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Friday, October 21, 2016

My Top 5 First Draft Tips

With NaNoWriMo creeping steadily closer, I thought I’d give my top 5 tips on pushing through your first draft.  Sometimes I need to remind myself of my own rules, so even if you’re not signing up for an official challenge, these still might help in getting that all important first draft downloaded from your head to paper or screen.

Tapping for the inner critic, CYA masterclass
1)    Send your inner critic on holiday. The meanie voice – my editor’s technical term – is not helpful in a first draft. In fact, it’s extremely detrimental. (I use EFT for this, but you can use any self talk that works for you.) And don’t worry, it will come back when you’re editing.
If the critic creeps back and points out that what you’ve just spent the last three days writing is complete garbage, tell it you don’t care. Every bit of garbage you write is teaching you more about your story. Even if you throw out every word in subsequent drafts, your first draft will have done its job.
2)    Take quick breaks from the screen – stand up and stretch every half hour, walk around a bit. Go for a walk outdoors every day, without a mobile phone. Meditate, do your yoga or tai chi. Your draft will be better if you’re physically and mentally healthy.
3)    While you’re writing, close email, turn off social media notifications and put your phone on Do Not Disturb. Each distraction might only seem momentary, but if it jolts you out of your own world, it takes much more than that out of your writing time. You need to be able to relax into your story to let it flow.
Early draft of Dragonfly Song -when Aissa was Aisha
4)    Don’t stop just because you’re stuck in one spot. If you find you’ve got a character without a name, call it Joe* or Jane* or just plain X or *. The name is likely to be much more obvious when you’ve written more of the story.
If a whole scene is stalling you, just skip it.  Put in a chapter marking and whatever thoughts you have, even if it’s just ‘Linking Scene or Passage of time??’
The brighter side is – if you have a scene that is exceptionally clear in your head or demands to be written because it is in line with your own mood at the moment – just do it. If it’s that clear, it’s probably a pivotal point in the book. Writing it may help clarify all the steps towards it.
5)    If you’re halfway through and decide that it really should be written in the first person instead of the third, or the past tense instead of the present, just go ahead and try. If it feels right, you can change the beginning when you redraft later. If it doesn’t you can revert to the person and tense that you started with.

So – to sum up:
Remember that this first draft is for fun, exploration, and the wastepaper basket.
A new first draft, 2 years later
Keep moving forward, no matter what.
Have faith that you will find the best way to tell this story; even if it takes more drafts and experiments than you hoped, each step and misstep will take
you closer to that best.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Blending traditions - pumpkin pie for AFL grand final

Part of being a migrant is developing your own rituals, blended from your country of origin and your new home. That holds true even for privileged migrants like me – privileged in the sense of an easy transition between two similar countries speaking the same language.

So last weekend, a long weekend in Victoria to celebrate the AFL grand final, which happens to be the weekend before Canadian Thanksgiving, my family celebrated our own version. The only rule everyone insisted on was that there had to be pumpkin pie. And of course I used the recipe my mother wrote out for me in the handmade recipe book she gave me when I got married.

The picture I posted on Facebook got so much reaction from my Australian friends that I agreed to post the recipe. I think it was originally adapted from Better Homes & Gardens.

My mother's Pumpkin Pie

1 shortcrust pie shell – 9” or 22 cm

1 ½ c cooked smoothly mashed pumpkin
¾ c sugar
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp ginger
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp cloves
1 ¼ tsp cinnamon
3 slightly beaten eggs
1 ¾ c milk

Combine pumpkin, sugar & spices. Add eggs & milk and mix thoroughly. Pour into pie shell. Bake for 5 minutes  in hot oven – 400’ F or 200 ‘ C, 180’ for fan forced
Lower heat to 325’F or 165 C for 50 minutes.
Pie is done when knife inserted at centre comes out clean.

Serve warm or room temperature.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Difficult to judge; delightful to read: the Environment Award for Children's Literature

I was thrilled to have Rescue on Nim's Island win the Environment Award for Children's Literature, fiction, and the Puggles award in 2015, so I was honoured to be one of the judges, and the guest speaker for this year's awards.
photo by Coral Vass
Coral Vass has covered the awards for Kids' Book Review, so I won't repeat it all, but you can read my speech below.  It was wonderful to meet many of the authors and illustrators on the day - and I was very pleased that I had actually seen Rohan Cleave being interviewed on the phasmids (Lord Howe stick insects) on the news the night before the awards. That's not something that happens often with children's literature!

And a bit of trivia: all three of the shortlisted picture books were by an author-illustrator, rather than being written by one person and illustrated by another.

On a serious note, the threat to the Australian publishing industry means that, like many authors participating in festivals around Australia this month, I showed a Save Oz Stories placard:

“Audience members may not be aware that the Australian book industry is under threat. The Productivity Commission has proposed a number of changes to copyright that will result in fewer Australian publishers, booksellers and authors. We need to make our voices heard. If you enjoy events like this, and if you value Australian stories, visit www.bookscreateaustralia.com.au and sign the petition.’

Since it’s Father’s Day, I thought I’d start with an embarrassing Dad story. We travelled a lot when I was a child, and whenever we stopped for a picnic lunch, or camped my father would always pick up all the rubbish at the site. Can you imagine how humiliating that was by the time I was a young teen – my father picking up other people’s garbage?  And can you imagine how I admire him now that he’s 85 and walks with a stick – and still wobbles off the road when he’s walking the dogs, to pick up a coke can instead of leaving it there to pollute the woods or roll down to the sea? 

