mjhearle

Month: July, 2012

Author Commentary: Winter’s Shadow Chapter 5

By the time Winter left the Heritage Centre, the afternoon
light had taken on a much darker quality.

Weather is a great way to affect the mood of a scene. Storm clouds are gathering, both literally and figuratively, in Winter’s world. Da da dummm…

A low rumble of thunder sounded as she crossed
the parking lot to Jessie, her scooter.

I don’t like this sentence. I think it’s a clunky way to introduce Winter’s scooter, Jessie. It could have been done much more artfully. Maybe I should have clipped it at ‘she crossed the parking lot to Jessie.’ – and then added another sentence explaining what Jessie was and the significance of the name. On reflection I suspect I did just this in an earlier draft. It was probably collapsed into one sentence at the editorial stage for ‘pace’ reasons.

This is one of the first instances in the book where I inject some of my own history into the story. Growing up I had a dog called Jessie. She was a yellow Labrador with a gentle disposition and a huge appetite. Whenever I stayed up late to watch horror movies, she’d creep down from her bed in the kitchen and curl up at my feet, keeping me company until the movie finished. We had some good times together. Including her name in the story is my small way of honouring Jessie’s memory.

The whole ‘naming inanimate objects’ thing is something my family has always done. At one point we had a rusty green volvo station wagon which I inherited when I was a teenager. It was never called ‘the volvo’. Instead, we christened the car the Flying Green Cabbage. The significance of the name is lost to me now but whenever I see a green station wagon it pops back into my head. Every family has their own personal quirks that probably don’t make much logical sense to an outsider but resonate emotionally. Hopefully, Winter naming her scooter ‘Jessie’ doesn’t strike the reader as too unusual.

Winter turned to see Blake standing beside a rusty
pick-up truck on the other side of the parking lot.

In these kinds of stories the romantic hero usually drives a fancy car (see Edward in Twilight for evidence of this). I guess it’s part of the fantasy – cool guy, cool car. The reason Blake drives a dirty truck is twofold – a) I’m trying to break with convention; b) he had to be able to transport her scooter and a BMW convertible, while sexy, would have been too small. Function over form.

Good sense told her that anything that
provoked such a strong reaction was probably
bad for her and should be avoided.

It was really hard for me to justify Winter not accepting a lift with Blake. He’s so dreamy after all. Thus, there’s whole paragraphs of her questioning the sense of this decision. Sometimes, you can get away with characters acting stupid or uncharacteristically if they question their own actions. I probably use this technique too often which results in Winter coming across as self-loathing at times.

Pretending to be asleep, she would allow him to carry
her from the car to the bedroom – only to open her eyes
and giggle mischievously as he tucked her in.

Again, this is me bleeding into Winter. I used to do this trick to my dad all the time when I was a kid. Today, he blames his bad knees on this cunning ruse.

She’d only just turned onto Archimedes Drive
and was heading down the mountain towards
town when the initial fat drops fell.

Archimedes Drive. Owl Mountain – geddit? Probably not. It’s an obscure reference that only Disney fanatics (The Sword in the Stone) or Arthurian Legend scholars might pick up. Merlin had an owl that served as his familiar. That owl was called Archimedes. Naming streets is so boring, if I can strike upon a name of some significance I’ll whack it in. You’ve got to keep yourself entertained.

Despite Winter’s desperate pleading, the scooter soon fell silent.

Here I am forcing the plot instead of allowing character to dictate the narrative’s course. First with the broken camera, now with the broken scooter. It works, but only just. I’d like to think as I grow as a writer, I’ll abandon these kind of mechanical contrivances to get my characters together. Either that or learn how to hide them better.

Sitting on the side of the road, Winter watched
the storm rage upon Hagan’s Bluff.

This paragraph describing Hagan’s Bluff is a way self-indulgent. It feels like a first time writer trying to show off which is exactly what it is. I probably could have cut it altogether. Still, I guess it gives a sense of the geography of Hagan’s Bluff. I never know how much detail to add when describing locations? Ultimately, I probably could have left it as a ‘small coastal town’ and gotten away with it.

