Book review: Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar

There was something about listening to the audiobook of Wolfe Island whilst I worked in my own bubble in my vegetable garden – weeding, harvesting, fertilising, mulching, planting – the attention to detail those tasks demand slows time. The activity threw me deeper into a novel that I’m sure I would have been enthralled by anyway, and submerged me into the melancholic world of Kitty Hawke.

Kitty is a resilient and resourceful woman of fortitude, and the last human inhabitant of Wolfe Island, which is being devoured by the rising sea. She lives a solitary, creative existence with her wolfdog, Girl, and makes art from found objects that she sells to the mainland. Kitty and Girl both come across as half wild and half domesticated, each lends the other a strength that is fortified by the Waterman giant talisman statues Kitty constructed from found objects to protect the island.

It was exhausting being around people and noticing them, thinking about them. I felt roughened and coarse now, as if I was rubbing against the grain of Wolfe Island. It used to be that I could forget myself and be, spend hours in the marshes watching the tides and the grasses, birds walking over my feet. I’d been still so long, listening to the unintelligible wind, I was part of it then, and insignificant. I missed that. The writing helped a little.

Wolfe Island

Kitty is drawn to reconnect with the outside world when her granddaughter arrives with some friends who are in danger because of their status as climate refugees. On the mainland climate refugees are ‘runners’ and vigilante ‘hunters’ chase them down and kill them. Gradually the young people let her into their troubles and she connects with them, eventually their cause becoming hers. When the island ceases to be a refuge for the runners, the group set off seeking safety in the north.

The islands were worlds and you didn’t move lightly from one to the other, and people’s way of speaking wasn’t quite the same from one island to the next. If we ran into each other on the main – a no-man’s-land to us – we saw our resemblance to each other, and heard our own foreignness in each other’s voices and prickled up and felt the eyes of people on us, assessing us for threat in the same way that we did them, resenting them for it and feeling their resentment toward us.

Wolfe Island

Lucy Treloar’s first novel Salt Creek won the Matt Richell Award for a New Writer, the Dobbie Literary Award and the Indies Award for Debut Fiction. It was also shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, the Miles Franklin Literary Award, and the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2016. Wolfe Island is deserving of its own accolades and I’ll watch with interest to see how it goes.

I say, ‘Girl, Girl,’ and she comes to me like a myth, her coat sleeked smooth, her tail back out. She is in a line, a ripple through the long grass, and butterflies and hoppers rise in her wake, lifting like spume and catching the light. She passes me by with a rush of wind and her sweet wolf scent, leading the way to anything.

Wolfe Island

Wolfe Island is a slow, lyrical lament on the state of the world in the grip of climate change, and the subtlety with which Treloar brings you to realise you are in a very near dystopian future is a little alarming. The novel is written in three parts – the island, the journey and return home, each revealing a different lense on a climate impacted world and Kitty’s relationship with her family, her place in the world and herself. Oh, not to forget her wolfdog, Girl, I’m a sucker for a novel with a dog as girls best friend…now I must go and turn that pumpkin I picked into soup.

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.

Book review: Eden by Candice Fox

Reading Candice Fox’s novel Hades (reviewed in last weeks blog) set me off on a binge and I followed it straight up with the sequel Eden which won the 2015 Ned Kelly Award for best crime novel. Like it’s predecessor, Eden has several narratives running through it.

We are thrown back to discover how Hades, who bought up Eden and her brother came to be the man he became, the go-to body disposal guy who runs the tip, makes elaborate sculptures from discarded metal and causes many a grown man to tremble in their boots with fear, yet has a heart capable of great love.

Frank the cop who has fallen into a pit of drunken despair after the death of his lover, the death of a colleague and almost dying himself, is forced out of his misery by his work partner, the mysterious and dangerous Eden who loves hunting criminals but doesn’t always wait for the justice system to determine their sentence. She wants Frank back on his feet as they are to be assigned to a murder investigation that will require her to go undercover. She wants him to watch her back on surveillance and Frank can’t say no to her because she knows his dark secret.

As Frank gets drawn into Hades world, helping him solve a long ago mystery an unexpected twist nearly gets Eden killed. Dark, gritty, noirish and poetic, another great read.

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

rusted old truck in long grass

A bit of noir

It’s murderously hot today. The thermometer is expected to reach 38 degrees celsius and strong north winds are blowing in from the sizzling centre of Australia. It’s the kind of day that conjures a mood of disorder and threat, like it’s cousin on the spectrum, the chilled isolation of excessive cold climates. Extremes are both thrilling and dangerous.

