Items filtered by date: May 2016
Monday, 23 May 2016 11:31

Making the Cuts That Improve A Novel

‘Drama is life with the boring bits left out.’

I love this quote by Alfred Hitchcock. It applies not only to movie making but novel writing as well, especially suspense. And I try to adhere to it as much as possible in writing my own.

What I choose to write in a story is never a blow-by-blow account of what happens. I skip the dull bits and if there’s any information the reader needs from it, I have my characters talk about or reflect on it later.

For example:

In the story I’m currently working on I’ve just written the opening scene where my heroine saves a man whose car brakes fail on a steep mountain road. The scene ends with her pulling him from his submerged vehicle and reviving him with CPR thus saving his life.

The next thing that would actually happen in the story is that the paramedics would arrive and take him to the hospital while the heroine is questioned and then driven home by the police.

But there isn’t really much interesting in that. The injured man is once again unconscious so there can be no exchange between him and the heroine. And the heroine will only tell the cops information the reader already knows.


Instead what I’ll do is cut from the moment the heroine revives the stranger to when the police drop her back at her house. There, upon seeing a police car pull up at the door, her father greets her anxiously and a conversation between them deepens both characters and reveals info that furthers the plot.

The only information I need to get across to the reader from the time period I omitted is that the injured man briefly regained consciousness, long enough to look into the heroine’s eyes and say something to her. That’s all I need. And it’s easy enough to have her reflect on this as she’s talking to her father or getting ready to head off to work.

To me the easiest way to know what to cut from a story is by how I feel about writing it. If I’m not looking forward to writing a scene, if it doesn’t excite or move me in some way, I know the chances are pretty good that it won’t do a lot for the reader either.

As a reader, what sorts of things would you prefer to do without in a story? Physical descriptions of the characters? Scene setting? What do you too often find in a story that you'd rather the author had left out?

Published in On writing

4pm   It’s absolutely howling outside, even worse than when we first arrived. Some of the gusts feel like they’re trying to take the roof off. And raining as well. Solid, steady, ground-soaking rain. The windows are streaked with silver ribbons, the ocean is heaving itself against the rocks and you can’t tell where the grey sky ends and the water begins.

It’s great!

I’m sitting in my chair at the window, a cup of coffee at my side and a Yankee candle (Spiced Pumpkin) burning in the blue cut glass holder on the window sill. Snug and warm. Who could ask for a better spot to write?  

The Australian summer is long and dry especially here in South Australia (the driest state in the driest continent on earth). This year the season blew out even further with a lingering stretch of Indian Summer. Enough for the moths to get in an extra breeding cycle. They’ve been everywhere! On the two warm nights we had out here they literally covered the windows.

But with this burst of rain their monster cousins have started emerging. Giant rain moths. Forcing their way up out of the ground, as big and heavy-bodied as sparrows. The surest sign winter is on the way.

Published in Events and news

Anyone who’s seen me teach or present at an author talk might be surprised to discover I’m an introvert.

Being an introvert isn’t being shy or socially awkward (though it can definitely include those attributes—I’ve suffered from both). Introverts find mixing with others, even friends, leaves them drained. Extroverts are energised by company. But for the introvert, the only way to reinvigorate our resources is to be alone.

I had just wound up a Northern Book Tour with my Suspense Sister, Sandy Vaile, and a marathon one-day workshop with the Eyre Writers. We were both buoyed by mingling with writers, book club members and awesome librarians who welcomed us into their world and laughed in all the right places (thankfully!).

Elated by the positive interaction and feedback, we never-the-less looked forward to reconnecting with old friends and our sadly neglected writing routines on a five-day writing retreat.

Organised by Diane, the retreat group is kept small so that we all have space and privacy. Accommodation is Spartan. We take everything we need, and make do with much less than we would at home. There is no TV. Internet is kept to a minimum and often the signal is too weak to work effectively anyway.

The first time I attended I suffered from sensory deprivation. So desperate was I for stimulation that I walked the beach listening to the only station I could pick up on my old 3G mobile phone—parliament question time. Desperate!

Writing is the primary goal. But the other love that pulls me to the Eyre peninsular is the beach, a great sweeping series of shallow bays populated by nothing but wildlife and the occasional sunburned fisherman.

