How to write a novel, by me

I’m doing something exciting with the Queensland Writers Centre next month. Because I’m not taking any year-long courses for them, I came up with the idea for an intensive weekend course (a “boot camp” if you will) that teaches everything I know about preparing to write a novel. It’s going to be full-on, starting on a Friday afternoon and ending on a Sunday. I challenge the writers involved to clear the decks, batten down the hatches, and assorted other shipping metaphors. We’ll be planning out our narrative structure, getting to know our characters, coming up with a blueprint for getting the novel finished (students can then go on to do a Year of the Novel course if they like). My goal is to drive the students really really hard so they push through their resistance and go home inspired and equipped to write their novel. It’s an application-only course (I am trying to put together the group that I think will work best), and if you’re interested you can find more details here. If you’re too far away to come in for a weekend course, you might be interested in taking my online Year of the Novel course (26 lessons over a year). This one will be tutored by another writer, but the lectures and lesson plan are all me. More info here. You’ll have to be a member of QWC to take either course, but they’re the best writers centre in Australia (possibly the world) so why would you NOT want to be?

The Year of Ancient Ghosts

I am very very VERY excited to announce that I have just signed up with Ticonderoga Publications to release a collection of novellas in early 2013. The collection will be titled The Year of Ancient Ghosts and will feature a mix of existing and new publications. All of the works are in some way based on or inspired by medieval literature and history. The draft table of contents includes “The Death of Pamela”, first published in 2000 (based on Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur); “Crown of Rowan”, first published in 2010 (based on my ongoing OBSESSION with all things Anglo-Saxon); “Wild Dreams of Blood”, forthcoming in an e-journal in 2012 (which does funky things with the Eddas and cage fighting), and two as-yet unwritten novellas tentatively titled “The Year of Ancient Ghosts” and “The Lark and the River”. There will also be a nonfiction essay in the back about researching and writing the medieval.

The Ring of Brodgar: one of the locations in "The Year of Ancient Ghosts"

Kimberley Freeman, my more-popular alter-ego, has kept me very busy the last few years, so it has been a while since I’ve conceptuatlised and written a speculative fiction novel. Working on these novellas is giving me a chance to drink from that well again, and I’m very grateful that Ticonderoga sees value in the project. I love the novella form: it has a similar structure and weight to the novel, but is a quicker and easier write and read. Part of my research trip to the UK next year will be taken up in researching, developing, and writing these works, including a week in a lonely cottage near Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, which is somewhere I’ve always wanted to go. I feel very blessed to have such great support around me, and that I can spend the next six months or so (once Kimberley Freeman #4 is off in the River Publish) indulging these creative ideas that mean so much to me.

How to edit: a pictorial guide

Before I can finish my next novel, I have to make some changes to the first 70 000 words (which, unfortunately, weren’t working very well). Such a task can be overwhelming, so this is what you do.

1. Go to a location far away from phone and internet where you will feel guilty if you don’t work.

 

 

2. Write down a one-line summary of each scene in the story, as it stands, on a file card.

 

 

 

 
3. Arrange the file cards in chapters on a large surface (like a luxury king-size bed) so you can get a bird’s eye view the whole story, or at least the chapters that need attention. Now stop and think for a bit. What needs to be cut? What needs to be inserted (make a note of inserts on different coloured cards)? What scenes need to be combined or moved? Here is some thinking music…

 

4. Now make a list in your notebook of all those fixes. Make sure there are check boxes next to every point! Colour-code them if you want it to look super purty.

 

 

 

5. Transfer the list onto your computer copy, make a note (using “comments” in Word) wherever something needs to be done. Sometimes it will be a simple tweak, sometimes it will be a big fix. The example at the left shows that I need two new scenes and a bit of rewriting in a third scene. You might have dozens of notes to start with. As you complete the notes, you delete them. The number of notes decreases in a pleasing fashion.

 

 

6. Added fun can be had by ticking the check-boxes in your notebook!

 

Power, Mystery, and the Hammer of the Gods

I stole this blog title from Jimmy Page, who said these three things were what he always sought in art. I couldn’t agree with him more. I have been much entertained of late, so I’m blogging it.

Sigur Ros: ooh, so mysterious

I recently saw the movie “Inni”, which is a filmed version of a Sigur Ros concert, but so much more than that. Even though I referenced Led Zep in my opening line, and have long considered them the best band in the world, I think I’m having to admit now that it’s actually Sigur Ros who should be crowned lords of all rock music. The movie is a brilliant, spare, elegiac showcase of an incredible band at the height of their powers showing that when music is done right, it’s a kind of sorcery. The dynamics, the intensity, the humanity of this band are all beyond description. I was lucky enough to see Jonsi (who is the genius at the centre of Sigur Ros) on tour last year in Melbourne, and I have come to understand that he is some kind of music god, perhaps sent by the Aesir to Iceland in the hopes that Coldplay would just shut the fuck up. If you don’t know who these people are and would like to know, try here, here, here, or even here.

Don't worry, you can (and I do) play a girl.


