Wednesday, December 22, 2010

List of lists

The time for best book lists is here.
Here are just a few:
Publishers' Weekly (US) includes Patti Smith (which I still can't find anywhere) and [sigh] Freedom. This is the test for each list - does it include Freedom?

Anis Shivani at the Huffington Post calls it one of the year's several notably "ponderous, bloated, eminently editable books". He prefers Orhan Pamuk.

Closer to home, the Fairfax papers asked a whole lot of clever people what they liked. Christos has discovered Margaret Yourcenar. Colm Toibin loved David Malouf's Ransom. And Geraldine Brooks adored- surprise, surprise - Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

The Guardian did the same thing, with rather more mixed results: Philip Hensher loved Freedom. Can  that be right?

Finally, The Daily Beast added up the votes and came up with a list of lists - with Room at the very top, which is splendid. This list saves you having to read all the others. Nice.

Wolf Hall. No contest.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Democracy in action

Fiction is democratic, it reasserts the authority of the single mind to make and remake the world.

~ E L Doctorow

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lately I've been...

  • Swordspoint and The Privilege of the Sword, by Ellen Kushner. Mannerpunk novels with lots of swordfights. Swordspoint, in particular, is delicious. And I get to claim I'm reading them for research, too.
  • Opera, or The Undoing of Women, by Catherine Clément - gorgeous critical writing.
  • The Slap. Finally. And I don't know why it's so compelling either, but it just is.
  • Occasional Writings, by Margaret Atwood. I meant to save it for my holiday but couldn't.
So instead I'm taking to the beach:
  • Timepieces - Drusilla Modjeska on writing
  • The Lacuna - Barbara Kingsolver, about which I've heard mixed reports, but I know it isn't The Poisonwood Bible, so I'm prepared for anything
  • The Red Shoe - Ursula Dubosarsky
  • Notes from the Teenage Underground - Simmone Howell 
  • And Bleak House. Just because.

  • Teddy Tahu Rhodes in The Marriage of Figaro
  • Firefly on DVD
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1) about which I feel better as the distance between us grows. 
The sixth HP film was always going to be slightly problematic, since it is largely about the trio and their quest/conflicts, without the usual ensemble, and all the big battles will be in the final instalment. But it really does work, not least because the three main actors are now so much better than they were when they were younger.
I've heard numerous stories of small children sobbing in the cinema. It's not a little kids' film by any stretch of the imagination - please, if your kid is not old enough to read the book without help, don't take them to the movie.

Of course I'm writing my PhD novel. But also making scribbles for a sort of fantasy something.
And doing last minute proofing things to Act of Faith, which is now coming out in July.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Great things: at stake right now

All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honour, duty, mercy, hope.

~ Winston Churchill


Made a rough timeline of La Maupin's life - on timetoast - these are just a few dates of performances etc where I know the specific date:

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Hearing voices

Here's a (short) paper on writing La Maupin, presented today, including a couple of brief extracts from the draft - it's here on my website.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Proof of life

Proofreading's all done on Act of Faith.

Those sharp eyes at HarperCollins spotted a few howlers, thank God. That's what happens when you chop and change, which you inevitably do. You lose track of whether you are just before dawn or just after dawn and make your characters do a bit of time travel - not a good thing when it's not science fiction or fantasy. Or you move a sentence and then find it swinging in the breeze, alone and without meaning. Anyway, I hope we caught them all.

That's what editing's for.

I love being edited. As someone who is also in the business of publishing other people's content (albeit online), and often trains people to write for the web, I'm always astonished when people say "Don't change a word". Meaning, "I don't want my pearl-like prose to be touched by some talentless hack". Don't you mess with my text. You'll ruin it.


This book has been well edited and I'm very pleased with both the process and the result. Other people see things you simply cannot see - you stop seeing - especially words or phrases you use too often. Other people ask sensible questions like "Did you mean for that to happen?". It all goes to make the reading experience as smooth as possible. Don't you hate it when you're caught up in an adventure or an argument and your mind trips over a typo or a logical gap?

Of course, we all make mistakes and sometimes editors do too. Have you ever seen those websites where people dissect in minute detail any bloopers in the Harry Potter books? Well, life's too short to spend time documenting them, but they are all good fun - just the other day I was reading Deathly Hallows and was stopped yet again by the fact that Dean has no father on one page and parents a few chapters later. It's easy enough to do, especially with that many characters and details.No doubt there will be something, even with all this wonderful editing, in Act of Faith. I will find it the day after it comes back from the printers.

But never you mind. Which is one of those phrases I used far too often in it.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Monday, November 29, 2010

Ink on paper

Sneak preview of the new book: opening paras. All typeset and loverly. Though you can't tell that from here - sorry. But anyway...

My first love was a book.
It was a tiny thing, made by my father’s hand to fit into my own; inscribed in his strong, sloping letters and with a title page illustrated by him for me, with sketches of angels, horses bearing knights and red banners, roses and snowdrops and holly, and, in the centre, a unicorn.
I believed then that it was a picture of the whole world.
I remember every line of that book – even the creases in the pages – though it is many years since I held it. The year 1640, it must have been, or thereabouts.
‘In the beginning was the Word,’ he’d written on the cover and, inside, the first few words of Psalm 100: ‘Make a joyful noise.’

That's all. You can read the rest in August.

Friday, November 26, 2010


History is a collection of found objects washed up through time. Goods, ideas, personalities, surface towards us then sink away. Some we hook out, others we ignore, and as the pattern changes, so does the meaning. We cannot rely on the facts. Time which returns everything, changes everything.
~ Jeanette Winterson

Saturday, November 13, 2010

From the Hudson River to the Kapiti Coast

I never quite expected the words "Camus" and "Paraparaumu" to appear in the same story, but trust Bookslut to get there first.
An interesting post from Elizabeth Bachner on being transported by the legendary Margaret Mahy all the way from Manhattan to Paraparaumu, as an adult reader of a young adult novel. Margaret Mahy can do that to you.
Bachner has been scouring The Ultimate Teen Book Guide: More than 700 Great Books, and spends some time discussing the nature of best books - the books to which you return, no matter what age you were when you read them:
It makes me expect some new book [which will] thrill me, and heal me, and mutually love me, and make me safe. It reminds me that being full-grown doesn’t mean I have to be stolid, untransformable, bored, or dead. Beginning and ending things does not have to be teenage.

