Addicted to flashbacks

It has become apparent that I have (amongst other terrible habits) an over-dependence on the use of flashbacks. It’s so pronounced in fact that a chapter I have just rewritten was about 75% flashback. Ouch.

I went searching for confirmation that I was not alone, that other, better writers had terrible habits too, and it hadn’t ruined their lives. I found this fabulous paragraph on Medium, in an article by Clare Barry called ‘Everyone’s a copyrighter, right?

“Virginia Woolf had a beautiful habit of swapping the narrative perspective mid paragraph. Jane Austen used double negatives. Charles Dickens was the king of run-on sentences — and E.E. Cummings didn’t give a flying cockatoo what you thought about capitalisation. That man capitalised whatever word he damned-well pleased. Or didn’t. Don’t get me started on Hemingway, whose grammar was a mix of playful creativity and 46% malt whisky.”

I’m not so much a whisky girl, as someone who boils the kettle in the ensuite so I don’t have to venture into the kitchen and risk running into family members who might want to engage with me. It means my book is relying on instant coffee but it’s a small price to pay for uninterrupted writing time first thing in the morning.

My dependence on flashback is because I am writing a highly structured book that follows six characters throughout a month. As you move through the book, each character has a day, but as in real life, sometimes interesting things happened yesterday, or three days ago.

My beloved mentor, Brooke Dunnell, recently pointed out that a chapter I had written started with a single sentence in the present day (a Sunday) then promptly jumped back to Wednesday, then Thursday then Friday before returning briefly to Sunday a few lines before the chapter ended.

When I colour-coded the chapter to see how bad the damage was, it looked like a United Colours of Benetton advert from the 1990s.

Letting Go over-reliance on flashbacks Ch 9

There are some generally accepted rules when writing flashbacks, the first being ‘don’t use too many’, but I’ve already established I’m a rule breaker (sometimes I even have UHT milk in my early morning bathroom instant coffee!).

But another important rule is that you need a trigger to start the flashback, as well as to bring your reader back to the present time. In real life when you suddenly stop to think about something that has happened in the past, it has usually been triggered by one of the senses – you see something or smell something that takes you back. The same should happen to your characters. Simply starting the sentence:

On Wednesday, when Winnie shared the waitress’ suspicions, Katharine had laughed…

is lazy. This admittedly is one of my current sentences, but it’s still early days of my flashback recovery, so I need to take things slowly.

Another rule is the flashback needs to advance the story – you can’t just drift backwards to discuss the weather or show off your beautiful literary turn of phrase; if you’re going to use a flashback, it needs to progress the plot. A good comparison is when someone starts describing their dream to you – they’re often wildly disconnected and boring as hell to the listener – you do NOT want your flashback to read like this. It must have a point that you couldn’t have made in the present time.

That being said, I realised that if I could re-write my flashback sections into the present time, I probably should. I couldn’t change the timing on all my flashbacks, but there were certain things – like a phone conversation – that could be moved.

The other good advice I received from Brooke, was to delay the first flashback for as long as possible. This means the reader can be established in the present day, before whisking them back to the past.

This is the colour-coding of the chapter after some work. I still have flashbacks, but they start much later in the chapter and there is significantly less of them.

Flashback chapter after some work

Working through this one chapter has made me much more cognisant of my addiction to this literary technique, and I suspect I have a fair bit of work ahead of me to reduce my overall reliance on them. But I have no doubt that one day my book will be much more than a mix of flashbacks and instant coffee.

How Dyslexia Affects My Daughter

A version of this post originally appeared on my other blog Relentless. I have updated it before re-publishing here.

My youngest daughter was diagnosed with severe dyslexia a few years ago when she was just about to complete Year One. The diagnosis wasn’t a big shock; we had suspected she had a learning disability from the time she was at Kindy, and we had seen her daily struggle.

Having a diagnosis has helped in many ways. It allows her to label some of her challenges, to put them in a box and say to herself – and others – ‘that’s my dyslexia, that’s not me’.

From the very start she has owned her dyslexia. We haven’t tried to hide it, and I have encouraged her to talk about it with her classmates and friends. She stands up and talks about it as a news topic in class, she tells people about her dyslexia when she introduces herself, and I strongly believe this has helped stem some (though not all) teasing and bullying at school.

From a parent’s perspective, I have found her openness to be beneficial for me as well. Her willingness to share her difficulties – and for me to share them – has resulted in thoughtful conversations with other parents, many of which start with: ‘I had no idea what dyslexia even was…’ People have been so willing to learn about dyslexia, and I have found her school and the people to be very supportive.

My daughter is now halfway through Year Three. Yet her ability to read, write and spell is probably that of a child at least two years her junior. She could hold her head up high in Pre-Primary. She’s a smart kid though. Dyslexia is not related to intelligence, and most dyslexic kids test to be above average intelligence.

