(As you can see, I’m a >very< infrequent blogger, but here’s a few thoughts you’re welcome to…)
DECEMBER 2014: WIP
I’ll be posting bits and pieces here about my current WIP until it becomes a thing-that-is-no-longer-in-progress (aka a book). I ‘finished’ the first draft of this novel a few days ago. I was planning to write ‘The End’ as a joke but I just couldn’t do it.
It is so very far from being finished.
The first time I ‘finished’ a novel – back in 2000, when I got to the end of the first draft of Nine Hours North – I was pretty excited. That’s probably an okay reaction. But I thought I’d Finished.
It took six years and eleventy billion drafts until it was actually published. I learned a huge amount in that time – about rejection, persistence, faith, despair, and the importance of always having something else on the go – but one of the most important things was learning about ‘the end’.
A first draft is just that. The first of what will be many more, before it’s finally ready to see the world. I’ve actually grown to love drafting. For me that’s when the good stuff happens. It’s when you get to shape this giant sprawling pile of words into something shiny. It’s when you get to step back and realise all the things you were trying to say but haven’t quite said yet. I’ve always been jealous of sculptors, finding their perfect forms in that ungainly block of stone. This is my equivalent.
I stumbled a bit at the start of this year. Fell into a depressive slump and didn’t write anything for months. This happens, from time to time. This post is not about that, but it’s related (see: faith, despair, persistence).
With stern/inspiring words from my mentor, encouragement from my writing buddy, and an attempt to swim myself out of depression (I’m talking about literal laps here – chlorine and heart rate and routine and endorphins), I was getting back on track. I was writing again, but I was having trouble with the ever-present ever-shouty Bastard of Self Doubt.
(BSD is not your friend, but if you’re a writer you will probably spend more time with him/her than with your actual friends. BSD cuts the words from your fingers before you’ve even had a chance to put them on the page).
And then something wonderfully serendipitous happened. A writer friend, Justine Larbalestier, asked me to read her first draft. She didn’t even call it that – she called it ‘draft zero’ – and she wanted some feedback.
It was a mess.
Don’t get me wrong. It was a compelling page-turner of a mess, and I loved reading it, but there were loose ends everywhere, plot points that didn’t point to anything, an ending that didn’t end so much as stop, and the occasional grammar lapse that would have had your English teacher plucking their eyes out.
It was wonderful. Justine is a many-times-internationally-published-award-winning-writer, and this manuscript was a mess. It was so liberating, and hit me at just the right moment. You can do that?
I read it, I gave some (hopefully useful) feedback, and then I got on with writing my own. I’d written about 35,000 words before my slump. In the last few months I’ve added more than 50,000, and reached ‘the end’ of the story. Most of those I haven’t looked back at, apart from a quick skim at the start of the day to reorient myself.
But I have faith in that pile. I know it’s an enormous mess, and I know there’s so much work to do, but I have my stone now, and I have my chisel, and it’s time to get to work on the next stage.
MARCH 2014: FINISHED?
I’ve ‘finished’ again. Time for another report.
This time it’s a second draft. I think. By the logic of my last post I guess it should be a first draft, but I’m never sure about these things; never sure where one draft ends and another begins. It’s not like you twist out of an exoskeleton cleanly on the way to your next incarnation. There’s always mess left over. It’s more like something emerging from inside of you, with all the entrails and the mess and the goo.
Not sure why I’m getting so Aliens about this. Perhaps it’s because I just finished and I feel a bit shattered by it all. But in writing a book you are definitely required to be your own Ripley. Nobody else is going to do it for you.
Working through this draft there was a whole lot of flamethrowing going on. I was searching in the darkness for the Newt of perfect plot; she could only be rescued by destroying 10,000 aliens; I had until deadline to get out before the reactor core melted down.
10,507 aliens, to be precise. I flamethrowered a lot of words this time around.
There’s a lot of tricks you have to use, writing a novel. Suspension of disbelief doesn’t only apply to reading. For the entire time it takes to write & rewrite a novel, you have to believe in the story and your ability to tell that story. That is a lot of suspending. That is hard. Which is why you have to use anything that works to get you across the line.
Dressing in leathers and carrying heavy weaponry doesn’t always work. Sometimes you have to break out the really big guns of paper and foldback clips.
I write almost exclusively on screen, for everything. For me there’s no competition with the slow and illegible notebook scrawl of my handwriting. But sometimes there’s nothing better than having a stack of papers physically present in front of you, and a blue pen of doom in your hand. Slash and burn.
The other thing I like to do is print out a list of scenes, for the purpose of shuffling and reshuffling. There’s something liberating about having the entire story in your hands. It helps in the crucial redrafting realisation that nothing is fixed in place yet, that everything is up for negotiation. It helps you to remember that this is freedom.
