Book review: Circe by Madeline Miller

They say that writers should read widely, so not all my book reviews will be crime, though bloodshed may prove to be a common theme. Recently I dived into Greek Mythology. Madeline Miller’s Circe is a feminist spin on the epic tale of the immortal nymph sea witch by that name. Circe appeared as a minor character in the Homeric poem, The Odyssey.

Circe, the protagonist is the daughter of Helios, the sun god. As a child she is made brutally aware of her inferior status by her family. She was not born a god, is plain to the eye, and has the voice of a mortal. In her youth she was tormented by her siblings and barely seen by her parents.

I asked her how she did it once, how she understood the world so clearly. She told me that it was a matter of keeping very still and showing no emotions, leaving room for others to reveal themselves.

In coming to know love, jealousy and rage, Circe discovers her sorcerer powers, which she unleashes on her sister, a beautiful sea nymph, and the object of her envy. As punishment she is exiled to a picturesque, unpeopled island called Aiaia by her father.

Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.

Circe eventually comes to revel in her solitude and spends her time developing her occult arts and witchcraft, and taming the animals of Aiaia for company.

This was how mortals found fame, I thought. Through practice and diligence, tending their skills like gardens until they glowed beneath the sun. But gods are born of ichor and nectar, their excellences already bursting from their fingertips. So they find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters. All that smoke and savor rising so delicately from our altars. It leaves only ash behind.

It is on the island, surrounded by tame wolves and lions and pigs – the latter formerly sailors who she turned to swine after they tried to attack her – that Odysseus comes across Circe. He becomes her lover and she bares his child.

I was captured by Miller’s lush poetic prose, which is like reading a song. Her reimagining of the myth brings one of the women from the original tale into the light. Her work was criticised by a few crusty old blokes for historical inaccuracy, perhaps because they prefer the original misogynist fantasy, but I found a beautiful remake of Homers epic poem in Circe. The novel gives a nod to other myths as well, including Daedalus and Icarus; Medea and Jason with the Golden Fleece.

I loved Circe’s chutzpah, she is a woman who will not be silenced and turns an ancient tale of female subjugation into one that is teeming with contemporary reverberations of empowerment and courage. Circe is Miller’s second novel and rivals her first, The Song of Achilles, a stirring reimagining of another of Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad. The Song of Achilles received the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012.

I highly recommend Circe, which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. It’s a particularly good read for writers who seek inspiration, and to broaden their writing technique, style, and craft skills.

No wonder I have been so slow, I thought. All this while, I have been a weaver without wool, a ship without the sea. Yet now look where I sail.

Grand dames of crime: Ngaio Marsh

In a previous post I wrote about Charlotte Jay and a session at the Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival inspired me to investigate more of the grand dames of crime fiction. This week I take a look at Dame Ngaio Marsh.

New Zealand born Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) has ancestry that traces back to the twelfth-century de Marisco family of pirate lords operating from Lundy Isle (at the entrance to the Bristol Channel). This might be where she inherited her Amazonian appearance from. It is said she was a charismatic woman with a deep powerful voice, a powerhouse, domineering and determined, characteristics she no doubt needed as a single woman to make it in a mans world.

Marsh was the only child of unconventional parents, raised on a diet of Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes. Her governess Miss Ffitch would often read her The Tragedy of King Lear, so little wonder she grew up to be one of the original queens of crime and well as a theatre director.

She painted, wrote and acted all through school but her writing career took off after she sailed to the UK in 1928 and started to carve out a name as a crime fiction author alongside other greats such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Margery Ellingham. Marsh’s first novel A Man Lay Dead, written in the depths of the Depression, introduced Roderick Alleyn, a tall, cultured, detached, thorough Scotland Yard Detective Inspector. An objective man with a poor memory which meant he kept a small note book of important facts on hand constantly.

Marsh went on to write thirty two crime detective novels mostly set in English theatres and country houses, plus four in New Zealand, thirty-two with the Alleyn character. More popular than Agatha Christie at the peak of her career, one million copies of ten of her titles were released by Penguin and Collins on the same day in 1949, all of which sold.

