Book review of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Book review of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Rating

2 Stars

Plot

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is a story of a mother (Lydia) and her child (Luca) fleeing from a Mexican drug cartel. The two have survived a horrific massacre that saw 17 members of their family murdered in retaliation for a newspaper article on the local cartel leader written by Lydia’s husband.

Convinced that she and her son will continue to be targeted, Lydia flees the scene and determines to make her way to America via ‘la bestia’, a long and dangerous train journey north. Along the way they meet other migrants fleeing violence and despair in the hope of a better future.

Themes

This book attempts to explore the violent and corrupt drug culture of Mexico, the unrelenting and unfathomable depth of love a mother feels for her child, and bring to light the humanity and personal horror of migrants seeking asylum in the US. It tries. Sort of. Not really.

Impression

This book has sparked controversy around Cummins’s appropriation of Mexican narratives and superficial and clichéd depictions of migrants. Don’t get me started on the glowing wonder that is America in this book.

Let’s set aside the myriad issues with Cummins’s decision to write this book in the first place and start with the writing itself. It’s boring. Overburdened with indulgent flashbacks and constant explanations of Lydia’s feelings, this book really drags. It’s a long 459 pages despite the blurb spruiking it as an action-packed thriller. I mean, ‘For him, she will leap onto the roof of a high-speed train’ has Hollywood blockbuster written all over it (and I believe there’s one in the pipeline). Yet, the reading experience is slow and tedious. I found myself skimming this book just to get through it.

The characters are two-dimensional and overwritten. Luca is the perfect survivor child who stoically comes of age as their journey progresses. The bad guys are really bad and the good guys are really good. Lydia is wholly unsympathetic in her naivety, stupidity and stupid luck.

Then there’s the lack of authenticity and depth in Cummins’s representation of Mexico and of migrants. This is not the place for me to weigh in, but I can direct you to a swathe of excellent resources that will highlight how damaging books like this can be (marketed as must reads for those who want to know about the plight of Mexican migrants).

Here’s my favourite summary of American Dirt by Myriam Gurba:

“Unfortunately, Jeanine Cummins’s narco-novel, American Dirt, is a literary licuado that tastes like its title. Cummins plops overly-ripe Mexican stereotypes, among them the Latin lover, the suffering mother, and the stoic manchild, into her wannabe realist prose. Toxic heteroromanticism gives the sludge an arc and because the white gaze taints her prose, Cummins positions the United States of America as a magnetic sanctuary, a beacon toward which the story’s chronology chugs.”

Here a few sources to help you get a handle on why this book is controversial:

I suggest you read Gurba’s full article to get a true sense of why she found American Dirt a difficult book.

Why is everyone arguing about the novel American Dirt?

The problem with American Dirt is not the author’s background.

I don’t have an issue with the fact that Jeanine Cummins isn’t Mexican. It doesn’t mean she can’t write a book that deftly tackles social, political and economic issues in another country. The problem is, she didn’t write deftly. She didn’t write well, and she didn’t write with care. She wrote a book that would sell millions of copies and be made into a movie. I take issue with the fact that she wrote a bad book that played on stereotypes and cliché.

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10 worst tips for new writers: ditching the rules

10 worst tips for new writers: ditching the rules

Everyone wants to tell you how you should write your story, book, memoir or comic-book series. We’re all experts. Apparently. You will get a lot of well-meaning advice when you start out writing (like this post!) but you’re the one sitting at the desk grinding out the words. Here’s my take on the 10 worst tips for new writers that I’ve heard over the years. Some of them may be just the ticket to get you on your way. If so, great!

Write what you know

I don’t want to write what I know. I already know it. Well, sort of. One of the magical things about books and story is that you don’t have to be in your own everyday life. I understand the point of this advice – that by writing from our own world we can share a unique perspective and build an authentic experience for other people. For me, however, writing is quite a selfish pursuit and I want to write as much for myself as for anyone else. Which means I don’t always want to write ‘what I know’. I want to find out about something else. I think is a limiting perspective.

Plot

Aha! I hear you say. You said this was one of the best tips in your best tip list.

I did. I also said I didn’t like it that much. I get bored and lack the patience to plot out a story. I don’t stick to them anyway. My point is, plotting is fine. Not plotting is fine. The important thing is that the story makes it to the page through whatever path helps you get there.

