Tag: writing stories

The art of perseverance

There’s one thing you need to learn pretty quickly as a writer – perseverance. Whether for the thought processes that go into making a story, the actual bum-on-seat work or the many months between manuscript submission to notification from a publisher. Then you either pick up the pieces and start another re-write or toast the beginnings of a brand new book.

Not that it’s an easy thing, this perseverance game!

One of my survival tactics is to read an extract from the biography of  Katsushika Hokusai, brilliant artist and Japanese master of the ukiyo-e, the woodcut print. You would’ve seen copies of his most famous works from Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji – they’ve featured in advertisements and fabric designs. Hokusai was born in Edo (Tokyo) in 1760 and died at the age of 88, in 1849.

Japanese woodcut printmaking is a labourious, time-consuming procedure of carving in stages into a cherry wood board before printing and reprinting on the same piece of paper – yes, you do require patience.

Hokusai was a man obsessed with printmaking. He even took the art name of Gakyo-rojin at one stage which translates old man mad with painting. Which makes his attitude to perseverance all that more remarkable.

This is what he wrote in his autobiography, probably with tongue planted in cheek as he had a little dig at himself:

From the age of five I have had a mania for sketching the forms of things. From about the age of fifty I produced a number of designs, yet of all I drew prior to the age of seventy there is truly nothing of great note. At the age of seventy-two I finally apprehended something of the true quality of birds, animals, insects, fish and of the vital nature of grasses and trees. Therefore, at eighty I shall have made some progress, at ninety I shall have penetrated even further the deeper meaning of things, at one hundred I shall have become truly marvelous, and at one hundred and ten, each dot, each line shall surely possess a life of its own. I only beg that gentlemen of sufficiently long life take care to note the truth of my words.

You can see how this puts my obsession with writing into a much clearer perspective. Attitude is all important. Like everyone else I go through the frustrations of rejections. But it is true, persevere with re-writing and submitting and eventually they stop being one-line or one paragraph dismissals. Instead, they return with letters suggesting possible problems or an editor’s positive encouragement.

Not that I’d ever give up doing what I love most!

Here’s a picture of one of Hokusai’s woodprints. Enjoy.

The Great Wave at Kanagawa

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.

On extracting stories

I’ve been thinking about  something Darren Groth, Aussie author www.darrengroth.com 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.