Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Write Side of the Law

Scanning through my book shelves the other day I re-discovered my well-thumbed collection of John Grisham novels. Great reads, in my humble opinion. And there, tucked behind them, were a handful of Scott Turows, equally enjoyable tales. It struck me that both Grisham and Turow are lawyers who have turned to writing fiction, and I got to wondering why so many of them make that switch. Because lets face it, there are a whole heap of them out there. Along with Grisham and Turow you have your Alexander McCall Smith, your Phillip Margolin, your John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole of the Bailey. Even Charles Dickens worked as a clerk in a law office; heck, I’m a recovering lawyer myself, and our Jen has a law degree hanging on her wall. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the only other professions that spawn such a profusion of novelists seem to be journalism, English teaching and copy writing.

What is it about lawyers and the law that drives them to turn from the cut and thrust of the court room and seek the realms of the imagination? Probably many reasons, but I really think it boils down to the fact that the leap from lawyer to writer is not as hard as you might think; that the gulf between the world of facts and evidence, and the world of creativity and fiction, really isn’t that wide at all.

If you want to be a lawyer or a writer, you’d better love words - adore them, in fact, their shades and graduations, love manipulating them, love the challenge of selecting just the right ones so your character’s inner turmoil is made crystal clear, or to ensure the letter you’re writing on your client’s behalf conveys the message she wants, without getting her butt sued for defamation.

Writers and lawyers also need to use and hone many of the same skills, particularly that of people-watching. When you’re taking statements from witnesses in the lead up to a trial, for example, you need to be able to decide whether what these people are telling you is more or less the truth - you DO NOT want your case blown out of the water because your witness’ evidence turns out to be a pack of lies - and really, the only way you can make this call is by quietly observing them; their mannerisms as they retell their versions of events, their choice of words, their eye movements, how they react to certain questions you pose them. This ability to deconstruct the way we humans act is what writers have, too - in fact, nearly every writer I know loves a good old spot of people watching - and what they observe, they bring to their work, creating characters with great depth and who are entirely believable.

And lawyers must also be story tellers, in a way, amassing and ordering information to unfold a story that will convince a judge or jury of a particular version of events.

But - and I can attest to this from painful personal experience - coming to novel writing armed with a law degree does have its pitfalls. The main one being that it takes a LONG time to to rid your writing of all the dusty rules and rigid structures you must adhere to when doing legal work. In other words, it takes a long time to learn not to be boring, to shake off a facts based approach to constructing sentences and paragraphs, and let your imagination run free.

That said, having the stamina to sit and write legalese for hours and hours on end means you probably won’t find it too hard to nail your butt to the chair and write fiction.

And despite the image given to the profession by LA Law and the like, practising law can often be a dry and dull affair. Lots of fact finding, double-checking, evidence gathering, drafting wills and leases and …. yawn. Whereas writing fiction lets you use other parts of your brain altogether, the parts where your creativity and imagination reside. When you have to tamp that side down for your day job, the temptation to let it off the leash and write a book can be very great indeed. Believe me.

So, how about you? Do your jobs - past or present - help or hider your writing?

Edited to add - oh, and my sick cat Leo? He's fine. Turns out the source of his problem was not his pancreas, but the two inches of ribbon he'd apparently eaten. *rolls eyes* Just don't ask how we finally worked that one out. Shudder.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Good influences

I just finished reading The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, for this month's book club, and I really enjoyed it. I reckon you have to give her extra credit when you hear her tale of being rejected by sixty agents before the sixty-first recognised the potential in her book, too- store that one up next time you're feeling down because of rejections.

It's not that often that you come across a book that changes you- and I don't think The Help was one of those for me. I'm sure it probably has been for some readers, though.

It got me thinking about books that *have* had a big impact on me over the years- the ones I've remembered permanently because a particular part of the story or the writing or the characters lodged in my mind, and shifted my way of thinking or feeling. All those books have influenced my writing, too, because for me it's the holy grail; the thing I aspire to- creating something that makes a difference because it's done so well, or because the core story is so well conceived. Sometimes the stories I remember are those that shock me, and I think that the big trick with those is that they expose uncomfortable feelings and prompt reactions that make you examine yourself.

Here are just a few of the stories that have influenced me:

Roald Dahl- The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (and Six More)

The story of The Swan has stuck with me for more than twenty years since I first read it. I devoured Roald Dahl books as a kid, and I went through them at such a rate that my parents grabbed anything they could find to keep feeding my love-fest. Henry Sugar was meant for readers a little older than I was at the time, which I only realised, I think, when I came to this story. It's about a boy who's tortured by two acquaintances, forced to witness the killing of a beautiful swan, and then tortured a little more when his abductors strap the wings of the mutilated bird to his arms. The nastiness in the story was beyond anything my young mind had ever comprehended before, and it was kids doing awful things to another kid. It shifted my view of the world as a safe place and kicked off the early beginnings of how I understand human behaviour, the highs and lows.

