Monday, 10 November 2014 03:18

Defining Moments #1: Making Them Cry

People talk about defining moments as those experiences that set us on a certain path and forever change the course of our lives. I’ve had two such experiences that still affect me on a daily basis and which have combined to become the driving force behind nearly everything I do in life. Here is the first.

When I was eleven and had been learning violin for a year, my grandmother bought me my first decent instrument. She paid $100, which in those days was big bucks to pay for a student violin. (Many people told her her money was wasted as I wasn’t very good at school and had never stuck with anything in my life.)

The next time Oma came to visit us, she asked to hear me play the new violin. My mother opened my book to a song I had learned a few weeks earlier – Going Home – and said Oma would like that one.

I played the song without a hitch (or so I thought) but when I finished and looked over at Oma I saw she was crying.

My first thought was that I’d played so badly, she was crying because she’d wasted her money. But my mother explained that the song had special meaning for Oma (it’s a hymn about going home to heaven) and she was crying not because my playing was bad but because it had moved her.

This was my first experience with the power of music and I can honestly say it changed my life. To discover I could move people to tears or joy just with the sounds I produced was a total revelation, one that thrills me to this day.

In the last twenty years I’ve changed my primary means of expression from music to writing. But the prospect of moving others with words, and the stories I write, thrills me no less than it did with sound.

Next time: Defining moment 2

Friday, 04 September 2015 10:46

Different Ways Writers Are Born

Most authors I talk to say they were avid readers as children and that’s where their desire to write came from. Many had written their first 'books' while still in grade school. 

Sadly, ADHD made reading difficult for me so I didn’t do it much as a child. I didn’t discover the joy of reading until well into high school and the thought of writing a book never entered my head until decades later. 

My earliest taste of story-telling came through a completely different medium. 

As an only child I had to entertain myself a fair bit. My parents, both classical musicians, had given me my own record player with a collection of records. 

These were all big ‘cinematic’ pieces – Nutcracker Suite, Rite Of Spring, Night On Bald Mountain, Fire Bird, Pictures At An Exhibition, etc. 

As I listened to these works alone in my room, I used my stuffed animals to act out stories that the music inspired. 

These pieces have such wonderfully ‘visual’ elements, such heroic highs and desperate lows, such dramatic escalations and release of tension and I learned to shape my stories accordingly.

I created these plays for my own amusement. But I remember one day some friends came around and, with nothing else to do, I put on a record and performed one of my stories for them. 

Perched on my bed with my audience seated on the floor before me, I acted out the story I’d invented to go with The Fire Bird Suite. 

I vividly remember the looks on their faces, their changing expressions as my story unfolded. And what a thrill I felt knowing my efforts had been responsible. 

Though it took some time to emerge, I believe it was this early experience that years later grew into a joy of writing novels.

With a beginning like that it’s not surprising many readers have commented that Run To Me, my debut thriller, was very cinematic in its treatment. 

In 2010 I was at a crossroads with my writing and wondering if it was worth traveling all the way from South Australia to Portland Oregon to attend the Willamette Writers Conference.

A host of opportunities awaited me there, among them my first ever chance to pitch one of my novels to an editor or agent. Several in fact. Coming from overseas, however, such a trip would be double the usual cost. Could I justify the expense?

One night, at the height of this internal debate, I went to bed and found on the wall above my pillow, the moth pictured in the photo above. I'd never seen this species before and was intrigued by its beautiful satiny sheen. (It's called the Satin Acacia moth)

I very carefully slipped it onto a tissue, carried it outside and released it.

The following morning I got up, dressed and went to the kitchen to have breakfast. Seated at the table I happened to look down and there, on the floor, was either the very same moth (if so, how did it get back in the house?) or another of the exact same species (which I'd never seen once in the twenty years I'd been living in the area).

The moth above my bed the previous night had had its wings folded down close to its body. This time, however, the moth's wings were spread, revealing a pattern on its under wings. A pattern that looked for all the world as though someone had taken a magic marker and written a 'W' on each wing.

It was then I noticed the same two letters patterned in red on the moth's upper wings:

W W   

Willamette Writers.