My fiancee’s last name is Lackey – hence Lackey RiverWhistler’s Peak is one of those florid type of names I gravitate towards. It’s a little cheesy but fun and better than Widow’s Peak.

‘Hop in,’ Blake said, pushing open the passenger door

I struggled with the last line of this chapter. Initially, Blake said ‘Hop in,’ with sly smile or churlish grin or something like that. I spent far too long agonising over it, so in the end just scrapped the description of his expression altogether. Readers can fill in the gaps – I don’t need to hold your hand. Unless you want me to.

MJ.

 

 

 

Author Commentary: Winter’s Shadow Chapter 4

Darkness rippling with emerald light. Bells tolling somewhere in the distance.
She was flying, or falling, while someone held her hand tightly.

Originally, this glimpse of the Dead Lands comprised its own very short chapter. I didn’t actually know what the Dead Lands were going to look like save for the broad strokes – it would be a city lit with an unearthly green light. A city of crumbling gothic cathedrals and ominous tolling bells. I wanted to give the reader just a taste of this realm so wrote the paragraph as a series of disjointed impressions. Stephen King does this a lot in his work – highlighting a sentence or fragment by pulling it out of the body text. I think it’s an interesting way to break up the narrative flow, but my editor didn’t agree so it was merged with the subsequent chapter. I still feel like it would have worked better isolated. The problem was the first chunk of Winter’s Shadow was feeling a little ponderous. Not to me, of course – just everyone else who read it – so we were constantly trying to figure out ways to speed up the pace.

It seemed a sin that such beautiful features
were troubled by this worried expression.

This chapter gave me a lot of trouble. I re-wrote it more than other section in the book’s first half. Why? Well, it’s Blake and Winter’s first interaction with each other. That’s pretty damn pivotal. I didn’t want to screw the pooch. With distance, it seems like a relatively straightforward scene to write – Winter is attracted to Blake but also wary of him. Blake appears aloof and mysterious – yet for some reason I just couldn’t nail it. I kept swinging too far in one direction or the other. In one draft, Winter is automatically obsessed with Blake, in another she thinks he’s a weirdo. Sometimes Blake was sullen and brooding, other times he’s a charming rogue. I hadn’t decided just who the hell Blake was? This is what happens when you start writing a story without knowing your characters. For some reason, I just assumed my characters would take on a life of their own (and to be fair, sometimes this happens). All I had to do was create a scene and let them improvise the dialogue. Obviously, as is evident by the new grey hairs that were appearing daily, this approach was ill advisable. Interestingly, I tried this again with Winter’s Light and it worked. I was much more confident while writing the sequel which makes all the difference.

His voice was soft; his breath smelled vaguely of that
strange darkness she’d fallen into: aromatic, sweet.

The Demori’s breath being sweet and lulling is a biological feature that probably wasn’t crystalised until the second book. I wonder if I knew it while writing this line? It’s doubtful. So much of the mythology evolved from these scattered phrases. It’s like I was hiding tidbits for myself to discover and expand upon at a later date.

He was looking at her more deeply than anyone
ever had before, his vision penetrating her mind, as
though searching for something hidden.

Could I have been a little more obvious with this line? For shame, Michael!

How did she come to be lying here in
the clearing? Had she been hit on the head
and suffered some kind of brain damage?

In the first few drafts my agent actually suspected Winter might be suffering brain damage. She felt – and rightly so – that the character was too slow to connect the dots. ‘Dense’, I believe was the word used. Winter’s internal monologue consisted of far too many questions. The reason for this is simple – I didn’t know what was going on half time and Winter being my surrogate inherited this general state of befuddlement. Of course, if I’d revised my work better before submitting it to my agent I would have exorcised much of this ruminating. Unfortunately, time is always my enemy and as such I never seem to have enough of it. Especially, at the proofing stage. One of the great luxuries I’m experiencing at the moment while writing the third Winter novel is no deadline. For the first time I’m going to really be able to go over my manuscript with a fine tooth comb before submission. The downside is it’s taking me twice as long to write this book. I need someone to light a fire beneath me. Got a match?

Dead leaves crunched beneath her as she shifted her weight.

I always try to sprinkle in some ‘sound fx’. It helps the reader create a more vivid mental image.

