The Beautiful Rainbow Gum

Rainbow Gum 1Mother nature never ceases to surprise me. Thought I knew a fair bit about gum trees, but I didn’t know about Eucalyptus deglupta (Rainbow Eucalyptus) until a few weeks ago. Have I been the only one unaware of this astonishingly beautiful tree?

It originated in the rainforests of New Guinea, Sulawesi and Mindanao and is the only eucalypt to naturally occur in the Rainbow Gum 2northern hemisphere. It is one of four species not endemic to Australia. They can grow to sixty-five metres tall with a trunk diameter of over two metres.

Vivid stripes of colour show as the brown bark peels away to reveal a bright green layer beneath. As time passes the green fades through an astounding range of colours – dark green, blue, purple, orange, red, crimson, claret and back to brown. Then the process begins all over again, giving a beautiful rainbow brush-stroke effect. It’s hard to believe these trees are real.

They are apparently widely grown in tropical areas in pulp-wood plantations. What a magnificent sight that must be! I think in this case pictures really are worth more than words …

Rainbow Gum 3Rainbow Gum 4BB14

The Author Unmasked

cross blogWelcome to our monthly blog chat with writing guru Sydney Smith and fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson. Today we’re talking about how authors must remain hidden.

KATH
Possibly the most important job an author has is to remain invisible. Expose yourself through weak writing and the reader will be dragged away from the world you’ve spent so much time creating, straight into your office. Even a typo or printing error can cause a reader to think about poor editing instead of that desperate, blood-deprived vampire. Here are a few other ways authors (and lazy editors) can expose themselves:
- Trying Too Hard. This is a common mistake of beginner writers (and, ahem, not so beginner). Trying to find sexy or poetic ways to express a thought or action, often with the idea that it’s “fresh”. The mouth seems to cop much of it with smiles teasing the corners of mouths, sighs and moans escaping trembling lips. It’s made worse when those lurking smiles/sighs/moans keep popping up in the same fashion throughout the story. If you can’t come up with something truly fresh, try instead: He sighed. He smiled. He moaned. I’ve learned this is the most effective way to convey to the reader a sense of what’s going on, without losing them to another author.
Author exposed - cliches- Not Trying Hard Enough. Clichés! I found one in my current work-in-progress: “She stared at him with a look of horror.” We do get it, but it’s so dull, uninspired, overused, that we glide right by without getting the full impact of what the author’s trying to show (because, of course, we always show, not tell, don’t we, authors?) How about instead: “She stared at him, hand at her throat like it was Dracula, not a tennis player, standing in her kitchen.” (Excuse me while I adjust my WIP.)
Inappropriate Scene Setting. A high-octane moment is not the right time to tell us about the flowering jacaranda in the front garden, unless that’s where the body’s buried. The moment might be tense just in the narrator’s mind―thoughts about a husband’s infidelity or a missing child. Having the smell of a freshly-baked cake lovingly assault her nostrils* right then, simply for the sake of placing the reader, is probably a mistake. It interrupts or brings the tense moment to an abrupt halt which is NOT what we want to do, right? (*see purple prose below.)
Purple Prose. Too many nouns with adjectives, verbs with adverbs, adjectives with adverbs―argh! When we think we’re adding to a scene, really we’re weakening it with overdone prose. “The gleaming white moon rose slowly over the glistening, mirror-like lake while nearby tiny lambs frolicked joyfully amongst sun-kissed daisies in grassy, green meadows…” Quite apart from the wrongness of lambs frolicking at night, we know the moon is white and rises slowly, and we know what lambs look like and what they do; we don’t need to be told in such flowery detail. This kind of narrative is tedious for the reader, who will think the author is showing off.
– Speaking of which … Showing Off The Results Of Your Research. Know what to use and when/how. In my novel, Monkey Business, I devoted a whole scene to a particularly interesting fact about jungle survival. It read like an instruction manual, thus exposing its silly author.

SYDNEY
Plot controlling character is one of the ways a writer can reveal themselves working the puppet strings behind the scenes of a story. It’s also one of the sneakiest ways to avoid conflict ever invented.

