Free Wheeling

It’s the end of the day, of the end of my second week back at work and as may become evident from this stream of consciousness blog, my brain is a little tired and addled. Yesterday it was Bohemian Rhapsody, but ten minutes ago I had the song The Wheels on the Bus going around in a loop in my head, when the wheels on the actual bus made an abrupt stop. As I write this I’m sitting on said bus, and it ain’t going nowhere, having broken down ten kilometres from home when the door jammed open. I’m reframing the experience as an opportunity for more writing time, very Buddhist of me considering what I want most, is to get home, eat dinner and put my feet up.

Buddha Walk, Crystal Castle, NSW

Speaking of Buddhism, as I understand it, the second noble truth is that suffering is due to attachments and expectations, to grasping and clinging. The idea of letting go makes me think about writing practice, when we need to hold on, and when we need to surrender.

I remember when I wrote my first draft, how chuffed I was to complete it, and how attached I was to those 60,000 odd words, little realising the lessons I was about to understand. Learning to edit was about coming to terms with letting go, to absorb feedback and use it to improve technique, to apply critical non-attachment.

It’s a funny thing that us writers can become so attached to those tiny squiggles on the page, invest so much of ourselves in them as if they were a living part of us and we will become less if we let them go.

A Public Practice, Vienna

I often think of writers as being most akin to musicians. When a musician wants to perfect their craft they will spend hours practicing. They study music theory, receive tutoring from a professional instructor, and develop a work ethic that gives them the grit to keep plugging away at it. They can’t afford to get attached to all those notes, to hoard them all and try to prevent them from floating away as they leave their instruments. They don’t think all their notes played in practice are wasted either. I wonder if writers would benefit from thinking of words more like musicians think of notes, embrace our practice as practice, know that not all our words are necessarily destined for the world, and that the cutting and pruning is about honing and perfecting our craft.

A Long Road Home, Nevada

My commute is a long journey, but hey, so is writing a book right? I’ve been editing for a long time now, and it occurred to me this week how my approach to the task has changed over time. It was a hard lesson, well learnt, when I did a structural edit of an early draft and realised I had to cut and rewrite all of the first five chapters. I think I put down my manuscript for a full week, fuming over the realisation, before I could bring myself to do it. Now after much application, I have become detached and carefree about editing, happy to cut and slash and relegate large chunks of text to the bin. I enjoy allowing fresh ideas to surface as I rewrite and rework, and apply what I have learnt to improve my manuscript.

…Oh, here comes another bus, and I must get on it.

Main image: London Bus, Esperanto Museum, Berlin

The writer’s brain

I’ve been listening to The First Time podcasts recently about the first time you publish a book. Fortuitously, one I listened to this week was an interview with counselor and coach Alison Manning who described part of her work as ‘helping writers with their minds’. She assist writers to understand themselves and their relationship to their writing in a way that aims to overcome roadblocks and self defeating thought patterns.

Objects of Desire

The interview included an interesting discussion about some of the myths, from both reader and writer perspectives (particularly first time novel writers), about how beautiful writing is produced. Manning said there is a common lack of understanding of the effort involved in completing a book – that it doesn’t just flow out as the finished product. Writers who are the most resilient operate from a growth mindset. That is that rather than focus on the outcome (getting published, being successful, etc) their emphasis is on valuing effort, development of effective strategies, hard work and learning from whatever happens – regardless of achieving outward success, or what might be perceived as failure. Their interest is primarily in exploring their potential.

Manning quoted research that says one of the five most powerful elements of well-being is achievement for its own sake, doing something that matters a lot to us and doing it because it’s interesting and enjoyable just to see how well we can do it.

Searching for Self

The interview also discussed the importance of focusing on the things we can control, rather than those we can’t. That to find out what’s possible we need to develop the flexibility to allow ourselves to work with what we’ve got, even if it’s not our ideal, and focus on doing what we can.

I thought her advice was useful in a whole range of contexts but the reason I found the discussion so interesting right now was that I had been grappling with feeling a bit disappointed at not completing more of my project during my year off, and wondering how/if I would find the time to finish it once I returned to my busy job. It’s the kind of thinking that can really erode motivation and become self defeating if you give into it. The interview gave me some ideas about managing my own expectations and changing circumstances to help keep up momentum on my project. It could also prove to be valuable advice in the workplace.

Just five more minutes

This week I’ve been adjusting to a new routine after returning to work, as has the hound. We’re up at 5am for the dog walk/run and I’m on the way to the office by 7.30am. My commute is loooong, about 1.5 hours one way, so that is now my writing time – on the bus on an iPad. I’m lucky to always get a seat because I get on at the first stop and off at the last. There will be some days, no doubt, that I will be too tired or full from my day to write and will just sit on the bus and read a book or listen to a podcast, activities related to developing my writing practice, even if not actually writing.

