Tag Archives: writing

Writing retreat

Because I am tortured by the compulsion to not only write stories, but also document every little thing I see and do, here is a blog post about my recent writing retreat experience (condensed version!).

DAY 1
So, I’m off now to my writing retreat (read: isolated cabin out in the bush with no wi-fi or washing machine, but affordable). I’m going to work on my manuscript that terrifies me. Don’t worry, I’ll be OK …

 

 

I picture part of my novel set in a place where I lived in my youth. I should have realised that coming back here — where I haven’t been for years, except for funerals — would be confronting. A strange, hopeful yet empty feeling gripped me as I drove the flat, dusty roads. Like returning ‘home’, but knowing that no family or friends are waiting anymore. Every road, every turn, holds a memory: there’s the parking bay where we had to stop when my daughter was little and she got car sick; there’s the spot where I blew up my Camira because I didn’t put water in the radiator; that’s the turn-off to the house where we used to live …

Enough nostalgia! Crying to Ed Sheeran’s ‘Castle on the Hill’ is ridiculous!

Writing retreat not so hellish after all.

Through the window of my little cottage:
6pm
Treated-wood porch — boards of clay-yellow and dust-grey. The screws in pairs look like eyes, the scratches below them like mouths. A fly is dying, kicking, spinning, spinning. A green-and-brown ceramic duck leans over the edge of the porch, into the dry air as if it were water. Above, from the awning, a gum leaf twists, dangling from a thread of spider’s web.
7pm
Long shadows are becoming one, covering the earth. Light filters through trees; breeze ruffles leaves gently. The landscape is almost colourless — Tom Roberts faded greens and yellows. Clumps of dry grass grow out of clay. Cracks in the earth. A stony, bitumen driveway leads to the road. The fences are in need of repair. The white letterbox leans sideways towards the give-way sign. Trucks gear down and rumble past on the main road. Sunlight glints off chrome.

Across the road, the cow-milking shed is more rust than tin. The tank behind the shed resembles a space-ship or a giant silver breast with a nipple on top. Cattle graze in the long grass of the paddock. They look like brown rocks in a sea of wheat-coloured foam.

The light takes on a golden hue. The distant sky is white. At the horizon, dark trees stand still, cow-coloured, tinged with blue.

Birds call.

7.30
Hints of pink. The cows are coming home. Headlights are flicking on. A kookaburra laughs.
8pm
The solar lights rimming the porch of my little cottage are lighting up. The trees are dark silhouettes against the sky. The clock on the wall ticks. Trucks zoom along the main road, lit up like Christmas trees — white, orange and red.

DAY 2
I am sharing my writing retreat with mice. In the dead of the night, in a cabin out in the bush, it’s hard to tell the difference between the sound of mice and that guy from Wolf Creek.

Luckily I bought some cheery reading for when I can’t sleep.

Routine:
5–6 Get up (no alarm set)
Write
9 Walk around property ½ hour
9.30 Breakfast
10–2 Write
2 Lunch
2.30–5.30 Write
5.30 Walk around property ½ hour
6 Wine and music time
? Write
? Dinner
? Write
10–11 Bed, reading

Wine and potato chips for dinner?
Why not?
No shower since Monday morning?
Oh well, maybe tomoz.

 
 
Cottage, olive groves, weird wool-less sheep

DAY 3
Mice were quieter last night, but I woke with a sore, throbbing right arm and pins and needles in my hand.

Me: I can’t feel my fingers!
Brain: I’m not surprised — after sitting and writing for so long at a very un-ergonomic table and chair. You need to adjust your posture, take regular breaks and do some stretches.
Me: I think it’s a stroke!
Brain: Can you poke out your tongue straight? Somebody told me that’s how to tell if it’s a stroke.
Me: [Rushing to bathroom, poking out tongue in mirror] Heart attack?
Brain: It’s not a heart attack.
Me: Some other illness …
Brain: Stop being silly.
Me: I think I can drive to the town, make it to a doctor in time.
Brain: No. We’re not leaving until we have a first draft.
Me: Maybe just to a chemist. Get some aspirin to thin the blood. And some bandages, just in case.
Brain: Sit down and get back to work.
Me: I can’t. I can’t breathe.
Brain: Breathe. If you’re good, we might go for a drive to the river later.
Me: You mean leave the cabin? [deep breathing into hands]

One of the weird wool-less ewes had a lamb this morning.

DAY 4
It wasn’t mice, but flies that kept me away last night. I’m not one to take fly-spray lightly, but the buzzing bastards annoyed me so much that I got up and sprayed them. And then stressed about the dangers of inhaling the chemicals from the spray in the air.

Hand is better, but now shoulders are aching and throat is sore (what could they be symptoms of?).

Through the window of my little cottage:
7am.
The warm night has melted into a cooler morning. The light, of indistinguishable colour — white / blue / grey — brushes over the darkness. The gum trees are silhouettes. A rooster crows. Birds chirp, warble and twitter. The constant traffic hum from the main road becomes heavier.

Oh, wow, look! A rubbish truck! It’s emptying the bin on the roadside. So interesting.

Time to leave the cabin for a bit?

I am leaving the cabin today. Didn’t yesterday. But, yes, today I am leaving the cabin! Going for a drive to the river. Although I’m worried that I won’t be able to find my way back here (maybe take my laptop with me, just in case).

Leaving cabin.

Here I go …

(Later) Left the cabin. Tried to find my childhood home, but couldn’t. Found the river.

The river
Dead leaves, dry grass and strips of bark crackle-crunch under foot. At the edge of the embankment, willows hang next to dying gum trees, half-uprooted, leaning, reaching towards the brown water. An almost vertical drop of pale-yellow clay leads the way down to the river. It meanders around slimy rocks, and fallen trees, bark-shed, grey, their snarly roots exposed. Blue sky and woolly grey clouds shimmer on the surface. Birds call, insects flitter and the breeze annoys the long wheat-coloured grass. It feels like somebody is watching. Just the trees — watching and whispering to each other. I don’t like it down here.
 

DAY 5
It wasn’t mice or flies or dead hands or trees that kept me awake last night. It was a prick of a mosquito — buzz, buzz, buzz in my ear all night long.

I hear it’s raining in Melbourne. Don’t think it ever rains here. Looks like another warm one today.
 

Spoke too soon — it’s raining here now. The drought has broken; the dust is being stirred up anyway.

Ten minutes later … Rain’s stopped now. Back to work.

Later (night, dark) … OMFG — a storm. A big storm! Lightning, thunder, wind, rain. I’m in a Stephen King novel. Help! Mummy!!!
 

DAY 6
Despite mice, flies, hypochondria, mosquitos and wild storms, I finished my first draft.

My little cottage in the wilderness was the perfect place to work on this stage of my novel. I think Sidney (my protagonist) would be pleased with how I have used the surroundings to build her world.

Time to go back to the real world now. It might take me a while to adjust, having not spoken to anybody, aside from my sheep friends, in six days.

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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.

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?