Thursday, March 31, 2011

A sense of place

I've just finished reading a great Australian novel, Bereft, by 2011 Miles Franklin Award nominee Chris Womersley- who, incidentally, will be stopping by this blog next week for an interview. We'll also be giving away a copy of his book. We can't wait!

Bereft, set in the fictional Australian town of Flint, New South Wales, post-First World War, has received critical acclaim, and one of the most praised elements of the story has been the sense of place; the presence of the Australian landscape as almost a character in its own right. You can get a small sense of that from this passage:

In the late afternoon, when the sear of the sun had lessened, he stumbled on a circular grass clearing. He hovered for a minute in the comforting shade of the trees around the clearing, but then crept into the sunlight. After all, it was not France; there were no snipers here. Even so, he dug his hand into his tunic to touch his revolver as if it were a crucifix that, through his caresses, might alert God to his anxieties. The grass was as high as his knees and long sheaves of it bent and hissed in the wind. He stared up at the blue sky. Crows and other birds, those fortunate creatures unburdened by gravity, drifted overhead, specks against the blue wash of sky.

Chris Womersley's Bereft (Scribe Publications, 2010), page 38

There's a sense in Chris's writing that "place" has many layers- the past and the present, with the characters' memories of other places, times and events also very much in play. This is, to my mind, both great writing, and a very Australian view of the world.

Look what I found! This is the view from the porch where Tom and Vena sat in 1916 before saying farewell- a quiet place that has seen decades of happiness and sadness, success and failure

At the recent writers festival I attended, there was a discussion about a "school" of other Australian writers- Randolph Stow, Tim Winton as examples- who have pioneered this approach. These authors have been major influences on me, and I use landscape in my writing in much the same way. For me, the Australian country is a living, breathing thing. I've always felt a connection to landscapes, but the places in my story really came to life for me as an archaeologist working with Aboriginal people, whose connection to country is on a far deeper level.

From a true Australian classic:

The trees above the Hand Cave were sheoaks, and sighed continually in the breeze. Closing his eyes, the boy imagined a grey moor, where no foot of man or sheep had ever trodden. The sound of the sheoaks was a sighing mixed with a razor-sharp whistling. It was the speaking voice of utter desolation.

They stopped at the open front of the cave, below the keening trees.

"Are we there?" asked Patrick.

"What's here?" asked Nan.

They were standing in the rust-coloured rock shelter, curiously fretted by water into little galleries.

"Hands," said the boy, wondering.

The walls of the cave were covered with hands, silhouettes of rock-coloured hands on a background of clay.

"Whose hands?" said the boy.

"Look, Mark," Susan was saying. "The old blackfellows' hands."

"Are they dead?" said the boy.

"Oh, long ago," said Mrs Maplestead.

"Look, Rob," said his mother, taking his hand and fitting it over one of the prints on the wall. "It's a little boy's hand."

"Gosh," said the boy, softly, his hand on the cold rock. "Gosh."

The sheoaks sighed overhead. It was the loneliest place that had yet been found in the world.

Randolph Stow's The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea (Penguin Books, 1965), page 55

Landscape in the hands of these authors has a personality of its own, and it's often that uniquely Australian mix of desolate and alive. The earth is all-powerful, and it can heal and destroy in equal measures. They call this the Lucky Country, and for so many it is- but for so many others, it has been a constant battle to survive. I've invoked all of those qualities in my own writing- for the Cutler family, the land, beset by drought before the First World War, is their making and their unmaking. But in the end, the land is also what rebuilds them.

A desolate view, and yet a vibrantly alive place, full of whirring insects and wrapped in warm sun, with the lemon-scent of fallen eucalyptus leaves rising up, the only sound your own footsteps and your breath, in and out.

I'm sure that people around the world view their places with at least some of the same feelings, but it's only recently hit me that the distinctiveness of the Australian relationship with country is one of the greatest parts of our literary tradition, and yet one of the greatest obstacles that prevents some of our finest writers from gaining an overseas following. They're able to conjure the landscape and the sense of place perfectly, but it doesn't necessarily mean the same thing to an overseas reader. There's an important understanding that comes from being in this country, from feeling those connections yourself, that is missing from the narrative context.

In illustration, I'll give an (imaginary) dollar to any non-Australian who understands more than half of what's going on in the next passage:

Summer is on the land like a fever. Pink zink plastered on him, Quick sleeps the day away beneath the tarp on the back of his truck. He misses his dog. Now and again he'll spend a morning burning rooticks out of his flesh with a red-hot piece of fencing wire, then lapse back into the stupor of a western. And at night he drives to water and shoots. The bed of the truck becomes varnished with blood until the weekend when he goes to town to scrub out, cash in and sleep up. Saturday nights he sees Lucy Wentworth, or various moonstruck parts of her, in the cab of the truck, parked up some dwindling road behind a decrepit grove of salmon gums.

Tim Winton's Cloudstreet (Penguin Books, 1991), page 204

But that in itself is what fiction is all about- conveying that sense of belonging; letting the reader live vicariously through the characters. Done well enough, it strikes me that anyone in the world should be able to pick up a good book and settle into that place as if they were a local. Perhaps it's simply the case that local writers in Australia appeal most to local readers, and that's more than enough without needing to chase world domination.

A hot, lazy day at a regional Australian beach

What do you reckon? Is setting important in your own story? Do you feel a strong sense of place in your own life? And is it easy enough for you to slip into other cultures and other places, or does too much local detail put you off?

And has anyone from outside this island-continent figured out that Tim Winton passage yet? ;)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Many Hats We All Wear

I’m a mother of three kids, wife of one husband, wrangler of two cats.

I’m also a daughter, a sister, a grand daughter, a niece.

A volunteer at the kids’ school. A friend.

And a writer.

Some days it’s damn hard to balance all these hats on just one head.

Especially the writing one.

So many people say you must put everything in your life second to your writing if you’re ever to write a book. To concentrate on the writing, 24/7, if you’re ever going to be published.

Is this really necessary? Is it even true?

I see authors like, Allison Brennan, who wrote many manuscripts before she was published, with a full time job and five – FIVE – children in tow. Who managed to finally write a book that was published, and now writes three books a year. Three. With five kids.

Just give me a moment to process that …*mind boggles*


Her posts on Murder She Writes and Muderati occasionally contain glimpses into her home life, which, as far as I can tell, involves lots of driving kids to and from sports and the supervision of homework and the cooking for a family of seven. Essentially, a normal, very busy life. Into which she fits her writing. With all this on her plate, the writing, obviously, does not reign supreme.

And then there’s Diana Gabaldon, who started her writing career with three small kids at her ankles and a full time job.

Now, some would say these authors must have discovered that elusive work/life balance, the secret that allows them to pump out books and have a smooth family and personal life, no speed humps, no dilemmas.

They may have. I don’t know. But I’d wager they haven’t.

Life does interrupt your writing. It can be a positive interruption, something that inspires you and which you can later feed into your work. Or, more likely, it’s a sick kid, or that call to work an extra shift at job number two. Life is messy. It doesn’t run to a schedule. And there’s no secret way to balance your writing life with the rest of your life, that once revealed, allows you to sit back smugly while the rest of us muddle along getting it wrong.

