How many miles to Babylon?

rocksAnd what’s that in kilometres?

Or in leagues?

There’s no avoiding the grim reality that I have to nail down the details of the world for a soon-to-be first draft. No more faking it – it’s tipped 99000 words now, so I can’t avoid it anymore.

Don’t worry, I have a map. (Come on, it’s a fantasy world, of course I have a map!)

So far, so easy, I hear you thinking.

But it’s one thing to look at a map, and know where things are in relation to everything else, and it’s another thing to have a sense of the scale of those things. Anyone who is used to driving in a country the size of Australia (or Canada, or the USA, I’m sure) who has found themselves five villages, or a whole county, past the town they wanted , when driving in the UK, knows what I’m talking about.

And then, my questions start: how long would it take to get there by horse? What about in a boat? Or on foot?

Each question has a whole subset of additional questions: what are the roads like? How healthy is the horse? Is there a convenient bridge or ford? Is it a sailing ship or a row boat? What are the currents like? What is the season and how does that effect travel? If a Roman soldier could do 20 Roman miles (not our miles) in five summer hours (not our hours) with a 20 kilogram pack, then how many kilometres could someone reasonably cover in an unloaded, forced march? By what margin would a messenger pigeon beat a horse rider carrying the same message? What exactly is the airspeed velocity of a European swallow?

All I can say is thank goodness for the internet. All the answers to my questions are there – it’s just a matter of pulling them together and making sense of them. I only need to do a little loin girding, and get on with it.

Good luck with your current challenge, whether it is writerly, editorial, or otherwise. Mine is utterly cartographic – Carpe charta!

Oh, and if you ever wondered, the average cruising airspeed velocity of an unladen European Swallow is roughly 11 metres per second, or 24 miles an hour (or, perhaps, only 20 miles an hour – the maths is here. )

 

 

Indulgent and satisfying – The Chocolate Tin by Fiona McIntosh

chocolate-tin

I’m a fan of Fiona McIntosh as a reader, a librarian, and as a writer, but her new book takes the biscuit.

Let me explain:

As a reader I have been completely lost in quite a few of Fiona’s books. She has a fabulous knack of wrapping you up in the story (full sensory immersion) so when I turn the last page I look up at the real world and have to blink and stumble around for five minutes or so because it just doesn’t align with where my head has been. Which is exactly how a good book is supposed to mess with you.

As a librarian, it was an absolute delight having Fiona come to the library as part of her book tours. I have never seen a more engaging author draw a crowd into the story behind a book. She had people, literally, on the edge of their seat, in tears, or gasping with laughter – she is a just a natural storyteller, and so much fun.

Fiona is currently touring for The Chocolate Tin, so check out the schedule and go and see her if she is anywhere near you. I’ll be driving the two hours to catch her at Bowral, because I know it will absolutely be worth it.

As a writer, I attended Fiona’s 5 day masterclass, and it was, quite simply, life changing. She convinced me to take my writing seriously and was so inspiring, supportive, and, yes, tough and realistic. The commercial fiction masterclasses for 2017 are already fully booked, but you can find out about the 2018 ones, and more, at Fiona’s website.

But the biscuit? Well, the beautiful fact is, that if you buy a copy of The Chocolate Tin, you can enter Penguin’s competition to win a trip for two to York. That would be fabulous.

So, that’s my copy in the image above, alongside some vintage chocolate tins, and some not so vintage chocolates that will be accompanying me on my trip into Fiona’s story. And on my trip to York?

Oh, fingers crossed…

Clever, charming, and thoroughly louche

rowland

Why, of course, it’s Mr Rowland Sinclair, and his disreputable companions.

And if you love damn fine storytelling – it’s an enthralling series of Australian historical crime – have I got a deal for you. Or, more accurately, the clever, charming, and thoroughly irrepressible, author – Sulari Gentill – has the fabulous deal, and I’m just bringing it to your attention.

