Billabong Bend Q&A

BB High Res coverTwo days to go until the release of my new novel Billabong Bend – an exciting time. It’s also the one time of year that I give my blog over to shameless self-promotion! Here is a Q&A I did with Penguin Books (Aust)

What is your new book about?
Billabong Bend is set in Northern NSW in the heart of our beautiful riverlands. It’s a star-crossed love story which sets Nina, a floodplains grazier, and Ric, a traditional cotton farmer, on a heart-rending collision course.

Nina’s dream is to buy Billabong Bend, the rare marshland flanking the beautiful Bunyip River and protect it forever. But she’s not the only one with designs on the land. When her childhood sweetheart Ric Bonelli returns home, old feelings are rekindled, and Nina hopes they might have a future together on the river. But a tragic death divides loyalties, tears apart their fledgling romance and turns her dream into a nightmare. Will Nina win the battle for Billabong Bend? Or will the man she once loved destroy the wild wetlands she holds so close to her heart?

What or who inspired it?
This novel was inspired by my love for the northern riverlands, and for the Murray Darling basin. I’ve always been fascinated by rivers – by their unique habitats, and by their place in literature. Rivers are revered by some of my favourite writers. Mark Twain had a lifelong love affair with the Mississippi. The great poet TS Eliot wrote in The Four Quartets
‘I do not know much about Gods: but I think the River

Is a strong brown God – sullen, untamed and intractable,’
Nancy Cato in her classic trilogy All The Rivers Run compared the Murray to a ‘ … dark stream of time which bears all living things from birth to death.’ Rivers are mysterious, dangerous, life-giving and achingly beautiful. They are also in trouble and need our protection.

Are there any parts of it that have special personal significance to you?
The idea for the book arose many years ago, during long, languid days spent in the riverlands. Last year I took several trips back up the Murray and saw for myself the changes wrought to habitats and wildlife by drought and low flows. I wanted to write about it.

What do you see as the major themes in your book?
T
he major themes in Billabong Bend are the power of first love, forgiveness and freedom. There is also a strong environmental theme, namely the importance of conserving habitats.

Who do you think will enjoy your book?
Anybody who can remember the fierceness of first love. Anybody who has marvelled at the grace of a waterbird in flight, or has enjoyed a lazy day on a river.

Do you have a special ‘spot’ for writing at home? (If so, describe it)
I have a small office space off the lounge room and I’m adept at revising through the noise of a busy family. There is no window directly in front of my desk, but instead, a full length picture window to the side. I often gaze out across the mountains for inspiration. My favourite writing spot is over at the stables. Horses are good listeners, and don’t mind you reading aloud. In winter I sometimes write in bed!

Tell us a bit about your childhood?
I was a horse-mad child. I also enjoyed a deep passion for the plants, animals and birds of the bush.. My family had a house in Melbourne as well as a property in the mountains. At every chance I escaped the city to be with my horses. When I married I moved to the farm permanently and am still there.

Do you feel more of a sense of “community” amongst like-minded people as yourself since the advent of blogging?
Absolutely! Blogging and social media provide a real sense of camaraderie for writers, and for regional writers in particular. I might be typing away on my remote mountaintop in the southern Victorian ranges, but I’m connected on-line to writers and readers from all around the world. I love it!

What do you like to read? And what are you currently reading?
I have pretty eclectic tastes. I read books within the Australian rural lit genre of course: authors like Cathryn Hein, Nicole Alexander, Fleur Mcdonald and Margareta Osborn. But I love all kinds of fiction. Debut breakout Aussie novels Burial Rites and The Rosie Project were both fantastic reads. So was the charming Mr Wigg by Inga Simpson. I also enjoy natural history writing, and always keep at least one novel and one non-fiction book on the go. Currently I’m reading  The Reef by Professor Iain McCalman (non-fiction) and The Blue Dolphin by Robert Barnes (fiction)

What is your advice to budding authors?
Learn as much about your craft as possible and write every day. Network with other writers. State writer’s centres and Varuna – The Writer’s House are great places to start. When you have a finished manuscript get some expert feedback and revise, revise, revise. Then it’s time to learn as much about the publishing industry as possible. There are some great opportunities to get your work before publishers without an agent in Australia. I’m proof of that, having won a Penguin contract through a conference pitch. Give it a go, grow a thick skin and remember that persistence pays.

