The hound started to get restless at about nine o’clock this morning. Thirty-eight and a half kilograms of restlessness does not make for a relaxing lie in, so I am sitting on the banks of the Birrarung writing this post while Harper contemplates the meaning of life after a walk and a swim.
I started this blog to create a record of the twelve months I took off
my day job to focus on writing, the sands of which are destined to trickle out
in early April. What I have found interesting is that writing about writing has
also acted as a mechanism to unravel the knots that sometimes emerge, solidify
my practice, and act as a catalyst to resolve some of the frustrations I have
encountered along the way.
There was a day last week I was tempted by another shiny idea, to
abandon my editing and move on. The internal dialogue went something like this.
“Hey I have an excellent idea for the opening scene of another project I want to do.”
“Yea, but you need to finish this one first.”
“The new one would be loads more fun though.”
“You know they say the best way to avoid becoming an author is to never
finish writing a book…”
“But editing is sooo boring and first drafts are such fun.”
“It would be a shame to abandon 65,000 words without finishing the project, how about you try to stick with it a bit longer?”
“The other idea is better.”
“Only if you finish it, rather than quit when the edit gets boring.”
“But I don’t want to lose this amazing idea, I should get started on it.”
“Ok, how about you take a break and write the idea down – one scene only though. Then re-read that blog you wrote about editing and get back to, well, editing.”
So I took my own advice and wrote that scene so I wouldn’t lose the idea, then I re-read my editing hell blog and hey presto! After I cleared the decks and revisited my editing process, it seemed easier. I had cleared away some of the self-imposed confusion and might even have enjoyed some of the edit work of filling in the blank where I had noted write something about x here or re-write this scene. It was a valuable lesson in self strategizing to stick with it.
The draft I am working on now (I would probably call it my third) bares only a shadow of resemblance to the original draft, and I suspect I will still be working on the project when I return to work, but damn, I think I’m going to finish the thing.
What do you do to maintain your discipline to the end?
Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in three weeks to earn aquick buck and Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote The Gambler in a few days when he was broke and desperate due to his compulsive gambling habits. But these books are the freaks, the anomalies driven by some kind of demon writing force. At the other end of the spectrum, J.R.R. Tolkien took twelve years to complete Lord of the Rings.
It was Ernest Hemingway who said the first draft of anything is shit. Some famous writers have completely trashed their first drafts and rewritten them, the published work unrecognizable from the original draft – think William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
I have listened to many writers being asked how long it takes to write a book in interviews. Most published authors seem to answer somewhere between one and ten years and they may produce as many as fifteen drafts (though the most I’ve heard quoted was 30).
There is endless advice available on how many drafts it takes to write a book – the three-draft method, the five-draft plan, the seven-draft process. But the more you listen and read, the more it becomes clear that there are as many ways to write a novel as there are writers.
What most writers seem to agree on is that the first draft is the vomit draft – your writing is focused only on extracting your imagination to get a version of your story on the page. It’s great fun to write and terrible to read. After that all bets are off. One thing is certain, you have to learn to love editing, and be prepared to kill your darlings, because you will probably go through many more erasers than you will pencils.
How people edit depends on how they write their first draft. For example I have noticed that I find dialogue relatively easy, but tend to leave out the protagonists internal emotional life in a first draft which I have to go back and write it in later. I also have some pet words I like to repeat over and over which I go back to and delete or change.
I have started work on a checklist for my editing to try and make it more efficient and have included it below. It is not exhaustive and I will continue to work on my ‘cheat sheet’ as I learn more about the editing process. I also think about editing at the microlevel of the scene, the mid-level of the chapter and the macrolevel of the overall story. Most of the following list is drawn from the works on my links page Books on writing, particularly the text Self-editing for fiction writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.
Openings: are they clear, engaging and connected to emotion? Do they raise a questions or hook that makes you want to keep reading? Was there a hint of conflict?
Character: are the characters unique and interesting? Do you care about them (or hate them), do they have believable weaknesses, motivations and challenges?
Characterization and exposition: let readers get to know your characters gradually by showing who they are. Look for where you have too much exposition – describing characters or their history – how much do readers need to know to understand the story and when do they need to know it? Take out what isn’t critical.
Emotion and narrative voice: Read each main characters dialogue aloud – do you detect a unique voice for each, does what they say fit them? Do you feel like you get inside the main characters head? Are you emotionally connected to them?
