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VIEW FROM THE TREEHOUSE
Celebrating the creative life and all that feeds it.
I recently watched a documentary about the comedian Chris Rock. Something he said had a far greater impact on me than I expected and I think it’ll stay with me a long time. Truth be told, I’m hoping it does.
Rock’s a pretty down-to-earth guy, at least that’s how he came across. At one point he was being questioned by reporters about a special he’d done on TV. The interviewers kept asking him things like, ‘What are your hopes for this project? Do you see it taking out any awards? Are you hoping to be nominated for an Emmy?’
Rock seemed a little confused by the questions. As the barrage continued ultimately he shrugged and said, ‘I just want to do good work.’
A calm came over me when I heard those words. Yes, of course! No overthinking it. No lofty, pretentious ambitions. No wanting to grind the opposition to dust. Just the simple desire to do your best.
Implied in the statement (at least to me) is also the understanding you might not always hit the target. That you have no control over how your efforts are received by others. Not everything you do will be equally popular. You just have to give each project your all and hope people like what you do.
Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, has a similar quote he’s famous for: ‘Ignore the noise.’ His way of getting his players to block out all the hype and turmoil that often surrounds them and focus on what really matters – doing their best out on the field.
These two leaders from very different fields are, to me, saying the same thing: It’s not about external validation, but about turning inward; not about competition with others but competition with yourself. The striving to continually improve and be better today at what you do than you were the day before.
‘I just want to do good work.’
I think I just found my new mantra.
Okay I admit I might have a problem – I’ve got enough journals to last a lifetime yet I can’t stop myself buying more!
I rarely use them as soon as I get them. I tuck them away on a shelf in my study until just the right purpose comes along. Each journal is different, you see. The size, the cover, the texture of the paper, the spacing of the lines…all these variables lend themselves to different contents.
Large pages with generous spacing between the lines seem to foster big thoughts and ideas. Whereas small, closely-lined pages are for more intimate, introspection. Glossy, slick paper is for writing fast as when brainstorming, freewriting or developing plot ideas.
Some of these journals have been on my shelf for ages, others have gotten a faster turnover. But sooner or later I’ll get to them all – I’m always looking for another excuse to start a new journal.
I keep a dedicated journal (or two or three) while writing each of my novels
I have a journal for recording my observations about my creative process in general
I have half a dozen notebooks full of story ideas
I have other workbooks where I explore those ideas, shaping them into possible plots
I have a journal called Notes To Self for recording insights – my own and from books I read – into ways to keep myself going when I’m feeling depressed or unmotivated
I have a notebook of ‘Beautiful Sentences’ containing passages from novels I’ve read that I found exquisitely written and from which I hope to learn.
I have a notebook for Words I Often Misspell (Oh boy, is that a big one!)
I have a notebook for stating my goals and my plans for reaching them
I have notebooks for reviewing the books I read – separate ones for novels, short stories, and non-fiction
I have a pocket-sized notebook I carry with me on my morning walks so I can jot down any thoughts that come to me
I have a journal I write in every day about anything that pops in my head
I have a notebook for recording advice on marketing
I have a notebook for recording funny incidents, things that have happened to me or others
I have a book of lists containing all the writing prompts I was ever given (Most Embarrassing Moments, Toys I Played With As A Kid, Pets I’ve had, etc, etc)
I have a journal of interesting characters – descriptions of people I know or encounter
I have a notebook listing my favorite novels, films and their various elements – my favorite heroes, heroines, villains, settings, scenes, relationships, etc.
I have a gratitude journal. A dieting journal. A notebook for recording facts about health. Another for my daily to-do check lists.
I have a dragon’s eye journal for recording my various Tarot readings.
I keep a small notebook in my bedside table for recording dreams I want to remember
Some are handmade and hugely expensive, others are cheap-oh back-to-school specials.
The thirteen leather journals I’ve filled over the years sit lined up on a table in my workroom that I think of as my writing ‘shrine’ – a tribute to all things writing related.
A sickness? Perhaps. I prefer to think of it as evidence of a passion for words and the desire to study all that goes into this fabulous craft. One thing I know – holding one of these treasures in my hands always gives my a moment a joy.
