NaNo Bound

nanowrimo2It’s time. Time to return to the madness that is the National Novel Writing Month.

Last year I had spent most of the year writing and had just completed the final edits on Elyora/River of Bones and didn’t feel NaNo was the thing for me. I also spent the first ten days travelling and I just wanted to enjoy the time away. In 2011, NaNo was the straw that broke the camel’s back (so to speak). When I had to concede I just couldn’t write and I pulled the pin less than half way through it was like pulling the pin on a hand grenade and I imploded. It was the start of the second serious bout of depression I suffered through in 2011.

Ironically, what I wrote in the year I didn’t ‘win’ provided the only published work from a NaNo adventure to date. A section of the opening story in Seeker Lover Keeper became the vignette ‘Intersected’ published in the first issue of Vine Leaves Literary Journal.

In 2013

So this year, I’d been toying for a bit as to what November would hold for me. Would I? Wouldn’t I? It was seeing that Rus Vanwestervelt was planning on doing it, that pushed me over the line. I needed a writing buddy. Someone I could confide the dark corners of the story to. Someone I know who will be an awesome inspiration. And that’s Rus and more.

The plan is to write a novella length adaptation of my steampunk romance ‘Between Minutes’. From my NaNo pages:

A passionate love affair.
An impossible house.
The opportunity of a life time.

The six-week creative programme offered at “Dalhousie” is like no other in the world. Tabitha’s offer of a place in the programme is the opportunity she and her secret lover, Christian, have dreamed of. A chance to escape into a Bohemia of naked passion for music, words and each other, where the pressures and frustrations of their suburban lives have no place.

But Bohemia has its limitations. The claustrophobia of the house and it’s Victorian workings, fuelled by Christian’s obsession with the future, Tabitha’s entrenchment in the past and the competing motivations of the other residents, threaten to unhinge their sanity and commitment to each other.

When Tabitha is called to honour the undefined debt in her contract, the cost of the residency will be more than a minute of their mundane existence on the outside.

Born between the promise of mad machines and crumpled sheets, “Between Minutes” is a dark, erotic meta-steampunk novella of cognitive dissonance.

It’s not a perfect little (*cough*) blurb but it is a start. I haven’t yet decided if I will go toward the romance, happily ever after bent, or the darker horror version. The original short story walks the path between the two.

Ready, Set…

With less than half an hour until kick off I am happy to say I have:

  • an extensive playlist of early 80’s music (it all started with a single Kids in the Kitchen song!)
  • a tidy writing space
  • the relevant bits of the original story (and it’s plethora of earlier drafts) printed off
  • ‘What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew’ bought and loaded onto my Sony

And the best bit of all, this close to things starting… the characters have begun to talk. I always imagined it beginning with Tabitha talking with her closest friend Mish and that’s where I’ll be beginning tonight.

Throughout November I will be snapping a photo a day, noting the tshirt d’jour (sadly I don’t have 30 different ones but it will be close!) and hopefully putting up a snippet of work.

The plan is to write every day, in the morning. I know it is possible.

Do I want the 50,000 words? Well yeah, that would be nice but more important to me is a completed novella. I am aiming for 30,000. It may end up at 40,000. It may go all the way to 50,000. Anything is possible. If I finish with words to spare I will jump back in to my birthpunk novella.

Now… time to go boil the kettle, do a dozen start jumps and wake myself up, ready to put the opening pages down before bed tonight.

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Oh Hell, We’re Where?

or how to tackle plot impasses.

Dead End - close upSometimes We Take a Wrong Turn…

How often as writers have we emerged from the wilderness of our words to find we’re not exactly where we’re meant to be? It happens to plotters and pantsers alike. The story takes a tiny deviation and suddenly we’re in a whole (hole?) new place.

A Story About an Accidental Turn

Year Nine school camp took us to Apollo Bay/Ottway Ranges along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria for four nights. The same camp had been running at the school for years: two nights by the beach in Apollo Bay, two nights roughing it in the bush, sleeping under bivvies in preparation for Outward Bound in Year Ten.

Our group started with the roughing it bit and were dropped off, with our backpacks, to hike down into the camping area by the river.

Miss Dorman, our PE teacher, told us we were taking a slightly different route to other years, but it wouldn’t be much longer: two hours tops! One hour went by, followed by another, then another. The afternoon air cooled our shoulders, our backs ached from carrying heavy backpacks for the first time, and it became apparent we were “just a little bit lost.” It was okay, we were told–the gorge ahead was where we had to be.

On sunset we came out of the bush, on the edge of the gorge, several kilometres too close to the coast and without a trail down.

