Posts tagged Richard Newsome

The joy of not writing

Is there a greater joy than the act of doing anything other than the thing that you’re supposed to be doing?

Last week I was supposed to be writing. But instead I was on the open road, tootling along country lanes around regional Victoria in the bottom right-hand corner of Australia. I was on tour, with all the glamour that the term ‘on tour’ implies. That is, not much. But a week of tootling about in a small Hyundai sedan and getting to meet a bunch of enthusiastic young readers was a joy.

When it comes to Victoria, I haven’t been much outside the capital city of Melbourne, so I was quite looking forward to seeing a bit of new territory. I quickly realised that regional Victoria is much the same as regional anywhere in Australia — the streets are broad, the locals are friendly and school kids are essentially identical regardless of location. That is, they’re glad of any disruption to maths lessons caused by a visiting author. And they’re always up for a laugh.

I spent a very enjoyable hour or so with the kids of Bairnsdale Primary School 754. Apparently in Victoria they number their schools according to the order in which they were founded. Sort of like how they number members of the Australian cricket team. And German prisoner of war camps. Anyway, Bairnsdale celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2014 and what a great little school it is. And this is in no small part to the fact that it has a school dog. His name is Ralph, he has his photo on the notice board alongside that of the principal and the teachers, and he is an important member of the school community.

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Ralph is a golden retriever, Labrador, something undetermined cross. And that is about the only cross thing about him. A more placid pooch I am yet to encounter.

Ralph attends classes, mostly those of his owner and teacher from year 6, and is a big help when kids need a circuit breaker. When someone is getting a bit frustrated or on edge with some issue or another at school, they take Ralph for a walk around the oval. They tell him their secrets, talk through their problems and by the time they get back, everyone has calmed down. It’s a brilliant idea.

Ralph sat in on my presentation to the year 5 and 6 kids, and he behaved pretty much the same way most kids do in my sessions. He fell asleep under a desk.

He did come to life when I called for volunteers for a mind reading experiment. But it was no use choosing Ralph for that. He knows how to keep a secret.

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Enter the Billionaire Writing Competition

The Crystal CodeTo celebrate the release of The Crystal Code, book four in Richard Newsome’s award-winning Billionaire series, Text Publishing are running a writing competition for students aged 10–13 years.

The winner’s school will receive a $1,000 credit voucher and the winning writer a $100 credit voucher to spend in one New Zealand bookshop, courtesy of Text Publishing.

To be part of the competition, you must write a story of no more than 500 words about what would happen if you inherited billions of dollars.

The competition is open now and entries have to be in by Friday 9 November.  For more information and to download an entry form, visit the Text Publishing website.

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Ssshhh … genius at work

Read our 2011 Star Authors' postsShut up.

No, really. Just shut up.

Zip the lip. Bolt your cake hole. Button your trap. Fermez la bouche.

That’s better.

Now turn off your iPod. Pull the earbuds out.

Now, do you hear that?

That strange whooshing noise in your ears?

That’s the sound of your brain saying thank you. It’s the sound of your thoughts taking shape. It’s a soundtrack of what takes place when you make the effort to switch off from the incessant attack on the most assaulted of our senses.

You can block your nose (smell), you can close your eyes (sight), you can shut your mouth (taste) and you can stand on one foot and make like a scarecrow (touch). But it is very difficult to block out the sounds of our everyday lives.

However, when you do stop yakking and toss the music in the top drawer, it is amazing what you can hear.

Notions being born. Pinpoints of logic being connected. Stories ripening like a marinating t-bone.

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For many years I worked in Sydney, driving my car the fifty minutes to the office each day. To pass the time, I listened to the radio. Chat. Songs. Advertisements. Noise.

I had been tinkering in my spare time on what was to become my first book, The Billionaire’s Curse. I’d do a bit of writing on weekends or late at night, if I could muster the energy. But I wasn’t making much progress. I could never find the time to think about the story and how it should develop.

Then one night, as I was driving home from work, I switched off the car radio.

It was an eerie experience. What was this thing? This thing called silence.

Then, like some rusted piece of machinery that had lain dormant and unloved under a tarp in the back of the workshop, my brain fired into life.

Action scenes revealed themselves. Lines of dialogue played out in my ears. Characters wandered in and introduced themselves.

