From Hook to Book

Research can take you there!

There are so many touchstones that I come across in my research. Small poems, articles, images or videos that connect me to my story.

In the spirit of my promise to not make my every blog post lengthy, I want to share more of these poignant and emotive links to a past that somehow I am irrevocably joined to – if not through story, some unexplained connection. Since I had few (and not close) family members directly involved in the Great War, I cannot explain my deep affinity for such an horrific event. Originally the era fitted one story but my new WIP and the novel planned after that are all turning out to be closely involved with WW1. Perhaps it was the week I spent in 2012 visiting the battlefields and surrounding war museums that connected me, not so much to the war as to the stories of the men who fought and to the people of the Somme who endured the war raging over their countryside and through their towns and villages.

Now, deep in the writing of a turning point scene, set during the Second Battle of Villers Bretonneux, the image above depicts the night battle that saved the town. Though it nearly destroyed it too, the battle and the Australian battalions’ efforts changed the face of the war.

This image is blu-tacked to my computer and takes me right there, into the mist and smoke and desperate fight lit up by shellfire. Combined with the haunting and heartbreaking music of Karl Jenkins “Benedictus” that I’ve been playing while I write the aftermath scenes, I rarely fail to tear up. #am writing #amlovingwriting

[Night attack by 13th Brigade on Villers–Bretonneux, Will Longstaff. [Oil on canvas AWM ART03028] Australian War Memorial]

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Permission to Write Crap and Crap on!

It’s time for me to get back to blogging, but, from now on, without always spending hours researching or pedantically connecting all my posts to serious writing subjects, which takes away from real, actual writing time.

At the beginning of a new novel project real writing is top of my agenda.

At least that was the plan until I sat down to start and out poured a pile of… clunky, flat sentences, sour similes, in scenes seemingly going nowhere.

OMG! What had happened to the joyful act of writing that I remembered, the excitement and thrill of the perfect word or sentence appearing on the page? Dialogue that my characters had no trouble giving voice to?

Oh yeah, that was writing my last novel, of many, many drafts! Long contemplated, researched, workshopped, drafted and redrafted, edited and at last complete, and where for the longest time I’d known where my characters were going and why and what they were doing. In essence, working with a tame, respectable, easily approachable and beloved friend.

Starting a new project is more like opening the door to an unhouse-trained, ill-behaved, messy, unrecognisable, often traitorous beast.

 

“There is no beginning that is a blank page,”  Amitava Kumar

The prospect of that blank page and beautifully set-up EMPTY Scrivener mss file became mind-boggling and scary and confidence crippling. In my panic, and procrastination, I buried myself in research. It took me awhile to work out that really I was just avoiding the blank page. I began to think I couldn’t write. My idea was crap. No-one would want to read it. And what did I know about Paris post-WW1 anyway?

Creativity is always a leap of faith. You’re faced with a blank page, blank easel, or an empty stage.” Julia Cameron

Then I remembered I didn’t know much about pit villages in Scotland, early 20th century immigration, WW1 or shellshock until I began to read and research for my previous novel either.

Most importantly, after initially freaking out, then giving myself a stiff talking to, I recalled some sage advice from the wise pen of Ann Lamott, author of the popular writing book, Bird by Bird. “Writing is not rapturous. The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” Just what I needed to hear. And action.

“I have done, this year, what I said I would: overcome my fear of facing a blank page day after day, acknowledging myself, in my deepest emotions, a writer, come what may.” Sylvie Plath

Three weeks after giving myself permission to write crap, in fact insisting I write crap, if that’s all that hit the page, as long as I bloody-well wrote words, my word-count has grown by more than 12,000-words. After some further prodding and poking (editing), because I had actual words to work with, I can now see where my story is going. The tone and voice are developing and beginning to ring true. Scene by scene I’m getting to know my characters and their world. I’m beginning to really like my MC and love again the act of writing.

Of course, I’m not alone in fear of the blank page. It’s still scary at times, but I wouldn’t ever want to do anything else.