One last thing – a secret weapon for when you fall over. (See: disbelief, suspension of, hard). I have a folder on my hard drive of nice things people have said about my writing. Not just people, but people I respect as readers or writers. Or people. Or all the above.
Every once in a while, break it open and take a sniff. Even if you feel like the phoniest phony on the face of the earth, here is proof that at some point somebody said something good about you and it’s possible they weren’t lying.
They are doing the suspending for you, so all you have to do now is get on with the job.
Get on with the job.
APRIL 2014: CBCA NOTABLE BOOK
More good Run news. More good news for Run. It’s a thrilling time.
It’s also (all so) strange. It’s a strange process. You have an idea. You jot it down, but it won’t let you go. It gnaws at your subconscious, and then it comes out into your daylight mind, again and again until you pay it more attention. You write some more, you think some more, you start to get excited. You hold your breath in case this ball of mist dissipates and leaves you with nothing but an image.
But it doesn’t. Weeks and words and work goes by, and it’s serious, this one, and you dive in rejoicing; you dive in in terror; you dive in because it’s what you have to do. And you make something. For months, for years, you make something. And then it’s time for other makers, other opinions, other minds. If you’re lucky (I’m lucky), you have talented people, people you can trust, people who believe.
And then it’s done. And then it’s out there, it’s on display, it’s no longer yours. I like this moment. It’s like saying goodbye.
But having waved your teenager off at the docks, you get letters home now and then. Notes from friends, notes from strangers, news, reviews, the occasional star. And then a Notable Listing, in a list full of notables, from a noble and notable organisation. It’s strange. It’s delightful. I don’t know what to do with it really, so I will simply say this: thank you.
The full list of notable books is here. Congratulations to you all – the news coming home is good news.
MARCH 2014: INKY AWARD LONGLIST
I’m completely thrilled & delighted that Run has been longlisted for the 2014 Inky Awards. It means a lot to be included on this list, especially because the list was actually picked by teen judges. (Such kudos to the Inside A Dog team for coming up with this concept. I mean, imagine for a second an award for YA books, chosen by YA readers? So crazy that it just might work…)
And look at the company I’m keeping:
That is some seriously fine bookage right there.
The Silver Inky Longlist (for international authors) looks a little like this:
The shortlist will be announced in August, and if you’re keen, and aged 12-20, you could actually be the person deciding what that shortlist is. Applications close on 14 April, so get in quick.
MARCH 2014: SCOTTISH BOOK TRUST
I recently had the pleasure of meeting up and talking with Ryan Van Winkle, as he dashed through Sydney on his way back to Edinburgh. We talked all things Run, and all things parkour, and some of it ended up on a Scottish Book Trust podcast.
Take a listen here.
FEBRUARY 2014: SET IN CONCRETE
The main thing behind Run, of course, was parkour. But one of the other main things was concrete poetry.
Words are fickle things. It’s hard to pin down meaning with them. I think most writers are aware of the limitations that words have, and our own limitations at crafting them to do what we want.
Words work harder in poetry though. They carry more weight, and they seem to be able to convey the abstract and the complex much better than their prose-bound cousins.
I think Run was really conceived when I had the idea to write it (at least partly) using concrete poetry – where the words function not only linguistically but also visually.
I was reminded of how good concrete poetry can be at the recent Born to Concrete exhibition at the State Library of NSW. A survey of Australian concrete poetry from the last forty years or so, it shows how striking, how powerful, and how relevant this form still is.
One of my favourite parts of the exhibition was the obligatory interactive bit. For once it really was interactive, and it really worked. Inviting people to create their own concrete poetry, it seemed to free people up from the terror of meaning, and just allow them to play.
Which is what this post is about, really. Which is what parkour is about. Which is what, ultimately lead to Run being born.
I encourage you.
JANUARY 2014: RUN TEACHING NOTES
It’s basically impossible to be objective about your own work. (This is not a book, it’s my baby!) This is all the more reason to be thankful for the good people of Penguin, who have put together some teaching notes for Run.
If you are teaching the book, please feel free to download and use anything you find useful here, but do remember to thank/acknowledge the above-mentioned Good People of Penguin. Enjoy!
NOVEMBER 2013: PARKOUR RESOURCES
In researching Run I came across a ton of useful online resources. Here’s a few of them:
(Not seeing your country here? Parkulture has the most comprehensive listing I’ve found)
The best thing about these organisations is that they all run classes, from absolute beginner to seasoned traceur, so you can stop reading and start jumping! (I took classes for a little while at Parkour NSW, who are a fine bunch of people).
If it’s stunning parkour photography you want, you can’t possibly go past Andy Day’s website. He’s been associated with the scene since 2003, and it shows.
You should probably watch this.