MoMA, New York City

Humans are so vulnerable to weather extremes yet we have been pitting ourselves against nature infinitum with a naive belief that we can prevail in a moral vacuum where the planet is concerned. My bet is on nature in the long run, if we don’t learn to live more harmoniously with the planet.

For some reason, when the elements are severe my mind wanders to noir at the extreme of crime fiction.  Climate change, like reading noir, summons an inescapable bleakness. Both contain themes where collective denial operates within a prism of political dysfunction and citizen hopelessness. Perhaps it is the existential angst, imbued in the idea that humanity could wipe itself out by failing to take action on climate change, that is nudged whenever the weather gets irritable that makes me draw parallels to noir.

MoMA, New York City

The world of noir is dark, chaotic and alienating, and full of the type of moral ambiguity and hypocrisy that points at human existence and calls it absurd and meaningless. In noir everyone one is imperfect and what is right and wrong are unclear. Noir is complex and messy and has a way of teasing out our interdependence as human beings in the global web of power and influence in which we live. It is much more like real life than cosy crime where the hero prevails unscathed, as if wearing teflon. Noir is saturated with the voices of angry protest against entrenched privilege and systems in which the average citizen feels powerless against inequality and corruption, yet it is often delivered with dark humour.


There’s icy Nordic noir like Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg and Fargo by the Coen brothers if you want to cool down, or stories like the shorts in Sunshine Noir by Annamaria Alfieri and Michael Stanley to warm up with.

Historically, noir has been dominated by white men but I have noticed that modern noir is increasing in diversity as more women like Clare Blanchard, Nikki Dolson, Saira Viola and Jo Perry (published by Fahrenheit Press) pick up the crime pen.

South Australian Museum, Adelaide

I’m currently reading Mistress Murder by Mark Ramsden also published by Fahrenheit Press (I only recently discovered this small crime publisher with attitude and am looking forward to making my way through their collection). Mistress Murder is the story of Susie Goldy, a transgressive, hedonistic, drug addicted dominatrix trying to get on with her life of mayhem whilst being pursued by an unknown malevolent stalker who has taken umbrage with her and her lifestyle. I’m finding the voice of Ramsden hilarious and the black and satirical take on a subculture most of us would never encounter has me fascinated and cringing in equal measure. Just right for a sweltering afternoon.

What are your favourite noir reads?

Main image: Rusted Out, Yandoit, Victoria

Misty morning, Coogoorah wetlands, Anglesea

The dreaded synopsis

Apologies if this blog seems a bit rushed. I almost forgot to write it this week due to being ensconced in the bubble of a writing retreat at Anglesea for the week with another writer friend and two hounds. We’ve had the usual all seasons that the southern coast is famous for. On Sunday it was thirty degrees, today it’s fifteen and raining and the wood fire is burning. As I write I can hear the sounds of tapping keyboards, the crackle of the fire and the sweet sound of dogs snoring in satisfaction after their morning run on the beach.

Writers dog

At almost 65,000 words into the current draft of my work in progress (WIP) I have spent much of this week knee deep in writing a dreaded synopsis. Most writers hate this exercise – and I am no exception, but do think it’s a good activity that can improve your story. I have done it several times throughout writing my WIP and will continue to revisit it as work progresses.

I find crafting log lines, a premise and synopsis of varying lengths are a terrific mechanism to focus my writing and test the dramatic arc of the story. What is written might change a little each time I do these exercises, or the process itself may cause my story to shift and change when I notice issues or logical gaps emerge.

Do you work on your synopsis as you progress your WIP?

Following is an outline of the process I use. I start by summarizing the turning points of my WIP. These are the main beats where the story turns in a new direction as a result of some dilemma faced by the protagonist. It helps to focus on the key elements of the plot and/or character arc that I will build into the synopsis. I write the summaries in the following format:

At the start of each Turning Point, the character has xxxx problem, are feeling yyyy and they are trying to achieve zzzz goal, however when aaaa complication happens, they feel bbbb and now want ccccc. (cccc is the payoff for what has happened and it raises the desire for the next turning point).

Looking for the plot

This is a useful formula for summarising turning points, chapters and scenes as well. Here’s an example:

When Jane meets the local eccentric she is afraid (feeling) and tries to get away from him (problem) and find out whether he is dangerous (desire). However when he keeps turning up at her house (complication) and she befriends him (motivation shift) and then finds him dead on the beach, she realizes he has been murdered and wants to find out what happened (new desire – to solve the murder mystery).