The seventh Rowland Sinclair mystery, Give the Devil His Due, was published a year ago, and I’ve just recently binge-read the series (which involved re-reading some of the earlier books, and the first time reading the later). They’re so good. I love the flawed characters, and the relationships between Rowly and his friends, and especially between Rowly and his brother. I love the understated humour. I love the way the books look at the complex politics of the 1930s, with the realities of the Depression, the global rise of Fascism, and the fear of Communism – all seen through the filter of Rowly’s wish to just paint portraits.

Sulari is a fabulous writer, and a delightful person, and the gasps of horror she can elicit at writers’ festivals by confessing she writes, in her pyjamas, in front of the television, is hilarious. Pantera Press publishes her books in Australia, and Poisoned Pen Press is releasing her backlog of Rowly’s adventures in the USA, and even though it is written, readers will have to wait until next September for the release of the 8th novel.

To alleviate disappointment, and because she is magnificent, Sulari has written and released a free novella, The Prodigal Son.

You can download it here: http://www.rowlandsinclairnovella.com/

It’s a prequel to the series, so I’m going to go grab it right now, and settle in to enjoy a little more time in the company of Rowland Sinclair and his Bohemian friends. Why not do the same? And then, if you haven’t already, you can hunt down a copy of A Few Right Thinking Men and read the whole series.

I thoroughly recommend it.

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Time is relative(ly annoying) to the observer

Buddha in Daylesford

Did you notice we’re almost out of October?

It snuck up on me, like it always does.

It’s been observed, and duly noted, that my time management skills are poor. Well, really, it’s the task management that’s the problem, because there’s not much to be done about the inexorable march of time. There is goes, duly measured and alloted, whizzing by.

So… tasks. A review might help, I suppose:

  1. MS 1 is currently in the painful throes of its second rewrite/third version, which is 20,000 words shorter than version 1. It’s better, I know it’s better, but it’s not done yet and (whining) it’s hard.
  2. MS 2 is finished, but kind of a dead albatross. Thankfully, it’s in a cardboard box, rather than hanging around my neck. I may be able to rescue it, later, but right now I’m not thinking about it. At all.
  3. MS 3 is finished, but as the sequel to MS 1, it will also need a good, hard edit.
  4. MS 4 is so close to finished it hurts. 5000 more words, tops. And then the first draft will be done and about 8000 words more than I wanted it to be so, hello, more hack, slash, edit and rewrite.
  5. MS 5 is just an idea… and a lot of handwritten notes, and a mostly empty Word document, and a character sitting in the back of my head saying ‘Write about me, write my story, now!’, while all her friends stand behind her waving their arms around like a demented Greek chorus indulging in a spot of interpretative dance, skrieking ‘Me too!’. It’s so helpful.

All in all, though, it’s not bad, as far as time usage goes, when I remember that, two years ago, I had never finished a manuscript.

I’d like to get some stuff finished before the end of the year, because, you know … end of the year, psychological deadline reasons.

But, there are only 66 days left in the year.

Annoying. That doesn’t sound like much.

Luckily, there are 1597 hours, and six minutes, remaining before the end of 2016. Clearly, I just need to prioritise my tasks to make the best use of those hours:

  1. finish the rewrite of MS 1 and resubmit for consideration
  2. finish the first draft of MS 4
  3. slap a handy 30000 words into MS 5 so as to get my creative brain to shut the hell up and stop whinging about having to do edits
  4. the rest of that life stuff

No worries! Let’s get cracking, then…

The sound of silence

plate

Those who know me, know that silence is not really my thing. The challenge is not so much to get me talking, as to shut me up.

So it probably won’t come as much of a surprise to let you know that last night I was awarded the Australian Rostrum (ACT) Freeman Colin Johns Trophy for the New Speaker of the Year.

(Well, new to Rostrum, if not exactly new to speaking.)

The topic was silence, and one of the really fun things about public speaking competitions is to see how everyone interprets the topic differently.

Here’s what I had to say on silence:

Silence is not golden.

Silence is dangerous.

It is the tool of tyranny, the insidious weapon of oppression that smothers dissent like a toxic gas and maintains the illusion of homogenous conformity.