She touches on the question of whether the YA novel's success in a crossover market is because it allows time travel by the reader back to their own adolescence or simply across genre. Or simply about finding a bloody good read.
I was wondering the same thing this morning, as it happens, having downloaded the new Scott Westerfeld, Behemoth, a ripping steampunk yarn set in World War One. Sure, I can put it down as research of my own, but the truth is that the first book in the trilogy, Leviathan, sucked me in good and proper as a reader of any age, so that I felt I had to get the ebook immediately instead of waiting to be able to locate a hardback in the shops.
My critical author brain reads it out of one eye, my breathless twelve year-old self reads it with the other.
I don't even pretend when reading some books - for example, Harry Potter. If I think about the words on the page too much, I wish for a more heavy-handed editor. So I don't think about it. It's not hard. The story and characters inevitably carry me away from my adult self.
Mind you, my adolescent self largely had to get by without young adult novels and spent a great deal of time angsting with Camus too.
So maybe we're just catching up on lost opportunities.

Friday, November 05, 2010

And then you get wrinkles in time

"The concentration of a small child at play is analogous to the concentration of the artist of any discipline. In real play, which is real concentration, the child is not only outside time, he is outside himself. He has thrown himself completely into whatever it is that he is doing. A child playing a game, building a sand castle, painting a picture, is completely in what he is doing. His self-consciousness is gone; his consciousness is wholly focused outside himself.

"When we are self-conscious, we cannot be wholly aware; we must throw ourselves out first. This throwing ourselves away is the act of creativity. So, when we wholly concentrate, like a child in play, or an artist at work, then we share in the act of creating. We not only escape time, we also escape our self-conscious selves.

"A writer may be self-conscious about his work before and after but not during the writing. If I am self-conscious during the actual writing of a scene, then it ends up in the round file."

~ Madeline L’Engle

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Mixing metaphors

Reading some nice posts over on the AFTRS blog about genre films and television: 

Karen Pearlman argues that "Genre is Necessarily Metaphoric", including a claim that:

The purpose of Australian feature film production, I propose, is not to tell our own stories.  The purpose of our feature film industry is to make our myths.
and follows it up with "Genre is not a Dirty Word", which surveys classic genre films and argues:

...when we say Genre is not a dirty word we are not saying “sell out”, we are saying pay attention to audience expectations, create them and fulfill them.  We are saying pay attention to the history and techniques of cinema.  We are saying make stories that are bigger than yourself.  And finally, we are saying: consider the role of myth in storytelling and what stories are for.  
It doesn't seem to be an argument against realism as such, but rather a vindication of the use of myth and metaphor in film, and especially of genre film - and television. We hear the same discussions about genre writing in print. Attack, dismissal and defence.

I wonder whether genre writing has a much healthier future on TV than in film in spite of all the death knells. It certainly seems rosy at present. Period drama, space, procedurals, westerns, even musicals are thriving.
Never mind all the vampires.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sandy togs

I wondered briefly if I should take Byron to read in Byron Bay. Settled instead on Christos.

Now wondering whether one should take one's e-reader to the beach. Paperbacks really do seem somehow more beachy.

So as usual the suitcase contains five books plus I have something silly to read on the plane - plus the e-reader. Luggage no lighter than normal. But I do have more than a hundred books to choose from when I get to the usual day two "I don't feel like reading any of these" phase.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Lately I've been...

  • Crafty TV Writing (Alex Epstein - because you never know)
  • Electricity (Victoria Glendinning - one of my heroes)
  • The Library at Night (Alberto Manguel - another one)
  • The Thief Taker (Janet Gleeson - not - why do so many writers of historical fiction cram an encyclopedia of period detail into the first chapter?)
  • Essentials of Screenwriting (Richard Walter)
  • Critique of Criminal Reason (Michael Gregorio, the pseudonym of Michael G. Jacob and Daniela De Gregorio, and not bad really)
  • Women in Seventeenth Century France (Wendy Gibson, who seems to have written an entire book without mentioning the most interesting woman in seventeenth century France, but never mind)
  • The Seven Ages of Paris (Alistair Horne)
  • The Three Musketeers (Dumas, of course - one more time).

  • My author's note for Act of Faith, which took far longer than it should have because I kept wanting to look up all my references all over again - it heads off for typesetting shortly
  • Third person present tense [sigh]

  • Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (but I might have mentioned that once or twice already). Mind you, Glee and The Good Wife come back this week so some semblance of sanity may return
  • Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole in 3, which I have to say was pretty funny - if you get all the references to war movies, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars.
Listening to
  • French - Earworms CDs
  • My girlfriend playing Justin Timberlake over and over.

Planning trips to
  • Byron Bay, next week
  • Amsterdam and Cambridge, for research
  • France, this time next year, for research.
  • The days until the next Harry Potter film opens.

Friday, October 08, 2010


Put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.

~ Colette

Thursday, October 07, 2010

All present and accounted for

Well, I didn't know it was a stupid trend.

The prevalence of the historic present tense is but one symptom of an itch for formal trickery that has been evident in British fiction for a couple of decades. It belongs with multiple narrators, fragmented or reversed chronology, inadequate or inarticulate narrators, and all the other tricks of the trade. It might or might not be a passing fad, it can certainly be used thoughtlessly, but it is a form of narration that has been employed with great intelligence in some of the best novels of recent years.

But now I think about it...



My current novel (the PhD project) alternates between first person and third person, present tense. Kind of like Bleak House. Yet not.

But by the time it's finished, present tense will be horribly passe. Or perhaps it already is. On the up-side, maybe that means it could swing back into fashion by the time anybody reads my attempt.

Philip Pullman hates the historical present:

I want all the young present-tense storytellers (the old ones have won prizes and are incorrigible) to allow themselves to stand back and show me a wider temporal perspective. I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses.

I don't think I'm guilty of the crimes he describes. (Also, I'm already old - though I was perversely pleased to learn I'm still younger than enfant terrible Jonathan Franzen.)

I haven't used it before, and it seemed to me the natural and perfect way to convey action - swordfights, arguments, and looking in through a lamplit window into the life of the first person narrator. The third person view contradicts the first person a few times. She's talking it up, as she (Mademoiselle Maupin) is wont to do, but we see it differently. I've got a complex structure built around the idea, aligned with the five act structure of one of her operas.

"Writing is vivid if it is vivid," says Philip Hensher, quite rightly. "A shift of tense won’t do that for you."

I didn't know it was going to blow up into a major debate. Or, perhaps worse, be done to death. See, there's another reason to read all those Booker nominees.

Anyway, it's tedious. Now I have to think about what to do.

I hate that.

Go girl

Love this rant from Rachel over at Forever Young Adult:

Important Literary Journals and Established Intellectual News Sources say I should be ashamed of my reading habits. I’m the reason the publishing world is in such a state, me and my crummy stupid YA books, and it has nothing to do with shitty, self-important authors who are working out their issues in their “plots” rather than with a therapist, because the book isn’t actually a book - it’s the author dealing with the fact that he (and Important Adult Literary authors are almost always men) didn’t win the box car derby when he was nine, and that pain has haunted him for his entire life!

