For years I have been a writer, an editor and a teacher of creative writing. Now I want to share some of what I have learned along the way. Write On The Fringes is a blog about the dangers, the disappointments and the rewards of writing. It's a record of the writing of a novel, from the tantalising first inklings of an idea, through to the final draft. But above all it's an exploration of the art and the craft of writing and the nature of story, as well as a search for the essence of creativity and the complex nature of truth.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Famous First Words

'The last thing one discovers in composing a work is what to put first.'
Blaise Pascal, Pensees

As I've been struggling a little with the opening of my new novel and because openings are so important, I've decided to do another post on first pages. This set me wondering why we choose to buy one book and not another. There are a number of factors for me: the author's name, the title, the cover design, the back cover blurb and the opening paragraph. I take all these things into account but in the end, it is the opening paragraph that is usually the deciding factor for me, and recently I surprised myself by buying Anna Funder's new novel, All That I Am, simply because of its intriguing opening line, 'When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.' The opening lines that go down in history are ones that arrest the reader in some way, or tell us something universal about life. Anna Funder's opening line is is already famous and deservedly so, as it is an arresting one, providing a startling contrast between the warm comfort of a bath and the cold shock of the associations we now have about Hitler. Then there's Jane Austen's famous line from Pride and Prejudice, 'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.' This humorously asserts a 'so called' universal truth and in doing so, beautifully establishes the narrative voice of the novel. Although the opening line for my novel, Flight is not profound or particularly startling it does raise a question or two and build an element of suspense, so in that sense it has worked. Initially Flight opened with 'It had been days, possibly weeks, since Fern had ventured out of her attic.' However, about halfway through the novel I went back and wrote a prologue which begins with, 'I came early, slithering into the outside world and into safety, or so I hoped.' The prologue and Chapter One are clearly distinct in tone and voice so in a sense these are both opening lines (more on the functions of prologue in a future post).

Every writer wants a great opening line but it isn't always possible to achieve, sometimes we have to settle for a great opening paragraph or chapter or just a great novel overall! Openings need to be intriguing, they need to seduce us, startle us, make our spirits lift with anticipation or make us sigh with the beauty of their description. In short, they need to draw us into the story, in whatever way they can. We can start with a narrative description, as in Arundhati Roy's, The God of Small Things, or with a shocking action scene, as in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, or with a profound philosophical statement, as in Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities. We might start with a strong character voice in the form of a monologue, as in J D Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, or with a narrative summary as in The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx. Regardless of our individual taste as readers and writers, these are all superb examples (in their respective genres), of opening pages that raise questions and draw the reader in.

Strong openings have always been important but they are becoming even more necessary as publishers and agents are inundated with manuscripts and in response are quicker to reject a book just on its opening page/s. And there's no point asking a publisher to skip the early pages and just read from Chapter Five on. A few weeks ago, in 'Reading BetweenThe Lines', I wrote with regret about the way society has sped up and with it, the way we read. However, there's little point resisting an established trend and denying the fact that most of us have become more impatient readers than we once were. We have also become more story savvy and need less explanation than in the past. So whether we like it or not, there is little room in today's market for novels that start slowly. A weak first page or first chapter means that an agent or a publisher might not bother to read on. Even when a book is published, the opening plays an important role in its success.

Although in the case of Flight, I found my opening lines early in the writing process, it was only after six or seven drafts that I was able to get the opening pages right. This is a common problem for a number of reasons. When we start a novel we tend not to know where we're going, so it is only in retrospect that we can go back and see what it is we were trying to achieve. In the opening pages we haven't yet found our voice or the style and tone of the piece, or even got to know our characters, so the writing is often more wooden than later pages. There are so many elements that need fine tuning in the early pages: pace, style, establishment of character, setting, plot, motives. . . We often give too much away, or conversely, say too little. We might meander towards the story or plunge in without giving the reader time to commit to the story. And finally, for some reason we usually become most sentimentally attached to our early pages – probably because it feels so miraculous just to have started! It's always hardest to 'kill your darlings'.