The second task is to write a log line. A log line is a tight, approximately twenty-five-word summary framed as a ‘what if?’ that captures the protagonist’s predicament and conflict and aims to hook the reader. I might write many of these, then select the one I think fits best. The most recent version of the log line for my WIP is:

What if a private investigator uncovered a political scandal linked to a closed murder investigation, became infatuated with a witness, then suspected her lover could be the killer?

Going deep

Next I write a short premise (also around twenty-five words) that helps clarify the dramatic logic of the story. The premises is the promise of the story which, if borne out is proven by the narrative. Then I can say the story achieved what it set out to do. An example is: By abandoning her personal and professional rules a woman learns the importance of living according to her authentic self.

My next step is to write four varying length synopsis – in one sentence, one paragraph, one page and then an expanded 3-5-page version. The one liner identifies the central character, the story problem, the overall theme and the central driving force for the main character. I might brainstorm a number of these and select the one I most like. For example:

After a private investigator is convinced to revisit a closed murder investigation she finds herself having to break the law to save herself and ensure justice is served.

Losing the plot

When you expand the synopsis to a paragraph it brings in other central characters and explains what binds the central characters together, what drives the protagonist forward, and also reveals the climax and the lessons learned in the story.

 The long synopsis (3-5 pages) draws out the central story line and characters and includes all the detail that may be obvious to you, but not someone unfamiliar with your novel. It reveals the narrative arc and is an explanation of the problem/plot and characters, their actions and motivations. The long synopsis summarizes what happens, how the characters feel about it and how they change through the story. It reveals pace, motivations…and the ending. It is written in third person active voice and has elements that show your unique point of view.

Recovering from the plot

After I have written a draft I let it rest for a day or so then edit it. The edit involves going through to check that I haven’t included too many characters or events or plot details. I aim to have just enough to intrigue the reader and show my writing voice. Every word has to count so I try to strip out unnecessary detail, descriptions and explanations.

Sounds simple doesn’t it? It’s not and it can be a painful process, but well worth the effort. When I’ve finished I take the dog for another walk to clear my head.

How do you develop your synopsis?

Main image: Anglesea River, Coogoorah wetlands

The nostalgia of mysteries: horses and politics

This week I’ve been thinking about the mystery novels I read and loved years ago.  I hoovered up Dick Francis books as a teenager because I was obsessed with horses. I suspect that was also when my fascination for mysteries was born. As a consequence Francis holds a nostalgic place in my reading memory despite eventually coming to believe that horse racing should be banned. His novels were fast-paced easy reads full of muddy race tracks, crooked bookies, cheating jockeys and brutal owners.IMG_1172

Francis had himself been a jockey and horse trainer and all his novels revolved around the English race tracks. He wrote most, if not all, in collaboration with his wife, a former school teacher and expert researcher. Some people viewed him as the horse worlds Agatha Christie, but Francis was way more brutal than Agatha ever was in the way he physically and mentally tortured his protagonists.

One of my first jobs out of high school in the mid-eighties was as a track rider for a race horse trainer. The job reminded me of Francis’s tough masculine characters every day I went to work. I have one vivid memory of giving a young jockey a lift home and staring in horror when he leaned out of the car window, whip in hand, and cut a female cyclist across buttocks as we passed. When I threatened to turf him out of the car he just laughed. It could have been a scene from one of Francis’s novels.

When Dick Francis said he always tried to think of a dirty deed, and build a plot around it he captured the heart of the mystery.  They open with some kind of disruption to the social order that creates a puzzle our hero must solve. Along the way they uncover secrets, are diverted by red herrings, meet unexpected surprises and have their physical and psychological limits tested. They always prevail and set the world to rights again IMG_1135 (1)enabling the reader to experience the tension vicariously and discover the hero within.

By the late nineties I had started to move on from horse riding as a profession and got what my parents called ‘a real job’ in a more politically leaning pursuit.

One of Dick Francis’s last novels, 10lb Penalty (1997), blended racing and politics and was the last of his books I read. Some time after that I discovered Shane Maloney who introduced me to the use of mysteries as a form of literary protest. Who wouldn’t be excited to find politicised crime fiction novels set in their own town?

