Tag Archive | Inspiration

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 13: Making the Reader Care

I’ve always enjoyed reading. From as far back as I can remember, reading was my escape. An escape from being an asthmatic child who coughed too much to run with the energetic children in my neighbourhood. An escape from classroom bullies. An escape from a world that sometimes wasn’t as much fun as the world depicted in the books I read.

In high school and university I became a more inquisitive reader, wanting to know more about things like travel and history, but still a lover of fiction. I analysed the set works of literature and the dramatic arts to get my degree. In my early years of being a drama stage manager, I was still fascinated by characters and their motivations as I worked alongside actors and directors in the rehearsal room, watching and listening to them unpicking the complications of the characters and the relationships they portrayed.

However, it’s only in recent years – since I became a writer – that I’ve started to analyse all of the above in terms of what makes a book interesting enough to keep reading it. As always, the answer inevitably comes from the books I love to read.

For example, I have just finished reading an incredibly exciting book by a successful best-selling author. This is her second novel. I really enjoyed her first, which I read about two years ago. However, I almost didn’t make it through this second novel, and I’ve been trying to work out why.

Before I start, I should mention that both are stand-alone novels, not connected to each other in any way – no sequels or prequels; each one is a single story on its own.

Her first novel was written in the first person, voiced by three characters, all of whom intrigued me enough that I felt compelled to follow and see where these three very different women led me. By the time it became evident – not far into the novel – that the main narrator was an unreliable narrator due to her alcohol addiction, I already liked her and wanted to see what she was up to. I cared. Despite her forgetfulness and the fact that she couldn’t be trusted, I still wanted to follow her to the end.

The second novel was written from several points of view – some in first person, some in third. Too many points of view, I felt. At first I couldn’t keep track of who was who, and by the time I’d sorted out and managed to tell the difference between some of the more confusingly similar characters, I was almost halfway through the book and I still didn’t really care about any of them. At the start of most chapters I had to page back through the book to remind myself who this particular person was. Reading a little bit each night before bedtime (which is the way I read most books), didn’t help with continuity.

The main difference between these two books was that, in the first book, I cared about the main character. I was also intrigued by the other two and wanted to know what happened to them.

In the second book, I didn’t care about the characters. I had no emotional investment in any of them. In fact, the only characters I even vaguely liked were an outsider policewoman (whom I had muddled with a second policewoman several times during the first half of the novel) and a young boy. Both of these characters were peripheral to the plot for the first half of the story. I felt sorry for the boy because his family had become dysfunctional after the death of his sister, and I had high hopes that the policewoman would solve the mystery surrounding the various deaths, but apart from that, I didn’t care enough to want to follow all the other unlikeable characters to see how they sorted out the mess the whole village was in.

The only reason I carried on reading the second book was because I had enjoyed the author’s first book so much. I knew that she was a really good writer, and that she was sure to deliver a fabulous denouement like she had done in her previous novel. I persevered only because I was willing to take the gamble that she would come through eventually.

I also knew that if I stopped reading the book halfway through, I was unlikely to ever go back and attempt to re-read it. Worse, I would probably never bother to read one of her novels again, and that would be a pity.

She did, of course, come through before the end. A suspenseful build-up during which I didn’t know who to trust (after all, I didn’t like any of the suspects, did I?), followed by a nail-biting climax, and capped with a nasty twist on the very last page. I’ll definitely be reading her next book!

But…

What if I hadn’t read her first book? What if she wasn’t famous for delivering the goods? What if she was an unknown writer like me?

This all got me thinking about the most important thing an author can do when writing a novel, particularly if that author is relatively unknown. We can all wax lyrical about constructing a good plot, deep characters, exotic settings and amazing mysteries, but if a reader doesn’t care enough, it all goes down the toilet.

Reading is an emotional experience. Readers want to make a connection; they want to reach out and touch something because it resonates with something deep inside them.

It takes a long time to write a novel, so surely some of that time needs to be spent in making the reader care about the characters?

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Summer Adjustments – and Bugs!

The seasons are changing here in Melbourne, and at last I’ve been able to shed the thermals and roll the heaters aside. Some mornings are still nippy, and every few days the temperature drops just to remind me that Spring is, after all, a transition between winter and summer, and we’re not quite there yet.

I’ve discovered a new joy in gardening. I have some herbs and lettuces growing in pots on my veranda, and the first crop of alfalfa sprouts on my kitchen counter is almost ready to add to my next salad. Winter bedding has been squashed into top cupboards and summer clothing pulled from storage tubs and aired. The ceiling fan has been dusted off, windows have been creaked open…

…and new bugs have found all the gaps in the screens to creep through and surprise me!

Some of my windows don’t open – warped wood, or too many coats of paint over the years have seen to that – but enough of them open to provide a cooling breeze. In addition to the view, another advantage of living on the top of a rise is that there is always a breeze.

