RWA Pitch Program

Get Fresh in 15The annual RWA conference is rolling round again (21st – 23rd August), the largest professional publishing conference in Australia. This year promises to be the best ever, which is particularly good for me, because it will be held in my home state of Victoria. It provides unique networking opportunities for writers, editors and agents, as well as a speaker line-up including Anita Heiss and Graeme Simsion. The program features a wide range of workshops designed for writers at every stage of their career and publishing journeys. Get Fresh in 15 is the theme for Melbourne, and it will build on Melbourne’s strong literary culture through partnerships with Melbourne Writers Festival and Writers Victoria.

Brumby's CoverI received my big publishing break through the Pitch Program at an earlier RWA conference. My pitch of Brumby’s Run to a commissioning editor has led to five Penguin contracts so far. This fantastic program is being offered again, with a stunning range of editors and agents. It offers one of the few chances that aspiring writers have to get face to face with key publishing industry professionals. And the opportunity isn’t purely for romance writers. A wide variety of manuscripts are being sought. International literary agent Courtney Miller-Callihan is looking for general women’s fiction, historical fiction and young adult. Publisher Martin Green of Pantera Press is open to submissions in all genres, particularly commercial women’s fiction. Publisher Rebecca Saunders of Hachette is busy building a commercial fiction list, and wants to see all categories of popular fiction. And my own agent, Clare Forster of Curtis Brown, is looking for adult fiction, young adult fiction and non-fiction for mainstream publishers. Check out the amazing line-up here.

On-line registration for the Pitch Program opened on 1st June and will close on 30th June 2015 at 9pm. If you will have a suitable manuscript completed in time, why not have a go? You’ve nothing to lose, and I’m living proof that a conference pitch can lead to a publishing contract. I’ll do a post on pitch tips and etiquette prior to the conference, so stay tuned …

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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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Pot-Holed Paths To Publication

cross blogWelcome to our monthly blog chat with writing guru Sydney Smith and fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson. This month we tell our how-we-got-published stories and welcome your questions and comments

SYDNEY
Some years ago, Griffith REVIEW accepted a short story of mine called “Flame Red” for its first fiction edition. After reading it, Text Publishing emailed me, asking if I had any book-length manuscripts they might be interested in. I pitched them a few ideas and went away to write a novel for them. Then it stalled at 45,000 words. My novels always stall at either that length or 30,000 words.

For several years, I had been trying to write about my fraught and turbulent relationship with my mother. I had been wrestling in particular with a strong internal prohibition against exposing her and myself. I had published two short memoirs with Griffith REVIEW that explored aspects of my relationship with my mother. I knew I wanted to write a long work about her but I couldn’t find the right way in. To me, writing a piece, whether short or long, is like trying to get into a house where all the doors are locked. You have to hunt around, rattling handles, testing windows, before you find the one that will open and let you in.

At the end of 2010, I applied for a weeklong workshop with Robin Hemley on writing nonfiction, hoping it would loosen one of those barred and padlocked doors. We were asked to submit fifteen pages and an outline. I had no pages and no outline. Also, I had applied the day after submissions had closed, getting down on my knees and begging the program officer who was administering the course. She let me in and I had only a day or two in which to send in my fifteen pages.

The Lost WomanFor some years, I had been trying off and on to write about Boxing Day when I was nine years old, a day when my difficult relationship with my mother reached a crisis and I decided the only way out was to kill myself. I knew some of the things the piece would contain, but I couldn’t find the door that would let me in. Now, on a tight deadline, I sat down at my computer and wrote those pages. They came to exactly fifteen. The workshop was okay. Robin Hemley is a brilliant teacher. But somehow, it turned out to be irrelevant. Those fifteen pages was my way into the book.

Over the next few weeks, I wrote another chapter and thought about how committed I was to this project. Finally, ready to give myself wholly to it, I emailed Text, saying I had 10,000 words of a memoir and asking if they would be interested in having a look at them. Publishing houses sometimes offer contracts for nonfiction books before they have been written. They asked me to send the pages to them, along with a book proposal. I wrote another 8,000 words, to show them I could do it and to prove to myself that I really was committed. They read them and called me in for a meeting.

This meeting was crucial. I knew they wanted me to prove I could produce the whole book, not just words but readable words. At the end of the meeting, they asked me to send them a chapter breakdown. I did that, and in mid-April, I got the contract. This included two things: a word limit of 75,000-80,000 words and a deadline. I had to send them the completed manuscript by 15 December. I also had another problem. My chapter breakdown outlined a book that was longer than the word limit. I decided I would deal with that once I had finished the draft.

I had never before written a book to a contract. Every morning I woke in a panic. I had to write this book AND I had to do my paid work as a mentor AND run two classes on plotting and structure. So I divvied up my week. I gave three days to mentoring, three days to writing, and had a floating day which could be used to take up any extra paid work or be used for writing. I cancelled all social engagements, telling my friends why. I knuckled down in a way I never thought I was capable of, writing a chapter a week. Along the way, I pared back my chapter breakdown so that the finished manuscript would come in on length. Don’t ask me how I could do that when I hadn’t written the whole draft yet. I just did.

On the last Thursday of August, four months ahead of the deadline, I sent in a 76,000-word manuscript titled The Lost Woman. It was an amazing experience.

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 blog.

