The Author Unmasked

cross blogWelcome to our monthly blog chat with writing guru Sydney Smith and fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson. Today we’re talking about how authors must remain hidden.

KATH
Possibly the most important job an author has is to remain invisible. Expose yourself through weak writing and the reader will be dragged away from the world you’ve spent so much time creating, straight into your office. Even a typo or printing error can cause a reader to think about poor editing instead of that desperate, blood-deprived vampire. Here are a few other ways authors (and lazy editors) can expose themselves:
– Trying Too Hard. This is a common mistake of beginner writers (and, ahem, not so beginner). Trying to find sexy or poetic ways to express a thought or action, often with the idea that it’s “fresh”. The mouth seems to cop much of it with smiles teasing the corners of mouths, sighs and moans escaping trembling lips. It’s made worse when those lurking smiles/sighs/moans keep popping up in the same fashion throughout the story. If you can’t come up with something truly fresh, try instead: He sighed. He smiled. He moaned. I’ve learned this is the most effective way to convey to the reader a sense of what’s going on, without losing them to another author.
Author exposed - cliches– Not Trying Hard Enough. Clichés! I found one in my current work-in-progress: “She stared at him with a look of horror.” We do get it, but it’s so dull, uninspired, overused, that we glide right by without getting the full impact of what the author’s trying to show (because, of course, we always show, not tell, don’t we, authors?) How about instead: “She stared at him, hand at her throat like it was Dracula, not a tennis player, standing in her kitchen.” (Excuse me while I adjust my WIP.)
Inappropriate Scene Setting. A high-octane moment is not the right time to tell us about the flowering jacaranda in the front garden, unless that’s where the body’s buried. The moment might be tense just in the narrator’s mind―thoughts about a husband’s infidelity or a missing child. Having the smell of a freshly-baked cake lovingly assault her nostrils* right then, simply for the sake of placing the reader, is probably a mistake. It interrupts or brings the tense moment to an abrupt halt which is NOT what we want to do, right? (*see purple prose below.)
Purple Prose. Too many nouns with adjectives, verbs with adverbs, adjectives with adverbs―argh! When we think we’re adding to a scene, really we’re weakening it with overdone prose. “The gleaming white moon rose slowly over the glistening, mirror-like lake while nearby tiny lambs frolicked joyfully amongst sun-kissed daisies in grassy, green meadows…” Quite apart from the wrongness of lambs frolicking at night, we know the moon is white and rises slowly, and we know what lambs look like and what they do; we don’t need to be told in such flowery detail. This kind of narrative is tedious for the reader, who will think the author is showing off.
– Speaking of which … Showing Off The Results Of Your Research. Know what to use and when/how. In my novel, Monkey Business, I devoted a whole scene to a particularly interesting fact about jungle survival. It read like an instruction manual, thus exposing its silly author.

SYDNEY
Plot controlling character is one of the ways a writer can reveal themselves working the puppet strings behind the scenes of a story. It’s also one of the sneakiest ways to avoid conflict ever invented.

Most writers think about important plot events before they write them. They will know some before they start writing the story, and they will imagine some as they write it. That isn’t necessarily the problem. Issues arise when the writer thinks about how to get these plot events to come about. An experienced writer will create characters who are able to bring these events into being. They will understand whether these events are doable by these characters or not. They will jettison any that are impossible logically or psychologically. Or, more often, their characters will jettison them. When characters come to life, they decide what they will do in pursuit of their goal. This is what it means when writers say their characters come to life and tell them what to write.

In fiction by new writers, this kind of situation doesn’t happen. Characters stick to the plot’s agenda like grim death, changing their personality as required, acting illogically, behaving as if they’ve got no agenda of their own, or not one they’re prepared to stick to. The plot is the dominant agent in the story. The plot decides what characters will do, and is ruthless in getting them to do it. It brooks no argument. It’s a tyrant.

This is a very different situation to characters creating plot, which is how it’s meant to be. If you look at it this way, plot becomes character in action. Characters shape the plot. Characters decide what will happen by pursuing their own agendas come what may, going after what they want with dogged determination, and dealing with opposition as it comes along. So here’s a little example of plot controlling character:

Shay is investigating the death of Marcus. He was shot in the back of the head, behind his left ear. The cops have ruled suicide. But Shay doesn’t believe it.

This is the first instance of plot controlling character: the cops ignore the obvious so that they can close the case. That gives Shay the chance to investigate.

Shay receives a note in her mailbox that tells her to go to 14 Garrod Street, Brunswick, where she will find something of interest. She gets there and is yanked inside by a ruffian with bad breath who tells her she’s too dangerous to stay alive. She’s been investigating the death of Marcus. ‘You should’ve accepted the police findings,’ he says as he straps Author exposed - hands tiedher wrists together with gaffer tape. He binds them in front of her, not behind her, leaves her ankles free, splashes petrol around the place and lights a match. As flames leap up the curtains, he whisks himself out of the house, leaving the door unlocked.

Again, this is plot controlling character. He’s tied her hands in front of her so that it’s easier for her to free herself. He’s left the front door unlocked so that, when she’s free, she can get out of the burning house without further difficulty. It might seem shockingly untenable, this whole situation, but believe me, I come across instances as blatant as this, even more blatant, of plot controlling character, every day of my mentoring life.

