Monday, 30 September 2013

The Long and Short of It: The Spinng Heart by Donal Ryan

This post, a part of the The Long and Short of It series, is done in conjunction with Simon Clark from The Blether.



BOOK: The Spinning Heart
Format:  Paperback (Courtesy Random House)

The Man Booker Prize longlist for this year was one dominated by Irish writers, including first time novelist Donal Ryan.  His book, The Spinning Heart, has already received rave reviews on sites such as The Guardian and Booktopia.  Its subject is bleak; a portrait of desperation in working class Ireland during the recent recession.  It is told from the points of view of several characters, each given the chance to tell their story in a dramatic monologue.  Although the points of view are never repeated, it is clear that the main characters are Bobby, Realtin and Bobby’s father Frank. 

Each monologue overlaps in such a way that reading The Spinning Heart is a little like doing a jigsaw puzzle, except each time you approach the board from a different angle.  The audience is given a picture of a situation:  Pokey Burke, a local contractor, has invested a bunch of people’s money in a project that went bust, leaving all his employees high and dry without benefits, and the clients whose homes he was building are stranded in a ‘ghost development.’  Bobby was Pokey’s foreman.  He is a beloved figure in the town; respected by parents and looked up to by young men.  He is married to Triona, and only she knows the extent of the damage in Bobby’s soul recalcitrant from the death of his mother and the unkindness of his father.  He spends his days waiting for his father to die so that he can inherit the family home, which has a spinning metal heart on the front gate.  When Bobby begins paying visits to Realtin in the unfinished housing block, he is there to do odd jobs that Realtin keeps inventing so that he will come back.  But the gossip mill starts to invent a romantic tryst, and then, when Frank turns up murdered with his head bashed in, it seems too easy to say that Bobby wasn’t the man that everyone thought. 

In this time of desperation, prejudices are rife.  Friend pits against friend, rumours fly about like missiles.  To the “Teacup Taliban” of gossiping church women, Realtin is “just a blow-in”.  Everyone is feeling sorry for themselves and no one is deserving of special attention, not even when Realtin’s son is abducted from the illegal daycare run by Kate and Denis out of their home.  The big question hangs over all the characters:  will this mess be sorted out?  Or is everything far too tangled?

This novel is full of tightly formed and beautifully expressed scenes.  There isn’t a sentence which is overwritten or clich├ęd.  Ryan’s characters take on a life of their own, although his female characters are all a little transparent and seem only to advance the plot rather than say something of merit.  The exception to this is Mags, who describes the pain of realising she has lost her father’s love because she is a lesbian in such piquant detail that it made my heart ache.  But even this seems tenuously linked to the rest of the plot.  My favourite scene takes place on page 58, during which Brian describes losing his girlfriend Lorna:

Then she started looking at me really closely, and sort of laughing nervously, and asking was I crying.  Are you crying?  Jesus, Bri, are you actually crying?  I was in my hole.  Dopey bitch.  As if I’d cry over her.  She’ll be crying the next time she sees me…I kicked her bedroom door before I left though.  JESUS, she went. 

You can’t see it much in this quote, but Ryan has written a lot of this book in a very Irish vernacular, auld for old and wan for girl, etc.  This gets extremely confusing.  The use of the word our, for example, is not one I am familiar with.  Either you go the tacky route and have a glossary, or you make it clear from context, says I.  Or you don’t do it at all.  Unless you don’t want your book to make it overseas.

Donal Ryan, as he appears on the book's inside cover.


One last gripe.  I was infuriated to see that Frank’s chapter took place from beyond the grave.  This was unnecessary and implausible.  We already had the account of his death from the killer’s point of view, so we didn’t need Frank to tell it in his own words.  This was an uncharacteristically low point to the novel. 


All in all, I really wouldn’t be surprised if this book DID win the Man Booker come October.  It has echoes of Julian Barnes’ A Sense of An Ending, certainly, but we shall just have to wait and see, won’t we?

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Dear Writer Revisited: Letters Twenty and Twenty-One

The Ear and the Heart

This letter, Virginia warns, takes the advice she is giving out of the realm of practical discussion and into one of intangibles like "magic" and using "your heart."  It is a letter about allowing a rhythm to develop in your prose.

Rhythm will emerge in prose with constant practice.  You may already have noticed it.  It will match the ideas you are working on and the style of the piece you are writing.  Try reading your work aloud (personally I read to the pets so I don't feel so stupid) and see if it flows trippingly off the tongue the way that Lolita does.
Only through reading good fiction constantly will you find your true rhythm, so read on.

When All's Said and Done

We have reached the end of the road now, blog readers.

Virginia commends Writer on her progress in this letter, providing through her compliments a summary of all the work she has undertaken, and if you've been working along, a kind of checklist for you too.  Do you feel different?  Like a better writer?  I do.  I feel more comfortable, but most of all, I feel like I have well and truly had a kick up the bum, because as Virginia has continually said, Writers are not people who sit around talking about writing, Writers are people who write.  Writing is slow and painstaking effort, and if you're lucky, at the end of it you will have a polished piece, or at least a firm idea of what it is you are trying to say.  If you don't believe that, compare first drafts to final drafts.  Now that you know all of this, you will find yourself taken to that higher plane of inspiration (that is, if you really want to be), and the reader will feel this and be taken along with you.

Thanks for reading along with me as I did this month long program.  I hope that I have encouraged a few of you to pick this book up, if not for the first time then again.  The advice seems just as poignant as ever.

I would like to thank Carmel Bird, and also Bronwyn Mehan and Aziza Green from Spineless Wonders for the opportunity to take part in this review process.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Dear Writer Revisited: Letter Nineteen

Finally, Virginia O'Day comes to the BIG QUESTION.

Where do ideas come from!?

This is a big question because it's impossible to ever completely and satisfactorily answer.  It's different for every writer.  But in this letter, Virginia explains why we all have the potential for great ideas for fiction.  She states that if you are capable of making up fiction and lies then you are capable of fiction.  This idea comes from a quote by the writer Anais Nin, which says:

The important thing is to find the message which liberates, unleashes one's unconscious responses.



Virginia apologises that she cannot be more prescriptive in her explanation, but she does offer a list of exercises for the writer to try if they are stuck, including:

* Picking a word and free-writing
* meditating
* using dreams
* concentrating on one image and using it as a focus (i.e. if you choose tree, you will probably find that you have a thought or a feeling associated with trees you can write about)
* lines from other writers

But most of all, she stipulates that inspiration is really just another fancy way of saying hard work.

There has been a lot of focus in this book so far on writing about memory; I can identify with this kind of writing, because while not all of my short stories are autobiographical, there are many images or conversations or characters even (no I won't say which) that have come from my real life.

What about you?  Do you use your own life as inspiration?

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Dear Writer Revisited: Letter Eighteen

The Manuscript

You may have noticed that these posts are getting shorter and shorter.  They are because the chapters are, although I am leaving out a lot of anecdotes and examples.  Once again, I stress that you need to get your hands on a copy of this book and work through it for yourself.  It is proving invaluable.  I am feeling totally new as a writer at this point; I have a new outlook and I have found a new confidence.  I feel as if I am walking around wearing an official hat that says WRITER and man it feels great.