Most writers think about important plot events before they write them. They will know some before they start writing the story, and they will imagine some as they write it. That isn’t necessarily the problem. Issues arise when the writer thinks about how to get these plot events to come about. An experienced writer will create characters who are able to bring these events into being. They will understand whether these events are doable by these characters or not. They will jettison any that are impossible logically or psychologically. Or, more often, their characters will jettison them. When characters come to life, they decide what they will do in pursuit of their goal. This is what it means when writers say their characters come to life and tell them what to write.

In fiction by new writers, this kind of situation doesn’t happen. Characters stick to the plot’s agenda like grim death, changing their personality as required, acting illogically, behaving as if they’ve got no agenda of their own, or not one they’re prepared to stick to. The plot is the dominant agent in the story. The plot decides what characters will do, and is ruthless in getting them to do it. It brooks no argument. It’s a tyrant.

This is a very different situation to characters creating plot, which is how it’s meant to be. If you look at it this way, plot becomes character in action. Characters shape the plot. Characters decide what will happen by pursuing their own agendas come what may, going after what they want with dogged determination, and dealing with opposition as it comes along. So here’s a little example of plot controlling character:

Shay is investigating the death of Marcus. He was shot in the back of the head, behind his left ear. The cops have ruled suicide. But Shay doesn’t believe it.

This is the first instance of plot controlling character: the cops ignore the obvious so that they can close the case. That gives Shay the chance to investigate.

Shay receives a note in her mailbox that tells her to go to 14 Garrod Street, Brunswick, where she will find something of interest. She gets there and is yanked inside by a ruffian with bad breath who tells her she’s too dangerous to stay alive. She’s been investigating the death of Marcus. ‘You should’ve accepted the police findings,’ he says as he straps Author exposed - hands tiedher wrists together with gaffer tape. He binds them in front of her, not behind her, leaves her ankles free, splashes petrol around the place and lights a match. As flames leap up the curtains, he whisks himself out of the house, leaving the door unlocked.

Again, this is plot controlling character. He’s tied her hands in front of her so that it’s easier for her to free herself. He’s left the front door unlocked so that, when she’s free, she can get out of the burning house without further difficulty. It might seem shockingly untenable, this whole situation, but believe me, I come across instances as blatant as this, even more blatant, of plot controlling character, every day of my mentoring life.

Not only is the situation unbelievable, but it’s avoided conflict. Yes, a man lured her to the house. That’s a conflict, since he wants to get rid of her and she wants to go on investigating the murder of Marcus. But he’s made it easy for her to escape. Making it hard for her to escape would involve levels of conflict the writer feels uncomfortable with. Then there are the cops and their decision that Marcus killed himself. If the forensic evidence supported suicide, it would be harder for the writer to figure out how to knock off Marcus in a way that looks like suicide but isn’t. Writing a novel involves the author in conflict as they wrestle with their characters and their own powers of invention. Plot controlling character minimises conflict for everybody, but especially for the writer.

Now look at the ruffian’s agenda. What is it? It seems to be that he wants to get rid of Shay so that the truth about Marcus’ death will never come out. But if he was committed to his agenda, wouldn’t he do his utmost to make sure Shay dies in the fire? How does it help his agenda if he makes it easy for her to escape? It doesn’t, but it helps the plot’s agenda. The plot wants Shay to escape and makes the ruffian forfeit his agenda in order to make it happen. I call this kind of character the uncommitted antagonist: he’s not committed to his agenda. Characters have to act out of who they are and what they want, even if that makes life hard for them, even if it makes life hard for the writer. The outcome of character commitment is compelling fiction.

