The other day I needed to find a map I had drawn up for my fantasy novel. I drew it about five years ago, so I knew it would be stored somewhere in ‘the box’. This is where I have heaped all my miscellaneous writing and allied writing stuff going right back to when I was at high-school.
I have been lugging this stuff around from house to house knowing that I didn’t want to throw it away, but not ever bothering to open it up and go through it. So my ‘quick look’ to find the map turned into a two hour review session. I found stuff I couldn’t even remember writing!
In there I found the beginning of, and detailed plan for a vampire romance, written when I was just 16 years old, about 16 years before Ms Meyer took the world by storm! Now I’m not delusional, my 16 year-old writing is full of flaws (or should I say more flaws) and it is by no means best seller material. Also the market probably wasn’t there or waiting be tapped back then. The point is that I have dragged this story with me everywhere and hadn’t run an eyeball over it for more than 20 years.
I found stories I want to finish in this box. I found stories that should have been written as ‘flash fiction’ – a form that didn’t even formally exist when I penned these (yes, penned, not typed). And so far I’m only half way through the box!
How many other little gems have I forgotten? All this time I have been carrying around this work thinking it was just a personal history to see how my writing had progressed over the years, when in fact it is like a little veggie patch of ideas. Some can be left to the snails and earwigs while others just need a little light and fertile imagination and they could grow into something I would be proud to harvest!
I know no less than 5 Scotts. Not people of Scottish descent, men called Scott. I have two good friends called Kirsty, 3 Georgies and an Ela and an Ella. I could probably go on, but hopefully by now you are collecting your own groups of names of friends. You see my point.
Yet that never works in a novel. The cold, hard reality that we don’t actually see the characters with our eyes, and we don’t want to be reading “raven-haired Bruce” did this, “Bruce with the black hair” did that, and “Bruce, with his dark looks…” every time we need to read about the Bruce with the dark hair as compared to Bruce with the blond hair.
I can definitely see the practicalities of that, and I can see why authors avoid it, but now I feel like the gauntlet is thrown down. I’m going to put two people with the same first name into my next story, just to see if I can get away with it.
Which brings me to another name thing I’ve noticed, with the exception of Paul Haines (who used this to great effect), you never see characters with the same first name as the author. I don’t think I could ever put a Natalie into my books, even if I was writing under a pseudonym, it would just be too weird. As a reader, you can’t help but wonder if the writer has the same traits as their name-sake (which Paul Haines loved to play with, creeping out the more delicate of us in the crit group).
Thinking about it now, it would feel like I was doing a little cameo in the book, like Clive Cussler likes to do. But to have a completely unrelated-to-me character called Natalie, I don’t know if I could do it. I guess the gauntlet is down on that one too. Now I have a pair. I’ll try to inject a Natalie into my next story without making her a) me, b) fantasy me, or c) the exact opposite of me. In fact, I’ll try to make her no relation to me at all.
I’ll let you know how I get on. In the meantime these gauntlets might come in handy for some gardening…
Two weeks ago, in an effort to get myself writing, I did something that at first seemed completely counter-intuitive; I gave myself permission not to write. Yes, after so many months of setting weekly writing goals and sometimes meeting them amazingly well, and other times crashing and burning, I finally realised what was really annoying me about the whole process. It wasn’t the meeting or not meeting my targets, it was the constant guilt.
I would be doing something social and feeling bad about not writing, I would drag myself to the computer and feel bad about not having gone there sooner. It all seemed like a sea of guilt that ebbed and flowed but never really disappeared. For a very long time I’ve actually believed that not-writing-guilt is part of being a writer, but a fortnight ago I had had enough. I gave myself ‘the night off’.
It was wonderfully relaxing, I had a good time with friends then came home and went to bed early. There was no hint of guilt, in fact there was even a little spark of excitement knowing that I didn’t have to do anything. The next night I was refreshed and eager to head to the computer to put in a couple of hours of solid work. Why had I not thought of doing this before?
