Today marks 20 years since my first piece of writing was published, which, quite frankly, is terrifying.

I was 12 years old and in Grade 6 when I was selected to take part in a ‘Newshounds’ program run by our local paper, the Maroondah Mail. Four students from local schools were chosen to write one article per week for six weeks, under the supervision of a journalist.

Newspaper articles
My ‘Newshounds’ articles in the Maroondah Mail, Oct-Dec 1996

Newspaper articles

I’d always loved writing, but this was the first time I’d seen my name in print, and the feeling has never really left me. It was this experience that started a passion for professional writing and, although I’ve moved away from straight journalism, I’ve continued to publish. Including Greythorne, I now have 114 publications to my name (1 novel, 3 academic book chapters, 4 academic book reviews, 5 academic journal articles, 11 conference papers and 63 media articles – details here). I hope to make it 115 by the end of the year, with the upcoming release of my new non-fiction book, Communications for Volunteers: Low-cost strategies for community groups. The little girl who wrote those Newshounds articles can hardly believe it.

Incidentally, in the first Newshounds article introducing myself, I note that my favourite books are The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, All in the Blue Unclouded Weather by Robin Klein, and Obernewtyn by Isobelle Carmody. All three remain favourites, and I was especially excited to meet Isobelle Carmody at the Canberra Writers Festival in August this year, where we got talking and I gave her a copy of Greythorne (which she asked me to sign!). I won’t lie – my inner 12 -year-old completely fangirled. I like to think I hid it well, but I suspect I didn’t.

isobelle-carmody-canberra-writers-festival-2016
With Isobelle Carmody at the 2016 Canberra Writers Festival.

So anyway, it’s been a bumper two decades. Who knows what the next two will bring?

 

Circus (5)

Last weekend I did something I haven’t done since I was six years old. I went to the circus. And it was fabulous.

Circuses seem to pop up in our area relatively frequently (once or twice a year) and each time I see the spires of a brightly coloured tent I think about going, but don’t usually get round to it. There’s also an idea that the circus is just for kids, which is probably why, until last week, I hadn’t been to one since I was a kid myself. But when the Great Moscow Circus came to town and a friend recommended it, I bit the bullet and bought tickets.

Circus (3)

I go to a lot of theatre, both amateur and professional, so I assumed the circus would be similar, just inside a giant inflatable tent. And it was, yet it was so much more visceral as well. There’s something undeniably thrilling about seeing people doing quite risky things – like trapeze flying or tightrope walking – right in front of you. It felt much more real and immediate than the productions I’m used to seeing.

Circus (2)

I’ve been fascinated by circuses for a long time, especially the old-time travelling shows and carnivals from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I think it’s because they occupy a kind of liminal space – in the heyday of circuses and travelling shows, they were important to the community (in fact the circus couldn’t exist without them) but at the same time they traditionally provided a haven for people who were otherwise socially excluded due to disability and difference (although the darker side of this was just another kind of exploitation). Probably for this reason, in popular culture the old-time carnival combines a fascinating mix of joy and menace, which has been deftly illustrated by authors such as Ray Bradbury (in Something Wicked This Way Comes).

There’s also a certain element of romance about the circus life – the freedom of the nomadic existence can seem, to those of us stuck in the workaday grind, like the answer to all our problems, although no doubt the reality is rather less glamorous. But who hasn’t at some point dreamed of running off to join the circus?

Strangely enough, as I was sitting there ringside thinking about circuses, it occurred to me that this is one of the big reasons I like being a writer. I’ll never run off and join the circus in reality – not least because I have no talent for it – but in my books anything is possible. My forthcoming novel, Dragonscale, has a troupe of circus folk in it, and I’ve long been toying with the idea of a book set in an American travelling carnival at the start of the twentieth century, when barnstorming was all the rage. One of the great perks of being a writer is you can be anything you want to be, so once I’ve finished being a nineteenth-century level-crossing operator in my current novel, The Iron Line, I may just become a circus acrobat for a while.

Photo: AL (Flickr, http://bit.ly/1PO8sNp)
Photo: AL (Flickr, http://bit.ly/1PO8sNp)

In much the same way that people start asking you when you’re having kids about six months after you get married, now that Greythorne is out I’m starting to get questions about the next book.  Unlike the kid question, however, the timing is kind of perfect, because I’ve been turning over ideas for my next novel for a while now.

I’ve written before about NaNoWriMo and how taking part gave me the impetus to start (and finish) Greythorne. As luck would have it, NaNoWriMo 2015 is right around the corner – in fact, it starts next week, on 1 November – so I’ve decided to do it again and hope it works as well for the next book as it did for the last.

Truth be told, I’m a bit nervous. I’ve got a very rough idea of the story – it’s going to be another Gothic horror, but this time set in Australia and I’m very excited about the spooky possibilities of the Australian bush as a setting. And I’ve got three main characters, about whom at this stage I don’t know all that much, except that their names are Elizabeth King (the narrator, a squatter’s daughter who isn’t all she appears to be), Frederick Black (leader of a gang of bushrangers) and his sister Sarah. I have a vague beginning and a vague ending, and then a whole lot of blank space in between, which is both exciting and terrifying.