JENNY
That’s a brilliant explanation of why the best stories are character-driven, Sydney! (Love the word ruffian.) And there are plenty of other ways that the author’s hand can reveal itself, giving readers an unwelcome reminder that they’re being spun a story. Telling, not showing is an obvious one. Inexperienced writers can become dictators, ordering us how to feel about their fictional world. Readers don’t like that. They like to come to their own conclusions. Saying that a character is scared or shy or happy robs the reader of Author unmasked - adverbsthat pleasure. Too many adverbs will have the same effect. Saying that the day is uncomfortably hot, or that a character is dangerously close to the cliff, reveals the lazy author behind the scenes. Readers must be able to assess for themselves how hot it is, or how dangerous a situation might be. As Anton Chekhov so famously put it, ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’

Then there’s flat out author intrusion, when the writer speaks directly to the reader under the flimsy guise of narrative or characters. Writers can unintentionally project themselves into stories because they haven’t created multidimensional, fully-formed fictional characters. Instead, they fall back on their own beliefs, opinions and ideas. I’ve been guilty of this myself. It’s easy to spot, once you know what you’re looking for. Are there certain words or phrases that seem out of place, that don’t fit the character? Does your character voice an opinion that has little to do with the actual story, but happens to coincide with your own beliefs?

Other examples of author intrusion relate to Sydney’s point about plot controlling character. Does your character have knowledge that she wouldn’t be expected to have? A humble salesgirl who just happens to be an expert in nuclear physics, or can miraculously disarm a bomb with a safety pin. Or have you done so much research on a particular subject that you want to squash it into the story, even though it doesn’t fit? Research should be like a floating iceberg, most of it invisible beneath the narrative surface. These kind of things stick out. The way to avoid the trap of author intrusion is simple. Always remember that your story belongs to your characters.

SYDNEY
Now I feel like I have to interrogate every word of my new WIP. But not at the moment. I’ve started the first draft of “Rosings”, a spin-off of Pride and Prejudice, which follows the adventures of Anne de Bourgh after her mother dies. (Am I allowed to say that?) First drafts should be allowed to be bad. It’s the next draft that has to be combed through for intrusions by the author. And here’s a final intrusion, one I never thought of before I started writing “Rosings”―if you sound a little bit like Jane Austen but not enough, or if you don’t sound like her at all. Whatever you decide in a spin-off of Jane Austen is going to come across as authorially intrusive.

Kathryn Ledson is the author of Rough Diamond and Monkey Business (Penguin), part of the Erica Jewell series of romantic adventures. You can visit her website and find her blog at www.kathrynledson.com
Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She will soon be releasing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, feel free to visit her at The Story Whisperer.

BB14

War On Wildlife

war and environment 3This week we celebrate an international day that I bet you’ve never heard of. Little-known and clumsily named, its message is nevertheless vitally important. Next Thursday is the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict, so declared by the UN General Assembly in 2001. Mankind always counts its war casualties in human terms – dead and wounded soldiers, civilian deaths, destroyed cities and livelihoods. The natural world remains the unpublicised victim of war. Waterways are polluted, forests destroyed, soils poisoned, and wild animals are killed. On 6th November the world acknowledges damage done to the environment through war, and looks for ways to avoid future harm. This is an issue I intend to explore in my next book.

Since the Romans sowed salt on Carthaginian fields during the Third Punic War, conflicts have damaged the earth, both intentionally and as a reckless side-effect. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s draining of marshlands in the Euphrates/Tigris Delta provides a classic example of deliberately targeting ecosystems to achieve political and military ends. Decades of war have devastated the forests and wetlands of War and environment 2Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bombing and deforestation threatens an important migration path for birds in this region. The number now flying this route has dropped by eighty-five percent in recent years.  Foreign aid workers helped drive snow leopards to the brink of extinction by paying thousand of dollars for pelts. Impoverished and refugee Afghans were more willing to break bans on hunting protected species. Once Sierra Leone was thick with ninety percent rainforest. Following conflict the country now has less than four percent forest cover. Decades of civil war threaten gorillas in the Congo. The depressing list goes on and on …

 

On rare occasions war has had positive effects. One of Asia’s safest, most diverse habitats for endangered species is a narrow, land-mined strip of jungle between two bitterly opposed nations. The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) has, by chance, helped safeguard war and environment 4moon bears, red-crowned cranes, and black-faced spoonbills from extinction. South Korea wants the United Nations to recognize the DMZ’s role in wildlife conservation by making it a World Heritage site – getting the international community to protect and expand the wilderness area. “No other place in Korea resembles what it looked like before the war,” says Lee Ki-sup, an ecologist from South Korea. Perversely, peace would be the worst possible outcome for this accidental sanctuary.

