Friday, April 29, 2011

Z is for ... Zoetrope

I was going to finish this A - Z challenge with a stupid comic-book word like zounds, or zippidy just to celebrate reaching the end of the alphabet. But then I remembered my all time favorite Z word: zoetrope.

What is a zoetrope? It's an early moving picture device, a barrel with slits cut into it that you look through. I strip of paper with drawings on it is inserted on the inside, and when the barrel is spun and you look through the slits, it appears the picture is moving. It's usually something simple like an acrobat flipping himself over a bar, or someone climbing a ladder.

It is also the name of Francis Coppola's production company.

So, to celebrate the end of this epic A-Z challenge, here is a 100 word story using words from A - Z and without any repeated words. The 100 words, no repeats story is one of my favorite challenges as a writer. You really have to think about your word choices and structure to be able to do it well. Adding in the A - Z aspect just ups the challenge even more.



Audience queue, jostling, kicking their path towards velvet upholstered chairs, popcorn spilling onto crimson carpets, then bouncing downstairs. Anticipation hangs heavy over near-full theatre. Best seats - front middle - taken first. Back row reserved for snuggling lovers. Projector hums, whines. Celluloid streaks through, xenon lamp flickering images on-screen. Dumpy manager screams threats at young ruffians who stick gum under their seats. Everyone shushes them, attention directed to huge titles announcing a Zoetrope Production. Whispering becomes silence as film begins. Giggles erupting, becoming guffaws. Tears flow when heroine meets tragedy, hero’s heart breaking. Movie finished, crowd stumble from darkness, satisfied.

What do you do to challenge yourself as a writer?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Y is for ... Yard Work

When I bought my house 13 years ago, one of the things I loved the most about it was the tidy little garden. Little did I know how much work that 'little' garden was going to be. There's lawn mowing -front and back yards - weeding, pruning, replanting, pulling out of dead plants and many more boring, difficult tasks. I don't enjoy yard work in any way, so now my tidy little garden is a weed-choked, overgrown mess. I know I have to do something about it, but I can't even think where to begin.

Finishing an manuscript is kind of like looking out my kitchen window at the tangled jungle that is my back yard. I wish I'd known that when I finished my first books and sent them out into the world in all their weed-choked glory. Now I know that finishing the book is only step one and there's a lot of yard work ahead to get it looking tidy.

There are adverbs to weed out, sentences to trim - or even whole chapters. There's punctuation to scatter like seeds, words to excise. Whole sections of the book may be dug out and re-planted elsewhere, or thrown onto the compost heap and left to rot. And just like work in the garden, this doesn't just happen once. No, the yard work goes on for a long, long time.

Only after many, many rounds of clipping, trimming, ordering and weeding will the manuscript be ready to be sent out into the world (or the yard be enjoyed). And even then, I'm sure every time you read even a few pages of your MS, you'll find something you'd like to change.

How do you approach the less glamorous parts of writing?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

X is for... Xenophobia

I really struggled to come up with a topic for this X post. There just aren't a lot of good words starting with X. So we'll have to go with this one, something I hate. Xenophobes hate people who are different to themselves. That's the only reason. It's usually based on skin color or religion or some other little detail. Xenophobia is responsible for a huge amount of violence, even war. I mean, if Hitler hadn't been so xenophobic about Jews, World War Two would never have started.

It's not a new concept. Throughout history people have hated (or feared) those who are different to themselves. It's ill-educated, because if you take the time to get to know somebody, anybody, you'll find there are far more similarities than differences.

So how am I going to tie this into writing? Well, I'm thinking about how all good drama is based on conflict. Xenophobia can be the basis for multi-layered conflict. A character has all the external conflict of dealing with the object of his mistrust, possibly coping with people trying to convince him he's wrong, and the inner conflict of reconciling long-held beliefs with a changing reality. It doesn't even have to be a major prejudice, like hating black people, or Muslims. You can have your character hate cheerleaders in an irrational, xenophobic way. The conflict will still be there.

Do you have any xenophobic characters in your work? How do you utilize them?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

W is for... Weather

The weather has turned here since Sunday morning. The wind is howling up from Antarctica and the rain is flying down the street in horizontal sheets. Yup. Winter has arrived. Time to dig out my gloves if I'm going to keep writing in this unheated room with the gaping hole in the wall.

Weather affects people in significant ways. In the spring, we tend to have weeks and weeks of non-stop wind and this makes people really irritable. Tempers fray and patience becomes limited. In the summer, long periods of sunshine and warm temperatures make people happy and mellow. Winter, with long, cold, dreary spells is always a time for depression and despair.

Weather can be used in your writing as more than just an element of setting. In movies a shot of a storm brewing on the horizon is often a visual cue that something dramatic is about to occur. I don't suggest you are that obvious in your writing, but using the weather can create another layer of texture and meaning in your work.

In my novella, Angels, Oddities and Orthodox Habits, the action takes place in a small town during a long, hot summer. The unrelenting sun takes its toll on the inhabitants of this little village and bad things start to happen, cracks appear in the fabric of society. Only once the truth behind the horrific events has been exposed, does the rain finally come. And when it does, it is the perfect background for the climactic scene between the two protagonists. Not only does the rain provide a dramatic setting for the finale, it suggests a cleansing of the earth, of the scene, while the thunder and lightning crashing overhead echo the fight happening between River and her brother, Salvation.

How do you use weather in your work?

Monday, April 25, 2011

V is for ... Variety

Variety is the spice of life, they say. I don't know about life as a whole, but I definitely agree that variety is important in writing on a whole lot of levels.

