Writers and their poisons

March 29, 2011 at 7:32 pm (Writing Ranting)

I don’t care how good your writing is – if you have a drug habit it’s stupid and needs to be stopped.

But I do understand the situation – a little.

A few weeks ago I began writing a steampunk novel. It’s loads of fun, but also requires about 100 times more research than anything else I’ve ever written. The character arrives at a house – is it brick or wood or sandstone or mud? What are the curtains made of? Does her gentleman companion remove his hat? Where does he put it?

Even worse, I’ve used several real buildings including the 1853 Governor’s residence in Melbourne (which you’d think would be the historic Government House – but it wasn’t built yet*). It’s incredibly daunting – more daunting than unwritten books already are, considering the failure statistics I know about.

Usually when I write a first draft I write it at lightning speed – generally within three weeks, and once in three days. I’m deliberately trying not to do that – although for me it’s psychologically devastating when I write nothing at all for a whole day.

Yesterday I was really struggling, and I bought booze to boost my mojo. It helped tremendously. I wrote a quite long and complicated escape sequence, and then today I wrote another important scene. I’m now over the 20,000 word mark, and feeling good again – it’s probably about a third of the first draft.

I’ve used booze (and, more usually, huge amounts of chocolate) a few times, and so far it works remarkably well. On the one hand, it’s a little worrying. On the other, it’s hardly a habit (and even if it was, all it takes is a single drink to get me going).

A couple of you are writers, and others are students (or public servants). Have you ever turned to drink, and how did it work out for you?

*In 1853, it was an Italianate building in Toorak, which is now a Swedish church. I heart google.

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Halfway. Ish.

February 16, 2011 at 2:22 pm (book reviews, Writing Ranting)

Not long ago, I wrote that I was planning to write a steampunk novel, but I wasn’t letting myself just dive straight in. Not this time.

First I had to:

1. Read at least twenty relevant history/technology books.

2. Write all my twittertales for 2011.

3. Write all my monthly short-short stories (there’s an email list – and yes, you can get on it) for 2011.

4. Take a break between the reading and the writing, so I don’t get overly excited and start lecturing readers on historical dates and/or how to build a steam engine (don’t you hate it when writers show off how much research they’ve done?)

About five seconds ago, I finished #3 with a murder mystery. Yay!!

#2 is one-quarter done, but I can do plenty more during #4.

I’m halfway through # 1.

These are the books I’ve read so far:

“Australian Bushrangers” by Bill Wannan – which also has a short but very useful section on guns.

“History’s Worst Inventions” by Eric Chaline

“Savage or Civilised” by Penny Russell

“Australian Lives” by Michael Bosworth -more on the 1900s than the 1800s, but still very good detail.

“Oxford Illustrated Dictionary of Australian History” by Jan Basset

“Black Kettle and Full Moon” by Geoffrey Blainey – again, focused on the everyday details that are so important for writing.

“A History of Victoria” by Geoffrey Blainey – good, but not as good as the above.

“The Most Powerful Idea in the World” by William Rosen – good, but the most useful bits were above my head.

“Commonwealth of Thieves: The Sydney Experiment” by Thomas Keneally – heartbreaking and enthralling reading.

“The Aeronauts” by Time/Life Books – SO much fun.

I’m also reading all the modern steampunk I can find that I haven’t already read, and I plan to read some 1800s fiction (which I have ready to go), but right now my non-fiction to-read pile is ridiculously big. So I’m going to stop procratinating and go start on “Technology in Australia 1788-1988”.

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Being a twit

January 22, 2011 at 12:05 pm (Writing Ranting)

I’m currently planning a steampunk novel (and, shockingly, it’s already turned into a trilogy), but I don’t feel I know enough about the 1800s. So I’m not going to let myself start the writing until:

-I’ve read at least twenty books in full (so far I’ve read one on bushrangers, one on “History’s Worst Inventions” and one on early Australian manners, called “Savage or Civilised” – my story is set mainly in Victoria)

-I’ve written all my twittertales for this year, and twelve flash stories (I have an email list that gets a flash tale at the beginning of each month).

