Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sunday Salon - my first.

I have joined a blogging group called the Sunday Salon, where members write on Sundays about books they have been reading, enjoying (or not), and thinking about. So this is my first post.

At the moment I have quite a few books on the go, which is unusual for me. I generally read one thing at a time, usually fiction. But I am in the research stage for my novel, and that obviously involves a lot of reading, and of different kinds of books. Anyone who is wondering what my novel is about will no doubt pick up clues from my reading matter!

I'm dividing my reading into four categories at the moment. Research, inspiration, pleasure and work (although they often intersect). For research this week it's been The Collector by Michael King (oh how handy that he also happens to be my father) about the Austrian Andreas Reishek who came to New Zealand in the 19th century to work as a taxidermist at the Canterbury Museum and left with ill-gotten Maori artefacts. It's a terrific read, and as my father's literary executor, I would like to see this book back in print as I think it will appeal to fans of good narrative non-fiction with a historical science bent.

For inspiration, I just finished Henry James' Turn of the Screw. I was interested in the unreliable narrator, and all the Gothic elements of the story, but I have to say: people have made jokes about James' verbose style (even Edith Wharton, according to her biographer Hermione Lee) but I was unprepared for how much it killed the story for me. It's not just because it was of its time - I have read and loved many, many Victorian-era novels and been gripped by them. This one could have been so much more (athough I do acknowledge some of it is brilliant).

For pleasure I am reading Anne Enright's The Gathering. I was expecting this to be a huge, heavy (in more than one sense of the word) tome, but I picked it up in a bookshop and stayed reading and could not put it down. And it's quite short and written with a light touch. I am savouring it slowly (no choice with all the other reading).

For work, I am chairing a session at the Christchurch Writers' Festival this year, so have four books to squeeze in on top of my other reading. And these four particular authors haven't been announced yet, so I can't actually tell you what they are! But I will in time.

Outside of all of that, I have read this book approximately 35 times this week.

Monday, June 23, 2008

About this blog.

The number of visitors to this blog has really jumped since I posted my list, and I knew I had to follow that up with something good. So I posted my four little lights, which also seems to have struck a chord. I can only presume that most of these visitors are writers themselves, doing the same thing I do, which is trawl around the internet looking at other writers' blogs, hoping to glean little insights into the process and take a voyeuristic look at someone else's writing life.

I love reading about others' novel writing process, especially when they get really honest about it and tell you all about that novel - the characters, themes, plot and motifs (Whiti Hereaka is most generous on that front) - but I can't quite bring myself to open myself up quite that much. Still, I hope that I am sharing enough to interest people, and who knows, maybe they'll buy my book if and when it finally comes out and go: "Oh, that's what she was banging on about." I think I win the prize for the most cryptic post about the content of my novel when I wrote about it here. (Incidentally, the serendipity has continued in a most spooky manner.)

I also love it when I hear how my friends' novels are going. It's not just polite interest. When my friend Sarah says she has finished the second draft of her novel, I want to know what kind of work she put into it and what the next phase will be - heavy editing? Minor tweaking? Or when my other friend Bianca says that she has had a major breakthrough and can now write the final chapter of her book, I need to know just what that breakthrough was and how she arrived at it.

So I guess this blog is about sharing the kind of information that I like to know, and I have said it many times before, but in such a solitary activity as writing, it's really exciting to know that others are going through the same thing, and find out how they're doing it. It's the next best thing to working in a busy office. (Ha!)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Learn to write.

Here is the best looking writing course I have come across on the web.

MA in 'Creative' Writing.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Almost written.

I'm a bit behind the times, but I just found this article, from the Guardian, by Anne Enright about the two books she almost wrote last year. It talks about the process of finding your way into a new book, which is something that I have been musing on a lot lately (you may have noticed).

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Four little lights in the fog.

I've had word that a number of creative writing students have been looking at my blog, so I thought I'd share four things that I wish I had known when I was starting out (way back in high school, even) and which have proved to be tips that I come back to again and again.

Conflict is story. This is one I wish I had known when I left school and wanted to write short stories but never knew what should happen in them. If someone had told me to think of a character and give them some conflict, whether from another character (antagonist! Revelation!), a situation or something inside themselves, I would have started writing seriously a lot earlier, and I wouldn't have had so many prettily written pieces of nothing.