When Marsh returned to New Zealand to care for ailing parents the second world war broke out. During the war period she volunteered as a Red Cross ambulance driver ferrying repatriated soldiers around for Christchurch’s Burwood Hospital, and continued to write novels, producing four book during the war period (Death of a Peer, Death and the Dancing Footman, Colour Scheme and Died in the Wool).

A woman with energy and an appetite for productivity she also began an association with the Canterbury University College Drama Society during this time which enabled her to invigorate her love of Shakespeare. The association resulted in more than twenty full-scale Shakespearean productions, from her 1943 modern-dress Hamlet to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (starring Sam Neil) in 1969. Marsh’s last theatrical effort was to write and produce a one-man show in 1976 on the Bard of Avon, Sweet Mr Shakespeare.

Marsh never married or had children and was fiercely protective of her private life. She enjoyed the close companionship of women including her lifelong friend Sylvia Fox, and a coterie of handsome gay boys, but denied being a lesbian. She was generous with her knowledge and skills and nurtured many young writers and actors, splitting her time between New Zealand and the UK.

Marsh’s autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew was published in 1965 to no great acclaim, then in June 1966 she became Dame Ngaio Marsh (Civil Division) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. In 1978 four of her novels were adapted for New Zealand television, and she received the Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement as a detective novelist from the Mystery Writers of America. She just just managed to complete her final work, Light Thickens, a mere six weeks before her death from a cerebral haemorrhage and eight weeks before her eighty-seventh birthday. She died in her own home, which was subsequently turned into a museum.

Marsh’s elegant writing style and well crafted characters set in credible settings was said to have helped raise the whodunit detective novel to the level of a respectable literary genre. Harper Collins published a biography of Ngaio Marsh by Joanne Drayton in 2008 (Ngaio Marsh – her life in crime) which is said to have bought Marsh to life removing her from the cardboard cutout of respectability and decorum she presented publicly to the world to reveal a more textured and fascinating story of a woman with ambiguous sexuality who revealed in the abandon of the Bohemian Riviera and enjoyed her place at the table of the English in-set.

More information:

Images from the web: Book covers; the woman herself; immortalised on a New Zealand stamp.

After the terror…Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival

What would you call a large group of crime writers?…a band of bards; a gang of thieves; a law suit; a table of trouble; an anthology? I’m not sure, but they were certainly learned owls at the Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival.

Table of trouble

I boarded the Terror jet on Thursday and headed south for some serious sleuthing. Tasmania is the perfect spot for a dark crime and Cygnet put on a feast, there were bodies everywhere…mwahahaha.

Tiny Hobart, the artsy capital of the isolated island state off Australia’s south coast, has murderous intent lapping at its doors, and who knows what those creative types might get up to? Hobart is sandwiched between the wilderness to the west and the southern ocean – nothing much between it and Antarctica except whales and spooky stories.

I am fortunate to have friends who live in Battery Point, Hobart who let me set up base at theirs, which by the way has fabulous views over Sandy Bay AND Mount Wellington, so if you’re looking for a great Airbnb with fabulous hosts, check out Katrina and Susan’s Hobart Loft.

By coincidence, on my first night in Hobart, Katrina was taking part in an old-fashioned murder mystery radio play, Battery at Battery Point, performed at the Battery Point Community Hall. It was a hoot and a terrific event to kick of my crime weekend, not to mention the mouth watering Thai beef salad and delicious Tasmanian wine my friends provided.

On Friday we all piled into the car and headed to Cygnet (Port of Swans), a tiny town in the Huon Valley south of Hobart with less than 2000 inhabitants. It’s a magnate for creative types and has an oversupply of gourmet food for its size. Cygnet punches above its weight and was a perfect location for Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival, Australia’s newest crime writing festival.

