most men, that sort of thing, so I can fill in the rest with my imagination – that’s the coolest part about reading!

It’s really boring when you get to a big chunk of description of something like a room or a village or a city or a field or a jungle, anything like that. It makes the story stop, and I usually skip it.

Why do some writers fill up their first chapters with so much boring explanation about everything that’s happening? I like it when an author writes as though you already know what’s going on, and as if you already know the main character; it means I can get straight into the story and figure out everything later.

Then he quoted me a few lines from the second page of his latest read, THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins, as an example of what he likes:-

He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out OK. My mother got rid of the vermin and he’s a born mouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.

Entrails. No hissing. This is the closest we will ever come to love.

Well, apart from now understanding why this series is the hit that it is, this snip is a great illustration of how to open with an intriguing character in a mighty curious situation, a unique voice … and does exactly what my son wants, which is to be led deeper into the book with a tantalising trail of “now, what’s that all about?”

And then yesterday, Cheesemonkey came to me bearing one of his all-time favourite books, LEVIATHAN by Scott Westerfeld … and some advice for me -

CHEESEMONKEY(flicking through the book): Mum, see how there’s a really cool illustration in each chapter?

ME: Awesome! (and they are – check out some of them here, if you’re interested.)

CM: Well, I just read an interview with Scott Westerfeld and he says that when he decided to have illustrations in this book it made him really think about writing each chapter with something in it that’d be worthy of an illustration. He had to have something happen, you know; not just characters sitting around talking. He reckons thinking about that when he was writing his book made it a much better book than it would’ve been … so, um, mum, maybe you should have illustrations in your book, too; you know, so you don’t make it too boring.

Yeah, thanks for the vote of confidence there, Cheesemonkey …

But he did get me thinking – about the dialogue in my WIP, and whether any of it could do with more action and/or stage business to enliven it; and then, thinking of the pictures I try to paint with my words, whether the visual imagery I use could be heightened, or more detailed, or more vibrant. And how I try to use locations and images not only to draw a picture for the reader, but to deepen the themes and messages of a scene, and whether I could be doing that better …

Basically, my son has reminded me of the benefit – and necessity – of standing back and looking at my story as though I am a reader, not a writer.

And for the first time, I do believe school holidays are going to be good for my writing!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Can’t Do It

Inevitably it happens. I’m driving my car, walking the dog, or drifting off to sleep in my bed when the words come, fluid and elegant, perfect. And I’m nowhere near my computer. I can only hope that if I repeat them enough in my head, I’ll be able to get to my computer on time and get the words down. Of course, this never happens. Sure I’ll get the gist of it, but it is never as perfect as when I first thought of them.

The obvious solution –as pointed out to me by my husband and friends- is to get a Dictaphone. Hell, I have a recorder on my phone! It even has this cute little fifties style microphone icon that pops up on the screen. But I just can’t do it. I hate my voice. HATE IT. Every time I try, my tongue swells in my mouth, my lips feel too small. I end up with an unintelligible muffle of words. Bah!

I should get over it. I should! But I just can’t do it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Millet MacGuffin

In recent reconsiderations of the stakes within my novel, I've been doing oodles of research on farming in Australia in 1914. I've come up with all kinds of excellent information, and as a result I've resolved all kinds of lingering questions within the plot.

Most of what I've discovered, though, will be nothing more than a MacGuffin in my story.

What, you might ask, is a MacGuffin?

Oddly enough, the Wikipedia page on this topic is excellent. Find it here. It includes numerous comments from the man who created the term- Alfred Hitchcock- and examples of commonly used MacGuffins in various genres. For example,

"In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers"

A MacGuffin is, within a story, the thing everybody wants; the object/ idea around which the plot revolves- but what it actually is doesn't matter, compared to what people will do to get it.

The MacGuffin in Between the Lines is the experimental new crop that Bill plants in the beginning of the novel; the future of the farm.

It doesn't matter for a minute what exactly that crop is is; all that matters is the function it serves. The chosen crop has to be a gamble that will pay dividends if it succeeds, and destroy them all financially if it fails. The MacGuffin is at the centre of many story events- Bill and Len argue about it at the start; he and Kit work to keep it going when the other farm workers go away to war; and in a make-or-break moment, a furious neighbour lights a fire that destroys the lot- propelling Bill into the war he's resisted so far. At the end of the novel, a renewed effort to make it grow it brings Bill and Len back together and provides a future for Jared.

I could get away without even naming this magical crop, as long as the details are credible enough. There's a drought on, and Australia's entire wheat crop failed in 1914. So I went looking and found a drought-resistant crop, and one that was worth double the price of wheat- millet. It's not commonly grown here, but that doesn't matter either, as long as there are good reasons why Bill would think of it- and a precedent to say it *has* been grown here before. Conveniently, I also came across a few newspaper articles of the time talking about millet being worth a mint because of the dearth of other forage crops.

And now what I need is not the crop itself, but the situations, the characters, their actions, and their reactions to be believable.

Millet is, in this sense, the MacGuffin in my story.
  • The conflict in the story begins because of it (Bill and his brother argue about it, leading to a bigger fight, a thirst for revenge, a drinking session- and events spiral out of control from there).
  • The main character's drive to make it work leads to his initial downfall.
  • And the crop brings about the resolution at the end of the novel.
But is this a novel about millet? It's certainly not. It's a novel about the passions and pains that make the characters behave the way they do- jealousy, sibling rivalry, pride- and the consequences that come as a result of their actions- injury, death, separation, heartbreak, and ultimately redemption.

