staghound cross puppy with autumn leaves

Animal Farm

Animal characters have had central roles in well known fictional stories. A personal favorite was the 1877 novel Black Beauty by Anna Sewell about the life, Harper 1tribulations and adventures of a sleek black horse. Black Beauty highlighted the issue of animal welfare and the importance of treating others with kindness, respect and sympathy. Important lessons for any child. Roald Dahl bought garden bugs to life in his 1961 novel James and the Giant Peach that explored the themes of friendship, death, hope, fear, abandonment, rebellion and transformation. I remember being fascinated by the giant caterpillar who had to tie the shoe laces on his many pairs of boots every morning. The book is still on my shelves and I pull it out and re-read it every now and then.

Stories with animals are not only for kids either. The epic 1851 classic Moby Dick by Herman Melville explores the 19th Century whaling industry in all its brutal glory and has the giant sperm whale as a central character representing nature’s wildness.  At times Melville takes on the non-human perspective imagining how appalling the whaling fleet must appear to a surrounded wounded whale.

There’s also George Orwell’s 1945 classic Animal Farm about the lead up to the 1971 Russian Revolution and the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union. The themes of corruption, class and abuse of power play out using the Harper 5allegory of the Manor Farm ruled by pigs. As power goes to their heads the pigs start to run the place on the premise that “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” They become so much like the humans they overthrew that eventually they transform into humans themselves.

Like any character, an animal in a story needs a reason to be there, and a reason why the writer chose an animal rather than a human character. It needs to have a place in the plot of the story whether it’s idealistic, political, satirical, comedic, allegorical or fun. Will the animal character appear clearly as an animal or take on human characteristics; will it be a pet or wild; what is the message it will convey?

My own ability to write fell in a hole recently. It was not due to a lack of motivation, enthusiasm or ideas. There was no writer’s block and I did not fall ill. In fact it would be Harper 3fair to stay things were going swimmingly. I had established a great routine of writing early, doing some exercise then either writing again, reading or heading out into the garden depending on the weather.  Then along came Harper.

I was missing my old dogs company and started thinking about getting another one so I signed up to a rescue site called Petrescue. It’s like a dating site connecting up animal rescue organizations with people wanting to adopt a pet. Pictures of cute furry animals can be distracting and the real thing is a whole other level of disturbance.

Harper came from somewhere around Wagga Wagga via Seymour. The advertisement on Petrescue had very little information. Sweet little female mixed breed dog. Sleepy, playful and cute.   Several emails and a phone call to the foster home led to filling out the adoption papers and agreeing to meet.

Harper 6Many country dogs get adopted in Melbourne, and Seymour is a liaison point apparently. The industry is quite mysterious and I think there could be a great fiction story written about the rescue, movement and adoption of animals.

We drove to the rendezvous point in Kings Park and met a lady there with a car full of rescue dogs. I didn’t want another dog like Jarrah (my old kelpie), as it would have felt like I was being unfaithful to my old friend. The puppy was a leggy, sandy colored thing with a slightly worried look. An Australian Staghound crossed with something of unknown origin – probably some kind of cattle dog like a kelpie.

We weren’t sure about whether to take her or not. Then this guy from Pakenham turned up to look at Harpers brother. He picked up the puppy without hesitation, threw it over his shoulder and started filling out the necessary paperwork. He said he had a Harper 7Staghound-kelpie cross at home. “Best dog he’d ever had,” he said, “affectionate, trainable and not as energetic as a kelpie. Likes to lie around on the couch and watch TV.” Sounded like an ideal writing companion.

It does of course take some time to get from puppy to writing companion and after puppy Saturday all writing stopped and novel reading was replaced by books and blogs and videos on puppy wrangling and several days of utter chaos as we got to know Harper and visa-versa. Within three days she had gotten the hang of going outside to the toilet and would come, sit and drop as long as there weren’t too many other distractions. We had also introduced her to ceiling fans, hair dryers, vacuum cleaners, steel and wooden stairs, the shower, collars, coats, leads, a frisbee, tennis balls, new Harper 2people who dropped by and Bunning’s. Believe it or not Bunning’s has a very detailed dog positive policy and we were able to take Harper around the store introducing her to the weird and wonderful world of the great Aussie tradition of a trip to the hardware store.

