When I decided to travel around Western Australia, I took M.L. Stedman’s wonderful first novel ‘The Light Between Oceans’ with me. Set on – and off – the W.A. coast just after the first World War, it’s a mesmerising story, beautifully written, and illuminated my take on the vast multi-coloured Indian Ocean which eerily seemed to lie in wait for us whichever way we turned.
I made the book last until the day before I stepped off the Indian Pacific, reaching ‘The End’ with deep regret. What an achievement! It richly deserves all the prizes that have been showered on it.
I am in awe.
I’ve always admired those authors who schedule their writing every day, tapping away between one commitment and the next. I wish I could – but I can’t. I seem to need to get away from my everyday life and binge on everything to do with writing in solitude. Then I do nothing else for a few days but read, review, edit and write … usually half-way through day two the story and the characters have arrived to colonise the brain, nudging and suggesting and arguing … and it all starts to happen. From time to time I remember to eat, stretch, go for a walk … all grist to the mill.
How very inconvenient! But how very enjoyable, too!
It’s a generous act, to give feedback to a writer. Right from the start you’re teetering along a tightrope, trying to find the balancing point between being helpful to the text and being destructive to the fragile ego of the writer. If you want to preserve a friendship with him or her, you’re clutching that balancing bar even more tightly! It’s a skill all of its own.
I’m just getting feedback from three readers of my latest novel in draft. To make it easier for them (and for me) I gave them some questions to answer. So now I’m examining their verdicts, looking for commonalities, pondering over differences. Reading a text is just as individual an experience as writing one!
They do agree it should be published, somehow or other. I’ll brood on their comments for a few weeks before I tackle the next draft. I know It will be all the better for their collective sharp eyes and brains. I’ve never written anything that hasn’t been improved by me gritting my teeth and handing the mss over to be dissected! Now I have to decide how much of their sage advice I will take. In the end, the novel is mine and mine alone.
I’m editing the first draft of a novel at the moment. As every writer knows, that involves re-reading the text with an eagle eye and questioning the value of every chapter, every paragraph and every sentence: what is the point here? Do these words advance the plot? enhance the atmosphere? give more depth to a character? As they say, every word has to earn its place. Otherwise, what are they doing there? Hit delete? This can be a very painful process!
I’m increasingly aware that exactly the same questions apply to my hobby of photography: what is the point here? What is that photograph about? what point is it trying to make – or what story is it telling? How can that point be emphasised? With the wonderful photo-editing software so readily available these days, photographers can spend many happy hours asking themselves these questions and trying to tweak the image to answer them. Now that process is more addictive than painful.
Just a few thoughts from the keyboard …
Writing groups are everywhere. In my home state of Queensland I know of around forty, and I’m sure there are many more. Some specialise – in romance, in poetry, in crime, in science fiction, in fantasy. Some support writers who have novels in progress. Some aim for publication as a group, others don’t. Some just love playing with words and writing in any genre.
I started my writing life with a vibrant group of about ten people, some experienced writers, other novices like me. That was my apprenticeship. We all learned a lot about critiquing – our own work, and the work of other members. It was an absolutely invaluable learning experience.
Aspiring writers take note!
Every so often something happens to remind us that words – those little symbols on the page, the tools of trade of every writer – are powerful weapons.
Recently the doors of Causeway Books in Hong Kong were suddenly closed when its five owners and employees were detained by mainland security forces for selling books that offend the Chinese Government – primarily political biographies and economic analyses. Causeway Books is well known as a source of factual books on mainland China. It appears that the propaganda ministry has banned emotionally charged words (such as ‘slump’, ‘spike’ and ‘collapse’), and has warned against any analysis or assessment of economic circumstances.
So as we writers agonise over word choice – as we do every day – spare a thought for writers in other countries who are trying to get their message out under very different circumstances.
Years later she still wondered about him. It was one of those chance encounters that you never forgot. She’d been in Canada, bussing out of Kingston on a cold, grey, sleety morning. Suddenly a panting, dishevelled man flung himself on board at the last minute and collapsed into the seat beside her.
