'It's as though the future is held here. Held at bay, held at more than arm's length. Held just beyond my reach all the long days of summer. And the waiting is everywhere...'
So he's not ready for the girl who cuts past him on a wave. Not at all prepared for her perfect balance, compelling green eyes and gold skin. January is about to change.
For the first time, this new edition combines Alex Delaney's two stories, After January and 'Juliet', by award-winning and popular author Nick Earls.
It's incredibly difficult to review a book you absolutely love and convey how brilliant it is in order to convince people to read it without resorting to means such as multiple exclamation marks and caps lock. I will try, guys. I really will.
What I love so much about this book - and, now I think about it, most of Nick Earls' other YA novels, like Monica Bloom and 48 Shades Of Brown, both of which I love, almost as much as I love this book - is that it doesn't resort to big dramatic events such as death to give it emotional substance, like a lot of YA novels do. It just acts as a snapshot into a few weeks in the life of a character one summer, while he's waiting to see if he gets into university. In the meantime, he meets a girl named Fortuna. It isn't a shocking or dramatic premise, or a particularly complicated plot. But what makes it a really brilliant novel are the fantastic characters, and the wonderful, nuanced writing. It's both realistic and hilarious, and every line of dialogue is perfect.
Steph: Can you tell me a bit about your writing process? Do you plot beforehand, or is it wholly organic? Between writing After January and now, has your writing process changed much?
Nick: I’m a plotter. A thinker, a note-maker, a mapper and a flow-charter. I’m up for using any device that will teach me more about the people I’m writing about and their story.
I write down small random ideas and file them away in case they might ever become something. Then a few start to cluster, and I start thinking ‘who is this about?’, ‘what’s going on?’. More ideas/notes come along and add to the pile. I think divergently and then convergently. First it’s about coming up with possibilities, then it’s about drawing the story out of the pile of possibilities and arranging it in some kind of shape. While I’m playing around structurally, I’m also trying to get into the head of my central character. Once I have my notes in order and the right voice in my head, I’m ready to go.
My outlines can be a quarter of the length of the novel. I don’t have to stick to them, but they’re a mighty big safety net for the days when it all feels less magical. A good, detailed outline means that, on the ugly days, I might be searching long and hard for the right words, but I’m not searching for ideas as well.
Obviously some people work very differently, and that works for them. What I do know is that, for me, the above approach seems to at least make writer’s block a lot less likely. It also gives me some means of navigating, and some fuel to take me there. A novel is big – too big to hold in a human head in one go. My head, anyway. I need a map.
After January was a big part in helping me to develop this approach. As you know, I had the ‘Juliet’ story, so I had my central character, Alex and a version of his voice. That’s a couple of massive building blocks already sorted. Then I set about asking questions, and discovered that in itself would be a useful part of my process. Some simple questions can help me a lot, like the following:
Question – Where is Alex, the main character when we pick up his story again?
Answer – Maybe it’s the holidays, since I don’t want to invent a school’s worth of people. So perhaps there’s an interesting story there ...
Follow-up Question – What’s Alex expecting? What can I give him that he’s not expecting? Is he ready for it when it comes?
And along comes some story that I didn’t have before.
Every novel is a new puzzle that I don’t know quite how to solve when I set out. As the novels go by, I get more tools in my toolkit, but I keep having to find still more, and I like that. I might have systematised some of the processes I was developing with After January, but I think I’ve done it in a way that feels creative.
Steph: You've written numerous novels for both teenagers and adults. When you start writing a novel, do you know whether it's going to be for teenagers or adults? Is it a different writing experience when writing for different audiences?
Nick: Some time early in the exploration of the idea, I get a sense of how old my character is. Some stories fit well with a teenage character, and that’s really the basis of the choice for me.
The difference for me is not at the creative level – it’s after all that. If I’ve written a novel with a teenage character, I know publishers are likely to see it as YA - and I’ll want it to connect with teenage readers too - but the writing experience is no different for me. If I wrote for children, I suspect it would be. I try to focus on getting my central character right, in the hope that if I do that some teenage people may find something to connect with.
Steph: Imagining you're able to travel back through time and meet yourself as a younger writer – without tearing the universe apart – what advice would you give him about writing and life?
Writing: Try to be real, don’t try to be smart (real is smart enough in its own way). Less may just turn out to be more. Try to work out what ‘show, don’t tell’ actually means, and implement it. (I’m still trying to learn to be better at those things.) Step away from the sonnet. No one’s made a good living from sonnets since the 1620s, and you won’t be the exception. And don’t write poems to make girls like you, because it will not make them like you but it will give them something to quote back at you later in life. On the subject of which:
Life: Don’t be too concerned about the wingnut ears. Anxiety produces the wrong pheromones. Roll with the punches. Make time for life around your deep abiding need to write. Say Yes more, but not always. Say No enough that you have a life. Don’t even think about trying to get a tan. Sell all your shares in November 2007, then buy back in in mid-March 2009.
Steph: You started writing Juliet based off your own experience of a school play. Is much of your writing inspired by real life experience? Do you find many of your characters share your traits?
Nick: Apparently my main characters tend to have a lot in common with each other, and quite a bit in common with me. A psychologist who is also Myers-Briggs personality assessment trainer once wrote an article about my characters. I think he said they were all personality type INTP. He suggested that might be me too, and I think he’s right. Though I think I’m less I (introverted) than I used to be, and he said that’s probably the case. The public side of the job has, over years, changed that to an extent. I still like walking into the silence in my office after a tour though, and getting my head into something new.
Some of my writing has been triggered by real life but, in the end, it’s not supposed to document it. It’s supposed to feel real, but to have a life of its own. Frankly, I love making things up. I actually find it pretty tedious when magazines ask me to write articles based on my real life, because I’ve already lived it and there’s nothing new to discover. So, I’m unlikely to write a memoir. But I want my fiction to feel real most of the time, so it makes sense to pay attention to life and to how people work. And one of the things that makes characters real is details. Life offers a lot of details. You just have to choose and use them wisely. When you give them to fictional people and a fictional story, their purpose and their meaning changes, so it’s best to see the version in the book as fiction entirely, wherever it started out.
Steph: What has been your most rewarding experience as a writer?
Nick: The writing can be its own reward, as you discover more things that you can do. It counts a lot, though, when a story connects with a reader and they take the time to tell me about it. At another level, it feels like a big reward that I get to do this as a job. I honestly don’t think there’s a better one, not for me anyway.
Some of the big rewarding experiences have been less about me. I was part of the editorial and writing team that put together anthologies that raised $3million for War Child, and that money has done a lot of good. A few years ago, when I was chairing War Child Australia, I wondered if we could help restock the school libraries of the Solomon Islands with books and, with the help of Rotary and Australia’s children’s publishers, we made it happen. We sent more than 10,000 books to schools that had none. A year later, I heard how loved those books were. It’s hard to beat that reward.
Steph: What are you working on at the moment?
Nick: My main focus is getting myself more followers than you on Twitter. However many I get, you seem to be three ahead. I’m telling myself you’re following way more, and tweeting way more, but it’s no good. I still want to beat you.
Thank you to Nick Earls & Kristy at UQP for making this interview and review possible! For more information about Nick Earls and his novels, visit his website, nickearls.com (you totally shouldn't follow him on Twitter, though. Follow me instead). More details about After January can be found there, and on UQP's website.