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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Kim Wilkins' Top Writing Tips

In the past 15 years Kim Wilkins has written 21 novels, including supernatural thrillers, horror, fantasy, books for young adults, books for children and, in recent years, contemporary epic romances. Her books are published in a dozen countries. She teaches at the University of Queensland in the postgraduate writing program, and at the Queensland Writer's Centre, and also mentors emerging writers, some of whom have gone on to brilliant success. 

Kim has also won a shelf full of awards including multiple Aurealis Awards for her speculative fiction, a Romantic Book of the Year award, plus awards for Teaching Excellence, Research Excellence, and Criticism/Review. Topping it off, Kim's latest book, Wildflower Hill, recently made the USA Today bestseller list, so when she talks about writing, it's a good idea to listen.

These are my top quick writing tips of all time that I think every writer should know. They represent, of course, my opinions, but I think you'll find I'm always right. ;)

  • Look to your verbs. If you read a page back and it seems lifeless and flabby, find every verb on the page and see if you can improve it. Make a point of collecting great verbs every time you read or watch a movie or have a conversation. Verbs like gasp, surge, quiver, and drench work so hard. Verbs are the muscle of a sentence, and can punch up dull writing in a moment.
  • Chillax on chapter one. Easily the most common writing problem I see is the writer trying far too hard to impress in the first few pages of a story. Many stories warm up and get fantastic after page five, but by then the publisher has already put you on the "reject" pile. Often your first chapter is so overworked that it's uncomfortable to read. My advice is to finish the book, then scrap the first chapter all together and write it again without looking at the original.
  • Don't write all your fun scenes first. Write in order. If you give a child her custard first, she's probably not going to be all that interested in her Brussels sprouts.
  • Be in a viewpoint, always. At the start of every scene make sure you know exactly whose viewpoint you are going to be in, and write the scene from inside their head. A story details a relationship between characters and events. The most impact is always achieved from describing that relationship from the inside.
  • Plan your story in advance, even if it's only loosely. It will save you so much time and heartache and, contrary to popular belief, it's actually MORE fun to do it this way. When you know that an exciting turning point is approaching, the scene and the ones around it can play out in your mind over and over as you think them through, becoming richer the more you anticipate it.
  • Most important of all: keep going. This is a tough craft, and it's an even tougher business. Dream big if you want, but your dreams can't sustain you on a day-to-day basis. The only thing that can sustain you is the work. Do it because you love it; because not to write hurts. Do it because you are mad about your story and obsessed with your characters. Don't make it another chore to fit into your busy day: make it the special place you go when your day has been rubbish. Keep going and keep going, and then keep going some more.

Thanks very much, Kim. I've made a note to work on my own flabby and under-exercised verbs. 

Kim's pictorial guide to editing: Kim's main website is here, And the Kimberley Freeman site, for Kim's epic romances, here:

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Robyn Wardlaw on Running a Fan Site

Robyn Wardlaw set up the fan site, Triune, way back in 2002, when she was 16 – well before I had my own site up and running! She has been runningTriune ever since. Who could be better qualified to talk about the challenges, the troubles and the rewards of running a fan site. 

Robyn is 25 years old and runs the Ian Irvine fan site Triune from her home in Scotland. She has a degree in Maths along with a vast array of skills and talents that people are currently refusing to pay her for.

Imagine you open up your inbox one day to find an email from one of your favourite authors. Imagine that you're not entirely surprised by this because you have, after all, been running a website about this author for over nine years – wait what, nine? – and you've had semi-regular contact with the author throughout that. Then imagine the email is a very polite invitation asking if you'd be interested in doing a guest-post on the author's own newly started blog.

If you're anything like me your response to this would be an incoherent garble of keyboard mashes followed, some very long time later, by a quiet “Yes please.”

This is not something I could have imagined happening nine years ago - come on, seriously, nine? I started my site for one reason and one reason only: because nowhere on the vast internet could I find another site devoted to Ian Irvine. I had been using the internet pretty heavily for about three years at that point, and had some use of it for a couple of years before that. Being a teenager with somewhat geekish tendencies I used it mainly as a source of information and to socialise with other geeks. A friend of mine that I met on one such discussion forum had recommended a series of books to me and I had hunted them down, devoured them, and desperately desired more. I took to Google (at least I think I was using Google at the time) and searched high and low for information on these new books.