Harper Lee- To Kill a Mockingbird

I doubt I need to say much about this book. I think a lot of young people over the last half century have had their early sense of justice and equality sparked into life reading about lawyer Atticus Finch trying to help an innocent man through an unjust trial. That the story is told through the eyes of young Scout Finch made it easy to identify with as a young reader, and strongly taught me that you're never too young to stand up for yourself and others.

Elspeth Huxley- The Flame Trees of Thika

An autobiographical novel about growing up in Africa in the early colonial days of the 20th century. I identified so strongly with the main character, being an expatriate child myself, and I was fascinated by the richness of the African setting and the undertones of adult meaning that were just beyond my reach when I first read the book. I read it many more times as the years went by, and the older I got the more layers seemed to appear in the narrative. I love a book that grows with you, so to speak.

John Fowles- The Collector

This novel is split in two halves, the first told from the point of view of a kidnapper who has a young woman held captive, and the second half from the point of view of the girl. The incredible strength of the perspectives in the book were a huge writing lesson for me. To be able to make a character sympathetic when he's done something awful, just because the reader is so deeply seated in his head, and because he believes so completely in the rightness of his own action- that's amazing writing.

Marcus Zusak- The Book Thief

The older I get, the harder it is to find writing that really truly blows me away, but when I read The Book Thief it was a revelation. It left me completely breathless. I felt grateful that I'd picked it up, because my life and my understanding of the world felt that little bit richer for having read it. These books? They're different for everyone. What grabs one person might have no significant meaning to another.

And that, of course, is because we all have different formative experiences, and we all come out of those as different people. I love wandering back down memory lane and thinking about some of those influences.

How about you? What stories or books have shaped, influenced and changed you and your writing over the years?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

No Insightful Post From Me Because ...

... my writing buddy is sick. :-(

Leo has come down with feline pancreatitis, and is not at all a well cat. Two trips to the vet including an overnight stay, IV drip, antibiotics, blood tests, anti-nausea injections ... and he's slowly getting better, but when you have to syringe-feed a cat who was once a food vacuum cleaner, you know things aren't good.

(And no, this isn't him on his sick bed; this is just how one sleeps in the study when one is a spoilt cat with a dislike of the Australian winter ...)

Hopefully, he'll be back to making mischief with his brother Max very soon. And sending me good vibes while I write ... I miss his company!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A good book, or six

Don't you love it when you stumble across a book that sucks you right in and leaves you dying for more? Especially when you discover that it's the first in a series, and there are five more waiting for you?

I happened across P. B. Ryan's post-Civil War era Nell Sweeney mysteries last month while trawling the Kindle store for free books. The first novel, Still Life With Murder, was free on promotion, so I downloaded it, thinking it sounded okay, then left it a couple of weeks.

When I ran out of other stuff to read last week, I opened it up, and by the end of the first chapter, couldn't put it down. I ended up reading all six books in the series in a week. As good books often do, it got me thinking about novels and series of novels that are done really well, and what makes them so irresistible.

Still Life With Murder is described as follows, which sets up the basis for the rest of the series:

Boston, 1868: The wealthy are enjoying the height of the Gilded Age, a time of opulence for many...but not all. Nell Sweeney, a young Irish immigrant, knows what it is to have nothing. But when she earns a coveted position as governess to the wealthy Hewitts, Nell discovers that deadly secrets often lurk beneath society's gilded surface.

The two eldest Hewitt boys were thought to have been killed in the Civil War some three years ago. But one winter's day, the family hears word that their William is, in fact, alive and in jail for having killed a man...

Enraged at his son's deception and convinced of his guilt, August Hewitt is determined to see William hang and thus forbids his wife from aiding Will in any way. But Viola Hewitt believes her son is innocent and begs Nell to help her exonerate him. With few leads and even less time, Nell must rely on her wits and her knowledge of the city's dark underbelly to uncover the truth...before the hangman's noose tightens around William Hewitt's throat...

For me, these novels caught my attention totally and completely because they had:

1. A strong protagonist, Irish pickpocket-turned-respectable governess Nell Sweeney, who from page one had a clear, unique, and interesting voice. Heard that before, right? It's all about the voice.

