Sunday, 30 December 2018

Most Anticipated: 2019

Posted with the full knowledge that this list will grow and I won't get to all of them...

Gingerbread - Helen Oyeyemi 

Invisible Boys - Holden Sheppard (winner of the 2018 TAG Hungerford Award)

Priory of the Orange Tree- Samantha Shannon

Dreamers - Karen Thompson Walker

99% Mine - Sally Thorne

The French Photographer - Natasha Lester

The Starless Sea - Erin Morgenstern

City of Girls - Elizabeth Gilbert

Sweet Sorrow - David Nicholls

The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers - Kerri Turner

Zebra and Other Stories - Debra Adelaide

Room for a Stranger - Melanie Cheng

Devil's Ballast - Meg Caddy

The Blue Rose- Kate Forsyth

The True Story of Maddie Bright - Mary Rose MacColl

A Thousand Ships - Natalie Haynes

Anna of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait - Alison Weir

[There's also one other rather exciting book that I'm excited to see released in 2019... my own! It was announced in the most recent edition of the Margaret River Press newsletter that I was one of three WA debut authors who will have a short story collection out in 2019, as part of an emerging writers program. There is still much work to do, and I have no details like release date or title, but as soon as I am able, I will let you all know...]

In other news, I counted how many unread books were in my apartment this morning and... well I don't want to commit it to the forever-ness of the internet but it was less than I expected but more than a normal person. So reducing that number will be one of my main goals of 2019. The plus-side to working in a library is... every day I have access to borrowing books FOR FREE, so I will be taking advantage of that, and only acquiring books occasionally, when I know the author or collect that author's books or, you know, if they have really stunning covers.  I don't know about you all, but the 'due date' for a library book does make me think seriously about whether or not I really want to read something or whether I am just being a hoarder. Downside is, sometimes all the books I have put on hold arrive at the same damn time...

Anyway, 2019 looks like it will be a great year for both reading and writing, and I am looking forward to talking books with you all. If you think I've missed a book that I need to read in 2019, do let me know, as I love me a good list and I'll be making a wish list in my brand new journal, which I am currently setting up. Yay.

Happy new year!

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Book Review: Love and Ruin

Love and Ruin
Paula McLain
Fleet Publishing (Distributed by Hachette Australia) 2018
(I was sent a copy by the publisher in exchange for an honest review)

Paula McLain's first big novel was The Paris Wife and when I first started in bookselling, it was the novel everyone was talking about. Following the years that Hemingway et al spent in Paris from the point of view of his first wife, Hadley Richardson, it shed some light onto the larger than life literary figure and gave some agency to a woman who was otherwise a footnote on his Wikipedia page. I don't remember many details from the book, other than that I loved it.

Both of McLain's recent novels, The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun have been criticised for their fawning, simpering heroines, but in Love and Ruin, McLain has Hemingway's third wife, Martha Gellhorn take the spotlight. Gellhorn was a respected writer and war correspondent in her own right, and this novel gently navigates the frustrations that she must have felt in trying to balance her love for a great man with a fragile ego, and her own attempts to do authentic work and be taken seriously as more than just Mrs Hemingway. Though this novel is historical, it is a theme that feels very 2018, particularly scenes such as when Martha receives a 'notice' (presumably a review for one of her books) that talks about her physical features more than it does about her work, and another scene in which a reviewer laments that Gellhorn's writing is becoming more and more Hemingway-esque.

It is no small feat to be able to write a love story in which the love interest behaves badly. Readers expect to want to cheer for the couple to make it, but as Martha's career takes off, and Hemingway's ego takes over, she finds herself wanting to travel into war zones again, to have a break from domesticity and ego-soothing, and to do something about the terrible injustices in the world, which Martha Gellhorn in this novel seemed to feel deeply. McLain is also gentle in her portrayal of Gellhorn's relationship with Hemingway's three sons, Bumby (son of Hadley), Gigi and Patrick (sons of Pauline Pfeifer, or Fife as she is called by Hemingway throughout the book). It is interesting to me that Pauline Pfiefer only appears in the novel as a minor character-- perhaps I am being led by my attachment to Alison Weir's novels about the 6 wives of Henry the Eighth, but it seems strange that she should not have her own book the way that Hadley and Martha have had.

As for the style of the novel, McLain's writing at times does have a hint of the Hemingway to it, with its strong, declarative sentences, but there is something more feminine, and more readable about the book.  I could have done without the many incidences where Hemingway and Gellhorn kissed, and she exclaimed that she 'could not breathe'. It was the only overly sentimental thing about what was otherwise a record of their romance, courtship, marriage and its breakdown.

This is a timely novel in its female-led rewriting of a celebrated literary man, but I fear that it will pass under the radar-- a shame, because it is a book that surpasses The Paris Wife in its writing and its subject matter. While I will never forget the way that The Paris Wife swept me up, because of Love and Ruin, I will now never forget Martha Gellhorn, and that is a far greater feat for this novel.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Books of the Year: 2018

It's been a spectacularly good reading year.

Not only did I have a number of friends releasing their debut books, I also found a few new favourite authors in surprising places.

I won't be doing a 'Top Ten Books of 2018'-- reading is highly subjective, and my enjoyment is often tied to factors like where and when I'm coming to the book, and what sort of mood I am in-- but instead, in no particular order, I present some of the books that have stayed with me this year; books that I recommend to all of you.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

Circe by Madeline Miller 

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

The Yellow House by Emily O'Grady

How to be Famous by Caitlin Moran

The Unexpected Education of Emily Dean by Mira Robertson

The Victorian and the Romantic by Nell Stevens

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

The Fragments by Toni Jordan

I'd also like to give a special shout out to a few friends of mine who released their amazing debuts this year.

The Sisters' Song by Louise Allan

Dustfall by Michelle Johnston

You Belong Here by Laurie Steed

Friday, 30 November 2018

10 Things 2018 Has Taught Me About Being a Writer

1. Writing and Publishing are pursuits that require extraordinary patience.

Writing your book takes as long as it takes. You cannot rush it. You can be disciplined, and have a plan, and work to your deadline if you have one, but in the end, you and your book have to be 'ready' before they will find their place on a shelf. Your first draft might take you two years, or it might only be four months. You might have to write sixteen drafts, not counting any redrafting that is going to take place after someone agrees to publish you. It is extremely rare that you will be able to write something, polish it once and then have someone offer you a publishing deal. (If this does happen to you, well done, and what is your secret please?) Likewise, pitching your book to agents and publishers takes time; time spent preparing submissions and writing synopses, researching who and where to send things to, and then waiting for responses. In short, you are going to have to be patient. Try to forget that you are waiting for emails if you can. I can't, and have been known to check my email every half hour on the hour when I am waiting for responses.

2. The most important asset is a supportive community.

We are lucky in Perth. The community is small, and pretty much everyone is warm and generous with their time and advice and wants to see others succeed. It can be incredibly buoying to spend time with other writers, whether that be in a small informal writing group, at events, over coffee. Plus, spending time building up the confidence of others can really put things into perspective for you. Every time I chat with another writer who is having a crisis of faith and struggling with their writing, I think back later about all the kind things I have said to them about giving themselves time and cutting themselves some slack and about the writing itself being the most important part and I think "Why can't I apply this same sort of thinking to myself." Positivity begets positivity, and creativity multiplies in much the same way. If you can, try to spend time chatting about writing and ideas with someone who inspires you on a regular basis, then come home and write while you're still experiencing that inspirational high.