And in my defense here are some quotes from other authors on keeping journals:
“Paper has more patience than people.” Anne Frank
“Journaling both demands and creates stillness. It’s a break from the world.’ Ryan Holiday
“Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters through your mind.” Jack London
“Journals aren’t for the reader, they’re for the writer. To slow the mind. To wage peace upon oneself.” Ryan Holiday
Leonardo da Vinci kept his notebook on him at all times.
One of the things I'm still struggling to get my head around as a writer is the strange phenomenon of writing a novel and then, maybe weeks, maybe years later, seeing that same plot written in another author's book.
I'm not talking plagiarism here. Though the plot lines might sound remarkably similar these stories get treated in very different ways by their various authors.
Years ago I wrote a novel I called The Violin, inspired by my experience playing a Stradivarius at college. The thought of all the emotion that had passed through that instrument throughout its 300-year lifespan stayed with me long after my experience and formed the basis of my novel about a violin haunted by the ghost of its original owner.
I spent a year writing that book. I loved the story and couldn't wait to submit it to an editor. I was convinced it was totally original.
The week I finished the manuscript I walked into my local book shop and there on the shelf was Anne Rice's latest novel, The Violin - about a centuries-old haunted violin. What were the odds?
A couple of years ago a book came out that had the exact same climax scene as one of my earlier manuscripts.
Recently I came across a book that has nearly the exact same story line as my first published thriller, Run To Me. My version: A woman suffering PTSD after the death of her son saves a runaway boy from killers. His version: A woman suffering PTSD after losing her entire family, saves a runaway boy from killers.
How does this happen? Are writers clairvoyant? Is it evidence of Carl Jung's Collective Unconscious? Do ideas float around in the ether and get picked up by more than one of us at time?
Elizabeth Gilbert touched on this subject in her book, Big Magic:
"I believe our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses but also by ideas....Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest....but if you are not ready or available, inspiration may indeed choose to leave you and search for a different human collaborator.... This is how it comes to pass that one morning you open up the newspaper and discover that somebody else has written your book or...produced your movie...or patented your invention..."
Certainly an interesting way to look at it, but I'm not sure it fully explains the phenomenon.
They say no idea is truly original and that all stories have been written before. But every now and then the similarities in what authors produce lead me to wonder if some greater power is at work in our psyches.
Is it just me, or have other authors had this experience? Have you ever written a story and later stumbled on a similar plot line written by someone else? Do you have any theories on how this happened?
Readers: Have you ever come across a story notably similar to another you've read? Did the similarities put you off, or did you enjoy the different take on the subject?
Actually, to date, I’ve only set two of my novels in Maine – Run To Me and Hit and Run – but my most recent thriller, Die For Me, is set in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, which is still in the northeast of America and holds many of the same resonances for me.
The setting of a book can be as important as any character. In fact in stories like Castaway, The Martian, and others it IS a character as it provides the necessary element of conflict the protagonist must battle.
So why Maine and the northeast U.S. for my thrillers? Well, apart from the area's extensive forests, foggy hollows, and long dark winters - all great for establishing mood in a story - there were other factors that drew me.
In my debut thriller, Run To Me, my heroine is suffering PTSD after failing to save her young son’s life during a mugging. In the two years following his death she gradually withdraws from those around her – her husband (who in fact blames her for what happened), her friends, the rest of her family, and even her job.
She eventually winds up living alone in the cabin she helped her father build as a teen. By placing that cabin in the woods of northern Maine I sought to make her as isolated physically as she felt emotionally. When danger finds her in her retreat from the world, she must face it entirely alone.
In my second novel, Hit and Run, I again returned to Maine as my setting. Only this time my aim was to make use of the natural dangers of this rugged environment.
My opening scene is my heroine standing at the top of a waterfall about to step off before something stops her. I actually visited such a location in Maine (the photo for this blog post) and can say with all certainly that moment standing at the top of those falls was the inspiration for my opening scene, as well as the one in the story’s climax.
In Die For Me I use the more ‘civilized’ setting of Cape Cod, an environment I still feel possesses hints of those same potentially dangerous elements. In placing my characters in this more familiar world I hoped to highlight one of the story’s messages: that we sometimes find danger in places – and people – where we don’t expect it.
