The landscapes of writing

panorama near PastoriaI know some people hate driving, especially long roadtrips.  I love them for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that they’re great for writing.

On Monday, I did a 7 hour round trip to Orange, which is living up to its name, and throwing in a whole extra palette of reds and golds and yellows, with its glorious autumn display. For that I had company, so my unsuspecting passenger go to be a sounding board for working through ideas on character development. Well, that’s not entirely true – the ‘unsuspecting’ part – my family are used to it by now.

For most of my recent trip, to the Clare Valley, I was by myself. I know a lot has been said about the allure of the open road rolling out before you, but I’d like to add that there’s something very satisfying about solitude + speed + very loud music. That might sound reckless, but I’m tediously law-abiding. The speed limit is speedy enough, especially if I put the windows down and scream sing Five Finger Death Punch or Nick Cave songs to fields full of sheep. They don’t seem to mind.

Of course, it’s not all fun and games and Whiskey in the Jar. I bought the worst coffee I have purchased in years from Horsham and then had the early morning torment of needing the caffeine but not wanting to drink anything that bad. Oh, don’t worry, the siren song of sweet caffeine was way stronger than the sensibilities of my taste buds. Reader, I drank it.giant koala

And then feared for my sanity when I encountered … this … thing …

But, traumatic as that was, it’s all grist for the mill for writing. There’s a lot of inspiration to be drawn from a landscape, and I drove through some beauties. One of the reasons why writers need to go to the place where their story is set, is totally not because travel becomes a tax deduction. It’s to soak up the sense of the place. This is especially awesome if you are writing something set in a real-world place which is beautiful and has great coffee.

Manuscript number four started out, years ago, when I wrote down a dream I had about the sort of wedding jewellery they wore in Arlvagne, and their barren queen who longed for a child. Yes, it came complete with the country name and, no, there’s no such place, so I figured it was fantasy.

So, obviously, dragons. Check.

And a world. Bother.

My roadtrip involved 3,250 km of driving around the back of the Snowy Mountains, down to Melbourne, then west past the Grampians and over the Murray River, into South Australia, through Adelaide and up to the Clare Valley. After the weekend I stayed in Hahndorf, and then Ballarat.  From that lovely old gold-mining town I headed through Daylesford to Kyneton.

I had some great-great-ancestral types out that way and I drove past their old property at Pastoria.  I was almost lost when I missed a quick left, then right, turn over the Burke and Wills Track (ah, the irony – inept explorers FTW) and then I was paced by a camouflaged APC in Puckapunyal before I rejoined the motorway heading north again.

As I went, I thought about my story and the landscape of the world where it takes place. I noticed the way that the white trunks of the gums can catch the light and look like rows of bones, lined up on the hill. I noticed that the bark of the red mallee hangs in wretched strips like flayed skin, with the livid trunk of the tree smooth beneath it. I noticed the granite rock formations that jut out of the soil, the grass growing up to lap at their edges, and the sheep that graze among them, almost indistinguishable from the stones.

These are the rocks and bones that will make a true foundation for whatever flights of fantasy I want to add in building a landscape for the world I’m writing. It’s not the same process as writing about a real place. I don’t want to just cut out a patch of the Mallee region, or a wedge of the Macedon Ranges and slap it onto the map.

But the landscape that is emerging, as I write, has definitely been influenced by the places I drove through because the mechanics of driving – of watching the road, the other drivers, speed, steering, all that stuff – only takes up a bit of my brain.

The rest is noticing details of the landscape,  thinking about the story and, like any writer, wondering “what if…”

The fermentation of first drafts

draft3

Recently, I spent a weekend in Auburn, in the beautiful Clare Valley in South Australia, with the ever-inspirational author Fiona McIntosh, a team of industry experts, and a great bunch of writers. It was fabulous – the company, the information, the conversation, the weather, the food, the coffee, the autumnal colours – everything really.

I have no doubt that the wine, provided by local vineyard Taylors, was also fabulous, but I did not partake. I was told once, by a toffee-nosed snob selling fizz at a Victorian cellar-door, that I have an “unsophisticated Queensland palate” because I said I don’t much like wine. Cheers, bitch!

Anyway, I understand the concept, so I’m going to try out a wine metaphor here. You can correct me in the comments (or call me unsophisticated, I’m good with it).

Before I went on my roadtrip, I finished the first draft of my latest manuscript (let’s call her number three). I printed her out, handed her over to a couple of trusted people for general feedback, and put her out of my mind. That was OK. I had to do some serious culling of manuscript number one to dent the word count and tighten up the pace. A week later, I was twitchy to look at number three again. I had to take something away with me to work on at a writing weekend, right?