3. At the end of the day, you have to have written something you are proud of.

I'm not going to be on my deathbed one day stressing about a bad review, but if I rush to publish my book when it's not yet fit to be published, I'm sure I'll regret that. I need to be as happy with anything I publish as I possibly can be. I have to have written something that I enjoyed writing, and something that I stand by. Something that I would be proud to talk about at a Writers' Festival. Something I would be proud to have one of my favourite authors read.

4. Every writer is special and no one is.

Think about how many hundreds of submissions publishers receive a year. A month even. Every manuscript has been crafted by a writer who has poured their soul into their work, given up social occasions, possibly skipped meals to write. Every single manuscript is special. Every single writer is special, because they've done the work, finished the thing, and had the guts to submit it. Publishing is competitive. The Australian market is oversupplied with manuscripts to choose from. I'm sure in some cases, more debut authors are submitting manuscripts than Australian books are actually being purchased. It may seem like every other month, publishing is touting the arrival of another 'Chosen One', the hit debut of the year, but once, that person was another manuscript on a busy publisher's desk. It's all just marketing. Leave that to the marketing department. Be realistic. Give your book the best possible chance you can, and then be a grown up if it's a no. That doesn't mean that you can't cry or be upset or disappointed. But don't go writing terrible reviews on that publisher's books out of spite either.

5. It's important to celebrate the little victories.

Hitting 50 000 words. Finishing something. Submitting something. These are all huge, and you deserve a reward for achieving them. Don't use awards, shortlists, getting published as your only benchmarks for how 'good' you are. Just writing something is a big deal. How many people never finish a novel, or never even start?

6. A disciplined approach is your best friend.

Ever made it to a six day in a row writing streak and realised that writing your book is getting easier? Ever taken a week off and discovered it's really hard to pick up where you left off? Everyone writes differently, but if you make a plan that works for you (half an hour a night maybe) you train your brain to work when it's work time.

7. Buy (or borrow from a library) debut books and shout out about the ones you love.

There are some amazing writers publishing in Australia, and many of the best books I have read this year have been by first time authors. Spread a little goodwill, and let your friends know about new authors you've discovered. Recommend them for your book club; tweet about them; review them on Goodreads. Reading new books in your genre will help you get a sense of what publishers are interested in, will inspire and entertain you, and will give you that warm fuzzy feeling that lets you know you're helping out a fellow writer.

8. Other people's success does not take anything away from you.

It's okay to be disappointed when you're not shortlisted for something. But it's also okay to be happy for other writers when they are. In fact, I recommend it. It's better for your mental health!

I really like that quote, "Equal rights for others does not mean fewer rights for you. It's not pie."(Attribution unknown.)  I think that applies here in a similar sort of way.  There will be other opportunities! And remember, we're a community. When one of us succeeds, we all do.

9. Publishing has trends but if you try to write to one, you'll probably miss it.

Trends in publishing move fast. Remember vampire novels? Literary rewrites with zombies in them? Write the book you'd most like to read first and foremost. Who knows, maybe your book will be the one that starts the next trend. If you manage to, well done! Again, this sort of thing is best left to marketing types to figure out later. They're the experts. Let them do their thing when the time comes and focus on writing a book that you would be super excited to read if you weren't its author.

10. The only way to ever truly be out of the running is to take yourself out of it.

You might not get this book published, or the next one, or the one after that, but as long as you keep writing books, you are still in with a chance. You have options. You can self publish. You can write something else. You can rewrite your book for the eleven-hundredth time. The only difference between writers who eventually get published and writers who don't is that the writers who don't stop trying. 

If 2018 has been a trying year for you as a writer, you're not alone. I hope that good things are around the corner for you-- for us all. Keep your head high, and keep doing what you love.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Book Review: The Botanist's Daughter by Kayte Nunn

Anyone who knows me knows that I am all about the historical fiction these days, and if it contains a duel narrative, even better. No one does this genre better than the three Kates; Morton, Forsyth and Atkinson. It is Kate Morton's work which is most strongly called to mind by the book for today's review, and I'm not just saying that because of the similarities between the cover of this book and the cover of The Clockmaker's Daughter.  They even have similar titles!

So today, I'll be talking about the book that I spend most of my weekend curled up reading, namely The Botanist's Daughter by Kayte Nunn. Kayte Nunn is the author of two previous novels, but The Botanist's Daughter is her first foray into the historical fiction genre. The novel is a dual narrative historical fiction (again, something Kate Morton does incredibly well), following the story of Anna, a young woman who inherits her grandmother's house in Sydney, and the story of Elizabeth, a young woman living in Victorian Cornwall who is tasked with a dangerous botanical adventure by her famous botanist father. When Anna gets workers in to her grandmother's home to do some work, they discover a diary and a mysterious box, containing seeds, jewellery and sketches. Anna, who has been drifting through her days since a heavily hinted at personal tragedy, feels especially lost at the loss of her Granny Gus, and is compelled to discover the significance of the box and what secrets it might give up to her. The diary tells the story of a young woman named Marguerite, who travelled to Australia in the later half of the 19th Century with an infant named Lily; Anna is desperate to find out what connection Margeurite holds to the contents of the ornate box she has found, and what connection, if any, there is to her grandmother and her house. Meanwhile, the reader is also being told the story of Elizabeth Trebethick, a talented botanical artist in her own right and the youngest daughter of Sir John Trebethick, reknowned botanist. Sir John has lately been preoccupied with a quest for a dangerous Chilean plant known as the Devil's Trumpet, and he is adamant that he should be the one to find it and bring it back to the Kew Gardens instead of his dangerous rival, Damien Chegwidden, who is so ruthless to make his fortune as a plant hunter, he once stabbed Sir John unprovoked. Elizabeth promises her father that she will go to Chile in his place, and so she and her lady's maid set off to Valparaiso about a boat, Elizabeth travelling under her mother's maiden name to avoid catching Chegwidden's attention and arousing suspicion.

The novel is paced nicely which makes for a quick and absorbing read, though at times the author's attempts to create cliffhanger endings tended to be somewhat jarring. Generally, the chapters alternated between Anna's and Elizabeth's points of view, though at times we got two of one or the other, depending on what point we were in each narrative arc. The two stories complemented one another nicely in this regard.  I was somewhat disappointed, however, with the ways that that stories turned out.

Nunn has created two inspiring heroines, who use their respective quests as a means of overcoming grief and finding a new direction for their lives. The ways that their stories end up leave me unconvinced that they will achieve this (and in one case, I am convinced of the opposite, but you'd have to read the book to find out why.) At times, Elizabeth's quest had me thinking of Elizabeth Gilbert's novel The Signature of All Things. I would have liked for her story to have been more fantastical than it was-- there was a sense that the author was holding back and trying not to be too cliche with her twists, but she could have stood to put in a few more. The ending of Elizabeth's story was sad, and unfulfilling, and yes, realistic. Anna's story balanced this out nicely, and there was a sense of history coming full circle, though the closing lines of the novel left me a little confused.

There are the makings of a great historical fiction writer in these pages, but unfortunately this book did not totally live up to the expectations I had for it. I still felt absorbed by it and read it non stop for two days, but ultimately feel there were things about it that I wanted done differently. Perhaps in this case, I was not the ideal reader for this book.

I gave it three and a half stars.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Book Review: The Helpline by Katherine Collette

When mathematician, Germaine Johnson, gets a job at the Deepdene Council answering calls on the Senior Citizens Helpline, she has no idea what she's gotten herself in to. Right away, she finds herself in the middle of a clash between the local golf course and the Senior Citizens Centre, and when she's given a special project by the mayor herself, she throws herself into sorting out the Senior Citizens Committee, and their troublemaking President, Celia Brown.