MiaRose teacher card

All dyslexics experience different strengths and challenges, and like many things, it operates on a continuum. This is how dyslexia affects my daughter:

Poor sense of word recall – she often struggles to find the word she wants to describe or explain something. As a result, she will use an incorrect word or simply make one up, which can be kind of cute. At eight she still can’t recall the word ‘pear’ so she calls them ‘squishy apples’.

Difficulty hearing sounds – she has difficultly hearing or distinguishing between certain sounds. This has a knock-on effect for both speech and spelling.

Poor concept of time – she has difficulty understanding the abstract notion of time and cannot grasp the difference between waiting for an hour and waiting for a year. The language of time, is therefore lost on her and she will talk about things happening yesterday when in fact she means tomorrow.

Poor speech – as she unable to hear certain sounds, she cannot replicate them, leading to difficulties with her speech.

Poor spelling – if you cannot hear or say sounds, then it makes sense that you won’t be able to use them when you are writing. For example, if you can’t hear the <t> in stretch, then you’re more likely to spell it as ‘strech’. When writing she often leaves out vowels and misses adjacent consonants. My daughter would most likely write ‘srch’.

Poor letter recognition and formation – she struggles to distinguish between visually similar letters such as b and d, n and h or similar sounding letters such as g and j. When she was younger she had difficulty visualising diagonals and so letters such as K, M, W and V were either written incorrectly or she would write them in a curly text.

(Don’t even get me started on the wide variety of fonts that appear in children’s books: it has taken her a while to realise there are multiple ways of typing a and g, and the presence or absence of a serif (a tick at the end of a letter in certain fonts such as Times New Roman) can cause great confusion. She’s not just learning A is one letter – she’s having to realise that A can be multiple letters.)

Confusion with left and right – if left unguided, she will often start reading a word from the right-hand side, for example she will read ‘got’ as ‘tog’.

Poor short-term working memory – if she correctly sounds out a new word on one page, she won’t necessarily remember it when she reads it on the next page. It will look like a new word and she will need to sound it out again. She may read the same word, three different ways over the course of a few minutes, for example ‘got’ as tog, get and got.

Slow processing – related to the working memory is the fact she processes information more slowly. It takes her longer to work through instructions, so if you give her a four-step process, by the time you have told her the last step, she’s only just processed the second, and probably forgotten the first. She can do everything you ask, but not if you dump all the information on her at once. This is usually when people accuse her of ‘not listening’, but she is listening… she’s probably listening very carefully – but she’s just trying to recall the information that is rapidly slipping away.

Poor number recognition – while she is able to visually understand numbers and put them in the correct order, she cannot name them. Often, she cannot tell you what a number is (for example ‘twelve’) without counting from 1 (ie 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-twelve).

MiaRose alien story

There are many compensations though.

From early on, before we realised she was struggling to comprehend the world around her, she had already begun to discover methods of coping. She would use her body in a way to describe words she couldn’t find the language for, and as a result, she has always been physical and animated. When she couldn’t find the word for banana, she would curve her hands into the shape of the fruit, or pretend to peel and eat it. Automatically we would provide the word ‘banana’ which she would repeat, and all the while we had no clue that she was having difficulty recalling it to begin with.

She is able to spot differences and see patterns that ordinary brains cannot. She has walked into a room where one small thing has changed and notice it immediately. She completed a nine square sudoku style puzzle in seconds, where instead of numbers, images of different types of weather had been used.

She always kicks my butt at Memory and Go Fish, and I don’t even try to let her win. I don’t need to. I wish she’d let me win every now and then.

She has uncanny long term memory often dredging up a comment I made once, five years ago, or tearing up at the memory of something that happened when she was three. She will remember the faces of people she met once, or the precise location of her great-grandmother’s grave, but she has no idea what her uncles’ names are.

She has an eye for fine detail. Once with her speech therapist, we were playing a game where three of us had a different game board in front of us. Each board had 100 different images all jumbled up. A card was presented which contained six images – but only one of those six images was present on each of the boards, so you had to look at a board with 100 items, while searching for six different images, only one of which was actually there (a bit like Where’s Wally). It meant you could spend most of your time looking for an image that wasn’t even there. Almost every time she would win, and then find the correct image on our boards as well just to prove a point.

She is a wonderful artist, and will sit and draw for hours, often highly detailed and completely from memory.

She also has plenty of big ideas and makes connections between topics that would normally be beyond a seven year old. Truth be told, sometimes her statements are wildly left field and beyond the mortal brain of her mother (me), but I love her enthusiasm regardless.

I believe she also has a level of insight towards others that comes directly from her own personal anxiety and sadness. She recognises these feelings in others, because she has experienced it herself, and as a result she can be very empathetic.

I have been telling her stories about the many inspiring and successful people who have dyslexia and have achieved incredible things in their lives. She loves finding out that an actor she loves on TV or an author who wrote a book she enjoys also has dyslexia. She knows that although she will be challenged by her learning disorder, she won’t be limited by it – and tells me constantly that she can’t wait to see what amazing things she will do in her life.

