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A book I wish I’d written

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Back in 2010, when I was in India for the Bookaroo children’s literary festival, I met fellow Australian author Wendy Orr. I’d heard of her, because she had written the very well-known Nim’s Island, but this was the first time we had run into each other.

At the time, Wendy was talking about a book she wanted to write. I think at that stage it was still fairly vague, just an idea that had been hanging around her for a while.  But this year – and I’m sure it’s the same book – she published Dragonfly Song, the story of Aissa, an outcast girl in ancient times who becomes a bull dancer.

I particularly love stories that have the Cinderella framework – where someone goes from the very bottom of the heap to the top. Icebreaker was one of those stories, and Petrel continues to be one of my favourite characters because she overcame so much.  But right now, I’m wishing I had written Dragonfly Song. It kept me reading all yesterday when I was supposed to be doing a hundred other things – the writing is beautiful and the story is so moving. If you get a chance, check it out and let me know what you think.

A sneak peek

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I got a sneak peek of the new book,Accidental Heroes, this week and it looks wonderful. Here is Tracy (Tracey?) from Booktopia having a look at it, just after I arrived in Sydney. This is close to the final cover, but not quite. It will come out in hardcover first and paperback later. The illustration is by a Melbourne artist called Sher Rill Ng. She will be doing all three books in the Rogues series.

And here is the first afternoon tea, at a cute little place in Sydney called the Tea Cosy! (I ate too much.)

The second afternoon tea, in Melbourne, was equally wonderful, and they had a gorgeous collection of teapots. (I rather like teapots. If I was going to collect anything, which I’m not, it would probably be teapots.) I ate too much again.

Now I’m home again, enjoying the solitude and the quiet after the bustle of the cities. And of course I bought some books, so I’m about to get stuck into reading them.

(Incidentally, I am told that Harry behaved himself very well this time. Last time I was away, he attacked my house sitter in the middle of the night and drew blood. I had to speak to him very severely.)

Afternoon teas

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I’m heading off to Sydney this Wednesday, to do some pre-publication promotion for Rogues #1, Accidental Heroes. My Australian publishers, Allen and Unwin, are holding an afternoon tea for booksellers – one in Sydney, and then one in Melbourne the next day. Which seems to me a very civilised way to promote a book, given that I love afternoon teas.

It’s not just me – Jaclyn Moriarty will be there too, with her latest book, The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone. I haven’t read it yet, I’m going to do it today. Jaclyn usually writes for young adults, and this is her first middle grade novel, so I’m looking forward to it. Looking forward to meeting her too!

And the publishers will have proof copies of Accidental Heroes, so I will get to see what it looks like as a book at last.

Bruny Island and Battlesong

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I’ve been on Bruny Island for the last week. It was supposed to be a working holiday, and I did a bit of work on Secret Guardians, but it’s hard to stay focused when the view from your office is like this.

 

It made me realise how much I love being able to look out my window and not see any other houses.  And waking up in the morning to no sound except birdsong.

Late on Tuesday morning I dropped in on Bruny Island Primary School to give them some books, and the librarian said, ‘What a pity you weren’t here this afternoon. Grades four, five and six have a library session this afternoon, and you could have been our show-and-tell.’ I haven’t done a school visit for a while, so I said, ‘What time do you want me here?’ And that afternoon I spent half an hour talking to the nicest group of kids you could imagine. I also gave them a sneak preview of the cover for Accidental Rogues, which no one except me has seen. And they liked it!

The only downside of the week was, I didn’t have an Internet connection, so on Wednesday I took myself to the local pub, which had free Wi-Fi.  Checked my email and found a message from my American publishers, with the first review for Battlesong (Fetcher’s Song in Australia and New Zealand), from School Library Journal.

I can’t show it to you yet, because this edition of SLJ isn’t out until June 1, but I can tell you that it was a starred review (which is a very good thing), and that it included phrases like ‘unparalleled world-building’ and ‘masterly writing’. So I came away from the pub feeling very pleased with myself and the world.

