How to achieve big scary goals, and a very belated Happy New Year!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

This year is already 1/26th over! I swear 2013 ended five minutes ago. I'm going to blink and it'll be 2016, and then I'll nap for a bit and it'll be the year 3016 and all of our consciousnesses will be uploaded to the cloud and easily downloaded into teeny-tiny robots that can roam outer space and the bottom of the ocean. It'll be grand. In the meantime: a very belated New Year post!

Speaking of time being weird, I forget how long I have been keeping this blog for. I have five years worth of New Year posts (here they are, in reverse chronological order: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010) and I had to write a sixth or it would ruin the continuity. Blogs are like funny little personal time machines that anyone can access. This time last year I was binge-watching The Walking Dead; this year it's Game of Thrones and Supernatural. I've totally evolved as a person, clearly.

My 2014 highlights: All This Could End was longlisted for the Gold Inky. I taught a workshop for young writers at QWC for a week, and had lots of other lovely school and library visits. I finished writing a manuscript and worked on two others. I graduated from one course I was studying and started a double degree. There are probably a lot of other things I'm forgetting.

My 2015 goals: write every day (so many novel ideas!), blog more, study smarter (less binge-studying at the last minute! Why do I do this to myself?), have more fun and adventures and stop stressing quite so much. It's all very unnecessary. (My goals are not all that different from when I was fifteen.)

I don't have any big scary goals this year, more habits I want to put in place, but I've had big goals in the past that I managed to achieve and big goals that I sort of... forgot about. So: maybe you want to write or publish a book in 2015. Which can seem like a very intimidating goal, but it's very possible. Here are the best ways I know to make big scary goals way more likely to be achieved (obviously with reference to writing books, because that's what I know. But I think you can apply these to anything):
  1. Make yourself accountable to someone. Tell people about your goals! People who will ask how everything is going later in the year - make sure you get some work done so that you can answer truthfully rather than vaguely. Promise a friend that you'll send them the next chapter of your novel every Friday at lunchtime. Preferably the sort of friend who will come over in the afternoon if you fail to do so and take away your modem and uninstall all the programs on your computer except Word. Join online forums or enter in challenges or writing sprints (this is why NaNoWriMo is so great: community! time limits! pressure!). If you do not have deadlines from an external source, create them, and make sure someone will hassle you if you miss them. If you don't tell anyone and no-one's checking up on you, it's really easy to just let things fall by the wayside and wait till next year and have the same goals again. Which we don't want! You can do it! You just need someone to yell at you! Or, be supportive and encouraging. Either, both. It all works.
  2. Make a daily habit of it. Everyone is different, but I do think that the best way to get work done is to work consistently, a little bit every day. I tend more towards binge-writing sporadically and then stewing on ideas but not actually writing for a few weeks, and then it's always harder to get back into it. If it's something that's really important to you, and you don't want to forget about it, make it a daily habit. Tell everyone that you write from 7:00p.m. until 7:30p.m., and then write. Put it in your day-planner/Filofax/Google Calendar/iPhone/scheduler of choice. Make it an important and immovable commitment. You wouldn't miss an appointment with your hairdresser (I hope you wouldn't), so you shouldn't miss an appointment with... yourself, I guess? And your goals? (Talking to yourself is optional. I enjoy it, it contributes to my writing process.)
  3. Make sure your goal really means something to you. It's much easier to motivate yourself to work towards something you want more than anything else in the world. There are a lot of people I know who say that they would like to write a book, but for whom writing is not of central importance in their life. It is incredibly difficult to put work into something day after day unless it's something about which you're passionate (or something for which you're being paid or there's some other obligation). Big important difficult goals that involve a lot of work over a long period of time (like, writing and publishing a book) are challenging to achieve, but borderline impossible if you don't have really strong motivation. Don't set goals that aren't really important to you, personally - there's not enough new years for resolutions that are really from other people/society (for example, weight loss).
  4. Take small steps. The other day I went on a big walk over a big hill. My life is incredibly thrilling. If I thought about the entire trip at once it seemed overwhelming. So I told myself I only had to walk to the next tree. That was manageable. So I walked to the next tree. Super cool. Walked to the next tree. Eventually got over the hill. No big deal. Manageable steps. I thought to myself, this'll be a great metaphor for my blog. I didn't really. It's a terrible metaphor. At one point I thought I was going to faint and I realised hiking at midday in Queensland in the summer was a bad idea. Not really relevant. What I'm saying is: don't think about the whole thing at once. You don't have to write a whole novel. You just have to write a hundred words. How manageable is that? Then you write another hundred. Repeat until book reaches desired length. That's how books get written.
  5. Enjoy the journey. I don't want to sound like a hippy guru yogini, but I think a lot of the time people want to achieve something because they perceive that they'll feel different once they've achieved that thing: happy, or confident, or cool, or proud. I know this is true for me, and it's definitely true for goals related to weight loss - people believe they'll be happier when they're thinner. Unfortunately the reality of things is often very different to what we fantasise about. Once you achieve something, you will just aspire towards something else. It's absolutely worth aspiring to be your 'best self' or whatever else, but enjoy the process of working towards your goals, because you likely won't feel hugely different once you achieve them. (I still fully expect I will reach a certain level of success as a writer and suddenly become a Glamorous Novelist. Delusional, I know.)
I hope you are having a most splendid 2015 so far, and you manage to achieve everything you set out to achieve this year. Don't stress if your resolutions don't work out. You're probably pretty awesome already. I wish you a year of good reading, good writing, good fun, lots of lovely people to be with and lots of lovely places to go and just lots of magic, generally.

