National Tree Day

National Tree DayToday is the 20th anniversary of National Tree Day, the country’s largest community nature-care and tree planting event. Each year over 250,000 people take part in National Tree Day events at 3,000 sites organised by councils, schools, businesses, communities and Toyota Dealers across the country. Since Planet Ark launched National Tree Day in 1996, more than three million participants have planted 21 million native trees, shrubs and grasses.By taking part in National Tree Day, you’ll be joining thousands of individuals in making a difference, connecting with nature, beautifying your local neighbourhood and inspiring positive environmental change.

Carnaby's Black Cockatoo

Carnaby’s Black Cockatoo

To celebrate National Tree Day this Sunday, WWF-Australia, with the help of supporters and volunteers, are planting 3,000 black cockatoo food trees at the Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s Karakamia Wildlife Sanctuary in the state’s southwest. WWF spokesperson Shenaye Hummerston said planting food trees like banksias, marri and sheoaks would help to bring black cockatoos back from the brink after a dramatic decline in bird populations in recent years.

‘Black cockatoos are well-loved in Western Australia with their characteristic haunting cries and big personalities but they are also under serious threat,’ said WWF-Australia’s Threatened Species Conservation Officer, Shenaye Hummerston. ‘Black cockatoos have lost many of their food trees and homes after many years of land clearing for agriculture and continuing urban development. We need to act now to save these amazing birds from extinction and planting food trees is one way to help do this.’

KarakamiaTwo species of black cockatoo – Carnaby’s and Baudin’s white-tailed black cockatoos – are found only in the internationally-renowned biodiversity hotspot known as Southwest Australia. Karakamia Wildlife Sanctuary, named for the red-tailed black cockatoo (“karak”), is home to all three threatened species of black cockatoos. Southwest Australia has the highest concentration of rare and endangered species in Australia and is considered one of 34 global biodiversity hotpots but land clearing for agriculture and urban development, along with introduced species, have exacted a huge toll.

‘The loss of habitat not only affects the availability of black cockatoo nesting hollows but also food availability. Loss of food is a major contributor to black cockatoo decline,’ Ms Hummerston said.

I will plant some more trees in honour of National Tree Day. Hope you can plant some too! BB14

Leaving Room For Readers

trust 2I try to keep the rules of narrative fiction firmly in mind when I write, if only so I know when to break them. There is an implied covenant between writers and readers. Readers do authors an honour when they invest time and money in reading their books. They need to trust they are in capable hands, that they’re in for an entertaining ride. We’ve all experienced that sense of disappointment when an author lets us down. Our hero might act completely out of character in order to get out of trouble. A wholly contrived coincidence might save the day. The climax might come and go with no sense of resolution. The author has betrayed the reader’s trust.

trustLikewise, authors need to trust their readers. Great stories result from an active partnership between the two. One writes the book, and the other brings it to life in their own imagination, creating a story which is unique and personal to them. Once a reader invests in a book, they own it to some degree, and are much more likely to get caught up in its creative web. They’ll want to love the story.

This is why it’s so important to leave room for readers. Don’t prescribe everything to the nth degree. Allow readers some creative control. Pique their interest with a few choice descriptive phrases, instead of drowning them in detail. Ernest Hemingway is a master of this. His sentences are simple, direct and unadorned by flowery description. One of his most famous stories is this simple six-word sentence.

‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’

Everyone will fill in the backstory to this sad tale differently.

trust 3Writers also need to trust that their readers are clever and insightful, as they invariably are. It’s tempting sometimes, when telling a story you’ve sweated blood over, to labour particular points in case the readers don’t get it. To over-explain, in case they miss a clue, or can’t understand how a character feels. Or in case they fail to hold onto important plot points between chapters. I’ve done it plenty of times, just talk to my editor! But nothing turns me off as quickly when I’m reading, as being patronised by the author. I don’t want to be that kind of writer. I want to honour the trust between me and my readers. This will be at the forefront of my mind as I forge ahead with this new manuscript.

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Back Story

cross blogTime for some writerly discussion on craft. Today, writing teacher Sydney Smith and I discuss back story. It turns into a very public mentoring session!

SYDNEY –
Back story is that part of a character’s history that explains why they do the things they do in the present of the novel. Back story, when used properly, deepens and enriches a character and our understanding of them.

backstory 1Back story can be introduced or gestured to in a variety of ways. My favourite is when the drama in the present of the novel replays a drama in the character’s past. The character got it wrong back then. They made the wrong decisions and lost something, a relationship usually, that was of enormous value to them. The present of the story is their chance to replay that ancient drama and get it right. For example, in The Killing Lessons, Saul Black’s terrific debut crime novel, Valerie Hart, San Francisco police detective, was almost destroyed by a case she was working on three years ago. This was the abduction, torture and murder of a teenage girl. Valerie was so traumatised that she ruined the relationship that mattered most to her, with Nick Blaskovitch. Three years later, another man is abducting, torturing and murdering women. In particular, he has kidnapped Claudia, an Englishwoman working illegally in the country. Valerie has the chance to replay that old drama and this time rescue the woman. In addition, Nick has come back into her life, he has forgiven her and offers her a chance to start again.