So far I have about 5000 words of notes, and every so often I have another brilliant idea for some scene or moment or invention – and I resist my urge to begin, and instead write it down for later. The suspense is fantastic. And my twittertales are happening much, much faster than usual.

I’m excited to be doing this book “properly” and I’ll have a good long (honest) look at the outline before I let myself rush into things that will be problematic later.

My main character is Emmeline, a convict from London.

*zips lip*

Here’s a random steampunk picture, from http://brassbolts.blogspot.com/

You’re welcome.

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December 8, 2010 at 9:14 pm (Writing Ranting)

If you’re a writer, or (alternatively) if you enjoy shredding innocent souls, you might like to register for critique circle, one of the writing communities I frequent. http://www.critiquecircle.com/

Now is an especially good time, since I just put the prologue and first two chapter of my 09 naNo novel up for critiques. They’re under the title “See Through” and the name Louise Curtis (or possible Louisec).

Just saying.

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godlike powers

November 23, 2010 at 12:16 pm (Writing Ranting)

I woke up happy this morning.

Yesterday’s writing gave me such a high. No other job has ever had that effect – and I’ve always enjoyed my paid work. So, in a shocking twist, I won’t be giving up writing anytime soon.

And here’s a picture of my cat Ana. (Why not?)

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November 22, 2010 at 11:27 am (general life, Writing Ranting)

Hello hello.

This morning I weighed in at 80.2 kilos, so with one week left of my six weeks without chocolate, things are looking good (I’ve lost 6.4 kilos). I’m desperately hungry, lethargic, and faint – but there’s a very good chance I’ll be back in the healthy weight range by the end of the year (yes, despite Christmas).

In the last couple of weeks I’ve received two rejections with comments from two different small publishers. It’s very rare to get comments (from Publisher F especially, who was the first) so that’s both useful and encouraging (without actually being technically useful at all).

Tomorrow marks two months exactly since Publisher B (the one who’s had one of my books for a year, and another for a year and a half) said they’d sent my books to an independent reader. Who knows? They might reply.

Without chocolate, my day-to-day goal has been to simply survive – do my work, pass the hours until another day has gone, and try real hard not to have a psychotic attack (I lost my head twice, and on one of those occasions broke our car door).

I’ve done very little writing, and barely missed it. So I wander down a familiar philosophical path, trying to figure out a way to quit writing once and for all. I think it’s theoretically possible, except what do I have left to get up for? TV can’t keep me awake forever, and I’m not able to do more than three hours of real work in a day.

I’m not the type of person who bases their entire life around a spouse – so that’s not an option either. And I know chocolate doesn’t really satisfy, no matter how much I eat.

So I’ll keep writing. May as well.

I’m about to enter a free competition with a $20,000 prize. It seems pathetic to even bother entering, but maybe I can meditate on the role luck plays in publishing until I think I actually have a shot.

Go team?

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Writing Advice

September 25, 2010 at 5:57 pm (Writing Ranting, young adult)

I just published this over at twittertales. It bears repeating. (In other news, Publisher D inadvertently requested “The Monster Apprentice” so I sent it to them. Publisher B, meanwhile, just let me know that both my books are with one of their readers – ie, progress is happening at last.)

I’d love to know what you guys wish someone had told you when you were working on your first novel.

Here’s mine:

1. Successful writers generally make around $10,000 a year (see #2).

2. Around 1 in 10,000 slushpile manuscripts get published (at a conference recently, I discovered that a large publisher hadn’t accepted a single book in three years – and they get hundreds every week). Meeting someone at a conference and using their name/email changes the odds to about 1 in 200. (You still need to write a brilliant book – unless you’re famous, of course.)