It was on one of these walks, toward the end of the five days, that I realised just how desperately I needed time alone. Weird. Most of the week there were only seven of us. I had my own room, my own table and laptop. I walked the beach for an hour and half every day alone with my thoughts with only plovers and pelicans for company.

And yet, there I was cross-legged beneath the dunes, listening to waves gently lap the sand and the occasional honk of pacific geese as they found a place to rest for the coming night.

Ten minutes was all I needed. Ten minutes of listening to nature with no thought of writing or talking or even walking. Just reconnecting with myself.

I returned to my friends and to my writing with renewed vigour.

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Published in Events and news

This time around on our writing retreat two of our authors, Rowena Holloway and Sandy Vaile, drove all the way from Adelaide to join us.

In addition to giving author talks in Port Augusta and Port Pirie on their way over, these two published suspense authors ran a lively workshop for members of Port Lincoln’s Eyre Writers on the Saturday prior to the start of the retreat.

On Sunday they gave a combined presentation at the Port Lincoln library, entertaining listeners with accounts of their journeys to publication, with trailers and readings from their books.

I met these two fabulous authors at the Salisbury Writers Festival years ago and since then we’ve attended several conferences together, including the 2010 Willamette Writers Festival in Portland Oregon.

It’s great having them both here on retreat – a rare chance for us all to catch up. I’ve asked them each to give an account of their experience here and first up we’ll hear from Sandy, author of Inheriting Fear.

Hi, I’m Sandy Vaile and it’s been four years since I last joined Diane and her critiquing group for a writing retreat. It’s a precious gift to spend a week in relative isolation. Quiet time from dawn until dusk, to nurture those creative juices and let them shape my latest work in progress.

I don’t sleep well at the best of times, so am awake long before sunrise, and busy at my keyboard by 5 am. I leave the lights in the writing hall off and work by candle-light. A dark cocoon where only the characters on the page matter.

When the sun finally makes an appearance, the view from my writing table is spectacular. I am positioned in front of a huge window in the hall, overlooking the rugged beach and Tumby Bay. A sly rabbit sneaks onto the beach when it thinks no-one is watching, sniffs around the seaweed drifts, and then bounds back to the safety of the sand hills.

The weather isn’t quite what I was hoping for, with howling wind and squalling rain, but it’s a good excuse to stay inside and write. Every now and then the clouds are blown away and the sun brightens this special place for a while. That’s when I take advantage of the rugged coast for a walk with my friends: exercise, mind clearing and a valuable brainstorming session in one.

The ocean surge struggles to scale the slight incline of the beach. It foams with the effort, and just when it’s near to the peak, is torn back to the grey depths. A good simile for novel creation, I think.

The atmosphere is relaxed, with people coming and going from the writing hall at their leisure. The arrangement has to be flexible, because writing is a culmination of activities, not purely the act of sitting at the keyboard. It involves reading, researching, brainstorming, problem solving, communing with the muse, and dialogue with mates.

Today I made a vat of Orange Delight soup for a communal lunch, and it went down a treat.

Orange Delight Soup

1 onion
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1 litre stock (vegetable or chicken)
½ pumpkin
½ cauliflower
2 carrots
½ sweet potato
1 can coconut milk

Dice the onion finely, and sauté them in a large pot until semi-translucent. Add the spices and stir for a minute. Pour in the stock. Peel and dice the vegetables, and add to the pot. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for 20 minutes (or until the vegetables are tender). Add the coconut milk and white pepper to taste. Puree the soup and serve with a crusty roll.

Published in Events and news

On this second day of our writing retreat, we had a lively discussion after dinner on punctuation and its impact on the reading experience. (What else would a bunch of writers talk about?)

Several people remarked that they hated italics and exclamation marks because they felt the author was trying to dictate to them how they should interpret the text. As a musician I found this interesting as it pertains to music notation as well.

Early music has no dynamic markings. Prior to the invention of the piano no instrument was capable of producing variations in dynamics. (Because a harpsicord’s strings are plucked it doesn’t matter how hard you strike the key you always get the same volume.) Embellishments and ornamentation in early music consisted of various trills and turns and were left entirely up to the performer.

But with the piano all that changed. For the first time musicians could vary how loud or soft they played. (The name piano is short for piano forte which literally means soft-loud.)

Varying dynamics in music performance came into practice very slowly as initially it was viewed as being in poor taste, a cheap embellishment. But by the early classical period this had changed as well.