Writing and living your life is a CONSTANT balancing act, down to the hour, the minute, the second, between what gets your attention and what doesn’t. And maybe what really needs your attention isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, or the thing that’s screaming loudest. Sure, you’re crappy first draft might be lying on the floor with barely a pulse and in desperate need of resuscitation, … but look around. What about your kids? Do they need you? Your better half? Have you called you mum in a while? Are you crumbling under the pressures of your “real life” job?

And YOU. Do you need you, just for a second?

So, yes, write and write, write every day … but balance every day too. Writing is important, but should not come at the sacrifice of everything else, including your health and you sanity. And understand that despite your best efforts, things sometimes will go to hell in a hand basket – and that’s OK, too.

What hats do you wear, on top of that of writer? And what’s your approach to trying to make real life and your writing life work?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What Neil Has To Say...

Unfortunately, my elves have gone on strike. I'm guessing I'll have to finish my book myself. So, back to it I go. Catch you peeps next week. :)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Twitter and Authors

It seems I have turned into Captain Slow on Mondays. :(

Twitter. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? I’m actually new to Twitter, having been officially on it for less than a month. Sure, I’d heard of it, but I really didn’t get it. Okay, I didn’t try to get it. Not until lately. You know, in my ignorant stage, I thought Twitter rather silly, just a bunch of people announcing what they we’re doing. In other words, the ultimate of arrogant, listen to me behavior.

I was wrong. Hey, I’m admitting it! And admitting falling for that old pit trap of making assumptions about something I knew nothing about. (g)

Twitter is the ultimate chat room. It is social media at it’s streamlined best. You follow people you admire or find interesting and others follow you. You can meet new people, connect with old friends. In an instant you can learn about upcoming events, book releases, reviews, and gossip. Yes, twitter is gossip’s best friend.

As a writer, you gotta love Twitter. Say I have a book coming out *cough*. I tweet about it, and if I’m lucky, my followers tweet about it, and out it goes, like tossing a big freaking rock in a pond and watching the ripples surge outward.

This is one of the best ways –best FREE ways- to self-promote.

It is also one of the scariest beasts to mess with. Because when something goes viral, it goes lightning fast on twitter. When I say that something on the internet has gone viral, I mean this: the use of existing social networks to spread a message.

When someone steps out of bounds of what the majority of us would consider normal behavior, the internet will make sure everyone knows about it.

And this, my dear friends, is when we return to another round of Authors Behaving Badly.

Ah, the internet. Sometimes I wonder if people forget what it is and how it works. Let us have a small reminder, shall we?

If you put something up on the internet it goes up forever –or has that potential. This is like throwing a needle out of a jetliner that’s cruising at thirty-five thousand feet. You ain't finding that needle nohows. (g) Your words are “out there” for anyone to pick up. Worse, with a media like twitter, IF you are intent upon making an ass out of yourself, Twitter will be more than happy to help you along.

Take in point what happened today, as played out in the Twitterverse. There was a review of a book, and there was an author who did not like said review. She was VERY vocal about it. Very. In a matter of twenty minutes, I read a dozen tweets about this author's meltdown. In a matter of one hour, writers, agents and editors had followed Twitter links and watched it unfold for themselves.

That is less than one hour for a writer to completely ruin her name with her peers and possible readers. One hour for her to shred her chances of anyone in traditional publishing taking her on.

That is the power of Twitter.

As writers, let us remember the power of words. The permanence of them. Sometime in the future, you may read a review of your work and feel it grossly unjust. Walk away. Every person is entitled to their opinion. Even if it is that you suck. Walk away. Do NOT let those fingers fly.

We all know how we want to be treated in life. We all know we should treat others the same way. But it seems that more and more of us are forgetting that fact. Or perhaps some people just don’t care.

So if anything, let this be a lesson in knowing of what Twitter is capable, and perhaps in learning to utilize and enjoy it for what it is.

And, since this writer has done all the damage she can to her name, I won’t feel guilty in posting what lit off today’s Author Behaving Badly viral infection.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Boost Your Repertoire

Have I got a deal for you! Are you stuck in a rut? Do you return to the same pet phrases time and again, use the same dull descriptors, useless interjections and weak verbs over and over? Do you wish your writing could be magically transformed into sparkling prose, witty dialog and engaging plots?

Well, wish no more. Just use the following chain letter to boost your repertoire of repartee, tête-à-tête, and parlez-vous. It's guaranteed to change your writing. You'll never be without the perfect phrase again.

Dear Author,

Are you stuck using the same few descriptions for your characters? Fret no longer! This chain letter is guaranteed to net you thousands of new descriptions in just a few short days. How does it work?

Easy! First, make a list of the five most commonly used phrases in your works-in-progress. For example:

"She looked at him."

"He grinned."

"Her eyes met his."

"He stared."

"She shrugged."

Then send a copy of this letter to the first name listed below (a writer who is equally discontented with her descriptive phrases). Add your name to the bottom of the list and send out the letter to five writer friends who will then do the same. You will receive 15,625 letters with 78,125 new descriptive phrases in a matter of days.

Do not break the chain! If you do, your novel will never reach the NYT bestseller list, your computer will die a horrible death and your creative muse will abandon you forever.

Yours truly,

The Next Great Author

Okay, so maybe this is a little over-the-top silly. But who among us hasn’t discovered some corny flaw in their writing, something we repeatedly do without knowing it, some inane idiosyncrasy that jumps out as us later in the bald light of day?

A few of us were lamenting our flaws on Compuserve’s Books and Writers forum when someone suggested we swap descriptive phrases as a way of injecting new life into our well-worn works. That’s when I came up the chain letter idea, and while no one would seriously send out the letter, it was still fun to trade our most over-used phrases among friends.

Care to share yours? It might come in handy for someone else. After all, one writer's well-worn phrase is another's inspiration.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Best Day

Hey All. Claire has departed for remote areas with internet access unknown. So a bit of filler is needed.

A while ago, I told the story of my best days and it got me thinking, good days, really good days are often like bits of sunshine in our otherwise grey life. Better still, remembering them can bring that sunshine back to us for a time. So why not share them?

Here is where I make you work. Tell me, us, what's your best day? Best moment? Best week? I'm putting the kettle on, taking out a plate of cakes, and settling down in my favorite chair by the fire. Tell us a story, will you?

A Weekend Giggle - Cheap Flights

How goes your weekend, peoples? Busy writing, relaxing, or both, I hope. My house is suddenly and unexpectedly empty of everyone but me, so I'm about to grab the chance to work on my outline (very close to being All Done, and then it's back into writing for me, can't wait!) In the meantime, here's something to giggle at. Think of it as a late St Patrick's Day laugh, courtesy of Fascinating Aida ...

(and apologies for the not-really-necessary-subtitles!)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Female- Who'd Be One?

Kristen's blog on loving her genre, and then Jen's about sex in YA, have inspired me to recycle another of my old posts, this time from my first, now defunct, blog.

I write and love historical fiction. Being transported to worlds that are now long gone, discovering new and fascinating facts about humankind's past - and discovering that we modern folk are not so very different from our ancestors - is what I adore about the genre. And my particular obsession is with Paris of the mid-nineteenth century.

