ALL THAT REMAINS OF THE DEAD

Well, THIS bad boy is finally DONE (for now).

I’ve written the living daylights out of my query letter and synopsis.

And today, I pressed “send” on my first round of submissions!

<cue me falling on the floor>

Now the waiting begins. And so does the researching, planning and plotting for book two.

Onwards and upwards!

All of which means I won’t be back around these parts (ha, like that’s a surprise!). My more frequent writerly hangout these days is Instagram, and you can occasionally find me lurking on Twitter (although that place tends to make my head spin). So if you need to find me, you know where to look.

Thanks to those of you who’ve read my veeerrrrry infrequent posts, and stop by and say “hi” someday!

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Writing. Reading. Watching. Listening.

‘Rewarding’ myself with lunch with the husband at K1 winery overseen by Edmund, the seventeen-year-old winery cat. As recommended by Jerry Seinfeld – see ‘Listening’ below!

Writing. It’s halfway through December, ten days until Christmas, and I’m right in the middle of that time of year where it’s hardest to stick to my daily writing guns.

The kids are on holidays from university and school, the husband is now a permanent fixture around the house following a career change, the days are sunny and long … and it’s so bloody hard to lock myself away and write! I alternate between feeling like I’m missing out on all the household fun to being annoyed by all the inevitable interruptions that see my writing fall by the wayside. Wah, first world problems, I know! But one thing that helps is my routine of getting my butt out of bed before everyone else and getting straight to work. That way, by the time the rest of the house rises I’ve at least got a good hour of writing, maybe two, under my belt. And if that’s all I get done for the day, so be it. It’s still progress, and better than none at all.

Reading. I had a birthday last month which always means more books for me! (my family knows me well.) I really enjoyed Ian Rankin’s latest offering, A SONG FOR THE DARK TIMES, which finds Rankin’s long-time sleuth, John Rebus, investigating a murder where one of the main suspects is also his daughter. Rankin really is a master storyteller, and being able to read a novel to soak up the craft expertise as well as for pleasure is my idea of bliss.

Watching. The husband and I were in the mood for something that looked interesting but not too taxing, which is how we came to be watching the spy thriller series, CONDOR. I admit I was expecting something akin to a simple Jason Bourne knock-off, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Series one proved to be high adrenaline with tonnes of thrills and suspense and compelling plot twists. And while the issue of American patriotism features heavily, the show doesn’t veer off into the weeds of hokiness. Add some big name stars like William Hurt, Mira Sorvino and Brendan Fraser, with Max Irons in the lead (Jeremy Irons’ son) and you have a gripping show that doesn’t disappoint. Highly recommended.

Listening. Just this week I came across some writing advice I sorely needed reminding of. And it came from Jerry Seinfeld.

Tim Ferriss recently interviewed Jerry on his podcast (if you’re not listening to Tim’s podcast – THE TIM FERRISS SHOW – I humbly suggest you rectify that immediately!) and Jerry discussed what he calls ‘the systemisation of the brain and creative endeavour’. This is what he said, and what I needed to hear (again):

… if you’re going to write, make yourself a writing session. What’s the writing session? I’m going to work on this problem. Well, how long are you going to work on it? Don’t just sit down with an open-ended, “I’m going to work on this problem.” That’s a ridiculous torture to put on a human being’s head.

It’s like you’re going to hire a trainer to get in shape, and he comes over, and you go, “How long is the session?” And he goes, “It’s open-ended.” Forget it. I’m not doing it. It’s over right there. You’ve got to control what your brain can take.

And this:

If you’re going to sit down at a desk with a problem and do nothing else, you’ve got to get a reward for that. And the reward is, the alarm goes off, and you’re done. You get up and walk away and go have some cookies and milk. You’re done …

If you have the guts and the balls to sit down and write, you need a reward at the other end of that session, which is “Stop now. Pencils down.

Because:

The most difficult thing in the world is to write. People tell you to write like you can do it, like you’re supposed to be able to do it. Nobody can do it. It’s impossible. The greatest people in the world can’t do it. So if you’re going to do it, you should first be told: “What you are attempting to do is incredibly difficult. One of the most difficult things there is, way harder than weight training, way harder, what you’re summoning, trying to summon within your brain and your spirit, to create something onto a blank page.” So that’s another part of my systemization technique, learn how to encourage yourself. That’s why you don’t tell someone what you wrote. And be proud of yourself, treat yourself well for having done that horrible, horribly impossible thing.

