Category: b. WRITING TIPS

On extracting stories

I’ve been thinking about  something Darren Groth, Aussie author said recently about Stephen King’s views regarding that sometimes elusive component to writing – extracting the story.

Stephen King likens the stories and the ideas upon which they are founded as ‘fossils’ and writers as ‘archaeologists’ (correct term should be ‘palaeontologists’ if we’re talking about fossils, but let’s not quibble over this often confused term). He goes on to say our job as writers is to extract the story – using everything from jackhammer to toothbrush – to reach its pristine form.

This terminology of locating and extracting ancient fossil treasures in the earthstruck a chord with me (I’ve worked on a fossil dig in Western Queensland) – this is exactly what finding a story is like. And you must sense whether it is time to get down and dirty with the jackhammer and too bad about the damage inflicted. For me, this is the dreaded, mental agony of the first-draft stage.

But the reward is the toothbrush, paintbrush, dental pick, rewriting stage – just like on a fossil dig when the tiniest, most fragile imprint of an ancient pine cone waits to see the light of day. You tease it with the dental tool, you coax it with your toothbrush, you brush away the layers until its there in its pristine form. Ahhhh.

Looking for plant fossils - Elliot Dinosaur Dig camp, Winton, Australia

Well, almost pristine. There is always room for improvement – which is why I appreciate my writing friends – the ones I trust to read my writing drafts and be honest in their opinion; who will pick up inconsistencies or notice when a bit of ‘telling not showing’ creeps in; who share the frustrations, the rejections, the successes of a writer’s life.

Then, there’s the joy of digging through history, researching …. but that is another story.


Where do you get your ideas?

It’s a question all authors face.

So what’s your answer? That they flow into your head from some stream of consciousness, or the ether? Or plucked from a fast-fading dream? Or from a magic box that only you have the key to? Or do you shrug your shoulders because it’s too hard to think of the right words.

You could offer an explanation like my favourite author, Neil Gaiman did…

“In the beginning, I used to tell people the not very funny answers, the flip ones: ‘From the Idea-of-the-Month Club,’ I’d say, or ‘From a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis,’ ‘From a dusty old book full of ideas in my basement…’ until I got sick of being flippant and told the truth. ‘I make them up. Out of my head.

But people didn’t like that answer – as though he was holding some secret knowledge back from them, keeping it all for himself. For acclaimed authors like Gaiman, those who seek the knowledge usually want his magic bullet so they can do what he does.

For me it’s usually people I know or kids I talk to at schools who ask that question. So its easy to ‘spill the beans’ to them. I use some of the stories I’ve written as examples,  so it makes more sense.

What sparks off chains of events and the characters that become my stories?

For Secrets of Eromanga it was the unknown, unnamed Australian dinosaur that left the evidence of its flight for life in the 95 million-year-old rocks of Lark Quarry Dinosaur Stampede near Winton combined with my passion for fossil hunting.

McAlpine & Macbeth began with the glimpse of a fast-fading dream I had – a girl from the past and the kick-boxing cockatiel she called Macbeth (I kid you not). That dream morphed into the adventures of a 15-year-old on the run during the Depression with her friend and mentor, a Shakespearean-quoting cockatiel, Macbeth.

Two words fell into my head one day … ‘octopus boy’ – I haven’t got a clue where they came from. That idea became an eco-adventure, The Octopus ODDyssey.

Decibelle sparked into life in my imagination during an Adult Literacy class I taught part-time and a student spelled ‘decibel’ as he heard it. An image of a fantastical creature refused to leave my head – I jotted down the notes on a scrap of paper I still have … female, feisty, definitely Australian, very loud voice and an outsider to the rest of her clan of sprite-like creatures. But Decibelle is neither fairy nor sprite – she’s a tintookie, a mythological Australian ‘small being from the sand hills’. Yes, Decibelle’s come a long way since that first spelling error.

Ideas come from anywhere, every minute of the day, daydreaming or focussed; people, images and places. You catch them with your senses, your brain, your imagination, your experience of life. You build on them, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, scaffolding, constructing, questioning, demolishing and re-building until they are tangible and new … a story.

PS  Three of the above stories are on reams of paper at the moment doing the rounds of publishers. But Kate and Macbeth, Decibelle and Finn Jackson and his mates are so real in their author’s head she sometimes forgets this small, insignificant detail.

Neil Gaiman – Where do you get your ideas?