This was a time when the city was the centre of scientific and medical advancement, yet disease and filth mired its streets. When an Emperor still sat upon the French throne, but for the first time, bourgeois entrepreneurs could make equally king-size fortunes with their silk factories or their sugar beet industries, or through gambling on the French stock exchange, the Bourse. A time of innovation and renewal, with most of medieval Paris being demolished by the Emperor's master architect, Baron Haussmann, and replaced with the elegant apartments and grand, tree-lined boulevards we see today.

A time when, despite all this wealth and beauty, poverty was a mean fact of life for a vast number of the city's inhabitants. And poverty, and it's effect on women who, through lack of contraception, bore child after child, is what I discussed, a few years back ....

Female - Who'd Be One? [originally posted 1st April 2009]

Nineteenth century contraception was a recent subject of discussion on Compuserve’s Books and Writers Forum. It's a fascinating topic, one I've researched in depth in order to convincingly (I hope!) write the main character of my book, a nineteenth century physician who practices in the slums of Paris and sees the grim reality of the lives of working class mothers and their children.

Children. Women bore many of them, for it’s safe to say that nothing really worked as far as contraception was concerned in the nineteenth century. Especially not if you were poor.

In Paris, condoms sold for the princely sum of 50 centimes a piece, more than twice the price of a loaf of bread. Not something to squeeze into the family budget, particularly when condoms were also widely viewed with disdain as the accoutrements of prostitutes.

The rhythm method was not widely known either, and many of those who did practice it mistakenly believed a woman’s fertile time was during menstruation, with little risk of pregnancy outside this time. Cervical sponges soaked in lemon juice were a little more effective, but overall the most commonly used method to control fertility was coitus interruptus - which, human beings being only human, was highly unreliable.

For many poor, working class women, an unwanted pregnancy was a catastrophe. If a mother was unable to work due to pregnancy or while recovering from childbirth, she inevitably lost her job. Devastating, for without the mother’s income, and with an extra mouth to feed, how was the family to survive?

It seems that miscarriage frequently solved this dilemma. It was a common occurrence amongst working class women, due to malnutrition or diseases such as syphilis, small pox, typhoid, cholera, and measles. Industrial toxins also played a role, with many female factory workers miscarrying from exposure to mercury, phosphorous, antimony or lead.

But for those women who did not miscarry, and for whom yet another pregnancy would push their families into grinding poverty, abortion was the terrible yet logical answer.

The fact it was a crime did not deter, nor did the bizarre and dangerous methods employed by abortionists. White wine brewed with absinthe and rue was a commonly prescribed, but mostly ineffective, abortificant. Yew, savin, and ergot were also used, but were of such toxicity that even the slightest overdose would result in the death of the mother. The most common and most effective method of abortion was the injection of liquid (usually hot or cold water) into the uterus, sometimes mixed with an irritant, such as soap. Unsurprisingly, many women who sought the services of an "angel maker" died as a result.

The sad tale does not end there. Within days of their birth, the unwanted babies of those women for whom abortion was not an option, or for whom the procedure did not work, were sent off to wet nurses in rural areas outside Paris. In fact, there was a thriving business in the exporting of babies from the city, with menuers and midwives acting as intermediaries – for a fee, of course – to place babies with wet nurses. Year after year, cartloads of squalling newborns were sent off to their fates in the countryside; a report of 1866, cited in "Metro Stop Paris", gives a chilling description of the journey these babies set out on:

"I have never travelled on the roads of the Perche without being overcome with emotion, seeing these huge meneurs' wagons in which nurses and nurslings returning from Paris are piled in pell-mell like animals returning from market. This revolting vehicle in known aptly as a Purgatory."

Many babies quickly died. Malnutrition and disease were often the culprits, but neglect also contributed to many a death, with a single wet nurse often having as many as half a dozen babies to care for and feed at once.

Another option existed for mothers unable to care for their babies, however - "le tour", a small, revolving door in the wall of the convent of the Daughters of Charity, the order established by Saint Vincent de Paul in the 1600s. Mothers placed their babies in le tour (occasionally with a note that named the child or explained the circumstances of their abandonment, but not often) rang the bell and left, never to see their child again.

This practice was only abandoned in 1863.

In an effort to alleviate all this suffering, charitable creches were established in Paris to care for babies and thus enable their mothers to continue to work without giving up their children. Public Assistance was also available, but for a great deal of the nineteenth century welfare was tied to marital status - only single mothers threatening to abandon their newborns, or threatening suicide, were eligible for help - and the bureaucratic wheels turned slowly, with weeks going by before mothers received any aid. Long, hungry, weeks.

All rather depressing, isn't it?

It makes me marvel at the strength of these women who had so many babies and somehow continued to work for the pittance that was barely enough to keep their families alive. It also makes me grieve for those women and their babies for whom abortion or abandonment were their only options.

But above all, it makes me feel profoundly grateful to live in an era in which women - not all women, but many more than ever before- have the ability to decide whether to bear children, and to be supported in their decisions.

If you'd like to read further on the lives of working class Parisian women in the nineteenth century, I highly recommend POOR & PREGNANT IN PARIS by Rachel Fuchs, and METRO STOP PARIS by Gregor Dallas.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Let's Talk About Sex

More specifically, let's talk about sex in young adult novels.

How much is too much?

It's something I've been pondering for the past few days. I've been looking back through BY THE PALE MOONLIGHT, trying to decide how best to tackle revisions. (Yes, I'm back on the BTPM train.) One stumbling block I'm having is when I reach a certain scene between members of the opposite sex.. a scene of the horizontal variety. I'll cut to the chase and say that I have a PG rated version of this scene, and a version that's not quite so...PG. In fact, it's probably the steamiest sex scene I've written to date--and that goes for my adult novels as well. I actually sent it to a friend and received a few "OMG's" in return. Yeah, I went there...and promptly reined it in with the PG version that currently resides in the manuscript.

The question I'm now asking myself is whether or not I should say to hell with it all and put the scene back in?

I'll give you a little background on the scene itself. I wrote this scene with an agenda. (Heck, don't we all do these things with a bit of an agenda on our minds? Even saying we don't have an agenda is writing with an agenda, if you ask me. So I'm not going to say I didn't have one, because that would be a big old fat lie. So yeah, I had an agenda, K?)

I wrote this scene to illustrate the point that sex should be about more than just the physical. Should be, though that isn't always necessarily the case.

I hope some of you at least agree with what I was trying to accomplish, though I certainly respect anyone who would feel it's a shoddy excuse for a sex scene. In fact, it's those voices in the back of my head that were the cause of my yanking it out of the book to begin with. More pointedly, I shared it with a friend who blew a gasket at the idea I would write such a scene...and for children no less. (!!!!) She felt, and expressed her adamant belief, that to write such a scene is to condone sex among teenagers.

Okay. This is when my eyes are going to do a little workout.


