Tag: Neil Gaiman

Blog touring with the QWC

Without the support of the Queensland Writers Centre and their lovely staff my journey to become a better writer would be so much harder. We have a fantastic writing community here, due in part to the QWC. Long may it flourish in their new home at the State Library – looking forward to the new writers’ lounge too!

I’m very pleased and honoured to be part of the QWC’s Blog Tour 2009.

Where do your words come from?

Good question! I’ve never thought about it before; just accepted they’ll turn up in time. And so they did for my first junior fiction novel, Secrets of Eromanga. And for Charlie & the Red Hot Chilli Pepper, a funny chapter book due for release next August.

Have to admit though – sometimes it’s like pushing jelly uphill. But when the magic of flowing, unrestrained words rush out and skitter along fingertips to the page; I forget about food and sleep (and all the jobs around the house, as well). That type of writing is nourishment for the hard times when the right words don’t come – it keeps a writer’s confidence alive.

I’ve been a voracious reader since I was five. I reckon reading books is like the scaffolding of writing. By osmosis, stories guide the brain into sensing the power of words and the rhythm of the language.

Writing a first draft isn’t easy for me – could be because I stop to edit along the way; not moving on until it reads right. There’re lots of editing chances later, but no, can’t help myself. It’s like picking at a scab. Maybe I’m a perfectionist (in some things, anyway). J

But when the first draft is done, then, joy of joys – it’s rewriting and editing time with the freedom to branch off in other directions, pull characters apart, tighten up the storyline and heighten tension. All the fun stuff!

Where did you grow up and where do you live now?

I grew up in the mid 50s and 60s in sugar-cane country in far-north Queensland, until my dad was transferred out west into dinosaur fossil territory.

My younger sisters and I ran wild, having the most amazing adventures. We only came home to eat and sleep. (Thank you Parents for not filling our days with activities – except to make sure we went to school.) They’d have fallen over laughing at the thought of ‘after-school activities’? I reckon those years were the genesis of my imagination.

I’ve lived in Brisbane for years now and can’t see us moving anywhere else.

What’s the first sentence of your latest work?

He slips though the shadows in the School of Arts Hall. Only the squeak of leather shoes betrays the man’s presence as he leans against the back wall and folds his arms.

It’s from McAlpine & Macbeth, the junior fiction novel I’m editing in my Australian Society of Authors Mentorship this year. I’m working with author and illustrator, Sally Rippin.

What piece of writing do you wish you had written?

It’s a toss-up between Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Fabulous stories with every word just the exact word it should be. They’re part of my TOP SHELF collection.

What are you currently working towards?

Completing McAlpine & Macbeth and sending it off to publishers.

For me, 2009 was swamped by the battle against Parallel Importation of Books. I, with a small group of Aussie children’s authors, set up a blogsite and campaigned against PIs. As well as writing blogs and letters to the newspapers and politicians, it also meant organising a protest by authors here in Brisbane; taking our petition to Parliament House and fronting the media. A matter of learning at the coal face! This battle was won, but not the war – we expect the issue to come up again.

For now, I’m enjoying getting back to writing stories.

The future of the book is…

Interesting; always exciting; hopefully still with the opportunity for books to suit all tastes and choices – whether online and e-published or in traditional style.

I don’t believe we will give up real books altogether. But in the future when paper-making can no longer be environmentally and economically sustainable? Perhaps then.

I’ll still be sitting amongst my book collection smelling the pages for that evocative scent of new book.

This post is part of the Queensland Writers Centre blog tour, October to December 2009. To follow the tour, visit Queensland Writers Centre’s blog The Empty Page.

writing research in a dinosaur fossil preparation lab


The lure of PLACE … more than just a setting

Every story has a setting – it’s what fixes its characters and its narrative in place, making the reader part of the action and sucking us deeper into the story. And when an author successfully carries off this sensory blending of atmosphere and environment, without showing the harsh edges, it’s enough to make your heart sing.

Take for example, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book – ‘The child stepped out of the house a little hesitantly. The fog wreathed around him like a long-lost friend. And uncertainly at first, then with increasing speed and confidence, the boy tottered up the hill.’ The reader knows what evil stalks the adventurous, unaware toddler and we urge him on, wanting to hide him, like the protective cover of fog.

In Stephen King’s novelette, The Body, (later made as a brilliant movie starring River Phoenix, Stand by Me), the main character, a 12 year-old-boy describes a treehouse built by him and his mates. ‘When it rained, being in the club was like being inside a Jamaican steel drum … but that summer there had been no rain.’

King draws the reader into the characters of these four Louisiana boys in the 1960s, and the hot, dry, dusty town where nothing ever happens … and into a sense of foreboding of what lays ahead for them. This story, along with Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, two of four novelettes in King’s Different Seasons, stands out from all the horror stories he’s re-known for.

But what I really wanted to discuss on this blog is PLACE – that sense of somewhere significant in your own psyche, memory, senses, history, whatever.

A number of stories I’ve written (published and unpublished) are set in real places  – like north-west Queensland’s Mitchell-grass plains, a sub-tropical rainforest and a dreamtime mountain in the Gulf country.

I’d been painting impressions of these half-remembered landscapes of my childhood for years without wondering about the repetition. It wasn’t until I got involved in writing that someone asked me why I used the landscape as another character in my stories.

I probably kept a blank face, not wanting to show my thoughts. Just like in the art world, it always intrigued me the way people see different things within paintings. Does this happen with your writing? That people perceive more than what you thought you wrote? Like some undercurrent?

All I know is that until I get the setting right, using all five senses plus more, to imagine and feel it, plus knowing the history and pre-history of that place, I can’t write my characters into it.

Before that happens I need to go back to the landscape, with notebook in hand, to absorb the sights, smells, sounds and feel of what is there; to wander alone with every sense zinging and receptive.

What do you do to get your ‘setting receptors’ zinging? Do you feel confident? Or do you feel more comfortable exploring the landscapes of humans – the characters?

Pray tell!

Moonrise over the Mitchell-grass plains
Moonrise over the Mitchell-grass plains. Elliot dinosaur fossil dig site near Winton, Qld.

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