So, millet is at the core of the novel- but in and of itself, it's not the least bit important.

Do you have a MacGuffin in your story? Something all the characters are working for?

A Peak Inside...

The current mindset here at ATWOP...

Tune in for more deep thoughts... later... :)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Painting the Kitchen

I spent a few days last week painting my kitchen and dining room. It was a project long overdue and my stepdad jump-started it with his visit. “It’ll be a simple job,” he said. Famous last words, eh?

Sometimes in our enthusiasm for writing, in our excitement at discovering a new, untold story, we jump right in thinking, “It’ll be a simple job.”

Thing is, just like my kitchen and dining room re-do, writing takes some ground work. For instance, my kitchen walls needed texturing. The smooth walls showed every old ding and imperfection. The dining room walls had texture - but it was ugly. So first off, we textured the whole lot, top to bottom, ceilings and walls. It was hard work. (And I did it myself! Got out the compressor, texturing tools, texture compound, and did it.)

What has this got to do with a shiny new story? Why not just jump in and paint it, so to speak? If you’re lucky, your story might be a good read right from the start. But a great read has texture.

Texture, in a story, comes in many forms. One of them is foreshadowing, those hints and suggestions of things to come. As Jessica Morrell says in, Between the Lines - The Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing, “Foreshadowing suggests, whispers, or plants information, and deepens the reader’s sense of anticipation by laying down traces of what will happen later in the story. Foreshadowing causes tension because events are hinted at, but not explained. It also lends future events authority and adds layers and depth that readers appreciate.” Layers and depth, or in other words, texture.

Texture also comes from pacing. Pacing controls the rhythm, or the flow, of the story and is important because you don’t want to leave your readers mired in the mud or left behind in the dust, so to speak. Every scene has its own tempo and you control that with your choice of words, your choice of construction. William Noble, in Conflict, Action & Suspense, says, “Story pace essentially means two things: smooth, even writing without anticlimaxes, without lengthy static prose; and carefully constructed scenes that blend with one another and build to a satisfying climax. Pacing our story means controlling it, and that, in turn, means taking the long view and measuring each scene against the entire story line.”

With the texture on my kitchen and dining room walls they were beginning to look pretty good. We stepped back and admired our work. But we didn’t stop there. Next up was giving everything a primer coat of paint. Primer paint seals the texture and makes the next coat of paint (the one with the color) go on smoothly.

Primer, in writing, is that layer of craft that is invisible to readers. While they enjoy your story, they shouldn’t be aware of your careful painting of sensory details, your fine tuning of tension and suspense, your creation of place and time, or even your crafting of theme and premise, but by the end of your story, the reader will appreciate all of these things.

Finally, with the primer dry, I could begin to see that our efforts in the kitchen and dining room were paying off, but everything was stark white. White is not a bad color, oh no, I like white. But it wasn’t our goal. So now it was time to add the color.

There are countless ways to paint a wall, from bold and bright, to zany or childish, subtle and subdued, feminine or masculine, and so on. The choice of color, the way it’s applied and juxtaposed with other colors creates a living space as individual as the person who held the paintbrush (or at least selected the paint).

Adding color to a story is probably the (seemingly) easiest part of writing. Most beginning writers leap with both feet right into the paint can. Armed with a dictionary, a thesaurus, and an army of adjectives and adverbs, the novice writer splashes on the color with abandon.

But colorful writing is more than sprinkling a story with descriptive words. It includes flourishes that give it a life and a voice. Good writers use a toolbox of devices for decorating their world, including similes and metaphors, allusions, analogies, alliterations and imagery.

Jessica Morrell, on the topic of imagery, says, “Images are…word pictures that grant power and richness by involving the reader’s senses… use imagery to engage his imagination, allowing him to bring his own understanding into a scene.” She uses a quote from Homer's Iliad as an example of this. Homer wrote, "Grey-eyed Athena sent them a favorable breeze, a fresh west wind, singing o'er the wine-dark sea." How easily Homer could have written "a west wind began to blow." Ms. Morrell says, "...without the imagery, the idea doesn't connect as firmly or beautifully in the reader's mind."

A word of caution about adding color to your writing - beware of bloated language. Like a room with too many colors and patterns, a story with too many frilly words and showy descriptions will cause readers to flee.

Like renovating a kitchen, writing a story involves a step-by-step process. Thankfully, unlike renovating, writing doesn’t necessarily have to follow the steps in a certain order. Go ahead and splash on the color if that’s what occurs to you first, but don’t forget the texture and the primer. In the end, you’ll have a world in which readers will wish to linger, much like my new kitchen. Come on over for a cup of coffee and stay awhile.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Cheat's Post on Raising Stakes

I'm wallowing in my sick bed today, so I'm going to cheat and link you to a great discussion on a particular method of raising the stakes in your story (stake raising being a current topic of interest over at Compuserve's Books and Writers Forum, here and here and here and here.)

Author Alexandra Sokoloff gives us another take on raising the stakes for your characters with her post - "The Offer S/He Can't Refuse."