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book – 2009 Newberry Medal winner

Music to write by?

Do you listen to music while you write? A Mozart sonata? John Coltrane’s sax or some classic Miles Davis? A bit of the Cuban touch? Coldplay‘s lastest CD? Or soundtracks from your favourite movies?

It could be that, to work successfully, you need a blur of background sound to keep away the silence. Or is it deliberately chosen music that fits the mood of the piece you’re writing? Or do you prefer silence?

I’ve asked some writers their preferences….

New Zealand author, Brian Falkner has a very definite way of working – he finds a specific piece of music that reflects the kind of emotion in the scene he’s writing. If it’s an important or emotional scene, he sometimes spends as much time trying to find an appropriate piece of music as he does writing the scene. (See Brian’s website on the sidebar)

I find that the right music can not only affect you emotionally while you are writing, but it can also bring imagery to mind that you can use in the scene.’  Usually he uses the music choice once because then it’s become tied to that particular book and scene in his mind.

Here’re some of Brian’s choices, (if you know the music you can imagine the scene he’s writing):
1812 Overture / Barber’s Adagio for Strings  / Quidam (Almost the entire album) – Cirque du Soleil  /  Firebird Suite – Stravinsky  /  Night on Bald Mountain – Mussorgsky  /  Ave Maria – Schubert  /  Oh, Fortuna – Orff /  The Swan – Saint-Saëns

Australian author, Claire Saxby finds music keeps her going if she’s writing something new, and it tunes out ambient noise. She says beat music will keep the words flying. Favourite titles include Augie March’s two albums, The Frames (Irish band), Waifs, Cat Empire, Paul Kelly. Familiar albums allow for subliminally absorbing – so much so, often she doesn’t notice them finish.

Michael Bauer, a fellow Ashgrovian, and the author of the splendid story, The Running Man (and others), confesses to needing silence when he works because he’s easily distracted. ‘I thought I’d give it a go so I put on a cd but I couldn’t write a thing because I kept listening to the music! Maybe I just didn’t pick the right songs?’

Michael does have a point – there is music it’s impossible to write by – I’ve tried it. The latest I’ve tried is a Christmas gift from my sister in Washington – called Rhythms Del Mundo CUBA. A collection of musicians, from Coldplay, Sting, Artic Monkeys, to Quincy Jones and Ibraham Ferrer (from The Buena Vista Social Club) and others, playing their music with a Cuban influence – all with the intent of raising funds and awareness about climate change. Great music! But why is it impossible to write by? How can one key words when one is too busy salsa-ing?

My favourites to write by depend on what I’m working on…  if it’s an action scene or dramatic dialogue, then it’s the soundtrack from The Lord of the Rings – especially when the orcish army is storming Helm’s Deep. For background music, I’m back in my Celtic ancestry with any of five Loreena McKennitt CDs. Or Paul Kelly’s Songs from The South.

P.S. My favourite Music quotes:
‘Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom.  If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.’  ~Charlie Parker
‘Life can’t be all bad when for ten dollars you can buy all the Beethoven sonatas and listen to them for ten years.’  ~William F. Buckley, Jr.

So, do you have music favourites to work by? Love to hear your choices.

Here’s a video of Rhythms del Mundo CUBA – enjoy!

I’ve always thrived on challenges…

Kat and Cat
Kat and me

I’ve always thrived on challenges. If a job’s too easily mastered – why wouldn’t you get sick of it?

Maybe this is why I’ve never stayed in a job for longer than four years in my life? Except for writing; and in particular, writing for young people.

It’s been 10 years now – the longest I’ve ever stayed focused on one thing – the pushing, pulling, pinching and punching of words like lumps of clay, molding them into coherency, thought and feelings until something magical happens – not every time, just enough to taste the drug of success.

I’ve been asked the question: ‘Why do you want to write stories?’

The short answer – I can’t stop.

Mind you, there are times when it’s like pushing jelly uphill. On other days, the words fly on silver wings.

That’s the beauty, the thrill and the curse of being a committed writer. On the good days I swear there’s no better job in the world. Yeah, even on the bad days too.

I started another story after I submitted my first completed manuscript. Rejection letters arrived and rewrites followed, but because I had an ongoing project on the go, writer’s block never freaked me out. There was always another story to work on when the jelly rolls back downhill.

If you’re interested, the WORKS IN PROGRESS page dips into extracts from some of my unpublished stories (which will be published one day!)