Donald Maas And The Novelist’s Paradox

Donald MaasI’ve said before what a fan I am of legendary literary agent and author Donald Maas. I first encountered him when reading Writing The Breakout Novel. What a book! Maas outlines the essential elements of a commercially successful novel, including beginning with a defined theme. I’d never thought of doing that before. I’d just hoped a coherent theme would somehow emerge amorphously from the growing manuscript. Now I consciously plan a theme before starting the story.

paradoxBut what I find most interesting, particularly when I’m at the stage of plotting a new book, is his concept of the novelist’s paradox – your story matters more than anything, and your story matters not at all. It matters more than anything because fiction injected with high purpose and high stakes carries more force than fiction that merely seeks to entertain. If it provokes thought and moves our hearts, it will remain in our memory. But an author who lets their story matter too much, may rush past much of its potential greatness. It’s important to relax and take the time to dig deep – deep into your characters’ motivations, conviction and nature. Not taking the story too seriously gives you the freedom to explore these inner journeys. A difficult balancing act!

Writing the breakout novelDonald Maas tips for writing characters that matter to readers:
– Your character matters to someone else. Whom? Why? Find a moment for them to weigh that responsibility and rise to it.
– The conflict means something personal to your character. What? What piece of them would be lost if they fail? How will they become whole if they succeed?
– What’s going on in the scene you’re writing? If it illustrates a larger principle, have your character recognize that.
– Your character is on a personal journey. Seeking what? Finding what instead? What’s already accomplished? What’s left to learn? Put it down on the page.

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The Ugly Animal Preservation Society

Ugly Animal Preservation SocietyAn elephant is killed every fifteen minutes to supply an insatiable and unsustainable demand for ivory. A rhino is killed every eleven minutes for horns that have as much medicinal effect as my big toenail. Wild lions could be gone in fifteen years as we teeter on the brink of the world’s sixth mass extinction. But it’s not just the charismatic, iconic animals in trouble. Forget pandas – ugly animals should be protected too. The Ugly Animal Preservation Society draws attention to less adorable endangered species, and I can’t wait for the show to come to Australia!

Gob-faced squidConservation issues are usually pretty depressing, so it’s refreshing for a comedy evening to take a conservation twist – scientists dabbling in comedy and comedians dabbling in science. Each has to pick an endangered (and ugly) species, and has ten minutes to champion it. At the end the audience votes, and the winner becomes the mascot of that regional branch of the society. In London it’s the proboscis monkey. In Edinburgh, the branch’s mascot is Australia’s own gob-faced squid.  The comedians take different approaches – some try to prove that their animal is not so ugly. Others admit, “They are hideous, but you know what, some days I wake up a bit rough myself!” But the main thing is to draw attention to the plight of these rare animals. These are species people don’t know much about, yet they all play a vital part in our ecosystem.

Just because an animal is unattractive, doesn’t mean we can ignore it. Take humble earthworms for example. Without them, tonnes of rotting organic rubbish would build up within months. Fly maggots microbatperform a similar function. Micro-bats are worth billions of dollars to agriculture yearly, by eating their weight in insects each night, while fruit bats are the vital pollinators and seed-dispersers of Australia’s great forests. So spare a thought for the less sexy species. They’re important too!

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Where’s The Conflict?

idea 2My manuscript is with my publisher, and I won’t return to it until edits roll around. So that means scouting about for a new idea. I’m not the kind of writer who has dozens of story ideas waiting in the wings, I wish I was. No, for me it takes a long time to decide what to write next.