I know I've said it before, but Alexandra's posts (so many, many, many of them!) on technical elements of writing (structuring plot, steps to follow when revising, understanding what drives your characters, etc) are SO worth reading. Much of what she writes is very insightful, and makes a lot of sense, and I always leave her blog with a whole slew of ideas for my own WIP. Oh, and she writes some pretty damn good books, too!

Anyway, I hope those of you thinking about stakes find this interesting, perhaps even helpful. And in the meantime, I'm crawling back to bed with my box of Kleenex and a cup of lemon and honey tea. Bleargh.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Here at ATWOP, we have this ongoing joke about who's the biggest... *cough*crit whore*cough*. LOL. We all LOVE getting feedback, and the truth is we're all VERY needy. Our by-line should be WE NEED, WE NEED!!

Truth is, though, I haven't shared much of my writing in a very long time. Not even with the ladies of ATWOP or my much loved crit buddies. There are lots of reasons--not wanting to spoil key parts of my book, scenes that aren't quite finished/ready for viewing, etc etc. But lately, the number one reason is that I'm absolutely petrified by the idea.

Yes, this crit whore has stage fright.

Claire has been asking me to get involved at Compuserve for a while now--especially the Toolbox threads in exercises. She thinks some positive feedback will get me back into writer mode. It's worked for me in the past, so I certainly see the merit behind the idea. That said, whenever I think about posting something I sort of freeze up. Part of it is that I haven't written anything substantial in a very long time. Because of this, I'd most likely have to post something that already exists. I'm SO hesitant to do this. 1. Because it's highly likely I've already shared the snip at some point 2. Because I might give away some huge, important spoiler that really needs to be on the DL 3. I prefer to post something fresh, which in turn means, I Have To Write Something (eeee!) 4. Even if I could manage to spit out a few hundred new words, What If They Suck??? Could I really take negative feedback when my hold on writing is so tenuous right now??

Yeah, welcome to the neurotic world of Jen.

In the end, this fear I'm experiencing boils down to one thing -- I'm scared that the "magic" is gone. That maybe that's why I haven't written anything for so long. And if the "magic" is gone -- I'm going to FAIL.

No matter how I try to argue against all of this, my fear rises up and totally overpowers all rational arguments. Deep down, I feel that no matter what I do, I'm going to suck. Embarrass myself. Prove that I was a fraud all along. Yes, this spiral is a bit out of control.

The other night, Claire gave me a writing challenge: We'd each write for five minutes (she wanted 30, but we got into a bit of a time crunch), and then we'd both send each other the results. It scared the hell out of me, but a challenge is a challenge, and I wasn't about to chicken out. I went through with it -- literally opening up a fresh document and just typing the first thing that came to mind. Ummm... yeah, it sucked. It sucked bad. And I did not want Claire to read the crap. For her to see how truly terrible I am.

Sigh -- but I did send it. That's the important thing. It sucked, tho.

That said, it totally confirmed that I need to snap out of this funk. To push through this fear and get back to work. I mean, seriously -- I have HORRIBLE stage fright, and yet, I'm able to get my butt up in front of an audience every time I have a chance to sing karaoke. If I can stand up and be judged by a bar full of strangers, why can't I share my writing?

Even after writing all of this, I'm STILL scared.

But despite this, I have to do something drastic.

I've made a small goal for myself: post a snip in the Toolbox thread over at compu -- by Friday. And here's the big caveat: I will NOT post something new. It may be new to readers, but it's going to be something I've already written. Maybe if I can take some of the pressure off of myself, I can at least get past this initial fear....maybe.

Wow. Who would've thought this crit whore would be scared to share. Wonders never cease, I tell ya.

I'm counting on all of you to hold me to this goal, btw. I may need some gentle nudges. Just sayin'.

Monday, September 13, 2010

It's Like Salt

There are tools in a writer’s arsenal that I like to think of as seasoning. The most common ones are adverbs and adjectives. Use them too much and your story is unpalatable. Too little and bland, bland, bland. Of course this is a matter of taste. I’ve a good friend whose idea of culinary excitement is to slather some mayo on her white bread and bologna. Then again, I’ve had Mexicans laugh at me for crying over chile rellenos.

A little less thought of in the seasoning category are backstory and flash backs.

Now every writer cares deeply about his or her character’s backstory. A good character doesn’t pop up from thin air. He has a full life that begins before the story –erm except for David Copperfield. We get to follow him from birth. :) Ahem. But yes, there is usually the story before the story. How did this character get to this point where our story starts? What are the forces that have made her the person she is at the start of the story? All very important. Right? Well…

That depends. Of course, we –the writers- need to know all of this. It helps us develop our character. The reader might need to know as well. Certain plots revolve around things that have happened in the past as it comes back to haunt the character in the present. Backstory can be very important when it comes to world building as in fantasy. The reader can’t easily jump into an alternate world without understanding how that world works.

The thing is, backstory is like salt. Too much and it ruins the reading experience. Our story is now. Yes, backstory helps ground the reader, or guide them, but it must be used properly. Back to fantasy/sci-fi or alternate world building. A reader will be much more forgiving of backstory because it is needed to understand the world the characters live in. Thus we can add a bit more into the beginning of the book. Even so, you have to remember backstory: salt.

A while back, Jen wrote an awesome post of tension. One main point in tension is to leave the reader constantly wanting to know more. In every story there is a mystery. This doesn’t mean a “whodunit” precisely. It is a subtle use of raising questions that the reader wants answered. Here is where backstory can be used in a highly effective manner.

