Monday, 29 September 2014

Making Time To Write

When I was working on the last draft of my novel-length project, Between the Sleepers, I was working four full days a week and writing 1000 words a night Sunday to Thursday as well as most of the day on Friday if I didn't have appointments.  I was also reading A LOT, and people kept asking me how I was managing it.

It's difficult to answer this because I think the true answer was I wasn't really managing it very well.  A lot of things probably didn't get done, for example laundry and exercise, and I was sleeping a lot less than I would have liked.  Now I'm getting ready to do it all again for hopefully the last time before I start submitting to publishers.

The key for me is enthusiasm.  If I can feel excited about writing then a daily word target of 1000 words is literally less than an hours work.  No one ever said the 1000 words had to be any good.  When I am redrafting, I work with the current copy printed out beside me and I type each page up again in a new word document, allowing myself to go off script when something isn't working or if a new idea grips me while I am reading it.  When I'm really loving what has been written, this is a breeze. These writing sessions are 50% typing practice and 50% patting myself on the back.  But when I can't stand what I've written, it's a lot harder. The opening of my novel is very sparse, I am realising, and now that I am trying to make it the absolute best it can be in one last draft, sitting down to write can be like strapping myself into the stocks to be laughed at while people throw tomatoes.  So tip number one?

1. Take advantage of writing sessions when enthusiasm is high!

which has a counter point of:

2. Give yourself permission to be feel down about your work, but remember that IT CAN BE FIXED.  Don't push yourself on days when you feel REALLY bad.

image found on Tara Moss's Facebook page

I found that having a routine was quite helpful.  From studying creative writing at university, my brain has been trained to be able to get on with work when it absolutely has to (although brand new work is a lot harder because you need the germ of an idea.)  This is really similar to an exercise that Dorothea Brande prescribes in her book Becoming A Writer in which she says you need to make an appointment with yourself to sit down and write at a particular time and keep the appointment no matter what.  Because I have a retail job where customers need me available, and because my home life requires me to fit in with other schedules, my writing appointment tends to be not so much time based as activities based, so for example I will say "After I have eaten dinner I will write 1000 words."  And most of the time I manage it.  I do find that showering etc. BEFORE dinner helps because I'm not thinking of all the things I have to do before I can sleep.  I write my 1000 words, clean my teeth, grab a book and go to bed with it.

3. Make a writing routine that works with your life, and then stick to it.

image found on Pinterest

On Fridays, this routine changes a little because I don't usually have to go to work.  I like to sleep in until past 7 am (GLORIOUS) and then go to the gym, where I listen to the New Yorker Fiction Podcast while I exercise.  Funnily enough, doing the exercise helps me feel awake during the day, even when my limbs are tired.  Sometimes I have appointments, like Chiropractor visits or getting my hair cut, but I try and keep these to the morning.  In the afternoon, I like to put a load of washing in the washing machine and write for the length of the wash cycle, which is 30 minutes.  Hang out washing, and repeat.  Lately, however, I have to be careful not to write whilst sitting on my bed, because I sometimes put the laptop aside to rest my eyes and end up sleeping for an hour...

4. Write around time based chores, like washing clothes or baking.

When I do a particularly good stint of writing, I like to celebrate, and the best way to do this is with something sweet!

5.  Reward good habits and good achievements.

image found on Pinterest

All this being said, it's early days of the new draft, so here's hoping I'll be able to stick to the same old routine.  Enough about me?  How do you make sure you have enough time to write?

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Book Review: The Ark by Annabel Smith

The Ark (Print Version)
Annabel Smith 
I own a copy.

In 2041, in the midst of a global resources shortage known as The Chaos, a renegade employee of SynBioTec decides that it is the best course of action to lock himself and 25 others inside a structure known as The Ark, a project that the parent company unwisely put him in charge of.  Hidden in Mt. Kosciuszko, The Ark is a seed bank which rivals the Millenium seed bank at Kew Gardens.  It requires botanists, futurologists, information security officers and many others beside to keep it running, and therefore Aidan Fox invites his employees and select members of their families to report to the Ark for its closure.