KATHRYN
I wish I’d known at the time how intriguing and very unique each getting-published story is. If I’d known, I would have made careful notes so that when I shared my story, I’d remember the way it happened. Looking back, I realise I was very naïve, entering the grown-up world of publishing without a clue as to what might happen.

Rough Diamond Front Cover FinalAnd so, the exhausting saga is, in brief, this. I finished a professional writing and editing course end-2008 and started writing Rough Diamond. Two years later, (I thought) it was ready to submit and I sent the manuscript to various competitions and publishers’ weekly submit-your-manuscript-and-we’ll-tell-you-if-we-like-it offerings. I made it to first base with Hachette’s program*, but heard nothing from the others.

When I eventually emailed Penguin my query letter, they replied almost immediately. “Yes please!” Exactly the sort of response you would hope for! They requested the full manuscript, and the waiting started. Meantime, I’d contacted a literary agent who also asked for the full manuscript. At the three-month marker, I sent them both an email asking if they were interested. The agent said that yes, she was. Nothing more than that. Penguin wanted more time. Two more weeks they promised, respectfully.

So, Penguin called. But not with the news I’d hoped for. They didn’t feel Rough Diamond quite made the cut (I found out why later – something about the plot and the fact that there wasn’t one), but they loved the voice of my lead character, Erica Jewell, and wanted to know if I had any other manuscripts that I’d thrown in disgust into some proverbial bottom drawer. I didn’t, but I had an idea for another series. They wanted to meet. On that basis, the agent offered me a contract.

In my meeting with Penguin, we chatted about my series idea. However when I mentioned that I’d since signed with an agent, the conversation came back to Rough Diamond. They’d give it another look, they said.

More waiting. What I hadn’t realised is that the commissioning editor does not have final say in whether or not a contract is offered. She can only champion the manuscript, “selling” it to the rest of the team at the weekly acquisitions meeting, which is attended by the head-honchos of all departments. And they ALL have to agree. This process can take forever. Finally, I was offered a contract. When I got the call, I was standing in my tiny, grotty, yet-to-be-renovated old lounge-room with my niece and her two children, baby Richie and five-year-old Molly. With Richie thrown over my shoulder, I danced in circles with Molly. Richie threw up. Molly fell over. I stubbed my toe. It was a moment to remember.

But there was more waiting to come. It was around July 2011, and Penguin wanted to publish in January 2013. OMG! Surely I’d drop dead of impatience before then? I didn’t, and Rough Diamond launched eventually, and suddenly Monkey Business is out there as well, with Grand Slam on the drawing board and a novella to be squeezed into the mix somewhere.

Monkey BusinessAfter all that, do I have any advice? Indeed I do:

  • For a start, I was lucky. Lucky because I’d written what today’s market would consider a saleable product. Commercial women’s fiction, with a romance at its heart. The reason a publisher will offer you a contract is because they think they can sell it.
  • Network. Join a writing group, surround yourself with supportive people (other writers). When you think you’ve written rubbish, you’ll need these people to tell you it’s not as awful as the rubbish they’ve written, and that lots of rubbish has been published. And let me say this, even with a publishing contract and a couple of books out there on the shelves, you will still think you’ve written rubbish.
  • Regarding above, you need to get over it. Put that rubbish-talking devil in a box and nail the lid shut.
  • More networking. It was through networking that I had an email address for the commissioning editor for women’s fiction at Penguin. And a personal introduction to a literary agent. And the reason half my Facebook friends are authors, all of whom share my successes, commiserate with my failures, offer brilliant advice and more encouragement than I deserve.
  • Take how-to-write courses. Read how-to-write books. I always learn something new. Always.
  • Read.
  • Before submitting your manuscript, research how a particular publisher wants to receive it. Read A Decent Proposal by Rhonda Whitton and Sheila Hollingworth. It will give you a thorough insight into effective pitching. Learn what the agent/publisher wants to know. For example: what your book is about, where it will sit on the shelves, why you think it will sell, why you’re the right person for the job of writing it. In other words, make it easy for a publisher to say “yes please!”
  • Show nice manners. When you submit your manuscript to an agent/publisher, let them know who else you’ve sent it to. If someone shows further interest in it, let the others know this.
  • Good writing and good luck!

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

JENNIFER
I received my first contract with Penguin books via a conference pitch. It shows that, despite all the doom and gloom about the industry, it is still possible to be picked up unagented by a mainstream publisher, if good fortune and good writing coincide.

My first bit of good fortune was being in the same writing group as fellow rural writer, Margareta Osborn. She asked me to go with her to the national Romance Writers’ Conference, held in Melbourne in 2011. At first I wasn’t keen and told her I didn’t write category romance. ‘You don’t have to,’ said Margareta. ‘All sorts of writers go. It’ll be fun―and you get to pitch face-to-face to publishers. Not just any publishers, but key industry professionals like Beverley Cousins of Random House, Annette Barlow of Allen & Unwin and Belinda Byrne of Penguin.’

‘Really?’ I said, my ears pricking right up. ’Publishers?’ Now all I needed was a novel to knock their socks off. I already had two completed manuscripts, but maybe I needed something fresh, something that fused my passion for the land with an equally passionate love story. It was January, and the conference was in August―eight months. It was worth a try.  I threw myself into it. When I wasn’t asleep or working I was writing, seven days a week. I wrote and wrote, revising as I went. After a great deal of hair-tearing, wine, chocolate and dreadful doubts, I had a polished first draft of Brumby’s Run just in time for the conference.