I still get a chill when I think of that moment. You could almost convince me that, having failed to get through to me the night before, the cosmos was presenting its message a second time. In a form even I couldn't miss.

I ended up going to the conference and there met an editor. And though he didn't accept the novel I pitched to him, he gave me some brilliant suggestions for changes, which I did, and a year later Random House accepted the revised manuscript.  

So what do you think? A sign from beyond or mere coincidence? If the latter, it was truly a long shot - I have not seen this moth again since that night.

Friday, 16 October 2015 00:47

My Blog's Second Anniversary

When I first started thinking about writing a blog I had strong reservations. Would I stick with it? Could I think of enough things to say? Would it take up too much of my novel-writing time? I decided the only way I could know was to give it a try for a year and see how I went.

On this, the anniversary of my second year of blogging, I’m pleased to report I am truly loving it. It seems there’s no end to the things I can find to say about books, reading, and the craft I love.

In these last two years I’ve let my blog evolve organically. Looking back now, I can see that most of my 53 posts were possibly aimed more toward writers than readers. But since writing is my greatest passion I’m not sure there’s much I can do about that. Or even if I want to.

One of the first books on writing I ever read was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones. No book I’ve read, before or since, has so instilled me with the love of the craft.

Any time I’m feeling blocked or discouraged, I go back and re-read my dog-eared copy. When writing starts to feel too complicated, when I start putting too much pressure on myself, Natalie’s book reminds me of the simple joy of putting words on a page.

Over these last 2 years I’ve come to realize that this is part of what I hope to accomplish with my blog. With these short discussions of various aspects of the craft, I hope to get others as fired up about writing as I am. If I can impart to others a fraction of the joy Natalie’s book has given me, I’ll feel I’ve succeeded.  

What I would love is some feedback from readers. If you’ve been a regular visitor to My Writing Room please tell me what you think and what you’d like to see more of in my future posts – more talks about writing and the writing life, more book reviews, personal stories, or maybe something I haven’t even tried yet.

With your input I might just keep blogging for another two years!

I’m a stationery addict and I’ve gone three weeks without buying a notebook.

Yes, I confess, I love paper in all its forms. I can’t go into an office shop without picking up some new notebook or pad. And at back-to-school time when all the new stationery comes out in shops I’m in absolute heaven!

This love carries over to my travelling as well. Whenever I visit a new place I scour the gift shops for quirky journals and notebooks to bring home. Like souvenirs, each is a reminder of the time and place I bought it – the people I was with, the good times we had – even though I might not write in it until years later.

My only guilt in this obsession is that I love trees as much as paper. For this reason wherever possible I seek out stationery made from recyled materials. And as luck would have it, those wonderful creations with handmade paper, some even made from scraps of cloth, are among the loveliest to write in.

Each type of paper has different qualities and works best with a particular pen I find. A fine-tipped or ball point pen tends to scratch and tear handmade paper. But I love how the ink from a roller ball gel pen soaks into those same felty leaves. Almost like painting the words on the page instead of writing them.

When freewriting, where speed is a factor, nothing beats a gel pen. Though the ink tends to smudge, it glides on so fast and effortlessly my hand never tires.

In my journals with real paper pages I love how a good felt-tipped pen creates such clean neat lettering. (Something we Virgos always find satisfying.) But I don’t like paper with a glossy sheen as it tends to repel the ink, whatever type of pen you use.

As much as I enjoy typing (a sensation akin to playing piano), nothing beats the feel of writing by hand. And perhaps, as Natalie Goldberg says in Writing Down the Bones, we access different parts of ourselves when we write by hand than when using a keyboard.

As obsessions go, I don’t feel too guilty about my love affair with paper. After all, a craftsman should always love their tools.

Saturday, 09 January 2016 03:01

The Power of Visualizing Success

I’ve just been reading the chapter in Unbeatable Mind, by Mark Divine (see my last post) about the power of visualization and thought I would share an amazing experience I had many years ago.

As part of my violin studies at the Eastman School of Music, I was required to give a recital each year. The first three I gave were total disasters. Due to uncontrolled nervousness I had frequent and major memory slips. On one occasion I even had to leave the stage and get the music in order to complete my performance.