One thing that I am loving so far about Dear Writer Revisited is the careful balance between loving, tender advice from someone who has been there, and cold, hard practical facts.  This letter is all about the facts, and the facts are:  If you format your submissions properly, they are more likely to be read.

But first, a little story.

Once, at work, a young fellow handed in his resume in the hopes that there would be a job available.  His resume had minimal contact details, no experience detailed other than a few months in another shop, and a one sentence statement about how he was willing to do almost any jobs.  Good on him for trying, but needless to say he didn't get a call back.  Compare this to another guy who handed in his resume a few months ago.  His resume had a professional heading.  His experience was laid out in dot point, chronologically so it was clear to read, and there was a lot of white space on the page.  His spelling and grammar were near perfect, and when someone called him he already had been offered a job.  So what does that tell you?

You should absolutely give the CONTENT of your manuscript the best possible start in life by formatting it correctly and according to the guidelines of the place that you are submitting.  In this age of the internet, these guidelines are readily available.  Virginia gives an anecdote which suggests that you should be thinking along the lines of:

* a4 envelope
* SSAE which is industry speak for a Stamped, Self Addressed Envelope
* Secured with a clip NOT a pin (but I don't know how staples fare)
* double spaced with generous margins
* page numbers
* cover page with a brief note on yourself
* one side of the page

I'm going to add to this list

* use a clear font and a 12 point font size
* detail any RELEVANT writing experience you might have had in your cover letter (but don't tell them your life story)
* show a bit of personality and don't write the same old schtick everyone else has probably included in their letter

Of course you should definitely do a little research and gauge your response appropriately.

Keep copies of your work and FOR GOD'S SAKE BACK UP EVERYTHING ON MULTIPLE USBs.  Keep a record of where you've sent everything.  Virginia says it's fine to send your work to a few places at once, but personally, I never do.  So far I have yet to see a competition where it is not stipulated in the guidelines that it can't be under consideration anywhere else.  (That seems like a double negative but give me a break, I am so tired it feels like my eyeballs have been frotting with sandpaper.)

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Dear Writer Revisited: Letter Seventeen

Getting Into Print

Moving along at a cracking pace, this letter deals with the steps writer should take now that she has finished her manuscript.

Getting published was described by writer Enid Bagnold as being like a "dream of pleasure".  It certainly seems as if it would be.  I often dream of being published.  It stands to reason that being published would feel like a dream.  However, it can take a very very very VERY long time for the dream to come true.

Virginia encourages Writer (and you) to have faith in your work.  Your book will be turned down by publishers.  Probably by a lot of them.  You can take solace in the fact that a number of great novels were initially rejected.  Or you can choose to be down on yourself about it (If no one wanted Harry Potter at first, why would they want my book???)  Learn from rejection: learn to trust your own judgement.

Here are some suggestions Virginia makes to Writer for how to get her work into print.

1) Submit to literary magazines, and subscribe to some if you can, as these publications don't exist without subscribers
2) Enter competitions
3) Give public readings if you can
4) Read your work on the radio if you can
5) Consider putting together a short story collection
6) Submit your work to places that have published work in a similar niche as yours.  I.e. don't send your Jack Reacher-esque Thriller to Mills and Boon.

Getting an agent can also be useful, as they make it easier to get your work in front of publishers.  You avoid the slush pile if your work goes through an agent.

Remember There are no shortcuts.  It takes as long as it takes, and sometimes you will submit to places and nothing will happen.  The best weapons in your arsenal are time, patience, courage and confidence.


Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Dear Writer Revisited: Letter Sixteen

Pepper and Salt

We've gone from writing and life philosophy back into the territory of writing style and creation.  Good.  About time too, all that heavy stuff was beginning to make me feel deep and moody.  A little strange for a book on writing, although no one said a collection of letters had to have a thematic structure.

In this letter, Virginia talks about understatement and overstatement in writing.  Specifically, she makes this letter a love letter to the understatement.

Understatement is powerful because it stimulates the reader's imagination, causing them to become emotionally invested in your story.  It requires them to put in more work than overstatement, and therefore lends itself more to literary genres than say romance or popular fiction (both of which favour the overstatement.)  Overstatements also tend to be heavy with slopping adjective and adverb use.

This chapter is a bizarre and confusing one:  it goes from this rather misplaced point to talking about showing your work to people, establishing a general rule that one should never show their work to family or friends.  An excellent point, but it begs the question of what exactly the one point has to do with the other?  I see this point as having more relevance in chapter fifteen.  However, as I said in the beginning of this blog post, no one said letters needed thematic structure.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Dear Writer Revisited: Letter Fifteen

Writers are Different

This chapter begins to get into some heavy territory for me.  It asks all the questions I constantly ask myself, particularly during moments of self doubt, beginning with:

Is it possible to be a writer and have a job?

To me, the short answer is yes, because it has to be.  The sheer volume of unpublished manuscripts out there is enough to make my hair stand on end.  I know people who have left jobs that were sapping their energy creatively, and I applaud them.  I think these people are the ones with the guts to go all the way.  But as for me?  I couldn't handle all those unknowns.

Virginia's advice to Writer provides some comfort.  Yes, she says, it is possible, so long as the job doesn't take so much out of you that you are an empty husk incapable of writing.  Chekov provides an interesting anecdote.  He was a writer AND a medical doctor, thinking of one as his wife and the other his mistress.  (Guess which was which?)

Writing, you sassy bitch.

The definitive answer is not very definitive at all; do what you must, so long as you are whole hearted in your desire to write.  

This is a response that I can easily live with.

The next question is more confronting still.  Think about the things in your life that get in the way of your writing, and ask yourself:

Are you allowing yourself to be stopped?

If so, desist.  You are not a writer if you only think about writing.  I must add to this that you are not a writer if you merely talk about writing all the time to anyone who will listen.  So get your head in the game.  

Finally, and most subjective of all:

Is it possible to have normal relationships when you are a writer?

This is such a tough question, but I think it is going to vary a lot from person to person.  Needing to drop everything and write can at times be super hard on relationships, but I have also listened to a lot of writers talk about how supportive and inspirational their partners are.  None more so than Neil Gaiman and his wife Amanda Palmer.  While Virginia counsels writer that she can't relate to people and write well, I, as a romantic optimist, encourage you to be like Neil and Amanda and love, and create, and love creating.  

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Dear Writer Revisited: Letter Fourteen

Practical Matters

According to Carmel/ Virginia, it is important for us/ Writer to stay connected with the world of writing.  This can be achieved by:

* reading (because honestly, no one who hates reading should ever put pen to paper or fingers to keys)
* read reviews (and might I add, writing them)
* joining a writing organisation  (In WA you can choose from WritingWA, FAWWA, KSP and more)
* joining a writing group (hi guys!)
* going to festivals where you can meet writers and publishing types
* participating in courses (try UWA extension)

A 2013 audience should also consider
* reading blogs
* keeping their own blog and building an author platform
* following writing types on twitter (it's a great way to collect useful links)
* liking author and publisher pages on Facebook
* connecting with industry names on LinkedIn

One of the things that has really marked this year as being The Year Of Writing for me was the degree of seriousness with which I began doing all the above things.  It's truly helped.  I feel as though I am making measurable progress, and no doubt you will too!

