Monday, December 22, 2008

No rest for the wicked.

Or, in my case, the slow and lazy. In other words, dear reader, I won't be having much of a Christmas holiday this year as I only have two months left of my contract as writer in residence at Canterbury University (read: two months left of my office and salary). Next year, from March, will involve a lot of juggling - childcare, earning money to feed my family (hubby going back to study), finishing my novel. No pretty office of my own. No salary.

So I think you can undertsand why the next two months are critical to make as much headway as possible. I intend to finish the first draft of my new novel (working title The Collectors) in the next two months, which means around 5000 words a week and much more concentration than I have been able to muster all year. I think it's achievable. The reason I have been slow of late getting words on paper (apart from monstrous distractions) is that I have been immersed in research and planning, so the time has not been wasted. In fact, it was time well spent, because it means I am now in a position to put my head down and churn out the rest of the story. In theory.

This novel has so far been a constant source of surprise, delight, irritation and frustration. The Sound of Butterflies knew what it wanted to be right from the start. The Collectors did not. That is, it thought it did, which is why I bashed out 30,000 words in the first few months of my residency, but then I had to stop and re-think the whole thing. It necessarily got more and more complicated, and ambitious and wild, and just when I thought I was getting a handle on it, last week it decided it wanted to be something else entirely (same characters and basic plot, different raison d’ệtre). I have stopped being surprised by this novel and am going where it takes me.

Previous to writing this novel, I would have said I was the kind of novelist that more or less has a plan when the novel starts, but now I know I am not any one kind of novelist and every book I write will have a different process (just as every child one has is different I suppose, despite the same basic recipe). This first draft has been very much the 'exploratory draft' as described by the wonderful Laini Taylor in Not For Robots.

So I wish everyone a great Christmas break, but I will not be joining you, apart from maybe a couple of days to stuff myself with delicious food and drink. Already I seem to be the only one haunting the English department halls, and I quite like it. Watch this space.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Brown paper packages tied up with string.

I think the thing I love most about Christmas is wrapping presents for my extensive family. Here's a pile going off today to one branch who are off overseas for the holidays...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sunday Salon: Everyone else is doing it.

I didn't read as many books as I would have liked in this year, and I have a pile of gems sitting on my bedside table that I know I will love (or at least like a lot), but here are the best of the ones I did read in 2008.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Some weekend reading.

It's been a while since I visited Craig Cliff's Quest for a Million Words. I looked in every now and again in November when he was conducting an experiment to see if he could write a 100-word story every day. Now that November is over, he's collected them all in one post and done a post-mortem on the experience. I love the way Craig sets himself tasks and challenges (such as the quest to write a million words in one year - not long left!), which effectively immerses him so fully in the world of the written word that the work he comes up with is always surprising and interesting. I like his style and envy his commitment and freshness. And the good news is that Random House will be publishing a collection of his short fiction in 2010.

I recommend my readers take a look at those 30 100-word short stories and also check out his alternative top 10 books of 2008 post, which illustrates what I love about blogging - good thoughtful reviews in a conversational and analytical tone that don't need to conform to a magazine or newspaper's guidelines and come from an extremely personal point of view.

*Please note that I have described Craig's posts without actually cutting and pasting his posts into my own blog, something I find rather irritating in others.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Sound of Butterflies, the movie.

Alas, I am not making an announcement that Hollywood has come a-knocking (although surely it's only a matter of time?*). Instead I am drawing your attention to this little piece I wrote for My Book, The Movie, which is a website where authors talk about who they would like to see making the film of their book and who they would like to see cast in the starring roles. I had fun writing it, and it's great to read other authors' daydreams on the subject.

Now, any fellow-novelists out there like to share their dream cast? And perhaps readers would like to share their views on my picks? It's always interesting to see how different people imagine your characters.

(*For rights enquiries, please contact my agent)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Taking myself off.

It's probably no surprise as I've talked about it before, but this novel seems to be much more difficult to write than The Sound of Butterflies. For a start, when I wrote TSOB, I was fancy-free and could write at any time of the day or night with nobody to answer to (apart from the year and a half I was working full-time and put it on hold). Now I have boss - a two-year old boss - who demands that I down tools at 4.45 to catch the bus home and spend time with him before he goes to bed, and in the weekends that I spend all day with him. As for the evenings: my brain puts up a 'gone fishing' sign and shuts up shop. On top of my new restricted hours, this novel is turning out be far more complex in subject matter, themes, characters and structure. At least, that is how it seems in my head at the moment. I'm sure once it is all out, and polished, it will seem simple and breezy.

I just feel that every time I start to make some headway, the day finishes, or more often, the week finishes and it's time for a break. I mentioned to my husband that when I felt bogged down with my last one, that would be the time to take myself away somewhere to be on my own with no phone, no TV, and nobody to talk to, even if just for a couple of days to give myself a boost. I did it when I was writing chapter 4 of The Sound of Butterflies, which was quite a dense chapter, with a lot of research. I got to the point where I had done the research and just wasn't sure how to write the chapter. So off I went to Murawai for three days on my own. And wow, did it work. I wrote the whole chapter in three days. That chapter is about 13,000 words, or 44 pages long. It is the single biggest burst of writing I've had in my life. Not only did I get that down on paper, but it also meant that I had gathered a momentum which kept me going for months, right up until about chapter 10 or 11, when I ran out of money (and then some) and had to get a job.

I felt a little glum that it's not so easy for me to do that now, but I have a very understanding husband who did not hesitate to tell me to get going, if that's what I need, that they'll be fine without me for a couple of days.

So I can happily report that on Monday morning I am heading to a bach (or crib, since we're in the South Island) two hours north of Christchurch to see if I can't find that muse that only comes around when the internet and TV have been banished and when there are windy beach walks to be had and chocolate to be eaten. I'll be taking my ancient dunger of a laptop and squinting into its tiny screen for three whole days (and two nights), with no blogs to read, no emails to check, and lots of lovely (research-related) books to devour.

Right now I feel like the luckiest novelist in the world.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The last word on Wordstock.


Night of Literary Feasts: A wonderful idea for any festival, and hosted by the fabulous Larry Colton, this was a very relaxed party out at a vineyard half an hour's drive from the city on the Friday night. We dined and supped on delicious food and wine and then sat down for a panel with Kim Barnes, William Ketteridge, Ann Packer and Selden Edwards. We sat there while Larry asked us some informal questions which produced some wonderful anecdotes from my illustrious companions.

Saturday: My talk with Dave Boling, author of Guernica. Dave was utterly charming and a great speaker, and when the small but very receptive audience was a bit hesitant about asking questions in the end, he drawled "Oh, come aaahhhhn!" The whole event was held in a large expo space at the Portland Convention Centre, with exhibitors and bookstores as well as different stages, so several events took place at once. Visitors paid $5 to get for the whole day and could drift from session to session. I have never seen it done this way but it seeemed to work brilliantly. There were thousands of book-lovers throughout the day and the buzz was fantastic, with people wandering around clutching book bags, reading programmes, browsing stands and listening to authors.

To get an idea of what it looked like, here is a photo I took from the stage as my First Novels panel on Sunday was starting. By the end of the hour, all the seats were full and people were standing in the aisles. You can see activity going on behind the audience, but this doesn't really give you an idea of the scale of things as it shows only a sliver of the convention centre.