Gorge vs Dead End

It is a common writing topic: dead ends and writing yourself out again.

That night back in 1988 we weren’t at a dead-end. We’d simply arrived at a place which was much harder than anticipated to traverse. We hung tight and waited for morning and a new way out.

What if as writers we considered our plot impasses as arriving on the edge of a gorge facing a more difficult trip down, rather than being in dark, nasty alley facing a brick wall?

Are we really at the end? Or have we simply arrived at a place where there is a huge divide between where we are and where we want/need to be.

The metaphor of a dead-end provide two alternatives: give up or go back. Neither of these adds momentum to writing, in fact it draws energy from the writing process and pummels our confidence.

Do we really want to go all the way back… and how far do we go back? Is it possible to spot where we lost our way? Is it worth throwing the towel in? Not exactly an inspiring mindset.

The metaphor of a gorge gives hope, a way forward, albeit a more difficult one than we’d originally considered. But a way forward nonetheless.

A Light to Illuminate the Way

(Back to Year Nine Camp!) When night fell, the sky above the gorge erupted into a sea of stars, freed from the light pollution of the city, and below on the beach, emergency beacons sprung to life. We had no way of communicating our location or the fact we were all fine (it was 1988 and years before any of us would see a mobile phone). Seeing those beacons, gave me the fortitude to make the best of our less than salubrious circumstances. Someone and something was out there. And tomorrow night, we would be too.

The following exercise is the light to give you fortitude to keep on going. As an extra bonus, it has the potential to provides a rough map  off the edge and down into the gorge.

The PoV of Three

Several years ago I took a short story workshop with award-winning Brisbane author Trent Jamieson, (author of the Death Works series, Roil, Nights Engines and a bunch of amazing short stories). To date it is the best writing workshop I’ve attended. Trent made us write, and write, and write. And then made us read out what we had written!

The PoV of Three exercise I’m about to share, is based on one of the Trent’s exercises.

First

Think of a short scene, any scene you can dream up (not something you are currently working on) where: 1) something happens, and 2) it involves at least two people.

Second

Choose one of the characters present and write the scene from through their eyes in the first person PoV. Write about 250 words.

Third

Choose another character and write the scene through their eyes using limited third person PoV.

Lastly

Write the scene through the eyes of someone not participating in the scene–but who is witness to the scene. This may be written from the limited 3rd person or 1st person POV.

The 360 Degree View

The scene I wrote in the workshop focused on a midwife attending a birth (an idea inspired by the [Fiction] Friday prompt of hearing two heartbeats). When I moved into the second part and the limited third person PoV, the character I chose looked around the room and in the corner, in the shadows, was a man! The last thing I expected to see in a birthing room.

Intrigued by who he was, and why he was there, I selected him as the character in the third part. In 250 words I realised who he was, why he was there, and an entire novella* was born (no pun intended!).

The PoV of Three exercise gets us down off that damn edge and toward the cool, free-flowing waters of the narrative, by:

  • providing a panorama of a single scene–something we wouldn’t have in the normal course of writing. It allows us to see things we may not have seen, through the eyes of whoever is telling the story.
  • opening the narrative to alternate thoughts and experiences of what is going on.
  • keeping us writing–momentum begets momentum.

It is perfect for moving forward when the only options appear to be going back, or worse still, giving up. I dare any one to say they don’t find SOMETHING employing this exercise at a plotting impasse. Not the solution perhaps, or a clear-cut, gently graded path down, but a compass setting with the kernel of an idea to explore further. And for those attempting NaNo and finding themselves here, it’s a better option than the Shovel of Death.

So, next time you stumble out of the narrative and find yourself in unknown literary environs, don’t freak out and see it as the end of the world. It won’t necessarily be easy, but there’s always an evil plan ‘Z’ (for those Spongebob fans reading) to propel you across the wastelands of your plot impasse.

Happy Endings

That night in the Ottways we had run out of water, eaten everything that didn’t require cooking, and were a little freaked out about being ‘momentarily lost’, but… we had warm sleeping bags and George Michael. Yes! My friend Rachael jammed her battery-powered, pink twin-deck tape player in her backpack. Out into the virgin bush, the heterosexual version of George rocked out (amongst other songs) Faith to a bunch of fourteen-year-old girls who couldn’t sleep.

And several days later we appeared on the front page of the Colac Times–the only real claim to fame I have from my high school years! The photo showed us dirty and bedraggled, but with big smiles because word quickly spread that even though we were to continue our walk to base-camp, the SES had water with them and were offering to drive our backpacks to camp.