Germaine is more comfortable with numbers and spreadsheets than she is with people, but she soon finds herself having to navigate a number of new relationships in order to get along at her new job.

Whether it's with Eva, the co worker who spends more time worrying about keeping up the supply of biscuits in the staff room than actually answering calls; with Jack, the IT consultant who wears shorts and keeps asking Germaine to have lunch; with Jin Jin, a Japanese student who lives in Germaine's building; or with Don, the owner of the Golf Course, who reminds Germaine of a certain disgraced Sudoku Champion; Germaine is out of her depth when it comes to friendships. And in any case, she's much happier on her own, isn't she?

This sweet, funny, feel-good book will have you staying up way past your bedtime to get it read in a single sitting. With echoes of smash hits like The Rosie Project and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, The Helpline is sure to be a book club favourite in no time. Collette's skill in writing her cast of characters means that this story hits you right in the feels. It's a classic story of the underdog, with a twist in that its protagonist is quirky, a little dorky, and super smart. Her lack of self awareness makes for just the right amount of dramatic irony. This is, to date, the only book with mathematical charts in it that I have actually enjoyed, and I am going to be recommending it to all of my friends.

Five stars!

Monday, 19 November 2018

Book Review: The Fragments by Toni Jordan

Text Publishing, 2018

A stunning literary mystery set between 1938 New York and 1986 Brisbane. 

Standing in line for an exhibit on the life and work of novelist, Inga Karlsson, Caddie Walker meets a woman who seems to know more than is possible to know about Karlsson’s famous lost work. Caddie begins a quest for answers- who is this woman? What is her connection to Inga? And does she know who murdered Inga and her publisher all those years ago? 

Her research leads her to Jamie Ganivet, a rare books dealer who gave up on Karlsson scholarship after a run in with Professor Philip Carmichael, who just happens to be Caddie’s ex boyfriend. 

Told in alternating chapters, including Caddie’s present and Inga’s past, The Fragments is a fascinating mystery that defies genre, and will delight book lovers everywhere. 

Toni Jordan is one of my favourite authors of all time. I remember my Mum coming home one day in 2008 (my final year of high school, and the year I began seriously 'working on my novel') and she told me that she'd heard an author interviewed on the radio. She said the book sounded interesting, and she thought I might like it. 

This is something that my Mum does, by the way. In fact, all of my family does it. Anything writing related, they tell me about it. They keep clippings from papers, and they send me links to podcasts. If it's writing related, it's sent my way, and it's really very sweet.

But that day, the book in question was Addition, the first book by Toni Jordan. She bought me a copy not long after, or perhaps I bought one for myself (but more likely she did I think), and I read it. I thought it was wonderful. It wasn't until Nine Days came out four years later, though, that Toni Jordan became one of my favourite authors. I thought to myself reading that book, here is an author who can write history. It feels real and it's not too fluffy or overly romanticised. She just gets it. 

The Fragments is Toni Jordan's fifth book, but it's a pretty close second for my favourite of all her works. It has a bit of everything I like-- the 1930s, publishing, a mystery, a missing manuscript, a bookshop or two, and a love interest with an interest in old and rare manuscripts. For the entire time that I was reading this book, I was transported. I could feel the Brisbane heat. My only complaint is that the book was not longer, but isn't that the quote? If a book is well written, it is always too short? 

I can't wait to see what Toni Jordan will turn her hand to next. I am sure it too will be surprising and delightful. 

Sunday, 28 October 2018

The Aftermath of Being Busy

Isn't it funny the way that when you're busy, you long for a free day to do nothing-- then, when that free day comes, often, you can't think of what to do with yourself. There's a particular kind of restlessness that comes with that sudden stopping of momentum. It's similar to the way you still feel like you're bobbing around in the waves, long after you've pulled yourself out of the ocean.

October has been a busy month for me, busy for all sorts of reasons, and stressful in many ways too. In the first week of October, I finished my first semester of my Masters. I am now about 1/6th of my way towards becoming a Librarian. Because I would like to get the degree done in 2.5 years instead of 3, I will be doing a unit over the summer as well. So I was looking forward to the last three quarters of October as time to write.

But the writing itself has been slow. I expect to cross the 50 000 word mark in The Turning Tide (that's the working title, as for now my characters have yet to experience much by way of actual tides) sometime today or tomorrow, but I had hoped that I would have been there already by now. Using a formula set out in Fiona McIntosh's book How to Write Your Blockbuster, I had worked out that if I wrote steadily six nights a week until the end of the year, I would only have to write about 775 words a night. That number is now considerably higher for a range of reasons. I won't make excuses. I just haven't been disciplined enough.

First drafts are notoriously hard, as are second books, and I know I am fortunate in that I am writing my second book while my first remains unpublished, therefore there is very little pressure on me to deliver or even finish the thing.

Of course we had the Australian Short Story Festival last weekend, and as I was volunteering, I was up at 7am both days and on a train to Northbridge, so very little writing got done even though I was very inspired afterwards.

The truth is, now that I finally have a completely free day, I am exhausted, and all I want to do is curl up with a book.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

2018 Australian Short Story Festival- Perth

This weekend, short story writers from around Australia descended on Aberdeen Street in Northbridge for the third annual Australian Short Story Festival. The brain child of Margaret River Press and Midnight Sun Publishing, the festival has previously presented the likes of Cate Kennedy, Tony Birch, Ryan O'Neill, Melanie Cheng and many more. This year's festival was opened by David Malouf, who spoke at Gallery Central on Friday night, musing on the nature of creativity, and the interconnectedness of his body of work. He had many pearls of wisdom to share with the audience, such as the idea that the ending to a short story is inevitable, because the groundwork for it has already been laid in the existing words; the idea that you have set up for an ending that you have not even decided on yet is comforting to me, as endings have always been the part of writing that I have struggled with the most! David's generosity in sharing his thoughts with the audience continued into question time, where he invited responses to his work. His ability to turn any question into an opportunity to think about writing and ideas and craft made this section of the evening perhaps even more enjoyable than his opening address, no mean feat, as the open section of any literary event is often a mixed bag. I was introduced to David by my dear writer friend, Louise Allan, after the event-- (though I did not tell him that I had studied his books for upper high school and that they had been widely despised by everyone in my class!  I have since reread Fly Away Peter as an adult and loved it, and wonder if perhaps its depths are lost on sixteen year olds.)

Day two began bright and early, as I headed to the Alex Hotel for my first shift as a festival volunteer. The Alex is a beautiful venue and it was a great privilege to be able to use their stunning terrace as a location for two sessions this year. The first, called Three Writers Walk into a Bar was a conversation between talented local writer and interviewer, Annabel Smith, and visiting authors, Yvonne Fein, Anthony Macris and Laura Elvery. With a stunning vista surrounding them, these authors conducted an intimate chat, complete with readings.

From there, it was back to base, the stunning and newly renovated Centre for Stories at 100 Aberdeen Street in Northbridge. Transformed into festival central, the centre played host to two session rooms as well as the courtyard sessions, festival bookshop and green room.  It was there that I was able to make my way into a session with visiting author and poet, Maria Takolander in a session called Maria Takolander is Not Afraid. Maria spoke about the hilarity of this title choice, saying that one of the reasons that she writes is actually because she is afraid of everything, and that writing about something is a way of taking back control. I loved this session and took copious notes-- I even asked a question at the end, something I never do! I can't wait to get stuck into reading Maria's book The Double

On day three, it was back to the Alex Hotel to check tickets for the session Are You Sitting Comfortably? This session featured two writers, Sandi Parsons and Hossein Bouazar, who told their stories of bravery and survival, accompanied by balladeer Greg McNeill on guitar. I was not prepared for how powerful and moving this session would be, particularly first thing in the morning.

