A novel idea

It is often said that everyone has at least one book in their head. It is also said that truth is stranger than fiction. If you take these quips on board, every one of us has the capacity to write a book. It logically follows that said book should be about events we have traversed on our life journey.

The ensuing question is, how skilfully would that book be written? Who would read it? (Aside from your mum and some close friends). Life events that are riveting to ourselves and our inner circle are possibly not the fodder for a best seller. If we haven’t had an exciting life, do we all still have a novel fermenting away? How do you even start the process?

It is something I have thought on lately as I have begun a few projects. My beloved high school English teacher sent me out into the world expecting a book would appear at some juncture. Since those school days life has handed me a certain plethora of material, much of which I am informed is ‘novel worthy’. Presuming that is the case (with the naive arrogance of the beginner), it raises questions of how a first book comes into being for any writer.

How did our favourite authors kick start that first successful novel? In certain cases that book becoming their only real success; yet stupendous enough a tome to make an enduring name for themselves. For me, unless the book is a fantasy/sci-fi affair, the key factor seems to be a connection to a certain human truth from the writer. Character detail that I relate to, empathise with, that makes real emotional sense. Certain authors trigger something in your gut that is hard to outwardly express. You ‘know’ them through their words.

That has made me re-examine some of the books I have loved for many years. Books of course come in many, many forms. Writing any book takes dedication and usually a hefty amount of research. Yet, I was interested to discover that many of my favourite books stem tangibly from the lives of the authors. In some cases a direct narrative of their experiences and in most, stories drawn from places and people they have known intimately. Interspersed with facets of their own personality and soul.

A short cook’s tour of some greatest hits then.

A childhood favourite. I’ve adored Gerald Durrell since I was not even quite in my teens. The book that put him on the map was “My Family and Other Animals”. As the title suggests, it is autobiographical. The writing is exquisite, funny and poignant. The world as seen through his eyes as a young boy living in Corfu directly prior to the Second World War. Durrell became a prolific author, writing a stream of books about his life as a zoologist. I have many of them on my shelves and some no longer in physical print have made their way onto my Kindle.

Bryce Courtenay wrote his incredible novel “April Fool’s Day” in 1993, telling the story of his haemophiliac son who had died of AIDS related complications in 1991, (having contracted the virus via a blood transfusion). Courtenay was born in South Africa and emigrated to Australia in 1958, his South African years subsequently producing “The Power of One”.

A variety of authors have told their own stories, but portrayed them through characters of fictitious name created as a mirror of themselves. Miles Franklin wrote “My Brilliant Career” in that format. An ill disguised attempt to relay her own story of struggle as an intelligent young woman living in rural Australia. She received acclaim for the book and scathing criticism from those who recognised themselves amongst her characters. In a previous article I have waxed lyrical about Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca”. Indeed, Du Maurier spent much of her life in Cornwall and sourced much of her material from the places there she loved. The Estate of ‘Manderley’, so pivotal to the story of “Rebecca”, is modelled on ‘Menabilly’ in that same county. Daphne Du Maurier was so enamoured of the home, she was later to rent the property and live there for some years. Unattractive and controversial aspects of Rebecca’s personality she viewed as her own; whilst certain aspects of the narrator’s nameless persona she described as her own emotions and general confusion as a young girl.

“Picnic at Hanging Rock” is an Australian icon and much has been said about whether it is based in truth. This is an interesting one to examine. Despite much conjecture, a party of school girls never met the fate of Miranda, Irma, Marion and Miss. McGraw at the Rock. What can be established is that Joan Lindsay knew the area very well; and in fact based Appleyard College on her own school, which was relocated to Mount Macedon some years after she had graduated. In 1962, Lindsay wrote a novel titled “A Time Without Clocks” which referenced an odd phenomenon she herself experienced where clocks and machinery would stop when she drew near. This factored into “Picnic at Hanging Rock” in 1967, where every watch stops at 12.00pm at the ill fated picnic. Joan Lindsay created the landmark book in a mere fortnight, writing tirelessly after a series of dreams gave her the storyline. Peter Weir fittingly opens his film of the same name with Miranda’s dialogue, “What we see and what we’ve seen are but a dream. A dream within a dream”. #cuepanpipes 😉

I finish this potted list of greatest hits with the legendary “Sherlock Holmes”. Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle was nearly driven mad by people asking if Holmes indeed existed. He became so consumed by the character he killed him off and had to resurrect him some time later. The acute public disappointment and pressure brought about by his creation’s death demanded he reappear. Holmes was of course fictional, but evolved through Conan Doyle’s own experiences. Conan Doyle studied under a physician named Joseph Bell, a brilliant man and acute reasoner. His form of inductive reasoning fascinated Conan Doyle, who went on to become his assistant for a time. From that relationship and close study of a colleague came Sherlock Holmes. Dr. Watson was subsequently a medical man and a reflection of Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle himself – assistant to a perceived genius. In 1892 Conan Doyle wrote to Joseph Bell declaring, “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes”. He did not receive a positive response. Bell did all he could to distance himself from any association with the infamous character, as talk of it detracted from his practice.

