Posts Tagged 'first drafts'

An Ode to First Drafts

So I’m writing a new novel at the moment. My first young adult novel. It’s a wily beast of a thing. And this is kinda what my days look like (or my ode to first drafts)…

Writing with my pup curled on my lap

On the good days…

  • This is all I ever want to do. Write. With tea. In my pyjamas. With my dog. Always
  • Nothing is more joyous than frolicking through worlds I’ve made up
  • How can I get out of this social thing? My characters are more interesting than my friends
  • Outside a cyclone brews / tsunamis hit / aliens attack / squirrels take over government … but I’m still writing
  • Dinner? What do you mean ‘have I cooked dinner’? I have on my hands an angsty teen with supernatural powers and a world to save
  • Weeeeeeeee!

Writing at my fav local Italian cafe

On the bad days…

  • I’m so busy. I have to clean the dishes / fold the laundry / wash the dog / grout the something or other / find other things to procrastinate with
  • My desk is too messy to write. I need ‘space’
  • Look at the weather! It’s too rainy to write. Instead I’ll curl up with a book and feel melancholy
  • Look at the weather! It’s too sunny to write. Instead I’ll go frolic in the park and feed ducks
  • I know I came to this cafe to write but I ran into a friend / really interesting stranger / the guy from that TV show, who I must talk to
  • I have all this paperwork to do. Important paperwork. Like tax. And bills. And online quizzes about which literary genius I’m most like

Every day… 

………Good day or bad

………….Excuses or not

………………If the world is still revolving then I’m still writing

It’s the only way to get a first draft done

Baking Your Ideas

Ideas are wonderful and wily things. We chase them around, trying to catch their tails so we can pull them to us and write them down – capture them on the page. Creating a new story involves not just one idea, but many. Hundreds (if not thousands) of them must be woven together seamlessly to create the many-coloured threads of a novel.

I’ve discussed before that ideas don’t just pop into existence fully formed, but must be cultivated over a long period of time. Some people let them come together naturally in their mind. Some people do writing exercises to draw them out. Today I decided to bake them into existence.

Many of you may recall that baking is often a bad sign for me – a clear indicator that I’m having a bad day and need cheering up – but not today. For me, ideas best come together when my body is engaged in an activity but my mind is left free to wander. I find if I pose myself a question at the beginning of the task, by the end it tends to be answered. So…

  • The Challenge: To create lemon and ricotta baked doughnuts (with the help of my new lipstick-red Kitchen Aid)
  • The Goal: To get to know several of my characters better (I’m working on a young adult urban fantasy, and have two ‘bad guys’ that I know in name alone)

I thought I’d share with you the recipe I followed for my idea chasing:

  1. While I combined the batter ingredients, I considered what I already knew about my two bad guys
  2. While I kneaded the dough, I realised one wasn’t a guy at all and readjusted my thoughts on her (a sex change takes a while to get your head around)
  3. While I creamed the ricotta and lemon filling, I considered what they wanted in life and the motivations that could drive them through the story
  4. While I cut out the dough rounds and stuffed them with filling, I wondered about their childhoods and how their experiences had shaped them as people
  5. While I watched the dough rise and brown in the oven, I considered the consequences of their choices and how they would carry the weight of them
  6. And finally, while I dipped the cooked batter in butter and rolled them in lemon sugar, I realised these two characters were more interconnected than I’d initially realised

And the outcome of all this baking and thinking? I came away with:

  1. Two nuanced characters that I’ve discovered I actually care about (bad bits and all)
  2. An appreciation for bought doughnuts (this recipe took me a good part of the day)
  3. A happy but very full stomach

Care to join me in a sticky lemon doughnut?

Plotting a Novel (part 2)

by Kate Forsyth

The Forsyth Triangle

I have developed a diagram to help my writing students understand the basic narrative arc of stories and I’m going to share it with you all today – though if you are going to share it with anyone else please make sure you credit me!

It is based on Freytag’s Triangle, developed by the German dramatist Gustav Freytag who studied Aristotle’s Poetics. Freytag divided a drama into five parts which he named:

Exposition – Rising Action – Climax – Falling Action – Denouement

I have combined his theories with the idea of a three-act structure often used by playwrights and screenwriters.

