The iceberg

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If you are a writer, you have probably at some stage of heard of something referred to as ‘the iceberg principle’. It’s pretty simple really. The premise is based on the idea that 90% of the iceberg lies invisible, under the water, with only 10% visible above the surface. This is a metaphor for what you know about your story, world and characters, vs what actually makes it onto the page for your reader to see.

Just by way of example, here’s a sentence from one of my WIPs:

If she had been at home, she most likely would have been abed with a hot brick and one of her housekeeper’s restorative tisanes.

That might have taken you all of two seconds to read. And it probably took me a couple of minutes to craft the actual words that went into it. But that sentence also represents at least 45 minutes worth of internet research on:

  • 18th Century remedies for period pain
  • Lydia E Pinkham
  • Liquorice root, including where it grows and what its medicinal properties are
  • the medicinal properties of Dandelion root

Which is basically just my way of reassuring myself that it’s OK to have only produced 200 words after getting up at 5.30 am and writing for 1.5 hours before the family gets up and we all have to get ready for work/school/etc. And also goes some way to illustrating why it takes so damn long to write a bloody novel.

And now I have had that stupid Lily the Pink song stuck in my head all day. Yeah. You’re welcome.

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Stories in the mist

Writing. It looks so much easier than it is.

I’ve spent most of the last week and a half doing more brainstorming and dreaming. I’m still sitting at that point of frustration, where I can see the shape of the story, I can feel it, taste it, even. But when I try and pin it down in words, it just dissolves like mist through my fingers.

Argh!

I’ve definitely made progress, though, even if I can only describe it as creeping.

Here, have some more of my visual prompts from Pinterest. Which is kind of what this WIP looks like in my head. Intriguing, definite feel to it, some good characters. But a concrete plot? Pff.

Operation First Draft

I’ve taken some time off the day job! Eight whole weeks. Woo! But I’m not having a holiday. Just doing a different kind of work. I want to complete a first draft of one of my WIPs. So this week I’ve been head down, busily writing away.

Monday

Reporting for duty at the National Library of Australia.

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I figured if I treat it like a job and leave the house every day, hole up somewhere quiet (preferably with coffee) and just focus, I’ll be less likely to arrive at the end of  the 8 weeks and find I’ve accidentally constructed my dream vegetable garden or cleaned out the garage instead of finished the novel.

Tuesday

Holed up at Good Brother Cafe with a slice of semolina custard pie.

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Wednesday

At the iconic Tilley’s Devine Cafe.

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Thursday

Back at the National Library writing in the cafe under the light of their glorious stained glass windows.

Friday

Um. Friday was a bit of a yukky day. So I broke out the fluffy slippers and parked myself on the couch. It was still moderately productive and far too wet and windy to make landscaping an attractive alternative to plot-wrangling.

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Progress?

I’ve added around 4000 words to the MS, put the plot in order and stitched up a couple of ugly holes. That’s probably OK for a MS I haven’t looked at for months. My aim is to get myself up to doing at least 2000 words a day. The MS is currently sitting on 41K, and I’m aiming for about 90K.

And what am I writing?

Aha. Spoilers. It’s another standalone and it’s fairy tale related. Maybe I’ll leave some hints lying around here over the next few weeks.

Dreaming up a city

So this weekend’s writing job, while I do a bunch of other, non-writingy jobs, is to start dreaming up a city for one of my current projects.

I’m a big advocate of the setting-as-a-character-in-its-own-right school of world building. My favourite novels are the ones you want to keep re-reading because you just enjoy being in the world of the story so much. Think JK Rowling’s Hogwarts, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, Terry Pratchett’s Ankh Morpork, Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Wood, Diana Wynne Jones’ Moving Castle. And just to show this works outside fantastical stories, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden and Georgette Heyer’s Regency London. In fact, one of my big motivations behind writing The Beast’s Heart was to write myself a fairy tale world I could go and live in for a little while.

