What Do You Write About?

Fountain pen nibIN a previous post I asked the question: Why do we write? The answers were as varied as they were numerous – from a need to express oneself to the need to make money. This week I want to chat about a follow-on question: What do we write?

Ostensibly, the answer seems uncomplicated, depending on the reasons we write. Some of us write in certain genres because that’s what our readers have come to expect of us. But genres constrain, to a certain extent, what we can write about. A western most typically features the countryside, guns and horses, cowboys, saloons, and the like, which is not to say, of course, that such stories are not varied, especially if one keeps genre-mixing in mind. Cowboys and Aliens comes to mind here.

Then there are those writers who do not stick to specific genres, but dwell in the mystical spaces between them, writing in what they consider to be a more literary style. These stories tend to distinguish themselves less through the pizzaz of depicted events and more through the style, language, and a closer focus on the detail.

But the distinction between literature and entertainment is not always a useful one. After all, literary stories also entertain, and there may be literary moments in genre fiction.

For me the answer to what we write, what our stories are really about, lies in the theme. It is the theme that determines whether a story is facile or profound.

Is the theme a cliché meant merely to entertain us or does it enrich us by making us recognise something we have failed to understand before?

Scarab, for example, is a tale involving a mystical Sphinx-like creature, a quantum computer that can change the laws of physics, and a maniacal killer dressed in black. I had hoped to write a yarn that was entertaining and thought-provoking and, judging by the comments of my readers, it appears that I succeeded. Scarab became a bestseller in Amazon’s sci-fi category and stayed there for a couple of years.

The Nostalgia of Time Travel, by contrast, is a more literary story. The narrative is imbued with emotions and everyday events that we all recognise from our own lives, no matter what our particular circumstances might be. You’d think that the two novels are very different. And in terms of style and pace, you’d be right.

But under the surface, both novels deal with isolation, sacrifice, but most of all, they deal with the wonder and excitement of scientific and artistic discovery – they deal with similar themes.

Answering the original question with this approach in mind, then, I’d say that I write about recurring themes that interest me. The style, genre and specific narrative events are a secondary concern.

Perhaps you hold a similar view?


The theme is what a story is really about.

The Hero’s Journey

Barb wire against sunsetI have often said that one of the joys of being a teacher of creative writing is that it affords me the opportunity to reflect critically upon my craft during the day and implement the insight this affords my own writing later.

Interestingly, moments of deeper inspiration tend to well up during the execution of the lecture rather than its preparation.

It was during such a lecture on character arcs that it occurred to me that one prevailing weakness in student work – failing to make the hero’s actions feel authentic – lay in students not having synchronised their hero’s outer and inner journeys.

To put it simply, their heroes acted too wisely or competently at specific points in the story. The action did not reflect the hero’s current state of knowledge, skill, and moral fortitude. Their inner and other lives were out of sync.

It stands to reason that if the character arc, in a classical tale, describes the hero’s growth from ignorance to knowledge (by which I mean moral and skill-based knowledge) through trail and error, then the quality of the hero’s actions must needs be weak in the beginning of the story and become effective only at the end. A hero therefore, can’t be achieving success, outsmarting the villain, taking the high moral ground, too early. She is simply not equipped enough for it yet.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, Benjamin Vlahos can’t free himself of his guilt until he recognises the truth about his past granted to him during the cyclone.

One way to add to verisimilitude to your hero’s actions, then, is to sync up her inner journey (her decision-making process), to her outer journey (the execution of her actions in her world); to have her earn success through a series of hard knocks where lessons, both moral and physical, are learnt. This will not only synchronise the two primal layers of the story, but it will help grant your protagonist a strong measure of authenticity too.


Synchronise your hero’s inner and outer journeys to help authenticate her actions.


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Does the Novel Have a Future in this Gadget-Crazy World?

LibraryThere was a time that I was not as upbeat about the future of reading as a form of entertainment as I am now.

