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.

BB14

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! 🙂

BB14