Now let me see…. I’ve made some notes….. what life event
shall I turn into my own version of “War and Peace”?????

In the end, I guess what one can take away from examining great books is a factor in great writing is personal truth. That cannot be manufactured, and many of the best stories are not pulled out of the air. Whether one’s own ‘test drive novel’ will fly is a leap of faith. It will be many months of work for any writer. A fairly raw bit of self sent out into the world like a cherished baby. Perhaps to blossom into a prize winner.. or very likely to come home from its adventure in a return envelope, destined to line the kitty litter tray.

The books I’ve examined today certainly support the theory of “write what you know”.

I did give Mrs. Woolford my word I’d write a book one day, as I stood before her in my atrociously yellow school uniform. She was one of those educators whose belief in you stays with you for life. Sadly she has now passed away and won’t ever read it.

One should never break ones word. However many years it takes to get there. ❤

Bryce CourtenayPenguin Books Australia

Sherlock Holmes – Website

Joan Lindsay

The extraordinary story behind Picnic at Hanging Rock (Janelle McCulloch)

The child’s play of Enid Blyton

I recently did a bit of home beautifying and put up some floating shelves sourced at IKEA. I’d never been to IKEA. What a life changing day … there’s another blog for another time. ‘Stuff I didn’t know I absolutely had to own until I walked into an enormous, Swedish shop’.

I digress.

On my major shelf feature I placed some framed photographs, two super sized wine glasses and my Enid Blyton book collection. Where it once languished in a bookcase, it is now a home feature that greets visitors. The conversations thus far at the sight of all those titles have been most interesting. Not surprisingly, a lot of people have been quite excited when they spot them. Blyton’s books have sold 600 million copies around the world and are logically part of many a childhood memory. For me, the works of Enid Blyton were an absolute signpost of my formative years.

Blyton display courtesy of IKEA.

As my interest in writing continues to grow, it follows that I give thought to the kind of literary exploits I feel comfortable with. Journalistic articles, copywriting, advertising and communications work, short stories, extended stories, novels all get a potential nod. The one that makes me go wide eyed is children’s writing. How does one re-enter the mysterious world of childhood once one has left it, and create material for that audience? I view the work of JK Rowling as incredibly skilled. It struck me that I have a selection of titles from the most prolific and successful children’s author in the English speaking world in my living room; and I have never really looked into what made her tick.

Enid Blyton. Credit : The Daily Mail

Enid Blyton (I have subsequently discovered) was a most interesting and complex woman. She created over 700 titles and wrote up to 50 books a year at her most prolific. Those books have sold in the vicinity of 600 million copies, been translated into 90 languages and have been the subject of controversy and debate amongst children’s educators for decades. They were banned from libraries in the 1970’s and 1980’s and many still will not have them in their children’s sections. Her work has been labelled as racist, sexist, xenophobic, repetitive and of very poor literary merit. Of the titles that are still published today, many have undergone changes to try and combat those perceived faults. Particularly the aspects of racism and xenophobia. Some of this is clearly a product of the era in which she wrote. Some of it appears to be inherent in Blyton’s own psyche.

In a letter to psychologist Peter McKellar, Blyton wrote “I shut my eyes for a few minutes, with my portable typewriter on my knee – I make my mind a blank and wait – and then, as clearly as I would see real children, my characters stand before me in my mind’s eye …. The first sentence comes straight into my mind, I don’t have to think of it – I don’t have to think of anything” (Wikipedia).

Enid continued to write to McKellar, describing how in just five days she wrote a 60,000 word book using what she referred to as her “under mind”. Her daughter Gillian recalls in a newspaper article about her mother that …. “she never knew where her stories came from”, but that her mother used to talk about them “coming from her mind’s eye”. The amateur psychologist within me finds this rather fascinating. It appears Enid Blyton was able to regress subconsciously into a state where she could create fantasy as a child might, but using adult writing skills. That leads an amateur shrink with a writing focus such as myself to look at who her subconscious child actually was.

Some delightfully politically incorrect books from my collection.
(That fairy next to Mr. Pink-Whistle ‘interfering’ looks appropriately worried).

Enid Blyton was born in August 1897 and died in November 1968, after suffering from ‘dementia’ (most probably early onset Alzheimer’s) from her mid-sixties. She had built a writing empire. She had also managed to self market herself right down to her memorable signature, at a time when that was not common practice. Her juggernaut career came at a cost. Two marriages, and two daughters who are estranged from each other as adults. The women disagree on the level of parental neglect they suffered as children, but both agree theirs was a very abnormal childhood.

Enid Blyton was not a particularly happy person either as a child or as an adult. Her happiest years all came before her thirteenth birthday. The DIY analyst in me views this as significant.

Enid never got along with her mother from a very early age. She did however adore her father, and they spent hours together on nature walks, reading and playing. When she was thirteen her father suddenly left Enid and her mother and went to live with another woman. He subsequently had two children with his mistress and the relationship with his first child was abandoned. Enid’s descriptions of her mother are of someone who is cold, cruel and distant. She notably said her mother was scathing of her interest in writing and labelled it a “waste of time and money”. Enid got away from her family home as fast as was practical and completed a teaching certificate with distinctions in zoology and principles of education. She was first published in 1922.