What she said.

And also:
Why the pages and pages of review inches and breathless feature articles for books only ever read to the end by twelve geeks, and virtually none allocated to books read endlessly and adored by thousands of young people?

Anything that smacks of self-importance never even gets opened in this house. So authors, choose your covers and promo blurbs very carefully. Because sometimes we do judge a book by its cover.

Martin Amis has a lot to answer for.

Friday, September 24, 2010


I've been watching Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. Pretty much non-stop. For weeks.

Missed it completely when it was actually on TV. Couldn't have cared less. Didn't watch Xena. I grew up with The Bionic Woman, Princess Leia, and the original Charlie's Angels; and nobody, I figured, could measure up to Lynda Carter in her red undies in the superhero stakes. So the 90s superhero phase completely passed me by. Never even saw The Matrix on the big screen (something I deeply regret).

Also, while I quite like action thrillers, I'm not very good at watching scary things, so I've never seen Alien.

But since then, you see, there are children - then teenagers - who really want to watch Spiderman or X-Men over and over and you get sucked in and the next thing you know, you're begging your niece for Buffy DVDs. All seven series.

Now I remember what's so super about superheroes.

My pirate books were, in fact, anti-superhero. I'd read so many frustrating kids' books where the protagonist - especially if she was a girl - only escaped the usual near-death experiences due to her amazing and often unsuspected superpowers.

Superpowers suck, I decided. My books will NEVER feature superpowers. In fact, I think I constructed some sort of thesis along the lines of superpowers undermining feminism because ... well, I don't remember the rest and that's probably just as well 'cause it's bollocks.

I am, however, still quite happy to argue that many authors let themselves and their characters or plots off the hook with the use of superpowers or paranormal activity. It can be lazy, distracting, pointless. It can be just plain stupid. Read I, Coriander? I rest my case. I've mellowed, and am again quite happy to be completely immersed in a well-constructed world of superheroes, so long as that world has its own creative and mythological logic - and not just powers splashed about like fairy dust.

At any rate, Lily Swann, in the Swashbuckler trilogy, quite specifically has only one power that her fellow pirates consider to be extraordinary. She can read. Oh, and she can fence. Both quite remarkable for an ordinary girl in 1798.

She follows the Joseph Campbell-style Quest, as do all heroes, and as many Jungian archetypes a person can muster - they come out of the mythical woodwork while you're not watching, I swear.

Of course, she is incredibly brave. That goes without saying.
She's consciously a hero without superpowers, as is Isabella in Act of Faith (out next year) - unless you count education as a superpower which, until recently in the western world, it was. They save themselves and others, including men; they overthrow great powers almost single-handedly; and they - I hope - get all the good lines.

But then, so does Buffy.
Brilliant lines in some pearl-like scripts - scripts so good that I have twice stood and applauded, literally, at the end of episodes - although one of those episodes had no dialogue at all.
For example:
Xander: I've been through more battles with Buffy than you all can ever imagine. She stopped everything that's ever come up against her. She's laid down her life - literally - to protect the people around her. This girl has died *two* times, and she's still standing. You're scared, that's smart. You got questions, you should. But you doubt her motives, you think Buffy's all about the kill, then you take the little bus to battle. I've seen her heart - and this time not literally - and I'm telling you right now she cares more about your lives than you will ever know. You gotta trust her. She's earned it.
Faith: Damn, B. I never knew you were *that* cool.
Buffy: Well, you always were a little slow.

It's hilarious and moving and strong and beautifully written (especially the later series) and scares the shit out of me on a regular basis.
Drusilla: [as The First] Do you know why you're alive?
Spike: Never figured you for existential thought, luv. I mean, you hated Paris.

Jennifer K Stiller argues in Ink-stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors that the quests of female superheroes are different to those of their male counterparts. Their attributes - and challenges - include compassion, leadership, friendship, family, love, community, and the potential loneliness of those who wield great power. Above all, their stories are about redemption. They usually operate in ways that are not found amongst the Justice League of America or even the X-Men.

The rules about vampire slayers, says Buffy as yet another apocalypse draws near, were made up by a bunch of men, thousands of years ago. Her friend Willow (who happens to be one of the best-loved queer characters on TV - ever) is more powerful than all those men combined. Together they create an army which conquers not only the great evil, but also Buffy's loneliness, Willow's insecurity, Faith's alienation, and the gang's paralysing fear.

Harry Potter can't survive without Hermione Granger. Superman's greatest hero is Lois Lane. It's Sarah Connor (and her astonishing arms) who terminates the Terminator. Drew Barrymore's version of Charlie's Angels kicks ass only when the team is in synch.

There are exceptions - lame chicks who still have to get saved by someone else (I'm looking at you, Gwyneth Paltrow), or whose main aim in life is to look hot in latex in movies aimed at a male audience, rather than inspiring young women (and men) to think differently about female protagonists. In recent years, many of the female superheroes in comics seem to have had breast implants and a ticket to Sleaze Ball 1998. And don't start me on Twilight.

Perhaps it's a pendulum that swings back and forth, much like attitudes to feminism. Boringly.

So who knows? Maybe I might have to create someone with superpowers. Some day.

In the meantime, I can't wait to see what Joss Whedon does with Scarlett Johansson in The Avengers.

And most importantly - what will she wear?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Concentrating. Hard.

This morning was my first trial of a new discipline: Two Golden Hours.
This is the plan. You sit down at your desk, metaphorically nail your feet to the floor, assume the position, and write.
No researching, no looking up references, no fact-checking.
No editing as you go - supposedly not even correcting spelling but I can't quite take it that far.
No reading articles or searching databases for citations. And especially no emails, no checking the news sites or facebook, no suddenly remembering you meant to reinstall software or reorganise files, no putting out a load of washing or checking the letterbox or feeding the chooks.
Just Two Golden Hours of drafting. First thing in the morning, before getting distracted by any other tasks.
I wrote 1500 words. I'm not saying they're all brilliant, or even usable, but two key scenes are out of my head on down on ... well, pixels or something. That's normal for a morning's work but it felt a little more intense, and it's definitely draft - not processed (much) on the way from brain to Save button. If I couldn't immediately think of the right word I just chose the closest thing and highlighted it to fix later.
But it was strangely difficult. I'm someone who can easily write for long hours, forgetting to eat and not realising it's nightfall and that I was supposed to be somewhere. But to do it on schedule is a different matter entirely. I got twitchy. Kept looking at the clock.
It's important to schedule the time because we easily get lost in historical research, or think we have to find more and more academic references, and working at home also has a whole lot of other dangerous distractions as well. Like morning tea. And afternoon tea.
I try to be at my desk at 9 and work through, just like a day at the office, but it's easy to get distracted from the drafting by the need to look stuff up. And then you realise you don't know some related thing, so you go look that up. And then you see a reference for an article that might help, so you go trawl for it online. And while you're doing that you notice this journal you didn't know about so you kick off the usual searches to see if there's anything there related to your subject. By which time you've forgotten the original problem you were researching and why. And you might be working but you aren't actually writing.
So I've written it into my Filofax: Two Golden Hours. Capital G. Capital H. The capital letters make the two hours a serious commitment to yourself, a thing that cannot be rescheduled or easily forgotten. They are important.
After all, we multitask all day every day, with meetings, and emails, and people asking questions. You have to do stuff and think at the same time. Even on the train, even in the evenings. Focusing your mind gets harder and harder.
Choosing what's important among all the many options floating around in your brain is sometimes impossible, so the brain opts for the easiest.
I learned about the Two Golden Hours at a handy seminar for postgrads at uni last week: 'Turbocharge your writing', with Hugh Kearns from Thinkwell. Highly recommended.
Now all I have to do is to put it into practice.
I will do that every Thursday and Friday morning. I would do it every single day if I could, but unfortunately I have to earn a living - which is, as we know, quite a different thing to being a writer.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Space cadet

