I have new science blog post up and ready over at fionamcmillan.com.
It’s a story about the unexpected consequences of losing your grip: when human ancestors began to walk upright, the infants slowly lost their ability to hold onto their mothers and this may have set us on the path toward language and bigger brains. I was fascinated by the hypothesis and I thought it would be a straightforward story to write, but the more I researched the more complex the story became. This was at once wonderful and frustrating. There was so much interesting science that it was difficult to include every angle without ending up with an unreadable deluge of facts. For all that I loved the topic, I almost gave up on the story several times; it was such hard work finding and holding onto the story arc. I guess you could say I lost my grip a bit.
I then remembered a wonderful piece of advice from science writer Carl Zimmer who wrote about his early days as a journalist, and how – at first – he’d try to painstakingly build these incredibly complex stories; each one like a ship in a bottle. But the problem with that approach is that there is often too much information to include and if you want to tell a good story, in addition to deciding what to put in, you also have to decide what to leave out. He explains in more detail here: “Don’t Make a Ship in a Bottle” by Carl Zimmer.
And so, I got back to work. It was a learning process, figuring out which research served the story and which didn’t. There were heaps of random facts that I’d stumbled across and just loved and wanted to share, but when these were included in the story they made it dense and difficult to follow. Sometimes, you just have to say ‘OK, that can be in a story, just not this story’.
It seemed to work.
I made it through, and here is the result:
Every now and then I put on a smelly coat. I don’t even realise I’m doing it at the time. You’d think I would – it reeks – but I don’t. I’m not the only one either. In fact, there’s a bit of a smelly coat epidemic going on. Most of us have one. Most of us have worn it. Some of you might be wearing it right now.
But if there’s something you want to do — that ever elusive thing — you’re going to have to ditch the coat. Yes, it’s a metaphor. A borrowed one at that. But stick with me on this, it gets pretty interesting.
I subscribe to a wonderful newsletter from Maggie Koerth-Baker. She’s a science journalist and author in the US, and is currently a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University. During the fellowship she’s sending out regular updates of three amazing things she discovers on her journey. It’s called the Fellowship of Three Things, and it’s brilliant. The content and scope, well, it’s whatever takes her interest. “It might be a photograph and information about a museum object; a video of a laboratory tour; a short interview with a ground-breaking scholar; or a fact that will give you something new to think about.”
Koerth-Baker’s fellow Nieman-Berkman fellows are contributing as well and the result is a great read. So far they’ve talked about the history of colours, the hidden art in old books, and an astronomical computer made in 1540. I also learned about a 1690 publication on the virtues of chocolate, coffee and tea, and I think we can all agree they were onto something back then, yes?
The interestingness goes on. A fish may not need a bicycle, but in 1881 some fish in California needed a railroad. There was an article on the blood cells that help salamanders regrow their limbs, as well as some views on war and peace from the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor.
Told you it was good.
This month, the newsletter rekindled a fire in my belly. Alicia Stewart contributed to that January 6th edition of the Fellowship of Three Things. She’s an editor at CNN.com and a Nieman-Berkman fellow where she is pursuing her interest in ‘true stories about identity, culture and spirit: who we are, what we do and why we do it.’
Among her selection of three interesting things was a compelling remark from filmmaker Ava DuVernay on how desperation to achieve can get in the way of real achievement.
It was an excerpt from a speech DuVernay gave at the 2013 Film Independent Forum.
Intrigued, I clicked the link to hear the rest. I will be ever grateful that I did.
DuVernay’s speech is one of the most inspiring talks I’ve heard in a long time and a fierce reminder that if you want to get somewhere in particular, if there’s anything you aspire to, something you want to do, then get started. And then keep going. DuVernay speaks from experience, and she is indeed a marvel.
Only a few years ago she aspired to make films but didn’t know quite how to turn this dream into a reality. She couldn’t figure out why she couldn’t move forward. She couldn’t get into the training programs she longed to join. Through it all, she says “I wore my desperation like a coat.”
Skip forward to today.
