Transition Girl

Why transition girl?... Best answered by a quote from the Iliad....."The soul was not made to dwell in a thing; and when forced to it, there is no part of that soul but suffers violence."

Friday, April 27, 2018

story board design

It's a sunny day on the Sunshine Coast - the perfect place for my niece to celebrate her birthday (even if she is working). I'm working, too - now four days into five that I set aside to start my effort to prepare a story board for a possible sequel to the book that is being released in late July. Yes, "the Peithosian Gift", now has its publication date and my meandering writing efforts since January now need to refocus.

I started April thinking about what full-length novel I wanted to write next. There are three possibilities:
(1) write the next part to the Panopticon series - three written, the fourth to be written - working title "The Helotry".
(2) write a sequel to the book just written - working title "The Peithosian Curse".
(3) write a completely contemporary piece based on one of my short stories - "The Hunger".

Each option has something to offer.
(1) It's been several years since I spent time writing about Gabriel and Nemesis and their siblings - they were an interesting family in an epic battle - I miss them.
(2) While it took me longer than usual to write the current novel, there is still a significant story to tell in the world I've created.
(3) An interesting family and a test of my skill to write outside my preferred speculative fiction genre and centred on a twelve year old child.

I put together a story board for Gabriel's next story at the time I set his family aside. My analogy at the time was, after well over a decade exploring the world of his family, I was ready for a holiday.

I've spent the last four days thinking about the sequel for the current novel - synopsis written, key new characters created, and two of six sub-plots roughly designed. There's quite a bit of philosophical musings in this piece, largely a reflection of the course I have been spending a chunk of my time over the last few months (and the next several) doing. At the moment, I also feel I've reverted a bit into standard tropes for the genre - the unknown narrator reflecting on past events (the conscience of the story), a group of scientists searching for the truth. I believe that they can both work as concepts in the story as long as the main protagonists and the conflict between them dominates the telling of the story. These are the plots/sub-plots I have yet to flesh out though.

I haven't started the story-board for the contemporary piece (so, for anyone thinking about the French film about vampires in Paris - this is NOT it). The child in the story is the offspring of a "fixer". I envisage twelve to be the perfect age between the innocence of youth and coming to understand the reality of the surrounding world.

As a rule, I spend a few months developing a good story board and doing any related research to improve the detail in story. In the speculative space, it involves a lot more thought-experiments (for the obvious reason that I cannot change the thing I've chosen to change in my "what if" question being explored). While there are some contemporary worlds I would consider exploring for real (immerse myself in a world to better understand the characters), I can say unequivocally, I don't think I will be seeking out fixers any time soon. I'll try my best not to take the Sopranos as my benchmark - brilliant though that television series was in terms of story-telling.

The designing of the story board is possibly one of my favourite parts of the writing process. It is the time when there are so many possibilities and my imagination can run wild with the freedom to travel along many a tangent as I figure out how to assemble the story-puzzle. It is wonderful to feel it all coming together. The ideas once formed can then be explored to my heart's content as I then write the story itself.

I'm excited.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018


I was re-reading recently excerpts from one of the earlier novels I wrote in my writing career, which includes not only prose but a smattering of my poetry. It was the book I wrote to get out of my system the 'excesses' most writers experience in their early work. This for me was both flowery writing as well as the difficulty in distinguishing the difference between my own emotions and that of the characters I created.

I am much better now at writing (for example) a teenage boy even though I've never been one (my current manuscript being published later this year, the Peithosian Gift, includes a few such characters). The main character in my earlier work, Transition Girl, on the other hand, could be easily misinterpreted as my personal philosophical journey even though she is a work of fiction. I readily admit I saw too much of myself in that character - what I might have been if I'd made more extreme life choices. I still write a lot about philosophy generally, and ethics and family in my work, I just do not feel the need to channel my own emotions and character traits any more.

Anyway, here's an excerpt from that earlier work.

