From Hook to Book

Archive for the tag “Writing Tips”

Dangerous Research on The Burning Sea – Sean McMullen

Sean McMullenToday I am delighted to welcome Sean McMullen back to From Hook to Book to celebrate the launch of his latest fantasy novel The Burning Seathe first of six books in The Warlock’s Child series, co-authored by Paul Collins and published by Ford Street Publishing.

Fans will be thrilled to learn that they won’t have to wait long for the following five books in the series, one due to be released each month April through September.

Congratulations againSean, and thank you very much also for sharing some of your research methodology and tips below, as well as a few traps that I recognise all too well.

First a little background: Sean sold his first stories in the late 1980s and has become one of Australia’s top science fiction and fantasy authors. In the late 90s he established himself in the American market, and his work has been translated into Polish, French, Japanese and other languages.The settings for Sean’s work range from the Roman Empire, through Medieval Europe, to cities of the distant future. His work is a mixture of romance, invention and adventure, while populated by strange but dynamic characters. His novelette Eight Miles was runner-up in the 2011 Hugo Awards and his next novelette Ninety Thousand Horses won the Analog Readers’ Award in 2013.

Book 1 - BURNING SEA - front cover

There is no lower rank than cabin boy on the warship Invincible. But Dantar knows he is important, because anyone who threatens his life gets turned into a pile of ashes. His older sister Velza is a shapecasting warrior, in a world where only men fight. Until now. Together they must solve the mystery of broken magic and escape the dragon.

Now, over to Sean.

Dangerous Research

Just after World War Two the Soviets were developing an atomic bomb. Their spies stole a sample of enriched uranium from the Americans and analysed it. It was not as pure as the Soviets’ uranium, and a minister boasted about this to an abducted German scientist. He replied that the Americans had only refined their uranium enough to get an explosion. The more pure Soviet uranium would give exactly the same explosion. They had gone to a lot of extra trouble and expense for nothing.

Sound familiar? Have you ever begun some research that should have taken ten minutes then spent the entire day reading something interesting? When you are doing research you need to know when to stop.

There are three types of research. The first is just writing from your background. The second is learning all about a subject by reading lots and lots. The third is just checking details. Why is all this important? When Paul Collins asked me to collaborate on the series The Warlock’s Child, I had four months to add seventy thousand words to the existing file. This meant no time for spurious research.

Much of our series is set aboard ships. I have helped out on yachts, and an ancestor of mine served on the Bounty, so I knew a bit about life on sailing ships. This meant I could write nearly all the shipboard material without any extra research. Depend as much as you can on this sort of research. It’s already done.

I did quite a lot of the second type of research, because I needed to know how ships fought before they had cannons. This is getting the background right, and you can do it with textbooks. You need to do this before you start writing. Our series was a fantasy involving medieval warfare at sea, which I did not know much about. Why use textbooks, when writing fantasy? I once assessed an unpublished novel with a supposedly medieval setting that also had steam trains and machine guns, and where people said things like “Hey you guys, let’s get outa here!” in moments of stress. Even fantasy needs a convincing backdrop.

The third type of research is the most dangerous, and takes discipline. How long does a sailing ship take to travel a hundred miles? How far can an arrow fly? You can check facts like there on the internet, but you will be tempted to keep reading. Resist that temptation. Why learn enough to write a PhD on archery, when all you wanted to know in the first place was how far to stand from a castle wall to be out of bowshot?

If your name is Suzanna Clarke and you are taking ten years to write Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, no problem, take all the time you like to do your research. I have to be careful how much research I let myself do, because my schedules are measured in months.

The Warlock’s Child series (readers 10+)

Coming Soon: 

Book 2 - Dragonfall Mountain - front cover      Book 3 - The Iron Claw - front cover

Book 4 - Trial by Dragons - front cover      Book 5 - VOYAGE TO MORTICAS - front cover

Book 6 - THE GUARDIANS - front cover

If you’d like to check out some of Sean’s other works, you can visit his website here and co-author Paul Collins here.

