Let my tell you about my muse

What is a muse? One of nine goddesses presiding over the arts, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Or a woman, or a force personified as a woman, the source of inspiration for the creative artist.

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Using this latter definition, I can say that my own daughter Liz functions as my muse, as she certainly inspires me. But I prefer to think that she has a direct line into me, or that my muse, Scarlet, has a direct line out to her.

I named my muse Scarlet long ago, back when I had no idea who she was. All I knew was that she existed in my psyche and she was dangerous. Who is she?

I hold with Stephen King’s depiction of the nature of the muse in his memoir, On Writing. He describes his muse as a fat guy in the basement, smoking a cigar. Which all seems stable and almost businesslike, although I think that guy would be a controller. Just like Scarlet.

Here’s the story of Scarlet. I’m a survivor. Back when I was very small things happened that so terrified me that bits of me went into hiding, while other bits of me learned to cope. The first bit of me to flee was my muse, that inner self that lives deep in the unconscious, right in its centre, whose only purpose in life is to create.

The muse is the synthesiser, the one who puts all sorts of things together and comes up with something new. She or he is the bearer of inspiration and enormous joy. Those aha moments belong to the muse.

Without her, I was a creative cripple.

Scarlet fled into a dark corner of my psyche and over the years I locked her in a cage. I locked her in a cage because she could behave like a banshee. She had so much energy and it manifested as blind rage. I couldn’t deal with her. Frankly, she was embarrassing.

Every now and then she’d burst out of me and I’d write something, but I was ashamed of what I wrote. I had no confidence, no self belief, and the feedback I sought from others was not good.

She was persistent. Whenever there was a still moment in my life she’d rattle her cage. I’d feel compelled. I’d pick up a pen. Only to rip up or even burn the outpourings of song lyrics, poetry, stream of consciousness writing or part chapters of a novel.

Of course the life of a survivor is not an easy one. I had a lot to deal with both within myself and with the people I attracted into my life.

I battled with an absence of self worth. I even got a PhD thinking that would help, but it didn’t.

Thankfully I got some good advice along the way. And some of the therapy I underwent to make myself whole again was amazing. Through it I learned to recognise Scarlet and understand her needs. I found her to be a wild voluptuous woman who wore a long red gown as if she’d come straight out of Wuthering Heights. The crown of thorns she insisted on wearing a blatant statement of her suffering. Meek was not in her vocabulary.

Sometimes I visited the cage but the circumstances of my life meant I had to keep her under lock and key. I had no choice but to deal with the vicissitudes that had befallen me. She waited. The years rolled on. Then, in the forty-seventh year of my life, Scarlet had had enough.

On the day she broke out of her cage and roamed free I felt an upsurge of energy. Ideas for a book flooded my mind. I became edgy and impatient for change. She’d begun a revolution.

Before long she took over my decision making. She cleared out all the dross of my life. She demanded my full attention. I found her reckless and obsessive. But I let her have her way.

Now I’m fifty-four. I’ve lived for seven years with Scarlet’s ruthless resolve.

The entire contents of me have realigned themselves around this new creative centre. I feel her energy. She has me up at dawn. She has me writing every day. She has me pushing away everything that does not serve her needs. She sucks me inwards, into her realm, and I have become her slave.

In some ways I live a life out of balance. But in the scheme of my whole existence this extreme, out-of-balance way of life is simply bringing me to equilibrium. I would have it no other way.

Love you Scarlet.

 

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On continuity errors

9781922200365-Cover (1)I’m currently at work polishing a second draft of my fourth novel, in readiness for other pairs of eyes. It’s an intense process involving steady concentration and a decent memory. It’s about containing whole themes in my head and watching when they appear to ensure that what I wrote before, what’s right there before my eyes and what comes after in later chapters, flows along nicely. I haven’t put Saturday before Friday. At noon there’s definitely a sense of time flowing by after the last time I mentioned said theme, say at dawn. I might find that character x couldn’t have known said event had taken place unless I do something to make it possible. Worse, I haven’t allowed enough space between events one and two, for a third event to be squeezed in between.

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Evidence of a poor writer? Someone cobbling a story together in piecemeal fashion?

No.

