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Path to Publication V: The big day

Posted September 16, 2014 by Patrick Lenton

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No, you idiots, I’m already married.

I typed this on the evening after the release of my first novel, The Foundation. But to avoid spamming my social media to death with ‘book stuff’, I let it stew for a few days prior to posting.

This is the last of the Path to Publication posts. In this series, I’ve shared with you the pitch and contract, dealing with the big issues, the edits, and the cover and marketing. Each stage is a giant anvil upon which your manuscript is hammered into a book able to be sold.

This edition is a little different: a look at what happens when the lights go on and the show begins.

The countdown

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With everything in the bag and the book off to production, I found the lull between working hard to finish the book and getting it to market tricky. By this point the author is pretty much off the clock on the book itself, though there’s plenty of marketing to do.

I found this part the hardest of all, which is quite surprising given my fingertips are now bloody stumps from all the keyboard pounding and my mind is some strange, rancid ooze from too much hard thinking.

I fulfilled my side of the marketing and enjoyed having a social life again, but the most overwhelming feelings after all this hard work were, in order:

  • I WANT TO WRITE! WRITE LOTS! MORE! MORE! MORE EXPLOSIONS!
  • I’M ACTUALLY GOING TO BE A PUBLISHED AUTHOR?
  • I *AM* A PUBLISHED AUTHOR!
  • THOSE FOOLS AT MOMENTUM!

By the time I reached the last few days prior to launch, I just wanted to hitch a ride with the Doc and Marty McFly and get there, but the only guy I know of with a DeLorean is Matthew Reilly, who might resent me pinching it.

The launch

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Rockets are cool.

But hey, it launched! So what actually happened on the day my first book comes out?

  • Yes, I still went to work.
  • No, I didn’t get as much done as I usually do.
  • Yes, it felt as amazing as I thought it would.
  • No, I didn’t crawl under my bed and hide.
  • Yes, the back slapping and congratulations of friends and colleagues felt good.
  • No, a marching band and dancing girls didn’t signify the release.
  • Yes, there was some anxiety of the ‘what if everyone HATES it’ variety.
  • No, I didn’t refresh madly for the first review to appear.
  • Yes, I did go out for dinner and have a few drinks to celebrate.
  • No, I didn’t go on a 48 hour bender on my publisher’s tab.
  • Yes, I did thank the great people at Momentum for their hard work.
  • No, I didn’t read it again. It’ll be a few months before I do that.

And, like that, The Foundation was amongst the millions of other books jostling for its place on the mountain. I was hoping it’d reach the peak, to hang out with Dan Brown and his supermodels, but if nothing else that it’d have a nice spot on the side.

But behold! It shot to the top of the Amazon Australia Political Fiction lists to claim #1 spot for a while.

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Take that John Grisham! Eat my dust Ayn Rand! Though I’m not sure it’ll last, it was a nice pat on the shoulder for a nervous first timer.

The first review

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But wait! There was more unexpected good news! My first review!

Although, technically, my first review was from the incredible John Birmingham, that was pre-release.

The honour of the first review post-release, at least as far as I’m aware, goes to ReadingKills.com. Head over there. It’s a great review.

I must admit, when I saw it, I felt nervous clicking on the link. But I was quite honestly chuffed with the result. My favourite lines?

‘…a roaring political thriller that is unnerving in its description of how the world would go to war.’

‘This is a jet-setting, alarming, bang-pow-kaboom read full of metaphorical and literal bloodshed, political machinations you’ll hope desperately will never become reality, and late-night giant-popcorn-wielding funsies.’

I’m sure the snarky one-star Amazon reviews are coming, but for now I’ve got a nice little protective bubble going on. Thanks ReadingKills!

The sign off

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So we’ve come to the end of the path to publication. The book is done, readers are… reading and my wife is telling me we’ll be late for dinner.

But wait! There’s one last lesson, you (probably don’t) scream! Okay:

Lesson 10: Don’t let fear of failure stand in the way of your dreams. I’ve wanted this since I was young, but it was always too hard, not good enough, wouldn’t be liked and not a priority. It will not stop me anymore.

Thanks to those of you who have joined me on this journey. I’ve had some great feedback on these posts from other authors – established and aspiring – and from some readers who enjoyed being a fly on the wall to see how a book reaches market.

I hope those of you who enjoyed the series might consider purchasing The Foundation, so I get to keep doing this and calling it work. If you do, then double thanks, and I hope you enjoy the book. Let me know what you think.

I’d love to hear from you on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads or the web.

In the meantime, I’m mashing out the sequel.

Stay tuned.

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How I learned to write

Posted September 5, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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I figured it out.

It only took me a good decade or so, but I’m there now.

After countless lectures to myself, my students, and various blog posts where I’ve pretended to talk to everybody else but really I’m still just talking to myself, I’ve finally found a way to prioritise writing. And not just prioritise it, but have it become a regular, schedule, focused time for getting black on white.

I’ve never been one to run to schedules, generally following the well-intentioned but logically insane theory that nothing creative can come from stifling routine – art can only come from chaos, right? But as I’ve gotten older, the paying jobs more serious, and the life becomes wonderfully occupied with the fruits of existence that just seem to happen, the day just gets filled up.

So finding a time to write became El Dorado, Atlantis, Avalon and Shangri-La. Some mythical place that everyone (me) searches for, yet no-one (me again) is able to find.

But like I said, I figured it out. The great big secret: how do I find time to write? It’s simple. I’ll tell you. In three easy steps.

1. Writing is the job

I can’t quit my job, I need the money. Others depend on me having the money. So the job (money) stays. And with that comes the understanding that I can’t change the hours the job runs. For that means:

Leave for work at 7:30am, get home by 5:30pm.

Which is a fair chunk of the day. Unavoidable. And with that comes the understanding that I’ll generally be exhausted by the end of it. But if writing’s the job, how can I do another job after the other job that I just spent all my time doing, because job money?

Do it first.

All I did was shift my waking time to earlier, by about an hour, and all of a sudden I had an hour of writing when I was fresh, clear-headed, and unencumbered by all the other work that comes later.

But get this: the best thing, the absolute best thing about writing before you go off to your paying job is that you feel absolutely bloody great. And why wouldn’t you? Before you go to work you’ve already written your words. Suddenly all the little things that might irritate you about a day on the job don’t, all the obligations and exhaustions that occur seem far less of a bother, because they’re no longer getting in the way. It’s marvellous.

The only sacrifice here is going to sleep earlier, but considering that’s happening during a time of the day when you’re already exhausted, it kind of makes sense? Sleeping when tired?

So the simple thing is get up earlier, and make the writing come first. It’s all so logically obvious I’m high-fiving myself while still kicking myself.

2. Turn your technology against you

The distractions that come from technology are unending, but in keeping with the trend of turning weaknesses into vicious enabling strengths, I’ve found a way to make technology support my new routine.

This is mainly focused on my phone.

Firstly, there is only one alarm that goes off. There is no snooze, there is no second alarm, or second second alarm, or friendly supportive backup to the second second alarm. There’s just one, and it goes off. And I have to wake up, because if I don’t I’ll sleep right through and feel terrible. Psychologically, this seems to work.

Secondly, I made use of Commit, which is one of many different apps you can use to guilt you in to doing things like there’s no tomorrow. It’s pretty simple: I set up one task (write 500 words each day), and set a trigger alarm for it (7:15am), and every morning it goes off and asks me smugly: ‘Have you written your 500 words today?’

Every time you have, it logs it in a nice running counter at the bottom. Any time you miss a day, and disappoint your bastard phone, it leaves a gap. Gaps look bad, the phone feels bad, and I feel bad.

Thirdly, I type with Scrivener, which I have for a while now. But contained within Scrivener is the wonderful Project Targets feature, which allows you to set your target total word limit, and the date you’d like to finish by, and it calculates a daily rate for you. Even better, it also lets you set the days you write on, and adjusts accordingly.

Since I’m now writing every weekday morning, I no longer need to write on the weekends (which is wonderful and means the weekends are weekends, and the writing is still the job, see?) so the targets adjust for a Monday-Friday writing routine and tick over as I type.

3. Stick to the routine

To get back to where I started, I always thought routine would stifle things. But that’s a flawed logic. What the routine does, what getting up at the same time each morning and writing each day before work does, is allow the creativity to happen.

All that’s occurring is the routine has made an arena for the creativity to take place. This has a twofold benefit.

On one hand, the writing becomes the central focus, and you’re able to channel all the great, imaginative ideas into the time you have for the writing, rather than having them fit and sputter all across your day like exhaust fumes.

On the other hand, all the non-writing, non-essential parts of the routine start to fade into the background, and run on auto-pilot. And again, it’s logical. These moments in the day stop being things you need to do before you can start writing, and instead become time to switch off and keep thinking about the writing. Because you trust the routine, you’re no longer worrying about eking out small moments of time and energy to try and write. It’s wonderful.

This is not rocket science. Really it was just about changing one small part of my daily routine. But the implications have been enormous, but will only continue to as long as I stick to the routine. Everyone’s routine is different, everyone’s approach is different. But we have to prioritise the writing, but when we do, we commit to that priority. Don’t give up. Make it first.

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The 10 best teachers in fiction

Posted August 21, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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We lost a teacher last week.

A teacher whose presence seemed to dominate all representations of teaching in films and books, to the point where graduate teachers around the world still grapple with the impossibility of measuring up to a classroom of students standing on their desks calling out ‘Oh captain my captain!’

And while this post was initially drafted with this teacher’s inclusion, I’m going to leave him out of this list now because, well, frankly John Keating in Dead Poets Society can sit alongside Mr Chipping in Goodbye Mr Chips as logical, foregone conclusions when it comes to handing out positions for Best Fictional Teacher.

So, in the spirit of seizing the educational day– and in memoriam – here’s my list of the 10 Best Fictional Teachers.

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10. Walter WhiteBreaking Bad

Okay, maybe not the greatest person, but if there’s one thing to be gained from Mr White’s inexorable descent into villainy, it’s his ability to teach. Here we have a teacher who takes a student with no interest in learning, only in the results, and turns them into a perfect graduate (we’ll just ignore what happens later on to this perfect graduate, especially in the last few episodes, but hey, he still learned good).

If there’s one thing good teachers should do it’s love their subject, and when it comes to the production of methamphetamine, well Mr White certainly loves what he teaches.

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9. Mr Collins – The Wonder Years

He only appeared in three epsidoes, most memorably in ‘Good-bye’, but Mr Collins seems to dominate my entire memory of The Wonder Years. In a really short space of time, the show seemed to encapsulate everything that great teaching is to me, particularly in the little dance Mr Collins has with Kevin where he can see through the student’s lies, but knows he must play along so that Kevin can learn from failure, from effort, and from life.

And ultimately, despite everything, good teachers never die.

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8. Grady Tripp – Wonder Boys

Okay, he might be disinterested and under the influence most of the time, and in the position for the tenure, the time he gets to work on his novel, and the proximity to the Dean’s wife, but Grady Tripp does get quite a few things right about teaching.

Most importantly, he understands that teachers don’t have to teach everyone to an A, and that not all students have the same path: ‘You tell them what you know, you tell them to find their voice and stay with it, you tell the ones that have it to keep at it, and you tell the ones that don’t have it to keep at it because that’s the only way they’ll get to where they’re going.’

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7. Charles Xavier – X-Men

He has a school for mutants. Pretty much a great teacher there. But most importantly, Professor X takes them all in: regardless of shape, size, skill and colour, despite how much property damage they might inflict on the school, he’s happy to have everyone there.

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6. Indiana Jones – Raides of the Lost Ark

Some of my favourite moments in the Indiana Jones films are watching the adventurous archaelogist hero grapple with returning to the classroom, and the unending demands of his students.

But also, there’s a fair bit of vicarious enthusiasm for any teacher, imagining that all they need to do is put on a hat and jump out a window, and they can take all their educational skills off to some far flung jungle to retrieve a lost artifact.

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5. Edna Krabappel – The Simpsons

Ever-present (until the end) at the front of the 4th-grade classroom, Mrs Krabappel ended up becoming one of the most consitent teacher figures for anyone who grew up with The Simpsons. But the best thing of all was that despite her flaws as a sympathetic teacher, she was bold enough to show her students that all teachers are people, and have to go home at the end of the day, especially in episodes like ‘Bart the Lover’.

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4. Jake Epping – 11/22/63

I had to work one Stephen King teacher in here, especially as King battled through being an underpaid teacher before his career took off. This is probably his most developed teacher character, with Epping not only travelling back in time to try and prevent the Kennedy assassination, but also attempting to fix the childhood of one of his students. On top of that, he doesn’t just go back in time, he goes back in time and becomes the most important teacher for a whole bunch of students in the 1960s, particularly when he convinces the star football player to take the lead in the school play.

