Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My books of the year.

These are the not the best books of the year. These are my best books of the year; that is, the books I read and enjoyed the most. Some of them weren't published this year. Also, having a book out myself and reading wildly different reviews for it (sometimes you'd think people had actually read different books) I am fully aware of the subjectivity of reading. I'm not reviewing these books. I'm simply giving them a little bit of the praise they deserve, and pointing my readers in the direction of books they might themselves enjoy.

Here are my favourites, in no particular order:

The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams
Novel About My Wife by Emily Perkins
The Blue by Mary McCallum
Dead People's Music by Sarah Laing
The Girl on the Landing by Paul Torday
Relief by Anna Taylor
The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce by Paul Torday
Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Magpie Hall by Rachael King (whoops, how did that get on there?)

If you are buying Christmas presents this year, please think about buying books. The above list is a good place to start.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Under the Mountain.

The year was 1979. I was nine years old. My father gave my brother and me a book. It was called Under the Mountain, and it was set in the city we lived in. We both read it - devoured it more like - and were transported to the mysterious and dangerous world beneath our own. It's the story of twins Rachel and Theo, and the enigmatic Mr Jones, who fight the slimy, creepy Wilberforces who sleep beneath Auckland's volcanoes and plan to take over the world. They must harness the power of their twin-ness to triumph.

I loved it. I yearned for an adventure to happen to me.

Then, shortly after, I was given the opportunity to audition for the part of Rachel in the TV series. My dream come true! Drama was my strong suit at school, and I longed to be on TV, convinced that child actors in NZ were terrible and I was just the girl to make it all better. I was sure to get the part, after all, I had the right name and everything! Alas, it was not to be. My brother Jonathan, three years older, also auditioned, and along with our friend Sarah, we had to come up with a mimed scenario to show off our acting talents. I had some vague idea about a kid being bullied on the way to school, but it was vetoed in favour of a gunfight. None of us got the parts, but Sarah later went on to star in another New Zealand children's TV classic, Children of the Dog Star. My brother went on to play Theo in the Radio New Zealand version. I went on to... write books instead.

Under the Mountain, the TV series, spooked a generation of NZ kids.

But that's not all my brother went on to do. He has now directed the feature film of Under the Mountain, which premieres this Saturday night in Auckland and which opens nationwide on Thursday the 10th. Go and see it in the opening weekend if you can, to ensure it gets a long screen-life. Go and see it if you have read the book, or seen the TV series, or go and see it just because you can. See volcanoes erupt! See slimy creatures and a creepy old house on Lake Pupuke! See a great homegrown supernatural adventure.

Spare a thought for a nine-year old girl whose dream didn't quite come true but who is very glad that her brother's did.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Serendipity revisited.

Way back in November 2007, I wrote this post. Go on, go and read it.

I can now do what I said at the end of that post ("I will have to revisit the post in a few years when the book is safely written and published and it will make rather a nice story, I think.").

So, here's that cryptic paragraph, with all the details for Magpie Hall inserted.

"While waiting for the order to arrive, I had the brainwave for my new novel, in no way related in subject matter to the five books I had just ordered. My protagonist (ROSEMARY) has a specific occupation (TAXIDERMIST) and in the novel, a certain object that I had never heard of before until very recently (A CABINET OF CURIOSITIES) plays a big part in the story. So the Amazon package arrives and I am happily reading the first novel when unexpectedly, what should turn up, unannounced, but a CABINET OF CURIOSITIES. The book delves right into the history of CABINETS OF CURIOSITIES and gives many prime and beautiful examples. That book finished, yesterday I randomly picked up the second in the pile of books and lo and behold the first page has the main character STUFFING THINGS. He is a TAXIDERMIST."

What fun.

Monday, November 23, 2009

It's been a while.

Sorry for the absence. I have been so busy lately, and once publicity for the book launch died down, I threw myself back into the domestic life and had little room for any focused thoughts worth blogging.

It was a great night at Our City in Christchurch, a cosy chat with Ruth Todd from Women on Air. Thanks to Ruth and Morrin Rout for hosting the event and for asking me. Thanks to Gillian at UBS for selling so many books, and of course thanks to everyone who came and listened and/or bought the book. I do like doing those intimate affairs (although there were around 80 people it felt very intimate) where people chime in from the floor and we get a good conversation going. We gave away some magpie tattoos to celebrate, and you can see one of them in action here.

Magpie Hall debuted at number two on the NZ bestseller list, behind a book that was getting, ahem, rather a lot of publicity, whether it was welcome or not. Which leads me to...

New Zealand literature has finally been in the news. It's funny, with dedicated sports sections on the news every night, it's a shame that it takes a bit of controversy to get people talking about New Zealand books. Peter Wells pointed it out on his blog that at least people are now talking about literature: the national book awards usually get a two-minute slot on the late news, but this has been front page news, with this story on the cover of the Dom Post and this on the cover of the Listener.

As a sometimes-historical novelist, people have been asking about my methods for research and incorporating that research into my books. I could talk about it all day, and I might write a proper blog post about it in the future, but basically, I do my reading, I absorb it, I close my eyes and imagine myself into the scene and I write what I see, through the eyes of my character. So you see, there is little chance of inadvertent copying as it has gone through such a transformation, and often dry information is turned into something altogether more subjective. If it is someone else's bright-eyed description, I do not copy it into my notebook but I might take elements of the description and use them in another context, with different words. But if there's one thing that this scandal has taught me it's that people have different ideas about what artists of all kinds should and shouldn't do and I hope I'm never at the receiving end of anyone's scorn and disapproval due to my methods.

I'm also not sure why people have focused on historical novelists as novelists of all breeds research things and rely on the knowledge of others.

Right, that's me. I've joined the twittering classes, and you can follow me here. I hope to be keeping this blog up to date but my life is an unknown quantity at the moment. I will just leave you with this:

If you're new to my blog and have come here because you're interested in Magpie Hall, you may be interested to know that I started this blog as a diary of writing a novel. Please take a look at the archives when I used to post a lot more regularly and philosophically - I was pretty honest about the highs and lows of the writing life, and the novel writing process is documented from go to whoa.

Sunday, November 08, 2009


Magpie Hall is now officially out in the world. Available at all good (New Zealand) bookstores yada yada. I feel something like relief.

It had a great launch at Mighty Mighty, which was the perfect venue - it conjured up all the lushness of a Victorian tattoo parlour. The book was launched by my good friend Gemma Gracewood who said unbelievably nice things about Magpie Hall and about me. Afterwards we discussed the fact that while Rosemary Summers isn't based on anyone we know, she is someone we could imagine knowing (indeed, Sally, the manager of Mighty Mighty, is herself a tattooed lady who collects taxidermy). After the speeches, Gemma was joined on stage by three more friends (Nigel, Carmel and Andy) from the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra, and they serenaded us with songs by Nick Cave and The Be Good Tanyas, both inspirations for the novel and on my list.

The launch was somewhat overshadowed by the sad death earlier in the week of our friend Heather McKenzie. She was sorely missed and will continue to be so.

Further to my last post about my new website, within days of it going up it was chosen as one of 8 great author websites, alongside the likes of Dan Brown, Peter Carey and Isabelle Allende! Thanks to my fantastic designers Sharon Blance and Brence Coghill. Sharon also took my author photos. If any authors out there would like to contact them in view to having their own website done, please feel free to leave your contact details in the comments here and I will pass them on. They were wonderful to work with and really listened to what I wanted, the result being my dream website. These two are multi-talented and are also the best swing dancers around.

