Tag Archives: On Writing

(Epic) Interview with Nicole Murphy

by Ian McHugh

With the re-release of her Dream of Asarlai trilogy as an e-book omnibus, I took the opportunity to interview Our Nicole about the books, her writing process, cover letters, using life model decoys and planning like Rimmer from Red Dwarf (you’ll see).

COV_DreamOfAsarlaiDream of Asarlai Trilogy

An exciting Urban Fantasy trilogy full of intrigue, action and a hint of romance. For centuries, the gadda have worked to keep their identity secret from the rapidly expanding human race. All this is now at risk – the most terrible of gadda teachings, the Forbidden Texts, have been stolen and the race is on to find them. Asarlai believes the gadda should rule the world, and she will risk everything, and everyone, to achieve her ambition. As the body-count mounts, Asarlai finds a powerful ally and the pressure builds to stop her and retrieve the Forbidden Texts before she can change the world forever. Join Maggie Shaunessy, Ione Gorton and Hampton Rouke on their quests to save what is dear to them … and the world as they know it.

Praise for Nicole Murphy: ‘engaging’ DAILY TELEGRAPH, ‘compelling’ KIWI REVIEWS, ‘fresh and interesting approach to an urban fantasy series’ Bookseller+Publisher, ‘a rollicking romp through the space where romance and fantasy collide’ The Courier-Mail

– – –

In terms of your current writing projects, The Dream of Asarlai trilogy must seem like a bit of a blast from the past for you as the author. How does it feel to have the books re-issued as an omnibus edition?

It feels amazing! I love that the publisher, HarperCollins, has enough faith in these books that they’re prepared to do this for them. Even though, quite frankly, the sales haven’t been fantastic. I’ve believed in these books from the beginning, have been sure there’s an audience out there for them, it’s just a matter of finding them. It’s nice that my publisher has the same belief and is willing to try new things to find that audience.

Read more →

Getting from one plot point to the next

Guest post by Ian McHugh

So, you’ve got your story all planned out, you know your beginning and you know your ending, you know all the key plot points along the way. Maybe you’ve even got it all mapped onto an act structure and you know how many words you’ve got to get from each point to the next. Now you just need to write it, and put the words down that take your characters from plot point A to point B to C to D etc to the end. Or maybe you’re a pantser: you haven’t really planned your story, you just have some idea of where you’re headed and you’ve launched, flying by the seat of your pants to get there. Or, you’ve drafted your story and now you’re into editing and re-drafting.

Whichever it is: you’re stuck. You’ve got your characters as far as point C and you suddenly find you’re completely stumped as to how best to get them to D. Or, you’ve hit a passage that’s just plain dull (or, if you’re editing, multiple passages that are). You know where you need to get your characters to next, but you are so bored by getting them there that you can’t even bring yourself to write it. And if you’re bored by what your writing, how can you expect anyone else reading it to feel any different?

And everything grinds to a halt. You’re stuck, blocked.

How do you get yourself going again?

Read more →

Everything We Know About Storytelling We Learned from The Lord of the Rings: Part II

The EWKASWLFLOTR Towers: Five* Rules for the Dwarf Lords
written by Ian McHugh, on behalf of the CSFG Hive Mind

The eagerly anticipated sequel to The Fellowship of EWKASWLFLOTR!

* yes, yes, but the other two were eaten by dragons

X: The Precious Rule

So, the Nazgul are pretty scary – at least until the aforementioned Incident With The River. Orcs and trolls and uruk-hai and the Balrog make for pretty decent monsters. Monsters though, rather than villains. Sauron is a flaming eye on a stick. So, who’s the best villain in LOTR? Well, who’s left? Saruman, Grima Wormtongue, Denethor and Gollum.

What’s interesting is that they all have something in common: they’re all fallen. Except perhaps for Grima, they were all obviously once greater and better than they are. There’s a tragedy behind their nastiness that rounds them out and gives them a level of sympathy. But who’s the best?

Grima and Denethor are decent secondary characters, but only that. Saruman is awesome because he is now and forever Christopher Lee, the only nonagenarian who is in real life more metal than a wizard stabbing a giant flaming demon to death with a magic sword while falling through the heart of a mountain.

But our pick for the best villain in LOTR is Gollum. Because he’s the most relatable. He grows and changes, he has the chance of redemption and almost grabs it, but his flaws bring about his tragedy. More than that, the wreckage of a person that his Precious has left behind illuminates the struggles of Frodo and Bilbo and Boromir and all the other characters to overcome the Ring’s temptation. Gollum is the sneaking, strangling, living example of what the Ring will do to them.