My first stop was a MasterClass with Angela Savage, award winning author and director of Writers Victoria. She wore a themed black dress with white swans printed on it – for swanning around at festivals she said. If you ever get an opportunity, pop along to one of Angela’s sessions because she’s an excellent presenter who delivers engaging and thoughtful sessions with practical advice and useful exercises to develop your own writing.

I also attended a MasterClass with historical crime writer Meg Keneally, coauthor of the Monsarrat series with her father, and author of Fled. Meg provided some great advice on research, use of language for historical fiction, character development and choosing your weapon, or poison to bump someone off. The criminal mood of the session was enhanced by an impressive thunderstorm which probably left Meg horse after trying to make sure we could hear her over the noise.

Dodgy characters at Noir at the Bar

Cygnet folk like to dress up and Friday night was Noir at the Bar 1920’s style. Local gourmet providore’s provided delicious offerings with local beverages for accompaniment, and it was a cracking night. I presented a spoken word piece to the crowd and was pretty chuffed to be able to deliver Feet of Clay freestyle for only the second time I’ve performed it.

Saturday and Sunday were two days packed with the queens and (some) princes of crime led by international guest and author of the Inspector Singh Investigates series, the hilarious and fascinating Singapore based Shamini Flint; Canadian-Australian and vintage dress aficionado, author Tara Moss; and actress Marta Dusseldorp (aka Janet King Crown Prosecutor from the ABC drama). They were accompanied by a plethora of impressive Australian crime writers. The author panellists hosted two days of intriguing discussion on a range of topics, shadowed by the PEN empty chair to symbolise writers who could not be present because they are imprisoned, detained, disappeared, threatened or killed.

Tasmania’s finest – L.J.M. Owen, Joanna Baker and David Owen talk to Angela Meyer

Below are some snippets from the panels to give you a flavour of the discussions:

  • You can fix rubbish and you can delete rubbish, but you can’t do anything with a blank page.
  • Sherlock Holmes – a supercomputer hooked up to a dot matrix printer…lacking the interface
  • Recorrections’ of gender stereotypes can be as damning as the tropes they ostensibly challenge, e.g. damsel in distress becomes gun-toting fighter
  • Fictional crime is often a vehicle to discuss contemporary societal issues, it’s not about the actual crime in the way true crime is
  • I’ve never had a thought that didn’t end up in a book
  • Jack Heath asks his Facebook friends for advice on how to poison people but still ensure the body is perfectly safe to eat
  • So little diversity in crime writers they can be counted on one hand
  • I don’t believe in writing carefully. I do believe in writing thoughtfully – show your work to a range of readers as part of the writing process
  • The Bechdel Test — the measure of women’s representation in fiction
  • Why is it so hard to get men to view films/TV and/or read books with female protagonists? Jack Heath was inspired to write because genres for young male readers were all cars, sport and farting.
Angela Meyer’s , First Dog on the Moon and whiskey

Some of the other highlights for me included:

  • Mantra Dusseldorp reading from LJM Owen’s The Great Divide – gave whole new meaning to bringing story to life – gave me chills.
  • A discussion about whether Sherlock and Miss Marple would get along
  • The homage to the Golden Age dames of crime…Dorothy Sayers, Dame Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Patricia Wentworth, Helen de Guerry Simpson, Baroness Emma Orczy, Ethel Lina White,Josephine Tey, Agatha Christie.
  • All the panels with Shamini Flint because she’s very funny
  • The final session Whiskey and Words – First Dog on the Moon launching Angela Meyer’s novel Superior Spectre over a whiskey tasting

LJM Owen was the powerhouse behind the festivals birth and she and the team of organisers and volunteers did a fantastic job. The event was professionally organised and had great content. Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival is mooted to be a biennial event – I highly recommend you keep your calendar free and go along in 2021.

Main image: Battery Point by Moonlite

Online course review: Pitch Your Novel: How to Attract Agents and Publishers

It the second Australian Writers Centre course I have completed this year. I signed up for Pitch your novel: how to attract agents and publishers as I thought it would be a good companion course to Inside Publishing which I reviewed in August, and I was right.

