Crime fiction is riding a wave of popularity. But how do you go about it writing it? To help you figure it out here’s five tips from debut novelist, Sarah Thornton, author of Lapse, the first in a series of crime thrillers featuring blockbuster heroine, Clementine Jones.
1. Start with the hero
It doesn’t matter how clever you are with clues or plot twists, if your lead character is boring or unrealistic or somehow off-putting, you’re going to struggle. I had a very clear sense of Clementine Jones before I began writing—she virtually insisted that I not only bring her alive on the page but push on to the end to complete her story. Your protagonist will be someone you feel strongly about and feel comfortable ‘living with’ over the weeks and months you spend writing them into existence.
Handy exercise: think of the type of person you like reading about, whether fictional or real life (politics, sport, business, the arts etc) and build your protagonist around that type.
2. Know and live your setting
Most good crime novels create a sense of place that resonates, ratcheting up the suspense as the reader is drawn “inside” the story. This should come easily if you’re setting the drama in a place you know well but if not then I recommend a mobile writers retreat. Don’t Google ‘writers retreat’, Google ‘campervan hire’—actually go to your chosen setting for a few days and absorb the landscape, the flora, the fauna, the rhythm and beat of the place, writing slabs of sensory description for use later on.
3. Give the hero an ally
For me, it made things easier to consciously create allies—people who inhabit your MC’s world and who open up possibilities for plot or action elements but also for dialogue in which key character or story features can be developed. This may be obvious for those writing police procedurals where detective and cop work together to solve the mystery, but for private eye or amateur sleuth novels, I think it bears mentioning.
4. Avoid stereotypes
Crime is hugely popular but this makes it all the harder to make your story stand out from the rest and whilst genre writing has certain stable attributes, you still need to create a unique space for your story. It may be the choice of hero, like Emma Viskic’s deaf detective Caleb Zelic or, in my case, Clementine Jones, a female football coach (anything other than the alcoholic detective). Or perhaps it’s something unusual or distinctive about the setting, the villain or the circumstances of the crime—vive la difference!
5. Start with a dead body
Readers need to understand that the stakes are high (someone died / has been kidnapped etc) just as much as they require a satisfying ending (the bad guys lose). I didn’t do this initially and it created no end of stress. I think I successfully dealt with it in the end (you be the judge) but in book two of the Clementine Jones series I will be making life a bit easier for myself and delivering to the reader that staple of crime novels: the much-in-demand, bog-standard page one corpse.
Happy writing and let me know how you go!
By Quinn Eades
I am a queer trans poet, writer, researcher, editor, and performer (not always in that order), and am currently on a 3 year research fellowship at La Trobe University, Melbourne, where I am developing a creative digital lab called Making the Margins in collaboration with Dr Son Vivienne, Associate Professor in English Anna Poletti, and writer, performer, and educator Leah Avene.
My writing, research, and editorial practice is focussed on how we might write ‘bodies of difference’ in order to create social change by increasing the numbers and types of stories engaging with embodied experience in the public sphere. My first book, all the beginnings: a queer autobiography of the body was also my PhD project and was published in 2015, and my poetry collection, Rallying, was awarded the Mary Gilmore Award for best first book of poetry in 2017.
I’ve run the ‘Writing The Body’ workshop in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, London, Utrecht, and Amsterdam, and am thrilled to be presenting this material for the Queensland Writers Centre on September 28th this year.
My teaching practice is founded on principles of accessibility, inclusion, and is always student/participant led – our first task of the day will be to find out what attendees would like to explore during our time together, and every workshop is different as a result. Some of the topics we explore are the ethics of life writing, trauma and the body, feminist theories and philosophies of the body, and writing productivity techniques (specifically Shut Up and Write–a form of timed writing practice).
Most importantly, this workshop is structured so that participants have the time and support to write. We will experiment with writing to music, writing with specific prompts, and writing from/with images provided by award winning photographer Jamie James.
All kinds of writers have attended this workshop, from those who write for themselves to well-published authors who work in a range of genres. In order to support this range of abilities, and to allow participants to work with material that can be challenging, private, and produce a range of emotions, no one is asked to share or read their writing aloud. This frees us up and lets us explore the stories of our own bodies without worrying about who might read the writing we produce.
