Tuesday, February 23, 2010

(Your) Ten Golden Rules For Writing Fiction

As a debut children’s author, one of the first things I made time for was reading tips on writing, style, creating characters, and developing plots. As you can imagine, pretty soon I was completely confused as to what advice I should follow. I did find my own way and my own inner voice, but only after something of a struggle because I didn’t quite trust myself. After all, I reasoned, everyone else must know best, especially if they are already established, published authors with quite a few bestsellers under their belts. That’s actually not the case.

While any prospective or new writer should read around to glean as much as possible in the way of tips, one’s own inner voice is perhaps a good place to start. That said, I recently came across a two-part article in The Guardian (UK) giving various great writers’ Ten Rules for Writing Fiction. I read them all and chose Michael Moorcock’s advice because it appealed to me the most, especially his advice in point 10. Other excellent writers that have contributed their comments include Hilary Mantel, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, and Margaret Atwood.

Michael Moorcock (Science fiction and fantasy writer)

1 My first rule was given to me by TH White, author of The Sword in the Stone and other Arthurian fantasies and was: Read. Read everything you can lay hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.

2 Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.

3 Introduce your main characters and themes in the first third of your novel.

4 If you are writing a plot-driven genre novel make sure all your major themes/plot elements are introduced in the first third, which you can call the introduction.

5 Develop your themes and characters in your second third, the development.

6 Resolve your themes, mysteries and so on in the final third, the resolution.

7 For a good melodrama study the famous "Lester Dent master plot formula" which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories of any length or genre.

8 If possible have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophizing. This helps retain dramatic tension.

9 Carrot and stick – have protagonists pursued (by an obsession or a villain) and pursuing (idea, object, person, mystery).

10 Ignore all proferred rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.

Following on with tips for new writers, Suzannah Freeman at Write It Sideways asks the question “How does one go from thinking “I like to write,” to “I need to write,” to “I want to be published”? She then supplies the answer in 37 questions that aspiring writers should be asking themselves if they truly are serious about writing as a career. She says, “If you’re going to get serious about something, you need to know what you’re getting into, where you want to go, and how you’re going to get there."

If you want to start taking your writing more seriously, stop and ask yourself these questions first: 37 Questions New Writers Should Ask Themselves.

Friday, February 19, 2010

How to (Really) Write About Real Locations

When I read Joanna Penn’s excellent post on How to Write About Real Locations if You Haven't Been There, I felt very fortunate that I had been able to visit Egypt prior to writing my middle-grade adventure The Secret of the Sacred Scarab. Joanna gives excellent advice on how to recreate for readers the sense of ‘being’ in a place. Top of her list is, of course, actually going to the particular location.

Any location is unique and there is pressure upon the author to describe it so that the readers can relate to it, enjoy it, and believe in it. Location is not just a geographical point on a world map. It’s a mixture of sights, sounds, smells, sensations, tastes, and the ambiance or atmosphere that comes with its people, history, culture, architecture, and art. Would you believe it but light, something so simple that we take it for granted, is different in other parts of the world. Sunlight in Egypt is unforgettable—blinding, glaring, beating down upon your retinas so that unless you have sunglasses, your poor Westernized eyes will remain squeezed shut in desperation as you try to shut out the probing rays. On the other hand, when darkness falls, it’s really dark. The sand dunes that once were a blazing sea of endless saffron yellow turn the purple of bruised plums as the sun finally sinks in the west.

Joanna also outlines next-best options for authors not able to travel. These include guidebooks, travel blogs, Google Earth, interviews with experts, and (very importantly) research. These options shouldn’t be considered second best in any way because even though one may be fortunate enough to make a trip, there is hard work to be done when putting a story to paper. I am a natural collector and accumulated air tickets, stubs from entries to monuments, menus, postcards and the usual array of stuff that finds its way into travel bags. Photographs were vital for me—I was shocked to find that after a few weeks my memory of where exactly that fascinating statue had been was a bit hazy. I also muddled up the locations of two very famous temples (horrors!). So, with the help of a guide book, a clear map, and all my photographs, I was able to recreate the journey and make a ‘collage’ to guide me as I built the journey line of my two young heroes. Since I modeled my heroes on my two nephews, it was important for me to get a feel for how two boys would react in such a foreign (and potentially dangerous) environment.