How do you connect with the writing world?

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Dear Writer Revisted: Letters Twelve and Thirteen

A double post today, largely because I missed a day on Thursday, but also because these two chapters do tend to go hand in hand.

Before I start, I just wanted to make a quick point:  A few of you have been commenting that you feel as if you don't need to read Dear Writer Revisited because you are reading the book through me.  This makes me feel terrible!  I need to make it clear that I am by no means giving you the full experience of this book, I am simply working my way through it and reflecting.  I am leaving out the fabulous quotes, the in depth analysis and overall the wonderful atmosphere of the book.  They say no two people ever read the same book.  What you get out of Dear Writer Revisited will hopefully be different to what I get out of it.  As they say in Bali, same same but different.
Don't get me wrong: my heart is warmed by all the charming responses these posts have been getting and I am enjoying the process immensely, but I wouldn't be doing my job as a reviewer properly if I did not make you want to read the book.  So please, imagine these posts as dipping your toes in the pool.

Letter Twelve:  In the Beginning Was the Quill

Quill:  featherlike instrument used for writing.  You know, like in Harry Potter.

The author's note for this chapter warns us that the modern reader will most likely find this chapter somewhat quaint.  It draws on the idea of moving from hand writing to word processing, which at the time of the book's initial publication, meant typewriters.  This chapter is based truly on the writer's experience (but are we talking about Carmel or Virginia here?  I am not sure...) and suggests that there may be some sort of inspirational link between hand writing and the flow of ideas.  You really must read the anecdote in this chapter.  It provides a lot of food for thought.  It also provides a hilarious anecdote about Fay Zwicky letting loose on a class full of Word Processor loving creative writing students.

Oh yes.  She did.


The letter ends with a question, which I will now open up to the peanut gallery:

Does the use of a word processor (known these days as a COMPUTER) change the way you write?
For me, personally, I am not so sure that it does.  Writing on a computer is easier than hand writing.  My hand doesn't get tired or cramp up for one, and so I can just keep going and going and going.  The temptation to edit as you go is there though.  Does this outweigh the benefits?  Maybe.  Hand writing is also more portable.  I can knock out a short story on my lunch break or before I start work, as I have done a lot lately.  And the blank page in my pretty notebook is a lot less daunting than the obnoxious blinking cursor.  But I don't tend to go and sit in a special place and write in my journal.  I turn up at my desk and I write.  Now if only I could learn to close Facebook while I was at it!

Your turn... tell me all about it in the comments.   

Letter Thirteen: Dear Diary

Any takers on what THIS letter is about?  There truly are no prizes for guessing.

The letter opens again with an author's note, making the point that a lot of journal-writing style activities have now moved online- to blogs!  Blogging and journalling are slightly different though, seeing as, as Virginia defines it, writing in a journal is like writing a letter to yourself.  And when I write on my blog, I don't know exactly whom I am writing for but I know it is someone OTHER than myself.

The book so far, if you've been paying attention, has been full of a lot of great activities which would make the basis for a brilliant journal.  You can also put things such as impressions, memories, dreams and quotes from books you are reading into them.  For a great example of quote collecting, see Annabel Smith's blog here.

Make sure that you use your journal to fuel your passion for writing, but be careful not to focus on it to the detriment of your fiction.

Do you keep a journal?  

Friday, 20 September 2013

Dear Writer Revisited: Letter Eleven

Cause of Death

Following on from the previous post about titles, I'd like to just take a moment to appreciate how fantastic the headings for each chapter are in this book.  Cause of Death would have to be one of my favourites to date.  It's perfect because the form and style of this chapter are a little bit like a lecture on how to diagnose your novel and what exactly is stopping it from being the amazing entity you originally envisioned it as.

Virginia tells Writer that the act of writing can sometimes be a bit cyclical in nature, which makes it a little tricky.  Lack of passion for the material can lead to mistakes that are fatal for prose.  Luckily, treating these 'symptoms' can actually revive passion.  Blogger's note:  I actually think that the making of these mistakes can't purely be blamed on a lack of passion.  I know a lot of writers who do these things when they write and they are driven as they come.  It's just that along the way, we pick up bad habits.

If we are able to develop a sensitivity to these faults, it is easier to eradicate them.  So without further ado, I present you with Virginia O'Day's Field Guide to the Identification of Writing's Seven Deadly Sins.  (See what I mean about me not being very good at titles?)

1) Cliche

Cliches are figures of speech which have been worked too hard in too many stories and they have basically become meaningless.  Examples:

flaxen hair
bulging muscles
glistening sweat

2) Jargon

Industry words that obscure clear meaning and lack emotion.  Examples:

'Liking' something on Facebook
Living on a 'sub-divided' block

3) Pathetic Fallacy

This is a bit tricky to explain, but it's saying that something does something when it clearly doesn't.  Virginia uses the example of trees and wheat 'sighing'.  I think this has a place, for example, in historical fiction, or if your character is a complete hippy/ possibly high.  Use your judgement.

4) Passive Voice

Ahhh my old nemesis.  All my creative writing assignments used to come back with passive passive passive scrawled all over them, because I tried to write a little like Salinger and a little like Zooey Deschanel when she wrote lyrics for She and Him.  My teacher didn't really get this.  She was right to caution me.

Your subject must be active in making things happen rather than having things happen all the time.  Slightly related, but I personally hate it when charaters "find themselves" doing things.  Examples:

Anna picked up the broken shard of glass.  NOT   The broken shard of glass was picked up by Anna.  AND DEFINITELY NOT Anna found herself picking up the shard of glass.  (I think it goes without saying that you definitely should never consider writing "The shard of glass found itself being picked up by Anna.")

5)  Mixed Metaphor

Know exactly what you mean and follow through with it.  Unless you're PG Wodehouse, then be masterful in mixing your metaphors and enjoy the humorous effect.  Examples:

The night was dark like a cloak in a room where all the lights had been turned off.

"Lol.  Not even close."

6) Stilted Dialogue

Create the impression that your reader is actually listening to a real conversation.  You can practice this with Writing Exercise 12, in which you are encouraged to eavesdrop on some real conversations and write them down.  Remember, it's better to use 'said' than other speech words because said is virtually invisible.  Keep it clear who is speaking, and definitely NO ADVERBS.

7) Overwriting

Keep it simple, stupid.  Go easy on the adjectives.




BONUS FLAWS

8)  Latinisms

Don't use a fancy French or Latin word when a simple English one will do.

9)  Abstract Nouns

Be careful with these.  They are used when you want to deliberately NOT conjure an image into the mind of your reader and are full of rhetoric.  Concrete nouns have accompanying mental pictures and are much better for prose.  Of course, you can't ignore Abstract Nouns forever.  You must become the master of them.