Write the book you want to read

No! I’m nowhere near clever enough to write the book I want to read. That’s for actual artists. The ones I envy. More to the point, I don’t know what I want to read until I find it. I didn’t know I would enjoy a book about a sad woman with a social media addiction until I read Kate Jane Unsworth’s Adults. Why did I pick it? Because I liked the cover and the title – same as everyone else.

I prefer to write the story that’s tickling my imagination. If my brain is doing me the courtesy of plopping a story on my lap, who am I to say: Oh, sorry. I really fancy reading a space-opera romance right now, so your spy thriller will have to wait while I write the book I want to read propped up in bed.

I might be over-playing this a little, but I think this kind of overthinking is dangerous.

Build character profiles/do a character interview

For me (and this may be a trick that works for you), this seems forced. I end up with a stack of profiles I have filled in myself and overlay with a few unimaginative ‘quirks’ to make them seem interesting. Characters must have a life of their own, a voice of their own and (for me) be allowed to develop organically.

Write at the same time every day/build a routine

This is another one that makes it on to most lists. It isn’t poor advice, but it can go badly for you if you invest too much in it. It’s that same mentality as when you’re on a diet and you fall off the wagon and say, ‘stuff it, I’ll eat all the biscuits then’. The feeling that you have missed your quota, or ‘failed’ to turn up at the desk today can have a negative feedback effect. Create a routine (I like to write first thing in the morning) but don’t get stressed if you don’t make it every day. Life happens and the work will be there tomorrow – just make sure you get back to it.

Know your audience

Again, this isn’t necessarily terrible advice, it just depends on why and what you’re writing. If you’re a romance author contracted to Harlequin, then yeah, you need to know your audience. For most of us, trying to write a book you think other people will want is impossible. Write your story. Make it the best it can be and someone will love it.

Workshop it/join a writers group

You may thrive on this. I love hearing about other people’s work. I love the buzz of seeing someone else’s creative spark and knowing they have a great story on their hands. Equally, there is nothing worse that putting your precious, fragile idea out there before it’s fully formed and having it rejected. Nothing kills a story idea quicker than early criticism.

So, join a group, they have a lot to offer but think about the critique you give. Remember, it isn’t your story and other people don’t have to write it your way.

Be imaginative

What? Really? Silly me, I’d planned an entire book with the sole intention of being as drab as possible. This one doesn’t deserve any further explanation.

Show, don’t tell

That old chestnut. This is one that makes it into every list of tips for new writers. It’s true that allowing a story to unfold before the reader rather than telling them what is happening provides a more pleasurable and engaging experience. But ‘show, don’t tell’ has its limitations. It can lead to tedious over-description or worse, a confused reader who’s missing the information they need to reach their own conclusion. As a general rule, ‘show, don’t tell’ is important, but taken to it to its extreme and you will ruin your story.

Be unique

Good luck with that one. Trying to make your story unique is a sure-fire way to strangle it to death. That doesn’t mean you be deliberately derivative, use cliché or don’t strive for a unique perspective, but story structures repeat for a reason. We return to the same genre for a reason. We like familiarity as much as we like the unexpected. Just the act of you writing the story will make it unique, you don’t need to try. The same story told by five different people will end up as five different stories. We love authors because of their voice, their small insights, their worldview. Most of the time, it’s not because they have created something completely unique.

So, there you have it. Some wonderfully unhelpful tips on writing. Maybe 10 worst tips for new writers is a tad misleading because these may be the tips that you needed to get started. But that’s the thing; we’re all different and there is no set of rules for how you should create. 

If you want some useful tips, here are a few I can recommend:

The mystery of the cleaning lady: a writer looks at creativity and neuroscience by Sue Woolf

On writing: a memoir of the craft by Stephen King

Writing excuses (Podcast)

There are so many more but you’ll develop your preferences as you refine your writing style and process.

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Review: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Review: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Rating

4 Stars

The dictionary of lost words by Pip Williams has been in the top-ten best-sellers list since it’s release. But good sales often don’t correlate to the quality of the book. Fear not, I’ve got you covered. This review will help you decide whether The dictionary of lost words needs to be on your bedside table.

Plot

The dictionary of lost words by Pip Williams is set during the ambitious project to build the Oxford English Dictionary. The story follows the life of Esme Nicoll and her search for lost words. Esme is raised by her widower father and spends her childhood beneath his desk at the Scriptorium where he works as an editor on the dictionary. Naturally, Esme grows up among words, definitions, and scholarship.