Then where’s the planning? Surely these things shouldn’t arise. They wouldn’t arise if I’d planned it all out properly.

Not true.

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Perhaps some authors plan out every detail in advance. They have lists of scenes and detailed timelines. They are meticulous from the off.

I write differently. I start with a sketch of an idea, maybe a sense of a theme, and one or two characters. I might have a cast of characters thinly conceived. I always have the setting. Always a strong sense of place. And I will have incubated the story for years.

Then, within a paragraph, the muse has taken control of the narrative. Up pops a character with such potency and so much to say, she demands a parallel narrative of her own. New themes emerge. Events present themselves. Little twists. I run with ideas, stream of consciousness style. I write with only a dim memory of what I wrote before. And I don’t look back, I press forward. I don’t care about grammar or syntax. I trust to luck that I’m not stuck repeating myself. That the ideas are evolving. And the characters too.

Once I have the bones of a whole draft, I set it aside for a few months. When I come back to it I have to battle through a jungle, hacking out paths, weeding, planting and transplanting, grafting this to that. I scrutinise every paragraph on every page. I develop scenes. Flesh out characters. Strive to get the balance right between all the elements of story – action, dialogue, reflection, description.

I go over the story three times before I call what I have a second draft. I put in eight hour days. Sometimes twelve. I fix every single thing I can find. I don’t want to say there are five people at a table and only describe the four of them that were there, a flaw I discovered in a highly praised work of literary fiction I read recently, a flaw that had me flicking back the page and re-reading the scene several times. A flaw that had me thinking, how the hell did that get past the copy editor?

I read a popular work of fiction a few years back in which the author had gone to some lengths to describe the dim light of a wintry New Year’s Eve, then the character walked into a bright and sunny kitchen. Huh? In the same book, the character was swimming in a pond on a wintry day in January, at four in the afternoon, with the sun high in the sky. Whoops!

I’ve softened my condemnations of such errors. They shouldn’t be there in published works, but I can see how easily they slip by. The author is so close to their own writing they can’t see it. When we make certain changes to one spot in the narrative, there’s a ripple effect. Every single related point has also to be changed. If you change Burt to Ed, he has to be Ed forevermore. No mention of Burt. It’s the same with place and time.

I think continuity errors are most likely to arise when the author makes small changes and forgets or misses the ripples. For example, there might have been five people at that table, and the author got rid of one of them. But overlooked the ‘five’ stated on the previous page. 

Just now in editing the middle of my story, I noticed the lack of development of the character of a frog. In my last round of edits I’d inserted the frog as a motif, thinking to add texture and interest. But I’d been lazy. I hadn’t tracked the development of the frog throughout the story.

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After posting this piece I shall return to the frog and do that tracking. Otherwise it might slip my notice. It’s that sort of meticulousness that fixes the continuity errors. And it’s up to authors to do that work because they are the only ones to know it that intimately.

After the fanfare

9781922200365-Cover (1)So, I’ve published a book. That’s fantastic news! All those years of slavish labour coming to a glorious culmination – the release. The Drago Tree is my second novel published by Odyssey Books in this auspicious year of 2015. My year! I’ve made it. Crossed that line that feels like the Grand Canyon. There’s the endorsement. There’s the kudos. There’s the fanfare of the press releases, the radio shows, the launches. Fans grab their signed copies. Friends congratulate me on my success. It’s such a high. Then…

You wait…and nothing happens.

No Google alerts. Nothing on Goodreads. Or Amazon. You run an eye down the urls in your daily book x self x review search and all you see is, ‘be the first to submit a review.’

Doubt kicks in – They don’t like it. They’re not even reading it. They’re using it as a door stop. They’ve left it, face down at page two, on the bus. They think it’s too long, too short, too, too, uninteresting.

You wait…

Someone writes a great review. You’re swinging from the chandelier. You post, blog, tweet, pin it. You get as much mileage out of it as you dare.

You wait…

You think of recycling that one review but pride won’t let you.

You wait…

Is the story really that bad? All those review requests you sent out last week and only one reply? Perhaps you haven’t got the review request tone right. Face it, you’re no good at this game. Then there’s the timing. Requesting book reviews at the end of the year is bad timing. All the prestigious blog reviewers have shut up shop for the year. But what’s to be done? The publishing calendar doesn’t end in August.