The online self-paced course was created by historical novel writer Natashia Lester and includes nine modules. As with Inside Publishing purchase of the course gives you twelve months access to it online, and allows you to download the resources. The course presents advice on strategy and practice tips to get yourself pitch ready.

Module one focuses on developing a writing CV which includes building an author platform, an overview of relevant writers societies, creating a pitch package and putting yourself out there to build a writing network.

In the second module Natashia provides advice on how to make your manuscript pitch ready including what professional services are available to provide assistance, and free sources you can tap into for help.

Module three focuses on literary agents – what value they add, why your should consider pitching to agents before publishers, how to identify agents to pitch to, developing a pitch and keeping track of your approaches to agents.

The fourth module focuses on the pitch itself. Natashia provides advice on developing three different types of synopsis and when to use them, including examples from her own work.

Module five covers preparing a pitch package. It explains what research you need to do to develop your pitch package, what to include in the package and in what order.

In modules six and seven you’ll find out about what to do when you get a response from an agent, other than get excited. These modules provide practical advice about how long the process might take and what to do if you receive feedback from an agent.

Module eight moves onto pitching directly to publishers including which publishers are out there, how to find them and decide whether you should pitch to them. Practical advice about submission guidelines, how to organise your material and decide in which order you should approach publishers.

Natashia explores other ways to get published in module nine, including entering competitions, how to find these opportunities, information about some of the main ones in Australia and things to consider when submitting to these programs and prizes.

The final module looks at what to do if you get an offer including some basic advice about contracts and when and how to get help (I recommend Inside Publishing for more detail on actual contracts), as well as dealing with rejection because we all know we’re going to get some of that.

After completing a couple of the Australian Writers Centre online course, I’m a convert. They are professionally constructed, practical and chock a block full of good advice and resources.

Main image: Everything You’ve Got, Epi Island, Vanuatu

Be Afraid: Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival

‘Prospero’s Island’, Valerie Sparks

If you’re not into horse racing, bypass Melbourne and head straight down to Hobart over the Halloween – Melbourne cup weekend. Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival (TAF2019) is a new biennial literary festival to be held at Cygnet in the beautiful Huon Valley 31 October – 5 November. I’ve been looking forward to it for months.

The festival celebrates the work of female crime writers with the theme “Murder She Wrote,” inspired by a visit to Tasmania by Agatha Christie. Christie was on a ten month tour of the British empire taking in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Canada in 1922. The correspondence of her travels was published in The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery. She was so enamoured by Tasmania apparently she said she’d like to live there one day. I’m with Agatha – Tasmania is one of my favourite places also.

“From Australia we went to Tasmania, driving from Launceston to Hobart. Incredibly beautiful Hobart, with its deep blue sea and harbour, and its flowers, trees and shrubs. I planned to come back and live there one day. From Hobart we went to New Zealand.”

– Agatha Christie
‘Prospero’s Island’, Valerie Sparks

I heard someone comment at a writing event I attended a while ago that crime writers are the most fun, and looking at the TAF2019 program, I can see why. The festival kicks off on Thursday and Friday with two days of writing workshops and masterclasses, as well as pitch to the publisher sessions. I’ve booked in for two masterclasses on Friday – one run by Angela Savage and the other by Meg Keneally. I’ll also be performing a spoken word piece at Friday night’s Noir at the Bar – a night of speakeasy jazz, spoken word and cocktails hosted by Naomi Edwards with a 1920’s theme.

Saturday and Sunday hosts a cracker line up of panellists celebrating and exploring crime fiction. I’m looking forward to hearing what some of these folk have to say – Tara Moss, Angela Meyer, Jack Heath, Tansy Rayer Roberts, Meg Keneally, Margaret Keneally, Shamini Flint, Angela Savage,Lindy Cameron, Joanna Baker, Marta Dusseldorp, David Owen, Debi Marshall, Livia Day, Sulari Gentill, L.J.M Owen, and more.