With Charlie Hester
On the weekend I had the pleasure of attending Karen Foxlee’s ‘Writing Young Adult’ workshop. It was a great opportunity to meet with and learn from not only such an experienced and accomplished writer but also such a great teacher and super lovely person. Karen began by giving an overview of the genre, its history and definitions, and with statistics stating that as high as 55% of YA novels are now also being read by adults, she gave us a real appreciation and sense of the significance of the burgeoning genre – and with that, we got right into writing!
As all the writers in the workshop were spread across a wide diversity of genres and writing backgrounds, we were really provided with a chance to bounce off one another’s strengths and passions. Karen’s presentation made plenty of allowance for a wide variety of styles and approaches to writing, and the whole atmosphere of the workshop was comfortable, conversational and supportive.
Throughout the workshop I got the chance to explore many aspects of the YA genre, like building layers of character to create complexity and ‘verisimilitude’, the merits and pitfalls of writing in first or third person, methods of approaching story structure, and completing short writing exercises from prompts Karen supplied.
One of the things Karen talked about during the workshop that really resonated with me was the concept of ‘loving your story to life’. It’s an idea that I think stands true for all forms of writing (and especially in the YA genre, where having engaging and vivid characters is critical) – transferring your author’s passion for these characters, places, and their stories onto the page is what will ultimately bring them to life for your readers. Karen was vocal in encouraging us not to shy away from big issues we care about, to believe in what YA means to us, and that we as individuals, with our own emotional ‘well’ of experiences, can be the most powerful resource for creating a distinctive voice for our characters and our work.
One of the main through-lines of the workshop was the importance of ‘voice’ in YA fiction; a unique tone, an angle or perspective, an emotional mood – something that makes your writing stand out from the crowd.
Karen read out a bunch of samples that showed how quickly and effectively a ‘voice’ can be established. John Green’s “if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane” in Looking for Alaska, MT Anderson’s “we went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck” in Feed for example. She then gave us some really valuable ideas and approaches for finding our own voice; free writing and stream of consciousness writing, experimenting with perspective until finding one that fits, embracing our own ‘inner teenager’, and many more.
All in all, Karen managed to condense so much valuable information into the short space of six hours – I really felt like I made huge leaps and bounds with my writing and ideas. At the end of the day, I was left with plenty to think about, great ideas to embed into my writing and writing practice, and most importantly, with inspiration and confidence to continue my efforts in creative writing and the YA genre.
We’re so excited to present the amazingly quirky and valuable GenreCon conference this November. Your enthusiasm and passion for GenreCon can be seen with our near sell out Early Bird tickets. This super-discounted price will end this weekend, so be quick and grab one of the last few remaining early bird tickets.
For members yet to secure their conference place remember that you can still buy tickets after this weekend, starting at $359. Part of the new GenreCon process is a commitment to listening to you. In doing this, we understand that a few members are desperate to attend, but would only be able to do so if they could pay for their tickets over a few payments. We’ve thought about this and come up with a payment plan for the $399 and $359 member tickets to be paid off in smaller installments. If this sounds like you, please call Sophie on 3842 9922 for details.
So what about those four genre events to change your world?
As you may have heard, GenreCon 2019 will be bigger and better than ever this year and that’s due to our members. Your feedback pinpointed activities that allowed genre writers to engage and grow their audiences. We listened to that and created four genre events to change your world, and here they are:
- The Longest Book Launch: Completely free and open to the public.
The Longest Book Launch is the perfect meeting place to see and hear about the newest titles in Australian genre fiction. Best of all, it’s designed for authors and readers alike. Happening on Friday 22 November from 11:00am – 5:00pm, you can go stall-hopping during registrations or just pop-in from the street.
2. The GenreCon Night Market: Another free and public event.
The GenreCon Night Market will have bookstalls selling works new and old, with a fantastic line-up of indie authors and their books. Grab some books, collect some autographs, then sit down for a bite to eat from a range of food trucks on site. Following on from The Longest Book Launch on Friday, the Night Market runs from 5:00pm – 9:00pm.
3. Midnight Movie: After the Night Market, kick up your feet and lay back with a cult-classic genre film. Expect a night of laughter, popcorn, and drinks right by the Brisbane River. Screening starts at 10:00pm. Movie to be announced soon!
4. The Shreader: Included in a standard GenreCon ticket.
The Shreader is not for the faint of heart. Listen as ten ‘lucky’ writers have their work professionally read to a panel of industry experts. Will they like it enough to offer their reader feedback, or will it go straight through the shredder? The Shreader takes place from 12:30pm – 1:30pm on 24 November. Registrations open in October.