But, and here’s that wine metaphor, drafts need time to ferment. You can’t just rush in there and bottle the stuff, and say it’s done. The bottle will explode. Or, wait, is that ginger beer?

Maybe.

Alright, then, drafts, like wine, need time to age.

When I’ve just finished writing something I’m way too close to it to look at it critically. I’m still inside that character’s head, caught up in her drama, and I can’t see the story’s structure, theme, pacing, or anything else I need to be objective about, for all the feels. I need some air. The draft needs some time.

I gave myself a month, minimum, before I picked up number three again.

But, like I said, I was twitchy as hell for something to work on. So I dug out an old story idea. I’m not entirely certain how old it is, but I remember thinking when those Pandora circular charm bracelets first came out ‘oh, that’s like the anniversary bands on the wedding bracelets in Arlvagne in that old story I started.’ Yeah.

Anyway, I turned it around, shook it up, and still had 10,000 words in the file. So I’ve been writing more. I thought about the plot while I was driving, and typed it up at night. I’ve written more every day since I got home. I’ve slipped over into that skin and given myself some space from number three. My draft’s month of fermenting, or aging, or breathing, is up today, and in the meanwhile I’ve slapped an extra 22,500 words into what is shaping up nicely to be manuscript number four.

If I wasn’t so damn unsophisticated, I’d crack open a bottle of wine to celebrate.

Time after timeline

KITTEN

The current work in progress is nearing completion, and a recent revision identified a problem.

Time.

Oh, sure, the older I get, the quicker it goes, but that’s only a problem with the writing, not with the work itself. I think that nowhere is time’s ability to be mutable more obvious than in a work of fiction. A writer can devote pages and pages of prose to describing something that occurs in a second, or can leap across years, decades, even millennia in a single sentence.

You may be familiar with the concept that time is relative to the observer. (And, can I just add that I love the train and bicycle thought experiment that Einstein used, to help the good folk who hang around a few standard deviations closer to the mean, to conceptualise what the hell he was on about.) As a reader you’ve no doubt experienced that time in fiction is relative to the reader. How many books have you read where the passage of real time becomes irrelevant as the book takes over your brain. It doesn’t matter that you are spending real time hours reading – your reading brain is spending months walking the war-torn streets of St Petersburg, or years growing up outcast on a remote, frost-riven promontory, or decades following the fortunes of a grazing family.

But, and I should have made that bigger, because it is a big but, it has to make internal sense.

A writer can mess with time, just as we can mess with the laws of physics and causality and anything else, but it has to be internally consistent.

I checked my timeline, because, while it doesn’t really matter whether the two-headed pig-kitten was born on a Tuesday or a Thursday, it does matter if one of my characters whispers, while the rest of the congregation is singing ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ that Sunday, ‘I was washing my socks three days ago, when that monstrous abomination was birthed’. Do I want that character to look like a fool who can’t count to three, or to imply that here we have a very unreliable narrator, with a laudanum habit that has seriously impaired their already hazy grasp of the days of the week? If the answer is no, I need to pin the event down in a timeline.

Also, for dialogue to seem natural, characters need to be able to refer to time in all sorts of ways.

‘How long have you been in these parts?’ might be answered with ‘ten days’, ‘since Tuesday last week’, ‘I arrived on the sixteenth’, ‘it was the day after St Swithin’s day that I first set foot in this God-forsaken hellhole’, or ‘I think you’ll find, that’s none of your business.’

They all have to be correct. The penultimate example is particularly tricky:

If I say that Lord Frobisher’s impetigo prevented him from attending the Hellfire Club’s St Agnes’ Eve Bake Sale, and six weeks later he’s worried it will keep him from dancing a quadrille with Miss Smaagstrom at Lord Barr’s Burns’ Night Ball, then I’m in trouble. Not only should I Google impetigo, but I’ve mauled my timeline. It doesn’t matter that it sounds fine, it’s not. St Agnes’ Eve is January 20 and Burns’ Night is January 25, and there’s no way I can make that look like six weeks between them. Time might be flexible in fiction, but it should never be stupid.

So, I’ve tightened up my timeline, moved the village market day to Wednesday, and realised I need to check the Anglican service for the third week after Trinity Sunday, not the second. I know, right? It’s taken a fair bit of real time, and it was time that I wasn’t really writing, but losing six days has done wonders for the flow of events, and maintaining rising tension, so I feel it was time well spent.

(NB: no bicephalous pig-kittens were harmed in the writing of this post.)