Giving hints of things that happened in the past can whet a reader's curiosity. What has happened to this character? Why does she fear this thing? What haunts them? All these answers are backstory. Yet how we reveal them can be a thing of beauty or a huge bore.

What is more tantalizing? Little clues that bid you to put together the whole picture? Or a huge dump of information set right in the middle of some other on going action? Think of it this way. Say you are watching the season opener of a show. Before it begins, you get, “Last season on Baywatch (har!) such and such happened.” Yes, of course that can be interesting in and of itself, but get on with the show already. Then again, if you know nothing about what happened last season and important information FROM that season is mentioned within the current season without any nuggets of information, then yeah, you become lost and irritated.

Doling out the backstory not only informs the reader but keeps them hooked for more.

Backstory can be conveyed in a variety of ways, the info dump (watch out, train wreck ahoy!), dialogue (beware of “you know Bob”) short bits of inter-monologues, and the favorite –flashbacks.

Flashbacks. Ah, so tempting! Like that last slice of chocolate cake that is just sitting there on the kitchen counter, calling you…

Flashbacks are alluring because instead of a passive or inactive recounting of what has occurred, you can create a dynamic action filled reenactment of pertinent events. Oh, but the utter saltiness of flashbacks!

Yes, a flashback can be effective. We wouldn’t have them if they weren’t. An aside here –one often hears dire warnings of writing “no-no’s” but listen, none of these things, adjectives, adverbs, telling, backstory, etc would be around if they didn’t have their uses. It’s learning HOW to use them that is the key.

But I digress. :) There is a time and place for flashbacks. Some can be a subtle narration as in Outlander where Frank leaves Claire to go see a Mr. Bainbridge. Claire bids Frank to give Mr. Bainbridge her regards and Frank murmurs a dry “Of course.” Why? Well, Claire very smoothly tells us by slipping strait into a flashback in which she burns her fingers on a teapot and blurts out “Bloody fucking hell!” in polite company. This whole bit has the appearance of ‘real time’ when really it is a flashback. In this case the flashback is anecdotal, nor does it detract from what is going on in the current story. In fact, it answers the raised question of why Frank is reluctant to bring Claire along.

Then there is the flashback as recalled in a memory. This sort of flashback is often conveyed in italics as to show the reader that we are indeed experiencing a flashback. Why? Because often the flashback is more abrupt. It is giving us information but it doesn’t fit as well into the ongoing narrative. I.e. “Timothy saw the smoke and his mind filled with dark terror, seeing another time and place. He ran down the hall, crying for his mother. Where was she? Did she not feel the heat of the fire?...” And now we know why happened to Timothy when he was ten and why he fears smoke and fire. Yet we have been distracted from the current situation.

If a flashback goes on too long the reader become submersed in the flashback and disoriented upon reentry into the current narrative. A real danger because things like this pulls the reader out of their nice cozy state of active reading. Like using too much salt, a flashback can ruin your story’s momentum.

This is huge reason why flashbacks fail when a writer succumbs to the temptation in the first chapter of a book, because the reader hasn’t had time to sink into the story. Openings are like the proverbial trail of crumbs along that path in the woods. You are leading the reader in, tantalizing them with hints and questions that bid them to follow further, turn that page. By slapping down a flashback in those first pages not only are you giving them the desert before the appetizer, you are alerting them to the journey.

Best to use the flashback sparingly. Just as with backstory, dole it out. Be a cheapskate about it. Of course they can be effective. But they should be flashes, not glorified info dumps.

Effective use of backstory and flashbacks is a master craft. It isn’t easy to do, you’ll need practice, might fail spectacularly, but once learned it can be a wonderful tool in your arsenal.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The power of words

My 22-month-old daughter was sick last night. She coughed and coughed in her sleep, tossing and turning, until eventually she threw up a little. She's a champion at that kind of thing. When we went in to change her, she looked up with her little lip turned down and said, "Vomity. Yucky." And then she put up her arms and said, "Mummy, cuddles. Kisses."

Delightful vomit notwithstanding, watching her learn to talk is one of the most amazing parts of an already amazing parenting journey.

Today is International Literacy Day, and Bloggers Unite has called for posts to raise awareness of literacy issues around the world.

Without literacy, this blog would not, of course, exist. All of us have been privileged enough to receive an education that gives us access to the joyful world of words. We love words so much that we not only devour millions of them every year by reading, but we create tens of thousands ourselves.

As a writer, how often do you sit back and think about where this all began?

Sophie has just gained full understanding of nouns. She knows that everything has a name- sometimes more than one name. The dog is both a dog, and a Daisy. Her father is both Daddy, and a man. You can call the same thing a jigsaw, or a puzzle. She also knows that sometimes different things have the same name. A potato is something you eat; it's also a toy from which you can add and remove body parts.

She's constantly asking the names of things, and the challenge of pronouncing big new words delights her. Strawberry. Umbrella. Refrigerator. Butterfly. We take these words for granted every day, but they're a world of wonder to her. She tells me every time she sees one of these things, so proud of herself.

And now she's on an even bigger journey of discovery- she's exploring the brave new horizon of adjectives and verbs. Big truck. Pink dino. Woolly bear. Eat banana. Crazy dance. She's thirsty not only to name things, but to describe them. The way they look, feel, and behave shapes her experience of life. The right adjective makes her laugh out loud. Silly grandma. A truck is big because it's bigger than her. The dog is naughty because she barks too much. How annoying, and how wonderful to be able to express that annoyance. The fact that there are so many colours to learn- blue, purple, orange, pink- intrigues her.