You must become the master of all these things.  Like Wodehouse.  But remember, you are not Wodehouse.  Control yourself.




Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Dear Writer Revisited: Letter Ten

Baby's Name

Finding a Title for your Story

Hooray!  This couldn't come a moment too soon because I am stupendously, bizarrely, terribly, horribly bad at naming things.

And, as Virginia says, titles must be interesting and must provide an open invitation to read on.  Who is going to buy a book that seems duller than their taxes?  Not me!  The title is key in marketing your book, and if you have a great title, customers will remember it and maybe you when they go to the bookshop.  This prevents horrible situations where your bookseller looks at you down her stylish glasses with a polite mixture of confusion and fatigue when you enter and say "I'm looking for a book but I don't remember the title or the author's name, only that they talked about it on ABC's Books and Arts Daily sometime during May to October."  (Seriously, don't do that.  Booksellers are excellent people but we are not genies.)

2 word titles have a nice rhythm to them and are often quite fun to say.  Take Helen Garner's title Monkey Grip which is emotionally evocative and provides a neat metaphor for the story itself.  Long titles will often present themselves during the body of the story, and are more common in short fiction.

Also responsible for the wonderful but enigmatic title "The Children's Bach"


Writing Exercise 11

A list of some of the best titles I can see whilst sitting at my desk

Whisky Charlie Foxtrot
What Is Left Over, After
Rhubarb
Elsewhere in Success
The Wonderbread Summer
Transition
Atonement
Floundering
The Shining Girls
Burial Rites

Character names can also be quite tricky.  Virginia suggests the following approaches

* telephone books
* baby name books
* google

I would like to add to this list

* people on Twitter
* people who turn up as "people you may know" on Facebook (obviously don't use their full name, gosh.)

This was a great chapter full of the classic "Keep it Simple" approach to deep writing.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Dear Writer Revisited: Letter Nine

The Thought Experiment: The Role of Imagination in the Creation of Fiction

Erm... it's the main one, isn't it?

Virginia has found yet another fault with Writer's story, "The Scream at Midnight" (poor Writer), leading me to ask the question of why Virginia is persisting with reading this story at all.  She must be the world's nicest mentor.  In this letter, Virginia wants to explain to writer why her story seems to fall a little flat.

It lacks imagination.

Spot on, Leo.  Help yourself to a cookie.

Elizabeth Jolley encouraged writers to "develop the moment of truth with the magic of imagination."  In other words, take the things you have seen and observed, and extrapolate them to logical and even illogical circumstances.  Imagine.  And if you think you cannot imagine, get someone to read the following quote to you and close your eyes.

Your mouth is open and someone is pouring warm milk chocolate into it, slowly.  It's sliding down your tongue.  You swallow, and open your mouth again.  They tip the container, but instead of chocolate going into your mouth, now it's vinegar.

If you said YUCK or made a face or something like that, I'd said your imagination is working just fine.  What do you think Elizabeth Jolley?

Absolutely.

If you're still intimidated by this idea, don't worry because Virginia's letter has provided for that too!  She says that because the worlds of your imagination are constructed from the everyday world, you should take the time to develop your observational skills, and practice treating your words as playthings with the following handy exercises....

Writing Exercise 9- Before you go to bed each night, write down three examples of interesting things that happened to you during your day, or things that you saw.

1.  My mother told me she wished she had my generosity of spirit.
2. I discovered that I really enjoy it when Scottish people say the word "Toast"
3. Sucking on a Columbine sweet makes me feel warm.

It was actually really hard to write that list, but I'm okay with that.  A bit of reflection never killed anyone and now I know I have to be a bit more present!

Remember that fiction comes from a secret longing to remake the world.  Again, we return to the idea of being REALLY REALLY REALLY invested in what we are writing about and what we are trying to say.

Writing Exercise 10-  Collect items from newspapers for inspiration.  

Georgette Heyer apparently did this.  We actually did something similar when I did a course at KSP once, and we played with pulling three random items out of a box and trying to write a story that connected them.  So there's a fun game for you.

I just wanted to quickly share this with you before I go tonight... this is a quote from the Spineless Wonders website about the pleasures of Revisiting this book... for me, I am visiting for the first time but for many others this truly is an experience of reconnecting with an old friend.  Here's what Charlotte Wood had to say:

‘I first read Dear Writer as a nervy, secretive scribbler-in-journals 20 years ago. Reading this revised version I’m struck again by its practical generosity on technical matters - but am also inspired by the deeper, more complex conversations I think I missed in those early readings: about courage, about the urgency and mystery and self-discovery of the writing process. Dear Writer Revisited may masquerade – convincingly – as a book for beginners, but its lessons are mature and wise.’
—Charlotte Wood, The Writer’s Room Interviews

That last line in particular is brilliant.  So thanks to Charlotte, and thanks once again to Spineless Wonders for getting me involved in this project.  See you all tomorrow.  

Monday, 16 September 2013

Dear Writer Revisited: Letter Eight

Stranger than Fiction

* Incidentally a great film starring Will Ferrell (I know, go figure) and Emma Thompson.

During this letter, Virginia instructs Writer on the idea of plausibility in fiction.

In writing, as in a murder investigation (if you watch Castle) there are no such things as coincidences. Coincidences in writing should actually be called BIG FAT WHOOPSIES because they pretty much sign the death warrant on your work.  Bye bye suspension of disbelief.  Hello angry letters to the publisher demanding money back.  If you want to write about something strange or implausible, you really have to sell it.  You have to make it true through your fiction.

In writing, as mostly happens in life, cause always precedes an effect, although as my boyfriend is fond of saying, correlation does not imply causation.  (He's really good at maths and science.)  Following this rule in the construction of fictional worlds will help to create a fictive dream state in which your reader is immersed in what they are being told.  Telling obvious porkies or getting carried away in silliness will break the fictive dream, because while your reader is malleable they are not stupid.

Hemingway said, among a lot of other important things that you should consider getting tattooed on the insides of your eyelids, that your writing has to reveal something "truer than anything true."



This chapter is full of many great Virginia-isms as well as the writer-isms we have come to expect.  Finally, we begin to head into uncharted writing lesson territory!  Not that I haven't enjoyed rehashing the basics, but it's a little hard to feel as if I am making progress while doing so.  It appears that Writer is making progress, however.  For the first time, Virginia refers to having read some of writer's writing exercises.  Great.  Writer's doing well, but what about me?  How do I know if I am on the right track?  I think if Writer is going to be given a plot line outside of the text, we need so see some more writing samples from her.  They can serve as examples.

We also head into a philosophical area of thinking during this letter; Virginia asks Writer how she feels about the idea of characters having Autonomy.

Now, I remember seeing a Year 12 monologue night when I was in Year 11, and one of the pieces was about this very thing.  I was operating the light desk.  From where I was sitting, it was like the actors were aiming their words straight at me.  Maybe they were.  Illuminated in a circle of yellow light against billowing black curtains, they seemed to exist in a vacuum.  And mostly, they were boring.