The weekend will be broken up by a Murder Mystery immersive whodunit dinner party on Saturday night set on an archaeological site in 1920’s Cairo. The theme is Curse of the Sphinx in a nod to Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. Guests will inhabit a character and try to solve a murder over dinner before coffee is done. Apart from the writers panels and the dinner I’ll also be imbibing a literary whisky with First Dog on the Moon and Angela Meyer on Sunday afternoon while they chat about Angela’s 2018 debut novel, A Superior Spectre.

‘Prospero’s Island’, Valerie Sparks

For those who haven’t had their fill on the weekend, its bookended by two days of food and wine inspired, mouth watering culinary events on Monday and Tuesday. As part of Trail of Writers Tears, you can eat and drink your way around the region, learn bookbinding, making Chinese dumplings, Italian food, or go and visit Fat Pig Farm for lunch.

For more information check out the TAF2019 website and listen to an interview with Festival Director, Dr L.J.M Owen with David Milne here. See you on the other side Bwa ha ha ha…

Images: ‘Prospero’s Island’ (2015-16) by Valerie Sparks. Commissioned by TMAG for Tempest

On writing style: Patrick White and Peter Carey

I was captured by the style and writing rhythm of two audio books I listened recently, even more so than their stories. Both The Twyborn Affair by Patrick White published in 1979, and My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey published in 2003 explore identity. In each the authors distinctive styles paint rich pictures of their characters and they were beautiful to listen to.

The Twyborn Affair is written in three parts. One set in a villa on the French Riviera pre-world war one, the second on a sheep station near the Snowy Mountains in the inter-war period, and the third in London just before the second world war. The title of the novel, also the core characters name, provides a clue to the novels story – Twyborn meaning twice-born, and Affair eluding to the characters various love affairs. The story charts the transmigration of a soul throughout three different identities – Eudoxia, Eddie and Eadith – a man bookended by two women. It explores transvestism, split personality and the loss of identity through death and re-birth. It places the anxiety and uncertainty of the human condition under a microscope, expunged of the dichotomy of gender.

It was still impossible for the watcher to decide whether the hair, illuminated by sudden slicks of light, was that of a folle Anglaise or pédéraste romantique, but in whatever form, the swimmer was making for the open sea, thrashing from side to side with strong, sure, professional strokes. It must be a man, Monsieur Pelletier decided, and yet there was a certain poetry of movement, a softness of light surrounding the swimmer, that seduced him into concluding it could only be a woman.

White’s writing style is dense, vivid and beautifully poetic to read. He applies a rhythmic lyricism and elaborate imagery drawing on myth, symbolism and allegory to explore ambiguity, identity, isolation and the search for meaning.

Yet whatever form she took, or whatever the illusion temporarily possessing her, the reality of love, which is the core of reality itself, had eluded her and perhaps always would.”

My Life as a Fake is set in 1972. An editor of an English poetry magazine goes on a junket to Kuala Lumpur and comes across a white man in a bicycle repair shop with ulcers on his legs. He is reading Rilke. The editor discovers that at the end of world war two this man was responsible for a great Australian literary hoax.

Remember, this is the country of the duck-billed platypus. When you are cut off from the rest of the world, things are bound to develop in interesting ways.

Carey toys with mythology in this novel inspired by a true story – the Ern Malley Affair. It explores identity, authenticity and the cultural anxieties of colonial societies. The Ern Malley Affair was a literary hoax involving the publication of poems dashed off as a joke to show that meaningless balony could get taken seriously by the avant-garde. The poems were subsequently published to great acclaim in the Autumn 1944 issue of Angry Penguins. The publication resulted in the humiliation and prosecution of Max Harris, the editor and a champion of modernist poetry, for publishing ‘indecent matter’. Carey draws on original source material but swaps out identities and names of the protagonists and adds in some wholly fictional characters.

I went to bed with the disconcerting knowledge that almost everything I had assumed about my life was incorrect, that I had been baptised in blood and raised on secrets and misconstructions which had, obviously, made me who I was.