But we don’t want things to stop there. GenreCon 2019 is set to change the world for its author presenters too. Queensland Writers Centre is proud to support sustainable careers for authors, which means this year our presenters are paid for their time rather than volunteering. That’s over 50 artists and industry experts compensated for their invaluable time, expertise, and advice.
So show your support and come to GenreCon!
By: Carleton Chinner
Humans have been telling each other stories about made-up magical beings doing impossible things since we first sat around campfires and stared out into the dark. The lure of the unknown has always pulled at some of us. If asking “what if?” takes you on a journey to a distant galaxy or gets you dreaming about dwarves in forests, then the speculative fiction community is your tribe. GenreCon is a great place to meet and interact with people who share your love of the weird and fantastical.
“How will I know who they are?” you cry. “What will we talk about?” If you’re like a lot of writers, the idea of mingling with a room full of strangers might leave you with damp palms and a desire to go hide in a quiet room somewhere. But fear not – help is at hand. Here are six handy tips for hanging out with your tribe.
1. Dress for the Occasion
Speculative fiction writers are often easy to spot. Look for the Whovian t-shirt or the trekkie earrings. One fantasy writer I know is easy to spot by the trademark dagger she uses to pin up her hair. What will you wear
2. Plan your Introduction
Don’t forget to introduce yourself. Make eye contact when you speak and make sure you catch the other person’s name. Prepare your response to the question “What do you write?”
3. Be Sincere
Listen more than you talk. Ask questions about the other author’s work and be interested in their answers. What kind of writing do they do? What have they published? Celebrate their recent successes. Always be respectful; you never know who you are talking to. GenreCon attracts a wide range of authors from those just starting out to seasoned professionals.
4. Don’t be a Lone Wolf
If you arrive alone, look around and see if there’s anyone you recognise. They may introduce you to other people. If not, find someone who is standing alone and start a conversation with them.
5. Don’t Forget your Business Cards or Phone
There’s nothing worse than not having your contact details handy when a chance conversation suddenly turns into something important.
6. Don’t be ‘That Guy’
You know the one, pushy, only wants to talk about themselves and moves on to the next networking conquest as soon as contact details have been exchanged. Keep it real. Some people you meet over the weekend might become lifelong friends.
Try this small exercise. Set yourself the goal of meeting two new people. After the excitement of the GenreCon weekend is over, keep in touch with the people you’ve met. If you’re genuine, the connections you make here can become a support system where you share ideas, increase your visibility, and encourage each other to greater success.
And don’t stop your networking there. Find a writers group that shares your interests: Vision Writers in Brisbane; the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild; or the Aussie Speculative Fiction group on Facebook are all excellent communities. Most importantly, book your ticket now! Numbers are limited and you don’t want to miss out.
Everyone has a favourite picture book, right? A book that got into their bones when they were really young, and stayed there. Or maybe it’s a new book you’ve fallen in love with, when reading to your little ones. Falling in love with, or rediscovering an old picture book flame touches a part of your soul little else can.
Reading picture books is an utter joy. For many of us, reading them wakens our own stories – stories we need to share with the world. Rediscovering picture books through our children, is often linked with rediscovering our own need to tell stories.
But is writing for children as simple as it seems? In short – no. There is a lot to know. A university degree – Masters, even, worth of knowledge. Dr Seuss reportedly took nine months to write Cat In The Hat … and as far as I’m aware, that was solid, cooped up writing time, and not the fragments of fleeting writing time I somehow manage. Mem Fox, who wrote Possum Magic, wears it takes years to write a good picture book.
So, what is there to know?
I can help you here with a few simple tips. The rest, you get to know through years of practise, and focussed attention; reading books repeatedly, and immersing ourself in the kidlit community.
Children are all different ages
‘Children’ is a pretty broad term. It includes babies, toddlers, preschoolers, infants school kids, primary kids, high school kids (at a stretch). Firstly, work out who you are writing for. Which age group. Typically, picture books are for 0-5 or 4-7 years, for more sophisticated themes and images. Early readers tend to be pitched at 4-8 years, and junior fiction is for kids around 6-10 years. Middle grade is generally considered 8-12 years. And young adult is anything targeting kids over 12. But these are all pretty loose guidelines, as kids of course vary in reading and comprehension, as well as interests.