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3. Laura Roslin – Battlestar Galactica

Teachers in charge of humanity! How great is this premise, and installing the politically inexperienced, but morally driven Roslin as the President of the Twelve Colonies is one of the best updates the remake brought to the series. Despite the emphasis on Adama, Starbuck and the completely unhinged Baltar in Battlestar Galactica’s reception, it’s Roslin for me that makes the show, and binds all the characters and storylines together in a way that grounds the space opera in a reality.

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2. Roland Pryzbylewski – The Wire

Prez’s arc of the different seasons of The Wire is possibly one of the most interesting, given that he’s one of the few characters offered up that appears capable of positive change. From terrible cop to conscientious teacher, Prez’s change is contrasted against a broken education system that is static beyond belief, even with everybody’s best intentions.

This is just about the truest depiction of teaching I’ve ever seen, particularly in Prez’s inability to change anything about the school, system or his students’ lives, even when he has success in the classroom.

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1. Albus Dumbledore – Harry Potter series

Okay, well this is probably pretty obvious. But for me there’s two reasons. Firstly, I grew up in a boarding school, and so the structure, style and nature of the teachers in the series was altogether very familiar, particularly the godfatherly presence Dumbeldore seems to have over the school.

But most of all, he embodies excellent aspects of good teaching – particularly in The Half-Blood Prince – in that he models at all times just and fair behaviour, and is prepared to provide an environment for the students where they can discover this without coersion. The lessons from Dumbledore have nothing to do with practical, everyday skills, but about being a good person, and living a good life.

Seriously, the chapters where Harry and Dumbledore investigate the horcruxes are some of the best in the series. Good teaching.

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Why writing is like drawing

Posted August 15, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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For a while I used to use the analogy of sculpture with writing. You take a block of clay and by a process of shaping and removing, you eventually reveal the story underneath.

But I find this doesn’t really work for me. A blank page is not a block of clay. Writing a story is a case of building something from nothing, rather than revealing what’s hidden. So I started to notice similarities with drawing, particularly drawing something from life, where you’re trying to get an image on the page that resembles as closely as possible the vision you have.

But you can’t draw a perfect picture first go. Similarly, no story is written complete on the first draft.

The whole process of drafting is a chance to refine, to shape and direct and polish, and lift up the features of the story that you want to emphasise, and layer in tones and depth where it would benefit your story. Themes and motifs and character details are added, the scaffolding of the early drafts are slowly stripped away until the story can stand on its own, proud and complete without betraying all the furious rewrites, revisions and mistakes that the drafting process gradually eliminates.

And in this, to me, it’s just like a drawing a picture. So I thought I’d extend the analogy, by showing a few of the stages of a drawing, and relating it to the drafting process.

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First draft

This is where I just want to get as much down as I can. I’m telling the story to myself. The broad strokes come in, including some that won’t be necessary later.

What I’m focusing on is getting the shape, the size, the general outline. I try to get a lot of lines down, and later I’ll pick the best ones to be my main lines. When I’m drawing, I’m basically trying to keep one eye on the object and one on the page, to get them as close to each other as possible.

And it’s the same with writing, though instead of an object, it’s my imagination. Keep it close at hand, keep it there in front of me, so that the words are as close to what I’m imagining as I can get them, at this early stage.

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Second draft

Hopefully glaring bad ideas show up. In the drawing, I’ve realised that one of the arms is way off where it should be, so I’ve had to realign. A foot had to be lengthened, and it’s a case of sitting back for a bit and making sure the proportions work. But I’m not trusting myself just yet, so I’ll leave as much on the page, even if it’s a mistake, just in case it’s useful later on.

This is why it’s good to save multiple drafts of a story, just in case you realise there’s something of value that you left behind a while ago. A recent draft did this for me with something I had put down a good twelve months ago, only for it to prove useful once more.

I’m starting to realise which directions work, and I’ll emphasise those parts. So in the draft, I’ll make connections between various moments and strengthen them, enhancing the narrative so that it stands out more, and the story starts to feel like it has more weight and balance to it.

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Third, fourth, fifth drafts

Irrelevant and unhelpful plot points, characters, scenes are cut. The language is refined, so that everything is sharper, and clearer. Comparing this to the first draft is like comparing some foggy, indistinct shape with a solid object.

This is also where dimension is added, through layering of themes, or motifs, or images. Details are enriched, characters become more identifiable, and anything that isn’t working should stand out quite easily. A few things are erased, sure in the idea that they’re not going to help in the final story.

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Sixth, seventh drafts, and so on

Refining, refining, refining.

In the drawing, I’m focusing more on the shading, the weight, the need to make it function as something that can represent reality, so that it doesn’t just appear to be random pencil scratchings on a page. With a story, I’m trying to remove any scaffolding left, anything that feels like writing, or betrays the man behind the curtain to the reader.

This is also the part where I tend to use different techniques far more. I’ve changed to a heavier pencil to sharpen some of the darks, and then used the eraser a lot more to take out the heavy lines on the side I want to appear light. Then it’s a case of blending and removing the seams by using my thumb on the page.

With a story, I’m looking at each individual part on its own, and employing whatever tricks I can to sharpen it, lighten it, shape it and colour it so that every line, paragraph, scene and character is making their most of their time on the page. This may go on for a while, but eventually it has to be left alone. Same with the drawing: I can keep fiddling around with the little details, but there comes a time when it’s just going to become overworked and too self-conscious. Keep it fresh. It’s only a story, after all.

 

(The main image at the top of this post is a selection of drawings Philip Pullman did for the publication of Northern Lights, after he asked his publisher if he might have a go at doing some illustrations for the beginning of each chapter.)

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Path to Publication III: The edits

Posted August 12, 2014 by Patrick Lenton

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Accept. Accept. Accept. Accept. Accept.

At the time of writing, that has been my life for four hours a night for the last week. It’s spilling over into other bits of life, too. I really want to hit ‘Reject Change’ on suggestions I empty the dishwasher, and ‘Delete Comment’ on most things I hear on public transport.

So brings us to Path to Publication III: The edits (click here and here for the earlier instalments). In short, I’m tracing the journey of publication for my book, The Foundation, from the pitch right through to release.

In this instalment, I’ll be dealing with the finer details of the editing process.

The copy edits

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So I left you last time having fixed the major issues in the book, preparing to confront the blunderbuss of red shot my way in the form of copy edits.

My wonderful editor, Kylie, was responsible for 148 comments and 4350 tracked changes to the manuscript. Overwhelmingly sensible ones, too. I asked her how she approaches her craft:

‘I have one golden rule when editing: it’s not my book. I know how hard writers work to get their story onto the page – sweating blood or bullets, typing until their fingers ache – and the last thing they want or need is some stranger coming in to stomp all over their manuscript. It isn’t my job to turn the book into something it’s not.

So when I first read a manuscript, I’m looking for the heart of the story, trying to figure out what it is the author is trying to do, and taking note of whether the narrative voice, structure, even the characters, reflect that. It’s important that any suggestions I make improve the manuscript, rather than introduce new problems.

My editorial suggestions – whether in a structural edit or a copy edit – are how I offer whatever help I can to make the book the best it can be. And writers always get the final say on whether those suggestions are useful to them or not.’

So with that in mind, I worked my way through these changes, confronting the issues in the manuscript. This is in addition to the stylistic clean up that Kylie gave the manuscript: American spelling, proper capitalisation, naming conventions, layout… I didn’t even see those.

Fixing stuff

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Some writers would be appalled by what I’m doing, because it exposes that – shock! – scenes aren’t as perfect as Michelangelo’s David from the moment they’re slung onto a page. Nor when they’re submitted. Writers don’t write flawlessly and sometimes don’t see everything that needs fixing.

But here it is! I’ve picked a busy page in the manuscript that doesn’t reveal too much about the storyline. The first image shows how Kylie has marked it up, complete with edits and comments. Other pages also contain style tips for the layout dudes, but they’re not shown here.

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I reckon I accepted 99% of Kylie’s copyedits without issue. In those instances where I didn’t agree, or didn’t agree entirely, all I had to do was track over the tracked changes. The second image shows the same handful of paragraphs, after I’ve accepted Kylie’s changes but made a few of my own:

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It took me three weeks and a hell of a lot of hours to get through the vast bulk of the changes. Not only did I respond to Kylie’s suggestions and accept most of her amendments, but with fresh eyes I also found stuff I wanted to fix to get the manuscript to a point where I considered it finished

Lesson 6: Writing isn’t always fun, neither is editing. Most of the time it is, but sometimes you need to get neck deep and just slog it out. Punching out first drafts, stitching it together, countless rounds of edits – this stuff is hard work. But it isn’t something to complain about. You’re not stitching together $6 shirts at Bangladesh sweatshop or clearing the sewers in Mexico City. This is a privilege.

The final read

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It’s an amazing experience reading through your manuscript before it departs for the final time. Sure, I’ll get a chance to read it again after it’s a fully proof read and knocked up book before stamped ‘FINISHED’, but this is the last opportunity for substantive change.

The good thing: It’s done! I love the book and I’m exhilarated that it’s going to be with readers in a few months and we’ll be selling millions of copies and drinking cocktails and eating canapés. Right? Or, if not, it’s still a pretty big achievement.

The bad thing: It’s done? Even though I love it, I still see bits that I’d like to tighten or that aren’t quite right that the reader probably won’t even notice. But I’m exhausted with it. Sooner or later editing becomes trawling the manuscript and just tinkering for the sake of it. That’s when you know.

Lesson 7: Know when to let go. My manuscript on the day I shipped it off was 88,000 words. I could keep playing with it until the day I die, but I can’t. The law of diminishing returns kicks in. Plus, there are sales to make, mansions to build and other books to write. It’s not perfect, but it’s damned good and the best I can make it (with the help of people like Kylie, Tara and Joel).

Shipping it off

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So I sent it back to Tara with the heady delight of getting my spare time back and being able to write again. With genuine curiosity, I asked her what comes next:

At this stage of the process, the copyeditor or in-house editor will go over the author’s comments, queries, and edits to make sure everything is smooth sailing (i.e., that no new issues have been introduced to the manuscript). After that, the book will be sent off to the typesetter and then to the proofreader (and the author will have one more chance to comb through it as well).’

So the book is done, assuming I haven’t broken my book with my tinkering, at any rate. I’m happy with it, and like a proud parent I’m excited (and a little relieved) as the little bugger knicks off to find its way in the world.

Tune in next time for how a cover is designed and how a book is marketed.

 

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The path to publication II: The big issues

Posted July 29, 2014 by Patrick Lenton

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Today we’re joined by Momentum author Steve P. Vincent, whose political thriller The Foundation will be published in September. You can find more of his articles on his website or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

So Moses parted the Red Sea, eh? Well, splitting that big puddle is nothing compared to the ocean of red I’ve dived into with nothing but a spear gun in my hand and a steely determination to slay bad stuff in my heart. Probably some pants, too.

So brings us to Path to Publication II: The big issues (click here for the first instalment). In short, I’m tracing the journey of publication for my book, The Foundation, from the pitch right through to release.

In this instalment (and the next), I’ll be dealing with the editing process.

The process

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Editing. It’s a magical ride when someone you’ve met once takes hold of something you’ve worked on for years. You need to trust that they’ll be respectful of the story and they need to trust that you’ll not be a moron about sensible suggestions.

I’d never done this before, so to set the scene, I asked the editing boss at Momentum, Tara Goedjen, how the editing process works at Momentum:

“At Momentum we like to think of the editorial process as a conversation. We enjoy meeting with our authors and want them to know that an edit isn’t a slashfest with a red pen, it’s a dialogue between writer and editor on suggestions and ideas for improvement.

For each manuscript, the publisher and I discuss the global issues that need to be addressed and select a copyeditor who we think will be a good fit. Then, depending upon whether a heavy or light edit is required, we either comment directly on the manuscript or include our notes in the brief.

Once the edit’s ready, I send it to the author, who is encouraged to come to me with any editorial questions along the way… Or, of course, just to talk things through.”

The arrival

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About the time I finished reading The Road I got an email from Tara. The timing seemed ominous given The Road is about a man and boy wandering through a wasteland. I was hoping Tara and Kylie (my editor) didn’t feel the same reading my book.

Turns out they didn’t! They both loved it. But that didn’t mean I was spared because, along with lots of ego boosting praise, the email from Tara contained a few documents. The most important were a letter from Kylie and a marked up copy of the manuscript.

I thought about sharing the letter, but it is very detailed, and I decided I didn’t want the plot to be spoiled for anyone who is reading this series and might buy the book. I need that coffee, after all. Instead, the gist of the letter was basically Kylie saying:

  • I love the book.
  • It only needed a light edit.
  • I edited it in this way.
  • But there’s some stuff that needs fixing.

So with a trembling hand, I clicked the button that would unleash the editorial Deathstar upon The Foundation. But instead of a giant manuscript shattering laser, what I got was respectful, insightful and damn fine work.