He’s a person. Which isn’t to say that flat characters can’t make good villains – think Javier Bardem’s portrayal of Anton Chigur in No Country For Old Men. Chigur works for the same reason that the Nazgul work in FOTR before the River Incident: they have charisma – or, at least, presence – and they can come and get you.

Gollum works because he could be you.

(You if, y’know, you stumbled across some demonic bling, murdered your best mate and spent a hundred and fifty years living under a mountain, throttling goblins and biting fish to death.)

XI: The Horses Are Scarier Than Dragons Rule

No, really. Think about it: a horse is an animal that’s big enough to accidentally or on purpose squish you or kick you to death, and yet it’s scared of plastic bags, small terriers and the humorously-shaped rock in its paddock that was there yesterday. If you’re anywhere near the stupid bastard when it flips out because a dandelion clock blew in its face, you’re fucked. Horses are scary because they’re six times bigger and ten times stronger than you and as dumb as a sack of rabbits. Sometimes evil vindictive rabbits. Dragons, on the other hand, are figments of your imagination.

In FOTR, the Nazgul’s horses also have those random bleedy bits and sticky-out bent nails that are widely recognised as signifying demonic possession and/or minds like sack of rabbits. Scary as all shit, right? But once the Nazgul are mounted on dragons… Myeh. And it’s not just because they got their arses kicked by Liv Tyler and a splash of water, or because their new mounts are (in the books) poorly described non-entities with wings or (in the movies) generic CGI yawn scuse me bat-lizards.

It’s because they’re further away. Once the Nazgul are up in the air, all you have to do to get away from them is roll under a shrub. When they’re on horseback, they’re right there on the road behind you, sniffing down your neck.

Horses are scarier than dragons because they’re closer.

XII: The Too Fond Of The Halflings’ Weed Rule

Gandalf is way more fun when he’s Gandalf the Grey than when he’s Gandalf the White. Why? Because Gandalf the Grey is incompetent. Not useless – he can still kick a Balrog’s flaming arse, after all – but not altogether on top of things, either. He forgets the way through Moria. It takes him sixty or seventy years to twig that Bilbo’s ring is the One Ring. He’s just muddling along, hoping for the best, and the bad guys are generally a couple of steps ahead of him.

Why? Because Gandalf is a total pothead – waaaaaaay too fond of the halfling’s weed. He’s like the wizard version of that deeply, deeply blissed-out fiftyish guy you saw on the train the other day, with the wild beard and the bare feet and the guitar with a hot pink sticker on the back that reads “Barbie is a Slut”. Pothead. And he’s kind of endearing because of it.

Then when he comes back as Gandalf the White, suddenly he’s full of purpose, fully cognisant and he’s read all the way to the end of book three. And he’s boring.

It’s the heroes’ flaws that make them great, and make them great characters.

XIII: The What The Fuck Are These Wargs Doing Here Rule

What the actual fuck were warg riders doing in The Two Towers movie? Other than providing misguided fan service and creating transparently confected drama? Nothing.

Ceaseless, gratuitous action is boring. And it’s not like the books of TTT and ROTK are lacking in action, or don’t provide plenty of opportunities to deliver action to the screen. There’s no need to add any more. It becomes white noise. Non-stop action is storytellers taking the wrong lessons from the great action movies of the 1980s – like Die Hard, The Terminator, Aliens and Predator. Those movies worked because the action was awesome and because they slowed down enough to let you get to know the characters. Even Michael Bay knew that when he made the Bad Boys movies. He just forgot by the time he got to Transformers. The same thing seems to have happened to Jackson between FOTR and TTT.

And character is what could have happened in place of that battle with the warg riders in the TTT movie. Expanding and deepening characters and their relationships. Unless you’re making kung fu movies or pornos, action is a just a tool to further the plot and develop characters. If it takes over, at the expense of character, then you’re relying solely on spectacle and basic sensory gratification to interest your audience. You leave yourself having to michaelbay the shit out of your audience because you haven’t given them enough reason to care about the outcome of your story.

XIII(a) Supplementary: The Extended Edition Rule

And if you are going to do the character development, don’t just fucking put it in the Extended Edition. Put it in the cinematic release and leave all the action porn for the collector nerds.

