‘The Maxwell Sisters’ and a Book Giveaway!

Loretta Hill Photo 2Today please welcome best-selling author Loretta Hill to Pilyara, talking about her latest release The Maxwell Sisters a heartwarming romantic comedy about three extraordinary women on a journey to find love and rediscover family. This is Loretta’s fifth novel, and a departure from her previous mining theme. It is based at a vineyard in the beautiful Margaret River region of Western Australia. Leave a comment to go in the draw for a chance to win this fabulous book. Now it’s over to you Loretta 🙂

Hi Jennifer,

How are you? Happy New Year! It seems like such a long time since I saw you at the RWA conference in Sydney. Hope your writing is thriving. Did you have a nice Christmas?

maxwellsistersfinalI’ve just started, “Chapter One” of my next novel. Seven thousand words on the page. Sigh! There’s a long way to go. The ride starts this way every year. In the meantime however, my Margaret River Wine Region story, The Maxwell Sisters finally hits shelves this month! I’m both nervous and excited to see how it will be received. It’s not the same as my other novels. No construction site. No jetties. No teams of men in hard hats. I decided I needed a change of scenery.

My husband and I take our kids to the Margaret River Wine Region at least three times a year. We have family there so we like to visit but also it’s got to be the absolute perfect place to eat, drink and relax. With so many wineries in the area, it’s also the ideal place to get married.  So setting my novel here was definitely a no brainer.

“The Maxwell Sisters” is about family and the rivalry and secrets between siblings that always comes out in big events like weddings.  I think the relationship particularly between sisters is a very special one. There’s love, competition, envy, protectiveness and pride all at work here. Sisters know about the best of us. They also know the worst.

The three estranged sisters, Phoebe, Natasha and Eve, must return home to the family winery when Phoebe decides to get married there. They need to find a way to put the past behind them and get along in preparation for Phoebe’s big day.

Each of the sister’s has a secret which immediately colours their mood and perspective when they return. Natasha Maxwell, the eldest of the three, has not told anyone she and her husband are separated.  Known for being a Sydney corporate bad arse, she is hiding a lot of pain behind her hard wearing, city slicker façade. Still hurting from the ordeal, the last thing she wants is for her family to wade in with advice, so she decides not to tell them and keep her reputation as the woman who has it all intact. This is her biggest mistake.

When she turns up at Tawny Brooks Estate to help prepare for the wedding, the first person she sees is her husband, Heath. He’s found out about the family gathering and has turned up with his own agenda. She can either blow the whistle on their separation and spoil her sister’s wedding or play happy married couple for the four week lead up to the wedding.

I loved writing about Tash’s dilemma. It was so emotionally intense to be forced to be with someone that you both hate and miss at the same time. I don’t think I’ve ever tortured a heroine this much before. I do believe in strong character arcs for my heroines. I think Tash gets to grow a lot in this book because she has such a difficult problem.

I wish I had time to tell you the secrets of Eve and Phoebe but you’ll just have to follow me to Helene Young’s (http://www.heleneyoung.com) blog next week to find out!

Don’t tease us like that Loretta! Many thanks for telling us about your fabulous new book. Readers, don’t forget to leave a comment for your chance to win a copy. You can connect with Loretta at her website, on Twitter or on Facebook.

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The Moral Universe In fiction.

cross blogWelcome to our monthly blog chat about the craft of fiction.

Today, writing guru Sydney Smith and I talk about the moral universe in stories. (Fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson will be back on board sometime in the New Year)

 

SYDNEY –
Every writer creates their own moral universe in their fiction, even when they don’t realise they’re doing it. When the goodies win and the baddies are sent to prison, or killed, or otherwise defeated, that is evidence of a moral universe at work, one The Husband's Secretcreated by the writer. I recently read The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty, in which a man has kept a dark secret for twenty-eight years. When his wife discovers it, she decides to keep it, too. Because of this moral transgression, a terrible accident occurs in which their daughter, Polly, only six years old, loses her arm. The reader is meant to understand that this is the couple’s punishment for keeping that harmful secret. The accident wouldn’t have happened if the husband had confessed to the police many years ago. Liane chose to punish this couple in this way. The characters are Catholics; the husband has been in permanent Lent ever since he did the deed that had to be kept a secret. And so the punishment has a whiff of the church about it. Liane wants the reader to understand that. This is her moral universe, and though it does carry the odour of myrrh and brimstone, it is one she has created.

Jane Austen created a more original moral universe in her fiction. The greatest sin is doing harm to others through selfishness. Again and again we see destructive Mansfield Parkselfishness being punished in social ways. For example, in Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram marries Mr Rushworth for money and commits adultery with Henry Crawford. Her sin is exposed and she is ostracised. Henry Crawford is also punished by losing Fanny Price, the moral agent in the novel who could have saved him. In Jane Austen, a good life is first and foremost one that does no harm.

