The Phantom Herd

 

( … orWhy I Changed My Mind About Alpine Grazing’)

Bessie CreekA beautiful little creek runs along the northern boundary of our family property, Pilyara. Beyond it lies Bunyip State Park, a forest in the southern foothills of the Great Dividing Range. Land either side of our creek is virgin country, too steep to bother with when the area was originally cleared for timber and grazing. It has always been a shady haven for ancient tree ferns and delicate ground orchids, all flourishing beneath a soaring canopy of messmate and mountain ash.

swamp wallabyPilyara’s bottom paddocks run down to this creek. There’s never been a fence. Steep, thickly timbered slopes have generally acted as a safe barrier for stock, although for years we regularly lost our colossal pet bullock, Toro, to the neighbours. My son often walked the friendly beast home with just a rope around his neck. Many times I’d toyed with the idea of fencing along the creek, but there was a problem. What about the black-tailed wallabies? What about the forester kangaroos? What about the fat wombats, that emerged from their gully warrens and  lumbered uphill each night to graze the moonlit paddocks? Fencing Toro in, would mean fencing them out – and after all, they were here first.

CattleOne rainy winter morning, I fed out hay to the cattle as usual, and got a big surprise. Our mob had been joined by another mob.  Dozens of big steers had appeared from nowhere overnight. Where had they come from? I rang around the neighbours and heard a fascinating story. Pilyara was apparently playing host to the phantom herd, a mob belonging to an old man upstream. He no longer maintained his boundaries, and his cattle had been roaming along the creek for months, randomly popping up to graze properties along the waterway, and disappearing just as quickly. I rang the ranger, complained to neighbours and begrudgingly fed hay to the blow-ins. Within a few days they were gone, just as mysteriously as they’d come

Braving the weather, I walked down the hill and tried to track the vanished herd. Sure enough, they’d moved out along the creek. What a mess! The banks were broken, caved into the water, taking great swathes of vegetation with them. A once pristine environment was little more than a wallow, flowing sluggish and muddy past trampled reeds and pugged up pools. Pity the poor platypus. The damage was plain as the nose on your face.

Until then I’d been a cautious supporter of alpine grazing. It reduced bush fires, didn’t it? In 2009 my family had spent days watching a monster fire lurk in the forest to our north. On Black Saturday, a capricious wind change saved us, but doomed many others. If grazing really reduced fires, I’d still be for it. A ton of research later, and I got my answer.  Both the extensive Esplin Report (following the 2003 alpine bushfires) and the recent combined CSIRO, LaTrobe University and NSW Department of Environment and Conservation study found that cattle grazing had no influence on the spread of fire.

EFNI’ve since joined the Environmental Farmers Network. It supports rural ecological programs, and acknowledges farmers as front-line stewards of the land.  Our farmers fence off creeks. They replant and reseed with locally indigenous trees and restore degraded river banks. They build wombat gates, preserve stag trees and put fish ladders in dammed streams. They work hard to give nature a helping hand.

We’ve just received a Healthy Waterways grant to build a wildlife-friendly fence along our creek frontage (Yay!). Healthy rivers, creeks and wetlands are the arteries of our landscape … the life blood of the bush. State and Federal Governments encourage such programs as best practice. Why should management of our precious alpine regions be any different? Look at the Bunyip State Park management plan and you find the seven Alpine grazinggrazing licences in the southern section of the park are not transferable, and no new licences will be granted. This is because cattle spread weeds, and damage native plants, wetlands and waterways. It’s true for the Bunyip forest and it’s true for the alps as well.

Our magnificent high country is celebrated in Australian art and literature (Including in my own 2012 novel Brumby’s Run).The mythical beauty of Man From Snowy River territory forms part of our national psyche. Romantic images of red and white cattle, stringing between the snow gums, feed into this notion. But the unfortunate truth is, cattle damage fragile landscapes, and there are plenty of forward-thinking farmers who understand this.

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ARRA Treasure Hunt

ARRA Treasure hunt

The Australian Romance Readers Association will be hosting a book-signing event in conjunction with the RWA Conference at Melbourne on Saturday 22 August. It will run from 5.00 to 6.30 pm at the Park Hyatt Hotel. In total there will be seventy-two authors signing, including me (see the list below). Come along and meet your favourite authors and maybe find some new authors to try. Tickets for the signing will go on sale on 15 July.

