Some Guidance Required

You know how I was saying that one day I might be able to introduce myself like this, ‘Hi, I’m Hone Rata. I’m an author’? The last month has shown me that while I might be able to say that, I can’t follow it up with ‘And I’m kinda good at it.’ Because if I have learned anything this past month, it’s that I have a great deal left to learn. A GREAT DEAL TO LEARN. Like the proper use of capitalisation for instance.

‘I’ve never read about how to story. I’ve never studied story.’

My whole life I’ve read story, watched story, listened to story, told story. But I’ve never read about how to story. I’ve never studied story. I’ve picked up a few things. Like it should have a beginning, a middle and an end. And that things should happen to people and that we should care about these people. So, I wrote this story. It’s pretty long: ninety-five thousand nine hundred and four words at the end of my last edit. That is twenty thousand more words than when I first thought I’d finished. And it’s not nearly done! Half of the notes my mentor leaves point out things I haven’t explained properly. Or mentions a character I haven’t fleshed out properly. Or weaknesses in the structure that need to be reinforced or plugged. Or worse, points out where the chapter should end.

Chapters! It’s a perfect example. When I wrote my story, especially at the beginning, I wrote to an audience. A small group of supporters I emailed my story to every night. I would put my kids to bed, watch a bit of TV with my wife and then sit down and write for a couple of hours. I’m not a fast writer, I don’t type quickly, so it’s a drawn out and laborious process. In two hours, I can write maybe a thousand words. So, I would write away into the evening or the early hours of the morning. And my chapters would end when I got too tired to go on. I’d see a break point coming up, I’d try to finish on a hook, to make it exciting for my email audience, then I’d save my document and go to sleep.

‘You need to write down the “beats” of your story, so you know where the tension rises and where it falls.’

Turns out that chapters should have a purpose beyond letting you go to bed. Who knew! They should have a beginning, a middle and an end. They should take a character on a journey, and the choices they make need to be inevitable. Each chapter should be like a little story of its own. They may or may not be made up of separate, thematically linked, scenes each one of which should kinda have a beginning, a middle and an end. These are general rules; some books don’t have chapters at all. But that’s because the authors made a choice, not because they went a really long time without going to sleep. I’m learning how to think about chapters as I write. At the same time, I’m learning how to give my characters distinctive voices. I’m trying to remember not to use too many tropes or clichés; trying to remember to show stuff happening, not just have it reported (action is more exciting). I’m struggling with expressing my characters’ emotions. And making sure things are happening while they are talking so they are not just disembodied heads chattering away (ironically, I have disembodied heads chattering away in my story, but you never hear what they have to say).

But before you can do that, you need to actually write down who your characters are and what they are like, what they think and why they are trying to achieve. You need to plan and document your world. How does it work? What’s it’s history like? It’s government, it’s economy? How does it view non-binary genders? What about gender politics? Matriarchy? Patriarchy? You need to write down the ‘beats’ of your story so you know where the tension rises and where it falls. I’m not sure my writing style suits this kind of preparation, but that doesn’t mean I can ignore it; it means I have to do it after I’ve written the story. I call it postparation. And this is important because I need to know this stuff so I can use that information while I am editing – to improve my consistency, and make sure the characters are acting in a way that makes sense and in a believable way (even if they are not supposed to be sensible and the things they do are unbelievable)

‘I struggled this last week to rewrite two chapters. I couldn’t figure out a good way to tell the pieces of story I needed to tell with the characters I needed to tell it with.’

There are so many balls to juggle that I didn’t even know I was holding. So many. And some chainsaws and knives and probably a bowling ball. But there are also butterflies and doughnuts and puppies. Not every note is an error to be corrected; some are notes of congratulations, inspirational suggestion or slight adjustments that I just know will make my words sing. And there is nothing like looking back on my writing and seeing how I have improved, how my story is better. And sometimes I think that maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to write a paragraph without using an adverb.

It’s hard, hard work. I struggled this last week to rewrite two chapters. I couldn’t figure out a good way to tell the pieces of story I needed to tell with the characters I needed to tell it with. I had three birds and only one stone. I just couldn’t get traction, and my deadline approached. In the end, I just decided to do it badly, make a ham-fisted job of it. Not because that’s what I want to do, but because once it’s on the page, I can go over it and refine it until the turd is nicely polished. And if I can’t polish the turd, if I can’t see the shine under the muck, my mentor can tell me where to start.