I scored two pitch sessions, one with Bernadette Foley of Hachette and another with Belinda Byrne, a commissioning editor of commercial women’s fiction with Penguin. For some unknown reason the five-minute pitches were reduced to three-minute pitches. Not much time to impress anybody. I agonised over my lines, practised ad nauseam and was sick with nerves. The moment finally arrived for that long walk into the room. A smiling publisher sat at a table. ‘What have you got for me?’ I drew a deep breath and launched into my memorised pitch.

2nd BR Cover‘Brumby’s Run is a 90,000-word rural fiction manuscript, with an environmental theme. A comparable title is The Cattleman’s Daughter by Rachael Treasure. It’s a novel about romance, identity and the fabled wild horses of Victoria’s high country.

Identical twin girls, separated at birth, Samantha and Charlie. Charlie remains with her teenage mother, Mary, in the small, upper Murray town of Currajong. Samantha grows up in all the wealth and privilege of Melbourne’s Toorak, with a smothering adoptive mother and a distant, emotionally unavailable father.

When the girls are eighteen, Charlie falls ill with leukaemia. Samantha is approached to donate stem cells, and discovers that not only is she adopted, but she has a sister. She also discovers they both share a love of horses; Charlie is a champion camp drafter, and Samantha is a contender for the national dressage squad.

The transplant is a success. However, Charlie faces months of recovery in Melbourne, and requires Mary to stay and care for her.  Samantha offers to go up-country to their property and look after things. Townie Sam finds a rundown parcel of land, mongrel country on the edge of Balleroo National Park. She also finds herself in the middle of a conflict between the traditional alpine cattlemen and a new breed who want to exclude hard-hooved animals from Balleroo, including the brumbies.

Sam falls in love with Brumby’s Run, and with the town of Currajong. This new life, Charlie’s life, intrigues her. Bit by bit she takes on her sister’s horses, her friends, her work―and she finds romance with Drew Chandler, her sister’s ex-lover. Sam begins to wish that Charlie might never come home.’

Then came my second piece of good fortune―a manuscript that suited their wish lists. I like writing outback stories, and both publishers were interested in new rural fiction. Brumby’s Run just happened to fit the bill. They took my three chapters and synopsis.

After several encouraging emails from Belinda she asked to meet me and in October, eight weeks after the conference, I received an email headed Penguin Letter of Offer for Brumby’s Run. At last! I printed that letter out and carried it with me for weeks, looking at it occasionally to check it was real. I now have my fourth contract with Penguin, all because I went to that conference. There’s more than one way to skin a publisher!

Kathryn Ledson is the author of Rough Diamond and Monkey Business (Penguin), part of the Erica Jewell series of romantic adventures. You can visit her website and find her blog at www.kathrynledson.com
Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She is currently writing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, feel free to visit her at The Story Whisperer.

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Plot Triggers

Plot triggers 2

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

cross blogWhat is a plot trigger?

Kath: A plot trigger (or inciting incident) launches the story. It’s the protagonist’s call to action – the thing that sets the story in motion and gives our protagonist a problem to solve. Anything before the plot trigger is scene setting, characterisation, back story, etc. A plot trigger can come in many forms. The discovery of a body, a letter in the mail, a desperate plea on the telephone, perhaps even a conversation or epiphany. For example, a husband suggests to his wife that they start a family. She realises in that moment that the last thing she wants is to be married with children! She packs her bags and leaves, and starts her search for the meaning of life.

Jennifer: A plot trigger is something beyond the control of the main character, which sparks off the story. A hurricane carries Dorothy’s house to the Land of Oz. Lucy discovers the wardrobe that leads to Narnia. A mysterious letter arrives at Harry Potter’s house. It changes the course of the hero’s everyday life and, as Kathryn says, usually results in some sort of a quest. It’s the reason why the author chose to begin the story on that particular day in the hero’s life.

Pride and Prejudice 3Sydney: Sorry, Jenny, but we have to be really careful to distinguish between a plot trigger (an event that hands the protagonist a problem they have to solve during the course of the story, and which also activates an antagonist) and the event or situation that opens the story. The two can be the same thing – but aren’t always. The event that opens Pride and Prejudice is the news that a rich young bachelor has entered the neighbourhood. ‘What a fine thing for our girls!’ cries Mrs Bennet, starting her goal. Now she sets out to snare him for one of her penniless, unmarried daughters. But what is Elizabeth’s? It’s best to think of it coming in two parts. The first part is the realisation that her sister Jane is sincerely attached to Mr Bingley and vice versa, that their attraction is real and deep, and that she wants more than anything to see the pair married. This happens in Chapter 18, at the Netherfield ball. What is Mr Darcy’s plot trigger? It’s the appalling realisation, courtesy of Mrs Bennet’s boasting, that his friend Bingley has fallen for Jane, a nice girl in herself but a member of a shockingly vulgar family. He wants more than anything to prevent the match, thus keeping him free of lowly connections. That happens in Chapter 18, too, and constitutes the second part of the plot trigger. A plot trigger activates the antagonist as well as the protagonist who now has a goal to pursue. Mrs Bennet’s antagonist is circumstance – she has to plot and scheme to bring Jane and Bingley together. Hence the infamous episode where she sends her daughter on horseback to spend the day with the Bingley sisters. Jane is drenched to the skin, falls sick and must spend five days there. Elizabeth’s antagonist is Mr Darcy and she is his. Their opposition has been activated at the same time. He does everything he can to prevent the match while she does everything she can to promote it. Each creates an obstacle for the other; each stands in the way of the other as they seek to get what they want. This is a plot trigger. Or rather, it’s two plot triggers, those of Elizabeth and Darcy. They are vitally connected.

