Posts tagged Star Author November 2010

Des Hunt – Last post

It’s now time to start writing. Beginning a story requires a lot of thought. In the first few chapters there is so much information that the reader needs in order to make sense of what is happening. The difficulty is giving that information without making it boring. Here are the first four paragraphs of Steel Pelicans.

“As always, the view was fantastic. Looking north Pete could see across Port Kembla to the centre of Wollongong and a little further up the coast until the haze merged sea and hills into one. Somewhere up there, less than 50 kays away, were the southern suburbs of Sydney.

The view to the south was equally spectacular with a long curving golden beach backed by the near vertical hills of the Illawarra escarpment. In the foreground, a group of surfers floated, waiting for the swells that could be seen arcing across the bay. Pete wished he was down there with them instead of up on the hill acting as lookout.

It hadn’t been his idea to come here. He’d wanted to do it in the culvert down by the shore which was where they normally went. But Kyle had said that his new and better bomb needed somewhere different, and as usual Kyle had got his way. So Pete had been sent up onto the lookout to warn if anyone was coming, while Kyle and the others broke into the building below. So far, the only spies he’d seen were the pelicans riding the updraft in the afternoon sea breeze.

Hill 60 was its military name. During World War Two it had been the home of the guns that had protected Port Kembla against attack from the Japanese or the Germans. Neither came and the guns had long been removed leaving a few concrete buildings and a honeycomb of tunnels. Kyle reckoned it was the perfect place to test his latest pipe bomb. This was made from more than just matches. He’d added a chemical from school that would, in his words, make it nuclear.”

The explosion will, of course, go wrong, giving an exciting start to the story. It also gives the opportunity for Pete and Kyle to show their strengths and weaknesses. I like some excitement at the start as I believe it helps the reader connect with the story. Once I have their attention, I can then take things a little slower for a couple of chapters or so, and get all the essential information out of the way.

That brings me to the end of this month of blogging. I’ve enjoyed it, and have been surprised by the way that writing about the story has helped me develop my ideas. Will Steel Pelicans ever get published? I don’t know. All I can say is that it is seven years since I had a book rejected by a publisher. That doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen again: I’m always wary that if I let my standards drop I could once again get one of those dreaded rejection letters. If it is accepted, it will be 2012 at the earliest before it appears in bookshops. And it might not even be called Steel Pelicans. As a writer I can never be sure of anything until a contract is signed.

Many thanks to Zac and the team at Christchurch City Libraries for their help and encouragement. Ka kite.

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Questions for Des Hunt

I’m a huge fan of Des Hunt’s and I was very excited to have him as one of our Star Authors.  I’ve loved reading his posts about creating a setting, characters and plot and we hope that you all have too.  I’ve read most of Des Hunt’s books so I had a few questions that I wanted to ask him.  You can read his answers here and if you have your own questions for Des you could add a comment.

Why did you want to be a writer?

Since I was very young I’ve been fascinated by science. I ended up becoming a teacher because I wanted to help others develop a similar interest. I wrote text books, invented electronic machines, created scientific games, anything that would help others understand the world around them. Eventually I turned to fiction. My specific aim was to feature New Zealand wildlife, it’s special nature and why we should take care with the environment.

What do you like most about writing for this age group?

Their open minds, their sense of wonder at discovering new things, and their willingness to be adventurous, at least within their minds. They’re also wonderful to meet when I visit schools and discuss writing. Even those who are not so keen on reading enjoy the chemistry and biology that are part of my presentations. It’s all part of the adventure both for them and for me.

Your stories are set in different parts of New Zealand. What is your favourite part of the country?

Any place that has a small population set in a wild place. If there are caves, geothermal activity, and native bush then all the better. In no set order my favourite regions would be: Coromandel Peninsula (that’s why I live here), West Coast of the South Island, Taupo-Rotorua, Kaikoura Coast.

You’ve just released The Naughty Kids Book of Nature, a non-fiction book about New Zealand wildlife, and your books feature some of that wildlife. What is your favourite native animal and why?

This one is easy to answer: the tuatara. It is a truly unique animal as it has no close relation left anywhere in the world. It lives to be ancient and as a child, I wondered if it’s third eye helped it to see things that maybe other animals couldn’t. My second choice is the grey warbler. It is such a small bird, and yet it’s song is one of the most commonly heard around New Zealand. One of my best memories as a naturalist is watching a tiny grey warbler feed a huge shining cuckoo chick. It looked after a different species as if it was one of its own. I think there’s a message there for us humans.

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Des Hunt 5th Blog: The Storyline

By the time I’ve got the characters sorted, it’s time to give serious thought to the storyline.

I start at the end. Now this might sound a little crazy, but I like to know how my stories will finish before I start. To me writing is like a journey: you start from where you presently are, and end up in a different, new exciting place. And just like a journey, I think it is best to know where you are going before you start. That means I have to know what the climax is before I begin writing.

By doing it this way, I find that I don’t have to do as much editing. After completing any story there is always material that gets removed and some that gets added. It’s always hard to take out pages that you’ve spent hours writing; probably those words will never be used anywhere else.