When my publisher at HarperCollins first read Flight, she loved it but she also knew that she couldn't successfully pitch it to her colleagues because the opening was too slow and by that she meant the first quarter of the novel. I was lucky that she gave me a chance to solve the problem, though at the time I didn't believe there was anything more to do as I had already cut it back by 20,000 words and was certain that every remaining word was necessary. Reluctantly (and a little impatiently), I went back to my desk, where to my surprise I quickly discovered that much of the early material was superfluous because I had written it as an exploration, a kind of getting to know my story, while I was still 'finding a way in' (see earlier post). In the end I reduced the first four chapters to a single chapter and cut a further 20,000 words from the first third of the novel. It felt surprisingly good doing it, like a particularly satisfying spring clean. In the process no thematic depth was lost, nor was the richness of setting or the credibility of the characters reduced. In fact, the novel was far better for being pruned in this way. Instead of slowly meandering towards the beginning of action it began at the point where action was imminent, which increased the pace and made the story more compelling. My publisher took my new draft to an acquisitions meeting where it was approved and a year later Flight was published. Hopefully I have learned enough from this experience to be more ruthless with the early pages of my new novel. I've certainly learned enough to know that I should stop worrying about the problematic opening and just get on with writing it because there's no doubt I'll have to come back to these pages in the end. For as John Irving once said, 'half my life is an act of revision'.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website:

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Buried Treasure - Symbolism In Story

'Reason, science and technology pin us down to the literal fact, but symbols nourish the soul by pointing to something beyond what is known. Symbols quicken reality with meaning.'
Carl Jung

Today I buried Clown. The ceremony was poignant, though slightly incongruous. It was a finishing off, a letting go of sorts and it needed doing. You see, Clown was a stuffed toy from my childhood. He wasn't attractive; in fact he was grossly misproportioned, with an enormous torso, long thick legs and tiny arms. He was torn and filthy and his face was macabre, with an array of mismatching features and one eye missing. In short, Clown had been well loved.

For many years I had forgotten about Clown but a couple of years ago when my mother went into aged care, I went back to my childhood home to help pack it up, and there in the cupboard I found him. My mother had made this oversized stuffed toy for me; sitting up late one Christmas Eve so that Father Christmas could bring me a present, and I saw no contradiction in this, believing in my childhood way that they were working in cahoots. We weren't well off. Christmas meant treats, like chicken and tinned asparagus, pudding laced with an occasional coin and real cream, not the dreadful sort skimmed from the top of the boiled milk that we had for the rest of the year. There were few presents; undies from an Aunty, an occasional book or board game, and this particular year, Clown.

From the moment I clapped eyes on Clown, I fell in love. He became my friend and confidante, my ally, my comforter and my security. I poured into Clown all my angst and pain, the injustices I encountered, my sense of being different, of being misunderstood and unwanted. Seeing him again so many years later, I was torn between love and repulsion. I had moved on. I didn't need or want Clown anymore. He needed to go in the garbage bin but I couldn't do it, so in the end I stuffed him in my suitcase and brought him home. Since then he has been languishing in a cupboard awaiting his fate.

Today I had intended to write a post about characterisation but this episode with Clown made me think about symbolism instead. Clown symbolised a great deal for me. As an early much loved toy, he was a substitute for the absent mother. But as I said above, he was also a vessel for my unwanted emotions, an outlet that enabled me to get through difficult times. I don't know why my mother fashioned a clown for me to love rather than a teddy bear. Perhaps she wanted to help me see the funny side of life. Traditionally clowns represent a parody of kingship – irreverence, absurdity, ridicule. . . but there was nothing funny about my clown. He was sad but only because I had filled him with sadness. And while he was my protector he was also something for me to protect. Hence he deserved (and belatedly received) a better ending than the garbage bin. Symbols are both universal and individual, specific to a culture and a historical context, yet also transcending these things. They cannot be pinned down to a single meaning because they are able to be interpreted according to the cultural, historical and personal context in which they are placed. Clown meant something to me that was unique and yet in a story, a child clinging to a ragged stuffed toy tells every reader something about the character and needs of that child.

While many words are needed to express an idea, a symbol combines many ideas into a single word. As Anthony Stevens writes in his book, Ariadne's Clue: A Guide to the Symbols of Humankind, 'symbols tolerate paradox and can combine contradictory ideas; words are about one thing or another. Symbols awake intimations; words explain. Like musical compositions, symbolic forms are psychologically more athletic than words: they leap across national barriers'. In short, symbols inhabit the world of poetry. However, this doesn't limit them to poetic forms. As story tellers we can enrich and add greater depth to our work by consciously exploring the use of symbols. and as such, they are an important element in writing; one which we can use either consciously or unconsciously.

