It was a beautiful morning. The sun was shining and the white cedar trees that line the drive of our rural property were all in bloom, scenting the air with their delicate fragrance.
‘Ah, smell that,’ I said to my husband as we set off for our morning walk. ‘Isn’t it lovely.’
In typical fashion Michael grunted. ‘Hunh. I don’t smell anything.’
I stifled a sigh.
One thing I’ve noticed since becoming a writer is that it changes the way you experience life. The majority of people, men in particular, walk through their days with blinders on, never appreciating what’s around them.
But we writers are different, a separate breed. Constantly taking in the little things, those resonant details that others miss, storing them away to use in our stories.
Poor Michael, I thought. If only he’d train himself as I have. To be more observant. To be more aware. Maybe I could show him all he was missing.
‘Wait here,’ I said, and turned to stride over to the nearest tree.
I reached up, snagged the lowest branch and broke off a cluster of flowers. Clutching the posy, I marched back and thrust it beneath his nose. ‘There. Can you smell it now?’
He seemed bemused. An odd sort of smile on his lips as he stood gazing down at me. Finally he answered. ‘Yeah. I guess.’
I stood triumphant for all of two seconds. Until I noticed my knee felt wet. A sensation rapidly spreading down my leg and into my shoe.
This eagle-eyed writer had failed to notice her husband had paused, not to anticipate her return, but to relieve himself against the nearest tree.
There have been moments in the last two years when I felt this whole publishing thing had finally got me beat. That it was time to hang up my pen and take up kick boxing or stunt car driving. Something less painful. Something more sane.
I submitted my work for eleven years before my first novel, Run to Me, was accepted by Random House. I thought I’d finally broken in. Maybe it wouldn’t be all smooth sailing but at least I’d got my foot in the door. I was on my way.
But after waiting a further three years - being held in limbo on two other manuscripts for most of that time - I have yet to publish my second novel. Therefore, after much debating, I’ve decided to do it myself. (You know that ol’ biological clock? An author’s career clock ticks no less loudly!)
So for better or worse, I am hereby committed. My next suspense novel, HIT and RUN, is now with my editor and if all goes to plan I’m looking at a release date sometime in October 2016. (To be announced.) Above is a sneak peak at the cover (selfpubbookcovers.com).
I’ll be on another steep learning curve through all of this. Wish me luck.
The house is looking festive, filled with a sense of anticipation. There’s a basket of apples scenting my kitchen, pumpkins and vegetables cover the counters, and all my big platters and serving bowls are sitting out ready to be filled with traditional Thanksgiving fare.
The kids will be arriving this afternoon, ready to gather wood for the bon fire, prepare the shed for the influx of guests, set the huge table (for 22 this year!), and stoke up the wood stove ready for Sunday.
As American-born parents, Michael and I wanted to give our kids a taste of U.S. tradition. Apart from Christmas (which Australians celebrate in any case) the biggest holiday for us was Thanksgiving and before our children were even born we were keeping the tradition alive in our new home.
It didn’t feel right celebrating Thanksgiving in Australia on the same day they do it in the States. I had a hard enough time adjusting to Christmas without snow so I wanted to keep to the appropriate season.
As luck would have it, South Australia has a long weekend in early winter – the Queen’s Birthday, in the middle of June. So that has become our family’s traditional Thanksgiving holiday.
When we first moved onto our farm and the kids were young, we actually combined this day with Halloween. Back then I had a massive vegetable garden and grew mountains of pumpkins every year. On our Thanksgiving day, after the traditional turkey dinner, a hay ride around the property and dessert and coffee, the kids would all gather round the picnic table and carve some Jack O Lanterns. (When I say ‘kids’ it was most of the grown-ups as well, as everyone wanted to be in on the fun.)
By the time they’d finished, dusk was falling and it was time to light the bon fire. Michael’s pyromaniac friends would get it going, and when the flames had died to the point we could get within fifty feet of it, everyone would pull up a chair and settle in with a port, beer or glass of cider.
That’s when we’d light the Jack O Lanterns, arranging them around on the ground, up in trees, lighting the pathway down to the house. We’d sit in mellow appreciation, digesting our meal, with those laughing, ghoulish, grinning faces shining back at us.
These days I don’t have the vegetable garden (one of the downsides of a bad back) but the rest of the day is still the same: food, drink and plenty of laughs.
We love sharing this tradition with our Australian friends and like to think they have fond memories of the many times we've celebrated it together.
What traditions has your family invented or transplanted to a different country?