It was astounding what was revealed once I shut out all the competing noise. That drive home soon became my favourite part of the day. When I could be alone. Just my thoughts and me.

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A white-edged raging defence of comic books

There are two words which, when mentioned together, are guaranteed to get me frothing at the mouth in a barely controllable rage: ‘reluctant’ and ‘reader’.

The term reluctant reader is tossed about by the unthinking and the well-meaning in equal measure. It’s usually aimed at boys of a certain age, and I find it completely and utterly repugnant. I’m probably over-reacting (I have a tendency towards ranting) but hear me out.

I’ve seen it used as a pejorative: I suppose this book might be popular with the reluctant reader set. As if a book that kids actually want to pick up and read is somehow a bad thing. This sneering condescension is at the heart of a boorish them-and-us mindset from adults who ought to know better. You know the type: Tarquin and Jacinta devour books like starving geniuses, but Johnno (eye roll) well, I suppose not everyone can be a READER.

First of all, bully for Tarquin and Jacinta — good for them. Second of all, geniuses or not, they warrant no more or less consideration in their learning than does Johnno. How dare anyone be consigned to the big bin labelled HOPELESS because they don’t happen to share your ideal of what constitutes a good book. Perhaps if snotty parent/teacher/librarian could put a clothes peg on their nose for long enough to consider for a second that maybe Johnno doesn’t read because he thinks The Famous Five is outdated tosh, and he would be more than happy to lose himself in a story if only someone would show him a good one.

Which brings me to the subject of comic books. 

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I read a colossal number of comic books when I was a kid. Cracked, Cor, The Beano, Peanuts, Donald Duck, Richie Rich, The Archies, Phantom, Commando, Twilight Zone … and the daddy of them all: Mad Magazine. Under the careful tutelage of Alfred E. Neuman, I was introduced to literature and movies, to history and geography, to satire and word play. It piqued an interest in US history that continues to this day. Its soft scepticism and lack of reverence for authority probably nudged me towards my early career in journalism. When I was done reading textbooks or set novels, it was towards my stack of Mad Magazines that I gravitated. The owner of the local second hand bookstore would keep any fresh titles aside for me, knowing full well that I would buy them. For an inquisitive 11-year-old, they were my window to a mad world.

So rather than branding a kid as a reluctant reader, maybe they just need the right thing to read. There aren’t so many classic comics being published these days, but there has been an explosion in the field of graphic novels. If you’re worried your kid isn’t reading, I’d spread a bunch of graphic novels around the house like cockroach baits. Just like the real thing, they’ll start nibbling soon enough. You’ll be surprised where it can lead.

 

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Dream on, dopey

‘So, when are you going to write a real book? You know — for adults.’

How does one respond to such a question?

A knee to the groin? A sharp slap across the cheek? A ninja star to the throat?

No. Of course not. You smile benignly and say, ‘I already write real books. Kids are people too.’

I don’t buy the notion that books for children, particularly those aged nine to twelve — my target readership — are somehow inferior, or don’t meet the standards of a ‘book for adults’.  What does that even mean? Are the characters somehow illegitimate because they’re too young to shave? Are the themes irrelevant because they don’t involve a mid-life crisis?

Some of the wisest people I’ve met have been aged under twelve. Conversely, some of the dopiest people I’ve met have grey hair, wear suits and work in jobs that they hate.

I write books for middle grade kids for the very reason that they don’t wear suits and spend their lives in pointless meetings.

They have the luxury of youth and a lifetime of adventure ahead of them. I want to tap into that sense of, as the French say, joie de vivre.  You know, before they go grey and feel the need to buy a red sports car.

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It’s all about life on the cusp. About transitions. About security in the present and uncertainty in the future. Middle grade is where friendships are first tested, and sometimes found wanting. It’s where the simple things are often the most important things. It’s where a broken arm isn’t a tragedy; it’s part of the adventure. It’s a time of wonder, of first freedoms, of staying up later than you’ve ever been allowed before. It’s about failing. And trying again. It’s the first glimpse through the window of life and knowing with every ounce of spirit in your bones that there’s something amazing on the other side. And you have this one special friend, ready to explore it all with you.

Middle grade is life as a concentrate, distilled into its purest essence. And it is a privilege to write those stories.