I freely admit that before my own daughter was diagnosed, I hardly knew a thing about dyslexia. But chances are there will be one, two or even three children in every classroom in the country with dyslexia, diagnosed or not, so I think it’s important for all parents and teachers to know what it is.

Without a diagnosis, you might just think they are slow to learn, perhaps they are seen as the ‘naughty kids’ because they don’t concentrate in class or they’re disruptive. My daughter certainly was. You might see them as masters of procrastination, as they will do almost anything to avoid certain situations, like testing or book work.

As she gets older, some aspects of her dyslexia will get better as she learns how to manage it, and others will get harder. I have no doubt that this is a lifetime journey that she’s on, and for the next decade at least, I will be right there alongside her.

 

Why You Should Keep a Record of Rejection

In 2010, with a toddler, a newborn baby in my arms and the knowledge that we would be trying for a third baby in the not-too-distant future, I went to a career counsellor.

Prior to having my children, and I’d spent close to a decade working at various universities in three states. My last job had been as the manager of a clinical trials group, and I had been told that I was always welcome to return to my job – as long as I was prepared to come back full time under the same conditions.

I wasn’t.

At this stage I had three degrees, none of which were particularly practical, and an ad hoc career path that could be broadly defined as ‘researcher’. I’d worked part time for 18 months after my first daughter was born, but, along with the rest of the company, was let go when the GFC sent the small start-up crashing to the wall.

The career counselling process was comprehensive and over three months and multiple sessions, we whittled our way through what I was qualified for versus what I actually enjoyed doing, my values and priorities and a range of psychometric tests that matched me to a range of careers, many of which I’d never even heard of.

The end result: writer or event planner.

I love planning a party and in another life probably would have made a fabulous event planner, but with three small children, working on other people’s events on weekends and in the evenings didn’t sit well with me.

Besides, I had wanted to be a writer since I was in primary school. I just hadn’t considered it to be something you could make a career out of [spoiler alert: I still haven’t made it].

One of the first things I did was sign up for a website which advertised itself as sharing advertising income with its writers. You would be paid every time person a read your articles, and in a sense this was true. I just hadn’t realised it would average around a cent for each reader. Still, not one to be deterred by common sense, over the next nine years I penned around 650 articles earning me a little over $10,000. I’ll save you the effort – that averages $15.38 an article or approximately $1,111 a year.

The other thing I did was start a spreadsheet of all my writing submissions.

In the first heady months of ‘being a writer’ I made a few ill-judged tenders, sending poorly written, totally unedited pieces out into the world.

The first entry in my spreadsheet is Text Publishing. Under ‘Article Details’ it says ‘selection of unedited baby emails [short stories]’. In the ‘Outcome’ column it says ‘Rejected (mail)’.

That, dear reader, is the optimism only complete ignorance and entitlement brings.

I look back at that with a stomach-churning mix of shame and bewilderment, hoping they don’t keep a file of their worst submissions, a black-list of names they pull out every Christmas to add further merriment to their festivities.

I spruiked a subset of those stories a few more times to magazines and even the ASA Mentorship Program (oh the shame) before good sense finally caught up with me and I moved my personal ramblings to a blog called Relentless where they fared a little better.

The next entry in my spreadsheet looks totally different. This is because I actually submitted something that had been asked for: a short story for the West Australian on the theme of summer. In the ‘Outcome’ column, it is highlighted in red, and says ‘First Prize, published 22/1/2011. (Prize: Macbook Air). You can read it here.

Like most of my writing to that point (and since), it was rushed and over-enthusiastic. Self-editing wasn’t a concept I was familiar with, and I emailed it off so quickly I neglected to even give the story a name. But for whatever reason, the writing gods decided to smiled on me, and in January 2011 I saw my name in print for the first time, and won a spiffy new laptop to boot.

Despite the fact they spelled it wrong, seeing my name in black and white was a heady feeling. Addictive. Energising. Encouraging. I knew I had to keep going. I had many more stories I wanted to tell.

As I scroll through the spreadsheet now, almost a decade on, there are far less red ‘published’ entries than there are ‘unsuccessful’ or ‘no response’. My hit rate is around 1 in 6. That’s to be expected. Some of the rejections sting more than others. The silence can be hurtful, especially when something sits on someone’s desk for months on end, languishing in purgatory. I’d rather just know, so I can move forward, look for a new home for that piece of writing.

But the overwhelming feeling I get when I look through the spreadsheet is pride.

I don’t look at the lengthy column of ‘unsuccessful’ outcomes and think I’m a failure. Instead I look at the long list of stories I have written, of articles I have submitted and I feel proud that I have put myself and my writing out there.

I am creating worlds out of words, and while not all of them have found a permanent place in print, in the words of Wayne Gretzky, ‘you miss 100% of the shots you never take.