Volunteering done with, it was back to the Centre for Stories to put on my Festival Guest pass and take part in a panel. Chaired by Amy Lin, the panel was called Why Do You Write? and featured myself, Brooke Dunnell and Hannah van Didden. We spoke about where our ideas came from, whether we were plotters or plungers, how we edited our work etc, and there was a really lovely collegiate vibe in the room. I had thought I would be nervous, but instead, it was just fun and made me feel like going home to write. Alas, there would be time for that later, but immediately afterward, it was out into the briefly sunny courtyard to read at the Westerly Readings session, where poets and writers were showcasing their pieces from Westerly 63.1 and 63.2, which has yet to be released. We made it through half of the readers before it started to pour!

I wish that I had been able to go to a few more of the sessions and I was particularly disappointed not to get the chance to hear Jennifer Down speak about her collection Pulse Points, which just recently won the Readings Prize. Until the next time the festival comes to Perth, or perhaps if I make it over to Melbourne for next year or Adelaide the year after that, I will just have to make do with reading as many short stories and short story collections as I possibly can!

Saturday, 6 October 2018

The business of selling a novel...

I wanted to write a post about how to get yourself an agent for your book, but if I'm being really honest, I don't know the first thing about it.  Ask my writer friends.  I bet they're all getting fairly sick of my emails and text messages second guessing myself about query emails and how to follow up when you don't hear back.

The weird paradox about writing is the whole time that you're writing your book, you need to strive for self-improvement, and you need to be really humble and absorb as many lessons as you can along the way.  I think this is why a lot of writers are really hard on themselves and set these impossible goals that they later feel terrible for not having met.  (No?  Just me?)  Then, when it actually comes to the whole business of trying to 'sell' your book, you have to do a complete 180 and become like a used car salesman.  See this here book, it's a really beauty, only one owner, complete introvert, pretty much worked on it every night to the detriment of her social life and her studies and her sleep.  Comes with a great social media presence, practically publishes itself.  That part doesn't come naturally to a lot of people.  Writers, we're great at singing each others' praises, but we're not all that keen on talking about ourselves unless it's to be self deprecating a lot of the time.  And for some of us (again, this could just be me), the difficult thing is that even if we do feel like we've written the best book since... I don't know, Life After Life or The Husband's Secret or something else that sold a million copies is beloved by book clubs... we feel like we are not allowed to say that we think it's good.

What's that Flannery O'Connor quote?  Something about writers who think they can write usually not being that great, and the ones who think they're the worst being geniuses?  Or was that a made up quote trotted out in my Undergraduate degree to scare us all?  O'Connor certainly has a lot of interesting thoughts on writing, but this particular sound bite escapes me at the moment.  For now, if you're interested, here's a list where she throws a lot of shade at Ayn Rand. 

So, the process of seeking an agent or seeking a publisher.  Is there even a process?  Perhaps it is different for everyone.  Regardless, there's something nerve wracking about needing to condense down all the best things about you and your book into a single email, and sending it winging off into the internet black hole, then waiting for a response.  It produces the kind of anxiety that, in this day and age, has most of us checking our email nine hundred times a day, or until our phone battery wears out, whichever comes first. 

There are a few things I have learned, and while these things might not help you with your agent-seeking, I hope that they might help you in some way. 

1. Write something else.  

You're going to be waiting a long time, probably a month at minimum, for any kind of meaningful response.  So get your submission package together, send it off, have the full manuscript ready to go, but then forget about it.  No one is expecting you to be ready to hit send on that full manuscript within seconds of receiving the request.  So send your book off and be ready by all means, but don't wait by the phone or the computer.  If you can, work on something else.  If not a new book, maybe a short story, or a screen play, or some poetry, or a scarf or a cake or a painting... and so on and so forth.  Let the response, when it comes, be a pleasant surprise.

2.  Don't expect acknowledgement of your email.

A few times, I've been tempted to follow up my pitches early because I haven't had any indication that my email even reached the person I wanted it to.  But if you've checked that you spelled the email address correctly and you know that the email has left your outbox, then they probably got it.  Agents are busy people.  In a recent episode of an excellent podcast called The First Time, hosts Kate and Katherine talked to agent Jacinta di Mase, who outlined how many unsolicited pitches she was getting a day even when the website stated that she was closed for submissions.  You're just one writer, and yeah, it can sting a little to not even get a response, but try not to take it personally.  It's not personal.  It's business. 

3. Know that you are not the first person that this has happened to and you will not be the last.

While there are lots of ways to get published these days, there are also lots of ways to not get published.  Lately, I've really been getting a lot of comfort and joy out of reading a few literary memoirs-- in particular Nell Stevens' two books, Bleaker House and Mrs Gaskell and Me.  Reading these has helped me remember that I do the work because I love it, and that getting the book published would be gravy, rather than the whole meal.  Other books that may help-- even if it's just to make you laugh at the industry, or feel a little more like you understand it, include My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff or The Wife by Meg Wolitzer.  You could even do what I did recently and binge watch Younger, which, while being largely ridiculous and far fetched, has a lot of great inside jokes for anyone who has worked in writing, publishing, bookselling etc.  Plus, Nico Tortorella. 

At the end of the day, the writers who get published are the ones who don't stop writing.  There's no giant hourglass somewhere with time running out, and no one is going to say oh, the sand has all gone into the bottom now, guess you better become an accountant.  Perhaps a better Flannery O'Connor quote to think of here is this one:

Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.  I'm always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality.  It is a plunge into reality and it's very shocking to the system.

She talks about writing here, but I think it's the stuff around the writing that's more of a shock, that's more damaging to the soul.

If you've got a great story to share about your experience with agents and publishers, feel free to send it through in the comments. 

Thanks for reading, and happy writing to you all. 

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Some Great Historical Fiction Reading Horizons

September is a week from over and I haven't written a single blog post all month. I've been writing, generally sticking to six days a week and have finally had a break through about how to structure my novel-- too bad that it has come 40 000 words in to the first draft!  For those writers among you, I'm sure you know the excitement that comes with finally thinking of a way to pull all those errant words together.  And yes, I'm sure you know that those moments usually happen while you're in the shower, driving, or almost asleep and therefore unable to stop and write everything down right away. 

I thought I would tell you all a little about what I have been reading by updating you on some amazing historical fiction reads that I have been loving lately, and to borrow a term from The Readers Podcast, to do some reading 'horizons.'

Currently reading: The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola

Anna Mazzola has a new book out this year, and I first came across her on Twitter when someone I follow retweeted her.  I had the funniest feeling that I knew the name from somewhere, but looking at the blurb of her first book, decided that I definitely had not already read it.  But I wanted to, and so I requested it from the library.  It's sort of a Burial Rites type of plot, but set in 1830s England and has all sort of lovely gothic Jack the Ripper, bodysnatching vibes.  I am enjoying it very much so far and I am looking forward to Anna Mazzola's new book, The Story Keeper.  

The Unseeing is told from two points of view, that of Edmund Fleetwood, a lawyer who seems to have more of a moral compass than most of his profession, and Sarah Gale, imprisoned at Newgate for her role in a horrific murder where a young woman was dismembered and her body parts scattered around the city.  The atmosphere in this book is just perfect and I can't wait to see where the plot is going because I think more than one character is keeping a secret!