A version of this article was first published at Write Anything website on the 13th July, 2011.

* From that original novella idea came a novel that splintered into a cycle of five and then six novellas and a brand new sub-genre of fiction called #birthpunk (just in case you weren’t quite sold on the power of that one small exercise!)

BOOK REVIEW: The Shining Girls

A time-traveling serial killer is impossible to trace – until one of his victims survives.

In Depression-era Chicago, Harper Curtis finds a key to a house that opens on to other times. But it comes at a cost. He has to kill the shining girls: bright young women, burning with potential. He stalks them through their lives across different eras, leaving anachronistic clues on their bodies, until, in 1989, one of his victims, Kirby Mazrachi, survives and starts hunting him back.

The Shining Girls by award-winning South African author, Lauren Beukes, is part dark supernatural thriller, part crime novel, part coming-of-age story, part time travel story, part historical fiction and part social commentary with a feminist bent. With so many angles to the narrative it could easily have become a tangled mess, yet Beukes pulls it off with class and style.

Set in Chicago, each of the historic periods reads authentically (though I am no expert) and it was refreshing to read the nuances in the voices of each of the POV characters (and there are a lot of them) based not just on personality but on the decade in question. Beukes has definitely not taken the easy way out.

The time travel (I’m calling it time shifting) rules are set early and as far as I can determine, the narrative abides by the rules (bending them slightly in terms of allowing Kirby and Mal entry to the house when they break in, by virtue of them possessing something from the house). The non-linear narrative of the time shifting stories occur between the linear stories of Harper in 1931/2 and Kirby in 1992. Like all the best time bending stories, you learn pieces of the plot out of time and without context allowing a slow piecing together of the larger narrative and those delicious a-ha moments when those non-context bits finally fall into place.

Kirby (the only of Harper’s girls to survive) is a protagonist with sass and you are with her each step of the way, desperately wanting her to find Harper so she’ll have vengeance and closure for her attack. It looks impossible, but slowly (partly through her own tenacity and partly through tightly-wound Harper coming apart at the seams) it looks achievable. I know there are others who have not enjoyed her bad-arse, punk attitude, but if the world spits in your face, you can either hide or go it head on. Kirby opts for the latter. Her hard-shelled, rebellious early 20’s self is consistent with the slightly detached, non-nonsense child we are introduced to early in the novel.

Dan (a burned out and jaded homicide journo-turned sportscaster) has the right amount of initial ambivalence toward Kirby as his intern and then pathos as her true mission is revealed. I have to agree with others that the romantic subplot woven into Dan’s character and the hapless knight in shining armour didn’t add anything. Beukes almost laughs at herself when Kirby re-asserts at the show down with Harper that Dan is Robin to her Batman. And while Dan might be in love with Kirby, there is a definite feel throughout that Kirby enjoys the off-beat companionship and perhaps a little flirtation but it’s an amorous relationship is not where she wants it to head. She is focused on the end goal and he is initially her meal ticket, then confidente and later partner-in-crime. Even the hardest and most determined protagonist needs someone to have their back in the 11th hour.

And then there is Harper, the time-shifting serial killer, terrifying in his cold-calculated stalking, the charismatic grooming of the young girls and sadistic dispatching of their older selves. His initial confusion in his changed circumstances helps to ground the reader in the weirdness of the house he happens upon while escaping from Hooverville vigilantes. The later awe, then fear of the plan laid out for him, gives us a sense of the inevitability of where he finds himself, both as a passive recipient ‘of the plan’ and as the active participant of ‘of murderer’. He’s the best type of antagonist because Beukes gives the reader a sense of Harper’s humanity as he attempts to court Nurse Etta. Despite his sociopathic drive, he still has a need for human understanding and contact, echoed again in his short-lived desire for Alice.

Being drawn into the worlds of each of the victims and their slaughter is perhaps the most horrific element of the book. We know from the list of names on the back cover who the girls are. At the first point of contact with each of them we know none of them will walk away with their lives as we are drawn into their worlds: their relationships, careers, hopes, pain and dreams. This makes each shining girl a well rounded character and amplifies the senseless violence of their deaths. (Beukes doesn’t hold back on the grisly details either.)

Each of the shining girls dies in their own time, but there is a sickening anticipation in the reader as Beukes kills some off in the chapter where we first meet them and others  chapters later. The chaos of the reveal echoing Harper’s killing spree.

