A New Decade

wildfire

Three days into a new decade and it seems the apocalypse is here in Australia. Our beautiful coastal towns are being reduced to ashes, our mountain ranges are on fire and our nation’s capital is choked with acrid smoke. It’s an awful time for all Australians as we grapple with the reality that the climate has changed and take a glimpse into what our near future will look like as the climate disaster unfolds.

No doubt the climate emergency will change the way we write contemporary and dystopian fiction – in fact, we are already seeing it. In 2019 I read The Lost Man by Jane Harper and The Glad Shout by Alice Robinson, both authors using climate change as the narrative engine that powered their stories. These are just two examples of many Australian novels that give voice to the challenges we confront as we step into 2020.

As we close the door on 2019 and the decade that gave us brilliant literature by Neil Gaiman (The Ocean at the End of the Lane is my personal favourite), Indelible Ink by Fiona McGregor (a searing portrait of a middle age in the middle class in Australia’s richest city), Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son by Mark Colvin (updated after his untimely death in 2017) and the Slough House series by Mick Herron (starting with Slow Horses, which introduced us to Jackson Lamb, the ultimate anti-hero), I look back on my own writing journey.

I will be forever grateful to Jodi Cleghorn, who was the first publisher to give me a go and whose editorial advice and beautiful friendship gave me the confidence I needed to start writing. She published several of my stories at the start of the last decade, which left me wanting more and helped me realise I wanted to move to longer form stories.

Between 2014 and 2019 I dived into screenwriting and wrote two screenplays (both of which remain in second draft), went to the US to take Robert McKee’s Story seminar, and started my crime novel set in Queanbeyan. While this all sounds very impressive, it’s just a beginning, and a slow one at that. My progress was curtailed by the onset of migraine – a chronic condition that has worsened over the past five years to the point where I now have daily migraine attacks with very little respite. It’s really hard to write creatively when you have an invisible screwdriver jammed into your brain.

While my novel only grew by around 7k in 2019, I did finish outlining it and I now have a plan to get to the end of the first draft, which is where the real work begins!

My writing plan for 2020 is simple: finish the first draft, rewrite/revise as necessary and send it out to my volunteer beta readers. Depending on their feedback, complete a third draft and send it out to select agents to see if I can gain representation. If not, I’ll shop it around myself. Crime is hot and Australian crime is hotter right now so I had better get my skates on before it goes off the boil. I’d also better think about how I’m going to incorporate the climate into this first and subsequent novels to make sure I’m rooting my fiction in reality.

What are your writing plans for 2020?

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Happy New Year!

Wow, I missed 2017 and 2018! What happened? Not a lot on the writing front, that’s for sure. I did, however *drum roll*, graduate from my Master of Philosophy degree, change jobs, travel overseas (twice), join a new blues band and become a high school mum. I’ve also been suffering from increasingly severe and frequent migraine attacks which have basically depleted any spare brain capacity I may have otherwise had.

So, I’ve had to be very kind to myself about my writing. The stories are all still works in progress but they’re definitely there in my head, percolating away nicely.

My resolution for 2019 is to finish Charlevoix (screenplay #1) – and yes, I did visit that beautiful place on Michigan’s Sunset Coast in October 2016 – and submit it after I receive feedback from a script editor (argh, the horrors that await!). I’ll also commit right here to finishing the first draft of my Australian crime novel this year. If there’s any gas left in the tank I’ll hit screenplay #2 for its first major edit.

That’s probably all I’ll manage this year but if I get there, actually that’s quite a lot!

What are your writing goals for 2019?

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Confluence and convergence

It’s been a while between posts and that’s merely due to life and its many facets. I try hard to keep all of the things in balance, but sometimes that’s not possible. Given we can only manoeuvre settings around 24 hours in a day (life is a zero-sum game), that means some of our favourite things need to go on the backburner while we prioritise the more important things.

Too many things!

While running too hard I came down with an infection that took me out of the picture for two days of forced rest. This happens, apparently. Slowing down for a rest meant my brain could drop down a gear or two and ponder some bigger, larger ideas that have been coalescing in my subconscious. Those ideas are the spines of my two new screenplays. This got me thinking about words like:

Confluence – a place where two rivers or streams join to become one; a situation in which two things come together or happen at the same time (Merriam-Webster)

and

Convergence – the act of converging and especially moving toward union or uniformity; especially:  coordinated movement of the two eyes so that the image of a single point is formed on corresponding retinal areas (Merriam-Webster)

also

Conflux – which Merriam-Webster defines as synonymous with confluence; to me it means something altogether different. It’s nearly time for the annual Canberra speculative fiction conference! (Hope to see you there: 30 Sep-3 Oct, Novotel Canberra)

So, why am I writing two screenplays? Well, I found my muse. As I tweeted today, while technically there’s no such thing as a male muse (just ask Wikipedia), I certainly found mine in Richard Dormer. If you don’t know him, he’s an actor from Northern Ireland who stars in Fortitude, the genre-smashing psychological thriller series from Sky Atlantic/Pivot. His incredible performance as Norwegian sheriff Dan Anderssen got me right in the feels and, as a consequence, my writerly imagination has been obsessed with him since about the sixth episode of Season 1 (the next season is in post-production and should air in January 2017). You may also know Dormer from Game of Thrones but I don’t watch it (and neither does he, apparently).