In South Africa, the cottage I lived in for most of my last fifteen years there was cut into the bank of a hollow – not unlike a Hobbit house, although not as picturesque – and very few breezes ruffled my curtains. This was compounded by Durban’s consistently extreme humidity.

Here, my cottage is one of those old-fashioned Australian weatherboard bungalows built on stilts with slatted storage space underneath. Over the years, my landlord has dumped stuff under there, and even though weeds have grown up and obscured some of it, the wind blows through the slats (which may be one of the reasons why my floors are so cold in winter). Who knows what might be taking shelter in that crawl space for the rest of the year? No doubt time will tell.

My standard arrangement with all creepy crawlies is that they can have the outside, but the inside is my territory, because I pay rent for it and they don’t. However, despite being outside, my veranda (the only solid concrete and brick section of the foundation) is still part of my rented cottage, so snails and slugs will be severely dealt with if they come close to my lettuces. In the warmer weather, I have begun to claim this as my territory, with the acquisition of a few pieces of furniture, pot stands, more chimes and a large citronella candle to keep the bugs at bay.

Bugs must please keep away from my car as well because it’s mine. Three months ago I finally got myself a car and gave my brother-in-law his old car back. He found this one for me online and checked it out before I bought it. I love it so much because it’s small, zippy and not unlike the last car I had in South Africa. The only real difference? Instead of blue, it’s pink!

I love my life here in Australia. I sit on my veranda and dream about the lives of my characters in my (much interrupted) novel. Birds chirp, and bigger birds swoop down to chase my cat Valentine if he gets too close to their trees and nests. And rightly so – he’s in their territory out there.

His sister Galadriel doesn’t seem to want to go outside. She prefers the comforts of her home. Perhaps she knows the difference between her territory and that of others.

The other day my landlord cut the grass right up to the far fence because, he said, his wife doesn’t like snakes. He must’ve seen the look on my face because he grinned and said, “You don’t like them either?”

Too muted by terror, I shook my head. Living out in the country may have its drawbacks after all…

Three Hearts & an Angel

The frenzied activity of the last few months has finally slowed down to a more manageable pace. I’ve settled well into my cottage and now that the weather is warming up I have more energy because I don’t feel so cold all the time. I think my cottage is going to be lovely in summertime.

I’ve started a potted herb garden and bought some outdoor furniture for my veranda. The birds are chirping and making nests in the newly greening trees. If my cat gets too close the larger magpies swoop down to warn him away…

Above my bed I have hung some trinkets on the arms of the light fitting. All of these – in the true Marie Kondo sense – spark joy in me when I see them moving gently in the breeze.

A double heart made by my friends Mark and Tarryn, which they gave to all their wedding guests in South Africa back in 2012. It used to hang from the rafters in my Durban cottage. Mark and Tarryn moved to Australia long before I did, and they received their Australian citizenship this month. Their double heart is not only a reminder of the two of them, but a beacon of hope for that far off day when I too, will become a citizen.

The second heart was made by another friend, Shelley, for everyone in the cast and crew of the KickstArt theatre production of the musical Annie in 2014. This small ceramic heart brings to my heart a reminder of the fortitude of my friend Tina. She designed the most beautiful lighting for this show, after surviving a violent encounter which could easily have ended her life. She was determined to let nothing prevent her from creating beauty in the world, every single day, against all odds.

The third heart is one I purchased here in Australia at one of my favourite shops – Ishka. It is hand carved and comes from Indonesia. For me, it’s a reminder of the many hand-carved wooden objects I had to leave behind in Africa due to Australia’s stringent rules and regulations, and it is also a symbol of hope and love as I move forward with my new life here.

The last object – delicately packed for its journey from South Africa by my friend Penny – is a small glass angel given to me by one of my parents’ oldest friends; the same lady who came to break the news to me of my father’s death back in 1985. She gave me this angel about twelve years ago when she visited my mother and stepfather just before Christmas one year.

I’ve never hung it on a Christmas tree because it’s far too delicate. Instead, and because angels are not just for Christmas, it used to hang all year inside a glass-fronted dresser which I no longer have. Now, it will hang permanently above my bed, moving gently in the light breeze which passes through my bedroom. A reminder that sometimes we need to spread our wings in order to fly more freely than we once did.

Easing Back into the Stream

It’s been ten weeks since I moved into my cottage, and I’m finally slowing down and getting back into a normal routine. I’ve had fun unpacking all my treasures from the past, buying some new ones, and making others to suit my new environment. In the meantime, work has carried on like a steady underflow beneath it all, satisfying my need to earn and more importantly, underlining my need to belong and carve my own path.