As a writer I’m familiar with the 3 act structure as it pertains to novel, theatre and film writing. But it occurs to me a similar structure exists in the art of gourmet cooking, especially among passionate amateur chefs.
Act One is the drama of buying the ingredients. This involves a day (or at least several hours) flitting from one market to the next, examining, fondling and (most importantly) sniffing produce. It requires lengthy questioning of market staff (while other customers line up waiting to be served), debating the merits of one fish gut paste over another, and standing in aisles bemoaning to anyone within earshot, ‘If only I could find that beetroot jerky I bought in Florence that time…’
Act Two is the drama of preparing the meal. This again involves hours of intense labor – chopping, grating, mashing, pulping, dirtying every pot and utensil in the house and covering every inch of counter space in a swill reminiscent of industrial waste.
Like the second act of any good play, this stage involves numerous setbacks and complications. It involves lengthy delays, bouts of swearing and frequent updates on the estimated meal time.
As the hour draws closer to the final act and the tension in the kitchen becomes unbearable, dinner quests retire to the living room (or deck or porch – anywhere away from the harried chef) to mop up the last speck of liver pate and fantasize about peanut butter sandwiches.
Finally, after hours of waiting, (long after anyone’s normal dinner time) the greatly anticipated moment arrives. But just when you think you can sit down and enjoy the meal there is one last Act to this sintilating drama: the meal must be thoroughly analyzed.
This involves the chef reliving the entire experience of creation and sharing any nuance his diners might have missed (or sought to escape).
Again that elusive beetroot jerky gets a mention as the missing ingredient that would’ve elevated this disappointing effort to truly gastronomic heights. For no chef is ever happy with what their efforts. No matter how many compliments or murmurs of delight they get from their dinners, they sink ever deeper into a depression that lasts at least for the rest of the evening and often till they start planning their next diner party.
Having said all this (with tongue in cheek as I dearly love my cooking friends) I can clearly see that, on a different level, this is exactly what I go through when writing a novel. Like the chef I hunt for ingredients (characters and ideas), spent hours preparing (writing) my project and am often in a foul mood while I’m doing it. And when it’s finally done I analyze (edit) from start to finish and am rarely satisfied with the results.
So really I’m just another passion chef preparing a meal I hope people will like. The only difference I can see is that I don't have to starve while I’m doing it.
‘Drama is life with the boring bits left out.’
I love this quote by Alfred Hitchcock. It applies not only to movie making but novel writing as well, especially suspense. And I try to adhere to it as much as possible in writing my own.
What I choose to write in a story is never a blow-by-blow account of what happens. I skip the dull bits and if there’s any information the reader needs from it, I have my characters talk about or reflect on it later.
In the story I’m currently working on I’ve just written the opening scene where my heroine saves a man whose car brakes fail on a steep mountain road. The scene ends with her pulling him from his submerged vehicle and reviving him with CPR thus saving his life.
The next thing that would actually happen in the story is that the paramedics would arrive and take him to the hospital while the heroine is questioned and then driven home by the police.
But there isn’t really much interesting in that. The injured man is once again unconscious so there can be no exchange between him and the heroine. And the heroine will only tell the cops information the reader already knows.
Instead what I’ll do is cut from the moment the heroine revives the stranger to when the police drop her back at her house. There, upon seeing a police car pull up at the door, her father greets her anxiously and a conversation between them deepens both characters and reveals info that furthers the plot.
The only information I need to get across to the reader from the time period I omitted is that the injured man briefly regained consciousness, long enough to look into the heroine’s eyes and say something to her. That’s all I need. And it’s easy enough to have her reflect on this as she’s talking to her father or getting ready to head off to work.
To me the easiest way to know what to cut from a story is by how I feel about writing it. If I’m not looking forward to writing a scene, if it doesn’t excite or move me in some way, I know the chances are pretty good that it won’t do a lot for the reader either.
As a reader, what sorts of things would you prefer to do without in a story? Physical descriptions of the characters? Scene setting? What do you too often find in a story that you'd rather the author had left out?
4pm It’s absolutely howling outside, even worse than when we first arrived. Some of the gusts feel like they’re trying to take the roof off. And raining as well. Solid, steady, ground-soaking rain. The windows are streaked with silver ribbons, the ocean is heaving itself against the rocks and you can’t tell where the grey sky ends and the water begins.
I’m sitting in my chair at the window, a cup of coffee at my side and a Yankee candle (Spiced Pumpkin) burning in the blue cut glass holder on the window sill. Snug and warm. Who could ask for a better spot to write?