Back to the muse part. So, I was having huge trouble picturing the antagonist in screenplay #3, which made it really hard for me to visualise the interactions between him and my protagonist. The more I saw of Dormer, the more I realised he could be my antagonist. But I wanted to write #2 first (it’s my second warm-up – a romantic drama told as a linear narrative) before I moved onto #3, which is a fractured narrative, post-apocalyptic drama set in the near future. It’s going to be the most technically demanding work I’ve ever written so I didn’t want to get ahead of myself. As it turns out, the muse – once found – does not want to be silenced. I can hear Richard whispering in my ear, in his Irish whisky voice, ‘Shouldn’t you be writing?’

Shouldn't you be writing

So I have been! He’s also making an appearance in screenplay #2, where I was looking for a contained but magnetic actor to play a small but significant role that takes the movie to its climax and back down the other, satisfying side. Yes, I can see Richard as Michael and that’s pretty much all it took for the gaping hole at the end of the penultimate act to close up. I haz a complete story!

I also *may* have been doing some productive procrastination in doing some *research* for my forthcoming trip to the US. I will be visiting Charlevoix and other lakeside delights, on Michigan’s mitten, in October – that’s NEXT MONTH – and I have been trying to work out the best way to get from Mackinac Island (in Lake Huron right up past the top of the Michigan mitten between the lower peninsula, upper peninsula and Canada) back down to Chicago to catch my flight across to Boston. I had hoped to get the ferry back to St Ignace or Mackinaw City (depending on where I leave my car) and then drive around the west side of Lake Michigan, but since I only have one day to do it, it’s a bit far at 8+ hours driving. It’s around 6.5 if I travel back down through the mitten, so that’s what I’ll have to do. I need to be at Chicago Airport in plenty of time to catch my flight so I don’t want to risk being late!

After leaving Michigan/Illinois, I’ll spend a couple of days in Boston, train down to NYC to catch up with a very good friend, visit Washington DC for a couple of days before heading back to New York for a three-day masterclass with the doyen of screenwriting, Robert McKee. Now that is something I have been looking forward to for a long time. Please make sure you look out for me and say g’day if you’ll be there too.

So now I have procrastinated successfully by updating this website and researching my driving tour, I can hear Richard getting impatient. Back to the screenplay!

Do you have a muse? If so, please share with me in the comments who yours is and how you found them (and what power they have over your writing).

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The joys of loglines and other news

Blase Pascal

So, I’ve been writing. And editing. And learning the joys of writing loglines, which this post is ostensibly about. But first, my big news:

I have finally been awarded the degree of Master of Philosophy!

Huzzah! I will graduate in December and never a more relieved graduand ever there was. It’s taken more than two years since I submitted my dissertation to convince a seemingly endless parade of academics that my research has value. What have I learned from this experience? The most important part of your research is, in fact, the methodology. Without the right methodology, your research question and findings can be rendered near worthless. I had to do a lot of work to justify mine and I could have saved myself two years of (very part-time) effort if I’d known this up front. So, my advice to aspiring researchers: the first thing you should do after you decide your research topic is to determine your methodology. Then test that approach with a wide range of academics, especially those who may end up being your supervisor or examining your thesis. Only once you are satisfied that your methodology is sufficiently robust should you start your literature review and set your research question. The methodology is the backbone of your work.

This learning can be applied to creative writing. For screenwriting, this comes in the form of a logline. What is a logline, I hear you ask? It is the encapsulation of your story in a single sentence. It is the basis of your pitch to development execs. The logline therefore needs to grab the reader’s attention and make him/her want to read the screenplay. Not only does the logline need to have a hook, it needs give the reader an instant understanding of genre (If the logline is for a horror film, is it scary? If it’s for a comedy is it funny? If it’s for a drama, is it dramatic?), who the protagonist is, what their goal is and what struggles they will have in obtaining (or failing to obtain) that goal.

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Well, it is. However, the art is in the execution. I have (so far) written upwards of 50 variations on the logline for my adult romantic comedy (which I referred to in an earlier post as SUMMER SOLSTICE, but whose working title is now CHARLEVOIX, after the town it’s set in) and I still don’t have it right. This is because I wrote my first screenplay before I wrote the logline. Just like I wrote my dissertation without having a clear understanding that the academic merits of a master’s level thesis based on a single qualitative case study was hard to justify. Call me a slow learner.

Now that I’ve realised how important the logline is, I’m researching my butt off to learn everything I can about how to do it well and then I’m practising, practising, practising. And revising, revising, revising! Here is my logline for CHARLEVOIX as it currently stands:

Escaping from New York to Michigan’s Sunset Coast, a neurotic romance writer struggles to meet her publisher’s deadline when she tangles with a free-wheeling bluesman straight out of one of her books.