DuVernay has now built an astounding body of work. In 2012 she became the first African-American woman to win the Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival for Middle of Nowhere. She was also nominated for Best Director at this year’s Golden Globes for Selma — the first female African American to be nominated. Her film Selma was also nominated for Best Picture at both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. Of course, what she has accomplished with these highly significant films goes well and truly beyond award ceremonies.
Now people seek out DuVernay as a mentor and she is an adviser for some of the very same training programs she once couldn’t get into. [for more about her: avaduvernay.com]
What changed? She let go of her desperation when she realised how much it was holding her back.
“All of the time you’re spending trying to get someone to mentor you, trying to have a coffee, all of the things we try to do to move ahead in the industry is time that you’re not working on your screenplay, strengthening your character arcs, thinking about your rehearsal techniques, setting up a table reading to hear the words, thinking about symbolism in your production design, your color pallet. All the time you’re focusing on trying to grab — I need this! I need this! I don’t have this! — you’re being desperate and you’re not doing.
You have to be doing something.” “Desperation,” she explains, ”is not action. It’s not moving you forward, because all of the so-called action is hinging on someone doing something for you.”
It’s one thing to info gather, to ask for guidance. That’s fine. That’s wise. But when it becomes all you do. When your dreams become too dependent on what other people can do for you, then it’s a real problem, she says, because “the desperation, it reeks off of you… like a smelly coat.’
So how do you know if you’re wearing it? She offers a simple test:
“If you spend more time in the day thinking about what you don’t have, than working with what you have. Then you’re acting in a desperate manner and you’re not doing. Until I changed my mind about that, I was really stuck.”
Her advice for ditching the coat: action. “The feeling of yearning coupled with action is not desperation. It’s passion.”
You need to create something for other people to latch onto, to collaborate with, and get excited by. Build something for a mentor to connect with and care about. Start small if you need to, but start nonetheless. “No excuses.”
DuVernay’s advice can be applied to anything creative, anything where you have yearning but haven’t taken much action, or perhaps you’ve stalled and need a good reminder to keep going. Watch the whole thing, including her responses to the questions, as there are many words of wisdom there, too. Yes, its 42 minutes or so, but I genuinely found myself wishing it was longer.
I’d like to extend a big thank you to Ava DuVernay, Alicia Stewart and Maggie Koerth-Baker for the interestingness, the guidance, and the inspiration. I’m going to do my best to ditch the coat and get on with the work. I’m continuing a big project – oh yes, it hasn’t defeated me – but I need the fuel, the action, the surge that also comes from smaller projects. Some change, some action, and I’ll see where it takes me.
So here’s to 2015. Create something, build something, drive something forward. Make a film with a smart phone. Find poems. Make beautiful food. Bring people together. Weave short stories. Tell long ones. Write a song. Curate. Investigate. Explore. Whatever it is. Get started.
I’ve been a Michael Crichton fan for more than twenty years, ever since I got my hands on Jurassic Park in high school. And no matter what I’ve been doing since that time, he keeps cropping up in my attention. I’ve read, with one or two exceptions, every book he wrote. I loved almost every one. I remember where I was when I heard he’d died in 2008. I’ve heard many disparaging things said about him – that his work isn’t serious, that it’s ‘airport fiction’ – I’d dispute them all, but I really don’t care about that now. I loved his stuff, and I want to talk about is two particular places that he influenced my life, and what they meant.
When I was a first-year med student, one of my (probably well-meaning) consultants had a go at Michael Crichton out of the blue one day. I don’t remember what prompted it … something about usefulness of professions. The consultant was indignant that someone who graduated medicine and hadn’t stuck with it. More or less, consultant said, “I mean, he’s not helping anyone.”
At the time, I mumbled the usual non-committal assent of the lowly student. But afterwards, the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t believe it. The consultant didn’t know how many times I’d read MC’s stories, and other favourite authors’. The enjoyment I’ve had from them, the comfort, and the insight. The consultant may have felt medicine’s way of ‘helping’ is the only, or perhaps the most noble, one, but it isn’t true. Good stories help. They enrich, inspire and prompt discussion. Writing matters. And what this one person wrote is still with me long after his death, and will continue to be so. I wish I could go back to that moment, be braver, and say so. Fortunately, I don’t have to.