The big issue(s)

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No, not a very worthwhile magazine sold on city streets, but the things that needed some fixing.

What I found interesting was the collegiate approach to finding and fixing these issues. Kylie had input, Tara had input and, much to my surprise, there were also some comments from Momentum’s publisher and Grand Poobah, Joel Naoum.

I’d assumed that he’d be too busy standing at his desk, drinking cocktails and crushing the dreams of interns beneath the Manuscript Monday pile to have time to input, but there it was. The issues they’d found, and the suggestions to fix them, were impressive.

Lesson 4: Your editor is not some monster hoping to rip up your manuscript, dampen your explosions or lessen the torture dealt out to your protagonist. They love your book. Listen to them. They’re smart, respectful and they work their arse off to make your book better. They can also see the massive, manuscript killing holes that you’ve missed until now and that make you feel a little bit silly.

There were three big issues:

  • The timing of the book was entirely implausible, all because I wanted one key scene to fit. That’s now fixed and the book is better and more believable for it. I lost my scene but gained plausibility. A fair trade.
  • My main antagonist, Michelle Dominique, is ace, but her motivations needed a tune-up. As a result she’s gone to a whole new level of conspiratorial nasty awesomeness and the stakes in the back end of the book are now a whole lot higher.
  • Some technobabble that I’d got wrong, which I now think is less wrong. I’m not entirely sure about this, so I wait in fear for the first review that says ‘YOU STUFFED UP THE TECHNOBABBLE. ZERO STARS.’

So, with input digested, I got to work on the marked up manuscript. None of these big issues were killers. I shifted some dates, cracked open an extra can of nasty for Michelle and rebabbled the technobabble. What? A lesson?

Lesson 5: This one isn’t exclusive to the path to publication, but I’m writing it anyway. DISTANCE, MAN. After not having looked at a word of The Foundation for four months, going back to it was eye opening. I still had the granular understanding of the characters, plot threads and the mana that holds the story together, but with the added benefit of actually being able to see the words. That helps when writing a book.

With the big tangles untangled, I turned my attention to the harder bit: A whole lot of bright red tracked changes.

Join me next time for a peek at my poor, naked manuscript with red splashed over it.

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Stephen King’s advice to writers

Posted July 25, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Stephen King gives the best advice about writing. No kidding. Here you go:

On where ideas come from (1):

‘Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognise them when they show up.’

On where ideas come from (2):

‘So okay― there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want.’

On taking your work seriously:

‘You must not come lightly to the blank page. It’s writing, damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business.’

On distractions:

‘If possible, there should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades, unless it looks at a blank wall. For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction. When you write, you want to get rid of the world, do you not? Of course you do. When you’re writing, you’re creating your own worlds.’

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On drafting a story (1):

‘When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.’ John Gould, writer and editor of Lisbon’s weekly newsletter, who employed King when he was a teenager.

On drafting a story (2):

‘Gould said something else that was interesting on the day I turned in my first two pieces: write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right – as right as you can, anyway – it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticise it. If you’re lucky, more will want to do the former than the latter.’

On drafting a story (3):

‘In the spring of my senior year at Lisbon High I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%. Good luck.

On writing what you know:

‘Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work. Especially work. People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do. If you’re a plumber who enjoys science fiction, you might well consider a novel about a plumber aboard a starship or on an alien planet.’

On reading:

‘There are books full of great writing that don’t have very good stories. Read sometimes for the story… don’t be like the book-snobs who won’t do that. Read sometimes for the words–the language. Don’t be like the play-it-safers who won’t do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book.’

On self-awareness:

‘I am the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.’

On perseverance:

‘Running a close second [as a writing lesson] was the realization that stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.’

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On thesaurus abuse:

‘One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.’

On passive and active sentences:

‘The timid fellow writes The meeting will be held at seven o’clock because that someone says to him ‘Put it this way and people will believe you really know.’ Purge this quisling thought! Don’t be a muggle! Throw back your shoulder, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge! Write The meeting’s at seven. There, by God! Don’t you feel better?’

On adverbs:

‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day…fifty the day after that…and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions.’

On Swifties:

‘Don’t do these things. Please oh please.’

On dialogue:

‘While to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.’

On sending your work out:

‘Submitting stories without first reading the market is like playing darts in a dark room – you might hit the target every now and then, but you don’t deserve to.’

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And possibly my favourite bit of advice about writing ever:

On why we write:

‘Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.

Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.

Drink and be filled up.’

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Show, don’t tell

Posted July 8, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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‘Show, don’t tell’ is possibly the first lesson in any writing class. So often it’s seen as the difference between functional, effective writing and writing that just feels like a shopping list.

But by the same token, there are countless writers and teachers of writing who say that ‘show, don’t tell’ is a trite piece of hackneyed advice that doesn’t actually do much for the writer. The phrase is seen as a dismissive lesson, and hinges on the students’ understanding of the visual capability of words.

But I’d argue that there is still enormous merit in this tired lesson of writing. So what is it to show in writing? Aren’t we always just telling someone a story?

While some telling in a story is necessary (efficient backstory, detail, and dialogue), if a writer only ever tells, then the story is, as mentioned, a shopping list of events and happenings. The easiest way to spot a story that relies on telling is by looking for the instances of ‘then’, or ‘and then’.

Then this happened, then that happened, and then this happened as well. And then all of a sudden everything happened.

It doesn’t work. The reader ends up feeling like a barraged receptor to basic plot. For a good example on how to avoid this, take a look at Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s wonderfully concise explanation on how they plot. When dialogue is overused, the reader is stuck experiencing the story through conversation, like an apartment dweller eavesdropping on his arguing neighbours through the wall.

There are a few old tricks to get someone to show more in their writing. One is to get them to write a paragraph about an object without ever mentioning the object. While this does work as an exercise for developing interesting description, it doesn’t actually get to the heart of why this kind of description might work. (Additionally, it has the side-affect of generating a writer who describes everything like this, and you end up with a story that can only be read by guessing what the hell they’re describing next.)

When I studied screenwriting, one of the first tasks given was to write a scene showing a nervous person. A telling scene would look like this:

A man sits down on a chair in a waiting room. He is nervous.

A showing scene operates this way:

A man sits down. He glances at the clock on the wall. He crosses his legs one way, then the other. He looks at the clock again. A bead of sweat rolls down his temple.

And look, that’s an easy and simplistic comparison, but there’s a basic defining difference. The first explains everything, the second doesn’t. In explaining, there’s no room for the reader to explore on their own. The man is nervous, and that’s it, there’s nothing else to it. In the second, his nervousness is implied, and suggested, but the extent of his nervousness is entirely open to the speculation of the reader.

At its best, showing is about using the reader’s imagination. At its worst, it ends up being a constant stream of adjectives and adverbs, and detail for the sake of it.

If a writer uses the imagination of a reader, their entire reading experience of the story is amplified. Sympathy for the protagonist, empathy for characters’ plights, anticipation and exhilaration at aspects of the plot, and most of all, the reader believes. It is taken for granted that any written words on a page will magically transform into an imagined world.

Yes, I know this is not a new recommendation from me, but Stephen King puts it best in On Writing, when he compares writing to telepathy. It is the sharing of thoughts from a writer to a reader through a story. The words on the page are merely a vehicle, the thoughts, the imagination, that’s the key. The writing needs to enable this, and it can only do that by switching on the imagination trigger in the reader.

The best example of this I’ve used lately comes not from books but from television. It pays to look at purely visual mediums in order to generate a visual aspect to writing. And the best place to find this (provided the examples are great) is in opening credits.

Opening credits have to achieve a few things. They need to signal that the story is about to begin. They need to attract interest in the story and away from whatever else the viewer might do (cook dinner, change channel, read a book). They also need to transition the viewer from whatever world they’ve been occupying (watching the news, different show, reading a book) and into the world of the story. And they get at most 90 seconds to do this.

But the best things is that opening credits rely on essentially just images and music in order to achieve all these things. It’s an absolute economy of storytelling techniques, and works by delivering a sequence of meaning-laden symbols without explaining anything. The viewer is just meant to get it, by opening up their imagination to this world.

The credits of Six Feet Under deliver images of a mortuary, gurneys wheeling past the camera, the cleansing rituals associated with death, cycles of life and death and decay in nature, all culminating in a withering, silhouetted tree. Yet over the top of that is the bittersweet perkiness of the title music.

The Sopranos presents its protagonist, driving home from work early in the morning, through the landscape of his profession. And the viewer is placed over his shoulder, seeing his world through his eyes. Until he reaches his driveway, and the story actually begins. A series about the conflict between work and home, between opposing allegiances (and the threat of violence in the title track), is all presented effortlessly, without explanation.

So too is the 45 second opening sequence of Mad Men, which distils the entire thematic concerns of the show into a cascading parade of silhouettes and advertising posters. All these credits, and others, work to show the story to the viewer, in a small amount of time, and with a small amount of tools at their disposal.

The one thing I try to tell my students that it’s important to realise is that writing doesn’t get like this first go. That it takes work, and rewriting and removing and editing and improving. Almost always, the first draft is about telling yourself the story. Then on the second (and third and fourth) it’s about showing that same story to the reader.

 

 

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Writing I, Morgana

Posted June 26, 2014 by Felicity Pulman

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Evil enchantress, high priestess, fairy, wicked sorceress … Morgan le Fay has been called many names over the centuries, in a multitude of versions of the Arthurian legend dating back to the Dark Ages when Welsh bards first sang of a brave and noble king.

My fascination with Morgana began some years ago while I was researching my Shalott trilogy for teenagers – a rewriting and reinterpretation of the legend and the haunting poem, The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson, based on Elaine of Astolat and her fatal attraction to Launcelot.  In my novels, Morgana had the power to shapeshift (a talent I really envied!) And, as I researched further and dug deeper into her character, so she took hold of my imagination, and she’s been haunting me ever since!

So who was Morgana really?  I had a voice in my head saying, ‘Look at me, Merlin, look at me.’  A young girl desperately trying to impress a master of magic – this was my first hook into her character, and this is how I, Morgana begins.

Previously I’ve written for children and teenagers.  In this, my first novel for adults, I allowed my imagination to run riot as I explored every facet of Morgana’s character: from a young girl who was schooled in magic and promised a kingdom to her betrayal by everyone she’s ever loved and trusted.  Proud, powerful, passionate – and clever, she wreaks revenge (and breaks her heart) before coming to an understanding of how it’s all gone wrong.  In writing her story, I explore her potential for performing magic (and meddling where she has no right to meddle) and had fun imagining her various transformations which are undertaken for noble as well as wicked deeds.

I’d read, and enjoyed Marion Zimmer Bradley’s reinvention of Morgana as a high priestess of Avalon, but ultimately found her interpretation unsatisfying. It seemed to me that her feminist portrayal of the world of Avalon ran parallel to the male-dominated traditional scenarios that Zimmer Bradley rejected. For me, Morgana was so much more complex – and therefore so much more interesting to portray.

I’ve used Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur as a base to work from, but I’ve also woven several other strands into my story, including the fascinating and mysterious Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, seen and admired some years ago at the Musee National du Moyen Age in Paris.  I thought I’d have a go at learning the Tarot after coming across an ‘Arthurian Tarot’ deck of cards.  Could Morgana have learned to foretell the future through some ancient wooden tablets stolen from Merlin?  Devising a Tarot reading for Morgana was interesting and fun – although I had to call on my Tarot teacher, Molly Talbot, to help add authenticity.

I incorporated some stories from Celtic legend in my Shalott trilogy – the legend of Blodeuwedd and Lleu Llaw Giffes in particular.  In I, Morgana I’ve also made use of some Druidic practices and I touch on the use of the Ogham alphabet.  Fantastical creatures populate my book as I explore several Otherworlds – along with the famous prophecy that ‘one day Arthur will come again to save Britain in her hour of need.’

Is that time coming near?  I have some thoughts that maybe it is, but it depends on whether or not Morgana can learn the lessons of the past in time to save the future – our future. And this is a theme that I’ll continue to develop in the sequel to I, Morgana.

 

I, Morgana by Felicity Pulman is available now where all good ebooks are sold

 

 

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The point of writers’ festivals

Posted June 6, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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There’s a reason why a lot of films about writers are terrible. It’s pretty hard to dramatise and visually articulate what is essentially an internal and isolated process.

Similarly, there’s something rather bizarre about writers’ festivals – the thrusting of this process into the public sphere, and creating a gather-round for other writers, readers and culture tourists.

A recent piece by Martin McKenzie-Murray explored this irony, expressing tiredness at the ‘herd of individuals congratulating each other for their uniqueness.’ This is understandable. Particularly in the larger festivals or the more tokenistic events, there is an inescapable feeling that this is all an element of self-serving habit, a navel-gazing compact between writer and audience, exalting at the altar of what writing is.