Setting comes first. My books are always set in Australia’s wild places, so there are many wonderful candidates. Rainforests, deserts, mountains, wetlands, woodlands, the coast, our islands – the list goes on and on. Once I decide on a setting, then it’s time for characters and conflict.

conflictStories founder when they don’t have enough conflict. Characters who accomplish things easily are boring. So I always analyse a new premise to make sure enough obstacles exist between the characters and their goals. Obstacles can take many forms. They may be physical – other characters, weather, road blocks, injuries, etc. Or mental – fear, amnesia, ignorance, etc. Or circumstantial – can’t bake bread because there’s no flour, for example. I try to have the conflict evolve organically from the goal though, so no convenient, random anvils falling on character’s heads!

conflict 2The most valuable lesson I’ve learned in my writing journey is to build in conflict by having inherent incompatibility between the goals of my two main characters. This is federal election day, so I’ll use a political example. X and Y are in love. They are also Labor and Liberal candidates respectively, campaigning in the same electorate. Raise the stakes. At the end of counting, the whole election comes down to this one seat. Make the stakes personal. They are both doctors. X has a special needs child named Z. A Labor win means ground breaking new experimental treatment would become available for Z. Y is a recovered drug user. A Liberal win would see Y’s dream of a local clinic for teenage addicts come true. During a recount, ballot papers go missing and suspicions fly.

The world of X and Y has hard-to-resolve conflict built into it. Two strong, opposing points of view, both believing in the rightness of their own positions, with plenty of points of connection. How would their love ever triumph? Now, what will I really write?

Congratulations to roslyngroves who is the winner of the Three Wishes prize draw. I’ll email you for your address. Thanks to everybody who commented!

My Three Wishes – 3 Wishes Blog Blitz

3 wishes blog blitzToday I’m participating in the Three Wishes Blog Blitz, hosted by author Juliet Madison. From 2nd to 6th September you’ll have the chance to win some terrific prizes at all the blogs participating in the blitz, including mine. For a chance to win a signed copy of Currawong Creek, just tell me a wish of your own. Then click over to Juliet’s blog to enter her prize draw, see the list of other blogs taking part and enter their giveaways too. How good is that? And why is it called the Three Wishes Blog Blitz? Juliet’s new romantic comedy release, I Dream of Johnny, is about three wishes, a high-tech genie in a lamp, and one very unfortunate typo that proves magic isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…

orphan joeysTo fulfil my obligation to the blitz, I’m writing about what I’d want if a genie gave me three wishes. First I’d like to be financially independent enough to turn my boutique dog boarding kennel into a wildlife rehabilitation centre. Much as I adore my canine guests, I often fantasise that the lovely runs and sheds are full of recovering wallabies, wombats and possums instead. I’d love to do the wildlife rehabilitation course and dedicate myself to native animals. There’s nobody in the world that I admire more than our wonderful wildlife carers.

Bicentennial National TrailSecond wish – I’d like to ride the length of the Bicentennial National Trail from north to south.  The trail stretches an extraordinary 5,330 kilometres from Cooktown in tropical far north Queensland to Healesville in Victoria. As it winds along the eastern seaboard, following the foothills of the Great Dividing Range and the Eastern Escarpment, it travels through some of Australia’s most remote and spectacular scenery. My son has offered to ride it with me if I can ever organise myself. Would love to hear from anybody out there who has already done it.

honey possumThirdly (and this is a magic genie granting wishes right, so there are no limits) I’d like to buy up large tracts of rare habitat a la Bush Heritage. Wetlands, rain forest and temperate woodlands – the most threatened wooded ecosystem type in Australia. The problem is particularly severe in my home state of Victoria, which has lost 83 per cent of its woodland ecosystems to land  clearance. Combined with drier weather patterns, that loss has led to a dramatic  decline in woodland fauna, with recent research suggesting that  even common birds such as the red wattlebird, spotted pardalote and  rufous whistler are in trouble. I’d love to fence these areas, eliminate foxes and cats, and help restore habitats. What a thrill that would be!

You’ve seen my top wishes. To enter the prize draw, just comment telling me a wish of your own. NZ and Aust only. Competition closes 12pm Friday 6th September. Once you’ve entered my giveaway, visit Juliet’s blog at http://julietmadison.wordpress.com/2013/09/02/3-wishes-blog-blitz-official-post/ & enter her giveaway too, and visit any or all of the other participating blogs to enter more prize draws. You could potentially win a whole heap of prizes! Good luck!

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