Tag Archives: writing

Nothing looks the same in the light

I like ‘Sorrow’ and ‘Life on Mars’ (after binge-watching the series Life on Mars), but I was never a big Bowie fan; I went through a Prince phase when I was young, but that didn’t last long; I love reading Leonard Cohen’s poetry and lyrics, but admittedly I prefer the cover versions of his songs performed by other artists. The 2016 celebrity death that hit me the hardest was George Michael’s.

Believe it or not, I was a Wham! fan. George Michael was one of my first crushes — after Steve from The Land of the Giants, Michael Douglas in The Streets of San Francisco, and Robert (a boy in Grade 6).

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George Michael

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Steve

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Michael Douglas

Robert (from memory)

In Grade 4 or 5, we had to come up with an act to perform for the class. My best friend at the time and I choreographed a dance routine to ‘Bad Boys’.

‘Last Christmas’ was the soundtrack to my very first summer-holiday romance, and my subsequent very first broken heart.

There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in (Leonard Cohen) is far more profound, but there’s a line from a Wham! song that has resonated with me since I was twelve (although I had to google to remember which song it’s from): Nothing looks the same in the light. I have stolen borrowed and rewritten those words — that concept — in many different ways. I made a list of examples from my books, but deleted it (because, well, who wants to read random, out-of-context lines of prose? Plus it was quite a long list).

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I can still remember the inky, shiny-paper smell of the song-lyric sheet in the inner sleeve of the Fantastic album.

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Art-inspired writing

I was recently invited to speak to a primary school class about writing and Storybird. Storybird is an educational platform, where students can create art-inspired stories, with the options of publishing their work and connecting with a community of readers, writers and artists. In
Storybird, writers start by choosing illustrations, which lead them into the writing process. A great way to prevent writer’s block.

I decided to make my talk a little about structure and process, and a lot about the artwork that inspired my books (leaving out the gory bits, of course!). The kids loved discussing art and stories, and their teacher is trying to organise an excursion to an art gallery before the end of the year.

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Lovers | Charles Blackman | NGV

Lovers
One of my writing lecturers at RMIT taught a class about ekphrasis [Greek ekphrazein to speak out, to call an inanimate object by name — Macquarie Dictionary], a concept that goes back to Plato. Put very basically, ekphrasis is the use of one art form to provide a commentary on another art form. Our class had an excursion to the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Fed Square where we chose an artwork to write about. This was a very powerful exercise for me and it’s where I first became enamoured with Charles Blackman’s Lovers. I spent a lot of time admiring this painting. I occasionally visit it now, and it still always brings a tear to my eye. Lovers informed my first novel Please Don’t Leave Me Here so much that it appears as a print on Brigitte’s apartment wall, and is referred to several times — in real time, memory and dreams.

‘She looks across at the print hanging on the wall behind the sofa: two lovers embrace against a background that looks finger- painted — frosty white smears tinged with aqua. If you could taste it, it would be spearmint. The female figure rests her head against the man’s neck. She is veiled in black, her face hidden by a hood. He is shadow-like, grey, his face visible but chiselled, without detail like a sculpture. Against the small of her back he holds a bouquet of flowers: white, perhaps daisies, with centres the colour of fresh blood. Is this their last time together? Is she in his dream? A memory? Or a ghost? Why can’t they just be together?’
— Please Don’t Leave Me Here

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Four Darks in Red | Mark Rothko | Whitney Museum of American Art

Four Darks in Red
This was Aidan’s artwork in Dead in The Water. Brigitte disliked it and described it as: ‘… four lozenge shapes in different shades of red, from crimson at the bottom to liver-brown at the top … She’d never told him that she didn’t like it. It reminded her of bloodstains.

Four Darks in Red became a metaphor for blood.

‘There were stains on his clothing the sombre colours of his Rothko Four Darks in Red — he’d been to the accident scene.’

‘It wasn’t raindrops: it was crimson. Four darks in red.’
— Dead in the Water

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Feet Beneath the Table | Charles Blackman | NGV

Alice in Wonderland series
Strangely enough, I’m drawn to the artwork of Charles Blackman again — in particular his Alice in Wonderland series — while writing my third book, You Used To Love Me. The story (at this stage) is about memory, time and the line between sanity and insanity. For me, it seems to have many parallels with Alice in Wonderland.

‘Alice: How long is forever?
White Rabbit: Sometimes, just one second.’
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

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Collins St, 5p.m. | John Brack | NGV

Collins St, 5p.m.
Again, I’ve placed artwork within my story. In You Used to Love Me, Sidney studies this painting in Year 10 art, and twenty years later finds herself in the setting of the painting.

