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.

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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?

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REVIEWER SPOTLIGHT: Write Note Reviews

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!

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…

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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

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