It''s...LIVE WIRE!: I was very lucky to get a ticket (thanks Greg!) to Live Wire ("Variety for the ears. Vaudeville for the mind"), the live taping of a radio show at the very cool Aladdin Theatre, an old vaudeville theatre in SE Portland. Think Prairie Home Companion crossed with The Daily Show. I finally got my dancing-in-the-streets moment when they were warming up the audience and asked: "How do we feel about the election results?" and hundreds of people screamed and roared and cheered and it was one of the most elating experiences I have ever had. Truly a highlight, up there with "Ding dong the wicked witch is dead". Over the next couple of hours I was treated to a great show - sharp, funny, entertaining - and was witness to some unexpected pleasures, such as: hearing cartoonist extraordinaire Lynda Barry in conversation with graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel; "humorist, former literary agent, and minor television celebrity" John Hodgman, along with his troubador sidekick Jonathan Coulton, and another helping of the wonderful Anis Mojgani. For more information and to actually hear the event itself, go to In the meantime, here's a taste:

Sunday: A great First Novels panel with Selden Edwards and Randa Jarrar. Another highlight of the festival was meeting Selden and his lovely wife Gaby, whom I have now adopted as my American mom and pop. Selden spent 34 years writing The Little Book (nearly my whole life, I pointed out to him, and he took it with good grace), which has now become one of the big books of the year worldwide, so Selden is the poster boy for perseverence and patience. And his success couldn't have happened to a nicer man.

I finished the festival fairly exhausted back in my hotel room with Randa, drinking wine and gossiping. It is so nice when you meet strangers that you feel so comfortable with when you're both so far from home.

Random Thoughts:

# Portland has only 800,000 people and yet they can sell out a 600-seat theatre for a poetry slam on the same night that a poetry reading attracts 1200 people. I would therefore like to think that somewhere like Auckland can make just such an effort the next time its festival is on.

# I had dinner with an old friend of my mother's who told me that as a self-employed artist, her health insurance costs her $US400 per month and she still has to pay the first $5000 of any medical treatment she gets. Therefore, the insurance is basically not health insurance, but bankruptcy insurance. It makes me glad to be living in a country with more socialist leanings (I was glad anyway of course, it just made me realise even more how lucky we are. I shudder to think what will happen in the future).

# Because many of the 180 or so authors involved in the festival are not well-known in New Zealand, and because there were so many of them, I didn't know where to start. I had to let fate lead me where it may. I wish I could have been in many more places at once and taken the time to hear more authors, but most of the ones I did see were very nice suprises.

# It was great to catch up again with Mark Sarvas, he of The Elegant Variation, who I met in Christchurch, but our schedules clashed somewhat and we didn't see each other speak or get to hang out as much as we would have liked.

#Portland rocks - the place, the people. Everyone I spoke to loves their city with a passion and feels that they live on an island of sanity in an otherwise crazy world. I will definitely be returning.

Projects and gratitude.

I just spent an hour this morning with my friend Jo Randerson and family, once again making me realise how much I miss my Wellington life and the more regular contact with those friends living similar lives (nothing against my lovely Christchurch friends of course!). Huge congratulations are in order to Jo who just picked up one of the Arts Foundation's New Generation awards - a great honour and a great financial boost. Very well deserved - the multi-talented Jo is tireless in her commitment to the creative life.

We talked about the usual things, babies and writing and the coincidence thereof, and I told her what things were looking like for the next year. My fellowship finishes at the end of March (to be taken over by Victor Rodger - more congratulations!) and then I'll be on my own financially with what I hope will be at the very least a completed draft of the new novel. I will also be back to more child-minding as my husband will be studying full-time. I'm both looking forward to next year and dreading it. If I can be disciplined, I hope to both finish my novel and spend some quality family time. Not necessarily a 'conducive' situation but we'll see. The thing is, I have no fewer than five projects lined up after this novel: a screenplay, a children's novel, another adult novel and two non-fiction projects, as well as a project in my capacity as my father's literary executor. This is all very exciting for me - I can think of nothing worse than getting to the end of a novel and not knowing what the hell I'm going to work on next. Here's the scary thing: I do worry how I am going to support myself and my family. These projects are all going to keep me very busy and creatively fulfilled but they are not things that anyone will be rushing to my door to pay me for, at least not until they are finished. Chances are, I will probably have to take on some kind of paid work which will push all of these things further and further back.

I am not complaining - I have had my fair share of help in my writing. I guess I just want to write down some thoughts about the uncertainty in life when one chooses a creative, independent path. There are certainly sacrifices to make - hell, I wouldn't even call them sacrifices, that is way too strong a word. Compromise is probably better. And I wouldn't swap this life for all the high-flying , highly-paid jobs in the world (been down that path; it did not make me happy). What I'm leading to is to thank goodness for organisations such as Creative New Zealand, and the Arts Foundation who recognise the importance of the arts and who get together with patrons - those with both money and kind hearts - and make it possible for people like me, and like Jo, and the 94 people who have received Arts Foundation awards, and the countless others who have received CNZ grants, to keep doing what we do so that others (hopefully) may enjoy it too.

This started out as a post about all the exciting projects I have lined up and it ended up being about gratitude. Go figure.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

On rejection.

Bernard Black's take on rejection, especially for A Cat of Impossible Colour. Thanks to Louisiana, who first posted it on her blog. In other words, I stole the idea from her.

My musical and creative idol finally writes another novel.

I just heard, via Literary Minded, that Nick Cave has his second novel coming out (after And the Ass Saw the Angel, published in 1989) in 2009. The new one is called The Death of Bunny Munro, and here is what his publisher, Text, says about it:

'The Death of Bunny Munro delivers exactly what you want and expect from the enigmatic and phenomenally talented Nick Cave—a dark and compelling portrait of characters who dwell on the fringes of society and stumble through life on a diet of drugs, chaos and disappointment, but who'll never give up stumbling which is in part why they fascinate us so much. It's a funny yet tragic novel, proof all over again that Nick Cave is a writer out of the box. We cannot wait to publish this remarkable novel in Nick's native Australia where he is a revered icon.'
Michael Heyward, Publisher

I hope it doesn't take me 20 years to produce my second novel, but then again, I'm not a musical genius who has brought out countless albums and toured the world. I am looking forward to this novel greatly as Nick Cave (specifically, his music) has been a big influence on my life and my work, especially my current novel. You might not be able to see it, but it's there!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A real American highschool.

On the Friday of Wordstock I was picked up by the lovely Donna and taken to Lincoln High to talk to a couple of classes in the school library. What a great bunch of kids. I was quite nervous beforehand, not because I was scared of them, but because I didn't really have anything prepared and hoped I wouldn't run out of things to say. Someone had made this wonderful sign for the event:

I had nothing to worry about. I ended up just chatting to them about life in New Zealand and about being a writer - they asked lots of really great questions and the time just flew by. I asked them what they knew about New Zealand, and most of them said 'Lord of the Rings' and 'Flight of the Conchords' so I was able to supply good anecdotes that arise from living in a small country where everyone knows each other.

Afterwards I played tourist and took photos of a real American high school! This might seem a bit pedestrian to any American readers out there, but imagine what it's like to grow up watching American teen TV dramas and you'll see what I mean. Schools there are so different from ours, and this one was just like the many I've seen on the small screen over the years.

Case in point:

This photo also captures well the gorgeous autumn-ness of Portland. I also discovered that Elliot Smith* and Matt Groenig both went to Lincoln High so they impressed me right back.

