Tag Archives: fiction

10 obvious things I had to learn for myself writing my novel

I have written scholarly books in a previous life, so I have omitted the stuff I knew; for example, writing is hard work [oh yes!]; there is no other way to start than to write one word and then another and then a sentence and a paragraph etc; if it is boring and unclear to you, well, it will be to everyone else and it is amazing what the human mind can conjure up to avoid sitting in front of the blank page and creating a masterpiece.
No doubt these are the staple of writing workshops and you already know them, dear reader. I did it the hard way.
1. Have in mind for whom you are writing – note that I am old-fashioned and cannot end a sentence with a preposition. Write for an audience, not simply for yourself.
2. ‘Nice’ and ‘good’ characters are boring; make them complicated and imperfect.
3. What makes me most uncomfortable and even distressed as a subject is what turns out to be my most authentic and engaging writing.
4. Insert ‘shame’ in 3 and it is doubly so.
5. Eliminate the adverb.
6. Avoid generic descriptions and declarations, always make them personal and specific to the characters’ points of view.
7. Show, not tell. Yes, yes, a total cliche but especially important to me as I spent years as a university professor teaching and writing to explain and analyse. Great for teaching, death for a novel.
8. Following from 7, ‘less is more’.
9. If it feels flat or inauthentic to me, it will to a reader. Dump it and try again; perseverance no matter what is not always the answer.
10. Swallow hard – gulp – and be prepared to discard entire drafts.

found them, killed them, wrong house

which was my entry in the Writers Victoria ‘six word story’ competition and which received a prize!
Thank you Writers Victoria!
It is the first time I have entered any form of literary competition, so you can imagine my happiness at this modest success and the encouragement it gives me to persevere with my longer forms of fiction writing – not that I was ever going to give.
Many of you will know that the concept of the six word story began when Hemingway was challenged and came up with this poignant pearl:
for sale, baby shoes, never worn

So, please forgive my moment of boastful self-congratulation and now I return to the grindstone of good old Scrivener.
Onwards and upwards!

A bucket full of red herrings

Having used the Austen device to tear my lovers apart, it is time to use that old standard in mysteries, namely, the RED HERRING. Heaps of them!
By the way, from whence comes the term ‘red herring’? Someone out there will tell me.
So, for those who have been paying attention (thank you, thank you!) who are the obvious red herrings upon which suspicion may fall for the deaths of the pilgrims?
Now that we see a possible religious theme and the playing out of a macabre ritual through the placement of corpses on various church steps and patios, who is our most likely red herring candidate?
Given the usual twists and turns of mystery stories, will one of the aforesaid herrings actually be the killer?
Will it be like ‘real life’ where there is rarely one truth? Don’t be alarmed, I am not going post-modern on you (in any event, so passe), but it may be that there are competing truths….
Oh and to make it clear, I am going to be a complete rat and not give any answers. I do want you to read the book when it does appear – no holding of breath though 😉

The Austen device

Tom and Anika meet again in Conques in France exactly one year after they parted and exactly as they had promised. Their love has withstood its first test and it would be easy now to write a story where they stay together and live happily ever after; how boring would that be? As Tolstoy famously wrote [I paraphrase here] – all happy families are the same, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own distinct way.
The genre demands that our two lovers must suffer for their love as we do in the so called real world. They must be separated before they can consummate [delightfully old fashioned word, no?] their love and in Jane Austen’s world they must be kept apart until the very end through circumstance or that favourite device, ‘the misunderstanding’. Think Persuasion in particular where red blooded readers will be shouting ‘come on guys, get it together!’ but the resolution is deferred repeatedly.
So it comes to pass that Tom and Anika must be plucked apart; as luck would have it, Anika receive news that her father in England has had a heart attack and she must leave Conques and fly to England that very day.
Mere hours after being reunited, Anika is in a taxi to Rodez airport and Tom is left bereft in the village.
Will they never be together?
And how is their romance linked with the mystery of the pilgrim deaths?