Maloney set his novels in 1990’s Melbourne and bought our political and social fabric to life on the page. His public servant protagonist Murray Whelan shone a light on the absurdity of the political landscape that emerged in the Jeff Kennett era. He satirised Australian politics well before The Hollowmen and Utopia came to our screens. Though the latter have demonstrated that the world of politics continues to be ludicrous in a very frightening way.

Maloney’s books edge into the world of the subgenre ‘apparatchik lit’, some say he invented it.  The term lends itself from the word used for bureaucrats in the Russian Communist Party and explores the intimate workings of politics, the machinery of government and lobby groups and how they impact the social fabric of the society they are set in. I love the way Maloney used suspicion, humour and play as a cover for more sinister events in his novels.

While some of the stories that emerge in this type of fiction (or tv series) appear beyond absurd, you’d be surprised how close to real life they can be. A friend who works in a government department once told me that the day after one episode of Utopia their Minister called the office demanding to know who had leaked information about an IMG_1162-1issue that had appeared on the program…

It’s fair to say that the arrogance of our politicians, their moral hypocrisy and power games continue to be ripe for the picking. You only have to turn to our own national political landscape for endless examples at the moment.

The novel I am currently working on is placed in Melbourne but draws on material from recent (mostly) national politics in an attempt to shine a light on some contemporary political absurdities.

If you have any suggestions for more Shane Maloney type novels, particularly if set in Australia – let me know.


Main image: Horses at Warnambool

Inset images in order: Horses at Warnambool; Parliament Drive, Canberra; Parliament House, Canberra.

Is writing fiction a political act?

“…our stories influence what we see and what we believe is possible or impossible in the world.” – Ethan Miller

My post last week was a response to events in Australian politics that I found exasperating. The political circus continued to get my goat so much I wrote a letter to The Age. unspecifiedMy week of political writing got me thinking about the role of fiction in relation to politics.

When we consider politics and writing we generally think of journalists. If a journalist fabricates content it is a betrayal of public trust, but making stuff up is the very purpose of creative fiction so does it have a role in politics? Is there such a thing as fiction that is not political? Is writing fiction a political act?

Many say they are not political (or not interested in politics), but the sociopolitical environment in which we reside shapes our entire lives. Politics determines the haves and have-nots.  It tells us who’s experience is legitimate. For example governments determine whether IMG_4092medical facilities exist to ensure we survive childbirth, dictates if we get the opportunity to learn to write at all, the price of milk, who we can and cannot love, and the type of death we can have. Our very existence is enmeshed in, and shaped by the political environment(s) we live in and are exposed to.

Work of the creative imagination, be it fiction, poetry, art or drama, is shaped by our own experience and our views of the world – in other words our own sociopolitical lens. The world shapes us, and then as writers we try to shape the world. We question or bend reality, invent new worlds and invite readers to consider a new perspective. To understand the other. We pick out themes and create personalities that we sew together into a plot to show, magnify or transform how a particular set of circumstances can impact on the world now, or in the future.

What reader would not be able to name a book that had a significant influence on their lives? Writers, story tellers and poets have been holding a mirror up to reality for centuries. They often say what would otherwise be considered unsay-able in public.

The threat writers pose is evident when we study the history of censured, banned or IMG_4359burned books. Examples of fiction works that have been subject to some kind of censorship or ban at one time or another include Dr Seuss, Winnie the Pooh, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Catch-22, The Da Vinci Code, Doctor Zhivago, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Satanic Verses, Sophie’s Choice, The Well of Loneliness and Ulysses. The more restrictive a political regime, the more likely it is to see text as a threat. Over 25,000 books were burnt in Munich four months into Hitler’s regime for being ‘unGerman’.

A lesser known but poignant example of how literature can threaten and intersect with politics was a book called New Portuguese Letters (Novas Cartas Portuguesas) by Muria Isabel Barreno, Muria Teresa Horta and Maria Vento da Costa. The book, published in 1972, was a post-modern collage of fiction, personal letters, poetry, and erotica inspired by the original letters of a Portuguese nun, Mariana Alcoforado to her lover, the Chevalier de Chailly, at the time of Portugal’s struggle for independence against Spain. When New Portuguese Letters was written the Portuguese had been living under a dictatorship for almost fifty years and the book exposed the tyrannical relations that existed between the sexes.

The authorities banned New Portuguese Letters soon after its release – though not before a copy was smuggled to French feminists in Paris who arranged for its translation. The three Marias were arrested and allegedly tortured by the regimes secret police. They were charged with ‘abuse of the freedom of the press’ and ‘outrage to public decency’ by a censorship committee. The three women were criticized because they wrote like men. They were sexually explicit, frank about their desires, fantasies, sexuality and bodies.  They critiqued patriarchal structures, family violence and political repression.