There was a set of twins in this class, and I think it was Eliza who performed the monologue I am thinking of.  She was the twin with the lighter hair.  The less pretty twin, people said, even though she and Bonnie were identical.  She was certainly the friendlier.  She came on stage with her hair all messed up and this stained terrytowel dressing gown on.  I think she was clutching a cup of coffee.  It was probably empty but she took sips from it every now and then.  In her other hand she clutched a pile of papers.  And she seemed to be having a mental breakdown, or her character was, because she was writing a romance novel and her lead characters just wouldn't get together.  I thought that was so great.

But see, I don't think I have ever experienced it.  And I don't know if that means I am doing something wrong.  Maybe I'm just a different sort of writer.  I find it easy to slip into my characters minds and become them, but I feel like it's still me driving.  It's like playing a role.  And I'm still me, and I am still aware of what's going on, but I know exactly what my character would do in each situation.  Perhaps it's the drama background.  Today I was driving home past Port Beach and the rain was blowing against that great stack of shipping containers, and I thought, Winston would think all of this was kind of beautiful.  For a moment I saw the blustery day through his eyes and things weren't so bad.  Winston is the lead in my 1930s anti romance novel.  He's a simple man, stronger than his gentle personality implies.  He's a pragmatist and a romantic all at once.  Naturally, he's often rather confused.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Dear Writer Revisited: Letter Seven

The Centre of the Mystery

Think of writing as being a process of discovery.  The treasure is you!

Virginia's seventh letter returns to the material covered in her first, which was all about drawing on experiences to write what you know.  But just because she's asking you to write about your past doesn't mean she is giving you a free pass to go and pass off works of autobiography as works of fiction.  Once again, I stress; in writing what you know, teachers of creative writing really mean experiences, feelings, relationships, the essence of things, rather than real events, people and conversations, although you can fictionalise those too if you're really sneaky about it.

In accessing our memories and experiences, we must become like children, but remain mature writers.  We must learn to see the world in a childlike way; as if for the first time, every time.  Because we may not be, but our reader is.  Just because you know the jetty down at Deep Water Point like the back of your hand (oops, sorry, cliche) doesn't mean your reader has ever been there.  What colour is the wood?  How does the water smell?  Can you hear the shrieks of children on the nearby playground, see the top of the tower at Aquinas and count the number of jetskiers toppling into the diesel grey river?  Yeah.  Now you can.

Dickens was especially good at this sort of writing because he found a way to access the emotional landscape of his childhood.  Although Virginia does not tell us how he did this (she probably doesn't know for sure), it's pretty safe to assume that this came from practice.  Speaking of which!

Writing Exercise 7- write an account of a painful incident from your early life.

You'll excuse me if I deem this one a little personal to share until I've edited it some more.

My reaction to publishing the exercise is also somewhat indicative of the raw emotion I have touched on whilst writing it.  But sometimes the hardest things to write about are those experiences that are most important, and if we can find a way to record them, we are often rewarded with our best writing.  I encourage you to look at the beautiful, heartbreaking words that Louise Allan very bravely shared with us today.    This is exactly the kind of raw emotion that makes a moving read and I am very proud to know Louise today.  Conflict and hardship are the building blocks of a great story; think of Jane Eyre, Great Expectations and Little Women.  It is most important that we learn to deal with writing about things that are painful to us.  Personally, I believe it may even be beneficial.  As they say, writing is cheaper than therapy.

Be strong.  It's worth it.


In truly delving into the depths of our memory banks, we should be able to, as Seamus Heaney has said, unlock the mysteries of ourselves and make some sense of the world, even if it is just for ourselves.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Dear Writer Revisited: Letter Six

The Name of your Angel is Desire

Although personally, I think that's a bit ostentatious and I would usually go for something a bit more low key for my muse/ angel, like maybe Rob.  Rob the angel.  Rob the muse.  Ha.

Anyway!  So, you've decided that you want to be a big time serious writer and you've picked up Carmel Bird's excellent How-To guide called Dear Writer Revisited and suddenly you get to a point in the text where she tells you something that makes your blood run cold with overused similes and metaphors.

You are going to get in your own way.    You are your own worst enemy.  Your self doubt is going to stop you achieving the things that you want.

Then, Virginia instructs writer to make some lists, so you (or in this case, I) make them as well.

List A- List all of the things that you want.  (I am reminded here of Neil Gaiman's wonderful speech about making great art, where he lists all the things he wanted to achieve, much to the laughter of the audience because it involved things like writing an adult's novel, writing a children's novel, writing a graphic novel and writing an episode of Dr Who, all of which he has done.  Go Neil.)

* I want to write a historical fiction novel
* I want to write a literary fiction novel
* I want to write award winning short stories
* I want to get a publishing deal
* I want to win literary awards (don't laugh, these are just things I want)
* I want to do a book launch and sign autographs
* I want to be happy with what I have written
* I want to receive an email or a letter from a young fan like the one that I once sent to Craig Silvey so that I can become a sort of mentor.  (HAHAHAHAHA... dreaming big)

List B- All the things that are getting in the way

* I have not really sent my novels anywhere
* I haven't done enough research
* I think that most of what I write is generally rubbish and so I give up half way
* I don't write every day
* I have too many books to read
* I split my free time between writing, reading, cleaning and socialising, and sometimes watching television
* I don't know any publishers
* I have not approached any agents
* It is to some degree a matter of luck and timing

If you look really closely there, you'll agree that a lot of my list B is based on procrastination and self doubt, and to some extent, that procrastination is a manifestation of the self doubt, so go figure.  I am getting in my own way, therefore.  I also think that I am taking my writing seriously but also focussing on not becoming a lonely miserable unemployed person who lives in her own filth.  I think this is also a worthwhile pursuit and if it takes me longer to get published, so be it.  I don't want writing to stop being fun!

The next writing exercise was to have a sleep!  Yay!  Thanks Virginia, I love sleeping.  She recommends that writer practice writing first thing after waking up so as to achieve an unfiltered state of being that is unencumbered by the self doubt monsters, who wake up slower than we do.  I did do this exercise, but it was largely just an account of the very strange dream I had about one of my favourite bloggers curling my hair for a family member's wedding, and then walking the dog.  This kind of meditative writing can also be achieved by writing in public places like cafes and on trains.  I prefer cafes myself as there is coffee close by and people who are paid to bring it to you.  Yay.  Going for a walk can also help to clear the mind.  What you are trying to achieve is the state that Virginia Woolf has often described as being immersed and unaware of the self whilst writing.  I have experienced this sensation before and I have to say, it is excellent.

"I know, right?"

Friday, 13 September 2013

Dear Writer Revisited: Letter Five

Giving Up Housework

Now there is an idea I can get behind!  Although, as a sidebar, sometimes when I really need to force myself to slog through a patch of difficult writing, I will use the washing machine's cycle as a timer to make myself write in thirty minute bursts.  But vacuuming?  That's for chumps.