Ladies and gentlemen, I can see that you are all charming, intelligent people. I think that in all likelihood I am preaching to the choir. But is case you are in any doubt on the dangers of silence, let’s consider how we are lured into it, how as Paul Simon warned us, silence like a cancer grows.

In the 1950s psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a series of experiments that purported to be about visual perception, but instead tested whether people would conform with a majority decision.

36.8% of responses agreed with a deliberately incorrect majority and 75% of participants conformed in one or more of the tests, doubting their own judgment as the tests progressed and becoming increasingly uncomfortable with being out of step with the majority.

They were more comfortable agreeing with something that they knew to be wrong, than going against the group consensus.

If I told you that this chair was a pelican, and everyone else in the room agreed that, yes, it was obviously a pelican, would you be willing to stand up and say “no, it’s a chair.”

Asch’s Paradigm indicated that 5% of people would, straight up agree it’s a pelican, and that up to 75% could be convinced to indicate their agreement.

Now, Asch’s experiment was in regard to the relative length of some lines drawn on pieces of card. The more controversial the issue, the less likely people are to speak out.

The spiral of silence theory explains that people will not speak out when there is a difference between what they believe and what they perceive to be public opinion.

Human beings are social animals, and because of it we can be controlled.

Our fear of isolation motivates us to conform to a perceived social norm.

And where does that lead us when our social norms are depicted, or indeed dictated, through mass media, or propaganda that silences and divides us and apportions blame to a marginalised ‘other’.  History has shown us time and time again.

War. Genocide. Destruction. Have we learned our lesson?

We must speak. We must be willing to risk social isolation, to risk scorn and ridicule, to risk abuse and indeed attack.  Everyone from Plato to John Stuart Mill to Tolstoy to Einstein has said it, in one form or another: The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. For us to be silent.

Those willing to break the spiral of silence are the non-conformists who don’t care if something is public opinion, they look to its merits and speak against it if it is wrong.

Raise your hand, raise your voice, take that risk

Do you think your opinion doesn’t count?

Do you think that other voices should be prioritised above your own?

Are you silent because you want to avoid conflict?

You might feel that you are freely choosing not to speak, but perhaps self-silencing beliefs inform that choice.  There is no surer method of oppression than to convince the oppressed that their opinions do not count, will not be heard, and so should not even be voiced.

I want you to think for a moment about how social inequality causes self-silencing, and forces marginalised people into the spiral of silence.

You are non-conformists – you will speak out.

Before you do, imagine yourself not within the spiral, but at the centre of a series of circles. You are the point of commonality in a complex Venn diagram that maps your lived experience, that reflects the groups you belong to. Some of those groups might be obvious – visual cues such as the colour of your skin, or the clothes you wear will reveal them. Others are hidden – but you know them because they are a part of you.

Age, gender, sex, sexuality, morality, nationality, occupation, education, family, faith, creed, and colour.

Look to the person beside you. You see some of those visual cues. Do not think, for one moment, that their set of circles is any less complex than yours.

Now, consider the “Everyman” who stands at the centre of a set of circles that map our society’s perception of ‘the norm’. Those unearned assets – a Venn diagram of privilege.

He is a man, aligned to the male gender.

He is white.

He is heterosexual.

He is able-bodied, attractive, fit, healthy, wealthy and, if not necessarily wise, at least educated and within the parameters of mental wellness.

He is a Christian, most probably a Protestant.

He has a house and a job, and a regular income.

At how many points do the circles of your Venn diagram overlap with his? From how many points of privilege do you speak? You might not even realise how lucky you are, but I would encourage you to think about how willing our society might be to prioritise your voice and your opinions, because of that privilege.

Spiderman says, paraphrasing everyone from Lord Melbourne to Franklin Roosevelt, that with great power comes great responsibility.

Use your privilege for good, instead of evil.

Use your voice.

Do not be silent because your opinion is different to public opinion.

Do not be silent because you have learned to self-silence and prioritise the voice of others.

Do not be silent because you speak from privilege, but know that you do so.

Silence is dangerous, but you can break it, and your voice can make things better for those who are too afraid to speak.

