After – the writing.
Most of my books start as a question, which I then develop into a story. For After that question was;
How does a teenage boy cope when he plummets to being the coolest kid at school to the most hated? What type of incident would bring about that change? How does he recover?
Before I start writing, these questions sit in my head for a while, or compost as my friend and editor KT calls it, until I can see a story thread.
Once I’ve composted for a while and the story feels ‘right’, I start planning. I do this by hand in an exercise book so I don’t lose all the bits and pieces and scraps of paper. I’m a bit, okay extremely, obsessive in my planning. I draw maps of towns, plans of homes and schools, collect photos of what I imagine places to look like and write character profiles for all my main characters.
For After, I drew plans of Callum’s house, the town of Winter Creek, Winter Creek School and Marrook. I collected not only pictures of country towns and country schools, but also of sheep properties.
Doing this helps me to better develop my story and characters, which in turn makes the writing easier. Some of the planning details don’t make the novel and some details change as I write, but all of the planning has a huge influence on the plot and how my characters behave.
As well as planning details, I keep my research notes in this exercise book. For After, I researched wool properties, grief and teenage behaviour. Even though I grew up on a sheep and cattle farm and understand the day to day workings of a farm, I needed to do extensive research as practises have changed – and my memory is dodgy! My best research for After came while I was on an author visit to Balmoral High School, situated in the heart of sheep country in Victoria. After my talk, I asked the students questions. Their generosity and knowledge was a fantastic help. Once student in particular, Paul, who I mention in After’s acknowledgements, wrote me pages of information that I constantly referred to.
At some stage in all that planning, I start writing. The research and planning still continue, but most of my time is spent writing. I complete my drafts on the computer, writing the first draft without editing until I am done. I used to write a bit, edit, write a bit, edit, but now I ‘just write it, edit it later’ – it’s become like a mantra.
Once that first draft is completed, I print it out and edit by hand, then rework it on the computer. My first draft is always very different from the final draft.
Once I’ve had a few goes at the draft, my editor Karen and publisher Andrew read it. (This is always a nerve wracking time!) We then have an editorial meeting, where they ask questions, point out the work’s strengths and weaknesses, plot and character holes and over-written pieces. These sessions are always fantastic. My books wouldn’t be what they are without Karen, Andrew and Maryann’s feedback.
Even though I write fiction, there is always a sprinkling of my own experiences in my books, but I never do this deliberately. Quite often I don’t see the similarities to my own experiences until quite late in the process – say the fifth or sixth edit.
During one of the last edits of After with KT, I picked up a few of these. Millington City Oval is very like Melville Oval, Hamilton, the town where I grew up. The line Grandpa uses to describe a fly blown sheep is one I heard my dad use. Graphic, but effective in describing the situation. And the description of the sheep attacked by dogs is similar to my memory of how a ram on our property had looked after it had been mauled by dogs. It horrified me that family pets could do that.
So that’s a little of the ‘behind the scenes’ story of After, my latest young adult novel.