Not only is the situation unbelievable, but it’s avoided conflict. Yes, a man lured her to the house. That’s a conflict, since he wants to get rid of her and she wants to go on investigating the murder of Marcus. But he’s made it easy for her to escape. Making it hard for her to escape would involve levels of conflict the writer feels uncomfortable with. Then there are the cops and their decision that Marcus killed himself. If the forensic evidence supported suicide, it would be harder for the writer to figure out how to knock off Marcus in a way that looks like suicide but isn’t. Writing a novel involves the author in conflict as they wrestle with their characters and their own powers of invention. Plot controlling character minimises conflict for everybody, but especially for the writer.

Now look at the ruffian’s agenda. What is it? It seems to be that he wants to get rid of Shay so that the truth about Marcus’ death will never come out. But if he was committed to his agenda, wouldn’t he do his utmost to make sure Shay dies in the fire? How does it help his agenda if he makes it easy for her to escape? It doesn’t, but it helps the plot’s agenda. The plot wants Shay to escape and makes the ruffian forfeit his agenda in order to make it happen. I call this kind of character the uncommitted antagonist: he’s not committed to his agenda. Characters have to act out of who they are and what they want, even if that makes life hard for them, even if it makes life hard for the writer. The outcome of character commitment is compelling fiction.

JENNY
That’s a brilliant explanation of why the best stories are character-driven, Sydney! (Love the word ruffian.) And there are plenty of other ways that the author’s hand can reveal itself, giving readers an unwelcome reminder that they’re being spun a story. Telling, not showing is an obvious one. Inexperienced writers can become dictators, ordering us how to feel about their fictional world. Readers don’t like that. They like to come to their own conclusions. Saying that a character is scared or shy or happy robs the reader of Author unmasked - adverbsthat pleasure. Too many adverbs will have the same effect. Saying that the day is uncomfortably hot, or that a character is dangerously close to the cliff, reveals the lazy author behind the scenes. Readers must be able to assess for themselves how hot it is, or how dangerous a situation might be. As Anton Chekhov so famously put it, ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’

Then there’s flat out author intrusion, when the writer speaks directly to the reader under the flimsy guise of narrative or characters. Writers can unintentionally project themselves into stories because they haven’t created multidimensional, fully-formed fictional characters. Instead, they fall back on their own beliefs, opinions and ideas. I’ve been guilty of this myself. It’s easy to spot, once you know what you’re looking for. Are there certain words or phrases that seem out of place, that don’t fit the character? Does your character voice an opinion that has little to do with the actual story, but happens to coincide with your own beliefs?

Other examples of author intrusion relate to Sydney’s point about plot controlling character. Does your character have knowledge that she wouldn’t be expected to have? A humble salesgirl who just happens to be an expert in nuclear physics, or can miraculously disarm a bomb with a safety pin. Or have you done so much research on a particular subject that you want to squash it into the story, even though it doesn’t fit? Research should be like a floating iceberg, most of it invisible beneath the narrative surface. These kind of things stick out. The way to avoid the trap of author intrusion is simple. Always remember that your story belongs to your characters.

SYDNEY
Now I feel like I have to interrogate every word of my new WIP. But not at the moment. I’ve started the first draft of “Rosings”, a spin-off of Pride and Prejudice, which follows the adventures of Anne de Bourgh after her mother dies. (Am I allowed to say that?) First drafts should be allowed to be bad. It’s the next draft that has to be combed through for intrusions by the author. And here’s a final intrusion, one I never thought of before I started writing “Rosings”―if you sound a little bit like Jane Austen but not enough, or if you don’t sound like her at all. Whatever you decide in a spin-off of Jane Austen is going to come across as authorially intrusive.

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 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 The Story Whisperer.

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Rocking Horse Hill

Cathryn Hein Author PhotoIt is with great pleasure that I welcome to Pilyara fellow Penguin author and horse nut, Cathryn Hein. She is here today answering a few questions about her new novel Rocking Horse Hill (love that title!) Congratulations on the terrific reviews Cathryn!

Thanks, and thanks for hosting me on your blog, Jennifer. A lovely place to be!

What is your story about?
Rocking Horse Hill is a rural romance with a strong family drama and an emotional lovers reunited story.
As a teenager, Emily Wallace-Jones made a mistake that has haunted her since. So when Josh Sinclair saunters sexily back into town and her life, she has a chance to finally put things right.
But there are dramas affecting both families. Digby, heir to the Wallace-Jones fortune, has arrived home with a fiancée no one has ever heard of. Em’s best friends both have troubles and her naughty donkeys are causing havoc. Meanwhile, Josh’s family are coping with heart-breaking news. Then there’s Rocking Horse Hill…

With their families’ struggles and so much baggage from the past, can Em and Josh really resurrect a relationship? Or will holding onto trust be impossible? Not just for them, but for everyone touched by Rocking Horse Hill.

What or who inspired it?
The original inspiration was a bit obscure. I’d read an article in a Sunday paper about women who fall in love with men serving long-term jail sentences and found it fascinating. The next day I was zoning out on the exercise bike, thinking about the article, when I had this idea for a thriller-type story. I was so excited I jumped straight off and scribbled it down. Being a totally different genre to my rural romances, I set it aside but my brain wouldn’t let it go, and there were things about the premise that I really liked – the family drama mostly but also the heroine. Over time, I kept reworking the idea until Rocking Horse Hill was born.

RHH cover - resizedAre there any parts of it that have special personal significance to you?
There are quite a few parts of Rocking Horse Hill that are special. Number one is the setting. The book is set in the south east of South Australia and much of the action takes place on a property right at the foot of an extinct volcano. Though fictional, the volcano is based on an amalgam of Mt Schank, a crater to the south of my home town of Mount Gambier, and Mt Elephant, near Derinallum in western Victoria. As kids, a brilliant day out was climbing to the top of Mt Schank and sliding all the way to the bottom on your bum, like a great big dirty slippery-dip.

