Archive for April, 2010

The Benefits of Being Mean

Being mean isn’t something I’m naturally good at. I try to be a good person. Try to be thoughtful of others and unselfish. In my writing pursuits I expected this would always serve me well, but not so. It turns out that being mean is a core requirement of writing. Why? Because if you’re always nice to your characters, nothing interesting will ever happen.

If J.K.Rowling was nice to Harry Potter, Voldemort would never have been born, Harry’s parents would still be alive and Malfoy would have been a delightful young chap. If J.K was kind, when Harry was invited to a school of Wizardry it would have been one big, joyous adventure with no danger or teen angst or Trolls/Werewolves/Deatheaters/’insert scary thing here’. If J.K was a generous soul, Harry would have had a very pleasant time at school, graduated and lived Happily Ever After. Sound boring to you? I’m putting myself to sleep just contemplating it.

As writers, we need to drag our characters through hell and back before the story is through. We need to create tension, drama, action, tough choices – more so than tends to exist in real life. I think this is why I enjoy fantasy so much, as there is such potential to raise the stakes beyond anything we experience in our own world. But being mean is harder than it sounds. I get incredibly attached to my characters – even protective of them – so without realising it I often let them avoid the tough stuff.

I’ve been using the ‘three act structure’ to outline the urban fantasy I’m currently developing (something Robert McKee discusses in Story and Alexandra Sokoloff studies over on her blog). I had a number of scenes I knew would feature in the book, and had written them onto story cards. I was then working out how they would work across the three acts – where they would fit, what would work as each act’s turning point and how each event would interact with the others. In doing this I realised parts of the story were severely lacking. Know why? Because I was being too kind to my characters. I had to up the stakes, make their choices harder, create greater consequences. Would this character really adjust so well to this turning point? No! They’d rail against it and make things harder for my protagonist. Would this piece of information be so easy to track down? No! My protagonist should have to prove himself before he can discover that pearler.

With this done, my story has filled out significantly, and as you can see my storyboard is nearly complete. Although I’m not sure how I’ll sleep tonight. I’ve done enough mean things to these characters to earn a lifetime of damnation…

Stand-Alone Vs Series

There are so many decisions to make when planning a new novel. Sometimes you can let the story or the characters drive these decisions, but sometimes you’re faced with two (or more) paths you could follow that would severely alter the direction of your story. When this happens, it all comes down to you. As the head of your story’s world you have to be prepared to make some tough choices.

I was recently faced with one of these with the new urban fantasy I’m plotting. The more I uncovered about this story, and the more I understood its characters and their history, the more I realised just how big it was. Possibly too big for one novel. However I’d never intended it to be a series. I have planned two series in the past, and with both I always knew they would be and they naturally evolved that way. So my tough decision with this new story became:

  • Tackle it as one big book (can anyone say sprawling fantasy?) OR
  • Create a new series

Although I secretly knew it was too big for one book, I still wasn’t sure it could work as several. The story had always been a single story in my head – it didn’t feel episodic. As a reader I get a little frustrated by series where the books end with a massive cliffhanger, as if it was one book split into several, so I didn’t want to create one of those. I prefer a series where each book has a distinct feel, even if there is an overarching ‘quest’ linking them all. I turned to my agent and writing friends for advice, who all felt I could tackle it either way, but ultimately the decision came down to me. I thought I’d share with you how I tackled the problem:

First step: brainstorming. I put a timeline across the middle of a large sheet of butcher’s paper. At the beginning of the line I wrote a summary of the Inciting Incident, and at the end I detailed the Final Showdown. Then I filled the page with every big climax point from the story. I linked these all up to the timeline, working out how each revelation and point of action jigsawed together. Once I had the timeline complete, I could see whether there were clear sections of it that could split into individual stories. It turns out there were two perfect turning points that could serve as the end of story one and two, while the Final Showdown would be story 3’s climax.

I think it may just work. I hope it will work. I still have to more thoroughly plot out each book before I’ll know for sure (as you can see below I’ve already started for book one). This might all seem incredibly anal, but the story is complex, and I need to know where each story is going before I can start writing the first. I’m really keen to get writing, as the scenes are unrolling and the characters are all talking to each other and I’m already on the roller-coaster ride that is their triumphs and failures. So if you’ll excuse me – I’d better get back to plotting…

Say Cheese…

As some of you know, I’m currently plotting out a new story – a YA urban fantasy I’m really excited about. I’m planning it in way that’s new for me, so I decided: why not continue the trend? In the last few days I’ve also been using a new characterisation technique.