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Plot Thumbscrews

cross blog

Time for our monthly chat about writing, with fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson, and mentor extraordinaire Sydney Smith. This month we discuss plot thumbscrews.

Sydney:
I love a plot thumbscrew. This is an event where two or more storylines intersect and the difficulty escalates for the protagonist – they find it much harder to get what they want. Characters and their attendant storylines meet all the time in a narrative, but the difference is that a plot thumbscrew escalates the difficulty. The plot veers off in an unexpected new direction because of this difficulty. The protagonist struggles to resolve the conflict in their own favour. I call these tension points “plot thumbscrews” because they tighten until it hurts.

Plot Thumbscrews 1When a novel doesn’t have any plot thumbscrews, the story is monotonous and one-note. People who say that nothing happens in literary fiction are referring to the lack of plot thumbscrews – either too few or none at all. Plot thumbscrews energise a plot by increasing the difficulty. I think of what happens when someone touches an electrified object – they stiffen and are helplessly stuck to the object. This is what happens to the reader when they reach a plot thumbscrew – they stiffen and are helplessly stuck to the story. It hurts the protagonist and it hurts the reader – and the reader loves it! Good plot thumbscrews keep the reader turning the page into the small hours.

Jenny:
I’m sorry, but every time I try to write about plot thumbscrews in my current work in progress, I risk giving away spoilers. It’s a novel of romantic suspense. The tension grows gradually, one plot point building on another, each one vital to the next. I’ve analysed my whole story (as much of it as I know so far anyway) and can’t think of one squeeze point that I can discuss without giving the game away.  I’m rather pleased actually – it means no dead wood in the story. Either that or I’m paranoid!

The FirmSo, I’m going to contribute to this discussion by using an example from another book that has some similarities to my story – The Firm. In this novel by John Grisham, Mitch, an idealistic young lawyer straight out of law school gets his dream job and discovers he has sold his soul to the devil and must fight to get it back. No, seriously, there are parallels!

A scene that really ratchets up the tension occurs at the midpoint. Shortly after Mitch passes his bar exam, an FBI agent confronts him. Mitch learns that the firm he works for is actually part of the white collar operations of a vicious crime family. They lure new lawyers from poor backgrounds with promises of wealth and security, involving them in multi-million dollar tax-fraud and money laundering schemes. By the time a lawyer is aware of the firm’s actual operations, he cannot leave. No lawyer has escaped the firm alive. The scene brings together three storylines. His suspicions about being followed are confirmed. His search for answers about the other lawyers’ funerals is at an end. And his meteoric career rise is explained and tainted. The scene escalates the external conflict because he is now caught between the Firm which will kill him if he betrays them, and the FBI who will send him to prison if he doesn’t help them. It escalates the internal conflict because he is also caught between ambition and idealism. I’m aiming for something like it in my new book.

Now tell me, Sydney, is that a plot thumbscrew?

Sydney:
That is a fabulous plot thumbscrew! What I didn’t say, and should have said, in my description of what a plot thumbscrew is, is that a plot thumbscrew hands the protagonist a new problem to solve. This is a twist on the old problem. You see how Mitch now understands things better and that hands him a problem that twists the old one. In the old one, he’s trying to find out what’s going on. The new twist is that he’s trapped and has to find a way out. He was always trapped. He just didn’t know it. Now he knows it. AND he knows that getting out is life-threatening. He knows because other lawyers who tried to get out lost their lives. What a terrific plot thumbscrew!