Inspiration, Imagination and an Operation

I’ve been thinking a lot about inspiration and imagination of late. This has been an unusual year for me, as it’s mostly been taken up with editing and rewriting and not a lot of new writing. After a spinal surgery last December, I gave myself time out to rest and recuperate, but back then I had no idea how long it would be before I’d get back to my WIP, or started on my new adult novel project or even how neglected my blog would be since then.

Then, while researching the new novel, Hugo turned up. In truth, the name of the young man pictured above is not Hugo. I will share his real name and shattering story another day, but for now this image (blu-tacked to my Mac screen) represents my protagonist in my new adult work. His deeply expressive eyes drew me in and in short time the character has become real to me. The voluminous research has sparked so many ideas and every day I add more to my story map. The excitement and pull to begin writing is electric. It’s like an adrenaline shot that I’m sure all creators experience. It’s made me think a lot about inspiration, imagination and what helps us create place and people when we’re not out in the world physically scouting settings or spying on Joe or Jillian Public.

Sitting at my desk, I’m sure, like other creators, I’m surrounded by ephemera deeply connected to my writing life. The bits and bobs, I’ve collected over time that resonate with my stories and ideas, but may look like an assortment of oddities to anyone else.

My fascination for the Great War and post-war years continues and is probably the reason my inspirational touchstones have not changed much over recent years. Though I was almost sorry to roll away my rabid gang of 1830s convicts that served as evil inspiration while writing (my war-based exception) a YA historical convict era novel. The sometimes defeated, sad, ugly, vicious, devastated faces of these men filled my dreams some nights and I’m sure gave rise to traits in one or more of the vile characters that I’ve been told I write very well. Not sure what writing them says or reveals about me.

I’ve now returned to a large wall map of the Somme that I bought during a trip to France in 2012. My research at the time was not as in depth, as the novel I was writing was set largely in Australia. I couldn’t have imagined then the significance of that battlefields’ visit or the excitement of the story idea that has emerged since.

The shrapnel and rusty wire pictured were retrieved from the edge of a field on the roadside by our guide. I debated whether it was somehow wrong to remove them, but accepted after I was assured that farmers are digging up shrapnel, bits of barbed wire and WW1 relics all the time and that the soil of the Somme will probably never be rid of it. Just as it still gives up a body, or rather skeleton, on occasions.

The small pebble (at left) comes from the banks of the Strathclyde Loch in Strathclyde Country Park, Motherwell, Scotland. Undoubtedly, it was brought in for the construction of the park, long after the pit village of Bothwellhaugh was removed and the paths my great-parents trod, or stones they skipped in the River Clyde, had long gone. But it connects me to them and to my story, the day I stood on the water’s edge writing a scene that refused to wait for me to get out of the lightly, misting rain.

The silver miniature of the coal miner with pick axe came from a shop in a museum in Scotland. It reminds me daily of my great-grandfather and the life he and my characters, Liam, Joe and Da led.

The little steam engine came out of a Kinder Surprise™ many, many years ago. Somehow I still have it, and it has become a touchstone to my great-grandparents journey from Scotland down to catch the steamship at Tilbury Dock, along with my character’s journey, and my own steam train ride through the Yorkshire Dales where I crossed the same spans of the Ribble Head Bridge in 2015.  (My blog banner at the top of the page features my photo as we’re about to cross that amazing bridge.)

I bought the decorative horse brass (at right) from a small, cluttered craft shop at Land’s End in Cornwall. The pit pony and miner on the cart practically jumped off a pile of dusty similar brasses as I passed, which items tend to do when I’m travelling and/or in story mode. They seem to find me as often as I find them.

I wonder, what’s your inspiration?

#HNSA2017 Brilliant!

What a fantastic, inspiring conference was HNSA 2017! This second Historical Novel Society Australasia Conference, I have to say, was even more brilliant and better than the first.

The hugely diverse and wide-ranging program of speakers, super sessions and workshops provided so much choice – from sessions on ‘personal histories’ with renowned writers such as Kate Forsyth, Sophie Masson and Deborah Challinor, giving insight into their processes and work, to panel discussions on Modern Voice in Historical Fiction and Authenticity Vs Truth to the insightful publisher Pathways to Publication and First Pages critiques. There was also a separate academic program and hands-on opportunities to learn of armour and armouring and historical costumes.