The desktop computer was the hot topic of the decade, driving the burgeoning games industry and a torrent of spectacular special effects movies to greater and greater heights, while book sales steadily decreased. How could the written word stand up to such a challenge?

Sure, screen and game writers were assured of a bright future, but what was to become of the poor novelist? Could she expect smaller and smaller slices of the loaf until she starved to death?

As things turned out I need not have worried. The tablet revolution, sparked by kindle, and taken up by the likes of kobo, iPad, and android devices, would be the game changer.

Suddenly, people who had drifted away from books, especially the youth, found it cool to be reading on brand new technology. It satisfied their fascination with gadgets. Tablets started popping up from a range of manufacturers. Reading was the winner, which, of course, was good news for writers, although not without hiccups.

Any major upheaval in the established order creates instability. As companies continue to experiment on how best to bring writers, readers and their products together they make mistakes. Writers are often on the receiving end.

Publishing houses, too, are having to adapt to ensure survival. The landscape is continually changing making it difficult to predict what’s next. Opinions fly around with detractors and supporters of traditional versus electronic publishing fighting it out in countless blogs and forums. My attitude is that as long as people keep reading, whatever the format, I’ll keep writing.

In the meantime, I am optimistic about the novel. After all, stories will remain an important part of life no matter what.


Stories are a necessary part of life. Write them. Read them. Enjoy them.


If you enjoyed this post, kindly share it with others. If you have a suggestion for a future one, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the bottom right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

The Art of Great Dialogue

Girls holding hearts in front of mouths“Writing great dialogue is an art in and of itself. For a film scriptwriter, it’s a vital skill,” writes Dwight V. Swain in his book, Film Scriptwriting.

Few would doubt the validity of his comment with regard to film, but should a novelist regard compelling dialogue as being equally important?

Yes, of course.

Novels no longer dominate the story market in the way they did a few decades ago – they have to compete with the deluge of new and exciting products, such as films and games, for the attention of their readers. Additionally, audio-visual products influence what consumers have come to expect from their entertainment – faster pace, higher stakes, and yes, authentic and gripping dialogue.

The crafting of compelling dialogue is the subject of countless of books and courses, but here is a short checklist on what great dialogue should accomplish:

Dialogue should provide information necessary for the understanding of the story.
Dialogue should reveal emotion.
Dialogue should advance the plot.
Dialogue should characterise both the speaker and the person to whom it is spoken.

Here is an example from my novelette, The Nostalgia of Time Travel:

Physicist Benjamin Vlahos’s wife, Mitanda, has been dead for thirty years, when she appears to him during the worst storm to ever hit the north east coast of Australia, and tries to persuade him to move on with his life.

Miranda: “Take the handkerchief from your pocket and place it back inside the box. Close the lid and never open it again.”
Benjamin: “Why?”
Miranda: “You know why.”
Benjamin: “I don’t know how to move on.”
Miranda: “You do. You must.”
Benjamin: “What about the math? What about the answers I seek?”
Miranda: “You already know the answers to the most important questions. The rest is gossamer wafting in the wind.
Benjamin: “Is it?”
Miranda: “Finish the story. Finish it in the way you want to.”
Benjamin: “It’s too difficult. I don’t have an ending.”
Miranda: “Do you still believe that? After all these years?”
Benjamin: “I believe in the math.”

Analysing the dialogue in The Nostalgia of Time Travel we discover that this is a story about a man stuck in the past. Benjamin is too tortured and tormented to move on with his life. Miranda defines the central beat in the plot: “Finish the story. Finish it in the way you want to.” This is the only way that Benjamin will end the years of stasis.

Benjamin, then, is characterised as a man steeped in regret, unsure of himself, unwilling to live his life. Miranda, on the other hand, is calmly confident, gently encouraging. The dialogue has to convey all of this.

Importantly, emotion, character, and plot are communicated sub-textually, rather than through on-the-nose dialogue. For example, when Miranda asks Benjamin to put the handkerchief in the box and never open the lid again, he asks, “Why?” Her reply comes indirectly: “You know why.” The reader knows the answer to the question from a previous context, so a direct answer is unnecessary.