The Ark is a collection of their correspondence.  It tells the story of the end of the world, as we know it, through the points of view of several people who will survive it, at a terrible cost.  On one level, it is an opportunity to explore the possibilities of a world after fossil fuels expire, but on a much deeper level, it is (as Amanda Curtin said) 'A character-driven study of human behaviour under the extreme pressures of isolation, manipulation, and fear.'  It is an epistolary novel of a completely new kind, told through invented forms of digital communication; the dailemail, the blipp, the gopher, the headless horseman; each type of communication in itself telling the reader something about the state of mind of the character.  For example, in the second section of the book, the story is told through the eyes of Ava, the wife of one of the engineers.  Ava feels like an outsider from the start, and while she doesn't want to go back outside into the Chaos, she still has very strong connections to the outside world in the form of her sister Tillie, who was not invited to The Ark.  As Ava's trust in Aidan begins to waver, she goes from using Dailemail (like email, and able to be monitored by both SynBioTec AND Aidan) to using Gophers, to using Headless Horsemen, (Encrypted, anonymous digital communications developed to be used on secure severs originally by gangs and the Yakuza.)  These choices indicate to the reader that Ava is becoming increasingly paranoid.  Likewise, in section one, told from the point of view of SynBioTec CEO Kirk Longrigg, Aidan and Kirk communicate through Dailemails and Gophers respectively.  Aidan uses Dailes (as they are called) to indicate that he has nothing to hide, but when the men use Gophers, their communication is less polite and business like and they often resort to mud slinging.  In section 3 of the novel, the communication is less formal again, told through blog posts or Blasts written by Roscoe, the son of one of the Futurologists.  These choices constitute part of the setting of the novel, also, as because this novel is primarily told through dialogue, most of the information about the 'setting' of each scene must come from the context of it's transmission.

Despite the hurdles obviously presented by a dialogue based novel, Annabel Smith does a remarkable job of creating a world, and also creating drama and tension.  She is able to shift perspective with ease, never once jolting you out of the flow of events.  Each of her characters represents a piece of the puzzle, and in particular Ava and Roscoe are instrumental in describing the environment in their letters to the outside world-- although Roscoe's dialogue is written in a parody of modern text speak which even I had difficulty deciphering at times. (For instance, I could not work out for sure what Petched or Tching were supposed to mean.)  As readers, we are presented with a stark and clerical space, lit by artificial light, where all concepts of time become largely irrelevant and basic privacies are stripped away for the sake of expedience.  I have been told that a lot of the scene setting can also be enhanced by interaction with the book online, through the website and through the digital book.  The digital book allows the reader to be an Ark Inhabitant, and participate in the discussion.

In Book 1 of the novel, which takes place in 2041, right after the closure of the Ark, 4 different characters replay the same set of 12 months, each in their own words.  It is extremely interesting to see different points of view on events, for example Ava's breakdown, which is her whole plot, but a single sentence in the mind of Roscoe, who spends his time trying to show solidarity with his internet friends who are living rough through the Chaos.  The cross section of characters shown to tell their stories in this section is interesting, because arguably none of them could be seen to be the major players in the book, and none of them (barring Roscoe) really play significant parts in the action of Book 2, told through more group based communication.  However, their motivations are much clearer than the other characters because we have got to know them so well in Book 1.  Book 2 is two years later, in 2043, when people have become used to their living arrangements and relationships have started to change.  The major plot point of this section is the discovery of a relationship between Aidan and Paige.  Paige's husband, Felipe, confronts Aidan, beginning a chain of events which calls into question the structure of society within The Ark.

My only niggle with this novel is that I feel as if it ends too soon.  I have so many questions.  The book begins with a newspaper article from 2093, saying that the Ark is uncovered accidentally and people are found living inside.  There are people in there who have been born in there, third generations etc.  I would have loved to have seen what the state of affairs was after the Ark was changed by the events of Book 2, and I am dying to know which characters got together in the aftermath.  Isadora and Louis?  Leilani and Kristjan?  (Or Leilani and Roscoe?  Roscoe mentions a biologist he has the hots for but the name is obscured.)  The Chaos itself could constitute another book entirely.

If you loved Wool  by Hugh Howey, definitely give this one a go.

