Artwork from Queensland Museum

Beginnings and endings

There are two ways to begin a journey. One is with a clear destination visualized. A definite purpose to drive you forward. The other is with a determination to have an experience without any particular expectation of how it will end. To allow things to unfold and wash over us. Either way where we end up is often not where we expected to be. I have been thinking a lot about beginnings and endings this week after spending a couple of months rewriting the beginning of my own project and contemplating how I feel about the current ending.

Stephen King said “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

I have revisited some beginnings of novels I have read and included some that I’ve found compelling…

I did not scream when I came in the back door of Sal’s Saloon, where I work, to find Sal himself lying there on the floor of the stockroom, the color of blue ruin, fluids leaking from his various holes and puddling on the ground, including a little spot of blood by his head. – Noir: A Novel by Christopher Moore

I found Moore’s voice in the is book really compelling. It’s quite unique. He’s also hooked me with the character who found Sal and the question – why is Sal dead?

It wasn’t as though the farm hadn’t seen death before, and the blowflies didn’t discriminate. To them there was little difference between a carcass and a corpse -The Dry by Jane Harper

Harper evokes rural Australia in such a simple and evocative way with this opening, and of course there is the question of why is there a corpse.

I heard the mailman approach my office door, half an hour earlier than usual. He didn’t sound right. His footsteps fell more heavily, jauntily and he whistled. – Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Butcher sent shivers up my spine with this one and made me wonder if there was a psycho mailman on the loose.

I go by many names, none of my own choosing. – The Parcel by Anoshi Irani

Irani’s opening is short, simple and elegant and asks an evocative question.

A great beginning compels the reader to continue. Sometimes the voice draws you in by insisting on your attention, or using intimacy or intrigue. Sometimes the opening contains a hook or drama to make you want to know what happens next, particularly in mysteries or stories with a quest. A character may be so compelling that you want to know more about them or the rhythm or pacing of the writing can power you to read on. You also have to find the right place and time to begin. Start to soon and you will bore readers with routine and no goal or conflict, start too late and you confuse people with inadequate context.

The ending is a long way from the beginning. But it has to answer the question that was asked at the opening in order to satisfy readers. It has to take all that you have written about in depth and bring it to a satisfying conclusion. If the ending fails to answer the specific question set out in the beginning, the whole book will fail. Many authors say they write the ending before they begin. I cannot always see the ending until I am well into the story. I am fairly confident the ending I wrote in my first draft will not be the ending I finish with. It is something I agonize over intermittently. Time will tell whether I find a satisfying conclusion.

Here are some endings that I’ve found gratifying and that have given me something to take away and think about…

My name is Harry Blackston Copperfield Dresden. Conjure by it at your own risk. When things get strange, when what goes bump in the night flicks on the lights, when no one else can help you, give me a call. I’m in the book. – Storm Front by Jim Butcher

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which. – George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945)

I never saw any of them again — except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them. – The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler

When they finally did dare it, at first with stolen glances then candid ones, they had to smile. They were uncommonly proud. For the first time they had done something out of Love. – Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Patrick Süskind

What are some of your favorite beginnings and endings?

 

Image: Queensland Museum

 

 

Full moon through electrical pylon wires

Holding up words

Writers are often described as one of two types – plotters or pantsers. It’s curious that one of the things most talked about when discussing how writers write involves a word that doesn’t actually exist. Pantsing (commonly known as dakking if you’re Australian) is a word – the action of pulling down a person’s trousers, but pantser does not exist in the English dictionary and it sends the spellcheck into meltdown.

Plotters (also known as architects or planners) outline the plot points of their story before they sit down to write. Their tales are pre-planned to varying levels of detail and they know what’s going to happen before they put pen to paper. Pantsers (sometimes called gardeners) fly by the seat of their pants when they write. Their approach gives them the freedom to take their novel in any direction, not knowing where they are going or how the story ends. It’s a road trip without a map.Screenshot 2018-07-11 16.02.45

There’s about a 50-50 split in published writers – half plotters, half pantsers. Regardless of which approach is taken, writers who are successful end up in the same place – with  a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end – a structure in other words. I think successful pantsers must have an innate sense for how the plot needs to be structured as their story unfolds.