She would rather have broken a bone or two if it meant
saving the Nikon. Bones healed, cameras didn’t.

My original intention was the damaged camera to be a pivotal plot point. Blake was supposed to hide the roll of film in his jacket which Winter would later discover and this would kick start the mystery of Blake. I could never make it work though. I was trying to revolve the plot around an inanimate object – a Hitchockian McGuffin if you will (and you will) – because I was so insecure about focusing purely on character. Characters should drive the narrative, not the other way around.

After a moment’s thought, he turned back to Winter
and asked hopefully, ‘Miss Adams, don’t suppose I could
get you to sign those insurance forms now, could I?’

Re-reading this chapter I’m pleased to discover how well it flows. My memories of the prose difficulties, the agonising over dialogue, and the numerous revisions made me apprehensive about approaching it again. While I might have been a seething mass of insecurities during the writing, luckily it didn’t translate into the pages. So much of this game is down to luck. Sure, Mr Denning’s last line isn’t the kicker it coulda been but it’s neat and makes me smile and that ain’t bad.

MJ.

Author Commentary: Winter’s Shadow Chapter 3

Standing over one of the graves, dressed in
a simple grey suit, was a young man.

This is the scene that gave birth to the entire Winter saga. Three years ago I was living in London working as a graphic designer. In my spare time I was writing screenplays –screenplays that were never completed or never good enough to garner an agent. One day the image of girl taking a photograph of a strange boy in a cemetery popped into my head. Because of my genre inclinations (and probably because Twilight was all the rage) I decided the boy was a vampire and I had the beginnings of a story. I wrote the scene down and was pleased with myself but something was wrong. The writing was surprisingly solid (well surprising to me because I’d never tried to write a conventional novel before) but the subject matter didn’t excite me. Really? I thought to myself. Another story about a girl and a vampire. That’s all you’ve got, Mike?

It turns out it wasn’t. I started thinking more deeply about the characters, specifically about that strange boy in the cemetery and what he might be other than a vampire. By challenging myself in this way, the story began to evolve into something much stranger and more interesting than just another vampire book. From this relatively prosaic paranormal scene (girl, graveyard, mysterious man) sprouted a fairly outlandish tale about inter-dimensional soul suckers, scissor-wielding malevolent agents of fate, and much psuedo philosophical patter about life forces and the inevitability of death.

When I first started writing the book, Blake was little more than a mechanism I needed to kick the plot into gear. He was good-looking and mysterious, and that’s about the sum total I knew about him. Probably because that’s all Winter knew about him. It wasn’t until I was well into the first draft that Blake started coming into focus. I discovered he wasn’t as stoic and strong as he appeared. He was full of insecurity. Full of fear. I think the diary passages in Winter’s Light further illustrate just how damaged a person he is but in these early paragraphs all we get our Winter’s impressions of his superficial qualities. Which is fine and as it should be.

Her eyes traced the contours of the man’s superbly
wrought face, searching for a flaw and finding none.

This is me operating at about 50% bodice-ripper intensity. Be thankful I didn’t go to 100%.

It was as though watching the man had
lulled her into a kind of dream state.

Apart from their shadow-jumping talents, the Demori also possess an inherent ability to glamour their prey. They need to consciously dial it back or risk enchanting everybody they meet. Unaware that he is being observed, Blake’s glamour is operating at full strength in the graveyard hence Winter’s swooning.

The man was as much a trespasser in
this forgotten place as Winter.

Sometimes when re-reading my own stuff I cringe. Occasionally, I’ll come across a sentence or paragraph I’m proud of. This is one of them.

Winter raised the Nikon and framed
the stranger 
through her lens.

I own a Canon 7D. It’s an impressive camera that I use far too infrequently. I had the camera when I started writing Winter’s Shadow but for some reason gave Winter a Nikon. I can’t remember exactly why but suspect it has something to do the word ‘Canon’. Whenever I see it written I can’t help but think of firearms. Silly I know, but it’s a distracting association for me.

Silently, she shifted the focus until the stranger’s
exquisite features were brought into sharp relief.