Years later, when I too decided not to pursue clinical medicine, I would often hear in my head people like that consultant who looked down on me for my choice. And I was comforted because I knew others, like Crichton, had done the exact same thing before me. When I finally got around to reading his early-career memoir, Travels, I found the med school experience he described eerily similar to my own, even though our medical education was 30 years apart. And it was interesting to me that all his bios imply he’d completed his internship before leaving the profession. Travels made it clear this wasn’t the case, just like me. Another comfort.
Fast forward many years to this week, and I’m in the post-completion of a manuscript turmoil. I know it needs lots of work. Lots of work. And out of the blue, my friend Bek sent me this:
And who said it? Michael Crichton. And from a writer I’ve admired so much, this was like a removalist that packed away my apprehensions. Yes, it needs work. A lot of work. And it can be done.
Next week, fingers crossed, I’ll be unpacking my long-boxed books in a new apartment. And I’ll be running my fingers over the stained, dog-eared and much-loved pages of Crichton’s books, and thinking about what a profound influence someone I never met had on me, and how special that is. The magic of stories. My friend KimWilkins describes it as an ordinary magic (which is lovely). Just the kind we often need.
Sister Sal posed a question about planning last week, and I actually sat down to think about it. At heart, I believe in Goldilocks planning – you can do too much or too little. Do too much, and ailments can include drowning in detail, shoehorning, or pre-writing fatigue. Too little and stories meander, are inconsistent, are poorly structured or are never finished. (At least for me). So achieving the right balance is something I’ve consciously worked on, often borrowing from what I’ve read other writers do. So, here goes.
My process for short stories and longer works is really different. And writing and editing are totally different too (not going to touch editing here). I’ll talk about short stories first.
**Note – I mention quite a few stories in this post – some of them are published, the others are mostly in submission processes at the current time.
Short stories. Usually the idea for a short story is small enough that planning is done internally rather than on paper. I find that if I can’t conceive the story in my head, the idea is probably too big for a short and I’m going to end up writing (accidentally) a novella or a novel. If I find myself wanting to pull out paper to get something “straight”, it’s too big. The cusp for too-bigness seems to be around 9-10,000 words, which is good because that’s about the cusp for what’s considered a short story too. For example, ‘The Ship’s Doctor’ (which was 9,000 odd words) I had the concept idea in my head, but once I wrote to first transition, I had to get paper out to just plot out the rest of the events. I will say, however, that that story was structured like a novel (fully formed B/M/E) and most short stories, in contrast, summarise or imply big chunks of that structure.
Ok, so back to planning. Usually I need three things: the situation, the problem and some idea of when/where the resolution will occur (not necessarily how). The situation is broadly the character in their environment (a combo of character/context I guess). Problem and resolution are the two sides of conflict – moving from uncertainty about something to certainty. For example, with ‘The Message’, I knew the story followed Siah, a minor character from an earlier manuscript, in the same post-apocalyptic world, and that he was a near-outcast with a dangerous secret that could get him killed, or, kill everyone around him. The problem was being given a message that he doesn’t want to deliver, and the uncertainty as to why. I knew the story would resolve when Siah reaches the enemy Hold and meets someone else with the same secret. But when I sat down to write, I didn’t really have the in-between bits – I had two metaphorical towers: one the situation/problem, the other the resolution. I wrote to build a bridge between the two, and the exciting evolution of the set-up to enable the ending came with the writing. Similarly for ‘Parvaz’ – I knew the situation was a Roc with a broken wing transformed to human form in the thrall of a Djinn; the problem – he is tempted to kill a woman who comes to his shop, which could expose him; the resolution – he will get some freedom, but the ultimate freedom (flight) will always be out of reach.
I should also say that sometimes the elements (situation/problem/resolution) are not fully formed when I start writing and may get tweaked. But … If I get to the end of the first page without getting some clarity, invariably I get lost and end up with a heap more work (pain and suffering). For example, with ‘Tartarus’, I had the situation/problem easy: ex-honourable military man now in prison and given the chance to fight for release (and a memory wipe), sent to a very alien planet with an unusual squad who could get him killed first. But I didn’t have the resolution. And so I found myself writing and writing, and I got to 9000 words and thought, I better wrap this up. And it sucked. In the end, I had to completely overhaul it once I knew what the resolution was. I purged masses and ended up with a 6200 word story that actually hung together. That resolution part I find is actually critical to drive the conflict when writing (because you have to manoeuvre to get the ending set up), otherwise I’m just feeling around trying to see where the conflict is and it doesn’t work.