Carey plays with Malaysian English slang and the work overflows with literary references including Frankenstein, Milton and WH Auden amongst others. There is a truly distinct use of narrative voice in My Life as a Fake from the crisp upper-class intellectual prose of Sarah, to Slater’s British bluff and effrontery, Chubbs defensive punctuated mash up of Australian and Malay, an aggressive Chinese-Malaysian woman with fractured English, and the elaborate deference of Mulaha. In the written text, one characters dialogue blends into another and folds into the narrative without the benefit of quotation marks.

He is right, he said quietly. The hoax misfired. I wished to make a point, but only to a few. Who cares about poetry? Fifty people in Australia? Ten with minds you might respect. Once Weiss had declared my fake was a work of genius, I wished those ten people to know. That was it, Mem. I never wanted the tabloids. Who would expect the Melbourne Argus would ever be interested in poetry. This was not their business, but what a caning-lah, what a public lashing poor old Weiss was given. I could never have foreseen that.

Both White and Carey have distinctive voices, original styles, and make great use of vocabulary and literary techniques, authors worth studying for any writer.

Parties, soirées and crowds

I have a couple of friends who host fabulous soirées. They are a raucous blend of performance, music and readings and loads of laughs and great conversation. Last weekends gathering was a salon for a bunch of literary and music types – a get together to learn from, and amuse one another. The theme was What floats your boat?

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Dress Up Party

Over the course of the afternoon I learnt about beer brewing; about Arabic numbers and plural leaders; what reading meant to one woman; another’s passion for the tango; what it’s like to have spent thirty years advocating for piece workers; the experience of finding someone in China to teach you mandarin via Skype; the research involved in writing a historical novel; and was serenaded by a musician who had just handed in her music PhD. I read an excerpt from my work in progress mystery manuscript and was delighted with the reception. An afternoon of exploring what nurtures and fuels others passions was refreshing, and a lovely way to get to know people a bit.

The soirée got me thinking about gatherings in fiction. I do love an intimate gathering, but must confess the bigger the bash, and the less people I know, the less appealing they become – it’s the introverts dilemma.  Jay Gatsby’s elaborate and decadent soirées in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald come immediately to mind.

And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.

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Welcome Party

The quote is from the aloof dishonest socialite Jordan Baker. It’s short, but says a lot about the character. At a big party she can control who she speaks to and blend in. At smaller gatherings she has less control, could be forced to speak to people she doesn’t want to and exposed for the liar she is.

Other memorable fiction parties include the Mad Hatters tea party in Alice in Wonderland, and the illicit shindig at the psychiatric institution in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest when McMurphy smuggled wine and women into the asylum after dark so the inmates could have a good time.

Parties, soirées, crowds and gatherings are a great vehicle for conflict in fiction. We can showcase our characters personality by how they respond to a crowd. Gatherings can heighten emotions, raise the stakes, be exciting and fun or provocative and anxiety generating. What if our protagonist meets someone they dread?

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The Protest

We can fill a party with movement, color, action, uncertainty, intrigue, or deception. Our protagonist may feel welcome or isolated. They can experience the unusual, unexpected or surreal. Venue, decorations and people’s clothes provide setting; snippets of conversation and the people our protagonist seeks out, or avoids tells the story. All fodder for character and plot development, not to mention humour. A party has its own arc – a story within a story. It includes getting ready for the party, arrival, the event, departure and reflections the following day. How might a character respond to each element? How do you think Ray might respond to this comment in Jason Medina’s A Ghost In New Orleans? What will his response tell us about him…

So, Ray… you seem like a cool cat,” she said. “Are you into alternative lifestyle parties?

My current work in progress contains a soirée, a protest and a conference. Each presented a chance to reveal character, advance plot and apply pressure to my protagonist. When my protagonist arrives at the soirée the greeting she receives is less than ideal…

Within a minute it swung open. Freya looked up at Jude’s face then swept her gaze downward. Then up again with a skeptical expression that made Jude want to pull away. No sign of the welcome friendliness of their first encounter.