So in effect, I’ve decided my spreadsheet is not actually a record of my rejections, but a compilation of my creations.

 

Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”


― Nelson Mandela

 

Should we be writing about the pandemic?

According to the Washington Post, it was four years post 9/11 before the first major novels about the September 11 attacks began to grace our shelves. A quick look on GoodReads provides a list of over 214 books including Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man and Ian McEwan’s Saturday.

Before this of course, there were the non-fiction accounts, the fact-seeking, truth-telling, first-hand accounts of what went wrong, and a handful of sideways mentions, but it was a few years before the novelists had found their story.

Almost two decades later, the world finds itself in the grips again of another singular event, the corona virus pandemic that – at the time of writing – has infected more than ten million people worldwide and killed over half a million. Conversations about whether we should be writing about the pandemic are everywhere.

Interestingly, children’s books about the pandemic have already arrived. Instructional and educational, they include Corona Virus: A Book for Children (illustrated by none other than the Gruffalo’s Axel Scheffler) and The Princess in Black and the Case of the Corona Virus by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale.

There are some novelists who are determined not to write about the pandemic, who see that by not writing about it, might set them apart.

Justine Larbalestier, author of three books and currently living out the pandemic in locked-down New York writes ‘I don’t want to write that book. There will be a million such books. When we come out of this pandemic, will we really want to read books about it?

Debra Purdy Kong also agrees there will be a ‘glut of pandemic stories coming up.

But for others, it’s caution about writing about the pandemic too soon, at least while the pandemic is still in force, while the statistics keep piling on and no one can see an end. As Chris Bohjalian, author of 21 novel writes ‘None of us can really make sense of history as history is occurring.

Oliver Winfree, who writes contemporary stories for children, acknowledges that life as we know it has changed forever, but asks – how much of this we need to include in our writing? ‘Or maybe we just ignore it, and continue to write stories as if life hasn’t changed. Except we’ll be washing our hands more often now…

Anne Tyler, author of 23 novels including The Accidental Tourist and Pulitzer Prize winning Breathing Lessons says ‘I’m very much a believer in letting things get old before we write about them at all.’ She is not exaggerating with her desire to let things sit and develop: she adds that she still doesn’t think there has been a decent book about 9/11, but that perhaps in another twenty years there might be a good one.

So my decision to write a book about the pandemic might be seen as a very unpopular one. Especially since it’s been only six months since the first mention of a novel corona virus and we haven’t yet reached the peak.

It’s extra strange I would write a contemporary novel considering I see myself as a writer of historical fiction. My last two manuscripts are set in the 20th century, one focussing on the years immediately prior to World War 1 and the other spanning the decades between 1960 and 1980.

I have always loved history. Looking back at where we have been and how we got where we are fascinates me. Every book of historical fiction is full of truth and detail and I love nothing more than disappearing down a rabbit hole of research and will spend hours making sure I get the small details correct, from the design of a woman’s underwear in 1913 to what’s on TV late at night in the 1970s.

So why would I choose to write a book set in 2020?

Quite simply, it’s because I see us living through history, and this unique era – at least here in Perth, so isolated and protected from the worst of the devastation – has been so brief. I want to capture it while I can, and what better way to record history than to write about it while it is happening?

My story will not be the pandemic story. There can’t be just one. My experience of COVID-19 here in Perth will be completely foreign to someone living in New York or Italy or even Melbourne. For the children of Spain who were not allowed out of their houses for forty days, my daughters’ time in lockdown, chalking pictures on the footpath and taking the dog on long walks through the suburb, would be unrecognisable. My brief, two-week stint ‘homeschooling’ my kids, would make families in the US, who have had their children home with them for four months (and counting) laugh with the absurdity of it all.

I do not know anyone who has become sick with corona virus, let alone die from it, and for that I am immensely grateful. But it has been a uniquely singular time, with a new soundtrack, and a new language. We wear different clothes and we have different social interactions and expectations. The rules and laws have changed. We are living in a historical era: with a distinct start date, and – one hopes – there will be an end date. By the end of the pandemic, we all will have been changed by it.

But my story is not about the pandemic, just as my story set in 1913-14 is not about the War. It’s a setting, a time and place both unique and instantly recognisable regardless of where you live. I didn’t set out to write a contemporary novel – I had written the plot last year when I was at KSP Writers Centre. But when the virus came for us, I started a diary of some of the small ways the world changed, and saw how the unique circumstances of the pandemic would enhance the story I was tinkering with.

So I say, write about the pandemic if you want. We shouldn’t let others dictate what we write about. Don’t be shamed by the idea there may be a million other books touching on a topic. There will only be one book like yours. It’s not a bandwagon you’re jumping on, but simple adherence to the first rule of writing – the one they slam into your heads the first day you pick up that pen: write what you know.