Firstly, variety in sentence length is important to keep the prose from growing repetitive. While reading, most people probably aren't aware that the writing has a rhythm, but when sentence lengths and structures are the same over and over again, the writing is not dynamic and readers will grow bored and possibly not know why. Most writers tend to have an ideal sentence length they tend to fall back on, so it's important to be conscious of it. If you usually write 7 word sentences, break the mould and write a few 20 word ones,

Sentence structure is another place you need variety to keep the prose lively. It's easy to fall into a particular sequence of subject, verb, noun. Eg. Ted crossed the room. Fine. It gets the message across. But if you follow that sentence with one like 'He switched on the light', it gets repetitive. Try changing the order of the words in some sentences, putting the verb first, or the noun. You'll be amazed at how much more zing your prose has once you start being aware of your sentence structure.

Variety in word choice should go without saying. The English language is full of wonderful words, but many of us stick to a limited vocabulary, even in our writing. I know that in my own work, I overuse the word 'look'. In revision, I go through and search for all my uses of the word and change every second or third one to another word like gaze, stare, eye, peer, peek, regard, study, or whichever suits the scene. You want to limit word repetitions within pages and chapters to keep the writing tight.

These are just a few things that might help make your writing sing from the page. Variety really is the spice of life, isn't it?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

U is for.... Unfinished

Back in my J post, I had the first part of a story called Just Mickey. It was unfinished and I asked you readers to tell me how you thought it should end. I didn't get a lot of suggestions, so here is the ending.

I looked at him, terror knotting my innards. For some reason I thought he was going to hit me. He never had before, but I thought he would then.

He didn’t though. He hugged me, which was even more surprising. He’s not affectionate. I can count the times he’s touched me like that on my fingers. It was to calm me down after a fight or something; never for no reason.

“Don’t be afraid of me,” he said, a pleading tone to his voice. “There’s no reason to be scared of me.”

I’d never heard him talk like that. His voice is usually almost expressionless. It’s hard to tell what he’s really saying. There’s no…subtext to his words. Maybe he was drunker than I thought.

After several minutes, he let me go. He stood up, taking his wine with him. He stumbled a little as he crossed to the bed, kicking off his boots before he lay down. He cradled the bottle in his arms. I stayed where I was, watching, waiting, wondering what he might do next. But he didn’t do anything. He fell asleep.

I finished my bottle and smoked a couple more cigarettes, listening to the steady rhythm of his breathing. When he didn’t stir, I stood up, needing the wall to support me as I did. My legs were more than a little unsteady. I crossed to the bed and stood there for a long time, staring down at the sleeping figure. He didn’t frighten me anymore. He was just my brother. He was just Mickey.

Can you think of a better ending?

Friday, April 22, 2011

T is for ... Trust

Trust is important in every aspect of our lives. We seek out people we trust, want to work with people we trust and choose people we trust to be our closest friends and confidants. As writers, finding people we trust is even more important.

I am a part of several different critique groups. In every one there are writers I trust, and writers whose critiques I take with a very large grain of salt. The ones I trust, I trust a lot. If they tell me something is wrong with my MS, I listen. I change it. It's taken time to get to this point. Time and a lot of critiquing.

Finding someone you trust with your work, and whose opinions resonate with you isn't always easy. To begin with, I thought I had to listen to everyone, change everything anyone said was wrong. I started doing just that, and quickly realized it was not in the best interest of my work. Often people had vastly conflicting ideas of what was wrong.

A lot of my choice as to who to trust has been based on their writing. I'm far less likely to accept the feedback of a writer whose own work is riddled with errors because I can't trust that what they're telling me is correct. I also have to take into account how they accept feedback on their own work. If I point out a flaw, and they get all defensive and snippy with me, I'm less likely to trust their critique.

But I feel lucky to have found the people that I have. Sure, I guess we'd all like a larger pool of critique partners, but in reality, how much time does anyone really have? And what a luxury it is to know I have these good people at my back who are unafraid to point out a character's motivation in a certain scene is unclear, or that I used the word 'just' 19 times in a single chapter. Or that the basic premise of that short story is inherently flawed...

How do you find people you trust with your work?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

S is for.... Songs of The Sea

It's been a while since I had any real writing here, so for my S post, I'm sharing a poem that has more 'S's in it than anything. I don't really write poetry, but for some reason I like this one.


Sunlight slants through steely clouds,

Streaking the seething water.

Seagulls squawk their sorrows,

Sailing, soaring on the Southerly.

Shadowed skies bruise shifting sand,

Scraping stones and shifting shingle.

Shivering surfers scan the horizon,

Searching, seeking the perfect swell.

Satisfied, they speed across Scorching Bay.

Scratching a path through seaweed,

Stranded by the shore.

Storm worsening, sheet lightning streaks,

Sending shattered shards of brightness,

Squirreling over the sea.

Shrieking gale sends foam skyward,

Sweeps summer aside,

Settles a new season.

Sleet sings through wires,

Slinging chills down city streets.

Sailors sink into rain-soaked sand,

Struggling to secure their ships,

Stinging salt searing weathered skin.

Swaying trees send leaves spiralling,

Spilling onto sodden sludge,

Souring, stinking on the shore.

Swiftly scudding clouds spread,

Sun sneaking through slits,

Sapphire slivers sparkle on the swell.

Southerly slowly ceasing,

Stopping its squalling.

Sunshine swallows the surrounds.

Sensual whispers,

Sibilant songs of the sea.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

R is for... Rejection

It's apt that R comes after Q, because after querying, comes rejection. And rejection is the hardest thing about being a writer... Well, maybe not. Revising is pretty hard too a lot of the time.

