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Interview with Curling Up With A Good Book

What gave you the inspiration to write Striking Out?

I’ve always loved Australian vernacular and I was inspired to try and capture its charm. Australians are the masters of understatement and irony, and everyday Australian language has a unique and interesting flavour that’s tongue in cheek, funny, and used very cleverly, particularly by less scholarly types who tend to have a colourful way with words. An awful night out, for example, might be described as ‘a bit ordinary’, with a raise of the eyebrows and a pointed glance that tells the rest of the story in an amusing way. An Australian commenting on an argument that ended very badly would quite likely say, ‘that went well’, to make people laugh (or provoke the situation further) and restore a fragile sense of harmony. Curse words are used routinely to add colour and interest to otherwise mundane remarks – vulgarity is often used to express a certain cleverness and humour. I’ve been pleased to find, since my novel was released, that readers from all around the globe ‘get’ the way Australians use language and enjoy it too. That’s just wonderful.

Who is your favourite character in the book?

Readers may find this hard to believe, but my favourite character in the book is Des. He’s a creepy, misogynistic, ego-maniac with a soft side that almost redeems him by the end of the novel. And he’s my favourite because I have so much fun at his expense. Creating problems for Des is one of my greatest joys (I’ve made his life even more difficult in the sequel and, truly, it couldn’t happen to a nicer bloke).

Which came first, the novel or the title?

The novel came first and then I agonised and annoyed everyone around me for weeks trying to come up with the right title. I finally settled on ‘Striking Out’ (my daughter’s suggestion) because it so eloquently captured my heroine’s reinvention of herself and, also, because it was a nice play on words for her physical prowess and the fights she gets involved in.

What scene in the book are you most proud of and why?

The scenes in the book I’m most proud of are the sex scenes at the end, largely because it’s not the kind of writing that comes easily to me. My novel tackles a lot of difficult moments head-on, and I felt I had to be brave with the sex scenes too, to do the story justice, even though I wanted to run away from the challenge. It’s not easy to get the balance right when you’re writing sex scenes, but I’m really happy with how they turned out. They’re explicit but not smutty, and readers will hopefully see them as fitting vehicles for the emotions I was trying to express.

Thinking way back to the beginning, what's the most important thing you've learned as writer from then to now?

I’m less anxious as a writer, now that I’ve finished my first book. I no longer hope I can find my way through the difficult parts of the process, I know it, and that makes such a difference to my confidence. I’ve also learnt not to worry when I feel like I need to step away for a while. The breaks I took when I was writing Striking Out turned out to be helpful gestation periods. I see them as a normal, meaningful part of the process now. I guess, overall, the experience of having seen a book through to completion has bolstered my confidence in my ability to write the next one.

What do you like most about the cover of the book?

I really like the texture on the cover of the book. It looks good online, but great in print, where you can see every detail. It’s more complex than it looks at first glance, and I like the textural layers that reveal themselves over time. I really like the font too.

What new release book are you most looking forward to in 2015?

When the 2015 New Year rolled around, I was eagerly awaiting the release of David Baldacci’s Memory Man because the promo material about a lead character with synaesthesia really captured my interest – imagine a crime-fighting hero who starts seeing colours and numbers in highly charged moments as the result of a brain injury. The book didn’t disappoint. I loved it, and it really got me thinking about the creative possibilities arising from different sensory processing. I even wrote an article about it for my Psychology for Writers program.

What was your favourite book in 2014?

My favourite book in 2014 was J.K. Rowling’s (writing as Robert Galbraith) The Cuckoo’s Calling. I love crime fiction, but I’m not keen on graphic violence and I can only take so much suspense. The Cuckoo’s Calling had everything I love in a crime fiction book, without the bits I don’t like – a fabulous (flawed) lead character, a beautifully written story, great plot developments, and a really satisfying ending. I’ve read the whole series now and I can’t wait for the next book to come out.

What's up next for you?

I’m more than half way through the sequel to Striking Out, and I’m within a few months of finishing the first draft of a crime fiction novel with a heroine who’s a forensic psychologist. It’s the first book in a series and it’s much bleaker than the Sharon Jackson (Striking Out) series. I’m really enjoying writing it, and I love being able to jump between the two, very different books.

