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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Happy Lunar New Year - and a book excerpt.

As a little gift for the Year of the Goat, I'm posting the first chapter of Across the Dark Sea, which begins with the first day of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. If you prefer, you can download it from my website:

The book has lovely illustrations by Donna Rawlins, but you'll have to imagine that for this excerpt!

Like a cricket to freedom
It started on the first day of Tet, in the middle of the fun and firecrackers, when they put old pants and shirts on top of their New Year clothes and took a bus from Saigon to Uncle Huan’s near the sea. Or before that, when Ma sold everything they owned so nothing was left but the furniture and Trung’s bamboo cage for his fighting crickets. Or maybe it started two years before, on that rainy day in 1976 when the soldiers took Ba away because he was a doctor for the army that lost the war.
Whenever it started, it happened the night they crept out of Uncle’s house in the middle of the night, Mai on Ma’s back and Trung carrying his parcel of new clothes.
A man was waiting on the path to the river. Trung froze so still his breath didn’t come, but his mother hurried forward as if she didn’t know how to be afraid.
‘It’s Ba,’ she whispered.
Every morning for two years Trung had prayed to see his father again. This man was thinner and older, with his two front teeth missing, but when he held out his arms, Trung exploded into them like a cricket escaping to freedom.
Mai couldn’t remember so long ago; she thought Ba was an ancestor in a photo. She started to cry.
‘Sh!’ whispered her mother, and they hurried on to the river through the moon shadows and strange night noises.
A crowd of people were waiting on the bank – men and women, children and grandmothers – and even though they jostled and stared, even the babies stayed quiet as a secret. Trung had so many questions he didn’t know what they were, but he held tight to his father’s hand while a voice inside his head chirped like a happy cricket, ‘Ba’s here and we’ll be all right! Ba’s here, we’re together again!’
Ma and Mai came up behind them. Mai started to cry again till Ma turned around. ‘Silly Mai!’ whispered Trung. ‘It’s Ba!’
Then, from the darkness of the river, Trung saw three dragon shapes gliding towards them. He tugged Ba’s hand hard – then a wave of people pushed them to the water, and the dragons turned into sampans with a boatman poling each one.
Trung stumbled as the river snatched him. His feet skidded, his arms waved, and he splashed face-first into the water. His parcel of clothes floated away.
Ba grabbed him and dumped into a sampan. More people tumbled in: a bigger boy landed on his foot and someone’s elbow was in his back.
Ba turned around for Ma and Mai.
The boatman lifted his pole. ‘No more!’
‘Ba!’ croaked Turn, his throat so dry with fear that his voice didn’t work.

His father grabbed the sampan and slid inside.
The night was black and the river was blacker, but blackest of all was the big fishing boat ahead of them, with the line of people scurrying up its side like ants up a honey jar. Then their sampan bumped against it too, Ba hoisted him up to a ladder, and the other boat started poling back to the shore.
To get Ma and Mai, thought Trung, as hand by hand, foot by foot, he climbed the prickly rope ladder to the deck.
The half –moon came out, its crescent of light shining on the calm sea.
It shone on the soldiers who burst out of the woods, and on the sampans racing up the river to hide.
It shone on the shore where Ma waited with Mai, while the fishing boat with Ba and Trung sailed out to cross the sea to Australia, 6000 kilometres away. 

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Thirty years in the making – where did Nim come from?

The wonderfully zany and multi-talented author Tristan Bancks said I had to write a blog post about my character or he’d never speak to me again. I mean, he invited me to be part of a character blog hop. You can meet his character Tom Weekly here.
Since it’s quite a long time before you’ll the character who’s taken over my life and computer right now, I’m going to introduce Nim. Even if you’ve met her, you might find out something new.

1) What is your character’s name?
Nim Rusoe.