Let's all at least agree on this:

Whether or not you agree with the idea of putting sex in young adult novels... whether or not you want your children/siblings/friends, etc. to be exposed to sex, the truth of the matter is that teenagers are having sex. If they're not actually having it, they want to have it. If they don't want to have it, they're being pressured to want to want to have it. Sex is everywhere, no matter how studiously we may try to shield kids from it. Whether or not we sometimes wish we could put "sexual blinders" on them until they're of age and mature enough to handle the ramifications. (Uh, yeah, are any of us really ever old enough to handle the ramifications? Debatable.)

There's not a one among us who can keep their children from being exposed to sex in one fashion or another.

Not gonna happen. Not gonna happen. Not gonna happen.

And in my book, it's going to be addressed in some fashion. To leave it out would, in my opinion, leave out a LARGE chunk of what it's like to be a teenager.

So we're back to the same question... How much is too much?

There are some big name authors who have tackled 'the sex.' Each in their own way. Who is right, who is wrong? IS there a right answer?

In the TWILIGHT series, Stephenie Meyers built up sexual tension between Edward and Bella for THREE novels. Then when D day arrived, she blacked out the entire scene.

John Green, in LOOKING FOR ALASKA, had one character give a lust-struck couple a lesson in oral sex.

Richelle Mead has sex in her VAMPIRE ACADEMY novels, though told from a distance and without explicit detail.

Can anyone think of a young adult novel that went there?

Please discuss. I really want to hear from all of you. Would you try to keep your kids from reading books that involve sex? How much is too much for you?

Any and all opinions welcome.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Standing Up for My Genre

Perception is reality. I saw that on a tattoo once. And thought, well of course it is. It’s one of those sayings we nod our heads to then carry on. Yet.

Yet. Perception, our perception, IS our reality. We know we are here because of our senses. Without them, what would we be? More so, without them how would we commune with the world around us?

Thus it could be said that how you chose to perceive life will color that life, the choices you make, the enjoyment you glean from it.

All good. Nod along.

But I’ve been thinking about a specific perception lately. The thing is, I write romance. Perception of romance…well, it usually isn’t kind. It is so funny to me how certain stereotypes catch on and never die, while others are shamed out of us. I mean, here in America, our parents, or perhaps grandparents for some of you, actually lived in a time where humankind was separated by the color of skin. Different bathrooms, different entrances, etc. Over in Australia, our parents were around to see a whole culture torn apart, children taken from their parents, in the name of socialization.

And we all shake our heads in disgust. Of course we do. Because we understand right from wrong.

Just like we, as women, understand how utterly horrible it was for women to live in a time where every decision in their lives was under the lawful control of a man. No right to vote, considered inferior in intellect and sensibility. Weak.

And yet, sometimes it is the women who speak the most derogatory of romance, who keep the stereotype of what is or isn’t romance alive. Countless times I have read comments from women stating that they don’t read that stuff, that bodice-ripping, woman-hating, fluff. The idea being that these women are serious intellectuals. The idea being that smart –career minded, because we can’t forget that!- women don’t read romance. Usually, these women make sure to throw out there that THEY read literary fiction. So there!


I find it the antithesis of intellect to make judgments on a topic in which you have no true knowledge. This is like going to a debate having only studied half of a topic. Suicide, any debater will tell you. Moronic, I would say.

Then there are the ones who HAVE read some romance and decided, it’s not for them, they are much more literary-minded (g) but they have nothing against romance per say. Unfortunately, they can’t quite hide that little sneer, they slight edge in their voice that makes it clear, romance is an inferior genre.

Am I being over-sensitive?

I don’t think so. Nor am I asking everyone to love romance. That would be equally moronic. The great thing about personal taste is that every one is entitled to it.

What I am questioning is that sneer. I question WHY a genre about women –empowered women- mostly written, edited, and agented by women is sneered upon in the first place. I hate horror. Don’t read it. Don’t watch it. Do I sneer at it? No. Do I assume that every horror movie or book is going to be exactly like the movies/books put out in the 1970’s? No. So why assume romance is stuck in a time warp? Why turn your nose up at an entire genre based on old stereotypes or preconceived notions? Or to put it another way: To dislike romance is one thing, to declare it inferior to other genres is another.

I used to get the Washington Post Sunday Edition for their book reviews. Until I started to wonder why romance was the only genre ignored by them. Mystery and thrillers got their own section. Romance? Never. That’s fluff. I cannot respect a publication that does not respect the entirety of the writing community. Frankly, that’s quite a bit like asking romance readers and writers to sit in the back of the bus.

Why is it that stories about love are scoffed at while stories that glorify serial killers are respected? Why is the notion that a sex scene in gratuitous and cheap while murder and torture is not? I am fully willing to admit that one may find the good, bad, and ugly in all genres. Yet for many, it is romance that takes the brunt of the ugly while others skate by.

But here is the thing, the part when I reveal the hypocrite in me. I just sold my romance novel. This is the completion of a decade-long dream. I should be shouting it from the rooftops. Instead, I have to brace myself to look someone in the eye and tell say that my book is a romance. I expect the sneer, often get it. That or a patronizing smile. And I feel the need to justify myself. Justify the genre.

So really, the problem is mine. Because in truth, change starts with yourself. Perception changes with each person. If I cower, or try to justify something that I love, I weaken it, and myself. If women –or men- feel the need to hide their “dirty little” romance-reading secret, they are telling the world that the stereotype has merit, that there is justification for putting romance down. A thing only has the value we give it. Diamonds are mere stones without our coveting them. And a romance will be a shameful genre until we treat it the same way we treat any other genre.

More importantly, that which we inherently respect does not need justification as to why we must respect it. Not really. It simply is. You never see a literary writer begging for others to respect their genre –heck are we even allowed to call it a genre? Although, maybe they should, I have pulled many a stinker down from shelves in that section of the bookstore.

So when someone asks me what type of book did I write, it is up to me to look her in the eye and say, “Romance.” And should someone sneer, patronize or question my choice in genre, it is up to me to refuse to cower or validate my decision. But simply say the truth. I write romance because I love it. I read romance because I love it.

End of story.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Caught Red-Handed or How to Leave Fingerprints

I’ve always loved the famous RCA logo with Nipper, the little black and white dog, listening to his master’s voice on the recording. Nipper, with his head cocked inquisitively, recognizes his master’s voice on the machine even though his human is not there.

As baffling as it was for Nipper to understand where his master’s voice was coming from, understanding the art of the writer’s voice can be equally perplexing. There are a lot of definitions for what a writer’s voice is, or isn’t. There are many bits of advice about how to develop your own brand of voice.

One thing is certain, however: a well-developed, unique voice is what sets your writing apart from all others. We know from Claire’s post, “The A to Z of Getting Published in Australia,” that publishers sit up and take notice of manuscripts with a unique voice. In an industry where the odds of being successful are slim-to-none, having a publisher take notice is a Very Good Thing.

What is a writer’s voice?

Generally, there is a consensus that voice is the sum of a writer’s experience, convictions, angst, triumphs, and expectations. It’s originality, a spark, an attitude. It’s presence. Without being present in your writing, there is no original voice and no real reason for anyone to be attracted to your work.

So, voice reveals the writer’s personality, but with several caveats. I like what Nathan Bransford, former literary agent and current author, says about voice. “We should never make the mistake as readers of equating an author with their voice, but they're wrapped up together in a complicated and real way. We leave fingerprints all over our work. That part of you in your work is what makes it something that no one else can duplicate.”