P.S. Here are my five favourite blog posts from last year:

Video games are not the root of all evil

Friday, December 12, 2014

Growing up, I obsessively played the video game The Sims.

And by ‘growing up’ I mean I played it a great deal from the age of about 8 all the way through until yesterday, when I played it for four hours before I became really, really frustrated with the lag (it’s all those damn expansion packs) and annoyed by my own lack of productivity. ‘You should be accomplishing something, Steph! You have so little time on this earth! Whatever happened to carpe diem?’ is on constant replay in my head (my internal guilt trip narrator would never use the word ‘yolo’, even ironically).

People idealise childhood as this magical time in their lives, when they didn’t have a care in the world. I think the further you move away from being a kid, the easier being a kid seems. I feel like I am still just young enough to remember things as they were. Sure, you don’t have to worry about finding a career and earning money and eating properly when you’re a kid – you’ve got your parents to look out for you. And there are lots of fun times (before you get all weird and self-conscious and emo).

But, gosh, being a kid can be downright terrifying. You’re pretty much powerless. You’re at the mercy of parents and teachers and older siblings. As you get a little older you gradually realise there’s so much terrible stuff in the world – people starving and wars going on – that you can do nothing about. It’s depressing.

I think video games are great and not the creativity-killers lots of people claim them to be, and I wrote a whole post about it for Birdee. Read the rest here.

Pandora Jones: Deception by Barry Jonsberg

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Pan is still struggling to distinguish between her dreams and reality. When she wakes in the Infirmary her mind replays the sight of Nate running along the shoreline and the way his body froze and then flopped after he was shot. But her memories hold more questions than answers and she doesn't know who to trust.

When she forms an unlikely alliance with Jen to try to make sense of everyone's haunting similar memories and the conflicting information about The School, she finds herself with unexpected enemies.

Pan and Jen are determined to seek the truth - no matter what rules they must break or how terrible the danger they face. But can they even trust each other?

I'm not a big reader of dystopian novels, possibly because I'm not a big reader of series (and with all modern YA dystopian novels it seems there's an unspoken rule that there must be at least three books to complete the story arc). I like things to be resolved by the end of the book, and I find there's a tendency with series for the books in the middle to be duller than the first and last book. Nothing is being established, but nothing's being resolved, either, but readers keep reading because they've already committed so much time to the characters and the story (a classic example of this is The Two Towers, which is easily the most boring Lord of the Rings book. I much preferred The Hobbit, and it annoys me that they're turning one great self-contained story into I-don't-know-how-many drawn-out films). I am possibly prejudiced towards series, and I'm sure there are plenty of series that don't let down in the middle. I just lack the attention span.

