Thursday, February 25, 2010

Racist? Moi?

I’ve got a few minutes, so I thought I’d do a wee blog this morning. I had a long think, came up with nothing, so decided to have a sup of coffee and a gander at the paper while my cogs finished their union meeting and got back to work. And, hey presto, a subject. A glorious, ripe, bulbous subject that’s just perfect because it gets my blood boiling.

Now, some of you who have read this blog (has anyone read this blog? hello? hello? did I just see tumbleweed?) know that I tend to go for the easy, self-deprecating stuff, with a smidgeon of chucklage thrown in to excercise the old laughing tackle. But today – and please feel free to look away if you don’t like the swearies – I’m going to break with that tradition because I’m so fucking over the pile of shite this world is festering into.

See, I’m a Scotsman. I’m an Aussie too, but we can set that aside for a wee while. And because I’m a Scotsman, and a football fan (in my spare time I take a rest from that particular torture by stabbing myself in the thigh with poisoned cat claws), so because I’m a football fan I couldn’t help but take an interest in the article on the BBC news website today – Police Fears Over ‘Anyone But England’ T-shirt.

Apparently, the cops in Aberdeen have taken it upon themselves to wander into a guy’s kilt shop on George Street and warn him about displaying these ‘ABE’ t-shirts in his window. It could ‘cause offence’, they say. Because it’s ‘racist’, they say. They have a duty to ‘preserve the peace’, they say.

I know what their bloody duties are – I was a cop in Tayside before hopping a plane out here – and sending a beat cop to pressure some guy into changing an inoffensive and purely ironical window display ISN’T what they have a duty to do.

Let me reiterate: they’re advising the owner of Slanj (the shop – great looking website, by the way) that his window display could be deemed ‘racist’. And then they go on to point out that Aberdeen, like other parts of Scotland, ‘...has recorded incidents relating to nationality...’ Hm. Is that so?

First, race and nationality are not one and the same. Go check out the English cricket team if you’re in doubt. And the Scottish one, too, if you really must. Didn’t find what you were looking for? Check out the British Army.

Second, this has absolutely FUCK ALL to do with race, and everything to do with HISTORY. See, since 19666 (yes, El Diablo was involved) – the year when almost all of Scotland was shrouded in the smoke of smouldering TV father told me our old brick shithouse valve-bustin' Baird took three kicks before it coughed out sparks (ah, they don’t make ‘em like they used to) us Scots have had to put up with ‘racism’ from the English.

Which takes me to point three. It isn’t fucking racism! It’s light hearted BANTER between one and a half great footballing nations. Nothing more. The English expect it of us. They have a laugh about our blinkered approach to the world and our inability to reach the finals of ANY sporting event (tennis excepted – thanks Andy), and we laugh when anyone they play at football knocks the swagger out of them. That’s why us Scots support anyone but England. Not racism. Jealousy. See, we're fed up of our World Cup campaigns stalling at every red traffic light...

But how could anyone be so desperate for confrontation as to call it racism? Or nationalism? Or any colour of ism you care to think up?

Another thing: exactly where do we draw the line as we struggle to define the term ‘race’? As far as I’m concerned, I’m with Ross Lyle from Slanj: us Scots and them English are one and the same race. We’re British. And we all have a British sense of humour.

What we’re seeing here is another example of the world (or is it just those who are connected in any way shape or form with the justice system?) gone mad. So, my message to the cop who thought trying to throw his weight around in a kilt shop would be a great way to spend a few minutes of his shift on a cold shitty day is this: fuck off and catch a mugger, ya mug.

P.S. If I wasn’t such a tight-arsed Scot, I’d buy one of those t-shirts and wear it every game England played. After all, and as usual, it’s the only connection I’ll have with the world cup. Oh, No it isn't...where's my Australia kit? :)

PPS Anyone who doesn't see the irony that's inherent in this article (the owner of a kilt shop being told he's being racist against the English) doesn't know the history of the kilt.

I'm done - end rant.

Pic courtesy of David Lodge. Thanks, Dave.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Book Review: A Feast of Small Surprises (Corinne Van Houten)

I love it when I pick up a book and find an hour has passed in the blink of an eye. Not all books grab my attention that way – far from it, in fact – but I had the pleasure of reading Corinne Van Houten’s masterful mystery A Feast of Small Surprises just recently and I think she’s got the recipe just right.

A wise reviewer / literary critic once said ‘ only get out of a novel what you put in...’ and I can tell you A Feast of Small Surprises proves that assertion beyond question: invest, and you will reap high rewards.