Four stars.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Book Review: Station Eleven

Station Eleven
Emily St John Mandel
Picador (Book courtesy the publisher)

Told through multiple perspectives, centring around a famous actor who dies on the first page of the novel, Station Eleven is the story of what happens to the people left after a deadly virus wipes out most of the world's population and leaves us with no internet, electricity, or modes of travel other than walking.  It is an odd mix of Peter Heller's The Dog Stars and Shakespeare, and as the travelling Shakespearian actors who perform in the settlements say, Shakespeare is the only playwright for the end of the world, because he was so much defined by the plague.  What exactly this means is lost on some of the younger players.

On the opening night of King Lear, Arthur Leander dies on stage, apparently of a heat attack.  A member of the audience jumps up on stage and attempts to resuscitate him.  This audience member is a paramedic named Jeevan Choudary but he used to be a paparazzi, and this is not his first encounter with Arthur.  Watching from the wings is young Kristen Raymonde, a child actress.  Both Kirsten and Jeevan survive the epidemic, and their lives are changed forever, but as they struggle towards something that they can call home, they continually return to thoughts of Arthur and the impact that he had on their lives, unable to separate the death of this man and the horrifying end of the world that happened that same night.

The book switches between being a post-civilization action novel, with people being kidnapped on the road, and evil prophets, and being a complex drama about human relationships.  It is compelling, well plotted and peopled with likeable characters, but I cannot help feeling like it doesn't quite do enough to separate itself from the myriad other novels that have explored the collapse of human society before it.  The addition of the Travelling Symphony, who go around putting on Shakespeare plays and performing concertos is lovely, and oddly seems to make sense but it's not quite enough to make this book stunning, which it certainly has the potential to be.  However, I did enjoy reading it.
I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of the mysterious comic book series, owned by Kirsten and created by Arthur's first wife, although they never discover this connection along with the reader.  A little bit of dramatic irony never hurt anyone, and it is distinctively Shakespearian in its use of coincidence!  The comic books serve as a system of meaning and understanding the world in the absence of anything else to understand it by, and for Kirsten it means hope.  For the prophet, it is more like the edict behind religious fundamentalism.

I gave this book three stars.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Book Review: Penelope

Rebecca Harrington
Vintage Books

How to make friends at college, according to Penelope's mother:  Don't be too enthusiastic, don't talk to people who seem to be getting annoyed, and for heaven's sake stop playing tetris on your phone at parties."  All good advice, but it doesn't seem to help Penelope much, as from the moment she arrives at Harvard, it seems as if she's doomed not to fit in.  From her attraction to pretentious German men in wrinkled suits to her obsession with bringing up the infamous car seat story (she sat in one until she was in grade four, and she thinks this makes her interesting), Penelope is not 'normal'.  She is in fact rather extraordinary.  How she manages to pass college, or indeed if she does at all, is not dealt with, because Penelope's loneliness seems to stem primarily from her lack of urgency when it comes to studying for college exams and assignments.  From the outside perspective, the reader is shown the hectic, often extremely inauthentic world of college dorms, where people never say what they mean, or if they do, it's completely unbelievable to the normal human ear.  And yet, to everyone there, it is normal to go to Med School talks if you're not a Med Student, and normal to kiss ass to get into elite clubs for rich people, and normal to drop out of a play near the end of rehearsals because you have far too much work to do.  (Although fair enough, the play was Caligula and the director was INSANE.)

Penelope is a quirky, funny book that is reminiscent of the later seasons of Gilmore Girls.  Many readers on Goodreads seem to have found the heroine annoying, but aside from her consistent repetition of the car seat thing, I actually liked her.  She was weird in an endearing way, probably trained to be that way through habitual social estrangement, and an excellent pair of eyes through which to laugh at the Ivy League world.  From the hilariously corny Teacher's Assistants to the stupidly named rich kids who used one another horribly, to Penelope's anarchist roommate Lan and her stray cat Raymond (my favourites), this book probably could happen in real life, and it probably could happen to you.  I loved it.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

On the Launch of the Ark

Last night, I was herded into an elevator with several other women, guarded by a woman dressed all in black who would not smile at us.  When we arrived at our destination, we were informed by a man in a suit that we had been sealed inside The Ark for the protection of ourselves and also for the protection of the seed bank created by the National Arboreal Protection Agency.  I should have been frightened, but instead I was delighted.