In fact, I'm so rubbish at reading series that I didn't even read the first Pandora Jones book. I thought I had. A couple of chapters in, I realised I hadn't. I was quite involved at that stage and couldn't quite bring myself to stop reading, find the first book, read that, and then come back to where I was up to (I don't think it mattered all that much, in the end). I was excited to read it because it's Australian dystopian YA and I believe that all books written by Australians are by default better than all other books. I have a lot book prejudice. It's a real problem. That said, there's nothing especially Australian about it - The School, where Pan is being kept, is on a very non-specific island, far from her home (or, what was her home, before the majority of the human population got wiped out by a plague).

Jen's the best. Jen's my favourite character. I think it's great that there are now more YA novels that feature non-hetero characters, in stories that aren't centrally about being LGBTQI (YA novels that are centrally about LGBTQI are great, too!). I also loved that both central characters were girls, and both were tough and had practical skills (I entirely lack both toughness and practical skills so I like living vicariously through fictional characters who are action heroines). The quiet menace of the School and its staff is terrific, and the fact that both the characters and the reader know so little about the School's motives and what's actually going on means that suspense is maintained even when the pace slows a little.

The ending is the sort of ending that makes you sit still with the book closed for five minutes, amazed, and then attempt to explain the entire book and the excellent concept and the awesome ending to all nearby humans (complete with acting out scenes and manic hand gestures), so that they, too, can be amazed. Which of course never works particularly well because explaining a book to someone is nowhere near the same experience as actually reading the book. But still. (Do other people do this? This is possibly a weird thing to do.) If you like dystopian YA, I reckon you'll like this. It's speculative, with a fair chunk of science fiction and lots of action, but the character development and interaction keeps it believable.

Pandora Jones: Deception on the publisher's website

As Stars Fall by Christie Nieman

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A bush fire, and its aftermath, links a Bush-Stone curlew and three teenagers experiencing loss, love and change.

The fire was fast and hot ... only days after it went through, there were absolutely no birds left. I should have seen it as an omen, the birds all leaving like that.

Robin is a self-confessed bird-nerd from the country, living in the city. On the first day at her new school, she meets Delia. Delia is freaky and definitely not good for Robin's image.

Seth, Delia's brother, has given up school to prowl the city streets. He is angry at everything, especially the fire that killed his mother.

When a rare and endangered bird turns up in the city parklands, the lives of Robin, Seth and Delia become fatefully and dangerously intertwined ...

An intricate love story about nature, grief, friendship and life.

As Stars Fall is beautifully written, and a novel that I think will appeal to both older teenagers and adults. Not just the adults who already love YA (of which there are many! I guess I am one of them now?), but adult readers who prefer literary novels or who might previously have dismissed YA. It's a very 'literary' YA and doesn't fit what one might expect of a 'typical' YA novel. It's contemporary but it has a distinct other-worldly edge, mixing the real and surreal well.

Seth is a character whose actions make him incredibly difficult to like, and both he and Delia's perspective are told in third-person, making them feel more distant. Their sometimes questionable behaviours are made credible by their previous experiences - Seth's behaviours are pretty much consistently terrible, but his loss is explored very well. Robin's first-person narration is engaging and immersive, and while each of the central characters are well-developed, she is the most likeable.

It's described as a love story in the blurb but I wouldn't regard it as such, and if you come into it expecting that to be central you'll be disappointed. Similarly it is very slow-paced - if you're expecting something which develops quickly, you won't find that here. It's evocatively written and luxuriates in detail, including detail about the Bush-Stone curlew. It has a great deal of depth and atmosphere but not a lot of action until the very end. It's a story that's predominantly about grief.

I think this is an intriguing and original contribution to contemporary YA literature in Australia, and I'm very much looking forward to what Christie Nieman writes next.