Interview with The Bookdragon

Talking with Mary Jane at The Bookdragon about writing and books...

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I write because it makes me feel better and I’ve just always done it. I like playing with stories and I get the same kind of escapist pleasure from writing a story as I do from reading one. More, in fact. When the story is your own, you can live with it for longer and explore its dimensions and variations in more detail. The world is a hard place to live in sometimes, and writing makes it easier. I can’t say that I ever actually decided to become a writer – I certainly never set out to achieve anything in particular. I’ve always felt a need to express myself creatively, and words are my medium.

Becoming a writer

Can you describe your writing process?

I work best with a blank page in front of me. I know a lot of people prefer to map things out in advance, but my best writing is always unplanned and spontaneous. When I write to a plan, it always falls flat somehow. When I sit in front of a blank page, hoping something will show up, I quite often get a happy surprise. I have difficult days, of course, and I do tend to have ideas about how the next few scenes could develop (if the mood strikes me that way on the day), but I like to let the stories emerge in their own way. The plot developments I like the most in Striking Out grew, without exception, out of that intangible ether of uncertainty and in-the-moment imagination.

My usual process is to start the day by re-reading (and editing) what I wrote the previous day – this helps to get me back in the story – then I find the new content flows quite naturally.

How long does it take you to write a book?

It takes me a year to write a draft of a book, but I can work on more than one book during that period. This year, for instance, I’ll draft two and a half books in the year (and I’m working hard – this is definitely my upper limit). I need a certain amount of writing time, but it’s the thinking time that sets the time frame for me. I need to live with a story for a while, play with it and ponder my plot options, and I’ve found that takes me a year. I wouldn’t like to rush that process.

What do you do when you're not writing?

My day job is in occupational psychology, so I work with people to help them achieve their career goals. There’s huge diversity in my day-to-day work, and I facilitate workshops on a range of different topics, working with organisations and teams in addition to coaching individuals. I’ve recently launched a range on online courses for writers and performers to extend my reach beyond my local area. I still run lots of live workshops, of course, but technology makes it possible for me to work with people from all around the globe, and I love that. I’ve got a Psychology for Writers program that’s proving to be popular, and there’s high demand for my Goodbye Stage Fright program too. You can find out more here if you’re interested http://www.scarletbennett.com.au/online-courses/

In my personal life, I design and make jewellery using sterling silver and semi-precious gemstones in my spare time, and I have a photo gallery on my website.

I read a lot, too, and I’m a particular fan of crime fiction so long as it’s not too violent.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

I learn so many things from writing that it’s hard to know where to start, but I’ll go with this one because it might help other people who are struggling their way through the writing process.

One of the most surprising things I’ve learned is how easy it is to craft good writing from a first draft. The first draft stage is hard. Some days, I’m happy with my first pass at an idea. Other days, I look back on what I’ve done and feel quite dejected – I haven’t hit the mark and I know it.

I think this is one of the things that blocks people’s progress when they’re writing. It’s easy to feel stuck at this point, and to doubt whether your work has any merit.

But the re-drafting process is a whole new phase, and there’s real value in having something on the page to work with, even if the first draft of an idea isn’t very good. I find that once I have the ideas on the page, I can craft them into something I like much more easily than I expect. So I’m a great believer in the value of getting your ideas out. You can always come back and refine them later. Writing is an organic process – it never really ends – and I’ve learned to trust that my story will evolve over time into something I like.

What's next for you?

My second novel will be published next year. It’s the first in a series, this time in the crime fiction genre, and it features a heroine who works as a forensic psychologist, using her professional skills to unveil the secrets that people will kill to keep hidden. It’s much darker than Striking Out, bleaker and more cynical, and I’m really enjoying the change of mood.

I’m working on the sequel to Striking Out as well, and I’m grateful to be able to switch between this lighter, humorous work, and the darker piece that takes more out of me emotionally. It’s wonderful to be able to further develop my Striking Out characters – I’ve made Des’s life very difficult in the sequel. Des is a misogynistic, sleazy ego-maniac and making his life a misery gives me a lot of pleasure.