This element of characters in isolation, forced to confront danger with no outside help, is one I’m drawn to again and again. Which probably explains why the story I’m currently writing, while set in Australia, takes place on an island in the middle of a hurricane where the residents are cut off from the outside world.
Interesting facts I learned about Maine in my research:
Northern Maine has been called the last remaining wilderness in the eastern US and is home to more bear and moose than people.
There are only 8 roads in the entire northern half of the state and they’re all owned by logging companies. To travel some of these roads you have to get a key to open the gates.
Recently I watched the movie ‘Their Finest Hour’ about an English film company tasked with producing an uplifting patriotic film about their country’s involvement in World War Two. The part I found most interesting as a novelist was how the three screenwriters went about creating a plot for their film.
For years, in choosing the plots for my novels, I’ve obsessed about finding just the right one, the story I was ‘meant to tell’. I used my own feelings regarding a premise to guide me in deciding whether to develop it further. I thought the more passionate I felt about an idea, the better the story would turn out.
To an extent that’s true and I still believe it. However after watching Their Finest Hour and seeing how those screenwriters went about creating a story, I’m starting to expand my thinking on this.
These three writers were simply presented a topic by their producer and told to go off and come up with a plot. They were given three elements they had to include: the story had to feature two English sisters, it had to have an uplifting ending, and somewhere in the middle somebody had to save a dog.
That’s all the writers were given. Nobody asked them if this was a topic they felt passionately about. Nobody cared if this was a story they ‘had to tell’. And yet they managed to put together a film that made audiences laugh and cry and cheer.
So I realize now that creating a great story needn’t only be about what an author personally loves. I’m thinking that, as a professional writer, I should be able to create a moving story from any marketable high concept premise whether it’s my particular passion or not. In the same way I, as a professional violinist, could play the music of composers I didn’t particularly like (even Strauss!) as musically as I did my personal favorites. I brought the same training and knowledge of my art to play all music equally well.
The trick I think is to make from that marketable idea something you do feel passionate about. The passion isn’t in the idea itself perhaps but in what you bring to it, your own personal take on the subject.
I'd love to hear other's takes on this.
Helen van Rooijen
It often works for me. At EW sessions I'm often surprised when I can write on the given topic and even take it to a complete - if rough - story. Thanks for the idea. I'm at a pinch and will try this to get past the block. So far I've just gone back and edited hoping that the next bit will come - now I'll drop the seat of the pants (plus general plot) method and work more on the toss ideas into my mind and let the plot develop more. I'll let you know.... ps I do plot out a whole story but I also let it happen along the way. It's hard working on my own with no 'bounce-off ' That's why I love the retreats. Cheers
Thanks for that, Helen. Yes, I get a lot out of brainstorming ideas as well. I confess I do have more trouble than most writing to a given prompt. I think I need to 'loosen up' more!
Winter is approaching here in Australia and I’m in my element! After a long dry summer, plagued with bush fires, the rains have come, the landscape is turning lush and green, and I’ve settled into my most productive time of the year writing-wise.
I know lots of people hate rainy days but I love them. (There’s actually a name for people like us – pluviophiles!) Somehow – and I haven’t yet figured out why this is so, so if anyone has any idea please tell me – rainy days make it so much easier to slip into the ‘fictive dream’, the world of my story.
During winter I rise at 4:45 and am at my desk working by 5am. The world is so quiet at that hour. No distractions, no interruptions.
I work for about 90 minutes and by the time I’m done, the sun’s coming up so I go for a walk. In the still morning twilight it’s easy to remain in the world of my story so I always carry a notebook and pen to jot down any ideas that come to me.
After my walk I have breakfast and go back to my desk for another 90-minute session. This means that most days my goal of writing 3 solid hours is accomplished by 11 o’clock.
As well as capitalizing on quiet, scheduling my writing early in the day puts it foremost in my mind. I do it before I’ve checked my emails, read the paper, or engaged in any social media. An approach put forward in books such as Deep Work by Cal Newport and Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod & Steve Scott.
