Sunday, 31 August 2008

Bright Air


Bright Air, by Barry Maitland, was the book I bought at the Melbourne Writers Festival last Sunday and subsequently read in three days. Needless to say I enjoyed the book a lot.

It's about Josh, a young merchant banker, who returns to Sydney after a four-year stint in London to the news that two of his uni friends (Curtis and Owen) had recently died in a rock climbing accident in NZ. On his death bed, Owen admits to another friend, Anna, that they killed Luce, Josh's former girlfriend and Anna's best friend, who also purportedly died in a climbing accident while studying birdlife on Lord Howe Island some four years previously.

There follows what I would call a gentle mystery/thriller novel as Josh and Anna team up to try to discover what really happened to Luce on Lord Howe Island. They get right into the amateur sleuthing business, which inevitably takes them to Lord Howe Island where they partake of some rather spectacular rock climbing!

I said in an earlier post that it reminded me of Donna Tartt's The Secret History and this was because Bright Air also centres on a close-knit group of university students, at the centre of which is a violent crime. However, as I read through the book, it reminded me more strongly of the Mary Stewart mystery/thriller novels, which also have a very strong sense of place and involve everyday people becoming embroiled in solving a murder.

In the discussion last week, Maitland said he was generally more interested in the 'why' of a murder, rather than the 'who' and certainly that's what drives this story. Josh and Anna, who naturally have difficulty believing that a close friend could have killed 'one of the group' (and everybody's favourite), are driven to discover under what circumstances that could have happened.

I suppose I will admit that I found some of the motives not quite as believable as they might have been, but this is largely in hindsight and it didn't affect my enjoyment of the story. The characters are well drawn and interesting, and the sense of place is fabulous.

I think place must be something that I'm driven to in a story. I've never really considered it before, but if I consider my favourite novels, they are largely ones with a strong sense of place (fantasy or otherwise). It's a case of virtual travelling -- now I want to go to Lord Howe Island!

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Autonovel

This ad keeps coming up beside my Facebook profile, saying: "NewNovelist: Amazing creative writing software. Plans and structures your novel fully!"

I can't help but wonder who uses such software. How does it work? It is merely a tool to help you arrange your own thoughts and ideas -- an interface for presenting them, say? Or does it really take a whole heap of ideas and churn out a plot?

Is that possible? Don't you wonder what a novel written in this manner would be like? I am so intrigued.

I'm also wondering whether this is an example of targeted advertising, although I'm not sure how Facebook knows that I'm trying to write a novel. I do know that I also get repeated ads offering to find me a date, right age and all . . . spooky. It's also annoying and rather offensive.

Does anyone know how to switch the Facebook ads off? (Ha Ha)

Monday, 25 August 2008

Other worlds (MWF#2)

The second session I went to yesterday was called Other Worlds, with Robert Murchamore, Melina Marchetta and Margo Lanagan talking about fictional worlds in which children can lose themselves . . .

It was quite an interesting session, with each of the authors talking about their work and how they approach writing for children (in 2/3 cases they didn't really). Each gave a reading from their latest or soon-to-be-published novels. I'm coming to rather like author readings, so long as they're not too long. It's nice to hear passages and then learn about how they came about etc. Insight into a novel or story is always worthwhile.

Not sure that I really learnt anything though. The MWF really is far more targeted at readers who want to hear their favourite authors speak, rather than writers keen to learn something.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

The moral of the story (MWF#1)

Today I went to a couple of sessions at the Melbourne Writers Festival, the first of which was entitled The Moral of the Story. It was advertised as a debate between Barry Maitland, crime writer, and Peter Mares on whether the best novels are moral, immoral or amoral, launched by the following Oscar Wilde quote: "The good ended happily, and the bad ended unhappily -- that's what fiction means."

I believe they did briefly mention this quote in the context of crime fiction and whether the 'bad guys' get caught or not, but it was swiftly passed in favour of a chat about Maitland's work in general.

Fortunately for me, the discussion was very well prepared and led by Mares (since it was being recorded for broadcast on Radio National tomorrow) and therefore very interesting, despite the fact I'd never even heard of Barry Maitland before today. It seems he is well known for a series of police procedural London-based crime novels (the Brock and Kolla series), but has recently published a stand-alone mystery called Bright Air. Much of the discussion centred around this latest novel, which is not a police procedural, but rather a mystery in which everyday people find clues and try to unravel the four-year old mystery of the death of their friend/former girlfriend.

I find that novels are always more interesting if you know a little of the 'behind the scenes' stuff, so I bought this novel today and -- having abandoned The Kite Runner while faced with quite some time to kill between sessions -- have been reading it ever since! Not sure if I'll venture into Maitland's Brock and Kolla books, but Bright Air reminds me a little of my old favourite Mary Stuart novels and a lot of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, which interestingly Maitland cited a number of times during the discussion in various contexts.