Some of this is a natural development. Given the isolation of writing as a profession – as just a basic action, in fact – and the divide that always seems to be insisted on between those who do write and those who don’t, grouping a lot of writers together with a lot of people who like writing is going to breed comfort and security, and often indulgence.

It’s practically relief. A whole lot of people there for the same reason, particularly for the arts which are increasingly marginalised and undermined by policies, payments and professional respect, I always get the sense in festivals that it’s a brief moment on everyone’s calendars when  they can feel like everything is okay. If just for a moment.

Yes, festivals can give over to sycophancy and it is important to recognise this and call it out. Writing and books and authors are just everyday things and everyday people, and pretending that writing is somehow a profound magical state isn’t doing anyone any favours. The last thing we should want is a great big love-in, without any critical discussion about the state of the industry. With the way we read changing, and the way books are published changing, and the way writing is perceived and paid rapidly changing, festivals are there to embolden the industry, and represent writing to communities that may be losing a sense of understanding and attachment to it.

Additionally, there are things I wish writers’ festivals did more of. Some have become regular features in recent years.

I grow tired of incessant talk-fests sometimes, as I’m sure a lot of people do, and the growing trend of workshops and involved activities for audiences is a great thing. Partly this comes from being a teacher, but if writers’ festivals are to be about writing, then actively creating words is important.

By the same token, schools’ programs are consistently underwhelming. Sure, there is difficulty in providing an extra-curricular occasion that serves and benefits students while incorporating it into a much larger festival, but I worry that too much of these programs end up as tepid q and a’s, rather than folding young readers and writers into valued participation in the festival.

I wish there was more of a space for genre writing at festivals, but this is not a new thing. That festivals are more literary and conventions more genre is perhaps just a settling of who feels more comfortable where, but maybe this is just out of habit and reluctance than anything else. It was great to see an event on blockbusters at the Sydney Writers’ Festival recently, and I think there’s an honesty that comes from engaging with genre writing that strips away any sense of undue reverence or bullshittery that might otherwise fester elsewhere.

And on that note, the increasing focus on deconstructing myths of writing is welcome, particularly in that it signals a shift away from looking at the profession and the industry of writing as Writing and Authors and Very Important Arcane Secrets About Publishing.

I’m not sure if there’s a designated audience for writers’ festivals, but I don’t think there has to be anymore. If there isn’t anything special or different about writers, then there need not be a distinction between those who write and those who don’t, and festivals are a way to bring everyone into the one place and make writing and all that it encompasses important, even if the moment is only fleeting.

It’s not pleasant to think what Melbourne or Sydney or anywhere else would be like without a writers’ festival. For the young and new, the old and published, the good writing and the bad, the popular and the unknown, the paid and unpaid, it’s important to see festivals as part of the process of writing, an awkward and sometimes indulgent part, but necessary all the same.

 

 

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Why do we write?

Posted May 22, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Recently, I came across this much-seen talk by Simon Sinek, where he describes a model for inspiring action and change. Essentially, Sinek suggests that for a person to inspire others, they need to not start with what they do that is worthy of following, or focus too much on how they do things, but instead discuss why they do what they do. His point being:

‘It’s not what you do, it’s why you do it.’

I was presenting this talk to a class, with the aims of discussing how language can persuade and motivate and change a person’s perception, but in exploring the concepts of Sinek’s talk, something else occurred to me that I thought would be quite useful to writing.

The thing is, in an earlier class I had been revisiting another much-seen and shared talk from Neil Gaiman, his ‘Make Good Art’ keynote address in 2012 to the University of the Arts. What occurred to me was a connecting thought between Sinek and Gaiman’s ideas. Particularly, it stemmed from a moment in Gaiman’s address where he describes his rather unplanned approach to a career in writing:

‘I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work.’

And with these two moments in mind, these two statements about creating and producing ideas, realisation loomed, like I was one of the apes in the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Essentially, I have fallen into a trap of writing the wrong way, focusing too much on writing because I should be writing, rather than writing because it gets to the heart of why I want to write in the first place.

I think this is an easy, even necessary trap for anyone wanting to write for a living. A writer sits down, say, and wants to write a book. They plan and plot and furiously take notes, hoarding them into some disorganised structure that can allow the writing to take place. And so it does: words are written, pages even. Chapters form, and then are discarded. Opinions are included, and discounted, taken from a small selection of people that we either allow to read our writing in its primordial stage, or discuss the ideas with when they are still forming. Eventually, a draft emerges.

The focus is on the writing, on the production. Write and write and write, because otherwise the story isn’t written. The philosophy here is: if one writes a lot, one is a writer. We become focused on what we do, and forget why we do it.

Given the solitary and unstructured nature of writing as a profession, one of the pieces of advice often given is to treat it like a job. Have set hours and disciplines, and view it as a work pursuit, rather than a spare-time hobby. This clearly is a good thing for productivity. The danger here though is if we treat writing as work, it can start to feel like work and not writing. We lose sense of why we’re doing this, of why we chose to write this story, and why the story exists in our imaginations in the first place.

To counter this, I’ve tried to set up a handful of reminders, or questions, using Sinek’s suggestion for starting with the why, and taking Gaiman’s model of not letting writing turn into work.

Why are you writing this story?

Why are you the one to write this story?

Why is this story worth reading?

There could be more, but these seem central to me. They get to the core of the writing process. All other kinds of choices can be made, but if you lose sense of the belief you have in your story, about why it exists and why you’re writing it, the story can run aground.

Obviously, lots of words need to be written and, in order for that to happen, decisions about time and workload need to be considered. And there will be periods of time where the words will just be words, and the story will become drudgery because we all need to get black on white and churn the chapters out. And that’s fine, that’s acceptable. But only if we know where it’s coming from, and where it’s going to. Why we’re writing our story.

The story is what we’re doing. It’s the product we are selling.

We need to know how to achieve that, which requires sacrifice and time and effort.

But ultimately, neither the what nor the how matter if we don’t have a clear idea of why we are writing to begin with. Why this story is worth reading. It’s the difference between writing a story because you feel that’s what people will read, or writing a story and communicating through it a sense of why this story matters to you, and therefore will matter to them.

To finish, Gaiman mentioned a time when Stephen King gave him some advice about his career, which he now realises he ignored and regrets doing so.

‘This is really great. You should enjoy it.’

And not just because I can’t pass up referencing something King said, but enjoying our own work is a necessary thing, for any profession. Any job will become tedious and detrimental if we just get caught up in what we do day after day and forget the reasons behind it. If we believe in our story, if we believe in why we do it, then it will be enjoyable.

And the stories that work, the ones that I enjoy reading, seem to come from the same place.

 

 

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The Emerging Writers’ Festival 2014

Posted May 15, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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In the last few years I’ve lost a bit of the enthusiasm I once had for literary festivals – be they for writers, books, towns or cities – not because they aren’t enjoyable experiences, but because I feel as if they’re often not really suited for me. Some programs appear to be designed for those who like to dabble in books, or feel as if attending a literary event is an important magnet for their cultural fridge, and occasionally the idea of a festival – a celebration of the written word – seems to bypass those who it matters to most.

Not so for the Emerging Writers’ Festival, the one that I regularly try to fit into my autumnal schedule, as it always seems to have a multitude of events perfectly designed for those who want to write, those who do write, and those who suddenly realise how important writing is in their lives.

It’s on at the perfect Melbourne time, for two weeks from late May into early June, and this year is once again full of events that actually compel me – and hopefully others – to do, rather than to just sit and listen. So much of the festival caters to practical and useful ideas, from those who actually use these ideas. By directing itself at emerging writers, the festival is more a deconstruction of what it is to be a writer and moves away from the myth of The Writer, locating writing as significant and valued pursuit in society.

So while this is a Melbourne festival, I highly recommend making the trip in to the city for anything on offer during the two weeks, if you can at all make it. Here is just a small selection of the events I’m particularly keen on seeing:

Digital Writers’ Masterclass

Wonderful to see the evolving nature of digital writing and digital mediums given prominence in a writers’ festival, and this full-day event has a range of guests covering topics from game writing, gender representation in digital writing, the expectations of writing in digital environments, and a couple of Momentum folk discussing genre writing as it appears and appeals to digital forms and digital audiences. It’s a huge day, and lots of fascinating topics covered, definitely one to attend.

No Lights, No Literature

This sounds fantastic. Absolutely no idea who is presenting in this panel, as the conceit is to turn all the lights off and allow the speakers to discuss the ins and outs of the writing world through the veil of anonymity. From the description of the panel, audience members won’t be allowed to tweet or communicate outside the room as well, so this is clearly something unrepeatable, once-only, be there or miss out opportunity.

The Pitch

Extremely happy to have a ticket to this, also another event with Momentum presence on the panel, but essentially this is an opportunity for writers to get practical and insightful perspectives on publishing, and what happens to writing when it leaves the house. A selection of panellists from different publishers, this is going to be an excellent discussion and analysis on the journey of writing from conception to publication.

DIY-Hards: Self-Publishing and Zines

One of those panels that just appears to have popped up this year at the perfect time for my own needs and interests, this event is addressing the changing nature of self-publishing and the creation of written work outside of traditional formats and pathways. Everyone on this panel is an expert on the topic of creating and producing by yourself and for others.

Emerging Editors

Something that I wish I had more knowledge and training in, this is another full-day event, with presenters from all publishing areas discussing the background work on delivering publishable writing. From dealing with submissions, to editing across cultures and languages, and building a career out of editing, the event also includes a series of workshops on editing different styles and forms of writing.

Additionally, I’m fortunate enough to be involved this year on the panel The Future of Teaching Writing, and I’m especially excited to be discussing with others on the panel how and why creative writing could and should be taught, from classrooms to universities and beyond.

The festival kicks off in just under two weeks, and hopefully there’ll be all kinds of excellent information, advice, ideas and writing that I’ll be able to share afterwards. Will keep everyone posted.

 

 

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Why I Write: Guest Post by Charles Purcell

Posted May 6, 2014 by Patrick Lenton

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The first time I was ever praised for anything I wrote was in primary school when I wrote about “feelings”.
The teachers were charmed by my descriptions of feelings such as love, hate and fear, accompanied as they were by my drawings of the very feelings themselves. I can’t exactly remember what “love” looks like … except that all my emotions seemed to resemble nerve clusters or pictures of synapses with smiley faces drawn on them. Who knows – maybe love does look like a tiny M&M with a smiley emoticon on it. Scientists everywhere had failed to prove otherwise.
It was my first experience of the rush that writing can bring you: not only the accomplishment of the writing itself, but the knowledge of a job well done and the joy it might bring to others.
Perhaps if someone had first praised me for my cricket skills or prowess on the athletic field I might have ended up pursuing that instead. But it was writing that evinced that first ray or praise and accomplishment.
I was hooked.
And it looked like entertainment was to be my bag, as it were.
Particularly when, decades later, me and my dangling participles had entered the Sydney Morning Herald. I had got off the bus at Darling Harbour with only a dollar and a dream. But what to write about? What would be my “round” or “beat”?
I loathed sports and their stranglehold on the popular imagination – like Bob Carr, I’d probably read biographies about Lincoln or the American Civil War at the footie instead of watching the game – so I wasn’t about to write fan pieces about hulking meatheads talking about their training regimes. I was too young and poor to opine about superannuation. Cars failed to fascinate. Politicians hurling metaphorical faeces at each other during Question Time struck me as dull and predictable. Gossip columns were beneath me (arrogant? Moi?).
Stories with the words “outrage” and “fury” in their headlines belonged to other folk. I couldn’t even afford a flat in Sydney, so “word pimping” real estate (“land pimping”?) would have only filled me with the aforementioned outrage and fury. The education beat belonged to hacks who sent their kids to private schools like Knox, Barker or Loreto … or were planning to. I couldn’t draw, so illustrators who mocked their betters were safe.  And I wasn’t ready to spend a year overseas as a foreign correspondent just yet. (And besides, I first started at the SMH as a sub. Writing would all come later.)