UNEPThere is hope. In recent years, an increasing number of governments have asked the UN  to conduct post-war environmental assessments. A team is currently examining the environmental impact of the conflict in Lebanon, and others are working closely with the governments of Sudan and Iraq. Rules, such as the Geneva Conventions, govern the conduct of war. However the environmental consequences are overlooked. It’s high time that we review international agreements related to war and armed conflict to ensure they also cover deliberate and reckless damage to the environment. BB14

The Mirror Moment

Write Your Novel From The MiddleI’m having a writing hiatus, in between books. But that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about writing. Quite the contrary. I’m mulling and reading and plotting – dreaming up my next story. Part of this process involves reading some books on writing theory. My friend and fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson has been singing the praises of James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel From The Middle. I downloaded this little book onto my Kindle and guess what? Kath’s right! Here’s the blurb:

What’s the best way to write a “next level” novel? Some writers start at the beginning and let the story unfold without a plan. They are called “pantsers,” because they write by the “seat of the pants.” Other writers plan and outline and know the ending before they start. These are the “plotters.” The two sides never seem to agree with each other on the best approach.

But what if it’s not the beginning or the end that is the key to a successful book? What if, amazing as it may seem, the place to begin writing your novel is in the very middle of the story? I’m excited to tell you, that’s exactly where you’ll find it. I am truly jazzed about the technique I discovered. I’ve used it on every book of mine since, and have now set it out for you in this volume.

James Scott Bell

James Scott Bell

Bell argues that the mid-point of every effective narrative contains a mirror-moment – so called because the main protagonist figuratively looks in the mirror, takes stock of his/her life and decides which way to go. This is the perfect compromise between writing a detailed outline and writing the entire book by the seat of your pants. Once you’ve decided on that moment, you can write towards it or away from it, confident that your character arc will be in good shape. The book also contains basic structural advice, and some great examples of mirror moments from classic novels and films.

I’ve already decided on the pivotal mid-point moment for my new book – not the exact scene as such, but what I want my character to understand about herself in that scene. This mid-point is the heart of my story, and will set up both my ending and beginning. A brilliant but very simple concept. Write Your Novel From The Middle is only a short book, less than one hundred pages. But it’s a genuine game-changer. I’m going to search out more of Bell’s books.

BB14

 

 

A Sense Of Place

cross blogWelcome to our monthly blog chat with writing guru Sydney Smith and fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson. Today we’re talking about the role of setting in narrative.

KATH
This writing caper is full of surprises and learning curves. Even now, with two books published, I sometimes feel like I’m only just ready to graduate. From Novel Writing kindergarten.

When I wrote Rough Diamond, I planned to keep its Melbourne setting to a minimum. Why would I do this? Well, it’s about my own reading preferences. Firstly, I like a fast-paced plot with plenty of action, not lengthy descriptions. But mostly because my own taste is for exotic locations―places I’ve never seen or would love to see. Parts of the world that exude whatever isn’t Melbourne. Because Melbourne’s humdrum, right? It’s my city, where I grew up in my dull little life. It’s just an extension of boring old me. It’s all so everyday, routine, familiar. How could it be interesting?

Rough Diamond was released, and reviews poured in. Imagine my surprise that many of the positive comments were about the Melbourne setting! The setting I’d so determinedly kept vague (as I thought) with just a few snippets to place the reader: the streets of Richmond, the botanic gardens and tan track, South Melbourne market, Crown casino, Collingwood football club, the local pub. All those very boring, everyday, familiar spots. As it turned out, in my naiveté, I’d unwittingly yet convincingly set my novel in Melbourne.

