A literary event

Posted July 24, 2012 by patmano
Categories: Publishing, Writing

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The other night I went to a Literary Event. These days I don’t do many big E events – small e events are more my thing. About fifty people turned up, two-thirds of them women. In black. Everyone was a writer, or wanted to be. The speaker was from a small but reputable magazine.  He had prepared thoroughly. He spoke well. We listened intently. Some of us took notes. He sought questions. We (mostly the men) dutifully provided them. He elaborated. He gave us a handout. We folded it carefully and stowed in handbag or (male) coat pocket. Wine was served, along with trays of nibbles. We mingled. Some of us even sparkled. It was all very civilised. Rational. Earnest.

Then I fled.

Why?

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Motivation

Posted July 11, 2012 by patmano
Categories: Writing

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Writing is a solitary occupation. That’s got plusses and minuses, as all writers have discovered. I usually have a good deal of contact with other writers, and with readers –  I like to be ‘out there’ in the local writing community; but these last two months, cooped up at home with an energy-sapping illness, I’ve felt my motivation slipping away. It didn’t seem to matter whether I wrote or not. Who cares? Not even me!

My next book is in production, and the proofs arrived over a week ago. I didn’t even open them: the task seemed beyond me. The publisher called, and I promised I’d get on to them. More days slipped by. Then yesterday morning I received an email from a library supplier. His clients had been calling wanting to order the new book, he said, because their readers had been pestering them – when would it be available? He needed a date to fend them off. That got me moving! Client libraries? Readers? Someone is really interested? Now I’ll have the corrected proofs back to the publisher by the end of the week. I enjoyed re-reading the book – there are always better words, more elegant ways of writing … but it’s too late for all of that. ‘Unearthed’ is finished, and it will be published soon. I hope those eager readers enjoy it.

Still, this has been a lesson. Without some encouragement from somewhere, it’s all too easy to let your writing gather dust. We all need to find ways of building contact and encouragement into our writing lives, ways of generating the energy we need to keep the words flowing. Morale is a delicate flower, and once it withers it can be hard to revive. I’m looking forward to getting back ‘out there’, sooner rather than later.

Characters vs life

Posted July 4, 2012 by patmano
Categories: Reading, Writing

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My recent conversation with elderly acquaintance Thelma was – well, what was it? Bemusing? Revealing?

T: Tell me dear, how is that friend of yours?

Me: Which friend?

T: You know, the man who had that terrible accident.

Me (racking brains): Sorry Thelma, you’ve lost me.

T: You must remember! He was a really nice bloke, a photographer I think, and he had this awful crash …

Me (seeing faint glimmer of light): You’re not thinking of my book Loose Ends, are you? Where the character Steve gets injured?

T: Steve! That’s right! I’ve been meaning to ask you for ages …

Me (struggling for words): Thelma, he’s not a friend. He’s just a character in a story.

T (gleam in eye): Rubbish! I always thought you were a bit keen on him, never mind that other fellow you went off with.

Me (ever more desperate): Thelma, I wasn’t in the story. That’s another character you’re thinking of, Annie Bryce.

T (shaking head): That can’t be right. She talks just like you. She is you, isn’t she?

Me (knowing I’m sunk):  No – I wish! Listen to me. It’s just a story. I made it all up. None of it was real – or not much – not the characters, not the plot. It’s all fiction!

T (firmly): I don’t think so. Must rush, dear.  Do give my best to Steve. Lovely to talk to you.

Needless to say, Thelma doesn’t read much. She’s probably never had time, with eight children and an ever-increasing army of grandchildren; she works tirelessly for the church and has lived in the same house for about fifty years. Her mental landscape is populated with thousands of interconnected individuals. I would hate to pay her phone bill.  Kindness itself, she exists for others.

After I recovered from our encounter, I mused on what it might mean. Clearly, readers interpret what they read to suit themselves, whether authors like it or not. Remember that when you’re agonising over word choice and phrasing! Maybe I should just take it as a compliment – after all, she’s obviously firmly convinced that my characters are flesh and blood. Hey, how good is that?

The character who got away

Posted July 1, 2012 by patmano
Categories: Writing

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Sometimes the gap between life and art is a yawning chasm.

When my fourth novel Destination Tribulation called for a small-time crook, I cast around for a role model and thought of V. I have to be honest – I don’t know many people who have spent time behind bars. Except V. One astonishing thing about V was that he only did a couple of short stretches.

I knew V and his family for many years. He was a weedy, unremarkable man, but whatever he had women loved it. And he loved them in his way, despite devastation he wreaked on their lives. He could make them feel special – the steady eye contact, the sympathetic listening – suddenly they knew they were fascinating. He was utterly convincing, not least of all to himself. Married with children, he subsequently announced his engagement several times (his brother-in-law was elected to break the news to the various fiancees); he even got married bigamously at a gala event with hundreds present, myself included. V was a not-so-successful tradesman, but he could spin stories about his academic achievements (none), his wealth and influence (zero), his traumatic abused childhood (sheer fiction). He was into every sort of scam and con and get-rich quick scheme targetting single women – from professionals, small business owners and pensioners to every woman in between, forever leaving various towns in a hurry with their cash under the front seat  – oh, and a new woman beside him.  How, I asked myself, could I go past V?