I’m back home now for a week, then off to Sydney and Melbourne for a couple of days to talk to booksellers about Accidental Rogues.  And I really must get stuck into Secret Guardians. I feel as if I’m a bit behind on it, so will have to write faster!

First page proofs

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It’s always wildly exciting when the first page proofs arrive from the publisher. This is when a story starts to look like a proper book at last. The first page proofs of Accidental Heroes arrived on Friday – now I have to read through them to see if I want to make any small changes. I can’t make huge changes at this stage, but I know there are a couple of things I want to correct.

It’s also wildly exciting when I see the cover artwork for the first time. I caught a glimpse of it last week – not sure if it’s final yet, but it looks wonderful. Can’t wait to show it to you!

I’m going down to Bruny Island for four days this week, so I’ll take the first pages with me to work on. I’m also taking my computer and the slowly growing text of Secret Guardians, so it’s not quite a holiday, but Bruny is so gorgeous that I don’t mind. I always think that Lauderdale is quiet, until I get to my niece’s house, and wake up in the morning to the sound of birds and a view over Great Bay.

A friend will be house-and-cat sitting for me while I’m away. Harry was sick for a few days, vomiting everywhere, so I took him to the vet who thought it was probably hairballs. Now he has laxative paste once a week – he is not exactly excited about taking it, though he quite likes the taste once it is in his mouth.

First chapters

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For me, the first chapter of a book is nearly always the hardest part to write. So much so that I sometimes leave it till last.

The first chapter has to grab people straight away. It has to introduce them to the main characters and give them some sense of what the story is going to be about. It has to intrigue them, so they want to keep reading.  That’s hard enough with a stand-alone novel, but with a series it becomes even harder, because there’s a whole lot of back story that needs to be fitted in somewhere.

I know The Rogues Book #2 needs to start with Duckling, because she’s the central character for the whole series – though Pummel comes a close second. But what I’ve got in Chapter 1 at the moment is a horrible mishmash that isn’t the least bit interesting.  It’s certainly not enough to keep people reading.

This has been annoying me all week.  But yesterday I was reminded of some questions that definitely help:

‘What does Duckling want? What does she want desperately? What does she need? What’s standing in the way of her getting it?’

Every good story has a central question. What does your main character need more than anything else in the world, and what’s standing in their way? This is what drives the action. This is what grabs hold of the reader and keeps them reading late into the night.

I know exactly what Duckling wants at the beginning of Book #2. And there are a whole lot of things standing in her way – some she knows about, some haven’t appeared yet.  But this at last gives me a focus for that first chapter.

Meanwhile, the days are getting colder in Lauderdale – and Harry is doing situps in front of the fire.

Onward!

How I write

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I’ve been thinking a lot about how I write, recently. How I go about getting a story down on the page. It might seem obvious – think of words, write them down. But I have just recently bought some voice recognition software, and it is enormously different from typing, or from writing by hand. I’ve used it before, years ago when I had repetitive strain injury, but once I got over that I very happily went back to typing. There is something about seeing the words come out of the tips of my fingers that is very satisfying.

So why voice recognition software? Simply, my neck. It doesn’t mind editing, but it complains dreadfully when I sit down for half an hour and type madly. Which is what a first draft is all about. So, it was either stop writing (nooooooooo!) or find some other way of doing first drafts.

The technology is a lot better than last time I used it – which is a very good thing. Though I miss some of the mistakes it used to make. One of my favourites was ‘the far distant pasta’ instead of ‘the far distant past’. And a friend of mine was telling me of someone with a heavy cold who sent her an email message that was supposed to read ‘Hi Jules, I left a message on your answering machine’, but came out as ‘Hi Jewels, I bid to welcome you to my ancient regime’. I can only hope that my software will give me such splendid misinterpretations. 🙂

So now I have to work out how I can talk my story, instead of writing it. I’m sure it can be done – it’s just a matter of practice. (I’m talking all of this, so it’s not doing a bad job.)