After my writing is done for the day I can relax. Though I do aim to get in a bit of study and reading in the afternoon, these are ‘second tier’ tasks that aren’t as crucial. With my most important work behind me, I can be more flexible and enjoy impromptu visits from my grandson or time with friends.
I'm currently out at one of my favourite places for the start of our week-long winter writing retreat. I'm continuing work on the first draft of my latest novel, trying to stop myself thinking about whether the story is any good. I'm just about halfway through at this point and my aim is simply to push ahead, adding new scenes to edit later.
In writing each one, my attitude is to 'throw everything I can at the page and sort it out later'. I simply write down, as basically and ineptly as it comes out, everything I can think of that might need to be in that scene. Then I let it sit for a bit, usually until the next day, come back and tinker with it, moving things around, cutting bits, adding bits, and editing to the point it reads logically if not brilliantly.
It's like throwing handfuls of paint at a canvas and coming back to refine the picture later. Maybe the act of throwing everything out there first lets me get a handle on all I have or need to work with and during the break my subconscious sorts it all out for me.
In any case, it seems to be working. With a first draft, progress is the only requirement.
I stated in my author greeting (see Home page) that I don’t write crime, I don’t write mystery, I write suspense. So what do I mean exactly?
While there are always some overlapping elements, to me, in their purest form, crime, mystery, suspense, and even thrillers are distinct genres.
The classic mystery is about solving the puzzle. It’s largely an exercise in deduction and the pay-off for the reader is intellectual.
The mystery protagonist is usually trained in some way – a police detective, private eye, forensic expert, medical examiner, profiler, etc. Even the amateur sleuth has qualities that elevate him above the other story characters.
Whatever his training, the protagonist in a mystery is the one in charge and is usually one step ahead of the reader, showing the way and uncovering clues with his superior knowledge, training and insight.
Crime fiction is similar to mystery in that it focuses on the investigation. I once heard a publisher say at a conference, ‘With crime there’s a body on the first page and the rest of the story is about finding the killer.’
As with mystery, the crime protagonist generally possesses some kind of training. While he or she may come into danger and suffer setbacks, it’s the mental challenges of solving the case that take center stage.
So again, the pay-off for the reader of crime is mostly intellectual.
Suspense on the other hand is all about emotion. The protagonist has little special training and is unprepared for the dangers they face. Their journey through the story involves personal growth. To survive their ordeal and defeat the bad guys, the suspense protagonist must reach deep inside him/herself to find courage and strength they never knew they had.
In suspense the reader knows things the protagonist doesn’t which helps generate tension. What gets the reader to the edge of their seat is knowing the killer is hiding in the closet when the hapless protagonist goes to open it.
The pay-off for the reader of suspense is emotional.
Thriller is a term loosely used these days but to me a true thriller is suspense on steroids, meaning some element of the plot is beefed up or taken to the next level.
Fast pacing is sometimes enough to earn a novel the label ‘thriller’ but more often it involves elevated stakes. In suspense the protagonist and his loved ones are usually the only ones in danger, whereas in a thriller the threat is to a wider community – cities, countries, even the whole world.
International Thriller Writers based in New York, groups all these genres under the heading ‘thriller’. American bookstores have them shelved together in their ‘mystery’ section, and Australian bookstores group them under the umbrella of ‘crime’. But that is simply for ease of marketing. To fans (and writers) of each of these genres they are distinct.
So why do I love suspense above the others? It’s the under-dog element that gets me.
In most mystery and crime novels the villain and hero are equally matched. In suspense, the protagonist is the clear under-dog, their skills and training no match for the bad guys.
In fact I like taking things one step further and giving my protagonists some deep flaw or past trauma that makes them even less likely to succeed.
My protagonists don’t even know themselves what they’re capable of until they’re tested by events in the story. And it’s usually because of their love for someone else that they find the courage to meet the challenge.
For me there’s no struggle more compelling than that.
When I first joined my local writing group (over twenty years ago now!) I thought writing to a prompt was a lazy, hit-or-miss approach to getting a story. I thought, if you're a 'real' writer, you should have so much to say about life, you'll have stories bursting out of you.
