How I write a novel (1)

I wish there was a formula.
Do this, so that, and there you are.
But alas, there are as many different ways of writing as there are authors, and each author may not stick to the same method for each novel.

I would love to say that I’m ultra-organised – that I know exactly what I am going to write before I put fingers to the keys, that I have a chapter by chapter synopsis written, that I know how long each chapter will be, and indeed, how many chapters there will be..

There are authors that do it that way. I’m not one of them.

Here’s how it starts: I get an idea. I start mulling over it, usually while I am still writing the previous book. I think about it in the car, under the shower, while exercising or washing the dishes; any spare moment, in fact. I don’t write anything down at this stage.

Here’s how it worked for Heart of the Mirage. I read something about the Disappeared Ones in Argentina – the people who vanished during the Argentina military junta. And that connected with what I knew of the Lost Generation of Aboriginal Australians. And I started to wonder what it would have been like for the young children who were ‘disappeared’. How would they grow up? What sort of adults might they be?

So that’s the first idea. A single idea doesn’t make a book, though; only a short story. Gradually I add a whole lot of other ideas. And then gradually it starts to take form. I build a world and a story – in my mind – to put the ideas in. By the time I am ready to start writing, the basic book is there. I have the fantasy elements, I have a handful of main characters, I have the land, the beginning, the end and a couple of key scenes in between. I’ve jotted down a few key points.

Notice what’s not there: no minor characters, no minor sub-plots, no idea of how I get from the beginning to the next main scene. As I say, I am really disorganised. What I do have at this stage (which is at least a year from when I had the initial idea), is a detailed beginning. I know who is there and what they look like and how they feel. I know all about where they are, and why. I know their weaknesses, their motivations, the tensions between them. I know what they are going to be doing or talking about. I have a good idea of what the next major scene is, but very little idea of how I am going to get there.

That’s when I start writing.

It’s not a method that is going to work for most writers – it is far too unorganised. And yet it seems to work for me. As I begin writing, so much seems to immediately become clear. The characters are so real to me, that they seem to know what they are going to do, or say, all by themselves. They even surprise me sometimes.

It’s a method that has pitfalls. I often have to go back and rewrite bits in, or swap scenes around, or change something because I later realise that the plot needs its underpinnings tweaked before I proceed further. And it has a major advantage.

More about all that tomorrow.

BLOG INDEX: After Publication – the bumpy road of a published writer

When Friends and Booksellers Rock… June 16th, 2006

Why Fantasy and not Sci Fi? June 27th , 2006

It’s a Quirky World June 03, 2006

What’s with this middle book thing? May 25, 2006

When readers get it wrong… May 11, 2006

Feedback trickles in… April 28, 2006

If you don’t read fantasy, read this.
April 04, 2006

Author Trepidation March 30, 2006

Ten things I have learned as a Fantasy Writer
March 26, 2006

The Mystery of the Missing Middle Book March 15, 2006

The Downside of Being a Writer March 14, 2006

Writing in the Tradition of… February 25, 2006

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Fame… February 20, 2006

An Author’s View of Reviews
February 9, 2006

BLOG INDEX: Writing Tips / Tips on Getting Published

Grammar – being too clever July 2nd 2006

Who, whom etc. More Grammar. June 25th 2006

The Feral Apostrophe June 11 2006 [Grammar]

Beta Readers December 6th 2007

The First Person Point of View October 30th 2006

Writing in the First Person Point of View October 31st 2006

Was it possible to have a Feminist Society? January 17th 2007 [World building]

Need help writing a novel? January 15th 2008

Secret of Writing a Good Book September 29th 2007

Actively Voicing the Passive July 31st 2006 [Grammar]

No Such Thing as Writer’s Block? August 4th 2006

On How to Get Published August 11th, 2006 [Is it necessary to have connections?]

How Long Should a Book Be? August 30th, 2007 [Length]

Writing a Fantasy Novel Synopsis March 11th, 2007 [Synopsis]

How I write a novel (7) July 25th 2006 [World Building]

On wanting to get published March 22nd 2007 [When should one give up?]

Creating a world June 27th 2007

How I Write a Novel (6) July 23rd, 2006 [on the Editor’s edit]

How I Write a Novel (5) July 12th, 2006 [on Beta Readers]

How I write a Novel (4) July 6th, 2006 [on sentence by sentence editing]

How I write a Novel (3) June 23, 2006 [the journey 2]

How I write a Novel (2) June 09, 2006 [the journey 1]

How I write a Novel (1) June 08, 2006 [before starting, and the beginning]

Grammar: a look at some commas July 9th, 2006

Writing tip 2: Grammar again – which or that? June 04, 2006

Practical advice for writers: What’s that? May 28, 2006

What a Literary Agent can and should be May 27, 2006

Coincidence: in fact and fiction May 23, 2006

The “Ten Things I hate to see in a book” meme May 11, 2006

A First review…and why aren’t kangaroos invisible? May 01, 2006

Getting the language of the period and place right… April 30, 2006

World Building April 23, 2006

Words of Writerly Wisdom or the Discouragement of Dastardly Doomsayers? April 20, 2006