That’s the magic of this whole thing. Someone who is good at this, someone who can see the diamond in the rough, takes the time to give me advice. Tells me how chapters work. That adverbs are the devil’s work and that doing is better than telling. Leaves notes I can weave into the sheet to make music from laboured beats.

It’s invaluable; these pieces of advice, so hard to juggle today, will become second nature. When they are, then I’ll be okay at this. I’ll still need an editor; it’s really very hard to see your own errors. I’ll never stop learning. But maybe, I’ll be able to poop something closer to a diamond.

‘I’ll never stop learning. But maybe, I’ll be able to poop something closer to a diamond.’


I’ve attached a picture of the two chapters I edited this week, zoomed right out in Word. All the colours in the image are changes I’ve made. All the red dots are suggestions my mentor made on the first draft.


Hone Rata (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Ruanui, Taranaki) is an aspiring author currently embroiled in the fraught journey that is preparing his first novel for publishing. Hone is pleased to have been selected for the 2018 Te Papa Tupu writing programme. He is excited to learn new skills and apply them to his novel.

Writing Magic: an Elixir to Happiness

We have only a few weeks left on Te Papa Tupu programme. I am still grateful to have been picked for this programme and know that these six months have given me the tools and insight I need to be a writer for life.

I spent quite a bit of time over the past ten years reading about writers, attending writers’ festivals and writing a little bit. As much as that was fun, I know I was hoping to stumble on some magic potion that was going to turn me into a real writer.

In a roundabout way, I have found several of the ingredients that may help to make up the potion, but I now know that it has to be mixed fresh every day and that some days, I’m just right out of what’s needed.

So what have I learnt?

Being totally committed to the project was invaluable. I wanted this book to be finished by 3 December, and at the beginning, even though I had no clue how I was going to get to that point, that was my challenge.

Having a mentor has been like having a secret weapon. At the start, I was all over the place, like when you ride your bike for the first time without the trainer wheels. But when I looked behind, I had Renée shouting at me to keep pedalling; just keep pedalling, you’ll get there. I wish I was rich enough to have one for every writing project.

To be a writer, you have to write. Regularly. For some reason, this constant writing changes how you write. Sometimes I don’t know what it is that is wrong with my writing, but because of the consistency, I know it is.

I have a friend that exercises most days. She said that when she doesn’t, she feels grumpy and pissed off. I am beginning to think that writing might be the same for me, but it does feel like it’s time for this project to be finished.

An invasion of teenagers has started to arrive for the summer holidays. Apparently something called Christmas is looming, and a house that hasn’t been cleaned properly for six months needs my attention.

My dream is to spend most of my days writing and hopefully make a living from it. This last six months has made me feel that much closer to my dream.

Legacies and Legends

Well, this is truly the beginning of the end of the beginning.

As December draws near, I look at my body of work, and I am feeling quite sad – not for having the opportunity to complete my work under the guidance of professionals, but for the fact that I wanted to accomplish so much more in this time.

I set out on my creative journey when I was barely in primary school. My older brothers would read lots of books and comics and draw amazing pictures, and it was from there that I began to write and draw.

I wish I had kept some of my earlier work – although I’m sure I’d be cringing at the crudity of my craft – but every journey has a first step.

What I never anticipated was taking another million steps from there and still facing uncertainty. I thought a smaller, more unique country would allow better opportunities to realise my dreams, but it has been a struggle fraught with ignorance on my part. When you’re younger, you tend to wait for the world to come to you – for publishers to burst through your door, wanting to sign you up because you’re so damned special – and when that fails to happen, you begin to doorknock. You don’t knock on everyone’s door – you kind of test the waters by dipping a toe – and when that first frosty reception alarms and frightens you, you withdraw from the water’s edge and bide your time.

So I’ve been sitting at the water’s edge, casting stones and refining my work, but I should have been more aggressive and personal with my work. I can say that I have seen some of my ideas appear in other people’s work – not because they stole them but because ideas are continually floating through the air and are plucked and harvested by gifted people with a flair for creativity and a vision to achieve.