2. An equally strong male protagonist who brings buckets of extra conflict- once-decorated battle surgeon turned opium-addicted professional gambler Will Hewitt. Flaws? Yes. Yes yes. Flaws like these are so good. Will would be the perfect man- he's decent, honorable, kind, and of course incredibly sexy- if it weren't for those blasted flaws of his. But those weaknesses make him all the more desirable, and all the more dangerous. He's the last thing Nell needs- but he's everything she's ever needed, too. They're each great characters on their own, but put them together, and you've got dynamite.

3. High stakes, and plenty of them. Nell has battled her whole life to rise out of the slums, and a chance moment of fate brings her that opportunity- but it's not that simple, either. In addition to her core ambition to make a better life for herself, there are numerous other driving emotions and personal histories that push Nell to do what she does, and in turn those deep cares and desires are also threatened when she's forced by circumstances to make hard decisions.

4. And she is, often, forced to make those hard decisions- from the first novel, she's locked into investigating a crime to clear the name of the male protagonist, and from then on her natural talents for solving mysteries and her moral/ ethical sense of right and wrong mean that she frequently goes to the aid of others at the possible expense of her own happiness. This is a combination of good character and good plot.

5. Vibrancy and colour- post-Civil War Boston is brought vividly to life by the writing, and the cast of secondary characters is full of fascinating people. I love mysteries that line up a whole cast of possible killers before letting you in on who really did it- and I really like those that retain the more vibrant of the innocent suspects as ongoing characters in later novels.

6. Subtlety and trust in the reader- possibly my favourite thing about the whole series was the slow reveal of both Nell and Will's past histories. There were little allusions stitched in from the very beginning to things like Nell's knife wound scars, and to a mysterious man from her past named Duncan, and more, but there were still aspects of her life that were not fully revealed until the last couple of books. Nonetheless, there was just enough shown at all times that the reader could fill in a few blanks and take some guesses- not all of them right, of course, but it's great to be given as much as you need at any point in time, and be left wondering just a little with the rest.

(Side note- who IS this person writing this blog post? I know, I know, the girl who loves to spoil spoilers for herself- this may be the first time in ages that I didn't actually want to know before I was told).

7. A beautifully evolving relationship at the core of the story- one you could really believe in and root for. I really loved the way Nell and Will's story unfolded, and I loved that it was unhurried, to an extent. It was so well-suited to the characters, their personalities, and the time and circumstances in which they lived. It was very real.

Anyway! All in all, I really enjoyed these books a heap. I think the author did so many things right, and it's always good to see what works.

If you like the sound of the Nell Sweeney novels, the first is back up to the whopping price of 99c on Kindle (bargain), and the rest range in price up to $3.99. You can find them at Amazon here, and the author's website is here.


Have you read a series you really loved? I think maybe I should say "except Outlander", since that's a bit of a given around here ;) What lessons have you learned from them? What really works for you?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Time Is On My Side

My nanna turned ninety years old today. Ninety. Years. Old. That’s quite an impressive feat, very worthy of celebrating, and so we did … however, she also suffers from dementia and gets very thrown by anything that veers from her daily routine, so we kept things low-key, just a gathering of her children and a few of us grandkids, with a cake and candles and pink fizzy drink.

Nan’s older sister came along to the party, too; my great aunt Alma who just last month turned ninety-five. Oi. Given that their mother and father live to ninety-eight and ninety-seven respectively, it’ll be interesting to see what number these two dear old girls make it to, with those longevity genes and modern medicine on their side.

I’m hitting a smaller milestone of my own later this year (forty, she whispers) and I sometimes find myself stressing about how fast the years seem to be slipping by, and along with that, how long it's taking me to write this book (ah, yes, my patience issue raising its ugly head again.) But these days I am able to calm my heart palpitations by acknowledging that even after four years, I am still a learner writer - not quite a wet-behind the ears beginner, but not a veteran, by any means. And this means that getting my book into shape should take time. I mean, I didn’t learn to become a lawyer over night. That took six years of hard graft, and learning to write – and to be a writer – may take just as long, if not longer. Hopefully, I’ll never stop learning … but somewhere along the track, I will finish my book.

So today, looking at my nanna and my great-aunt – and remembering my late grandfather who made it to ninety-two – I was reminded that with just a little bit of luck, I probably do have plenty of time on my side.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


A few months back, I read a manuscript from a good friend and her writing partner. I've never met the partner--heard of her through my friend, of course, but we've never even conversed through an email or anything. No online chats, nada.

It was a little strange reading the work of a virtual stranger, but let's face it, most writers are strangers to us so it really shouldn't make a difference in the end. That said, I read it mostly because I wanted to help my friend. We've been online writing buds for a very long time and I was super excited to jump into the manuscript and give whatever advice I thought might help.

