Diane Hester

Diane Hester

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.)

6 eggs

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.

I’m currently preparing to head off for another writing retreat, our first week-long one of the year. My bags are packed, the dog is looking decidedly anxious (he knows the signs I’m going away), and the car is loaded and awaiting our early departure in the morning. 

 I first began organizing retreats solely for my critiquing group. The four of us would book a campsite on the South Australian coast for a weekend of writing once a year. 

But as more and more writer friends asked to join us we began extending and expanding these events. We now hold 2 or 3 retreats a year and have as many as 9 writers attending them. 

This time around we’ll have a full house with six locals and three fly-ins from Adelaide taking part.

Normally I don’t go into much detail about retreats here in my blog but this time I thought I’d try something different. I thought it might be fun to chronicle the week day-by-day to share the experience. 

I’ll include a bit about the progress I’m making in writing the first draft of my latest thriller, No Good Deed (working title), whatever points of interest pop up and maybe get one of the other retreaters to do a guest blog to give their experience.

So if you’re interested in hearing what a group of novelists gets up to on their own at the beach for a week, stop by to read the next few posts. 

Tuesday, 19 April 2016 09:30

Places Where I Love To Write

Growing up in our postage stamp yard in Valley Stream, Long Island (NY) all I ever wanted was to have my own tree house. (Right from the start I knew I was a country girl at heart.) Sadly the only tree we had on our property wouldn’t have supported a modest doll house.

When I was 13 we moved to Poughkeepsie (rural in those days) and our new half-acre yard had no fewer than 96 trees! But again none of them were big enough to build a house in so I had to content myself visiting a friend’s one down the road. (Talk about your tree house envy!)

Years later, married and with two kids of my own, our family moved onto our 50 acre farm in South Australia. The first thing I did – before painting the living room, picking out curtains, or choosing the furniture – was to build a tree house. (For the kids of course, I told everyone. But we both know the truth.)

It’s a humble creation with bunk beds, shelves, a firemen’s pole for easy exit, and a basket on a pulley for hoisting food and things up to the window. I like to think my kids have fond memories of the many sleep-outs they had with friends up in that sky fort.

Now that they’re grown and left home however, the tree house has become one of several places I love to write. (Though I don’t often use the firemen’s pole!)

There’s something magical about being up in a tree, looking out over sweeping green fields dotted with sheep and massive eucalypts.

In spring a willy wagtail flits through the window to feed her chicks in the nest on the shelf. And every now and then a gecko pops its head out from behind a board to say hello. But that’s okay – I don’t mind sharing.

What about you? Do you have a special place you love to retreat to? To write or read or simply re-group when life gets too hectic?

If you’re a ‘creative’, do you find certain settings more conducive to working in than others? Places where your child’s imagination runs wild? If so, I'd love to hear about them.

Almost from the time I began writing novels I had a plan for reaching my goal of making a living as a full-time author.

When I had a novel ready to submit I’d research publishers accepting that genre, make a list and work my way through it in order of preference.  

In the meantime of course the theory was that I would keep working. But it didn’t always pan out that way. Writing is hard. Basking in the knowledge I’d written something and sent it to a publisher was easier and a lot more fun to think about.

As the weeks went by with no reply on my submission, I found it harder and harder to focus on my work in progress. My mind kept flitting back to the editor who had my manuscript. Had they read it yet? Why hadn’t they gotten back to me? What on earth was taking so long?

This sense of time wasting got me feeling enormously frustrated. It took me several years to see (and perhaps another to fully accept) that certain things are out of my hands as a writer. And the bottom line is – what’s out of my hands is not my job.

I have no control over when an editor reads my submission; when, or even if they reply to me. I have no control over what themes they like, their personal hates, or what their other authors are writing.

The only thing I have control over as a writer is the quality and quantity of the work I produce. That’s it. That’s my number one job – keep writing to the best of my ability. And as long as I’m doing that, time isn’t wasting.

Yes, the submission process takes ages, often years. But that need not be a source of frustration. You can still be moving your career forward even before your first book is published. How? By writing.

In a nutshell here is my submission strategy:

#1 Finish the book

#2 Revise it until it’s the best I can make it with the writing skills I currently possess. Don’t get hung up on endlessly tinkering with a single manuscript. Move on. Write the next one. With each book you refine and acquire new skills.

#3 Submit my polished manuscript to the editors on my list. And in the meantime…

#4 Start a new project.

This is the best way I’ve found to conquer the pressure that builds inside me after I’ve submitted a manuscript. Sitting around waiting makes me feel powerless, my life controlled by the whim of others.

As long as I keep writing new stories, whenever I begin to fret that time is wasting I can say to myself, ‘No, it’s not. I’m doing my job. When the call comes, I will be ready.’

Even if it takes ten or more years to get your first novel accepted (it took me 11 years BTW) if you stick to this plan, you could quite well have ten other manuscripts to show your new editor when the time finally comes.

Your editor might not want to publish all of them but even if they take just one or two you’re ahead of the game. For most authors revising an older manuscript is faster than starting a new one from scratch. And as sales experts know: the best time to sell your second book is straight after you’ve sold your first.

Your earlier manuscripts weren’t necessarily rejected because they’re no good. Often manuscripts get rejected simply because their genre isn’t selling at the time, or the publisher just released a book on a similar subject. The market fluctuates. What’s not selling today could be the hottest thing in five years time.

So don’t slow down on your production. The minute you submit a manuscript, start the next. That is your power as a writer.

Those manuscripts in your bottom drawer aren’t rejects, they’re planes on the runway waiting to take off!