I’ve been sitting by the water’s edge too long.

I am part-Maori, part-Croatian, part-European – but if you look at me, you would definitely say I am a Maori – and when people ask where I am from, I say Pamapuria – not Scotland, Wales or Croatia. I am not rejecting that side – I truly embrace my unique heritage – but when I look in the mirror, I see Māori, and when I step out into the world people treat me as Māori.

As a Maori, I have always felt like I needed to prove myself – like the world was measuring me up and waving the bigger stick. This was not bred into me by my parents. This was an internal mechanism that was triggered by years of watching the news and watching social events unfold. But I have always had a profound sense of pride in my history and wanted to do more to lift my wavering spirit in the face of mounting statistics that told the nation Māori had higher levels of unemployment and less chance of success in the business world.

Sure, my mother and father provided for me as I provide for my children now, but I have always desired to achieve beyond everyday success – the kind of success I label ‘frequent-normalcy’ – going to work, buying a house, putting food on the table and clothes on our backs. We don’t celebrate that enough – but I desire more. When I was home and visiting the local cemetery, I asked my father about a headstone that bore our family name. He said it was a great-uncle of his, but he could not tell me any more. I realised at that moment that for all the years this man had spent on this earth – whether good or bad – his experiences are lost for all time. He had become a chunk of stone propped up in the ground with hardly a memory to carry him on into the future.

Was this to be my fate – to be remembered for a generation or two and then fade into obscurity? To become a cold block of marble with faded letters?

We might mention some folk with fond memory – whilst others live on in books and history – but most will live in this life and fade from the world without leaving a trace.

Not me – I want to be remembered long after my great-grandchildren join me in the next life, and I want to be remembered as someone who inspired others to do the same. For all our big talk and backslapping in admiration of our cultural identity, we have barely scratched the surface of what we can achieve as a people.

I can’t sit at the water’s edge and watch while others have all the fun – I’m going to jump in and get wet.

Detours Create Richer Detail

I went to a Rongoa Māori course on Saturday. I learnt a lot, but one of the most valuable I got was a reminder of things we intuitively know. We just need to be still, watch, listen, and all will be revealed. We often find things that we weren’t even looking for.

We are so often conditioned to set off in pursuit of something and be so focused on that end that we forget to look for signs along the way. The wrong turns that we take are all part of the bigger picture. Instead of a delay in reaching our destination, they may well have something to offer us. We may arrive a little late but hopefully richer from the detour.

My writing the last fortnight has been flowing, maybe because I have let go of the outcome. I need to turn up and write, and someone else can judge or do whatever they will with the words. I would never have been this confident in my first week on the programme.

Last week signalled the beginning of school holidays. A holiday that has two of my children having birthdays and an influx of extra kids. Eleven to feed one night, and we live in the country! I was wondering how I would get my allotted words when Renée (my mentor) suggested we double my quota for the next three weeks. This was actually clever on her behalf because what I first thought was a daunting task seemed easy now she had doubled it.

The end part of my novel (which is now nameless, but I have a few ideas incubating) has plants woven through it. A reoccurring theme with the traditional Māori medicine is that the more you get to know the forest and all the trees and plants within, they’ll tell you everything you need to know.

I am trusting this to be true with the characters in my book. At the moment, Libby, my main protagonist, is sitting on the limb of a tree. I need to go and watch, sit with her a while, so I can see where she needs to go.

How Coincidences Mean More Than You Think

Often this month, I’ve questioned, why am I doing this?

Not so long ago, a New Age–shaped world view would have me think, oh, but writing seems to have chosen me. Now, I can’t be so sure.

Back then, I might cite the time I went looking for guidance on what I thought was an original idea, a novel comprised of short stories. I’d written a bunch after an eventful summer and saw they could link together. First bookshop I visit and my eye catches my surname. I share it with Robert Burdette Sweet. Above his name, imposed on a broody youth was the title White Sambo and A Novel in Stories. The structure of the book was what I was looking for and the themes in our stories uncannily similar.

That’s synchronicity giving a sign, I told myself. Keep on writing.

Now, I have the opportunity to finish a book with a publisher who’s taken an interest, and I’m near paralysed at times by doubt – the nemesis of synchronicity.

