Friday, April 30, 2010

A Kill In Time, Part 14

Okay, so this is probably utter rubbish. I blame the early hour and my rush to get it finished. I just didn't want to make you guys wait another week. (g) (And sidenote: As I was writing this, Claire, Rachel and I basically got in a contest to see how many ridiculous lines I could somehow squeeze into this installment. There are quite a few and I'm certain you'll recognize them. (g))

Enjoy! (I hope!)


Before a scream could travel the course of mind to mouth, a heavy weight hit Sam square in the chest. The impact knocked away what little breath she had, and then, then she was falling.

The descent took no more than mere seconds, but it was enough for her to recognize the irony of everything she had heard about death. There was no last-minute flash of her life reeling by her like a movie. There was no sudden heart attack to save her from the end game awaiting her below. There wasn't even so much as a goddamn beacon of light to reassure her in those final moments.

No, there was only the quiet rush of wind and the sound of her own heartbeat pounding in her ears. Then, of course, came the pain.


Nemo would be too late. He knew it the moment the decision to return to the safe house clicked in the back of his mind. He rushed forward despite this, making the leap in time and distance with the barest of ripples, all the while, steeling himself to what he knew he would find.

The world had gone silent, a stillness that was but a warning of what was to come. Death, like a creature hunkered down in tall grass, awaited them all. Biding its time, gathering strength. There was no more time to be lost.

Nemo found Midnight first. She lay as though in slumber, only the thinnest trickle of blood down the side of her cheek hinting at what had befallen his friend. His child. Her once silver eyes were flat, lifeless.

His jaw tightened at the sight of her, but he moved past her quickly, unable to fully bear yet another loss. Later, if there was a later, he would mourn.

Samantha lay just a few feet away, her cheek resting on the earth as though she were a small child trying to eavesdrop on the underworld. He slowed, moving quietly, strangely afraid he might disturb her. He didn't feel his knees give out beneath him. One moment he was standing, the next he was beside her, brushing dark hair away from her too pale face. Tears, like a thousand razor blades, pricked at his eyes.

"It is not too late, Tiberius."

Lazarus's soft footfalls moved beside him. Brahman was there too, a silent, reassuring presence.

"You have but to say the word," Lazarus said.

Nemo glanced between the two women, the agony of indecision ripping through him. Lazarus could truly work miracles, but even he had his limits. It could not be both. He must choose.

"Samantha," Nemo said at last.

He heard the sharp intake of breath from Brahman, and a moment later, the sound of heavy footfalls retreating. Lazarus, Nemo had no doubt, felt the same stab of betrayal. But as always, neither of them would question his decision, even in order to save their friend.

Nemo took Samantha's hand and pressed it to his chest. Lazarus, without a word of protest or the slightest hesitation in his movements, went to work.


Samantha, as though coming out of a thick fog to be suddenly thrust into daylight, awoke with a jerk. Her breaths came in hard gulps as she quickly searched her surroundings, taking stock of everything. The feel of the bed linens clutched tight in her fingers, the soft light streaming through the open windows beside the large bed on which she lay. Everything seemed to exude a sense of serenity and calm. Even the sound of voices raised in argument seemed to have a musical lilt to them.

That's when the full force of reality settled on her.

She was alive. She didn't know how it was possible, but she was alive.

The voices behind the closed door of her room rose in pitch and fervor, and she found herself slipping out of bed to press her ear to the solid wood. She couldn't make anything out, but from the tones involved, she somehow knew she was the subject. Frank…Peter… goddammit, whoeverthehell that man had been, used to say she could raise a tempest in the mildest soul.

Sam was dressed in a thin, but modest nightgown. Hardly appropriate attire, but hell, she'd worn a lot less in public. She tried the door. It was unlocked, and she cracked it as quietly as possible. The door made very little noise, but what little creaks it did make, seemed to reverberate and amplify in the sudden quiet. She was hardly stealth, and she held her breath until she heard the argument resume.

She realized now that the voices were coming from somewhere below. Another floor. But even from there, she could make out the voices. Nemo. And Brahman. And neither of them was very happy.


"Do you realize what you've done?" Brahman demanded. The usually stoic and good-natured man was beside himself. Arms flapping, he railed at Nemo who stood quietly, letting his words hit him with all the force Brahman could mange.

Emotions warred for control of Brahman's face. Sadness. Guilt. But most of all, anger. "You sacrificed Midnight…Clarissa…both to save this girl. This…this…"

"Stranger," Sam finished for him.

Brahman whirled around, his anger and words dissipating into the stunned silence that followed Sam's sudden appearance. She stood, frail and small, in the doorway. The edge of her nightgown held in her hand as though she were a nymph tip-toeing through dewy grass.

"A stranger who means nothing to you," Sam continued, her words so soft Nemo could barely make them out. He saw it then. The realization of just what her life had cost hit her full force. She looked from him, to Brahman, to Lazarus standing quietly in the corner, tears threatening to fall. She was such a fragile creature. All bravado, but no real bite. A strong wind could likely knock her over where she stood. Yet, upon her thin shoulders, rested the fate of them all.

"You should rest, my dear," Nemo said, quickly ushering her into a wing-backed chair close to the fireplace. She followed his command, but wouldn't allow him to assist her. There was his girl. Weakened, but not beaten.

He turned to find Brahman, quite sure the big man was on the verge of continuing his rant. Nemo held up his hands in protest, and Brahman gave the slightest nod of acquiesce. No doubt he would continue his argument another time. If they had more time, that is. If he couldn't make Samantha understand her importance to their survival…couldn't instill in her the urgency upon which they all must act, none of them may live to see tomorrow.

Brahman and Lazarus exited the room, the former at last caving and throwing a shameful glance in Samantha's direction. The poor girl didn't see it.


When the door closed behind them, Nemo busied himself pouring Samantha a cup of tea. She took it, but left it untouched on the table beside her.

"Midnight?" She already knew the answer, yet she crumpled further into herself at the shake of his head. "Clarissa?"

Nemo simply held her gaze and settled into the chair across from her.

"Oh…" her voice trailed off as she studied the fire dancing in the grate. "I'm sorry."

"Both dead. Simon and Peter, missing. Mannish still alive." He kept his tone even, factual. "The world hanging on the point of a knife. One wrong move and we shall all be dead."

With that, he tipped a small cookie into his tea and bit down into it with a loud crunch. Shocked, Samantha glared in his direction. "What the hell are you going to do about it? Sit here and eat your fucking cookie, drink your goddamn tea, and let them all die?"

"You mistake me, my dear. I'm simply giving you time to let it all sink in."

She felt as though one more bit of news would knock her over. Despite this, she sat up straighter and looked him straight in the eye. "Obviously you think I'm supposed to know what to do, what to say, how to act. But I don't have a fucking clue. Care to fill me in?"

Nemo brushed crumbs from his fingertips, a smile tugging at his lips.

"What's so goddamn funny? People have died and that fucking demon is still out there. With Simon! He could be dead for all we know." On this last, Sam's voice thickened and cut off abruptly. She dropped her eyes, hands clutching the armrests of her chair. She couldn't think about Simon and what might have befallen him.

"I'm simply amused, my dear…" His voice trailed off, and it seemed he had to force his last words out. "…by how like your mother you are."

Sam glanced at him sharply, unsure if she had heard him correctly. But the truth of his words was there on his face. He seemed smaller in that moment. Not nearly as invincible as she'd once thought. He was…vulnerable. But by choice.

"You didn't know my mother," she managed at last, pulling her nightgown taut across her knees.

"Yes, Samantha, I knew her quite well." He paused, taking in a deep breath. "Samantha…Sam…"

She stood abruptly. "Don't you dare pull that Star Wars bullshit on me. You are not my father."

He didn't speak, only tracked her across the room and back. His silence said more than any words .

"It isn't possible," she said. "Next you'll be telling me I'm the fucking chosen one."

At that, an amused smile tipped up the corner of his mouth. "In a way, you are."

Sam paced, not able to look at him. Her thoughts felt scattered, unfocused. Maybe she was going crazy. She didn't know what to feel, what to think, what to do. This was all one big nightmare she couldn't seem to wake up from. If only she could Bobby Ewing her way out. But hell, she'd never been that lucky.

"How the hell did this happen?" She said at last, whirling to glare down at him.

"Sit. Please," Nemo said, motioning towards her abandoned chair. "I'll explain."

She took stock of his features, trying to see some resemblance to herself. She had her mother's dark hair, her eyes…but yes, there was something in his face that bore some familiarity. The crinkle around the eyes when he laughed, the shape of his face… She sank down into the chair as the reality of it all washed over her. Holy shit.


If Sam had expected a fairy tale, she was sorely disappointed. Nemo and her mother's romance had been but a brief encounter. A moment of weakness in Nemo's illustrious career of stoicism. Her conception had been a shock to them both, something neither of them had been prepared for. Her mother, unmarried and knocked-up at the age of nineteen, had the usual concerns—telling her family, raising a child on her own.. Nemo, on the other hand, realized his grave mistake immediately.

"You see, I knew any child of mine would be…" He paused, twisting the hairs of his beard and staring into the fire. "Special."

"Nice," Sam muttered.

Nemo looked up, not getting her meaning at all.

"Go on," Sam said with a wave of her hand.

Nemo had concluded rather quickly that any child of his would be put at risk, simply based on who its father was. The only way to guarantee its safety was concealment. Permanent and irrevocable concealment.

"I think…no, I did, care a great deal for your mother. She was strong, willful, and..beautiful. I knew she would never agree to my plan, so I did it without her knowledge." Nemo sat up straight in his chair, almost willing her to condemn his decision. "I altered her memory. Made her forget. When she married, she truly believed her husband was your father. It was what I wanted. What would keep you safe. So I did it."

Sam bit the inside of her cheek to keep from losing her cool. What an arrogant son of a bitch.

"What changed?" She managed at last.

Nemo, after Peter had managed to steal part of Mannish's soul, knew he had to act. Quickly. And despite his baser need to protect Samantha, he soon realized he needed her help if there was to be any chance of destroying the demon.

"I grow old, my child…"

"Don't call me that. You're anything but old."

At that he laughed.

"Why did you involve me? Don't give me that "I'm weak" bullshit either."

Nemo sighed and turned inward. "I've done many extraordinary things in my life, Samantha. But in the end, I'm a man. With just as many faults and weaknesses. If you must know, I wanted to know the woman my daughter had become. Wanted to know whether you…" He tilted his head back and forth, as though the movements would help cough out the correct words.

"You wanted to test me."

His eyes rested on her face. "In a word, yes."

"Jesus," Sam said, laughing despite herself. "You're just as cocky as any other man. Me. Make. Baby. Me. Need. To. Know. Baby. Strong. Like. Me."

"As I said, my dear, I'm prone to weakness, as any other man would be."

"You're a schmuck, that's what you are."

Nemo smiled, but continued his story.

Yes, he had chosen to send Peter to her, knowing full well it might put her in danger.

"I determined that should your powers be dormant, no harm would come to pass. But they weren't."

Boy was that the truth.

"So what now?" Sam glanced around the room. It was all wood and comfortable leather. The kind of place you'd vacation to. "We're just going to kick it here while the world ends? You do remember Simon and Peter are still in danger?"

"Of course, my dear. That's why I've frozen time."

"You what?" Sam said, startled.

"It is but a mere two minutes after I found you…hours have past here, but rest assured nothing has changed in the world at large."

Sam stood, needing to do something. "Then let's go. Let's find them. Surely you know where they are."

"Of course." He said this with a wave of his hand. "Only, I want you to understand the full impact of what we're about to do. Not everyone is going to survive this night. I bear the full guilt of this. It was I who made the decisions that led us here." His head dipped, and guilt played across his features for just a moment before he got his emotions back behind a cool façade. "Should it mean the death of me…of one of the others… of Simon, I need to know you will be fully prepared to do whatever I command."

Sam nodded, slowly. "I'm prepared to do whatever it takes."

Even as she said it, she wasn't sure it was the full truth. If there was any way in hell of getting Simon out of this situation alive, she knew she would do it.

"It could also mean your death, my dear. My child. Mannish will come after you first."

Any response Sam might've made got lodged in her throat. She swallowed it down. "I know. I'm ready."

Nemo's eyes lit with an inner fire. "Then shall we?" He stood and took her hand. "I was a fool for leaving you and your mother. Nobody can put my baby in the corner and expect her to stay there long."

Despite it all, Sam smiled.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Kissing the Blarney Stone

I come from a family of storytellers on both my mother's and my father's side. My dad is umpteenth generation Dublin Irish, and like all citizens of that good country is a seasoned spinner of yarns. My mother's family comes from the Australian outback tradition of tall tales. On both sides of the family there's always been a saying that emphasises our approach to the art of talking about our adventures: never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Now, I must immediately disclaim that statement and point out that we're not (usually) lying when we talk about our family history, colourful as it is on both sides. It's more that we understand the principles of telling a good tale, and semantics about getting it just right are not part of that equation.

I've been thinking about this because I had to deliver a little speech on Sunday as part of a fundraiser for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, in which I told the story of my daughter's birth, medical evacuation, intensive care treatment, and subsequent amazing recovery from brain damage. It's an incredible story, and because I'm so close to it, I never really think it through before I stand up and talk about it. I tend to start out talking about how I realised she was in trouble in the womb, then I explain what happened with the birth, what happened afterward, what the prognosis was, and how she's defied the odds (read here if you've somehow missed all this).

All of which is fabulous if you already know me. But for the first time on Sunday, I was standing up in front of a group of total strangers, and I was trying to get them to donate more money to a cause which is very dear to me. And if I'd thought about it a little bit harder, I would have realised that the principles of good storytelling are embedded in my genes, and there are a few key things you can do to make sure the audience connects with the characters and the story immediately. I'm sure it was an effective enough story, but it could have been more effective. There's a second reason I'm thinking about this at the moment, and that's because I'm currently working (again) on the first couple of chapters of BETWEEN THE LINES. Since this is all about writing, I'm going to give you what I consider five of the most important parts of oral storytelling- which are also hugely important parts of telling any written story.

1. Start at the start- but give your audience a chance to connect with the characters first

It's all well and good to tell the story from A to Z, with A being the moment where everything changes in your character's life, kicking off the chain of events that is your novel. But before you even get to A, you need to introduce your characters so that your audience knows who they're dealing with, and- this is important- you need to get them to identify with those characters if at all possible.

Case in point: the inciting incident in BETWEEN THE LINES is the point where Bill's brother Len attacks his future sister-in-law in the deep of night, then flees to the Army. But if I started the story there and threw you straight into the action and the emotional turmoil that takes twenty years to resolve, you'd be scrabbling to connect to my characters.

So before I get there, I'm starting out with a little introduction- the events that lead into the inciting event. Bill and his best mate (and Kit's brother) Tom finish shearing the sheep for the day. They've had a rough day because Len didn't show up for work, again. As they make their way back to the house, they meet Kit coming up the path- and following her up, hassling her, is Len. Being the bastard he is, Len doesn't miss the chance to ruin Bill's planned surprise proposal, and tells Kit it's coming. Bill has to propose there and then- but of course, Kit doesn't mind, because they're in love and they're going to spend the rest of their lives together.

Back at the house, they break the happy news to Bill and Len's dad. Len is surprisingly bitter toward his future sister-in-law, and when they get onto the topic of the war, which has broken out only a couple of weeks ago, Len and Kit have a big stoush over their respective views. Len stalks out to go drinking, leaving the rest of the family to celebrate. Later that evening, Bill and Kit retire to separate bedrooms with a hint they might see each other again before the night is up.

Bill doesn't know that when he goes to Kit's room, he's going to find Len already there...

So, you can see how much I'll have established before we hit the major incident from which all other incidents flow. The introduction is necessary to make sure the audience is invested in those characters before we get to that point- by the time we get there, after only one chapter, we'll know all about five of the major characters, their relationships, and we'll be aware that the war is looming in the background and will inevitably suck them all in.

2. Consider your audience when deciding your angle of attack

When I was talking on Sunday, I was helping to raise funds. I needed to emphasise the parts of the story that would a) explain the importance of the service we were raising money to support; and b) that would tug the heart-strings of the audience to encourage them to donate in support.

I've told the same story to many people for many different reasons- to help parents of other kids who've been through the same thing, for example, at which point I need to emphasise different things- a) the seriousness of our original situation and prognosis; b) the fact that we defied all those odds, and so can they; and c) the therapies and techniques we've used to help our daughter.

In BETWEEN THE LINES, I expect to have a wide range of audiences. I'll have people reading a family saga, who are interested in the relationships; I'll have people reading a war story, who are interested in the action; and I'll have people reading literary fiction, who are interested in the issues (like the morality of war). I need to be able to speak to all of those audiences- and in part, that's why we have subplots in our stories. In the scenes with Bill and Kit, I'm focussing on what they mean to each other, and what Bill stands to lose if he goes to war (or if he doesn't). In the scenes of both war and the home front, I'm emphasising the horror and the impact of war on individuals.

If I take the scene where Bill and Kit get married just before he ships out to war (and after her brother and his best friend has been killed at Gallipoli), I can play it in a couple of ways, for example:

Focus on Bill's happiness at marrying Kit and his sadness about being away from her; or,

Emphasise the absence of his best man, her brother, and his nerves at going to face the same guns that killed his friend.

There are many other options, but you can imagine how differently the above two would turn out, and they'd still be the exact same scene- just focussed on completely different elements of that scene.

3. Emphasise the right parts of the story

What I mean by that is, give the high points of tension their due limelight. I can spend a hundred pages following Bill and Jared through the 1920s as they struggle to run a huge sheep and wheat farm on their own in the middle of a drought and the Depression, but in the scheme of the overall story, it's not important enough to warrant that. Sure, it covers enough time, but I'm not writing an almanac- I'm writing a novel.

So, I'm going to pick the important parts out of that decade, and I'm going to hit on those, and none of the rest. And those important parts are relatively few: Bill's father dies; Bill starts sinking into alcoholism and becomes violent at times; Jared starts to play football just like his uncle Len. That's about it. The hard times they experience during those years will be evident in their actions and reactions in the important scenes that take place in 1939 and 1940.

Emphasise the important parts, and you can't lose.

4. Put the most energy into the exciting bits

On a related note, next time you're relating a particularly exciting story in person, pay attention to the way you talk and use gestures. I'm willing to bet that if you're anything like me, your vocal tone will get higher, your words will spill out faster, and your hands will get wilder when you reach the really exciting bits of the story.

This is a comment on pace, really. When you're writing a scene of high tension or fast action, you can't choose the same words or the same way of putting them together as you would when you're writing a conversational or calm scene. You need to use shorter sentences, more dialogue, snappier verbs. This is a topic for elaboration on another day, but you get the point- more excitement needs more energy to convey the action to the audience.

5. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story

Last but not least, the old family adage. In this context, what I mean is, use a combination of all of the above to focus on the right aspects of your story for the message you're trying to convey. In my case, like I say, I'm not creating a non-fiction account of a soldier or a war. I'm writing fiction, and I get to choose my focus. This might not make my work particularly suitable as a reference for an essay, but it's not supposed to be.

Exaggerate, elaborate, embellish- make your story something that people will remember. Pick the big moments and make them memorable; create larger than life characters who people can understand and identify with.

You're writing fiction, after all- if there's any time it's okay to lie, it's right about now.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tool time

You know how this time, last week, my kids were back in school and I was raring to get stuck into my writing?


Things haven’t exactly gone to plan. Granted, Wednesday through Friday I got words down and I revised a few scenes (and killed some of my darlings in the process) … but then my five year old daughter got sick. Was sick all weekend, and hasn’t made it to school at all this week. Nothing serious, thank goodness – just a mild gastro, followed by a head cold and sore throat – but it’s lingering, and she’s not a patient patient, my daughter. Lots of wailing and diva-worthy demands and gnashing of teeth ensue when Miss I-HATE-To-Sit-Still-And-Rest is ill. Sigh.

Of course, I haven’t worked on my book for days (and it’s taken three days of stop-start typing to even get this post done!). I have that horrible, churning feeling in my gut that always attacks me when I’m away from my book too long. But I’ve managed to stamp on the fully-fledged panic, that terror that I simply won’t be able to get back on track with my writing. After all, I’ve had long breaks from my writing before, and have managed to get back on the horse every time …

But I’m realistic. I have no doubt that despite my cautious confidence, I’ll still be sweating bullets that first time I sit back down to write. So, while I wait for my daughter to get better, I’ve been going through my toolbox, sharpening up the tools I’ve acquired over the last four years of serious writing, ones that I know will help me break through this stall without too much pain …

1. Ease in gently. At first, I won’t write anything. I’ll just edit – fix typos, insert commas, change colons to semi colons … the easy-peasy stuff I actually find very soothing because it’s not really writing, and thus, there’s no pressure. This duping of myself always does the trick; after a few minutes of editing the ideas start to flow, I ease back into the work and before I know it I’m writing whole new scenes. It’s like when I was a kid, and finally mastered the art of riding a two-wheel bike; all that concentration on the minutiae of the process - the pedaling, the steering, the ringing of the bell - and then, without realizing it, dad had let go and I was doing it all by myself. Sweet.

2. Write longhand. For whatever reason, when I sit down to write on my Mac, it’s Serious Business - if I’m typing, I MUST produce something solid and polished and good. Somehow, the way my brain works, this rule – this self-imposed pressure - doesn’t seem to apply when I write longhand. So I know I can break through any performance anxiety if I allow myself a few minutes of brainstorming in long hand before writing – bullet points and arrows and crossing out and asterisks and underlining with different coloured pens and highlighters … all this serves to quell my nerves and unlock my creativity.

3. Move out. If I relocate from my study to a café or the library, or even just to another room in the house, again, the pressure is off. If I’m not in my “office”, then it doesn’t matter whether what I write is good or bad. I know, I know - I’m a head case, but it works for me.

4. Write a “to do” list. Something I do at the end of each writing session is take a few minutes to jot down notes about what I need to do next. It’s kind of like leaving myself a breadcrumb trail for the next time I work on my manuscript. Opening up my manuscript file, I see (thank God!) I’ve left myself the following list of things to do next:

Tidy end of scene four then add to master file.

Start scene five “Garret murder” using notes saved in Draft 2 folder.

Work on outline of Isabel and Louise scene.

This makes taking up where I left off so much easier.

5. Leave a hook. Looking at my manuscript again, I see I finished my last writing session by leaving myself a “hook”. This is what this "hook" looks like:-


Leaving off writing in the middle of a sentence or a paragraph - or, in this example, where I’d actually completed a scene by the time I had to stop writing, by jotting down a few thoughts and images for my next scene (I’ll also often leave myself a messy few lines of description or random dialogue, if that’s what’s coming through loudest) means I’ve left myself a hook to grab on to, next time I work on my book. I don’t have to sit there, trying to start a scene from absolute scratch. Having words already on the screen, no matter how little or how sketchy, means I always start with something ready to work with. Much less intimidating than facing a blank page and a blinking cursor.

So, these are the tools I hope will get me back into writing mode. I say "hope" – as I said, I’ll be a bundle of nerves until I’ve actually done the writing. But at least I won’t be completely paralysed by full-blown, creativity crushing, panic; that requires a jack-hammer to break through it, and I don’t have one of them in my tool box. Well, not yet.

How do you all start writing again, after you’ve stalled?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Birthday Traditions

Well, AKIT is in the works... just not quite finished yet. I will definitely have it completed by Friday, tho, for the normal posting day. Yeah, I might've been reaching by saying I would have it done by Monday. To tell the truth, the past two weeks...months...years...I've done little but work and come home to conk out. Been very busy.

That said, it's MY BIRTHDAY!! And it's time to celebrate a couple of milestones:

1. I quit my second job!!! My last official day was on Saturday night. I may occasionally go back to help out, but I'm off the schedule and do so at my own leisure from here on out. I don't wanna? I won't. Simple as that. This was partially because I didn't want to work 24/7 anymore...and partially because I want to finish my damn book! I've put this off far too long, and I plan to capitalize on those extra wakeful hours to get my butt in chair. YAY.

2. I can still lie about my age VERY successfully. This, my friends, is a very good thing. I told several people that I was turning 24, to mild gasps of surprise. Then I said..Okay, no, I'm really turning 28. That seemed to pacify them. And NO, I won't tell if that's the truth or not. (grin) Either way, it's good to know I can still pass for a younger person *cough* with only mild gasps of surprise. (g)

I don't do a whole lot for my birthdays. There's the usual family dinner with the Lincolnites. Birthday girl/boy gets to pick the restaurant. Then we have cake. OH THE CAKE!! By far my favorite part. :) It's a real low key affair.

This year, I said to heck with it and decided to organize a karaoke party at a local bar. To be honest, it gives me the complete heebs because I haven't sung karaoke in a very long time. Plus, yanno, I'm hoping to have certain guest/s, and said guest/s will make it even more nerve-wracking. (grin)

Other than that, well, I don't plan on doing much. I'm a fairly low key girl, so for this party to even be taking place is a pretty big deal. Hmmm, maybe it's that 28 thing... I'm growing out of my shyness?? Nah...

What do you guys do for your birthdays? you still lie about your age? Not that I do, mind. I'm just curious. (grin)

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Strangest Thing

So I’ve started two new stories. And so it goes that research must follow. Lot’s of obscure research, I’m afraid. But it occurred to me that anyone looking in on my new Google habits and didn’t know why I was Googling said subjects might be a tad concerned for my mental health.

Observe a short list for West of the Moon research:

Sword fighting techniques

Immortality legends

History of birth control

History of plumbing

Nineteenth century medical practices

Nineteenth century scalpels

How to suture wounds

Video on suturing techniques

Untraceable poisons

What happens when your throat is cut-and how much pressure to severe neck from head…

Bowie knives (serrated knives), and on, and on…

And then there is my new WIPs (this was just the searches I did yesterday):

Demons (types, legends)

Demon names

Names of saints

Knives (butterfly, titanium)

Kava Maga (Israeli fighting styles)


Lucifer, Satan, Devil legends


Ninja fighting videos using butterfly knives

Erm…violent much? Just your average whacko’s search list, or a writer’s.

Because I suspect all of you have such lists. A crazy assortment of search subjects that bring us deeper into our made-up worlds.

So what’s the strangest thing you’ve looked up? And it’s gotta be said, no matter what I look up, there is always an answer…how crazy is that?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Forgive Me!

I'm having A Week. Completely out of sorts and so behind on everything. I won't be able to post the next installment of AKIT today, but I hope to get it up sometime late this weekend. Forgive me! And now, because it's Friday and some of us have to drag our sorry asses into work when we don't want to go.. a giggle. :)

If this doesn't put a smile on your face, I don't know what will! lol

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn

Life just HATES me right now- I'm laid up with my second case of tonsillitis in as many weeks (!). Probably it means that when I stopped taking my course of antibiotics a couple of days early, as usual, the little germy buggers that had been beaten into submission were able to hang out waiting for reinforcements, and now they're back with double intensity, and I would rather like to sleep for the rest of my life.

So, instead of a very original post here today, I'm recycling a Letter From Home I wrote for the Compuserve Writers Forum some three years ago.

But before I get into that, a little administrative announcement: I've started up a "fan" page on Facebook as a place where you can go to get updates on and excerpts of BETWEEN THE LINES. Follow this link to "like" me, or look up Claire Gregory- Author.

Anyway! Back to more serious business.

This Sunday is ANZAC Day in Australia, April 25th, on which we remember the troops who died for this country in WWI and later wars. It's a very solemn and sombre holiday, and one that has always held great meaning for me because my beloved grandfather fought in WWII. But the meaning has increased even further for me since I've been writing BETWEEN THE LINES, because April 25th is the day the first ANZAC (Australia New Zealand Army Corps) troops landed on the beaches of Gallipoli, Turkey, to face a slaughter this young nation could never have imagined. Originally, my main character Bill was amongst the first to land. But plot changes mean that he's not going to join the Army until a little later in the piece. Nonetheless, both his brother Len and his best friend and brother-in-law Tom are amongst those who land- and Tom is killed, while Len is seriously injured.

I wrote a letter about the relationship of my then-home town Albany, Western Australia, to the ANZAC legend- it was the port from which most of the ships departed to go to the war. But the one I'll share with you today is my account of attending the dawn service, held each year at the time the men charged the beaches. It was an incredibly moving experience for me, and I think a fitting tribute to those we remember on ANZAC Day.

As the ode goes, recited each ANZAC Day:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we shall remember them.

Here's the letter, written on ANZAC Day 2007:

I've just been to my first Dawn Service for ANZAC Day here in Albany, Western Australia, as referred to in my previous LFH. I thought I'd share my experience with you very briefly [note- all right, not so briefly, but never mind!] on this day, which is considered the foundation of our Australian national identity.

The service starts at 5:30am, at the Desert Corps memorial at the very top of Mount Clarence, the highest of three granite hills overlooking our harbour. Because this is one very well attended ceremony, there's no parking, so it required hiking up the hill, leaving at 4:30am. It's autumn here, and it can be bitterly cold- they were expecting rain, but instead the sky was simply streaked with ribbons of dark cloud when I got up at 4am, all the stars in the world winking out in the night sky and the air crisp and clear but warm enough that I didn't need a jacket.

I met up with some friends who live at the base of Mt Clarence, and we set off in the pitch black up a bush track, surrounded on all sides by trees reaching up into the black, silhouettes sharp against the milky way overhead. It was this time of morning, 4:30am, that the 11th Battalion of the 1st Australian Imperial Forces (the Western Australian battalion, interestingly) went over the side to land on the beach at ANZAC Cove 92 years ago today. The 11th were first off the ship because they were to provide covering fire.

Listening to the stillness of the bush, broken only by the occasional whir of a cricket or trill of a nightbird and the distant rumble of the ocean crashing onto the beach below, I couldn't help thinking about the thousand young men in that battalion as they waited to go over the side. There must have been fear, but also excitement- nobody knew what to expect. It still seemed like a big adventure at that point. They certainly didn't expect the barrage of shellfire and machine guns that met them as the landing craft drew into shore. I doubt any of them could have imagined that by the time the sun rose that day, the ocean would be glinting pink with blood, and all of them would have lost at least someone they knew and cared about.

By 5:20am we reached the top of the hill as part of a steady silent stream of people marching up to the monument where the service takes place. Each year, there are fewer and fewer Diggers (Australian troops) from WWII left- we lost our last WWI vet last year. Nonetheless, each year there are more and more people at these ceremonies as the urge to remember swells. The ceremony is quite simple- prayers, the Last Post floating hauntingly from the bugle out over the ocean, a poem and a benediction, the raising and lowering of the flags to half mast, and then the National Anthem.

As the strains of the anthem drew to a close, we turned to find the dawn breaking behind us. Albany sits on the coast of the Southern Ocean, with headlands and granite hills bending around to create an undulating coastline, and steep granite islands out in King George's Sound. From Mt Clarence you can see it all, and this morning as the light grew and the night seeped away, the colours of the sky were just magnificent- violet and gold over the ocean, while behind us where the morning was yet to reach the stars still twinkled out of the deepest purple I've ever seen. The ceremony ended with a tiny ship way out on the ocean dropping a wreath into the water to symbolise remembrance of the fleet that departed these waters on November 1st 1914 for Egypt and Turkey. Once the wreath was in the water, they fired off two bright red flares. We all watched until the floating lights died over the water, and that was it.

I have always meant to come to a dawn service, but I've never gotten around to it. I don't know why I and so many other people my age felt compelled this year in increasing numbers, but I suspect it is down to the fact that my grandparents are almost all gone, and with them the stories and the memories of those years. I went today for my grandfather, who was captured in Crete in 1941 and spent four years in a German prisoner of war camp; I went for Thomas Lockyer, a young miner from my family's home town of Glen Innes, NSW, who was engaged to our great-great aunt Vena and departed for war in 1917, only to meet a bullet at Maricourt Wood in France. Aunt Vena never married, and died a spinster in her eighties, having lived her whole life with a broken heart, the only remnant of her lost love the diary he had on him when he died, which was returned to her years later. In it he had written a poem for her, which starts- Sweetheart mine, the world is weary/ When you yet are far away... I cry every time I read it.

I'm writing now about the two world wars because of these men and all the others who lost their lives, and what they gave up and what their families gave up when they waved them goodbye for the last time. I'm glad I went today, and I'll be back next year for sure- getting up at four am doesn't seem like such a sacrifice when you consider what those boys, most around my age, endured.

Middleton Beach- the last shore the ANZACs saw before they departed for war in 1914.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

And here's one I prepared earlier ...

[I’m writing this post at 7am on my Australian Wednesday, just before the bugle sounds and the craziness of getting the five of us out the door begins. I’ll be short and sweet …]

As you all know, I’ve had the kids home on holidays for the last three weeks. While it’s been great to hang out with the monkeys and have a break from the grind of school term routine, my writing has taken a big old nose-dive.

Today, as of 8.45 am, the kids are back in school. And today, while the darlings are out, I have decided I shall do nothing but write.

So, no in-depth Wednesday post on writing from me (yeah, like you were expecting one of them), no shopping, no cleaning, no anything but getting back into my revisions and my book. I know I’m going to be rusty; there will be much, much pain. But it must be done.

To make amends, I’m leaving you with a clip of Eddie Izzard, a British stand-up comedian who just makes me cry tears of laughter. This is his take on the difference between UK and US movies. It’s just brilliant. But be warned – this clip contains more than a few “F-bombs”, and isn’t safe for work or the ears of small children. And Eddie himself … well, if you haven’t yet met him, he’s hilarious, extremely intelligent (what the man doesn’t know about world history isn’t worth knowing), and he’s a transvestite. Expect high heels, sequins and a ton of eye makeup. And laughs… did I mention the laughs?


Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Jen's post pulled a white rabbit, and the poor girl has got to wait until after work to do a new one. So you all are stuck with me for now. Mruwahahahaha...

As I didn't really have a topic in mind today, this is going to be a totally random post.

So I've found myself starting yet another story. This is kind of strange for me as I usually only work on one WIP at a time. That I have two vying for attention is just odd. But two stories -in different genres- popped in my head and they both want out. Like now. What's a girl to do?

Unfortunately, I don't have any experience juggling two WIP. So I am asking all of you. How many WIPs do you all handle at a time? Just one? Many? What are some good tips for getting down more than one WIP? Inquiring minds want to know...

But I am really excited about the newest story. It is an Urban Fantasy, which I've never attempted before. I have NO clue what I am doing, but there is something to be said for going in new direction. Sometime we get so comfortable in our usual genre that we stagnate.

Anyway, that's about all I've got today. (big grin) But I thought I'd leave you with a bit of entertainment. Last night I was writing a scene and for no accountable reason I used the term 'witchiepoo'. Of course, I had to stop and wonder, does anyone even know who Witchiepoo is? Am I the only one who loved, loved, LOVED the Sid and Marty Kroft hour? Have I just majorly dated myself? :)

[ETA: In my age defense, I watched reruns of this show. RERUNS (g)]

In case you DON'T know who Witchiepoo is, or if you'd like to experience a touch of nostalgia, here is the opening to HR Puffnstuff.

Dude, Jimmy, didn't your mom tell you not to get on strange boats? That talk???

And, because, well, we WILL:

Monday, April 19, 2010

Death, Taxes, and Dancing

At the risk of starting a theme…

Today is the one year anniversary of my dad’s death. And though it is a struggle to write, I thought I shouldn’t let the date pass without at least marking it in someway. My father died suddenly of a massive heart attack that no one was expecting. One day I was tucked in my office finally getting down the last scenes of my manuscript, loving that I had the day to myself, and then the call. And then silence.

That is what death means to me: silence. Dark, unrelenting, frustrating, heartbreaking silence. Because they are gone and their voice, the conversations you might have with them, are gone. Silent.

The stink of it is that like the saying goes, death, like taxes, is certain. The sun will rise, the earth will turn, and we all will die. The thought of facing that silence again, to lose a friend, a family member, fills me with childlike terror. Which is probably not the best way to approach death, but it is the truth. Before my dad’s death, I had a nice philosophy going about death, how it was just the beginning, how we go on to a higher place. I still believe that, and yet, now I know the pain and the void of silence, and I know that death for the ones that stay behind isn’t very nice at all.

I thought I might write a tribute about my dad, tell you all about him, but that suddenly seems to hard, my mind can’t wrap around all that just now. Instead, I’m going to tell a story/incident involving my son that my dad would have loved to hear –would have regaled to his friends if he had been there to witness it.

On Friday, my son’s preschool had International Day, one of those school celebrations to honor diversity in which the teacher and parents get really into and the kids walk around blinking in mass confusion. As with such grownup driven events, the little preschoolers put on a performance. My son’s class –the AM three-year-olds- preformed a Bollywood style dance to music from Slumdog Millionare. Yeah.

So there we were, my husband and I with the camcorder at the ready. And my little son comes out with his class. Twenty three-year-olds dressed alike, all with a jaunty bandana tied around their heads. As he is forced out onto the stage my son’s delicate little features begin to crumple, that tiny lip pulls out and quivers. Oh boy. Mother bear anxiety floods me, but I’m ten rows back. He is sobbing now, quietly, standing there with the tears streaming, his little chest working as the music begins to play and twenty kids start shaking their hips.

I make eye contact, nod, ‘It’s okay, little man. Mommy is here.’ Still crying, he shakes his head. No, mommy, it is NOT okay. But then something happens. He dances. Yes, he is still crying. Sobbing in fact, but those little hands sway to the music, his hips swing back and forth. He is doing it. He is breaking apart on the inside, but by God, that boy is dancing.

It was excruciating to watch. Watch him sob, suck in jerky gulps of air while he spun, bump hips with his partner, did some sort of weird version of the Macarena, and yet I was in awe. Here was my son, three years old, terrified and undone, but going on with the show. Would I have been able to do that? Or would I have run away in the face of my fears?

Fear is an insidious thing. It can sneak up on you, rule your life before you even realize that it has. Fear of failure, fear of death, whatever the fear is, hiding from it won’t make it go away. It only gets bigger.

As a writer who wants to be published, there is a lot to fear. Rejection, putting yourself out there, going on when your ego is battered, these are things almost every writer will face. How we choose to face them is what will define us. Are you going to hide? Quit? Make excuses? Blame others? The market? The list goes on and on.

Or are you going to go out there, swing your hips, and just do it?

Me? I’ve got a three year old to live up to. And though my dad is gone, there is one thing he did when he was here –live. Live life to the fullest. I can’t do less.


Herbert A. Callihan

August 16, 1933 - April 19, 2009

Half of what I am I owe to you

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Vale Lauri Klobas

We had sad news last night. A dearly loved member of the CompuServe Books and Writers Forum (where we all met), Lauri Klobas, has lost her battle with recurring cancer, and passed away early yesterday.

Lauri was, in her "real" life, a teleprompt operator living and working in Los Angeles. Her work was fascinating, and her love of life was infectious- she adored her cats, and she loved her home.

Lauri wrote regular "Letters from Home" at the Forum, the collection of which can be found here, including a fascinating insight into the Oscars and what it was like to work them.

Though I never met Lauri, and I came to the Forum after she'd been there a long time, she was to me (as to everyone else) a warm, kind and welcoming presence. After my daughter was born with all kinds of trouble, Lauri would send me regular messages checking to see how we were going. When it became clear that Sophie was doing great, she was there to celebrate that too. She was the kind of person who just cared.

I sent Lauri a card a couple of days ago- too late to reach her in time, sadly- in which I thanked her for all her support, and told her it was our turn to think of her now. And it reminded me, in writing it, how often we forget to tell people directly how much they mean to us, or that a particular act has changed our world for the better.

I tried to think of something I could post in tribute to Lauri, and my mind went immediately to the Oscars, which she worked for many years. And the perfect clip presented itself right away, too- both funny and moving, full of hope, joy for life, and remembrance, all in one. This is the crazy win in 1999 of Roberto Benigni, Italian director and actor, for Best Foreign Film for the wonderful La Vita e Bella (Life is Beautiful).

It's one of my favourite movies- beautiful and heartbreaking all at once, it always leaves me in floods of tears. But the message of the film is so strong, and so relevant now- no matter what fate throws at you, even death, there is still beauty in the world, and a life lived with love is a beautiful one indeed.

So, for Lauri- thanks for reminding us all, time and again, that la vita e bella. You will be so missed by all of your friends.

Click here to watch the video (embedding is, annoyingly, disabled for this one)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Project management

This week is another of those where all your contributors are thinking similar things. This post is a perfect lead-on from what Rachel had to say yesterday, because we're struggling with an identical problem- an inability to get words on the page while simultaneously wrangling the small people in our lives. Like Rachel, I just can't concentrate while my daughter is around- and since she's only 17 months old, she's always around. So, I've been thinking on this recently, and I had a little epiphany this week. For me, it's not so much about finding/ making the time to write as it is about the process of what to tackle when I actually do get that rare time.

So- Jen has regaled you with her legal knowledge, and now it's my turn to lay out a few lessons from the line of work I’ve been in for the last six years- project management.

I took a small sidestep out of ordinary archaeology work when I was employed at a small consultancy business back in 2004. The workload was heavy, and in order to keep things under control, staff were given project management responsibility over their own work. I’d had little to do with project management principles while studying or in any previous employment, and initially I was a tad bamboozled. What was the difference between a milestone and an objective? What about a goal and an aim?

But very quickly, I realized I’d been using PM principles since the first homework assignment I’d had to finish for high school. It’s very simple, really. You want to get something done, so you look at what steps are necessary, how long they’ll take, and what might get in the way. You make a realistic assessment of what you can achieve in a given time, and if you follow all the steps, in theory you ought to have a finished project on your hands within a specific timeframe.

At work, this is something I excel at. I can juggle dozens of projects, staff, budgets, you name it. I can meet deadlines without breaking a sweat. As the work comes in, the work gets done.
So why, why, why am I having so much trouble with the biggest single project I’ve ever undertaken- my writing?

I think it’s because I’ve failed to view it as a project, and as a result I’ve failed to utilize one of the best tools of the project management trade: the SMART approach to goal-setting.

Here’s what SMART means:


The idea is, you take your project. In this case, it’s writing a novel called BETWEEN THE LINES. You can start with a deadline and fit your milestones into that framework, but since at this point I’m unclear about how long it’ll take me (except for the fact that it will never, ever be finished if I keep going like this), I need to start instead with what I need to do to get it done, and then I’ll tie in some timeframes after I’ve got those milestones.

So. I have my project. I have my long-term goal: to finish writing BETWEEN THE LINES and submit it to an agent for representation, and publication.

What has to happen between what I have now (a complete but unusable first draft, and an extensive outline for the next) and where I’m heading (a fabulous, Booker Prize-winning first novel by outstanding new Australian author Claire Gregory)?

The answer is, obviously, just write. All the project planning in the world won’t change the fact that to get a finished book, you must get words on the page.

But at the moment, “just write” goes a little like this for me. I sit down with my laptop, and I open up my writing file. I read through what I wrote last time. It looks good. I’m inspired. I think I know where I want to go next. I raise my hands to type aaaaand… another pair of little hands pops up and starts hammering my keyboard. The result looks a little like this:


And it’s not going to win a Booker prize.

I detach my daughter from the keyboard, find her something more entertaining to play with, and go back. I re-read what I’d just read earlier. It’s still good. But this time I can hear the child off in the other room, bothering the dog. The dog’s in a bad mood and she’s growly. I have to go rescue the kid before she gets her face removed, so I go do that, kick the dog out, and give up on writing for the day. At this point in time all I can focus on is finger-painting, anyway. My concentration is shot.

Later that evening, the husband is home. I go into the study and close the door, looking for a little peace and quiet. It’s nice and quiet in there, but I also have to remove a veritable archaeological deposit of paperwork, laundry, books, confiscated toys, you name it, off the desk before I can even sit down. It’s serving as a junk room at the moment.

Once I’ve done that, I open up the file, re-read the previous stuff. It doesn’t seem quite as brilliant on the third read through, but it’ll do. I lift my hands to type, aaaand… BAM BAM BAM! I close my eyes and curse whoever taught my daughter to bang on doors for attention. It was probably me. Dad comes and removes her, but she knows her mama is locked away in there, and she wants in. She throws a big fussy tantrum, which I try to ignore, but really- my head is just not in 1914 right now. It’s listening to the battle royale in the hallway.

I give up for now. Half an hour later, she’s asleep in bed, and I have time to… write? Nope. I have time to sit on the couch and take a breath for the first time that day. I get to have a rare conversation with my husband. I get to have a glass of wine and watch an episode of Bones. And then I get to go collapse in bed and sleep. Precious, precious sleep. I don’t want to write. I’m too tired.

So, what’s the solution to this fairly significant problem? I know that if I get some time to sit and write in peace, I have a very fast work-rate. I can crank out 2500 words in three hours, no problem.

There's no point fighting this internal battle every day, getting nowhere. The solution is simple- I need to set aside three hours each week, not in the evening, and go somewhere else to write. The library is my best bet. I figured that out last year, and I still haven’t done it yet. Why? Because last year I set myself the task of “go to the library to write”, and I didn’t make it SMART.

A SMART version of the same goal would be:

Write at the library from 3pm to 6pm each Saturday.

Which is awesome- it’s specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-limited. But it’s enough- it’s not a goal in and of itself. It’s a contributing step in the larger goal, and it needs to be framed by something more specific. Which is this:

  1. Complete all 1914- 1920 scenes (c. 30000 words) by May 31st, 2010
  2. Complete all 1920- 1939 scenes (c. 15000 words) by July 31st, 2010
  3. Complete all Jared 1940 scenes (c. 15000 words) by September 30th, 2010
  4. Complete all Bill 1940 scenes (c. 40000 words) by March 31st, 2011
  5. Complete revision of draft and query letter by June 30th, 2011, ready for submission to agents.

There. Nice, solid, specific, time-limited goals.

I’m going to back it up with a process for each of those sections- tasks that I need to undertake within each quarter.

First, a quick plan of the scenes I need to write.
Second, within each scene, a quick plan of what’s going to happen.
Third, time to write. One chapter each week should achieve the above plan.

And I’m not going to threaten myself with what I’ll do if I miss these- if I miss the first one, I’ll assess and review the rest based on what I’m able to manage, and I’ll extend the timeframes if necessary. I’m not going to give myself incentives or punishments. I’m not quitting smoking here- I’m undertaking a project that I created, and the only person it matters to directly is me.

The most important question of all when it comes to writing is, why do you want to do this?

If the answer is just to see if you can, or because you love the process, then you don’t need to set strict goals for yourself. The enjoyment is in the process.

But if the answer is because you want to see your work published, then you need to set yourself some concrete goals and treat this as more than a hobby. Not necessarily as a job- but absolutely as a project that requires strong management.

For the longest time, I was writing solely because I enjoyed it, and though I did want to finish the story, I didn’t really care about the end of the process. But these days, my priorities have shifted. As the story evolves and grows, I know more and more that I want to see it in print. I feel like what I have to say is worth sharing. And that means I have a new goal which, combined with some extreme challenges in my life (namely: a toddler), needs clearly set steps and timeframes to complete.

Last of all- I know there are those of you out there who’ll be having a heart attack at the idea of subjecting your creative process to such rigorous planning. But when it comes to actually putting words on the page, that’s where the magic happens. No amount of planning can influence what you write. The purpose of the planning is simply to bulldoze your way to having enough time to write, and making sure that limited time is maximized to create a real direction. And if you’re not heading towards a goal, then you’re just idling in the car park.

A saying that has always resonated with me is this: if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

It’s time for a change.

Sacrificing my rituals

[E.T.A: Kristen sends her apologies for Monday; she was laid up with a monster of a headache, which was highly incompatible with trying to blog. Here's hoping she feels better real soon!]

Here I am again, half way through the second week of school holidays and I’m starting to get all twitchy because the invasion of children (I have six of them in my house today!) means I have no time to write. At all.

I’m frustrated with myself for feeling this way. My eldest is in his seventh year of school; by now, I should be well used to the fact that school holidays always put a big old dent in my writing. So I’m trying to go with the flow, to work on being calm and serene and accepting, and to ignore the clawing panic in my gut that I’m losing my grip on the beast that is my WIP.

And yet I still wonder why I find it so hard to write a single word of my book when the kids are at home.

After all, my boys are pretty good; they understand that when mum is writing, it’ll be just for an hour or so, and then I’m all theirs …and really, with their PS3 and their computers and scooters and trampoline and the hordes of other kids in the street who are in and out of our place all day, they’re not overly devastated about not spending every waking moment with their mother.

But then there’s my five year old. She point-blank refuses to accept that when I close my study door, it is NOT to be opened unless the house is on fire or someone is spurting blood. Just doesn’t want to know about it.

I once heard a writer, a mother of four who worked from home and was sick of the constant interruptions, describe how she taped a big strip of black duct tape to the threshold of her study, looked each kid in the eye and told them if anyone dared cross it while she was working the punishment would be instant, agonizing, death. A little extreme, perhaps … but it worked. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and all that. But even that wouldn’t work on my hugely stubborn Miss I-Am-The-Centre-Of-The-Universe-And-Beyond daughter.

And here’s where the guilt kicks in. She’s only five. Shouldn’t she be able to interrupt me to ask how to spell “paragon” if she so chooses? (she’s in the middle of a word and spelling explosion, and writing the word “paragon” exactly right was her obsession all Monday.)

And here’s where the small kernel that is just me, not a mum or a wife or anything but the person I once was before the children arrived, kicks back … heavens above, surely it’s not asking too much to be allowed an hour, half an hour, heck, fifteen minutes, to write? To do something just for me?

But I know that interrupting offspring and mother-guilt are only part of the reason why I can’t write with the kids at home. Because it all boils down to the fact that a houseful of kids messes with my writing rituals.

I know we all have them. The boiling of the kettle, the selecting of the right coloured pen, the pouring of the glass of wine, the organizing of the desk, one last look at Facebook … these rituals are the last line of procrastination we writers allow ourselves before biting the bullet and getting down to the business of writing. And I think in some way, going through these routines helps to neutralise the anxiety we feel (OK, I feel) in the lead up to the act of writing.

But even more than that, I think these rituals help us make that mental shift from the day-in, day-out stuff that occupies our brain, into the creative mode we need to access in order to write. Kind of like flipping on a switch. And having the kids home is short-circuiting my fuses.

Not that my writing rituals involve anything unfit for young eyes. I don’t sacrifice small animals to the writing gods or write in the nude whilst swigging champagne straight from the bottle. In fact, most of my rituals can be easily done with the kids at home – the making of the cup of tea, the selecting of the perfect biscuit (and by that I mean cookie, for you American types) to go with my tea, the choosing of the music that best suits whatever I am about to write, the kicking off of my shoes (for whatever reason, I find it near impossible to write unless I’m barefooted. Go figure.)

No, the main problem is that I’ve grown used to writing in silence. When I sit down to write I turn off the phone and I disable my email alert, so that the only sound I hear as I tap away at the keyboard is my music, turned down really, really, low. So of course, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I find it impossible to write to the sound of screeches and shouting and kids pounding up and down stairs and doors slamming and balls thudding against walls and the Sponge Bob Square Pants song turned up to ten and the plastic cascade of a whole tub of Lego being emptied on a bedroom floor.

Therein lies the problem. My writing ritual is incompatible with school holidays. And even headphones don’t solve the problem, because then I just obsess about what the heck the little blighters are up to when I can’t hear them …

So I’ll just have to continue cultivating a Zen state of mind, and then unleash a torrent of words when the darlings go back to school next week!

So, what about you? My writing rituals aren’t particularly exotic. Diana Gabaldon has said she lights a candle before each writing session. Sarah Waters (the author of several fantastic novels including The Little Stranger, reviewed here by Jen) confesses to wearing the same clothes through the life of a book, the same loose cardigan and track pants which become so tea and crumb stained that by the end of the book they almost stand up on their own. Monica McInerney, an Australian author, has said she had to wear a particular shade of lipstick (bright pink, if I remember correctly) when writing a particular character. And Agatha Christie warmed up her muse by eating apples in the bathtub.

So we all have our quirks. Which means it’s time to fess up – what are your writing rituals? And just how strange are they?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Trimming the Fat

Howdy All -- Again I apologize for not having another copyright post ready. I have a feeling those copyright notes are wedged between two piles of notes that have absolutely nothing to do with the copyright seminar I took, and said notes are somewhere in my family's basement... Cuz man, I'm having trouble locating them.

They could also be on one of my many USB keys...labeled incorrectly. *scratches head* Yeah, this is a tough one. I'll find them, tho. When I have a bit more time to look. So don't give up on me quite yet...I'll get back on topic soon.

If you didn't know already, I work a crap ton of hours every week. And I mean A Crap Ton. I average anywhere from 65-80... usually hovering right around 70-75. It isn't much fun and I finally had to admit to myself that it's really negatively impacting my writing. But in all honesty, what can you do about it all when your rent is due and Mr. Visa (the jerk) wants his money? I'll tell ya, not a whole lot.

On top of that, I have obligations to family....obligations to Compu...obligations to this and that. Quite frankly, my writing always comes dead last. And when I do find a chunk of time, writing is usually the last thing I want to do. Mostly because I'm too exhausted to think about it. I believe it was Claire who did a wonderful post about needing time and energy to simply think about writing...and how that fuels her actual writing sessions. Boy did I relate to the post at the time, but unfortunately, there wasn't much I could do to rectify my situation.

Well, I'm here to say for better or for worse... I'm trimming the fat... FINALLY.

I'm cutting back on my work a MAJOR way. I've been juggling two jobs for the past couple of years and I'm finally allowing myself to say ENOUGH already, and have given notice at one of them. It ends in a couple of weeks and I can't tell you how excited I am to have that 15-25 hours back. WHOOT.

And though I've enjoyed the time spent in Exercises at the forum, I'll no longer be officially running monthly X's. I've been so overwhelmed with real life stuff that my involvement has been fairly sketchy anyway. I've maybe been able to manage posting exercises, but commenting and active involvement has been near impossible. I've felt fairly guilty about that for the past few months, so stepping down is a good thing. Frees away that guilt when I want to write -- i.e. I want to write, but I should be commenting or participating in exercises instead. Yeah, it's been a constant cloud of guilt hovering above me. Well, the sun is finally coming out folks...and boy do I need the rays. :)

I think sometimes in this writing gig we're much, much too hard on ourselves. I used to churn out words like no tomorrow. An average day for me was 3K+ (and the average time spent writing a book? 2 months?)...and now I'm barely able to manage a couple hundred. That's if I manage to write at all. I've felt super guilty about it for a very long time. And that guilt only makes me do less because it tends to immobolize me -- I get into the mind frame that if I can't have a Jen-productive day, then it isn't worth it and I'm a complete failure.

Well, luckily I'm in a better position to cut back on work a bit. I know a lot of people aren't tho. And that's just a reality of life. I don't have kids either...and the mess of responsibilties that come along with trying to raise a family AND work full-time...or perhaps even more. And I definitely know how easy it is to let guilt overwhelm you.. how easy it is to get into the mindframe that I shouldn't write because I have too many other, more important things to do.

I'm here to say that's utter and total crap. Writing IS important because it's important to ME. It's important to YOU. So do it when you can. It may take a helluva lot of juggling and time management on your part, but if it's your dream, don't give up on it. Somehow you have to find a way. It may mean not having the extra money you want...or it may mean giving up some things you really love... but with those sacrifices, think of all that you'll gain.

I, for one, feel much better about myself when I'm actively writing... when I feel that sense of accomplishment of seeing the pages I've churned out each day. It puts me in a better mood, I have more energy because of it... all in all, a writing Jen = a Happy Jen.

I'm soooooo ready for Happy Jen again. And yanno what's great, at just the thought of freeing up all of this time, the ideas have already begun to churn up again. Crazy. But absolutely wonderful. :)

ETA: Kristen apologizes for missing her post yesterday. She was a bit under the weather, but hopefully will be on the mend soon. She'll catch you cats next week. :)

Friday, April 9, 2010

Friday Fun! (Star Wars rocks!)

Hey All, I have to apologize for not being able to post the next installment of A KILL IN TIME. I'm way behind and haven't even started it. I have numerous reasons, but I'll save those for another day. (g) Let's just say my thoughts are a bit scattered with all of the things going on...most, if not all of them are very good, indeed. :)

Thought we could use something fun to kick off the day.

Does anyone remember this guy?

Amazing, right?

Well, these guys did a little tribute to the original. And it's AWESOME. The wookie sounds are HILARIOUS...LOVE it!

See you next week...promise!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Character Alphabet

An extremely quick post tonight, as I've just discovered that my toddler has somehow managed to destroy the brand new power cord of my MacBook (argh!), and that while I was putting her to bed my dear husband was unwittingly eroding the last of my power supply down to a paltry 20 minutes by surfing the sports pages (ARGH!).

The good news is, I already knew what I was going to post about tonight- it's the April exercise over in the Writers Exercises folder at the Compuserve Books and Writers Forum. You can find the prompt here. It was developed by one of the awesome participants there, Ron Wodaski, and I must say, from the first minute I saw it I knew it was going to be a revelation- and I wasn't wrong.

The basic idea is, you take each letter of the alphabet, and for each one you write a statement in the vein of "A is for... x". In the case of my exercise, it was "A is for advance". You then write a sentence or a paragraph from your character's point of view in which that word appears.

So, for example:

A is for advance. It was all they'd heard about for weeks and weeks, all over the papers. The Germans were advancing on Belgium, the Germans were advancing on France. The whole town was already wound tight as a spring, and every time the paper came out people got more and more worked up. It was only a matter of time before Australia had to throw her hat in the ring, but even then it was nothing to do with him. All that advancing was on the other side of the world. He had better things to do.

I know Ron originally meant for the exercise to be done in first person as more of a free association thing, but I wrote all of mine as they'd appear in the story. And I tell you what, a lot of them might. There's no real trick to this exercise- every time you get to a letter, you have to think of a matching word which is relevant to your character. Even the process of doing that makes you think creatively about that character.

This exercise took me back and forth throughout every part of my story, and I learned a whole lot of things I didn't know before. It was particularly good for building tiny details of character backstory- little things that mean something to the character even if they don't have a big bearing on the story.

I'm going to share a few of the more interesting ones that I came up with (ironically before I get to post them up in Exercises, thanks to my power issue). If you choose to do the exercise, please post your favourites in the comments so we can all check them out! And, erm- very few of mine were just one sentence or paragraph in the end :)

D is for drills.

He kept his mind off the thoughts that lurked around the edges by putting his all into the most boring days of his life. Drills, drills and more drills. Marching drills, rifle drills. Day after day. He wondered if battle was going to be just like that- an orderly marching from here to there, everyone dropping to the ground as one and sighting up their rifles; the sergeant-major shouting the same things over and again. Left, right, left, right.

If he kept this up for too long, he wouldn't remember to shit unless someone else told him to do it.

H is for hung.

Some nights he just lay there, staring at the roof, while his mind replayed the same thing over and over again, like a movie reel gone mad. He didn't blink, he didn't move. It seemed, most nights, like he didn't even breathe. He just watched and watched as Len stood up in the shellhole in France, ready for the fight Bill had just started, silhouetted against the night sky that flashed and flared with artillery shells as the battle raged all around them. And then it all ground to a halt- all the shattering booms of the guns, all the rattling replies from the other trenches- time itself just stopped as Len's mouth fell open and he looked down at his chest. A flare dropped lazily from the sky nearby, tumbling slowly, end over end, bringing daylight to the night, and Bill could see a ribbon of shining red snaking down his brother's chest, pouring like wine from a bullet hole.

And Len just... hung there. Hung there, barely touching the ground, his mouth working, open and closed, and then... he fell.

Time kick-started again, the flare died away, and Bill was standing over his brother's body, slumped face-down in the sick watery mud, and the world was exploding around them. Over and over again, he saw it. Len hanging there like a puppet, on the brink between life and death- there one minute, and then... gone.

L is for lost.

Back home, he hadn't needed to explain anything to anyone. They all knew him, and they all knew what had happened to him and his family. There was a blessed relief in that, in being able to walk down the street and know that he didn't have to explain a thing to anyone, or make any excuses. But here in London, after so many years of not talking, he found himself in a world he couldn't relate to at all.

Down in the Underground shelter he was swimming in people, and the moment they heard his accent, they wanted to dissect him and get inside his head. Why are you here? What happened next?

He was an amusement to them, and his stories seemed to thrill them and horrify them all at once. He never had a moment of peace. And so he found himself looking for the right way to sum up all that had happened so he could deliver it fast, without having to relive it all again every night. The only word that seemed to fit was... lost.

He lost his best friend, his brother, his wife. And then he found Jared, and it looked like he'd gained everything back. But now Jared was lost, missing in action, and now Bill himself was more lost than he'd ever been. Lost in a sea of strangers, trying to make them understand what it was like to be him. He didn't think they'd like it. God knew he didn't.

And lastly my favourite- I've been trying to write this scene for a long time. It's nowhere near what it'll be when I work on it properly, but it's a start.

S is for starlight.

Kit had showed him how to wish on a star when they were both little tackers. She said her mother had showed her, before her mother went away. You had to wait until the last light of the day, when the clouds were just a purple smear against the darkening blue of the sky, and then if you watched long enough and hard enough you'd see the stars start to pop out of their hiding places. You had to be quick- you had to get the very first one. And then you had to whisper, "Starlight, starbright, first star I see tonight. Wish I may, wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight."

It didn't always work, but then he figured some questions were too much for a simple star. He still asked for the same thing every night- he just wanted her back. Just for one night and one day. For one minute. He sat on the back verandah and pulled the kid in tighter. The older he got, the more Jared looked like his mother. With his shock of golden blonde hair, just like hers, maybe he was sent by the starlight as an answer to Bill's prayer.

Jared suddenly sat bolt upright. "There!" Up over the tallest gum in the yard, a tiny light was winking out of the sky.

"Quick, then."

Jared furrowed his little brow- it was serious business, getting this right- and started out. "Starlight, starbright, first star I see tonight. Wish I may, wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight." He sat back, grinning.

"Good job, mate." Bill didn't need to ask what he'd wished for. He knew from the lithograph Jared carried everywhere, clutched in his grubby little hand or jammed in his ratty shorts pocket, that they only wanted the same thing.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Bursting the champagne bubble

I have not written or revised a word for over a week, what with the Easter break and the kids now home for three weeks of holidays. In fact, I haven’t had the head space to even think about my manuscript.

*Insert panicked whimper*

But in truth, it’s not all bad. What I did do over the Easter long weekend was catch up with friends and relatives over long lunches and dinners, which brings me to the topic of this post (which has nothing whatsoever to do with writing, but never mind) …


In my house, it’s the first beverage opened when friends come round for a meal or when there’s an occasion to celebrate. And it just so happens that one of my characters in Blood of the Heart is a wine merchant – a negociant, to use the French – dealing exclusively in sparkling wines from his Champagne vineyard. Sebastien Ricard plays an important role in my book; he’s the man my main character reluctantly finds herself falling for (in between her encounters with a serial killer, that is) and a part of my story is set on his vineyard. So when I came to write him, I set out to discover all I could about the nineteenth century champagne industry.

Which meant … breathy sigh … research. Lots of lovely research.

And I discovered some very interesting facts – and some busted myths – about this bubbly beverage.

First up, we all know about Dom Perignon, the seventeenth century monk with a nose as sensitive as a bloodhound’s and taste buds to match, who was the first to invent the bubbly stuff. In fact, he is said to have proclaimed, “I am drinking the stars!” when tasting a glass of his sparkling wine. Right?

Wrong. While he was a brilliant blender of wines, it is a fact that in the 1600s, and for a long time after, no one liked bubbles in their wine. It was the sign of a wine gone bad, a wine that had undergone a second fermentation in the bottle to produce what was then known as “the devil’s wine”. Far from inventing and producing bubbly wine, Dom Perignon was charged with the exact opposite – fixing whatever it was that was causing the secondary fermentation in some of the bottled wines in his cellar, because it was ruining his abbey’s wine trade.

So from where does the myth of Dom Perignon originate? Apparently, it was only at the end of the nineteenth century, when champagne was firmly fixed as a desirable luxury beverage, that the house of Moet and Chandon saw the potential of the monk myth as a marketing device, and began touting this fiction as truth. C’est la vie.

Regardless, there’s no doubt that champagne is quintessentially, and singularly, a French invention. It couldn't be anything but ... could it? Well yes, actually, it could.

Wine historians now believe that bubble-infused wine was first discovered by (and I’ll say this very quietly to prevent the outbreak of another cross-Channel war) – the British.

Quelle horreur!

In the 1600s, wealthy Britons would import casks of wine from France and bottle it themselves. Prior to sealing their freshly bottled wine, they would dose it with brandy to prevent it from going off; but if any yeast was present in the wine, the addition of the brandy would kick off a second fermentation in the bottle which in turn would produce … bubbles. Et voila – we have an early, crude, version of champagne. In England. Who would have thought?

And in England, this wine developed quite a cult following, scientists devoted themselves to unraveling its secret … and all the while, Dom Perignon was in his cellars, freezing his sandaled toes off as he tried to rid his wine of its froth.

So. Myths busted.

And the perception of elegance that surrounds this drink is also not all that it seems. Hidden beneath its golden exterior is the fact that champagne was – and still is - a demanding mistress. Few wines require more attention in their production than champagne, and in the nineteenth century this equated to very hard work indeed, in the vineyard and, even more so, on the production line.

An example: while undergoing the secondary fermentation that produces the magical champagne bubbles, bottles of still wine are stored on an angle, neck first and pointing downwards. Winemakers in the nineteenth century used tabletops, stood vertically and with holes carved out for the bottles to slot into, for this purpose.

Storage of bottles at an angle allows the winemakers to deal with the nasty by-product of fermentation – sediment. Not what you want to find in your mouthful of pricey Cristal. In the nineteenth century, workers known as “riddlers” spent their days below ground in the frigid darkness of the champagne cellars, turning each bottle in its slot a mere fraction at a time, so the sediment would fall to the neck of the bottle. Over time - and this could take months - the sediment would form into a ball which would be expelled when the bottle was finally popped opened, then topped up with wine and re-sealed, ready for sale.

It took a practiced hand to get the turn of each bottle exactly right, but when the task was mastered some riddlers could turn up to 50,000 bottles a day. These riddlers, working beneath the earth, day in, day out, earned a reputation for being pale, squint-eyed and cranky. Not surprising, really.

A riddler at work. His crankiness is self-evident.

But despite the busted myths and the harsh realities, champagne is without doubt the stuff of romance and legend, and the story of Veuve Cliquot – my most favourite of champagnes but so damn expensive – is part of this tradition.

In the early 1800s, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, raised to be nothing other than a wife and mother and left widowed with a young child before she was thirty, took hold of her life and built Veuve Clicquot (which means “the widow Clicquot) into one of the greatest Champagne houses in the world. Quite a feat for a woman in those times. Obviously, she was a force to be reckoned with, which was demonstrated during the Napoleonic wars when her cellars not only survived an occupation by the Russian army (forewarned, she prudently bricked up the cellars containing her most precious vintages before the troops arrived), whilst at the same time making a killing – and a new market - for herself, when the commanders of the Russian forces discovered how good her wine was and purchased, rather than pilfered, her remaining stock.

Many of the great champagne houses were founded on similar acts of bravado and daring, and many negociants were natural showmen – like Eugene Mercier, who in 1889 commissioned the largest barrel in the world and filled it with nearly 200,000 bottles of wine for the Paris Exhibition.

So it is the romance of champagne that makes it a vital element in our celebrations to this day, from toasting the New Year or the birth of a child, to celebrating anniversaries and victories and the launching of boats. And only champagne could have prompted the likes of Byron (who famously stated that lobster salad and champagne were the only things a woman should ever be seen eating) and Winston Churchill - “Champagne is the wine of civilization and the oil of government” – to wax lyrical about it's qualities.

But I think the last word goes to Lily Bollinger, who managed the House of Bollinger from 1941 to 1971:

“I only drink Champagne when I’m happy, and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.”

A votre sante!

Or, cheers!

If you’d like to read more:

The Widow Clicqout (2008) by Tilar Mazzeo

When Champagne Became French (2003), by Kolleen Guy

A History of Champagne (1882) Henry Vizetelly (via the Gutenberg Project)