Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: novel (Page 1 of 2)

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

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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:

 

 

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Bin Sbwriel – some thoughts on re-writing

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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?’

‘Give?’

‘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?’

‘Yes.’

‘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.’

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The Storyteller’s granddaughter – a truly Pentecostal novel

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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.

 

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Shut up about the novel and let the festivities begin

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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.

 

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Handling feedback – and some thoughts on perspective

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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.

 

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An Easter without offspring

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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.

Accomodation

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.'

 

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Post Manuscript Posting Stress Syndrome

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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.

Symptoms

  • 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

Causes

  • 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)

Treatment

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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Tagged – my not so rolling blog tour

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Let me introduce Christine Maree Bell. I first met Chris at a book launch and then, many moths later, quite by accident, I bumped into her on the train. We were both heading into the city for a Melbourne Writer's festival workshop. I don't know when or how we started work-shopping together. Only that we've been doing it now for quite some time. As I write this post, Chris is heading up to New South Wales to take advantage of a Varuna fellowship. This recognition is long deserved. She has written for the web and had multiple children's educational titles published. Her first young adult novel also won an unpublished manuscript award. Her second young adult novel is at submission stage. While at Varuna, Chris will be working on re-drafts of an adult historical novel.

See what I mean, she's going places.

I was therefore thrilled when she tagged me in a rolling book tour. This involved answering some questions about my writing process and tagging three other writers. This is the writerly version of a chain letter without the accompanying threats and curses.

Here are my answers to the questions Chris sent.

What am I working on?

I am working on the re-draft of an historical novel called: Keeping Notes. In 2007, an early draft of this novel was short-listed for a Harper Collins Varuna manuscript development award. Since then it has been re-worked, rejected, put aside, and then restarted. There was something about this story that wouldn't let go of me, though my stomach clenched every time I thought about the amount of work involved in re-writing. I have just finished the end of the re-draft and I'm getting ready to send it out to readers.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Keeping Notes is a psychological novel, set in 1841. Part coming of age, part fable, it is a story about losing a father, facing the truth, and how life is never as it seems. The setting is a nineteenth century emigrant vessel. The history early Australian. But there is also a fair bit of Welsh mythology thrown into the mix. I don't know anyone else writing an Austeakian historical, psychological novel with Welsh mythology at its core. I trust it is therefore distinct.

Why do I write what I write?

I was born in Britain to a Welsh mother and English father. Emigration was the defining event of my childhood. I've spent my life reading British novels and, in particular historical ones. I did an Arts degree, as a young adult, majoring in history and politics. In later years, I went on to study librarianship. But I never stopped reading historical fiction. When I decided to give writing a go there was no choice. It had to be historical. I started with the character of Caroline Chisolm and then worked my way into all things nineteenth century and immigration. I decided to make their destination Melbourne because that's where I live. When I threw a Welsh story teller into the mix the story took off. I journeyed back to the Land of My Fathers in my imagination.

How does my writing process work?

I'm a nervous convoluted sort of writer. I start with an idea for a scene in mind. And a wringer twist in the pit of my belly. I light a candle and over coffee and journal about what I want to write about. Yes, that's right, I write about what I want to write. This gives me courage to face the empty screen.

Sometimes, my writing day goes well. My fingers fly across the keys. Other days, I sit at my desk and bleed. But I'm learning that bleeding is a necessary part of the process. As at the end of a difficult day, when I begin to unwind, the answers to a knotty scene begin to clot in my subconscious. I jot them down before I go to bed and then journal about them again the next morning and, all the while, I'm trying to work out the beating heart of the story.

Right, having answered the obligatory rolling blog tour questions it is now my turn to tag three other writers. This has proven a little more difficult than anticipated.

You see, all my close writing buddies have already been tagged. Feeling distinctly unloved and seriously unpopular, I turned to my cohort of Historical Novel Society colleagues. Eureka! A number of them expressed an interest in being involved. Sadly, my excitement was short lived. Despite plaintive polite reminders, only one of them has sent the requested biography and photo.

Sophie Schiller is now my new best friend.

In fact, in my eagerness to procure Sophie's participation, I may have invited her to dinner and succumb to the Aussie stereotype of offering to throw a shrimp on the BBQ.

As Sophie lives in the US, I may never have to make good on my offer. But I wouldn't mind, honestly. Her work sounds so interesting. Sophie was born in Paterson, NJ and grew up in the West Indies amid aging pirates and retired German spies. She was educated at American University, Washington, DC and spent many years working in International Business before becoming a writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Thanks for coming on board, Sophie. And if anyone else out there is not too busy or too famous or to otherwise engaged, send me your bio, photo and URL and I'll add it to the page. Oh, yes, and you can also join me and Sophie for dinner, if you are in the area.

Woo hoo! Lance Elliot Osborne has joined the dinner party. His apologies for the late arrival – he's had an insane week, hit by a storm of family and professional obligations.

Lance is a Texan who grew up twelve miles from Hornsby's bend and two miles from the mountain that in Bold Crossings the Wukubuu's people call “Father of the Great River.” He also grew up with descendants of Malcom Hornsby's family and the tales of their ancestors in the 1830's. These legends, coupled with thorough research regarding all peoples that populated Texas in the same decade, are the makings of Bold Crossings. In his research, he has learned a great deal about the Penatuka Comanche that called central Texas their home. And he is honored to have grown close to his Penatuka Comanche mentors in Lawton, OK during the research process.

Before Bold Crossings, Lance had written in various genres, including for the small and large screens. In fact, when he was seven years old he penned a two-page script for his favorite TV show…

Lance blogs at: http://boldcrossings.jimdo.com

 

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A little wisdom from Family Guy

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Next week, I'm going to finish the complete re-draft of my novel. That's presuming I don't go under a bus, over the weekend, suffer a sudden loss of memory, or get summoned home by the great Library God on high. I've got a final chapter to write, a week's long service leave booked, and a husband going hiking in Tasmania.

Monday afternoon, I anticipate writing the long awaited words, The End.

Though, in fact, it will only be a beginning. I will have pull the manuscript together, tidy it up and send it out to readers and then, commence the next round of edits. But before that, I will take stock of my achievements. It has, after all, been a long process.

How long? I'm not going to tell you. But I started with four children living at home. They are now all gone, three of them married.

That long! Yes, I'm a special case.

But before you agree, let me offer some provisos.

First, my three children married young and in quick succession (there's a blog in that surely).

Secondly, I had never written a novel before (apart from three chapters of a horse book in year five). In fact, I hadn't written fiction for a very long time. Not since a disastrous short story in year nine in which I pinched the boat in a painting idea from C.S Lewis' Voyage of the Dawntreader and tried to write something touching about salvation. The teacher begged me to re-write. Yes, it was that bad. I refused on religious grounds – religion in this case being another word for laziness. I scored a measly pass (generous teacher) and never tried my hand at fiction again until…I turned forty and started wondering where my life had gone.

My early drafts were a mess. I didn't understand point-of-view or over use of adjectives. I didn't know about narrative drive, proper punctuation or even story structure. I had a particular fondness for over extended metaphors. Despite this, I had some early encouragement. From Sally Muirden, who taught Year of the Novel, at the, then, Victorian Writers's Centre, from Peter Bishop at Varuna, who short listed the novel for a manuscript development award, and from Alison Goodman the kind soul who agreed to asess my work. These people were incredibly generous. But that didn't change the impact of their words.

It needed work. Serious work.

Now being a first time novelist, I thought this meant lots of tweaking. Even after I took my novel to TAFE and learned about story structure, with Euan Mitchell, I was still trying to nip and tuck without altering the basic shape of the thing. It took winning the Bristol Short Story Prize and being rejected by a respected Melbourne publisher to bring me to my senses. Even then, I dug my heels in, until Nick Gadd, my then TAFE tutor, offered a few home truths about the situation.

I was shattered. He and the publisher were suggesting a total re-write. Like, you know, a throw-the-cards-up-in-the-air-and-see-where-they-fall type of affair. Apparently this is what you are supposed to do at the end of a first draft. It is rarely a matter of tweaking and polishing.

I was in a bad place at the time. Kids on the run, kids getting married, people needing my attention. I had to take a break. Try and work out whether to give this re-write a go or chuck the whole project in and start something else. I got stuck in that place for quite a long time – friends wearied of hearing me go over and over the same old stuff – until one day my good friend Denis took the bull by the horns and said: I don't think you can chuck it in Liz, so you may as well get on with it.