So there you go. Right now I venture into a life of crime!

Saturday, 23 August 2008

How not to start a novel - The Kite Runner

One of the writing craft issues I've been thinking about of late is what constitutes a good novel opening. A couple of weeks back, one of the blog-workshops looked at the first 200 words; and on the retreat last weekend we looked at first chapters.

Issues that came up included limiting the amount of setting and backstory, the posing of story questions and hooks (does it make you want to keep reading?), and likability of main characters.

I raise this now, because I started listening to the audiobook of The Kite Runner today, and it seems to me that it does everything wrong. And I say this not as a critical writer-reader obsessing about craft and theory, but as a reader who was completely bored by the opening of this novel!

The opening chapter, a mere two pages long, starts in the current day and does pose one main story question . . . we know that something happened in the narrator's childhood that impacted him severely. (On analysis, these two pages now seem to me extremely schmaltzy, carefully calculated and rather contrived, but that's not my main point.)

But then we go into flashback mode, and it's the kind of distant narrative flashback, with lots of 'telling', that I despise. We get two pages of description of the house, we get descriptions of every character you can think of. Boring boring boring. Then we start getting anecdotes of this and that. And I don't really have any idea of where this story is going -- except for repeated references to the dramatic, disastrous event that's going to happen.

I've decided I really don't like first person narrative when it's bookended by 'current day' events. It seems to give the author too much liberty to cast veiled references to what's going to happen. I despise this mode of storytelling. It's cheap and contrived. Why not build up tension through events as they happen? There are ways of building up to a devastating event without portentous statements.

Then there's character likability. I'm afraid I don't much like Amir so far. Are we supposed to find his weaknesses OK because, as the narrator, he admits them? And then there are his actions (or lack thereof) at the devastating event. At that point the book lost me. I simply cannot forgive what happened here. I'm sure he will grow and find redemption, but I'm simply not that interested. I'm afraid I have no desire to read on or even get the movie out now.

Problem is, I feel obliged to continue, since this is our Page Turners book for this month!

It highlights for me the importance of the opening. I know this book is a global best-seller, and I'm sure there must be a reason for this, so I hold hope that I will find it more enjoyable and less boring as I read on. However, I admit I have my doubts. I don't actually much like the style with which the novel is written -- right down to the use of metaphor, which feels really heavy-handed.

Contrast this with Jane Eyre, which I have also started listening to as an audiobook in the last few days. I was expecting to be bored at the beginning of this, because I know it takes forever for Jane to get to Thornfield. But instead I have been riveted by the trauma of Jane's childhood, first with her relatives at Gateshead and then at Lowood Institution. Why? Because there is so much passion in young Jane and even though it too is written clearly by adult Jane, the action is in the here and now, rather than having the feeling of a distant recount. And then there is the magnificent language. Charlotte Bronte truly had a masterful way with words. Her writing is simply beautiful.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Synchrotron

Just wanted to mention my university alumni event and synchrotron visit from last week. I arrived a bit late for most of the alumni event, but did manage to catch up with some people. My former supervisor contrived not to be present, but at least I was saved that trauma.

The synchrotron visit was excellent. Basically (very basically), it's an electron accelerator that leverages the fact that when electrons bend they emit other particles/waves, such as X-rays etc. Electrons are accelerated at around the speed of light, forced to travel in a circle by huge electro-magnets. At certain locations in the ring, a line of the emitted particles is harnessed into a 'beam line', which is then used to perform scientific experiments. The Melbourne synchrotron has 5 operating beam lines, each set up to do a particular kind of experiment (e.g. powder diffraction, wide angle X-ray diffraction, infrared spectroscopy), with another 4 under construction.
The key thing with the synchrotron is the precision and efficiency of the beam line experiments. Our tour was pitched at a fairly technical level, which both challenged and stimulated me. I felt little (controllable) tingles at the thought of using such instruments for research.

Monday, 18 August 2008

The Great Retreat

Where to start? I've just come back from a writing retreat at the island with six other women who write SF. We've been meeting for brunch monthly now for almost a year, mainly to socialise about writing, and earlier this year we decided to get together for a long weekend away. I was able to provide the venue and so for the past month we've been planning the great retreat -- a weekend where we would write and write and eat and drink and write and have a generally fine time.

All right, okay, I've been planning the great event. The others had to put up with me allocating beds and requesting volunteers for meals and writing travel instructions and even developing a five-day schedule.