Finally, if you are in Christchurch, I am doing an event tomorrow night (Tuesday, November 10) with Women On Air at Our City, Oxford Terrace. For more details visit www.womenonair.org.nz, or www.rachael-king.com. Please tell your friends!

Friday, October 30, 2009

My new website.

I have a new website! It's the same address as the old website but it has been completely overhauled and redesigned. Please visit to find out about me, The Sound of Butterflies and Magpie Hall, including excerpts, reviews, interviews and stories about how I came to write the books. It's also where I will post news relating to the books and events.

I am overjoyed at the way it has turned out, thanks to my talented web designers Sharon Blance and Brence Coghill. They have perfectly captured the visual essence of my work.

Oh, you might want the address. It's at www.rachael-king.com.

Friday, October 23, 2009

It's here. And more on the Book Awards.

So here they are: photos of an actual copy of Magpie Hall, due to be released here in NZ on November 6. I was ridiculously excited to receive it, just as Vanda Symon was to get hers (both with hands on the covers - spooky). I carried it around with me all day and kept looking at it, much as I might stare at the wonder of a newborn baby. There's that comparison again.

The publicity machine is in motion. This week's Listener has an interview with me, and the Sunday Star Times will tomorrow be running a 1000-word extract to give people a taste of the book over the long weekend. I will put up links if and when they appear.

After the strange silence surrounding the announcement that the new look New Zealand Book Awards would carry a shortlist of only three fiction titles, which I blogged about last time, Bookman Beattie finally brought it up on his blog and a good number of people weighed in on the argument against such a small shortlist. You can read the comments here, and add your own if you can, since I don't know that the right people are reading this blog and its attached comments. The story has been picked up by the Dominion Post. I hope the powers that be don't dig their heels in for the sake of it and listen to what people have to say.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Thoughts like leaves.

Further to my New Zealand Book Month post, I did a quick tally of the books I have read so far this year. 17 novels, 7 of which are from New Zealand. So I'm beating the 5% average by 36%. Yeah! Interestingly, four of them are by debut authors, and all of them are by women.

I also pondered why it is that, when our newspapers are full of NZ-only interest stories, with tiny sections devoted to world news, we are not similarly interested in NZ fictional stories.

The new look New Zealand Book Awards has been announced, now sponsored by NZ Post. I certainly look forward to the new format, and good on NZ Post for the tireless support of New Zealand literature (they also sponsor the Wellington Readers and Writers' Festival and the Katherine Mansfield Menton fellowship)... but. There will now only be three fiction finalists. I don't understand this decision, especially given everyone's dismay the year the judges chose only four finalists instead of the five they were allowed to. Aside from winning, it is a good honour and a good opportunity for promotion to be short-listed, and that honour is now much harder to obtain. I really hope this is re-thought.

In other news, congratulations to fellow-blogger and wonderfully pink-haired Laini Taylor, whose latest YA book, Lips Touch, has been short-listed for America's National Book Award. Laini's books aren't available in New Zealand as far as I know, but her other project, Laini's Ladies, can be bought from Cosi Fan Tutte in Christchurch. Of course, you can always check out Laini's books from Amazon, or order them from somewhere like Unity.

I hope to be blogging much more regularly now that things have settled down somewhat on the home front. And of course it is only three weeks until Magpie Hall comes out. I am expecting an advance copy by courier tomorrow. Exciting! Well, it is for me anyway. Heh.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

New Zealand Book Month.

Unless you have your head in the sand or you're not from New Zealand, you'll know that it's New Zealand Book Month this month, an initiative that it is hoped will have the same impact on NZ books as NZ Music Month has had on NZ music (ie a good one).

Last week, the Sunday Star Times ran a story with statistics of what people are buying when it comes to books: of all the fiction sold in New Zealand, only 5% of it is from New Zealand. On the one hand that looks like an appalling ratio, but on the other, when you consider just how much international fiction there is out there, it's not so bad. Surely only 5 % of novels available are from New Zealand?

That optimistic view aside, once I had finished the article, which interviews some well known literary types about why this might be, I was surprised that nobody mentioned this: if we want New Zealand fiction to sell as well as international fiction, bookstores are going to have start putting New Zealand books alongside 'real' fiction. Walk into any bookstore and you find a 'fiction' section, and a 'New Zealand fiction' section. I imagine that Joe (or more likely Josephine, as women buy far more fiction than men do) Public, when they go into a bookstore looking for a novel, make their way to the fiction section for their browsing. They find a book and they are happy. It might not even occur to them to make a special trip over to the NZ fiction section.

Perhaps bookstores think they are doing NZ books a favour by singling them out like this, giving them their own special showcase section, but I disagree.I think it makes the average buyer see New Zealand books as somehow second-rate. By all means have a NZ fiction table, or a section, but can we please see NZ books put alongside the Peter Careys and the Hilary Mantels and the Sarah Waters? Otherwise they are just not seen, let alone considered, by the buying public.

It seems obvious to me. Thoughts, anyone?

Saturday, October 03, 2009

The countdown begins.

Only one month to go until my new novel, Magpie Hall, is published here in New Zealand. I am feeling rather excited and, of course, apprehensive as to how it will be received.

I read through two sets of proofs - admittedly the second not quite as thoroughly as the first given the timeline and my commitments at home - and fixed up a few typos and some potentially embarrassing factual errors. It is now at the printers, and advance reading copies (or ARCs) will be going out soon to booksellers and reviewers. I have already done one media interview which was a joy because the interviewer had actually read the book (not as common as you would think!), and it made me realise that I have plenty to talk about with novel so hopefully I won't be boring people by going over all the same ground as the last time I had a novel out.

In fact, there are quite a few things I would like to say about Magpie Hall on this here blog, but I think I might wait until the interviews are over, in case I get the chance to wax lyrical in those about why I chose Magpie Hall as the title, what led me to tattooing as a theme, how this novel was assembled in a completely different way from The Sound of Butterflies etc etc. Then I can write about whatever I wasn't asked. I hope that anyone who reads the novel and who also reads this blog will feel free to ask me questions about it as well.

In the meantime, I wait. It's like that final month of pregnancy where you're sick of being heavy with child and would just like to get it out now please, so you can meet it and see how it is in the world.

Speaking of which, the upside to spending hours on the couch feeding a baby has meant that I've caught up beautifully on my reading, as anyone who has been keeping an eye on my 'what I'm reading' section over there to the right will have noticed. I've just started Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger, which, like my book, is set in an old country house that has seen better days and may or may not contain a ghost. All I can say is thank goodness it came out after I'd written mine so I couldn't be influenced by it in the slightest. Now I just get to enjoy reading it.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Relief. Proofs.

I have read some really excellent New Zealand fiction this year, including work by Mary McCallum, Sarah Laing and Emily Perkins, and I have just added to the list with Anna Taylor's short story collection Relief. At her best, Taylor's writing throws up the atmosphere of Kirsty Gunn's stories and the inventiveness with language of Anne Enright's. An example: "... he looks tired, his head small and pale like a peeled egg." That image stayed with me a long time after I'd finished the story.

I read the book from start to finish, and while some of the stories didn't work quite as well for me (mostly due to a slight heavy-handedness in aforementioned atmosphere and inventiveness) on the whole, I thought it was a remarkable achievement. The stories remind me of the kind of stories I used to try (and fail) to write before giving up and concentrating on novels; in other words, I wish I had written them.