Manning has also done a podcast series called A Mind of One’s Own with novelist Charlotte Wood (The Natural Way of Things) in which they discuss many of the struggles that plague emerging writers, and how you might address them, so I shall also add those to my listening list also. I will add links to both podcasts to my resources page.

Main image: Brain like a Jellyfish

How time flies…

Joseph Campbell was an American mythologist, anthropologist and writer who studied myths and legends. He identified a common thread in story structure that he named the ‘hero’s journey,’ (also known as the monomyth) and noticed that all heroes and heroines took the same journey within stories.

Hero’s cape

The hero’s journey begins with a departure, the call to adventure where the hero departs from the world they know to enter the unknown. Sometimes the hero seeks out the call and sometimes something unexpected happens and pushes them to it. On the journey they face a series of adventures, trials and tribulations that test them (the initiation), they meet allies, enemies and mentors that guide them on their journey and experience an internal transformation that matures them before they returns home changed.

An example of the classic hero’s journey in film is Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy was living an ordinary life in Kanzas and dreaming of excitement when a tornado hit (the call to adventure). Dorothy, our hero enters into the new world of Oz and goes on an adventure. She meets new people (the lion, tin man, and straw man), mentors (Glinda the Good Witch) and enemies (the Wicked Witch of the West). She overcomes challenges like learning Oz is a fraud (the trials) and develops new skills like discovering clicking her heels together will return her home. When our hero returns to her old world she has undergone an inner transformation that furnishes her with a new appreciation for her own life.

Forest for the trees

Examples of the hero’s journey can also be found in Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Ishmael in Moby Dick, Jane Eyre, Max in Where the Wild Things Are, and Scout in To Kill a Mocking Bird.

Many say that the adventures and misadventures of our own lives follow the same pattern – we are the heroes of our own journeys and Campbell’s advice was ‘to follow your bliss.’ What he meant by this was that if you do things you are passionate about, you’ll feel fully alive and doors will open up for you.

I am due to return to work on Monday after taking twelve months off to focus on my writing practice and have been reflecting on what I have done and learnt during this past year on my own little hero’s journey. It has been fantastic to have the time off to fully connect with my creative self and focus on my writing practice. I have learnt a lot about plot and character development, story structure, point of view and dialogue, show and tell, exposition, and editing – not to mention procrastination and perseverance.

Adventure awaits

I have learnt that a practice that returns you to the page again and again, even if you don’t feel like it is valuable, and that it’s ok to allow yourself to write crap because that’s where the gems are hidden. I discovered that sometimes writing feels like wading through mud, and at other times you find a state of flow and become so immersed in your work that real world time and space recede. At these times the depths of your subconscious is revealed in surprising and exciting ways and it’s those moments that make you return again and again to the page.

During the year I attended four writers festivals (Melbourne, Emerging, Clunes Booktown and Adelaide Writers Week), completed four creative writing workshops/short courses, a weeks writing retreat, and have almost completed a creative writing course which I commenced in 2016.

Happy Hound

I joined a writers group in my local community and met some fabulous writers via social media – some of whom I have also met in the flesh.

I have written over 200,000 words comprising 63 blog posts, eight short stories and what is now the almost completed fourth draft of my novel. I entered pieces in a number of competitions with mixed results, though for most I am still waiting to hear the outcome, and I took part in a spoken word event reading one of my flash fiction pieces to a crowd of about fifty. Alongside the writing activities I have completed some long awaited garden projects, grieved the loss of my old dog and wrangled a new puppy.

Wishing tree

I am spending my last few days of leave at the beach and as I walk along the foreshore I promise to myself that whilst the shape and speed of my hero’s journey may change, it will continue. I will write on the bus on the way to work and on weekends and continue to develop my craft and learn from the amazing people I have met along the way, and eventually I will finish this damn book so I can unleash some of the other ideas fermenting in my head.

Main image: Shoreham Beach

The Grand Read

Writers dog

Last week I mentioned that I was taking part in a local spoken word event, The Grand Read. After spending the week torturing the dog with my practice…she probably knows if off by heart now…the night finally arrived. My rehearsals paid off and I succeeded in reading without mishap. I have included the flash fiction piece below and attached an audio file of the reading if you want to hear the spoken version recorded at the event.

Feet of Clay

Lilith rolled and pounded and prodded and plotted. Clay dripped from slender fingers, flecks thrown by the spinning wheel spattered into golden locks, made her beauty more desirable. Twice winner of the pottery prize, prominent and popular, she knew she would be made if she could triumph again. A hat trick to cement her place in the town’s history.

The Grand Read

Rex, her lover, her muse, her confidant, her king; had taken up the craft with the same passion and zeal he had when he had taken up with her, on a summer night many moons ago, on the banks of the river beneath a willow, embraced by the arms of soft green grasses. Lilith admired his body, his coils, his glaze when they sat side by side in the sweltering heat of the kiln, matched only by the heat in his loins, the love she knew he held for her.

