Tag Archives: planning

Practising vs preaching

Not many authors are lucky enough to work full time at their writing. Most of us need part time jobs or take every opportunity that arises to visit schools, lead workshops, judge writing competitions and so on. That’s the reality for any artist who hasn’t hit the big time.

In my case, I work four days a week editing a website, speak at schools and libraries thanks to the fantastic team at Booked Out and fit in writing in my ‘spare’ time.

Understandably, peak time for public speaking and writing workshops tends to be around the release of a new book. It helps marketing (and, hopefully, sales) and you’re more likely to have something fresh to talk about when there’s a sparkling new title in bookstores.

Five Parts Dead is nearly two years old now. Between this and my coming to grips with new management at the ‘real job’, I have been doing less public speaking than usual. Perhaps that’s why I had somewhat of an epiphany during a recent set of workshops with Year 8 students.

I keep things simple in my writing workshops. (Perhaps I let the students off too easy.) I tell stories, explain how my brain works when seeking inspiration and explore how to get inside characters’ heads. Lately I’ve also been focusing on writing with all your senses, not just being visual. Now that I think about it, the current workshop could be called Jump Start Your Imagination.

Time for a secret. In past workshops I’ve been the classic example of, ‘do what I say, not what I do’. While I preach, ‘plan, plan, plan’, my writing is often substantially organic and seat-of-the-pants-ish. When the muse is singing, I’ll sit down and write/rewrite until I have a first draft. The poor prose and plot potholes can be sorted out during subsequent drafts.

On my current project, I’m practising what I preach. I’m sketching characters, writing scenes and building the story piece by piece. It’s slow going. It will be fascinating to see if the end result is different in any noticeable way.

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Stack

No, I haven’t crashed anything with wheels recently. I’m referring to a midden of materials that have caught my eye, piqued my curiosity and provoked my thinking. A pile of clips and cuttings that doubles as a smorgasbord for local silverfish.

Yesterday, I tackled the stack. After a sifting session, that is. Drastic steps were required because the ideas sheaf and the “I think this is important so I better review it soon but I can’t be stuffed now so let’s keep it handy although it’s probably not so pressing I should cart it around with me” heap somehow merged. De-merging (?) is never fun.

On the upside, the reply dates for a couple of member surveys and special offers had long since passed. Excellent. Saved myself some time not reading those documents. Memo to would-be wealthy entrepreneurs: How about inventing paperwork that spontaneously dissolves into the atmosphere after the reply dates have expired? A Mission Impossible style self-combustion would be cool, too. As long as this didn’t ignite adjacent parchment.

Because those scraps and remnants are important. Among them I found foundations for two novels, several character back stories, settings and more. Viewed individually, they’re random and make little or no sense. Viewed collectively, they’re like sedimentary rock – historic layers of references and scrawled notes. (Anything that didn’t trigger an “Aah, yes” in my memory got sent straight to recycling.)

Part of me was excited to rediscover the thinking behind the collection. The ideas felt close to the surface and ready to explore, Indiana Jones-style.

Another part is frustrated that my current timetable means that’s unlikely for quite a while.

But hey, at least the cuttings are neatly grouped now. They’re not going anywhere … unless the silverfish digest them before I do.

A sea of stories

During writing workshops I’ll sometimes ask students to sketch out a story in a handful of words. The point of the exercise is to show a story doesn’t need to be a 500- or 50,000-word epic. We can show a lot with a few well chosen words.

No matter how far I lower the word-limit, there are always a few students that don’t put pen to paper. “I can’t think of anything to write,” is the usual explanation.

I reply with questions. “What are the things you’re passionate about? Who do you barrack for? What’s your favourite TV show? What makes you angry? What moment were you really happy or sad? Why?”

The stories are always out there. It’s sometimes a matter of kicking down the fences and letting them out.

In the past 24 hours I’ve heard some (terrible) tales that would potentially make powerful stories:

– A 12-yo girl injured in a head on car accident that claims both her parents and an aunt and injures her grandmother. Four 20-something males were in the car that hit them. Where had they been? What happened?

– A mother of two who fled a violent marriage with her children, only to have a mental breakdown and be hospitalised. During the two weeks she is unwell her ex-husband applies for custody of the kids and gets it despite evidence of his violence. When she is discharged she faces a wait to get to court. Eventually she has the order overturned and regained custody – only to find her ex murdered the kids in the days before he had to hand them over (then killed himself). She now has a new partner and children but what a horror story.

– 40 people gunned down at a wedding in Turkey, apparently after a dispute between the families being ‘united’ by the nuptials.

These are obviously extreme examples but my point is there are stories everywhere, every day that can shock, move or inspire us. Whether it’s the old Chinese man collecting aluminium cans from bins and carrying them in bags on his bicycle handlebars or the young mum pushing a stroller and crying as she leaves a bank, stories are apparent to those who watch and listen.

Each character in this global drama has ups and downs that can be the basis for a narrative, even if that tale can slashed to a four-word tweet such as “Having a bad day.”

There should never be a moment when there’s nothing to write.

Plotting and planning

Here’s an interesting quote from Tim Winton in Fairfax’s Sunday Life back in March:

“Writing is a habit for me. I don’t plan great projects; I just go to work and hope something shows up. I’m always working on something but don’t always know what it is.”

I know that some authors plan their plot and chapters in detail before actually beginning to write. Some use screenwriters’ storyboarding techniques to consider individual scenes and shuffle the order around. Others plan the rise and fall of characters’ fortunes moment by moment within each scene.

I don’t.

Usually I begin with a question or basic premise I want to explore. With Game as Ned I had a starting point and an ending, although I left it until late to decide whether that ending would be on an up or down note.

The concept for the manuscript I recently completed began with an ending, which meant I had to go forensic and dig backwards to uncover the plot.

The story I am now working on has a starting premise and a conclusion and I need to build a strong core.

Of course this doesn’t mean I don’t plan. I do try to keep a running sketch of each chapter I’ve written and review this regularly. If a chapter doesn’t add anything to what we know of the characters or plot, I know I need to highlight it. And press Delete.