The ‘Wishing Chair’ series, initially published in 1937, was Blyton’s first phenomenal success.

Enid’s first full length book was the ‘Adventures of the Wishing Chair’ in 1937, which became her first series. From there she went from strength to strength. In 1939 she created ‘The Enchanted Forest’ which was the first book of her ‘Faraway Tree’ series. When you mention Enid Blyton, these seem to be the titles people recall. Whatever your modern day opinion of her writing skill or social prejudices, they are amazing children’s books. The central child characters solve problems, have adventures and touch a world which is theirs alone. The child reader feels a part of that world.

As an only child who wasn’t having a high level of family fun in my own home….. these books were my friends. I was obsessed with them and they turned me into a child who was constantly reading. In an article by Alex Hannaford called ‘What Makes a Good Children’s Book?’ (literatibooks.com) he covers various aspects of successful formula in the genre. He quotes Dr. Mark West, who is head of the English department at the University of North Carolina and a children’s literature authority. West says a common thread seen running through excellent children’s books is child characters who make decisions that matter. Whilst they may have assistance or guidance from adult characters, they still act independently. When child characters have agency and face dangers, child readers are much more likely to care about the fate of the characters. “In an excellent children’s book, the child characters are able to solve problems on their own”.

Enid Blyton instinctively knew this and created the ‘Adventurous Four’, ‘Famous Five’ and ‘Secret Seven’. Unfortunately, she was unable to transfer her understanding of children to her own two girls. One daughter describes her mother as emotionally stunted, which makes sense looking back over what I’ve just expounded. Her daughters had nannies, were sent to boarding school and were somewhat exploited as an early form of marketing tool. Whilst they did not spend quality time with their mother, they were used in photographs for the papers and the impression was given they were a part of the magical story world their mother was infamously creating. Both women agree that was untrue; although one remains more faithful to her mother’s memory than the other.

Blyton with her daughters in a publicity photo. Credit : Daily Mail U.K..

Whatever we conclude about the person Enid Blyton was, her standard of writing or the political incorrectness of some of her content; you can only admire the joy she brought to so many children and her ability to create a world children love. I think being a children’s writer presents as many, if not more, hurdles than so many other kinds of content. I’m not sure if I’m really up for that. That being said, it turned out quite well for JK Rowling when she set her mind to it. Never say never.

Thank you Ms. Blyton. You gave me many happy hours reading your creations under the blankets with a torch after lights out when I was a little girl. The colourful little volumes on my IKEA shelf are a constant reminder of that happiness.

600 million copies sold and counting is a pretty good achievement. Particularly for a school governess with a portable typewriter, an active imagination and a determination to prove her mother wrong. 🙂

Enid Blyton

Enid Blyton Society

What Makes a Good Children’s Book (Alex Hannaford)

Add a dash of criticism.

I am going to open with a somewhat hackneyed sentiment. Creating a piece of writing is rather like cooking a meal. It may be a short story starter, a main meal novel, a cheese platter communications project or a dessert comedy script delight. Whatever you are working on, you start with a whole lot of ingredients that are put together. Some time after you’ve opened the pantry and slaved over the creative stove; you silently pray you’ve created something your figurative diners enjoy. Hopefully they’ll leave a tip ….and it won’t just be editing advice and a rejection slip. It’ll be in your bank account and paying for next week’s groceries.

I like cooking and I like writing. I’m a much lazier cook than I am a writer, which isn’t a total disaster. That’s what Youfoodz is for. Shove it in the microwave and away you go. There isn’t really a parallel shortcut in the writing arena. If you chuck something together with minimal care it will read that way. Once an editor or prospective employer has read one mess, they are not likely to return for more. That’s like going back for a second round of bad curry.

So. Let’s say you’ve decided to write a short story. You have characters in mind and have jotted down all the main elements of the planned piece. The timeline, the world in which the story takes place, those key players and the essential plot. You have your introduction, your middle and your end. You’re all set to go and you perch at your computer and write those 2000 words (or whatever the brief may be). Once that’s done you re read. Tweak. Re read. Tweak. Re read. Tweak. Is it improving or are you actually wrecking it? Are things missing? Are they relatable characters? Is the protagonist likeable, or really irritating? Is it readable? Are there errors in spelling and syntax that you are not picking up? Hard to tell. You’ve been staring at it for two days now and you’ve either created modern day Dickens or a disaster.

Time to request……….. A CRITIQUE.

Meme from ‘Writer’s Digest’
writers digest.com.

In some circumstances a writer can be in the advantageous position of having a professional editor at their disposal. Perhaps one has been provided as part of a brief with a newspaper, magazine or book deal. A writer may be a tad cashed up… oh #happyfantasy … and has privately engaged an editor to check their work. Or in the world of reality, you are seeking the opinions of fellow writers or understanding friends for insight with regards to your recently created casserole. This is where it gets tricky. We’ve all watched the carnage of shattered egos on ‘My Kitchen Rules’. No one wants to hear their soufflé sucks.

