All posts in Musings

Reader reaction

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My sixth novel ‘On the Edge’ has been out and about for over six months now, and readers’ responses are trickling back to me. This is a fairly simple tale set in Townsville; it’s a chronological narrative that follows the fortunes of a few characters who have been unfortunate in life, exploring the consequences of the choices they have made. Told in the third person, it deploys few of the literary weapons from the arsenal available to fiction writers. That’s probably because it started life as a short story before it decided it ought to be a novel.

Most readers tell me they engaged with the characters and enjoyed the book. Some found it hard to put down (music to my ears – that’s always my goal), but I know a few who didn’t make it to the end. One criticised the dialogue as ‘too American’; others found the dialogue realistic. Some mentioned how they liked the ending; others mentioned that they hated the ending; some thought the action could have been stronger and more violent; others found it unnecessarily cruel.

How does that old song go – ‘different things to different people’? It’s a reminder that we all read in the context of our own lives and values, and – as many book club members have discovered – that often means we might as well be reading different books!

Feedback and criticism are very important to writers, but there comes a moment when you just have to remember that it’s your work, and in the end it’s your call. You can never please all the people all the time.

You’ve published! – what now?

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What indeed? I only wish I had the answers for the increasing number of self-publishers who are coming my way. Suddenly writing the book seems like the easy part. Getting your work out there demands a completely different set of skills, not to mention cast-iron confidence and nerves – and preferably lots of money you don’t need! These days it’s not just self-publishers facing these problems: I understand established publishing houses are now discussing their authors contributing to more striking covers, better paper stock etc etc – to give their new book the best chance.

It is no accident that Bryce Courtney has been one of Australia’s biggest selling authors. That’s because he was a highly successful advertising executive – over time, he became Creative Director of three major Australian advertising agencies. He made a mint. He was able to pay for adverts for his books on the backs of buses trundling around all our capitals. He gave away at least 2,500 copies of each of his books to admirers, to pass on to their friends. And look at the result!

Some people are much better at selling than writing. Others (myself included) are the reverse; we come out in a cold sweat at the mere mention of ‘publicity’. So we just do the best we can. These days I’m happy for my books to be stocked in libraries and to be sold off Amazon. Money trickles in, so I know my readers are out there, and I can get on and write something else. That suits me fine.

Insights into the past

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Family history, I am learning, is full of surprises, not least that one branch of ours stretches back to Ireland – news to us all. Aiming to tackle my total ignorance about the Irish in Australia, I picked up a battered book called just that by Patrick O’Farrell. By the time I finished the second paragraph of the introduction, I had to collect my breath: what an intellect! Here are a few of the excerpts that had my head spinning:

… ‘Precisely who, and what, shall be called up from the ranks of the dead? Those Irish and that Irishness that came to Australia? that Irish Australia they found and made there? their descendants?’ … ‘an elusive complexity rules …’

… ‘The Ireland of 1900 was a whole creation away from that of 1800’ … ‘these were ambivalent, ambiguous people, thinking Irish, talking English; hating the tyranny, serving the tyrant’ … ‘each arriving Irish generation brought a new phase of Irish experience, its Ireland frozen for it at the moment of departure’ …’within Australia a procession of Irish histories, Irish comprehensions, proceed at once’ …

Rich reads are not always easy reads, and Professor O’Farrell’s history is no exception. This is a book to be savoured, certainly not skimmed.

Travellers on the Move

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Why do we do it? With bombs exploding randomly around the world and cars ramming into innocent pedestrians, why do we persist in leaving the safety and comfort of home to breathe different air, meet different people and see different sights? Despite the interminable flights to get from here to anywhere, Australians are just unstoppable. With the advent of the northern summer it’s on for young and old Down Under – the backpackers, the car renters, the train travellers, the bus tourists, the passengers on cruise ships – we’re off!

Not all nations share this enthusiasm for travel. The southern Europeans have always seemed to prefer to stay home. Over the years I have watched the changing tourist scene with great interest – the rise and fall of American and Japanese tourism (is that about money?), now replaced by a surge of Chinese and Indian travellers along with growing numbers of Korean groups.