Just finished: The Clockmaker's Daughter by Kate Morton

I love Kate Morton.  I love every single book of hers.  I practically ran down to my local bookshop on the day that this one came out and planned to spend that whole night reading but... homework etc.  Instead, I read it this week while I had the house to myself and read the whole thing in just under three days.  It's different to what I expected, but in a very good way.  Kate Morton's books usually have two timelines which plait together to reveal a secret from the past, where someone in the future is shedding light on something that happened long ago, and that still happens in The Clockmaker's Daughter, except instead of being two timelines, there are about five.  Only a really skilled storyteller could make it work.  I was left with a few lingering questions that I don't feel got answered, but ultimately, I put the book down with that happy, satisfied glow that comes from reading a transporting novel. 

Also, how stunning is the Australian cover?  I was mad that the new Kate Morton covers don't match the originals until I saw this. 

What I am going to read next:

There are a few historical novels on my radar for the future, many of them World War One themed for research into my own novel.  I'm also still very interested in the Wars of the Roses although the mania from last month has subsided and I think I will be able to make it safely to the next Philippa Gregory novel... that being said, one of the options for what I might read next is Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir, the third in her series about Henry the Eighth's six queens.  There's very little in my retinue by way of knowledge about Jane, other than that she was the only wife to give Henry a living son, and that she died not long after.  There are some portrayals that suggest she may be the only wife Henry married for love, but I'm not sure if we can ever know that for sure.  If anyone can get to the heart of it, though, it's Alison Weir. 

Another option is the new novel by Paula McLain, Love and Ruin which returns to familiar territory from The Paris Wife, as it follows the story of another of Hemingway's marriage, this time to journalist Martha Gellhorn.  I don't know much about it other than that I loved The Paris Wife and I am excited to get stuck in.

Finally, I hope to get to Imogen Hermes Gowar's novel The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock very soon... I have had this on my list of things to read since February and the novel has been sitting on my bedside table since March.  Not sure why I have put it off!  Again set in the 1800s, it is the story of a man who comes across a specimen that is said to be that of a 'mermaid', and I've seen reviews raving about this debut novel all year long in the wake of its being longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction. 

Friday, 31 August 2018

Writing Update: Or, the month I got distracted by Plantagenet politics

The problem with being a history nerd is that there's a lot of historical time periods to get excited about.

My current era of fascination is The Great War.  That's not a sentence I ever thought I would be saying, but here we are, three or four months in to the writing of Book Two and things are beginning to fall into place.  I have done all my usual little 'new book' things, like collaging the front cover of a spiral bound notebook, and purchasing/ borrowing from the library all the relevant books I could find.  I've been on Trove.  Gosh, that's a rabbit hole!

I had forgotten how unsettling it can be to begin writing a book set in a time you know nothing about.  It's a little like beginning to walk across a tightrope with no safety net.  One moment, you're off and travelling and the next, you come to a wobbly halt.  Hang on, you think, Can my characters be doing that?  Did that actually exist?  It's a stop-starty way to write a book, that's for sure.


Earlier in August, I happened across a story saved in my inbox from an online writing course I had done more than a year ago with Jen Campbell, a fabulous author and Youtube book reviewer based in the UK.  Jen's specialty is Fairy Tales, and in this course, she'd challenged us to try transposing a fairy tale into a different time period.  At the time, I'd been struggling through Conn Iggulden's Wars of the Roses novels, and I'd been struck by the image of King Henry the VI's illness being described as one of an unnatural slumber.  The two things came together, and I wrote half of a fairytale.

Yes, that's right.  I wrote half.  And then I abandoned the rest because the course was over and life was busy and all the usual excuses.

But there's nothing like being stuck on one writing project to reinvigorate you for another one, is there?  So I turned my attention to this story, sitting waiting in my email inbox for a couple of years, and I finished it.  But the process of finishing it sent me back down the road of a full on obsession with the Plantagenet era-- I read books on Margaret of Anjou, I watched Starz's adaptations of The White Queen and The White Princess and my Wikipedia search history is now filled with questions like "Was Perkin Warbeck really Richard of York"  and so on. 


It's not that I've forgotten about my book... but I did take a really big detour.

Back to it in September.  It would be good to get a complete draft done by Christmas, but as the Masters degree is in full swing and I haven't decided if I am enrolling in anything for the summer session of classes, we will just have to wait and see... and read... and dream. 

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Book Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
Echo Publishing, 2018

This book has well and truly taken the world by storm.  It is a best seller most of the world over and has been for weeks on end, and if you want a copy from your local library, be prepared to wait a few months for your turn.  I decided this weekend to check out what all the fuss was about...

It is the story of Lale, a young Slovakian Jew who is taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp in April of 1942 where he is given the opportunity to become the Tatowierer, the tattooist who must write the numbers onto the arms of the new prisoners who arrive day by day.  Because this job falls under the offices of the Political Wing of the SS, Lale is afforded a degree of freedom which allows him to do his bit to try and keep his fellow inmates alive, even when it means risking his own life.  It is while he is redoing the tattoo on her arm that he meets Gita, the love of his life.

The book is based on a true story, and was told to Heather Morris by Lale in the months before his death in 2006.  Initially the subject of a Kickstarter campaign, it was eventually picked up by Echo publishing and Bonnier Zaffre. 

There are many novels and books out there about the Holocaust, and while this one had an added layer of being part-biography, at times I found it hard to connect with the characters on an emotional level.  The story was told almost as a stream of facts; there was little to show us the landscape, or the emotions that the characters were going through, and instead the book moved along in dialogue and big events in the character's lives.  I kept thinking of books such as Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity  and Rose Under Fire, and thinking about how those books broke my heart and made history real.  Perhaps because I have read so much on the subject already it was hard to be shocked by what I read, but in fact I think it was more that the novel has such a distancing style, more suited to a news article or perhaps to the screenplay Morris initially intended to write.  Yes, I am still impressed by Gita and Lale's story and their survival, and yes, what happened to them was dreadful, but as a novel, this simply did not work for me.  It would have been better framed as biography.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Book Review: The Peacock Summer

The Peacock Summer by Hannah Richell
Hachette Australia, 2018

If, like me, you feel the September release of the new Kate Morton novel is just a little bit too far away, you'll be happy to hear that there is a new novel by Hannah Richell.  Following on from The Secret of the Tides and The Shadow Year, this third novel from the bestselling author is her strongest yet.  The Peacock Summer is the story of Lillian Oberon, who at 26 finds herself the wife of a rich and powerful man and lady of a beautiful manor house called Cloudsley.  While life at Cloudsley is not as idyllic as it seemed on the surface, there are many things tying Lillian to the house, not least of which is the love she develops for her young stepson, Albie, who is the closest thing Lillian will ever have to a child of her own.  When Charles, Lillian's husband, hires a local up and coming painter for an ambitious project that will see him moving into their house for a summer, Lillian's life is turned on its head and she is forced to confront certain things in her life which she had previously thought settled.

Alongside this historical narrative, we are given the storyline of the present day in which Maggie Oberon returns to her childhood home to take care of her ageing grandmother, Lillian, who is beginning to lose her memory.  Returning to Cloudsley means that Maggie must confront people from her past and try to make amends for the things that she has done.  Along the way, she learns much about the strong woman her grandmother was, and the sacrifices she had to make, giving her much needed perspective on the events in her own life.