I’d like to leave you with the words of Audre Lorde, an African-American activist and self-declared ‘lesbian mother warrior poet’ who said:

I write for those who do not speak, for those who do not have a voice because they’re so terrified, because we are taught to respect fear more than ourselves. We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t.

The sunny side up of no

rejectionI’ve been rejected.

Well, not me, per se, but two of my manuscripts.

I’d sent the first few chapters, and a synopsis, to open calls for submissions to UK-based publishing houses. For my historical fiction with elements of fantasy, I received a polite note from Gollancz to the effect that it’s a ‘neat’ idea, but they don’t want it. For my YA urban fantasy, Hodder & Stoughton sent an email saying it had gone through to the stage where more than one person had read it, and liked it, but they don’t want it.

I’m still waiting to hear back on another submission for one of the manuscripts, and, you know, hope springs eternal, etc, etc, but, honestly, I love those stories and it makes me sad to see them rejected.

On the plus side, though, what’s a writer without a few good rejection stories, hey?

I know (tick all that apply) – happy, – smug, – published,  – validated, – celebrating.

So, one year and one month later and I’m not yet eating my masterclass chocolate frog that I promised myself would be my reward for becoming a published author. Damn it all – I should have promised myself that treat just for finishing writing a book, but thus speaks the wisdom of hindsight.

Anyway, no wallowing in self-doubt, self-recriminations or sulfuric acid. If you look carefully at the image above you’ll see my green Fiona McIntosh Masterclass pen has acquired a bend. But it’s not a broken pen – it’s the world smacking me on the side of the head with a metaphor.

The pen was on loan to my adorable spawnlet, and he somehow managed to crush it in the folding seat mechanism of the back of the car. But – here’s the sunny side thing – it still writes. Really well. And it still clicks in and out. And now it kind of hugs my hand a little bit, as I use it. Nice.

I could say it was a happy accident. I could say that, like Fiona, her pen exhibits grace under pressure, resilience and persistence. But, instead, I tell you – I AM THE PEN. A little bit crushed and bent (by rejection) but still writing. Really well.

The landscapes of writing

panorama near PastoriaI know some people hate driving, especially long roadtrips.  I love them for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that they’re great for writing.

On Monday, I did a 7 hour round trip to Orange, which is living up to its name, and throwing in a whole extra palette of reds and golds and yellows, with its glorious autumn display. For that I had company, so my unsuspecting passenger go to be a sounding board for working through ideas on character development. Well, that’s not entirely true – the ‘unsuspecting’ part – my family are used to it by now.

For most of my recent trip, to the Clare Valley, I was by myself. I know a lot has been said about the allure of the open road rolling out before you, but I’d like to add that there’s something very satisfying about solitude + speed + very loud music. That might sound reckless, but I’m tediously law-abiding. The speed limit is speedy enough, especially if I put the windows down and scream sing Five Finger Death Punch or Nick Cave songs to fields full of sheep. They don’t seem to mind.

Of course, it’s not all fun and games and Whiskey in the Jar. I bought the worst coffee I have purchased in years from Horsham and then had the early morning torment of needing the caffeine but not wanting to drink anything that bad. Oh, don’t worry, the siren song of sweet caffeine was way stronger than the sensibilities of my taste buds. Reader, I drank it.giant koala

And then feared for my sanity when I encountered … this … thing …

But, traumatic as that was, it’s all grist for the mill for writing. There’s a lot of inspiration to be drawn from a landscape, and I drove through some beauties. One of the reasons why writers need to go to the place where their story is set, is totally not because travel becomes a tax deduction. It’s to soak up the sense of the place. This is especially awesome if you are writing something set in a real-world place which is beautiful and has great coffee.

Manuscript number four started out, years ago, when I wrote down a dream I had about the sort of wedding jewellery they wore in Arlvagne, and their barren queen who longed for a child. Yes, it came complete with the country name and, no, there’s no such place, so I figured it was fantasy.

So, obviously, dragons. Check.

And a world. Bother.