3. Publishers. . .
(a) are all friends with each other, so don’t ever be rude to/about anyone.
(b) actually make a loss on 90% of the books they DO produce, so cut them some slack.
(c) usually take 3-6 months to reply to the opening chapters, and just as long again for the full book. The longest I’ve heard of is four years, and the longest I’ve experienced is 16 months (and counting).
(d) are quaintly optimistic about their response times (if they were realists, they’d quit and get a better job).
(e) will not work with someone who is too lazy to read their submission instructions.
(f) are nice – but they don’t like being hassled.

4. If an agent or publisher charges you money, they’re a scam.

5. Manuscript assessors are useful, especially when you’re starting out, but their recommendations of your work are worth only slightly more than the fact that your mum thought it was super good.

6. For kids and young adults, your protagonist should be a couple of years older than your target audience, and your length needs to be right (check a publisher web site for length details BEFORE you write). Your characters won’t get married or raise kids, because your readers won’t be interested in that experience (not while they’re still at the age they started reading your book, anyway).

7. It generally takes around 10,000 hours of focused practise to get good at writing. Most writers throw away several books before they get good enough to be published.

8. Reading books in your genre is essential. If you don’t read, why do you think anyone will read you?

So, in conclusion, don’t write unless you enjoy writing for its own sake. And keep your day job.

Even if I’d known all of that (and I knew some of it), I’d still be a writer.

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September 16, 2010 at 10:04 am (speculative fiction, Writing Ranting, young adult)

For those who don’t want to look at the nuts and bolts of writing, here’s a funny and informative look at an acquisitions meeting (I LOVE this blog entry): http://cba-ramblings.blogspot.com/2010/09/behind-scenes.html

Also, here’s a random picture of a bird on a train:

There are some very mild spoilers in the following (spoilers on theme and on the first few chapters only).

I just started reading “Sabriel” by Garth Nix for the second time this week, analysing it like crazy to understand how a master of storytelling weaves his spell. It’s a little odd to be studying “Sabriel” (400 pages for young adults) while editing “The Princess and the Pirate” (40 pages for kids) but some principles do transfer.  

I’ll ignore the prologue in this analysis, having talked about it two days ago. It’s interesting to note, however, that the first paragraph of the prologue isn’t action – it’s setting. It’s a “slow burn” opening, which is the right choice because (a) having used a prologue, the chapter one opening must be involving from the first sentence, which means a “slow burn” opening will no longer be an option, (b) the setting is quite difficult to grasp – two completely distinct lands exist side by side – one magical, and one more like 1920s England. So it needs to be mentioned up front, and re-mentioned several times in the next few chapters. (And of course, that one paragraph of description sets the mood for that scene.) And even though Sabriel is barely born in that scene, she is still the centre of it – she even manages to be an active character.

And on with the first chapters.

The very first paragraph is a truly eerie image of a white pet rabbit, freshly bathed – and freshly killed. The dichotomy of innocence and horror is a constant throughout the book (Sabriel is 18 – literally a schoolgirl). Sabriel raises the rabbit from the dead before its young owner arrives. TV tropes has a section on “pat the dog” – establishing a hero’s goodness by their kindness to an animal. This scene is a fantastically macabre (and frightening) “pat the dog” – with a twist. The twist is that Sabriel’s calling is to make sure the dead (including this rabbit) stay dead – her compassion is a flaw.

This ties in to the main plot, not only because the school (and its innocence) becomes important later, but because Sabriel faces a similar temptation at the climax.

It also makes us love her instantly – that is the primary function of the scene (the character hook is her compassion, plus her own fear of her frighteningly creepy job, plus the unique pain of compassion being a flaw). And it shows us a little more of the mechanics of her job (which are important many times in the book – the realm of Death has its own rules and challenges).

After that there are 3 pages of quite straightforward exposition – by now we care enough to find it all interesting.

Then a literal incursion of horror into a dorm filled with 11-year old girls (girls Sabriel is responsible for). A dead thing enters, and Sabriel runs to fight it (we see she’s brave, but also see her authority over the dead – even the Magistrix of the school clearly sees Sabriel as the most competent person to deal with it). It is a terrifying scene – but that’s not the primary purpose. The primary purpose is to deliver a message from Sabriel’s father (aka Mr Macguffin) – effectively saying a garbled, “Help!” It’s a brilliantly dramatic way to deliver a message, and also shows more about Death that is important later.