Rejection hurts. You throw your heart and soul into your work, write the best book you possibly can, and finally, after years of work, are ready to send your baby out into the world. If you're like me, those first few queries were sent with such hope. You know your book is amazing. Everyone's going to love it!

Then the rejection notes start trickling in. Usually just a line or two: 'thanks, but I don't feel this is the best fit with me', 'thanks, but I don't feel I'm the right advocate for your work', 'thanks, but no thanks'.

Self-doubt starts creeping in along with the steady stream of rejection. Am I any good? Is my book crap? Should I just give up and take up bowling instead? It's at this point many writers give up.

But you shouldn't. Do you love every book you read? When you go to a library or bookstore, how many cover-blurbs do you read before you pick a book to take home? The agents reading your query letter are human and have their own personal tastes. Even if you've done your research (and you have done research before sending off your query, right?) you can't guarantee any individual is going to connect to your book. Maybe the query isn't right and you need to go back and tweak it. Maybe the agent got four other queries on similar topics that day. Maybe they already have a book about clinically depressed angels coming out that year.

The trick is not to give up. Sure, allow yourself a moment or two to feel sad, but pick yourself up, pick another agent and take another stab at it. Write a new query letter and try again. Just don't quit. If you know your book is good, then in the end, someone else will recognize that too.

At least, that's what we all hope. And in the meantime? Write another book.

How do you deal with rejection?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Q is for... Query

Well, just in time for the Query Letter Blog Fest being held over at Slice of the Pie, I reach the letter Q. I'm not quite ready to start querying Chasing the Tail Lights, but I figure it's never too soon to start working on a kick-ass query. I should be ready by July anyway, maybe a little sooner.

So, here is my attempt at a query. Feel free to rip it to shreds. I need all the help I can get! I'm tweaking as I get feedback, so if someone's comment doesn't make sense, that's why....

Dear Agent,

Lucy and Tony share nothing except their genetic code. Tony’s the driven high achiever, the champion diver destined for greatness. Lucy’s biggest concern right now is getting Cute Guy from the burger joint to ask her out. Oh, and if her best friend is going to stop getting grounded long enough to make it to band practice.

When a horrific accident kills their parents, and leaves Lucy scarred, both physically and emotionally, she and Tony are thrown together and forced to rely on one another in a way they've never had to before. As they struggle to come to terms with their loss, and each other, they discover they might have more in common than the rock music they both love.

Lucy can't remember the accident and struggles to get her life back on track despite the horrifying nightmares that plague her sleep. When the long-suppressed memory returns, Lucy must decide whether telling the horrible truth is worth destroying the fragile new-found bond she’s found with her brother, or if she keeps the terrible secret festering inside.

Told in alternating points of view, CHASING THE TAIL LIGHTS is an 85 000 word contemporary young adult novel.

My short stories have appeared in Halfway Down The Stairs, A Fly in Amber, Daily Flash Anthology, The Barrier Islands Review, Death Rattle, Drastic Measures and Residential Aliens, among others.

As per your submission requirements, you will find the first XXXX pages of the manuscript below. I would be delighted to send you further sample chapters, or the entire manuscript, at your request. Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Invincible Summer Book Trailer

Don't know if you're as excited as I am about Hannah Moskowitz's new book, but here's the awesome trailer to when your appetite.

The book's out today! How exciting is that? Happy book-day Hannah!

P is for .... Present Tense

Thanks for all your interesting answers to my questions in the 'O' post yesterday! It was fun. But today we're back to writing related things. Present tense. It seems to be trendy these days. Of the four books I pick up at the library each time I go, at least one always seems to be written in the present tense.

I used to hate present tense writing. If I flipped through a few pages and found it, I'd put the book back on the shelf. It just made no sense to me. I mean, if these things are happening to you now, how can you be writing about it? Logic flaw....

So I started writing in present tense. And I found I loved it. It has an immediacy and action that past tense just doesn't have. In first person, anyway. Third person present still makes me feel uncomfortable anywhere outside picture books.

But I have to say, I worry a little when I see how many books written in first person present tense are being published. My new book is written this way, and I'm sure the bubble will burst soon, with everyone deciding third person past is preferable, or that present tense is just a gimmick. I just hope that doesn't happen before I manage to foist my book on the world. Books, I guess. Part of A9 is in present tense too....

What are your feelings about writing in the present tense?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

O is for... Open

While reading comments on my 'N' post, I realized maybe not saying no is a good thing. By saying yes, I'm opening myself up to all kids of new experiences and challenges. And being open to things is a way to grow and learn more about the world we live in.

So today, I want to open up the floor (do blogs have floors?) to everyone to be open about themselves. I'll ask a few questions about you, and you can answer them in the comments. I'll answer them too, so we can all get to know each other better. It's an opportunity (another good 'o' word).

So, here are the questions....

1. Where do you live? And where would you like to live?
2. Chocolate or cheese? If you had to give one up for life, which would it be? Why?
3. What's your favorite movie? Why?
4. Are you a writer? If so, what do you write?
5. Name two books that have changed your life and why?
6. Cats or dogs? Which do you prefer asa pet? Do you have one?

Okay. I think that's enough questions. Now, on to the answers.