So I tried. But I failed. V proved to be maddeningly elusive on the page, and my character Patrick is but a shadow. You see, it wasn’t only V I struggled with. I simply couldn’t make my other characters so gullible. I’d seen V for what he was – why wouldn’t they? That got me thinking about V. He instinctively played on insecurities: on women’s need to be heard and valued, their need for financial security. Unfortunately my female protagonist Annie Bryce is strong and independent – nowhere needy enough to be taken in. So far from being a port in a stormy patch of Annie’s life as I had planned, Patrick just turned out to be a serial pest.

Could another author have done better? Very probably! For me, V will always be the character who got away.

A character in waiting?

Posted June 26, 2012 by patmano
Categories: Reading, Writing

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Once upon a time she was the girl we all wanted to be: effortlessly clever, good at sport, her wide-set blue eyes and radiant smile had the boys queueing up. Everything was just so easy for her, we moaned. She married early, moved away, had a family, started a new career. We lost touch. Then her husband developed cancer. She couldn’t cope. She left him. He died. She moved to the country with her children and found professional work, dabbled in men. There was always a man.

When she moved closer we resumed our friendship. She still had the enviable glamour, the ready laugh, the magnetic attraction. Her children left home early and rarely made contact – they didn’t like the men. Neither did I, mostly. As technology became ever more demanding, she began to struggle at work.  Little did we know this was an omen. Finally she lost her job. Good! she said. That was never me. Now I’ll discover the real me. She tried for years, through endless therapies, dance, rebirthing, astrology … and men, ever more desperate, exploitative and unbalanced men. Conversation became difficult, spiralling endlessly around her life as a victim, before it became impossible. She began to get lost. She became afraid to go out. When I called her I wasn’t confident she remembered me.

Now I learn she’s been admitted to a ‘secure facility’. Most days she doesn’t remember who she is, let alone anyone else.

Like most authors, my fictional characters tend to be drawn from life, albeit fusing the characteristics of several people. Clive James once said that inside every writer’s heart is a chip of ice: horrified and devastated we may be, but we all squirrel our experiences away. How long will it be, I wonder, before I can bring myself to draw on her?  She may be a character in waiting for a very long time.

Still reading

Posted June 23, 2012 by patmano
Categories: Reading, Writing

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Are you sometimes drawn to a book in a bookstore or library that you know nothing about – ecxcept that you just have to read it? That’s how I found myself immersed in The Postmistress by Sarah Blake. What a fabulous book this is – set in World War Two in war-torn England and Europe, and the then uninvolved U.S., it’s the story of three utterly different women whose lives gradually intersect as the war escalates. Apparently it was highly acclaimed when it was published in 2010, and deservedly so. Within an hour of finishing it (reluctantly!) I found a YouTube interview with the author (thank you Google), who seemed more than a bit baffled that her characters had taken matters into their own hands and created a completely different plot from the one she had planned. Every author knows what this feels like, myself included. As far as I can see this is Sarah’s first novel. Let’s hope many more follow. I’m waiting!

I like taking a punt on an unknown author. That’s how I discovered the great American chronicler of the allegory of the Civil War, crimewriter James Lee Burke. Who, I wondered, would possibly have the confidence to come up with this title: In the Electric Fields with the Confederate Dead?  I have long since discovered that the mists of that war permeate all his characters and his plots. He takes me there. Incidentally I heard a very interesting interview with him: after a number of successful books he became unfashionable, and there was a seventeen year gap before he was able to have a manuscript accepted. What did he do? He just kept on writing – he found himself a teaching job and continued to produce the words, night after night, for all that time, quietly confident that fashions would change, and his day would come again. As it did. There’s that confidence again. I’m not sure mine would be so unshakeable.

My next venture into the unknown will be Scent of Madness by David Wiltshire. What’s your best read in the first half of 2012? All suggestions welcome!

Reading not writing

Posted June 19, 2012 by patmano
Categories: Writing

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This last few weeks I’ve been laid low by a vicious winter lurgie, which has zapped my creative energy. At least I’m back to reading, curled up in warm spots while I cough.

A top read was Anna Funder’s Stasiland, a heart-breaking account of the havoc wreaked on individual East German lives by the all-encompassing police state, the Stasi regime. How could the German people do this to each other, and straight after the horrors of the second world war? I just don’t understand – can anyone explain? Funder’s brilliant second book All That I Am is in my view among the best Australian writing, richly deserving the awards that are coming its way. Another great read was Bob Wurth’s very insightful 1942 – but I’ve blogged about this already.

Then I turned to crime. This was a mixed experience. First the positives:  Robert B. Parker’s Sixkill was – as always – unputdownable. He’s an amazing author. No less than sixty-nine other novels are listed in this volume, and I bet they’re all as good as each other. Parker is the ultimate storyteller, able to spin an engrossing yarn out of nothing. I enjoyed Henning Mankell’s One Step Behind too, whipping the reader into a series of bizarre murders in Scandanavia. But I abandoned Stuart McBride’s Birthdays for the Dead, repelled by the theme of the (graphic) torture and murder  of teenage girls. ‘Gritty’ and ‘Unflinching’ it may be, but it’s not for me; nor was Ian Rankin’s The Impossible Dead, also set aside. His short stories far outshine this novel.

Now I’m about to embark on an unknown quantity: The Postmistress by American Sarah Blake.

It’s reassuring to know that I can’t run out of reading matter – my Kindle is fully charged and ready to download!