Winter has set in with a vengeance and my cottage is cold, to say the least. Fortunately I have two heaters and an electric blanket. I look forward to the warmer months, when I intend to expand onto the veranda which is the perfect space for writing. There are brackets on which I can hang pots of flowering plants, and my view across the garden will be enhanced by a light breeze coming up the hill instead of the winter frost, mist, and ice on my car windows each morning.

In the meantime I have hung two sets of wind chimes out there on my veranda, and the sound – as always – comforts me and reminds me of places far away and friends left behind.

Five years ago I stood at the top of a hill in KwaZulu-Natal, listening to wind chimes at the Culamoya Chimes factory and shop on the Midlands Meander with my friends Tina and Jackie. I decided on a beautiful, melodic, deep-toned one. When I packed up three years ago, it came too.

On another occasion, at The Ugly Duckling in Rosetta, in another part of the Midlands Meander, I stood on a rise with my friend Tina while Jackie was riding in a cycle race. Together we listened to the various bamboo chimes before I made my decision. Sadly, I wasn’t allowed to bring bamboo into Australia, so I gave that one to Tina before I left.

Last week I found a set of bamboo wind chimes here in Australia, at Ishka, and bought it. It doesn’t have the same melodic tone, but it’s rustic and cheerful and the clackety-clack sound it makes is pleasing to my ears because it reminds me of my friends.

Life goes on, and we move with the currents and tides. Part of me thinks about the final line of The Great Gatsby, but the rest of me knows that I’m not beating against the current; I’m easing out into the stream to claim my place in the flow, and taking bits of my past with me.

Light at the End of A Very Long Tunnel

Six weeks ago, the veggie shop where I used to work closed down. The following day I called my boss at my other casual job in the hardware store to tell her that I was available for more shifts. She responded immediately with more shifts to keep the proverbial wolf from my door.

Three weeks later, inspired by this, I broached the subject of part time employment, letting her know that I was definitely interested in something more permanent, should such a position ever become available. Once again she responded positively, offering me a 30-hour per week contract. I signed that contract the next day, and my new position started the following week.

So for two weeks I’ve been doing what I’ve been trying to do for the past year and a half: working most of the week at a job I enjoy, and for a steady, assured income. That hypothetical express train I wrote of last month – the one that Julia Cameron describes in The Artist’s Way – is speeding up and delivering the goods.

At last there’s light breaking through at the end of this long, long tunnel!

Once More Unto the Breach, Dear Friends…

For a short month, February has been rather busy. The first ten days played out as normal, with me still gainfully employed at the fruit and veggie shop. On the eleventh day, however, it all took an interesting turn. I arrived at the shop one Sunday morning to be told that the store was closing, and that day was its last.

In retrospect, I had seen it coming but tried to pretend that it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. My boss had dropped broad hints for a few months that the shop might not last far into the New Year. I knew it wouldn’t last forever, but I didn’t expect it all to go belly-up in one single day without any notice.

So where does this leave me? Well fortunately my casual job at the hardware store is going well. For the moment. My boss there has been extremely helpful in giving me extra shifts, which I love, but I know it won’t continue in this way much beyond Easter. As the weather cools towards winter, the DIY industry cools down too, for the cold months, before perking up again in springtime.

Which brings me to Henry V’s rallying cry to his troops. Once more I am launching myself into that daunting battlefield known as the job market, steeling my nerves to be cut down by cold-as-steel rejection letters, even as I leap forward to grasp at the slim chance of landing the perfect job

As much as I love my job in the hardware store, I need another part-time job to enable me to finally break out of my dependence on my long-suffering family and be on my own again. With this comes another problem: my novel-writing has ground to an abrupt halt while I concentrate my writing energies on writing and rewriting my cover letters and tweaking my resume.

I’m not drowning yet, but it is a definite setback in my plans to live my life fully in Australia. Three years ago I was packing and planning my move over here, uncertain of my future. Three years later I’m still adrift in a sea of uncertainty, treading water, and getting older while not really moving forward.

I’ve been in Australia for two years and eight months now, but it’s only in the past eight months that I seem to have moved forward. And now, just when things are gathering pace, this is a giant leap backwards.

Sometimes, I can’t help but compare my current situation (or lack thereof) with the one I left behind in South Africa. It’s a terrible thing to be without work for two years, and a truly marvellous thing to have been gainfully employed for the past eight months. Eight months ago I was beginning to despair of getting a job – any kind of job – and wondered if I would ever be able to gather some resources and move into my own place without constantly draining resources that were not mine.

Would I ever be able to afford exorbitant Melbourne rentals, buy my own car, save some money for my old age? Even little pleasures like splashing out on tea and cake with a friend seemed extravagant, always mentally counting the South African rands that were fast dwindling away at ten times the rate they would have done back in Durban. Steady income goes a long way towards alleviating those worries, and that’s what I’m working towards now.