I also gave the heroine Emily my beloved dog Cooch as her darling collie Miss Muffet. There’s also an Indian runner duck that was based on one my brother owned. Plus, being set around where I grew up, there are all sorts of little things that I love from the area that have made their way into the book.

What do you see as the major themes in your book?
One of the things that Rocking Horse Hill explores is how we judge others, and how our experiences influence that. Perhaps even blind us. Em comes from a very privileged background and there was a time in her past when that made her think herself special. As a result she caused immeasurable hurt and it’s not a mistake she’s going to make again, which is why she’s determined to welcome her sister-in-law to-be into the family.

I also wanted to look at how hard it can be for a stranger to find their place inside a tight-knit family. The tensions that arise when one of more family members don’t like the newcomer can cause major rifts. It doesn’t take much to find real-life examples: the boyfriend everyone thinks is a bad influence; the second wife everyone hates; the father-in-law no one trusts…

I think we’ve all had experience with families judging and sometimes misjudging people. And I love the sound of those animals! Looking forward to reading it Cathryn. Thanks very much for visiting today.

RHH cover - resizedROCKING HORSE HILL
by Cathryn Hein
Who do you trust when a stranger threatens to tear your family apart?

Ever since she was a little girl, Emily Wallace-Jones has loved Rocking Horse Hill. The beautiful family property is steeped in history. Everything important in Em’s life has happened there. And even though Em’s brother Digby has inherited the property, he has promised Em it will be her home for as long as she wishes.
When Digby falls in love with sweet Felicity Townsend, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, Em worries about the future. But she is determined not to treat Felicity with the same teenage snobbery that tore apart her relationship with her first love, Josh Sinclair. A man who has now sauntered sexily back into Em’s life and given her a chance for redemption.
But as Felicity settles in, the once tightly knitted Wallace-Jones family begins to fray. Suspicions are raised, Josh voices his distrust, and even Em’s closest friends question where Felicity’s motives lie. Conflicted but determined to make up for the damage caused by her past prejudices, Em sides with her brother and his fiancée until a near tragedy sets in motion a chain of events that will change the family forever.

Rocking Horse Hill is a moving family drama and passionate love story from the author of Heartland. Follow these links to find out more about Cathryn and her terrific rural novels.  Website, Twitter via @CathrynHein, Facebook, Google+

And now, to announce the winner of the Billabong Bend draw. I received so many wonderful comments about people’s favourite rivers and why they love them, thank you. The winner of a signed copy of Billabong Bend is Sophie Grant. Congratulations Sophie. I’ll send you an email shortly.

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Dialogue

PrintTime for our monthly chat about writing, with fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson, and mentor extraordinaire Sydney Smith. This month we discuss dialogue. But first I’d like to share the news that my 2013 release Currawong Creek has been nominated by the RWA for a RUBY, their Romantic Book Of The Year Award. Thank you RWA, and good luck to the other finalists! Now, on to some craft talk!

SYDNEY
Dialogue is the most dramatic expression of conflict in narrative. It isn’t simply an exchange of information. Each speaker must have an agenda, and that should emerge in the course of the dialogue sequence. Preferably, it emerges at once, or nearly so.
A good example is a man and his new bride disputing over where to place the hideous vase her grandmother gave them for a wedding present.

Amy:     Let’s put it on the hall table. Then the old battleaxe can see it whenever she visits.
James:    But, honey, it looks like a mutant spaceship. What about if we put it in the toolshed?
Amy:     What’ll I tell her when she comes to dinner next week? She’ll ask me about it.
James:    Why do you care? You don’t even like her.
Amy:     I do like her.
James:    You always call her the old battle-axe. You only call her Granny to her face.
Amy:     All right, I hate her. I hate the way she inspects the window ledges, like she thinks I wipe them down with my dirty socks.
James:    So let’s cancel dinner next week. Then we can bury the vase in the backyard.
Amy:     No way! She’s going to die in the next ten years, and I’m the one she’s going to leave her rare coin collection to. The vase is going on the hall table.
James:    Sod’s law. When people are hanging out for some old bird to die, she’ll live to a hundred and fifty and leave the coins to a cat home.

And that’s the other thing dialogue should do: it should characterise the speakers.

cross blogKATH
Dialogue – my favourite! When I turn the page of a novel and see dialogue, I get excited. I lean closer to the book, tuning out all external sounds and distractions. I’m in the story. But why? What’s so good about dialogue? Plenty! Such as:

  • The white space caused by snappy dialogue gives the reader a break.
  • Dialogue brings you into real time. It plonks you firmly in the scene and the middle of a conversation. You might even feel like you’re intruding on an intimate moment between two lovers. How exciting!
  • Through dialogue, we learn about characters. We hear their all-important voice. The way they speak to each other, the way they react verbally, can tell us so much about who they are. Especially characters who don’t have a point-of-view in the story. It is through their actions and especially dialogue that we discover important things about them.
  • And very importantly, dialogue is a great way to show not tell.

Here’s an example:

John’s boss Helen stared through the window at the parklands across the way, but John knew she wasn’t really seeing anything. He spoke to her. She took a moment to respond, quietly telling John he needed to call the office and give them the bad news – that the suspect had been apprehended, but that he had a water-tight alibi. John knew this was bad news. Very bad. Helen punched the wall suddenly, shouting a curse.