In other news: I handed in the second edit of Accidental Heroes last Tuesday. It was a bit of a rush, because my Australian publishers want to put out a reading copy, so everything had to be done very quickly. And now, or rather tomorrow, I’ll go back to writing Secret Guardians. The covers of all three books should be done soon, and I’m dying to see them.

School Magazine

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I had an email during the week from Allen Edwards, the editor of Australia’s longest-running children’s literary magazine. The School Magazine has been going since 1916 (!!!!), and is published by the NSW Department of Education in the form of four different magazines – Touchdown, Orbit, Blast Off and Countdown. It’s also where I got my start as a children’s author.

Here’s the first children’s story I ever had published, back in February 2000.

The title of the story came to me in a dream, and was there on my lips when I woke up the next morning. Hmm, I thought. Hairy Scary. What’s that about?

It turned out to be a sort-of horror story – only not very horrible. Just a bit creepy. I sent it off to The School Magazine with a polite cover letter, and they accepted it and got the amazing Drahos Zak to illustrate it. I went on to write a number of stories for School Mag, and like a lot of Australian authors and illustrators, I’m deeply grateful to them for giving me a chance.

A few years later I was commissioned to write a puppetry play for the wind section of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. I had to do a lot of research, and at the end, when I’d finished the play (which was called I’ve Got Wind), there was a really interesting story about the ancient Greek warrior Ulysses that I hadn’t used.

When Ulysses was trying to sail home from the Trojan wars, he and his crew stumbled across the island of Aeolus, the Master of Winds. Aeolus gave Ulysses a leather bag containing all the winds of the world except the West Wind, which was supposed to blow them home. But Ulysses’ crew thought the bag contained gold, so they opened it and were blown back the way they had come.

It was one of those stories that are just begging to be turned into a short, funny play. So that’s what I did. And once again I sent it off to the School Mag.

It was published in 2009 under the title Blown Away, with illustrations by Kerry Millard. And it’s about to be re-published – that’s what the email from Allen Edwards was about.

It’s always nice when these things are brought back to life. If you’re in NSW, watch out for it some time during the year.

The ’67 bushfires

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Fifty years ago this Tuesday, much of southern Tasmania was ablaze. Now we call it the ’67 bushfires; back then it was waking up to breathtaking heat, high winds, and a sun that never managed to get through the smoke. I was 15, and it was the day before school went back after the summer holidays.

I remember the sense of dread as the day got darker and darker, and the fires came up over the back of the mountain. Mum and I were in the kitchen looking out at the hillside across the road. One moment it was fine, then there was a stream of sparks, and suddenly the whole hill was alight.

Mum grew up on a farm in the South Australian mallee, so she knew all about bushfires. We filled the bath with water, soaked towels and hessian sacks, filled thermoses with tea and took it all across the road to the people who were fighting the fires. We rounded up a couple of horses and got them away. Then more tea, more wet sacks.

There was no rural fire brigade back then, and the city brigade was small, funded by the insurance companies, and only equipped to fight the occasional house fire.

So it was all volunteers. People with hand pumps, buckets and wet bags, trying to stop an inferno. Sixty-four people were killed, and 64,000 farm animals. Plus countless wild animals and birds.

Our house was fine, but the fire came close. That evening we stood at the front gate while a steady stream of people stumbled down the street past us. All their houses gone. All of them in shock and covered with ash. One old woman weeping because she hadn’t been able to save her canary.

For years afterwards, one of the most significant and heart-wrenching features of the Tasmanian landscape was the huge numbers of bare chimneys, where the houses used to be.

If you’re in Tassie, there’s a really good exhibition on at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. That’s where these photos are from.

Bodyguards #2

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I started on the second book in the Bodyguards series this week. It wasn’t a serious start. I played around with a scene involving the slave traders, and then I wrote a scene about a chicken, and then I realised that a chicken probably wouldn’t think like that, so I rewrote it.