The Burning Sea is published by Ford Street Publishing: ISBN 9781925000924

 

Authenticity vs Action

Certain indisputable beliefs were planted in the minds of all television-watching children of the fifties and sixties raised on a diet of cowboy and wild west movies. And of course John Wayne.

john-wayne imageSettlers rode horses, carried guns, could shoot an indian off a hillside half-a-mile away and pick off their dinner prey with a single shot.

And that’s what I believed about hunting and shooting in colonial days. But it seems our forebears in Van Diemen’s Land – circa 1830 – were not blessed with the sharp shooters of the American wild west. They could neither afford nor had access to rifles or shotguns, their single option being to purchase the cast-off Brown Bess muskets of the British military. Even the military themselves could not afford to upgrade to the easier loading, more accurate rifled guns.

Muskets proved useless though to hunt wary kangaroos, wallabies and emus. The timid creatures, unused to white man and his weapons, were quite safe from the inaccurate Brown Bess, even if they had been curious enough to stick around and see what the noisy, long, hit and miss sticks were about.

Muskets work best at a range of no more than twenty yards (18.28 metres). Beyond that the hunter would be lucky to hit his target. Too close and there wouldn’t be much left to salvage for the cooking pot.

Settlers, convicts and bushrangers used snares to catch rabbits, which were populous already in Van Diemen’s Land by the 1820s. To go after larger game, they used dogs aka imported hunting hounds. Even the first settlers on the island, the aborigines, quickly converted their own hunting strategies to include the skill and speed of dogs.

tasmanianaboriginesNative herbivores, having lived a previously dogless existence, bar the thylacine who it’s believed went in for a more ambush than pursuit attack, were no match for the speed and power of the dogs. The open grasslands of Van Diemen’s Land provided a perfect environment for the chase and few places to hide.

An interview with Dr Leo Laden (antique gun authority and owner of the Colonial Arms Museum in Perth) provided me with a detailed explanation on loading, firing and the range of the Brown Bess for my novel. Thanks to him, I’m pretty confident I could load a Brown Bess. Hitting a target, I’m not so sure about. But it seems even well trained soldiers were more lucky than reliable at hitting their targets in the Brown Bess era. Dr Laden explained how, to his disappointment, modern day movie reenactments of colonial life and war more often pursue effect rather than authenticity. I’m confident though, with his guidance, that I’ve got my story portrayal right at least.

Don’t you love writing in the days of the internet? Articles, experts, videos only a Google search away. Who have you interviewed lately? I’d love to know what you are researching?

If you’d like to see the Brown Bess in action, click on the youtube video link below.

The BIG Question in your Novel?

Big ProblemThe first time I was asked: “What is the big question in your novel?” I responded with a blank look.

BIG question??? Hmm! Hadn’t really thought about a BIG question. I was just writing what I hoped was a cracker of a story and following my main character’s journey through a testing and changing time for women during the era of The Great War.

“Wrong. No! You must be writing to answer a question,” insisted my uni research tutor.

Really!???

Turned out, I was actually asking and exploring quite a few questions, but it took me some considerable effort to seek them out and, even more so, to articulate them and find the core question.

Being an historical novel, I thought, at first, that my questions would be very different to those that might be posed in a contemporary story. I considered them to be all about a woman’s right to happiness and did they have any rights to it, over duty, in the era of 1912 – 1920? I thought the question not relevant to young women in western society today, who often have so many choices.

Eventually I worked the major question in my novel through to:

At what point do we question the rightness and rationale of what we’ve been taught? (Or should we?)

Of course, this turned out to be a timeless question, relevant to as many women/people in the world today as much as a century ago. A right of passage and a question that – in some form – has  been explored and debated in books the world over – through every genre.