1. Wellington, New Zealand. Either Berlin or NYC, my two favorite cities in the world. Both are vibrant, creative places with any number of different scenes happening at any time. There is so much art happening all the time, so many wonderful theatre productions, literary events, and other cultural things happening all the time, it would be hard to choose what to do.
2. This is a tough one. I think my life would end if I had to give up either. But I think I edge toward chocolate. I don't think I could live without cheese. Chocolate is an added bonus, but cheese is a staple.
3. The Sweet Hereafter. A beautifully crafted, poignant story with fully formed, real characters. It's also one of the few films that are in fact better than the book they're based on. And the book's good!
4. Yes. I write YA novels and short stories in every genre you can think of (including erotica although I publish that under a pseudonym).
5. I actually wrote a whole post on this a few months back, but here's the short version. The Outsiders because it was the book that made me want to write. Volcano Adventure because having read it, I knew about carbon monoxide and managed to save my entire family from dying in some remote Chinese village.
6.Cats. Definitely cats. And we don't have one at the moment. Although all the neighborhood cats like to use our yard . I think we're neutral territory.

So, open up about yourself. I'll be so interested to get to know you all.

Friday, April 15, 2011

N is for .... No

No. It's a tiny word, two letters, almost insignificant when you look at it on its own. Yet these two letters hold incredible power. No is one of the first words children learn, it's also a word that can cause terrific conflict in any number of situations. No one likes being told 'no'.

I'm terrible at saying no. I end up totally overcommitted all the time because I find it really difficult to say no. I guess I'm afraid I'll miss out on something if I do. At work, I tend to say yes to almost every film title offered to me which means some weeks I have do some serious juggling to fit everything in.

In my writing life, I don't say no enough either, and often find myself roped into projects I don't particularly want to be a part of. Sometimes it works out well. For example, last year, right when I was in the middle of a serious rewrite of A9, and busy with an umber of other projects, one of my writing groups came up with a novella project (novella- another good 'n' word). I wasn't that inspired by the initial concept for the linked novellas, but thought it would be a challenge. I came up with an idea, but the leader of the group, the guy whose world these novellas were to take place in, didn't like it. I almost backed out then and there, but as more people joined the project, we realized we were going to need to put together two different collections.

At that point, I had a long story that wasn't a big enough idea to be a novel, but was too long to be a traditional short story. It needed some work and I had already considered turning it into a novella length piece. I suggested it as a starting point (or possibly ending point) for a second collection of novellas and didn't get any nos. Two other amazing writers joined this second project and we got started. Unfortunately for various reasons, neither collection has been finished or collated. Illness, life and other writing projects got in the way. I guess other people have the same problem saying 'no' that I do. So the result is, I have a finished novella sitting on my hard drive.

Do you find it easy to say no? If so, how do you do it? I really need to know!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pitch Contest

I interrupt the scheduled alphabet postings to let you know about an awesome pitch contest happening over at YAtopia. The best 20 pitches will get read by uber-agent Natalie Fischer who is not currently taking submissions. So if you're like me and love Natalie, and have been dying to get your MS under her nose, head over there and enter!

M is for ... Mistakes

Mistakes. We've all made them. Some people are better at admitting it than others though. Personally, I have no problem telling people I've made a mistake. After all, many times it's the only way to learn the right way to do something.

On my journey toward publication, I've made screes of mistakes. I started off completely ignorant as to the process. When I finished my first novel, I looked up the address of the publisher that published my favorite books, and mailed off the manuscript. No surprise I got it back a few weeks later with the note 'we do not accept unsolicited manuscripts'. Actually, getting the package back was kind of a surprise. I mean, posting something that big is expensive!

By the time I finished my next book, I knew a little more (only a very little, mind) and rather than blindly sending to a publisher, I entered it into a contest. Not surprisingly, I didn't win. The book hadn't been critiqued or edited much, and really wasn't ready to go out, something I didn't learn until I discovered WDC ( and joined a critique group.

I had no idea about agents and what they did, and the first query letters I sent out were atrocious. I made every mistake in the book - not addressing them by name, not telling them what the book is about, focusing on all the wrong things in my bio - and no surprise, no one bit.

When submitting short fiction, I've made my share of mistakes too. I've submitted the same story to two venues when one of them doesn't accept simultaneous submissions. I've submitted stories to publications that are so wrong for them it's not funny. Reading the publication before you submit to them is always a good idea. Sometimes the submission guidelines are a little vague as to what they are looking for.

But for all the mistakes I've made, I've learned a lot. I feel that I have gained the knowledge I need, and keep gathering more, each and every day.

What are some mistakes you've made? And what did you learn from them?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

L is for.... Lust

Lust is one of the most basic and primal emotions. It's wanting writ large. It's desire with a hungry, obsessive edge. Lust can get people into huge trouble.

While lust tends to be used primarily to describe the desperate hunger two people can have for one another, it is possible to have a lust for power or money as well. Lust is generally considered a bad emotion, but it doesn't have to be in every case. Although, in saying that, lust implies a kind of tunnel vision, and that can never be a good thing.

I've been thinking about lust a lot in the past couple of weeks. I've just started a new novel (one chapter done so far) and lust plays an important role in it. It's about a boy experiencing lust, perhaps not for the first time, but it's the first time he acts on it. And the consequences for himself and his family are devastating. Finding this angle to the story has been incredible. This is a book I've written twice before and never managed to make it work. I think I've finally found the right POV to tell it from, and the second thread to the story that will make it that much more heartbreaking and honest.

Lust is the key. It's messy and complicated and physical as well as being a driving force for many people, especially teenaged boys.

Does lust rear its head in your work? And does it turn out well for anyone involved?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

K is for.... Keeping Secrets

Secrets are crucial to storytelling. Keeping or not keeping secrets can be the key to power shifts between characters, and the slow reveal of the secrets can be what keeps readers reading. In every story there are things one character knows, that another doesn't. Finding out those things can often be life changing for the people who live out your story.

