My Writing Goals 2019

Journey’s End

2019 is already promising to be a busy and exciting year! I’m writing a sequel to Brumby’s Run, the novel inspired by my love for the wild horses of the Victorian high country. I can’t resist finding out what happens next to Sam, Charlie and the brumbies!

I’m also re-releasing two books to an international audience – Journey’s End, Book 5 in the Wild Australia Stories and Wasp Season, a quirky little eco-thriller that was my first book.

However right now I’m editing The Memory Tree, the third book in my Tasmanian Tales series. Here’s a sneak peek …

Sarah frowned. ‘The fools didn’t know what they had.’ She turned to face the sweeping panorama across the Derwent River. A cold wind whipped off the water. ‘And now Tasmanian tigers are gone forever.’

‘Is anything ever really gone?’ said Penny. ‘They were here just a blink ago. There are traces of them everywhere ‒ in the rivers, in the trees. We’re breathing the same air they did,’ she kicked at a rock, ‘… walking the same ground. Look back in time and they’re just behind us. Look too far ahead, and we’re gone too.’

The Memory Tree

The Memory Tree will be released in  September. This is the blurb:

Playing God is a dangerous  game …

When forest protests engulf a tiny Tasmanian timber town, one family’s century of secrets threatens to destroy a marriage – and bring down a government.

Matt Abbott, head ranger at beautiful Binburra National Park, is a man with something to hide.  He confides his secret to nobody, not even his wife Penny. The deception gnaws away at their marriage.

Matt’s father, timber and mining magnate Fraser Abbott, stands for everything Matt hates. Son disappoints father, father disappoints son – this is their well-worn template. But Fraser seems suddenly determined to repair the rift between them at any cost, and Matt will discover that secrets run in the family. When Sarah, a visiting Californian geneticist, tries to steal Matt’s heart, the scene is set for a deadly betrayal.

The Memory Tree is a haunting story of family relationships, the unbreakable ties we all have to the past and the redemptive power of love.


And now for the winners of this month’s prize draw! Congratulations to Joan Hicks  and Aparna.A.Chandrashekaran. You have won a two eBooks of your choice. Australian winners may choose one print book instead. I shall email you both soon for your requests.

Happy Reading 🙂

Happy New Year!

A Happy New Year to all my friends and readers! It’s a beautiful sunny New Year’s Day here in the southern Victorian ranges – one of the loveliest places on earth. I’m looking forward to a wonderful year full of riding, writing and reading.

I’m also looking forward to publishing three more novels. Two will be international publications of books already released in Australia: Journey’s End and Wasp Season. I’m busy revising them at the moment to make them the best they can be. It’s a great privilege to be able to revisit a previously published work. Thank you Pilyara Press!

 

THE MEMORY TREE

The third book I’ll publish in 2019, The Memory Tree, will be a brand new release in Australia as well as in the rest of the world. It’s the third in the Tasmanian Tales trilogy, and will be out in the second half of this year.
Like the novels preceding it, The Memory Tree pays homage to my love of Tasmania’s unique flora and fauna, and particularly the Tassie Devil. Here’s a brief synopsis …

THE MEMORY TREE – coming soon

‘Playing God is a dangerous game …
When forest protests engulf a tiny Tasmanian timber town, one family’s century of secrets threatens to destroy a marriage – and bring down a government.

Matt Abbott, head ranger at beautiful Binburra National Park, is a man with something to hide. He confides his secret to nobody, not even his wife Penny. The deception gnaws away at their marriage.
Matt’s father, timber and mining magnate Fraser Abbott, stands for everything Matt hates. Son disappoints father, father disappoints son – this is their well-worn template. But Fraser seems suddenly determined to repair the rift between them at any cost, and Matt will discover that secrets run in the family. When Sarah, a visiting Californian geneticist, tries to steal Matt’s heart, the scene is set for a deadly betrayal.

The Memory Tree is a haunting story of family relationships, the unbreakable ties we all have to the past and the redemptive power of love.