Ritual deaths

Tom learns bizarre details of two pilgrim deaths on the Chemin near where he is currently walking. The deaths had been almost an intellectual puzzle to solve, now they take on a grisly reality.
The bodies of two elderly female pilgrims have been found in nearby villages, meticulously posed on the steps of little village churches in positions of prayer. It is as though they have fallen asleep and been taken by the angel of mercy whilst in the act of prayer; calm, meditative expressions on their faces and no sign of struggle or harm. No sign of violence and one could be simply the death of an old pilgrim struggling to reach the church for succour and shelter; two deaths the same is stretching coincidence too far.
Nobody except Tom seems to know or to care.
What is he to do?

Is Lucy a ghost?

Readers and friends have asked me to ‘explain’ Lucy and that is to try to explain the unexplainable.
They ask ‘is she a ghost?’
If so, does she have an existence and autonomy of her own?
How does she come into being?
Has she power over the living?
You will recall that Lucy is Tom’s dead wife whom he has brought back into existence ( I did not use the word ‘life’ ) from the extremes of his love and his grief. My personal belief and experience is that such appearances in bodily form, call them spirits or ghosts or whatever, are entirely of our own making and have no independent existence. They cannot be seen or heard by others and can ‘influence’ the living only through dialogue.
Lucy is a projection of Tom’s emotional state; if you like, she is his alter ego with whom he converses and who guides him. He trusts her and relies upon her as he did when she was alive and in my novel she guides him out of his grief and towards the light and the future.
Tom knows what he needs to do, but needs to hear it from her as part of his journey out of sorrow and guilt towards happiness and self-forgiveness.
What greater love could there be?

Love and death are in the air on the Chemin de Saint Jacques

Tom begins his commissioned walk from Le Puy en Velay to Saint Jean Pied de Port, the 734 km journey which I undertook in 2013 as preparation for this novel.
In 12 days time it will be one year since Anika and Tom parted and agreed to meet again in a year.
The two have had zero contact in the last year.
Much will happen to our hero in the 12 days until the two lovers are supposed to be re-united.
The weather is bad on the Aubrac plateau; snow and sleet and wind churning the path to mud and ice and few are walking in such wild weather.
Tom travels through the forests near Domaine du Sauvage and learns of the deaths of two pilgrims in the woods. A few days later he hears of the death of a third pilgrim and what was abstract when read on a computer screen becomes real as he walks the same paths upon which they walked and died and hears their stories from the locals.
The reality of the deaths is heightened by the drama of the wild weather and the handful of scared pilgrims huddle together as news of the dead pilgrims spreads along the Chemin.
In the midst of the fear and of the rumours, Tom is astonished to meet Charo, whom he had met previously when crossing the Pyrenees on another day of wild weather and who had told him a bizarre story of an elderly pilgrim ‘vanishing’ near the ancient monastery refuge of Roncesvalles: intriguingly, there was talk of Anika accompanying the woman before she died.
What is Charo, a most unlikely pilgrim, doing walking the Chemin alone?
Is it a coincidence that she has met Tom again?
Will Tom lose faith that he and Anika will meet on their anniversary (how? where?) and instead be tempted by the attractive and flirtatious Charo?
How and why are the pilgrims dying?
How can Tom combine solving the mystery of their deaths with writing his novel about their deaths?

My characters have been waiting impatiently to get back on stage

Remember Anika and Tom? You do? It has been only one month since I wrote here of their adventures, it seems longer than that as I have been busy on other tasks.
Both have been walking the Camino, they have met and (like in the Hollywood classics) have agreed to meet in a year. No contact during the year, no plans, they will find each other for true love always finds a way.
Back in Australia, Tom is gathering information on pilgrims dying on the Camino in Spain and on the Chemin de Saint Jacques in France; in fact, some 10 or so people are known to die each year walking or cycling to Santiago, there may be more that are not recorded, and there are plaques here and there to commemorate their lives and deaths. This has always been a reality on pilgrimages, more so in the past when illness was rife and banditry a constant danger.
Now Tom is returning to Europe to cross the Pyrenees on commission and then to walk from Le Puy en Velay to Saint Jean Pied de Port to gather more information re peregrino deaths and, of course, to meet Anika on 22 May.
He has decided to write a novel about love and death on the Camino as a cover for his research on the personal tragedies of the dead pilgrims. Yes, there is some old fashioned post-modern reflexivity at work as I write a novel about a guy writing a novel. Do not to be alarmed, there will be no linguistic tricks or theorising, it is simply a device for Tom possibly to earn some money (he has no source of income) and to put a little distance between him and the realities of pilgrims dying.