But I’ve also been deep, deep, and far away in the province of Skyrim. This week, in a brilliant spot of timing, I tore a couple of ligaments in my left ankle while out walking up the mountain. “Can you stay still with your foot elevated for a few days?” my phsyio asked. Why yes, yes I can. I fired up the PS3 and haven’t really moved since. The game is sublime. The landscape and the music are enough to keep me playing it, but add in the rumbling nightmare of a dragon attack, the immersive thrill of lovingly designed dungeons, and the awesome little medieval towns and… well, why bother doing real life, eh? To paraphrase Ralph Wiggum: “Oh boy, Skyrim! That’s where I’m a viking!”

Art is sometimes seen as only encompassing a few, fairly delimited (and uppity) things. Paintings, opera, maybe poetry. I dunno. But to me, this movie and this game are art. They are incredible expressions of human endeavour, pushing right out there on the boundaries of feeling and technology, to make something that is meaningful and valuable to others. It reminds me that art matters; it always matters. And I am so grateful for it, in good times and in bad.

Fresh ink

I made it through a good four decades of my life as a total cleanskin. I had always been interested in tattoos, but never got one for fear of how it would look when I was 80 and in a nursing home. Then time began to wear its tracks on my body and I thought, you know what? I’m going to change forever anyway. So last year I had a small tattoo inked on my left forearm.

You may notice I've also stopped biting my nails

What I really liked about my first ‘too is that it said something to me that was deeply personal and meaningful. Another idea that has become meaningful for me recently is the idea of harvesting. It’s true that I’ve spent a lot of my time as an adult ploughing, sowing, watering, fertilising, but haven’t really reaped much of a harvest. What I needed, I told myself, was to write the word HARVEST on the back of my hand to remind myself, the way you might write BUY TOOTHPASTE somewhere prominent when you’ve already forgotten it a hundred times.

And so here’s my new tattoo, which is the Viking rune for “harvest” (jera). It has all these lovely pagan resonances of seasons and time and agriculture, and the design is supposed to represent two scythes. I originally put it there as a reminder to harvest but, Viking magic being what it is (and remember, I don’t believe in magic except on days that I do), it’s actually a spell of sorts: to bring me my harvest. Let’s just say I’m being very careful what I sow of late.

I don’t know about tattoos. Lots of my friends have them, lots don’t. I don’t think tattoos mean you’re dangerous or cheap, nor sexy or cool. They just are what they are: a permanent mark on your body that says something to you or about you. I’m not ruling out a third. And if I do, dear reader, I’ll give you the whole story once again. Just as I’ll give the whole story to my grandchildren, when they’re sitting on my lap in the nursing home.

School’s out

I teach a lot. I mostly teach writing, though I do give a mean Beowulf lecture. I teach at University of Queensland in their postgraduate writing program, I designed the content for the Queensland Writers Centre’s Year of the Novel online program, I have mentored emerging writers, and I teach at the Queensland Writers Centre on a range of different programs: usually taking up about a dozen weekend days a year. I have been immensely privileged to see the slow waking of passion in writers, as they realise they can finally fulfill their dream of writing a story. I feel so appreciated by my many students, and now by my Faculty at UQ who have just awarded me a Teaching Excellence Award (this follows on from the Research Excellence Award I won in September, so colour me delighted).

My last Year of the Novel class for 2011

But it’s time for me to take a little breather. Having two kids and one job is hard enough. Add into the mix that I am also two authors, and I teach in the community, and it totals about four jobs all together so unless I can figure out a way to survive without sleep, the madness has to end. I’m taking a year off from the Year of the Writer program at QWC and have been successful in my application for sabbatical from UQ for first semester next year. This means I get to take a semester off from teaching to work on a research project, and it also means I’m going to be spending a lot of time wandering around northern England and Scotland looking at the ways Vikings have been memorialised in local culture and tourism.

As much as I love teaching, I can’t tell you how pleased I am to have a break from it. I have a pretty efficient engine, that can run on very little fuel. But after the year I’ve had, I have a deep, deep need to fill myself to the brim with the equivalent of that fancy 98-octane middle-class petrol. (You see how much I need a break? My metaphors are starting to suck). Then I reckon, I can produce something wonderful.

Thanks to all my past students, who have challenged me to articulate what makes good writing and thereby made me a better writer.

An adventure in poetry

I love reading poetry. I love the concentrated language, the gist-ful risks it takes, and the way it almost-but-not-quite goes purple if you squeeze it a little. But I pretty much suck at writing it, so I rarely do it. I would rather write an entire novel than try to distil a thought in poetry. Nonetheless, as the blog title indicates, I gave it a crack because I’ve been… ahem… inspired lately. It’s nice to be inspired, if you know what I mean. 😉

WE ARE LIKE THE SEA

We are like the sea, my love and I.
I am the bay, waiting tentative at the entrance between great headlands,
Still and uncertain sometimes, a servant to the sky’s whims:
Her blue preening, her cloudy tantrums.
Ah, but he is the ocean,
Ozone-scented, fresh, and rushing all around me.
He knows himself—the sun in his shallows,
The thundering depths,
The green-blue embrace, warmed by sharded light—
Where at last I sink,
And arrive
Softly.