 

Interviewing Experts for your Novel

‘They wouldn’t be sweating once they were in cardiac arrest, even if it was a cocaine overdose,’ the lady across from me said. She stopped to think. ‘With a heroin overdose they might be sweaty once they’ve been resuscitated and trying to get back to normal, but it would be unlikely that two people in the same group would take such different drugs, one is such an upper and the other a downer. On coke, they’d be excitable and energetic, and if their heart was racing too fast they might end up in cardiac arrest.’

I thought for a moment. ‘So if I delete the bit about being sweaty once he’s unconscious and on the floor, and add in a line about the man being loud and obnoxious before he ends up collapsing?’

‘Perfect.’

Admittedly, it wasn’t a typical conversation to be having over breakfast. Our waitress gave us raised eyebrows as she overheard snippets about drug overdoses and drowning. Not me – I was fascinated and kept asking more questions, madly writing notes as we went.

I was interviewing Writing WA Literati Tammie Bullard, who is both a paramedic and a writer, and who had kindly agreed to help me with some of the technical questions I had for my current work in progress. My story has six main characters and most of them have careers in fields that I know precisely nothing about. It’s fine to depend upon Google and a fertile imagination for a first draft, but now I’m working on my second draft I knew I really needed some authentic detail.

I love the solitude of being a writer, of needing to rely on no one except myself. It’s probably one of the reasons I have pursued writing for so long, rather than seek more traditional work. I like people – they fascinate me. I like to study them and write about them. But I like to stay a step back.

There are some times though, when you need to step forward and ask for help, and this was one of those times. My paramedic character has a number of key scenes in the story, and it’s imperative I get them right. Initially I put a call out on Twitter and Facebook, asking fellow writers how I would go about finding a paramedic willing to help me. It wasn’t long before I had lots of great offers of help, but when I reached out to Tammie, I knew instantly I had made the right decision.

Over Eggs Benedict we discussed everything from terminology to staffing to career progression and medical events. She taught me how a call would come through to the depot, and the fact that it was called a ‘depot’ and not ‘station’ as I had written 23 times and subsequently needed to change.

Tammie isn’t the first expert I’ve interviewed for this book. I had the good fortune of speaking with chef Stephen Clarke last month about what it is like to run a fine dining restaurant and also Dr Kelly Shepherd on life as a botanist and being a PhD scholar. I am incredibly grateful to each of them for giving their time and expertise to add detail to what must seem like a rather eclectic group of characters.

Here are some lessons I have learned about interviewing experts for your novel:

  1. Be prepared. People are incredibly generous with their time and knowledge so make sure you have your questions ready to go. If you are cold-calling them, they might be ready to chat then and there, if you email them, they might be willing to meet the following day.
  2. Only ask about what you can’t find online. Do your research in advance both on your interviewee and the topic in general. Gather as much information as you can and then frame your questions around the gaps in your knowledge – or to confirm with them what you have discovered online. Don’t walk in saying ‘tell me everything’ – it wastes everyone’s time.
  3. Know your non-negotiables. What specific information must you get? Do you have a particular scene you need advice on, or do you need background information before you start writing. Make sure you get the main pieces of information you need before you hang up/leave.
  4. Let them talk. Apart from getting your non-negotiables, let your expert talk, don’t interrupt with too many questions or your own stories. You will learn all sorts of details that will add colour and authenticity to your story. Even if you have a list of specific questions, make sure you ask ‘is there anything else you think I should know?’ Don’t feel obliged to fill silences with more questions – sometimes people just need a moment to think.
  5. As they talk, listen for emotive words that describe the environment they work in. Jot down lingo and jargon (ask them later what it means), how they label and describe things. For example, when interviewing Stephen, I noticed everyone called him ‘Chef’ and not his actual name. It’s a sign of respect and something I now use to effect in my novel.
  6. If possible, visit them at work. When interviewing Dr Shepherd we wandered around the UWA campus and she pointed out the buildings where my character would work. She also showed me things like the glasshouses and taxonomic garden hidden in the middle of campus, which will add authentic detail, and in the case of the garden, a clue to the dramatic end of the story.
  7. Get permission for follow-up. If things go well, you might want to contact them again with follow-up questions or to read over a specific scene. Make sure they have your full name, phone and email in case they need to get in contact later.
  8. Get it down quickly. Make a decision if you want to record the interviews or just take notes (ask permission either way) and block out a period of time immediately after the interview so you can type up your notes straight away. Even if your notes are little more than dot points, you will find you remember a lot more than what you have written down, but keep in mind that will fade the longer you leave it.
  9. Keep a spreadsheet with the names and dates of interviews you have conducted, along with their contact details. Add to this anyone else who has assisted in any way during your writing. This makes it easier when it comes time to writing your acknowledgements.

What is your experience of interviewing experts for your novels and writing? What other tips can you share?

 

author and Stephen Clarke

With chef Stephen Clarke

Spending the $50million

I’m sure you’re familiar with that marvelous feeling, after you have bought a lotto ticket but before the draw, where the possibility of winning the $50 million dollars is so real and tangible you can taste it. When you are making lists in your head, spending your winnings, deciding which holidays to go on, which homes to buy, which magnanimous donations you will be making.

I am living the writers equivalent right now.

I have written the stories, entered the competitions and between now and the time the long lists are announced I can indulge in daydreams about winning the prize. In reality, I probably have more chance of winning the lotto than one of the many literary prizes I have entered, but until the lists are announced anything is possible. And what are we as writers, if not able to visualise a future with written-to-order happy endings, specifically designed to meet our own requirements for maximum pleasure?

The literary equivalent of spending of the $50 million prize is dreaming about your story as a physical book. It is seeing your name in print. It is imagining yourself running your hand over the cover, smelling the fleeting new book scent.

It is imaging your acceptance speech, the welcome cramp in your hand signing books for readers, the pride of seeing your novel in the window of a book shop.

It is imaging a future where you can move from saying I am a writer to I am an author.

The disappointment that comes with seeing the list of names on which yours is missing, is real but blessedly brief. Reality quickly crowds back in. You may spend a day or two deflated, dejected, rejected but then you take a deep breath, swallow that lump away and push forward. Pick up that pen again, keep writing, do it all again.

No one ever actually expects to win the $50 million lotto prize. I don’t expect to actually win any of the writing competitions I have entered.

But I can still dream, and until I hear otherwise, I’m spending the fifty million.

Writing the Time of COVID-19

When I’m immersed in writing a book, I tend to utilise the wee, dark hours when there’s little chance of being disturbed or taken out of the world I am creating. I may change screens to research a quick fact, or display images that evoke a mood or scene I am writing, but I try to avoid anything that may cause a crack in my fictional universe and send real life flooding in.

This is why I do my best work before 6.30am. Children have the tendency to bring reality crashing down, and there’s nothing more damaging to crafting the fine fabric of a delicate sentence than squabbles over whose turn it is to feed the dog.

I write historical fiction and I love nothing more than diving into a period of time and discovering what life might have been like for my protagonists, from their clothing, the transport system, the food they ate to major events happening in the world around them. My books are always based here in Perth, which means it’s never far to go and visit the locations where my stories are set.

Fortunately, many of Perth’s beautiful old buildings still exist, and there is nothing more satisfying for a writer than to go and be physically present in the space where their story is taking place, even if the story and the writing of it are separated by decades or even a century.

My most recent manuscript, Letting Go is probably the most complicated story I have ever written. It consists of six main characters whose lives are interwoven and who are all implicated in a shocking event. It’s also written in the present, which is a first for me, because I love the concrete detail of history.

If I write about heeled housewives, black and white television, the Australian Dream, Korean War and the appearance of new electrical appliances into the home you immediately know I am talking about the 1950s. The lived experience of the time would be different for all, but there are major signposts which identify it as a specific historical period.

But for everyone who is currently living in the time of COVID-19, you will recognise that this will soon become a neatly packaged historical era in its own right, with its own terminology, apparel, social norms and dramatic world events.

The chance to write about history as it is currently taking place is a once in a lifetime opportunity that I am embracing with both hands. Yet unlike working on other books where the ping of a microwave might pull me out of pre-WW1 Perth or the hiss of an electric train rouses me from the 1970s, there are no noises (other than squabbling children) that can disrupt me from writing about the present.

On the contrary, even the sounds that I am hearing (more sirens but less traffic) will one day become a marker for this unique time. So with my windows thrown open wide, I am listening to the world as I write it, and can’t wait to see what happens next.

 

 

 

The First Lines of Australian Novels Rewritten for COVID-19

I admit this isn’t an original idea, but it’s a very good idea. First someone decided to rewrite the first lines of ten classic novels for social distancing. I’m taking the liberty of rewriting the opening lines from 25 of my favourite Australian novels for the Time of COVID-19. Apologies to all concerned.

 

Invisible Boys – Holden Sheppard

There are two ways out of this poxy shithole of a town, but you can’t go either way until the regional travel bans are lifted.

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. I’m really loving social isolation! But then again, I am an introvert.

The French Photographer – Natasha Lester

Jessica May turned on her famous smile and raised her arm aloft. It was all she could do to say hello from 1.5 metres away.

All That Is Lost Between Us – Sara Foster

It was only a memory now. Going to the gym and having a coffee afterwards with friends in the café.

The Sound – Sarah Drummond

My name is Wiremu Heke. But my Zoom name is Billhook.

The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

His eyes still shut, a dream dissolving and already impossible to recall, Hector’s hand sluggishly reached across the bed. Working from home was awesome. He could sleep till midday because no one knew when he started work.

You Belong Here – Laurie Steed

Jen sat sketching flowers on the footpath, the chalk worn down to a nub. She took a photo and quickly uploaded it to Facebook, hashtagging it #RainbowTrailAustralia.

