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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

YA Mini Festival: Penni Russon talks Voice and Character

Penni Russon talks Voice and Character

From the blank looks on my family's faces when I read them my last blog post, about Lili Wilkinson's take on throwing rocks at your character and the three act structure, I'm going to assume my no-sleep loopiness was evident.

I'll be better here.

Penni Russon's session on voice and character was not simply about coming up with unique characters, but cementing their uniqueness through their voice.

We did several exercises in which we wrote letters from one character, swapped them with another workshop member and wrote the reply from another character.

It was about getting into someone else's head.

We looked at some poetry and how they may not have had a specific character, but they had a narrator and each narrator had their own voice.

When she first mentioned poetry, I inwardly groaned. And then I discovered that she knew my kind of person. The kind that just doesn't GET poetry, that in high school studied poetry that I just couldn't relate to.
I'm the kind of person that is all about trying to understand what the poem MEANS. What the writer is SAYING.

Apparently, this is not what poetry is about. Poetry is more about being comfortable NOT knowing what something is about. Appreciating it for what it is.

What do you all think about that?

Penni said that her poetry teacher claimed that unlike prose, "poetry is language that draws attention to itself".
I get that.

So our first exercise was to write some poetry. And you know what? I don't think I did half bad. I'm feeling much more comfortable with poetry than I used to. In critique groups I would receive comments like 'that's so poetic' and I would laugh nervously because I didn't quite understand HOW I had done that or what I had done.

I'm starting to get it now.


Our next exercise was to write notes from Mark, to Tia. Penni brought some kitsch looking notepads "Notes from Mark" and "Notes from Tia" and we each had to think about who this Mark who has these crap notepads would be, and what he has to say to Tia.

MY Mark wrote this: "Hi Tia, I'm just checking whether you got my email, my text and the letter I sent you. Did they get to you okay? Did you get them?" My Mark was quite needy.

Then we passed them around and someone else responded as Tia.

We did this with items as well, there was a message in a bottle, a suitcase with tags, a recipe and others. I got a black piece of card and a gold pen. So I had to think about who would write on a black piece of card with a gold pen, and what sort of thing would they be likely to write?

The responses that other people wrote to our letters were really surprising, and I would NOT have come up with the responses that I received to mine. Not in a million years.

It just teaches you a lot about character, doesn't it? The person writing the response was in a completely different head space to me. Just as your characters will be in completely different head spaces from each other, thinking about different things, having a different focus, different worries when in communication with each other, verbally or otherwise.

Penni's session was a different take on teaching character and I really enjoyed it.

Finally, tomorrow or Friday (sorry, lot's to do) will consist of my abridged notes from the panel session with Steph Bowe, Lili Wilkinson and Penni Russon talking about YA, their own process and experiences, and that weird gap between YA and Adult fiction.

It was a good session. Stay tuned!


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

YA Mini Festival: Lili Wilkinson - Putting characters in trees and throwing rocks at them

Lili Wilkinson talks Book Structure

Stuck in trees

At the beginning of your book, you should stick your character (let's call him Harry Potter. What, you're saying there's ALREADY a character called Harry Potter? Well THAT'S a coincidence.) up in a tree, and remove the ladder.
This is a problem. Then you, the writer, the bastard that you are, should throw some gravel at him because it's fun. The gravel might take the shape of, oh, I don't know, a troll in the girls bathroom. This is kind of dangerous, but more it's gross because your wand has the potential to get stuck up his nose.

Since gravel was fun for you, evil writer, you might try throwing something bigger - what have you got there? Oh, stones? Yeah, throw some stones at Harry Potter!
Those stones look a bit like dementors to me. They're pretty freaky and more dangerous than that stupid snotty troll was. And they're kind of kissy but in a bad way.

Oh! That WWF wrestler that's in town is walking by, hey wrestler guy, heave those boulders at Harry Potter up in that tree. That will be SOOO funny!
Wow. Those boulders look like Lord Voldemort who is so strong now he just might be able to kill Harry.

