Monday, December 19, 2016

5 lessons I've learned in 2016

Kāore te kūmara e kōrero mō tōna ake reka
The kumara (sweet potato) does not say how sweet he is

One of the tensions I've found being a writer is the expectation to (self) promote versus the (Kiwi) cultural attitude of avoiding exactly that. I've been more in line with the American habit for 'saying it how it is' or, more to my ears 'talking myself up'.

This year, as I've continued on my journey into te ao Māori (the Māori world) through language learning, practising tikanga (correct protocols) and reading and researching mythology and whakataukī (proverbs), I've found myself less and less incline to say 'hey, look at me. Look at ME. Look at all the good things I can do!'

The explanation of the whakataukī above is self-evident. I shouldn't need to tell you how good my books are. If you read them, and like them, you'll say - if you are so inclined. And, you might tell others. Which is good. In te ao Māori, you can't give yourself status (mana) - it has to be bestowed upon you by others. And, only because you use your particular gifts and talents to aid/assist others in their need.

In the beginning, I was encouraged to blog and tweet and Facebook to 'get [myself] out there.' I put a lot of effort into writing what I thought 'my' audience would like to read but I'm uncertain if I have done that. The story of Fleance has lived, then gone to sleep, been awoken only to be forgotten again. I have wanted to walk away from him because, although I think of him as a wonderful friend, he and the other characters just have not quite given me what I expected.

2016 has been a year of many changes; some wonderful, affirming moments; a few crushing disappointments. Like many others doing this writing/blogging gig, I  will take a moment to reflect and, although I have not done nearly a thorough job of reflecting, these things I know to be true for me now:

1) I love teaching. Nothing else has ever lit my fire, stirred my heart and soul like a room full of 15 or 16 year olds who ask questions, provide such fresh insight, who show me the parts of the world I did not think to look at. My students give me more than I can ever give back to them even with how much I try.

2) My job is more satisfying when I focus on one class at a time; one kid at a time. I can't fix them all; I can't help them to learn everything. But I can take the time to see the job through, one student at a time. I have enjoyed watching many successes this year for my students and not necessarily because of them winning awards. Things like finishing a book, loving a story, writing an amazing account of something that matters, completing a task, being brave - these things make me smile and puff out my chest with pride.

3) Be kind. Always. And apologise quickly when you're not. Own your own behaviour.

4) I wish I wasn't a writer - most of the time. I feel guilty when I'm reading because I should be writing; I feel guilty when I'm watching tv because I should be writing; I don't like that I feel I should be writing because many great writers have told me that writing is a passion. For me, it's a condition that I don't think I will ever be free from.

5) I am called to write stories. Dammit. The above understanding is tempered by the knowledge that I now believe I'm not doing it (this writing gig) for me - there are stories needing to be told and I've been given the terrible privilege of being the one to tell these particular stories.

All the best for the summer celebrations (if you are southern hemisphere like me) or the winter holidays (for those in the northern hemisphere).

Kia korowaihia koutou katoa e te aroha, e te manaaki, ahakoa e haere koutou ki hea.
(May you all be draped by love and by support, no matter where you go).

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Seven steps to starting a novel - my way

Today I begin to actually put words into the word document labeled: Bree's story/Battle of Hastings.

First, though, because one of the questions I get asked a lot is how do you/I start a story?, I thought I'd share with you what I have come to recognize as MY way of starting my stories:

1) I schedule time to write. I teach high school full time and writing is my 'other' job. Even when I was on study leave, I blocked out time to be dedicated to writing. Otherwise, chores and distractions would take up the time first and then it would be back to writing assignments or real world commitments. As I write this blog post, my school holidays have just begun. I have a commitment to edit my latest manuscript but I've scheduled in parts of days (amongst the coffee catch ups, prep for Term Three, chores and leisure activities) to work on my new historical novel.

2) I make myself accountable to someone else. I tell my students, my family, my friends what I'm doing. That way, I feel some sort of obligation to carry through. I can (mostly) ignore the grumblings of my characters but it's a bit harder when real, living people keep asking 'how's the book going?' Writing posts like this is one way too.

3) I prepare my writing space (whether it's the library, my study, my bed or the couch) so that I have the essentials: lap top, note book and pencil, maps, research books, coffee, and chocolate.