Drama and story: Is there tension in every scene? Is the story well-paced and does it have forward momentum? Are the stakes high enough? What could be cut/shortened? Are there gaps that need to be expanded?
Themes, subtext and moral dilemmas: what themes and moral dilemmas emerge? Can you see subtext?
World: is the world created unique and interesting? Have you told your reader enough, or too much about it?
Prose: do the story and the characters feel believable? Is it easy to read? Is anything confusing? Is there a strong and consistent point of view? Does it make you want to read on?
Dialogue: is there too much, or too little? Does it reveal character? Is there subtext? Check for emotions mentioned outside of dialogue – they are probably explanations – cut them and see how the dialogue reads – if it’s worse re-write it; are there any verbs other than said? Minimize benign verbs like replied or answered as they are obtrusive to the reader – where possible get rid of speaker attributions all together if it’s clear without them; Have you referred to a character more than one way in a scene ? – it’s confusing be consistent. Do you have the right balance of dialogue and beats (the action interspersed through a scene) to keep you reader grounded? Are your beats too repetitive? Do they show your characters?
Dialogue sound: Read out loud. When you are tempted to change a word – do; does your dialogue sound realistic with enough contractions, fragments, run-on sentences? If your dialogue sounds stiff – is it exposition in disguise? How well do your characters understand one another? Do they mislead one another?
Show and tell: Have you got the right balance between narrative summary and enough real time action? If there’s too much narrative summary can you convert sections into scenes? Do you describe or show your characters feelings? Cut all explanations of feelings (angry, sad, happy) and show them instead.
Be proportionate: Are the characters you develop most fully the important ones throughout the story? Are the descriptive details you provide those your viewpoint character would notice? Do all the subplots and tangents advance the plot? If there aren’t any, should there be? Have you got on your hobby horse and spent too much time on a pet interest?
White space: are your paragraphs too long or are there scenes with no longer paragraphs – Have you got the right balance?
Rude bits: do you use too much swearing? If you have sex scenes, how much do you leave to your readers imagination (you don’t want to win the bad sex award, do you)?
Words – remove unintentional word repeats (I have tendency to use realized and looked way too much) Word hippo is a great resource for synonyms; search and find ‘ly’ adverb – most of them are probably superfluous particularly if they are based on adjectives describing an emotion; minimize ‘ing’ words and ‘as’ phrases; remove extra words; sentences that don’t make sense; if you have lots of short sentences, would they be better strung together with commas? Minimize exclamation points and italics.
Check spelling and grammar.
I recommend focusing on each of the editing elements separately.
“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” – Henry Thoreau–
Imagine a place that holds significant meaning or
memories for you. What emotions does it evoke? How does it smell, sound, look?
What stands out? How do you and others interact with it? Are there historical
or contemporary narratives associated with this place?
I took a break from working on my novel last week and wrote an essay to enter a Writing of Place competition, the aim of which is to explore the writers relationship with some aspect of the Australian landscape. One of the interesting things about writing an essay is that it draws on your personal lived experience but also opens the writing to historical perspectives, artistic works, science and philosophy. My research has been wide ranging and I have had to refresh my memory for referencing!
But I’m a fiction writer, so why am I bothering with this you might ask? Because place is such an important element of writing fiction (often referred to as world building) that I think it’s worth some focused practice.
In fiction, we incorporate a characters interactions with the environment, what they see, how they see it and what emotional impact it has on them to help develop the character and plot. Understanding our own responses to a place can help to develop our skills for writing place in our fiction.
The idea of place is an elastic and subjective one, constructed through our personal perspective, our cultural lens and the values we attribute to it. Suburban Melbourne beats in the heart of many of Peter Temple’s novels and he uses place to capture the socioeconomic and cultural tone succinctly, as in this excerpt from Shooting Star. On reading this I imagine a working class suburb in the west of Melbourne filled with small houses in disrepair as the owners cannot afford the maintenance.
“The house was in a street running off Ballarat Road.
Doomed weatherboard dwellings with rusting roofs and mangy little patches of
lawn faced each other across a pocked tarmac strip. At the end of the street,
by the feeble light of a streetlamp, two boys kicking a football to each other,
uttering feral cries as they lost sight of it against the almost-dark sky.”
