GUEST POST BY WENDY ORR
Wendy Orr is the author of many award-winning books, including Nim’s Island, Nim at Sea, Rescue on Nim’s Island, Raven’s Mountain, and Peeling the Onion. Writers’ Rumpus is thrilled to join the blog tour for her latest book, Dragonfly Song.
In this guest post, Wendy shares advice with writers, and describes how the process of writing Dragonfly Song challenged her previous experiences with the writing process.
“There are three rules for writing a novel,” said Somerset Maugham. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
Of course there are guidelines, and of course we can try methods that other writers swear by, or what worked in our last book… but I’m going to tell you a secret, fellow creators:
Writing is creative.
We think of ourselves as creative people, but when it comes to exploring an idea we’ve fallen in love with, we suddenly lose our nerve and want inspiration to follow the rules. The problem is that a newborn idea is fragile. It can be crushed by the weight of expectations and rules. That’s why I do follow one rule:
Trust the process.
By process I mean how this idea wants to be written. I’ve said this in interviews and editors have changed it, because it’s apparently ridiculous that an idea should know how it wants to be written. So, yes, I know that it’s actually my subconscious deciding how it sees the story. It’s presumably the subconscious that seizes on an idea from the thousands of things we see, hear, remember and experience every day, and sets it up for the conscious mind to notice and start playing the “What if?” game. But since the subconscious is, you know, subconscious, it feels as if the idea itself is animate: an organic, intact being that needs to be unshrouded and coaxed into the light – and it’s up to us to discover the tools that coax it.
My problem is that every time I write a new book, it demands new tools.
These are a few things that I used to think were standard in my process:
- I often hear parts of a new work in blank verse, but always write it in prose.
- I always write straight onto the computer.
- No background music.
- I can’t draw, so drawing my characters won’t give me any more information.
And then Aissa and her story appeared. I’d had a rough start at a story set in the Aegean Bronze Age about twenty years ago, but it had never come to life. Then in 2006, I heard a Sigur Ros song on the car radio, and thought, ‘That’s the playlist for that book I’m going to write.’
Since all I knew about ‘that book’ was that it was the Bronze Age one, and the music suggested that it was going to be completely different from my first thoughts – and because I write in silence, hadn’t caught the band’s name properly while driving, and was writing Nim at Sea while overwhelmed with the filming of Nim’s Island – I tried to put it all out of my head.
But in 2009 I was trying out a fingerpaint app on my iPad, hoping it might help a relative with Alzheimer’s. Just playing, so I didn’t have to obey my ‘You can’t draw!’ rule. What appeared was a sad looking girl with a twisted mouth and a mass of snarled dark curls. I immediately knew that she was the protagonist for the Bronze Age story; my job was to find out why she was sad and neglected.
Various freaky things started building up the story from that time, until I was ready to start writing. The problem was that I kept hearing it in free verse. I followed my rules, forced it into prose, on the computer, in silence. The tone wasn’t right. I set it aside to write other books, sensible books like The Rainbow Street Animal Shelter series, which demanded straightforward prose and clear storylines. But after I finished Rescue on Nim’s Island in 2012, I knew it was time to return to this story.
I kept on fighting the verse, feeling that the background was too complex – until I finally decided to try writing it in a combination of free verse and prose. (In the end I wrote most of it in verse and transposed sections back into prose.)
When it was hard to jump into that first page, I remembered the music I’d heard six years earlier, and spent an afternoon on iTunes searching and choosing the album. I still hoped I’d be able to write at the computer, but oh, no. The verse insisted on not only being written to this other-worldly music, but in a notebook, by hand.
I can’t tell you what a nuisance that was. As well as neck pain from broken and crookedly healed vertebrae, I have such terrible handwriting that each day’s work had to be typed onto the computer immediately to ensure that I could work out what it said.
But working straight onto the computer, even with Sigur Ros in the background, didn’t work. I had to follow the process that this book needed. I worked out more processes along the way, such as interviewing my protagonist by asking questions with my right hand and answering with my left. The answers were often surprising (that old subconscious again) but they were powerful and I trusted them.
Trusting the process means feeling caught up in the story, breathless with the rush of it, sometimes sure that this is the best thing you’ve done.
But there are two downsides:
Be prepared to fail.
It’s possible to follow your process, love your story and write it exactly the way it wants to be written – and discover that no one else likes it. It’s heartbreaking, but that’s the creative life.
Be prepared to rewrite.
The process doesn’t always reveal itself smoothly, or the first time you search for it. You may need many false starts and drafts before you find the right tone and voice. When you do find them, you’ll know.
There are no guarantees or recipes for success in the arts. It took me years to work out how to tell Aissa’s story in Dragonfly Song, and when I’d finished, I had no idea if anyone else would like it. All I knew was that I had done my best to fulfill what the story wanted.
So my one rule is: have faith in your idea; trust the process and enjoy the discoveries. It’s the only way to write not only the best book you can, but the book only you can write.
The whispers say it’s not true that the Lady’s firstborn died at birth. They say it’s worse–the baby was born with an extra thumb dangling from each wrist. If she’s not perfect, she can never follow in her mother’s footsteps.
Nobody but the old wise-woman knows what truly happened to Aissa, the firstborn daughter of the priestess. If they saw the half-moon scars on the servant girl’s wrists they would find it out, but who would look twice at lowly, mute No-Name? Then the soldiers of Crete come to the island, demanding children as tribute for their god-king’s bull dances as they do every year. Aissa is determined to seize this chance to fight for her own worth and change her destiny once and for all.
Lyrically written and refreshingly unpredictable, Dragonfly Song is a compelling Bronze Age fantasy that suggests a fascinating origin for the legend of the Minotaur and his dark tribute.
Wendy Orr was born in Edmonton, Canada, but grew up in various places across Canada, France, and the USA. She studied occupational therapy in the UK, married an Australian farmer, and moved to Australia. She’s the author of many award-winning books, including Nim’s Island, Nim at Sea, Rescue on Nim’s Island, Raven’s Mountain, and Peeling the Onion.
The Dragonfly Song Blog Tour Stops
Writers’ Rumpus, Guest Post, 10/29