By using dialogue we can lift that scene right out of the doldrums and give it zing. As I said, if it’s done well, it’ll draw us closer, bring us right into the scene, in real time, and show us plenty about what’s on those characters’ minds.

‘You need to call the office,’ Helen said quietly, staring through the window.
‘Okay. What’s up?’
She didn’t respond.
‘Helen?’ said John, touching his boss’s arm. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘It’s the suspect. He was in Sydney last night.’
‘Jesus Christ.’
Helen slammed her fist into the wall. ‘Goddamit!’

When characters speak, we get a sense that something’s happening. And there’s nothing I love more in a story than when stuff happens.

dialogue 2SYDNEY
Yes, the version with dialogue is a lot better. It’s concise. It does everything the scene needed. I agree with all your points about dialogue. Dialogue varies the texture of a story. It takes it from the internal world of the characters’ thoughts and feelings to the external world of dramatic interaction. Both have a role to play in narrative. The trick is to know when to use dialogue and when to use narrative (all those bits except the dialogue).

You know, I’ve assessed hundreds of manuscripts over the years and discovered that a lot of writers think dialogue is lively just because it’s dialogue. But it’s as dead as a nail if it isn’t used properly. It isn’t a substitute for narrative, for example.

My mother went to the window and said, ‘Oh look, a car’s just appeared at the end of our street. It’s grey and looks expensive. A man in a black suit is driving and another man is sitting in the backseat. I think it’s coming our way. The driver is saying something to the man in the backseat.’

That bit of narrative is best shown from the daughter’s POV, as long as it also includes something about how this car’s arrival advances the story.

And simple exchanges of info are out.

‘Hi, I’m Amy.’
‘Hi, Amy, I’m James. What can I do you for?’
‘I’m here to meet Amaranth. Is she available?’
‘I’ll just check. If you’ll sit over there, I’ll call her PA.’ James calls. ‘Yes, she’ll be down in five minutes. Can I get you tea or coffee?’
‘I’d love a foot massage.’
‘I’ll just call our foot masseuse. She’s in hot demand…’

Oops. I added in a bit of something unexpected to relieve the tedium of that kind of dialogue. This is how people talk in real life (bar the foot massage) but in narrative, dialogue is heightened and compressed.

JENNY
There are different kinds of dialogue. I quite like the efficiency of indirect dialogue, and it has its place in small doses.

Poppy said she didn’t trust me, that she’d never trusted me, that I was always looking for a way to undermine her position on the board.’

Then there’s direct dialogue, the most dramatic form. The reader listens in on a conversation.

Poppy said, ‘I know your game. Right from the start I pegged you for a snake and a back-stabber. This just proves how right I was. You never miss a chance, do you? Always working out ways to sink the boot in.’

I sometimes mix the two.

Poppy went on to list my faults as she saw them – I was arrogant, selfish and insensitive. ‘And you’re lazy too.’ Poppy’s face grew redder and redder. ‘You’re lazier than a cold lava flow.’

It’s a quick way to give the gist of a longer conversation.

One of the things I love about writing dialogue is that it’s not like normal speech. There’s no regret about the undelivered, clever line that’s remembered seconds too late. My characters are on the ball and there’s no insufferable small talk. And on dialogue tags? I use as few as possible, and am firmly in the said camp. Readers take in said almost subliminally, so it doesn’t intrude into the world of the story. Alternatives to said (muttered, laughed, crowed, whispered, repeated, etc) sound corny to me. I sometimes can’t resist a character snarling his lines, but baulk at adding an adverb. He snarled fiercely? Overkill. One way to avoid a speech tag is to follow the dialogue line with a beat, an action by the speaker that reinforces what he/she is saying.

Oh, and a pet hate of mine – trying to show accent or dialect by torturing the language! Much as I adored Wuthering Heights, I do so wish that Joseph’s broad accent had been conveyed with a carefully chosen Yorkshire word or two, instead of this. (and hallooing responsively is also out of fashion, thank God!)

– ‘What are ye for?’ he shouted. ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’fowld. Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him.’
– ‘Is there nobody inside to open the door?’ I hallooed, responsively.
– ‘There’s nobbut t’ missis; and shoo’ll not oppen ‘t an ye mak’ yer flaysome dins till neeght.’
– ‘Why? Cannot you tell her whom I am, eh, Joseph?’
– ‘Nor-ne me! I’ll hae no hend wi’t,’ muttered the head, vanishing.

And my Golden Rule for dialogue is the same for any other part of my writing. If it doesn’t move the plot forward, don’t do it!

SYDNEY
I so agree with you about Joseph in Wuthering Heights. I always laugh when he opens his gob. I think Emily Bronte was so infatuated with Yorkshire dialect that she couldn’t stop herself. I always think the best way to convey dialect or a foreign accent is through grammar and syntax. I have to say, though, some writers are good at dialogue and some are not. Those who aren’t tend to keep it to a minimum – which is right, as far as I’m concerned, if you’re ill-at-ease with it.

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.

 

There’s still time to enter the Billabong Bend giveaway draw. Just leave a comment telling me about your favourite river. (Aust & NZ entries only)

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Launch Of Billabong Bend + Giveaway!

Launch of BB 2Last Thursday evening at Readings Carlton (Melbourne) I was thrilled to launch my latest novel, Billabong Bend. Penguin publisher Sarah Fairhall did the introductions, and friend and fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson did a Q&A with me about the book. Here are Kath’s questions and a rough transcript of my answers.