According to Stevens, 'the conjunction of sym (together) and ballein (to throw) emphasises the idea that the strange must be thrown together with the familiar to construct a bridge between the known and the unknown. . . . resulting in the experience of a new meaning.' In a sense then, symbols and metaphors are bridges to the unconscious, ways of explaining what cannot be explained, expressing what cannot be expressed. They provide us with access to essential truths, those that are felt but not measurable or possibly even visible.

My novel, Flight, is laden with symbols. Even the story itself is a symbol, or at least a metaphor for the journey to self, to an understanding and a remembering of who we are, to what Jung calls Individuation. Fern's story documents the journey from a mechanistic, conditioned life to one that is lived freely as a true individual. In the novel, the labyrinth is a strong symbol, and one that I consciously used. It has a two-fold reading. On a metaphoric level it is the story itself, the path Fern must follow in order to free herself. On a symbolic level it is the wilderness that Fern and Adam must find their way through in order to complete Fern's journey. There are other symbols in the novel, the snake, the bear, the eagle, the spiral, the cave. . . most of which I was unaware of at the time of writing. It was only later, in the editing process that I identified these elements and in understanding their meaning, was able to further develop them, adding a greater richness and depth to the story.

Symbols are not literal, they are not the language of the head, but rather of the heart. As a writer my goal is to find a synthesis between this language of the head and the heart; a synthesis that would create a more balanced means of interpreting the natural world and the human structures we have created. According to Stevens, symbolism is a language that transcends race, geography and time. It is the natural Esperanto of humanity'. This is a language that is fundamental for 'living stories' and one that is in danger of being lost in a world that tends more and more to a literal reading of story, rather than a metaphoric reading which allows for the transcending of difference and an embracing of the sacred.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website:

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Seeking Legitimacy

'The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.'
Sylvia Plath

For the first few months of writing this blog, the posts came with ease and clarity as if they were a gift. I looked forward to sitting down each week and discovering what I wanted to say. But for the past few weeks I've been struggling to find words, finding myself moving from one idea to the next, not satisfied with anything. Instead of an hour or two, my posts were taking a day of struggle and even then I wasn't certain of the result. I was fretting and irritable and losing confidence, and like a virus, this was spreading into my other writing as well, leaving me unable to settle to my novel or any other project.

My problems were exacerbated when a week ago my new novel, Flight, received a vitriolic review in a major newspaper. At some stage in their publishing career all writers get a bad review, so I knew it had to come. Flight had already received reviews; some excellent, others more measured, weighing the good with the bad, but this was the first time I had experienced anything cruel. I tried to be rational about it, tried to tell myself I was bigger than this, that it didn't matter, that everyone has a right to an opinion, that reading is a subjective enterprise and the reader is bringing themselves to the process, along with their own baggage. But no matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn't move on from the cruelty of it. Instead I fretted and felt sorry for myself and in the end my back went into spasm and I caught a cold, sure signs that time out was needed for me to take a good long look at myself.

My husband sat me down and told me to stop struggling against it. 'You're worrying about your readers,' he said. 'Stop thinking about their expectations and write from your heart again.' His words hit me with the force of truth. Even before this review, I had begun to worry about disappointing my readers, and I had begun questioning my legitimacy as a writer and even a teacher. This may sound strange to many readers. After all, I can list my credentials: two published novels, many years experience as a teacher of creative writing and as an editor and mentor, as well as a completed PhD exploring the nature and purpose of story. On paper I am highly qualified but for some reason a good CV isn't enough. Nothing is enough because I (like many others), carry such a lot of self doubt, which leaves me prone to concentrating on what I haven't got rather than being grateful for what I have.

This review pressed a number of buttons within me, all related to emotional memories of illegitimacy. For the past few days, while I have been immobilised with a sore back and a cold, memories of childhood have been bubbling up, snapshots that have been stored as scar tissue. My adoptive father pulling out his account book yet again to show me the column of numbers in red ink that flowed page after page. 'Expenses,' he'd say. 'This is what you owe me.' At my grandmother's wake, the will being read to a long list of recipients and my ten year old self waiting expectantly for my windfall; a bed perhaps (no, my sister got that), or a set of china, even a lounge chair or a vase. Then the disbelief, the anger and the despair when my name wasn't there. Memory after memory. . . A childhood full of accusations - adopted, illegitimate, bad blood. . . A childhood full of threats - reform school, sickness, hell. . . A childhood full of fear. . . A childhood I thought I had recovered from.