Late one night whilst they potted and spun, the soft sounds of love leaking from the stereo; his Swayze to her Moore; Rex leant in close, whispered in her ear so she felt his hot breath brush the down of her lobe.

“I think I’ll enter the prize, we could stand side by side.”

They were doing what they often did, he behind her, clay sliding through fingers, along arms, a sensuous ritual that gave life to art and art to love. The work; a French ceramic flower pot that Lilith would glaze, just so, in imperfect green.

Eden

But his words planted a seed. Its tiny tendrils entwined, wrapping themselves in ever tightening circles around Lilith’s heart, her freedom, herself. That Rex would want not only her, but her dreams, her talents, her prize, struck weeds in her Eden that took root and slowly spread, a demon force that left thorns in her flesh, eroded her love.

Lilith began to work when Rex was away, ignoring his calls, in the dead of the night, to the cries of the owls, the yowls of the cats left out in darkness to hunt like jackals, feast on possums and bats. Creatures that belonged to the night’s forest devoured by those who would slink in and steal their lives.

Prickly Pair

She experimented with silkscreens, with decals and lustres, turned plates, bowls and cups till her back ached and her hands were raw, pitted with cuts and scrapes and burns. Before dawn she squirrelled away her finest work, hoarded from his prying eyes to ensure her stall would be a surprise.

Expo day arrived along with the blues and the whites and the reds of the French. Tents were sprung and tables were set with the fruits of eighty potters for all the world to see, but the coveted potluck prize waited for only one.

Lilith laid her wares with care on white lace cloth, her red dress flared as she twisted and twirled; a flourish here, a tweak there. Embraced in the imperfect green flower pot, planted in soil and ash was foliage the shape of lopsided hearts, splashed, slashed and swirled with plum and purple and scarlet. The showboat and king of the begonia world, its lush and lovely leaves quivered in the summer breeze and set off her stand to perfection.

Woman of Substance

The judge, a dour woman with puckered lips and bulging hips paraded along the river trail inspecting pots, peering in, tut-tutting, enjoying her own importance, before disappearing into a tent to deliberate. Finally emerging, she sauntered a windy path to Lilith’s stall. It was not until she was right up close that she allowed herself to crack a tiny smile.

“Congratulations Lilith, you have won the prize yet again. I was particularly taken with your centrepiece, the imperfect green flower pot holding the begonia. You must tell me your secret to ensuring the good health of this fickle plant.”

Lilith smiled sweetly, gave nothing away, but if you had been listening closely when she bent over the plant after the judge had left you would have heard her whisper.

“We did it Rex.”

Main image: The Queen of the Shire, Deborah Halpren

Microphone, Art Gallery of South Australia

Reading at spoken word events

Street Art, San Francisco

Spoken word existed long before the written word, but its roots as a contemporary performance art lie in the Black Arts Movement (1965-1975) and emerged in the wake of the killings of Martin Luther King, J F Kennedy and Malcolm X. Black artists declared war on racism though their art, spreading messages of black unity, power and nationalism via mobile units of performance poets and spoken word collectives that gathered on street corners and in community parks. As a performance, spoken word, whether poetry or prose, tends to exhibit a heavy use of rhythm and word play compared to traditional writing.

Spoken word can be in the form of poetry, prose monologues, jazz poetry, comedy routines or hip hop. Melbourne has a vibrant spoken word scene and you can go and listen to, or participate in, poetry and prose gigs on most night of the week in pubs and cafe’s and old courthouses across the city and out in the suburbs.

The Grand Read

Since the 1980’s, the town where I live has hosted a two day festival each year that kicks off with a two hour road closure for the street parade with fabulous floats that promenade to the beat of a brass band from one end of town to the other. The weekend unfolds with a film night, an art show, a battle of the bands, pet parades, a giant water slide, canoe and camel rides, billy cart races, gold mine tours, a duck race and a beer brewing competition. One of the concluding events of the festival, commonly known as the cherry on top of the fabulous cake, is The Grand Read, a night of poetry and prose at the pub.

The Grand Read hosts a selection of local writers and poets, and one ‘outsider’ guest. Previous guests have included: poet and psychiatrist, Jennifer Harrison; author and human rights advocate, Arnold Zable; senior lecturer at RMIT and founder of the journal RABBIT, Jessica Wilkinson; and poet and author Kevin Brophy. This years guest is poet, playwright and actor Felix Nobis and I have been invited as one of seven local writers to deliver a seven minute reading.

The piece I will read is a tongue in cheek flash fiction piece about another local event, the potery expo. It will be my first time performing at a spoken word event, so I have been doing some research to help my preparation. Here is a summary of the advice I have gleaned…

Trespassers Welcome

Breathing: Diaphragmatic breathing is the type of deep breathing done by contracting the diaphragm, such as in yoga practices. You can practice it by lying on the floor and breathing in a way that fills up your belly. Pay attention to the rise and fall of your breath. Diaphragmatic breathing produces a better sound, and has a calming effect because it slows down your heart rate and reduces nerves and stress.