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My experience in the magazine world had demonstrated that I had a talent for entertainment, so that seemed a natural choice for me.  So in later years it was interviewing Robert Downey jnr and his ilk rather than grilling the PM why he or she had broken a core election promise. That sounded pretty all right to me. Let others chase the Walkleys. I would entertain the readers, a foot soldier in the War on Boredom.
It was a beat that served me well during my time at the SMH. I interviewed everyone from Woody Allen and Chris Rock to Jeff Kennett. I posed as a nude model for an art class, did stand-up, busked as a mime, appeared on a TV dance show as Elvis and tried to interview the Pope, among other things. It was a lot of fun. And the rush of seeing your byline in the paper or online never gets old.
Sure, there are aspects of writing that can be a drag. The constant deadlines. The need to write, even when “the Muse” isn’t around to you inspire you. The actual physical effort of it all. The knowledge that you just haven’t nailed a yarn for some reason.
But overall, it’s more than a career – it’s a calling.
So my background and appreciation for entertainment also informs my choice of novel to write. Primarily, I choose fiction: partly for the scope for creativity it brings, as well as it being my favourite genre to read.
I’m also very interested in history and ancient Greece, in particular the Athenians and the Spartans. But it’s the Lacedaemonians that inspire the hero of my novel, The Spartan, one of America’s Tier 1 soldiers, the elite of the elite, those special forces warriors operating in combat zones all around the world.
The Spartan is a fiction novel, but my writing has been informed by many real-life events, such as the growing conflict between the United States and China, the rise of the Mexican cartels, the threat of biological terrorism, and the nature of those ancient soldiers of Greece. I feel the Spartans have values that are still applicable to modern times: duty, perseverance, a refusal to ever surrender despite overwhelming odds.
I do hope to visit the ruins of ancient Sparta one day. In particular I’d like to visit Thermopylae – where the famous 300 Spartans gave their lives to give the rest of Greece time to fight off the Persian invasion – as well as look at the giant statue of Leonidas erected there. (But no, just in case you’re curious … at no point in my novel does anyone yell, “This is Sparta!”)

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‘This ISN’T Sparta’

I like to think that with The Spartan I’ve written the type of novel I’d like to read myself: fast-paced, action-packed but filled with military and historical detail, as well as more than a liberal dose of humour.
I hope you enjoy reading The Spartan as much as I did writing it.
– Charles Purcell

You can pre-order The Spartan here!

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The (un)happy endings

Posted May 1, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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‘The good end happily, the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.’

So says Oscar Wilde, but is that always the case? What happens when the good end unhappily?

Recently, in conversation about The Mist – Frank Darabont’s adaptation of the Stephen King short story – it was discussed how the film not only changed the ending, but constructed one so powerfully negative that it almost overshadowed all the rest of the story. It wasn’t just a negative ending, but one that really shocked the audience and brought home the brutality of the storyteller.

Had it just been a tragic ending, the film might’ve remained shocking but still watchable. As it stands, the ending is not only tragic, we discover minutes later that it was needlessly tragic. And this is awful to endure, illustrating just how much we have been manipulated by the storyteller.

When do unhappy endings work?

Firstly, the tragic narrative needs to be acknowledged. In this case, the tragedy is usually the fact that everybody dies. Or at least, everybody who might have a central part in the narrative, the minor characters are allowed to survive, as witnesses to the tragedy. So that it doesn’t happen again. Hamlet dies avenging his father’s death, by killing his uncle, while his mother is poisoned, so is his rival, some other guy who is standing nearby, and his friends who betrayed him are killed offstage. Romeo and Juliet die as testament to the feud between their families.

In a more modern version of this, Never Let Me Go, the tragedy is that we all die. The journey of the character to this discovery, that it happens to us all, is upsetting to watch, as all tragedy is. This is because we know the ending, on some fundamental level. But we don’t want to  know what it is, we want to believe that somehow the magic of the story will intervene and we can live happily ever after. The audience watching Romeo and Juliet is told from the beginning that they will die, we are just distracted from this by the art of the narrative, until the realisation all comes crashing down at the end.

Much of this rests of dramatic irony, and skilled foreshadowing. It relies on the skill of the writer to acknowledge there will be an unhappy ending, but simultaneously create a desire in the audience for it not to be the case. All the way along, we need to believe right up until the end that Hamlet will succeed, that Tommy and Kathy will get a deferral and live a little longer, that Juliet will escape to Mantua with Romeo.

The other unhappy ending, the one more prominent in film, is the surprise. The swift and upsetting moment when we realise that there’s no way out of this, that this is one of those stories. But similarly, there needs to be something there for the audience. We can’t just feel bad. There needs to be something we can takeaway, some element of hope (no matter how small) that one can hang on to in the darkness.

Spoilers follow, naturally.

At the end of Atonement, we discover that not only wasn’t there a great epic romance between Robbie and Cecilia, much of what we’ve witnessed has been part of a creative purgatory the central character Briony created as punishment for her long ago sin. The glimmer of optimism here though is that she can continue to create a happy ending for them in her mind. Perhaps.

In The Vanishing, Rex discovers exactly what happened to his wife – she was buried alive. He discovers this by having the same fate befall him. However, what drove him to this point was his desire to know, a desire that overthrew the rest of his life. Now he knows.

Rosemary’s Baby concludes with the shock that Rosemary’s newborn is actually the spawn of Satan, and yet she can still be his mother, having feared all throughout the plot that this would be taken away from her.

And in Seven, in what is cinematically close to a classical tragedy, and arguably one of the greatest – unhappiest? – of down endings, John Doe the serial killer is able to execute his design perfectly, trapping the hero Mills into becoming a murderer himself. But, Mills’ partner Somerset – the witness to the tragedy – is able to continue on, working to conceivably fight for what little good he can see in the world.

(Oddly enough, I think that final voiceover of Somerset’s was added at the studio’s behest, and the director hates it, thinking it incongruous with the rest of the story.)

It’s depressing just writing those, actually.

Unhappy endings are hard to execute, as it’s all too easy for the story to focus on the unhappiness, rather than letting the audience feel as if it is a natural, albeit tragic, conclusion to the plot.

There needs to be a reason to witness the story, to experience something that doesn’t go the way we’d hope, otherwise it’s exploitation. This is where I feel The Mist went wrong, in that it showed its hand too much, revealed too far how much the narrative was working to upset the audience, and we can’t recover from that.

It’s a sliding scale I think, from happy to bittersweet, to ambiguous, to unhappy, to exploitative. All stories exist somewhere along that scale, but I think I need a dose of the happier ones, just for now.

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Five tips for aspiring science fiction writers

Posted April 28, 2014 by Charlotte McConaghy

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1. World Building: What if this continues?

Whether you do this as your first job or your last, building your world carefully and meticulously is one of the most important aspects of all spec-fiction. This doesn’t just apply to fantasy writers who can literally make up new worlds and therefore have both more freedoms and more difficulties in the task, but to science-fiction writers, horror writers—all spec-fic writers. Making changes to our existing world can feel a bit like a trap, but as long as you think as honestly and as logically as possible, you shouldn’t have too many people yelling ‘that doesn’t make sense!’ (Who are we kidding—there will always be some.)

Science-fiction exists to teach, engage, inspire, warn, excite and frighten. If something frightens you about the world, then chances are it will frighten others. Ask yourself What if this continues? What if these actions, or this train of thought, or this behavior continues? What will it mean for the world? (For example what if we really do become capable of singularity—that one really freaks me out.) And then let your imagination run wild. And you aren’t only tapping into fear, but wonder, awe, beauty. Take us up and forward and give us new realities that are based on what we know, what we desire, what we fear. Peel back the layers of comfort and show us what hides in the shadows of the world—and in the dark interiors of ourselves.

Human hubris is an important theme in science-fiction, for what frightens and excites us most as humans is our obsession with progress—an aspect of humanity that will never fade or die. We didn’t learn from Icaris who flew too high and died for it. We know this. We fear this. And that’s why we write about it: to teach, engage, inspire, warn, excite and frighten.

So use yourself as the test—whatever it is that engages you as a person will be what you use to shape your world. Really challenge yourself to think deeply, allow yourself to be confronted and inspired, because there’s no use in building a world that won’t provoke your readers.

 

2. Multiple POV and Time Periods

I personally love multiple points of view—I would never be able to write an entire novel from the one perspective, but that’s just a personal preference. If you’re trying to work out whether or not to use multiple POV, perhaps understanding the benefits will help you decide.

The main one, for me, is being able to see a character—particularly a protagonist inside whose head we’ve just inhabited—from another character’s perspective. Give the reader an intimate insight into what a character is thinking, and then let us see how another perceives them. There’s a great gap inherent in that—how are they really coming across? How do their actions make other people feel? It paints a more thorough picture, one with more complexity—because we are never quite what we seem to others. You also learn an awful lot about the second character, their perceptions and what they are managing to interpret in the protagonist.

It all boils down to the fact that as readers, we want to know the characters of the world, without having them all blurt out every little thing they’re thinking—there’s nothing worse than too much expositional dialogue. Having multiple POV allows for more subtext between characters and conflicting perspectives, which will help you to argue your premise.

Multiple time periods is another interesting tool that can be put to use. It sounds like it’s going to be confusing and it is, but there’s a simple trick to it. There are two rules to using multiple time periods: first, only use two different periods and work out the chronological events of both timelines separately. Second, move between the two time periods by only cutting away from one at a cliffhanger or twist. That way no matter how great one time period is, readers will be itching to know what’s going on in the other—and that’s the main point of having two running simultaneously: you get to create more tension, more intrigue. Which brings us to the number one reason people keep reading: to know what’s going to happen next.

 

3. Research

Science-fiction tends to fit within a scale of soft to hard science. Hard meaning real science that exists in the world today; soft meaning made up science that can often lean more towards fantasy. There is no right or wrong—both are just as valid as the other. But regardless of whether or not you’re writing hard or soft fantasy, I can’t stress the importance of researching enough. You don’t have to lay it on too thick in the book—we’re not reading a research paper—but it’s really great for you as the author to know what’s going on behind the scenes in the engine of the book. This will come through in drips and drabs and make the world feel more authentic.

 

4. Character

Character is key. It is everything. The most imaginative and clever worlds will fail to engage readers if you don’t also have fantastic characters to live within these worlds. When I wrote Fury, my protagonist Josephine existed long before I had the idea of a society with negative emotions being erased. She existed outside this world, helped to shape her surrounds, and gave birth to every tiny aspect of the science-fiction within the book.

Your character must be flawed. They must have desires and fears and contradictions, but you also have to think about how these elements of the character reflect and counterpoint the flaws of the world. The struggle your protagonist goes through on their journey should hold within it the premise of the world, the argument you are posing. If you can embody the theme of your story within your character, you have done the hardest and most important job of all.

Don’t forget, also, little things like having romantic characters who challenge the character to live in their essence—who they really are—instead of in the false identity they create and must eventually shed. The romantic character, as well as the antagonist, will force your protagonist to learn something, and you want readers to learn with them.

Take as much care with your side characters as you do with your main characters. Make them distinct and complex. Allow their qualities to be varying. Give them opinions and beliefs and fears that flesh them out as characters and they will in turn flesh out your world.

And lastly, make sure your protagonist is active. Give them something to do, a goal or desire that is properly motivated and compelling, and then make it really, really difficult for the character to achieve that end. It’s only by throwing problems at them that we can learn who they really are—the choices a character makes are the embodiments of their personality. The harder you make these choices, the more pressure you put on them, the more interesting things get.

 

5. Be Bold: Premise

What are you really trying to say? What do you want readers to think about? What do you want them to feel? What concerns you, conflicts you, makes your heart swell?

You don’t have to have all the answers—you just have to ask the questions.

And do this by being bold. Don’t concern yourself with offending anyone. Just ask the big, hard questions and demand a lot from your readers. Write ambitiously, write with passion and write with courage. Who cares what other people think? Follow your heart; it beats with as much validity as anyone else’s.

 

 

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Charlotte McConaghy is the author of Fury: Book One of The Cure, available now where all good ebooks are sold

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Books every writer needs to read

Posted April 24, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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In the middle of the debate about whether one can actively teach writing, or whether it’s an autodidactic process gleaned from years of practice, reading and osmosis, I got to wondering about books writers read to help their writing.

Not necessarily the books about writing, per se, but rather the books we read for examples, and inspiration, and indefinable reasons that relate to putting us in the right mindset to sit down and write. And I imagine it’s different for everybody, there’s a set of books for each of us depending on need and demand. But at the same time, the reasons why we need these tokens of inspiration should be the same for all of us, we just exercise them differently.

Then I came across Flavorwire’s ‘25 Books Every Writer Should Read’, the latest in lists of these kind that seek to define truly where the wellspring of knowledge lies, by reducing it down to dot points. And normally these lists are all fine, in an instantly enjoyable and immediately disposable kind of way, but this one bothered me a bit. A lot, actually (as much as one can be bothered by a list).

I had read nothing on this list. Not one book. Several I hadn’t heard of. Was I deficient in some way? Would I never truly be a writer because Flavorwire determined I didn’t read the right books? Of course not, it’s just one person’s opinion. The oddity was in how divergent their opinion was to mine, when it comes to the source of inspiration.

So, here’s my list. The books I think every writer should read.

1. A book that is captivating from start to finish.

Bonus points if you read this in one night. But essentially, it’s a story that just hooks you from the first sentence, a story that keeps you churning through the pages yet hanging on every word, desperate to reach the end and know it all. Lately, for me, that was Floundering, by Romy Ash.

2. A book that is great with dialogue.

I hate writing dialogue, I find it difficult and I either underwrite it or overwrite it, and find it infinitely helpful to have good examples at hand. And for that I find Cormac McCarthy enormously helpful, if only because his dialogue works perfectly (for me) – it gives you the voice of the character, their rhythm and pitch, their humour and their emotion. And it does it so sparsely, that you never feel as if the dialogue is working too hard to get your attention, particularly in No Country for Old Men.