Some definitions:

  • Expositionbackground information – characters, scene, & situation – a scene that shows the normal life of the protagonist
  • Inciting Incident the catalyst that begins the major conflict – a problem or complication to be solved – the point at which normal life is changed
  • Rising Actiona series of conflicts and crises – obstacles to overcome, ordeals to undergo, lessons to be learnt, revelations to be understood
  • Crisis – a crucial or decisive moment in the story that has a powerful effect on the protagonist – a turning point
  • Midpoint Reversal the middle of the story, where it seems all is lost and the hero cannot go on – it often marks a movement from one place to another, whether physical, spiritual or emotional
  • Climaxthe turning point of the action, when tension reaches its height. The point in which the hero must not only face – and defeat – his enemy, but also his greatest fear
  • Resolutionthe final stage, where questions are answered and problems solved
  • Falling Action the action following the climax that moves the story towards its end – it is usually much shorter than the previous series of events
  • Denouement comes from the old French, and means to ‘untie the knot’.  The final scene when all is well – ‘the feast scene’

Understanding the basic narrative arc of a story can help you make sure your story does not sag in the middle, fizzle out at the end or drone on for too long at the beginning (the most common mistakes I see in manuscripts!)

Plotting a Novel (part 1)

by Kate Forsyth

To plot, or not to plot – that is the question …

To me, there are two parts of writing. There’s the wonderful enchantment that overcomes me sometimes, when words tumble through my head faster than I can write, when every word rings true as soon as I catch it in my net. And then there’s the hard slog of writing when every word is dug out of obstinate rock.

To me, good writing seems so effortless, it is as if the reader was making it up as they go along, as if every word and every happening in the story is inevitable. I never want to be seen striving for effect – I want the architectural girders of the story to be invisible.

However, to write that well is hard. It is all too easy to lose your way, which is why having a plan of what you are writing can help you be a more focused and effective writer. I have two mantras that I teach my students:

  • To write without a plan is like going on a journey without a map
  • Never start a novel with a blank page

There are basically two methods of writing.

The Intuitive Approach

Sometimes called ‘free associative writing’.

You set off on a journey with no idea where you are going, allowing the words to carry you along as they will.

Every time you get stuck, which you will be often, you can use a form of brainstorming to get you going again. Ask yourself questions – where are my characters? What are they doing? Why did that happen? What can my character hear, see, smell, taste, feel? What am I trying to express or communicate with this story?

The main problems with this method is getting so stuck you can’t get going again, or ending up with a lot of material that cannot be used, thereby wasting time and energy.

The Analytical Approach

Some writers plot out the entire story before they write a word, complete with characters sketches, chapter-by-chapter and scene-by-scene breakdowns, and thematic conclusions.

Such planning can help with both the actual writing process (you know what you are writing about) and with the tying up of any loose ends. However, it can also limit you to only writing what was planned and so not leaving room for any of those great leaps of the imagination that can take you in all sorts of surprising directions.

What I do is use a combination of both of these methods – I develop a plot-line where I know my beginning and my end and a number of key scenes along the way. Then, as I am writing, I develop this plot-line further as new ideas come. I also do a fairly comprehensive outline before I write each chapter so I know exactly what I want to have happen in that scene.

So what exactly is a plot?

A Plot is a series of events which is driven by the protagonist’s attempt to RESOLVE a source of CONFLICT. The plot is therefore driven by the protagonist’s actions and reactions to a set of problems or obstacles or ordeals.

You could also describe this as a causal sequence of events in a story.

  • This means a plot works in two ways – what is happening (the sequence of events) and why it is happening (cause and effect of what is happening)
  • Character and plot are therefore inextricably entwined, because the personality of your characters will determine how they react to any given situation

The Basic Formula Of All Stories

Protagonist + Objective + Obstacles = Story

Another way to put it:

Character + Desire + Conflict = Story

i.e. someone wants something that is hard to get 

Once you understand this, it is much easier to plan your story.

New Novel & World Domination

For the last few weeks I have been plotting. Not the ‘world domination’ kind, but the ‘new novel’ kind. That said, when creating a new story world you need to dominate it – as its creator you must understand every angle of your world and its people in order to write it convincingly. This is especially true when, like me, you are writing fantasy.