When Esme finds a discarded word on the floor of the Scriptorium, she undertakes a lifelong project to collect and record words that don’t meet the dictionary’s strict standards. These words, though excluded from the OED, hold depth and meaning to those who use them.

Themes

This book is rich with history, relationships and politics. Set during the women’s suffrage movement and the building political tensions of an impending world war, The dictionary of lost words has tremendous amounts of material to mine. Yet, this is an unassuming book. Esme goes about her life’s work beneath the shadow of the great dictionary. Her love of words builds her understanding of the world and her place within it.

Somehow, Esme’s gentle passion for words is deeply stirring. As she seeks ‘women’s words’ and those of others who don’t meet the criteria for the OED, Esme gives voices to women, the working class and the illiterate. She works apart from the large moments of history but is no less subversive or valuable than the grand vision of the OED or the suffragettes. This book shows that battles are fought on many fronts, and they’re all important.

Impressions

When I began reading The dictionary of lost words, I thought it was going to be a quaint (suggested by the cover) exploration of a young girl’s passion for words. It was, and it was so much more. The dictionary as a device for viewing this tumultuous period of history is clever and elightening, while the characters in this book are beautifully rendered. I particularly enjoyed the relationship between Esme and Lizzie (a maid who becomes her surrogate mother).

There is nothing heavy-handed about The dictionary of lost words. Everything from sex, death and the limitless depth of meaning within every word is treated with delicacy and intelligence. I emerged from this book with a sense of warmth, sadness and awe. Williams addresses the silencing of women’s histories by offering a path into the past that has slipped through the cracks.

What did other reviewers think?

Here are a few links to other reviews if you want to dig deeper.:

Better Reading

The Guardian

Sydney Morning Herald

 

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Review of The Betrayals by Bridget Collins

Review of The Betrayals by Bridget Collins

Book Review: The Betrayals by Bridget Collins

Rating

4 Stars

Overview

The Betrayals is the latest book from Bridget Collins, an artistic nod to Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, written with Collins’s unmistakeably rich and lyrical style. Collins’s debut adult novel, The Binding was an astounding piece of writing and expectations were high for her next offering. 

The Guardian’s Stevie Davies describes The Betrayals as a game that is ‘played by the author with and against the reader.’ For me, The Betrayals reflect the games we play with in our efforts to construct ourselves. 

 

 Plot

The Betrayals takes place at the mysterious Montverre Academy, a school where boys study the grand jeu, also known as ‘the game’. The grand jeu is a mix of music, maths, movement and arguably magic. However, the mechanics and visuals of the game remain unexplained and intangible.

The story is told from three POV characters: the rat, Leo Martin and Claire Dryden.

The rat, a young girl who lives at the school in secret, opens the novel and introduces the arcane world of Montverre Academy—part school, part seminary. She sees all as she scurries through the walls and hidden rooms.

Leo Martin is an ex-student of Montverre and now a disgraced political sent back to in exile under the guise of scholarship. Once a gold medallist the grand jeu, Leo is forced to confront past trauma at his former school.

Claire Dryden is the first female Magister Ludi (head teacher) of Montverre and already harbours a burning hatred for Leo. She must prove her value at the school by delivering her first ‘summer game’ but the pressures of Leo’s presence and her own past threaten to undo her life’s ambition.

Themes

The Betrayals is a complex blend of romance, mystery, fantasy, historical reflection, gothic and political thriller set in a dystopian authoritarian world. The politics of ‘The Party’ lurk in the background but, like the game, are an implicit threat rather than a fleshed-out reality.

This obfuscation is a theme that runs throughout the book. The setting is overwhelming and rich with possibility, but Collins keeps the perspective tightly focussed upon the inward journey of her characters. While some reviewers have criticised Collins for her trail of world-building breadcrumbs, I feel the mystery of the outside world drives the reader and characters to the interior. This is a journey into the heart of darkness, searching for the light at the centre of what it is to be human.

The romantic threads of the novel explore love and attraction as a connection between two people, undefined or inhibited by gender. Yet, gender is one of the largest constraints of the novel. Only boys may study at Montverre and until Claire Dryden is accidentally appointed, only men could be magisters. Women in the world of ‘The Party’ are bound to the tenets of ‘Home, Husband and Happiness’.

Within this oppressive landscape, the grand jeu becomes a sanctuary of equality and independence.