Other than online book stores selling the books, I found all of three pages. They were all interviews that had been conducted with Ian about the time of the initial releases of the View from the Mirror books, on various book news/reviews sites. They had a complete lack of useful bits of information – more books were planned, three whole different series even – but nothing particularly recent.

This was somewhat aggravating. The internet had never before failed me in such a catastrophic manner. I couldn't believe there was not one single website out there devoted solely to the works of Ian Irvine.

I decided to do something about it.

Aside from my heroic attempts to rescue the internet from this dire lack-of-author-website predicament, my desire to make the site also probably had something to do with the fact that I'd been wanting to make a site for ages but never found a good subject matter. Finally getting to put these new found HTML skills to use, I began constructing the layout for the site. But then came the next problem – content. I didn't really know how to go about finding out the information that I wanted to put on my site. My experience of finding out information mostly consisted of Googling it, and that just got me right back where I started.

So I opened the book again, and I re-read the “About the Author” page, which I recalled had an email address in it. Scrounging up some courage I sent an email telling Ian I was making a website about the View from the Mirror series and asking for some information on his forthcoming books. Although I probably didn't use the word 'forthcoming' – I tried to check, but apparently Hotmail has taken to deleting emails from accounts that are largely inactive. [Ian: The date of that fateful email was August 17, 2002, and you're right, Robyn, you didn't. You said 'new']

To my great surprise I received a response within about a day. It had never occurred to me that I would hear back from him so soon, him being a busy famous author and all, but there it was, in my inbox, Ian telling me he'd be delighted to give me whatever information I wanted for the website. Awesome.

The first site that went up looked atrocious. I can barely remember it but I know that much. That said, it had the most up to date information of any version since then, so its key desired outcome was a success. It didn't take me long to revamp it into something less offensive to the eye, and it was at the point that I added something else: a forum. A horrible, freely hosted by someone else piece of discussion board software, but a forum all the same.

That particular version of the board probably had in total about ten registered members, and maybe about five of them posted regularly, but it was the start of a real community. I always felt we were limited by the board software and I wanted to host my own forums, but that would involve actually paying for my own web host, and I was an unemployed teenager living off of pocket money. It was almost a year before I got a job and could convince my parents to loan me the use of their credit card (since that's the only payment method the hosting companies took).

With the move to a new host, I was going all-out. No longer would this be some childishly-designed, Geocities-hosted, unprofessional array of large buttons. This thing would have its own domain name, and that's a coming of age for a website. It got a new name, it got a new look, and – yes – it got its own forums.

So was born Triune. The original layout of the site is what I would consider the alpha version of the current look (it's still essentially the same layout and colour scheme, just with some added functionality as I picked up one or two more bits of web design knowledge).  The improvements from the previous site were tremendous, and the forums provided the ideal place for the newly formed community of Ian Irvine fans to grow.

I learned something then that I've recently re-learned in Real World work: communities are hard. They require a lot of time and effort to keep them going. Mostly they have one or two key individuals that put in this time and effort, and when sufficient time and effort are put in the whole thing just looks effortless. But as soon as your life starts getting a bit busier – the very moment that you decide you just can't be bothered for a while – you come back and find it's gone.

The Triune Forums have always been like that. There are periods of high activity – usually surrounding the release of new books, but not always – and there are times when you'll be lucky to see a tumbleweed. Occasional events such as The Great Web Host Screw Up of  2008, which included three months of site-wide downtime and precipitated a change of hosts, not to mention domain names, haven't exactly help such matters.

Or alternatively the What The Hell Has Happened To My Database of 2011 (Ongoing), an issue I had hoped to have resolved before sending this off (and in fact delayed its writing somewhat – sorry Ian!). I am almost at the point where I don't know if it can be fixed, and I'm wondering if I should just start fresh. At the same time, I'm not sure exactly how much discussion forums fit in to the Ian Irvine fan community these days. He's gotten much better at it himself recently – his website is updated frequently (far more frequently than mine), he blogs often, and he's even gotten on-board with this newfangled Facebook concept.