So, to Novels/Novellas. Completely different process for me. The idea is bigger and more complex, so it can’t be done in my head and I know it shouldn’t be done as I go because that will only lead to inconsistency and frustration (pain and suffering). But I think the important point for me is that, with the exception of characters, I don’t plan substance, I plan scaffold. I don’t want to know ahead of writing a scene the details of exactly how something happens, I just want to know the boundaries – what needs to happen and any limits. This is an ugly analogy – but I think of it like the shape of the cake tin. When I do get to writing, the actual words are batter that fills the tin. They are the flavour and texture, but without that tin even beautiful prose has no shape; it just goes everywhere and no one gets a cake (or, tasty story).
So, I get an idea. And it might be a setting, it might be a character, it might be a few things. I get the index cards out. I use the cards for two things – characters and scenes. So, one card per character, one scene idea per card (and keep the two separate). So, now, with what I already know I’ll put down some things about the characters (and I usually only do this for the major characters, otherwise it gets unwieldy). I only write bare details too – the stuff that has formed that person as they are in the story (this is scaffold, or cake tin stuff). So, if their parents died young, I put that down. Had a friend betray them? Yes. But I don’t give a crap what their favourite breakfast is, or really what they look like (except where that affects their life) … all that detail is part of the batter.
At this stage, I’ll start writing ideas for scenes, one per card. Not in order, just ideas for things that could happen. I *try* to express them so they capture what conflict/uncertainty the scene serves (so, ‘Daniella discovers the truth about Jamie’s father’, rather than ‘Daniella works in the clinic’) and I only ever write a single line. It’s not the time for details. Cake tin only. It’s an iterative process – you think of scene ideas, sometimes that generates character ideas, or arc ideas. I will often keep a separate piece of paper for brief notes about the arc – where the story will eventually end up and what the mid-point crisis might be, and the ‘darkest hour’ (second transition). But often these things evolve from the scene planning – I don’t have to get there first. When I’m getting a good stack of scene ideas (about 40 maybe), I sit on the floor and start putting them into three areas – beginning, middle, end. And then again, within those, I move them around to a rough order. And more ideas will come, so I write them down and fill gaps with them, and move them around.
I stop this process once the arc seems bedded, that is, when there’s a good number of scene cards (60+), and the initial problem (first trans), mid-point crisis, darkest hour (second trans) and resolution point are present. Then I move to the actual writing, and macro-planning moves to micro-planning. I will only ever plan details for 3-6 scenes in advance (perhaps setting, who’s present, and broadly what will occur. That’s as far as it goes). This is because the writing of the story generates little details, nuances, and connectedness (objects, sentiments or themes) that you need to be able to carry through.
Too much rigid planning in advance can stop that process because it tends to make me want to ignore those ‘consequences of the storytelling’ details, which are actually what makes the story good. For example, The Q Line was a constant shoehorn effort to make it into a story it wasn’t, and it sucked. The Butterfly Blade was written with the process above (not on index cards, but the same idea) and it was actually more enjoyable to write. Same with Razor’s Ridge. Plus, the process allows me to write very fast and very clean because I always know the path ahead. Not what I’m going to see, but the path at least. I can also be incredibly precise about how much I can write in a timeframe.
So then with a few details down, I write the scenes – and often, things occur in the writing that planning brain couldn’t generate. New characters can crop up, unexpected conflicts, etc., which all seem to come organically from how the story is being told. Then, I can go back to the scene cards and tweak them with those details in mind if required. I write from beginning to end. I do not skip scenes, ever. The first draft is complete (but not the last).