Place can be natural or man-made environments and it can be about the minutiae of a particular tree in a forest, or an ant hill, or a room, or extend to the grand scale of a planet, or the universe. Writing about place incorporates our sensory experience of it and aims to open it up and bring it alive in a way that enables a reader to feel, see and understand it in the same way as we (or our characters) experience it.
In The Picture of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde uses the senses to immerse us in the location of the opening scene and evoke a sense of how the character feels about their environment. I am transported to an English summer country garden and the overwhelming perfume of flowers drifting in through casement doors thrown open to the warm day by this passage.
“The studio was filled with the rich odour of
roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden,
there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more
delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.”
In writing about place, detail matters and the language we select to etch the detail on the readers mind will determine the resonance left with our audience. Too much detail might be accurate, but it can also be bland. Being selective about descriptive details, but making use of all the senses, creates a feeling of intimacy and mood that immerses the reader in our stories.
In the Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood uses the detail of Offred’s room to generate a powerful, disturbing and dark world. Her use of simile induces a sense of desolation and loss for the character observing the room. And the staccato sentences ooze desperation.
“A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white
ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath and in the centre of it a
blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been
taken out. There must have been a chandelier once. They’ve removed anything you
could tie a rope to.”
A strong sense of place transports the reader into the world of your story. Practicing how a location looks, feels, smells and sounds, and trying to give it a voice helps us to understand how we can use it in our fiction and give place a living voice.
What do you do to develop your skills in writing about place?
I hope you all survived the Christmas madness and are having some downtime in the hiatus before the new year. I’m not a big fan of new years resolutions but have been pondering what I hope to get out of 2019 (other than a magical retirement fund) as I enter the final quarter of my year long sabbatical. In the three months leave I have left I hope to near completion of my mystery novel and sign off on a few of those unfinished landscape projects on my list.
Last week I weeded the patch and can now actually find the vegetables (had some delicious zucchini fitters last night) and submitted entries for a couple of short story competitions. I’ve also started to schedule into my calendar the short story competitions I’m interested in entering in 2019. I tend to write short stories as a bit of light relief from, and motivation for, my longer form project and thought I would focus on short stories for this blog post.
What is a short story?
Whilst a novel is a complex journey, a short story is more of an intensely focused experience and usually between 1,000 and 20,000 words in length. Anything less than 1,000 words is considered flash fiction, over 20,000 words is a novella.
Flash fiction writer Sherrie Flick analogises flash fiction to shoving an angry black bear into a lunch bag, without ripping the bag.
T.C. Boyle compares a short story to a toothache that you drill and fill in one sitting and it’s done. He says a novel is more like bridge work, it takes time – and you know what you will be doing when you get up tomorrow. A short story is a sprint, a novel a marathon.
A novel has a series of climaxes that lead a reader down a path with twists and turns that build tension and accumulate to a final payoff. A short story has a tight plot that moves forward from the opening line and usually leads to a single climax. A novel explores a range of emotions whilst a short story usually hones in on one emotion or theme. The opening paragraph must create a vivid image of the setting, capture the readers attention, introduce a conflict, create tension and start as close to the conclusion as possible. All using show, not tell. Phew! That’s a lot, and it means that every single word has to count.
What’s the point of writing short stories?
Unlike a novel you can write a whole short story in one sitting. There’s a sense of almost immediate completion and achievement in the writing and short stories can help to develop your writing craft.
Writing a novel is a long game. Short stories provide some relief and can give your long form fiction writing a jolt when you are frustrated by it.
Writing short stories is a way to expel those ideas that are unrelated to your main project but keep bugging you.
They are an economical way to explore writing outside the genre of your main project or to experiment in your writing.
It’s an art form that takes time to develop, but is a great way to explore new writing ideas and approaches.
What’s the point of entering short story competitions?
Short story competitions can help you learn to work to rules and deadlines. This is great practice if you struggle with word counts and finishing projects.
Success in short story competitions can provide an excellent boost to your motivation to keep writing.
Not receiving a prize is good for writing resilience – we all need to learn to graciously accept feedback and appreciate that not everyone will like our writing – and to keep writing anyway.
Being placed in a competition can help you get noticed by publishers and spruik your long form novel. I happened to be sitting next to a publisher at a prize event last year who suggested I get in touch when I finish my novel.
Some competitions (like NYC Midnight) give feedback to all entrants.
Tips for writing and entering short story competitions
Plan ahead and schedule the years writing competitions in your diary.