Impressions

I loved this book, but perhaps I would have loved it more if I’d read it before The Binding. It’s difficult for an author whose previous novel is exceptional to live up to a reader’s heightened expectations. To be fair to Collins, The Betrayals is beautiful. It pulses with rhythm and cadence, matching the grand jeu in its intricacy. The recurring imagery and cinching plot arcs explore the core of what makes us human, like a quickening heartbeat.

Bridget Collins is rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors. Her romantic narratives are deeply moving and speak to the profound and wordless emotions that drive human connection. I wanted to know more about the grand jeu, and I wonder if this is one of those rare books that would translate well to film, where the visual elements of the game can create a sense of its depth and beauty.

The Betrayals is as dazzlingly clever as the grand jeu but lacks the heart-wrenching connection of The Binding. It’s as much an intellectual exercise as an emotional one, which I enjoy, but somehow it didn’t grip me in the same way. This is a book that can be studied. A book that can be written about and probably should be.

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Bridgerton: In Defence of Skipping the Bandwagon

Bridgerton: In Defence of Skipping the Bandwagon

Bridgerton has been a stand out hit for Netflix in a year when new offerings have been patchy (The Queen’s Gambit is my clear winner). It has all the ingredients for a successful show: elaborate sets and costumes, intrigue and drama driven by oppressive social mores and attractive actors with dazzling smiles and smouldering looks. I’m a sucker for a period drama. I love the clothes and the opulance, the subtle tension and plots driven as much by what isn’t said as what is.

When I watched the trailer, I had a niggling feeling that this show wasn’t going to sit well with me. It didn’t.

I’m sorry, I just don’t like it.

I may lose some friends over this bold statement but so be it. Some things are too important to back down from, like taking a stand against pollution or not being the kind of person who goes to the shops in their bare feet.

My feelings toward Bridgerton stem from a deep an abiding love of Jane Austen. I liken my reaction to Netflix’s salacious series to hearing your favourite song covered by a country singer, or if country is your game by Daft Punk. It doesn’t necessarily mean the cover is bad… it’s just not what you know and love.

My criticisms of Bridgerton are as follows (and please be aware I have only watched the first episode):

  • Cut and paste dialogue from Pride and Prejudice.
  • Cut and paste characterisation from Austen. Daphne’s intended husband is a Mr Collins all over and her sisters are straight out of Pride and Prejudice. You have Mary, Kitty, Lizzie and to a lesser extent Jane.
  • Tokenistic feminist speeches while at the same perpetuating female stereotypes.
  • The farcical names. I think you know what I mean. Fine for a silly Fringe show spoof but not for a show trying to take itself seriously.
  • Cut and paste fashion and styles. This is a minor flaw, as it doesn’t cost much to overlook a few blended eras in the pursuit of beauty and style.
  • The colour-blind casting. Stick with me for a minute. Colour-blind casting is fantastic and important. My issue with it here, isn’t the casting selection but more the potential that ignoring racial and class issues of this era invites us all to pretend that there weren’t any.

In an interesting article in the Financial Review (of all places), Nina Metz points at that Bridgerton “artfully side steps just how all that wealth came to be.” (I won’t link to Metz’s article because it is behind a paywall.) This is an important point that is often ignored in period dramas. Let’s not forget, that the wealth of the British Empire was built on subjugation, slavery and bloodshed. In building a world where race doesn’t impact opportunity and wealth (as we would all like the world to be), Bridgerton allows us to indulge in the fantasy that the characters we are falling in love with aren’t comprimised by the source of their excessive lifestyle. Touted as the next Downton Abbey (another overrated show I did get hooked on), Bridgerton doesn’t give us any insight into the world that supports the aristrocracy.

I don’t object to sex scenes as such, and I’ve read an argument that they work in Bridgerton to demonstrate the existence of female desire. Fair enough. Let’s not also forget that famous old saying, ‘sex sells’. I’m not sure Bridgerton is as altruistic as some might like to think.

Then there’s the argument that it’s a bit of mindless fun. Fine. Nothing wrong with that but Bridgerton doesn’t get to be a piece of mindless fun and pretend to advance social, feminist, racial and classist concerns. If wants to be taken seriously, it needs to take itself seriously. In another recent article, the author Julia Quinn lamented the “curse” of Jane Austen. However, if she didn’t want people to make the comparison, she shouldn’t have stolen so much material.

