Stranger than Fiction

 

1525482_588942477844429_1972120768_nI recently watched a movie called Stranger than Fiction. It’s about a man who can hear a voice narrating his life, as though he’s a character in a book. Seeing this idea in action made me realise how familiar the concept was. I live my life just like that, because I’m a writer, and we narrate on instinct. Our lives are always followed by a mysterious voice-over, because the characters in our stories are shaped by our day to day actions. They live with us, and the things they experience are extracts of our real lives.

That’s not to say every moment of every day is lived as a novel. Inside a writer’s mind, sometimes it is quiet, but the story can begin with the most simple catalyst. It could be lying in bed, shopping for groceries, walking the dog or driving the car. It might seem like a menial task, but somewhere inside the author’s imagination, there is a character doing that exact thing. Only their situation might not be as simple as ours.

A car ride might not be a trip home from work—it’s a killer fleeing the scene of a crime, a frightened girl on the way to an orphanage, or the last vehicle with a low fuel tank in the zombie apocalypse. The narrator kicks in, turning the mundane into something magical. The trees arch over the car, the storm clouds turn black with menace. Wind thrashes rain against the windscreen as the wipers creak. And suddenly this simple life becomes a beautiful book scene.

The narrator lays the groundwork in our minds, and sometimes in the car, middle of peak-hour traffic, you fill in the characters’ dialogue (yes I do this, and pretend I’m on a hands-free phone call). The narrator helps us pull pieces of the real world into our stories so our characters have more dimension. And sometimes it’s hard to break away from that imaginary place to face the real world once more. But this world we live in, is an amazing place for a writer, we’re never alone and the narrator can fill us with wonder at any turn. The whole thing might sound a little nuts, but I know all the writers out there will be nodding their heads. It’s just something we do.

Set your narrator free.

 

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The Writers’ Ritual

I'm writing blog picture

Strange creatures, writers. We live half our lives in imaginary worlds, investing our emotions in characters, and devoting long hours to their stories. We work in isolation, sometimes we’re eccentric, occasionally aggressive and always passionate about what we do.

That’s why we have strange little rituals—habits we’ve developed over time—a list of things we require in order to make the magic happen. Force a writer to break a ritual and you will face their wrath!

There’s a reason for it. Writing is hard, it requires a great amount of mental energy to get into the ‘zone’ and stay there. Most rituals are focused around the development and maintenance of this ‘zone’. That’s why sleeping until 11am is a ritual for me. I’m not kidding. It’s really important. If I wake up earlier on a set writing day, I’m too tired to be inspired. And while I may spend the first couple of hours lazing around, I need that time to reach a state of reflection. It’s the warm up, the stretches before the marathon.

Eventually I settle down to write, and the next two hours are the worst. I’m still forcing away random thoughts that pop into my head, repeatedly checking facebook, and casually reading over the last chapter I wrote. For me, this is where the ritual plays the biggest part.

I need to be in a quiet place, it’s seems dramatic but sometimes even hearing footsteps as someone walks past is enough to break my focus. It’s tempting to open the door and scream at them, but I don’t because it’s rude and I’m a rational person—still, it’s frustrating.

Instead, I use my ipod to drown out the sound of voices in the distance. The music has to be the perfect pace, preferably dark, almost depressing. For me violins are a great muse. I can’t explain it, but I love them. TV on the other hand, forget about it. That will take me right back to square one.

It’s also important to have supplies at hand; drinks and snacks, remote controls for anything I might want to turn on or off, and a bed for the dog to sleep by my feet.

Once my surroundings are exactly how I need them, I position my body in the right place. Don’t ask me why, for some reason I write better when I’m lying down. Sure, I can do it sitting if I have to, but head on a pillow and laptop resting against my knees, seems to work the best.

Two hours later, and I’m finally there—the zone. Four o’clock right through to midnight is my prime time. That’s when everything comes together and I’m really glad I slept enough to last until that time of night.