No matter how great our recovery from emotional wounds, scar tissue always remains and we will occasionally stumble into situations that will reopen old wounds. Perhaps the best we can do is recognise this and in so doing, not allow ourselves to place unconscious limitations on our lives. I have met many students who have decided not to publish because they are too sensitive, too afraid of the responses from readers and reviewers. And I have also met many talented would-be writers who have decided not to write again because they have received hurtful criticism. Over the years I have assessed thousands of manuscripts and reviewed a number of published novels. I know that each person whose writing I engage with has put themselves into their work and I know that this makes them vulnerable because their manuscript has become an extension of themselves. When we look at and comment on the work of another we have a great deal of influence and should approach it with a sense of responsibility. For an editor or reviewer, the distinction between reaction and assessment is crucial, as is the balance between flattery and constructive criticism. Many writers suffer from this process of sharing because the reader is dismissive, cruel, or simply without the skills to articulate their thoughts clearly.

So, how can we share our writing with others and emerge unscathed? Perhaps we can't. Perhaps we have to take that risk because we need to remain open to constructive criticism. It's vital to be honest enough with our work and with ourselves to see where improvement is required or where we have gone wrong, otherwise we simply stagnate. If we write to please, then we won't write from our hearts and consequently we will have lost something of great value. In a sense this review was a gift because it forced me to see an area in my life where I was still reacting and gave me the opportunity to explore my own issues around legitimacy. Hopefully next time I will be able to stand my ground and not react so dramatically to the cutting words of another. I have understood that if we seek legitimacy outside of ourselves we will not find it, because we leave ourselves vulnerable and in fear, at the mercy of the indifference or cruelty of individuals or even of society, which validates some while denigrating others. No matter how hard we struggle we cannot control the reactions of others but with work we can control our own reactions. So we have to look inside for our sense of self worth, a sturdy sense that will keep us grounded through the ups and downs of life. It's not easy but if we try, then our lives will be richer for it. As Ernest Hemingway once said (along these lines): 'If you believe them when they tell you you're great then you've got to believe them when they tell you you're crap.'

Copyright (c) 2012 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website:

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Digging Deep: Writing Character

'Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.'
C. G. Jung

Secrets are fertile ground for writers because they lie at the very heart of character. Conjuring images of dark musty cupboards rattling with bones, and of snakes slithering through wood piles, secrets are framed in silences. Adept at creating conflict, secrets are embedded within personal and family stories; the unspoken, the prohibited, the places we fear to tread. When these secrets are released they strike us at our core, but then most likely we will end up asking: So what? Was that all? You see, the danger of secrets so often lies not in their content but in their very existence. Secrets have a way of passing down from one generation to the next, growing, deepening, poisoning; the silences around them creating gaping chasms between people and between generations. Sometimes we accidentally stumble over a secret but generally it takes courage to chase one down and look it in the face. It takes a profound need to break free of a pattern and to take a close look at who we really are.

My first novel, Gathering Storm is about secrets, the corrosive sort that are passed down from one generation to the next, while my new novel, Flight is about the secrets we carry within ourselves, just out of reach of our memories, secrets that manifest in the forms of patterns of behaviour, unconsciously repeated over and over until we are forced to stop and face what we are evading. Mythologist, Joseph Campbell believed that the slaying of a dragon in a story is a metaphor for inner change, for facing those things within us that we are most afraid of. The plot then is a metaphor for character development. The outer passage of a story incidental, the inner passage fundamental. The outer passage the costume, the inner passage the essence. There is a tension there, because whilst the outer journey often follows a linear sense of time by moving into the future, the inner journey is often a series of movements into the past, not a straight line but a thematically choreographed dipping into memory. This inner journey uncovers the fragments that motivate a character's actions and creates an opportunity for the character to eventually heal a wound.