Man, did I need to re-hear all that! Have an end-time to your writing sessions, STICK TO IT and reward yourself at the end. I am a classic for grinding away on a writing problem when I KNOW (from bitter experience) that hour after hour after hour in the chair WILL NOT a writing problem solve. When you hit your end-point you need to get up, walk away from the keyboard, do anything but write and trust your unconscious mind to come up with the solution.

Because it always, always, does.

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Writing Reading Watching Listening

Well, October breezed on by without a single post. It was my month to be an invalid, apparently, including coming down with a nasty cold – which thankfully was only a nasty cold, confirmed by the very necessary but uncomfortable coronavirus test that felt like I was mere millimetres away from being poked in then brain.

But being an invalid was the perfect excuse to catch up on all things reading, watching and listening …

Writing … although not so good for the writing. I still made progress, but at a glacial pace. Meh, what can you do? Life happens, and you just have to roll with whatever each day brings, covid tests and all. On the bright side, I finally managed to get back to bushwalking this weekend, which is when I took the snap below. I’m truly lucky to live so close to so many beautiful hikes.

Sturt Gorge River Trail

Reading I spent some of my couch bound days getting around to reading the last handful of books in Lawrence Block’s hard-boiled New York mystery series featuring his private detective, Matthew Scudder. I adore these books. Block has been writing them for nearly fifty years, and reading the first handful is like hopping in a time machine, spinning the dial backwards and finding yourself spat out on the vividly gritty and dangerous streets of 1970s/1980s New York. And while Matt Scudder is tormented by alcoholism in the early years, Block evolves and grows him through the series, just as he also ages Scudder, which only adds to the books’ realism. I understand from a recent interview with Ian Rankin that Block’s latest Scudder book might also be the series’ finale. Nevertheless, Block’s novels remain a masterwork in lean yet evocative prose, and characterisation that is as deft as it is memorable (when you come across Block’s darkly comedic Irish-American gangster, Mick Ballou, you’ll see exactly what I mean).

Listening While languishing on the couch I also stumbled across a whole heap of great new podcasts: Talking Aussie Books, Words and Nerds, How Do You Write, So You Want to be a Writer … I’m now guaranteed to never be without listening material to distract me from the torture of my twice-weekly gym sessions.

Watching And what would time be on the invalid’s couch without glomming some TV? Wasted time, I say, and my choice of glom was the Italian series, Gomorrah. It’s described as Italy’s answer to Breaking Bad, and portrays the realistic (so much so the author of the non-fiction book on which the series is based has been under police protection since the book’s release) unglamorous face of the drug trade and the family that controls it in an economically destitute Naples. Each episode is high stakes, violence abounds and the tension just keeps ratcheting up. I’m hooked!

Until next time …

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Writing. Reading. Watching. Listening

This week’s shareables …

Writing. From being twelve chapters into revisions last week, I’m now only up to chapter fifteen. In my defence, chapter thirteen was a biggie – both in terms of length (edited to 2000 words, much longer than my usual chapter length of 750 – 1500) and also a biggie in terms of function. Lots of foreshadowing, and lots of fleshing out my protagonist’s thorny relationship with her sidekick occurs! One approach I’m using, however, seems to be working quite well (she says touching all available wooden surfaces!): before I edit a single word, I nail down exactly what each scene’s ‘big picture’ purpose is. I’m writing a mystery, so I identify which element/s of the mystery genre a particular scene serves. Is a clue or a red herring dropped? Does the scene show my sleuth’s investigative skills? Is my protagonist tested by the villain/forces of antagonism? I also identify which part of the Hero’s Journey the scene represents: the gathering of allies, the refusal of the call to adventure, crossing the threshold into the new world, and so forth. Once I nail down these precise functions I use them as my lodestones to guide my editing, and it’s amazing how obvious a scene’s dead wood becomes.

Reading. I made a great purchase this week, an anthology called DEADLIER: 100 OF THE BEST CRIME STORIES WRITTEN BY WOMEN. It’s a brick of a book with a fabulous cover and stories from Margaret Atwood, Louisa May Alcott, Janet Evanovich, Lisa Gardner, Agatha Christie, Val McDermid … I’m dying to dive in.