In other news, the proofs for Magpie Hall have arrived. You often hear writers talking about how exciting getting the proofs is, because that is when your new baby is all laid out like a real book. I am making way through them slowly (too slowly probably) and so far haven't come across any howling mistakes.

I have a real, human, new baby to look after, and having something like this to look over is really nice; it keeps me from falling head-first into total domesticity.

Sunday, August 09, 2009


Posting may be erratic or non-existent over the next few weeks, so I thought I would leave you with this: my new novel.

It's called Magpie Hall, and will be released by Vintage (Random House) in November in New Zealand. International editions TBC.

Here is the back cover blurb:

“There were two rumours surrounding my great-great-grandfather Henry Summers: one, that his cabinet of curiosities drove him mad; and two, that he murdered his first wife.”
Rosemary Summers is an amateur taxidermist and a passionate collector of tattoos. To her, both activities honour the deceased and keep their memory alive. After the death of her beloved grandfather, and while struggling to finish her thesis on gothic Victorian novels, she returns alone to Magpie Hall to claim her inheritance: Grandpa’s own taxidermy collection, started more than 100 years ago by their ancestor Henry Summers. As she sorts through Henry’s legacy, the ghosts of her family’s past begin to make their presence known.

If you like old country houses, tattooed ladies, taxidermy, cabinets of curiosities, gothic Victorian novels and (possible) ghosts, then I hope this one's for you.

The cover design is by multi-talented Sarah Laing.

I started this blog at the same time as I started this novel, so the blog has been my diary of a novel, really, documenting all the highs and lows and the thought processes that went into it. Once I'm back online, I might report on the process of having the novel published. It is edited; the next step is to go through the proofs in a few weeks' time.

I'm excited. And a little scared.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

A trip down (rock & roll) memory lane...

I have been following photographer Jonathan Ganley's photo-blog for a while now as he posts his photos of bands from the '80s and '90s - a great nostalgia trip for anyone who was in the music scene or just went to gigs in that period.

The latest photos are from 1990 and feature the Cakekitchen, the band I played in as a young 'un (started when I was 17, finished when I was 19, not long after these pictures were taken). This particular gig I remember as being one of the highlights of my musical career - we packed out the Basement theatre and it was hot and sweaty and we played well. Look how serious we look! Look at my gorgeous Musicman Sabre bass!

Even though I was only 17 when I started with the Cakekitchen, it was the third band I'd been in, and I went on to play in three more after that, before I sold my bass guitar and bought my first laptop, swapping one creative endeavour for another, I suppose. But I always knew that music was a hobby for me, whereas writing was what I really wanted to do.

We recorded an EP and two albums in that line-up (CDs can be found here and here; the single, Dave the Pimp can be found on the Flying Nun box-set and on the Flying Nun video compilation DVD); drummer Robert Key and I left that year and Graeme Jefferies headed off to Germany where he recruited new band members and continued the Cakekitchen project until this very day.  

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Música das Borboletas.

I noticed this morning that my blog and website have had a sudden influx of visitors from Portugal, which alerted me to the fact that A Música das Borboletas, the Portuguese translation of The Sound of Butterflies, must be out! It's a lovely cover, I think. I'm intrigued to see what will happen to the translation in the places where, in the English language version, I wrote some dialogue in Portuguese. I guess some copies will inevitably find their way to Brazil, and I wonder what the reaction to the book will be there (I did give it to a couple of genuine Brazilians to read before it was published).

Monday, July 27, 2009

The winners.

Congratulations to all the winners at the Montana Book Awards last night. My favourite for the fiction medal came out on top - Emily Perkins' Novel About My Wife - but as I have confessed elsewhere, it is the only one I have actually read, so I am a little biased. It is such a well crafted novel and a gripping story - the two things that, when combined, make me love a book. All too often the two seem to be mutually exclusive.

This is the last year that Montana wines will be sponsoring the awards, and next year, with NZ Post on board, the awards are getting an overhaul. For the better I hope! My only suggestions for improving them are as follows:

1. Please get rid of the runners-up for the fiction award. This is a literary award, not Miss World. I don't really see the point, other than making the two authors who didn't get a place feel stink.

2. Open up the Readers' Choice award to all NZ books published that year, not just the ones on the shortlist. I think the winner this year was very apt (Kate DeGoldi's The 10 PM Question), as it has clearly been a popular book, but other years I think it's been a bit mean-spirited, and some good books that have reached many readers have missed out because they are not 'literary' enough. I'm thinking of authors like Jenny Pattrick and perhaps some genre fiction writers - this is their one chance to get recognised as we don't have separate genre awards as they do in other countries. I think it's fine to leave those books out of the finalists for a literary award, but open them up for the Readers' Choice award and let them compete with the literary heavyweights. Go on.

My two cents.   

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Lucky me.

It was my birthday the other day and I was given two books I have had my eye on: Relief by Anna Taylor and As the Earth Turns Silver by Alison Wong. The next book on my pile is The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton, so a varied and sumptuous feast of debut New Zealand fiction awaits! (Just a quick aside: I just love the covers of Wong's and Catton's books: both designed by the very talented Keely O'Shannessy.)

As Bookman Beattie pointed out a while ago, there are a lot of new books being published in NZ this year, all of which seem to be by women (and I know for a fact there are a few more to come before the year is up). It seems the NZ lit scene is alive and well and is turning out new faces all the time.

But where are all the blokes? 

Monday, July 13, 2009

A Jolly Good Show.

This is nothing whatsoever to do with writing, but does take in some of my other interests - namely, vintage style, parties and general silliness. I think now would be a good time to be young and carefree in London with this kind of event going on (when I lived there it was all raves - blah). I'm keen to check out this Chap magazine as well... just the thing for the chaps in my life.

Thanks to Fleur de Guerre for her wonderful blog, Diary of a Vintage Girl, to make me envious. 

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The incredible growing and shrinking novel.

I have finished my novel and sent it off to publisher and agent.


Some time ago I asked readers of this blog whether they are a taker-outer or a putter-inner. I have recently proved to myself what I already knew - I am definitely a putter-inner. When I finished the first draft of Magpie Hall, it was 74,300 words long. When I finished the second draft, it was considerably longer. I am not someone who throws everything at the page and then has to cut it back, like topiary, to find its form. Instead I throw down what I need, then go back and expand things.

Now it seems that I am both a putter-inner and a taker-outer. My final draft, even though I added a couple of scenes, is now shorter than my second draft. Turns out there was a lot of fat to trim.

I also posted once about the perfect novel that I had in my head. I don't know if what I have written is quite what I had imagined I would, but that is not surprising really -- things get lost in translation from brain to page, and we are limited by our own abilities.

My friend and fellow writer-blogger Marianne drew my attention to this fabulous article by Ann Patchett. It was written years go, and I'm astounded that I've never seen it before. Go and read it: it's funny and apt for anyone working on their first, second or tenth novel. As if in direct response to my 'perfect novel' post, Patchett has this to say:

"Somewhere around Page 80 I will accept that I am neither smart enough nor talented enough to put all the light and movement and beauty I had hoped for onto paper, and so I will have to settle for what I am capable of pulling off."

With my finished novel I have settled for what I am capable of pulling off, but I hope that it is better than that sounds! Check out what she says about wanting to plagiarise your own novels...