This is a beautiful, atmospheric novel which captivated me from beginning to end-- it was near impossible to put down and had me up reading well past my bed time.  The best parts of the novel were the historical portions, and I thought Richell did an excellent job of setting up the situation for her characters without making any of it seem melodramatic.  She also captured the glamour of the age, from the fashion to the dinner parties to the cars.  In comparison, the modern day storyline almost felt unnecessary at times, and it was hard to spend time away from the beautiful 1950s love story that had been set up.  The modern storyline however gave some balance to the dark elements of the historical portion, and without the possibility of happiness in the future, the events of the past may have been difficult to take all at once.  Evoking some of my favourite multi-linear historical novels, The Peacock Summer perfectly satisfied my historical fiction cravings and demonstrated what strong and unrestrained writing could do.  Read it this weekend-- you won't regret it.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Book Review: The Desert Nurse

The Desert Nurse
Pamela Hart
Hachette, Australia 2018

As you may know, I have been on the look out for novels set in Australia during and around the First World War.  So when a copy of Pamela Hart's newest novel arrived in my mailbox, I made time to read it right away.

The Desert Nurse is the story of Evelyn Northey, the daughter of a doctor living in Taree in the early Twentieth Century.  She longs to become a doctor herself, but after her mother passed away, her father insisted on her leaving school to help run the household and take care of her younger brother.  Evelyn dreams of the day that her inheritance from her mother will become available to her so that she can use the money to go to University and become a doctor.  But she's in for the shock of her life on her twenty-first birthday when she discovers that the terms of her mother's will state that she will only get the money when she turns thirty or when she marries-- meaning that she is to be at the mercy of her father or her husband until it may well be too late.

Desperate to follow her dreams, Evelyn trains to be a nurse at the Manning District Hospital, and thanks to the assistance of one of the doctors there, becomes a certified nurse.  When war is declared and nurses are needed, despite her father's protestations, Evelyn enlists.  It is at her medical examination that she meets William Brent, a doctor who is unable to enlist himself because of a childhood bout of polio that has left him with muscle damage in one of his legs.

William and Evelyn meet again, however in Egypt, after Dr Brent decides to just show up at one of the hospitals and offer his services.  With the incoming casualties from Gallipoli and the Dardanelles, the army find they are unable to turn away the talented surgeon, and soon he and Evelyn are working side by side in theatre.

Pamela Hart's books move along at a cracking pace.  Her books always follow a strong, lovable heroine doing something against the restrictions imposed on her by society, and I really enjoy putting myself in the shoes of a person who lived long before me.  At times, the pace almost seemed too quick in this book, particularly in the early parts, but I was soon swept away once the novel and its cast made it to the war.  One thing that is very clear is that Pamela Hart has done a lot of research, particularly about medical procedures and wartime hospitals.  The places and the people in them felt supremely real.

As is normal in Pamela Hart's books, characters from her previous novels The Soldier's Wife and A Letter From Italy made cameo appearances.  If there was mention of the characters from The War Bride, I missed them as it's been a while since I read that book. 

The Desert Nurse is a quick read but a heartwarming one and one I am going to return to again in the future.  I loved getting a woman's perspective on the war and on what it was like to be a woman around that time.  It made a lovely counterpoint to a book I read earlier in the year, The Daughters of Mars by Tom Keneally.  While both essentially dealt with a similar situation, the books were very different in their scopes and styles.

I look forward to more books from Pamela Hart.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Book Review: The Coves

The Coves
David Whish-Wilson
Fremantle Press, 2018

David Whish-Wilson is a respected name in Australian Crime Fiction, and his trio of novels Line of Sight, Zero at the Bone  and Old Scores shine a light on the possibilities of a seedy Perth underbelly in times of recent memory.  In his fourth novel, The Coves, just recently published by Fremantle Press, he takes a slightly different angle with a foray into the genre of historical crime.  The Coves is the story of twelve year old Samuel Bellamy, who makes his way to San Francisco aboard a ship full of convicts during 1849 with the intention of finding his mother, whom he believes to be among the Australians living there. 

Drawing from the historical record, Whish Wilson vividly recreates the 'Australian quarter' of San Francisco, a town run by the Sydney Coves, or the Sydney Ducks as they were sometimes called.  The novel is peopled with murderers, drunks, prostitutes and scoundrels, and all are seen through Sam's keen eyes, helping the reader to go beyond these labels and understand that people are not always who they appear on the surface, though it may be a matter of survival for them to appear this way.  From the prostitute who becomes like a surrogate older sister to Sam when he is alone in this new place to the lawmakers who serve their own interest, the cast of characters in The Coves is almost Dickensian, but with a tough, Aussie Larrikin twist here and there.  No wonder the early praise for this novel has been garnering comparisons to Oliver Twist.

For me, the novel more strongly evoked echoes of Peter Carey, with strong literary writing that sometimes required deep focus to get at the heart of what was really being said.  It takes great skill to write characters who are wise beyond their years, but with Sam, David Whish Wilson has achieved just that.  He is not as innocent as perhaps a twelve year old may be today, instead streetwise and savvy through necessity, yet his perspective on the world is not yet jaded like some of his older counterparts, and his capacity to still believe in the possibilities of love, happy endings, reunions and so forth drive the story forward.  This is the story of a young man who could turn to crime because of the childhood he has had, but instead tries to do the right thing always (at least from a moral point of view if not a legal standpoint); a young man who is loyal, observant and loves his dog. 

If you're interested in hearing David Whish Wilson talk about this book, you can still get tickets to hear him speaking to Tim from Dymocks Subiaco this Wednesday night at BARK on Hay Street.  Follow this link for more.  

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

How My Writing Process Has Changed Over Time (Part Two)

If you haven't read part one of this series, you can find it here.

In early 2018, I finished writing the eleventy-billionth draft of a novel-length project that I had been working on, on and off, for about a decade.  Okay.  So it was the eleventh draft.  But it felt like a lot more.

Something felt different about finishing the story this time.  Wiser writers than me have said before that when something is finished, you know.  There is a severing of the cord that binds you to it.  And while I know that if my book is picked up for publication I will likely have to work on it a few more times, the sense that I have right now is that I have taken it as far as I could have.

I learnt a lot writing this particular book, and I had a lot of great milestones whilst working on it too.  I have always prided myself on having a great memory, but funnily enough, when I began writing about the process of working on this book, I realised that I can't remember the whole process in order.  There are things that stand out to me, like the ten days I spend revising while on a residency at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers' Centre in Greenmount, or the time I was asked to do a presentation on writing historical fiction at the History Teacher's Association Conference at St Hilda's.  But I don't think about these things as a timeline.  They are more like a montage.  Picture me, hunched over a desk, standing at a lectern with a powerpoint presentation, drinking tea, all the while 'Eye of the Tiger' plays in the background.  Maybe, in the end, that is what writing is like.  There's no one way to do it.  You can't follow the instructions step by step.  Sometimes, you do things out of order (like research... but I'll get to that.) . Sometimes, you repeat things that you thought you'd only have to do once.

There are things that I can take away from the last decade of calling myself a writer that hopefully will serve me well for the next one.  Things like, first of all, calling myself a writer.  I think I've mastered that, thanks in no small part to great teachers like Natasha Lester, who gave me the skills I needed to concisely explain what I write-- as that is the inevitable follow up question when you tell strangers you write books.  I've made some great connections too, in bookselling and publishing. 

But of course, there are a few things that I've learned NOT to do, as well.  Things like:

- Not sending the book out before it's ready.  Not to beta readers, not to friends and family and CERTAINLY NOT to publishers.