There’s also the argument that the Duke is extremely good looking. He is. However, like Outlander before it (and I’m really taking my life into my hands here) an attractive actor doesn’t make up for other failings. This isn’t about Outlander and I won’t even try to discuss that particular show for fear that you may hunt me down and kill me in my bed.

At this stage I’m not planning on finishing Bridgerton. The Austen lover in me recoils at seeing her intelligence, wit and genuine commentary on the life of women and the evils of the aristocracy treated like a soap opera.

Will I watch it if I’m lying on the couch sick, unable to feed myself and moaning in a frankly pathetic manner? Probably.

There’s nothing wrong with liking shows for their spectacle, sex appeal or fairy-floss substance (we’re all guilty of getting hooked on easy to watch fluff. I watched ALL of the True Blood series) but the show doesn’t get to claim the high ground for it.

Am I literary snob? Maybe… I like to think not. I admit openly that romance isn’t my genre most of the time. But there are well written romances. For me, Bridgerton has done a dodgy, pop-song cover of a classic using autotune and a dance troupe in bikinis.

*** I promise if I watch the rest and change my mind, I’ll retract my statements.

2021: Back to Basics

2021: Back to Basics

2021. A new year. A rushing sense of opportunity to start over without the weight of whatever dragged you down in 2020 and let’s face it, it was a lot. The tickng over of the calender triggers soul searching and sparks renewed vigour in what the world has to offer.

My soul searching involved accepting the harsh reality that it wasn’t 2020 that held me back. It was myself.

My biggest problem is (cue mini violin, first world problems, oh poor you) that I have too many things on the go and I get overwhelmed. This leads to a kind of shut down where I do the minimum, then whittle away the rest of my day/week/year without achieving as much as I would like.

What’s missing? I ask myself.

In the past I was able to study, work, exercise, cook, socialise…

When I think back to what my days were like then I realise they were FULL. Everyday was jam-packed. I thrived on it.

What has changed? (I refuse to accept age as a remotely credible reason).

After having kids my life was subsumed by the needs of other people. What started as a necessity (keeping my own interests and ambitions limping alone while caring for small children) became a habit. My kids aren’t small anymore. They get up, make their own lunches, catch the bus to school and mostly manage their own lives with relative competence. They just don’t need me in the same labour-intensive way they used to.

One thing I know, is that things need to change. 2020 highlighted my willingness to be distracted. To take ‘self-care’ to a level that became ‘self-sabotage’ and that ambition and ideas are meaningless without consistent action.

What I need is accountability, deadlines, expectations and… outcomes. I’m a destination before journey kind of person. I need the tick. I need the sticker. I need the good report at the end of the year. I always have.

As I contemplate 2021 and the new projects I want to undertake, I have a few outcomes in mind:

  • Launch some new creative writing related initiatives – an online book club, more workshops
  • Get published in a range of outlets—short stories, middle-grade fiction, flash/micro-fiction
  • Earn money from writing—become a freelancer
  • Upskill—I’ve enrolled in an editing unit at Curtin
  • Write a YA novel

Along with these professional goals, there are the usual ‘lose weight’, ‘get fit’, ‘get kids through another year at school’. You know the ones.

Am I taking on too much? Will I be able to handle it? Will I be here again next year making the same promises to myself?

As I write this,  I’m keening for the me that could always fit in whatever worked needed to be done. The one who would study until late in the night and get up early to go mountain biking. I need to get out of maintenance mode and find that self who would fearlessly take on more than I could handle and nail it anyway.

I suffer from, of all things, an abundance of time (I did say cue tiny violin, right?). My strategy for overcoming my excess time wasting is to go old-school. Literally. I’m going to construct a timetable that segments my days into portioned parcels of precious time.

Things on the list?

  • Admin
  • Study
  • Editing
  • Writing
  • Social Media
  • Chasing paid work
  • Chasing publication opportunities
  • Sport
  • Music
  • Lunch… and so on.

I won’t be perfect but if I don’t follow it, I’ll have no one to blame.

There is prep work to be done but that’s what the summer holidays are for. I’m not stupid enough to think I can work to a full-time schedule with the kids in the house but I can lay the groundwork.

To succeed in an adult world, I plan to reduce myself to a high-school student. For better or worse I have chosen a life that is reliant on self-discipline and self-drive. Rewards and stickers come rarely (sometimes years apart) but it is still a life that is worthwhile chasing.

