Category Archives: Wordy advice

The definitive guide to writing by Roald Dahl

It’s always a highlight speaking at schools during Book Week. This week I was invited to Mt Eden Normal Primary and Kelvin Rd School in Papakura. The kids were awesome, crude, funny and polite. Before I read my story The Dog That Ate The Bathroom I asked what goodies their own dogs had brought home. Bras. Sausages. A cat. The list went on. My daughter recently wrote a story called Cinderella’s Bad Day whereby the poor woman dies every day in a myriad of ways. Shot by a creepy hobo. Killed in a rabbit invasion. Picked up by an Enderman and dropped into hot lava and eaten by robotic crocodiles. Every time I thought a particular death might be too graphic the kids squealed with delight.

It reminded me of a list Roald Dahl’s list of what children love:

Being spooked

Action

Treasure

Magic

Suspense

Ghosts

Chocolates, toys, money

Being made to giggle

Eccentricity

Monsters

Unorthodox methods

Marvellous/funny/incredible places

New inventions

Secret information

Time travel

Seeing the villain meet a grisly death

They love a hero and love a hero to be a winner

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Why all editors should be children

Reading a recently completed novel to your children can be a terrifying experience. Of course they’ll like it, mainly because there’s ice cream in the freezer if they laugh in the right places. But really, there’s no better way to find out if you have a story or not. As we all know, reading aloud is the best way to find flaws in our work. Reading to your kids raises the stakes. Thankfully, it’s all stuff you need to hear, including plot loopholes you may have missed. ‘Dad, where did she get the hair brush if they’re all stranded on an island?’ Good point, have a double scoop.

It’s invaluable discovering where the humor lies and where boredom creeps in. It’s not always easy, but tough. The novel will be all the better for it. And trust me, there is no better feeling than hearing, ‘I love this, I want to read it all night’ (translation: cool I get to stay up) and ‘Can I please take this to school?’ Below are some images drawn by my daughter Sophie (10) when I was struggling for ideas.

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Always read the fine print*

Always read the fine print*

Plot: Frank has been in a serious car accident and he’s missing memories—of the people around him, of the history they share, and of how he came to be in the crash. All he remembers is that he is a lawyer who specializes in fine print, and as he narrates his story, he applies this expertise in the form of footnotes.*

Robert Glancy’s debut novel is likable and funny, just like the author. Here he is talking to us on our radio show about his journey from PR man to Bloomsbury author. If you like Nick Hornby and have an issue with lawyers you’ll love this book.

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Be a cocky little nobody

Writing a novel is akin to solving a Rubik’s Cube. With vaseline on your hands. Underwater. Blindfolded. But it’s also FUN. Sometimes you just need a final push to get you over the line. Perhaps visualization could work. When my daughter struggled with high jump at school she imagined a knife-welding pirate was chasing her. (Violent class).

Here are some tips I often use to get the job done:

Ask yourself – what is the worst thing I can do to this character, then do it.

Download the Freedom app. Sure, you’ll miss out on baby photos and recipes on Facebook, but you’ll get a whole lot more done.

Find the weakest scene in your novel and DELETE IT. Don’t hold back. You’re not a scene collector, you’re an author. Find the next weakest scene. Are you brave enough to REPEAT? Ultimately you are trying to fit a lake into a cup without spilling a drop. Only you will know what was (and wasn’t) left out.

Introduce a new character halfway through who makes things worse.

Short paragraphs are easier for the reader.

Switching between Word and Scrivener helps with perspective.

Enjoy yourself.

If you’re lacking spark or confidence, listen to what Ricky Gervais told Time magazine.

None of that helps? Perhaps imagine a knife-welding pirate is chasing you. Or do what the masters do: drink.

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The only writing tip you’ll need from Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton

Huge congratulations to Kiwi Eleanor Catton for becoming the youngest person to win the Man Booker Prize.  Holy hell. What an achievement. And what a humble speech. You’ll be surfing on a rainbow right about now.

Recently, when I was struggling to string a sentence together in my new children’s novel I found a great quote from Eleanor which stuck. ‘If a book starts off funny,’ a thesis supervisor once told her, ‘It has to get funnier; if it starts off weird, it has to get weirder, if it starts off sad, it has to get sadder. Like all good advice it seems pretty straightforward at first glance, but I came to realise that having to trump oneself means having to outwit oneself, and that’s actually really difficult.’

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Why every writer needs a trampoline

Some authors say writer’s block is just flat batteries. I agree, but sometimes, no matter how hard you try, those damn words glue themselves to the inside of your head and refuse to play ball. When this happens thank your lucky stars you’re a writer, not a glassblower. The latter is chained to their shed or studio.

