Markus Zusak on Writing

4:42 PM

I've been so busy putting my novel in a blender and whizzing it all up into a new (hopefully improved!) version that I've not had a moment to blog.

But I'm here! With things to say!

In July I was lucky enough to attend the launch of StoryFest, a fabulous new festival that kicks off on 21 June next year on the glorious NSW south coast. The guest of honour was none other than Markus Zusak who not only gave us a sneak peak into his new novel Bridge of Clay, but generously shared all his best writing advice.

Thank goodness Pam Cook was recording the whole thing for the Writes4Women podcast because I could barely keep up with all the writing craft gold dust Markus was sprinkling around that night!

Here are the top three tips I took away from the Markus Zusak Gold Dust Sprinkler . . .

1. Do the unexpected

Markus says that one of the ways he brings his writing to life is to 'do the unexpected.' That might be having a character do something unpredictable or have a surprising reaction to something. A great example of this is the first line of Markus' novel The Underdog. 

We were watching telly when we decided to rob the dentist.

Robbing a bank is the expected thing but robbing a dentist? There's a hook if ever there was one.

I kept this in mind during the last read-through of my novel. I knew I had to create a first scene between two teenagers who'd recently become step-siblings. All the Brady Bunch cliches immediately came to mind (something involving rivalry or puppy love or a food fight) but, oh yawn, it's all been done before. Then I thought, well the girl has been raised by her dad and the boy by his mum. What if the girl showed the boy how to change a tyre and he showed her how to cook a roast dinner? The scene came alive for me as I imagined this scenario.

2. Details make your story believable

Adding in little details gives a story credibility and brings it to life. Markus talked about the time he went to claim his missing jacket from lost property at the airport and was asked to describe the jacket. By telling them the colour and type, he could have been describing any old jacket. What made the clerk believe him was when he mentioned the small crumpled note he'd left in the pocket.

I particularly love the way Markus uses details in his descriptions. How's this:

After a few hundred metres and a gently sloping hill, he arrived in the corridor of trees. At eye level, the trunks were more like muscled thighs - like giants standing around. On the ground were knots of bark, and long streaks of shedding, crumbling beneath his feet.

3. Do the work

Markus saw straight into the procrastinating heart of every writer in the room when he said the big secret of writing is to sit down and, y'know, write. He says you wouldn't teach someone to run by suggesting they sit around thinking about it. You'd tell them to get out and start running.
Yep. Nuff said.

One other lesson Markus taught me that night, not with his words but by his actions . . . be generous with your readers, be generous with your time. Markus sat at the signing table for hours, engaging fully with everyone, posing for photos, answering questions. I've never seen anything quite like it. My seven year old daughter, who didn't know who Markus was at the start of the night, was his biggest fan by the end. It helped that he called her up on stage out of the blue to draw the raffle!

If you want more Markus Zusak wisdom, here are a few links for your ears and eyes . . .

Writes4Women Podcast - recording of live StoryFest launch event (also available on iTunes)

The Garret Podcast - interview (also available on iTunes)

Markus Zusak TED Talk

And of course, Bridge of Clay is out now at all the usual outlets.

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