Tag Archives: fiction

Art-inspired writing

I was recently invited to speak to a primary school class about writing and Storybird. Storybird is an educational platform, where students can create art-inspired stories, with the options of publishing their work and connecting with a community of readers, writers and artists. In
Storybird, writers start by choosing illustrations, which lead them into the writing process. A great way to prevent writer’s block.

I decided to make my talk a little about structure and process, and a lot about the artwork that inspired my books (leaving out the gory bits, of course!). The kids loved discussing art and stories, and their teacher is trying to organise an excursion to an art gallery before the end of the year.

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Lovers | Charles Blackman | NGV

Lovers
One of my writing lecturers at RMIT taught a class about ekphrasis [Greek ekphrazein to speak out, to call an inanimate object by name — Macquarie Dictionary], a concept that goes back to Plato. Put very basically, ekphrasis is the use of one art form to provide a commentary on another art form. Our class had an excursion to the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Fed Square where we chose an artwork to write about. This was a very powerful exercise for me and it’s where I first became enamoured with Charles Blackman’s Lovers. I spent a lot of time admiring this painting. I occasionally visit it now, and it still always brings a tear to my eye. Lovers informed my first novel Please Don’t Leave Me Here so much that it appears as a print on Brigitte’s apartment wall, and is referred to several times — in real time, memory and dreams.

‘She looks across at the print hanging on the wall behind the sofa: two lovers embrace against a background that looks finger- painted — frosty white smears tinged with aqua. If you could taste it, it would be spearmint. The female figure rests her head against the man’s neck. She is veiled in black, her face hidden by a hood. He is shadow-like, grey, his face visible but chiselled, without detail like a sculpture. Against the small of her back he holds a bouquet of flowers: white, perhaps daisies, with centres the colour of fresh blood. Is this their last time together? Is she in his dream? A memory? Or a ghost? Why can’t they just be together?’
— Please Don’t Leave Me Here

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Four Darks in Red | Mark Rothko | Whitney Museum of American Art

Four Darks in Red
This was Aidan’s artwork in Dead in The Water. Brigitte disliked it and described it as: ‘… four lozenge shapes in different shades of red, from crimson at the bottom to liver-brown at the top … She’d never told him that she didn’t like it. It reminded her of bloodstains.

Four Darks in Red became a metaphor for blood.

‘There were stains on his clothing the sombre colours of his Rothko Four Darks in Red — he’d been to the accident scene.’

‘It wasn’t raindrops: it was crimson. Four darks in red.’
— Dead in the Water

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Feet Beneath the Table | Charles Blackman | NGV

Alice in Wonderland series
Strangely enough, I’m drawn to the artwork of Charles Blackman again — in particular his Alice in Wonderland series — while writing my third book, You Used To Love Me. The story (at this stage) is about memory, time and the line between sanity and insanity. For me, it seems to have many parallels with Alice in Wonderland.

‘Alice: How long is forever?
White Rabbit: Sometimes, just one second.’
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

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Collins St, 5p.m. | John Brack | NGV

Collins St, 5p.m.
Again, I’ve placed artwork within my story. In You Used to Love Me, Sidney studies this painting in Year 10 art, and twenty years later finds herself in the setting of the painting.

‘… Glass towers had replaced the sandstone buildings of Brack’s 1950s background. Not all the faces were white, and mobile phones were stuck to ears, but the blank expressions were the same. Strange now that here I was — that girl grown-up — in the street, in the picture I remembered. My past self in the future. Or my future self in the past? Or the present? Thoughts like that — time plains, continuums, illusion — could do my head in …’
— You Used to Love Me (work in progress)

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Of Mice and Me | Meghan Boody

Of Mice and Me
I didn’t show this image to the Grade 2s! The germ of the idea for You Used to Love Me came to me while viewing this sculpture a year or so ago at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania. A lot of the museum-visitors were walking away shaking their heads, but I was utterly mesmerised. When I listened to an interview with the artist, Meghan Boody, I understood why this piece had captivated me. Boody describes it as ‘an ode to staying forever young’. And says, ‘I often feel a strange tug or presence when I walk by the apartment where I grew up. I look up into the window of my bedroom — and wouldn’t it be wild if I saw myself as a child looking back down?’ Boom! That, in a nutshell, was the essence of my vision for You Used to Love Me.