Now to announce the December winners of this month’s prize draw!
They are 57glorygirl@gmail.com and c.carr@sheldoncollege.com.
Congratulations. I shall email you soon to ask which two of my eBooks you would like. Australian readers may choose one print book instead.
(I have contacted the winners of the Christmas Turtle Reef giveaway privately.)

HAPPY READING in 2019!

 

The Animal Characters Of ‘Turtle Reef’

Today, author Sydney Smith interviews me about the animals in my upcoming release, Turtle Reef.

TurtleReef_coverSYDNEY: Jenny, your latest novel, Turtle Reef, will soon come out. As with Currawong Creek, the story contains plenty of animal characters and a child with an intellectual disability. One of the interesting things about your fiction is the theme of “wise” animals and children like Jack in Currawong and Josh in Turtle Reef―wise because they feel comfortable in their place in the world, comfortable with themselves, while adult humans stuff things up left, right and centre. Can you talk about how you see these wise animals and children?

JENNIFER: I believe children haven’t strayed as far from the animal, and thus instinctively understand the natural world and their place in it. I struggle with our modern disconnect from nature. Most of us live our lives so removed from the elemental that we rarely even touch the earth. We tell ourselves that we are separate from the natural world. But I worry about the cost to our declining environment. Not to mention the cost to our hearts. The rural fiction genre is so popular because readers are hungry to re-engage with nature, to ground themselves. Jon Krakauer’s Into The Wild tapped into this vein. The wildly successful movie, Avatar, did the same. For me, losing touch with wildness means losing touch with ourselves. In a review of my debut novel, Wasp Season, Diana Jenkins (News Editor, Varuna National Writers’ Centre) put it this way :

Wasp Season cover‘Jennifer’s a changeling, in my mind, someone who’s not really human at all, or at least not in the conventional sense. She’s too alive to the possibilities and voices of other living things for that. But with what eyes does she see? How does she so convincingly inhabit the wasps? I think it’s because she’s somehow emerged with her childlike wonder intact. Remember foraging around at the bottom of every garden or wood or forest or glen you came across as a child? How fantastic it seemed, how secretive? How full of drama and exquisite beauty? I remember it really clearly, and when I think of Jennifer’s eye on the natural world I imagine that I just might be able to reach that magic garden again.’

SYDNEY: So when you started to think about writing Turtle Reef, how did you come to choose which aspect of the drama of the Great Barrier Reef to write about? Would you say part of your role as a writer is to educate readers about how to correct old mistakes in the management of the natural world?

Great Barrier ReefJENNIFER: The Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral ecosystem on our blue planet, holds a special place in the hearts of most Australians. As you suggest in your question, it has so many aspects that lend themselves to dramatic stories. I tell human and animal tales side by side, exploring how we exist together in one habitat. Choosing a cane farmer and marine zoologist as my main protagonists allowed me to look at the varied parts the reef plays in the life of coastal communities. It was also an excuse to write about dugongs and dolphins!

My aim as a writer is to entertain. It’s not my role to educate readers in any way. I simply present issues that confront people in regional areas on a day-to-day basis. However, we are so often on a collision course with nature. If my stories spark debate about conservation, that’s a bonus.

SYDNEY: Can you talk a bit about how you build an animal character? You’ve told me already about Einstein, the octopus. I was instantly captivated (and still think about inklets, baby octopi!). How much anthropomorphism goes into it? Or do you think the key to creating an animal character lies elsewhere?

JENNIFER: The first thing I do when building animal characters is to learn everything I can about their lives. This is my favourite part of the writing process. I’ve been an amateur naturalist for as long as I can remember, and love nothing more that immersing myself in the world of a brumby, or goose, or dolphin. Then I build my animal character much like I would any other, imagining its personality, back-story and motivation. In my view, anthropomorphism is a useful tool for navigating this planet that we share with other animals.