Practice, practice, practice: Performance is a physical activity and rehearsal creates muscle memory in your diaphragm, lungs and tongue, not just your memory. Knowing your piece will improve your performance. Read it out loud walking around the house or to the bathroom mirror until you know it well. Practice until you can lift your eyes off the page and look at the audience and add pause for impact where needed. Don’t be afraid of the quiet between sentences.

Project from your diaphragm: The people in the back of the room have to hear you, so fill up the room with your voice – this doesn’t mean shouting. Most people don’t fully engage their diaphragm, they rely too much on their throats, which not only strains your vocal chords over time, but produces a weaker sound, instead of the round, full sound spoken word poets are known for. To engage the full support of your breath, inhale, allowing your stomach to expand with air, and speak during exhale. The result will be a fuller, projected sound that won’t strain your vocal chords.

Enunciation: Exaggerate the shape of your mouth so you don’t mumble or run your words together. It might feel funny but it’ll force you to slow down and helps your audience understand you. Practice reading with the bottom of a pen or your fingers in your mouth. It helps you learn to shape your mouth the right way and forces you to over-enunciate. Err on the side of exaggeration.

Tempo and speed: It’s harder to slow down than it is to speed up—especially when you’re performing and adrenaline kicks in. Practice slowing down your speech to an uncomfortable, unnatural level so that you can play with pacing in your performance. Emphasize important moments and change pacing in order to help keep your audience captivated. If you feel like you’re speaking too slowly, you’re probably just right.

Spoken Word, San Francisco

Create tension and release: Consider pacing, sound, and intonation to better tell your story. Anticipate the emotional reaction you would like to inspire in the audience, and prepare the performance accordingly by slowing down in places, giving certain words extra space for emphasis, and altering your tone or volume. Identify places within your story where you can pause or add an extra emotional component through performance (you can mark these sections and highlight important words to create a roadmap). How can your voice emphasize the meaning behind the words? Which parts do you want people to remember? What’s the most important phrase or word? Take time to think about these questions and practice different delivery methods.

Be aware of your body: Spoken word is a full body art form – is there anything you can you do with your body that will add to your work? Use natural movement. Standing up straight while speaking is important to get the sound out. It’s especially important to elongate the spine in your neck so as not to constrict the breath in your throat. Lift your chin slightly and imagine a string is pulling the top of you head up. Plus when you stand up straight and assume a strong, confident stance, your audience will be able to hear it in your voice.

Create a warm up routine: Vocal coaches consistently suggest staying hydrated and soothing the throat with warm tea, lemon, and honey. Warming up the mouth and vocal chords is also a a good idea. Try humming your favorite tune to warm up vocal chords, massaging the muscles on the sides of your jaw to release tension, or rolling your tongue and blowing air through relaxed lips to warm up your mouth.

Give the microphone room: Keep the microphone about three inches away from your mouth to produce the best sound.

Waiting

Know that no one likes the sound of their own voice and the audience wants you to do well: When we hear ourselves speak in real time, we pick up on the internal vibrations, as well as the external sounds. But when we hear our voices in a recording, it sounds foreign because we’re not picking up the internal vibrations. We dislike our recorded voice because we rarely hear it as others do and therefore find it unfamiliar, but only you hate the sound of your voice. No one else is cringing and the audience is on your side – they want to have an enjoyable evening.

And lastly…be your authentic self, and eat a banana – it can help you relax…oh, and have fun.

Take a Leaf Out of My Book

This week I wrote a flash fiction piece for fun, inspired by my trip to WOMADelaide.

WOMADelaide is a four day open air festival of Music, Arts and Dance held in beautiful Botanic Park in Adelaide. Every year, around 500 artists from 30+ countries perform on 8 stages spread across the 34-hectare park and 18,000 – 20,000 people go each day.

The leaf people shown in the photos were artworks around the park which I found spooky and were the inspiration for this story…

Take a Leaf Out of My Book

I was amongst the thousands who made the pilgrimage to the music festival each year. We traipsed around the parkland gardens like the faithful seeking redemption, enveloped in sound waves that vibrated through the air around as we lay on the cool grass beneath river red gums, Moreton figs and pencil pines. Reality receded fast amongst the tie die, Indian cotton, beards and pigtails, and the thin trail of weed smoke that wended it’s way through the crowd to a melody so sweet it tasted like fairy floss, enfolding me in clouds of saintly bliss.

I wandered around the park to soak up the atmosphere and noticed creatures fashioned from chicken wire into the shape of people. They were stuffed with brown autumn leaves that looked like skin after too much time in the sun and scattered through the forest like aberrant seeds. Someone’s idea of art, frozen in ghoulish stances, sitting in chairs, leaning on walls and spilling from the hollows of trees. Faceless creatures in poses of waiting. They appeared at every turn and I started to feel like they were watching me.