Always read the guidelines and stick to them. Read previous years winning stories if available to get a sense of the types of stories that succeed in the competition. The guidelines can help you decide if it’s the right competition for you and might inspire ideas (many have prompts or themes).
Make every word count. Use a strong opening that includes the crucial incident that drives the story in the first paragraph. Drop the reader straight in and engage them and end the first section with a note of suspense to incite them to keep reading.
Limit the number of characters – there’s not a lot of room in a short story for character development, so stick to a small number and make them plausible.
A short story, like a novel, is a journey with an ending. This does not exclude ambiguity but it must be clear that you have taken your reader on a voyage and the tale has ended – there needs to be a clear arc.
Short stories benefit from some time to breathe and edit, just like long form fiction.
Don’t always wait till the final deadline to enter if possible. Most competitions get the bulk of their entries at the last minute. Getting in early can sometimes get your story noticed in the crowd.
Writing fresh stories is important but you can also dig out old stuff and re-enter in new competitions or enter stories in more than one competition simultaneously (if the rules allow). The process takes a long time and if you wait to hear back from a competition before you re-use your story you could be very old before you have success. The more competitions you enter, the more likely your story will get picked up.
Have fun. Approach short story competitions as a game – try different techniques, obscure or unusual ideas. It might be the one that wakes up the judges and captures their attention.
Don’t be put off if you can’t afford to enter competitions, not all of them have entry fees
Websites that list short story competitions in Australia and overseas
I started to watch The Sopranos last night. From the beginning again. Psychoanalysis anyone? It’s almost twenty years since Tony Soprano, violent mobster and family man, landed in Dr. Melfi’s therapy office after a panic attack and started his own personal search for meaning.
The show is at its heart a study in existentialism. We all look for and crave a sense of meaning in our lives. Some find it in god, love, money, or the pursuit of social justice. We expend a lot of energy seeking purpose.
Existentialism tells us that life has no meaning except for that which we ascribe to it. In the words of Dr Melfi: “When some people first realize that they’re solely responsible for their decisions, actions, and beliefs, and that death lies at the end of every road they can be overcome by intense dread.”
Existentialism demands we are responsible for what we do, who we are, the way we face and deal with the world, and collectively we are ultimately responsible for how the world is. We cannot abdicate that responsibility to a god that only exists because we choose to believe in them.
As Satre said we are condemned to be free and we suffer from an abundance of freedom. Each of us must design our own moral code to live by, even if it is the template offered to us by our parents or our church. It is a template we choose to inherit. To live authentically we must take responsibility for all our actions as they are freely chosen.
The Sopranos showcases the impossibility of attempts to compartmentalise evil acts, and separate them from the rest of our life. In Tony Soprano’s case maintaining a real family life and a Mafia life without the latter corrupting and threatening the former is impossible. He’s convinced he’s created a church and state separation between his two lives and somehow justifies his criminal activity by the fact that he provides for his family. His wife Carmella lives in her own orbit of self deceit and turns a blind eye to the reality of her husbands ‘business’ in order to enjoy the comfort of her Mafia funded princess lifestyle. Being his accomplice means she is constantly haunted by feelings of guilt and shame herself.
This morning I woke up to news from the USA in an article on Facebook reporting George Pell’s conviction on historical sexual abuse charges. It had not been reported in the Australian press due to suppression orders as there is another trial yet to take place. The article made me think of The Sopranos. Like Tony Soprano, Pell’s life choices have come back to haunt him and his actions have been shown to be inconsistent with the view of himself he had promoted to the world.
The clerical hero of some of this countries most senior politicians has fallen, and it makes me wonder what it says about the judgement of our political leaders who have sworn by Pell’s counsel. What is their role, like Carmella, as accomplices in Pells deceit? Have they all chosen religion as a moral code to hide behind, rather than live by? Do they use it to justify themselves as inherently good?
Secrets and lies are at the heart of a good mystery but they do not make for a happy life. In the Sopranos there is a scene were Tony sees an abridged quote from The Scarlet Letter displayed on the wall at his daughters college: “No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.” To find happiness we must organise some kind of harmony between all the parts of ourselves. We need to create an internal attuned unity that is consistent with our actions to avoid the kind of existential crisis Tony Soprano faced. Public figures and prominent people cannot be exempt from the consequences of their failure to live authentically.