What an incredible world we live in!

Books and reading are our window into things we can't see ourselves, and experiences we've never had. It's a truly miraculous thing that we can convey a detailed image, an emotion, a personality, from one mind to another, using only words on a page. To read is to be part of a world so much bigger than the one you inhabit. To read is to be part of all humanity.

To write is to celebrate that early wonder of putting words together to show how they make you feel. One day, in the far-distant future, my little girl is going to be a spinner of words, too- and all because she loved them from the first. Because she had parents who celebrated language, because she has access to an education in which literacy is a core component of learning. Because she lives in a country with a 99.0% rate of literacy, and because she's in a privileged demographic, purely by accident of birth.

Her story might be different if she'd been born to another family, in another place, even within Australia. If she'd been born in an Indigenous community, she'd be growing up where the literacy rate is in places up to 70% lower than the rest of the country. Not good enough. The global statistics are likewise frightening- from Bloggers Unite and UNESCO:

Some 774 million adults lack minimum literacy skills; one in five adults is still not literate and two-thirds of them are women; 72.1 million children are out-of-school and many more attend irregularly or drop out.

It's not just the joy of words that is stolen by a lack of minimum literacy. It's also a voice. It's difficult to know what any of us can do to help raise rates of literacy in other places- I know my family has chosen to do what we can by sponsoring two World Vision children of Sophie's age, in Malawi and Chile.

But at the least, I would urge those of you with the privilege of literacy- everyone reading this blog, as it happens- to never take for granted the power of words, or the ability you have to read and learn, and to write and share.

Keep on celebrating your love of the world and everything in it, always.

Sophie sits in front of one of our 14 bookshelves, reading to her teddy and her dog :)

Smatterings and scatterings ...

Apologies in advance for the brevity and randomness of this post … but there’s a very good, writing-related, reason.

You see, I am totally and utterly TIRED.

And it’s all my own fault. After I boldly threw out 31st December, 2010, as the very latest date to get my WIP in good enough shape for beta reading, I thought I’d better, you know, see if that was indeed possible. And I’ve realised it may not be, especially since my last round of re-plotting resulted in me needing to add a whole bunch of really cool new scenes that, ahem, I haven’t yet written.


But me being my anal self, I’m determined to stick to that deadline as best I can. So I’ve been rising at 5.50am, every day, to squeeze in an extra hour of writing, in the hope that will do the trick. Hence I look and feel like death warmed up. Yay for me. L

I have, however, managed to revise my first 12K – so to keep me to this schedule (and so I don’t feel quite so alone in my insanity) I’d love to hear about the extreme lengths you might have gone to in order to snatch that extra time, or find that elusive solitude, in which to write. Enquiring minds, and all …

And yes, I’m about to bang on about our new kittens again, but only to confirm that their writing-buddy training is progressing well. They’ve gone from prowling all over my desk and the laptop, and toppling over my towering stacks of notes and reference books, and clawing the curtains (grrr), to quietly snoozing in the sun patches on the carpet, with the occasional leap onto my lap for a cuddle. It’s very cute, I must say.

And for my final piece of random news … last week my DH asked me what I wanted for my birthday, still quite a few weeks away. I told him all I wanted was a whole weekend to myself, to write. No kids, no interruptions, from Saturday morning to Sunday night. He looked kinda sorry he’d asked - like a diamond would have been easier. So we’ll see what transpires!

So tell me - what’s happening in your writing lives?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Hey all – I apologize for running late yet again with my blog post. I had a bit of mini-meltdown yesterday when I got caught up in the Hoarders marathon. After a few episodes, I totally started panicking about the dirty dishes in my sink…about the stack of mail on my kitchen table… that pile of clean clothes on my bed that I hadn't folded yet… OMG… is this how it all starts?? Even worse – I couldn't make myself turn away. I'd tell myself, just one more episode, Jen. One more, and then you'll go do something constructive. Yeah, didn't happen. I watched on and off…more on than off…all day. Needless to say, my refusal to do anything only added fuel to the small bonfire I had going.

By the end of the day, I was convinced I was a mini-Hoarder in the making!

*sound of major panic*

Okay…okay… I'm okay today, but yeah, my need to clean is overwhelming at this point. I'm not even staying at my apartment at the moment, and I still feel the need. I have a feeling I'll be making several trips over to clean. That place will be spic and span, with no one over there to enjoy it. LOL. Oh well – it will be great when I get back. (And for the record, it really isn't that bad. I know this. Yes. I know this.)

So…on to my topic. Self-publication.

I'm not really sure why I feel the need to talk about this. It's been on my mind for a while, though, so I guess it's as good a topic as any. The reason it comes to mind is that I can't tell you the number of people who have ventured into self-publication recently—both friends and strangers—goodness, it seems like everyone is heading down that road. I will admit that I don't know much about the why's behind this surge, but as always, I have an opinion about it all. (Someone recently put forth the expression – What would Hendren do? Gotta tell you. I liked it. (g)) So yeah, what would Hendren do?

To put it succinctly: Hendren wouldn't self-publish.