On the second day I noticed that the leaf creatures moved around the park over night. One that had been playing a piano in a gully on the first day was no longer there and another riding a bicycle had materialised alongside a path. When I mentioned this to my girlfriend she said I had been drinking too much.

At dusk I was sprawled on the grass listening to the sounds of a throat singer and animal sounds emanate from a wind instrument. Their cries were answered by creatures deep in the park. At one point I was sure I heard a human scream, but when I struggled to my elbows all eyes around me were faced front to the stage, no sign anyone else had noticed, so I lay back down again. After an hour the throat singer melted into the forest and an aboriginal women’s choir dressed in colours of the desert emerged on stage and started to croon. Their haunted voices echoed through the night competing with the owls that dwelled in the high tree branches.

My bladder started to fill to bursting so I scrambled to my feet and headed into the dark toward the portaloos down the back, far enough away that the stink wouldn’t seep into the crowd. I passed through a stand of pines and couldn’t tell whether the rustling of leaves was coming from beneath my own feet or others walking in the shadows out of sight. The gouls in my head took shape in the night around me as I thought I caught glimpses of movement in the dark.

Fortunately the dunny queue was short. The bathroom experience was the worst part of festivals. No matter how often the tireless staff mopped out the stalls, at the end of a hot day the smell of urine was still nauseating, but the relief of emptying my bladder to the distant keening of the singers overrode any feelings of disgust I had for my stinky box cubicle with its invisible splashes sprayed around the walls.

When I stepped back out of the loo, I was alone with the sounds of the night. Already a bit spooked, I started to walk stealthily in the direction of the haunting melody that filtered through the trees, then tripped and landed sprawled on the ground. I heard a low painful moan nearby and scrambled to my feet. In the dim shadows I thought I saw a figure prone on the ground and in my mind it’s mouth was stuffed with flaking brown autumn leaves. I turned and ran through the night as adrenaline flooded my body.

I passed a large tree and something latched onto me from the shadows. When I swiped at it I felt my sleeve grabbed and tugged and started to swing around wildly. A shriek escaped from deep in my throat and I struggled with the dark figure feeling the scrape of chicken wire and the crunch of leaves as it wrestled me to the ground. My panicked mind realised that my daytime fantasy of the chicken wire and leaf people coming alive in the night was real. The person I had tripped over lying prone in the forest must have been a victim and now they had come for me.

Another scream echoed through the forest louder than the distant singing. I was fighting for my life, could feel the sting of wire cuts on my arms. In the distance I thought I heard my name being called and yelled for help while I struggled.

Flashes of torchlight leapt through the forest nearby and after what seemed like a lifetime found me. All the spots converged on my face and there was a deathly silence. I scrambled to my feet and wheeled around wildly in the torchlight ready to defend myself again. Peals of laughter started to fill the forest around me. My attacker, one of the chicken wire and leaf sculptures, was flattened to a pulp at my feet, no signs of life having ever been in it.

Ducking into Adelaide Writers Week

Literary Koala

Adelaide comes alive with festivals in Autumn; The Fringe, Adelaide Festival, Adelaide Writers Week and WOMADelaide, and I am on my annual pilgrimage and arts binge this week.

The city is surrounded by parklands that encase it in a figure eight of open green space of bushland, parkland and the Torrens River. I am fortunate to have a place to stay at St Peters, a north eastern suburb very close to the Torrens River parklands with access to walk all the way to the city through the green corridor that abuts the river.

Each morning this week I have walked the three kilometres along the flood plains of the Torrens River through the traditional lands of the Kaurna people, who’s country includes the Adelaide Plains. The walk takes me from St Peters to the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden where Adelaide Writers Week is held .

Casuarinas

The trail winds along the Torrens watercourses lined by sedges and rushes, past remnant river redgums, SA Blue Gums and through silent stands of Allocasuarinas. I disturb a large flock of Galahs feasting in the grasses, skinks scurry out of my way, and a young koala, stunned by this strange person invading its home, trots along the ground and up a eucalyptus trunk out of harms way. As I approach the city, just past the outskirts of the Adelaide Zoo, the bush land gives way to landscaped, manicured riverside gardens dotted by sculptures, sleeping Pacific Black Ducks, signs warning citizens not to feed the pelicans, which bite, or to touch the bodies of bats fallen from trees in case they carry the deadly Calicivirus.