The conference was also a wonderful opportunity to catch up with many writing friends and fellow authors and to meet quite a few new ones during the frequent breaks and/or the cocktail party and dinner nights.

I had a fabulous time and came away inspired, motivated and with lots of new resources and authors to check out.

I got a bit excited too on the tweeting side, and, with so much of value to share, rather than go into all the insights and memorable moments, I’ll share them again below in tweets.

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If you’d like to check out any other snippets of wisdom I shared or pics, you can find them on my Twitter feed @chrisbellwrites.

I’d like to say a special thank you to Elisabeth Storrs, Chris Foley and the wonderful Historical Novel Society Australasia team for an amazing event. Roll on 2019.

Oh, what a feeling..!

Sheldon excited

That feeling when your brand new story/character/world becomes real and – OMG, it/he/she speaks to you!

Especially when you feared after finishing your previous project (of many drafts and years) that the same passion might never strike you again.

Despite reading many blogs/interviews/author biographies to the contrary – the promise of a long-held idea becomes real. Maybe even has legs!

Oh, what a feeling!

 

 

Young Writers Competitions and Opportunities

Calling all young writers, playwrights and poets!  Lots of regular and new young writers’ competitions and opportunities have opened up. Some are closing soon.

So flex those writing muscles and get your entries in fast. (Only if they’ve been buffed and polished and proofed, of course.) You’ll find further details and some great new resources on my Young Writers’ Resources page, such as details of two Katharine Susannah Prichard residential places in WA, The John Marsden and Hachette Australia and Scribe Non-fiction Prizes, plus lots more comp details, events and happenings.

All fabulous opportunities to get your writing in front of judges, publishers and selection panels and there’s some not insignificant cash prizes on offer too.

So get those stories and poems in fast for the comps closing soon.

Some tips for success:

  • Follow submission guidelines (exactly)
  • Redraft, redraft, redraft
  • Read your work aloud to pick up jars and jolts and to check for rhythm
  • Vary your sentence structure
  • Be strenuous at spell-checking and proofreading
  • Give your work a few weeks “air time” (you’ll pick up things you never noticed when you go back to it after a break)
  • Flick off that fear goblin nagging on your shoulder. If you’ve put in the work – it’s ready. Repeat – flick and submit.

If you know of any writing opportunities or competitions for young writers, not listed on the YWR page, I’d love you to leave me the details in a comment or email me the link. Thnx. And Good luck!

And that’s a wrap!

p1030466-fab-scbwi-speakers-12-11-16On Saturday November 12 SCBWI Vic enjoyed a fabulous end of year meeting and wrap party to close what has been a busy, enjoyable and creative SCBWI year.

p1030433-show-and-tellWe began with our usual Show and Tell session celebrating six member successes and new publications. This session is always so inspiring as it often reveals the backgrounds of new publications and the serendipitous and innovative ways some creators bring their work to attention of publishers, the industry etc.

p1030445-marjory-gardnerOur first speaker, the lovely and talented Marjory Gardner, revealed how Flexibility (and saying ‘Yes,’) is Key to this industry and to a number of her successes and experiences, such as flying around the Pilbara and judging competitions. ‘Often when you say yes to one thing it serendipitously leads on to other things.’

Marjory shared her journey over thirty years from her beginning illustrating educational readers to trade publications, using her love of pattern and colour and filling up the page. The same principles she uses in her gorgeous, colourful illustrations today.

p1030451-ann-jamesAnn James, beloved narrative artist of over 60 books including Little Humpty, Lucy Goosey and The Way I Love You, showed us how Illustration is a Catalyst to Story. For Ann collecting and DIY is very important. She was encouraged as a child to play, build and make. Poor eyesight as a child led her to really look at things. Ann seeks inspiration in other illustrator’s work too, rendering beautiful images that really show colours, textures and shapes. Ann shared some of her process and the wonderful, varied experiences that art has brought to her life and work. Her tactile way of working generates ideas, including through illustrating and creating clay characters.