I have some sketchy ideas for this city, but so far it’s really just been a backdrop for the action in this new story. I want to level it up a bit, deepen it’s character, really bring it alive. I want my city to have twisty, shadowy alleyways lined with crooked buildings, cobbled streets and piazzas, a complicated clock tower, avenues of terraced mansions, moonlit shenanigans on rooftops, a river with treacherously damp water stairs, a monumental bridge lined with statuary, and a royal palace with towers and turrets. I want it to have all this and hold out the tantalising promise of more.

I have a whole Pinterest board of city inspiration.

I love looking at old photographs of cities in times gone past for inspiration.

I also love using old paintings and drawings for city inspiration. I find it interesting to look at what drew the artist’s eye. What was it about the city they thought was worth capturing? Rooftops? Stately buildings and squares? Shadowy spaces and archways leading…where?

And I’ve been mainlining illustrations by the likes of Anton Pieck and Arthur Rackham, who did delightful, fairy-taleish cityscapes.

What are your favourite literary cities? And what brings them alive in your mind?

Re-stringing

I’m hardly going to be the first writer ever to find myself tantalisingly close to the end of a first draft (115,000 words), only to discover my plot isn’t working for me the way I need it to. How can I explain it? It’s like I’ve spaced out my tent poles too widely, and now I don’t have enough canvas to cover them.

I’ve now worked out what I need to do to fix it (and hopefully make it easier to find my way down the rest of the long, dark tunnel to that tantalisingly blinking neon The End sign). But it kinda means unstringing my plot and stringing it back together in a slightly different configuration. With some new bits added in.

So that’s today’s task. Reconfigure the synopsis until I have a plot that’s going to work for me. Wish me luck.

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Conflux 12 wrap up – Part II

conflux12headerrgbThis year at Conflux we decided to do something a bit different with the writing workshops and run them throughout the weekend instead of all on the first day (Friday), which is how we’ve done it previously. One thing I found is – probably due to the interactive nature of workshops – these are a really good forum to hook up with other people at the convention. I managed to get in three workshops. (Although one was in two parts and probably counts as two.)

I’d asked Alan Baxter to run a version of his Write the Fight Right workshop, mostly because I’d never done it and I really wanted to. (A perk of being in charge of programming!) It’s usually a whole day, so he did a condensed version of it over two hours. It’s great, I highly recommend it and I’d love to do the full version one day. It covers stuff like what it feels like to be punched in the face, the physiological effects of fighting (far more complex than you’d expect), how to use space and even some handy first aid advice. As you’d expect he provides plenty of anecdotes and stories from his own life experience and even pointed us at a few clips of fights to give us a sense of the difference between cinematic show and what a real fight might look like. Hint: the fight between Darcy (Colin Firth) and Cleaver (Hugh Grant) in Bridget Jones’ Diary is more realistic than you might think (quintessential smashing-through-shop-window scene notwithstanding).

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I did a two part workshop conducted by Kaaron Warren and Nick Evans called Spray and Wipe. This involved a trip to the Green Shed (a store that sells recycled items donated through Canberra’s tips), where we had to choose an item from the shop as an inspiration point for a story. Kaaron then took us around to the Green Shed Underground (a separate store run by the Green Shed where they sell all their donated books and clothing) and made us choose an outfit for one of our characters and dress in it to write the story.

I decided to have a stab at generating an idea for something for my suite of colour-themed stories I want to begin work on soon, and picked out a very orange biscuit tin to start with. This got coupled with a really terrible orange mumu-style shirt and some fairly tacky orange jewellery. It was when I happened upon some great 1970s cookbooks with predominantly orange covers, however, that my story brain kicked in and an idea really came together.

After that, it was back to the con venue and in the afternoon Nick Evans, a journalist by trade, put us through a fairly brutal regime of cutting, rewriting and reworking the 400 odd words we’d got down in the morning with Kaaron. I was completely exhausted at the end of it, but I definitely have the beginning of a story and I’m pretty sure I know where this one is headed!