Friday, July 03, 2009

It's all coming to a head now.

Madness. My novel is just about finished. Just a final polish and then off it goes to various publishers and agent, three weeks ahead of deadline. Which is just as well, because it will need to go through the editing process and I need the extra time up my sleeve. From August 23 I will be a little indisposed with a new family member.

Four months ago the deadline was looking impossible: I written had 40,000 and those words had taken me a year to write. The more I wrote, the longer the book wanted to be. I was feeling sick and tired all the time. But then something happened. It all started falling into place. Suddenly that life growing inside me wasn't being such a burden. I had spent so much time thinking about the book that suddenly my writing sped up and what was going onto the screen was no longer about finding the voice and the story of the novel: I already had those. So when the words eventually fell on the page they were mostly the right ones. I have been describing it as the novel reaching a critical mass in my head. It was bursting out of me.

Writing a novel is a little like having children. It gets easier as it goes along, so much so that when it is going really well, you forget how hard it was in the beginning, and you do it all over again. This book was agony to write at times - last year I had some dark days, weeks even, when I couldn't imagine ever finishing it or getting it right. But all that is behind me now.

Just a quick mention: last weekend I went to Wellington to visit family and friends, and was very privileged to witness the gloriousness of The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra at the Michael Fowler Centre, on the first of two sold-out shows in one night. The sound was superb, as was the set and it truly was, as they advertised it, a magical evening. Those harmonies! Those lead breaks! As their friend, I was pleased and proud. As a fan, I was just so happy to be there. This is a show that deserves to play at similar venues all around the world in my opinion.

I will leave you with a picture of the ukes at one of their first ever gigs: my wedding, in 2006. They played 'All You Need is Love' as we signed the register and the wedding ditty as we walked down a makeshift outdoor 'aisle' on an unusually glorious Wellington day in February. Don't I feel smug. 

Monday, June 22, 2009


I'm almost too scared to see this film because I liked the book so much. Sure the book got pretty sentimental at the end, but by the time I got there I was willing to forgive it anything.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Bootcamp. Wuthering Heights.

That's where my novel is (at bootcamp that is, not taking a holiday on the Yorkshire moors). It's all looking very clear, everything's fallen into place etc etc. Now I just need to put the hours in and it will all be done. Feeling very good about it. Not much time for blogging.

Last night I watched the first half hour of the new Wuthering Heights mini-series. I reckon finally (finally!) someone has got it right. Heathcliff was menacing and scary and didn't look as though he was wearing a wig and a spray on tan a la Ralph Fiennes. Perhaps for once it will be true to the book ie all the characters will be loathsome. I have recorded the rest to watch as a treat for doing my work.

Wuthering Heights has been a very important work for me lately as you may have read on this blog. Last year I attended a series of lectures at Canterbury and even wrote an essay on it in an attempt to get into the head of the main character in Magpie Hall. The book itself plays an important role in my new novel - you'll just have to wait and see how.

Thursday, June 04, 2009


A full draft, anyway. I've had a marathon 8 days in which I wrote more than 10,000 words. Please refer to my picometer, to the right. 100% done. Now the real work begins, whipping my novel into the best shape it can be. Sending it to bootcamp, perhaps. I think I might take the weekend off. Here's my reward:

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Montanas and a title at last.

Congratulations to all the finalists in the Montana NZ Book Awards. I was really pleased to see Eleanor Catton on the short list for the fiction prize. I confess I haven't read The Rehearsal yet, but I always think it's a wonderful achievement for a first novel to get onto the shortlist for the big one. The book is on my TBR pile, honest. The only one I have read is Emily Perkins' Novel About My Wife, which I loved. I was sorry that Paula Morris's excellent collection of short stories didn't make it - surely she is long overdue to have her work recognised. But while last year was the year for short fiction (Alice Tawhai and Charlotte Grimshaw both on the shortlist of four; Grimshaw taking out the prize), it seems this year is the year for Young Adult fiction, with the inclusion of Bernard Beckett and Kate De Goldi, and the teenaged protagonists of Catton's novel. I have no complaints - I understand awards for what they are: the subjective opinion of well-qualified people who will no doubt choose different winners from the next set of well-qualified people.

On another note I have had a burst of productivity on my novel, and my deadline is looking easily achievable if I can keep it up. I also have a final title, all other options being rejected for one reason or another. The title is:

(dun dun dun DUUUUNNN)

Magpie Hall. 

Friday, May 29, 2009


That's the number currently displayed on my picometer (in the bar to the right). By the time you read this, the number may have gone up, but for now I am reminded that 66,600 was the exact number of words of the first novel I ever wrote. And no, I'm not talking about The Sound of Butterflies.

It was called Birds of Passage, and I wrote it for the MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University (the IIML). It wasn't published; it never will be published, and I am unlikely to mine much material from it for future books.

Don't get me wrong; it wasn't a bad book, but ultimately, it wasn't the kind of book that I wanted to write. My big epiphany came half way through it when I realised that the kind of books I should be writing are not the ones I thought I should be writing, but the kinds of books I like to read. That was when the idea for TSOB was born, but I wanted to finish the job at hand first. I needed to write a novel in nine months for the MA, and knew that TSOB would take me several years.

Loosely, it was about the young kiwi OE experience. How so many people of my generation drift off to the UK to see the world, and have a slight yearning to discover their roots all over those fair isles. In the case of my novel's protagonist, it was Ireland, where her estranged father lived. She travelled around Ireland with him, getting to know him and a few family skeletons. The writing of the novel coincided with a trip I made with my own (non-estranged) father; in fact, it was the upcoming trip that gave me the idea for the book in the first place. But the protagonist was not me, and the father was definitely not my father. I often thought that if I'd had it published, people would possibly buy it to get an insight into my own father. They would be severely disappointed. Either that or they'd be misguidedly excited - the father in my novel turned out to be gay, which was the reason for the estrangement. At the end of course they made their peace, on top of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, a set piece that I'm still rather proud of and may have to turn into a short story one day. 

If I'm honest, I would say that if I hadn't written that book and someone else had, I would have picked it up in a bookstore and put it straight back down again. Although it's a novel that would have reflected my own experiences, I realised that in the end, that's not what I want to read about, so how could I write those kinds of books? I want to read books that aren't about my experience. And those are the books I would like to write as well. The truth is that my writing is better when I can step outside of myself and use my imagination.

I would like to say that I stuck it nobly in the drawer as soon as I'd finished it, but I did try a few publishers, and received very encouraging rejections. I am so glad that it was never published. The Sound of Butterflies had a much better impact for a first novel than Birds of Passage ever would have. So my thanks go out to those editors that turned it down. You know who you are.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Festival, aspiring writers and the joy of the unmarked page.

Husband has taken son to creche on the way to work today, so have a couple of hours more Friday than I usually do (they left very early - I don't usually get it together this early, hence the huge amount of extra time). I'm fighting the urge to go back to bed, to be honest. Instead I thought I'd take the opportunity to update my sadly neglected blog.

I had a wonderful weekend at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. My plane was delayed on Friday night so I missed the annual party held by my publishers (bit sad about that one), and missed most of Richard Dawkins, but arrived just in time to see him present the Royal Society prize for science writing to my talented and beautiful sister-in-law, Rebecca Priestley, for The Awa Book of New Zealand Science. Very pleased and proud I was. It was odd seeing it being presented by a huge man on a screen (Dawkins via satellite).