I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

Kids’ Books: Let’s Say Goodbye to Nostalgia

Kids’ Books: Let’s Say Goodbye to Nostalgia

Does nostalgia drive our decision making around what books to read to our kids? It’s inevitable that we fall back on the stories and experiences from our childhood that made us happy but do we trust our childhood selves to choose what our kids read?

Last week I put out a Facebook post asking you all what your favourite books were when you were a kid. I was amazed that almost everyone listed Enid Blyton among the books that meant something to them, although I shouldn’t have been.

I remember sitting in my year two classroom as my teacher read us The Magic Faraway Tree. When I think of Moon-Face, I think of school and that feeling of wonder. I can still smell the trees in the playground and the feeling of warmth as winter turned to spring and the anticipation of summer and Christmas. All from a book. If I’m honest, The Enchanted Wood  series made me want to be a writer.

Naturally, when I had my own kids I rushed out and bought them The Enchanted Wood series and couldn’t wait to give them the same gift of imagination and wonder. More though, I wanted to feel that way again.

I was disappointed. The worlds in the series were miraculous but only superficially explored. Worse was the obvious racism, classicism, sexism and xenophobia embedded within Blyton’s work. This is not a new discovery, her books are renowned for being problematic. Why then do we remember them with such nostalgia and drag them back out for our own children?

The world we live in today is vastly different from the one in which Enid Blyton wrote. Contemporary children’s literature reflects society’s changing attitudes and strives to be inclusive, emotionally sensitive and empowering. Yet we keep going back.

All I can come up with it that we are driven by nostalgia. Those precious moments of wonder and creativity that are sparked by the stories our parents and teachers shared with us. We weren’t able to process the flaws in Blyton’s work, only see the wonder. Our parent’s shouldn’t have read it to us. Our teachers should have known better. I shouldn’t have read these books to my kids despite the leap of imagination they create.

It’s time Enid Blyton’s books are put on the shelf and consigned to history, or at least completely re-imagined and re-written for a modern world. She is not the only one who ‘should’ be shelved and I count some of my most heart-felt favourites among them.
I’m jealous of all the books my kids get to read for the first time. I hope my future guidance brings them to rich, nuanced and caring texts that help them see the world as a better place.

Preptober Declaration: NaNoWriMo 2020

Preptober Declaration: NaNoWriMo 2020

For the last four years in a row, October rolls around and I make a commitment to undertake NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). For those who haven’t heard of it, it’s a worldwide phenomenon where writers pledge to write 50,000 new words during the month of November. It’s a kick starter for your novel. If you hit 50,000 words, you ‘win’ and there are prizes like discount writing software. Sounds amazing, right?

Many published books have started out as a NaNoWriMo project.

NaNoWriMo is a not-for-profit group that supports writers through online writing prompts, writing sprints on twitter, in-person writing sessions all over the world. You just sign and suddenly people in your area are willing to hang out with you while you write that book you’ve been meaning to write for the past ten years (I know you have one in you). They also provide a wealth of support material leading into November (Preptober) like plot development sessions, life-writing workshops, stickers, calendars and merchandise you can purchase to spur you on.

Sign up for you own NaNoWriMo adventure on their website.

So why have I failed NaNoWriMo for the past four years?

This is the thing about writing. It’s hard. It takes time, discipline and mental energy. Gamifying the writing process is one of the most tired and true methods of making progress. All love to see that word count go up, that progress bar fill and change colours. NaNoWriMo takes it to the next level and best of all you aren’t alone (unless you want to be).

My problem has been that my timing has been out for each year I’ve signed up. For the first couple of times I tried, I was still studying and had university deadlines and theoretical content to produce. I simply didn’t have the energy left to find another 1,666.67 words per day of new material. Then I didn’t take it seriously, I flopped about and gave up after a week. Then I was editing a novel. I had a project in mind but I couldn’t get into the headspace of a completely new and vastly different piece of work while I was in the final push to get my book to publication.

The all sound like great excuses, right? They were. I know that if I’d wanted it enough, I would have found a way.

This is year I am determined that my NaNoWriMo attempt will be a success. I have prepped hard. I have a fully fledged story idea. I have a mind-maps and index cards and a goddammed spreadsheet. That’s right. Excel and I have a hate-hate relationship and yet I bent that sucker to my will and whipped up character sheets, plot outlines, setting maps, character arcs and timelines. I have donned my writing geek mantle and am ready for the intense burst of creativity that November is offering. I am going to win.