Write what you don't know. I had always been told to write what I know. Which is actually sound advice when you're starting out. But when it comes to writing novels, writing what you don't know can elevate your work to another plane altogether. It's easy enough for me to write from the point of view of a thirty-something woman in 2008 with my background and experience (although not well probably), but it's more challenging and ultimately more interesting to write, say, from the point of view of a 27-year-old male lepidopterist in 1904 England. Or a 39-year-old retired army captain in 1904. If the character you want to write about does share some of your own traits and experience, give them a hobby that you know nothing about. The act of researching throws up wonderful ideas for story and conflict, and who knows, you might learn something new, then it will be writing what you know. Keeping yourself interested in what you are writing about will also keep your readers interested.

Describe the coffin not the grief. I don't know where I picked up this tidbit - when I google the expression all I find is myself. So either I've mangled it, or I read it in a book. It might have been John Gardner's Art of Fiction, but I don't have it front of me to check. This is the best writing advice in terms of writing style for me. I should really have it written in huge letters above my desk. When I am revising my work, it plays like a mantra in my head. In case you don't understand what it means, I'll explain how I see it.

It's very easy when describing big emotional moments to get bogged down in melodrama (heaven knows I am as guilty of it as the next person - I'm working on it). I'm always reading people describing how characters feel, the physical sensations they experience, the actions they take (wringing hands, wiping tears, clutching churning stomachs etc), or sometimes people don't bother describing and just say "she felt angry" or "she was sad". Describing the coffin and not the grief is about looking at a scene firmly in the point of view of the character, then filtering what they see through the way they are feeling. I have read a great example of this recently in The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block, which I will post later.

I found a literal example in a book I reviewed a while back, The Center of Winter by Marya Hornbacher, where she describes a funeral: “There is something about a coffin. It is a big, long box … and inside the box is your broken husband, and the lilies are crawling down your throat, closing in as you go, gagging you with their sticky pollen, their fake spring, their cheap, dime-store perfume.” Not once has the narrator descibed her feelings, but you know just what they are, and despite the fact she has lost her husband, there is not a smidgeon of melodrama in sight.

Don't think about a character: What will happen to them next? Think: what will they do next? Because active characters, whose actions drive the narrative, are so much more interesting than those who sit back and only react to situations. It might end up being a flaw that a reader can't put their finger on, but I think it's a flaw nonetheless.

These things have made me a better writer. I'm sure there are other things that I have forgotten, and if I remember them, I will post again. Anybody else like to share their personal favourites? Please don't say "show don't tell" (although I have another post about that one day).

Monday, June 16, 2008


I have a list on my whiteboard, left over from the days I decided to stop writing and just let the air in. It is a list of things that remind me of the mood I'm trying to evoke in my novel. Here it is:

sailor tattoos
circus freaks
Nick Cave ballads
Be Good Tanyas
Johnny Cash
Long Black Veil
Gothic novels
cabinets of curiosities
memento mori
Renee-Louise Carafice (added August 7)

Out of these things a novel has risen. I recommend the exercise. If anyone else cares to share a similar list, please do.

A Storygram from the Vinyl Cafe.

A Story-Gram from Vinyl Cafe Inc

I can't recommend Stuart McLean's CDs enough. I saw him read at the Christchurch Writers Festival a couple of years ago and fell in love with his stories about Dave, who runs the Vinyl Cafe record store (slogan: "We're not big, but we're small"), and his wife and kids. The family get themselves into one pickle after another and they are so endearing and funny. (Example: ten year old Sam is sad his dog seems to be dying. But when he starts crying about it at school, and his teacher asks him what is wrong, he is ashamed. So instead of saying "My dog is dying" he says "My Dad is dying". The news spreads like wildfire.) Dave is kind of hapless and his wife Morley much more together, so Dave's stories consist of him getting in trouble and Morley's usually dealing ably with a ridiculous situation. The story on this CD about the birth of their first child made me cry.

After hearing him read, I wasn't really interested in buying his books, as it was his reading that gave them that extra magic, so I went to Amazon and bought two audio books.

I am re-listening to this now that I have an iPod and each story is just long enough for the bus-ride to and from work. Also, McLean has a podcast that you can subscribe to, not always with stories about Dave et al, but worth listening to as well. I have to really try hard not to laugh out loud on the bus, but the other day, one of his podcasts had me in tears by the end as well. So satisfying. Great for long car trips, too.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Swings and Musical Roundabouts.

