Monthly Archives: March 2012

Frosty Cupcake of Success

A while ago I read an interesting blog entry. The author, Rachel Aaron wrote about how she got her word count up to nearly a bazillion a day. There’s a second blog about her 12 Days of Glory as well, which was also inspiring. I’ve been struggling with getting in 500 a day, so I was interested in this bazillion number and how she got there.

The recipe for this frosty cupcake of success was:

1)        Plan what you’re going to write before you sit down to do so.

2)       Identify where you are the most productive at writing .

3)       Be enthusiastic. If the scene bores you, it probably bores the reader.

Hell, she even had a nifty little diagram done up. I call it: The Triangle of Bleeding Obvious But Never Really Thought About It.

Most Awesome and Obvious Graph

And I felt it helped me.

I had the most time to write at night after the kids went down, but I was also at my most tired and unenthusiastic. Somehow I always ended up on the internet, googling images to put on my imaginary cover for my imaginary finished novel. The flip side being if I really got into the slipstream of the story, I had a lot of difficulty in winding down and getting to sleep.

So I buckled down and really thought about it. I knew from past experience that mornings were my best times. Time to make the switch from night writes to morning cups of crazy at the keyboard listening to Two Steps From Hell really, really loud. Great music, wakes me up, just has the unfortunate side-effect of making me type a lot of exclamation marks!!! But hell, if I really wanted to hit a home run, then I go to a café, where I focussed the best.

The enthusiasm side of it more came down to me seeing the scene clearly enough. Where my characters acting faithfully to their personalities? How did they FEEL? What were their EMOOOTIONS?  I needed to listen to the music of the scene in my head and think about it for a good ten minutes. Sometimes, all I can hear is the chirping of crickets, with my characters just staring at me, waiting for a clue. Or worse, they were asleep and I couldn’t wake them up.

So, with café writes earmarked for weekends and Thursday late night shopping at the local cafe, I’ve been making changes that will hopefully become habit.

Anchors ahoy!

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Flash-off! #1 – Da Results

Today’s first ever Flash-off! was fast and fun, though with a lot less spandex than anticipated. Thanks to sister Meg who gave us the theme MONSTERS. We had one hour to turn that into a story under 1000 words.  Here are the results from first round battlers Char and Bek. 🙂

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Charlotte’s Story (727 words):

The One You Feed

Sometimes, betrayals are innocuous things. Your friend tells your secret when they promised not. You hate them for it, but real damage is slight, so the elders say. No one takes slights of word seriously here, where a boy is born with two selves. When every day until the age of fifteen is focussed on refining the good self and shunning the monstrous self, until that day, at rite of passage, when the boy enters the stadium and slays his dark self so the good will become adult.

For Garrick, that day is today. I am nervous. His twin-self crosses the red dust, far beneath the rising seats. A sheer wall separates him from the watchers, and above is a ring of archers. He enters a twin, two boys the same, but only one will leave. And if the monster is the victor, then none will. I could lose this friend today.

But no one thinks the worst will happen; it almost never does. Boys are trained in how to protect their good selves, how to nurture them with learning. Their fathers pass the wisdom of their own battles; those with fathers, at least. I finger the stones behind my back, wondering if I can still feel regret about that. I wait, but none comes. No, then. I am cured of it.

Garrick, both of him, makes his bows. No one can tell which is the good self and which is the monster; that will come only with victory. But I can tell. I know him well.

They each take an edged weapon from their belts, and step away into the dust, as if they are just to spar. Expectation is oddly dim here; the crowd almost look bored. Good, that is good. They think they know Garrick well. They know he is the son of the highest elder, the most educated, the most dedicated. Destined for greatness. This is almost a formality; his monstrous self should be so weak from neglect, the battle will be over quickly.

The first blows fall metal on metal. Good-Garrick and monster-Garrick circle and clash. Dust rises, cloaking their skin, sticking to sweat. They are soon both red-dust boys, no skin to be seen, and only the metal edges glint through the fray. Then, there is a stumble. One Garrick goes down; the crowd leans forward. The other Garrick does not hesitate; he drives the point of the blade through the downed Garrick’s chest. The downed Garrick jerks around the blade, curled like a spider on its back, then is still.