We had our first day at puppy school to start our long learning adventure together. Each day consists of a cycle of eat, sleep, play, starting at about 6am. I’m particularly fond of the sleeping part and I am hopeful we will settle into a new routine soon so I can get back to some writing. My book does have two dogs in it so I look forward to Harper becoming an inspiration rather than a distraction.

What’s your favorite fictional animal character?

Image: Harper and autumn leaves

sulpher crested cockatoo

What a galah!

Oh, don’t you hate it when you get it wrong? Galahs are the pink and grey cockatoos. That is not the same as a sulphur-chested cockatoo like the marauder in the picture. He is not a galah, even though they are both cockatoos. And while a cockatoo is not a galah, it is a parrot. And those green and red ones we think of as parrots, like the king parrot, are not cockatoos or galahs even though all of these birds are parrots. Confused yet? It’s a hierarchical classification thing. I remember learning it in zoology.

The word cockatoo doesn’t just mean our white and yellow feathered friends either. In Australian slang a person who keeps watch whilst their mates undertake clandestine activities like gambling is sometimes referred to as a ‘cockatoo’. Probably because they’re expected to squawk if they see the coppers coming. And completely unrelated to birds or illegal activities, small-hold farmer are often referred to as ‘cocky farmers’ on account of real farmers not taking them seriously. Come to think of it I’m probably a bit of a cocky farmer myself. And lets face it, we can all get a bit cocky sometimes.

A couple of weeks ago, I found one of ‘those’ errors whilst working on my third draft. I’m not talking about spelling errors here. I’ve talking about the kind of error that makes you kick yourself for not picking it up in your very early research.  Because it’s the kind of blindingly obvious thing you should have checked. And it’s the kind of error that once seen, cannot be unseen. It demands a major rewrite of the start of your book. The kind of error that results in a dummy spit and self flagellation for your own stupidity. You consider giving the whole project up. Taking your bat and ball and going home.

We all have them. Those moments when we just want to throw in the towel and give up. After a good run and a few days of wrestling with my inner five year old demon I started pulling up my bootstraps. I couldn’t actually bring myself to return to the work immediately. Sulking does not after all produce good creative output. So I did the only thing I could and worked on something else completely unrelated to try and get my mojo back.

The short story format is wonderful for so many reasons. It can break the back of writers block and bad moods, give you a sense of accomplishment and remind you that you can actually finish things. And they are a great place to pump out all that animosity about an error. I went for a noirish mystery of the type where no one is spared. I killed off all the characters except for the opponent by poisoning them. It did a ripper job of getting the poison out of my own system too. Then I settled down and got back to the main game.

I re-plotted the first 9 chapters. It’s not entirely different. I just needed to find a different way into the story to deal with the error. And what do you know, the rewrite is actually going to be a better story than the original I think! Now there’s a good lesson for me: Never get too attached to what you’re writing, you may have to do a slash and burn – it won’t be the end of the world. The work I had already done won’t be wasted. I’ll cut and sort and paste and recycle the good parts that still work. The parts that I can’t use weren’t wasted either as they helped me develop the characters and the story which contributed to the improved rewrite. What a Galah hey?

What strategies do you use to deal with, and get over the discovery of major flaws in your work?

 

Sign for second hand store "objects of desire" Istanbul

The writing odyssey begins

Odyssey: a long and eventful or adventurous journey or experience
– Oxford Dictionary

And so it begins. The ancient Greeks spoke of a time when heroes walked the earth performing superhuman endeavors, fighting monsters and consorting with the gods. They made up stories of men and women – neither gods nor humans – who became the heroes of Greek mythology.

Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s epic poem Odyssey, tricked the Trojans into bringing a giant wooden horse inside the walls of Troy. His army defeated the enemy and ended the Trojan War. In the epic Greek poem Odysseus spent many years traveling home from the Trojan war encountering monsters, cannibals, drugs, alluring women and he even visited the afterlife.

I have twelve months off work and I have noticed among friends and colleagues a hint of  expectation that like Odysseus I will set out an an epic adventure. Each year my annual leave has taken me on some new adventure around the world so surely a long break is the perfect opportunity for an extended trip. When I told people about my leave the immediate response has most commonly been where are you going? When I announced I was mainly staying home their faces often folded into confusion and disappointment. Who takes all that time off work to stay home right?

Yesterday was my last day of work for the year. I have decided to spend my time at home to focus on writing (try to finish that crime fiction novel I started two years ago) and my garden (finish all those half completed landscaping projects) – two of my passions. Other than a few short breaks this time will be an internal journey to learn new skills, flex and build my writing muscle and discover where my imagination can take me. That decision feels just right at this point in time. Building and launching this website and writing a weekly blog is also part of the plan. Follow me if you dare…

Image: Istanbul, Turkey

Microphone, Art Gallery of South Australia

Listening for inspiration

Discovering podcasts and audio-books was a revelation to me. Suddenly I could listen to a book or a favorite program out walking, gardening, driving the car and commuting to work. I could catch up on my favorite shows that I had missed and when my eyes were too tired from looking at a screen I could lie on the couch and someones silky voice would read to me. It reminds me of my parents reading to me at night as a child when I went to bed.

I wrote about writer skill building in my post on writing resilience. Podcasts can be a great (free) way to learn about writing and hear from more experienced writers how they go about their craft and what motivates and inspires them. You can also keep up with the latest books published.

My favorite podcast at the moment is So You Want to be a Writer. I discovered it when it was already in its third year, so have been binge listening on my way to and from work. Valerie Khoo and Allison Tait have a great formula with their show. These two writers make an entertaining and informative hosting duo. Their show delivers news, advice and tips on writing, writing tools, publishing and blogging. They interview a writer for each episode and their approach is both inspiring and motivating. Each show includes show notes and references published on the website.

For crime fans Valerie also hosts a pop-up podcast called Murder and Mayhem that explores the authors who bring us, well murder and mayhem. The authors they interview provide tips to improve crime and thriller writing. You can also get a free companion ebook linked to the series from the Australian Writers Centre website.

Other podcasts I enjoy include:

  • The Garret – cross genre program exploring how successful writers start, draft, complete and market their writing. Show notes and transcripts are published for each episode on website.
  • The True Crime Sisters Podcast – sisters Harry and Bill explore the touchy and tricky subject of true crime using cases from Australia and New Zealand. The series is supported by a blog.
  • Unladylike – Adele Walsh and Kelly Gardiner talk with women and non-binary people about writing and reading. The podcast focuses on women and non-binary people in all aspects of writing and publishing and the processes they use for thinking, planning, plotting, research, drafting and editing their writing.
  • Partners in Crime – English podcast for crime fiction fans
  • Writer Types – an American crime and mystery podcast series that interviews authors, industry professionals and provides book reviews
  • Writing Excuses – short (15-25 minutes) fast paced educational podcasts for writers by writers.
  • Grammar Girl – quick and dirty tips on grammar – can always improve on grammar
    The Bookshelf – ABC Radio National – to keep up with the latest fiction

All the podcasts listed can be downloaded via the podcast app or check out the links above to the websites linked to the podcasts.  I’ll also add to the list on my links page as new podcasts grab my attention.

Image: Art Gallery of South Australia

hair art at WOMAD 2015

Music to my ears

In March each year I make the pilgrimage to Adelaide to the alternative universe that is WOMADelaide (World Music, Arts and Dance Adelaide). It’s a four day global music festival in Adelaide’s Botanic Park. I usually don’t know most of the bands and there are always several new discoveries for me that get added to my play list. Without WOMAD I would not have found the desert sounds of Aziza Brahim whose roots are in the Sahrawi refugee camp in Algeria, the indie pop of Lake Street Dive and the uplifting South African a cappella group, The Soil. All of whom have enriched my music collection.