I kept a diary last time I did NaNoWriMo, and looking back at it I realise that I actually felt like this about Greythorne when I started – it’s just I’ve got so used to seeing the final polished version that I’ve forgotten what the bare bones of a book looks like. At least I have a better idea this time around what to expect of the actual process: the first week will be exciting and enjoyable as the story starts to take shape; the second week will be hellish as the novelty wears off and I get sick of having to get up early to write before work (and probably quite demoralising as I fall behind on my writing target); in the third week I’ll start to hit my stride, especially once I crack the all-important 25,000 words – the point at which the number of words left is less than the number you’ve already written; and by the fourth week I’ll hopefully be so engaged in the story that I’ll just want to keep up the routine.

I’m going to blog weekly about the process and how it’s going – partly because I want to share it with you (although books, like laws and sausages, may be something that it’s best not to see getting made) and partly to keep myself honest. I’m aiming for 35,000 words in November rather than the full 50,000 just because I have to squeeze my writing around work and other things, so I’ve decided to take the pressure off and be a bit kinder to myself this time around. Last time I did NaNoWriMo I finished with 32,000, so I think 35,000 is realistic.

As the story develops I also hope to be able to share some of the details with you (as I discover them), so if you’d like to be the first to get access to these exclusive excerpts please subscribe to my newsletter.

In this series of posts, I’m going to be taking you behind the scenes of Greythorne and the process I went through to write it. Part 1 looked at the development of the original idea.

When I tell them I’m a writer, a lot of people respond with “Oh, I often think I’ve got a book in me!” The crucial difference, however, between an author and someone who has a book in them is this next part of the writing process – the author is able to figure out how to get the book out of them and onto the page.

Exactly how you do that is a very personal thing. Some people like to know who they’re writing about before they decide what they’re writing about – so they start with characters. Personally, although I need at least a rough understanding of my main characters, I like to start with plot.

How-to-write books often divide people into ‘plotters and pantsers’ – those who like to outline every detail before they start, and those who would rather just fly by the seat of their pants and see where they end up.  George R.R. Martin famously described this far more eloquently, noting that writers are either ‘architects or gardeners’:

“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.”

I used to be an ‘architect’ (or a ‘plotter’ – though that sounds far more sinister).  In my early novels (which were never finished, let alone published) I plotted things out obsessively – at one point even writing 10,000 words of character studies. These were mostly fantasy stories, and world-building obviously requires a lot of work behind it, but it turned out to be counterproductive, because by the time I got round to actually writing I found I’d run out of steam.

So when Greythorne came along I decided it would be a chance to try something different – I was going to start with a very rough outline of the major plot points, but from then on I’d ‘pants’ it and just see how it went.  And, oddly enough, it worked. The novel turned into a standard three-act adventure structure (which I’ll discuss more in Part 6 – Editing when I deal with the issue of saggy middles) without me even needing to think about it that much. Having the major ‘way-points’ to aim for kept me on the right track, but I also had enough freedom to explore the characters and the world without being tied down too tightly. So I’ve discovered that I’m not really an architect or a gardener, but more like a conservatory builder – the best of both worlds.

In this series of posts, I’m going to be taking you behind the scenes of Greythorne and the process I went through to write it.

One of the most common question writers get asked is where our ideas come from, and to be honest, I wish I knew! Generally, story ideas creep up on me slowly – they might start with the name of a character, who gradually gets a story, or I might get inspired by a place I visit or something that happens. Sometimes I’ll be turning something over for months or even years before it makes it to the page. The idea for my next novel (which I’ll be blogging about as I start writing it in November) has been like that – a slow-burn that started with a ‘what if’ question then gradually grew from there. Someone once described this process as a bit like archaeology – you start by uncovering one small fragment, then another, then another, and eventually you have something with a recognisable shape and form. It can be a slow, laborious and sometimes disheartening process, when you’re not sure if what you’ve got is a never-before-seen fossil whose discovery will change the world, or the leftover bones from someone’s barbeque.

Having been through this process a number of times, I’ve always scoffed a little at the authors who claim their story – or worse, an entire series – just landed on them fully formed (I’m talking about you, J.K. Rowling). Or at least, I did – until it happened to me.

I was home from work sick one day, lying in bed reading Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, when I dozed off. Something must have been going on in my subconscious, because when I woke up I had a fully-formed story in my head – including the main characters and a rough plot outline. I scribbled it all down in the notebook I carry around with me and Greythorne was born – or at least had begun its gestation.

The first page of my original notes on Greythorne (I've omitted the second page because of spoilers).
The first page of my original notes on Greythorne (I’ve omitted the second page because of spoilers).

That said, what was in that notebook bears only a passing resemblance to the final story. The major ideas and most of the major plot points are the same, but it’s a long way from a rough outline to a finished book. In Part 2, I’ll be looking at plot and structure – the first step in turning an idea into a novel.