And the plot is set: Sabriel must find her father (who may or may not be beyond help). The plot later builds to become, “Sabriel must find her father and save the kingdom” but the emotional heart is exactly the same.

Now that the plot and character are established, chapter two and three are relatively action-free (except for a brief misunderstanding – that, admittedly, could have gotten Sabriel killed if it had gone the wrong way). There’s a lot of setting detail, more info on the stakes (including a 14-day ticking clock for tension), and more on Sabriel (mainly: she  shows humanity as she struggles to carry a load of skis and stocks and backpack, she shows off cheekily to an annoying beaurocrat, and a father figure is deeply concerned for her dangerous voyage, but respects her enough to help her on her way).

Chapters 4-7 are an epic and terrifying journey, with quite a bit of setting detail (journeys are handy for that, particularly since Sabriel hasn’t travelled that path since she was 4), some bad news on the big bad (via a pile of corpses), and a brief moment of joy when Sabriel meets her dead mother’s spirit (which just makes us more sympathetic, since her mother is dead and rarely reachable – even this meeting is cut short). Sabriel kills a dead thing, but flees from another – which shows her competence, while also showing that This Is Serious Now.

And then there’s a period of physical and mental recuperation before she continues on her way – this time, with a Mysterious Companion (who is sort of evil, but also extremely helpful, and a great source of humour throughout the book).

Here’s the way Garth Nix deals with the challenges of opening a novel:

1. Instant hook: The image of the rabbit is compelling.

2. Setting: He describes Sabriel’s school uniform (including her prefect’s badge), and the iron school gate, which says “established in 1652 for Young Ladies of Quality”. That tells us everything we need to know about her boarding school, and thus all necessay setting for the first two scenes. (The dichotomy of this “country” with the magical one 40 miles away is also mentioned – not for the first or last time. Chapter two and three are set entirely in the area between the two locations.)

3. Characterisation: The fast hook is her compassion, magic, and that her compassion is a flaw. We then quickly see her courage and intelligence – reinforced by the way both children and adults come to her for help.

4: Instant action: Within a page, we have a problem (the Bunny’s young owner is fast approaching), and Sabriel goes into the risky world of Death to do something about it.

5: Plot hooks: It’s not until the dorm room scene that we know the main plot.

a. Finding her father, who may or may not be dead.

b. Sabriel needs to get better at her job (keeping the dead dead). Will she turn evil?

c. In chapter two, it becomes clear that more lives are at stake because of her father’s helplessness.

d. After the big action sequence, Sabriel keeps a wary eye on her companion (and soon gets another, who is also mysterious – and has several private conversations with the first). Each companion is utterly vital at the climax, and their secrets are relevant.

6: What characters look like: Since it’s in third person, everything is described in a fairly straightforward manner.

7. How the magic system works: As in “The Princess and the Pirate”, the basics are shown by immediate action, and more is revealed as it becomes relevent (again, through action).

8: Link to prologue: We all know Sabriel is the infant of the prologue – and the plot soon makes it very clear that a character we love (Sabriel’s dad) is in mortal danger. (And, since he’s not the main character, we know he really could die – causing pain to Sabriel, who has suffered enough.)

So that’s how it’s done: Exciting stories within the greater, more exciting story.

I’ll be sending off “The Princess and the Pirate” in the next few days (unless CJ spots a fatal flaw when he reads it tonight). I recently met three people from Publisher D (two of them the most relevant two people I could have hoped for). Publisher J specifically recommended Publisher D, so this is my shining new hope. Sadly, I’m only sending the first three chapters, so I won’t have a final answer for 6-12 months (and that’s assuming they’re prompter than the silent Publisher B).