My roadtrip involved 3,250 km of driving around the back of the Snowy Mountains, down to Melbourne, then west past the Grampians and over the Murray River, into South Australia, through Adelaide and up to the Clare Valley. After the weekend I stayed in Hahndorf, and then Ballarat.  From that lovely old gold-mining town I headed through Daylesford to Kyneton.

I had some great-great-ancestral types out that way and I drove past their old property at Pastoria.  I was almost lost when I missed a quick left, then right, turn over the Burke and Wills Track (ah, the irony – inept explorers FTW) and then I was paced by a camouflaged APC in Puckapunyal before I rejoined the motorway heading north again.

As I went, I thought about my story and the landscape of the world where it takes place. I noticed the way that the white trunks of the gums can catch the light and look like rows of bones, lined up on the hill. I noticed that the bark of the red mallee hangs in wretched strips like flayed skin, with the livid trunk of the tree smooth beneath it. I noticed the granite rock formations that jut out of the soil, the grass growing up to lap at their edges, and the sheep that graze among them, almost indistinguishable from the stones.

These are the rocks and bones that will make a true foundation for whatever flights of fantasy I want to add in building a landscape for the world I’m writing. It’s not the same process as writing about a real place. I don’t want to just cut out a patch of the Mallee region, or a wedge of the Macedon Ranges and slap it onto the map.

But the landscape that is emerging, as I write, has definitely been influenced by the places I drove through because the mechanics of driving – of watching the road, the other drivers, speed, steering, all that stuff – only takes up a bit of my brain.

The rest is noticing details of the landscape,  thinking about the story and, like any writer, wondering “what if…”

The fermentation of first drafts

draft3

Recently, I spent a weekend in Auburn, in the beautiful Clare Valley in South Australia, with the ever-inspirational author Fiona McIntosh, a team of industry experts, and a great bunch of writers. It was fabulous – the company, the information, the conversation, the weather, the food, the coffee, the autumnal colours – everything really.

I have no doubt that the wine, provided by local vineyard Taylors, was also fabulous, but I did not partake. I was told once, by a toffee-nosed snob selling fizz at a Victorian cellar-door, that I have an “unsophisticated Queensland palate” because I said I don’t much like wine. Cheers, bitch!

Anyway, I understand the concept, so I’m going to try out a wine metaphor here. You can correct me in the comments (or call me unsophisticated, I’m good with it).

Before I went on my roadtrip, I finished the first draft of my latest manuscript (let’s call her number three). I printed her out, handed her over to a couple of trusted people for general feedback, and put her out of my mind. That was OK. I had to do some serious culling of manuscript number one to dent the word count and tighten up the pace. A week later, I was twitchy to look at number three again. I had to take something away with me to work on at a writing weekend, right?

But, and here’s that wine metaphor, drafts need time to ferment. You can’t just rush in there and bottle the stuff, and say it’s done. The bottle will explode. Or, wait, is that ginger beer?

Maybe.

Alright, then, drafts, like wine, need time to age.

When I’ve just finished writing something I’m way too close to it to look at it critically. I’m still inside that character’s head, caught up in her drama, and I can’t see the story’s structure, theme, pacing, or anything else I need to be objective about, for all the feels. I need some air. The draft needs some time.

I gave myself a month, minimum, before I picked up number three again.

But, like I said, I was twitchy as hell for something to work on. So I dug out an old story idea. I’m not entirely certain how old it is, but I remember thinking when those Pandora circular charm bracelets first came out ‘oh, that’s like the anniversary bands on the wedding bracelets in Arlvagne in that old story I started.’ Yeah.

Anyway, I turned it around, shook it up, and still had 10,000 words in the file. So I’ve been writing more. I thought about the plot while I was driving, and typed it up at night. I’ve written more every day since I got home. I’ve slipped over into that skin and given myself some space from number three. My draft’s month of fermenting, or aging, or breathing, is up today, and in the meanwhile I’ve slapped an extra 22,500 words into what is shaping up nicely to be manuscript number four.

If I wasn’t so damn unsophisticated, I’d crack open a bottle of wine to celebrate.

Time after timeline

KITTEN

The current work in progress is nearing completion, and a recent revision identified a problem.