This is me playing ‘Movie Director’. I might as well have written: NIKON POV, rack focus on BLAKE’s face.

A strange thought flashed through her mind –
he was seeing her! He was really seeing her! – and
behind this was another, much clearer thought –
what had she done?

Of course we learn that Blake really is seeing her. In that split second, he spots her Occuluma and concludes she’s about to die. He also discovers that Winter is a Key – catnip to the Demori. No wonder his gaze is so intense. For the flip side of this encounter read Blake’s diary entry in Winter’s Light.

Mid-step her foot caught on a piece of
fallen timber and she lost her balance. 
Whack!

The roof collapsing sequence took a couple of passes to get right. It’s the sort of action sequence that works great in a movie but is more difficult to convey with the written word. I fall back on a lot of ‘sound fx’ and short clipped sentences to convey a sense of urgency.

Above her the church’s roof continued to groan
and shake, dislodging
timber struts and hurling down
fragments of wood like some enraged god.

I don’t often have fun while I’m writing. Most of the time, getting the right words down is like pulling teeth. Only more bloody. Every now and again though I’ll write something that makes me grin. This sentence made me more than grin. I actually chuckled aloud to myself. Moments of pure pleasure like that are worth just as much as any royalty cheque.

Winter spared one last look upwards, just in time to see
the blunt wooden face of a beam rushing towards her.

And so I finish the chapter with a sentence that virtually guarantees the reader will turn the page. If I could do this with every chapter I might have had a worldwide bestseller on my hands. The technique certainly worked for Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code. Go ahead – try and resist the impulse to keep reading. I dare you.

MJ.

When Genres Attack Panel

Calling all Shadettes and Shadudes in the Sydney area:

I’ve been invited to take part in a very cool panel called When Genres Attack! with fellow authors Claire Corbett (When We Have Wings) and Duncan Lay (Bridge of Swords). The panel is scheduled to take place Thursday night (26th of July) at Shearer’s Bookshop in Leichhardt BUT only if we can get the numbers. So, if you’re in the area and free that night, please give Shearer’s a call on (02) 9572 7766 before Monday (23rd) to book your seat. Bring a friend, hell – bring a couple of friends. I’d love the opportunity to meet some like minded folk. Plus, there’s booze. If you know any aspiring writers or people who dig book talk and geeking out over Game of Thrones please let them know about the event. Preferably, either today or tomorrow. It would be a shame for it not to run due to lack of numbers. Check out the attached flyer and hopefully I’ll get the chance to meet some of you in person.

Cheers

MJ

Post Traveller Blues

I’ve been back for nearly two weeks now and I’m still feeling a little glum. It’s to be expected. After spending a month travelling through Turkey and having new experiences every single day, re-adopting familiar routines is bound to be a little depressing. Still, I wasn’t expecting to feel this flat. Those first few nights of jetlag were particularly brutal, lying in bed staring into the darkness and examining subjects best left unexamined. The witching hour is no time for introspection.

What’s curious is I don’t actually like travelling very much. I enjoy sleeping in my own bed and resent having my comfort zone pushed. The ‘unfamiliar’ frightens me. During my holiday I was frequently tired, sick, sunburnt and anxious. I complained a lot. I missed Australia, my friends and family. I missed being able to work on my writing whenever I wanted. So why feel wistful for my time away?

It had been so long since I’d been on a holiday that I’d forgotten just how freeing it is. Mentally. Having my daily routine broken, being consistently challenged and forced to confront the strange and unusual was like doing strenuous exercise after spending far too long sitting on the couch. At first, my mind felt stressed and overworked, then it loosened up and I started experiencing the most amazing clarity of thought. Greta and I would be walking around say the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and my imagination would be firing like a catherine wheel. Short story ideas, plots for future novels, film and tv scripts hatched faster than I could write them down. It was the closest thing to creative euphoria I’ve felt in a long time.

This isn’t to say I wasn’t paying attention to the tour guides or learning as much as I could about Turkish culture – I was – this imagination explosion was just a surprisingly welcome side effect. Now, I’m back at my desk job dealing with the incumbent pressures and boredom, I’m feeling less inspired and hence, sadder. For an admitted non-traveller I miss my travelling self. He might have been a whinger but dammit he felt a lot more vital than my current incarnation.

