Meet The Creator…poet soup

Being creative nourishes the soul and gives expression to kaleidoscopic thoughts and feelings. When imaginative motivation wanes, creatives must seek small inspirations that will bring us back to our craft.

One of my habits is to leave books of poetry scattered around the house to scoop up at random and dive into. Poetry is playful and exploratory, it can spark ideas, deepen our understanding of language, make us better writers and help us understand the world around us.

Too many times
I find myself searching my poems
To see if they make sense

When will I learn
That joy has its own logic
Shaped like a sunburst!

Besteller, MTC Cronin

I first encountered MTC Cronin in 2003 when I came across her collection beautiful, unfinished. Her work is intelligent and thoughtful, and steeped in paradox and surrealism. I like the way she writes in fragments leaving plenty of space for the reader to fill in, or fodder to cogitate on. Her work explores and plays with the idiosyncrasies of language and breaks many of its rules. And Cronin is prolific, having produced more than 20 books, some of which are in translation – so there are plenty to choose from.

what if everything broke
in our world
and we just had to sit there
on the ground
until we were dead

excerpt from The questions I would ask & the statements I would make, My Lovers Back: 79 Love Poems, MTC Cronin

Dr Seuss and my father’s love of the limerick ignited an early childish attraction to verse and by age ten I believed I would be a poet. Recently, I stumbled across an old note book from my childhood containing my early poetic endeavours. My personal favourite is a piece titled The Man Who Brushed His Teeth With Paint.

As I grew up, encounters with poets and lovers of poetry stoked the flames of my enthusiasm. An adult who read one of my childish versus gave me a book called Poetry A Modern Guide to its Understanding and Enjoyment containing a message ‘to use when you are very much older’. I still have it. As a teenager I sent one of my poems to Nan Witcomb and to my surprise she responded to my letter with a note saying ‘I wish I had written it.’ Poets can be generous souls.

Sit awhile with time wasted
There’s solitude in every journey
Picking up what might be
and taking it to another place
Fire suspended
Knife attracting history
to its sharp blade

V, from beautiful, unfinished, MTC Cronin

Darby Hudson stuck samples of his poetry on poles around my local town a while ago and I got great pleasure from hunting for them on my morning dog walks. Small acts of inspiration or encouragement stoke the embers for the work and solitude of writing.

In June I received a random message via my website in which the sender asked if I wanted them to send me a book. I recognised the name in the email address and had a fan moment. A short exchange followed, then in September a parcel arrived in the post with three books What We Have: Except When We Are Lost; Bestseller; and My Lover’s Back: 79 Love Poems. What a feast.

Bestseller (2001), Cronin’s fourth book explores the life of the poet, poetry as a form of writing, making meaning, and communication. In My Lover’s Back: 79 Love Poems (2002) Cronin pays tribute to the insecurities of love, its ambivalence and disquieting qualities in all their technicolour. What We Have: Except When We Are Lost (2020) is a collaboration with Melbourne poet, lyricist and librettist Maria Zajkowski. A small book, a Fat lady, poet soup.

In poetry, evening and twilight balance perfectly.
Mystery balances with any word you choose to weigh it against.
Poetry, however, puts the whole world out of whack.
When you read it you drift up or down
while everything else goes in the opposite direction.

excerpt from The Imbalance, The Law of Poetry, MTC Cronin

I highly recommend any of MTC Cronin’s work for those who enjoy poetry that plays with language and makes you think.

pile of dictionaries, pruning implements and an orange

Online course review: Cut, Shape, Polish by the Australian Writers Centre

If you have a completed manuscript ready to edit and you’re not quite sure where or how to start, I have a solution for you. The Australian Writers Centre online Cut, Shape, Polish course is one of the most useful writing courses I have completed to date, and there have been quite a few.

Cut, Shape, Polish is a practical step by step course that will provide you with a framework, tools and templates to complete a comprehensive edit of your manuscript. The course has five modules with audio tutorials and downloadable handouts.

It starts from the macro. Get your plot and structure right to ensure a satisfying outcome, identify themes and the questions your story is asking. Learn how to map your story structure with easy to use templates so that you can dissect it for plot holes, inconsistencies and gaps and make sure tensions rise and fall in the right places.