Back to my Year 2 talk … In case I’d traumatised them (which, of course, I hadn’t — eight-year-olds are very switched-on little people and they love scary stories), I finished with these images of On Days Like This There Are Always Rainbows, an installation by Pip and Pop, which I saw recently at NGV. The rainbow-candy-coloured miniature wonderland — mountains, valleys, pathways, crystal forests, and fluorescent flowers and animals constructed from glitter, clay, foam, sequins and pom-poms, topped with coloured sugar and cake decorations — was inspirational enough to me as an adult, but it would have been absolutely magical as a child.

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On days like this there are always rainbows | Pip & Pop (Tanya Shultz)

I would love to hear about artwork that has inspired you.

Writer vs. Storyteller

photo-on-18-10-2016-at-11-02-amI’m stuck in the middle of my WIP (that’s why I’m writing this post instead of writing-writing) because the Writer and Storyteller in my head are fighting. I’m just under 50K words into what I think is a complex, layered, deeply nuanced character study, which the Writer is totally in love with. But now the Storyteller is trying to crash the party with questions like: Is the storyline strong enough to pull the reader along?

Writer: I don’t care what the reader thinks. I just care about my character.
Storyteller: I’m sorry, did you just say you don’t care about the reader?
Writer: I didn’t mean it. Of course I care about the reader. I’ve worked so hard on this characterisation — won’t it be enough to pull them along?
Storyteller: I don’t think so.
Writer: Then how about elegant sentences, and beautiful punctuation?
Storyteller: How about a plot twist in act three?
Writer: That would make it contrived.
Storyteller: That would make it a story.
Writer: It would cheapen the whole thing.
Storyteller: No it wouldn’t.
Writer: Yes, it would.
Storyteller: No.
Writer: Yes.
Storyteller: What about Peter Temple?
Writer: What about Peter Temple?
Storyteller: You’re always going on about how much you like him, and he does both.
Writer: I like — believe in, care about, fall in love with — his characters (and his stylish prose). I couldn’t care less about his plots. In fact I think they interfere with the characterisation.
Storyteller: That’s ridiculous.
Writer: And I still don’t get why there were chocolate wrappers in the bin at the end of The Broken Shore.
Storyteller: *Sigh* How many times do I have to tell you — I think it’s an implication of how Cashin will eventually, sometime in a future book, solve the mystery of what happened to the missing boys who made the ceramic pots back in 1988.
Writer: You have no idea either.
Storyteller: Margaret Atwood is good at both too.
Writer: I love Margaret Atwood.
Storyteller: David Mitchell.
Writer: I didn’t love Cloud Atlas.
Storyteller: I did.
Writer: You would. How about The Bell Jar?
Storyteller: Let’s not have that argument again. So what are we going to do?
Writer: About what?
Storyteller: Our story, for fucks sake!
Writer: Sorry, I was just thinking about the way the green light from the motel’s ‘Vacancy’ sign shimmers in a rain river along the ground to Dean Cola’s feet, just before Sidney leaves town with him.
Storyteller: Oh my God, you’ve just given away the ending!
Writer: That bit won’t be there if you get your way with the plot twist.
Storyteller: So you do want to give it a try?
Writer: I didn’t say that.
Storyteller: We’ll foreshadow it right from the start.
Writer: And if I don’t like it, I could take it out?
Storyteller: Of course.
Writer: I could do it with TrackChanges turned on — like a safety net, just in case.
Storyteller: You know we stopped using TrackChanges long ago. And you’re too stubborn to try Scrivener.
Writer: If it’s wrong, changing it back would be so much work, when I could be polishing prose instead.
Storyteller: You’ve done it before. Remember how many times you rewrote Please Don’t Leave Me Here?
Writer: *Curls up in corner and starts to cry*
Storyteller: You’ve learnt a lot since then.
Writer: No, I haven’t.
Storyteller: You — I mean I know what I’m doing now.
Writer: I’m not so sure.
Storyteller: Stop being a baby! It’ll be fine.
Writer: It might not be.
Storyteller: Then rewrite it again. And again, until it is fine.
Writer: But …
Storyteller: You know I’m right. Trust me.
Writer:
Storyteller: Trust me.
Writer: OK.

Beer, Berettas and bonsai: Researching novels

Research for my first novel, Please Don’t Leave Me Here, involved sifting through 1990s newspapers on microfiche at the State Library, frequenting coffee shops in Degraves Street and drinking beer at featured pubs.