Finally, on Monday, I did a workshop with life coach Kenny Snable on overcoming negative thoughts to increase writing productivity. This one was great. She took us through the relationship between thoughts, behaviours and emotions and gave us a bunch of strategies to manage the negative ones, and some exercises to help identify and articulate what the actual issue is that is causing us grief.

And this is only a small selection of the smorgasbord of professional development that was on offer this year!

On endings and how to get to them

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So, to deal with my stuckness (which hasn’t yet been dealt with), my good friend and writing buddy Robert Porteous asked me how my story ended. I kinda have an idea about that, but it’s vague. Bare bones. I have the pre-ending climax all sorted and have done for a while, but the actual key story climax? Sigh. So he suggested I work on that. It seemed sensible: if I know how it ends, I’ll know what I have to get to. So I did a bit of brainstorming and created a few seeds of ideas that if I water carefully enough will produce shoots (and maybe, hopefully grow into something interesting and fulfilling).

But it’s hard.

So, as a tried and true avoidance technique, I thought “Maybe I’ll go and do some story planning work on one of my other novel WIPs and get into the story planning mood by doing something a bit fresh and different and revitalise my imagination.”

And guess what. No ending on that one. Pre-ending climax sorted. Major story climax? Vaguety-vague-vague-vague. I did a bit of a mental riffle through my other novel projects and, yep, this is something of a pattern for me.

“I wonder why this is?” I wondered. Wonderingly.

As usual, it’s all to do with emotional peaks and troughs. All these minor climaxes are (in standard 3-Act plot terms) the Darkest Hour. It’s the moment of highest and most drawn out emotional tension in the story. Think the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi; Rapunzel thinking Eugene has chosen the looted crown over her; Henri telling Danielle she’s a fraud and publicly withdrawing his heart; Elizabeth Bennet confessing to Mr Darcy that her youngest sister has eloped with the villain that almost ruined his sister’s life.

If you think about most of these story examples, the Darkest Hour packs a whole lot more emotional punch than the final climax. It’s when the protagonist has lost everything – or the thing that means most to them – and it almost doesn’t matter what else happens to them at that point because their heart has been ripped in two and everything else is trivial.

The exception out of these four (all faves of mine) is Tangled. Much as it hurts to see poor Rapunzel watching Eugene sail off with the crown, it is nothing, nothing, to the blubbering mess I become at the actual climax of the film when he does what he does – not to save her, because he can’t do that at that point – but to stop her giving up on saving herself. *Deep shuddery breath*

And therein lies the lesson. If I’m going to get interested in this part of the story and motivate myself to write it, somehow I’ve got to find a way to make my ending deliver as much, or more, emotional punch as the Darkest Hour.

Simple. Right?

Right.

Running writing

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I am not a sporty person. Never was, never will be. I will not bore you with the humiliations galore I suffered through in PE as a kid. Suffice to say that all the leisure activities I have really enjoyed throughout my life have involved cosiness and curling up somewhere with a cup of tea. However, I recognise that exercise plays an important part in keeping our bodies healthy, so I do make an effort. I ride my bike to my day job most days and in the last year or so, I’ve taken up running. Again, I’m not going to bore you with the details of this. But, for some reason, I’ve found that my attempts at improving my fitness through moderately energetic exercise have had a positive impact on my writing – both my creativity and the way I think about the challenges it poses me.

Getting the creative juices flowing

It is a very tried and tested piece of writing advice: if the Muse is stubbornly avoiding you, get away from your keyboard/notepad/dictaphone/etc. Get out of the house and get moving. Walk or run, either works. I often have great ideas or come up with great solutions to tricky plot problems while I’m running. It’s weird, coz it doesn’t happen so often when I’m on my bike. Perhaps because when I’m on my bike I’m either going to or coming from work, so my brain might be more focussed on work issues. But I run in my spare time, when my brain is almost exclusively consumed with writing stuff; maybe that’s why. But it works for me.