Module two dives into character to ensure your characters develop and drive the story. Learn how to check if your characters will be engaging and believable for readers, and if their dialogue is convincing and moves the story along. Identify and resolve issues with tone, voice and motivation so that your characters are convincing and keep readers engaged throughout the story arc.

Module three covers theme, setting and descriptions. Check if you are getting your point across through layering a cohesive thread through your work. Identify and resolve issues with world building and setting, build in motifs and symbols where they can improve your story. Bring to life the story your unconscious wanted you to tell.

You will move your focus from the macro to the micro in module four and study the sentence level. Make sure your point of view is working for the story. Interrogate the balance of show versus tell, info dumps and exposition, make sure your tense is consistent and consider sentence structure and style.

The last module hones in on openings and endings of sentences, chapters, the story and the overall story arc. Catch your cliches, find the words you repeat over and over, and over. Consider the value of Beta readers, taking feedback like an adult and whether you would benefit from the services of a professional editor.

The best time to start this course is after you have completed a first draft and left it to rest for a few months. This will give you twelve months of course access to work through your edits alongside the lessons. There is a lot in the course, so you’ll probably want to complete it more than once.

200 days of solitude

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Yesterday marked the 200th day of lockdowns in Melbourne since the beginning of the pandemic. The solitude of lockdown has a rhythm, and despite the shrinking of our worlds to 5km life goes on. It is surprising how much still happens.

I wake at 5am to a dark silence interrupted only by the occasional sound of snoring from the great yellow hound languishing on my bed. 

I suppose I will have to make the coffee again, I think. Sometimes I say it out loud and wonder how I might teach the dog to do the task. Though, I suspect even if Harper knew how, I would still be the morning barista as I would lose patience with her indolence before she with mine.

I make coffee and breakfast. Chicken and vegetables for the dog, muesli, yoghurt and an orange or tangelo plucked from my tree the day prior for me. I climb back into bed with my hoard (the dog will have to get up for hers). 

My plan is always to write, but often I become lost in news stories about COVID, vaccines, politics and the destruction of the planet, or find myself falling blindly down some social media rabbit hole. My morbid fascination with all this unpleasantness so early in the morning confounds me. Though perhaps it is not so surprising considering some of my reading as reflected in my book reviews. My father keeps suggesting Thomas Hardy and Jane Austin to cure my macabre tastes in literature.

It is hard to know whether my staccato concentration is a consequence of social media or COVID brain, but I often become frustrated by it and apply additional effort to focus my concentration, congratulating myself for putting pen to paper and bleeding ink across the page (or screen), even if it is only 200 words. This blog generates a rigid moment of writing discipline each week that I am grateful for having imposed on myself, as even in my laziest writing periods this weekly ritual keeps me engaged.

Mornings are the most precious part of my day. They seem to me always to be filled with hope. 

I leave the house with the dog just before dawn. The first kilometre of our morning sojourn traverses a quiet road running up a north-south ridge. To my left I catch glimpses of the sky burning shades of yellow, orange, pink and red from the sun rising behind the mountains to the east. I spy the occasional ringtail possum crouching in a tree as if enjoying the event. To my right, the  blinking lights of Melbourne gradually fade as the sky brightens. I am transported along this enchanted path by the morning chorus as it shifts and swells and rolls with the growing illumination. I am absorbed and in awe of the beauty around me.

Away from the stories of pestilence, conflict and climate change it is easy to find great pleasure and meaning in the small things of life. An emerging flower augers the coming spring, the pure joy on my dog’s face as she wallows in the muddy waters of the Yarra and explores the bushland, the sight of Tawny Frogmouths roosting high up in a eucalypt. The ninety minute walk is a fortifying elixir and the most precious part of my day.

Emerging again…

Adversity is often cited as a spur for creativity – Shakespeare wrote some of his best known plays during, and in the aftermath of the plague. Hardship may get the creative juices flowing but it doesn’t mean its easy.

The arts and cultural sector has been one of the hardest hit by the impacts of COVID. Crowd events are the first to be cancelled and the last to be re-opened when the virus gets loose in the community. Hundreds of thousands of gigs and events have been cancelled over the last 18 months, each one evaporating the livelihoods of artists and resulting in the loss of millions to the sector.