My heart fights my breath for space in my throat. My skin drums with the noise from the stands. The victor Garrick stands before the applause, a red-skinned version of the Garrick who walked in. He closes his eyes and raises his palms, salute to the elders. The archers relax. Then, Garrick retrieves his sword and strides towards the exit.

No elder moves. They maintain applause, standing now, tears on some faces. Pride, I believe, for they see the good-Garrick leave. Passed through the rite, and now to be a man. This is the great moment for them.

For them.

I do not stay to witness more but descend to the arena level on the seldom-used stair. Garrick is waiting in the tunnel, and he brings his eyes up from the dust. We look at each other, with our black irises reflecting the torchlight. Garrick, so dusty no one can see the evil marks. Me, with the control I learned from my father, how to use my mind not to show the marks. Monsters, both.

This is the great moment.

I offer the eye lenses he will need to stay concealed. Garrick nods his thanks. He has learned well in all our lessons, proved himself capable of skill and concealment, even from his good-self. And the good-self never realised another could teach his monster just as well. My pride burns my eyes when he leaves.

Now good-Garrick lies dead in the dust. The elders will be slack, not bothering to clean the body of the assumed monster-self. They will not find the unmarred skin.

You see, some betrayals are innocuous, but others are not. Words can cut as deep as a sword, and bring death when spoken wrong. The good-Garrick told my secret and so the monster has his chance.

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Rebekah’s Story (995 words):

Jenny Mackillop had a secret.

Even though she was only thirteen, she knew about the world. She read about what the world was really like in the history books, saw it on television. Only the shows on television were pretend.  She was old enough to know that. The news was real. But the news was boring and hard to watch. Her dad always told her not to bother him when he watched the headlines. That was okay, because she liked to read more than watch television. She had a whole pile from the library, history books that told of the horrors of the past and the monsters that dressed like men and women. They looked regular, just like her parents.

Then one day, Jenny realised she could recognise monsters. It was in the eyes, she realised. The way they looked at you, with glossy eyes that you could almost stare right into their brain to see the rotting flesh that lay there.

This is why Jenny knew her neighbour, Mr Hill, was a monster.  She told her very best friend, Elaine.

“Oh yeah?” Elaine had asked, sitting on her bed, flicking through the latest Cosmopolitan magazine. “What drugs have you been taking?”

“I’m being serious.” Jenny had tried to explain how she knew, but the words had come out wrong. She couldn’t explain how she knew when Mr Hill had yelled at her when she’d accidently thrown her Frisbee into his yard. She had seen into his eyes and saw they were deep and black, spiralling down into some horrible pit that wasn’t human.

Elaine had just rolled her eyes and continued to read her magazine. Jenny hadn’t talked about it again. She just watched Mr Hill. She bought some binoculars and watched him when she got home from school. Did her homework, ate dinner, then watched him some more. She started a log. Mr Hill lived alone. He was an old, nasty man who swore at any kid who dared step on his lawn. He drank beer with his microwave dinner and watched Deal or No Deal every night.

Then the pets in the neighbourhood started to disappear.

Reward posters went up. Jenny watched Mr Hill, making sure she noted any changes in his behaviour. She followed him on the weekend when he went to the local store, where he bought his milk and bread. He’d stay an extra five minutes to complain to the storekeeper about the rising prices and how politicians were crooks and bastards.

Then Bobby Henderson went missing. Jenny watched Bobby’s mum and dad on the news, asking for their little boy back.

Jenny decided it was time to act. She wasn’t sure what kind of monster Mr Hill was, but she knew what would kill him. She decided to wait until Saturday night, the only night Mr Hill drove his rattling Cortina to the local pub to play the pokies.

Saturday night came and she gathered her weapons of choice, tucking it into her schoolbag.

She crept down the stairs and out the back door. The wooden fence was short and she climbed over it easily enough. She crept to the backdoor and gave it an experimental pull. It was locked, but she expected that. Putting a tea towel over the window above the handle, she broke it with her elbow. She stuck her arm in and unlocked the door. Stepping inside, she stopped to clean up the glass, relocking the door.

The house smelt like stale air freshener and burnt hair inside. Jenny began to look around for signs of dead animals.

Or Bobby.

She came to a door that led down into the basement and squinted into the darkness.

“Hello? Is anyone there?” she whispered. She pulled a flashlight and clicked it on, but couldn’t see anything except filing cabinets and benches with tools on them. Jenny figured Mr Hill had already eaten Bobby then.