Great dialogue performs several functions simultaneously.

Why Do You Write?

Light through forestWhy do we write? This important question has been asked countless of times.

The response is probably as varied as the people asking it, ranging from the rather vague – I write because I have to, to the more pragmatic – it helps pay the bills.

But writing is such a difficult and lonely activity that I believe there has to be a deeper and more significant reason that explains why we keep returning to our keyboards.

Why is it important to know? Because when we lose our way – and sooner or later we all do, when the muse and market-place glance the other way, when the critics descend upon us like a plague of locusts – we need to grab hold of that reason and use it to help pull ourselves back up to higher ground.

“It pays the bills,” won’t do then. There are other easier ways to pay the bills. Neither will, “I write because I have to,” since during such times it doesn’t feel like you have to at all.

The answer is probably two-fold. The first part is true for most writers: realise that what you’re feeling now will inevitably change. Your strength and self-belief in your abilities will return, prompted by more positive reviews, fresh insights, wonderful new ideas, better sales.

The second part you have to work out for yourself. What is it about the craft of writing, specifically, that brought you to the deep well in the first place? Remember that feeling you had when you wrote that first paragraph, page, chapter, that got you hooked.

For me it was a short story I wrote for a school assignment about the unbounded joy a homeless kid feels when he finds a shiny coin in the street. The idea sprang out of nowhere and practically wrote itself. I remember that last line well. It said: “And in his little black hand, the shiny 50 cent piece was set off even more.” Naive as it was, it had heart and a social conscience beyond my conscious ability to craft it.

The story made it to the school’s end-of-year magazine and proved to me that there was a voice inside me that had something to say if I could just find a way to activate it. It was the start of my journey.

I’m sure you have an equally meaningful memory about the moment when you first realised that you had something to say. Remind yourself of it when the going gets tough. It may just help you get back on track.


Never forget the moment when you first realised you had something to say as a writer.


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Do Your Characters Have ‘Felt Life?’

Man's faceOne piece of writing advice we keep hearing over and over again is that the characters in our stories should be authentic – that they should exude a sense of verisimilitude.

But this is easier said than done. It takes years of meticulous observation of people to grow a sufficient understanding of their motives, fears, hopes, and goals, and even then, there’s no guarantee that this understanding can be communicated through a story in a way that makes it feel authentic. If that were the case, EVERY lawyer or psychologist would automatically become a bestselling author or Oscar-winning screenwriter. There have been some successful writers emanating from those illustrious professions, but by no means all. Why?

The truth is that writing requires techniques specific to the art of writing. Technique, in this sense, is the method of distilling an author’s experience of the world into a story that convinces the reader of its authenticity.

One way to achieve this is to imbue your characters with a sense of ‘felt life.’ The idea is to have your characters effervesce a pervasive sense of their likes, dislikes, values, and individual memories and foibles, so that they spring to life.

Here’s an example, drawn from my latest book, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, in which the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, describes his love for a specific cafe located in Mission Beach on Australia’s east coast:

“There is a small cafe off the beaten path near Mission Beach in the north that makes the best waffles I’ve ever tasted. Miranda and I once had breakfast there, as newlyweds, while on a tour across Australia and the place stuck with me; but that was a long time ago.

These days you know the shop is there, even though it’s hidden by trees and shrubs and clamping bamboo that sways five metres tall, because the scent of freshly ground Brazilian coffee can keep no secrets.

The tables, now mostly vacant, are covered with green tablecloths with cigarette burns. The chairs have thatch seats that creak when you sit down, though never enough to spoil the constant stream of blues and jazz on vinyl from a Philips turntable. The walls are strewn with dusty black and white photographs of the town before they found coal, a few kilometres up the road.

Not many people drift into O’Hara’s anymore. They built a pier nearby with the coal money and a three-level shopping centre, with more parking than there are people in the town. It’s filled with glass and chrome restaurants, bars and shops, and the place now draws much of the crowd away. I’m still a regular customer though.”