I read it, made some suggestions, same as I would for anyone. My friend was very grateful for my input because she felt I hit on some of the weak spots she and her partner had been in dispute over. And I may have pointed out a few things she hadn't thought of... blah blah blah, yada yada yada.

Needless to say, the writing partner did not take the critique well. She did at one point say she thought I might be right in my various points, but I could pretty much tell she wasn't on board with what I had to say. Regardless of that, I never received a thank you from her. No big, in the grand scheme of things yet to come.

So, flash forward a few months. They've edited some, revised some, etc. and the partner is ready to send the book out into the world. Hold the boats, my friend said, I would really like Jen to take a look at it before we do.

This is when things got ugly. Her writing partner, as you can probably guess, did not want to go through this extra step... after all, who is this Jen? What makes her think her opinion is so important? If she's so good, why doesn't she have an agent yet? Why isn't she published? How does my friend KNOW I actually had an agent at one point? How does she KNOW I didn't lie about it?

And these were just the things my friend was willing to tell me.

Blink, yo. DOUBLE BLINK.

I'm not here to give a lecture about how you should treat beta readers, I think anyone who happens to read this is probably here because they want to converse with other writers and learn from their experiences, etc. That's the reason we started this blog. I don't think I need to preach to this particular choir, iow.

That said, I do want to make a point about her reaction. Her reaction was pure and simple, a deflection technique. She doesn't want to be told her pretty little baby might have a flaw--maybe a nose boogey that's rather unsightly. A dirty diaper. Whatever. So instead of saying, I KNOW THIS BOOK IS GOOD, and having faith in her work, she chose to insult me instead. Instead of believing I would read the book and have nothing but glowing praise, she instead decided to just bypass me altogether. Cuz yanno, it's SO much better to hear about your baby's muddy face from an agent in the form of a rejection.

Needless to say, I don't think I'll be wasting any more of my time helping this particular writer. "Good luck" is all I have to say.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Name Game

We're expecting a new baby early next year, and this week my characteristically organised husband and I have been going through our name options all over again. We developed quite the complicated system before our daughter was born a few years back- we've never been ones to fly by the seat of our pants on important decisions like this.

When it comes to naming a baby, there are so many complicated things to consider. Will the first name match up with the surname? What kind of vibe does it have? Can you imagine yelling that name out at the supermarket when your little darling legs it with a snatched block of chocolate? What kind of reception is it going to get at high school? What kind of nicknames? What do the initials spell?

Mostly, what you want is a name that is just... right. One your kid can grow into adulthood with; preferably one they won't immediately change by deed poll the moment they're old enough to disown you for real.

When it comes to naming characters, some of the exact same things come into play- but then, there's also a whole lot of difference.

When I first started writing my story more than a decade ago, I went to the first place I could think of where I could find a long list of first-and-surnames together- the newspaper obituaries. From that source, I got the surname of the family in my trilogy of Australian war novels (Cutler), and the first names of my main character, Bill, and his son Jared.

It turned out to be a pretty good source, because though I didn't think of it at the time, many of the obituaries were for people who were actually born around the right time period. Score! Another awesome source for time-period accurate names are the indexes of US, British and Australian historic name popularity. There's a super mega seriously awesome version of that here- just move your cursor over the chart to see the positions of various names in various years. You can visit individual names to see how their popularity has risen and fallen over time, too.

Besides those records, I'm extra lucky to be writing about a time period for which very extensive lists of names exist- I have the names of tens of thousands of young men of the right age and background on the Australian military records, particularly the embarkation rolls for those departing to war. Every time I need a new secondary character name, I go straight to those rolls.

For female names, I head to the digitised historic newspapers of the time period, or to another favourite source- the real life diary of my ancestor who died in the First World War. From his diary come the names of all the other major characters in my novel- Lionel, Tom, Katherine and James.

Sources notwithstanding, how do you pick just the right name out of all those options?

This is where it's not dissimilar to naming a child- but you DO at least get to cheat on the writing front. When you name your kid, you have an idea in your head of the type of person who'll have that name as an adult. You can correct me if I'm wrong, but you might not be imagining your child presiding over the Supreme Court in later years if you pick a name like Tewesday (a real suggestion from my baby name book). Likewise you probably aren't thinking about your kid being the life of the frat house party if you call him Engelbert. Or maybe you are, and my Australian context just doesn't allow me to see it- but in novel writing, you have to consider the impact of the name on your reader. Part of that is the name itself, and part of it is how the character wears it.