Fingerprints! Our literary voice is like fingerprints, undeniably original. I also like what literary agent, Rachelle Gardner, adds to the definition of voice. “ To me, your writer's voice is the expression of YOU on the page. It's that simple—and that complicated. Your voice is all about honesty. It's the unfettered, non-derivative, unique conglomeration of your thoughts, feelings, passions, dreams, beliefs, fears and attitudes, coming through in every word you write. Voice is all about your originality and having the courage to express it.”

How to Find Your Voice.

Originality and having the courage to express it. Simple, eh? Where do you find your voice, then? Ms. Gardner goes on to say that most of us spend a lifetime learning to present an image to the world. We mostly hide who we really are, either afraid to show our true colors, or having copied others for so long we’re out of touch with our real selves.

So developing your voice calls for honesty. That dig-deep, psychotherapy kind of honesty. It means shedding the affectations, dropping the imitations of writers you admire, forgetting the expectations of your audience, leaving your fears, until all that is left is what spills from the center of you.

Not easy and obviously the only way to do this is to write, write, write until the words on the page sound like you: original and engaging, or dark and brooding, or smartass funny, or whatever YOU are. Voice emerges quite naturally as a writer develops her skills. Those of us who have found our voice can attest to this. I’ve been writing for twenty-odd years, and still I often find that I flail around, stumble and bumble through a piece of writing, until I remember my voice. Then suddenly it’s smooth sailing. My trouble starts when I don’t listen to my own voice.

There are many suggestions out there for finding your writer’s voice. I find some of them silly and some of them quite valid. In the end, though, it’s writing - and a lot of it - that will develop your voice. If you haven’t found yours, or don’t know if you’ve got one, relax. It’ll come to you. There’s no secret but to write honestly.

For those of you who have found your voice - tell us how you did it. I’m guessing for most of us, it was as natural as learning to walk. We crawled, toddled, and fell on our butts a few times before we walked. And then, with confidence, we ran with it. Or to mix metaphors... we left our fingerprints all over it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sweetheart Mine, The World is Weary

I've been thinking about past generations today. My grandmother has been ill this year, and it really makes me think about all the family knowledge and experience and memory that lies with the oldest generation of our direct family line, and the fact that much of that will be lost one day in the not-distant-enough future. In honour of that sober fact, I'm revisiting/ revising an earlier post of my own, on the genesis of my war novel BETWEEN THE LINES.

My grandmother is my strongest connection to my family's history, and through her, more than a decade ago, I came across the inspiration for my World War I novel-in-progress- a battered old leather diary dating back to 1916, which began like this:

Sweetheart mine, the world is weary

When you yet are far away.

Days seem long, my heart seems dreary

When your face I cannot see.

These words, written nearly a century ago, were inscribed by my grandmother's aunt Vena, and addressed to the love of her life, one Thomas James Lockyer.

Thomas James Lockyer in his AIF uniform in 1916
(Click on the image to enlarge)

Tom was twenty years of age when he signed up to go to war in 1916. He was a miner, prospecting around the Glen Innes area of New South Wales where my family is from, and from his diary we know that most of his days revolved around work, food and sleep- and Vena, who he saw almost every day. According to his records, he was an orphan, and though he had a two siblings and a stepsister, in Vena's family- my family- he found a second home. The young lovers were engaged to be married, and when Tom went away to war, Vena's poem went with him, a heartfelt, handwritten reminder of her love. The poem goes on:

Stars will gleam again the brighter
Suns will shine with warmer glow
This fond heart will beat the higher
When you're nearer, do you know?
Do you know how much I love you?
Would you care how sweet you be?
But the angels high above you
Know how dear you are to me.

By the time Tom landed in France with the 3rd Battalion in the latter half of 1916, Australian soldiers had fought their way through the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, dying in scores on the Turkish beaches, no longer thinking war was the boy's own adventure it had seemed back in 1914. By the winter of 1916, the same soldiers were pushing their way through muddy trenches on the Western Front, gathering a reputation for bravery and sheer stubbornness that was unmatched by many others.

Tom marched straight into the infamous fighting at Ypres, where in 1917 this iconic photograph was taken showing the incredible destructive power of war:

Even today, the name of Ypres and the Somme, where Tom went next, are seared upon the national memory in Australia. Nearly one hundred years later, we still care passionately about the men who fought and fell there. There's no better proof of that than the huge interest generated by the recent discovery of previously unseen glass negatives from Vignacourt in France, which depicted Australian soldiers relaxing during time off from 1916 to 1918. You can view those images here, on the The Lost Diggers Facebook page where more than 7000 people are working together to try to put names to those pictures- to bring those boys back.

Australian troops, possibly associated with Tom's battalion, passing through Vaulx-Vraucourt in April 1917

Tom's diary showed little sign of the horrors he was seeing. In fact, his style barely changed from before the war to during. Each day, he recorded that he got up, ate breakfast, and went to work. His words show that he was a simple kind of guy, but it's that poem I keep coming back to, over and over again.

Tho' your beauty time may sever,
When you're feeble, old and grey,
Still to me you'll be as ever
Precious as you are today.

Vena might have written it, but Thomas kept it with him, day in and day out. The Somme mud smudged on the pages is testament to that. Did he think of her often? Did he read and re-read it? Or did he keep it close to his heart, but ever closed, not willing to let his old life and his new reality collide?

We'll never know.

On 4th of May, 1917, Tom was killed by a falling shell at Maricourt Wood, near Vaulx-Vraucourt in France during the Second Battle of Bullecourt. His battalion commander's unit diary records:


At 0430 enemy attacked on extreme RIGHT and LEFT of my Battalion trench. He advanced up old communication trenches to within 30-40 yards and commenced throwing stick bombs. The fight lasted half an hour.

The fighting continued all day and well into the night, with shelling, machine guns and close combat all underway, until the Australians ran out of ammunition and had to retreat a short distance. By midnight, the situation was described as "normal", but the later dissecting of the action revealed that a number of the 56 infantry soldiers killed in the fighting, perhaps including Tom, had been killed by friendly fire.

On 4th, our "S.O.S" signals were not answered. Heavies, 4.5" Howitzers, and 18 Pounders at different times dropped short in and behind our trench; on one occasion our Field Artillery placed a barrage on my line. A number of casualties were traced to our own shells. One of the shells burst in our trench and killed four men.

The 3rd Battalion unit diary sketch of the battle in which Tom was killed- Maricourt Wood is at the bottom right.

No matter which side of the line the shell came from that killed Tom, just like that, in a hail of shattered metal, the lifetime he and Vena thought they would have together was gone.

Vena lived into old age, and never married. The man she lost at just twenty years of age was the only love of her life, taken cruelly from her by the machine of war, too young. She grew feeble, old and grey, but like so many of his generation, age did not weary Tom. Still, though, he remained precious to Vena forever.

Vena (left), her sister Ada and their cousin Violet

These are the ripples that flow down to me through my grandmother and my mother. Like everyone else in my family, I knew about tragic Aunt Vena and her lost love. Not as many have read and considered Tom's diary.