4) I start at 'the explosion'. Even if this isn't how my novel actually begins, I start at the strongest most vivid scene in my head. For my last novel (507 Days - the diary of Erica Tito, Bastion Point, 1977-1978), the first thing I wrote was the climatic scene - the eviction of the protestors - which comes almost at the end of the novel. This made the writing exciting for me, meant I got words down, got me writing and got me thinking about the question of 'so how the hell did my character end up in THIS mess?'

5) I start with the main character's voice. This may also change but I need to let my POV character take charge of the narrative right from the start (pushing me to the sideline so I don't intrude). In my novel Third Degree (which my Y11s are currently studying with me), I wrote these lines first 'When they ask me, I say I can't remember but in my dreams I am breathless with laughter, running down the hall with the others chasing me. I will be caught soon.' 
The first sentence I wrote for my Bastion Point novel was 'Dad's been arrested!' 
I don't know what will be said for this new novel but I can 'hear' Bree muttering in the back of my head and I'm pretty certain 4 and 5 are going happen together this afternoon when I start.

6) I give myself permission to write what Anne Lamott calls 'Shitty First Draft'. This has been the most significant learning point in my writing career. Before I read, Bird by Bird, the critical voice (that teacher's voice) sometimes paralyzed me so that I couldn't put one word in front of the other Really, you're going to write that? Call yourself an English teacher? What would your students say? That is such rubbish writing, Roxborogh! So, I mentally punch that voice in the face and just write and write. A few things happen then: I often go on a journey I wasn't expecting; I have words to reshape later; I feel like I've achieved something (if I do nothing then nothing is the result).

7) I give myself a goal - a word or section or chapter goal. I've usually aimed for 1000 words a day. I'm not aiming for perfection at the start but it is very satisfying to see that word count climb (even if, later, half of it will be dumped). I feel even better when I go over that target. But, even if I don't hit that golden 1000, doing something is still better than nothing. For me, like piano practice or running, the longer I write, the more I write and the easier it is to write.

In summary:

  • make yourself accountable
  • prepare your writing space.
  • schedule time
  • start at the explosion
  • start with the main character's voice
  • start with 'shitty first draft'
  • start with a word count goal

And then, just keep going.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Finding the story – some thoughts on how to create a brand new narrative.

Perhaps like a Hollywood studio who has a great actor needing a great script, for my next novel, I already had an interesting character needing a ‘home’:     
     Bree, from A Crown of Blood and Honour 

I didn’t really know her that well in the first series – except that I didn’t like her very much but, as the story progressed, I began to have some grudging respect for her. She was 12 years old when I banished her to the north of Scotland to spend time with her aunt, the dowager Queen Margaret. Bree’s fascinating and, true to her nature, she’s been bugging me since I finished the first series. She’s now a young woman but for the good part of three years she’s been calling out to me: oi, hey you! You, author. C’m here. I haven’t finished with you yet.

I also had an amazing story background to set a new novel. 1066 – the Battle of Hastings and all the drama involved. In preparation for The Crown of Blood and Honour, I’d done quite a bit of research on the characters who feature in this world-changing event. The fights and dramas would put any reality telly series to shame. It was all so fascinating and I knew back then that I would love a chance one day to dig into that bit of history.

But even having a clearly defined beginning, middle, climax and ending of the real history wasn’t going to be enough for a brand new novel. I needed to find my character’s object of desire – the thing that she wants the most in her life at this time. And, being the good writer that I am, I needed to completely stuff up any chance for her of getting to that goal. That’s my story.

On my canvas, the historical facts of the lead up to the Battle of Hastings, the battle itself and its aftermath, are my background. The details of the picture are made by my fictional characters and their adventures. I don’t think it matters when or where you set a story: 1066, 1840, 2085; Russia, New Zealand, Norway, America. What matters to the reader is the character: what they want, what they are prepared to do to get that which they want, how they behave along the way. We have a Māori whakataukī (proverb) which asks this question: He aha te mea nui i te ao? What is the greatest thing in the world.
The answer: He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. (It is people, people, people).
It is the same for any story: it is the people who make us care enough to keep reading.

So, to my advice about how to find a new story: it all boils down to the questions you ask.

Coming up with a ‘good story’ means asking questions that will put a toddler to shame. To my students, I’m sure I make it sound so simple. ‘All you need to do,’ I start, standing confidently at the front of the class, ‘is to ask a question.’ In disbelief, they stare. ‘And then ask another. And another.’ They are unconvinced, so I go to the white board and write this:

Start with “What if…?”