Bunyips Don'tI remember having a debate with my Writing for Children tutor, several years ago, when I wrote a glowing review on the picture book Bunyips Don’t by Sally Odgers and illustrated by Kim Gamble. My tutor maintained how could the book end with a celebration when Young Bunyip had moved to the sunny side of the swamp with new friends leaving old Bunyip alone? To her, Young Bunyip was bucking his heritage and a selfish creature for deserting Old Bunyip. I argued that Young Bunyip tried to encourage miserable Old Bunyip, living in the dank and dark, that he could dance and play (be happy) on the sunny side of the swamp and to come with him. Old Bunyip chose not to just because Bunyips Don’t dance and play and live on the sunny side. He chose to live the same old unhappy life rather than make a choice to change. In the end, my tutor was more convinced but still struggled with Young Bunyip “abandoning” his heritage and his kind’s way of life.

Doesn’t enjoyment and love for a book often come down to reader perspective?

If I hadn’t been going to uni, would I have ultimately learned as much just in the writing of my novel and formulated the same BIG question? Perhaps!

But the scope of my Master’s degree insisted I explore and articulate the social context and big question of my novel leading me to discover and thrill to what I discovered were the many layers to my story. Many intentional but some that I found had emerged organically too.

Chris pre-grad (Large)So last week, I walked the ramp to the RMIT graduation stage with a huge grin on my face and grasped my degree, very pleased and proud to be a Master of Creative Media (Creative Writing) with Distinction.

Now – onward to get my novel published. And discover the BIG question in my new manuscript/s.

Often I hear writers asked, did your idea spring from plot, character or setting? Not, what question are you asking. So I’m asking you: Do you write with a BIG question in mind?

Chris post graduation (Large)

The Paper-full Office

It’s time to put my office back together, after emptying it for new carpet, but I cringe to re-store all the boxes of old manuscript drafts and files. I’m wondering what to keep and what to chuck?

Even the tax man only makes me keep my paperwork three years. Am I just being precious keeping all these manuscript drafts of my published books, not to mention multiple drafts of many unpublished titles?

I’m so far distant from a paperless office I’m out the other side. In fact, adding much more paper, I will be – on the far side of the door. I truly don’t mind lots of books and paper stuff, but… seriously, it’s time to cull.

Surely even well-known authors who donate their work and boxes of manuscript to the Lu Rees Archives don’t keep everything? Or perhaps they do and that’s why they donate their life work when still living, to get the boxes out of their homes.

With that thought, I ducked into the website of the Lu Rees Archive to get an idea of what they do hold. Heaps, it seems, and, very interestingly, they also tell you how to look after your papers. I discovered I’m breaking all the taboos and shortening my paperwork’s life span by using metal pins, staples and rubber bands amongst other no-nos. The website explains that “metal rusts very quickly and leaves permanent marks. Rubber bands quickly disintegrate, leaving marks. Self-stick removable notes easily fall off, and when they do remain, may shift from the desired spot and leave a sticky residue. Sticky tape eventually loses its sticking capability and leaves marks as well as a residue. Liquid paper and correction tape wear off and crack.

One great and surprising tip recommends using HB pencil to label your files etc, because pencil lasts for centuries and doesn’t damage like inks and pens. Lots to learn if fame ever finds me and my work.

But, since I’m not famous, yet, and running out of room, perhaps a mini cull would suffice.

How many or much do you keep of old drafts, notes and paperwork from your manuscripts? Is there a good reason to keep all or any of it? Please let me know your method and ideas in the comments?

A Bakers Dozen Writing Tips

When one of my blog commenters, a new writer, asked me a couple of posts ago what tips did I have for new writers, I thought why not share them in a blog post too.