I have to admit that I find this business of the moral universe interesting yet problematic. I’m not all that interested in the straightforward universe where the goodies win and the baddies lose in spades, although of course I read fiction that displays this kind of moral equation all the time. But when it comes to creating my own moral universe, the one that operates in my fiction, I find myself hogtied by a superabundance of sympathy for my characters, even those who do bad things.

JENNY –
I also have a great deal of sympathy for villains. Fifteen years as a foster-parent and working in legal aid has convinced me that nobody is evil. Psychopaths and sociopaths are made, not born―their generally tragic back-stories make them who they are. But however they ended up that way, some people are bad, and we all know how to spot them. Lack of empathy and remorse; irresponsibility, selfishness, greed and cruelty. Cheaters, liars, fraudsters, abusers―I’m happy to label these character traits as bad. Of course good people can also display these traits. It’s a matter of degree. Writers rely on their readers sharing this common understanding.

Writing the breakout novelSuper literary agent and author Donald Maas emphasises the significance of a moral universe in his book, Writing The Breakout Novel.

‘Novels are moral. In fact, all stories convey society’s underlying values, whether they are danced around a campfire or packaged in sleek trade paperbacks. Stories are the glue that holds together our fragile human enterprise.’

He believes that readers want their values validated, but not in a simplistic, moralising way.

‘They may not want to be converted, but they do want to be stretched. They want to feel that at the end of the book their views were right, but they were arrived at after a struggle. A skilful breakout novelist can spin a tale so persuasive that at the end, the reader feels the underlying point was one with which they always have agreed, even though they may have never before  considered it.’

I love this, and always keep it in mind when I’m writing. Donald Maas taught me not to be afraid of my own moral compass. Instead, I let it fuel the narrative. Hopefully, that passion will come through the pages and grip my readers. They’ll care about the characters, suffer with them, hate them and love them. So my advice to all budding storytellers is to honour your convictions, whatever they may be. Let them power your story, challenge your readers, and make your story worth the telling. Care, a lot, about the subject of your writing and it will show.

SYDNEY –
Heavens above, I feel like a wimp after those bracing comments, Jenny!

I guess this points to the difference between a good writer and one who doesn’t quite make it. A good writer loves their villains, their antagonists, their baddies, while also understanding that, in order to make the moral point, they have to punish them in some way. What that punishment is depends on the kind of novel being written. The way Liane Moriarty punished her husband and wife was appropriate to the kind of novel she wrote, commercial women’s fiction. I really understood why the wife decided to keep her husband’s secret―if she didn’t, she feared her family would fall apart. She believed her family’s integrity, its ability to retain its emotional and psychological shape, depended on the presence of her husband. Liane implied that there is a higher need than keeping a family together, and that is the moral duty owed to those who suffered because of his dark deed. She got us to this point by creating enormous empathy for the wife, whose POV was privileged over that of her husband. That empathy made the punishment seem all the more devastating.

Anna KareninaStories try to teach us about right and wrong, good and bad. Many of them do this in a straightforward way. I personally prefer fiction that delineates the moral problem in more subtle ways. Is Anna Karenina wrong for placing her personal need for sexual love ahead of her child’s need for his mother and her duty to her husband? Or is society wrong for creating customs that allow a woman to pursue her personal desires, so long as she does it discreetly, under the auspices of hypocrisy? I read in an introduction to that great novel that Tolstoy first created a coarse and unlikeable Anna. Over time he modulated her into the sympathetic woman we know. He did this because he understood that a coarse Anna won’t carry the moral point as effectively as a charming, likeable Anna. When she throws herself under the train, we feel the horror of her despair because we loved her, not because she did a selfish thing. At the same time we understand that she had to pay in some way for what she did. Yet there is no sense of resolution in her death―at least, there isn’t for me. The love between Levin and Kitty balances out the story by showing us what is right by confirming our own feeling that love survives best when it does no harm.

Which gets me no nearer understanding how to create and enact my own moral universe!

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 Set Your Book Free.

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Dugongs In Fiction

sea turtle 1I’ve completed the final edits for Turtle Reef, which is due for release with Penguin on the 25th of March. Hopefully I’ll be able to reveal the cover next week. Finishing a novel always evokes mixed feelings – excitement at moving on to a new project; regret at leaving much-loved characters behind. As readers of my books will know, I have animal characters as well as human ones, and sometimes they’re the ones I miss the most. Zenandra, the wasp queen from Wasp Season; Whirlwind, the mysterious brumby mare from Brumby’s Run; Samson, the loyal German Shepherd from Currawong Creek and the charming Magpie geese goslings from Billabong Bend – these characters stay with me long after the final words are written.