Collingwood Football ClubUntil I read those reviews, I hadn’t realised―or rather considered―how enjoyable the familiar can be. In reading we relate to characters for various reasons; we share their pains, joys, experiences of all kinds. So, too, I’ve learned, can we relate to a novel’s setting and enjoy the company of familiar turf. Joggers who frequent the tan track, people queuing for those famous South Melbourne market dim sims, our love and hate of Collingwood football club.

 

Funnily enough, I appreciate Melbourne more now. In fact, I’m giving careful attention to place in my current work-in-progress, Grand Slam (working title, my publisher reminds me to add), which is set around the internationally famous Australian Open tennis tournament, hosted by my own beautiful Melbourne. My characters will spend time at the tennis and surrounds as well as thrilling, familiar spots like Southbank and Chadstone Shopping Centre (Chaddy!). And you know what? I’m feeling so excited about it, I might take a quick research trip now…

SYDNEY
I do get what you’re saying, Kath, about the allure of the exotic. But I also get the thrill of reading a novel set in a familiar place. The former is an escape from daily life. The latter makes me feel as if I’m IN the novel I’m reading. I could walk out my door and bump into these characters, pop them on the nose if they irritate me, hug them if I like them.

Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly – Crime Writer

I happen to like a good description. One of the things I love about early Michael Connelly, US crime writer, is the depth of characterisation of LA, where his novels are set. His series hero, Harry Bosch, lives in a house on the side of a hill, with scrub choking the arroyo below, scrub bearing Spanish names―that word “arroyo”, too, which conjures up the dry deserts of California and nearby Nevada. He usually spots a coyote trotting amidst the brush. The coyote is his animal, the battered loner struggling to survive in the increasing urbanisation of its native land.

Harry works in West Hollywood, a place seamed with porno shops, greasy hotels where rooms are rented by the hour, soiled junkies and prostitutes. The big Hollywood sign looms over the city, promising the dream, but it’s a damaged sign, a symbol you trust at great risk to your life and your heart.

That’s what a good description does. It gives the reader the feel of the place in which the story is set, and therefore, the mood of the story itself. The description should convey emotion. If it’s flatly realistic, it’s probably not doing its job.

JENNIFER
I’m with you, Sydney. I love good description. Teachers of writing craft often say that description is boring. Don’t you dare add more than a sentence or two on setting, lest you lose your reader. I think this rule screams out to be broken. A convincing setting helps make any story memorable. But as a writer of Aussie rural fiction, a vivid sense of place is even more vital. Readers of this genre crave a relationship with this country. They’re asking the question :what is it that makes us Australian? And the simple answer is that we come from this place. That’s our identity―the continent itself. And especially that aspect of Australia that is completely different to other places. That doesn’t mean our cities. That means the regions. That means the bush.

CC 4In many novels, and particularly in rural novels, place (literally geographical place) functions like a character in the story. It’s one of the most powerful tools that a writer has. For me, setting stories in wild places allows me to strip away the civilised façade from my characters. In Currawong Creek, for example, my main character is a young professional woman caught up in the career rat race. She has time to examine what she fundamentally wants from life when she goes bush.  In my new release Billabong Bend, a young man who’s been a drifter, comes home to the riverlands to confront his past and discover his roots. And by becoming grounded again he finds his future.

There must be balance of course. Don’t spend paragraphs describing how things look. Do what Sydney says. Describe how they feel. Use detail. Make it a sensory experience. Here’s an example from my own writing: a man is climbing a tree.

“That precious, familiar calm. Tree climbing. Different to rock-climbing. Trees lived. Even giant Pallawarra still gave with the wind. He moved. Matt moved too, away from the people and the cars and the ravaged earth. He moved into another dimension. For the first time in a long time, Matt focused on the moment. On his breath, his feet, his fingers. A meditation. There was no choice. Any slip was death.

The darkening forest lay in mysterious degrees of light and shade. The more Matt looked at the tree, the more he saw the tree. Its position, its size and form, its unique structure and balance. He saw through its bark-dangled camouflage. He saw its art. A shred of song popped into his head, even though, since Theo, music made him cringe.

‘If you plant ten million trees, none will grow like these.’