So how did I respond to my inquisitor, the one who asked if I was ever going to write a real book? I flung a copy of my latest edition at his head. It bounced off, producing a red welt and a satisfying yelp of pain. ‘That real enough for you?’ I asked.

In my dreams.

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The thot plickens…

I’m up to my armpits in plotting at the moment.

Some writers adopt the headlight approach to their novels. American author EL Doctorow is credited with saying, ‘Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’

I’m sure that’s comforting for some.

I need to know where I am at every stage of my journey. So I take the obsessive military planner approach to my books. That is, I need high-res satellite imaging of every inch of the way and don’t bore me with diverting side trips to that picturesque lake back at the turnoff. My troops are massed and they have a plan to follow. The logistics are in place; the supply line is organised. We march at dawn!

I plot. A lot.

It always starts the same way. With a 240 page A4 spiral-bound notebook, and my lucky mechanical pencil (a LAMY scribble Druckbleistift that I picked up at a stationers in Auckland about ten years ago, if you must know.) I’ve used that pencil for all my books and would be lost without it.

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I always have a firm idea of where the story is going to go before I begin. I crack open the notebook and start, very simply, with the prologue. And I write. In pencil. For about three months. I average about three chapters a week. So over twelve weeks I can complete an 80,000 word novel. At least, the first draft of that novel. Once I’m done, if I have the luxury of time, I put it away for a month or so and let it fester in its own juices. Then I crank up the laptop and start the task of typing it up, embellishing and polishing as I go. At this stage some characters blossom and others wither. Various plot twists are crinked and action scenes are choreographed in minute detail. I can often be found prancing around the house, trying to recreate a chase sequence or a fight scene, just to make sure it’s feasible. It will take about six weeks to complete that second draft. Then the editing kicks in. I’ll go through the manuscript at least a half dozen times, making it perfect, before I submit I to my editor, who will then show me just how far from perfect it actually is. By the time the manuscript is ready to be typeset it will be on its tenth draft. The whole process — from notebook to bookshop — takes about a year.

Then I start again.

I’m up to Chapter 27 of my next book. There’s about six chapters to go. It’s a fairly involved mystery and it has taken a long time to set the dominos in place. I’m just about to push the first one, and it will be action all the way to the finish line.

And I know exactly where that finish line is — I have a satellite image of it seared into my brain.

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Welcome to Villainy — Population: You.

Villainy.

It is such a good word. It could be a village in the south of France, where all the villains go for summer holidays. Can’t you just picture it?

‘Oh, I bumped into the Voldemorts down at the market this morning, dear. I’ve invited them round for drinks and canapés to watch the sunset from the terrace. They asked if they can bring the Blofelds as well. I hope you don’t mind?’

‘Ernst and Muriel? That’ll be marvellous. Haven’t seen them since Ernst threatened New York with nuclear annihilation. That was a laugh.’

‘And you’ll never guess who I saw stumbling out of the bottle shop carrying a crate of Chianti.’

‘Not Hannibel Lecter! He’s got a nerve showing up here again after that barbecue debacle at his place last year.’

Ah, villains.

Where would stories be without them? They would be very dull affairs indeed.

I love writing villains. As characters, they are infinitely more interesting than normal folk. That’s because a good villain has a back-story. For villains to be truly effective they can’t just have woken up one day and decided, ‘You know, I reckon being a villain might be kind of neat.’

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They need to earn their villain stripes. Dastardly deeds must be begat from somewhere. There needs to be a motivation that drives a villain towards their nefarious plans. Whether it be greed borne of deprivation, or lust for power derived from early childhood bullying, your average villain needs to have a rational reason for doing irrational things. Threatening to drop a nuclear device on New York is irrational, but seeking revenge for a past wrong is an entirely rational human response. So when I write my villains, I try to create a complex character who is simply following a clear line of thinking that would be apparent to everyone if only they were as clever as the villain. There is nothing more boring than a cartoon villain who does bad stuff for no better reason than they are a ‘bad’ person, whatever that is. Good stories are not made of such stuff.

Good villains are potentially likeable; the kind of person you could enjoy time with if only they didn’t overreact so much. At their heart, they tap into the dark side that everyone possesses and reflect our own potential for nastiness — a potential only kept in check by our moral selves. A good villain should rattle the bars of that cage that we keep locked up tight in our hearts and not dare admit to its very existence…

In the meantime, I’ll see you in Villainy.

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