After moaning in my previous post about how I had lost it, the muse came back to me the following day. As I say in the title, it is very much a case of 'swings and roundabouts', an expression I love. I had two major breakthroughs this week. The first, although seemingly a minor fact about my protagonist, will actually shape the whole novel and made everything fall into place with a resounding 'click'. It has sent me off on another research tangent, but one which I am thoroughly enjoying, and being resident at a university is certainly helping.

The second breakthrough arrived unexpectedly. I didn't even know I was looking for it. I was walking home from the bus last night listening to the soundtrack of The Piano, music by Michael Nyman. It was one of those gorgeously still and very cold Christchurch evenings, with clear indigo skies lined with pink. I relish that walk. It's only ten minutes, but it is my last chance to be fully inside my head and to mull over what I have been working on during the day, before I arrive home to bright lights and cosy air, the chaos of the child's dinner, bath, bed routine. I always have my iPod on and have lately been listening to music that feeds the mood of the novel. I hadn't listened to The Piano for a long time - perhaps years - and it brought back many a melancholy moment I had drawn out by listening to it. Maybe it is a coincidence that, like The Piano, some of my novel is set in colonial New Zealand, but perhaps Nyman's music so perfectly evokes that time, he had sent me there without my realising it.

The breakthrough was the end of the novel. I had been working with a vague idea of a resolution, but hadn't thought about it too much as I trusted that writing my way towards it would make it clearer. So I was surprised when it arrived unannounced in my head apropos of nothing. And it had quite a kick. I was a bit stunned and when I got home had to fend off the family while I wrote it down. It is one of those endings (I hope), that is surprising (it surprised me, for a start), but utterly inevitable. I hope.

Of course, in this crazy writing playground, the swings and roundabouts could just as easily come back sometime in the future and knock my wee ending out of the park.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

More self-doubt and wads of paper.

I'm 50 pages into the novel and self-doubt is starting to creep in again. It always amazes me how my opinion of my own work can lurch so wildly. I am pushing on with the story as it is unfolding, and not worrying too much about the quality. I just need to get out on to paper what I have in my head and then have another look at it. I keep having this fear that I'm going to finish the novel and that I won't like it, will say to myself, No, that's not what I meant, at all. But of course, if that's true, and I don't like it, I just have to keep working at it until I do. I have a self-imposed deadline to finish the book by the end of my residency (February 2009), but of course, it's much better to have a finished product that's good than one that's so-so and On Time.

It also amazes me how I can be so firmly immersed in the world of the novel one week, and the next just skirting around the outside of it, trying to find a way in. When you're in it, you can't imagine ever stepping outside of it; you think you're invincible. Then one day you wake up and the feeling's gone. Not the first time I've compared writing a novel to being in a relationship.

On the upside, 50 pages makes a very pleasing wad of paper. I always print out what I have done at the end of every day, partly as a back-up and partly for the satisfaction of seeing it grow. It now looks like a pile that means business, so for that I am happy.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Why I love YouTube.

I love it because you can see things like this: Rose Tremain's acceptance speech for the Orange Prize. Now we don't have to just watch acceptance speeches for TV, film and music. When I found out she had won the prize, I went to YouTube, not really expecting it to be there but there it was. Hooray! (ps she thanks her agent, who is also my agent, the wonderful Vivien Green)

Also, there was this TV item about the awards night, which gives a surreal amount of airtime to Gerri Halliwell (Spice Girl) who is apparently an author and literary critic.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Three Novellas for a Novel.

Announcing the latest book by Carl Shuker, winner of the prestigious Prize in Modern Letters and friend of mine: Three Novellas for a Novel. Available only for a limited time, and only online. Carl has made the bold and very modern move a la Radiohead of making his book available for however much the reader wants to pay for it. It consists of, as the title suggests, three novellas, the first of which, The Depleted Forest, is available now.

Carl is a fearless writer. He writes some of the most incredible prose I have ever read, unlike anything I can think of. He got the recognition he deserved when he won the Prize in Modern Letters for The Method Actors, because his books are not easy reads; they are challenging in their style, their subject matter, and their structure, and for this he will probably never be considered mainstream. The great thing is that this does not sway him - he continues to write the books he wants to write and probably always will. I think he might be a genius.

Please go and check out his latest work at