Now…I have my reasons. And honestly, I don't want to take away from anyone's decision to self-publish. Each of us has our own journey to make. What one writer decides to do isn't necessarily the right decision for anyone but him/herself. The fact that we have so many options—the traditional route with a large OR small publishing house… epublishing…self-publishing…free publications on the internet—is what makes writing at this particular point in time so very, very exciting.

That said, I do have my reasons as to why self-publication isn't something I would want to explore at this particular time.

First and foremost, I know myself too well. Too, too well. If you've finished a novel, you're going to know exactly what I'm talking about. Take a moment with me to reminisce, or imagine—whichever the case. You've started a book—it's beautiful, it's shiny—you're in love with your characters, your story, the experience of putting words to paper. You experience that high—you know the one. Pure elation at having created something from nothing. YOU ARE A GENIUS.

Then…then reality sets in. Holy shit! This is work. And hot damn, it's HARD. You want to give up. Who the heck were you fooling in thinking you could write a book?! This is madness. You should quit—erase your files, burn the hard copies… get out NOW before anyone finds out what you're doing and you make a complete fool of yourself.

But no, you push on…you stay up into the wee hours of the morning…you skip out on social events with friends, you feel ragged, burned out…you're unable to do anything but eat, sleep, and breathe your story. YOU MUST FINISH THIS DAMN THING OR BY GOD YOU WILL DIE TRYING!!! It isn't a labor of love at this point. It's a BIG OLE monkey on your back and you must make the pain end.

Then one day…miraculously…you finish! You type the words 'the end' and, if you're like me, you have a little Joan Wilder moment when you cry—partly in relief, partly in delirious happiness. You're like a new parent staring at a pile of perfection in your hands. Your book is PERFECT. There's never been a more perfect novel in all of history. You are a GENIUS and this book is going to be loved by all who read it.

Now…had I set out with the idea of self-publication when I reached this particular point in time, I can guarantee with every fiber of my being that I would've put that baby out there the very next day. Screw edits…screw revisions…I would want to get it between two covers ASAP so the world could see the brilliance that is me.


Time out, people. Doing something like that would've spelled HUGE disaster. Guarantee it. My book—that perfect baby in my arms—was a big ole' pile of dog poo.

So yeah…number one reason I wouldn't consider self-publication? My inability to think clearly during the headier moments of the writing process. There are days when I think everything I touch is brilliant. Then there are the days after that when I realize it all needs A LOT of work. I could very easily get caught up in the "good" days and wind up putting out a bunch of turds.

Related to this, I NEED someone to act as a go-between. Someone who will remind me that while my work may be GOOD…it still isn't GREAT. Someone who will work with me to make my books shine. Yes, I want/need an agent. Someone who knows the business, someone who gets just as excited, if not MORE excited, about my work than I do. I know the whole 'agent' thing can be scary. They're essentially gatekeepers who have a tremendous impact on the books hitting the shelves today. And boy, are they difficult to impress. That said, you'll never meet someone more enthusiastic about the publication business. They love good stories—they get excited just like we do when they come across a story that sparks their imaginations. Just think about how excited you get while talking about a book you truly loved. (I get GIDDY, and I want to tell everyone to read it.) Agents get to do that For A Living! An agent is your greatest advocate…your greatest critic…a partner who wants you to succeed. And by God, they're not going to let you ride your Joan Wilder high into the land of 'this book could've been great with a little editing…'

I need a back-up team. I need people who will comb through my book and find all of my grammatical snafus – people who will catch glaring plot holes or inconsistencies...people who have read Strunk & White…and yanno, understand it.

People who know what a gerund is.

In short, I need an editing team – an editor, copy editors…the whole she-bang. I can guarantee my "finished/polished" novel would be a big ole' hot mess, despite my best efforts. This doesn't even begin to highlight all of the people involved on the publishing house end of things—I certainly don't know them all. But these people publish books for a living – they know the business better than I ever will. Having them backing me would be an amazing blessing.

I have to admit that even if I were somehow magically able to control my Joan Wilder highs, even if I could somehow gain the knowledge necessary to make my work completely salable on my own, I'm still not sure I would self-publish. Why? Frankly, I think it's a little too easy.

Okay, I know, I know… finishing a book is not easy. NO WAY is it easy. But packaging up a book on your own and slapping it up for sale IS. And well, it kind of seems like everyone is jumping on that particular wagon as of late. Again, I'm not an expert, but I think we're going to see a massive influx of self-published books…and to put it bluntly, we won't know which end is up.

Think about it. Imagine yourself walking into your local bookstore. I don't know if this happens to you, but sometimes I feel like I'm on sensory overload. There are just SO MANY books on those shelves. So many choices…not enough time or space to house them all. Who do you go for when you're browsing? Simple… you go for the writers you know and trust. And if you're not looking for them, you're going for writers you recognize by name alone. Writers that have been recommended by friends. And if you're like me, you do the exact same thing when you're online. I get SO frustrated browsing on the internet… the pages upon pages of books…I skim, I don't pay much attention to writers I don't know well…and well, I again go for the writers I recognize.

Unless I KNEW the writer, I can't guarantee I would ever go for a self-published book. I know some people hate cover blurbs, but yes… I want to see them. I want to read reviews by people/sources I can trust. I need SOMETHING that lends to the idea that I'm not shelling out my hard-earned duckets for a big pile of dog poo. And yeah, I know that even with all of these green lights I may still not love a book—it's certainly happened enough times. That said, I'm still more willing to take a chance on an author who has the thumbs up from the publication establishment as a whole. Perhaps this will change in time, but I have to keep it real. This is where I'm at.

