Wednesday, 14 March 2018

There's reading and then there's reading...


In this household, where I live with my spouse and two hugely loved rescue dogs, we have multiple versions of every device Apple has ever produced. If I'd wanted to read books in electronic form I could've done so on my phone or one of the iPads just for starters. But I'd cast furtive glances at various devices used by friends who are avid readers, after which I quite suddenly persuaded myself that a Kindle would be handy for trains, planes and automobiles (when I wasn't driving) and also for reading at night on those many occasions when I wake to the demons at 3 am but feel bad switching on the light to read.

Spouse loves little more than buying things online so I'd barely voiced my tentative interest in a little Kindle Paperwhite before one arrived in the post, rapidly followed by a girly-pink Bonjour Paris cover.

The lovely Sabine, a Twitter friend from Ohio, had put me onto the Brother Cadfael chronicles, a series of mysteries (21, I think) by Ellis Peters, featuring a Welsh Benedictine monk living in England in the early 12th century. They are historically accurate, linguistically authentic and Brother Cadfael himself is a gem, as well as a dab hand at identifying murderers and dishing out his own—usually fairly benign—form of justice. So he was perfect for my first foray into the use of my Kindle. I read one volume in hard copy then the next two on the Kindle. No drama.

Very soon I discovered how alarmingly easy it is to buy books for this new device. Basically, identify the book you fancy and press BUY. (Here lies trouble, if you don't watch yourself.)

But the next book (are they really 'books'?) I purchased was Tracy Farr's The Hope Fault. And here was a different ball-game altogether. It's a beautifully written story, though 'story' is perhaps the wrong word. Not much happens. A family heads off to pack up a holiday house that has been sold - a husband, an ex-wife, the new wife, a new baby, a son, a cousin, an aunt/twin/sister-in-law. Absent but significant is the matriarch Rosa, about to turn 100. The language is lyrical, the interior lives of all the players are exquisitely and quietly drawn - their talents, their secrets, their fears, their needs, their histories. Best of all, their care of and love for each other. The structure is clever and enticing. I read it very quickly. On my Kindle.

But what a shock when I finished it! Oh there's a titchy little percentage sign down the bottom to tell you how far along the way you are but who looks at that when you're involved? So suddenly it's over! You can't close the book, look back at the cover, read the bit on the back again, flip back to that part where you'd like to check on something again and worse that that, you can't decide who you'll pass it on to next! No clutching it to your chest and thinking 'Sue's going to love this! I can't wait to hand it on.'
So maybe I'll read some things on this new perky little device and other things I'll read in real books. That'll mean I can still browse bookshops for hours on end and never come away empty handed.

I'm sure I'll get used to it, this Kindle device, maybe one day even forget how I ever got by without it. Meanwhile I have this nagging, slightly guilty feeling that I've betrayed someone. Therefore, all those fabulous writers whose books I've loved, and whose next book I await with such anticipation, their work will still end up on my bookshelves, on paper, with the beautiful covers they've agonised over, awaiting the orange spot I stick on the spine to remind myself in the future that I've read it. Then I can still have the joy of physically handing it over to a trusted friend and saying 'You must read this!'


Saturday, 3 March 2018

#Amwriting - at last

I am almost ready to start writing again. I'll stop wittering on about my garden, the things I've cooked, which birds are landing on the bird-feeders this morning. I will stop posting photos of my dogs on Twitter, stop following up endless reading recommendations from writers whose opinions I value and stop checking out obscure opportunities that I could never win in a million years - though that 4-week one in Ireland sounds like fun. (Thanks Varuna Alumni newsletter for making it sound almost feasible!)
So after a six week lay-off where I've written not one creative word, I'm almost ready to tidy the desk, open the notebook to a clean page, check to see that the word count option is still working and hit the keys.
At the very end of January I submitted the final draft (yeah, right, of course it is) of my favourite manuscript to my agent. I had worked 4 or 5 hours a day for most of January on the final edits she sent me just before Christmas - 14 closely typed pages, in 2 sections, several weeks apart. The first section I tackled with gusto - minor queries to be addressed, issue of chronology to be clarified, a few darlings to kill. The second section though made me reel backwards in dismay. Big changes, big deletions, big issues of voice and character to be addressed. Then just when it seemed as if my shoulders might be permanently sagged, she rang me. "Don't be too alarmed," she said, "I just wrote down every thought that came into my head. I love it, I really love it."
So, euphoric, made bold by praise, I started on the second lot of edits and in the following weeks I learned more about writing than I had for the past umpteen years.
When finally I sent off the final draft though, there was no sense of relief or accomplishment, only that paralysing knowledge that it was now out of my hands. It might go nowhere, might never find a home. This significant milestone might signify only the beginning of another long and lonely wait.
But the human spirit in an aspiring writer is indomitable, if you wait long enough. Today I opened up an abandoned manuscript that early readers had loved. It won a few awards, went through some workshopping at RMIT, had some good feedback and some big faults pointed out without mercy. But it's a good story and there's all that stuff I learned while working on the last one. I know the weakness is in the plot and so I'm taking heed of that precious piece of advice from the matchless Cate Kennedy: "Make Things Worse!"
I'm girding my loins - planning to tear apart the plot, delete all that back story, up the tension, make all those poor characters suffer till their hearts bleed. I don't know how I'm going to do it. But I think I'm ready to start.