Nobody, as far as I know, has ever thought to read between the lines of Thomas's life and wonder what I have- what was he thinking, what was he feeling, at every step of his journey toward his untimely death? What went through his head as he ate his breakfast every day? What did he really think of the war?

Most of all, and this is the real inspiration for BETWEEN THE LINES- I wonder what would have happened if Tom Lockyer had not been killed at Maricourt. What if he had survived his ordeal and made it home to marry Vena? What, then, would her life have been like? What about his?

This is where the broad silences of the First World War have become so apparent to me. We feel the losses still, and keenly. But what happened when these men came home was something people kept behind closed doors. Many were fine, I'm sure. But just how many were crippled by the shock of the traumas they had seen? How many descended into alcoholism and mental illness? How many individuals combusted slowly inside, and how many families were utterly destroyed by the shattering after-effects of war? Would Vena and Tom have been happy together? Or would the happy life they'd hoped for have turned out to be an unattainable dream?

The scariest thing of all is knowing that those same families, the men who had returned, watched their sons march away to World War II only twenty years later. That, as far as I'm concerned, had to be the cruelest blow of all.

I went to my family's old dairy farm in the New South Wales highlands about six years ago on a little pilgrimage. The family farmhouse is long gone, which of course is no obstacle to an intrepid archaeologist. I was able to locate the remains in a paddock, and stood looking out over the rolling green dairy country from the porch on which Tom and Vena had sat in 1916, as recorded in his diary. In the little cemetery directly opposite the old house are the graves of a number of family members and neighbours. Some are just markers over empty ground, representing other young men killed in the First and Second World Wars.

A view of the family farm at Red Range

Tom is buried at Maricourt with sixteen other Australians, and a memorial to him exists at Villers-Bretonneux, where over 10,000 Australian soldiers are remembered. In the end, though, his memory is carried on by individuals like me.

Tom's final resting place at Maricourt Wood is beneath that stand of trees
(Photo courtesy M. Smythe)

Bill, Len, and my own Tom are my way of finding out what did lie in the hearts and minds of the men who died in the First World War. Through them, I'm learning what life was like in the aftermath, too. Through them, I'm remembering Thomas Lockyer and countless others who lost their lives. Through Kit and Jared, I'm always thinking about those who were left behind- those who passed their enduring love down through the generations, to me.

I'll never make sense of war, but I'll remember Thomas Lockyer and all those who died alongside him. And when she's old enough, I'll pass the torch to my daughter, that she can carry his name on through time the same way.

It's not the fighting we remember. It's that enduring love, evermore- a reminder of what it means to be family, and what it means to lose the ones you care the most about. In war or outside it, these loves and losses are the things that define us.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Boxing-In Your Muse

Sigh. Tonight I planned to write an erudite post on the topic of literary structure but my son’s homework catastrophe ate it instead, and now … well, in short, I’m old, and after 9pm my brain shuts for business. So I’m sorry, but you’ll just have to make do with the condensed version.

(I can hear those sighs of relief from here, you know.)

Basically, what’s been on my mind of late is how best to structure my story, how best to tell my tale. Specifically, how to avoid writing a story in a form that’s already been used a million times before.

In a nutshell, my story is of a nineteenth century French nobleman who is also a serial killer, and his dark plot to entrap a young, female physician. He does not want her for his next victim, however; what he wants is for her to break her oath to do no harm and become his accomplice.

This is the start of my worries. See, serial killer stories are a dime a dozen. Sure, the fact that mine is an historical sets it apart from contemporary police procedurals, but even still, I really want to avoid the “been there, read that” syndrome that the genre can breed – opening with a grisly murder, followed by the protagonist hunting down clues, then the killer and the protagonist becoming involved in a game of cat and mouse in which the protagonist becomes the main suspect, and then, finally, the killer and the protagonist going head to head in a final, gory, show down …


But then, yesterday, I was flipping through McKee’s STORY (sorry to harp on about that book, but it’s really working for me right now. It didn’t, not when I first bought it a couple of years back – in fact, I think I got through chapter one, then put it back on the shelf, my brain aching – but it’s making a ton of sense now, and I’m not going to jinx myself and start asking why!)…anyway, some of my worry about being boring and predictable in my structure evaporated when I read this:-

Talent is like a muscle: without something to push against, it atrophies.

The “something to push against” he refers to is literary convention – of genre, of structure (three acts, four acts), of archetypal stories of universal human experience. Conventions that we, as audiences and readers, immediately recognize and understand, that work to set up our expectations of the type of story about to be presented to us.

McKee argues that rather than these conventions limiting our creativity as writers, they push us to new levels of inspiration and imagination. That they should drive us to go deeper, further, to flex that talent muscle so we create new and fresh and unexpected ways to tell our stories within existing conventions.

Basically, that if you use these limits to push against, your imagination will rise to the occasion.

I like that way of thinking. And it makes me want to limber up my talent muscle and get down and give my story twenty.

What’s your take on McKee’s idea? Do literary conventions stifle your imagination, or do you use them as McKee suggests, as tools to make you go deeper into your well of creativity?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Journal It.

Wow, there's been all sorts of good news going around here with Kristen's book deal. I can't tell you how very exciting it is -- not only for Kristen, of course, but for the rest of us as well. I think it adds a sense of validation that publication Can Happen when someone you know, someone you've worked with and been friends with for a really long time, is able to reach that pinnacle of success. I couldn't be happier for her. Yay, Kristen! You rock, girl!

In the comments of my post last week, I mentioned that I keep a journal. I'll be honest, I haven't written in it for a while now, mostly because I haven't had much time for writing (real life is INSANE at the moment). But when I'm actively writing, I try to jot down thoughts and notes in it as much as possible. Not only do I use it to document certain ideas I might have, about both my current and future books, but I also use it as a...Jen, You Don't Completely Suck Pep Kit.

Say wha?

I'm a neurotic writer. I am. There, I said it. I have unbelievable highs and lows when I'm writing. One minute I will be soaring in the upper stratosphere, the next I will be crashing to the ground, where I'll lay like a lump. A big ole' hot mess that no one wants to deal with. Just ask my writing buds what it's like when I'm in the heat of writing/revisions. I can't tell you how many times my peeps have talked me down from the proverbial cliff. I've convinced myself more times than I care to remember that I'm not a good writer, that I need to find a new hobby, that publication will never happen, and that I should never be unleashed on the poor, unsuspecting reading public.

If there's a negative thought to be had, I've had it.

I've also thought the direct opposite on just about every front (occasionally), but that's not what I want to focus on right now.

Let's face it. We are our own worst enemies along the journey to publication. We put ourselves down, we create obstacles for ourselves, we make excuses, excuses, excuses and then some MORE excuses as to why we're just not good enough to be professional writers.

"Such and such is a much better writer than I am. Why am I bothering at all?"

"My story is too similar to such and such book, and not even close to being as good. What's the point?"

"I've tried writing this scene in so many different ways and none of them are good. I'll never get this."

I've learned over the years that just about anything can throw me into a downward spiral. A negative crit. A positive crit (yes, it happens). A crit that is too fast in coming...a crit that is too slow in coming. No comments on an excerpt..a ton of comments on an excerpt that all sound a little too similar (it's gotta be group psychosis making them say these things).. It's ridiculous.

