Tag Archives: Five Parts Dead

Where I’m at

Author versus self-confidence
Author versus self-confidence

Thunder Road readers are overdue an explanation. For the purposes of this exercise I’m seeing you guys as the parent while I play the recalcitrant teen:

You: “Where have you been?”
Me: “Out.”
You: “What have you been doing?”
Me: “Nothing.” (Checking phone.) “Stuff.”
You: “Don’t look at your phone while I’m speaking to you! I’ve been worried sick about you. You drop off the radar, you don’t call to say where you are or when you’ll be back. And when I ask what you’ve been up to, I get, ‘Nothing’… It’s not good enough!”
Me: (Shuffling feet.) “Got it.”
You: “I’m going to need to see some changes. If you want to be treated as a responsible adult, you need to show me you can behave like one.”
Me: “Yep.”
Pause
Me: “What’s for dinner?”

Apologies for casting blog readers as parents. You don’t need that sort of pressure. The real heat is on yours truly because it’s almost a year since I posted that I’d finished a manuscript. What the heck has happened since then?

Before I answer that, I probably need to fill in some gaps. Provide some context.

The years that I spent writing Game as Ned and Five Parts Dead I worked part time for a website run by an author-tolerant employer. When I had a publisher deadline, I worked less paid hours than usual or stacked my hours differently so I could clear my head for writing/rewriting/editing/rewriting.

When the website got taken over by a big company I had to change my approach and behave, like, all grown-up and professional to keep my job. When the big company was consumed by a monster company, my workload and responsibilities grew proportionately more intense.

About this time, I discovered I was unwell. I had one operation and learned I needed another, plus some clever treatment, to get things back to where my family and I could sleep easier. After much deliberation, I quit my job to concentrate on rest and recovery.

Best laid plans
The vision was to get healthy while working part-time on several freelance gigs and writing my next novel. I did a heap of writing, including belting out a concept and three chapters of an ill-fated side project. But I was naive about a) how much I’d be affected by the surgery and treatment and, b) how ambitious a project this story is. As I posted here, the manuscript is the longest thing I’ve ever written. It may be Book 1 of several or a third of a long book. I don’t know. Smarter brains than mine may make that decision.

Anyway, I was getting close to finishing a draft when I got a job offer out of the blue. At that stage I hadn’t had a regular income for 1.5 years. It didn’t feel like I could say no to any form of legal employment.

Before I fronted up for day one back in Corporate Land I took the terrifying* step of sending my story to three people. (*Sending a whittled chunk of your imagination out from the shade and safety of your workshop into the sunlight is daunting. Really sleep-wrecking scary. Because if it’s crap, you’re about to find out.)

Person 1 read the manuscript and felt it needed more work. Person 1 was correct. And then I panicked. I was freaking out that a) my story was rubbish, b) I’d lost any ability to write and c)I’d wasted all that time. I asked persons 2 and 3 to stop reading and clutched my manuscript back to my chest.

Detour
Then I put a collared shirt back on and fronted up to an office.

It’s been almost a year back in a job-land. Authoring has had to take a back seat to parenting, partnering, staying healthy and earning a grown-up wage.

All that time, the story has been growing inside me. The characters have been maturing, making decisions and altering their futures. The universe has been evolving. I’ve been increasingly antsy and eager to dive back in.

Last week I took unplanned leave and ploughed through another draft. Then sent it to Person 3 again, plus Person 4. Still scary. I’m clueless as to whether it’s any good or how much panel-beating is required.

But I’m closer than I was a week ago.

Book Week and the twin thing

5PD_cover

Book Week is fast approaching and my dance card is full. I’m truly grateful to the team at Booked Out given that a) I haven’t had a book published since 2010; b) I didn’t get a callback after my audition for the new Indiana Jones film; and, c) I’m not known for my dance moves. (Apparently I’m in good company, though.)

This week I begin a month-long (part-time) residency at one Melbourne school and have visits scheduled at seven others.  I’ll be sharing my highly secret tips for better creative writing; possibly pounding out a Bruce Willis-style Hollywood blockbuster plot (or two); and retracing the twisted path that led to my becoming an author. However, speaking for myself, the highlights usually flow from the unpredictable nature of students’ questions.

One of my favourite classroom moments so far in 2014 came during a residency with students studying Five Parts Dead. The main character in 5PD and his sister are twins. I’m often asked about this so it’s a good thing I did a decent amount of research into the bond between twin siblings.

Sometimes there will be twins in my classes and I’ll ask them if they share anything like the mystical connection between my characters, Dan and Mel. Usually the answer is a guarded, “not really” but this particular residency provided powerful evidence for the prosecution.

A staff member who is an identical twin said her link to her sister was so intense that, “I feel sorry for people who aren’t twins”. Then the piece de resistance. Two Year 10 male twins approached me and said I’d nailed the ‘twin thing’. They said they’d regularly been accused of plagiarism because their homework invariably, unconsciously ended up sounding the same.

They said that one of them might be humming a song at one of end of the house, then move to the kitchen and discover his twin singing the same line of the same song. That’s good enough for me. Dan & Mel were an exaggeration of the stories I found in my research but that’s the fun of fiction – we authors get to decide how far we push the boundaries in our stories.

Bring on Book Week and stay tuned for the best of my student questions.

 

 

YA fiction: The dark side

It’s a perennial yarn. Someone easily shocked or offended picks up a work of Young Adult fiction and reels at the contents. Horrified that their innocent young darling could be corrupted by such truth-telling, they quickly fire off a complaint to the library/school council/education department/all of the above. A cranky letter to a local newspaper follows and before you know it there’s a story cobbled together asking whether YA fiction is too dark and dangerous for young people to read.