Set in Italy (Florence and Rome, to be precise) Feast sets its tone in the first few pages and sticks with it throughout. A newly discovered piece of baroque artwork claimed by some in the know to be a masterpiece by a long-dead bad boy of the seventeenth century; a vicious car bombing meant to kill; and a cast of self-centred characters each with hidden and not-so-hidden agendas makes this novel an absolute joy. Worried that there might be insufficient sub-text? Don’t be – it’s a cracker.

Now, I won’t debase Corinne’s novel by peppering this review with spoiler alerts, but let me just say as far as plot is concerned that everything hangs together and you won’t be disappointed. That’s down to the amazing balance of believable characterisation, believable use of the principles of cause and effect, and believable depictions of where the story takes place. Mix all three elements together as Corinne Van Houten has managed to do and the result is a joy to become a part of, however temporarily. The thing is – and this is the gauge by which I measure true quality in fiction – Anne Langlais and all her idiosyncrasies are still with me weeks after reading the novel, as are Maya Kelly and Edward Donant. And just about every one of the supporting cast of characters, each with their human strengths and human weaknesses.

I doubt there’s a woman alive who won’t recognise part of herself in Maya, or in Anne. Every person is flawed, after all, thanks to what has shaped us in our lives, and these two women silently demand that we ask ourselves – ‘what’s she going to do now?’ (actually, as far as Maya is concerned, I often found myself asking who’s she going to do now...but that’s perhaps giving away too much – read it yourself!)

When I think of ‘page-turners’ I generally gravitate towards the Bond novels, or Dan Brown’s offerings, or something along the lines of Matthew Reilly’s Ice Station. Imagine my ‘surprise’ then, when I caught myself at 3am one morning (and I’m an early-to-bed kinda guy) turning yet another page of Feast. The least likely looking page-turner it may be, but it’s that, nonetheless.

Clearly, Corinne Van Houten has travelled; I’d bet she’s been to Italy many times, visiting galleries, sitting by the fountains that she so expertly describes and taking dinner under the stars on the fringe of just about every bustling piazza. But her descriptions of place go far beyond the travelogues in which many writers of fiction find themselves mired. Somehow she manages to give meaning to each location, and I think that’s due in part to her knowledge of the art history of each place she describes, and also because of her ability to relate that history to the people of the present day. I’ve never been to Italy, but after reading A Feast of Small Surprises I’m planning to make amends on that score. I just hope I find as many delights in the real thing as I found in Corinne Van Houten’s brilliant novel.

One last thing to wrap up: I must pay homage to her choice for the cover of her novel. Irene Belknap’s Continuum (oil on canvas, 1990) is not only stunningly beautiful to look at, its thought-provoking themes relate closely to those of the novel – focusing on character, heritage and the often absurd nature of humanity.

Corinne Van Houten grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. She holds a PhD in Art History, Women’s Studies and Literary Criticism and now lives in Oregon. To buy a copy of Feast visit Corinne's website, or get it on amazon.

Cover photograph reproduced here by kind permission of Corinne Van Houten.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Minute's Silence Please...

For the passing of the portavac.

For three weeks, Porta, our faithful little friend from Beijing, has been coughing and groaning and spluttering, thanks to #name removed to protect the guilty# defying instructions not to involve him in the last tri-annual Great Dusty Shed Cleanup. A turn for the worse was observed this morning (pardon my passives), and Dr Jackypoohs performed open belly surgery under general anaesthetic in the midst of a spilt box of cereal. An hour of sweating over the operating table - the one beside the stove top, not that it matters - couldn't prevent the inevitable, and Porta's little heart finally gave out at 09:07 hours.

Sadly, next of kin have rejected all organs donated.

Funeral at the end of our driveway on Monday 22nd at noon, or whenever Reverend Recycle-Truck shows up.

Sad days.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Coincidence Conspiracy

I was reading the paper this morning when I saw an article about some meteorite that landed in Australia 40 years ago having finally given up some secrets. Amazingly, a boff or two had found that it contained ‘millions of different organic compounds’, whatever the hell that means. But the really, REALLY amazing thing about the article was that this meteorite was called the Murchison meteorite...and it landed in an Australian town called...Murchison! Freaky or what? I mean, what are the chances?!

Okay, so I’m having a larf mate (for anyone who’s still scratching his baldy bit, they named the damned thing after the town, for Pete’s sake) but in real life coincidences slacken our jaws almost every day.