I've since come to change that view. It seems to me now that writing this way is like going fishing - with the prompt as your bait. You throw out your line and hope for a nibble. If you get a bite and it's something interesting, you 'reel it in' by writing more about it, going deeper, exploring what's there.
This method works not because writers lack ideas but because they have far too many. Our choices for subjects are truly infinite. It's like asking someone, 'What do you feel about every event, every situation and every person you've ever encountered, real or imagined?' That is literally what every author has to work with. Hard to not be overwhelmed - where do I begin?
A writing prompt gives me something to focus on. How do I feel about the colour green, or a specific scent from my childhood? It's taking a single drop of water from an endless ocean and examining under a microscope. There might be something there or there might not. And sometimes we writers don't even know what we think about a subject until we write about it.
Don't get me wrong, ideas still come to me out of the blue. Stories and characters waking me at night, wanting to be written. But every now and then it's good to go off and do a little fishing on the side.
It's the first day of our winter writing retreat here in Port Lincoln, South Australia. I arrived at our campsite at 8 am and spent the morning all alone setting things up for the others who'll arrived later this afternoon.
The wind was, and still is, ferocious, driving sheets of rain across the water. We rarely get waves in this sheltered bay but the ocean is boiling, the sky like pewter.
To me this is heaven. Sitting in my chair by the window, a candle burning, the fire roaring, sheltered and warm as I write in my journal with the storm raging outside.
Pretty soon I'll have to start dinner, to have everything ready when my friends arrive. A week of writing and laughter is ahead of us. Life is good.
A moment's insight: The thing about writing is you can't do it for what it will give you. You can't write for money. You can't write for fame. The only true way you can write is for the love of it. Anything less is a waste of your heart.
Publishers like a sure thing and who can blame them. They’re in business to make money, not give chances to struggling authors.
When a fiction genre starts to do well, publishers are quick to jump on the band wagon, bringing out more and more books of that kind, riding the wave till the trend is exhausted.
The problem for authors NOT writing in the chosen genre is that this creates a bit of a cycle. When publishers narrow the playing field, readers don’t have the option of ‘reading around’. And if readers aren’t exposed to a genre, how will they know if they like it or not?
There are 2 ways this cycle can be broken. The most notable is when a new book suddenly breaks out big time, igniting interest in a formerly less-popular genre. Harry Potter is the classic example. Before Sorcerer’s Stone, children’s fiction was in a slump. After that? The rest is history.
But there’s a second way to raise awareness of any genre that isn’t currently the flavor of the month. Long-term steady exposure.
If you write in a genre that’s currently on the less-popular list, your chances of being picked up by a major publisher are greatly reduced. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get your books out there.
If you write great books and consistently make them available to readers by self-publishing, they WILL eventually get noticed. It might take longer than the breakout scenario but if you give your readers a fantastic ride they’ll return for more.
If you love writing in a particular genre, have faith that there are others out there who enjoy reading it. You just have to gear yourself for the long haul.
Each reader you please with your current book will come back for the next one and hopefully bring a friend or two with them. If those friends like what they read, they’ll check out what else you’ve written and buy your first book. Repeat this over several books and your fan base grows.
So as far as writing to the market goes, I prefer to follow Jim Carey’s advice: ‘Give them you until you is what they want.’
I’m a domestic thriller author. I love writing about ordinary people thrust into danger who discover within themselves the courage to be heroes.
The type of characters I most like to write about aren’t the FBI agents, or criminal profilers, or forensic experts. Not the protagonist with all the training, but the Sarah Connors, the Paul Sheldons, the Mark Sways, the Newts and the Suzys (the blind heroine in Wait Until Dark.) Young people. Vulnerable people. People with no professional training that still somehow manage to outsmart the villain.
I like writing about damaged characters but not the kind so twisted with bitterness they lash out at anyone who looks at them sideways. I find far more to admire in the person who, despite all they themselves have been through, can still step up and help someone else in need.
While there’s always the element of danger in my stories, when it comes to graphic violence I’m a firm believer that less is more. I believe that, like a good striptease, far more tension can be rung from a scene by purposely leaving some things to the imagination.