Tuesday, 22 March 2016 02:41

The Value of a Writer's Getaway

I've just returned from another of the writing retreats I organize for my critiquing group. (We book a remote seaside accommodation 3 or 4 times a year and just go there by ourselves to write.) This was only a mini one - 3 days and 2 nights. Usually they run for a week or more.

A strange thing happened as I walked the beach this time. Images from stories I'd worked on at past retreats flashed through my mind, a montage of characters and scenes parading before me - ghosts from projects past.

It made me realize just how long we've been doing these retreat. Nine years in fact. This most recent was actually our 27th one!

So why do we do them? Why do we all love them so much? Why has nearly everyone who's attended one asked to come back again?

Our group has often discussed this and for some the reasons are individual. One woman who lives alone enjoys the company. Another who collects shells enjoys combing the beach as she plots her stories.

But all of us agree there are three main reasons why we love retreats:

Fewer distractions

This would have to be the number one reason people choose to attend our retreats. No TV, no friends dropping by, no family demands, no housework (aside from cooking one night's dinner) means everyone can focus entirely on their work. Some even choose not to bring a WIFI dongle so the internet doesn't take up any time.

Fewer avoidance options

One of our regular attendees once remarked, 'At home when I hit a rough patch in my writing it's all too easy to find something else to do. Suddenly the laundry needs doing or I have to weed the garden, or whatever. At retreats I don't have those options so I'm forced to sit there and push through the problem. As a result I get heaps more done.'

Another attendee put it a different way, 'On retreats whenever the going gets tough and I think of deserting my desk, I look around at everyone else madly writing away and I sit back down again. I'd feel too guilty walking away when everyone else was working!'

Group energy

This is one of my favorite reasons for attending retreats. It's hard to explain and possibly purely subjective on my part. When I sit in that hall surrounded by other dedicated writers all doing their thing, I swear I can feel a creative energy being generated, lifting me up. It's like riding a wave and somehow it makes my writing easier.

Writing is normally such a solitary activity it's nice to do it with others once in a while. Working beside those who share the same passion reaffirms my belief that writing is important and what we're attempting to do has value.

Bring on the next retreat! 

Friday, 04 March 2016 06:00

When I'm Having a Terrible Writing Day

Filed under Notes to Self...

Question: That book you’re reading by your favorite author that you absolutely love… Do you think the author wrote it on a high, believing every word was golden?

Do you think your favorite author never agonized over a sentence, deleted pages, tore out whole scenes (along with her hair)? That there never was a day she didn’t despair that every word she set down was rubbish?

Just like you, there would’ve been times when your favorite author struggled and bled for every word and others when the writing seemed to flow as though dictated by some higher being.  

But here’s the question I’m really asking: Can you as a reader tell the difference in the finished product?

As you read any story, can you pick the passages the author was (and possibly still is) unhappy with? Can you distinguish them from the ones they considered their best writing ever? Is the author’s despair, elation, frustration over the actual writing itself apparent anywhere on the page?

No. And neither is it so for you. Give it a month and you’ll forget how hard or easy those passages were to write. All you’ll have is pages to work with, to revise and polish until they shine. And that’s all any author needs, something to work with. So just get some words on the page.

Bottom line: Don’t let a bad mood stop you from writing. Write anyway. It’s amazing how differently the same passage will look to you tomorrow when you’re feeling more confident compared to today when you’re feeling down.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016 01:16

The Importance of Reading for Writers

I’m probably not the only writer out there disturbed by the number of people I encounter these days wanting or attempting to write a book when they don’t read them.

To me this is like someone trying to learn to play an instrument who never listens to music.

In the years I taught violin, whenever I started a new crop of beginners I could always tell which ones listened to music at home and which ones didn’t.

The ones that did had a concept of the sound of the instrument already in their inner ear. And somehow, from the first time they touched their bow to the strings, that internalized concept guided their efforts. You could hear the difference.

It has to be the same with writers and reading. All the how-to-write books and courses in the world can’t help someone get the music of language into their heads. The rhythm and articulation of the words, the flow of well-constructed sentences, syntax, dialogue, etc. are things that can only be assimilated through repeated exposure.

If you don’t read fine work, how can you expect fine work to come out of you?

I guess in a way it’s the old ‘wax on, wax off’ principle:  Good writing in, good writing out.

I’m currently in that wonderful, awful, exhilarating, anxiety-ridden phase of choosing a plot for my next novel.  

I experience this incredible mix of feelings before every new book I start – can’t decide what I want to write about, nothing excites me, etc, etc.

In the past I’ve tried starting with an interesting character. I have whole lists of characters I love and hate. But for some reason that doesn’t work for me. I do better when I start with an idea or an intriguing question.

But why does it take me so long to find one? Assuming for a moment I’m not just lazy and haven’t lost my passion for writing, what else could cause this perennial problem?

What first excited me about writing Run To Me was the idea for the story: a woman everyone dismissed as crazy saves the life of a child in danger. That was my original premise, my intriguing 'what-if'. That’s what set me on fire creatively and made me want to write the book.

That’s the kind of fire I’m looking for now!

What I want isn’t just a plot that ‘works’ but an idea that keeps me awake at night. Something that makes me jump out of bed in the morning and run to the computer to see what comes next.

Am I demanding too much? Putting too much pressure on my feeble brain? I don’t think so. I believe what I’m after - that fire, that excitement - is worth searching for.

So for now, let’s not call it writers block. Let's just call Writer’s Limbo.

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.

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