Utopia - a good place.
It is not a physical place. I have spent so much of my time looking for it. While I will always continue to have my breath taken away by the beautiful places that I have seen, there is more to utopia than melting into those spectacular spaces.
It could be a mental space, perhaps the place where the things that have made me sad no longer exist.
Things that I have said and done. As a thirteen year old, telling a boy who I did not like in school to have a rotten Christmas, the immoral turpitude in my unwavering voice – I still think now how cruel I could be. Cruel that I still am.
Things that have been said and done to me. Joshua saying he did not know me and believing he never did in the twelve years he persevered with me, in that moment before walking out the door forever – perhaps the most disappointing words ever uttered within my earshot. Cruel that he was.
Is utopia a state of mind? I look at the aberrant Brighton boy and wonder if this particular flaneur struggles with depression as much as I do. I pretend that using cognitive behaviour tools like the power of positive thinking will make a difference to what floats around inside my head and most days I get away with the subterfuge – the appearance that I am content with my lot.
What is natural happiness anyway? Is happiness a pursuit, a choice or something that just happens? Arguably, a lack of choice can be deemed to be a form of happiness. I have actually heard it described as synthetic happiness. But I think “making believe” that you are happy with your lot in life if you have limited choices is self-delusion.
(Drug induced happiness (a more obvious response to the phrase synthetic) may be another form of self delusion but can be irresistible for some and, quite frankly, whether it's real or not - elation felt in the moment could be described as happiness.)
I don't accept that dissolute restiveness will necessarily allow me to experience some level of euphoria. Although I accept that being out of control can make me feel unhappy sometimes. People are more prone to melancholy and depression when they lack control.
I actually feel more content when I am surprised and when those surprises are things totally outside my control - when I do not have to make any decisions at all or someone else makes the decisions for me. Maybe some measure of going with the flow - irrespective of the degree of control or choice - makes me feel content because it is easy.
I am not that different from the rest of my family after all.
Utopia - the place that cannot be.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Procrastination moment number 42 (aka therapeutic forgetting)

I think I might be procrastinating again. I have been contemplating (aside: perhaps bogged down in a quagmire might be a more apt explanation) over the last few weeks what can only be described as a series of philosophical questions about what makes me human and fallible. I've been asking these questions because I have decided to take on the ultimate procrastination activity - a course in philosophy!

Clearly the main project I set myself this year - to write a play - has hit a road block. The treatment (the thing that describes scene by scene the play in present tense to assist any director in translating to a stage) is written. I have also drafted the details of the main characters and the opening scene. That was what I managed to do over a month ago. Ever since, I have been distracted. Writing only dialogue - well, it's hard. So I've been working on poetry instead, and building up my collection of philosophical books to read as if I am anticipating a year long procrastination effort. I remind myself that I did set a decision point - come Easter I would set aside the play for a while if other things caught my interest more. And here I am, a few days away from Easter.

I am rather excited at the idea of studying - it's been ages. Week by week online lecture, culminating in an Ethics in Leadership seminar in August.

One of my earlier books was a deeply philosophical piece. Actually, come to think of it, I explore a number of philosophical themes in all of my work. Ethics, morality, what it means to be human, the nature of self and what part big "events" and our memories of those them play in defining who we are - the questions are endless.

I think the philosophy course will help me improve my story-telling, though I cannot imagine if I'll ever be able to produce a play as good as the Pillowman by Martin McDonagh. This play, of all the plays I've seen over many years, remains a stand out in thought provoking ideas on the nature of humanity.

A key concept used in the play is therapeutic forgetting - in the play itself, the 'monster' Pillowman comes and takes bad memories away.

It is based on modern science - a particular pill - used for well over 50 years, administered sparingly in medicine to treat selected cases. The memory suppression pill only works if it is taken within 24 hours of a severely traumatic event. [By the way, you don’t really have the memories erased, just the emotional impact of those memories.]

There is no reason to believe the pill could not be used for circumstances that were “unpleasant” but not really traumatic – how many bad days have we all had where a pill might have helped us to forget the embarrassment. Taken to an extreme, there could be a lot of seriously drugged up people wandering around. Self-inflicted dementia for the young and the young at heart.

In reality, there’s a huge difference between having a shitty day and being (say) violently assaulted. Medical experts believe that there is a case for therapeutic forgetting in the latter case and, on some days, I am inclined to agree with them, especially if it means it could prevent a lifetime of destructive behaviour arising from an inability to cope with the emotions generated from the event.