JULY 2013: PRESENCE
A curated chapbook available online from Cordite Poetry Review
“This idea of presence gives poetry a privileged ground for the production of new truths precisely by enabling truth to develop within the poem itself. The ten poets I have invited to contribute to this chapbook arrive on the page/screen with a shimmering presence, and in so doing offer the reader ‘unquantifiable pleasure’ which, as Pascalle Burton so boldly states, is ‘the key to a really good secret’. These poems/secrets/truths come from some of my favourite writers working today in Australia and Canada.”
~ from the introduction
JUNE 2013: WRITER IN RESIDENCE
Very excited to be the July writer in residence for the Centre for Youth Literature’s blog Inside a Dog.
The last three months have seen YA luminaries Ambelin Kwaymullina, Garth Nix, and Raina Telgemeier in residence, and it’s a honour to be following in their footsteps. Come join me!
MARCH 2013: RUN TRAILER
Pretty much beyond excited about this trailer. Huge thanks to Director Andre Sawenko, and to the indomitable traceur Benton Bolduan, who worked his arse off in the hot sun to bring you this piece.
JANUARY 2013: THE NEXT BIG THING
I’ve been tagged in this author-tagging pyramid scheme of a meme that’s been going around online. Somebody tags you, you answer ten questions, you pass it on.
I’ve been tagged by the gifted and talented Will Kostakis.
And have in turn tagged these exceedingly fine writers:
Look out for their answers early in January. Here are mine:
What is the working title of your next book?
Where did the idea come from for the book?
Parkour + concrete poetry. I’d been getting interested in both things, and one night I started thinking about them both together. Poetry already made sense to me as a way to represent parkour in words – the fluidity and flow you can get with poetry that’s hard to capture with prose – and when I started to imagine what you could do typographically I got really excited. That was the beginning.
What genre does your book fall under?
The Penguin people came up with the tag “genre fiction meets literary verse novel”. Don’t think I can do better than that. (I wrote a thriller! Never thought I’d do that!)
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
It sounds like a cop out, but I wouldn’t. I don’t really know what my characters look like. It’s like that when I’m reading as well – I tend to skip over the ‘descriptiony bits’, as they seem so irrelevant. So (if that wildest dream ever came true), I’d leave it up to someone who knows film and hope they got it right…
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
For Dee, parkour started out as a way to escape his mundane life, but when he is drawn into a frighteningly real conspiracy, it is parkour that will save him.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
Apart from a year or two of notes and ideas beforehand, the writing of the first draft took seven months. I can be so precise because I had an Australia Council grant that allowed me to take that time off from my full time day job. I knew I had to get it done in that time or it wouldn’t get done. Love deadlines!
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Purely for the genre/verse novel tag I would have to say Dorothy Porter’s crime novels (as presumptuous as that is).
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Parkour + concrete poetry, like I say above. Once I actually got to the story, though, that’s what kept me going. Finding out about my characters, finding out about their worlds, finding out what happened to them. I love my people, and it was a privilege to dive in and spend some time in their dark, passionate, intense world.
What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
The Bruise Blog I wish I’d kept, for the brief time I was actually going to parkour classes! (Thanks to Parkour NSW for their awesome teachers, who bear no responsibility for this old man’s physio bills!)
JANUARY 2006: ON THE WRITING OF NINE HOURS NORTH
Nine Years Later
(originally published in Viewpoint, Winter 2006)
It’s a page-turner, people say to me in a tone of disbelief, and I understand where they’re coming from. I couldn’t put it down. It’s almost an accusation. I mean I am one of those weirdos who reads poetry for pleasure, but I fully understand their reservations. A novel, in verse? That’s going to be kind of obscure, right? Something you read because you feel obliged to improve yourself. Definitely hard to get into. Definitely not for pleasure…
Nine years ago, in the year I decided it was time to ‘get serious’ about writing, all these poems came pouring out. It surprised me. I’d been expecting short stories, as that was mainly what I’d written in the sporadic years since teachers had stopped setting assignments. But the poetry came. I came to it. I started reading more, having grown up in a school system that hardly encouraged this pursuit, and stumbled upon Neruda’s poem “Poetry”. And it was at that age… Poetry arrived / in search of me. The literary precedent had been set, I decided. I’d better follow.
I kept writing poetry, loving the inherently experimental nature of it, the way you could make words do things they hadn’t been designed to do, testing their limits and the rules we’d imposed upon them, testing their relationships with other words. I loved the snapshot effect too, the way you could focus in on one tiny incident; focus the reader’s attention on something they otherwise might not see. Or the way this tiny thing could come to represent so much more than what it was. (I should point out that at this stage most of this wonder was at the possibilities of the form. My own abilities hadn’t quite caught up yet, but the possibilities… man…)
It wasn’t until I chanced across Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask (serendipity helping me out of my ignorance again) that I realised I’d been missing narrative. That deadly, beautiful hook. Anthropologists theorise that humans are hardwired for story. It’s one of the most basic of the human creative urges, almost up there with the procreative. And after all, what do we do to get into a situation where procreation might be possible, but tell stories about ourselves? We narrativise. Turn our disparate and often mundane collection of facts into a story with rhythm and flow and purpose. And that’s what I’d been missing.