He started to talk. He seemed to need to. She didn’t have much choice but to listen.
His fingers twisted, his face worked as he talked. He’d been released from the Kingston jail that morning after fifteen years, he told her. Fifteen years? She couldn’t bring herself to ask what he’d done to deserve that. He’d got used to it, he said, it was all about routine. He’d worked in the kitchen cleaning the stoves. For ten hours a day, day after day, for fifteen years. It could have been worse.
Where was he going? He was going home, he said. To his father. His mother had died while he was in prison. He hadn’t seen either of them since he was put away. They’d never visited. Neither had his sister. His father had refused to collect him in Kingston. But he had nowhere else to go. As the miles flew by beads of perspiration appeared. The closer they got to his destination the more agitated he became. Finally he called out to the driver, retrieved his little duffel bag and glanced down at her. His face was tortured. Good luck, she said. I’ll need it, he replied. She glanced back. No one was waiting at the remote bus stop beside the windy highway.
He is a story waiting to be written.
Stories rain down on you at Christmas. It’s a time when families become a magnet for us all – however distant the family, whatever cracks may have appeared in its fabric during the year, its the family we need to be with at Christmas. In a country the size of Australia many of us travel many thousands of kilometres to be with our families – by air, by rail, by road, sometimes by all three. Then there are those family members living overseas who cover ten times those distances – just to be home for Xmas, however briefly.
Divorce, remarriage, and melded families have complicated Christmas for so many of us. Sometimes the planning around Christmas in these households requires almost military precision, to cover multiple family bases on the day. Often not everyone wants to visit every point, but Christmas has its own protocols.
Whoever we are, each one of us is writing our own Christmas story. It’s up to us to plan ahead for a happy ending.
My Christmas will be spent at the beach in midsummer heat, with family coming and going – as have so many other Christmasses in the past. That’s what feels like Christmas to me.
However you spend your Christmas, I do hope your story is a truly happy one from beginning to end.
She was behind the counter in a coffee shop beside the highway – except it had run out of coffee, so we had icecreams instead. She was keen to chat. She needed to tell her story. She needed to be heard. She was desperate.
She and her husband were sharefarmers with his two brothers, she told us. But schizophrenia ran in the family, times are tough in the drought-stricken bush, and one brother had committed suicide eighteen months ago. The other two men had struggled on, trying to support all three families; the women found such work as they could – always involving a long drive for low wages. Tears started trickling down her cheeks.
Then, she said, a month ago the other brother killed himself. Now she and her husband are trying to support all three families from the one farm with only one worker – him. They couldn’t afford to buy in labour. So they decided to sell the farm, carve up the proceeds and get out of there. To anywhere.
But there are no buyers. Not now. Not until the drought breaks, at least. Perhaps not even then – there are so many farms on the market. They are all trapped. The trickle of tears became a flood. We murmured useless phrases of sympathy, empathy – but how could we city slickers relate to an existential situation like that?
Travel opens so many windows on so many lives, and the glimpses inside can be horrifying. She has haunted me every since. What story would we have heard if we had stopped at the next little struggling eatery? How could it possibly have been worse than this?
I started my ‘Postcards’ page as a way of keeping the website fresh. It’s a long time between books, after all! But creating postcards seems to be becoming an end in itself for me, feeding my twin passions of writing and photography. As well as taking or hunting out photos that can be cobbled together to tell some sort of story, I’m finding that I’m using fewer and fewer words to tell that story, and in a much looser structure. I’ve always admired those fiction writers who are also poets – they seem to pack such a punch with such economy. Perhaps I’m nudging into their territory? Would that I could! At the same time, I’m looking at my photos with a different eye – the image needs to be very simple, and very clear, to work in this context. Lots of cropping needed!
Anyway, I hope you’re enjoying reading the postcards as much as I’m enjoying creating them.