Example: I went to Scotland on holiday a few years back. Had a great time and the weather was fantastic. Yeah, I know...who’d’a thunk it. But there I was at Jura House gardens on the island of Jura (another coincidence? too damned spooky, if you ask me...) poking my nose into some flowers (them flowers, in fact -->) while Alibal went off to get us some tea from the marquee, when a polite and educated elderly lady of the ‘have-gaiters-must-walk’ persuasion approached and started chatting to me. Her opening gambit was, of course, about the sunny weather – it must have been 28ºC (about 82ºF) – and my new chum had a good old rave about the heatwave. I said it was just perfect temperature for me, since I’d lived in Australia for a few years and was used to temps much higher than 28. (Aside: yesterday it was 37ºC here, or 98.6ºF – just right for demolishing a garden shed.)

So we chatted some more and she asked what brought me back to Scotland and I told her I was taking the chance to research my family history – I’d been over to the Isle of Skye looking for Bruces, down to Fife looking for Ramsays, and up to Aberdeenshire looking for Eastons, and now I was taking a wee break on Islay, checking out the distilleries and just enjoying being home.

Then Catriona – we’d introduced ourselves by that stage – asked where in Australia I was from, and I told her I have a place on the western outskirts of Brisbane, in Queensland.

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I’ve got a cousin in Queensland. Up north.’

‘Really?’ says I. ‘Me too. I’ve never met her though, since I’ve only just found out about her.’ (I’d spent time just a few days before with my cousin, Tony, who’s mad for the family tree stuff and can tell you which Fitzgerald married which Bruce, and which Ramsay married which Mitchell, where and when, and what they all did for a living way back in Umpteen Oatcake.)

‘Well,’ says Catriona, ‘my cousin’s from a sugar town called Sarina.’

I almost choked on the tea Alibal had brought over from the marquee. ‘That’s a coincidence. My cousin’s from Sarina.’

Our faces may have taken on the same thoughtful look at this point, I don’t know – but after a pause, and almost in perfect unison, we said, ‘Cath Hutton.’

If you’d told me before I set out on my trip home that I’d chance upon a relative of a relative in a remote but beautiful part of Scotland’s west coast, on the sunniest, hottest day of the year, I wouldn’t have believed you. But it happened. Of course it happened – in real life coincidences happen all the time.

Since that encounter with Catriona, I’ve met up with our cousin Cath many times, and we still have a good old head-shaking session when we talk about that chance meeting on Jura.

I just wonder if some fluke of timing ever inspired Jane Austen, who loved to pepper her plots with amazing, entertaining (and often convenient) coincidences. No matter, because it’s obvious to me that life imitates art, just as much as art imitates life.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Possum Death Knell

The thing that’s surprised me most about Australia since I came to live here ten years ago is how easy it is to get used to the beasties. The stories I’d heard before coming out here weren’t enough to put me off, but they did make me wonder about how I’d react to my first huge spider incident, or to finding a scorpion in my boot or having a billion flies land on my Chicko roll. I was reasonably sure I’d cope okay, but a man never really knows until it happens. As it turns out, I was fine with all of the above. But one incident lives with me to this day as the singularly most gruesome thing I’ve ever seen in Australia. If you’re squeamish, better look away now...

Alison’s brother and his wife came out from Scotland to visit us in April one year, and brought their four-year-old twins, Ethan and Tamzin, with them. We had a great time visiting the theme parks down the Gold Coast, taking a trip over to Stradbroke Island and driving along the beach (which the kids loved), going to South Bank parklands to swim and generally enjoying each other’s company over too much rich food.

But the thing that brought the biggest smiles to the twins’ faces was when it grew dark outside and the possums came down from their beds in the palm fronds to feed on the bananas and nuts we treat them to on the patio every few nights. Tamzin stood at the lounge window, mesmerised by their fluffy tails and cute little cat-like faces, so much so that she named the cutest of them Hush – ‘...because that’s what you do when the possums come down to feed’ (she was only four, remember).

A few days from the end of their holiday, Adam, Michelle and the kids went off on a pre-planned trip to Sydney to visit some friends of theirs. While they were away, Alison and I kept up the routine of occasionally feeding the possums, partly so that they’d be there for the kids to gawp at when they got back from Sydney.

The night before our guests got back, Alison and I were snuggled up watching Monarch of the Glen on telly (which, twee as it is, always makes me homesick enough to pour myself a Scotch). Hush the possum was down on the patio, feeding on a banana, and when she’d had her fill she jumped onto the trunk of a palm tree and disappeared up into the shadows.

I turned my attention back to the telly, but a few minutes later Hush crashed to the ground. I’ve seen possums fall out of the trees before, and they’ve always taken a few seconds to compose themselves before running off or starting a fresh fight – they’re very territorial. But Hush was dead. Lying on her side with her eyes shut, not breathing, not even twitching.

Alison and I looked at each other – the last thing we wanted was for her brother and his family to come home and see a dead possum in amongst the bromeliads.