Of course, all this doesn’t avoid editing. But it does make it easier. And some projects seem to form more easily than others. The Butterfly Blade, ‘The Ship’s Doctor’, ‘Jack’, ‘Deep Deck 9’, ‘Parvaz’ and ‘The Two Boys’ were written nearly fully formed – very little changed in them structurally in subsequent edits. Then again, Razor’s Ridge, ‘The Message’, and ‘The Seven-forty from Paraburdoo’ had big structural changes despite planning. Painful edits. But that’s just different stories I guess, and I’ll be interested to see in another 5 years if I’m still using the same process.
When I had finally locked onto the idea for the story [see Girl Meets Book], I began to write, letting the tale evolve as I went. New to the craft, I followed the school of thought that a story should be as long as is needed to tell the story. A year and a half later, give or take a few meltdowns, I finished the first draft. To my own vaguely impressed horror I realised I had written just over 1100 pages. In the month following, presented with deadlines, I hastily edited the bastard down to a meagre 800 and titled it The Unkindness. This was meant to be a reference to ravens, but could also allude to printing costs and lost sleep. I hoped the aptness ended there.
‘The story should be as long as is needed to tell the story.’
In the absence of a better plan, this is precisely the kind of thinking that leads to a bend-at-the-knees-when-lifting tome. But there it was. I felt a bit guilty about asking others read this early and immense draft. I also worried about the fate of a book that size, given that publishers tend to avoid enormous books from new authors. The reasons for this are myriad and depressingly reasonable.
But what to cull? The story lines were all interwoven, so there were no large sections of easily jettisoned material. Remove one thread and the whole tapestry would fall apart. It appeared to be a case of a story that wasn’t too long but a book that was.
But there was cause for hope.
“You’ve written two books,” said the estimable Dr Kim after reading it.
I was dumbfounded. Given how painful it had been to write one novel, writing a second should have been something I’d remember. I resisted the idea initially, but soon realised she was right. First came a wave of relief. Brilliant! Problem solved! Cut the thing in half, whack “a To Be Continued scene” at the end of the first book and something akin to “Previously, on Buffy…” at the start of the second. Instant series!
Then reality sank in, as it does, with a sinking feeling. Turns out, there is a big difference between writing a story the size of two books, and writing a story that can be told across two books in such a way that each book can hold its own.
The first problem was finding the point where the story could stop and then begin again. To compound this, I have two major storylines, one present day and one historical. This meant re-working each so that their new endings occurred at the same time. Moreover, the task of avoiding a stark, cliff-hanger ending proved difficult. Not surprisingly, the original story had been written so that the ultimate resolution came at the very end, but now Book 1 needed to stand on its own in the absence of that grand finale. The solution was to hone in on the subplots, then re-work and clarify them so that they began and ended beneath the greater arc of the series. All up, it took another year and a half to tear the story apart and, from that, create Book 1.
I now believed I knew what I was doing and proceeded on to Book 2 with giddy optimism. I knew where each storyline was meant to continue, and the finale was already written. It would be so much easier.
That was in March.
Of last year.
Granted, I’ve had a big break from writing in the last twelve months — a form of writers block I like to call Baby Interruptus. Much of my free time in early pregnancy was spent in a kind of nauseous fug just this side of a coma. I didn’t bother trying to write with a newborn in the house — I’m not that crazy. Now my beautiful daughter is four month’s old and, when I can, I write during her nap times. It’s erratic at best and there’s always that maternal alert system on in the back of my mind like a nervous, hyper-caffeinated meercat. Paradoxically, I haven’t had any caffeine in ages (also not helpful).
Although writing in any cohesive way is a challenge at the moment, sometimes the planets align, the muse rocks up, and the words flow. It’s then I realise that Book 2 has its own unique issues. In fact, they are almost precisely the opposite of those of Book 1. The problem doesn’t lie in where to begin, but how to begin the story so that it is as compelling to a reader who has just finished Book 1 as it is to someone who read it a long time ago, or perhaps never at all. That’s where I am now, reintroducing characters, plots and settings, worrying over how much backstory is needed, and generally building a new Once Upon A Time.
When the planets align.
When the muse rocks up.
But mostly when I pretend they do.
I don’t think there’s much I can do about the meercat.
Thus is the tale of the accidental series. It’s a big punt and probably the most ass-backwards way you could go about writing a series, but I have to admit I’ve learned a lot about the mechanics of novel writing this way. And if I pull it off, if I do it right, maybe it’ll look like I planned it from the start.