Hold the phone!

public phoneIn breaking news, it turns out that I can’t move house and finish my novel at the same time.

This isn’t really news to anyone. Moving is one of those life events that everyone acknowledges is about as stressful as nailing one’s intestines to a tree and then running around and around it until you die.

So, maybe not quite that stressful. But uncannily close.

I’m moving in a week. There’s a lot more of my things packed in boxes in the garage than in the house, and yet there still seems to be an awful lot of stuff in the house. There’s a long, long list of Things That Must Be Done, with deadlines. I’m worrying about packing logistics and notifications and all the rest of it. I’m tired and grumpy and stressed.

And I just want to write. I can’t stop thinking about my current work in progress, and, worse, far worse, about the next book. I sneaked a little writing session in today, just so I could get some of the characters’ dialogue out of my head and into the document before it starts leaking out of my ears.

One week to the move. Then there’s the unpacking and the sorting things out. Then, oh then, I’ve promised myself a new writing space and a couple of weeks of glorious, unfettered writing.

Eyes on the prize, and on we go.

Words you didn’t know you needed

Kindlifresserbrunnen by Andrew BossiI’m a word nerd.

I love bang up to the elephant articles about weird words to add to my vocabulary, like this list of slang from the Victorian Era, and collections of obscure words. One of my favourites of the latter is The Phrontistery with its Compendium of Lost Words.

Feel free to share your favourites in the comments – I’ll be forever grateful!

I have beguiled many a happy hour reading through the Compendium. I could try and justify it by saying it’s research for writing historical fiction, but that would be entirely disingenuous. I just love words.

It has occurred to me, though that there are no words for things that should have words for them, and other words out there which can hardly come up much in conversation. One of the latter, courtesy of The Phrontistery, is brephophagist. Try and recall, if you’d be so kind as to indulge me for a moment, the last time you needed a word for “someone who eats babies”.

Never, I thought (or, at least, I hoped.)

And now, to prove me wrong, a good friend reminded me of the fascinating collection of online oddities at Atlas Obscura, and whilst taking a circuitous route through its treasures, I stumbled upon the Child-Eater of Bern.  (That’s him caught in the act in the cropped header image, photographed by Andrew Bossi, available in creative commons on Wikipedia. See the full image at the linked sites.)

The good folk of Bern refer to the subject of the horrific sculpture that tops their fountain as a Kindlifresser – a child eater, or brephophagist. He’s been there since 1546 and, for all I know, it may have been all the rage in Europe during the 16th Century to decorate one’s town with such things. Suddenly, I can imagine the word ‘brephophagist’ arising quite naturally in all manner of conversations.

That’s my disturbing thought for the day.

Retrofitting story structure

engineMy current work in progress is something in the way of an experiment. I’ve never tried to write a novel-length anything in a single process. I’ve always written bits and pieces, here and there, put it away for ages, written a bit more, edited what I had, mucked around with it – you get the idea.

I’ve heard of a marvellous kind of storyteller who has an idea, starts writing and writes through (you people know who you are). I gave it a try and at around 35,000 words realised that this particular bunny was never going to fly for me.

No worries. I worked out the broad brushstrokes of what the plot needed to do, wrote the scenes that were clear in my head, and added in hashtag notes like #check delivery time 1834 mail London to York and #Julian needs to talk to Mattie about hares and curses. On the next sweep through the document, I write out more scenes, or maybe add more hashtags as I need to.

It’s a messier process, but it works for me, and I can easily search for # in an edit to find any points where I’ve reminded myself to check a fact.

What I don’t do is consciously plan out the overall three act, or five act, structure. And while I understand that a story doesn’t necessarily need that structure, it’s a reliable touchstone for the reader. I’m a big believer in the writer respecting the hell out of the reader, because that’s what I want when I’m reading.

The reader is doing a lot of stuff , inside their busy brain, bringing the writer’s story to life, and if the writer has used a solid structure it’s like a strong foundation on which you can build anything.

The other great thing about structure is that it reminds me to bolt things together better – that is, to make the connections that I’ve made in my writer head more overt on the page (but remember, respect! – no bludgeoning the reader with it).

I’ve written about four fifths of this current WIP. Soon, I will need to have a look at my document as a whole and identify the turning points (or the pinch points, or the pivotal scenes, or whatever you want to call them) where things shift for the characters, and tension increases.

Ideally, these scenes will mark the transitions between the acts within the classic story structure, and I need to make sure that my main character is being proactive, rather than reactive – that is, that she is making choices that cause things to happen, rather than just having things happen around her. I’m pretty confident she’s doing okay on that front, but retrofitting the structure also makes me think about the overall pacing of the story.