My second novel, Dead in the Water, required a lot more research. I stayed at the place where it’s set — Raymond Island, a tiny island in the Gippsland salt-water lakes system, with a population of about 540. There are plenty of koalas, but no shops or other businesses. If you run out of bread or milk [OK, wine], you have to catch the cable ferry across to Paynesville on the mainland for supplies. After the last ferry crossing between 11pm and midnight, there’s no way on or off. The perfect place to set a crime story!

Dead in the Water deals with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, so I spoke with a police psychologist and officers suffering PTSD. I also made friends with forensic scientists who told me more than I needed to know about dead bodies in water, DNA and gun shot wounds.

The hardest research was learning to shoot a gun. I wanted to write a shooting scene and, being a ‘method writer’, didn’t think I could do it without knowing how it really felt. So, I booked into a course at a pistol club.

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You can hear gunshots from the car park. Inside, people are lying on mats, shooting rifles at targets on the range. I go the wrong way and end up in the bistro instead of the training room. You can relax and enjoy a drink in the lounge or licensed bar after shooting the crap out of stuff. There are taxidermied animals around the room and deer heads on the wall.

The training room is full of mostly young men. Anybody — who doesn’t have a police record — can do the handgun-shooting course. So how dangerous can it be? Our instructors enter the room — one has an arm in a sling; the other has a leg missing below the knee.

They teach us about the safety equipment required on the shooting range. Special earmuffs, because guns are louder than a jet engine and can cause permanent hearing damage. Safety glasses, because pieces of shrapnel can fly back and hit you in the eye. And be sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterwards, because handgun ammunition contains some very hazardous materials like lead styphnate, which can cause heavy metal poisoning. That’s if you have any hands left: Never cross your thumbs behind the slide of a semiautomatic pistol (the slide is the thing on top that flies back from the recoil of the shot, forcing the empty round from the chamber out through the ejection port). Not because it might break your thumb, but because it could slice it right off. Excellent. I start to think maybe I don’t need that gun-shooting scene in my book after all.

shooting range

Relaxed on the shooting range. “Never cross your thumbs behind the slide …”

Out on the range, each shooter is allocated a shooting bay. Always make sure the gun is pointing in a safe direction, and the only safe direction is DOWNRANGE! (they shout a lot on the range). Be especially careful of turning around to talk to the person next to you because … [Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction — ‘I just shot Marvin in the face’? You get the picture]. There is a yellow safety line along the back of the bays, and a red line along the front. NEVER REACH ACROSS THE RED LINE! At this stage, my legs have started to shake and my mouth is very dry.

They said we’d have plenty of time to get the ‘feel’ of the guns before shooting at the targets. But I’m still getting to know my gun, and so not ready when the Range Officer commands ‘EYES AND EARS!’, a reminder to get your safety equipment on. Trying very hard to suppress a panic attack, I put on my earmuffs and safety glasses. ‘MOVE FORWARD. LOAD. FIRE!’

I have a go at shooting semiautomatic pistols of increasing calibre, my mantra the whole time: Never cross your thumbs behind the slide, never cross your thumbs behind the slide, never cross your thumbs behind the slide. Then I try some revolvers, including a Magnum (or was it a Beretta? — same name as a cop show from the 1980s), which has quite a kickback.

The cylinder on one of my revolvers seems to be stuck. I keep trying to pull the trigger, but it won’t work, so I hold up my hand. The Range Commander comes over to check what’s wrong. Lucky I asked for help because one of the rounds is stuck in a chamber and, had I kept trying to shoot, it could have caught fire and exploded in my hands. That’s enough for me. I donate my remaining ammo to the guy in the next bay who is enjoying himself far more than I am. I come away with my eyes, ears and thumbs intact, and enough details to write the gun-shooting scene.

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In my work in progress (working title: You Used to Love Me), my protagonist’s hobby is bonsai. I’m looking forward to a relaxing short course, researching the gentle art of bonsai. Careful with the trimming tools?

The P word

I confess to being a pantser who really wants to be a plotter. There are terrific books around about plotting — mostly written by screen writers — including Screenplay by Syd Field, Story by Robert McKee and Save The Cat by Blake Snyder. I really want to read them, and one day I will get around to it.

In the meantime, I follow a very simple, foolproof 🙂 method for planning my stories. [Just in case you’re somewhere out there reading this, Graeme Simsion, look away now!] It’s pretty much the same thing they’re teaching my daughter in grade Prep-2: you’ve got to have a beginning, a middle and an ending. Act one, act two and act three. Syd Field says: set-up, confrontation and resolution.