One reason age group is relevant, is that the age of your main character tends to be roughly the age of your target reader, or a little older if anything. Kids love reading up, as in, reading about slightly older children. Also, you need to consider the suitability of language. A picture book, for instance, is designed to be read aloud. So the language needs to be suitable to read aloud.
A picture book happens in the space between words and pictures.
Unlike other forms of fiction, the most defining thing about picture books is that they are a union between words and pictures. Picture books tend to be no more than 500 words. I have a book which is about 50!
A lot of detail, particularly descriptive detail, is removed from the text, and left to the images. You don’t need to say how a character feels, for instance, because it’s obvious in the character’s expression. Sometimes, colours, or use of space are used to express emotion. I challenge you to borrow out a picture book from the library, and try and read the story without words. It’s an interesting exercise.
As the picture book writer, be really strict with yourself. Can this be depicted in the illustrations? If so, leave it out of the text. Trust that the illustrator you are paired with has enough skills to be able to interpret what you mean, and llustrate it.
Your publisher will generally choose the illustrator
Speaking of being paired with an illustrator, most people don’t realise that it is the publisher, rather than the author, who chooses the illustrator in most cases. In fact, I have very little to do with the illustrator during the book development process. The editor acts as a mediator. One reason, is that the editor doesn’t want the author to impede the illustrator’s process and vice versa. Each person has a unique set of skills and knowledge, so we need to trust that the other person will do the job well. In my experience, this collaboration is utter joy, as the magic really does occur in the space between pictures and text.
The majority of picture books published are not in rhyme
What’s your favourite picture book? The majority of people’s favourite picture book is in rhyme. Many of the bestselling picture books, in the English speaking market at least, rhyme. Yet, most published are not in rhyme.
There are a few reasons for this. One, is that it is really, really hard for most of us to rhyme well. A good rhyme rolls of the tongue, like a good song. Generally, new writers tend to modify the story to fit the rhyme. But it needs to be the other way around. The story needs to take precedence. Look at stories like the Gruffalo, by Julia Donaldson. That is a GREAT story. It also happens to be a great rhyme too – but story is king. So is rhythm.
The other reason most publishers don’t always publish in rhyme, is that it costs a lot to make a picture book, and publishers need to be certain they’ll make their money back by selling the book. Many Australian publishers at least depend on foreign and translation right sales to get back their return on investment.
A rhyme is a riskier investment for a publisher than a story in prose. Ultimately, you need to remember that publishers are businesses.
There’s heaps more to know about writing for children. Endless information, but it’s all interesting, I promise! Come hang out with me at QWC Sunday 11 August, and we can chat more about this wonderful process. In the meantime, go read. Lots! The more children’s books you read, the more you will learn. And if nothing else, you’ll touch a part of your soul little else can.
Zanni Louise is an Australian children’s author, who has published twelve books for children, including picture books, early readers and junior fiction. She is based in Northern NSW. Find out more about Zanni’s books, workshops and mentoring services at zannilouise.com .
When I was a child growing up in South Africa, all I wanted to do was make movies.
I saw everything as if it were a story – perhaps because so many of the events were confronting for a seven or eleven year old: the night of the huge veld fire that came too close to the house and devoured the bamboo tree in a tower of smoke and yellow flames; the day a drunk man chased my friend and I up the river and almost caught us; the day the same friend and I found a dead baby on the banks of the river. These were hard things for a young child to confront, but in my head, I replayed the events as if they were films, trying to find a narrative that would allow me to incorporate such stark happenings and create meaning in my own story.
As a family, we were not rich and the only tools I had at my disposal were notebooks and pens and pencils. When I was eleven I did spend hundreds of hours making animated ‘flick-books’, but those stories had to be simple and were over in a few seconds. And then I realized I could write longer stories – some of them true, some of them fiction. I started writing these stories when I was seven, and I haven’t stopped since. I believe our lives are full of story-potential. We can focus on themes that emerge as we look back; we can tap into our desires and dreams and losses and hopes, and then, with the right tools and encouragement, anyone can begin, I believe, to turn lived experience into a story others may want to read.
Memoir is not autobiography or biography – yet its aim is to achieve a deep ‘truth-telling.’ There are pitfalls and hazards on the truth-telling journey, some of which I will share in the upcoming workshop ‘Writing your Life’. Some of the things that come up when writing true stories cannot possibly be anticipated – I always thought that truth-telling revealed the deep themes of our lives, but the act of writing also erases, writes over the reality lived. Also, our lives involve other people’s lives, and those others may not always be happy with your take on a particular event – your version of the truth.