But what's Harry doing? Hey, Harry! You can't just 'Accio Firebolt' and get yourself down out of the tree to safety! Oh, wait. You can? Okay. That's cool I guess.

So that is the Sticking your character in a tree and throwing rocks at him method of plot structure. Does it need some more explanation?

Well in a nutshell, it's about making life harder and harder for your character in the book. That gravel-troll at the start, that was a pretty big deal, he was going to be hard to beat, but Harry learned how to beat him which gave him the skills to beat the BIGGER threat, the stone-dementors later. And by working out how to defeat them, Harry gained more skills and more confidence and could beat the super-massive-oh-my-god-how's-he-getting-out-of-this boulder-Lord Voldemort. And in the end, you writer, did not help him down out of the tree, Harry got himself down, thank you very much.

Lili also talks Three Act Structure

This is what the Three Act Structure looks like. Usually a filmic convention, it's now being used more and more in novels too.

The Inciting Incident

Think: Harry Potter (oh, him again?) receives a letter from Hogwarts telling him he's a wizard.
Star Wars: Luke Skywalker's aunt and uncle are killed
Lord of the Rings: Frodo gets the ring

This is the beginning of a change to the normal routine for these characters. It's out of the ordinary, and the beginning of something, it incites the action to begin.

Plot Point One

This is the action! Movement toward the goal! Your character wants to do something so he/she makes a choice to do it!
Shrek wants his swamp back. How's he going to do that? He has to save the princess.
Star Wars: Luke sees the hologram from Leia about needing rescue and decides to rescue the hottie.


Lili says this is the point where you need to raise the stakes. Your character will get a much more specific idea of what it is he must do. She says it's a good place to introduce a new character that can shake shake shake things up. I mean you don't want to let your characters coast through the story!

Plot Point Two

This is where you can add a ticking clock, heading toward the climax. Oh, your character needs to paint a portrait in order to enter the contest next month and win the prize and save the town? Well turns out they got the entry details wrong and they need to pain the portrait by TOMORROW. Can they do it? I can tell you're biting your fingernails in anticipation, aren't you? Okay well even if you're not, that ticking clock sure makes for a more interesting story than simply having a month to paint it!


The final battle! Your hero will win or lose!
Phew, it's over! You can tie up loose ends - but not all of them. Let's not go overboard. Nothing gets wrapped up THAT easily.

Okay, now let's talk Three Act Structure: Cinderella Style.

This is not a graph of the Cinderella story, but it's a good visual aide for what I'm talking about.

On a scale of 0 to 10, 0 being the worst thing to happen ever and 10 being head-exploding happiness, what does Cinderella look like?

Let's begin.

2 - Once Upon a Time...Yes Cindy's dad is dead and she's living with the evil step mother and those feral step sisters, but she has a roof over her head and food so things could be worse.

6 - Oh my God, she was invited to the ball! This is AWESOME!

3 - The Step monster laughed in her face and said she couldn't go.

7 - the Fairy God Mother shows up with all the mice and kittens and twittery birds and help her go to the ball anyway!

8 - She's at the ball and even gets to dance with the hunky hunky prince. Cindy is totes in love, ya'll.

1 - It's Midnight! She has to leave her love forever before her dress falls off and whoa that could be embarrassing hey what happened to her shoe?

10 - The dreamy prince finds her! They're in lovey love love and he sweeps her away to live happily ever after.

2, 6, 3, 7, 8, 1, 10 on the emotion scale. Phew. That was a rollercoaster, right?


Next up, Penni Russon speaks of voice and character!


Sunday, September 19, 2010

YA Mini Festival: Lili Wilkinson talks Writing from your Life

Session One for me was with Lili Wilkinson (author of Scatterheart, Angel Fish, The Not So Perfect Boyfriend and most recently, Pink), in which she talked writing from life, and book structure.