The Sopranos ends in ten seconds of black silence. An ending that bewildered viewers. Messy and contradictory. Did Tony die or not? Was he taken out without seeing it coming as he himself predicted? Does it matter? The ending is ambiguous, but we all know that eventually everything ends in death – the truth of human morality. A truth that must be faced to live authentically and grasp our full potential.
It’s murderously hot today. The thermometer is expected to reach 38 degrees celsius and strong north winds are blowing in from the sizzling centre of Australia. It’s the kind of day that conjures a mood of disorder and threat, like it’s cousin on the spectrum, the chilled isolation of excessive cold climates. Extremes are both thrilling and dangerous.
Humans are so vulnerable to weather extremes yet we have been pitting ourselves against nature infinitum with a naive belief that we can prevail in a moral vacuum where the planet is concerned. My bet is on nature in the long run, if we don’t learn to live more harmoniously with the planet.
For some reason, when the elements are severe my mind wanders to noir at the extreme of crime fiction. Climate change, like reading noir, summons an inescapable bleakness. Both contain themes where collective denial operates within a prism of political dysfunction and citizen hopelessness. Perhaps it is the existential angst, imbued in the idea that humanity could wipe itself out by failing to take action on climate change, that is nudged whenever the weather gets irritable that makes me draw parallels to noir.
The world of noir is dark, chaotic and alienating, and full of the type of moral ambiguity and hypocrisy that points at human existence and calls it absurd and meaningless. In noir everyone one is imperfect and what is right and wrong are unclear. Noir is complex and messy and has a way of teasing out our interdependence as human beings in the global web of power and influence in which we live. It is much more like real life than cosy crime where the hero prevails unscathed, as if wearing teflon. Noir is saturated with the voices of angry protest against entrenched privilege and systems in which the average citizen feels powerless against inequality and corruption, yet it is often delivered with dark humour.
There’s icy Nordic noir like Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg and Fargo by the Coen brothers if you want to cool down, or stories like the shorts in Sunshine Noir by Annamaria Alfieri and Michael Stanley to warm up with.
Historically, noir has been dominated by white men but I have noticed that modern noir is increasing in diversity as more women like Clare Blanchard, Nikki Dolson, Saira Viola and Jo Perry (published by Fahrenheit Press) pick up the crime pen.
I’m currently reading Mistress Murder by Mark Ramsden also published by Fahrenheit Press (I only recently discovered this small crime publisher with attitude and am looking forward to making my way through their collection). Mistress Murder is the story of Susie Goldy, a transgressive, hedonistic, drug addicted dominatrix trying to get on with her life of mayhem whilst being pursued by an unknown malevolent stalker who has taken umbrage with her and her lifestyle. I’m finding the voice of Ramsden hilarious and the black and satirical take on a subculture most of us would never encounter has me fascinated and cringing in equal measure. Just right for a sweltering afternoon.
Around this time last year I remember sitting on the chaise lounge whilst I wrote. There was a cacophony out the window and I saw a flock of Rainbow Lorikeets exit the apple tree. Upon investigation it became apparent that they had decimated the entire crop. I was determined not to lose our fruit to birds this year, so the day before last weeks writing retreat we put a bird net up over the front yard which I fondly refer to as the Warrandyte Food Store.
When I returned from Anglesea I was delighted to find that the rain in Melbourne had boosted the growth of the laden fruit trees. The garden had been exhibiting serious signs of stress from the lack of rainfall this year but recent downpours have enabled the earth to sigh with relief for a moment.
Us gardeners notice changes in weather patterns and spend a lot of time mulling over the impact on our environment. As I write this, thousands of school kids are standing up for their future and demanding action on climate change from our pre-historic politicians who insist on turning a blind eye to the crisis. They seem to find it easier to deny a problem exists than take on such a wicked intractable issue. Unlike our Prime Minister, who appears to be afraid of children, I’m delighted that kids are becoming activists and believe the school yard is exactly where activism belongs. Not being old enough to vote doesn’t mean you’re not old enough to think, and dumbing kids down is not in our future interests.
I have not written anything this week due to feeling a bit of RSI develop from too much typing. Instead I turned my attention to my other passion and started work on the myriad of maintenance tasks and unfinished projects in the garden. By next week I hope to have completed a small area of paving that I have been putting of doing for longer than I care to admit, and to have made some progress on a new gabion rock wall around the vegetable patch. Of course not putting fingers to keyboard does not mean I’m not working on my novel. Some time away serves as an opportunity for ideas and problems to ferment. I need to zhuzh up my opening chapter and have been pondering how to approach it and think I have an idea now.