So what drives us? Adventure? Curiosity? Escape from routine? Wanting personal insights? The wish to be gobsmacked? Whatever it may be, the itch is still with me and once again I am packing my bags … and my camera …

We’re all dependent

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My website has been down for nearly a fortnight. My longstanding and (up until now) very reliable website host reported that one of its servers had collapsed. They were working on it, they said; it was their problem, so there was nothing I could do. This drove home to me how very interdependent we are in these days of connectivity. As an author who sells work on-line, I rely on a team – some are known and visible to me, but most are neither. These are the people who provide the expertise behind the website platforms, behind the amazing infrastructure of e-books, behind the internet payment systems; they convert my books from Word into mobi files which load onto Amazon and Smashwords. Most of them work for services which operate for twenty-four hours a day, so most would have their share of unsociable hours. All of them are highly skilled.

Whether I know you or not, whether we’ve ever communicated or not, you’re all vital to my world of interdependency.

Learning from kitsch

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What is kitsch? My photography group didn’t know the answer to that one, when we were dreaming up our next topic of the month. Well, back in 1980 Barry Humphries wrote a book on it. He ought to know – his early manifestation of Dame Edna Everidge was one hundred percent kitsch, before he started taking her (and himself) so seriously.

The most common, if somewhat laboured, definition is something like: ‘art, objects and design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way’. That doesn’t mention that it can be just a bit of fun.

Humphries did include a few learned quotes on the topic, including a lengthy one in French(!). D.H. Lawrence had the last word: ‘All creative art must rise out of a specific soil, and flicker with a sense of place.’ That brings me straight to the photograph above of the Big Pelican on the Noosa River foreshore, perfectly placed to mirror its surroundings with tongue in cheek and eye on the flocks of pelicans following the fishing boats and hanging around the jetty.

I believe the same goes for writing: an authentic sense of place defines the characters, their actions and reactions, their options and choices. It is part of who they, and we, are.

Never forget the readers …

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It’s all too easy for authors to focus on getting that story in their head on to the screen, or getting that new book out and about. You don’t actually give much thought to what’s happening with your books that are already out in the wider world of readers.

This was brought home to me by a tentative request which turned up recently from a private library, which operates solely on donations. Apparently a few years ago someone donated the full set of my five ‘Annie Bryce mysteries’. A couple of those books, they told me, had been read to death and were now so bedraggled they were having to withdraw them from circulation. Would I consider donating replacement copies?

Read to death? Does that mean loved to death? Let’s hope so! – what more could an author want? Of course I will replace the books. It’s a salutary reminder that readers are making their choices out there, and talking to each other, and sometimes my books are part of those conversations. As I have said before, it’s the readers who are the lifeblood of writing.

Pandering to your characters

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The print copies of my new novel ‘On the Edge’ have finally arrived – it’s been a long journey to get this particular manuscript between the covers. The novel is set in the tropical coastal city of Townsville in North Queensland, which to me is dominated by the ever-changing spectacle of Magnetic Island out in Cleveland Bay. Somehow that island creates illusions … it seems to change its colour, shape and density by the hour; sometimes it looks close enough to the mainland to swim there (a very bad idea in waters infested by sharks and stingers!), sometimes it looms in the far distance like a foreign continent. And sometimes it disappears entirely in misty clouds.

Magnetic Island fascinated my protagonist Ruth as much as it does me, so naturally I had to visit the island to get the feel of it. For her, of course. When she ended up living there for six months she saw it through a different prism entirely. Here we see the old jetty at Picnic Point with the mainland in the background, looking a lot further away than it actually is. The tropical colours are as vibrant as always. Or is that another illusion?

Well perhaps you should read ‘On the Edge’ and find out for yourself!

Summer outage!

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Why do I always forget how Australia virtually grinds to a halt from mid-December to mid-January? Production of my new book is still a work in progress, and the hot hot summer is drifting idly by with beach time, family and friends. Maybe we all need time out to reflect, to recharge our batteries and do different things before routine kicks in again. A day spent travelling upstream and downstream on Brisbane’s City Cat with a visitor opened my eyes to the never-ending transformation of my city, particularly riverside.

Happy new year to one and all.

The real deal …

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It must be a generational thing. For years I’ve embraced my Kindle, my iPad and e-books with such enthusiasm – what an absolutely perfect set-up for an avid reader. I’m delighted to upload the books I write to various platforms, for others to download if they wish. But somehow the books don’t feel real to the author inside me until I can hold (and fondle) a print copy with a shiny cover.

That’s what I’m waiting for now: the first small print run of ‘On the Edge’, which will mostly be destined for library shelves – but only after I’ve prized open that first box and fished out that first print copy. Only then will the new book seem like the real deal.