I try to avoid this by good planning. But it is possible to do too much, and become a slave to the plan. A good story will flow in directions that were not anticipated. Characters often get a mind of their own and insist of doing things that you never thought they would. As a writer, you have to let that happen or the story will end up lacking something. It’s called verisimilitude. This word is pronounced ve-ris-i-mil-i-tood. It is a hard word to define, but here goes.

Writers of fiction are professional liars – everything we write is made up. If we do our job well then all this made-up stuff will seem real. However there is lots of fiction that can never be real: fantasy fiction is an example. And yet while we are reading it, good fantasy can seem very real – that’s if it has verisimilitude.

Take a Harry Potter story: if Harry were to pull out a mobile phone and begin texting, it would destroy the whole feeling of that reality. Likewise if one of my characters pulled out a magic wand and zapped the baddies, you would probably stop reading. Verisimilitude is an easy thing to destroy, but hard to create. If a critic says that some part of one of my stories seems contrived, then I know that I haven’t achieved the V-word, and it’s probably because I have too carefully followed my planning.

I can already see some things in my planning for Steel Pelicans that might affect the verisimilitude. One is the age of my characters: they could be a little young for the things I have in mind for them. But I don’t want to make them too much older as they could become too old for my readers to relate with. So I’ll have to watch what I ask them to do as I write the story, which could mean that the climax will be quite different to what I have in mind. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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Des Hunt’s fourth blog – Characters (Pt. 2)

I use a grid to work out my characters. Here it is for the main character:

Name Pete Kelly
Other names Pelly
Age 13
Defining Detail/Event Moving from Oz to NZ
Has to endure Taunts. Use the Pelly Can line. Ginga is used in NZ before Pelly becomes a derogatory name.
Appearance/Clothing Red headed, which can lead to some Rusty Pelican comments.
Mannerisms Scratches his head a lot.
Personality At first he is more of a follower than a leader, especially with Kyle. But in NZ he has to stand up for himself to survive.
Backstory Born in NZ but family shifted to Oz when he was two. Can’t remember anything about when he was young in NZ. Has been visiting with family to grandparents, but considers himself an Australian.
Blind spot
or
flaw
Failure to see that Kyle is not a particularly good friend. Kyle uses him to promote his own self-importance.
Conflicts Major ones with his family in the beginning. These get resolved through his strong actions at the climax
Resolution Required He becomes more confident to the stage where he stands up to Kyle. This saves Kyle’s life. He then realizes that in Afi he has a better friend than Kyle. Realizes that Kyle needs him more than he needs Kyle. This leads to an understanding that life in NZ might even be better than his life in Oz.

You may be surprised at how little I have about appearance. I have ideas of what they might look like, but unless it is important to the story I won’t give details in the book. I like the readers to put in their own images. My first novel A Friend in Paradise had no description of the main character, so the publishers thought they should show him on the cover. The boy they showed was nothing like what I’d had in mind. Fortunately, they no longer do this.

Next blog, I’ll talk about plotlines and problems.

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Des Hunt fourth blog – Characters (Pt. 1)

In this instalment I’ll talk about the characters for my chemistry-themed story called Steel Pelicans. In my earlier blogs I told about visits to Wollongong and Port Waikato to sort out locations for the story and to get ideas for the plot. Now I have to finalize ideas about who is going to have these adventures.

Before I started, I knew that the three main characters were going to be boys. Two were to be long time friends who are separated because the main character has to move from Oz to NZ. The third is a NZ boy who becomes a new friend with the main character. It is the conflict between old and new friends that will create the tension and climax of the story.

I know that having three boys is going to make the writing tricky. When all three are in a scene the words “he”, “him”, “his” could refer to any one of them. So I’ll have to refer to them by name more than I would want. There is a way to avoid this. I could write the story in the first person – that’s where one of the characters tells the story. Then I can use “I”, “me” and “my” for that character, who would be the main character. But there’s a problem with using the first person: that character has to be in all the scenes. I can’t, for example, have the main character kidnapped and tell of how the others go about finding him. As it’s likely that I may want to have some scenes back in Oz when main character is in NZ, using the first person is not an option.

Another way I can  avoid the overuse of names, is to give the characters mannerisms. Let’s say that one of the characters has bad pimples and is always picking at them. Then I can use a phrase such as “Again he picked at his pimples.” and the reader will know immediately who the “he” refers to. So it is important that I know my characters well before I start writing.

Read more about my characters in Part 2.

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Port Waikato – third post from Des Hunt

Adventure stories need places where adventures are likely to happen. I suppose they could happen in the middle of a city, but I like to choose places where there are fewer people.

Fortunately there are plenty of those in New Zealand. The third step in planning my new story Steel Pelicans was to find a location where my main character would have to live when he came to NZ. If you’ve read my other blogs, you’ll know that this story is to have a chemistry theme: boys messing about with explosives and dads who work in the steel industry.

I’d already decided that the father of MC would move from OZ to a job at NZ’s only steel mill which is in South Auckland on the Manukau harbour. However, lots of people live around there, so I needed another, less populated place for the climax. I chose Port Waikato.