‘… Glass towers had replaced the sandstone buildings of Brack’s 1950s background. Not all the faces were white, and mobile phones were stuck to ears, but the blank expressions were the same. Strange now that here I was — that girl grown-up — in the street, in the picture I remembered. My past self in the future. Or my future self in the past? Or the present? Thoughts like that — time plains, continuums, illusion — could do my head in …’
— You Used to Love Me (work in progress)

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Of Mice and Me | Meghan Boody

Of Mice and Me
I didn’t show this image to the Grade 2s! The germ of the idea for You Used to Love Me came to me while viewing this sculpture a year or so ago at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania. A lot of the museum-visitors were walking away shaking their heads, but I was utterly mesmerised. When I listened to an interview with the artist, Meghan Boody, I understood why this piece had captivated me. Boody describes it as ‘an ode to staying forever young’. And says, ‘I often feel a strange tug or presence when I walk by the apartment where I grew up. I look up into the window of my bedroom — and wouldn’t it be wild if I saw myself as a child looking back down?’ Boom! That, in a nutshell, was the essence of my vision for You Used to Love Me.

Back to my Year 2 talk … In case I’d traumatised them (which, of course, I hadn’t — eight-year-olds are very switched-on little people and they love scary stories), I finished with these images of On Days Like This There Are Always Rainbows, an installation by Pip and Pop, which I saw recently at NGV. The rainbow-candy-coloured miniature wonderland — mountains, valleys, pathways, crystal forests, and fluorescent flowers and animals constructed from glitter, clay, foam, sequins and pom-poms, topped with coloured sugar and cake decorations — was inspirational enough to me as an adult, but it would have been absolutely magical as a child.

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On days like this there are always rainbows | Pip & Pop (Tanya Shultz)

I would love to hear about artwork that has inspired you.

Writer vs. Storyteller

photo-on-18-10-2016-at-11-02-amI’m stuck in the middle of my WIP (that’s why I’m writing this post instead of writing-writing) because the Writer and Storyteller in my head are fighting. I’m just under 50K words into what I think is a complex, layered, deeply nuanced character study, which the Writer is totally in love with. But now the Storyteller is trying to crash the party with questions like: Is the storyline strong enough to pull the reader along?

Writer: I don’t care what the reader thinks. I just care about my character.
Storyteller: I’m sorry, did you just say you don’t care about the reader?
Writer: I didn’t mean it. Of course I care about the reader. I’ve worked so hard on this characterisation — won’t it be enough to pull them along?
Storyteller: I don’t think so.
Writer: Then how about elegant sentences, and beautiful punctuation?
Storyteller: How about a plot twist in act three?
Writer: That would make it contrived.
Storyteller: That would make it a story.
Writer: It would cheapen the whole thing.
Storyteller: No it wouldn’t.
Writer: Yes, it would.
Storyteller: No.
Writer: Yes.
Storyteller: What about Peter Temple?
Writer: What about Peter Temple?
Storyteller: You’re always going on about how much you like him, and he does both.
Writer: I like — believe in, care about, fall in love with — his characters (and his stylish prose). I couldn’t care less about his plots. In fact I think they interfere with the characterisation.
Storyteller: That’s ridiculous.
Writer: And I still don’t get why there were chocolate wrappers in the bin at the end of The Broken Shore.
Storyteller: *Sigh* How many times do I have to tell you — I think it’s an implication of how Cashin will eventually, sometime in a future book, solve the mystery of what happened to the missing boys who made the ceramic pots back in 1988.
Writer: You have no idea either.
Storyteller: Margaret Atwood is good at both too.
Writer: I love Margaret Atwood.
Storyteller: David Mitchell.
Writer: I didn’t love Cloud Atlas.
Storyteller: I did.
Writer: You would. How about The Bell Jar?
Storyteller: Let’s not have that argument again. So what are we going to do?
Writer: About what?
Storyteller: Our story, for fucks sake!
Writer: Sorry, I was just thinking about the way the green light from the motel’s ‘Vacancy’ sign shimmers in a rain river along the ground to Dean Cola’s feet, just before Sidney leaves town with him.
Storyteller: Oh my God, you’ve just given away the ending!
Writer: That bit won’t be there if you get your way with the plot twist.
Storyteller: So you do want to give it a try?
Writer: I didn’t say that.
Storyteller: We’ll foreshadow it right from the start.
Writer: And if I don’t like it, I could take it out?
Storyteller: Of course.
Writer: I could do it with TrackChanges turned on — like a safety net, just in case.
Storyteller: You know we stopped using TrackChanges long ago. And you’re too stubborn to try Scrivener.
Writer: If it’s wrong, changing it back would be so much work, when I could be polishing prose instead.
Storyteller: You’ve done it before. Remember how many times you rewrote Please Don’t Leave Me Here?
Writer: *Curls up in corner and starts to cry*
Storyteller: You’ve learnt a lot since then.
Writer: No, I haven’t.
Storyteller: You — I mean I know what I’m doing now.
Writer: I’m not so sure.
Storyteller: Stop being a baby! It’ll be fine.
Writer: It might not be.
Storyteller: Then rewrite it again. And again, until it is fine.
Writer: But …
Storyteller: You know I’m right. Trust me.
Writer:
Storyteller: Trust me.
Writer: OK.