Thanks for having me, Lincoln!

*It has just occurred to me looking at this plaque that Elliot Smith would have been my exact contemporary at school. So very sad.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Poetry Slam!

Wordstock kicked off with a poetry slam on the Thursday night. I've never been to a poetry slam, I'll admit it right now. I always thought I preferred to read poems in my own head. Boy, was I wrong. The stunning Baghdad Theatre in Hawthorne (very cool district - lots of great vintage clothing stores) was packed (sold out, even) with 600 people and the poets received the adulation normally reserved for rock stars, or at least for stand-up comedians. The fact that most of them sort of swaggered as they walked on stage probably helped. I am ready to join the fan clubs of Anis Mojgani, Jodie Knowles, Good Sista Bad Sista, Derek Brown and Buddy Wakefield. 

Hell, check them out for yourself.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

I heart Portland.

First off let me say a big thank you to Larry Colton, Greg Netzer, and all the folks at the Wordstock Festival and the New Zealand Book Council for getting me over to Portland last week. I had a fabulous time, was treated like royalty and recommend Wordstock to everyone, whether writers or readers, both or neither.

It was very frustrating for me to find that in the few short years since I last went travelling (to Europe in 2006), internet cafes - those ones with rows and rows of computers so you can check your emails and update your blogs - seem to have disappeared. Instead, WiFi is available everywhere, which is great, but not so great if you didn't bring a laptop. Also, I bought my Apple iBook just before everything seemed to make a great technological leap forward, so it has no wireless capability and doesn't even have a DVD drive. Sigh. Guess it's time for an upgrade if I'm going to do more roving.

So apologies for my silence. I had hoped to give a daily update of festival festivities, and of course once I got home the task seemed a little overwhelming, cue more silence. So instead I will be presenting an abridged version, in bite size pieces.

When I took off from Sydney to LAX, CNN was announcing that the American presidential candidates had just cast their votes. The announcement came somewhere over the Pacific from the pilot that Obama had won and I expected more of an uproar than there was - I looked around and saw a couple high-five each other, but other than that, people seemed keen to get back to their movies. Maybe they were all Aussies. I also expected when we touched down that America would feel different somehow, but other than a surprisingly short wait at immigration, people just seeemed to be going about their business as usual. What did I want? Maybe I wanted dancing in the streets. I'm sure there was dancing in the streets, somewhere, just not in the transit lounge at the airport.

Still, it felt like a pretty special time to be there. Everyone I spoke to in Portland was very pleased with the election outcome. They were dancing on the inside.

I was picked up from the airport by the lovely Jan, who drove me into the city. Portland was perfectly autumnal, with rust coloured leaves and heavy grey skies, colours which didn't change for the five days I was there. Even the buildings seeemed to be painted to suit the season and the effect was very harmonious, even in the more industrial parts of town. Jan dropped me off at the very flash historic Benson hotel. I was exhausted, but I took myself off for a walk and found some very funky shops and cafes just around the corner. Powell's bookstore ("City of Books") was a little overwhelming for my jetlagged brain, but I was pleased to see that they had a stack of my book in the Debut Fiction wall and another on the general fiction shelf. It was the first sighting of my lovely new paperback cover and it was gorgeous to behold. It was also great to see an independent bookstore so dominant.

Predictably, I wilted, went back to the hotel, ordered room service dinner and crashed out...

...only to be woken just after midnight by someone trying to get in to my room. Luckily I had locked it from the inside, or the couple with the key card would have walked in on me asleep in their bed: I had been given the wrong room apparently. After I had sent the couple away, two burly hotel staff knocked on the door, waking me again, to ask me who I was. All a bit disconcerting, but they apologised profusely the next day and explained that I had been allocated the wrong room by the clerk and so my details had been filed under another room number. I hate to think what hilarity would have ensued if I hadn't locked the door from the inside. The couple would have walked in to find Goldilocks asleep in their bed and I would have got a hell of a fright in my disoriented state. But being interrogated about who I was and what I was doing after midnight and after a 28 hour journey from New Zealand was bad enough!

Still, it was all cleared up and I did sleep in the luxurious bed for another 9 hours solid after that.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Transmission interrupted stop

here in portland stop wish I had a laptop as there seems to be no such thing as internet cafes all wireless for which you need your own computer stop hotel internet access $US5 per 15 minutes hence telegram stop having a great time and will report back if I can find a cheaper computer stop lots to tell exclamation mark

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Portland schedule (or, two and a half sleeps)

I can't believe it's only three days before I leave for Portland. I was struck down by flu this week (yes, the actual flu, not a cold, although it hasn't been too bad) and so am behind in my preparations. I wanted to get all the planning out of the way so I could keep working on the novel; that way I'd be in full flight by the time I left and could keep working in airport lounges etc. Ah well.

It's only two and a half sleeps because I leave at 4.30am on Wednesday, which means being at the airport and 2.30. I may not sleep at all.

On Friday I visit a high school to talk to freshmen and seniors about being a writer, and I will also lead them in a writing prompt. That should be easy to prepare for - I'll just chat about myself and answer questions, and get them to write about an obsession, be it butterflies, clothes, boys, music or miniature trains. I'm also taking with me a stash of NZ YA lit to introduce them to some NZ kulcha: beyond the Lord of the Rings films and Flight of the Conchords I'm not sure what they'll know, and I'm interested to find out.

Friday night I take part in a thing called The Night of Literary Feasts. It's a nice idea: the public can 'hire' an author to come and have dinner with them and their book group/friends/clients/whoever they want in their home or at a restaurant. All proceeds go to a local literacy charity. I'm going to someone's house with two other authors, so it should be relaxed and fun.

On Saturday I'm doing a 'Historical Novels' session with an author called Dave Boling. I'm going to look for his novel Guernica before I leave NZ. Basically, we both talk for 20 minutes each, then answer questions. This might seem like the easier format, but I have to say I prefer panel discussions where we sit and get asked questions. You have to think on your feet, but the upside is... no preparation. When I have to prepare something I tend to over-prepare for fear of being struck dumb, and consequently it always takes up a lot of time and possibly introduces a grey hair or two. But I'm sure it will be fine, and I have double-checked with Dave that he's not going to give a full-on powerpoint presentation with bells and whistles as that would not be fun to be up against armed with nothing but a microphone and some notes.

On Sunday I take part in a panel about first novels, which should be fun. I know nothing about the other participants, Selden Edwards and Randa Jarrar, but I'm looking forward to meeting them and hearing about their work. 

Other than that there are the usual parties, mooching about in hotels and exploring a foreign city. I would say that shopping was on the agenda, but as usual when I go to the USA, the NZ dollar buys practically nothing there at the moment, unlike 6 months ago. How I wish I had discovered the delights of online clothes shopping back then...

I will try and report from Portland but I am not taking my laptop (which is too ancient to be of much use anyway). I'm looking forward to catching up again with Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation, who I shared the stage with twice at the recent Christchurch Writers Festival, but other than that everyone will be a stranger.

I have to say a huge thank you to the NZ Book Council for making this all possible through their international writers' programme.

Friday, October 31, 2008

New banner.