I lived in South Auckland for almost thirty years and it is where our children went to school and turned into adults. When they were young we would often stay in a camping ground at Port Waikato, so I already knew the place quite well. But I hadn’t been there for almost 20 years and I figured that things might have changed. A return visit was needed. I found that it hadn’t changed much at all and was perfect for the climax of my story.

Sunset at Sunset beach, Port Waikato

Sunset at Sunset beach, Port Waikato

Port Waikato is where the Waikato River meets the sea. It has a river beach and a popular surf spot called Sunset Beach. It also has steep cliffs which contain fossils from Jurassic times, including some dinosaur fossils. There are large areas of sand dunes, swamps, mudflats, and dangerous undercurrents in both the river and the sea, and submerged rocks. All sorts of things could go wrong at Port Waikato, and in my story they would.

To tie in with my chemistry theme I wanted to have a P lab at Port Waikato. My main character and his friend, who was over on holiday from OZ, would get into trouble with the gang. I felt I’d have no trouble writing a climax that was explosive and very dangerous.  In fact it would be possible to make it too dangerous for the age group I write for – that’s something I will have to be careful with. The other thing I’ll have to take care over, is to not upset the locals.  So my gang will have to be outsiders who are upsetting everybody, not just my characters.

This dune buggy or something like it will feature in the story

This dune buggy or something like it will feature in the story

I spent two days there, photographing locations and walking over the dunes, climbing cliffs, and getting to know the layout of the land.  I discovered that quad bikes were the main way of getting around the place, so they will definitely feature in the story, as will a dune buggy.  Fireworks were on sale during the time I was there and I saw some very dangerous things happening on the beach. That gave me the idea to include fireworks in the story.

When I left, I felt I had more material than I was likely to use, which is a good thing, as it’s easier to throw away ideas than dream up new ones. I certainly had more than enough locations for the key events. What I had to do next was to sit down on my computer and sort out the characters that have all these adventures. I’ll tell you about them in my next blog.

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Wollongong – second post from Des Hunt

Dead wombat near Wollongong. The yellow cross painted on its belly is a way that wildlife rangers keep track of road kill.

Whenever I visit a place to research locations, I look for road kill for it gives a good idea of the sorts of animals that are common. The road kill in Australia (OZ) is a lot bigger than what you’ll find in NZ. Wallabies and kangaroos are to be expected, and you’ll see their remains on the side of roads every kilometre or so. But I never thought that wombats could be so common. We drove around southern NSW for 7 days and saw dead wombats each day.

Fortunately we never hit one, for they are big animals and would have made quite a dent in the rental car. We stopped and looked at some of them – road kill provides that opportunity to take a close look at animals. Although I was surprised by the length of their claws and the thickness of the fur, I should not have been, because they dig holes, and the temperature at night was below freezing even in October. We also saw a dead echidna, several snakes (one that unfortunately I couldn’t avoid running over), a potaroo and a fox. We did not see any dead pelicans but we saw thousands of live ones around Wollongong which is where I decided to set the Oz part of the story.

Wollongong is a town with huge chemical plants. They extract iron from rocks and turn it into steel which is then manufactured into a wide range of products. They also smelt copper. I found that the city fitted nicely into my chemical theme for the story. The place was celebrating because their team St George-Illawarra had just won the National Rugby League Grand Final – this is a big deal in NSW. Like most places in OZ I found people were very happy to talk about their city and I soon had lots of ideas for settings. I drove around checking places out and taking hundreds of photos that would set the scene when I wrote the story. Remembering that I wanted to have boys setting off pipebombs, I looked for suitable places where they might do this. I found just what I wanted at a lookout on the coast.

A steel pelican at the Port Kembla steel works, Wollongong.

Hill60 – as it is called – has old gun emplacements left over from World War II. The graffitti-covered tunnels were the perfect place for boys to do things they should not. They were also a good place for things to go wrong. And flying overhead were pelicans soaring on the updraft caused by the wind hitting the hill. Immediately I though that the word pelican would somehow look good in a title. Then, when I later visited the steel mill, I saw a statue of a pelican made by welding bits of scrap metal together. I then had my title – Steel Pelicans. That’s what the boys would call themselves.

This is only the second time that I’ve had the title of a book before I start writing – the other was Where Cuckoos Call. Usually I have the book mostly finished before I can think of a title. I can’t be sure that the title will stay at Steel Pelicans, as the publishes might not like it, but I’m going to call it that in the meantime.

After two days in Wollongong I felt had all I needed. If, when I was writing the story, I found something missing I would have to use Google Earth to get a bird’s eye view, or Google Street View to roam the streets of Wollongong – both are important tools for a writer who likes to use real settings.

We left Wollongong and moved inland. I visited a huge open cast gold mine which is creating lots of protest from the locals, just as we get here on the Coromandel Penninsula where I live. You never know that might be the source of another story linking NZ to OZ. From there we went to Sydney and flew home, satisfied that I had plenty of ideas on which to base a story. The next step was to research the NZ locations. I’ll tell you about that in my next blog.

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