But why should we give the multi-national drug companies a free kick along when there are far more “socially” acceptable ways of memory suppression - like binge drinking? No prizes for guessing those (non-prescription) forms of suppression only provide temporary relief.

Seriously though, are we not the sum of our experiences? To erase part of those experiences would be like making life become an unfinishable puzzle (with several pieces permanently missing). It just seems wrong to me. Who would want to sleepwalk through their existence? [Aside: actually, there are probably a large number of folk who would say, “I would”, to that question. And, let’s be honest, a serious part of so many people's history lessons would likely be strewn with examples of doing just that.]

We all have bad days, days when we cannot pretend to be happy. When folk telling us to "deal with it", and pile on the pressure to be "carry on". These are the days when a little "me time" is far better at shaking the blues away. Better than any pill, really.

What if there was a more extreme choice of memory erasing? Existence erasing? If you have experienced a traumatic event, would you take a pill to forget? If you knew you were going to face a series of traumatic events in your future, would you willingly choose to cease to exist to avoid those events? Disconsolate darkness. McDonagh is brave-enough to ask and answer that question.

We rarely have the benefit of foresight, only the benefit of hindsight. Is it wrong to wonder what it would be like (and may be wish a little) to be a suburban slag that only lived for today – for the moment – who did not obsess about the past and who did not fret about the future. Existing purely on basic instinct – would life be a whole lot simpler?

Maybe I am in a world a world surrounded by people who only live in the moment and who do not want to face the prospect of anything that suggests there is something other than the moment. And they say ignorance is bliss.

Does the very process of being capable of reason make life unnecessarily complicated?

Yes - I really need to channel my procrastination into a productive pursuit like studying philosophy!

Saturday, February 17, 2018

home stretch

I finished 2017 and started 2018 in a productive frenzy, reaching the milestone of a completed third draft of the manuscript for the Peithosian Gift and a draft of suitable quality that copy editing is now well underway. Will have something on the market by the middle of the year. Home stretch with a finish line within sight.

My feelings on reaching this milestone (with this book and all that have come before it) are always mixed. There's the achievement delight - something finished. There's the marking the moment - ruling a line on taking the story further (at least until I decide to write a sequel). No writer is ever really finished when the writing on any particular piece is done. There's always an urge to tinker a little more. But this needs to be balanced against that feeling of accepting the time in the particular world of that particular story is done and it is time to move on.

Sometimes I reach that point so ready to step away that I want to run at pace as far away as I can sprint. Three parts into the Panopticon series, I was ready to let my child of the light, Gabriel, take a holiday. I have a very rough story-board prepared so I could start drafting the next part, working title - the Helotry - but I'm just not ready to return to this family of characters.

In contrast, I remain excited about the world in the manuscript just completed. I feel there are enough seeds planted in what I have already written to offer some genuinely new directions and creative exploration. No story-board yet but a working title - the Peithosian Curse (obviously). The added bonus is that the lovely lady who has been editing my current manuscript is so excited at the prospect of a sequel, it is almost enough to inspire me to name this project as the next cab off the rank.

But there is a bit to do before I go there. I set a different goal for writing this year. Something to challenge me - something different. I set a goal of writing a stage play. Almost two months gone in the year and I have a working treatment (the scene by scene staging of the play). Two lines of dialogue and the terrifying thought that I have a hell of a lot more dialogue to write before it resembles anything remotely stage worthy. I'll give myself until Easter to see if I have set too hard a task for my writing skills.

And, in truth, I probably should have set a different goal if I was going to venture into contemporary fiction about a dysfunctional family. I was encouraged to consider converting one of my short stories into a novel and I believe the idea is worth contemplation. The short story - the Hunger - looks at an event in a young girl's life whose father happens to be a "fixer" in the underworld. I think it would be an interesting juxtaposition of the innocence of youth and the impact of a much darker world. It's probably been done before.

Finally, reporting on another short-story beyond a home stretch. I was recently asked to contribute to a new e-publication, 300and1 words, that specialises in sharing life experiences. The editor had read one of my poems and associated story in another e-publication - Poets Unlimited - about the passing of my mom. Here's the link to the micro-story as it was published in mid-January - - it is a good example of how one creative piece can be reshaped for a different audience.