The Australian summer is long and dry especially here in South Australia (the driest state in the driest continent on earth). This year the season blew out even further with a lingering stretch of Indian Summer. Enough for the moths to get in an extra breeding cycle. They’ve been everywhere! On the two warm nights we had out here they literally covered the windows.
But with this burst of rain their monster cousins have started emerging. Giant rain moths. Forcing their way up out of the ground, as big and heavy-bodied as sparrows. The surest sign winter is on the way.
Anyone who’s seen me teach or present at an author talk might be surprised to discover I’m an introvert.
Being an introvert isn’t being shy or socially awkward (though it can definitely include those attributes—I’ve suffered from both). Introverts find mixing with others, even friends, leaves them drained. Extroverts are energised by company. But for the introvert, the only way to reinvigorate our resources is to be alone.
I had just wound up a Northern Book Tour with my Suspense Sister, Sandy Vaile, and a marathon one-day workshop with the Eyre Writers. We were both buoyed by mingling with writers, book club members and awesome librarians who welcomed us into their world and laughed in all the right places (thankfully!).
Elated by the positive interaction and feedback, we never-the-less looked forward to reconnecting with old friends and our sadly neglected writing routines on a five-day writing retreat.
Organised by Diane, the retreat group is kept small so that we all have space and privacy. Accommodation is Spartan. We take everything we need, and make do with much less than we would at home. There is no TV. Internet is kept to a minimum and often the signal is too weak to work effectively anyway.
The first time I attended I suffered from sensory deprivation. So desperate was I for stimulation that I walked the beach listening to the only station I could pick up on my old 3G mobile phone—parliament question time. Desperate!
Writing is the primary goal. But the other love that pulls me to the Eyre peninsular is the beach, a great sweeping series of shallow bays populated by nothing but wildlife and the occasional sunburned fisherman.
It was on one of these walks, toward the end of the five days, that I realised just how desperately I needed time alone. Weird. Most of the week there were only seven of us. I had my own room, my own table and laptop. I walked the beach for an hour and half every day alone with my thoughts with only plovers and pelicans for company.
And yet, there I was cross-legged beneath the dunes, listening to waves gently lap the sand and the occasional honk of pacific geese as they found a place to rest for the coming night.
Ten minutes was all I needed. Ten minutes of listening to nature with no thought of writing or talking or even walking. Just reconnecting with myself.
I returned to my friends and to my writing with renewed vigour.
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This time around on our writing retreat two of our authors, Rowena Holloway and Sandy Vaile, drove all the way from Adelaide to join us.
In addition to giving author talks in Port Augusta and Port Pirie on their way over, these two published suspense authors ran a lively workshop for members of Port Lincoln’s Eyre Writers on the Saturday prior to the start of the retreat.
On Sunday they gave a combined presentation at the Port Lincoln library, entertaining listeners with accounts of their journeys to publication, with trailers and readings from their books.
I met these two fabulous authors at the Salisbury Writers Festival years ago and since then we’ve attended several conferences together, including the 2010 Willamette Writers Festival in Portland Oregon.
It’s great having them both here on retreat – a rare chance for us all to catch up. I’ve asked them each to give an account of their experience here and first up we’ll hear from Sandy, author of Inheriting Fear.
Hi, I’m Sandy Vaile and it’s been four years since I last joined Diane and her critiquing group for a writing retreat. It’s a precious gift to spend a week in relative isolation. Quiet time from dawn until dusk, to nurture those creative juices and let them shape my latest work in progress.
I don’t sleep well at the best of times, so am awake long before sunrise, and busy at my keyboard by 5 am. I leave the lights in the writing hall off and work by candle-light. A dark cocoon where only the characters on the page matter.
When the sun finally makes an appearance, the view from my writing table is spectacular. I am positioned in front of a huge window in the hall, overlooking the rugged beach and Tumby Bay. A sly rabbit sneaks onto the beach when it thinks no-one is watching, sniffs around the seaweed drifts, and then bounds back to the safety of the sand hills.
The weather isn’t quite what I was hoping for, with howling wind and squalling rain, but it’s a good excuse to stay inside and write. Every now and then the clouds are blown away and the sun brightens this special place for a while. That’s when I take advantage of the rugged coast for a walk with my friends: exercise, mind clearing and a valuable brainstorming session in one.
The ocean surge struggles to scale the slight incline of the beach. It foams with the effort, and just when it’s near to the peak, is torn back to the grey depths. A good simile for novel creation, I think.
The atmosphere is relaxed, with people coming and going from the writing hall at their leisure. The arrangement has to be flexible, because writing is a culmination of activities, not purely the act of sitting at the keyboard. It involves reading, researching, brainstorming, problem solving, communing with the muse, and dialogue with mates.