This afternoon I will make this spring salad and take it to friends for dinner tonight. It’s one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s mouthwatering offerings.
Spring Salad (serves 4-6)
300g asparagus, trimmed and sliced on a sharp angle into 3-4 thin spears
200g french beans, topped
300g broad beans (fresh or frozen)
50g baby spinach leaves
1 shallot, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 red chilli, finely diced
½ tsp sesame oil
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
1 tsp nigella seeds
Bring a large pot of water to boil and blanch the asparagus for about two minutes (until just cooked). Transfer to a bowl of iced water to refresh. Do the same with the beans for about five minutes and refresh in iced water. Repeat the process with the broadens for two minutes. When cooled gently discard the broadband skins.Lay all the ingredients on clean tea towels to dry.
Place all the greens in a large bowl and add the remaining ingredients and half a teaspoon of salt and combine.
Make it to enjoy with good friends and stimulating conversation…
Apologies if this blog seems a bit rushed. I almost forgot to write it this week due to being ensconced in the bubble of a writing retreat at Anglesea for the week with another writer friend and two hounds. We’ve had the usual all seasons that the southern coast is famous for. On Sunday it was thirty degrees, today it’s fifteen and raining and the wood fire is burning. As I write I can hear the sounds of tapping keyboards, the crackle of the fire and the sweet sound of dogs snoring in satisfaction after their morning run on the beach.
At almost 65,000 words into the current draft of my work in progress (WIP) I have spent much of this week knee deep in writing a dreaded synopsis. Most writers hate this exercise – and I am no exception, but do think it’s a good activity that can improve your story. I have done it several times throughout writing my WIP and will continue to revisit it as work progresses.
I find crafting log lines, a premise and synopsis of varying lengths are a terrific mechanism to focus my writing and test the dramatic arc of the story. What is written might change a little each time I do these exercises, or the process itself may cause my story to shift and change when I notice issues or logical gaps emerge.
Do you work on your synopsis as you progress your WIP?
Following is an outline of the process I use. I start by summarizing the turning points of my WIP. These are the main beats where the story turns in a new direction as a result of some dilemma faced by the protagonist. It helps to focus on the key elements of the plot and/or character arc that I will build into the synopsis. I write the summaries in the following format:
At the start of each Turning Point, the character has xxxx problem, are feeling yyyy and they are trying to achieve zzzz goal, however when aaaa complication happens, they feel bbbb and now want ccccc. (cccc is the payoff for what has happened and it raises the desire for the next turning point).
This is a useful formula for summarising turning points, chapters and scenes as well. Here’s an example:
When Jane meets the local eccentric she is afraid (feeling) and tries to get away from him (problem) and find out whether he is dangerous (desire). However when he keeps turning up at her house (complication) and she befriends him (motivation shift) and then finds him dead on the beach, she realizes he has been murdered and wants to find out what happened (new desire – to solve the murder mystery).
The second task is to write a log line. A log line is a tight, approximately twenty-five-word summary framed as a ‘what if?’ that captures the protagonist’s predicament and conflict and aims to hook the reader. I might write many of these, then select the one I think fits best. The most recent version of the log line for my WIP is:
What if a private investigator uncovered a political scandal linked to a closed murder investigation, became infatuated with a witness, then suspected her lover could be the killer?
Next I write a short premise (also around twenty-five words) that helps clarify the dramatic logic of the story. The premises is the promise of the story which, if borne out is proven by the narrative. Then I can say the story achieved what it set out to do. An example is: By abandoning her personal and professional rules a woman learns the importance of living according to her authentic self.
My next step is to write four varying length synopsis – in one sentence, one paragraph, one page and then an expanded 3-5-page version. The one liner identifies the central character, the story problem, the overall theme and the central driving force for the main character. I might brainstorm a number of these and select the one I most like. For example:
After a private investigator is convinced to revisit a closed murder investigation she finds herself having to break the law to save herself and ensure justice is served.
When you expand the synopsis to a paragraph it brings in other central characters and explains what binds the central characters together, what drives the protagonist forward, and also reveals the climax and the lessons learned in the story.