You know, a lot of writers go around saying that everything is sunshine and daisies for them. I don't buy it. Now, I'm not saying that every writer is as neurotic as I sometimes feel, but EVERYONE has their down moments when you need someone or something to pick you back up again. To help remind you that you DO NOT suck.

That is where my journal comes in.

When I first told someone about this, I think it came across as rather vain. But let me assure you, vanity has nothing to do with it. I simply know myself well, and know that these down moments are going to happen. To help curb the severity of these "episodes", my journal does double duty as a scrapbook of sorts. If I receive a really glowing crit or comment from someone--something that made me think, even for a fleeting moment, that I know what the hell I'm doing, I print it out and put it in the book. The same goes for when I simply have a really good writing session. I journal about it to remind myself that an hour ago, a day ago, maybe even several months ago, I felt confident in what I was doing. Then, when I'm having a bad day, I flip through these little clippings/passages and they sometimes help jog me out of the funk. Not foolproof, no, but it definitely has its benefits more often than not.

I'd share a snip, but my journal is for my eyes only. :)

Does anyone else do this? If not, what do you do to get yourself out of those inevitable funks?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Let me tell you a story… One writer’s quest for the promised land

It’s all Diana’s fault really. Diana Gabaldon, that is. Sneaky woman. (g)

WAY back when, at the at the end of 1999, I read this book Outlander. It was a really good book. So good that I spent the entire night on the couch reading until my eyes burned. And ho-joy, there were three more books in the series! Whoot!

At the same point in time, I was in a bit of a funk. I call it my young-life crisis, for at 25, it had hit me that I needed to grow up and decide upon a career. I didn’t like my 9 to 5 job and knew I wanted to do something that inspired passion. But what? Reading Diana’s story in Outlandish Companion struck a nerve. Hey, this lady wrote for the fun of it, no pressure, why not try the same?

For those of you who aren’t writers, I can only say that those first few months of diving into a story is as heady and consuming as falling in love. You live, breath and dream your characters. I was hooked.

Fast forward, through marriage, babies, the craziness of life and it’s 2008. I have an agent for my first manuscript but it isn’t selling. To keep busy, I concentrated on my second manuscript. Unfortunately, I realized that my relationship with my agent wasn’t working. Here’s the thing about agents: hooking up with one is a bit like finding the right pair of shoes. Some look pretty but end up pinching at the toes, some are very comfortable but do nothing for you. Sometimes you have to work at finding that perfect shoe (apologies to all agents –you’re much better that shoes! (g))

Ahem. I parted ways with my agent, finished up my manuscript and dove back into the scary place that is Queryland. This time, I pulled together a list of my top ten picks and sent my letter out. Six weeks later, my number one pick, the most excellent Kristin Nelson, called to offer representation. Ah, the call. We all dream about that fateful moment, don’t we? Here’s how it went down for me.


I had a little celebration when Kristin wrote to ask for the full. Honestly, I was surprised I’d gotten that far. I loved her style and the way she ran her agency, but she didn’t have any historical paranormal romance writers on her client list, so I thought I’d be a long-shot. But there’s only one thing worse than failing and that’s not trying.

Seven days passed (of course I counted!) On the eighth day, my daughter came home with an ear infection and the high fever that goes with one. So we cuddled in bed and I ended up falling asleep with her, only to be jarred awake by the phone ringing. I struggled to extract myself from sweaty, sleeping child and then stumbled to the phone. But I was too late. A quick look at the caller id gave me pause. Okay, it was more, that number looks familiar…who…*cue massive heart palpitations* I ran upstairs to my office and my husband who was working from home. I think I said something to the effect of, “Gahhh, you’ve got to check a website for me! I need to check a number!!!” This might have sounded like gibberish to him. But I think my pantomime and arm flailing, combined with me pointing to the phone may have tipped him off. Quick look at the Nelson Literary Agency’s telephone number and HALLELUJAH! It matched. My husband interrupted my idiotic dancing to inform me that I also had mail. And there it was, an email that said “Calling to offer representation” (bg)

In hindsight, I’m actually glad I missed my call because now I have a written record of that moment. Of course, I called Kristin back and had a nice chat. Yes, getting that offer of representation is one of a writer’s best days. Second only to one thing:


You know the one. It is THE call. The MacDaddy of calls. Okay, for me, I didn’t actually get a call. It was another email.

Kristin sent me a “we are officially on submission” letter on February 11, 2010. There were some bumps in the road. Romance editors like third person POV. WEST OF THE MOON was in third and first. Would I be persuaded to change the heroine’s POV to third? Well all right then!

I took the summer to revise, the fall to get it perfect, and MOON went back to interested editors in December.

On February 17, 2011, Kristin –who was in Mexico where phone service was spotty- sent me another email. We had an offer.

Did I dance? Whoop around like a fool?

No. I was too relieved. It was like a weight falling off my shoulders. To be honest, it took a week and an actual phone conversation with Kristin for it to really hit me. And then it was simply pure, unmitigated joy. Followed by a swift, oh-God-it’s-real dose of terror.

So what else can I say?

Oh, yeah:

Kristen Callihan’s debut historical paranormal romance WEST OF THE MOON, hounded by society’s dark rumors, a cursed lord must chose to lose his soul and surrender to "the beast" within him to protect the beauty he loves from an unstoppable killer to Alex Logan at Grand Central Publishing, in a nice two-book deal by Kristin Nelson at Nelson Literary Agency (World) Publication slatted for January 2012

And this:

Whooot!!! Celebrate Seinfeld Style!:

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Memory Lane

I visited my nearly ninety-year-old grandmother last weekend. She looked great, her outfit dolled up with a string of beads and a touch of blush and lipstick on her face, and we settled in for a cup of tea and to chat about the show she was watching on TV … and we had that same conversation over and over and over again, in two minute intervals, for the duration of my visit.

See, nanna has quite advanced dementia, and can’t remember five months, five weeks, five minutes ago. She has difficulty remembering her children, can’t remember her grandchildren anymore without the prompting of labeled photographs. The date totally escapes her. She’s otherwise in extremely good health, and she’s happy and well and truly living “in the moment”, but her past is rapidly slipping away.

And I came away wondering whether she ever realizes she has blank spots in her memory, whether she ever wonders why she can’t remember where she was born, important things in her past.Funnily enough, she can remember her husband, who died forty years ago this year.

Anyway, visiting with my grandmother made me think of the positives of keeping a diary or journal, as a back up of our lives and memories, and how these days we have our modern equivalent, blogging. Now, I know our blog at ATWOP is not really here to capture the more personal aspects of our lives, but I think I’ll be both grateful and amused to have it to look back on in five, ten, twenty years time. Whether I have grown, or whether I’m still harping on about the same old things.

So, in the spirit of journeying down memory lane, I thought I’d recycle one of my older posts, especially as after having a look at our stats, it seems that only our most recent posts are getting the hits. This is perfectly fine, of course, but given the recent boost in our readers, I though it wouldn’t hurt to bump up some old material, so you can see where I started in chronicling my writing journey.