As a writer, you must be prepared to treat your writing as priority number one, says Virginia in this letter, which is really more of a memo.  That means that it is your full time job, and your other full time job is just 'that thing you do so that the bank doesn't kick you out of your house' (or in my case, that thing you do so that you can pay your phone bill and buy pretty things, because I'm super cool and still live with my parents.)  You must never ever ever think of yourself as a special snowflake who can write a great novel on a time schedule at the same time as raising angelic children, keeping your house immaculate and having a freshly baked tray of cookies available for unexpected guests.  You probably can't do this, unless you're Kate Morton, in which case, you certainly give out the impression that you can, but who am I to say if she's faking or not.  (Man I love Kate Morton...)  It's just safer to assume that you cannot do it all at the same time, so the book simply must be in the driver's seat.

Find yourself time to write, and find yourself a space where you will not be disturbed.  I find announcing to my family that I am writing usually works, although just not replying when they knock on the door to tell me it's dinner time works too.  Do not answer your phone if it rings.  Do not text your friends (guilty) and do not check Facebook and Twitter.  In fact, turn your phone off, unplug your internet and hide the book you're reading because you mean business.  Short attention span be damned.  As Joyce Carol Oates ironically tweeted, the shattering of your concentration span is as deadly as it is ubiquitous.

As for Fitzgerald?  Well he said that WRITING IS SACRIFICE and he would know.

Indeed, ol' sport.

Dear Writer Revisited: Letter Four

The Omniscient Author

In letter four, Virginia instructs Writer on the matter of Point of View, being the narrative voice on the story and the subsequent effect this method of conveyance will have on the reader.  She defines the two broad types of narration available to writers as being:

THIRD PERSON (specifically Omniscient Third Person, oddly enough, as I tend to write in a Third Person limited voice, but as she mentions that there are sub types, I can only assume this will be covered in a later chapter...)

"Anya danced until midnight with the charming prince even though her toes had turned to bleeding stumps inside her shoes."

FIRST PERSON (limited to one character and therefore flavoured by their thoughts and feelings, as well as limited by what they are privy to.)

"I had thought I was managing to be quite charming on the night of the ball, until it came time to dance with Anya, who winced throughout the waltz as though it caused her great pain to be near me."

Third person narration is identified as being the most traditional form of storytelling, going back to the oral tradition I assume, and conveying a sense of all-knowing authority on matters.  It is probably the form that most writers will be familiar with (presumably from childhood, as I cannot think of many children's books written in First Person, though I am sure there are some) and therefore, is probably a style writers feel comfortable using.  But hold your horses there bucko!  Maybe you're doing it wrong!  Let's check in with Virginia before we proceed.

Keep in mind when you are using third person omniscient that your narrator WILL NOT MAKE MISTAKES because THEY KNOW EVERYTHING.  There is such a thing as an unreliable narrator, and you can be pretty clever with those, but then you want to move into observer narration which is a whole different kettle of fish.  You must be passionate about your material and you must be dedicated enough to check your facts.  If you don't someone will notice.  I'm serious, they will.  And that person will be my grandfather, and he will return the book to you with the mistake circled in pencil because he was a teacher and those folks are meticulous.  So just check your facts, okay?

First person narration builds on character.  And the best way to demonstrate this is with an example, so without further ado, here's exercise four.

I looked over my shoulder before getting into the car to be sure no one was following me.  It was 7:05 in the evening in Bogota.  It had been dark for an hour, the Parque Nacional was not well lit and the silhouettes of leafless trees against a sad, overcast sky seemed ghostly, but nothing appeared to be threatening.  I chose to sit behind the driver.  I've always found it the more comfortable seat.  Beatriz climbed in through the other door and sat to my right.  We were almost an hour behind schedule, and I fear we both looked tired after a soporific afternoon of executive meetings-- myself in particular as I had hosted a party the night before and only managed to get three hours sleep.  I stretched my legs, closed my eyes and leaned back against the seat.  "Please take us home," I said.  

Here I had changed a paragraph from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's News of a Kidnapping from third person to first person narration, giving you more of a sense of the speaker, Maruja.  We get the idea of her as being nervous, authoritative, rich, cosmopolitan and busy.  We see how she sees herself and the world.  We could only know this in third person if the narrator had told us so, although we could be told what she was doing, saying and the facts of her life, but her thoughts and feelings would be distanced from us.

Still excellent though, Mr Marquez.  Gosh, I'd love to hug you...


What do you think?  Do you prefer first or third person?

Another short letter here.  I would have liked a longer one perhaps, but I am looking forward to future letters on the difference sub-types of points of view.  

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Dear Writer Revisited: Letter Three

Top and Tail

When I last left you, dear reader, we were discussing why adjectives and adverbs are very very naughty little words.  Today, we are talking about the bread of the sandwich that is your novel, and that is beginnings and endings.

By we, I mean that Virginia O'Day is talking about those things.  I am just talking about Virginia talking about them.  Oi.  Confusing!  But we carry on. 

Virginia counsels writer to pay close attentions to her beginnings and endings.  These things are important because they influence the lasting effect your story will have on a reader, and also whether or not they read it at all.  Beginnings and endings occur in many places throughout your work.  Paragraphs, chapters and entire works all have them, and as a writer, Virginia warns that you must be brave enough to ruthlessly edit and even cut them.  You don't have to go down to the sentence level with a fine toothed comb though.  I mean, come on, you're not Proust. 

We return to an examination of the florid opening paragraph to Writer's story.  Virginia explains that she feels as if the real story is obscured behind this winding up period in which Writer is merely describing the story's inner landscape as it exists in her imagination, and that the second paragraph, which begins with a character, ya know, doing something, is where the real interest lies.

She then goes onto a tangent in which she talks about characters names.  Frankly, I feel as if this could use a chapter all in itself!  It seems to be only slightly linked to the idea of beginnings, but nonetheless, it is there.  Names, Virginia says, can be used as a form of specific detail that help to set a character in the mind of the reader without obscuring the action needed in a story's opening.  Names must be consistent with age and personality.  Names must not be caricatures.  For great examples of names, see the work of Dickens.  (and as a side note, Hard Times in particular.  Oh gosh, Mr Gradgrind and Mr Bounderby.)

Phillip 'Pip' Pirrip... mistake... or genius??


We must remember that it is not necessary to set the scene for the entire story straight away; therefore it is not good to begin a story with an in depth description of a character or a setting because that will make your reader fall asleep.  Not stated in the book explicitly is that you should start with a character in a scene doing something, or something happening that will soon affect your character, but I just thought I would add that.  Opening sentences need to be vague enough not to give the game away but fascinating enough that your character will want to read on.  Remember!  Be brave!  In writing, beginnings and endings are like training wheels.  The best bit is what happens when they come off.

This is a slightly shorter chapter with no writing exercises; great for beginners, but would possibly benefit from a bit more fleshing out.  What really sets this book apart from all the other How To Write books is the unique format that makes you feel as if you're getting advice from someone like an agent or editor, as opposed to some writer telling you about how it works for them, so I encourage readers to really go for it and take this book to heart.   

Monday, 9 September 2013

Dear Writer Revisited: Letter Two

A is for Alive, D is for Dead

Ah the humble adverb... I never knew you were so evil until I went to university and had some learned people tell me so.  You make the difference between purple prose and sharp, pithy, witty opening lines that will con unsuspecting readers into buying my book.  You are a heartless wench.