It was fantastic. It was the first time many of us had been away with anyone in the group, let alone seven at once, and we all got along really well. Everyone did their bit with meals and cleaning up, some of us went on walks, and all of us got a hell of a lot of writing done.

There are so many highlights to recount! On the writing front: one of us finished the first draft of troublesome novel (thanks to a goat), another discovered that she could write in a room full of people, and I made progress on my rewrite -- exiting the "rewrite of the rewrite" phase and entering the "rewrite proper" phase! For my part, it was unnerving listening to the clacketyclacketyclacketyclack of everyone's keyboards . . . Since I was largely editing, my clacking was rather limited, and I spent much of the time reading over words and staring into space (and listening enviously to the others typing at full speed!).

Some wrote with headphones. Others in silence. The overall room silence was beautiful and the energy almost palpable. Every so often, a brief conversation would break out for 5 or 10 minutes and then silence would descend again (or the headphones would go back on). Some wrote at the kitchen table, others wrote with computers on laps, sprawled on the couch. I tried both.

We did some "chitting" as well. This is a newly invented term for a "chat-crit". In other words, some of us had sent around first chapters, which we all read, and then sat around and discussed how they were working, without going to the lengths of a full crit. I loved this not only for the feedback, but also for the fact that we can now share and discuss our stories. It provides a small window, some context, for our subsequent discussions and we'll be able to brainstorm ideas hopefully, or at least have some insight into what each of us is doing.

For the most part, however, when we weren't writing, we were eating. OMG, how we ate. I guess we should have predicted it: ask 7 women to cater for a weekend and you have such an abundance of food -- and not just any old food, GOOD food. Every meal was more than accounted for, whether lunch or dinner, plus we had an "amazing breakie", which truly was amazing. And then there were the snacks. They weren't all unhealthy, although obviously the blocks of chocolate were, plus those evil chips I ate, but there were also nuts and avocado toast and fruit toast and OMG we ate so much food. We have all sworn to live in soup for the next week!

So now it is over, and we must hope we can all maintain this wonderful writing momentum. But hopefully we can do it again in a few months time. I am so lucky I can go down to the island on a regular basis, and now it looks as though I might have some volunteers to keep me company!

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Retreating not so gracefully

Finally here it is -- the night of our writing retreat! I'm running late -- supposed to be leaving round about now -- but couldn't leave without a quick "woo hoo!".

Going down to the island with a bunch of crazy women SF writers. Should be an absolute blast!

Back on Monday . . .

Monday, 11 August 2008

Olympic fever

It seems that when I said I was not planning on watching much of the Olympics, I lied.

The first night (Saturday) I resisted for about an hour, then put the TV on for about 2 hours and watched the fantastic end of the men's cycling road race. I did turn the TV off again eventually and go back to my computer, but the damage was done.

The second night (Sunday) I watched a few things here and there, including the sensational comeback by the Hockeyroos, when they recovered from 1-4 down against Korea to win 5-4. Again, I didn't watch the Games all evening, but had the TV on 'for company' (something I never do) and pottered around on the computer (planning for the writing retreat) until I heard something interesting, at which point I'd dash across to the TV to see the latest.

And tonight . . . well, tonight I switched on the TV the moment I stepped inside, and it's been 'keeping me company' ever since. I had been shopping, so I did manage to put the shopping away, plus read a few e-mails, but about 10 minutes ago they replayed exciting swimming events from today, so of course I had to go and watch those . . .

I think I am saved by the fact that the swimming finals are on during the day, instead of in the evening, because I doubt I could keep away from the TV under such circumstances. In fact, it was not until I realised this that I considered it safe to put the TV on at all.

I don't know what it is about the Olympics that's so exciting. Maybe the fact that it only comes around once every four years. Or maybe because so many countries all come together to participate.

As to be expected, Australia has won its first two gold medals in the pool. We can usually count on a few golds from the pool; these then are usually complemented by others that are totally unexpected. It's interesting that the level of expectation makes a huge difference on media reaction. Take for example Stephanie Rice, who won the 400m IM on Saturday. OMG the uproar. Clearly she was a dark horse in the race, so we were in awe. Then comes Libby Trickett, who some might say was expected to win a few gold medals. So when she wins her first today (100m butterfly), the late news headlines don't even mention it! I had to trawl the internet to find out the swimming results for today, and there it was! Huh.

So after three days, I am fairly hooked. However, at least I am not completely fixated to the exclusion of all else. And at least I am going on a writing retreat this coming weekend and I'm hoping we won't get too distracted by the Games and get lots of writing done. (Coz I'm certainly not getting anything done tonight!)

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Page Turners: Interpreter of maladies

This month, we discussed Interpreter of maladies, a collection of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. The collection won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000, and is a series of 'slice-of-life' stories about Indians living in America and/or India.