3. A book that is great with plot.

One that shows how to weave the threads of the narrative together, how to combine characters and scenes and elements of the plot and drop them into situations so plausible and natural that it’s impossible to see where the artifice ends and the naturally occurring lives of the characters take over.  I inevitably have a Stephen King book close by, but mostly I refer to IT, because it does everything, and is so enormous as a narrative that there are countless examples throughout.

4. A book that is a classic of the genre.

If only to know where you’ve come from, and what you’re working on top of. If we’re all dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants, it’s worth becoming familiar with the giants so that we can have a sure footing. Has to be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

5. A book that is short and efficient.

Even if you don’t want to be when you’re writing, it helps to know how to do it. And when it’s necessary. Less is more and all that. And it’s not just about being obscure, but about using words to the maximum of their ability. For this I like Steven Amsterdam’s latest, What the Family Needed.

6. A book that is enormous and complex.

And if you want to attempt something that isn’t short and sparse, how do you do it without burdening the reader with too much plot? How do you write 600-plus pages and still make sense of the narrative on the page? In your head? And how do you tie it all together? I like big books and I cannot lie, but writing that much terrifies me. But I look to Umberto Eco, and Foucault’s Pendulum.

7. A book that is great with setting.

Particularly if the setting is crucial to the story (when isn’t it?), and you don’t want to feel like you’re artificially inserting description and location just to make the place a character in the story, and other clichés. I love writing about place, and how it works within a narrative, and there’s any number of books I draw on to help with this, but for now I’ll go with Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino.

8. A book that is great with characters.

Just to round it out, particularly for me who always worries that the characters I write aren’t interesting enough, or don’t translate from my head into someone else’s head the way I want them to, I always need to go and see how others do it. Easiest solution for me is to go read someone who has written more characters than I can imagine: Terry Pratchett and Night Watch.

9. A book.

Any book. Whatever book you like. The book you’re currently reading, because all writers should be readers. Or the book you’re terrified of because it’s so good and you’ll never write anything close to it, so you just sit it next to your computer, taunting you with its brilliance. Or the book with a great cover that you just love to look at because it reminds you of the story inside, and how that reminds you of the story you’re trying to write. It doesn’t matter. Just read books, and use them, they can only help your writing.

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What is the point of reading scary stories?

Posted April 3, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Why write horror stories?

Why write something that is designed to induce fear? Designed to scare? Designed to shock and upset and haunt and terrify?

And why indeed do we read these stories? Why do we watch them?

It is a strange thing for me to find it the genre that I have settled into, that I have found comfort in, both as a reader and a writer. It’s certainly not through education, or carefully guided study. I basically fell into it by accident, having not really thought much of the genre or the writers within it.

Recently, Neil Gaiman spoke at BIL 2014 (a kind of anti-TED talk conference; BIL & TED, geddit?) and he discussed why he tells scary stories to children. Gaiman describes his reason as ‘inoculation’, a way of acclimatising readers to the difficulties and challenges in life.

Gaiman says that his fiction stories are ways of getting ‘to deal a little bit with the things that scare and hurt and damage us.’ He goes on to describe how he signs countless copies of Coraline to now-adult aged readers, and how that has enabled a conversation with his readers about how they have dealt with horrible things in their lives, and that the book became a comfort for them. The story, which deals with a young girl’s misadventures in a parallel world with parallel parents who attempt to sew black buttons over her eyes, is aimed at a younger audience, and is extremely dark, Gaiman clearly labelling it as a horror story for children.

For Gaiman, the horror story offers possibility, and hope, but not in the usual way. It talks to the reader, without talking down to them. It doesn’t try to hide, but instead reveals uncomfortable truths, truths that the reader is afraid to deal with. And the inoculation he speaks of is the fact that the reader knows they can get through it. They can get through the difficulties. If the horrific aspects of life are depicted in a story, then they’re manageable, they’re navigable.

Even if the characters of a horror story succumb to the terrors that lurk, even if the ending is a negative one, the reader still survives. They are the witness to the horror, the friendly ghost that accompanies the characters into the haunted house, and are able to walk back out again.

Terry Pratchett, who wrote the glorious end-of-the-world novel Good Omens with Gaiman, acknowledges this process between the horrified and the horror in his book Hogfather. The book itself is part of his Discworld series, which is primarily a fantasy-themed series, but in this particular story Pratchett deals instead with the fantastical things children believe, and what their terrifying reality is. In Hogfather, there really are monsters under the bed and in the cupboard, the Tooth Fairy travels with pliers, and the bogeyman actually exists, though he is upset as nobody believes in him anymore.

Pratchett has his characters confront the terrifying make-believe, often with improvised tools like fireplace pokers, and contrasts his heroic characters who can make sense of their fears with those who succumb to them and give in to the terror.

In the dedication at the beginning of his enormous horror novel, IT, Stephen King writes to his three children, then aged fourteen, twelve and seven.

‘Kids, fiction is the truth inside the lie, and the truth of this fiction is simple enough: the magic exists.’

The novel itself deals with a group of children who are confronted by unspeakable horror during one summer. Two decades later they reunite as adults to not only remember what had happened, but also to finally confront and defeat the horror in their lives. It’s a powerful structure, and one that acknowledges how horror works for readers.

As children, we are afraid easily. We scare at the coat on the back of the door, the noise from the floorboards, the cellar with the broken light. As children, so much of the world is unknown, undiscovered, and strange and unusual. We scare because our imagination overruns our knowledge. Our conscious gives way to the unconscious, and terror reigns. We are scared because we don’t know any better.

As we age, so our knowledge grows. Things stop mystifying us, we reason our way out of our fears. We know that the shape is just a coat, the noise is just the house cooling after the warm day, and the cellar is dusty and dank because we haven’t cleaned it this year. We think too much, and imagine too little.

It pains me that horror can be maligned as a genre, or misjudged as ghastly and disturbing preoccupations of writers and readers. For me, a horror story works when it tricks the reader, it fools them into believing something they know cannot be true. A horror story does something I think no other genre can do, by not just utilising your imagination, but letting it loose and allowing you to see the world as more than the sum of its parts.

One of Edgar Allen Poe’s greatest short stories, The Curious Case of M.Valdemar, managed to create a scene for readers where a person was both alive and dead at the same time, terrifying and fascinating us all at once, by using words to extend the reality of the known world.

A great horror story is about believing, and in this belief we can confront more than we can in our waking lives.

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Podcasts you should listen to if you don’t have time for audiobooks

Posted March 19, 2014 by Mark

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As I’ve mentioned before, I love a good podcast but find my time is squeezed to the point that I can’t keep up with everything I’ve subscribed to. Audiobooks are something I rarely listen to, even though on paper I’m an ideal audiobook consumer. But there are ways to get stories via podcasts, through shows that showcase stories and storytelling. Here are a few of the best.

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Risk!

Risk calls itself the show where people tell stories “they never thought they’d dare to share”. Each episode generally features 3-4 stories told in an entertaining way, sometimes recorded in front of a live audience. The performative aspect of the stories is part of the appeal of Risk, as is the welcoming environment set up by host Kevin Allison – no topic is off limits and no story is too embarrassing or offensive to make it on the air. Often hilarious, disgusting and surprisingly emotional, Risk is well worth a listen.

 

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Selected Shorts

This is another live performance story podcast, which usually features 2-3 fiction short stories read by famous actors (Alec Baldwin and Stephen Colbert are among the regular contributors). The stories come from established writers, generally ‘literary’ figures, and often feature greats from American fiction writing.

 

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The Moth

A less offensive version of Risk, The Moth features people telling stories about things they’ve experienced. The great thing with the podcast is that it’s often bite-sized, featuring one story that goes for about fifteen minutes (there’s also a one hour version available). The stories are a mixture of moving and funny, and are often quite unexpected.

 

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Welcome to Night Vale

Night Vale is a podcasting phenomenon, and there really is nothing else like it on the market. In the form of a radio show from the fictional town of Night Vale (where every conspiracy theory is true and supernatural events are a daily occurrence), each week listeners are treated to a horror story. There may be a phantom subway that has suddenly appeared, or an evil army marching towards the town, or phantom helicopters in the sky. Usually the stories are resolved at the end of each episode, but there are recurring characters and ongoing arcs.

 

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This American Life

No podcast list is complete without a reference to This American Life, the most popular podcast on the internet, and with good cause. Each week the show features stories, mostly true but occasionally fictional, about life in America. Sometimes it’s hard-hitting (like the recent two part episode that looked at the Chicago public school system) and sometimes it’s light and entertaining (David Sedaris is a regular contributor) but it’s always interesting.

 

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The Tobolowsky Files

This is a podcast from Stephen Tobolowsky, who is the ultimate ‘that guy’ actor, as soon as you see his face, you recognise him from countless supporting roles in films and television. The podcast features Stephen telling stories from his life, usually related to his work as an actor. It’s kind of like listening to the audiobook of his autobiography as he shares life lessons, experiences, and insights into the entertainment industry.

 

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Nerdist Writer’s Panel

This spin-off podcast from The Nerdist features panels and interviews with film, television and comic book writers. It offers a great insight into the process of creating stories for these mediums, and often features fairly prominent names. Not a storytelling podcast as such, although it’s usually littered with anecdotes about what it’s like to be in a writing room. Only drawback is that sometimes the audio is bad as the episodes are often recorded at live events.

Do you have any suggestions? Leave them in the comments! And be sure to check out Podmentum, Momentum’s very own podcast, where we discuss popular culture, books and publishing.

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How Not To Write A Novel

Posted March 17, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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After looking back last week at the tools and teaching on writing that I received at university, I was struck at how much of the following years has been a process of undoing. Having to spend the good part of a decade taking an autodidactic approach to writing is not necessarily unusual, but an approach that in hindsight would have been better served by better education.

Too much time was spent ignoring or resisting natural inclinations because they had been ingrained in to me that there was a particular way to write, a particular voice and quality to the words and the story, and that every effort I made was measured against this standard. So, in the spirit of offering hope and guidance, here’s the way I don’t approach writing anymore.

Disclaimer: I am guilty of all of these.

1. Pretend to be a different writer

This is crucial. As mentioned, we often spend too long trying to write ‘good’ writing. And we measure that against notions of what is ‘good’, as promoted by critical acclaim, reviews, sales and – of course – by those we learn from.

By trying to be what somebody else thinks is good is case of putting the cart before the horse. We end up trying to emulate a particular style or story that has already worked, and ignore impulses to deviate. What we’re doing is ignoring ourselves.

Read a lot, and write a lot. If you find out what you like to read, chances are they’re the type of stories you like. Chances are, they’re the kind of stories you might like to tell. Follow your impulses.

2. Finish before starting

This can manifest itself in two ways. Firstly, by excessively planning. Planning and planning and planning. It’s the ultimate procrastination, because it feels like work, and it feels like writing. But at some point it becomes overblown, and overdone, and there’s nothing left to write anymore. There are ten thousand ways to write a story, and over-planning can leave you trying all of them before actually making a start.

Secondly, explaining everything about your story to everyone else. This happens when the enthusiasm for the planned story is so great that we just have to tell someone. Everyone. And then we lose it, because all the energy and excitement goes into the telling, and it never seems as great when we start to put it on the page.

3. The art of reorganising a desk

In other words, deprioritising the writing. Everything else is irrelevant, unless we’re writing. But somehow we find a way to make up every available excuse to prevent us actually starting, because that it the most terrifying thing in this whole process.

We become irresponsible school kids, explaining that the reason why we haven’t started the novel yet is because the dog ate the desk, and now you need a new one from Ikea, but that’ll take a while to put together because Allen keys are frustrating things, and there was a piece missing, and now you’re not sure if that’s the room you want the desk in anyway, perhaps a minimalist aesthetic would increase the clarity of your writing, and guess what? Not a word was written. Not one.

4. Edit first, write later

What we do when we finally start the damn novel, is write a great first chapter, but then start to edit it. Because it could be better. It can always be better.

And guess what? We end up rewriting that forever, for all eternity, because in editing it we’re not just calling into question our writing choices in that chapter, but all the choices we were going to make about the entire novel. We’re chopping trees down when they’re still saplings.

6. Frontloading

But say we start to write, and we write that first chapter and we resist editing because we’re good writers. Easy, right?

Nope. What we’ve ended up doing is putting every great idea we ever had into the first chapter, as if we’re trying to write The Bible, Das Kapital, Ulysses and A Brief History of Time all at once. But I get why we do this. We’re so enthralled at our ability to finally put words down on a page, we become worried we won’t get to do this again. So we put everything in.

The solution is: write more. This one thing that we’re writing is not the only thing we write, so long as we keep writing. There’ll be more time later to explain the universe.