There are many metaphors for the journey of a character in a story. Alchemy is one; that fiery process of turning lead into gold. Or there's the symbolism of death and mystical resurrection, the shamanic descent to the underworld, followed by magical flight, the journey into the labyrinth to face the monstrous within us and the thread with which we find our way back out once again, forever changed. All of these are metaphors of transformation, something which begins to occur to varying degrees in a story when a character turns to face the unknown or the unremembered. But transformation is a process, not a product, it is perpetual and vital. As with life, in story there are turning points, moments of catharsis, of understanding, followed by periods of integration of that new knowledge.

In Flight, Fern's must retrieve and release lost memories in order to become whole again. Paralleling the quest of the hero in ancient mythology, Fern's journey through the wilderness is symbolic of the journey into the labyrinth, or the underworld. A place where fear is faced and inner change happens. Flight is a metaphysical novel in which the classic narrative patterns of the adventure story and the spiritual journey are intermingled. Since the time of humanity's first storytellers, the unnamed shamans, we have told stories that document the journeys of the soul, sending our characters deep into a literal or metaphoric underworld in search of purpose and meaning in their lives. In Flight, Fern takes her first reluctant steps in an odyssey, embarking on a dangerous journey that will eventually bring her face to face with her deepest fears. As Fern herself soon discovers, in order to fly, one must first be willing to fall. That is, after all, the nature of story, an invitation to journey, to adventure, to remember who we really are, something that is summarised so beautifully by TS Eliot in Four Quartets,
'We shall not cease from explorations
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.'

Copyright (c) 2012 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website:

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Finding A Way In

'Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.'
Robert McKee

In my classes, students sometimes throw up their hands in despair, saying they have no way in to a story, nothing concrete to fix on, nowhere to start. Beginning something as big as a novel can be overwhelming, but only in anticipation; once it is started, then you know it is possible. Bit by bit the word count will increase and in the end you'll have a novel. There is no formula for how much you need to know before starting, no strategy that satisfies everyone. Personally, I like to know as little as possible, perhaps an image or a theme or two, perhaps a few loose signposts to guide me. I say loose, because anything too tight will restrict the growth of the characters and then the plot will feel forced and implausible. As E L Doctorow once said, 'writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.' This is how I write, trusting that there really is a road beyond those headlights. However, it also means that there are times when I have to stop and do some research before moving on, perhaps because a character is evading me or I need to understand better the 'world' of the novel I am creating.

My response to students who don't know where to start or who feel they aren't yet ready, is to tell them that openings are not fixed. Most short stories and novels begin in the middle of things so that the story has a history even at the opening line. In a sense then, it doesn't matter initially where you start, because openings can be moved or changed, and often are. The important thing is just to start and to do that I tell my students to search for a single image, perhaps a person, a scene, anything that is less abstract than a broad story line. 'Look for detail,' I tell them, 'and write from there. Describe, imagine, step into the head of a character, ask questions and see what you find.'

I wanted my second novel, Flight, to open in an attic room in the inner suburbs of Sydney. Well actually, it had to open there because that was the only thing I knew about the novel. So I described the attic room, the protagonist, Fern, and the life going on outside her room. By doing this, I found out more about Fern and her room, as well as who lived next door and who her flat mates were. But a young woman who has locked herself in an attic is not a story in itself, though there is a good deal of potential back story there, just waiting to be discovered. Why was she in this attic? Why wouldn't she come out? I asked myself lots of questions, because aside from developing strong characters, curiousity is the best way of finding story. Fern is running from something, I decided. But what? Life perhaps. Or was there something more? If so, what? One thing or person? Or many?

I wrote four long chapters with Fern in her attic, while I began forming and fleshing out the world of the story and its boundaries, discovering that it would reach beyond the physical world to a metaphysical one which might or might not be a product of Fern's imagination. In the process of doing this, I found answers to some of the questions I was asking and from there the story began to form; both the back story that would motivate Fern's actions and the catalyst that would get the story moving. However, although I found some of the answers I was seeking, I didn't give them to the reader because openings are not about answers, they're about hooks, and hooks mean unanswered questions. These are what keeps readers turning pages - more on this in a future post.

This is how I write and it's the only way I know. So when students tell me they can't find a way in, I tell them to just begin. To start with what they know and from that point of safety to step into the unknown. To tell their story and to tell it truthfully. For as Maya Angelou wrote, 'There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.'

Copyright (c) 2012 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website: