Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: novel (Page 1 of 2)

The Chicken Soup Murder – an interview with Maria Donovan

I came across Maria Donovan’s debut novel while hanging around on an amazing supportive, wound licking and all around fabulous Facebook Group where readers, writers and bloggers share their milestones, tell stories, seek reviews and exchange bookish information. Under a post about my newly released The Tides Between, Maria wrote: ‘Your book sounds fascinating.’

‘Thanks,’ I wrote back. ‘I’m terrible at asking this question but…would you like a reviewing copy?’

‘Sure,’ she said. ‘Would you like one of my book?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘of course! Was there any other possible response? Though, for all I knew, her book was a seven-hundred page tome on the joys of knitting with dog’s hair.

Turns out, Maria’s book was a novel (phew) called The Chicken Soup Murder and, quite frankly, I don’t mind a bit of cosy crime. I settled down for a good read. I wasn’t disappointed. The Chicken Soup Murder is the most surprisingly, whimsical, laugh-aloud, yet deeply affecting, family, come cosy crime novel, I’ve read in ages. Here’s how it begins:

‘The day before the murder George Bull tried to poison me with a cheese sandwich.

Break time: he got me in a headlock in the playground, patted my face like he was being friendly, smiled for the cameras and said, ‘Why don’t you and me have a picnic?’

After the first chapter, I expected the narrative to switch to an adult viewpoint. It didn’t – though The Chicken Soup Murder is certainly not a children’s story. It paints a poignant picture of three households affected by a health tragedy and then by a second sudden unexpected death. Young Michael is convinced the latter is suspicious. But his Nan won’t listen because, running beneath the possibility of a murder next door is a family secret which she refuses talk about – a secret which can be traced back to that little country to the west of England of which I’m rather fond. Published by Seren Books The Chicken Soup Murder is a startlingly original debut – so startling I’ve asked Maria Donovan to answer a few questions for my blog.

You’ve written poetry and plays and loads of short stories and now this amazing novel, can you tell how/why you began to write?

I began scribbling young and by the time I was eight had decided I wanted no other career than to be a writer. Since I did not want to go into journalism I just had to get on with it by myself. Life did a bit too much getting in the way and I only made writing the focus of my energies when I was in my thirties. It feels like it’s the only thing I really ought to be doing, other than trying to act with kindness. I’m competent enough at some other things to have been waylaid by alternative careers including nursing, gardening, being a magician’s assistant, and teaching. Thing is that I feel scratchy and unhappy if I haven’t been writing. So now I just think it’s a must.

So in my thirties I faced up to my own ambition, rather worried that I would find out I wasn’t much good after all. Looking back that’s one of the things that was stopping me. Until I tested myself I could carry on with the dream that I’d do it ‘one day’.

I don’t have too much trouble having ideas and making a start. What I’ve had to learn to do is finish something and make it as good as possible and then move on to the next project. Getting my first computer made a huge difference to the way I was able to organise my writing and keep going until it reached a finished state. Before that I was just swamped by paper and ‘alternative versions’. My publishing history shows I was more comfortable at first with short stories and flash fiction. But now I’ve completed a novel (having had a few half-baked attempts), I find I’ve developed a taste for the longer form.

What was the catalyst for The Chicken Soup Murder?

The title comes directly from an incident in which my husband’s dodgy DIY nearly killed me while I was making chicken soup. Like the character in my story, I laughed it off, but it set me thinking about a crime novel and I promised him I’d come up with something with that title one day. I had no idea what that would be and years passed. Things became much more complicated because my husband died of mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos in 2010. I abandoned the novel I was writing before and while he was ill – and had to find something new. The idea of writing a novel dedicated to Mike, which has his warmth and humour appealed to me. The novel also has its realistic and serious side: how different people cope or don’t cope with living in a state of grief.

Did you always intend it to be written from the viewpoint of a teenage boy?

Yes. After Mike died, I wrote various short stories from the point of view of a grieving woman of about my age and I knew I needed to create some distance from my own perspective. An eleven year old boy seemed far enough!

If yes, why? If no, how did you arrive at Michael’s voice?

I needed to create a completely new perspective and to see everything I had experienced in terms of grieving as if it was all new. It really helped me to seal the story into that one channel of the boy’s experience – though he observes and reveals more than he understands and his own sense of what the adults around him are going through grows over the course of the novel. As for the voice, he just seemed to speak in my mind. I did transfer myself back to my eleven-year-old self: I still feel close to that inner child! I also listened – a lot – to girls and boys of that age and how they speak in the 21st century. Michael has been a good deal in the company of adults too – I make that clear – and has picked up all kinds of things from listening to his nan and her friend Irma, the cricket commentary and Nan’s beloved BBC Radio 4. I did have one go at writing the novel in the third person but Michael was quite insistent that I should restrict myself to his point of view without any means of knowing more than he could know. In the end I just couldn’t escape him: he was a voice in my mind and I just wrote it down.

Tell me about your Welsh connections? Your adventures with the language?

I went to University in South Wales and heard and saw Welsh there for the first time properly. I thought it fascinating and felt a lot more comfortable once I knew how to pronounce the words. Some of my good friends in Wales speak Welsh as their first language, and the University did offer Welsh courses, but I was so busy teaching (after graduating I did an MPhil in Writing and taught creative writing there for nine years) that my progress was patchy at best. When I moved back to Dorset I started to feel a sense of homesickness for Wales and its people and culture. In the last year I have practised nearly every day and at last begin to feel I am making some progress. I have now made friends here in West Dorset with other people who for various reasons regret missing out on knowing or speaking Welsh and are trying to put that right. Some are fluent and some are stumbling beginners but we’re helping each other.

And another curious thing happened. As I moved back to my native Dorset and learned more about the marks of ancient settlement in the landscape I thought about my ancestors who might have lived here a couple of thousand years ago and I longed to know how they might have spoken. I reasoned that this would originally have been a language common with the one that developed into Welsh. It would have been changed somewhat by the coming of the Romans and then obliterated by the Anglo-Saxons who demoted the value of the culture and language of the indigenous people until it all but disappeared except in Wales and to some extent in Cornwall. It’s an odd but satisfying feeling that I’m regaining something that has been lost – even though I know that the language would have changed a great deal over time. It is starting to feel natural and part of me. Which is very exciting! When I saw you were also learning, that felt like a great connection between us – as well as being novelists and writers.

What are you writing now?

While my debut novel was going through its pre-publication hoops I kept on writing short stories and flash fiction and was composting some ideas for a new novel, about a woman who goes missing. It’s partly set in the south of the Netherlands (I also speak Dutch and feel I can bear witness to the culture in a way that will seem satisfying) and partly in the UK.

When I met the famous writer Fay Weldon, who gave me such a lovely endorsement for The Chicken Soup Murder, she pointed out that if I were able to call it a psychological thriller this would help sales more than the label literary novel. Her wise words gave me a great way to approach the material I was working on for the new book: working title The Miller’s Wife. I thought, if I see it as a novel of psychological suspense from the start, I will know exactly what to call it when someone asks! It follows a search for someone who is perhaps missing, perhaps dead, perhaps murdered. There’s also an underlying theme of how people fall through the cracks and into homelessness. Once again, I hope to employ humour and pace – I need to maintain my own interest in order to be able to keep going to the end!

More about Maria Donovan and where to buy The Chicken Soup Murder can be found on Maria’s blog.

The Cabin Sessions – an interview with dark fiction writer Isobel Blackthorn

Set in a fictional Australian setting akin to that found in Melbourne’s Dandenong Mountains, this deeply atmospheric novel starts with an astrological omen of death. As Adam crosses the river guitar in hand a storm is brewing one that could see him trapped in The Cabin for hours. Struggling against a rising sense of panic he continues his journey to The Cabin Music Session unwilling to let his mentor Benny Muir down. But bad news awaits him and as the story unfolds it is not the worst his fateful Christmas Eve will hold.

Told from the third person viewpoints of Adam and Philip, the town’s plumber, the evening is mapped out in slow eerie detail that at once manages to evoke Burton’s fanatical cult history while also acting as a harbinger of the disaster to come. In between the two male viewpoints, is the delicate first-person voice of Eva, the breath holder, whose recollections shed an unsettling light on the characters in The Cabin.

The Cabin Sessions is a delicately balanced psychological novel, its horror not so much in the events of the evening (as shocking as they are) but in the sinister histories and disturbed mental states of its characters. I don’t normally ready such dark fiction but found myself gripped in horrified fascination by Blackthorn’s subtle storytelling and accomplished prose. This is a must read for all who like to be profoundly disturbed by their reading. Or for others, like me, who are simply keen to see the best of what this genre can hold.

What was the catalyst for this story?

There were several catalysts, but initially the idea was to set a novel in an open mic. Back in 2011 I was attending an open mic hosted by my then partner, Scottish troubadour Alex Legg. Every week we’d travel up the mountain to Olinda in the Dandenong Ranges. I’d help him set up and pack away at the end of what was usually a very long night. Alex was a superb songwriter and musician keen to support other artists in the area and they all came up to play. I watched, listened and absorbed the ins and outs of what made an open mic. The sorts of musicians who went. The setting seemed compelling and I had Alex to hand to provide me with all the technical details. A plot emerged and Alex helped me craft some characters. They are all exaggerated to the point of the grotesque and the humorous but together they represent the array of musicians who attend a regular open mic.

I was about four chapters in when Alex and I split up. I was devastated. I lost inspiration for the story. Two years later, in December 2014, Alex suddenly passed away. It came as a shock to everyone. I had moved interstate by then and had put the past behind me, but it came flooding back. He came flooding back. He was right there with me, in my living room. I couldn’t look at his photos and I couldn’t listen to his songs, especially the one he wrote for me. But a strange thing happened. I’d written a short story based on his life in Australia. It is called ‘All Because of You’, named after a title of one of Alex’s songs. The character in the story is Benny Muir, who is really Alex, and it is written in Scottish dialect. Sitting alone feeling Alex’s presence, it came to me in a flash what I needed to do with The Cabin Sessions to make it work. I made use of Benny Muir.

You call The Cabin Sessions dark fiction, rather than horror. What is the difference?

Some would say they are one and the same. With horror the keynote is dread. Horror often involves the supernatural or paranormal. Vampires and ghosts. Then there’s horror that revolts as much as horrifies, such as splatterpunk or slasher horror, which speak for themselves. There are other forms of terror and revulsion. Creature horror, for example, giant insects or alien predators. There’s no end to it and the human appetite for horror is boundless.

Dark fiction is more likely to veer in the direction of the disturbing. The themes are dark and often psychological. That is not to say that scenes of horror are not present. The dark fiction label serves to distinguish, in my mind at least, between stories that might be more akin to thrillers or literary fiction, and those that sit squarely in horror, such as the aforementioned slasher and splatterpunk styles.

What made The Cabin Sessions fit into horror was the emergence of a minor character, Eva Stone, who hijacked the narrative and, in a strange way, me as well. She isn’t at the open mic. She writes a diary and what she has to say about the town of Burton is chilling and adds psychological complexity. The novel sets out to disturb and revolt. In my mind was the issue of whose side do you take and who do you believe? The Cabin Sessions has Gothic elements, the cabin in the woods trope, the dark and stormy night, even the Blood Moon. In a sense the novel plays at the edges of horror.

What draws you to write dark fiction?

I have so far lived 55 years on this planet and right from birth I entered a situation that was horror and torture and there was no escaping it. I have experienced more than my share of domestic violence, and psychological and sexual abuse and have studied, so to speak, perpetrators at close range. I know what it feels like to be trapped. I know what it feels like to live with the illusion that things are okay when they are not, and what that ends up doing to your mind and your body. People can put on a smiling face and be toxic to the point of being lethal, even without raising a fist.

Dark fiction allows me to explore such themes in depth and with raw realism. I can be graphic if I want to. Dark fiction confronts the reader with themes they would rather not think about. I like to explore what lurks beneath the facade. I also like to stretch things to the absurd. Horror shades into comedy very easily; there is such a fine line between the two. It is the comedy aspect, the stretching to the absurd that appeals to me most.

I come out of the British dark comedy/horror bag. One of my favourite films is ‘Sightseers’ directed by Ben Wheatley, concerning a couple who go on a caravan holiday that turns out to be a murder spree. I like the ordinariness of the settings and the characters, the matter-of-fact way they go about what they do and justify it to themselves. The whole mad and horrific unfolding triggered by someone failing to pick up a piece of rubbish.

Why do you think people should read dark fiction?

I read a lot of novels these days as I write book reviews. There is fiction out there for every taste and every type of reader. There are straight ahead feel-good books. Stories that take the reader into realms of fantasy and science fictional realities. There are those that delve into history, serving to educate or enlighten. There are page turners, books that are light and race along to the finish line. Novels that pull on the emotions. Romance tugs at the heart, crime has us puzzling as armchair sleuths, thrillers have us on the edge of our seats. Horror readers love to be scared or shocked or confronted by the macabre. All the genres and the books in them serve a purpose.

Literary fiction sets out to stimulate deep questioning and to enlighten in a fashion that is far more complex and challenging. Quite a lot of literary fiction is dark. Toni Morrison’s Beloved springs to mind.

While the horror genre exists to entertain in its own unique fashion, dark fiction, if the hair split is permissible, has that literary element that invites reflection of the questioning mind. It challenges as much as instils dread or revulsion. By dwelling in the dark places, we come to understand motives otherwise obscured. We wrestle with morality. Better to expose than repress, in my view. It is denial that twists and distorts. Bring the darkness into the full light of day and something sensible can be done with it.

We can too easily exist in a false reality where everything is fresh milk and roses in full bloom. Dark fiction is the counter-balance to all that is sunny and warm. We all have darkness in us, we all have shadowy realms.

Milk sours. Roses wither and rot.

I’ve heard you say this is a mirror book to A Perfect Square. Can you tell me how? Why?

I wrote The Cabin Sessions and A Perfect Square at the same time, in the space of two years. I also chose to write both in a very old-school dense and strong style. I don’t always write like that. I was in a very lonely and difficult phase of my life, I’d returned to a place I should never have gone back to, and I was carrying a lot of hurt. I had to sell up and move again to put distance between myself and that phase of my life.  I think both stories emerged out of all that hurt I was feeling, but not in any direct way. More that I buried myself in both novels to shut out the world around me.  I call it my crab shell phase.

Yet buried deep in both novels are elements of my own history. A Perfect Square leans more towards the occult, and in some senses it is a lighter book, but it is a dark mystery, and that darkness unfolds slowly. I think of the two novels as my dark twins.

I am working on two horror/thriller novels. Another set of twins! They are both fast paced and great fun to write. One is almost finished, the other well on the way.  I shall say no more about them. Don’t want to spoil the surprise!

Buying links to Isobel Blackthorn’s books can be found on her website. 

Interview with Theresa Smith – author of Lemongrass Bay

I first met Theresa Smith through the Australian Women Writers Challenge, an initiative established to re-dress the gender balance in mainstream Australian book reviewing. Theresa joined AWWC in 2016 and answered the call for volunteers later that same year. She now serves as the Historical Fiction Editor and has recently taken on the social media aspect of AWWC, moderating the two Facebook groups – Love Reading Books by Aussie Women and Australian Women Writers Challenge News and Events, as well as handling the AWW Twitter and Pinterest accounts. In between, Theresa works as a secondary school careers advisor and manages a growing family. Oh, and she also writes novels. Like what does Theresa not do?

If she wasn’t such a genuinely nice person, I’d probably have to hate her. 🙂

Theresa’ fifth novel, Lemongrass Bay,  was published in 2017 and, although it is not my genre – like not historical or even vaguely Welsh language and culture related, Theresa is so incredibly generous in her support of other Australian women writers, I decided to check it out. Turns out it is one of those titles that will give Indie Publishing a good name. I enjoyed Lemongrass Bay so much, I asked Theresa to answer a few questions for my blog.

Set in a fictional, North Queensland town, Lemongrass Bay is a multi-viewpoint story that revolves around a fractured friendship group. When reckless photographer, Ethan, is struck by lightning, his relationship with Emma-Louise deepens. However, the news that Emma-Louise’s ex, Jimmy, is coming back to town resurrects past scandals, upsetting Emma-Louise’s fragile sense of equilibrium and undermining her long-term relationship with best friend Rosie. But in the end, the past must be faced, the lines of friendship re-drawn, and nothing is quite as simple as it seems.

Sound intriguing? I asked Theresa about her inspiration for the novel.

I was originally going to set the novel in Darwin, because it was inspired by a news article I read on ABC online about a man being struck by lightning on a Darwin beach and surviving. This idea formed the basis of Lemongrass Bay but I wanted to capture that small-town slice of life atmosphere, and Darwin is too big of a setting for that. While I’ve lived in small towns before, I currently live in Mount Isa and I’m constantly reminded of how very different living in a remote small town is from living in a small town that’s not far from a bigger regional town. Remote living changes the dynamics within a town. This is what I wanted to capture but I needed the town to also be on the water for the plot to work, so I made up Lemongrass Bay. It is inspired by Karumba, a small fishing town in the Gulf of Carpentaria, but only in the sense of location and the minimal facilities available.

I love a novel with a strong sense of place and the small town environment, where everyone knows everyone, is one of the aspects of Lemongrass Bay I most enjoyed (apart from the crocodiles). There are some seriously funny scenes involving the town blog, two man police force and Rhett Butler the fat, re-named cat. The multiple storylines, gave me a sense that I was in fact resident in Lemongrass Bay. I wondered how Theresa developed these storylines, whether she wrote them individually and chopped them up later, or in their finished order:

I am very much a person who writes in the the order that it appears in the book. Even when editing, I struggle to jump all over the place and prefer to edit in the correct order. I have a fear of inconsistency, writing something that doesn’t make sense and then not knowing how to fit it in with the rest. If I write in the order that the finished story will be in then I know I won’t have overlooked everything.

That all sounds reasonable until you fall under the spell of Theresa’s well-placed darts and see how artfully they impact the unfolding story. As one who is stronger on character development than plot, I imagined the nightmares Theresa must have had trying to work out how and when to add each new insight.

I have evolved into a plotter. I wasn’t with my first three novels, but I was with the last two, even more so with Lemongrass Bay. I’ve grown quite fond of scene maps and timelines. In saying this though, my plotting is fairly loose and is more of a guide so I don’t lose track rather than a rigid plan from start to finish. The story still evolves very much as I’m writing it and it’s not unusual for a new character to simply emerge onto the page with no prior warning.

So not a plotter or a ‘pantser’ Theresa’s process falls somewhere in between. I asked how her to classify her work and tell me how, in turn, this matches the books she reads for pleasure (you know, when not managing AWWC’s social media and juggling the multiple activities listed above).

All of my books are similar and I think after much deliberation and feedback I can safely peg them as Women’s fiction. They certainly all contain romantic elements but not enough for them to satisfy romance readers and I’m not into happy endings; realistic conclusions are more my style.

I have fairly broad reading tastes. I enjoy thrillers, crime, romance, women’s fiction, rural fiction, memoirs, classics. My favourite though, is historical fiction and literary. If those two are combined, all the better!

Theresa’s love of reading is certainly reflected in her writing. There is a tactility to Lemongrass Bay and its characters which is funny, poignant, angry and desperate by turns. Their streams of consciousness exude a kind of quirky rightness. The following is one of my favourite descriptive passages, evoking an incredibly strong visual image of the girl in question. I’ll leave it with you as a taster of what Lemongrass Bay has to offer:

She ran then, right out of that reception room located at the back of the church, down the isle past all of the shocked faces who by that time had begun to put two and two together and were most definitely not coming up with five.

She ran down the street, and then down another one, her wedding dress bulky and dragging behind her. She kept on running even as she reached the end of the bitumen and found herself on the sand and tufts of hard spinifex. She continued down the smooth beach, her footprints the only ones marring the sand, not caring at all if the crocodiles were out sunning themselves. As she ran, she tore of her veil and kicked off her shoes, throwing all of it out over the surf.

Every part of her ached: she thought she might have been having a heart attack her chest was so swollen. Or a brain haemorrhage, her head was pounding so viciously. Her stomach cramped, a clutching white hot pain that stole her breath away. Sobs tore through her, the disappointment and humiliation it all too much to catalogue in such a devastating moment. She stood the sun hot on her back, dizziness threatening, her breath coming in short painful gasps. Her legs were wet, the skirt of her dress turning red with the spreading stain that seemed in sync with the increasing pain in her abdomen.

Describing herself as an impatient person, in terms of her writing, Theresa came to Indie publishing after her book was rejected by the major publishers. There is no evidence of that impatience in her finished novel however. Lemongrass Bay is well edited and well-presented, its story well told. It demonstrates what is possible in the brave new world of small press publishing.

For more information visit Theresa Smith Writes or the AWW site.

Why did I ever leave it so long? A review of the Rowland Sinclair mysteries

I can’t believe I took so long to start reading Sulari Gentil’s Rowland Sinclair series. I’d heard Gentil speak at the 2015 HNSA conference, had listened to readers sing her praises and had loaned the books out to every one of my crime-reading, housebound library clients, without ever having read them. But December arrived and, with my husband away, my mum terminally ill, and me sitting on the exciting but not yet signed news of a publishing contract, I needed a distraction. I downloaded the first book, A few right thinking men, on impulse. Within minutes of meeting, Rowland Sinclair, the wealthy, self-effacing, piercing blue-eyed, Sydney based, artist and his bohemian friends, I was hooked.

There is something almost Whimsyesque about Rowland Sinclair. Possibly it’s the impeccable tailoring of his suits, or era he lives in, or the gentility of old money, maybe the unrequited love interest? The Australian sleuth, is every bit as captivating as Lord Peter Whimsey. The feel of the novel as authentic as if it had indeed been written in Dorothy Sayers’ day. If Rowland is Whimsyesque, his three friends – Clyde, Edna, and Milt, are somewhat Blytonesque. In saying that, I’m not implying that Rowland’s circle of friends are childlike. However, I do not believe there was ever a Famous Five adventure in which all four cousins did not participate. As Rowland’s friends sit on the end of his bed, drinking beverages that only occasionally involve cocoa, they make false assumptions, take wrong turns, get caught in cliff hanging situations and solve mysteries in settings as divergent as Germany, Paris, London and Sydney. They are, at once, a well crafted complimentary group and complex individual characters. It is though the group’s eyes that we get a fuller image of Rowland Sinclair.

However excellent Gentill’s characterisation, to me, the wow factor of this series lies in its historical detail. Set between the wars and succinctly chronicling the rise of fascism amid the widespread fear of communism, each mystery is interwoven with real 1930s historical events. Chapters begin with a series of newspaper snippets. Participating in each self-contained mystery are historical figures such as Norman Lindsay, H.G. Wells, Eva Braun, Eric Campbell, Charles Kingsford Smith, Somerset Maugham, Albert Göring and Unity Mitford, just to name a few. The skilful interweaving of the characters with the fictitious plot lines lifts the Rowland Sinclair  books above being just-another-crime-series, and gives the reader a seemingly behind-the-scenes glimpse at historic events.

The final feather in this series’ cap is its subtle humour. There is a delicious sense of tongue in cheek throughout the series’ pages. For example, on page 128 of A few right thinking men, after struggling to paint an accurate portrait, of triple-chinned, buck toothed, squint eyed Lady McKenzie that was also pleasing to the eye, Clyde, presents the finished work to his friends.

“Lady Mckenzie is finished, at last,” he announced. “I’m taking her to be framed with the most lavish gold leaf frame known to man.”

“So let’s see her.”

Clyde swivelled the canvas round. For a moment there was silence as they gazed at the dreaded portrait. Rowland broke it first.

“Clyde, old boy, you’re brilliant!” He applauded.

Clyde had depicted Lady Mckenzie accurately, but she was no longer the focus. The foreground was now dominated by a poodle with large beseeching eyes which, by distraction, softened its owner’s severe and unwelcome features.

“My friend, you have painted Medusa without turning us all to stone,” waxed Milton.”

The classical allusion was lost on Clyde, but he gathered it was a statement of approval nonetheless. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier,” he grinned. “She loves that mutt.”

“She’ll be happy with it, Clyde,” said Edna. “It’s such a cute dog.”

“It’s a vicious smelly beast, actually,” Clyde replied, “but its a lot prettier than the good lady.”

The former is smile worthy. But it is not the end of the poodle joke. On page 162, Rowland’s sister-in-law, Kate, is trying to set him up with Lucy Bennett, a suitable young woman from his own social class with whom she hopes he will settle down and forget his bohemian lifestyle. In an effort to draw Rowland into the scheme, a naive Kate suggests he paint Lucy. Flicking through Rowland’s notebook, Lucy quickly becomes alarmed at the suggestion.

“No, I really couldn’t,” she said. “I just couldn’t.” She pushed the notebook back across the table towards Rowland.

Kate looked at her friend, dismayed. Wilfred appeared distinctly disgruntled. Rowland’s lips hinted a smile, but he tried to seem politely disappointed. He slipped his notebook back into his pocket. He knew Lucy had found the pencil studies he’d done of Edna for the nude he’d given his uncle. He was relieved. There was nothing interesting about Lucy Bennett; nothing worth capturing on canvas. As far as he knew, she didn’t even own a poodle.

There are seven books in this series, so far. I read them all in quick succession, during which time, I found myself glancing over my shoulder, fearing dead bodies, ghosts, would be assassins, Hitler’s brownshirts, Moseley’s fascists, and members of the Australian New Guard to attack me. Thankfully, they were too busy beating up Rowland Sinclair. So, I headed over to his Facebook fan page and left this message.

To which the author kindly replied:



Bin Sbwriel – some thoughts on re-writing

Last year, I finished a complete re-write of my manuscript. I started the story in a different place, changed the protagonists’ goals, motivations and conflicts, cut two viewpoints, and, in short, worked out what the whole damn thing is supposed to be about. I sent the manuscript out to friends for feedback. They made suggestions. I re-wrote sections – insert: nights spent lying wide awake, gut churning, wondering whether I was wasting my time, thinking maybe I should focus on being a better librarian, wife, mother, that I wasn’t clever, talented, brave or inspired enough to write a novel.

I then paid for a manuscript assessment.

The assessor, Anne Bartlett, made a swag of positive comments. She also made suggestions for the novel’s improvement. That’s what you pay for, right? That’s what having a manuscript assessment is all about? Correct. But that doesn’t mean the process doesn’t hurt like crazy. I mentioned thIs pain to my writing teacher, poet and novelist friend, Earl Livings.

“I tend to get a little churned up after feedback,” I said, casually after Welsh class one night (insert: heartburn, therapy, hours boring your friends with possible plot changes, OMG the world is ending, your whole family’s tactic avoidance of the subject type feelings).

“You think that’s unusual?” He replied. “Most writers go into a complete spin.”

One of the assessor’s main pieces of feedback was about the beginning. She wrote:

“Slow start. The section in the cellar is well written, but in one sense its a false start – the story really begins when they board the ship.”

I relayed this piece of feedback to one of my long-suffering non-writing friends (yes, I like to spread my angst far and wide).

“That’s interesting,” she said. “Didn’t your first draft start with the characters boarding the ship?”

She was right. Damn it! I’d re-drafted the story to start in a different place, spent hours researching housing and living conditions in nineteenth century Covent Garden only to be told, the story should really begin right where it had initially begun. At this point, you may be excused for thinking I had wasted my time. That I’d be going back weeping and gnashing my teeth, to the initial draft. Wrong. I’d learned a great deal about my characters in those re-written scenes. I had also come to realise multiple re-writes are part of the process (along with the obligatory gut churning). That sometimes you have to write things to learn things, then re-write them differently to include what you’ve learned. I’m slowly coming to realise experimenting is part of re-drafting. As a consequence, I have cut about four thousand words from the beginning of the manuscript, the new start is leaner, tighter and (I hope) better. Meanwhile, I’m putting the trashed cellar scene here, on my blog, for your reading pleasure.

Covent Garden

Thursday 26th of August, 1841

Not long. They had to tire soon. Wrapped in an old eiderdown, Bridie sat, knees to her chest, in the blackened living-room. Her left foot had gone to sleep from all the waiting. Her bottom had turned to stone. But she daren’t sneak out with Alf and Ma awake in the next room.

Stretching her leg out, she stifled a moan. A mistake. She heard a listening silence from beyond the bedroom door.

‘Bridie? Are you still awake?’

‘No, Ma. Fast asleep.’

‘You’ll be tired in the morning, girlie. Mark my words. I won’t have complaining.’

‘I’m trying to sleep, Ma.’

‘Well, for goodness sake stop wriggling. It’s getting on my nerves.’

That was a bit steep. Seeing as Ma’s grief could probably be heard all the way down to the Thames. But at least her sobs were starting to ease, coming softer now, less frequent. Or was that wishful thinking? No, they were fading. Her stepfather’s words also came in shorter, staccato bursts. She couldn’t make them out through the thick wood of the door but he was probably going on about the virtues of Port Phillip, New South Wales’ newest settlement. As if poor Ma didn’t already know.

The living room looked ghostly in the moonlight. As it had, that other night, almost nineteen months ago, with her dad’s corpse laid out on the table. Ma hadn’t wept that night. Nor had there been luggage piled up by the door. Only drawers half emptied and walls stripped bare as Ma, in her fury, fed his memory to the fire.

No, Ma not his ballads. Or his sheet music! Please. Not Sir Walter Scott!

An ember shifted in the hearth. Its reflection played across the wallpaper and scrubbed deal table, the new pewter brooch Alf had pinned to her shawl. Bridie heard a dog bark somewhere in the distance, Ma’s sobs fading as the gaps in Alf’s droning voice expanded. Shouts. A tinkling laughter, cabs being hailed, a rumble of carriages along Bow Street. Then silence. Night held a finger to its lips.

She inched forward on the turn-out bedstead.

It creaked. She paused, head cocked, listening for sounds from the bedroom. Nothing, only Alf’s soft rumbling snores. She rose, tiptoed across the room and picked out a rush light from the saucer on the mantelpiece. Touching it to an ember, she perched the rush in its holder, grabbed her shawl from the pile of clothes Ma had laid out in preparation for the morning and dragged it over her cotton shift. The brooch bumped heavy against her chest.

Lifting the latch, a cold draft played about her ankles as she peered out onto the blackened landing. All was still. Only a greasy smell of tallow wax hovered above the sconces on the wall. She turned, propping the door ajar. Waited. Still no sound from the bedroom. One hand gripping the banister, she inched her way down the stairs. Past the family of six from Essex, the Misses White who went out charring, the dingy first floor room Alf used to occupy.

In the hallway, she stopped, breath hard in her chest. Saw a light threading beneath Mrs Sprugg’s door. Their landlady was old and gnarled as a tree root and Bridie was pretty sure she knew how to cast spells. She wouldn’t take kindly to a fourteen-year-old girl creeping about the house in her shift. If caught, Bridie would be marched straight back upstairs to Ma. Never mind that her notebook lay hidden behind a stone in the cellar below.

She heard a scuffle, a chink of crockery. Deep moans as Mrs Sprugg eased her rheumy limbs into a chair.

She tiptoed along the cold tiles, towards the cellar door.

There were six beds in the cellar, each let out for tuppence a night, but there might be twice as many girls sleeping beneath its thin grey blankets. Bridie paused at the top of the staircase to savour the familiar, dank air. After her dad died, she’d taken over the care of the cellar, charring for Mrs Sprugg in the afternoons after she’d finished helping Ma with her piecework. Sometimes, if the candle lasted long enough, she would draw the notebook from its hiding place and write on its creamy pages. She caught her dad’s echo then, as if he dwelled behind the stone. Knew he’d loved her, despite the horrible things Ma said.

Tonight, the cellar was cold and treacle black, its air heavy with the rhythm of slow measured sleep. Cupping her hand around the flickering rush light, Bridie shuffled forward, groping for a pillar. Heard a nearby bed frame squeak. Froze. Held her breath. A girl sighed, shifting in her sleep.

Boxes had been piled at the far end of the cellar, almost to the high vaulted ceiling. A rickety table and a grimy wing-backed chair had been set before the hearth. Edging her way around the boxes, she set the little flame down on the mantelpiece and took a deep breath.

Almost there.

Running a hand over the dusty hearth stones, Bridie counted four to the right, walked her fingers up six, and grasped the loose stone. It rasped. The sound a hacksaw in the sticky black. She paused, fingers tensed, a familiar excitement fluttering her chest. If only she found a feather tonight? Some spangles? One last message from the fairies?

There was nothing. Her dad was dead.

Reaching into the cavity, Bridie coaxed the notebook from its hole. No need to put the stone back. She’d decided that this morning. Hugging the notebook to her chest, she swung round giddy with relief. Her toe struck the hearth. She gasped, stumbled, grabbed for the chair. Missed. Staggered sideways into the pile of boxes. They swayed. She shot out a steadying hand. Too late. Boxes clattered to the ground.

On hands and knees, Bridie held her breath. Saw a startle of white on the nearest bed.

‘Oi! Who’s there?’

Darting forward, she grabbed the girl’s shoulder and gave it a shake. ‘Hush! It’s me, Bridie. From upstairs.’

A sharp intake of breath. The girl tensed, as if ready to scream. Bridie shook her again.

‘No! Don’t! It’s me.’

Turning, she fumbled for the rush light and held it to her face. The girl blinked, knuckling her eyes, and gasped.

‘Shh,’ Bridie held a finger to her lips. ‘Remember? I clean the cellar.’

‘You ain’t cleaning now!’

The girl grabbed her lumpy bundle of belongings and kneaded it with urgent fingers. It was the nuts-and-orange girl. Bridie had seen her often enough, huddled in doorways, her face pinched and grey as if she didn’t get much to eat. She peered at Bridie now through narrowed eyes.

‘Sure you ain’t thievin’?’

‘No, truly. I’ve come to fetch my notebook. It’s precious. My dad gave it to me, just before he died. See, he’s written a message.’

The girl sniffed, clearly unimpressed. She ran her gaze over Bridie’s thick shawl and clean white shift, her hungry eyes alighting on the brooch pinned at her breast.

‘What you gonna give me?’


‘Mrs Sprugg don’t like girls sneakin’ about the house.’

‘No! I’m not sneaking. Or thieving. I came to get my notebook.’

‘At night?’


‘So, your Ma won’t find out?’

‘Please, don’t tell anyone.’

‘Too late.’ The girl jerked her chin sideways. ‘The old hag’s coming.’

Bridie swivelled round, peering through the gloom. Saw a glimmer of distant light. Heard the tap of Mrs Sprugg’s cane. She glanced at the scatter of boxes, the table, the wingback chair. She had to hide. But where? Her gaze darted from the girl’s face, to the cellar stairs, and back again. She could squat down? Snuff out the light? But what about the girl? Her eyes were hard and cold. A thin smile twisted her mouth.

She reached out, touching a finger to the brooch.

Bridie swallowed. She didn’t care about the brooch. ‘A thistle and rose,’ Alf had said, said, pinning it to her shawl, ‘a reminder your heritage.’

She didn’t want reminding, especially not by Alf. She had her notebook for memories—real memories, from before things went wrong. Proper memories, from before Alf came along.

‘Hello! Who’s there?’ She heard Mrs Sprugg’s quavery voice.

Crouching low, Bridie blew out the rush light, her fingers fumbling with the brooch’s tiny clasp. Ma would kill her for losing it. But she didn’t have a choice. If she didn’t take her notebook to Port Phillip, she’d never feel her dad’s presence or catch his echo. He’d be lost forever from her world.

At last, the clasp sprung open. Bridie jerked the pin from her shawl.

‘Here,’ she hissed, groping for the girl’s hand in the dark. ‘Take it. Don’t breathe a word. If Mrs Sprugg catches me, we’ll both be in trouble, and Ma will be sure to have that brooch back, if she finds out.’

The Storyteller’s granddaughter – a truly Pentecostal novel

My second holiday read was The storyteller's granddaughter by Margaret Redfern. What? Two books in four days? I read fast. I would have read a third book but The Storyteller's granddaughter is a work of fierce beauty. Parts of it required re-reading – multiple times.

Published by Honno the Welsh women's press (well, sue me, I have an interest in Welsh publishers too) and reviewed by the Historical Novel Society, The storyteller's granddaughter breaks all the rules of a 'popular' novel. It starts with an obscure prologue like first chapter, follows with the history of a tribe, swaps viewpoints more times than is usual, and uses Turkish and Welsh words without a great deal of translation, so that, at times, you are dizzied by its shifts. Yet, it works.

On so many levels, it works.

The story starts, late summer, in fourteenth century Anatolia, and follows the journey of a cobbled together group of traders lead by the enigmatic Welshman Dafydd ap Rhickett. Into this group comes a Yürük girl disguised as a boy who is seeking her lost English grandfather. The Welshman recognises the girl, he has seen her in the Yürük camp but, for reason of his own, he agrees to keep her secret. Through illness, intrigue, attack and disaster, the group races to catch the Venetian fleet sailing from Attaleia. Enroute, they come under the spell of the Yürük girl. For all harbour secrets, the biggest of which is being carried by the enigmatic Welshman himself.

The beauty of the novel comes from Redfern's use of language which is rich and poetic. Also from the intermingling of Sufi mysticism and western thought. Each character carries pain, each one is haunted by their secrets, yet in this community of many tongues and faiths, they journey towards peace and resolution. Could the story truly have happened? Possibly not. But there is enough beauty in the telling to make one yearn for belief. Indeed, Redfern gives us a multifarious vision of how a life of faith may be lived.

Great wrong was done by your father, and by the monks who would not listen to you. There are more ways of serving God than that of life in a monastery. That is what Nene used to say. Each to his own. Find gladness in your living. That is what she said. It is in gladness that you worship and honour the life God gave you and for which you are intended.

I'll admit, I ordered this book because I have an interest in Honno, an independent cooperative press that exists to get best of Welsh women's writing into print. You cannot submit to them unless you are Welsh, have lived in Wales, or have a significant connection to Wales. I sometimes lie awake at night, wondering whether having a Welsh mother, multiple holiday visits, speaking and teaching Cymraeg, and being related to the late Welsh historical novelist John James would be enough. These are questions I may put to the test when I stay at Stiwdio Maelor next year. Meanwhile, one thing is certain. To be picked up by Honno you need to be an exceptional writer.


Shut up about the novel and let the festivities begin

Okay, I’ve been slack, I mean, sick and, as a consequence, haven’t blogged for a week. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. As soon as those antibiotics kicked in, I launched from my bed like a rocket land let my pent up thoughts fire out across the page (how’s that for an overextended metaphor). As a consequence, I have finished re-drafting the female protagonist of my novel.


It has been an interesting process, this round of re-drafting. Much less painful than I’d envisaged. I asked five people to read the novel. Three sets of comments were aligned on the most important points. The other set, were an outlier, but nevertheless important. All said that my protagonist was not active enough absent from the most crucial turning point in the narrative. All agreed she needed to be there.

Damn, even I knew she needed to be there.

But…how exactly?

Fortunately, my fifth reader, Euan Mitchell, has a good head for story structure. He can talk archetypal story principles like no one else. He said, your protagonist needs to be there, and she needs to be making all or nothing decisions. We debated this back and forth by email. Me, trying to work out how to do this by making the minimum of changes. Euan, urging me to think beyond pain, and in the interests of the story. Eventually, I came up with a plan. And full of jet fuel (yes, I know, uber corny) I wrote. After we get back from holidays, I’ll test it out on my writing group. But…it’s heading in the right direction, because I liked the aspects of my character that I found in those re-written scenes.

Hey! I hear your say. Shut up about the novel. What’s this about holidays?

Well, here’s the thing. I turn fifty today.

Yes, I know. I don’t look a day over forty nine.

But…there you have it. I’m fifty.

In addition to my recent fossilisation, Andrew and I celebrated our thirtieth wedding anniversary in January. As a consequence we are combing business with pleasure. I am looking forward to speaking Welsh. Cycling in the Cotswolds. Travelling in Wales. Swanning around London with one of my Welsh speaking friends (while Andrew works). Taking Andrew to the Camden Markets. Visiting friends in Wales. And Essex. Seeing the Eiffel Tower, Moulin Rouge and Monet’s Gardens, for the first time. Oh, and did I mention I may get a chance to speak Welsh now and then.

Sadly, my ambitions of learning travellers French have not got far beyond je suis Australiene and je suis algergique. I’ve been too busy practicing Welsh, which, I am sure you will agree is a far more useful language.

What? You don’t agree. Let me tell you, forget Mandarin people, Welsh is the language of the future.

If only more people realised…

Anyway, regarding my lacklustre performance in French, I have masterminded a strategy. If I get in trouble. Or worse, mistaken for an English tourist, I will simply revert to the Welsh language. There is only one small downside to this plan. My husband might divorce me. But…we all know he’s only jealous because he doesn’t speak an up there, on fire, and all-round-useful, second language. It’ll come out in court, I can tell you.

If I wasn’t a writer, I’d say see you in five weeks. But…here’s thing. I multiply the pleasure of events by re-hashing them. You can therefore look forward to being assailed with sub-ordinary photos of Andrew and I in remarkable locations. If you are lucky, I’ll even write the captions in Welsh and English.

Meanwhile, it’s my birthday. So, let the festival of ageing begin.


Handling feedback – and some thoughts on perspective

The wait is over. I've received back four marked-up manuscripts from the members of my writing group. They put loads of ticks all over the pages. Used phrases like fully realised …. couldn't put it down …. great historical detail … holds together well, good pacing … written beautifully. But I didn't see any of that. At least, not on my first frenzied read through their comments. All I saw were the words:

Main character's story arc isn't working.

Not working. I went into a tail spin. Had a small (cough, spectacular) meltdown down. Shoved the manuscripts in a drawer. Decided never to speak to my writing buddies again. Somehow got through my Welsh class without weeping. Went to work, trembling. Sick to the stomach. Found it hard to concentrate. Tried to be philosophical.

'It's only a novel,' I told my friend Glen on our late afternoon desk shift. 'I shouldn't get so upset. I mean there are people without fresh food or water, living in war zones, facing death daily.'

'And this is much worse,' he replied, grinning.

'Yes!' I said. 'It is!'

'I'm giving up.' I told my husband that evening. 'No one else has this much trouble writing a novel. Maybe, I'm just not good enough.'

'Really?' He said. 'That's not my understanding.'

'And what do you mean by that?'

He shrugged. 'All those writers I read about in the newspaper struggle to get it right and have crises of confidence. I get the impression it's all part of the process.'

He was right, of course. I'd come so far. And two of the characters' were definitely working. I only needed to re-work one of them – albeit the main one. Maybe I was over reacting? I decided to do some cognitive work on things. Found myself writing down words like, failurefool to try and … wasted ten years of my life. I took these thoughts to my man in a cardigan. 'That's pretty black and white view, he said. 'What else have you done in the last ten years.

Actually…when I thought about it. Quite a few things. He made me name them. I include the list for your edification.

  • I started writing with four teenage kids in the house.
  • Add in the three, consecutive year long AFS exchange students and we were a household of seven for a few years
  • We had a serious back injury in those years
  • Watched four young adults turn into adults
  • Lived through three sets of engagements and weddings
  • Had a seriously sad teenager who kind of made her presence felt
  • This involved multiple medical personnel in cardigan appointments
  • Did three long overseas holidays
  • Worked part time
  • Took my Welsh language skills from lacklustre to proficient
  • Started teaching Welsh
  • Sold the family home and moved house
  • Adjusted to living in a new suburb
  • Learned a great deal about writing… and life

See what I mean? Written like that it was a pretty black and white to call those years wasted.

Now, in addition to asking my writing buddies to look at my manuscript I'd also contacted a paid manuscript assessor. She was having knee surgery so was unable to give me a quote straight away. By the time she was able to get back to me I'd already received my writing buddies' feedback. We decided it was a waste of money to have her fully assess this draft. I would make the necessary changes and send her the next draft.

Next draft? Note the shift in my thinking.

I pulled the multiple copies of my manuscript out of my drawer. Read the notes and markups again. There were huge sections that needed very little change. Small sections that needed huge changes. I transcribed each comment onto one manuscript. Went on retreat. Came home more grounded. Started summoning the strength. It takes a great deal of emotional energy to write a novel and there are absolutely no guarantees at the end of the process, apart from personal satisfaction and the knowledge that you have grown as a writer and as a person. Starting out, each fresh change will be a battle as I undo what I'd hoped was permanent. But re-drafting is part of writing, I'm learning, and, if I take it slow and keep the Little Red Engine in mind, I can do it.

At least … I think I can.


An Easter without offspring

Biskit's 'Great Escape' is becoming a regular part of our holiday routine. At some point during the bag filling, gate opening and car loading, he works out we are going away. He slinks about with his tail between his legs waiting for a chance. Our journey always starts with Andrew announcing. 'Your dog's gone, Liz.'

To which I reply. 'Well I'm not going on holidays until we've found him.'

We always end up leaving late.

I'm not complaining. I like the way new rituals replace old ones and, as this would be the first Easter Andrew and I have spent alone, since Jack was born in 1985, it was comforting for Biskit to set the ball rolling on an otherwise untrodden course. We had no chocolate, this Easter. An absence of noisy debate. And warmth – seeing as I have given up camping. We were not huddled around a campfire. It was bliss. And odd. Here's my wrap-up of events.