Wish me luck.


Friday, 5 January 2018

A Sense of Place

I have always believed that there's a certain time of day when you are aware of where you really belong. Not every day, just sometimes.
It happens, this feeling, at that twilight time of day, just before the sun goes down... that lurching, heart swelling feeling that grabs you when you look out the window of a car, a train, a plane and long to be home.
I'm still very attached to the Tweed Valley where I grew up and where my family members still live, including my sister and her husband, with whom I spent a week little while back.
The mountain ranges, the river, the flowering trees, the way most oncoming drivers still lift one finger off the steering wheel in greeting as they pass— all these made me glad to be back.
The Road to Mount Warning

But there's a downside too.
One morning, hastening to get to breakfast, which my brother-in-law, Des, has on the table at 7.30, I grabbed the previous day's denim shorts, stepped one leg in, went to put the other leg in, only to see a giant huntsman spider trying to crawl out from inside. Now, I don't do spiders well but neither do I smash them with a shoe, and clearly this one was in trouble.
I took him outside, shorts and all, called Des and together we freed him from the cobwebs that had bunched up and stuck like Minnie Mouse's shoes on the end of every one of his eight legs.(Lucky for me. This is what slowed him down.)
Then began the tales of other near-misses with the local critters. Des recalled how he pushed a foot into his gardening boot one morning and felt it to be unusually tight. Investigation revealed a cane toad inside, firmly ensconced up in the toe of his boot. (Have you fainted yet? I nearly did.)
So yes, there are indeed more critters up there than I'm used to in Melbourne—spiders, snakes, goannas, cane toads, ticks, to name a few—and they like to get up close and personal. The giant carpet snakes under the corrugated iron roof of their shed are spoken of with some affection.
But the views do indeed make my heart lurch and it's hard to stop taking photos of the flowering trees as well.
Illawarra Flame tree in bloom

All of which leads me to think about writers who write about place and landscape so evocatively that you feel their love for the place in every word.
Tim Winton has to be top of the list. In all of his novels he evokes a sense of place that is almost palpable.
He urges us to feel the ground beneath our feet wherever we are, to see the landscape as a living entity and to stop moving long enough to hear what it's telling us.

If I'd been listening it might have warned me about that big spider.


Tuesday, 19 December 2017

'Tis the Season (to hide bad stuff from your dog.)

I've just finished a very long phone call with my dear friend Kathy in Brisbane, during which we reminisced about bad things that our dogs had done at Christmas time. We were younger then, working mad hours, trying to fit in everything that life could provide. So maybe vigilance and care went out the window from time to time.
This conversation arose out of Kathy telling me that one of their gorgeous dogs, Buster, companion to Betsy, just stole and ate half of this year's home-made Christmas pudding. Her husband Peter, who is a bit of a chef extraordinaire, had cooked it and I don't doubt that it was divine, the result of hours, maybe days, of preparation. Buster—tall enough to reach the top of tables and benches—obviously thought so too. Hard to believe this angelic face (below) could be such an opportunistic thief...
Buster - Pudding Thief

This led to the memory of another near disaster one Christmas when Grace, a sweet and virtuous spaniel of ours, wreaked havoc with the ingredients of one of those chocolate Christmas trees that were all the rage a while back. I'd bought the ingredients on the way home - peanuts, marshmallows, icing sugar, glacé cherries and chocolate - and, after a long day at work, dumped the supermarket bags carelessly on the floor of the dining room. We awoke the next morning to the whole house decorated with swirling trails of icing sugar and torn cellophane bags strewn across the floors, spilling out the remnants of all the above ingredients. We do know by now that cocker spaniels have the guts of billy goats which must be why the beautiful Grace didn't even get sick.
However our backyard was peppered with peanut-laden dog poo for days after, with the odd undigested glacé cherry for colour.
I'm much more careful these days.