Any writer who really wants to evolve and hone their skills will seek those risky, critical opinions. It is relatively impossible to evaluate your own work with unbiased eyes. You often know if something has real potential or is (in essence) a lemon. Fine tuning however, is very hard to do completely on your own. That does not mean you take on absolutely everything offered. Blindly rewriting anything and everything. Three different people can have three quite different opinions on what works and what doesn’t. Instead, see if there is uniformity in any of the criticisms. If anyone has offered something that you can clearly see yourself when looking at the piece with rested eyes. That’s what often brings the lightbulb moment. Something goes from average to well above with some intelligent editing.

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”. (Aristotle)

Critiquing someone’s work is tricky and another topic for another day. There may be little to offer as the writing is excellent. You may have just read a real stinker. (I’m tempted to offer some blue cheese quip here, but I think we’re done with the food analogies). If you are tremulously offering up your writing for criticism, there is no harm in giving your friendly editing team a few guidelines. Key points to ask for are spelling, syntax, their impression as a reader, does the plot make sense and were they engaged by the characters. Constructive criticism is the name of the game. If they liked your literary laksa (sorry…. couldn’t help myself… this is fun), then it is most helpful if they give you the reasons why it appealed. Those can often be built upon during a final rewrite.

I had this experience the other day when I roped in a few victims to read something I am working on. The idea has been simmering in my head for some time, and I’ve been thinking about starting to make some inroads. Jotted down all the essential elements and then wrote a first draft. I had bashed it out and then fiddled with it….. it was hard to tell how it was really shaping up. The good news is my readers seemed to enjoy it. The other good news is, although there were various suggestions, one observation regarding my protagonist was uniform. Yes it was a criticism (how very dare they), and yes it was utterly valid. Fascinatingly, I had been blind to it as the character is my own creation. Therefore, she is already fully developed in my own mind. I know her trajectory and potential for growth from the outset. As a result, I had omitted certain necessary facets of her character at her introduction. In the second draft the lady in question is much less one dimensional- and more interesting as a result.

Survived the critique. Learned something. We’re all still friends. Win.

Offering a critique or receiving one are both tricky negotiations. Both are excellent exercises for writers as you learn something every time. No writing is ever totally wasted, even if it winds up not being a best seller. It’s an ever evolving skill.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to microwave my dinner. It’s time to write chapter two, and I don’t have time to be all Masterchef with actual food.

Bon appetit. 😉

#writing #editing #communications #critique #criticism

Follow that hero.

When we read a book or see a film (and love it), we instinctively know it had a formula that worked. What we don’t consciously realise is that the formula used is one that has in fact, run endlessly on repeat. A magical writing potion utilised in the majority of films and books we have loved. An intrinsic tool in successful novel and script writing for generations.

Ladies and gentlemen I give you…… “The Hero’s Journey”.

What? Like the Prince kissing Snow White when she’s in her glass coffin?? She wakes up, spits up some apple and defeats the Wicked Queen??? He’s a hero.

Well not exactly, but you’re in the ball park.

This ‘formula’ was identified by Joseph Campbell, who outlined his theories in his book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” (1949). Campbell sets out that the great historical myths and stories all share an underlying structure he names the ‘monomyth’. When I first read the odd quote from Mr. Campbell I went….. meh. It was all a tad Dungeons and Dragons for simplistic me. However, I studiously started looking into how it works as it is so widely recognised and used. The steps have been clarified by smart people for the, ‘I don’t have time to wade through all that’ kind of person. Such as myself. I read through those steps – and then thought about many of the films and literature I love.

Revelation! Mr. Joseph Campbell was bang on.

Of course it’s easy to look at a work retrospectively and think, I see what they did there. As a writer, the challenge is to create characters and plot that seamlessly integrate the theory. You can’t just put together a pile of badly written hooey following the steps, and expect success. One writer who came into my mind as soon as I had my mini revelation was the magnificent Tolkien.

My well loved copy of ‘The Hobbit’.

Now, my classroom teacher in Grade 6 was rather an idiot, but I can thank him for one thing. Once a week he sat us down and read us a chapter from “The Hobbit”. I was enthralled. Little Bilbo Baggins and his epic journey. Gollum, Gandalf, Smaug the dragon, a collection of dwarves and a magic Ring that made you disappear. What ten year old wouldn’t be enraptured. To me, it was simply an incredible story and I recognised it as really well written. What I didn’t recognise was that I was being read a rather expert version of the “The Hero’s Journey”. As the book was written in 1937, Tolkien wasn’t even using the template. He was just a damned fine writer.

So what are the steps? There are various interpretations available. I give here a nice, clear version from What is the hero’s journey? (screenwriting.io). They give us the twelve step model.

1. Heroes are introduced in the ORDINARY WORLD, where
2. they receive the CALL TO ADVENTURE.
3. They are RELUCTANT at first or REFUSE THE CALL, but
4. are encouraged by a MENTOR to
5. CROSS THE FIRST THRESHOLD and enter the Special World, where
6. they encounter TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES.
7. They APPROACH THE INMOST CAVE, crossing a second threshold
8. where they endure THE ORDEAL.
9. They take possession of their REWARD and
10. are pursued on the ROAD BACK to the Ordinary World.
11. They cross the third threshold, experience a RESURRECTION, and are transformed by the experience.
12. They RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR, a boon or treasure to benefit the Ordinary World.