I’m a little worried, after trying the just write the thing from start to finish approach, that my pacing is off, and doing some word count checking of where those turning points happen will help me ensure that the eventual reader will feel invested early in the story, and there will be enough rising tension to keep them turning pages until the entirely satisfying conclusion.

Sounds perfect! Now I just have to make it happen.

A new year revolution

dandelion

The year has turned so it must be time to spin around, blow a dandelion clock and make a wish.

I’ve always preferred that kind of revolution to the other, and definitely favoured it above resolutions for this time of year. I like me. I’m not perfect, but just because it’s a new year doesn’t mean I need to create a new version of me.

But there’s definitely more than just dandelion seeds in the air.  I’ve spent the last couple of days packing books. We have 30 shelves crammed to overflowing and I’ve never mastered the art of ruthless weeding. If I’m lucky I will whittle it down to 28 shelves worth of books that need to be moved.

Because it is time for a change.

I’m not particularly reliable in my  migratory habits, but it’s been seven and a half years since we came back to Australia from our second Scottish amble, and I’m tired of being this close to the equator.

So, my first change for this lovely leap year of potential and promise is a southerly peregrination – from 28.0167° S to 35.3075° S. That might not sound like much of a difference, but I’ll be going up in the world as well – from around 13 metres to 580 metres above sea level.

The chances of snow improve dramatically, I assure you.

The clarion call to adventure, in this case, does not allow me to stride out of the cottage, sword in hand, to go where the road leads ever onwards. It will take four weeks of planning, packing, and cleaning, and devouring anti-histamines in the hope I can prevent my dust allergy from making my face fall off.

And I want to have my first draft of novel #3 finished by the end of January, too. To achieve that I’ll need to think of some way that neither the villain, nor an important secondary character, are required to do something stupid in the process of reaching their desired, mutually exclusive, outcomes.

Well, packing is just like playing Tetris, right? And plotting is really just puzzle-solving. It’s all the same skills, surely?

Hmm, I’ll let you know how that theory works out.

Tally-ho, and toodle-pip!

That was so 2015

lights

There are fewer than 40 hours remaining to 2015, and I’m wishing I was with a friend of mine who is currently trekking around Cambodia, if only so I could work in a bad it’s time to look back in Angkor, what? pun for the end of the year.

See what I did there?

It’s been an interesting year. Some great stuff and some maundering around in the abyssal depths stuff, both on a personal and a global level. I’ll just get over the personally abysmal first, because seguing from good things to hopeful futures is always so much cheerier.

It was a bad year, healthwise, for me. Thankfully, medical science is an amazing thing and with the assistance of a couple of surgeons, an awesome anaesthetist, some titanium tacks and assorted personnel and paraphernalia, I am now pretty damn tickety-boo. Plus – titanium! It’s all good.

Also unfortunate was being kind-napped by revolutionary tapirs and held in a location with unreliable bandwidth. It’s made me think about what I want to achieve this coming year, but it’s also why I haven’t been updating here as often as I would like. Still, that’s a story for another day.

And speaking of stories, 2015 was a great year in regard to writing. Last year, I went part-time at work for 12 months and resolved to finish writing a book. Any book. How about one of those eight books you’ve started, Louise? Yeah, how about that?

So I sorted myself out a bit, and then this time last year tried to give myself a kick in the backside and get on with it. But it wasn’t until April, when I went to Adelaide for Fiona McIntosh’s five day commercial fiction masterclass, that I got a proper kick from someone who knew what they were talking about. Best thing ever.

By the end of May, I’d finished my first draft. I actually finished a manuscript! While my lovely beta readers started on their feedback, I got stuck into draft novel #2. At the end of June I submitted the edited manuscript #1 to a publisher and kept working on #2. I finished the first draft at the end of August, and submitted the first 15, 000 words to a publisher’s open submission call. I started writing #3 on the 1st of September. In November, following another inspiring couple of days at GenreCon in Brisbane, I finished the edits on #2, revised #1 to fix a couple of things, and sent them both off to an agent.

And here we are at the end of December. I wish I could say I’d been offered a publishing contract this year, but I’m saving that news (hopefully) and the reward of finally devouring my masterclass Haighs chocolate frog, for 2016.

I know that the number of words doesn’t really matter (I could sit there typing All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy over and over again, and we know how well that would turn out). But I worked it out anyway and it looks like this:

#1  historical fantasy 118,800 (12/15) – 65,800 (01/15) = 53,000 words
#2  YA urban fantasy 84,000 (12/15) – 37,000 (01/15) = 47,000 words
#3  sequel to #1 83,000 (12/15) – 0 (01/15) = 83,000 words

That’s 183,000 words this year. More, really, once you take editing into account – woot!