Letter Two opens with an examination of the un-named writer's first sentence.  Writing teachers will constantly tell you how important the first sentence is, which of course makes it very difficult to put anything down on your blank page at all, because frankly that's a lot of pressure.  What a lot of these teachers leave out (and I notice it isn't emphasized in this chapter either) is that often, the real first line isn't written until after the last one is.  Phew!

So start off with any old line.  It could be the cat sat on the mat, so long as it's not "The hissing, grey and brown Tom Cat lounged luxuriously on Mr McAllister's expensive, hand-wash only Iranian prayer mat."  Because 1) that's very florid and weighed down by evil a-words (we'll get to that in a minute) and 2) because if that's any good, I thought of it and I call dibs.  Ha.

Virginia wants to impress on writer that first lines are VERY IMPORTANT because they set the scene and create atmosphere, but the best way to do this is not with the synonym function in Microsoft word.  She begins her letter with a gentle examination of why Writer's opening scene contains far too many adjectives.  I can only assume that Writer is paying for Virginia's services, because if I were writer, and I'd sent that paragraph to Virginia, rest assured my book would be going straight from slush pile to bin.  Why?  Because adjectives and adverbs weaken prose.  They rob it of it's vitality and originality.  Not because adjectives and adverbs are useless pieces of the English language that should never have been invented, but because most writers don't know how to use them.

A writer who does know how to use them?

Vladimir Nabokov.

Who, me?
 Seriously, go and find your copy and read that first chapter of Lolita.  I'll wait.

Carmel Bird makes Virginia's point very well in this chapter, once again using quotes.  I particularly like the quote from Fay Weldon, that "a weakness is a strength not properly developed."  She then goes on to tell you WHY adverbs and adjectives weaken prose, and sets exercises that help you on your journey to be the master of your descriptive language.



Here are mine:

First, I had to use adjectives to spice up this passage.  My inserts are coloured.

"Pushing her way among the tawny weeds, many of which were covered with pink blossoms, Mary found herself a seat on a rock that had been rolled against the trunk of a rotting tree.  The weeds half concealed her and from the road only her sunburnt head was visible.  A prickly hedge separated the orchard from the fields on the hillside.  Mary intended to sit by the tree until darkness cam creeping over the land, and try to think out some plan regarding her bleak future."

What does adding these descriptors do here?  I hope that it adds some measure of character and situation, while showing Mary's opinion of the landscape through the negative words I've chosen.  But you'll have to tell me if I am right...

The I had to take OUT some adjectives and adverbs, as follows.

The summer-idle water mirrored the towering cliff in a tea-brown pool, and in a small low cave at the crumbling base of the cliff, the soft grey birds were huddling together. 


What do you think?  Too little or too much?  I didn't want to take them all out and risk another Cat Sat on the Mat type story. 

This is another great chapter, building from the basics in a concise and clear manner, linking ideas and following a parallel structure.  I'm expecting great things to come. 

Go on, go find your copy of Lolita and read the first chapter.  I'll wait.  Ser

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Dear Writer Revisited: Letter One

Foreword

In the foreword to this re-released book on writing, Carmel Bird has written a short note about the place of a book on the art of writing in a rapidly changing technological world.  (And if you don't know already, the digital age is both a blessing and a curse for writers.) She recognizes the futility of trying to publish a book that includes an in-depth analysis of the place of blogging, Tweeting etc etc., seeing as in the time it would talk to write, edit and print such material, the subject matter will have changed again.  Yet, there is some measure of involvement, isn't there?  Because the team at Spineless Wonders have approached a network of bloggers all over Australia to read, to road test, and to critique the book, taking it into a truly digital framework.

As for the book?  Well, that's all about the basics.  It's important to realize that all the blog and Twitter followers in the world are not going to make you a good writer.  Neither, for that matter is simply being taught to write.  Yes, it can be done.  People can be taught to write as much as they can be taught to sew, or sing, or swim; the degree of talent with which it is done depends on a number of things, including determination and a well stocked kit of tools.

This is what is on Carmel Bird's prescribed utility belt.  A writer needs:

* to read a lot.
* to understand the history of fiction
* to know as much as they can about the present world of writing
* to be prepared to invest time, money and emotional energy

This introduction is near perfect.  It both recognizes the feeling that most writers have, that they are something special, or that they can do something special, while also postulating that, actually, anyone can be admitted into this club if they are prepared to put in the hard yards.  It lays out the structure of the book, tells you what you will need, and warns you what sort of an investment you are making.  In other words, if upon reading the foreword, you are not filled with enthusiasm for the project ahead, you can stop reading before it is too late.  All within a few pages.  Peppered with quotes along the way, the book is grounded in the canon of books on how to write, and surrounds itself in a context that invites the reader to enter the world of the professional writer.



Letter One: 
So you want to be Agatha Christie?

What's wrong with being yourself?

Letter One is all about Writing What you Know.  Possibly one of the most cliched bits of advice on writing I have had the misfortune of being told again and again and again.  The reason that this snippet will so frequently elicits groans of distaste from writers is because it is always used in the wrong context.  For so long I laboured under the misapprehension that writing what you know meant you could only write about things you had actually done, people you had actually meant and places you had actually been.  Not so.

By starting with this most over-used piece of advice, Dear Writer Revisited strips back the common booboos so that as writers, we start on the right foot.  Virginia explains to her writer correspondent that the reason her writing stagnates is because the plot reads like something she's appropriated from somewhere else rather than something she's emotionally connected to.  On the plus side, her character Amelia is appealing because she has the kind of depth that shows Writer has encountered her in real life.  This demonstrates Virginia's point about writing what you know.

Experiences translate, as can research.  It is important to find a balance between lived memories and leaps of imagination.  Virginia cites Peter Carey as an example and I can only assume she is talking about The Fat Man in History.  She provides Writer (and us) with two opportunities to practice tapping into our bank of stories, and to practice the art of storytelling that goes with it, reminding this writer of that Hitchcock quote, that fiction is "Life with the Dull Parts Taken Out."

Already, Dear Writer Revisited is off too a strong start.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Find me over at the Booklength Project Group Blog

I've done a guest post for local author Iris Lavell's Booklength Project group blog today... you can read it here. 

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Letter by Letter: Dear Writer Revisited

It has been a crazy start to the month/ end of last month, but I am glad to do it because it is so gratifying to get back into writing in a serious (and seriously exhausting way).  One of the projects I am lucky to be able to throw myself into is the Dear Writer Revisited Project!

Carmel Bird's classic book on writing and how to do it is going to be re released in October of this year, updated with all sorts of relevant stuff about being a writer in today's world.  Obviously the industry and the medium has changed a little bit!

