“Mess, Mess, Mess, Mess, Art” – Geraldine Brooks on writing

Geraldine Brooks was one of the guests of honour at HNS 2017 and I can’t say enough of how compelling she is as a speaker – clear, great tempo, a wonderful blend of humour and seriousness, and carefully chosen words that reminded me of her novels. She had us spellbound.

I took notes, of course – I’m an inveterate note taker as I find the act helps me concentrate and then I can return for inspiration at a later date.

Geraldine Brooks began by telling us she looks for “the story you can’t make up”, the “implausible truth.” And each of her novels has found one of those moments. She had no idea that novels would be her life’s work. Instead, from a relatively young age she wanted to be a journalist. As it turned out, she was a journalist, hired first for the Sydney Morning Herald in the sports department of all things. Further education led eventually to the Wall Street Journal and reporting from troubled spots – Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East – “where history was unfolding.”

Brooks’s first example of “implausible truth” was the seed for Year of Wonders. Out walking in England with her husband, she came across a sign for the small village of Eyam – Plague Village, the sign said – and her mind was off conceiving a story set in 1666 with a young woman’s battle to save fellow villagers as well as her own soul when the bubonic plague strikes.

“Novels,” Brooks said, “are about exposing the truth” of who we are and who we have been, particularly women. “Someone rises up from the grave and begins to talk to me.” Often these are lesser people like servants or slaves. And where does she go to “hear their voices?” According to Brooks, “sadly, you go to the courts” – the English Assizes, the Spanish Inquisition and others – where verbatim testimonies were recorded.

Reporting has informed her writing career. Geraldine Brooks said she hopes her novels “make the suffering I have witnessed count for something.”

As for the title of this post, Geraldine spoke of the writing process as “mess, mess, mess, mess, art.” In other words, the process is iteratively messy until art emerges.

On a personal note, I’ve read two of her five novels, People of the Book and The Secret Chord – both kept within reach of my desk as examples of truly wonderful writing. You can find my review of The Secret Chord here.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

#HNS2017 – Dynamic Pacing

Just back from the Historical Novel Society conference in Portland, Oregon. A fabulous time with interesting sessions on craft and marketplace, the chance to hang out with ‘my tribe’ of historical fiction authors, bloggers and readers, and inspirational guest speakers Geraldine Brooks and David Ebershoff (more about them later). For entertainment we sampled various drinks at Hooch Through History, visited a few Portland sites, had a chance to learn English country dancing, and listened to a fairy tale told by author Kate Forsyth who apparently has a PhD in fairy tales–who knew!

Thursday was dedicated to workshops and I chose to attend Dynamic Pacing with agent Irene Goodman and author Selden Edwards. I’m sure my writing could benefit from insights on this topic, I thought.

According to thriller writer Elizabeth George, plot is “what the characters do to deal with the situation they are in. It is a logical sequence of events that grow from an initial incident that alters the status quo of the characters.” [Full disclosure, George references Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter’s book What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers for this quote.]

Generally speaking, pacing is the speed and intensity at which events of the plot unfold. Pacing begins from the first sentence, paragraph, and chapter. Goodman and Edwards wrapped up their session with a series of tips:

  • read a whole bunch of first chapters to find out what catch your attention and why
  • use history so it doesn’t intrude
  • read thriller writers because they are masters at great pacing, superb details and parts that fit together well
  • insert a surprise at the end of every chapter
  • go back to the Greeks and examine their stories
  • keep your story believable – it didn’t just happen to happen. In other words, events can’t just come out of nowhere.
  • use periodic summaries
  • to create suspense, leave out a few important details until the end, provide a twist
  • put your characters into action as soon as possible
  • make sure your characters demonstrate resourcefulness and initiative
  • use specificity to create atmosphere and setting – let your readers fill in the blanks. Irene Goodman illustrated this with an example – “double doors with etched glass swans” as the soul description of a house.
  • remember, your story starts on page one
  • start sentences with lively words and throughout choose lively, interesting words but sparingly
  • when you want to make a point, start a new paragraph
  • trim, trim, time until only the essentials are left
  • backstory is a killer – use it sparingly
  • and the familiar adage, show don’t tell

So, there you have it. I think I better get busy!

For another article on pacing check out Ten Thoughts about Pacing Your Novel.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.