I'd like to say it got easy after that. But it didn't. That's where this segment from Family Guy comes in. You see, I never had a sly-voiced, fork tongued friend like Stewie to undermine my confidence. I had my own hissing voice in my head. You're a fool, wasting your time. Your friends all think so. No one else has taken this long to wrote a novel. You can't be a real writer. You're having too much trouble. You may as will give up and knit booties. Or…didn't you used to be good at cross stitch?


 

Now I took these thoughts to my medical man in a cardigan and we did some cognitive work on things. But the self-doubt didn't go away. I had to start writing with those snakes hissing and coiling in my head. That's when I discovered Bird by Bird (thanks Anne Lamott) and post card sized assignments. Every morning, I'd wake with a clench of dread. I'd tell myself all you have to do is set the scene. All you have to do is write that piece of dialogue. All you have to do is imagine how your character is feeling.

I also read The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. Did all the exercises in the book – like all of them. Morning Pages became an essential part of my routine. Every morning I'd light a candle inviting God into the process then I'd write long-hand in a red leather bound notebook about, well…everything and anything, over and over – all the rubbish in my head.

At some point I'd arrive at what I was going to work on that day. I'd blow out my candle and head to my computer. You can write a whole novel that way. I almost just did. And, once I hit the mid-way point, the negative voices began to fade. I started to enjoy myself, to wake each day with a surge of anticipation. To feel that this project may in fact be worth finishing.

Worth? Now that's an interesting word. How do you measure the worth of a thing? A publisher's rubber stamp of approval? Well, that would be nice. However, I am not falling into that trap again. I'm going to measure my manuscript's worth by the self-doubt I've battled, by the blind faith I've mustered, the knowledge I've gained about writing and myself, and by the friends I've made along the way. With these things as my yard-rule, I can never fail. But that doesn't mean I won't be giving giving old Stewie a final whack on the head when I finally write: The End.


 

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Hanging out – a week in so many words

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You've had a momentous January. First, ten days of bronchitis during an extreme heatwave. Second, a week at the beach with a rowdy family group. Whilst there you relax. Clock up thirty years of marriage. You return home and the reality starts to sink in. You haven't been to the gym for two and half weeks. You haven't touched your novel either. Or kept up with the whole social media thing. Added to which, you've eaten way too many Celebration Meals.

You attend a church meeting Monday night. Welsh class starts back on Tuesday evening. You also have your brother staying with you. You know that for missionaries coming home is always confronting. You also know that Sydney Road is nothing like Main Road, Blackwood. So much ink, he tells you with a shake of his head. When did that happen? You try to listen and be sympathetic. You talk about his work. His plans for the future. You have your own ideas but you try to be tactful. You fail. You can't sleep because of this. You go to work exhausted. You are pleased to meet your new job-share partner. But it's hard getting your head together. You deliver books to a local aged-care facility and leave without returning the keys. Drive back. Read the roster wrong. Forget about the afternoon staff meeting. Your new job-share partner asks about your life. She says I get the impression your are a creative person. You think, that's a very generous assessment of the situation.

Despite your inefficiencies, the two of you cover heaps of ground. You feel wasted but you manage to converse in Welsh at the SSIW Google Hangout that evening. Your brother makes a positive comment about your language acquisition. You make excuses about how rusty you are. But deep down you're ginning like a gate at the compliment. You're on the bike by seven o' clock the following morning. You make loads of decisions regarding work processes. You manage to read the roster correctly. And turn up for your desk shift. After work, you catch the train to Flinders Street. Do some shopping. Cycle home in the cool of the evening.

At home, two excited dogs run to greet you. That's right, your daughter's dog is staying for the weekend. You make the mistake of letting the dogs sleep in the house. You wake up around one o' clock to a volley of barking. You fumble for a light, the keys. You put the dogs in the garage. You wake up early, worried about them in the heat. You have washing to do. The dishwasher to unstack. You sigh, remembering all those Celebration Meals. You decide to do an extra BodyStep class. You're hopeless. Someone has to help you adjust your step. You mutter something about having had a break. You shop. Cycle home. Unpack the groceries. Hang the first load of washing. Chop some rhubarb. Unstack the dishwasher. And then you do what you always do. You write something. And once you start writing you realise you're tired. It's been a big week. You drink some coffee. Hang a second load of washing. Unstack the dishwasher. Bring the bins in from the street. You survey the summer parched garden. And promise yourself a lazy evening.

 

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