The logline, while still needing work, is only as good as it is through having been workshopped with a bunch of very generous and talented writers over on the Bang2writers’ group on Facebook, run by Lucy V Hay, whom I name-dropped in my previous post. There are also a gazillion logline resources on the web for those who want to join in the fun.

Now that I’ve realised a weak logline makes for a weak story, I know the very first thing I’ll do when I launch into my next screenplay (AFTER NO. 10) is to make sure I write and road test the logline.

So, two lessons for today:

  • Sort out your approach before you begin writing. This doesn’t mean you must plot out every detail, but if you don’t know what story you’re going to tell and how before you begin, you’ll most likely run into issues down the track which will take a lot of work and time to resolve.
  • Surround yourself with kind, generous and talented people whose experience can help you learn. This doesn’t mean asking your BFF to give you feedback that makes you feel good about yourself but doesn’t help you write commercial-grade narrative fiction.
  • (I know I said two lessons, but here’s a bonus) Don’t pull the ladder up behind you. Give back to the community once you’ve gained some experience and success. This can only make the creative arts stronger and better.

And, finally, very exciting news! My reward to self for completing the MPhil (and demonstrating the power of resilience and determination) is an October trip to the East Coast of the USA. I’ll be taking a field trip to Charlevoix, among other Midwest destinations, and visiting Boston, NYC and Washington. More about the trip in my next post!

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Best of 3: Australian crime fiction

Aussie crime fiction is some of the best in the world. I had the pleasure this week of profiling three of my favourite crime novels over at British author and script reader Lucy V Hay’s author website.

Well, what are you waiting for? Go and check it out!

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Making movies

The Canberra film community pulled out all the stops for the recent Lights! Canberra! Action! short film competition. I was lucky enough to be involved as cast in two of the competition films, Horrorology, written and produced by Hannah and Laura White from Little White Lies Productions, and Million Dollar Angel, written by Sebastian Chan and produced by Vorfreude Films.

Not only did I have a very small role in each, my kids joined in the fun too!

My daughter and I were zombie extras in Horrorology.

Horrorology RJ LilyAnd my son had a role as ‘young boy’ in Million Dollar Angel. I played his mum. Yes, it was a stretch 😉

MDA TJ

Both kids enjoyed the experience, although my son nearly ate his t-shirt when we went to the competition screening, because Million Dollar Angel was one of the finalist films and it was a little confronting for him to see his cute face up on the big screen! He was so funny in his little role that he got a huge laugh from the crowd. Here he is, with winner of the most Memorable Performance award, Daniel Tonon.MDA TJ Dan

It was all a little overwhelming – my little guy gets very shy when I mention his superb actor’s eyebrows. You can watch the film here:

I really enjoyed the experience. It not only gave me great insights into how a screenplay needs to support the producers, art department, cinematographers, directors and cast in making the film, but also my first acting credits! I won’t quit my day job just yet.

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A finished crappy first draft is better than an unfinished draft

Michigan Sunset Coast

“A finished crappy first draft is better than an unfinished draft”

I read this in a meme on Facebook today. And so it is that I find myself with a finished first draft of my debut screenplay, Summer Solstice (working title), an adult romantic comedy set on Michigan’s Sunset Coast.

I’ll give myself a ‘huzzah!’ for that achievement.

And then, it’s straight into the edits. There are several areas I’m planning to target in my first revisions:

  • genre consistency throughout (starting as you mean to go on. i.e. don’t start out with rom com in mind but deliver straight drama)
  • comedic tone consistency throughout
  • character consistency throughout
  • make sure time and space are working properly
  • make sure titles are consistent throughout
  • ensure names are consistent throughout
  • removing redundant description to boost showing and reduce telling (everything has to play visually in a screenplay)
  • reduce and remove ‘on the nose’ dialogue (I went to a writing workshop years ago with Canberra author Craig Cormick. He advised us to use description to colour in the peripheries of a scene, rather than listing details head on. I think this advice applies as much to screenwriting as to short story writing)
  • get my characters moving – I’ve made heaps of classic first-timer mistakes, like too many phone calls used to move the plot forward. This is not very visual, so therefore stinks in screenplays. From what I’ve understood from my research. One phone call is okay. Two phone calls are stretching the limits. Three? Well, you’d better be a Coen brother or a Tarantino to get away with that shit. So, I have three phone calls. LOL. Time to convert those suckers into face-to-face action.

What other tips do you have for revisions of the first, crappy draft? Apart from being prepared to kill our darlings, that is. I learned that requirement through my short story writing.

The second set of revisions will focus much more on character arcs and make sure they are working and have stayed true to the overarching theme of the screenplay (the *concept*). I will also check that the movie described in the logline and outline is what’s actually delivered in the screenplay.

Third set will focus on length and scene structure. My first draft has come in at 113 pages and I need to get it down to around 95 (or thereabouts), which is pretty standard in the rom-com genre.

Some of my sources for understanding how to edit our little babies include:

Where do you get advice on screenplay editing from?

Image credit: Joseph John, https://pixabay.com/en/lighthouse-sky-sunset-beach-484822/

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