  1. Write every day
  2. Read widely – the masters, classics, short stories, poetry and contemporary fiction. Learn to read as a writer. Ask how did the writer make this work? What techniques is the writer using? How does the writer achieve this effect?
  3. Write the story you want to write; the story you believe in; write from the heart. This is the kind of story that will reach out from the page: touch your heart or grip you by the throat. (Maybe not in the first draft, but if the essence is there, and the writer’s passion, the rest can be redrafted, edited, polished to brilliance.)
  4. Seek feedback – find a critique buddy. Utilise what resonates. Mull the opinions before discarding any not in tune with your intention for your story. What may sting at first can be found to be gold a few days later.
  5. Write because you love it as your first priority. Publication is a bonus, but aim for it. (If you have a story worth telling, you want it to be read.)
  6. Experiment: try different styles of writing, don’t stick to just what you know or the way/style you always write.
  7. Up the stakes/conflict: Always ask, have I gone far enough?
  8. Play with language/Experiment with voice
  9. Sign up for a short course through your state/local writers’ centre: some expert guidance and ground rules can save years of trial and error and frustration.
  10. Redraft/edit/proofread diligently
  11. Put your work away for a week (or better several). Fresh eyes see many jolts and jars and inconsistencies in the writing.
  12. Submit – get your work out there to be read  OR Enter competitions – gain writing credits and confidence.
  13. Persevere and Persist: the essential Ps and two most important attributes for writers. These can win out over raw talent. Meanwhile you’re learning your craft. It’s the apprenticeship.

Enjoy the roller coaster. It’s a really scary ride, but worth it if you hold your nerve.

Love to know if any writers reading this have any tips they’d like to share or what do you wish you’d known when you started out?

Step by step to publication

 

After lots of emails crossing paths in the ether all week from various writing buddies… I’m putting it out there. How can we writers inspire, buoy, encourage and fool ourselves into keeping steadfast on our journey to publication?

More often than not, it’s a long, long haul from Point A – the idea that inspired the story to Point B – publication.

Sounds simple enough. I mean how hard can it be? A few thousand words! How long can it take? A few months!

Turns out – not so easy. Not so fast. A novel isn’t written in a day, a week, a month or, for most us, even a year. It needs to evolve, develop and be written page by painful page, draft by draft. (Unless, of course, the muse is in town and on those golden days it verily hurtles along.)

We need sustenance along the way. Small incentives towards making the dream a reality and I’m not  talking chocolate, a glass of bubbles on each chapter completed or trinkets in small velvet boxes. No, I mean some writerly stepping stones to support our self-belief and enthusiasm from point A to B. Because at some point along the path, there’ll be more quicksand than shore, more shale than stone under our feet. With no agent, or publisher beside us mopping our brows and waving the chequered flag, we can be the ones to flag. Our writing stalls and suddenly that brilliant idea seems trite, unoriginal and going nowhere.

We don’t get a treasure map, or to kick the odd doubloon to tell us we’re on track. We shake the compass, but it only points north – as the crow flies. It doesn’t tell us the easy roads or shortcuts.

What we need is some tips to inspire and gain some kudos along the way – always great for the C.V. but more important, great for our confidence and self-belief.

Here’s my top ten stepping stones towards publication:

  1. WRITE – only words on the page can grow a story.
  2. Join a writing group (find kindred spirits who get what you’re doing, and offer real, productive critiquing that helps your work, builds your craft, and theirs, spiralling you all towards publication).
  3. Enter competitions – to gain confidence, writing credits and crafting competence. (Not to mention certificates for your achievements book. Okay, brag book, if you want to call it that. See tip 5)
  4. Submit to anthologies, magazines – to get your name out there, gain confidence, writing credits and inspiration to continue.
  5. Keep an achievement (display) book to keep copies of those small steps, Letters to the editor, commendations, reviews you’ve written – great to browse those milestones on days you need a reminder that you’re moving forward.
  6. Build a website – create a cyber presence, AND/OR create and maintain a blog – gain a voice, a following, a kinship with fellow bloggers. (Remember to comment on other blogs and exchange reciprocal links.)
  7. Rework your chapter, story, base premise, for fiction short markets, or find non-fiction links and submit to newspapers, magazines, journals, e-sources for publication, gain writing credits and link back to your WIP.
  8. Build your writing profile through social media i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Jacketflap, LinkedIn. (Suggest keeping your Facebook author persona separate from your personal family/friends persona.)
  9. Network – online groups, associations, writing organisations, attend conferences, lit festivals and industry talks.
  10. Daydream – see your book cover on the shelf – crucial to keep motivation and self-belief alive. (I’ve been known to create a cover to manifest the dream. Love modern tech.)