This post is about her take on Writing from Life. (Structure is the next post)

When we're told to write what we know, it doesn't mean getting out of bed in the morning and going to the toilet then brushing your teeth then grumbling hello to whoever you share your home with and going to the fridge to get your breakfast and are you asleep already because I kind of am.

We all have these experiences. What they're talking about, is writing what YOU know. What's unique about you.

We did lots of exercises. She made us write down things we like, we hate, we fear, our worst habits, physical sensations we love or hate and three things that tell people something about who WE are.

My three were:
  • I am a crazy dog lady
  • Family is very important to me
  • I get anxiety about dancing in public.

These are things that make up MY personality and how I interact with the world around me.

If you know three things like this about your character, you can hang your whole book on it.

We were given time to come up with a plot, in any genre. I thought I'd try a thriller, and this is what I came up with.

(We'll call her) Sarah is a 17 y/o animal lover. Her parents are traveling Europe for a month and she's working at the RSPCA. After hours, Sarah sneaks into the RSPCA and steals the dogs that are reaching their expiration date at the pound because she can't stand them being put down just because they don't have a home.
She has a dozen dogs at her house.

Her older brother who's a down and out type, taking odd jobs comes over and spends the night. He's in a lot of debt and has been working with some pretty dodgy people of late.

The next day he has vanished, as has the newest dog that Sarah rescued.

She gets to the RSPCA to find the dog's uber-wealthy owner, distraught. She'd been away, the dog sitter hadn't told her the dog had been lost.

People think her brother stole him. But Sarah thinks the dodgy people he has been working for have him, and for some reason they took the dog too.

...and so it goes on. It's not a stellar plot, but you see how my love of animals and love of my family have made a plot right here? Because "Sarah" is protective of them, I put them in danger to drive the plot and character forward. I feel like I have the beginning of something Veronica Mars-esque. I didn't quite work in the fear of dancing in public, but I'm sure there could be a hostage swap at a charity function for the animals or something. And not only does she have to dance...but with the BAD GUY. Or whatever.

I reckon Lili's really onto something. :) You could turn those three traits into a sci-fi, a fantasy, a romance. You name it.

Two of Lili's personal traits are being an only child, and changing schools a lot, and she has extrapolated these into her books.
For instance, when plotting Scatterheart, Lili thought about siblings. When you have siblings and no parents, you still have people around, you have support. But to be an only child with no parents? The main character, Hannah's mother is dead and father leaves her to fend for herself in Victorian London where young ladies of wealth aren't exactly independent. So she ends up, through misunderstanding, on a convict ship to Australia. Because she lost all of her family.

Lili's experiences of changing schools and the strange feeling of not quite fitting in at the start because what was cool at her old school was completely daggy at her new school, is also expressed in Scatterheart, in which upper class London girl, Hannah, is thrust into the life of a convict, with beggars, thieves and murderers. The change from wealth to convict changes how those around her treated her. She may not have been thinking about how cool she was, but she certainly had to adapt her own behaviour in order to survive among these new people.

What are some things that describe you, or are important to you?

Next up, Structure! But right now I have a dog demanding my attention so I'll go tend to that. It's very important, after all.


YA Mini Festival: Steph Bowe Keynote Speech summary

Yesterday thanks to Express Media there was a YA Mini-Festival held at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne which was a fabulous, informative day.

The keynote speech was given by Steph Bowe (author of Girl Saves Boy), a workshop about structure with Lili Wilkinson (author of Pink, Scatterheart and others) and voice and character with Penni Russon (author of the Little Bird, Dear Swoosie and more) followed by an industry panel with all three authors.

For a young lady of sixteen, I have to say, Steph Bowe conducts herself with such maturity beyond her years. She is softly spoken, speaks eloquently and answers questions thoughtfully. It's just an observation, but one I'm finding is shared by others.

What Steph had to say

She writes because she can't stand NOT writing. She goes a bit crazy if she doesn't do it.

She believes that to be an author, you can't get by just on talent. Writing takes practice and perseverance.