The party starts with conflict that unbalances my protagonist. Of course a lot can happen in a few hours in a crowd, and the morning after the soirée my protagonist had a lot to think about…

On her way to consciousness, images of exotic creatures from the night before danced vivid behind Jude’s closed eyes. She tried to push thoughts of the investigation to the dark recesses and enjoy her fantasy.

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Outdoor Do

There are a lot of questions to be asked about our protagonists if we plan to send them to gatherings. How would you show the answer to the following questions when writing your crowd/party scenes?

  • Does the protagonist want to go? Why? Are they excited or apprehensive?
  • Do they worry about their appearance?
  • How well do they know other people there?
  • What type of crowd is it – a party, a protest, an event, a shopping centre, a horse or car race, a church service, a funeral or a carnival? Each evokes a different feeling
  • Are they the centre of attention or an outsider? An extrovert or a wallflower?
  • Who does your character meet? What are they wearing, eating, drinking?
  • What does your protagonist discover directly, or indirectly?
  • Are there people there they want to avoid or who want to avoid them?
  • What does your protagonist see, hear, smell, taste?
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The Aftermath

The novel Chocolat by Joanne Harris opens when the protagonist arrives on the square of a tiny French village on shrove Tuesday as the villagers clear away the remains of the carnival to herald the beginning of Lent. Harris evokes the scene beautifully, capturing the season, smells, sounds and atmosphere.

We came on the wind of the carnival. A warm wind for February, laden with the hot greasy scents of frying pancakes and sausage and powdery-sweet waffles cooked on the hotplate right there by the roadside, with the confetti sleeting down collars and cuffs and rolling in the gutters.

Do you take your characters out into groups or crowds of people? How do they handle it?

Main image: New York Pride

Love an edit

I have written a few posts about editing. The last one was titled Editing Hell. The name of the post reminds me of how frustrated I must have been feeling at the time. It also made me notice how time and experience change us. The other day I told someone I loved editing. I have observed this change at work as well. My job involves quite a bit of revising others work and I used to hate it – thought it tedious. I am not sure exactly when it happened, but of late I have felt a growing sense of joy in the process of revising and editing. Yes you did read that right, joy. I must be a geek right?

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I have come to appreciate that as writers, we want to produce work that people love, or hate for the right reasons – like because it touches a nerve the reader has been avoiding. We want readers to immerse themselves in our stories, and if we’re lucky be transformed by them in some small way. But raw imagination is messy. To turn a piece of writing into something beautiful to read takes a lot of work. The desire for our work to tell a good story and to be beautiful can blind us to the purpose of editing – which is to find fault and identify what needs to be changed. I have come to understand that the work of writing a novel, is much more about the editing process than inventing the raw story, so learning to love it matters if we are to achieve our goals.

“The first draft reveals the art; revision reveals the artist.”  – Michael Lee

IMG_0510The more I edit, the more respect I have for those who work as editors. They must find and iron out the faults in order to polish a writers work so that it really sings like a finely tuned instrument, yet balance that imperative with the limits to which they can push a writers ego. No wasted words, no words out of place. And anyone who has had to provide ‘constructive feedback’ knows how hard a line that can be to walk when your hope is to get the best outcome. For many writers their work makes them vulnerable and can be a vehicle for their hopes. Push too far and the feedback can be lost in the others woundedness. Don’t push enough and the work may never meet the authors expectations once out in the world.

“Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there.” ― William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

IMG_0505In the moments I feel like I am getting sick of editing I remind myself why I’m doing it. I want to make the work as polished as I can – before one of my beta readers, or an actual professional editor reads it. Because then I will get the best out of the collaborative editing process.

 

Images: Tempest, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Be like a duck

One day last week I left a one hour long meeting at work to discover I had received thirty emails. All demanded immediate attention. The pace at work has been frenetic due to a period of high volume competing demands, clashing deadlines and reduced staffing. My back yard has been teeming with builders working on repairs for several weeks as well. Not a lot of creative writing had been done. As the saying goes, I was over it and craving some down time. So how lucky was I that a member of my writing group invited us to her new place in Warburton for a writing weekend.