This new novel has me super excited, because…

  1. Firstly, I’ve been wanting to write something a little darker for a while now. This will be a mid-grade urban fantasy about a cursed bloodline, 17th century beasts, some kick ass supernatural bounty hunters and one scary immortal dude
  2. Secondly, I’m plotting it in a whole new way

When I say ‘new’, I mean entirely new to me. When I first tried writing a novel, like a lot of newbies, plotting was something I knew nothing about. As I’ve grown as a writer I’ve naturally started planning my stories and have become more aware of the value of plotting. Kate Forsyth also instilled its importance in me through the mentorship.

This will be the fourth novel I’ve written. The first was free written and terrible – it’s happily a bottom drawer manuscript. The second was only slightly more planned, and would have been another bottom drawer ms if Kate hadn’t swooped in to help me resurrect it. The third required more planning and the first draft was certainly the cleanest I’ve produced yet, but still I’ve learnt more about structure since then.

With my fourth novel, I want to go a few steps further. I want to focus on getting to know my characters intimately before I start. I want to work at weaving in each story arc and building the tension towards the climax. Ultimately I want to break the story down scene by scene, all before I start writing. I’ve never done anything like this before and I couldn’t do it alone, so I’m equipped with Robert McKee’s book on the principles of screenwriting, called Story. It’s a bible on the craft of plot – one you’ll hear a lot of writers mention. He talks about breaking a story down into acts, sequences, scenes and moments, and analysing each one as to how it’s driving the story. He’s also the king of the three act structure, something I’ve been interested in studying for a while. He opens the book with an awesome quote:

Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules; rebellious, unschooled writers break rules; an artist masters the form

Robert, I’m not sure I’ll do you proud, but I’ll certainly do my best. The only way to learn is to push yourself out into new territory – challenge yourself to something new. I’m certainly doing that, and loving every terrifying moment. Wish me luck!

Illustration Sunday

There seem to be two ways picture books develop for me:

  1. The story comes first: something triggers an idea for a story, so I write the first draft before setting out to design characters to fit it
  2. The character comes first: a vivid character turns up in my mind and demands to be drawn, and after a while their story becomes apparent

My little monsters are an example of the first, while Squish Rabbit is an example of the second (Squish was with me for about 2 years before his story turned up). Below are my latest sketches and another example of the latter. About a month ago I woke up with this character’s name and image firmly in the front of my mind. Even though I was desperate to draw him then and there, I didn’t. Just like with my story ideas, I’ve learnt that putting characters in my sketchbook too early can trap them on the page. If I leave them in my head for a month or so, they’ll grow and change. It gives me time to watch them gamble about; to observe how they move and interact with the world. Are they confident, shy, clumsy or zen like? Do they seek to be with others or prefer to wander alone? What do they look like from each and every angle?

Just yesterday I was finally ready to draw my new character. His name is Piggy-Wilikins, a tiny teacup pig with big ears:

His story hasn’t turned up yet, but I know it will – and I’m certain it wont take as long as Squish’s did! I’m starting to get a good sense of his personality already, and I think he may just be my very first confident protagonist (although he’s still a misfit, which seems to be developing into my trademark). Now I have him down on paper I can get back to the story I’m supposed to be working on – the storyboard of a new rabbit picture book. I’ll be posting character sketches from that project in the next few days.

Please excuse me while I hop off to dabble in some rabbity ink…

PS. Happy Valentine’s Day!

A Quote for all Seasons

I love quotes. I’m a long time collector, gathering together others’ words and storing them away for times of need. There is something inherently comforting about a quote that perfectly captures what you need to hear at a certain point in life. I found this more than ever with writing. Some quotes spur me on when I need encouragement. Some comfort me when I’m feeling precious. Others make me laugh when I’m getting too serious (a fault of mine). So I thought I’d share some with you, just in case there are other word collectors out there…

A quote to quiet the inner writing critic:

All first drafts are shit ~ Ernest Hemmingway

A quote for chasing an elusive muse:

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club ~ Jack London

Quotes for when I’m sick of editing:

A book is never finished, simply abandoned ~ Rebecca Huntley

A writer is someone to whom writing is more difficult than it is to other people ~ Thomas Mann

Quotes for when I’d rather be on holiday than writing:

Because I’d always wanted to be a writer, I decided that when I left school I needed to go out into the world and collect experiences, so that when I had enough I could write about them ~ Prue Mason

Writing is long periods of thinking and short periods of writing ~ Ernest Hemingway

Quotes for those who think children’s books are easy to write:

Writing a picture book is like writing War & Peace in Haiku ~ Mem Fox

Art is the expression of the most profound thoughts in the simplest way ~ Einstein

The difference between the right word and the wrong word is the same as the difference between lighting and a lightning bug ~ Mark Twain

Quotes that capture why I write for children:

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet.  Tempest roams in the pathless sky, ships are wrecked in the trackless water, death is abroad and children play ~ Tagore

I believe that the only lastingly important form of writing is writing for children. It is writing that is carried in the reader’s heart for a lifetime; it is writing that speaks to the future ~ Sonya Hartnett

To be a successful children’s writer you will need to get in touch with your inner child, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that inner children are all sweetness and light. They can be argumentative, unreasonable, uncontrollable and highly irritating. You will need to embrace these qualities of your child as well … invoke the forces of anarchy, chaos, silliness, danger and magic ~ Andy Griffiths

Quotes for when I need a laugh:

Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read ~ Groucho Marx

I love deadlines.  I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by ~ Douglas Adams

Writers are very private people who run around naked in public ~ Katherine Patterson

I’d love to hear other people’s favourites. There is always room for more words…

Fattening up your Characters

I don’t mean literally – no need to go putting your characters on a high carb diet – but a lovely blog reader recently asked how I develop my protagonists, and I find the process is a lot like fattening them up. When starting out you begin with just bones – the bare outline of your main character. Through time, research and writing you start to build up their flesh, and in the final stages you add quirks and traits that lay their skin down over top, leaving you with a 3D living breathing character. But how do I get there?

Bones:

  • I often begin with a small kernel of knowledge about my main character. Something that’s important to them. The hint of their voice or personality. A snippet of conversation. A glimpse of how they look or how others see them. Like any story, it starts small, but you have to begin somewhere
  • Help the bones to grow: I use my natural writer’s curiosity to ask question after question. Who is this person? Why are they important to this story? What about them and their needs could drive a whole novel towards its end? Where do they come from and where will they go? The questions start out big, but become more specific as the story narrows down
  • First draft: once I know enough about my character and their story, I begin the first draft. That’s when I figure out how little I really knew…

Flesh:

  • I only truly begin to understand my main character once I have sat with them through an entire draft, watching the way they speak and move and react to the world. By the end of it I have a more through understanding of them, and need to go back in draft two to make sure they’re acting consistently
  • At this point I also make sure that the person I want my character to be isn’t inhibiting who they actually are. As writers we need to let them be their own person, even if they do things we would never do
  • Character profiles: before draft two I use a detailed set of questions to plumb the depths of my character’s personality, from their childhood through to their desires, strengths and weaknesses
  • Character sketches: as an illustrator I draw these myself, but others I know find magazine images of people who perfectly capture the look they’re after. This is important not only to make sure you describe your character consistently, but to ensure you’re conveying their personality through their physical appearance – how they stand, hold themselves, dress etc.

Skin:

  • The skin: the nitty gritty details that make us all individual. For me these traits develop over time, after being with my character for several drafts
  • Encourage the details: I do this by imagining my character – watching them move around, putting them in various situations, wondering how they would react to something joyous or uncomfortable or during a confrontation. As I walk around day to day, I wonder how my character would react to the situations I face, or what they would do in place of characters on TV
  • Collect foibles: writers are great people watchers. I’ve always been fascinated by the quirks people around me have – the words they use, the way they speak, the ticks and mannerisms that make them unique, the walk that means you recognise them from behind. If you can give your character unique mannerisms, they’ll suddenly become very real

It’s easy to get intimidated after reading a brilliant book with characters so real you wish you knew them. But don’t feel you have to know everything about your main character before you start writing. It’s all about layering. All writers layer, adding more character details with each draft. Characters will always begin as bones, mere shadows of who they will become. I’m currently at the ‘skin’ stage of a middle-grade adventure novel, and certain minor characters are only just starting to feel real rather than stereotyped. In a few more layers it will be ready.