Why is it necessary?

Plot trigger 1Kath: Most novels are about a protagonist’s quest to get somewhere, find or achieve something. If it weren’t for the plot trigger, the quest would never come about. There would be no story. The recent animated film Frozen is about a girl’s mission to save her sister from herself. If the sister had stayed in her room and never exposed to the world her special yet dangerous magic talent, she wouldn’t have run away and the sister wouldn’t have had to go after her. In other words, we wouldn’t have a story.

Jennifer: Stories are about solving problems. A trigger is necessary to jump-start the plot and change the status quo. Without the arrival of a fairy godmother, Cinderella would still be sweeping the fireplace. If Jack wasn’t paid in beans instead of coins, he’d still be poor and living with his mother. Without that letter, Harry would never get to Hogwarts school for wizards.

Sydney: A plot trigger gives a narrative its aim and “point”. This is what the story is about. When a plot trigger doesn’t happen, or comes in too late, as is often the case in unpublished manuscripts, the reader feels confused and disconnected from the story. They don’t know what it’s about. They’re also bored because there’s no tension of a directed nature. This idea of directed tension is essential. A story can have loads of tension, but if it isn’t directed, the tension is wasted on the reader. A plot trigger focuses the protagonist and therefore the story and gives them purpose.

Do all novels have plot triggers?

Kath: I’m still thinking about it. Meantime …

Jennifer: They have to, don’t they? Something has to happen to set off a chain of events. Simply put, the protagonist then tries to solve a problem, and the antagonist tries to prevent him/her from succeeding. Every story I can think of works this way. Except maybe for stream of consciousness novels like Ulysses by James Joyce. It may have a plot trigger, but I was too confused while reading it to tell

Sydney: Yes, a novel must have a plot trigger to kick off the action. Even stream of consciousness narratives will have an external event that kicks off the internal journey – Mrs Dalloway plans to hold a party, for example. But since the journey here is of the consciousness, the plot trigger might not be dramatic – that is, bring two characters together on opposing sides of a problem. In stream of consciousness, the antagonist is part of the internal life of the character.
Kath, while we were discussing plot triggers before we started writing the blog, you wondered whether literary fiction uses plot triggers. I said they do. Jenny is on the button when she says why. But while genre fiction often has to stick to a convention in this regard, literary fiction can play fast and loose with its plot triggers. In crime fiction, the body has to appear in the first chapter, for example. In a romance, the hero and heroine have to meet in the first or second chapter. Science fiction has to do something sci-fi in its opening chapter, or feature sci-fi things like transponders or teleporters. Fantasy fiction must have fantastical features in its first chapter, like dragons or magical orbs or characters coping with a winter that is already ten years old. I call this stuff décor. Décor tells the reader what kind of story they are reading. Even though they have started reading it because the blurb has assured them it’s their kind of story, they want the reinforcement that décor provides.
Literary fiction has décor, too, but is harder to pin down because it’s doing other things. Likewise, literary fiction can play fast and loose with plot triggers, what they look like and where they happen. I talked about Elizabeth’s plot trigger in Pride and Prejudice, which happens a long way into the action, relatively speaking. There is a very good reason for that. If Jane Austen had set Elizabeth’s plot trigger in Chapter 1, she would have had a problem: how can she convince the reader that Jane is sincerely attached to Mr Bingley and vice versa? She’s got another problem: how can she convince the reader that Elizabeth’s hostility to Mr Darcy is real and believable, not merely a plot convention or device? Elizabeth’s hostility to Darcy is essential to the tension between them, and the tension surrounding their views on a match between her sister and his friend. If Jane Austen had put their plot triggers in Chapter 1, she would have lost the reader, who wouldn’t believe it. So she set up Mrs Bennet’s plot trigger to kick off the story and give it energy and focus until it was time for Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s to kick in. Notice that Mrs Bennet’s Machiavellian schemes re Jane and Bingley tail off after that. They are no longer necessary to keep the narrative ship on course. Jane Austen has to do a number of other things, too, before Elizabeth and Darcy can have their plot triggers, like bringing in Mr Wickham, whose plot trigger happens when he sees Darcy in Meryton and sets out to ruin his life socially in that neighbourhood. Everything Jane Austen puts in place before Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s plot triggers is essential to the machinery, if you like, of the novel, to make sure it all runs smoothly.
LolitaIn Lolita, Humbert’s plot trigger happens when he sees the child he calls Lolita. This happens at the end of chapter 10, forty pages into the novel. Why didn’t Nabokov place it in the first chapter? Because without Humbert’s history of paedophilia and his justification for it, the plot trigger would have been meaningless. And yet the story needs to keep the reader interested before the plot trigger is pulled. And it has to be done in such a way that the plot trigger makes sense. So, Humbert describes his pursuit of sex with little girls, and his ignominious defeats, until he walks into a house in Middle America and sees Dolly Haze, the girl he plans to trample over like the Nazis trampling over Poland.

Kath: How clever of me to handball that to Sydney!

Sydney: Where would I be without your cleverness, Kath? Groping for something to say, that’s where!

Where are the plot triggers in your novels?