But these replays don’t go smoothly. The killer is hard to find, and someone on her team is trying to wreck any chance she has of getting back together with Nick. The important thing to note in this replay is that you don’t have to go into a lot of detail with the back story. All you need to do is give enough information for the reader to understand this is a replay drama and the present of the novel will do the rest.

JENNY –
backstory 2Well, this is certainly a salient topic for me. I’m halfway through my new manuscript, and am dealing with the fraught issue of back story. How to introduce it? How much is too much, and how soon is too soon? I want to add in my character Taj’s history, and significant events that happened to him before the start of the book. The story behind the story, so to speak. Introducing it subtly and seamlessly is hard. Too often I’ve seen writers fall prey to the dreaded information dump. Big slabs of history slow stories and bore readers.

There are four main ways to add back story. By flashback (a worthy blog topic by itself, I think, Sydney), by dialogue, by recollections or by a narrative summary of the past. This last one is telling, not showing, but it’s the way I’m currently doing it―drip-feeding instalments of my character’s history. I’m unsure about it. The big reveal, showing the connection of past with present, will happen with dialogue―a deep and meaningful between my two main characters. But I want to lead up to it with a few short passages of exposition, scattered through previous chapters. What do you think, Sydney?

SYDNEY –
It can be tricky to know the best way to deal with a complex back story. Some writers think there are hard and fast rules about it―no flashbacks, for example. I tend to think a novel will have its own ideas about how best to introduce back story. You just have to listen to what it’s telling you.

But if the novel isn’t speaking intelligibly on the subject, the best thing to do is try out different ways of doing it and see which one works best. You don’t have to get it right the first time.

backstory 3You and I have talked about Taj, Jenny. It seems to me his back story is vitally important to the reader’s understanding of this character, why he’s ended up where he has and why he has the special gift he possesses―a gift that has an enormous impact on the other main characters in the story. Since he’s isolated in the first chapters and unable to tell his back story to Kim, the main protagonist, then the story has to step in and tell it in the form of flashbacks. Yes, it is a topic all by itself. The clue to doing flashbacks well is to tell a parallel story through them, one with a protagonist who has a goal to pursue and a problem to overcome. It seems to me that you’ve got some of this with Taj. Making the flashbacks tell a story will hook the reader in. That’s what stories are meant to do. If it doesn’t, then I suggest the problem is with the hook, not with the story itself.

I think writers can get tangled up with the idea that back story happened at a time before the present of the story opens, and therefore, that it has only a tenuous link with the present. It’s true that it does take place outside the time scheme of the main plot. But if the back story is too big to be dealt with in a bit of exposition here and there, then you need to approach it in a different way.

If you think about it, when a novel has several POVs, each of those POVs tells a story. Put all these stories together and you get a complex novel. For example, The Killing Lessons uses several POVs: that of ten-year-old Nell, of Angelo, a man grieving for the loss of his wife, Valerie Hart, a detective on a serial murder case, Xander, the killer himself, and Claudia, to name most, though not all of them. The story doesn’t slow down when it shifts POV. The reader is vitally engaged with all of them. All these POVs has a story to reveal, and all are loosely connected one way or another to the main plot, the hunt for a serial killer. A big back story that can’t be summarised in a bit of exposition is like that―it’s part of the tapestry of the whole novel, it’s connected to the main plot, it involves one, sometimes, more, of the important players in the larger story.

So when a writer has a big back story to reveal, the first thing to do is think of it not as a problem but as a storyline. There might be a problem with your back story, Jenny, but the problem isn’t that it’s back story. The problem is structural. Where do you place the scenes before the big reveal?

Also, because you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself, Jenny, try not to think you have to do a big reveal. You don’t. You can write the scenes, place them in the order you think works best, and see where that gets you. Nothing is set in stone at this stage. You’re still working through the first draft. Allow yourself to experiment. If after you’ve done that you still think a big reveal is important, then you’ve got everything you need in order to bring it about. All you have to remember is that Taj’s back story must obey the rules of front stories―that is, they have to show a protagonist working on a problem in pursuit of their goal.

As a mentor, I get a lot of people telling me they don’t know how to do a thing―how to weave in different POVs, for example, how to shift time levels. The problem isn’t really of craft. The problem is that the writer tells themselves, I can’t do this. Or they tell themselves that what they want to do breaks the rules of narrative, but they know they have to do it. Putting in a lot of back story is supposed to break the rules of narrative. It doesn’t. All you have to do is change the way you think about it and you’ll find a solution.

JENNY –
Wow, Sydney, that is such fantastic counsel! I don’t have a problem with Taj’s back story. The way I’m weaving it in works. My problem is just as you say―I’m concerned it breaks, or at least stretches, the rules of narrative. Taj has a fabulous story to tell. Instead of second-guessing myself, it’s time to get on with telling that story the best way I know how. I’ll evaluate my method later.

Thank you so much, Sydney. I feel completely liberated by your advice. Guess that’s what good mentoring is all about. Who would have thought I’d learn so much from my own post! :)

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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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