Ever adaptive and experienced at living on the edge, the arts sector was one of the first to adjust to the new world order using technology to revolutionise the way they work, eking out some kind of living and keeping the rest of us entertained and stimulated during our closed in locked down lives.

A number of events I’d planned to attend in recent weeks had to be cancelled. Some pivoted to an online format, including the Emerging Writers Festival.

I purchased tickets to the National Writers Conference and attended via zoom last Saturday whilst I re-caulked my shower. Yes, you did read that correctly. I find it easier to concentrate on online events if doing a manual activity that doesn’t require much thought. During work hours I often get out the mindful coloring book. On the weekend domestic maintenance tasks are ideal.

There were some great sessions including writers waxing lyrical about their writing practice, editors reflecting on their unsung role in making a writers work sing, debut authors discussing their differing paths to publication, world building and character development. The festival also has a YouTube channel with loads of free writerly content that you can watch at any time or check out the festival program for links.

Meanwhile I’ll go and enjoy a freshly sealed shower…

Online course reviews

Writing courses can be a great way to learn new techniques, think more deeply about your writing, and motivate you to keep putting ink on the page. Here I review a couple I have completed recently.

Kill Your Darlings: Mastering Emotional Honesty with Lee Kofman

One of the main pieces of feedback I’ve had from editors has been ‘put more emotions and/or drama into your work’. I took this online course to focus a bit of energy on that feedback.

Dr Lee Kofman, who delivers the online course, is a Russian-born Israeli-Australian author of five books and editor of two anthologies. Kofman unpacks the complex and hard task of writing with emotional honesty and helps you discover the rewards of making your writing more prolific and productive.

In the introduction to this course, Kofman suggests a writer should be ‘like a firefighter whose job it is, while everyone else is fleeing the flames, to run straight into them.’ Intellectually safe writing is easier to do, but does not engage readers as effectively – if you want to touch their hearts you have to take risks.

The exercises in this course challenge you to tap into personally emotive events to develop and challenge your writing. It covers concepts such as moral outrage, internal contradictions, sentimentality, nostalgia, emotional complexity and creating emotionally rich complex characters.

Example texts identified in the course include fiction works like Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary; Hanif Kureishi’s Something to Tell You; and memoir including Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty and Alice Pung’s Her Father’s Daughter.

KYD courses are good value, well structured short courses with a mix of audio/audiovisual, text, and exercises. Once you purchase a course it is available to you in perpetuity. The learning platform is easy to navigate, so if you are a bit of a luddite you shouldn’t have any trouble.

Australian Writers Centre: Anatomy of a Crime: How to Write About Murder with Candice Fox

I’m a big Candice Fox fan and she’s written about fourteen crime fiction novels so she knows a bit about the genre. I love her bold characters and unpredictable, and sometimes outrageous, but still believable plots.

There is a lot of content in this course. The course has eight modules estimated to take eight hours of study time. However, if you go through all the available resources provided you can go a lot deeper and further than the estimated time to complete.

Candice’s great character writing comes to the fore in the course as she explores the psychology of crime, what makes people kill and what happens after they do. Topics covered include premeditation; types of murder crimes; writing crime scenes; looking for suspects and the killer; making the arrest; trials and prison life.

AWC produces quality content using a mix of audio, audio-visual, and practical exercises. Each course is accessible for 12 months from the date of purchase and AWC has regular specials that make them more affordable.

For other online course reviews see here and here and here.



Ode to a red headed man

I was twenty-four when I first met Mo. He was a gawky red head with a kind eye and a spunky attitude. Despite the fact that he threw me to the ground during our first meeting, I fell for him immediately. He was to be a part of my life for the next 30 years.

Of course Mo was a horse, not a man – in case you were wondering. This post is a tribute to that horse who passed away last week at the grand old age of thirty-two, and who I knew for longer than many of by closest human friends.