She went upstairs and found the bedroom. Poking around, she didn’t find anything to confirm her suspicions, but that didn’t matter. Because she’d seen his eyes and she knew. She’d seen the nasty thing he was and she, Jenny Mackillop was a Monster Slayer.

She found the wardrobe, a big, wooden thing and climbed in. Popped earphones in her ears and played some music. She only had to wait now.

It was nearly eleven o’clock when Mr Hill came home. She turned off her iPod and listened to him downstairs, rattling around the kitchen. Then the stairs squeaked as he came upstairs. She heard the old pipe in the house run as he had a shower down the hall. Heard him complain to himself as he hopped into bed.

Jenny smiled to herself.

Mr Hill was possibly the dumbest monster she’d ever met.

She waited until it was nearly midnight. The time when monsters were their most vulnerable. Then she opened the door gently and crept out. Pulled out her weapon and pulled the trigger a few times. The water-squirter spilt the liquid everywhere, stinking up the room. She made sure she was near the bedroom door before she called out to Mr Hill. It was one last chance. He blinked at her in confusion, the room lit by a half moon outside.

“What are you doing?” he cried, getting out to the bed. He paused when he smelt the gasoline. “What have you done, you stupid girl?”

“Where’s Bobby?” Jenny aimed the water-squirter at Mr Hill. “Tell me and I won’t kill you.”

“Have you lost your mind?” Mr Hill got to his feet. “I’m calling your parents right now.”

“No you’re not.” Jenny pulled the cigarette lighter from her pocket. No point in asking about Bobby anymore. She knew Mr Hill had eaten him. She could see it on his face. Her thumb flicked the wheel . Mr Hill started screaming. Jenny bent over, igniting the wet carpet. She stepped outside the room, pulling it shut behind her.

Flash-off! #1 – Da Smackdown

I have a love for flash fiction; I’ve even had a piece published (here – gratuitous plug). Flash is nippy – the perfect quickie with concentrated punch … sharing a name with both a superhero and a mode of public indecency. That’s all fine, but I wanted more. More intensity, more trash talk. So, combining the powers of writing races with WWE lingo, I bring you Flash-off!

The rules:

Two writers get one hour to produce a piece of flash fiction, 1000 words or less. The theme is given just before the hour. Spectators watch the duel, and perhaps provide coffee. No tag-teaming allowed. At the end of the hour, both pieces are read to general applause. Then, they get posted up here for your vote!

Simple, huh? It will be, of course, until we add spandex. I hope to attract ever-increasing interest, both from our local talent pool, and international faves. In my dreams, Neal Stephenson shows up and gives it a crack. And maybe The Rock to hoist the round number high. 😉

Round #1:

Flash-off! #1 will be Sunday 25 March 2012 at high noon, SLQ cafe, State Library, Southbank. Sisters vs. sisters. Spectators welcome!

Reading Girlhood

I am the criminal Sister of the Pen

Crime fiction was my first literary love as a reader. As a writer, it took the support/intervention of my Sisters of the Pen (aka SoPs) to let go of the paralysing pressure to write the Next Great Australian Novel, and embrace the genre I love. I was a wannabe writer with hangups, and now I am a productive crime writer. And lovin’ it!

But there are gaps in my knowledge of the crime genre. I grew up with four big brothers (hi, bros!), and I mostly read their hand-me-downs: Phantom Comics and Ian Fleming. I was a ‘bonus baby’, so my parents were older and had drinking problems and were generally not up for going another round with another kid. I received a good education and all that, but I was neglected in a few crucial ways. Having dealt with the substantive psychological and behavioural fallout (thanks, rehab), it’s now time to redress some of the less harmful yet still formative oversights in my upbringing.

Reading the girlhood canon

As a girl, no one curated my reading. On the upside, this meant I avoided some negative aspects of girlhood literary indoctrination. And here’s a grainy picture to prove it (and yes, that is a Mack Truck shirt I am wearing, plus faded clown makeup!).

Pic of Meg as a girl tomboy

grrrlhood!

But this Boys Own literary diet produced a woman crime writer who has never read Nancy Drew or Trixie Belden!