I have attended three Adelaide Festival events this week (Out of Chaos…Gravity and Other Myths; By Heart; and Sarah Blasko) and spent most of my days at Adelaide Writers Week listening to authors and commentators talk on a range of fiction and non-fiction books in the shade of large poplars. The trees were chosen by the designer Elsie Cornish to represent: protection and love (the holly oak and myrtle); love, generosity and devotion (honeysuckle); and memory, protection, youth and tenderness (lilac); for the gardens developed as a tribute to pioneer women. I watched and listened and jotted down reflections and quotes that caught my attention…

…muscle and sinew find order in the sweat of chaos and a physical flight of fancy…

…sex is not an intellectual event…

…Bitcoin is the cash currency of Silk Road, the eBay for drug dealers on the dark web…Nimbin online…

…truth is stranger than fiction…

Rebecca Makkai

…Dread Pirate Roberts ran Silk Road. It was his Utopian dream. Until dealers started to blackmail him, threatening to release the personal details of their customers. Dread Pirate Roberts started putting out hits on them, got a taste for it and the Utopia ideal started to unravel…

…some boffin in the tax department stumbled across Dread Pirate Roberts email and he was tracked down by authorities who nabbed him working in the library …

…you can hire a hitman on the dark web for bitcoin, but most of them are scams…

…despite humorous elements there is real evil on dark web…it has created a safe place for bad people to meet and talk and normalise one another’s behaviour…

…complexity needs to be digested in its entirety and then filtered to make it digestible for the lay person…

…there’s nothing more vivid than a human being, but vivid writing is not a substitute for lack of substance…

…Humour makes things more accessible, particularly difficult subjects…

…if you’re writing about things that need to be fixed in the world you need to have a sense of social responsibility and be prepared to talk about taboos…

…sciences writers can bring in information that scientists can’t to help understand issues. For example to solve sanitation issues that cause diarrhoea, the biggest killer of children, we need roads. Without roads we cannot build sanitation’s infrastructure or get soap into communities…

…if you want to grow up to be a science writer, get a job as a fact checker…

…non-fiction: defining a writer by what they are not…

….the last thing to leave our dying lips may very well be a poem…As though it were aware of the fragility and treachery of man’s faculties, the poem aims at the target of human memory, because memory is usually the last thing to disappear, even when our whole existence crumbles around us…

Torrens Parkland

…a Portuguese man teaches ten strangers Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 by heart while he laments the loss of an old woman who taught him that words once held inside our hearts can never be lost…

…when writing characters different from yourself you need to write a fully formed human being, you need a soul…don’t try too hard…ask yourself am I doing good by writing this book? If the answer is yes, it’s more likely books on similar diverse topics will be published in the future…

…a novel is an entry way into certain uncomfortable topics for people and a pathway to empathy…We’re not telling these stories as often as we should be…

…is a person with an intellectual disability culpable? What about electricity companies that failed to maintain infrastructure?…Huge number of people with intellectuals disabilities in the legal system…what does this say about our society?…Was the Arsonist a product of systemic failure to provide adequate supports for a child with a disability?…This fire unleashed evil, but we have to do better in our society for kids at risk of creating harm Chloe Cooper…

…it’s getting warmer and more fire prone every year, fires burning hotter and longer all around world. Coal contributes to the systemic problems that create these conditions…It will not be the last time we have to deal with devastating fires resulting in loss of life…We have evolved alongside fire…it will outlast us as a species…

…writers look for character…interesting people to inhabit your books…

…the power of the words unspoken become the power of a book…it’s the definition of show don’t tell…

…language is magical…

Taking flight

…grief is dangerous and tenacious, it appears unexpectedly and tips you over…

…art stills the whole world in an image…forward time stops and cools around you…you are intercepted by something beautiful…the collapse of time…

…writing is about encounters…disturbing encounters that seed the need to make sense…reading and writing are not propositional…they do not explain the world…they are about an imaginative encounter…to be lost in the beautiful and the terrible…

…writing is an act of composition…reading and writing tutors our lives to notice things…to make our hearts open…

Books I will add to my reading list after listening to the authors:

  • Call Me Evie, J.P. Pomare
  • Too Much Lip, Melissa Lucashenko
  • The Darkest Web: Drugs, Death and Destroyed Lives, Eileen Ormsby
  • The Girl Without Skin, Mads Peder Nordbo
  • The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai
  • The Arsonist, Chloe Hooper
  • Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton
  • The Death of Noah Glass, Gail Jones

I have been filled with ideas, and inspiration from other people’s creative journeys through life and am thankful for these opportunities to stimulate my own thinking. I am also looking forward to four days of the magical mystery tour that is WOMADelaide this weekend.

Main image: Literary Duck

#Writers dog

The hound started to get restless at about nine o’clock this morning. Thirty-eight and a half kilograms of restlessness does not make for a relaxing lie in, so I am sitting on the banks of the Birrarung writing this post while Harper contemplates the meaning of life after a walk and a swim.

Come on human

I started this blog to create a record of the twelve months I took off my day job to focus on writing, the sands of which are destined to trickle out in early April. What I have found interesting is that writing about writing has also acted as a mechanism to unravel the knots that sometimes emerge, solidify my practice, and act as a catalyst to resolve some of the frustrations I have encountered along the way.

There was a day last week I was tempted by another shiny idea, to abandon my editing and move on. The internal dialogue went something like this.