The main lessons I’ve learnt from Nix this week are:

1. A Mr Macguffin needs a prologue – but your chapter one opening has to be a killer.

2. Some character-establishing exposition is fine, once you’ve earned it.

3. Repeat, repeat, repeat your main plot – all the way through the book (and the other plots/motivations too).

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Topping Mr Macguffin

September 14, 2010 at 8:20 am (Writing Ranting)

The bad thing about having a fabulous prologue is that you need to re-grab your readers from the very beginning of chapter one – while also (along with the usual difficulties of setting, characterisation, action, plot hooks, and finding a new way to say what your characters look like and how the magic of the world works) making the link between prologue and actual story perfectly clear.

Here’s my tips on all of these (since I think better when instructing someone else) – keeping in mind it’s vital to SHOW the various details rather than boring a reader by simply explaining the salient points.

1. Instant hook: I used magic (which has coolness factor), and a need to escape. Instant goals = good. Here’s the very beginning:

I smiled prettily at my usual pack of guards and eyed the outermost wall of Ratu Castle one last time. It hadn’t been easy to get them so close to the open air. They’d all seen me walk through walls before.

It’s the challenge that makes it fun, I thought. Escaping Mum’s clutches.

2. Setting: My fantasy world is tropical, with many islands (and many cultures), and brown-skinned people. It’s rare to go hungry and almost impossible to be cold. People trade stories or art for food (or, more likely, other art). About one-third of the population has some kind of magic, and it’s considered quite ordinary (even lower-class in some places). The technology is fairly medieval, as is the population (ie villages and towns and farmers and sailors, rather than high-rise buildings and businessmen). Ratu island has a population of a few thousand, ruled by a troubled monarchy (the previous two kings were both murdered by the pirate at different times) and currently experiencing plague.

We’ve already seen pirates in the prologue, which implies 1700s Europe. The hints of “this is like Earth, but a while ago” is reinforced by the mention of the castle/monarchy. In the first two chapters, only the castle is described – that’s enough setting for now. The narrator’s magic and the fact that she’s a princess are both mentioned in the third paragraph – the two things combined are a quick character hook to keep people interested as I draw a more detailed picture of who she is. She’s about 13, a couple of years older than the target readership (her age is never mentioned, but it’s clear from the way people talk about her and how she relates to them).

3. Characterisation: The first paragraph above shows the princess is cheeky and a little melodramatic – and accustomed to a “pack of guards” (slightly ominous). It also shows there’s trouble with her mum (who may even be evil). There’s more in the next little while about her dad’s recent death, her mum’s emotional withdrawal (not evil, but not making good decisions), and the fact she’s not allowed out of the castle (which I hope kids will relate to on a metaphorical level – certainly they’ll relate to an over-protective parent). She also shows kindness by making sure the guards aren’t punished, and shows more spirit by eavesdropping on an adult conversation. My favourite thing about her is her goodness and innocence/optimism – it’s her innocence that is at risk in the book (people think the most exciting books are the ones in which the character nearly dies – but losing one’s identity is a lot more frightening).

4: Instant action: Magically escaping guards in order to eavesdrop. It’s exotic but also relates to escaping schoolteachers, so it’s not TOO exotic (I’ve been comparing “Sabriel” by Garth Nix with his “Seventh Tower” series, and one of the reasons “Sabriel” is better is that the “Seventh Tower” series has a lot of stuff on class structure – which isn’t very emotionally powerful to modern Australian kids).

5: Plot hooks: In chapter one, we find out she is leaving the island (quite shocking and exciting – I think kids will like the idea of going away to sea). In chapter two, she is given a goal – to find the pirate Sol (who we already know is Bad News). So there’s adventure and danger. I think kids need to relate to the emotional heart (“I need to help my mum”) but the physical plot (going away to sea) should be outside their experience (who wants to read about homework and chores? Not me ). I now realise I need to reinforce that emotional goal – helping mum – about six times more in the next few chapters. Readers need more than one plot hook to stress over, so here’s what I have:

a. Going to sea to find the pirate, to help mum. (As a main plot, this is a bit too complex/far-fetched ie how could the pirate possibly help?)

b. What is Ransom, what does he want, and is he dangerous?

c. The princess’ aunt is dying (weak, because there’s no action, but it does provide an ongoing stress).

d. I need something else for readers to stress over. (In YA fiction, this would be the romance strand.)