With the help of my SoPs, especially Kim, I am being guided through a girlhood reading list ranging from Anne of Green Gables and Pollyanna, through Nancy and Trixie, to Little Women. I’m abandoning myself to it, setting aside my adult critical faculties for now and inhaling the stories as would a ten-year-old girl. It is producing some unexpected results…

Girltopia nightmares

My blossoming idealistic and utopic girl’s sensibility is sitting uncomfortably alongside my adult self; a self drawn to understanding the hidden violence and injustice of the world. Today I was grocery shopping and, as usual, on my mind were the things I’ve read recently: Anne of Avonlea, and this compelling MotherJones article exposing the conditions of warehouse workers who pick, pack and ship our online purchases.

There is so much cruelty in the world. It’s in the chemical-drenched food we eat and the sweatshop clothes we wear and the war-fuelled cars we drive. The contrast to gentle Avonlea is stark. It breaks my heart, and gives me torturous nightmares.

If we live in a system where all wealth is based on growth – of population, productivity, and consumption – and yet the earth’s resources are finite, well, any girl could tell you that the end game is approaching. Like Ursula LeGuin’s wanderers who, upon viewing the tortured child in the basement cupboard, realize they must leave Omelas for the unimaginable world that lies beyond, I want to find another way.

The power of the crime narrative

I believe crime fiction is such a popular genre because it reveals the wounds of that hidden violence we all perpetuate and are victim to, while also offering hope for justice and retribution.

My novelette ‘Provocation’ (just out, in The Review of Australian Fiction) is about a young woman in recovery from anorexia who is triggered into psychosis because of a stalker. It is dedicated to a real-life young woman I knew and loved as a girl, who died after a covert attack—she was dependent on medication for a chronic illness, you see, and her stalker was court-ordered to keep his distance from her, her house, and her workplace. But he put two and two together, and loitered around her neighbourhood chemist. She spied him, ran home, and died there, alone.

Her death was never recorded as a murder. There were no charges laid, nor action taken.

Hidden violence.

Crime fiction allows me to tell stories exploring a topic that means the world to me: the survival strengths of girls and women. As an adult, I have avoided reading the girlhood canon out of fear it would make me soft-hearted and conventional. I was wrong. Sure, it is opening my heart. But is also ramping up my rage, and calling into question the ethical choices I make in my daily life.

Girlhood is powerful. Am I strong enough to be my girl?

If you have any titles to add to my reading list of the girlhood canon, please jump on in and leave them in a comment – suggestions for crime, fantasy, and Australian titles especially appreciated.

The Things Writers Overhear

You can tell you’re a writer when everything becomes a possible inclusion in a current or future story, blog, or poem.

Go on, wriggle a little in discomfort if you know it’s true…

Your friend is going through the world’s most vicious breakup and you’re thinking this is the perfect twist for that character. You’re stranded on a train station in the wilds of India with not a rupee to your name and darkness falling and you think, at least if I survive I can write about it. You listen to a couple having a full-on barney on the train. Everything, everything becomes material.

Case in point:

Oh look, a bargain! Pic by Adam Dimech – adonline at Flickriver

I was standing in Lowes Menswear in Lismore Plaza today, buying work socks for the farm.  Two old ladies came into the shop and spotted a row of bright Hawaiian and other equally special print shirts.

“They’re nice, love,” said one old dear.

They walked closer to investigate.

“Oh, said the other old dear, rubbing the fabric in her hand, her brow knotted in consternation.  “Feel the flaminosity of this one, Shirl.”

“Dear, dear,” her friend replied as she also felt the shirt.  She frowned.  “No good at all.  Imagine if hubby stood too close to the barbie in that!”

They both tut-tutted, shook their heads and moved on to the more sedate cotton line as I struggled to suppress a giggle. Flaminosity. Beautiful.

Later I was talking to a friend whose eleven year old son has to pick a musical instrument as his elective for next term.  For months he has been harping on about getting an electric guitar.  Today he announced to his mum that he wanted to learn the drums.

Why the change of heart?

“Because I want to be the next Filled Columns,” he said earnestly. “He’s bald like dad AND he gets all the chicks.  Drummers rule.”

It took his mum about ten minutes to figure it out.

That’s gold.

By the way, Lachie, it’s Phil Collins, and yes, he does look a lot like your dad!

The story that can’t be told. Yet…

Writing is important to me.  I didn’t realise how much until I nearly croaked it a few years ago. My life, in that instant, boiled down to two priorities, and one of those was writing.