The rest of the weekend was an intense round of sessions, five or more per day I think, and catching up with all manner of friends, family and colleagues in the gaps between. I won't go into it too much - others have written about it better and more thoroughly than I have (here, here, here and here), but I will say that the highlights for me were Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche and Monica Ali, both warm and engaging and thought-provoking with beautiful readings that left me wanting more (I confess I often nod off at readings and prefer to hear writers talk, but these two were an exception). The success of these sessions was in no small part due to the excellent chairing by Paula Morris, whose energy and intellectual capacity always astounds me. Chairing can be exhausting and challenging, and far harder than it looks, with hours and hours of preparation time (and that doesn't even include all the books you have to read), so I take my hat off to her for chairing three sessions with important writes and doing a wonderful job, as well as appearing as a writer in two sessions. And she even finds time to write books. To digress for a moment, I probably shouldn't point this out but I'm going to: Paula and I wrote our first books together in 2001 during the MA in Creative Writing at the IIML, and since then she has had three novels and one collection of short stories published, with a YA novel due out in August. I am hoping to have my second novel published at the end of the year. I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Another session I enjoyed was the 'Emerging Stars' (no pressure!) with Eleanor Catton, Bridget van der Zijpp and Anna Taylor. It was a great idea on the behalf of the organisers to make this a free session, as it introduced new writers to people who might not otherwise have taken a gamble with their money. Sessions with new writers always attract aspiring writers, so there was the inevitable questions from the audience of "Did you get an agent first or did you just send it into your publisher?" and "Did you sign your international rights over to your publisher?". It always amuses me how aspiring writers (and I still count myself among that group) always want to know things like this, rather than questiosn about how to write well (this has been my experience speaking to first year creative writing students as well). People, it doesn't matter how many agents and editors you sumbit your work to, you've got to put in the hard yards and learn how to write as well as you can first. That should be your priority. And try and enjoy the process of improving your writing for the sake of it.

Now I'm back home and trying to write as much as I can. I have about 10,000 words to go for a complete draft of the new novel and have possibly settled on a title. Because of the way I work, although it will be a complete draft, it won't be a first draft as such. I tend to work things out as I go along, and the first half of the book is pretty polished as I wrote and rewrote until I got the voice right. Once the voice comes, it can seemingly just write itself. This novel has a contemporary story and an historical story. Unlike with The Sound of Butterflies, which I wrote from start to finish in the way it is read (alternating between two different time periods), I have completed the historical section and am now tackling the end (and the middle and all the bits in between) of the (much more complex) contemporary section. To get myself in the right frame of mind, I started at the beginning, picking up the printouts I have been carrying around with me for nine months of what I have written so far and went through and incorporated all the notes that I have scribbled over those pages during the that time. I can't tell you how satisfying I found it to get to the end of one chapter and reprint it, all clean and beautiful, knowing it was as good as I can get it at this point. I have five more of these to go, and then it's the home stretch, pulling all those loose threads together and writing those final chapters. I am on track, so far, and have scheduled panic and anxiety for six weeks time. Before that, it is not allowed.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Titles are hard.

I have not been blogging lately. You may have noticed. Instead, I have been deep inside deadline-land, trying to finish the new novel by August 1. Anyone following my picometer (to the right - just a bit of fun really) will see that although the word count is inching up, the percentage of novel completed is not. That is because for every 3000 words I write, I realise that the novel in fact needs to be 3000 longer than what I originally thought. It like one of those sci-fi or horror movies where the heroine is walking down a corridor and the corridor just keeps expanding.

One thing I have been thinking about, of necessity, is the title for the novel. I thought I had it all sorted, with two title options, both of which I liked, but one I liked slightly less due to its construction being The (something) of (something). One of my friends from my very scientific Facebook poll suggested that "Either's a good title [The Sound of Butterflies and the Something of Something]; together they look like an attempted branding exercise." Well, that was what I had been afraid of all along, despite this title's absolutely perfect capturing of theme and motif.

The other title, secretly my favourite, has had a mixed reaction. It seems it is too similar to a famous book written in the 1960s - do I really want people to think of that book? Well, actualy, it wouldn't hurt if they did, but it may set up expectations about the plot and deliver too neatly to those expectations. Need a bit more mystery in there. My version of the title has also been done before, and quite recently, albeit for a trashy thriller a million miles from the literary masterpiece I am constructing. But, like, it's been a bestseller, so a lot of people have at least heard of it. The final nail in the coffin is that some people think it's just plain boring - but it makes so much sense when the book is read, and brings the two threads of the story together in perfect harmony. Sigh.

So it's back to the drawing board. Everything I come up with just doesn't make me fall in love. It's a stock phrase, or it's been done before, or it looks good on paper but when you say it out loud it is clumsy. And the worst thing is that it's distracting me from the important task at hand - writing the book. I'm hoping that as I type the last word the perfect title will just slide into my head. Unfortunately I need it before then.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Not writing.

It hasn't been the best week or so for writing. Son was sick at the beginning of last week, which meant we had to put off our planned trip to Dunedin until he was better. Which luckily didn't take too long - we drove down on Wednesday and back on Friday night. I had a dance workshop on Saturday which might have been where I picked up the illness that struck me down on Sunday night and has only started to come right this morning after lots of sleeping and generally lying around feeling sorry for myself.

So not much writing, but I plan to make amends in spectacular fashion this afternoon. Had a great time in Dunedin. I hadn't been there for nine years and as soon as I drove into town I remembered how much I love it. Something about the Gothic quality of light and the buildings and the way its history has been preserved in the inner city. I spent a lot of time in Dunedin in my youth, when I played in bands, regularly touring there and even living there for a short time when I played in the 3Ds. Then, I thought it was a magical place, full of ancient wisdom, and certainly there was something there that produced all that great music.

I even liked visiting in the middle of winter, staying with people who usually had nothing more than a two-bar heater to huddle around for warmth. We had many a party with blankets over our knees and we wore all our clothes to bed. It was just what we did. I think people must be softer these days with their fancy heating and wanting to walk around their houses without their coats and hats on.

The first time I drove out to the Otago Peninsula I loved looking at all the drystone walls - they seemed a direct connection to the Scotland the Dunedin settlers had left behind. But this time I didn't see any - perhaps they have finally fallen down and been replaced by wire fences; or perhaps we didn't explore enough.

We were very kindly accommodated by fellow author and blogger Vanda Symon. She and her family made us feel wonderfully welcome and relaxed, and, as she mentions on Overkill, we even had a bloggy lunch, with Tania Roxborough and Paradoxical Cat. So, while I wasn't writing, at least my brain was being stimulated. I am slightly in awe (and a little suspicious - kidding Tania!) of Tania, who wrote her latest novel, which is 120,000 words long, in approximately two months.

The highlight of the trip for me was the Otago Museum. We only visited two exhibits - the butterfly house (which I wish had been there when I was researching The Sound of Butterflies) and the Animal Attic. The latter is a replica of the original museum with its wondrous collection of 19th century taxidermy and natural curiosities, which was wonderful for research for my current novel.


We decided to take the scenic route back to Christchurch and got lost not once but twice, and since it was 5pm when we left, we were driving around the hills when it was dark, so we didn't even have the benefit of any scene from our scenic detour in the end.