Close to the start of your beginning (set-up) you need to have an inciting incident — the event that kicks off the whole story (Cinderella’s invitation to the ball; the three little pigs refuse to give in to the wolf’s demands; a giant shark kills a swimmer on Amity beach). Towards the end of your beginning you need to have a plot point — another incident, which changes the direction of the story and propels it into the middle (confrontation).

Towards the end of your middle (confrontation), you need to have another plot point, which again changes the story direction just before your ending (resolution).

Your ending (resolution) should contain a climax — the highest point of tension, the big moment your story’s been building up to the whole time (Cinderella tries on the glass slipper; the third little pig confronts the wolf; water-phobic Sheriff Brody faces the giant killer shark). The climax should be related to the inciting incident.

Too easy? I wish.

plotting notes

I find Syd Field’s Paradigm Worksheet helpful for planning my beginning, middle and ending.

Once I have my story foundation in place, I like to use Nigel Watts’s eight point story arc as a tool for building up the structure.

Watts’s eight points are:
1. Stasis
2. Trigger
3. The quest
4. Surprise
5. Critical choice
6. Climax
7. Reversal
8. Resolution

You could read Watts’s book, or take a look at this Daily Writing Tips post, which explains the basics of the eight point story structure.

The Hero’s Journey is another narrative outline worth googling or reading about.

Once I’m pretty sure the story-house I’ve built is not going to fall over (and even if it does, I can always make repairs, additions or renovations), I start writing. From here, I let my characters take the car (mixing metaphors, I know!) and drive the story where it wants to go, and I adjust the plot accordingly. For me, character is as important as — if not more important than — plot.

Some wise words from Graeme Simsion, plot guru: Plotting vs Pantsing — Why I’m a Plotter | Graeme Simsion

And finally, my favourite storytelling rules:
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Dark and spindly like an old Tasmanian apple orchard in winter

I don’t often post reviews — anymore 🙂 — but this one (of Please Don’t Leave Me Here) by Janice Simpson is too good not to share:

This novel took me on a dark and winding road of connection, coincidence and secrets. Chandler’s writing is assured, her characters are people you think you know, or at least have met once or twice. Flaws are close to the surface, which is the real strength of her characterisation, as authors often fall into the hole of creating an unpleasant character when writing a character with faults. Not in this novel, however.

In Part I, the protagonist, Brigitte, jolts through that which comes her way, the core and the peripheral indistinguishable in her world: her mother’s voice scratching in her ear; the one-too-many glasses of wine; her run-over cat. She is trying to keep many things humming along including being wife, mother and sister; a writer of monthly articles for ‘Parenting Today’; landlady to Aiden, one of her husband’s colleagues; and a past. (Incidentally, what happens on the night of the twins’ birthday will make you view cake quite differently.) And Kurt Cobain.

Part II is heartbreaking. Who doesn’t know a young woman who falls in love, falls for money over substance, falls into a hole. The positivists say holes such as these are made by the people who fall into them. They’ve had their chances, they never wanted for a roof over their heads and a meal on the table, so it must be their fault. But Chandler is able to weave a different version of how people come to fall in holes, a story that is altogether more satisfying, even while you lay in bed clutching the book, hoping that the bad thing you think is bearing down will be diverted. And Kurt Cobain shoots himself. The biggest hole of all.

I loved this book. It is dark and spindly like an old Tasmanian apple orchard in winter.

Janice’s novel Murder in Mount Martha is a terrific read. Well-drawn characters — some to hate, and some to adore. Inspired by a real case, the story will lull you with its nostalgia and shock you with its violence. So much more than just a crime story.

The naming of books

It’s a matter far more difficult than cats. However, my cat’s name is Little Bear, so …

How is it that I’ve had around three years to think of a clever, catchy title for my second book, but it’s come down to a last-minute panicked rush to decide on something? Aaahhh! I can write a 70-80K word novel, but I can’t come up with a few words for its name.

My book did have a working title: Dead in the Water. It’s a jokey title, but you won’t get the joke until chapter two. I’ve chickened out at the last minute, fearing it might give readers the wrong impression that it’s a hard-boiled detective story or a comedic mystery (and some reviewers too much ammunition).