You get to give your character the name that suits them right where they are in their life, that embodies their personality, that encapsulates who they are. You don't have to guess how they'll turn out- you already know. You can make their name as unique and significant as you like (like Lionel, which means little lion and reflects quite a bit of Important Character Stuff), or as ordinary and plain as required (like Bill, whose name is a deliberate nod to him as an Everyman).

In that respect, I find naming characters super easy. After trawling through enough options, the right name usually just jumps right out. And if it's not easy enough to start with, you actually get to change it if it turns out not to suit. How good is that?

Your child's name will help to influence and shape them. Your characters' names are reflective of who they are and where they've been. For me, there's nothing more satisfying than feeling like you've got it just right.

How do you name your characters? Are you all about instinct, or do you like to review and plan? And what are your favourite sources for inspiration?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Cutting Room Floor

Hello All,

I've been living like a hermit for much of the summer trying to finish my second book and working on edits for the first one. Which leads me to apologize for my spotty blog posting of late. :)

As I've been doing a lot of revisions for my publisher, I find myself quite adept at trimming and reshaping a manuscript. Sometimes, revision means cutting the fat. Said fat may be cut because the scene isn't working. Or it may be cut because there simply is no room for it given certain word count restrictions.

We often get into discussions of word counts, and there is a continuing notion that word count is dependent on quality. As in, if it works, the publisher won't care about word count. That may be true for some, but in my publishing house, there are word count limits. Thus, I had to pull out the trimming shears.

Scenes that went were ones in which I could easily take the pertinent information out of and put it in another scene. This is the easiest way to make cuts. Read each scene you have and root out the key information. Can that info fit elsewhere and still make sense? If so, it may be the scene to cut. Pick out a few of these borderline scenes and often times, you'll find that these scenes can be combined, and the weakest ones can go.

Ah, but I still have a fondness for certain orphaned scenes. And since we've been sharing scenes, here is one picked up from my cutting room floor.

In Which Archer Ponders His Mask:

“Where are you going?”

Miranda jumped at the sound of Archer’s voice, visibly shocked to see him home, for he had told her he was going out riding. In truth, he had only stopped in the library to glance at the day’s mail when he spotted her slinking toward the front door. Something inside of Archer ripped open, raw and aching. She was afraid of him now. And why shouldn’t she be? When half of London thought him guilty of murder, and the other thought him a freak.

Stiffly, she turned around, and he was stuck anew at the sight of her. With the flawless sweep of her jaw, and her jewel green eyes sparkling with intelligence and cunning, she entranced him.

Those green eyes narrowed upon his face, and a little scowl formed between her auburn winged-brows. “Out.”

“Where?” He could not have her unprotected. Not with an unhinged killer out for blood running amok.

“Am I not allowed to go out?” she asked crisply. “If so, tell me now, for I was under the impression that this was my home, not a prison.”

He picked up a glass, and then remembering the mask, slammed it back down again. The heavy crystal cracked like gunfire. “I am your bloody husband, woman! If I want to know where you are going, you will damn well tell me.”

Her creamy skin flushed red. “Then why bother to frame your demands as questions? Why not grab me by my hair and fling me into the dungeon with the rats!”

“Because we haven’t a dungeon!”

His bellow echoed off of the walls and died in the face of her silence. A sick knot of regret twisted his insides.

“I’m sorry.” A sigh escaped him. “I have been solitary for so long. Proper discourse eludes me.”

Silence swelled around him. He dared a look. No longer flushed or agitated, Miranda studied him with a thoughtful expression that made him want to squirm. The instant their eyes met, the corner of her puffed mouth tugged upward. An answering tug jerked at his cock.

“I can believe that,” she said, oblivious to his torment.

For the life of him, he couldn’t think of what to say. He only wanted to act. To take. To claim. He fought for a measured breath. Those green eyes were draining his resolve.

“This is your home.” His voice had settled to its normal timbre but his blood still hummed. “I would simply appreciate the common courtesy of knowing when you go and when you’ll return.”

She pulled on her tan kid gloves. “Fair enough,” she said. “In the future, I shall inform you of my daily plans. Is that all?”

“London can be dangerous. I ask that you take along two footmen.”

She nodded but her scowl stayed. “I’ve heard what people are saying. About Sir Percival.” The abrupt words came out as an accusation. And ripped further into that aching hole in his heart. He had expected this, waited for it, really.

He tried to sound bored. “Of course you have. Had we a dungeon, the rats in it would be discussing it over tea by now.”

The frown grew, her celadon eyes searching. “Would you like to tell me about it? Your side.”

His side. As if he were already on trial. And what to say? ‘I didn’t do it’ always came off as guilt.