Kath:
Well, Sydney, as you know, my problem is always that I want to protect Erica, my protagonist. Which doesn’t make for very exciting reading, not at all! So for me, writing a plot thumbscrew can be agonising. Probably more so for me than for Erica. But it must be done if we want our readers to be satisfied!

Here I want to talk about a plot thumbscrew in Avatar, a science-fiction/fantasy movie I loved. It’s about paraplegic human, Jake Sully, who is given the job of learning about the Na’vi people so they can either be persuaded into leaving their home (so the humans can mine it for a precious mineral) or, if they refuse to leave, work out how best to drive them off or kill them, as is our human wont. Jake is offered a leg-restoring operation in return for his cooperation.

Avatar 2A plot thumbscrew occurs when Jake is separated from his crew and finds himself alone and in grave danger in the jungles of Pandora. There he meets a Na’vi woman who’d quite like to kill him (two storylines clashing), but she receives a sign from their goddess and chooses to help Jake instead. She introduces him to her family, and Jake comes to love the Na’vi people.

This of course increases the difficulty for Jake to achieve his goal, which is: drive out the Na’vi or find out how best to kill them. He is falling more and more in love with the Na’vi people, and one lady in particular *sigh*, and so becomes torn, and is eventually forced to choose a side.

It’s not over yet, though. The Na’vi discover Jake’s true purpose and no longer trust him. They leave him for dead. And so, with a new mission in mind, Jake must push through another couple of excruciating plot thumbscrews to save what’s left of the Na’vi and be with his true love – 3½ metres of blue-tailed gorgeousness.

Sydney:
Well, I can see why you call it a plot thumbscrew, Kath. And it is. But the way you describe it de-emphasises the plot thumbscrew. This is how I would put it: Jake wants more than anything to get the use of his legs back. He’s prepared to do anything, which includes finding ways of getting rid of the Na’vi so that an evil corporation can exploit the resources on the Na’vi’s land. He is sent to find out all he can about the Na’vi. But when he meets 3½ metres of blue gorgeousness, he finds himself falling in love with her. He gets to know her people and like them. Now he’s stuck in a bind: if he goes through with his mission, he will get the use of his legs back, but he will lose Blue Gorgeousness and her people will be driven off their traditional lands. But if he saves them, he will be a paraplegic for the rest of his life.

You know what? This sounds like a plot trigger. Plot triggers can look like plot thumbscrews sometimes. Quite often, actually. But this looks like a plot trigger because it kicks off the problem he has to solve. That problem is not his paraplegia but his dilemma: me or the Na’vi?

That just goes to show how tricky it often is to identify plot thumbscrews, even though they arrive with fireworks detonating everywhere. When we remember a film or a novel, we will often remember a plot thumbscrew – like Jane Eyre finding out Mr Rochester is already married, and to a mad woman he keeps in the attic.

Plot Thumscrews 3So here’s one way of thinking about it. Remember that old circus trick about the strong man holding up an inverted pyramid of men. The protagonist of the drama is the strong man. His plot trigger happens when two men climb up and stand on his shoulders. His aim is to stay on his feet, supporting the men standing on his shoulders. Then some more men climb up and stand on the shoulders of those two men. Now it’s harder for the strong man to stay on his feet. He staggers this way and that. But he continues to uphold the growing pyramid of men. Then another group of men scale the inverted triangle and mount the shoulders of the men, forming a new row. It is extraordinarily hard for the strong man to hold up all these people and keep his feet. His legs tremble. He grunts with the effort. He stumbles from side to side. But he goes on holding them up because he has to stay on his feet. Each time men climb up to form a new row, that’s a plot thumbscrew. But the first two men who climbed up – that was the plot trigger.

Kath:
Geez. Jenny gets a gold star. I get to sit in the corner.

Sydney:
Reader, Kath awarded Jenny the gold star and put herself in the naughty corner. She didn’t consult me or, as far as I know, Jenny. It’s all her.