So..yeah, I'm curious about what you think. Would you/have you self-published? Why did you choose to do that rather than take the "traditional route"? What are the pros/cons from your viewpoint?

Your girl, Tuesday (just barely!), OUT.




Sunday, September 5, 2010

Losing touch

I've been absolutely dreadful at remembering my day to blog lately- my apologies! I missed Thursday again this week, so given five spare minutes on Sunday, I thought I'd make up for it and write a post anyway.

At the moment, only one thing is occupying my mind when it comes to writing- I've lost touch with my main character, Bill.

We haven't been speaking for a couple of months, really- I've been too busy with his brother. But I thought that once Len and I worked through our issues, I'd have a better understanding of Bill, too.

Not so. No, now that I've finished writing half a novel's worth of Len's scenes, Bill is further away from me than ever. Part of the reason is that Len's motivations, desires, fears and actions were so clearly defined. His stakes were easy to raise. Stakes, by the way, have been the topic of much rather heated discussion at the Forum this past week, and the September toolbox will be all about ways of raising them.

Raised stakes come from knowing what a character wants, desires, needs more than anything else, and throwing roadblocks in their way. The story is how they get around the blocks. I won't go into the debate about whether continually raised stakes are appropriate in every story, but I'll just say that I know they are in mine. For Len, it's simple. He's reliant on his physical strength to achieve his passion in life (playing professional football). He knows what he wants (to get away from the boring farm life and make a name for himself). And his flaws are obvious (impulsiveness, meanness, jealousy). Those things combine in the first place to kick off the story when he attacks Kit in a fit of drunken jealousy and anger.

And they're the easiest things in the world to mess with, because Len is so singular in what he wants. First step: he loses his leg to the war. Now he can't rely on his physical skills as he's always done.

Second step: He gets guilty. Now he's fighting against his own flaws as much as anything else, and he's got a new, strong driving purpose in life- to make amends for what he did before the war.

And on from there, but it's that simple- his strengths, flaws, needs, desires, losses- they're all in perfect alignment for ultimate conflict.

Bill, on the other hand, is nowhere near so clearly drawn at this stage. The reason is that the story has shifted and evolved over the last couple of years, but Bill has never changed. And it means he's at odds with the story as he is now. He gets depressed, he stays depressed. Instead of fighting to overcome his grief, he becomes an alcoholic and sinks into darkness. He's what Don Maass calls a "dark protagonist", who always has the potential for positivity but never shows it until the end- by which stage the reader has more than likely given up on him long ago.

This is fine if he's going to take second string to Len and his active determination.

But if he's going to be the main character, he needs more fight. And at this point in time, I'm not struggling to find things he's passionate about- I'm struggling to figure out which of them is the most significant, and how they each impact on each other.

My point: He's passionate about the family farm, and he's passionate about Kit.

They go together- in pushing for the farm to thrive, he's trying to make a future for he and Kit. He takes some big chances, some of which are disastrous. But in the end, I don't have a great handle on just how these desires mesh or don't mesh.

This month's exercise at the Forum is about using description to convey emotion- it's an excellent exercise, and one I thought was going to be easy for me, because unlike many participants, I have the required barn and the exact situations set by Barbara in my story. But I've tried to start writing the scene in which a man waits for his lover, and I just can't do it. It actually happens in the story- Bill and Kit meet in the stables- but this keys directly into the problem I'm having.

Reconciling farm, and family. How these two desires relate to each other. And how they come together to cause Bill's downfall, and how they bring about his revival, too.

At the core of it all is understanding Bill as a person. So, now that I've figured out his brother and his wife, I need to spend some time going back to basics- stream of consciousness exercises, writing backstory scenes that won't see the light of day, even doing a "diary" entry or two.

Sometimes to regain touch, you need to take a big step back from placing actual words on the page, and consider the people behind them.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Maze

Have you ever been inside a life-sized maze? You know the ones that are created in corn fields, hay fields and even pineapple fields? The maze craze isn’t new, but they continue to be popular with people who enjoy a good puzzle. (Or have secret fantasies of being a large lab rat…)

There are times when I navigate my work-in-progress that I can’t see the book for the words in it. It feels like a giant maze. The beginning is an elusive thing, the middle is full of chunks and the ending — well, I didn’t have one of those until recently. I wander the maze, exploring new avenues, studying the walls for directional clues and sometimes bumping up against a dead-end. It’s a maze of my own making and I stand with the people who enjoy a good puzzle and refuse to think of myself as a giant lab rat.

Even though I love a good puzzle and I take great pleasure in playing inside this maze, I was stuck going down the same worn paths over and over. I saw the same turns, the same twists, but never came to the end. It wasn’t until I went down a new path that I found the ending to my novel.

The revelation was sweetly simple, utterly perfect and in keeping with my main character. It’s the only ending possible and I can’t believe I didn’t see it before. How could I have been so lost for so long when the ending was there all along?

Some of you are probably brilliant strategists and plotters and born story-tellers. Then there’s the rest of us who puzzle things out. If you’re one of the latter and you’re stuck running the maze, I challenge you to jump the walls, knock over the fences or at least peek around a corner you’ve refused to turn.