Not necessarily a scary monster, though I have met those kind, too. I’m picturing a Cookie-Monster kind of beast, but it eats words and phrases and scenes and scene ideas and not only that, all those lovely, empty moments in between things, like when you’re in the shower or on the loo or just after waking up in the morn or just prior to nodding off at night or driving to get some place … all those moments that used to spontaneously fill up with pondering (brilliant) thoughts about the current WIP, or even an old story or, best of all, a newly born idea … all gone, all snaffled up and chomped down by that hungry, greedy, albeit kinda lovable monster that used to be life as I knew it but has now morphed, Hyde-like into something far less tame and predictable.
And let’s face it, who wants a tame and predictable kind of life? Surely not us writers, who go in search of the wild and strange and unruly all the time, ‘cos ordinary life just isn’t enough. But maybe that’s just it … maybe we prefer it on the page, under the pen, where we can be the boss and decide on the happily ever afters or not?
Hmmm… that sounds suspiciously true, goddam it! Me, the free-wheeling hippy, a control freak, after all? Noooooo! But … yes. Sometimes.
And now Life has turned and changed, as it does, yet again. For me, it’s been the end of one day job and the beginning of a new one, in an entirely new, demanding field. I know others in the sisterhood have been tangling with the Writing-Monster, too. A new baby will do it. Or a move to another country. Change: it’s what life is made of, it’s what it does, and it’s what stories are made of, too. It’s just sometimes the living, breathing unfolding story/monster of Life takes precedence over the ones that we lure and capture into the cage of the page. Sometimes you just have to put the pen down and live a little. Let life live you.
So that’s what I’ve been doing.
I do, however, have a deadline to meet. So the monster and I are going to have to come to some sort of understanding, soon. This blog post is a start.
A while ago I read an interesting blog entry. The author, Rachel Aaron wrote about how she got her word count up to nearly a bazillion a day. There’s a second blog about her 12 Days of Glory as well, which was also inspiring. I’ve been struggling with getting in 500 a day, so I was interested in this bazillion number and how she got there.
The recipe for this frosty cupcake of success was:
1) Plan what you’re going to write before you sit down to do so.
2) Identify where you are the most productive at writing .
3) Be enthusiastic. If the scene bores you, it probably bores the reader.
Hell, she even had a nifty little diagram done up. I call it: The Triangle of Bleeding Obvious But Never Really Thought About It.
And I felt it helped me.
I had the most time to write at night after the kids went down, but I was also at my most tired and unenthusiastic. Somehow I always ended up on the internet, googling images to put on my imaginary cover for my imaginary finished novel. The flip side being if I really got into the slipstream of the story, I had a lot of difficulty in winding down and getting to sleep.
So I buckled down and really thought about it. I knew from past experience that mornings were my best times. Time to make the switch from night writes to morning cups of crazy at the keyboard listening to Two Steps From Hell really, really loud. Great music, wakes me up, just has the unfortunate side-effect of making me type a lot of exclamation marks!!! But hell, if I really wanted to hit a home run, then I go to a café, where I focussed the best.
The enthusiasm side of it more came down to me seeing the scene clearly enough. Where my characters acting faithfully to their personalities? How did they FEEL? What were their EMOOOTIONS? I needed to listen to the music of the scene in my head and think about it for a good ten minutes. Sometimes, all I can hear is the chirping of crickets, with my characters just staring at me, waiting for a clue. Or worse, they were asleep and I couldn’t wake them up.
So, with café writes earmarked for weekends and Thursday late night shopping at the local cafe, I’ve been making changes that will hopefully become habit.
You can tell you’re a writer when everything becomes a possible inclusion in a current or future story, blog, or poem.
Go on, wriggle a little in discomfort if you know it’s true…
Your friend is going through the world’s most vicious breakup and you’re thinking this is the perfect twist for that character. You’re stranded on a train station in the wilds of India with not a rupee to your name and darkness falling and you think, at least if I survive I can write about it. You listen to a couple having a full-on barney on the train. Everything, everything becomes material.