Watching. S.J. Watson, author of the debut juggernaut that was BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP is detailing how he goes about writing a psychological thriller in a video diary on Instagram. He’s very honest and it’s kinda reassuring to see that even the best writers face some of the same struggles as the rest of us. I’m also watching SUCCESSION. It just won four Emmys, and while everyone in this show (loosely inspired by Rupert Murdoch and his clan) is a complete arsehole, it’s highly addictive viewing. And a great movie I stumbled across which is a few years old now, is FAR FROM MEN, starring Viggo Mortensen. It’s based on a short story by Albert Camus and presents what one Rotten Tomatoes reviewer describes as ‘a soulful, slow-burning western … which is as morally rich as one would expect given its source material, but also considerably more compassionate.’

Listening. A ‘new to me’ discovery is the TWO CRIME WRITERS AND A MICROPHONE podcast. From their bio: It’s where it’s at! Steve Cavanagh and Luca Veste present the number one podcast for readers and writers which brings you the latest news in the book world, interviews with the best writers, agents, publicists, editors, and literary agents in the business. Also, each week we’ll hear from some of the best book reviewers around, who’ll give us their reads of the week. It really is all this. Another great listen to make my gym sessions slightly less torturous. Oh, and S.J. Watson’s interview is terrific.

Have a great week!

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This week’s shareables…

The writing. So I’m twelve chapters into draft three and I think I might be doing at least some of this revision thing right. While I’ve dropped a few scenes, I’m also dropping tonnes of words from every chapter, trimming and tightening like mad. It’s amazing what you can find to cut when you focus on picking the strongest and clearest words and getting rid of the repetition and the over-explaining. Stephen King’s formula is solid: 2nd Draft (or in my case, 3rd!) = 1st Draft – 10%.

Writing advice. Which reminds me … I recently received that same advice amongst a whole email of Very Good Stuff from the super talented, super generous writer, Vicki Pettersson. I first ‘met’ Vicki many years ago on Compuserve’s Books & Writers Community (now The LitForum, where the likes of Diana Gabaldon can be found, no less). I adore Vicki’s books, especially her Zodiac series and her stand-alone thriller, Swerve, and she’s always been so supportive of other writers. She’s even got her own Youtube channel devoted to sharing her priceless writing tips (including handy free guides to download) plus advice on how to remain healthy and sane while pounding the keyboard. Go there now! You’d pay a mint for these insights she so freely shares. One classy lady, indeed.

Cafe plug. I guess this is really only for those in my neck of the woods, but I’m so glad I have my cafe escape hatch to run to once a week. I get up with the sparrows, take a pleasant 20 minute drive through the beautiful wine country of the Adelaide Hills then arrive at my little writing oasis. I generally snag the same table and spend a few hours writing while the cafe bustles around me. It’s a cosy, quirky space decorated in 60s and 70s decor (see the snap below – think burnt orange knitted tea cosies on the tea pots!) and the staff are lovely and don’t mind me taking up a spot. I’m almost too scared to name it for fear of revealing my secret whereabouts, where no one interrupts me except to bring tea and raisin toast – but they truly deserve a plug. Here’s cheers to The Uraidla Republic Cafe!

The Uraidla Republic – love the vinyl chairs and formica tabletops!

Reading. Murder Your Darlings by Roy Peter Clark. One of America’s most influential writing teachers has pulled together over a hundred of the best tips from fifty of the best writing books of all time – Stephen King, Anne Lamott, Strunk & White, even Aristotle. I’m really enjoying dipping into all these different tips and tools, all collected beneath one cover.

Watching. Wah, nothing! I’m in one of those TV slumps where not much seems to hold my interest. That said, I’ve lined up Kenneth Branagh’s 2008 Wallander series to give that a go and I’m looking forward to Enola Holmes coming out on Netflix, but if anyone has any suggestions, I’m all ears!

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Writing in the time of coronavirus

2020. What a weird year it’s been. And, tragically, so much worse than just ‘weird’ for so many people.

But by some stroke of … luck? … I’ve found I’ve not struggled too badly with the lockdowns and restrictions. The enforced bouts of isolation kind of played to my introvert strengths (although how alone can one truly be when one lives with a husband, two young adults, a teen and a domineering cat who could teach Kim Jong-un a thing or two about running a dictatorship?) and I’ve been able to keep the writing going.

Sure, there’ve been moments of staring at the blank screen, unable to focus. Of drifting away from my keyboard to disappear into the vortex of Netflix. But mostly I’ve kept my momentum up. In fact, working on my book has been a welcome escape from the dramas of the real world …

But blogging did fall into the dust.

I’m not ready to pick that up again (ha, like I ever really did!) but now that I’m working on the third draft of ALL THAT REMAINS OF THE DEAD I’ve decided I probably should keep the blog somewhat alive.