These are things I’ve been doing subconsciously for years and have never given a second thought. Until recently, I always had plenty of writing time, and the ritual was a by-product rather than first step. I used to see posts from other authors talking about how difficult writing was, but I never saw it that way.

These days my life is pretty fast-paced and writing time is always running low. Now when someone asks me if it’s hard to maintain focus, my answer is—absolutely!

Not because I lack inspiration or motivation, but because life is full of distractions, and the less time I spend writing, the harder it is to find the zone. But the love is as strong as ever, and hardship only makes the achievement more satisfying. You just don’t want to be the person who opens my door at 4pm.

In the words of a writing friend, ‘we’re like serial killers, we need rituals.’

My Secret Weapon

download (3)Well there’s no denying it, writing a novel is hard work. I spent so long editing the Shadow Series that to some degree I forgot what it was like to actually write a novel, after all it has been a few years since I finished the last one!

There’s a lot of hard work, even when you have an outline for the story, things change. Characters get in the way, you realise something’s missing and you need to change directions or suddenly you discover a major plot flaw. To be honest it’s one of my favourite things about writing a book, I almost feel as though each little speed bump is steering the fate of the novel to a place it was always meant to end up. I’ve heard so many authors say it, and it’s absolutely true—you are just a vessel, the characters tell their own story. And the challenges make the accomplishment worth so much more!

In saying that, it does take determination to work through the pitfalls. There’s nothing better than sitting down with your laptop and letting the words pour out, but it isn’t always like that. There are times when you just sit and stare out the window wondering how you’re going to continue. The key is to never give up, even when the writing’s bad and the story sucks you just keep going, rewriting until every little piece fits together.

Here’s where my secret weapon comes into it.

People often ask how I find the motivation to write novels, for me the answer is quite simple—once I start, it’s harder for me to stop than it is to continue. I have an inability to leave any project unfinished, I’m not sure if it’s extreme motivation or just plain OCD. But I’m not complaining. Once the first chapter of a book is written, I’m following it right to the end. There are a lot of authors who have a few stories on the go, they work on different ideas and write new material while they are editing something old. This is pretty useful to distance yourself from a story but I just can’t do it. When I’m working on something I have to give it everything and there’s no space for anything else in my head. Without this little quirk in my personality I don’t know if I’d be a writer, it’s my driving force; the thing that keeps me going no matter what obstacles get in my way.

Who could wish for more right?

Well everything must have balance and this little obsession carries over to the rest of my life. No matter what I start I can’t leave it undone! Even if it’s a huge time waster. My examples might break a few hearts but I have to say it … Game of Thrones, I know everyone loves the TV series but I don’t. I hate it in fact, the characters are awful, I can’t relate to them, I don’t like the setting, the list goes on, but I had to watch the entire first series even though I knew I hated it after just a few episodes.

And a few years ago I subscribed to a movie magazine. I found myself reading every single article word for word, even the ones I wasn’t interested in. It was so time consuming, and I was barely absorbing the information but I couldn’t stop. It took great effort for me to acknowledge there just wasn’t time in my life for this magazine once a month.

Even when I’m reading a book, this little quirk looms over me. If I hate what I’m reading I have to finish it. It’s ridiculous! Sometimes my reading slows to a page a night but I can’t move on until it’s finished. Recently I attempted Anne Rice’s Violin, I made it halfway and decided this obsessive follow through had to stop, I hate the book! But even as I write this blog it sits on my shelf taunting me. All I have to do is resist the urge to pick it back up, eventually I’ll have to forget about it right?

What can I say it’s a blessing and a curse, my secret weapon. But reading things I despise and watching hours of bad TV shows is a small price to pay! OCD in a writer … maybe not such a bad thing.

 

Part I Writing The Shadow Series

Laura's Promo Photos 247In celebration of the release of The Shadow Series, what better topic to blog about than the creation of the books? Consider this the literary version of an audio commentary. In this blog you will learn about the finer details; where the inspiration came from, how I planned the storyline, the editing and finally the publishing (to be published as a three part series). Just like any other art form there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes and here’s where you get a sneak peak.