XIV: The Ten Thousand Orcs Rule

This one’s pretty straightforward. As soon as someone shows up with an army of orcs, as in every battle of LOTR, you know there’s going to be a bloodbath and, moreover, a bloodbath with plenty of guilt-free comic violence.  Orcs are ugly, clumsy, stupid and inherently vile. They’re unfeeling monsters that it’s impossible to admire or empathise with. They exist to be butchered without qualm – joyously and carefree. Imagine Legolas and Gimli’s kill-counting competition if the enemies were human. In the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, there’s a tail plane from a WWII German night fighter marked with silhouettes of Allied bombers, one for each bomber it shot down. There’s dozens. Seven to ten men per plane. It strikes awe, looking at it and thinking of that, but it’s not awesome. It makes you want to cry.

Orcs take the guilt and horror out of epic slaughter. Even the word ‘orc’ means ‘cannonfodder’ in Tolkien’s elvish language (note: fact possibly made up for rhetorical effect). Zombies and Stormtroopers work on the same principle. If the enemy is dehumanised – faceless or monstrous – you can do whatever you like to them and make it fun. It’s hard to completely dehumanise humans, even when they Don’t Look Like Us. To fully complete the process, the bad guys need to be soulless monsters or robots, or at least have a convincing appearance of soulless monsters or robots – like orcs and Stormtroopers.

If you want to include a guilt-free bloodbath in your story, cast some orcs.

The Secret to Overcoming Writer-Envy

Guest post by Zena Shapter

I don’t get writer envy. At least, I don’t get it anymore. I used to compare myself to other writers and wish I had their lives. It bugged me that their writery lives were so glamorous compared to mine and, although I knew envy was a waste of energy, I still felt sorry for myself.

Mark Bouris changed all that.

My hubbie is a successful business owner and entrepreneur (all thanks to his supportive wife of course!). So naturally when the opportunity came up, he wanted to go and see Mark Bouris talk about his success. When Hubbie came home, however, he wasn’t busting full of ideas as I expected him to be. He was mellow… almost content. And what he told me about Mark Bouris changed my life too (or at least the way I looked at success).

It’s funny really, because what Mark Bouris said I always knew deep down. I just hadn’t accepted it.

“You don’t want my life,” he said. “I’m divorced. My children have to schedule appointments just to see me, and they don’t even book those through me but my secretary. I work constantly.”

But that’s what it takes to succeed, he added, hard work, commitment, purpose, and sacrifice.

It made me think… I’m not divorced; I’m happily married. My kids adore me and I adore them. I’m healthy. We’re all healthy, and we have a really good life together. I should be content with that. I am content with that.

Of course the writer in me screamed out: what about me?? What about international bestseller lists and book tours across the country in first class hotels? I’ve always wanted to fly first class! Work harder!

But the writer in me was wrong.

Sure, there are writers out there with the type of success I can only dream about right now, who have novels on the shelves where I’d love mine – but that’s okay because I have what I have. Those other writers – they might not have the happy marriage, the adoring kids, or the health that I have. (Of course they might…. No, no Zena – stay focussed!) There’s absolutely no point in craving to have someone else’s success – be they a writer or a successful businessman – because that success is theirs and they earnt it with their own hard work, commitment, purpose and sacrifice.

It’s the same for you and I.

No, life isn’t a meritocracy – the hard work you put into your novel writing might never be recognised or rewarded the way it deserves to be. Yes, some things simply aren’t fair. But you and I – we’ll still get there if we believe we can. And I believe I can, so success will follow in its own time. What about you – do you really want someone else’s life? You never know what’s going to come with it!

So the next time you’re scowling at the computer screen or newsletter as you read about yet another novel writing achievement that’s not your own… the next time you think to yourself “I wish that were me”… stop and remember Mark Bouris. You don’t want that writer’s life, really you don’t… The struggles you already face are plenty enough. Why welcome anyone else’s?


Setting yourself up for rejection

Guest post by Ian McHugh

If you’re writing for publication, you’re going to encounter rejection a lot. As a short story writer, and even now that I’m selling most of my stories to professionally paying markets, my submissions still get rejected about nine times in every ten. So for my thirty-odd original sales, I have somewhere upwards of three hundred rejections. And it’s harder to sell novels than short stories.

So how do you cope with riding the all-stops bus to Rejection Central? A lot of people try to pretend that rejection doesn’t bother them, or play mental games with themselves to try and avoid the sting. I think that’s a mistake. Rejection feels awful and the prospect of failure is frightening. I think it’s better to be honest with yourself about that. I’ve touched on some of this before, and the basic mechanics of Step 2 for getting published (submit the damn thing), but here’s my rules for surviving as a writer: Read more →

Managing the size of your story

Guest post by Ian McHugh

When I set out to write a first novel (or, rather, to finish writing a novel for the first time, having started and abandoned several), I had been writing and selling short stories for a number of years and was conscious of the vast difference in breadth and complexity of storytelling from shorts to novels. Perhaps too conscious.

