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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!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Setting Your Characters Free - From Book to Film and back again

Bindi Irwin as Nim, from Return to Nim's Island movie poster
I know that tying in a film to a book sequel sounds like the writer’s equivalent of a first world problem, but in fact we always need to be aware of how much we are, or want to be, swayed by other people’s comments and interpretations, from editors to illustrators, cover artists and even readers. I didn’t actually plan Nim as an eco-warrior, but the way that she and Jack live means that she’s interpreted as one. It seems so logical to me now that I have to remind myself it simply evolved naturally, as it probably would have if she were real.

My only physical description of Nim in any of the books is ‘her hair is wild and her eyes are bright.’ But of course I have my own vision of her:  a wiry, dark haired, almost elfin girl, and I kept that through the first two books, even though I enjoyed imagining how Kerry Millard might illustrate something.

Kerry Millard's interpretation of Nim

Wendy Orr, Abigail Breslin, Kerry Millard
Then the films came, and there were real people, in flesh and blood, both the people I met off camera, and the way they were portrayed on screen and covers. By the time I started Rescue on Nim’s Island, I’d had 5 years of seeing Abigail Breslin being so completely Nim that it was difficult to return to my own vision.  
Abigail Breslin as Nim

It was only when I’d seen Bindi Irwin on location, portraying Nim differently but equally convincingly, that I could free myself up and remember my mantra that characters are however you interpret them: if they could both be Nim, my own vision could be too.

Bindi Irwin, Wendy Orr

It took me a while to find my way with Rescue on Nim’s Island  and that’s what I think is relevant to all of us. I had to really go back to basics instead of planning plots that I thought were terribly filmic, to which the film producer kept saying, ‘But that doesn’t really sound like you, or Nim.’ 
Geoff's Kelly interpretation of Nim

I had to slow down, dream around it, and gradually discover the story in the usual organic way that I work. I reread the first books and got into the rhythm. Nim is a year older in each book, and I felt that she was growing naturally. She’s still herself. She’s more quick-tempered than either Abbie or Bindi are in real life, though slightly less pugnacious than the Nim of the second film. She’s the girl that was obviously born of some part of me, when I started writing her in 1998. Or maybe further back, when I wrote the prototype when I was 9. So if there’s a moral, I think it’s simply, let your characters grow and develop, but always be true to who they are at core.

*This is an edited excerpt of a talk I gave at the SCBWI meeting at Flinders on 6 September, 2014.