My writing friends and crit buddies are invaluable in keeping me focussed and motivated. Their successes enthuse me and absolutely inspire and energise me to try to keep up with them and pull out all the stops to emulate their successes. And when none of us are getting far, we can commiserate together because none of us want to kick the dog.

Sometimes that finish line PUBLICATION seems invisible and as unreachable, un-navigable as a line in a river of frothing, foaming, rushing water.

Love to hear how you hold the sometimes rickety writing craft on course – please let me know in the comments.

Don’t Write What You Know

“Are you French? No, then set your novel in Australia. Write what you know!”  Words to spark a blogpost and debate.

The jury is out on my Google search into who first spoke the words Write what you know, though Mark Twain and William Faulkner seem to be the main-listed culprits.

Write what you Know would probably have been the first (and most oft repeated) piece of advice I’ve heard quoted as a writer. For a long time, I stuck slavishly to it. Believed in it. Passed on the words of wisdom myself. UNTIL…the day I realised it was given and explained (to me) by someone who took it as literally as I took it from her. Too often “write what you know” advice is given to new writers without adding the all important addendum, until you learn to write and are ready to explore beyond the breadth of your own experience. Or boredom takes you out, whichever comes first.

I mean, was Anna Sewell ever a horse? Was Toni Morrison ever a slave? Did Geraldine Brooks ever live in a sixteenth-century village consumed by the plague?

No. And why didn’t they need to have lived the life, in the place, at the time of the characters and stories they were writing? Because one doesn’t have to be a horse to know how any warm-blooded creature feels to be beaten, starved or left out in the freezing cold. We all recognise and know pain. We all experience illness and the fear of our own mortality. Few of us escape the pain of loss of a loved one.

We live, therefore we experience. As writers we can take those emotions and feelings and impose them on our characters and story events, transport them to places and eras we’ve not personally lived in and make them real. Authenticity comes through connecting the reader to the emotional and lived experience in ways that resonate, in ways a reader can engage with and feel the pain, pleasure or emotional happenings in the story.

I find I sometimes draw subconsciously on my own personal, emotional experiences and don’t necessarily recognise the origins until later. A bit like dreams, I suppose. Some mean nothing and others we can see the wellspring, even if the dawning doesn’t come until much later on.

Sometimes my writing reveals that I know more than I think I know. This proves itself in those rare and wondrous moments when words appear on the page and I sit back and go, Wow! Where did that insight, knowledge, revelation come from? Other times, fine details and rich imagery of place and setting emerge out of much reading and research I may have done months or even years before.

Research, lots and lots of days and weeks of research, shows in the authenticity and emotional connection of good story and characterisation, not merely through the insertion of historical facts or costume/period details. So I can write about a girl in France, enmeshed in a war I did not fight in the trenches or on the homefront. I know how this girl feels to be betrayed, lied to, and scared on finding herself alone in the world, because I can summon up memories of those exact same feelings. I might need to magnify them significantly for my character’s usage, but I’ve been lied to, betrayed and found myself alone in a foreign country, albeit in the latter case by choice. I can impose like feelings and emotions onto my character and make her experience real through adding description and evoking the place.

Yes, I can write what I don’t know, what I’ve never experienced and yet still make it real. So I’m on the no side of the debate team that says “Don’t write what you know”.