“Hey I have an excellent idea for the opening scene of another project I want to do.”

“Yea, but you need to finish this one first.”

“The new one would be loads more fun though.”

Making ripples

“You know they say the best way to avoid becoming an author is to never finish writing a book…”

“But editing is sooo boring and first drafts are such fun.”

“It would be a shame to abandon 65,000 words without finishing the project, how about you try to stick with it a bit longer?”

“The other idea is better.”

“Only if you finish it, rather than quit when the edit gets boring.”

“But I don’t want to lose this amazing idea, I should get started on it.”

“Ok, how about you take a break and write the idea down – one scene only though. Then re-read that blog you wrote about editing and get back to, well, editing.”

Writers dog

So I took my own advice and wrote that scene so I wouldn’t lose the idea, then I re-read my editing hell blog and hey presto! After I cleared the decks and revisited my editing process, it seemed easier. I had cleared away some of the self-imposed confusion and might even have enjoyed some of the edit work of filling in the blank where I had noted write something about x here or re-write this scene. It was a valuable lesson in self strategizing to stick with it.

The draft I am working on now (I would probably call it my third) bares only a shadow of resemblance to the original draft, and I suspect I will still be working on the project when I return to work, but damn, I think I’m going to finish the thing.

What do you do to maintain your discipline to the end?

Main image: Harper in contemplation mode

Editing Hell

Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in three weeks to earn aquick buck and Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote The Gambler in a few days when he was broke and desperate due to his compulsive gambling habits. But these books are the freaks, the anomalies driven by some kind of demon writing force. At the other end of the spectrum, J.R.R. Tolkien took twelve years to complete Lord of the Rings.

Brunswick Picture House, Brunswick Heads

It was Ernest Hemingway who said the first draft of anything is shit. Some famous writers have completely trashed their first drafts and rewritten them, the published work unrecognizable from the original draft – think William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

I have listened to many writers being asked how long it takes to write a book in interviews. Most published authors seem to answer somewhere between one and ten years and they may produce as many as fifteen drafts (though the most I’ve heard quoted was 30).

There is endless advice available on how many drafts it takes to write a book – the three-draft method, the five-draft plan, the seven-draft process. But the more you listen and read, the more it becomes clear that there are as many ways to write a novel as there are writers.

Queensland Museum, Brisbane

What most writers seem to agree on is that the first draft is the vomit draft – your writing is focused only on extracting your imagination to get a version of your story on the page. It’s great fun to write and terrible to read. After that all bets are off. One thing is certain, you have to learn to love editing, and be prepared to kill your darlings, because you will probably go through many more erasers than you will pencils.

How people edit depends on how they write their first draft. For example I have noticed that I find dialogue relatively easy, but tend to leave out the protagonists internal emotional life in a first draft which I have to go back and write it in later. I also have some pet words I like to repeat over and over which I go back to and delete or change.

I have started work on a checklist for my editing to try and make it more efficient and have included it below. It is not exhaustive and I will continue to work on my ‘cheat sheet’ as I learn more about the editing process. I also think about editing at the microlevel of the scene, the mid-level of the chapter and the macrolevel of the overall story. Most of the following list is drawn from the works on my links page Books on writing, particularly the text Self-editing for fiction writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.