The upside of being sick was that I caught up on some long overdue reading and in three days read Mary McCallum's The Blue and Sarah Laing's Dead People's Music, both of which I highly recommend. No time now to go into great detail - a hungry novel awaits.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The hare and the tortoise.

I was having a conversation with a novelist friend of mine the other day who mentioned that she is unhappy with how her novel has turned out despite numerous rewrites. She (and her publisher) have given herself three months to give it a final go to get it right. I also have a deadline which is a little over three months away, and it seems that our novels will be hitting the public at about the same time ("Let's feud!" she said).

Feuding aside, it got me thinking about just how different each writer's process is but how we all eventually get there in the end. This novelist and I both started our novels at around the same time. In fact I started a novel that I have since abandoned. Everything seemed to be going so well for her with it and I confess I felt a little jealous. She has always been so disciplined and always seemed to enjoy the first draft process. She was very much of the "just write 1000 words a day and you have a draft in three months" school, whereas I have always aimed for 1000 words a day and failed miserably.

It doesn't matter how many words I write, it seems it takes as long as it takes and I can either work it out on the page and write copious amounts of words, or I can write fewer words and work it out in my head. At the moment I have two and a half days to write, plus another couple of hours on Wednesday afternoons when the toddler is at my mother's house and I sneak off to her local library.

(Aside: sometimes those two hours are as, if not more, productive than the full days I have. I usually just put my head down and write in a stream of consciousness fever, then the next day go back and either find 700 words of rubbish or 700 gems.)

I can't help but wonder whether, if I had more time to write, the book would get written quicker. I suspect not. I think it's just going to take as long as it takes for the words to ripen and fall onto the page - if I were to force them out at 1000 words per day, seven days per week, I would inevitably end up throwing many of those words away. This way, it's like a steady drip, and by a designated date (hopefully within my deadline), the bucket of the novel will be full. To carry on the metaphor, if I were to pour great gushes into the bucket, I would inevitably end up spilling half of it on the floor.

What can I say? I am the tortoise, at first jealous of the hare's lightning pace and quick mind, but ultimately I think we will get there at the same time.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The joys of self-employment.

One of the things that I have noticed about self-employment is that, while I get to work my own hours, it also means that public holidays often don't mean a thing except perhaps a mild inconvenience. Case in point: my son's creche is closed today through Tuesday. Friday and Tuesday are my two full writing days in the week, with one half day on Thursday. I know I should just relax and use the time to spend with my family, but I have a deadline and a momentum to keep up.

Luckily for me, husband has taken son away for a few hours. Unluckily for me, who finds it impossible to work at home because of the mountains of housework beckoning, the libraries are all shut today. Luckily, I can always work in a cafe. Unluckily, they are very busy and everything costs 15% more due to the public holiday surcharge. (Incidentally, when I worked in hospitality, before the Employment Contracts Act, we used to get paid extra on weekends and public holidays, but the restaurants and cafes sucked up the extra. Why? Because take a look around: businesses boom on those days. They easily used to make enough extra money to cover the extra wages. I resent places charging me for them to pay their staff fairly when they are pulling in extra anyway.)

For some reason Christchurch cafes seem to more expensive than elsewhere. We long ago stopped going out for weekend brunch when it ended up costing us $50+ for a modest breakfast for two and a fluffy/muffin combo for toddler - add 15% on top of that and there goes our week's food budget. At first I thought it was just the state of everything, food costing more etc, but a return to Wellington proved it was otherwise. It's just Christchurch. Who knows why?

And of course when you are at home with children, it's hard work whether it's a normal day or a holiday. Same with when you're a writer with a deadline.

However, I shall be indulging in more than the usual amount of chocolate and taking the weekend off work.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Полет бабочек

The Sound of Butterflies for those of you who can read Russian... and I now know that my name in Russian is Рейчел Кинг. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Second Novel Syndrome.

This term has been bandied about a bit lately thanks to the announcement that Audrey Niffenegger has received a whopping advance for her second novel. Expectations are running high for the novel, as are expectations that the knives will be out once it hits the stores.

This story in the Times mentions some high flying debut novelists whose second attempts have failed to live up to their first: Charles Frazier and Zadie Smith (who more than made up for it with the superb On Beauty in my opinion) for example. Included in the list is Donna Tartt's The Little Friend, which I would strongly argue does not deserve to be on a list of failures. Sure, she had the syndrome bad probably, which is why it took her so long to write (ten years between outings) but I thought it was very good book - a very different book, but a good one nonetheless.

Of course all of this has come to my attention because I am working on my own second novel after a reasonably well received first novel. I am constantly being asked by people if I feel under pressure to live up to my first. My answer is that of course I do, but it's not other people's expectations that I feel acutely, but my own. I just want to write a better book. I am writing a better book (she says, hoping that statement won't come back to bite her on the behind!). It's been 7 years since I started The Sound of Butterflies - I should be a better writer by now. So, yes intense pressure, thanks very much, but I don't think it is to do with Second Novel Syndrome. I hope I never rest on my laurels and feel released from that kind of pressure, because that's when I have stopped trying to improve.

All a writer can do when faced with something like SNS is to ignore it and sit down and write the best book he or she can write. And that goes for third, fourth and fifth novels. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Libraries as offices, and some technology advice.

I arrived at the library today to find a talk being given by Basia Bonkowski, author of the memoir Shimmer. I'll just sit down and listen for a bit, I thought. A question came from the cosy audience: what was your writing schedule like for the book (a topic which seems to hold endless fascination for audiences the world over - aspiring writers themselves perhaps, looking for the secret?)? Well, said Ms Bonkowski, I had two small children and after I dropped them off at school at 9am, I turned down everything else so I could spend four hours writing. Then at 1pm I stopped to do the errands I needed to do before picking the kids up again.

Here I was, in the library, having just dropped my son off at creche with 4 hours to write, and what was I doing? Not writing. So, feeling guilty, I slunk away and began my working day.

The Christchurch libraries have become my new office. I have talked before about how I can't work at home. Working in the library is great. They have wireless internet for when a little procrastination is in order, and no other distractions. I find the general hum and bookishness of the place very conducive to working on a book. Yesterday I went to the Sumner library, which is near my mother's house, where I stole two hours. It is amazing how I seem to be able to write just as much in two hours as I can when I have a whole day. I think this is because I have to only focus on one thing - getting some words out - whereas on my full days I tend to start slowly (because I have all day, right?) and spend a lot more time reading books and websites for research and thinking about the overall novel instead of just the next 500 words.

As I was typing away at the Sumner library, my brand new computer froze on me. I rebooted it, hoping that it would autorecover the file I had been working on. It didn't. Not only that, but when I opened my memory stick, all the files, despite still being there, with names and 'last modified' dates on them, were completely blank. 0 kb used. Blank.

Luckily I have been almost vigilant about backing up this novel. The memory stick contained all the files that I had held on my work computer at the university, which I had already backed up onto another memory stick (thank God). But I lost what I had written that day and the day before, which admittedly wasn't very much.

I learned a valuable lesson. Apparently, if you open a file in a memory stick you should copy it over to your hard drive and then start working on it. Otherwise it can behave in all sorts of strange ways, and it doesn't automatically autosave like a hard drive file would do.

Not the most inspired post today but I hope that is useful to someone. The reason I'm letting myself add to my blog? I wrote my afternoon's minimum quota in half an hour today. Must have been thanks to a kick up the posterior by one Basia Bonkowski. Think I'll go back and write some more. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Deadlines. And a few ramblings about technique.