I confess to being a bit of a geeky nerd and learning about the structural possibilities has become something of a fascination of late. Story structure is the scaffold that supports your words and moves the reader through your story. It creates flow and helps to keep readers engaged. Regardless of whether you write organically, plot your story before writing or use a hybrid of these methods (me) you still need to understand the Screenshot 2018-07-11 15.12.37basic structural elements of a story as without it your story is likely to flop soon after take-off or require endless re-writing to turn it into something that will engage readers.

The W-plot structure (made accessible by Mary Carroll Moore on Youtube) provides a great overview of story flow. This is a simple representation of the three act play, though it can have more than three acts of course.

The quest or idea story is a classic for adventure/crime/mystery/speculative fiction stories (think Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Don Quixote). A question is raised or a problem needs to be solved early on and the novel sets out to find the answer. The mystery novel I am currently working uses a variation on the quest structure and involves seven turning Screenshot 2018-07-11 15.12.49points that each align with an archetype.

An idea for another novel bubbling away in the back of my mind will most likely use a blend of the core event structure and the place structure. For core event think The Lord of the Rings or The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas were a pivotal dramatic incident (the slap) unleashes a turbulent sequence of events that propel the story forward.

In the place (or milieu) structure (think The Firm, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or Lord of the Flies) the arrival at a place and the impact it has on its characters is what drives the story. Writers who love world building (eg. science fiction and fantasy) often use this structure. The plot follows a character who explores the world created and is transformed by it. The story starts when the character enters the world and ends Screenshot 2018-07-11 15.12.58when they leave.

 

Whether you think of yourself as a plotter or a pantser, a solid understanding of structure is a must. Holding the framework on which you want to build your story in your mind will help you drive your adventure where it needs to go.

What type of writer are you? Which story structures have you used?  What about literary fiction?

Main image: Pylons on a full mooon

Inset images: representation of story structures

staghound cross puppy with autumn leaves

Animal Farm

Animal characters have had central roles in well known fictional stories. A personal favorite was the 1877 novel Black Beauty by Anna Sewell about the life, Harper 1tribulations and adventures of a sleek black horse. Black Beauty highlighted the issue of animal welfare and the importance of treating others with kindness, respect and sympathy. Important lessons for any child. Roald Dahl bought garden bugs to life in his 1961 novel James and the Giant Peach that explored the themes of friendship, death, hope, fear, abandonment, rebellion and transformation. I remember being fascinated by the giant caterpillar who had to tie the shoe laces on his many pairs of boots every morning. The book is still on my shelves and I pull it out and re-read it every now and then.

Stories with animals are not only for kids either. The epic 1851 classic Moby Dick by Herman Melville explores the 19th Century whaling industry in all its brutal glory and has the giant sperm whale as a central character representing nature’s wildness.  At times Melville takes on the non-human perspective imagining how appalling the whaling fleet must appear to a surrounded wounded whale.

There’s also George Orwell’s 1945 classic Animal Farm about the lead up to the 1971 Russian Revolution and the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union. The themes of corruption, class and abuse of power play out using the Harper 5allegory of the Manor Farm ruled by pigs. As power goes to their heads the pigs start to run the place on the premise that “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” They become so much like the humans they overthrew that eventually they transform into humans themselves.

Like any character, an animal in a story needs a reason to be there, and a reason why the writer chose an animal rather than a human character. It needs to have a place in the plot of the story whether it’s idealistic, political, satirical, comedic, allegorical or fun. Will the animal character appear clearly as an animal or take on human characteristics; will it be a pet or wild; what is the message it will convey?

My own ability to write fell in a hole recently. It was not due to a lack of motivation, enthusiasm or ideas. There was no writer’s block and I did not fall ill. In fact it would be Harper 3fair to stay things were going swimmingly. I had established a great routine of writing early, doing some exercise then either writing again, reading or heading out into the garden depending on the weather.  Then along came Harper.

I was missing my old dogs company and started thinking about getting another one so I signed up to a rescue site called Petrescue. It’s like a dating site connecting up animal rescue organizations with people wanting to adopt a pet. Pictures of cute furry animals can be distracting and the real thing is a whole other level of disturbance.

Harper came from somewhere around Wagga Wagga via Seymour. The advertisement on Petrescue had very little information. Sweet little female mixed breed dog. Sleepy, playful and cute.   Several emails and a phone call to the foster home led to filling out the adoption papers and agreeing to meet.

Harper 6Many country dogs get adopted in Melbourne, and Seymour is a liaison point apparently. The industry is quite mysterious and I think there could be a great fiction story written about the rescue, movement and adoption of animals.