This was book launch performance art at it's best, a chance for attendees to physically inhabit the world of Annabel Smith's brand new book, The Ark, which made its way into the world and into cyberspace yesterday.  (Review to come.)  The Ark is a multi-platform experience which allows readers of the digital format to participate in the story through an accompanying app.  It is an epistolary novel of a new sort, told in emails, memos and text messages, with clear sub-cultures forming as the tale goes on.  But this is not a review of the book.  This post is just a congratulations.

To Annabel:  All your hard work has come to fruition!  It is amazing what you have achieved, and I cannot wait to read it.  It was wonderful to come to your launch and play pretend with you last night.

If you want to get involved there are several ways.

You can:

Buy the book online.  (You can also do this by clicking check out the website.)

Buy the physical book in a physical bookstore.  (Copies available at Bookcaffe Swanbourne from this Monday, as well as other reputable establishments!  If you spot some, let me know in the comments.)

Check out the website.

Follow Annabel on Twitter

Like Annabel's author page on Facebook

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Book Review: The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go

The Steady Running of the Hour
Justin Go
Allen and Unwin

I think by now it might be pretty obvious that I like historical fiction novels of a certain type, and about a certain era.  Sometimes I see a cover that has been designed to evoke this genre and I don't even need to see the blurb.  I want to read it.  I blame Kate Morton for this, because she writes the best historical fiction epics I have ever read, and all the covers remind me of hers.  So when I saw The Steady Running of the Hour, I knew it would be right up my alley because it looks like this:

I'm also writing about the period between the wars (again) and so it felt good to immerse myself in a book of this time.  There are so many books out there about world war two, but when it comes to fiction, I've not read a lot that grabbed me about world war one, aside from a short story about Colette's cat which I found in the collection Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey.

The Steady Running of the Hour is the story of Tristan, a Californian man who upon graduating college, in the interim when he's trying to decide what to do next, gets a phone call from a law firm in London who say they represent a considerable trust and there is new evidence that Tristan might in fact be the heir to this money.  The catch is, he has to find something to prove that his great grandmother was not Eleanor Grafton, but in fact her sister, Imogen Soames-Andersson, who went missing in 1916.  Tristan is intrigued and so he heads to London and begins a historical treasure hunt of sorts, following a trail of letters between Imogen and Ashley, the man who has left her the money.  Interspersed with the tale of Tristan's hunt is the story of Imogen and Ashley themselves.  They meet in 1916 at a lecture about alpinism, the practice of mountain climbing, in which Ashley is interested.  Imogen simply loves knowledge.  Immediately they are attracted to one another, but Ashley leaves for France in six days (there is a war going on after all).  They conspire to spend the days together, and realise that they have a deep connection that is something like love.  On the last night, they sleep together.  Ashley leaves for France and is injured, but the army reports him dead.  Imogen is distraught, and when the error is corrected, she heads to France to find him and tell him that she is carrying his child.  She begs him to leave the army, to desert, and when he refuses, she disappears.  When Ashley is killed attempting to reach the summit of Mt Everest in 1924, Imogen does not come forward to collect the trust.  What happens in between?  What becomes of the child?  Is Imogen Tristan's great-grandmother?  You'll have to read it and find out.

It was hard to get into this book at first, because Tristan is a fairly apathetic guy, in that he doesn't think he really cares about anything.  It's hard to follow a character with no drive or motivation.  It's not until really the middle of the book that he clarifies he's not doing it for the money but for the mystery, but his push to reach the deadline before the trust passes in to be donated to charity does indicate that he thinks having that money might be nice.  Tristan seems to care a lot about history but there is little mention of what he has studied.  Nor does his quest lead him to a decision about what he might like to do with his future, although it does push him outside his comfort zone as he travels across Europe, meeting strangers, partying and poring over records.  He seems to have prodigious luck with convincing archivists to let him look at material, but you have to forgive the book this anachronism because who would want to read about someone who is not allowed to look at archives??  In terms of plotting, I would have to say the book is extremely well done.  Go is a master of leaving a chapter just at the point where the reader thinks they will discover something important, making this large book quite a fast read because it's so hard to put down!  The war scenes are impeccable (a warning... don't read about the trenches whilst eating!) and on the whole, the story of Ashley and Imogen is far more interesting than Tristan's story.  That is usually the case with this kind of book though.