Yesterday I had a day off.

Granted, it is the weekend, so I'm entitled. But I don't usually sit still much on the weekends.

Instead, yesterday I ignored my usual length list of jobs, faffed about for hours, watched two episodes of Buffy in the middle of the day, read a bit, joined the City Library, stayed in my pyjamas until after lunch and ate chocolate. I did not at any point think it was a valuable part of my creative process. I was just a blob.

I didn't chainsaw the fallen tree or go to the trainer or sort out the compost or do the washing or harvest the winter vegies or make the soup or clean out the chook house or catch up on my research or file my papers or bake banana bread. My partner is away so I hardly spoke to anyone. I didn't leave the house. Well, I couldn't, since I was still in my dressing gown.

My brain needed a rest. Space. Nothing.

Serendipitously, Sarah Wilson's column in the Sunday Age this morning is on that very topic.
When we yearn for more space we want to keep it as ... a languid void that exists between us and everything else... it's the expanse between us and sunset. Or between us and someone we fall in love with while watching them being "them" from across the room.

So that was my yesterday.

This morning I woke up with a book in my head. That happens sometimes.

JK Rowling says Harry Potter "strolled, fully-formed" into her head on a long train trip and by the time she got to the station (presumably King's Cross) she knew pretty much everything that happened to him, including the last line of the last book.

I can't quite claim that. I should admit that my brain has been riffing on something for ages that I thought was little more than unspoken Dickens fan-fiction.

Now suddenly it's something else. I've had scenes playing in my head, over and over, literally for months and I failed to recognise them for what they are: a new story. It has shape, is filled with dialogue and characters, but I hadn't given it enough imaginative space - or perhaps distance - to see it from the right angle.

So I wrote down:
  • Marvellous Melbourne
  • Canalletto
  • Bohemia
  • Red herrings
  • Abductors/opera
  • The maid
  • Heidelberg School
  • Bluestocking
  • Sandringham?
Now all I have to do is scribble down the other 75, 986 words. In my spare time.

Not today, though. I've got too many jobs.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Pet subject

Magazines all too frequently lead to books and should be regarded by the prudent as the heavy petting of literature.
~ Fran Lebowitz

Epigram or epitaph?

Discovered it this morning - laughed til I cried:

In truth the story of La Maupin is so laden with passages of excitement and interest that any writer on the subject has only to make an agreeable choice of episodes sufficiently dramatic, and consistent with each other, to form a cohesive narrative. Such a work has in it possibilities of great success – if such an author has the genius of a Théophile Gautier to set it forth.

Bram Stoker – Famous Imposters

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Writing Life

Nice essay by Geraldine Brooks on writing about the world beyond Australia, but with Australian eyes.

"The bookshelves of my Australian childhood were garrisoned by foreign troops, filled with stories by faraway English people who wrote of things I couldn't see or touch or know: A.A. Milne, Enid Blyton, C.S. Lewis; The Wind in the Willows, The Secret Garden, The Snow Goose. These were good books, but they came between me and my country. Australia had been an independent nation since 1901, but in the 1960s, my imagination was still a British colony.

The characters in my childhood books built their tree houses in reddening rowan trees; they did not scramble up scribbly gums...

One day, I hope to write an Australian novel. But I now know I will have to work for it."

Clive James has written about this beautifully, too, in Unreliable Memoirs and now, as ever, Geraldine Brooks best describes the feeling: The Writing Life.

People always ask me why I write novels about European history. I've never cried more over a book than The Snow Goose; never been more desperate to get my hands on a book than Saturday afternoons at Nunawading Library, browsing the shelf that held both Geoffrey Trease and Rosemary Sutcliffe.

That's why. That, and the fact that it is, objectively, fascinating.

I have written one very Australian book: the picture book, Billabong Bill's Bushfire Christmas. But that, too, was set in the past, in that late 50s/early 60s world that does genuinely feel now like a different country.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


I got a Kobo for my birthday.
It comes with 100 free ebooks. For the past few days I have been spell-bound by The Count of Monte Cristo which I had, inexplicably, never read.
Good Lord. What a book. No sword-fighting at all (every movie version I've seen has a lot of swordfighting; assuming, I guess, that if it's Dumas there must be swordfighting) but what a lot of plot going on. Dickensian. Dumasian. Is that a word? It should be. Anyway, I gasped aloud a few times and read until midnight last night because I just had to.
So that was a good test of the machine, which helps to regulate your speed because you simply can't flick randomly forward to find out what happens next (as if anyone would cheat like that - as if anyone here, for example, read the last page of the last Harry Potter book first, just to see if he was alive at the end).
I'm telling myself now that I will read right through the 100 free books in alphabetical order. I don't know why. I imagine the resolution will only last until I get up to Aesop's Fables and then I'll skip onto the letter G. Or W.
But the list does include many books I haven't read for years and would like to read again (Twain, Somerset Maugham); books I read every year or so when the mood suddenly strikes (Tolstoy, Austen); books I never quite finished but will one day because one should (Gibbons, Nietzsche); books I can live without reading all over again because once was quite enough thank you very much (Dostoevsky - sorry, Marx & Engels); books I've always meant to read (Hesse, Sun Tzu, Thoreau); and books that I wouldn't bother buying but will probably quite happily read on the train (Jack London, Conan Doyle). In many cases, I already have a real copy, but that's neither here nor there.
Perhaps more importantly, I can download books that have been out of print for decades, for research purposes. I do that now, of course, from Gutenberg Project or wherever, but I don't tend to read them as books on my laptop. I search or scan through, looking for key phrases or information.
The Kobo means I can turn the pages, sitting in bed or on the way to work, and really read. The pages look just like ink on paper. Not backlit so no eye strain unless you read for days on end. Which is possible, just the same as ink and paper.
And it doesn't weigh nearly as much as the last Harry Potter.