BlackfishTake the recent documentary film, Blackfish, for example. It tells the story of Tilikum, a captive Orca who killed several of his trainers. It’s an emotionally-wrenching, tightly-structured tale that relies on us empathising with the whale’s plight. Thoughtful, balanced anthropomorphism helps us perceive the kinship shared by humans and animals. Can I add, Only The Animals, by Ceridwen Dovey, has been long-listed for the Stella Prize. In this astonishing anthology, the souls of ten animals that died in human conflicts over the last century tell their own stories. The old taboo against anthropomorphism is lifting, and it’s a good thing too.

Only the animalsSYDNEY:  Hm. Only the Animals sounds like a must-read to me. Only, I’m scared I’ll bawl my eyes out! Getting back to how you build an animal character, you immersed yourself in the worlds of several marine animals. Have you got any insights to impart about your discoveries?

JENNIFER: Yes Sydney, Only The Animals may not be for you. It’s very confronting and you’d probably cry. I did!

Getting back to the animals in Turtle Reef, I too am intrigued by my octopus character, Einstein. These misunderstood creatures are usually cast in an evil light. Take the giant, murderous octopus from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, for example, or Ursula the sea witch from The Little Mermaid. I think the octopus gets such bad press because it is an alarmingly alien animal. Eight suckered arms. Three hearts pumping blue, copper-based blood around its boneless body. However, I’m a big fan of this jet-powered invertebrate. Master of camouflage, a shape-shifter, and with an intelligence approaching that of a dog. And when it comes to maternal self-sacrifice? Well, you’ll just have to read the book …

DolphinI also learned a lot about dolphins. Recent scientific research suggests they have a wider range of emotions than humans, a culture that is handed down through generations, and personal names. Unlike us, they are conscious breathers. This was discovered in the 1960s, when researchers tried to anaesthetise dolphins. As soon as they fell unconscious, they stopped breathing and died. Depressed captive dolphins have been known to commit suicide by simply deciding not to breathe. In fact, the more I learned about dolphins, the more firmly opposed I became to them being held in marine parks. For example dolphins have a sixth sense, sonar, which becomes problematic when they are confined. Sound bounces off the concrete tanks, confusing and irritating them. Sonar is dolphins’ most effective tool for learning about the world around them. Thwarting their ability to use this sonar is tantamount to blinding them.

SYDNEY: That is so interesting, Jenny. Isn’t it funny how suggestible we are. If we’re presented with an animal as a hostile being, we become scared of the whole species. But present us with a friendly version and we love the whole species. How much of the drama that unfolds in Turtle Reef is shaped by human preconceptions about certain animals? Maybe you can talk about the contrast between the way Josh responds to these animals and the way some adult humans do.

octopusJENNIFER: There are lots of preconceptions being made about the characters in Turtle Reef, some negative, some positive, but mostly unwarranted. The instant aversion people feel towards Einstein, the octopus, for example. The automatic assumption that Kane the dolphin, with his perpetual smile, is peaceful and happy in captivity. Josh has a brain injury, so it’s assumed he is slow. Aisha, the Arabian mare, is branded a rogue, and nobody challenges this. However, with one exception, Josh isn’t guilty of pre-judging the other characters in Turtle Reef. He takes them as he finds them. So does Zoe. This is their strength. They can see past these preconceptions to the truth.

Thank you for your thought-provoking questions Sydney, and I look forward to sharing the story of Turtle Reef with my readers very soon!

Pre-order Turtle Reef here at Bookworld, Booktopia and Amazon

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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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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.

Very Inspiring Blogger Award

Very Inspiring Blogger Award

Fellow author and blogger Lord David Prosser (http://barsetshirediaries.wordpress.com/ ) has kindly nominated me for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award! After a little online snooping I discovered that he is actually a Lord. He’s the Lord of Bouldnor, an hereditary Manorial title lost in the mists of time, well the 1400′s anyway. I wonder how his Lordship feels about me being a staunch Aussie republican? Anyway, thank you for the nomination.

As an award winner, I’m asked to:

  1. Display the award certificate on my website and include a link to my sponsor.
  2. List five unusual facts about myself.
  3. Present 5 awards to deserving bloggers and drop them a comment to tip them off.