We drove to the rendezvous point in Kings Park and met a lady there with a car full of rescue dogs. I didn’t want another dog like Jarrah (my old kelpie), as it would have felt like I was being unfaithful to my old friend. The puppy was a leggy, sandy colored thing with a slightly worried look. An Australian Staghound crossed with something of unknown origin – probably some kind of cattle dog like a kelpie.

We weren’t sure about whether to take her or not. Then this guy from Pakenham turned up to look at Harpers brother. He picked up the puppy without hesitation, threw it over his shoulder and started filling out the necessary paperwork. He said he had a Harper 7Staghound-kelpie cross at home. “Best dog he’d ever had,” he said, “affectionate, trainable and not as energetic as a kelpie. Likes to lie around on the couch and watch TV.” Sounded like an ideal writing companion.

It does of course take some time to get from puppy to writing companion and after puppy Saturday all writing stopped and novel reading was replaced by books and blogs and videos on puppy wrangling and several days of utter chaos as we got to know Harper and visa-versa. Within three days she had gotten the hang of going outside to the toilet and would come, sit and drop as long as there weren’t too many other distractions. We had also introduced her to ceiling fans, hair dryers, vacuum cleaners, steel and wooden stairs, the shower, collars, coats, leads, a frisbee, tennis balls, new Harper 2people who dropped by and Bunning’s. Believe it or not Bunning’s has a very detailed dog positive policy and we were able to take Harper around the store introducing her to the weird and wonderful world of the great Aussie tradition of a trip to the hardware store.

We had our first day at puppy school to start our long learning adventure together. Each day consists of a cycle of eat, sleep, play, starting at about 6am. I’m particularly fond of the sleeping part and I am hopeful we will settle into a new routine soon so I can get back to some writing. My book does have two dogs in it so I look forward to Harper becoming an inspiration rather than a distraction.

What’s your favorite fictional animal character?

Image: Harper and autumn leaves

sulpher crested cockatoo

What a galah!

Oh, don’t you hate it when you get it wrong? Galahs are the pink and grey cockatoos. That is not the same as a sulphur-chested cockatoo like the marauder in the picture. He is not a galah, even though they are both cockatoos. And while a cockatoo is not a galah, it is a parrot. And those green and red ones we think of as parrots, like the king parrot, are not cockatoos or galahs even though all of these birds are parrots. Confused yet? It’s a hierarchical classification thing. I remember learning it in zoology.

The word cockatoo doesn’t just mean our white and yellow feathered friends either. In Australian slang a person who keeps watch whilst their mates undertake clandestine activities like gambling is sometimes referred to as a ‘cockatoo’. Probably because they’re expected to squawk if they see the coppers coming. And completely unrelated to birds or illegal activities, small-hold farmer are often referred to as ‘cocky farmers’ on account of real farmers not taking them seriously. Come to think of it I’m probably a bit of a cocky farmer myself. And lets face it, we can all get a bit cocky sometimes.

A couple of weeks ago, I found one of ‘those’ errors whilst working on my third draft. I’m not talking about spelling errors here. I’ve talking about the kind of error that makes you kick yourself for not picking it up in your very early research.  Because it’s the kind of blindingly obvious thing you should have checked. And it’s the kind of error that once seen, cannot be unseen. It demands a major rewrite of the start of your book. The kind of error that results in a dummy spit and self flagellation for your own stupidity. You consider giving the whole project up. Taking your bat and ball and going home.

We all have them. Those moments when we just want to throw in the towel and give up. After a good run and a few days of wrestling with my inner five year old demon I started pulling up my bootstraps. I couldn’t actually bring myself to return to the work immediately. Sulking does not after all produce good creative output. So I did the only thing I could and worked on something else completely unrelated to try and get my mojo back.

The short story format is wonderful for so many reasons. It can break the back of writers block and bad moods, give you a sense of accomplishment and remind you that you can actually finish things. And they are a great place to pump out all that animosity about an error. I went for a noirish mystery of the type where no one is spared. I killed off all the characters except for the opponent by poisoning them. It did a ripper job of getting the poison out of my own system too. Then I settled down and got back to the main game.

I re-plotted the first 9 chapters. It’s not entirely different. I just needed to find a different way into the story to deal with the error. And what do you know, the rewrite is actually going to be a better story than the original I think! Now there’s a good lesson for me: Never get too attached to what you’re writing, you may have to do a slash and burn – it won’t be the end of the world. The work I had already done won’t be wasted. I’ll cut and sort and paste and recycle the good parts that still work. The parts that I can’t use weren’t wasted either as they helped me develop the characters and the story which contributed to the improved rewrite. What a Galah hey?