“No,” he said.

Disappointment turned her eyes dull. “I didn’t believe you would.”

He found himself wanted to shout his innocence if only to reassure her. He ground his teeth together. Suddenly he wanted her away from him. Her presence made his skin crawl. Her doubt was a crushing weight on his chest.

“Well then,” he said lightly, “be safe.”

Again she nodded, but her eyes went back to his face as if compelled. Her delectable mouth pursed. Perhaps it wasn’t fear of him; she certainly did not censure her tongue when they conversed. Perhaps it was simply a matter of his appearance. His mask. He could see it in the reflection of the mirror. Brick red with a golden dragon’s head painted upon it, he had picked it up in China. A painted forked tongue flickered down from the mouth-hole as if snubbing the world. If one was forced to wear masks, why not have a bit of fun with it? It seemed sound reasoning at the time. Only now…

“You do not like the masks.” God, he should have kept his mouth shut.

Her head snapped up. “I do not,” she agreed, eviscerating him with three words.

“The masks should not matter,” he said through the pain.

“They don’t.”

His breath hitched but her gloved hands curled tight, and she spoke again, leaving him no chance of a rejoinder. “No, that isn’t right. How you look does not affect my feeling for you.”

Behind the mask, Archer’s mouth fell open. His heart thudded against his ribs as she took a little step forward. “I find I like you, Archer, despite your best efforts.”

“You think I don’t want you to like me?”

She peered into his eyes as if she was desperate to retract some great secret. “Your reticence, the fact that you deliberately seek to push me away, is what angers me.”

If she only knew. He steeled himself against stalking over to her, pulling her against the hot hard place that ached for her comfort. He managed to keep his tone aloft. “Your leaps in logic astound me. Need I remind you, madam, that we’ve only just met and–”

“And yet we are husband and wife. Do you assume to live indefinitely with me, and all the while hiding behind a mask?” Challenge marked every line of her delectable body. Her voice was hard when she spoke. “While using a mask to scare me away, I should say.”

His fist crashed against the table, scattering decanters in a cacophony of clanking. “Of all the idiotic–”

“Prove me wrong then.” She lifted her pert chin. “Take off the mask.”

His chest grew so hot and tight he could not breath. He wanted to scream at her, only somehow that would prove her point. “No,” he got out through clenched teeth.

“I thought you would say that.” Her gaze was clear and ruthless. “Then I will be equally blunt. If you must wear a mask, might you make the mask a pleasant one? Or even plain? I hate that one. It is ugly and mocking. You wield it quite effectively.”

White light burst behind his lids. For a moment he could only grind his teeth as vile curses and denials surged through his head. But she simply stood before him, her expression implacable as if she waited for him to explode.

That look gave him pause. Laughter bubbled within him. The minx had goaded him on purpose. Probably thought he’d fling his mask off in a rage. Clever girl. He would not give her the satisfaction. He pursed his twitching lips, and bowed his head in acquiescence. “Then the dragon is no more.”

He expected annoyance, or perhaps a pout over failing to rouse him. Instead, her smile was the brilliance of the sun. Her eyes locked with his and the world about him slowed, narrowed into her. His mouth opened, to say what he did not know.

Her honeyed voice, now filled with that meddling pragmatism that drove him mad, cut through his reverie. “Very well, then. Good day.”

FIRELIGHT excerpt Copyright © 2012 by Kristen Callihan

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I Get By With A Little Help From My (Writer) Friends

I’m going to a writers’ conference in a couple of weeks, one I’ve been to every year since 2008. It’s just a tiny, local conference, no wiz-bang show like the RWA conferences or ThrillerFest and the like. But its small stature means that every variety of writer imaginable attends – the retiree who finally has the time to write her memoires, the young Goth in his black overcoat and combat boots working on his epic fantasy trilogy, the World War II history buff with his passion for detailing the bombing of Darwin Harbour, the cookbook writers, the poets, the essayists, the magazine contributors … you name them, they’ll be there, writers of all persuasions rubbing shoulders in a little microcosm that well and truly defines the breadth of the word “writer”. And no one really worries about what stage you might be at in your writing journey; in fact, there is an instant comradeship whoever you talk to, published writer or not, due to the fact we all share the same passion for conveying our stories and opinions from our minds to the page- and we all, for better or for worse, love what we do.

Announcing that you are an unpublished writer doesn’t often get the same enthusiastic response in other circles, however.