Saturday, August 07, 2010


[Warning: long post]

The gallant adventures and untimely demise of Mademoiselle de Maupin

is a novel based on the life of Julie de Maupin, a woman whose story is too remarkable to be true – and yet it is. Mostly.

She was one of the world’s greatest swordswomen, and also a star of the Paris Opera; a cross-dresser and occasional nun; and a lover of famous and infamous men and women. She has been portrayed in literature and on screen as everything from an Amazon to a fiend to a symbol of Romanticism – although that most famous portrayal, by Gautier in 1835 (1951), has very little to do with the real woman.

My project is to create a novel based on her life, in a new version of her voice. The accompanying exegesis focuses on the idea of an “authentic” historical voice in fiction, and whether that is definable, possible or desirable. I plan to do that through examining the different ways in which we hear La Maupin’s voice in portrayals of her, including my own, with reference to the ways in which other writers of historical fiction have attempted to convey authenticity in voice – or not, as the case may be.

There are many varied accounts of her life, from contemporary anecdotes to a TV mini-series: some clear and some disputed facts, many interpretations of her character and actions, embroideries and embellishments – some of which may come from her – and long passages in her short life of which little is known. One of my tasks is sorting fact from fiction and then turning it into a completely different fictional life and voice.

The life

Born in Paris around 1670, Julie was the daughter of the secretary to Louis XIV’s Master of Horse, Count D’Armagnac. Her father was an accomplished swordsman and trained the court pages, probably at Versailles, and so educated his only child alongside the boys. She dressed as a boy from an early age and quickly surpassed the pages in her skill with the sword.

By the age of 14 she had become D’Armagnac’s mistress and he found her a husband, the timid sieur de Maupin, who was promptly dispatched to the provinces to a stimulating job in tax collection. Some accounts claim he was sent off the morning after the wedding.

But she quickly tired of D’Armagnac and ran off with a fencing master called Serannes, with whom she found herself down on her luck, for the first of many times, in Marseilles. They earned what they could from giving fencing demonstrations at fairs and in taverns – at one, a man refused to believe she was really a woman, because she was simply too good. She took off her blouse and the crowd fell silent.

She began her singing career with the Marseilles Opera, and her early appearances on stage were greatly admired, particularly by one young woman with whom she fell in love. The girl’s family quickly packed the poor thing off to a convent. De Maupin followed, entering as a novice. One night after an elderly nun died, the pair stole the body, placed it in the girl’s cell and set fire to the convent, and escaped. They were on the run for three months, and in their absence, de Maupin was sentenced to death by the court in Provence under the name sieur de Maupin as the judge couldn’t quite admit the possibility of a woman abducting a nun.

The girl was returned to her family eventually, and de Maupin continued her escapades around the countryside, now back in men’s clothes. One day she literally bumped into a young nobleman called D’Albert who challenged her to a duel, not realising she was female. She beat him, wounded him, nursed him back to health, and in some accounts he is the love of her life. At the very least they were lifelong friends.

She took singing lessons and paired up with a new lover, Thévenard, who also fancied himself as a singer. Together they returned to Paris and on their first day there, while de Maupin was visiting her old lover D’Armagnac to convince him to arrange a pardon for her little indiscretion in Provence, Thévenard auditioned for the Opera, and was hired immediately. His condition was that de Maupin also be allowed to audition and the Opera reluctantly agreed, so by the age of 17 she found herself a member of one of the world’s greatest musical companies.

She was pardoned by Louis, and went on to become a star, appearing in all of the Opera’s major productions from 1690 to 1694. She became La Maupin.

Her career in Paris was interrupted after she attended a court ball in men’s clothes and kissed a young woman on the dance floor, for which insult she was challenged to a duel by three different noblemen. She told each of them she would meet him outside, fought them all at once, and beat them all. But given that Louis had outlawed duels, she had to flee to Brussels, where she became the lover of the Elector of Bavaria. He found her a bit too much to handle after she stabbed herself on stage with a real dagger, and offered her 40,000 francs to leave him alone. She threw the coins at the feet of his emissary and stomped off to Madrid in a huff.

She found herself working as a ladies’ maid to a Countess Marino whom she resented so much that one night before a grand ball she dressed the Countess’s hair with radishes so that everyone but the Countess could see them. Needless to say she was on the road back to Paris before the Countess arrived home.

She was pardoned for her duels, this time through the intervention of the Dauphin, and returned to the stage. She performed for the court at Trianon, appeared once again in every major Opera production, and introduced the Italian idea of the contralto voice to France. She defended chorus girls against lecherous barons and pompous tenors, fell in love with a soprano, tried to kill herself, threatened to blow the Duchess of Luxembourg’s brains out and ended up in court again for attacking her landlord. She and Thévenard remained best of friends until her retirement, although they also had some infamous spats, and one evening on stage she bit his ear so hard he bled.

Through many heroic and sometimes pathetic adventures, the crowds adored her in spite of her high-profile affairs with women, her brawling and duelling, her breeches and swords and even her contralto.

In 1703 she fell in love with Madame la Marquise de Florensac, the “most beautiful woman in France” (Saint-Simon 1897) – so beautiful that she too had had to flee to Brussels for several years because the king’s brother was obsessed with her. She was also one of the most famous, wealthy and well-connected women in France. The two women lived, according to a contemporary diarist, in perfect harmony for two years until de Florensac died of a fever.

Distraught, La Maupin entered a convent where she died at the age of 33, in the words of one biographer, “destroyed by an inclination to do evil in the sight of her God and a fixed intention not to”, after which, he claims, “her body was cast upon the rubbish heap” (Gilbert 1932).

The project

The first draft of the novel is episodic at present, tracing key moments in her life. It is structured in the same way as one of the lyric tragedies in which she appeared, with a prologue and five acts, each of which is divided into a monologue or recitative, followed by scenes or dances involving a number of cast members and sometimes a full chorus and ballet corps.

The main narrative or recitative is in La Maupin’s voice, in first person, as she lies on her death bed in the convent speaking to and often roundly abusing the poor young priest who has been sent to take her confession. Most of her roles on stage were recitatives – she would be the goddess or mythical figure who arrived in the middle of a storm and issued warnings or prophecies from above.

The dramatic scenes and dances switch into third person. I’m experimenting with these and with dialogue styles at present.