Keeping secrets is a central theme in my new book, Chasing the Tail Lights. I have two main characters, Tony and Lucy. Both have secrets they need to hold close to themselves. Things begin to change between them when Lucy guesses Tony's secret, then flip again when she tells him hers.

In this case, each of them has a secret about themselves that they're keeping. Often someone else keeps a secret about a central character, holds it over them as a means of keeping them under their power. Keeping and sharing secrets can be a way to shift the power to a different character. If A knows this about B, he has something over B and can probably use that to manipulate him. The tables can turn if B discovers something about A that is equally damaging, especially if B tells C....

How do you use secret keeping in your work?

Oh, and I haven't forgotten about the ending of the J story. I was just waiting to see if anyone else had ideas for it...

Monday, April 11, 2011

J is for... Just Mickey

Since this is primarily a blog about fiction writing, I thought I'd share a story with you today. It's an old one I found buried in the depths of my hard drive. And to make it more interesting and interactive, I've left off the ending. I've never been satisfied by the way this story ended, so I'm leaving the ending up to you. How do you think it should end? What happens next? The idea I like the best, I'll write and we can compare what you come up with to what I did.... Are you up for it?


The wine made my head spin and my stomach churn. I couldn’t be sick though. He hadn’t been sick yet. He would laugh. Not that he wouldn’t anyway. My brother was always laughing. Even when nothing was funny. Especially when nothing was funny. That frightened me sometimes, and nothing really frightens me. It seemed I was always competing with him. No matter how far I caught up with him, he was always further ahead: older, smarter, cooler.

We sat on the floor of our apartment drinking wine from the bottle. He doesn’t usually drink so it had been a surprise to find him there, drinking.

“Have a drink, Mungo,” he said in his expressionless voice. He reached into a bag beside him and handed me a bottle. I sat down on the floor and lit a cigarette before opening it and taking a swig. It felt strange to be drinking with him. I never had before. I wondered how long he’d been there. It’s hard to tell with him. Sometimes I think he’s drunk when he hasn’t been near the stuff. I was surprised that he’d asked me to join him. He usually doesn’t pay much attention to me.

“Are you celebrating?” I asked after a while. There was a lot of wine in that bag.

“No.” He was looking at me as if he’d never seen me before.

“Then why’re you drinking? You don’t usually.”

“No,” he agreed. “I don’t usually.” He was laughing at me and I couldn’t figure out why. He doesn’t make any sound when he laughs. He doesn’t smile either.

“I’m drinking,” he told me, “because I want to talk to you.” I was surprised. He doesn’t often talk to me. More than half the time I don’t think he even knows who I am.

“How come you have to drink to talk to me?” I was beginning to get confused. Talking to him often confuses me. He talks about stuff I don’t understand, or says things in a way I just don’t get. It makes me feel really stupid sometimes.

“I don’t know,” he said. I had never heard him admit to not knowing anything before. I thought he knew everything.

“Maybe I thought it would be easier. I don’t talk to you much, do I?

“It doesn’t matter,” I assured him.

“Yeah, it does.” He was looking at me again, but for once not laughing. He doesn’t look serious very often. Most of the time he has this little closed mouth smile on his face. It’s not a happy smile.

“We’re brothers,” he said. “We should talk to each other.” I couldn’t think of anything to say. Whenever he’s not here I can think of fifty million things I’d like to ask or tell him, but now, nothing.

I stubbed out my cigarette and lit another. My hands shook a little.

“Okay. We’ll talk.” I agreed. “What do you want to talk about?” He looked away, pursing his lips and nodding thoughtfully.

“I want to talk about you, Mungo,” he said, smiling without humor again. “I want to know you.”

“About me?” I looked at him, puzzled. “You know me. You’ve seen me practically every day of your life.”

“You’re wrong,” he said quietly. “I don’t know you any better than you know me.” I was totally lost now. What the hell was he going on about? I knew him. He was my brother. He was also the coolest guy I’d ever met.

“But I know you….”

“No. You don’t know me. How could you? I don’t know me.”

I leaned back against the wall and closed my eyes for a moment. I needed to think. I drank some more wine too. Drunk people often have very peculiar conversations. Maybe I just wasn’t drunk enough to follow.

“You don’t understand me, do you Mungo?” He shook my shoulder, making sure I was awake. I noticed for the first time the way he said my name, with a pause in the middle: Mun…go. It was the same way people said it when taunting or preparing for a fight.

“Sometimes I understand you,” I tried to explain. “But mostly I don’t. Right now I haven’t got a clue what you’re trying to say.” He was sitting in his favourite position, left knee bent, left elbow resting on his knee. His hand, holding a cigarette, cupped his chin and his fingers scraped absently across dark stubble.

“I want you to understand me,” he said finally. “But first I have to understand you.”

“I’m just like you!”

“No,” he stated. “You’re not like me.”

That stung.


He looked at me again laughing once more. Suddenly I wanted out of there. It wasn’t comfortable anymore. I’d never been scared of him like most people were, but now I understood why they’d all been so frightened.

I stumbled to my feet. I had some idea about leaving. I didn’t like being in the room alone with him anymore.

“Where’re you going?” he enquired, not angry, just curious.

“I’m getting out of here.” I moved towards the door.

He sat there watching me go, amused as usual. Before I even touched the doorknob I knew I wasn’t going. He hadn’t really said anything yet and, even if I was frightened, I had to know what he wanted to say.