MJ

Istanbul

çok teşekkür ederim means thank you very much in Turkish. When spoken aloud it sounds like ‘two sugars and a dream’. I use the phrase frequently while visiting Istanbul and every time the locals grin. I suspect my pronunciation may be off. This is the last stop on our journey before returning home to Australia. It was also the first, however the memory of that initial visit four weeks ago is clouded by jet lag.

I remember wandering through the expansive courtyards of Topkapi Palace, staring up at the mosaicked ceiling of the Blue Mosque, taking moody photographs in Hagia Sophia, and searching the cool dark of the Basilica Cistern for its twin stone Medusa heads, but these memories are like a dream remembered – hazy, out-of-focus. This time I’m alert, which is a good thing as we intend to spend most of our time exploring the city outside the relative cobble-stoned calm of the Old Town,

Here, decent reflexes are mandatory if one is to survive. Cars, buses and trams careen through the streets changing lanes and direction without indicating. Street signs are suggestions rather than rules. Crossing the street requires a leap of faith. Car horns are used not only to berate, but to suggest, encourage, thank, and warn. However, like the rest of Turkey, what appears to be chaotic and disorderly is actually a system of sorts. A system I have no hope of understanding.

Our first day beyond the Old Town, Greta and I take a ferry cruise beneath the Bosporus Bridge. We meet an American musician named Truman and his lovely wife, Neridah. He teaches me things about photography, and we talk and philosophize about life and love. That night Greta and I eat dinner on a rooftop terrace and watch the sunset.

The next day we visit the market in Otokoy and eat kumpir which sounds exotic but is only baked potato. A collarless kitten nuzzles my ankle. I give it some meat. There are cats everywhere and no rats. Later, I dream that the city is actually ruled by cats and we humans are barely tolerated guests. Must stop reading Neil Gaiman before going to sleep.

The third day we visit the Grand Bazaar. Smiling fellows and fellowesses call to us from doorways, inviting us to inspect their wares. We decline, stopping only to buy some turkish delight. I get called ‘cowboy’ frequently because of my wide brimmed hat. With all the corridors, stalls, markets and mini-markets it’s easy to get disorientated. The Bazaar seems to go on forever –maybe all of Istanbul is a bazaar? The delusion has merit. Vendors lurk on every street corner, goods spread out on dirty blankets. You can still find them after midnight, trying to make a sale. In fact, vendors aside, I’m not sure if anyone in Turkey actually sleeps. I’ve certainly seen no evidence of it. The young man at the desk in our hotel reception sits there twenty four hours a day. He always has a smile and never seems tired.

The fourth and last day we explore Beyoglu, one of the trendier suburbs of modern Istanbul. I buy a couple of cheap t-shirts and we eat in a vegetarian restaurant. There are students and backpackers everywhere lending the area a charming bohemian vibe. Groups of them gather beneath Galata Tower laughing and drinking beer while the call to prayer rings out. I thoroughly enjoy my time. If I was to return, I’d skip the Old Town and find accommodation here. Beyoglu feels like the real Istanbul – brimming with life and culture.

For our final night we have a disappointing meal (our only really bad dining experience during the trip) that is rescued by the Turkish band serenading us. There is a violinist, a keyboardist, a drummer, and a clarinet player. The songs they sing sound terribly passionate even though I don’t understand the words. They might be singing about a clogged sink but it doesn’t matter. The music is big and colourful and very enjoyable. Turkey in a nutshell.

Tomorrow we hop on a plane and fly home. Back to the real world – desk jobs, mortgages, bills, responsibilities. Also friends, family and familiar beds. My feelings are mixed. On the one hand, I miss my usual life – on the other hand, I was just getting used to the thoroughly unusual life of the traveller. A new experience every day might be exhausting from time to time but it’s also incredibly stimulating. Thoughts have occurred to me that never would have back home – big thoughts, little thoughts, mainly thoughts about stories I’d like to write. In a few years I might look back on this trip to Turkey as a defining moment in my life. If not, then at the very least I’ll have a collection of warm memories.

MJ