A very special online Treasure Hunt is now openIt gives the opportunity for readers to win free tickets to the signing. All you need to do is find the purple ARRA button on the websites or blogs of the authors marked with an asterisk below, click the symbol and then send the email through to the ARRA. Each participating author has a unique code number, so you can enter once for every code you find. (That’s 37 chances to win a ticket!) But don’t expect it to be easy to find them all—it is a treasure hunt after all.

The button is linked to an email command—when you click on it an email should open in your email program with an author code pre-filled in the subject line. If you don’t have your email program linked, you can hover over the button to see the code and then email arra.contests@gmail.com, including the words “Treasure Hunt” AND the code number in the subject line.

The Treasure Hunt will close at 5.00 pm on Tuesday 14 July. Terms and conditions are available here. Why not start by finding the button on my website? I hope to see some of you at the signing, which will be held in conjunction with the Romance Writers Conference. For the first time this conference will be held in partnership with the Melbourne Writers Festival and Writers Victoria, and promises to be the best ever. I can’t wait!

Signing authors

Here’s the full list of authors signing:

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The Magical Middle

cross blogTime for some writerly discussion on craft. Today, writing mentor Sydney Smith and I discuss a novel’s mid-point.

JENNIFER –
I’m approaching the middle of my new manuscript, although still a few thousand words away. Since reading Sydney Smith’s wonderful new book, The Architecture Of Narrative, I’ve been giving a lot more thought than usual to structure. So many writing gurus emphasise the significance of the magical midpoint. James Scott Bell, in his clever book, Write Your Novel From The Middle, calls it the mirror moment, when the main character looks at himself, and takes stock.  What kind of person is he? What is he becoming? How must he change in order to achieve his goals?

Humphrey BogartMy favourite film example of this is Casablanca with the fabulous Humphrey Bogart. At the exact midpoint of the film, Ilsa comes to Rick’s bar after closing. Rick is drunk and bitter, remembering how Ilsa left him in Paris. Ilsa tries to explain, pleads with him to understand, but Rick essentially calls her a whore. She leaves in tears. Rick, full of self-disgust, puts his head in his hands, thinking, ‘What have I become?’ Will he stay a selfish drunk, or regain his humanity? This goes to the central theme of the narrative, and the second half of the film answers that question.

Alexandra Sokoloff  calls the midpoint the Call to Action, or Point of No Return. It heralds a major shift in the story, and is one of the most important scenes in any book or film. Something huge might be revealed. Something might go disastrously wrong. A ticking clock might be introduced, heightening the suspense. This fits in well with James Scott Bell’s analysis. In Casablanca, Ilsa reveals something huge at the midpoint―that she found out her husband, Viktor Lazlo, was still alive. This information leads Rick to a moment of self-reflection, then locks him into a course of action, thus linking the external and internal conflicts.

SYDNEY –
A of N Cover
The midpoint of a novel can be a powerful place where change happens. In Pride and Prejudice, the midpoint is the chapter where Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth and she rejects him, citing his pride and arrogance, his interference in her sister’s romance with Bingley, and his cruelty to Wickham as her reasons for rejecting him. That propels him into writing the letter in which he reveals the truth about Wickham but admits to meddling in Bingley’s business. That in turn leads Elizabeth to realize she’s been prejudiced toward Darcy, which had blinded her to the truth about Wickham. And it leads Darcy to modify his behaviour toward others. That’s a powerful about-face for both of them, and a vital hinge. All that follows is a consequence of that. It’s interesting to note that this hinge is also the most memorable part of this time-honoured novel.

Gregg Hurwitz, thriller writer extraordinaire, uses the midpoint in his novel, Don’t Look Back (dull title but don’t be fooled―it’s amazing!). Eve Hardiman has lost her nerve in life after her husband leaves her for a younger woman. She gives up the low-paid nursing job she loves and takes a highly-paid post with an insurance company, turning down applications for medical treatment by seriously ill people. She goes on a holiday in a distant outpost in Mexico, and for the first part of the novel, she collects clues that point to the mysterious disappearance of Teresa Hamilton, and hands them to others to deal with. Then smack in the middle of the novel, something happens. A member of the holiday party is seriously injured. Eve takes charge of the situation and the threat to all their lives, and she doesn’t let up until she’s destroyed the villain. High-octane is not the word for it.

Lesser novels can employ the midpoint effectively, too, though in a different way. Philip Pullman uses it in his Sally Lockhart mysteries. For the first half of each novel, questions pile up. After the midpoint, they’re resolved one by one.

JENNIFER –
All these examples show just how crucial the midpoint really is. The sagging middle is a frequent trap for novice, and not-so novice writers. A lot of brainstorming is usually put into the start of a story, and to the climax, but the middle is neglected. It meanders, becomes boring, and loses the reader’s attention. As a manuscript assessor Sydney, you must have had a lot of experience with this all-too-common problem.