Guggenheim Museum, New York
  1. Openings: are they clear, engaging and connected to emotion? Do they raise a questions or hook that makes you want to keep reading? Was there a hint of conflict?
  2. Character: are the characters unique and interesting? Do you care about them (or hate them), do they have believable weaknesses, motivations and challenges?
  3. Characterization and exposition: let readers get to know your characters gradually by showing who they are. Look for where you have too much exposition – describing characters or their history – how much do readers need to know to understand the story and when do they need to know it? Take out what isn’t critical.
  4. Emotion and narrative voice: Read each main characters dialogue aloud – do you detect a unique voice for each, does what they say fit them? Do you feel like you get inside the main characters head? Are you emotionally connected to them?
  5. Drama and story: Is there tension in every scene? Is the story well-paced and does it have forward momentum? Are the stakes high enough? What could be cut/shortened? Are there gaps that need to be expanded?
  6. Themes, subtext and moral dilemmas: what themes and moral dilemmas emerge? Can you see subtext?
  7. World: is the world created unique and interesting? Have you told your reader enough, or too much about it?
  8. Prose: do the story and the characters feel believable? Is it easy to read? Is anything confusing? Is there a strong and consistent point of view? Does it make you want to read on?
  9. Dialogue: is there too much, or too little? Does it reveal character? Is there subtext? Check for emotions mentioned outside of dialogue – they are probably explanations – cut them and see how the dialogue reads – if it’s worse re-write it; are there any verbs other than said? Minimize benign verbs like replied or answered as they are obtrusive to the reader – where possible get rid of speaker attributions all together if it’s clear without them; Have you referred to a character more than one way in a scene ? – it’s confusing be consistent. Do you have the right balance of dialogue and beats (the action interspersed through a scene) to keep you reader grounded? Are your beats too repetitive? Do they show your characters?
  10. Dialogue sound: Read out loud. When you are tempted to change a word – do; does your dialogue sound realistic with enough contractions, fragments, run-on sentences? If your dialogue sounds stiff – is it exposition in disguise? How well do your characters understand one another? Do they mislead one another?
  11. Show and tell: Have you got the right balance between narrative summary and enough real time action? If there’s too much narrative summary can you convert sections into scenes? Do you describe or show your characters feelings? Cut all explanations of feelings (angry, sad, happy) and show them instead.
  12. Be proportionate: Are the characters you develop most fully the important ones throughout the story? Are the descriptive details you provide those your viewpoint character would notice? Do all the subplots and tangents advance the plot? If there aren’t any, should there be? Have you got on your hobby horse and spent too much time on a pet interest?
  13. White space: are your paragraphs too long or are there scenes with no longer paragraphs – Have you got the right balance?
  14. Rude bits: do you use too much swearing? If you have sex scenes, how much do you leave to your readers imagination (you don’t want to win the bad sex award, do you)?
  15. Words – remove unintentional word repeats (I have tendency to use realized and looked way too much) Word hippo is a great resource for synonyms; search and find ‘ly’ adverb – most of them are probably superfluous particularly if they are based on adjectives describing an emotion; minimize ‘ing’ words and ‘as’ phrases; remove extra words; sentences that don’t make sense; if you have lots of short sentences, would they be better strung together with commas? Minimize exclamation points and italics.
  16. Check spelling and grammar.

I recommend focusing on each of the editing elements separately.

What would you add to this list?

Main image: Mount Yasur, Vanuatu

Writing about place

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” – Henry Thoreau

Imagine a place that holds significant meaning or memories for you. What emotions does it evoke? How does it smell, sound, look? What stands out? How do you and others interact with it? Are there historical or contemporary narratives associated with this place?

Majestic death

I took a break from working on my novel last week and wrote an essay to enter a Writing of Place competition, the aim of which is to explore the writers relationship with some aspect of the Australian landscape. One of the interesting things about writing an essay is that it draws on your personal lived experience but also opens the writing to historical perspectives, artistic works, science and philosophy. My research has been wide ranging and I have had to refresh my memory for referencing!

But I’m a fiction writer, so why am I bothering with this you might ask? Because place is such an important element of writing fiction (often referred to as world building) that I think it’s worth some focused practice.

In fiction, we incorporate a characters interactions with the environment, what they see, how they see it and what emotional impact it has on them to help develop the character and plot. Understanding our own responses to a place can help to develop our skills for writing place in our fiction.

Melbourne

The idea of place is an elastic and subjective one, constructed through our personal perspective, our cultural lens and the values we attribute to it. Suburban Melbourne beats in the heart of many of Peter Temple’s novels and he uses place to capture the socioeconomic and cultural tone succinctly, as in this excerpt from Shooting Star. On reading this I imagine a working class suburb in the west of Melbourne filled with small houses in disrepair as the owners cannot afford the maintenance.

“The house was in a street running off Ballarat Road. Doomed weatherboard dwellings with rusting roofs and mangy little patches of lawn faced each other across a pocked tarmac strip. At the end of the street, by the feeble light of a streetlamp, two boys kicking a football to each other, uttering feral cries as they lost sight of it against the almost-dark sky.”

Place can be natural or man-made environments and it can be about the minutiae of a particular tree in a forest, or an ant hill, or a room, or extend to the grand scale of a planet, or the universe. Writing about place incorporates our sensory experience of it and aims to open it up and bring it alive in a way that enables a reader to feel, see and understand it in the same way as we (or our characters) experience it. 

In The Picture of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde uses the senses to immerse us in the location of the opening scene and evoke a sense of how the character feels about their environment. I am transported to an English summer country garden and the overwhelming perfume of flowers drifting in through casement doors thrown open to the warm day by this passage.

Shoreham

The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.”

In writing about place, detail matters and the language we select to etch the detail on the readers mind will determine the resonance left with our audience. Too much detail might be accurate, but it can also be bland. Being selective about descriptive details, but making use of all the senses, creates a feeling of intimacy and mood that immerses the reader in our stories.

In the Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood uses the detail of Offred’s room to generate a powerful, disturbing and dark world. Her use of simile induces a sense of desolation and loss for the character observing the room. And the staccato sentences ooze desperation.

The Room

“A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath and in the centre of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. There must have been a chandelier once. They’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to.”

A strong sense of place transports the reader into the world of your story. Practicing how a location looks, feels, smells and sounds, and trying to give it a voice helps us to understand how we can use it in our fiction and give place a living voice.

What do you do to develop your skills in writing about place?

Main image: Cairns in the Yarra