My version of her voice is transparently modern, for many reasons but most critically because she was a radically modern figure in her own time and would be if she appeared today – she is Lady Gaga.

There are documented fragments of her voice but I have yet to find any primary sources or anything resembling the real thing, except one hilarious letter to Thevenard written during one of their tiffs. Much of my time at present is spent trawling through digitised archives on the other side of the world to find and compare the diverse accounts of her life.

She seems to have the effect of polarising her biographers and interpreters throughout the centuries, but particularly towards the end of the 19th century. Interestingly, many later accounts make no mention of de Florensac, which is remarkable given her fame.

Earlier accounts seem to have been more accepting of La Maupin as she was. This is one contemporary’s account of her affair with de Florensac:

“... for two years, they lived on this tenderness they thought ideal, ethereal, and beyond the reach of the stain of men; the young women isolated themselves, enamoured, only appearing in public at occasions where their presence was essential. Indeed one finds, after 1702, no songs or satire against the two women.” (Saint-Simon 1897)

On the other hand a few later biographers claim La Maupin reconciled with her husband, “seized with a fit of devotion” (Kippis 1790), and died in peace and piety at home.
“Finding herself no longer an idol,” writes another, “a fit of penitence for a life misspent seized the poor siren, who regretted the dissipation of past years, and bewailed the errors of her youth.” (Clayton 1864)
So not surprisingly, the way in which her voice is conveyed and the portrayal of her adventures depend a great deal on the view of the authors as to whether they see La Maupin as a transgressive monster, a swashbuckling heroine, a victim, a flapper, or a feminist prototype. One describes her as “the Lola Montez of her day, but with more beauty, more talent, more power, and more daring” (Dwight 1860); another calls her a “misguided being” (Clayton 1864); while yet another describes her as “beautiful, valiant, generous and superbly unchaste” (Rogers 1928).

It seems to me, so far, that after the publication of Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin in 1835 and The Three Musketeers in 1844 she becomes more like a Fifth Musketeer. When it comes to her voice, many generalist biographers after that date have her speaking like a stage villain: “You are a coward and a craven. It was I who defeated you!” (Gilbert 1932).

In my version she’s more likely to say something like: “Shut up, you prick!” at the time, and then later recount it to her long-suffering confessor as a heroic speech worthy of one of her characters on stage.

This is emblematic of the broader questions I’m investigating around authenticity in historical portrayals and narrative voice. My argument is basically that authenticity is not possible, and even if it were, it would be largely unpalatable to the modern reader. If that’s the case, then what techniques remain for the fiction writer to accurately reference historical voices?

It is the issues and tensions inherent in those portrayals of La Maupin, and in my own attempts to create an anti-authentic voice, which form the basis for the exegesis as well as the novel.

Clayton, E. C. (1864). Early French Singers — Marthe Le Rochois—La Maupin. Queens of Song. New York, Harper.
Dwight, J. S. (1860). Dwight's Journal of Music. New York, Johnson Reprint Corp. 17-18.
Gautier, T. (1951). Mademoiselle de Maupin. Sydney, Dymock's Book Arcade
Gilbert, O. P. (1932). Mademoiselle Maupin: Swashbuckler and Operatic Star. Women In Men's Guise London, John Lane.
Kippis, A. a. G., William (1790). "Singular Account of La Maupin " The New annual register, or General repository of history, politics, and literature, for the year 1789 .
Rogers, C. (1928). Gallant Ladies. New York, Harcourt, Brace.
Saint-Simon, L. d. R. D. (1897). Mémoires de Saint-Simon. Paris, Hachette.

This is a summary of my PhD (Creative Writing) project, from a paper given last week to a faculty seminar.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Study days

I'm presenting my first paper at uni today, in the English department seminar series: this one is an introduction to my project so nothing too harrowing for presenter or audience. I'll post it here later.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A day in the life

6.45am Alarm. It’s a writing day at home, not a polish-your-shoes, leave-for-the-station-at-7.45 day, so that’s a sleep-in. I lie in bed too stupid to move and conduct unfinished arguments in my head with annoying people. Up. Put my ugg boots on the wrong feet. Fall over. Stagger out. The river below the house is banked with fog. First wattle blossom appearing. Read a few pages of Little Dorrit over breakfast.

8.30am Feed the chooks. They’re grumpy. Laptop on. Heater on. Fingerless gloves on. At desk. Immediately need more coffee. Read quickly through latest draft of current manuscript to remind myself where I was this time last week.

Cat trying to bash the door down so he can come sit on my knee. I ignore him successfully for a while then give in. Check emails, wonder again why I have so many email accounts (home, web, work, uni). Try to find a quote in one of my own books and realise I must have dreamed it and have forgotten details of the book entirely – how can that have happened? Will have to read my own books. How embarrassing.

10am Two main tasks today and tomorrow. First, as every Thursday, I type up scribbles from my notebook written over the last few days in spare moments – over breakfast, on trains, in a cafe. Usually I follow-up with historical research, at home or on campus, and devote Fridays to drafting.
But this week I’ve decided to consolidate all the historical records of dialogue or writing by the subject of my book (Mademoiselle la Maupin, 17th century opera singer and duellist) into one document and that will form the kernel of my PhD exegesis.
I’ve found scraps of dialogue in books by fencing masters (1904), American journalists (1930s), opera and Baroque music specialists (several) and hacks all over the world from 18th century onwards. In French or English. (That’s quite apart from the genuine dramatisations on stage, page and screen.) There’s a poem she may or may not have written, there are gorgeous passages from contemporary diarists and letters, and there will be, though I haven’t found them yet, police statements and other primary documents.

The thing is, you see, there are many accounts of her life in which I can read her supposed voice, but they reflect the tone of the times in which they were written and the views of their translator or historical interpreter. So, for example, if the author has read too much Dumas, you hear La Maupin saying things like “En garde, you bounder!” If they think she’s a transgressive monster, or an Amazonian heroine, or a victim, or a flapper, or a feminist prototype, their own words fall from her historical lips – as will mine. Only I’m writing a fiction in my version of her voice, so I’m hyper-conscious of what I’m doing.
Anyway, that’s the plan.

11am Girlfriend delivers coffee. Sigh of relief. She’s writing at home today too, but we are in separate buildings and see one another only for reasons of food and beverage. Still, it’s nice to know she’s here.

Realise I have somehow been reformatting my blog instead of writing up my notes. Love the new Blogger templates and options and keep changing my mind. First morning of my writing day blocks are often a bit ratty. That’s OK. Have to allow some time for doing promotional stuff. At least I’m not gardening or reading something completely unrelated. Get back to work, you fool.

