Novel approach to reading

Novel approach to reading

A student's love of tigers and nature, rather than fiction, has led her finally to pick up a story book - her own

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Anna Ginsburg_L
Photo: Edmond So/SCMP
Anna Ginsburg's teachers used to get cross with her because she would never read novels. But now, aged 13, she has written one herself.

Her first young adult novel, The Tiger in the Stone, published in October, is a tale of self-discovery and adventure set in a world where humans once boasted shape-shifting powers.

"My teachers used to be so annoyed I wouldn't read novels," says Anna, a Chinese-American student at Chinese International School, in Braemar Hill. She is passionate about natural history and tigers and dinosaurs. "I preferred non-fiction," she says.

Her story focuses on the adventures of teenage girl Taia, of the Amber Sun Clan. As she travels in the wilderness on her rite of passage to reunite with her spirit animal, she discovers the startling truth about the clan's leader, and ancient wars.

Exotic things, such as indigenous tribes, face painting and totem animals, inspired Anna. The idea for her novel came to her in 2010, when she saw a stone statue of a tiger in a furniture store, while on holiday in Rome, Italy. "Suddenly this whole story popped into my head about this tiger, girl, and everything that happened to them," says Anna. "Previously my sister and I made up a world of clans; the two stories really clicked."

As she wrote, she researched sabre-toothed tigers and the customs of indigenous people. Her story's names and words were inspired by the Inuit language, and by "playing around" using Google Translate.

She also used her own experiences in her novel: the story's volcanic island is inspired by the dramatic cliffs and sea arches of north-eastern Sai Kung; a scene in which Taia descends a steep slope was inspired by a hiking trip; White Sea Clan's territory is based on the remote coastlands of Big Sur in California.

"You must get your own experiences, otherwise you will only be writing about what you've read," Anna says. "You wouldn't know how Taia would feel to throw herself off a cliff unless you know how it feels to be scared and make a decision in a split second, so you could put yourself in your character's shoes and make her come to life."

Two books influenced her story: Wolf Brother, by Michelle Paver, about tribes and animals, and Geraldine McCaughrean's survival adventure set in Antarctica, The White Darkness.

Anna is still searching for her own "voice" as a writer. She says she often changed writing styles depending on the book she was reading at the time. "If I was reading a book with a poetic style, I'll have a poetic section."

She admits her book is not perfect. If she could edit it again, she would change some "overdone" descriptions and "strange" dialogue, she says. "I'm still trying to find a balance in the elements to incorporate into my story."

For would-be writers, she says it is OK not to know every detail of a story, such as what a character eats for breakfast, lunch and dinner. "Just start and the story will form itself. You don't have to plan it like an essay. It's more natural."

It took her six months to write her book. She and her peer editors then spent a year and a half "polishing" her manuscript, and then spent another six months looking for a publisher.

Anna says it's hard to get books published. She gained valuable insights by speaking to authors at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. "It was inspirational; you see that, yes, it's possible to go through this horrible process and find a publisher. Don't be disheartened by rejection letters. Your efforts will pay off. It's worth it."

The best advice she was given by authors was simply to "read" - just what her teachers suggested.

"It helps you pick up new vocabulary and new sentence structures," says Anna, who is working on a second novel, about a society of feral dogs in the city.

The Tiger in the Stone is HK$85. Go to www.paddyfield.com

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