The Sisters Song – Louise Allen

My memories of my father are scant and faded, and I only have two photos of him. His aged care home forbids visitors and it’s been too long since I’ve seen him.

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

They said I must die. They said I stole the breath from men and now they must steal mine. They call me COVID-19 and I am but a wee virus.

Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty

‘That doesn’t sound like a school trivia night’ said Mrs Patty Ponder to her cat Marie Antoinette. ‘All non-essential events over 100 people have been cancelled!’

Trip of a Lifetime – Liz Byrski

Later, even when she’d had time to think about it, she still couldn’t remember anything unusual about the evening; UberEats on the couch, a bottle of wine and Netflix. The same thing every night for the past six weeks.

Let Her Go – Dawn Barker

Zoe turned to look out to sea. She was glad they hadn’t closed the beaches in Perth. Take that, Bondi!

The Good Turn – Dervla McTiernan

The waiting room was ugly and neglected. It had been cleaned recently – the overpowering smell of disinfectant was testament to that. ‘Have you been overseas in the past 14 days or had close contact with a confirmed case of corona virus?’ the receptionist demanded. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘I’m just here for a pap smear.’

The Happiest Refugee – Ahn Do

I’m flying down the Hume Highway at 130 kilometres an hour. Since everyone’s been told to stay home and isolate, there’s no one on the roads.

Postcards from Surfers – Helen Garner

We are driving north from Coolangatta airport. Our flights have been cancelled and I’m mad as hell. I’d better get a full refund.

They’re a Weird Mob – Nino Culotta

Who the hell’s Nino Culotta? That’s what you asked yourself when you first picked up this book, wasn’t it? Well he’s the guy who started Bin Isolation Outing.

Dustfall – Michelle Johnston (Ch 2)

Raymond. That was his name and he emerged from the mire with two small suitcases stuffed to the hinges with items hastily chosen; now he had two weeks compulsory quarantine in a city hotel at the expense of the Australian taxpayer.

Jasper Jones – Craig Silvey

Jasper Jones came to my window. Ever since we had to close the restaurant, drive-through has been going off!

Searching for the Secret River – Kate Grenville

In the puritan Australia of my childhood, you could only get a drink on a Sunday if you were a ‘bona fide traveller’. During the lockdown you can’t get a drink any day of the week, and travellers, well – we hate ‘em.

The Shadow Years – Hannah Richell

It is the smallest details that come to her; the damp grass underfoot threaded with buttercups, the air humming with insects, the snap of her nightdress catching in the breeze. She’d spent more time in her backyard during the last month of lockdown than she had in the previous year.

Beautiful, Messy Love – Tess Woods

It’s funny what you remember about the biggest moment in your life. But I think in a year or two, we all will have forgotten the lessons we learned during COVID-19.

Fractured – Dawn Barker

Tony’s footsteps echoed as he hurried across the underground carpark and into the lift. He saw the look of alarm on the old woman’s face. Tony removed his face mask. ‘I’m not sick,’ he said, but she had already stepped out of the lift.

An Indecent Obsession – Colleen McCullough

The young soldier stood looking doubtfully up at the large cruise ship, his kit bag lowered to the ground while he assessed the possibility that this was indeed his ultimate destination. An armed guard for the off-duty crew of a cruise ship? Were they going to sing and dance their way to escape?

If I Should Lose You – Natasha Lester

Patient care: stethoscope whispers, the lubdub or footsteps, but no huddles of family. Corona victims must die alone.

Sister Madly Deeply [Well Behaved Women] – Emily Paull

As I bring the clippers toward the soft dome of my head, all I can think about is how much I do not want to do this. But I am so bored in isolation and everyone else on Tik Tok is making videos of cutting themselves a fringe, so I’m going to do one too.

 

What other Aussie novels can you re-write the first line for?

When should you say goodbye?

It’s certainly not my favourite thing to do, but every now and then I follow my business mentor’s advice and think about boring things like SEO and search terms. Deep down I’m a writer, and my greatest joy is putting words on a page and sending them out to the world. Worrying about whether those words make it to the right audience or land on the first page of Google isn’t something I tend to worry about, until reminded by my mentor (and my bank balance) that in fact, they are quite important.

Fundraising Mums - comprehensive fundraising ideas for schools and sporting clubs

Digging around in my website’s rear-end sounds like a rather private and uncomfortable activity but what it really involves is me looking at the search terms people have used before winding up on my Fundraising Mums page.

For example, type in ‘how to run a cake stall’ and up pops Fundraising Mums ‘How to Run A Profitable Cake Stall’. Type ‘lessons from fete’ or ‘escape room for kids’ and my articles will pop up.

But sometimes people type in rather more obscure search terms only to be directed to my page. One of my favourite requests is the very specific ‘how much onion on average on a sausage’ which directs you to my Bunnings sausage sizzle article (answer 10kg of onions for 400-600 sausages).