Finished typing up notes. Good practice – gets my head back into 17th century France, where it belongs. Bit of faffing around on book blogs and industry websites. (In the middle of book contract negotiations and need an update on subsidiary rights.) Interesting time to be negotiating a new deal. Think e-book rights may change in the next year or so but have to work with what’s happening now. Keeping an eye on Future book and Booksquare. The Australian Society of Authors, of which I'm a member, has just released a new paper on the topic.

Checked the announcement of the PM’s lit award shortlist, out today. Brilliant selection. YA and children’s publishing in Australia is really quite extraordinary, as is New Zealand’s: both countries, as so often, punching way above weight.

Back at the desk after food foraging and some much-needed exercise. Somehow managed to Velcro myself to my Crumpler in the process of getting out the door. Nasty. Chooks are up on the window sill staring at me and, for some inexplicable chook reason, moaning softly. Spending a few glorious hours hunting down La Maupin in one of my favourite places: the digitised collections of France, Gallica. I can leaf through the libretti and cast lists of the operas in which she starred. Last time I got so beside myself I forgot to eat and had to be prised off the laptop.

It happened again. Went mad downloading libretti (as PDFs). Just can’t get over the sight of her name, and the names of all these other people – her ex-lover, Thévenard; her idol, Le Rochois; her rivals and friends; her adored Fanchon; her nemesis, Dumensil – whose lives I’m imagining. It all helps. I can see where she’d come on stage (for example, she’s the first thing people would see in Hesione, dressed as the Priestess of the Sun), read her lines, know who is on stage with her in every scene. Not to mention the Gazette!

Priceless. I love digitising. Never mind your iPad. Digitising of heritage materials and archives is changing the world in such fundamental ways it will never be the same. It’s as revolutionary as the invention of the printing press. Which is the theme of my next book, as it happens. (And part of the reason for my day job – disclosure.)

6pm That’s enough. Back to Little Dorrit.

2010 Shortlist: PM's Literary Awards

Shortlist announced today. Very happy about the Children's list in particular.
What strong fields in Children's and Fiction this year. Don't envy the judges.
See the full list and judges' reports here.

Life in the old dog yet

"Print is not dead. It is not even dying, at least not yet. Think of print like an overweight beast, shedding excess weight. The result is a leaner, more defined, more beautiful experience."
Smart post on the Future of Print @ Booksquare

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I'll tell you a story.
~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

Friday, July 09, 2010

Best. Book. Ever.

Got my frozen little fingers on a facsimile edition of Coryats Crudities (1611 - this edition by Scolar Press, London, 1978), a travel narrative by Thomas Coryate of his journey from his home in Odcombe, England to Venice, and back again, mostly on foot - although he was carried in a chair part of the way over the Alps.

He "imbarqued at Dover, about tenne of the clocke in the morning, the fourteenth of May, being Saturday and Whitsun-eve, Anno 1608".

Most importantly, he follows much the same route as the 17th century heroine in my next book, Act of Faith: along the Rhine, onto Verona and Venice, where he - like her, like all of us - gazes in wonder at San Marco and the Lagoon.

... the most glorious and heavenly shew upon the water that any mortal eye ever beheld, such a shew that did ravish me both with delight and admiration

Like many of us, he is often lost for words in his wonder, and in those spaces one hears the gasps, sees the eyes widen, knows all too well the feeling that ends up coming out as a pathetic "oh wow, look!" or, in Thomas's case:
I will descend to the description of this particular place, wherein if I seem too tedious, I crave the pardon of thee (gentle Reader) seeing the variety of the curious objects which it exhibiteth to the spectator is such, that a man shall much wrong it to speake a little of it.

Bless his boots.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Research underway

Currently engrossed in books and articles on 17th century Paris, including:
~ Theatres (there were piss buckets in the corners so you didn't have to miss a moment)
~ Opera (everyone sang along with their favourite songs)
~ Costume (male and female attire was only just beginning to diverge, so cross-dressing wasn't quite so noticeable)
~ Fencing and duels (a golden age of fencing theory, although students quite often died during training).

I have borrowed a Paris atlas from around the turn of the (last) century, illustrated and with fabulous early photographs in which women with black lace head-dresses and long cloaks wander the boulevards and wait patiently for a break in the traffic - all horses and fine carriages.

I feel sure that one small pale boy staring sadly into the camera is called Marcel.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Day job

We've just relaunched our new website at work - huge effort, lots of brainy people, project nearly ate my brain, but it works. Here 'tis.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Big weekend

Alan Marshall Short Story Competition announcement on Saturday afternoon at the beautiful Eltham Library (I'm not actually doing much beyond handing around finger-food, but helped with the shortlisting). All welcome.
Then I'm at the Emerging Writers Festival on Sunday, hosting a panel on collaboration. Great festival - for writers, rather than just being about writers.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Arts & crafts

I take back what I said only the other day about historical detail in fiction.
I'm reading A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, an intricate Art Nouveau gem, layered and woven and brimming with Victorian and Edwardian detail, which is just as it should be for the era, and a triumph of "tell, don't show" (yes, I do have that the right way around).
Points of view are as slippery as a Pre-Raphaelite sprite, descriptions are as richly detailed as Lalique masterpieces, and bald historical fact is not trussed up or embedded in dialogue: one is simply updated by the narrator on the progress of the Boer War or anarchist assassination attempts.
Of course - of course! - historical detail is only annoying and excessive in clumsy hands, and Byatt's hands are masterful.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Thrillers aren't always thrilling

Just finished reading Sarah Waters' latest, The Little Stranger.
It's an odd read.
I get what she's attempting, I really do. But does it work?

In one sense, yes. The setting is a dilapidated country house; the point of view a local lad made good, a doctor, as dull as dishwater, just a little obsessed with the house and its family. Strange things start happening there, sad and violent things, and you know there'll be tears before bedtime (actually, there won't be, because most of the characters are too stiff-upper-lip). All nicely realised.

Waters is doing what she does best, recreating a genre, or perhaps era, of fiction: absorbing it, reliving it, and somehow conveying its essence in both plot and language (if not character). It was pitch-perfect in The Night Watch and Fingersmith. It may be close in this - post-war ghost stories are not my thing.

But it's pretty boring.

The second strange event had me absolutely spooked, though that's not hard since I get too scared to watch the most run-of-the-mill police show on TV. Apart from that it was difficult to engage as a reader, and even more difficult to care about any of the characters.

The central issue is obvious, and one with which many authors have grappled: the unsympathetic narrator.

It's not that Doctor Faraday is completely unsympathetic. We appreciate the class anxieties, the son of the former maid now able to enter the big house as a friend. But, as one reviewer noted, "Waters gives herself a sort of handicap with the dull doctor's narration. This indirectness, which in cruder hands might have led to a yawning insurrection in the reader, becomes essential to the novel's unsettling power".