The writing process: conquering the wastelands of Act 2

I had 50,000 words of draft 4 of my novel-in-progress and all had been running smoothly; heavens, I was even writing in Paris! Okay, not in an attic, still you get the picture and then boom. The plot became bogged, main character motivations became muddied, key turning points were arriving too early or too late in the narrative and the whole boat was listing badly, if not actually taking in water and sinking.
What had gone wrong?
I had been rattling along and feeling pretty good about my writing and thinking hmm, I should have draft 4 finished and ready to send to the assessor by the end of this year. By late yesterday I knew that it was not working: the narrative arc stalled exactly as I had read about and been warned about in writing workshops.
We have all read novels which start with a bang – original, tightly paced, sympathetic characters, interesting location and all the rest – and then it loses momentum, becomes flaccid, drifts, labours to make points and seems stale. Then we hit Act 3 and we pick up steam and sail into port (to muddle a few metaphors).
What to do? Back to the assessor’s comments to see what I had forgotten in the excitement of being in my own little world of writing every day and then, painfully, back to read the manuscript from page 1 to see where it had stalled. I was horrified to discover how much I had ‘forgotten’ of the detailed assessment discussions and reports and was able after a couple of hours of close reading of my manuscript to see where it had fallen flat. More sighs and then major surgery: deleting chunks of ‘fine writing’ which slowed the narrative and added nothing and bringing forward 1 turning point and delaying another.
Time will tell if the problem is solved. I comfort myself that at least I could tell when the words were dying as they fell from my pen.
Back to work with a lighter heart ….

Coast to Coast mayhem: Episode 5

Isolated in our rooms except when questioned by DI Kate, time passes slowly as the rain tumbles down. There is unexpected good news. Jeri is out of danger and it was not poison, rather a rare allergy to the Mozambique toffee used in the desert and Jeri is due to rejoin us in a few days. So we are back to two deaths and we cling to the hope that maybe it can all be innocently explained. We all have our theories and Matilda’s astute observations of us has led her to focus her suspicions on one member of the group. Oh foolish woman! That evening on the stairs she tells one of our group of her conclusions and that she plans to share her thoughts with the lovely Kate first thing in the morning. A terrible mistake indeed.
The next morning one person is missing at breakfast – Matilda. There is a frantic search and she is found dead in the drying room, cooked to death with the temperature set at maximum and the door jammed shut. With her own blood and in her dying moments she has managed to scratch one word on the inside of the drying room door. The police will not reveal that fatal word; at least now they have a real clue and we must put aside our childish hopes of an innocent explanation and accept that we have a cold blooded murderer, perhaps a lunatic, in our midst.
Tentative connections emerge. Ralph worked with the US military in Australia. Jean was in the Australian army. Mel was a crack investigative war journalist in Iraq and Afghanistan before choosing a quieter and slower life in Western Australia. Jenny says that Bruce had army connections, but this proves untrue; why has Jenny tried to shift attention to good old Bruce? Denise has come to Australia from South Africa and there are whispers of dark secrets but she divulges nothing. Has Jeri deliberately staged her seizure to distract us all from the truth, for she also has wandered the world and is a mathematical whizz. More details are unearthed of Ralph’s undercover military work across the globe and Kate understands that it his death which is the key and that the other deaths resulted from saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person. It is in Ralph’s history that the answer must lie.
And at night time she walks and talks with Will and the passion which never died is rekindled in the moonlight as we wait in fear, the old grandfather clock in the front parlour measuring out our time.
The concluding episode is upon us …