The long synopsis (3-5 pages) draws out the central story line and characters and includes all the detail that may be obvious to you, but not someone unfamiliar with your novel. It reveals the narrative arc and is an explanation of the problem/plot and characters, their actions and motivations. The long synopsis summarizes what happens, how the characters feel about it and how they change through the story. It reveals pace, motivations…and the ending. It is written in third person active voice and has elements that show your unique point of view.
After I have written a draft I let it rest for a day or so then edit it. The edit involves going through to check that I haven’t included too many characters or events or plot details. I aim to have just enough to intrigue the reader and show my writing voice. Every word has to count so I try to strip out unnecessary detail, descriptions and explanations.
Sounds simple doesn’t it? It’s not and it can be a painful process, but well worth the effort. When I’ve finished I take the dog for another walk to clear my head.
I have contemplated how setting interacts with plot and character development this week. The community where I live is in a high fire risk area, a fact that spurs a flurry of activity at this time of year for some residents. I am fascinated by weather and climate and the effect they can have one one’s psyche.
We have forums on bushfire preparation and some residents spend many hours getting their properties ready for the summer months. I imagine the attitude of those who prefer to bury their heads in the sand is not dissimilar to climate change denial. Apathy results in inaction or the problem appears too big for their brains and emotions to bare, so they deny the risk and turn away. Like a game of Russian roulette they take the chance that they will only ever face an empty cartridge – whether it’s their home or the planet – despite what the science says.
I nearly didn’t go to the community forum last night. Bushfire insurance isn’t exactly an inspired topic to spend two hours listening to, but a friend nudged me, so I dutifully went along. And I am glad I did. It was a fascinating character study and the town revealed some interesting stories.
One woman explained the difficulties she’d had navigating an insurance claim. Some months ago her house exploded after a single lightning strike! It was a sad story but an extraordinary image. Another tale involved one resident in a neighbouring community who had taken out insurance over the phone in 2009 as they watched the flames racing toward their house on Black Saturday. They were then successful in getting the claim paid. That instance prompted insurance agencies to introduce wait periods before new insurance would activate, and people caught in the fires at Lorne in 2015 who tried the same strategy did not have the same luck.
When I read Jane Harper’s book The Lost Man I was struck by how effectively she used setting to drive plot and character development. The oppressive isolation and heat of outback Queensland enabled a sense of lawlessness to loiter throughout the novel, and locating the events in the lead up to Christmas, when family relations are often under the microscope anyway, facilitated how the story unfolded.
Setting has both a physical and chronological aspect in any tale. It contributes to mood and tone and can enhance the plot. It produces the sounds, smells, sights, touch and taste for a story. A character has feelings about a place and it creates possibilities that they must respond to. The time element can influence what options are available to a character and the choices they make.
C.S. Lewis used setting as its own character in the Chronicles of Narnia. Two different worlds existed on either side of the wardrobe where time, seasons and the way people and animals behaved were different purely because of the setting. Harry Potter would not exist as he did without the wizarding world filled with magic. The settings in these novels came to life through the characters interaction with them and the emotions elicited.
What’s all this got to do with a bushfire insurance forum you may well ask? Well, I found myself sitting there among my neighbours and friends and it was a stark reminder of how setting and time interact with characters.
Before 2009 there had not been a significant fire threat near my town in over forty years. When I attended forums like this back then, there would only be a handful of people. Fire was not something most were concerned about. Residents were comfortable, complacent and protective of their stunning and peaceful setting.
After the 2009 fires thousands of people turned up at forums demanding to know who would save them if a fire came. They had suddenly realised their beautiful setting was a sleeping tiger. When it became clear fire trucks would not roll up to their doors, some went home and learnt about fire preparation and behavior. Others demanded the felling of trees and the slashing of fragile grasslands. What had yesterday been peaceful and beautiful was now hostile. As characters in our own stories, our emotional reactions were varied and intense in response to our setting.
The whole town, and those who pass through it have been disrupted every day this year whilst VicRoads widen a bridge over the river to create an extra lane and install a set of traffic lights intended to improve traffic flow and cut evacuation times if there is a bushfire. The project has been controversial because the community guards its small-town charm like a boxer at the annual heavyweight championships, and modernization is anathema to that.