Plenty of ideas on where my next creative escape will be - it's a hard choice because it will consume me for at least three years of writing anew. I am excited about the possibilities and many a moral dilemma to explore.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

a distant sun

Without fail, I change my bedsheets on New Years Eve, whether they need changing or not. Clean from a warm shower, and slipping into fresh pyjamas and linen with the scent of lavender on my pillow seems to me to be a perfect way to end each year. There's also a ripe symbolism to it. An early night, ear plugs in if there's a party near by (which of course there always is given the occasion), a good night's sleep alone wrapped cocoon tight in a cotton shroud, and then waking up to a whole new year fresh with possibility.

It's been a few years since I celebrated the actual start of the year in the company of others. Last year the celebration was over a lunch at the farm of an old family friend before I hopped on a plane at a very quiet airport well into the evening and returned home in time to hear the party next door counting down the seconds to herald in the new year as I crawled into bed with no time to spare. The year before I ignored several invitations because I still felt down about my mother's passing earlier that year. I think the last house 'party' I hosted was when my housemate was still in the country and the half a dozen close friends who still resided nearby joined us for a dinner and to shout from the rooftop deck at the storm lightning that shared the sky with the fireworks that night. My favourite housemate and several of my closest friends moved away the following year and the prospect of them ever returning diminishes by the day.

Before then, I attended every shape of new year's celebration including house parties hosted by vibrant IT software folk that lasted for days, party 'events' filled with a sea of colourful frocks, exposed flesh random hook-ups, copious amounts of booze and queues to the bathrooms that seemed to stretch for miles, B&B places or campsites with smaller groups in remote locations where stories were shared either playing Scrabble or next to a purpose built fire on the beach. They all had something to offer both in terms of creative inspiration as well as flashes of life and intimacy.

No matter what shape or size these occasions have taken, I cannot shake that feeling of remoteness inside of me. Surrounded by people, yet alone or lonely (I am unsure there's a difference), perhaps we've all felt that at some time in our lives. For me, it feels like a permanent state, as if my mind resides on a distant sun in another universe but my body is here and I'm waiting for the light and warmth that should belong to me to reach it. I hope that some heat will make me whole one day even though it has such a long way to travel. Assuming it is not a black-hole dead star and no light will ever escape it. And, in the meantime, I am destined to constantly shake half frozen from the icy coldness that emanates from my core. I confess at work that my voicemail message often gets confused for a robot but people could be forgiven for wondering what I am.

I've had hermit leanings most of my life. It's hard to know whether my passion for writing sparked first as a 12 year old came before this or whether because of this disposition. And it's fair to say that I have really thrown myself into the long stretches of isolated writing time much more in the last few years to escape the world. Since that damned pancreatic tumor nearly killed me in 2013, I should have embraced life more but I went the other way and retreated into my shell. Mum's sudden passing from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and my subsequent MS diagnosis probably didn't help but I can only use these events as excuses because I know I am who I am and these events do no more than shape me at the margins.

The latter perhaps more so given I've been on the Wahl's Protocol all of the last year and it has proven to be remarkable in keeping me physically the healthiest I've been in decades. I would say it's forced me to give up a lot more - it's harder to have fun with friends if you cannot enjoy the small pleasures in life like a huge bowl of gluten rich pasta and several glasses of wine - though a part of me sometimes wonders if I was slipping away before I had to give up gluten, refined sugar, diary, and so many other things and spent my evenings meditating alone rather than in the company of others. Buddhism should be easier to embrace now that I've had a practice run of adjusting to abstinence on so many levels.

The last few days have been a case in point. Other than a couple of conversations with my younger brother, I have shut myself away from the world for this stretch of time to write. It's been peppered with an occasional walk and a bit of movie watching (and binging viewing a TV show called Chasing Life - yes I appreciate the irony in this choice) but mostly I've been at my computer tapping away on the key board in a frenzy of flowing story telling as I shape the third draft of my latest manuscript. Uninterrupted and procrastination aside, I realised that this is what brings me satisfaction, what makes me content. It's been the thing that stops me from checking the expiration date on my stockpile of sleeping pills. Break the glass in case of an emergency. Do not use it to colour the warm bath water red. While I haven't needed to take any pills all year - I have been sleeping so well - I am struggling with the notion that I'm walking with my eyes closed as a fringe dweller who stopped embracing life a long time ago and the reason I'm resting easy is because I am a ghost - already dead. I half expect to float away some times, dissipating as a dispersing fog forgotten.