So I’m aiming for a life-support version of blogging: posting a few days a week, nothing more than quick updates on my progress, linking to any handy tips or interesting articles I might have discovered, perhaps throwing up the thoughts that have struck me about the process of editing and revision – all the trials, the tribulations, the tantrums, the tears …

Hey, we’re in a pandemic. The world has mostly shut down. With all this extra time on our hands, surely someone will be desperate and bored enough to read along.

Stay tuned …

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Revisions, here I come

I’ve been back from Fiona McIntosh’s Masterclass Conference for a couple of weeks now, and I’m still energised by the fantastic experience. Three days spent in the glorious surrounds of Clare Valley wine country was amazing enough; being able to absorb the publishing and writing wisdom that abounded was priceless.

The fabulously talented and entertaining Michael Robotham was the key note speaker. We also heard from a host of other terrific speakers: publishers, book sellers, website designers, you name it, they were there.  I also reconnected with writers who I attended Masterclass with back in 2013, and got to make new writing friends. Just being surrounded by those of a like mind was brilliant.

And the icing on the cake was being asked by the two publishers to whom I pitched my book to submit my manuscript.

[Insert goofy grin]

Unfortunately, I had to confess that I’d only just finished a first draft of the thing two weeks before the conference (ah, the timing) but both were very supportive, encouraging me to take the time needed to polish my book until it was as blindingly shiny and brilliant as possible before submitting.

So guess what I’ll be doing for the foreseeable future?

It’s exciting and daunting all at once. I’m just lucky my daughter  – assisted by the cat – made me some motivational posters.

Just the thing to keep me going …

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Conference Time and Tackling the “To be Read” Pile

Oh,  I’m getting very excited.

This time next week I will be happily ensconced in a conference I’ve been dying to attend: the Fiona McIntosh Masterclass Inaugural National Conference –  #fionamcmasterclass – held over three days in the gorgeous wine country of South Australia’s Clare Valley.

It’s a chance for those of us lucky writers who’ve completed one of Fiona McIntosh’s brilliant Masterclasses to network with one another and, of course, to meet and absorb the wisdom of all the special guests, including keynote speaker and internationally renowned crime writer,  Michael Robotham.

There’s even a chance to pitch to publishers from the likes of Penguin Random House, Harper Collins/Voyager, Simon & Schuster and Allen & Unwin – so you can bet your life I’m polishing up my pitch performance like a mad woman!

It’s a full programme, but I hope to have a bit of down-time to catch up on my reading – which, as the size of my ‘to be read’ pile might indicate, has fallen by the wayside:

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(Confession: I also have a TBR shelf and a TBR box, but we won’t go there).

But here’s my dilemma: which book do I pick?

One from the bottom?

The middle?

Or do I choose by author, or genre, or colour of the cover …

Any suggestions, fellow read-a-holics?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tools of the Writing Trade

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The longer I write, the more tools I seem to carry around in my writer’s tool box.

Tools that are necessary for me to get the job done.

Yes, rattling around in that big old battered box are the usual suspects: Scrivener (BEST writing tool EVER for this little duck), my ColourHide Supersize notebooks, my cannot-write-without Papermate Profile pens in every colour of the rainbow.

But stuffed in amongst these tools are few more slightly unusual bits and pieces I’ve collected over the years. Things like:

My yoga mat. Yep. Hours at the desk can be hell on the body, so eighteen months ago I became a devotee of hatha yoga. It’s not the heated room, acrobatic type of yoga (my yoga class has an average age of sixty!) but it’s still a solid hour of tricky poses and balances with an instructor who, at the age of sixty-one, is still as flexible as a rubber Gumby melted in the summer sun. And when I can’t make it to Twisty Terry’s class, I do a session or two at home with a terrific app called Down Dog. Nothing better to work out all the knots.

My sneakers. These faithful shoes take me away from my desk and out for a walk for half an hour or more, every day. Blows the cobwebs out of the head marvellously, and one more weapon in the fight against bodily and mental stagnation. As one of my favourite authors, Vicki Pettersson, says, “You have to move to sit.” Amen.

My podcasts. Now I truly am sounding like an old fart, but I love to listen to podcasts on creativity and creative people when I drive or walk. My favourites at the moment are Off Camera with Sam Jones (a photographer to the stars who gets into deep discussions with the likes of Robert Downey Jnr, Jeff Bridges, Laura Dern, David Tennant and so many more); The Moment with Brian Koppelman (interviews about the pivotal moments that fuelled fascinating creative careers) and The Garret (interviews by writers for writers about writing). They spark so many ideas and thoughts for me about the creative process, and more often than not they inspire me to keep going when I’ve hit one of those “this is all too hard!!” gnashing-of-teeth moments. Creative struggles really are universal.