SYDNEY –
Don't Look BackThe thing to understand is that, if a story sags in the middle, it’s weak at the start. The weakness is the lack of a character flaw in the protagonist. In many, many examples of the midpoint, the critical moment is the protagonist’s realization of their character flaw. When Eve recognizes that she lost her nerve, that’s the moment she gets it back. The midpoint in Casablanca is the moment when Rick realizes his character flaw―his bitterness over Ilsa. This kind of self-knowledge always leads to a dramatic change in direction for the story because the protagonist is now able to change internally and act externally without the nagging hindrance of their character flaw.

To highlight my point by contrast, why is it that many, possibly most, series novels don’t employ the midpoint this way? Because the series hero will lose the very character flaw that drives him or her to do what they do. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is obsessed with catching murderers. But his obsession keeps him from connecting at a deep level with others. He’s single and can’t be with the woman he loves. His friendships are superficial. If he lost his obsession, he would no longer be driven to solve crimes. Karin Slaughter’s Will Trent is ashamed of his dyslexia. He is driven to compensate for it by solving crimes. If he lost his shame over his disability, he might become a more balanced human being, but he would lose the drive to compensate for it by being a super-duper crime-solver.

Look at the Sally Lockhart series: the midpoint is the hinge where the questions amassed in the first half begin to be answered. It’s cute. It’s obvious. It works. But it lacks that power-pack oomph that comes from a midpoint resting on the protagonist’s recognition of their character flaw.

JENNIFER –
Love these examples Sydney. They illustrate the importance of mid-points and character flaws in such a practical way. I’ll be sure to keep this discussion in the front of my mind as my manuscript grows.

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RWA Pitch Program

Get Fresh in 15The annual RWA conference is rolling round again (21st – 23rd August), the largest professional publishing conference in Australia. This year promises to be the best ever, which is particularly good for me, because it will be held in my home state of Victoria. It provides unique networking opportunities for writers, editors and agents, as well as a speaker line-up including Anita Heiss and Graeme Simsion. The program features a wide range of workshops designed for writers at every stage of their career and publishing journeys. Get Fresh in 15 is the theme for Melbourne, and it will build on Melbourne’s strong literary culture through partnerships with Melbourne Writers Festival and Writers Victoria.

Brumby's CoverI received my big publishing break through the Pitch Program at an earlier RWA conference. My pitch of Brumby’s Run to a commissioning editor has led to five Penguin contracts so far. This fantastic program is being offered again, with a stunning range of editors and agents. It offers one of the few chances that aspiring writers have to get face to face with key publishing industry professionals. And the opportunity isn’t purely for romance writers. A wide variety of manuscripts are being sought. International literary agent Courtney Miller-Callihan is looking for general women’s fiction, historical fiction and young adult. Publisher Martin Green of Pantera Press is open to submissions in all genres, particularly commercial women’s fiction. Publisher Rebecca Saunders of Hachette is busy building a commercial fiction list, and wants to see all categories of popular fiction. And my own agent, Clare Forster of Curtis Brown, is looking for adult fiction, young adult fiction and non-fiction for mainstream publishers. Check out the amazing line-up here.

On-line registration for the Pitch Program opened on 1st June and will close on 30th June 2015 at 9pm. If you will have a suitable manuscript completed in time, why not have a go? You’ve nothing to lose, and I’m living proof that a conference pitch can lead to a publishing contract. I’ll do a post on pitch tips and etiquette prior to the conference, so stay tuned …

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Narrative Voice

Narrative Voice 1I’m thirty thousand words into a new project. This is typically the point for me where a novel starts to find its feet, and this time is no different. The characters are becoming real to me, finding their own voices.

In my view, there is nothing more mysterious in this writing game than the development of a character’s narrative voice. This isn’t necessarily the same as the author’s own voice, although it can be. I researched some definitions. Wikipedia says this:

‘The narrative voice describes how the story is conveyed: for example, by “viewing” a character’s thought processes, reading a letter written for someone, retelling a character’s experiences.’

The Editor’s Blog puts it like this.

‘Narrative voice is the look and feel and sound of story as it’s relayed through writer, narrator, and viewpoint character. So, yes, it’s tone and style. But it’s also attitude.  And it’s focus—what does the narrator point out and what is ignored?  And it includes the method through which that look and feel and sound are conveyed to the reader—through thoughts or letters or the direct report of events. And it includes the distance and relationship between narrator and the people and events he is watching. (A narrator may be aloof and observational or up close in the thick of the action.)’