As Stars Fall on the publisher's website

Cooper Bartholomew is Dead by Rebecca James

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Cooper Bartholomew's body is found at the foot of a cliff.

Suicide.

That's the official finding, that's what everyone believes. Cooper's girlfriend, Libby, has her doubts. They'd been happy, in love. Why would he take his own life?

As Libby searches for answers, and probes more deeply into what really happened the day Cooper died, she and her friends unravel a web of deception and betrayal. Are those friends - and enemies - what they seem? Who is hiding a dangerous secret? And will the truth set them all free?

Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead features a lot of things I love in fiction: multiple narrators! morally suspect characters! mysterious deaths! people who are not as they seem! events told in non-chronological order! I was very much looking forward to reading it after having read Beautiful Malice, Rebecca James' debut. (I've also had a lot of people recommend Sweet Damage, published last year. So that's on the to-read list.)

Rebecca James writes really terrific psychological suspense, and Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead is no exception. I think it has more nuance and depth than Beautiful Malice - while in her debut she depicts a manipulative psychopath brilliantly, no-one is truly evil in Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead which makes it feel more authentic, more like it's happening to people you might know. It's told from four perspectives - Cooper's (pre-death, clearly), his girlfriend Libby's, his best friend Sebastian and his ex-girlfriend Claire - so we get an opportunity to see events from various points of view. Sebastian and Claire are both unsympathetic (and incredibly suspicious), but why they're so awful is realistically explored. We jump between 'Then' - the events leading to Cooper's death, which focuses on his growing relationship with Libby - and 'Now' - the effects of his death on Libby, Claire and Sebastian. Having the story told from multiple perspectives adds a certain three-dimensional quality to the world of the novel, and allows for all the central players to be well-developed and the dynamics between them conveyed beautifully.

The central characters are university-aged, so I don't know if it strictly fits the definition of YA. I'd recommend it to both older YA readers and adult readers who enjoy YA and/or psychological suspense. In terms of content: Everybody is drinking, all the time! It feels like almost every scene. There's also quite a bit of drug use (speed and cocaine) which is not really deeply explored but gives you a sense of the social culture of the 'cool kids' in this town. If these kids were real people I'd be concerned about their livers. There's sex scenes, and a death (spoiler!). It's not hugely different to a lot of YA. Even in Beautiful Malice, though the characters were high school students they had a huge amount of freedom and behaved like uni students.

I loved the twist (I guessed it a lot earlier than it was revealed, but that's probably because I watch a lot of Poirot and Miss Marple and I'm an investigative genius), though of course the greatest twist of all would have been that Cooper Bartholomew was not actually dead. Despite Cooper being dead from the outset, he's a very likeable character. Potentially there could be a sequel: Cooper Bartholomew Is Not Actually Dead And He's Living Happily Ever After With Libby. I'd read it! If you like mysteries, page-turners, gritty teen dramas and/or romance, you'll like this.

Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead on the publisher's website

My interview with Rebecca James

On being a young writer

Monday, October 20, 2014

Being a writer is such a weird profession, with a huge chasm between the hopes/expectations/romantic ideals of what being a capital-W Writer involves and the reality of the thing. Which is not at all glamorous. It's mostly hard work and uncertainty and awkwardly fielding questions about how much money you earn at every social event for the rest of your life.

It's hard to tell whether my experiences of being a writer are specific 'young writer' experiences, or things that affect new writers regardless of age. I think anyone who dreams of becoming a writer, at any age, has a concept of what being a writer will be like and finds the reality of it to be something else entirely. I dreamt of being an author from the age of seven. My childhood was consumed by writing. I got a book deal age fifteen, and my debut novel, Girl Saves Boy, was published the next year. It was thrilling and surreal to see my novel on the shelves of a bookshop, but the actual publication day felt totally normal - there was no real transition to feeling like a proper writer.

I wrote a guest post about my experiences as a young writer and what I've learned along the way, for the Writers' Bloc blog. They're celebrating young writers (under the age of 31) with a series of posts in October, so well worth a read! You can read the rest of my piece here.