Up until now, when working out character design I’ve often drawn my characters to help get them clearer in my mind. But I had no idea how much further it would take me if I found actual photos of them. It’s a technique I first came across on the blog of a good friend of mine (who is a superstar YA writer). So, I set out to find look-a-likes for the characters that had already grown in my head. And it turns out – it’s a hell of a lot harder than it sounds.

It took me hours. Oh so many hours. Because you don’t realise until you’re actually looking for your characters just how real they are to you. I’d find myself flicking through reams of images on photo sites, thinking ‘Her chin’s too narrow’ or ‘He’s too skinny’ or ‘She looks too chirpy’ or ‘His skin is too perfect’. Then I figured out what many others have before me. It’s much easier to think of actors that remind you of your cast. Then again, they can’t be actors you’re too familiar with, otherwise it’s impossible to put your character’s personality onto them as they already come with strong characteristics. However you don’t need to find one person who is your character in every way – just one photo that captures their essence. In this way, I finally found my perfect cast. My protagonist is a boy I vaguely recalled from some long ago mini-drama. His crush a girl I glimpsed on a crime show the other night. His best friend I had the most trouble finding and my fiance actually suggested this girl, who turned out to be perfect (Note: I have slightly altered some of her features in Photoshop):

Once I figured out how it was done, I had a lot of fun with it. So, how does finding real photos of your characters actually help?

  • When I’m picturing how each story scene plays out, I now see these teen’s faces and they’re so much more real to me
  • If I’m wondering what a certain character would do, looking at their image helps me to get into their head
  • Seeing them as I write keeps my descriptions of their physical traits consistent, but also their personalities (the body language of the people in the photos says a lot about my characters)

I can’t tell you how much I love this technique. I know I’ll be doing it for every novel from here on in. Anyone else done this before?

The City That Never Sleeps

Sometimes the world works in strange ways. Wonderful, but strange. You may remember late last year I attended a workshop on applying for grants (and blogged about some of the things I learned), then in October I had a go at applying for a well renowned scholarship.

One of the many reasons I was applying was with the far flung hope of being able to travel to New York to meet my publisher. I knew the winners of the scholarships were being announced in March, so as the March days trickled by I accepted that I wasn’t one of them. Still really hoping to be able to meet my publisher, I started investigating other possible grants for writers. I made a shortlist of about three I was eligible for, and on the final day of March I sat down to begin writing my applications.

As my fingers hovered over the keyboard, I got a call on my mobile. And nearly dropped it. It was a delightful lady, ringing to tell me that I had been awarded a 2010 Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship. For a writer, I was embarrassingly lost for words.

The scholarships were established by John Chisholm Marten and commenced in 1967 as a way to support young artists. Their website describes the awards as follows:

The … Scholarships provide support for young Australians in a variety of categories to help them further their cultural education and achieve their dreams. They are awarded each year for study, maintenance and travel either in Australia or overseas.

The scholarship will span over two years, and true to their word it will allow me to access opportunities that have so far been purely the stuff of dreams. So it turns out I will get to meet my publisher, next year in January while I’m in New York for the annual SCBWI Winter Conference. I’ll also get to attend some other conferences, research a series of middle grade novels set in South America, research a new YA novel I’m currently planning set in the UK, plus have some dedicated writing time away from other commitments.

They’re lucky they didn’t wait a day longer to call me, as April 1st being what it is, I never would have believed them…

What’s Up Doc?

WARNING: For all those who feel secure in their homes, let it be known that in this digital age – no one is safe. Not even bunny loving writers. Did you know you can take screen shots (photos) via skype? Clearly this goose didn’t. I was innocently skyping with a good friend the other day (you know who you are), goofing around as I have been known to do, when she discovered how to take screen shots. Of me. Oh the horror.

Personally, I feel rabbit ears kinda suit me, but that’s hardly the point.

You have been warned.

Happy Easter everyone…


About this Blog…

A blog of ramblings about the world of writing and illustrating for children, by an author / illustrator who might just have a thing for rabbits.

Katherine's picture books, 'Squish Rabbit' and 'Brave Squish Rabbit', are out with Viking (Penguin, US) and UQP (Australia). Please e-mail if you would like her to blog about something in particular.

All text & images  Katherine Battersby

Released Sept 2012:

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