Of course next, we indulged in our usual delicious afternoon tea and all important tete-a-tete, networking chat time, catching-up with friends and meeting some new ones among our constantly growing membership.

p1030464-leigh-hobbsWe were then privileged to hear from charming and entertaining artist, Leigh Hobbs, our current Australian Children’s Laureate, who revealed ‘everything to do with my work is to do with character.’ He also shared the secret to Old Tom’s origins, not the version he tells kids. An ex-secondary school teacher, Leigh said that teaching has provided him with a lifetime of ideas. He doesn’t write for kids but for himself. He believes in kid’s logic.

Leigh kept us laughing with his humorous anecdotes, his delightful, self-effacing, manner and sincere honesty regarding his process and love of combining art with literature. I loved his closing sentence, ‘In your heart, those special kids/moments are what keep you going.’

scbwi-vic-xmas-party-2016We rounded off a fantastic afternoon and year by adjourning to Father’s Office Speakeasy Bar & Restaurant for Christmas drinks and more network chat and socialising. (Plus some yummy finger food. Thanks, Caz Goodwin.)

scbwi-vic-xmas-party-2After our SCBWI Vic planning meeting today, we have a really exciting program emerging for 2017. Lots of great industry and member speakers and a really great program. Stay tuned, dates and more info will be revealed in the New Year.

My Tribe (SCBWI Australia East/NZ)

Der Arme Poet

Writing is such a solitary endeavour. Of course, we writers/illustrators/creators are no longer isolated or starving in a garret as in years or centuries past. (Forgive the aside, but is it only me who perceives ‘starving in a garret’ as somewhat romantic when transported to 20th century Paris? I could happily go hungry in such company as F. Scott-Fitzgerald, Stein, Hemingway.)

Alas, in reality, I like my food/wine and comfort too much to suffer such deprivation. But I do look to the company of like-minded hearts and creative souls.

Writers/Illustrators are a tribe, co-joined by our aspirations and drive to create and share our stories. We want readers to thrill and thrall to our tales and to see our work in print. Often it can be a long road to publication and the initial marks of ink, publishers’ cruel rebuffs. So we look to our peers to commiserate, communicate, collaborate and coalesce. What better way than at a writers’ conference?

syd-conf-logo300pxI am privileged to be part of the warm and welcoming team of SCBWI Australia East/NZ and to serve as Assistant Co-ordinator of SCBWI Vic. Every two years we gather under the banner of the bi-annual conference in Sydney and mentorship of Regional Advisor, Susanne Gervay. The warm, funny, all embracing Susanne inspires all to believe their publication dream is possible. Of course, adding in a little luck, perseverance, industry savvy, research and a measure of talent too.scbwi-crew

The 2016 SCBWI Australia East Conference was a fantastic gathering of the tribe in September at the Menzies Hotel in Sydney and a great chance to catch up with friends and peers and meet many new members attending. It was brilliant too, post-conference, to hear of all the wonderful outcomes in contracts, representation and requests that came out of SCBWI 2016.

scbwi-vic-crewFantastic, detailed conference reports by Dimity Powell and her roving reporters plus lots of pics can be found on the SCBWI blog. But here are a few tips and tweets from the conference: Be poignant. Bestow ideas. Don’t give up the day job. Never risk starvation. Unless you’re in Paris, sharing a garret with F Scott-Fitzgerald. Pre Daisy days, of course!

 

 

 

The Value of Conferences – CYA

CYA dinnerI can’t believe it’s been weeks since I attended the fantastic CYA Conference in Brisbane. I’ve been head-down ever since, following up on manuscript advice received during my two publisher assessment sessions and giving social media a narrow gaze.CYA 2016

Chris Bell CYA 2016 Highly CommendedI was really excited in the weeks prior to the conference to be shortlisted in the 2016 CYA Writing and Illustrating Competition – published author category. It was fantastic that I was already booked in to attend the conference and so I was there to receive a “Highly Commended” award for my middle-grade eco-fic novel Strange Creatures from the judge, Scholastic Australia publisher, Clare Hallifax. I was extra pleased with my HC as there was only one overall winner (congratulations Facebook buddy, Karen Collum), but no placings in this highly competitive category.