I have a non-fiction book close to completion, too, and I’m hoping to have that ready for submission in the next six months or so. It’s a book on psychological profiling for writers, to help writers create psychologically credible personality structures for their characters.

Interview with WS Momma Readers Nook

Talking to Erika Messer at WS Momma Readers Nook about writing...

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Write! Seriously. There’s no substitute for sitting down in front of a blank page and doing the hard yards. Be the person who does it, rather than the person who talks or dreams about it.

Be kind to yourself. No one’s first draft is a masterpiece (well, maybe someone’s might be, but certainly no one I know!). Just keep going with your writing, even if you think what you’ve written is flawed. You’ll fix the flaws when you redraft, so keep moving. New ideas might arise as you progress with your work that would require a different ‘fix’ than the one you might choose early, in any case.

Find your own style. Some people plot everything out in advance. Others make things up as they go along. And plenty of people sit somewhere in the middle. There are pros and cons to every approach, so don’t let anyone tell you there’s only one right way. The right way is the way that works for you.

Finally, write what you’d like to read, not what you think might sell or impress. That way the process will be intrinsically rewarding, and that makes all the difference when the going gets tough – and the going always gets tough somewhere on the journey.

Just write

 

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

The hardest part for me is always the redrafting process. I have more ideas than time, and I get real pleasure from sitting down in front of a blank page when I’m writing the first draft. It gives me an opportunity to play with some of the ideas I’ve been entertaining in my head, and I enjoy that process more than I can say. I particularly love it when I’m surprised by what shows up.

I find the redrafting process more tedious. There are a few key reasons for this. Firstly, by some quirk of fate (rather than some virtue I’m claiming credit for), I have a very good memory. This means that I quickly memorise the flow of words and that makes it hard for me to see new opportunities and improvements once I have a specific sequence in my head. I also enjoy big picture thinking much more than detail, so scrabbling around in the minutiae is never the fun part for me. The final challenge for me is that I’m easily bored. I like playing with new ideas, not tinkering endlessly with old ones that don’t seem so shiny anymore. I remind myself that my job is to maximise the shine for my readers, and that motivates me – until I start thinking about chocolate, and then I find myself all too easily distracted. I always gain weight when I’m revising!

 

Do you have a specific writing style?

I do have a specific writing style, but the guidelines I follow aren’t easy to explain. I don’t enjoy pretentious writing. It gets between me and the story, and I’m not interested in reading a book just so someone can admire themselves in the mirror and say ‘look how clever I am’. So one of my key rules is to make my style as invisible as possible. My writing is a vehicle for the story and I try to keep myself as far out of the way as I can. That means using the right words rather than the most impressive words I know. It means making sure that particular words don’t jump out, because they’re not quite right for some reason. It means ensuring that the flow of words is smooth and fluent so the reader is not pulled out of the story by a clumsy rhythm. I try to wear a cloak of invisibility, and if people say my novel is an ‘easy read’ (as a number of reviewers have), then I feel I’ve done my job.

On Writing


While you were writing, did you ever feel as if you were one of the characters?

No. And that’s a good thing. There were some unsavoury types in Striking Out! I did feel, though, as if my characters were real people. For me, they have to be alive in my head before I can do them justice on the page. I need to know what they look like, how they talk, how they move, how they think, what they wear. This is not so I can describe them to my readers, although it certainly helps with that, but because I only know what they’re going to do and say next once I can actually see them in my head. Scenes run through my mind like movies, and when I’m not sure what should happen next, I close my eyes and run the scene from the start. Once a mental movie is rolling, the flow is usually smooth and easy. Funnily enough, once the movie has revealed the answer, there’s a strange sense of inevitability about it – ‘of course, that’s what should happen!’ Why didn’t I think of that?


Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

I like to draw my own messages from novels – which may or may not be the ones the author intended – and I assume my readers like to do the same, so I never write with an agenda. I’m happy for people to take what they want from my work, and grateful that they’ve taken the time to do so. Having said that, there’s enough darkness in the world without me adding to it, so I try not to depress anybody. Life can be incredibly hard at times. I like books that offer some respite.

Dark night of the soul: Creative challenge

I've had a really hard month. I worked like a dervish through May and June, looking forward to a bit of down time in July. I had great plans.