‘If she’s still there in the morning I’ll go out and bury her,’ I said.

‘What the hell’s wrong with her?’ Alison asked, but she’d no sooner finished speaking when a four-metre python clattered onto the pergola roof and fell to the ground beside Hush.

After a few minutes of lying absolutely still (during which time I was really confused – what was up the tree that would kill a possum and a python?) the snake started to flick his tongue in and out, then uncoiled himself and moved towards Hush.

Over the next hour or so, Alison and I stood hypnotised as the python unhinged his jaw and slowly enveloped Hush’s body, a mere two metres from our lounge window. When he was done, he just as slowly eased his belly up onto the edge of a flowerpot to push Hush just a little further down, then slithered off into the darkness.

Maybe one day I’ll log on to YouTube and post the video I took. Or maybe I won’t. That was the first time I’ve ever not finished a glass of whisky. Know what I’m saying?

Anyhoo, the next day we picked up our guests from the airport, took them home and pretended for the kids’ sakes that some imposter was Hush. And I prayed like mad that the python (who I later named Malfoy) had enough in his belly to see him through hibernation and wouldn’t be back for seconds before our house guests left for Scotland.

Yes, we resorted to a little white lie, and I see no reason why it can’t be...wait for it...Hushed up for all time to protect the innocents.

Who groaned?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Pop Goes the...Stick Insect

Warning: I still find this disturbing, in a Gawd, I'm an idiot kind of way.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how I arrived in Australia, green as grass and a committed scaredy-cat as far as the local wildlife is concerned. Have a look at Snakes Alive! if you feel you’ve missed something.

It didn’t take me long, however, to realise that even living in suburbia, as Alison and I did in the first few months after we arrived in Western Australia, the wildlife quite literally on our doorstep was magnificent to behold.

One evening we arrived home after working in Perth, and there, on the screen door, was the biggest stick insect I’ve ever seen. I swear the thing must have been at least nine inches long, maybe even a foot.

We stood gawping at it (he/she? Who can tell these things just by looking?) for a good five minutes and then gently eased the door open and slipped inside.

That stick insect was the instigator of much refreshed enthusiasm for our new homeland that night. Everything we spoke about centred on its mammoth proportions, its subtle colouring, its brazen refusal to budge even when we were standing just a few inches away (I got closer as I got bolder, as men do), and its surprising cuteness – it’s an insect; it shouldn’t be classed as cute, but this little (big) guy (guyess?) was cute as cute can be.

Another day dawned and our routine – alarmingly, very like the routine we followed back home in Scotland – kicked off again. After a quick breakfast we headed to the front door, but I stopped myself from barging out with my usual bluster. I wanted to see if Twiggy was still there (yes, because of her stubborn refusal to move from the door we decided that she must be female and we named her accordingly - sad, isn’t it, how grown adults with university degrees will regress to the level of five-year-olds when cuteness is introduced to a situation. Actually, there is a pattern to observe here, as I'll demonstrate in a later post.)

There was no sign of her. Not on the screen door, not on the bricks of the wall, and not on the inner door, although why I was checking there I have no idea.

“Musta buggered off last night,” I called over my shoulder to Alison as I stepped out onto the porch...


I looked at my feet, and there was Twiggy. All nine or so inches of her. Flat as a flounder, and very, very dead.

I’ve never felt so low. I’m still not over it. But it’s only been ten years.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Labels (a.k.a. How to Look Like a Complete Nutcase, Part II)

In an earlier blog post I suggested to novice writers (and I include myself in that category) that taking time to participate in some writing courses might be a good idea. Now, I like to practice what I preach, so I contacted Queensland Writers Centre and booked myself on a course – Creating Narrative Suspense, run by the great Peter Watt (Cry of the Curlew, Eden, Papua, The Stone Dragon, The Frozen Circle, to name just a few.)

On the day of the course, I slapped on my sticky name badge, picked the seat at the front – the one with the biggest pile of chewy mints on its desk (my favourite ‘lollies’, as the Aussies call them) – and had a fabulous Saturday. I networked about a dozen other writers, and I learned from one of the best about how to keep a reader reading my work. If you haven’t yet thought about what techniques you can use to make sure someone who picks up your book finds it very hard to put down, I recommend you contact Pete and ask when he’s next running that course.

Anyhoo, when the course was over I popped the last chewy mint into my mouth, said my goodbyes and trotted off between Edward Street’s late afternoon shoppers to meet HRH Princess Alibal, who I knew would be hunting the vast plains of Brisbane for just the right...well, I can’t really recall, but it’s usually shoes.