If writers did not give themselves permission to write outside their experience, there’d be no science fiction, no spec fiction, no fantasy. No hobbits, or time-travelling Doctor Whos, no Star Wars, ET or Hunger Games.

Personal experience and emotions may be the foundation stone, but the walls and windows come from imagination. Otherwise we’d all be writing the same old same old.

Writing fiction takes courage and research and getting into the psyche of living, breathing people, or animals in Black Beauty’s case. If a writer can take me into the skin of a horse, a Frenchwoman, a soldier, a space warrior, or a Neanderthal tribesman and make it real, I’m happy to go on the journey with them. That is the writer’s job – to transport the reader beyond their disbelief, to a new place, time, life. The writer must believe in their story and bring it to life beyond what they knew when they started out the writing.

Do you write what you know? Or do you go where no man, woman or writer has gone before you? 

Never poke a writer (or a Mama Bird)

This time last year I made a vow – after discovering a tiny baby bird alive but flopped on our back deck with a bleeding cut on its back – that if Mrs Pigeon showed any sign of setting up house this year, I would wave her off sans hésitation. I had no wish to repeat that worry or ensuing mercy dash to the vet. I never rang to enquire after the baby’s health but chose instead to believe that she pulled through and grew up to rear a family of her own.

But when the day came a few weeks ago that Mrs Pigeon flitted and fluttered around my deck, carrying twigs and fluff and the usual building blocks of a pigeon home, I couldn’t bring myself to stop her. What if she was ready to nest and I upset the process and as a result another chick was lost? The dilemma was momentary and I gritted my teeth, hoping for windless days and no premature barrelling overboard this time.

We’ve watched and listened while Mrs Pigeon cooed and sat, sat and cooed until finally, after her comings and goings recommenced, we got to see a little head poking up yesterday and one eye peeping over the top of the nest. A short time later when I went out with my camera, Mama bird had returned and so I asked hubby if he could climb the ladder and take her picture. To my absolute horror, he ventured too close, (we have zoom Mr B, 10x zoom!), and Mrs Pigeon panicked. She flew out of the nest, under the pergola, crashed into both windows before flying away into the treetops. I’m not sure who got more of a shock, her or us, and I was bereft fearing she may not return and what would happen to baby bird then?

Thank goodness, an hour after we slunk inside, out of sight, she returned. This morning, she is cooing and peaceful and I assume that means baby bird is too.

Baby birds are as fragile as new stories and Mama birds as flighty as any writer of a new work. Don’t poke the nest or creep too close. Any interference or perceived danger can send the writer fleeing, project abandoned and all the promise of that new work doomed without persistent warmth, heart and gentle coaxing. It may never take wing at all without a long gestation, application, and a writer willing to stick around long enough for it to be ready to throw it out of the nest.

Yesterday’s episode is a reminder to me too not share too much of my new WIP at this very early, fragile stage. Sometimes interested others can poke the writer’s nest without intending to and we can be such a flighty bunch. I have great hopes and plans to stick around, but I also have a feeling I’ll be nesting and sitting here a lot longer than Mrs Pigeon.

Do you share your WIP? Talk about it? Discuss it with family, friends or the postman?

My Year of Reading Challenge

Book 6

In the Human Night by Peter Bakowski 1995 (2000)

I love Peter Bakowski’s poetry. I can actually understand it and with its varied and recognisable subjects, refrigerators, mountains, clocks and kings, it speaks to me. So many gorgeous lines like “back under the axe of being alone: hearts eaten by banknotes: In your arms I find puddles, xylophones and all my chains turned into skipping rope”.

 Hale & Iremonger ISBN: 978 0 86806 539 0

Book 7

 We Don’t Know We Don’t Know by Nick Lantz 2010 

My daughter introduced me to the poetry of Nick Lantz. I found much to love in his lines but my favourite poem has to be Of the Parrat and other birds that can speake, an amazing poem on Alzheimer’s that resonated keenly with me. You can read it by clicking this link http://www.gulfcoastmag.org/index.php?n=2&s=943.