Kath: In my first novel, Rough Diamond, the plot trigger happens on the first page – the protagonist Erica Jewell arrives home to find a man bleeding to death in her front garden. There was a potential problem in starting this way because we didn’t yet know Erica well enough to understand her actions in this situation. Most readers were ok with it – my publisher certainly was – but if I were to do it again, I’d probably show Erica in her ordinary world first. That said, a high-octane scene to open is certainly a great hook for the reader.
In Monkey Business, we’re about 13,000 words into the story before the plot trigger (a telephone call) sends Erica on her mission to find Jack, who is missing in action. Because this is part of a series, and yet the novel must still be able to stand on its own, scene-setting and back story were important.
Likewise in Grand Slam (working title for no. 3 in the series). Again we’re over 10,000 words into the story before the trigger (an explosion on an oil rig). There are several sub-plots and it’s important to set those up before the action starts.

Jennifer: I believe in inserting plot triggers right up front, to capture the reader’s interest quickly. In my first novel, Wasp Season, the plot trigger occurs in the first paragraph with Zenandra, the European wasp queen, choosing a nesting site in Beth’s fallen tree. That’s when all the trouble begins.
In Brumby’s Run it’s in the prologue, when we learn that Mary had to give up one of her newborn twins for adoption.
In Currawong Creek it’s in the first chapter, when a four year old boy is left behind in Clare’s office.
In Billabong Bend it’s in the second chapter (late for me) when Nina meets a mysterious stranger at a masquerade ball. No, maybe it’s earlier. In the first chapter, when we learn that the rare wetlands along the Bunyip River are in danger, and that Nina is determined to protect them.
And in my current novel, Turtle Reef, it’s at the end of the first chapter, when Zoe gets a phone call offering her a job as a marine researcher.

Sydney: A plot trigger, if it’s to qualify as such, has to offer the protagonist a problem that gets in the way of their goal. After all, a plot is created by the protagonist working to solve a problem. That problem is embodied in the antagonist, or a group of antagonists. Elizabeth wants to see Jane married to Mr Bingley, but she must work on the problem created by Caroline Bingley and Darcy, who oppose the match. Humbert wants to get his hands on Dolly Haze, but must work against the problem caused by Charlotte, Dolly’s mother, who keeps edging herself between Humbert and the child. He also must work against the law: sex between adult and child is illegal.
If a plot trigger is to work, it must not only begin with an event, it must involve an antagonist. If those two things are not there, the event is not a plot trigger. It’s something else, which can also be important but is not the plot trigger. A standard example is a crime novel, which opens with a dead body. The corpse brings together the detective AND the killer, each of whom is working on opposing sides of a problem. The detective wants to find the killer, the killer wants to avoid detection. Thus, discovery of the body is a plot trigger. It isn’t a plot trigger if it doesn’t involve an antagonist.

Jennifer: I thought a plot trigger (an event) was different to an inciting incident ( the call to action that engages the hero). Although as you point out, Sydney, they are sometimes one and the same. Maybe I’ve got my definitions wrong.

Sydney: The term “inciting incident” comes from writing screenplays. There’s nothing wrong with borrowing terms from another form, as long as you keep in mind that it IS another form. In movies, the plot trigger comes in between eighteen and twenty-five minutes into the film. You can time it. Viewers come to expect this. It’s a convention of movies across the board, from genre to arthouse, from Hollywood to independent to European to Asian. Plot triggers in fiction are not so convention-bound, outside certain kinds of genre novels.

Kathryn Ledson is the author of Rough Diamond and Monkey Business (Penguin), part of the Erica Jewell series of romantic adventures. You can visit her website and find her blog at www.kathrynledson.com
Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She is currently writing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, feel free to visit her at The Story Whisperer.

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What Makes A Good Antagonist? – Plus Book Giveaway!

BB14Welcome to our cross-blog, which offers tips on writing. Every month writing mentor Sydney Smith ‘interviews’ author Kathryn Ledson and me on some aspect of the writing craft. We welcome your questions and comments. To celebrate my nomination for the Australian Writer’s Centre Best Australian Blogs 2014 (and also for reaching 30,000 views on my website!) I’m giving away a signed copy each of Wasp Season, Brumby’s Run and Currawong Creek. To go in the draw, leave a comment telling us who is your favourite fictional bad guy! (Aust & NZ residents only)

This month’s question is: What makes a good antagonist?

cross blogAccording to Wikipedia, “An antagonist is a person or group of people who oppose the main character.” But the antagonist can also be non-human. It can be a dragon, a Martian, a volcano, a disease like Parkinson’s; anything that opposes the protagonist.

Sydney:
An antagonist is a broader and more complex idea than a villain. A villain acts for purely selfish reasons and does destructive things with no consideration for the effect they will have on others. A villain is wicked. A villain is unable to change and grow.

An antagonist, on the other hand, is a character who pursues a certain goal in the story. This goal opposes that of the protagonist. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr Darcy is Elizabeth’s main antagonist until after the first proposal scene. But it is Mr Wickham who is the villain, and he doesn’t emerge in that light until after Mr Darcy sets Elizabeth straight about what really happened between him and Wickham.

Villains have a role in fiction. Crime novels use villains. A serial killer is a villain. Any character who feels entitled to murder to get what they want is a villain. But then we get into a tricky area, because some crime fiction heroes, like Lucas Davenport in John Sandford’s Prey series, feel entitled to shoot dead the killer he has been pursuing.