First, please give us a quick run-down on what Billabong Bend is about.

Billabong Bend is a star-crossed love story between a floodplains farmer and a cotton grower, set in the heart of the NSW northern riverlands.
For riverine farmer Nina Moore, the rare marshland flanking the beautiful Bunyip River is the most precious place on Earth. Her dream is to buy Billabong Bend and protect it forever, but she’s not the only one wanting the land. When her childhood sweetheart Ric Bonelli returns to the river, old feelings are rekindled and she thinks she has an ally. But a tragic death divides loyalties, tears apart their fledgling romance and turns her dream into a  nightmare.
On one level, Billabong Bend is a novel about first love. That original, blinding passion that is never forgotten. When you believe that anything is possible. When you first believe in something bigger than yourself. But it’s also the story of a river, of water use in a thirsty land, and the division and conflict it inevitably causes. And if you love birds like I do, particularly our magnificent wetland birds, you’re in for a real treat!

Your character Nina has some intriguing relationships and friendships with the ageing Eva, the child Sophie, a couple of blokes vying for her attention. But those she seems to treasure the most are with non-humans. In particular, there’s a passionate affair with a river. Can you tell us about that?

Launch of BBI call Billabong Bend a star-crossed love story. But some people have called it more of a love triangle, between Nina, Ric and the river. I think there’s some truth in that. Nina is in love with the river that flows through the landscape of the novel. And no wonder. For a floodplains farmer like Nina, the river means life itself. She depends on it to flood, to overflow into the little dry creeks and billabongs, to revive and nourish her land.
Without water lying on the floodplains once in a while, they die. That’s how they’ve evolved. As a fifth generation flood plains farmer, Nina has learned to live in harmony with the river’s ebbs and flows. It’s second nature to her.Thirsty cotton farms and their vast water allocations threaten more than the river. They threaten Nina’s whole way of life.

I was intrigued by the detail. The river really is a character in its own right. How do you know so much about the environment surrounding Billabong Bend?

– The idea for the book arose many years ago, during long, lazy days spent in the riverlands. I’ve always been an amateur naturalist, and there are also some wonderful books out there about the Murray-Darling Basin. The River by Chris Hammer comes to mind. But no amount of research beats time spent in a landscape. Reference books can’t buy you drinks at the bar and tell you stories. Statistics can’t show you the beauty of the river at sunrise.
– Last year I took some trips back up the Murray and saw for myself the changes wrought on habitats and wildlife by drought and low flows. I wanted to write about what I saw.

I love that Nina is her own woman. There’s a romance in this book – actually, more than one – but we get the sense that Nina doesn’t need any man. Do the men measure up?

It’s true that she doesn’t need a man, and yes, the men don’t measure up, at least not in the beginning. Nina is fiercely self-sufficient, and inclined to try to do everything herself. Part of her character arc is learning to accept help, when it’s freely given for the right reasons. And part of Ric’s journey is to rediscover his roots, remember who he is, and what the river once meant to him. Only then might he become the man Nina wants. But he can never become the man she needs. Nina’s far too independent to let that happen!

Nina has a particular interest in a 9yo child called Sophie. How does Nina help bring Sophie out of herself and the house?

Little Sophie is one of my favourite characters. She’s had a difficult life, growing up without her father or grandparents, being raised by a mother who suffers from depression and mental illness. When Sophie first comes to the farm she’s defiant and unhappy, spending all her time in front of the TV.
– Nina takes an interest in Sophie. After all, she’s a lonely little girl who loves animals, very much like Nina was at the same age.They connect through their mutual love of horses and the local wildlife, and of course Nina is eager to pass on her knowledge of Billabong Bend. In a way, Nina needs Sophie more than she needs anybody else in the book.

Launch of BB 3I suspect there’s a lot of Jennifer Scoullar in Nina. Is this true?

– Nina is far more practically competent than I am. She can service a tractor or use a rifle, just as easily as she can fix a pump or fly a plane. One thing we do both share however is a passion for rivers. Hardly surprising, since Billabong Bend was inspired by my own love for the northern riverlands, and for the Murray Darling basin in general.
River stories are central to bush culture, and have been ever since the Murray-Darling was carved from a mythical landscape by the Rainbow Serpent. I’ve always been fascinated by the river’s place in literature, and I’ m in fine company. Rivers are revered by some of our finest writers.
Mark Twain for example,  had a lifelong love affair with the Mississippi. And 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,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier,
Useful, untrustworthy as a conveyer of commerce;
T
hen seen only as a problem for the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown God is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities – ever implacable,
Keeping her seasons and her rages, destroyer, reminder,
Of what men choose to forget.’

– 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 romantic, mysterious, dangerous, life-giving and achingly beautiful. I’ve tried to touch on some of these themes in my latest novel Billabong Bend.
(Thanks to Troy Hunter for the photos)

Leave a comment telling me about your favourite river, and go in the draw to win a copy of Billabong Bend! (Aust & NZ only) Competition closes June 23rd.

BB14

 

 

 

 

 

 

A New Year With Pamela Cook

Pamela Cook New Author PicPlease welcome successful author Pamela Cook back to Pilyara. What an auspicious way to begin the new year! In addition to being a novelist, Pamela teaches writing. She’s also a horse lover, which means we have a lot in common. (The name of her blog is Flying Pony) Pamela’s latest release, Essie’s Way, is a touching story about finding yourself and learning from past mistakes. Today she talks to us about the importance of setting and place in her books.