I think the call to bloggers which I responded to (Found on the Facebook page) sums it up nicely:

Calling all bloggers & short fiction writers! We are looking for a writer in each state who will read the soon-to-be-released Dear Writer Revisited by Carmel Bird. In Dear Writer Revisited, a fictional Writer who is working on a short story has submitted a short story to the equally fictional, Virginia O’Day Manuscript Assessment Service. What follows is a book about writing fiction, filled with useful quotes, suggestions and exercises. As Mem Fox said of the original: GOD, I LOVE IT! And we think lots of you will too. So, to celebrate this updated edition, we are looking for writers - beginning, emerging or experienced – who are working on a piece of short fiction and who are looking for inspiration, guidance or just a breath of fresh fictional air. 
We are inviting these writers to read Dear Writer Revisited, to work through its exercises, suggestions and ideas about fiction writing and as they do so, to blog about the experience.

Sounds pretty nice, yes?  And, bonus, it should help my writing!  I feel like I could use all the help I can get right now.  The book is written as a series of letters and there are exercises included.  I think what I might do is review the book letter by letter and publish any exercises I get time to do, aiming to finish by the end of October, when I will do a review of everything I have learned.

Won't you join me?

 

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Let's Talk Ugly Book Covers

Is it just me or have there been some real shockers lately?

They say don't judge a book by it's cover (whoever they are), but a beautiful cover, or at least a strategically designed one, can be a huge factor in whether or not a book gets picked up by a new reader.

Picture this:  You're browsing.  You want a particular book, and that's the reason that you've come into the bookstore, but you think, "Hey, I'm here, I might as well see what else is out."  You're pretty much going to pick something up or not pick something up just based on what it looks like, aren't you?  The cover is the precursor to getting you to read the blurb.  If you've got a wonderful cover and a fantastic blurb that fills your potential reader with a burning question that OH MY GOD I MUST READ THIS BOOK AND FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS then hey presto, you've probably just made a sale.  Unless that person is using the bookshop as a showroom, but that's a different issue entirely.

Covers can also be extremely important for new authors.  Certain genres will have set styles, for example historical romance ala Kate Morton mostly feature soft portrait style close ups of women's face with cursive writing.  So if your book is marketed at people who like Kate Morton novels, then it's really easy to attract those people by having a cover that follows that sort of style.  Some examples:


I think either of these titles will appeal to lovers of Kate.  You can tell three things about them just by looking at them.  

1) They are historical.  Note the emphasis on different fashion styles and make up.
2) The main characters are women.  (Again, a different issue, but usually an indicator that the book is aimed at women.  Not necessarily though.  I'm sure men would love these books and Kate's if they read them.
3) There are *probably* no vampires anywhere in the plot.  

At a course I did on Saturday run by Natasha Lester, the point was made that covers are more likely to be appealing to a reader if they contain a human element.  This doesn't just apply to close ups of faces though. It means legs (a big trend in crime recently: see the covers for Tara Moss's Mak Vanderwall books), arms (like on Natasha's book What is Left over, After), lips, eyes, and controversially in the case of Tampa, things that look like other...erm... things.  This is just one blogger's interpretation, but I think this might come down to the fact that as readers and as humans, we are curious about other people's lives and other people's problems.  Even Cloudstreet, in which one of the protagonists was a house (or maybe an antagonist) had the silhouettes of children jumping off the pier on the front.  

Here's another cover where the location is central:

Deborah O'Brien has wonderful reviews on Goodreads, and the blurb of this book is enticing... so why was it so difficult to get readers in the bookshop where I work to pick it up?  

What do you think?  Is it just the lack of the human element?  Is it the void into which this cover seems to fall?  I think it may be a combination of the two.  I'm just not sure who or what the book is about.  All I am seeing is a pretty picture.  This cover isn't ugly: it's just not functional.

Here's a cover that really doesn't appeal to me at all:


This one does have a person on the cover, so what is it that bugs me so much?  Is it because I'm not sure if the man is sleeping or dead?  (Is it a book about a man who sleeps a lot?) Is it the lack of colour?  The colour blocking is reminiscent of Penguin Classics for customer-Paul; to him, it screams "pretentious".  The blurb promises hipsters, consumerism and contemporary art... so where are they?

This is the cover you see on Goodreads:


It's better, to me, although still not perfect... but you get the hipsters and consumerism, you get the debauchery, and in a way, you sort of think maybe it could be a modern The Great Gatsby.  

What do you think?  Which cover would you pick up?

What's your favourite book cover?

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Rejection... Is Sexy?

There are a lot of great writing reference books that I have my eye on at the moment, but if you've been in my bedroom ever, you know why I haven't been buying them.  (If you haven't been in it, let me paint you a picture.  Right now, I am sitting at my desk, which spans the top right hand corner of the room, diagonally opposite the door.  Directly to my right is a queue of books between some owl bookends which are theoretically my next reads.  On top of those are some recent acquisitions. Above the desk is a set of floating shelves that has TWO ROWS of books on each shelf, and behind me I have two Ikea Billy bookshelves which are in much the same state.  So yeah, I really do have a major case of tsundoku.)

Some of these reference books are:

* The Novel Cure (Text Publishing)- which is basically an almanac telling you what book to read to give you perspective on whatever ails you.  Now that's my kind of medicine.
* Why We Write- A collection of essays on the art of writing and the motivation behind it by some of America's best writers.

I was flicking through Why We Write today and I happened to come across a segment in one of the essays titled Rejection is Sexy.  And I thought to myself, hang on a moment here... I've come to know a lot about rejection in the last year and I don't really think SEXY is the word that springs to mind when I reminisce about it.  The writer (and this is awful but I didn't know who the person was when I did know their name, and now I can't remember it, so I'm sorry if they're reading this which I really doubt they are), went on to talk about the idea of rising to the challenge.  If you're not in it, you definitely don't win it sort of thing.  And about how if you're getting these rejections, you're still playing the game.  This means you can go along to writers' groups and talk about your rejection nightmares.  He cited a particularly nasty response, and how he loved being able to pull that one out while sharing war stories, and in a matter of fact sort of way just saying "How do you like them apples."

That's a really great attitude to have, and if you can have it, that's awesome, but you have to keep in mind that this guy is in the book because he is one of America's top novelists.  I'm just going to give you a moment to let that sink in.

He is one of America's top novelists.  

Excuse me if I am a little sceptical about whether or not he always felt that way, considering that he's now writing from the point of view of someone who not only beat the thousands of writers in that country, but got good enough to be called one of the top literary exports.

Now, I don't always cry into my bowl of ice cream or drink myself to sleep every time I get a rejection email but it doesn't make me want to run out and skip and pick daisies either.  I got one today- a no, sorry but good luck from the Carmel Bird prize- and even though I was a bit embarrassed not to have impressed Angela Meyer a bit more, I didn't instantly start hating everything about myself.  I consider this a win.  But I did feel a little less awesome than I had before I read that email.  Earlier in the year, I read a rejection email while I was at work.  That was a mistake  Never read any emails from publishers or competitions at work unless you want to be the work crybaby! 

So rejection is humbling, rejection is debilitating for a while, rejection makes you determined, rejection toughens your skin, and rejection makes you doubt yourself... but I don't think I will ever get as far as calling it sexy.

But they say the grass is always greener on the other side, so when I'm one of Australia's top novelists (ha!) I will let you know if that changes.