(Sidenote: The editor of Writers' Bloc is the lovely writer and book blogger Sam van Zweden, who interviewed me on her own blog way back in 2010!)

Interview with Rebecca James, author of Cooper Bartholomew is Dead

Friday, October 17, 2014

Rebecca James' debut YA novel, Beautiful Malice, was an international publishing sensation, selling in 52 countries. Her third novel was released this month, Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead. It's terrifically gripping - I read it all in one sitting. Spoiler: it's about Cooper Bartholomew being dead (even though it opens with Cooper's death, we actually get to know Cooper pretty well... as Rebecca says, it's a backwards mystery. Okay, I should probably stop talking about it. I might genuinely spoil it. More info on it here).

I was on a panel with Rebecca at Somerset Writers Festival in 2011 (There's a photo of that panel in this post, where we appear very solemn, obviously because we were being serious thoughtful writer types. My blog is very helpful for remembering things - including my polka-dot dress phase). As well as being a sensational writer she is lovely in real life. So it was terrific to have the chance to interview her about Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead, her writing process, genre (NA vs YA) and her publishing journey!

Steph: In Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead, we get to see the story from four different perspectives - primarily Libby's (Cooper's girlfriend), but also Cooper's, Sebastian's (Cooper's best friend) and Claire's. Each of these characters are  well-developed, but there's also a wide cast of secondary characters with similar authenticity - what made you decide to write the story from four different perspectives, and how did you manage to develop distinct voices and characterisation?
Rebecca: When I started writing this book and started thinking about the characters involved I quickly realised that it would be more interesting and satisfying to include all four perspectives. One event can be described so differently depending on who's telling the story. It's one if the fascinating things about human beings  --- the way we all see things from our own point of view, the way we're all the centre of the story. Having the four different voices, each with their own individual take on the situation, allowed me tell four versions of the same story --each of them equally valid.

It's always hard trying to make different characters have different voices and I'm very glad to hear you think I've succeeded in this. First of all, I guess, I just try and exist in each characters head as I write their scenes. I try to think and feel as I imagine they might feel. In a more practical way I try to vary sentence length, dialogue tics, vocabulary, things like that. 

Steph: The novel is also incredibly suspenseful and well-constructed - do you plot your stories out before writing them, and do you have any specific strategies for generating suspense and increasing tension in a story? Do you have any advice for people wanting to write suspense?
Rebecca: Thank you. After many years of saying that I'm a a complete panster I've come to realise that's not entirely true. It's not that I've been fibbing all this time, it's just that when I wrote my first published book, Beautiful Malice, I had no idea what was going to happen from page to page, scene to scene, and I think I decided then and there that "This Is How I write." But when I wrote my second and third books (Sweet Damage and Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead) I definitely had a rough outline of the plots in mind before I even started. I even wrote a synopsis for Sweet Damage. (I altered it dramatically, but still, I don't think I can claim to have been completely winging it.)  My plots are very loose and unstructured -- major plot points always change, unexpected things always happen -- and there are certainly no spreadsheets involved, but I do have a general story arc in mind before I begin.  

Hmm. How do I create suspense? I'm afraid I don't have any brilliant or insightful answers to this. I write quite intuitively, I think, ploughing on without thinking too hard about the mechanics behind it all. If I have to stop and think about it though, I guess suspense is all about withholding information, tantalising the reader with different possibilities and clues, forcing them to turn another page and then another so they can find out what happened or is about to happen. 

Steph: The central characters in Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead are university students, a bit older than traditional YA characters (I suppose you could call it New Adult Suspense?), and it's a novel I can imagine being read by both older teenagers and adults. Do you have a specific age range or reader in mind as you write? Is fitting into a genre or subgenre something you consider at all?
Rebecca: Since getting a publishing deal with Beautiful Malice I do think about what category I'm writing for, yes. I have to because I'm contracted to write YA books for Allen and Unwin. I couldn't really write a book about a middle aged man contemplating a career-change for example. (Well, I could I guess, but they probably wouldn't publish it!) So, yes, I think about the category in that I consciously keep my characters young. Having said that, in both Sweet Damage and Cooper Bartholomew is Dead my characters are in their late teens and early twenties which makes them a bit older than many traditional YA characters, as you noted. 