Today I made a vat of Orange Delight soup for a communal lunch, and it went down a treat.
Orange Delight Soup
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1 litre stock (vegetable or chicken)
½ sweet potato
1 can coconut milk
Dice the onion finely, and sauté them in a large pot until semi-translucent. Add the spices and stir for a minute. Pour in the stock. Peel and dice the vegetables, and add to the pot. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for 20 minutes (or until the vegetables are tender). Add the coconut milk and white pepper to taste. Puree the soup and serve with a crusty roll.
On this second day of our writing retreat, we had a lively discussion after dinner on punctuation and its impact on the reading experience. (What else would a bunch of writers talk about?)
Several people remarked that they hated italics and exclamation marks because they felt the author was trying to dictate to them how they should interpret the text. As a musician I found this interesting as it pertains to music notation as well.
Early music has no dynamic markings. Prior to the invention of the piano no instrument was capable of producing variations in dynamics. (Because a harpsicord’s strings are plucked it doesn’t matter how hard you strike the key you always get the same volume.) Embellishments and ornamentation in early music consisted of various trills and turns and were left entirely up to the performer.
But with the piano all that changed. For the first time musicians could vary how loud or soft they played. (The name piano is short for piano forte which literally means soft-loud.)
Varying dynamics in music performance came into practice very slowly as initially it was viewed as being in poor taste, a cheap embellishment. But by the early classical period this had changed as well.
Beethoven was one of the first composers to truly embrace this new development. His symphony scores are filled with accents, sfortzandos, crescendos, subito pianos and the odd grand pause, with dynamic notations ranging from double piano (pp) to double forte (ff). Clear instructions to the performer how he wanted his music to sound.
Tchaikovski and Wagner took things to extremes with markings ranging from pppp to ffff. But as far as the listener was concerned the dynamic range remained the same whether a composer wrote one ‘p’ or ten as musicians simply adjusted their dynamic pallet accordingly.
Markings in music guide musicians in performing the piece as the composer intended it. Exactly what some writers attempt to do with certain types of punctuation. (To me a word written in italics is like a note with an accent under it.)
The difference I suppose is that with writing there is no middle man – the audience is the reader herself.
Still, as a musician accustomed to receiving the creator’s guidance in enterpreting a work, I have no problem with the odd italicized word or exclamation mark. As long as the author doesn’t get carried away and become a Tchaikowski.
We arrived at the campsite just before nine this morning. The place looked pretty much as we’d left it when we were here for a mini retreat back in March.
Although we refer to it as a ‘campsite’ we’re not roughing it by any means. Everyone who comes on retreat gets their own bedroom in the dorm just a stone’s throw from the ocean. The beds are comfy and the sound of waves breaking on the beach is soothing at night. The kitchen is huge and fully equipped, and the hall, where most of us set up our work tables, has windows overlooking the sea and a slow combustion stove for heat.
After the lengthy Indian Summer we've had, the weather decided to go straight into winter. It blew a gale for most of the day with occasional showers. Which wasn’t really a problem as most of us enjoy sitting snug in the hall writing to the sound of rain on the roof.
It was my night to cook dinner (each of us takes a turn through the week) and I made up a huge tray of spinach lasagne with German cheesecake for desert. (We work up an appetite writing all day!)
Side note: I first had German cheesecake at a bakery in Handorf in the Adelaide Hills. I loved it so much I decided I had to make it myself. But when I couldn’t find a recipe I had to invent one. The following is the closest I've come and received high approval ratings from the group:
cookie crumb crust - 2 cups crushed graham crackers (or wheaten biscuits for the Aussies), 100 gms of melted butter and a ½ tsp cinnamon. Press onto bottom of cheesecake tin.
Blend in a blender:
4 large pkts low-fat cream cheese (Low-fat actually makes a creamier cake than full-fat cheese. Plus I feel less guilty slathering it with cream when I eat it.)
1 1/3 cups raw sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons vanilla
Bake 50 minutes at 180.
Topping: 6 apples peeled, cooked and coarsely chopped with 1 tblsp sugar and 1 tsp cinnamon. Spread this over the cooled cheesecake and top with cream.
My day’s progress…
I don’t know if I’m alone in this but windy days aren’t my best when it comes to writing. I feel restless and find it hard to focus. Still, I managed to get a chapter written.
As I write this (just before heading off to bed) it’s still blowing a gale outside. We took a chance and didn’t order any firewood so hopefully it won’t get too cold through the week.
My walk on the beach will have to wait until tomorrow.