Graywolf Press MN ISBN: 978 1 55597 552 4

A few good words… (To word count or not to word count?)

In keeping with the promise of a fresh start to the year, setting new goals, tweaking the lifestyle, I thought a new theme for my blog would be cool. So here I am with a whole new look. (Hair cut next week too.)

With a new year, new goals, new challenges, I want to look at word counts. They’re a pretty important deal for writers. How they’re achieved is a varied process. I’m pretty diligent, but I’ve never worked to a per week word-count target on a novel before. While I deeply admire those who can achieve the 50,000-words of NaNoWrMo in the month of November, I know it’s not for me.

Historical fiction, particularly in the early days can be a real stop/start business. A lot of lines of manuscript can trail off in a series of xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx’s, the details to be worked in after checking the facts, discovering whether trains actually ran every day to a certain stop, or whether that small country town had cars as early as 1919 etc. etc.

But I want to finish this new novel in “good” time. What does that mean? I’m not under contract, so I’m not bound to one year or eighteen months to complete it to publishable standard, but I am working as a full-time, professional writer, who aims to be published and read. So how do I ensure that I don’t meander along at snail’s pace, waiting for my muse to appear and giving in to a deliciously organic process that might side-track or detour me along varied paths before I get to point B?

I’ve got to set a word-count target and not let myself off the hook. But neither do I wish to produce crap to achieve that aim. So I’m working with the goal of “good” words. Keepers. Or at least a strong basis and a trajectory that is heading to the finale.

I can write 3000-words a day when I’m on fire. I’m sure I could write more if I forced myself. But I’m happy to aim for 1000-words a day – on writing days – I will have to take time out for uni. And I really want a “good” life/work balance this year. (A blog for another day.) If I’m firing, I’ll keep going, but I won’t add that into my weekly target and say, Yay! I got it done in two days, so now I can play. I’ll sit down the next day and tap, write, sweat out those next thousand words.

And, I’ve faced the fact I’ve known for quite some time, perhaps since mid-2010 when I joined a certain social network, that it’s brilliant to keep in touch, finger on the pulse, and connected with writing buddies and peers, except, Man, does it eat into your writing time. So FBook is another tweak. Everything in its time and place. First and foremost, I am a writer. I want, live, breathe, to write. And I’d like it to translate to a new novel sometime next year.

I love my blog too, so I’ll be ranting and raving and talking writing to anyone good enough to drop in.

Being a writer means I have an inherent curiosity as to how other writers “do it”. Come on now, lift your minds a bit higher please. I mean write, achieve words, word count goals.  Do you set a target? What gets you motivated, gets those words on the page? Let me know in the comments.

PS: Condolences to all the clichés that gave themselves in the creation of this post.

What I am Reading

Words to transport me across generations, centuries, continents and viewpoints – such is the mastery of writer Arnold Zable in his acclaimed memoir Jewels and Ashes.

What began as a “case study” for my Master’s exegesis – too dry a term by far for this riveting narrative and beautifully told story – became a lesson in the art of traversing narrative time. I chose Zable’s work because I’ve long admired him and his writing and have attended various of his talks and his inspirational Painting with Words workshop. (You know how every now and again you get that feeling your writing has upped a level, well, I believe this workshop prompted one of those shifts. But, I digress.)

With my next novel unstarted, at the time, but swirling in my mind, I wanted to write my exegesis to inform on an aspect of its writing. I can already see the structure of my new novel forming as a complex narrative where I plan to show three characters’ viewpoints and visit them in different time spans, on different continents and be able to crisscross between them all. Hence my exegesis topic: Traversing Narrative Time, Space and Viewpoint. Part of the reflective practice in my uni subject’s title is to look to the masters to see how they’ve achieved such techniques. Zable was my first choice, though I also studied Gabriel Garcia Marquez who is the master Zable says he studied to learn his artistry of transitions.