Time.

Oh, sure, the older I get, the quicker it goes, but that’s only a problem with the writing, not with the work itself. I think that nowhere is time’s ability to be mutable more obvious than in a work of fiction. A writer can devote pages and pages of prose to describing something that occurs in a second, or can leap across years, decades, even millennia in a single sentence.

You may be familiar with the concept that time is relative to the observer. (And, can I just add that I love the train and bicycle thought experiment that Einstein used, to help the good folk who hang around a few standard deviations closer to the mean, to conceptualise what the hell he was on about.) As a reader you’ve no doubt experienced that time in fiction is relative to the reader. How many books have you read where the passage of real time becomes irrelevant as the book takes over your brain. It doesn’t matter that you are spending real time hours reading – your reading brain is spending months walking the war-torn streets of St Petersburg, or years growing up outcast on a remote, frost-riven promontory, or decades following the fortunes of a grazing family.

But, and I should have made that bigger, because it is a big but, it has to make internal sense.

A writer can mess with time, just as we can mess with the laws of physics and causality and anything else, but it has to be internally consistent.

I checked my timeline, because, while it doesn’t really matter whether the two-headed pig-kitten was born on a Tuesday or a Thursday, it does matter if one of my characters whispers, while the rest of the congregation is singing ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ that Sunday, ‘I was washing my socks three days ago, when that monstrous abomination was birthed’. Do I want that character to look like a fool who can’t count to three, or to imply that here we have a very unreliable narrator, with a laudanum habit that has seriously impaired their already hazy grasp of the days of the week? If the answer is no, I need to pin the event down in a timeline.

Also, for dialogue to seem natural, characters need to be able to refer to time in all sorts of ways.

‘How long have you been in these parts?’ might be answered with ‘ten days’, ‘since Tuesday last week’, ‘I arrived on the sixteenth’, ‘it was the day after St Swithin’s day that I first set foot in this God-forsaken hellhole’, or ‘I think you’ll find, that’s none of your business.’

They all have to be correct. The penultimate example is particularly tricky:

If I say that Lord Frobisher’s impetigo prevented him from attending the Hellfire Club’s St Agnes’ Eve Bake Sale, and six weeks later he’s worried it will keep him from dancing a quadrille with Miss Smaagstrom at Lord Barr’s Burns’ Night Ball, then I’m in trouble. Not only should I Google impetigo, but I’ve mauled my timeline. It doesn’t matter that it sounds fine, it’s not. St Agnes’ Eve is January 20 and Burns’ Night is January 25, and there’s no way I can make that look like six weeks between them. Time might be flexible in fiction, but it should never be stupid.

So, I’ve tightened up my timeline, moved the village market day to Wednesday, and realised I need to check the Anglican service for the third week after Trinity Sunday, not the second. I know, right? It’s taken a fair bit of real time, and it was time that I wasn’t really writing, but losing six days has done wonders for the flow of events, and maintaining rising tension, so I feel it was time well spent.

(NB: no bicephalous pig-kittens were harmed in the writing of this post.)

Hold the phone!

public phoneIn breaking news, it turns out that I can’t move house and finish my novel at the same time.

This isn’t really news to anyone. Moving is one of those life events that everyone acknowledges is about as stressful as nailing one’s intestines to a tree and then running around and around it until you die.

So, maybe not quite that stressful. But uncannily close.

I’m moving in a week. There’s a lot more of my things packed in boxes in the garage than in the house, and yet there still seems to be an awful lot of stuff in the house. There’s a long, long list of Things That Must Be Done, with deadlines. I’m worrying about packing logistics and notifications and all the rest of it. I’m tired and grumpy and stressed.

And I just want to write. I can’t stop thinking about my current work in progress, and, worse, far worse, about the next book. I sneaked a little writing session in today, just so I could get some of the characters’ dialogue out of my head and into the document before it starts leaking out of my ears.

One week to the move. Then there’s the unpacking and the sorting things out. Then, oh then, I’ve promised myself a new writing space and a couple of weeks of glorious, unfettered writing.

Eyes on the prize, and on we go.