Dead in the Water — book launch

deadinthewater_launch_inviteMy second book, Dead in the Water, was launched at Readings Carlton on Thursday 13 October
2016. The fabulous Janice Simpson (author of Murder in Mount Martha) was my launcher, with David Golding, my editor, doing the introductions.


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cuoahmdumaal2ku-jpg-large… Sitting amid all these thousands of books makes it seem as though writing one is not a very significant thing to do. But it is to all the authors. It’s a huge thing — often a lifelong dream. I never thought I’d ever do anything of note, but I think this (second to having my three babies) is it — my greatest achievement.
I’m only sad that it took so long and some people aren’t here to see it:

My grandparents, especially my grandfather who kept all the stories I wrote when I was little and always told me I would be a writer when I grew up.
My father.
My auntie who would have loved a book set on Raymond Island — one of her favourite places.
But little parts of all those absent people have somehow made it onto the pages of my books, which will outlive me. Even if it’s in the book box at the school fete, or on a shelf at the op shop next to Raymond, somewhere, there they’ll be.

This book is dedicated to my mother, who is here tonight. And it’s her birthday, so happy birthday, Mum.

Write truly and not care

In my post Losing the Plot a few months ago, I wrote that I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with my characters, ideas were coming at me from all directions, the words were flowing.

Well, now the words have stopped flowing. It’s more like squeezing drops of blood. I’m stuck, stalled, lost. With so few words coming out, there’s plenty of room for self-doubt to come in.

What am I doing? This story is too dark. It’s far more psychological study than thriller. There’s no crime-fiction-style murder. My protagonist, Sidney, is not funny; she’s not Brigitte. Nobody’s going to like it.

I came across this letter on Letters of Note that Ernest Hemingway wrote in reply to F. Scott Fitzgerald asking for feedback on Tender is the Night, and the advice struck a chord with me. It’s from a book called Letters of Note. If you don’t feel like reading the whole letter, the takeaways (for me) are:

  • You cannot make characters do anything they would not do
  • Don’t worry about what people will think
  • Listen to advice from those you trust
  • Use your pain
  • Don’t drink too much (hard to believe Hemingway would say that, I know)
  • Write truly and not care about what the fate of it is
  • Make time for your friends
  • Go on and write

While I’m waiting for the words to return and for self-doubt to leave so I can ‘go on and write’, I’m going to read Tender is the Night to see if I can get what Hem was on about.

Beer, Berettas and bonsai: Researching novels

Research for my first novel, Please Don’t Leave Me Here, involved sifting through 1990s newspapers on microfiche at the State Library, frequenting coffee shops in Degraves Street and drinking beer at featured pubs.

My second novel, Dead in the Water, required a lot more research. I stayed at the place where it’s set — Raymond Island, a tiny island in the Gippsland salt-water lakes system, with a population of about 540. There are plenty of koalas, but no shops or other businesses. If you run out of bread or milk [OK, wine], you have to catch the cable ferry across to Paynesville on the mainland for supplies. After the last ferry crossing between 11pm and midnight, there’s no way on or off. The perfect place to set a crime story!

Dead in the Water deals with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, so I spoke with a police psychologist and officers suffering PTSD. I also made friends with forensic scientists who told me more than I needed to know about dead bodies in water, DNA and gun shot wounds.

The hardest research was learning to shoot a gun. I wanted to write a shooting scene and, being a ‘method writer’, didn’t think I could do it without knowing how it really felt. So, I booked into a course at a pistol club.

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You can hear gunshots from the car park. Inside, people are lying on mats, shooting rifles at targets on the range. I go the wrong way and end up in the bistro instead of the training room. You can relax and enjoy a drink in the lounge or licensed bar after shooting the crap out of stuff. There are taxidermied animals around the room and deer heads on the wall.

The training room is full of mostly young men. Anybody — who doesn’t have a police record — can do the handgun-shooting course. So how dangerous can it be? Our instructors enter the room — one has an arm in a sling; the other has a leg missing below the knee.

They teach us about the safety equipment required on the shooting range. Special earmuffs, because guns are louder than a jet engine and can cause permanent hearing damage. Safety glasses, because pieces of shrapnel can fly back and hit you in the eye. And be sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterwards, because handgun ammunition contains some very hazardous materials like lead styphnate, which can cause heavy metal poisoning. That’s if you have any hands left: Never cross your thumbs behind the slide of a semiautomatic pistol (the slide is the thing on top that flies back from the recoil of the shot, forcing the empty round from the chamber out through the ejection port). Not because it might break your thumb, but because it could slice it right off. Excellent. I start to think maybe I don’t need that gun-shooting scene in my book after all.