Benjamin’s sense of nostalgia, his love for Brazilian coffee, and his tacit condemnation of the new shopping centre, built out of coal money, which has more parking than there are people in the town, grants us an effective and concise snapshot of his personality – a sense of ‘felt life’ which gives the story its verisimilitude.


Make your characters more authentic by imbuing them with a sense of ‘felt life.’


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Why Put Up Your Book For Free?

Book cover

The Nostalgia of Time Travel

It’s been a while since I used Amazon’s KDP option of putting up a book for free for a few days as a marketing strategy for my novels. In the old days, if your book did well in the get-for-free list, its ranking was transferred to the pay-to-read list.

But since then Amazon has tightened its algorithms. The do-well affect is not as transferable. So why offer your book, whose creation is a torturous and labour intensive task, often spanning months, for free?

Well, for one, it gets your work read. Amazon still calls the shots in the indie world in terms of spread and reach. Obscurity is akin to oblivion for a writer. Rather have people read and (hopefully) enjoy your book than have it wallow in the darkness among the millions of other books that are never discovered.

Secondly, there is always a chance that some kind souls who have harvested your book for free will find it in their hearts to review it and post the reviews up on Amazon. As we all know, reviews are like gold dust to indie writers.

Thirdly, a widely popular book on the read-for-free list, does enjoy some spill off effect. Maybe not a torrent, maybe not a gush, but definitely a leak.

It is for these and other reasons that I decided to put up my latest book, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, a novelette, for free on Amazon for a period of three days. Within two days, Nostalgia had shot up the lists — #3 in the Metaphysical bestseller category, and #4 in Fiction and Literature!

So far so good.

But, again, the nagging question persists: Will the book’s popularity endure? Time will tell.

Needless to say I’ll be reporting on The Nostalgia of Time Travel’s bid for prominence, in the near future. Watch this space, because if it works for me, it can work for you!

Offering your book for free for a few days on Amazon may help get it noticed.


If you enjoyed this post, kindly share it with others. If you have a suggestion for a future one, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the bottom right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

Who Are The Point-of-View Characters in Your Story?

MankinsA screenplay or novel is typically filled with several characters, in addition to the protagonist. One of our tasks as writers is to know who the viewpoint characters of our story are going to be.

Here’s a short list, drawn from Margret Geraghty’s The Novelist’s Guide, on who they are and how to craft them:

1. Ask yourself: which of my characters have the biggest stake in the story I’m trying to tell? Have the most to lose? Care most passionately about solving the story-problem? Your answers will indicate who your point-of-view characters are.

In The Land Below, Paulie is the character with the biggest responsibility and with the most to lose. But the Troubadour, too, has high stakes centered around a secret he has kept from Paulie all these years. Both are point-of-view characters who seize and hold our interest.

2. Which characters are the most interesting? The most intriguing? These are the characters the reader or audience wants to know most about.

3. Which of the characters are most involved in driving the action and the story forward? Passive characters are the least interesting and tend to slow the story down.

4. Which characters are the most complicated? Complex characters hold our attention through their unpredictability, complexity and depth. In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin Vlahos is such a character in the sense that we are uncertain whether he will choose to live or die by the end of the story.

Point-of-view characters are indispensable in creating interest, intrigue, and movement in our stories. They are the vehicles through which our readers and audience experience the story.


Craft point-of-view characters by making them complex, interesting, active, and with the most to lose.


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The Nostalgia of Time Travel

The Nostalgia of Time Travel

Man superimposed with galaxies and cycloneThis post is unashamedly about my latest novelette, The Nostalgia of Time Travel. The novelette represents a new departure from my usual writing, although I’ve tried to keep external events that are at the core of every genre-driven tale a strong feature of this story.

The novelette is part of my ongoing attempt to bring a more authentic, literary approach to my stories while still managing to retain a strong outer journey—something I began exploring in my previous novel, The Land Below.