I found creative voice in my poetry as well as the long-form novel writing this year past. It was a good year in that sense. I found myself miles away from any real connection remembering that what comes out of friendships is what is put into them. It was a bad year in that sense.

I promised to myself that I would spend a year picking a weekly activity from the Broadsheet Melbourne website and get out more. Is this a resolution? I hope not. There's not a soul to share with. Not a soul to laugh with. That's a line from one of the first poems I wrote in my early teens. It seems not much has changed in the intervening years, in between the ebb and flow of the occasional snapshot moments of intimacy between the quiet silences. Sleeping in a crisp clean bed that is not a coffin.

Friday, December 08, 2017

tangent world

people around me are talking
debating impacts of nuclear testing
this is serious stuff
but all I'm thinking
as they speak
is Sponge Bob
and that annoying conspiracy theory
a megaphone-loud shouting thought
crashing in a wave of white water
eddy swirling conceptions
the Bikini Atoll tests thinly veiled
radiated freaks reside below remnants
of a mushroom cloud.

she's got that look again
the voice seems distant
we've lost her for a while
another spray of words
not a whisper
yet miles away
I wonder
can I keep it together
concentrate and listen
hear the scaffolding structures
logically constructed
around me.

how did I find myself
in tangent world again?
if my head were a perfect circle
perhaps the lines inside it
would stay corralled
instead they shoot outwards
porcupine needles
puncturing through the perimeter
those random thoughts expressed
air pressure released.

my mind is lighter
and an idea set free
swimming untamed
among the others
bearing no resemblance to anything
spoken out loud before it
incongruous fodder for disarray
thrashing everything in its path.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

sharing my writing journey

Just a short note today to share the thank you note from the lovely ladies (and gent) from the friends of the Yarrawonga library. I spent my weekend in northern Victoria near the Murray River. Hay fever aside, it was good to be surrounded by fields of growing grains, with nothing but the sound of the breeze and many warbling local birdlife. Perfect for clearing my head and an uninterrupted sleep.

I was invited to speak by the ladies to talk about my writing experience. No book to pitch (at least not yet). Instead I provided a sample of my next manuscript (the original prologue - now shifted to later in the book at editorial request) and a couple of short stories aimed at providing some insights into both character perspective and different techniques to telling a story.

The first, Hunger, has a twelve year old female narrator and (as the narrator is a child) is told entirely in the present perspective. The story is about a home invasion and the child's response though it also covers themes of family dysfunction in circumstances that involve a largely absent father and a mother too young to be raising children. It's fair to say it's a "dark" piece. The ladies expressed strong reactions to the story, with one even asking if I could convert it to a full-length novel because the experience of the girl left her wanting to delve into this family and the before and after circumstances of this life changing event. I agreed - it would make a great full length novel so I'll add it to my life of potential ideas for books. I confessed I had a couple of projects to complete in between - I hope to write a stage play next year (converting a short story my first editor once told me would make for great theatre - she said it in a 'good way'). I also want to return to one of my old fictional families and write the fourth part of the Panopticon series.

The second, Two Days Later, is a story about two mine disposal marines and the consequences of failed communication between them after the loss of one of their mutual friends. This story is told 'backwards' so that the end is at the start - you see the consequence first and then the circumstances that led to that outcome are revealed. Okay, it was another dark story and I readily confessed that as soon as I sent this material to the group for advance reading, I realised I should have given them at least one of my whimsical stories (the one about a bee (from the perspective of the bee) landing in a pool springs to mind).

The (now former) prologue from The Peithosian Gift was told from the perspective of a woman 'possessed' (as the gent in the group described it), though technically it could be more accurately described as a puppet master than possession. (I explained the story concept to Mick afterwards though he remains convinced it can be classed as possession.)