Of course, you can write a novel without NaNoWriMo. But writing a novel is a commitment to years of work, even for a fast writer. Drafting, redrafting, editing, submitting, editing, editing, editing. This all takes time. Things like writing groups, writing courses and NaNoWriMo segment the process into palatable junks. They make you connected to a community and validate work that no one will see for a long time.

The business of being a writer is solitary and mostly about determination and stamina. NaNoWriMo is a turbo boost to push you through to the end of the year and give you a chunk of work to show for it. This year, I particular, it feels more important than ever to salvage some productivity. To be able to say, this is how I got through 2020.

Best of luck to my fellow NaNoWriMoers. Hopefully we can all report success as we sail into December.

All the best, 

Suzy

I have started a Pinterest page for my NaNoWriMo project, so if you are at all interested you can link through to it here.

Otherwise I will be updating my WIP page on my website as well.

 

Book Review: Honeybee by Craig Silvey

Book Review: Honeybee by Craig Silvey

I know everyone will be reviewing this book considering it’s one of the biggest releases this year. However, I want to share my experience of Craig Silvey’s new work anyway since talking about books is one of the things I love to do.  I don’t want to spoil this book for you, so I’m going to give little detail about the themes and plot.

Honeybee is another beautiful, painful and frank coming of age book by Craig Silvey. As he did in Jasper Jones, Silvey doesn’t shy away from the issues confronting adolescents as they attempt to navigate a prescriptive world. Issues that we, as adults, might all like to pretend don’t exist for the young people in our lives. Yet, despite the confronting moments in this book it is nothing short of exquisite from the first word to the last.

When I started reading Honeybee, I instantly felt that all my own efforts as a writer were pointless, clumsy and doomed. Silvey’s ability to create characters that are vulnerable and strong, innocent and worldly is masterful. Sam, or Honeybee, is no exception. Silvey draws us through a harsh and painful world and the disparity between Sam’s naivety and our understanding makes it all the more the bleak. As Sam narrates the events of his life, it’s hard not to want to talk to him. To impart the wisdom to him that he needs to find for himself.

Despite the dark places Silvey takes us, this is a book full of love, hope and tenderness. It shows love and friendship as the heart of the human experience. This is an immersive book that you will read quickly, perhaps even in a single sitting and the experience will be all the more compelling for it.

Anatomy of a Novel: Part III – Time

Anatomy of a Novel: Part III – Time

Manipulating time is a trope of fiction that either fills you with excitement or makes your roll your eyes with story fatigue. It’s a concept that has been explored many times, in many ways and with mixed results. Choosing to put time travel in an essentially realist novel is a risk. A big one. So, when I decided to have my character journey to the past, I ran the risk of alienating readers.

The Place Between is about women, about mothers and about our relationships with ourselves and across generations. It is a novel embedded deeply in the personal. This is not a book that can be considered science fiction (although science fiction is my absolute favourite genre to read) and so shaping time in a way that defies convention in fiction outside the sci-fi/fantasy genre is not a decision that was easy to make.  

Flashback, memory and historical scenes in story are elements we are all familiar with and we expect a certain level of backfill when we engage with a character. Finding a way into those past stories is, for me at least, one of the trickiest elements of creating a complete story. One of the things that excites me about writing fiction is that you get to throw the rules out the window. 

That’s not to say it always worked. The time shift scenes were the most heavily revised elements of the book, going through multiple iterations before finding a place to settle.

First time-shift 2014 draft:

I looked up to say something to David but what I saw took by words away. A boy, dressed in brown corduroy pants and a raglan t-shirt with brown edging stood where the trolley had been. It was my brother Andrew. I felt sick, my heart palpitating in my chest. I put my hand out to him but withdrew it quickly. I was wearing someone else’s rings, someone else’s watch. David must have hit me hard. I reached in my pocket for my mobile but pulled out bunch of scrunched up tissues instead and when I looked around, the supermarket had disappeared. I was in a living room. Where the display of spaghetti tins had stood was a couch. A heavy fabric couch with a pattern of faded pink roses, the armrest threadbare and frayed. Instead of an aisle leading away from me filled with stacked cartons and shelves there was a wall with a large window that overlooked a small front garden with neatly trimmed rosemary hedges along its border. Heavy curtains, gathered to the sides with tiebacks, framed the window. Their rich cream brocade contrasted against the overbearing forest green of the walls. A faint shadow of dirt ran around the lower section of the wall at about the height of my brother Andrew. There was a smell as well. It was incredibly familiar. I sniffed the air. I sifted through my memory to identify it. It was the smell of my childhood. Undertones of roast dinners, blended with my mother’s perfume, Youth Dew, and the faint background of bleach that had permeated our house for as long as I could remember.

