Sunday, 30 May 2010

The Wick

Spent a relaxing afternoon at the iconic Elsternwick Hotel (the 'Wick') today, finishing up in a secluded Chesterfield-style booth that would easily seat 8 people . . . And already I'm thinking this would make a brilliant location for a small gathering of writers with laptops. Hang the library, this place had a bar. On a Sunday afternoon the place was quiet, and the high vaulted ceiling lent just the right atmosphere. As I sat there, I became quite enamoured of the idea. We could also have cake and coffee, so what's not to like?

Having said that, I cancelled all housework yesterday and spent much of the day on the couch at home writing. This was the first significant stint since about January, and as a result I'm really happy with the progress made in the past week (after kicking things off on Tuesday). But it can't stop there . . . my goal is now to write something every day -- a little or a lot, so long as it's something. The key thing is to stay in the story. So for the moment the couch is my 'where', and the rewrite of novel #1 is my 'what'.

But someday, maybe soon, I'd rather like to pack up my computer, grab a booth (where the table is the perfect height), and give the Wick a go.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Filing emotion

A great thing about being a writer is that there's an upside to every personal trauma: there's the opportunity for insight into a whole raft of emotions. Whether it's grief, anger, despair . . . experiencing extreme emotion presents the opportunity to analyse physical and mental reactions. This will then hopefully assist in the writing of scenes that convey realistic and powerful emotion.

This past week, for example, has been rough. But it has been an extremely good character building experience -- for me as a person, but also for me as a writer who creates characters. I would never have known that a particular situation would cause me to completely lose my appetite. (I never lose my appetite!) Or that my stomach would stay knotted for hours and my ability to concentrate disappear. I'm not even quite sure what the emotion was . . .

So we file the memories away, ready for retrieval at the right moment -- for the right scene. For instance, whenever I need a storm of weeping, my mind goes straight back to the death of my cat, Moggie, 7 years ago. This week's emotions will be similarly drawn out and dusted off at some stage, without a doubt.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

200 words

I have written 200 new words. They are the first 200 words in a very long time, so they have taken a correspondingly long time to 'craft', but at least I have leapt onto the rollercoaster again.

I started the re-engagement process by reading over the previous 40,000 words or so on Saturday evening(chapters 15-28) to get myself back into the story and situation -- and help determine whether any of it is salvagable. A few weeks ago I read the most recent chapter I wrote (chapter 29, written in January I think) and decided it was depressingly bad, but having now read from chapter 15 I believe that the others are fairly solid.

Chapter 29 was still bad though, so I have scrapped it and am rewriting -- similar core events, but minus all the excrutiating reflection. What was I thinking? Nevermind. Although I suspect that the awfulness of that chapter may have something to do with my long break of no writing, which is a shame. But back on track now. I just need to keep feeling the love.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Books and the digital revolution

When it comes to hunting down a particular book in order to read it, my first instinct is to go to a bookshop. However, a recent experience has highlighted just how many alternatives to the good old fashioned paperback are emerging. Reading, it seems, is the next passtime to be transformed into a digital experience.

Last week I dropped into a large bookshop in town, intending to purchase the book I'm supposed to be reading for my reading group, only to be told it's not available in paperback until the end of the month. I was a bit stunned by this, because there's an unwritten rule in our group that books selected must be available in paperback, so I emailed the group to see where people were at in tracking down the book. Some had borrowed it from the library, but others hadn't given it any thought yet.

What followed was a google-fest as a few of us looked at the options. The front-runner for a while was to purchase the book as an audio -- which would have been great if we could download as MP3 directly. Problem was, this option seemed to be available for US residents only, no matter where we looked. So maybe our US-located group member could download for us and FTP the files across? Can't remember why, but this wasn't going to be possible either.

Somewhat amazingly, my google-fest revealed a prevalence of e-reader downloads available for the book. Amazon of coursed pushed downloads for the Kindle, but there are many other e-readers being launched at the moment -- most recently in Australia the Borders Kobo eReader -- and many seemed to be supported. It makes me wonder how many Australians have embraced this new trend. Not many I know, that's for sure. For my part, I think it prudent to ensure I purchase a device with a standard format. Why lock myself in to buying ebooks from one source only? And with so many devices appearing on the market, it seems to me sensible to wait. I'm certainly not rushing out to buy one just so I can read this particular book.

We ultimately settled for the US-located group member to buy paperback copies in the US and post them -- only it turned out not to be available in paperback in the US either. So now the only remaining option is to buy in hardback or source from a library. The other challenge is we only have two weeks remaining before the discussion, from today.