Carl Jung explained something profound and universal when he coined the word synchronistic to describe those events that seem like providence. My first conscious experience was on my thirty-third birthday. I was in the middle of making a life-changing decision: whether to stay in Aotearoa or take up an offer overseas. If I stayed, I wanted to make a veggie garden, and it was already spring, so hedging my bets, I went to the garden shop and bought lime, and blood and bone, and probably some seaweed magic. The cost was thirty-three dollars and thirty-three cents on my thirty-third birthday. I didn’t listen. Instead, I spent a miserable year in Taiwan.

A few years later, I read The Roots of Coincidence by Arthur Koestler where he explained Jung’s theory of synchronicity. I was sceptical, because although God wasn’t in the theorem, it still assumed an invisible hand. I talked to an uncle about it. He didn’t have an opinion. Then I told him I had a friend coming to visit me from Scotland. He asked where from, and I told him Loch Fyne. He said, ‘Jeez, I had a girlfriend from there when I lived in the UK. What’s your mate’s name?’ It turned out my uncle’s old girlfriend was my friend’s aunty. I gave him the book to read.

… a day has passed …

Driving home from town this afternoon, I heard an interview on the radio about China celebrating the birth of Confucius for the first time since the Revolution and how the new leaders are allowing a high degree of freedom in religious practice after fifty years of suppression.

Could this be synchronicity? My book is set in China, and a major theme is the preservation of the Daoist arts during the dark years of the Cultural Revolution. The interviewee talked about the tens of millions of Chinese openly declaring their faiths, unheard of even ten years ago.

So I gave praise to Carl Jung for quelling my doubts long enough to get on with the writing.

Tracing a Writer’s Whakapapa

What I think about when I think about writing?

I think too much.

This came after reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Think about When I Think about Running. He took the title of his book from Raymond Carver’s What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.

Which led me to thinking about what influences writers.

When reading a particular writer whose works I enjoy, I like to know who they read, who has influenced them, who they admire, who inspires them. These paths broaden my own reading and influences. Often these paths lead back to the same  names. For example, two of my favourite authors are Toni Morrison and Mario Vargas Llosa, who both cite William Faulkner’s writing as an influence, and Faulkner has cited James Joyce.

I love Faulkner’s work, but I struggle with Joyce.

It is sort of like a writer’s whakapapa, tracing the roots of their writing.

My own writing seems so out of touch. There is no harmony; the words don’t match; the sentences are ambiguous; the plot is confusing; the characters are shallow. Why do I bother? I am feeling a bit of a fraud. It’s not easy. And I have to write a journal and expose my phoniness. It’s scary.

My son calls. ‘It’s just a story, Mum. Come for lunch.’

Back home, I sit at the computer and open my story. I am almost through another draft, changing from past to present tense. It seems to read better. It is time-consuming. I am also trying to find the answers to questions Reina has raised regarding the storyline and characters.

Question: What do my characters think about when they think about whānau?

Answer: …?

On Monday, I get an email from my five-year-old grandson in Invercargill: ‘Did you feel the earthquake, it was scary. Can you send my new fleece jacket before the summer weather.’

Novel excerpt: interaction between main character, Beth, and her father, Mikey, after period of estrangement.

‘I don’t suppose you’d be able to put in a word for him.’ They had the same eyes, father and son. Her eyes. ‘He’s had a bit of trouble, before he came down here. But you know him; he’s not a bad boy.’ Then added, ‘He’s whānau, Beth, talk to him.’

That was strange coming from him now.

‘He won’t be going home tonight. Court in the morning, and he may not get bail then either.’

‘Let him know I was here, that’s all.’

Despite the trouble MJ caused, Mikey loves him, wants to help, wants to be seen as a father. But she needs him too, she is the firstborn, she is the good guy, isn’t she?

‘You all right, Beth?’ He leans forward and his voice drops. ‘I mean, this Kevin. He been giving you a rough time?’

This time he is looking at her hard. What does he mean? Screwing around, giving her the bash? like MJ. And what was he going to do about it if she wasn’t all right. ‘I’m fine,’ she says.

‘Ria will want to see you. How long you down for?’ He leans back from the table.

‘I’ll call. Hard to plan anything at present with all the different shifts.’