I read five of them, prevented from reading all nine by time and other commitments. I found them an enjoyable and easy read, filled with interesting insights into Indian culture, as well as human character in general. However, on the downside, I found them all quite similar in tone if not subject matter, and my emotional engagement with the character was more or less non-existent.

We talked about the latter point quite a bit. One point raised was that perhaps the emotional distance was intentional, so that the reader might place his/her own interpretation on events as they unfold (in keeping with the title of the collection). Someone else postulated that the distance reflected Indian culture.

I am certain that the distance was intentional, but whether for these or another reason I'm not sure. Whatever the reason, it did influence my overall enjoyment of the stories. As a reader, I really like to get into the head of characters and feel a close emotional connection. But with these stories, that didn't happen at all. It may have been partly to do with the fact that characters were often referred to as Mr or Mrs . . ., even the viewpoint character. And even those few stories written in first person had the narrator act as an observer, without really engaging in the plot. In some cases, these viewpoint characters were children.

Another element we discussed was the style of ending featured in these stories. Coming from a SF background, I expect momentous revelation, unpredictable twists, but these stories seemed to just peter out with a whimper. In fact, in many there was no clear story goal or conflict etc. Certainly they carried you through in an engaging manner, but it's hard to say what was doing the pulling. And the endings did seem to fade away. At best they could be described as reflective, poignant. Why is this acceptable in a Pulitzer prize winning collection and not in a SF short story?

I believe we also discussed the Pulitzer prizeworthiness of the collection. I thought the writing itself, which some described as being 'simple', as being beautiful in its simplicity. Really elegant and transparent, an effortless read. Some attributed the emotional distance to the simplicity of the language, but I don't think it was that at all.

In general, people seemed to have read at least half the stories and have enjoyed them, and I think all agreed that it was good to have read and discussed a book of short stories as a change.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Finding rhythm

Despite all the blog workshops I have continued to make good progress. It turns out that I needed to rewrite a complete chapter (chapter 8) but this is coming on well. I have certainly written a few thousand words over the past week and a half, and I can feel myself getting back into the rhythm of cranking out words on a daily basis. The next step will be the 6am starts. Not this week though. Probably not next week either. Let's get past the retreat first!

At this stage I am planning not to let the Olympics distract me. Hopefully I can stay away from the TV during the Games. The trick will be not turning it on at all, not even for half an hour over dinner. That would spell disaster. Instead, I will try to stay focused and write write write. I still have the scene where my two main characters meet to look forward to. If that can't keep me focused, nothing will! I am really enjoying myself at the moment. Can't wait for the retreat!

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Word, thought & deed -- a gender perspective

As a result of all these blog workshops, I've been thinking about various different aspects of writing. One blog I checked out was looking at the difference between body language, thought and dialogue for men and women. The idea here is that you show male/female character differences by paying attention to how they speak, think and act.

The blog workshop itself wasn't so helpful in a fantasy writing context, being focused on modern speech and mannerisms, but it did get me thinking. Plus one point in particular really hit home: Men can make fewer than a third of the facial expressions a woman can make due to how their brain is programmed to express emotion. Men usually hold expressionless faces, especially in public, to appear to be in control of their emotions and to stave off possible attack from strangers who might perceive weakness in an emotional display.

Wow -- I didn't know that. (Obviously there are exceptions.)

This revelation has put me mind of a book I am currently somewhat obsessed with (again): Olivia Joules and the overactive imagination by Helen Fielding of Bridget Jones fame. (But OJ is so much better!) Anyway, she has a male character that is brilliantly portrayed in just such a way. There are very few descriptions, but they all sum up to give an overpowering impression of the character:

". . . he sat at a table, leaning forward, chin on hands, watching the crowd intently."
"His face was almost expressionless, but he had compelling eyes, grey and intelligent."
"X caught her watching him and raised his beer bottle. There was a slight change in his expression which might or might not have been a smile."

The other nuances of character (including some strong emotion) are shown through action and dialogue. In my view, it's really well done.

Some other interesting points from the blog workshop on thinking:

Men have only four to six areas of the brain to evaluate others’ behavior (where women have between fourteen and sixteen areas) which explains why men find it harder to read facial expressions and body language.

Typically the woman’s brain is very active. Thinking, thinking, thinking, especially in the emotional part of the brain. A woman’s brain is always working.

Why do women always want to talk? Researchers have found that connecting with another through talking will trigger the pleasure centers in a woman’s brain, a high second only to an orgasm.

Women are able to use both sides of their brain for language, so they tend to be more fluent, which may be why they have more to say. (Men only use the left side of the brain for language.)