Narrative Voice 2So … trying to define and explain narrative voice, is a bit like trying to nail down a shadow. Nevertheless, a point-of-view character must have one. It’s not helpful to regard voice development as a magical thing, that fortuitously appears in a puff of purple smoke.

My work-in-progress is in third person, with two viewpoint characters narrating the story. They come complete with their own baggage and biases, strength and flaws. How can I convincingly speak for them? How to prevent them from all sounding the same – or worse still – from all sounding like me? Syntax and diction are important. Devices like verbal tics and idiosyncratic turns of phrase are useful, as long as they’re not overdone. (Have you ever tried to make sense of Joseph’s Yorkshire dialect in Wuthering Heights?) However these are purely adjustments made around the edges. They don’t by themselves create a distinctive voice.

Some people write detailed summaries in order to get to know their characters. They know what their characters had for breakfast last Sunday. They know them better than their own wives and husbands. I’m not one of those writers.

Narrative Voice 3On reflection, what I find most useful is to discover one essential truth about a character – their driving force, their deepest fear, their wound perhaps. Who, in their heart of hearts, do they believe themselves to be? Are they misguided? We all have a fundamental, core belief about ourselves that usually remains hidden. Take Clare in Currawong Creek, for example. She mistakenly believes that career success is the only path to self-worth. The driving force for Quinn in Turtle Reef, is the guilt he feels at not measuring up in his father’s eyes, even though his father has feet of clay.

At thirty thousand words in my new manuscript, the two main characters have come to life. I understand the central truths about them, and their unique voices are finally ringing loud and clear.

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REVIEW: TURTLE REEF BY JENNIFER SCOULLAR

jenniferscoullar:

I’m reposting this review of Turtle Reef from Write Note Reviews. This is everything a review should be – balanced, honest and thoughtful. It shows an excellent knowledge of the book, is generally positive, but not afraid to point out challenges along the reading way. In my opinion, Monique Mulligan is one of the top book reviewers in Australia. Why not have a roam around her fascinating website while you’re there? And don’t forget entries, for Jenn J McLeod’s three-book giveaway close 31 May. Leave a comment on my blog for your chance to win!

Originally posted on Write Note Reviews:

TURTLE REEF

Author: Jennifer Scoullar
Michael Joseph RRP $32.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

Book Cover:  Turtle ReefI’ve been a fan of Jennifer Scoullar’s rural romance for a while now – both Billabong Bend and Currawong Creek held strong appeal for me. What stands out in Scoullar’s writing, in a genre that is well-represented in Australia, is her passion for the country’s flora and fauna. Her stories, already worthy in their own right as a romance, are enhanced by the descriptive setting and the clear message that the country and its wildlife are to be cherished. Turtle Reef is no exception; set in a remote coastal community at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, there’s a strong reminder of our environmental responsibility amid other happenings.

For zoologist Zoe King, Turtle Reef looks like a great place for a fresh start. Tired of the Sydney rat race and fed up with men, Zoe is more than ready to put her old…

View original 448 more words

Happy Endangered Species Day!

Endangered Species DayLast Friday was international Endangered Species Day, designed to highlight the plight of many at-risk and critically endangered plants and animals. They are disappearing between 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural rate – with dozens going extinct every day. Over 40% of the world’s species are estimated to be at risk of extinction, primarily from human activities driving habitat loss, introduction of exotic species and global warming.

Australia is far from immune. In fact it is facing an extinction crisis, with the worst mammal extinction rate in the world: 30 native mammals have become extinct since European settlement. To put this in a global context, 1 out of 3 mammal extinctions in the last 400 years have occurred in Australia.

Rewilding Australia 1I love to write about our unique wildlife, and the people who fight to protect these birds and animals. My current work-in-progress explores the concept of rewilding. Rewilding means restoring habitats to their original condition (as much as possible) and reintroducing animals and plants that are locally extinct.

Rewilding Australia is a registered charity that supports the reintroduction of our apex species like devils and quolls. With the re-establishment of these predator species, combined with a range of large-scale fox and cat control programs, our other smaller Quollsmammals may then be able to survive. Farmers and community organisations from all around Australia are embracing this vision and pitching in to help. Some examples include predator-proof fencing, breeding programs and protecting wildlife corridors. Click here to read a story on an exciting quoll rewilding project.

I’m excited about the concept of not only conserving, but of actively rebuilding eco-systems. It has also given me the idea for my new book. I’m sure the challenges involved will make for some dramatic story-telling!

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