It’s still a tad Dungeons and Dragons because of Campbell’s emphasis on mythology. So is “The Hobbit”, which makes that classic little book an excellent study. Tolkien nailed it all again with stunning expertise in “The Lord of The Rings”. (Which isn’t so little……..) ..

The steps themselves can be adapted and tweaked for almost any setting and most genres. The hero must have capacity for change and must face an ordeal. Considering no-one really enjoys a book or film where the protagonist is static and learns nothing, “The Hero’s Journey” is quite an intrinsic part of good storytelling. I’d been chucking it about in a clumsy kind of way for years before I consciously knew what I was doing.

In the case of Bilbo Baggins of Hobbiton, his ordinary world is his little home in the Shire. His call to adventure is the arrival of the dwarves and the unexpected invitation to go on their quest as a burglar. He refuses to go but, with Gandalf as his mentor, crosses the first threshold and sets off. Thus begins his tale of tests, allies and enemies as he travels. He crosses the second threshold and encounters both Gollum and Smaug as his ordeal. His reward is the infamous Ring, and recognition as an honoured member of the party and successful burglar. His party are pursued but victorious and he crosses the third threshold resurrected and changed by all his adventures. He will never be the same little domesticated, sheltered hobbit of old. He returns home to the Ordinary World with the treasure of the Ring.

Snaps for Tolkien. Magnificent effort.
I unconsciously learned much, hearing this tale in Grade 6. Sadly I didn’t ‘unconsciously’ learn any maths at the same time, a subject which still eludes me to this day.

Once you know the drill, you can merrily analyse all your favourites. From “Aliens” to “Gladiator” (both by Ridley Scott who is a master) the steps of a journey from the ordinary to the extraordinary are all set out. The first is in outer space and the second is set in Ancient Rome. Makes no difference. Sometimes that final journey and victory can be pyrrhic. At the end of “Gladiator” Maximus doesn’t make it out alive. Yet he is rewarded and resurrected through his journey into the Afterlife to join his murdered wife and son. He restores Rome to the people through the Emperor’s death, thereby giving the Ordinary World a treasure through his actions. “The Hero’s Journey” is a versatile and wonderful device.

Russell Crowe as ‘Maximus’ in Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator”. (Dreamworks and Universal Pictures, 2000).

So there you have it.

Just thought I’d leave you with a picture of Russ. Not for educational purposes. The man has many faults, but it has to be said….. Whilst sitting on a horse in a skirt looking sexy growling, “What we do in Life, Echoes in Eternity”, he has a certain something that makes me go all thing. Academically, I’ll put it down to his portrayal of a great character in a film epitomising “The Hero’s Journey”. In truth, I think it’s mostly the burly buff biceps. Good storytelling with heroic, gruff allure. Five Academy Awards can’t be wrong.

I’ll just pretend I never watched “Les Miserables”, wipe that troubling memory and keep the Crowe magic alive………

What is the hero’s journey?

#writing #herosjourney #novels #screenplays #journalism

The print of a great author.

For those of us who love to read, there are always those books which have the title of having turned you into a book worm. For those of us who love to write, there is also the author that you first realised had a mastery of words you could only aspire to.

As a youngster I had three favourite authors. Although I have expanded my horizons over the years, those three have remained my biggest influences. (Unless you count Enid Blyton, to whom I was addicted from about ages 5 to 12).

Secret Enid Blyton stash remains in my possession
on very dusty shelf.

I go back and read these three writer’s works regularly. I invariably see bits of their style creeping into my own blather. It’s an eclectic mix.

The first is Gerald Durrell. British naturalist and zookeeper who changed the face of zoos around the world. The book that got me started was “My Family and Other Animals”, which was on our reading list in first year high school. Obviously the animals were an attraction, but what mesmerised me was his use of English and his mix of humour and pathos in exquisite measure. You knew his characters. Durrell’s use of imagery took you to the heart of the places and people within his recollections of a childhood spent in Corfu. That book led me to all his other books. Animal collecting expeditions, zoos, failed marriages and various adored yet unsavoury relatives and friends. I devoured them all, and I still do. Sadly he passed away in 1995 from a love affair with whisky. On reading his biography, I learned he was a loveable yet frustrating character who was simply a natural writer. His wife (or wives) and secretaries fixed all his spelling and edited a lot of his work. The man simply had a fascinating life and a gift for story telling. His was an unconventional background with little formal education. Durrell’s type of ‘conversational’ writing has been imprinted on me permanently. Vale sir.

A side note for book fanatics is that his older brother was Lawrence Durrell, also a respected writer. Both had the same eclectic background and obvious talent for the written word, but very different styles. Lawrence pursued further education and ‘high literature’ whereas Gerald didn’t give two hoots. He tortured a few home tutors and then extricated himself from schooling with remarkable ease. That choice makes his success as a popular author quite incredible. Raw talent and a dollop of good luck.