Mo was short for Mauclair, named after Camille Mauclair, the French poet, novelist, biographer, travel writer, and art critic. I purchased him a while after returning to Australia from Portugal where I had been a working student for a couple of years under the tutelage of Maestro Nuno Oliveira. Oliveira, one of the last great masters of classical dressage, was taught the art by Joaquim Goncalves de Miranda who trained horses for the last king of Portugal.

We had our challenges, the greatest being that at the tender age of two Mo was a failed racehorse. This meant he had been poorly broken in, trained only to go very fast in one direction, and was whip shy. He bore a scar on one flank that I suspect was the result of being beaten in an effort to make him run faster than he was capable of. I purchased him to teach him classical dressage, the polar opposite of what he knew. To begin with he was like riding a broomstick – rigid and inflexible. I worked very hard to help him unlearn his difficult first years, and we achieved a lot, but his early trauma always remained a shadow beneath the surface.

Over a number of years of doing gymnastic exercises Mo transformed from a weedy upside down nag into a muscular athlete capable of all the basic classical exercises as well as flying changes, piaffer and a little passage. There is a sense of both great lightness and great power when riding a classically trained horse in harmony. That you can direct the movement of a half tonne of beast with the slight shifting of weight, the brush of a heel, or the turn of a head and shoulder, feels like magic because the animal is willing and confident in responding to your requests.

When Mo was twelve, there was a fracture in our relationship. I was riding him on top of a hill in a large paddock when he took fright at something. The incident took me completely by surprise so when he suddenly spun to the left and launched himself toward a tree, I lost my balance and landed heavily on my side on ground baked hard by a hot summer. The excruciating pain that seared through my body made it clear something was wrong. I was about a kilometre away from help.

Whilst I lay gulping air, Mo regained his composure and returned to stand by me, dipping his head as if to ask if I was ok, or enquire as to why I was on the ground rather than on his back.

I gingerly got to my knees and then my feet, using his body to steady myself. Holding onto the horse to keep upright and mustering all my resolve I hobbled delicately to the nearby house, Mo treading slowly beside me supporting my weight. Luckily the homeowner was there and helped me into the house where I lay on the floor just inside the front door feeling like I was going to pass out. I stayed there gasping for air until an ambulance arrived. The morphine the ambos administered was a godsend. After a night in emergency I spent six weeks flat on my back whilst my fractured spine healed.

Eventually I was well enough to ride again. I only got one or two in before Mo injured himself terribly in the paddock, tearing his knee open. I spent many weeks dressing the wound, cutting away the proud flesh and changing bandages. The injury healed, but despite my best efforts the scarring interfered with his joints and he could no longer be ridden.

I took him down to a friends farm near Warnambool where he was well cared for in his very long retirement and became a familiar fixture – known for cantering everywhere he went, his affection towards visitors and sticking his nose in to see what was going on. He was active right up until his last day.

His passing marks the end of a significant chapter in my life. I shall go and visit his grave soon and plant a tree in his honour.

Stuck in the middle

I’m up to the middle

It takes a long time to write a novel. There’s the heady wild rush at the start when the excitement and intrigue of a new idea compels us along. There’s the relief and satisfaction when the end is in sight and we are tying things up with neat bows. Then there’s the middle…

Middle’s are hard. In the middle our protagonist is in the thick of things. It’s their darkest hour. They are not sure whether they will prevail, or if all will be lost.

It is the point where we need to keep the reader reading. We don’t want them flicking through the pages to see how many are left, or worse, dozing off. We’ve all experienced that moment in the middle of a book – the yawn. When we may make a choice between reading on, or putting a story down and starting something new. So how do we avoid ‘the saggy middle’?

In the hero’s journey the protagonist is dogged by emotional despair and psychological darkness as they face apparent defeat at the midpoint. They feel all is lost and must let go of their old self in the face of failure.

Saggy middle

Then they have a revelation and take a leap of faith.

During the midpoint the protagonist makes a decisive choice to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, to do what is right or what is necessary regardless of the consequences in order to attain their goal. The midpoint needs to raise the stakes and force our hero toward making a moral choice. They represent the Warrior archetype taking a stand for what they believe in. They may have a revelation or an epiphany that makes them decide to fight to attain their goal.