Solomon and Grace - 'It wozzn't her!'

The other memorable doggy disaster was at the hands - paws - of a later, beautiful black spaniel called Otto.
Otto was a gentleman and a scholar whose good manners and behaviour put the other two dogs to shame. He was obedient, calm, beautiful and loving but sadly—the one glitch in the glowing list of attributes—a determined thief. He too somehow accessed the Christmas pudding while we were out that day and ate half of it. However, we had no evidence of which one of the three—a golden spaniel called Tessa, a cute terrier-cross called Vince, or the angelic Otto himself—was the culprit.
I lined them all up with stern commands to 'sit' and smelt their respective breaths.
And Otto it was - no contest. He proved to be a bit queasy that day but the vet found no lasting ill-effects.
Otto, Tessa and Vince - the angelic one on the left, pudding thief.

I'm super vigilant now and count my lucky stars that none of these doggy misdemeanours ended badly, as they might have done. But as I've called this blog Reading, Writing and a Few Dog Stories, I suspect I'll never run out of material.
Happy Christmas to you and may your dog have no access to bad things during the festive season.


Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Water Diviner

Sometimes known as dowsing, the art of locating underground water with the aid of a divining rod has been subjected to scepticism, disbelief and often ridicule over the years. I listened a few years ago to some scathing Melbourne shock-jock enjoy himself on the airwaves, ridiculing the art, until I realised that someone must have accidentally bumped the dial off the ABC and then I got rid of him.
But I can understand people being sceptical. The process requires a person to walk across the ground with a divining rod - sticks or wire - until the rod of its own accord pulls unmistakably downwards, giving a clue to the diviner that there should be water in that place somewhere below ground.

My Dad was a water diviner though as far as I can remember he never said the words. It was just something he did. We lived out in the country with a bank of willow trees growing down past the back stairs. (It was under these willow trees that beloved cats would be buried when their time had come and where I would weep and wail and lay flowers for weeks on end until someone inevitably found me another.)

But the first my mother would know about Dad's next assignment (he never took, nor was offered, money) was when he would come up the steps stripping bark off a forked willow stick with his pocket knife. Then the conversation would begin with something like -
'Yeah, old Bluey Traves has got hold of a new bit of land up the back of Chillingham. Wants me to see if it's got water.'

And sometimes, if I pestered long enough, I would be allowed go with him. The stripped willow stick always had a distinctive smell that I couldn't describe now but could certainly recognise. Why it had to be stripped of bark I don't know. So once on Bluey's land Dad would start to walk very slowly, holding the forked stick exactly as above, pacing back and forwards across the acreage until, hopefully—not always—the stick would start to quiver then be pulled down unmistakably towards the earth. After he'd checked and double-checked he would give a nod to the men waiting away at the fence line and some time in the next few days the digging would begin.
The deep freshwater well on our own property back then was found this way shortly after my folks had bought the land but before they'd built the house. Spring water was the prize, supplementing the tank water that might be erratic in both supply and quality - wrigglers and the occasional dead frog notwithstanding.

So I get a bit tetchy with the sceptics. My Dad's water divining services were taken for granted for years. It's just one of the things he was called upon to do. He was the only one I knew in the district but there could have been others. No-one made a fuss, plenty of sources of water were found as new land was bought up around the district.
It was a long time ago and Dad is long since gone. I never heard of any scepticism at the time and if he was present to hear it now he'd just shrug, grin and not waste a word in defence of this old, old art. Which is what I do too.
 I know what I know.


Saturday, 4 November 2017

Change of Plans

I'm not much of a traveller. Three weeks away and I get small niggles of wanting to come home. I occasionally have fleeting fantasies about heading off for months on end to see all of Australia but I don't think I'd last long. I'm a nester. Books, cooking for loved ones, big fat couches, open fires, a dog or two across my lap. And on a recent and wondrous jaunt around Western Australia I learnt that for me, coming home within Australia is different from coming home from overseas. The latter always seems to feature exhaustion, blocked ears and the risk of losing the will to live before you make it out of the airport. The former, like flying in across the Great Australian Bight a few weeks ago, really makes you think.
We'd seen beautiful new things, taken a zillion photos and stood in strange places that filled the soul with wonder.
Vlamingh Head Lighthouse, Exmouth, W.A.
At this place (left) we met a family who'd also gone up on the point to watch the sun set and their two little kids were alive with excitement at the prospect. Not an iPad in sight. That made me think.