I missed the unsettling power and felt saddled with the dull doctor, and having figured out the supernatural element about halfway through, plodded on laboriously and loyally to the end.

It also seemed to me that Waters' usual control of her historical detail seems to have gotten away from her: the meticulous descriptions that worked so well in The Night Watch became even more words to wade through here, and seemed often at odds with the doctor's character.

Tricky stuff to pull off, and points for trying, but it doesn't really work. Millions disagree, I'm sure, and it was short-listed for the Booker alongside Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, the eventual winner; a triumph of the unsympathetic narrator who wins us over completely and utterly.

Note to self: The more historical fiction you read, the less interested you are in historical detail. And remember this warning, since you are currently entangled with a dangerously borderline unsympathetic narrator.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sharp as

The view from my reading desk: Joan and Jackie helping through the window.

My next book may have to be The Joy of Pruning.
The love of pruning applies, of course, to both gardening and writing. Today I've been doing both.

I feel quite sorry for the cotoneaster, since objectively it's a pretty little thing - one has orange berries, one has red, both quite lovely at this time of year but, sadly, a pest plant in this area.

I feel less sorry for the spare adverbs and adjectives, not to mention gushes of passive voice - can one gush passively? I suppose not - now cluttering up my laptop memory but no longer, happily, my manuscript.
How they got in there in the first place is beyond me.

Purple hebe and purple prose, all gone in one day.
Perhaps the new title should be 101 Ways With Waste.

Monday, April 05, 2010


Gorgeous weekend at my own sacred place.

Final proof-read of the new manuscript. Think it's OK. Then was too stupid to read anything but old gardening maagazines, Vanity Fair, and a Robert Harris thriller.

One day my reading brain will return to normal. I hope.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Some days

"It is tiresome to write a novel, and more so to read it"

~ Théophile Gautier (on whose words I have been hanging all day)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Carol Ann Duffy on David Beckham's blessed ankle

O, how I love Carol Ann Duffy, and love even more that she's Poet Laureate (and even more that Anthony Brown, a Surrealist, is the Children's Laureate, which just cracks me up - two of my heroes in one Laureate era).

But this takes the cake. Actually, it's the cream on the cake: Duffy on Beckham's Achilles heel, and apart from anything else it's utterly gorgeous.

Myth’s river – where his mother
dipped him, fished him, a
slippery golden boy flowed on,
his name on its lips.
Read it all here: David Beckham Poem 'Achilles' by Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate | NowPublic News Coverage

Saturday, March 06, 2010


Nearly there with the new book, Auto da Fe. Lots of editing to do but it's there, in one fairly reasonable piece, I think.
Just in time to start the next one.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Ten rules for writing fiction

The Guardian has published a few thoughts from people who really ought to know about how to write.
I'm not sure they are rules, as such. More like guidelines:
'The two most depressing words in the English language are "literary fiction".'
- David Hare

'Only bad writers think that their work is really good.'
- Anne Enright

'Finish the day's writing when you still want to continue.'
- Helen Dunmore

'You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there's no free lunch. Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you're on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine.'
- Margaret Atwood

'Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.'
-Elmore Leonard

You can read it all here.
I'm going back to my desk to deal with a few sloppy verbs.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Researched out

Scrambling to finish writing one book at present, before I embark on another (for the PhD) in a couple of weeks.
My own fault. I could have finished this one a year or more ago. Lost my way. Got bored with it. Now I'm fired up and charging through it (pardon the mixed metaphor) but not taking enough time to look back over old notes and bookmarks.
Need a stern talking to.
Slow down. Breathe. Check your notes before you spend two hours finding out all over again the key dates in the history of the Book of Common Prayer...

Monday, January 25, 2010

Things that make me disproportionately pleased

(in no particular order, really)
1. Chooks
2. Wooden boats
3. My home-grown, home-pickled beetroot (arguably as good as Auntie Myrtle's)
4. Drew Barrymore smiling
5. Fish and chips on Blairgowrie beach at sunset
6. Writing so intently I don't realise it's lunchtime already
7. Pink (not the colour, mind you, which would be on the list of things I hate)
8. Lots and lots and lots of books
9. Turkish rugs in a deep crimson and midnight blue
10. Mist on the river in the early mornings.

Things I am utterly over

1. A sudden influx of blog spam
2. Australia Day posturing
3. Caterpillars
4. Celebrity updates masquerading as news (Brangelina? Sure. Corey Worthington? I don't think so.)
5. "Untold story" revelations about topics on which anybody with half a brain can find a dozen books
6. Hysteria over any mis-steps in reporting climate science: if only other science (say, testing of drugs or pesticides, or perhaps climate change denial claims) were subject to such media scrutiny
7. Unattractive tennis outfits
8. Tony Abbott. Although I can't think of a time since 1982 when I wasn't utterly over him
9. Apple product releases masquerading as news
10. The 2010 exercise regime I haven't even started yet.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The thrill of it all

Just finished my beach holiday.
These are the books I took with me to read:
- The Boat (Nam Le)
- D-Day (Antony Beevor)
- The Great War and Modern Memory (Paul Fussell)

This is what I actually read:
- Who Weekly
- Famous

- Old copies of the English Country Living (again)
- The Sensuous Gardener, by my new hero Monty Don (again)
- Elizabeth Jane Howard's memoir, Slipstream (vague and disappointingly light)
- Enigma (Robert Harris)
- When Eight Bells Toll (or something like that) and Where Eagles Dare (Alistair MacLean)
- An entire Desmond Bagley omnibus some of which wasn't very good
I nearly even read a Clive Cussler but my partner sent me off to the newsagents for alternatives just in time, including a rather annoying Alexander Fullerton WW2 resistance thriller the name of which escapes (pardon the pun) me already.

I never do that. I usually spend my holiday reading time catching up on the pile by my bedside that never seems to get any smaller. And I certainly don't spend the whole summer reading things especially designed to be read quickly and compulsively. God, it was fun.

Anyway, I was halfway through the first Alistair MacLean and realised: I should write thrillers. Never mind this literary fiction bollocks.

That lasted a day, with all sorts of life-changing decisions being made, until I finally remembered: I already do write thrillers; it's just that I write them for kids (it took a while to figure that out, I know, but I was very relaxed at the time).

But when I think about writing for adults, I get into this head space where I have to have Big Ideas. And convey Important Truths. Or some nonsense.

As if the ideas in my kids books (slavery, colonialism, violence, friendship, community, self-identify) aren't Big.

So after that false alarm, mixed in as it was with other major decisions about what to eat next and what time to go to the beach, I plotted out my next thriller. It's got boats, and spies, and danger, and late night death-defying escapes, and confrontations at gunpoint.
Just like Alistair MacLean.
And me.