Second favourite is Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle. Not a lot of explanation needed really. ‘Sherlock Holmes’ stands alone. Beautiful writing, well constructed narratives.

Then it’s time for my biggest influence and a book I can read on a loop, never getting bored or tiring of its masterful techniques. That book is ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier. A British female writer who penned quite a prolific amount of work. This however is the book that put her on the map, and establishes her (in my humble opinion) as rather a genius.

Daphne Du Maurier in 1936.

Du Maurier was a complex woman who – pardon the cliche – was somewhat ahead of her time. She had sexual relationships with both men and women, although history confirms she was in a long term marriage from 1932 until her husband’s death in 1965. She had three children. ‘Rebecca’ was written in 1938 at a time of marital boredom and frustration. It was her 5th novel, the first being published in 1931. The story was made into a film by Hitchcock as well as several television adaptations, cementing its notoriety. Many people know the story of ‘Rebecca’ because of the Hitchcock film. If you have seen the film and not read the book, may I be so bold as to suggest you get a copy. The novel’s iconic opening phrase “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” begins the film, but film cannot do justice to the writing. When published, ‘Rebecca’ was a smash hit and marketed as a gothic romance novel. This apparently annoyed Daphne no end as that wasn’t its intention. (Although she couldn’t argue with the money the book generated for her. Her success as a writer put great strain on her marriage however). The book is moody, gothic in feel, suspenseful and all it was touted to be. But it is a lot more. Using some very remarkable techniques.

The first thing that strikes you about the novel as you delve into it, is the use of imagery. Masterful use of concrete and abstract language. You are with the narrator as she revisits Manderley Estate in that opening dream sequence. The house immediately becomes a character within itself. Something that is lost in ‘Rebecca’s retelling on the silver screen is the fact this is a tale being shared by a woman who is in command of her life. She has been shaped by the events linked to Manderley which we are to subsequently traverse through her eyes. The tale is harrowing, yet she has emerged in control of her own mind. She distracts her husband when she perceives he is remembering the past, she organises their travels, their daily routine in the foreign land where they have retreated from their former existence and history. They are a team, but she is his carer. His guardian. She is the stronger of the two. She has chosen her path dutifully, despite it proving something of a claustrophobic prison. The woman of Chapter One does not resemble the woman we meet in the bulk of the retrospectively focussed writing.

Indeed ‘Rebecca’ is not a gothic romance. It is a story of innocence lost, deception and eventual self realisation and resolve.

An emotionally distant, selfish and in some respects abusive man attempts to self distract by taking advantage of an isolated teenager with a crush on him. He’s sophisticated, older, wealthy and behaves with full knowledge that she is inexperienced, alone and completely out of her depth. He acts on impulse, not ever thinking of her eventual destiny as his much younger and naive wife. Maxim de Winter only cares that he’s lonely, she’s besotted and it might fix some of his own mess. The attraction isn’t even particularly sexual for him. (In modern prose, this guy is VERY f**ed up). Once they return from honeymoon to his Manderley mansion, he goes into full on self centred mode. She’s abandoned to the tender mercies of his scary, obsessive housekeeper and the ever present shadow of his deceased first wife. Rebecca. Rebecca, whom he hates and the narrator brokenly presumes he still pines for. It doesn’t occur to our dashing hero to have a quick word with his second wife and tactfully explain that’s not the deal. Without indulging in a complete synopsis (again in modern text) the conclusion runs thus. Our youthful narrator learns the truth and stops torturing herself she’s inferior to her predecessor. She forgives and then rescues her handsome, self obsessed, guilt ridden, arse of a husband. She becomes a mouse that roars; with steel to survive.

That’s more feminist masterpiece than gothic fluff.

The book is remarkable in two respects, in terms of writing technique. The first is that the most powerful character we take away with us is -Rebecca. Yet she is dead from the outset. There are only hints at her physicality (we learn she is tall, dark, a social genius and inevitably… has great beauty). Any dialogue from her character is extremely sparse. She dominates the narrative as only something that threatens can.. when it is not entirely revealed. The second device the author wields is that we never learn the narrator’s name. When asked, Du Maurier remarked she set herself the challenge as a test of writing technique, which she made easier for herself by composing the piece in the first person. She could not think of a name when she began to create the novel, and the process went on from there. Intentional or not, it adds to the power of Rebecca’s character and the helplessness of the storyteller. Nameless, she embodies being ‘unimportant’ and we can stand in her shoes unhindered. Her name can unconsciously become our own. The entire piece is a tour de force of creative skill.

I think I can safely say I will never write at the level achieved by Daphne du Maurier. However when putting pen to paper, or digit to keyboard, it is always worth learning and relearning what writers of this ilk have left us. I guess what got you into books, perhaps into writing and what floats your creative boat is a matter of personal taste. As a female writer, I can only admire what Daphne put together at a time when being a woman with a voice and ambitions was not the social norm. She was seemingly both tortured and liberated by her talent and personality for most of her eighty-one years. As you can possibly tell, I highly recommend a night on the couch with the print version of ‘Rebecca’. It is a book universally loved by women for reasons they probably never bother to analyse. The appeal may be complex when taken apart, but it’s also self explanatory. The story and characters simply strike a very powerful chord. It’s a damned fine piece of writing.