‘Thanks so much for having me on your blog, Jennifer. Setting and a sense of place are very important in my writing. When I began my first novel, Blackwattle Lake, I started with an image of a place, and a character in that place: a woman standing at the gate of a horse property. I had no story, no outline and no idea what was going to happen but the strength of that image and that setting pulled me through. Essie's Way 1The setting for that novel is a mixture of two places: the riding ranch where we agist our horses, at Darkes Forest just south of Sydney … and the area around Milton, about two hours further south. We have a holiday house there at Little Forest and it’s my favourite place in the world. Somehow I manage to while away hours and hours there doing very little.

I’ve been holidaying on the NSW south coast all my life and it’s wonderful to now be able to share it with my daughters. And with my readers. The south coast is more untamed and a little wilder than the north – there are so many places where you can escape and feel completely isolated. Although the water is colder, it’s clear and clean and the beaches are blissfully empty (apart from school holidays of course) which is a huge contrast to the crowds on Sydney beaches in summer.

Essie's Way 2Essie’s Way also began with an image, but this time of an older woman who was playing the violin on the verandah of a shack near the ocean. Although I didn’t have a specific place in mind the stretch of beach I imagined was deserted and surrounded by bush. As the story progressed and the fragments came together, the place in my mind became one with a beach bookended by headlands, a very small town that only comes to life in the tourist season and farmlands close to the ocean. Thanks to trusty Google earth, I found a place that roughly fitted the description, packed my dog Bridie in the car and (just like Miranda, the main character in the book) headed south. While I was familiar with the south coast I hadn’t been to this particular place before but when I arrived at Potato Point I wasn’t disappointed. The “town” if it could be called one, and the beach fitted the image in my head perfectly.

To anyone else the resemblance might not be the same but walking on the windswept beach, wandering across the rock platforms I could just picture Esther standing there, fishing rod in hand, gazing out at the stormy blue ocean. There was no shack on the cliff and there were no horses grazing in paddocks nearby but it didn’t take much to imagine. The sense of alone-ness and freedom I felt standing on the beach were the same feelings I wanted Miranda to have when she visits the beach in search of the grandmother she’d always thought to be dead. Miranda is a city girl, a lawyer with a busy job and lifestyle and not much time to connect with herself. It’s here in Pelican Point (the fictional place in Essie’s Way, that she’s able to find some sense of peace and start to really think about the direction she’s taking in life.

There are a few city locations in Essie’s Way too – Miranda lives in Erskineville and hangs out in Newtown and the book opens with her trying on a wedding gown at a store in the QVB.

But it’s the rural locations that really inspire me. I love writing about the way place impacts on character and I hope to do more of that in my next book. At the moment I’m not sure exactly where it will be set but there’s a pretty good chance it’ll be somewhere down south and there’s an even better chance I’ll be taking off on a road trip to do a little research!’

Essie's Way coverEssie’s Way – A captivating story of family, love and following your heart, from the author of Blackwattle Lake.

Miranda McIntyre thinks she has it all sorted. A successful lawyer, she s planning her wedding and ticking off all the right boxes. When searching for something old to go with her wedding dress she remembers an antique necklace from her childhood, but her mother denies any knowledge of it. Miranda is sure it exists. Trying to find the necklace, she discovers evidence that perhaps the grandmother she thought was dead is still alive.

Ignoring the creeping uncertainty about her impending marriage, and the worry that she is not living the life she really wants, Miranda takes off on a road trip in search of answers to the family mystery but also in search of herself. Ultimately, she will find that looking back can lead you home.

Connect with Pamela:
Webpage: www.pamelacook.com.au
Facebook
: www.facebook.com/PamelaCookAuthor
Twitter: @PamelaCookAU

BB2013_Nominee

 

 

Sunday With Mr Wigg

Inga Simpson PhotoIt is with great pleasure that I welcome Inga Simpson to Pilyara this Sunday. Inga is one of my absolute favourite authors! I’ve had the privilege of working with her as my mentor, and I consider her to be, along with Mark Tredinnick, one of Australia’s foremost nature writers. Just read her wonderful essay Triangulation (it won the 2012 Eric Rolls Nature Writing Prize) and I think you’ll agree with me. Inga’s recent release, Mr Wigg, has enchanted reviewers and readers alike with its unique and beautiful voice. ‘Sure to become an Australian classic,’ says one. ‘Reawakens our sense of what is right and good about the world,‘ says another. But enough of my raving! Time to hear from Inga herself  …

Welcome to Pilyara, Inga. Could you tell us please, about how Mr Wigg came to be published?

Mr WiggFrontCoverFinalI participated in the 2011 QWC/Hachette Manuscript Development Program, where I received a whole lot of great feedback from the publisher and went away and reworked the novel before resubmitting it. I felt reasonably confident the book would eventually get up but there was a bit of an extended conversation before I felt it was close. I had been expecting the call for a few weeks, forwarding my home phone to my mobile every time I went out … When the call finally came, I was at the train station saying good bye to my partner for a week or so. I saw the  number but the train was pulling in – I stressed out and didn’t take the call. Once I had put my partner on the train, the publisher called again. After twice dropping the phone on the floor of the car I managed to answer: CONTRACT!

What is your novel Mr Wigg about?

Mr Wigg appleMr Wigg is about the final year of one man’s life. He lives on what is left of the family farm in rural New South Wales, tending his magnificent orchard, cooking with his grandchildren, and telling them stories. Living alone is becoming more and more tenuous, but he takes on an ambitious project – forging a wrought iron peach tree – which all comes about because of a fairy tale about a Peach King.