I described my approach to these pieces of work and then answered many questions. I was not surprised that many of the ladies wondered about my background - whether I came from a military background (living in navy towns possibly gave me some inspiration but, no - my day job is a policy adviser in government). The ladies were also very curious about my sources of inspiration for the work. The first was based on a recurring dream (nightmare) I had as a child, the second took an extreme scenario of a much tamer road trip I did with a girlfriend many years ago and the third also came from a road trip with my best fabulous friend where the idea of influence in advertising was converted to a whole new world.

We talked a lot about when and why I became a writer. In summary, as a twelve year old shortly around the time I first moved from a city to the country-side, and it's been my main form of stress-relief ever since. We talked about what inspired me - this falls mainly into the categories of the fascinating . authors I read from a young age, my 'weird dreams', wide reading and passion for ideas, curiosity about many a 'what-if' question, and a mind that day-dreams a lot. I've been describing it as 'tangent world' for many years and my day-job team now recognise when my mind is wandering - apparently I get 'a look'.

One of the ladies asked how I managed through school and career with such a creative bent - did I find my English teachers supportive or obstructionist? With one exception, I have largely had teachers, colleagues and friends who have been entirely supportive of my quirk for whimsy. I have long accepted it's okay to day dream and the people who have been / are part of my life embrace the notion that as long as I deliver the goods, it's okay if my technique is not conventional. I told the ladies about the first world I created - an English project in early high school when my then English teacher (Miss Brickhill) asked us to write a story about another world. I returned an assignment as a book - new world complete with new language, culture, pictures, poetry and paintings. Suneidesis. It was a place with two suns. [This was possibly the first real evidence that I can be a bit obsessive about my work.]

One of the more interesting questions from one of the ladies was how I stopped myself from just writing about my family and my own life. The lady had read that most critics think books from first time authors are just that. I agreed - every writer has baggage they need to jettison. In my case, I got most of it out of my system by writing a piece of fiction about a girl who might have been me (if I'd made very different life choices) as my first book - Transition Girl. (I wrote it about the time I first started writing this blog, which was originally a travel blog but which has morphed into a writing blog, and, yes, it was a piece of shameless cross-promotion.) I never really liked my first book (perhaps I am a harsh critic about my own work as I have gotten some good feedback about that piece) but it did cleanse me. After that, it was MUCH easier to create and write characters that did not have a piece of me in them. (I still write a lot about dysfunctional families though, just not my own.) I mentioned to the ladies that I also use this blog to keep the 'blah' separate - so that when I write, my writing (rather than my irritation with members of my family) is the focus. I still channel emotion into my work (see comment about stress-relief earlier) - I mentioned that when I had particularly bad weeks in my day job, I would write battle scenes. Reimagining Hannibal's invasion of the Ancient Roman Empire was the product of a few really bad months. The pen is mightier than the sword - sorry, couldn't help myself.

We talked about my process. I covered the amount of preparation I do before I start writing a full length novel - the research, the story board (once done as cards on a cork board - now done on the laptop), the development of characters as I write (yes, I have favourites) and changes in direction through the drafting process as the story evolves. I also talked about how immersion in stories and characters can sometimes feel like you are spending time with a family. Sure, it's a fictional family but these are people I create.

We talked about relationships with editors. I explained the early editing of any major piece not only takes time (it's effectively the equivalent of a PhD thesis written every three years in my case) but can involve major changes in content though the collaboration with a good editor. Sometimes a dozen major redrafts before it even gets to copy editing stage. This surprised all the ladies (and gent). Trust your editor. Don't be precious about the content. Reworking usually improves the product. Stop at a certain point - you will never be happy with what you have done (nothing is ever really finished) - but you have to move on to a new project at some point.

We talked about other writers. I am personally not a fan of writers' festivals - I write in a genre that challenges many and there's a degree of competition at these events that I struggle with as an introvert. On workshops, I was perhaps a bit too scathing - the only two I've ever done started with the presenter saying they were in competition with me so they weren't going to offer any genuine insights. Figure it out yourself seemed a bit rich as a message when all of the students had paid to be there. My recommendation turned out to be a couple of books that were given to me as gifts from my first editor - my favourite being from Steven King 'On Writing'.

I managed to field questions for almost two hours. The time flew by. It was great to share some of my reflections of my writing journey with a wonderful group of avid readers.