“What a pity I’m not a vagrant on the face of the earth. Wandering in strange cities, foreign lands, open spaces, fighting, drinking, loving physically. And here I am, only a silly sheltered girl in a dress, knowing nothing at all – but Nothing”. Daphne du Maurier (taken from her personal diary, aged 21).

“Women want love to be a novel, Men a short story”. Daphne du Maurier

“It’s people like me who have careers who really have bitched up the old relationship between men and women. Women ought to be soft and gentle and dependent. Disembodied spirits like myself are all wrong”. Daphne du Maurier (taken from a personal letter to friend Ellen Doubleday).

Daphne du Maurier in her beloved Cornwall, 1970’s.

Biographical detail in this article has been sourced from the Introduction to ‘The Rebecca Notebook’ Daphne du Maurier (1981).

Daphne du Maurier’s Personal Life (Daily Telegraph) 2017

#writing #rebecca #daphnedumaurier

Size Matters.

No. I’m not talking about what you think I’m talking about. But we love the use of an attention seeking header……

Being a writer comes with a variety of challenges. Not the least of which is finding someone to pay you for what you create. (Feel free to inbox).

The popular image of a writer is someone sitting holding a pen and paper, or at their laptop; effortlessly churning out brilliant prose. The genius flows, they send off a manuscript and boom. They’re the next Charlotte Bronte. Or Bryce Courtnay. Or Stephen King if you have that kind of bent.

In reality, there are so many kinds of writing and so many options for people in the field. A good writer can pen a novel and have a day job creating a newspaper column, web content for a clothing company or corporate policies. Writing talent is somewhat instinctive in many ways, and can be utilised in a variety of directions. However, you can’t just sit down and punch stuff out without time spent looking at a variety of factors that a publisher or day-to-day employer will require.

A major frustration can be word count if you are only provided with a certain amount of space. 1200 words means 1200 words. ‘Size matters’. Being naturally verbose I always go over… and then have to trim things back. It seems I have a lot to say. (Art imitates life).

credit : australianbookreview.com.au

When I was in Year Eleven, Thomas Keneally came to my school to give a lecture. We had been studying ‘The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith’ and he had kindly agreed to come and speak to us. This was exciting stuff for a book nerd. I was in the front row. Pen poised, spectacles glistening, waiting to be told how to be a famous novelist. Keneally was humorous, generous of spirit and very candid. He also gave an unexpected answer to a question from one of our English teachers. The teacher asked him how he pitched and planned his novels prior to commencing the actual writing process. As someone who personally despised essay plans (and always constructed one after the actual essay was written … oops) … I keenly waited for the reply. To our teacher’s chagrin, Keneally smiled and said something along the lines of, “I don’t. I don’t know what will happen to the characters until I have met them and their story happens”. I thought this the most wonderful answer.

I had often sat down to write something (and still do) and wasn’t quite sure what would happen to the characters until I created them. I’d also wing it when it came to the narrative structure, tone and style of the writing until the whole thing began to take shape. Thomas was instantly my writing hero!!!! Alas for my teenage self, I hadn’t quite comprehended that Mr. Keneally was an extremely famous author and publishers would happily offer him a book deal without hammering him for the minute details. He wasn’t creating content to a brief. He was writing masterpieces on his own terms. A privilege he had most certainly earned over years of proving his worth as an impressive author.

Here’s one I prepared earlier………

For the less lauded of us, we need a plan. So : you have an idea for a fictional article or book. Who is the protagonist? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Who is the antagonist? What is the plot outline? What is the world in which the tale is set? What is the narrative structure? And horror of horrors….. how many words?

Although writing whatever comes into my head is still a favourite quirk, I have wisely learned to embrace a good story plan. Quite often something that sounds like genius in one’s brain does not translate seamlessly to paper. Better to iron out the kinks before you spend hours realising it’s not going to be the next ‘Rebecca’ or ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. More pedestrian writing tasks than planning your life’s literary masterpiece also need orderly thought.

If you are asked to complete a job you should always stick to the brief. Tempting as it may be to channel Tolstoy whilst creating a corporate Code of Conduct, the mark of a good writer is being easily understood. Know your audience. Make sure they will comprehend and enjoy what you are telling them. Most of us aren’t Keneally; we don’t have an editor on hand to double check our work. Self editing needs to be the go before someone of importance sees your product. Check and re check. All spelling and grammar. Remove unnecessary wordiness and try to read what you have written with ‘fresh eyes’ several times. If you need to re read a sentence….. it’s not the correct way to impart that information. If you’re like me, you’ll need to reduce your word count to fit the job at hand, and trim back some of the padding.

I’m sure various people wish they could do that with me in real life. Starts out telling a story and an hour later she’s still going. Note to self. Must self-edit long, rambling conversations. 😉

‘Size’ does matter. Good planning is never wasted. Nothing is more satisfying than a positive response from a reader to something worthy that came from your pen. Whatever that creation may be.