The fact is I’m not a full time writer, but I do have a full time job, and I have friendships to foster and family to support, so I shouldn’t feel like I need to give every spare moment to the keyboard, some of that time needs to be spent on other stuff in my life.
The guilt I felt about not writing was actually building up the pressure for the times when I did write, so much so that I had trouble writing. I’m sure a bit of a fear of failure was starting to creep in because I worried that when I did sit down to write that I wouldn’t be able to do so. There is nothing like a relaxed, refreshed mind to get the writing juices flowing, and mine was not relaxed.
So I now have three nights a week off. If I feel like I want to write, that’s fine, I can, but no more of this silly ‘I should be filling this empty hour with writing’ guilt (well not on those three days at least). So far it is working well, I’m sitting down more regularly for longer periods than I have in a long time. Let’s see if it sticks.
How important is it to future proof your story? I don’t tend to write a lot of contemporary fiction so it isn’t much of a problem for me, but I do read a lot, particularly action stories trying to be set in the universal ‘today’, and sometimes I think the book suffers for not being edited with the future reader in mind.
Recently, when I read a description about a supposedly cool character wearing shoulder pads and torn jeans I was completely pulled out of the story. This is one of the main reasons why I don’t tend describe what a character is wearing unless it is important to the story. This year’s dashing may be next year’s try-hard.
The book I’m reading now was published in 2000 and it keeps referring to the World Wide Web as if it is something exotic and daunting. The characters also carry on highly confidential conversations on their mobile phones, despite the fact that they are being hunted by every law enforcement agency in the world.
Both these things severely date what is an otherwise contemporary book, and the author is going to great pains never to refer to a date, as if they want it to remain contemporary for years to come. If only he had done a little more research on mobile phones to learn how non-secure they really are, which is something Prince Charles and Camilla taught the whole world a few years later.
I was travelling the world in the year 2000, so I have a pretty good recollection of what technology was around then. I was regularly emailing my friends with travel updates, and internet cafes (note: internet cafes, not World Wide Web cafes) were everywhere –even the middle of Fez where many of the other buildings still didn’t have electricity!
The point to telling you this is that back in 2000 access to the net was already becoming a big priority for many people. No we didn’t tweet, post Facebook updates or blog, but we were tapping into it regularity. It clearly wasn’t going to remain a mystery to many people for much longer. So perhaps the author should not have laboured on for so long about the WWW as if using it put his character above the average Joe.
I’m not saying it is easy to predict what is going to be normal in ten years time, and I’m not saying that I never get it wrong either, but I think if you are trying to write the eternally contemporary novel you have to be prepared to put in the hard yards and do some serious research about the technology in your story. And even the best stint of research won’t keep you story current forever.
Which makes me wonder why the author does try so hard to hide the year? What is so wrong with anchoring a story in a certain year or decade? I love to read books that are unashamedly set in the 80’s or 90’s. I’d actually be tempted to write one today so that you can have some mystery without mobile phones and CCTV at every corner.
At the end of the day it is fiction, I don’t believe that the magic is diminished if we know it didn’t really happen because the year 2000 was over a decade ago and we would have heard of that virus if it had really been threatening the world. When we read old science fiction and their technology is way off the mark of what really happened, it doesn’t undermine our enjoyment of a good story, we understand it was written in a different time. If this book had mentioned the decade, instead of sending me searching on the copyright page, I’m sure it wouldn’t have annoyed me anywhere near as much as it did.
I’m still hung-up on the idea of my unwritten horror story. I’m now digging myself into an even deeper conundrum; do I actually want to write a horror story? I was talking about it with a friend the other night and I realised that I don’t think I want to write horror stories any more. So that begs the question, even if this story in my head is great, is there a point in writing it when I don’t want to have to follow it up with more?
Something that writers and (more to the point) publishers have gotten hung up on is branding. What do you as an author write? The thinking is that if someone buys your book and likes it, they will only buy your next book if they can be assured that it will deliver something similar to the previous experience. Hence the rise and rise of trilogies, quadrilogies and series outside of the fantasy genre where it has always been a given.