The first thing I noticed was that some of the older women I passed weren’t so much glancing at me as giving me those long, sympathetic looks – the kind of look you’d give a cockatoo that’s cooped up in a cage. Odd, I thought, but I wiped the slavers from my mouth (the last mint wasn’t done yet, and mints always gets my juices flowing like mad) and trotted on at pace. A few more women gave me that look, and at one point I was sure one of the older dears was about to reach out to take my arm.

“Bunch of bloody weirdos,” I muttered to myself, causing a fresh dribble of slavers to cascade down my chin. I stopped to check my reflection in a perfume shop window, just in case my drool had pooled somewhere that might embarrass me, and there, big bold and bloody obvious on my chest was my nametag, not quite soggy...but getting there.

Okay, so imagine you’re walking down the street on a sunny Saturday afternoon and you see a bearded drooling idiot trotting towards you with his name emblazoned across his chest, glistening with some kind of goo. Wouldn’t you feel sympathy? Wouldn’t you want to help this poor nutcase called ‘Jack’?

Of course you would.

To all who received my very best scowl that day, I thank you for your concern, but I’m fine. Honestly. And I promise I’ll never grow a beard again. It’s great for scaring babies, but it also tends to mask the sensation of drool, and that’s never a good thing.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sharing Secrets with Phantoms (a.k.a. How to Look Like a Complete Nutcase, Part I)

My wife (Princess Spendalot, She of the Shoes) came home from work the other day. I knew she was home because she stood at the door to my study doing her little ‘cough, cough’ routine. So I greeted her with the usual ‘Nice to see you’re home; fancy a foot massage and a glass of wine?’ stuff, and she rather pointedly asked me who I’d just been talking to.

I realised I’d been at it again.

See, when I’m writing, I need to ‘meet’ my characters, so that I can understand them; so that when I commit them to paper, I can show them doing what nature intended them to do, not what I or my plot needs them to do.

I’ve found that, for me, the best way to do that is to start a conversation with them. Unfortunately, that can make me look like a nutcase. Meh...if the glove fits...

I imagine myself out and about with them, at a football match, or having dinner, or (my preference) walking in a quiet forest with a stream running beside us. I listen to what they tell me (although, of course, it’s me who’s doing all the talking...hence the nutcase thing) and I make mental notes of how they talk to me, because that’s how I get to feel not just their unique speech patterns, but their attitudes to certain things. And with attitude comes depth – we start asking deeper questions about why a character feels a certain way about something.

Take Gaby Dunbar, for example. Gaby’s a supporting character in my crime novel, Brogan’s Crossing, but when I ‘walked and talked’ with her, I started to realise that she’s probably one of the strongest characters I’ve created. We went for a walk in the countryside – I chose Birnam Wood in Perthshire, because I used to walk the softly sprung pine needle paths there when I was younger, and because I find its fresh forest smells and cooing wood pigeons relaxing – and we spoke about her early years, and her relationship with her mother, and how her father died and the effect that had on her, and about her sister and how there’s always been animosity there and what's causing it.

I asked her why she chose law enforcement as a vocation, what her career aspirations might be, why she feels so strongly about meting out justice on behalf of those who can’t claim it for themselves, and how she sees the future: how governments are changing their attitudes towards crime and punishment, and what needs to be done to restore the deterrent element of any punishment. Gaby’s answers surprised me, but gave me a chance to go back over the character sketch I’d drawn for her and add detail; detail that (I hope) brings her to life and makes her someone who readers can respect and identify with.

Don’t get me wrong: you don’t need to mash everything you know about your characters into your manuscript (in fact, please don’t, because there’s only so much backstory a novel – and a reader, however patient – can take); but you do need to know how your characters will react to, say, a waiter spilling a drink over her, or her mother chiding her about still being single and childless at 35 years of age. If you know these things and more about your characters, you’ll not only make them realistic, consistent, flawed and believable, you might just create a spin-off character or two who can stand on her own as a protagonist in a future novel.

I was having dinner with Gaby Dunbar when my wife walked in on us. Embarrassing but, no, I don’t feel cheap – I’m a happily married man. Besides, Gaby let me into a few secrets I’m fairly sure she wouldn’t tell anyone else – not even her mother.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Never Name Your Baby 'Cumbernauld'

I splurged a whole load of guff yesterday about how I go about getting a novel from 'I've got an idea...' to 'I'm finished!' But I didn't really go the whole hog. See, every novel needs a tag to identify it. A title. And, for me, the process of picking that tag always brings on one of my biggest nightmares.