I’d also recommend souvenirs to jog one’s memory. I bought quite a few miniatures that really helped me recreate the haggling scene in the Egyptian market at Esna, and brought back the sounds and smells of people, incense, food, spices and much more. The taste of the food was unforgettable. Do you know the best olives and cucumbers are found in Egypt? The crisp, cool, almost sweet taste of a cucumber so juicy and refreshing that one just wants to gobble the whole thing down. The tart tang of a black olive on your tongue … spicy yet so tasty that one or two are just not enough.

When Joanna mentioned interviews with experts I immediately remembered Leila, our fantastic guide who was a walking encyclopedia of knowledge on Egypt. Contrary to what one might think, travel guides (the official ones) in any country, have to have a vast amount of knowledge on their subject. It came as no surprise to find that Leila had a university degree!

Finally, the hard slog of research. I think Egypt was even more daunting than I imagined because so much has been written about the country, its history, and its culture that I felt under enormous pressure to check, double check, and check again (just in case) all my facts. There are also conflicting opinions of experts so one has to be careful whose opinion one chooses. It’s seems a shame that hours of research go into looking up facts that will make a perhaps brief mention in the chapter concerned. After all, there is no point in inundating readers with lots of information. Details should be carefully and subtly woven into the story, always being an integral part of what the heroes need to know to move along in their story.

So, after the excitement of Egypt, what’s next? The next book in my adventure series Chronicles of the Stone takes place in Scotland, where the heroes are in search of the Second Stone of Power. The title is The Search for the Stone of Excalibur and that should be enough of a clue for fans to see where the story is heading. I have already spent a few amazing weeks in Scotland, researching old castles. Ask me anything about castles … with or without drawbridges, moats, portcullises, battlements … you name it, I visited it. Finally I settled upon the fabulous, fairytale setting of Dunrobin Castle, for me an exquisite vision, as the setting for Book Two.

And how far ahead should one plan? Book Three—The Temple of the Crystal Time-Keeper— takes place in South America and although I have not quite fixed the location I am planning a trip in the near future. For me there’s nothing to beat the reality of location.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Children's Classics: Jock of the Bushveld in 3D

I wonder how many international readers know of the South African children’s classic Jock of the Bushveld. I’ve just read that this well loved book is being turned into an animated full-length 3D feature movie. For those not in the know, let me tell you something about this wonderful children’s book.

Jock’s History

Jock of the Bushveld is a true story by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, recounting his adventures in the Lowveld in the late 19th century, with his dog, Jock. The book tells of Fitzpatrick’s travels with his dog, Jock, during the 1880s, when he worked as a storeman, prospector’s assistant, journalist and ox-wagon transport-rider in the Bushveld region of the Transvaal (then the South African Republic). Fitzpatrick later recounted these adventures as bedtime stories to his four children. Rudyard Kipling, a good friend of Fitzpatrick, also took part in these storytelling evenings and eventually persuaded him to collect these tales in book form. Illustrations for the book were done by Edmund Caldwell, a brother of Mary Tourtel, creator of Rupert Bear.

The book was first published in 1907 and had an extremely warm reception, being reprinted four times in that year alone. Since then it has achieved the status of a classic South African book and has been also widely read abroad—more than one hundred editions have been printed and it has been translated into Afrikaans, Dutch, French, Xhosa and Zulu, amongst others. Jock was saved by Fitzpatrick from being drowned in a bucket for being the runt of the litter (he would ruin the litter if left with them). Jock was very loyal towards Percy, and brave.