I really dislike this idea, one look at my reading list and you will see that I try to read as widely as possible; everything from chick lit to scientific theory, so it is annoying to me that as a writer I have to be limited to just one genre if I want to be published. Often I’ll like an author’s style, and I’m willing to follow them along any story they want to take me to. Stephen King is a classic example with his fantastic sci-fi, classic horror, poignant coming of age and contemporary fiction (I know he also writes fantasy buy I’ve only just purchased the dark tower and haven’t yet started reading it).
Of course I’ve said it before, Stephen King did not just get to say ‘I want to write a story set in a prison about a man who is wrongfully accused of the murder of his wife’ and his publisher said ‘sure, easy sell’. He had to deliver a string of horror novels first, and even then he had to publish Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption in an omnibus with three other tales, and it was erroneously called a ‘tale of the supernatural’. So even back in the 70’s & 80’s branding was alive and well and impinging on the creativity of writers.
So this all comes back to my horror story conundrum. I finally decided not to write it. My horror story days were behind me and I had been working so hard to milk the one idea I had landed on that I thought I should just give it away. But just because my brain likes to surprise me on a regular basis on Thursday night I had a strong desire to pick up a pen and pad (I never write longhand) and in one sitting I wrote a full horror short story from start to finish. I didn’t even know it had been brewing.
Maybe it’s time for a pseudonym?
Back in the 80’s I was in the Ash Wednesday bushfires. I didn’t lose my house, but my school got evacuated, we saw the flames in the distance, and my Mum and I had to prepare the house (tennis balls in the gutters then lots of water everywhere) in preparation to flee – my father did not come up and help us because all the roads into the hills were cut off by fire, including the freeway.
That was fear.
This week, for the first time ever recorded in May, a fire raged through the Adelaide hills. It was no Ash Wednesday, but it has burned down buildings and killed countless native animals. The smoke has been so strong at times that smoke detectors are going off in people’s houses around me. This morning ash peppered all the spider-webs around my house. Despite knowing how far away the fire is, it sets off a churn of uncomfortable emotions in my stomach.
What truly amazes me is that while I sit comfortably miles away in my home and get nervous, there are staff and volunteers going out and risking their lives; driving down tracks which may get cut off; going into areas that are as dry as tissue paper with flames and cinders raining around them as the smoke turns the day into an eerie twilight.
The Country Fire Service (CFS), like a million other quiet organisations that rely on volunteers, are what makes living in our community possible, and I don’t know that we really appreciate how lucky we are to have them until we need them. They are such wonderful, courageous, generous people that you can’t help but rediscover your faith in humanity.
Just for the record, as of my writing this on Saturday night, it has just started to rain and the fire is contained, let’s hope it is enough to let the fire fighters get a well-earned rest.
I know I’ve talked about this before, but I have encountered it a few times this week and I’m just stunned at the extent to which it is practiced out there. Of course I’m talking about reading the end of a book before you read the rest of the book.
My discussion about the Nook a few weeks ago prompted a friend to tell me that she also found it a bit more difficult the flip to the end to see if she liked how it all turned out. WHAT!?!?!? And she’s a writer!
This week I have been reading a book called ‘The Well of Lost Plots’ by an author I normally LOVE, and I think with this book he thought it would be funny to write the book without a plot. I got to page 121 and I could not with any confidence say what it was about –I was quickly losing interest. I bemoaned this loudly to my colleagues so one suggested I flip ahead and read the end to see if it was worth sticking it out. Then someone else piped up and said they would never read a book without looking at the end first to make sure they were going to like it.
So poor writers are out there desperately trying to set up red herrings, invested emotion, hopes, dreams and fears for their readers, yet for a big chunk of the population there is no element of surprise. Surely knowing a character is alive in the last chapter would have to diminish your concern when they get themselves into a tight scrape in chapter seven?