I actually started writing this blog back in 2011, it was more of a diary for my own records, at the time I had no idea I would publish it in the days leading up to the series launch. This journey has been the single most rewarding experience of my life and you’re about to get a little taste of the work that has gone into creating it.

The Idea

In 2009 I had just finished working on a two year project, it was my first novel, which in all honesty was meant to be my only novel. I was in the process of editing that book when I started thinking about the concept for The Shadow Series. I can’t remember exactly what brought my attention to shadows but that single topic is literally the entire basis of this storyline.

Shadows are constantly used to represent fear of the unknown in an audience whether it be via movies, music or performance and I was feeling the draw towards a topic that could instil a sense of fear in a reader. I wanted to work on something dark and mysterious not just to scare them but to use it as a contrast for the light. I wanted to take my character to the very edge of her survival ability and then see how she could overcome it.

Shadows were always going to be the focus of the story, I knew that from the beginning but it took weeks of planning for me to decide exactly how I was going to turn that subject from a psychological thriller into a fantasy novel. I worked with the idea of my protagonist being afraid of her shadow, it was the perfect way to make her utterly powerless, no matter how fast she ran or how hard she tried to escape it her shadow would always be one step behind her. To bring the fantasy genre into it I made the shadow responsible for transporting the characters into an alternate universe, where there is no civilisation and the forest is filled with wild animals and soulless men who hunt humans. It wasn’t a psychological thriller if the phenomenon was really happening.

In my mind it was always a series, I’d written a standalone book and I wanted to try something a little more challenging. As soon as the characters were created in my head the storyline seemed to unfold on its own. For me the hardest thing about writing a book is coming up with the initial concept, once that’s done the ideas seem to reproduce and before long I’m thinking of them faster than I can write them down. I knew exactly how the story was going to end before I even started writing it—it gave me a sense of purpose, a clear direction, and made the writing process faster than I thought possible.

The Writing

Book One

The first draft came out in a bit of a frenzy, words can’t really describe the exhilarating feeling of the all those ideas swimming around in my head while I was writing. It was almost like I was living the life of my character, every time she was running I was running, when she was afraid I felt it, when she was emotionally distraught my own heart was racing and by the end of the day I had lived 12 hours in this amazing and terrifying world known as the Shadowlands.

Writing this series took my desire to be a writer to a whole new level, at the time I was feeling a little lost in my career choice to be a nurse and the days I spent writing made me feel more alive than ever. It amazed me how I could spend hours in this tense and emotional state with my character and yet I felt so strong—no matter how much time I spent on it writing didn’t seem to tire me out it actually gave me more energy. It took me four months to write the draft of Beyond the Shadows and in that time something clicked into place, I knew I’d found exactly what I was looking for in life and there was no going back.

With my previous book I only allowed one person to read it, my sister, and it wasn’t until it was completely finished and edited that I sent it to her. For Beyond the Shadows I decided to change that tactic. I sent the first few chapters to my friend Kate, in hindsight I wouldn’t do it again because stopping to edit part way through stunted the writing process, but Kate’s advice had a huge impact on the structure of the book. She made me realise there was too much information being stuffed in the readers’ face and when I worked with the ‘less is more’ approach things shuffled into their rightful place. The entire series would be very different if it wasn’t for that change so she deserves an appropriate shout out. Thanks Kate!

When the draft was finished I shared it amongst friends and family, all of whom gave me amazing support and advice. Thanks to the first readers; Sarah, Mum, Kuch, Annette, Roz, Rachel, Frances, Sue and Jean, your enthusiasm and suggestions helped spur me on, I saved absolutely every piece of advice you gave me and it helped shape the future of the characters.

The draft manuscripts used for editing.

The draft manuscripts used for editing.

I truly don’t remember the exact number of times I edited that first book, I know it was at least four and that was before I even decided to publish it—more on that later.