Time heals many wounds and almost ten years since the 2009 fires the relationship of the characters in my town to their setting has evolved once again. We are about 8,000 residents in total and attendance at bushfire forums has dwindled again, with only about 150 attendees this week.
The bridge saga illuminates the role of collective memory and how people respond to their environment over time. The construction came about because of community outcry about emergency evacuation risks after the 2009 bushfires, but the project has been plagued by complaints about the inconvenience caused by the works and the twice daily traffic jams from one end of town to the other.
The logjam gets so bad that for the last year I have organised my days around not leaving home between certain hours unless it’s on foot or a bicycle. Judging from the community Facebook page which is full of comments, cartoons and criticisms about the project a lot of people have forgotten why it was initiated in the first place. Construction workers are subject to so much abuse by frustrated drivers, they dread coming to work here. Let’s hope that bridge delivers its promise if we ever need it.
What do you notice about how people interact with their settings over time in life? How do the characters in your current project feel about their setting? How does setting interact with the plot and character development?
This week I’ve been thinking about the mystery novels I read and loved years ago. I hoovered up Dick Francis books as a teenager because I was obsessed with horses. I suspect that was also when my fascination for mysteries was born. As a consequence Francis holds a nostalgic place in my reading memory despite eventually coming to believe that horse racing should be banned. His novels were fast-paced easy reads full of muddy race tracks, crooked bookies, cheating jockeys and brutal owners.
Francis had himself been a jockey and horse trainer and all his novels revolved around the English race tracks. He wrote most, if not all, in collaboration with his wife, a former school teacher and expert researcher. Some people viewed him as the horse worlds Agatha Christie, but Francis was way more brutal than Agatha ever was in the way he physically and mentally tortured his protagonists.
One of my first jobs out of high school in the mid-eighties was as a track rider for a race horse trainer. The job reminded me of Francis’s tough masculine characters every day I went to work. I have one vivid memory of giving a young jockey a lift home and staring in horror when he leaned out of the car window, whip in hand, and cut a female cyclist across buttocks as we passed. When I threatened to turf him out of the car he just laughed. It could have been a scene from one of Francis’s novels.
When Dick Francis said he always tried to think of a dirty deed, and build a plot around it he captured the heart of the mystery. They open with some kind of disruption to the social order that creates a puzzle our hero must solve. Along the way they uncover secrets, are diverted by red herrings, meet unexpected surprises and have their physical and psychological limits tested. They always prevail and set the world to rights again enabling the reader to experience the tension vicariously and discover the hero within.
By the late nineties I had started to move on from horse riding as a profession and got what my parents called ‘a real job’ in a more politically leaning pursuit.
One of Dick Francis’s last novels, 10lb Penalty (1997), blended racing and politics and was the last of his books I read. Some time after that I discovered Shane Maloney who introduced me to the use of mysteries as a form of literary protest. Who wouldn’t be excited to find politicised crime fiction novels set in their own town?
Maloney set his novels in 1990’s Melbourne and bought our political and social fabric to life on the page. His public servant protagonist Murray Whelan shone a light on the absurdity of the political landscape that emerged in the Jeff Kennett era. He satirised Australian politics well before The Hollowmen and Utopia came to our screens. Though the latter have demonstrated that the world of politics continues to be ludicrous in a very frightening way.
Maloney’s books edge into the world of the subgenre ‘apparatchik lit’, some say he invented it. The term lends itself from the word used for bureaucrats in the Russian Communist Party and explores the intimate workings of politics, the machinery of government and lobby groups and how they impact the social fabric of the society they are set in. I love the way Maloney used suspicion, humour and play as a cover for more sinister events in his novels.
While some of the stories that emerge in this type of fiction (or tv series) appear beyond absurd, you’d be surprised how close to real life they can be. A friend who works in a government department once told me that the day after one episode of Utopia their Minister called the office demanding to know who had leaked information about an issue that had appeared on the program…
It’s fair to say that the arrogance of our politicians, their moral hypocrisy and power games continue to be ripe for the picking. You only have to turn to our own national political landscape for endless examples at the moment.
The novel I am currently working on is placed in Melbourne but draws on material from recent (mostly) national politics in an attempt to shine a light on some contemporary political absurdities.
If you have any suggestions for more Shane Maloney type novels, particularly if set in Australia – let me know.
Main image: Horses at Warnambool
Inset images in order: Horses at Warnambool; Parliament Drive, Canberra; Parliament House, Canberra.