Last week I was fortunate enough to get away with my husband for a few child-free days, tagging along as “the spouse” while he attended a conference. There were a few social obligations, and being a stay at home mum of nearly thirteen years I am well primed for the quick, “Oh how nice,” response when strangers ask me what I do - followed, usually, by an equally quick escape before I do anything so heinous as break out a wallet full of my kids’ photos, or force them to examine photocopies of my offsprings' school reports. And I get that. I love my kids, but completely understand why others could not care less.

But a few brave souls sometimes stick around long enough to ask another question, which is often: “And what do you do besides look after the kids?”

So I tell them that I am a writer.

At first, the reaction is vastly different. Their eyes spark with interest, and the questions start to flow. What do you write? How long have you been doing it? Where do you get your ideas? We’re best mates now, their enthusiasm knows no bounds - until we get to: “So, how many books have you published?”

I tell them none. Not yet. The face falls, ever so slightly. The smile tightens. And it’s off to top up drinks as soon as they can politely extricate themselves.

And I understand this too. People want to be talking to Stephen King or Jodie Picoult, some author with actual BOOKS on the shelf, someone far more exciting than me (especially at a boring finance conference.)

I’m sure budding musicians and artists and actors who have not yet secured multi album deals or whose work is not yet hanging in the Guggenheim or who have failed to nail a role in a Hollywood blockbuster, get exactly the same response. And that’s OK. It’s just How Things Are, and there’s no point becoming depressed or despondent about it. In fact, the luke warm responses of some strangers should make us value the writers in our lives, those other word-and-story obsessed weirdos who just get us, who don’t care whether we are published or not for they understand that while publication is the dream of many, the simple joy of writing is a prize equally as sweet.

Hold these people close, for they are precious and rare (ATWOP ladies, I'm looking at you. :-) ) And remember not to be hurt by others and their cursory opinions of you. They don’t really know you; they don’t get why you do what you do. But the rest of us frantic scribblers do. And knowing that – knowing you are not alone - is treasure beyond words.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Time To Catch Up!

I apologize for my intermittent postings lately. I've been a bit flattened by life as of late, and this week, I have family in town. Lots of running about trying to prepare, etc. My writing has taken such a back seat, I hardly remember what it was I was working on. :) That said, it's been a while since I've caught up with a lot of you out there, so I thought it might be fun to have a little snip fest of our WIP's. Feel free to post something, or if you're holding it close to the vest, tell us a little bit about what you're working on without giving away anything you don't want to.

Hopefully next week I'll have something a little more on topic. :)

Have fun! Can't wait to read all of your wonderful snips.

A random, newish bit from BY THE PALE MOONLIGHT:

Despite my injuries, it was Ty who had the roughest time over the next few days. He sank into himself, the weight of his guilt an unrelenting force that put a wedge of distance between us. He still stayed with me through the nights, but he was restless. We both were, each for our own reasons. Unable to give voice to our fears, we chose to simply not speak at all.

Surprisingly, it was Melanie who helped get us through. Her determination to discover the truth kept us moving forward, and served as a focal point to distract us from getting lost to our fears and guilt. While Ty and I drifted through that first day back at school in a fog, she simply refused to get pulled into our funk.

“Nothing’s changed,” she said, barely sparing either of us a glance as she took a seat at the lunch table beside me. “What happened…happened.” At that, she did look at me, stealing a quick peek at my bruised cheek. Makeup had hidden most of the damage, but not completely. I’d been forced to slip on sunglasses when I could, and had strategically left my hair down to help shield myself from prying eyes. It had worked so far.

My hands were another story. There was no way I could hide them short of wearing gloves. Not an option. In the end, I’d fallen back on my own general clumsiness, telling everyone I had biffed it on the pavement. Luckily, there weren’t many people around to question it.

“My point is, we have to keep going,” Melanie said, turning her attention to Ty. He sat with his shoulders slumped forward, his head down as he scribbled away in a notebook. I wasn’t altogether sure he was actually doing any work, but for the moment I was content to leave him be. I knew he was listening.

“You’re right,” I said, dropping my fork on the table. I had been pushing my food around anyway and hadn’t managed more than a few bites. “We should get back to work.”

Melanie popped open a can of Coke and nodded as she took a sip. We’d made a point to not talk about things where prying ears might overhear. The lunchroom was definitely a no-fly zone for a full-blown discussion.

“My house after school?” I said, strangely rejuvenated.

“Sounds good.” Melanie glanced at Ty who still hadn’t looked up from his work. “I’ve got a few ideas.”

“Same here.” I couldn’t help the small hit to my enthusiasm at Ty’s silence. I tried not to let it show and pulled out the notebook that held our list of suspects.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Shifting perspectives

As is often the way when we have a family get-together lately, we had an evening the other night of watching Kung Fu Panda, one of my toddler's favourite films. At the end, all the adults were playing with the special features on the DVD, and we happened across one that let you view the same scene in about a dozen different languages.