I really connected with this novel, because it achieved a lot of the things I have been trying to do with my own book.  It also made me think about historical documents and the ways we leave our mark on the world now.  Sixty years from now, will anyone be trying to piece together my life using the documents I leave behind?  I should probably try to write in my journal more often if so!

Small nitpick, but I was really put off by the choice to use dashes to denote speech rather than quotation marks.  It looked sloppy and interrupted the flow for me.  That's a method that lends itself to a slower, more capital L literary read, if you have to use it at all.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Book Review: The Minnow by Diana Sweeney

The Minnow
Diana Sweeney
Text Publishing (Published 2014)

The Minnow won the 2014 Text Prize, an award which seeks the best in unpublished writing for Young Adults.  Previous winners include the ever-talented AJ Betts, whose novel Zac and Mia sold like gangbusters at this year's Brisbane Writers Festival.  In The Minnow we join 14 year old Tom (Tomboy/ Holly) who is sleeping rough after the infamous Mothers Day flood killed her family along with half the town.  Her only surviving relative is Nana, but as Nana is in a nursing home, Tom lives in the boatshed with Bill, a man who used to pal around with her father.  Bill is a bushman Lothario of sorts, and he and Tom finance their fishing by shoplifting; an arrangement in which Bill distracts the shopkeeper by having sex with her in 'ingenious' ways so that no other customers will notice, and Tom pockets the things they need.  Bizarrely, the shopkeeper seems to be aware of what is happening but seems to greatly dislike her husband so much that she turns a blind eye.  Everything changes the day that Bill realises that Tom is actually a girl, and they sleep together.  Tom becomes pregnant with the Minnow, with whom she is able to converse.  The Minnow is insightful and sometimes prescient, and is not the only weird thing that Tom sees or hears.  She also speaks to fish, and sometimes hears them reply in the voices of her dead relatives, and she can speak to the ghost of her grandfather, a man she never met.

As Tom tries to negotiate the pitfalls of being a homeless, pregnant teen in a small town, things are made more complicated by the disappearance of Bill and the subsequent attempts by local law enforcement to question her.  Tom, now living with her best friend Jonah, seems to cope fairly easily with the pregnancy, despite a few medical scares, and the question of what Bill is really up to seems to drag the narrative along... but then is never really answered.  But that's not the point of the story.  This is a story about moving on.  Becoming pregnant, and talking through what is going on with her Minnow, allows Tom to step out of the suspended animation that she seems to have been living in since the flood.  She is forced to re-enter her life- go back to school, talk to her old friends, accept that her Nana is getting older.  It is a story about how we move on from great tragedy, and despite it being incredibly strange and sometimes a little too out there, this is a book that intelligent teenagers are really going to enjoy.  It has echoes of Friday Brown by Vikki Wakefield, another Text publication, and at times reminds me of the clarity of voice in John Marsden books.

It's a short read, but a worthwhile one that I would recommend for readers 14+

Friday, 12 September 2014

Book Review: Past the Shallows by Favel Parrett

Past the Shallows
Favel Parrett
Hachette Australia (Published 2012)

Past the Shallows is one of those Australian books which becomes an instant classic, spreading by word of mouth and by media alike, propelled along by its sheer perfection until it sits comfortably on the best-seller list.  For as long as it has been on the market, people have been telling me that I have to read it.  And really, now that I have it seems absurd that I hadn't before.  Like Jasper Jones or The Shark Net, this coming-of-age story is quintessentially Australian.  It follows three brothers, Harry, Miles and Joe, who live in a fishing town in Tasmania with their father who is an abalone fisherman.  Joe does not live at home any more.  Every day, Miles goes out on the boat with his father, but Harry gets seasick and so he stays home.

