John Marsden talks about writing

John Marsden in Auckland Sunday , 14 August 2011

John Marsden talked for an hour and a half to a large audience of people at Auckland Central Library and I was privileged to be part of that audience.  He told us that recently he has given a lot more thought to book plots, rather than just the characters he uses.

We are all on a journey to wisdom and a journey to knowledge and they are both wonderful journeys, he said. We all yearn for truth. Where can we find it? In the past we have been let down by teachers, parents, priests, and the media. Paradoxically, we can find truth in fiction from writers of integrity and John Marsden gave a few examples such as Tim Winton, Pat Barker, Helen Garner, and Ann Tyler). I pleased to say that three of these four authors can be found in our library. Every such book advances us towards knowledge.
John Marsden talked about finding a voice for a character and that once he has achieved this he finds his novel is underway. However, fiction involves not only characters but also plot. There are a few ways of looking at “plot”.

  1. Where the reader is moved from ignorance to knowledge such as in a  crime novel where eventually the reader finds out who the criminal is, and how the crime was committed.
  2. The interruption to a routine is the beginning of a story. This also happens in the movies and John Marsden gave us the example of the movie Three days of the Condor. “When we go to the movies we are given a ticket with a promise in invisible ink that something will happen.”
  3. A plot may involve a change of status eg. Macbeth or King Lear who move from a high to a low status, or Bart Simpson from despair to elation and back again.
  4. A plot can involve a problem that needs a solution. John Marsden explained how as a writer he put his characters into difficult situations and then had to try and find a credible solution for them to get out of it.
  5. Plot begins when the author says “what if…”  “What if the piano started playing wonderful music with no apparent player.”

By using these methods to generate ideas finding a plot is easy, it is the self discipline of writing that is difficult. In the words of Bryce Courtney you need “bum glue”. However, as a writer it is important to use your own words, do not borrow or steal from others, avoid plagiarism and cliches, and get in touch with your own feelings in order to describe how your characters feel.

John Marsden told us that when he was a boy at school in Tasmania his English teacher would set the class a writing exercise each week based on a different topic. If the theme was “Pirates” the class would be invited to put up their hands and offer words associated with pirates – shipwreck, cabin boy, doubloon, cutlass. All these words would be written down on the blackboard, and the teacher would then invite the class to write a story using all the words on the board. There was one boy in class who never volunteered any words; John Marsden. He had a personal rule never to offer any words, and never to use any of the words on the board when he wrote his story. The rest of the class would rush into their writing which was all done for them but, said John Marsden, he would sweat blood trying to accomplish the task. Looking back, he said, it was the beginnings of his becoming a writer. I asked him later, as he signed my book, “Did your teacher ever discover what you were doing?” “No” he said “I don’t think she ever did”.

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