Book Two

The second book in the series burst out of me at an alarming speed, it took three months to write the draft but it was probably so easy because the characters and their world was already created, plus I’d figured out a pretty good writing rhythm. During this time I did all the cliché things you think a writer would do. I worked way past midnight, I fell asleep with notebooks on my chest, I woke up in the middle of the night to record new ideas, I shut the door and snapped at people who tried to interrupt me. I read an SAS Survival Guide from cover to cover and a book dedicated to the quest for alternate realities. My mum traced and cut out my own shadow for me so I could work on the concept with a visual aid. I was on a role and there was no stopping me.

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SAS Survival Guide and Hiding in the Mirror – All in the name of research!

I was also lulled into a false sense of security because of this book, at the time I didn’t realise that no matter how many books you’ve written the process changes every time. I smashed book two out, passed it onto my official editor—my sister—and moved right onto book three. Initially The Shadow Series was going to be a trilogy, I had no idea of the trouble waiting for me when I began the final book.

Book Three

Everything changed when I started this book, I expected I would slip back into routine and everything would work out perfectly but that was certainly not the case. Since book three was meant to be the last there were a lot of loose ends to tie up. I had never worked on a storyline as complex as this, there were a lot of characters and a lot of simultaneous plots that needed to line up. I had so many notes and a clear structure of events that needed to happen in order for everything to tie together. It was really difficult to keep all those things in mind without letting it disrupt the flow of my sentences.

Some of the plot points that were once blue-tacked to my wardrobe door.

Some of the plot points that were once blue-tacked to my wardrobe door.

I ended up writing all the important events on individual pieces of paper, I knew all those things needed to happen but the order I initially intended for them was constantly changing. To make sure I didn’t miss anything out I stuck all those pieces of paper inside my wardrobe doors and moved them around each time the plot twisted in a direction I didn’t expect it to.

During the writing of book three I had a few moments of despair, days when I started thinking I had screwed it up completely and there was no way to fix it. I was quite close to the end of the draft when I suddenly felt like I had to stop and read it, I just had a feeling things weren’t working. I remember very clearly lying on the rug in my lounge room and reading the draft, within a few hours I went from thinking my manuscript was nearly complete to realising I was less than half way. It was pretty clear to me then that I had to split the book in two. It was a horrifying moment, I just felt like months of work were completely wasted. The problem was I’d tried to jam too many things into a short space and in order to correct the pacing of the story I had to rewrite the entire thing.

So I wrote it again … twice. Book three was the greatest writing challenge I have faced this far, it took close to a year to complete it but looking back I’m so glad I spent that time on it. It taught me a lot about my strength as a writer, I know now that no matter how bad it is there is always a way to fix it, I owed it to my characters to struggle through and finish their story. Of the people who have read advanced copies of the series a number of them told me book three was their favourite—it makes the whole thing worthwhile.

Book Four

There’s a fine line when you’re developing multiple plotlines, sometimes just a few sentences can be the difference between intriguing the reader and giving everything away prematurely. I had been leaving clues for three books, I wanted the reader to be suspicious but of course I didn’t want them to be able to guess the ending. To begin with I did get that balance wrong and my test audience picked it up pretty quickly. I have to say this is the book where the feedback made the greatest difference, I went through it at least six times picking out all those little hints that gave the wrong idea. Even up to the week before this book went to print I was still rereading the first 50 pages and making subtle changes.

The writing is the part I love and it’s the dedication to the characters and the story that gave me the motivation to get through the editing and the publishing. The truth is these three aspects all hold the same value for the final product so there was no fair way to fit them into the same blog.

Part II Editing the Shadow Series will be published on Saturday 11th May.

The Queen Of Fantasy

OBERNEWTYN

Isobelle Carmody wrote her first book at the age of 14, Obernewtyn is still listed in the Dymocks 101 books you must read and it was published in 1988. She was a guest of this year’s Perth Writer’s Festival and I could hardly contain my excitement! She’s an amazing writer, Australia’s very own queen of fantasy, and her first book had a huge impact on my reading life. It was the first time I was completely lost in a book and it ignited a passion for storytelling that has stuck with me for all these years.