If you’ve been following Claire’s story, Between the Lines, you’ll know that she recently overhauled one of her characters with brilliant results. Her willingness to let go and re-do has reaped numerous new ideas, stronger story lines, and a huge burst of writer’s energy.

My own work has also seen some of the same effects once I was willing to make a few changes in a character. Suddenly I had not only an ending, but nearly everything that leads to it. (Alas, the opening is still elusive.)

I can’t wait to jump back into my maze, for I see new trails to follow and I’m fairly certain I won’t get lost again. I have a compass with me now, one that points to the end.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Conference Smatterings

I attended the 2010 Salisbury Writers’ Festival this past weekend, here in my hometown of Adelaide. It’s not a huge conference, and certainly a minnow when compared to the behemoths of the Romance Writers Association conferences and the like, but in my opinion it punches above its weight in terms of quality. I’ve attended the Salisbury conference three years running and I always come away knowing more about writing and the publishing industry than I did before, and with my enthusiasm for writing cranked right up.

So I thought I’d pass on a few bits and pieces that may be of interest to you all.


The director of the Australian Society of Authors, Angelo Loukakis, talked at length about the current state of the publishing business, especially the impact of e-books and e-readers.

Due to Amazon and other giants of the same ilk (Google and Apple are soon to jump on the book retailing band wagon), e-books are looking to be the way of the future, in Loukakis’ opinion. He quoted the stats to support his argument - in 2008-2009, according to the Nielson Book scan, the Australian book industry was worth $1.3 billion; whereas Apple, on its own, managed to rake in that exact same amount here. Without yet adding book retailing to its repertoire.

He doesn’t believe the advent of e-books necessarily spells doom for writers. Without the printing and warehousing costs of paper books, e-books cost far less to produce, even when factoring in their own production costs, and publishers may therefore be more inclined to take a chance on first time authors, or on more alternative works, or (oh, please!) on big fat books.

However, it’s going to take a while for the dust to settle. Amazon, he said, is the tail wagging the dog at the moment, and writers could still stand to earn far less that they do now. And Loukakis believes that in a digital world, where publishers spend far less on the printing and warehousing of books, the time will soon come when they will have to rethink what it is they actually do to earn the bite they take out of a book’s earnings.

Interesting. But all we writers can really do at the moment is keep abreast of what’s happening and be aware of what we may be signing up for - or signing away - if that happy day arrives and a book contract arrives in the post.

Go see a lawyer, people; or an industry body (like the Australian Society of Authors), or pick your agent’s brains, before you sign a thing.

The writing life.

Several published authors spoke of their writing experiences. Here, in no particular order, are a some of the thoughts and advice that resonated with me:-

Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. Shoot out the blocks at full pelt and you’re likely to burn out before you reach the end.

Be aware of your writing process. Study it to learn what works for you – what time do you write best, where do you write best, with what medium do you write best.

Writer's block is artificial. But if you find you can’t write – really and truly run out of things to say, not the usual procrastination we all go through - then don’t write. Go and do something else, something creative - cooking, origami, cross-stitch, whatever it is that floats your boat. Fill your creative well that way, and you’ll find that the writing muse will soon start speaking to you again – and that a writing project may come of your hobby (the writer who spoke on this, who has mainly written short stories and autobiographies over her long career, recently published a book on gardening that sprang from a period when she put down the pen and took up the weed whacker instead.)

Perseverance, perseverance and more perseverance. This is vital if you are to make it at any stage of the writing game, be it getting down that first draft, or editing and revising the tenth, or dealing with critiques, or mailing out those query letters, or getting on with your next project …

First pages.

The last session of the day was dedicated to the analysis and critique of first pages. Four editors fronted up to comment on the first pages that we conference attendees sent in when registering. They treated the session as a slushpile meeting, with each editor commenting on which pages made them want to keep on reading and which did not, and why.

Thank God this was all done anonymously!

Importantly, all four editors agreed that to make them read on, a first page must (a) have a killer first line, (b) establish location, era, character, and what type of novel it is (mystery, sci-fi, romance, etc) and (c) have clean, clear, prose.

The no-nos for a first page were (unsurprisingly) loads of back story, nothing interesting or clear happening, and unpolished writing.

I came away with some quite positive feedback on my own first page (yay!) so I’m all fired up … and have now set myself a cracking pace. I want to get this draft revised and ready for beta reading by the end of the year. It’s going to be VERY hard, especially with another set of school holidays in three weeks and school letting out for the year in early December, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

Wish me luck.

But the best part of this conference was experiencing the camaraderie that seems to naturally flow when writers gather. Every one of the presenters was honest in their views and comments, but most of all, completely encouraging. And the writers with whom I mingled in the lunch and coffee breaks were all just as supportive, keen to share each other’s war stories and successes. But what really epitomized the generosity of writers, for me, was the opportunity given by this festival to one sixteen-year-old girl – a young author – named Lauren Fuge.

Lauren’s first novel came out in April - WHEN COURAGE CAME TO CALL, a YA published by Random House – and to help her find her feet in the world of book promotion she was invited along by the festival organizers specifically to give her the experience of giving an author talk. How amazingly supportive is that? And she was great, and the crowd was so very encouraging to this young writer setting out on her career … I must say that was the festival highlight for me.

I feel incredibly lucky to be part of a community where support and encouragement are in such abundance, no matter what stage of the game you’re at. So if you ever get the chance to attend a writers’ conference, all I can say is just go. You won't regret it.