I have a self-imposed deadline of August to finish my new novel. That gives me five months to finish the first draft (25% to go) and whip it into shape. It's a very real deadline. I have something else on from the end of August that will stop me writing for quite some time and I just won't allow myself to not finish it by then.

But it is putting the pressure on. When I think about five months, it seems like a long time, but I know how fast that can travel. But then again, if I look at it practically, it took me only four months from finishing the first draft of The Sound of Butterflies to submitting it and having it accepted by an agent in the UK and a publisher in New Zealand. My writing is much more confident and stream-lined now, so the new draft is a) shorter and b)more polished than TSOB was at this stage.

I talked a long time ago about my decision to try out the shitty first draft technique on this novel, but I abandoned that along the way. You see, I need to feel that I am in control in order to move forward, and that meant going back over the early chapters until the voice was right and until they pointed me in the right direction of where to go next. I also need to feel in love with my book to be excited enough to keep going, and a shitty draft isn't going to generate that love. So even though I'm calling it my 'first draft', my chapter one has gone through six drafts, my chapter two four drafts etc.

I gave a small talk at the Hagley Writers' Institute, where I will be supervising a few students this year. I read from my new novel, which felt really good. Reading it out loud enabled me to hear it with fresh ears and I liked what I heard (you can probably tell I'm going through a bit of a romantic phase with my novel - in all likelihood we will be fighting and/or not speaking to each other in a couple of weeks). It also reminded me how valuable reading your work aloud to yourself is. I did a practice run the day before for timing, and it helped me make a few adjustments to sentences that didn't flow, to trim them a bit and to work on the cadence of the language, which is very important to me: I do not believe in just delivering information in the most economical number of words; they have to sound right. I read the entire manuscript of The Sound of Butterflies aloud to myself for the very final draft. It took me about a week, from memory. A daunting but very valuable exercise, which I recommend to anyone on the verge of finishing their novels. It helps you pick up all sorts of gremlins.

But back to Hagley - one of the students asked the assembled supervisors (an illustrious group: Charlotte Randall, Frankie McMillan, whose reading of a short story had me enthralled, and Jeffrey Paparoa Holman) about how much they plan their work before writing. Charlotte Randall says she doesn't plan hers at all, she just starts writing, although she often writes the last page first so she has something to work towards. Frankie said she writes a draft from start to finish, but she writes short stories, which is a bit different to writing a novel. I gave contradictory answers really. I plan bits. Then I unplan. One novel I nearly wrote I think I planned too much and it froze me. I realised that the students were listening eagerly to see how much planning they should do, but in the end I had to confess that it works differently for everyone and the only way to find out what works for you is to write a novel. I learned more about writing a novel by actually writing one than I could have from any number of classes or how-to books and blogs. That first novel was never published, but it didn't need to be - it served its purpose, which was to teach me how to write a novel.

I spent the weekend in Welllington where I had an absolute ball, catching up with good friends, attending one of the best weddings I've ever been to (and probably ever will) and meeting with my writing group. It was perfect really. My writing group gave me wonderful advice and encouragement and I wished I could explain to them what I was trying to achieve without spoiling all the surprises in the book. At the moment, if it works, it will be the kind of book that you need to read all the way to the end to see how everything that has come before falls into place. If it works.

So this deadline has put a fire under me, and as a result I think my blog is going to suffer a bit. But then I hope I can be back with posts about the process of getting one's second book published, which I hope will be useful to some.


Monday, February 23, 2009


My posting has been tardy. My writing days are down to two per week and in the evenings, after either looking after a two year-old or trying to write my novel on queue, I am just too darn tired to think, let alone come up with some erudite topic for blogging.

The writing is going well when it happens. This is my last week with an office at the university - after that I will have to put blinkers on to ignore the shambolic mess that is my house so I don't spend all my writing time doing housework. Lectures started again this week and after dropping my son off at creche this morning I couldn't find a carpark (I used to catch the bus), so I drove home again and have been trying to work in the chaos.

I am hoping that I will be back to my old blogging self one of these days. For now - please bear with me as I adjust to my new routine.

Wait - there is one thing. The lovely Vanda Symon will be in Christchurch on Monday for the Words on Wheels tour on Monday, so I will finally be doing something booky to report back on. Oh, and on Thursday I will be speaking to a class at the Hagley Writers' Institute, where I will be a supervisor this year. I plan to read something from my new work in progress as, to be honest, I am sick of reading from that book about butterflies.

There. I did find some things to post about after all. Just a place-holder post, really. An I'll-be-back sort of a post.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Progress. And the importance of different types of readers.

Despite my diminished working time, I feel that I have made some significant progress in the last week or so. You might say that I have broken the back of the novel, although given the mood swings that go with writing a novel, it could have knitted its own spine back together by next week for all I know.

At this point I can see the end, and know just what I need to do in order to get to the end of the first draft. It's just a matter of systematically working through each section that needs to be added (in contrast to the last one, I have not worked from beginning to end, I have jumped around a lot). It's been slow. I have installed a picometer to the right (you may have noticed it creeping slowly upwards), but I have written many more than 42,000 words over the past year - 42,000 is just the number of words that have stuck. And I do tend to revise somewhat as I go, so I don't race through a complete draft and turn around at the end, breathless, to see what I've got. I know what I've got. Now. I say 'now' because a few weeks ago I definitely lacked clarity; clarity which I now have gained. I think. (Hark at her, how certain she sounds!)

I decided it was time to send some out to a trusted reader. Most of my readers are other writers. I will be having a long overdue meeting with my writing group when I go to Wellington in March (I say long overdue, but I have not been ready up until now). But in the meantime, I needed another type of reader. Not a writer-reader, but a reader-reader. So I sent it off to my friend Mary (not Mary McCallum fyi). What is great about Mary is that she is a very careful and intelligent reader. She will not only get excited for me if she is enjoying it, she will tell me exactly what works and why. She is the perfect person to send my first four chapters to because she will ask a lot of questions about what is going on, and then tell me whether or not I am answering them sufficiently.

I got a wonderful email back from her, saying all the things I needed to hear right now to give me the boost to keep on going. And I don't mean just unconditional praise such as you might get from your mum or husband, but useful positive criticism. From a very clever reader's perspective. She added, at the end, somewhat apologetically, that the new novel is more sophisticated and complex than The Sound of Butterflies ("not that there's anything wrong with The Sound of Butterflies," she said). And I wrote back and told her that in fact that was the highest praise she could give me, because any novelist's fear for their second book is that people will say "well it was OK, but it wasn't as good as her first one".

I'm looking forward to my writer-readers' feedback too, which will no doubt be more critical, but for now, Mary has given me the energy to keep going. You could say that she is that elusive 'perfect reader' I have in mind when I write my books. Now that she's given it the seal of approval, I can continue with confidence. Because sometimes a writer can't see the bloody wood for trees, and some outside help is what is needed. Thanks Mary.

Monday, February 02, 2009

A room of one's own no more.

At least, not for much longer. My residency finishes at the end of the month and after that I'm on my own - like most writers. How spoiled I have been! I got a bit of a tatse of my new life yesterday when I was at home with my son. I planned to do some power writing during his usual nap-time (usually about 1 1/2 hours). I put him down, sat at my desk, and after 5 minutes he was yelling to get up. So, no nap for him, and no writing for me. I dread to think that the excitement of having mum home has excised the need for a daily nap. Thank goodness for the times he'll be at creche (which he loves by the way).