But Allen and Unwin publish my work as YA fiction, so I guess it still qualifies! (Maybe when and if NA becomes more firmly established in Australia this might change? I don't know.) In any case kids and teenagers like to read up, so an older teenager who is finishing High School may well be very interested in a story about young people moving out of home, starting university, getting a job, falling in love for the first, second or third time. (I know I certainly would have been!) I try not to get too hung up on categories and publishing definitions. I suppose I trust that I can leave that side of things to the professionals? Some reviewers have called my work NA fiction, others upper YA, some people describe it as crossover fiction. I don't mind how it's categorised, I try to concentrate on writing engaging stories. 

Steph: You mention on your blog that you started writing Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead in 2009, and you've published two novels in the meantime, so I imagine it was a challenging novel to write - what was your process like for this novel, and how did it change and evolve over that five year period? Were there any particular inspirations for this novel?
Rebecca: I started writing Cooper Bartholomew is Dead  after I'd finished writing Beautiful Malice but before I'd sold anything to a publisher. When I sold Beauitful Malice I also  sold Cooper Bartholomew is Dead as the second book in a two-book deal. Sadly, when I handed the first draft of Cooper B in to my publishers I got a very lukewarm reaction. I was told it needed a lot of work. I was shattered. Deflated. I cried for a day or two and then had a bright idea! I'd dump Cooper and work on something else. (This something else eventually became my second book, Sweet Damage.) 

Easy peasy! I promised to have the new book done in two months. Ha! Sweet Damage took two years and in hindsight, dumping CooperB was a crazy decision. I now know that it always seems easier to start something fresh. The new shiny idea always looks so glittery and tempting. Problem is the new shiny idea soon becomes the difficult book, the work that needs a major restructure and a good polish. There's simply no getting away from the fact that there is hard work involved. 

Steph: Your debut novel, Beautiful Malice was published in a whole lot of countries and there was a great deal of hype around it, which is what I think a lot of aspiring (and published) novelists dream of, but obviously there's a huge amount of pressure. What was that experience like for you, and did it make writing your second and third novels more challenging, with that level of expectation and scrutiny?
Rebecca: It was very exciting to have my first book sell all over the world but in all honesty it wasn't an entirely positive experience. I think my reaction had a lot to do with my own fears and my own (common, I think, among writers) feeling of being a fraud. (Surely I was just an imposter dressed up in a fancy writer's costume?) 

For a long time I worried that I'd been given more than I deserved. I suddenly had a lot of unexpected attention (not all of it positive)  that I really wasn't ready for and hadn't in any way anticipated.  And all the time I was afraid of seeming ungrateful, afraid of feeling ungrateful. It was a strange time and I learned a lot. About people. About publishing. About myself. 

Steph: Imagining you could travel back in time and meet your slightly-younger self without tearing the fabric of the space-time continuum and what-not, is there any advice you would share with her about writing and publishing?
Rebecca:  If I could go back a few years and talk to myself when I was just selling Beautiful Malice to publishers I'd have quite a lot to say.  I'd definitely tell myself not to feel guilty or ashamed of success. I'd tell myself to ignore online negativity and unkindness, to let it wash over me. I'd train myself not to be terrified of attention and not to take it all too seriously.  

I'd also tell myself to grow a thicker skin and not to feel too intimidated: all writers feel slightly fraudulent. I'd explain that publishing is a very fickle industry, that there will be highs and lows, times when writing will seem like the worst job in the world, days when it will seem like the best. I'd stress the fact that, ultimately, it's the work that counts --  which is a good thing, because it's the only part the writer can control. 

--

Thanks, Rebecca! For more info on Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead, check it out on the publisher's website (you can read an excerpt! You will almost definitely want to read more!)I also love Rebecca's blog - she writes very honestly and insightfully about being a writer and her experiences. And she twitters!
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