Jewels and Ashes traces the author’s pilgrimage to the birthplace of his Jewish parents, (in Bialystok, Poland), crisscrossing the decades of the twentieth century to uncover the truth and fate of his extended family. When I first read the book several years ago, I marvelled at how Zable showed history while weaving his family background around his 1986 journey to Poland, but I didn’t really understand what he was doing craftwise, how he was doing it or why. I just knew whatever he was doing transported me on one amazing journey. Mind you the way Zable paints his words in such rich detail and description transports you with seamless ease too.

Of course, I’ve read many novels featuring multiple viewpoints, time and places, but I’d always been keenly aware of the transitions from one to the next. Some jolt you out of the story with a clunk, or shifts only occur at the end of chapters or storybreaks, whereas Zable weaves into the next event, place, time with seamless transitions, be they in mid-sentence or mid-paragraph.

How does he do it?

Through my study of Jewels and Ashes, and Arnold’s own explanation of his technique, I understand him to effect many of his transitions by connecting story fragments or threads using subtle and well placed links. Closer study of the text reveals these to be both tangible and intangible associations, such as events, trees, photographs and letters, and/or sensory connections, such as memories, smells and sounds. For the purpose of my exegesis I extracted the examples below to demonstrate:

  • Decades later,… (p. 8 ) a simple flashforward (prolepsis)
  • We leap through the centuries (p. 46) transition bringing narrative forward two-hundred years
  • As a child I would often gaze at his portrait in the Bialystok photo album… (p. 46) transition back through flashback (analepsis)
  • Father has now warmed to the subject. He draws me with him to Nieronies Lane. (p. 76) transition of place
  • Years later, when Mother fell on a Melbourne street, the memory of another fall, in a time and place far removed, came flooding back. (p. 88) incident as link to another time
  • At 4 a.m. on summer mornings, throughout the twenties… (p. 93) connects one paragraph later through the link of season to On a summer morning in 1986…
  • Above all, Father recalls the seasons (p.139) a memory and seasonal transition of time and place.

Arnold Zable is not only a wonderful storyteller, but a generous humanitarian, and I was lucky enough on two chance occasions during the writing of my exegesis to have opportunity to speak to him and ask him about his practice when writing his memoir. Arnold told me he did not plot the narrative of Jewels and Ashes, but followed his physical journey and allowed the threads of the greater story to emerge instinctively. However organically these evolved, the chronological discontinuity and disruption of story serve to build a sense of mounting dread even in a fact-based narrative where the reader knows the holocaust history:

‘At Linowe station the trains were drawn up by the platform, waiting. The time-tabling was precise, the organisation efficient. The doors of the cattle wagons slid to a close on entire families, crammed together, robbed of light, air and hope. Soon after they were on the move: a journey of several hundred kilometres southwest, across the breadth of Poland, to a town called Auschwitz’ (p.137).

The switch to a new focus in the next paragraph serves to discontinue the narrative and heighten tension even with foreknowledge of the horror coming.

This post offers only a glimpse of one of the multiple narrative devices available to traverse time, space and viewpoint to best dramatic and emotional effect. Regardless of whether you’re interested in the writing craft, I urge you to read Jewels and Ashes. You’re in for a treat, a harsh history beautifully told and one that must never pass out of memory. Honour goes to Zable and all those it recalls.

It is so true what they say about  the value of reading as a writer and what you can learn. Though I’ve never studied a topic quite so intently (or academically) before, and found the initial drafting of my exegesis extremely challenging, I can honestly say what I’ve learned is invaluable. If I can begin the writing of my new novel and in some small way emulate the beauty of the transitions of Arnold Zable in his writing, I’ll  be thrilled. What once seemed impossible, now seems achievable.

I hope this post excites the idea of some ‘narrative’ time travel in your writing. If so, I’d love you to let me know or leave any thoughts you’d like to add in the comments.

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