2) Is Nim based on you?
Of course she is! She’s brave, adventurous, resourceful. A bit hot-tempered too, but I had to make some things up.
But Alex Rover, the agorophobic adventure writer is based on me too. Maybe I should say that Nim is based on how I’d have liked to be when I was her age. In fact, when I was writing the first book, Nim's Island, Nim didn't come to life until I remembered how I'd felt when I was 9 year and  wrote a story about a little girl who runs away from an orphanage to live on an island. I wasn't a particularly brave or capable kid, so I created a character who could be all the things I wished I was. Thirty years later, that character and her story grew into Nim. 

3) How old is Nim?
Abigail Breslin as Nim
I never wanted Nim to have a specific age. When I wrote the first book I wanted her to be whatever age the reader wanted her to be – and because she didn’t go to school or have human friends, it was easy to do that. But when you see a movie you know how old the actor is, so in the movie Nim’s Island, Nim was 11, as the actress Abigail Breslin was at the time. In Nim at Sea she was between 11 and 12, but in the film of that book, Return to Nim’s Island, Bindi Irwin was 14, so Nim was too. In Rescue on Nim’s Island, I think she’s close to 13 – but she’ll be older in the film.
Bindi Irwin as Nim

4) What should we know about Nim?
She’s really just a normal kid whose life has made her become braver and more self-reliant than she might have been if her parents had worked in the city and sent her to school. But after meeting other kids in Nim at Sea and Return to Nim’s Island, she does want to have human, kid friends as well as her animal friends. She has to learn to do that in Rescue on Nim’s Island (as well as discovering fossils, blowing up caves, etc.) Learning to get along with the other kids and figuring out what’s going on is the hardest thing she’s had to learn!

5) What are Nim’s personal goals?
I don’t know if Nim would say, ‘saving the planet’, but in some ways that is her aim. She certainly wants to save her island and all the species on it.
And she wants the horrible twins Tiffany & Tristan to like her. (Sorry, Tristan!)  And for Edmund to really like her.
And for Selkie and Fred to stay happy and healthy forever.
And I think she has a secret wish about her dad and Alex Rover…

6) Where can we find out more about the books? 
Just click the links below. Nim's Island is the first, and Rescue on Nim's Island is the newest - it just came out last year. 

Nim's Island                                                                  Nim at Sea      

          The Nim Stories                                                    Rescue on Nim's Island


And now I'm going to nominate Sheryl Gwyther and Kathryn Appel to introduce their characters. Check their blogs next week or so and see if they've taken up the challenge!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Holiday season story starters - using the stories, emotions and memories triggered by objects

The holiday season can be joyous: all that family, expectation and tradition –  but it can also be difficult: all that family, expectation and tradition. Usually it's both. If you're a writer, that tension and drama means a huge source of potential inspiration. 

So [ay attention to the thoughts, memories and emotions that come up with various triggers at this time of year, whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukah, or nothing at all. Remember that there are no rules about what you should feel – if a beautiful ornament reminds you of sibling rivalry, or a Christmas carol leaves you feeling excluded, those are great story starters. All you need is that one trigger; the story may end up a long way from the object, the memory, or Christmas.  

I’ve chosen a few of my own Christmas ornaments and will share some of the thoughts that come up for me. They may be prosaic, but all that any prosaic idea needs is a twist to inspire a story.

Every year when I pin this tiny hanging to a wall, I am transported back to my eight year-old self in a prairie town in Alberta, Canada. It was a gift from a young Danish woman who was living with my family because her husband, an Air Force trainee, wasn’t supposed to be married. So as well as the warmth of remembering ‘my Danish sister’ when I handle it, I feel a slight sense of intrigue and mystery that I loved to embellish – she may have lived in the basement because there weren’t any spare bedrooms upstairs, but a story-telling mind could always wonder whether it was also to keep her hidden….

This paper machĂ© bell came from New Delhi, 

when I was there for the Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival. Of course it reminds me of that, the people I met there and the whole mind-boggling experience. It also makes me wonder about the person who made it, their life and emotions while making it. Did they wonder where some of their little bells would end up?