This whole experience has struck me as a sign of things to come -- where books are available as electronic downloads before they are released as paperbacks. I've heard that surveys of 'Gen-Y' reveal little commitment or predisposition for 'real' books -- they are the digital generation who don't buy CDs or DVDs either. It's all about the Internet and downloads.

There are certainly advantages to eReaders (and audio files), most notably the fact they don't take up any space. And now, obviously, the fact that they're readily accessible by download from wherever you happen to be; no more trekking out to the bookshop. Cost, perhaps, too -- although I'm sure the discount is less than is perhaps warranted by the drop in printing costs. Are publishers pushing them because their profit margin is better?

Besides, hands up if you actually like trekking out to the bookshop and caressing a tome of cardboard, paper & ink, and placing it carefully in your overladen bookshelf, and dragging it out every so often to flick though and relive in fragments when the mood takes you . . .

There is no doubt there's a time and a place for eReaders, and I'll inevitably take the plunge and purchase one sooner or later. They are a part of the future, and can only help to make books more widely available and accessible. But I will be sad if/when this starts to spell the end of the paperback, or 'hardcopy' books in general.

UPDATE 2 June 2010
Here's a link to an interesting article by Garth Nix, launching the Kobo E-Reader, on the subject.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Lost in fantasy land

One thing luring me closer to actually producing the written word at the moment is immersion in fantasy novels. It has been quite a while since I've had the time to read so much, and it's reminding me why I love the genre. It's also reconditioning me, in some strange way, into writing it. The very act of reading fantasy is reigniting the excitement, like a chemical reaction. My brain goes into this weird place where I read and appreciate and feel compelled to reengage with my novel.

The irony is of course that I can't write while reading. And at the moment, reading is infinitely easier. I've had the occasional thought that maybe I'll just give up on writing and simply be a reader -- after all there are plenty of fabulous books out there. I can't possibly read all the ones I want to, so why make it hard for myself...? But that thought leaves me feeling empty and not myself, so I guess I am destined to be always trying to write at the very least.

I'm going to make the most of reading opportunities for now and hopefully fuel the 'want'. As I am sure I have stated elsewhere on this blog, what good is it if a writer doesn't have time to read? (And, yes, this is shameless rationalisation, but I'm sticking to it!)

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Wrestling with where and what

I've been doing a lot of thinking about writing recently. I've been thinking about when I'm going to write, where I'm going to write and what I'm going to write.

In reality, I'm not so worried about the 'when'. I might not be in a good habit now, but I know that once I put my mind to it I can find that 1 hour (or more) in every day that is required to keep surging forward. All this requires is discipline from me, and when I want to be writing there's nothing that will hold me back from that.

So where has my 'want' gone? Part of the problem, I'm convinced, is in where I write. I live in a small unit with too much stuff, and the room that gets used as a dumping ground is my study. Over and over again I clear it out, and then it fills up again with junk - empty wine boxes, bags for the op shop, gifts I don't know what to do with, objects I do actually want but haven't gotten around to installing yet. There's so much clutter in there (here) that I start avoiding the room. In desperation I've tried using my computer in the living room -- or in bed -- but I really do prefer to be sitting at a desk.

And then there's the whole being 'at home' aspect. Home, where there's not only the study to declutter, but housework to be done, cupboards to sort, a garden to tame . . . This is why going down to Phillip Island for writing retreats has been such a godsend. Aside from a brief cleanup before departure, there are no distractions and no clutter! For the past year or maybe two, it feels as though the only times I've actually achieved anything substantial has been on those weekends.

I've had discussions with various members of my writing group about writing spaces recently, and a few have started escaping to libraries to simply get some writing done. Maybe this is something I also need to explore.

The other big question is what to write. Right now I'm wrestling with the choice between having faith in the novel I've been working on for years now, and starting something completely new. Realistically, the chance of novel #1 actually being good enough for publication is negligible -- statistically because it's the first novel I've written, but also because I know I've been patching up novice errors for years now. There's a strong argument for stuffing it into the bottom drawer and getting onto something that has strong foundations, that is fresh, that is exciting.

And every time I think I've actually convinced myself it's time to lay #1 aside, I think of my characters who I'm not ready to leave, and the monumental task of fantasy worldbuilding that I would be faced with . . .

Still wrestling. And not writing.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Rediscovering reading

One benefit of my new city commute is the extra half hour or so in every day that I have to read. Half an hour doesn't sound like much, but it's a surprising bounty for me, who has been reading less and less as the years progress.

As a child I was a true bookworm. I would rarely go to bed without reading for at least an hour, and often a lot longer. Frequently I would find myself at 1am, 2am, 3am, glancing at the clock and telling myself not to worry, that somehow I would get through the following day despite having only a few hours' sleep. (And trying to hide this fact from my parents!) Although never a fast reader, I would nevertheless get through books reasonably quickly with this approach.

