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VIEW FROM THE TREEHOUSE
Celebrating the creative life and all that feeds it.
In 2010 I was at a crossroads with my writing and wondering if it was worth traveling all the way from South Australia to Portland Oregon to attend the Willamette Writers Conference.
A host of opportunities awaited me there, among them my first ever chance to pitch one of my novels to an editor or agent. Several in fact. Coming from overseas, however, such a trip would be double the usual cost. Could I justify the expense?
One night, at the height of this internal debate, I went to bed and found on the wall above my pillow, the moth pictured in the photo above. I'd never seen this species before and was intrigued by its beautiful satiny sheen. (It's called the Satin Acacia moth)
I very carefully slipped it onto a tissue, carried it outside and released it.
The following morning I got up, dressed and went to the kitchen to have breakfast. Seated at the table I happened to look down and there, on the floor, was either the very same moth (if so, how did it get back in the house?) or another of the exact same species (which I'd never seen once in the twenty years I'd been living in the area).
The moth above my bed the previous night had had its wings folded down close to its body. This time, however, the moth's wings were spread, revealing a pattern on its under wings. A pattern that looked for all the world as though someone had taken a magic marker and written a 'W' on each wing.
It was then I noticed the same two letters patterned in red on the moth's upper wings:
I still get a chill when I think of that moment. You could almost convince me that, having failed to get through to me the night before, the cosmos was presenting its message a second time. In a form even I couldn't miss.
I ended up going to the conference and there met an editor. And though he didn't accept the novel I pitched to him, he gave me some brilliant suggestions for changes, which I did, and a year later Random House accepted the revised manuscript.
So what do you think? A sign from beyond or mere coincidence? If the latter, it was truly a long shot - I have not seen this moth again since that night.
I keep a notebook of my favorite sentences, phrases from the books I read that I can look back over again and again and hopefully learn from.
What impresses me about some of these sentences is the author’s skill in creating a mood appropriate to the story’s genre.
Like these lines from Dean Koontz’s horror novel, The Darkest Evening of The Year:
Her daughter glided at her side, as firmly attached as a remora to a large fish.
Amy had the feeling that something more than the man himself lived in Brockman’s body, as though he had opened a door to a night visitor that made of his heart a lair.
The hooded eyes looked sleepy, but the reptilian mind behind them might be acrawl with calculation.
Every time a read those words, ‘acrawl with calculation’ I literally get goose bumps. What power words can have!
As you may have guessed, Koontz is one of my favorite authors. Check out the imagery in these lines from his novel The Taking:
The room had the deep-fathom ambience of an oceanic trench forever beyond the reach of the sun but dimly revealed by radiant anemones and luminous jellyfish.
The nape of her neck prickled as though a ghost lover had pressed his ectoplasmic lips to her skin.
As effectively as a leech taking blood, fear suckled on Molly’s hope.
As much as I love a brilliant metaphor, often it’s just the sheer magic of the words that captivates me. Like these lines from The Orphans of Race Point by Patry Francis
On the street that was as much a part of him as the face he saw reflected in the store windows, he felt his sense of isolation burrowing deeper.
It was a broken, hallucinatory night of sleep. In the wind, the shack that stood on stilts shook like a houseboat tossed on mercurial seas.
What impresses me most however is that these authors conjure their special magic using only the simplest words. Words every writer worth his ink has at their disposal.
Most authors I talk to say they were avid readers as children and that’s where their desire to write came from. Many had written their first 'books' while still in grade school.
Sadly, ADHD made reading difficult for me so I didn’t do it much as a child. I didn’t discover the joy of reading until well into high school and the thought of writing a book never entered my head until decades later.
My earliest taste of story-telling came through a completely different medium.
As an only child I had to entertain myself a fair bit. My parents, both classical musicians, had given me my own record player with a collection of records.
These were all big ‘cinematic’ pieces – Nutcracker Suite, Rite Of Spring, Night On Bald Mountain, Fire Bird, Pictures At An Exhibition, etc.
As I listened to these works alone in my room, I used my stuffed animals to act out stories that the music inspired.
These pieces have such wonderfully ‘visual’ elements, such heroic highs and desperate lows, such dramatic escalations and release of tension and I learned to shape my stories accordingly.