Sir Percy's History
Eventually after five years of transport riding, tsetse fly infected all Sir Percy’s oxen and he was ruined. He walked penniless into Barberton, all the way from Louw’s Creek, found a job and also a wife, Lilian Cubitt, whom he married. After that Sir Percy relocated to Johannesburg and was then employed by the Johannesburg mining group, the Corner House. He gave Jock to a friend of his, who in time gave the dog to a trader who had a store in Mozambique at a place known as Old Pessene. There Jock was killed one night when he rushed out to attack a stray dog that was raiding the fowl run. Jock killed the thief but was then shot when his master mistook him in the darkness for the other dog. Jock permanently lost his hearing when a kudu cow kicked him. Loss of hearing is attributed as one of the main reasons he died, as he could not hear Tom Barnett when he called him, and was mistakenly shot, because he was thought to be the dog killing chickens on the farm.

Jock was an English Staffordshire Bull Terrier. There is a statue of Jock in front of the City Hall in Barberton, Mpumalanga, South Africa.

Jock at the Movies

The South African film industry has received an incredible boost lately with movies such as District Nine (Oscar nominated), Invictus, Tsotsi and Skin attracting international attention and acclaim. Jock of the Bushveld is in the initial stages of production, with 26 artists, animators and technicians busy in their Johannesburg studios. Some 59 scenes have already been completed using the latest computer-assisted animation, and soon the project will be marketed abroad. Another big scoop is the involvement of some big names in the entertainment industry such as musical writing superstar Tim Rice, and local singers Johnny Clegg and Nianell. A major coup for the filmmakers is Archbishop Tutu’s involvement. He’ll be lending his sonorous voice to a small but key part involving spirituality.

Jock & Education

An important part of the movie marketing plan is to focus on education in the Mpumalanga Lowveld, which is the setting for Jock’s story. Jock will be of great help in improving education and the environment, and in a way that enables local communities to benefit. Corporate sponsorship will contribute to community upliftment and awareness.

Books vs Movies

Kids love movies of books, and sometimes see the movie first. Although parents may worry that the movie is a substitute for the book, this is generally not the case. It’s a golden opportunity for parents to suggest that they add to the enjoyment by getting the book/s. After all, the movie makers might have had to leave a few crucial bits out. There’s only one way to check and that’s by reading the book. Parents can encourage their children to get onto the computer and look up everything they can possibly find about the movie, the plot, the characters, the actors—it’s all reading, whether in book or electronic format. Once hooked on a great book, any child will return to that beloved adventure time and time again.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Does Your Child Struggle to Read? Tips for Parents

Does your child struggle to read what you (the parent) consider to be the simplest of words? There could be a very good reason for this!

Parents already know that books are vital to their child’s scholastic achievements, and developing life skills. It can be disappointing when your child expresses absolutely no interest in reading. Reading is a skill, just like any other skill. It has to be introduced, nurtured, and developed. Imagine trying to play championship tennis when you can barely hit the ball? Children don’t enjoy what they can’t do. And when reading is difficult, they shy away from even coming near a book. Your child may not display any interest in reading because they are actually struggling with it. Turning your non-reader into a reader will require your participation and encouragement every step of the way. You can do this by coming up with new and interesting ways to ‘package’ the art of reading.

A good way to begin is to actually assess your child’s reading level. If it’s below par, then that’s one reason why he or she isn’t keen on books—books are the enemy, boring, a problem. Have your child read a page or two from a variety of books. Make a list of the words they find easy/hard/not understood. Once you have an idea of their level, based on vocabulary skills, then you can move forward. In fact, to build your child’s confidence, perhaps begin with a book for a younger age. Your child will skim through it, feeling proud at having finished and understood it, and you can offer praise by saying, “Look how easily you managed that! Shall we try something else?”

A thick book can appear quite a formidable object to a non-reader. Begin small. Start with a thinner book, not some great tome, and say, “I bet we’ll finish this quickly.” Then let your child read the book in bite-sized pieces. Don’t try for ten pages—read only four or five pages. Your child will feel this is not a huge task after all.