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Relaxed on the shooting range. “Never cross your thumbs behind the slide …”

Out on the range, each shooter is allocated a shooting bay. Always make sure the gun is pointing in a safe direction, and the only safe direction is DOWNRANGE! (they shout a lot on the range). Be especially careful of turning around to talk to the person next to you because … [Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction — ‘I just shot Marvin in the face’? You get the picture]. There is a yellow safety line along the back of the bays, and a red line along the front. NEVER REACH ACROSS THE RED LINE! At this stage, my legs have started to shake and my mouth is very dry.

They said we’d have plenty of time to get the ‘feel’ of the guns before shooting at the targets. But I’m still getting to know my gun, and so not ready when the Range Officer commands ‘EYES AND EARS!’, a reminder to get your safety equipment on. Trying very hard to suppress a panic attack, I put on my earmuffs and safety glasses. ‘MOVE FORWARD. LOAD. FIRE!’

I have a go at shooting semiautomatic pistols of increasing calibre, my mantra the whole time: Never cross your thumbs behind the slide, never cross your thumbs behind the slide, never cross your thumbs behind the slide. Then I try some revolvers, including a Magnum (or was it a Beretta? — same name as a cop show from the 1980s), which has quite a kickback.

The cylinder on one of my revolvers seems to be stuck. I keep trying to pull the trigger, but it won’t work, so I hold up my hand. The Range Commander comes over to check what’s wrong. Lucky I asked for help because one of the rounds is stuck in a chamber and, had I kept trying to shoot, it could have caught fire and exploded in my hands. That’s enough for me. I donate my remaining ammo to the guy in the next bay who is enjoying himself far more than I am. I come away with my eyes, ears and thumbs intact, and enough details to write the gun-shooting scene.

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In my work in progress (working title: You Used to Love Me), my protagonist’s hobby is bonsai. I’m looking forward to a relaxing short course, researching the gentle art of bonsai. Careful with the trimming tools?

So, what do you write?

Look away now if you can’t stomach another piece about literary vs. genre fiction.

So, what do you write? This is the question I try to skirt around when somebody finds out I’m a writer. I usually say novels, or fiction. ‘But what genre?’ I’ve always felt like a fraud calling myself a crime writer and I used to say, ‘Literary thrillers’, or go off on a tangent about how my work is hard to categorise. Now, I just smile and say, ‘Psychological thrillers’, feeling that’s not quite true, but I don’t have a better alternative. The response to this is often — down their nose — ‘Do you write under your own name?’

Before I was published, a writer friend warned me to be careful of falling between the stools of literary and genre fiction. At the time, I thought it wouldn’t be such a bad thing — something for everybody.

My first book was marketed as ‘A riveting psychological thriller’. In the UK, it had an ‘If you liked The Girl On The Train, you’ll love this’ sticker on the cover. The hashtag for the blog tour was #WifeOrKiller. Some reviews attacked the marketing instead of focusing on the book, which was perceived as more character study than ‘riveting psychological thriller’. One reviewer praised my writing but said the book was flawed as crime fiction as there weren’t enough suspects. The same reviewer said of a book that readers sometimes compare mine to — by an author marketed as literary — that it worked on all levels, including crime fiction [there was only ever one suspect in this story]. In defence of the marketing — my book had to be promoted as something and I’m not sure what else it could have been labelled. It’s a hard one to put in a box. I’m over the moon just to be published, and happy to be called anything [Well, almost anything].

Marketing is interesting. I recently read an interview with Peggy Frew (author of Miles Franklin shortlisted Hope Farm) where she says that one commercial publisher wanted to make her books more ‘chick lit’ and less ‘literary fiction’. Hmm.

Some authors manage to balance comfortably between the two stools. Peter Temple comes to mind, but he is absolutely a crime writer following the classic structure and using every trope in the book. What sets him apart, I think, is his brilliant characterisation and stylish prose. Maybe Chris Womersly? Margaret Atwood, Cormack McCarthy … There must be millions of others. I haven’t read The Dry (Jane Harper) yet but, by all accounts, it’s up there with the best literary/crime.

Perhaps we should concentrate on writing stories that we’re passionate about, that are interesting and challenging to us, and try not to worry about what they will be labelled as and into which box they will be packaged.

Good writing — whether literary or genre — is good writing.

In [David] Mitchell’s words, “the novel’s the boss”, and arguments about marketing categories are not the writer’s concern.
Literature vs genre is a battle where both sides lose, Damien Walter, The Guardian, 20 Nov 2016