Here’s a short description of The Nostalgia of Time Travel:

After the accidental death of his wife, Miranda, Benjamin Vlahos, an American theoretical physicist relocates to a remote resort town in Northern Queensland to work on a set of equations to prove that time travel to the past is possible. As he struggles with the math, a deadly cyclone approaches, dragging with it ghosts from an unresolved past.

As always, I’ve worked with nuggets mined from different genres in an attempt to keep the story fresh and unpredictable, but I’ve taken extra care to keep the emotional and psychological dimensions authentic.

Here’s an early indication from the first Amazon.com review. I’d love to hear from others whether you think I’ve succeeded.

It’s a book for people who enjoy exploring the complexities of human nature By hannah on August 8, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase

A thought provoking novel, that excels at creating a rich, layered world for his characters, with lines you want to read out loud, just to hear them. It’s more of a book for people who enjoy exploring the complexities of human nature, rather then just a waiting for the next plot point.


If you enjoyed this post, kindly share it with others. If you have a suggestion for a future one, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the bottom right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

Do You Like Your Stories Up Close and Personal?

Lonely man on pierContinuing from last week’s article drawn from Margaret Geraghty’s The Novelists’s Guide, we look at the pros and cons of using the first-person technique in storytelling.

Despite its restrictions, the technique has many strengths to commend it.

When The Catcher in the Rye was first published in 1951 readers were so convinced of the actual existence of Holden Caulfield, the story’s fictitious narrator, that they scoured the streets to find him. The author’s use of youthful speech patterns, exaggeration, present tense, and slang imbued the work with a sense of fluency and authenticity that would be hard to create through the more common third person past tense narrative.

The Nostalgia of Time Travel, my soon to be released novella, concerns the struggle of an aging theoretical physicist, Benjamin Vlahos, to unite two grand theories – General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics – in one grand theory of everything.

Additionally, Benjamin is haunted by the loss of his wife that occurred thirty years previously, blaming himself for inadvertently creating the chain of events that led to her death. To make matters worse, one of the most powerful cyclones to ever threaten the coast of Northern Queensland in Australia is closing in.

As these events wind ever closer together, interspersed with fragments of memory, theoretical speculation, and a haunting sense of loss, the narrative becomes increasingly nostalgic, ethereal, and tense.

I chose to use the first person present tense for the following reasons:

1. The technique lends itself to a colloquial style which encourages a sense of collusion between the reader and Benjamin. We are made privy to Benjamin’s hopes and fears in a more immediate and direct way than is otherwise possible.

2. Because this style uses natural, fluent, speech patterns, it is less likely to descend into pretension, pompousness, and purple prose. It is also a lot easier to read.

3. Since I’m addressing the reader directly, I do not need to use intrusive speech tags. This suits a story of introspection that is driven by emotion and the tension of physical peril caused by the approaching storm.

4. Secondary characters are richer precisely because they are projected from a single viewpoint. When the young Benjamin, thinking back to his youth, says of his uncle, ‘I wished I was bigger so I could pack his bag and shove him out of the house,’ we experience this through the eyes of a six year old child and forgive him his prejudice.

5. On the down side, the protagonist has to be in every scene and the thoughts and feelings of other characters have to be filtered through his viewpoint. But again, because characters are experienced through the heart and mind of our protagonist, we are given more opportunities to explore his soul through his misunderstandings, and through irony, pathos, and humour.

5. Another criticism is that the technique forces the repetitive use of ‘I’. In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, however, the frequent use of the word adds to the sense of pathos, stasis, and eccentricity of the protagonist, as seen below:

‘I wipe my reading glasses with my handkerchief to ensure they are free of smudges, squeeze them back on my face, and tilt my equations this way and that. I dot my i’s and cross my t’s. I make sure my pluses are not really minuses resulting from a lack of concentration. I sip another cup of coffee and spread more syrup over my waffles before I study the math again.’


Use first person, present tense narration to invoke a powerful sense of authenticity, immediacy and intimacy.


If you enjoyed this post, kindly share it with others. If you have a suggestion for a future one, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the bottom right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.