The story of Alice is perhaps the most disturbing of all, as the only one of Harper’s girls who waits with passionate intensity for his return. Harper, the man who kissed her with wild abandon when she was sacked from her job as a dancing girl in the carnival and then disappeared telling her he would be back. Alice waits for him to swan back into her life and save her. As the only girl with any agency in her death, she is perhaps the most closely aligned with Kirby and why she resonated with me beyond her death in a way the other women didn’t.

While ‘the shining’ is never articulated by Beukes (and this seems to have upset some readers–though it appears as ‘potential’ on some edition’s blurb and not on others?) it is there, woven intimately in the lives of each of women. They are all living outside the acceptable boundaries of society as dictated by the decade they’re in. They contain an inner fire that allows them to thumb their noses at societal expectations; to confront with verve and determination the discrimination and hurdles thrown up by their gender and complicated by race, career, sexual and political preferences. In some cases it is a personal choice, other times it is by luck (good and bad) of circumstances. It’s not just a knife blade that can extinguish the shining. It is not a certainty for the future as we see when Harper’s arrogance leads him to tamper with Catherine’s understanding of her life.  While Catherine expires as the other shining girls do, it would seem she has been dead for years and Harper disappointed by this, becomes disillusioned and looses confidence in himself; he has undermined himself with the ego of his God complex.

The outstanding ensemble of characters is topped off by well-rounded secondary characters from Indian-goth Chet, one of the newspaper’s librarians to Rachel, the barely present mother surrounded by her own ineptitude and broken dreams as a woman, mother and artist. Then there is Kirby’s high school love, Fred Turner, who is so off the mark when they meet up again, that the car scene is beyond cringe-worthy. All are absolutely believable and add to the overall tapestry.

The only character I wondered about was Mal, the homeless addict, whose interest is piqued by the odd comings and goings of Harper from the condemned building in Mel’s neighbourhood. While Mal ramps up Harper’s sense of paranoia by stealing from the house, the number of pages devoted to Mal seem superfluous to the overall narrative in what was such a strong collection of characters who all had something real to add to the momentum of the story.

And the house. (It appears I have a penchant for creepy houses.) The house is character, tech and paradox. The true nature of its existence revealed beautifully at the conclusion (it had me thinking of the Elyora Homestead). The paradox is circular, and is thus self-serving, but Beukes does a brilliant job of justifying it, filling in all the holes as she goes. The post script ties up the narrative perfectly, allowing the ends of the circle to fuse together in a truly satisfying manner.

The Shining Girls is a complex, gruesome, slow burn of a novel that achieves what it set out to do without taking the easy way out.

Four and a half radium-glow butterfly wings

PURCHASE ‘THE SHINING GIRLS’
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A Short News Update

Crescent moon Wallpaper - Download The Free Crescent moon WallpaperOutside the moon reclines in a starless sky. Inside here it is anything but laid back. GenreCon is only a few days away and suddenly everything has got not just a little bit busy, but quite a bit serious and very busy.

Aside from the usual rounds to the hairdresser and beautician, there’s actual work to be done.

I’m chairing my first ever panel on Sunday afternoon (Beyond the Cover) with Narrelle Harris, Sue Wright (Tiny Owl Workshop) and Kevin Powe. If you are at the Con and looking to explore narratives beyond books, with three people who know their stuff, we’re on at 2:30. I’m forcing myself to forget that I have seen panels destroyed by an inept chair or an overly intrusive one so as not to freak myself out. I keep telling myself it will be ‘all right on the night’.

And now there is something to out trump the pending panel chair freak out.

Adam and I have secured a pitching session for Post Marked: Piper’s Reach with Hachette’s commissioning editor Robert Watkins on Saturday morning. The pitch is written and half learned thanks to a burst of inspiration yesterday and Monday. My nerves are all over the place though. I’m grateful for all the experience public speaking and debating at high school empowered me with. And I remember that I managed to wow an audience at the First Year Psychology debate with a speech I wrote and prepared in three days when I was a last minute replacement.

It is a little crazy to think Adam and I are here, with Piper’s Reach, ready to find a home, at just the right time. That the humble quirky side project that found legs (outside of a bunch of handwritten letters) and hearts has a chance of finding many more in the big wide world.

And in amongst all of this, (and the homeschool lessons) there have been words. New words mostly in the school holidays and revised words since school started back this week. But… I have almost strung together 21 mornings at my desk, with my head stuck in writing. I am pretty sure this is a first and getting pretty close to now being a habit! I believe I only missed three days total last month.

When the whirlwind that is GenreCon is over, I’ll be back with more news and hopefully regular blog posts as I begin the process of re-purposing three years of blogging with Write Anything.