6: What characters look like: She describes the other characters (which is handy for the brown-skinned part), and it is clear from “smiled prettily” that she fits the pretty part of the princess image already in people’s heads. Rather than having her look in a mirror (ugh! SO overused!) I described what she looked like by her actions – she mentions pushing her fringe out of her eyes, wishing her perfect ringlets would be messed up, and that she’s wearing royal dress. Someone else mentions her “big brown eyes”.

7. How the magic system works: There are three normal types of magic – quickensmiths (able to shift solid objects, given touch), healsmiths (about to hurt or heal, given touch), and feelsmiths (able to read or change emotions, given touch). The princess demonstrates quickensmithing with her actions, and the other two remain unmentioned in the book because they’re irrelevant here. In my opinion, the sooner a book mentions magic, the easier it is to accept. All we need to know is that some people are quickensmiths, and that they can touch physical objects in order to make them move or change shape. (For this scene, all we need to know is that she can walk through or inside the thick wooden walls.)

8: Link to prologue: Ratu Castle is mentioned in the last paragraph of the prologue, so hopefully it’s still in the reader’s mind. Also, the character of Ransom is described as “the human-shaped thing” (that the pirate fears) in the prologue and “the queen’s counsellor” (that the princess takes for granted) in chapter one – a nice ominous contrast for readers to stress over.

PS In other news (in case I’ve left something dangling from past entries):

I’ve just been put on Vitamin D (I was extremely low, as it turned out – something that causes fatigue, muscle/joint pain, and cramps).

Publisher B still hasn’t replied, not even to say they still have the books.

Publisher J dislikes fantasy (arg!), so didn’t request “The Monster Apprentice”. I’ll send them my realist novel when they’re open to submissions again – at least they know I can handle myself in person (useful for future promotion). They also suggested I change the name of the character formerly known as “Boy” (who appears in all my fantasy books). At the moment I’m trying out “Ransom.”

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Mr Macguffin, at your service

September 13, 2010 at 10:28 am (Writing Ranting)

The good thing about a prologue is that you can often find and use a crucial incident as a hook, packed with action and characterisation. The bad thing is that when you use a prologue, your readers have to effectively begin a new book when the prologue is done (this is deeply annoying when the prologue is very long). Worst of all, sometimes a prologue is better than the book that follows. Or just so very different readers just get annoyed.

The second book in my kids’ trilogy has a prologue (generally I avoid them).  The book is called “The Princess and the Pirate” and is about a princess (the narrator) seeking out a pirate. The book is a clash between the naiive, optimistic, kind-hearted princess, and the pirate – who is a sadistic killer. The narrator is too innocent to understand where the pirate is coming from, plus the pirate doesn’t appear for the first few chapters. Thus, there is a prologue showing the reader the pirate is evil, and the related danger to the princess. Without the prologue, “pirate” sounds like she’s probably a fun person to be around. With the prologue, you know enough to be frightened for the heroic princess. 

My prologue is in third person, and the rest is in first person. I just read today that it’s a no-no to write a prologue that’s very different in style to the rest of the book. But I think that’s a rule that is best broken in this instance. The darkness of the prologue NEEDS to contrast with the princess’ view of the world. That’s the whole point. It’s the only part of the story she is incapable of telling.

I’m re-re-re-re-reading “Sabriel” by Garth Nix. In my opinion, it is the best book ever written. It also has a prologue, which actually has a similar purpose to mine. The plot is driven by a human macguffin (a macguffin is an item, usually magical, that the characters must find/use/fix/destroy in order to save the shire/world/kingdom), who appears very little in the story. Without the prologue, the main character’s journey would lack emotional heart. Nix’s prologue, like mine, focuses on the macguffin as a human with flaws and attributes and feelings. Mine does too.

I’m happy with my prologue.

Coming soon: Ramblings about the first few chapters.

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