The midpoint is where your story reveals itself – everything builds up to it and then unravels from it. At the midpoint in the movie Casablanca, Rick is so harsh to Ilsa that she runs off. He is left alone in the bar, head in hands, pondering what a terrible man he has become. It is his dark night of the soul. He makes a choice and is then propelled into redeeming himself in the second half of the movie.

Can’t wait to find out!

The midpoint shakes up the plot and often reveals new information about the hero. The protagonists inner journey takes place before the final showdown when they pass the point of no return and come out all guns blazing. The midpoint needs to accelerate the plot for the reader, not put them to sleep.

You know that feeling when you stay up too late reading because you can’t put a book down because you must find out what happens next? That’s what we’re looking for. Now I must get back to my own…

Main picture: Sketch by Peter Rode

Locked in

Melbourne’s been back in lockdown, so a post on locked-room mysteries seems appropriate.

Locked-room mysteries are a sub-genera of crime fiction in which a seemingly ‘impossible crime’ is committed. The circumstances surrounding the crime make it implausible that the perpetrator committed the offence at all, or if they did, it seems unlikely they could evade detection. The crime scene is sealed from the inside with no way out (unless they were Houdini).

These stories usually involve a closed circle of people with a limited number of suspects and a whimsical detective to keep us guessing as they investigate. The solution is always right there, if only we could lay our eyes on the sleight of hand that plays on our curiosity. They are great mysteries for lovers of puzzles and a world away from gritty police procedurals or thrillers about psychopaths and the more brutal side of humanity. They are more cosy-supernatural-gothic.

Think a group of acquaintances getting locked up together on a remote property. They are caught out when the weather turns bad, making leaving impossible and bringing communications down. Keith, who had been driving everyone mad, is found dead in the garden shed. The garden shed has no windows and is locked securely from the inside. When the group break the door down they find Kieth lying on the floor with a bullet wound to his head. Strangely there’s no gun in the shed…Lucky one of the group is also a brilliant detective.

Locked-room mysteries were hot in the Golden Age of detective fiction between the two world wars. Agatha Christie perfected the genera, but Edgar Allan Poe is credited with invention of its long form in 1841 with The Murders in the Rue Morgue, although some say John Dickson Carr pre-dated him with The Hollow Man in 1935.

Casting even further back, the style was evident in short stories. In Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op story Mike or Alec or Rufus that appeared in the January 1925 issue of Black Mask, the action takes place in an apartment building and the private investigator tries to solve the crime through interviewing suspects; Wilkie Collons’ The Moonstone (1854) is also credited as contributing to development of the sub-genre. Elements can even be found in the Old Testament story of Bel and the Dragon in which an idol who eats food offerings from a sealed room is worshiped. The stories hero Daniel, exposes the secret entrance used by the priests who are taking the food for themselves.

In a Guardian article from 2014, Adrian McKinty nominated his top ten impossible murder novels, ranging from The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868) to La Septième Hypothèse by Paul Halter (1991). Interestingly there are a lot of locked room mysteries with a French origin.

Contemporary novels in this sub-genre are dominated by women writers and include Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood (2016), The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley, They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall, The Last by Hanna Jameson, Nine Perfect Strangers by Laine Moriarty, The Last Resort by Susi Holliday, and One by One by Ruth Ware who must like four walls, a ceiling and a floor.

Locked room mysteries are concerned with psychology and relationships between people in high pressure environments. They study what can happen when we are forced to spend more time with other’s than we would choose to. When we see one another more clearly that we ever have before and it becomes claustrophobic and uncomfortable because we are cut off from the outside world. Under these conditions our masks and defenses fall away and our true selves are revealed, warts and all. The evaporation of the veneer of civility creates a perfect environment for a mysterious crime. And of course there must be a brilliant detective to keep everyone contained until they solve the case.

I hope your lockdown was less dramatic, but if you can’t get your fill of a locked-rooms in lockdown try one of these:

  • The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-room Mysteries by Otto Penzier – collection of 68 of the all time best
  • Miraculous Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards – anthology
  • Locked Room Murders by Robert Adey – a bibliography of the problem and solution to 1,280 locked room crime novels and short stories

The perils and possibilities of zoomies and zines

My writing companion suffered a workplace injury a couple of weeks ago, so I have had to lay low whilst she recovered. As a hound, her primary interests are sleeping, playing, receiving pats and eating – more or less in that order. Whilst cavorting by the river with a deerhound, she sustained a small puncture wound in her side. I wasn’t too concerned initially as the injury was only about the size of the end of my finger, so simply I washed it out.