I have been writing for Fundraising Mums since 2015 and I started it on a rather cynical yet optimistic note. I have always been heavily involved in the P&C, fundraising and events at my daughters’ school. I will be at my local primary school for thirteen years as a parent – I figure I should roll my sleeves up and get involved – but if I was going to do the work, I may as well write about it and share what I learned. There are over 10,000 schools in Australia and over 6,500 community sporting clubs. I figured if there was just one person in each school and club who wanted fundraising ideas then I would have a readership.

Like most things though, being a primary school mum is a phase that eventually you pass through and leave. My youngest daughter is now in Year 3, so I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. While that doesn’t necessarily mean I will no longer be involved in fundraising at all, it does seem that a natural end is upon me. One I am seriously considering embracing.

According to a 2009 survey, 95% of the 133 million blogs in existence had not been updated in 120 days – and were considered abandoned. Today, there are over 500 million blogs in existence (five of which belong to me) which if I extrapolated, would mean there are 475 million abandoned blogs littering the virtual highway (three of which belong to me).

I am trying to decide if I should add another to that number?

When is it time to say goodbye to a project that you have nurtured for years? Should it be an economic decision? A question of time? Or is it when you have lost the joy?

woman looking at pig

I don’t think I could completely abandon Fundraising Mums. It’s been my primary project for the last five years, and represents thousands of hours of my time spent researching and writing. I see my stories making their way out into the world, to places I never imagined. Ireland, India and Germany feature in the top 10 countries of FRM readers. I have built relationships with readers and advertisers alike. I am proud of the work I have done.

But over the past year I have been drawn in a different direction – away from the real world into the fictional worlds I have created in my novels. It’s there I want to spend my time.

The closure of schools, cancellation of sports and decimation of the events industry has been reflected in the readership of Fundraising Mums. I fear that by the end of the COVID-19 crisis there will be fewer Australian fundraising businesses than there was at the beginning of 2020. There will be casualties and perhaps Fundraising Mums will be amongst them.

But as long as I write a new story every 120 days then at least it won’t be entirely abandoned.

Just neglected.

 

Weasel Words and Tips for Writers

‘I could see her looking at me, as she readied herself to tell me about my overuse of weasel words in the nicest possible way. I felt my face tighten as I braced myself for the impact of her words.’

Or

‘She looked at me, ready to tell me about my overuse of weasel words. I braced myself for the impact of her words.’

 

Recently I had the good fortune of meeting with Perth writer Louise Allen. I had won a manuscript appraisal as part of the Twitter #authorsforfiries auction, which saw me handing over the first 10,000 words of my novel.

It’s a luxury at the best of times to be able to sit with a fellow writer and talk about nothing but your own writing, but to be handed a mirror to hold up to your work, to identify the flaws, is equally valuable.

 

weasle words

 

Louise made the following comment about the paragraph above:

“you could do away with ‘Isabelle watched’ and go straight to ‘Isabelle’s mother studied the image.’ The reader knows Isabelle’s watching, because it’s in her POV. It removes a step between the reader and the action, and brings the reader into the story more.”

Weasel words are the fodder of the new writer, adding extra words thinking it deepens our writing (it doesn’t) or adding layers that end up removing the readers from the story.

Taking Louise’s sage advice I turned my gaze on another recently finished manuscript, determined to make sure I hadn’t repeated my sins.

Turns out I’m prolific with my use of weasel words. Hundreds of them peppered my novel like a 1980s Pepper Steak. Unfortunately for me, your use of weasel words is a bit like a golf score, you want it to be as low as possible.

I did a search and find on the following phrases and was shocked by the numbers I saw:

51 instances of ‘I looked…’

23 times I wrote ‘I could hear’

93 cases of ‘I could see’ and ‘I saw’

127 instances of ‘I felt’

And a whopping 274 times I used ‘just’.

 

It took a couple of days and some seriously strong coffee but I managed to remove about 80% of all my weasel words. The effect of course is to cut the parachute strings and drop the reader directly into the story.

You can’t remove all instances of these phrases. Sometimes the word is fulfilling an actual function and not just bad writing.

For example:

I felt my face turn pink  = bad

I felt frumpy in comparison = fine

 

I just stared up at him in adoration = bad

Perhaps he’s only now just discovering who he really is = fine

 

I could see that she was uncomfortable = bad

I tried to sit up so I could see him better = fine

 

I saw Adam purse his lips = bad

My face went red as I saw huge boxes of condoms on the table = fine

 

I could hear the smile in his voice = really bad

I could hear the rush of air as the paramedic pushed the needle into her chest = fine

 

I plan to continue writing the same way I always have, letting the words flow through my fingers without censorship. But now I have a weapon in my editing arsenal, and before I even consider hitting send or publish – I will be doing a search and destroy on my weasel words.