“Come back here,” he said, seeing my hesitation.

Reluctantly I did.

“Do I scare you?” he asked gently. “I don’t want to scare you.”

“Yeah!” I cried. “Yeah, you do scare me sometimes.” I looked away, trying to get myself back under control. He’s always so calm it embarrassed me to be cracking up in front of him. “Can I have a cigarette?” He handed me one without looking at me.

“Why?” he asked as I lit the cigarette and leaned my head back against the wall to smoke it.

“What?” I was confused again.

“Why?” he repeated. I shook my head, unable to comprehend. Why did I want a cigarette? Why did anyone want anything?

“Why,” he was persistent. “Why?”

“Why what?” I finally asked,

“Why are you afraid of me?” He stared intently at me, no amusement about him now. “Why, Mungo?”

“I don’t know,” I said softly. “I just don’t know.”

Sunday, April 10, 2011

I is for .... Inspiration

Whenever I mention to anyone that I'm a writer (and it' s not something I mention much) they ask me 'So, where do you get your ideas from?' And it isn't an easy question to answer. Inspiration for stories comes from all over the place. Often one line in a movie is enough to spark my imagination. Sometimes I read a book and some small side plot grips me and I begin to wonder what might have happened if....

I also find stories in my everyday life. Working in a cinema, I get to interact with a lot of different people. Sometimes the way certain people act toward me or my staff or their companions interests me and I find myself spinning a story about why they are behaving that way. I watch people on the street too, filling in their personal histories in my head as they pass by.

On occasion, it has been a place that has spawned a story. A location that just cried out for characters to inhabit it. I have a number of short stories that started that way. The newspaper is also a great place to find story starters. How often have you heard the phrase 'truth is stranger than fiction'?

My novels have all come from different inspirations. Assignment 9 was spawned from an exercise in writing an emotion. I chose distress, and from that single scene, I discovered two of my central characters and decided to explore their journey further. It was much later that I added the framing story which ties it loosely to another book I've written. That book, Holding it Together, which I have just started rewriting from scratch, came from real life experience. It's a story that has been itching to be told for years, but I've never managed to do it justice. I'm hoping I now have the writing skill to tell the story.

Prayer and Prey came out of a challenge from my writing group. We each picked two genres out of a hat and had to write something based on them. My two genres were sports and western. Somehow, from that I managed to write a romance novel set against the tail end of the Australian gold rush. And Chasing the the Tail Lights has perhaps the most interesting origin story. I started off wanting to write an adult novel. I had most of the plot in my mind, and was just about to start writing when I realized the two main characters had this huge complex backstory that was absolutely central to their current relationship. As I thought more about it, I realized this relationship, and how it came about, was just as interesting as the story I had planned to tell. So I decided to write that instead, taking the characters back 20 years and making it a YA novel.

How do you find inspiration for your work?

Friday, April 8, 2011

H is for... Holes

Holes. There are all kinds of holes in a writer's life, so I felt that this was an appropriate word for the letter 'H'. I was going to write about horror, but since I don't read or write much horror, it seemed a little stupid.

Holes loom large in my life at the moment. There's a hole in the side of my house where the workmen started work then disappeared for 6 weeks, It's right behind my desk where I write, and with freezing cold winds this week, working here hasn't been that pleasant.

And what have I been working on? Fixing plot holes. My dear critique partner, Laura, sent me notes on three chapters last weekend and pointed out a huge logic flaw I hadn't considered. So I've spent most of the week trying to fill that hole, and sprinkle hints of another plot point earlier in the MS.

I hope what I've done works, and I haven't dug myself deeper into a hole. Which is also possible. You can write yourself into a corner sometimes, and no matter what you do, you just get in deeper. That's when you really need to leave it alone for a while. Sometimes you just need to lose the scene, find some other way to get your characters from point a to point c. Other times, leaving it alone is enough to bring a new perspective to the scene in question, an that can dig you out of the hole.

And of course the most dangerous hole is that dark pit of despair. That one can really be hard to get out of. But I think all writers have those. You tumble in when the rejections keep piling up, you can't find the right way to express the thoughts in your head, when your characters just won't do what it is they need to do to drive the story forward. Or when you can't seem to write anything. Sometimes that happens. And you need to walk away, Do something else for a while. The writing will always be there, but if you're dragging yourself to the computer with a black cloud hanging over you, you're probably better off doing something fun. If you think you suck, chances are, you'll write something sucky, and that's just going to make you feel worse.

What holes have you dealt with recently?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

G is for... Generosity

The writing community is amazing and I'm both proud and privileged to be a part of it. I only really discovered there was a community for writers about two years ago, and I've been astounded by the generosity there is in it. Agents and editors regularly hold chats on Twitter where they answer questions. They're not paid to do that. It's something they do because they genuinely care about writers and want them to succeed. Other writers are extremely generous with their time, offering critiques and answering questions about the process.

Critiquing takes time. I know I spend about an hour on every review I do of someone's chapter or story. So offering to critique a novel or even just part of a novel is no small commitment. But that fresh set of eyes cast over your work is so valuable.

It's easy to get discouraged in this business. There's a lot of rejection, a lot of days when self-doubt rears its ugly head and you think maybe it would be easier to just give up. But every time I ht this point, something comes up that renews my faith in writing, something that comes from the generous spirit at the core of this community.

In what ways have you been affected by generosity lately?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

F is for ....Film

Yes, film. The other great love of my life. In my opinion, film is in fact the greatest art form because to make a film, you must draw from every other art form. Visual art, photography, music, acting, writing, sculpture and more are all used to make a film. And these days, you can add science in there too, with the number of computers involved with every production.