Eight months ago I made a start, and it’s been chugging along nicely. I have some Australian dollars in the bank at last. But now it seems as if I have some very steep hills to climb, because I’m not yet where I want to be. I have to keep reminding myself that Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, likens this to being on a fast-moving train. While walking along inside a train, stumbling over objects and stepping back to let others pass, we feel as if we are barely moving. And yet, when we look out the window and see how far we’ve come, with new scenery racing by at breakneck speed, we realise that we are, in fact, covering ground extremely fast.

I hope it’s not just my advancing years which are thundering by at that speed…

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 8: Musical Soundtracks

While this may seem like an odd topic in a series about writing a novel, I feel very strongly about the music I listen to while writing. I’m not musical myself, and can’t play any instrument, but I do love to listen. Especially when I’m writing.

When writing, it’s important that I listen to music without vocals, so that other people’s lyrics don’t interfere with the words in my own head. The human voice is a beautiful instrument in itself, and it seems a pity to exclude it from the stuff I listen to, so I’ll always include vocal music if the lyrics are in a language I don’t understand. Fortunately, I’m no good at languages other than English, so there is a wide range of music available to me.

I’ve always enjoyed listening to classical music, so naturally this is the best for my writing. I have a few favourite CDs (who am I kidding – I have loads of favourites!) and piano music is my first choice every time. I grew up listening to piano music because both my father and my sister played, and my mother could sometimes be cajoled into playing as well. She was a far better player than she thought she was.

My father’s baby grand sat in the lounge in the centre of our house, so when someone played, it was audible everywhere. With the bay windows open, you could hear it across the garden too. My father’s music of choice was mainly jazz, and many of his favourites have become my favourites now. My sister’s playing was more classical – Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt – because she studied music and her playing was noticeably finer and easy to listen to.

While much of my CD collection today consists of classical piano, a close second is classical guitar. Back in my high school years, television started in South Africa and for the first time I was exposed to the beauty of this gorgeous instrument. I saw programmes on Julian Bream and, closer to home, Tessa Ziegler and Dave Hewitt. I bought a classical guitar and tried to learn to play like them, but oh, how hard it was! Much better to listen and appreciate those who truly could play.

Around that time, my father used to make movies, and he had many movie soundtracks in his record collection. I remember buying the double LP of the music from Star Wars, and being quite surprised that it was so heavily classical. That now famous score by John Williams was even more epic than the movie, and I realised for the first time just how perfectly a full orchestral soundtrack can add to the feel of a film. Much later, I saw how I too could add to the book in my head by underscoring it with richer, more classical music.

Long before I started writing, back in the days when I lived in Johannesburg, I had three radios in my flat, all tuned to Classic FM. As I walked from one room to another, the music followed me so I never missed a note. When I enjoyed a piece I had never heard before, I listened to the announcer afterwards, wrote down the names of the composer and the music, and looked for it on CD the next time I was in Musica or Look & Listen. Thus I built up my collection.

Once I left Johannesburg, I couldn’t hear that radio station any more (long before the days of live-streaming, of course!) so my CD collection was my comfort in a city where the local radio stations didn’t play music I enjoyed. My home was small so one device playing a CD in the main room could be heard all over the cottage.

Listening to classical music has always relaxed me, reminding me of those lazy Sunday afternoons as a child, piano music forever in the background. When I began to write, I found that music formed a natural, harmonious background. My first attempt at writing was a novel based on my family’s history, so maybe the musical connection to the family piano was relevant on that level too.

As time went on and I wrote other novels, I tried to find music appropriate to the themes of each book. I discovered the Putumayo series when writing my novel set in Greece. Hours and hours were spent listening to Putumayo’s Greece: A Musical Odyssey. I had no idea what they were singing about, but I loved hearing it, and it helped my own words to flow.

Similarly, when I wrote my novel set in Italy, I had plenty to choose from, including loads of opera, plus the wonderful vocal instruments of Andrea Bocelli and Amaury Vassili.

My most recent novel is set in two different times and places. The contemporary thread is set in modern-day Australia, where both the main characters play the piano in a small jazz bar.

Piano music again – gosh, imagine that!

The historical thread was a little more complicated. This is set in 1960s South Africa, mostly up in the mountains of the Drakensberg. Originally this section was set in Peru, and while I had some beautiful music from South America, I found it impossible to write convincingly about a place I hadn’t been to, so I moved the location to Africa.

There is no shortage of African music in my collection, but the two characters in that part of the novel have a poignant story that is dogged by separation and loss, so the music in my head had to match. The sad classical music I chose was Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. This is a long-time favourite and I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I own no less than seven different copies of that haunting second movement.

My current WIP is set in post-war Britain in 1955, so once again I get to hear my father’s big band jazz favourites from that era. However, there is an older storyline as well, and I’m still searching through my collection to find something that best suits the words in my head.

Writers and readers out there, do you enjoy listening to music as you write or read? If so, what puts you in the right mood?