Look at my new banner. Isn't it lovely? It was designed for me by the seriously talented Sarah Laing. I think it shows I'm serious about this blog thing, and that I don't just want my blog to look like everyone else's. But more than that, it captures the aesthetic that drew me to Thomas Edgar as a character in the first place. Before I started The Sound of Butterflies, I was already a collector of antique prints, the very kind that appear above. I never had any butterflies, but I have shells, bugs, birds, flies and plants, many of which I found in a funny out-of-the-way spot at the Portobello markets in London. I wrote about it on the Picador blog a while back (scroll down a fair way to find my post).

So I'm happy. Looking at this banner makes me happy, in the same way that looking at my prints made me want to write about the sort of man who might have done these drawings in the first place. And clearly I keep coming back to this aesthetic - my new novel has a collector as well. Two, in fact. I just can't leave them alone, it seems.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

In which the author wishes she could work a bit more efficiently and then uses a train metaphor.

I had an unexpected visitor this morning: the idea for my next novel. Once again it arose from some outside stimulus, and a serendipitous coming together of several elements to cause the spark. In this case, my husband mentioned that he had stumbled upon a documentary I might be interested in, based on where the research for my current novel is taking me (the research is actually taking me too far from where I need to be). Just after he mentioned that, an interview came on the radio and when the subject mentioned one of his previous jobs (he is now an actor), I could almost hear the cogs connect and the wheel start to spin. The whole next novel flashed before my eyes.

There is no danger that I will abandon my current one to start this new idea. I had the idea for The Sound of Butterflies while I was halfway through the novel I wrote for my MA and I managed to get that finished (though obviously not to the point that it was publishable). TSOB existed in notebooks for a long time before I turned my full attention to it, and I think the beginning was easier because of it. So I'm hoping the same thing will happen here.

That makes five projects I have in mind that I would like to see through to their end: a short story, two novels, a children's novel and a screenplay. I am a serial monogamist when it comes to writing. I am afraid of diluting projects if I work on more than one at once, but the upside of that foible is that I do finish things, eventually. I would rather have two projects finished at the end of (say) three years than four half finished things. I guess that is why, when I embarked on my Wuthering Heights essay, the novel part of my brain shut down until it was finished (although it did turn out to be valuable research; I just couldn't write any of the novel).

Around about now is when I wish I was some kind of writing machine, who could work quickly and efficiently. My residency finishes at the end of February, which is only 4 months away. I would like to think if I sped things up a bit I could have the first novel finished and the children's one nearly done as well.

So why do I work so slowly when these things are all there in my head? When I have the time and the space and the income? I wish I had done some kind of journalism training - the novelists I know who have are very very good at bashing out the words quickly and efficiently, where as I tend to go bash, bash, think, think, get distracted, another bash, go and have a nap. And that is not a typical day I am describing but a typical month, so those periods of not bashing are ridiculously long while I stew things over. I have talked before about the perfect novel in my head; maybe the problem is still that I am worried that when it comes out it won't be so hot. But I'm supposed to be over all of that.

The other thing I have noticed is that my new idea has arisen from the research for the current one. I go wandering along a path and realise that I am too far from the route I am supposed to be taking, so I promise to come back to that path another day on a new project. Just as my current one will be linked to TSOB because of my own personal interests, so too will the next one be linked to that (and probably so on and so forth). An image of train carriages being hitched together comes to mind. Each one will be connected to the last, but by a different link than the one before. I think that's rather a nice way to shape one's publishing career.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Bits & pieces.

I am back from a great few days in Melbourne. I love that city so much. I would actually consider moving there. After all, I can work anywhere, usually. It would just be the logistics of moving the family there and finding the right things for everyone to do. I often think about the life that might have been. It's not that I wish I'd lived a different life - far from it - I just wish there was a way to live parallel lives. In one of those lives I would have moved to a foreign country where I didn't speak the language and made an effort to stay there and learn. I know I can still do those things, but it doesn't seem as easy to move around. Of course, I am forgetting I had my own shackles in my 20s too, usually lack of money or useful work experience that would make it possible to uproot for foreign shores.

I worked in London a couple of times - once for a year, then again for six months - but it's not the same as the challenge of going so far outside your comfort zone you don't even know what the local words for 'comfort zone' are. I'm sure the reality wouldn't be as glamorous as I am imagining.

Anyway, back to Melbourne: I shopped, I drank, I ate, I danced, and best of all I caught up with very missed friends. You see, with friends like those I feel as though moving to another country with a small child might just be tolerable - there would be willing babysitters and lots of fun things to do with friends that don't involve finding a babysitter in the first place.

I had no literary activity whatsoever, except I did read some of the stories, as promised, in Paula Morris's Forbidden Cities. It was the perfect book to take with me (this from someone who regularly confesses to preferring novels over stories any day). I urge anyone to check out this book - there really is something for all moods, especially when travelling. My favourite stories so far are the ones with a satirical touch - I guess they are more like the Paula I know in person. But the one I loved best will come as no surprise to anyone who knows my own short stories: it was called Bright and it was quite short and finished from a dog's point of view. I like a good dose of whimsy and melancholy in my stories, and this one has just the right amount of both. I've still got a few stories to go and they are now my perfect travelling companion on short journeys too - the bus to work.

I have decided not to write about seeing Goran Bregovic in concert. Let's just say it was love. I am far too daunted at the thought of putting the powerful feelings the show generated into words. I'm sure you can imagine the awe of seeing "a 15-piece all-male choir; a 12-piece string orchestra, a six-piece brass 'Wedding and Funeral' band; two female singers from Bulgaria; a guest vocalist Alen Ademovic and, of course, Goran Bregovic!" I will leave you with this image though: I wondered as I looked at everyone sitting so politely in the four-tiered-seating State Theatre when we arrived just how we could experience the promised overwhelming urge to dance. I wondered if an arts festival crowd is the ideal crowd and a theatre the appropriate venue. I needed have worried. By the end they were dancing in the aisles, clapping and singing. Two middle-aged women at the very front finally got up the courage to dance at the very end and were so pleased with themselves they high-fived.

Maybe I will write about it another day.  

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Forbidden Cities.

I was going to call this post 'Foreign Cities' and say how appropriate it was that when I go to Melbourne this week my book of choice is called Foreign Cities. But it's not; it's Forbidden Cities by Paula Morris (see Bookman Beattie's recent interview with Paula here). I was getting it mixed up (again - sorry Paula!) with Charlotte Grimshaw's novel Foreign City.

So. I am going to Melbourne this week to visit friends and have a small holiday, and I shall be taking Paula's new book of short stories, which I'm very much looking forward to reading. Even though I'll be in a foreign city with much to do, I will also be in a nice quiet hotel with all the time in the world, and if there's one thing that I don't get much of these days, it's lolling around reading.

I love Melbourne. I've only been once before but if I was going to move to Australia I wouldn't have much trouble settling there I think. It certainly isn't what I would class as a forbidden city; at least, nobody has forbidden me to go there. It might be forbidden in as much as I'm a bit worried about shopping temptations and perhaps drinking too much with my lovely friends. Ah, the decadence!

The Melbourne Arts festival is on and I'm going to see Goran Bregovic's Tales and Songs for Weddings and Funerals on Saturday night. Bregovic made the music for Emir Kusterica's films Time of the Gypsies and Underground, both films I loved, with the music contributing significantly to that love. Here's the blurb:

"The maestro of this timeless new sound, Goran Bregovic, melds a 37-piece ensemble from the best of the Balkans: a 15-piece all-male choir; a 12-piece string orchestra, a six-piece brass 'Wedding and Funeral' band; two female singers from Bulgaria; a guest vocalist Alen Ademovic and, of course, Goran Bregovic! The result is a recipe for riotous fun, passionate performance and exhilarating energy – featuring Bregovic’s much-loved film scores, hot-wired revivals of traditional tunes and new fusions of flavours from Gypsy to rock."

