Review: “The Idea of Perfection” by Kate Grenville – Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

14.04.23 Idea of Perfection coverWinner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2001 (now the Baileys Women’s Prize), The Idea of Perfection is in fact a novel about human (and architectural) imperfection in its many guises. The book’s two central characters are about as removed from the idea of perfection as you could imagine. Douglas Cheeseman is a jug-eared, socially inept bridge engineer who suffers from debilitating vertigo, while Harley Savage is a “big rawboned” museum textiles consultant recovering from a heart attack and three failed marriages. As such, they make for improbable romantic leads, and yet the novel centres around the burgeoning romance between this unlikely pair.

Harley and Douglas have come to the tiny backwater town of Karakarook in NSW for very different reasons – Harley to help establish the Karakarook Pioneer Heritage Museum, and Douglas to pull down the old, warped Bent Bridge and erect a modern replacement. The novel is a study of awkwardness so extreme it at times makes for hilarious reading. Early on in the book, Harley rescues Douglas from a herd of inquisitive cows after Douglas’s tactic of being “as boring as possible” fails to make the bovines lose interest in him. Further on, their first date – to the “oily” tea-room at a scenic look-out point – is toe-curling in the extreme.

The people of Karakarook (population 1,374) are themselves as hotch potch a bunch as you could imagine. There is the old shopkeeper who refuses to sell a bucket from the window display, in case a future customer mistakenly believes the shop does not stock that colour. Felicity the bank manager’s wife rations her facial expressions, for fear that smiling too much may give her wrinkles. And Coralie Henderson works in the Cobwebbe Crafte Shoppe, which sells padded satin coat hangers and crocheted glasses cases, and little else. The attention to detail which Grenville exhibits in creating the little world of Karakarook is second to none, and helps to make the setting and its inhabitants believable. We’ve all driven through a Karakarook at one point or another in our lives, perhaps stopping to fill up on fuel and a meat pie, and wondering idly what it might be like to live in such a place.

However, Grenville treads a careful line between making her characters unwittingly comical, and allowing them to descend into caricature. As with the best comedy, in amongst the humour lies a seam of tragedy, and it is the suffering the characters have endured in their previous lives which helps to make them well-rounded and plausible. Both Harley’s and Douglas’s past misfortunes are revealed to us through candid inner monologues, which help the characters avoid becoming merely objects of our ridicule.

The Idea of Perfection is an engaging, poignant, and funny novel, and one which I thoroughly enjoyed. I may only recently have discovered Kate Grenville‘s work, but I will be keen to read more of her.

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“Mothering and Other Stories” Has Now Been Published!

I am thrilled to announce that my first short story collection, Mothering and Other Stories, is now available as an e-book from the Amazon Kindle Store.

Cover_1_Mothering_largeFeaturing Mothering, winner of the Darker Times Short Story Competition, as well as five previously unpublished tales, Mothering and Other Stories introduces the reader to a universe not quite our own, and where anything is possible.

A woman joins a sinister mothers’ group where all is not as it seems. Mysterious twins promise to deliver all that your heart desires. Two boys encounter an inexplicable force of nature in the Australian bush. A woman bids farewell to her husband, but what secret is she carrying? A mother’s love for her infant daughter threatens to derail her relationship with her husband. A hapless magician must learn the ropes – and cards, and wand – fast. In this collection of strange and spooky stories, nothing is quite as it initially seems, and nobody is who they appear to be.

I hope that you will enjoy reading the stories in this collection. I value and look forward to receiving all feedback. Happy reading!

 

Building Castles: My 3 Rules For Writing

I recently came across the following quote from W. Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” I find it reassuring that such a prolific writer, with twenty novels and hundreds of essays, short stories, travel books and other works to his name, should have confessed to struggling to define the magical formula for writerly success, despite his achievements in this field.

When I write, I try not to think of the rules. All writers know the basic ones. Plot. Character. Convincing dialogue. Yes, yes, yes. But, once we feel confident of having mastered these basics, what do we do with them? How do we transform the enormous, perfectly formed but almost indefinable idea for a book which is in our head into a coherent narrative, and maintain it over tens of thousands of words? In his excellent book On Writing, Stephen King likens the unwritten story to a fossil which the author must slowly and gently tease from the soil’s grasp, brushstroke by agonising brushstroke. But even King admits to not fully understanding what makes good fiction work, including his own.

If I were to pick my own three rules for writing, based upon personal experience – and assuming that the usual rules involving plot, character and other technical matters have been taken as understood – they would be the following:

1. Just Get On With It
14.04.08 Ray BradburyDay-dreaming about writing, and talking about writing, are not writing. Yes, getting those initial words on paper can be excruciating. You may struggle to form basic sentences, or you may go off on a 5000-word tangent which, while great jinks at the time, does not advance the narrative of your novel one iota. And yes, some of the stuff you read back to yourself will be cringeworthily bad. But that doesn’t matter. Truly. As American author Shannon Hale puts it in one of my all-time favourite writing quotes, “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

It is reassuring to remember that while you are in the process of getting the tumult of ideas down onto paper or screen during the first draft process, it is okay to write bad prose, as long as you are writing something. It is far easier to edit a whole lot of mangled writing than it is to edit nothing at all, because you spent three hours trying to find the perfect word for ‘nice’. Just put down nice and move on. There will be plenty of time for theasaurus-browsing later on, but with nice down on paper you will be halfway towards success. And success, as we all know, means Getting The Job Done. Because while there are plenty of fairly average books out there in print, no publisher is going to be interested in a half-finished novel, no matter how felicitous, copacetic, or pulchritudinous it may be.

2. Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew
Don’t promise yourself that you will finish your novel in a month, or six months, or even a year. When the deadline rolls around and you’re nowhere near completion, you will feel disheartened. Similarily, don’t go all gung-ho on yourself and commit to putting down14.04.08 Word Count 5000 words a day – not at first, anyway. 5000 words is a lot. Heck, it’s longer than most of the short stories I have written. 1000 words is a perfectly decent amount to get you started, and if you can write 1000 words – be they good, bad or plain ugly – every day, five days a week, in a year you will have 260,000 words. Of course, you probably won’t, because 260,000 words would give you a novel over 800 pages long to edit, and therein madness lies (besides, novels of this length are generally considered by publishers as being comercially unviable). However, it does mean you will have a 65,000 word first draft completed in three months, leaving you the rest of the year to try and shape that sand mound into a castle through subsequent drafting.

14.04.08 ElephantMy own, personal novel writing goal for when I get back to writing following maternity leave will be to write 500 words per day, five days per week. 500 words is nothing, less than half the length of this blog post. It took me half an hour to thump out the first 500 words of the first draft of this post (please bear in mind that polishing that lumpen prose took a lot, lot longer, but worry about the editing later, once the sand has been piled up). And yet, if I write 500 words per day, five days per week, I will have the second draft of my poor, neglected opus completed within six months. Peasy!

Furthermore, since my overall weekly goal is only 2500 words per week, I can easily miss a day and catch up later, without falling short of my overall target and becoming disheartened. Small, realistic goals are much more likely to be achieved consistently, which will give you the confidence to return to the keyboard (or the notepad or the papyrus, or whatever) tomorrow. All music to the ears of this soon-to-be mother of two-under-two.

3. Enter the Zen zone
The Zen zone is where the magic happens – 14.04.08 Zen Frog_cropwhere your characters comes alive and begin to lead you on a journey of their own choosing, rather than you doggedly trying to force them to follow a strict plotline mapped out in your head. The Zen zone is a beautiful, liberating place to write from, and it took me years before I learned to let go of my right-brained, ‘on-the-surface’ writing and allow myself to enter that mysterious place where time appears to stop and I am no longer at my desk, but instead running breathlessly alongside my characters as they take me on unexpected pathways through the stormy narrative of their lives. It is a feeling mildly akin to becoming lost in the reading of a fantastic story, but oh, so much better.

This may seem paradoxical coming after what I wrote above about how torturous spitting those initial words out of your brain onto paper or screen can be. But writing is only hard work when you try to force it (or when you are editing, but that’s a whole other matter). And if everything I’ve written still makes no sense to you, well, never mind. As W. Somerset Maugham said, nobody knows the rules. If they did, then we’d have computers writing novels by now. It really is just a matter of planting yourself behind your desk and having the determination to stay there until you have produced a work you are proud of. Which is, ultimately, what the whole gig’s all about.

Review: “Zac & Mia” by A. J. Betts – Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

A. J. Betts’ third Young Adult novel introduces us to gentle, mild-mannered Zac and feisty, irrepressible Mia, teenagers who come from different worlds but are thrown together in hospital as they both undergo treatment for cancer. An adjoining wall separates their rooms, and at first the teenagers can not see each other, only knocking on the wall to communicate. The early days of their friendship are fraught with moments of toe-curling awkwardness, told with an unshrinking honesty which will resonate with any reader who is, or remembers being, a teenager. We follow the characters as they leave hospital and try to assimilate back into their everyday lives, and it is here that the evidence of how fragmented their lives have become – how removed from the banal concerns of their schoolmates – is displayed with heartbreaking clarity.

Betts never shies away from presenting to us the grim realities of life with cancer, nor does she sentimentalise the plight of its sufferers. Instead, we are treated to an insight into the minds of modern day teenagers. The story is told from each teenager’s point of view in turn, and the characters leap from the page through their sharp and witty inner monologues. Zac is the calm one, trying to remain philosophical – almost stoical – about his condition. He comments wryly early on in the novel that “Cancer is a Facebook friend magnet. According to my home page, I’m more popular than ever. In the old days, people would have prayed for each other, now they Like and Comment as if they’re going for a world record.” In contrast, Mia is passionate, angry, full of hate against the world around her for the misfortune which has befallen her. “No more trying my luck with bus drivers or girlfriends or ex-boyfriends or mothers or doctors or random strangers who once stayed in adjoining hospital rooms and fed me bullshit lies. Everyone lies. … Fuck ’em all”, she rants.

Although marketed at young adults, Zac & Mia is so much more than just a novel for (or about) teenagers. The novel captures perfectly the frustration, awkwardness and vulnerability with which teenage lives are fraught during the uneasy transition to adulthood – and then throws into the mix a deadly disease, the effects of which the characters must come to terms with as they try to recapture some normality in their lives. The characters are true to life and easily recognisable to anybody who has ever been searching to find their place in the world. I absolutely took the characters of Zac and Mia into my heart, and didn’t want to let them go when the story ended.

Elegantly written and well paced, this is a book about wanting to fitting in, wanting to break out, finding your place in the world, and learning to trust others when you are at your most vulnerable. Winner of the 2012 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing and currently longlisted for the 2014 Gold Inky Awards, Zac & Mia is currently receiving a lot of attention and praise, both of which are richly deserved.

I loved this book, and I defy any reader not to do the same!