The Perfect Chapter April 19, 2006

On Being a Writer: making the dream come true – step 1 March 20, 2006

Advice to writers: your first novel March 03, 2006

What’s the hardest part of a novel to write? February 24, 2006

What’s luck got to do with it? February 16, 2006

A New York without monuments

Now I know why I didn’t see any monuments in New York. I thought it was because we were in the company of an adorable two-year-old who was more interested in playgrounds and watching trains in the subway, but the truth was, according to the Dept of Homeland Security, that NY doesn’t have monuments. Right. Glad I have that straight in my mind. At least I guess that means no one is going to blow anything up there any more.

Anyway, here’s a grandma and a two-year-old’s New York. Playgrounds and the zoo in Central Park, and me gawping at the sight of trishaws in NY. Here in Malaysia those are a symbol of a past we want to leave behind.
Such is life – somewhere along the line what is old ceases to be out-of-date and dowdy, and becomes quaint and chic. Would that would happen to me too…

Writing tips 2: Grammar again

Sunday again, so here’s the second “writing tips” blog.

Which or that?

The problem arises when either of these two words is used as a relative pronoun (if you really want to know the name).

{What’s a relative pronoun? Well, it’s a word that introduces a clause and refers to an antecedent. And if you don’t know what the heck that means, it really doesn’t matter, because the examples below make it clear what a relative pronoun is.}

All you have to do is remember one simple rule:

that defines what goes before
which doesn’t, it just gives you a bit more info about what went before.

Look at these 2 examples:

The river, which here is brackish and tidal, is of vital importance to shipping.
The rivers of the region that are tidal are of vital importance to shipping.

In the first sentence, the bit between the commas just gives you more info about the river. It doesn’t tell you which particular river. The writer is assuming you already know what river s/he is talking about.

In the second sentence, the words “that are tidal” actually tell you which rivers we are talking about: the tidal ones. The others are, by inference, not of importance to shipping.

Here are some more examples:

1. The team, which consisted of boys under sixteen, won handsomely.
(Which team won? The one that I was talking about!)
2. The team that consisted of boys under sixteen won handsomely.
(Which team won? The {only} one that consisted of boys under 16!)

3. The team that I bet on won handsomely.
(Which team won? The {only} one that I bet on!)
4. The team, which I bet on, won handsomely.
(Which team won? The one that I was talking about!)

The above 2 sets of sentences are all grammatically correct, but the sentences in each set don’t mean the same thing.

In sentence 1, you already know which team I am talking about. Then I give you more info – they are under-16 boys.
In sentence 2, you don’t know what team I am taking about , so I have to tell you: it’s the one with the under-16 boys.

In sentence 3, I am defining the team – it was the one I bet on.
In sentence 4, you already know what team – but I am giving you more info.

Note the commas in the which sentences, and the lack of them in the that sentences. Why? Because in sentences 2 & 3, the subject of the verb is the whole shebang.…(The team that I bet on…)and you can’t divide it up with commas and cut it off from its verb. Don’t try.

Look at this sentence:

There will be a split in the Labour Party over this war, comparable to the split in the Liberal Party that occurred on the question of taxation, which everyone seems to have forgotten.

More complex, but the same principles still apply.

In this case, “that occurred on the question of taxation” defines the split in the Liberal Party.
“which everyone seems to have forgotten” is just extra info about the split in the Liberal Party.

Note that the sentence could be organised a different way:

There will be a split in the Labour Party over this war, comparable to the split in the Liberal Party, which everyone seems to have forgotten, that occurred on the question of taxation.

I wouldn’t advise this rewording. The “that” clause is separated out from the words that it defines, which is never a good idea if you can avoid it!

Easy, huh?

It’s a quirky world…

Check out the comments on the previous post for some insights into Malaysian (and other) prejudices.

Over on Pub Rants, the agent Kristin has some interesting stuff to say about covers and how they are chosen. If you are interested in the difference between Australian and US and Russian covers for the same one of my books, look here and here.

I think the most peculiar thing that came out of what Kristin was saying is that the marketing people don’t seem to care that they might be misrepresenting the product (which would, one would think, lead to a dissatisfied customer who is not going to come back to that author again). All they want to do is sell the book. That seems short-sighted. I’d love to know what readers think.


I just saw this movie. If you haven’t, do so. It’s the best thing to come out of Hollywood in years – I cannot remember ever seeing a film that kept such a high level of tension going from beginning to end, even though parts of it were very funny. By the time it had finished, I was exhausted.

I bow to the scriptwriters in awe. I wish I could write something half as good.

(I did need some of the jokes explained to me – I guess only an American would get the bit about Mexicans and cars on the lawn…went competely over my head.)