But you can throw as many effects and flashy edits as you want at a film, and without a good story and engaging characters, it's going to fall flat. It comes back to the writing every time. A film with a good script, made for under a million dollars can often be more satisfying and engaging than a multi-million dollar blockbuster which disguises its plot holes and one dimensional characters with flash and effects.

I guess that's why I work in arthouse. Effects movies don't interest me. I can't even think when I last went to the multiplex to see one. I think it may have been two years ago when I was still reviewing on TV. I don't feel like I've missed out on anything.

It's an endless frustration to me that films get made before the scripts are ready. I watch these things and can see so much potential in them, but they get raced into production before that extra draft or three have been done, and the end product just doesn't work. Characters are not developed enough, so you question their actions and reactions. Or plot threads are left hanging after their purpose is spent. Supporting characters show up without motivation and disappear as soon as they're function is over, often without explanation.

All these problems could be easily fixed with a little more drafting. And the finished product would be that much more satisfying. So, film makers. The script is the most important thing. Forget the CGI for a minute, and give us some real, flawed characters we an care about. Give us a plot that makes sense. Then you can go blow some shit up....

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

E is for.... Emotion

For writers, emotion is a tricky thing. I can't tell you how many times I've reviewed someone's work and said 'but how does this make him/her feel?' Whatever situation your characters are thrown into, they need to react to them. And how they react is what's interesting.

Emotions aren't cut and dried. In fact, they're often irrational and complex. Showing the messiness of emotion is difficult, but when it's done well, it can drag the reader right into the story and have them emoting right along with the characters. Teenagers have particularly messy emotions and that's one of the reasons I love writing and reading YA so much. With all those confusing hormones rushing around, and new feelings to engage with, is it any wonder teens are unpredictable?

And unpredictability adds tension. We sit on a knife edge, unsure what the character might do. Last time they faced (add plot point here) they didn't react to it, they turned away and ignored it. What will they do this time? The trick is to show it. You don't want to say 'Jenny was humiliated'; you want to show that humiliation. Maybe her ears burn, her face flames or she just turns away to stare at the ground. Or maybe she doesn't do any of that. Maybe she doesn't let it get to her because that would show weakness. Maybe she just throws her shoulders back and eyeballs the person who's embarrassed her.

I consider myself a very emotional writer. All my books take my characters on an emotional journey. The biggest changes that occur are within themselves as a result of whatever I've put them through. I've just had two readers finish my new draft of Tail Lights and both of them have accused me of making them cry.

I guess I'm doing something right then....

Monday, April 4, 2011

D is for... Death

Death is like the ultimate plot device. If you're ever stuck in a story, even if you don't intend to keep the death in there, kill off one of your characters and see what happens next. Death creates a series of complex and often conflicting emotions in people, and how your characters react to a death can change the direction your story goes.

I'm not suggesting killing of your protagonist of course. No, kill off a minor character. Or an important public figure. Or a pet. Or an elderly relative who has never been referenced up until this time because your MC isn't close to them.

In all my books the death of a character is important to the plot. Death leads to renewal, and it can also lead to change. In Assignment 9, the death of a character changes my MC's life completely and is instrumental in getting her to find a way to reach her goals. In Prayer and Prey there are several deaths, but they all happen toward the end of the book, as a part of the finale. Chasing the Tail Lights begins with death since the car crash is the inciting incident that sets the entire story in motion.

How does killing a character change your story? What journey does death send your characters on?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

C is for.... Characters

There were a number of topics I thought about for this C post - cooking & critiquing being just two of them - but I decided characters are more important than anything else.

Every good story has characters in it. They are our way into the story, our guides. And as such, readers need to engage with them. Therefore, your characters need to be real.

People aren't perfect. Everyone has their flaws and foibles, their obsessions and fears. Characters are no different. They can't be all good, or all bad because in real life, people aren't as back and white as that. We're all a mixture.

In Prayer and Prey, William is the villain of the piece. He's a dull, distracted man who doesn't think twice about beating his farmhands when they displease him. Yet when I introduce him, he's quite charming, and even once we've begun to realize he's a nasty piece of work, he shows glimmers of humanity and moments of kindness. On the other side, Danny, the hero, is introduced as the bad guy, his inherent goodness only showing through as we get to know him.

In this way, I've manipulated the readers' expectations about the characters from the start, letting them know that nothing and no one is exactly what they seem.

For me, all stories start with the characters. They pop up in my head and as I get to know them, I start thinking 'I wonder what would happen if x happened to y'. And that's often the beginning of the story for me, even if x may be an event that happens right in the middle of the book.

As the writer, you need to know everything about the characters, even if most of the information never makes it into the story. By having all that stored in your head (or in a notebook on your desk) your characters will have a life of their own, and will leap from the page as fully formed people. That Alan once wanted to be a chef has no bearing on the events in Assignment 9, but I know that about him, and it adds a layer to his character even though that fact is never referenced in the novel.

What's something about one of your characters only you know?

Friday, April 1, 2011

B is for.... Books

As writers, we should all be huge readers. So here is a little piece about books and how important they have been in my life.


I grew up a diplo-brat - the daughter of a diplomat. Every two years or so, we would move to a new country. Every two years or so I had to make new friends, settle into a new house, a new school and often deal with a new language. Each time we moved, my mother would tell me to choose which toys we would take, which to leave behind.

Books were the one constant in my life. You can carry them with you wherever you go, and inside their pages live friends who can never be left behind.