7. Lie

By this I mean: we lie about the word count, about our progress to our friends/spouses/waiters/strange men at the train station. We lie about how great it is, how bad it is, how we’re nearly finished, we’re just tinkering, about what kind of story it is, what kind of story it isn’t, and when it’s going to be done.

This isn’t complex psychology. We’re lying to ourselves. And we need to stop it. Because it means we’re lying on the page, and we need to write truthfully.

8. Do anything but write the damn novel

So we stop pretending, we stop with the distractions and the procrastinating, we stop questioning ourselves as we go, and we start actually writing the book. Because that’s the only thing that will work.

There are a million ways to not write a novel, there’s only one way to write it.

 

 

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What use is a creative writing course?

Posted March 10, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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I.

What is the value of a creative writing course? Mine was completed over three years, with an additional honours year for a creative writing thesis, and I still hold it to be largely responsible for the path I then took beyond university, and the career I have ended up with.

Or at least I did, until I applied a bit more thought to the matter.

In a conversation prompted by an article on the alleged ‘golden age’ in Australia for debut novelists, it was suggested that creative writing courses are failing in their role as instructive degrees for aspiring writers.

The general take on creative writing courses is that they promote and indoctrinate a particular style of writing for their students – a literary style – and that this is held as the pinnacle of the craft. This in turn is coupled with the literature degrees that either accompany a writing course or oversee it, and universities on the surface appear to be establishing a clear standard of what is ‘good’ writing, worthy of creating and worthy of critiquing.

Recently, Hanif Kureishi was quoted saying that creative writing courses were a waste of time, inculcating a culture of writing students who ‘just can’t tell a story.’ Kureishi continued on, committing the cardinal sin of teaching – blaming the students – when he said that the students:

don’t really understand…they worry about the writing and the prose and you think: ‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.’

Kureishi’s comments were then countered by Jeanette Winterson, who in her role as a writing teacher, sees her job as one of ‘exploding language in [students’] faces…writing is a state of being as well as an act of doing.’ So where do we end up? Are writing courses useless? Are they snobbish, bastions of truth and art, offering little in the way of practical writing instruction?

II.

Given that the publishing industry is changing, and the viability of writing as a career is being scrutinised, it seems fair to look more closely at whether educational institutions teaching creative writing are doing the best thing by their students.

I decided to take a look over all my old course readers from the four years I did of creative writing (yes I kept them all, what of it). Granted, this was completed ten years ago, but a brief investigation into the equivalent course at the same institution now shows little in the way of meaningful change, with only superficial alterations. Many of the same instructors are still in place.

In my first year, there was only one creative writing subject on offer. In order to complete second and third year subjects and qualify for the major, one needed this first subject. It was, of course, focused on writing about the self. Within this subject, students were able to explore such wonderful introductions to the art of writing as: imaginative inhabitation, writing as confession, writing the body, writing exile/dislocation, as well as surreality and the fabulous. We looked at Maguerite Duras, Jamaica Kincaid, Raymond Carver, Arthur Rimbaud, Anne Carson and Saint Augustine. And of course, Roland Barthes. No subject went without Barthes.

This subject was followed by a series of others, all exploring differing aspects of creative writing. To a degree. There was a theory and practice of fiction subject, which promised much (narrative, characterisation, time, order and sequence, image, voice, metaphor, and so on), but when it came down to it there was a lot of theory and the practice was left to the student. There was a subject about writing the image (still yet to work that one out), which covered concepts like fantasy and realism, framing, duplication, and ekphrasis. More Barthes was looked at, as well as Sigmund Freud, Julia Kristeva, Franz Kafka, Peter Carey, Virginia Woolf, Jeanette Winterson and Haruki Murakami.

The one subject I was really hanging out for, which was to cover writing extended, long works of fiction, came with weekly chapters on: montage and cinematic disjuncture, liminal momentum, intertextual resonance, didacticism, and spatial and visual imagining. There was to be one week on practical notions of style, grammar, editing and presentation, but instead it was delivered through terms like ‘consider the applicability of excess, cumulative amplification or adumbration, hyperbole and disjunctive or discordant montage.’ The brief discussion of grants and publishing opportunities was reduced down to a single instruction to go and purchase the latest copy of the Australian Writers’ Marketplace.

All of this, and more, and I got my creative writing degree. To what end?

I don’t recall much discussion of story at all, if any. I don’t remember there being any talk in the tutorials and lectures of the joy one gets from reading (and writing) a story, from the enthusiasm and excitement at finding out what happens next. And to this, it appears Kureishi has a point. There was a lot of learning to love the language, of placing expression and originality in language as a primary goal ahead of character, plot and setting. Which is not to say one is right and one is wrong, it’s just that the course only offered one opinion.

I undertook a screenwriting elective at the same time, and the instruction was clear and to the point. We discussed how the industry works, what the screenwriter’s role is, and how that would apply to anyone considering that profession in Australia. We looked at successful examples of the form, and non-successful examples. We covered topics like: stories on screen, storytelling structure and strategies, character and character development, imagination and craft, genre and style, culture and commerce, and then three glorious weeks on writing and rewriting. Is it any wonder this subject made the lasting impression? Is it any wonder I saw this style of writing as one I’d rather attempt to make a living from?

III.

Kureishi is correct when he says that writing courses have their priorities wrong. But he is incorrect in blaming the students (some of which can be attributed to the out-of-context quoting of his statement). And while there does need to be an examination and promotion of language, in Winterson’s terms, to only do that is to do the students a disservice.

The role of universities and courses in the life of an aspiring writer needs to be more than just an exploratory dalliance with theories. It needs to be seen as a profitable and productive course that can provide students with the tools needed to become a writer.

Universities are reluctant to acknowledge the idea that one can make money from creative writing, lest it interfere with the process of learning about writing. But once the student is finished with the course, it is impossible to attempt a career in writing without considering where the money’s going to come from. To acknowledge this would conceivably be to acknowledge that the style universities promote – this language-heavy, ideology-laden literariness – is perhaps only one of a series of stylistic choices a writer can make, and one that perhaps isn’t sustained as a dominant style when pure sales are considered.

To do this, to reconsider their stance on what ‘good’ writing is, would be to also reconsider their idea of what a writer is. Currently, we all seem to be living in a deluded state where we aspire to be a certain type of writer, we teach others to become a certain type of writer, and we all like to imagine we read a certain type of book.

The reality of this is far different. While I can only draw my conclusions from what I learned and didn’t learn at university, I am reminded of a line about Umberto Eco’s bestseller The Name of the Rose, how it was the book that everybody owned but nobody read. I am concerned that we are too caught up in making ourselves be a nation of writers we would like to read, rather than finding out just what it is the nation likes to write and likes to read. Perhaps we need to be a bit more honest about what we read, and what constitutes good writing, if those who want learn how to write are to be taught a whole lot better than they currently are.

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The misery of literature

Posted March 4, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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A recent article posited the theory that the economic mood of society could be reflected in the stories society tells itself. By analysing millions of digitised books, the researchers constructed a ‘literary misery index’, which miraculously correlated with the ‘economic misery index’ to show that societal economic downturn can be mirrored in the mood and tone of books.

The study presented the idea that there was a rough ten-year lag between economic misfortune and when that would become manifest in books, the idea being that it takes time for so-called ‘misery’ to be processed, digested and translated into narrative.

This, in itself, is hardly surprising, if taken as a face-value overview. What else are stories but reflections, refractions and interpretations of the stories we face in life? Even in escapism, one can trace back a root cause to the need to escape.

This is not wholly isolated to books, though. The parallel between popular mediums and societal climax is well-documented. But does that mean we can anticipate genre trends from political, economic and cultural climates? Can we predict that the current political mood in Australia is going to prompt a raft of anti-establishment narratives? Or that the GFC will similarly produce economically-depressed stories in the next few years?

The glut of dystopian narratives – particularly in YA books, but also then crossing to films – does seem to suggest this. That this trend is in its final throes appears, however, more symptomatic of an audience moving on from favoured styles and tropes, rather than a creative collective feeling hope where once it was only cynicism.

In film, it’s much easier to diagnose and dissect trends in genre, given that it’s a medium that wears audience popularity on its sleeve, a touch more than literature does. The constant insistence on darker, grittier and ‘more real’ qualities to films in recent years is testament to the overt displays of trend and trope. This wonderful analysis looks at the genre trends over a hundred years of cinema and throws up some interesting suggestions.

Documentary, horror and pornography all appear to have benefited from the loosening of censorship guidelines in the 1960s, allowing for not only more overt depictions of sex and violence on screen, but also perhaps a truer portrait of society. Inversely, the western is all but dead and buried after 1970, and crime, adventure and romance appear to be on downward trends in recent years. The release of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark at the beginning of the 1980s was seen not only as a revival of the action-adventure genre popular in the early-20th century, but also as a salve to the political and economic ills of the 1970s, bringing hope and naivety to a cynical world, documented and translated so thoroughly in American cinema at the time.

So, genre appears then not only as a reaction to the outside world, but also as a response to the outside world’s influence over genre. Societal thesis breeds narrative antithesis, which in turn begets narrative synthesis. The extension of this is at what point the narrative synthesis – stories challenging how we see the world we live in – starts to effect the world itself and then it all becomes quite interesting.

Our ability to predict or anticipate genre trends based on world events is not really surprising. But sometimes the cause of a trend is less overt. The popularity of The Hunger Games potentially has less to do with the strengths of the writing, rather than the strengths of the story’s ability to channel its teenage audience’s frustrations with the adult world. That this sentiment was coupled with a dystopian narrative then appears as a combination of right-time-right-place, more easily understood in hindsight than as prediction.

So maybe the deluge of dystopian stories has done its dash in illustrating our less-than hopeful view of the world and the future. Maybe the trend has rightly identified that we see difficulty in imagining the future as anything but corrupted. But perhaps that trend will now trigger a response, a vision of the world that can once again give us reason to believe that optimism and understanding are not lost to stories, nor to the world.

A ‘genre optimism index’ might be a better option than a ‘literary misery index’.

 

 

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Where do you get your great ideas? A brief chat with JR Carroll

Posted February 27, 2014 by Mark

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1. What is your daily writing routine?

In the past I used to write about 6 hours a day, beginning mid-morning. But now … a couple of hours, maybe 11 to 12 and then another hour during the afternoon. Much of my writing time is fragmented, done whenever it suits me or when I think of something that absolutely must be written at that time. I spend a lot more time actually thinking about the book – what happens next, where this or that character is going, how it’s going to end – than I used to. Thinking up plots doesn’t get any easier, I find.

2. Name some books or authors that have influenced you

Authors who have influenced me over the years are many – Graham Greene, who got me interested in fiction, Hemingway, for his taut, masculine style and the stoicism of his protagonists, Elmore Leonard ( who himself owed a debt to Hemingway, without whom, in his opinion, there would be no crime fiction as we now know it), Raymond Chandler, because of his literary qualities and his perfection of the suffering, lone wolf detective (we all have damaged cops these days; how much of that is owed to Chandler?), Philip Kerr, who carries on that noble tradition with Bernie Gunther, Michael Dibdin for the same reason and also because of the Venice setting, Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, for his brutal style and evocation of place and time, Michael Connelly (who comes through that ‘Great Tradition’ of modern American crime fiction), Ruth Rendell, for her psychological insights into the twisted mind … And ditto for Colin Wilson. The list goes on. I suppose I have been influenced by every author I’ve encountered in one way or another.

3. Why should people read 8 Hours to Die?

I would hope people would read 8 Hours to Die to be transported into a truly frightening world, if only for a few hours, to experience vicariously blind terror at the hands of vicious desperadoes in that scariest of scenarios – the home invasion. One never knows how one would fare in such a situation. whether one would be heroic or not … Character is the core of a crime novel, and in this one I’ve pushed that to extremes, to see what human beings are capable of under great duress. The most unexpected things can happen, good and bad. I’ve always loved the idea of the ‘siege thriller’, ever since seeing Peckinpah’s horrific and controversial film ‘Straw Dogs’ back in the early seventies.

4. What do you hope readers take from your book?

Pretty much as above. I would also hope the reader is kept on a knife’s edge at the narrative level, trying to figure out what is happening and how it’s all going to pan out. And then, when it’s over, to experience nightmares, to jump slightly when the doorbell rings at night … So I would like the reader to carry this sense of fear, and dread, a knot in the stomach, that such things can and do happen to just about anyone.

5. What are you currently reading?

Since I’m living in Venice at present, my reading is determined by what’s on the bookshelf here, in our apartment. I have read and enjoyed Michael Connelly’s ‘The Gods of Guilt’, Philip Kerr’s ‘A Philosophical Investigation’ (1992, before the Bernie Gunther series), Robert Harris’s acclaimed Nazi thriller ‘Fatherland’ and one of Ian Rankin’s, ‘Black and Blue’.