I can't wait. Perhaps afterwards I'll try and give another stumbling music review, where I try and put into words things that I only feel with my gut.

I'm also going to see if I can't get a bit of dancing in, since Melbourne supposedly has one of the most vibrant swing dancing scenes in the world. And speaking of early-20th-century-dance-styles, Melbourne is also home to one of my literary guilty pleasures: Phryne Fisher, the can-do 1920s flapper detective gal, the creation of Kerry Greenwood. If you want maximum escapism with fabulous frocks and mint juleps, you need look no further than Phryne.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The joy of tutu-ing.

(Pronounced first 'tu' like 'foot', second like 'too'.)

I've been writing an academic English essay for the first time in years. This morning I spent about half an hour on two sentences. If I was doing that with my novel at the moment I would never get it written, so I just give things more a cursory stroking and move on, and then only if something is truly awful at the sentence level.

But I needed those two essay sentences to work hard for me - they were in the conclusion. (Snippet of memory from my BA days: I hate writing introductions and conclusions.) And I loved it. I loved pinpointing and refining and rewriting until I'd chosen just the right words to say just what I wanted to say with a lovely cadence.

Which made me realise how much I love rewriting sometimes (and at those times I would say, as others have said before, "writing is re-writing"). Today anyway, most definitely. And now I can't wait to get to the third draft stage of my novel, because by then I will have sorted out most of the big structural hiccups, captured the plot and the character and the voice and all those big picture things and I will be able to blissfully roll around amongst the minutae of the sentences for a while until they say exactly what I want them to. And I will enjoy just fiddling and wearing away at those words, turning them inside out and breaking them down.

But I'm still only on the first draft, which of course has its own charms. I just thought I'd stop work for a bit and sing my little ode to tutu-ing. Carry on.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

24 more sleeps.

As the Wordstock festival in Portland, Oregon is my first international literary festival (let me rephrase: my first overseas international literary festival) I think it's only fair that I am feeling ridiculously excited about the whole thing. According to the schedule, I will be giving a presentation along with another debut historical novel author, David Boling, at 3pm on Saturday November 8th, and I will also be appearing on a panel about first time novels at 3pm on Sunday the 9th. It's an auspicious time: I fly in on the preceding Wednesday (the 5th), the day after the US general elections, so Portland will either be rejoicing or commiserating; I guess by the time I stand up on Saturday I will know whether or not Helen Clark is still Prime Minister; and on the Sunday my son will turn two without me. I am fairly certain at this point he doesn't even know what a birthday is, but I plan to burn up the credit card to make up for my absence and yay, he gets to have two birthdays. Such are the sacrifices we make.

I was reminded by the election situation that I was in the States last time a Bush left the White House. I found myself in New York on the day that Clinton was elected in 1992, at an Act Up (Aids activist group) party, and when the results were in the whole place was jumpin' with the sound of 'ding dong the wicked witch is dead!'. It was exhilirating; as I stood there I realised I was experiencing a very important part of history first-hand and would remember it forever (although I have to admit that in my old age the details are somewhat hazy).

How strange then, on my fourth visit to the States, to potentially witness my second Republican/Democrat changeover. I will report back with glee.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Life outside of writing.


Little Tweeters Necklace from mammaslittlebabies at

Wishing I was wearing:

Ashley dress from Trashy Diva

Listening to:




Lindy hop!

Playing with:

A ball - a lot! With my son.


A crazy mix of blogs by women who are heavily into clothes. Blame a cat of impossible colour for introducing me. These aren't shallow blogs by fashionistas wanting the latest Prada handbag; they are usually about creative things to do with home-made and thrift store clothes. I am rediscovering my 20 year obsession with vintage clothes.

Sometimes there is life outside of writing, we just don't talk about it on blogs about writing.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Real-life conversations.

I went to Wellington last week and came to this realisation: the reason I have been so prolific on this blog since moving to Christchurch is that I don't have any writer friends down here. You may have noticed that I haven't posted for more than a week, and that even that post was hardly a deeply thought-out essay on the pleasures and agonies of writing a novel.

It's because I met up, separately, with two of my writer friends in Wellington and we talked about writing. How I miss those conversations! They are so vital, so important in the life of trying to write a novel, or simply leading 'the writing life'. I'm sure some people would disagree, that they need solitude above all else; well, this is true when you are doing the actual writing, but when you're not, it is so great to have others to discuss things with. It doesn't even need to be the work itself that is being discussed, although this can help too. I have a Wellington writing group that is wonderful for critiquing, egging each other on, and even just sitting around for a wine (and a whine) and a gossip. But then it's great to have a quick fix, where you meet one person for coffee and you don't pull each other's work to pieces but just talk about how things are going. Sometimes it can be intimidating, when one's own work is going badly and your friend is so focused you can see lasers coming out of her eyes. But mostly it is just plain inspiring and can give you the boost you need. Writers can offer each other advice when they hit a wall, or even just a sympathetic ear.

So that is why I blog - to try and recreate the feeling I get from those cosy chats in cafes with my writer friends, and which is why I love it when people leave comments and it becomes a discussion. The downside of keeping a blog about writing is when you do have a real-life conversation and your friend says "I know, I read it on your blog", and you can no longer remember what you've written and what you haven't and whether you are boring the person who is too polite to tell you they've heard it all before.

But as far as not having posted for a while, I blame my trip to Wellington. I am sated. For now.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Sunday Salon - my office and my job.

A few people have asked me to post photos of my office. I think there is a whole new phenomenon here - office porn, or, the art of looking at writers' desks. I am happy to oblige. So here they are: I have two desks, one with the obligatory pin-board with inspiring pictures, photos, index cards etc, and the other housing my computer. Above that are the images from A Cabinet of Curiosities. I have included the outlook from the window, although it was the university holidays when this was taken, so there are no students sullying the view! 

I am happy to inform my readers that if they like the look of what they see, my position as the Ursula Bethell writer in residence at Canterbury University is up for grabs next year. For details of how to apply, go here. I can't recommend it enough - an office, a computer, a salary, access to the library (and gym!) and almost complete solitude. I can go for days without talking to a soul, but if I need company, it's easy enough to find, too. A very productive environment for any serious writer.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The perfect novel.

I have written the perfect novel. It is complex, multi-layered, gripping and very important. The story is fantastic. It will move readers, and sell extremely well. The critics will laud it, and of course, it will win the Booker. Or the Orange. Or both. How could it not, when it is perfection itself?

The trouble is, so far I have only written it in my head. In your head, things can afford to be perfect. And effortless. The novel assembles itself with precision; all you need to do is get it down on paper, right?

Wrong. In making the transition from head to page, that perfect creature becomes a baggy, twee, trite, lack-lustre, confused monster. I wonder how many great ideas never make it into book form because people can't bear to see their precious darlings being born a bit spotty, or, OK, hideously deformed.

But this, I have to remind myself, is what writing a novel is all about, and those of us who persevere - who don't abandon our ugly babies but work with them to make them achieve all they can in life - are the ones who get the books finished. And OK, they might not be the flawless art that we first imagined, but we have to at least try and mould that first effort into something as close to our dream as we can manage. We can't give up.