The next day I took her to the vet as I was concerned the wound might become infected. Fourty-eight hours later she had a large bald patch, eight stitches, and what a friend refers as the ‘cone of shame’. I was given instructions to ‘keep her quiet’ for two weeks till the stitches came out.

Harper is by nature a lazy beast, but she is also young and athletic and weighs 46kg. As time ticked by and she started to feel better keeping her ‘quiet’ required some supervision on my part which kept us home-bound. On a positive note it created ideal circumstances for writing and cooking.

I dusted off and edited a couple of short stories which I sent off to competitions. I also submitted my manuscript for consideration to another publisher after another round of editing.

In exciting news, a short piece I wrote on the theme of ‘Trash and Treasure,’ was accepted for a zine due out in February in time for Festival of the Photocopier (FOTP). Festival of the Photocopier is a zine fair coordinated by the Sticky Institute. Zine is pronounced ‘zeen’, as in the shortening of magazine. A zine is an independent publications made on the cheap. FOTP is normally a two day fair hosting hundreds of zine’s but will be online this February due to COVID restrictions.

Summer is a busy time in the garden and being close to home has meant plenty of time for green thumbs. My peach tree produced a great crop this year, but it’s a short season and one person can only eat so many peaches… The fruit is great for drying however, and makes little sweet fibre filled wrinkled gems that are like healthy lollies. Drying is a simple task – you just cut the fruit in half, remove the stone, dip the cut side in lemon juice to hold the colour and wack them in a dehydrator for about sixteen hours. Meanwhile the apple tree is lining up it’s bounty.

Out with the old, in with the new

Happy New Year amigos! And thank you for journeying with me through 2020.

The scariest moment is always just before you start.

– Stephen King
are we there yet?

Fruit bats sailed across the dusky sky and the shrill buzz of cicadas echoed through the cooling air. Two dogs rested on the sofa after a gambol around the park befriending picnickers and searching for scraps. The table was laid with a delicious spicy meal of fish, tahini potatoes, and an eggplant, braodbean and soba noodle salad. Roast rhubarb and the first peaches plucked from my tree in the afternoon lay in wait on the kitchen bench for desert.

2020 was prickly. It was a strange year, with the main beneficiaries being household pets who got to have their humans around more. Humanity had developed a COVID weariness, a yearning for a return to ‘normality’, and a tentative hopefulness as the year drew to a close.

Reflecting on 2020, I am most grateful for friends and family, a little disappointed that I did not get more writing done, and genuinely curious about what 2021 will bring.

I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.

– Anne Frank
waiting for action

I sent my completed first manuscript out into the world of querying early in 2020. One publisher contacted me and provided valuable feedback that resulted in some rework. I shelved the idea of sending it further afield as COVID-19 took hold, and the industry entered a state of uncertainty, though I did submit to a few unpublished manuscript awards. No success so far, but I will re-enter the world of querying in 2021.

There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.

– Beatrix Potter

The first draft of my second manuscript is half way through. This year I hope to reinvigorate my work on it after a few months of distraction. Most of my recent writing, other than this blog has been short stories and journaling about day to day life. I have written less than I hoped through the year, but I did read more. Curiously my to-be-read pile didn’t diminish however. A selection of reading highlights, in no particular order, included an eclectic mix:

happy place

New years eve was a companionable night with friends, but I didn’t quite make it to midnight. I drove into the new year. Fireworks erupted from a paddock as I cruised past, lighting up the night sky in psychedelics that startled me and caused the laconic hound to sit up and search for the source of the explosions.

Never one for new years resolutions, I did not make any, but I have promised myself to be open to possibilities, embrace opportunities, and of course to write more.

May 2021 live up to the promises you have made it, and write you a beautiful story.

Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.

– Louis L’Amour

main image: Mainstreet and full moon