I created these plays for my own amusement. But I remember one day some friends came around and, with nothing else to do, I put on a record and performed one of my stories for them.
Perched on my bed with my audience seated on the floor before me, I acted out the story I’d invented to go with The Fire Bird Suite.
I vividly remember the looks on their faces, their changing expressions as my story unfolded. And what a thrill I felt knowing my efforts had been responsible.
Though it took some time to emerge, I believe it was this early experience that years later grew into a joy of writing novels.
With a beginning like that it’s not surprising many readers have commented that Run To Me, my debut thriller, was very cinematic in its treatment.
Something exciting happens for me at the point where I become fully engaged with a story I’m writing.
Up to that moment it’s as though I’m standing outside myself watching what I’m doing. I analyze my process, contemplate whether it’s working or if a different approach might be better. I ask myself questions about the plot, its direction, its characters and how it might end.
But the minute the story comes together in my mind and I become fully engaged in writing it, my focus shifts and everything else drops away. It’s no longer me making stuff up, but a group of real people caught in a drama and I’m right there beside them.
I realize this is one of the greatest pleasures I take from writing, this losing myself in what I’m doing. All the cares of my everyday life just disappear. Total immersion exhilarates yet at the same time gives me peace.
I experienced a similar joy playing the violin. There was no ‘me’ when I performed a Bach Partita from memory, there was only the music.
Maybe that’s what Nat Goldberg meant in Writing Down The Bones when she said, ‘I don’t do writing. Writing does writing.’
Once I reach this point where I’m living more in my story then out of it, I notice that journaling begins to lose its appeal for me.
Much of my everyday personal journaling is about what’s happening in my life and sorting out any issues that arise. But when my aim is to forget myself and my problems, journaling – like analyzing my writing process – feels, and probably is, counter-productive.
A fun alternative I find is to journal as one of my characters. I ‘become’ that person and write out my reactions toward other characters and what’s been going on in the story.
As well as yielding deeper insights into the people I’m writing about, this practice keeps me firmly anchored in my story, with my own real-life problems shut out.
One of the best feelings I get as a writer is when the scene I’ve been struggling with for days or weeks suddenly falls together and I can see the way forward. It’s like the sun coming out at the end of a long dark winter.
So many things conspire to steal the joy from a writer’s life. Sometimes I find it good to just sit down and remind myself why I got into this gig in the first place.
So here they are, roughly in the order they occur – my happiest writing moments:
Getting an idea for a story that excites me; feeling that pull that sets the whole process in motion.
Developing the idea and seeing it will work, that there’s a story there worth telling.
Being surpised by a great twist in the plotting and/or writing process.
The moment when my characters start to come alive.
Writing a scene and knowing deep down it works, that I said what I wanted to say and it’s good.
Those rare days when the words just flow.
Those even rarer times when I write something totally beyond my abilities; when I read it back later and think, ‘did I write that?’
Breaking through a block or problem and seeing there is a way forward after all.
Finishing the first draft.
Getting confirmation from my crit partners who read it that I’m on to something good and the story is working.
Polishing the piece and making it shine.
Writing ‘The End’ on a final draft.
Getting positive feedback from my beta readers.
Getting positive feedback from my agent and editor.
Working with an editor who ‘gets’ my work and knows how to make it even better.
Getting my first look at my book’s proposed cover.
Opening the box from my publisher and seeing the finished product – holding my book in my hands for the very first time. (!)
A good review. (Yes, I’m one of those authors who reads all reviews. It’s such a thrill just getting reviews, I can’t resist.)
When a reader says my story moved them, that they read it in one sitting or couldn’t put it down.
When someone reads my book more than once.
Readers asking me when my next book is coming out.
Not all of these moments happen in every novel-writing journey. But when they do, they make all the negative stuff worthwhile.
For years I felt I had a clear handle on the differences between mystery, suspense and thriller. While there is certainly some overlapping of elements, in their purest forms these genres are distinct.
The classic mystery is about solving the puzzle. The protagonist is usually trained in some way – a police detective, private eye, forensic expert, medical examiner, profiler, etc – and is the one who ultimately solves the crime.
Even the amateur sleuth possesses qualities that elevate his crime-solving abilities above other characters as well as the reader.