Teens often get a bad rap, they're called bad writers. But Steph believes this is probably because they haven't been around as long. They haven't had the same amount of time as adult writers to practice and hone their craft. (Sarah - valid point)

Older people may have had more time than teens, but if they don't practice writing, just being older doesn't make them better writers.

YA is being embraced by more adults now than it has previously and a lot of us are reading it, it's being embraced more openly than it used to be, it's not as looked down upon as "just writing for teenagers" anymore. (Sarah - this is a fantastic thing)
And yes, lots of adults are reading YA, but we as YA writers should remember that audiences are still predominantly teens.

Steph believes that some parents are embracing YA (Sarah - not only because the writing is so good) but because it's something they can do and share and discuss with their teen. Steph believes this is an excellent way to get your parents to pay for books. :)

So there you go, much less eloquent than how Steph put it, but she made some interesting points, don't you think? I also loved how Steph said that "As Generation Y...or X...I don't doesn't matter, (anyway) Google and I are like besties."

Ah, yes. Google is a friend to all.

Still to come: Lili Wilkinson talks book structure, Penni Russon talks voice and character and all three just talk books!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Australianised American books

I don't know how I feel about this.
Okay so I've been noticing something lately, where American books have been Australianised for the aussie readers.

I approve of this, yes, I do. I imagine the idea is to help us keep our culture and not become Americanised, and start saying things like sidewalk, and talking about inches and feet when we work in metres and centimetres.

And some words are being 'find and replaced' to accommodate our spelling (favoUrite/favorite, mUm/mom) but I'm feeling a bit weird about it lately.

It's a good thought. I like that there's some effort, but there doesn't seem to be ENOUGH effort. Feet has been changed to metres but tank top hasn't been changed to singlet, thongs refer to underwear and nickels and dimes haven't been changed to five and ten cents.

It's a nice thought, to protect our culture and spelling, but in what I've been reading lately, it feels a little half-hearted. And because of this, I doubt it's working. The books are still about american kids. They go to middle school. They catch the big yellow school bus. They are cheerleaders and play on the varsity sports teams. They drive at the age of sixteen and call each other dude and ass hats and that college (university) application process they go through? Man. Teens are stressed about their VCE and HSC and International Baccelarate(sp?) in Australia but it's NOT like that here.

So I guess what I'm saying is, considering the culture in the book is still American, why Australianise some words, but not others? Like the language used in dialogue, Australian teens mimic what they see on American tv shows and read in books. The only thing we're doing by changing favorite to favourite is safe-guarding our spelling.

When books are clearly about American teens, readers will be able to tell. So lets let them be about American teens who have moms and talk about their favorite thing which is six feet tall. (I don't know what that would be mind you...)

If the book could be set anywhere, then I'm all for giving the Australian edition an Aussie flavour.
I hope to get that opportunity with my own books.

That's all I have. It's just something I've been thinking about.


Sunday, September 5, 2010

I did it

There are a couple more Melbourne Writers Festival posts to go up, but in the meantime I have some very exciting news to report.

I finished writing my novel two days ago. This is a pic from the celebrations:

Okay, not really. I found it in Google Images. Real celebrations included me sitting on my bed with my lap top, smiling. And then watching some Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. And then going to sleep. You don't have to tell me - I know I'm hardcore.

But I totally smiled like this. This is a REAL PHOTO OF ME two nights ago when I finished writing.

You don't have to say it, but thank you. I know I have a really pretty smile.

Now comes the fun part (in an "oh God make it stop" kind of way) of revision! So this will technically be my second round of revision, but considering the first round of revision was essentially a complete rewrite, I don't think that counts as revision, right?

I'm pumped. I'm excited about this book. I think it's romantic. I think it makes you squirm and cringe when you're supposed to. And it's funny - and it's totally MEANT to be! Mind you I haven't read it back yet. But I'm going to within the next couple of days.

I don't want to send it to my agent until I know it's my best work. But the thing do you know when something is the best it can be?

In puzzlement, I leave you.