You wait…

…feeling jinxed. Review copies go astray in the post, no doubt making the journey from Canberra to Melbourne via Marble Bar. Anticipation has morphed into despondency. You wake each day feeling heavy. You no longer feel a frisson of optimism when you search for a book review.

You wait…

You stop yourself from searching for that one person who told you in a comment on Facebook how much they loved your book, and begging them to join Goodreads.

You wait…

Your local press and community decide not to join in your fanfare and launch promotion. ‘You’ve had a lot of coverage already this year with your first book, Isobel. Now it’s someone else’s turn.’ Turn? Ouch. You know it’s irrational but the rock-solid support you thought you had feels like gossamer. You begin to wonder if anyone will turn up to your launch. You begin to wonder who your friends are, or even if you have any.

You wait…

You bury yourself in your latest work. Tell yourself you’ve raised your expectations way too high and the world doesn’t revolve around you and your book.

Face it, you’re too impatient. It’s only been a few weeks.

You remind yourself of persistence, perseverance, resilience – that’s what it takes to be a writer. You tell yourself not to be so, needy.

You wait…

On Gilgamesh by Joan London

I’m about halfway through Joan London’s Gilgamesh and toying with writing something on Goodreads. Just now I scrolled through the reviews to read what others were saying but stopped when I realised there were over 1,800 of them. I really only have one word to add – bleak.

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And I realise much of the bleakness comes not from the story itself but from an absence of emotional reaction on the part of the main characters, along with a paucity of introspection. As is typical of much Australian writing the feeling in the story is embedded in the action as the main character, Edith, goes through the motions of her difficult life. She isn’t the responsive type and I’m left feeling empty.

The story is straightforward. In 1937, on a tiny farm in the town of Nunderup, in far southwestern Australia, seventeen-year-old Edith lives with her sister Frances and their mother, Ada. One afternoon two men, Edith’s cousin Leopold and his Armenian friend Aram, arrive, taking the long way home from an archaeological dig in Iraq. Among the tales they tell is the story of Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk in ancient Mesopotamia. Gilgamesh’s great journey of mourning after the death of his friend Enkidu, and his search for the secret of eternal life, is to resonate throughout Edith’s life, opening up the possibility of a life beyond the farm.

Alongside the myth of Gilgamesh, there is a motif of perversion running through the narrative, stated almost in passing in the most matter-of-fact manner. It’s a motif that evokes revulsion and a sense of doom. 

Overall the narrative is restrained. I think the idea behind this style of storytelling is that the reader is free to have their own emotional reactions, unimpeded by those of the characters. The downside is that the characters are more like automatons. The rich roundness of their beings duly muted in the rendering, they are at risk of appearing one-dimensional.

In it’s favour I have to say that the narrative is superbly crafted and poised, the prose elegant. Gilgamesh is definitely a book I would recommend.

Well, that was more than one word!

The relentless march of Empire

So the sugar cane roots that decimated the land of Central and South America, were taken there by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage from a source on the Canary Islands. Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano.

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That source was in large part Tenerife, where native forests had been clear felled to make way for sugar plantations.

It seems timely to remember what Empire did to hundreds of millions of people, in Africa, and in the Americas, and the world over. How it was the short-sightedness and avarice of the Spanish and Portuguese, and the calculated and shrewd opportunism of the Dutch and the British, that created a situation of unimaginable cruelty in the name of gain.

Lanzarote, the setting for The Drago Tree, was squarely in the path of this massive expansion of Empire. The island effectively linked the African slave trade to the South American silver and gold and cash crop exports.

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Something about the exodus today of millions of people from war ravaged lands makes me thing of our recent human history (of, say, the last 600 years). Of the arrogant way the major powers choose to treat other nations and their peoples as if the mantle of Empire were still wrapped around their necks.

The Drago Tree is out now at Odyssey Books and through all good booksellers

Deliria – book review

Initially, with paperback in hand, I hadn’t anticipated that I would review Deliria by Chris Heffernan. Two pages in, I was excited by the fresh, lively voice, and by the way Heffernan, through the eyes of his protagonist, depicts Adelaide with acerbic wit.

