QUESTIONS ERROL IS OFTEN ASKED
One of the best things about being a writer is receiving letters – mostly emails now – from readers.
Many contain a list of questions. Here are some of the questions I’ve been asked:
What do you do for inspiration?
This is another way of asking the most popular question: Where do you get your ideas? Perhaps the question should be: How do you get the ideas out of your head? Because that’s what inspiration is – getting the idea out of your head.
Ideas come from everything we do and see and hear and experience. I might see a strange man walking down the street, and I wonder where he’s going, where he lives, why he’s carrying a bunch of roses; is someone sick or is he in love? A story is beginning... That’s how I got the idea for Rockhopper. I saw an old man walking down The Corso in Manly, and he stirred a lot of questions in my mind. It stayed in my head for a long time, and the story I wrote ended up being nothing like my feelings when I saw that man.
I hear children talking on the train and oh, yes, I listen. ‘I hate Mr Jenkins,’ says a schoolgirl. Why, I wonder? What has this girl done wrong? Perhaps she...
So here’s another story!
Reading is one of the best ways to trigger ideas. You don’t copy the author’s story, but his/her words stir your own imagination. Without reading, we could not become writers.
Ideas often come to me when I least expect them. Sometimes they flit away before I can write them down, and they never come back. But some are so powerful that they can’t escape. They stay in my head. That’s where everything we see, hear and read goes; inside our heads. There’s a store of ideas in there, and the trick is to get them out. When we do, we call it inspiration.
So how do we get so-called inspiration?
There are two magic words authors talk about all the time. There’s even a book called What If. Yes, those are the two magic words: What if!
"What if" gets a story started. It changes fact into fiction, the truth into something more exciting. Let me give you an example: We’re in the classroom and I’m giving a talk and you’re sitting on the floor and it’s raining outside. This is not very interesting. I don’t want you to write a story telling me all this. But what if the rain doesn’t stop! What if the principal comes to tell us no-one is allowed outside. The rain gets heavier, water fills the playground and floods the streets. Keep the what ifs going! What if the school is isolated by the flood ... what if we are all together overnight. How do we get on together now?
Or: on your way to school this morning you saw a truck broken down. It was an ordinary truck, so you forgot about it. But what if it was a circus truck. What if the elephant escaped. What if it careered down the street and crashed through the school gate. What if... The story is now up to you.
That truck might sit in your head for a long time before you work it into a story. I saw remains of Archibald Mosman’s old whaling station in Mosman, and it took me 25 years before I got the idea out in the right shape, and it became Splashback.
There’s something important here. You don’t have to stick to the truth. Almost always, it’s better if you don’t. You can tell lies in a story and you won’t get into trouble. How’s that!
How do you start your stories?
I think the beginning is most important. I don’t like long introductions – like you’re telling me what you’re going to tell me. Readers aren’t stupid. They don’t need beginnings or endings explained.
Jump right in! Try to grab our interest in the first line. You can look at a story the way you might swim across a river. Don’t be like me, and put one foot in, then another, and stand for a while before taking another step. Jump right in, and start swimming. This is the good part. Swimming across the middle is not as exciting. You must keep sight of the bank on the other side, and keep going. Work your way through the middle. Then, when you’re nearly there, end it as quickly as you can. Another spurt, and you’re there. The story is over. End it quickly once you reach the bank. Don’t dawdle.
What about endings?
This can be the hardest part of a story. It doesn’t have to be a happily ever after story. It can have an ending that makes us cry, or even leaves us wondering. But it must not lead us to think ‘So what? Why did I read that?’
We have to think about our endings. Sometimes it helps to look back to the beginning. Does the ending tie in with our opening sentence or paragraph? Have I answered the question posed there? I really like it when the final sentence has an echo of the beginning. The story has shape. It’s like a circle in my mind.
If you do have a happy ending, you wouldn’t say they lived happily ever after. Or even use the word happy. There are many ways of showing happiness without telling us someone is happy. Sometimes a smile or laugh is enough.
That leads me on to words. Words are a writer’s tools, so use them wisely. I collect words like some people collect stamps or coins or footy cards. Words can show how we feel often by their sound as well as their meaning, so always use the best word you can find. I have lists of sound words; cards of HAPPY words and SAD words and my favourite WET words. Isn’t it stronger to say water gurgled in the gutters than to say it was raining! So try gurgle, gush, galoshes, spurt, slush and oh, lots more. There are HARD words on my list and SOFT words (murmur, thistle, cinnamon, feather.)
You can collect words too, for yourself or for the class. Then select a happy word to help give your story a good ending.
Do you put yourself in your stories?
Never. But that’s almost a lie, because there’s a bit of me in most of my characters. They don’t look like me or speak like me, but often they feel like me. How can I know, truly, how other people feel about things that happen to them. I only know how I would feel, and I remember how I felt as a child about small things, especially when I did the wrong thing. Feelings don’t change. So I do give my characters many of my own feelings. I even became a mouse for a while when I was writing about Magnus.
What aspect of your work is most enjoyable?
Apart from meeting or hearing from readers, I enjoy working with the editor. This is the time when the book comes together, and you get it as perfect as it can be.
What advice would you give to children who want to write?
Don’t think it’s good just because you have written it. First drafts are rarely good enough. Great writers sometimes rewrite their novels twenty or more times.
Read your story and look for places where you could use a better word.
Check that you haven’t used the same word too many times.
Try to make us recognize your characters by the way they speak as well as the way they look. Give them quirky habits or expressions.
Don’t write the way you think you should write. Write in a way that seems natural to you. Sometimes, it helps to write as if you were talking to or writing a letter to a friend.
Don’t feel you have to stick to the truth. Use your imagination.
And never give up.
Are there things you don’t like in other people’s stories?
Oh, dear! Let’s just say I hope this helps you with your own writing.
Things I don’t like:
I’ve read too many stories that open with One day... This is a lazy beginning, and means nothing to the reader; everything must happen one day. Once is just as bad. These beginnings are a hangover from the old-fashioned "Once upon a time". Why not be more exact! Was it yesterday or this morning or perhaps a sunny afternoon last autumn?
I’m not keen, either on "Hi, I’m Emma" as an opening line. Sometimes these stories go on to tell me: I’m ten, and my best friend is Jodie. So what!
I’d rather an opening like this: "Jodie was my best friend – till yesterday." Here we have a problem right away, and we want to read on to find out what happens. The story will hold our interest from the start.
I don’t like a lot of ordinary words that clutter up the text and slow down the action. Look at your story and see where you could cut words without changing the meaning. You won’t miss those words once they’ve gone, and your story will move more quickly.
That brings me to one of my favourite quotes. Sir Winston Churchill wrote: I’m sorry this is such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.
I bet somewhere on your pages you’ve used one or more of the following words. I call them clutterwords: very / just / even / that / as usual / would / was / then / now / suddenly.
If you cut these words, in most places you won’t miss them. And your work will be crisper. Yes, it’s more difficult to be simple and clear than it is to be complicated. That’s what Churchill was saying.
So take your time, and cut, cut, cut.