Sunday, March 27, 2011

Nancy Wake: A Biography of our Greatest War Heroine

In keeping with my promise to myself to read widely, and hopefully this will help improve my writing, I just finished reading Nancy Wake's biography by Peter Fitzsimons.

Nancy is an incredible woman, and there's no taking anything away from her life or her story.

I knew nothing about Nancy Wake until I went to see Peter Fitzsimons speak in Wagga Wagga upon the release of his autobiography: 'A Simpler Time'. He's a great speaker, and I knew he'd written quite a few books on various wars. He talked about he book about Nancy Wake. So I bought it after he'd finished speaking, and had him autograph it for me.

Peter Fitzsimons used a lot of cliches in his autobiography. I had hoped his voice wouldn't be so strong in his book on Nancy Wake. Unfortunately, it was. He's got a very distinct writing style, and he makes serious situations seem humorous. Nancy came across as a very frivolous party-girl before the war, and perhaps a lot of the sayings that Peter Fitzsimons used were her own. But I sometimes felt that the language used made the events that Nancy went through trivial, which they definitely were not.

I admire Nancy. I admire her strength and determination. I admire her survival. I feel pity for her, that Australians didn't give her the recognition she felt she deserved, or that nothing in life lived up to war time after WWII. She didn't seem able to settle into normality again, although she was used to living a wealthy fast-paced life before the war. I hope she has found some peace since Peter Fitzsimons wrote this book.

I highly recommend this book, because I think every Australian should be aware of what Nancy Wake did. Just be prepared for Peter's seemingly light-heartedness in his writing style.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Creative Writing Course - Module 5

Our fifth and last module in the Sydney Writers' Centre short Creative Writing Course 1. This module was about the publishing process. It was shocking - the time that it takes to get published, and the potentially low monetary return. However, after some reflection, I am sure that I was never trying to write to get rich or famous. I want to get my writing in print. I want my writing to be good enough to be acknowledged. So long as I don't have to pay for the publishing process, I think I'll be happy.

The assignment for module 5 was to create a scene around the dialogue assignment that we completed in module 2. Here is mine:

Condensation slid down the side of the icy cold glass and bubbles slowly rose in the amber liquid to the froth at the top. Michael's mouth watered as he lifted the glass slowly, savouring the anticipation of the first mouthful of his first beer on this Friday afternoon.
Swivelling on his bar stool, he leant back against the dark wooden bar and watched as other utes pulled into the curb out the front of the pub. All his fellow farmers were congregating here from their various outlying farms, as they did every Friday ... and Saturday ... and sometimes Sunday as well. Men greeted each other as doors slammed and they hurried into the shade of the wide verandah, out of the burning sun.
Michael had turned back to the bar to order a second beer when someone reached over his shoulder and thumped down a magazine on the bar in front of him. Trying to focus, a stubby finger pointed at something on the page that was supposed to catch his attention. Horrified, Michael realised he was looking at the Women's Weekly classifieds.
"Mike ... what the ...!" His friend, Pete Mollison slapped him on the back, raising dust and releasing the smell of hay.
Pete had obviously found out about the ad that had been put into the magazine for Michael. Since the Women's Weekly wasn't Pete's usual reading material, Michael was already wondering which of his sisters' big mouths was to blame.
"Fuck. Who told you?" Michael looked up at his mate's grinning face. Pete's eyes were twinkling, and Michael knew that he would never live this down unless he offered a proper explanation.
"Your sister ran into Jode at the primary school this morning. She ran out and bought this straight away."
"No, which sister?"
Michael could picture the gleaming face of his sister at the front gate of the school yard, as the words gushed from her, bursting to spread the secret that she'd been sworn to keep.
He couldn't be angry. Why had he expected that Kate could keep her mouth shut? She had been spilling secrets since she could point her finger as a toddler, especially if it got her one and only older brother in trouble.
Pete plonked his solid bulk onto the stool beside him and shut the magazine, turning it over on the bar so that they wouldn't have to explain themselves to the men around them.
The familiar old barman placed two frothing beers in front of Pete and Michael, who had known each other since their mothers had put them to sleep in the same bassinet as babies.
"She can't keep her mouth shut. I s'pose I shouldn't have expected it to stay a secret round here," Michael sighed, pulling his beer in close and turning it around on the bar mat.
Pete stayed quiet, watching his beer, decided not to make fun of his mate just yet. 
"You know how me mum and sisters get after a few wines. This ad was their latest idea. You should've seen their first effort. No way was I letting them post that! It was cross between a romance novel and an ad for a housekeeper! Mum's even getting the emails sent to her, so she can go through them first."
"But you didn't have to let them go through with it at all. Shit, isn't this a bit embarrassing?" Pete asked.
"Only because you know. No one had to know."
"You've got to be kidding," Pete sounded incredulous. "You sound desperate."
"Maybe I am," Michael said quietly, before taking a deep gulp of beer.
Pete's drink sat untouched, despite the heat. He had turned towards his friend, leaning on the bar. "You just haven't met the right chick yet. Someone will come along," Pete offered.
"When? Where from?" Michael punctuated each question by looking pointedly at his friend and raising his eyebrows. 
Pete shrugged, knowing Michael was right. There were very few women who stayed in the Mallee who were single. "Someone'll come along," Pete repeated, less convincingly.
"But mate, I'm getting old. How long've you and Jode been together now? Twelve years?" He waited for Pete to nod. "You'll be a fuckin' Pop before I have kids. I don't wanna be an old dad. I wanna be able to kick a footy around with me son. I wanna come home to a meal around the table with a family. I want my name passed on, and the property to stay in the family. There are no girls around here my age that haven't been through every guy already. How else am I gunna meet someone? I never get away from here. Mate, this has to work."
Both men sat quietly for a moment, twirling their beers against the bar mat.
"Are any of 'em gunna be good enough for Helen's boy, do ya reckon?" Pete turned his lopsided grin on Michael, trying to lightening the mood. It worked. Michael snorted. They both knew that his mother's standards were ridiculously high for her only son.
"We can only hope that she digs up a supermodel that cooks, cleans, fixes a tractor, and drenches sheep!"

Here is the tutor's comments:

To Jacqui
I very much like the sense of family and deep community you are setting up here.  If this were a story I was reading I would be looking forward to meeting Helen!

The relationship between the men works well and I believe that they’ve known each other all their lives.

There are a couple of bits I particularly like: when Peter turns the magazine over, which tells us that this is a real friendship; and the way they twirl their beers on the beer mat – that’s a lovely piece of observation.

If you were writing this for real, you would need to make a twist in the tale somewhere soon – set up our expectations and then confound them so that we see this theme given fresh life.

You have a little glitch in point of view where ‘Pete shrugged, knowing Michael was right.’  This is Pete’s pov, not Michael’s, and then we pop back into Michael’s at ‘He waited for Pete to nod.’

There are a couple of other moments, like Pete’s lopsided grin, where the pov is unclear.  Have another look at it and see if you can go just a bit deeper into Michael pov.

Other than that, good reading!

I will be enrolling and completing the Sydney Writers' Centre's short Creative Writing Course 2, which starts on 7 April 2011.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A List - Dymocks Booklovers' Best

I'm not reading books just because they're popular. I like reading obscure stories, and I love finding an old novel at the weekend markets. But, sometimes, books make book-seller shortlists because they are good. The book-seller shortlists are a good starting point to reading more widely, and if you find an author you like then you can read their other novels.

Here are the books I have read off the Dymocks Booklovers' Best/Top 101:

1. The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer (this is popular for ease of reading and for the use of classic act structuring - very satisfying, but very simple)
2. Harry Potter by JK Rowling (but I've only read books 1-5 and got sick of them!)
3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (Lizzie is one of my all-time favourite characters)
4. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (don't bother with the movie)
5. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien (I was brought up having these read to me as a child, and probably read them one every 2 or 3 years)
6. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak (an Australian author)
7. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
8. The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson (another series of books that seemed to be popular for popular's sake. The main character was unique but the story constantly bogged down)
14. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (very unique)
17. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
18. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
19. Cloudstreet by Tim Winton (another Aussie)
20. The Host by Stephenie Meyer (I preferred this to the Twilight saga)
21. Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin
22. Atonement by Ian McEwan (don't bother with this movie either)
23. The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
28. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (an Aussie novel)
30. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
31. The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
32. Tomorrow when the War Began by John Marsden (I read this when it first came out - I was in my teens, a bit younger than the main characters, and I was so in awe of this story. It probably helped that John Marsden came and spoke at our school)
37. Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer (the most refreshing story I've read in a long time)
42. The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay (another Aussie novel in the Top 101)
44. Tully by Paullina Simons (this is a disappointment, compared with some of her other masterpieces)
46. Breath by Tim Winton (I found this confronting, but my husband is an adrenaline junky, like these boys)
48. Life of Pi by Yann Martel (thrilling with a twist)
52. The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory (loved it!)
58. Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery (I read this in primary school, along with the other 4 or 5 books in the series, and I think I should revisit them. I have fond memories)
64. Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice (the real vampires)
71. The Five People You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom (charming)
73. Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (American sap)
85. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (horrifying)
87. The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis

I'd love your comments on any of these books.

I'd also love your suggestions. Maybe I should compile my own 100 favourite books. Watch this space ...

Friday, March 18, 2011

Creative Writing Course - Module 4

Module 4 of my creative writing course with the Sydney Writers' Centre was about structure. We learnt about the basic 3-act structure (plot point 1, plot point 2, climax, resolution) and we learnt about picaresque structure.

The main thing about act structure is a building throughout the story, and the main character grows throughout. As part of structure, we learnt about catharsis, complications, and eucatastrophe.

Picaresque structure was very different - it is just a sequence of episodes, without the main character growing or changing except for perhaps the character's social or financial position.

Our assignment was to outline the structure of To Kill a Mockingbird. Here's my attempt (and the structure of a story is never completely right or wrong):

Plot Point 1:
When Jem and Scout tell Dill about the mystery of Boo Radley - this plants the obsession and the bravado in the children to bring Boo out.
- Atticus getting selected to defend Tom Robinson causes:
- Scout's confrontation with her cousin
- confrontation at Calpurnia's church
- confrontation at gaol
- confrontation with Mrs Dubose
- Boo
- trying to deliver the letter through the window
- the midnight visit to try to see Boo
- the possessions being left in the tree

Plot Point 2:
Tom Robinson is found guilty.
Scout and Jem are attacked in the dark.
The saviour turns out to be Boo Radley, who is a very benign and scared person, and not a crazy axe murderer. The attacker is determined to be Bob Ewell, who died in the scuffle with Boo. Jem's arm is broken, but we know he'll be fine.

Our tutor made the following comments to all of us taking the course:
The differences in your readings of the book just reinforce for me that no two readers read the same book – we all interpret with our own mindset and experiences.  This is a great thing!  But it means we have to remember that as writers we can only control how our readers respond to the book up to a certain point – beyond that, their own experience takes over and influences how they read.
I  believe that the main story is the Tom Robinson plot, as it drives the action which creates the climax.
In scriptwriting (which I used to do for a living), the Tom Robinson plot would be called the A story, Dill and the kids/Boo Radley the B story and the other things that happen to Scout, which are about her changing her perspective on her own community, including her father, the C story. But this book, like all great novels, is too complex to tie down so neatly!
For me, the first plot point is Atticus taking on the case of Tom Robinson.  It’s true that Dill’s arrival is extremely important in Scout’s life, but it doesn’t directly affect the climax or outcome of the book, and therefore I wouldn’t put it as a plot point.  If Dill hadn’t arrived, Atticus would still have taken on the case, Cunningham would still have attacked Scout in revenge, etc.  Scout’s relationship with Boo Radley was already beginning without Dill, so he would still have been there to save her.
The second plot point is the court case, as some of you have identified.  But it is not the verdict which is the plot point.  It is Atticus’ decision to question the truthfulness and honour of the girl, which is directly contrary to the Southern code.  This decision leads directly to the climax – whereas the verdict doesn’t affect the climax one way or the other.  If Tom Robinson had been found innocent, Ewell would still have attacked Jem and Scout – possibly with even more vigour.
These two plot points show us that the main theme of the book relates to racism and prejudice, as many of you identified – and this is supported by the sub-plots, which are about the foolishness of making judgments about people based on little evidence, whether that is the townspeople’s ideas about Boo Radley, or Dill’s stories about himself or, most importantly, Scout’s assumptions about her father. 
As for complications, all the ones you have listed are valid.  It’s quite a complex book, and many of these complications relate to the sub-plots, which combine to form an overall sub-plot about Scout growing up and learning about life.  Note that in the climax and resolution, Harper Lee brings the plot and the sub-plots together beautifully so that we are satisfied on each level that she has worked on (racism plot, relationship with Atticus, relationship with Boo Radley, relationship with town, etc).
The climax is the attack on Scout.  When you are trying to identify the climax of your story, you are looking for two things – the most exciting moment, where the fate of the main character(s) hangs in the balance, and the thing which makes the resolution either possible or inevitable.  Although the verdict was the ‘important’ event, it doesn’t tie all the themes together in the way the attack does.
The resolution is the last scene, where we, as well as Scout, get to meet Boo Radley and have our curiosity satisfied, as well as feel that justice has been done to both Ewell and Boo – and since this is a book about racism and prejudgement, it is important also that we feel justice was not done to Tom Robinson.
I don’t claim that this is the only reading of the book – but when I tease out what Harper Lee is doing structurally, this seems the most coherent way of looking at it to me.
One more module to go ... and I'm on my way to being a writer!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I just finished reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

This novel was entirely composed by letters, except at the very end when we read the journal of one of the side characters. The letters offer a beautiful detailed way of writing between the characters. They also eliminate the narrator, to an extent, as the story slowly unravels over a number of letters. The writers also write differently to each other, depending on their friendship or otherwise. The letters are also very personal, and always written in the first person from the view of the writer.

Like the last book I read, The Slap, this novel has such unique and distinct characters. They jump off the pages and are absolutely real.

Ultimately, the story is a love story. It follows a similar structure to other love stories - complications between the lovers coming together, and the love being obvious to the reader but not to anyone else. The lovers finally get together at the end, though I found the ending a bit of an anti-climax. I knew that they would get together in the end, but the end failed to give me the emotional elation that I was expecting. The letters worked well throughout the story, until the ending, for this reason. There wasn't enough detail at the end to build the emotions of the reader.

The story is also about the occupation of Guernsey during World War II, and the writer, Juliet, researching this for a topic of her new novel. There are some tragic stories that are told to Juliet, through letters from the people of Guernsey. This is another reason why it's good that the story is written in letters, because you can put it down after each letter, if they get too much.

This book was also very inspiring to me, because it's written from the point of view of an author corresponding with her publisher. It's also about the author finding a new idea, writing, editing, and submitting for publishing. Obviously the process is very different these days, and also different because the author's publisher is the author's best friend (which helps).

To quote one of the characters in the story: "Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad ones".

I highly recommend The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Module 3 - Creative Writing Course

This week, we were told about the value of 'workshopping'. Basically, it's having a few people, or a group that helps each other, to read your work and provide criticism. Which also means that I have to tell people that I'm writing, and have to let people read what I'm writing ... !! I know this is important - to be a writer, someone needs to read your work. But I was hoping that I could hide was I was writing until it was all neatly bound into a printed novel. I have to overcome that, obviously, and I think that is what this blog is about, in part. I want feedback, and I am putting myself out there.

Also, the course was about description. It was about scenes and summary in writing. It was about dialogue, and it was about using all five senses.

Here is my assignment that week:

The gusty breeze brought the smell of lemon-scented gums when it billowed past. The winter sun was bright, but the heat that could roast the earth at other times of the year did not seem to reach me. The air was icy, causing goosebumbs to break out in tight little lumps across my arms and scalp. But I continued to trudge through the wet grass, bracing against the wind and hugging myself. I always felt like I was the last person on earth out here. This paddock was completely closed in by hills and thick grey-green gums rising steeply up the slopes, their shadows stretching halfway across the clearing. The only sign of humanity was the post and wire fence that run across my path in the distance, and the occasional jet tracing its slow passage across the blue sky. Bell birds whipped their greeting to me from the gums, and a willy-wagtail danced ahead of me before perching on a large cow pat and twirling his tail in a black and white blur. Faintly, I was eventually able to hear the low hum of a tractor, as I crossed the paddock towards the rusty wire gate that hung lopsided from its hinges.

Here are the tutor's comments:

To Jacqui
This starts off a little awkwardly,  but then you get into your stride and it comes alive.

Look at the difference in ‘feel’ between the first three sentences and what comes after ‘But I’.  At the beginning, you are trying for effect, but your character is absent.  Your sentences are all constructed the same way (for example, they all start with ‘The’).

Then your character enters the scene and suddenly it comes alive.  After that, we are so firmly in the moment as she/he walks across the paddock that we are utterly convinced it’s a real place.  The rhythm is stronger and the sentences flow.

Why not have a try at rewriting the first three sentences so that they feel the same way?  Then it would be really terrific.

Well done.

By the way, the research for my novel has begun!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

I didn’t realise this was an Australian author until I started reading - and it is based in Melbourne! I also didn’t realise that he’s written a couple of other very successful novels. I might look up his other books, given some time.

The lady in the Collins bookshop said that all the characters in the books were assholes, when I bought the book. She wasn’t wrong! They are nasty people. They are racists. They are drug users. They are unstable. I really hope that the internal dialogue that these characters have is not the norm amongst real people. It is shocking that people can be so hateful and dishonest with those around them.

The book has quite a lot of acclaims itself. It does battle some social issues, but it’s more like a character analysis - there’s no real story or direction to it - it’s just a look at a period of time through the eyes of a number of different people.

Overall, the The Slap made me angry. The only character that I felt any connection with was Connie - but it was because she was the only character that I pitied.

I didn't question Hector's initial response to Harry slapping Hugo. I always rolled my eyes and thought that Rosie was overacting, and that Gary was just using it as an excuse to be vindictive. It wasn't an assault. It was justified in the situation. I think it was just Harry's horrible character that was actually able to slap someone else's kid. It should have been Hugo's parents.

I hated that Rosie was still breastfeeding Hugo. He is old enough to remember breastfeeding when he gets older. He's old enough to speak in full sentences. He has teeth - that should be reason enough to stop.

Maybe The Slap questions the new-age conservatism, and over-the-top political correctness. It also portrays middle-class Australia as a very unhappy and unfulfilled group of people.

I'm just left feeling angry by this book, angry that the world could be exactly as it is portrayed in this book, and angry that we have let the world get this way.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Module 2 - Creative Writing Course

Module 2 of the creative writing course with Sydney Writers' Centre was about developing characters.

For our assignment, we had to develop a character, then write a personals ad for him or her. The second part of the assignment was that the character had to explain/defend the personals ad to someone who found out about it. Here's my effort:

Man seeks wife. 32yo Mallee boy seeks country girl for future together. I am a family man, self employed, living in a great community. Must love utes, animals, and fishing. Send a photo to for a first date.
"Fuck! Who told you? She can't keep her mouth shut. I s'pose I shouldn't have expected it to stay a secret 'round here. You know how me mum and sisters get after a few wines. This ad was their latest idea. You should've seen their first effort. No way was I letting them post that! It was cross between a romance novel and an ad for a housekeeper! Mum's even getting the emails sent to her, so she can go through them first.
"But mate, I'm getting old. How long've you and Jode been together now? Twelve years? You'll be a fuckin' Pop before I had kids. I don't wanna be an old dad. I wanna be able to kick a footy around with me son. I wanna come home to a meal around the table with a family. I want my name passed on, and the property to stay in the family. There are no girls around here my age that haven't been through every guy already. How else am I gunna meet someone? I never get away from here. Mate, this has to work."

Here's the tutor's feedback:

Jacqui, I just love the mum getting the emails first to vet them!

That tells us more about the family than anything else could.  It’s lovely details like this which build up a picture of the character’s background and environment.  If you really write this story the mum and the sisters have to be vivid and funny but with their own stories and issues. 

Is he talking to his brother-in-law?  Who is the ‘she’ who can’t keep her mouth shut?

That will determine the relationship with the other guy, which I’d like to see develop a bit – can you have him say something your main character doesn’t expect?

Because the assignments don't ask for much detail, I prefer to be subtle. I like leaving a lot of questions open for the reader, some mystery in the character, that will unfold gradually.
So far, so good.

Friday, March 4, 2011

To Kill A Mockingbird

As part of my Creative Writing course with the Sydney Writers' Centre, I had to reread To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

It really is a great piece of literature. Very subtle, because the narration is by a child. The girl Scout is a beautiful character - she is real, innocent, and so intelligent. But the events are a loss of innocence for Scout, and more so for her older brother, Jem. It is significant for Scout to look back on those years, but she did not have a full understanding at the time. Jem, who was just reaching puberty, experienced the trial through the eyes of a young man - I can only imagine how it shaped him in years to come. I hope he still became a lawyer, and wasn't disheartened.

It's the third time that I've read this book, and I have got something different from it each time I've read it. Having been a lawyer myself, for 4 years now, I could sympathise with Atticus Finch much better. Particularly when he never took on another criminal matter after Tom Robinson's trial. The justice system is soul destroying. Atticus believed in morality and justice. His views were advanced for his time and for the place his lived in.

The racism is shocking, and the class division is almost unthinkable - and it wasn't that long ago. The life in southern USA is shocking. But then I think of what the Aboriginals suffered in Australia, as recently as in my parents' life times. And the continuing inequality - are we that much different?

Prejudice and racial injustice - what would Atticus Finch think of us now? Would he be proud that so much has changed, or would he be disappointed that so little has changed?