So, using the highly scientific method of looking at where I was this time last year, after we’d only been blogging a few months, I picked out a post from March 2010. And I am very relieved to see it is about something I have finally managed to learn to do … hope you enjoy.

And for those of you who are blogging, have a look where you were a year ago, two years … what’s changed? Were you surprised by what you found? Have you grown?

Working hard at working less

(Originally posted 24th March 2010)

We've all heard it before: you can't sit around waiting for your muse to strike. Before the magic can happen, you have to do the hard work of writing when you don't feel like it, when your insipration is at rock bottom and all you can churn out is utter shite. And this is absolutely true. A ton of crappy writing went into the drafting of my first book (I know this because I'm now editing it all out!) but with the crap there are the gems, and that's what we keep, and that's what keeps us going.

BUT. I also believe that when writing becomes a total chore and you feel nothing you write is any good, day after day after day, then it’s time to step away from the computer and give up.

I have a writing schedule I try very hard to stick to. Five days a week I aim to sit down at my desk by 10.30am, and write through to 2.00pm. This doesn’t always happen; like last week when I had to down tools and dash to school with Child #2’s spare glasses after he broke his good pair; or the week before, when I spent a whole Thursday cheering the kids at their swimming carnival. But in the main, I stick my butt to the chair three hours a day and write, ignoring the house work and screening my calls and avoiding the lure of email and blogs and Facebook.

Except that for the last two weeks, writing has been frustrating and HARD. Like threading a needle with a wet noodle, hard.

I know what’s at the root of all this; I’ve hit a patch in my life where everything is more than a little overwhelming. Kids with ear infections, a largely absent and stressed husband, the fact that the mother of Child # 2’s best friend called to apologise for the fact her son had shown my son some porn on his iPod last weekend (!!!!!!) … and, topping it off, our dear old cat is seriously unwell. I’m pretty sure we’re going to have to make THAT decision, soon, and given the husband’s manic work schedule I fear I’ll have to deal with saying good bye to the furry, practice-child, alone.


I’ve had all the above running through my brain, distracting me terribly, when I sit down to write. And today, I’d simply had enough. I opened up my manuscript and the sight of my writing made me ill. My brain began to throb and I knew I just couldn't go on. So I switched everything off, rose from my chair and walked away, without writing a word.

I felt like a kid ditching school - relieved, but oh so guilty. But the relief won out. I was simply sick of being in my house doing something that only made me want to smash my head on the desk when outside, the sun was shining, the birds were singing …

So I got in the car and got the hell out of dodge. I had no idea where I was going; I just followed my nose and drove around for an hour with Red Hot Chili Peppers on repeat and turned right up.

Then it happened. Out of nowhere I heard the very words I needed for my scene, words that had refused to show up despite all the pounding on my keyboard. And after that came the images - a book bound in a blood-red, marbled cover; a shattered pane of glass; a scalpel, fallen behind the drapes and into the wrong hands …

And I learned anew the lesson I seem to need to keep on learning: that the only way I can hear those messages that lurk in my subconscious is if I back away from the keyboard and do something that allows my purpose-driven, conscious mind, to switch off.

I know this. Until life got crazy-busy, I’d walk most mornings and come back brim-full of ideas to solve my writing problems.

I have to start doing that again. Plus, a walk is much more environmentally friendly than hooning around in a honking-big 4 wheel-drive for hours on end.

So, what do you do when you’re stuck? Walk? Hike? Bike? Cook? Scrub the mold from the bathroom grout? The list of possible activities that allow your busy brain to go to sleep, and your subconscious mind to pipe up, is endless … and that means I have no excuses.

From now on, I’ll be working hard at working less.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Moment of Reflection

I think there is no truer saying than "We are our own worst critics."

A lot of times as writers, we tend to focus on all of the things we believe we're doing wrong. We haven't mastered the fine art of a fight scene, we can't nail (pardon the pun) sex scenes the way we would like, we aren't able to evoke the exact emotion we're shooting for. The list is long, and I'm betting most of us have had a bout of self-doubt over most techniques at one time or another. I, for one, have a horrendous time with high action scenes. To me, they come out sounding stilted and boring. I try all of the techniques people tell you to use: Short sentences. Removing the adjectives. Etc. Etc. In the end, they still end up reading like utter crap to me. They're my achilles heel.

But as writers, it's our "job" to push through this self-doubt and keep on keeping on. Claire touched on this with her post this past weekend. All of this self-doubt, if allowed to fester and nag at you, can really turn into a dehabilitating problem. I know for a very long time, I told myself I couldn't write sex scenes, therefore, I just wouldn't write them. Ever.

I think it was actually Kristen who sort of snapped me out of that thought process. If I remember correctly, she said something along the lines of, "Just because you're not great at them now doesn't mean you shouldn't keep trying to improve."

So true. (Granted, I'm still pretty bad at them. (g))

All this to say that sometimes, just sometimes, we need to take a moment to relish how very far we've come in our writing careers. For just a few minutes, don't focus on what we have left to learn...

...but look back...

...look back and remember all the crazy shit we used to do!

You thought this was going to be a serious post, didn't you? I think not!

Okay, peeps. Let's hear some of the whacked out things you used to do when you first started writing. I'll go first. :)

1. My first attempt at a novel was a bit of a *cough*rip-off*cough* of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander. Hey, who doesn't have a Scottish time travel novel under their bed? (Don't lie!) Anyway, I look back at my original file (yes, FILE, because I kept it all in one long ass file for easy access (g)) and realize I had NO CLUE what a return key was, where I might find said return key on my keyboard, nor how to depress the sucker to make a little thing called, WHITE SPACE. I literally have pages without breaks. Not between dialogue. Not between paragraphs (If I even understood what paragraphs were at that point). It was all just one big block of text. I'm telling you, I was one step away from sending agents a manuscript written out in magic marker. ONE STEP.

2. Gerunds. What the hell are they anyway? (I'm not sure I know to this day.)

3. Sex scenes. Oh lordy, but I have some truly terrible ones. I was completely convinced that I was going to revolutionize the way they're written by being brutally honest in the telling. (Somehow this translated to perfect encounters that blew both characters' minds...) I actually thought the word penis was a perfectly legit word to use. Romantic.

4. Repetitive writing that doesn't move the story forward. Let me break it down. I have many conversations in my early pages that go a little something like this:

"I don't want to tell you," he said, dropping his eyes to the ground.

"Why not?"

He shrugged. "I just don't."

"Please tell me."

"You wouldn't understand."

"Yes, I will."

"No, you won't."

*Can you hear the cogs of my writer brain working overtime, trying to figure out just what it is this boy wants to say??*

"I just don't understand why you don't think I will understand. Or why you won't tell me when I so obviously want to know. I mean, come on, yo...I've asked like two dozen times and this scene is now 3 pages long and we haven't moved past this point. I actually heard the reader yawn."

"I don't want to tell you."


My list could go on for days. The thing is, I have A LOT left to learn about the craft of writing. But at the same time, I've learned a HELLUVA lot in the last few years. Not only that, but I've completed two novels. Not everyone can say that, so while I know I have a long way to go in this crazy journey of mine, every now and then I need to take a moment and look back at how far I've come. We all do.

Okay....your turn! What crazy habits have you had to kick?