It was a great boost to see this 19000-word story that I wrote several years ago with the intention of making it book one in a trilogy appreciated and acknowledged. I’ve always loved the characters and the setting and thought I had not perhaps given it fair exposure at the time as it always seemed an awkward word-count. So I worked on it some more and entered it into CYA and it was really terrific to see it awarded in the competition. I look forward to reading the initial judging reports, which give the added bonus of feedback to entrants in the CYA competition.CYA 2016 Highly commended

During the conference I had two really positive and informative meetings with publishers regarding my YA historical novel and received some great advice. 1. Begin in setting and introduce character’s day-to-day life 2. Use less language of the time.

The first suggestion initially surprised me because I’d always been taught – in kid lit – begin with action. But during the conversations (which offered very similar advice) I came to realise that, with my character’s world and time being quite foreign to the reader, to begin in drama gave the reader no chance to come to know or care about the characters before the initial dramatic interaction and danger. Invaluable advice and well worth paying for. This is one the value of critique and manuscript assessment sessions offered to attendees of conferences and seminars.

Both publishers are keen to see the reworked manuscript, so it’s back to work for me.

 

 

 

Photo credit: Peter Allert

My New Favourite Thing

Move over notebooks. I think I’ve just found my new favourite thing – for a writer.

Apple pencil:pro I feel a bit odd gushing about a gadget in this terribly material age, but my new favourite thing is a fantastic tool of trade – a shiny new iPad Pro (the small 9.7 inch version). It’s a big step up from my poor, struggling, constantly crashing, five-year-old iPad 2. Though I remember being as excited as a kid with a new toy at Christmas the year I got it too. But the new one has features I didn’t even dream of back then, but have been longing for now for quite awhile. Top of my list – an actual pen-like stylus. So for me the best part of my new iPad is actually the optional extra – and most brilliant tool – the Apple pencil. (Is it wrong to gush over a pencil?!)

Now I know how illustrators must feel with a brand new tablet to add to their toolbox.

I’ve long edited manuscripts on-the-go, on trains, in cafes, waiting in waiting-rooms, using an ordinary stylus in the Goodnotes app. I’m still using Goodnotes (though I’m sure there are heaps of other equally great editing/note software apps out there too). The difference now is that using the Apple pencil with the iPad Pro is that I can rest my palm on the screen without making unwanted marks or erasing edits accidentally.

Apple pencilAll I have to do is PDF the manuscript on the desktop first and email it to myself on the iPad. When I receive the email, I just transfer the doc to Goodnotes and away I go. Of course, I can still type edits into the document too, or use an alternative stylus or even my fingertip. But I love that Apple pencil replicates a pen with the same feel and the same fine point that, so far, other styli don’t provide. Now I end up with a far more legible document that I don’t have to waste time trying to decipher. The program highlighter is great for marking up words, paras to rejig later too.

Sadly, neither the pencil nor the new technology improves my scrawly handwriting at all, but at least it’s more readable. And I seem to have room on the page now to write heaps more.

IMG_5305I love too how, in the ordinary Apple Notes app, I can handwrite, draw, highlight, use colour for emphasis (or fun). It even has a ruler. (See the elegant straight line in my pic.) I can also print, copy, text, email, save images etc from Notes. (Could you do that before?)

And in the middle of the night, when I think of an idea, brilliant new title or must-do tomorrow, I love how I can now write it down using the backlight and even my fingertip to write if I don’t want to bother with the pencil. It doesn’t improve the quality of those ‘gems’ of the wee hours, but it’s much easier to capture them at least – just in case.

Even though noone will ever see them, I’m also having a lot of fun playing with the pencil in ‘Paint’ too, creating images and playing with shapes and colours. More disappear than are saved, but it’s lots of fun and non-threatening for a non-drawer like me.

I do think the pencil is the real joy and new favourite thing for me, as much as the iPad, because it’s not only great for print-free editing, but it’s inspiring my creativity in other ways too.

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