Case in point:
I was standing in Lowes Menswear in Lismore Plaza today, buying work socks for the farm. Two old ladies came into the shop and spotted a row of bright Hawaiian and other equally special print shirts.
“They’re nice, love,” said one old dear.
They walked closer to investigate.
“Oh, said the other old dear, rubbing the fabric in her hand, her brow knotted in consternation. “Feel the flaminosity of this one, Shirl.”
“Dear, dear,” her friend replied as she also felt the shirt. She frowned. “No good at all. Imagine if hubby stood too close to the barbie in that!”
They both tut-tutted, shook their heads and moved on to the more sedate cotton line as I struggled to suppress a giggle. Flaminosity. Beautiful.
Later I was talking to a friend whose eleven year old son has to pick a musical instrument as his elective for next term. For months he has been harping on about getting an electric guitar. Today he announced to his mum that he wanted to learn the drums.
Why the change of heart?
“Because I want to be the next Filled Columns,” he said earnestly. “He’s bald like dad AND he gets all the chicks. Drummers rule.”
It took his mum about ten minutes to figure it out.
By the way, Lachie, it’s Phil Collins, and yes, he does look a lot like your dad!
“How did you come up with the idea for your novel?”
It’s a sensible question. People often like to be told of that epiphanic moment when an idea for a story came into being. Given that writing a novel is essentially an all-consuming long term relationship, it seems reasonable to expect a writer to possess a vivid, preferably interesting, memory of that first moment of meeting. And after all, Oprah might ask.
In truth though, I really don’t remember. It’s kind of embarrassing, like not remembering the moment you met your husband. You know, eyes locking across a crowded room, angel choirs perhaps accompanying that sudden shifting of life’s path. I don’t really remember that either (but it’s OK, he is a bit fuzzy on that as well). We agree at least that we moved in similar circles, and without passing through any distinct, introductory moment, we just kind of knew each other.
This could be what happened with my story as well. So in an effort to understand how the idea came into being, I’ve done some digging through my old files. It’s been an interesting exercise.
The story of my idea for a story probably began when I heard the sage advice of Dr Kim Wilkins, now my fellow SoP. She said, simply, “Write what you would like to read.” I mulled over this for a while, and then began sketching out two characters: one male, one female. A simple-enough place to start. I added a woodsy setting, though I’m not sure why, and threw in some gentle enmity for good measure. I knew these characters shared a problem, but I had no idea what it was. I started writing anyway.
Scenes began to form and though there was no plot to unite them, they helped me get to know my characters. Even though I was the one creating all this, I felt more like an observer. Plot ideas formed and faded. Still, there was no ‘problem’ that could drive the story. This was proving harder than I thought it would be. But then, in one scene, in a paragraph that I hadn’t seen coming even just a few lines earlier, one character dreamt of a wolf. Something deep down must have known this way lay the real story, because within days I had begun collecting information about wolves: legends, folklore, even simple zoological information. While the writer in me continued to play around with the characters, moulding them into something more tangible, the researcher pressed on, gnawing at the wolf idea. And then, the research, well it hit marrow.
The older the wolf folklore, the more interesting it became. Not only was this stuff tapping into interesting psychological concepts of the second self, it also linked strongly with a very common fairytale. You know the one: girl meets wolf. But the medieval versions were unlike anything I’d ever heard before, and far more interesting. Stranger still was the link between the origins of Little Red Riding Hood and some very real historical events in 15th and 16th century France. Truth is stranger than fiction and truth in fiction is strangely addictive. I was hooked. I had found my ‘problem’. And I’ve been cutting my writerly teeth on it ever since.
So, no, there was no single ‘Let there be book!’ moment. I suspect these are more the exception than the rule. My story idea decidedly evolved over time, and that’s been half the fun.
As for the other half of the fun? Well, for now, I can tell you this at least: I’ve learned first hand that you can’t outstare a wolf. You’ll always be the one to blink first.
Writing is important to me. I didn’t realise how much until I nearly croaked it a few years ago. My life, in that instant, boiled down to two priorities, and one of those was writing.
The story begins here…
A long time ago I sat in a partly-completed resort on Fraser Island. It was a wild and woolly Friday night. Most of the construction team had gone off-island while they still could. While storms lashed the bay I cocooned myself in my quarters with a book, hoping to learn more of the island’s history.