There are writers out there who can pluck earth-shattering titles from nowhere, and God how I envy them. They hack away for a month or three creating a masterpiece, then tag their babies with names like 'Angels and Demons', 'Deathwish' or 'The Empire Strikes Back'. Lucky ****ers.

I, on the other hand, tagged one of my works 'Pretence and Palliation'. Yup, I did. Notwithstanding the obvious limitations (one day I hoped to market this novel to the Americans, who spell it 'pretense'), it just sucks. Big time. I know it sucks because I lost count of the number of people who read my work on authonomy and said, 'Jack, this is a cracker of a page-turner, but what's palliation mean?' I had another go. 'Beyond Reasonable Doubt'. Better...but I still hear sucking.

I knew then that getting the title right was going to take a horrific few months, and I knew there would be sleepless nights, sweaty brows and much scoring with that blood-red pen. After all, I'm the man who once wrote a short article about constipation and called it 'Winnie Won't Poo'.

What the hell was I thinking?

Now, I could start a list here of all the crappy book titles I've come up with (imagine Eddie Izzard and his renaming Gerry Dorsey to Engelbert Humperdink sketch - Zingelbert Bembledack, Tringelbert Wangledack, Slut Bunwalla, Klingybun Fistelvase, Dindlebert Zindledack, Gerry Dorsey, Engelbert Humptyback, Zengelbert Bingledack, Engelbert Humperdinck, Vingelbert Wingledanck…wait, wait, wait - go back one...), I could do that, but all it would do is annihilate any self esteem I have left as a writer. Let me just say that I think I'm learning what it takes to name my babies. When I'm conversing with friends about my latest novel and they bowl the inevitable 'So what's it called?' question, I no longer mumble 'Cumbernauld' and change the subject. I beam and say 'Brogan's Crossing' - and almost instantly I see them put a name to my lead character and begin thinking about what changes must be taking place in this guy's life to make him 'cross' to some other path. (Either that or I've bored the buggers speechless.)

And that's the secret to naming your work: knowing your work. Know it inside out. Focus on your theme, the underlying message that you're trying to get across to your readers.

Look again at those titles up in paragraph two. Each one tells you exactly what the novel is about. More than that, it tells you that the writer knows how to focus on what the story is about. But 'Pretence and Palliation'? Sheesh.

I'm not saying 'Brogan's Crossing' is the best title I could come up with, and I'm sure if I ever hook an agent or publisher she'll have (I hope) a few words to say. But it's a step in the right direction.

And if you're struggling to find the perfect title for your manuscript and you're about to turn to the Scotch, try The Random Book Title Generator. It's an excellent website for getting started.

Good luck.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Giving Something Back

Some Writing Tips (from a novice)

Many new writers don't have a clue where to start finding things out; everything from how to get started writing a book; how to keep going when all you want to do is trash the thing you've spent months creating, who to turn to for help, finances, resources, blah-blah-blah. I thought I'd try to help, because I've had so much help from others in the industry. I'm no expert, believe me, but I do have a passion for writing. Knock yourselves out with this, and good luck with your writing. By the way, this is Australian-centric, since that's where I live :)


* Forget about getting rich quick. That's unlikely to happen. It might, but it's unlikely. But if it does, good for you. Uh, spare some change?

* Read self-help books (see list below for my favourites) and find out what makes a good book (and a reader) tick.

* Attend courses on writing technique, as many as you can afford

* Meet up with other writers, join on-line forums, blogs, etc - don't work in isolation.

* Know your subject.

* Sit down and write!

* Put your work aside, let it stew for at least a month. (get rid of the dead goldfish that's been staring at you for the last month, bond with the kids (or are they now young adults?), try your hardest to remember your wife's name...assuming she hasn't divorced you)

* The serious editing stage. Edit for everything you can think of. Aim to put out the best work you can. Polish, polish and polish some more!!

* Make the decision: do you want to try getting it published? Or is your manuscript destined for the bottom drawer?

* Sit down with a bottle of your choice and pat yourself on the back (no one else will do it for you) and think about how you'll reward yourself for your hard work.


Let's be honest, it's not likely to happen, is it? Most novelists in Australia earn less than the minimum wage each year, so the chances are you won't be able to rely on your literary skills to pay the rates bill. There are those who make a lot of money, of course. The headline-grabbing book deals are what get our attention, after all. But for every rich writer there are a thousand on the breadline. There are many reasons why publishers, editors and agents say 'Don't give up your day job!' and that's one of them.