Jennifer:
Great antagonists make great stories, don’t they? Thwarting our hero at every turn, keeping the reader turning those pages. A compelling antagonist needs to be built with the same care as any other character. Unfortunately, I often read books where the bad guy is underdeveloped, a cardboard cut-out who is simply evil for evil’s sake. For me, an antagonist needs strong motivation and has to have something at stake, ie: needs to be trying to avoid something or gain something. They must be intelligent and adaptable – worthy adversaries. A compelling antagonist must also be flawed in some way, perhaps having a weakness that readers can relate to and even causes readers to be a little torn at times as to where their sympathies lie. I also love them to have secrets. But of course the most important thing is for the antagonist to stand fairly and squarely in the path of our hero.

the-perfect-storm 2I’m fascinated by the concept of non-human things being antagonists. I’ve just read The Perfect Storm, a creative non-fiction book by Sebastian Junger, where the weather is a spectacular villain. Literary fiction and commercial women’s fiction often don’t have a clear wrong-doer, but even so they must have someone or something opposed to the hero, or else the narrative drive just falls away. You suggested to me, Sydney, that in my book Currawong Creek the troubled four-year-old boy Jack was the antagonist, because his presence and behaviour constantly gets in the way of my hero’s plans. Whatever or whoever your antagonist may be, it’s worth investing plenty of time on them.

Sydney:
I think part of the problem is that writers think antagonists have to be bad people. This is surely connected to the common fallacy that conflict is negative. A good antagonist, like conflict, feeds the narrative. As you say, Jenny, without a strong antagonist, the story falls away. That’s because there isn’t enough for the hero to do! But an antagonist must do more than give the hero something to do. They have to be focused on what they want. They have to be prepared to do ANYTHING to get it. Stories ramp up the tension and suspense as soon as the main players are prepared to do anything to get what they’re after.

Kathryn:
Like Jennifer, I’m especially fascinated by non-human antagonists because for me their elusive non-humanness makes them even more frightening than your average axe-wielding psycho. The scraping sound in the attic. The jungle and its slithering, crawling, scuttling inhabitants. The house whose walls bleed. Christine. But human or not, one thing that gives an antagonist depth of character is his/her/its own goal, and motivation for it. I’ve learned (thank you, Sydney) that it’s vital for the author to keep this in mind and, as Jen says, just as important as the goal and motivation of the protagonist. Your antagonist’s goal and motivation should be so strong that if the story were written from his point of view, we would be barracking for him!

Jaws 2Let’s look at JAWS as a timely example, where the obvious villain has an apparent goal to eat everyone in that peaceful seaside town, selfishly snatching away and ripping apart whoever dares stick a toe in that water. However, if the story of the terrifying monster shark – let’s call him Bruce – were written from Bruce’s point of view, we’d discover his motivation for that goal. It might be to avenge all the horrible atrocities committed against his family by humans. When he was a tiny sharkling, perhaps he watched his mother being definned and tossed, alive, back into the sea where she spent hours lying on the ocean floor with baby Brucie pleading as she drowned, “Please swim, Mummy!” And she in turn warning him off, “Save yourself, my son!” Perhaps even the Horrible Human that the now fully grown and vengeful Bruce seems hell-bent on devouring is the one who murdered his mother. (Actually, I’m trying to remember the story and something like this might in fact be the case.) Anyway, if Bruce’s story were written well, we’d be standing in the aisles cheering him on! We might even go swimming that summer, knowing Bruce’s friends would be satisfied with their hero’s fine work; that the shark population was now safe from the evil doings of That Terrifying Human.

So you can see that, as a writer, knowing your antagonist’s goal and motivation can really help build its character, even if it’s never openly stated in the writing. But it will surely emerge, and the reader will sense it but possibly not understand why your antagonist is a truly terrifying one.

Sydney:
I totally get where Bruce is coming from. I feel like cheering him on – except that I’m not sure I agree with someone using violence to resolve their conflicts!

Kath has made a good point, though. Whether the non-human antagonist is a shark or a tsunami, anthropomorphising it will allow the reader to identify with it. Whatever the reader may think of this practice, it is effective. Perhaps it also shows the limits of the human imagination that we find it so hard to imagine a being whose psychology is different to our own. Even when we get back to basics – what does this creature need to survive? what does it fear? – we tend to make them human-like in their responses to these needs and dreads. I recall watching District 8, a movie out of South Africa, which uses a colony of aliens to discuss issues of refugees and asylum-seekers (and any marginalised group, really). The film-maker, who also wrote the script, was unable to imagine what it was like to be one of the aliens. His human hero was terrific, but the film fell short when it came to making the alien a riveting and complex character. Which means that the issues the film discussed were let down and undermined by this shortcoming in the movie.

In fact, now I think of it, any one of us can have trouble imagining what it is like to be someone else, human or animal or alien or force of nature, when what is really required of us is to step into the shoes of another being. Surely this is one of the great services fiction offers us all, whether it’s literary or genre: the chance to feel what it’s like to be someone else.

I love anthropomorphising! And Kathryn, you almost made me cry with your image of baby Bruce urging his poor dying, mutilated mother to swim … Readers, don’t forget to tell us your favourite bad guy for your chance to win books! Winners announced 30th March.

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.

The New Romantics

The New Romantics

L-R Kate Belle, Me, Jan Bull, Kathryn Ledson and Margareta Osborn

I’ve joined forces with authors Kate Belle, Kathryn Ledson and Margareta Osborn to form a panel called The New Romantics. Together we present a fresh and modern take on Aussie love stories. Though none of us write traditional ‘romance’, we all have strong romantic elements in our books.