My hands-on workshop will enable you to see how key life events represent key themes and sub themes that can form the backbone of your memoir. On this writing journey, we’ll look at how the crafting of life events into story becomes art.
Lucy is a sixteen-year-old paraplegic who has seen strange lights hovering over the creek on her father’s 10,000 acre farm in far north Queensland; heart disease is the number one killing disease in Australia; we have to rethink our ideas on failure and perhaps redefine the word failure as an unexpected outcome. After all, 4 billion years of evolution is based on a series of unexpected outcomes; at 44, Lara Winters leaves England for Byron Bay Australia after finding that her husband of 21 years has been unfaithful.
What do all of these have in common?
They’re the tag-lines for some of my 45 books that have been published to date across a range of genres. I’ve written for major publishers such as Macmillan and small emerging presses that no one has heard of. I’ve written parenting books, memoirs, children’s and young adult fiction, speculative fiction, novels, self-help books and text-books. The point of the first paragraph is to show readers and writers that each of those creative endeavours has a unique voice, and all of those voices are mine.
What I believe is that we don’t just have a single writing ‘voice.’ Each one of us has a limitless capacity to have a limitless number of voices.
I write because I am compelled by a creative urge that permeates my days and nights, and I love finding the right voice for the project that currently captures my imagination. I have learned that readers of pro-social fiction are more empathetic than readers of general non-fiction, and I’ve learned that a well-crafted metaphor lights up the brain in the same way an actual sensory experience would – and this is exciting to me because what we do when we write is create worlds and characters and experiences that transport readers into other realities.
In the workshop that I’ll be running over the course of a full-day, entitled ‘Finding your Voice’ you’ll have the opportunity to explore your limitless creative potential; to get over your fear of the white page and learn to play with the tools that all writers need in order to make words into the keys that unlock their limitless creative worlds. I believe in having fun – in falling in love with language and words and then using them to build sentences that stand the test of time – unveil the secrets to unique and individual ‘voices’ – and to go ahead and tackle any creative writing project that you might have, or wish to start.
Known for her wonderful contributions to the Brisbane History Community, Caylie Jeffery (Author of Under the Lino and Qld Memory Award winner) will be meeting with the House Detective, Marianne Taylor, for an insightful and entertaining conversation with WQ editor Sandra Makaresz.
Join in this inspiring event as they dive deep into discussions about researching and writing Historical Fiction and how Caylie managed to build a community inspired by what she found underneath her lino flooring during her house renovations. Held on the 16th of August, from 7pm to 8.30pm, Caylie will start the evening with a talk about her Under the Lino project and follow on with Marianne’s involvement as a house detective, uncovering the secrets behind many Brisbane locations.
Be part of this casual meet-and-greet, Q&A, event with Caylie and Marianne. After the event, a pop-up bookshop selling Caylie’s work and an informal book-signing will be held. So, don’t miss out on this amazing opportunity to meet the House Detective and that Lino Lady!
Author Caylie Jeffery has a background in Nursing and Education. During her house renovations, she dug up the floor and found cash, bank books and old documents. It was the beginning of a life changing journey.
The House Detective, Marianne Taylor, is an architectural historian. She researches the history of houses, often uncovering surprising facts for the current residents.
What led you down the path to writing about trauma?
I have always had an interest in psychology and the delicate balance of the mind, and last year completed my PhD in Creative Writing, which explores ways to more realistically represent trauma in crime fiction. My crime thrillers have all explored the many facets of the human psyche and the human response to violence and trauma.
I suspect subconsciously this had something to do with wanting to work through the traumatic experiences from my own life. I founded my earlier career in Insolvency – an area steeped in corporate crime. Occasional threats of bodily harm came with the job and during this time, I faced adversaries both in court and at the end of a gun barrel. I also experienced an assault in my teens and a very traumatic miscarriage in my twenties. While at the time I thought I was invincible and had come through these experiences unscathed, I would sometimes find years later that my body remembered the trauma, even if I chose not to. I could be triggered quite unexpectedly and feel like I was right back there. I wanted to explore those reactions and understand them better.
Can you tell us more about your earlier crime thrillers and their progression in representing trauma?