Whatever his training, the protagonist in the 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 and intuition.
In contrast, the suspense novel is an emotional ride. The protagonist generally has no special training and is not prepared for the dangers they must face. In fact part of their journey in the story is that they must reach deep inside themselves to find strengths they never knew they possessed in order to survive and defeat the bad guys.
In suspense the reader knows things the protagonist doesn’t which helps to generate the suspense. (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.)
Thriller is a term loosely used these days but to my mind a true thriller is suspense on steroids, meaning some element of the plot is beefed up in some way.
Rapid pacing is sometimes enough to earn a novel the label ‘thriller’ but more often it’s the story’s stakes that are heightened.
In a suspense the protagonist and his loved ones are usually the only ones at risk whereas in a thriller the threat is to a wider community – cities, whole countries, possibly the entire world. (Which is why Hunt For Red October, with it’s threat of nuclear war, is a techno thriller and Cape Fear is a suspense.)
International Thriller Writers based in NY, groups mystery, suspense and thriller novels together under the heading ‘thriller’. American bookstores have the same three genres shelved together in their ‘mystery’ section. Australian bookstores group them under the umbrella of ‘crime’. Whereever I go these three genres have always been lumped together.
Yet when I attended the Adelaide Crime Writers Festival a few weeks ago, all the panelists and attendees seemed to be talking about was fiction involving an investigation.
This pretty much leaves ‘suspense’ out in the cold as suspense novels don’t always have an investigation, and if they do it’s not the main focus of the story. So does that mean suspense isn’t classed as crime?
Australian groups like Sisters In Crime seem to hold to this investigation criteria as well. In fact I once heard an Australian agent say, when asked to define the crime genre, ‘There’s a body on the first page and the rest of the story is about finding the killer.’
All of which leads me to wonder whether ‘crime’ has emerged, at least in Australia, as a completely separate genre, containing elements of mystery and suspense but distinct from both.
Because we engage with the world via our senses, writers are often urged to use all the senses when writing description. But for getting a first draft down on paper it could be better to focus on just one.
Each of us has a dominant sense in processing information about our experience. For the majority of people that sense is vision; for the second largest group it’s hearing.
Having been part of the same critiquing group for last 15 years, I’ve had a fabulous opportunity to observe the different ways our members go about writing a first draft. I’ve become convinced each person’s dominant sense plays a big role in their creative process.
For example, when one of our members writes a scene she has to be able to ‘see’ it first. Before she can begin to write, she has to visualize clearly not just the place, but the season, the time of day, the angle and quality of the light, as well as her characters’ actions and appearance.
In total contrast, my first drafts are almost entirely dialogue. Being strongly hearing-dominant, I don’t need to know what my characters are doing, what they look like or even where they are. I just put them together and listen to what they say to each other.
For me this approach is hugely enlightening. The way a person speaks gives me all sorts of clues about who they are – their age, education, nationality, region of upbringing, attitudes, morals, socio-economic background, emotional outlook and much much more.
If you doubt this, think of all the different ways there are to say ‘yes’. From a military person’s crisp ‘affirmative’ to Ned Flanders’ ‘Okally Dokally’. Each version gives a clear insight into character.
I believe that knowing your dominant sense can help you as a writer creating your first drafts. If you’re not having any luck ‘seeing’ your scene, try 'hearing' it instead.
Some of us like to spy on her characters, others like to eaves-drop.
This past weekend I had the privilege of taking part in South Australia's inaugural Crime Writers Festival held at the SA Writers Centre in Adelaide.
The festival featured a line-up of both true crime and crime fiction authors as well as real-life criminal investigators.
At Saturday's panels, I was thrilled to meet Australian crime authors Gabrielle Lord, Katherine Howell, Angela Savage, Liz Porter, Melanie Casey, Derek Pedley, Andrew Nette, Christina Carlisle, and Carla Caruso.
A literal 'show-stopper' on Saturday's program was former Deputy Police Commissioner for South Australia, Neil McKenzie, who spoke on his experience investigating the Truro and Snowtown murder cases. His behind-the-scene look at these investigations and their effect on police personnel was educational and at times quite moving.