All you need is a laptop and $5 for coffee.

Move your office. Choose a cafe with a brilliant view. Write in the park. I’ve even taken a notebook out to the trampoline and jumped about like a doofus while the kids are at school. I tell you, five minutes of that and thoughts start to  zing around your head like sherbet on the tongue. And it’s cheaper than cigarettes.

If you’re in a rut, shift your headspace. Literally. Do whatever works. You’ll be surprised what lurks beneath.

There’s a funny smell in here

I spoke to a great group at Stanley Bay Primary yesterday. As usual, kids this age (years 4,5 and 6) are full of life, energy and awkward questions. I told them about Malcolm McGarvy (the bully in my novel ‘Shot, Boom, Score!) who has a few tricks up his sleeve. One of which is the chicken made from a tea towel; the other is a penguin made from a banana.

The speech went well and Fiona and the team thanked me. When I jumped in the car to drive home I was sure I smelt something. Something sweet. Yet slightly rotten. Something…like the banana I used for my talk a month ago at Birkenhead Primary. (You’re just lucky this isn’t Smelevision.)

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What is it you want to say?

Hugh MacLeod is a cartoonist whom I admire greatly.

He doesn’t suffer fools, though suffers for his art.

Today in his blog he paraphrased Linds Redding, an Auckland creative who recently died of cancer. Linds’ blog was enlightening, funny and honest. Although he admitted he enjoyed parts of his advertising career – and the people – ultimately Linds felt he worked in an industry which took his best years, not to mention ideas. And in the end he had nothing to show for it.

I hope Linds’ family are doing as well as can be expected. I never met him but he seemed a good, decent guy.

For what it’s worth, here’s what I took from his take on life:

If you’re a creative – be it art, music, writing, whatever – choose where to throw your energy. You only have a certain amount of it – and we ain’t here forever.

What is it you want to say?

 

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Surely the best thing about travel writing

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It was 2003 and I set off on a journey which would become the book ‘In Search of Swingers.’ The point? To play golf with whoever happened to feature on the front page of the newspaper where ever I happened to be staying.

So who did I meet?

Michael Georgatos, who was on the front page of the NY Post because he found a four-foot-long alligator while walking his dog in Central Park. Bubbles and Sweet Thang, two clowns getting married in Richmond, Virginia. I met Don Wardlow, a blind baseball commentator; an ex-CIA agent who became a pro on the senior golf circuit and played with Chi Chi Rodriguez; a Stevie Wonder impersonator in Las Vegas; a 91-year-old beach queen from Tybee Island, Georgia; and Mary and Otis Barnes, stamp collectors from Port Arthur, Texas. (Yip, slow news week when stamps make the news.)

If you click on NEWS you’ll see photos of these brilliantly kind nutters who let me into their homes. I started the trip in New York City, headed south through Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, New Orleans, Arizona, Las Vegas and L.A.

I still keep in touch with Otis and his family, though sadly a few years ago he lost his life-long soul mate, Mary. I will never forget being at the Hotel 6 in Port Arthur and seeing Otis on the front page of the paper. I called him out of the blue and asked if he would fancy a game of golf. As was the case with most of my ‘victims,’ he declined, but did offer me dinner. ‘I’ll be in a brown pick up truck; sure hope you like dogs.’ Half an hour later I was with Mary and Otis at their home, drinking Dr. Pepper and watching Letterman. The dogs, of which there were seven, scrapped, barked and licked my feet.

I haven’t heard from Lady Iva (the 91-year-old beach queen) for a few years, which is a worry. When my first daughter was born she sent a card and gift. I’d be surprised if Iva was still around, but she had a good life. Who else can say they won a beauty pageant at the age of 91?

Many of these people I met for no more than a few hours, but have been mates ever since. As for golf? Non-existent. I just figured travelling all over America was a damn sight more interesting than playing 18 holes at home.

Barnes family

Above: The Barnes family, Port Arthur, Texas. L-R – David, Karen, Mary and Otis. (Dr. Pepper – photographer’s.)

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Stephen King used to be a liar but only to…

…get reporters off his case.

In his brilliant book, On Writing, King describes how he writes every day. He once told a reporter he skipped his birthday, Christmas, and Fourth of July, because he thought it would sound more reasonable.

In truth, he writes every single day, including holidays, Sundays, birthdays, and holidays. Writing every day makes him happy. Practice brings him joy, and “if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever,” he says.

If you’re a writer, muso, artist, creator – you’ll completely relate to this.

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