Outside the café they stand with their hands in their pockets. She yields first, moves forward to kiss his cheek, misses and her lips met the collar of his fleece lined jacket. He settles a hand on her shoulder.

‘Whānau, Beth, remember. He’d like to see you.’

***

A Day’s Writing with the Author and the Internal Editor

Wakes up on the two-seater love seat. Alone. Feet dangle over the tiled coffee table. Wrapped tightly about in a duvet. Through the window, Thursday clouds threaten rain.  Crosses fingers; that would be nice. Heads into the kitchen. Has to rinse himself a clean cup, dishes undone for a while now. Has to empty ashtray, but keeps the butts in an airtight jar – for rainier days. They are forecast. Returns to love seat and re-dresses in the duvet. Thinks of flipping open the laptop.

[ENTERS: Internal Editor]

No point, you’ve got nothing to say.

Reminds himself what Murray said: ‘Activity precedes motivation.’ Hopes that proceeding with typing words, any words, will activate motivation. Flips open laptop.

Isn’t Dr. Oz on TV about now? Today’s topic: foods that battle the aging process!

Reminds himself that he is only thirty. Opens a new document while the ancient laptop whirrs like an air-conditioning unit and heats his lap. Decides to begin with a title, seems to get the juices flowing and provide direction. ‘Finger Lickin’ Bad.’                                                                                                             

You can’t use that. The Publisher will have to clear it with KFC first.

Steels himself and continues: ‘I am not sure what stop to get off at. I’ve never caught this bus before. I pull the cord just before the hospital to be sure I don’t overshoot. There are two Chinese women behind me speaking to each other in their own language. My paranoia flares up.’

Two things here buddy. You don’t want to alienate the Asian community. I think they buy a lot of books for their kids. Secondly, you don’t want to come across as some kind of neurotic, paranoid case. People at your work are gonna read this. Slip something humane and compassionate in.

‘This better be worth it. I hope Hera appreciates this visit. He’s been such an ungrateful and demanding patient.’

Not even close.

Backspace, backspace, backspace.

Starts last section again: ‘I check my own thinking. Like Sally-Anne remarked, so much of it is automatic and reactive. Of course the Chinese women aren’t talking about me. They got on at the last stop with plastic bags stuffed with groceries. They’re probably talking about dinner. I feel myself relax. But then, as Porirua winds into view and the concrete towers of Kenepuru Hospital rise over the low hills, I begin to feel panic. Dread. Something I think Sally-Anne would understand. I haven’t seen Hera for so many months. Just how unwell is he this time?’

You don’t have the right to tell this story. It belongs to your family. To Hera. Don’t shame yourself. Don’t shame them. Shame on you.                                                                                                              

Becomes for a time despondent. The Thursday clouds that threatened rain now realise it. Mt. Victoria is ushered away in a gauze of rain. Fast drops drum against the windows. Flips closed the lid of the laptop. Makes a simple lunch. Does dishes. The idea of doing the washing exhausts him, but the idea of lying on the two-seater love seat wrapped in a duvet turns him on. Before giving up for the day, checks his email. His inbox contains a piece of spam from quotationspage.com. Opens it out of boredom and curiosity: ‘If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.’ (George Bernard Shaw) Takes a big breath. Flips open the laptop. Begins to type away, writing towards the fear: ‘Pulling the cord the bell rings and the bus slams to a stop. The two Chinese women squeal. Like it or not, I have to see Hera. I have to see my brother.’
[EXITS: Internal Editor]

*

  Spends the rest of the weekend dancing with an old family friend.

When the Writing Flow Starts to Congeal

Robert Louis Stevenson was quoted as saying ‘Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant.’

At the moment, I am planting lots of seeds, but when I look at my fields, the crops seem like poor specimens – undernourished and not able to stand tall against strong winds.

I am in the middle of my novel, and this is the bit that I find hard. When something is hard, I don’t want to do it.

Last week, Renée kindly gave me the week off. I had a funeral as well as other things that needed my attention. I thought the break would do me good. Not so.

This week is even harder. I have had to glue my bum to the seat. I have had to wrestle every word, sentence and page and am still not finished. Even writing this journal entry. I suspect myself of procrastinating, again.