Reading aloud is something that all parents should do, regardless of children’s age. Most children really love that special time when Mom or Dad comes in to say good night. You can say, “Hey! I’ve got something really exciting here. Want to hear some?” Anything to delay turning off the light, your child will say (of course) “Yeah!” You can make this session into something really memorable by acting the parts and using your Repertoire of Funny Voices, but more importantly, stop at a really exciting point, just when the hero is about to be plunged into mortal danger. Close the book and say, “Gosh! I hope he survives. We’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out.” Generally, no kid can go to sleep without confirming their hero is indeed still alive…

Praise and admiration boost a child’s confidence. You can do this by letting friends and family members know just how well your child is doing. “It’s amazing how many pages (child’s name) is reading every day now!” Soon your child will be the one to suggest reading. Use the time together to understand your child’s thought processes, and structure the book choices around what really sparks their interest.

Get your child their own library card and encourage them to begin choosing their own material. This will make your child feel important and that their opinions matter. Buying book vouchers instead of other kinds of gifts will encourage your child to start building their own collection of cherished books. Why not get your child a really nice bookcase and say, "We'll fill this soon with great books!" Ownership is important to any child and they will feel they will soon be the proud possessor of "great books."

• Go slowly—tennis champions aren’t made overnight….

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Book Review: Elisa Lorello's Ordinary World

I’d like to welcome Elisa Lorello as my first book review for 2010. Elisa Lorello is as interesting as her heroine Andi. Elisa was born in Queens, NY. The youngest of seven, she grew up on the North Shore of Long Island in a musical family, surrounded by cars, guitars, cats, and a dead hamster every now and then. She explored many passions, including drawing, tennis, and music, but even though her interests changed over the years, writing was her constant companion. In 1995, Elisa attended UMass-Dartmouth (south-eastern Massachusetts) for both her bachelor and master’s degrees, respectively. In 2000, as part of her graduate education in Professional Writing, she became a teaching associate, and met two professors of rhetoric and composition who took her under their wings. She also published several personal essays and creative nonfiction pieces. This union of teaching, rhetoric, and writing ultimately became Elisa’s calling, and remains so to this day.

In 2004, Elisa began her first novel, Faking It. “I never saw myself as a fiction writer,” she said, “but I had this idea that wouldn’t go away, so I decided to write it just for me. Everything snowballed from there.” Since then, Elisa has written the sequel, Ordinary World, and is currently co-writing a third novel with friend and former student, S. R. Paquette. At present, Elisa lives in North Carolina, where she teaches academic writing at NC State. She is a Facebook addict, an Aaron Sorkin fan, enjoys baking, and plays Duran Duran songs on a lefty acoustic guitar.

For a fuller appreciation of Ordinary World, I’d recommend readers head for Faking It first. In the first book, 34-year-old professor Andi Cutrone has broken up with her fiancé in Massachusetts, moved back to her native New York, and wants to be a better lover. So after meeting Devin, a handsome, charming escort, she proposes an unusual arrangement: lessons about writing in exchange for lessons about sex. Devin helps her grow up and mature emotionally and sexually, and somehow one wants them to ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after … but Fate has other ideas.

Fast forward six years to Ordinary World in which author Elisa Lorello reunites us with Andi in a story of love and loss, joy and sorrow, and heartbreak and hope, with loads of laughter and amusing quirks. Andi (now Vanzant) seems to have it all: a tenured professorship at Northampton University in Massachusetts, a published collection of essays, good friends, a cat named Donny Most, and a blissful relationship with her husband Sam. But tragedy strikes when a drunken college student plows into her husband’s car one night and the world as she knows it changes in an instant. Andi loses everything ... except the cat. Andi suddenly faces a terrifying world and the task of trying to transform it back into an ordinary world. At first, Andi is overwhelmed with grief and her life slowly grinds to a halt, and then falls apart. She hangs onto the threads of sanity and the shreds of her once-idyllic life, trying to keep it together, be in control, and be the professional she sets out to be.