A similar thing happened with Please Don’t Leave Me Here. It was always Skin The Sun to me, but that’s a song lyric so it could never be used. It became Come As You Are (I got it into my head that it had to be a Nirvana song)just before a non-fiction book about women’s sexuality was released with that title. I considered About A Girl, but there were too many books around with ‘girl’ in the title. At one stage I called it Dumb, which would’ve been unfortunate as I had a bet that if my book was ever published I’d get the title tattooed on my arm. Eventually, a writer friend came up with Grunge, which I thought was perfect. My publisher disagreed and he chose Please Don’t Leave Me, which I disliked at first. So he did the two-option close with me (reverse psychology?): Please Don’t Leave Me or The Grunge Factor? At some stage, an editor suggested adding Here to the end of the title and somehow that sounded so much better. The book grew into its name, like children do, and now I can’t imagine it being called anything else.

Naming my children was a similar matter. Reece was Baby Chandler until the last minute. Jaime was almost Pearl. And Paige was going to be Peri, right up until I was sucking on ice cubes in recovery after a C-section and noticed boxes of things called peri pads on the shelves. I’m still not 100% on what peri pads are, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have wanted my child named after them.

Gray_book_questionSo, any name suggestions for my next book baby?

_ _ _ _ is set around the Gippsland Lakes. It is a story of broken people, a broken marriage, and trying to break the cycle of mental illness. It delves into the darkness beneath the surface of fear, betrayal and revenge, and is ultimately about survival and starting anew.

My top five unreliable narrators in fiction

1) Grace Marks in Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Femme fatale or victim of circumstance? Innocent or a cold-blooded killer?

Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite writers, and Grace Marks is my favourite unreliable narrator in fiction. Alias Grace is based on the true story of one of the most notorious Canadian women of the 1840s, having been convicted of murder at the age of 16.

The actual case was sensationalised in the newspapers. Grace was reported as being ‘uncommonly pretty’; her employer and housekeeper were having an affair; and Grace and her fellow-servant were also assumed to be having an affair.

In Atwood’s fictional account, Grace claims to have no memory of the violent murders of her employer and housekeeper. Is she insane or lying? Or maybe she is unable to recall events accurately due to post-traumatic stress? She seems to be telling the truth (as she knows it) to her doctor, but she admits to making it ‘more interesting’ for him at times.

The reader never knows if Grace is guilty or innocent, and is left to judge how much of her narration is truthful.

2) The unnamed narrator in Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

The unnamed narrator in Fight Club is immediately questionable as he suffers from impaired thought processes due to chronic insomnia. Our suspicions about his point of view deepen when he joins self-help group after self-help group and eventually finds himself in an underground fight club, which turns out to be a cult-like group that participates in terrorist activities. There’s a big twist at the end that makes us question everything the narrator has told us.

3) Amy (and Nick) in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Right from the start, the reader knows something is wrong in Gone Girl because the stories of the two narrators don’t match.

Beautiful Amy goes missing and her husband Nick is suspected in her disappearance.

The first half of the book is told in first person, alternately, by both Nick and Amy. Nick’s point of view is from the present, while Amy’s perspective is given via journal entries. Amy’s account of their marriage makes her seem happy and easy to live with, and Nick aggressive. Nick’s story, on the other hand, depicts Amy as anti-social, demanding and resentful. Did Nick murder Amy? Or is he innocent and lacking in remorse simply because he is relieved to be free of her?

The competing narration and the mystery of their marriage is intriguing enough. But then — the big twist — the second half of the novel takes a different turn, and Flynn reveals that Amy and Nick are both unreliable narrators and that important information has been withheld from the reader.

4) Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

An unreliable narrator for many reasons. The Great Gatsby is a series of one-sided reminiscences of experiences based on Nick Carraway’s perception, opinions and thoughts about his mysterious millionaire next-door neighbour, Jay Gatsby.

Nick contradicts himself, a lot of alcohol is consumed, there are gaps in his memory, his behavior is inconsistent, and his moral conflict seems to distort his judgements — all of which leaves the reader questioning the truth of events recalled.

5) Christine Lucas in Before I Go to Sleep by S.J Watson

Christine Lucas, the narrator in Before I Go to Sleep is unreliable because she is suffering from a rare form of amnesia that wipes her near-term memory every time she falls asleep. Such a clever premise! This book sucked me in completely.

Every morning Christine wakes unable to recall what happened the day before. Her doctor suggests she keep a journal, which she reads every morning. Clues in her journal make Christine suspect that her husband — the only person she can trust — has been lying to her, and her life may be in danger.