Robyn and Ian at Worldcon, Glasgow, 2005
During the bad days it's easy to start thinking about packing it all in, letting someone else take over, maybe just shutting it down altogether. Not too long ago, after spending almost an entire day trying countless fixes for my current problems, I thought to myself “Why am I doing this?” But then you remember the good days. Making friends. Meeting Ian at WorldCon. Silly word association games. Marriage proposals based on internet-rare good grammar (and refused because that's no reason to get married). Invitations to post on Ian's blog. Yes, today is a very good day.

Imagine that all this happened to you, then go and check your emails. Maybe tomorrow will be a good day for you.

In 05, Robyn travelled right across Scotland to meet me at Worldcon in Glasgow, and kindly came to my exclusive 'reading for one' there – the most focused audience I've ever had. Thank you for that, Robyn, and for the past 9+ years of Triune.

Triune can be found at

Monday, December 5, 2011

Trent Jamieson on World-Building Hell

Today Trent Jamieson, who in his own write is a sombre, contemplative fellow with just a hint of edge, is talking about how he created the world of his marvellous Death Works trilogy.

World-Building as an Obsession - a Not Particularly Helpful Guide

Sometimes worlds are built through assiduous research, and other times they're just part of what you are.

If you're a writer, particularly if you're a fantasy writer, you like to build worlds - actually build in this case is too weak a verb, you like to inhabit them. And, like anything you inhabit, it starts to inhabit you a bit, too. You close your eyes and you're suddenly standing beneath the great creaking branches of a giant Moreton Bay Fig Tree (otherwise known as the One Tree), its root buttresses the size of hills. A dead soul, glowing slightly blue, bumps you, you turn to apologise but it's already marching towards the base of the tree.

Well, that's how it is for me. And the world of the Death Works is one that I've inhabited for a long time.

I grew up fascinated by the afterlife, and stories about the Underworld. The first time I heard the story of Eurydice and Orpheus shivers ran down my spine. The first time I looked at Brueghel's Triumph of Death - with all those crazy skeletons - I knew I had found a kindred spirit. It seemed inevitable that I would go to those places in my writing.

The world of the Death Works books isn't the only place I hang out in, of course, but it's the only one that is so closely focused on the Underworld, it's also the only one that has Brisbane as a setting. Which is appropriate, because Brisbane is my home, and these are some of the most personal stories I've ever written. Mixing my home with a fantasy land version of Hell didn't just seem appropriate, it was vital - I needed both to ground the other, any hesitancy and the books would just feel unbalanced.

When you're writing about Psychopomps and Stirrers and scone eating deities and belligerent talking tattoos you need to ground it in a place that's familiar, that has great coffee, pubs, and a lot of bridges (death and bridges go hand in hand, you see).

My Underworld is a mixture of mythologies and folk law. Everything from Norse to African, Sumerian, Greek and French is in there. Which made sense to me because I imagined all of these mythologies would hold a piece of truth in my world. But I also wanted to throw in my own bits and pieces, the Hungry Death, Wal the talking cherub, the nature of Mog, Death's Scythe, and the way Regional Deaths are promoted.

The One Tree is in part Norse, but it also borrows from European Folklore that looks at the journey of a soul as being of three parts, one of which is a journey to a tree - the World Axis - where the souls live in the branches. There was also the idea of reincarnation as a tree common to a lot of different cultures and fairytales, see the Grimm's "Juniper Tree" - which also uses birds in an interesting way (birds feature quite prominently in my books as well).

But it wasn't just folklore that I used. The books are loaded with references to other books that concern themselves with the underworld, too, I couldn't help myself - Mr D's bicycle and Steve's surname come from the book the Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien. The blue glow of the dead comes from The Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. There's even touches of Ursula Le Guin's Underworld in the Earthsea books. And that's not even mentioning Fritz Leiber's Death or Neil Gaiman's or Terry Pratchett's or the dozens of other novelists that I can't think of now, all of which have left their mark on the novels.

Which brings me back to the beginning, these Death Works books chart my reading of fantasy, the world is built on a lifetime's obsession. Sometimes that's all the research you need.

Thanks very much for those insights, Trent. A revelation – my worlds have a complete lack of scone-eating deities and I now realise what a flaw that is. Trent's next book is Roil

I've read The Business of Death, and loved it. For more info on Trent, The Business of Death and his other writing, where else would you go but the Trentonomicon,