And, better than that, I finished something. I started writing #1 in March 2011. I started writing #2 in 2007, while I was still living in Edinburgh. I’m really happy to have made 2015 the year when I could finally say I’ve written a book. Many, many thanks to my family for their support and encouragement, and to Fiona for inspiration and support.

So, what are my 2016 new year’s revolutions (tapir related or otherwise)?
Well, writing is good – I like it, and I’m sticking with it.
As for everything else … I feel a change in the air.

More on that next year.

The satisfaction of revenge

dressmaker

Forgive and forget, or at least forgive and get over it, might be good advice for our souls/karma/general state of mental health. But, you know, there’s something so very satisfying about a great revenge story.

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham is one of my favourite books. I reviewed it enthusiastically five years ago, when I picked it for my library’s online book club read of the month. I was *super* excited when I heard it was being filmed.

Ah, and what a fantastic job they’ve done of making it into a film. I loved it! It looked perfect. I was completely emotionally engaged with it – laughing at the humour, recoiling from the revolting, gasping at the transformations worked by the amazing dresses. I wept buckets at the sad bits (in fact, I started crying before the sad bits because I knew they were coming). It was a fantastic two hours and I emerged from the cinema dehydrated and blinking at the reality of the world.

Which is pretty much the same effect the book has on me – the immersion just lasts a little longer.

I particularly love two things about this story. The first is that it doesn’t box itself into being just one thing. If you want a rom-com with a happy ever after – er, no. If you want a serious examination of the dark recesses of humanity – look out, Mad Molly’s made the hash brownies a little stronger this time. But it is romantic, and comedic, and tragic – sometimes at the same time. And that’s great storytelling.

The other is that Tilly’s sewing skills and eye for fashion can transform the way the women of the town look, but she can’t change what they are really like. A fabulous dress does not make you a nice person. Old secrets are raked up and resolved, but Tilly is not forgiven, and not accepted. Not because there’s something wrong with her, but because there is something wrong – something closed off and soured – about the people of Dungatar.

They forego their opportunity to transform. And so it’s up to Tilly to force that transformation in an incredibly satisfying revenge scene.

The director, Jocelyn Moorhouse is said to have decribed the movie as Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven with a sewing machine”, and that’s pretty much perfect. 

So if you’re in the mood for a gunslinger in Dior, I highly recommend you go and see The Dressmaker. And, if you really want a treat, read the book too.

An enticing, genre-blending book

glamouristsOnce you start messing with your genres, things can get confusing.

You know what Dr Spengler said – “Don’t cross the streams.”

So should a writer stay well inside the lines, genre-wise?  Well, you may also recall that, actually, crossing the streams worked out fine, and I like to think that genres are there to be played with. Still, it can be tricky knowing what to call your chosen genre once you’ve done a bit of blurring and blending.

That’s why my writing inspiration for today comes from Mary Robinette Kowal, whose Glamourist Histories are fabulous historical romance adventures with a dash of magic. Or to keep it simpler, urban historical fantasies. I like it!

I’ll be chairing a panel at GenreCon in Brisbane at the end of the month (you know you want to be there: go on, buy your ticket!) and this very talented author will be on that panel. So I thought I’d better catch up on the series. I had read Shades of Milk and Honey a couple of years ago, but the series is now up to its fourth, so it was time to get a reading wriggle on.

I’ve just finished the third, Without a Summer, and it was delightful. 1816 was called the year without a summer, because a massive volcanic explosion in Indonesia in the previous year continued to mess with global weather patterns, and caused widespread crop failures and heightened social unrest. It also caused bicycles to be invented and the guests at a house party on Lake Geneva to resort to telling each other ghost stories to pass the time, inadvertently creating a whole genre, but that’s another story.

Jane Austen’s books of the time give almost no acknowledgement of the political and social environment in which they occur. Although influenced by Austen, Without a Summer ties the story into the time in the best way, and seamlessly incorporates magic by having public blame for the bad weather fall on the coldmongers, who are able to manipulate folds of glamour to cool things –  but not to the extent of ruining the weather.

It was an intelligent, well told story, with engaging, flawed and likable characters – as well as a wonderful villain. I very much enjoyed reading it, and I am looking forward to meeting Mary. In fact, the only flaw with the book was on the otherwise gorgeous cover:

1916 failOh, dear. Enough to make an author weep.