What strategies do you use to deal with, and get over the discovery of major flaws in your work?

 

Sign for second hand store "objects of desire" Istanbul

The writing odyssey begins

Odyssey: a long and eventful or adventurous journey or experience
– Oxford Dictionary

And so it begins. The ancient Greeks spoke of a time when heroes walked the earth performing superhuman endeavors, fighting monsters and consorting with the gods. They made up stories of men and women – neither gods nor humans – who became the heroes of Greek mythology.

Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s epic poem Odyssey, tricked the Trojans into bringing a giant wooden horse inside the walls of Troy. His army defeated the enemy and ended the Trojan War. In the epic Greek poem Odysseus spent many years traveling home from the Trojan war encountering monsters, cannibals, drugs, alluring women and he even visited the afterlife.

I have twelve months off work and I have noticed among friends and colleagues a hint of  expectation that like Odysseus I will set out an an epic adventure. Each year my annual leave has taken me on some new adventure around the world so surely a long break is the perfect opportunity for an extended trip. When I told people about my leave the immediate response has most commonly been where are you going? When I announced I was mainly staying home their faces often folded into confusion and disappointment. Who takes all that time off work to stay home right?

Yesterday was my last day of work for the year. I have decided to spend my time at home to focus on writing (try to finish that crime fiction novel I started two years ago) and my garden (finish all those half completed landscaping projects) – two of my passions. Other than a few short breaks this time will be an internal journey to learn new skills, flex and build my writing muscle and discover where my imagination can take me. That decision feels just right at this point in time. Building and launching this website and writing a weekly blog is also part of the plan. Follow me if you dare…

Image: Istanbul, Turkey

Microphone, Art Gallery of South Australia

Listening for inspiration

Discovering podcasts and audio-books was a revelation to me. Suddenly I could listen to a book or a favorite program out walking, gardening, driving the car and commuting to work. I could catch up on my favorite shows that I had missed and when my eyes were too tired from looking at a screen I could lie on the couch and someones silky voice would read to me. It reminds me of my parents reading to me at night as a child when I went to bed.

I wrote about writer skill building in my post on writing resilience. Podcasts can be a great (free) way to learn about writing and hear from more experienced writers how they go about their craft and what motivates and inspires them. You can also keep up with the latest books published.

My favorite podcast at the moment is So You Want to be a Writer. I discovered it when it was already in its third year, so have been binge listening on my way to and from work. Valerie Khoo and Allison Tait have a great formula with their show. These two writers make an entertaining and informative hosting duo. Their show delivers news, advice and tips on writing, writing tools, publishing and blogging. They interview a writer for each episode and their approach is both inspiring and motivating. Each show includes show notes and references published on the website.

For crime fans Valerie also hosts a pop-up podcast called Murder and Mayhem that explores the authors who bring us, well murder and mayhem. The authors they interview provide tips to improve crime and thriller writing. You can also get a free companion ebook linked to the series from the Australian Writers Centre website.

Other podcasts I enjoy include:

  • The Garret – cross genre program exploring how successful writers start, draft, complete and market their writing. Show notes and transcripts are published for each episode on website.
  • The True Crime Sisters Podcast – sisters Harry and Bill explore the touchy and tricky subject of true crime using cases from Australia and New Zealand. The series is supported by a blog.
  • Unladylike – Adele Walsh and Kelly Gardiner talk with women and non-binary people about writing and reading. The podcast focuses on women and non-binary people in all aspects of writing and publishing and the processes they use for thinking, planning, plotting, research, drafting and editing their writing.
  • Partners in Crime – English podcast for crime fiction fans
  • Writer Types – an American crime and mystery podcast series that interviews authors, industry professionals and provides book reviews
  • Writing Excuses – short (15-25 minutes) fast paced educational podcasts for writers by writers.
  • Grammar Girl – quick and dirty tips on grammar – can always improve on grammar
    The Bookshelf – ABC Radio National – to keep up with the latest fiction

All the podcasts listed can be downloaded via the podcast app or check out the links above to the websites linked to the podcasts.  I’ll also add to the list on my links page as new podcasts grab my attention.