Like any trade, few people are born with the writing skills and industry knowledge necessary to create a competitive product that publishers will feel comfortable taking a gamble on. I started by reading the 'Idiot's Guide', and worked my way through textbooks on plot, dialogue, character and viewpoint. Here's a list of my favourites, but some may be out of print:

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Creative Writing / Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D. / Alpha / ISBN:1-59257-206-5 (excellent starting point)

The Everything Guide to Writing a Novel / Joyce and Jim Lavene / Adams Media / ISBN: 1-59337-132-2 (again, a good starter)

Novel Writing / Evan Marshall / A&C Black / ISBN: 0-7136-6852-0 (this is my bible, and you can't fail to get your novel finished using Marshall's method)

Plot and Structure / James Scott Bell / Writer's Digest Books / ISBN (13): 978-1-58297-294-7 (planning a novel? Read this...)

Twenty Master Plots / Ronald B. Tobias / Writer's Digest Books / ISBN: 1-58279-239-7 (twenty? There's really just forda and forza!)

Creating Unforgettable Characters / Linda Seger / Owl Books / ISBN: 0-8050-1171-4 (everything from paradoxes to dialogue and stereotyping)

Characters and Viewpoint / Orson Scott Card / Writer's Digest Books / ISBN (13): 978-0-89879-927-9 (great in-depth study guide)

The Author's Toolkit (a step-by-step guide...) / Mary Embree / Seaview Publishing / ISBN: 0-9700682-0-4 (how to get started, avoid the pitfalls, etc)

The Art of Dramatic Writing / Lajos Egri / Touchstone S&S / ISBN: 0-671-21332-6 (the daddy of them all, although biased towards the playwright)

The First Five Pages / Noah Lukeman / Fireside / ISBN (13): 978-0-684-85743-5 (how to avoid the rejection pile by presenting your most professional work)

Give 'Em What They Want / Blythe Camenson & Marshall J. Cook / Writer's Digest Book / ISBN: 1-58297-330-X (enter the lion's den of publishers and agents...and keep your head)

The Oxford Style Manual / R.M. Ritter/ Oxford Uni. Press / ISBN: 0-19-8605641 (grammar, style,'s all here)

The Oxford English Dictionary / Catherine Soanes / Oxford Uni. Press / ISBN (13): 978-0-19-860454-9 (good enough for me, but try the web if you want the biggest)

Roget's Thesaurus / Susan M. Lloyd / Longman / ISBN: 0-582-55635-X (you'll never be stuck with a weak noun or verb again)


Various writer's centres and course providers can help you here. I recommend the Queensland Writers Centre as an excellent resource, and Varuna has a great reputation, too. In addition, some manuscript appraisal agencies will offer mentorships. Flood Manuscripts in particular offers a service which I consider to be second to none.

Many universities offer full-time courses on creative writing, and some offer part-time or distance learning options. Browse the web for the most up-to-date offerings.


How can you write a story about people (the crux of all tales, after all), if you shut yourself away from the rest of the world? Answer: you cannot. This is another of the reasons a publisher or agent will say 'Don't give up your day job.' Get out and about. Meet people. Watch how your friends and colleagues interact. Pay attention to the detail of their speech patterns, hand movements, eye movements, and anything else you can stare at without getting yourself arrested. It's called 'observation', and without good skills in this department you'll miss a lot as a writer and your writing will suffer for it. Even if you think you have those skills - and who am I to argue? - if you have nothing to observe, your writing will suffer.

Join a writers' group. Join a blog. Contribute, make friends and be sociable. The side-effect of that is this: you'll probably find other writers who are of the same experience level as you; they may well be keen to critique your work in return for your critique of theirs. A search of the web should trawl up some great writer's blogs.


Research is something that can be your friend, and your worst enemy. When you've done your research, you can write with authority, write with more passion,and more confidence. Your writing takes on a believable feel to it and every reader will appreciate it.

When research takes over your project, however, it's your worst enemy. Background research can become an excuse not to write anything for days or months on end, because 'I'm researching at the moment...' Yeah, right. Many writers do just enough background research to get them started on their stories. As they write they leave 'stubs', little marks on the page (I use three question marks in square brackets - [???]) to tell them they need to do some follow-up research on some small detail, also known as 'spot research'. When you start writing your draft, do not stop. If you need to check something out, do it later, if you can, and leave yourself a note on the page that you need to follow up.


The tautologists among you will be tisking and tutting - sit down and write...Okay, so lesson 1 is: keep your writing tight! But whatever you do, before you've got anything to edit, get it down on paper first. And that takes a hard slog. Most fiction comes in somewhere between 50,000 to 300,000 words (drat those fantasy bricks), but even 50,000 words takes a bit of doing. I write crime thrillers, so I'm aiming at the 90,000-110,000 word market.

One thing's for sure: if you don't get yourself in front of your computer (please, don't use a typewriter...or a chisel and sandstone, it's so passé) you'll never get anything written.