In a way, it’s also a love story. Although Mrs Wigg has recently passed away, he reminisces about their life together. She was a bit of a character – with a particular fondness for the colour aqua.

What or who inspired the story?

To an extent, my paternal grandfather. He grew magnificent peaches! White ones
especially, which I’ve never tasted the likes of since. Wigg is the family name of one of his French ancestors, which really stuck in my head. When I travelled to rural France and saw the way people live – with their village plots and walled orchards, and so much emphasis on growing and cooking and sharing food – I wondered if my grandfather had been living out that part of his genetic  heritage without having ever been to France.  A character began to take shape, and I was calling the novel “Mr Wigg” long before I started writing. Mr Wigg took on his own character as the book evolved but some of the details, and Mr Wigg’s stories about the old days, are borrowed from my family.

Are there any parts of it that have special personal significance to you?

Peach treesThe novel celebrates the spirit of the landscape where I grew up, and the time – the 1970s. A way of life, too, that has largely been lost. Blacksmithing and woodturning were crafts practised in my family and I value the richness of having been raised among those traditions.

There is something of my childhood memories of my own grandfather in Mr Wigg, too. An honouring of his orcharding skills and generous approach to life.

What do you see as the major themes in your book?

Change was a big theme for me while writing Mr Wigg. Not just ageing, but the decline of big farming families, the landscape, and rural way of life. Care for the environment, too, and respect for our fellow creatures – living in a connected way within the natural world.

Thank you Inga, for answering my questions about your gorgeous new novel. I absolutely loved it, and can’t wait to read whatever comes next!

Mr Wigg

Mr WiggFrontCoverFinalA novel that celebrates the small, precious things in life by a fresh Australian voice.

It’s the summer of 1971, not far from the stone-fruit capital of New South Wales, where Mr Wigg lives on what is left of his family farm. Mrs Wigg has been gone a few years now and he thinks about her every day. He misses his daughter, too, and wonders when he’ll see her again.

He spends his time working in the orchard, cooking and preserving his produce and, when it s on, watching the cricket. It s a full life. Things are changing though, with Australia and England playing a one-day match, and his new neighbours planting grapes for wine. His son is on at him to move into town but Mr Wigg has his fruit trees and his chooks to look after. His grandchildren visit often: to cook, eat and hear his stories. And there s a special project he has to finish…

Trouble is, it’s a lot of work for an old man with shaking hands, but he’ll give it a go, as he always has …

Now, for the winners of the prize-pack draw announced a few weeks ago! Drum roll please! Brendat39 and Beverley Mayne. I’ll email you shortly for the address to post the prizes. Congratulations, and thank you to everybody who entered the draw.

BB2013_Nominee

Pace Yourself!

pacing 3I’ve reached the 70,000 word mark of my current work-in-progress. Only 20,000 words to go and the threads are thankfully coming together as I’d hoped. It’s at this stage that I think a lot about pacing. I’m approaching the finish line. Things are coming to a head. Tension and conflict are building inexorably, like a river about to burst its banks. But how to control the ebb and flow of the floodtide? If it rages too swiftly, it might peak early and end in melodrama or anti-climax. If I dam it too much, it may lose momentum. How do you get the pacing just so?

pacing 2Approaching the end, you want the reader to feel a real sense of urgency and desperation. If you’ve done your job well, the narrative and character arcs should be catapulting your story at a good speed towards the climax. But there are other ways to control pace that don’t involve the plot at all. Simple craft tips that are an essential part of a writer’s toolbox.

 

Write short sentences, scenes and chapters. Condense dialogue and description, thereby heightening the significance of each word. Cut scenes short at vital moments to raise anxiety and suspense levels in your reader. Remember to vary your pacing though, even in these final chapters. Longer sentences and more measured prose will slow down your story. This sort of contrast is still important to allow readers to catch their breath.

Pacing 1Another way to build tension is to write in slow motion. This might sound counterintuitive, but it’s a technique used all the time by film directors to increase dramatic impact. So at the crucial moment, say when a character drowns at sea, take your time. Describe the scene in close detail – the freezing bite of the waves, the taste of salt water, the horror of hopelessly holding onto that last breath. Or you might want to do the opposite. You might want to plunge your reader straight back into the action after the drowning. This is where I sometimes make an exception to the old show, don’t tell rule. Shock the reader with the brutal fact of the drowning by simply telling it in as blunt a way as possible.

My last tip is to let the setting work for you. A storm at sea instantly ramps up suspense. A calm cove does the opposite. Spend some time getting the location right and it will give your writing an automatic boost. My story is rushing towards its (hopefully) dramatic conclusion. So it’s nice to know that I don’t need to rely on structure alone to control the pace. I have a few craft tricks up my sleeve as well.

BB2013_Nominee

Release Day For Currawong Creek & Giveaway

CC 4It’s that time of year again. Time to give my blog over to shameless self-promotion, for Currawong Creek will be officially released this coming Wednesday 26th June. I’m also approaching another very important milestone – 20,000 hits on my blog.