Image: Art Gallery of South Australia

hair art at WOMAD 2015

Music to my ears

In March each year I make the pilgrimage to Adelaide to the alternative universe that is WOMADelaide (World Music, Arts and Dance Adelaide). It’s a four day global music festival in Adelaide’s Botanic Park. I usually don’t know most of the bands and there are always several new discoveries for me that get added to my play list. Without WOMAD I would not have found the desert sounds of Aziza Brahim whose roots are in the Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria, the indie pop of Lake Street Dive and the uplifting South African a cappella group, The Soil. All of whom have enriched my music collection.

When the Adelaide thermometer is turned up high, WOMAD can be tough and dusty. There are times when you need to find a shaded spot away from the crowds and stimulation to chill out. The park provides plenty of beautiful big old trees under which you can park yourself and do some writing.

I generally prefer silence when I write, but have spent most of the last two years writing on the bus on the way to work and have learnt to detach myself from background noise. A creative space, like a music festival, can be quite stimulating for the imagination also. One day I will set a story at a festival I expect.

Many writers have found inspiration away from the desk. Gertrude Stein often wrote from the drivers seat of her Model T Ford, Agatha Christie liked to plot in her Victorian bath eating apples and my personal favourite Sir Walter Scott penned his epic poem Marmion whilst riding his horse through the Scottish hillside.

Some writers require a very specific environment in which to work, some must have silence, some noise. The writers idiosyncrasies about the place where they write is curious given that when fully absorbed and writing well the place disappears into oblivion altogether. One wonders if it is the place that creates the ambiance for writing or the writers superstition that they can only find their creative muse in a particular environment that drives attachment to a setting.

Perhaps it is the simple act of creating a routine and habit that is the key to a writers creative and productive endeavors and the place and physical trappings are simply props. As EB White, the author of Charlotte’s Web famously said, “The writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

Where do you like to write? What are your rituals and habits? How and why do they help your writing?

Image: WOMAD 2015

Books on shelf at Guggenheim, New York

Getting started

I’d been toying with the idea of writing a book about the two years I spent living in Portugal riding horses in my early twenties. I was lucky to become a working pupil of Maesto Nuno Oliveira, considered to be one of the last great masters of classical dressage (think Spanish Riding School if that term leaves you wondering). I started writing and developed quite a bit of material, but soon realised I didn’t really know what I was doing. How do I structure my ideas to craft them into an engaging story on the page?

I am practical and pragmatic about what I don’t know and love learning, so I sought out some help. I looked into a range of courses. I didn’t really want to do another university degree and soon found myself at the virtual door of The Writers Studio signing up for their introductory online course. It was great fun and I learnt a lot. That was in January 2016.

The second problem was that I kept experiencing an overwhelming urge to kill off characters. One of the questions the tutor asked was what type of books we liked to read. I like to read widely, but in reality mystery and crime fiction dominate my bookshelves. Start by writing what you like to read was the best piece of advice to really kick start my writing. My Portugal book went into a virtual drawer and I commenced a journey to write a crime fiction novel under the tutelage of The Writers Studio.

The first draft commenced in March 2016. I work full time in a fairly demanding job and commute for three hours each day, usually one way on a bus, one way on a bicycle. That meant about an hour and a half in transit each day on a bus with my iPad working through course notes and writing. I’d also snatch a few hours over the weekends in between other commitments.

I discovered Scrivener early on, which I love, I’m a bit of a tech geek and it allows me to work on the iPad or the laptop and sync between the two. I rarely write with a pen as my handwriting is almost illegible and I can type fast enough to keep up with my thoughts. When I do hand write it’s because I’ve become stuck and the switch to a pen can get the creative brain flowing again.

I started my third draft in February 2018. Reflecting on the last two years, the key things I have learnt:

• it takes more than a good imagination to produce a good story. It has to be harnessed by a sound, well planned structure to make it really engaging

• develop a writing habit, even if it’s only fifteen minutes a day, it adds up

• grammar matters a lot, if you missed out go and learn it

• seek outside objective feedback, it makes a world of difference

• practice patience – it’s a journey, settle in, enjoy the process and don’t worry about the destination

This is to be the year of writing for me. I will start long service leave from my job in April and take the rest of the year off to work on my novel and my craft. I have set up this website as part of my writing project and plan to post a blog post each Friday.  It’s a place to share some of my work and pondering about life – initially the blog will alternate between writing topics and garden/food topics (one of my other passions). What are you working on?

Image: Guggenheim, New York