You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop – Rumi

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I trundled up there late last Friday after cooking some food and arrived just after dark to a beautiful meal and long chats about writing and books over red wine. My room was in an apartment at the top of the main residence set high up on a steep hill. I woke to a view to die for (as you can see from the main picture), and took a long deep breathe. The cult of busyness, so antithetical to considered thought, melted away as I absorbed the peace of the place.

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An entire weekend dedicated to nurturing writing seemed quite decadent, but there is a lot to be gained from interacting with other writers and having a chunk of uninterrupted time to work. Over two days we read and critiqued each others work, discussed approaches to writing, and the publishing industry in between disappearing to our own corners to connect with our works in progress.

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A sheep in wolf’s clothing

The first signs of spring are here and I sense the frenetic pace subsiding for a while. I shall try and take my lead from the wolf and chill in this lovely weather. Needless to say this post is visual heavy and text light as I’m keen to make the most of the sunshine.

She turned to the sunlight
And shook her yellow head,
And whispered to her neighbor:
“Winter is dead.” – AA Milne, When We Were Very Young

Main image: Warburton

To genre or not to genre

What happened when you saw the main image on this post? Did you automatically think palm trees and cows?

Humans love to organise, categorise and classify. Slapping a label on things helps us make sense of the world, and prevents us from becoming overwhelmed by it. The publishing industry is no different. There is a preference to categorise authors – mystery, romance, literary, science fiction, speculative fiction. Apparently they like authors to ‘stick to their genre.’ Failing to do so might confuse readers, not to mention the marketing team.

I can’t blame you for trying to categorize me. It’s a human instinct. It’s why scientists are, to this day, completely flabbergasted by the duck-billed platypus: it’s furry like a mammal, but lays eggs like a bird. It defies conventional classification.

Jeff Garvin, Symptoms of Being Human
Categories can be hot air,
Instrument Museum, Prague

It’s an interesting perspective given one of the other key pieces of advice for writers is to read widely across genres. Reading improves vocabulary, teaches us how to build narrative structure and tension, create interesting characters, and construct dialogue. Reading broadly also provides inspiration. If our creativity is enhanced from reading across genres, the result presumably includes some leakage from what we absorb to what we produce. Novel ideas emerge and the genre lines start to blur.

I just finished reading Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins. It’s an absorbing read as well as a great title. A saga about postwar Britain told from the perspective of a single family over four generations. I was captivated by Atkinson’s use of language. Her writing is elegant, poetic and humorous. The story is an expertly plotted, time skipping narrative with rich three dimensional characters. It is rare that a novel will bring me to tears, but some of main character Teddy Todd’s reflections on life did just that.

A God in Ruins is a historical fiction novel written by an author previously best know known by her mystery writing about protagonist detective Jackson Brodie, and her earliest works were family sagas. Atkinson has definitely not stuck to her knitting. She is an author who is unbound by genre conventions, rules and categories. She even makes reference to the genre box in A God in Ruins when Viola, Teddy’s writer daughter is on her way to a literary festival in Singapore.

…she was also down for a couple of panel events as well. The role of the writer in the contemporary world, popular versus literary, a false divide. Something like that.

Kate Atkinson, A God in Ruins
Image: Jacqui Stockdale, Mann of Quinn from the series The Boho – 2015, Adelaide Biennial of Art, 2016. Art Gallery of South Australia.

Atkinson is not alone in the endeavour of writing in different genres. She keeps the company of well known names such as Stephen King (science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and suspense); Margaret Atwood (children’s books, literary novels, speculative and historical fiction); and JK Rowling (children’s and adult mystery)

I love that Atkinson has written what takes her creative interest, rather than what might be expected, regardless of genre, and she done it always using her own name.

Would you be brave enough to defy a genre category?

Palm Trees and Cows, Epi Island, Vanuatu