- Not to take criticism personally.  You waste a lot of time and emotions feeling like everyone who dislikes your book also dislikes you.

- Not to seek the kind of intense feedback this work requires from close family and friends

And finally...

- Not to feel like there is a prescribed way to research. 

I write historical fiction, and getting history right is important to me.  One of things I am encountering writing The Turning Tide (working title for book two) is that I don't yet fully know the time and place I am writing about.  I know roughly when it is set, but I haven't yet settled on a suburb.  Between the Sleepers was set in Fremantle, and it's tempting to go back there... but I'm also wondering about setting the book in the suburb where I live now, and taking myself on long walks, imagining the past and my characters a bit closer to home. 

If I were to set myself the impossible goal of getting all the facts right the first time around, I would never start writing.  There are always going to be things I don't know.  And if I wanted to just write facts, I would have become an historian.  History and Historical Fiction are different.  They have different purposes.  What interests me about historical fiction is the way that writers use it to help me connect with the past through characters, and feel empathy for people who died before I was born.  I can read historical fiction for hours, whereas non-fictional accounts are more suited to short bursts of reading, at a desk with a notebook and pen.  I did history and writing for undergrad, and the biggest appeal of the history degree was fodder for stories, so I think that tells you all you need to know.

Sometimes, I need to give myself permission to just write.  To get facts wrong.  To have people wearing clothes with zippers before they were invented, to have the drinking age wrong.  Those things will be fixed later.  And if the historical facts make the scene impossible, maybe somewhere down the track it gets thrown out.  Some of my favourite darlings have been killed this way. 

This is the stumbling block I keep hitting with the newest book.  I start to write and then I am suddenly confronted by the gaps in my knowledge.  I'm trying to remind myself that it's okay to get things wrong, but the part of me that just spent a few years fixing those sorts of mistakes keeps piping up.

So I'm researching the way I like best-- reading stories set at the time, watching films, reading old newspapers online.  It's immersive research.  I'm not taking notes at this stage unless something really great stands out to me and I jot it down for a scene idea.  The heavy lifting-- the fact checking and getting all the dates right-- that bit comes later. 

First drafts are shit but they can also be fun.  If I let myself get back into that first draft mode (and forget I've done this all before) I know I'll be in for a treat. 

Monday, 25 June 2018

How My Writing Process Has Changed Over Time (Part One)

Writing a second novel is a little bit like learning to write all over again.

I'm in that frustrated space right now, where my enthusiasm for the idea exceeds my knowledge of the topics and time periods I want to write about, and my brain is thinking of scenes and new characters faster than I can work out where they need to go.  I keep thinking to myself 'I don't know how to do this anymore.  I don't remember how I did it the first time.'  They say much of writing is an act of faith that things will come together in the end, and I am certainly putting that to the test now.

When I began writing Between the Sleepers, I was still in high school, though only just.  I'd written 'novels' before.  Not to go into too much embarrassing detail, but I'd written one novella length YA story called "Quoting Shakespeare" which I printed off and put into a folder and felt very proud of, and one urban fantasy 'novel' (probably about 50 000 words) called "Invisible Girl" which I actually had the gall to send off to a local publisher in the hopes that they would publish it.  I've always liked having a project.  It's the same with reading books.  When you finish one, you need to move straight on to the next one.  Not being in the middle of a book, or not being currently immersed in a project feels to me like that dream where you turn up at school and realise that you've forgotten pants.  It's incomplete. 

The idea for BTS came from an album.  It was an album by a small independent band I'd discovered through (of all places) MySpace, whose music I had needed to track down when my family took a trip to Japan because it wasn't available in Australia.  When I listened to that CD, I heard a story.  It was like each song on that album was a chapter, and I wrote down the 'synopsis' of that story and that was my first plan.  It was a plan I quickly deviated from.  I wrote without really knowing where my story was taking me, knowing only that I needed to go with these characters I had dreamt up.  And I knew where the story was going to end, roughly.  (As a side note, that ending stayed the ending until the most recent draft, when my clever mentor dared me to try out a different ending just to see what it was like.  Of course, her way was better.)

So I wrote the first draft.  I remember coming home from school and doing my homework and then sitting at my desk, which was in the corner of my room squished in next to my bed.  I had a clip on lamp that attached to the bookshelves above me and it cast this warm yellow light over my workspace.  I still associate that sort of light with working until I get too tired to keep my head up.  I wrote that draft, and then I finished it and I printed it off and I gave it to some people to read.  Those people-- my mum and my grandparents-- gave me feedback.  I think I probably cried to hear that I hadn't written a bestseller in one go without really knowing what I was doing.  It wouldn't have been the last time I cried over book feedback.  But even if at the time I thought to myself 'I can't do this, I need to start thinking about a real job,' inevitably I ended up back at that desk.

I am going to skip over the parts where I put my work aside for months at a time to let it breathe, but between each finished draft, there were times where I worked on other projects like the currently sidelined Alan Turing project, or my recently rediscovered (and not half bad) Nanowrimo novel 'The River.'  I also wrote a lot of short stories.

I like to use a method of editing that I have heard Anthony Marra call re-typing.  I print out the manuscript and I open a fresh Word document.  I type out the story to myself as I read as if I am reading it for the first time, fixing, changing and deleting things as I go.  I think with BTS, I may have done this process ten times.  Each time I finished a draft, I went to someone I trusted for feedback.  At one point, I was working at a job that required me to leave the house extremely early to beat traffic and get to the other side of town.  During that time, I hand wrote parts of the novel out to myself and I would type those sections up when I got home.  I got feedback from bosses, family members, friends-- and then I found a writing group.

The first time my writing group read my novel, they didn't get it.  On the night it was my turn to hear feedback, I sat at that table in the cafe listening to them raise questions about my character's motivation and I felt personally attacked, even though they were given their feedback as gently as they could and being constructive.  But I'd never been in a good critiquing group before.  Any writing group I had been in previously had been one where I was the person who took the task of writing most seriously.  And when the rest of the group doesn't take things seriously, 'That was good, I really liked it' is the brunt of the feedback you'll get.  Yes, I did go home from writing group and announce that I didn't want to go back, and yes I did lie on my bed in the dark with tears in my eyes, but you know what?  In the morning, I had realised that there was still work to do and I had found people who knew how to help me get it done.  Kristen, Louise and Glen, I will always be grateful to you for being tough but fair!  I can now take fair criticism of my work on the chin... most of the time. 

Like most writing groups, ours ran its course.  Work and family schedules changed and it became harder to meet.  Some of us met new people whose writing we clicked with.  Along with my friend Belinda, I began a regular writing group called Write Nights, where the aim became not getting feedback from other writers, but actually making sure I put my bum on a chair and wrote something at least once a fortnight.

Slowly, slowly, the words eked out. 

Each time I had finished a draft, I had thought it finished, but the most recent draft was like a severing.  It was like the mental cord that bound me to the story had been cut.  I was satisfied.  I used to think about my characters, wondering what they would have been doing during certain events or how they felt about things, but after this draft, I stopped wondering because I knew that they were okay.

Then there was blankness, where I didn't think of any new ideas.  I began to worry that I would never have a new idea ever again and my journal entries became exercises in futility.

But then, several months ago, a scene came to me.  From that scene, I had my character and my set up.  There were a few 'research obsessions' I had been pursuing.  I suddenly realised that they were for my book, this book, the one I had been working on in the back of my mind without realising.

I began to write...

Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Lily and the Rose by Jackie French

The Lily and the Rose
Jackie French
Angus and Robertson Publishing, 2018

If you haven't read the previous book in this series, you can read my review here.