As a journo and YA author I follow these stories with particular interest. These days I’m more author than journalist so I was amused/bemused by a recent media request to discuss this exact topic. The piece was due to run in a Fairfax weekend mag but I’m yet to spot it. (Please shoot me a link if you’ve seen it.)

One of the points I failed to make during the interview is that I grew up in an era where there was no YA section in bookstores or libraries. In the school libraries I frequented, once you were beyond Enid Blyton and had scaled the heights of Ivan Southall and Colin Thiele, you were fast running out of options. In town, the library bus visited fortnightly. While my younger siblings pillaged the limited children’s selection I was free to range the semi-trailer and make my own choices. Invariably I returned home accompanied by Stephen King, James Clavell or James Herbert – guys who didn’t exactly bubble wrap the darkness and violence in their stories. I don’t believe I’m any the worse for reading their work before I turned 18 or 21 or whatever age you’re allowed to know the world isn’t entirely Blyton-esque.

My own YA novels draw heavily on my experiences as a journalist and subsequently contain dark matter. I make careful choices about what I include and how explicit I should be. I also borrow from history as true stories often can’t be topped. It’s rare that I get a complaint. (For the record, I did get one a few weeks back from a reader disturbed by one of the historic elements I used in Five Parts Dead. I’d forewarned him the books were intended for older children and told his parents to read ahead of him… Interestingly, he preferred Game as Ned, which I feel is even more confronting. We clearly have different sensitivities.)

One of the things I did refer to when interviewed was the short story competition I judge annually. The entrants are 12 to 18 years of age and heavily skewed towards the 13-14 year old bracket. The topics are of their own choice – serving as a free window into teen thinking. Having just finished the judging, here are the topics covered this year and the number of young people who tackled them:

A favourite from my adolescent years. I've read this many times.
A favourite from my adolescent years. I’ve read this many times.

  • Bullying (4)
  • Cancer/disease/mental illness (5)
  • Divorce/family breakdown (6)
  • Family/travel/good times (7)
  • Heartbreak/love (8)
  • Horror (8)
  • Murder/kidnapping/crime (4)
  • Natural disaster (1)
  • Road fatalities (5)
  • Sci-fi (5)
  • Suicide (3)
  • War (6)

I could rail on about fiction being a safe space to explore and gain insight into the dark side of life but I think that list renders my comments redundant. Many young people portray a world that is considerably crueler than I could dream up.

So I’ll keep on writing the stories that feel right to me. Hopefully, to quote one of my former editors, my stories will show that even in dark places the light can shine through.

What’s in a name?

I should probably make a confession.

If I don’t like you – and by that I mean you have somehow earned sufficient demerit points to enter the Zone reserved for the utterly loathsome and grudge-worthy – then there’s a (slim) possibility I might name a character after you.

It will probably be a villain. Or a victim. You know the type. The kind of character that gets one bitchy line in a horror movie and then gets slashed in the next scene. That type of character. Expendable.

Indeed, I find it amusing when authors offer readers the chance to be a character in their next book as a ‘prize’ in a competition. What responsibilities rest with that offer? Is the winner guaranteed a character that is healthy, wealthy, wise and lives in a tropical paradise? Is the author ethically bound not to mess with the character’s fortunes?

It’s not an offer I’m likely to make because I don’t always know how my characters will fare during the course of a story I’m writing. I’d hate to inform you that you’re a winner only to write a chapter where I discover your character contracts a terrible disease or crosses paths with a serial killer. It wouldn’t seem fair. Unless you’re a resident in the aforementioned Zone…

So, back to naming conventions. I’m regularly asked where my characters’ names come from. Sometimes the answer is as simple as, “I like the name”, “It sounds right,” or, “It’s easy to type”. Other names can involve actual work.

I check baby name books and websites for the meaning of monikers, mainly because I want things to gel. Unless I’m deliberately trying for humour, I wouldn’t want a scrawny, pacifist character to have a name that means ‘bloodthirsty, musclebound, axe-wielding warrior’, for instance. These things matter. Wherever possible, I strive for names that mean something in relation to the character’s personality or the plot.

In the manuscript I’m currently working on I was considering calling a Japanese character, ‘Asami’. I looked up the meaning and found it defined as ‘beautiful linen’, which didn’t match my plot at all. Then I met an Asami and politely asked why her parents would choose a name with that particular meaning. After she finished laughing, she said the name also meant ‘strength and quality’ … and that the Kanji character used to write her name could also mean ‘marijuana’.

Handy to know, right? As a result of that conversation, the character I have in mind is now called ‘Michiko’, which means ‘beautiful, wise child’.

Being of tabloid journalism origins, I am attracted to pun names, too. ‘Dan’, from my novel Five Parts Dead, was originally named Stu – in part because he’s a worrier. He stews a lot, geddit? Sigh. My publisher didn’t like it either and quite rightly suggested I seek a name with a more contemporary feel. I opted for Dan not so much for the biblical meaning (God is my judge) but for the story of Daniel in the lions’ den.

I also keep an ear out for accidentally memorable names – like Reverend Blood, Doctor Death and my all-time favourite, Cardinal Singh (pronounced Sin). I’ve read of a Collingwood supporter’s daughter being christened Victoria Park and been told of a Vietnamese-Australian family naming their first-born Donald Duc. I don’t know that I’d ever deliberately use a real name (although my subconscious chose one once and I almost dug myself a very deep hole) but it’s good to reserve the right to go with an outrageous option once in a while.

As for those special folk in the Zone, well, I wouldn’t use your names outright, either. There are laws against that sort of thing. I might take a syllable from a name and merge it with part of another odious acquaintance’s name. The end result would be a hybrid and very fictitious name – matched to some truly despicable character traits. Authors need some semblance of power, after all.

No one would know the origins but me. And I think that’s for the best. Luckily for all of us, I very rarely hold a grudge.