I learned to read early – at three my mother tells me – and I cannot remember a time when I haven’t been in the middle of a book or three. While I don’t recall a time when I couldn’t read, I do remember vividly the day I realized you could read without saying the words aloud. I even remember the book: Dick Whittington and his Cat, a Ladybird edition. I was sitting in my room, reading the book to myself and suddenly felt self-conscious about how loud my voice sounded in there. I started whispering the words, then just mouthing them, and a moment later, I discovered I did not even need to do that to absorb them.

It was a monumental discovery. Reading silently meant I could do it anywhere, in any company. From that moment on, I rarely left the house without a book. My tastes and preferences changed over the years. I became obsessive about certain books, often for years at a time.

The first of these periods I call the Narnia years. I read those C S Lewis books voraciously, devouring each one in a matter of hours, then going back and re-reading them again. I believed in them, certain that if I could find the right wardrobe, I too could cross into that mythical land.

A few months later my father was posted again, this time to Samoa and Tokelau. In these island nations, seafaring tales seemed appropriate. I read my way through Arthur Ransome, often while aboard the rust-eaten ship that went between Samoa and Tokelau: the Frysna. Once I had exhausted that series, I turned to the classics and devoured Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and other tales of castaways on desert islands. I never liked The Swiss Family Robinson; their island seemed unrealistic to me, too lush and filled with convenient objects they could use to create an almost luxurious existence.

At the end of the beach we went to almost every weekend, I found my own desert island. Made primarily of black volcanic rock, it was not so much an island as a peninsula, but at high tide it was easy to pretend. Every Sunday I would take on a persona – usually Roger, the resourceful and underappreciated cabin boy – and live out my own versions of those castaway stories. On board the Frysna, I would roam the ship, playing Roger, cabin boy to the most vicious, evil pirates ever to sail the seven seas.

The Apia library was well stocked with children’s books. They were not new, but amongst the dusty tomes I discovered the books that would be my next obsession, one that lasted several years: Willard Price’s adventure novels. Once again there was a character called Roger for me to identify with, this time an impossibly mature thirteen-year-old who, along with his older brother, Hal, was sent around the globe on various adventures. The Apia library had only two of these books, the fourth and fifth in a series of thirteen books. I read Volcano Adventure and Whale Adventure over and over again, even going so far as to research and write my own book of volcano stories. Each time my father went on a business trip, he’d bring me back another in the series - Amazon Adventure this time, Safari Adventure the next - until I had the entire series lined up on the top shelf of my bookcase.

“You’ll outgrow them,” my mother warned. “You won’t want to read Willard Price forever.”

“Yes I will,” I promised. “I bet you that I will still love these books in ten years.” At the time I believed it, so impassioned was I.

My mother was right. Within three years Willard Price had been eclipsed, this time by Rosemary Sutcliffe. By the time I was ten, I’d read one copy of The Eagle of the Ninth to rags and had to buy another. My new persona was that of a Roman gladiator, Marcus. We were living in China by then, on the thirteenth floor of an ugly apartment building in a compound of identically ugly apartment buildings. Armed guards stood at the gates, keeping the foreign devils separated from the good Communists outside.

China was difficult for me. I was used to having a lot of space to run in, a lot of freedom to explore. Communist China of the early 1980s did not allow me the space I needed. Books became more essential than ever, opening up worlds beyond the walls of our compound, worlds where a small blonde child was not something to be stared at on the street. The library at the International School of Beijing was good, but small, and it was not long before I had read most of what it contained.

Without access to new books, I got into trouble. I had too much time on my hands and not enough places to go to expend my energy. I tortured my teachers, railed at my parents and tormented my sister more than ever. It didn’t help that my best friend at the time didn’t like to read and could not understand my need to escape into the pages of a book. She preferred to make up stories about her Barbie dolls than to play out my fantasies. The landscapes around Beijing lent themselves to my historical stories. Amidst the ruins of the Ming tombs it was easy to play gladiators. Along the crumbling sections of The Great Wall, Robin Hood could jump out at unsuspecting travelers, his merry men behind him.

Leaving my China friends was harder than any before them. I was twelve when we left Beijing, and not looking forward to moving on to yet another country, this one called home. I had no sense of home, had never lived there for more than a year at a time, and I did not want to go.

Unfortunately, I had no say in the matter.

It was difficult to slip back into my old school in Wellington, find my place with my old friends again. My experiences were so different to theirs. Most of them had never been out of New Zealand. Deciding that I was not ready for high school, my parents put me back a year, leaving me only one year ahead of Jane who was two years younger than me. Miserable and picked on by kids who could not understand that I wasn’t showing off when I measured time by where I‘d been living, I sought refuge in the only place I could: the library.

The Young Adult section of the Wellington Public Library was housed in the basement. The carpet was orange and beanbags were scattered across the floor. Above the shelves were narrow strips of window and I loved to lie across the beanbags, watching the feet of those above me marching past them. It was in here that I discovered the books that would obsess me for next few years.

When I read The Outsiders I realized I’d found something special. The book grabbed me and sucked me right in. I finished reading it and turned back to the beginning to start all over again. I felt as if I might never be able to read another book again. Nothing could live up to what I’d just discovered between those battered covers. I understood these people. Maybe they were street-toughs in 1960s America, but their feelings echoed my own. Within the pages I found a clan. I quickly read all S E Hinton’s other books, liking them, but not feeling the same passion for the characters that I did with The Outsiders.

I was fifteen when my family moved to London without me. I never had the chance to leave home - home left me.

To this day, my books and I keep moving.