I’m just going to come right out and say it. I hate all sports. Even the ones I sometimes like. Now this is, of course, downright unAustralian of me so I’m going to try to defend my position.
First of all, you need to know that I am not opposed to physical activity. I’m a relatively fit and healthy individual. My cholesterol is freakishly low, as is my blood pressure. I go for walks pretty regularly and take the stairs instead of the lift most of the time. So this isn’t about me feeling all threatened by people with hard bodies (I tend to think women look better with soft bodies anyway).
What I hate most of all is the brittle rhetoric that surrounds almost all sporting endeavour. The bullshit about “teamwork” and “sportsmanship” and “giving it your best”. Everybody knows that sport is all about winning. Even when they say, “it’s not about winning” it’s about winning. The forum I in which I resent this rhetoric the most is children’s sports.
Imagine, if you will, an eight-year-old who reads poorly. Nothing stupid about her: just a combination of sluggish genetics and indifferent parents and she’s behind the rest of the class. Now, let’s give her a book and make her read in front of the whole school community. “Come on,” they’ll say, “give it a go. It’s not about being the best.” Her vision tunnels, her ears start to ring, she struggles through aware everyone is looking at her. How do you think she’d feel? I tend to think her self-esteem would be crushed and she’d probably develop hard feelings towards reading for life.
So why the hell do we make children who aren’t naturally good at sport race their classmates in front of huge audiences? “It’s not whether you win or lose,” they say. But it is. Because the kid who comes last, she doesn’t get a trophy on parade, she sits in the great silent stillness of the non-winner. Because she lost and everyone saw it. And if she’s the best reader in her class, there’s no trophy.
Luckily, though, there’s the wonderful consolation of a lifetime of books.
Falling in love with a new book is a billion different kinds of magic. I have cracked open that door and got my foot in the world and, even though I’m still suffering through the usual challenges, I have a lovely sense of rightness that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
As you’ve no doubt gathered, I’m basing many of my ideas for this book on Anglo-Saxon England, and one thing I’m really getting caught up in at the moment is the poetry of the time. You must understand, I had my first exposure to Anglo-Saxon poetry (sometimes called Old English poetry) 12 or 13 years ago in my undergraduate medieval studies minor. At the time, my response was “meh”. I mean, I liked Beowulf (there are monsters: what’s not to like?). But in general it seemed a little plain, even mundane. Then, while doing my master’s, I was part of an Anglo-Saxon reading group who spent months translating parts of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle and The Battle of Maldon. Again, meh.
So imagine my surprise, on revisiting it this time, to find all the meh gone. Where I thought there was kind of a detached bluntness, I now found a weighty strangeness. The split alliterative line… oh, my! What drama and measure there is in it! Discovering the beauty in it is like having a platonic relationship with someone your whole life, then suddenly looking at them and realising they are made of awesome. And falling hard, hard, hard in love. At the moment, my favourite poem is The Wanderer (click here if you want to hear it read to you in Anglo-Saxon). I must have read it ten times this week alone. Tolkien fans my recognise the adapted lines from it: “Where is the horse and where the rider?” (Aragorn sings it in The Two Towers, Theoden says it in the movie version).
So what is a girl loved up on Anglo-Saxon culture to do? Well, head off to England of course! I am dragging my family off to face a northern winter and investigate various sites and monuments (that’s the Sutton Hoo mounds in the picture). Oh, the kids are going to love it. That was irony.
This is a reprint of an article I wrote for the Queensland Writers Centre‘s magazine Writing Queensland. I thought it might be useful to others here who aren’t members (and if you’re not a member WHY NOT?)
From time to time, aspiring writers ask me what is the best kind of story: one that is plot-driven or one that is character-driven? Somehow the idea that the two are distinct and one can be privileged over the other persists. “Character-driven” is usually seen as the mark of serious writing, while “plot-driven” is understood to be written by hacks pandering to the marketplace. This is a false distinction, and a potentially dangerous one at that. No writer can afford to overlook one or the other: a good story is driven by both good plot ideas and good characters. The trick is managing them right.
1. A story isn’t a story until it has people and problems. These two things (character and plot) cannot in any way be conceived outside of each other. An idea for a fascinating character means little until that character is challenged in some way; and a high-stakes plot idea means little if it isn’t focalised through three-dimensional people whose thoughts and feelings can be communicated to the reader.
2. What the writer must know first and foremost is the relationship between the people and the problems. Why is this person involved in this problem? Is it random? Or is it a function of the very person they are? What kind of attempts do they make to solve the problem, and where do those attempted solutions lead them? You must always think of the problem as belonging to somebody: a story describes that relationship between people and their problems.
3. Use the problems to create the narrative steps. How is your character going to get out of their predicament? What new problems can arise? The problems create the horizontal movement of the story, from beginning, through middle, and to the end; the movement that sustains narrative interest and keeps your reader turning pages. In some respects, the plot is driven by character: it evolves uniquely from the people and their responses to the problem they were given on page one.
4. Use the people to create the emotional connection. How does it feel to experience this problem? What history of acts and ideas does the character bring to the problem at hand? What do they think of their problem? This creates the vertical depth of your story; the depth that makes the story emotionally meaningful to your reader. In some respects, the characters are driven by the plot: they evolve uniquely from the narrative trajectory, which brings about their transformation from the person they were on page one, to the person they are when you write “the end”.