   What if all the adults disappeared? (Gone)
   What if there was a school for wizards and witches right in the middle of England? (Harry Potter series)
   What if Shakespeare kept writing the story of Macbeth? (Crown of Blood and Honour series)
   What if ghosts thought WE were haunting them? (Boo Hoo – a play by me)
   What if the principal burst through this door right now holding the bloody hand of a corpse? (for some reason this one appeals to them…)

Sometimes, as a warm up, I will get them to ask one ‘What if?’ question and then write all the possible answers around the question. As fast as they can. Without censorship. Silly is ok. After five minutes, I make them swap their paper with someone and read that person’s notes, selecting ONE answer before handing the paper back. Now the students have the bare outline of a new story. We usually end up having some really funny stories, vignettes which would make Spike Milligan and Roald Dahl proud.

But the answer(s) to that question will only get you so far. It might get you a very basic sketch: the mountains in the distance, where the sky comes in, if there is a river or a forest or a house in the foreground. Probably only in black and white, without depth or shade or any interesting detail.

Next question: Who’s involved? Which character do you think might best work to figure in uncovering the answer to your ‘what if’ question? Whoever you choose will bring a certain flavour to the story. I wouldn’t say one type of character is better than another but you may need to take some time to ‘audition’ the characters until you find the right fit. You’ll know. There will be an ‘a ha’ moment for you.

Then, ask ‘What is it that my character wants for themselves? What is their object of desire? The thing that drives them/motivates them to act?’ I use the word desire because I think that captures the deep level of longing for a person. Something which would cause them to keep going regardless of the obstacles; a desire which affects every aspect of the way they see their world and go about their everyday lives. I see this ‘object of desire’ as being like an iceberg: you can see (and admire) the tip shining beautifully in the sun but it’s not until you dive down into that freezing and dangerous sea that you appreciate the enormity of the iceberg – there’s so much more than is seen on the surface; that pretty tip only happens because of the bulk under the water.

Which brings me to the next question ask: why do they want this thing?
To discover this depth, you need to keep asking why?, so?, and so what?
I might say to my students:
This morning, I really needed to find my deep red lipstick.
Why? Because it’s the colour that looks best on me.
So? I wanted to look my best at school for the parent teacher interviews.
Why? Because I know that people judge you on first appearance.s
So what? I wanted them to get a good impression of me looking fine in my great lippy.
Why? So they would like me.
Why? Because if they didn’t, they might hate me.
So what? I don’t want people to dislike me.
Why? Because they might hurt me.
Why? Because people often mistreat things they don’t like.
So? That makes me afraid.
Why? I want to be safe.
I assure you that I am not afraid of parent teacher meetings but I use this made up why/so/so what? to show my students that, at the heart of it all, people want to be safe.
In summary, ask: what is making (or will make) the character feel unsafe? And, why?

How do you want the story to end?
For me, I need to know what MY ultimate goal is; what I would desire as a reader having invested in these characters and in this world. What is it you want your character (and by association your reader) to learn, know, understand about the world by the end of the story? What ‘life lesson’ would they want to pass on to those they love?
It might be: ‘family matters above all’ or ‘people say what is the easiest thing to say and sometimes it’s the truth’ or ‘never give up on yourself and those you care for.
Almost like hearing the narrator come in at the end and say: and the moral of the story is….’

Once you’ve got an idea of the end point, ask what happened to get your character to that understanding.
For me, this is the part which takes me the longest. I suppose it’s like getting to know a new person: you need to find out about how they are now, find out about what they’ve done before you met them – where they’ve travelled, their favourite foods, books, films. Who their friends are. What highs and lows they’ve been through. All this information gathering takes time. And, at the same time, you are getting to know your new friend in the present: watching how they behave in the good times and the tough times; when and how they lose their temper; how they get on with different people.

This getting to know your new acquaintance takes an investment of time; it is the same with your character. Some writers don’t even start until they have ALL the information about their characters; some just start and see what happens as they go on. Me, I do a bit of both. And I do it with a great big pad of paper, drawing timelines and tension arcs.

In a nutshell:

   What if?
   What do they want?
   How will it end?
   What will they learn?
   How will they get there?

My final question for you: what are you waiting for? Get creating.