It was there I first acquainted myself with a tale that fired my imagination – a true story of lighthouses, mystery and history. Over the years I came back to this idea again and again, fictionalising it and writing snippets into a series of tatty notebooks. But I had no real clue as to how to make it grow from snippets to a full sized manuscript.
The story falters…
I put my lighthouse story away, and began another, managing about thirty thousand words. This is the manuscript that later became Mapping the Heart – shortlisted for the 2011 Hachette/Queensland Writers Centre Manuscript Development Program. The novel is an examination of what defines us, what protects us, and who we are when that becomes stripped away.
Then, for reasons that I can no longer fathom, I began a third manuscript. Not my genre. Not my style. (This one, which eventually grew up to be Return to Honour, selected for the 2011 Hachette/Queensland Writers Centre Manuscript Development Program, is now jokingly referred to by my writing sistahs as the sex and bombs novel.) I progressed slowly, tortuously. It was difficult to take what was in my head and make it measure up on paper. I realised I needed help, and began casting around for some instruction.
QWC rides into my life shining a beacon of light…
I took myself off to the Queensland Writers Centre to do their Year of the Novel course with Dr Kim Wilkins. Everyone else had just one manuscript to work with. I of course, had three, plus a sheaf of half-begun ideas… Kim, in her wisdom, suggested I work solely on Return to Honour, and that is where I finally cut my writerly baby-teeth. I might add that she is an awesome teacher, and without her guidance I would still be blathering around.
I came back to do Year of the Edit with Kim, then Sisters of the Pen was formed, and we seven ‘sistahs’ have been sharing and providing support on what can be a lonely journey ever since.
The messy truth…
I wish I could say that I start one thing, bring it to an orderly conclusion, and then begin the next.
But that would be patently untrue.
I am a shambolic creative. I am in words up to my armpits, and my life is shaped by writing. It is my greatest joy, my most profound love, and my number one aggravation.
As it stands this is where I am today, three years after I finally committed to this writing life, and two after I began to take it seriously:
- Return to Honour (Harry Stanton series, Book One) Completed. 110 000 words. On a final edit before I send it to Hachette for their consideration.
- The Samurai Legacy (Harry Stanton series, Book Two) I’ve embedded bits back in Book One, have researched like a demon and am at about 25 000 words plus a fair plan of the guts of the remainder of the story.
- Mapping the Heart 140 000 words. This baby needs a structural overhaul, and I am still a bit close to it to feel confident to wield my editing blade with precision. I’m anticipating working on it in the second half of this year.
- Pirates Book One (as yet untitled) 95 000 words. An unexpected book (and my illicit love) that came out of an idea I had on Australia Day last year, and which the sistahs encouraged me to pursue. It has magic, fairies, pirates and dragons and is for a younger audience. It is still at draft stage and will need altering based on what happens in Book Two. I am anticipating seven to ten books in order to complete the story arc.
- Pirates Book Two (also untitled) 45 000 words – a work very much in progress. I expect to have this to finished draft stage by mid 2013.
- Lighthouse Novel (not yet titled) This is THE story my heart longs to tell. But I’m not ready yet. I know I am still learning my craft. Some days I think it best told as historical fiction. Some days I think it needs to be non-fiction. I often think I need to travel to certain places and stand on the land in order to get the truth of this story in my bones. I need to do it justice.
- Cauldrons and Cupcakes A blog I started recently because, gee, I still need somewhere else to put that endless supply of words in my head.
There have been three significant turning points for me as a writer. The first was becoming an active member of the Queensland Writers Centre. I often joke that I should have a t-shirt made that reads WRITER on the front and MADE BY QWC on the reverse. The second was finding my tribe, this wonderful group of sistahs who care about writing and each other and make the journey better on the days when it is fraught and hard. The third was the experience afforded to me by the Hachette/Queensland Writers Centre Manuscript Development Program. That generous program allowed me to walk away knowing in my heart that I AM a writer, and that I CAN write.
With that faith I trust that one day I will have the skills to write the first story my Muse ever whispered in my ear. I pray I shall not disappoint her.