In recent years, however, work fatigue and the need to have my wits about me have curtailed this habit, and some weeks go by when I don't read at all. I started up a reading group a decade ago but now rarely get through a book a month. This is particularly the case when the tome I'm reading is 'weighty' and demanding of my brain.

And this is why my new train time is such a revelation. I don't read in the mornings, since I travel in with a neighbour, but on the way home the book comes out. Once more, I have become someone who is always to be found with a book in my bag (when I was at Uni this was always the case) and even half an hour a day is enough to maintain my story momentum, so that it's easier to pick up again for another half hour or so before sleep kicks in. (Alas, I still seem to have lost the ability to defy sleep in favour of a book!)

So I think I can look forward to churning though a whole heap more books this year, and correspondingly a whole heap more reviews. Kushiel's Justice, by Jacqueline Carey, is what I'm reading at the moment. But I'll have to move into Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall, soon, as this is our June book for Page Turners.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Book: The Chrysalids

We read The Chrysalids by John Wyndham for discussion at our May Page Turners meeting. According to one source, this is a post-nuclear apocalypse story of genetic mutation in a devastated world and explores the lengths the intolerant will go to keep themselves pure.

That sums the plot up rather well, actually. David is a telepath in a world (Labrador in Canada) where any deviation from normal is cast out. As a child, he witnesses this time and again (usually as the result of babies having extra marks, limbs, digits etc), and has the good sense to keep his talents -- and those of his fellow "thought-shapers" -- secret. Ultimately they are of course discovered, and in the course of being hunted down are rescued by a group of evolved humans for whom telepathy is normal . . .
 
I hadn't read The Chrysalids before, and found it an easily digestible and straightforward story that examines themes of belonging, power, fear, and evolution. There are even some parallels with Life of Pi -- here, the power of "story" in the form of the bible and other warped religious doctrine dictates all too literally who is considered "human" and who is not. Yet even in this environment, some characters, such as David's Uncle Axel, have the insight to question the idea of "normal" and acknowledge that elsewhere the idea of normal might actually be something rather different.
 
It seems to be accepted that the title, The Chrysalids, refers to the idea of metamorphosis -- I can only suppose from what we know as human into a telepathic race that can share thoughts almost to the point of becoming a hive mind. It seemes as though this evolution is not due to the radiation effects that cause the other mutations, but is rather the path humanity is destined to take. I base this assumption on the fact that most of the telepaths come from "Sealand" (New Zealand) where there doesn't appear to be too much radiation. Clearly, this new race considers themselves superior to the so-called savages of David's people.
 
While I enjoyed The Chrysalids enough to keep reading, I didn't love it. It certainly engaged me on an intellectual level, but I found it to be generally lacking in complexity, emotion and character depth. David narrates the story in a remarkably calm voice, even when bad things are happening, and always tells you something bad is going to happen before it does. As a result, I rarely felt "in the moment" and didn't really care much about any of the characters. Perhaps this is a characteristic of 1950s Science Fiction.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Contemplating coffee

One thing I've been fascinated by in the first 10 days or so of life in the CBD, is the coffee experience. It's a whole new world. Back in East St Kilda, I bought my coffee (large skinny cafe latte) from the same cafe every morning -- Monkey, $3.50. It was easily the cheapest coffee in the area, plus was organic free trade, really delicious, and closest to the office. An absolute no-brainer.

In the CBD, the situation is completely different. It is impossible to comprehend how many cafes and coffee bars must be crammed into the jumble of buildings. They perch on every corner, line every laneway, crouch in every basement. There is simply coffee everywhere.

If I walk from Southern Cross station to our office (less than a block) I pass a coffee cart at the station, Gloria Jeans on the corner, the lunch spot with the girl hanging out the doorway with a tray of pre-made coffees calling "cafe latte, $2" in a thick Asian accent, the Sparkling Cafe, and then at least three different places selling coffee in the basement Food Emporium in our building.

And I couldn't even count the coffee options along my route down Flinders Lane from Flinders Street Station.

So I have made the decision to experiment and try them out. Coffee from somewhere different every day until I find just the right one. They range in quality, size (some cafes have three sizes, including jumbo, others just the two) and considerably in price. The best value so far seems to be $3 for a "large" in the basement of our building (unless you count the $2 pre-made cafe lattes), but I'm not convinced they're the way to go yet...

I don't know how I'm going to decide, because there also seems to be some variation in consistency from those I have visited more than once. But this project -- the project to find the perfect coffee -- is one I'm willing to undertake.