I have been extremely grateful for the Ursula Bethell residency this year. It is such a fantastic opportunity: a salary and a quiet, roomy office, which equals time and space to devote energy to writing a novel. The English department at Canterbury is the perfect environment for a writer – it is friendly and very quiet and I have been left alone to get my work done.

I have made good progress on my new novel, tentatively entitled The Collectors, with a huge amount of research and a first draft almost completed. When I began the year I had a vague premise, an idea of where I thought it would be going and 10,000 words. Over the last 11 months my novel has changed into something far more intricate and ambitious and interesting than I originally envisaged. The residency has given me (or, has let me give myself) permission to explore ideas to the full rather than doggedly sticking to a plan and churning out something less satisfying, which is often the case when writing time is limited.

I was able to attend lectures on the 19th century novel, which fuelled the story and gave me ideas on intertexuality to create a many-layered narrative. These lectures were a highlight for me, not just for their usefulness but for the sheer enjoyment of rediscovering and analysing books I had read in the past.

Another one of the highlights of the residency has been the access to the university library, which has allowed me to use material that might not otherwise have been readily available to me. I will miss that resource when I leave.

During my time here I have also taught a night class at UC Opportunity (continuing education) and addressed two creative writing classes, and have been available for students to come and talk to me. I have been helping one student in her search to find an agent and a publisher. I also took part in a poetry reading at the University Bookshop on World Poetry Day in July. Spending the year in Christchurch (I normally live in Wellington) has meant other opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise have had – helping out at the Christchurch Writers’ Festival and addressing a class at the Hagley Institute for example. I have been very warmly welcomed by the Christchurch writing community.

I will be very sad to leave when my time is up, and I highly recommend the residency to other writers. It is so important that residencies such as this exist as it is very difficult for New Zealand writers to make a living from their writing alone, and these opportunities ensure that good New Zealand books continue to be produced.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Are you a putter-inner or a taker-outer?

Not the most technical of terms, I know. As my first draft starts to move more swiftly and I work out just what I need to write in order to get there, I've been thinking about the different ways people write their first drafts. Some just write and write and end up with many more thousands of words than they need; their second draft, as well as reshaping and rethinking, is a process of trimming and cutting to find the essence and minimise the waffle. Others, and this is the way I seem to work, use the first draft to sketch scenes quickly and end up going back and filling them out and adding more scenes to expand the novel.

For example, in the second draft of The Sound of Butterflies, I remember going over each scene and slowing it right down. Closing my eyes and imagining myself into the head of whoever had the point of view. What were they thinking about? How were they feeling about what they were thinking about? Where were they physically in the space they inhabited? What could they see from their vantage-point? What did the air feel like on their skin?

Of course I don't necessarily put all these details into the scene when I'm re-writing it, but it helps me find what is important to the story and to the characters' states of mind. It fully immerses me in the character's point of view and enables me to write a more authentic scene. The result is often a more sensual experience for the reader I think, and helps create empathy for the characters.

The first half of my first draft tends to move quite slowly as I explore the characters and their voices (and doing research, but that's another post topic altogether), getting to know them to the point that I can race with more confidence through the second half to get the story down, knowing that I'll be coming back to flesh things out at the end when I know more about where things will end up.

The second draft isn't just about expanding scenes. It's also about a structural overhaul, looking at the pacing, adding a scene here and there to develop a theme or an aspect of the story that seems rushed or contrived or just wrong somehow. At this rate my first draft will probably only be about 60,000 long, but ultimately I know that the book will need to be about 75,000 to tell the full story that I need to tell.

How do you work? I'd be curious to hear from a taker-outer.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

La Musica Delle Farfalle.

Piemme will be releasing The Sound of Butterflies in Italian very soon. It translates as The Music of Butterflies, which is quite lovely, I think. It is now also available in Greek as Ο ψίθυρος της πεταλούδας.

But enough about me. I'm sad to say that I have not seen Matilda the chicken at the bus stop since that fateful day. I'm hoping she has just found a new home rather than met an untimely end.

I am packing and moving house over the next week, so blogging may be sparse. Have a lovely weekend!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Morgan's Project - Books for Fiji

Hi, my name is Morgan Hayton I am 16 years old. I have spent my winter school holidays for two years in Fiji volunteering at local school as part of my schools mission team. We visited a very remote school that is struggling and has only handful books in the whole school, the teachers there can only dream of starting a library. Have you ever wanted to change the world? But think it is impossible because we are just one person? Me too. But then I came up with this idea. We are going to build a library together, one person, one book at a time. One person can't build a library but if everyone that gets into this group gets a book from their bookshelf (they don't have to be new) and posts it to Fiji we can do it together. We can build a library together.

Head Teacher- Laisiana Tabilai
Namara District School
Box 415

Please write your a small bit about yourself or family inside the cover the kids would love to know who you are and where to book came from.Look at my page from time to time and I will get some photos next year and you can see your library.

Thank you.

Roger Morris brought this project to my attention and I am sending a signed copy of The Sound of Butterflies along with a stack of children's books. It doesn't have to be a stack - just one will do. I think it's a really lovely idea, and I am fully in support of the redistribution and the sharing of words.

If you're on Facebook, you can join Morgans' group here.

On another note, I have been given this 'inspiration award' by Aspiring Writer.

Thanks Joanne! I'm supposed to pass it on to seven other bloggers but to be honest, Joanne has simultaneously given it to five of my blogger friends, so I'm just going to pass it on to my friend Marianne. It is appropriate in this post about donating books to under-privileged children as Marianne has long been an inspiration to try and make the world a better place. She is tireless in her humanitarian work, the most deserving person to give an inspiration award to.

Thursday, January 08, 2009


Today is not 37 degrees. Hooray! Yesterday was so hot that I confess I retreated inside, closed all the curtains, doors and windows, set the heat pump to its cooling function and lay around groaning. Tomorrow will have a high of 17 degrees. It seems that in Christchurch there is no middle ground.

The bus stop where I catch the Metrostar to work has lately been home to a little chicken. I call her Matilda. She usually just hangs out under the seat, but sometimes she can be seen scratching in the gutter. She is very sweet.

Today there was a pile of chicken bones at the bus stop. Granted, it was rubbish-collection morning and a dog or cat could have just got into someone's rubbish to drag out the remains of a roast. Or perhaps Matilda has met her end. She wasn't at the bus stop this morning, but maybe she took the chicken bones for a Blair-Witchesque warning and has stayed away. Poor Matilda. I hope they weren't her bones.

Because I missed my bus, I sat outside my local favourite cafe (for once it was cooler outside than in) and had a coffee and did some writing in my trusty moleskin. I got chatting to a guy at the next table, and at the end the conversation went like this.

Him: "I thought I might write a book one day. It's an easy way to make millions."

A ha. Seriously.

Me (with hint of sarcasm): "Yes, it's really easy to write a book."

Him: "Oh, I know you have to do research."

Me: "And it's quite hard to make a living out of writing books, let alone make millions."

Him, with a look of incredulity: "But what about all those people who get rich off it?"

Me: "You mean, those two, JK Rowling and Dan Brown?"

Him (with a look that says they were exactly the writers he had in mind): "So if you can't get rich, why do you do it?"

Me: "Because I love it. I can't do anything else."

Him: "Exactly."