I wanted to write an Australian novel and, specifically, I wanted to set it in a magical, colonial-era alternate Australia that I’d been developing through some of my short stories. So, I started looking at historical events that I could fictionalise. This was a mistake. Why? Because real life is way more complex than fiction.

I had settled on an alternate history of the Eureka Stockade gold miners’ rebellion, in Ballarat, Victoria in 1854, in large part because of the ready-made set of larger-than-life participants. The problem was that these events had far more players, major and minor, than I – as a first time novelist – could comfortably manage, far more that most writers who aren’t George R. R. Martin would ever create to populate a story that is entirely fiction. The result was that, even after massively cutting and consolidating real-world characters and their interweaving threads for my fictionalised story, I still ended up with a first draft that was 229,000 largely meandering words of a 100,000 word novel.

Which isn’t to say that you should never set out to write a historical novel or, as in my case, a fantasy novel that jumps off from real historical events.  Historical fiction and alternate history are both thriving genres and many writers deliver those stories very well. (Have you noticed how historical novels have a tendency to be big fat books, though? And yes, Mr Rutherfurd, we’re looking at you.) Rather, this was a bad decision for me.

So, what went wrong?

Read more →

Everything I Know About Storytelling I Learned From Avatar

Guest post by Mik Bennett

Which is weird, because I first saw it because of somebody I met at writing group. What was I doing at writing group if I hadn’t learned anything about writing yet?

Much as I love Avatar – and I do; I drove all the way to Dallas to pick up my copy of the DVDs (and I live in Australia!) – there’s more than one way you can learn from an example. For instance, you can learn not to make the same mistakes. I’ll start with a couple of things they got wrong, though I can’t really blame them for the first:

Read more →

Writing Retreats

Guest post by Donna Hanson

As writers we know that writing is all about the writer and the writing medium, be it pen and paper, keyboard and blank screen. Put in a nutshell, writing is the transferring of ideas from one’s head to the written word—a lonely endeavour that only other writers can understand.

But writing doesn’t haven’t be so isolating and such an endeavour. Other writers can make great buddies. They can talk about writing, critique your writing (in return for critiques of theirs) and write alongside you. What better way to do this than go on a writing retreat?

I’ve been on seven retreats now in different places in Victoria and New South Wales. I even went to one in New Zealand. We call ourselves Fantasy Writers on Retreat. And we are a bunch of writer friends who go on writing retreats once a year.

I find I’m at my most productive at a retreat. Except for one retreat, they have been two weeks in length. The core set of people have been the same, but others have come along to fill in gaps and have become core themselves. That continuity allows us to plan ahead when someone drops out or can’t make it one year.

Here are some tips if you are thinking of starting your own writing retreat group. Firstly, you need to find a bunch of writers and get to know them. If you write speculative fiction, the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild has a bunch of writers, a really big bunch actually.

Read more →

How to Get the Writers’ Life You Want

Guest post by Zena Shapter

Picture this: I was twenty-four, it was my first day working for a top London law firm, and I already knew I’d made the biggest mistake of my life.

I blame Tenerife. Two years prior, my housemate and I had flown to the Canary Islands for a long weekend. It was a long way to go just for a weekend and it felt decadent. So decadent, I wanted more… But how would an editorial assistant for a small Birmingham publishing company afford such decadence on a regular basis?

Read more →

The Elements of Novels

Guest post by Chris Andrews

Eleventeen years ago (clearly too many to count) I decided on a brilliant Get Rich Quick Scheme, or GRQS for complexity.

It involved writing a Number-One International Bestselling Novel and retiring before I’d left my teens.

To a kid without any real-world experience it seemed like a solid plan, but some years into it things weren’t working as well as I’d hoped. Ignorance can be just a little bit heartbreaking (just saying).

Ever the optimist I decided to do some actual learning in order to supercharge my GRQS.

A further three years and a university degree later I figured I knew everything there was to know about writing (you might like to refer back to my comment about ignorance just now).

Real Life also insinuated itself into my GRQS at that time. You know, the usual suspects:

  • girlfriend
  • marriage
  • mortgage
  • kids.

When the dust settled I blew it off the old manuscript and reignited my dreams of an early retirement.

Unfortunately, the manuscript was a mess, and not due to the dust.

Read more →