Margo Lanagan answers your writing questions

1 LanaganMargo smlWhen is enough background research enough? (from Lois, QLD)

Lois, I wish I could answer this, but not only are research requirements story-specific, they're author-specific as well. All I can say is, you develop a feel for what works for you - but you only develop this by several times doing way too much and stopping yourself in your tracks with more information than you can feed into a story; or by trying repeatedly to skimp and having your story come out thin and unconvincing.

What I tend to do is start off with a scrap of information, write as far as I can with it, then assess how far I need to go, research-wise, with all the promise of what I've written already sitting there twinkling at me. Beyond that, it gets instinctive: for a short story I would only pick up maybe 3 or 4 interesting facts or features of a  setting or practice that I could use for authenticity, or to propel the plot along in some way. For a novel, I'm allowed to have a good long wallow in research - but then I have to sit back and let it all cook, and allow the detail to drop away from the really attractive and useful things I've found out. I have to add time to the equation, for novel research.

There's no quick way to learn this, but just as no writing is wasted, no research is ever wasted either. So I'd encourage you to keep on with it until your own warning system kicks in.

Margo, you write in the closest of close "tight thirds" in terms of POV. How did you learn to write in this style and is it something you can teach? (from Satima)

Hi, Satima. I don't always write in tight third; however, I always want the same feeling of intimacy in my third-person voices as I get in my first-person ones. One of the things that interests me is how people put together the sense of a situation piece by piece, how people work things out (what's happening, what it might mean for their own life) from limited information. And all of us have that experience, having been children and young people. So what we have to do as writers, if we've forgotten what that was like, is peel back the retrospective skin of sense-making we've laid over our past experience, get rid of the experience of having explained the world to ourselves, and re-trace the steps of that self-explanation. Or the interesting bits of it, anyway.

Yes, I'm sure it can be taught. But I think it would be more fun to feel your way towards it by seeing how it's done in someone else's story and then just trying that POV out on a story you've dreamt up yourself, that seems to suit  that kind of treatment.

I am writing a novel which is so far 20,000 words, but I'm in the middle of the 'murky' stages of the story. How do you overcome those barriers and continue on with the story?  I am kind of stuck as there are so many angles to pursue and I am unsure which track to go down. I know how I want to end the story but it's just the middle part I'm unsure of how break into sections, if you know what I mean. I know what I want to do, it's a matter of breaking it down, but how do you do that? (from Diana)

Diana, where do I start, with 'murky'? Murky is good. Murky marks the area that's going to surprise you the most. Murky indicates that here is the hardest, yet most rewarding part of the job of writing this story, the exploratory part. Everything else has led you to this point, where you'll jump off and begin to discover what this story's about. Don't be afraid!

How to proceed? It sounds as if you've got some idea for making the task manageable, the breaking-down idea. I'm not sure how your story works, but you might want to have a go at the following.

Write some 'jam' scenes; treat yourself. Choose the events that attract you the most, and the point of view that you enjoy the most. Dive right in and, all the while assuring yourself that this is first draft, discovery draft, and can always be discarded, rewritten or reorganised, get the fascinating parts of the story told first. If you relax with the process, you'll sense, as you write, the events leading up to these big moments, and leading away from them. Don't immediately rush off and pin them down in a chapter plan or a scene let them shift and move and disappear and suggest other scenes to you for a while. Let the whole project spread and complicate itself as much as it needs to, before you start narrowing it down again to what you truly want this as-yet-murky part to say.

To summarise, explore the most attractive angle first; let the mechanics of getting the story told and all the connective tissue written wait until you've got some happy goals defined for yourself. And don't try to force structure on the thing before it's ready for it. Let it be murky for a while longer.

Also, be prepared for your ending to change. Who knows what will emerge from the mist and uncertainty of the middle?

Beyond that, it's just a matter of being doggedly persistent, keeping at the thing until matters start to clear. They actually will, if you just devote the time - it's hard to believe it at this stage, but you don't need to believe to make it happen. Good luck with it!

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