With the help of her friends, family, therapist and mentors, Andi finally gets a grip on reality and begins to claw her way back from the brink. However, she is not quite there yet. By chance, she discovers air tickets for two to Rome, tickets her husband Sam had bought to celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary … only now he is dead. But Andi goes on the trip and life changes in the blink of an eye. A serendipitous quirk of Fate engineers a chance meeting with former flame Devin, now known as David and a respected art dealer who wants to forget his sleazy past. Devin/David turns out to be more than Andi had thought he was, showing depths of maturity, emotions, sensitivity, and a level of understanding that perhaps she hadn’t quite expected. (In fact, he is just gorgeous!) In the turmoil of her emotions (love/grief/desire/guilt) Andi knows she needs love to heal, she wants it … but she hesitates. Now there are no boundaries, no controls, and no ‘client/gigolo’ rules to contain the situation. Devin/David offers her a real relationship, filled with love and commitment … can she cope with it? Will she accept it? Her natural feelings of guilt and grief only make things worse. Andi’s journey is spiritual, emotional, and physical, taking her back home to the USA, then to Peru to complete Sam’s novel as a memorial to him.

Elisa Lorello is the kind of writer that grips you right from the start. I didn’t know what to expect from Ordinary World, but it’s certainly not an ordinary kind of book. Her characters are defined by their words, actions, and thoughts in such a way that the reader feels as if she or he is inside the characters’ heads. Their emotional processes, decisions, and ups and downs are so real as to make one believe totally and completely in them. From the moment Andi reads her eulogy of Sam at the funeral, the reader falls in love with him. We learn more about Sam as Andi’s tragedy unfolds, and with each snippet of knowledge, our appreciation of Andi’s loss deepens. There are gentle revelations of their love in anecdotes of them cooking, being, laughing, and loving together. The author wholly captures the experience of grief. The sense of loss and mourning is palpable … the emptiness in the home, inability to cope, the listlessness that accompanies deep, tragic pain. The ache of love lost resounds though Andi’s words: “We were glowing, full of love and hope and promise, death nonexistent.” Something that touched me as a reader is that Andi constantly rewrites her original eulogy to Sam throughout the book. This is symbolic of her efforts to resolve her feelings, finish grieving, and begin living again.

Part of Andi’s journey is not just dealing with the loss of her husband, but also to confront and slay the demons of unresolved issues with family, parents, siblings, and of course … herself. Before Andi can love again, she must learn to love herself again, as this different Andi. She has changed, life has dealt her a scarring blow … but life moves on. Andi clings to the memories: she wears Sam’s clothes, she keeps a voice mail, she hoards his notes and letters, not wanting to let go. Ironically, it is Sam himself who releases her. The air tickets to Rome set in motion a train of events that carry Andi forward (albeit kicking and screaming). Andi’s discovery of Sam’s unfinished novel and her journey to Peru to finish it on his behalf is an opportunity for her to close the chapter on that part of her life. Has Andi got the strength to finally let go? The author creates a nail-biting, emotional page-turner that has the reader captivated from page one.

Elisa Lorello has a wonderful gift for engaging the readers’ senses when describing places, people, and things. I loved her descriptions of Rome (having been there myself). The smell of baking bread, the car fumes, the play of light and shadow on the ancient buildings, the lyrical sense of pace in a Mediterranean city, with such a different lifestyle. I’m sure readers will relish the picture the author’s words paint and run to book tickets for an Italian trip! Peru is on my list of travel destinations and I loved the descriptions of colors—browns, sepias, and greens—and the lush array of food that tempts the reader already.

This is a love story with a difference. A love story of love, loss, and love again. Part of me wanted a third novel (would that be a threequel?) but at the end of Ordinary World I found myself perfectly satisfied. Buy it, borrow it, do what you have to do to read it.

Find out more about Elisa by visiting her websites:

Elisa's website: http://www.elisalorello.com/

Elisa's blog: I'll Have What She’s Having

Twitter: twitter.com/elisalorello

Facebook: Faking It Fans

Buy Now

Faking It:

Lulu in paperback

In paperback at Amazon , Barnes & Noble, etc

Ordinary World:

Lulu in paperback

Kindle at Amazon