Tea for me. I literally guzzle tea when I write, but some days I can become a little too caffeinated for my own good. So I’ve been sipping the herbals – lemon & ginger, peppermint & lime, ginger & apple. And when I really want to spoil myself it’s one of Warndu’s Australian Native Teas. All brewed in my pretty robin-egg-blue teapot, of course!

So I guess what I’ve added to my tool box over time is actually a bit of self-care. And the difference is amazing. It’s made me slow down and approach novel writing like the marathon that it is. And I think I might now have a fighting chance of winning it.

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Back to (Writing) School

Just let me blow the dust off this thing …

*cue coffin-lid screech of hinges*

Well, I’ll be damned. The lights still work. The furniture is still here. The heating might be off and there’s a nasty old tangle of cobwebs in the corner, but other than that, I think this blog still works!

Ha. Even for someone who was never the most frequent of posters, it’s been a ridiculously long time since my last post. And reasons, there are a  few …

When I was last in these parts I was about to embark on a re-write of my manuscript, based on feedback I’d had from an agent.

Then two things happened.

Firstly, one of the agent’s existing clients went and started writing a series close enough to mine to take her off my radar as a potential representative. Bah, humbug. But this author’s series is bloody excellent, which makes that pill not half so bitter to swallow. Who can be upset about the existence of more fabulous books in the world?

Secondly – and the biggest reason for my absence – is that …

I stopped writing.

Completely.

For a year and a half. Maybe closer to two.

Why?

To take myself back to school. To writing school.

See,  I didn’t want to invest major time re-writing my manuscript only for it to not quite work again. And I remembered something Deanna Raybourn – one of my most favourite authors EVER – once said: that while she was still unpublished, her agent suggested she stop writing for a year and do nothing but read in the genre she was writing. She did just that, and bingo, the next book she wrote was the one that got published.

So that’s what I did.

I pulled out my favourite books – fast-paced mysteries and thrillers, both historical and contemporary, and also those with a supernatural slant – and not only did I read them, I studied them. How these authors had their sleuths go about their investigations; when and where they dropped in clues and red-herrings; how they opened chapters, and transitioned from the first act, to the second, to the third; the ways they used setting to move along the plot or add to the reader’s emotional experience; how they handled exposition, dialogue, character arcs, flashbacks, the tools they employed to create suspense and tension …

Lots of spreadsheets were made.

LOTS.

And then, I did a deep, deep, DEEP dive into the world of editor Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid.

Shawn Coyne is a book-publishing veteran of twenty-five years. He’s acquired, edited, published or represented the likes of David Mamet, James Lee Burke, Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly, Robert McKee, Steven Pressfield, Dava Sobel, Minette Walters, Ruth Rendell, Ian Rankin, to name but a few. And Story Grid is the method he developed to analyse manuscripts – specifically, to pinpoint where they’re not working and, so very importantly, why.

Now, that ‘why’ is a very big thing. Being told your book doesn’t work because the middle is ‘sagging’ is fine; but when you use the Story Grid tool, you can pinpoint the exact reasons for the sag. Maybe you’ve used too many of the same type of scenes in a row. Or you’ve forgotten to include vital elements of your chosen genre. Your main character’s internal object of desire might be too wishy-washy to sustain reader investment.  Whatever the case, it’s so much easier to fix a specific issue rather than to attack the vague problem of  ‘too much sag’.

Yes, the Story Grid method is very analytical and left-brained, but it made sense to me, so I sucked up everything Story Grid related that I could: Shawn’s book, blogs, podcasts, an on-line course.

(Go check out the Story Grid site. When you see the content available, you’ll know why I was busy for nearly two years!)

Then I applied what I’d learned to my work, saw the problems, and spent a long time re-thinking, re-plotting, re-imagining …

In fact, I basically set fire to my existing manuscript and started afresh. I’ve even got a new title … *drum roll* … ALL THAT REMAINS OF THE DEAD.

So, about ten months ago I finally started writing again, and just this week I finished a brand new first draft – with all its first draft holes and tangles and mess, but now I have the clay to work with, and the tool to home in on all its problems with laser-like specificity, and I’m raring to go. The weather even took a suitably ominous turn today, perfect for my eerie Victorian setting …

Eerie clouds

Revisions, here I come!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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