 

I signed up for her 3 hour workshop titled The Power of Fantasy held on Saturday at the University of Western Australia. I swear for the first half hour of the class I sat there thinking: ‘Oh my God that’s Isobelle Carmody, oh my God, oh my God, she’s standing right in front of me’. Her story reached me in a way that no other could, it’s been years since she wrote it and years since I last read it but Obernewtyn is still so vivid in my imagination. It just proves how books can be ageless, it doesn’t matter when they are created, “When you look in them you see yourself it turns into your story, no matter who wrote it.”—Isobelle Carmody.

 

It was a bonus to spend 3 hours workshopping writing techniques and talking about the craft but I would have been content to just spend that time in her company. She spoke about how she became an author—she was the eldest of 7 siblings, left to babysit while her mother worked nights. These circumstances forced her to live inside her imagination, she used the power of storytelling to keep her brothers and sisters occupied, she learnt to understand her audience and what they responded to.

 

She told us about the inspiration behind her work and how she used her writing to learn about the world and find her place in it, it was never about getting published. She told us to never do anything in our lives unless we are going to do it with full passion and I appreciated the fact that she wasn’t teaching us to write in a way that pleases someone else, she was teaching us to write in a way that pleases ourselves first. She said the most successful writers are the ones that make the inner journey, if you don’t write about something you care about no one else will care about your writing.

 

She is passionate, she stood up there and told us these were the most important things as an author and I have always believed exactly that. She has a unique perspective on the world, she shared personal stories and talked about life as she sees it. In fact she talked exactly how she writes, making me feel as though I spent 3 hours in one of her books instead of one of her classes.

 

Now, I’m not the kind of person to gush over a celebrity, I think I hid it quite well but I can’t deny I was completely star struck. The class was interactive, she spoke one on one to everyone in the group so by the time we were lining up for autographs I’d managed to contain my fan girl excitement.

I looked at the people in the line beside me and saw brand new editions of Obernewtyn but I was proud to have two very worn copies, clearly read to death, and when I handed them over she was thrilled to see the original covers.

 

I had the opportunity to tell her I was a child who didn’t like reading all that much when my sister insisted I read Obernewtyn. She asked me why I loved it so much, I told her I wanted to believe all the things she created really existed in our world and she said that’s what she wanted as well, that’s why she wrote it. She signed a copy for my sister, after all she’s the one who showed me this path, and I walked out of there with a memory I’ll never forget!

The Hemmingway Challenge

The Hemmingway Challenge

How many words does it take to write a story? Well someone bet Ernest Hemmingway he couldn’t write a complete story in six words, but he did.

‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’

It’s short and simple but heartbreaking and effective. Six words is all it took.

 

One of the most important pieces of advice for any writer, if you can write it with less words—do. It sounds simple but it actually takes a lot of practice. There are words we put into our sentences that often don’t need to be there. It makes for cleaner writing, there is less distraction for the reader and it means they can actually think for themselves.

One of the dangers writing a novel is the lack of restriction, you start off knowing you have all the words in the world, there’s no reason to keep your sentences concise because, let’s face it—the thicker your book the more impressive it is. Caught up in a creative moment it can be hard to write cleanly. I tend to use all the words I want and cut them out during editing, but if I could learn to write with less words, it would save me a lot of time in the long run.

To give you an idea of figures, I’ve just been editing 4 manuscripts with a total word count of 465 000, the story hasn’t changed at all but I managed to take out 39 000 completely useless words. Perhaps that’s the reason writers are encouraged to work on short stories first.

I’ve never been passionate about writing short stories and I haven’t read many either but I firmly believe it’s a great way to practice language. I recently read a book containing 23 short stories, initially I found it hard to get used to the style but towards the end I started to appreciate things the author didn’t say.  For the sake of self development I’ve decided to take the Hemmingway Challenge.

Here’s my six word story, it certainly isn’t Hemmingway but I know writers will relate.

—     Wrote it, read it, deleted it.

When I began researching for this blog I came across plenty of other authors taking the six word story challenge, here’s the link if you’re interested in reading a few more … and why not take the Hemmingway Challenge yourself?

www.sixwordstories.net