 

 

CC 1 003Yesterday was our very first gig. It was in celebration of National Bookshop Day, and we were warmly welcomed and entertained by the gorgeous people of Foster and South Gippsland. Many thanks to Jan and Bob of Foster’s Little Bookshop, for organising and hosting the event!

 

Rough Diamond Front Cover FinalI talked about how a modern romance may be all about passion, but it’s not just about the passion between two people falling in love. The medieval concept of romance always involved some sort of a quest, and so does a modern love story – it is a character’s search for herself. I also talked about how my passion for the environment is channelled into my stories.

 

 

Hope's RoadMargareta (author of Bella’s Run and Hope’s Road) talked about her own, marvellous brand of rural fiction. As a fifth-generation farmer, her ties to the land are very strong and her books convey a sense of place, community and belonging. Kathryn (author of Rough Diamond) gave us her hilarious take on romantic comedy. Kate (author of The Yearning) discussed whether or not that happy-ever-after ending is an essential element of a modern romance novel, and much, much more.

Yearning lo resAll in all it was a fabulous day, and an encouraging beginning to our life together as an author panel. We are available for events and festivals! Contact the lovely Kate Belle (ecstasyfiles at gmail dot com), who has become our de facto organiser. I look forward to many more stimulating authorly discussions and would love for you all to join us sometime in the future!

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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.

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Brumby’s Run Q&A

CC 3The launch date of my new novel, Currawong Creek is fast approaching. Penguin Books (Aust) is offering a digital price promotion ahead of the new title’s release. The ebook of Brumby’s Run (usually $12.99) is available at $4.99 until the 28th June. For those who haven’t read it, today I’m posting a Penguin Q&A about Brumby’s Run for your information. Here’s the link for last week’s Currawong Creek Q&A

Penguin Q & A with Jennifer Scoullar, author of Brumby’s Run

What is your book about?

2nd BR CoverBrumby’s Run is a story about a young woman named Samantha. She discovers she has a twin sister, Charlie, who is critically ill. City girl Sam soon finds herself running her sister’s farm, high in the Victorian alps. This new life, Charlie’s life, intrigues her. Bit by bit she falls in love with the mountains, the brumbies and with handsome neighbour Drew Chandler, her sister’s erstwhile lover. Sam begins to wish that Charlie might never come home.

What or who inspired it?

Originally I was inspired by the classic Banjo Paterson poem of the same name. It is one of my absolute favourites. But I was also inspired by the magnificent wild horses of the high country, and the fine work done by Australia’s various Brumby welfare associations.

90px-Penguin_logo_svgWhat was the biggest challenge, writing it?

My biggest challenge was finishing the novel in time to pitch to Penguin at the 2011 RWA Conference. I only just made it!       

What did you want to achieve with your book?

I wanted to share my love of Victoria’s beautiful upper Murray region, and pay tribute to the fabled wild horses of the high country. I also wanted to entertain readers with a passionate and unusual love story.

What do you hope for your book?

I hope it may be widely read and enjoyed.

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

The horses are based on my own, favourite animals, past and present.

Do you have a favourite character or one you really enjoyed writing?

I have a soft spot for Charlie, and really admire her spirit.

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

One of the major themes in Brumby’s Run is our search for personal identity. The book also explores our relationship with animals and the environment.

high country horses

What made you set it in Victoria’s high country?I have a great love for this region, and it is where the Brumbies are.

Did the title come instantly to you or did you labour over it?I’d always wanted to base my novel on Banjo Paterson’s classic bush poem, Brumby’s Run, so the title was a given.

To whom have you dedicated the book and why?I’ve dedicated the book to Australia’s various Brumby welfare associations, in acknowledgement of the wonderful work they do protecting our wild horses.

Who do you think will enjoy your book?

Anybody who enjoys passionate love stories, set in Australia’s spectacular wild places.

Do you have a special ‘spot’ for writing at home? (If so, describe it)

Home Office I have a small office space off the lounge room (no door!), but with a noisy family, this isn’t always ideal. My favourite spot is over at the stables. Horses are good listeners, and don’t mind you reading aloud.

Do you like silence or music playing while you’re writing?

Silence. I’m easily distracted otherwise.

When did you start writing?

As a child I was an avid reader and loved writing stories and poems. I began my very first novel when I was eleven years old.

Did you always want to become an author?

I did, but then I grew up, and life kind of got in the way. There was long gap before I returned to my original passion for writing.

Tell us a bit about your childhood?

I was a horse-mad child. My family had a house in Melbourne as well as a property in the mountains. At every chance I escaped to the farm to be with my horses.

If you’ve had other jobs outside of writing, what were they?

I graduated from Monash University with a Bachelor of Law and Jurisprudence, and worked for a while as a solicitor. I have also raised four children, with the youngest one still at school. Now that’s a job!

Describe yourself in three words?Passionate, compassionate and curious.

capricornWhat star sign are you and are you typical of it?

I’m a Capricorn. That’s an earth sign, and I do feel a deep spiritual connection to the  earth. Typically Capricorns are ambitious and serious, with a strong work ethic. I suppose that describes me. They are also supposed to be neat and tidy. That definitely doesn’t describe me!

What three things do you dislike?

Cruelty, greed and indifference.

What three things do you like?

My family, my animals and having the opportunity to write, in that order.