The flight in from Perth is a mere 4 hours, nothing like the interminable journey from Europe. But it evoked in me feelings that might best be described by a word I discovered only a few years ago -

Sensucht - which is sometimes described as a deep and nebulous yearning for something we cannot even identify.
I had a window seat on the way home and it was daylight so I peered out the window for most of the way. Seeing the country fold away beneath me made me think about life and death, friends old and new, the future, the past and what it meant to come home. Most of all it made me think of what I wanted to do when I got there.

For years now I've aspired to write. Ha! Who hasn't? I've had some successes, a few large, quite a few small, but staring out the window of the plane what came to mind was a tweet that went around a while back, and I apologise for not being able to acknowledge the author. What she said was something like "My friend asked me what it was like to be a writer, so now I wake her every night at 3 am and tell her she's not good enough."
I was over the moon back in March when an email came from a reputable literary agent saying they'd read my manuscript, they loved it and they'd get back to me with "a few tiny edits" (I know the email by heart) in a week or two, then get it out to publishers. Bio provided, contract signed. Nearly 8 months later I'm still waiting. I know how busy agents get, how much reading they must to do, how many people clamouring for their services. Still - monumentally disappointing
So my plan when the plane hit the ground was to quit writing altogether: to reacquaint myself with friends I may have neglected, to reshape my big rambling garden, to revisit the many other creative pursuits I used to love before I got the writing bug. Since then I've had an offer of publication of a non-fiction piece from The Big Issue and news of a place on the Scarlet Stiletto shortlist. Great fun but is it enough? And does that question make me a quitter or a realist?
I'm aware of being a bit of an Eeyore about this and I might change my mind.

Meanwhile I'm hoping my friends & family will love me anyway. I know my dog will.


Friday, 1 September 2017

Would you read this for me please?

I'm so reluctant to ask this question. The reasons to refrain from doing so multiply the longer I wait.
"I can't ask X because...

  1. He/she is so busy 
  2. It's not ready to be seen yet
  3. What if he/she hates it and is too polite to say?
  4. He/she writes very different stuff from mine...
  5. I'd rather take my clothes off and run down Bourke Street than show this to anyone"

The worst experience of all - after all this procrastination and excuse-making - is to ask someone to read what you've written and then never hear from them again. Oh, the shame! And if you do hear from them on another matter, the thorny issue of your current manuscript is not even mentioned. Nothing. I for one don't have the courage to say 'Anyway, did you ever get around to reading the chapters I sent you?' What good could possibly come of this? The optional answers are:

  1. Yes I read it and thought it was rubbish
  2. Oh no, sorry, I forgot all about it
  3. Well yes, I started it and then sort of got sidetracked
I ran a complex plot-problem past my spouse once when we were out walking the dogs, explaining my dilemma in detail. We walked on in silence for a while and then he said "Have we got any of that white crusty bread left?" So no, family may not be the answer for everyone.

I love reading other people's work. This week I asked a friend and fellow-writer if I could read her whole manuscript - well, as far as she'd gone. I've been acquainted with random bits of it via writers' group workshopping sessions for a while now but could never get my head around who was who and where they fitted. So she sent me the lot and what a thrill it was for me to read it all. She was pleased too. It's very good. There are characters I immediately sided with, some I hated and others I was wildly curious about. I'll probably nag her a bit from now on to see where it's going. I hope I don't become a pest.

But I've totally solved the problem of who to get to read my Work-in-Progress. I get one of my best friends in the whole world who is also helplessly honest and—best of all—a voracious reader. The fact that she's as busy as a bunch of bees in a bottle doesn't deter her. She doesn't give the time of day to a misplaced semi-colon, repeated words or the odd dangling modifier. What she sees are plot-line hazards, discrepancies that I've missed and possibilities that might never have crossed my mind. And she makes suggestions fitting to a reader who's used to having her reading needs satisfied.
  1. What if X did come back in the end?
  2. Instead of Y being unable to find the stalker, what if there was no stalker?
  3. I think everyone will want to know more about Jack. 
and so on....
So here's to you K.W. I am more grateful than I can say for your conscientious input, your insight and your honesty.

I value it more than I can say and I hope one day it all pays off, for both of us.