My first crime novel, The Ned Kelly Game (2009), touched on my emergent interest in trauma. It featured a character, Felicity, with repressed childhood memories released during sleepwalking episodes in the form of a dissociated murderous personality. But this novel was a conventional formulaic detective novel, with the cause of Felicity’s trauma only touched upon fleetingly. It played upon the type of ‘fugue’ split personality as a plot device seen in many crime novels.
As my preoccupation with representing trauma and its effects grew, my work that followed increasingly engaged with trauma. Eclipsed (2010) delves into the spiralling demise anger and revenge can wreak on the psyche after suffering a traumatic experience, leading a professional woman to commit murder. But it was not until I began to research trauma theory that I understood that there had to be trauma further back and deeper in her past to cause such a strong reaction
I developed this theme of trauma further in my third novel One for All (2013), which features two flawed protagonists involved in a people-trafficking case. With the undercover police officer Sol having witnessed her parents being gunned down as a child then trafficked into prostitution herself, it had much stronger representations of trauma. Having now researched the narrative strategies employed in novels categorised as trauma fiction, I realise in this novel I begin to unwittingly experiment with the literary devices they use, including fragmentation and repetition. I have observed these strategies recently being used by best-selling crime writers, Paula Hawkins (2015) in The Girl on the Train and Michael Robotham (2017) in The Secrets She Keeps to fragment the narrative between their characters. Although I achieved more in terms of narrating the causes and effects of trauma in this novel, it still lacked the kind of resolution necessary for imagining recovery. I deduced there may be other readers who have suffered trauma who are looking for something more explanatory from the traumatic events of the novels they read, so this is why I embarked upon my PhD project.
Your latest novel, Ebb and Flow, was written as part of your PhD project, which has since been longlisted for the 2018 Richell Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2019 Adaptable program with Queensland Writers Centre and Screen Queensland. How is it different from your earlier work?
While two of my former novels showed a move toward the post-traumatic growth of character, they did not implicitly touch upon themes of recovery. I wanted to consider how trauma and recovery might be better represented in Ebb and Flow. Author of Trauma Fiction (2004), Anne Whitehead, says “the impact of trauma can only adequately be represented by mimicking its forms and symptoms”. This led me to investigate the narrative strategies employed by writers of novels that might be categorised as trauma fiction, and how these assisted trauma survivors in working through their recovery. I discovered that trauma fiction’s fragmented narrative structure had the potential to allow readers and writers to connect to embodied feelings and sensations unconsciously within the text, because it mimics the symptoms and effects in a similar way to how traumatic memory distorts time. This informed my approach to writing Ebb and Flow. I also used Joseph Campbell’s ‘Heroes Journey’ story arc to model a post-traumatic growth and recovery arc into the novel. I am now teaching these writing strategies to writers of both memoir and fiction so they can connect more strongly with their readers.
What if you haven’t experienced trauma or fear first-hand but just want to write about it?
Understanding how the brain works, or the neuro-science of trauma, can help writers to understand how their traumatised characters may react to certain situations. Trauma creates a fight/flight/freeze response that is predominantly unconscious and sets off a range of chemicals that can exacerbate the situation. These bodily responses are designed to get you out of dangerous situations, but the traumatised brain can get stuck in a repeating cycle that becomes counter-productive.
You’re sure to have experienced some of these reactions throughout your life, but you can also test them out yourself to see how they feel. While writing One for All, I tried out plunging into steep aerobatic manoeuvres in a WWII war plane to traversing the rough Brazilian seas in a creaky boat. Experiencing fear can help you to write about these bodily reactions much more authentically for your readers.
Finally, what are you working on now?
I’m working on putting the final touches on Ebb and Flow for publication. Then I plan to develop a series of resources to help people to re-write their adverse life experiences from a more empowered perspective. We can’t change the past and what has happened to us, but we can change the way we think about it and the writing process can reinforce those identity changes.
Dr Leanne Dodd is a university lecturer in creative writing and an appointed mentor with Queensland Writers Centre for emerging writers. Under the pen name of Lea Scott, she has published three indie crime thrillers featuring traumatised characters that have gained local and national publicity. Her latest domestic noir crime novel was longlisted for the 2018 Richell Prize with Hachette publishers.
World Building is a concept we often associate with fantasy, science fiction or magic novels. But all stories exist within their own world and if we’re to know our characters, and write them well, we must understand the world we are building and the characters within it.
As with all laws, they exist in connection with each other. Brandon Sanderson has written about his three laws of magic and we wondered if we could use these to help us create better characters and fuller worlds for them to exist in – no matter what area we’re writing in.