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The plot is very simple. William is an intelligent twenty-two year old university student who falls hopelessly for the stunningly attractive eighteen-year-old music student, Deliria.

Deliria is trouble from the first. She tantalises William, lures him into her world of petty theft. She’s a femme fatale. And he’s besotted.

What ensues is a series of little adventures, escalating in risk.

Deliria is set against an urbane backdrop of twelfth-century French poetry, classical music and Thailand. Adelaide  portrayed as the antithesis: crass, and distinctly uneventful. William’s thirst for stimulation is met in Deliria, who represents the sort of adventuress commensurate with the uncouth cultural and social fabric of Adelaide that William sees all around him. With a twisted morality and a series of perverse justifications, Deliria is perhaps an inevitable product of an age of shallow, conspicuous consumption, and its nemesis.

In William, Heffernan portrays the absurdities and intensities of an young man caught up in ennui. Acutely observed, William’s narrative is a perfect balance of introspection and observation, with enough self-awareness to endear the reader.

To my mind, Deliria sits comfortably alongside Phillip Roth’s Indignation. It’s a loose yet apt comparison, both books tackling the consequences of an educated young man’s dogged attachment to a single idea, or feeling. Although each author tackles his subject in a markedly different manner.

I found Deliria a thoroughly entertaining read. 5 Stars

Deliria can be found at Odyssey Books and at all good bookstores.

Where’s my book? – Part 2

I’m adding an addendum to yesterday’s blog post as I’ve become a little strident about the difficulties facing small presses.
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If ever there was a model of how the corporate world has an industry stitched up, book publishing is it.
A book publicist mentioned to me in a Facebook comment words to the effect that the Penguins and the Random Houses supply bookstores with reading copies of their new releases at least four months in advance. Four months!! Let’s not be naive about this. That’s a lot of $$ outlay, working on long lead times.
The large publishing houses have whole publicity teams working on promoting new releases. Terrific for those authors propelled along the conveyor belt towards celebrity and bucket loads of prestige. I call them ‘the in crowd’ as there’s no better way to describe it.
Nepotism abounds in book publishing as does elitism. What matters to the corporate publishing houses is in large part who the author is and how she and her book might be marketed, not the quality of her written word.
That is not to say that vast numbers of Editors and staff working for such corporations are not dedicated to the discovery and the promotion of quality material. I fully acknowledge and respect their efforts. My grump is not with them.
The world’s major publishing houses are oligarchs. They are in the business of swallowing smaller imprints and dominating the market. They have become so huge it’s breathtaking. They’re up there with Murdoch and Monsanto.
As I said in yesterday’s post, the large publishing houses overwhelm bookstores with their presence.
The big houses fund literary prizes, help select judging panels and therefore influence which book (one of their own perchance) will win.
They can afford or have already bought copy space in literary review sections of major newspapers and the like.
In other words, the Penguins and the Random Houses are in the business of dictating to the public what to read.
I’ve heard it said that only cookery books are making money in Australia, that numbers of readers are dwindling making it hard to sell fiction.
I disagree with the logic of this view as it omits the fact that marketing and advertising shapes public taste. When will SBS, for example, advertise some works of fiction?
Fortunately for the switched on reader, there’s an alternative, a way to opt out of the factory-style book industry, a way to make a statement of protest against the oligarchs, or simply a way to show support for those struggling to survive alongside it – by buying a small press title.
Such an act is no new thing. I recall buying Virago (now owned by Little Brown) and Women’s Press books back in the 80s based on the imprint as much as the author. I saw it as a political act.
At many small presses, publishers are dedicated to discovering fresh quality writing. They take risks on unknown authors. They keep the whole book industry alive with innovative, imaginative, passionate works.
And they cannot compete with the big guys.
Which is why it is my belief that small presses and their authors need to link arms to help make their presence felt more strongly in the book reading community.
In my view small press authors especially need to come together and take a stand. Many already are. I wouldn’t be writing this if I hadn’t already seen much evidence of the alternative model in action.
More and more I’m seeing my own literary career in political terms – the politics of globalisation that is.
Globalisation has always equalled centralisation (mergers, corporate empires and so on), and the emergence of alternatives out on the rim. I’ve already pitched my tent.
Cheers