As the book progresses, a picture starts to form of a broken home.  Years earlier, the boys' mother was killed in a car accident, and their Uncle Nick disappeared.  Their father is angry, violent and drinks too much, and his friends and crewmates are no different.  For the boys, there is no respite.  Their grandfather is dead, and their aunty helps when she can but she is stern and frugal and not much fun.  Harry is a happy go lucky child, and in his lone wanderings about the town, he meets a kelpie pup named Jake who lives with the local hermit.  At first Harry is afraid of this man because of what the others say about him, but soon he and Harry form a kind of wordless friendship which provides Harry with a safe place to go.  Miles, a little older than Harry, tries to protect his younger brother from the evils of their life, but he is only a child himself.

In sparing prose, Parrett is able to encompass the fragility of youth as it wars against the hardship of life in this town, and this family.  Her characters are vivid and the boys, in particular Harry, are loveable.  This book is reminiscent of Tim Winton's Dirt Music, but lacks the hard-boiled cynicism of Winton's attitude to people.  Despite everything, the book shows a capacity for hope, and for happiness, and for escape, and it is both heart-warming and heart-breaking all at once.

I will be meeting the lovely Favel Parrett when she does a few bookshop events later this month.  You can check out her Facebook page for more.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Crashing Down by Kate McCaffrey

Crashing Down
Kate McCaffrey
Fremantle Press 2014

Kate McCaffrey's previous young adult novels have covered some pretty heavy subjects: her first novel Destroying Avalon exposed the sickening reality of cyber bullying, and her follow up, In Ecstasy, documented the hard core drug taking tendencies of certain teen sects in suburban Western Australia.  In this new book, her fourth, McCaffrey juggles themes of teen pregnancy, adolescents injured in car accidents due to 'hooning' and the mounting pressure of year 12.  Her protagonist, Lucy, is an excellent student and seems to have it all.  But her relationship with boyfriend Carl is cooling.  After an argument in which Lucy believes they have split up, Carl gets into his car and speeds off despite being under the influence of cannabis, and as a result he is badly injured in a car accident.  When he wakes from his coma, he does not remember the break up with Lucy, and instead asks for her, making it harder for Lucy to sever the ties for real because she feels so responsible for him.  To make matters worse, Lucy begins to suspect that she may be pregnant.

This is a difficult subject to tackle, and while McCaffrey has clearly put a lot of work into it, I couldn't connect with the characters' separate dilemmas.  Stylistically, the book had a tendency to tell rather than show us what Lucy was feeling, and she herself seemed to be a vessel for the complicated moral decisions that the plot necessitated.  While she was immediately likeable, dressing for a party with her friends and not letting her 'cool' boyfriend dictate her life, she quickly became flat for me.  Other characters, like her friend Lydia, were hard to relate to for other reasons.  Lydia, for example, is portrayed as 'the ditzy one' but at times she was too hard to believe...  what 17 year old gets to that age seriously thinking the female sex organ is called a 'virginia'?  

Despite this, the plot structure works nicely and if you can allow yourself not to be distracted by characterisation, the story flows well enough to make this a read in one sitting book.  Lucy's relationships with her parents and Carl's parents provide excellent conflict, allowing the story to be less straightforward than it seems.  It is quite a short book, however, and I would have liked to have seen the court case over Lucy's decision to end her pregnancy receive more attention.  As it stands, Lucy worries about it for a chapter, and it is dismissed in almost a paragraph; after, while she feels apprehensive about seeing Carl's parents, she does not seem to be dealing with depression or anxiety over the matter, which might have been more realistic.

I loved the character of JD, who provided a bittersweet foil to the ever declining Carl.  JD serves as a reminder to the graduating class about the accident, which like in many real environments, manages to transgress social 'barriers' and makes the group as a whole feel unified.  This is also nicely illustrated by Lucy's growing friendship with Ben and Big Al, who previously she had not seen much of.  Carl himself, it was hard to judge.  While the effects of his head injury on his behaviour were certainly confronting and upsetting for the reader and for Lucy, we did not get as big of a sense of him before the accident to compare it to... only really his bad behaviour at the dance and a few flashbacks.  The flashbacks were intended to make him sympathetic; for example, his not pressuring Lucy to have sex; but for me they made him seem like he had an ulterior motive, and I don't know why that was.

I think my verdict on the book is that it's not for me, but I can see this being incredibly successful with the high school reading market for which it is intended.

I gave it two stars.