When the Adelaide thermometer is turned up high, WOMAD can be tough and dusty. There are times when you need to find a shaded spot away from the crowds and stimulation to chill out. The park provides plenty of beautiful big old trees under which you can park yourself and do some writing.

I generally prefer silence when I write, but have spent most of the last two years writing on the bus on the way to work and have learnt to detach myself from background noise. A creative space, like a music festival, can be quite stimulating for the imagination also. One day I will set a story at a festival I expect.

Many writers have found inspiration away from the desk. Gertrude Stein often wrote from the drivers seat of her Model T Ford, Agatha Christie liked to plot in her Victorian bath eating apples and my personal favourite Sir Walter Scott penned his epic poem Marmion whilst riding his horse through the Scottish hillside.

Some writers require a very specific environment in which to work, some must have silence, some noise. The writers idiosyncrasies about the place where they write is curious given that when fully absorbed and writing well the place disappears into oblivion altogether. One wonders if it is the place that creates the ambiance for writing or the writers superstition that they can only find their creative muse in a particular environment that drives attachment to a setting.

Perhaps it is the simple act of creating a routine and habit that is the key to a writers creative and productive endeavors and the place and physical trappings are simply props. As EB White, the author of Charlotte’s Web famously said, “The writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

Where do you like to write? What are your rituals and habits? How and why do they help your writing?

Image: WOMAD 2015

Books on shelf at Guggenheim, New York

Getting started

I’d been toying with the idea of writing a book about the two years I spent living in Portugal riding horses in my early twenties. I was lucky to become a working pupil of Maesto Nuno Oliveira, considered to be one of the last great masters of classical dressage (think Spanish Riding School if that term leaves you wondering). I started writing and developed quite a bit of material, but soon realised I didn’t really know what I was doing. How do I structure my ideas to craft them into an engaging story on the page?

I am practical and pragmatic about what I don’t know and love learning, so I sought out some help. I looked into a range of courses. I didn’t really want to do another university degree and soon found myself at the virtual door of The Writers Studio signing up for their introductory online course. It was great fun and I learnt a lot. That was in January 2016.

The second problem was that I kept experiencing an overwhelming urge to kill off characters. One of the questions the tutor asked was what type of books we liked to read. I like to read widely, but in reality mystery and crime fiction dominate my bookshelves. Start by writing what you like to read was the best piece of advice to really kick start my writing. My Portugal book went into a virtual drawer and I commenced a journey to write a crime fiction novel under the tutelage of The Writers Studio.

The first draft commenced in March 2016. I work full time in a fairly demanding job and commute for three hours each day, usually one way on a bus, one way on a bicycle. That meant about an hour and a half in transit each day on a bus with my iPad working through course notes and writing. I’d also snatch a few hours over the weekends in between other commitments.

I discovered Scrivener early on, which I love, I’m a bit of a tech geek and it allows me to work on the iPad or the laptop and sync between the two. I rarely write with a pen as my handwriting is almost illegible and I can type fast enough to keep up with my thoughts. When I do hand write it’s because I’ve become stuck and the switch to a pen can get the creative brain flowing again.

I started my third draft in February 2018. Reflecting on the last two years, the key things I have learnt:

• it takes more than a good imagination to produce a good story. It has to be harnessed by a sound, well planned structure to make it really engaging

• develop a writing habit, even if it’s only fifteen minutes a day, it adds up

• grammar matters a lot, if you missed out go and learn it

• seek outside objective feedback, it makes a world of difference

• practice patience – it’s a journey, settle in, enjoy the process and don’t worry about the destination

This is to be the year of writing for me. I will start long service leave from my job in April and take the rest of the year off to work on my novel and my craft. I have set up this website as part of my writing project and plan to post a blog post each Friday.  It’s a place to share some of my work and pondering about life – initially the blog will alternate between writing topics and garden/food topics (one of my other passions). What are you working on?

Image: Guggenheim, New York