On a personal note I thought I could get this novel out in a year, no worries, because it was all there in my head. The days when I hated what I saw appearing on the screen sometimes crippled me for the rest of the week. I have come to realise that I was being a bit optimistic. Sure, I will try and write it in a year, but with a few exceptions, novels can - and probably should - take a lot longer that that.

A few weeks ago, a night class student asked me how many words I like to write a day and I said a thousand (this wasn't a lie - I do like to write a thousand, but I usually fail at this target miserably). He said with a very confused look on his face "But this isn't very many at all!" People have this image of the full-time writer sitting at their desk banging away on their keyboard for 8 hours straight, but those who have actually been there know that this is virtually impossible. Sometimes I sit in my office all day and only write for an hour. But try and explain to people what you're doing for the rest of the time and you realise that to the outside world writing a novel looks an awful lot like laziness.

Other people have also said "If you write a page a day, that's a novel in a year". I think those people have never written a novel either. They must be the kind who think that the perfect novel in their head will pour out of them at a perfect page a day, and at the end of that year all they need to do is print it out and send it off.

The conclusion to this rant is that I am going to go back to trying to write 1000 words a day, and if they look nothing like I was hoping I will shrug my shoulders and tell myself that I have all the time in the world to shape it once the first draft is out. If I hate it, I don't have to live with it. I have the power to change it to the best of my ability. And I don't need to rush it out. If I take the time to research, and ponder, and read things that inspire me, I am not being lazy; I am being kind to my baby.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

"Oh, I don't read novels."

I was thinking today about how often I meet people, men usually, who say "I don't read novels". They usually say they only read non-fiction. One of the main reasons seems to be that they have little time for reading, so if they're going to read, they want to learn something.

Of course I think that you can learn something from novels, but that's beside the point. I just realised today that you never hear people say, when talking about films, "I only watch documentaries." Surely there are so many people (*cough*men*cough*) who think nothing of flopping down in front of TV for the evening to watch a drama or a comedy, and certainly those who, even if high-minded and anti-TV, will go the the movies to watch a good shoot-em-up or a well-crafted, thought-provoking piece of arthouse cinema.

So why don't they look at novels in the same way?

Incidentally, those readers who claim to only read biographies etc, also seem to take forever to read their chosen books, reading a couple of pages a night before falling asleep. I would venture that if they gave a good novel a try, they might learn something and be engaged enough to read a good chunk at a time. They could even read a book instead of watching TV.

Any thoughts?

Actually, further to this, I was interested in a survey the Guardian did recently about male and female reading habits. Men read significantly less fiction than women (no surprises there, I worked that out when I was a shopgirl in a bookstore - they also don't read books written by women*), and the novels they name as being their favourites seem to be the ones they read as angry young men or studied at university 5, 10, 20, 30 years ago. Anecdotally, I have come across just these types, who name books such as The Crying of Lot 49 as their favourite novels, but who haven't ever bothered to pick up something that's come out in the last 20 years which might be just as good. One guy even said to me once "fiction these days is crap"! Well how does he know if he never reads any? Oh, that's right, he doesn't have time, and he wants to learn something when he reads. As far as he's concerned, he's read a good novel. Why bother looking for any more?

*Of course I'm not talking about all men; there are plenty of exceptions, including my husband who not only reads novels, but novels written by women. I think that might be why I married him. But on the flipside I have a male novelist friend who says he doesn't read novels. That's even more scary.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Grumpy old woman moment #2.

I take the bus every morning to work and most evenings home again. There are only a couple of seats I can bear to sit in, and I'll tell you why. Buses these days seem to be plastered with advertising, or if not advertising, then some kind of decoration, which spreads up the side of the bus and over the windows. The decal stickers they use are sort of pixilated to let the light in and to allow passengers to see out. The trouble is that if you look through them, everything is blurred - it's like watching things move under water without goggles - and once the bus starts moving, it just makes you feel plain sea-sick. So I always try to choose a seat that has a clear view to the outside, otherwise I have to stare at something inside the bus for the whole 30 minute journey to settle my stomach.

Bah! Who had this bright idea? Clearly someone in an advertising agency who drives to work. Bah!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sunday Salon - I am Heathcliff.

I am still on a 19th century novel kick - both as 'research' for my new novel and taking advantage of my academic setting this year by attending lectures on the subject.

I can't remember when I last read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, but it must have been a long time, because I am finding it as fresh and interesting as if it were the first time. There is so much I could say about it here, but I'll be saving it for the essay I'm going to write. Yes, you read correctly - I have decided to tackle a third year academic essay 18 years after I last studied Victorian literature at university.

Let's just say that for what is arguably the greatest romance ever written in the English language, the lovers are two of the most unlikeable heroes and heroines you are likely to meet, and the love story unconventional to say the least. I remember thinking that the first time I read it, but now my reaction is a bit more complex.

For example, everything we know about Heathcliff and Cathy is not from their point of view, but through the eyes of Nelly Dean, the nurse, and she brings all her morals and standards and prejudices to her view of them. I feel as though I understand them so much better now that an older me is taking the narrative with a grain of salt and reading between the lines.

Cathy is certainly spoiled, and Heathcliff a bit of a thug, but that doesn't stop me from feeling for them when they are kept apart and their love is unrequited, save for some kisses and tears just before Cathy's demise.

I love reading it at the same time as gong to lectures, which are opening my eyes to so many aspects of the novel as I read it. I had always imagined, even after I read it, that WH was so evocative in its descriptions of the wild Yorkshire moors; in the edition I'm reading, it even says as much on the back cover. But the moors are never described directly; all the action takes place either at Wuthering Heights or Thrushcross Grange. Instead, the moors are really brought to life in the descriptions of Heathcliff, when he is compared to the natural landscape. Heathcliff is the moors.

I could go on but I think I'll save it. I am thoroughly excited by the prospect of writing an essay and putting into it everything that I didn't when I was younger and more distracted. I am also excited by how re-immersing myself in the world of the Victorian novel has reinvigorated my own novel and taken it in a new direction, which proves once again that you can't write a novel without reading and appreciating those who have gone before. 

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Writing and babies.

Many of us have done it and failed. Some have succeeded. Some of us are thinking about doing it. I recommend Making Babies by Anne Enright for those who have done it and those who are thinking of doing it, and also the latest post by Lauren Groff. I just read it, smiled, and thought, ah, yes. You can't ever help seeing the humour in such endeavours, and this is what keeps you sane. I can't believe I went through it all and out the other side. And could quite possibly think about doing it all again.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Right back at ya.

Mark Sarvas has written about his time in New Zealand and at the Christchurch Writers Festival on his blog, The Elegant Variation. He says very good things about everything and everyone. What a nice man. He can come again.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A couple of my favourite things.

I was going to say "a few of my favourite things" like the song, but realised I only had two for now.

1. Not For Robots. ("Writing is hard. People for whom writing is not hard are robots and should go away. Thank you.") I have spoken before about how sometimes when my novel is going badly I start scouring the internet for answers. The trouble is I don't really know what the questions are. But I think this website might actually hold the answers to them, whatever they are. It's written by American YA author Laini Taylor, which is everything she knows about writing and the process of writing novels. It's great. I have already picked up some very useful suggestions, such as keeping two documents open side by side as I'm writing: one for writing the actual novel, and one for twittering on as I'm thinking about it, or trying stuff out (similar to what Peter Carey refers to as cantillevering), so I'm always getting down what's in my head. She says it helps her enormously and I'm going to give it a go. I could go on about all the great advice, but you should probably go and check it out yourself.