Have you a family, partner or are you single?

As I said before, I have four wonderful children.  I am divorced and do not have a partner. Maybe no real-life man can measure up to my fictional outback heroes!

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Sunday With Jenn J Mcleod

Today please welcome author Jenn J Mcleod to Pilyara. Jenn quit Sydney’s corporate chaos to buy a little café in a small town. She now spends her days running a unique, dog-friendly B&B on her NSW property and writing life-affirming novels about friendship, family and small towns in which country roots run deep. Her debut novel A House For All Seasons, has impressed everybody with its moving story of friendship, family and forgiveness. And now, it’s over to Jenn …

Jenn J McLeod_54A1139 t‘Thanks for having me Jen. I just finished a fun interview for the Sweet Escape website.  It’s a confession really – about how authors fall in love with their fictional characters. As a writer of fiction, I get to play around with features, quirks and characteristics all the time – a bit like a Mr Potato Head (only more attractive!) or maybe a Police Identity-sketch kit (only not so creepy!) As a pantster (the industry term for writing by the seat of one’s pants rather than plotting) I sit at my desk and let the story take me on a journey. Then, along the way, I fall in love with my conflicted characters – the good, the bad and the flawed.

Just like a Mr Potato Head can never be George Clooney, made-up people don’t need to be perfect either. As one of my characters says in House for all Seasons, “I’m a flawed person trying to be good”, and I think it’s the ‘do good’ rather than the ‘be perfect’ that makes a person beautiful. So yes, flawed characters make for a more authentic story, and readers relate to authenticity. They expect it from their authors.

My approach to inventing fictional settings for my small town stories also involves a kind of morphing of favourite features. Four small NSW towns influenced the Calingarry Crossing township in House for all Seasons: Sawtell, Bellingen, Bowraville and Ulmarra – only I plonked it just west of the Great Divide.

I admit to loving a small town setting because small towns provide the perfect stage for conflict and drama – mostly because everything seems amplified and more personal in a small town. I also enjoy debunking small town generalisations. For a start, ‘small town’ in no way means small-minded. And there are other perceptions – namely that people in small towns are laid-back, open and friendly (almost cliched). But underneath they can be quite insular, cliquey, wary – especially of newcomers. I think balance is the key.

When it was time to type the words the end on my latest release, House for all Seasons, I struggled to let go. I’d fallen in love with my made-up town and wasn’t ready to leave. So, although I didn’t intend linking novels, next year’s release – The Simmering Season – picks up secondary threads, weaving them into a school reunion story with a difference; one that brings home more than memories for Calingarry Crossing’s publican, Maggie Lindeman.

With some terrific reviews  for House for all Seasons, there is a recurrent comment about both my characters and setting – they are authentic. Authenticity is what my publisher said made her fall in love with House for all Seasons. The secret for me is writing what I know. I moved to a small town, many years ago now, where knowing everyone in town is comforting – until there’s a secret you want to keep! I remember those early days of my tree-change when I moved from Sydney to buy a small cafe in a small country town. Such mixed emotions: excited, terrified—humbled by the wonderful welcome of a very friendly community. It was like coming home. ‘Coming home’ has provided me with an author platform from which to create and promote my small town stories like House for all Seasons: In a country house surrounded by the past, four friends will discover… small towns can keep big secrets.

House for all Seasons Jenn J McLeodHouse for all Seasons is a story about coming home and of country roots that run deep.

In order to claim an unexpected inheritance – the century-old Dandelion House on the outskirts of Calingarry Crossing – four estranged school friends return to their hometown after twenty years and stay a season each to fulfil the wishes of their benefactor, Gypsy.

  • Poppy, a tough, ambitions journo still craving her father’s approval;
  • Sara, a breast cancer survivor afraid to fall in love;
  • Amber, a spoilt socialite addicted to painkillers and cosmetic procedures;
  • Caitlin, a third generation doctor frustrated by a controlling family and her flat-lining life.

House for all Seasons is a story of unravelling friendships and of ties that will forever bind four women to each other and to the century-old Dandelion house.

There are such fabulous town names in Australia. Not until I started coming up with names (checking them in Google to see if they already existed) did I discover some beauties, like the NSW town called Willow Tree. Isn’t that lovely?

Do you have favourite fiction town names – or perhaps know of some uniquely Australian town names to share?’

Aussie Auhor MonthThanks Jenn, for a fascinating post! I know a lot of people, including me, are looking forward to your next release. Don’t forget that in honour of Aussie Author month I’m giving away two of my books (Brumby’s Run and Wasp Season; see previous post). To go into the draw, just leave a comment saying why you love Aussie stories. Winners announced 30th April.

Book Giveaway Winners!

australiadaybloghopThank you to everybody who participated in last week’s Australia Day Book Giveaway Blog Hop. The winners drawn randomly are Tara Nikelis (Wasp Season) and Jess Fitz (Brumby’s Run).

I was very moved by the many thoughtful comments. It’s great to see so many people care about the plight of our native plants and animals. Any commenter who missed out can have a signed copy of Wasp Season for $10 or Brumby’s Run for $15 and I will pay the postage. Just drop me an email at jennifer.scoullar@bigpond.com.

The Tassie Tiger and Tassie Devil were clear winners in the comment stakes! Obviously these unique marsupial carnivores hold a special place in Aussie hearts. Once again, thanks to everybody who participated in the blog hop. It was a lot of fun!BB2013_Nominee