Not that poetry has never involved narrative. The earliest language made stories, and stories made songs, where the poetic form functioned as a mnemonic device as much as anything. For if we are hardwired for story, we are even more deeply programmed for rhythm and rhyme. It’s in our genes. Shift forward through the years to the epics of Egypt, Greece, China, Persia, Japan. Jump again and you have Shakespeare saying everything under the sun in verse. Coleridge. Banjo Paterson, if you must. Stories in verse.
But The Monkey’s Mask was a contemporary novel in the way that these narratives weren’t. It had everything that a novel had, expressed in about twenty percent of the words. It was a novel. It was more. It was less which was more, more, more. I loved it. I came to love skinny so much that I thought I’d done with fat books forever until years later when I came to love Murakami’s fat masterpiece The Wind Up Bird Chronicle.
One of the main things that The Monkey’s Mask did to me was to make me want to copy. Inspiration, people call that. Monkey see, monkey do. I wanted to, and I thought I actually had a story, too. This was going to be the big one. This was it.
I made a false start or two. I stopped. I went away, I came back. After a year or two of this I made an uncharacteristically sensible decision and put it all in a box and left it alone. I just didn’t have the technical ability. And, I realised years later, I didn’t have the story. Had to have a few more disparate and mundane things happen to me for it all to come together.
In the meantime, I continued to play with words, with individual poems. The polish, the way they fit together. The stories that they told became less abstract. I enrolled in the University of Adelaide’s MA in Creative Writing. For the deadline. A two year course, with the first spent reveling in other writers’ words, and the second spent on our own major project. The verse novel that had been bothering me, in my own case. By the beginning of that second year, I was as ready as I was going to be, and more importantly, that deadline was looming. Love deadlines.
Digging back through the box, I could really start to see which bits might work, and which bits were never going to. Most importantly though, I could see the characters starting to emerge from the sketches, the bits and pieces cohering in three dimensions. Most of what I’d written previously were journal-type stories from my own life in Japan, or the lives of my friends living there with me. What started to emerge this time, though, was a main character who shared some of these stories, but who had his own way of dealing with the things I’d dealt with, his own take on the world. I could see the beginning of his story, and it was curious enough to make me want to follow it. It was enormously exciting.
So that was the story, and the characters. The poetry, though, the form – that was something else, but something I would never separate entirely from the story. I can’t possibly judge, but a friend recently told me that they couldn’t imagine Nine Hours North told in any other way, and that was extremely gratifying to hear. From the beginning this was suppposed to be a verse novel, and I was not going to give up on that idea. I stumbled around somewhere in the middle of the story, writing a few sections here and there, before working out that fifty percent of writing a novel is being a good bookkeeper, and got my thoughts a bit more in order. And by a month or two into all this I’d organically developed a way of working that saw me through until the end of the year, and the end of the first draft.
Supposedly, the great Zen Haijin (Haiku masters) would spend all day in preparation – organising their brushes, cleaning their workrooms, making tea – before sitting down to write just one haiku. With the absolute luxury of time that I had doing this MA, I developed a similar, if not quite so spiritual, routine. Days spent walking, doing chores, eating, drinking coffee. Nights, once the combination of adrenalin, caffeine, endorphins and sunset had settled into place in my system, were for writing. (You will sense that I am mythologizing this time. My current “real world” involves full-time work. Ah well. But really, it did happen kinda like this…)
These nights, once I had established my pattern, once I had got myself organised, were for piling up mountains of words, or for slashing and burning the last night’s outpouring. The pruning was always the best part. Night one I would start with a section that I knew had to happen next. I would write it, straight onto the computer, blindfolded sometimes so I couldn’t go back, just letting it all come out. Thousands of words. Finding out what happened in this section I had sketched out. Night two I would take the good bits. Bend them into shape, twist them around one another, sculpt a poem. So good to be able to discard words. So much like finding the figure in the block of stone. Less is more, more, more.
The finished novel has just over 18,000 words, less than your average novella. I’d like to think they’re mostly the right ones. I’d like to hope they keep you turning the pages…
JANUARY 2006: NINE HOURS NORTH TEACHING NOTES
The fantastic education team at Penguin Australia put together a set of questions, quotations and extension activities for those of you teaching Nine Hours North in the classroom. You can download them here: Penguin Teachers’ Notes.