2. The smell of the printer/photocopier room. I had to print out a couple of boring invoices today and when I walked into the room that houses the enormous Deathstar of a printer here in the English department I was hit by a smell that simultaneously excited me and reassured me. Why? I think because usually when I go into that room it's to print off pages of my novel. It makes me feel as though I've been working and I have something to show for it. Of course, today I haven't earned that smug feeling the room has given me (perhaps it needs more ventilation and I am in fact high on ink fumes), but I have it anyway. Come to think of it, I think I'm getting a headache.

Monday, September 08, 2008

A small voice.

A few months ago I wrote this post, which I ended with suggesting that the Sunday Star-Times short story competition, which is arguably New Zealand's highest-profile competition, should perhaps think about employing a different judge. I was worried that employing the same judge year after year would lead to writers tailoring their stories to one person's taste, and that the fact that those stories get published in the newspaper and exposed to so many readers might produce a uniformity in the types of stories that are considered excellent. I was worried that diversity might be at risk.

This year, Owen Marshall is no longer judging the competition; Stephanie Johnson is. I am delighted. No doubt she will have different ideas to Owen as to what constitutes good writing, and I for one welcome the change. Who knows why they changed, whether they had intended to have someone different all along, or whether Mr Marshall wasn't available this year, or whether the organisers had heard my small mumblings from cyber-space and it gave them some food for thought.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Festival report #1.

The Christchurch Writers Festival is over. It was a great but exhausting few days, and I didn't even go to as many sessions as I would have liked. I think I'm tired from a combination of going to hear writers, being a writer on panels myself, being 'on', partying (ie drinking) more than I'm used to, and still having to be the usual mother when I came home. But hell, it was fun.

Chairing a session in particular takes it out of you as you're responsible for the whole thing running smoothly, and I am a compulsive over-preparer for that kind of thing (although strangely when I am there as a panellist I find it easier to prepare nothing at all), so it took me all week to write introductions and to generally feel anxious. Well, I'm happy to report that the Friday session did run smoothly, despite being told when I arrived that Mark Sarvas wasn't going to make it (which would have meant rewriting my introduction, coming up with more questions and dumping the rather nice intro I had written for Mark). Luckily I found out in time that he would in fact be coming; he'd just be a little late. This actually provided a bit of flair to the session as Mark arrived in a flourish about halfway through.

I couldn't have asked for an easier group of writers (Anya Ulinich, Christine Leunens, Maxine Alterio, Mark Sarvas) to chair. They all had plenty to say, and rather than sticking rigidly to my plan for the session, I just let it flow organically, with readings and questions that arose out of the pieces that were read. I do wish we'd had more time, as we were really only just getting warmed up when it came to an end. Four writers is one too many for a session such as that, even if we did have more time. Mark Sarvas in particular could have had a session all to himself to talk about his book, Harry, Revised and his blog The Elegant Variation (more on this when I write about the blogging panel we were both on). But I guess no matter how well a writer performs on the day, the nature of festivals and their resources is that sometimes people have to share the stage, and it would have been a gamble to give a writer who is really unknown in New Zealand a session all to himself.

I did, however, get feedback that it was a good taster for the works of the writers involved and that plenty of people went out and bought their books after.

I have to say that a highlight of the festival for me was meeting and hanging out with the wonderful Anya Ulinich. She is one cool chick and we had lots of laughs. And quite a few drinks.

More on the festival here, here, here and here.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


The Press Christchurch Writers festival has started. Just a reminder, if you are in Christchurch, the events I'll be appearing in are in the column to the left, under the big blue festival ad.

Chairing a session is a challenge - as the chair it is up to you to make the session run smoothly and to make it interesting. This means giving good introductions to the writers but not rambling on for too long, which sadly happens all too often at festivals. I hope I can get the balance right. I have certainly done my preparation - to the point that it has consumed everything else this week, and that's not to mention all the reading (which has luckily been enjoyable).

With four authors to read and interview in one hour I won't get to ask probing questions about their work, but I hope some interesting anecdotes will come out of it and that it will be an entertaining and informative hour.

As always with these festivals I'm looking forward to the parties and meeting fellow authors from far flung places - Kate Atkinson and Kate Mosse among them (I'm sure Robert Fisk is very interesting but what would we find to talk about?) - and catching up with my publishers and writer friends.

I shall report back next week.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Spring has sprung.

Right on cue, first of September, first day of spring. And the weather is playing along. On campus this morning it even smells like spring - something to do with the new mulch they've put on the garden beds probably - and on the walk to the bus stop I waded through petals from trees overladen with spring buds. I even shrugged off my winter comfort/shabby clothes, put on a polka-dot scarf and red lipstick and did my hair (still with my usual work attire of jeans and Converse sneakers, but the result is more retro-glam than the slob I was becoming).

Welcome Spring!

But while we're welcoming some much-needed good weather, please spare a thought for those less fortunate. My friend Paula and her husband have had to abandon their home in New Orleans once again. Paula has just arrived in New Zealand, while Tom is driving through heavy traffic to St Louis, so they can't even be together to support each other. Meanwhile they are waiting to find out what Gustav does to their home and much-loved city. My thoughts are with them today.

Friday, August 29, 2008

A visitation.

I was out of action for a couple of days this week past, having and recovering from minor surgery. I took Friday off work to stay in bed, but did a bad job of it. It's not often I get to be at home alone (child at creche) without feeling I should be doing something, and what do you know, with no guilt in my brain a new idea floated in unannounced.

Now, normally I would be very suspicious of a new idea while I'm at this stage of writing my novel, and frankly, I'd be a little worried too, as it would make me think my novel was going badly to be letting this usurper come a-knocking. But the big surprise was that it was an idea for a film, not a novel. And as I was having a guilt-free day of doing nothing, my mind was open and it just kept coming and coming in that delicious way that my (infrequent) ideas seem to do. It's one of those ideas that is so simple and obvious that it's unbelievable that it hasn't been done before. I even jumped on the internet to do a bit of research and all my ideas were backed up by real, live, juicy facts.

No, I'm not about to turn away from my job as a novelist and become a screenwriter - I have never really had those kinds of ambitions. But I would like to moonlight for a wee while. Indulge myself in tutu-ing away on something that has no deadline or expectation. I think I'll write a treatment and pass it on to friends and family in the film business and see what they make of it. If they think it has possibility, I might take it up as a project once the novel is finished. Or I might not. It depends how loud it gets.

I know how annoying it is to me when people say "oh, I had an idea for a novel, I might just tippy-tap away and see what happens," so I will acknowledge that screen-writing is every bit as hard as writing a novel and I shouldn't be taking it so lightly. I much prefer novel-writing for the control it gives me over my material. Screenwriters I know are bound by producers, film commissions, and that's just at the script stage; then there's the fact that in order for it to be fully realised, someone has to come along with pots of money, whereas if you write a good novel it is relatively inexpensive for a publisher to produce.

So it is not without a bite of humble pie that I am taking on my new little project, and acknowledgment that it's not as simple as it sounds. 

Thursday, August 28, 2008

US paperback cover.

