Saturday 21 July 2018

Help Through the Rough Patches

Not so long ago, my award-winning children’s author husband Bill Condon and I began to meet fortnightly with three other local children’s writers, one being Ann Whitehead (Dangerous Places, Hachette Livre Australia) and the other two who are unpublished, to workshop our writing. Each brings a major current project to the table, talk of the problems we are experiencing, read sections of our work-in-progress, and open the floor to comments, criticisms and suggestions from the others.

It is over a year now since I left a well-established workshop group*; I had forgotten how helpful and inspiring it is to have the support and insight of others, and how inspiring a workshop session can be. Between now and our next workshop meeting in a fortnight’s time, I will be re-working my blighted YA novel, preparing it for re-presentation to the group. Even if you are an unpublished writer, can I suggest that you find – even advertise – for some writing buddies? It can be extremely motivating, to say the least, to have even one supporter, someone you can bounce ideas and writing drafts off of.

Reading what other published authors have to say about their methods also inspires me with my own work. One of my favourite American writers is Lois Lowry, twice winner of the prestigious Newbury Medal (I especially love her book, The Woods at the End of Autumn Street.)  Below are some answers I found this week that she gave to common writing problems: her answers helped me with some questions I am grappling with at the moment. I hope you find it helpful, as well.
What advice do you give to authors who would like to develop their writing voice? 

As for "voice": I feel that you should write a book as if you are writing a letter to a friend: telling about something interesting, something meaningful, that has happened. It should be an intimate and private telling, friend to friend. It should be YOU, laughing, crying, teasing, angry, relating events, inviting your close friend to pay attention, to empathize. That will be your voice, a recognizable one.

What suggestions do you have for creating self-discipline at writing? 
The question about self-discipline is a tough one for me. I don’t think self-discipline is a problem if you are doing work that you love and that you feel is important. I can’t imagine anyplace that I’d rather be than right here, at my desk. I need self-discipline to make me get up and take the dog for a walk, or to cook dinner!

How do you get beyond just an idea? How does an idea become a story? 
Some ideas don’t. Sometimes what seems like a wonderful starting point - a wonderful idea - turns out to be no more than an anecdote. You have to look beyond a "beginning" to see if there is any depth to it, any reason for sitting at a desk for month after month laboring over it, any reason for a publisher investing thousands of dollars into it, any reason for kids to pick it up and care about it. Does it have anything to say beyond the superficial? I think that’s the key, for me.  

What do you think are the key elements when writing a book? When you have your ideas do you write a set plan of what will happen in the plot of the story? 
I have occasionally listed the elements - each of them leading to the next - of a successful book as 1. character; 2. quest; 3. complications and choices; 4. catastrophe; 5. conclusion, and 6. change.

I think most writers and teachers of writing would probably agree that some similar list applies.
But - in my opinion - it doesn’t work to make the list and then try to create the story to fit it. You create the story first; later, you see how and where it fits the pattern; finally, you make the necessary revisions which will become apparent at that point. You may find, for example, that the catastrophic event (#4) - upon which the concluding events (#5) should be predicated - occurs too early. Or (and this is quite common a flaw) that the character, who should have experienced growth as a result of the events throughout the narrative, has not really undergone a change (#6).
© Dianne (Di) Bates

 * This workshop, which met fortnightly for five years, and was originally composed of six children’s authors, folded when some of the members moved to mostly writing adult science fiction and fantasy. There are now two groups – one writing for adults, and the other, to which I belong, are writing for children.

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