What techniques do others use to develop character?

Planning or Pantsing

Rabbit - runI’m updating my website: a slow and laborious process, but I’m getting there. Looking at the ‘writing’ section makes me realise that my writing methods have changed. It’s nice to have those moments in life – a yard stick where you can look back and realise how far you’ve come. I wrote that section 18 months ago, and a few novels on, I’m amazed at just how differently I do things.

I used to be a pantser. I didn’t plot or plan my stories – I used freewriting to muddle my way through a first draft, flying by the seat of my pants. I enjoyed this immensely – the thrill of the chase, the adrenalin at the discovery of a new plot point. I always felt that planning would take this away from me. But in the end it left a mudpit of a manuscript I had to attempt to save in the second draft: characters that were still figuring out who they were, worlds only partly explored, tangled story arcs.

I used to just think this was the way I did things (that it was my ‘style’ of writing), but now I can see that fear was driving it. I was terrified at the thought of planning. What if the ideas didn’t come? What if I sat down to plan and couldn’t think of anything? My inner writing critic (that awful voice that tells you your writing is no good) was strong back then, and could only be silenced when I wrote fast enough to leave it behind. If I stopped to plan, it could paralyse me in an instant. So I was running fast to keep ahead of my fear.

So much has changed. I now trust myself enough that I no longer need to run. After writing so many stories, I know that the ideas will come if I give them time. I trust that I can solve the plot problems that will arise and that the characters will talk to me if I give them space. The biggest epiphany happened about a week ago: I’m now so good at silencing my inner writing critic that he rarely bothers to show up. With my fear now contained to a minimum, I’m free to plan. I love letting the ideas move around my mind for months, asking questions, identifying the plot holes to fill and studying the story arcs. I love prodding the characters to learn their vulnerabilities and determining how the story can best reveal these. I love the intricacies of putting the puzzle together, all before putting pen to paper. I suppose I now understand the demands of ‘story’ more intimately.

Early on in my ASA mentorship, Kate said something that made me think about all this. She commented that you can still experience the thrill of discovery during the first draft when you have planned it. Planning doesn’t take that away, it just makes the process less messy. But I’m still hesitant to describe myself as a planner just yet. I’ve worked out how tricksy this writing process is – just when I think I have myself pinned, I start a fresh project that demands a completely new approach.

So you never know. In a few years time I may be back here saying: “Move over planning, I’m back in the pants”.

Setting and the Tax Man

2009-08-23aI’m constantly amazed at how vividly a place can influence my writing. Its feel, its smell, the lay of the land, the palette of the landscape, the way the wind feels when it pulls at your hair. Every place is unique, which is why setting is so important in books. Setting gives us an immediate insight into the mood of a novel. A strong and tangible sense of what kind of story you’re entering and the characters you might encounter.

2009-08-23bI got to thinking about this recently while on holiday in New Zealand. Driving through the patchwork hills, in a climate so different to our own, the feel of the place vividly conjured the setting and characters from a story of mine. While walking along a river, the characters began to interact in my mind again, commenting on the terrain and noticing things I had not. I had a similar experience last year while in England, and on both trips kept a diary of these observations.

2009-08-23cIn the final two drafts of the junior fantasy novel I worked on during my ASA mentorship, these diaries became invaluable. When first writing this story, I chose a slightly more European setting due to a need for a land with clear seasonal change – harsh winters and long dry summers – a climate as hard as the tribes that drive the plot. In early drafts I focussed more on the characters and their story, but in later drafts I had to work to clarify the setting.

Yet the setting only became vivid and real once I had walked the land of my story. Once I had lived the winter that left only the hardiest plants alive, kicked my feet through muddied puddles of leaves, walked under clouds of ash and ice and marveled at skeletal trees greeting the morning sun.

Do you think Mr Tax Man will scoff when I insist that my ski trip to New Zealand was driven by a need to become intimate with the landscape of my story? And is it shallow to set my next story on an island due to a desire for sand and sun? Caribbean, here I come…


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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