Half of me wants to find the easy way out. But, another part of me yearns for original and unique. I suppose it serves me right too. Up until this point, the pages were just flowing. Easy even. People have been asking how is the writing. Fantastic. Loving it. No one has asked this week.

Writing, I now see as a relationship. I was happy when everything was running smoothly, but now we’re being tested. For better or for worse.

So, I have to go back to the drawing board. Put in the effort and trust that I’m not just a fair-weather girl.

Must go. I have writing to do!

Suiting the Taste of a Target Audience

We are nearing the halfway mark of our journey, and I have just completed the manuscript in its rawest form – the unformed clay if you will.

My mentor has allowed the following week to go over this first draft and begin the editing process, so I am a bundle of nerves. Even now, I am finding some of its words distracting and some themes underdeveloped, but I wonder if anyone else would feel what I feel when they read the book.

Would Michelangelo find fault in the Sistine Chapel? Probably … but could you? This is the lonely and painful art of writing – and with it comes an age-old problem – taste.

I have written my book with a target audience in mind and the dream of attracting people who normally wouldn’t read that particular type of novel, but books are an acquired taste – what reads well for some does not often read well for others. There will be detractors of your work and fans alike.

I had dinner with friends the other night, followed by a glass of wine. I commented on its taste and how much I enjoyed its flavour, but one friend told me that it was too sweet, and another said it had a strong taste of blueberry.

I swirled the wine about in the glass and asked myself, ‘What do I know about wine?’ and the honest answer was – nothing. I did not find it overly sweet, and I certainly could not detect the blueberry – but I was adamant about one thing – I certainly enjoyed the glass and quickly poured myself another to prove the point.

It is the same with books. I know as much about wine as I do books – all I know is what I prefer. No matter how much a book is recommended, there will always be a polarisation amongst its readers. There are those who rave about Treasure Island … and there are those who, like me, have not got past the first chapter.

Like wine – given time, we will discover if my book fulfils the desire of my intended audience – I only need to bottle it. When the cork is popped, I have to be satisfied in my work.

Characters: Hanging on to What Matters

When I last met my mentor, Alia Bloom, we shared coffee in the sun on the terrace of her home, and I hesitantly agreed with her suggestion to dispatch Buddy Winter.

I created Buddy, so it was only right that I be the one to destroy him. He was an awful man, but like a nasty old uncle whom nobody likes, he was part of the family and allowed everyone else to feel better about themselves.

Driving back to Hawke’s Bay, I lamented that the loss of the man whose, ‘complexion was the colour of wet slate with hands so swollen his knuckles were mere creases beneath angry skin’.  By the time I reached Woodville, I was having second thoughts. Without Buddy, there would be no ranting about the Vietnam War, ‘Westmoreland was totally incompetent. He couldn’t understand guerilla warfare. None of the brass did. Carpet bombing. What a mess. I flew over Cambodia and Laos in seventy one. Where they’d bombed looked like a landscape from the moon.’

On the long stretch of the Takapau Plains, Buddy fought for his life. ‘Who else will help Sam Yuan with an entry visa?,’ he taunted me. And ‘If you dump me you’ll have to get rid of Danny too and Mr Lau. What about Lau? You gonna kill him too?’  Buddy was ex CIA so knew all the tricks to seed doubt in my mind.

Fortunately, I had Leonard Cohen on my side. So I cranked up the volume and Buddy shut up for a while. But he was back again by the final verse.

I stopped in Flaxmere to visit a friend. He’s got a ‘green’ reputation, if you know what I mean, and Buddy, being a raging opium abuser, saw that as a way to play the moral high ground. He’s as cunning as a front-bench politician, and by the time I reached Waimarama, I’d conceded to his persuasion that rather than kill him off he play a diminished role.

About an hour into reshaping Buddy’s influence in my book, I heard my mother cry out. The tone of her voice had me on my feet and up the stairs real fast. My dad was slumped in his chair. ‘I think he’s dead,’ she said. I cupped his head in my hands. He was cold and blue. Did I think, it’s Buddy that has to die, not you? I don’t know. But I pulled my dad out of his chair, and when he hit the floor, I thumped his chest. He caught a breath. I rolled him into recovery position, and we waited for St John.

After that, it was easy to let Buddy die.