Another highlight was the insights into the criminal mind provided by clinical psychologist, Dr. Michael Proeve. His accounts of working face-to-face with sociopaths and serial killers was informative and truly chilling.
Saturday night festival goers were invited to dress as gangsters and gals for the Crime Fest Murder Mystery Dinner and to come prepared to solve the 'murder' in the game that provided the evening's entertainment.
On Sunday fledgling crime writers were inspired by workshops on the craft of crime writing run by Gabrielle Lord, Angela Savage, Katherine Howell and Andrew Nette.
In all, an exciting and inspiring weekend. The first of many to come I hope.
I recently named this blog site My Writing Room so it occurred to me I might show what my actual work space looks like.
My real-life writing room is a spare bedroom at the front of our house. From the larger of its two windows (above) I have a view down our tree-lined driveway and – closer to hand – of the six birdbaths on a swatch of lawn beneath a weeping hakea tree.
From the other window I can see the ten-acre paddock where my donkeys used to roam (in the days when I ran a donkey sanctuary), 40-acres of freshly-ploughed cropland spreading down the hill beyond, and our nearest neighbor’s stone farmhouse nestled in gum trees at the bottom.
The main furnishings of my writing room are two desks, a standing work station, my plotting chair, a cabinet of curiosities and a 4-foot aquarium full of goldfish.
The larger desk (below) is where I write and revise my novels via laptop. On the shelves around it I have pictures and knick-knacks that remind me of the setting I’m writing about – usually New England.
The second desk (pictured at top) sits before the large window and is mainly where I spread out my research materials and marketing notes. (If I wrote at this desk I’d be too busy watching the birds all day!)
When I’m in the plotting stage of writing a novel, I do most of my writing by hand. For this I sit in an old recliner beside the aquarium. Watching the fish and hearing the soft burble of the air filter gets me in the perfect mellow state for plotting.
Years ago I read about an author (I can’t remember who or where) who said all writers should have a ‘shrine’ in their work room for displaying things that inspire them to write – photos of their favorite authors, dog-eared copies of their favorite books, postcards from intriguing settings, etc.
My writer’s shrine (above) consists of a table on which I keep some of the beautiful leather journals I’ve filled over the years, (nothing gets me fired up to write like stationery!) my current journal, shells I collected on writing retreats, and the candles I light when I sit down to write. (This table is pictured in my blog post dated 12 May 2015)
My cabinet of curiosities holds all sorts of wondrous and fascinating objects from polished stones, my kids’ old toys, bits of their artwork, animal carvings, match box cars, and the odd music box.
Filled with things that delight and inspire me, my writing room extends me a constant inducement to come in and write and is my favorite place to retreat from the world.
Ever wondered what your natural novel writing process is? I firmly believe the Plotter vs. Pantser issue comes down to one question – how comfortable are you with not having a plan?
A few years ago my husband traveled to Ireland with a friend. He booked his flight to Dublin and organized a rental car for his arrival. And that was it. He made no hotel reservations and had only a rough route planned for seeing the country.
My husband works a 9 to 5 job where every hour of his day is structured. When he goes on vacation the last thing he wants is more of the same. A fixed itinerary just makes him feels like he’s back at work.
He prefers the freedom to hop in a car, drive until he comes to a place that looks interesting and book his accommodation then. And when he’s decided he’s been in that place long enough, he checks out and drives to the next one that takes his fancy.
I admit this approach has its appeal. However if I’d been embarking on that same trip to Ireland – a place I’d never been – it would’ve made me a little nervous not checking out the accommodation first and making firm reservations ahead of time. What if I got somewhere and there was no place to stay, I would’ve worried. (Mind you, with the amount of Guinness my husband consumed, sleeping in a peat bog probably wouldn’t have bothered him.)
With the accommodation ‘framework’ of my journey in place, I can relax in the knowledge the basics are done and just enjoy myself.
The same applies to writing a novel. For me, facing a day of writing without a plan is too stressful. And when I’m stressed I don’t write my best and can’t enjoy the process as much.
With an outline, even just a loosely-planned route to follow, I’m much more relaxed. It doesn’t mean that route is set in stone and there won’t be surprises along the way.
As with traveling, unexpected things always happen on a novel-writing journey. When they do, I simply alter my outline and proceed on my new course.