Following that humiliating experience I decided I had to do something about my stage fright or quit performing altogether. But I had no idea what to try.

As luck would have it I was writing a paper on hypnosis at the time for my psychology class. After doing a bit of the research I wondered if auto hypnosis might help me in overcoming my problem.  

I began practicing slow breathing to get myself in a relaxed state. Once I was there, I imagined myself walking out on stage to give a performance.

Immediately my breathing would quicken, my heart rate sore, so I’d let go the image and return to deep breathing to bring me back to my state of peace.

It took a couple of weeks of practice but I finally got to the point where I could imagine myself walking out on stage and experience no change in my breathing or pulse.

I then moved on to visualizing myself playing a piece of music – the Bach Chaconne I was currently working on. I imagined this as vividly as possible, feeling the strings beneath my fingers, the bow in my hand.  

The difference between this visualized performance and an actual one was that in my mind I could play the piece perfectly. I could feel my energies perfectly directed, nothing wasted, calm and focused.

I’d been doing this practice once a day for about a month when my teacher asked me to play the piece at a Master Class he was giving in his studio.

The Bach Chaconne is a massive unaccompanied movement filled with chords and intricate passages, in my case posing a huge potential for memory slips. Performing it was going to be a challenge indeed.

When the day came, I stood before my fellow students, closed my eyes and began to play. At once I became deeply absorbed in the music, to the point I didn’t even know how I played – all I heard was what I imagined, just like in one of my practice sessions.

When I finished and lifted my bow from the string, my heart dropped. No-one was clapping. Not even ‘sympathy’ applause. My performance must have been truly awful!

To my total shook, when I opened my eyes, I found myself standing at the back of the studio facing the wall, my audience behind me. It wasn’t until I turned around that I saw them all sitting there in stunned silence.

They told me I’d been slowly walking around the room as I played. (A good thing to learn before I performed the piece in a hall so I’d know not to walk off the stage!) At one point they feared I might walk into the grand piano but I seemed so ‘entranced’ they didn’t want to interrupt me.

That was my first taste of the power of visualization. I have used the technique many times since, not just for music but in relation to writing as well. When pitching a manuscript to an editor at a conference I prepare by visualizing myself talking in a relaxed and confident way.

It never fails to ease my jitters.

Saturday, 19 October 2013 00:26

An introduction

I’ve been debating for a long time whether or not to start a blog. On the one hand I’m passionate about writing and excited at the prospect of sharing my thoughts with readers and other writers. The trouble is I know I’ll spend hours revising and polishing each of my posts which could cut into my novel-writing time.

The bottom line is I won’t know till I try, so I’ve decided to give it a go for a year writing one blog a week and at the end of that time re-evaluate and decide whether I want to continue.

What will I be blogging about: all aspects of writing and the writer’s life.

What qualifies me to write a blog?

I’ve been writing fiction for 15 years. In that time I’ve completed ten novels, one of which, RUN TO ME, was published by Random House with two others currently in the pipeline; 35 short stories, 8 of which were published in That’s Life magazine; and a three-part series on my adventures running a donkey sanctuary published in Donkey Digest US magazine.

I read obsessively on the craft of writing, creativity in general and on motivation and goal achievement. High achievers in any field fascinate me and I love analyzing the winning habits of top musicians, athletes, artists, scientists and even business people.

As a professional violinist (Bachelor of Music from The Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY) I continually draw parallels between music and writing that hopefully others may find interesting.

To date I’ve attended 5 major writers’ conferences both in Australia and the US, and countless workshops, large and small.

I’ve been a member of an active critiquing group for 14 years and organize week-long writing retreats three times a year on their behalf.

As workshop coordinator of my local writing club I plan and prepare exercises for one-day and weekend workshops that I’m told are both fun and creatively stimulating.

Lastly, and perhaps most valuable of all, in the years I’ve been writing I have screwed up just about everything you can get wrong in fiction and learned enormously from the experience!

I hope you’ll enjoy what I have to share.

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