6. Where do you get your ideas?

I get my ideas from everywhere I can. Real crime is a constant source of material. I’m particularly fond of long-unsolved murders, police corruption, disgraced politicians and businessmen, crime families and the culture of the outsider they instill in their young, to ensure that the cycle of criminality is perpetuated, organised blue-collar crime, terrorists, bikie gangs, the lot … I find that with each new idea I decide to base a book on, just a single incident perhaps, I have to create a new set of characters and a new setting, so I’ve never been able to settle into the ‘serial character’ pattern. That makes life more difficult, but also more interesting as there are so many bizarre and fascinating crimes out there waiting for someone to turn them into fiction.

8 Hours to Die is available now where all good ebooks are sold. Click here to find it at your preferred retailer

“Not for the faint hearted” – Shane Maloney, author of the Murray Whelan series

8 Hours to Die scorches along relentlessly, displaying all of JR Carroll’s trademark thriller-writing skills: hard-edged prose, vivid characterisation, a strong sense of place and tense plotting.” – Garry Disher, author of the Wyatt series and the Challis & Destry series

 

 

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The story formula

Posted February 21, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Recently I stumbled on an old article on Slate that discussed why so many big Hollywood releases these days seem to feel the same. They seemed to have the same rhythm, the same permutations, even the protagonists started to blend into one another, as did the bad guys. The moment in the second act when the villain is caught by the good guys on purpose, only to then reveal their nefarious master scheme, is quickly becoming a cliche. So too is the fake ending, only to twist into yet another reveal and extra ten minutes to the run time.

What was happening, according to Slate, was that a particular method refined and promoted by the late screenwriter Blake Snyder in the mid-2000s had become the blueprint for many films greenlit and released in the coming years. We are now witnessing the knock-on effect of this influence.

Snyder’s strategy for story was – like many – nothing new. It was merely one that he astutely observed and practised, from the legacy of hundreds of other successful big-ticket films over the last few decades. Described in his book Save the Cat!, Snyder’s method suggests following beats in a story, ensuring that these moments are delivered to the audience so as not to give them short-shrift on the story’s potential impact, and the arc of the characters.

This is a slight break from the tradition of developing a story along the classic three-act structure, developed by screenwriting gurus (for want of a better word) Syd Field, Robert McKee, Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush, and the monomyth of Joseph Campbell. That method was never more than a vague blueprint, a guideline of principles that – again – came from observation about what worked. It was a noticing of patterns, shared behaviour across different stories, and yet then reduced down to a step-by-step plan for aspiring writers.

Like anything, reducing a story down to a study of its architecture is a way of making something less than the sum of its parts. And to an extent, this could be one of the reasons why we perhaps tailed off blockbusters for a while, as we became clued into the formula, and why by the late 90s and early 2000s they seemed to become rather uninspired affairs.

Save the Cat! takes its title from the idea that one of the early beats for your main character should be getting them to appear likeable to some extent, such as by saving a cat. This thus engenders sympathy, and aligns the audience’s concerns with that of the hero, ripe for exploring or exploiting. Additionally, it establishes an aspect of the story without having to conform to a structural guide, and this is consistent with all of Snyder’s twelve beats. Other beats include things like the opening image - where either the protagonist or central concern of the story is established – the catalyst - where some action challenges and propels the protagonist into a new world order – and the dark night of the soul - where the protagonist is forced to acknowledge the insurmountable obstacles surrounding them and admit possible defeat.

The beats deliver a story that emotionally and entertainingly deliver, but are a bit freer in form and structure. This, however, has led to rather more blockbusters feeling a bit more sprawling and convoluted than perhaps audiences have been used to.

Regardless, planning a story by beats, and viewing it this way is a fascinating exercise, and worth considering. Snyder’s website provides story analysis – beat sheets – on many different films from the last few decades, and allows for wonderful revision of films like Jurassic Park that contains all the beats, but is structurally unusual and unique in its genre. Seriously, go read it.

But, there is a warning. As always. Snyder – who passed away suddenly in 2009 – stressed that the beats were merely necessary plot inclusions, but not a how-to guide on writing a complete story. Unfortunately, as is Hollywood’s way, the archetype has been turned into the one-size-fits-all, and increasingly we’re seeing a lot of formulaic blockbusters.

In short, we’re back where we were ten years ago.

To some extent, it’s a natural occurrence. Hollywood studios are businesses, and when something makes good business, you rinse and repeat. Exponentially. But I think audiences are too wise to story mechanisms now. We’ve become versed in the metalanguage of film and television, and carry tropes and cliches around with us as trophies of cultural credibility. The lifespan of Snyder’s beats seems to be shorter than the three acts of Field and McKee, and the monomyth – particularly among the YA audience – is just about exhausted.

If we go back to the proto-blockbuster - Jaws - it’s almost unrecognisable as a tentpole summer release of the 2010s. Middle-aged cast, meandering opening, and an inflated third act that practically dominates the movie, which traverses genres into a seemingly existentialist pursuit of chaos. It’s atypical, and defies reduction down to a schematic, despite the attempts of McKee et al.

A lesson can be learned here. To not let the story be contained by a formula. And to not tick aspects off a list and expect that it’ll do. Hollywood – and others – need to do more, and find the unique. That way lies gold.

 

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Genre is as genre does

Posted February 17, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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Recently, there has been a flurry of scandalous debate about a report and analysis into the changing world of publishing by Wool author Hugh Howey. Howey’s exceedingly detailed report suggests that – based on an analysis of Amazon sales – genre authors are much better served by going the independent and self-published route, as this will offer greater yield financially for their efforts.

Howey admits aspects of his analysis are speculative and inferential, as data on raw book sales is often undisclosed or incomplete. This, admittedly, offers the first point of interest. While box office on films, and sales and downloads on music and television are all widely available (allowing for elements of bias), figures on book sales remain obscure and coded behind veils of good intentions. There is the suggestion that book sales are undisclosed for our benefit, the implication being that perhaps we wouldn’t read what we read if we knew what everybody else was reading.

The report concludes with Howey wishing for greater transparency, greater understanding of how traditional publishing models lead to a benefit in sales. Others have criticised Howey’s lack of understanding in data analysis, and that he is offering a post hoc inference about data that wilfully ignores its limitations.

Regardless, the report comes at a time when many are looking and questioning the cost benefit of writing for a living. This recent surge of attention in demanding payment, and demanding transparency in the finances of writing suggests that writing as a profession has until now existed (and subsisted) on a level where we feel it lives beyond daily wages. How do we measure writing? Per word? Per hour? Per book sold? What constitutes a financially successful career as a writer?

And is that different from being a good writer?

Do we regard certain writing as ‘good’, even if it doesn’t make money? And does writing that makes money necessarily qualify for public recognition as ‘good writing’?

Howey directed his report at genre writers – mystery, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, romance – as categorised by Amazon.  The suggestion is that the rise of self-publishing, and the rise of digital publishing, is seen as an opportunity for genre writers to earn more from non-traditional publishing pathways.

What I find odd is that this categorisation places genre as a money-defining result. That the genre – the label prescribed upon the writing upon publication (on Amazon) – is all important, and is placed as a premium ahead of any other qualities the story might contain.

And here we have the tricky problem of genre – as it currently is the dominant way we categorise the stories we read and the stories we write. Bookshops, real and digital, organise their shelves according to genre. But this is an imperfect system. Stories often defy genre, or alternate and transcend; stories combine and manipulate genre and set it upon the reader via subterfuge. How would Kazuo Ishiguro feel if Never Let Me Go was shelved in science fiction, given the very late and shocking reveal of that element within the story? The genre here is one part of the book, not the whole, and certainly not the label.

To follow further examples in my favourite field, this genre categorisation becomes even trickier when looking at an author like Stephen King. Once upon a time, in the world where Borders still existed, Stephen King books could easily be found in the horror section. He practically was the horror section. And while many of his books, particularly the early ones, are horror, this is again an imperfect system for categorisation.

Of his recent books, 11/22/63 is listed under fantasy, where it places #3 in a subgenre of fantasy. However, it is also listed under horror, placing at #92. And yet the book is clearly not a horror book. In fact, it relies really on only one element of fantasy to even qualify as that type of story. His earlier collection of short stories, Different Seasons, is also listed under horror, and yet is the collection that spawned the films The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me. Again, clearly not horror. So do we make excuses for writers who cross genres, but still define them (and their books) by the genre they started in, or dominate?

If we follow the idea of using genre to define stories, then we will end up with a never-ending spiral of subgenres upon sub-subgenres, to serve every whim of the reader, and every style of the writer. I would hazard that writers rarely view genre as a defining boundary on their imagination – so should genre be the label that prescribes expectation to the reader on what type of book it is? Should it explain exactly what it is?

Will we end up with a Science-Fiction>Alternate-Reality>Victorian-Gothic-Robotics>Anthropomorphised-Rabbit>Western>Young-Adult subgenre?

Obviously we do need some method of organising, and at the moment genre works – to a degree. But as a financial imperative? What about all the books that don’t fit genre? Why does Howey not include literary fiction as a genre itself?

There are many questions that come from the report, and many that suggest our way of viewing books, writing, and sales is imperfect at best, and fundamentally flawed at worst. The most positive take away for me is that everything’s changing very rapidly – how we write, how we publish, and how we read – and this can hopefully lead to a future where we can write and publish and read with greater ease, and freedom, and enjoyment.

 

For more on genre, Momentum authors Nathan M. Farrugia and Luke Preston, and Anne Treasure and myself are discussing Genre In The Digital Age for the Digital Writers’ Festival tonight at 6:00pm.

As it’s a digital festival, you can attend via the magic on the internet, and watch us all talk at digitalwritersfestival.com

 

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The death of the pen

Posted February 14, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke

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A discussion yesterday about the practice of editing on paper against editing electronically branched off into an interesting tangent: just how attached are we to maintaining paper and handwriting practises? Furthermore, is this getting in the way of some fairly serious progress of twenty-first century society?

While the reports of the book’s death were greatly exaggerated, to the point of being entirely fictitious and presumptuous, it has since emerged that we actually are reading more now than ever before – at least as far as our ability to track this kind of thing.

Writing as a method of communication has always been after the fact; we spoke before we wrote, and writing initially was merely a method of establishing fact, of dismissing doubt. By the time the first books were created, writing was still a unique, unrepeatable event. Reading as a past-time was not a fathomable occasion. If we wanted to share stories, we shared them, by and large through voice and performance.

From the advent of the printing press to the spread of public education and universities, through the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution and on to the technological advances of the twentieth century, the book emerged as a convenient method of containing and conveying words, of communicating stories, of ingesting and processing new information. Reading and writing as a study and as an art arrived.

Our nostalgia for the book as a physical paper product is founded on a short-sighted view of human history. We have always communicated in the most convenient form available. As we settle into the twenty-first century, it becomes apparent that not only are we swallowing stories at a higher rate and in more ways than ever before, but we’re also physically reading more content as a whole. Far more communication occurs through reading, and effectively through writing, but here’s where the issue arrives.

With more being read, that means more are writing. But not writing by hand. If more and more content is arriving in a typed form – a trend that really isn’t going to lessen lest the computers turn on us – then really it should be handwriting that we’re issuing death notices for, not paper books.

Unfortunately, it appears the older generation is the one that’s caught up in blindly nostalgic waves of OCD with their inability to let go of handwriting as an asset. I say this not as an outsider, but as part of that generation. I still instinctively handwrite, I still find it easier to shape thoughts through a pen than through the tips of ten fingers. And certainly, it is an asset in a profession where handwriting might be required, but how many of those still exist? How many will for the next generation?

While Victoria has recently decided that it will look into ‘planning’ for online, typed exams for Year 12 students, leading education systems like those in Sweden and Norway have had them implemented for years. Our failure to act is costing the students. To compound this, the recent Australian Curriculum – while admittedly introducing many positives – emphasised handwriting as a key component of students’ learning, something that had rightly disappeared in recent years.

We emphasise the introduction of technology into learning, into the lives of the younger generations, as it has become the currency and medium that dominates our lives. Pen and paper are as archaic as the topics in the history curriculum. But then after all this embracing of technology, something strange occurs.

By the time these students reach their final years, all assessments become handwritten again. All final exams are written, at hours on end, with a pen and paper. Why? Why do we insist this happens? Everything we had encouraged them to learn for more than a decade is diminished by the distillation of their ability through a pen.

Many universities still follow this model as well. The fear of plagiarism, the fear of students using more than the contents of their heads is what drives this avoidance of technology in exams. And yet it has no practical parallel in the real world. We never confine our knowledge in our jobs, we never limit our resources to see what we can really do. So why test this way?

We need to let go of handwriting as the end of the line for the written word; we’ve found a better way. The pens of the world are haemorrhaging our words, instead of giving them new life. To use them as modern tools is damaging the capability and potential of our potential society.

 

 

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