I made this rather bedraggled angel on my first Christmas in Australia. I’d just turned 22 and had been married nearly a year; it was my first Christmas away from my own family. I desperately wanted some of the traditions I’d grown up, including an angel on the Christmas tree. (Which that year was simply a branch.) We had no money at all, but I found a plastic skittle, an old lace glove and a torn doll’s dress in a shed on my parents-in-law’s farm…

One of my favourite ornaments was a gift of a bread-dough snowman from by a Jewish friend’s son when they spent Christmas with us. (Yes, we had a kosher chicken as well as the turkey.) There’s no picture because the dog ate it last year. But that could be a story in itself…  

Monday, December 01, 2014

Lort Smith - Animal Shelter success stories.

Nearly six years ago, as I was writing the second book in the Rainbow Street Animal Shelter Series, (which became the book Rainbow Street Pets in Australia) Harry came into our lives.

Harry is a poodle cross (a poodle enigma, since no one knows what the other bit is). We adopted him from the Lort Smith Animal Hospital, and I've been grateful to them ever since. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to have the chance to join in their fundraiser at Elgee Park Vineyard  to raise money for their emergency care program. Finally, the Rainbow Street stories were repaying their debt to this wonderful animal hospital and shelter.

Unlike my fictitious Rainbow Street shelter, which is run in an old house by Mona and Juan, as well as some child volunteers, the  Lort Smith is a huge building and organisation. The similarity between them comes from the love and respect shown to the animals they care for. Animals who don't find a home quickly aren't euthanised - they're put in foster homes until the right home appears for them.

Of course, by caring for pets, they are also caring for people. We heard very moving stories of the pets who were taken into emergency care - at times including extensive medical treatment - when their owners were hospitalised or in emergency shelters themselves. Sometimes it was for months. Can you imagine what it must have meant to those owners, as well as to the animals, to be safely reunited when they were able to be in their own home again? It's certainly much pleasanter than imagining what it would be like to be released from hospital knowing that your pets had been euthanised because you couldn't afford a kennel. Or imagining the despair that leads a mother and child fleeing domestic violence, to live in their car because the refuge doesn't allow dogs – but once the dog was safely with the Lort Smith, the family was able to go to their own refuge, and eventually be reunited with their pet.

These great pictures of the  event (yes, that really is a companion pig) are by Lort Smith volunteer and photographer Tanya Anderson

And in case you think Harry still looks as worried as the day we got him, I couldn't resist adding a couple more of him now.
Because animal shelter adventures should have happy endings.

PS. Although Harry didn't get his own story, he has quite a lot to do with the poodle at the very end of Buster's story.)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Grammar nerds are right: grammar matters to employers too

I confess: I’m a grammar nerd. I always have been. Even when I walked through the hospital corridors in my occupational therapist, pre-writing life, I always loved snarling at the door marked KITCHEN’S, ‘What exactly does the kitchen own?’
Yes, I know, it’s a pathetic sort of pleasure.
Ironically, now that I’ve been earning my living as an author for over twenty years, I’m more tolerant of the fact that English is a changing, living language. I’ve had to accept that when people say decimate to mean devastate or annihilate, they are actually following common usage, and it’s probably not polite to ask them if they mean that one in ten was wiped out.
And sometimes, in fiction – or in blog posts – I break grammar rules. (Yes, it’s true: I’ve just started a sentence with And. I’ve had elderly readers tell me in shocked tones that their English teachers would have never allowed that.)  Usually I do it deliberately, but sometimes it’s a mistake, and that really is upsetting.
Because some things are still wrong – and it matters. I frequently get emails from people who are keen to teach me how to ‘author best seller books.’ (I don’t write back and point out that I’ve had a book on the NY Times bestseller list. I told you I was getting more tolerant.) I’m quite sure these people know a lot more about marketing than I do, but I cannot imagine that I would ever pay money to learn how to write from someone whose email is full of grammatical mistakes. (‘A book who has a nice cover’ was another recent one. Really?!)
So I was interested to read a survey by Grammarly, an online grammar checker, that Sales and Marketing freelancers make an average of 17.7 mistakes per 100 words, while Writing and Translation freelancers, as you might expect, do a bit better with an average 10.1 – which in fact still seems very high to me.  (Whereas 19.3 5 errors for IT and Programming  actually seems fair enough , since they’re using language I can’t understand anyway.)
However, the part of the survey to make a grammar nerd’s heart rejoice is that in each category, the freelancers who made the fewest writing errors earned better reviews – and more money.  Grammar nerds of the world unite: it turns out that grammar does matter!
Grammarly, whom I’d only known previously as a source of hilarious-for-grammar-nerds e-cards and memes on facebook, has kindly allowed me to reuse their infographic:

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Dialogue with your Protagonist: Stop floundering and get down to the bones of your story

A lot of people are doing NaNoWriMo this month (for those who don’t know it, the aim is to write 50,000 words of a novel in November) so if anyone’s feeling a bit stuck, I thought I’d share a variation of a technique I used in a masterclass at CYA in July.
Now that I've discovered it, I intend to use frequently during the progress of a manuscript, but I think it’s useful early on - when you’ve thought about your characters quite a lot already, and you thought you knew the shape of the story, but now that you’re writing it, nothing’s quite as sharp and clear as you thought it was.
It can be challenging, but it works well – and remember, nobody’s watching or judging.
So: get a paper and pencil, or a sharpie, and just ask your protagonist, ‘What do you most want?’
But the trick is: you write the question out with your dominant hand, and answer with your non dominant hand – that’s why a nice fat sharpie is good. Don’t think about the answer, just let it come, misshaped letters and all. I've only used it for child characters so far, but I think it's also valid for adult protagonists, because most of our deepest wants and fears come from the child within us. 
If your character doesn’t know what they want, ask what they’re most afraid of. Ask why. Ask whatever you think a probing counsellor might ask them. And most importantly, don’t judge their answers. You might be surprised at what comes – I usually am.
And whether you use all that you’ve discovered or not, you’ll certainly end up with a stronger feeling of who your character is. Just don’t forget that you’re still the boss, so you may not choose to give your character exactly what they think they want. But it may give you a clearer idea of what they need to experience, and therefore, where you want your story to go.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Making the most of writing time: slow down, reflect and make notes: Or - how to write when you don't have your computer!

One of the disadvantages of being a full time writer (apart from the details of never knowing whether or not you’ll have an income this year) is that it’s easy to slip into the trap of simply jumping into the story each day, whatever draft it’s in, and letting it meander where it will without taking the time to reflect on it in between. I used to mull over the story on the drive to work, and actually make notes on my thoughts in my work diary during long staff meetings. (I know, bad work ethic, but I worked in a separate clinic and I did pay attention to the rare items that were relevant to me. So that’s not what we’re discussing here!) On my precious writing days I knew exactly what I wanted to do and could barely stop for lunch, let alone procrastination.
But last week I had to fly to Canada unexpectedly for family reasons. By the end of 28 hours travelling my brain isn’t good for much, but it’s a shame not to work in those early hours when you can think. I can fiddle around with a typescript nearly anywhere, cafĂ© or waiting room, but I’d just tidied up the first 10,000 words enough to send to my editor, so there was no point in editing them any further right now. And I’m more of a princess about first drafts; I need peace, physical and mental, to enter into the story’s own world, discover what happens next and find the words to describe it.
So I returned to my staff meeting days. I held the story in my head, the bit that I’ve done and the parts that come next, and wrote several pages of notes on them. Several things were suddenly obvious: missed opportunities, missed symbols, strained logic. I wrote out both sides of an argument about one question until the solution was clear; made notes of facts to check when I had the chance.
Now, although the priority of these few weeks is family time, when I have a spare hour to write I can focus on exactly what I want to accomplish. The notes have given me achievable tasks rather than having to fight through the murk to find the story’s next step. I’m definitely going to be scheduling some regular note-taking time when I’m home again (ie in a more organized way than the mulling over ideas on the daily dog walk, where I so often get sidetracked by sights, sounds and friends!)

But now, I’m just about to leave for my sister’s home and Thanksgiving dinner - and yes, that's something to be thankful for!