And yes, whether I’m walking my dog around the bush near our home or on the beach, I usually pick up rubbish too. Not to copy my dad, but because one of the most valuable lessons my parents taught me was to love and respect nature: its beauty, and its complexity. So it’s partly because each plastic bag or six pack loop that I remove is one less that an animal might swallow or be trapped in. But even if all the rubbish was instantly biodegradable, I wouldn’t want to see it. Walking in the bush, or on a lonely beach, is something that replenishes my spirit. Sometimes, when a breeze rustles leaves, or wild waves whip the ocean, story ideas come to me – but most importantly, is that being out in the natural world settles me, at the same time that it makes me feel fully alive. And so it’s important for me to care for it.

It doesn’t matter that I grew up in Europe and North America – the feeling is the same, and so are some of the lessons. Whether it’s a rattlesnake or a king brown, leave it alone.  Enjoy watching a hedgehog or an echidna, but leave them in the wild to live their own lives. The bears are just less likely to eat you in Australia.   

So the environment – loving it, being in it, hiking in it, and caring for it – is part of who I am. Recently, at the launch of Dragonfly Song, I was asked why the environment is so powerful in my books. But just as I can’t separate who I am from what I write, I can’t separate the environment from my plots. The environment acts on our real lives, and if it doesn’t act on our stories, then those stories will fail to live. After all, a writer’s job is to create a world – and the environment is what makes the world.   We need to understand our real environment to create fictitious ones, no matter how way out those fictitious ones might be.

Not that everything needs to be didactic. I think the only environmental message in Dragonfly Song, set in 1460 BCE, is that the chief has killed the last lion in the island’s mountains. Goatherds are pretty happy about that, and we don’t see any environmental consequences in the time period of the book. But I still hope that readers might think about it.  

Of course my environmentally focussed character is Nim, of Nim’s Island. I didn’t set out to make her a wildlife warrior – it was just the only way to make her true to the environment I built for her. However, it was fantastic to realise that kids around the world saw her as a model in that way (even this week I got letters from children who’d made solar ovens after reading the book.). So I know how the shortlisted authors feel today, because I was absolutely thrilled last year when Rescue on Nim’s Island won the Environment award for fiction, as well as the Puggles. I always feel it’s the award that mattered most to Nim. 

But there’s more to these particular awards than making writers and their imaginary friends happy.  The other day, looking out at a bunch of blue wrens and yellow robins, my husband said, ‘If people could only see the birds we have here, they’d take more care of their bush.’ We live on 5 acres of bush in the Mornington Peninsula, and it was quite degraded when we moved there – so there were lots of parrots and kookaburras in the big eucalypts, but not enough indigenous understory for the small birds. As the natural bush has been restored, the birds have come back. And of course there are echidnas, very occasional koalas – and in summer we walk through clouds of butterflies, so thick they sometimes brush our faces.

Because it’s important to remember that when we’re talking about environment, we need to start with what’s right around us. It’s great to protest to save whales or rainforests in other parts of the world – but if you replace agapanthus with the rushes that indigenous butterflies breed in, you can help save a species in your own garden. Sometimes small changes can accomplish big things. 

The books on this shortlist do more than walk us around one tiny piece of restored bushland. They captivate and entertain us – and along the way, inspire us to find out more about our natural environment, maybe to act on it – and I hope, to love it.  

Non-fiction: Atmospheric: by Carole Wilkinson – absolutely packed with facts about the atmosphere, problems in the environment today and throughout history – as well as lots of ideas for action you can take to help. (Winner) 

Platypus – Written by Sue Whiting and illustrated by Mark Jackson – I loved everything about this book, but I’m just going to point out the very interesting layout – P 12: with the larger font for the story of what this platypus is doing, and the smaller font for general facts. It works really well.

Phasmid: Written by Rohan Cleave and illustrated by Coral Tulloch –fascinating story about phasmids – the Lord Howe Island stick insects, which were thought to be extinct after black rats from a 1918 shipwreck spread over the island and ate them – until 3 were discovered in in 2001. And like platypus, beautifully illustrated.

Picture Fiction -  Seagull by Danny Snell – I once saw a seagull that had lost both its feet, presumably from fishing line, and I was SO relieved that Danny Snell allowed this one to eventually be saved, while still alerting us to the danger. (Joint winner)

A River by Marc Martin – this story of a child dreaming of how the river travels from her city to the sea is just exquisite

Once I Heard a Little Wombat by Renee Treml – read a bit rather than tell you how delightful it is (joint winner) 

Fiction  - Thirst  by Lizzie Wilcock – This is a great action and survival story – emotional healing as well as physical survival, with really lovely descriptions of the Australian outback – without trivializing any of its harshness.

The River and the Book by Alison Croggon – A beautifully written book: I loved the mythic quality of the story, and found that the interweaving of respect for a sacred book and nature really lingered in my mind. (Winner) 

And from last year's awards:

Mister Cassowary by Samantha Wheeler – This is another book that, with a bit of fun, courage and family mystery, doesn’t minimize the risks in dealing with birds like cassowaries – actually, I don’t know that there are many birds like cassowaries! – and emphasizes the respect we need to show for nature.