And you know what? I felt sometimes as if parts of it could have been written about this country …America (alas) doesn’t have the exclusive copyright on being weird when it comes to race relations.

Here’s a true story. Happened about two months back.
A friend of mine had a Jewish houseguest who wants to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath. Friend doesn’t know whether Kuala Lumpur has a synagogue, so she rings up the Tourist Bureau to find out. Woman on the phone says, ‘Huh? What’s a synagogue?’
Friend explains.
Woman on phone – a government servant, remember, whose job it is to give information to visitors to the country – laughs and says, just after she has been told that the inquiry is being made on the behalf of someone Jewish: “Oh no, we don’t have Jewish peoples here! They are naughty peoples!”

I shudder. This is the kind of person who represents our country to tourists? Someone who is so steeped in prejudice and ignorance that she can say something like that and not be deeply ashamed of her bigotry?
At a guess, I would also say that she is so stupid that she can’t tell the difference between the Israeli government (whom she may have legitimate reason to consider “naughty”), and someone who follows the Jewish faith. She is so ignorant that it never occurs to her that there may, from time to time, be people of that faith in the country, whom she is supposed to serve with courtesy. And she is so appalling bad-mannered that it never occurs to her that the person asking might be offended by such a crass statement.
I despair.

Anyway, go and see “Crash”.

Another review

The Adelaide Advertiser had a review of Heart of the Mirage the other day, written by Scott Moore, which included the following:

“This skilfully written work may be fantasy, but the issues at its heart – political expediency, cultural imperialism and intolerance – are shamefully real.”

And it ends:

“Bring on part two.”

Nice one. I am very pleased with the reviews of the book so far, and with the feedback from readers, too. It seems to be a story that resonates with those that read it – and what more can an author ask for than that?

New York dreaming…

Here’s me in New York, outside the Saatchi & Saatchi Building, which is where my publisher has their offices. Note the grin.

How old was I when I first had this dream of having a New York editor? No idea. But I do know that I was a writer at eight years old. We lived at the time in a very small farming community in Western Australia, where the boys were likely to turn up to school barefoot in summer, and New York seemed as remote as the moon.

Travel? Money was so scarce that having to buy a new tyre for the car was considered a major expense, to be carefully budgetted for, and home remedies were tried before the doctor was called. So even this second visit to Penguin still had its aura of magic. Of a dream come true.

My editor and I had an interesting chat about what makes a book sell (no idea), about trends and Dan Brown, and how tough it is sometimes to sell something good to the public. I count myself fortunate that she loves my work, and had faith in it.

Practical Advice for Writers: What’s that?

Ok, here’s the first of what is going to be a regular Sunday thing.

Today’s tip is all about the word: “that“.

Take a look at this rather silly sentence:
That that that, that one that we see here, can be removed is not in doubt.

This sentence is actually grammatically correct. It’s also hideous, of course. (If you can’t make any sense of it, think of it as being spoken by someone pointing to the word “that” in a written passage.)

Unfortunately the word ‘that’ is far too easy to over-use – partly because it can be so many things:
An adjective. He has that belief in his talent...
Or an adverb. Only six or seven, if that many…
Or a conjunction. He decided that she should know the whole story.
Or a relative pronoun. …a list of books that influenced me…
(I hope I am remembering my grammar terms correctly here – years since I taught this stuff!!)

It might pay to ask your word processor to do a search of your final MS and see if you have too many of the pesky little things. If they turn up like a bad case of acne spots in every sentence, then try to re-word some of them.

That as a Conjunction
Conjunctions are “joining” words like and or but or if or although – or, sometimes, that. Copy editors are often biased one way or another on using ‘that’ as a conjunction. My Australian copy editor tends to re-insert all the ones I have left out. I then alter at least half of them back again! Another Australian copy editor I know religiously tries to get rid of them all in her clients’ work.
Who is correct?
Grammatically, I believe he is right is just as correct as I believe that he is right.

So what’s a bewildered writer to do?
Well, remember this: I believe he is right is more colloquial, the other more formal. That might help you make a decision. Just be careful of dropping the ‘that’ if the result ends up lacking clarity. For example: They announced all teachers, regardless of gender, must wear trousers seems odd when you start reading it. Much better to insert the ‘that’ after ‘announced’ so the reader doesn’t do a doubletake as he tries to figure out how teachers get announced or misreads it as “renounced”.

‘That’ as a Relative Pronoun (relative pronouns are words like “which”, “what” and “who”)
Here’s one way to get rid of a ‘that’ relative pronoun. Use a partial form of the verb.

The bridge that crossed the Canning River was washed away in the storm.
can be changed to:
The bridge crossing the Canning River was washed away in a storm.

The railing that had been broken by the storm fell into the stream.
can be changed to:
The railing broken by the storm fell into the stream.

It’s up to you to decide what sounds best in context – sometimes it is the first way, sometimes the other.

And that’s that about thats.