It was lots of fun- it's quite hilarious to see the personality that each different language automatically brings to an animated scene, just by the way it sounds. From a more guttural language like German, to a lyrical one like Italian or French, to one with very different tonality in Thai- each scene was identical, but they were markedly different, and if you didn't know what was going on, your interpretation would be all over the place.

It got me thinking about tone and language in the written word. Not that you're all that likely to rewrite a scene of your novel in half a dozen different languages just to check out the effect- and if you are, you're so totally showing off right now. Ahem. But I'm more interested in the emotional response the difference in language and tone can bring out in the audience or the reader.

Your characters probably have pretty set voices, depending on how long you've been writing them for. My shellshocked returned soldier Bill is unlikely to bust out of his quietly introverted persona and tell a bawdy slapstick joke. But if I stuck him in a room with a character whose personality did suit the telling of such a joke, then the resultant scene would probably teach me quite a few things- about my own writing, about what tone does and doesn't suit my story, about my secondary characters and their level of vibrancy, and finally even more about Bill based on how he'd react to the telling of said joke.

In other words, trying out a bit of a different tone, shifting gears a little bit, trying on another perspective, can teach you important things about a scene that it's impossible to spot from your usual point of view.

I know that writing the same scene from two different points of view always helps me see it more clearly. Maybe next time I'll have to roll out my only other fluent foreign language and try a little rewrite to see what happens... Or then again, maybe not.

This is the original scene you get to translate on the Kung Fu Panda DVD :)

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Change in the Landscape

Boulder Bay, Alaska

A few weeks ago my family returned to the remote property we have on Kodiak Island. The journey includes a pleasant ferry ride through Prince William Sound and another, less enjoyable ride in our small boat the final 20 miles to our destination, Boulder Bay.

The small boat puts us in intimate contact with the frigid Alaskan waters. We suit up in various layers and stow everything in water-proof drybags. The ride can be wet and cold, with a wind-chill factor of nearly freezing. But despite that, the ride is also full of wonder.

Wonder at the way the sea is in constant motion. Wonder at the fish that jump, silver in the sunlight and the huge beds of kelp we dodge. Wonder, and laughter, at the fat clown-like puffins that, if they’ve fed well, cannot take flight with a full belly and instead skim along the water, wings flapping, feet pedaling. Wonder at the sudden blow of air as a whale takes a breath nearby and flips its tail skyward.

At our destination this year we also began to wonder where the channel into our lagoon had gone. The straight-forward channel we had the year before had vanished. We idled the boat in the bay and gazed at the lagoon and the small waves pounding against the beach. Eventually we found the channel, which now had a large, lazy curve in it.

The channel wasn’t the only thing to have changed in a year. The sandy banks of the beach had been violently eroded. Huge logs, once tossed upon the grassy verge, hung like broken beams over the beach, tottering on the brink of falling back to the sea. What fearsome power had done that to our peaceful beach?

Change is inevitable, as they say. Nothing and nobody stays static, and in fact, the definition of growth is change. Claire and I have mused about how we’ve changed over the years and with it, our stories. Both of us have the experience of nurturing the same stories for years. Years in which we’ve had pivotal life experiences: weddings, childbirth, careers, losses and gains that have shaped us into the people we are today.

What about our novels, though? Are they still the same stories we dreamed of or have they also morphed into something different? And was that satisfying, or frustrating, to realize the stories we always wanted to tell no longer existed in their same form?

Like the new curve in our channel at Boulder Bay, my writing has also made a curve. It was inevitable that changes would happen, just as it was inevitable that the channel was changed by the winter storms.

Just as I stood in the boat and searched the waters for our channel, puzzled at where it has gone, I also read my novel and am perplexed at its direction. Did I do something wrong, did my storytelling instincts momentarily go on the fritz? Worse, I question my writing ability, my desire to write fiction, and doubts seep in. The landscape has changed and I no longer recognize my story or the potential it has. I see a wasteland of words.

This is where a buoy or two are necessary. Buoys mark channels for boats of course, but writers need them too. Claire, in her ever-present optimism and her unbridled belief that I do, indeed, have a story to tell, became a buoy for me and reminded me of that. In essence, she said this is who we are now, we’ll never be the old selves we once were. So the stories we are meant to tell are the ones we have now, changed as they are along with us.

So a change in the landscape is inevitable when storms rage, but instead of giving up, or doubting the new view, I take heart at the challenge and remember: the story I’m meant to tell is the one I write.