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 who 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 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 cliché. 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. Now 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 re-write 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 re-write 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 devils work, and how 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 ok 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 suggestion 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.

Hi, I’m Hone Rata

Hone introducing himself at the first workshop in Wellington. 

I’ve always found introducing myself a little strange. “Hi, I’m Hone Rata.” Handshake. Eye contact. Smile. So that’s my name but it’s doesn’t say a lot about me. “I’m 43.” That’s new information, so a 43 year old male, probably likes sports (nope, well not enough to follow any team). Oh so doesn’t like sports, probably likes Star Wars (check), and wrote Star Wars as two words with the correct capitalisation, so probably like Star Trek as well (check).

So he was a teen in the late 80’s/early 90’s. Probably likes Guns and Roses (check, well the pop songs anyway) and Def Leppard (nah), and Queen (sure). Oh well must love grunge (well yes, but that came later, because my wife introduced me to Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains). So he’s like a Gen-Xer then, so he loves his old morning cartoons, and the Goonies (yes and yes, but nothing back then holds a candle to Gravity Falls).

So my name and number might tell you some things about me, but none of the important stuff. Like my wife, Janine is the single most influential person in my life. That my kids are what get me out of bed in the morning (sometimes literally). That I love to paint, and draw and make kids birthday cakes. That I love to sing, but am terrible at it. And that, perhaps most relevantly to this blog, that I love a good story.

Birthday cakes Hone has made. (Image supplied)

I always have. Movies, songs, TV, plays, games, jokes, a well-crafted lie, tales told round the camp fire. I love them all. I love the imagination they display, the creativity, the emotion, the thrill of them. But books, books are the best, I’ve always read, immersed myself in other people’s stories. Watched the movies that flicker in my imagination when the written word really draws me in. Because that’s their real power, they ask you to set the scene, to cast the actors. You choreograph the fights. You care, or not, about the characters. The author give you hints, titbits, a shadow on the wall and you add the detail, the colour and the tears.

I’ve loved to tell stories, to re-tell stories. I love the discussion about the movie as much as the movie itself. I love sharing the laughter and the exciting parts of the narrative, however it came to me. I love sitting down with a friend and sharing a story together. I love lying in bed at night and reading with my wife, listening to her laugh, to delight in a story, even as I read another.

I’ve carried tales in my head for years. Peopled by characters, and ideas. Whole worlds that exist only in the firing synapses in my brain. And they are precious to me. They are the children of all these other stories. Influenced and guided by the artists I love. R A Salvatore. Jane Austen. Stephen King. Neil Gaiman. Bob Kane & Bill Finger. R A Heinlien. Gene Roddenberry. Akira Kurosawa. Markus Zusak. Chuck Palahniuk. Nick Cave.

But I never wrote one. I never took the time to sit down, take a tale I’d woven and write it down. I was always afraid of it, of not being good enough, of not being able to live up to those examples listed above. Of not having the skill to do the story justice. In spite of encouragement from my friends and family, especially my wife, I was afraid. Not that I ever really framed it that way myself, I don’t have the emotional intelligence to read myself that well in the moment, but in hindsight that’s what it was.

30 Days in the Word Mines
The birthday gift from Cassie.

Then a friend of mine, Cassie, bought me a birthday gift. A book, about writing, and setting the challenge to write every day for 30 days. The timing was perfect. I’d written a story at work, about going for a jog at lunch time, and one of my workmates, an ex-creative writing tutor, told me that I should write more. A wise neutral voice gave me that little bit of faith I needed. So I took up the challenge. Every night for 30 days I emailed a supportive group of friends my nights writing. And most of them didn’t read it. And that’s OK, I just needed an audience to keep me accountable.

And I loved it, every night was a new adventure. I started writing out a story I’d told my children at bed time. Then a brief piece about myself. Then I thought I should try something a bit larger. I looked into my internal idea library. Looked for a story that I wasn’t too invested in. One that I could use to learn the craft of writing. An image flashed into my mind, of a boy walking with a huge clay golem. Hand in hand down the street. The boy was a teenager, but the golem was so large that he looked like a father walking with his toddler.

That was it, that single image. The genesis for a story. So I sat down, with no real idea who the boy was, or who the golem was. Or what kind of world they lived in. And it just flowed out onto the page. Every night was like watching the next episode in a series, or reading the next chapter of a book, except that it was coming out of me instead of going into me. I never knew what would happen next. I was shocked and surprised and saddened as things I never knew would happen, never knew could happen, came to pass. Slowly this small throw away idea became a world. I began to care about this boy and this golem.

With the continued support of my family and friends I moved on beyond those first 30 days and kept at it until I’d finished this story. My first novel. 78000 words that had never been placed in this order before. It took me about a year, then another year of editing and re-writing before that same friend Cassie pointed me at the Te Papa Tupu programme and suggested I apply. So I did. And I was accepted (and so was she! What are the chances???). It’s hard to explain the feelings that run through you when you have someone on the end of the phone telling you that they see promise in your story. You start to think that maybe you are an author after all. Everything since then has been a bit surreal. The first workshop was so amazing. Sitting with these five other gifted authors. Being surrounded by the staff at Huia and the Māori Literature Trust, and by the mentors. Being steeped in this passion for story, for books, for authors and for the Māori voice. What it can say. The worth of that voice and the necessity of it.

It’s all incredibly humbling. And I still feel like a bit of an imposter. A bit undeserving. Because my words aren’t all that flash. They are not worthy of those authors and story tellers that inspired me. But maybe with the help of my mentor Whiti Hereaka, and the staff at Huia, maybe then my story will have a place in their shadow. Maybe then I can introduce myself by saying “Hi, I’m Hone Rata. I’m an author.”



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.