This got me thinking, would you ever write a book differently if you knew that the last chapter was going to be read before the first? Maybe that is why there are so many books out there with that kind of meaningless ‘tie-up’ chapter at the end where we see everyone acting relieved and conveniently tying up all the little lose ends.
I don’t think I’ll change my endings, but it is certainly something to consider. We always think, as writers, that you need to grab your reader in the first paragraph, often spending weeks on perfecting it. Maybe we need to think about putting a lot more work into that last paragraph as well!?!
I’ve recently read two fictional novels which had huge chunks of what I would call filler. Those chunks were clever (and in one case rather funny) but they didn’t really contribute to moving the story along at all. I’ve always been told that this is the stuff you need to cut out, kill your darlings and all that.
In one novel a whole third of the book was filler dressed up as a red herring, and after much fun and mayhem we ended up back at pretty much the same point in the story where we started following the red herring. While the mayhem was amusing, I was well aware that it had nothing to do with the story while I was reading it. Did that annoy me? Mostly not, but on reflection yes.
I understand the divide between filler and character/world building can be a bit fine sometimes, but I guess a good yard stick to use is only add your anecdote if it contributes to the reader’s understanding of the story, or of your character’s motivations. There is no point going into detail about a character’s former job of cleaning gutters unless they need to call on a skill or experience they picked up from that job later in the story.
Having said that, I did thoroughly enjoy some filler parts in one of the novels, and I would hate to see them cut out. So I guess like all rules in writing, breaking it can work, so long as you know what you are doing.
The Australian Horror Writers Association opened for entries to their short story competition in January. It doesn’t close until May. For the past 4 months I have been trying to write a horror story so I can enter, and despite a couple of enthusiastic starts, my stories have always descended into comedy. I’m wondering if my days as a horror writer are behind me?
In an effort to trigger my horror muse I read a book of horror short stories. While the stories were original and quite well written, none of them came close to scaring me (and I could see a few great comic angles they had missed). It was only later, when I was watching the news, that I realised what a tough task horror writers have today; how on earth can they compete with a real world that can be so terrifying?
When you see what a ‘normal’ person is capable of, then zombies, ghosts, vampires and werewolves seem almost childish. A more chilling story would be for a ‘normal’ person to believe they are one of these supernatural creatures, but again we only need to open the newspaper to see such a story.
Given I refuse to write psycho killer or splatter fiction, I think it may at last be time to hang up my horror writing pen. If I can’t scare myself with a story I won’t class it as horror, and I certainly won’t release it to the world.
So I’m going to have one last go at writing a horror story that came to me in the middle of the night (when apparently everything is scary). If that doesn’t work I think I’m going to have to settle for being a spec fic writer who focuses on sci-fi and fantasy. If only there were more markets for horror comedy
This week was writers group meeting week for me. My group is only small, but we meet once a month and all of us submit a story or chapter to be critiqued. This week I was reminded (yet again) or why it is so important to be a part of a writers group.
I submitted the third chapter of a story, which I know had a big info dump in it. I needed the info dump; there was stuff the reader needed to learn that had to be revealed in a very short period of time. So despite all my internal alarms to the contrary, I resorted to an ‘as you know Bob’.
My group called me on it, as I knew (or at least hoped) they would. They also saw the bind I was in because I needed this info out fast. So we did something that will only ever happen in a writers group (or I assume for those published authors, maybe with an editor) we brainstormed how I could get around the issue, and someone came up with a fantastic solution.
This generous little piece of my fellow writers group member’s time might one day be the difference between my story getting picked up, or getting passed on. Instead of falling into a novice’s trap, I’ve now got a way around it, and I am so grateful.
So to all those people who spurn writers groups, saying they are toxic or full of jealous writers who want to see you fail, I say that you are in the wrong writers group. I’ve been in two now, both have been fantastic and full of people who want to help you to succeed.
There are so many reasons why I love my groups, and I feel blessed to have been able to find two such wonderful groups. Thank you!
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