I was going to spend an indulgent amount of time with my horses. Chained to my deadlines during May and June, I could see myself spending every spare moment with them, taking long walks through secluded laneways, stopping so they could graze the choicest grass. The vision was so real I could even feel the winter chill in my bones as I anticipated the coming joys. It was going to be the happiest of times.

And that wasn't all. I was also going to write 30,000 words of the forensic psychology novel, Top Dog, that I'm working on at the moment. I had it all worked out, and ambitious as that word count may sound, it wasn't unrealistic given the way I write - in fits and bursts of slow, agonizing progress (where every word is bled, painfully, out of my struggling brain) followed by an avalanche of words once my momentum reaches a certain, indefinable tipping point.

That wasn't how things turned out, of course. At the end of June, my beautiful big Thoroughbred, Mister Mo, died after a two day, desperate battle with colic. Gone were my dreams of rejuvenating in the shadow of his unwavering love and companionship. Gone was the dearest of friends.

Grief stricken and exhausted, when the much anticipated July break actually arrived, I found myself in no position to benefit from it. There was no happiness, no prolific writing, no energy of any sort to be found.

Drawing upon a lifetime of stoicism and fuelled by an ongoing overdose of chocolate (which I'm now going to have to work off), I've trudged along with my commitments anyway, writing a chapter or two here and there, creating some new images, and I even fabricated a sterling silver ring that I rather like. But there's been no joy, no pleasure, not even the remotest hint of inspiration through this bleak winter.

Determined to re-ignite some semblance of enthusiasm for life, I've embarked on a 30 day challenge: Do something creative every day. No rules. Just whatever inspires me on the day. No project too big or too small. No restriction on mediums.

I'm going to blog my results daily, and the question is this: Will this creative challenge - which combines discipline with mindfulness and creativity - lift my spirits and re-ignite my passion for the creative pursuits that normally occupy all my spare moments? Theoretically, it should. The brain is a network of neural links, and stimulation in one part of the network should have a flow-on stimulatory effect in other parts of the network.

You can follow my challenge here or by liking my Facebook writer's page, but if you think this is a good idea, why not join me?

With you in spirit.

With you in spirit.

Making 'em suffer: The downside of empathy

Empathy is an interesting word. In common parlance, it describes the ability to understand what it would be like to be in someone else's position - to imagine yourself in someone else's shoes. Its meaning is more complex in psychological circles, where it's considered a personality trait that you can have more or less of, but the gist is still the same: awareness and understanding of the feelings of another person.

This sounds like a great - even necessary - trait for a writer to have, doesn't it? If you're going to wrest a tear from a reader's eye when your heroine loses the love of her life, then you'll need to be able to understand how she feels so you can convey the full extent of her desolation to your readers.

While there have doubtless been many successful narcissistic writers (and narcissists are defined by a lack of empathy), these writers are far more likely to have been renowned for their dashing prose - oh my, what a turn of phrase! - than for their perspective taking abilities. Narcissists can really only see the world from their own point of view, and they live to impress, not understand. Other people are of interest only insofar as they impact on the narcissist.

So empathy, for a writer, is an excellent thing to have. Yet, like most good things, it has a downside. It's not always helpful, for instance, when it comes to making characters suffer - and suffer they absolutely must. There's a saying in writing circles that 'if your characters are having a good time, your reader is not'. I've no idea who initially penned it, but it's true. Page turners are built on the back of conflict. When your hero or heroine is in trouble, you just have to keep reading until you know how things turn out. Good writers keep us trapped in this state until they're good and ready to release us.

Which leads me to my problem.

I'm redrafting Soundscape (my first novel) at the moment, having just received some valuable feedback from Jo-Anne and Richard. What do I need to do? Make my heroine suffer more. Make my hero less nice. Inflict more pain. Create trouble. Start arguments.

It's a tough gig for an empath, and it isn't as if I'd shirked my responsibilities in the first place. My characters already had their struggles to overcome and I was already feeling bad for it - inflicting suffering doeesn't come naturally. But what can you do? There's nothing else for it. It has to be done. I'm going to have to man up and make their lives even more difficult than they already are.

My one consolation is that it's fiction.

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