The other satisfying thing about writing is some of it can happen in pyjamas with a glass of wine. Hiding inside your house with the heating on. A personal favourite. That’s a happy place, with or without an essay plan. 🙂

Attention please.

My dad told me a story recently about when he was courting my mother in the 1950’s. (Mum passed away in 2017). They’d go to the movies, the lights would go down and by the end of the newsreel she’d be fast asleep just as the Queen was riding across the screen on her white horse, the National Anthem had blared and it was time for James Stuart or Cary Grant to do their thing. Mum would wake up as the credits were playing at the end of the film and pretend she’d seen the movie. Dad would pretend she hadn’t slumbered throughout the entire thing. It was a Saturday night ritual. Westerns occasionally brought her to for a moment during a gun battle, but she’d be in the Land of Nod again by the time John Wayne was back on his horse. My mother could be extremely difficult, but it’s a very cute story. Dad spent many shillings over the years for her to have a nice kip at the Tivoli.

Apart from my father’s bottomless patience with my mother (which was to span nearly 60 years), what struck me in his telling of the tale was the significance of the newsreel. You could, in fact, pay a few bob to go into designated movie theatres JUST to see the newsreels. In the day-to-day of the era, the majority of facts about world happenings came to people through newspapers and radio. That paper landing on the front porch was a lifeline to local and world events.

the conversation.com Photo credit AAP/Alan Porritt

Not only did people rely on the paper for their news. They relied on the written word for entertainment. If Grace Kelly or Elizabeth Taylor weren’t starring on the silver screen on date night (or there wasn’t a great radio play scheduled on the ‘wireless’) people read…… BOOKS. Sometimes big thick ones with lots and lots of words. Even in 1956, with the advent of early television in Australia, there were a mere four channels on offer. For those that remember, until the mid to late 1970’s the test pattern turned up around midnight. If you couldn’t sleep it was time to whip out a novel.

Things have progressed, but I still like a good book. Because I am old.

I am elderly and read things with no pictures.
(Slow clap for the nerd in the glasses).

Journalists from back in the day to now have always faced the challenge of how to grab their audience. Once grabbing them, the next hurdle is to keep the reader engaged until the end of the piece. What do we first see as readers? A headline, and possibly an image that punctuates that headline. If we’re attracted by that, we will scan down and read the first few lines (or lede). Then we either stick with it or we don’t. Do we WANT to know what ScoMo said today? Is climate change a reality? And in hard hitting news…. can we be lured to spend three minutes reading about how Jen Anniston still loves Brad?

The basic technique of article structure is generally referred to as the ‘Inverted Pyramid’. An academic way of saying upside down triangle, but that is somewhat less impressive sounding. ‘I wrote this great piece on Brexit. Of course I employed the use of the upside down triangle’. Not as convincing.

conversation uplift.com Neal Cole credit : IPTC

It is fairly self explanatory. The important, attention grabbing stuff comes first; followed by other not quite as important bits and then filler at the end. This becomes vital in the editing process, as editing happens from the bottom up. If the article is too long it’s chopped in an ascending fashion.

The history behind the Inverted Pyramid is slightly unclear. Some believe it came into being with the invention of the telegraph, as sending things by wire was costly and information was prioritised depending on budget. Others believe it began during the Civil War; when there was no guarantee information would get back to the journalists waiting at home. Wires could fail and things could be intercepted. So text was sent in instalments with the most important going out first to guarantee the news arrived and the story was written.

The science of editing aside, the upside down triangle … (pardon me, ‘Inverted Pyramid’) ……. faces new challenges in 2019. In the days of my mother snoring through ‘North by Northwest’, the population mostly devoured what they were given. Newspapers, magazines, books. They were read cover to cover, and interesting parts were re read over the dinner table. In ye olden days what we had was ATTENTION SPAN. When Dickens wrote “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…..”, he fully expected his readers to stick at it for another 135,408 words. A well written, thick book meant disappearing into an exciting world via those pages for a satisfying amount of time.

These days we barely make it through a two minute read. Movies are getting shorter, television series episodes and segments are trimming down. Short, sharp and shiny entertainment is flooding our world. If we’re not immediately gripped we simply flick to another Netflix option, a different internet article or turn to the next page of the paper or magazine. I should probably say scroll rather than turn. (My joy at holding a paper or mag in my hands is making me somewhat of a dinosaur with every passing day).
I am determined not to conclude here by saying, ‘it was better in the old days’. I do deplore the lack of attention span of the young; but then I also deplore the use of the word ‘peeps’ and want to tell teenagers to actually converse with one another instead of staring at their smartphones.

It’s not just later generations. We’re all getting less and less adept at being held by anything. When was the last time I read Dickens???? The challenge for writers today is to create content that will hold their reader from the top of that upside down triangle to the pointy bottom. What we can hope is that, along with the disadvantages, we’ll be extra motivated. Inspired to create articles and pieces that will draw in an audience that is hard to hold. As a result, we’ll be better writers.

Naturally you’ll all read every word I ever write from opening sentence to conclusion. Because you love me. 😉