To celebrate, I’m offering two book-pack giveaways. Wasp Season, Brumby’s Run and Currawong Creek all bundled together with a ribbon around them! The launch for Currawong Creek will be held on the 3rd of July at Readings Carlton, 309 Lygon St, Melbourne. 6.00 pm for a 6.30 pm start. You are all welcome, of course! I’m very excited about this book. And not only because for the first time I get to have bestselling author on the cover! Apart from its heartfelt and turbulent romance, Currawong Creek also tackles some topics that lie quite close to my heart. The importance and challenges of foster care, equine therapy for children, and land and water conservation in Australia – looking at coal seam gas mining in particular. I hope my book can spark some interesting debate on these issues.

Thank you 3A big thank you to Belinda Byrne and all the Penguin publishing team, for their generous support and faith in my work. Thanks to my lovely agent, Fran Moore of Curtis Brown Australia. And an even bigger thank you, of course, to my wonderful readers. Without you, none of this would have been possible!

 

Outback Currawong CreekOne more thing. Please don’t confuse my novel with a book of a similar title – Outback Currawong Creek, which is a stylish, coffee-table book filled with beautiful photographs of nude men. Oddly, some of them have an uncanny resemblance to the men in my book …

Penguin is also offering a pre-publication price promotion on my earlier novel, Brumby’s Run. The ebook version is only $4.99 across all sites. So if you haven’t read it, grab yourself a bargain! For your chance to win a three-book prize pack, please leave a comment on this post. I will announce the winners of the draw on Sunday July 14th. Good luck!

Heartfelt and passionate Australian story from the bestselling author of Brumby’s Run.

CC 1 003Currawong Creek is the story of Clare Mitchell, a young Brisbane lawyer who is very caught up in her career. When she becomes the unlikely carer of a little boy, a problem foster child named Jack, her ordered world is turned upside down. In desperation she takes leave of her job and goes with Jack to Currawong Creek, her grandfather’s Clydesdale stud at Merriang in the foothills of the beautiful Bunya Mountains.

Clare arrives to find part of the property leased by a local vet, Tom Lord. Tom is an advocate of equine therapy for children. Jack falls in love with Currawong’s animals, and Clare falls in love with Tom and the life of a country vet. But trouble is coming, in the form of the Pyramid mining company. Trouble that threatens to not only destroy Clare’s new-found happiness, but also the peace and beauty of the land she loves.

BB2013_Nominee

A Satisfying Ending

The Final ActI’m sixty thousand words into my work-in-progress, two-thirds of the way through a novel which will end up being about ninety thousand words. If it was a screen play, I’d be entering the final act.

In the first third of the manuscript, the first act in screenwriting terms, the premise is set up for the reader. What sort of a story is it, and what  is it about? Who is the heroine and what does she want more than anything? Who is the antagonist? In many ways the antagonist becomes the engine room of the story. Meeting this character provides the reader with an answer to the final important question. What is the main conflict going to be?

Which wayIn the middle third of the manuscript, or second act, life is becoming progressively more difficult for my heroine, Nina. This is when an author can torture her main character, in fact it’s almost mandatory! Plans fail, alliances break down, dreams are dashed. Nina’s choices become harder and harder. She has, as the ancient Greeks would say, her long, dark night of the soul. My god, is Nina ever in a bind! But she never gives up. She remains single-mindedly determined to achieve her goal, whatever the sacrifice.

Minette Walters 2

Minette Walters

I’m about to launch into my last thirty thousand words – the final act. If I don’t provide my readers with a satisfying finish to the story, I’ll have wasted my time. But I must admit that, despite doing a lot more planning this time, I don’t know exactly how the book ends. I once watched a fascinating documentary on English crime writer Minette Walters. It followed the progress of her novel The Shape Of Snakes. Half way through this complicated psychological thriller about a twenty year old murder mystery, Minette still didn’t know who had committed the crime. Quite the panster! Apparently she writes all her books like that.

“It’s like flying by wire. You embark with nothing, just a tightrope across a chasm. It’s a much more enjoyable way to write because I have to work it out along with the reader. If I don’t know who did it until half way, the reader is going to be fairly fazed as well.” M Walters

There’s a lot of truth, for me anyway, in what she says. Plotting too carefully, can kill the interest and excitement in writing the story. It becomes a chore. So I won’t worry about my ending, not just yet. I’ll just pray for a visit from the plot fairy!

BB2013_Nominee

A Pantster And Proud Of It

PlotterWriters all fall somewhere on the continuum between ‘plotter‘ and ‘pantster’. I’ve written a couple of posts about how screenwriters can teach authors a thing or two about plotting. How to use the three act structure. How it helps to plan out your inciting incident, your midpoint, your protagonist’s ‘dark night of the soul’. In fact my enormous corkboard has plot points pinned all over it. However I feel like a bit of a fraud in this regard, because when it comes to the crunch, I’m a pantster.

Save the Cat 233,000 words into the new novel, and my corkboard is struggling to keep up with the unexpected directions my narrative keeps taking. I’m cheating by updating my index cards as I go, pretending that character A was always going to be a pilot, and that character B was always going to have a ten year old daughter. It’s like forging a path into the unknown, and making the map afterwards. But that’s okay, because often it’s only in the writing of the story, that its direction becomes clear. Novel writing is a mysterious and deeply organic process, and it would be boring to always know exactly what was going to happen next.

magic of writingThat doesn’t mean an initial planning phase is wasted, however far the evolving story may depart from its original concept. A plan sets a writer off in the right direction, with a sense of purpose. That much updated, unforgiving corkboard will still shine a glaring spotlight on any ugly plot holes. And the final narrative must still contain every element of a rip-roaring yarn. Just remember that all the possibilities of a story might not show up until you’re well into the journey. Sometimes you need to throw away the plan, and let the magic happen!