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."

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.