I’ve fulfilled the first condition which is to thank my sponsor and link back to his blog. Secondly I must post the award badge to my blog – done. By the way, I’ve changed the rules a bit to suit myself. Us colonials aren’t good at taking orders, my Lord. Okay, now for five unusual things about me.

  1. I once drove a tractor for a living.
  2. I have a great interest, affection and admiration for insects, particularly the social insects – wasps, ants and bees. Many insects display curiosity, learning ability and parental devotion (as you’ll discover if you read my first novel, Wasp Season) They are fascinating and highly underrated creatures.
  3. At one stage I gave up my job as a lawyer to become a full-time foster carer.
  4. I love to buy spent hens from battery farms. There is nothing quite so heart-warming as rehabilitating such birds, watching them learn to scratch, nest and dust-bathe etc. In return I get their friendship and lovely fresh eggs for many years.
  5. I am a member of a little writing group called the Little Lonsdale Group. Since its formation just a few years ago, four of our members (including me) have become published by major publishers – Random House, Penguin and Simon & Schuster. Pretty good going, huh?

Now for the part where I nominate five other bloggers. Drum roll please …

  1. Storie – Diane Simonelli
    http://dianesimonelli.wordpress.com/
  2. Margareta Osborn – The Voice Of The Bush http://www.margaretaosborn.com.au/blog-listing
  3. Jenn J Mcleod – Come Home to the Country
    http://www.jennjmcleod.com/blog/
  4. Whitney K E – Aspiring Romance Author
    http://whitneyk-e.blogspot.com.au/
  5. The Ecstacy Files – Kate Belle – (Over 18 only!)
    http://ecstasyfiles.com/blog/

And nominees, don’t feel obliged. I know how busy you all are!

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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

Australia Day Book Giveaway Blog Hop!

australiadaybloghopTHE ORIGINAL AUSTRALIANS

Welcome to this Australia Day book giveaway blog hop. It’s the brainchild of Shelleyrae and Confessions from Romaholics. The aim is to connect aussie authors and readers. My post today is about the original Australians. I’m not talking about our indigenous people, who share a proud history with this continent dating back at least 50,000 years. No, I’m talking about the flora and fauna that evolved along with our land over millions of years.

Tasmanian TigersIn Australia we have an exceptionally high number of unique species, yet we also have the highest extinction rate in the world. 126 species of plants and animals have vanished in just 200 years. Another 182 species are classified as endangered, and 201 more are threatened. Many are locally extinct, only surviving precariously on offshore islands or in captivity.

Brush tailed BettongThankfully we have moved beyond the worst cruelties of the past. For example, in the early twentieth century, live Brush-tailed Bettongs were sold for ninepence a dozen to be chased and torn apart by greyhounds. Today’s flora and fauna face more modern threats. Habitat loss and feral animals, such as cats, foxes and cane toads, are contributing to a second wave of extinctions.

We all have a part to play in protecting our precious native plants and animals. Why not celebrate our national day by doing something to help these original Australians?

  • BilbyGrow native plants. They provide wildlife with food and shelter.
  • Keep your cat inside, at least at night. Most marsupials are nocturnal and birds are at their most vulnerable at night.
  • De-sex your cats and dogs.
  • Put in a birdbath.
  • Avoid using pesticides in the house and garden. Most are toxic to reptiles and insect eaters.
  • Look out for native animals when driving.
  • tasmanian devilInstall nest boxes in trees for hollow-dwellers.
  • If fishing, do not leave fish hooks, line, sinkers, plastic bags or any other litter behind.
  • Join as a volunteer or member of a wildlife or conservation group.
  • Donate to groups like Bush Heritage Australia and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

I’m giving away two signed books – one copy of Brumby’s Run and one copy of Wasp Season. Just comment on this post, naming an extinct or endangered Australian plant or animal. Entries close at midnight on January 28th. Winners announced Sunday Feb 3rd. Giveaway for Australian residents only.

Click these links back to Book’d Out and Confessions from Romaholics to visit other participants in the Blog Hop and Book Giveaway. A peaceful and happy Australia Day to everybody!

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