I know it's hard sometimes. Hard to get started. Hard to keep going. Hard to stop, for some folk. I get round those problems by working to a plan. It's an organic plan that changes a little as my story matures, but it's still a map of where I'm going. In builder speak, 'I need to know roughly where to erect my trusses'), Usually, I aim at a specific milestone. I don't have to achieve that milestone in a day, or any particular time frame, but I make myself sit at my computer for a given amount of time each day. You can do the same. If nothing comes, go over something you've already written - it'll probably spur you to write something else.

Another thing I do is get something under my belt before I have breakfast - even if it's only 350 words (about a page). It helps me because I see that I've already started on my day, and my goal is that little bit closer. Someone I read once, called it the 'nifty three-fifty'. That works for me.

On a good day I aim to write 1,500-1,700 words. Sometimes it's more, sometimes it's less. If I complete those words (let's take the average i.e. 1,600) in, say, eight hours, it will take me about an hour to write 200 words (this is drafting). At that speed, it'll take me 550 hours to complete the discovery draft (first draft) of a 110,000-word novel. That's a long time. It's a long time to be looking forward to having a completed draft that I can start to polish. It takes resolve, commitment, patience. But if I can do it, you can do it. WRITE!


Note: it's called the 'discovery draft' because this is where you discover all your plot holes, weak characters, poor dialogue, etc

Sort the obvious spelling mistakes - running spell checker as you write the draft just doesn't work for me because it slows me down, gets in my way.
Sort the obvious grammar mistakes - again, grammar checking now will help.
Think about your chapter breaks - you'll want to prompt your readers into reading on to your next chapter, so start thinking about how you can heighten the tension.


Now, put the thing away and have a break from it. Get some distance between you and your characters, your plot, your writing style. Go to Corfu. Visit the Himalayas. Take some chocolate to the guards outside Buckingham Palace. Whatever you do, take your mind off your novel and have a break. For at least a month.


Like it or not, editing is essential if you're to send out your best work. And why would anyone send out anything less than the best? Printouts work best for me at this stage. I need to see what's on the page from a reader's perspective. Print it double-spaced, so that you can annotate without being too cramped. This editing procedure is iterative. I may take you ten edits, it may take you forty. Don't give up. It's all about sending out your best work - either to publishers and agents, or to your friends and relatives. Whoever you intend showing your work to, surely it's also you that's on show. Don't be scruffy.

My first edits are usually for plot holes - the ones that can't be fluffed around and shouldn't be there in the first place. I rework from there, add anything that expands the story or clarifies anything that's confusing to read.

It's up to you how you edit, of course, but I go on to look at the quality of my writing: tautology; sentence structure; paragraph and chapter structure; overuse of adverbs and adjectives; wild and wonderful metaphors and similes that just don't work (my personal downfall); showing, telling, and showing and telling; dialogue that's ordinary, hard to follow or too informative. The list is almost endless for this edit. If you're writing suspense, your hook, intensity and prompts (how you hook the reader into your sentence or paragraph or chapter; how your scenes increase in intensity from beginning to end; and how you leave the reader wanting to read more - either another sentence, another paragraph or another chapter).

Once I think I'm happy enough o have someone else read my work, it's over to my good mate, Steve. I'm lucky that I have someone who I can call on to give frank, honest and knowledgeable feedback. If there's no one in your circle of friends who can (or is willing to) do that for you, it's time to check the web and get yourself into a writer's circle.


It's a nerve-jangling moment, the first time you let your work out of arm's reach. I know some writers who are content to create a 90,000-word novel and let only family and friends read it. That's up to them.

I want people to read my stories. It's a personal choice for each of us. And only you can make it.


The slog is over. Or is it? Depends on whether you want to try getting your work published or not. Most writers work alone (notwithstanding what I said above about getting out and about). Few non-writers recognise the hard labour involved in creating a novel - from concept to research to planning to drafting to editing to guaranteed rejection from agents and publishers who are so over-worked they don't even have time to write a polite acknowledgement of your existence (they're not all like that, of course.)

So, sit back and pat yourself on the back. You've finished a novel. You're happy with it. You've done something that few people have done.


That's a very rough and ready overview of how I write, and the sub-text of it tells you why I write. You'll find ways to improve on my methodology, no doubt, so don't be afraid to do what comes naturally to you. Write the way that works best for you.

If you decide to sit and write a novel (or stand and write's up to you), or a book of non-fiction - good luck. Stick with it, knuckle down and it'll be finished in no time. And the chances are you'll have something you can be proud of.

Go write it. And good luck!