The story begins here…

A long time ago I sat  in a partly-completed resort on Fraser Island. It was a wild and woolly Friday night. Most of the construction team had gone off-island while they still could. While storms lashed the bay I cocooned myself in my quarters with a book, hoping to learn more of the island’s history.

It was there I first acquainted myself with a tale that fired my imagination – a true story of lighthouses, mystery and history.  Over the years I came back to this idea again and again, fictionalising it and writing snippets into a series of tatty notebooks. But I had no real clue as to how to make it grow from snippets to a full sized manuscript.

The story falters…

I put my lighthouse story away, and began another, managing about thirty thousand words.  This is the manuscript that later became Mapping the Heart – shortlisted for the 2011 Hachette/Queensland Writers Centre Manuscript Development Program. The novel is an examination of what defines us, what protects us, and who we are when that becomes stripped away.

Then, for reasons that I can no longer fathom, I began a third manuscript. Not my genre.  Not my style.  (This one, which eventually grew up to be Return to Honour, selected for the 2011 Hachette/Queensland Writers Centre Manuscript Development Program, is now jokingly referred to by my writing sistahs as the sex and bombs novel.) I progressed slowly, tortuously.  It was difficult to take what was in my head and make it measure up on paper.  I realised I needed help, and began casting around for some instruction.

QWC rides into my life shining a beacon of light…

I took myself off to the Queensland Writers Centre to do their Year of the Novel course with Dr Kim Wilkins.  Everyone else had just one manuscript to work with.  I of course, had three, plus a sheaf of half-begun ideas… Kim, in her wisdom, suggested I work solely on Return to Honour, and that is where I finally cut my writerly baby-teeth. I might add that she is an awesome teacher, and without her guidance I would still be blathering around.

I came back to do Year of the Edit with Kim, then Sisters of the Pen was formed, and we seven ‘sistahs’ have been sharing and providing support on what can be a lonely journey ever since.

The messy truth…

I wish I could say that I start one thing, bring it to an orderly conclusion, and then begin the next.

But that would be patently untrue.

I am a shambolic creative. I am in words up to my armpits, and my life is shaped by writing. It is my greatest joy, my most profound love, and my number one aggravation.

As it stands this is where I am today, three years after I finally committed to this writing life, and two after I began to take it seriously:

  1. Return to Honour (Harry Stanton series, Book One) Completed. 110 000 words. On a final edit before I send it to Hachette for their consideration.
  2. The Samurai Legacy (Harry Stanton series, Book Two) I’ve embedded bits back in Book One, have researched like a demon and am at about 25 000 words plus a fair plan of the guts of the remainder of the story.
  3. Mapping the Heart 140 000 words.  This baby needs a structural overhaul, and I am still a bit close to it to feel confident to wield my editing blade with precision.  I’m anticipating working on it in the second half of this year.
  4. Pirates Book One (as yet untitled) 95 000 words.  An unexpected book (and my illicit love)  that came out of an idea I had on Australia Day last year, and which the sistahs encouraged me to pursue.  It has magic, fairies, pirates and dragons and is for a younger audience. It is still at draft stage and will need altering based on what happens in Book Two.  I am anticipating seven to ten books in order to complete the story arc.
  5. Pirates Book Two (also untitled) 45 000 words – a work very much in progress.  I expect to have this to finished draft stage by mid 2013.
  6. Lighthouse Novel (not yet titled) This is THE story my heart longs to tell.  But I’m not ready yet.  I know I am still learning my craft.  Some days I think it best told as historical fiction.  Some days I think it needs to be non-fiction. I often think I need to travel to certain places and stand on the land in order to get the truth of this story in my bones.  I need to do it justice.
  7. Cauldrons and Cupcakes A blog I started recently because, gee, I still need somewhere else to put that endless supply of words in my head.

There have been three significant turning points for me as a writer.  The first was becoming an active member of the Queensland Writers Centre.  I often joke that I should have a t-shirt made that reads WRITER on the front and MADE BY QWC on the reverse. The second was finding my tribe, this wonderful group of sistahs who care about writing and each other and make the journey better on the days when it is fraught and hard. The third was the experience afforded to me by the Hachette/Queensland Writers Centre Manuscript Development Program. That generous program allowed me to walk away knowing in my heart that I AM a writer, and that I CAN write.

With that faith I trust that one day I will have the skills to write the first story my Muse ever whispered in my ear.  I pray I shall not disappoint her.