The chicken was feeling very strange. She’d been feeling a little bit odd ever since they’d left the strong-hold, especially when she was anywhere near Farmboy or Clevergirl. But now that oddness was far worse.
She didn’t know what it meant. She’d been happy in the strong-hold, especially when Healerboy had rescued her from the kitchen, just seconds before she was due to become the Margravine’s dinner. As a chicken, she hadn’t had to think about much. It had been mostly, Worms, mmmm! And, Breadcrumbs, mm-hmmm! And, Dogs! Eek!
Ever since she’d left the strong-hold, however, she’d found herself thinking a lot more. And some of those thoughts weren’t chickenish thoughts at all.

Worms, mmmm! Grass seeds, mm-hmm- Wait. Ghosts? Ghosts on the wind?
What’s more, she could see a shininess around both
Clevergirl and Farmboy. A familiar shininess.
She tried to ignore it, but she couldn’t.
She tried to remember why it was familiar, but she couldn’t do that, either.
So she had stayed close to them, all the way south.
But then they met the badmen. And now they were trussed up like a brace of hens for roasting, and thrown into the cart, along with Healerboy, Warrior and Bigman.
The chicken was about to fly up next to them when she noticed one of the badmen creeping towards her with his sharpstick in his hands. ‘Chicky chicky chicky!’ called the badman. ‘Come to papa! Chicky chicky!’
Eeek! thought the chicken. And she dashed away from the grasping hands, losing a couple of tail feathers in the process, but hanging onto her life and her head.
She hid around the corner of the farmhouse, with the cat, watching. She got distracted a couple of times- Mm, earwig!
-but the cat cuffed her with a large paw-

Eeek! Badcat!
and brought her attention back to the cart and its load.

And now the whole thing was moving away, and the cat was slinking after it in the long grass.
The chicken considered her options. Her wing was completely healed now. So she could stay here …
Earwig!
Or she could follow Farmboy and Clevergirl. Which also meant following the badmen and their sharpsticks.

Eek!
Staying here was obviously better. But something drew her after the cart, all the same.

With a sigh, she snapped up one last earwig. Then she put her head down and dashed out of the farmyard.

That was fun. 🙂

In the early drafts, fun is a Really Good Thing. Which is why this particular draft is called the Play Draft rather than the This-Is-Serious-And-You’d-Better-Get-It-Right-First-Time Draft. Mucking around is good for the imagination. Mucking around takes you off in strange and magical directions, which is where I want to go right now.

I’ve got a bit of an idea where this particular book is heading. I know there’s a new and important character, and a new and important setting, plus some very important discoveries. I’ve got three big scenes (one of them is the slaver scene), and I know where this book ends and where the next one begins. But I don’t know much about what comes in between all those bits.

That’s where playing comes into its own. Letting my imagination loose.

I’ve got a couple of useful tools to help me along. The first one is the word box. I made this years ago when I was teaching writing at Adult Education, and I’ve hung onto it ever since, just because I like the idea of this little cardboard box with all these odd and interesting words in it. But now it has come in useful. When I’m a bit stuck, and my mind is bogged down, I close my eyes, dip into the box and take out two words. Then I start writing about those words and see where they take me.

The other useful tool is a rambling sort of research. The internet is wonderful for this, but so is my home library. Yesterday I dug out a stack of books that might be vaguely related to what I’m writing about.The first thing I discovered (in Consuming Passions, by Judith Flanders), was that in England in the early 1700s, anyone who wanted to put on a play had to give it to the Lord Chamberlain first, for censorship. This law came about because of a play called The Festival of the Golden Rump, which was about King George II and his piles.

Will this delicious bit of information influence the play draft? Who knows? But it made me laugh.

Tomorrow I’ll go back to Book #1 for (hopefully) a final read-through of the structural edit. If it’s all fine, I’ll send it back to my editor – a month ahead of schedule!