I looked at my hands again. These were my mother’s hands. I recognised her rings, the tiny solitaire that my father had bought, the plain rounded gold wedding band and the delicate silver watch that I used to see her wind each night at the dinner table. It was strange because she’d stopped wearing the watch when I was a teenager.  Andrew stared at me (or my mother) as though he knew me.

First time-shift scene 2017 draft:

Sarah looked up at David, her inventory of calming adages—the ones every mother used in moments of crisis—at the ready, but she stopped. He looked different. He wasn’t in the trolley; instead, he stood silhouetted against a brightly lit doorway. A trick of the light that streamed between the aisles of the supermarket? Sarah tried to focus on him, tried to read his expression. Was he upset? Was he sorry for hurting her? She expected him to be crying, or perhaps crouched down in the trolley pretending nothing had happened, but he wasn’t. If Sarah hadn’t known better, she would say the little boy in front of her wasn’t David at all. His stance—feet spread apart and flat, arms hanging by his side, right hand partly tucked behind his body—showed a confidence, a boldness that Sarah didn’t associate with David. Light from behind caught in the crease of his pudgy hand. He gripped something tightly but it was obscured behind his back. What else had he picked up?

(Not now.) Sarah felt as though she were out-of-focus: a voice inside her niggled but she pushed it away and tried to fix her attention on David. Why was he just standing there? A hand, her hand, reached towards him—yet Sarah hadn’t reached. She tried to stand up, willing her arms to push down, but nothing happened. What was happening to her: concussion? A coma? An hallucination? The hand still outstretched in front of her shook. (For God’s sake, Andrew.) The voice pushed in against Sarah again. Andrew? Surely she meant David? The outstretched hand clicked its fingers. The dark figure of David jerked and moved his right hand further behind his back. Why couldn’t she see him properly? Why couldn’t she control her own body?

First time-shift novel:

Sarah looked for David. Was he upset? Was he sorry for hurting her? She expected to see him crouched in the trolley, hiding or crying. She froze. He wasn’t in the trolley. There was no trolley, no supermarket. The fluorescent lights and jaunty jingles of seconds before, had been replaced by a small, dim family room. Across from her, an old television in a wooden case with dials to change the channels emitted a tinny sound from its side speakers. The opening song to ‘Days of Our Lives’? Sarah knew it well. It was Beryl’s favourite soap opera.

Her eyes scanned the room, seeking David again. A small figure stood silhouetted in a doorway. A trick of the light streaming between the aisles of the supermarket? Was it him? Sarah strained to focus on his face, trying to read his expression. No, it wasn’t David. This boy was taller, heavier. His stance—feet wide, left arm hanging, right hand tucked behind his body—showed a mature defiance she didn’t associate with her son. Her eyes were drawn to the crease of the boy’s pudgy hand, outlined by the light from behind. He gripped something large, its weight dragging on his arm.

‘Not now.’ A voice whispered inside Sarah’s head.

Panic pressed at the edges of her thoughts. Who had spoken? Although not hers, it was a familiar voice, laced with seething anger. It prickled inside her like a foreign body forcing its way to the surface. What would happen to her if she succumbed to it? Sarah steadied herself, fixing her attention on the boy. If she anchored herself to something, she could draw herself back to reality—find her way back to David. She studied him, struggling to parse the scene unfolding in front of her, while at the same time refusing to acknowledge the voice whispering within her. Why didn’t he move? Why were the floral curtains, pulled across three quarters of the window, so familiar? The answer, she realised, with unexpected clarity, was simple.

There were many times when Sarah’s sojourns into her mother’s past were almost scrapped in favour of a more traditional flashback, dialogue with Beryl or the process of Sarah conducting research. I tried them all. Key to the relationship between Sarah and Beryl, however, was the need to make Sarah ‘see’ her mother’s pont of view as though it were her own. The time shifts in The Place Between gave me the felixbility and insight I needed to have my characters inhabit the past together. 

In the end, I’m glad I persevered. These are my favourite scenes in the novel. Time became my most valuable tool. A way of excavating and teasing out the threads of experience and connection that tie the characters together.