We stayed in Queenscliff, a seaside town at the entrance to Port Phillip Bay. It was hard not to think about my novel as its narrative finishes shortly after a ship bearing it's fictitious characters enters Port Phillip Heads. I enjoyed seeing the fine mist over the morning sea, the low lying, sandy peninsulas, pincered around the bay like a crab. You'd be excused for thinking I'd engineered the location to suit my mood. The truth is budget and availability dictated our choice. Andrew says I have an uncanny knack for finding accomodation that is not quite good enough to be expensive and not dreadful enough to be miserable. The general result being a quaintly eccentric kind of bungalow with clean but not too modern facilities. This one happened to be in Queenscliff. Among the features holding this particular cottage back from its five star rating being the owner's possession of a dynamo label maker and the amateur art work adorning its walls. After realising the paintings were all done by the owner, I said to Andrew. 'That's it. If my novel doesn't get published we are buying a cottage, calling it a B&B and pasting excerpts all over the wall. Then some poor dab will be forced to read my work.'

Exercise – of mind and body

A strange feature of our child free lives is that Andrew and I are both pursuing an intentional level of fitness. Andrew's being far in excess of mine. This week he:

  • Rode to Lorne and back twice (180km)
  • Ran a marathon (as you do)
  • Went on a couple of 10km runs

I, in turn:

  • Did two 8.5 km runs with small intervals of walking.
  • A 40km return bike ride to Ocean Grove
  • An 11km walk
  • And an afternoon cycle from Sorrento to the end of Point Nepean and back.

I did far less exercise than Andrew but I can assure you I ached and complained the most. What more can I say? Some patterns are set in cement. While Andrew was competing in his individual man iron-man contest, I did some late-night, lazy-pyjama-morning bouts of reading. Here's my list:

  • The secret life of bees (magical and uplifting)
  • The kite runner (stark and strangely grounded)
  • The Welsh language: a history (riveting – no, I'm not joking. I couldn't put it down)
  • Aspects of the novel (a bit dull – I started this book ages ago and vowed not to let it defeat me)
  • To kill a mocking bird (I read this in school – it's way funnier and wiser than I remembered)

Outings and Purchases

It wouldn't be a holiday without outings and purchases

I went to the National Wool Museum in Geelong (while Andrew trawled the junk shops). This marked an intentional beginning to the research phase of my next novel. Through, I'd been to the museum before and, in truth, I started the research an age ago. This time, I am almost at a point where I can keep going forward. Most of the information at the wool museum referred to an era later than my mine. But sometimes, seeing the way an industry has developed helps you to know what wasn't in place in the beginning.

We caught the ferry from Queenscliff to Sorrento and cycled to the end of the peninsula. I had forgotten about the extensive fortifications built at the end of Point Nepean. Either Melbourne was in grave danger at some point in history or we had an inflated view of our importance in the overall scheme of things. I suspect the latter, as many men in uniform were involved. And that, in case you missed it, is my ANZAC reflection.

I bought a new pair of jeans (size twelve, slim fit, and yes, I'm boasting), two novels for my nephew's birthdays (which were back in January), and some Australiana type gifts for our trip to the UK in July (no, I'm not excited).


Now being a story teller I like to bring things back to full circle. You can therefore imagine my delight when I came across a fluffy white dog on my final afternoon jog. He had long silky ears like Biskit's and the same off-white colour with a hint of rust showing through his recently clipped coat. I saw his owner standing at the base of a hill hollering. The dog stopped, looked back over his shoulder and, with a cheeky white flick of his tail, scampered along the path, leaving his owner no choice but to lumber along in pursuit. I laughed. I'd played this game before. Only, today, I wouldn't be on the losing side. I waited for the dog to stop, cock his leg and glance back over his shoulder. Before he had a chance to resume his miscievious dance, I scooped him up. He didn't resist. He'd played this game multiple times too. With a resigned doggy sigh, he settled under my arm in a Biskit sized shape and permitted me to jog him back to his owner.

'Thanks.' She bent double puffing. 'I don't know why he does it.'

'Me either,' I said, passing the dog over. 'But I've got one just like him, back in Melbourne. He thinks it's a game to run away.'


Post Manuscript Posting Stress Syndrome

After a spectacular crisis of confidence last Thursday and Friday which I'm now calling Post Manuscript Posting Stress Syndrome (PMPSS), I have recovered my equilibrium. But before outlining the treatment of this acute debilitating illness, let's me first identify its symptoms and causes. And please note: the condition will henceforth be known as Elizabeth Jane Corbett PMPSS syndrome. Which in the event of my abject failure as a novelist will secure my name for posterity.


  • Paranoid checking of email and phone (as if anyone could have read the novel in six hours)
  • Deep aching cavity in your chest that needs lashings of sticky sweet reassurance
  • Waking with ideas for revisions in the early hours of the morning
  • A combustion of shame every time you think of someone reading your manuscript
  • Self doubt to the point of wanting to recall all known copies of said work and shred them
  • Sitting in the corner hugging your teddy bear and moaning


  • General inability to face normal domestic and administrative tasks
  • Unshakeable conviction that real life is what happens on a page
  • Tendency to get lost or caught up in writing tasks for hours on end (multiple burnt saucepans as evidence)
  • Mis-management of mildly (cough) obsessive tendencies
  • Dis-inclination to act on husband's well intended suggestions that you take a break (yes, Andrew, you were right again)


Treatments for this acute, self-inflicted psychosomatic condition vary. But during her research, Elizabeth Jane Corbett, has identified some common therapies.

  • Watch endless YouTube clips. Welsh comedians are particularly effective
  • Indulge in other obsessive interests. Translating arm-long lists of little used Welsh words has proven therapeutic. But, a word of warning, this list should never be mistaken for classroom preparation. Or inflicted on a poor unsuspecting beginners Welsh class. No matter how interesting it may seem to the PMPSS sufferer
  • Take comfort in your day job (unless, of course, you are a librarian in which case exposure to other popular works may exacerbate symptoms)
  • Read a gentle comforting novel (in a genre different to the one under consideration). Alexander McCall Smith's titles are routinely prescribed as they have the added benefit of reminding the PMPSS sufferer that life is essentially about being a decent human being not a multi-published, award-winning, best-selling author (sob)
  • Avoid reading the blogs of other successful writers until the worst of the symptoms have passed
  • Or sending hate mail to any of the above authors
  • Schedule a Dukan celebration meal with sympathetic family members
  • Try not to talk about your manuscript at said celebration meal (this is an extreme therapy and beyond the fortitude of most sufferers)
  • Do not open your manuscript to check anything even when a reader tells you they are up to page a hundred and twenty
  • Let your dog sit on your lap and stare up at you with adoration
  • Then, come Monday morning write something else – a review, some interview questions, a short story, a blog, anything to take you back to the real word of the page.
  • In no circumstances, should the suffer make a delusional attempt to clear their in-tray or get on top of their administration. This will only lead to a reoccurrence of symptoms.

Finally, if you are currently suffering from PMPSS and are having trouble moving from the Teddy bear rocking stage to the YouTube comedy stage here is a clip to get you started.


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