Turtle Reef is no different. Set at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, the story includes a wide range of marine animals (and horses of course). Some like Kane, the dolphin, and Einstein, the octopus, are characters in their own right. Others such as the sea turtles and dugongs fuel the narrative in more general ways.

Dugong 1Out of curiosity I decided to research the place of dugongs in fiction. It surprised me to discover that there are very few books about these unique animals, and all of them seem to be for children. Dabu Grows Up: The Tale of a Dugong is a picture book set in the tropical waters of the Torres Strait. Dabu is a young dugong whose mother is taken by hunters. Dabu learns about life, respect for the natural world, loneliness and friendship as he explores a tropical reef, finally deciding that to survive he must return to his herd. Denis, the Dugong follows the adventures of an Arabian dugong, and is enriched with details of the surrounding flora and fauna. The book is part of a series stressing the importance of conservation in the Arabian Peninsula. Dipanker the Dugong is a similar book set in India. That’s it – all I could find. Please comment if you know of any others. I’m thrilled to think that my new book Turtle Reef will help raise the profile of these enchanting and under-represented animals in fiction.

Dugongs 2Dugongs belong to the order Sirenia, named after the legendary sirens of the sea. Their closest living relatives are the manatees and they’re also distantly related to elephants. Dugongs are found throughout the Indo-pacific region, but over the past century many populations have disappeared. Australia is their last stronghold, but even here they are in dramatic decline. Threats to dugongs are all man-made: entanglements in shark and fishing nets, marine debris, loss of sea grass meadows due to dredging and agricultural run-off, traditional hunting and collisions with boats. I’ve always loved these gentle giants of the sea that have existed on earth for 45 million years. What a tragedy if after all this time they went extinct on our watch! 😦

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The Devil Inside

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Sydney Smith

While I’m editing Turtle Reef (out with Penguin April 2015) writing mentor extraordinaire Sydney Smith has been guest blogging for me. Here is her second last post, an insight into her creative process and why I call her the Story Whisperer. Her mind is always choc-a-block with plots!

The Writing Devil

Every time I finish a writing project I go through a period of anxiety where I’m waiting for the next project to materialise. That sounds banal, like waiting at a train station for the 6.15 to pull up. That is far from the case. My life feels pointless and empty. I tell myself this is how my life will be when I’m too old to write anymore. (Jennifer – Don’t worry Sydney I don’t think you ever get too old to write!)

So I play plot games with myself.

I’m a plot geek. I can work up a rough plot―protagonist, antagonist, premise, setting―in a matter of minutes. I can develop it over a few days. By the end of the week I’ll have what looks to outsiders like a workable story. While I’m doing this I believe in it utterly. I believe it’s real, believe it’s ready to write. All it needs is that final step, that teeny tiny step into commitment.

I will talk to my friends about this plot, that plot, like an Old Testament prophet possessed by a vision. They are as convinced as I am that the novel is poised to flame from my mind onto the computer screen. They ask me about these novels. ‘Have you started writing yet?’ My answer is always a dismal, ‘No.’

The writing devil 2Every night I go to bed hoping to wake the next morning with the writing devil in me, the one that propels me to my computer and dictates to me words of fire. And each morning, I wake un-possessed.

I go for coffee with a writing friend, I get an email from a friend about her novel-in-progress, I have a session with a student, and every time, they ask me if I’ve started writing yet. Some of them understand why I haven’t. Some are baffled. There are novelists for whom writing is a matter of will. (Jennifer – Yep) For me, writing is always an act of demonic possession. If the devil hasn’t crowded into my mind, raving in tongues, there is no way I can write. Writing a novel is a huge undertaking, demanding hundreds of hours of screen time, and many hundreds of hours of thinking. I can’t do it without the writing devil.

In the last three months, since I finished The Architecture of Narrative, I have worked on the following plot ideas:

  • Dusk – a supernatural creature who enters a family and destroys it one member at a time.
  • The Bridge – crime novel about a man who was wrongly convicted of murder.
  • Rosings – a sequel to Pride and Prejudice.
  • Atthis – a fantasy novel about a girl who trains as a monster-slayer.
  • Leila – a woman who works as an assassin.
  • The Water Serpent – a fantasy novel about a young woman who can manipulate Time.

I’m not a religious person―despite all the religious imagery I’ve used―but as week followed week and none of these plot games turned into something more, I went to bed praying to the god of my imagination to bring me a story to write. I got to the stage where I was frightened I would never write again.

Then a week ago, I woke one morning with the writing devil prodding me with his red-hot pitchfork. The novel was a plot game I had briefly played with back in 2013, while I was visiting the Blue Mountains. It hadn’t even whispered to me while I was playing with the plots I listed above. Yet it must have been growing in a corner, because here it is and I’ve written over 30,000 words.

A of N CoverWell done Sydney. Hope the devil won’t desert you!
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 website.
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