I have just seen the lovely new US paperback cover of The Sound of Butterflies on the Barnes and Noble website, so I am taking that as the go-ahead to share it on my blog. It is to be released early November, under the Harper Perennial imprint, just in time for my trip to Portland, Oregon for the Wordstock festival. I think it's gorgeous - one of my favourites. Harpercollins US have also updated their website so all their authors get a new page (or series of pages). Mine is here.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Donna and me.

I can see now why some writers take ten years to write their second books. I’m thinking of people like Donna Tartt and Junot Diaz. Second books are hard. Well, technically speaking it’s not my second book I’m working on; it's my third, although as a follow up to my first published novel, I will call it my second.

It’s not that I’m paralysed by anxiety. If I go looking for the anxiety, I can find it easily enough, and find plenty of things to feed it – will this one be better than the last? Will my publishers like it or reject it? Will I be able to finish it before my residency (and salary) runs out? – but I’m not feeling that anxious, honestly. I’m just looking from the outside in for a moment, cool and detached, at the process I am going through with this one, and it has made me think of Donna Tartt writing The Little Friend. Of course she had extra pressure – how to follow up a mega-hit – that thankfully I’m not burdened with. I’m just really interested in the way this novel keeps slipping out my grasp, like soap in the shower. Just when I think I’ve got it, it twists away again. One moment I think I know exactly what it is, and the next it morphs and changes and I realise that what I have written so far is no more than a bit of dabbling to get me ready for writing the novel properly.

I imagine Donna Tartt starting The Little Friend with an idea: little girl’s brother gets murdered; little girl is kind of quirky, with a quirky Southern family; quirky little girl sets out to find her brother’s killer. I bet she doesn’t even know until she gets to the end that Harriet isn’t going to find the killer. Tartt probably thinks the whole time she is writing, ‘Well I don’t know who did it, but I’m sure if I keep writing it will all become clear.’ Except it doesn’t. So she keeps writing. And as she writes, the book changes – she needs to introduce a strange misfit family into it as suspects and she becomes enamoured of them and wants to give them a point of view. She starts to love writing their dialect. For a while, she follows them to see where they will take her.

She finishes a draft and goes back and changes lots of things. She rewrites passages so they sing, so she can really feel under the skin of the character, view everything through their eyes and write the world accordingly.

In the meantime, some years have gone by. She still doesn’t know who the killer is. She changes some more things, rewrites some more. Another few years goes by. And so on. She knows this whole time that it has to be better than it is, that if she just keeps working away at it, it will get better and better until it is finally worthy of releasing into the world.*

I understand now. I just hope and pray that I can condense that process into a much shorter time.

*Warning: may not actually be how Donna Tartt wrote The Little Friend. In other words, don’t quote me.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Sunday Salon - Revisiting Jane.

One of the greatest things about being writer in residence at a university is the access it affords to that wonderful thing that universities supposedly stand for - knowledge.

This means I have free rein (reign?) of the libraries, which has proved very useful for research for the latest novel. I even think that being here has changed my novel significantly: as I make use of the resources, the characters, story and structure of the novel are all making use of them too. I think it is very interesting how outside factors, such as where you are when you write a novel, can have such a powerful influence, but that's another post topic altogether.

The point of this post is that this week I attended a lecture: my first English lit lecture in about 13 years. It was a stage 3 course on the Nineteenth Century Novel, a subject that was very close to my heart when I did my BA in English many moons ago. This particular lecture was on Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë. Due to all the reading I've got on my plate for the festival, I didn't get a chance to re-read the novel before the lectures began, but I was pleased to find that I still scored 8 out of 10 on the quiz the lecturer gave to see who had actually finished the book, so it has stayed with me for many years.

I loved the lecture. It made me, once again, wish that I could do my BA all over again, or at least transport myself back in time and make the younger, distracted me pay a bit more attention and get a bit more out of it. I loved the books then; I didn't love the lectures or the coursework or the exams. Older me would relish the lectures and the essays, if not the exams.

I loved hearing about the context in which the book was written, the life of the Brontë family - all which I knew about but enjoyed hearing in such an intense, distilled environment as a lecture on the novel.

At the beginning, after the quiz, the lecturer asked the class what they thought of the book. One young woman said that she was a huge Jane Austen fan, and that when she started Jane Eyre she was disappointed that it was so different in style, that she couldn't get into it, but that by the end she was won over. It reminded me that when I studied stage 1 nineteenth century lit, I had the exact opposite reaction when I started Pride and Prejudice. I was a big fan of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I wrote in my journal at the time that I thought P&P was boring, that it was so mannered and dispassionate. I don't even think I got past the first chapter. Now I love Jane Austen, but it was interesting to realise so many years on why I had that first reaction to her. Charlotte Brontë herself said of Austen that she was "only shrewd and observant" and not passionate, that her work was "a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck".

I'm looking forward to diving back into Jane Eyre when I get the chance, and upcoming lectures include Wuthering Heights and The Woman in White, both of which I plan to read (re-read in the case of WH) to get the most out of the lectures. And yes, they do all have something to do with the novel I'm working on; I'm just not sure exactly what just yet, but I'm sure that all will become clear.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Life is just busy. That's all.

Regular readers of this blog will notice that I haven't been posting as much of late as I usually do. That's because I've been crazy busy and the blog seems to be the first thing to fall away (well, maybe not the first, that would be housework, packed lunches, and on some days, novel-writing). Apart from trawling second-hand and vintage clothes shops for the perfect outfits for husband and me to wear to the big band ball a couple of weeks ago, I have been teaching some classes. The first was when I spent a day back at my old school, the second was a continuing education night class at UC Opportunity. I guess it would be useful to tell people about these things before the fact rather than after, but that seems a little too organised, and I haven't quite got the hang of using this blog as a publicity tool.

Anyway, the point is that my headspace has been taken up with preparing for those classes and they have nudged nearly everything else out if the way. I definitely enjoyed the classes, but was also glad when they were over, as it's usually the time leading up to them that I find the hardest. I probably need to train myself to only think about them a day or two in advance, thereby shortening my anxiety and preparation time.

Next up, after one more UC creative writing class, I have the session I am chairing at the Christchurch Writers Festival, so I am still reading around that, but at least that's the kind of prep I can do while lying in bed at night.

I saw a writer friend in the weekend who will also be at the festival. He said that he had been asked to be on my panel about blogging but had turned it down. I pondered aloud as to why he would be on the panel when he doesn't have a blog and he said "because I hate blogs". Which seems to me to be the most pointless reason to have someone on a panel about blogging. It would be like having someone who hates crime fiction on a panel about crime fiction. Presumably if you hate crime fiction, you don't read it. Presumably if you hate blogs, you don't read them, so what could you possibly have to add to the conversation? Sure, it's good to have someone to play devil's advocate and ask the hard questions, but surely that is the job of the chairperson?

My reaction to people who say they hate blogs is to simply suggest they don't read them. It's like any medium - there is good stuff and there is bad stuff. Just because there are a lot of bad magzines out there, I wouldn't say "I hate magazines" and write them all off.

But maybe this friend hates them on principle because he is a columnist and he makes his livelihood this way. Blogging to columnists probably looks a lot like reality TV does to writers and actors of legitimate drama. There is so much crap out there, and people wanting to get their 15 minutes of fame without getting paid for it, that it devalues the genuine talent of people who need to make a living in the print media. But I think it is wrong to write the whole medium off.

And I guess to hear more about my thoughts on why, you'll have to come to the session at the Press Christchurch Writers Festival*.

*Maybe I'm getting the hang of this promotion thing.