Beethoven was one of the first composers to truly embrace this new development. His symphony scores are filled with accents, sfortzandos, crescendos, subito pianos and the odd grand pause, with dynamic notations ranging from double piano (pp) to double forte (ff). Clear instructions to the performer how he wanted his music to sound.

Tchaikovski and Wagner took things to extremes with markings ranging from pppp to ffff. But as far as the listener was concerned the dynamic range remained the same whether a composer wrote one ‘p’ or ten as musicians simply adjusted their dynamic pallet accordingly.

Markings in music guide musicians in performing the piece as the composer intended it. Exactly what some writers attempt to do with certain types of punctuation. (To me a word written in italics is like a note with an accent under it.)

The difference I suppose is that with writing there is no middle man – the audience is the reader herself.
Still, as a musician accustomed to receiving the creator’s guidance in enterpreting a work, I have no problem with the odd italicized word or exclamation mark. As long as the author doesn’t get carried away and become a Tchaikowski.

Published in Events and news

We arrived at the campsite just before nine this morning. The place looked pretty much as we’d left it when we were here for a mini retreat back in March.

Although we refer to it as a ‘campsite’ we’re not roughing it by any means. Everyone who comes on retreat gets their own bedroom in the dorm just a stone’s throw from the ocean. The beds are comfy and the sound of waves breaking on the beach is soothing at night. The kitchen is huge and fully equipped, and the hall, where most of us set up our work tables, has windows overlooking the sea and a slow combustion stove for heat.

After the lengthy Indian Summer we've had, the weather decided to go straight into winter. It blew a gale for most of the day with occasional showers. Which wasn’t really a problem as most of us enjoy sitting snug in the hall writing to the sound of rain on the roof. 

It was my night to cook dinner (each of us takes a turn through the week) and I made up a huge tray of spinach lasagne with German cheesecake for desert. (We work up an appetite writing all day!)

Side note: I first had German cheesecake at a bakery in Handorf in the Adelaide Hills. I loved it so much I decided I had to make it myself. But when I couldn’t find a recipe I had to invent one. The following is the closest I've come and received high approval ratings from the group: 

cookie crumb crust - 2 cups crushed graham crackers (or wheaten biscuits for the Aussies), 100 gms of melted butter and a ½ tsp cinnamon. Press onto bottom of cheesecake tin.

Blend in a blender:

4 large pkts low-fat cream cheese (Low-fat actually makes a creamier cake than full-fat cheese. Plus I feel less guilty slathering it with cream when I eat it.)

6 eggs

1 1/3 cups raw sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 teaspoons vanilla

Bake 50 minutes at 180.

Topping:  6 apples peeled, cooked and coarsely chopped with 1 tblsp sugar and 1 tsp cinnamon. Spread this over the cooled cheesecake and top with cream. 

My day’s progress…

I don’t know if I’m alone in this but windy days aren’t my best when it comes to writing. I feel restless and find it hard to focus. Still, I managed to get a chapter written.

As I write this (just before heading off to bed) it’s still blowing a gale outside. We took a chance and didn’t order any firewood so hopefully it won’t get too cold through the week. 

My walk on the beach will have to wait until tomorrow.

Published in Events and news

I’m currently preparing to head off for another writing retreat, our first week-long one of the year. My bags are packed, the dog is looking decidedly anxious (he knows the signs I’m going away), and the car is loaded and awaiting our early departure in the morning. 

 I first began organizing retreats solely for my critiquing group. The four of us would book a campsite on the South Australian coast for a weekend of writing once a year. 

But as more and more writer friends asked to join us we began extending and expanding these events. We now hold 2 or 3 retreats a year and have as many as 9 writers attending them. 

This time around we’ll have a full house with six locals and three fly-ins from Adelaide taking part.

Normally I don’t go into much detail about retreats here in my blog but this time I thought I’d try something different. I thought it might be fun to chronicle the week day-by-day to share the experience. 

I’ll include a bit about the progress I’m making in writing the first draft of my latest thriller, No Good Deed (working title), whatever points of interest pop up and maybe get one of the other retreaters to do a guest blog to give their experience.

So if you’re interested in hearing what a group of novelists gets up to on their own at the beach for a week, stop by to read the next few posts. 

Published in Events and news
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