The trial dragged on for two years, made worldwide headlines and gave rise to protests IMG_1892outside Portuguese embassies in Europe, the United States and Brazil. On 25 April 1974 a bloodless coup overthrew the regime. It was called the Carnation Revolution because red carnations were put in the ends of soldiers’ gun barrels. Soon after the coup the case against the three Marias was dismissed, the women freed and the book became a literary symbol of women’s liberation, erotic art, and the Portuguese revolution.

At its essence politics is about power and the rules we impose on society as a way of maintaining order. Do all authors strive to effect change in the world through their writing? If we don’t, why do we hope to be published and read?

What about genre fiction? Is romance gender politics at work? The genre is often dismissed as unworthy. Is that not itself political? Is to disregard romance a dismissal of women (the main consumers of romance), their views on relationships and their sexuality?

Is mystery fiction social justice at work? It often explores and gives voice to the fringes of society – drugs, prostitution, the dispossessed, or the underdog taking on the powerful elite. The very essence of a mystery is about who holds power, who abuses power and how the imbalance can be redressed. That is political. Mystery authors often use their writing to bring to light the concerns of minority groups and to provide commentary on a societies moral issues – Val McDermid’s lesbian protagonist, Lindsay Gordon; Emma Viskic’s deaf character, Caleb; Barry Maitland’s Aboriginal protagonist in the Belltree trilogy.

Reading a novel uncouples us from our ordinary lives and transports us to a self-created world through our interaction with a work of fiction. We read fiction to get ‘lost in a book’ or to ‘escape from our own existence’. Reading is an opportunity for some kind of small transformation.

DSC02842Writing is a way to contribute to the development of a liberal and democratic society. We implant meaning and messages in our plots that we hope will influence how our readers think, not only entertain them.

We judge and unpack what we read and ascribe a value to books. That is political – just read any book review or go to a book club meeting and listen to the debate about a novel to see how a single story can take on different contours and unique significance for individual readers.

How do you hope to influence your readers?

Main image: DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague;

Inset images in order: Letter to The Age; Street Art, San Francisco; Guggenheim museum, New York City; Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane; Threat and Sanctuary, Museum of Modern Art, New York City

A surfer on a wave at sunset, Byron Bay, NSW

Beta readers

While our political leaders play out the story of Chicken Little in Canberra, I am fortunate enough toIMG_0892 be holed up with friends in a beautiful spot near Byron Bay on the north coast of New South Wales.  Our days are made up of surfing, eating, whale and dolphin watching, reading and writing. Oh, and there’s the spectacular sunrises and sunsets that occur at this most easterly point of Australia.

I have read three books this week, but done only a little writing. I have noticed how reading helps improve writing skills. Reading crime writers like Peter Temple, Raymond Chandler and Jane Harper among others is motivating but I have mixed feelings about reading fiction when I am also trying to write myself. A good book can become a vehicle for procrastination and a distraction from putting your own pen to page. There is also the risk that when you sit down to write you drift from your own voice and start to sound like the author of the book you are reading.

I have noticed that as I develop my fiction writing skills the way I read also changes. Grammatical errors and typos leap off the page when I come across them in published works and I am much more attuned to whether I like an author’s voice and style, why and what it is that keeps me turning the pages (or not).

UMWZE7464Sadly, the enhanced attention to detail doesn’t prevent me from missing errors when proof reading my own work. A couple of friends staying with us asked if they could read some of my book. I had edited and edited, and edited the first three chapters, which I entered into the Richell Prize and The Next Chapter in July, so sent them those parts to read. Their feedback was positive and one of my friends did a great job picking up some grammatical errors I had missed.  It did make me realize just how invisible your own writing becomes when you have been absorbed in it for months and months.

The exercise also got me thinking about Beta readers . Who should they be and what type of guidance should you provide to support them to undertake their task in a way that will help you make your story better.