Sophie Higgs, heiress to the Higgs Corned Beef Empire was a Rose of No Man's Land during the First World War.  She set up and ran successful field hospitals, and even found herself dashing across occupied France in an attempt to stop an attack of mushroom gas against soldiers in Ypres.  Now, the war is over, and Sophie must find a way to return to her normal life-- if life for Sophie can ever be anything like normal again, that is.  When she receives word from Germany that her friend Hannelore, the Prinzessin von Arnenberg and a fellow graduate of Miss Lily's Lovely Ladies, may be in trouble, she resolves to rescue her and take the former Prinzessin, now without lands or income, home with her to Australia.  Accompanied by the wife of an English aristocrat who has a penchant for violence, as well as two of the servants whom she met and befriended at Shillings while living with Miss Lily, Sophie dashes into a Germany which has been irreparably changed by the war, before heading home to Australia to convince her father that she is ready to take over the family business, despite her gender. 

I enjoyed reading the next chapter of Sophie's adventures, but at times, the plot of this second novel was a little all over the place.  Rather than being one grand narrative, the sequel follows a number of smaller episodes, and covers themes such as domestic assault, the rise of the labor movement in Australia, women in politics and business, the plight of returned soldiers, and the rise of a new order in Germany.  It's a lot to take in.  I read this novel quickly and eagerly, but did not feel quite the same way as I did when I finished book one.  I think in the future I would be inclined to reread the first book but would perhaps not go on to reread further than that. 

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Things I Have Been Reading Lately

I haven't been much in the mood for blogging lately-- this time of year has been extremely busy, and when I get home from work, all I want to do is either read or watch television.  My programs of choice lately have been 'Sweetbitter' and 'Silicon Valley', and maybe this tells you a lot about my state of mind, but all I have wanted to do is watch episode after episode until I fall asleep.  Sadly, even in this age of binge-watching and Netflix, shows run out of episodes eventually.

But outside of TV time, I have been reading some excellent books lately, so in lieu of a proper review, I thought I'd let you know what's been on my nightstand lately, and give you a quick little update of what I thought.

Trick of the Light by Laura Elvery

I met Laura a year ago on a panel at the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival.  She'd just won the Margaret River Short Story Competition, and so we were book mates in Joiner Bay and Other Stories, Laura having written Joiner Bay.  She did tell us then that she had a full length collection in the pipes, and in March this year that collection was released by UQP.  It is quite an interesting collection, encompassing stories that use a few different approaches to the form, including some magical realism and some historical pieces.  No surprises there that my favourite pieces were 'Trick of the Light", about women working in a watch factory, painting the radium on watch dials in the early 20th Century, and 'Brushed Bright Bones', about reincarnation and Richard the Third.  These stories do tend to favour the 'moment in the life of' style, and don't necessarily offer closure or enlightenment, but if that's your cup of tea, you will be delighted because Laura has a way with words.

The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin

After saying that I loved Melanie Benjamin's books and being really excited about her new book, this one was a bit of a disappointment.  It wasn't one I was tempted to devour in a single sitting like this author's previous books and I found some of the writing really clumsy and overblown.  Perhaps it was because I'd just come off such a literary book and I was making unnecessary comparisons.  If you're new to Melanie Benjamin, maybe start with Alice I Have Been instead.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

I love this book so much, I love its turns of phrase, I love its portrayal of a marriage tested, I love the statement that it makes about the racial politics of America and I just love it, so go read it.  Thanks to Amy from my Book Club for picking it for this month.

Redemption Point by Candice Fox

I've been waiting for this sequel since reading Crimson Lake last year.  I don't usually read crime, but I really like these.  Maybe it's the fact that the main character has pet geese?

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

My first Meg Wolitzer book but it won't be my last.  This was the book that I needed, when I needed it.  It's about a young woman who meets a feminist icon when she's at college and has been going through a tough time, and the trajectory that this meeting sets her on, and the way that it prompts her and the people around her to make changes and enrich their own lives.  It's also a cautionary tale about hero worship.  It's bloody good.

So that's me over the last month or so... what about you-- what have you all been reading?

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Sunday, 13 May 2018

Book Review: Afternoons with Harvey Beam

Afternoons with Harvey Beam
Carrie Cox
Fremantle Press, 2018

There would be few vehicles less perfect to write a book about the dysfunction of modern life than making your protagonist a talkback radio host. 

Harvey Beam, once the star of a Sydney commercial radio station, begins his journey back to his old home town of Shorton in disgrace.  His father, Lionel, is dying in hospital and so Harvey steps away from an employer who wants to replace him and returns to the place where it all began.  Not much seems to have changed, except for Harvey himself.  His two sisters, Naomi and Penny are still engaged in a never-ending argument, his brother Bryan is still sitting on his high horse and relishing being the favourite brother, and it's still impossible to get a decent cup of coffee anywhere in the town.  Yet compared to Sydney, Shorton is a breath of fresh air for Harvey.  Though at first he resents the idea of having to go back to a small town in the middle of nowhere, where he's not a big shot anymore, it takes getting away from Sydney and big city life for him to realise just how fed up with it he is.  Shorton still has a few surprised in store for Harvey, not least in the form of Naomi's rarely before sighted husband Matt, whom Harvey views as one of the actual few interesting people he's ever met.  And then there's Grace.  What began as a conversation between neighbours on the plane flight in seems as though it may blossom into something more.

Told through alternating snippets of the present day in Shorton, and in notable moments of Harvey's radio career as a talkback host, the novel uses the medium of radio programs to introduce topics like big city versus small town mentalities, 'no go' zones when it comes to dating a friend's ex, social customs regarding funerals, the value of arts degrees and so on.  Harvey seems to have a clear ethos when it comes to what makes good radio, and how best to get people talking, but the longer he stays in Sydney, the more he comes off as a privileged shock jock and towards the end of his career at the commercial station, he begins to make several newsworthy blunders.  It is only when he is back on Shorton radio once more that he realises criticism is not conversation, and his attitude towards life does not endear him to others.  This is a technique that works really nicely for the novel, barring in one section towards the end of the book, where the talkback topic is September 11-- the connection to the progress of the plot was lost on me there, and it almost seemed like a forced grab at depth which the novel really didn't need.  I got more from the talkback segment on Wayne Carey's infidelity with a team-mate's wife, which had a direct link to a decision Harvey was trying to make.

As the novel wraps up, there seems to be a race for the finish line, and though a few questions remained unanswered, for the most part, it seemed like characters ended up where they needed to.  A few things which were established in the final chapter through summary might have warranted their own scenes.

Afternoons with Harvey Beam is a frank, funny, and very Australian family drama.  As the Beam family gather around the bedside of Lionel to say their long goodbyes, the reader is given access to a complicated family history, involving divorce, abuse, favouritism and the fierce bonds that can form-- or not form-- between siblings.  As Harvey reflects on the relationship he had with his father and the trajectory his life has taken since he left his home town, he is forced to compare his own performance as a father and as a man.  Though not always reliable when it comes to doing the right thing, Harvey is a sympathetic character, and one whose actions are easy to understand when you look at what he has been up against.  By the end of the book, it's clear to see that change and redemption are possible for Harvey Beam, though not every relationship in his life has been sorted out come the close of his father's funeral.  Akin to Jonathan Tropper's This is Where I Leave You but with more of the community feeling evoked by a setting of a stinking hot town with one pub, Afternoons with Harvey Beam will appeal to readers young and old, and is a perfect choice for book clubs.