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 is currently writing 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.
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Places In The Heart – Williamstown Lit Fest 2014

Places In The HeartIf you live near Melbourne, why not visit the 2014 Williamstown Literary Festival 31st May – 1st June? I will be there, along with my brand new release Billabong Bend which I’m excited to say has gone into reprint before it’s even been released!

This year the festival looks at books, stories and ideas around a sense of place. The theme picks up ideas of local community, landscape and our Billabong Bendattachment to home. It will explore our collective memory and myths around ANZAC and Eureka, the role and place of women writers in history and politics, the modern memoir and the fantastical realms of science fiction and gothic horror. Places in the heart will be played out through love poems, a new romantic movement (courtesy of me and my mates!) and creating family legacies via love-laden cook books. The festival boasts a stellar line-up including funny men Sean Micallef and Greg Fleet, comedian and writer Jean Kittson, demographer Bernard Salt and The New Romantics of course!

The New Romantics (a panel consisting of me and three of my author friends) will present a literary discussion of Places In The Heart. We’ll talk about the many facets of love and the important place romance holds in our hearts and in the literary landscape. We’ll talk about power and gender balance in romance, changing tropes of women in romantic fiction and the inspiration for our diverse work. My fellow panel members are:
Kathryn Ledson – suspense/thriller romance; author of the Erica Jewell series; Rough Diamond and recently released Monkey Business (Penguin)
Margareta Osborn – rural romance; author of Bella’s Run, Hope’s Road and recently released Mountain Ash (Random House)
Kate Belle – contemporary women’s fiction/erotic love stories; author of The Yearning and Being Jade to be released in June (Simon & Schuster)
(Can you believe that we’ve all been members of the same writing group for years?)

The New Romantics – Places in the Heart  is on Sunday 1 June, 12.00-1.00pm. Adults $15.00, Concession $12.00, Early Bird $10.00 (until midnight Sunday 11 May).

We’d love to see you there! While many of the events on the program are ticketed, there are also free events such as the People’s Choice Awards for prose and poetry, a festival tradition where local writers read their works and the audience votes for a favourite. The festival hub in the newly restored Williamstown Town Hall Ballroom includes a children’s reading area and there’ll also be author signings and book sales. The Willy Lit Fest runs from May 31 to June 1 at the Williamstown Town Hall and Williamstown Library. For program details go to willylitfest.org.au or phone 9932 4074.

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Hervey Bay

Hervey Bay 2Day 7 of the research trip for my new novel. I visited the beautiful town of Hervey Bay, known as the whale-watching capital of the world. It boasts kilometres of pristine sandy beaches and is part of Great Sandy Marine Park. The park covers 6,000 square kilometres and includes rocky shores, fringing reefs and the waters of world heritage-listed Fraser Island. This island protects Hervey Bay, leading to the formation of shallow bays and sheltered channels, which blend into sea-grass meadows, mudflats and mangroves. These habitats are home to species such as humpback whales, sea turtles, dugongs, dolphins and endangered grey nurse sharks.

Hervey Bay 1Reefworld is a small, family-run aquarium located right on the foreshore of Hervey Bay. Using only sand-filtered sea water and natural light, it has been operating for over thirty years, captivating locals and visitors alike with unique displays of marine life. I spent some time picking the brains of the highly knowledgeable staff who are great conservationists and regularly rehabilitate sea turtles.

Hervey Bay 3Afterwards I took a walk to the end of historic Urangan Pier – one of the longest in Australia, stretching for almost one kilometre into the ocean. I was rewarded with spectacular views of Hervey Bay, but was also disturbed by the amount of litter left behind by fishermen. Here’s a selection of the rubbish I collected on my pier walk. Lots of discarded fishing line, cans, cigarette butts, plastic … all deadly to marine life, and just minutes away from being blown into the water. How on earth can people be so ignorant and/or reckless, especially in a place renowned for its beauty and biodiversity? It left a bitter taste in my mouth after what had been a perfect day.

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