It makes sense that your beta readers include people who have an interest in the genre you write in, or be someone that might buy the type of book you are writing. They must be prepared to provide uncensored constructive criticism and praise (and be people from whom you are prepared to take it!) and they must commit to complete the task in the time you want to get it done. IMG_0856

I started to compile a list of questions that I could provide to prompt beta readers when the time comes:

Story questions:

  1. Did the story create a clear image? A world that seems alive?
  2. Did the story seem to be propelled forward and hold your interest from the start? If not, why not?
  3. Did you get whose story it was at the beginning?
  4. Was there enough tension to hold your interest all the way through? Do you think the stakes should be raised? In which parts?
  5. Was the ending believable and satisfying?
  6. Are there parts where you wanted to skip ahead or put the book down?
  7. Which parts resonated with you and/or connected with you emotionally?
  8. Are there parts that should be condensed or deleted?
  9. Are there parts that should be elaborated on or enhanced?
  10. Did you find any parts confusing? What confused you?
  11. Highlight in green any scenes/paragraphs/lines you really liked.
  12. Highlight in blue any scenes you found particularly amusing.
  13. Highlight in red any parts did you disliked. What didn’t you like?

Setting questions:

  1. Was it clear where and when it takes place? If not, why?
  2. Were the setting descriptions vivid and real to you? Did the setting interest you?
  3. Did you feel there was too much description or exposition at any point? Not enough?

Character questions:

  1. Did you relate to the main character? Did you connect to how they felt about what was happening to them?
  2. Were the characters believable? Are there any characters you think could or should be made more interesting or more likeable?
  3. Did you experience any confusion about who’s who in the characters? Why?
  4. Were there too many characters to keep track of? Too few? Would you get rid of any of them?
  5. Which characters did you really connect to?
  6. Do any characters need more development?
  7. Did the dialogue seem natural? Did it keep you engaged? If not, whose dialogue did you think sounded unnatural? Why?
  8. Did you think there was too much dialogue in parts? Where?


  1. Did you notice any obvious, repeating grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors? Examples?
  2. Did you notice any over-use of words?
  3. Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not?
  4. Was the point of view consistent?
  5. Is anything unclear? Clumsy? Any cliches? Does the writing flow?
  6. Did you notice any inconsistencies in places, time sequences, character information, or other details?

Are there any questions you would add to, or delete from this list?

Main image: Sunset @ Byron Bay, NSW

Inset in order: Chicken Little @ The Farm, Ewingsdale, NSW; Dolphins @ Byron Bay;  Lighthouse sunrise, Byron Bay. 

picture of a basket of eggs with faces drawn on them

Characters and journeys

Between my attempts to get some writing done I have worked my way through the obligatory list of tasks that required completion this week before we pack up and head off on a road trip. Like changing the washer on that tap that’s been dripping for months. We will travel to Byron Bay for a few weeks to surf and enjoy some warmer weather. A journey within a journey. My laptop will accompany me so I can continue to work on my novel with some inspiration from the Australian landscape and the characters I meet along the way.

When I started writing I spent a bit of time developing the personalities of the characters for my novel. I wrote back stories for the main players that explained how they came to embody who they are at the start of the book. Most of this material will never be included but was necessary for me to understand them.

All of the characters are completely fictitious, except one. A colleague from my workplace inspired my protagonists sidekick. Before I started my long service leave I decided I’d better tell James and check how he felt about it. He was flattered, but a little cautious. What kind of person had I made him? I promised I would give him some material to read in due course and if he wasn’t happy about the idea I would make changes to the character to create more distance.

I emailed the first three chapters to James this week and waited to hear what he thought, holding my breath figuratively speaking. To my relief he said he loved the story and was happy with the persona he’d inspired (particularly the six-pack I gave him). James is my favourite person in the novel and he’s a great foil for my protagonist, Jude Lawson. He and his relationship with Jude are what injects humor into the story and I enjoy writing the banter they have.

The process of developing the personalities of all the characters in the novel included deciding on names, age, occupation and character traits. I wrote personal story lines to identify what drives each person and what their hidden agendas are. I wrote a back story to find the ghost of each character. I wrote about what has made them the person they are at the start of the story and how they know the other players. I explored what each character wants that they won’t admit to themselves as well as what they want in concrete terms and why it is important to them. I wrote about the conflict that exists to works against them reaching their goal. I tried to find any epiphanies they might have as events unfold and I told the story in summary from each main characters own point of view. It resulted in thousands of words that will never appear in the book but were necessary to find depth in the people. The process of getting to know them is similar to getting to know a real person and they continue to reveal more of themselves to me as I write.

Packing the car will be tricky as I have to make room for all our stuff and my imaginary friends. There’s nothing like travelling to test friendships. I hope they all travel light and and don’t argue about directions or ask ‘are we there yet’ too often.

Image: unformed characters…