By far the best example of this I’ve ever seen is in the Hitchcock movie, Lifeboat. After their ship is sunk by a torpedo, ten people take refuge in a lifeboat, one of whom is badly injured. As the story progresses so does the infection in his leg, to the point where it must be amputated – no doctors, no instruments, no anaesthetics.
In the hands of a less skillful writer a scene like that would be unbearable – at least to me. But Hitchcock handles it perfectly in my mind. First there’s an agonizing built up to the moment. Everyone knows what’s about to happen and all gather round to watch the poor victim drink a flask of brandy, each in their own way offering comfort.
When the moment comes, we see only the backs of the other characters as they close in tighter around the patient. Until one of them turns and drops the man’s boot aside.
The sound of that boot hitting the deck punctuates the horror of the scene in a way no amount of violence or gore could ever match. Hitchcock truly is my idol in this regard and I always strive to emulate him when handling violence in my stories.
Yesterday I finished the first draft of my current novel, No Good Deed - a contemporary thriller set in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia.
Today I began the revision process. I worked for a total of four-and-a-half hours and loved every minute!
It’s funny how some writers love revision and others hate it.
Some authors live for the exhilaration of putting their first draft down on the page. For them it's an act of total freedom. But once that initial draft is finished, they look upon the polishing yet to be done with a sense reluctance and despair.
I’m the opposite. I love editing. To me it feels like the hard work is done and now I get to play with what I created. But it isn't just the tinkering I love, it's the magic that takes place during the phase.
When I write a first draft, I try to write as fast as I can and not edit as I go. I think of each sentence as simply a place holder for what will eventually be there in the end. Even if it’s a total cliché, it doesn’t matter – I just have to get the basic meaning and sentiment down.
As I go through my draft a second time, I begin refining these basic sentences to contain more of my own author voice. Now that I know my characters better I also start giving them more individual ways of speaking.
It amazes me to see how a page of generic dialogue can come alive when I change each line to reflect that character’s unique personality.
For example, in my first draft I had a character say, 'Hurry, we open in fifteen minutes.' A pretty generic line of dialogue, basically anyone could've said that. But today as I went back over that scene, I changed the line to, 'Better get cracking. Only fifteen minutes to show time.' Not a huge difference perhaps but more in keeping with my character's personality. And if you make lots of little changes like that it does add up.
What also amazes me is this: Occasionally I'll write a conversation designed to get across certain information to the reader. That dialogue might not be terribly interesting on its own.
But…and here’s the part I love…When you add what the characters are thinking and feeling, everything changes. Suddenly that scene of boring conversation is infused with fascinating subtext.
A character might say one thing and think something completely different, revealing themselves to be dishonest, conflicted, afraid or unwilling to hurt another's feelings.
Or a character might voice a certain sentiment while their actions declare they're feeling something quite different. I love when that happens!
So, yes, I really enjoy the revision stage. To me it’s as though I can finally say, 'the Christmas tree is up. Now I get to decorate it!'
I took a break from writing over Christmas. During my week off, on a whim, I picked up the proof copy of my soon-to-be-released thriller, Hit and Run, (coming in April.)
While reading it through I recalled the headaches I had in writing it – plotting problems that had me wondering if the story would work: How to reveal information in an interesting way that didn’t slow the pace. Logistics of the timeline, the order of scenes, who’s point of view to be in, etc.
I remembered that at the time I was writing it, the story became such a mess in my mind I couldn’t see how I would ever smooth out the knots. Even when I read through my finished first draft, I couldn’t tell if the story worked because I still had all those discarded options in my head.
But reading the finished product through after a long break (with all those headaches just a distant a memory) I got to experience the story as a reader. And was reminded of something I’d already learned but keep forgetting: In the midst of revising - chopping and pasting, moving things around, discarding scenes, adding others - NO author can experience their story as the reader ultimately will.
This was a timely reminded for me because I’m currently at that exact some place with my current work-in-progress, No Good Deed. I’ve entered the treacherous third quarter where all kinds of plot and timeline issues start to arise. And once again I find myself wondering: Will this ever work? Will this be a story readers can enjoy?
The thing I need to keep telling myself is, it’s happened before. In fact it’s happened with every book I’ve written and I’ve always managed to work my way through it. So my first note-to-self of the new year is: just suck it up and get back to work!