Oh the epiphanies I have experienced.

Never when I have a pen.

This stuff ain’t meant to be easy

A thing running has taught me is that it doesn’t get easy. Which is not to say it doesn’t get easier. But easy? Nope. It’s always hard to drag myself off the couch, to get out there into the winter chill, or the summer heat, or the still-dark, early morning streets. Guess what else doesn’t get easy? Setting aside the time and dragging my arse to the chair in the study to do the story work and pound out the wordage. In both cases I have to battle that sense of exhaustion that comes even before you start – just from contemplating the task ahead. In both cases, though, if I push myself, if I make the effort, I always find I can do the thing.

The importance of stretch goals

This is a really interesting thing running has taught me: Set stretch goals. Then (this is the important bit), don’t just sit there looking at them; give them a go.

Because I’m so unathletic, when I decided to try to get into running, I decided to get into it gradually, alternating intervals of running and walking. Going from running in 90 second stretches to a whole 3 minutes was pretty daunting. Then going from 3 minutes to 5 minutes to 8 minutes… Every time I level up, I always wonder if I can actually do it. But every time I actually can, and every time it feels awesome to have challenged myself and found myself up to it.

And I’ve found this applies to writing goals.

There’s something to be said for applying for something like a residency or a competitive grant or a selection-based professional development course even if you’re not sure you’re ready, because if you get in, someone else clearly thought you were. If you only ever apply for this sort of thing when you know you’re good and ready, you’re not pushing yourself. You might be moving forward one step at a time (and setting one-step-at-a-time goals is also very important), but you’re denying yourself the exhilaration and gratification of taking a flying leap forwards. That sense of achievement you get when you’ve really challenged yourself and risen to it. (Note: when I say “you”, feel free to imagine me giving a stern pep talk to myself.)

Measuring your progress

One thing I learned after I had my first story accepted for publication back in 2011 was that I had just stepped onto the bottom rung of a ladder that just goes up and up and up and up. Every time you climb to the next rung, you look up hoping to see the top, or at least hoping you’ve reached the point where you can poke your head through the thick layer of cloud obscuring your vision of the top. It’s hard to feel like you’re getting anywhere when there always seems to be so far to go.

With my running, I find I’m much less about “Will I ever run a marathon?” (perhaps because I can answer that question straight off: No. Zero interest.) My fantasy goal is more about being able to run for a whole half an hour without stopping for walking breaks, and being able to do it every day without feeling like I’ve broken something. But I also find myself able to stop and look back down the ladder at what I’ve achieved so far. A few months ago I thought running for a whole 3 minutes was a challenge. A few weeks ago I ran for 20 minutes without stopping for a break – probably for the first time since I finished high school.

So there’s my last lesson. Stop and look back down the ladder. Admire the view from where you’re at. Bask in the sunshine of your successes.

Here’s a picture of duckies enjoying running. You’re welcome.

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Writing minds-eye candy

Today has been a good day. Today I have been working on a couple of scenes in my WIP involving a handsome 18th century man in various states of deshabille. It’s always important to get the details right, so here are a few helpful images I’ve been using for research and inspiration.

Firstly, you’ve got to get the clothes right. That gap at the neck of the shirt is very important. (We’ll get to what’s under it in a minute.)

Then you have to ensure you understand just how it sits. How far down does that gap go? Exactly what can you see? Some images are more helpful than others. Some are just pure distraction. *fans self*

From there, I’m afraid, we move straight to the pics of Aidan Turner and Sam Heughan shirtless. Because getting anatomy right is important. It is.

 

Inspiration from Miyazaki

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(Picture links to the video – because I’m such a techno-numpty I can’t work out how to embed it.)

The video I’ve linked to above beautifully articulates what I feel about most of my own characters (male and female). I love the idea of them finding a ‘team mate’ rather than a saviour; a partnership neither of them can do without; someone with whom they make a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.