Now light rain began falling, deepening the colours. The auburns and browns, the greens and golds, the glistening, mottled curls of stringy-bark streamers. The birds of the upper canopy had long fled, leaving the forest silent. Except for the sound of a strengthening breeze, like the sea-shell psalm of a distant sea.”

And as Kath says, no matter how ordinary the place, assume that some of your readers will be unfamiliar with your setting. The smell of a South Melbourne dim sim that you take for granted, will be a revelation for readers who’ve never visited that market.

SYDNEY
That’s beautiful, Jenny. Place plus emotion plus atmosphere equals setting.

KATH
I take it back. I love lengthy descriptions if written by Jen Scoullar. Mind you, the above piece is also brimming with action and suspense, yes?

BB14

 

REVIEWER SPOTLIGHT: Write Note Reviews

jenniferscoullar:

Interesting post from Monique Mulligan from Write Note Reviews – and she lists Billabong Bend and my mate’s book Mountain Ash (Margareta Osborn) as in her top five Aussie romances for 2014!

Originally posted on AusRomToday:

Reviewer Spotlight: Write Note Reviews

 

Tell us a little more about Write Note Reviews:
As a book reader and food enthusiast in no particular order, I’ve always thought books and food go well together. For me, it all started with popcorn … eating a bowl of popcorn and reading at the same time. Write Note Reviews combines these two loves with two more – writing and photography. My book reviews (from 2013 onwards) are complemented by a suggested food treat that “matches” the book. But really, the site is just a way for me to immerse myself in the world of books in a way that suits me best.

 

What prompted the creation of Write Note Reviews?
I started reviewing books while working at a community newspaper as a journalist, and later, editor. Apart from writing a regular column, it was one of my favourite aspects of the role…

View original 521 more words

Our New Horse – Lofty

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting around with my friend Bronwyn, looking at horses for sale on-line. She was looking for a quiet horse for her sixteen year old daughter. We started looking at sites dedicated to giving sale-yard horses a second chance – ones that were heading for slaughter. There are many wonderful people who volunteer to publicise these last-chance horses. And with the drought hitting hard in NSW and Queensland there are far, far too many of them.

Lofty's On-Line Photo

Lofty’s On-Line Photo

Well, my friend decided to take a chance on one of these horses – a little chestnut mare called Trixie. Then my son Matt came in, sat down with us and started scrolling through the horses. Lofty, a big standardbred gelding with a noble head caught his eye. The picture is on the right. In the end Matt decided to spend all his savings on buying Lofty and transporting  him here from the Echuca Sale Yards.

Lofty Safe At Home

Lofty Safe At Home

This was a risky enterprise. Buying horses the old-fashioned way is tricky enough. Buying sight-unseen from the briefest of descriptions is slightly insane. Nevertheless Bronwyn and Matt went ahead, knowing that these horses were in dire straits. We spent a nervous few days waiting. Horror stories about buying horses on-line emerged from the woodwork. The lady who bought a stockhorse, and it turned out to be a just-off-the-track thoroughbred that almost killed her husband. The girl who bought a yearling filly and found an unhandled two year old colt dumped in her paddock instead. Weeks later she still hadn’t caught it! I’m sure you’ve all heard many more.

Lofty's first day 058Well, the horses arrived on Sunday, shell-shocked and a little the worse for wear. A few cuts and scrapes. BUT they are beautiful! Trixie has a new home with a doting teenage girl to love her. Lofty is settling in, and is well on his way to becoming Matt’s pride and joy. A total gentleman with perfect manners, and at 16.2 hh he’s big enough to carry Matt and all his camping gear. I had a cry yesterday, thinking about where these lovely horses might have ended up. Trixie had been totally neglected, however Lofty’s feet were trim and his mane and tail tidy. Somebody once loved this beautiful horse, but he still ended up on a truck heading for oblivion. I wish I could reassure Lofty’s previous owner that he’s safe. I’m VERY proud of my son for doing such a great thing. And a huge thank you to the wonderful people who volunteer their time to give these horses a second chance!

Trixie

Trixie

BB14