Sanderson’s First Law of Magic states that an author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands that magic. Does that mean we need to come up with a lot of rules for our world and know every clause within them? Sanderson says no. Some writers will; some won’t. Science fiction will generally have fixed rules, while fantasy is often less fixed with rules appearing as the author needs them. But not always. In short, an author’s ability to solve conflict in their world is directly proportional to how well the reader understands the world and the characters in it.
A story set in a current-day Queensland school is a world many of us would consider ourselves familiar with. We’d also have an idea of the characters who might appear there. A great story requires the author, and the reader, to understand the ‘magic’ of that world. What are the unique properties of this school and it’s setting? What makes it different from every other school? Who are the people who populate this story? A school yard conflict involving two students has a certain set of rules, but we cannot assume our reader knows those rules. As the author, we need to ensure our readers have enough cues to understand how the world we’ve created works and why our characters react the way they do in the various conflicts they find themselves facing. When you’re close to your work it can be difficult to know if you’ve achieved this or not. If that’s you, it’s time for a second opinion.
The second law according to Sanderson is that limitations are greater than powers. He uses the analogy of Superman, whose susceptibility to kryptonite and strict moral code are far greater indications of his character than his superpowers. It’s an interesting way of thinking about our characters, whether they have magic/super or any other powers. Heading back to our school yard setting, it is our characters weaknesses and limitations that make them interesting and determine how they react to the situations they find themselves in. Peer groups, pressure from parents and lunch room power groups are all familiar school elements that a character’s limitations will infuse unique reactions. The cracks and limitations of the world we create are likely to provide more interesting storytelling opportunities than a picture-perfect world.
Finally, the third law states that the author should expand what they already have before they add something new. This is a great reminder for any writer that our story is like the tip of the iceberg. Every character has a backstory we need to summarise, and every world has a history we need to weave naturally into story one thread at a time. But if we keep adding elements to our story and rules to our world before tidying up what we already have planned, things can get messy. Our world becomes the priority over the characters and the conflict within it, and these vital aspects of your story might be overlooked or underdeveloped.
Sanderson has some great writing advice and if magic is your thing you’ll enjoy our Writing Magic workshop with Karen Foxlee. You should also be sure to register for GenreCon and get all the updates. You won’t want to miss a thing!
Children’s fiction continues to go from strength to strength and it’s an area that the Queensland Writers Centre sees a lot of our writers working in – and aiming to improve their writing in order to reach publication.
With success stories like Aaron Blabey, it’s no wonder.
Blabey’s series, The Bad Guys (Scholastic), has topped the charts, including 37 weeks on the New York Times list of best-selling children’s series. Published in 37 countries, the books have sold over seven million copies with 1.3 million of those in Australia. There’s even an animated feature in development with DreamWorks Animation.
So, how many great ideas for a children’s book do you have? And how do you turn it into a story that resonates with children and the adults who often read to them? There are courses you can do to work on your craft – you can find them here – but we also have five quick tips to get you on the road to success right now.
- Write a story that appeals to you rather than chasing the latest fad or writing what you think appeals to kids. If you have kids in your life, tap into your bank of cute and funny memories for life moments that have stuck with you. Joe Brumm, creator of animated hit, Bluey, has based many an episode on these sorts of memories and the stories resonate with audiences around the world.
- Avoid fads and pop culture references in your work if you want it to stand the test of time. Anything that dates your writing can be a roadblock to future readers and to publishers who work on long time frames.
- Word choice can be tricky and it can be a fine balancing act. Be sure you don’t use difficult words if they can be avoided, but you don’t want to avoid difficult words if they make sense for the story. After all, kids can handle Dilophosorous and Triceratop with no trouble, but using iniquitous for evil is a learning opportunity they don’t need.
- Always remember to use a child’s perspective in your thinking. We all know what it’s like when you return to a favourite childhood place. Everything seems smaller now. That small house you grew up that you thought was a mansion is the world your readers live in. Remember that in your writing and your readers will love you.
- Get an idea of what’s happening in the world of children’s reading and entertainment. What do they love and where might the things you love fit into that world? Read as much great children’s literature as you can. Watch as many great children’s television shows and films as you can. Do courses and have your work edited. It’s a competitive market and you want your work to be the best it can be.
Want even more advice about writing for children? Book in for Shannon Horsfall’s Writing for Picture Books this weekend. Or if you want to stay in your pyjamas, the class is also available to live stream!